Thursday, 14 December 2017

Advent reflections 14th December 2017

Apparently, in medieval times people believed that Mary had a completely painless birth and that Joseph was able to sleep through the whole affair. We still tend to paint a rosy picture of what the incarnation was like. We (I…) want a “Merry Christmas”.  
This desire is reflected in nativity scenes. On Sunday I went to a nativity festival in one of our local churches. Many different nativity sets were on display, from traditional sets made out of wood or ceramics to home-made sets knitted in wool, made out of brushes or paper mache. They came from different parts of the globe, but wherever and however the sets had been created, they had one thing in common: The scene they depicted was peaceful and serene; every figurine was smiling or quietly contemplating.
However, when I went to a Taizé service afterwards, I was reminded that there are many people for whom Christmas is not a season of glad tidings and joy at the moment.
The topic of the service was the plight of the Rohingya refugees. The service sheet showed a young woman with shorn hair. Her face and hands had burn marks. The expression in her eyes was empty and forlorn. Her three sons had just been killed, and she said that the soldiers had killed her future too. Later a newspaper article was read about a 20 year old woman who saw her only son thrown into the fire.
I was reminded of the story of Herold killing the baby boys and toddlers in Bethlehem in an attempt to exterminate Jesus. God came into the world, and it was (and is) not all sweetness and light and merry.
And yet: Because of Jesus, we can have hope. After all, Jesus did not stay a helpless babe in the cradle. He became a man who voluntarily went to the cross for us to deal with the past, present and future darkness in our world. He did not stay on the cross, but was resurrected, so what looked like the end, was only the beginning…
In Him was life [and the power to bestow life],
and the life was the Light of men.
The Light shines on in the darkness…
the true Light [the genuine, perfect, steadfast Light] … enlightens everyone.
(Gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 4, 5 (extract), 9 in the Amplified Bible)

So whatever you are facing at this moment, I wish you a hope-filled Christmas.

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.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Making Jessica’s Stocking by Rosemary Johnson

Rosemary Johnson is ACW Competitions Manager.  Do you have a story set before 1970?  If so, our current historical fiction competition is for you.  Our deadline is 31 December, so best get it submitted to us before Christmas.  Our judge is Claire Dunn (of the Secret of the Journal series).    For more information, visit the ACW website competitions page.

In September, my daughter Rachel said to me, “Jessica doesn’t have a stocking.”

Stockings Author Made in 1990s.When Rachel and her brother, Alan, were small, I made Christmas stockings for them both, with their names appliqued on to Christmassy fabric, using the zig-zag stitch on my sewing machine. Did I really?  I couldn’t do that now.  A few years ago, Rachel made one for her son, Max..  (Cop out, that - only three letters.)

Last Christmas, Rachel’s daughter, Jessica, was only six weeks old, but, this year, she’s walking around, saying ‘Hello’ and determined to do everything like her big brother.  Rachel is back at work.  She’s a writer too, editor of a highly-technical energy publication.  At half term she appeared with a bag, containing materials to make a Christmas stocking (also a half-made wigwam for Max, but we won’t go into that.)  Would you make Jessica’s stocking, please, Mum?

November came and went and then December.  I know you’re busy, Mum. 

Oh, yes, sorry.  I'll around to it… Come on, we’ll start now.

Sunday before last, before our breakfast but after my granddaughter’s, Rachel cut out the letters in ‘Jessica’ in red felt and I cut out the stocking and lining.  Immediately we finished, we put it all in a bag which we placed on top of the piano (out of reach of little fingers).  On Monday and Tuesday, I teach.  On Wednesday, I received an email informing me that I had a learning observation (which I will have had endured by the time you read this).  After panicking and raging and swearing, I spent all day preparing for it, and nearly forgot to write my monthly post for the Insecure Writers Support Group.  (I did it eventually, at eleven pm, but it wasn’t my best effort.)

