Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Down Time

Fiona's feet on Cannon Rocks beach, South Africa.
As you are reading this I am on a beach near my in-laws house in South Africa. During this Easter break, apart from visiting my husband’s family, I will hopefully be getting some rest and perhaps writing a chapter or two of my new novel. On a two-week holiday a chapter or two is all I think I can and should manage. I do not want to spend all my time writing, but when I do it will be a restful kind of writing; the kind of writing that restores rather than depletes my energy levels.

When you write for a living the very act of writing can exhaust you. When writing is work, I suppose, it’s almost inevitable. For people who write for a hobby it usually has the opposite effect – to relax and invigorate you. So as a professional writer I try to consciously strike a balance between the two: writing as work and writing as leisure.

I do this by structuring ‘down-time’ into my writing day. I try to get all my admin, social media and marketing work done in the morning, as well as lecture or workshop prep when I’m running courses. But just before lunch I stop and take my dogs for a walk. And unless their nemesis – the neighbour’s cat – is spotted, it is usually a restful time for my body and mind. When I get back I have lunch while watching the news then settle down to do some creative writing in the afternoon. After the down-time between my morning and afternoon work, I find my mind is more rested and I’m able to be more creative. I generally do about two hours writing then have a 20 minute lie-down. If my daughter has an after-school club and will be home late I then try to put in another hour’s work before the family get home. That is my ideal daily rhythm.

However, when I’m approaching a deadline I frequently abandon that rhythm and write and write and write, putting in six - seven hours in a day, with only a short break to grab a sandwich which I eat as I continue writing. Six hours does not seem a lot, but when it is hour after hour of focused thinking, it is exhausting. After a week or two of this, I am near breakdown – but have a finished manuscript! I then need to take a couple of weeks off from all writing before I come back to the project and give it a second read through.

Fiona writing a chapter of Poppy Denby in South Africa.
Understanding your creative rhythm and how to build down-time into your schedule is essential for a writer. But we are all different. Some of you may hold down nine-to-five jobs and write in the evening or on weekends. Some of you may have physical or mental health limitations. Others have time-draining family situations. But each of us can and should be able to find something that rests our mind apart from writing. One of my creative writing students ensures he does a 10-mile run every day. Ten miles??????? Another likes to lie down while listening to music. Still another does the dishes (!) and another, yoga. What all of these have in common is that they are ‘mindless’ activities that allow the part of your brain that is involved in writing to switch off and rest. If you don’t have this down-time it will eventually work its way out into your body and your writing. The quality of my writing produced after down-time is far superior I believe to what I produce during my marathon sessions.

And of course, as a person of faith, prayer and time set aside to read the Bible is also essential to my daily rhythm. One might not use the term ‘mindless’ to describe it, but it is certainly soul enriching.

Do you understand your creative rhythm? What is your down-time?

Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and writing tutor, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She writes across all media, for children and adults. Her mystery novel The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates Series (Lion Fiction) was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger award in 2016. The second book, The Kill Fee is currently a finalist for the Foreword Review mystery novel of the year, and the third, The Death Beat, will be published in October. Her novel Pilate’s Daughter  a historical love story set in Roman Palestine, is published by Endeavour Press and her literary thriller about apartheid South Africa, The Peace Garden, is self-published under the Crafty Publishing imprint. Her children’s books The Young David Series and the Young Joseph Series  are published by SPCK.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Sticks and Stones, by Fiona Lloyd

I was a sensitive soul, growing up. Whenever I was upset by someone’s teasing, my dad – who subscribed to the stiff-upper-lip school of parenting – would remind me of that well-known proverb: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.

At the time, this was scant comfort. Even now – with all due respect to my late father – this saying makes no sense to me. I’d go so far as to say it’s completely the wrong way round, in that physical hurts tend to heal over time, but the wounds caused by vicious words and barbed comments can often fester inside us, resulting in far longer-lasting damage.

