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Monday, 19 February 2018

Spotting snares, by Veronica Zundel

Yesterday at church a line in a familiar hymn struck me anew. Actually, the line itself wasn't that familiar, because it was in a verse that's rarely sung, and indeed not even printed in most hymnals. The hymn was the well known 'Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go', which in the Anglican hymnal Common Praise has all six original verses, and being a church which never misses out verses, we sang them all (actually, just before the service I heard our churchwarden say 'Verses 1-9' to the organist, and was relieved when I realised she was referring to the sung Psalm, not to a hymn with nine verses!).

Any road, as they say where I come from, this particular rare verse began 'Preserve me from my calling's snare', and it brought me up short. What did it mean? It's a Charles Wesley hymn, so he could have meant his calling as, originally, an Anglican priest. But since it's  for congregational singing, it must have been intended to focus the singers on their own individual callings, whether that be as shoemakers, lawyers or domestic managers (I don't recognize the term 'housewife'...). And for Charles himself, it is quite clear  that his primary calling was as a writer, in particular as a writer of hymns.

Perhaps each and every calling has its own concomitant 'snares'? Then what are the 'snares' of being a writer? I can think of several. The snare of wanting to be famous and acclaimed,  though few of us actually reach that height (even fewer encounter the snare of making a fortune from writing!). The snare, common to more of us, of believing we are dispensing unique wisdom, even the gospel itself - a snare especially close to those who write for the Christian market, whether devotionals, commentaries or 'Christian books' (as a writer of daily Bible notes I frequently want to remind my readers that they should not take my comments as gospel, only the Gospels can be taken as gospel).

Then there is the snare of wanting to count our lowly productions as 'literature', and in my case, that
of wanting to leave behind some writing that will still be read after I have, as we were reminded last Wednesday we will all do, 'returned to dust'. In reality, most of us who blog here are writing ephemera, which may influence many and be passed on to others, but may also not, and will almost certainly not join any canon studied by the studious after our deaths.

Perhaps the most perfidious snare is thinking that we are contributing to the Kingdom of God in some way superior to those who 'only' contribute by being a loving daughter, sister or parent, or by wiping the bottom of a relative with dementia, or indeed cleaning the toilets at church or at work. Writing doesn't actually put us into an exalted class of Christians whose work is more valuable than that of those who serve as dinner ladies or doctors or dog walkers or even deacons.  All members of the body of Christ matter equally, and being a mouthpiece doesn't make you more useful than being a big toenail, as I discovered last year when I lost both big toenails in the course of chemotherapy.

If we are called to be writers, then, let's always remember the snares attendant on that calling, and offer our little output in a spirit of humility and not one of self-importance. And I'm saying that as much to myself as to any of you.


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 playing at being a high Anglican. She also blogs (rather occasionally!) at reversedstandard.com
 

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Metaphorically Speaking...


As writers, we are always looking for fresh metaphors to include in our writing, hoping to connect with people's imaginations and give them fresh insights into old truths.  As an English teacher, I have come across my fair share of dreadful metaphors: the sea waved and the beach was a sandy sandwich are two of my personal favourites. Despite the images portrayed by teacher-recruitment adverts, it is harder than you might think to spark Year 11's creative imagination on a Friday Period 6.

Last week I heard a song, where the use of metaphor stopped me in my tracks. It was from the film 'The Shack,' where the singer compared waiting for an answer to prayer to an aeroplane flying over a desert island, missing her waving her arms for help. It brought me to tears, because it was exactly how I felt about my sister and praying for her healing and it not ever coming.  It helped me identify and express something in my own heart, which I could then take before God, for Him to bring hope and healing afresh, in another layer. Later, the song writer concludes that the footprints on the beach of the desert island she was stranded on were not her own but God's all along.  I liked the way the song had mixed a brand-new metaphor with one that we are all so familiar with, but which will never become clich├ęd because it is so true and so comforting.


