Saturday, 10 December 2016

The other side of Advent, by Ben Jeapes

I freely admit that not all of what follows are my own thoughts. I’ve been working through The One True Story : Daily Readings for Advent from Genesis to Jesus by Tim Chester and recommend it to anyone.

Anyway. Let me now modestly attempt to give a definitive interpretation of some of the rampant symbolism of Revelation.

This Advent time, we’ve all probably sung ‘Lo, he comes with clouds descending’, maybe ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silent’. They’re traditional Advent hymns but they’re far from baby Jesus in the manager. They’re aimed at the second coming, not the first.

It’s easy to forget that the New Testament begins and ends with the birth of a child. Both the Matthew and Revelation birth stories feature the phrase ‘she gave birth to a son’ – after that, they diverge. The Gospel nativity stories in Matthew and Luke are intended as historical retellings. Revelation is the story from an eternal perspective.

In Revelation chapter 12, a woman is about to give birth. The dragon – ‘that ancient snake called the devil, or Satan’ – is poised to catch the child. The child is snatched away to heaven, whereupon war breaks out between Archangel Michael and the dragon and his angels. The losing side are hurled down to earth, and the dragon then gives chase to the woman who gave birth. She is given the wings of an eagle to escape. The dragon spews out a mighty flood of water to overtake her, but the ground opens up and the water is swallowed.

The phrase ‘that ancient snake’ suggests this is the snake from the Garden of Eden. God predicted then that the devil would strike at the heel of the woman’s offspring, and he would crush its head. The woman gives birth and the child is snatched away from the devil. God raised Jesus from the dead and snatched him up to heaven. The battle in heaven is the fruit of the battle that took place at the foot of the cross. The bruising of Jesus is the crushing of Satan. So Satan turns his attention on to God’s people, the church – the devil pursuing the woman. And he would have destroyed the church long ago if God was not protecting it. John pictures the protection as the eagle’s wings and the swallowing up the water. The church survives, even though many of its members are persecuted.

That’s Tim Chester’s suggestion, in a nutshell. It works for me because it’s one more layer to the story. I like my stories layered. The more you read, the more you understand, the more you re-read, the more you get out of them.

But I might not mention it at the Christingle service. There’s a time and a place.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 5 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Santa Claus is(n't) coming to town by Ros Bayes

I have a vivid recollection of a conversation I had with my exasperated mother when I was 15 years old. “But why have you stopped believing in God?” she cried. “We’ve always brought you up to know He was real.”

 “Yes, well, you told me Father Christmas was real, and that didn’t turn out to be true,” I retorted. I suspect that deep down I knew I was talking rubbish, and had seized on something that made a handy excuse to maintain my new (and fairly short-lived!) position of atheism. Nevertheless, I never forgot that conversation, and found myself pondering it as I contemplated my earliest Christmases as a mother of small children.

I decided to adopt a principle that if I told my children something they could absolutely bank on it being true to the best of my knowledge. This meant not pretending that Santa Claus was real. That didn’t have to mean that he didn’t feature in our Christmas – only that the girls were in on the pretence. It didn’t, as far as I could observe, diminish their excitement on Christmas morning as they eagerly dived on their stockings to see what surprises they contained.

Although I told them Father Christmas was only pretend, I didn’t see the need to tell them where the presents in their stocking actually came from – they worked this out for themselves at various stages and by various means. I remember the day my four year old daughter figured out that I was the tooth fairy (an entity she had always known was pretend), and then, with a look of enlightenment, added, “Oh – so you’re Father Christmas, too!” (Note: I'm not prescribing that Christians shouldn't play along with the Santa Claus myth with their children, but simply describing what has worked for me and my family.)

The principle of truth-telling turned out to be of very considerable importance to our second child who has complex multiple disabilities, and whose life has been marked by many operations, some orthopaedic, some life-saving, some ophthalmologic and now, facing her 36th operation to date, to correct a problem causing repeated dental infections. She has come to know that she can rely on what I tell her – if I say a certain procedure isn’t going to hurt, she can relax and know that it won’t. If she is begging me to tell her that a certain procedure won’t hurt and I know it will, I will be ruthlessly honest even if it upsets her, for that is the only way she can prepare herself for what is to come. When I hear care staff assuring her that, for example, a flu injection won’t hurt at all, I contradict them openly because she needs to know she is being told the truth, and she doesn’t trust those who lie to her. 

The difficulty came when her school made much of Santa Claus and assumed that all their children, all of whom had some degree of learning disability, believed in him.  When I gently tried to remind her that it was all pretend I found that the school's teaching trumps mum's, as she retorted, "Mummy's teasing!"

