Monday, 31 October 2016

Harvest and Hallowe’en by Susan Sanderson

Having been assigned the 31st as my date to post something here, I realised immediately that the date is a controversial one in October.  Celebrations of Hallowe’en are regarded with anything ranging from acceptance to horror by different Churches and individual members of the Church.  Merchandise connected with Hallowe’en appears in shops before the start of the autumn term.  More and more families and businesses are putting up decorations.  Here in the UK it is not as prevalent as in the USA, but it is growing.

By 31st October many churches will have celebrated a Harvest Festival or Harvest Thanksgiving.  There is no set date for this.  It is not a Red Letter Day.  By contrast Hallowe’en can be placed in the Church's calendar.  It is the day before All Saints’ Day.

Celebrating and giving thanks for the Harvest is a long tradition.  In the lands where the Bible stories were lived out there were harvests of different crops at different times of year.  In the story of Ruth harvests of different crops (and their failure) form the backdrop.

I live in a village surrounded by farms; harvest is an important part of life.  It is hardly surprising that Harvest Festival is one of the best attended services.  This year the Reader, who gave the address at our service, mentioned a crop, which may not be well-known in drier parts of the country.

The expression make hay, while the sun shines is all very well, but where the land is often soaked by the damp (very wet) weather from the Gulf Stream, hay has been replaced by silage as a fodder crop.  As I understand it silage is made from grass, which has not been dried out fully to make hay.  It is partly rotted by the time the animals eat it and has a distinctive, rather sweet, smell.  I had decided before Harvest Festival, that my photo for this post would be of some novelty silage sacks at a farm.

When I was close enough to take my photo, I could read the name of the supplier of the sacks.  Carrs Billington had been running a competition on Facebook and raising money for a charity for sick children – WellChild – through these novelty sacks.  (Last year there were some pink sacks for a Breast Cancer charity.)

Novelty silage sacks
October has brought our thoughts to Harvest and God’s good gifts to us and to his creatures.

Now it is Hallowe’en.  Do you expect any Trick or Treaters to call?  How will you treat them, if they do?  

I know this is something I am not good at.  Some people might give them home-grown apples as an alternative to the sweets they expect.  Other options are specially produced leaflets with a perhaps a puzzle and  a Christian message.  I might have some Messy Church leaflets to hand out.  It is likely that children tell their friends, where they would be welcomed. 

Personally I’d prefer October to be remembered for Harvest, but the majority of people are likely to think of Hallowe’en first.

Susan always wanted to be a writer.  In 2012 she revived her interest in writing with a project to collect the kinds of sayings, which were much used in her childhood.
Blogging was intended as a way of improving writing skills, but has become an interest in its own right.  Susan experiments with factual writing, fiction, humour and poetry.  She does not yet have a book to her name. Her interests include words, languages, music, knitting and crochet.  She has experience of the world of work, being a stay-at-home mum and an empty-nester.   She is active in her local community and Church, where she sings alto in the choir. She and her husband live in the north of England

Follow her on Twitter @suesconsideredt

Sunday, 30 October 2016

The Christian as Writer

As I look through my own writing I find myself asking this question a lot. What kind of writer am I? Am I a Christian writer whose work is mainly about Christian themes and how they apply to the world around us (my definition), or am I writer who happens to be Christian, in that I write generally, but am a Christian.

Is this important? To me, certainly.

I wouldn’t class myself as a Christian writer. given some of the things I write about, but there are parts of writing that I avoid due to my faith. Sex scenes and swearing are two examples.

Asking myself whether, as a Christian, I should be writing detailed sex scenes, if any at all, is something natural. Sex happens all the time in relationships, while it’s commonly used violently by men who want to control women via rape. Because it happens do I HAVE to write about it?

An answer given to me by another Christian was, ‘if you want to get published, yes.’ Really? As Christians, do we bow before commercial need, or should we set the example, even if it means not getting published?

Swearing is another point. Despite being a Christian I can’t ignore it in my writing as part of writing is about life. If I have a criminal in my book he’s not going to be stomping around killing/robbing people and say ‘get the heck out of my life you tart’. But where’s the line to be drawn? How much swearing should I use before describing what he/she is saying as a foul mouthed tirade.

Both of the above lead me to a question that disturbs me a little. When writing, how much of what I put down is a reflection of the life around me and how much is me taking the easy way out to get my book selling in the genre? It’s not a question that non-Christians, or to be more open, people without a religious faith, will face much of the time.

As a Christian I believe I am meant to stand out and reflect Christ in my life, but am I doing this while filling a book with sex and violence? Or is it the way I show it the important point?

So many questions and no concrete answers.

Such is my life, a Christian who is a writer.

Saturday, 29 October 2016


I’ve worshipped God in inner city and country churches, cathedrals, abbeys and, as part of the Baptist Caravan Fellowship when I was growing up, during services held on a field!  The latter were lovely if the weather was right.  We moved indoors if not.  This was usually inside whoever owned the biggest caravan awning!  

One of my favourite memories from that time is of an Airedare cocking its head and howling  when the trumpet was played.  Music critics get everywhere…

Harvest Overview
Harvest Pulpit

Of course true worship isn’t dependent on the building but I was taken with my church’s recent Harvest Festival service.  

I suppose it’s because there is farmland around the village where my church is located so I literally see the connections between farming and food.   It’s too easy not to see how blessed we are. 