This seems particularly relevant in the light of the forth-coming general election. Having watched people’s reactions to both Brexit and the US presidential election last year, it’s clear that there’s something about political debate that can bring out the worst in us. We take to Twitter, Facebook (and all the other forms of social media I’m not trendy enough to understand) to express our outrage over the opinions of others. Someone dares to share a point of view diametrically opposed to our own, and – quivering with indignation – we leap right in to demolish their arguments.

I’m hardly the world’s best typist, but I know that if I’m not careful, my fingers can move quicker than my brain. All too quickly, our determination to highlight the fatal flaw in another person’s argument becomes an attack not just on their political views, but on their character. Our words are no longer a means of engaging in thoughtful dialogue: instead they become a menacing weapon, poised to wound and inflict damage.

I’m writing this on a Sunday evening. In our church service this morning, the preacher talked about the importance of kindness. It’s listed in Galatians as one of the fruits of the Spirit, which means it’s something we should be seeking to grow in our lives. I suspect it’s one that we often overlook, though; not least because it sits bang in the middle of that list, and the four before it (love, joy, peace and patience) are challenging enough.

As writers, it’s a concept that bears careful consideration. How will we ensure that the words we use are kind? For some of us, this will involve thinking through the ways we interact with others online. Do we really need to post that comment? Is there a better way of expressing it? Are we using our words to build up and encourage, or to belittle and hurt? We might also seek opportunities to use our words in a different setting, by writing a card to someone who needs support, or sending a text to let someone know we’re thinking of them.

Ephesians 4: 29 says: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths (or fingertips!), but only what is helpful for building others up. There is a real opportunity for us as Christian writers – particularly in the run-up to June 8th – to demonstrate the truth of the gospel by choosing to fill our words with kindness.

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

Monday, 24 April 2017

Unwriting Dystopia

Those among us who enjoy reading or writing dystopic fiction may have an interesting experience in store. The signs are that our civilization may be moving towards dystopia in real life. We may have to experience it for ourselves.

I don’t read or relish dystopic fiction myself, but I’m aware of the kind of world it portrays. Nations deeply divided against themselves. Unpredictable, random violence. Cold, heartless cruelty and mockery. Powerful forces using advanced technology to maintain their ascendancy. Degradation of the natural environment. The majority robbed of the elements of civilized life—education, medical and social care, freedom of thought.

The world has seen these conditions appearing in many different places at many different times—no need to enumerate them here. And strangely, they often come about unexpectedly, after times of great reasonableness and cooperation. It’s as if a society suddenly loses its sanity. Society collectively endorses some policy counter to all the values that have hitherto brought them the greatest benefit. Society is captivated by boastful, unreliable leaders. And a particular mark of this social malady is that people close their ears to caution and criticism—they insist that those with reservations are traitors, public enemies, vermin.

What causes these extraordinary, Gadarene stampedes? There must be economic and social factors, of course. But such factors, occurring at other times, while causing dissent and upheaval, can still lead to relatively peaceful results. As Christians I think we need to factor in a spiritual cause. I used the word ‘Gadarene’ advisedly.

In the New Testament there are several passages which foretell a destructive (one might even say ‘dystopian’) crisis. They say that it is about to take place at the time of writing or speaking. They also add a promise that when the crisis breaks the Lord will soon intervene. They read like a description of the end times; yet obviously the world did not then end. Even Our Lord’s warnings about the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth are interlocked with his discourses on the last days: but clearly, the first actually happened soon afterwards, while the other time is yet to come.

Another such passage is to be found in St Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. He speaks of a great revolt, led by an enemy who is being held back from appearing until his appointed time. St Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they know what is holding him back, but he doesn’t tell us; and whatever happened to them, it wasn’t the world’s end. I am inclined to take such passages as teaching that there is a recurring pattern in history, foreshadowing the global grand finale when the Lord wraps everything up, and repeating itself on a lesser scale until then.

