He Is Risen

Good Morning WordPress.

Fionnuala and I hope you all have a wonderful Easter wherever you are.

I’ll post my ‘normal’ blog later in the day.

Never give up, no matter how much of a mess your life has become.

I’m a walking, talking testimony to that.

Don’t give up.

There is still hope.

For….

He is Risen.

Let’s Start Again

When it comes to beating yourself up, I could compete for Ireland at the Olympics. But the last few days have taught me I need to focus on my strengths as opposed to dwell on the perceived weaknesses which always loom large in my rear view mirror. Fionnuala reminded me recently of what I have achieved in the last year, achievements I should be proud of, it’s not all doom and gloom.

I’m a hypocrite but I need to practice what I preach. When I write, I try to be positive and inspire others. The blog is nearing 10,000 followers and I’m hopeful we can hit that target within the next month. We value every one of you, both regular visitors and less frequent fliers. WordPress is the most supportive social media platform and has restored my fractured faith in online communities.

I was asked recently why I feel the need to blog every day. Isn’t it too much for me? Do I really need to? Well, there are a number of reasons. Yes, I am seeking to promote my writing career. It’s my dream to write for a living one day, although a job promotion earlier this week means there is less pressure on me at present to do so. But more than that, I enjoy writing, it is my release, my therapy, my passion.

Above all of these, however, YOU are the reason. I love my WordPress community and I look forward every day to engaging with, and learning, from you all. Communication is a two way street and I get as much out of your comments, as I hope you all do from this one. I read A LOT of your stuff, even though I don’t always get the opportunity to comment in detail due to my million and one other responsibilities.

I’m currently beta reading for three other talented writers, and I’ve connected with many other great people along the way. You are ALL part of this journey and you will never know how much your encouragement has spurred me on in other areas of my life. So today’s post is a thank you and a celebration. I see a lot of pain and sadness on here, people who feel life has passed them by and there is no way back in the game.

My experiences these last two years tell me it hasn’t and there is. Easter is traditionally seen as a time of resurrection and revival. A time when light prevails over darkness, where hope and faith are rewarded. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, we can all agree on such sentiments. Wherever you are, whatever your current situation, you can and you will punch through to the other side.

Starting today.

Do you want to start all over again?

I’ve Got 99 Bibles….

While I’m an avid reader I haven’t picked up my Bible in some time. This has niggled away at my conscience but there always seems to be something else which gets in the way. It’s hard to put my finger on but one of my ‘problems’ is that when I think about reading it, I can’t decide which one to open. Saying I’ve 99 Bibles is a little disingenuous. I’ve actually got five. But 99 made for a cooler post title.

My first Bible was a zip up, tiny travel New International Version (NIV). It was when I started to explore my faith and I was so clueless I went to a high street bookshop as opposed to a specialist Christian one. They had a very poor selection and I settled for this one, even though I can barely read the print. For a long time, I carried it everywhere with me in my manbag.

It was replaced with a larger, black leather NIV which Fionnuala bought me as a Christmas present. This was my go to text when I was at my most diligent. I’ve read it from cover to cover, scribbling notes in the margins and highlighting verses that spoke to me. I was passionate about my faith then, so much so that I’m almost afraid to open it again and see how far I may have fallen backwards.

Next up was another present from Fionnuala. A beautiful C.S. Lewis Bible, peppered with quotes from my fellow countryman. My problem with this tome is that I love it so much I’m afraid to write on it or do anything to detract from its pristine condition. It’s like an immaculate sports car which sits in the garage as it’s owner is afraid to take it out in case it gets scratched or muddy.

Then I tried The Message version. I loved its New Testament translation, especially Paul’s letters, which really came alive for me. But I struggled with its paraphrasing of the Psalms. As in really, really struggled. Oh and don’t get me started on Proverbs. It proper butchered Proverbs. So, once again, I found myself in my local Faith Mission store, scanning the hundreds of translations on offer.

This time, I plumped for a New King James Version (NKJV). I heard that the NKJ is the most accurate translation of the original text but it reminded me of Sunday School with all its ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. I liked the NKJV but, again, it just was a tad old fashioned for me in its language. And while I love my Kindle, I can’t read the Bible online. I need a physical copy of it in my hands.

Before you all start, I know I’m just making excuses. God’s Word is God’s Word. Just pick up a copy, any copy, and read it Stephen. Let go and let God. The truth will set you free, be it KJV or NIV. Just make it ASAP. It’s a mental block, a hurdle I’m struggling to negotiate. And the longer I stare at them on the bookshelf, gathering dust, the bigger the issue becomes for me. It’s the white elephant in the room.

I know you aren’t all Bible readers but, to those of you who do, any advice would be much appreciated. I’ve been very anxious this last week, worrying about big stuff looming up on the horizon. To the point, I felt on the verge of a total meltdown a few days ago. Thank goodness Fionnuala and Hannah were on hand to keep the blog going over the weekend. I’m glad we are all back under the same roof again though.

Why I Won’t Be Lying For Another 364 Days

Yesterday was the busiest ever day in the two year history of the blog. Our April Fool’s Day post received 227 views and, in total, we broke the 500 view barrier for the first time. We also broke the 9500 follower mark and are heading towards the big 10K, a figure we never dreamed of attaining all those months ago. The old Stephen would have been ecstatic with these numbers.

That’s because the old Stephen loved nothing more than attention and plaudits. He was so insecure and full of self loathing that he fed off such infamy like a blood sucking leech. This morning, though, I look at these figures and, while inwardly pleased, I now recognise they mean nothing. 10,000 followers doesn’t make me a better person or anything special. In the greater scheme of things, they mean nothing.

Especially given yesterday’s record breaking totals were based upon a lie. An innocent, playful lie, but a lie nonetheless. This resonates deeply with me, as my previous incarnations on social media were equally disingenuous. I created a fake persona, the life and soul of the party, Mr. Nice Guy. The more popular I became online, the more detached from reality and miserable the real me became.

10,000 followers won’t guarantee me a publishing deal, nor will it make me a faster runner. It won’t dazzle my bosses and it cuts little sway with Fionnuala and the kids. Blogging is good for me mentally as it allows me to express myself and get a lot of issues off my chest. Issues that I kept bottled up before, festering and rotting inside me like me a rancid carcass.

It’s what I do away from blogging that truly matters. I used to lie a lot. They rolled off my lips effortlessly, I didn’t even think about them as I dug myself into a deeper and deeper hole. It got to the point where I started to believe them myself, or at least could justify them to the extent that I couldn’t or wouldn’t stop. I was aboard a runaway train, hurtling down the rickety track towards my doom.

It all ended in tears of course. Lies cannot lead to happiness. They only paper over ever increasing cracks while you flounder in ever decreasing circles. So, while yesterday’s fibbing was harmless fun, I have no intention of turning it into a regular pastime. This blog is founded on the truth, warts and all, so if you want a sugar coated version of my life, then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.

Which means more rejection e-mails and below average runs. More tales of the domestic chaos that is the Black household. We get sick, we get on each other’s nerves, we bicker and scream at each other. But we always make up, and the deep love we have for one another never changes. It’s who we are, it’s what we are, we know nothing else. It’s the truth. Lying can wait. Until 1st April next year.

Have you ever struggled with the truth?

How real are you online?

Can I Introduce you to Father’s Love Ministry Ireland

You may have all read in previous blogs we have posted about very good friends of ours called Anne and Graham who have started up a ministry, if not let me tell you a bit about them.

Graham and Anne have received numerous prophetic words all pointing towards starting up their own ministry and in September 2018 it was birthed. For the past 6 months we have been meeting weekly at our house until suitable premises became available and after much prayer the new premises have been found.

If you would love to hear more about Father’s Love Ministry Ireland and are on Facebook please give their page a like https://m.facebook.com/Fathers-Love-Ministry-Ireland-283189355639753/ you may even see some posts from Stephen and myself.

Graham and Anne have been tremendous support to Stephen and I especially in our darkest days and we are so happy and proud of them today.

God Bless and have a lovely day

Fionnuala ❤️

Are You A Confident Person?

Fionnuala and I are attending Hannah’s annual school review this lunchtime. This does exactly what it says on the tin. We sit around a table and listen as her teacher, classroom assistant, physio and occupational therapist update us as to her progress so far this school year. I know we will have nothing to fear as Hannah is a model student, popular, polite and hard working. We always leave such meetings with smiles on our faces.

It’s also fast approaching the time of year where I am subject to my own annual review at work. This time, the shoe is on the other foot. I sit quivering before my boss as he gives me his thoughts on my performance over the past 12 months. Thankfully, I have a very understanding and accommodating manager and I don’t think I’ve screwed up (too much) during the reporting period.

This year is a little different as there is a promotion opportunity looming on the horizon that I have been encouraged to apply for. On the face of it, this might seem a no brainer. I’m one of the few people within the organisation trained to do the job. It’s a considerable pay hike and people have been telling me for years I am capable of performing the role. And yet, I hold back, reluctant to throw my name in the hat.

There’s the little issue of my lack of self confidence to begin with. I’m my own worst critic and constantly tell myself the promotion boat has sailed. My face doesn’t fit, senior management don’t rate me, I wouldn’t be able to cope with the added pressures and demands of the job. I’m the king of excuses when it comes to such matters, my own worst critic. I don’t just knock myself down. I then check the rear view mirror and then reverse over my inert body, just to be sure.

I’ve been dreading this past week where I’ve held the on call phone. I’m not good enough, I won’t be able to cope, I’m going to make a total mess of a call and be found out. I’m always worried about being found out, shown up for the fraud and charlatan hiding behind the professional and competent front I present to the ever watching world. The same applies to the other hats I wear.

Husband, Father, Christian, Runner, Writer. I’m a big, fat imposter and today is the day I’m going to be found out. Today is the day I’m going to sit in front of those who matter and be told I’ve fluffed my lines and my services are no longer required. Pack up your belongings and hand in your ID card on the way out. Stephen has left the building with his tail well and truly between his legs. Game, set and match to the nagging voice inside my head.

Do you ever feel that way? Where your confidence pours through your fingers like water from a gushing tap. You watch as it trickles down the drain, unwilling and unable to take that step out of your comfort zone. It could be the step that changes your life, one way or the other. There’s only one way to find out and yet you hesitate, you hold back. The self survival mechanism within tells you to stop.

You’re at a crossroads. Which way do you turn? You’re sitting in front of an interview panel. What do you say? Decisions need to be made, yet you sit there floundering, barely able to draw breath, let alone formulate an eloquent answer to the question you have been asked. It’s at times like this you need to draw deep from the well within. Hoping you find deep, refreshing waters of inspiration as opposed to a few inches of stagnant, murky despair.

Are you a confident person?

Have you a big decision looming on the horizon?

How do you combat the nagging voice of doubt?

Stop Beating Yourself Up

Of late, I have been bumping into people who I used to spend a lot of time around. I would have regarded them as friends. In fact, I spent more time with them than I did with my own family. It was a period of my life when I had stopped drinking and started running. I thought this was a massive step forward at the time. In reality, I was merely replacing one addictive behaviour with another one and my loved ones continued to suffer.

The chance encounters were not wholly unpleasant. I had a long chat with one of the persons, a lovely man who I never had any issues with. Part of me regretted the way our friendship ended, but after our talk I realised there were no hard feelings on his part. He was always the wise one in the group, who tended to keep a wary distance from the more negative behaviours and conversations. Turns out he no longer runs with the others, either, although he still sees them about.

I drove past two of the ‘others’ recently. I was driving Adam to a rugby match and they were, naturally enough, running. They didn’t see me, thankfully, and I’m not proud to say that the sighting elicited less than savoury feelings within. I felt anger, bitterness and resentment towards them. I looked at then and saw nothing but arrogance and vanity on their part. I wanted nothing to do with them.

I later told Fionnuala about them. I needed to tell someone as I could still sense the encounter festering within me. It was cathartic to talk about it, a form of purging. ‘You used to be like that,’ she replied, just like that. I was initially a little taken aback although I don’t know why as my wife is nothing but frank when it comes to telling me how it is. The truth can be hard to swallow. The best medicine always goes down hardest.

Was I really that self absorbed, that much of a strutting peacock? Obsessed with appearance and personal bests as opposed to my family, the people who truly mattered? Deep down, I knew that I was. I spent my weekends away from home, on endless long runs or travelling up and down the country in pursuit of medals or ‘bling.’ ‘It’s all about the bling’ was our motto, our mantra. How wrong I was.

I wasn’t drinking, I was going to church, I was off social media and leading a clean and virtuous life. Or so I thought. But the truth was I was as bad as ever, having merely placed one flaw with another. Inside I was the same shallow, weak, insecure mess I had always been. Except now I had added hypocrisy to the host of other character traits I possessed. Blinded to the truth by shiny, worthless trinkets.

The scars remain, even to this day. My encounter with the runners proved that and I’m forever struggling to contain the resentment that lies dormant within. I still run but it’s a solitary, slower pursuit now. The days of running clubs and multiple race entries are a thing of the past. I see it for what it is now. Vacuous and meaningless. I would never go back to that lifestyle. Once bitten, forever shy.

I’m not jealous of them. But I am annoyed seeing them still produces such emotions within me. I need to feel nothing. No, that’s not quite right. I need to feel forgiveness. Towards them and towards myself. Stop beating myself up about the past and move on. For I’m only hurting myself and, again, those around me who require my unrivalled attention. They deserve better than that. I deserve better than that.

Do you still beat yourself up about the past?

Do you ever bump into ghosts from your past?

How do you move on?

What Is Your Worst Habit?

Yesterday I wrote about my ongoing querying of literary agents and how researching their backgrounds prior to submitting your manuscript to them, is the acceptable face of online stalking. It was a tongue in cheek piece, as most of my writing is, but there was a serious message wrapped up inside the frivolity. That being, the obsessive behaviour which fuels the mind of a stalker.

I have OCD and an obsessive personality. I have no filter, no brake, no off switch. I can easily become fixated with activities and even people. This is exacerbated by a complete lack of self awareness when it comes to this particular character trait. I am unaware of my behaviour, in fact I rationalise that it is completely normal and those raising the alarm to me are the killjoys and bores.

This obsessive streak can be explained away as having a stubborn streak or being ultra single minded and determined. Which, in themselves, are admirable characteristics. You need these to run marathons. You need them to carve out a reasonably successful career in my chosen fiend. You need them to slave away at your novel for over a year until it is finally complete.

It’s a double sided coin, however. It’s not so admirable when you become obsessed with running, or paragliding, or base jumping. These activities are designed to be a release from the daily grind, as opposed to becoming the grind itself. They become destructive and counter productive when they drag you away from your core values and the people and pursuits who truly matter.

We become ensnared by these pastimes, they become our raison d’etre. They possess and consume us. They same can be said of online activity. I admit I spend far too much time online, trying to build the blog and related social media platforms. I know it is a necessary evil to pursue my writing dream, but I often need Fionnuala to remind me that I also have a wife and three kids who supersede all my other responsibilities.

This weakness has led me down all sorts of nasty rabbit holes in the past. I cultivated unhealthy online habits which damaged both myself and those I love. I became secretive and distant. Thankfully my current online incarnation is founded upon transparency and accountability. This affords me a safety net should I ever feel the urge to slip back into old habits. I’m learning to police myself again and, in doing so, trust myself again.

Any habit is hard to shake. I bite my nails, drink too much Diet Coke and the list goes on. I’ll never be a hand model but I do recycle all my empty cans and bottles. There are worse habits to have, I glibly inform people whenever I am challenged on these. And, indeed there are. But it’s a warning to always be on my guard. Old habits die hard. They are always lurking, waiting to pounce. The demon that is OCD is never far away.

I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs. I’m a boring, middle aged husband and father. I don’t attract a second glance on my daily commute to and from work. None of us do. We are normal. Oh, but if only they knew. If only they knew the dormant madness that lies within. Just waiting for it’s opportunity to be unleashed and wreak havoc on our carefully constructed worlds. If only….

What are your bad habits?

Does madness lurk within you?

I Didn’t Want To Write Today

I didn’t want to write today.

Yet here I am, tentatively tapping at the keyboard. Feeling my way into the next sentence, fumbling through another paragraph. The words come, they always do. A hesitant trickle at first, before I relax and they flow freely. And when they flow freely, then I am free as well. From the past, from the voices that claw at my ever fragile mind. I didn’t want to write today. I had to write today.

I lost my father nine years ago today. To prostate cancer. I remember sitting in a waiting room at the hospital, as a brutish consultant dispassionately informed us there was no hope. I’ll never forget that man. He might as well have been telling us the weather forecast for the week ahead. The words meant nothing to him, yet their impact shattered us. Nothing would ever be the same again.

I rose that day. There was a funeral to arrange and I was the only son, the eldest child, the one of whom strength and courage were expected. So I donned the mask and played the role to a packed auditorium. I was the centre of attention and, sick though it may sound, part of me revelled in it. Though surrounded by death, this was my lifeline. I clung to it for all I was worth.

I revelled, but then unraveled. The bottom of a pint glass became my harbour from the storm. A temporary respite, however, for when I lifted my groggy head above the parapet, the wind and rain lashed more furiously than ever. I was adrift, askew, a mess. I struck out for shore, my compass spinning, floundering, sinking. Constant drinking. Until the day, I said no more. Until the day I stopped.

I’m battered today. Battered by sickness which has reared its ugly head again when I thought I’d shrugged it aside. Fretting over immaterial matters. Matters that don’t really matter. Marathons that aren’t being run. Books that aren’t being written. Six years ago they would have buzzed and niggled until I cracked open a beer and shooed them from my mind. But now, I write.

Battered but blessed. Looking ahead, clear headed and driven. The glass is half full these days, the wallowing no more. I want to make my father proud of me and, more than that, I want to make those still here proud. My wife and children, my friends and anyone else whose life I touch. I’ll visit my past and learn from it, grow, but no longer be held prisoner by it.

No longer consumed, obsessed, possessed. Still stressed. That is me. But blessed. Blessed that these words pour from my pen, from my soul. There’s hope, always hope. If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you take hope. Hope that there are better times ahead, times you deserve, times which will reveal the real you, the true you, for all the world to see. Is that so hard to believe? For belief costs nothing?

Why do you write?

What do words mean to you?

Are you battered, blessed or both?

Are You Alone? Then Read This

I joined Twitter a couple of months ago to promote my (currently) non existent writing career. I used to be a bit of a whizz on Twitter back in the day. I held court on it and waxed lyrical to my army of adoring followers. My dry, yet achingly witty and intelligent, tweets won me adoration and acclaim. Usually typed when I was several sheets to the wine courtesy of my old friend, Mr. Budweiser.

But that was then, and this is now. Now I stand awkwardly in the corner of the room with my Diet Coke as all around me fellow authors, who all appear to know one another, tweet nonsense about their current work in progress and whether or not their protagonist should be written in the 1st or 3rd person. It’s a dog eat dog and me, me, me social platform. Heavens above, some of them even post selfies, an unwritten no no on WordPress.

I’ll persevere as that is where all the literary agents and publishing houses hang out. But it’s just somewhere I go to ply my trade, a 9-5 environment I’m obliged to visit on a regular basis. It’s not my home, it’s not the place I retreat to at the end of a long, tiring day. A place where I tear off the mask, slip into something more comfortable and abandon the airs and graces of social etiquette.

For that place is WordPress. It is my home and you are my people. A place where I am accepted for who I am, not who I want to be. Yes, I can be witty and intelligent if the mood takes me but I can also be honest, brutally honest if need be. Where I can bare all, safe in the knowledge I will be supported and valued. WordPress is my safe place, and you are my people. It will always be my online home.

Which brings me to the point of this rambling post. It’s great that people can be themselves on here, but it also means I see a lot of pain. I see desperation, anger, guilt, rejection, hopelessness and sorrow. I see people on the edge, one step away from toppling over the precipice and falling into a chasm of nothingness from which there is no return. But most of all, I see raw, unfiltered loneliness.

Loneliness is a silent killer. You can be in the middle of a crowded room, smiling and nodding in all the right places, but inside there is nothing but a hollow shell. Your phone rarely rings, beeps or vibrates. You have nobody to talk to, to sob and scream at. You are an island of isolation, adrift on a sea of sorrow. So you cling to the only piece of flotsam within sight, you cling to it for your very life depends on it.

You cling to WordPress. For it is the only community where you feel a semblance of self worth and acceptance. My message to you today is that you are not alone, for we are many. We need to reach out, engage and care for each other. Visit other people’s blogs, check up on the quiet ones, read between the lines and scan the skyline for rescue flares and warning beacons. They need us just as we need them.

I post every day on WordPress. I am here. Use me. Talk to me. For I’ve been there. Where you are now, as you read these words. Or talk to someone else if you think I’m the most annoying blogger on the planet. It doesn’t have to be open forum. Send an e-mail. Reach out, for there are strong hands, able and willing to pull you from the pit. Yes, you are lonely. But you need never be alone again.

Are you alone, desperate, frightened? Then reach out?

Or do you want to help others? Then reblog this post or write your own.

Let’s slay those demons.

The Blind Leading The Blind

The other day I encountered an elderly blind man in the city centre. He was experiencing some difficulties as double decker buses roared past, mere feet away. I instinctively wanted to go to his aid but the introverted, socially awkward voice in my head held me back. ‘You don’t talk to strangers, Stephen. What if he spurns your offer of help, becomes offended, tells you to clear off and leave him alone?’

I stood there, watching the man, as this internal monologue raged within me. In the end, my guilty conscience outweighed the reticence. In some ways, it was a selfish as opposed to selfless act. Imagine if I turned on the news later to discover the man had been mown down in the rush hour traffic. Never mind the poor man’s family, would I ever be able to live with myself?

I took the plunge, approached the man, and politely asked did he require assistance, half expecting to be told to bugger off and mind my own business. Before the words had departed my lips, however, he gratefully grabbed hold of my forearm and thanked me, explaining where he was going. His knowledge of Belfast street names far outweighed mine, and he knew exactly where he was going.

The problem was, he had strayed a few yards off his predetermined route and lost his bearings. I carefully guided him across the street as he chatted cheerfully, before thanking me and continuing his journey with renewed confidence and purpose. He wasn’t too proud not to accept help when he found himself in a bit of bother. I headed in the opposite direction, impressed by his positive attitude and refusal to let his disability get the better of him.

I know our blog has several followers who are blind or partially sighted. Others have a range of other physical disabilities or chronic illnesses. Many have mental health problems. Blogging is our shared passion, the medium whereby we tell our stories and encourage one another. WordPress is a sanctuary of sorts to us, where we take temporary shelter from the worries of the outside world. It is our safe place, a place where we can be us.

Despite his disability, this man was not afraid to step out across a chilly Belfast on a busy weekday morning and do what he had to do. He wasn’t going to allow his disability to dictate his life for him. He refused to succumb to it and hide at home, wallowing in self pity, as I would have been tempted to do. He rose above it and, even though it was a difficult journey, he persevered. I know he reached his final destination.

He taught me a lesson. He teaches us all a lesson. We are all on a journey and, at times, we will stray off course or encounter unexpected challenges. We cannot allow those to put us off and must keep our eyes fixed on the prize. Where we falter, we should not be afraid to accept the arm of a well meaning stranger. For, while blind, the vision and passion of this man put me to shame.

I moan, I complain, I sulk and I pout. We all do. But that can only be temporary, we cannot allow transitional emotions to define who we are and deflect us from the path we were born to travel. There was a light within this man’s soul which lit up the path ahead for him, a light I have been struggling to ignite for some years now. It truly was a case of the blind leading the blind. On a freezing Belfast morning I was the one being led.

Have you ever helped a person in need on the streets?

Are you in need of spiritual direction?

We All Need To Eat More Pizza

We had friends visiting last night so treated ourselves to Dominos Pizza, given it was buy one get one free Tuesday. It was too good an offer to miss out on, so we ended up going buy three, get three free. And try saying that with a mouthful of ham and pineapple deep crust. Everyone got stuck in and I could barely move by the end of the night. Good job I went for a run earlier in the day.

Calorific intake aside, is there anyone out there who doesn’t like pizza? Certainly not at chez Black last night. The kids attacked it with their usual famished relish and, to be fair, the supposed grown ups weren’t that far behind them. There were a multitude of toppings on offer, something for even the pickiest palate. Ham, pineapple, mushroom, chicken, you name it we had it.

I came downstairs this morning to find Hannah munching happily on a cold slice. Despite our best efforts the night before, there was still loads left over. I reckon if Jesus appeared on Earth today he would be performing his ‘loaves and fishes’ miracle with a Meat Feast 12′ and sides of garlic bread. Everybody loves pizza, it has a universal appeal, right? World peace would be a dawdle if world leaders sat down and discussed it over pizza.

If only everything was that simple. Our world is so fragmented at present it feels as if nothing works. We can’t seem to agree on anything. Nations clash and politicians fail to grasp the nettle. In Northern Ireland, we have been without a functioning government for over two years. I think that’s a world record which we inherited from Belgium the other month. Or somewhere like that.

This is staggering. Even the amiable Belgians are at loggerheads with each other. When did Belgium ever start an international incident? I know they have had their differences with the Dutch down the years but they even make the Swiss look like bloodthirsty warmongers. Us Northern Irish are comparatively off the scale. 3000 dead during 30 years of our ‘Troubles’ is testimony to that.

We cannot agree on our past, our present or our future. Our politicians bicker and bluster but nothing is agreed, and we seem further away from agreement than ever before. At times it is akin to a schoolyard squabble. You feel like banging their heads together and sending them to bed with no dinner. And no cold pizza the next morning either. That would teach them a lesson they’d never forget.

Cold pizza. Cold comfort. This morning is bitter as I sit and write this, and that’s not just because Jack Frost paid our fractured land a visit overnight. Some days the zombie apocalypse doesn’t seem such a bad alternative after all. At least you know where you stand with zombies. They are as predictable as they are hungry. Although don’t try to entice them with a Hawaiian thin crust. That simply won’t work.

Back in the day it was a Noah and a flood. Today fingers hover over nuclear launch codes, and people have nightmare about Brexit, while disease and famine ravage large swathes of the globe. If we can’t agree on the small things then how on earth will we ever agree on the issues that truly matter. I just don’t know anymore. Maybe we all need to eat more pizza. A lot more pizza.

What is your favourite pizza topping?

Can your leaders agree on anything?

The Day My Dog Spoke To Me

Our dog, Charlie the border terrier, isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. Every morning I fill his bowl with fresh water, and every morning he and I enact the same routine. He pads over to the bowl, sniffs at it and then rewards me with a withering glare, before sulking in his cage for the remainder of the morning. If looks could kill then I’d be halfway to doggy heaven by now. Charlie doesn’t do tap water.

I’ve no idea why as it’s perfectly acceptable tap water. Good enough for the human members of the household. Perhaps he’s just not thirsty, I used to think. Or his sensitive canine palate will only accept Evian sparkling H20 from the purest Alpine springs. His father was a pedigree so maybe that’s where his culinary pickiness comes from. Possibly there’s a bit of corgi in his family lineage.

Given this, I was surprised the other day to find him slurping noisily from a plant pot in the back yard. It had rained heavily overnight so the saturated soil in the pot contained a good few inches of dirty rainwater. Dirty rainwater that our Charlie was gulping down at an unprecedented pace. It was as if he had just crossed the Sahara Desert and was on his last legs. Paws. Whatever.

When he was finished, he ambled past me with a smug expression on his face, his thirst quenched. Can dogs look smug? He trotted past his bowl of clean, cool tap water without a second glance. Here was a dog who knew what he liked and no dumb owner was going to stand in his way. I initially dismissed this as a one off but have since caught him a number of times lapping up muddy water from the back yard.

It doesn’t appear to have affected his health. He’s still a bouncing ball of energy and his all consuming hatred of neighbourhood cats and our amiable postman, Tony, remains undiminished. He just has a preference for al fresco dirty water. Maybe, somewhere deep within his admittedly tiny brain, it is the same primeval beast within which still makes him circle ten times before lying down.

I used to be like Charlie. I had a loving home and family, everything I needed on tap. Yet I preferred spending my nights at the bottom of a pint glass or talking online to complete strangers. I turned my nose up at the pure refreshment on offer for my soul and wallowed in self pity and shame. A physically and mentally unhealthy mess who was more interested in his Twitter followers than his wife and kids.

I’m glad that those times are behind me now. They say you should never look back but sometimes it does no harm to peek over your shoulder to see how far you have come on your journey. We often forget to reflect positively on what we have achieved, instead becoming overwhelmed by the present and what yet lies ahead of us. It is our past conquests where we attain the strength and skills to forge ahead. Our past arms us for the future.

When I get home tonight, I may sneak Charlie an extra biscuit for teaching me an important lesson today. For a dog, he has a pretty comfortable life. I’ll allow him his back yard forays to the dirty plant pot knowing that I now drink from a well of living water. Everyone has the opportunity to sip from this well, yet it remains the less traveled path to so many. I’m glad I made the right choice in the end.

Have you got a pet? What lessons do they teach you?

Have you drank dirty water in the past? Where are you now on your journey?

These Boots Were Made For….Squelching

Now that I’m a full time Rugby Dad, my son honoured me at Christmas by buying me a pair of Wellington boots to keep my tootsies dry and warm as I prowl up and down the touchline. He even included a pair of thermal socks which almost reach my knees. Combined with winter coat, gloves, hat and scarf I now resembled Scott of the Antarctic as I dropped him off for Saturday’s match.

Adam rewarded my sartorial elegance with probably the best match I have ever seen him play. He scored two tries (North American readers think touchdown) and played his heart out. His coach was suitably impressed while my heart burst with pride beneath the 17 layers of clothing I was wearing. I clapped and roared like a demented Eskimo as he hurtled around the pitch for 70 minutes.

All the other Rugby Dads, for we are many, were suitably impressed as well. And not just by what was happening on the pitch. One sidled over to me during the second half. ‘Nice boots,’ he remarked, glancing down in admiration at my new footwear. ‘Thanks’ I replied. ‘My son got them for me at Christmas. I guess I’m a real Rugby Dad now’ I added, clicking my muddy heels like Dorothy on her way to Oz.

‘You certainly look the part now’ he continued, before roaring at the referee about the other team being offside, a rule I’m still struggling to get my head around. Yes, I did look the part. I felt like I belonged there, that I fitted in, a sensation which for most of my life was an alien concept to me. Instead, I was a social chameleon who changed his behaviour and opinions like Lady GaGa changes clothes during a concert.

I was perfectly happy with Adam being the star of the show, the centre of attention. I may have looked faintly ridiculous but I was where I was meant to be, supporting him. Despite the early hour and the dreary conditions, it certainly beat lying in bed with a monstrous hangover, a pastime which, until several years ago, occupied the majority of my Saturday mornings.

I hope Saturday was the first of many such outings for my boots. There are many muddy fields to be traversed. And win, lose or draw at least I won’t lose any toes through frostbite. Safe in the knowledge that, as well as looking the part, I now feel the part as well. Part of a jigsaw which, when pieced together, is called family life. It’s where I’m meant to be, rather than the many other places I’ve tried to squeeze myself, desperate for attention and acceptance.

I used to be a square peg struggling to fit into a round hole. I’m still a square but much more comfortable in my own skin now. I’m where I needed to be all along, where I was meant to be, with the people who believe in me and what I am trying to achieve. I have cast off chains of self loathing and doubt, in order to reveal the real me, warts and all. I look the part because I am the part. The missing part.

Are you a social chameleon?

Do you look the part? Is it all just a show for the outside world?

Are you happy in your own skin?

What Do Bloggers Do On Sunday?

From personal experience, Sunday is the quietest day of the week on WordPress. People tend to be offline and blog traffic picks up later in the week again. For many people, Sunday is traditionally a day of rest. They have a lie in, spend the day with their family, some go to church. I also realise that others have to go to work. To some, Sunday is just another day while others treat it as special time which should be protected at all costs.

My Sunday’s follow a typical pattern. They used to start with a stinking hangover, followed by skulking around the house eating unhealthily and largely feeling sorry for myself. How times have changed. We aren’t connected to a church (loooooooong story) but friends do come to our house every Sunday morning to listen to worship music, pray and study the Bible. Today, I spoke about using the Bible as a weapon.

Now, by weapon I don’t mean literally bashing people over the head with it, although I have been sorely tempted at times. Even loooooonger story. No, the Bible can be used to protect you from unacceptable and inappropriate behaviour. I know it is not for everyone but I believe it has helped me become a better, more thoughtful, considerate person. I’m no expert and a lot of it still challenges and confuses me, but I do get a lot out of it.

Afterwards we all hung out for a while. Fionnuala baked a birthday cake for our friend, Graham. When our friends left, I ran a 5K even though I felt tired. I’m still recovering from a mystery virus I’ve been battling since before Christmas. I’m much better than I was, and back running again, but there are days when it is the furthest thing from my mind. I forced myself out there, though, and felt all the better for it.

I’m no culinary giant but promised Fionnuala last week I would cook dinner on Sunday. She suggested sausage casserole as even a walking disaster zone like yours truly could manage that one. Rebecca helped me by cutting the up carrots and onions while I peeled potatoes. We both ended up with stinging eyes from the onions but I managed not to burn anything and everyone seemed to enjoy it. It’s another dish I’ve mastered which I can add to my recipe book.

The remainder of the day will be taken up with blogging and writing an article a website has approached me about. I’ll also drop an e-mail to my editor to see how she is progressing with the book. We will hopefully get caught up on some of our shows, although Fionnuala always has a busy Sunday evening, preparing lunches and uniforms for the week ahead. So much for Sunday being a day of rest then.

Monday comes around oh so quick. Our weekends are precious times and I’m blessed that I can spend mine with family and friends, people who truly matter. I hope you do the same and are doing so now, instead of reading my rambling words. We only have so many of these days, we should make the most of them. I hope you are all having a great Sunday. Whatever you are doing today.

How do you spend your Sunday?

This Bloody Sleeve Of Mine

I wear my heart on my sleeve. I always have. I’m not one of these people who can face the world with a cheery smile, while inside said world is crumbling to a pile of acrid ash. I don’t do deadpan and if I played poker, my pile of chips would be gone after a few disastrous hands. When it comes to office politics, I can’t play the long game. I become impatient, frustrated, the emotions splashed across my face for all to see.

Take this week. Both inside and outside of work I’ve struggled and failed to remain patient. When I should have bitten my lip and counted to ten, I’ve got to about four before losing my cool and venting my ire. This, of course, has accomplished zilch, zero, nada. Situations have remained unchanged, other than me making myself look foolish and regretting having opened my big, fat mouth.

When things aren’t going my way I tend to force the issue, rather than sitting back and waiting. I’m selfish so me, me, me always trumps the bigger picture and the needs and feelings of others. I end up with egg all over my face and that’s even before the main course of humble pie is served up. I reluctantly gulp it down, resisting the urge to gag on my own bitter, acidic bile.

I wish I wasn’t like this but I am. I always have been. I’m a bull in a china shop when things aren’t going my way. I’m 48 years old but sometimes feel I stopped developing emotionally somewhere in the early 80’s. Maybe that’s the problem. Rather than remain calm and look ahead, I fret that I’ve wasted my life and achieved nothing. I always have one eye on the ticking clock.

It’s a no win situation on all sides. I don’t trust others to deliver the goods because I know best and everyone else knows nothing. I obviously don’t trust God so I turn my back in frustration and snub my nose at his ‘perfect timing.’ I also don’t, and can’t, trust myself. I roll my eyes in office meetings, fire off poorly thought out e mails, and lash out at loved ones who deserve so much better.

My writing is my sanctuary, a safe place where I can think and compose measured, rational prose. It is where I cool off and reflect on my less than perfect behaviour in the big, bad world. I used to think this was where the real me could be found, but that’s not true. Blogging Stephen is kind, thoughtful and considerate. The real Stephen struggles on all these fronts. He aspires to be better but so often fails.

When I’m muttering to myself about the injustice of it all, I’m taking my eyes off the people who need and deserve my attention. As my wise wife often reminds me ‘The world does not revolve around Stephen.’ I hate it when she says that but only because she’s struck the bullseye and spoken the truth. I gripe and groan but should be thanking my lucky stars as to how good I have it.

I’ll try again, and most probably fail, but I’ll try. I’ll hand over my problems and frustrations. To my higher power. I will trust and believe with this most fractured of faiths. I can’t do it all on my own and no amount of ranting will change that. My heart deserves better. It’s time to put it back where it belongs, rather than leave it exposed and vulnerable to the casual slings and arrows of this unforgiving and relentless world.

Do you wear your heart on your sleeve?

Are you a patient person?

How do you deal with frustration and disappointment?

I’m With The 39%

According to a poll taken yesterday, 61% of its population think the United Kingdom is in crisis. The reason? Why, Brexit of course. The ongoing saga reached new depths last night when Prime Minister Teresa May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement was defeated by over 200 votes in Parliament. This triggered the Labour opposition calling for a vote of no confidence in her leadership.

That vote will be tonight and, no doubt, front page news tomorrow morning. The television news has almost exclusively led on Brexit for months now. It’s everywhere, you cannot escape it wherever you turn. Even Donald Trump is tweeting about it which, I guess, makes a change from building walls. Northern Ireland certainly has had its share of walls down the years, primarily to keep our opposing communities from killing each other.

Northern Ireland lies at the heart of the dilemma. If the U.K. withdraw then it causes all sorts of problems regarding the ‘invisible’ border between ourselves and the neighbouring Republic of Ireland. It’s a logistical and trade nightmare. The threat of a ‘hard border’ terrifies many. Unionists insist it will lead to a weakening of the relationship between our little country and the so called mainland.

I went for a run this afternoon. The sun was shining and I was surrounded by blue skies and mild temperatures. I ran two miles out of the city to a park where I completed two circuits of an idyllic lake, inhabited by graceful swans and inquisitive ducks. After three weeks of sickness, I was finally starting to feel healthy again. I forgot the worries of my world for an hour and focused on the next mile, the next bend in the road, the next step.

I know crisis. Often it has been self inflicted, but on other occasions it has been simply life pulling the carpet from under our feet as only life can. You’re drifting along minding your own business when BAM! Your world collapses around you. Be it bereavement, illness or financial hardship we’ve all been there at one time or another. Crisis is as much part of life as the air we breathe.

We often become desensitised to the true meaning and impact of the words we casually throw about. How many of the 61% who took that poll will sleep in a doorway tonight or worry where their next meal is coming from? How many are picking up the telephone to be informed that a loved one has been killed in a road crash or diagnosed with a terminal illness? How many?

Brexit sucks and, yes, it will impact many people. But is it really a crisis? I didn’t feel in crisis today as I ran out of the city centre. I was alive and grateful. Grateful that I could run and had a well paid job to return to afterwards. Grateful to drive home to a loving and supportive family. Grateful to have loyal friends, willing to stick with me through the good times and the bad.

I’m proud to be one of the 39%. Count your blessings and not your woes. Love your loved ones and block out your foes. I’ve spent most of my life wallowing in a half empty glass, but no more. Even if it’s only 39% full I’m going to focus on it and not the ‘what if or could have been’ culture which blinkers many of us. Brexit will come and go, just like the many other temporary storms sent to test us. Look beyond them. For there lie the blue skies.

Are you a 61% or a 39% kind of person?

Algebra Is Hard. Common Sense Is Harder.

Rebecca handed me the homework from hell yesterday evening. Algebra, no less. I initially thought it was Geography and was a study of North African nations until I realised it was Maths. Or, in order to avoid confusing our loyal North American readership….Math. Armed with a lowly ‘C’ in my O Level Mathematics back when we used chalk and slate to ‘do our sums’ I endeavoured to assist.

Algebra is HARD! How they expect a 12 year old girl to get her head around it, I don’t know. Einstein and that bloke in the bath (Archimedes) would have struggled to compute the fiendish equations devised by Rebecca’s Year 8 Maths teacher. I scratched my head, furrowed my brow and sweated profusely until tentatively arriving at the answers. How I got there I’ll never know. Although Google helped.

I’m confident Rebecca will get there, though. She has taken to Junior High School with her usual enthusiasm, throwing herself into both academic and extra curricular activities. She has a work ethic second to none and can often me found voluntarily taking on extra work or reading, in addition to her allotted school work. She sets a great example to everyone else in the household.

Algebra is an acquired skill. With study and perseverance you can get better at it, and improve your understanding. I was queuing in the village shop this morning when I heard two of the older members of staff discussing their teenage colleagues who work most of the weekend shifts. ‘They’ve brains to burn, but no common sense’ remarked one of them. The other wholeheartedly agreed before they became aware of my presence at the till.

‘My wife always says that about me, and I’m 48’ I cheerily informed them. The two ladies looked at each other, before exploding into laughter. I made my purchase and walked away from them, both still chortling at my hilarious statement. It’s not for nothing that locals call me the Oscar Wilde of the village with my witty repartee. Oh alright then, nobody says that, I made that bit up.

It’s true though. Fionnuala says I am one of the most intelligent people she has ever met, but also one of the dumbest. I’m utterly impractical and if there is an awkward, convoluted way of doing something then I can be relied upon to stumble across it. I get out of taxis backwards, stuff like that. Write a 400 page novel, run a marathon, hold down a reasonably important job? No problem. Rewire a plug or change the tyre on a car? Errrrr….

There’s a less humorous side to this. I’m an appalling judge of character and throughout my life have made terrible choices, landing myself in all sorts of hot water in the process. I can only blame OCD and excess alcohol for so much. At the end of the day, I had to realise I’m a grown man and needed to take responsibility for my decisions and their consequences. Life is a constant battle to bolster this particular Achilles heel of mine.

You can’t teach common sense, like you can algebra. But I can learn from the many harsh lessons I have rightly experienced down the years because of my foolhardy nature. Scars have their value. I bear mine as a reminder of what can go wrong, if I press the self destruct button, and bring unnecessary pain on both my loved ones and myself. I’m learning. Slowly. Algebra is hard. Common sense is harder.

Do you struggle with common sense?

How good were you at algebra?

Can someone please explain the whole Maths/Math thing to me?

The Land Is Yours

Every so often, I get a phrase in my head that won’t budge. It’s different from the million other thoughts which bounce around my head every day. Different in that I know it is not of me. It’s as if a flying saucer has landed on my cranium and a team of little green men have dumped the phrase out their landing doors. Well, they have returned. For a phrase has settled. Four little words. Or possibly four HUGE words.

The land is yours….

Yup, that’s it. As a C minus Christian with a deeply fractured faith, I want to believe that God has placed the phrase in my head for a purpose, a specific reason. And I believe this to be the case in this instance. I believe I was given the phrase for a friend of ours who has to make a big decision. Hopefully it will help him to make the correct choice. But it’s landed with such a thump on my doorstep that I feel I should share it with you all.