I have been thinking about how this truth-telling principle applies to us as writers in what we keep being told is the “post-truth era”. I suppose there are some unpalatable truths in the Christian Gospel – such as that God is not impressed with my selfishness and does not intend to leave me exactly as I am, but wants me to be conformed to the image of His Son. But such truths are, of course, enfolded in the glorious overarching truth of His great love and goodness. So as Christian writers we should not shy away from the difficult truths but we should ensure that they point to the Truth of the grace and love of God.

And what of fiction writers? When I was a child, my mother never accused me of “lying”; the phrase she always used was “telling stories” – a negative connotation which in my view should never be given to that honourable activity! But when we tell stories, we are making stuff up, creating characters who are not real, describing events that never happened. Nonetheless, we can, I believe, use the pretence, just as I did with Father Christmas, as a vehicle for certain realities and truths. That stuffed stocking became proof for our children, not of the existence of Father Christmas, but of our love for them. In the same way, even when we write realistic stories which acknowledge the presence of evil, they should be written in the spirit of the foundational truth which underpins our universe – that there is a hope for our lives, and it is grounded in the character of God, so that no matter how dark the valleys we, or our characters pass through, and even if there is not a “happy ending” to one particular story, in the end all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Ros Bayes has 8 published and 4 self-published books, as well as some 3 dozen magazine articles. She is the mother of 3 daughters, one of whom has multiple complex disabilities, and she currently works for Through the Roof ( as their Training Resources Developer, and loves getting paid to write about disability all day. You can find her blog at and her author page at Follow her on Twitter: @rosbwriting.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Slippery Straplines by Annie Try

I am having trouble with straplines - not the kind caused by uncomfortable underwear
or the untanned patches over one's shoulders after sunbathing. Those are strap lines, with an appropriate gap.  No, it's the little pithy sentence or phrase under or above a title of a book which tells you everything about it without giving any of the plot away.

We, my publisher, editor, designer and several others, threw around over thirty pithy straplines before finally settling on 'Haunting memories arouse a dormant mystery' for my novel, Trying to Fly.  That number only included two or three of the 50 or so Jane Clamp and I composed on the way to the CRT conference last year.  The final one came to me when I took myself off for an hour or so and did nothing but write pages of straplines, whittling them down to a list of six for my publisher to consider, with asterisks by my favourite.  It made it to the cover.

But here we are, a few months later doing the same for the next book in the series, Out of Silence.

I am seeing straplines everywhere, even when, strictly speaking, they aren't straplines at all.  The UCB notes have a title, and underneath a bible verse.  For example, title: TRY TO SEE PEOPLE AS GOD SEES THEM with, under the title: 'You are a letter from Christ'.  Of course, this is for 300 words of text, not a 90,000 word novel about a psychologist struggling with his own grief while working with a mute stowaway who has post-traumatic stress disorder; with themes such as marriage, courage, fidelity, hope, redemption and restoration woven into the story.

We have been round and round trying to find that elusive all-encompassing rhythmic phrase that will intrigue and entice the reader to pick up the book and turn it over to read the blurb. We have even teetered on the edge of agreeing to 'Voiceless words echo unspoken loss', but alas, it has fallen out of favour.

Meanwhile, I am trying to work on the third book in the series, already dreading those days when words whirl endlessly around my mind refusing to coalesce into something so perfect that everyone breathes a sigh of relief and plonks it on the cover.

But I have had a thought.  Maybe, just maybe, I should stop writing now to think of the most original and stunningly exquisite strapline ever composed then write both a title and novel to fit.  What do you think?

Then all we would have to do is agree on an appropriate cover.

Oh dear!

Annie Try is the pen-name of a writer living in West Norfolk who, as Angela Hobday, has published several therapy books (which never needed a strapline).  Her debut novel, Losing Face, was published by Roundfire Books and she has two novels due to be released in 2017 by Instant Apostle.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Dune Adventure by Mandy Baker Johnson