The fact there is a greater distance between seeing food produced and it ending up on plates isn’t good.  There is less appreciation for farmers, distributors and so on.  Nothing can take away from the miracle of plant growth (which is out of our hands given we can’t control the weather.  This is as well.  Would we ever agree what it should be?).

Harvest Flowers, Fruits and Veg
Harvest is Timeless

The church was decorated beautifully for Harvest. The food is taken to a local homeless charity (and we collect tinned food during the rest of the year as most churches do).  

But it does strike me as a shame we only remember “officially” to thank God for the basics of life at Harvest Festival.  

The rest of the year we are getting on with other events.  My church always puts out a glass of water and often a lump of coal (to represent the joys of heating and being able to cook).  The bread is freshly made and I like seeing the sheaves, another good reminder of its origins.

But my church is moving on as well as continuing traditions.  The church celebrated its 198th anniversary earlier this year and we are about to hold the induction of our new Minister in November.  

Our ministry is shared with our mother church (which dates to 1660 and must have been amongst the first churches built in the area after the Restoration of Charles II). 

 So yes, we have looked back at Harvest and been grateful for God’s blessings. At the same time we are looking forward with hope to the beginning of a new ministry and chapter in the lives of the joint pastorate.  

God is infinitely colourful and creative

To be able to look back, be grateful for all that Harvest means and look forward as well seems like a contortist’s trick!  

But as writers we should do this too.  To look back and learn from mistakes.  To look forward and with God’s help be open to the paths where He wants us to go.  

Are we ready for that?  Am I?  Definitely not at times but the real thing to appreciate is none of us make this journey alone.  Jesus sees to that.

At the back of the church

Friday, 28 October 2016

A Profound Shock, a Puzzle and Prayer for Healing. by Trevor Thorn

The Shock
Since I last posted here a month ago, our world has been upended and we are still in some degree of shock. A protracted cough with accompanying breathlessness lead to a series of scans and a diagnosis that I had Lung Cancer – treatable but not curable, said the doctor. Suddenly everything is a puzzle; everything is an anxiety. Shock abounds, made all the more baffling by the fact that I had never, ever smoked; not even an exploratory teenage puff!

However, A further investigation (bronchoschopy with biopsies) revealed that the condition is not Lung Cancer but Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. So, still a cancer necessitating chemotherapy and probably other treatment, but, we are told by the medics, and through hearing of other peoples’ experiences, that this is both treatable and curable. Treatment started within days giving a profound sense of relief, that there is hope extending beyond just a few months - or even, just weeks. What a difference!

As we have reflected on the uncertainties we still face, we have to recognize that this personal awfulness is little compared to that faced by the brutalized people of Aleppo, those desperately risking crossing the Mediterranean and literally millions of oppressed people across the globe. We are even more fortunate, in that Addenbrookes hospital, renowned for its skills and research, is only half an hour away. We are, by comparison, mightily, mightily blessed – but we are, nevertheless, inevitably anxious about what the future might hold for us.

As well as having this remarkable medical facility close by, we have been greatly comforted by the assurance of prayers of many, many friends, both here in the UK and abroad and we give grateful thanks to them all for that very special support.

The Puzzle.
We know from other people, and are now experiencing it ourselves, just how hard it is amidst such uncertainty and upheaval, to pray for ourselves – it feels as if we are simply letting our many friends shoulder that burden. I know in the past we have suggested to others that is something God entirely understands, but it still has a puzzling sense of not easily being able to ‘play our part’ in this outpouring of other peoples’ compassion and love. Even though we have over many years been involved in the ministry of healing and walked alongside others who have been suffering in a variety of ways, this aspect still feels a puzzle. However, as I lay awake one night just as the treatment started, during a somewhat ‘dark watch’, an idea occurred.

Prayer for Healing.
I would find it difficult to ‘batter’ God with pleas for a restoration to health.

But I have, since encountering it through a talk by Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward, (former Bishop of Coventry) been fascinated by the many possibilities there seem to be of using ‘The Jesus Prayer’. I have written elsewhere on my own blog (link below) of using the Prayer in its traditional way of being a preparation for prayer and of framing it as a confessional prayer. At a wholly different, and some might think, a trivial level, I have found it a great comfort at times I have not been able to sleep. It bathes that time in prayer and is immensely more helpful than counting animals jumping gates! (at least it is for me). As I moved into that cycle of petition that night, I realized the prayer could easily accommodate an extra phrase, which would readily reflect my present condition. So I tested it,

            Lord Jesus Christ,
            Son of God,
            To whom the sick cried out for help,
            Have mercy upon me, a sinner.

As with the whole of the original prayer, in praying it, we are joined with the complete nature of Christ, his deity and his love and it seems to me the extra line highlights his compassion and draws us into that particular aspect of our Saviour’s love as we repeat the prayer. The Jesus Prayer is, as observed by many, a way of moving closer towards St Paul’s otherwise difficult injunction (for many of us) to ‘pray at all times, without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5.17). So, with each repetition, I remind myself of the healing power of the Saviour and by implication call on Him to help me – and all those others who need his succour. (In the form I have written this above, the new line, in italics, is historically correct: some may prefer to frame the line in the present tense.)

So, perhaps others may find this a way of bringing their awkward feelings about self-focused personal petitions into Christ’s presence and if this proves helpful, then I will be glad.

Now we are nearing the end of the first three week treatment cycle and this has been another cause for thankfulness. I have experienced none of the horrid effects that can follow the day of infusions and I still have my hair (O vanity!). Again, how much more difficult that must be for women: for me, it will only mean I will share a hairstyle with every one of our next generation males! Maybe the next cycle will be different; the first is, apparently the easiest to assimilate for most patients. So uncertainty persists and that is part of the condition. How good will we be at handling the protracted uncertainty. The mind is an unpredictable part of us as many of us know well.

