Raison d’être

Faithwriters.com challenge – 12th January 2017 – Topic: Fresh start – 2nd Place

The room gradually filled with a hubbub of conversation, old ties being renewed and new connections made. A couple of hundred representatives of charitable organisations had gathered at parliament to celebrate achievements and receive inspiration for the coming year. I met people I’d never normally encounter: the information technologist for a small medical charity, the CEO of an overseas aid organisation and a tax accountant working mainly with religious groups. Each talked of mundane matters yet with passionate ambition to grow the mission of their organisations.

We were called to order by the host politician, who spoke warmly and briefly of the positive impact of charities on his community, before giving way to the main speakers.

We sipped fruit juice and nibbled tiny snacks as the chief executive of the national umbrella body for voluntary organisations spoke enthusiastically of the strong public support of charitable bodies within the country and warned of the need for fresh thinking as the purse strings were ever more firmly tightened. We listened politely but with little surprise to a message that simply echoed our own experiences.

As the next speaker began to describe the horrors with which her charity contended, the room fell silent. The litany of abuse directed at women from ethnic minority groups, and the numbers involved shocked everyone present. The level of support to help women rebuild their lives, offered in upwards of 14 national languages and dialects, conducted in secret to protect the women from their families and communities by workers who were themselves threatened drew some tears and warm sustained applause.

But the best reception was for the last speaker, a nervous young man in his twenties. Unused to public speaking, he talked simply and plainly about a life of family tragedy, abuse, addictions, lost education and time in prison. Yet he stood before us, a representative of the hundreds assisted by a charity who had now offered him a job helping others overcome the same obstacles. His testimony of transformation was greeted with hooting, hollering and rousing applause.

For this is why we wrestle with funding issues, struggle to develop passionate, well-equipped teams, and work long hours in unforgiving or risky circumstances: to walk alongside tired, frightened, weary people who have lost hope, until they are ready to make a fresh start. It’s why we do what we do, and we love it.

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Dream cruise?

Faithwriters Challenge entry 15 December 2016 – Intermediate – Topic: Daydream (15/12/16) 

I decided to drink my diet cola in the sunshine, so I settled on a bench facing the river. As I sipped my drink, I heard voices approaching from behind, one Cockney, the other from Essex. Their conversation stopped while they arranged themselves at the picnic table behind me.

“So go on,” said the Essex voice.

“So he said to me, ‘I don’t hire daydreamers in my company.’ Then he pointed at me with his left forefinger and said, ‘Darren, you’re fired!’”

“That’s a bit harsh isn’t it? Surely everyone daydreams now and then?”

A bit quieter, “It wasn’t the first time.”

“How often then?”

A pause while we all sipped our drinks in unison. “Every day, around 10 am. That’s when Sophie starts her training. I picture her firm body in that close-fitting swimsuit, poised on the block. A few seconds’ of deep breathing, and she pushes off, slicing into the water like a Gannet with hardly a ripple. Then up and down the pool, shoulder muscles rippling as her arms pull her body through the water.”

Essex boy whistled. “Wow, what a picture. I can see why you dream about her.”

“Believe me, Dave, there’s no better sight. Anyway, the boss said I failed at every task he set.”

“I’m not surprised. I suppose you had to leave immediately?”

They sipped their beers before Darren continued, “There was taxi waiting outside so I got in and off we went. After a few minutes, the driver turned into a side street and stopped. Before I could ask what he was doing, two blokes in suits got in, one either side of me.”

I leaned back a little to hear more. Darren mimicked a South London accent.“The one on the left said, ‘The boss wants to see you.’”

Then in his normal voice, “So I told him, ’He just fired me,’”

South London again: “’Never mind that, just come with us.’ And then he whipped out a blindfold. I tried to push him away, but the other bloke held me back in the seat.”

“Blimey, that must have been scary!”

“It was, but by then the taxi was moving. And the doors lock automatically, so there’s no way out.”

“Where did they take you?”

“I wasn’t sure at first. But then I started to hear gulls calling and water sloshing.”

A grunt from Dave. “Mmm. The marina”

They supped again, then Darren took up the story. “They pulled me out of the taxi and marched me up a ramp. The floor was swaying, so I knew we was on a boat. Then they pushed me down some stairs, opened a door and shoved me in.”

