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.

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.

Monday, 17 October 2016

What constitutes success? By Claire Musters

We are at a crossroads in our daughter’s life: filling in her secondary school choice form with her. Yikes. As we have grammar schools in our area the competition for spaces is immense, with hundreds of pupils coming from out of borough to sit the test – and literally thousands taking it, even though there are limited spaces. With a birth boom in our daughter’s year, we already know there aren’t enough school place. We seem to live in a ‘black hole’ too, as we are out of the catchment area of schools – even those that we can walk to! So this first half term has been all about tests, musical auditions and open evenings for our daughter. Bless her – she has coped with the pressure so so well.

We have felt the need to push each possible door that she has been happy to, but it means she has been tested and measured against so many others constantly. We keep reminding her that it isn’t a matter of failing if she doesn’t pass one or more of these evaluations. She is someone who puts in a lot of effort; we know she will have tried her best. We also know God has the right place for her. So we can trust Him in all the craziness that we are in the midst of.

Alongside that journey, I have also had an update on my own journey with my WIP. After almost two years, and a lot of constructive feedback, I have finally had the door shut on the publisher I was communicating with. Not because the idea isn’t good – but because I don’t have a big enough speaking profile. It is hard, when I write books and articles for a living, to be struggling to place my own idea.

I have had a lot of positive comments from other publishers – and have sat myself down and reminded myself that I should be encouraged that every publisher I have approached has liked the idea. I have wrestled with frustration, because I know that publishers have to ensure they can make their money back, so they are looking for authors with ‘successful’ profiles.

Yes I get disheartened at times, and the process has gone on so long I can feel disconnected from the whole book idea at times, but, when I do go back and read the chapters I’ve already written, I get all fired up again – I KNOW it is something I need to do. Even last week I had such encouragement when a friend read the chapters and God really spoke to her about her own life, so we spent time sharing and praying together. So, while I may not be ‘successful’ enough for some publishers, I am pressing on.

It feels like both my daughter and I have been under scrutiny by others a lot recently, and it has made me reflect on what actually constitutes success. Our society holds up celebrity as a form of success, and there are so many reality shows because of people’s desire for fame. As writers, we can measure our success by what we get published, whether we are able to earn money from our writing, whether we are able to write the number of words we had hoped to in a day – there are all sorts of ways we continually measure our success.

However I just want us to reflect on the standard set by God for success. When asked what was most important, Jesus said: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37–39).

This is a life-long adventure – to know and be known by God, to love Him with all of ourselves (offering up every part of ourselves to Him takes us time doesn’t it?!), and to learn to love and reach out to others with that love He has shown us.

Everything we do – our writing, yes, but also our lives in general, should be offered up to Him daily. Whether we have ‘success’ in the world’s eyes is nothing compared to the wonder of knowing our heavenly Father is cheering us on and is delighted in us. Taking a moment to meditate on that truth each day certainly puts things into perspective. I – you – wear the robes of righteousness Jesus won for us; we are sons and daughters of the King that rules the universe – that’s all the ‘success’ we truly need…

Claire is a freelance writer, editor and speaker, mum to two gorgeous young children, pastor’s wife, worship leader and school governor. Claire’s desire is to help others draw closer to God through her writing, which focuses on authenticity, marriage, parenting, worship, discipleship, issues facing women today etc. Her books include Taking your Spiritual Pulse, CWR’s Insight Into Managing Conflict, Insight Into Self-acceptance and Cover to Cover: David A man after God’s own heart as well as BRF Foundations21 study guides on Prayer and Jesus. She also writes a regular column for Christian Today as well as Bible study notes. She is currently working on another co-written book, Insight Into Burnout, as well as her own book Taking off the mask: learning to live authentically. To find out more about her, please visit and @CMusters on Twitter.