We all have decisions to make in life, difficult choices to take. These involve change, which can be daunting and frightening. Change can be a white knuckle ride of epic proportions. Life is about moving forward, often into the unknown. This invariably involves sacrifice and hard work. Many shy from such responsibilities, preferring the safety of the status quo as opposed to rolling the dice and seeing what numbers come up.

I was such a person for many years. I wallowed in a bubble of inertia, consumed by self pity and haunted by the ghosts of my past. My mental and physical health deteriorated. I succumbed to addictive and inappropriate behaviour. It was my security blanket, my shield. For the last thing I wanted to do was draw back the curtains and expose myself to the truth.

I reckoned nobody liked me much, for I didn’t particularly like myself. I sulked in the darkness and avoided the light at all costs. Until the penny dropped one day. I realised I was wasting my life and wasting the lives of my loved ones. I ripped up the book of excuses and chose to step forward into the destiny that had been staring me in my face all along. All I had to do was reach out and touch it.

The land was mine….

Any farmer will tell you that in order to reap the benefits of the land, you must work hard. Fields of corn don’t just sprout up overnight. You need to tend to them, put the hours in. It applies to everything. Your career, your education, your relationships. Yet, if you combine a strong work ethic with an equally strong belief, then that’s when the miraculous happens. I believe that is where God steps in and turns the impossible into the inevitable.

You might believe in God, Allah, Buddha or the man on the moon. You might believe in nothing, including yourself. If you do, then that is your prerogative. I can’t force you to change. All I can suggest is you might be wrong. Step up and step out. The land is yours and, what’s more, it’s closer than you think. Clamber over the fence or whatever barrier is holding you back from where you need to be, from where you were born to be.

The land is yours….

Start walking and, whatever you do, don’t stop and don’t look back. Keep your eyes firmly fixed on the horizon and feel the virgin earth beneath your feet. Watch as the veils of failure and defeat fall away to reveal what is meant to be. Now look around and marvel at the lush, verdant fields stretching for as far as the eye can see. There is no limit to what you can achieve. Just believe. And leave the rest to your higher power.

Is the land yours?

I Interviewed A Dying Man….

I interviewed a dying man once. I was visibly shocked when he calmly informed me that this was the case. He mentioned it as you would the weather, or how shocking the train service has been of late. It was matter of fact, making conversation, a throwaway comment. To many, that sounds as if he did not value his life, that he had given up, that he no longer cared. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The dying man had lived a full life, an incredible life which he gradually revealed to me during the course of our interview. If I were to tell you half of it, you might raise an eyebrow but I can tell you that it is all true, having researched this man before we met l. He had squeezed every last drop out of it, and now looked back upon it as it drew to a close.

He spoke clearly to me throughout, and his eyes had a piercing intensity that suggested an iron will and steely focus. For this man, though dying, had unfinished business. Which was why he had agreed to meet me, after weeks of careful brokering via an intermediary. There was still work for him to do, and I was the conduit he had chosen to facilitate his dying wish.

I cannot tell you what that wish was, as to do so would reveal his identity and betray his trust. Other than to say, if and when it is fulfilled, it will probably feature on the front page of many newspapers. There are very few people on this planet who can work towards granting his wish, but I happen to be one of them. I feel pressure, responsibility, a burden. But it is one that I gladly accept.

The dying man told me exactly what I needed him to tell me. The baton had been passed on, the gauntlet thrown down. The ball was and is in my court now. The dying man told me he had found his faith in the depths of his despair. As such, he was prepared to meet his Maker. He believed and had spent the latter years of his life helping others as God had helped him through his own personal valley of death. He believed.

This incredibly intelligent, wildly successful man believed. Prior to meeting him, I was somewhat in awe of his achievements and reputation, I was nervous meeting him, unsure as to what to expect. Yet where I might have expected arrogance and vanity, instead I found humility and compassion. He was at peace with his circumstances and his diagnosis. Utterly confident as to what lay ahead.

Yet, I still doubt. I waver, I falter, I stumble in my faith. This great man had chosen me to assist in granting his dying wish. Am I even fit to lace his shoes? As we shook hands at the end of our meeting he said two words to me – ‘God Bless’ – and it was as if his eyes bored into my soul, stripping away all the earthly layers and seeing me for the broken earthly vessel I am. Yet still, he believes in me. He trusts me to deliver my end of the bargain.

I saw life in his eyes. Life and hope and purpose. The dying see the world in 20/20. They see the rest of us, the living, as we stumble about lost in our earthly fogs. The dying implore us to carry on, to realise their dreams and aspirations. They see that time is short, but they know the truth. I interviewed a dying man and looked into his eyes. He shared his truth with me.

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

I’m on a road trip today. Not that I particularly want to, what with this current lurgy still afflicting me. The only trip I want to take these days is up the wooden hill to my bed. But, needs must, the hatchlings require feeding and Fionnuala has cushions to buy. So I’m off to London today with work. I return late tomorrow night with a busy schedule in between. I can hardly contain myself. Hmmm.

Fun fact. Northern Ireland has two main airports. Belfast International Airport and George Best Belfast City Airport. I’m flying out of the latter, named after one of the city’s legendary sons, the Manchester United footballer. Regarded by many as the greatest footballer of all time, including the legendary Pele no less. The Spanish media christened him ‘El Beatle’, such was his fame.

Best truly had the world at his feet, such were his silky footballing skills. But he succumbed to the glamour and the glitz and his incredible talent was stunted by alcoholism and a life of excess. He died prematurely of liver failure, the world never seeing his full potential. His burial was akin to a state funeral, with thousands lining the streets to pay homage to a sporting great.

His death was all the sadder, given this unrealised potential. A European Cup winner, he left United due to his chaotic lifestyle and followed a career path which meandered and then flatlined with a number of increasingly smaller clubs. It was a life of unfulfilled potential. He could have been so much more, he should have been so much more. His legacy was ‘what could have been.’

This is a question that intermittently haunts me as I navigate life. What could have been? Could I have done better? I know I could have? Could I have done more? Most definitely. Have I spurned countless opportunities? Absolutely. Have I fulfilled my potential? Probably not. Is there still a chance I can? YES! I may be 48 years old (but a strikingly young looking 48 years old at that) but I can.

Potential is such a subjective term. The good news is that there is plenty of it around. We all have it, by the bucketful. It’s coursing through our veins. Yet it, in itself, is not enough. It can only be realised through hard work and commitment. That is where so many of us fall away. We are beguiled by the earthly trinkets of this world which tempt and distract us from our true calling on this world.

There’s a famous story about George Best. He is in a five star hotel room, cavorting with his girlfriend, a current Miss World. He is sipping champagne and the bed is covered with banknotes. He is laughing, partying, the happiest man in the world. A hotel porter enters and looks around the room. He fixes Best with a sombre expression and asks ‘So, tell me Mr. Best. Where did it all go wrong?’

Best died a legend. They named an airport after him. His face appears on our banknotes and, yes, there is now a George Best Hotel in the city centre. But, to many, his legacy is one of failure and unfulfilled potential. He achieved so much on his God given talent, but there could have been so much more. To many, he is a hero, a role model. To me, he is a warning sign. I don’t want to be another George Best. Do you?

Are you fulfilling your potential?

What more can you do with your life?

The Day The World Went Mad….Again

Happy 7th January everyone! The day the world went mad….again. Well it is in this little corner of the planet anyway. The day, all the schools return after the Christmas break and offices and businesses crank into gear once more after the limbo of last week. The trains will be packed, the roads will be gridlocked and stress levels will begin to creep up again after the festive lull.

Many New Year resolutions will already be in tatters, others teetering on the brink. We kid ourselves that this year will be different, special but 7th January suggests otherwise. We find ourselves back exactly where we started, two weeks ago when tinsel and shiny baubles blinded us from the grim reality of the 9-5 grind. It’s back to normal. Or as normal as many of us will ever be.

Grim isn’t it? Enough to make you want to pull the covers over your head and give the crazy carousel of life a miss for another day. I know that’s how I felt when the alarm clock went off this morning. Outside, it was depressingly dark and dank. I have a doctors appointment first thing, then the dreaded commute into Belfast to be greeted by an office of in boxes and in fighting. The joy, the joy.

it’s a churning sea of insanity where the waters rise, covering the last craggy outposts of what we truly want to do with our lives. So easy to be swept away, never to be reunited with our hopes and aspirations again. We cough and splutter, desperate to keep our heads above the waves, gasping for one last breath of the life we crave so badly. Sucking the oxygen of our futures into starved, raw lungs.

It is all we have, so cling on tight. Kick and thrash if you must but survive. Get through today, that’s all that matters. Reach out and cling to something, anything as long as it gets you through the tempest. It can be a person, an event, a target, a place. Reach out and pray for strong hands to pull you above the waves and onto the slippery rocks. Safe, for now, from the numbing nausea of normalcy.

The world has gone mad….again. We are the sane. The dreamers, the idealists, the head in the clouders. They mock us as naive and misguided, but we know better. We see beyond the next bend in the road, we raise our eyes and see blue skies ahead. We strive, we survive, we feel alive. Death can wait, for seasons change and the air suddenly feels fresher. We are the sane, we are the few. We choose a different path.

How mad is your world today?

What are you doing to keep your head above the waves?

And So It Begins….

The grind, that is. Back on the 07:53 express train to Belfast. The platform bathed in a sickly glow, casting up the faces of my fellow commuters to me for scrutiny. The same faces as before, some new clothes and accessories, but the same faces. Wearing the same expressions. Mostly frowns, mostly down. The occasional smile, but they are few and far between. I stare at my reflection in the cracked carriage glass. I fit in effortlessly.

I wonder how many New Year Resolutions have been broken already, now we are almost 40 hours into 2019. Or, are they clinging on for dear life as the train rattles through the darkness towards the city lights? Clinging on to hopes and dreams that seemed so attainable, but two nights ago. But now, they squirm and slither through steepled fingers, for another year.

I stand my ground amongst the frowns. Wrapped in layers of woollen hope. Slick with sick but still I see the magic. I see it, eyes wide open. I pray my resolve does not dissolve, does not corrode a hole within my soul. A soul I’ve fought so hard to fill, with iron will. We go again I spoke, I wrote. I’ll practice what I preach this year. They drive me on. The doubters, mockers. I know them well.

The grind is hell to those who dwell within a world of broken dreams. I am the glue, for you, the means and the ends. I am your friend. If you will allow me. Rise up, for we know not where we are going until we take that first faltering step. Watch barriers melt and hurdle fears, go through the gears. To find the grind is but a temporal state. Berate this date. For you and I are more.

How are coping with your grind today?

2019….We Go Again

Being a full time rugby dad, I’ve heard the above phrase often over the last few years as I’ve stood on the touchline supporting Adam. When a team scores and is regrouping for the resulting kickoff it is a rallying cry for the side. Yes, we may have just scored. Yes, we may be leading. But the game isn’t won yet. There is still work to be done. We can’t afford to relax or be complacent.

We go again….

On a personal level, I achieved a lot in 2018. I wrote a book. I ran two marathons. I watched the blog grow to over 8000 followers. But, more importantly, I grew as a person. Yet, there’s still so much to do and I can’t help but feel time is not on my side. So, I go again. Despite being sidelined with illness currently, I’m still hopeful of completing my tenth marathon in May. The Belfast Marathon has a new route this year which I’m looking forward to tackling.

Then there’s the little matter of my book, ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Skelly’s Square.’ I’m loathe to blog about it as it’s an entirely selfish exercise, but I realise in order to promote it, I have to occasionally blow my own trumpet. I’m wary of that side of my character, but have good people around me to guide me along that particular path. I’ve even ventured back onto Twitter, which was a huge, and still weird, experience.

The book is currently with my editor, Laura, having gone through the beta reader process. When she returns it, I will be ready to start querying literary agents. I’m currently drawing up a shortlist which I’ve been researching online. I’ve also drafted my query letter and book synopsis. So, I’m standing on the cusp, the edge of submitting sample chapters to them. It’s exciting, but also terrifying.

I’m hoping to be a better husband and father in 2019. A better manager, a better employee, a better son, brother, uncle, everything really. As ever, I will strive to blog regularly and honestly, keeping you updated as to my successes and setbacks. I will also continue to battle with my fractured faith and work at keeping the beast that is my OCD, well and truly shackled in the deepest recesses of my mind.

I want to read more books, watch more movies and start work on KSC2. Ideas are starting to form in my mind as to where Kirkwood, Meredith and Harley go next. I also want to engage more with my fellow bloggers. I regard many of you as friends now, people I would miss if you dropped off my online radar. Blogging is more than just posting blogs. It’s about reading, interacting with, and supporting others. I need to do that more.

I hope you all realise your dreams and targets in the coming year.

We go again. We go together.

What are your 2019 goals?

The 12 Blogging Questions Of Christmas – Day 6 – What Do You Believe In?

Sixteen years ago today, Fionnuala made one of the worst decisions of her life. She married me! I’m joking…..I think. Since then, we have had our ups and downs, but we are still together and facing all the world has to throw at us. We have been blessed with three wonderful kids, and I’m looking forward to finishing work today and spending five (yes five) days off, in their company.

I won’t be running over the Christmas break, due to illness, so hope to spend as much time as possible lounging on the sofa watching Christmas movies and observing the ongoing chaos all around me. I don’t deserve my wife and kids, but I have them anyway. They are always there to support me, be it in my work, my writing, or my running. They believe in me, so I must be doing something right.

Christmas is all about belief. For the kids, it can be whether or not the big guy in the red suit exists and, if so, are you on the good or naughty list. For others, it can be whether or not the Son of God arrived over 2000 Christmases ago, or is that nothing more than an elaborate fairytale. We all need to believe in something. For if we don’t believe in something, then we’ll fall for anything.

What do you believe in?

Who believes in you?

Something Has Been On My Mind.

I wrote some time ago that I was no longer going to write exclusively about Christian topics. I described myself as a Christian who blogs, as opposed to a Christian blogger. My reasons for this have been well documented so I don’t think I need to repeat them on this post. Suffice to say, I felt awkward and uncomfortable doing so, given my own fractured faith. Enough said.

At the time, I received a lot of support for my stance. From Christians and non-Christians alike. People replied that they respected my decision and the rationale behind that. Phrases like ‘refreshing honesty’ were thrown about and I felt vindicated. People understood, or at least I thought they did. I forged forward, content that all was well and I could focus on other topics close to my heart.

Very, very gradually though I began to realise that all was not as rosy as I first thought. Certain Christian bloggers stopped reading and commenting on my posts, others less and less so. It has been a trickle, as opposed to a flood, but a noticeable one, nonetheless. Like a leaky tap in the corner of the room. Barely audible but there all the same. Drip. Drip. Drip. In certain quarters, I have become somewhat of a blogging outcast.

It’s not as if I’m shouting atheism from the rooftops. I still consider myself a Christian, albeit a deeply flawed one. The majority of my posts contain a consistent Christian message. Love others. It’s just I choose not to deliver it as overtly as I used to, and as others continue to do. I don’t quote Scripture, although I still read my Bible. My faith is more private. I’m seeking to focus on my relationship with Jesus.

My daily views have dipped considerably and for a long time I was unable to put my finger on the reason for it. Or rather, I chose not to. I didn’t want to speak out loud what I’d been privately thinking for some time. Even less so, I haven’t wanted to air my thoughts. Yet, here I am, writing about it. It’s that whole ‘refreshing honesty’ thing again. I write what I see. I might be horribly mistaken. But that’s what I see.

WWJD – What Would Jesus Do, or rather think? I’m not sure what his views on social media would be. I know it can be a fantastic evangelical tool, if used properly. But I still reckon he would be old school when it came to missionary work. Walking the streets, looking the broken in the eye, loving the unlovable. Not sitting behind a keyboard, tapping merrily away. You can only do so much from there.

Don’t get me wrong. There are still a core of Christian bloggers who I read, and interact with, on a daily basis. They have always shown love in the way they support and encourage me, no matter what I write about. But I see a worrying trend amongst other Christians on WordPress to only interact with other overt Christian bloggers. Isn’t that kind of missing the point?

I saw the same thinking when I went to church. We stick to our own, we don’t reach out beyond our comfort zone. We smile politely and nod and say all the right things, but where is the integrity, the desire to get your hands dirty and mingle in the mire and the mud of the sinful. For that is where Jesus would be. Up to his knees in it. Be that on WordPress or in a doorway with an alcoholic, a drug addict, whoever needed him.

Free Christian Children’s Kindle Book 10/4 – 10/5

Free Christian Children’s Kindle Book 10/4 – 10/5

Free Christian Children’s Kindle Book 10/4 – 10/5
— Read on meghanewhite.blog/2018/10/03/free-christian-childrens-kindle-book-10-4-10-5/

Please check out Meghan’s debut middle grade novel, an inspirational tale of a young boy travelling across America and finding God in the process. A great Christmas present for the kids, methinks

#pitmad #amwriting #writingcommunity #MG

Only People In The Movies Slip On Banana Skins

Have you ever watched an old black and white movie where one of the characters slips on a banana skin and then launches into mid air before coming crashing back to earth again. Cue howls of laughter. Oh stop, my aching sides. I always thought such scenes were confined to the silver screen. Surely such idiots didn’t exist in the real world. Until two days ago, that was.

I was walking through the city centre, on my way to the train station, minding my own business, when suddenly I was propelled skywards. In a scene more befitting of a slapstick version of ‘The Matrix’ I found myself experiencing a weird, out of body sensation. I realised I was in mid air and hung there, awaiting gravity to do ‘its thang’ and return me to terra firma. I didn’t have to wait long.

My right hip collided painfully with the pavement and I lay there, dazed and confused, staring at the offending article. A banana skin. I was more embarrassed than hurt. It was a busy street and I cringed, expecting howls of laughter or, at the very least, a stifled snigger. Nothing. I waited some more. Life continued on around me, as if I was invisible. Had I imagined the entire episode?

Hauling myself gingerly to my feet, I checked all was in order, desperately avoiding eye contact with any of the pedestrians hurrying past in either direction. Too late. An old man caught my eye. Oh well, at least he had the compassion to show an interest in my well being. I braced myself for an embarrassing conversation about how I was fine really, no harm done, thanks for asking anyway, etc etc.

‘You slipped on a banana skin,’ he cheerily announced, before continuing on his way, a broad smile on his face. ‘Er yes, I was aware of that,’ I sourly replied, not sure if he was extracting the urine or somehow thought I was unaware as to what had happened. An old lady then distracted me, by asking was I alright. In the the meantime, 8,473 other people had scurried past, unconcerned as to my plight.

I thanked the lady, muttering I was fine, before fleeing the scene as quickly as I could, given my aching hip and bruised pride. In hindsight, I should have disposed of the banana skin, to save somebody else a similar plight, but at that moment in time, all I wanted was for the ground to open and swallow me up. Later though, I thought about it more. Are people really that uncaring in today’s society?

Okay, I wasn’t badly hurt, but I could have been. Bar Olly Obvious and the old lady, it was as it my aerial antics had been invisible. Are city folk that conditioned nowadays to avoid interacting with other people, for fear of being stabbed, mugged or otherwise harmed? Where have all the Good Samaritans gone? Would I have ran to someone’s aid if I witnessed a similar scenario? I’d like to think I would have. Does that make me a minority of one?

Life is full of banana skins, scattered along the road we travel, just waiting to trip us up along the way. It’s inevitable we will all come a cropper one day and find ourselves flat on our backs, staring up at the sky. It’s then that we need people around who love us and will help us back onto our feet. People who will always love us, no matter what the circumstances. People who hang around, when the going gets tough.

We need those people. We also need to be those people.

Have you ever slipped on a banana skin? Or witnessed someone else? How did you feel? What did you do?

Have you the people around you, who will step up to the mark, when you need help in your life?

Where Are You God?

It was a frosty start this morning as we arose to face a dark and dreary Tuesday. The car thermometer informed us it was below freezing as Fionnuala drove me out to the train station for my daily commute to Belfast. Ahead of us was another busy day. The weekend seems a long way off, and tends to be even busier than the week itself. The Christmas break can’t come quick enough.

My local train station in the morning resembles the American evacuation of Hanoi. Utter chaos. Woefully inadequate car parking facilities mean vehicles are abandoned on the road, as school children and office workers converge on the tiny stop. The mighty minds at Northern Ireland Translink have also cut the number of carriages, meaning getting a seat is nigh on impossible.

We cram onto the train, jostling for position and breathing space. I’m convinced I will be asked one of these days to sit on the roof, more akin to Mumbai than Moira. Everyone looks suitably miserable on the journey into Belfast, the majority with their noses buried in their phones or other electronic devices. Eye contact is kept to a minimum and Heaven forbid you attempt to strike up a conversation.

When we arrive in Belfast, it’s a stampede onto the platform and every man and woman for themselves in the dash for the barriers. Where sour faced staff await us, begrudgingly inspecting our tickets before allowing us through and onto the hustle and bustle of the city centre and beyond. Despite the lights being up, I don’t think the festive spirit has gripped the city yet. I’m not sure if it ever will.

The walk to the office is equally grim. It’s as if the number of homeless people in Belfast multiplies by the day. They huddle in doorways and shopfronts, cocooned in blankets, but still shivering against the biting cold. I walk past and onwards to my warm office, where petty office political wrangles await. Want to fully expose yourself to the lowest human qualities? Greed, arrogance, deceit? Work in an open plan office for a year.

It’s at times like this I ask, where is God? For I don’t see him on my daily commute. Instead, I see a world I’m not particularly proud to be a part of, a world that seems to be spiralling out of control. God has been very quiet in our lives of late. Hopes have been dashed, prayers gone unanswered, and obstacles loom up in every direction to frustrate and restrict us. I still believe in God, but I do wonder at times. Where are you?

Then, Fionnuala pointed out the sky to me this morning. She was looking up, whereas I was glumly staring ahead. That sums up the two of us quite well. The photo below doesn’t do justice to the majestic orange and purple hue, framing a crescent moon, kept company by a lone star, blazing brilliantly over the gloomy earth below. I wonder if the Wise Men looked upon a similar sight as they journeyed to Bethlehem.

The sight gave me hope. Hope that there are better times, and that God has better plans ahead for us. It certainly doesn’t feel that way, at present, but I guess that is what faith is all about. Without hope, we are lost. We need to believe in something, otherwise life is pointless. We need guidance. A single star in a chilly morning sky might not be much. But for me, today, it was enough.

What do you believe in?

I Don’t Believe in Santa Claus But….

For the first time since the year of our Lord 2002, Santa Claus is not coming to our house this Christmas. The hatchlings are all grown up so the Big Man is going to give chez Black a miss and leave it to their long suffering parents to ‘deliver the goods’ come the 25th. He will be missing out on his mince pie and glass of Diet Coke and Rudolph will have to go elsewhere for his carrot and bowl of water.

This hasn’t impacted, however, upon the current level of excitement in the house, especially amongst the girls. I have already sat through ‘The Christmas Chronicles’ with Kurt Russell four times, and the decorations went up well over a week ago. And are still going up. Despite Fionnuala’s insistence that this would be a more low key Christmas, every time I leave the house I return to find another wreath or set of lights in situ.

On Friday night, Rebecca and her friends went to their old school for the switching on of the Christmas tree lights. As self confessed ‘big girls’ at Junior High, they sniggered knowingly when informed that Santa Claus and his elves would be there for all the younger kids. They made me drop them off down the road from the school itself, to avoid the embarrassment of being dropped off by an adult human being.

The same applied to being picked up. They phoned through a rendezvous point where I waited patiently, until they graced me with their company. As they piled into the car, giggling and nattering, I raised an eyebrow in surprise. Both of them were clutching selection boxes, yet I knew there was no shop at the school and neither of them had any money on them. Hmmmmm….

Me: ‘Where did you get the selection boxes?’

Them: ‘Santa.’

Cue further giggling. It seemed that, despite their avowed intent to no longer write Father Christmas letters, they had no problem with playing along if there was free chocolate on the table. Twelve year old girls can be brutal. Oh, to have their moral compass, I mused, as they proceeded to demolish the contents of their dubiously acquired boxes in front of me. Santa Claus had been played, and I was an unwitting accomplice to this heinous crime.

Just as I was about to clamber upon my metaphorical high horse and deliver a lecture about integrity and values, I thought to myself – ‘They’re twelve year old girls. What’s your excuse?’ How many times had I said one thing, then acted in a way that suggested the complete opposite. I stick to my principles when it suits me, then chuck them out the window when I see an opportunity that addresses my own selfish needs.

Behaving in a consistent manner is hard work. I like to think I’m solid in that respect, but the truth is I can do so much better. It might not be chocolate boxes, but it’s so easy to rip up your belief system and chuck it in the bin when you’re faced with an easier option, a more tempting alternative. And before you know it, you are surrounded by empty wrappers and your face is smeared in tell tale chocolate.

Is Santa Claus coming to your house this Christmas?

When did you last say one thing and then did the complete opposite?

How do you stick to your beliefs and values?

Can You?

Northern Ireland seems to be in a state of permanent darkness at present. When I wake up it’s dark, cold, wet and windy. I go to work and sit in an office all day. With no windows. Then I come home. It’s dark, cold, wet and windy. The only time I encounter daylight is on my lunchtime run. When it’s slightly less dark but still cold, wet and windy. Has the Arctic Circle been moved south without anyone telling us?

These conditions affect us all but at least I have a warm house to go home to at night. On my walk to and from the office I feel sad for the growing number of rough sleepers who I pass. I stopped the other day and gave a few pounds to one of my homeless friends, Inesa. She was huddled outside the train station with her dog, Poppy. Poppy is in immaculate health. Shiny coat, wet nose and well fed. Inesa, not so much.

You see, Inesa puts her dog’s health before her own. She told me she has had a flu for three weeks and her boyfriend, Vladimir, was too ill to venture down into the town from the park where they sleep at night, when they don’t have the £40 needed to stay in a bed and breakfast. Inesa is too scared to stay in a hostel because of the hassle she gets from another girl, Maria.

Maria told me a different story, of course. The truth is an evasive commodity and I have to take everything I’m told with a generous pinch of salt. I’m minded to believe Inesa, though. She is always sober, polite and humble when I see her. She never asks for anything and when I do offer to help, she always accepts it reluctantly. She once told me she felt bad taking money from me, as I have children to look after.

Inesa is on a journey, as am I, and our paths have chosen to cross on the drab streets of Belfast. The aforementioned Maria is the inspiration behind the character of Meredith Starc, in the book I’m just finished, but there’s a dash of Inesa in there as well. Meredith also has that humility and pride, despite her circumstances. I told Inesa this once and she laughed with genuine delight, that she would end up in a novel.

I was running along the Lagan Towpath yesterday, accompanied by two rowers who cut a swathe through the water to my left. All three of us were working hard. I was pumping my legs while their arms strained to propel themselves along. It was a fairly even contest. At times I was ahead of them, while on other occasions they forged into the lead. But, we were all heading in the same direction.

My prayer and hope today is that Inesa, Maria, Vladimir and all the other rough sleepers in Belfast, continue on their allotted journeys, with brighter times ahead. And if this post can prick the conscience of one person today to show kindness and love to similar folk in their own town and city, then my work is done. They deserve better and I know I can do more. Much more. Can you?

It Was Too Good To Eat….So I Ate It

I was in a coffee shop the other day and was drawn to this bad boy. A raspberry and white chocolate scone. An uber scone, a scone to end all scones. Thankfully the calorific content was nowhere to be seen, as it lured me onto the rocks of decadence. I was powerless to resist and, before I knew it, the scone was on my plate and destined for my stomach. Scones like this are the reason I run 40 miles a week.

I’m happy to report it tasted just as good as it looked although, if I’m honest, it barely touched the sides going down. I was tempted to go up to the counter for a second one, but at the last minute resisted the urge to make an utter pig of myself in public. Self control and Stephen are not normally on speaking terms, but on this occasion I reined in my baser cravings and stuck to the one serving.

I’m not very good at saying ‘no.’ I’m a creature of excess. When I drank, one or two beers wasn’t enough, I had to keep going until I passed out, making a complete idiot of myself in the process. When I took up running, I wasn’t happy at reaching 5K. I kept going until I crossed the finish line in my first marathon. And then ran another eight. So far. Number 10 is planned for next year.

The good thing about running is that I can pretty much eat what I want, within reason. My thighs might ache, but it’s worth it when you can look forward to edible treats at the end of the day. In the bad old days, I would binge eat and then crash diet, surviving on toast and Diet Coke. This behaviour was all tied into my OCD, resulting in bizarre eating habits which I found incredibly hard to shake.

Many people see OCD as a controlling mental illness and, to an extent, it is. Victims are shackled to an ever decreasing circle of unwanted obsessive thinking and irrational compulsions. We also lose control, though. Control of our lives as we succumb to the routine, always the routine. It takes control of our lives as we simultaneously lose control. It tricks, it seduces, it tears us to pieces.

OCD promises release and relief from its mental anguish if we only wave the white flag and surrender to the compulsion. The thought of even momentary escape from it, is tempting beyond belief. We are dragged, kicking and screaming, into its hungry embrace. Like my raspberry and white chocolate scone, that next pint, that next whatever my obsession of the week was, I couldn’t say no.

It was too good to eat, but I still had to eat it. The texture, the taste, it lured me to the extent where, before I know it, I’m cramming it’s sugary goodness down my throat. I cross the line, I push the button, I crave the one thing that’s bad for me, but I just have to have it. Until reality sets in. The next time I wake up with a hangover, step on the scales or fall down the OCD rabbit hole without a bottom.

I manage my OCD today through a combination of medication, having the right people around me and being transparent and accountable about it. I can never rest on my laurels, for it is a slippery and cunning enemy. All it needs is one chunk in my armour, one gap in my defences and it will pour through. It will unleash hell and I will be powerless to resist. OCD is a killer, but I’m alive today and that’s all that matters.

Do you struggle with addictive behaviour? How do you control such urges?

Where are the gaps in your defences? How do you prevent them from being breached?

It’s 23 November….Happy Christmas!

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Er….okay. I realise it’s not even December yet, but Fionnuala and I buckled to pressure from our daughters today. Hannah has already been watching Christmas movies for several weeks, and was belting out festive tunes this morning in the car. It was only a matter of time before I was dispatched to the roof space, armed only with a shaky stepladder and a wonky head torch which has seen better days.

Every January I vow to put away the Christmas decorations in an orderly, systematic manner so that the following December, or mid November, I can easily retrieve them without sustaining a hernia in the process. And every January, they get haphazardly hurled into the pitch black void and forgotten about for the next twelve months. Do I ever learn my lesson? No, I do not.

There follows the traditional sight of yours truly stumbling about in the darkness, muttering and mumbling at the grievous injustice of it all. I wrestle with artificial trees, hunt down recalcitrant Santa figures and roller skate on stray baubles, my arms flailing like windmills as I struggle to stay upright and avoid an unscheduled visit to Accident & Emergency. The joy of Christmas. No. Not ever.

This year’s frolics were enhanced by being on call. There is no more bizarre feeling than conducting high powered telephone conversations while balancing precariously ten feet off the ground in pyjama bottom, a tatty hoodie and several garlands of tinsel. Please do not tell my bosses any of the above. Christmas on the unemployment queue would not go down very well with Fionnuala and the hatchlings.

My efforts were not in vain, however. While I was lurching from one calamity to the next, Fionnuala and the kids were assembling the masterpiece below. I take no credit whatsoever for it, as my wife is undoubtedly the brains and beauty of our marriage. Her innovation and imagination when it comes to all things creative, never fails to amaze me. I can barely tie my own shoe laces.

So, Christmas has arrived at chez Black, and not before time. As ever, ours is the first tree up in the street this year. That said, Fionnuala has vowed we will be scaling down the decorations this time around. No seven foot inflatable Homer Simpson Santa’s in the front garden and NASA will not be able to see our house from space. The plus side is we won’t have a five figure electricity bill to look forward to in January.

You may share in our early festive spirits. You too, may be breaking out the mince pies and binge watching endless Christmas movies which all have the same plot; successful business type who hates Christmas returns to their home town, only to fall in love with their high school sweetheart (eventually) and, in doing so, discover the true meaning of Christmas. Tell me I’m wrong?

I promise not to blog about Christmas again until at least 01 December. Although, that may be a lie. Now excuse me while I extricate myself from the roof space. I’ve been up here for hours, my head torch is fading and I’m starting to get hungry. If I’m not back on here tomorrow can someone contact the emergency services. Or at the very least, lob a few mince pies in my direction.

When does Christmas start in your house?

Who puts the decorations up in your home?

Where is the strangest place you’ve taken a phone call?

Why do all Christmas movies have the same plot?

Happy Thanksgiving From Ireland

Happy Thanksgiving to all our American followers. Being a sad man, I looked up the number of views Fractured Faith has had this year. Of the 79,053, over 45,000 of these were from the good old U.S of A. I have no idea what you see in the ramblings of a Northern Irish man but I am thankful today for all of you. Have a great day, don’t eat too much turkey and let’s hope the Redskins beat the Cowboys!

How are you Thanksgiving Day?

I hate Guinness and I’m Irish. What national treasure do you despise?

What NFL/College team do you follow?

Homeless Jesus

Soooooo…..

I was out for my lunchtime run today, when I was literally stopped in my tracks by a new addition to the Belfast landscape. Outside a homeless centre I regularly run past, was a statue. At first glance, it appears fairly unremarkable. It’s a bronze sculpture of a man lying beneath a blanket on a park bench. What caught my eye, however, was the name of the sculpture – ‘Homeless Jesus.’

Behind the statue was a inscribed description of the piece. It was created by a Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, and depicts Jesus as a homeless person. His face and hands are obscured by the blanket, but the crucifixion wounds on his feet reveal his true identity. The sculpture is intended as a visual translation of the words Jesus gave to his followers in Matthew 25:45.

‘As you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.’

Over the last couple of years I have built tentative relationships with a number of rough sleepers who I regularly pass in my travels around the city centre. I’ve blogged about them in the past and one of the main characters in the book I’m currently writing is homeless. I try to help these folk the best I can, by conversing with them, helping them where I can financially, and basically treating them as human beings.

I could do so much better though. When it’s been near the end of the month and the bank account is running low, I’ve been known to actively avoid my homeless friends as I cannot afford to buy them a cup of tea. Even though very few of them ask for money and often I have to force it upon them. They are proud young men and women and are loathe to be regarded as wasters and scroungers.

The statue stopped me dead today for it pricked my conscience. I once attended a suicide in the homeless centre outside where it is now located. A tragic end to a young life, but sadly no longer a rarity amongst our urban homeless communities. The underbelly of our society which we are quick to hurry past on our way to the office, or chuck a few coins in their direction and smugly feel we have met our social and moral obligations for the day.

I can do so much more. I call myself a Christian and like to view myself as a decent person. Yet, what would Jesus make of the behaviour I’ve described in the paragraphs above? Talking the talk and walking the walk, but only when it suits me. Even if I can’t give them the coins in my pocket, I can still afford them my time and prayers. I’m not perfect and I never will be. But I can do better. Much better. Can you?

What do you make of ‘Homeless Jesus’?

Do you do enough for the homeless people in your town or city?

Cutting Corners

Life is so busy at the minute, I’ve been tempted to cut several corners. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything I want to cram into it. Something always has to give, which I’m loathe to do as everything seems a priority at present. It would be so easy to take a few short cuts on my way from A to an increasingly far away B. I mean, would anyone even notice if I took a teensy weensy deviation or two?

In my early running career, I ran a trail 10K over a winding forested route. I knew I was running well, but amazed when I neared the finish line to see the digital clock displaying I had slashed three minutes off my previous personal best. I was delighted….until I checked my Garmin which showed my distance as several hundred metres short of 10K. I was gutted and most annoyed with the organisers who had robbed me of my moment of glory.

I was on the verge of firing off a strongly worded e-mail when I checked the small print of the race instructions. Here, I was rather smugly informed that race distance could not be guaranteed due to the hilly topography of the area. I was left with a conundrum. Did I claim a PB (it was a 10K race after all) or just scratch a line through the event, and put it down to experience. In the end, I chose the latter.

It just didn’t feel right to claim the accolades when I hadn’t run the full distance. I had cut corners, albeit not knowingly. The race organisers were at fault, but it still felt disingenuous of me to crow about my time. I hadn’t run 10,000 metres and wasn’t comfortable claiming I had. This weird, heavy sensation settled on my chest. I think it’s called guilt, but could be mistaken.

The same applies to my work and other commitments this week. I could turn a blind eye here, and overlook dotting that ‘I’ or crossing that ‘t’. But it wouldn’t sit easily with me. I would be putting quantity ahead of quality and undoing the high standards I previously have applied to the various projects I’m working towards. Life is about the long haul, taking the rough with the smooth and battling through whatever obstacles confront you.

Short cuts lead to danger. Less traveled paths are poorly lit and full of traps and pitfalls waiting to trip up the unsuspecting hiker. There are bears, wolves and all sorts of beasties waiting to pounce. Best keeping to the wide, well lit avenues you are supposed to be on. So I’ll keep plodding along. It might not be the most exciting journey in the world but at least I know I’m on the right track. Plus you can be guaranteed one thing. You never know what is around the next corner.

Are you tempted to cut corners?

What path are you on today?

Is it the right one?

Dreams Of My Father

I lost my father eight years ago to prostate cancer. Since then, I’ve tried to keep memories of him alive. I’ve run marathons in honour of him, written a book where his legacy is touched upon, even had his name tattooed on my forearm. But I’ve rarely dreamed of him. Which has always puzzled me, given the impact he had, and continues to have, on my life. Until last night that was.

Last night I dreamt of my father. I was on a train platform with an old man who had missed his train. I was with friends but told them to go on, and I would wait with the old man until the next train arrived. He had with him a bundle of old police files, decades old, detailing past investigations. I began to leaf through them, to pass the time, if nothing else.

You see, my father was a part time police officer when I was a young boy, growing up in the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles.’ Every night he went out to work, and we prayed he would come back to us the following morning. Many men and women didn’t. Thankfully, my father did. I grew up to become a civilian investigator involved in police oversight. I police the police, if that makes sense. So, I had an interest in these files.

As I flicked through them, I realised some of the documents referred to my father. I was excited and enthralled, keen to learn more about his police career, which I was too young to understand at the time. I looked up from the files and saw a group of men standing to my right. One of them had his back to me, but he looked familiar. As he turned slightly and I viewed him in profile, I realised it was my father.

Imagine my excitement. I summoned him over, eager to show him what I had discovered in the files, and quiz him about their contents. He sat beside me but, try as I might, I could not find the file. I rifled through the paperwork time and time again, but the section pertaining to him had vanished. My father sat patiently, not saying anything, as I grew increasingly frantic and impatient.

I was letting him down and concerned he would leave again before I had the opportunity to share with him what I had found. I had so many questions and this was my big chance, but it was slipping through my fingers. I woke up, saddened the dream had ended but glad my father had visited. It was before he fell sick, when he was a healthy, strong man. No job was too big, no task too cumbersome. He could turn his hand to anything.

Gardening, car engines, plumbing, electrical tasks. He could do it all. Whereas I can’t change a plug and don’t know one end of a carburettor from the other. He was a man’s man, whereas I’m the least practical person you could ever meet. His talents certainly didn’t rub off on me, yet in other ways we were so alike. As in my dream, there was so much I wanted to say to him before he died. But never did, for one reason or another.

One day your loved ones are there, the next they are gone. We take their presence for granted, say we will see them next week, promise to phone them, but then the business of life gets in the way. My advice? If you have to, need to say something important to a loved one today, then say it. Today. For tomorrow might be too late. Leaving you clinging to fading memories and fleeting dreams.

Do you dream of loved ones who have passed on?

Do you need to say something important to a loved one today?

How Persistent Are You?

Last night I missed an important phone call. It was my own fault as I had my mobile on silent at the time, one of my many bad habits. Thankfully the caller phoned back later in the night, waking me up but I didn’t mind, so relieved was I that they had tried again. I was able to do what needed done and the situation was resolved. I went back to bed, breathing a huge sigh of relief.

But wide awake. Hence, this (very) early morning post. What did I learn from this experience? Besides, stop being an idiot and turn your phone on when you are expecting important calls. Well, firstly I need to listen more. I have a tendency to know what’s best and ignore the sound advice of much wiser people around me. If I don’t listen, then I can’t learn. It’s as simple as that.

I’ve been told I’m a great communicator, both in and outside the workplace. That’s partially true. Yes, I can write and I also know I can be verbally eloquent when the need arises. I’m comfortable giving presentations and speaking out at meetings. But communication is a two way street and also involves listening. Which is just as, if not more important, than talking. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.

I’m a poor listener on two fronts. Firstly I often fail to hear what is being said to me. I drift off into La La Land and have no idea what has just been said. I know how rude this appears, and frustrating to the other person. Secondly, I do take in what is being said to me but fail to act on the advice given. Imparted wisdom is precious and failing to act positively on it is foolish in the extreme. Again, I plead guilty.

I need to become an active listener, to make a conscious and sustained effort to hear the speaker and then do something about it. This involves turning up the volume on my phone and ensuring I have a signal to pick up incoming calls. Not doing so, can and will land me in a world of trouble, with only myself to blame. There’s no fool like an old fool and I’m not getting any younger, that’s for sure.

The second area I picked up on was persistence. The caller didn’t give up, they recognised that the information they held was important, so kept trying until they finally got through to me. They didn’t give up. And I, for one, was very grateful for that. Even if it meant being roused from my sleep in the process, it was a small price to pay. Wisdom is toothless unless it reaches the ears of those who need it.

As a parent, I’m constantly trying to educate our children the best I can. I don’t want them to make the same mistakes I did. I want them to be better than that. Often I’m frustrated when they don’t appear to be listening to me. But they are only kids, what’s my excuse? I’m a hypocrite and need to practice what I preach. If they don’t see me listening to others, then what sort of an example is that to set?

Secondly I need to persevere with them. Throwing my hands up in the air or losing my temper isn’t going to achieve anything. I can’t give up on them, no matter how infuriating they can be at times. Love is many things, including persistent. You don’t give up on those you love. You call them, even when it involves risk. You persevere, you endure, you hang in there, even if it’s by the fingernails at times.

Are you a good listener? Or a day dreamer life me?

How persistent are you at loving others?

When did you last miss an important phone call?

Are You A Morning Person?

In our house on weekdays, the alarm normally arouses the adults from blissful sleep at 5:45 am. Routine then kicks in and our weary bodies go onto autopilot. Fionnuala commences the Herculean act of getting a bouncing eleven year old and two zombie teenagers out of the house and on their way to school. Uniforms are ironed, lunches are packed and there is much hollering which would raise the dead, but not seemingly a sixteen year old boy.