I amused myself, recently, by trying to come up with an original metaphor for how I am feeling about life at present.  What came to mind was one of those chicken breasts which is opened out and 'butterflied' in professional cookery programmes on TV.  The determined contestant takes one of those little wooden hammers with spikes on the end and proceeds to pummel the piece of meat until it is thin and tender. Somehow, this becomes a delicacy and brings out the best flavour.  I have been pummelled a lot of late, and I'm hoping that, eventually, my life will become a delicacy and not a lot of pulverized little pieces of meat flying around the kitchen.  Not the most beautiful of metaphors I admit; I'll try harder next time.  I also expressed to a friend an off-shoot of the famous, biblical, 'one-body-many-parts' metaphor: a great analogy, but, at this particular juncture, I described myself as a third arm or a sixth toe...not much use? Or a unique quirk? The jury is still out...metaphorically of course. Original metaphor-use is perhaps not a strong point in my writing! 


The Bible contains far more inspiring metaphors than any I could attempt. Psalm 18 alone talks of God being a rock and a fortress. The writer rejoices in how God has drawn him out of deep waters and set his feet in a spacious place.  It doesn't take great mental leaps to understand the essence of the writer's imagery here.  But through metaphor, he engages the reader, giving us some beautiful pictures of all that God can be to us when the going gets tough.  If he had simply said 'God you're strong and thanks for rescuing us,' I don't think it would have inspired the hearts of so many for thousands of years.


Ultimately, we all have to accept that even the most dazzling metaphor from the most inspired pen of the most talented writer can only ever scratch the surface, only ever begin to capture the tiniest essence of the difference God makes in our lives through Jesus. The earnest hope and prayer of any of us calling ourselves writers, is that our limping and inadequate metaphors will somehow point our readers to the One who walks us through our metaphorical wildernesses, darknesses and dreary valleys and who brings a life and hope that isn't metaphorical at all. 


Georgina Tennant is a secondary school English teacher in a Norfolk Comprehensive.  She is married, with two sons, aged 9 and 7 who keep her exceptionally busy! She feels intimidated by having to provide an author-biography, when her writing only extends, currently, to attempting to blog, writing the ‘Thought for the Week’ for the local paper occasionally, and having a poem published in a book from a National Poetry Competition! She feels a bit more like a real author now the ACW Lent Book is out and she has a piece in it! Her musings about life can be found on her blog: www.somepoemsbygeorgie.blogspot.co.uk

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Guarding your heart By Claire Musters


I so enjoyed reading the latest issue of Christian Writer. Articles on why we write, and especially the fog of self-doubt, particularly spoke to me.

Because there is so much pleasure and pain in the art of writing, isn’t there? As so many have said, we do it because we have to. But that doesn’t always make it easy.

We can sweat blood and tears over a piece of writing, and then discard it feeling it isn’t good enough.

We can write something that we are really proud of – only have to have it rejected.

Of course, we can also have those moments of high elation, when our writing is accepted for publication – perhaps in a church magazine, a website or in book form.

Huge highs – and deepest, dark lows.

We are, of course, supposed to enjoy the former – and acknowledge and process the latter.

But, through it all, it seems vitally important to me that we heed God’s words:

‘Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.’ (Proverbs 4:23)

I believe that God is warning us here that when we allow bitter disappointment, or puffed-up pride, to grow in our hearts, it will come out in every area of our lives – including our writing. That’s pretty sobering isn’t it?

But alongside that warning, I love the promise that God provides in a passage in Philippians. It shows us that guarding our hearts isn’t down to us alone; it isn’t something we have to muster up in our own strength, but is a natural by-product of cultivating a lifestyle of praise and prayer before Him:

‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4:4-7)

My husband is preaching on an earlier passage in Philippians tomorrow, and is still busy preparing. I don’t know what he is saying, but he did mention in passing that the phrase ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ is actually a command – we are to actively rejoice. It is a choice that we make every day, despite our circumstances.

So, actively choosing to rejoice, taking our needs and worries to God rather than dwelling on them and approaching Him with an attitude of thankfulness are all keys to receiving God’s peace, which guards our hearts.