“A bit rough with you, weren’t they?”

“Not half. Anyway, I fell onto a bed, and before I had time to stand up the engine fired and we began to move. Then arms grabbed me and a voice said, ‘Darren, are you alright?”

Dave sounded startled. “Don’t tell me they took Sophie and all?”

Darren grunted assent. “She pulled off my blindfold, and there she was in nothing but her swimsuit.” He whistled. “A real sight for sore eyes.”

“Never mind that, get on with the story!” Dave was as eager as I was to hear the rest.”

Darren dropped his voice, and I had to strain to hear. “We decided to find a way off the boat. So we emptied a heavy fruit bowl for a weapon. As we reached the door, it . She raised the bowl ready to strke, then dropped it in amazement. There was a bloke in white uniform with gold braid and a tray with champagne bottle and flutes.”

“Never!” I managed to sneak a look at Dave’s face, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

“God’s truth. In the plummiest voice you’ve ever heard, he said” – here Darren tried to sound terribly posh – “he said, ‘Compliments of the boss, he would like to offer you the use of his personal yacht for the weekend.  If madam requires some clothes, she may select from the wardrobe in the master cabin. And if you need anything, just ask.”

“Gordon Bennett!” Dave seemed to be speechless.

I had to move before it became obvious I was listening. As I turned to walk past their table, Darren said, “Best weekend of my life. I proposed to her out at sea, and the boss gave me my job back.” He looked at his watch, then drained his glass. “Anyway, better get back or he’ll think I’ve been daydreamin again.”


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Just a cheery smile…

Faithwriters.com Challenge – 8th December 2016 – Intermediate – As easy as Pie – 3rd Place

For as long as I can remember, I have been involved in Christmas carolling with The Salvation Army around the United Kingdom. As the breeze carries the sound of familiar carols performed by brass band and singers, a small group of collectors receives donations from passers-by. The money collected will help to provide food and toys for struggling families, shelter to homeless people and meals for the lonely.

You’d think collecting would be as easy as pie. Put on a uniform or wear a badge to identify your organisation, hold out a box and take the money. But there is both an art and a science to the process. The science is in the knowledge of regulations which abound, some local and others national. For example, permission must be obtained to sing, play and collect in the desired location, although this could range from a direct personal invitation from the local store to a formal application form via head office. Do you also require permission from the local authority? How many collectors are you allowed? Must you report the proceeds to the council? Can you give out literature? All these questions must be answered before you turn up to play and collect.

And then there is the question of where to position your collectors. Too far from the musicians and you may not be recognised; too close together and they will be competing for the same customers. Does the footfall change during the day, for example at lunchtime? I’ve often changed positions part way through my stint as I noticed people taking different routes through the precinct. All of these considerations are important, as we want to maximise the income to provide the best service to our beneficiaries. This is the art of collecting.

But once all these factors are taken into consideration, only one thing really matters: to make eye contact with at as many people as possible, give a cheery smile and wish them “Happy Christmas”. It takes some perseverance in the UK, where acknowledging strangers is frowned upon. But many people respond cheerfully, and some donate. If someone’s spirits have been lifted, you’ve done some good. And that’s as easy as pie.

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Who wants to live in an ice box?

Faithwriters.com challenge – 3 November 2016 – Topic: Chill

Soon after we moved to our new home, my sister and her family came to stay. One day, returning from an outing, she told us they’d been impressed by a message on the road telling drivers to “CHILL”. I had to point out that, rather than a plea by the transport department for careful driving, it actually was an abbreviation for a nearby neighbourhood – “C’HILL” for “Craigshill”.

I see that sign most days as I set off for the office. At first, I thought it was a great message at the start of my day: “be calm and take things in your stride. Relax and enjoy the ride.” But on reflection, I’m not so sure. Life is full of ups and downs, and whilst we may not like to be around people who moan all the time, eternal optimists can be just as tiring.

Solomon says that God “has set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiates 3:11 NIV), yet he regularly repeats the phrase, “everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). I share his frustration at the tension between a dream and the reality of our messy lives. We get fired up to do something great, only to have our hopes dashed like rain on a bonfire. Maybe we both just need to “Chill.”