I’m largely entrusted to get myself ready for work, although Fionnuala might have something to say about that. I stumble out of bed, wash and shave, before dressing and making my way downstairs to bedlam and my first Diet Coke of the day. Slices of toast are hurriedly shoved down throats and then we are all on our way, via bus and train, to our respective schools and workplaces.

Weekends are not much better. Yesterday Adam had a rugby match so I had to have him at his school for 8:45 am. It was worth the early start as they won 57-5 but lie ins are a rare commodity these days. Today, we all had to be up early as we have visitors calling so have to ensure the house is ship shape and ready. It’s little wonder, Fionnuala and I are ready for bed by 10 pm most nights. The all night partying is a distant memory when you’re married with three kids.

It’s fair to say, we are morning people out of necessity more than any great desire to be. If I had a choice, not that I do anymore, I’d much rather remain under the covers as the first rays of morning creep over the horizon. I often claim I’m going to arise for magnificent dawn runs which will leave me energised and inspired for the day ahead. This rarely happens, and my running gear remains untouched at the bottom of the bed.

The same goes for those people who bounce out of bed, stick on a pot of coffee and get tonnes done before the rest of the world stirs. There have been books written about how that first hour of the day can be the most productive. Sorry, that’s just not me. It takes at least an hour for both my body and brain to crank into gear. And anyway, I hate coffee, so I’ll just leave all you Perky Pete and Paula’s to it.

I’d love to be a morning person, truly I would. I could accomplish so much. Sometimes there is so much stuff to wade through that I would happily welcome a thirty hour day. I feel bad when I don’t make that early morning run, when I don’t finish the chapter I had planned to, when I overlook a task or errand that needs ticked off the list in order to keep family life trundling along like a well oiled machine.

Something always seems to have to give. Everything can’t be a priority. Why can’t I be everywhere at once, doing everything at once? Why can’t I keep all the balls in the air at the same time? It’s at times like this, I need to take a deep breath. Turn off panic mode. Shift from negative self-reflection to positive assertion. Focus on what I have achieved from day to day. The runs that did happen, the words that were written, the million and one tasks that were completed.

No, I’m not a perfect husband, father, employee or person. But at least, I recognise that. And I try every day to get the job done, to get from A to B as best I can with the skills that God blessed me with. Trying is sometimes all we can manage. Trying is trying. But it’s better than dying. Dying in a morass of mediocrity and apathy. Giving up and giving in, when there are still battles to be fought and one.

I’m going to try again this morning….

Are you a morning person?

Are you too hard on yourself?

Or can you try harder than you have been?

The Winning Ticket – Part Two

Earlier today I wrote about purchasing a monthly train ticket for the princely sum of £138. Since then I have been commuting to and from Belfast, constantly checking my wallet to satisfy myself it was where it was meant to be. I would produce and stare at it longingly like Frodo Baggins on his way to Mordor with the one ring to rule them all. Thankfully, minus the annoyingly protective Samwise Gamgee at my side.

The good news is that I have managed to navigate the first half of October without losing said ticket. It remains in pristine condition, safe and sound in its plastic sleeve, less wrinkles than a botoxed socialite. I proudly wave it at the conductor every morning, mentally calculating how much money I have saved since abandoning my previous policy of buying daily tickets.

I guard it with my life. It is indeed my precious. All £138 of it. If only I treated all the precious commodities in my life with such care. Physically I ‘try’ to eat healthily and run regularly. I’d like to think I’m in decent shape for a man of my venerable years. Mentally, I take my happy pill every morning which wards off the slumbering monster called OCD which lurks in the darker recesses of my mind.

But what about my soul? I’ve always thought there is something beyond life. This can’t be everything, at least that’s my take on it. Call me naive but I believe in an afterlife and how you conduct yourself in this existence, determines where you’re going to end up when you trundle off this mortal coil. When that happens I won’t have to worry about my weight or cholesterol levels. But I will have to worry about my soul.

It’s worth a tad more than £138 but I often neglect the most important commodity I will ever possess. I need to be kinder, humbler and more loving. I need to put others before myself, give generously of my time and energy. There is so much I need to do better and more often. And yet I so often neglect what’s staring me straight in the eye, jumping up and down and stamping its feet like a toddler throwing a tantrum.

Tomorrow is another working day. I’ll brave the packed Belfast Express, clinging on to my ticket for all I’m worth. But I’m learning to cling even more tightly to the wisdom and guidance I so desperately need to traverse this minefield we call life. It’s involved a lot of tentative steps but I’m hopeful I’m headed in the right direction. For this is one journey where a one way ticket is all that I’ll require.

Do you believe in the afterlife?

God Remembers – Part One

Zacharias prayed every day. Which wasn’t peculiar, in itself, given his status as a high ranking priest within the order of Abijah. He was a man of some status, a descendant of Aaron, who had devoted his life to serving God. He was respected by the people, a man viewed as righteous and blameless in the eyes of God. He was humble, preferring to live a modest life in the city of Hebron, as opposed to the more glamorous surroundings of Jerusalem or Jericho.

Zacharias did everything by the book. He married the daughter of a fellow priest, as was expected of a man of his standing. Her name was Elizabeth, a God fearing and obedient woman who shared her husband’s righteous ways. He served for two weeks of the year in the temple, as was required of him, performing the relevant ceremonial duties. On the surface, he and his wife led exemplary lives.

Or did they? You see there was something not quite right about them, for they had no children. Which, in first century Palestine, was a social no no. A childless marriage was viewed as something as a social pariah. Many thought such couples had offended God and were being punished accordingly. What shameful secret were they hiding beneath their perfect lives to have merited the wrath of God?

Zacharias would have been well within his rights to divorce Elizabeth, given she was unable to bear him a son, to continue the family lineage. Nobody would have batted an eyelid had he ‘traded her in’ for a younger wife who would have given him the family befitting of a man who walked in such close alignment with God. Yet Zacharias did not. Why? Well, because he loved Elizabeth of course.

Instead he prayed. Day after day, month after month, year after year. For a family, a son. But now, as they entered their sixties, it appeared that boat had sailed. There was no child, and his prayers remained unanswered. People still gossiped and whispered behind their backs about the honourable priest and his childless wife. Zacharias could have turned his back on it all, his faith and his wife. But he didn’t. Instead he continued to love Elizabeth, pray diligently and serve at the temple.

Today was no ordinary day. No, it was the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. The day, when the nation of Israel offered up prayers of repentance and forgiveness. A very special day. And the most important part of the day was when a hand picked priest would enter the inner sanctum of the temple, the ‘Holy of Holies’. Today, that priest was Zacharias, the childless priest from the barren Judean Mountains.

His job? To carry a fire censer, laden with coals taken from the altar, into the ‘Holy of Holies’ which contained the Ark of the Covenant itself. Zacharias would stand in the presence of God and sprinkle incense on the coals and waft them, allowing a pleasing aroma to rise up to Heaven. It symbolised the prayers of the people, the hopes of a nation. It was most likely the pinnacle of his priestly career.

I’m sure he must have been nervous. His hands were probably shaking as he moved the fire censer from side to side, every last iota of his concentration focused on this most prestigious task. Outside the prayers of thousands of worshippers were rising in volume and intensity. The ceremony was reaching a crescendo and Zacharias stood at the centre of it all. It didn’t get much bigger than this.

Then it ended. He sighed with relief, mouthed a silent prayer of thanks that he hadn’t fluffed his lines, and exited the holy place. The greatest day of his life had peaked. He could relax now, rest and prepare for the long journey home to Hebron. Except it wasn’t. It wasn’t anywhere near over. For God had other plans for Zacharias. The old man who had given his life to God was about to embark on a new adventure; a life he thought was meandering to a mundane end.

Waiting for Zacharias outside was an angel. A most senior angel, as it happens, by the name of Gabriel. Who had a message for the elderly man of God which was going to turn his world upside down. God had been listening to his prayers and now was the time to reveal the plan he had been preparing all along for Zacharias and Elizabeth. For they were to have a son. A very special son. Who would be the spark that would set the known world on fire.

To be continued….

Zacharias – the Greek spelling of Zachariah, meaning ‘The Lord has remembered.’

You can read the story of Zacharias and Elizabeth in Luke Chapter 1.

Do you feel life has passed you by?

That God hasn’t heard your prayers?

Don’t give up hope. God remembers. But we must also remember him.

Is Your Glass Half Empty Or Half Full?

I’m going to run today. That might not sound like the most earth shattering statement, but for me it’s a fairly big deal. After the disastrous Causeway Coast marathon a few weeks ago, I fell out of love with running for a while. I huffed, I sulked and I briefly considered packing it in altogether. I felt like a failure, it had beaten me up and left me, literally, lying in a painful heap on the roadside.

When it comes to throwing a pity party, I’m in a league of my own. Moping around comes second nature to me and were navel gazing an Olympic sport, I’m pretty sure I would be a medal contender. You may have picked up on this in some of my recent posts. For that, I can only apologise. Nobody deserves Sulky Stephen, be that in the flesh or in writing. That all changes today, I hope.

When I wallow, I eat. A lot. And allllllll the wrong foods. Which plays right into the hands of the voice in my head. Telling me I’m a failure, that I’m a fraud, that the weight is creeping back on and in the blink of an eye I’ll be 15 stone again, four years of hard work gone in a puff of smoke. That’s what the voice does best. It needles and niggles until I raise the white flag and admit defeat. It is relentless.

I cannot allow that to happen. I’ve worked too hard for one bad experience to wash away everything I have achieved so far. So today, I run. Not for personal bests or fancy medals, but for my own piece of mind. I need to run for my mental health. It dulls the voice and fills me with a self belief and worth that I desperately need in order to function as a reasonably normal member of the human race. It keeps me sane.

I have no targets in mind, no big race plans ahead. I just want to retain a level of physical and mental health that can then permeate other areas of my life. When I run, I’m a better husband and father; I’m a better employee; I’m a better writer. I’m not going to worry about the time and I know this first run back won’t be pretty. There will be sweat and quite possibly tears. But, hopefully no blood. Unless I collapse in a blubbering heap at the end.

As ever, my family have inspired me. Fionnuala has encouraged me to get back out there. Adam’s never say die attitude every time he steps out onto the rugby pitch; Hannah’s ultra positive outlook on life and Rebecca’s infectious enthusiasm. They have all contributed towards evaporating the gloom which has settled over me these last few weeks. The gloom that seeks to consume and devour me.

I’m no world beater when it comes to times, but I won’t let the world beat me when it comes to my mental health. There is too much at stake, too much to lose. I’ve come too far, to slip back into the abyss now. This not only refers to my running, but other things as well. My family, faith, work and writing. People are relying on my, they have invested their time, love and prayers in me. To turn my back on that now, would be incredibly selfish.

Finally, I want to thank all my fellow bloggers who have supported me of late. Those who have written kind comments and prayed for me. I am incredibly grateful, a subject we all neglect and which Fionnuala reinforced in a blog she posted yesterday. She has inspired me to adopt a ‘half full’ mentality as of today, as of now. It’s time to stand up, step up, rise up. It’s time to run 7 miles at a spectacularly average pace.

Is your glass half empty or half full today?

Separate your needs from your greeds

Thankful-Grateful-Blessed.jpg

October is Spina Bifida Awareness Month and as most of you know we have been blessed with our very own Spina Bifida Warrior Princess Hannah.  You can read our story about finding out about Hannah’s diagnosis in The Butterfly which was actually my first ever blog.  We of course love everything about Hannah and wouldn’t change anything about her and we are and will be forever be grateful for having her in our lives and are thankful that she continues to defy her original diagnosis.

Gratefulness is a word that has been popping into my head a lot of late.  So many of us always look at our lives as a glass half empty rather than half full and never look at the bigger picture.  We are never happy with what we have and crave for something else be it loosing weight, a car like so and so down the street, marriage, friendship, promotion the list can go on and on.

I once found myself moaning and complaining about the kids acting up and misbehaving in front of a couple who have had major difficulties in getting pregnant and weren’t able to have kids and I when I caught myself on I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me I was so embarrassed and ashamed of myself.  From then on I have always tried to think before I speak and be thankful for the things that I have.

A few years back I decided that I was going to try and go back to work, which I did for 15 months before I wised up and resigned.  In those 15 months I discovered exactly what was right under my nose and I couldn’t see it.  I had a husband, three amazing children and a home that needed my attention.  I had been selfish and had put my own needs before that of my family.

My mum has a saying “separate your needs from your greeds” I don’t often like to admit when my mum is right but when you think of it it is true.  We always want something else what we have is never enough.

At the weekend I set a challenge on my Facebook page for people to list something in their lives that they are grateful for and not one person commented.  Why aren’t we happy with what we have?

I am thankful for the life that I have it is not perfect but I am thankful for it anyway.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.       1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 16

What are you thankful for today?

Living with an OCD Sufferer

This morning as I was working my way through my busy daily routine I got this thought in my head saying “Fionnuala you should write a blog about caring for somebody with OCD “. It was a thought that really stopped me in my tracks and got me thinking about something that I’ve never thought of before. I actually do care for somebody with OCD. I don’t look at myself as a carer even though I am. I take care of my daughter who has physical disabilities but I do that out of love and as a mummy any mother would right? But I also care for my husband who suffers from OCD.

These kind of thoughts I call my God thoughts. A few years back Stephen and I went through one of the toughest and testing periods of our marriage and thankfully we came through it and on the back of that this blog was birthed which also came from a thought I woke up with one morning.

The purpose of this blog is to help others through our own personal experiences and to date Stephen has wrote about OCD and how it affects him as a sufferer but we’ve never touched on how it affects other family members around him.

I’ve mentioned thoughts a lot so far and I am going somewhere with it. I get thoughts popping up in my head some are good but sometimes I get bad thoughts we all do but the majority of people that get a bad thought forget about it as fast as it arrived. For somebody with OCD that gets a bad or nasty thought it doesn’t go away it runs on a loop round and round in that person’s head until they either act on it or take a panic attack and break down. That is the type of OCD that my husband has and that’s the OCD my children and I live with.

Living with somebody that suffers with OCD isn’t an easy one. OCD is a horrible nasty illness. Stephen once described our youngest Rebecca as a Tsunami because you could follow her trail right round the house! OCD is the exact same when it’s been acted on and it’s always left to the loved ones around the sufferer to clean up the wreck and devastation that it leaves behind.

To live with someone with OCD you always have to try and be three steps ahead of it:

Step one – keep a look out for something or somebody new that has captured their attention.

Step two – think of what dangers they could get themselves into and the repercussions it could have

Step three – keep a look out for warning signs of said mentioned dangers.

In step three you need to be careful with what you do because if you talk to the sufferer about your concerns out love to try and nip something in the butt it can actually start a thought process that will snowball out of control and backfire on you. That has happened to me many times so now I just keep quiet, pray for guidance and step in before things get out of control.

I hate OCD for me OCD is a mistress that takes control of my husbands mind and robs my children and I of his time and attention. Sometimes the children and I would be talking to Stephen and we get no response. He is there in body right in front of us but in his head he is a thousand miles away deep in thought fighting a battle in his mind that none of us know anything about.

Some people see me not as a carer but as a control freak because I have to keep a close eye on what Stephen does. At times I think it’s because I have trust issues with him and other people think that too but I’ve realised over the last few weeks as I’ve prayed and drew closer to God that it isn’t Stephen I don’t trust it’s the control that OCD has on him that I don’t trust and I can’t trust. I have to control some of things that he does because the repercussions affect not just Stephen but the children and myself so I don’t see it as control I see it as love and protection.

On the times that Stephen has acted on his OCD thoughts and I’m standing face to face with it starring down at me I don’t see my husband anymore he’s not there. Yes it may look like him but I can see in his eyes that something else is controlling him and that’s OCD. I’m the type of person that would get hurt or crumble if somebody came against me but say anything to my family and there is nothing that will stop me from fighting to protect them no matter how scary or frightening it looks.

I watch as the panic sets in the lies start to come out and continually asks questions until the truth comes out and Stephen reappears then it’s time to clean up the devastation left behind.

It’s not easy to care for someone with OCD it is hard work but I do it out of love for my husband and my family. Family and friends have came and went throughout our lives and can’t understand why I’ve stayed with Stephen and forgiven them. They have thought that have just took the easy the route and stayed with Stephen for the kids. This is all nonsense. If somebody you loved had an illness would you throw them out on the street? If they were diagnosed with cancer would you tell them right you are on your own now I don’t want to know? In my opinion the form of OCD Stephen has plants cancerous thoughts in his head to kill everything good that he has achieved in his life and what is coming to him.

I really hope this blog helps anybody that also cares for a loved one with OCD. If you do I’d love to hear how you cope with being their light in the darkness.

Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining

My hiatus from novel writing and running has allowed me to re-evaluate and focus on more important areas of life – namely my faith and family. A few days ago I asked for suggestions as to which book of the Bible I could feature in a future study on the blog. I was inundated with responses. Thank you very much to those who took the time to respond. I ended up with dozens of selections.

So much so, that I decided to pick two books, from the Old and New Testaments respectively. The ‘winners’, for want of a better word, were Psalms and Luke. I hope to post weekly blogs focusing on these studies, starting with one on Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, this coming weekend. I hope they will prove of some worth to you as I now have more time to study, and reflect upon, this neglected area of my life.

Is God Really Good?

When I was at school, and Queen Victoria sat upon the throne, I had a very grumpy English teacher called Mrs Hume. I felt sorry for Mr. Hume if she was as grumpy at home. Mrs Hume was a well balanced woman. She had a chip on both shoulders. Life had dealt her a poor hand and, instead of writing bursary winning poetry at Harvard, she was stuck in a freezing cold portacabin in rural Northern Ireland.

All the other English teachers had spacious, warm classrooms in the main school building. Not so, Mrs. Hume. Her portacabin was drafty and cramped. In the winter months it resembled a Siberian concentration camp, only less friendly. Mrs. Hume never took her coat off and sat huddled in it at the front of the classroom, rolling her eyes at our excruciatingly bad analysis and interpretation of Shakespeare, Chaucer and D.H. Lawrence.

After two years of her acerbic feedback and pithy asides, a miracle occurred; or rather, two miracles. Firstly I obtained an ‘A’ grade in my ‘A’ level English Literature; and secondly I survived two winters in that portacabin without losing any of my extremities to frostbite. Armed with my certificate and a fully functioning set of digits I set off to university where I, of course, chose to study….er….Modern History.

I often wonder how my life would have turned out had I decided to pursue an English degree. Perhaps, nothing materially would have changed. Or we could all be speaking Russian or have grown tails or something. What is certain though is that, beneath her barely contained contempt for the human race, Mrs Hume was doing something right. For, otherwise how could I have achieved the grade that I did. The woman could teach.

The one lesson she consistently hammered home was to avoid using lazy language. Words like ‘nice’, ‘fine’ and ‘good.’ Including them in one of your essays would awaken a dark, primal rage within her which ensured you never did it again. She, in her own cantankerous style, encouraged us to embrace and explore the English language. She demanded passion, vitality and expressive thinking. Describing Tennessee Williams as ‘good’ didn’t quite cut the mustard with her.

God is Good.

If you hang around Christians for any length of time, you will hear that stock phrase rolled out. It’s up there with ‘I’ll pray for you’ and other such cliches. God is Good. Is that the best we can manage? To describe the Creator of the Universe, the omnipotent, omniscient power behind everything we know. Who sent his son to the Cross to wipe clean the slate of sin for all eternity. Oh that was nice. That was lovely. That was good.

Saying God is Good isn’t good enough. Which is why he told Moses to call him ‘I AM.’ We can do waaaaaaaay better than good, but at the end of the day our tiny brains are utterly incapable of putting into words who or what God is. We don’t even understand a fraction of what is going on in our universe, planet, let alone our own bodies. We are stumbling about in the dark, half the time. I respect those who hold agnostic or atheist views. But do they know for certain? Are they 100% sure? Really?

Christians can be so lazy and I’m the worst offender. We are saved and think the hard work is done when, the reality is, it’s only just begun. It’s not fluffy and comfortable; it’s a bloody, brutal unforgiving war against a cunning, determined enemy. We need to work harder, think smarter, do better. Good is not enough. God isn’t good, God is God. Recognising that is an important, hard earned lesson. Thank you Mrs. Hume for teaching me about it.

What are your views on lazy language?

What was your English teacher like?

Care to share your experiences of Christian cliches?

What words would you use to describe God?

Today….I Must Be Honest

A Fractured Faith has increasingly, in recent months, acted as a vehicle to publicise a book I have been writing. Since the turn of the year, it has taken up a considerable amount of my free time. I have made steady progress and a few months ago started to release sections of it to a dozen beta readers for honest feedback and constructive criticism. Around half of these volunteers have since fallen by the wayside but those who have stuck about have been worth their weight in gold.

This time last week I was nearing the end of the book’s fourth edit. I anticipated there was approximately another week’s work and I was done. Then it was just a matter of collating and reviewing the beta feedback, tweaking the manuscript as suggested, and moving onto the next phase of pitching the story to potential agents. I was nearing the end of phase one of the journey, so was pressing down hard on the accelerator as the finish line loomed up ahead.

That was last week. I haven’t written a word since and cannot bring myself to look at it. There are a number of reasons for this that I won’t bore you with. I initially thought I was sick of the story and characters. Familiarity breeds contempt, after all. As the week has progressed, however, I’ve come to the conclusion there is more to it than that. I’m not sick of the book, rather I’m sick of myself.

I started this blog with Fionnuala to help other people, not sell a book or promote myself as some hot shot writer. The message was about humility; pointing out to others that it is possible to utterly mess up your life, yet still recover and rebuild it. It increasingly feels I’m not doing that but allowing my ravenous ego to take over and drag me kicking and screaming in completely the wrong direction. I may write the words, but I don’t want the blog to be about me.

So the laptop remains switched off this week, as I struggle with where I am heading. At the minute, I don’t know when it will be switched on again either. The same applies to my running shoes since the disaster that was the Causeway Coast Marathon two weeks ago. I never thought I would hear myself say these words but I don’t particularly want to run or write at present. I just want to be close to Fionnuala and the kids. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted.

I can only be honest. I know no other way to write. I’ve poured everything into the book and I’m not sure I have much left to offer. The prospect of countless rejection letters completely switches me off. I know my skin isn’t thick enough to handle that. Increasingly, the thought of tidying up the final few chapters and storing it a drawer, grows increasingly appealing. My dream was to write a book and I will have achieved it. That might be enough.

Running and writing a book are stretching me too thin. There is so much more I could be doing to support my family rather than pursuing distant pipe dreams. I’m not sure I have the strength to follow either to the distance. Mentally, I feel exhausted and, physically I’m not far behind. These, in turn, damage my spiritual health, which I am trying hard to rebuild. It has to be my priority, for if it suffers then I cannot fulfil my primary roles of being a good husband and father.

That’s how it is, at present. I’m excited to have started my Bible studies again. I’m excited for, and proud of my kids, for everything they achieve every day. I love my wife deeply and want to be there for her in any possible way I can. As for publishing a book or running a marathon? At the minute, there is nothing I can think of doing less. That could change tomorrow. But today, I must be honest. There is no other way. Honesty is what I crave.

The Tooth Will Set You Free

Remember that tooth? You know, the one I have been whining….I mean writing….about these last few weeks? The idiot who ran a marathon with toothache? Then collapsed in a heap when he crossed the finishing line and cried like a baby the whole way home? Yeah that tooth? Well, three visits to the dentists later and it’s still there. And this is where today’s story begins….

On Monday I sat, a complete wreck, in my dental surgery waiting to be summonsed into the torture chamber. The omens were not particularly good. The receptionist sweetly informed me that their computers kept crashing so the dental team were unable to view x-rays prior to commencing work. Part of me perked up at the prospect of an 11th hour reprieve.

Another part of me just wanted it over and done with. The computer gremlins seemingly vanquished, I was invited into the treatment room where my always bright and breezy dentist gave me the option of a tooth extraction or several painful and expensive root canal sessions in order to save the offending back molar. Even then she could not guarantee it would be successful. Just get it out,’ I pleased. Toothy and I were finished.

Not one, not two, not three, but four pain killing injections later, I lay back in the chair like a drooling bumpkin, unable to feel my ears, let alone my mouth. Hannah the dentist, all seven stone of her, began to valiantly tug and pull at the tooth. I felt nothing initially, the anaesthetic was doing it’s job. Then a sickening crack. I looked up into her eyes, expecting to see her triumphantly holding the tooth aloft.

How wrong I was. She held a tooth, or rather, part of a tooth. Such was the level of decay, the molar was crumbling. Part of it had broken off, but the base and roots remained resolutely in place. Hannah frowned before delving determinedly into my mouth again. This girl wasn’t giving up. That’s when the pain began. Which, given my level of pain relief, was astounding. Yet, there it was.

She huffed and she puffed but it would not come. Her silver instruments flashed before my eyes, before playing a cruel tune across the exposed nerve. A veritable xylophone of agony. In the end I waved a hand frantically in the air. Enough! The pain was too much. She admitted defeat, saying she would refer me to a specialist who would remove the remainder of the molar under sedation. Lots and lots of sedation, I silently prayed.

Teeth. Meh. Who needs them? Well, we all do I guess. But I certainly don’t need this one. Yet, it doesn’t want to leave me. It reminded me of my OCD, of how certain unwanted, intrusive thoughts refused to budge from my beleaguered mind, no matter how hard I tried. Addictive and destructive thinking. A sinful cycle of deception and despair. A desperate desire for the pain to end, for release, for freedom.

I wanted to be free of them, as much as I want to be free of this mischievous molar. I cannot be free of the tooth, I thought as I typed the sixth paragraph of this post on my phone. Then my verse for the day flashed up on the screen, and I smiled. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humour. I’ll sign off by quoting the verse. The rest, I think, is pretty explanatory. Accessing the truth can be incredibly painful. In end though, it’s worth the effort.

John 8:32 – ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’

How is your relationship with the truth?

Which Book Of The Bible Should I Start With?

As I wrote earlier in the week, I’m going to be blogging about Christian topics in future posts, although not exclusively. As I’m tentatively finding my way back into Bible study, and in order to be accountable, I thought I’d throw it open to my fellow bloggers as to which book I study first. The book with the most votes will then feature in regular-ish posts, delivered in my own unique, slightly offbeat style.

Please take a moment to leave a comment as to which book I study. I’m excited about this opportunity to share God’s Word with you. You might want to pray about this, or perhaps you already have an idea in your head. Possibly an old personal favourite or perhaps one of the more obscure ones you want to learn a bit more about. I will abide by your decision and will announce the ‘winner’ over the weekend.

Which book of the Bible would you like me to blog about?

Views of Christians and non-Christians both welcome.

Are You On The Right Tracks This Morning?

Good Morning. I have a busy, but exciting day, ahead. I’m on the 06:13 train to Belfast, a full 90 minutes before my normal one. The reason? I have a big meeting to attend this afternoon, so want to get in early to prepare for it. A three hour meeting, no less, where I will be bombarded with questions by our senior management team. I need to look smart and think smart. All prayers and kind thoughts would be much appreciated.

The 07:48 express to Belfast is normally standing room only, as we are crammed into carriages like claustrophobic sardines, thanks to the good people of Northern Ireland Translink who resolutely refuse to put on extra carriages as that would ‘cost too much.’ It reminds me of one of those trains, you see on the Indian sub-continent. Next thing they will be charging folk to sit on the roof.

The 06:13 is an entirely different experience. It was empty. I had my pick of the seats, indeed I almost had an entire carriage to myself. I’ve heard of the early bird catching the worm but this is ridiculous. It was a veritable ghost train, hurtling through the darkness towards the bright lights of Belfast. Getting up early was hard this morning, but I reaped the reward. It was worth the struggle and effort on my part.

Of late, my faith has been a little bit like my train experiences. For a long time, I’ve been lazy. Not physically, but rather spiritually. I’ve been quite content to go with the flow, and drift along with the masses. I’ve done the bare minimum with regards my prayer life and Bible reading. I’ve turned my back on Christian fellowship and run a mile from anything remotely resembling a church.

I’ve become a zombie. I walk, I talk, I breathe. On the exterior, I give all the signs of being a perfectly normal, functioning human being. But inside, I have been dead. My faith has shrivelled up, a dried husk desperately in need of hydration and cultivation. I have succumbed to old habits and allowed my OCD to read its ugly head once more. I have chosen wrong paths and made poor decisions. I have taken the easy option and boarded the wrong train.

You will never be short of company on the wrong train. For it’s where the majority of us, end up at some point in our lives. You might have been on it recently, or indeed are travelling on it as I write this now. It’s the easier option, but an altogether less pleasant alternative. It’s taking you to the same destination, but in a very different manner. Your legs ache and fellow commuters elbow you in the ribs. It sucks.

The ghost train involved a little more effort, but is worth it. You travel in more spacious surroundings. It’s the train you need to be on, the train that your loved ones need to be on. Yet, it’s virtually empty. I’m going to be making a greater effort in the future to consistently board the ghost train. You can even call it the Holy Ghost train….did you see what I did there. Sorry, got a bit carried away there.

What train are you boarding today? Are you taking the lazy option, are you switching off and backing down, when you need to be switching on and stepping up to the mark? I would encourage you to join me on the ghost train today. I could sure do with the company and I’ve saved you a seat. It sure beats spending your commute with your nose shoved into a stranger’s armpit.

What train are you boarding this morning?

What’s been your worst commute to work?

Why I Need To Start Reading My Bible Again

I’m as blind as a bat. Seriously. Since I was nine, I’ve had to wear glasses. I remember the first day they were unveiled to the ahem….watching world in Mrs. Robinson’s P5 class. I broke down in tears as the entire class turned as one to gawk at my oh so stylish National Health Service jam jars with equally appalling brown plastic rims. So began a life consigned to permanent face furniture.

I’ve tried contact lenses a couple of times but they aren’t for me. I’d rather stick red hot knitting needles in my eyeballs. Come to think of it, putting in lenses was a not dissimilar experience. When finally in, the tears rolled down my cheeks and my irises resembled maps of the London Underground, criss crossed with an array of broken capillaries. I resembled a vampire in the midst of a particularly bad reaction to sunlight.

My glasses are, therefore, a necessary evil. Without them I can’t drive, read or run. The only time I take them off is when I go to bed at night. I simply cannot function without them, I could not step out the front door, without falling flat on my face. It’s a no brainer that I go nowhere without them firmly attached to my ears. The alternative is unthinkable. They are as part of me, as the nose on my face.

I cannot see without them.

We were visited by friends on Sunday. One of them left her glasses case behind. Thankfully, it was empty. Before leaving, she talked to us about her faith and plans she had for the future , plans she believes God spoke to her about. It was exciting to hear and sparked a flame within me which had been dormant for many months, if not years. A spark which reignited a very battered, fractured faith.

I picked up my Bible yesterday, inspired by the words of this friend. All day I hadn’t been able to get the image of the discarded glasses case out of my head. I thought of my Bible which had lain discarded in the bookcase in our living room for longer than I care to remember. I used to read it every day until life got in the way. The ways of the world took precedence over the ways of God. I was blinded by anger, resentment and self.

I found the verse below, and realised how spiritually blind I have been. I realised how much I need my Bible, as much as I need my glasses. Without its words of truth, I stumble around in an abyss of sinful, addictive behaviour. I allow other voices in my head to drown out the voices that matter. The voices of my loved ones, the voice of God. I realised that I need my Bible. I need it’s guidance. I need Jesus.

He is the antidote for I have become toxic, poisoned by the ways of the world and the voice which has spoken untruth after untruth, layer after layer, clogging my arteries and hardening my heart; forming milky cataracts over my eyes which have blinded me from what really matters. I need the Bible more than I need the happy pill I take every day to inhibit the serotonin levels raging uncontrollably across my synapses.

These are mere words, and are meaningless without accompanying action. But it’s a start and, at present, it’s all I have. This my Declaration of Independence, my call to arms, my battle cry. I’m determined to get back to regular Bible study and reflection. It’s time to get back in the saddle and focus on those who matter. It’s time to open my eyes to the light again, to reclaim the 20/20 vision I so desperately need.

Psalm 119:18 – ‘Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.’

How is your faith journey today?

How important is the Bible in your life?

Has it always been that way?

Happy Birthday Anne!

A belated Happy Birthday to our dear friend, Anne McCartney, who celebrated her ahem …. something first birthday yesterday. Anne has been a tremendous spiritual and practical support to Fionnuala and myself in recent years, through good times and bad. Anne and her husband, Graham, have been two of the people who have inspired me to retain a faith in God, no matter how fractured that faith has been at times.

She is kind, loving and wise. She remained loyal to me, when many turned their backs and I was at my lowest ebb. She prays constantly for us and I know exciting times are just around the corner for her as she opens a new chapter of her life with Graham. I only hope I can repay back to her 1% of what she has done for us. Happy Birthday Anne from everyone at chez Black. You are much loved and respected.

Is there a special person in your life who you want to give a shout out to today? If so, feel free to honour them by leaving a comment below.

When God Falls Silent

It is written

Mitigation

Twisting truths

To quote verbatim

Spare the child

And spoil the rod

Worshiping

Your silent god.

Verses, Curses

Robed Subversives

Empty hearts

Yet flowing purses

Holy men with hollow souls

Break the rules, you pay the toll

Creaking bridges

Lurking trolls

Faster, Faster

Master, Master

Bend the knee

To plastic pastors.

How Can A Fractured Faith Blog Be Improved?

The blog continues to grow and, of late, has been a bit of a pot pourri with regards topics and themes. I’ve posted three poems in the last week, very unlike me I know. Yet, I’ve woken up with the words in my head and felt no option but to write and post them. I have no idea if they are any good but I’ve received some lovely comments which have cheered and encouraged me.

I also posted a Christian blog yesterday about the martyrdom of Stephen. I would describe myself as a Christian who blogs as opposed to a Christian blogger, but occasionally am led to dip my quill into more reflective, spiritual waters. The post has fared poorly which surprised me a little as the blog has a sizeable Christian following who normally support such posts.

Family life also inspires many of my posts. There are not many days that pass without some comedy gem at chez Black. As I am normally on the receiving end of these, I feel compelled to write about it. Fionnuala and Rebecca post occasionally while updates on Adam and Hannah also feature. I’m keen to stress that this blog is about more than me. Otherwise my ego runs unchecked, which nobody wants to see.

I occasionally write about my job and work colleagues. I seriously could write a book about this but, given the sensitive nature of my employment, I can only discuss it in the broadest of brush strokes. Maybe one day I will be able to open up a little more about it. I don’t mean to be secretive but I like getting a monthly pay cheque and this could be scuppered if my bosses discovered I was spilling the beans.

My struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) lies at the heart of me and, therefore, my writing. I’m passionate about educating people about this often misunderstood mental illness. It never fails to amaze me how uneducated many are concerning OCD; they regard it as the comedy cousin of mental health as opposed to the horrific, crippling disorder it really is. OCD ruins lives. OCD ends lives.

The eponymous hero of my debut novel – The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square’ is a victim of OCD. I post weekly updates about the progress of the book but, again, can only disclose so much, for obvious reasons. People seem interested in the book and I hope it sees the light of day in some format, even if that means serialising it on the blog. It’s a planned trilogy but we will see. No point writing three books if everybody hates the first one.

Which brings me to my running posts which sink without trace most times. I understand that us runners are interminable bores, and only fellow running geeks can be bothered hearing of our latest exploits. There will be less of them in the months to come as, after the disaster that was the Causeway Coast Marathon, I have no plans to race again until next spring. I will still keep my training runs going, but over lesser distances.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I want to know what you would like to read more of; are there topics you would like to hear more, or less, about? What do you like and what are you less keen to peruse? Are there new topics I could cover? I’m willing to consider anything, within reason. I’ll hand it over to you now and look forward to reading, and responding to, your comments. Thank you again.

Start Playing The Martyr

I am quite partial to melancholy, to wallowing in self pity, feeling sorry for myself. There are various terms one can use to describe the act of introspective navel gazing. When the odds are stacked against me, and everything is going belly up, you can be guaranteed I’ll throw myself the mother of all pity parties. Fionnuala sums it up most succinctly when she catches me in this state of mind.

‘Stop playing the martyr….’

Which is ironic as I am named after the first Christian martyr, Stephen. The above phrase is largely associated with negative behaviour. It refers to a person who is overreacting to a given situation, behaving in an inappropriate or immature manner. I know when Fionnuala levels the comment at me I invariably stop what I’m doing and concede that I’m being a prat.

The word martyr is derived from the Latin, martur, meaning ‘witness.’ It is a person who is willing to sacrifice their life for a belief they adhere to; be that religious, political or for any other number of reasons. It is regarded as a noble, heroic act; laying down one’s life rather than capitulate or conform to values that fly in the face of everything you represent. Martyrs should be revered, not ridiculed.

Stephen was such a man. Facing the Sanhedrin, a collection of hostile Jewish leaders, on trumped up charges of blasphemy, he features very briefly in the Book of Acts. But what a show stopping appearance. Rather than bend the knee and renounce his faith, instead he eloquently and articulately gave testimony to, or witnessed, his belief that Jesus was the Son of God, who they rejected and murdered.

As well as eloquence, intelligence and a detailed knowledge of scripture, he displayed remarkable courage. He fronted up to them, exposing them as ‘stiff necked’ hypocrites, whose ‘hearts and ears are still circumcised.’ He spoke the truth and the only way they could stop the truth, was through stoning him to death. A young man named Saul, held their cloaks as they did so.

Stephen features for just over two pages in my 1250 page Bible, yet he sits shoulder to shoulder with giants of the faith such as Abraham, Moses and David. He set an example for millions of other Christians who followed in his bloody footsteps, willing to risk everything as opposed to renounce the faith. Stephen inspired Peter and Paul, the two fathers of the early Church.

Don’t be afraid to play the martyr, but do it for the right reasons. Don’t pout and sulk like I do, because you don’t get your own way. Instead hold your head up high, like Stephen did to the Sanhedrin, standing tall for what he believed in. Because when he looked up, he saw beyond the hate filled expressions and expletives and saw Heaven open to reveal the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

Martyrdom today is linked to acts of terror or selfishness. Stephen epitomised the true meaning of the act. He was a visible witness, a presence, a voice, speaking love and truth over those who despised him. His last words were akin to those of Jesus, seeking forgiveness for those who killed him. We all can learn from Stephen. A martyr in the truest sense of the word.

The story of Stephen can be found in Acts Chapters 6-7.

Do you play the martyr? In the selfish or selfless sense? Or possibly both?

What do you learn from the story of Stephen?

Preparing Shrouds

Frenetic

Kinetic

This panic, magnetic.

It latches, attaches

Destroys the aesthetic.

I scratch til I bleed,

You feed off my need

Delicious disease

So ripe for release.

I mumble the words

Stumble with the herd

Chaotic, hypnotic

Regressing, disturbed.

Gouged

Aroused

Demons carouse

Stalking the fallen

Preparing shrouds.

I Am Sic

I am sic

Nervous tic

Binge and purge

This endless urge.

Odd

Erroneous

Out of place

Unworthy of the human race.

Worthy of comment

Worthless, I vomit

Bird in a cage

From the rope I will plummet.

Dead to his Word

Alive to their world

Baptised in blood

Yet drowned in the flood.

No peace here, just pieces

Faceless diseases

Endless attacks

This war never ceases

For I am sick

And I am sic

Liar, fool,

And lunatic.

I don’t write much poetry but I woke with the phrase ‘I am sic’ in my head this morning. Sic, as in the adverb placed after a quoted word to highlight that it is grammatically incorrect but is quoted in its original format. The poem hopes to describe how I felt in my lowest OCD days. It does not represent how I feel today, but I hope it may speak out to others and offer assurance that recovery is possible.

I regard this as one of the most important posts I have published in some time. It felt as if the words were placed within, as opposed to created by, me. They are from me, and not of me. So, I don’t ask this often but if the poem resonates with you could you reblog and share this message within your own community. That would mean a lot to me. For we are all a little bit sic and in need of correction.

‘I Am Sic’ was partially inspired by the song ‘I’m So Sick’ by Flyleaf. Its vocalist and writer, Lacey Sturm, is featured in today’s accompanying image.

What Are You Hungry For?

Saturday was the start of the new rugby season, so Fionnuala and I hugged the touchline, to watch Adam play for his college against one of the big Belfast schools. Unfortunately they lost, but didn’t go down without a fight. Adam had a great game and scored his team’s only try. I thought he was our best player but then I’m his father so that’s to be expected. Afterwards, therefore, I was relieved to hear his coach agree with my assertion.

He informed me that, given his performance, Adam was being moved up to the first team for next weekend’s match. We were delighted to hear this as it has been his target all summer and he has worked hard towards attaining it. He will now be playing against boys up to two years older than him, at a much higher level. It’s a steep learning curve but one that he needs to take in order to fulfil the potential within him.

The coach also told me that he did not want Adam progressing too quickly into the first team as he wanted to ‘keep him hungry.’ If he reached his target too easily then that could impact upon his motivation and determination for the rest of the year. Adam has talent and a strong work ethic but to be the best that he possibly can requires more than that; it requires a desire or drive that cannot be taught.

Whenever I’m training for marathons, which is most of the time, I’m permanently hungry. I think about eating all day long. I don’t view myself as greedy, rather I need to eat a lot to replace the calories I burn up on training runs. This allows me to eat pretty much whatever I want. Which means ALL the ice cream. I dread the day I have to stop running as I will probably put on three stone in a week.

We normally associate the word with the physical discomfort experienced through a lack of food. But the wider definition fits better with the etymological roots of the word. Hunger derives from the Old English word ‘hungor’, meaning desire. It goes beyond growling stomachs and yo-yo diets. When we hunger after something, we desire it, we yearn for it, we crave it.

Hunger, within this context, is a double edged sword. While we identify the physical experience of hunger with negative emotions, it is construed as a positive attribute for a young rugby player like Adam, striving to progress in his given sport. To aspire to better yourself, to improve reflects a healthy mindset. We need targets in life, or at least I know I do. For otherwise, we stagnate and become bored.

Flip the coin again, however, and we can hunger after unhealthy desires. Desires that lead us down the wrong path. An unhealthy appetite, if allowed to run unchecked, can result in more than indigestion. It can bring destruction and ruin to your life and the lives of those you love the most. Collateral damage is still damage. Be hungry, but hunger after those things which are going to supplement your life, not suffocate it.

What are your thoughts on hunger and desire after reading this post?

The Bible Is Full Of Idiots

I didn’t come up with that title for shock value but, let’s face it, I’m not far off the mark. Let’s consider the evidence.