While we have many choices to make with regards to how we cultivate that lifestyle of worship before God, the promise is that it is His peace that guards our hearts – not our own.

I find that extremely comforting – as well as challenging.


Claire is a freelance writer, speaker and editor, mum to two gorgeous young children, pastor’s wife, worship leader and school governor. She is currently Premier Christianity magazine’s freelance news and features journalist. Claire’s books include Taking off the mask: daring to be the person God created you to be, Cover to Cover: 1–3 John Walking in the truth, Cover to Cover: David A man after God’s own heart, Taking your Spiritual Pulse, CWR’s Insight Into Managing Conflict, Insight Into Self-acceptance, Insight Into Burnout and BRF Foundations21 study guides on Prayer and Jesus. She also writes Bible study notes. To find out more about her, please visit www.clairemusters.com and @CMusters on Twitter.


Friday, 16 February 2018

The most important book in the world by Lynda Alsford

I can remember going to a 'Kingdom Faith Week' run by Colin Urquhart and Bob Gordon in the 1980s. One evening in the main event, Bob, asked us all a series of questions. I am almost certainly remembering the exact questions incorrectly but it went something like this. 



"Who here thinks the Bible is the most important book in the world?"
Most, if not all, of us put up our hands.

"Who here thinks the Bible is the inspired Word of God?
Again most of us put up our hands.

"Who here has read a book, any book at all, from cover to cover"
By now most of us were beginning to realise where this was going and we all put up our hands.

"Who here has read the whole Bible from cover to cover?"
Only a few of us were able to put up our hands. I couldn't.


"You mean to say, you think the Bible is the most important book in the world. You think it is the inspired Word of God and you haven't read it?"

Scruffy but it was very well used
This short exchange challenged me. I went away and planned to read the Bible all the way through. I wrote out the books of the Bible in the back of my Bible and crossed each one off when I had read it. I wonder now why I didn't simply make a mark by each book in the index as I read it!


But after about 18 months I had read the Bible all the way through. I have done it again since then, twice more, which is not frequently enough given I have been a Christian for 36 years. Most recently, was when I finished reading it through last year, using the New Living Translation. I am not leaving it so long this time.  I am just starting again to read it through in The Message version. 


I find that the more I read the whole Bible all the way through, the better idea I get of the overall picture of The Kingdom of God, who God is and what He has done for us in Jesus. I understand more about how much He loves us and how much He longs for us to be close to Him. 

As writers, most of us love books. We love writing. We love reading. But how much do we love the Word of God? I always have a book or two on the go. I love reading. But so often I read a few verses of the Bible and a few chapters of another book. I want to start making a change in my reading. I want to increase my reading of the Bible. After all, I think it is the powerful Word of God. As it says in Hebrews 4:12 (NLT)

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.


What about you? Have your read the Bible all the way through? Will you join me in reading more of the most important book in the world all the way through?  



Lynda Alsford is a sea loving, cat loving GP administrator and writes in her spare time. She has written two books, He Never Let Go describes her journey through a major crisis of faith whilst working as an evangelist at a lively Church in West London. Being Known describes how God set her free from food addiction. Both books are available in paperback and on kindle on  Amazon.co.uk  and  Amazon.com. She writes a newsletter  and a blog both called Seeking the Healer, in which she shares the spiritual insights she has gained on her journey. Find about about these from www.seekingthehealer.com. You can also find out more about Lynda at  www.lyndaalsford.com




Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Valentine's reflections 14th February 2018 by Susanne Irving

Nowadays we associate Valentine’s day with romantic love, but when I researched its origins, I noticed that the various “candidates” associated with this day seem to have practiced love for their communities, including encouraging those who were being persecuted for their faith and healing the sick.

In the Bible, one of the metaphors used for the church community is the body. I have always understood intellectually that we all have different roles and that every role is important, whether we are serving center stage or back stage.

