Unmasked: The battle of the masks

I am delighted to welcome Amanda to my guest blog slot ‘Unmasked: stories of authenticity’ this week. She bravely shares the reasons for her mask-wearing, and her battle to take them off.

We so often hear ‘I went through this’ stories, as people are often willing to get up on stage and talk about their suffering when it’s over. They’re happy to talk about what God taught them and how they can now see He was working.

I think suffering is a bit like childbirth, once it’s over we forget how bad it was. When we hear these stories people often don’t describe the depths of their despair. When I hear these stories I feel left out; I start to wonder why God hasn’t fixed me yet. I feel like I’ve failed for not having gotten through it yet.

I know that I am not the only one who feels like this, I have met many people in the Church that are continuing to struggle and find these stories hopeful and painful at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, we need these testimonies; they show God’s power and give us hope, but I do feel that churches want happy-ending stories. Why? Because nobody likes to suffer!

None of us want to face the reality that we will all suffer; we are frightened of it, which is natural. But when a church only has happy-ending stories it can cause members to put on a mask, because they feel they’re not valid or useful because they’re not better – or can’t say what God has shown them.

I have been sharing my stories with my friends and other people in church. As I have been doing this I’ve seen amazing things happen; other people have come to me with their stories, knowing I won’t judge them. Even though I’m not fixed and I’m fighting to get better, God is using me and my story. Groups that I have been part of have gone from being very academic to being very honest, life-sharing groups. I wanted to write this guest post today to encourage people that by removing their masks it allows others to take theirs off too.

HOW I STARTED WEARING MASKS

I have discovered that my personal masks are ‘I’m fine’ (along with ‘I can cope’) and ‘no one wants to know what goes on in my life’. These were backed up by an internal message early on, telling me that I couldn’t trust anyone.

I first started wearing these masks when I was 11. I had been raped as a child and blocked out the memories – until they were triggered when I was 11. I started having nightmares; I tried to tell my family, but they told me ‘not to be stupid, it didn’t happen’. I knew that it had, but I couldn’t tell anyone, as I didn’t want a big fall out, and I had forgiven the person. The person was young; they knew what they were doing, but they didn’t understand the consequences.

I knew if I talked about it at school, Child Protection would kick in, so I didn’t talk about it again until I was 18. Unfortunately, I had two more experiences where I was sexually assaulted as a young adult. This combination of events made it very hard for me to trust anyone. The first counsellor I saw told me I must have made it up, as it’s not possible for a child to be raped! Needless to say, I didn’t see her again.

As a child, I learned that people liked me when I was cheerful, so I always put on a brave face. And then people praised me for putting on a brave face during difficult things, so I decided this was a good thing to do. I did this to the point that I numbed out all negative feelings, in order to be the positive person everyone wanted me to be. Unfortunately, this took its toll; I started self-harming, developed severe panic attacks and became depressed.

While I was at university I did find some helpful friends and counsellors. Even though none of them made me better, each time I talked about what I had been through a symptom would fall away. So I learned that talking helped, even though it went against what I believed I should do.

LEARNING TO BE MORE OPEN

I desperately didn’t want people to think I was weak and couldn’t cope. I thought they wouldn’t want to know the negative stuff about me. Because when I did start to tell more friends, I had some horrible reactions – where friends walked away from me and said very hurtful things. But I also had some amazing reactions; people who showed me love and stuck by me despite what I’d told them. These people went a long way to challenging those deeply held internal beliefs of mine.

I am now at a point where I can talk about what I have been through more openly, and, when I do so, many people appreciate it and come back with their own stories. This is a huge privilege, because I know how hard it is to be honest and vulnerable.

I have recently been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is really helpful in understanding my symptoms and enabling me to get the right help. I have an absolutely amazing, patient psychologist who has started Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) with me. It is hard, but I can see how it works. I am making more and more links between the past and the present, which enables me to then question my deeply held beliefs.

For example, when I think ‘no one wants to know’, I can now ask myself, ‘is this true’? I have learned over time that people do want to know. I am beginning to understand that, while it will make them sad, it’s the event that makes them sad not me. People do know and are still standing by me.

CONTINUING MY JOURNEY

I have realised that my family didn’t want to know because they couldn’t handle it; it wasn’t that they couldn’t handle me. I still have a long way to go. When I’m with my psychologist, all of my masks have to come off. I still fight it, because it’s horrible being vulnerable, but equally I want people to see who I truly am and I know she can only help me if I’m open with her.