Letters Stitched on to the Stocking.
On Thursday afternoon, my mind still churning about how best to teach this lesson to suit an observer with Ofsted breathing down her neck, I spotted the bag on the piano.  I picked it up.  I pinned the letters to the stocking.  I tacked them in place.  Less courageous (and less skilled) than before, I began hand-stitching them on to the stocking fabric.  It took two hours.  What peace came with the rhythmic movements of my fingers.  For the first time for many days, I was able to think and to pray, slowly and with my whole heart.  Praying done, my mind moved on to the novel chapter I was writing, to go through dialogue in my mind, to properly involve myself in characters and scenes.  Then I remembered Elijah finding God, not in the earthquake nor the fire but in the gentle blowing wind.

I recalled how, at the ACW Writers Weekend at Scargill House last June, half-knitted blanket squares, on knitting pins, were left around the lounge area, for us to add a few rows, if we wanted to.  I realise that these were put there as much for our quietness as the neo-natal unit for which they were destined. 

Stitching the Stocking Lining on the Sewing Machine
Next day, I tackled the seams of the stocking and lining, also the bias binding at the top.  With the sewing machine clattering away - and un-threading itself just to annoy me - it wasn’t the same.  I need quiet and still time.  Not completely still, though; I’ve never been able to pray in front of an altar or statue.  I need to do something with my hands so I can write and pray and pray and write.

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.

Jessica's Stocking.  The Finished Article.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Lies, truth and fake news

In a recent podcast episode I talked about the subject of fake news and false information. Fake news is a type of news story that consists of deliberate misinformation, presented in broadcast media and/or through social media; it is often presented by those who have a particular agenda and wish to influence others to a certain way of thinking.

We have seen a lot in the media recently about fake news, and all the controversy it generates, the subject came to the fore after the US elections last year.

It seems to me that fake news is a particularly toxic manifestation, especially for Christians and especially for writers, and so doubly for Christian writers! So I’m using my slot on the blog to talk about the problem, and how we can avoid being taken in by it.

Five reasons why fake news is toxic

1.    It’s a deliberate lie, and as Christians we are rightly repelled by untruths and deception, the bible makes it pretty clear where all that comes from!

2.    Linked to this, in the world as well as the church, fake news normalizes the idea that the truth and lies have the same value. We need to see these distortions and falsehoods not just as inconvenient, or part of the entertainment, but morally damaging and wrong.

3.    Fake news tends to push people away from the wise middle and towards the unwise edge. Our world is polarised enough as it is, and fake news only aggravates the problem by provoking outrage, shock and emotional rather than considered reaction. We have far too much instant outrage in the private and public space, what we need is considered truth not provocative lies.

4.    Connected to this, fake news tends to confirm our biases. So as a simple example, if I like President Trump I am more likely to believe and endorse a piece of fake news that presents him in a good light, if I don’t like President Trump I am more likely to endorse and pass on a piece of fake news that casts him in a bad light, none of this is in any way connected to the truth.

5.    Fake news is particularly toxic for writers because it undermines the authenticity of our work. This can happen because we have accepted fake news or false information as truth and weaved it into our work, especially in setting and character development. The resultant error will probably be seen by at least one reader who may be turned off from our books, and may also start to tell others, loud and clear, about our mistakes.

Avoiding the fakery

Whilst researching my podcast episode on fake news, I discovered this wonderful infographic from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (a superb title for an organisation!) this infographic gives us the best strategies for avoiding fake news. I think it needs no further comments beyond presenting it to you.

Here’s to the Truth, may it set us all free! And a happy and blessed Christmas to you all J

Andrew Chamberlain is a writer and creative writing tutor. He is the presenter of The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt , a podcast and author of The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt Handbook containing the best advice and insight from 100 episodes of the podcast, and which will be published in October 2017. 

Monday, 11 December 2017

Even Christmas, by Deborah Jenkins

The annual clamber into Christmas has begun. Last night, Santa came collecting for the Rotary, there's snow up north and today I saw an elf in Aldi. Strangely, despite being quite behind with cards and shopping and having a houseful on Christmas Day, I am remarkably unruffled by it all this year. I suppose it's because after Christmas, we're moving, which seems so massive in itself that everything else pales by comparison. Even Christmas.

