My Radiant Friend

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On Thursday of last week, the news I and countless others had been waiting to hear, dreading to hear, came through. A woman we had come to know and love had finally lost her eight year battle with breast cancer. Some had known Jan a short time, others a lifetime. For me, it was thirty six years, earthly years that took only the blink of an eye to pass. Since Thursday, I have looked though the mementoes of friendship collected over the decades. As a thank you for being her bridesmaid when she married the love of her life, Rob, Jan gave me a small crystal swan, which has travelled with me for over thirty years, through all the changing scenes of my life, and I have always placed it where I can see it. These past few days, it has been right in front of me when I have sought solitude, catching the sunlight and throwing rainbows round the room as I have wept and cried out with the agony of loss, as I have replayed memories like a favourite film I haven’t watched for far too long. And as the swan refracts the sunlight, I am again reminded of the Jan the world has lost, a woman who became more radiant with each year.

The first time I met Jan, I was dazzled by the sparkling young woman who fizzed withA sparkling young woman love for others and welcomed me into her heart and life with arms that never grew tired of gathering, never failed to be full of love. As I sit today, once again wondering how I could begin to write a tribute to this remarkable woman – where can I start? – the sunlight hits my little swan and I know: Jan has left this world a lighter place because of her life.

Rob’s calling as an Officer in the British army meant that they led a somewhat nomadic existence: at one point they had nineteen house moves in twenty years. That sort of nomadic life resulted in hundreds (and hundreds) of lives that crossed Jan’s and witnessed her radiance: not for Jan the life of a lamp in the corner of a carefully co-ordinated room, but the life of a beacon on a hill, one that illuminated a path for the lost, the lonely, the heartbroken, the simply broken. The lamp of Jan’s life was not a perfect Jan and Rob Sunday 9th April 2017vessel, over the years it was knocked and dropped and bashed. The years she learned to wait, to lay aside personal ambitions, the years of struggles and pressures she couldn’t skirt, the final years of failing health and the prospect of missing the joys so many get to experience – retirement, grandchildren – have been the very means by which she discovered her greatest treasure: the goodness of God, which springs from His love that endures forever.

We spoke several times over the past few months about that goodness, laid out like a feast, the grandest of picnics, right in face of the final enemy, death. The goodness of God that sends fear fleeing back into the shadows of the valley. The goodness of God that brings peace and rest when our hearts would have us despair. The cracks and fissures and dents that shaped Jan’s life created a lamp so intricate, so beautiful that there was little left of any hard veneer that would limit the light it radiated: there was nowhere for the light that filled Jan’s life to go other than to spill out into the world from the depth of her surrendered soul. And now, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever, she stands before the throne of the heavenly father she adores, the days of knocks and cracks behind her because: ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever … And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city and the Lamb is its light.’ (Revelation 21 verses 2 and 23)

There are things in life, circumstances, choices, people, that knock us and wound us and break us. And there are people in life who stand with us, who give us their arms and hearts and help remould us. Jan was one of my shaping-people: she was light and salt and a channel of God’s grace and love. Jan taught me that there is a love, there is a grace that has no limits, no depths, no sides, no heights that can ever be scaled, and she walked in the mystery of the goodness of God in the face of her enemies, for her the cancer that A friendship that spanned decadesfinally destroyed her body. I am ever grateful that I had the privilege of knowing this radiant woman.

Jan in her own words:  

29 June 2016 ‘…My journey of surrender is not one of believing that somehow the bad things that happen are ok, but that in the midst of the bad things I am ok, because God can take care of my heart and provide all I need to be at peace and to live a godly life, and also knowing that God is doing all he can, working for the good to surface. Sometimes the good is so amazing that we think God wanted the bad to happen, but no – it is his amazing surrendered self to winning us back that is his work. He is utterly, utterly good …’

New Year’s Eve 2016: ‘… Hope means the confident expectation of goodness and I believe in hope for us both this coming year. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives …’

Rest – Matt Maher

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No Ordinary Love Story

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A reader used the phrase “no ordinary love story” when they contacted me recently to tell me how much they enjoyed my book, Strong as Death. It got me thinking. Can love ever be ordinary?

Over sixty years ago, a fourteen year old girl caught sight of a sixteen year old boy.

“See him there, I’m going to marry him,” she told the friend standing next to her.

“Who is he?” her friend asked.

“I have no idea,” the girl replied.

