Share the stress challenge – Advanced level – 25 January 2018 – Stressed

When Cass Jennings is asked to help bring back the body of a colleague from the Antarctic ice, she assumes the death was down to a moment of carelessness in a hostile environment. But when the power briefly fails part way into the long Antarctic winter, then returns just as the crew get hysterical, Cass smells a rat – like a lab rat. Someone is testing the supposedly stable scientific minds, measuring how they respond to stress.

The stakes are suddenly raised by a series “accidents” which even the station commander can’t explain. Who is causing the mayhem? And does Cass have the inner strength to escape the deadly trap? Michael Iden’s novel “The Winter Over”[1] explores how individuals and groups respond to extreme stress – and the result isn’t pretty. All kinds of hidden demons lead to a mixture of fight and flight responses among the crew.

Although few people will face such extreme natural or human dangers, there are situations in everyday life that push our buttons. And when they come in quick succession, it can be difficult to maintain an appearance of calm control. Our words and actions too readily reveal the hidden darkness inside: “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Matthew 12:34b NIV)

But Jesus doesn’t want us to be overcome by the inevitable stresses of life. In a beautiful call to balance our work and rest, he offers to share our load with us:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

The importance of this offer lies in the picture of two oxen ploughing together. Oxen are by nature slow and steady beasts, not easily stressed. The shared yoke means they must work at the same pace, usually that of the larger, older, slower beast. By choosing to work with Christ in all we do, we may find ourselves working more slowly, perhaps doing fewer things. But we will survive the stresses of daily life and perhaps even accomplish more than we ever dreamed.

[1] Michael Iden (2017), The Winter Over, Seattle: Thomas and Mercer

Posted in Articles, Devotionals, challenge, Reflection | Tagged , , , , ,

Will the winter ever be over? – Book Review


When Cass Jennings is asked to help bring back the body of a colleague from the Antarctic ice, she assumes the death was down to a moment of carelessness in a hostile environment. But when the power briefly fails part way into the long Antarctic winter, then returns just as the crew get hysterical, Cass smells a rat – like a lab rat. Someone is testing the supposedly stable scientific minds, measuring how they respond to stress.

The stakes are suddenly raised by a series “accidents” which even the station commander can’t explain. Who is causing the mayhem? And does Cass have the inner strength to escape the deadly trap? Michael Iden’s novel “The Winter Over”[1] explores how individuals and groups respond to extreme stress – and it isn’t pretty. All kinds of hidden demons lead to a mixture of fight and flight responses.

The story is generally well told, keeping gripping the reader and providing a few red herrings. However, I found there were too many points of view. As each situation unfolded, we seemed to get a glimpse into the murky past of half the station crew. Whilst this helped explain the complexity of the situation, it meant that some of the back stories had to be resolved rather abruptly, with a rapidly escalating body count.

I suspected the real villain early in the story, but was only confident by about two thirds through – which I reckon is a good point for satisfaction. However, the reveal was a bit disappointing – the usual ploy of mentioning a detail Cass had never spoken of. But the killer immediately admitted the error. From here to the end, it seemed that Iden was rushing towards a deadline whilst trying to save his heroin.

However, if you enjoy psychological (and psychopathic) thrillers and can overlook these writing flaws, you’ll enjoy The Winter Over.

[1] Michael Iden (2007), The Winter Over, Seattle: Thomas and Mercer

Posted in Books, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

We’re Family! challenge – Advanced Level – 18 Jan 2018 – Topic: bored

“Oh, hello! Veronica Harper, isn’t it?”

“My name’s Ronnie.” In response to a disapproving look from the older woman, Ronnie smoothed out her tight leopard print sweater.

“Yes, well … Ronnie … I hope you’re better than the last girl they sent us. The books on this trolley need to go back on the shelves. Make sure you put them in the right Dewey decimal classification and in order or author.”

Ronnie put on a sugary smile and curtsied. “Certainly Miss Jardine!” She grabbed the trolley, and set off, high heels clacking on the polished floor.”


Ronnie could feel the librarian’s eye boring into her shoulders. She gave a flick of her skater skirt and disappeared down the History aisle. As Ronnie began to find her way around the library Miss Jardine began asking her to help readers locate books.

But when the library was quiet, Ronnie became bored . One day, she idly picked up a novel and thumbed through the pages. The youngest daughter of a successful family became unexpectedly pregnant, the child’s father was absent and her parents were disapproving. Ronnie was gripped by the powerful emotions the young mother experienced.

