Cultivating thankfulness

My daughter took this picture to help me celebrate!

In honour of Thanksgiving, I have decided to blog about thankfulness. For those of you who have followed my blog for a while, you will know that I did a series on thankfulness a while ago so I was going to choose my favourite post from that. However, I have just been writing about new ways to connect with God for a piece in January’s Premier Christianity magazine, and I have talked about cultivating thankfulness in that – so have decided to take my own advice! In that article,  one of my suggestions is to list things to be thankful to God for each day, so here are mine (actually for the month of November, as Thanksgiving falls towards the end of it). I am thankful for:

The ongoing health and wellbeing of my beautiful family – they are such fun to be around.

The chance to do a job I love but still be around most of the time for my children.

Completing my first month in a new role at Premier Christianity – the first that has lured be back into an office for over 18 years!

Not just one but two books published this month! I know I’ve spoken rather a lot about Taking Off the Mask, but the new one, Cover to Cover: 1, 2 & 3 John: Walking in the truth can be purchased here.

An incredible set of friends, many of whom celebrated with me at my first official book launch.

A wonderful, supportive church family, who responded so well to Steve and I sharing from the heart this month.

An amazing first musical evening at my daughter’s new secondary school – the talent was incredible.

 

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Trade launch

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I know some of you who read this blog regularly are writers – others are interested in the writing world. So you have probably picked up on the fact that I have a new book coming out in November – the book I’ve had on my heart to write for a good few years – Taking Off the Mask.

I recently attended the Christian Resources Together retreat, an event held in Derbyshire, England, for retailers and suppliers in the Christian publishing world. I was there to promote the book: my publisher, Authentic, had kindly done some advance printing so that we could provide bookshop managers and other retailers with copies.

Taking Off The Mask Front Cover

You will see a lot more of this image on my website in the coming weeks, but here’s the cover of my book!

As it was my first time being invited to pitch a product to the trade, as it were, I thought I’d give you a few insights into what it was like:

I was feeling quite daunted before I left – about the idea of having to ‘sell’ my book and be ‘on show’ continually. I also wondered whether I would be left to find my own way around, eat meals with strangers etc. However my publishers looked after me so well, and the other members of the Association of Christian Writers that I saw there were so friendly and encouraging too, that I needn’t have been worried. (One of the perils of being an introvert!) I also wondered whether anyone would want to come to my book signing, but all the books that were printed went in a very short space of time – and my hand just about held out (although my handwriting did get rather scrawly – sorry to those who received a messy signature!).

One of the main things that was stressed throughout the retreat, and which I definitely picked up, was that we are all family together – bookshops, publishers, authors etc. We all want the same thing – to produce good-quality material that honours God and get it out to the people who want to read it. It filled me with a lot of hope, as I enjoyed that sense of togetherness.

Since being back, I’ve connected with some of those I met on social media – and taken a big gulp each time I’ve seen one of them post a picture of my book and say they have started reading it! After such a long journey to get the book to where it is today it’s incredibly exciting, but also humbling (and slightly scary if I’m honest) to see it in readers’ hands…

 

Thanking God for ALL experiences

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A reflection and response…

As we looked at previously, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 talks about the fact that we need to learn to ‘give thanks in all circumstances’. Certainly the apostle Paul was a great example of this, praising God even while in chains. However, when we think about thanksgiving we don’t often turn to those situations that we find difficult or painful. And yet that is precisely the place God wants us to get to – being able to love and thank Him whatever is going on around (and to) us.

I find the hymn I’ve put below interesting because it does just that. Rather than only focusing on thanking God for the good times the writer has juxtaposed the positive with the negative: pleasant weather – and life experiences – with stormy, comfort with pain, roses with thorns.

Think back: how often have you thanked God for the difficulties in your life, as well as the easy times?

Read through this hymn, really reflecting on the individual images it contains. Try and place yourself in the hymn, and make yourself the protagonist. For example, what memories do you want to bring up and remember? What tears that you thought were now forgotten have brimmed up again? What storms have you weathered? When did you feel His comfort amongst the despair? What requests are you glad He denied? In what ways have you felt His hope?

Thanks to God for my Redeemer,

Thanks for all Thou dost provide!

Thanks for times now but a memory,

Thanks for Jesus by my side!

Thanks for pleasant, balmy springtime,

Thanks for dark and stormy fall!

Thanks for tears by now forgotten,

Thanks for peace within my soul!

Thanks for prayers that Thou hast answered,

Thanks for what Thou dost deny!

Thanks for storms that I have weathered,

Thanks for all Thou dost supply!