With friends I can take it a bit slower. I still often revert back to my ‘I can cope’ mask because I’m scared of losing respect, but actually I’ve found I get more respect when I’m honest. People ask me how I am and I say ‘I’m fine’ without realising it, including when I go to the doctor because I’m ill! I don’t know I’ve said it.

I am learning to be more honest with my friends, partly because I believe they will see God working in me as I go through suffering, rather than waiting to tell them about what happened afterwards. With my family I have to keep these masks on, as most of them don’t know what has happened to me. But now, when I go back and put these masks back on, they feel heavy – and I feel stressed, on edge and exhausted. I can’t wait to get back to my friends and husband, as I can be honest with them.

My masks protected me for a while, but then they made me ill. I’m still in the process of learning how to take off these masks, but I have a massive hope that I will overcome what I have been through. I believe I will recover and be stronger, and I also constantly pray that God will use my story, when and where appropriate. The simple message I have clung onto is that ‘God is with me’. He has whispered that into my ears so many times over the years.

 

Unmasked: letting go of anxiety

 

To celebrate the launch of my book, Taking Off the Mask, and to continue to promote authentic community here I have started a blogging series called Unmasked: stories of authenticity. I am inviting guest bloggers to write about their own experiences of God calling them to be more authentic. I am delighted to welcome Tiffany Montgomery as the first blogger. She has a very powerful story – and I am blown away and humbled by how God has used my book as part of the process (I didn’t know that until I read her review and this post once she submitted it.) Thank you Tiffany for sharing so openly and honestly…

My two Little Blessings share a room in our home. It has to be the messiest place on the planet! Whenever I am missing something (a hairbrush, my favorite flats, the cute sweater I bought last week) I know where I have to go to find it. And inevitably, as I search the room I get hotter and hotter about the mess.  Can you relate?

As I get angry they begin their excuses. “Mom, I was about to put that away.” “Mom, A did that, not me.” And on they go digging themselves a hole there is no getting out of. I give them an ultimatum, “Clean this room or lose your screen time for the rest of the week!”

Can I be honest with you? I hate when they clean that room. It gets so much worse before it gets clean. The mess spills into the hallway. I have to referee bickering and step in to teach them new cleaning things…it is hard work.

Has God ever called you to clean up something in your spiritual life in the same way? Here’s how He called me to start removing my mask…

I am the controller, the peacemaker, the fixer, the go-to gal to co-ordinate a new ministry, the jack of all trades when life gets crazy, etc. Those are some of the names my mask might carry.

Is it wrong to wear my mask?

Well I can’t really say. It’s what has worked to keep me ‘safe’ in life. Comfortable in life. Un-noticed as I suffer.

You see I suffer from anxiety. My doctor calls it ‘High Functioning Anxiety’, which sounds like I am a very capable person. In reality I was just setting myself up to fall apart hard.

That’s what I am doing in life right now… falling apart.

I’ve had an anxiety disorder for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory of it was at age eight sitting nearly hyperventilating in a closet – hiding.

My anxiety is not the result of a chemical imbalance or neurological issue, but from the trauma of my past.

The past is not something I can change.

I just celebrated my birthday in the midst of a year of running from God about my anxiety. You see, He has been relentlessly calling me to dig deeper and find true healing all year. It started in March at a women’s retreat. He began to reveal the deep wounds that I cover up with my mask.

Deep wounds never stay covered for long.

My wounds are as deep as they are wide and I have been trying to run from them for so many years… and for the most part I have succeeded. But God said dig deeper. Did I?  Nope, I ran.

Have you ever tried to run from God?

Let me tell you it doesn’t work well. He has been so patient with me…because I am scared. He’s good that way. Never pressing faster or farther than He knows I can handle.

‘But it’s time,’ I’ve heard Him whisper over and over again.

Hope

When I was a young woman, trying to make sense of a distorted, warped life, I knew nothing except trauma and Jesus. I don’t even remember when the word came to me, but it is in every journal since I was 15. Hope.

  • Hope that God would miraculously heal all the broken warped pieces of my life, heart and body.
  • Hope that I could sleep through the night without the nightmares.
  • Hope that no one would ever pry deep enough to see the wounds and pain that live deeply inside of me.
  • Hope that I could live a normal life and be happy one day.

