Sunday, 31 December 2017

Are you a leader or a follower?

Have you ever been on an organised walk? I remember quite a few from my youth.

Walking in a group is different from walking alone or with one other person. There are likely to be people, who prefer to walk quickly and others, whose speeds are slow and stop. Someone is needed to be the back-marker and might need a companion. When they have caught up, the group can continue – although the slowest might appreciate a short breather!

Over-enthusiastic youngsters may overtake the official leader and receive a reprimand. There may be no apparent danger and no fork in the path, but the leader has to go in front for the safety of the whole group. Hopefully this person has prepared in advance, knows the route, is able to set a sensible pace and organise appropriate rests if it is a long hike.

As this post is for publication on New Year’s Eve, I have been thinking about my goals for the year ahead. I am easily distracted and become less focused than I’d like to be on the things, which matter to me the most. I have learned over the years that no human is intended to be a leader. We should all be followers. Even those in leadership positions should be following the Good Shepherd. The Psalms tell us that God is king of all the nations. Psalm 47 is an example.

Psalm 23 verses 2-3 Images of Grace postcard
We may have ambitions. These may be selfish or for the benefit of others. While we need to look after ourselves, we can be sure that God will bless our efforts to help others. Even then we need his guidance so that we do not become smug do-gooders.

Sometimes we may find that we are impatient and trying to get ahead of our Guide. Other times we may be reluctant to do what we suspect is the right thing. Or there may be conflicts, where people around us do not agree with our ideas, even when we have prayed about a situation.

I can look back on times when I have ignored a feeling that I ought or ought not to do something and other times, when I have gone out of my comfort zone for the love of another person and been blessed in some small but surprising ways.

My prayer for the coming year is that all of us, who call ourselves believers or disciples, might be faithful followers – especially those of us, who seek to lead others through our writing. May we be inspired!

I pray for a blessing on all contributors to and readers of this blog throughout 2018 and wisdom for the leaders of nations.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Selling Your Books Online

Do you have a website? Do you sell your books via it? How much hassle is it?

I've tried selling various things online over the years, including a drama course, to no real effect. I've built websites, hooked up with Amazon and tried eBay. The problem I faced in those days, 10-15 years ago, was the lack of support and having to do most things myself while having kids around and, for part of the time at least, a full time job.

I've been looking at it again recently, and not just self publishing via Amazon. Things have changed. A lot. In 2018 you can get a good online presence for a small(ish) cost and look professional while doing so. The likes of Amazon, eBay and several others across the world are no longer just shops, but are now shopping centres and are always looking for new stores to slot into their expanding online presence.

During this research, I came across short series of articles on the BBC website about online selling which provide a lot of good advice which I've listed below.

Enjoy the read and get ready to build an online publishing site.

1. Secrets to Selling Online 

2. Going Global

3. Spreading the Word


If you are interested in the business technology, such as how it's helping Africans build a business in Somalia or how phones apps can save lives, the BBC have a section about tech in business which may be worth looking at from time to time.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Christmas Favourites

What heralds the start of Christmas?

Definitely not the relentless advertising, which starts earlier each year.  I pitied the staff of my Tescos Express a year or so ago when Christmas songs were playing constantly from November! 

One member of staff told me by the time Christmas came, they were sick of the music.  Understandably so I think.  I started writing this on 12th December. Tescos haven’t started the music yet.  I’ve been told there will be some just for the few days leading up to Christmas.  If only everyone would do that with the advertising…

Black Friday goes against the spirit of Christmas I feel.  Image via Pixabay.
For me, Christmas begins with the singing of the first carol (usually Oh Come, Oh Come Immanuel), the first sighting of a Salvation Army band (this time I spotted them at Waterloo Station on my return from my publisher’s celebration event), and discovering it is time, once again, to resist eating mince pies for as long as possible!  Those get put out on the shelves earlier each year too.  Has anyone else spotted the anomaly of Christmas food having a use-by date long before the 25th?

These will be welcome after my church's carol singing event.  Image via Pixabay.
My favourite Christmas event is our church’s sing-along where we sing from the Bethlehem Carol Sheet.  The church used to go out around the village to sing but now the village comes to us and the event is followed by coffee, tea and mince pies.  There are Christmas cracker jokes in between the carols.  Is it me or is Ding Dong Merrily On High less of a carol but more of a challenge, especially if you are asthmatic as I am?!  Someone always chooses it…

Tip:  Drink well before going to an event like this.  You do appreciate the tea and coffee later.