So what spiritual factors facilitate these recurrent bouts of social suicide? Personally, I don’t believe that God deliberately brings confusion on a society. But humans (and other rational beings) are free to choose courses of action that bring evil on themselves. This is the natural tendency of society, in fact. But God has also appointed agencies to restrain this descent into chaos, and since the time of Christ the principal inhibiting agent has been the Christian society. We are the salt of the earth, the preservative against social decay, and the light of the world, the exemplars of Christ. We exercise that role by personal righteousness, self-giving, and prayer. But when that ministry falters, God, for all his desire to protect humans from the consequences of their actions, no longer has a channel through which his power can hold back disaster. By our negative action, we effectively write the next dystopia.

Civilized social existence requires in all people a number of qualities that become vanishingly rare in dystopia, such as toleration, compromise, and forbearance. Paradoxically, essential as these are in the outward world, in the Christian’s inner life they are dangerous. The things we have a duty to cheerfully put up with in those outside the faith are the very things we should banish from our own lives: judgementalism, destructive speech, arrogance, duplicity, rage, lust, acquisitiveness, jealousy, self-indulgence, cynicism, apathy. When we allow ourselves to tolerate these evils in ourselves, I am suggesting, we start to block the channels through which God’s power restrains social decay.

I also suggest that we owe the relatively peaceful and civilized society we have recently been living in, not to our own goodness, but to the gracious, self-sacrificial, and prayerful lives of some of our Christian predecessors. I suspect that the decline in self-forgetful service to, and constant prayer for, the outside world may have undermined the church’s role as the channel of God’s restraining power.

A symptom of such spiritual decline is the tendency to turn inward virtues into outward restraints, and vice versa. The call to personal righteousness gets reinterpreted as a mandate to impose standards that we think are Christian on people outside the faith, while prayer for the world is replaced with a fixation on our own spiritual experiences. Scripture warns both against the erection of outward rules that allow the flesh to flourish and turn into an unbearable burden for others and against a worked-up spirituality divorced from agape.

I fear that we may be going to pass through dystopia, or at least its outlying regions. If by our neglect we Christians have aided the appearance of this enemy, how can we ‘un-write*’ dystopia? I suggest that what gets written in our own hearts is what will change things; certainly not what’s written on the statute books or the canons of the church. We need to become living tablets ourselves, on which the Spirit writes holiness, intercession, and service to others, and scratches out the hard thoughts and words we have ourselves inscribed.

*For information: the verb unwrite has been used since at least 1587 and by Milton, Keats, and Gladstone.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

God keeps His promises - by Helen Murray

This is something I wrote nearly five years ago, and I stumbled upon it a few days ago. Well, I say that I wrote it, but reading it back after all these years I have quite another idea where those words came from. I read it again with a sense of awe and amazement. My heavenly Father was there then, and He is here now.

God keeps His promises. He does what He says He will do. If you've ever doubted it, please listen to me: I know He does. 

He keeps His promises.

Dear Helen

Did you think I didn't see? 

I gave you a glimpse of your future self and I watched as you gazed with such longing at the woman that I showed you.   It was to encourage you; to give you hope. To reassure you that we have business, you and I, and I will not let you down. There will be a day when you look back and realise how far you have come.

Do you think that I don't understood what you were going through? On your face I saw pain and envy and so much sadness. I saw the things you worked hard to hide - I looked into your heart and I saw the depth of your shame, and the bitterness that you still suffer while this woman is free. I see everything, you know. I see the hidden things.

My daughter, I know you so well. You know that, but you still get angry with me sometimes because you think that I don't understand you. You ask me why I don't step in and sort out all the troubles that you hold so tightly in your fists and you question my love for you. No, don't protest - I hear you say that you accept my love, but you think that my love is a frail, pathetic, limited thing. 

I love you with a love that existed from before the beginning of time. My love has survived much greater challenges than anything you throw at it and still I go on loving. I am Love. You don't believe how much I love you because your capacity to give and receive love is tiny in comparison with mine. You limit it still further by refusing to believe the truth about yourself. 

I made you. I am the Lord, and I made the lions and the trees and the penguins and the pine-cones and all the things that you find appealing, beautiful and awe-inspiring - and I made you. I made every bone in your body, every cell and hair on your head, and I was pleased with what I made. I didn't look at my daughter and have the smallest regret. I smiled when I saw you, and as you sleep at night I gaze at you and I sing over you with the same tenderness with which you regard your daughters.