The sand dune towered above us into the hot sky and I gazed up in awe. The lower part was criss-crossed with tyre tracks left by Emirati men, who love the adrenalin-rush of shooting the dunes.
We began to climb, puffing and panting. I paused to get my breath and gazed around me, pretending to admire the view.
I struggled higher, reminded of the song ‘One step forward, two steps back’, only this was more like one step forward, ten steps back. My friend *Cassie, who regularly picnicked here, overtook me effortlessly, carrying the water bottle with her up the steep incline. 
My legs set up an ominous trembling as I battled the shifting sand. The afternoon sun beat hotly against my back and my throat felt as dry as the desert around me. I gazed longingly at the water bottle out of reach on the dune's ridge. 
Cassie shouted encouragement from the summit. I gritted my teeth and scrambled a couple of paces before collapsing yet again in the sand. 
Eventually I landed beside Cassie, shaking but triumphant, on the triangular sandy ridge and reached for the water bottle. I closed my eyes and sighed, enjoying the cool wetness trickling down my parched throat. 
Before us lay the white oasis city of Al Ain; behind us, the sun cast lengthening shadows across the undulating desert dunes.
Our friend *Edward had only made it half way up the dune and was sitting with his back to us. He appeared to be watching a large, black 4x4 whose driver was trying to get as far up the dune as he could before power-sliding back down. Cassie and I watched too, laughing and chatting from our sandy perch. 
The driver spotted us and redoubled his efforts. He tried to build as much power as possible before roaring up the side of the dune. I could not believe how high he managed to get this time, much further than on previous attempts. He was almost at the top before the engine lost momentum and he went into a powerful sideward slide. He waved at us and flashed his lights. 
We laughed and waved back, before suddenly realising with horror that the vehicle was on a direct collision course with Edward, sat alone and defenceless in the sand. I leapt to my feet and covered my mouth with my hands, my eyes staring with horror at the nightmare scene unfolding in front of me. There was nothing we could do, Edward could not move out of the way in time. Time seemed to slow down. My heart thumped and I squeezed my eyes tightly shut. I was afraid to open them; I did not want to see the bloody, mangled body of my friend below me on the sand. 
What had started as a fun picnic in the dunes was turning into a terrible tragedy. 
This adventure actually happened to me a few years ago on a work trip to the United Arab Emirates. Thankfully, no one got hurt :)
*Names changed to protect identities.

Mandy Baker Johnson is a private medical secretary and freelance writer. She enjoys blogging and has recently co-authored her first book, Drawn from Words. She volunteers with a Christian charity working with women in the sex industry.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

A Matter of Value

We have just been out to Brede, near Hastings. We were visiting a lady, an avid reader but not comfortable with Amazon, who didn’t know how to get hold of our books. The lovely octogenarian made us welcome and bought no less than six volumes, so we gave her a discount.

We then headed across to Brede Farmers’ Market, a Friday treasure trove, a cornucopia of generous goodness, and blew our earnings and more on sausages and sprouts and carrots, cheeses and venison and home-made bread and pies. Enough to set us up for days, with a healthy dose of cheerfulness, few overheads, no packaging, and no airmiles.

We offered good value, and received good value, with money passing directly to the hands of the producer.

Brede Farmers’ Market is a fine example of the approach advocated by the Transition Town movement. Transition Town thinking is a response to the impending scarcity of cheap energy, particularly cheap oil. It recommends that localities become as self-sufficient as possible – effectively independent in food production, energy generation, transport, health care, education and employment. One of the more controversial recommendations is that Transition Towns should develop their own money, to retain value in the locality. The idea is catching on. So far nine local currencies have been launched in Britain, the first being the Totnes Pound in 2007.

To be part of the world of books is to do the very opposite: to participate in global culture. Lion Hudson works with publishers in over 200 languages, and I have found our books on sale in Mali and Benin. It’s tempting to think big, which is a consistent error in publishing, because you start to believe your own PR and lose sight of the fact that every book is different. Books are about fine tuning. They are crafted by hand, created by specialists who have laboured years to acquire mastery.

This might imply added value, but as members of ACW know too well, it’s hard to make a living as a writer. It’s almost as hard to be a publisher. The hours are long, the critics numerous, the risks high, the results uncertain and the margins tiny. A quick review of past Christian publishing houses in Britain will confirm this: Kingsway. Epworth Press. Pickering and Inglis. Marshall Morgan and Scott (which had previously acquired Bagsters, and Oliphants) became Marshall Pickering before being subsumed into Harper & Row, now HarperCollins. IVP shelters under the wing of SPCK. Mergers and closures, bankruptcies, buyouts: the churn is constant. This is a universal truth of business, of course, but few get rich from books.

 When the Net Book Agreement was ruled a restrictive practice in 1997, big men and women in the book trade applauded. The development paved the way for greater efficiencies, for the rise of Amazon, and books in supermarkets. Yet there were voices raised in the Net Book Agreement’s defence: its removal, said pessimists, would mean the demise of the small local bookshop. So it proved, which is why we drove to Brede.

This week I spoke at the thanksgiving service in Oxford for Nick Jones, my former MD and one of the giants of the Christian book world, whose death this year at 55 robbed us of a great, generous, ebullient spirit. Nick was astute and creative, a fine businessman, who loved Jesus, books and good living. No one went hungry when dining with Mr Jones. He and his wife Carol would spend their Saturdays visiting small Christian bookshops, bringing bags of doughnuts, laughing and listening in equal measure. Nick never forgot that books are about people, and that narrow margins matter.

This is the heart of value. Our God delights in the bountiful, the pressed down and running over, but records the fall of the sparrow.