Refreshments after the singing always go down well.  Image via Pixabay.
This is one advert I do appreciate.  Image via Pixabay.
The “official” Carols by Candlelight services at our church and the “mother” church in Romsey are also lovely and probably my favourite services of the year.  I am thankful I am not responsible for putting all the candles out though. 

Christmas candles... well just a few of them.  Image via Pixabay.
Why are these services my favourite?  It is because the Christmas story is a lovely one - as long as you leave Herod out.  Ironically, the Herod angle does make Christmas more realistic.  There have always been those prepared to murder to secure their own position, and while I understand the children’s services NOT mentioning this, the rest of us should reflect on it and that our fellow Christians still suffer for their faith. 
Two favourite carols here.  Image via Pixabay
I find it incredible freedom of religious belief is not a given in the 21st Century.  It brings home though how “on the nail” Christianity is with its emphasis on our sinfulness and the need to be redeemed, which, of course, is the point of the Nativity.  Jesus did not stay a baby.  We cannot be saved by a baby.  But without that birth in the stable, there would be no growing to adulthood, ministry, Calvary or resurrection.

What Christmas is really about.  Image via Pixabay.
So is Christmas special?  Of course - but not for the reasons the advertisers think!

May you know God's presence and peace at Christmas and throughout 2018.  Image via Pixabay.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Closing the Folio of The Year by Trevor Thorn

A long-lasting bubble on a leaf:
 image evoking thoughts on the passing of time

Comes the time to close the folio of the year.
To revisit the leaves that dropped day-after-day,
since earth’s last new circuit of our life-giving star,
piled a deep rug of experiences in multi-hued array

Your experiences,
your community’s experiences,
the experiences of the whole world, great and small
gradually infusing greens, yellows,
orange, reds and browns
as some leaves, gently, and others abruptly fall.

Some joy, some sadness, some anger, some elation,
some excitement, some anxieties, some welcome relaxation;
and that branch, which formerly bore
your personal assertions and transformations.

Whatever flurries caused the foliage to fall around you,
events both sombre and fair,
look back to the moments it has been good to be thankful - and offer thanks -
for these are the sap and the buds for next year’s prayer.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Hidden Saints, by Eve Lockett

Some books are famous for their first lines. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is famous for its last. She is talking about her heroine, Dorothea, who possessed such idealistic high hopes and aspirations to be of benefit to mankind; and in the end lived a modest, though not unfruitful, life. George Eliot gives her this immortal testimony:
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Today is St Stephen’s Day, though for most of us it goes unnoticed, being cast firmly into the background by Christmas. It is even known by another name, Boxing Day.
Stephen is regarded as the first Christian martyr, and we read his story in Acts. In his life and in his death, he served those other than himself. He was chosen to be an administrator so that the apostles could get on with the spiritual work. But in the power of the Spirit he preached and performed miracles so powerfully that the nearby synagogue set out to stop him. They hired witnesses to lie about him before the Sanhedrin. At the end of a very pointed sermon, Stephen claimed to see heaven open and the Son of Man standing by the throne of God. His words were met with outrage, and he was dragged away and stoned to death.
Somewhere in that mix was a young man called Saul (later known by his Greek name, Paul). Perhaps he attended the synagogue, or was part of the plot, or he was one of the Sanhedrin. We are given one hint he was implicated in the death of Stephen: when Stephen was stoned, Luke tells us the false witnesses placed their cloaks at his feet. If that makes us uncomfortable, here is Paul’s own confession:
On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. Acts 26.10,11
Certainly, if he wasn’t involved in the death of Stephen, he made up for it with the persecution that followed. Paul was a key player in the terror squad.
Stephen’s death is usually mentioned by way of an introduction to the life of Paul. It is Paul we focus on, standing there giving approval to Stephen’s death. It’s common enough that we are drawn to focus on the significant people and overlook the hidden ones. But Jesus gave Stephen and all the unnamed martyrs of that persecution the highest significance possible. On the road to Damascus, he says to Paul, ‘Why do you persecute me?’ Jesus identifies with the hidden people.
Stephen’s last sermon, his vision and his death must have had a lifelong impact on Paul. And so did his last prayer, asking God’s forgiveness on his murderers. It is often the hidden lives that inspire great ones. And hidden acts of kindness, mercy and forgiveness bear precious fruit in God’s kingdom.
So, St Stephen’s Day reminds us of the hidden saints, the hidden martyrs, the hidden people whose lives bring us all blessing and grace. St Stephen’s Day itself is hidden, and yet because of it we see heaven open, filled with the glory of God.