But, of one thing, we are very sure. It is good to be surrounded by Christian friends and acquaintances at a time like this – and to know that God himself walks alongside us.

And, with that in mind, we would, of course, value YOUR prayers too.

Trevor Thorn.

The Jesus Prayer blog entry referred to above can be found HERE

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Writing Prayers as Resources, by Lucy Mills

A prayer is a prayer, right?

Some people don't even think that written prayers should be shared publicly; it draws too much attention to the writer. However, in this post I'm not talking about the 'praying on street corners' scenario (some feel that this has some relevance to social media, and I've talked about that here).

But there are people who are looking for prayers as resources - whether for personal use or in a public setting, for a one off or for repeated events. Or, you might include a prayer at the end of an article you've written - I sometimes do this.  Some editors/publications like this, others don't.  I always say it's an optional extra they can use if they want.

Worship resources usually contain prayers. If you're writing for a publication producing such resources, you'll need to do some shaping and honing.

So what makes a good, usable prayer for others to use?  These steps might help:

Give yourself time to reflect and pray 'on paper' yourself. Let it spill out to God.

You may have themes you have been given or chosen - reflect within these and see where they take you.

If they are written as resources, chances are the prayers may be read aloud. Try doing this - is it easy? Do the words trip easily off your tongue, or do they trip you up?

Don't use too much 'high-falutin' or  'flowery' language.  Have you gone to town with your adjectives and adverbs? Has it obscured the main meaning? Have you ended up drawing attention to your writing, rather than to God?

A prayer does not point towards the writer, so a key factor is to keep yourself as much in the background as possible! This doesn't mean you can't use personal experience, but remember that other people will have different experiences.

Don't be afraid to play with new ways of saying things.  Prayer language is as much prone to cliche as any other writing! 

A prayer is not a poem.  I say that cautiously: I myself have written poetic prayers and prayerful poems, but if you have been commissioned to write prayers, that's your aim.  It's a grey area - I've written children's prayers which rhyme!  But there is something different in how you approach it, in your attitude.  You are not showing off your poetic skills (or lack of them!) but are acting almost as a worship leader, whose job is not to point to themselves, but to the One they worship.

Editing is good thing.  Editing prayers seems like strange behaviour - but you are creating something for other people to use in their conversation with God. Why not work at it, to make it the most helpful it can be for them in this privileged act?


Lucy Mills

Lucy's first book, Forgetful Heart: remembering God in a distracted world, was published in 2014 (DLT). Undivided Heart: finding meaning and motivation in Christ will be coming in Autumn 2017. Lucy writes articles, poetry and prayers for various publications and is Editorial Co-ordinator at magnet magazine.

Lucy on Twitter: @lucymills
Lucy's Facebook page

Previous More than Writer posts:

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Justice is Served

Earlier this month I had the honour of being at an awards dinner with the crème de la crème of British crime and mystery writers. My debut crime novel, The Jazz Files, had been nominated for the Crime Writers’ Association Endeavour Historical Dagger – awarded for the best historical crime or mystery novel published in the United Kingdom in 2015-16.

I was supported by friends and colleagues from my publisher Lion Hudson. We had a fabulous evening, dressed up to the nines and served a top-notch meal, before the business of the night got underway.

Me (left) and my editor Jessica Tinker at the awards.
The main speaker of the evening was James Runcie, the author of the Grantchester Mysteries, about a vicar who is an amateur sleuth. It is now a TV series. James pointed out that as a genre crime offers an opportunity to morally examine humanity - at their best and worst. Religion, as we know, also deals with the stuff of moral transgression and the resultant need for the world to be put to rights. My publisher, Andrew Hodder-Williams, suggested that perhaps that was why the crime genre was such a good fit for Lion Fiction, an imprint of the Christian publishing house, Lion Hudson.

Since the days of GK Chesterton and Father Brown, clerical mysteries have been a thriving sub-genre of the crime scene. From a Christian writer’s perspective, the character’s job gives the author an excuse to bring a bit of faith into the stories. However, it also offers plot opportunities as the clergy encounter the best and worst of humanity on a daily basis, and are often privy to people’s secrets, sins and lies.

Runcie commented: “I hope to have written a loving portrayal of a man who moves between the world of the spirit and the all too mortal world of the flesh, bicycling from Grantchester to Cambridge and back, attempting to love the unloveable, forgive the sinner, and to lead a decent, good life.”

The Christian imperative, encapsulated so beautifully here by Runcie, is not just the preserve of the professional clergy. So what about books where the main character is just an ‘ordinary’ Christian? That is a harder ‘sell’ to publishers and the secular book-buying public. In modern literature, as in modern life as a whole, people of faith are generally viewed with suspicion.  Lion Fiction is trying to change that. Elizabeth Flynn’s DI Costello for instance is a police officer who happens to be a Christian. In Paul Trembling’s debut Local Poet, the main character is not a Christian but he encounters people who are, and who positively model Christian compassion and forgiveness. But there is not a ‘professional’ Christian in sight.

In my novels in the Poppy Denby Investigates series the protagonist, an investigative journalist, is the daughter of Methodist ministers – so that I suppose could be considered an ‘excuse’ – however, she grapples with the faith in which she was raised. Hence, she is someone outside of the traditional church establishment and perhaps, because of it, is more relatable to non-Christian readers.