Joy

In my twenties God gave me another word. You see I never found happy. Happy always seemed to be so far out of reach. Even with doctors and medicine, counselors and Bible studies I always had the anxiety.

I always had a smile too… but it was a mask. My smile was rarely heart deep.

I made a friend in college who had a serious health issue – yet always seemed happy.

He explained to me that he was not ‘happy’ at all, he was actually in pain daily. What he had was joy.  He knew Jesus and embraced the Holy Spirit in a way I’ve never seen before. He focused on God’s love when days were hard and it filled him with joy.

I was in pain every day. Sleepless every night. Fearful of the trauma that wounded my past.  I took his advice and began to read the Bible like a woman with an addiction. When I could not sleep I poured through the psalms. When anxiety became crippling I memorized verses. I found joy.

For years I have clung to hope and joy like a lighthouse.

But I still wear my mask.

I cling to hope and joy while I hide behind my mask. Why? Fear. Some fear that is based in reality. People in my past who knew my condition and the cause of it were hurtful. I have had to learn how to forgive and move past.

I’d love to share the pathway I found to truly forgiving the pain, abuse and betrayal that stole so many years of my life. I was stuck, unwilling to forgive.  I had to learn to release people, so I could walk in freedom! My story is available in a free download here.

But I still keep my mask on to prevent a repeat of that pain.

Brave

In March I heard God calling to take the mask off. I have run for months all the while pursuing the last thing God called me to. In October as I journaled through my birthday and this year’s work I heard a new word. I had to be brave because God has a new work for my life. He gave me Isaiah 43 to hold onto as He worked through it all.

‘Bravely take off the mask.’

God has said that to me so many times this year! When Claire mentioned her book I was just eager to help a friend and learn about publishing a book. Honestly it was just something on my list to do because I plan to publish a study in 2018 and I have so much to learn. It didn’t even register to me what the book was about until I sat down to read last month.

As I sat fuzzy socked at Starbucks I began to inwardly cry. The words began to fly off the pages as my journal filled with quotes and resources to help me in this journey. God put the right resource in my hands to find practical steps for taking off this mask and moving from hoping to healing.

To get healing from my anxiety I have to be willing to let everything fall apart. Since reading the book I have begun to step back from leadership in almost every area…because the attacks will get worse before they get better. I have found time to go back into counseling because I have to let myself remember the horrors of my past. I needed courage to let God into those broken pieces to begin healing them.

‘Without a mask on…everyone will see.’  ‘I am so scared’ I pray over and over to God.

Taking off the mask

I don’t know where you are in your story. Are you hurting? Have you dealt with things that are still unhealed?  Claire’s authenticity has given me the courage to bravely begin taking off my mask and seek help.

Brave.  Such a small word. But God is gracious enough to give such inspiration to underscore that work in my life. He will do the same for you if you let Him.

I know it feels scary. But I also know that the messiest room can be cleaned. It will certainly get messier still in the process, but when you pull everything out into the light you can identify it and put the pieces back where they really belong. You may even find things you didn’t know were hidden in the mess. Just like I found my lost hairbrush 😉

in HIM

Tiffany

Tiffany Montgomery is a Jesus lover, wife, mother, blogger and homeschooling gal who is passionate about equipping and encouraging wives and mothers in Biblical discipleship! Find out more about her at http://hopejoyinchrist.com or connect on Facebook or Pinterest.

A malignant motivator

I am delighted to welcome Lucy Mills onto my blog today. Her book, Undivided Heart, was published last week and I received my copy today – I’m so looking forward to reading it! As part of her blog tour, she has provided a guest post that really resonates with me, because it covers a subject I include in my own book, Taking Off the Mask, which is out on Friday!

Our culture is obsessed with looking a certain way – whether this is physical appearance, or appearing to be successful. But this obsession also strays into the spiritual. We can get enamoured with ideas of not just being but looking like a ‘good Christian’ (whatever that is), or coming across ‘right’ in the way we live. When life throws up inconvenient challenges, as it inevitably does, we hiccup. Sometimes we go on the defence, entrenching ourselves. Other times we go on the attack, criticising others for the ‘specks’ in their eyes while ignoring the planks in our own. Neither reaction helps us. We end up missing out on a deeper encounter with the divine because we’re so busy with trying to look good.

This need for approval – this desire to be liked – can become a malignant motivator in our lives. Our sense of worth becomes so contingent upon it that we work to live in a way that gets us liked. We bury how we really feel in the attempt to put on a show of ‘likeableness’.