I’ll start with Abraham. He hardly covered himself in glory now, did he? That business with Hagar, the slave girl, who gave birth to his son, Ishmael. Although his wife, Sarah, didn’t help to be fair. A bit like Adam and Eve. Dumb women egging on even dumber men. You couldn’t make it up. Although doubters would contend it is all made up. But, I digress. Onwards.

I think Samson was at the back of the queue when the grey matter was being dished out. He tended to act first and only engage his brain afterwards, when the damage was already done. I mean, that business with the foxes and setting their tails on fire. It’s like something out of a really bad Rambo movie. Like Abraham he was also a bit of a disaster with the fairer sex. Just ask Delilah.

Which brings me to David. Warrior, King, Visionary. A man after God’s own heart. Oh, and numbskull. He decides to lounge about on the roof of the palace when his armies are on the field of battle. Lo and behold, he sees Bethsheba and the rest, as they say is history. Cue adultery, deceit and murder which culminates in the death of his own son. Not his finest moment.

Peter, Peter, Peter. Where do I start? The disciple whose foot was permanently in his mouth. A man whose very presence within the inner circle of Jesus gives hope to us all. Denying Jesus three times was bad enough. But offering to erect some huts at the Transfiguration when Elijah and Moses descend from Heaven. It’s akin to meeting the Queen, sticking a pencil up your nose and going ‘Wibble, Wibble.’

These men (and women) were idiots. Their words and actions revealed inadequacies and character flaws which we can all relate to. People are weak and flawed; we are vain, selfish and forever falling flat on our faces. Yet, God still continues to pick us up, dust us down, and use us for His purposes. He has a plan, and we are part of it. Any idiot can apply to be part of the team.

I’m no exception. I mess up day after day after day. I ignore God, I moan at God and I consistently do the opposite of what I’m meant to be doing as a card carrying Christian. I don’t go to church enough, I don’t read my Bible enough and I don’t pray enough. I sin, and seek his forgiveness; then I sin again, anyway. I’m forever straying off the straight and narrow. I don’t like being around other Christians and sometimes I don’t like being around God.

Yet still He patiently tolerates me and seeks to use me. He waits and then plants an idea in my head which I reluctantly mull over, before finally agreeing that he was right all along. He encourages me, supports me and motivates me. He reveals to me the truth, His truth, not the tainted truths being peddled by the supposed pillars of our community. Hypocrites are twist the Word to suit their own petty needs.

I get angry when I think about these people, but not as angry as I get about myself. I know I can do better. I let religious buffoonery get in the way of my relationship with Jesus. I hope it’s a righteous anger, a means to an end. For I need an end, a finish line, a target. Otherwise, life is a futile, empty gesture. I need to open my eyes. I need to cast off the shackles. I need to stop being an idiot.

Do you get angry with yourself and other Christians?

Who is your favourite Biblical idiot?

Can you do better in your walk with God?

Are You A Ditherer Or A Doer?

This weekend is jam packed and it hasn’t even started yet. I have a busy day at work ahead, working on a big project with an ever nearing deadline. A colleague is leaving to take up a new position in China and we are having a farewell 5K run for him this weekend. Most people organise farewell lunches or drinks for this sort of thing. Stephen arranges runs. Yes, I am that running dork and stand guilty as charged.

Adam is working tonight at the Kingspan Stadium, where Ulster Rugby are taking on Edinburgh. And tomorrow morning, he will be taking to the field of play himself for Lurgan College’s first game of the season against RBAI, one of the best sides in the country. I never sleep well the night before he has a match and I doubt tonight will be any different. I’ve also just remembered that he needs a new gum shield.

At some point over the weekend there is also the small matter of fitting in a 20 mile training run, my last long one before I tackle the Causeway Coast Marathon in two weeks time. Oh, and there’s the small matter of the latest draft of the novel in chipping away at; I’m attempting to complete a chapter a night, ever aware that my loyal army of beta readers are currently scouring over Chapters 15-30.

I’m a master at procrastination. If I can put off a task or activity to a later date, then I will do it. Meetings, phone calls, anything remotely challenging, I will dread it’s approach. Give me an opportunity to reschedule and I will gleefully do so; then worry myself sick until the day in question comes around. I will only act swiftly if I’m backed into a corner and left with no other option.

I’m not one for grabbing thistles or bulls by the horns. Carpe diem is not my battle cry. I don’t laugh in the face of danger and you will never, ever see me on a documentary with Bear Grylls no matter how many million copies Kirkwood Scott sells. It’s not in my nature, it goes against my grain; my ears have no interest in the call of the wild. I’d rather leave it for tomorrow, for we all know, tomorrow never comes.

I’ve no choice this weekend. I need to man up and grow a pair, as Fionnuala so often tells me. She really is the most charming wife. But she’s right, and without her pushing me on I would never get anything done. I’d dither, delay and dally until the cows come home. And the last thing I need is a herd of Frisian cattle sashaying through our front room. Especially if I’m chasing a bull around the kitchen trying to grab its horns.

There comes a time when you have to leap out of your comfort zone, grit your teeth and jump in with both feet. Because if you don’t then the boat will have sailed, and you will be left standing on the dock, forlornly watching your dreams sail over the horizon. Yes, there will be trepidation, fear and probably more than a little pain, but ultimately I believe it is both necessary and worthwhile in order to lead the lives we were created to live.

If you procrastinate you will never liberate. We are blessed in that the majority of us are not shackled, at least physically, by chains which restrain us. We have freewill to make the decisions which will impact upon, and shape, our present and future lives. Sometimes even shrinking violets like yours truly have to seize the day. And if I can, then so can you. Even if it means the occasional sting or jag along the way.

Are you a ditherer or a doer?

When did you last seize the day?

Are You A Martyr?

I wear my heart on my sleeve. I have a thin skin. Some might say I am overly sensitive. The other day in work a colleague made a comment about me that I found very hurtful. So much so, that I was taken completely off guard and unable to respond. I had to excuse myself and retreat to the toilets where I attempted to regain my composure. My heart was racing and I felt faint. It was as if I was back at school, the shy, chubby boy being bullied by the cool kids.

Part of me wanted to confront this person about the comment. He appeared utterly oblivious to the damage he had caused with the glib, throwaway remark. I had witnessed his casually cruel tongue before but never been on the receiving end until now. Worst of all this person was a Christian, a man who portrayed himself as clean living, church going example to the rest of the office. I was angry, disappointed and confused.

I said nothing in the end. I let it go. I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do. Time will tell. I had half hoped he would have approached me in the days that followed to apologise, but that has yet to happen. I’ve largely avoided him since and any communication between us has been minimal on my part. That’s what I do when I am hurt. I curl up into a ball like a frightened hedgehog and withdraw from the situation in question.

I’m good at playing the victim, the martyr. Part of me thrives on it even. I mope around, licking my wounds, feeling sorry for myself and lapping up any scraps of pity and sympathy thrown my way. Poor little Stephen. It is at times like this I need to take a good, long look in the mirror and see myself for what I truly am. To peel away the layers of ego and confront the hard, cold truth. For I am a hypocrite.

When I was young I sometimes wondered why I was named after a Bible character who featured so briefly before being promptly stoned to death. Why couldn’t I have been named after a more heroic figure like David, Joshua or Samson. Ok, maybe not Samson. Samson Black makes me sound like a WWE wrestler. And the last thing any of us wants to see is me prancing around the ring in a pair of rhinestone encrusted Speedos.

Now I realise that Stephen was a greater hero than any of them. He didn’t lay waste to opposing armies on the battlefield, swinging a mighty sword and performing great acts of courage and heroism. His bravery was a different kind. He instead stood before his prosecutors and spoke the truth with eloquence and dignity, before stoically dying for what he believed in. He refused to denounce his faith and was willing to give up his life for what he believed in.

His martyrdom was selfless and for others, unlike my own pale imitation which is motivated by neediness and attention seeking. For I am a bigger hypocrite than the man who struck me with a metaphorical stone during the week. I think of all the hurtful things I have said and done to those I care about. Then I realise that I have no right to take the high moral ground. Let he who is without sin throw the first stone? I have thrown more than I care to recall.

I have yet to forgive the man for his comment but realise this is what I must do in order to move on. I should also be thankful for him. For the incident has revealed to me faults and failings that I need to address in my own life. People who I hurt and whose forgiveness I should be seeking as opposed to focusing on my own petty concerns. The truth hurts but it is the best kind of pain. Sometimes we need to embrace that pain and never let go.

Are you a hypocrite?

Do you play the martyr?

What do you need to do to address situations in your life where you can do better?

Everybody Loves An Underdog

During my nightly phone call to Mother yesterday she informed me that our home town of Omagh is awash with red and white flags. The reason? My county, Tyrone, have reached the All Ireland Gaelic Football Championship Final. To provide some context, it’s the equivalent of your team reaching the F.A. Cup Final or SuperBowl. Gaelic Football is massive in Ireland and your side making the final is a very big deal.

Tyrone are a very good side, certainly one of the best in Ireland. They are an incredibly fit, skilful and determined group of young men. Their work ethic and team spirit is second to none, which is all the more admirable as Gaelic Football is an amateur sport. No million dollar salaries or supermodel girlfriends for these guys. They all have ordinary 9-5 jobs and play for the love of the sport.

The downside is that they face the mighty Dublin in the final who have won the All-Ireland for the last three years. Experts regard them as one of the best teams of all time. The game is also being played at their home stadium of Croke Park where 80,000 fans will congregate on Sunday to watch these two great sides do battle for the famous Sam Maguire Trophy. Excitement is at fever pitch.

I won’t be at the match but I’ll certainly be glued to the TV screen cheering on the underdogs. For, while an extremely good side, most people expect Tyrone to lose. Dublin are just too powerful, too fast, too clinical. At best, most people are hoping that Tyrone will put up a good fight and not lose too heavily. They have done really well reaching the final and can hold their heads high, whatever the outcome.

I’m not so sure. I’m the eternal pessimist but when it comes to my teams I always retain a glimmer of hope, no matter the opposition. I think Tyrone have a definite chance and in a one off final anything can happen. Tyrone could have the game of their lives whereas Dublin might have a bad day at the office. I always favour the underdog because not always, but occasionally, they overcome the odds.

Where there is hope, there is a way and I see a way for the underdogs to win this game. Their fans will undoubtedly travel down to Dublin in their droves with the same hope. Otherwise, why bother going. These are true supporters, people who invest their time and money into supporting their team. They take the rough with the smooth. They don’t jump ship when they encounter stormy waters. They hang in there through the good times and the bad.

You might feel like an underdog today. You might face seemingly insurmountable challenges and see no way of overcoming them. My message is to not give up hope for where there is hope there is a chance. In order to seize that chance, however, you need to work hard. You need to shed the blood, sweat and tears required to give what you truly desire an opportunity of becoming reality. You need to believe in yourself.

You also need to show up. Day after day, week after week, and on the big occasion itself. There is no hope unless you are at the starting line and as prepared as you possibly can be when the tape goes up. I know this as I’ve faced many life events as a massive underdog, yet still somehow come up trumps. Everybody loves an underdog and underdogs can and do win. But first you have to learn to love yourself.

What have been your experiences with underdogs?

Do you consider yourself as one?

One Little Spark

This is the iconic Bank Building, which has stood in the heart of Belfast city centre since 1785. For the last 40 years it has housed Primark, one of the most popular department stores in the country. The building has become a famous landmark with its iconic clock overlooking Royal Avenue. It is a popular meeting place and buskers and street evangelists often ply their trade outside it, vying for the attention of the passing public.

Yesterday morning, just after eleven, Rebecca and I were travelling out of Belfast along the M1 motorway. We were heading home, having been in the city on an errand. A fire engine suddenly flashed past in the opposite direction, its sirens wailing and blue lights flashing. Then a second….and a third. We wondered what was going on. When we arrived home, Fionnuala was watching a live video feed from the city. The Primark building was on fire.

The fire started on the roof, apparently after a workman’s blowtorch was left unattended. A stray spark had started a fire which was soon raging out of control and spreading downwards. Thankfully the building was safely evacuated and hundreds of frantic shoppers spilled out onto the streets below. Within hours the building was an inferno and a black, choking shroud of smoke could be seen across the skyline.

Fourteen fire appliances and over 100 firefighters battled the blaze throughout the day. The roof collapsed, followed by all its floors leaving only a blackened, smouldering shell. There are genuine fears that the historic building will have to be pulled down. Hundreds of staff have lost their jobs. The city is mourning the loss of an old friend. It had survived the German Luftwaffe and countless terrorist bombings during ‘The Troubles.’ But now it was gone in the blink of an eye.

I walked past the blackened hulk this morning on my way to the office. There was an eerie silence and the smell of cloying smoke still hung thick in the air. So much history, culture and memories lost. All because of one tiny spark. Life will go on. Businesses will reopen and trade will resume. Yet it won’t be the same. The shockwaves of that spark will ripple outwards for many years to come.

Life can be like that. One moment of madness, one loose sentence and the fire is ignited. Small at first, but soon raging out of control, fanned by petty fears and jealousies. Before you know it friendships are consumed, relationships destroyed and families are left in ruins. The fire and smoke of our foolish actions can have repercussions which will impact upon the lives of others for generations. No family tree can survive its wrath.

Think before you speak. Consider the bigger picture and play the longer game. Wisdom and discretion are hard won, but invaluable, qualities to possess. Take responsibility for your words and actions. Nothing burns like a spiteful tongue and nothing hurts like a deep burn. Such wounds may never heal fully and even if they do the scars will remain throughout the ages. Yet they can be so easily prevented with a little care.

Are there fires raging in your life today?

It’s Not God’s Fault If Christians Are Idiots

Over the weekend, Fionnuala and I reorganised our bedroom. This included a bit of a spring clean and moving some furniture around. It was hard work but worthwhile. I found my missing Garmin watch charger and several dozen odd socks whose whereabouts had been baffling me for some time. I also recovered the grand total of 27 pence, a couple of euros and an old pound coin. Winning!

At the end of the day it was as if we had a new bedroom. There was so much space. I commented to Fionnuala it was as if we were away somewhere in a hotel room until the sound of the kids squabbling or the dog barking well and truly burst that bubble. Moving your bed 90 degrees may not be cutting edge feng shui but it certainly made a big difference as far as I was concerned.

Sometimes you have to reorganise the priorities in your life as well. Of late, I have been heavily focused on the book I am writing. Over the last month it has been as if my creative writing dam has burst for I’ve been making huge strides forward. Initial feedback from beta readers has been frighteningly good which leads me to believe I may have a half decent product in my hands.

Other pursuits have had to give though. One of these has been reading. I love to read but other than for the purposes of researching the book have been unable to do much of late. I have six books on my Kindle that haven’t been touched. This is most unlike me. Yet over the last week or so I have been getting subtle nudges to pick up one dust covered tome in particular. A book that I haven’t looked at in several months now. That book is my Bible.

The Bible used to be a priority in my life. I read it every day. I highlighted sections of it, made notes and tried to apply its teachings in my life. Then that all fell to the wayside. I’ve blogged about this at length previously so don’t particularly feel the need to cover old ground again. Let’s just say I stumbled. Stuff got in the way. Other people, other Christians and my own vanity and pride. I took the failings of others out on God.

I accused others of being hypocrites when the biggest hypocrite of all was staring me in the mirror every morning. I have come to the conclusion that it’s not God’s fault if Christians are idiots. I don’t mean to be glib or accusatory as there is no bigger idiot than me. But this has been a revelatory moment for me. So much so, that I’m picking up my Bible again starting today. We will see how that goes.

I may put it down again after a week. I don’t know. I hope not. I may devour it like I used to. I don’t know. I may even blog about it. Only God knows the answer to that one. But as far as life furniture goes, I’m shoving the good book into a more prominent position. It has been rescued from the pile of odd socks and dusted down again. I say Bible but I actually have four. They all might get an outing in due course.

So you have been warned. This blog may contain material of a biblical nature in the future. Fear not though, as I won’t be ramming it down anyone’s throat. That style of ‘evangelism’ leaves me cold. I’d like to finish by thanking all the Christian bloggers who have stood with me during this spiritual drought and patiently guided me back on track. Reading your daily wisdom has been part of that process.

Have you ever experienced a spiritual drought? How did you deal with it?

When did you last pick up your Bible?

Do idiotic Christians interfere in your relationship with God?

I’m Writing A Book….Still: (Part….I’ve Forgotten Which Part)

Regular readers will know that I’m writing a book. I’ve been droning on about it for the better part of a year. It’s titled ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square’ and is the first part of Young Adult fantasy series based in Belfast. The hero of the piece is very loosely based on yours truly in his 20’s, except cooler and braver. Plus he talks to girls and battles supernatural beings. I don’t recall doing any of that either.

I’m now about a third of the way through the latest edit. Beta readers have been selected and I’m bracing myself for the first raft of feedback. Fionnuala is reading and formatting the draft as I go along and loves it. I have also allowed a good friend to have a look at it and, again the feedback has been very positive. But then you would expect them to say that. They have a personal connection with me.

Waiting for beta feedback is like waiting for exam results. You start off fairly confident but as time passes the voice in your head sows seeds of self-doubt. This snowballs into a Gordian knot of worry and anxiety. It is out of my hands, however. All I can do is chip away at the edit and hope that people like it when it finally sees the light of day. If nothing else, I will have fulfilled the lifelong ambition of writing a novel.

This edit has encouraged me though as, for the first time, the story has a fluidity and structure that was previously lacking. I’m equally pleased with the depth of, and interaction between, the characters. I’ve put a lot of thought into the development and I hope this comes across in the characters of Kirkwood Scott, Meredith Starc and Augustus Skelly. Minor characters have been fun to write as well.

I have decided to start off down the traditional publishing route. I know it’s a long shot but, if nothing else, it will provide me with experience of the process and provide some much needed skin toughening. Rejection letters are part of the experience and I will just have to get used to that. I’m already beginning to think about query letters, book synopsis and sample chapters in addition to ways I can broaden my social media presence.

People say that the real work only starts when the novel is written and I am starting to appreciate that now. I’m researching books on the publishing process and the work expected of a first time author in respect of marketing and self-promotion is immense. I’m learning all the time but it is a very steep learning curve. Reading posts from fellow bloggers on a similar journey also helps.

Beta Readers. Critique Partners. Editors. Agents. Publishers. The list is endless. So I’m reaching out to you today, my fellow WordPressers. If you can offer advice or guidance regarding any of the topics I’ve touched upon above then feel free to contact me and let’s talk. Likewise, if anyone can point me in the direction of any useful people in the industry then I’d love to hear from you.

This has been a bit of a rambling post today but I really wanted to update you and thank you for all the support you send my way on a daily basis. I’d also appreciate prayers from those of you with a faith. I know my own faltering faith has been greatly bolstered in recent times by a number of you whose prayers and Christian wisdom have been of great comfort to me. Hope you all have a wonderful day ahead.

History Is Written By The Winners

When my OCD was at its worst I was a slave to my own thoughts. They controlled me from when I opened my eyes in the morning until last thing at night. The obsessive thought would settle like a toxic dew and only lift temporarily whenever I completed the corresponding compulsive act. This normally involved tortuous mental routines which would leave me physically and mentally drained.

At the time I didn’t know I had OCD. Like many others I thought OCD was ritualistic hand washing or cleaning, neither of which I was prone to. Instead I thought I was a deviant, the only person in the world having the unwanted and deeply disturbing thoughts and images which assailed me from all sides, at all hours. These were very, very bad thoughts. Which therefore made me a very, very bad person.

When my OCD was it’s height I must have had thousands of such thoughts every day. Multiply that by the days, weeks, months and years and you get an idea of the numbers involved. The scale and complexity of the disorder is staggering. OCD is a jealous, possessive mistress that demands your total attention. It ruled my life with an iron rod; brutal, relentless and utterly forgiving.

My already fragile self-confidence plumbed new depths. I believed the OCD was part of me, as opposed to an alien mental disorder which could be managed by medication and other therapies. I was consumed by guilt and shame. I despised what I was becoming, what I had become. Every day brought fresh horrors and unspeakable scenarios. When I was lost in a routine it was as if time stopped. Nothing mattered except the routine. Nothing.

The key to my incarceration was disclosure. I finally summoned up the courage to tell Fionnuala the truth about what was going on inside my head. She didn’t flinch, she didn’t judge, she didn’t run straight to the divorce courts. Instead she researched my symptoms online, effectively diagnosed me and encouraged me to seek the medical health I required. She was there when I needed her most. Her love broke the chains.

Disclosure involved transparency, courage and honesty on my part. There was a risk involved but after I took that first step, the beast lost its hold over me. It thrives in the darkness where it wriggles and squirms, growing in guile and deception with every passing day. It whispers false truths but shirks from the light. When I saw it’s true face, the beast lost its power over me. It shrivelled and skulked, retreating into the shadows to lick its wounds.

You might be reading this today in the grip of obsessive, irrational or addictive behaviour. You know what you are doing is damaging but you cannot stop. You are alone and broken, you see no way out of your predicament. If you are, then I hope this post is of some comfort to you. You are not mad, you are not evil and you are not tainted. But you do need help. Take that first step and ignore the voice.

The voice is not you, it cannot be allowed to drown out your true identity. Rise up and fight back. Rebellion leads to freedom. Freedom to live the life you were created to live. Do not let the enemy within triumph. Fight back. Treat your self inflicted wounds as battle scars, red badges of courage and honour. History is written by the winners, by the victorious and not the vanquished. You are a winner. Start writing your story today.

Are you battling demons today? How are you coping?

Confessions Of A Recovering Catfish – Part Two

I never considered myself a catfish until it was recently pointed out to me. I mean, my profile picture was me. I told people the truth regarding where I lived, what I did for a living, the nuts and bolts of my everyday life. But it pretty much ended there. Beneath the veneer of respectability I created a version of myself who was cooler, wittier, more outrageous than the very plain person sitting tapping on their phone.

I escaped into a fantasy, online world where everybody loved me and thought I was the best thing since sliced bread. I became increasingly detached from reality and the people who really mattered. Harmless half truths snowballed to become whopping great lies. I became a master at mind games and manipulating situations to my advantage. I let my family down, I let myself down. I was spiralling out of control. Always down.

It all came to a head when I met someone online who was a bigger catfish than even I was. They, too, were who they said they were. They posted photographs and lived a life but, beneath the seemingly tranquil surface, was a twisted, unhinged mind. I fell for it hook, line and sinker. This catfish was hooked. I felt sorry for them as I was regaled with stories of how crappy their life was and how badly they had been treated by others.

I wasn’t prepared for the blizzard of emotions they blasted me with. They said I was the most incredible person they had ever met. They adored me, they worshipped me, they loved me like they had loved no other. To my eternal shame, I fell for their honey coated words. I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I knew it was very wrong but I craved the attention, the adulation, the incessant accolades and adulation.

They was a she of course; and she was very clever. She plucked at my heartstrings like a concert violinist. About her terrible marriage and abusive husband; her eating disorder and self harming; her suicidal thoughts and erratic mood swings. I was the only one who could save her. And if I didn’t do so then, well maybe, bad things would happen her. Maybe one day I would message her and she wouldn’t be there.

Looking back on it all now, I shake my head at my own naivety and gullible nature. I ended up hating her and part of me still does for the damage she caused me and my family. But not as much as I hated myself. For since it ended I have battled thoughts of revulsion and loathing towards myself. I have beaten myself up day after day after day. Even though I have been forgiven by my loved ones I still struggle to forgive myself.

My catfish days have also damaged my relationship with God. I walked away from the church and largely shun organised religion now. I avoid interaction with other Christians as so many of them let me down. I am also better placed now to see beneath the superficial friendships and faux concern of church life. I don’t read my Bible, I don’t talk to God, I don’t even know if I am a Christian anymore.

Most of all I let myself down. This blog is my attempt to put things right, to use my writing skills for good and seek to warn others of the pitfalls that I plunged blindly into; I want to help others and, by doing so, help myself. To put the past behind me and forge ahead with the people who matter. To cast aside the baggage of shame, guilt and despair. To rebuild and resow. To emerge out of the darkness and back into the light.

Do You Write Truthfully?

Coming from Northern Ireland I have an accent, just like we all have accents. It’s not the broadest of accents. While I work in Belfast, I’m a bit of a country boy having been raised in the market town of Omagh in the west of the country. So basically my accent is a bit of a hybrid. My mother claims I have a city accent whereas my work colleagues maintain I have a rural twang.

This has been a bit of a challenge for me when writing the novel. A few of the characters have strong Belfast dialects so I’m trying to reflect that in some of the slang they use; without making it impenetrable for non Irish readers. An example is the word ‘wee’. In Northern Ireland we prefix everything with ‘wee’ no matter what its shape or size.

‘Would you like a wee cup of tea?’

‘Did you see that wee cruise liner that has just docked?’

‘What about that wee direct nuclear strike the other night?’

Wee….I mean we….have our own colloquialisms just like every region or state does. Accents are slippery beasts. I have known people go to university in Scotland and come back home after a term with thick Glaswegian brogues. Adversely, other folk emigrate to the other side of the world and, thirty years later, still retain their original dialects. Accents define us, yet why then are some of us so keen to ditch them?

Some argue that retaining our accents in foreign climes evidences a strong personality. We are comfortable with who we are and, therefore, have no desire to conform to those around us. We don’t mind standing out or attracting attention. Others are less confident and, be it consciously or unconsciously, need to merge with their new environments in order to feel included and safe.

I fear I fall into the latter camp. I would be that idiot who returns from a month in Australia sounding like Crocodile Dundee. I’ve spent most of my life a needy, neurotic mess. I craved popularity and being liked to the extent that everything else was jettisoned in the process, be that accent, beliefs or ethics. I was a cultural chameleon, a master of malleability. Which got me into all sorts of trouble.

It got to the stage where even I didn’t know who I was. I would look in the mirror in the morning and shake my head in disbelief at the man I had become. My moral compass was permanently spinning out of control. I kept a private journal and it was as if I was writing about a different person most days. I disgusted myself and was my own biggest critic. I led a quadruple life as opposed to a double one.

The penny finally dropped when it was pointed out to me that my true voice was in my writing. In a perverse twist I discovered that, whereas I lived a lie, I couldn’t write anything but the truth. Even if my toes cringed in embarrassment and shame as I did so, I knew no other way. The evolution of A Fractured Faith lay within this revelation. It had been staring me in the face all along.

The Truth is in the Word.

Some bloggers express difficulty in writing about what is really going on, or has gone on, in their lives. I understand how difficult that can be. But today’s blog is all about being yourself no matter what your circumstances or surroundings. We all need an anchor when buffeted by daily storms. Let your anchor be your writing and the rest will follow. Now I’m away for a wee five mile run.

Do you read blogs in other accents?

What words or expressions are unique to your dialect?

Do you speak and write the truth?

Waking Up Hungover When I Haven’t Been Drinking

Last night, after dinner, Adam and I went to the park to work on his rugby skills. The new season is less than three weeks away and he is pushing for a place in the first team this season where he would be playing against boys two years older than him. I say boys but these guys are huge. Adam has been working hard in our garage which he has turned into a gym to prepare for this step up to the next level.

You can be strong, fast and super fit but it means little if you can’t catch and pass the ball. So last night was all about ball handling. We performed a series of drills which he performed with ease before I sent up a series of high kicks for him to catch. These varied in terms of height and difficulty but, once again, they posed little problems for my talented son. He caught every ball with ease.

I actually think he was becoming a little bored by the end of it as I concluded the session by sending up probably the easiest kick of the evening. I could even catch that I mused as I watched the ball arc through the sky and then descend to where he awaited it, perfectly positioned as ever. It was an absolute dolly, and 99 times out of a 100 he would have caught it with his eyes closed.

Except this time he didn’t. At the last second he took his eye off the ball and it squirmed through his fingers before falling to the ground. ‘What happened there?’ I asked in astonishment. ‘Sorry it was so easy I just assumed I had it so took my eye off the ball.’ I sent up a few more testing kicks to end the session which he caught with ease. Just that one mishap. Because he took his eye off the ball.

This morning I woke up with a hungover. Which is odd because I gave up drinking alcohol more than five years ago. I felt nauseous, my throat was dry and I was gripped by fear and doubt. It took me several minutes to convince myself that I hadn’t been drinking the night before. I could even taste the stale alcohol on my breath, the smell of it filled my nostrils. I call these experiences, phantom hangovers.

Thankfully they are few and far between. I have no interest in returning to my drinking past. I am never tempted to succumb, it just isn’t an issue for me. Yet, just like Adam last night, I can never afford to take my eye off the ball. For, to quote the old adage, to ASSUME makes an ASS out of both YOU and ME. When it comes to patterns of addictive behaviour there is no such thing as an easy day.

This doesn’t just relate to my drinking. It applies to a lot of other destructive ‘bad habits’ from my past that I have worked hard at overcoming. I know that I can have 364 good days but they will mean nothing if I mess up on day 365. I need to be open, accountable and transparent. My integrity is non-negotiable just as my time on this planet has a limited shelf life. I cannot afford to stumble again, I have too much ground to cover yet.

Never underestimate your demons. They are master strategists and play the long game, lying dormant in the shadows; waiting for the slightest slip on your part whereupon they will slip between your defences and catch you napping. Always be on your guard for your enemies prowl around you like hungry lions, waiting to pounce and devour you. Never take your eye off the ball.

What strategies do you apply to your life in order to keep your eye on the ball?

Do you know where your demons are today?

How Are You Really Feeling Today?

This may come across as a bit personal but I’m asking the question anyway – how are you feeling today? Sad? Happy? Worried? Hopeful? Every day of our lives we are exposed to a diverse range of scenarios which impact upon our mood and outlook on life. These can be temporary and superficial or more serious and long standing. How we respond to them moulds our character and shapes our personality. It contributes towards who we are.

So many of us though are reluctant to show the world how we truly feel. It feels….well wrong. Especially if those feelings are not what are expected by our peers. So we wear a mask, we play a role and when asked reply cheerily that everything is fine when in fact it is anything but. We lie to our loved ones and to ourselves. It is necessary in order to fit in, to be accepted. Nobody has time for worry warts or harbingers of doom, right?

I’ve seen it in the workplace, the church and many other social settings. People running around with smiles plastered on their faces when inside they are falling apart. They are afraid to admit they are struggling for fear of what others will think of them. It is both a vicious circle and an ever decreasing one. Why wear your heart on your sleeve when you can bury it under layers of empty words and glib cliches.

I used to be like that. When my father died eight years ago I was expected by some to carry on. There was a funeral to organise and a million and one other matters to attend to. I didn’t have time to grieve. I recall going home that first night and drinking beer in the living room after everyone else had gone to bed. It was to become a ritual that religiously adhered to for the next few years. Yet to the outside world I was a rock.

Inside I was a frightened little boy. Struggling with a loss that it was impossible to rationalise. How could a sore hip that everyone thought was a gardening injury suddenly become terminal prostate cancer? How did so many doctors, consultants and other specialists miss it? How did I miss it? How did I ever think he was going to get better when the evidence that he was not was staring us all in the face?

My father was dying and I was fine. My father died and I was fine. My father was dead and I was fine. Yet I wasn’t fine. I was anything but fine. I wanted to scream at the heavens and claw at the earth like a crazed, feral animal. I wanted things to be as they were before. I wanted to say goodbye properly, I wanted to say sorry, I wanted to say all the unsaid words which instead lay festering on my conscience.

It was only when I started writing that I found the means to lance the boil. This has been a painful, ugly but ultimately cleansing and liberating process. I have allowed the mask to slip and finally looked in the mirror. I see the real me staring back, not the distorted charade I used to be. I’ve thrown away the crutches and stand tall now. What you see is what you get. I wear my scars like trophies of war.

What would you see if you allowed the mask to slip? Would it be good, bad, ugly? Or perhaps a combination of all three. It takes courage and not all of us are at that stage of our journey yet. But ultimately in order to heal we must first reveal. Reveal the truth for what it is and face it unashamed and unbowed. Give the real you a fighting chance to show the world the real reason you were placed upon it. You can only accomplish that by dropping the act.

How are you really feeling today?

How often do you put on a performance for the watching world?

Losing The Battle….Winning The War

I am supposed to be running the Longford Marathon in two weeks time. It was the target I set myself after completing the Belfast equivalent in May and some of you may recall I blogged about my intentions at the time. I thought it was a realistic proposition and I could juggle it with all my other competing priorities. I had before, right? I’m Super Stephen and you name it I can do it.

Wrong.

I’m not super. Far from it. And as I neared Longford I realised I wasn’t quite there. I was a couple of long runs short of where I needed to be. My times weren’t quite right, my diet hadn’t been great and other matters had meant the running had slid further down the pecking order. There have been family issues, work demands and the little matter of wrestling with a 120,000 word manuscript.

This has sucked both time and energy from my sails. I have been left stranded in the running doldrums. So I’ve taken the decision to miss out on Longford and instead aim for the Causeway Coast Marathon at the end of September. It ticks a lot of boxes for me at the moment. It’s closer than Longford and offers a greater challenge as it incorporates road, trail and beach sections.

The latter mean that it is not a Personal Best course. I can take my time and enjoy the experience, take in the amazing scenery and not place myself under quite as much pressure. Because, whilst pressure can inspire and motivate, it can also deflate and crumple dreams and ambitions. At the minute I’m trying to convince the voice in my head that I’ve made the right call.

The voice that nags and niggles my every thought, telling me that I’ve bottled it and taken the easy way out. I’ve fought this voice for most of my adult life. It has been at the heart of many of my most spectacular personal car crashes. Always pressing the accelerator and taking stupid, unnecessary risks when I should be adhering to the speed limit and checking my rear view mirror at regular intervals.

Although not defined or restricted by her disability, Hannah’s spina bifida means she requires our constant care and attention. Fionnuala’s health has not been great this summer either and Rebecca starts junior high school next month. Adam is about to start a big year as well, both academically and with regards his rugby. They all require me to be around, as a husband and father.

Something has to give and, this time, it is the Longford Marathon. Who knows, Causeway Coast may have to give as well because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to squeeze it all in. And if the voice regards that as failure then so be it. I’ll take that one on the chin. I believe it requires more courage to say no and hit the brakes as opposed to careering blindly over the edge of the cliff.

This is not defeat. Defeat is letting the enemy crush you so that you can never rise against it again. Call it more a tactical retreat. The most skilful strategists play the long game, they consider the bigger picture. They soar like eagles above the battlefield, seeing everything. They are blue sky thinkers, 20/20 generals. Wisdom is a 360 degree perspective. I want to soar with them. So farewell Longford.

There’s always next year.

Are you winning your battle?

What does the voice in your head say?

99% Of You Won’t Read This….But I’m Okay With That

I love the eclectic bunch of people who follow this blog. One of the joys of writing is meeting and interacting with other folk who, ordinarily, you would never have an opportunity to engage with. People who share your worldview and people who don’t. All walks of life converge on WordPress to create a wonderful creative stew of humanity. Community is the oxygen of blogging. Without it we wither and wilt.

This blog currently has over 6400 followers, an amazing figure given that we have only been up and running for fifteen months. It has exceeded our wildest dreams and I’m often left scratching my head as to why people keep hitting the follow button. We are grateful for every one of you and our blogging door will always be open. We encourage healthy debate and interaction no matter where you come from and what your beliefs are.

But it’s not all rosy in the garden. I’ve written before about the downside of blogging. The posts that sink without a trace for no apparent reason, the occasional not so complimentary comment and the hard work involved in writing original material on a regular basis. The post I put up yesterday got 68 views. 68. That means that roughly 1% of our followers read it. Approximately a tenth of them commented on said post.

99% of people just kept on scrolling down their feeds. That’s quite a stark statistic when viewed in the cold light of day. A statistic that could wreak havoc amidst my fragile self confidence if I allowed it to. People hate my writing which means that they hate me. I’m a bore, I’m a failure, I’m a fraud who will never amount to anything. This is the voice that whispers constantly in my ear, seducing me with its distorted version of the truth.

Raw statistics can be manipulated. They are malleable. Just ask any politician. Yes, I can brood over the 99% and feel sorry for myself. That would be the old Stephen. Or I can focus on the 1%, the people who cared enough to give up a portion of their precious time to read and comment. To share their wisdom and humour with me. The regular visitors, those who drop by once in a while and others who I will never hear from again. They made the post a worthwhile exercise.

Focusing on the 99% is selfish. Focusing on the 1% is selfless. It is a subtle, yet mammoth, shift in perspective, one that has taken me many years to acknowledge, let alone regularly practice. I am here to serve others, not feed my own ravenous ego. For, once you start, it can never be satisfied and the incessant hunger will drive you over the edge and into the abyss. The darkest and most lonely of places.

I have no idea how many likes or views this post will get. That’s not the point. The point is that it reaches out to one person and makes a positive impact on their day. If I can achieve that then my work is done here. Focus on the 1%. For that is where the real treasure is buried. They are the reason you will keep returning to your keyboard, even when it is the last thing you want to do. Persevere.

Jesus said something similar once about sheep. Leaving the ninety nine who were safe and sound in order to search for the one which had wandered off and needed help. You should look it up. You’ll find it in the Bible. A big book about God. I don’t read it as much I should. But today might be the day I pick it up again. Today might be the day I become the 1% myself. For it is always there for me when I need it.

Just like this blog is for you.

99%? 1%? What are your thoughts on this post? Please comment below.

Flash Fiction: Rice Cereal & San Pellegrino

Flash Fiction: Rice Cereal & San Pellegrino

https://mywayhomelife.wordpress.com/2018/07/27/flash-fiction-rice-cereal-san-pellegrino/
— Read on mywayhomelife.wordpress.com/2018/07/27/flash-fiction-rice-cereal-san-pellegrino/

Meredith has produced a lovely piece of writing in response to my Flash Fiction challenge. She captures the reality of life as a young mother; exhausted yet utterly devoted to her baby. I’m sure this will strike a chord with all you mothers out there. Check out her blog as she writes of her family and faith.

Competing Priorities

These last few weeks the pressure has been on big style in my office as the powers that be have demanded the delivery of a number of long term projects within an increasingly short term deadline. I have been shackled at my desk, pounding away at my keyboard like one of those harassed detectives you always see in the movies. Without the cloud of cigarette smoke engulfing me and glass of bourbon surgically attached to my right hand.

I’m comfortable with handling such pressure as I’ve been doing it for over 17 years now. I also trust my analytical and report writing skills sufficiently to know that I will deliver a quality report on time. If they would just leave me to get on with it. What doesn’t help is hordes of stressed colleagues continually circling me like vultures over a dying animal in the desert. Leave be people in my focus bubble and the job will get done.

Everything is a priority. On Monday, Task A is the priority. Then someone else will tell you that Task B is urgent before the next knock at the door demands Task C ASAP. I might clown about a bit but I’m no juggler despite this place increasingly resembling a circus. It’s fire fighting of the highest order and the priorities pile up as the next crisis lumbers over the horizon. It’s inevitable that it will all end in tears.

Declaring everything a priority actually means that nothing is a priority. Jumping mindlessly from one test to the next without any plan or structure is a sure fire way of ensuring that nothing is seen through to its completion. When we panic or become stressed then we are more likely to rush and make mistakes. There can only be one priority at a time, otherwise we may as well pull down the shutters and all go home.

I have many competing demands. I am busy at work but desperately trying to get my head above water so that I can take some leave. I’m training for a marathon next month and have set the month after that as the deadline for finishing my book. There are bills to be paid, telephone calls to be made and jobs around the house that have been overlooked for too long. There is also the small business of blogging.

You might think these are all worthwhile pursuits and you would be correct in that assessment. All of the above are a far cry from the not so distance past when my priorities were making it to the weekend so I could get ridiculously drunk and predicting next year’s Champion Chase winner. My interests now are physically and mentally edifying whereas before they were shallow and destructive.

None of them, however, are my priority. Note the use of the singular there as opposed to that term I despise – competing priorities. There can only be one be it a Highlander, a ring to rule them all or in the busy, barmy world of Mr. Stephen Robert Black. That priority is my family; for without them I’m incapable of delivering any of the other stuff. They are the foundation upon which everything else is constructed.

The job pays the bills, the running keeps me in shape and the writing is my dream. But I would drop them all in an instance if they came between my family at myself. Choose your priority wisely. It can fuel your other dreams powerfully and blast you off on the adventure of a lifetime. Or it can bring you crashing back to the ground and reality in a ball of flames. There can only be one.

Do you struggle with competing priorities in your life at present?

What is your priority?

Do you have a middle name? The more embarrassing the better.

Do Christians And Three Legged Dogs Go To Hell?

The man over the bridge has 16 dogs. He used to have 16 3/4 dogs but the old three legged one that used to lag behind the others has gone to doggy heaven. Do three legged dogs get their other leg back when they go to heaven? I’d like to think they do. I have no idea how he lost the limb in question but I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. But now I’m assuming he’s going to heaven. What if he’s going to doggy hell?

If such a place exists that is. A lot of people don’t believe in hell. I’ll take that a step further. A lot of people who profess to be Christians don’t believe in hell. Or at least their behaviour indicates that they don’t. Others smile knowingly and tell us not to worry about such matters. Jesus loves us and we are going to heaven and anyway it’s all symbolism and allegory right? A bit like the Garden of Eden and that big boat that Noah supposedly built.

My biggest problem with hell is that I believe in it. I often wish I didn’t. Life would be so much easier if I wasn’t fretting over death all of the time. I could do and say what I wanted without having to worry about consequences and repercussions. I sometimes feel like the ‘ghost’ at the end of a Scooby Doo episode when they are unmasked to reveal that it was kindly old Curtis the Caretaker all along.

And I would have gotten away with it if wasn’t for that pesky Hell.

Thinking about hell all the time and the distinct possibility that I might end up there does have its benefits. For a start I reckon Jesus would be proud of me as he spoke about hell more than any other subject during his missionary on earth. Which is all the more startling because many church leaders rarely mention it. All that hell stuff isn’t good for morale in ‘church land’ where everything is wonderful and nobody ever has any problems.

So if it’s good enough for Jesus then it’s good enough for me. He didn’t pull any punches either, painting a vivid, graphic picture of what we could (not) look forward too if that was to be our final destination. Anyone with even the most sketchy knowledge of the Bible can’t turn around and say they weren’t warned. It is as vivid and visceral as the story of the Cross. Jesus can be a real party pooper at times.

Hell is the ultimate style cramper. How am I supposed to live the life I want to live with all these rules and restrictions holding me back? Isn’t being a Christian meant to be about freedom and not having to worry? Well I did all that yet I don’t feel particularly liberated and I fret more than ever. Hell is the ultimate life beyond life sentence. It is the dark cloud on the horizon of all my good intentions. I can hear it, taste it, almost touch it. It’s coming for me.

