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?

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?

I’m Writing A Book….Still!

I’ve now reached the two third mark of my fourth edit of ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square,’ my first, and possibly only, novel. Progress has been slow, but steady, this week. As ever, real life has got in the way, and I haven’t been able to devote the time I would like to the project. It has simply been a case of chipping away at it, where and when I can. I’m fighting the urge to rush ahead and lose the quality.

The beta feedback continues to be excellent; positive and constructive. I made a point of selecting as diverse a range of test readers as possible; from teenagers to pensioners, and every decade in between. They all seem to be enjoying the story and Meredith Starc is emerging as the most loved character. Do I need to rename this ‘The Meredith Starc Chronicles?’

I hope not, as Kirkwood is very loosely based on yours truly when he was a struggling office worker in his early twenties; without the world saving potential of course. Some of the lesser, but still vital characters are also being introduced – Cornelius Dobson, Martim Rodriguez, Gunther von Steinbeck to name but a few. It has been fun creating their back stories, where my love of historical research has come to the fore.

Then there’s Colonel Augustus Skelly, himself. The villain of the piece. I’ve put a lot of effort into detailing his physical appearance and mannerisms. He is truly alive when I write about him and I hope that comes across to readers. My wish is that he evolves into that most delicious of characters – the bad guy you love to hate. There may even be a crumb of sympathy as to how he turned out the way he did….but not much.

There are still a few characters to be unveiled, including one largely based on our daughter, Hannah. This has proved a major challenge. How do you do justice to such a huge personality? I’m hoping she likes Harley, her alter ego in the KS universe, otherwise my life won’t be worth living. Harley is a crucial character and crashes into the story soon, driving the plot on to its conclusion.

Much of the early sections of the book concerned character introduction, development and back stories. This has been essential as both Kirkwood and Meredith have dark and troubled pasts, which the reader must understand in order to appreciate their actions and decisions in the present. Otherwise, the story doesn’t make sense. I hope I’ve penned heroes that you can relate to and empathise with.

Then there’s the real hero of the book, the city of Belfast. I’ve enjoyed describing the streets I walk most days, capturing the grime and the beauty in equal measure. Some locations are real, others I have based on reality but allowed myself a degree of artistic license. This is the Belfast of the Kirkwood Scott universe; gritty, but scratch beneath the surface and you will reveal its supernatural underbelly.

I hope to have this edit finished by the end of the month. Then it’s a case of mulling over the beta feedback, et voila it’s finished. I’ll then turn my attention towards researching potential agents and drafting query letters. As ever, I want to thank everyone who has supported me both in the ‘real world’ and the wonderful world of WordPress. Without you, none of this would be happening.

What do you make of the Kirkwood Scott universe?

Are you writing a book? Have you written a book? Are you thinking of writing one? Where are you on your writing journey?

The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles – Skelly’s Square

Over the weekend I received a raft of feedback from beta readers regarding the first 15 chapters of my debut novel – ‘The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles- Skelly’s Square.’ Its an urban fantasy aimed at the Young Adult/New Adult market. Set in modern day Belfast it tells the story of our eponymous hero, a twenty something underachiever ravaged by a mental illness which dominates every waking hour of his life.

All this changes over one bizarre pay day weekend when Kirkwood’s not so cosy, alcohol sodden existence is turned upside down by a chance encounter with a young homeless woman, Meredith Starc. He realises that she may hold the key to unlocking the traumatic experiences which scarred his childhood and now manifest themselves in the form of the malignant Augustus Skelly.

Skelly lives in Kirkwood’s head and controls his life via an intricate series of compulsive routines which Kirkwood must perform in order to keep at bay crushing feelings of guilt and anxiety. Put simply, bad things happen when Kirkwood fails a routine. Very bad things. The routine is everything and hangs on the roll of dice every morning.

It could be anything from a fifteen mile run to inane mental gymnastics involving question and answer sessions with a work colleague. It doesn’t matter, as long as it is completed to Skelly’s satisfaction. Meredith has her own problems. Living on the streets, since the death of her best friend, Emily, she spends her days at the bottom of a wine bottle, trying to avoid the many dangers that rough sleeping in Belfast entails.

Thrown together, Kirkwood and Meredith must become unlikely heroes in order to untangle the mystery that is Augustus Skelly. A figment of a damaged psyche or a more sinister figure preparing to unleash an ancient evil that threatens the world as we know it? They must overcome their own inner demons in order to triumph in a supernatural battle of good versus evil which has raged across the cosmos for countless millennia.

Sound interesting?

Well, I’ve been overwhelmed by the response from the beta readers. The initial feedback has been incredibly positive and helped calm this novice author’s frayed nerves. I never thought I’d hear the words ‘awesome’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘excellent’ used to describe my little story. If I dropped dead tomorrow, and hopefully I won’t, then I would die a happy man. The responses have validated the last eight months of writing, no matter what happens next.