I wonder if you can think of any hidden saints who have enriched your life. I’d like to name the writer Elizabeth Goudge, fading from memory but, despite hardship and struggles with depression, always herself and always full of faith.

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Coming of the Light

Well, here we are again. For me, the Christmas season feels more frenetic every year, despite all my good intentions about having everything organised down to the last sprout. One of the things God has been reminding me of this year, however, is that the world that Jesus was born into wasn't perfect, either. And I've wondered how it all would have looked from Mary's perspective...

How did it feel, to trudge the miles,

That led to Bethlehem

And only find an ox’s byre

With room to shelter them?

In darkness and obscurity

She laboured long that night;

Her cries of anguish heralding

The coming of the Light.

Through sweat and bloody toil, the child

Was born: a baby boy

Who nuzzled gently at her breast

As Joseph wept with joy.

Then finally, her ragged tears

Gave way to raw delight,

As cradled in her arms she saw

The coming of the Light.

What did she think when shepherd folk

Came knocking at the door?

Was she surprised when – one by one –

They knelt upon the floor?

She heard them speak in reverent tones –

Their words still tinged with fright –

Of how the angels had proclaimed

The coming of the Light.

Was she perturbed when travellers

Paid homage to her son,

And said a star had guided them

To find God’s special One?

Gold, frankincense and myrrh they brought,

In caskets, gleaming bright:

Such costly gifts acknowledging

The coming of the Light.

Did she recall the prophecies

That paved the way for grace?

And did she recognise God’s plan

Wrapped close in her embrace?

For now that child is Lord and King

Enthroned in power and might;

Inviting all to celebrate

The coming of the Light.

On behalf of ACW, may I wish you a blessed and peaceful Christmas.

Fiona Lloyd is vice-chair of the Association of Christian Writers, and is married with three grown-up children. Her first novel, The Diary of a (trying to be holy) Mum, will be published by Instant Apostle in January 2018. Fiona works part-time as a music teacher, and is a member of the worship-leading team at her local church.

Twitter: @FionaJLloyd

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Hidden Stories 5—Trial and Redemption

I’ve been digging buried stories out of the Letter of James, but this is not really a hidden story. I have invented it as an imaginary background to the teaching of chapters 1 and 5. I hope that you will enjoy it as the conclusion to the saga of Sophron the follower of Mashiach Yeshua.

Part 1
Sophron bar Zakkai, the former assistant pastor at the Synagogue of Mashiach Yeshua, the former owner of a flourishing business in the Jerusalem market, the former suitor of the Widow Hannah, has come to see Elder Yakob and seek his counsel. He’s in very low spirits.
‘Brother Yakob, I am sick—exhausted, weak, feverish. My whole world has collapsed. The bar Yehuda brothers have ruined me! They are cheats, thieves, persecutors! They have stolen my whole business—premises, stock, and all. The men to whom I owed money are servants of theirs—I didn’t know!—and they got them all to force me to pay my debts at the same time. The court upheld their case. I couldn’t afford to hire a clever advocate. And now they are suing me for my house as well—unless I agree to renounce the Way of Mashiach Yeshua. On top of all that—this is really terrible! That treacherous Yohanan bar Yehuda is the very same man to whom our sister, Widow Hannah, has betrothed herself. She needs to know the danger she’s in!’
Yakob takes Sophron’s hand. ‘The first thing I have to say to you will sound hard and strange, Brother Sophron. Consider it pure joy, my brother, when you face trials of so many kinds.’
‘Joy! How on earth can you say that, Brother Yakob?’
‘Because you need to know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’
‘But I lack everything! I am going to lose my home or my faith—and probably my health. I do not know what to do or where to turn. I once thought I was wise, but now I find that I have been made a fool of. I feel like Job, humiliated, diseased, and mocked.’
‘Brother Sophron, Job is a good precedent! You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. If you lack wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.  But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt.’
‘But I do doubt! I am like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.’
‘Try not to think like that, my brother. A person like that should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. You need a single mind.’
‘Single mind! I’m torn in three directions at once! I’m utterly humiliated. I have even had to resign my eldership. And you know who has been appointed in my place, don’t you?’
‘Yes, brother. Elazar bar Adam. He is a happy man.’
‘It’s all very well for Brother Elazar. Things have turned out well for him, at my expense!’
‘Don’t grumble against another brother;  you will be judged for it, you know. The Judge is standing at the door! Elazar is a believer in humble circumstances who rightly takes pride in the high position he has attained through grace. And so you, who were once rich—compared with him—should take pride in your humiliation. You have learnt the truth: the rich will pass away like a wild flower. Just as the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant and its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed, so the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. That has happened to you, brother.’
‘Why is God putting me through such a trial? Everything tells me to take the easy way out.’
‘Be careful, my brother. When you are tempted, you should not say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.’
‘So where does such evil come from, Brother Yakob?’
‘You are a pastor: you know that! Each person—you, Sister Hannah, Yohanan bar Yehuda, each one of us—is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.’
‘So it’s not from heaven?’
‘Don’t be deceived, my dear brother. God sends only good things. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. And the greatest gift he gave us is that he chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.’
‘Brother, I have lost touch with all these blessings. I’m not sure that I can stand the trial!’
‘You know, Sophron, the one who perseveres under trial is blessed! Because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. As an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered.’
‘But where is it all leading to? All this—perseverence!’
‘You know the one thing we are waiting for, my brother: the Lord’s coming. Be patient until then. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.’
‘But what am I to do now?’
‘Brother, I often ask three questions. Is anyone happy? Answer: let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone in trouble? Answer: let them pray. And, is anyone sick? Well, you are not happy, so you are not expected to sing praise songs. Are you in trouble, are you sick? Both. You must pray and you must call the elders of the church to pray over you and anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord.’