She waits to see
if you will like her
She needs to know
that you will like her
She cannot bear it
if you don’t like her

We may not even be conscious of it; the motive has become so pervasive in us that we act on almost automatically. And isn’t it easy, in an age where ‘likes’ can be counted?

But something inside us worries, because we know that this façade is not who we are. We may ignore this niggle. As well as hiding from others, we can hide from ourselves. But we can’t hide from God.

All our strutting, all our dabbing on of Christian-coloured concealer, all that sucking in of our spiritual tummies – it doesn’t fool God one jot.

And it doesn’t address the issue that what we think of as being a ‘good Christian’ or saying/doing the ‘right things’ may not be in tune with God’s priorities anyway. Have we made small things into huge issues and then dismissed the important stuff amid nit-picking at the unimportant? Instead of gracious, we come across as judgemental. Instead of loving, we come across as arrogant and proud.

God uses the weak. The messy. The people not wearing make-up.

God uses you – and God uses me – in our weakness and our frailty, in our foolishness and vulnerability.

God sees us and God loves us. That is our great motivator, as we blossom in the assurance of what has been done for us, realising how much value is given to us as children of God.

Undivided Heart: Finding Meaning and Motivation in Christ explores the things that shape us, drive us and define us, asking where our true identity lies and how this is reflected in our lives.  Find out more (including where to buy) at www.lucy-mills.com/undivided-heart

 

Hearing God

Tania Harris - cream - author preferred - large jpgI am delighted that Tania Harris has agreed to guest blog on my site. A pastor, speaker and author she is also the founder of God Conversations, a global ministry that equips people to recognise and respond to God’s voice. She has recently released a book that is also called God ConversationsTania is an ordained minister with the Australian Christian Churches and Hillsong is her church home in Sydney, Australia.

 

 

Waiting for God to speak out loud? Think again…

I’ve always wanted to hear the audible voice of God. I imagined it booming forth, sending tremors through my body and swallowing me up in a mystical cloud, leaving me with no doubt where it came from. In fact, when I first started learning to hear God’s voice, this is what I expected. But sadly the booming voice never came. Yes, I’ve heard the voice of God many times, but it has never come out loud.

Perhaps you’ve had the same expectation – and perhaps the same outcome. Part of the reason we expect God to speak out loud is due to the assumptions we make when reading the Bible. We read; ‘And God said…’ and we liken it to a friend talking with us across the table. But a closer look at Scripture reveals this to be a misplaced understanding. Hearing God’s voice should be understood more as a spiritual experience than a physical one.

 A spiritual voice

When Jesus preached his sermons, he often closed with the line; ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear’ (eg. Mark 4:9,23, Luke 8:8). The reason Jesus spoke in parables was to differentiate between those who had open hearts and those who didn’t. This shows us that hearing God’s message wasn’t primarily a physical experience – after all, His audiences heard His words, yet many still wandered away. As Jesus said, ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand’ (Matthew 13:13, see also Ezekiel 12:2). Unlike these, we are exhorted to see with the ‘eyes of our hearts’ (Ephesians 1:18) – the emphasis is on our spiritual eyes and ears, not our natural ones.

This was probably one of the more surprising discoveries for me in my early days of hearing God’s voice. One of the first times I heard Him speak was while walking through a park near my home. In the middle of a song, the words: ‘Give all your money away’ came into my head. Though it came as a thought just like any thought, I knew the thought wasn’t mine (largely because it wasn’t something I would say!) The voice was quiet and gentle yet firm; instinctively I knew it was God. It was also consistent with what God had been doing in my life and later when I heeded it, brought about incredible miracles.

The audible voice

While I’ve never heard the audible voice of God, a number of those I interviewed recently for my doctoral research say they have. For most of them, the audible voice came at an urgent moment (like when they were about to walk into the path of an oncoming car) or at some other pivotal time of their lives. Yet even on those occasions, God’s voice was not experienced through the ‘outer ear’. When asked if someone else would have heard it if they’d been with them, the vast majority said no. While the voice had been strikingly loud to the person, it had still been heard from ‘inside’ of themselves.