A discreet cough brought Ronnie back to the present. Miss Jardine was stood at the end of the shelves, watching her. “Time to lock up.” The voice was terse but there was a ghost of smile.

Whenever she was bored, Ronnie sought out her novel, following the birth, childhood and adolescence of a young girl with no prospects. She wished for a happy ending, perhaps as much for herself as the fictional child. But real life insisted on intruding.

One quiet afternoon, Miss Jardine called Ronnie over the desk. “This gentleman is doing some research into his ancestors. Would you help him? You should probably begin in the records section.”
Ronnie shrugged. “This way,” and she set off for the far side of the library.

Looking sideways at the young man, Ronnie noticed his drab clothes, crooked glasses and shaggy hair topped with a small leather circle. “You’re Jewish,” she remarked.

“Yes.” replied the young man. “My name is Johnny Newman. My family escaped from Germany just after the war started. My gran’s dead and my mum changed our name to hide our past. But I want to know all about it: what it was like for them and how they escaped.”

“My mum was put up for adoption and my dad left when she got pregnant. That’s all I know about my family.”

“I’m on my own too” Johnny’s voice was a whisper. “That’s why I want to know about my history.”

In the records section, Johnny asked for Births, Marriages and Deaths. “I’m looking for my grandma. She called herself Eve Miller, but that wouldn’t be her real name. They made themselves sound English to be accepted. I’d guess she’s Eva Müller. It has a u with two dots over it, an umlaut; you pronounce it ‘oo’”

The search went on for days. Eventually, Ronnie got bored and wandered off. She found a book about Jews in the 2nd Word War. The stories captivated her; she became engrossed in the struggle to survive under tyrannical oppression, and the desperate measures taken to escape. In the centre of the book were photographs depicting the horrors of war. Ronnie stopped at a photo of two young girls. She peered closely at the picture for a few moments, then called to Johnny.

“Hey, look at this! The girl on the right.”

“What am I looking at?”

“That face, the eyes and nose, and even the hair; that’s exactly like me when I was 8.”

Johnny read the caption: “Eva Müller and her sister Gerta. My grandma?” Johnny peered at the girl on the left of the photo.

“She’s a bit like my mum, but I can’t be sure. We need to look up records of Jews who came to England.”

“I know where they are.” Ronnie was suddenly excited. Days went by, but Ronnie never got bored .

Then, “found it. Gerta Müller went to live with the Wilsons. My mum once told me her real mum had died, but her name was Geraldine Wilson. Must be the same person”

Johnny beamed: “And I’ve traced my grandma to Eva Müller. That means we’re cousins. We’re not alone any more.”

As they hugged and laughed aloud, Ronnie caught a glimpse of Miss Jardine at the end of the aisle, smiling broadly.

Posted in challenge, Fiction | Tagged , , , , , ,

A lighter shade of blue challenge entry – Advanced – 16 Nov 2017 – Blue – 3rd place

“Isn’t it about time you got rid of those clothes?” Vanessa waved at the wardrobe full of blue dresses.

“It’s all I have left of Monica, one last physical contact.” Andrew slumped down on the bottom of the bed.

“There comes a time when you’ve got to let go.”
David grunted. “That’s easy for you to say.”

“No it’s not. I was lost when your father died. But I took a decision that life must go on, and threw myself into new activities.”

“You had your children, and now grandchildren. I only had Monica, and she’s gone.” Tears welled up in Andrew’s eyes.

“Well you could at least have kept some brighter clothes,” Vanessa replied in a softer tone.

“Blue was her favourite colour.”

“Well, all I’m saying is, you need to think about moving on.” Vanessa reached down and kissed Andrew on the forehead. “See you Sunday for lunch?”

Andrew stood and hugged his mum. “OK.”

Vanessa straightened her tailored suit and let herself out of the flat.

Andrew locked the door behind her, walked back to the bedroom and took a long navy dress from the wardrobe. Lifting it over his head, he slid it down his body and pushed his sleeves through the arms. Reaching the rear zip was a little awkward, but he managed to close it fulling, then lowered the zip on his trousers and slid them off.

Standing before the mirror, he considered the image: short, untidy dark hair, greying at the edges; black socks around his ankles; hairy calves showing beneath the hemline and a bulge over his flat chest. He snorted and spoke to his reflection, “It definitely looked better on you, Moni.”