Fifty eight years ago this week, seven years after she fell in love at first sight, the girl married the boy whose name she hadn’t known. Today, there are probably only three people in the world who remember that anniversary. I am one of them, my siblings the others. That boy and girl were my parents.

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My parents on their wedding day in March 1958

I grew up experiencing every day what it is to have parents who love each other. And I grew up knowing what it is to have parents who loved me, who would comfort me when I hurt, fight my corner when I needed someone standing there with me. I will be eternally grateful for that. There is nothing ordinary about a child experiencing unconditional love.

Death robbed me of my father’s love when I was twenty three and my youngest sibling was just fourteen. My mother’s heart broke, but still she loved her children through their sorrows and joys and triumphs and disasters until her death twenty two years later.

I remember my parents’ love every day. But it came to an end, because that’s what death does. It ends things.

Thirty four years ago, I met the wonderful man I married. He loved me every day, and I broke what we had. For the first time in my life, I learned what guilt really tastes like, how heavy shame is. We divorced.

And then something astonishing happened, a longer story for another time, but one that involves reconciliation, forgiveness. A slate wiped clean. A rebirth of love and a second chance at a marriage that will last until death us do part, because, though some broken love stories can be redeemed, death finally defeats even those that last a lifetime

But there is another kind of love, one that fills me every day with awe and wonder. It’s the love of a father who went through the unimaginable loss of his only, extraordinary son, so that the guilt and shame of ordinary people like me could be banished forever. So that death could never again have the final word, could never again write the end of the story.

No love is ever ordinary, but there is only one love not even death can break and I’m so glad to have discovered it. Of all the astonishing and undeserved loves I have ever known, none compare with the extraordinary love that was unleashed on the day Jesus rose from the grave, the day people all over the world, including this ordinary woman, who has been loved back to life by that same extraordinary God, remember this Easter weekend.

It’s only words

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Words. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a writer, I think about them a lot. Sometimes, capturing them is like trying to trap breeze-blown soap bubbles. Other times they hang rich as ripe blackberries in a thorn-filled hedgerow. How to pick and pour and blend and mix and mould them into the smells and tastes and touches of the story that plays through my mind like the dream of someone else’s life? How to turn them into feelings and sights and sounds when they are just marks on a page? Words.

Some words I’ll always remember writing. Or reading. Or hearing. Words that made me feel safe, words that made me feel smart, words that made me feel stupid. Words that shattered my world. And then there are the words I can’t even remember writing. Or reading. Or saying. Words that came out of my mouth and made someone’s day. Or destroyed it. If only I thought as much about the words I speak as the words I write.

Words written almost two thousand years ago, words that millions of people have heard or read, still have the power to make me forget to breathe as their truth reminds me it’s not the eloquence or beauty of my words that that write the most powerful story.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away… And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” St Paul, writing to the Corinthian church in his first letter to them. Chapter 13.

Perfect love could not be overcome

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file0001219066109Whether you believe the resurrection is fact or fiction, what happened on that day two thousand years ago reaches through history and touches the present. For some, that touch is irrelevant whilst yet others have corrupted the message of redemptive, unconditional love into a lust for power and control over the freewill of those who choose not to believe. For me? Each day I live, that touch amazes me more.

The moon and stars they wept
The morning sun was dead
The Saviour of the world was fallen
His body on the cross
His blood poured out for us
The weight of every curse upon Him

One final breath He gave
As heaven looked away
The Son of God was laid in darkness
A battle in the grave
The war on death was waged
The power of hell forever broken

The ground began to shake
The stone was rolled away
His perfect love would not be overcome
Now death where is your sting?
Our resurrected King
Has rendered you defeated

[Chorus]
Forever He is glorified
Forever He is lifted high
(And) Forever He is risen
He is alive, He is alive

We sing Hallelujah, we sing Hallelujah
We sing Hallelujah
The Lamb has overcome

Songwriters
Johnson, Michael Edwin
Published by
Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

The Greatest Story Ever Told

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Last week, Carlisle Library chose to feature my ‘Desert Island Book Choice’ on their Facebook page. I have copied the text below, but you can see it on their page by following this link. https://www.facebook.com/carlislelibrary

Desert Island Choice

Desert Island Choice

“The Bible. Everything is there; love, loss, intrigue, betrayal. War and peace. Poetry and song. Prose and prophecy. Hope and despair. Revenge and forgiveness. It’s a book full of books that speak about and to the human condition and that deal with the human heart, both physical and spiritual. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a person with faith, or without, no one could read this book and come away with an ambivalent response. I return to this book time and time again and each time it’s as though I were reading it for the first time.”