Though it’s hard to know for sure, the Apostle Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus seems to have been similar (if only we could interview him!) Luke, the writer of Acts, reports the story of how Jesus appeared to Saul and speaks to him in a vision (Acts 9:1–7). While there were others with Paul, Luke says they didn’t share the experience, since, ‘they heard the sound’, but ‘they did not see anyone’. Later when Paul recounts the scene for himself, he says his companions ‘saw the light’, but didn’t ‘understand the voice’ (Acts 22:9). Even a powerful experience such as Paul’s conversion seems to be a largely subjective one, only fully received by the audience it was intended.

 The mind as spiritual receiver

Theologian Gregory Boyd writes about the nature of God’s voice in his book, Seeing is Believing. He suggests that the experience of hearing God takes place primarily in the mind or the imagination, and that this is consistent with what Scriptures describes. For example, when Daniel recounts his visions, he notes them as ‘visions that passed through’ his mind (Daniel 7:1,15). They are subjective and internal experiences that no one else can participate in. Hence those who were with Daniel didn’t see his visions (Daniel 10:7). It is also significant that the Hebrew words commonly used for ‘vision’ indicate a unique kind of seeing, something that is distinct from ordinary physical seeing.

It’s important to understand that the experience of hearing God’s voice internally in no way denies its authenticity. Boyd highlights the fact that while modern Western people identify the imagination with make-believe, ancient people and particularly those in biblical times did not. In fact, hearing God’s voice in our minds should not be surprising given that while the Holy Spirit cannot be seen in physical form, we know He abides with us wherever we go (Acts 2:16,17).

On a practical level, this understanding of God’s voice is essential. If we are waiting for an external objective voice, we may be missing out on the still small voice of Elijah’s experience (1 Kings 19:9–13). Instead of waiting for an audible voice, we need to be inviting the Spirit to enter our thinking and our imagination, to inspire our hearts and stir our thoughts, so that we can be like the people Jesus exhorted us to be; having ears to hear what the Spirit is saying.

9781780781884To read more of Tania’s journey with hearing God’s voice and the impact it has had on her own life, I would heartily recommend her book God Conversations. Do also check out her website

 

How I found my voice

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Today I am delighted to welcome James Prescott to my blog. I have known James for quite a while; we conversed on social media for months before discovering that we live in the same town! We are also both part of the Association of Christian Writers, which provides great support.

 I was privileged to be a part of James’ book launch group and can honestly say I have found his new book invaluable; challenging yet full of grace. So many of the lessons God had been teaching him were ones that He had been speaking to me about too, so the book resonated with me a lot. So I was keen to get James to write a guest blog for me. Here he describes the process of writing his book, and how it helped him to find his voice…

For most writers, the writing of their first book is the culmination of them finding their voice. It comes at the end of that process. But for me, it was completely the opposite.

My first trade book Mosaic Of Grace: God’s Beautiful Reshaping Of Our Broken Lives was published in February. But the first draft was written in the summer of 2013. At that point I’d been writing for a long time – but I’d still not found my own unique creative voice. The idea for a book about grace had come along in the previous nine months, from reading, reflecting, listening to sermons and talking with friends.

In the process I realised there was a message about grace that hadn’t been shared. A new perspective that needed to be given voice. I’d written two e-books by then, so was ready to explore writing a book.

Starting the journey
I had no idea about how to plan, structure or write a book. I had no idea about the publishing world whatsoever. I wrote the book, not expecting it to ever be published. I had no reputation, no following and had no chance of a book contract. Self-publishing wasn’t an option financially. So I was writing merely for myself.

By complete chance, I connected with a book editor on social media. They offered to read my book, initially offering advice. This quickly evolved into them editing the whole book. They’d do private edits on their own time, then we’d do Skype calls working through the text together, editing, rewriting, improving.

Learning along the way
Because it was a very rough draft, with no plan, and I’d got no experience, the book needed a lot of work. There were a lot of rewrites and additions to be made. There were large sections to take out. And this all took time.

Even during this process, I had no idea if or how the book would be published. It was still just an idea, a promise, a dream. But the book was taking shape. And, in the meantime, I was getting a masterclass in how to write a book, and indeed, on writing itself, from my editor.

It took time, but, by mid 2016, we had a final draft to work from. And we were talking about her small publishing company putting the book out.

Finally, this thing was going to happen. And, ironically, I was still learning about grace. The truth of the book was being exposed to me all the time. I began seeing it in every area of my life. I came up with ideas for coaching, for other books, all of which began, in some way, with the simple idea that we’re enough, we belong, we’re loved. We’re accepted as we are, for who we are, not for what we do, what we own, our relationship status or social status.