What all of the books above have in common is that they deal with issues of justice and the notion that the world cannot be set to rights while injustice goes unchecked. And, unlike crime novels without a spiritual dimension, there is a sense that God is the ultimate arbiter of that justice. Like Nathan exposing David’s murder of Bathsheba’s husband in the Bible, the heroes of our books have a strong sense of what is right and wrong and that justice needs to be served. We need to be aware though that not all our readers share our faith and a heavy-handed ‘preach’ that God is the ultimate judge would not be appropriate.

Oh, before I forget, I should probably tell you that The Jazz Files did not win. It was pipped at the post by a wonderful crime thriller by David Young set in 1975, East Berlin, called Stasi Child. Was justice served? I’ll leave that for you to decide ;)

Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and writing lecturer, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She writes across all media, for children and adults. Her mystery novel The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates Series (Lion Fiction) was nominated for a CWA Historical Dagger in 2016. The second book, The Kill Fee is out now, and the third is due out next year. Her children’s books The Young David Series and the Young Joseph Series  are published by SPCK. Her novel The Peace Garden  is self-published under Crafty Publishing.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Warts and All, by Fiona Lloyd

Anyone else recall the thrill of being given a new exercise book at school? All those neatly-lined pages - hopefully with margins already accurately marked - wrapped in a smooth, colourful cover. To me, they spoke of a fresh start, unencumbered by past mistakes aggressively circled in red pen. A new book bristled with possibilities, and I always felt slightly cheated at the beginning of the academic year if our teacher insisted we complete last year’s book before starting a different one.

And for the first couple of days, I’d do my best to keep my work fault-free, hoping that the red pen marks would come in the form of ticks rather than crosses. Sooner or later, though, my attempts at beautiful handwriting reverted to my usual spider-scrawl. Careless errors resulted in ugly crossings-out and pages plastered with Tippex, while covers became dog-eared through being pulled in and out of my bag. My perfectionist streak was – as usual – disappointed.

As I write this, I’m wearing a silver bangle that used to belong to my mother. It’s a precious link to my memories of her: I suspect she bought it before I was born, as I can’t remember her ever not having had it. From a distance, it looks like an elegant, polished piece of jewellery. However, closer inspection shows an obvious dent in the engraving, as well as minute scratches around the rim. It’s possible a skilled jeweller could do something about the marks, but I prefer to keep the flaws: for me, this is part of its charm. The fact that it’s damaged reminds me it has been worn, and connects it to a real person.

There’s a message here for our writing. If our characters are too perfect, they come across as unrealistic and probably a bit boring. But if we give our protagonists (and villains) a judicious sprinkling of faults as well as good qualities, they become people we want to engage with. Our readers are more likely to be drawn in to the story (even with non-fiction) when the people we write about are well-rounded.

Once, at a Bible study, we spent time talking about our favourite biblical characters. Almost without exception, the reason we gave for choosing a particular person was because we could identify with their failings. We tend to be inspired by those who are honest about their weaknesses, because their struggles lend hope to our own lives. Rather than falling into the trap of thinking we have to be perfect before we approach God, we need to remember that he accepts and delights in us, warts and all.

Fiona Lloyd works part-time as a music teacher, and serves on the worship leading team at her local church. Fiona self-published a violin tutor book in 2013 and blogs at You can find her on Twitter at @FionaJLloyd. Fiona is vice-chair of ACW and is married with three grown-up children.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Back to Normal

Light and salt

I wrote last month about how J. R. R. Tolkien’s hopes for a bright future—creative, academic, matrimonial—were dashed in 1914 by the unexpected descent of Europe into chaos and carnage. His biographer, John Garth, tells us that Tolkien confided to a Catholic professor friend his feeling that he had received a ‘profound blow’—‘the collapse of all my world’, as he later called it. The professor coolly replied that ‘this war was no aberration: on the contrary, for the human race it was merely “back to normal”.’*

The Catholic professor’s view seems to have been that greed, anger, aggression, conflict, violence, cruelty, and callousness are the norm of human society, while generosity, patience, restraint, peaceableness, kindness, and gentleness are the aberration. What a terrifying thought!

There is a photo from the Conservative Party conference going the rounds. The Prime Minister has her arm raised exultingly. Her hand covers the three prongs of the capital letter ‘E’ in the slogan behind her ‘A BETTER FUTURE’. I don’t know whether Christians should believe in omens, but this looks very like one. (I am not making a political point: perhaps you and I still have bright prospects to look forward to, and perhaps these will be to the credit of our rulers.) There is no doubt whatever that for many people in our world the immediate prospect is ‘A BITTER FUTURE’.

Journalists were shocked very recently when they boarded a migrant boat on the Mediterranean: they and the survivors were stepping over the bodies of people asphyxiated in the crush. Meanwhile Aleppo is set to be destroyed completely by Christmas, unless something changes. In northern Nigeria, famine threatens, because they haven’t planted for three seasons for fear of Boko Haram. In my own city a schoolgirl was abducted and raped at rush hour. The man presenting himself for election as the most powerful ruler in the world has been recorded talking filth about women. And we now hear that leaving the European Union is likely to be an economic disaster (again, not politically biased: it was on the front page of The Times). Is it surprising that many people do not trust or believe what any politicians say? Their actions repeatedly contradict their words. Also, I hate to add, the danger of a nuclear conflict between America and Russia is greater than at any time since the Cold War.