Through the window, the sky was darkening from pink to blue. Andrew watched for a moment, then moved quickly to find comfortable shoes and a blue jacket. Grabbing his keys from the hall table, and closing the front door behind him, he headed out into the night. In the street, a passing couple glanced back in surprise, but he ignored them. Five minutes of brisk walking brought him to the top of Pendleton Hill. He sat on a bench and sighed.

“Do you remember how we used to sit here, Moni, and look out over the town? Last Christmas morning, after the midnight service, we came here again and you said it was the shepherds looking down on Bethlehem. You wore this dress, and I fell in love with you again.” Tears started to run down his cheeks and drip onto his jacket. Soon Andrew was sobbing loudly, his whole body shaking.
“Oh Moni, what will I do without you?”

Gradually the weeping subsided, and the cold began to penetrate the thin clothing. Shaking himself, Andrew walked slowly back to the flat, where he lay on the bed and closed his eyes.

When he opened them again, the uncurtained window showed a patch of pale blue cloudless sky. Yawning and stretching, Andrew noticed the dress he was still wearing. He frowned for a few seconds, then smiled in remembrance. Dropping the jacket, he opened the zip and slipped out of the dress, laying it neatly on Monica’s side of the bed.

Showered and dressed, Andrew took the dress to the kitchen and laid it over a chair as he prepared breakfast. Seated at the table, he spoke: “So Monica, mum says I need to get rid of your clothes and make a new life for myself. What am I to do?” No answer came, but when he stood, Andrew moved with a new resolution.

From the wardrobe, he took out an old suitcase, and began to fill it with Monica’s skirts and dresses. Returning to the kitchen to finish his coffee before heading to work, he lifted the dress off the chair, and began to fold it – then stopped for a few seconds. Then he went back to the bedroom, put the dress on a hanger and hung it on the wardrobe door.

With suitcase in hand, Andrew set off for the High Street, looking in the windows of the charity shops as he went. Finally, he stopped outside a shop with an elegant window display and bright blue paintwork. Stepping inside, he handed the suitcase to an assistant. “Some of my wife’s clothes. I need to find a lighter shade of blue.”

Without another word he left the shop, a smile on his face and a spring in his step.

Posted in challenge, Fiction | Tagged , , , , ,

The problem with labels…

Two recent, apparently unrelated, news stories have troubled me for similar reasons. The first concerns the Church of England’s new guidance on tackling bullying in its schools. The Archbishop of Canterbury writes that everyone should be free to explore their identity without being labelled or bullied, including allowing boys to wear tutus and tiaras to wear superhero costumes.

This all sounds very laudable: let’s not label anyone simply by their appearance. However, the context of the report (countering a reported rise in transgender bullying) risks automatically labelling any boy to exercises his new found freedom as “transgender” when he may simply want to see how the other half live. And by implicitly labelling such boys, they are more likely to be exposed to the very form of bullying the measure is designed to defeat. (Ironically, no one has mentioned the more obvious and statistically more common label of “transvestite”)

The observant among you will have noticed I keep referring to “boys”; should we not also be concerned about the welfare of transgender girls? Indeed we should. But when so much of modern high street fashion is based on historically male clothing, who will comment on a girl wearing boys’ clothes?

The second problem with labels is that by definition they define people. If a boy takes the Archbishop’s advice and tries on a tutu, he may be labelled “transgender”, and thereafter consider himself as such. He may then fell under pressure to conform to other transgender behaviours. If this seems a little far-fetched, read the story of deaf singer Mandy Harvey, who has received death threats from some deaf people for “promoting oralism” – the idea that deaf people should lip-read rather than use sign language. These people do not see the irony of this accusation when Harvey band members are learning American Sign Language to better communicate with her. Nor do they recognise that she is demonstrating an amazing capability to “hear” music through touch that many fully hearing people cannot accomplish.

We certainly do need to fight the tendency to bully those who are different, whether because of their gender expression, disability or unusual dress sense. But if we do this by assigning them to a labelled community, we are in danger of reinforcing the very bullying we seek to oppose.

Posted in Articles, Community, Opinion | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hold your feet to the fire

“Your feet are freezing!” This cry often escapes my lips as my wife offers her toes for a warming rub. Even on the warmest days she can get cold feet. 