However, I got a new appreciation for this metaphor when my husband John got sick in December. At first the doctors diagnosed indigestion, but when he developed acute jaundice, the talk soon switched to either a problem with his gallbladder or pancreatic cancer.

For the first time I checked out how the gallbladder, pancreas, stomach and colon are interconnected – if you had asked me which organ was the most important in John’s body, I could not have answered that question. They all have to function correctly for us to remain well. We are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made”, as Psalm 139 puts it so beautifully.

In fact, I got to appreciate the importance of an individual cell. When CT scans had proven inconclusive, an internal ultrasound and endoscopy were requested. The doctors were now hunting for the culprit of John’s problems on a cellular level. We were told that if even a few rogue cells were found, it would mean major surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. If nothing was found, all that was required was a stent to clear the bile. (Luckily, John got the all clear after a few tense weeks. It is now assumed that a gallstone dislodged itself and caused damage when it travelled through his body.)

Just as one organ or cell in our body can contribute to our health or cause havoc, all of our actions and reactions can have an impact on others in our community for either good or ill.

In John’s case, many people were praying for us –even people we had not told directly what was going on were praying for his full recovery Then there were those who offered lifts to the hospital. We were also touched by those who simply offered a hug or the people who made the effort to write encouraging e-mails. They would never know it, but there were also two nurses who lifted our spirits by the way they cared for someone else. They had baked a birthday cupcake and written a card to an old gentleman who had to spend a part of his birthday in hospital.

So never think that what you have to offer is unimportant. God may put writing a book on a particular subject on your heart, but sometimes all that may be required is a simple note of encouragement.

Every act of kindness can have a ripple effect. We all have different gifts, talents and limitations. Don’t worry about what others can do, ask yourself how you can help to communicate love and bring light to your community.

About the author: Susanne Irving is the co-ordinator for the Creative Communicators in Petersfield. She has co-written a book with her husband John about their experiences when climbing Kilimanjaro. It is aimed at both trekkers and those who are going through a dark time in their lives. How to conquer a mountain: Kilimanjaro lessons is available as a paperback and an e-book on Amazon, with all proceeds going to charity. The German translation Wie man einen Berg bezwingt: Was der Kilimanjaro uns gelehrt hat was published in June 2017.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Oh My Giddy Aunt! Can Christian Characters Swear?


In Matthew 5: 37, Jesus tells us, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.’  (NIV). 

However, most of us don’t write about saints, and real people living in the real world swear.  So, how do you compose dialogue for a character who is potty-mouthed?  Marya, in my work in progress, has just bungled her Cambridge University interview and, after a bad night, alone with a bottle of wine, is telephoned by her sister at seven am.  For several weeks, my typescript had her telling her sister to “F- off”, but, at the last minute, before sending that chapter to members of the ACW Email group, I changed her words to “Shut up”.  In that instance, I think "Shut up" worked, but it’s not always possible to find words of equal meaning and impact.

My parents told me that the f-word was so totally beyond the pale that I wasn’t to use it – ever.  However, when I was teaching teenagers, they used the f-word every few minutes, often in place of very, and, as a football supporter, especially when my team was in free-fall out the Premiership, I have heard a lot of language, often conjuring up sexual imagery and actually quite comical.  What I do find offensive is ‘Oh my God’, often shortened to ‘OMG’.  My former students used to argue that this was okay, because they weren’t using naughty words.  Then they would ask me if I was religious, another pejorative term – see Clare Weiner’s post last week. 

The challenge, in writing, is getting across the ferocity, and dirtiness, of potty-mouthed speech, without using potty-mouthed language.  People do swear, when they’re angry, when they’re disappointed and – particularly - when they’re frustrated.  If we’re writing about conflicts, our characters are going to experience all these emotions and they must be able to express them in a natural way.  Maybe…
  • We should include characters’ facial expression, the way they are holding themselves, and actions, such as shaking fists.  This will not be easy, or always appropriate.
  • Some words - such as sexual and lavatorial words - are less unacceptable than others, provided they are not directed at any specific person, gender, ethnic or other group.
  • We should search for non-profane but evocative words; to my mind, potty-mouthed is one of them because it conjures up many unpleasant images and scenarios. 
 I don’t have a ready answer.  I would be interested to know what other writers think.