The process of chilling slows down the natural decay in living things. We chill things to preserve them: food, medicines, harvested sperm and eggs or donated organs. But who wants to live in an ice box? Jesus said that he came to give life to the full (John 10:10) – surely that must include some passion.

So while I may need to chill while driving, I’ll strive to keep my dreams fired up and put up my umbrella against the rain.

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A clash of dates

FaithWriters.com Challenge 27/10/16 – Topic: CALENDAR  – 3rd place

“I was here first. You’ve no right to push me out!” The voice was shrill, rising as it spoke.

A deeper voice replied, slow and steady, “But I have the greater authority.”

“Just because his boss says he needs to go to the conference doesn’t mean you can cancel a date with his wife.”

“A date? There’s nothing romantic about a brass band contest. She should be grateful I’ve rescued her from that racket.”

“Well she’s not happy. This was a rare opportunity to spend time together away from work. Saturday is supposed to be their day off.”

“It’s no use complaining. He knew there would be weekend work when he took the role.”

“That’s not the point. I was here first, and now you come barging in. And he’ll be letting down the rest of the band.”

“Not my problem. They need another body for the exhibition stand. He has to go to the conference.”

“But it’s overnight. She’ll be alone again.”

“Can’t be helped!”

A third voice speaks, soft and low, “Dates, dates, I thought we agreed to keep things calm when discussing work-life balance.”

They become quieter. “Sorry Calendar.”

“Now, Work, tell me how long this conference runs for.”

“Saturday lunchtime to Sunday evening. But it will take 4 hours to get there, so he’ll need to leave in the morning.”

“Ok. And Life, when is his band on stage?”

“They need to be there at 9:30 and play at 10:45.”

“So, he’ll be free by 11:30.”

“I guess so. But they were going to stay all day, and get to meet some friends, until Work here muscled in.”

“That’s enough! Here’s a plan. They travel down to the contest, which is already part way to the conference. He plays with the band, they have lunch, we get her a lift home and he goes on to the conference for the evening session . Will that work?”

Life speaks first, rather hesitantly, “Well, I suppose there will be someone else travelling by car who could bring her home.”

“Good,” replies Calendar. “What do you think, work?”

“There are other people on the stand. And Sunday will be the busier day, so that’s when he’ll be most needed.”

“Excellent! That wasn’t so hard, was it? Anything else to sort out, or can we take a day off?”

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No room for flabby Christians

Faithwriters.com challenge 20/10/2016 – Topic: Health – 1st Place

“One in five children start school obese.” The headlines scream from the newsstands, proclaiming the latest health epidemic. World Health Organisation figures for 2014 indicate a worldwide problem with the highest concentrations in richer countries such of northern Europe and North America. Africans and Asians are least likely to be overweight, no doubt because they have the fewest resources.

In a dramatic turnaround, it is the poorer communities in rich countries where the problem of obesity is growing most rapidly. Before the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, most people worked so hard and ate so sparingly that there was little chance to get fat. Wealthy people, on the other hand, had servants in the house, and tenant farmers on the land. With plenty of money and little exercise, a large belly became a sign of status.

Today, most manual workers have machines to assist in the physical tasks, and office workers spend much time sat down both at work and at home. Supermarkets stock processed foods with high salt, sugar and fat contents. In contrast, those with money can pay for gym membership and eat organic fresh produce, leading to better physical health and well-being, whereas such things are out of the reach of many working people.

A good balance of work, rest and play has always been the best regime for health and happiness. The difficulty in the 21st century is persuading people to put down their electronic gadgets, switch off the television and explore the exciting world around them. This would enhance their emotional well-being, whilst strengthening their bodies against a host of potential illnesses

The same problem exists in the spiritual realm, perhaps also exacerbated by technology. Many people in the west seem to want a ready-prepared, pre-packaged church experience. The biblical concept of identifying and using spiritual gifts is often ignored. Yet unless we combine personal reflection, corporate worship and community engagement, our faith can become flabby and weak, no use to us or anyone else.

In the same way that exercise is more enjoyable in company, let’s encourage each other to engage in deep relationship with God and others;  let’s make our churches and communities places that people can encounter warm human fellowship and the deep love of our creator God.