I sometimes get cold feet too. One Christmas I was due to accompany a choir on the piano in a Carol Service. On the day, I woke up with a sore head and blocked nose. I backed out of the event, leaving the choir to find a replacement pianist. However, as I sat alone in my flat, I realised that it wasn’t the head cold that prevented me playing; I had got cold feet. Cold feet are often the cause of missed opportunities, leading to disappointment and resentment. When God brought the Isaralites out of Egypt, Moses parted the Red Sea and led them to the borders of Canaan. After spying out the Promised Land, Joshua and Caleb told the Israelites that with God’s help they could conquer the inhabitants and claim their inheritance. Instead the people were swayed by tall tales of marauding giants. They got cold feet and died in the desert. 

But our feet should never be cold if we are filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul writes that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” ‭‭2 Timothy‬ ‭1:7‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬. 

So next time you start to feel your feet turning cold, hold them in the fire of the Holy Spirit, and step out in faith to the future God has planned for you. 

Posted in Articles, challenge | Tagged , , ,

What’s in a name? Challenge entry – 12 October 2017 – Advanced – Topic: Storm

In November 2015, Abigail stormed into the west coast of Scotland to join an elite but growing club. Having seen an increasing number of severe weather events in the preceding years, the British Meteorological Office (known as the Met Office) began naming winter storms which were forecast to cause significant damage and disruption. Desmond and Frank surrounded Christmas with gales and severe flooding. Thousands were evacuated from their homes, as power lines crashed and bridges crumbled under the onslaught of wind and water.

It is said that if you name your sheep you identify it as part of the family, and you won’t be able to kill it when you need the meat. The Met Office began naming storms for a similar reason: to help people identify with them, to recognise them when they make landfall and hopefully take precautions before the storm reaches them.

Aside from meteorological events, we face other storms in our lives: sickness, financial loss, bereavement. Many people in our world have lost their homes through war or persecution. The Jews would have identified with these storms as they lamented the destruction of their beloved Jerusalem.

But God has taken steps to identify with his people. Through Isaiah God declares: “Can a woman forget her nursing child? Can she have no pity on the son to whom she gave birth? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. See, I have marked your names on My hands. Your walls are always before Me. (Isaiah 49:15-16 NLV)

So whether you are naming a storm of life, or simply recalling the latest hurricane, be confident that no matter how rough things get, God will not lose track of your name.

Posted in Devotionals, challenge | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Don’t get caught napping! challenge – 27 July 2017 – Advanced – Topic: Snooze

When I got an alarm clock with a Snooze button, I thought I was in heaven! Years earlier, my wind-up alarm would ring at 6:30am, to wake me for my paper round. I would hit the silence button and roll over. I just wanted a few more moments in my bed. Thirty minutes later, my dad would shake me awake and chase me out of the door to avoid being late. With my new gadget, I could hit the snooze button and be woken again 10 minutes later. No chance of oversleeping now!

In time, I realised I could repeat the process twice more and get an extra half hour of sleep. But with no parents to wake me, I would then have to scramble around to get washed, dressed and breakfasted, then run full pelt to the station. Hopefully, I would still arrive at work on time. If I failed, my boss would have something to say. Judicious timing meant that I never quite reached the point of being sacked from my post.

It reminds me of the story Jesus told about the 10 virgins preparing for a wedding. When the bridegroom didn’t show on time, five of them trimmed their lamps to save oil. The other five let their lamps burn out. Jesus doesn’t say so, but we assume they all went to sleep. In the middle of the night the cry went up, “He’s here! Get ready.” The first five girls were out of bed in a flash, their lamps rekindled and ready for the main event. The other five took their time responding, almost as if they had hit the snooze button. When they came to their senses they discovered their lamps were empty. By the time they’d got back from the nearest market stall with fresh oil, everyone was inside and the door barred against them. Jesus warned his hearers, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)

God calls each one of us to come to him in humility and repentance, to be forgiven and put right with him through Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s easy to assume that there is plenty of time, that I don’t need to respond just yet; that’s like pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock. But as surely as there is a deadline for arriving at work, or a moment when the bridegroom will appear, God has appointed a time for us to meet him face to face. By then it will be too late to change your mind. Make sure that you don’t push the snooze button, but take the opportunity to respond to God’s invitation right now; then you really will be in heaven.

Posted in Articles, Devotionals, challenge | Tagged , , , ,

Learning to live the dream challenge – 20 July 2017 – Advanced – Topic: Sea-change

Landing with a thump on the floor finally woke Sam up. He thrashed wildly for a few seconds but he was cocooned in the duvet which lay in waves around like rolling hills in comparison to the wild mountains of water in his dream.

Falling back into the softness of the quilt, Sam waited for his racing heart to still. Gradually he discerned another sound above his heartbeat: a rhythmic drumming of waves against rocks as the Atlantic breakers pounded his island home.