But there we have the nub of it. Hell exists for a reason. Hell is love. Because Jesus doesn’t want us to go there. So he laid it on thick and told us how it really was. Like one of those anti smoking campaigns where they show terminal cancer patients talking about their nicotine habits. Ignoring Hell is choosing to live your life how you want to. Accepting Hell is an opportunity to live life the way you were meant to.

I believe in Hell. I don’t know where it is or what it looks like and I sincerely hope I never find out. I want to go to the other place where there are bottomless bottles of Diet Coke and you can eat honeycomb ice cream all day long without having to run ten miles afterwards to burn it off. I want to take that three legged dog for walks and not have to worry about worrying all the time. Hell gives me that opportunity. Hell is freedom. Hell is grace. Hell is truth.

Woooaaaaah!! That was a serious one, Stephen. Bring back the running and writing posts. All is forgiven.

What are your thoughts on Hell?

Blog God

I was jokingly referred to as a famous blogger the other day. Once I had stopped howling with laughter, wiped the tears of mirth from my eyes and picked myself up off the floor I started to think. I really don’t want people to think of me that way. For that’s not the intention of this blog at all. Beneath the words and behind the posts I am utterly ordinary. In many ways I am the dullest person I know. Run, Blog, Sleep, Repeat. That’s how I roll.

Beneath every serene swan gliding elegantly on the surface of the lake is an ugly duckling paddling furiously to keep afloat and on course. The most beautiful cruise liners in days gone by were powered by lots of hot, sweaty men shovelling furiously in the white hot heat of the engine room. And it’s the same when it comes to my writing. Far from a pretty sight. Don’t believe me? Well let’s consider Exhibit A shall we?

My ever supportive wife took this photo of me the other evening. I am writing. But note the lack of a velvet smoking jacket and silk cravat. The glass of port and expensive cigar. See me for who I really am. I’m decked out in my Buzz Lightyear pyjama bottoms and Washington Redskins t shirt. Both are beyond shapeless. I haven’t shaved in three days. If I went out in public looking like this and remained motionless for any length of time people would lob their spare change at me.

And yes, yes, you are not mistaken. That is a gallon tub of honeycomb ice cream sitting on my lap. See that slightly crazed expression on my face. That is the lesser spotted Stephenus Blackius in the midst of a feeding frenzy. I haven’t even bothered with a bowl because why bother with dining room etiquette when there is sugary, gooey goodness to be shovelled down my throat. I have reluctantly agreed to use a spoon for the purposes of the photograph.

Let’s face it I look a bit mad don’t I? This book is slowly turning me into a gibbering, slavering, ice cream snorting freak. I wear this accolade like a red badge of honour. For I am happy in my slovenly attire. I am happier than I have been in many years. Being myself. No longer playing to an audience, no longer people pleasing but revealing the real me to the world. You don’t wear a three piece suit when you’re dragging your sorry body out of the pit.

The words are flowing as never before. What’s the opposite of writer’s block for I am currently experiencing it. Writer’s can’t stop? For that is me. Of late I’ve had to deliberately rein myself in and ease off the accelerator as I have other competing priorities. I can’t allow my addictive tendencies to cross ‘that line’ and turn a lifeline into a noose. My words are my salvation, the labour pains of rebirth as opposed to the death knell of another pipe dream reduced to acrid ashes in my mouth.

My words are fuel for I’m no longer a fool, a slave to popularity and attention. I’ve walked the paths of the dead but I now choose to pen words of hope and redemption. No selfies, no gimmicks, just bitter experience and hard won truths. Bettering away at my keyboard like a lunatic with bits of honeycomb in my beard and looking anything like the suave, sophisticated literary legend I used to aspire to be.

This is me. I am what I am. I am a writer. I aspire to be an author. But I also aspire to be a better husband, father and friend. They are the real rewards on this path to publication. No amount of sales will better that aspiration. Becoming a published author is a long shot. But I’m a sucker for outsiders. Why else would I support the Redskins? And why else would I turn up every day, chipping away at my dream and scooping away at my ice cream.

What is your go to writing attire?

Writer’s Block? Or Writing Non Stop? Where do you sit?

Should We Meet Our Heroes?

During the recent World Cup I have heard the word ‘hero’ casually bandied about to describe the exploits of young men who get paid millions of pounds every year to kick a ball around a field. The same applies to our favourite actors, musicians and authors. I’m as susceptible to this idolatry as any of us. If Eric Cantona walked into the room now I’d probably turn into a gibbering wreck. And when I bumped into Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones in Belfast a few years back I was a gibbering wreck.

Did I say bumped into? That might be a slight manipulation of the truth and by that I mean an outright lie. I actually stalked them through the city centre before cornering them in a jewellery store where I refused to let them leave until I had my photograph taken with them. Thankfully they were both lovely about it. There were no diva outbursts or exaggerated eye rolling. I floated off on my little cloud nine and all was well with the world.

They, for it is always they, say never meet your heroes for they will invariably prove a disappointment. We find out that they are not the perfect creations we had imagined them to be. They are as flawed and tarnished as the rest of us. Just because you are skilled at kicking a ball or strumming a guitar doesn’t mean you are a wonderful human being. When they step down from the pedestal we have placed them upon and face us eye to eye we see beyond the carefully crafted image. We see them for who they really are as opposed to who we so desperately want them to be.

Hero worship is idolatry and the latter reflects an inadequacy within us that we seek to fill with fickle fantasies. There is a hole within us, something is missing so we grasp at the first thing we can find to plug the gap. It can be a pop star, a baseball player or a Kardashian. Worse still it can be an addiction. Why worship a person when you can worship food, alcohol or drugs? They are so much more accessible. We pump our bodies and minds with images and substances; anything to stop us from looking in the mirror.

Mirrors tend not to lie. Our minds eye does. Mirrors strip away the facade and reveal the present in all its not so glorious glory. I personally tend to avoid them for I don’t particularly like what I see looking back at me. The Stephen Black I want to be, I need to be, is not there. I’m not handsome enough, I’m not clever enough, I’m not popular enough. I’m not a sub 3:30 marathon runner. I’m not a published author. I’m not the world’s best father or husband. I’m not anything really.

But then I look beyond my personal pity party, beyond the vain, selfish thoughts that warp and corrupt my perception. I see my wife and kids. I see the people in my life who accept and love me for who I am, warts and all. I see the people who turn up every day for me, who support and encourage me in whatever hare brained scheme I am chasing at any given time. These are the people who you get out of bed for and trudge into work for, day after monotonous day.

Why? Because they are our real heroes. They are the people we are learning from, they are the kindred souls who we smooth our rough edges against, who help to mould us into the people that God created us to be; despite our kicking and screaming every step of the way. They keep us on the path and prevent us from wandering off and along more treacherous routes that lead to dead ends and deadlier drops. They are our signposts, our beacons in the darkness. They are our very lives, our reasons for being.

Never meet your heroes? I disagree. I say meet them. Open your eyes and look around for they are there, right beside you, as you muddle through life. They are our family, our friends, our daily dose of inspiration. See them for who they really are and, in doing so, be grateful that they have been placed in our lives for a reason. They are an oasis of hope, grace and love in this barren desert we trudge across. If we appreciate the everyday heroes around us we are a step closer to becoming reluctant heroes ourselves. For they need us just as much as we need them.

Have you ever met a celebrity and been disappointed by them?

Who are the everyday heroes in your life?

I Do Good Foot Rubs. But Very Little Else.

I often ask Fionnuala if I’m the most irritating person she has ever met to which she unerringly replies….yes. It’s a gift, I guess, but my long suffering wife has many buttons of which I know how to press every one. Repeatedly. If there is a new, innovative way to drive her nuts yours truly will somehow manage to unearth it; and serve it up with fries and a side salad. Et voila.

I know what a pain I am. I’m beyond socially awkward and if there is an illogical, baffling way to carry out an activity then I will find it. I’m impractical beyond belief, frequently live with my head in the clouds and invariably oblivious to the bedlam in our home as Fionnuala battles to raise three kids, a man child and keep the house in some semblance of order.

She is utterly selfless and without fail puts the needs of others before herself. She has that rarest of combinations; streetwise yet with a heart of gold. She would do anything for her friends and family and has made umpteen sacrifices down the years that I could fill a thousand blogs with. I have no idea why she puts up with me and yet she still does. For that I will never be able to repay her.

She is one of the main reasons I believe there is a God up there. A God who obviously rolled his eyes, took pity on me and sent Fionnuala to sort out my various messes. From my excruciating dad rapping to my bewildering shirt ironing technique; from my inability to operate the oven properly to my endless whining about my work, my running and ‘the book’. She sighs, she swears, she tears out her hair. But she puts up with me.

Tonight I gave my wife a foot rub on the sofa as she binged on one of her favourite U.S. drama series. Fionnuala has to take extra care of her feet following a diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes. That aside, she is a busy mummy who spends most of the day on her feet. She deserves a little pampering now and again; in fact, forget that, she deserves a lot more pampering than I provide her with. But tonight I put down the laptop, set aside Kirkwood Scott for half an hour and exercised my magic fingers.

I don’t know much but what I do know, I do well. And I do know I give foot rubs. It’s not a five course dinner, it’s not cleaning the house from top to bottom, but it was my practical way of thanking my wife for all she does for me and showing that I love her very much. It’s all very well telling someone you love them but that’s not enough. You have to show it. Love is more than an emotion. It is an act of will, it is persevering with your loved one through the bad times as well as the good.

Before the night is over, before you have even read this I will no doubt have put my foot in it again and committed some calamitous act that will have Fionnuala crawling up the walls. I will bow my head and start the walk of shame back to the dog kennel where I spend a good part of my week. Charlie the border terrier will look at it me with some disdain before reluctantly moving over to let me join him for the night.

Do you drive your loved ones insane?

How do you show people you love them?

What Do You Wish You Had Written About Today?

People often compliment me on my honest writing style. They ask me how do I do it as they could never be that open and upfront about their lives. They use words like ‘refreshing’ which I like as honesty is a refreshing attribute in today’s world. I’m not talking about liars here but, rather, people who don’t speak the truth as it might damage the persona they portray to the world. They would rather hide behind a facade than be that rarest of creatures…..their true selves.

I’ve already written at length about this epidemic of evasiveness in previous posts. It is insidious and permeates all aspects of life. We simply refuse to be honest as to who we are. We flinch from the truth as it’s ugliness scares us. But ugliness, much like beauty, is only skin deep. Cut away the scar tissue and expose the miracle within. The real you. With a voice begging be heard, with words and songs and images bursting to be released into this arid wasteland we inhabit.

I fled to WordPress a year ago to practice talking the truth. I had been suffocated by the real world, too ashamed to explore the many flaws and failings I had kept bottled up for way too long. A gangrenous genie that, when released, threatened to turn my fairytale ‘perfect’ life into a living nightmare. Yet, it had to breathe, it had to be. I had no church or friends to turn to so, encouraged by Fionnuala, I turned to blogging. It saved my life as I knew it then.

It was a revelation, a revolution within my soul which had the old Stephen reaching for the white flag while simultaneously throwing the towel into the ring. I write prodigiously and truthfully. I wielded words and practice every day until they surged from my keyboard at will. I needed to write. I had so much to say and the clock keeps ticking. I constantly feel as if I am running out of time. Words can be weapons of mass destruction. They are more valuable than precious stones, than the very air we breathe.

Words are life. They strip away the veneer, the plastic and the false. They are white hot, they cleanse and purge like no other potion or pill known to man. Then why do we shy away from them? Increasingly on WordPress I see fellow bloggers testify that they are unable to write about what they want to. Some are worried about what others might think, some believe they are not eloquent enough to accurately express themselves, others say it would be too painful a process.

More painful than keeping the words unspoken or unwritten? Meandering along a river of regret until they become stuck in the shallows never to be emerge again. So we fall into the same old trap. We say what we think others want to hear, we dilute our diction and side step the stories that are our legacy and our right to tell. They fester and ferment within us, dripping poison into our veins and clogging our arteries, blocking the hopes and dreams that will never see the light of day.

What have you written about today? What are you thinking of writing today? Reflect upon it. Is it really what you want to say, what you need to say? Or is there something else, curled in a ball, buried deep within, that craves to be unfurled like a battlefield banner. A banner which announces to your enemies and antagonists that enough is enough and you are making a stand. Look up and read the words on that banner as it flaps and flutters in the breeze.

Commit those words to memory. For that is your anthem and they are your story. Share them and feel that cloak of secrecy and shame slip from your shoulders. They are words forged in the depths of your being, unspeakably strong. They cannot be broken for they were written with the ink of your blood and your tears. They are your rebirth from the banality and boredom of what you once were. You are whole again. Now tell your story and live to tell many more.

Do you want to write about certain subjects and experiences but hold back? Why?

Is your writing as honest as you would like it to be?

What has this post inspired you to write about?

Would You Write A Letter To A Fellow Blogger?

Yesterday I posted about emojis and the death of the written word. It generated quite a dialogue and one of the themes that emerged was how much people miss receiving, and sending, letters. You know, in the post. Stamps? Envelopes? Am I ringing any bells here people? It brought back to me the excitement and anticipation of receiving mail from penpals. There is something in the care and attention of writing and posting a letter that cannot be replicated into today’s ‘junk food’ society of e-mail, text and social media messaging.

So today’s post is a challenge to you all. Whether or not you choose my metaphorical gauntlet throwing is entirely up to you. It’s a challenge to write a letter and post it to a fellow blogger. Or bloggers if you are feeling particularly inspired. It can be anything. A few lines or your life story. It can include art, poetry, photographs, whatever rocks your boat. The central message here is reaching out across the online abyss and physically connecting with a fellow human being.

There are a few rules. The letter has to be handwritten. No typing you lazy, lazy people. The other person has to have agreed to co-operate. Although, otherwise how would you have obtained their address. Duh Stephen! And although I hate to even have to say this but I’m afraid I must – please refrain from any abusive and offensive material. That would make me cross. And nobody wants to see that.

If you are up for the challenge then simply comment below, telling us who you are hoping to write to and why. Feel free to share this blog and let’s spread this message throughout the blogging community. Or maybe you want to blog yourself about your letter writing process? Include photos of your lavishly decorated envelopes, journey to the mail box or exquisite handwriting. Let’s get writing

Are you willing to accept the letter writing challenge?

Who would you like to write to and why?

What are you going to include in your letter?

Feel free to reblog if you think this is a good idea.

Thank You

This is not intended as a self indulgent or ‘look at me’ post. But we reached 6000 followers yesterday on the blog and wanted to say thank you to everyone who has contributed towards us reaching this milestone. Fionnuala and I are very grateful for the continued support, encouragement and love that you send our way on a daily basis. We just hope that we make half of the impact upon you all as you continue to do upon our lives. Thank you.

Ghosts From The Past

When I was aged around 12 I developed a facial twitch. The severity and frequency of this twitch would depend upon my anxiety levels at any given moment. I was a painfully shy and insecure young boy so it will come as no surprise that I was bullied at school about this by my peers. It was not the most intense or vindictive bullying I have ever witnessed but it had a massive impact upon me which I still carry to this day.

All I wanted at school was to be accepted and to fit in. My twitch, combined with my shy nature and chubby, unsportsmanlike physique, ensured that I did not. I was a geek, an outcast, not one of the ‘in crowd.’ I firmly believe that this is the reason I grew up with such a brittle, malleable personality. I have always been a people pleaser even if this has meant sacrificing my own beliefs and values in the process. I would always say yes even when every fibre in my body was screaming no.

This led to me getting into a lot of hot water in later life; hot water that almost scalded me alive until I was plucked from it at the eleventh hour. I kept bad company which led to bad behaviour. This has been a constant and recurring theme throughout my adult life. It is only now, many years and many wounds later, that I am learning to be more cautious when I approach new situations and people. I no longer dive in with both feet, wanting to be everyone’s new best friend.

I have to be constantly on my guard. The next disaster could be just around the corner. Fionnuala is a massive help in keeping my feet firmly rooted to the ground. She sees the warning signs long before I do and warns me accordingly. It is so easy to effortlessly slip back into old habits. The transition can be almost imperceptible, an osmosis that creeps up on you and before you know it – BANG – you are right back at the bottom of that slippery slope it took you so long to scale in the first place.

Here’s an example. Today I took my seat on the train for the daily commute into Belfast. Sitting opposite me was a middle aged lady. I paid little heed to her and started to read my book whereupon I noticed her head jerk ever so slightly. Then again a few seconds later. And again. I realised that the poor woman had a similar nervous tic to the one I had eventually grown out of all those years ago.

Within a few heartbeats I was transported back to my childhood self and gripped by an overwhelming urge to replicate the lady’s actions. It was as if my head was in a vice and the only solution to the compulsive thought was to succumb to it, to surrender to the urge. I was gripped in a panic and tempted to run out of the carriage, anything to escape the ghosts from my past.

I didn’t of course. I sat where I was, gritted my teeth and waited until the urge passed. And when it came to my stop I got off the train and carried on with my life. My exciting, vibrant, present life a million miles detached from those unhappy childhood memories. The incident left a lasting impression upon me and an itch that could only be scratched by writing about it. A lesson was learned on that train this morning.

I can never become too comfortable. I can never rest on my laurels and think that I’m invincible to my former flaws and weaknesses. All it takes is one slip, one stumble and I’ll be back to square one. I am still weak, still impressionable, still oh so easily influenced. If I can almost relapse following a brief encounter with a stranger on a train what hope would I have when confronted by larger, more vicious demons from years gone by.

I can never relax. I will never relax.

Do you still fear the ghosts from your past?

How do you fight them?

Unreality Television

A reality TV show called ‘Love Island’ has taken over U.K. television this summer. A dozen muscle bound hunks and bikini clad models are lumped together in a villa on a Mediterranean island where their every move is filmed for our viewing entertainment. Romance blossoms and hearts are broken. Everyone has perfect bodies, perfect tans and perfect teeth. There are villains, heroes and catfights galore.

Reality TV is a sure fire ratings winner. It’s relatively cheap to make and the viewing public can’t get enough of it. Maybe it’s because the sight of the often intellectually challenged contestants make us feel a little bit better about ourselves; or maybe it’s just some lightweight escapism from our own dreary lives at the end of another gruelling day at the coalface. Either way, reality TV is here to stay.

The irony of it is that there is nothing remotely real about reality TV. The contestants are carefully chosen and moulded to play the roles that the producers want them to perform. Conversations are scripted and emotions exploited and exaggerated. The footage is carefully edited in order to ensure that every last drop of drama is squeezed from what is essentially a dozen bored twenty somethings lounging around a pool.

We lap it up all the same. Will Jack and Dani stay together despite the former’s ex girlfriend arriving at the villa with her sights set on winning him back? Will nice guy Alex ever get a girl after a string of doomed dates? And is man eater Meghan really the most horrible woman in Britain? Tune in after the break and all will be revealed. Or possibly not depending on what evil tricks the producers have up their sleeves for our hapless heroes.

We love reality TV for its sheer lack of reality. It is fantasy fluff. It is unreality TV. We mock the contestants but it begs the question – how real are we as we go about living our own lives? How genuine are we in our interactions with the people who matter in our lives? And how much of it is inane, meaningless small talk? Do we tell them we love them or is it all bottled up and glossed over because that’s ‘not our thing’?

I used to live my life in a bubble. I drifted along in a world of my own, refusing to deal with my own grief, addictive behaviour and deteriorating mental health. I refused to acknowledge the damage it was causing both myself and my family. Reality took a back seat to selfish, immature behaviour and an inability to face up to the responsibilities screaming at me to be dealt with. I chose to turn my back on reality and live a lie. It was car crash television.

Does any of this ring a bell? Does your life at present currently resemble an unreality TV show? Are you burying your head in the sand and burying your hopes and plans in the process? As in six foot under. Here’s a suggestion. Stop digging. Look up and take what life has to offer you on the chin. It might not be pretty but it’s your life and only you can turn it into a thing of beauty. You only have one chance.

Unreality television is harmless fun. Unreality living is not. It’s a killer. Living a superficial life might give the appearance that all is rosy in the garden but those roses have thorns that will pierce your skin and bleed you dry. Unreality living leads to dissatisfaction, dead ends and disaster. Be real and learn to feel. With those who matter and need the real you in their lives. Who deserve better than a gameshow contestant.

What are your views on reality TV?

Are you living a real or unreal life?

Why Do Christian Bookshops Not Sell The Books I Want To Read?

The Faith Mission Bookshop in Belfast city centre is huge. It stocks thousands upon thousands of Bibles, books, journals, DVD’s, CD’s and so on. The list is endless. You think you are at the back of the store but then see that it opens up into another massive section at the rear. You could spend days in there. And by the looks of some of the customers, it appears as if several of them have.

I have spent many an hour wandering round it but, by and large, I invariably leave it empty handed and frustrated. I only visit when I am looking for a specific title. It’s not as if I’m seeking out some obscure first edition that was printed in 1846 and there are only 12 surviving copies still in existence. The books I’m looking for are new releases by established or up and coming young authors.

Sarah Bessey, Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans, Jamie Wright, Lacey Sturm. All powerful women who write from the heart with a wit and intelligence sadly missing in a lot of the Christian literature on the market at present. They write passionately about their faith, their flaws and their frustrations. They tackle difficult issues that a lot of Christians bury their heads in the sand about. They broach difficult truths. They write from the edge.

Homosexuality and same sex marriage. Equality and the role of women within the organised church. Religion v following Jesus. Sexism. Bigotry. Intolerance. Hypocrisy. The value and merit of short term mission trips. They swear. They complain. They have tattoos and drink too much wine. Yet they speak the truth of the Gospel more powerfully and purely than many of the preachers I have listened to in recent years.

Yet try to get a copy of one of their books in a Northern Irish Christian book store and you are likely to be disappointed. Thank God for Amazon. And I mean that literally and am not taking the Lord’s name in vain. Thank you God! I’m currently reading Sturm’s ‘The Return’ and the opening two chapters have reignited an urge within me to pick up my Bible which has been sadly lacking in me for several months now.

Wright’s ‘The Very Worst Missionary’ is a searing expose of a misspent youth that was plucked from destruction by faith. Her experiences on the missionary field are brutally honest. Bessey’s ‘Jesus Feminist’ is a must for anyone wanting to look beyond the rampant sexism within many churches to how Jesus treated the women within his inner circle. These women do not shoot from the hip and miss.

Whenever I mentioned one of these authors to other churchgoers I was normally met with blank stares and indifference. I almost felt that people switched off when they realised the author was a young women who wrote with a verve and honesty that many lifelong Christians find uncomfortable. Is it because they are unwilling to open their eyes to the possibility that their lifetime of safe, staid beliefs are not what Jesus taught and expected of us.? WWJD? Possibly the opposite of what you are currently.

So there you are. I’m putting it out there. I’m not saying I know it all for I know less than most people. I’m currently not in a church. My faith flickers like a candle in a hurricane. But it’s still there. And it’s quirky, unorthodox, left field Christian authors like the above that are keeping it alive. It might feel battered and bruised but at least I feel. Now where did I set that Bible?

What are your thoughts on this post? I’d be interested to hear them. Please comment below.

On The Cusp

For years I was a closed book, lying on a shelf gathering dust and regret. My pages were tinged with poison; dare to leaf through them and you would have been contaminated with my anger and grief. So I hid my pain, burying it deep down a well wherein I dwelled. For I was unwell, enduring a daily hell where I was suckled by demons dispatched from my past to distort my present. I was off kilter, adrift, unhinged.

The hinges are back are the door now. I was healed by a man from ancient times who worked with wood. He would have known a bit about making doors. Wood was his life and his Word became my life. A wooden construction killed him in the end. Yet wood could not destroy him just as Roman steel and Palestinian rock could not contain him. He walked free just as I also would from intrusive thinking and addictive behaviour. I am free to be be.

I am an open book now. I pour myself out onto the pages of this blog. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I see, I believe, I breathe. By helping myself I seek to help others who are stumbling along similar paths. I am purged from the urge to hit the self destruct button as I did in days gone by. Days of shame and sin, self loathing and pain: where I lashed out at those who loved me most and deserved it least.

I have been saved from an early grave. Therefore why do I still doubt? I sought and found the truth, the door is unlocked and open. Yet why do I hesitate from walking through it, why do I find myself turning my back on it and walking away? Have people damaged me that much? That I have succumbed to the humdrum numbness of hypocrisy and indifference. The inane laughter and empty words of so called pillars of society.

Why do I care that they do not care? I stand on the edge of the forest now. I can see the wood for the trees. I see them for what they are and for what they were turning me into. I walked away from them but I do not want to walk away from Him. I lurched from church to church but He was waiting patiently beside me all along. I only need take that step. Not towards their doors but through His door. Silently and without fanfare. For this is a private performance on my part.

Thoughts become words and words become actions. Actions write my story. Just as I lift my foot to take that step He lifts a pen to write my story. It is not one of glory for it has been gory, a story of fear and failure. Yet still I stand poised to take that step. Not through the doors of a church for I desire not the false smiles and fake bon homie of people I barely know. People who have no desire to know me beyond ninety minutes on a Sunday. Routine. Rota. Religion. Ruin.

They are Christians. He was not. They are not the way. He was and is. I do not need them yet I need Him. And all the more incredible, he still desires to know me. Broken, discarded me. When everyone else walked away and shut their doors he flung his wide open and welcomed me inside. I stand on the other side. Hesitant, suspicious. When I walk now I do so with a limp. I leave in my wake a trail of tears. My wisdom has been won at a price.

I am an open book and this is today’s page. I sweat these words out of me like a runner sweats as he churns out the miles. It is a painful purity yet I know no other way. To run is to suffer as is to write. Yet I still do both. For I know no other way anymore nor do I wish to. This is the path I have chosen today. Will I choose it tomorrow? I do not know. For all I know is here and now. Staring at a page. Standing at a door. On the cusp.

Thoughts On Death

Our family has been touched by death these last few weeks. It has sparked a flurry of emotions in us all – emotions so deep and diverse that I could blog about them until the end of the year and still not have covered everything. Yet none of them matter an iota when it comes to the finality of death. We can scream and shout, cry and call all we want. Death is death and it’s not going to bring that person back.

A death inevitably leaves so many unanswered questions. Why? How? But what if? Could we have done more? Did we do too much? The list stretches over the horizon. Death is as cruel as it is arbitrary. It makes no sense. But it falls upon the living to try and pick up the pieces and attempt to carry on as best they can. Pick up the pieces of the life that has just been extinguished. And pick up the pieces of the lives still being lived.

Death changes the living. Some for the better, some for the worse. It necessitates change and some are better at that than others. It can end lives, effectively turning the bereaved into walking corpses themselves. They can walk, talk and their chests rise and fall. Yet they are as bereft of life as those they buried or burned. Death is a callous thief and if you allow it to, it can steal your life away from right under your nose.

It can inspire and motivate. Those left behind can go on to greater things, reach heights and attain goals they never thought possible. It can be in order to emulate the dead person, to become more like them. Or it can be in order to avoid becoming like them. Death is neutral, passive and final. Yet it is a kick start, a jolt, a new beginning for so many. Death begets death or life; it offers despair or hope. The choice is yours.

The dead have no voice yet they speak to us every second of every day. They continue to live on in our minds and memories. Some are more impactive than when they were alive. They participate in every conversation we have, they are involved in every decision we make. You don’t need a crystal ball to communicate with them. Just stop and listen; for they are here, there and everywhere.

Where do the dead go? Heaven or Hell? Paradise or Purgatory? Do they party or perish? Are they judged for their crimes and misdemeanours or do they drift away scot free into the ether? We want them to suffer. We want them to be at peace. Yet are we suffering? Are we at peace? If only we could devote the same attention to ourselves as we do to those who have moved on beyond our grasp. Death is too slippery, too cunning, too complex for our feeble minds. A Gordian knot of grief that we will never unravel.

Death breaks hearts. It shatters dreams. It burns bridges. It scorches the soul. It is fire and it is ice but either way it burns deep. There was never enough time while they were with us yet, now that they are gone, the weeks, months and years stretch before many like an unending desert of despair. To some death is freedom while it condemns others to a life sentence. Death rips up roots and tears down hopes. It cares not.

We queue to shuffle past the dead and mumble meaningless words to those they left behind. We are sorry. Sorry for their loss, sorry for their pain. But mostly we are sorry for ourselves. Sorry that when we stare at their remains we are staring at our own futures. We are death waiting to happen. It may be sudden and merciful. It may be drawn out and agonising. But it will come as surely as dawn follows dusk.

What are your thoughts on death?

The Familiar

I woke before five this morning. It has been a long, hard week of on call duties so you would have thought the weekend would be a time to relax and unwind; to catch up on those lost hours of sleep. Not a bit of it. So here I am writing this post before I get up shortly to take Adam to rugby training. An hour to myself before the chaos of another full weekend cranks into gear and whisks us away.

I am wide awake yet so weary that I can barely keep my eyes open to type these words. It has been a warm night so the fan in our room provides a comforting aural background. It hums like the engine of an aeroplane. I can close my eyes and imagine that I am 40,000 feet in the air on my way to faraway lands on breath taking adventures. Yet when I open them I haven’t moved an inch and am surrounded by familiar sights.

The familiar is my foundation, my bedrock, my cornerstone. It anchors and steadies me. Without it I would be swept away on currents of naivety and insecurity. Some regard the familiar as frustrating and stifling but it is my lifeblood. My familiar keeps me rooted to the truth. This stability feeds my ability without which I would wither into a ball of self pity and apathy. The tree of life never moved so why should I?

This is the golden hour when my head is clear and the words flow effortlessly. The arrows I draw from my quiver fly straight and true, striking their targets with unfailing accuracy. Words are my weapons just like silence is my enemy. When I write I aim to shock and awe the darkness which previously mocked and gnawed at my self belief. When you allow the light to enter your life you can never truly be alone again.

The gentle humming of the fan offers a calmness that allows me to flex my creative joints. It is a benign noise unlike the killer bee swarms of intrusive thoughts and compulsive actions which used to reverberate around my mind morning, noon and night. The familiar is my ally. The thoughts remain but then so do I. Intact and secure. For now? For ever? I cannot say but the familiar is a strong, impenetrable door which keeps the creatures of the night at bay. They snarl and they prowl outside, sniffing and scratching. But they cannot enter.

I am tired but I am sober and alert. Five years plus since I jerked awake to cruel hangovers and crueller memories of the night before and the damage done. I awaken now and look forward with hope and anticipation as opposed to over my shoulder with fear and trepidation. The familiar is crisp and clear and comforting. It is my now and it allows me to reflect upon the wreckage of my past from a safe distance. Those demons have taught me well. I have the scars to prove it.

The familiar is life and there is nothing dull or boring about that. It is ripe with opportunity. It saddens me that it took years of stumbling around in the dark to reach where I am today. Have I left it too late? How I wish I had those wasted years back. But without that waste I would be unable to taste the dazzling potential that lies just out of reach. The familiar is my bridge to what would have been impossible back then. The familiar is a weaver of dreams.

The familiar allows me each day to sift through the gilt and shame of the past to uncover nuggets of wisdom and knowledge. My past was a battleground but I emerged from it victorious and intact. I had to endure the horrors of war in order to enjoy the peace of the familiar. It was my reward and I cling to it every day with pride and faith. It will carry me forward to where I need to be. I need the familiar like an addict needs the needle.

I will get up soon. This hour has been well spent. I hope you think so too and awaken in your own bed surrounded by those you love. They say the truth will set you free but you can only recognise the former and appreciate the latter if you have first been exposed to the lies and served time as their prisoner. The familiar is the key that will unlock your cell door. It is your golden ticket. It is your next breath. Seize it. Cherish it. Protect it. It is you.

How do you spend the first hour of your day?

Have you discovered the power of the familiar?

Where are you at today on your journey?

I’m A Christian Blogger But I’ve Stopped Writing Christian Blogs

When we started this blog in May 2017 the large majority of my posts were overtly Christian. They were quite popular and the blog grew quickly with a predominantly Christian following. A lot of those folk still support the blog and this post is primarily written for them. I feel I owe them an explanation for I’ve pretty much stopped posting Christian blogs. There are reasons for that which I hope will make sense to you.

I still see myself as a Christian. I haven’t set foot in a church, however, in over six months and it’s been quite a while since I picked up my Bible. To be honest, I’ve been quite angry with God for a number of reasons that I won’t bore you with here. My prayer life is somewhat hit and miss as well. So, for me, to keep up the pretence of running a Christian blog would be disingenuous and hypocritical on my part.

I could quite easily have maintained the charade. I know the Bible well and could have carried on knocking out daily studies and devotionals. But that would be wrong. Many people have commented on the honesty of my writing and I want to maintain that honesty. My relationship with you guys is very important to my continued recovery from a chequered online past. I want to be as transparent and accountable online as I am to my family in the ‘real world.’

I want to reassure you that I am not backsliding or slipping back into my own ways. I believe I retain higher standards and morals now than I did when I was within a church environment and ‘pretending’ to lead a perfect life. I also saw a lot within the church that made me question if it was the right place for myself and my family to be. Following Jesus is essentially about freedom, forgiveness and redemption. I believe that can be achieved without regular church attendance.

This post is not intended as an exercise in Christian bashing. I could rant and rave but that would be counter productive. Yes, a number of supposed Christians who I would have regarded as friends or acquaintances have disappointed and, on occasion, shocked me as to their behaviour since I made the decision to walk away from the church. But this post is not about them. They are my past and to dwell on such grievances is both draining and toxic.

I am alright. I am okay. In fact I’m better than ok. My marriage is strong and I am loved and supported by a wonderful woman. I truly believe we are raising our kids the best we can. We have taught them manners and the difference between right and wrong. I am excited as to their futures for I believe they are on the cusp of amazing lives. We are a happy family. A happy, functioning unit.

I have my running and writing. Fionnuala has her crafts business. We are content. My book is not a ‘Christian’ book although it does lean strongly on Christian themes of love, hope and redemption. I still believe in God but I don’t believe in a lot of the people who claim to speak in his name. I follow Jesus but I’m not so keen on many of his followers. There are many wolves out there in sheep’s clothing. I have felt their claws and teeth. Once bitten, twice shy.

I hope this post has not come across as negative. That was not my intention. I just wanted to explain my current thinking as I’ve become aware that a number of Christians who regularly commented on my posts no longer do so. I am sorry if my content is no longer to your liking and hope you find other bloggers who meet your needs. I’m not saying that I won’t revert to more overt Christian posts on an occasional or regular basis in the future. I am saying that it’s not for me at present.

I hope the above has made some sort of sense as it has largely been written off the cuff. If I want to fulfil my dream of blogging and writing for a living then this post had to be written. I’d rather take one honest step back than two not so honest steps forward. I hope also that my writing continues to encourage and entertain those of you who still drop by, be that on a regular or occasional basis. Thank you for your continued support.

Don’t Press That Button

There is a scene in The Simpsons where Homer finds himself facing a big red button with a large ‘Do Not Touch’ sign above it. You can see his tiny brain wrestling with temptation before he finally cracks and presses the button. Predictably enough, all hell breaks loose. DOH! Homer once again proves himself to be the bungling buffoon that we all love to laugh at. Because none of us would ever do anything so stupid, right?

Er….wrong. I can only speak for myself but I have lost count of the number of times I have faced the same button and succumbed. I know what I am doing is wrong and I know that it will all end in tears. Yet, I do it anyway. And guess what? All hell breaks loose. A decision that takes less than a second to make can lead to a lifetime of repercussions. The ripple effect of your actions can also spill over in the lives of countless others. People we love and care for.

So then why do we do it? What causes the Homer gene to kick in and allow logical, rational thought to fly out the window? When the chips are down why is our integrity and moral fibre nowhere to be seen? There is a saying – the grass is greener on the other side. We are never content with what we have, we always want more. And we are arrogant enough to believe that we can attain it without having to pay a price. A heavy price.

Take King David, a man after God’s own heart. That’s quite the title to live up to – one would imagine that he would be beyond reproach, as pure as the driven snow. He had everything; wealth, fame, more camels than you could shake a stick at. But it wasn’t enough. He became bored and lazy. Rather than leading his men in battle he preferred to lounge about his palace, partying the night away and then rising late the next day.

That’s when he saw Bathsheba. The rest, as they say, is history. His weakness and lack of control led to the death of his son. He paid the heaviest of prices. The Bible is riddled with such weak characters. Men who made bad decisions which ended up backfiring horribly. All because they weren’t satisfied with what they had. They always wanted more – more money, more women, more land. More, More, More. Well, sometimes less is more.

Fionnuala has a favourite saying – if the grass looks greener on the other side then you need to get watering your own side. They are wise words. Focus on what you have around you. You are on that side of the river for a reason. It is where you belong. Over reach and you will either drown in the crossing or realise when you get there that all is not what it seems. All that glitters is not gold. Paths of gold turn out to be the paths of the dead. From where there is no return.

We all have a self-destruct button, an Achilles heel, a chink in our armour. The trick is to be aware of it and put in place processes and people that allow you to overcome the urge to press the button when it is at its strongest. For urges pass. Temptation is not a permanent state of mind. And if you can tough it out you will emerge unscathed on the other side. Do it once and the next time it will be easier. Exposure leads to resilience and resilience culminates in victory.

I did it and so can you. Get watering. Look around. Be grateful for what you have. The other side is a mirage, a lie. Remember these words the next time you are tempted to eat, drink, snort, cheat, lie, whatever. Tell the button to butt out. Say don’t as opposed to doh. Look closely and you will see the other side for what it truly is. A graveyard of weeds. Just waiting to choke the life out of you.

Have you pressed the button before? How did that work out for you?

Are you tempted by the button today? What are you going to do about it?

Are You Lonely?

We purchased a gazebo and some new garden furniture over the weekend. I am useless at all things practical (I just do the words) so largely left it to Fionnuala and Adam to assemble all the tricky bits. I provided unskilled labour where required. When completed it looked a fine sight. We are hoping we can have a decent summer and spend as much time as possible outside under its canopy. We were outside until almost 10 p.m. last night enjoying the warm evening. In the end we reluctantly packed up and went inside.

It is not often the six of us (Charlie the border terrier included) are all in the one room. This is a rare event in our busy lives as usually one or more of us is off doing something. We also have two teenagers who spend a lot of time in their rooms as teenagers do. The sunshine and novelty of the gazebo lured them out last night, however. We hope it is not a one-off occurrence. I happily tapped away at my laptop surrounded by loved ones. I felt safe and loved.

It hasn’t always been this way. When my OCD and binge drinking were at their worst I felt quite the opposite; haunted by loneliness, depression and shame. My family loved me just as much as they do today and I loved them. It was just that I was incapable of expressing that love back. I was emotionally stunted and too wrapped up in my own fears and insecurities to notice that those around me were struggling as well.

I cut myself off from the real world and retreated into a twilight existence of alcohol and social media. Even when I kicked the former and replaced it with running I still struggled massively with the latter. It is only really through starting this blog that I have found a healthy way of expressing myself and maintaining an online presence. WordPress has been a blessing. It offers reality and truth whereas other platforms deceived me with fantasy and lies.

Loneliness is a silent killer. It is a creeping death. I have been watching the images of the volcanic eruptions in Hawaii and the deadly lava inching down the mountain side destroying all in its path while local residents have looked on, powerless to do anything about it. That is loneliness. It shows no mercy and is indiscriminate as it destroys all in its path. Once it has you in its clutches it is nigh on impossible to escape. It owns you, it takes residence in your soul and you become its plaything.

I have experienced extreme loneliness. A lot of this has been a self imposed exile. Occasionally it has been necessary for me to be alone, an act of self preservation from unhealthy and toxic friendships. I have also, through my actions, inflicted great loneliness on loved ones. I recognise this now and spend every day seeking to make amends. Some days are more successful than others. But every day I try.

The novel I am currently writing touches upon the theme of loneliness. My principal characters all experience it to various degrees before fate and circumstances throw them together. Today I choose not to be lonely. I am fortunate to have that choice as I know not everyone does. I choose to spend time with my family in the gazebo rather than prisoner in my own mind. I choose to run, but not to drink. I choose to take my medication and stifle the voices of condemnation in my head.

Are you lonely today? Is there anything you can do about it? Spend time with your family? Talk to a friend? If nothing else, leave a comment below and talk to us. We are a community and need to reach out to each other more. Life is hard enough without having to live it on your own. Where we can, we need to take a stand and confront it. Loneliness can be overcome. One step at at time. Let’s start today?

Are you lonely? How does it affect you?

Is your loneliness a self imposed exile? Or has it been thrust upon you?

Have you overcome loneliness in the past? How did you go about that?

Why Are Some Friends So Unfriendly?

Fionnuala has been visited this week by an American friend who she has not seen in over 30 years. They have kept in touch, most recently on Facebook, but this is the first time they have actually physically met since then. And you know what? It was as if it was yesterday. They started chatting right off and there were no awkward silences or stilted conversations whatsoever. This got me thinking about the subject of friendship.

To me, this was a sign of true friendship, a bond that distance nor time can diminish. Fionnuala and Elaine have always been friends and will always be friends. They are there for each other, no matter what. A friend of mine died suddenly last week. I had not seen him in a number of years as he had been working in Canada. I have recently been informed that he stipulated in his will that he did not want flowers at his funeral; instead people have been asked to make donations to SHINE, the charity for spina bifida and hydrocephalus.

Our daughter, Hannah, has both of the above and some years ago my friend, John, took part in a charity cycle round the circumference of Northern Ireland to raise funds for the charity. He still remembered us despite his high powered, globe trotting career. I was truly humbled when I became aware that he had asked for this in his will. Again, it was a true act of friendship despite not having seen him in years.

Elaine and John didn’t forget their friends despite the passage of time. We remained a constant fixture in their hearts and minds even when we were thousands of miles apart. They cared and made that effort to maintain the relationship. And we made the effort as well because friendship is a two way process. There is give and take on either side. Both parties have to work at the relationship in order to make it succeed.

If only all friendships could be like that. I know people who would never stay in touch with me unless I made the effort to do so with them. There are people I talk to every week. I tell them about my life; my family, my running, my writing. They nod and they smile in all the right places but you can tell they have no interest. I know people who only contact me when they want something. People who don’t return calls or reply to messages. If you asked them they would state we were friends. But I know in my heart that they’re not.

Why are people like that? Are they oblivious to the pain they cause with their slights and silences? Are they that emotionally switched off that these not so subtle snubs fail to register with them? Or are their hearts so hard that they simply don’t care? It saddens, frustrates and angers me. I see it happening to my kids as well which is even harder to stomach. I see it in the office, the church, everywhere. People no longer seem to be willing to go that extra mile for others.