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Where the skeletons are buried…

Faithwriters.com Challenge entry 9th September 2016 – Topic: “Skulduggery”
The shrill cry of the telephone wrenched Naomi’s attention from the report she was reading. Pausing to steady her breathing, she plucked the receiver from it’s rest.
“Yes, Sarah. What is?”
Naomi couldn’t help smiling as she heard the sigh on the other end of the line. “It’s that journalist again. He’s annoyed everyone in the department, trying to wheedle out of them some hint of this skulduggery he says we’re up to.”
Naomi glanced across her office and caught sight of the gaunt figure of Napoleon hanging in the corner. “I’ve got an idea that will really rattle him. Tell that prying hack to meet me at the site of the new lab after the workmen have left and I’ll show him something to shock him.”
Sarah emitted a small squeak of delight, and the line went dead. Naomi gently replaced he receiver. She collected a large, black zipped plastic bag, unhooked Napoleon and carefully folded his bony frame inside.
In the fading light of early evening, Naomi chuckledas a shadowy figure darted from the shelter of a stack of timber to disappear behind a palette of bricks. “Such a fertile imagination,” she thought.
Half a minute later, a skinny twenty-something appeared beside her, dressed entirely in black from turtle-neck sweater to skinny jeans and hiking boots.
“Who do you think you are?” Naomi asked him, “James Bond?”
“I don’t want to be seen. It might compromise the investigation.”
Naomi shook her head sadly and gazed down at the trench beneath her feet. “It’s down there, but you’ll have to dig for it.”
“It had better be worth it,” retorted the young man, dropping into the trench.
“It will be,” Naomi assured him, adding under her breath, “for me!”
“Pass me a shovel please.” Naomi dropped the implement at his feet and watched as the soft crumbly soil broke easily under his repeated blows. After a couple of minutes before he stopped and laid down the shovel. Naomi could see the boyish excitement as he looked up at her, before dropping on hands and knees to scrape the dirt away from his find.
Seconds later he recoiled with a start, hands shaking, face white as the skull that peeped sightless from the earth. “Meet Napaleon,” cried Naomi, laughing at his response. Glancing up, the reporter blinked as a camera flashed in his face.
“What will your editor say when I show him this photo? Looks like you’ve been up to some skulduggery of your own.”
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Those Canaan Days

Faithwriters.com Challenge – entry 25th August 2016  – Topic: Joie de vivre – Intermediate: 3rd place

The small, dirty grey figure contrasts to its spotless surroundings and the vivid orange upholstery of the chair it occupies. The deep crimson stain of dried blood on the left cheek hides one eye, while the other stares blankly at the camera. The pose is listless, shoulders sagging, hands motionless on the knees, as if a life-size doll had been brought in from a dusty yard and carefully posed in the chair. At first sight, it could a publicity shot for new horror movie.

But young Omran’s trauma was not dreamed up in a back room in Hollywood; only moments earlier he was lying buried in the rubble of his bombed out home, from which he and his family barely escaped before the structure collapsed completely behind them. Once a bustling and prosperous city, regarded as a cultural jewel, Aleppo is now a maze of empty, bombed out shells, it streets made impassable by rubble from the artillery fire and barrel bombs of government and rebel forces.

The situation in Aleppo reminds me of some lines from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Famine has struck the land of Canaan; and Joseph’s father and brothers reminisce over the endless golden summers and wonderful parties of the good years. “Now the fields are dead and bare, no joie de vivre anywhere, et maintenant we drink a bitter wine.” But again, Omran’s story is no West End extravaganza with a happy ending; it’s a terrifying, seemingly uncontrollable reality in the same region of Canaan where Jacob and his sons lived. When the cameramen leave, this shell-shocked little boy and his traumatised family will have to make a new life amid the ruins of their once proud city, victims of a conflict they didn’t create.

These refugees, made homeless and destitute by their own people, share the unalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, as enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence; they would espouse the values of Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité of the République Française. But the conflict that seeks to decide who protects these rights (or indeed restricts them) has left millions homeless and destitute; wanderers in their own land. Whoever succeeds in wresting control of Syria will inherit a desolate wasteland that is barely more hospitable than the surface of the moon.