“Need to escape the hustle of city life? Come and enjoy the outdoor life by the sea,” he declared, remembering the seductive advert in the travel magazine. “Seems like my dream home is turning into a nightmare.”

Three months earlier, desperate to forget his recent loss, Sam had responded to an appeal for new residents on a remote Scottish island. Dark brooding mountains, crystal clear waters, and a landscape with more sheep than people seemed could not have presented a greater contrast to the cramped and rundown neighbourhood he’d left behind.

A persistent tapping brought his attention back to the present. “The boat!” One by one, Sam reluctantly extracted his limbs from the bedding and made his way to the kitchen. His old waxed jacket and walking boots were still wet from his earlier trek home last evening.

Sam headed for the slipway, leaning into the teeth of the wind, shielding his eyes from the driving rain as he peered into the darkness. Surging waves helped him drag the boat up the beach, but the retreating water threatened to pull it from his grasp.

As his strength was about to give out, a figure loomed out of the rain. Strong hands grabbed the gunwale and hauled the boat to safety, then hustled Sam back into the warmth of the cottage kitchen.

“Thanks,” Sam said, closing the door behind them. “Is it always like this up here?”

“There’ll be many a storm afore the summer comes.” The voice was hoarse with a thick accent, but the ruddy face smiled back at Sam.

Watching Sam putting the kettle on, the stranger asked, “Are ye thinking of leaving already?”

Placing two chipped mugs of steaming tea on the table, Sam sat down and sighed. “I can’t. After paying my bills, I only had enough for a one-way ticket to the land of my dreams. Now I’m stuck here until I can save some money to get off.”

“Sometimes dreams take a little work. Survive the winter and you’ll never leave.” Thrusting out a hand, he continued, “The name’s Angus, by the way.”

Sam took the proffered hand, “Sam.”

Angus turned Sam’s hand over and stared at the angry red grazes on the fingers and palms. “You need a decent pair of gloves or you’ll tear your hands to shreds. Take these, I’ve got plenty.” Angus pushed a pair of heavy leather gloves across the table.

Picking them up, Sam noted the profusion of scuffs and creases. “Thanks,” he said.

“Gotta look out for each other.” Angus rose. “Thanks for the tea. If you need anything, I’m just across the way.” And he let himself out of the house before Sam had risen from his chair.

During the winter Sam worked alongside Angus, shovelling cow dung, restacking logpiles, repairing roofs, unloading the weekly supply boat, and drinking coffee or beer in the cottage that served as shop, cafe, pub and church. His pale face turned deep red, callouses appeared on his hands and stubble grew on his chin. At first the other islanders stared at Sam as he went about his business. But soon they just grunted at him, as they did to each other.

The first clear morning of spring, Sam found himself side by side with Angus on the quayside in a golden sunrise, watching the supply boat manoeuvre into harbour.

“You built up enough money to leave yet?” Angus glanced sideways at Sam.

The younger man lifted up his arm and prodded the biceps. “No, but I reckon I’ve built up enough muscle to stay.”

“Need at least another year for that,” replied Angus, a smile spreading across his lips.

“I guess you’re stuck with me for a while then.” Sam grinned as he stepped forward to meet the approaching vessel.

Each caught a rope tossed from the boat and tied off to the bollards on the quayside. Working seamlessly with the crew, the two lifted and carried until the boat was empty, then fell into matching strides as they set off side by side for the pub.

Posted in Articles, challenge, Fiction | Tagged , , , , , ,

To beach or not to beach, that is the question. challenge entry – Advanced level 3rd place – 15 June 2017 – Topic:Relax

Lying under a parasol on a sun-drenched beach with a good book in hand is not relaxing, according to
my wife. For me, it’s a welcome opportunity to immerse myself in another world free of demands and
responsibilities. After an hour, she wants to browse the local market, visit an ancient house or drive into
the mountains. Perhaps she has a point. After all, holidays in the sun only occupy a small part of the year.
The rest of the time we must find other ways to escape the pressures of daily life.

The Jewish Sabbath was intended as a gift, to break the drudgery of work, to allow space for family and to
demonstrate trust in God. Jesus went further, offering his followers an opportunity for rest (or at least a
measure of ease) within work:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and
learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is
easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NIVUK)

So while I dream of lying in the son with the latest mystery novel, I’ll try trusting in the Son who can
offer me a more relaxed way to go about my daily work. 

Posted in Uncategorized