Taking time out
It soon became clear that writing the book was just the beginning of the process. In 2014, about eight months after I wrote the first draft, I got to a point where I needed a break. My blogging had lost focus, direction and joy. I couldn’t go on. So I stopped public writing. I decided I would simply write privately, for myself, every day – for as long as it took. As long as it took to find my voice, to connect again with my true creative spirit.

It was liberating. I felt alive for the first time. And it was the most creative, fresh period of my life. New material and ideas were pouring out of me. It took time to get there, but, once I did, it was like a new spring of water bursting out of the ground…you couldn’t stop it.

And the irony I didn’t see at the time, was that it was by returning to myself, to my true self – the self which grace said was enough – that I found my voice.

I had written this book, and lived it, and, in the process, had found my authentic, honest writing voice. Grace had literally brought me (in particular my creative side) to life.

An increase of momentum
I wrote a short e-book, which is currently available on my blog for free, about this season of my creative journey, and some lessons I learned. This really launched my blog, and my subscriber list and following grew. Suddenly, I had people interested in my work, people who might buy a book I wrote. And I still had the book I was working on, which I really wanted to share with people.

Grace had helped me find my voice.

Mosaic Of Grace New Cover Black EdgeMeasuring success
When Mosaic Of Grace was finally published earlier this year, there was, naturally, a focus on numbers, on sales, on marketing and promoting the book and its ideas. But when I got people’s e-mails and messages with stories about how the book had changed their lives, how it had been healing and life-giving to them that reminded me again of where this all began. With grace. Those stories mattered, and still matter, way more than the sales figures.

The book’s success wasn’t dependent on sales figures – with just one message like that, I knew all those years of work were worth it.

From start to finish, this book, and everything about it – the writing, editing, publishing, promotion – had all been a process, teaching me about grace. It was a process that changed me, before it changed anyone else. A process that helped me find my voice.

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James Prescott is a writer, blogger, podcaster, writing coach and bestselling author of Mosaic Of Grace: God’s Beautiful Reshaping Of Our Broken Lives, available on Amazon here. He hosts the weekly ‘Poema Podcast’, and you can read his blog, get free e-books and find out more about his books and coaching at www.jamesprescott.co.uk. You can find him on Facebook and also follow him on Twitter & Instagram.

Reflections on writing a series

claire-and-i

The two Claires finally meeting!

Having connected with the author, C.F.Dunn, through the Association of Christian Writers’ Facebook page, and then interviewed her for magazine articles, it was a joy to be able to celebrate the final book – and meet Claire face to face finally (see photo)! I asked her to write a guest blog about her own reflections on coming to the end of writing a series…

mortal-fire-smallI can’t say I knew what I was doing when I started writing my debut novel – Mortal Fire – although I felt compelled to write for a reason I did not yet understand. Nor did I know where the journey would take me. For the first few years I struggled with how I could justify spending all that time writing when I could be doing something more, well, obviously Goddriven, I suppose. After all, working at school with our inspirational special needs students was both a vocation and an immense blessing. However, write I felt I must, and so I ploughed on.

For a good while after my first book was published I didn’t feel like a writer. It must be a fluke, a kindness on the part of my wonderful editor, Tony Collins. It was only when the third book – Rope of Sand – was released that I began to think, ‘Golly, this is real,’ and after book five that I said, ‘I am an author!’

Now that The Secret of the Journal series has ended, one of the questions I’m most frequently asked is: how do you set about bidding farewell to a series after hundreds of thousands of words have been lavished on building characters and story lines, setting scenes and constructing dialogue? Well, first of all, by the time you get to the final book, you know your characters – good and bad – and have come to love, respect and cherish them. They might have been a construct of the imagination at the beginning, but by the end they have taken on a life of their own.

If you have been successful in drawing multi-faceted people, they interact with other characters in the series as naturally as you would in real life. Sure, you place them in danger or put them into artificial situations – that is, after all, part of the art of drama – but their reactions should be as natural as if they lived and breathed off the page as well as on it. So, how hard is it to say goodbye?

9780745868773By the time you reach that magic final book – Fearful Symmetry in my case – the world you have created is part of the beating heart within you: you live and breathe it day in, day out over years. As a result, finishing it – wrapping it all up and concluding it – might potentially be traumatic. Yes, it has been a major part of your life and you’ve cried with them, sweated and suffered with them; but does any part of you die with them when you write The End?