I have always loved this time of year, always enjoyed simple things to make a winter's day seem brighter - a bowl of holly, some tangerines, a pyramid of candles.

"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year..." Charles Dickens

I don't aim for the perfect house or the faultless meal. But I do love an excuse to create a welcoming atmosphere, get together with family and friends, and give each other that elusive and much underrated gift - time. But, much to my annoyance, I still get drawn into all the fuss and hassle. I find myself standing in shops, frozen with indecision - chestnut stuffing or cranberry? Ready rolled icing or not? Crackers? I find myself theologically opposed to crackers - all that waste and really, no one ever keeps the tat inside, whatever I pay for them, so is there any point? It's basically money for paper hats. But I can already hear the roars of disapproval - What, Mum? No crackers?!? What were you thinking?? Of course I could try and make them again, but the results were so appalling - disintegrating toilet rolls and for some reason nobody wanting to shout BANG!  - that I can't face that either. So, feeling sadly Scrooge-like, I slide one of Sainsbury's middle-of-the-range-reduced packs of six into my trolley. Typically,we have 7 on Christmas Day but I can do without.

I decided a while ago to give up spiritual guilt at Christmas. By that I mean, I stopped making over-idealistic plans to rise at dawn and read an advent meditation before drifting around all day at home and work pondering the meaning of the incarnation with a beatific smile on my face and a prayer on my lips. Over the years, as a primary teacher, clergy wife and mum, I realised it just wasn't going to happen so I might as well give up trying. I see God in Christmas in other ways, in family and memory and tradition - the stuff of years. I find him in music and candlelight and battered Christmas stockings that I still lay out on the hearth, though we don't fill them any more. He's with me in the eyes of children as they sing carols or tell me excited stories of longed for gifts. I sense him in the shaking hand of that old lady in the supermarket as she carefully counts out coins to pay for a poinsettia. If I dwell on the meaning of His Coming, I tend to do it later, in that dear dead time between Christmas and New Year, when there are walks and reading and space for reflection.
Christmas is such an emotional time, filled with echoes, whether you want to hear them or not. This poem, written by my old friend and former youth leader, Paul Harris, summed it up well for me: -

Two adults and a dog put up Christmas Decorations
A step ladder dominates the room, legs splayed like a dancer,
a Singing Elf scares the dog
who growls at a hideous robin glued to a glittery log.
Chris is driving home for Christmas, Bing is dreaming, Aled flying.
Everything is here, treasure trove, rescued from the loft,
stowed, while it snowed in March and sweltered through June,
parental mementoes, artefacts, ghosts of Christmas past.
Il Divo harmonize, Old Blue Eyes croons.
Childish gifts from sons and their kids a generation later;
garish cards, misshapen reindeer covered in crepe paper,
cotton wool on Santa’s face, all in their allotted place.
So this is Christmas, peace on earth, joy and mirth.
Everything is here, echoes of children flown the nest.
The dog watches quizzically as they hold each other tight,
tears flow, the annual bitter-sweet advent ritual,
It’ll be lonely this Christmas without you to hold.
They laugh at themselves, wipe their eyes, don silly hats,
cue stoic laughter and fun,
and rueful acceptance they are getting old.
PCH Bournemouth December 2016 (used with permission)

That's exactly it: bitter-sweet. The bitterness of loss, the sweetness of memory, the sadness of flown children, the joy of their return, the pain of separation and the curious unsettling peace sometimes met in its embrace.
Feeling bold, I put another box of crackers in the trolley. Then I take them both out and replace them with a more expensive kind. And, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse God, who comes to us in a thousand ways today and every day, as she glances over her shoulder at me. And smiles...

Extravagant love makes the bitterness sweeter. Nothing should separate me from receiving and reflecting that love. Even Christmas. 

Click on the link to see the novella on amazon

Deborah Jenkins is a primary school teacher and freelance writer who has written articles, text books, devotional notes and short stories. She also writes regularly for the TES. She has completed a novella, The Evenness of Things, available as an Amazon e-book and is currently working on a full length novel. Deborah loves hats, trees and small children. After years overseas with her family, who are now grown up, she lives in south-west London with her husband, a Baptist minister, and a cat called Oliver. 