I love you, precious one. I love you just as you are. You remind me of my Son; you're more like him all the time. Don't keep batting my love away with polite thanks and disbelief. Let it sink in and transform you. It will transform you, you know. If you were to grasp just an inkling of the breadth and depth of my love, it would change your life.

You do not disappoint me. I love you with a love that will not let go. Not ever. Don't compare me with the people who have let you down in the past. You don't have to be wary of me. You don't have to protect that sore place deep in your heart; let me in. When I touch it, I will heal it.

I am the Healer. 

I know that you're not perfect. I know that you've made mistakes and I know that you will make more. That's alright. I don't stop loving you when you get things wrong. Not for a moment. Nor do you have to strive to get back into my good books; you can't put any of it right on your own - that's what my grace is for.

Listen to me, there is enough grace to go round.

My Son took care of that. There's always enough to cover you. I don't keep any record of the rubbish in your life; on the contrary, the things I pin on the walls of heaven are my snapshots of your face turned towards me, your hands reaching for heaven, your baby steps, your love-notes. Not one of those moments is lost - I treasure them all.

I grieve for the pain you put yourself through. I see how hard you try and I know you are so hard on yourself when things go wrong. You panic and lose your focus and if you can't do everything perfectly you are tempted to give up and stop trying.  I want you to believe that my love is not dependent on anything that you can or can't do; I love you because you are my precious daughter I could not love you more if you were better at this, or achieved that; I am so proud of who you are, right now.

You listen to the voices in your head when they tell you that you're worthless and inadequate and you believe the lies. One of those lies is that you would be more acceptable to me if you were thinner. My Spirit in you will soon teach you to hear how ridiculous that belief is, and then you will take your first steps to being the woman you long to be, but there is more that we must do before then.

Don't let the voice of the evil one overpower the hope that you have. You let that hope be eroded by self-doubt and self-accusation and perfectionism. I don't expect you to be perfect; I can use your imperfections! In your world people are desperate to give the impression that they are completely in control, but control is as much an illusion as self-sufficiency. Again and again I see the relief on people's faces when they find that they are not alone. You are good at this; I have given you a unique gift and I want you to give that gift freely to others. Be open with people and show your struggles and triumphs and the things that I teach you because it is in such honesty that people see Me and believe.

You fear failure, but I am not limited by your definition of success. Every time you fall I reach down and offer my hand and every time you take it and get to your feet again the angels sing. It's a beautiful, beautiful song.

Don't worry about that other woman. I showed her to you to give you peace; to help you believe that I am not finished with you yet. I have a plan for you, my daughter, and I will not give up on you. There is so much that we can do together.  One day you will be that woman, and I will give you a glimpse looking backward at who you are now. You will be amazed at my faithfulness and my gentleness. 

Don't worry about what might happen tomorrow, next month or next year. Don't worry about the road ahead, because I'll walk with you. In good times we'll celebrate together, and believe me, I'm a good person to have at a party!  In bad times I'll hold you tight and carry you in my arms, but you and me, we'll keep on walking. Don't look at the woman you'll one day be and despair of ever getting there. We'll do it one step at a time. I know you can do it. 

Be brave, little one. 

Here's what I want you to do. I want you to focus on JOY. Look for it. Ask me to show it to you - I will give you eyes to see. You have it in your reach but too often you turn inwards defensively and focus on your hurts and disappointments and you lick your wounds.

You have all you need. You are fully equipped. If I think that you need something else, something new, then I will give it to you. I will never see you go into battle poorly armed.

You have all you need, and I'm coming with you anyway. I will never leave your side; you are not alone. When the voice in your head tells you that you are lonely, overrule it. Again, I say, you are not alone. I am here. 

I AM all you need. 

Let my Holy Spirit into your heart and your mind and resist the worry, the anxiety and the fear. 

When you feel overwhelmed, say, 'No. I have the Lord.'

Say it after me: 'No. I have the Lord.' 