Thanks for pain, and thanks for pleasure,

Thanks for comfort in despair!

Thanks for grace that none can measure,

Thanks for love beyond compare!

Thanks for roses by the wayside,

Thanks for thorns their stems contain!

Thanks for home and thanks for fireside,

Thanks for hope, that sweet refrain!

Thanks for joy and thanks for sorrow,

Thanks for heav’nly peace with Thee!

Thanks for hope in the tomorrow,

Thanks through all eternity!

(Written in 1891 by August Ludvig Storm, of the Swedish Salvation Army. Translated in 1931 by Carl E. Backstrom and set to music by Swedish composer Johannes Alfred Hultman.)

Take some time to ask God to reveal to you experiences that are still locked away that you’ve never thanked Him for precisely because they were difficult. Ask for His revelation about them, so that you can see them through His eyes. Wait, seek His wisdom and then speak out a prayer of thanks, acknowledging the part they have played in shaping you. If there is pain or hurt that needs dealing with sit before your Father and ask Him to pour His healing balm on you, opening yourself up to His love and care.

You might like to try writing or drawing a juxtaposing poem or image yourself, picking up on both the good and not so easy things you want to thank God for. Keep whatever you create near you for the rest of the week so that you can use it as a starting point for reflective prayer.

Taking a thankfulness walk

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As we get back to our series on thankfulness, I encourage you to get outside into the fresh air…

I once wrote about one of the first walks my oldest child did as a toddler. I was incredibly frustrated because she was so slow – and so easily distracted. Every little thing held huge interest: a crack in the pavement, a spider crawling along a wall, a lamppost. As I tried to chivvy her along I felt God tell me to get down to her level and simply enjoy the walk through her eyes. The experience taught me a great deal…

So might I suggest you take some time out today (or some time this week) to go for a walk. You may have a park or open space nearby – if not, you can do this activity in your local streets or you may prefer to go for a drive into the country so that you can then walk in the midst of the countryside.

Start by breathing in the air around you, thanking God for the air that sustains not only you but also all the living things nearby.

Ask God to help you see things afresh, from a new, and grateful, perspective.

Begin walking, paying careful attention to all the little details around you. It may be a ladybird on a leaf (or pavement slab) or a bird that flies past… Each time you notice something stop walking, pause for a moment and then thank God for that particular thing. (It could even be a house you particularly like or an ambulance whizzing past – you could thank God for human creativity or the ability to help one another…)

Walk for as long as you are able and then, as you are bringing your walk to an end, thank God for the experience and the joy of being surrounded by His creation.

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

 

The Runaway

Yesterday was the first instalment of my interview with the lovely Claire Wong. Today, the questions focus on her debut novel, The Runaway, which I reviewed here.

therunaway

How did The Runaway come to be published?

It was a combination of research and accidental good timing! I decided not to submit it to anyone until I’d learned more about how publishing worked. I didn’t want to make the kind of mistake that would annoy an editor and make them throw away my manuscript. So I spoke to people I knew in the publishing industry for advice, which led to me contacting Jess Tinker at Lion Hudson and asked if she could spare me half an hour to answer some questions I had and she kindly agreed. That was such a helpful conversation, and also how I learned about Lion’s ethos, which I really liked. It so happened that Jess was looking for new submissions for novels, so she invited me to submit The Runaway to her. I said yes very calmly and then after I put the phone down I danced around my living room! It went from there and a few months later they offered me a contract.

Could you describe a little how you came to develop the story and characters, and how engrossed you became with the story?

Rhiannon’s decision to run away was my starting point, and it all went from there. It followed quite naturally that she would run away to the woods rather than anywhere else: in European folklore and fairy tale the forest is typically a wild lawless place where strange things happen, in addition to which I loved playing in the nearby woods as a child so it’s a setting I know well.

I found during the editing stages that the particular section I worked on that day could have a big impact on my mood. I was noticeably lower when working on the first section of the book, but became much happier once things improved for the characters! But I carried on going into work and carrying on with my normal life, and most people didn’t know I was writing a book until I had a publishing deal.

The setting is a Welsh village – quite natural for you as you are originally from Wales. Were the characters based on people you know to a certain extent too?

It’s perhaps inevitable that the people we know have some influence on the characters we imagine. I have met someone very like Diana, and it seemed to me that she would fit perfectly into a village like Llandymna, where there would be all sorts for her to organise! For Adam and Grace I drew on some of the key people who have had a positive impact on my life through their words and their kindness. I think we all need to know a few people like them in the course of our lives.