Will the nations of Europe breathe a collective sigh of relief that the millions seeking refuge across the continent can return home? Will the superpowers who have encouraged one side or the other come together to rebuild the shattered infrastructure: to provide safe homes, clean water, efficient power and the beginnings of an economic recovery? If the grand slogans that we proudly recite mean anything, we must make them true for everyone. If “global community” is to become more than a glib phrase, nations must learn to work together for mutual benefit. And if a dusty, blood-stained, frightened little boy is to rediscover the joie de vivre and have a chance of the prosperity many of us take for granted, we all need to begin treating our neighbours as we wish to be treated ourselves.

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I’ll do it later

Faithwriters.com Challenge – 11th August 2016 – Topic: Procrastination

I did it again! I’ve a terrible habit that keeps recurring even though I’ve tried for years to conquer it. Most recently it occurred in the writing of this article, but it started when I was still at school.

When I was about 14 I received an assignment from our English teacher to write a 400 word short story or play, to be handed in a week later. Every evening I faithfully did my other homework, but when I looked at this assignment I thought, “I’ll do it later.” Most evenings I was busy with activities at The Salvation Army, which also became handy excuses. By 8pm the day before the deadline I could postpone the agony no longer. I sat down with my English exercise book (no time for rough drafts now) and began writing. Two hours later I closed the book and went to bed.

In class next day, I handed in my assignment – a 2000 word radio play recounting a space battle. When the marks came back I was amazed to get 18/20, with very encouraging comments from the teacher. Marks were lost mainly for use of cliché (which is normal in science fiction) and exceeding the word limit.

Since then I’ve said, “I’ll do it later” when writing newsletters, reports for work, magazine articles, my journal and even emails. News items about activities at my church have not made it to press because of the delay, but most things are written just in time.

This delaying habit has an impact on the results of my writing. A tentative submission to an internal Salvation Army magazine yielded an invitation to write a three week Bible study series the following spring. My outline and titles were agreed six months before the deadline, but the first study was only submitted a few days before the due date and the third was only just in time. The published articles were all good enough, but signs of hurry were evident in part 3. Had I written them all in plenty of time, the quality and consistency would have been much better.

I’ve often tried to analyse why I put things off until the last minute. Preparing outlines and drafts as early as possible would give me more time to plan and review, which should suit my perfectionist personality. On the other hand, I don’t like to begin something when I don’t know how it will end. Writing something down seems so final. Sometimes when writing I feel I could be doing “something more useful”.

The way my mind works also affects the way I work. I often choose tasks that have some tangible benefit, perhaps because they help someone else. This means I struggle to focus on long term objectives, such as the novel that I began ten years ago as part of a writing course.

It’s time I organised my time better, setting myself goals and deadlines. If I write just 100 words a day I could draft the novel in a few months. Given time for editing and rewriting, peer review and proofreading, perhaps it could be published next year. I’ll get started right away.

Then again, maybe I’ll do it later.

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No longer spooked

Faithwriters.com Challenge entry 4th August 2016 – Intermediate – Topic:Eerie

When I was about 10 years old I we lived in a small town in Wiltshire, in the South West of the United Kingdom. My parents were the local Salvation Army officers, and we would often travel to Bristol for regional meetings. If we were returning in the dark, I used to beg my mum to drive home the long way. This was not an excuse to stay up even later. Someone had told me a tale of Sally in the Woods. A young girl had got lost or possibly been abandoned on a lonely stretch of road running through dense woods. She was reputed to still haunt the area, appearing suddenly in the middle of the road. Drivers would be so startled they would crash into the trees at the roadside. As a consequence, I hated travelling that road in the dark, and would close my eyes and duck my head as we came to the eerie forest.

Of course the story was untrue, as was the report that gypsies living in the woods just behind our house would kidnap young boys for some mysterious purpose. Occasionally since then I’ve been spooked in various situations: a doll that looked lifelike in the gloomy flat, noises in an empty worship hall, strange patterns of light in a darkened room. But on the whole I’ve grown out of these things, in part through greater self-awareness but mainly because of growing confidence in God.

As Christians we need to leave behind some things from our past that hinder our faith in God. Paul reminded the Roman Christians of the work of the Holy Spirit: The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15 NIV). And to Timothy who was unsure of his position in the church he wrote: For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7 NIV).

So let us lay aside the irrational fears of the spiritually immature and trust the power of the Spirit within us.

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