This is truth. 

With my love. Believe it. 


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

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

Helen has a blog: Are We Nearly There Yet? where she writes about life and faith.

You can also find her here:

Pinterest: @HelenMMurray
Twitter: @helenmurray01

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Take Your Seat by Emily Owen

I recently spent a couple of weeks with my right hand in a bandage.  Following surgery, my hand needed to stay protected and immobile while it healed. It goes without saying that I am right-handed. My left hand valiantly tried to learn to do all the things it never has to do by itself, such as wield a toothbrush (a surprisingly difficult thing to do with a non-dominant hand) or fasten buttons.

And, due to the impeccable thing called ‘timing’, I had a manuscript that needed to be checked.  As I laboriously and left-handedly looked up reference after reference in my bible (I prefer books with pages made of paper), I did ask myself on more than one occasion whether it had been necessary to include so many verses in my manuscript.

The manuscript is not overly long but it took the best part of two days to check.  I can’t tell you how many bible references I checked but definitely more than five.  I know this because I had five fingers to count on…

At the beginning of the two days, I was incredibly frustrated.  Things were taking so long.  As I settled into a new rhythm and pace, somewhere along the line I realised my frustration had disappeared.  I also realised I was actually enjoying being forced to slow down. Forced to be patient. Forced to sit and wait as my left hand fumbled with pages. It gave me time to reflect more on what I was doing. Time to just be.

Recently, I was on a train and I saw this sign:

‘Take your seat before the train arrives.’

In my experience, most people on a train do not take their seat as the train pulls into the station.  They (and I) stand up to gather luggage, put on coats, start towards the door; all the while in front of a sign advising them to sit down.

One of the passages my left-hand looked up was psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul….

It seems to me that this, unlike what happened with the train sign, is not a psalm to be noticed and ignored.
It's a ‘take your seat before the train arrives’ psalm.

Or maybe ‘take your seat before the manuscript deadline arrives’.

Or maybe ‘take your seat before getting more and more annoyed as you stare at a blank screen for hours, waiting for inspiration’.

Or maybe ‘take your seat before facing whatever it might be’.

Or even ‘take your seat for two seconds as you dash from A to B’.

Take time to stop, to pray, to reflect, to be refreshed…so that you make it. 

You arrive. 

Or, to put it a bandage-related way, you ‘wind up at’ (!) wherever your Shepherd leads you.

Friday, 21 April 2017

We've been on Ruth Johnson

There is a time 
for everything, 
and a season 
for every activity
under heaven.  

Ecclesiastes 3:1

In March we made our third trip to New Zealand visiting Brian’s two cousins who, with their parents,  had emigrated in 1962.

On our first trip in 1990 we had permission to take our children out of school for a month, it being seen as a one-off educational event.  And making the most of it we linked the time to the Christmas holidays.  We based ourselves with the family in Auckland, and toured the south island.  Christchurch looked very English with its huge church, market stalls, and river punting. In Queenstown’s we enjoyed ‘safe’ white water rafting, took the paddle steamer across the lake to a sheep station to see the shearing and wool processed into garments.  And to enjoy a boat trip from Milford Sound to the Tasmin Sea we opted for amazing, but  bumpy flights over the mountains in a six-seater Cessner. 
Back on North Island we stayed with different families from our UK church who lived in towns from windy Wellington with its hillside houses to Lake Taupo where from the original bridge our son did a bungee jump. In Rotorua we experienced Maori culture, mud pools, geysers and rode the Luge (rubber sledges down a steep hill) which I found terrifying!   After several days in Auckland we took the one main road north to stay in Paihia in the Bay of Islands. There we took a boat trip delivering post and supplies to the few people and  sheep on the remote islands and drove north to Cape Reinga and along the 70 mile beach.    

Our second visit in 2001 was combined with Australia, and with two weeks to reconnect with family.  In our third visit we wanted to do the same and meet new additions to the family, but to do so we had to travel around the north island.  Except for cows replacing sheep, not much had changed since our first visit..  The majority of roads are quiet with one lane in each direction and towns barely changed from the 1920's.  However, farmland is now being sold for housing. You buy a 'section', design your house and have it built. Each has every modern convenience, is unique in style and together form an attractive estate.