The betas have truly risen to the mark and I want to thank them publicly for the time and effort they’ve put into their responses. It hasn’t been a total gush-fest and they’ve offered constructive and valid comments which I aim to implement in order to strengthen the structure and plot; in addition to spotting a shedload of punctuation and grammatical issues. I never knew commas and quotation marks could make such fascinating correspondence topics.

I’ll be sending out the next 15 chapters of the book to the betas later today, with more confidence now. I was apprehensive about this process but now see the benefits of throwing myself to the beta wolves. Even though we still have a long way to go, Kirkwood is a step closer to seeing the light of day. I will continue to blog daily and hope you keep popping over to follow his progress. Thank you everyone for your continued support.

Would the above book synopsis catch your eye?

What do you make of the world of Kirkwood Scott?

What have been your beta reader experiences?

Only Mad People Start To Write A Novel? Discuss….

Whenever I tell people in the ‘real world’ *dabs fingers patronisingly* that I am writing a novel they invariably look vaguely uncomfortable before changing the subject at the first available opportunity. Some of them stare at me as if I have finally taken leave of my senses while others nod in bemused sympathy, say ‘that’s nice’ or ‘good for you’ as if I am a five year old child tugging at their trousers having told them I have just seen The Gruffalo arm wrestling The BFG at the bottom of the garden.

The few that do clamber over this initial hurdle of disbelief normally come to a jarring halt when the inevitable next question is asked – ‘What’s it about Stephen?’ Their faces drop as I begin to wax lyrical about the world of Kirkwood Scott. Supernatural beings amongst the homeless community in Belfast? Forces of good and evil battling for control of the known universe in that pub we always go to on pay day because it sells cheap beer? He’s finally lost it.

It is disheartening but thankfully there are those that keep me going. A friend visited us last night who I haven’t spoken to in forever. When Fionnuala brought up the fact that her deranged husband was writing a book she was genuinely interested and said she would like to read it. And you know what, I believed her. These are the tiny crumbs of support and encouragement that I cling on to as I plough through the third draft.

Because these tiny crumbs are the oxygen that the fledgling author so desperately needs in order to force him or her to flip open their laptop, stare at the blank screen and then start to hesitantly tap those first few words out on the keyboard. It’s all about belief. And it’s so much easier to believe in yourself when others believe in you first. Especially in the final stages when your literary lungs are bursting and the finish line seems farther away than ever.

I run marathons. Have I mentioned that before? They are 26.2 miles long. People always tend to forget the .2 but let me tell you that is the part of the race when the crowd are at their most inspiring and you need them more than ever before. It is their cheers and hollering that drag your aching, exhausted body over the line. They make the previous 26 miles worthwhile, they are the reason you run at all. They are the fuel that powers you through those lonely training runs in the pouring rain.

I feel like I am nearing the 26 mile stage of the book. Fionnuala has…. er ‘focused my thinking’ by informing me if I haven’t finished it by the end of September then she is initiating divorce proceedings against me. I think she’s joking. I think. But it’s certainly a kick up the creative backside when I need it the most. I need her support at a time like this. I need to finish this project even if it never sells a copy and wins literary equivalents of those awards they hand out at Oscar time for the worst movie of the year.

This book will prove a lot of people wrong. But more importantly it will prove a few people right. Those who cared. Those who believed rather than looked at me as if I had two heads. Those who encouraged me rather than those who offered smirks, sighs or, worst of all, silence. I’m excited about the end of September. Incredibly nervous but excited nonetheless. To be able to let the trusted few see what I have been hammering away at with furrowed brow for the last nine months.

It’s 6:30 in the morning and I’m about to clamber out of bed and haul myself into the rat race for another day. I will sit on the train and fret over still gaping holes in the plot. I will daydream through meetings about the colour of Meredith’s hair, still undecided, and whether or not Harley’s character should be introduced at an earlier stage of the story. I will spend my lunchtime run plodding around the city as my frazzled brain works overtime on such thoughts.

But I’m getting there. Only .2 miles to go.

How do you deal with the doubters and doomsayers when it comes to your dream?

What advice would you offer to me with .2 miles to go?

The Kirkwood Scott Chronicles: Part One – Skelly’s Square (An Update)

The second edit is complete, weighing in at a whopping 113K words. Since then I’ve done very little on it partly due to other commitments and partly because, well, the writing well was fairly empty. I had a very productive 3-4 weeks where I rattled through the draft tweaking and amending it to my hearts content. Then when I got to the end I just needed to put it away and mull over what the next phase was going to be.