Blame and anger, abuse and scorn and party spirit are no use here. They are part of the world’s armoury of weapons, which have only served to get us into our present peril.

Alongside those grim words of the Catholic professor, I am reminded of our Lord’s statement that his followers are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. I have always tended to think of these attributes as a kind of pleasant add-on. ‘Here’s the earth, sort of neutral or a bit stale; there’s some salt, improving its quality a bit. Here’s the world, gloomy; there’s a gleam of light, brightening things up.’ But just suppose Jesus means that things are a whole lot starker than that. Suppose that this salt and this light are the only things that stand between the world and utter corruption, total darkness? Supposing only a faithful, honest, kindly, self-denying, prayerful people scattered over the face of the earth prevents everything going back to the Catholic professor’s ‘normal’? And what if the Lord’s people were so conformed to this world that they fell short in faithfulness, honesty, kindliness, self-denial, and prayerfulness?

What can we do as Christian writers? It behoves us, I think, to examine our existence and our writings. Now, I’m aware that some of us are already battling with suffering and discomfort in everyday life, and that this is reflected in our writings. But many of us are seemingly living an untroubled existence amid these developing catastrophes, and writing as if such comfort and cosiness were the only thing. I am not decrying comfort and cosiness; civilization is there to foster them. Going back to Tolkien: his own writings lovingly delineate, in the Shire, that kind of civilized cosiness and comfort. But it is shown to be an island precariously surviving, all unconscious of the tentacles of darkness reaching out to engulf it. And it would have been engulfed long before, had there not been a small band of faithful guardians prepared to forgo comfort and ease in order to maintain a ceaseless vigil over that island of peace. 

By all means let our writing and our lives celebrate civilized cosiness. But let us also take up our guardianship. The weapons of guardians are not, of course, swords and shields, as in Middle-earth, or guns, or any other physical force. I don’t need to tell anyone that our sole resource is ceaseless praying along with a preparedness to deny ourselves the comforts of this life for the sake of others. I don’t know how we can engage our writing in this, but it should be embedded there somehow. It’s up to us.

*John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 2003, ii. 48.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Anecdote: Pine Cone - by Helen Murray

Sometimes, God does things for no other reason than to make us smile. Don't you think so?

Take the other day, for instance. God knows that I love pine cones. He knows that I can't walk past a pine cone without picking it up, and if it's in good condition I can't help but bring it home.  As a result, we have a pile of pinecones in the rockery, more on the bookshelves and still more hanging about on various window sills.

There's something about a pine cone. Long ones, thin ones, fat ones, big round ones - they're just lovely. The shape of them, the shadows, the texture, the fragrance. Some of them remind me of the place I picked them up; sentimental value. Yes, I have a thing for pine cones. 

Let me tell you a little story.

I was small, maybe six or seven, and I was on holiday with my family. Where, I don't remember. We were walking along a path and there were pine-cone-trees right and left. There was dappled sunlight and lots of pine cones on the floor, and as I skipped along I remarked,

'Wouldn't it be strange if  a pine cone fell from a tree, right in front of me, right now?'

And do you know what?  One did

Just like that. A pine cone fell from a tree and landed on the path right in front of me! What are the odds?  I was amazed and delighted; I remember clapping my hands with joy. I was just happily walking along, thought what a coincidence it would be if a pine cone fell off a tree directly in front of me, and to my intense surprise, one did. 

Or so I thought. For thirty-five years or so, that's what I thought. 

Then came the day when it all fell apart. The conversation was on the subject of pine cones. My brain did a little riffle through the files labelled 'Anecdotes: Pine Cone' and came up with this story. I retold it, with due dramatic emphasis on the wonder of the falling pine cone, and then this, from my Mum:

'That was Dad.'

In the silence that followed I grew up.  My innocence slipped slowly to the floor and lay in tatters.

All these years I had believed in the Mystery of the Pine Cone and it turned out that my Dad nipped unseen behind me, picked one up, and dropped it in front of me. And then the secret was kept, year after year. Everyone knew but innocent old gullible me. And now...


You'd think it would have been enough to put me off pine cones, wouldn't you? When I finally did discover the magnitude of this deception I think I might have been forgiven for purging my house of all pine cones and refusing to have one near me ever again. I might have been scarred for life. But no, the humble pine cone was not at fault; my great affection for them remains.

One afternoon last week I was walking on a narrow pavement with Mum and my two daughters. They were behind me, negotiating with Grandma about finance for a trip to the ice cream shop on the way home. I paused to let them catch up, and as I stood, gazing idly across the road, what should happen?

pine cone. 

Dropped off a tree right in front of me. And this time, it did

With a small sound, a tiny brittle thud, a modest little pine cone fell in the middle of the road and lay there, looking at me. We looked at each other.

The newcomer is on the right.
The fulfilment of thirty-five years of deception and the subsequent Disillusionment Years.  Lying in the middle of the road.

wanted that pine cone.

Of course, at that very moment, that leafy little side-road became M1-like in nature as car after car went past, slaloming in and out of parked vehicles.

I didn't take my eyes of my vulnerable little pine cone, quite sure that after it's wondrous and timely appearance it was destined to be squashed flat by school traffic.

Children and mums I knew passed by and looked at me quizzically; I fear I led them to believe that it was one of the children who was insisting on retrieving the fallen pine cone.

'We need the pine cone!' I said by way of explanation, with a wry smile and just a hint of eye rolling. They laughed and nodded in amused recognition at the whimsy of a small child. Yes, we did need the pine cone, but I needed it, not the small children. 