Farmland was sectioned off in 1999 to build a very different kind estate, the village  'The Shire’ of the Tolkien books. The original thirty-nine hobbit holes along with the bridge were made out of untreated timber, polystrene and ply which was later dismantled. No-one could have predicted the films success and ten years later it was rebuilt out of permanent materials.  Since 2011 has been open to the public as 'Hobbiton' the Movie Set.  The sheep farmer is said, for use of his land, to receive 20% of the profit. We estimated at around £6,000,000 a year!   

In 1936 Tolkien was persuaded by his children to submit “The Hobbit” for publication.  When it was widely read in the 1960s they must have been thrilled, but no-one could have predicted the popularity of the sequel.  And Peter Jackson, although inspired to make the films, had no idea of the wealth and fame he, and others, would derive from the story. 

I came away encouraged.  We have no idea who will read what we write, who we will inspire while alive, and saw how God’s plans and purposes can extend long after death as the written word continues to touch hearts and open minds.

A Hobbit house facade, there are no interiors

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Called or not?

Unlike many, I don't mind going to the dentist, despite enduring, over the past few years, several unwelcome interventions, including the pulling of three teeth (happily not all at once.) The loss of teeth not only makes chewing less efficient but also serves as yet another reminder of advancing age. That I don't regard a trip to the chair with dread may be due to my faith in my dentist professionally (practically painless and ultra-swift extractions) but also because he is a very likeable man. In fact dental appointments are often the occasion for humorous banter. Some years ago - I don't remember what let up to this - I rather tactlessly exclaimed, 'I don't know how you can look in people's mouths all day long!' to which he replied, with a hurt expression, 'I see dentistry as a vocation.' No doubt he was serious, despite the frivolous tenor of our conversation, and I guess the same idealistic line may be taken by others in medical professions: even if only at first, they may be motivated by a desire to alleviate suffering and improve their patients' quality of life. As Christians most - all? - of us have a sense of vocation, even if only in a general way that we are called by God to follow him through our lives, striving to become more like Christ. But can we apply this to our writing?
Of course I appreciate the power and value of the written word, whether in the dissemination of facts and opinions or in the weaving of stories and poems - otherwise I wouldn't be a writer or a reader at all, presumably. But to describe what I do as a vocation is somehow embarrassing: am I not claiming for it something more than it merits? Am I -  horror of horrors - doing that most unBritish thing, blowing my own trumpet?
The problem may be compounded by our being not only writers but Christian writers. Even if our Christianity is not overtly on the page, no doubt our selection and treatment of a theme and our inner attitudes will leak out regardless. But even if I try to make my stories as authentic, well-crafted and enjoyable as I can, it's unlikely that any of my words will ever save someone's life - unlike, for example, a surgeon finishing a successful repair on a patient's heart. I realise there are different types and levels of calling; in the words of George Herbert's poem, 'Who sweeps a room as for thy laws Makes that and th'action fine.' But is there not a danger of calling something a vocation when it may simply be the thing we like doing most? Does God ask us to do things for which we have neither talent nor inclination, and if he does, how do we respond?
Oddly, I do have a sense of vocation in my writing, even though admitting this makes me squirm and mutter caveats. Unlike some perhaps more sensitive souls I have not received divine messages in any unequivocal way - except once, when I had the distinct sense, while beavering away on my first novel, of God saying, 'Do this for me.' However, I regard this less as a mandate-with-fanfare than as a result of my peculiar dimness in certain areas, to which God gently and graciously responded by providing a focus which had been signally lacking!
What about you? Do you feel called, as a writer as well as a Christian? If so, or if not, what impact do you think it has? I'd love to know.

Sue Russell has five novels out in the usual places. A sixth, 'A Vision of Locusts', will be published by Instant Apostle in the autumn, and a seventh is even now brewing and festering in her fevered brain. They are all contemporary stories from a Christian viewpoint.