That phase started last night when I began a more detailed plot synopsis. I’m hoping that it will allow me to get a better overview of the book as a whole and identify the no doubt many inconsistencies and gaps that require urgent attention. I’ve already decided to drop my original introduction and completely rewrite it from an entirely different perspective. I’m hoping that this will land a more impactive punch and lure the reader into the bizarre life and world of Kirkwood Scott.

It was a big deal for me disclosing the book’s title the other week. I was humbled by the interest fellow bloggers showed in it and the constructive feedback I received. This was a nerve wracking but necessary process. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve and don’t have the thickest of skins so realise I need to toughen up in this regard. When the plot synopsis is complete I hope to dive straight into the third chapter which will be largely a matter of connecting all the various dots I have created to date.

After that I will be letting go of my precious project and releasing it to a carefully selected band of beta readers and critique partners. The latter group will be 2-3 fellow writers. I hope we will be able to grow and learn from each other during this important phase. I’m also leaning towards the self publishing route but again it’s very early days. The blog will remain my bread and butter and I’m hoping that from within it will come my core readership base.

So what do you need to do now? Well, nothing really. Just keep being you. Thank you as ever for your endless support and patience. I drone on about this book every week but not one of you yet has told me to shut up. For that I will always be grateful. This blog has grown beyond our wildest dreams and has restored my faith in humanity and the entire online experience. Kirkwood Scott would never have been born if it hadn’t been for you lot.

Book Title Reveal – Part 2

Earlier today I shared the title of the book I have been working on since last August. I’ve almost completed the second draft of it. It’s weighing in at a whopping 120K words at present. I also said I would share some of the Belfast locations which have inspired me and which feature in the story. This post focuses on the Grand Opera House on Great Victoria Street. It’s quite an impressive building isn’t it?

I walk past it every morning on my way from the train station to my office and the covered entrance to it often provides shelter for homeless people who are normally emerging from their sleeping bags as I pass. I’ve come to befriend a few of them this last year and we are now on first name terms. I have been amazed by their dignity, humility and politeness on every occasion I talk to them.

These conversations gave me the idea of a troubled office worker who meets and befriends a young, homeless woman. One of their first tentative, nervous conversations takes place outside the Opera House and that meeting throws them together in an unlikely alliance against a series of natural and supernatural foes who most definitely do not have their best interests at heart.

I’ll post the next location later this evening. Until then thanks for your continued support for The Kirkwood Scott Khronicles.

Lunchtime In Belfast

So it’s Monday lunchtime and I’m sitting outside the office in the square basking in the warm sunshine. They are predicting a heatwave this week and word has it that Thursday could be the hottest day on record in Northern Ireland. Like ever! All around me office workers are sitting eating their lunches while tourists amble in and out of the imposing St. Anne’s Cathedral just across the street.

I’ve spent the morning within the arctic confines of our open plan office researching the role of the British Army when first deployed in 1969 at the start of the Northern Ireland troubles. It was a brutal period marked by senseless sectarian murders, street riots, explosions and hijackings. It was a time of confusion and carnage. Belfast was the Beirut of Western Europe. The British Government referred to it as an internal security situation.

Who were they trying to kid, it was a war. I grew up in that world although I lived in a relatively quiet rural area and my parents did everything in their power to shelter me from the reality of what was going on in Belfast and other hot spots. Even then I was tainted by the hatred and violence that flooded into our living room every night on the television news. It was everywhere, you could not escape it.

I’m so glad our country is at peace now. Our children will not grow up in that environment. Belfast is a modern, cosmopolitan city now with a thriving tourist industry. Security barriers and bombed out buildings have been replaced by trendy bars and restaurants. You can freely stroll around the city without fear of being caught in the crossfire of a terrorist attack. Another innocent victim. Collateral damage. Today’s headlines, tomorrow’s fish and chip papers.

Belfast is a better place. I sit back and stare upwards at the clear blue skies. When I look back down three rough sleepers pass me by. One of them has no legs and is propelling himself along on a wooden skateboard that looks like it was built in the 1950’s. The last time I saw a disabled person use such a mode of transport was when I visited Eastern Africa several years ago. I had never seen such poverty and thought I never would again.

Yet here it is in 2018 on my own doorstep. I look away in dismay to see half a dozen young people at the other side of the square clearly involved in a drug deal. In broad daylight as the tour coaches pull up outside the cathedral and the camera toting hordes disembark. All in the square outside my comfortable office. All in front of my comfortable life. The same square where two teenage girls brawled viciously the other week, fuelled by copious amounts of cheap cider.

The same square where a young man was viciously raped on his way home from a nearby club. Beneath the shiny veneer this city still stinks. You only have to dig a little and it’s there, the nasty underbelly. How civilised are we really? When we can live in a world that is still overflowing with greed and violence; with poverty and despair. It would be unimaginable if it were not for the fact that it is happening right in front of us.