As the exhaust fumes cleared, there it was. Intact. 

Miracle upon miracle. 

So I am the proud owner of another pine cone. This one fresh from the tree. It dropped right down in my line of sight, co-incidentally and in an entirely random way. Nobody reached over my head. I even checked behind me this time. Nobody there.

Except God. He was there. He knows about my relationship with pine cones and he knows about Conegate. He knew what would make my heart swell and what would lift our ordinary autumn afternoon into something special.

He just gave me a present.  Dad, I hope you were watching from Heaven. This was for you, too. 

Thank you, Father God, for your sense of humour. You make my day.

Helen Murray lives in Derbyshire with her husband, two daughters and her mum.

Having spent time as a researcher, church worker and Hand Therapist, Helen is now a full time mum and writer, currently supposed to be working on her first novel. Or at least working on something. 

As well as writing and reading, she drinks coffee, takes photographs, swims, breeds Aloe Vera plants and collects ceramic penguins.

Helen has two blogs: Are We Nearly There Yet? where she writes about life and faith, and Badger on the Roof where readers are treated to a blow by blow account of her novel-writing progress, or lack thereof. It's been a while since there was anything to report, but she hasn't given up.

You can also find her here:

Pinterest: @HelenMMurray
Twitter: @helenmurray01

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Upside Down Stories

It’s been a rough few months in the house of Robson. In the forefront has been trying to sort out support for our daughter who is both gifted and has additional needs, which feels like it’s been a long, hard slog. Getting diagnoses has been a bizarre mix of relief and sadness. Dyslexia, autism, sensory processing disorder, gifted - these words have played a larger part in our conversations recently than we ever imagined they would, and have at times seemed overwhelming.

But the more reading and talking and midnight research we’ve done, the more we’ve heard the voices of people saying, what if these things we fear and labels we’ve been given aren’t actually bad? What if they just make her different? What if the negatives can be turned into positives?

Amelia displaying her love of all things slimy
With Amelia, this is glaringly obvious. Not being able to write legibly belies her ability to plan pictorially or using mind maps. Her inability to convey her thoughts on paper pales into insignificance when listening to her talk about her ideas (and talk, and talk, and talk!). Her difficulties with reading are balanced by her insane ability to see the bigger picture and spot things the rest of us don’t.

Sometimes I can see my own life in the same way, and turn some of the hardest things I deal with into blessings - my issues with chronic depression give me an ability to see beauty in the world, and struggling with bipolar means I have far more ability to understand emotional depth than a lot of people.

The lingering question is this: what if we sometimes need to take aspects of our stories and turn them...upside down?

That’s what Jesus did - it’s what parables were all about. Jesus took everything his peers understood and turned it on its head - sometimes to the extent of true discomfort. The most physical of his parables - the time he washed his disciples feet (which I think we often forget would have been a really rather disgusting job) - showed the king of kings on his knees, serving his friends despite knowing how they were going to treat him over the following few days.

It seems illogical, but it’s these upside down stories that capture our imagination the most. It’s a part of our character that we long to be surprised by the stories we see or hear. Maybe, in our writing, we can start to harness this topsy turviness as exampled by Jesus. The last shall be first, the poor shall be blessed, those different from us will open our eyes to our bias, and we will learn about the world from those who society says are ‘disabled’.

As a family, the more we talk and research and come to terms with things, the more we grasp the main problem we have: the world just isn’t built for people like my Amelia. But that doesn’t mean she can’t play an important part in it. Maybe her role will be to change the world, to turn it on it’s head and make people see things differently. I can only hope that my stories do the same…

Me and my girl 
Abbie has been writing ever since she could hold a pencil. She wrote a memoir, Secret Scars, (Authentic, 2007), and later, Insight Into Self-Harm (CWR, 2014). She founded and directs Adullam Ministries, an information and resource website and forum about self-harm and related issues. She blogs at Pink and Blue Mummyland and tweets as @AbbieRobson and @AdullamSelfHarm. She lives in Rugby with husband John, children Amelia and Seth, and two cats who still haven't learned that they don't run the house.

Friday, 21 October 2016

He knows the desires of our Ruth Johnson

Not the one purchased,  maybe in a year or two! 

It shall also come to pass 
that before they call, 
I will answer; 
and while they are still speaking, 
I will hear.”      Isaiah 65:24 

The Lord is always with us on our life journey, and in these days many of God’s people have a sense of expectancy.  It comes with the belief He’s not just in control, but in the background is preparing for us to know and experience Him in ways we’ve not yet known.   

Our personal journey continues, the crossroads are past, the way ahead is going beyond the trees (earlier crossroad picture) into sunlight.  I sense a hill to climb, nothing too strenuous, but it will give us a view, perspective and understanding of what lies ahead in this next phase of our lives.  Like me, many reading this will have unfulfilled desires and are still waiting on God's promises to be activated. But as our heavenly Father loves to bless us he can do so before we call. 
Our friends of forty years announced they were moving from Yorkshire to Bristol near where we live.  Their house build was delayed several times, and then I received an email on Saturday to say they’d finally received the keys, would be there on Sunday, and if we were passing on our way back from church to call in. We decided to do that, but after the service I realized I should take them a house warming present.  