The female characters in particular are very strong in the book. Was that intentional? The wise Maebh offsets the overbearing, seemingly authoritarian Diana and the patient and kind Grace offsets the headstrong Rhiannon – how did you ensure a balance in the overall set of characters you created?

Well, with Tom being the village policeman and Adam having the makings of a local hero, I was determined not to end up with a story where only the men got to save the day and fix the women’s problems for them! So it was important for me that the female characters influenced the plot and overcame obstacles just as much as their male counterparts.

I think for me a key way of creating balance was to give these women very different outlooks on life, and let their characters form around those views. I think of Maebh as someone who, had things turned out differently, would have been matriarch of a large family – the beloved grandmother to many! So she sees the village as her family, whereas to Diana the village is her career and every interaction is part of her work. Rhiannon is someone who thinks only she is insecure, frustrated and terrified of what the future holds, which leads to her independence and lack of trust, whereas Grace understands that everyone else around her is struggling in their own ways, and because she sees that she can show kindness to others.

Storytelling traditions are highlighted a lot in the book – was oral storytelling a big part of your childhood or is there another reason you wanted to feature it?

I grew up having stories read aloud to me by family members, especially my mother and grandmother, and I remember being transfixed by a professional storyteller who could really bring myths and legends to life with his words. It’s something I got to study in more detail at university too, when I read the Iliad, a poem that ancient bards would memorise, which strikes me as an amazing thing.

What really fascinates me, though, is to what extent we are the product of the stories we grow up hearing, and how we can use storytelling to shape the world.

How difficult was it to finish writing the book and how did you feel once the editorial process had finished?

I dodged it for quite a while. For a long time the book actually had a different ending: one which was much easier to write but not what the book needed. There’s a scene towards the end where some characters say goodbye and that was the last thing I wrote because I put it off for so long! I’ve never liked goodbyes.

Once I was done, it was quite hard to move on to a new book and a new set of characters. I did get very attached to the cast of The Runaway, but at least now that it’s published I can enjoy asking readers who their favourite character was. I get a wide range of answers that I find very interesting!

Booksigning

You are already working on your next novel. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Gladly! A Map of the Sky is a story through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy called Kit, whose family have suddenly and without explanation moved to a remote spot overlooking the wild North Sea. In his quest to solve this mystery, he meets a strange mix of other people who’ve come to the same place to escape parts of their lives, and he makes it his mission to fix their problems. It’s a story about chronic illness, hope and how to be a hero in a world where there aren’t any dragons to slay.

 

 

Author interview: Claire Wong

Claire Wong photo
I am delighted to share part one of an interview with Claire, author of
The Runaway. She gives us an insight into writing poetry and novels, as well as how she fits writing into her everyday life. One of her poems can be found at the end, which is a wonderful added bonus!

Have you always been a writer?

I think so. I remember writing my first poem when I was five. It was based on the Nativity story: two children woke up one night to hear shepherds out in the street. Curious about the commotion, they decided to sneak out and follow them, and ended up coming to a stable where they saw something very unexpected!

 

Which writers influenced you as a child? And who influences you now? Who do you enjoy reading purely for pleasure too…

As a child I loved books set in other worlds, so Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Brian Jacques were all favourites of mine. As a teenager I enjoyed the dark comedy of Lemony Snicket and classics like Jane Austen. These days, my biggest influences are contemporary writers like Niall Williams and Susan Fletcher, but I still think of C.S. Lewis when I want to say something meaningful in an accessible way.

I enjoy reading books that don’t quite fit the main genres. They’re a risk, because you don’t know exactly what to expect if it isn’t a romance or a thriller or a historical mystery, but you stumble across some wonderful gems along the way.

You fit writing around a day job – how do you find the time, and is there a particular spot you like to write in?

At the moment, I’m in the office Monday to Thursday, and then Friday is my writing day. I think knowing I have a limited amount of time to write helps me be disciplined about making the most of it. I set up a workstation in the dining room, because it has a good-sized table and lots of natural light.

You write poetry – what prompted you to write The Runaway, your first novel?

I’ve been writing novels and short stories for a long time, but it’s taken me a while to finish one I was happy to see published. I suspect The Runaway ended up being that one because it contained a message and a story I felt compelled to tell.

I find poems easier to craft and hone quickly, in part simply because they are shorter and you can see where work is needed. I needed to give myself a lot more time to edit The Runaway before I showed it to anyone. I learned a lot from that process, which I’ll be able to apply to future novels!

Is there a big difference in the way you approached writing the book as opposed to your usual method for writing poetry?