Not a bit of it. You gave them life and you’ve set them free in the imaginations of your readers and there your character friends will flourish for as long as the words can be read.

And long before you finish writing that final book, new voices have slipped into your consciousness – beguiling, persistent – and you find yourself constructing a new universe and fresh situations into which you can release them to begin their own journey, and the foundations of a new series are lain.

No longer do I feel all at sea, but understand the greater truth behind that compulsion to write. That understanding has developed and grown along with the series. As I set out on the next journey with my new characters, I know where I’m going and where I want to be and – most important of all – why.

cf-dunn-picC.F. Dunn is the author of The Secret of the Journal series, published by Lion Fiction. The fifth and final book in the series – Fearful Symmetry – has been recently published. An educator at heart, she and her husband founded a school in Kent for children with dyslexia, autism, and anxiety. Returning to her roots as a historian, C.F. Dunn is currently working on the first book in a new historical series set in 15th-century England – a period of complex personalities and turmoil at the heart of the realm, where the king wore an uneasy crown.

Advent remembering

 

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I was so moved and challenged by Lucy Mill’s guest post on my site a couple of years ago, that I asked her whether I could use an updated version this year. She kindly obliged…

I often forget about Advent until I’m in it. More accurately, I don’t realise how fast the time has gone and suddenly it’s mid December and – oh. I feel irritated; as if I’ve missed out on something. Is it worth it, now? Or have I missed the Advent bus?

This year I did at least notice when December began, which has helped. I had already made a note, in fact, that I needed to prepare myself for Advent. I know that sounds odd, as Advent is itself a preparation.

Yet I forget to make time and space for that preparing to take place.

I forget a lot of things.

2013 and 2014 were quite significant for me. We’d moved to a new area and a new church (my husband is a Baptist minister). I made new friends as well as trying to nurture the old. The editing role I already had shifted to one with more responsibility and oversight. And it appeared I had created a book. In April 2014, it was published.

How odd! How extraordinary! I was a first-timer, poking it to check if it was real. I’m also a little shy of it now. After years of pouring myself into it, I feel a bit self-conscious. Reading it makes me squirm a little, like watching myself on screen.

I’m tempted to leave it on the shelf, to draw a line under it.

But that would make a mockery of what it is about. Because the book is a confession: of my own forgetfulness. My tendency towards distraction, every day and any day. And it’s also a reflection on the importance of remembering God in our daily lives – what this means.

I can’t draw a line under it; it’s part of my continuing journey and it’s as relevant to me now as it was when I started it.

Because my condition is chronic. I neglect my faith. I don’t open my Bible. Then I feel guilty about how long it’s been since I opened it. So I don’t think about it, and the pages remain unread. I pray occasionally rather than continually. I reach a point where I feel empty, and I am blind enough to wonder why.

I’ve forgotten who I am. I’ve forgotten who I am because I’ve ceased remembering who God is. As a Christian, my identity is in Christ. Yet instead of focusing on Him, my eyes drift. When I squint towards my faith, I do so through a fog of my own distractedness. I don’t allow times for rest and reflection – I fill them up with mediocre diversions. I’m a little scared to face myself and admit my forgetfulness. So I embrace the forgetfulness even more.

It takes discipline to pull myself back, and often it’s the tug of the Holy Spirit – not my own strength. God, in all patience, woos me into returning. I come understanding: whom have I but you? To whom else would I go?

The seasons of the Church are, in many ways, tools for remembering. Advent, focusing on the coming Christ, can be a great antidote for forgetfulness, if we dare to take more than a cursory sip of it. The incarnate Christ came as a fragile baby into a dark world; the resurrected Christ is still present with us now by the power of the Spirit. And the glorified Christ will come again.

Today, in spite of my busyness, in spite of the distractions, I choose to take a breath. I allow myself to remember. A mere moment, perhaps, but it births more moments as I form a habit of pausing.

In these final days of Advent, take a moment to pause. Breathe. Allow yourself to take a handful of stillness. It will help you get perspective on the rest of it – the hurly-burly, the ever-changing, the tugging cords of life.

Reflect on the light that came into the darkness, the light that cannot be put out. And ask for that light to shine on all your distractedness and disrepair.