I thought flowers, but they were off to Spain in three days. Chocolates, they were careful what they ate.  Sparkling wine, they’d no glasses, everything was in store until the next day.   Then, it came to me, a plant for their garden.  Local stores would only have house plants.  Was there a nearby nursery?  Google said, 'Yes, on route'.  I’m not a gardener, but thought of a fuchsia, but to survive the winter it would have to be a decent size and hardy.  Nursery’s can be expensive, most good size plants were £10.00 plus.  I only wanted to spend £5, but they were good friends! I couldn’t find any fuchsias, wandered around trying to decide what to buy.  In a corner I spotted half a dozen 3 ft tall fuchsias, not bushes, but with  two very sturdy branches. They were marked £10.99, but as they were what I wanted I maneuvered one pot out from the other five.  It was then I saw the price had been slashed to £5.00.  I was so thrilled, not just finding the plant I wanted and at the right price, but that my heavenly Father had so wonderfully fulfilled my unspoken desire.

When my heavenly Father shows His love by blessing my thoughts, how much more will He do when we ask in His name. I believe He is working to bring His promises to birth, and fulfill our hopes and desires. For me it is that my books will reveal His love and touch and change many lives.  

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Endings and beginnings by Sue Russell

Over the past few years I seem to have acquired a small group of very elderly people with whom I try to keep in contact, either by phone or visit, from time to time. Two ladies were close friends of my mother's,
and I resolved when my mum died to keep in touch with them, however infrequently. This was more for my benefit than theirs, a way of keeping some kind of contact with my mother and her world. Ella, at just turned 90, is the youngest and fittest of the bunch, still living in her immaculate bungalow, mobile and reasonably healthy. Doris, on the other hand, is crippled with painful arthritis in knees and hips and has almost completely lost her sight. However, until very recently she was sharp and well-informed and full of good humour, and was one of the people for whom I regularly brought back wine from France! A favourite quote from Doris, who in better times loved to go out for lunch with friends: 'I don't mind, just as long as I can get out of the  car and into the pub!' In June she celebrated her 98th birthday with a tea party in her own home. She had obviously forgotten how many people she had invited, because she told me hardly anyone would be coming, and in fact her small house was jam-packed with friends and well-wishers. The picture is of Doris holding a neighbour's baby that afternoon, and laughing at some daft remark of mine. Some time after this she decided that life was getting too tough for independent living. She had carers who were also friends during the day, but the nights were difficult, and when she had a disastrous fall and ended up in hospital it made the point.She decided to go into a home, and that's where she is now. She has recently had another spell in hospital; heart failure was diagnosed. Her only surviving son now plans to move her to another home closer to where he lives, understandably. So soon I shall visit Doris perhaps for the last time. In the same care home is another lady who was a good friend of my mother's, Pat, someone I liked a lot - a generous, kind soul. To my shame I hadn't seen Pat for a number of years till I visited her at the same time as Doris. She was thin and shrunken and rather deaf, but perfectly compos mentis and recognised me immediately.

More recently I found out the whereabouts of a very elderly gentleman called Geoff with whom I was once a Samaritan. A mere lad at 94, he is in a home where the majority of the residents, sadly but it seems inevitably, have some form of dementia. Geoff decidedly has not, so life can be a bit lonely with a dearth of conversation, and he loves having visitors. It is noticeable that he can be sleepy and unfocused and a bit confused when I first arrive, but just having someone new to chat to brings him to life.He always thanks me for coming but I feel the pleasure is mostly mine. Chatting to Geoff, with his acute wit, interest in world events and cheeky humour, is no hardship at all. He too takes delivery of a few bottles of French wine when I see him and he shares them with the others at the dinner table.

Getting old, losing independence, becoming ill and frail, dealing with loneliness as friends die, and facing death oneself, is no picnic. But one thing above all, apart from the cheerfulness and courage of these ordinary but remarkable individuals, allows hope to triumph over what could so easily be a depressing situation. All these people are Christian disciples. Pat is the soul of kindness, a faithful friend. Doris is cheerful and forgiving in the face of current problems and past tragedies. Ella is loving and welcoming and full of fun. Geoff has a mission in the care home - his room is nicknamed The Chapel, and he recently held a simple Bible study for those who were interested. On his chest of drawers he has a photograph of his late wife as a young woman, and he trusts that they will meet again. Even at their great age, they have a present ministry and an eternal hope, and that makes all the difference.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A very mature student, by Veronica Zundel

Previously on More than Writers: In the last episode, I was waiting to hear whether I'd got on an MA course in Writing Poetry, run jointly by the Poetry School in Lambeth Walk, and Newcastle University. The story continues...

Well folks, I got into the course, and have now been on it three weeks, although I didn't get the formal offer till after the induction day, and haven't been asked for a single penny in payment yet! (long may it last...). So my weekly routine now includes a trip to my old stamping grounds in Waterloo and southwards therefrom, for a seminar with 10 other students of all ages and backgrounds (I'm glad to say I'm not the oldest in the group), to be quizzed on our reading from the week before and given the reading for the next week, as well as other tasks: last week the tutor asked us to write a ballad in 15 minutes, either based on a traditional ballad or inspired by an item in the news. Not a method to be recommended for producing great poetry!

Actually, most of my fellow students are women...
It's extraordinary being a student again, 41 years after my English degree (well, I did a basic theology course starting in the late 80s but it was all distance learning and I took 22 years to do a three year course so I generally don't mention it). Much of what we're studying is revision for me: metre, classic forms, historic and contemporary poets. It feels, however, very different, not only because I have forgotten much of  my degree work, but also because then I was studying for the purpose of critique, but now I am studying for the purpose of writing. This has its pitfalls, not least because my own work may become a pale pastiche of what I'm reading, but also because I may 'borrow' without noticing or improving on what I've borrowed (you know what they say: good writers borrow, great writers steal).