What is the answer? Do we persevere with these friendships in the hope that the situation will improve? Do we love them even harder in an effort to thaw them out? To lead by example and show them what true friendship is? Are we willing to endure these false relationships because we are afraid of losing the little connection that we have with these people? Our need for company leads us to sacrifice our integrity and ethics at the altar of ‘popularity’.

Or do we cut the cord and walk away? Accept that they are unwilling or unable to take the friendship beyond it’s current status? Would they even notice if we stopped phoning or messaging them? It’s a tough one and I’m not sure I have the answer. But it worries me. Society is becoming more superficial by the day. People crave friends and likes and followers on social media. Is that what we have become?

Do you have ‘unfriendly’ friends? How do you deal with them?

What Conversations Have You Had With Yourself Today?

Has anyone else noticed the increasing number of people who seem to be talking to themselves in public places? They always cause me to take a double look before I realise, with some relief, that they are actually in the middle of a conversation via an earpiece attached to their mobile phone. Well, thank goodness for that. I was just about to notify the men in white coats to come and whisk them away.

My mobile phone rarely rings these days. And I kind of like it that way. I prefer to communicate via the written word now. Around eighteen months ago I had a massive cull of my contacts list that brought my social diary to a juddering halt. I changed my ringtone a few months ago and then realised what a waste of money it had been as I rarely ever hear it. It’s ‘Easy Street’ by The Collapsible Heart Club by the way for anyone who’s interested. Walking Dead fans will get the reference.

So my phone rarely rings. But like the earpiece aficionados I observe on public transport I often hold conversations with myself. We all do. Mine used to be pretty brutal. An unceasing barrage of criticism and abuse. Past indiscretions and mistakes played on a never ending loop in my head. Welcome folks to the wacky world of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depressive thinking. It’s a veritable hoot.

The thoughts are still there but are less extreme now. I wouldn’t say life with myself is a constant lovefest but at least we tolerate one another now. It’s an uneasy stand off, a shaky truce at best. But my wife and kids keep me grounded. My running and writing also help to purge me of the feelings of self loathing, guilt and shame which are lurking beneath the surface of my psyche just biding their time and waiting for the right moment to renew hostilities.

It’s important that we take better care of ourselves mentally. And that means trying to cut down on the internal conversations where we end up battered and bruised on the ropes. I find it incredibly hard to take compliments from people. I usually brush them off with a sarcastic aside while thinking to myself ‘Well you wouldn’t be saying that if you knew what I was really like.’

This is part of the reason I’m so honest in my writing both on the blog and in the novel I’m currently editing. I address some unpleasant topics and make no apologies for that. I’m talking to you, my audience, but I’m also speaking to myself. Constantly trying to remind myself that beneath all the negativity is a decent person trying to break out, trying to move on and leave his past behind.

It’s an uphill struggle at times but a necessary one. If we can’t live with ourselves then what hope do we have of a harmonious life with those around us? Being involved in a constant battle with me, myself and I leaves little time for others. We leave ourselves exhausted and dead to the lives that we were born to live. We need to climb out of the trenches and raise the white flag. The war is over.

Unless we find peace of mind then we will find our minds in pieces. There is truth in this truce. Surrender is the the first step towards victory and not defeat. There is power in compromise and understanding. Take a moment today and have a quiet word with yourself. Hold out the hand of friendship and then grasp it as hard as you can. You have just made the best friend you will ever have.

What conversations have you had with yourself today?

Morior Invictus

The paths of the dead

Are where we must tread

To vanquish the demons

Who reign in our head

Death itches and twitches

Denying us riches

Our God given right

Morior Invictus

Yet I fear it not

For X marks the spot

New treasures revealed

And an end to the rot.

Happy Birthday To Us

Fractured Faith is a year old today and what a year it has been. Fionnuala and I would like to thank you again, our fellow bloggers, for the support and encouragement you have provided along the way. Here’s to the next year.

How Is Your Mental Health Today?

The sun is splitting the rocks in Belfast today. That’s if there were any rocks to split. The thermometer has hit 20 degrees celsius no less and pale, podgy people who should really know better are publicly displaying waaaaay too much pale, podgy flesh. Others are sticking rigidly to their philosophy of ‘This is Belfast. It could be snowing in five minutes’ and are refusing to discard their scarves and overcoats. There is an uneasy standoff between the two factions as they exchange disapproving looks at each other in passing.

I wore a suit to work today as I had an important meeting to attend. Jacket, shirt, trousers, even a tie! I normally just wear trousers and an open necked shirt. Smart but not overly formal. My appearance in the office this morning therefore led to all kinds of ‘hilarious’ comments from my colleagues. Ranging from ‘Has somebody died?’ to ‘Is your case up in court today?’Side splitting stuff I’m sure you’ll (not) agree.

People were judging me by my appearance. I looked different from how I usually do and they commented on it accordingly. Just like if I had turned up sporting a Mohican or a neck tattoo they would have noticed. I was a different Stephen from the Stephen they interact with every other day of the week. And they were right. I was a very different Stephen. I was worried sick.

While the peculiar big yellow ball in the sky, also known as the sun, blazed down upon the rest of the city I was walking around with an invisible, but nonetheless, very real cloud of anxiety hanging over me. I had scraped the side of the car on the journey to work and fretted all day about the damage I had caused. It wasn’t much but I was annoyed with myself for trying to drive through a gap that simply wasn’t there.

I was also worried that Fionnuala would be disappointed in my poor decision making and manoeuvring skills. She hurt her legs this morning and the last thing she needed was another tale of woe from a flustered husband. I attempted to explain the damage to the car via text and phone call but in the end she told me to send a photo. I nervously did as instructed and waited for judgement to be passed. The axe swung over my head as her reply arrived…..

And I paraphrase….ahem…’Is that it? I’ve seen bigger dents in your head’.

I had fretted all day and turned a molehill into a mountain. So that when I bared my soul and confessed all I discovered that the outcome was nowhere near as bad as I had initially anticipated. Fear feeds on doubt and indecision. Guilt thrives in the dark. It is only when you step forward into the light that your self inflicted wounds can be identified and treated as opposed to left festering in the shadows.

I got caught telling a tiny white lie the other day, something I saw as irrelevant and inconsequential. But the most devastating of landslides begin with the tiniest trickle of loose earth. I was annoyed at myself and resolved to nip that particular unhealthy practice in the bud when it next occurred; which is did in the case of the scratched car. I was honest and reaped the benefits of telling the truth as opposed to digging an even bigger hole for myself.

Is there a cloud of anxiety following you around today? Are you feeling guilty and need to get something off your chest? My advice? Seize that bothersome bull by the horns and speak to whoever you need to in order to dispel it from your mind. There are too many of us suffering in silence. Our mental health is precious. Speak out today. Before it is too late. You are greater than your fears. Let the sunshine in.

How is your mental health today?

Do you need to get something off your chest?

Travelling Sober

I’m on a works trip to London today and, as I write this, I’m sitting in the lounge at Belfast City Airport awaiting my flight. Everywhere is packed not least the airport bar. In fact no matter what time you are at an airport the bar is packed to the gills. People seem to throw acceptable etiquette concerning alcohol consumption to the kerb when they get airside. No matter what the hour, they can be found downing over priced drinks to their hearts content.

In my drinking days I would have been in the midst of them. It was never too early and some of my most memorable (what I can remember that is) trips to sporting events began at some ungodly hour seeing how many pints of Stella Artois I could get down my neck in the bar before the flight was called. There then followed an Olympian sprint to the departure gate which normally sobered me up sufficiently in order to board the plane. Where I would promptly start drinking again.

And so on. Once checked into the hotel there would be a quick turnaround before the imbibing started again. Food was reluctantly eaten but the primary concern was more alcohol. At some point the evening would become a blur and I would vaguely recall stumbling back to my room following last orders where I would lie comatose for a few hours before the dreaded morning came around. At which point hell would be unleashed.

Waking up in a hotel room in a strange city with a horrific hangover is no laughing matter. Especially if you need to bring your ‘A game’ to an important business meeting in less than two hours time. The fear strikes hard. Did I embarrass myself in front of my colleagues last night? Where did I leave my wallet? Will Fionnuala still be speaking to me when I phone her later? Waves of paranoia and self loathing would sweep over me as I struggled to work out how the shower worked and recovered my crumpled clothes from the floor.

Breakfast was a continuation of the torture. Pushing greasy food around my plate and pretending I wasn’t ‘that rough’ to my invariably chipper colleague who had wisely retired at an early hour to leave me talking to some random stranger about football and the meaning of life. You would always meet the same guy in the lift the following morning and exchange embarrassed small talk before we shuffled off to our respective tables to die the death of a thousand fried eggs while trying to avoid projectile vomiting over the waitress.

There then followed the meeting itself which was always held in a hot, stuffy room. You tried to nod and smile in all the right places while inside your stomach performed somersaults and your inner voice condemned you as the most useless, worthless human being ever to have cast a shadow on God’s earth. Your colleague would make excuses for you and you would thank them profusely during the nightmarish tube journey back to the airport.

Today the strongest liquid I will be partaking of is Diet Coke. I’m giving the bar the widest of berths and muttered about having to fork out £1.15 for a bag of crisps. I’m dragging my colleague out for a run later as opposed to dragging her to a pub. And I fully intend to be tucked up in bed with my book by ten pm at the very latest. Breakfast tomorrow will be a totally angst (and vomit free experience). My wife will be speaking to me and all will be well in the world.

I’m not perfect but I’m feeling perfectly fine today. Progress to becoming a better human being is measured by how you behave when faced with situations that you previously failed miserably at. I’m taking small steps but I’m taking them in the right direction. Sobriety is a choice and I choose it today. Then when I wake up hangover free in my hotel room tomorrow morning I’ll have to make the same decision all over again. It applies to any vice, struggle or temptation you face.

What do you choose today?

What’s been your most horrific airport or hotel experience?

I’m A Christian But I Still Worry

I am a natural born worrier. Ever since I can remember I have fretted and frowned my way through life. I can turn the slightest molehill into Mount Everest and the most innocuous issue into the mother of all dramas. Every week I look at my diary and am appalled by the appointments and commitments I have to navigate in order to make it through to the following weekend. If I wasn’t worrying about something then I’d be worried that I wasn’t worrying.

I worry about areas of my life that I suppose it is socially acceptable to worry about. My family, my work, paying the bills, all the normal stresses and strains of everyday life. But I also worry about upcoming events where I should be feeling a sense of anticipation and excitement as opposed to anxiety and edginess. I worry about my next run, my next writing session, my next day off.

Why am I worrying about events which should be reducing my stress levels as opposed to increasing them? Why do I place myself under this intense pressure? A lot of it comes down to my sense of worth and value. I beat myself up a lot about my past. I don’t like myself a lot of the time and I feel I have let a lot of people down, not least myself. So I try to be a better husband, a better father, a better person. Then worry myself sick when I sense I’m not quite at the level I believe I should be at.

I’m also trying to prove people wrong. Again myself included. That I’m not a failure, that I’m not a waste of time and space. That they were wrong to judge me and conclude I was a walking disaster. That I can succeed. So I set the bar so very high then worry as to how I am going to attain all the targets and goals I have set. And every time I reach one the sense of satisfaction is fleeting as I immediately focus on the next one.

As a Christian the Bible tells me not to worry. It’s chock full of verses to that effect. If you google ‘Bible verses worry’ you will be inundated. Jesus devotes a good chunk of Matthew 6 to the subject. Which, of course, makes me even worse when I worry. I’m worrying because Jesus told me not to worry. I’m not following his teaching, therefore I’m being disobedient, therefore I’m sinning. Oh woe is me.

But hang on a minute. Isn’t the Bible full of worriers? Great men of God who instead of glibly trusting the Almighty hummed and haahed with the best of them. Wouldn’t Noah have fretted when he sent the dove from the ark and then sat all those days waiting? What about David when Nathan told him God knew all about his little dalliance with Bathsheba? Or Paul (The Artist Formerly Known As Saul) when he was struck blind on his way to Damascus?

I reckon they all worked themselves into a right lather. Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Peter the list goes on. Jesus was without sin but he also experienced the same emotions as you and I. When he had his ‘moment’ in Gethsemane the night before the crucifixion did he experience dread and uncertainty? Was he worried about what was to come? He was God but he was also human and susceptible to human frailties. He got tired, he got hungry, he got angry. He worried?

The lesson I believe is how he and the others dealt with it. Yes, they worried but instead of succumbing to it they forged on ahead and overcame their fears in order to accomplish what God wanted them to. Paul became the greatest missionary ever known, Peter founded the Church we know today, Jesus went to the Cross and saved mankind. Their worries were temporary states of mind yet their achievements when they pressed on through are permanent and can never be taken away from them.

I’m a worrier. I was born one and I’ll probably die one. It’s the way I am. I can’t change that. But I can change how I handle my anxiety. Instead of crumbling under the strain and giving up I can persevere and get through it. I can pray for God not to remove the worry but to get me through it to the other side. Having faith means trusting God to guide you along the rocky paths, not removing them altogether. For the journey equips you with the attributes you require for when you get to where you are meant to be. And that’s where the real work starts.

What do you worry about?

How do you cope with worry?

Is it a sin to be a Christian and worry?

Awkward Conversations With People We Love

It’s the weekend and Rebecca and I are off to not so sunny Omagh to visit my dear old mother. We shall talk about the weather, soap operas and our various aches and pains. It’s what mothers and sons talk about isn’t it? Rebecca shall ask 34,575 questions on the way there and back. I shall answer approximately 8 of these and reply ‘I don’t know’ or ‘ask your mother’ to the remainder.

Mother will have prepared an extravagant lunch and insist that I eat everything placed in front of me or she will take offence. Have you ever seen that episode of ‘Father Ted’ where Mrs. Doyle insists that Ted takes a cup of tea? That’s Mother politely insisting that I take another chocolate biscuit and me politely declining because I’ve already eaten three and I’m fit to burst. Until I finally crumble and eat it. Anything for an easy life.

I only get to visit my mother about once a month although we do speak on the phone every evening. I make a real effort to maintain a relationship with her, especially since my father died eight years ago. She has lived a very quiet life since then having never really recovered from his loss. My sister and I have both tried to bring her out of her shell but she has stubbornly deflected all our best efforts.

Some evenings we have very little to talk about. She is a private person so feelings and emotions rarely break the surface. Some nights there is very little to talk about but I still make the effort. Often it is an exasperating monologue on my part with very little involvement on her part. Other times I can’t get her to stop talking. On occasion I’m tired and the last thing I want to do is make the call. I still do it anyway.

As mother-son relationships go ours is fine. It plods along. We love each other although we very rarely tell each other that we do. Heaven forbid! It is unspoken but it is known and no less stronger for that. I am blessed that I still have my mother. Every conversation we have is a gift, a bonus, an opportunity. Sometimes they feel like a chore, a duty, an obligation; but I never take them for granted because one day one of us will be gone and there will be no more talking.

I realised that when my father died. We also had a rocky relationship at times and there are many words I wished I had said to him before he left us. I hope he knows how I felt about him and what a positive and lasting impression his life has left upon mine. Often when I need to talk to Adam I wonder if what I say will impact upon his life and the choices he makes in the years to come. I pray that I speak wisely and guide him down the right paths.

Mothers Day has already passed in the U.K. but I realise that many of you further afield will be celebrating it this weekend. For those of you fortunate enough to still have your mothers with you make the most of this opportunity. Many of us, for a plethora of reasons, are unable to talk to our mothers or fathers this weekend no matter how badly we want to or how hard we have tried to. Some bridges cannot be crossed in death or life.

Our parents are not perfect but then neither are we. We are all human. And that means we are all flawed. So if you have to endure an awkward conversation with a parent or sibling this weekend just take a deep breath and get on with it. They are probably thinking exactly the same thought when they look at their phone and realise it’s you calling. Yet they will answer and make the effort just as you will. Through gritted, yet loving, teeth. Because that’s what we do.

Do you have awkward conversations with relatives?

Is there a relative you would give anything to talk to today?

Why Do You Write?

Why do I bother?

Why do I write?

Why do I struggle with words every night?

To convince all the wronged

The despised and forlorn

That they’re not alone and can survive the scorn.

So I’m penning a story

Of hope and redemption

I’m screaming it loud so I’ll get your attention.

You click and you like and you comment and follow

But have you considered why you feel so hollow?

So empty inside, so frayed at the seams.

Consumed by dark nightmares which once were bright dreams.

Your plight has been sanctioned

Left bitter and vanquished

And try as you might you’re all out of lost chances.

Friendships, romances all of them dead

You made this mess so best lie in your bed.

Your soul is in tatters

You’ve lost all that matters.

Dragged down rabbit holes, you’re the maddest of hatters.

But I’ve been where you are

I will show you my scars

I was dead in the gutter

But could still taste the stars.

Stripped bare but He cared

He reached down to me there

Grace cloaked my disgrace

From the whispers and stares.

So that’s why I write

I’ve recovered my sight

Scales fallen from eyes

To reveal truth and might.

Better times lie ahead

For the damned and the dead

Turn your back to the lies and embrace truth instead.

Why do you write?

I’m Writing A Book….Still

It’s been a quiet week on the novel writing front due to weddings, marathons and life in general. As ever this has raised my anxiety levels but I realise there are only so many hours in the day and I need to sleep at some point. I’m currently working on the final climactic chapters of the first draft which are largely action based and which draw all the main characters for the first time to the one location.

The word count is hovering at just over 100K and I reckon another 20K should do it. I just have to cram in a satisfying conclusion for Book 1 plus enough loose ends to tease the reader into Book 2. This is no easy task let me tell you. I have major decisions to make as I know not all of my main characters are going to see Book 2. Creating and maintaining tension whilst simultaneously remaining credible and ensuring consistency and continuity is a serious feat of mental juggling.

It’s sad putting so much effort into developing characters when you suddenly realise you have reached the end of the road with them. Such sacrifices, however, are necessary for the overall plot and structure. This is dark YA fantasy literature so everyone cannot happily sail off into the sunset much as I might like them to. The main characters are continually walking the paths of the dead and, inevitably, some will not make it to the other side.

Following the first draft the serious editing process begins. My fear is that I discover chapters I wrote some months ago are utterly rubbish and have to start all over again. I’m almost afraid to dip into them again. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve and am my own worst critic. I know, as an author, that constructive feedback is essential in order to develop and improve but the scared little boy inside of me is still terrified to take that step. Hopefully it will come with time and experience.

I also have a stack of research work to complete in respect of developing the back stories of several of the main characters. This will involve books on mental health, military history and a plethora of other topics. I warn you now. My characters are an eclectic bunch thrown together by circumstance from all corners of the globe and history onto the streets of modern day Belfast. There will be carnage and lots of it.

I’m currently preparing a review of a book by a well established, published author who contacted me after she read my blog and thought we had similar writing styles. I hope to post that in the next week or so but if any other published or unpublished writers would like me to review their work then please get in touch. I’m also checking out a site where unpublished writers can connect and share feedback and ideas.

As far as the blog itself, Fionnuala posted sneakily yesterday after we passed 5000 followers. I wanted to pass this milestone quietly but, as ever, she had different ideas. I would just like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who sent me such kind and thoughtful messages. I’m just me and very undeserving of them but thank you anyway. They have bolstered my confidence and motivated me to forge on with my writing and running.

As for future plans. Well you can expect posts on topics as diverse as the noble art of boiling an egg to the considerably less noble art of catfishing; more of my unique take on famous biblical stories; and news of my next marathon project which I hope to tackle during the summer months. Plus all of the usual crazy nonsense that incorporates our million mile an hour lives. Thank you again for your continued support.

Are you a published or unpublished author? Where are you at on your journey?

Would you read a dark fantasy adventure set in modern day Belfast with spiritual and historical themes as detailed above?

All feedback is much appreciated. Please post your comments below.

The Vultures Are Circling

Life can seem pretty perfect at times. Everything is trundling along just as it should be and we are enveloped in the comforting glow of permanent sunshine. We are in love and loved. We are healthy and bursting with positivity for the future. We have big plans and bigger dreams. Our family form a protective circle around us. Nobody is missing. Everything is as it should be.

Our friends are genuine, loyal and ever present. They are there for us, just as we are for them. They are selfless and attentive, responding to our needs and concerns as we do theirs. They are relationships based on trust and equality. There is no Judas in the room, no silent assassin the shadows waiting to lunge forward and slide a dagger of deceit between our ribs. Piercing organs, tasting death.

We are physically and mentally strong. We fear nothing. The demons within us are silent for they have been conquered and vanquished. Where once they were sovereign and many they are now scattered and few. They skulk in the shadows of our psyche, licking their wounds and dreaming of times when they wreaked havoc and rampaged through our consciousness, hellbent on destroying everything we held sacred.

We are confident and comfortable as we stand on the ramparts and look out across the plain. We see no dangers on the horizon, no dust clouds to indicate an approaching enemy. Our defences are high and strong. We raise our faces to the blue skies above and let the sun caress our skin. Yes, life is perfect. For we have made it that way through our blood, sweat and tears. We have built this sanctuary with our own hands. We deserve no less.

But suddenly something catches our attention high above. The tiniest of specks. Just the one…no wait…two….three. Silently circling our citadel of calm. Circling. Waiting. For the inevitable storm is coming. It could arrive in the dead of night when the phone rings unexpectedly. Or it may be more subtle and innocuous. An innocent text message, a conversation, a glance. That is when they will swoop from above.

When they do it will be sudden and brutal. They will take no prisoners and they will show no mercy. Their goal is a simple one – your complete and utter destruction. They will butcher everything and everyone you once held precious until the streets are awash with blood and the cries of the desperate are silenced. Then they will turn and laugh in your face. For you knew nothing after all. You are broken and beaten, your fortress lying in ruins around you.

Rain or shine, they are always there. Our hovering harbingers. Their eyes miss nothing, they are ever vigilant. Their patience is immeasurable. Waiting, always waiting. For the slightest chink in your armour, the tiniest gap in your defences. And when that first breach is made they will flood through with an unprecedented fury, slaying all those foolish enough to stand in their path.

So use these days wisely. When all around you seems serene never let your guard down. Never become complacent, never relax. For that is all they require. One lapse, one slip, one moment of madness. Then you will look to the skies above and watch helplessly as your carefully constructed world implodes around you. Their joy is your devastation. The vultures are coming….

How are your defences today? Do they require bolstering?

Are you aware of vultures circling above in your life?

Belfast Marathon 2018 – Recap

You’re probably all bored silly by my marathon exploits so I promise this will be the last one….for a while anyway. Fionnuala did a great job providing updates yesterday but that was nothing compared to the support that her and the kids offered at various points along the route. They must have covered a fair few miles themselves getting about and it was a logistical masterclass traversing Belfast on marathon day with three kids, one of whom was wreaking havoc in her motorised wheelchair.

Thankfully the day wasn’t as hot as predicted and running conditions were perfect. It was dry and mild with hardly any wind – I couldn’t have asked for much better. My original plan had been to set out with the 3:45 pacers and I started roughly 30 seconds after them thinking I could reel them in over the first few miles. Unfortunately I’m not sure what instructions they were given but they certainly weren’t running at 3:45 pace. I never got within touching distance as they steadily disappeared over the horizon.

Experience kicked in and I didn’t panic. I let them go, knowing that pursuing them would have been suicidal. I knew I was running well within my sub 4 hour target. As long as I stayed ahead of the 4 hour pacers I was fine. At Mile 7 I saw Fionnuala and the kids for the first time. Adam ran alongside me to hand over a tub of Vaseline as I had stupidly left mine in the car. Vaseline is a marathon runner’s best friend when it comes to chafing issues. I won’t horrify you with the gory details but it’s not a pretty sight let me tell you.

There then followed a number of hilly miles up into West Belfast and over into the north of the city. I hit a little blip at around Mile 10 when I saw ahead a hill I had completely forgotten existed. Two miles later I hit the Antrim Road, a three mile gradual ascent out of the city. This is a section of the race traditionally feared by runners but I was surprised at how strong I felt going up it. At halfway I checked my watch and knew I was well ahead of my target time.

At the top of the Antrim Road there follows a steep descent. I clicked my fastest mile of the race here – 7:59 no less. I made sure I took on fluids and gels at every opportunity as the number of walking wounded I passed increased with every mile. At Mile 17 you hit a towpath which takes you back along the side of Belfast Lough into the city. It’s a lonely section with no crowd support but I just kept telling myself to plod along as close to 9 minute mile pace as I could. I was still well ahead of schedule.

Miles 20 and 21 are through the Belfast Harbour Estate which again is a rather soulless experience. But then I was back in the city again and running through big crowds, along roads that I regularly cover during lunchtime training sessions. The towpath along the River Lagan is an old friend and I tried to convince myself that this was just another 7 mile training run. I was counting down the miles now as I swung onto the Ormeau Road where some of the largest crowds are gathered.

At Mile 23 I saw Team Black again. Adam appeared from nowhere to run alongside me with a handful of jelly beans. Rebecca then joined us and I could hear Fionnuala and Hannah cheering from the sidelines. It spurred me on as the next mile was a horrible ascent where I really started to struggle. It was my slowest mile of the race (9:42) but again I knew, barring an utter disaster, I was going to clock under 4 hours. I kept putting one foot ahead of the other and eventually reached the top of the road which then swung left and thankfully flattened out.

I was starting to relax and take in the atmosphere. The crowd support was fantastic. People at the roadside kept offering sweets, chocolates and drinks but I no longer needed them as I passed Mile 25. One final slight ascent and I turned left onto the Annadale Embankment. I could now see the finishing line to my left in Ormeau Park. At Mile 26 I saw the final turn into the park. Then it was just a matter of the finishing straight. People were calling my name but I had no idea who they were.

I crossed the line in 3:51:10, well within my 4 hour target. Fionnuala and the kids were waiting for me at the finish line where I collected my finishers medal and t-shirt. I was stiff and sore and had some impressive blisters but other than that felt fine. Saying that, the walk back to the car took more out of me than the marathon itself. The rest of the day consisted of a hot bath, lots of liquids and even more ice cream and cake. I want to again thank all my fellow bloggers for the support and encouragement they have given me along the way.

So that was Marathon number 8. Plans for number 9 are already underway *collective groan*.

The Night Before….

This time tomorrow I will have completed my eighth marathon. Today is all about resting as much as possible, loading up on pasta and getting an early night. The race starts at 9 a.m. tomorrow and the forecast is for a warm day. I’m glad it’s going to be dry but I’m wary of the heat. Even if it means slowing a little I’ll make sure to get plenty of fluids on board at the water stations.

My target is to run sub four hours and I’m planning to go out with the 3:45 pacers and stick with them for as long as possible. That will allow me a comfort cushion if I slow in the latter part of the race. I’ll post a review tomorrow. In the meantime any kind prayers or thoughts forwarded to Northern Ireland tonight will be gratefully received. See you all on the other side.

I’m Stephen. I’m Sober And Socially Awkward

My anxiety levels were fairly high yesterday morning as we set off to attend the wedding of Fionnuala’s brother, Gearard, to his fiancée, Emma. Ever since I gave up drinking five years ago I have struggled at social events, especially those where I have to interact with people I don’t know. Alcohol was my crutch to get through these occasions. I was always the first person to get drunk and usually ended up sleeping in the corner just as the party was getting going.

My strategy yesterday was to keep busy and ensure Fionnuala and the kids had a great day. Hannah had to be a bridesmaid and the other three all had roles during the church service. All I had to do was turn up in a suit and not embarrass my daughters with my ‘dad dancing.’ I had been well warned beforehand. The second I started busting out my moves was the second I would be forcibly evicted from the venue.

I spent the morning performing taxi duties ferrying Fionnuala, the girls and my beloved mother in law to and from various hair and beauty salons. I also paid a visit to the florists to collect button holes as well as ferrying the worryingly relaxed groom from his house to where the car would be coming to convey him to the chapel. Some of the men had a beer beforehand but I stuck to the Diet Coke.

The service ran smoothly. The bride turned up five minutes early. Hannah looked amazing and performed her role perfectly while a bird flew around the rafters of the chapel for the entire service leading the priest to comment that the Holy Spirit was well and truly in the building. The weather was mild and dry which is basically all you can ask for in the land of driving rain and bitter cold.

When we arrived at the reception venue there was iced beer and sparkling wine on the patio overlooking the lawns. This would have been the beginning of the end for the old Stephen as I would have enthusiastically launched myself into the complimentary alcohol. I would have been drunk well before the meal and speeches and no doubt making a total fool of myself in the process. Weddings were always a disaster for me in that respect.

I had no internal shut-off mechanism when I drank. I was a binge drinker and would consume as much beer as I could as quickly as I could. My sole objective was to get inebriated as this killed my innate shyness and social awkwardness. I thought I was the life and soul of the party when in reality I was the talk of the party. And for all the wrong reasons. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Even worse was the sight of me the next day. Horribly hungover and gripped by self pity and a fear as to what I had said or done the previous day.

Today, however, I woke with a clear head. Tired, yes, but still able to run 10K, my final training run before the Belfast Marathon. I was out of my comfort zone yesterday. I’m not very good at small talk and feel uncomfortable around people drinking alcohol. The temptation is no longer there but it brings back a lot of bad memories. I did my best, however, to get into the party mood and, most of all, ensure that Fionnuala and the kids had a great day.

In the end they did. And so did I. The meal was great and the speeches entertaining. I even got a mention in the groom’s speech. Afterwards there was cake, a magician and Star Wars figures. Well it was May the Fourth after all. Hannah even allowed me on the dance floor to shake my thang towards the end of the night. There is video evidence of my shape throwing somewhere on Facebook apparently. We didn’t get home until almost two in the morning. A great day.

Who needs alcohol?

Are you socially awkward? How do you deal with it?

Hobbits, Dinosaurs And Gnashing Of Teeth – My Study Of The Book Of Job

A while back I posted a blog about my struggles with the Bible entitled I’m A Christian But I Don’t Read The Bible. It engendered an amazing response and it was a great comfort to learn that I was not the only person with difficulties in this spiritual area. What it also did was encourage me to pick up my dusty Bible and try again. Obviously I needed to break myself in gently again so I chose a book that would allow me to ease back in to scriptural life.

So I started on Job….

Oh Job, where do I begin. Not only is it one of the longest books in the Bible, it’s also one of the most frustrating and impenetrable. For those of you who haven’t endured (I mean basked in its glory) here’s a potted synopsis.

So Job is the richest man in the Old Testament. He has it all. A large, loving family who appear to all get on with each other. Unheard of I know! More livestock than a Texan rancher. Plus he’s Gods main man. Wise, faithful and apparently without blemish. He has it all. Until one day Satan (hiss! boo!) challenges God. Let me have a pop at Job and we’ll see what a goody two shoes he is. I’ll have him cursing your name faster than you can saddle a camel.

I’m not sure how long it takes to saddle a camel but just go with me on this one.

God agrees, like obviously, and before long Job is beset with all sorts of tragedies. His family and livestock are all wiped out in a series of highly suspicious enemy raids and natural disasters. Except for his nagging wife. Hmmmm. Is she in on the act? Job reacts like any Old Testament character having a bad day would. Teeth are gnashed, robes are torn and the wailing commences. Pretty standard really.

Job’s three best mates then roll into town. One of them is called Bildad which sounds a bit like Bilbo so I’ve always imagined him as a hobbit. Smoking a pipe and with big, hairy feet. At first they do nothing. Literally nothing. For a week they all sit around and do nothing but watch Job wailing and gnashing. It must have been totally awkward. Have they never heard of small talk to break the ice. Funny weather we’re having? Err…maybe not. How are the kids? Nope….not that one either.

Anyway…..

Eventually they do. Start talking that it is. And how we wish they hadn’t. There then follows thirty odd chapters of them berating poor old Job. As if he hasn’t enough to deal with he also has the worst friends. Ever. The gist of it is that God wouldn’t have allowed this for no reason. Mr. Perfect Pants Job must have some pretty sordid skeletons lurking in his closet, some grisly secrets that have led to him getting his comeuppance. They’re kind of gloating and how Job resisted slapping them in the face I’ll never know.

That’s the patience of Job I guess.

To be fair he gives as good as he gets. It’s handbags at dawn as he argues his case and bemoans how God could have treated such an all round good guy like him in such an unfair fashion. It’s a pity party par excellence. Seriously this guy would have given David a run for his money in the complaining stakes. If God had allowed Job to write the psalms I reckon the Bible would have ended up twice as long.

That’s the impatience of Job I guess.

Another bloke turns up whose name I can’t remember off the top of my head. It begins with an ‘E’. But he’s definitely not a hobbit. He has a pop at Job as well until eventually God gets fed up with the lot of them and intervenes. Finally! This is when Job is reminded who the boss is and how clueless he really is about life, the universe and everything. The Almighty gives him a large piece of his omnipotent and omniscient mind. Job and his buddies are well and truly put in their respective boxes.

God takes them on a crash course of creation, reminding them that they haven’t a leg to stand on when it comes to questioning his authority and plans for the cosmos. He basically tells them to zip it, concluding with incredible accounts of Behemoth and Leviathan, fantastic creatures which he brought into existence. There has been much debate as to what these creatures may have been. Hippos? Crocodiles?

When I read it all I could think of was a brontosaurus (behemoth) and fire breathing dragon (leviathan). The Book of Job had moved from Middle Earth to Westeros in my mind….via Jurassic Park. In the end Job holds his hands up to God and concludes You’re right God. I’ve no right to question you. You know best and I’m just going to have to trust you on this one’. For his resilience God rewards him by doubling what he had before with regards his by doubling children and livestock.

And they all lived happily ever after….

Job left me bewildered and baffled at times but it also reignited my love of interpreting Bible stories. It has also inspired me to write a series of posts over the next few weeks focusing on themes I have touched upon in the above paragraphs; themes such as friendship, forgiveness and suffering. Not to mention the hobbits and dinosaurs. I hope, believer or not, you get something from the series. It might make you think, I might make you smile or it might annoy you so much you never read another post of mine. Let’s find out shall we?

What do you think the Behemoth and Leviathan were?

Have you ever had friends as useless as Job?

I’m Broken. Are You?

I’m broken.

There I’ve said it. I’m in bits. And you know what. I’ve never felt so good. Why you may ask? Have you finally lost the plot, Stephen, and floated off to the land of fairies and pixie dust? Possibly but let me explain. Then if you still think I’ve lost my senses I’ll quite happily wait for the men in white coats to come and cart me off the nearest secure facility. Deal? Great. Then I’ll proceed.

For many years I thought I was the Big ‘I am’. I knew best and anyone who thought otherwise was a clueless fool who didn’t deserve my attention. I knew best when it came to my work/life balance. I knew best when it came to my mental health. I knew best when it came to my alcohol consumption. I knew best when it came to my addictive and inappropriate behaviour. I knew best.

Then one day I realised that I didn’t, that in fact I knew nothing. I knew nothing about the needs of my loved ones. I knew nothing of the hurt I had caused them. I knew nothing of the long term damage I was causing myself and others. I knew nothing of the depths I had sank to in my endless pursuit of the next high, the next thrill, the next rush. Anything to fill the ragged, gaping hole inside of me that, try as I might, I could not breach.

Realising that you are in fact clueless as to how you have been leading your life is a sobering thought. Some refer to it as the end of the road, others rock bottom. Either way, most regard it as a dark place from which there is no return. Where you lie shattered and twisted, beyond redemption. Brokenness is seen as the end, a failure that irrevocably defines you. It is the end. I disagree. I view brokenness as the beginning.

The best thing about hitting rock bottom is that you can’t go any lower. Impact is preferable to continued free fall. It is liberating as it instigates a change that you must accept. Brokenness makes us face the reality of who we are. We can no longer hide in a world of fantasy and lies. We have no option but to take a long, hard look at ourselves in the cold light of day. We might not like what we see but it is the truth. And the truth is the key that will set us free.

When you are broken you are forced to choose a path. You can lie there in a mangled heap at the bottom of your pit of pity or you can rebuild. Brokenness offers hope, a new start and a new way. Less than two years ago I lay broken. Mentally and spiritually. I chose to rebuild. I started to glue the pieces back together again. A slow, painful process for all concerned but a process all the same.

The glue can be whatever you need it to be. For me it was my family and fractured faith. They were my therapy. They led me to this blog where I chose to bare my soul on a regular basis. A risk I know but one I was prepared to take, one I needed to take. A safe place where I could lick my wounds and breathe again. A place where I discovered a community of equally broken souls. Trying to find their way back to the light.

There is beauty in our brokenness. The cracks expose our old, toxic selves and allow the bitter bile of our past lives to seep away, drop by drop. Brokenness purges and cleanses us. It allows the light to flood in and reveal who we really are. And if we choose not to flinch and look away we can see our real selves waiting to be reborn and rise from the mess that was. Ready to start again. Broken yet yearning to be whole again.

I was broken but I strive to be whole again. This blog is part of that journey. It will be a year old in a couple of weeks and is just one of the steps on the ladder I have climbed to emerge from the dark abyss where I once lay bruised and bleeding. If you are lying in that same abyss today facing a similar fate know this – it is an opportunity to rebuild. You can go no lower. Seize that first rung and start to haul yourself back to the life you were born to live.

Brokenness is a gift. Take it. Unwrap it. Use it. Today.

I’m broken. Are you?

I’m A Christian But I Don’t Do Hugs

Every night before the girls go to bed we perform the same routine where they kiss us and tell Fionnuala and myself ‘Night Night. Love you. See you in the morning’. We hug them and repeat the same words back to them. It’s a nightly tradition that I hope never ends. We are lucky if we get a grunt out of Adam but he’s a fifteen year old boy who doesn’t ‘do’ emotion. Unless it involves a rugby ball.

Fionnuala and I are not a touchy feely couple. You know the cringeworthy types who invoke eye rolling and ‘get a room’ asides from us as they stick their tongues down each other’s throats at the first available opportunity in public displays of their undying love for one another. Until they split up three months later in the messiest manner possible on Facebook allowing the rest of us to feel very smug and shoot one another ‘I told you so’ looks.

We love each other and are secure in the knowledge of that. We don’t need to ram it down other people’s throats (pardon the pun) every time we step out the front door. Neither of us come from ‘hugging’ backgrounds. Unless hugging our siblings by the throat counts. Our families just don’t do open displays of affection. It doesn’t mean we love each other any less than families that do. It’s just not us.

Imagine our horror then when we became Christians and realised that many of said community loved nothing more than hugging it out at the drop of a hat. It didn’t matter if they had known you for thirty seconds or thirty years you were enveloped in a totally unreciprocated bear hug that always seemed to last an eternity. I would stand there awkwardly, both arms the same length, saying my first, heartfelt prayer of the day.

Please God. Make it stop. Now.

I have been known to enter churches by the side entrance to avoid roaming welcome teams hellbent on refusing you admission unless you get your hug on. I’ve felt like a NFL running back trying to jink through a gap in their defensive line and high step it down the aisle to the end zone that is our regular seat. The service itself offers a blessed reprieve but the mayhem commences again afterwards over tea and coffee. They are everywhere and they will stop at nothing. Nothing I tell you.

Only to be outdone by high fiving, guitar wielding youth leaders the hugging mafia know nothing of social boundaries or awkwardness. Because God loves hugging. The Old Testament is full of it right? My anxiety levels rise. If (and it’s a big if) I get to heaven and stand before Jesus will he be offended if I offer him a firm handshake as opposed to a WWE stylee rib crusher that will have me tapping out within seconds.

I break out in a cold sweat when I think of an eternity of unnecessary physical contact and really average worship music. Will there be a separate heaven for Flyleaf and Nirvana fans where we can all nod at each other and avoid eye contact where possible? Where it’s okay to feel a bit fed up now and again and not have to walk around with a permanently plastered on rictus grin a la The Joker.

I hope Jesus can accommodate me. I love him and I want nothing more than to learn his ways and become more like him. But I’m me and that unfortunately involves sarcasm, grumpiness and the very occasional expletive. I blame him. He made me like this but I’m certain he did so for a perfectly valid reason. Im not sure why but hope one day he will sit me down and explain it all in words of three syllables or less.

So that when he does and the recognition finally dawns on my face I can smile and realise that he was right all along. Who knows….I might even give him a hug 😉

Are you a hugger? Or do you squirm from their grasps and run screaming for the exit?

Will Heaven be a hug free zone for you?

Embracing Anxiety

Today is the day of my last long run before the Belfast Marathon in just over two weeks time. I’ve worked out my route and hydration strategy; I’ve decided what gear I’m going to wear; the weather is dry and mild. Now it is just a matter of going out and doing it. I know I’m capable of it as I’ve completed such distances many times before. Yet as I type these words I feel nervous and worried.

Why? I have no idea. It’s just me. I am a natural born worrier. If I didn’t have something to worry about then I would be worried. The only way to overcome the anxiety is to confront the problem and dive headlong into it. I know that once I get a few miles into the run I will be fine. All feelings of self doubt will disappear and my confidence will soar. I will actually start to enjoy the experience and wonder why I got so worked up in the first place.

It is the same with every aspect of my life be it family or work matters. Before every important event or meeting my worry levels rise to a crescendo before melting away the minute said event or meeting commence. You would think that decades of experience would teach me that worrying was counterproductive and pointless but every time the old routine kicks in and my own personal Groundhog Day is repeated.

Our bodies and minds are constantly battling chains and shackles that delight in tying us up in knots and denying us from becoming the people that we were created to be. We are at A but we are destined to be at Z. How do we get there? By overcoming the hurdles and barriers that ourselves and others place in our paths to deny us our destinies. It can be a person, an event or situation, an illness or addiction.

Whatever it is, it is strong and relentless. And if you allow it to it will suffocate your dreams and snuff out your potential. It will win if you allow it to. Somehow, and from somewhere, you have to find the courage and conviction to overcome it. You need to stand tall, look it in the eye and tell it NO! No, you won’t let it win. No, you are not going to give up this time. And no, the cycle of submission is not going to be repeated.

I won’t sugarcoat it for you. It will not be easy. After 21 miles today my body will be tired and aching. But the feeling of achievement and satisfaction will far outweigh any temporary physical or mental discomfort. The worry and anxiety will have been left far behind on the road along with the negative thoughts and doubts. You will have broken free. And breaking free is a form of rebirth. You have become a stronger, braver version of you.

If you are reading this today and experiencing the doubt and fears I have described I would encourage you to lace up your metaphorical running shoes and run straight at that problem or situation that is weighing so heavily upon you. We can’t run away from our problems but we can run towards them and through them. Eventually you will emerge on the other side. Where you are meant to be. Battered and bruised possibly. But alive. And free.