You haven’t missed the bus. It’s not too late to start a new kind of remembering. Every morning is another chance to draw close to our God of mercy and grace. Seek the One who knows every part of you – the shallow and the deep – and who loves you.

I need to hear this, to reflect on it this Advent season.

Do you?

FH high resLucy Mills is author of Forgetful Heart: remembering God in a distracted world, which was published in 2014. Her second book, Undivided Heart: Finding Meaning and Motivation in Christ, is coming in 2017. Both books are published by Darton, Longman and Todd (www.dltbooks.com).

Lucy writes articles, prayers, poems and worship resources. She’s also been on the editorial team of magnet since 2011 and now works in a freelance capacity as their editorial coordinator, overseeing the team and editorial process.

Lucy’s own website is www.lucy-mills.com

Why I’m glad my friends aren’t nice…

beth-new-cropped-w179I’m so pleased Beth Moran agreed to write a guest blog for my site. She is a brilliant writer, drawing the reader in right from the word go in the way she constructs her storylines. Her characters are totally believable and we get to share the best and worst moments of their lives. In honour of Women’s Friendship Month, on this last day of September, I asked Beth to write about the importance of friendship in women’s lives. This is one of the themes that weaves throughout her latest novel, I Hope You Dance, which centres around Ruth, a woman in her thirties who has just lost her husband. She discovers he has left her with a mountain of secret debts so she and her teenage daughter have to move back into her parents’ home. Ruth has to learn to face her past, present and future head on…

I’m going to come right out with it: for a long time, I had big issues with Christian women. Well, not all of them. It was the nice ones I had a problem with. The ones that always smiled, and said encouraging things, who made little jokes about their own deficiencies while their faces glowed and shiny hair sat perfectly in place. Those women who never complained, or gossiped, or growled at anyone. Who tirelessly served others, forsaking the last piece of cake so someone else could have two. Not once kicking up a fuss or making a mess or forgetting a birthday.

Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely liked these women. My issue was, I didn’t trust them.

Oh, I trusted them to do what they promised, to keep a secret, to be kind.

I didn’t trust them to be my friend.

I didn’t trust them when they said, “Well done, you were fantastic!” or “It was so wonderful to see you!” or told me how gorgeous I looked, or what a mess their car was or how they totally understood why I just kicked a chair across the kitchen.

I was dubious about the fact they were doing “really well!”, had an amazing time – every time, no matter what or where or how long the time. I didn’t quite believe they always loved being a mum, or a wife, or a Christian, or none of those things, as much as it appeared. And I couldn’t accept they liked me.

Instead, I felt comfortable with those who were blunt, who sometimes shouted at their kids in public, who made loud, large mistakes. I found myself spending time with women whose houses were a tip, honoured they invited me into the chaos. Grateful they were honest enough to tell me when they’d had a flaming row with their husband, or felt useless and weak, or were too tired to pray anymore. Or that I’d hurt them.

I loved these women, who welcomed me with open arms into their imperfections. I felt safe to be imperfect, too. These were the women I could turn to when I couldn’t forgive, or struggled to do the right thing, or I wanted a genuine answer to “Does my bum look big in this?”

But a weird thing happened. Me and these non-nice women, over time we learnt to have our rants in private, to share our fears, our troubles, our sins, with coffee in our messy living rooms not after Sunday services.

Together we learnt to lean on each other before things reached snapping point. To share advice and faith and lessons we’ve learnt about living well.

And then I realised this: nice women let off steam from time to time. They can feel angry and worried and overwhelmed, just like the rest of us.

The women who appear strong and assured in public, who are pretty darn fantastic at what they do; the women who can laugh at the days to come, despite current trials, or past pain – those women have learnt the value of true friendship in private. To cherish a small number of absolute, 24/7, warts and all people in their life. Those who cheer us on, who pray with us, who help us to be the women we were created to be. Those friends who tell us when we need to find a better balance, or stop whining and get moving, or where to go and have a decent bra fitted.

When we have a few, well-chosen people we can be our worst selves with, we are able to face the rest of the world as our best selves.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be thought of as one of those nice women. I’m embarrassingly honest, prone to getting feisty and I have a sense of humour that hovers on the boundaries of taste. But I’m okay with that. And I’m so grateful that some women love and trust me enough not to be nice to me all the time. It’s how I know they count me as their friends.

9781782641704Beth’s latest book, I Hope You Dance, is available now, and is published by Lion Fiction.