Rosemary Johnson has had many short stories published, in print and online, amongst other places, The Copperfield Review, Circa and Every Day Fiction.  In real life, she is a part-time IT tutor, living in Suffolk with her husband and cat.  Her cat supports her writing by sitting on her keyboard and deleting large portions of text.

What Baby Bear's Bed can teach writers about setting by Andrew J Chamberlain

We all know the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, but in case it’s been a while since you enjoyed this delightful little tale here’s a summarised version with the relevant sections included for this blog.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks.  She went for a walk in the forest, and pretty soon, she came upon a house.  She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.
At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge.  She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.
"This porridge is too hot!" she exclaimed.
So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.
"This porridge is too cold," she said
So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge.
"Ahhh, this porridge is just right," she said happily and she ate it all up.
After she'd eaten the three bears' breakfasts she decided she was feeling a little tired, so she went upstairs to the bedroom.  She lay down in the first bed, but it was too hard.  Then she lay in the second bed, but it was too soft.  Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right.  Goldilocks fell asleep.
As she was sleeping, the three bears came home.
"Someone's been eating my porridge," growled the Papa bear.
"Someone's been eating my porridge," said the Mama bear.
"Someone's been eating my porridge and they ate it all up!" cried the Baby bear.
They decided to look around some more and when they got upstairs to the bedroom, Papa bear growled, "Someone's been sleeping in my bed,"
"Someone's been sleeping in my bed, too" said the Mama bear
"Someone's been sleeping in my bed and she's still there!" exclaimed Baby bear.
Just then, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears.  She jumped up and ran out of the room.  Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door, and ran away into the forest.  And she never returned to the home of the three bears.


Unlikely though it may seem, the latter part of this story can teach us a valuable lesson about setting in the craft of storytelling.
The two essential qualities of setting.

The essential ingredients of a story setting are that it needs to be both credible and immersive.
By credible I mean it has to be believable (which is different from it being true).
A credible story is one that is consistent within itself and accurate in terms of the detail that it does give us, so even in a fiction story the details that should be accurate and correct must be. So for example if your story is set in London and you have your character walk from Waterloo Station to Camden Market, a journey of about three and a half miles, that walk is going to take about an hour. If you have your character walk that journey is ten minutes, and the reader knows how far the distance is, they know you’ve made a mistake. The setting becomes inaccurate, and therefore not credible. The reader will not trust themselves to your setting or your story.
But setting also has to be immersive. This means that as well as believing in the environment you’ve created, the reader needs to be able to immerse themselves in it; there has to be enough rich detail, enough colour and vibrancy and life to draw them in. Imagine the story of “Charlie and the Chocolate factory”, but told as “Charlie and the production line” where the factory is just a production line that makes identical components. The setting can be factually correct and therefore credible, but it will be very dull compared to the sensory extravaganza that is Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
The credible story that is not immersive is like Papa Bear’s bed, it’ll take our weight as readers, but it’s too hard, it won’t hold our attention.


By comparison, the immersive story that is not credible is like Mama Bear’s bed, it’s just not something we trust ourselves to, it’s too soft, we don’t trust it.


The ideal setting, therefore, is just like baby bears bed, which is neither too hard nor too soft, it’s just right, being both credible and immersive, and whilst we don’t want our readers to fall asleep as Goldilocks did (!) we do want them to feel comfortable with our setting and our story. It’s these two essential components – that the setting is credible and immersive, that will achieve this.









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Andrew Chamberlain is a writer and creative writing tutor. He is a commercial publisher of fiction and memoir and the presenter of the creative writer’s podcast: The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt, he is also the author of The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt Handbook which contains the best advice and insight from 100 episodes of the podcast.