Change is painful. Change is frightening. But in order to improve we need to embrace it. In order to become better people we need to become better at dealing with change. Anxiety and worry magnify the fear of change to the extent where we cower away from it. Today is the day to stop cowering. Face it. Embrace it. I’m away for my run and I’ll see you on the other side. Who’s with me?

Are you shackled by worry and anxiety? How do you deal with it?

What aspects of your life would you like to change?

Tell Them

I have had a crazy week work wise which meant I wasn’t able to post yesterday. But fear not, I’m back and normal service is resumed. However I’m very tired so don’t be expecting a Dickensian masterpiece today. More low expectations than great. Sorry, that was a terrible play on words. Let’s just forget I ever mentioned it and move on to the next paragraph ok? Great.

Without going into the nature of my work I had to deal with a number of sudden deaths during the week. They were all equally unexpected, sudden and in tragic circumstances. One second these people were there and the next they were not. No opportunity for loved ones to say goodbye to them, no chance of righting wrongs or seeking forgiveness. They just ceased to exist. Snuffed out in an instance.

I am trained to deal with these incidents in a professional and empathetic manner, as are my colleagues. It is distressing but necessary work. We arrive and we do what we have to do as discreetly and sensitively as possible. It does leave its mark though. I saw sights this week that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. But I’m alright. My employers will offer me trauma counselling (which I won’t avail of) and I will go home to my family.

It is my job. I get paid a significant amount of money to do it. I move on to the next week and the next incident and the world keeps turning. Well my world does anyway. For those families and friends left behind it does not. It comes to a jolting, juddering stop. And for some it never starts again. The colour is drained out of their lives never to return. They don’t move on because moving on suggests forgetting and they never want to.

Why? Because the memories are all they have that’s why. So they cling to them like a drowning man would cling to a piece of floating wreckage. It is all that there is between them slipping away into the nothingness of grief and despair. Memories are fickle, flighty friends. The good ones can provide comfort and solace but the not so good ones can flutter endlessly around your mind like a belligerent bat.

Why didn’t I ask them for forgiveness? Why didn’t I forgive them? Why didn’t I say no? Why didn’t I say yes? Why didn’t I stop them? Why didn’t I let them go? Why didn’t I say that? Why did I say that? The list could go on forever but I’m sure you get my drift. Why? Why? Why? Those unanswered questions that snag beneath our skin and gouge away at our flesh the more we twist and turn in an effort to dislodge them.

Think of the people you love most in the world. Think about when you last saw or spoke to them. Now imagine that you never saw or spoke to them again; and think about the regrets you would have, think about all those unanswered questions that would start to slowly settle on your mental landscape like ash from a volcano which for ages lay dormant but is now ready to erupt again with unrivalled fury.

Think of that and then seek them out. Now. Today. Tell them you love them. Tell them you’re sorry. Tell them they’re better at handstands than you. Tell them whatever has been sitting on your heart but needs to be spoken aloud. Because tomorrow it might be too late. And you will be left alone with only your memories to accompany you into the beyond.

Do you need to tell a loved one something today?

Don’t Be A Parachute Pal

I am writing staff performance reviews at present where I assess whether or not the members of the team I manage have met their objectives for the previous year. Thankfully as I am such a fantastic manager and they are such a fantastic team I can hand on heart write that they all have. No need for bribes, inducements or back handers. It’s the truth!

One of the key performance areas are strong communication skills; with other members of the team, the wider organisation and external stakeholders. This relates to both verbal and written communications. Active listening skills are always essential as effective communication is a two way street. Ha! You would almost think I was copying this out of a leadership manual. Which of course I’m not.

Solid communication skills also form the base of any successful relationship. Let me give you an example. Fionnuala shouts at me when I do something wrong. I listen (actively), apologise (profusely) and make amends (hurriedly). Sorted! Everyone’s a winner. Twenty two years together and the old methods are still the best methods. She’s right. I’m wrong. The end.

But seriously….

Every relationship or friendship requires give and take on both sides. The best friendships should be equal and centred upon mutual respect and selflessness. The best friends are those who would drop everything for you at the most inconvenient moment. They are there for you no matter what. They are a consistent and immovable part of your life. They stick around.

Over the last few years Fionnuala and I have come to realise this. Real friends are there no matter how stormy the waters are. They put your needs before their own. They hang around after the party is over and it’s time to clean up the mess. We have realised another thing as well – there are not many of these people in today’s self centred world.

We have lost countless fair weather friends over the last couple of years. We have been snubbed, rejected and ignored. The last kind is particularly hard to stomach. Calls aren’t returned, WhatsApp messages are read (two blue ticks! two blue ticks!!) but not replied to and efforts to resurrect relationships fall on deaf ears and dry ground.

Then there are those who want the friendship to continue but on their terms. So they will ignore you for six months and then parachute into your life like visiting nobility, honouring you with their presence. There is always an ulterior motive for these unannounced arrivals. You may never discover what that agenda is but you can be certain that your interests are not at its heart.

Be grateful for the real friends, the true friends. They are more precious than rubies. Identify them and cherish them. Work hard at protecting and nourishing them. For one day they might be all you have. You will cling to them for all you are worth. Just like they might cling to you. Reflect that mirror of love and trust right back at them.

They need you just as much as you need them. So don’t be a fair weather friend, a parachute pal. Stand up and be counted. On the rainy days as well as the sunny ones. Such friendships are few and far between and when they are gone they are gone forever. I realise that with a heavy heart. Loneliness is a constant threat. Don’t fall prey to its icy embrace.

Have you ever been frozen out of a friendship?

What are your experiences of fair weather friends and parachute pals?

What’s Your Favourite Bible Story?

Normal service will be resumed on the blog tomorrow. Or as normal as this blog will ever be. My last question this weekend is for everyone; believers and non believers alike. I’ve been struggling to read my Bible of late yet I like to think I have a fairly good knowledge of it. From a very early age I attended Sunday School and was taught the stories of the Old and New Testaments. In Northern Ireland most kids from my background go through this process. Meaning that when they grow up most people, even if they haven’t a spiritual bone in their body, will know their Bible stories.

Fionnuala’s is the story of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit descended on The Apostles, while Rebecca’s is Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Adam had to rack his brains for a bit but eventually plumped for the adulterous woman who Jesus saved from being stoned. Interesting choice for a fifteen year old boy. Hannah chose the story of the disabled man who Jesus healed after his friends lowered him through a hole in the roof. I didn’t ask Charlie because he’s a dog. And dogs can’t talk. I tend to focus more on characters than stories but I’ve always been drawn to the stories of David and his Mighty Men. They kicked serious backside.

I’m slowly coming round to Bible study and prayer again. I love to study the history, culture and politics of the period. I’m also interested in other faiths. Some are interesting while others I view with concern and trepidation. Where I struggle is with man made religion and misinterpretation of the ancient truths which he has taken and distorted to meet his own needs. I don’t have a problem with Jesus who taught love, faith and hope. My problem is with so many of his followers and the churches who fail to practice what he preached. I’m a work in progress. I guess we all are.

What’s your favourite Bible story and why?

What Bloggers Would You Invite To Dinner And Why?

I’ve posted some heavy duty stuff in recent days so thought I would lighten matters up somewhat. The weekend is just around the corner and sometimes us bloggers take life just a little too seriously. I know I’m the worst offender. So to kick off ‘Fun Friday’ *cringe* I thought I’d pose you a few questions.

I’ll probably be Mr. Miserable again by Monday so make the most of it 😂

If you were to host a dinner party what three bloggers would you invite and why?

Feel free to post the links to their blogs in the comments section below.

For It Was Written Long Before You

I wear my heart upon my sleeve. Pick at the stitches, watch it bleed. I thought it contained all my needs. Yet I was wrong, so wrong and now. I watch the scarlet droplets one by one. Communion wine upon my tongue. The acrid fumes they fill my lungs. And I am done.

I’m done with all the hollow words. I’m done with following the herd. The vacuous nothingness I yearned. The chances spurned, the bridges burned. Scorched earth and ashes fill my urn. Fresh lashes tear my skin and burn. Hard lessons learned.

I spurned fresh opportunities galore. So I could gorge myself on more. The score was settled long ago. But on I forged, ablaze with sin. Oblivious to the deafening din. Of voices old and voices new. Imploring me to start afresh. To step out of my stinking mess.

I wore my heart upon my sleeve. You watched me grieve in silence though. I started high yet finished low. The perfect storm, I can’t conform. I am the eye, the sickening still. Imploring you to heed my will. You watched me from that bloody hill.

I was a sick man, not a slick man. A blinded patient with no patience. Demented by fermented juices, hanging over, dry and useless. Dreaming of those silken nooses. Choking on my wordless mucus. Intervention, not attention saved me; days too dark to mention.

The light it came, I sought it not. I’m standing at a desolate plot. You can be proud of me again. I kicked my habits to the flames. They burn and squirm and beg for mercy. Silently I take their curses. Turn my eyes to ancient verses. Holy words from empty churches.

I tear my heart from off my sleeve. I empty it of fear and greed. And fill it with these words of glory. Dripping from that Cross so gory. Wisdom etched in ancient stories. For it was written long before you. Words of love sent to restore you.

My Big Fat Irish Black Toenail

Half Marathons are great fun. You pay the organisers £27 for the privilege of running for nearly two hours whereupon you end up a big, aching, sweaty mess. At the end you queue ten minutes with hundreds of other aching, sweaty messes for a banana, chocolate bar and bottle of orange juice. I’m off chocolate at the minute so I took that home for Fionnuala. You also get an (admittedly) pretty cool medal and T-Shirt. That fits like a Small even though I ordered a Large.

I woke up the following morning to discover that I had obtained another race memento. A black toenail. The big toe on my left foot to be precise. Don’t worry. I’m not going to post a photo of said toe as I fear that would be a bridge too far for many of you. Suffice to say it’s not a pretty sight. Just one of the many perks of being a decidedly average distance runner. Along with blisters, stress fractures and plantar fasciitis. Don’t know what the last one is? Google it. Or look it up in the dictionary under ‘Agony’.

It’s not painful but strangely fascinating in a hypnotic kind of way. It has a mesmeric quality that enthrals and repulses in equal measure. I reckon I could have snagged a role as an extra in ‘The Greatest Showman’ along with Wolverine, Troy Bolton and that lady with the beard. Apart from the fact that I can’t sing. Or act. Trifling details I know but anyway. Had I sustained this injury around Halloween I reckon I would have been a massive hit with the local trick and treating community. Yup, I would have been pulling them in from miles around. Roll up! Roll up! See the man with the blackest toenail in Ireland. Vomit inducing guaranteed or your money back.

Bruises are par for the course when it comes to running, or any physical activity. We pick them up as we traipse through life and wear them like an external purple badge of honour before they go that horrible yellowy-green colour and then fade away. Some are bigger than others, some last longer than others but even the most gruesome one should eventually disappear. They are a temporary phenomenon and if we are just patient enough the body will do what it does best – heal itself.

It’s a shame the same can’t be said for bruised hearts and souls. We accumulate them just as easily as we travel through life. They aren’t as visible though and we hide them away rather than admit we are hurting and in need of help. We hope they will fade away in time and some do. But others are so deep that we carry them around for life, damaged and broken, unable to cope with what has happened and unwilling to reach out for aid. These invisible bruises are uglier than any busted toenail and the ripples of repercussion emanating from them can echo through lives and generations.

Every day I read about fellow bloggers who are nursing these invisible bruises. WordPress is the one safe place where they can reveal their wounds to the world. Many choose anonymity as they are still too raw and painful to publicise. We are all damaged goods. Damaged by others. Damaged by ourselves. Damaged by the random awfulness of life. Addiction, Depression, Anxiety, Physical Disability and Illness, Bereavement, the list is endless. Suicidal thoughts and images of self harm. They haunt my timeline and scar my thoughts. They impact me deeply.

Fionnuala and I want to remind you that you are not alone. We started this blog in order to reach out and help others. We are all broken but we are not beyond repair. Healing is possible. If you feel the need the talk then please do – we have a private e-mail which you can access via the ‘contact’ or ‘prayer request’ tabs on the blog site. Please use it. Some of my posts have been quite negative of late. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I want you to see my bruises as I know no other way to write. So I rant and I rave but it’s only because I care.

I’m going to post a poem later *collective groan* titled ‘Bruises’ but until then know that you are not alone. Not as long as this blog exists.

The Day I Woke Up

Fionnuala here sorry I’ve been very quiet lately I have been really busy with a new business venture I’ve started doing.

As most of you know I am a stay at home mum I spend my days making sure washing is done, clothes are ironed, tummy’s are full, cupboards, fridges and freezers are fully stocked for my hungry husband and children and everyday has it’s new drama for me to resolve.

The last few months have been very tough for me for different reasons and I could feel myself falling deeper and deeper into a darkness of depression. I knew there was two things I could do either sit on the sofa and let the darkness take over or fight get up off my butt and do something about it. I had a good talk with Stephen and a good cry (which always helps me) and I felt a little brighter.

Then about 6 weeks ago I woke up early on the Sunday and had this amazing idea to start making craft items and sell them at Craft Fairs I love making things so this made so much sense I couldn’t believe I’d never thought of it before. When Stephen came downstairs I was buzzing with excitement and told him my plans only for him to pipe up “I’ve been telling you to do this for years” – I must not have been listening! That afternoon I headed up to Belfast with the girls and we bought lots of stuff to get me started. Stephen came up with my business name Rehanna Crafts which is a mix of our two daughters names Rebecca and Hannah’s.

That morning as I woke up from my sleep I felt as if a light switch was turned on flooding the darkness in my head with light and I could think and see things more clearer. In life it’s so easy to let things take over and distract you from what you could be doing. For me it was letting other people’s behaviour and problems overshadow me and my family’s needs.

If you feel like you are surrounded by darkness like there is no way out then please go and talk to someone, do something, anything that will get you outside of your head.

What did you use to love to do that you haven’t done in a long time?

Today is a new day a new beginning.

Today you are going to let your light shine.

This blog post has went off in a different direction I hadn’t planned to share that with you I had planned to post some of my Crafts with you all but looks like someone else is controlling my thoughts this morning 😊

Below are some of my Crafts I have made if you would like to see some more have a look at my Facebook page Rehanna Crafts

I’m A Christian But I Intensely Dislike (But Don’t Hate) People

Sorry about the cumbersome title but I know ‘us lot’ aren’t allowed to hate people because Jesus says we shouldn’t; even though God spent most of the Old Testament laying down fire from above on anyone who looked at the Israelites the wrong way. Jesus is right of course but then Jesus is always right. So us Christians must turn the other cheek (ouch), love our neighbour (have you met my neighbour?!?!) and carpet forgive even the most heinous of acts. Hands up who does that on a 24/7/365 basis?

Hmmmmm….thought not.

Of course there will be a smattering of raised arms from the ‘Stepford Wives & Husbands’ Brigade who you see glamming it up with their perfect 2.4 children (boy named after obscure Old Testament minor prophet, girl called Grace, not sure about the .4) at a evangelical ‘super’ church near you every Sunday. They love everyone and will tell you that while nodding enthusiastically; fixed, rictus grins plastered to their faces. Until they ignore you in the supermarket the following Wednesday or when they cut you up in their Audi at the school gates without a second thought.

The rest of us will shuffle uneasily and stare at the ground, myself included. Which annoys me because I truly get forgiveness. I like liking people. I don’t want to have enemies just as much as I don’t want my head full of these negative thoughts towards certain individuals. Feeling angry, resentful and vindictive all the time is just so exhausting. It genuinely eats you up and casts a dank cloud over your days which relentlessly follows you around and refuses to budge. I hate blazing arguments and cold, unending silences. I’m the one who apologises even when I know I was in the right just so as to make the peace again.

All very good in theory but then why can’t I practice what I preach. I ran a half marathon yesterday where 3,500 people took part. How many did I speak to during the event? None. That’s right zero, nada, zilch. I skulked in my car before the start and then scuttled off as fast as my aching legs would allow me once I’d lurched over the finish line. In previous years I would have been part of a group who would have travelled down, ran together and then taken lots of selfies afterwards which I would have plastered over Instagram. Just to let people know what a great, popular guy I was.

Those days are long gone. I’m a lone wolf runner now. And not in the enigmatic, Forrest Gump stylee. More in the socially awkward, avoid fellow runners at all costs stylee. If such a stylee exists. While hiding in my car yesterday before the start I messaged Fionnuala to say I had never felt as out of place. Her reply was typically to the point. ‘You’re a runner. You’re about to race. How can you feel out of place? You’ve as much right to be there as anyone else. Stop beating yourself up.’ She’s good like that and it was just what I needed to get my sorry backside out of the car and to the start line.

Saying that I still hid behind a tree right up until the starters klaxon sounded before slipping anonymously into the shuffling herd as they commenced their 13.1 mile odyssey. This post was meant to be about said odyssey but nobody wants to read another running post. They even bore me at times. Runners are geeks. A modern day phenomenon who, if they had been around in the 1980’s, would probably have been playing Dungeons Dragons, spending their weekends rolling 20 sided dice and pretending to be Level 12 paladin knights called Lucius the Avenger.

Rumours that I was in my school’s Dungeons & Dragons Society are totally unfounded and will be strongly contested….

The one observation I will make about the race is that after about a mile a guy I used to be very friendly with passed me. He didn’t see me but I certainly saw him. We ended our friendship on bad terms and as he passed I could feel the waves of anger, resentment and intense dislike (but not hatred) rolling off me towards him. He probably hadn’t spared a thought towards me since we parted company over a year ago yet I still allow myself to be affected so adversely. By him and others. Which filters throughout so many other areas of my life. Outside of my immediate family I trust nobody, I struggle massively to make new friends, I haven’t been to church in over four months and am highly demotivated at my work. What gives God?

I get the theory so please don’t bombard me with lots of well meaning Scripture. I just want to hear from others about their experiences. Christians and non-Christians alike. I’ll even accept comments from the ‘Stepford’ community although of course nobody will own up to membership and they’re probably tied up with Sunday School or a cake sale in any event. Do these feelings bubble up within you? How do you deal with them? Are there particular people who press your button no matter how hard you fight the red mist? How do you move past these feelings? For I’m a bit stuck on this one if I’m honest.

What Is Your Worst Habit?

Fionnuala often affectionately tells me (at least I hope it is affectionate. Can you be affectionate and annoyed at the same time?) that if there is an awkward way to do something then I will find it. Take Lent for example. My sincere intention to refrain from biscuits, chocolate and crisps lasted all of…oh….let me see now….around 4 minutes. I displayed all the willpower of an anaemic gnat before I went snuffling off to the cupboard in search of sugary sustenance.

My ‘problem’ reached new heights (or depths depending on your perspective) over Easter itself when I devoured anything remotely unhealthy within arms reach. My eating Everest was a huge (as in HUGE) Cadbury’s chocolate Fruit & Nut egg which Fionnuala bought me as otherwise I would probably have sulked when the kids got their eggs. Or stolen them. So it’s my wife’s fault really. She forced me to cram every last chunk of it into my greedy gullet. I’m the innocent party in all of this don’t you see? Don’t you??

A chocolate egg. With raisins in it! And nuts!! What evil genius created this delicious delight. I was powerless in its grasp. Fast forward to the following morning and I woke up with a momentous food hangover. I felt nauseous, sluggish and very, very guilty. I’m a binge eater and with my running I can largely get away with it. I don’t put on much weight and if I do I tend to lose it fairly quickly again. Yet that morning I felt rubbish and resolved I was going to eat healthily between now and the marathon in just over a months time.

That’s right. I’m giving up chocolate…..after Lent!

It’s back to front thinking of the highest order but that’s the beauty of life. You can make a decision to change at any time and contrary to popular belief it doesn’t just have to be on 1st January. I’ve had more than my fair share of bad habits down the years. I’ve successfully knocked some on the head while others have proven more difficult to shake off. I would include a chronic Diet Coke problem, nail biting (just fingers, not toes) and binge eating in the latter category. Fionnuala has also mentioned my talking and breathing at times but I’m pretty certain this was in the heat of the moment and she didn’t really mean it.

I am proud that these bad habits are relatively minor in the greater scheme of things and that the bigger demons I have slain have far outweighed them in terms of significance. I also contend that my good habits now outnumber the not so good ones. It’s all part of the process of trying to become a better human being as you battle through life. You mess up, you learn from it and you resolve to do better the next time. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying. The day you stop doing that is the day you might as well throw them towel in.

So I have a challenge for you all. I’m off all the aforementioned junk food until 7th May. I want YOU to join me. What bad habit are you willing to kick into touch for the next month and possibly beyond? Comment below and we can create an online accountability network. If it is a sensitive or private issue then feel free to send an e-mail. You are greater than your worst habit. Give it up rather than simply giving up. You will be shocked and surprised with the levels of willpower and discipline you can dredge up.

What is your worst habit?

What habit are you prepared to give up for the next month and possibly beyond?

Dawn Manoeuvres

Over the last few mornings I have launched covert dawn operations at chez Black as I have attempted to extricate myself from the house and head off to work without waking Fionnuala and the kids who are still on their Easter break. As I normally move around the house with all the finesse of a hamstrung hippopotamus this has required previously untapped resources of stealth and balance on my part. But, all round good guy that I am, I resolved to be as quiet as Quiety the Mouse so as not to disturb their slumbers.

I ironed shirts, raided sock drawers and packed gym bags on tip toe avoiding squeaky floorboards with the grace of the nimblest of ninjas. I put the bins out and you could have heard a pin drop…. if I’d had one to drop. I waa Silent Stephen performing backward flips and forward rolls with the athleticism of an Olympic gymnast. Alright I may have made that last bit up but you get my drift. Whereas our house around 6:30 am on a week day normally resembles Piccadilly Circus at rush hour it has been an oasis of calm these last two mornings.

As I drove into work I reflected proudly on my efforts, pleased that all my sneaking about had achieved its goal of allowing the rest of the family a lie in. Apart from Charlie the Dog but he needed out for a wee anyway and had been giving me strange looks from his cage as I crept around the kitchen. I shared my toast with him which seemed to buy his acquiescence so all was well. Yes I was like the incredibly quiet cat who got the cream as I hurtled down the road towards the office.

But then it hit me. A few years ago I spent most of my life sneaking around the house. But for entirely selfish, as opposed to selfless, reasons. Back then my very existence was founded upon lies, secrets and deception. It became second nature to me. I told so many lies that I even believed them myself half the time. Much of my time was spent either concealing the truth or struggling to remember the nonsense I had come out with for fear of being tripped up. I felt increasingly unhappy and depressed about the life I was leading. I was a fraud and a failure. My mental health suffered and I simply could see no way out.

Things inevitably came to a head and I was dragged out into the light as opposed to of my own volition. Whilst incredibly painful at the time for myself and my loved ones we emerged on the other side stronger and wiser. I came to realise that living a double life was neither clever nor exciting. The only person I was fooling was myself. I was travelling in increasingly decreasing circles and becoming a prisoner in a cell of my own making. I was miserable and forever in fear of being found out. I was sick. Sick of myself and sick of the direction in which my life was heading.

Nowadays I don’t keep secrets. There is great freedom in waking up in the morning and not worrying about what I said or did yesterday. It was an exhausting existence and one I would not recommend to anybody. If this post strikes a chord with you I want to tell you that you’re not alone and it’s not too late to turn your circumstances around. Stop and think of the damage you are causing. To yourself and others. You have a choice. Either you can continue as you are in which case I can guarantee you the situation will only deteriorate. Or you can be brave and make a decision to change.

It might be painful. Oh who am I kidding, it will be painful. But the long term gain will outweigh the short term pain even if it might not seem that way at the time. Shake off the shackles of secrecy and stride into a sanctuary of safety and serenity. Cut your ties with toxic relationships and walk away from the demons of your past. Your present is bright and your future is even brighter. You are better than this and you were created to achieve so much more than skulk in the shadows. You need to hold your head high and walk out of the self inflicted storms you are wandering through aimlessly.

So what do you reckon? Are you going to start today? By ditching that rucksack on your back which has been weighing you down for so long. By kicking it to the kerb and starting afresh. Afraid to take that leap of faith? Feel there is too much at stake and you can might lose everything? Believe me it’s nothing compared to what you will lose if you allow the status quo to continue unchecked. You will be found out. It’s only a matter of time. Make the change today. Now. Before it is too late. Before you’ve allowed it all to slip through your fingers.

What are your experiences of lies and secrets? Have you been a victim or a perpetrator?

Are you in a dark place now? Are you willing to change?

So What Are You Going To Do About It?

I’m lying in bed. Not the most glamorous image to start your day I appreciate but bear with me. I’m still sore from the 20 mile run on Saturday. I’m also tired and I’m struggling to throw off the duvets and start another day. I’m off work (hurrah) but there is still so much to do. I’m scheduled to run a 10K (a so called recovery run meant to loosen me up after the 20 miler but right now it sounds like the death match from hell). My legs don’t want to propel me out of bed let alone out into the roads outside where I have to say it sounds a bit squally as I lie here typing.

I’m also working towards completing 10,000 words on the novel over the Easter break. I use the word ‘break’ in the loosest possible sense of the word. The first draft is currently sitting at around 80,000 words and is about two thirds complete. After that begins the hell of editing, proofing and worse still allowing a selected few to read it. I think I’m dreading that bit the worst. It’s akin to throwing your new born baby to a pack of starving, feral dogs. Sorry for the disturbing image but it is.

Oh did I forget to mention that I’m a father and husband. Old, selfish Stephen would have swept those trivial responsibilities under the carpet a few, short years ago. I tended to airbrush all that on my social media platforms as it was all about me after all, right? Well, no. They are my foundations upon which everything else is built. Without them the whole house of cards comes tumbling to the ground. Without them there is no running, there is no writing. Just me, broken and bloodied under the rubble of what used to be my life.

There are practical matters to attend to. Rebeca is going on a school trip to Scotland later this month so I need to venture up into the swirling vortex that is our roof space in search of a hold-all for her. It’s two weeks away but she wants to start packing now. Her mother has trained her well. If I’m not back in an hour call for Indiana Jones. No, on second thoughts, make that Lara Croft. The Angelina Jolie version, not that new girl. We watched Skull Island, the latest Kong movie, yesterday. I’m now frightened to venture into the roof space for the love of God.

There’s also the small matter of preparing for a meeting with the Education Authority later this week over proposed plans to close Hannah’s school; other issues regarding her still inadequate transport to and from school; trying to drag my lazy son out for a training session when he’d much rather spend his Easter holidays glued to his Play Station (because becoming a professional rugby player is just going to fall into his lap obviously); and the million and one household tasks that Fionnuala has quite rightly been asking me to carry out for only the last nine years or so.

To say we are a busy family is something of an understatement. You think my itinerary is nuts, then try checking out Fionnuala’s. It cray cray. But we keep going. Because there’s nothing else to do right? Well at least that’s how I deal with it all. I might not be the most talented writer or runner but one thing is for certain is that I won’t quit. Maybe I have my OCD and anxiety to thank for that. Mental health truly is a double edged sword. I’ve seen others with far greater ability than mine fall by the wayside. Why? Only they can answer that.

All I can say is that you shouldn’t give up. Not now and not ever. Don’t be that person sitting in their armchair aged eighty wondering ‘what if?’. Don’t be that person who gave in the doubting voices, most of all the voice in their own head. You’re not good enough, you’ll never get there and so on ad nauseum. Don’t be that person who got knocked down once too often and just lay there, refusing to get up. Get up! Get up for those who believe in you. And what’s more get up for those that didn’t believe in you.

So congratulations. You’ve got this far and you’re either thinking that Irish guy is a moron or maybe he’s got a point. If it’s the former then no hard feelings and thanks for making it this far. Close the door behind you on the way out. But if my Easter Monday rant has sown a seed in your mind then, well, what are you going to do about it? You have dreams, you have plans. Well how about today you take that first step towards making them a reality. Prove them all wrong. Prove yourself wrong. Start today. Join me. Make it happen.

So what are you going to do about it? What are your plans for the rest of 2018?

Isn’t It Time You Stepped Out Of Your Tomb?

We all get buried alive at some point in our lives. It can be of our own doing or we may have been the unwitting victims of other people or circumstances beyond our control. Either way we come to our senses covered in dust and fumbling around in the darkness for some way out. The air is stifling and we can feel the panic rising in our throats. Our natural inclination is to scream. But who would hear us if we did?

You see that’s one of the annoying things about tombs. You don’t get many people hanging around them apart from the occasional loved one paying their respects. Or possibly a rogue gravedigger or gardener squeezing in a bit of overtime before the Easter break. Normally though tombs are pretty deserted places. Just you and your thoughts. So there’s no point really in screaming. Looks like you are going to have to figure your own way out of this predicament.

Which brings me to Awkward Issue Number Two. Tombs are kind of designed so as occupants have no problem getting into them but when it comes to leaving again, well that’s a whole different ball game. Once you’re in there nobody really expects you to have a change of heart and leave again. There are no fire exits, no secret compartments and no skylights. It’s one way traffic so sit back and make yourself comfortable. You’re not going anywhere in a hurry. That big, old boulder isn’t going to budge an inch no matter how hard you huff and puff at it.

Hmmmm. This isn’t going so well is it? Looks like we’re well and truly stumped here. If only we had Jesus to exert some of that supernatural power of his and roll away that pesky boulder as if it was a tiny pebble. Oh hang on a minute, we can. Or if Jesus isn’t your thing why don’t you hang your hat on whatever your understanding of a ‘Higher Power’ is. It can be Brahman or Buddha or any other spiritual life force you choose but choose quick cos you’re not getting out of here on your own.

It’s time to realise you’ve messed up and you don’t know how to make things better. Once you’ve handed that over it’s half the battle. You’re buried alive under tonnes of guilt, shame, lies, sin, whatever. It can be an addiction, a toxic relationship, a mental health or eating disorder, anything. But whatever it is you are six feet under and the rest. You’re running out of air and there’s no sign of the cavalry coming over the horizon. You are sunk without a trace.

Now nice and slowly. Hand it over.

Pray. Scream. Throw some stuff around if it makes you feel better. Hey, you can even curse if you want. This isn’t church and I won’t be telling. But when you’re done I can guarantee that you’ll feel better. For you’ve taken that first step. Accepting that your situation is out of control and that you need help. Acknowledging that things can be better and you want to keep walking in that direction. Having faith that whatever it is you have chosen to cling to will somehow get you back to a life worth living.

What’s that? A slight rumble at first but slowly it increases in volume. Dust starts to cascade from the ceiling, the ground beneath your feet begins to shake. Thin shafts of light permeate the gloom as the supposedly immovable object rotates ever so slowly away to reveal daylight outside. Fresh air seeps into your starved lungs and you rub your eyes in disbelief. Can this be real? You’re free? Or at least starting out on the road to freedom. Armed with faith, hope and the love of others who have been through what you are going through and survived to tell the tale.

Three steps and you’re there. Accepting the problem is out of your control. Handing it over to a power higher than yourself. And then accepting the help of wiser, experienced people who have walked the same road. My hope today for you is that if you are reading this, entombed and lost that you realise that all is not lost. All tombs can be breached and no stone is too heavy not to be rolled away. Light will always extinguish darkness and love and faith will always overcome anguish and despair. Just believe and step out into the garden.

Are you in a tomb? Have you extricated yourself from one in the past? Please share you experiences below.

Today I Was Snubbed

Today I was snubbed. By someone who not so long ago I regarded as my best friend. I’m not going to disclose the reasons we stopped talking. Suffice to say our paths went in separate directions. We live in the same village, however, and are both runners so it was only a matter of time before we bumped into each other again. Today was that day.

I was around 10 miles into a 20 mile training run. This will be one of my last long runs before the Belfast Marathon on 7th May. I’ll write about that separately but it so happened I was running one way through the village and he was coming in the opposite direction. We were both wearing luminous yellow running tops so it wasn’t as if we could avoid each other. I had been dreading this moment for months but resolved to pass myself and be polite.

We said hello to each other (I’ll give him that) about ten feet away from one another. As we neared I slowed to a halt, expecting him to do likewise. It would be an awkward minute or so of small talk but at least we could walk (or run) away afterwards with our heads held high. At least we could be adults about what had happened. Our daughters play together at school and our wives still talk occasionally so it wasn’t much to ask, was it?

Imagine my shock then when, having seen me slow, he just kept on running. I stood there, my two arms the same length feeling about two inches tall. After a few seconds I gathered myself and continued my run, muttering a few choice expletives under my breath as I did so. I hardly ever swear so, yeah, to say I was annoyed and upset was a massive understatement. Is this what our friendship had come to? That we couldn’t even exchange a few meaningless pleasantries in the street?

I’ve written in the past about how much my social circle has shrunk over the last year or so. There are many reasons for this and much of it has been self-inflicted. I’ve often thought I don’t need anyone except Fionnuala and the kids and that is largely true. Many of the people in my life I had to walk away from. I was in a very unhealthy place and needed space to recover and rebuild my life. In time, I became used to running on my own. I became used to having an empty social calendar.

This solitude has allowed me to focus on my family and my writing. There are benefits. But sometimes I wonder what if? What if I had a church I could regularly attend every week without feeling like a social pariah? What if I didn’t have to endure 20 mile runs on my own and had friends to keep me company? What if my mobile phone rang occasionally and it was a friend just calling up for a chat? Then I shake my head and gather my thoughts up again. Those days are in the past, a place where I cannot return.

It was sad that on Easter Sunday a person who portrays himself as a ‘big Christian’ and pillar of his local megachurch chose to snub an ex friend who left his social circle under a cloud. Yes, I sinned. Yes, I’m not perfect. But does that give you the right to do what you did to me today? I should have expected no less but I naively did and ended up shaken and upset. It’s hard to move on when people don’t allow you to move on. It’s hard to forgive when others refuse to forgive you.

I won’t be at church tomorrow but he no doubt will. Hands in the air and singing aloud. Worshipping God. But I know that God will be with me as well as I sit at home processing the hurt and pain I have inflicted on others and experienced myself. For Jesus died for me just as much as he died for him and all the other Christians who have chosen to turn their backs on us. Jesus won’t turn his back and, for this fact, this Easter I am grateful.

Have you ever been snubbed by someone you used to be close to?

How do you handle hurt and rejection?

What’s So Good About Friday?

What’s so good about Friday?

What’s so good about life?

What’s so good about lying, hatred, violence and strife?

What’s so good about suffering?

What’s so good about greed?

Never learning our lessons

Never realising our needs

What’s so good about trying?

What’s so good about loss?

What’s so good about Jesus?

Beaten and nailed to a Cross?

Well he’s the reason I’m still here

Trying my best to survive

He’s the reason my family

Every day flourish and thrive

That’s what’s good about Friday

That’s why he took the pain

That’s why he endured nails and a sword

Piercing his skin like a flame

So next time you moan on a Friday

Or mutter or mumble or mope

Think back to that darkest of all days

And thank Him for giving us hope.

Scraps

Meet Charlie the Border Terrier. He’s the sixth member of the Black Clan. I thought he deserved a post written about him because 1. I’ve written about everyone else and didn’t want him feeling left out. Dogs have feelings too y’know and 2. He can’t write for himself like the others can. Dogs can’t write y’know. Or at least none of the dogs I hang about with.

So what can I tell you about Charlie. Well. He’s six years old and we’ve had him since he was a puppy. He is the world’s friendliest dog. He is also the world’s most untrainable dog and believe me we have tried. In the end we just gave up. He’s either too stupid or too intelligent to obey even the most basic of commands. I’ve always given him the benefit of the doubt and plumped for the latter. Although there are days I have my doubts.

Charlie loves sleeping, barking, eating and having his belly scratched. In no particular order. He hates baths, cats and being told to get off the sofa. He is in love with Fergie, the little white Shih Tzu who lives next door. And she is in love with him. They are the Romeo and Juliet of the canine world. But alas their love will never be consummated. For their nasty human owners do not want to be ankle deep in Border/Shih Tzu puppies anytime soon. Shame on us.

Every morning I pour Charlie fresh water and set a bowl of dog food in front of him. Expensive, nutritious dog food, no cheap nonsense for our Charles. And every morning he looks at me with an expression that says ‘What you expect me to eat this muck? before sulking off to his cage for the remainder of the morning. Eventually he will reluctantly eat it if there is nothing else on offer all the while shooting me daggers and muttering under his breath about canine rights. We are cruel, unreasonable human beings and he lets us know this in no uncertain terms.

There is a pecking order in our house and I know where I stand in it. Somewhere roughly between Charlie and the front door. As in ‘Well if you don’t like it, then there’s the front door.’ Charlie has me wrapped around his little finger, I mean paw, and every night when we sit down for dinner positions himself beneath me where he bombards me with his most long suffering, hang dog expressions. Mug that I am I always cave in and end up feeding him scraps from my plate. He will happily gorge himself on these while his bowl of dog food sits untouched in the corner of the kitchen.

We can all be a bit like Charlie. Begging for scraps from a table while our perfectly acceptable meal lies discarded and untouched. Why we do have this insatiable need to crave more and not just be content with what we have? For it is more than enough if we would only open our eyes and inhale the truth. Scraps cannot fill us. They just leave us hungry for more, never satisfied, never full. Hunger leads to bad choices and poor judgement. It is a path that can only lead downwards.

Scraps are unhealthy and unedifying. You are better than that. Look in the mirror and see the person you are. You were created to sit at a table with those that love you and respect you. To dine on love, compassion and respect. Not scurry around on the floor barely existing on the occasional morsel thrown your way. One more like on social media, one more empty compliment, one more night out with people who have little time for you when sober. Is that really what you want? Really?

The people who matter are right before your eyes. Every day. They hang around because they see something in you that you cannot see for yourself. That you are special. That you are enough for them. They accept you for who you are. You do not need to change for them, you can drop the exhausting charade. All they ask is that you sit with them, spend time with them and believe. Believe in what they believe. That you are a good person, that you are complete and that, by acknowledging and accepting this, you complete them as well. They are your grass and it shines a brilliant green. You need never cross to the other side again.

Have you a pet? Who wears the trousers in that relationship?

What are your experiences of feeding on scraps?

Hannah The Campaigner

We are not protestors by nature but yesterday took to the streets of Belfast with many other concerned parents to protest against plans by the Education Authority to close seven special needs schools in the Greater Belfast area and merge them into three ‘super schools’ which would be created to cater for students with physical disabilities and learning difficulties.

Our daughter, Hannah, has been attending one of these schools, Fleming Fulton, since she was three years old. Hannah was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus and is a wheelchair user. We were very proud of Hannah yesterday as she spoke at the gates of Belfast City Hall in front of hundreds to express her opposition to the proposed closures. Here are some of her words.

‘I was born with spina bifida basically my legs don’t work but my brain does and that’s thanks to the hard work and dedication of my parents, doctors, teachers and workers at my school. I have been going to Fleming Fulton since just before my third birthday, it is like my second home, I have made the best of friends that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

If the Education Authority goes through with what it is planning I will be separated from my friends and will have to go to a different school which I don’t want to happen. I love my school the way it is and don’t want it to change.’

Fionnuala and I are proud of all the kids but Hannah took the bar to a new level yesterday. Sometimes you have to stand up to the faceless government mannequins who put cuts before kids and who deny our most vulnerable young people the education and health care they are entitled to. Hannah deserves better and she spoke out for herself and her classmates today. She made us very proud parents.

This is a full recording of Hannah’s speech if you would like to hear it.

Achilles Heel

Achilles heel. Scabbed. Won’t heal. Pick at it. Secrets revealed. Itching. Twisting. Tired of bitching. Peel it off and start again. Take the pain but what remains? Scarlet blood flows free and proud. Love and grace replace disgrace. Grit your teeth to save your face. Love again to run your race.

Achilles heel. Tensed and taut. Athletes crouch and pistols pop. Off they hurtle down the track. Forward. Onwards. Don’t look back. Sinews straining. Years of training. And for what? A crowning glory? Crowds are roaring. But if it snaps a different story.

Achilles heel. Ancient tales. Heroes turning in their graves. Arrows piercing exposed skin. Unsheathed swords sliding within. Scraping bone and piercing organs. Writhing hydras. Towering gorgons. Monsters unleashed. Ravenous beasts. Havoc wreaked. An end to peace.

Achilles heel. Guard it well. For heels are gateways to a hell of such dimensions that it will melt away all your pretensions. And leave you bony, broken, baffled. All hope snaffled. Life’s a raffle and you have lost. What’s the cost? Pay the ferryman and come across.

Achilles heel. Doesn’t matter if you run or walk, limp or crawl. He’ll welcome you all. With open arms and boundless charm. No need for pyrotechnics or alarm. But once you’re in the doors are locked. The clocks are stopped. The lights go out. You learn your plight. Eternal night.

Achilles heel. Painfully real. We all have two and here’s the deal. Slice open one you’ve still a chance. To get away, still save the day. But lose the second and you’re down. A helpless mess upon the ground. Vultures circle high above. Hyenas feast upon your blood. All for what for you gained naught.

Achilles heel. So now you’re dead. Scavengers fed and long since fled. And what of you? A pile of bones, stripped of your pride and left alone. No wifi here or mobile phones. But never fear. You won’t be bored. For we have so much to explore. New depths of pain you’ll not ignore.

Achilles heel. And here it ends. The train wreck just around the bend. You knew it all yet you knew nothing. The years of lies, deceit and plotting. It brought you here where you’ll remain. Eternal pain, forever stained. Alone and shackled in your chains. And there is only you to blame.

My Name Is Stephen and I Am A Snorer

I’m feeling a little under the weather. I awoke yesterday with a cold that one of my daughters thoughtfully passed on to me. One of the perks of sharing a house with little people. I felt lousy yesterday and a little less lousy today. All I want to do is sleep. All Fionnuala wants to do is sleep as well. But she has been unable to. Why you ask? Well I’m glad you did. For I have a confession to make.

For my name is Stephen Black and I am a snorer….

I know this may come as a shock to you and for that I apologise from the bottom of my phlegmy heart. There was you thinking all this time that I was the perfect man without a flaw. If you want to unfollow the blog now I fully understand and we can both just move on from this unfortunate incident and pretend it never happened. It’s for the best. It’s not you, it’s me. And so on.

I don’t think I snore all the time. But when my head is congested and my lungs are tight I guess I do. I woke up this morning to discover that my wife was not in bed with me. Had she finally seen sense and left me? Or possibly been abducted by little green men? If the latter then they don’t know what they have let themselves in for. Those Farrell woman are tough and don’t take kindly to being poked and prodded.