This morning, I was greatly encouraged by the words a very dear friend of mine posted on her Facebook timeline; I have already shared it with friends I know will find the timing of these amazing words more than apt. And I thought, why not share it further? So, here it is, wonderful promises and encouragement from my favourite book, the one I cannot put down, from a translation that is completely new to me:

Good night Kiss from Heaven:

I hear His whisper…

“The word I speak to you today is ENDURANCE. I call you to be faithful unto the end, even as I loved My disciples unto the end. The burden you carry must always be brought to the cross and left forever at My feet. Others will not understand the load you carry and the secret woundings of your soul, but I understand.

“You must never compare yourself to another, but bring your cares to the One who cares. You will never be asked to carry more than you can endure, but it will be more than you think. I call you to stretch your faith until it is greater than your burden.

“I have called you to be a faithful warrior of My love. The woundings of your soul bring you into deeper love. You see the momentary pain, but I see the blossoms of love beginning to open within you, yielding a sweeter fragrance. Even when you feel disappointed My love never fails.

“When you are wounded by love, My mercy still stands higher than the heavens. I call you to hold every experience of your life as sacred, and then you will discover My goodness and My power to work everything together for good as you love Me.

“Speak over your life this day these words, ‘I will endure all things for love.’

“As you remain faithful to Me, love grows within you. My love and My peace will be the twin fruits from the Tree of Life to sustain you and sweeten your joy. Let nothing deter you from your pursuit of My face. Those who love Me most I will transform the most. Let every opportunity that comes to you this day be the open doorway into My presence.

“I speak over you, My faithful one, endure all things for love as a good soldier of Jesus Christ, and always set His faithfulness before your eyes as your supreme example. And then you will not fail, and you will not stumble. For I will hold you in My love even as I held Him in My love throughout His ordeals. I am with you and will exchange your weakness for My strength as you wait upon Me.”

2 Timothy 2:3-5 The Passion Translation

I feel scared

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I’ve published my book and now I feel scared. The sort of scared that springs from the question: ‘What have I done?’ Scared that no one will read it. Scared that, if they do, they won’t like it; scared that people will judge it and find it so wanting that they will tell me, along with anyone in the world who will take the time to listen: ‘Don’t waste a second of your precious time reading the rubbish she’s produced. She’s a delusional narcissist. She can’t create a coherent sentence, let alone a captivating plot with characters who capture your imagination.’

 But hang on a minute. This morning I read in Isaiah: ‘Do not be afraid of people’s scorn, nor fear their insults.’ Those words pulled me up short. Not because they encouraged me to brazen out any criticism that may lay in wait for me. Not because I suddenly remembered the old ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’ default inner defence position of childhood. Those words pulled me up short because I was reminded of where I stand in the universe. If your faith is something you don’t really explore, or if you don’t believe in God, then this next bit may sound like the ubiquitous fairy tale you may believe faith in Him to be. I have tried life from that viewpoint and, though I longed to stay put in that position, I found it impossible. But I digress. Where I believe I stand in the universe is this. I stand in the presence of the God whose fingerprints and DNA run through the whole of creation. I stand in the presence of the God whose heartbeat sustains the fabric of the heavens and earth. I don’t understand much science, try as I have, but what I have grasped makes me gasp in amazement at the complexity, the simplicity, the pure genius of nature. People far more intelligent than me understand how the stars give light to the night skies; what makes the wind blow. How rain falls. Theologians with more wisdom than I can ever hope to amass grapple with the questions of suffering and disease and disasters. I just stand as someone who can be over awed by the wonder of creation, overwhelmed by the sadness and injustice that exists in this beautiful world. And yet, through all the things I know I’ll never understand, things like the untimely death of my father; watching helpless as my mother died from cancer, events that I tried to use as reasons to prove there is no such thing as a God of love, I stand as someone who cannot hide from the touch of God’s love and grace in my life. And believe me, I have tried.

 I don’t want anyone to criticise me or my writing. But they will. I want everyone to love what I create. But they won’t. I don’t want anyone to be indifferent. But they may be. But what I want to want more than anything is to become a person who has a universal perspective on my place in my family and my community, a perspective that makes me compassionate, reflecting the love and grace I have experienced in my own life into the lives of those that touch my own. What I should be scared of is falling short of who I should be, not of anyone’s scorn or insults for the books that I write.