Also scary is the fact that by the end of a 10-week term I need to produce 10-12 reasonably finished poems, not to mention a critical essay on 'how I did it', with references to my reading and a correctly set out bibliography. And then another lot at the end of the second term... Will I end up a better poet at the end of two, laughably called part time, years? Only time, and my tutors, will tell.

Anyway, here I am, having the time of my later life. It's a joy to immerse myself in poetry which is intriguing, challenging, occasionally awful but mostly brilliant. (Although I do concur with a comment quoted in one of the essays I had to read: 'Life's too short for a sestina' - in my opinion it's too short even to read one, let alone write one.) My life, if not my poems, can only improve as a result.

In the meantime, here is my 15 minute ballad offering, not as an example of a good poem (it isn't) but purely as evidence of how much fun you can have in 15 minutes:

The Ballad of Mike Hookem

Would you buy a used political party from this man?
Mike Hookem was the member's name
and Hook'em was his nature:
he took a swing at Stephen Wolfe
and got in all the papers;
for Wolfe, unWolfelike, fell straight down

unconscious in the chamber.

Now Hookem's on the TV screen
to speak for his behaviour:
'I didn't punch, I only breathed,
the man was in no danger.'
Was it a hook his right hand took
or did he shove his neighbour?

A sorry tale, the whole affair,
for those who represent us;
we are the ones who put them there
but scandal's all they've dealt us.
Should we put Mike in't witness chair
would he sing like a linnet?
Those UKIP MEPs, I swear
are in it just to bin it.

Veronica Zundel is a freelance writer whose latest book is Everything I know about God, I've learned from being a parent (BRF 2013). She also writes a column for Woman Alive magazine, and Bible notes for BRF's New Daylight. Veronica used to belong to what was, before it closed, the only non-conservative, English speaking Mennonite church in the UK, and is currently churchless. She also blogs at

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

20 ways to help you beat the blank page by Joy Lenton

There it sits - blank, clean, virgin-white - a new page on which to write. A fresh start. New work waiting to be expressed. So why does my heart palpate, find the blankness icily chilling instead of inviting? It's such a small thing to halt a writer with hesitation.

All those what-ifs scream out our previous failures - ink-blotted scribbles, deficient daubs, lackadaisical prose and inability to colour well within the lines of art.

It must be overcome, of course, or we would never start our potential masterpiece, beguiling blog post, pretty poetry, or just our everyday ordinary showing up to offer a faithful labour of love at the altar of creativity.

All art begins with a mark. all creativity invites us to start with something. So where to begin to leave our mark when a mind feels bereft of thought? It's a dilemma whether we're staring at a blank screen or pristine page. Fear of making a mess can stop us in our tracks, because who wants to screw up before we've barely begun? Not me, probably not you, either.

I'm sharing what helped me after I took a prolonged break and feared I might never write another word. I began with recognising the limiters on leaving a mark. Mine were: fatigue, false expectations, life circumstances, poor self-esteem, people-approval issues, loss of confidence. Maybe some of those resonate with you?

Once we start to transfer words to a page, make a list or frame an image in our head, then we begin to stir those latent creative juices again. What begins as an act of faith becomes a work in progress.

Words beget words. Lines sweep into form. Colour bleeds and blends. Art is taking shape...and we can always set it aside for a while, strike through, erase, draw circles around potentially usable stuff and learn as we go.

Here are 20 ways to help you beat the blank page

  1. Pray, pray and pray again - be inspired by God first and foremost
  2. Write morning/evening pages, or whenever you get uninterrupted time
  3. Use a journal/diary/sketch pad/doodling or crayoning book
  4. Have all necessary materials to hand - including coffee/chocolate/cake
  5. Jot random ideas in a notepad whenever a creative thought occurs
  6. Use prompts from books/films/blogs/all creative resources
  7. Do a brain-dump/plan in advance for important projects
  8. Switch off distractions as far as possible - especially social media
  9. Make your environment conducive to creativity
  10. Use aids to concentration - music/silence/rest/imagery/black coffee
  11. Avoid making comparisons altogether - you and your art are unique
  12. Stay true to the gifting you have while being willing to experiment
  13. Be prepared to be stretched outside your comfort zone
  14. Take a break - go outside/breathe/stretch/have a walk/nap/read/watch TV
  15. Attempt a new genre/style/method to jar inspiration back to life
  16. Use disengaged moments as unpressurised free-thinking time
  17. Read lots of books - be inspired by them and fellow creatives
  18. Seek individual mentoring or group support - there's strength in numbers
  19. Establish daily rhythms and routine but don't worry if it's a dry season
  20. Be prepared for low spells and high productivity to be part of a creative life
Thankfully, no matter how today may have turned out, God continually offers us a blank page fresh start, an opportunity to begin again by His grace. And maybe the best way to view our own blank pages and days is as openings and invitations rather than dead ends. 

Sometimes we just have to trust art and words will flow when they're ready to come, and continue nurturing our souls while we wait. Happy writing and creating, friends! 

Joy Lenton is a grateful grace dweller, contemplative Christian writer, poet and blogger, author of 'Seeking Solace: Discovering grace in life's hard places'

She enjoys encouraging others on their journey of life and faith at her blogs and as she seeks to discover the poetic in the prosaic and the eternal in the temporal. 

You can connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.