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Cool Yule Compromise, by Ben Jeapes

I used know exactly where I stood on the Happy Christmas / Season’s Greetings divide. It was firmly with the former, and when I ran my own company, I made sure that that was what the annual Christmas card expressly wished everyone.

Maybe I’m getting older …

Part of it is the realisation that there really are quite a lot of festivals around this time of year. I once visited Leamington at the height of the Diwali celebrations. There in the street was a large board listing all the other seasonal celebrations - including “25 December: birth of Lord Jesus Christ”. It wasn’t lost on me that this Hindu festival was the only time that year that I saw the root cause of Christmas acknowledged so publicly. And I couldn’t help thinking that if they’re prepared to extend the courtesy to us, we can certainly respond in kind.

Paul the Apostle, raised as a Jew and a Pharisee, doesn’t bother to hide his contempt for idolatry when he’s talking to other Jews, or to Christians who should know better. And yet, when he finds himself in Athens, a centre of all kinds of idolatrous religions, he is polite and respectful, seeking to find common ground en route to leading them to Christ.

There’s no point in putting people’s backs up for the sake of it, just because we’re can. As Paul also points out elsewhere in 1 Corinthians - it’s an amazing letter - our freedom to do something with a clear conscience does not come at the expense of other people's hurt. Other people are more important.

So that’s part of it.

And part of it is the increasing realisation that the Cross really is offensive to some. Not offensive as in the way Paul meant it - an insult to the intelligence of the wise - but offensive, as in, linked with hate preaching and hypocrisy. With a truly vile religious movement backing a truly vile world leader (no names …). Even with acts of murder and terrorism. People in the Middle East sometimes still refer to white Christian westerners as Crusaders - and it’s not a compliment.

Sure, sure. We know that isn’t the real face of Jesus. They don’t. And that’s where they start from, so that’s where we must start from too.

We’re told not to hide our light under a bushel … but maybe we could still put a shade on it to reduce the glare?

So maybe I can compromise with the message at the top of this page. That should suit everyone. Except possibly Odinists but I’ll take the hit on that.

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

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Unaccustomed as I am... by Ros Bayes

Sometimes I do a workshop in churches, looking at which types of writing can be used in worship. A list? A factual report? A story? A play? A poem with rhyme and metre? Free verse?

Then I go on to look at how, in fact, all of these have been used to assist worship in the Bible. Romans 16 is principally a list which Paul probably used as an aide-memoire to prayer.

Factual reports in the Bible still inspire our worship thousands of years after they were written – 2 Kings 7 is one of my personal favourites in which disabled people contribute to the life and health of God’s people. It’s a powerful metaphor for the kind of Church Jesus longed for in Luke 14. 21-23 which is not full unless disabled people are fully included.

Jesus, of course, was the master storyteller, and the Gospels are full of his tales. He took homely, familiar things and made them reflections of the Kingdom of Heaven.

There may not be an example of an actual stage play in the Bible, but look at the story recounted to David by Nathan in 2 Samuel 12. It’s packed with drama and tension, with a punchline that took the wind right out of David’s sails and plunged him into deep repentance. It would make a brilliant stage play or film.

Rhyme and metre were not the literary devices of the Hebrew writers, but they still used sophisticated poetic devices such as acrostic poems and parallelism. And some passages in the prophets are deeply poetic but written in a much freer form.

Having looked at all these examples, I then encourage the participants to express their own worship to God through one of these literary media. The beauty of it is that whether someone feels like trying their hand at a detailed story or a Petrarchan sonnet, or whether all they feel they can manage is a list, there is a form that can give expression to their deepest prayers and worship, and which has a good Biblical precedent.

There is one form, however, at which I had never tried my hand until recently, and that is the wedding speech. Being my daughter’s only surviving parent, it fell to me to walk her down the aisle, give her away and make a speech at the reception. I felt very privileged to do something few mums get to do.