Part 2
Elder Yakob has gone in search of the pastors Elazar bar Adam and Shimon the lamp dealer, two men with whom Sophron’s relations have not been the most cordial. Sophron is still praying rather desperately in his heart when the three others arrive back at Yakob’s house.
‘Are you very unwell, brother Sophron?’ Pastor Elazar respectfully enquires.
‘Dreadfully unwell, Brother Elazar; I swear by heaven I have never—’
‘Above all, my brother,’ breaks in Yakob gruffly, ‘do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.’
Oh, for heaven’s sake, is this necessary, thinks Sophron, but of course not out loud.
Pastor Shimon clears his throat, and says, in a deferential tone that Sophron has not heard him use before, ‘Brother Sophron, we are concerned that you are in trouble and sick. We have heard your call for the elders of the church, and we have come to pray over you and anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord.’
Elder Yakob adds, in a gentler voice: ‘And the prayer offered in faith will make you, the sick person, well; the Lord will raise you up. If you have sinned, you will be forgiven. Therefore, brothers, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.’
There is a troubled silence. Sophron is running with sweat, and not just from his fever. He knows what he must do, but a burning sense of shame is holding him back. Finally he manages to whisper: ‘Brother Elazar, I...sinned against you when I discriminated in favour of the rich man and made you sit on the floor of the synagogue. And again, when I treated you as a sort of trophy of faith, and did nothing for your physical needs… And Brother Shimon, I sinned against you in accusing you of being an unrepentant Pharisee, and in fighting with you over Widow Hannah… And brothers, I sinned against Widow Hannah, when I treated her as a chattel which I hoped to acquire, in order to satisfy my ambitions and desires, and when I gave her advice in order to make her think well of me—and as a result she is lost to us! You know, brothers, I feel so bad about her. I long for her to be restored—for her salvation, not for any purposes of my own, I hasten to say! And Brother Yakob, I have constantly resented you for interfering and lecturing me, when all along you were seeking my good. I humble myself before the Lord, my brothers, in trust that in time he will lift me up.’
All three men assure Sophron of their forgiveness. Then, to his surprise, they confess their own bad feelings about him. He manages to murmur a few words of forgiveness. It gives him a most peculiar sensation—as if he’s floating above the ground. He feels much cooler now.
‘The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,’ says Yakob. ‘Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.’
He lets that sink in. Then he continues: ‘And now we have some good news for you. Brother Shimon, you first.’
‘Brother,’ says Shimon, ‘I hope you will forgive this, but I have certain well-disposed contacts in the Sanhedrin—certain, ahem, Pharisees, you understand—and I have managed to redeem your house from the hands of those false men, the bar Yehuda brothers.’
Sophron is dumb with astonishment. Before he can say anything, Elder Yakob nods to Elazar, who gets up, goes to the door, opens it, and calls softly. Two women enter, their faces discreetly veiled. ‘Brothers, this is my wife, Shelomit, who has been to seek the lost. She brings with her our sister Hannah the widow of Talmai, who—thanks again to the hidden labours of Pastor Shimon—has been rescued from the clutches of the false Yohanan bar Yehuda! So we now welcome her back to the family of the Lord.’
Sophron can hardly breathe for joy. Yakob takes him by the hand and makes him stand beside Hannah. ‘My brothers and sisters,’ he says, ‘if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.’
Then they all exchange a holy kiss. And Yakob brings out bread and wine.