Tony Collins is editor-at-large for Lion Hudson plc, and author of Taking My God for a Walk.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Get That Label Off! by Janey Clamp

Something happened a few weeks ago that prompted a chain of thought that has continued unbroken - but sporadic, if you know what I mean - since then. I had bought a bunch of flowers from the supermarket for a friend's birthday present. It had one of those two-part sticky labels, with the price on the lower section. I tried to peel it off but it only came away in tiny gluey fragments, leaving the whole thing looking a complete mess whilst still advertising how little much I had paid for it. Contemplating removing the cellophane completely, but leaving me with the horror of having to do something else with them (flower arranging being not my forte), I decided instead to peel the whole label off from the top. It came away completely cleanly - price, description and plant care, the lot.

In marvelling at this revelation, and regretting the previous ten minutes I had wasted, I felt God say, "It's not just how much you're worth that needed removing. I don't want you to wear any labels at all."

I guess we all wear them: badges that identify us. Some have been placed there by others, sometimes a very long time ago; some we've pinned on ourselves. All are invisible until someone "pushes our button" in that area and the metaphorical pin drives into our skin, causing pain and over-reaction. For a long time, I used to repeat a phrase that had been spoken "at" me by my ballet teacher when I was about ten. She was a nasty woman and a poor judge of character but at the time I had believed what she said. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I saw it for what it was: a badge that I had got used to wearing but didn't half chafe at times. When God takes something like that away, it feels like a massive burden lifted.

When I hear God's voice, it never fails to strike me how gently He speaks. He is not rude or confrontational - although of course He does challenge. He is not driven by an ugly agenda or needing to exert power or control. People, on the other hand, are another matter entirely. How cruel can be the labels they brandish, and how much damage they inflict!

God promises to give us a new name. (I asked Him once what my new name was. It's a doozy - you should try it.) He gives us a new badge that shows He has claimed us for Himself. Thinking back to the bunch of flowers, I don't need something that shows how much I'm worth, or what I am or how I should be cared for. God has got all that covered. All I have to do is be grateful and get on and enjoy the life He's given.

Jane Clamp is Creative Writer in Residence on the Sunday Breakfast Show at BBC Radio Norfolk, and on the Thought of the Day team at Premier Radio.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

A is for Advent by Clare Weiner (aka Mari Howard)

A is for Advent ... 

Advent is a time of waiting

The larger department stores, from John Lewis to Primark, to Marks & Spencers, are decked with snowy icons of winter, and stuffed with garments depicting Christmas. Or rather, depicting the life of extreme Northern lands – reindeer, snowflakes, Father Christmas/Santa Claus, along with holly and robins. (Have you noticed how many pjs, dressing gowns, and fluffy slippers are crowded into the shops, making us think of  cosy evenings with hot chocolate by the fire, and a good book?) The councils have hung snowflakes along the high street, ready to light up in the winter twilight, and added their very big Christmas tree (or even trees).

Advent is a time of waiting…

Advent calendars, with a chocolate each day of December until the 25th are a form of waiting. A sweet thing each day to remind us of, (or to anticipate), the great sweetness of Christmas and the pile of presents. Or the baby who is the greatest of presents.

Advent is a time of waiting…

Advent Wreath: four red candles, and you can just glimpse the white one in the centre
John the Baptist is our guide for the wait. That’s why he gets one of the candles in the Advent wreath. His message is prepare, be ready, and repent … The others are for all God’s people, for the prophets, and for Mary. The white, central candle represents Jesus, and when he arrives… we celebrate.

Advent is relevant today …

Britain voted for Brexit. North America for Donald Trump. In both countries the underlying reason looks (according to many commentators) to relate to the fears and worries of the less advantaged in our populations. Fears of poverty, unemployment, and generally of being ignored and not having their needs met. Fear of other people: terrorists, immigrants, anyone different, anyone who might make the slices of pie smaller for each one of us.

This gave me a thought: our world now is not unlike like the society which Jesus was born into. He was born into an ordinary working family, and even became for a while a refugee.  There was plenty of poverty, disabled people were marginalised, as were various other ‘unacceptable’ groups. Despite God’s laws about strangers, foreigners weren’t very welcome: think of the Samaritan or the Syro-Phoenician woman, or the Centurian. They were all ‘not God’s people’, they were Gentiles. There was discontent, suffering, and people looking around for an answer, someone to lead them, someone they could trust.

Advent is a time of waiting... Wait until the baby grows up.

Christmas has become more of a winter festival. About reindeer, glitter, and presents. But it’s really about this – about justice, mercy, compassion, and about integrity and even about inclusion. It’s about the birth of the person who preached the way to overcome the problems in ourselves and in the society we make. The things which underly the problems. Someone who listened. Who stood up to ‘the system’ until it killed him. And who overcame even that.

Advent is a time of waiting: let’s prepare the way of the Lord.

(Disclaimer: this is not a political post ... it is about seeing Advent and Christmas through the eyes of faith. Recent events are used as examples.)

Clare Weiner writes contemporary fiction as Mari Howard, and is inspired by the interaction (or not) by the interactions of faith and society.