I started on a light-hearted note (I had struck a similar deal with my son-in-law to the one Laban struck with Jacob: just as Jacob, if he wanted to marry Rachel, had to have Leah as well, so my son-in-law, if he wanted to marry my daughter, would also have to take her cat off my hands). Then I outlined some of the difficulties my daughter had overcome and the achievements she had accomplished, and listed the many reasons I was proud of her, ending with the fact that I was proud of her choice of husband. I mentioned also some of the obstacles he, too has overcome in life (both of them have been bereaved of a parent at a young age) and the great things he has, notwithstanding, accomplished. And I concluded with some spiritual encouragement for them.

I hope that was the right kind of shape for a wedding speech – at least it forced them to sit and listen to me spelling out my pride and love for them in ways I wouldn’t often get an opportunity to do.

And it strikes me, in this Advent season, that in a way the whole of Scripture could be seen as God the Father’s wedding speech, as we anticipate His Son returning to be eternally united with us, His waiting bride.

Ros Bayes has 10 published and 4 self-published books, as well as some 3 dozen magazine articles. She is the mother of 3 daughters, one of whom has multiple complex disabilities, and she currently works for Through the Roof ( as their Training Resources Developer, and loves getting paid to write about disability all day. You can find her blog at and her author page at Follow her on Twitter: @rosbwriting.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Break me, melt me, mould me,

As I am writing this I am printing off my latest novel – all 72k plus words of it – for its first major read-through and edit.  Does anyone else become excited when they do this?  It is still incomplete, as I know I have at least three chapters missing, but I feel so muddled by all the new pieces I have written during frantic November NaNoWriMo writing that I have to see it to know what I am crossing out before I even begin to consider the missing chapters.

I notice I have made a mistake though – I have forgotten to number the pages, so that will be fun if I drop the lot before punching holes in them and loading them into a lever arch file.  Even the chapter numbers won’t help as I succumbed to ‘New Chapter’ and even ‘Chapter ???’ with the number of question marks growing as I became lost in the effort of getting the story down before I forgot my ideas.

Very soon comes the true craft of writing; the cutting, chopping, shaping, rewriting, checking, editing, moulding.  Looking for the rhythm of the sentences and considering the order of the story. All with the character’s permission, of course, because by now the tale is told by more than its creator.

Okay, the story could be altered by the creator, but would that be in accordance with the character as formed by the story so far? Would other characters be adversely affected? Would the whole plot go awry? Would the story fall apart?

Perhaps this is a glimpse into the complexity of our own lives.  Creator God has a plan for each of us.  A unique plan that uses who we are and the way we think.  He can take each of us, if we are willing, and help us to become the person he would like us to be and to use us to reach out to others.  Do we resist? Yes, digging our heels in and declining God’s request to stretch ourselves away from our own comfort zone, even while singing:

‘Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me,
Break me, melt me, mould me, fill me.’

We may think, ‘Do I want to be broken and reformed? It sounds painful and uncomfortable’.

Yes, it may be.  But it’s only when we allow ourselves to be shaped by God that we complete the perfect story he has written for us.

During my second term at Bristol University I became very ill with whooping cough.  My friend, a district nurse, persuaded my doctor that I should not go to hospital but be at home with my husband and four children. Tirelessly she cared for me, fitting it around her other visits. During my three months’ slow, painful recovery, I became sure that God wanted me to change course from joint honours Psychology and Sociology to single honours Psychology. The Autumn saw me taking the exams I had missed and being transferred onto the second year of the single honours course.

I did not know at the time that had I continued with the Sociology I would not have been eligible for a  Clinical Psychology course I took two years after graduating, so would never have been a clinical psychologist.  Was God breaking and moulding me? I believe so.

‘And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.’ 1 Peter 5:10,11

Annie Try is the pen-name of Angela Hobday. She writes novels 
in the Dr Mike Lewis Series with two having been released in 2017.  She is Chair of the Association of Christian Writers but has yet to conquer the art of positioning pictures in this blog.