You know, I’m surprised by the number of similarities! It began with an idea I felt I had to articulate – in this case the effects of a person leaving or being left behind, and the amazing extent of what’s possible when you choose to see the best in someone. I started scribbling in a notebook until it was full and then typed up those words so that I could rework them. One big difference was the sheer number of different voices I needed to develop for The Runaway – a poem usually only has one voice, but there was a whole cast of characters to grow here and I didn’t want them to all sound the same as each other!

Cannon's Mouth magazine coverWhat was the first piece of work you had published and how did that happen?

Back in 2013, I had a pair of poems published in a magazine called The Cannon’s Mouth. They were about how different people process loss and hope, and the way faith fits with those things. I’d decided to risk sending some of my work off to poetry magazines that year, which was a scary thing to do, but I’m pleased to say it paid off!

Claire will be sharing more about her book The Runaway in part two of this interview. For now, let me leave you with one of her poems, ‘Adrift’.

Set adrift in the dark
when the last blaze of evening colour
turns quiet on the waters
all her safety net routines in that sky furnace

how many meetings of the board
and quantifiable philosophies
did it take to rationalise the need
for that stealthy trip to shore?

They loosed the ropes
murmuring agreements and best interests
pushed this little boat to the tides
and she awoke to no landmarks
but blue horizons all around

and soon
she knows
She’ll be dancing on the waters

waves teem with songs like you’ve never heard
to be adrift in arms that catch you each time
is to be secure in the storm
so that not knowing is its own kind of certainty

direction comes in its own time
with a breath to the sails
though we’ve lost much that seemed precious
nothing’s lost in this place

 

Thankful for the cross

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Today we are going to focus specifically on thanking God for the cross. You might find it helpful to get hold of either a picture of a cross or a small physical cross that you can place in front of you to concentrate your thoughts.

Meditation: Start by simply looking at the cross and then think about what Jesus dying on that cross has done for you, for your life, for your everyday ‘going about’. Speak out a few of your thoughts slowly, mulling over the words and truly allowing them to sink in and impact you.

Here are some thoughts you may like to utilise (and personalise) during your meditation:

Whether good, bad, enemies or friends, we each deserved to die as we cannot stand before God in our own righteousness.

And yet, through Christ’s death we are transformed – given a new identity and new standing before God.

We are dressed in Christ’s royal robes rather than our filthy rags.

And we are now free! Free from the clutches of sin and death, free from our enemy’s hold on us.

We can now choose to walk in that close relationship with our loving heavenly Father each moment of every day.

Finish your time of meditation by turning some of the thoughts you had into prayers of thanks to God.

Showing thankfulness to others

First off, let me say Happy National Writing Day to those of you in the UK! When I heard it was today, I decided I absolutely had to get round to posting my next blog in the thankfulness series. It has taken me until late afternoon, but I have been writing during the rest of the day too! (And sorry these posts haven’t been as regular as usual – work on my books has been filling my time – more writing! 😉 )

This post encourages you to do some writing of your own…

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1 Thessalonians 5:11 tells us to ‘encourage one another and build each other up’. A great way of doing this is looking out for ways to show someone else how thankful you are that they are in your life. Perhaps you could cook them a meal, buy them a small gift or, what I’m suggesting here, find a way to tell them exactly what they mean to you. This will do wonders for their inner spirit – and you’ll also find you are uplifted through doing it.

I would suggest keeping a steady supply of nice notelets or paper and then write notes of thankfulness for the people in your life every so often. Today, pick those closest to you and spend some time pondering what you could say in a note to them. Using pen and paper rather than a computer forces you to slow down, giving you the chance to really stop and think about the person you are going to be writing to.

If you have a partner, or a flat mate, leave them a card letting them know why you thank God for them and why it is wonderful to share your home with them. If you have children, make it a priority to write them a little note and hide it somewhere for them to find later. I have a little tradition with my kids– I write a note each morning and put it in their lunchbox. I know that both of them, since being in full-time school, have found lunch times difficult as it reminds them they are away from home all day. I make a point of telling them how much they are loved. And on days I know they have a test or are worried about something in particular, I write a Bible verse or a little prayer that addresses that. I also try to write notes to them every so often pointing out particular characteristics in them that I really appreciate too…

Of course, you could extend this out to people you don’t know well. Saying, or writing, a quick phrase that lets them know you’ve noticed them, and how they make your day better, will be such a blessing to them. For example, do you have milk delivered? Leave your milkman/woman a note simply saying ‘I thank God for you every time I see fresh milk on my doorstep’ – and then say a prayer of thanks whenever you bring in the milk.