But no. I checked my phone to see that I had a WhatsApp message. From Fionnuala. At 4:53 am. Stating that she was downstairs and could still hear my snoring over the sound of the television. Surely she was mistaken. We live about twenty miles from Belfast International Airport so perhaps it was a plane passing overhead. Or our neighbour’s rooster having a particularly croaky start to the day.

Unfortunately I have to hold my hand up and take this one on the chin. My super snorey saliva stained chin. I am a secret (or not so secret) snorer. I checked the overnight news but thankfully there were no zombie related incidents for I feared I had wakened the dead. Just my wife. So now I feel lousy for two reasons. But I’m off work today so she has the pleasure of my company which is surely a silver lining. Er….right? Hello…..?

We all have annoying characteristics. Many people attempt to portray themselves and the lives they lead as perfect and wonderful. Don’t believe me? Just scroll down your Facebook timeline for two minutes. What we get is a heavily edited, airbrushed version of their realities. We don’t see the arguments and the tears and what they look like first thing in the morning. They seek to deceive us but really they are deceiving nobody but themselves.

Ever done that yourself? Show of hands? Don’t be shy now. Well I’m raising mine. I used to be like that. I had convinced myself that I had to portray a perfect image in order to be liked. Until I realised. The people who truly matter see beyond the mirage. They see the truth. They want the real you, warts and all. For that is the person they love. Our flaws are what make us so unique and fascinating. We should embrace them, not try to hide them in the closet with all our other skeletons.

So my name is Stephen Black and I’m a snorer. And I bite my nails, have a terrible memory and a million other bad habits that drive my wife nuts. I once asked her did I annoy her when I breathed? Her response? ….Yes. 😳 But I am me. And I know that buried deep down (waaaaay deep down) are other qualities that balance out the equation and make sharing a life with me worthwhile. Don’t be embarrassed by your imperfections. For it is they that make you perfect.

Are you a secret snorer? Or do you live with one?

What is your worst habit? I promise I won’t tell.

What are your experiences of the false Facebook culture?

I Wonder

I wonder. If there was a rapture would I be taken or left forsaken, alone on my throne in a world of broken bones and bleeding souls. Tortured by thoughts of what if and maybe. Come back and save me. My loved ones gone in an angelic throng while I wriggle and squirm, a pitiful worm.

I wonder. If there was a rapture who would God capture. That nice couple next door or the man down the road. Would churches be emptied or would they be full of embarrassed Christians and blustering pastors. Stripped to the bone by their all seeing master.

I wonder. If there was a rapture would we even notice who was gone for they’d be so few. One in a thousand or possibly two. We’ll list them as missing and contact the police. We’ll worry and cry and we’ll pray with our priest. Then we’ll quietly move on hand in hand with the beast.

I wonder. If there was a rapture who would we blame. For blaming and shaming is part of the game which we’ve played all our lives. We’ve schemed and we’ve skived, we’ve cheated and lied. We’ve bleated and nurtured this will to survive. To kill all that’s good in us, let darkness thrive.

I wonder. If there was a rapture would there be a panic. A manic breakdown of societal norms. Or would shoulders be shrugged and the experts wheeled out. To fill our dead minds with theories and doubts. It’s the Russians, the Chinese, some alien disease. God forbid that the truth would bring us to our knees.

I wonder. If there was a rapture would anything change. Would we rant, spit and scream, so incensed and inflamed. Then after a while just dust ourselves down, return to our phones with a shrug and a frown. For God’s overrated and Satan’s a riot. If there’s wifi in Hell I might as well try it.

I wonder a lot. These unwelcome thoughts. That I have to get out before my brain clots. This dirge is a purge of a tangled up mind. I’m writing it blind but I urge you to think. If the heavens swung open and angels descended. Would you still remain when the trumpets relented?

I’m A Christian But I’m Not Reading The Bible

Whenever I’ve asked people to describe my writing style the most frequent word I hear is ‘honesty’. For someone who had led such a dishonest existence for many years this is music to my years. So, in continuing my tradition of transparency and accountability, here’s another truth bomb for you all to chew on.

I’m a Christian and I haven’t read my Bible in weeks….

I know, I know. An outrageous admission. And here’s the thing. I love reading. My Kindle Fire is like an extra limb to me. I’ve always got a book on the go, sometimes two. I can’t sleep at night unless I’ve read at least a few pages. I’m a self confessed bookworm. Loud and proud. Yet when it comes to the most important book of them all, I’ve been left cold of late.

Even stranger is that for all the years I’ve been a Christian (five in May fact fans) I’ve always had a very healthy relationship with the Bible. I’ve read it regularly and thrived on the vivid story telling, imagery and themes within its pages. At our last church I led a youth group and house group where I regularly led Bible related discussions. I was even asked by the pastor to deliver sermons at the Sunday service. People said I had a gift of interpretation, of analysing the text and drawing fresh learning from it that others could not see.

But of late there’s been nothing. Nada. Zilch. My Bibles (for I have several) have sat on the bookshelf gathering dust. NIV, The Message, NKJV, I’ve tried them all but there hasn’t been a spark. I’ve tried The Gospels, Proverbs, Psalms and even Job. Yes Job! That’s how desperate I am! But all to no avail. They’ve just been words. Words that I’ve read a hundred times before. No passion, no startling revelations, no Charlton Hestonesque bolts of lightning from above. It’s as if the Holy Spirit has upped sticks and gone on an early Easter vacation.

Initially I thought I just needed a break. Was it burnout? Or perhaps the novel I am working on was draining my creative juices? Was it because I’m not a member of a church anymore? Was God punishing me for turning my back on ‘the church’? I haven’t a clue but whatever the reason it’s certainly been effective. And do you know what’s worst of all? I don’t feel particularly guilty, ashamed or bothered. I still regard myself as a Christian, I still believe in God, I still try to lead a good life, I still pray. Check, Check and double Check.

Is that enough? Can you still continue to function as a card carrying Christian without a church and without a Bible? Is Saint Peter presently scribbling furiously in the ‘negatives’ column of his big book as I type this. Is Satan (for I also still believe in him) rubbing his hands gleefully and notifying Hell Airlines to book me a one way ticket with immediate effect? I honestly don’t know (there’s that word again). But I woke up this morning with an urge to write about it and share it with you all. So here I am.

We pride ourselves on the fact that Christians, Muslims and people of many other faiths read this blog. We even have a healthy smattering of agnostics and atheists. We welcome them all. This is not an exclusively Christian blog. It is a blog written by Christians who have doubts and concerns about their faith; hence its name. We are not perfect and we tell it how it is. The Christian life is not all happy clappy (more snappy crappy) ever after as many would want you to believe. It is frustrating, infuriating and full of pain and rejection. Don’t believe me. Just ask Jesus about his three year ministry on the planet.

So I am where I am. Honest but hanging on to my fractured faith for all I’m worth. I hope this is just a blip and I will fall in love with my Bible again in the not too distant future. Maybe God is giving me a mini vacation before the real work begins, just over the horizon. I’m sure I will find out soon enough. Until then I’ll stare at my Bibles on the bookshelf and they will stare back at me. A war of attrition with no end in sight at present. But I won’t throw them out or hide them away in a drawer. And at least that’s something. They are part of me and I am part of them. We’re just having a break from each other.

How often do you read the Bible?

Or have you never picked one up before?

Do you read other books of faith?

Whatever your thoughts I’d be interested to hear them?

Northern Ireland – A Potted History

Well that was an exciting St. Patrick’s Day. Ireland defeated England 24-15 to win the Six Nations Rugby Championship and the Grand Slam in the process. This is a massive deal over here as the country is rugby mad. And it’s always satisfying to beat the English at anything. Ireland are now ranked second in the world at rugby ahead of England, Australia, South Africa, France and Wales to name but a few. Not bad for our tiny little island. Roll on the World Cup in Japan next year.

I posted earlier today asking for your questions on life in Ireland. I received a LOT and have replied to some of them already. But hopefully this post will answer a few more. We live in Northern Ireland which comprises Counties Armagh, Antrim, Down, Fermanagh, Derry and Tyrone. There are 32 counties on the island of Ireland and the other 26 comprise the Republic of Ireland. So basically Ireland is divided into two countries with different governments, currencies and customs.

The island was divided up this way by the Act of Partition in 1921 which followed the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). Northern Ireland was created to placate its largely Protestant population who sought to remain part of the United Kingdom with England, Scotland and Wales. They regard themselves as British as opposed to Irish and swear allegiance to the British monarch. Queen Elizabeth II is monarch of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This section of the Northern Irish population regard themselves as pro-union or Unionists. The Catholic population by and large want a United Ireland free of all British influence. They are known as nationalists or republicans. Political life in Northern Ireland is largely drawn along these religious lines. The two largest parties are the Democratic Unionist Party (unionist) and Sinn Fein, pronounced Shin Fane, (republican). Protestants largely support the former while Catholics vote for the latter.

Following the partition of Ireland there were a number of violent conflicts where republicans sought to overthrow British rule in Northern Ireland. The bloodiest of these was between 1969-1998. This period ,known as ‘The Troubles’, resulted in over 3000 deaths as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) launched a guerrilla campaign against the British Army and Northern Irish police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Loyalists retaliated with the formation of their own paramilitary groups, most notably the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

Many innocent men, women and children died during the Troubles as a result of countless shootings and bombings. Peace was finally reached via the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 but a number of breakaway republican groups refused to accept the terms of the agreement and continued the armed struggle. The single largest loss of life in Northern Ireland was when the ‘Real’ IRA detonated a no warning car bomb in my home town, Omagh, on 15 August 1998, killing 29 civilians and two unborn babies.

Below is a photograph taken by tourists minutes before the bomb detonated. The bomb car is in the background. Notice how low the car’s suspension is sitting to the ground. That’s the weight of the explosives weighing it down. Chilling, isn’t it?

I wasn’t in the town that day but my parents were. Thankfully they were at home and not in the town centre. It is probably the rawest, personal experience of the conflict I have. The bomb exploded on a street I have walked along hundreds of times. Fionnuala grew up in Belfast during the Troubles and has similar stories of carnage which happened literally around the corner from her. The violence is largely in the past now although deep divisions still exist between the two communities.

I was raised a Protestant and Fionnuala a Catholic. Many people disapproved of our marriage, including my parents. Old wounds heal slowly. We are seeking to bring up our children with an understanding of our country’s past and the struggles we both faced growing up in ‘The Troubles’. We regard ourselves as non denominational Christians who are neither ‘Protestant’ or ‘Catholic’. We now live in a modern, vibrant country but the legacy of violence is hard to shake off. A lot of people refuse to move on and you often don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to reveal the old prejudices and bigotry.

Some of you will know that I’m currently writing a novel. It is set in modern day Belfast but there are several ‘flashback’ chapters which focus on the main character when he was a young boy growing up during ‘The Troubles’. His experiences then explore a number of issues which I have touched upon above. I hope this post has been of some use and taught you a little more about our country and heritage.

Have you any Irish blood?

Has this post assisted you in your knowledge of Northern Ireland and it’s troubled past?

I’m Out On My Feet

I’m out on my feet. Ideas replete. Shackled and stymied by lies and deceit. I’ve tried and I’ve failed. My dreams are derailed. My hopes on a ship that has long ago sailed. I’m struggling to think. Do I need a drink? Cowering from demons I thought long extinct. Their malice so plain as before them I shrink. I’m out on my feet.

I’m out on my feet. So tired I can’t sleep. Lucid yet broken, beyond counting sheep. I’m bored of addiction, four decades of fiction. The tales of a fool who was ruled by restrictions. Possessing my thoughts, this brain full of rot. Delaying, decaying, amounting to naught. I’m out on my feet.

I’m out on my feet, no respite or relief. So burdened by thoughts, my head like concrete. Cracked lips, yellowed teeth stained by years of deceit. Entombed in a realm where I’m king of the thieves. Believing the lies, ignoring the signs. Condemned to a life of frustration and sighs. I’m out on my feet.

I’m out on my feet I heard myself bleat. Obsessing, regressing, wrapped in my own grief. I was digging my own grave, refusing to be saved, reliving the guilt and the sin being replayed. My head in the clouds and my foot in my mouth, the bottle I’d throttle to drown out the noise. The noise of my past, dreams shattered like glass. I’m out on my feet.

I’m out on my feet, so battered and bruised. Shattered, in tatters, soiled and abused. Rejecting the poison that sickens my soul, running amok as it swallows me whole. Placed my head in the noose to discover the truth. Choking to death on this facade of health. Would rather die poor than inherit your wealth. I’m out on my feet.

I was out on my feet but I’m not going down. Determined to fight and recover lost ground. So burn your white flags for I’m turning the tide, increasing my pace and regaining my stride. A glimmer, a shimmer, a hope oft denied igniting our dream that has somehow survived. For I’m back on my feet.

Our Next Blog – You Decide

It’s a wet, grey day in Belfast and my brain cells feel equally overcast. Maybe it’s because I’m diverting all my creative juices into the novel at the minute but the ‘ideas well’ is well and truly dry on the blogging front. Which got me thinking. Why do I have to do all the hard work when our wonderful WordPress family can get their thinking caps on as well.

So as a one off I’m opening it up to the floor and asking the question – What would you like us to write about? It can be as obscure or bizarre as you want. But please keep it clean. We will pick the best two suggestions and then post on the topic over the next few weeks. Current affairs, Fiction, Biography. You suggest it and I’ll give it a rattle if it rocks my boat. Extra bonus points for the most innovative and imaginative comments.

For All Demons Bleed….

It’s all about me. I’m selfish you see. So vain and conceited, it’s all about me. I fight the urge, this endless dirge, the need to purge myself of me. My needs. They feed my brain. They inflict pain. I smother others with my greed. It sows the seeds which grow the roots which, when afoot, choke and constrict. Restrict the man I want to be. Beautifully and wonderfully formed. Yet I conform to shallow sins, the endless din of voices fuelled by evil whims.

Yes, it’s all about me. For I’m selfish you see. You want an example? I’m so glad you asked. For I’ll put down my glass and trample the dreams of my loved ones aghast. I just want the best but it ends up a mess as the baby obsessions emerge from their nest. They’re as blessed as I’m cursed, they wish only the worst, driven forward by demons for actions rehearsed a million, a billion, a trillion of times. I’ll tell you I’m fine, I’m feeling sublime, yet inside their fingers are gouging my mind.

For it’s all about me. I’m selfish you see. The world keeps revolving round my gravity. I’m clever and witty and everyone’s friend. I’ll bend to your blend at the drop of a hat. I crave the attention and, oh did I mention, I run and I blog and I’m writing a book. So have a good look, gather round young and old. Click follow and swallow the lies that you’re sold. A slippery slope, a dope on a rope, I hope beyond hope that the demons are choked. By a force beyond words. A force beyond me. A life giving spirit, at last I’m set free.

It was all about me. I was selfish you see. But little by little I’m trying to change. They had me deranged but I’m prying away. They bite and they pull but I’m stronger each day. I’ve escaped from the filth and the guilt and the silt of my past which has clogged up my laughs and sliced through my life like a knife through warm butter. From gutter to author. I’m better than this and I’m better than you. I’ll run and I’ll write and I’ll love and I’ll smile. For with every mile you’re a mile down the road. That odious toad that I must offload, the demons they’re screaming as I grow more bold.

Now it’s all about them. I’ve discarded my past like the rags that they were. So dirty and soiled, they were drenched in the oil of earthly transgressions and shallow desires. Now I stack the dry bonfire and strike up a match. To raze to the ground those demonic clowns who clung to my soul like a leech fat and round. So bloated and soaked in the filth that they found. Now I’m watching them burn and then turning and walking away. To start a new day, a new week a new life. With the people that matter, free from relentless chatter.

Yes it’s all about us. That’s the thrust of these words. And I trust you see through them, the prose and the verse. To the truth of a man who was saved from disgrace. By a grace with no depths and a love with no bounds. I was lost, now I’m found. And I hope you see hope in the words that I write. That they open your eyes and offer fresh sight, a glimmer of light. To vanquish the darkness that’s raging inside. You’re better than that and you will succeed. For all demons bleed when faced with the truth. Your power over them is about to take root.

There Are Times I Don’t Think

There are times I don’t think. And when I don’t think I’m back on the brink. I huff and I puff and I blow my house down. Left standing in rubble, the boy in the bubble. A bubble of trouble, a mess and a muddle. A puddle of pain, the stress and the strain. I know I’m to blame and I’m stricken with shame.

There are times I don’t think. Can’t say it’s the drink for that’s over. I’m sober. Five years on the wagon, I’ve slain that old dragon. But the habits are older, they’re the worst of hangovers. I hang over the edge but I’ve taken a pledge. I’ve changed and I’m trying. The past can stop prying for I’m done with dying a death of regret.

There are times I don’t think. There’s no rhyme or reason for this is our season. Our future is bursting with promise and hope. Yet I’m such a dope. My synapses relapse, my defences collapse. I regress to type, I believe all the hype. I’ve nothing to hide yet the demons inside seek to thwart and deny the man I’ve become.

There are times I don’t think. Old habits die hard. I need to reprogram and live for the moment, not worry and scurry and dither and frown. Excuses like nooses which rob me of life. My kids and my wife are the air that I crave, my escape from the grave. The loves of my life, the reason I write. These words are for them, my last requiem.

There are times I don’t think. The impact of actions, my flustered reactions. Looking guilty and sly when inside I’m buzzing with passion and life. Planning birthdays and dinners and trying to change. My reasons sound lame but i promise I’ve tamed this beast from my past. Let this be the last. I’m discarding my mask.

There are times I don’t think. Those times need to end. So today is the day when I break all the trends. I’ve crafted these words like you’ve crafted your gifts. Your beauty and patience are the reason I live. I promised to change and I promise I have. Today I’ll start thinking, leave behind all the hurt. For better or worse. We’re blessed more than cursed.

What Are You Up To This Weekend?

Storm Emma has now arrived in Northern Ireland and we woke up to strong winds and drifting snow. The road out of the village is impassable and the police have been telling motorists to turn round and go back home. There was no chance of me making it into work today and the schools are shut again. So the five of us (six of you include Charlie the border terrier) are holed up in the house for another day. Given the weekend forecast I don’t think we will be going very far this weekend.

I doubt if I’ll stray very far from the sofa. We will just focus on keeping warm and look out at the chilly conditions from the comfort of our home. I’ll be making the most of this unexpected down time and will spend some time working on the book which is flowing quite easily at present. I have a plentiful supply of Diet Coke and various nibbles. And later on Fionnuala and I will no doubt get caught up with our shows on Netflix and Showbox. I’m also working my way through ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath. Not the cheeriest reading material I know but beautifully written.

So an abbreviated blog today. We are stranded so want to know what your plans are for the weekend. Where are you going and who with? What will you be up to? Are you looking forward to it? Or a little anxious? What are you reading? Watching? Eating and drinking? Let us know by commenting below.

Weekend Update

Another shortish post today as another crazy week begins for the Black family. We are bracing ourselves as a cold front from Siberia descends upon the British Isles. The media over here have named it ‘The Beast From The East’ and we have been warned to expect icy winds, heavy snowfall and sub zero temperatures. So much for spring being on it’s way. The Easter Bunny may get his thermals out based on the weather outlook ahead.

An excellent weekend was had by all here. Ireland beat Wales in the Six Nations Rugby and, almost as importantly for us Irish, the English were beaten by Scotland. Apologies to our English followers (well not really) but you can’t be Irish and not have a giggle over that one. The main sporting highlight, however, was Lurgan College beating Strabane Academy 29-12. Adam had a great game cheered on my Fionnuala, Hannah and yours truly.

Hannah had another reason to cheer as Fionnuala has secured tickets for the two of them to see Niall Horan (formerly of One Direction) in concert next month. Although I think that Fionnuala might secretly be just as excited. And where was Rebecca you might ask? Well I’m glad you did as she was having a sleepover with her little cousin at her granny’s house. I’m not sure how much sleep she got as she was a tad tired when she returned home but I know she had a great time.

As for me? Well I’m on call this week so have had to deal with phone calls in the dead of night over the weekend. It’s no fun but it’s part of the job. I managed an eight mile run yesterday and plan to run tomorrow again, weather permitting. The Belfast Marathon is a mere 70 days away. Yikes! I’m also chipping away at the novel, averaging approximately 500 words per day. It’s hard finding the time but I’m trying to discipline my writing. I’m getting more and more excited about the plot and the character development. The bad guys in this novel are something else and, if anything, are even more fun to write than our main protagonists.

Anyone that’s me signing out. Talk soon 🙂

Persecute & Perish

The third in my series of ‘Peter Posts’ focuses on the persecution of the early Christian Church in the Book of Acts. Being a Christian back then was a high risk occupation. Jesus had been crucified and then his body had ‘disappeared’ from the tomb. Crazy rumours were spreading like wildfire around Palestine that he had risen from the dead and would return to overthrow the Roman occupation. Jerusalem was a tinder box of emotions and it would only have taken the slightest spark to throw the city into open rebellion.

The local religious leaders needed to reaffirm their authority. The crucifixion of the rabbi who claimed he was the son of God had backfired spectacularly. Thousands were flocking to the teachings of Jesus under the leadership of Peter (the Galilean fisherman formerly known as Simon) and his rag bag collection of disciples. Someone had to be made an example of and that someone was my namesake Stephen who was brutally stoned to death after eloquently and passionately professing his faith before the religious leaders of the Sanhedrin.

Before this Peter had also experienced a taste of the ruthless persecution of the early church which was to follow. In Acts 4 John and him were brought before the Sandhedrin and warned to keep their mouths shut and desist from preaching in Jerusalem. In the following chapter they were again warned about their conduct whereupon Peter replied:

We must obey our God rather than human beings. The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead – whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. (Acts 5 29-30)

Blimey! How to win friends and influence people. Probably not the wisest thing to come out with to a group of religious zealots looking for an excuse to kill you. It was only the intervention of a Pharisee named Gamiel which saved his neck. Peter, the same Peter who denied he knew Jesus three times the night before the crucifixion and then skulked off weeping bitterly, was now putting his life on the line to publicly declare that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Son of God as prophesied throughout the Old Testament. This was incredible, revolutionary talk. Delivered with style and passion by a man who spent most of the Gospels with his foot well and truly wedged in his mouth.

Here was a man who had been transformed, who was on fire. The Holy Spirit was roaring through his veins and he could not be silenced, no matter what persecution he faced. And do you know why? Because he was no longer afraid. In his darkest days between the death of Jesus and the resurrection he must have beaten himself up, his weaknesses and flaws horribly exposed for all to see. He was a coward, a failure and a fraud. Would we have been surprised if he had fled to the hills never to be seen again? Or chosen a more permanent exit like Judas after his ultimate betrayal?

Yet he didn’t. He came back a changed man, a better man. Yes he was forgiven by Jesus but he also chose to forgive himself and make amends. He faced decades of persecution by choosing not to persecute himself over his past. He chose to move on, to move forwards and become one of the most influential figures in the history of civilisation. The Bible is full of such stories; of people who messed up but were used by God for great things. Because they chose to suck it up and make a fresh start.

Have you messed up? Do you beat yourself up day after, month after month, year after year over it? I would encourage you to take a leaf out of Peter’s book. Forgive yourself. It’s not easy (believe me I know) but it is possible. Peter faced enough external persecution in his life without having to deal with the internal variety as well. Don’t listen to the internal voice trying to drown out your hopes and dreams. Fight for your future because nobody else will for you.

In order to conquer your world you must first conquer your fears. Peter did. And so can you. Today. Now.

Have you persecuted yourself in the past? Are you still your own worst enemy? Pleas comment below and share your experiences with our community.

Who Needs You Today?

Earlier in the week I wrote about how Peter, the most unlikely of leaders, became head of the early Christian church in Jerusalem following the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The church grew at an incredible rate during this period as many thousands were converted after hearing the testimonies of Peter and the other disciples and witnessing the many signs and wonders they performed which are sprinkled throughout the early chapters of the Book of Acts.

It must have been a period of great excitement. People were being healed, speaking in foreign languages and the Holy Spirit was running amok. Believers genuinely expected the return of Jesus any day and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Local religious leaders were on edge and the occupying Romans were itching to brutally subdue the first suggestion of revolt. It was a dangerous, intoxicating time and life was lived on the edge as the early believers never knew what was around the next corner. Yet for all the excitement it is the following verses that always stop me in my tracks:

‘All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there was no needy person among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.’ Acts 4:32-35 (NIV)

Wow!

I’ll just say that again for effect.

Wow!

To me this is the purest description of community imaginable. Never mind preaching in front of huge crowds, outarguing the supposed greatest theologians of their time and performing miracles at the drop of a hat; it meant nothing unless it was underpinned by love for others. Loving people so much that you were willing to sell all your belongings, even your own house, in order to provide for them. Nobody went without. Everything was shared equally. There were no distinctions made. They were all in this together. They lived and loved out of each other’s pockets.

This to me was and is church. Church is not a building you go to once a week where you exchange small talk with people you don’t really know or care to know and vice versa. Church isn’t singing a few songs and wearing your best clothes so that you look good in front of those you want to impress. Church isn’t fake smiles and ‘I’m fine’ and ‘I’m so sorry to hear that I’ll pray for you’ but then don’t because you didn’t really mean it and, hey, they aren’t going to know anyway. Church is so, so much more than that. Church is love. Selfless, humble love.

Church is praying privately for someone you don’t particularly like without them knowing you are; church is helping out a needy neighbour or a homeless person and then not bragging about it to all and sundry. Church is keeping in touch with people seven days a week instead of just putting on a performance on a Sunday morning. Church is every second of every day you have. Church is Jesus and Jesus is Church. It’s not about rules and regulations and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. It’s about the freedom of loving and expecting nothing in return.

The early Church had it spot on. Because it’s leaders experienced it first hand with Jesus for three years during his ministry on earth. They saw and they got it. I’m not so sure what Jesus would think of many of our churches today. I see more love on the streets, often being carried out by people who have never crossed the threshold of a church building. These are the people who inspire me to try harder and to do better. These are the people who truly get what Jesus taught two millennia ago.

You shouldn’t be ashamed to love others. We can all learn from the early Church. People who gave up their livelihoods, their reputations and often their lives for a cause which they knew was right. People of honour and integrity. People like Peter and Stephen and Paul. There is power in humility; there is strength in revealing your weaknesses and flaws to others. We need to work towards building these communities again. To let the lonely, the broken and the desperate know that they need never be lonely, broken and desperate again.

I would encourage you today to look around within your own community and identify someone in need. Then take the revolutionary step of doing something to address that need. It could be as simple as buying a cup of coffee or sending a text message. There is someone within your sphere of influence today who needs help, who needs your help. Be bold and take that first step, make that first move. Identify and address their need. They need you and you need to act. Be their community and make a difference today. Thank you.

What is church to you?

Who needs your help today?

This is what you do

I’ve been quite quiet lately been going through a lot of stuff in my head but have come through it and trying to get back to normality again so thought I’d share a song with you all to take us into the weekend.

I mentioned before about the first time I went to see Bethel perform in Belfast with my very good friend Helen, who I may add is an amazing worship singer herself 😍 unfortunately I couldn’t carry a note in a bucket but it doesn’t stop me! Anyway Helen and I were in Belfast in the front row singing and dancing and the amazingly talented guys from Bethel sang this song ‘This is what you do’

https://youtu.be/z482u6Crf84

Every time I listen to this song I end up bouncing and jumping round the house like a maniac but I don’t think God minds he loves to see us loose ourselves in worship and give everything over to him.

My challenge to you today is be like David and dance before our King but maybe keep your clothes on 😂

A Few Lines

Just a few lines today you will all be glad to hear. It is my last day off work before going on call for a week so today I’m going to focus on the novel I am supposedly writing. Life has got in the way of late as it tends to do and other stuff has taken priority. If there is a secret to novel writing whilst juggling family and work commitments then I would be delighted to learn your secrets.

Hopefully normal service will be resumed tomorrow. Or as normal as this blog will ever be. I’ll be continuing the study of Peter with posts about community and persecution. Again Fionnuala and I would like to thank you all for your continued support of the blog. We are nearing 4000 followers so must be doing something right. Feel free to comment below even if it’s just to say hello. Talk soon.

Feeling Useless? Worthless? Hopeless? Then Read This….

I read a lot. Too much probably. But the book that I probably don’t read enough is the Bible. I try to pick it up every day, even if it’s only to study a few lines. I know it is not for everyone and is probably the most controversial book ever written but, personally, I always feel better when I leaf through it. I’ve learnt so much from it and, when properly and consistently applied to your life, you really can reap the benefits. I know I have.

If nothing else the Bible is full of great stories of er…..biblical proportions. It is bursting with heroes and villains, incredible battles, natural disasters, miraculous happenings, epic family dramas and breathtaking love stories. It really has it all. Even a talking donkey millennia before Shrek was released. What’s not to like about that!

The Bible offers a consistent message that rings true to me – no matter how hopeless your situation might seem or how worthless you might feel there is hope. The Greatest Story Of Them All is bursting with tales of how God used walking disaster zones to perform great deeds. Zeroes to heroes. Don’t agree? Well then I suggest you check out the stories of Moses, Gideon, Samson, David, Jonah, Matthew, Paul and so on and on and on.

My favourite though has to be Peter. The Fisherman Formerly Known As Simon who Jesus plucked from the relative obscurity of the shores of Galillee to spearhead the greatest revolutionary movement ever to sweep the earth. He was hand picked by Jesus to lead the early Christian church against seemingly insurmountable odds. Yet, throughout the Gospels, he comes across as the most infuriating of characters. And the most unlikely of leaders. Peter who saw Jesus raise the dead and heal countless people, including his own mother in law, yet still had doubts. Maybe he didn’t want Jesus to heal his mother in law. Like many other men. Not me I might add. I get on very well with mine. I’m not scared of her. More a healthy respect 😳

Peter, whose faith failed him when he attempted to walk on the waters. Peter, whose nerve failed him during the transfiguration causing him to start babbling about building tents for Jesus and the prophets. Peter, whose temperament failed him when he struck out in anger in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter, whose nerve failed him when he denied knowing Jesus three times the night before the crucifixion. What on earth did Jesus see in him that led him to declare that Peter would be the rock on which he would build his Church following the Ascension?

He saw something. He saw beyond the many flaws to see the innate inner strength and courage. The courage that meant he was the first to race into the tomb that Easter Sunday. The courage to speak to thousands on the day of Pentecost. The courage to establish the churches in Antioch and Rome in the face of barbaric persecution. The courage to die a martyrs death in the latter city yet still have the humility to ask to be crucified upside down as he didn’t view himself worthy enough to die the same death as the Messiah.

I don’t believe in natural leaders. Peter certainly wasn’t one. I believe we all have the ability to lead and influence others. We all have the ability to set a positive example and bring out the best in others. I also don’t believe in lost causes. None of us are worthless, hopeless or beyond redemption. It is never too late to turn your life around. No hole is too deep, no mess too messy. Everyone has good in them, everyone has the potential to be a better person and change the world. We just have to rise above the shame, the guilt and the despair. Peter did and so can you.

I can be shy about my faith and there’s no bigger turn off to me than having Christianity rammed down your throat. But I should talk about it more on this blog. So over the next few days I’m going to write a bit more about ‘useless, worthless, hopeless’ Peter and the rabble of murderers, thieves, political extremists and social outcasts who Jesus entrusted with spreading his message. People who changed the world. And it all started in an upper room in Jerusalem where they gathered frightened and confused awaiting a sign from Heaven.

Until next time. Never give up. Just like Peter never gave up.

Matthew 16:18 – ‘And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.’

This blog post is in conjunction with a series being written by Littlemissbearpaw at http://sistersbyfaith.wordpress.com over the coming days. I’d encourage you to check out and follow her blog.

Here’s To Being Average

Adam and I spent yesterday morning painting the kitchen ceiling. Fionnuala has been asking me to do this for around two years now but I have been waiting until our son was tall enough to help me out. Some might call that laziness and indifference. Not I. I regard it more as excellent forward planning and best use of resources. Well yesterday that day came. I decided it was time to paint the ceiling. Or rather I was told if it wasn’t done this weekend my life wouldn’t be worth living. Yes it’s sad but it’s true. Our son, aged 15, is now taller than me.

I am 5′ 11” tall. This pains me. When people ask me how I tall I am I sometimes reply ‘Almost six foot’. Does this make me feel any better about myself? Well, not really. I so wanted to be six foot tall but sadly it was not to be. I’m not short but I’m not tall. I’m kind of somewhere in between. I’m average. Adam on the other hand is going to be a giant. He’s hit six foot and is still growing. This became obvious yesterday as we tackled the ceiling. He didn’t need to use the stepladder once. I, on the other hand, was up and down it more often than a forgetful firefighter.

Our son now looks down upon me. I’m his little old man. And now that he has started serious weight training as part of his rugby training regime he’s just going to get bigger and bigger. Fionnuala is already giving him the talk about girls because the way his rugby career and physique are developing he is going to be attracting a lot more female attention in the years to come. He has an exceptional talent that, even now, has the rugby coaches and scouts sitting up and taking note. I think he will one day play rugby professionally, he’s that good. I know I’m his father so am naturally bias but that’s what I think. Time will tell.

I was never that good at rugby. Or football, or any other sport for that reason. I was average at best and never stood out on the playing fields. The same went for my height and many other areas of achievement (or lack of) in my life. I viewed my average abilities as inadequate when, looking back, they were entirely adequate. To compensate I always craved attention and popularity. That needy nature still lurks inside me and raises it’s not very pretty head from time to time. Thankfully I have a wise and wonderful wife who can knock this particular demon back down whenever it surfaces.

As I grow older, but not taller, I’m learning that you can’t be a superstar at everything you try. If you were brilliant at everything then life would be pretty boring. You would have no standout talents or abilities, you would just be equally amazing at everything. Nothing would stand out. Even superheroes have flaws or weaknesses. Perfection is well….average. And being average at most stuff you tackle in life is alright actually. You get by, you manage. And the ninety nine average traits in your life allow your talent or gift to shine all the more brightly, like a beacon of hope on a dark, featureless hillside.

Our average characteristics contribute towards our unique nature. They help in shaping us into the complex, incredible creations that we are. They define us and complete us. Every genius had a generous dollop of average as well thrown into the mix. God insisted. Otherwise our egos would run amok and our ability to express humility and modesty would be swallowed whole. YOU are exceptional and were placed on this earth at this time to do exceptional things. And being average at this or that is all part of the exceptional person you are.

You are who you are for a reason. Never forget that. It’s time to start feeling comfortable in your own skin. For it’s the only one you will ever have….unless you happen to be some some kind of weird snake-human hybrid. Which would be far from average. So here’s to being average. It’s the new awesome.

What height are you?

Are you comfortable in your own skin?

What’s so awesome about celebrating the average?

Clean

Hold the front page! Yesterday I got my cleaning head on as the family, some more enthusiastically than others, got stuck into some serious housework. Adam and I are painting the kitchen this weekend, which is probably a four part blog series in itself, so in preparation there was a lot of clearing away and movement of items. It’s necessary to complete this groundwork before the real work begins. So under the watchful eye of Fionnuala the men of the house began to clear out the kitchen. This took a while but in the end it was mission accomplished and Operation ‘More Paint On The Ceiling Than Ourselves’ can hopefully start later today.

The clear out obviously got my cleaning juices flowing as I decided to keep going. I don’t do enough to help around the house so this was a good opportunity to carry out a few additional chores and take a bit of the workload off Fionnuala. I’m a work in progress when it comes to household tasks. I mean who knew that darks and colours couldn’t go in the washing machine together? Well apparently Rebecca (11) did as Fionnuala and her looked on in horror as I loaded the machine. Disaster was narrowly averted and I moved on to other less mentally taxing duties.

I emptied bins, swept floors and polished work surfaces. I cleaned windows and washed dishes. And before any of you go ‘Oh isn’t he just the most wonderful husband’ can I just stop you. I’m not. The fact that I didn’t really know what I was doing and had to constantly stop and ask for instructions is testimony to that. What cleaning product do I use for this work surface? Where is this or that stored? Am I doing this the right way and am I getting in your way? I was trying. Very trying….But in the end I hope I managed to make a useful dent in the seemingly never ending list of chores that need done.

What did I learn from my manic morning? Well a few things really. Firstly, preparation and groundwork are key. You can’t just launch into painting a room. It requires organisation and prior preparation. Brains before the brawn. Thankfully Fionnuala has the former in much greater abundance than yours truly. She kept a watchful eye over Adam and I as, otherwise, we would have probably dived headlong into the painting and made a fearful mess. We would have been more destructive than constructive. It’s better to take two hours to do something properly than rush it in an hour and then spend the next five trying to make amends. Slow and steady wins the race.

Secondly I need to wear my dust goggles more often. Fionnuala works hard at keeping the house clean but even after a day or so dust will accumulate on surfaces. I realised this as I was polishing shelves and tables. What I thought were spotless work surfaces contained a fine layer of dust which I had previously been oblivious to; cleaning is a constant process as opposed to a once a month blitz. We can never slack off as the way of the world is that the dust and grime will just start to build up again. My cleaning prowess needs to be more than a one-off phenomenon. I need to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty on a more regular basis.

It’s the same with our lives. We need to be more watchful in so many areas. Our mental and physical well being; our relationships with loved ones; our ability to ascertain right from wrong. It is so easy for us to relax, become a little lazy and take our eye off the ball. Then before you know it the layers of selfishness begin to accumulate again. We become blinded to the truth and allow destructive patterns and negative behaviour to sneak into our lives. It’s almost imperceptible but it happens and before you know it you are right back where you started. A clean conscience and a clear head require your constant attention.

We have to be always on our guard. There are pitfalls and traps at every corner. And there are those who do not want us to succeed. Sometimes it is other human beings but I believe that often it goes beyond that. I believe there are other forces at work, invisible powers locked in a battle that is as timeless as it is beyond our ability to fully comprehend. We might be mere pawns in this struggle, tossed about on the stormy waters like flimsy pieces of wreckage, but we matter. It is a battle for our hearts and souls. It is the difference between leading loving, impactive lives or drifting off down other paths where our sinful natures will stifle and strangle our natural gifts and talents.

Our enemies are cunning and resourceful. They also work hard. They don’t take days off. They are determined and dedicated. We need to be equally so. So just as I learnt on the cleaning chain gang yesterday I need to be prepared and vigilant. And I need to be watchful at all times. Because, otherwise, the layers of sin and self will start to accumulate on our souls and tarnish the beautiful lives that we were born to live. We need to knuckle down and work even harder, applying the most effective cleaning fluid of them all – love. Love is not fancy words or grand gestures. It is a way of life, a routine, a series of habits that you display on a daily basis.

Love kills all known germs. It is hard work. It can be mundane and monotonous. But it is here that you discover the miraculous.

What are your favourite household chores? And which ones do you dread?

Who are your enemies? How do you seek to counter them?

The Hibernation Is Over

I love the WordPress community. I find the honesty and openness expressed on it as refreshing as a spring breeze. People can be vulnerable here and strip back the layers of pretence that we are forced to wear in the ‘real world’. In a society where many social media platforms portray a false, distorted reality of people’s lives, WordPress is the one medium where the truth is spoken and freedom reigns.

We flee the real world at times in order to be ourselves.

There’s something not quite right about that last sentence but that’s kind of how it feels to me at times. I see so many blogs where people write painful truths but then add that they could never say such things in the real world. Many of us write anonymously in order to protect ourselves and others. Some worry that what they write might be misconstrued or misinterpreted by someone they know in real life. They delete posts or water them down accordingly. We find our freedom in the shadows. We are exiles.

The world we live in is in disarray. Moral values appear to have been turned upside down. Greed and selfishness seem to run rampant, devouring all before them. We feel like outsiders looking on helplessly at the madness all around us. It is beyond our control, an unstoppable surge. We wonder where God is. We wonder where simple human decency is. We are strangers in a strange live. We fall back to our primal, default mentalities of fight or flee. We feel too weak to fight back and so we choose to flee.

We have been beaten up, downtrodden, broken and left for dead. So we retreat, we fall back. We choose self preservation. We hide in our caves, we curl up into foetal balls and resolve to wait out the gathering storm. We are done with life and people who have done nothing but disappoint and hurt us. We effectively enter a self-enforced hibernation, cutting the umbilical cord between ourselves and the world. We turn our backs on those who have turned their backs on us. We disappear.

Hibernation is a time of safety and warmth. It is necessary in order for animals to prepare for the coming seasons. They hibernate in order to survive. They switch off in order to be able to switch on again when the first weak rays of sunlight start the thaw the deep snowfalls. Hibernation is a temporary death they go through in order to lead a more fruitful life when they re-emerge into the chaos that is life. It is an annual resurrection of sorts, a ritual passage that lies at the heart of the cycle of being.

Fionnuala and I spoke a few days ago about this subject and how we have gone through a period of hibernation over the last year or so. This has been largely self enforced and I am to blame for that. As a stay at home mummy it has been particularly hard for Fionnuala. At least I can escape the insanity of living with three kids and retreat to the workplace where I can (supposedly) interact with other adult human beings. Fionnuala does not have such a release valve after having to give up a very busy and challenging office job because of our unique childcare issues.

I too often get too wrapped up in my work, blogging or running. It is part of my obsessive nature although that is no excuse. I get ideas above my station and too big for my boots. I neglect my wife who has been my rock through so many storms in recent years. I simply cannot live without her yet I am thoughtless and take so much for granted that she does for me and the family. I neglect other people too; friends who I have turned my back on when they never did that to me. I messed up and ran away and hid in a pity cave of my own making. It is time for that to end. The hibernation period is over and I’m seeking to re-emerge, fully focused on my faith and my family.

We need to find new friendships and perhaps reignite some old ones. We need to communicate not curl up in a ball of denial. I need to face my failings and take practical action to prove my sincerity to my loved ones. I need to practice what I preach and show love as opposed to just talk about it. I need to put God and my loved ones before myself. In fact I need to put everyone before myself. I need to kill the self and start afresh. I need to wake up and smell the coffee flavoured truth. They say a leopard can never change its spots. I disagree, I believe we can always change and become better people through the grace and love of God and others.

I want to change. I need to change. I have to change.

I will change. The hibernation is over.

Have you ever experienced a season of hibernation? Is it currently ongoing?

Why did you enter it and how did you re-emerge?

Lacey Sturm – Mercy Tree

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrgl9z3grKU&feature=share

Fionnuala and Hannah are the musical maestros in the family but I thought I would crash the party and post a song by one of my favourite singers and authors, Lacey Sturm. She was formerly the lead vocalist of a band called Flyleaf who some of you may have heard of. Her words and music have had a huge impact on my faith journey. This is one of her more mainstream songs (she’s usually more grunge rock). Hope you enjoy it and let me know what you think.

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