I want to contribute, I want to make a difference, I want to make this wretched world a better place. I see progress and I see potential. But some days you set eyes on sights that bring all your dreams and plans crashing to the ground. Some days you just want to turn your back on it all as you can’t stomach it anymore. Today was one of those days. And all it took was a lunch break in the dazzling sunshine.

I’m Writing A Book….Still (Part 7)

Yes it’s your favourite time of the week when I update you on how the novel//project/bane of my life (depending upon my mood at any given moment) is coming along. Well, this week has seen significant progress and the word count on the second draft currently sits at just over 78K. I was off work quite a bit last week so had a couple of days when I could get well and truly stuck into edits and rewrites.

It’s becoming more and more noticeable to me how my story telling skills have improved as the writing process has continued. The early chapters read like short stories in isolation while there is much more of a flow and continuity to the second half of the story. I’m also pretty pleased as to how a couple of big set piece action scenes have panned out. Much better than I had originally thought.

I’m starting to warm to this editing lark as a) the first draft was not quite as horrific as I had anticipated b) it is helping me to spot gaps in the plot and character development and c) by chipping away at each line, paragraph and page I know I am edging towards an end product that I can be proud of. It’s slow, tedious work but I know it will be worthwhile in the end.

Equally slow and tedious has been the background historical research I have been carrying out relevant to the back story of several characters. At times I have been tempted to bin the research and just ‘wing’ the scene I have been working on it for. But when I sat down to write it earlier today the benefits of the donkey work was apparent. The scene really flowed and I was confident that, whilst fictional, the historical backdrop was accurate.

The life of an unpublished writer is a lonely and deeply paranoid one. I’m still highly reluctant to share my work with anyone and I rarely discuss it in the ‘real world’ due to the largely indifferent response I have got from most people I have mentioned it to; I have made a few tentative advances to potential test readers but then instantly regretted it and pretend the conversation never took place.

I have also been avoiding other fiction like the plague as I invariably compare the work of published and established authors to my own offerings and feel wholly inadequate. I know that is silliness personified but this huge slice of uncertainty still lodges in my gullet. I’m not going to be the next Tolkien or King overnight so why beat myself up over it. Small steps, Stephen. Small steps.

And don’t get me started on agents, publishers and marketing or I will run screaming from this post and jump into the nearest river. It seems like writing the blasted book is the easy part compared to what follows afterwards. If I can compare this to a marathon I feel like I’ve barely run a mile and have an awfully long way to go yet. But like when I race, I just have to break down the process into bite sized chunks.

On a more positive note the blog continues to prosper and the feedback and support from you lot has been fantastic as ever. You are the base, the foundation, the cornerstone of this project. Without the blog it would be little more than a middle aged pipe dream. It edges closer every day and, improbable though it may seem, I’m determined to give this everything I’ve got in order to make it a reality. For that I can only thank you all.

Would you like to be a test reader for ‘the project’? Or assist in promoting/marketing it?

What are your views on publishing vs self publishing?

Have you any tips on securing a literary agent or publisher?

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?

The Atheist Angel

Going waaaaay back some of you might remember a post I wrote called ‘Maggie’s Story’ (not her real name) about a young, homeless girl I befriended in Belfast last year. If not, you might want to check it out before reading on as it provides context for today’s post https://afracturedfaithblog.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/maggies-story/

I hadn’t spoken to ‘Maggie’ in some weeks but wasn’t particularly concerned. As is the nature of life on the streets she lived an unpredictable and chaotic existence. Some weeks she would be everywhere I looked whereas at other times she would literally vanish into thin air. I would never ask her where she had been. That was none of my business. She told me what she wanted to tell me.

I was always relieved, however, to see her after such absences. Yesterday was no exception. I was walking across the city centre from the office to the train station. My normal route involves cutting through a shopping centre (mall) which brings you out onto the most eclectic of squares where modern cocktail bars and restaurants sit alongside centuries old chapels and more traditional watering holes.

The square itself is approached from all sides by a series of cobbled, twisted alleyways where you often find city street dwellers. And it was here that I discovered Maggie sitting shivering beneath a worryingly thin blanket. She was as pale as an anaemic ghost, entombed in her regulation street uniform of hoodie and tracksuit bottoms. She looked cold and miserable but her blue eyes were startlingly clear. I knew immediately that she wasn’t using. I can always tell by her eyes.

When she saw me, those eyes lit up and her face broke out into a smile. A smile which made my day. ‘Where have you been?’ she enquired, totally oblivious to the fact that I walked this route every day and she was the one who had been missing in action. We engaged in conversation for a few moments, the details of which are irrelevant to this post. Needless to say her January had been a tough one. But she was alive and clean for which I was grateful.

As I crouched beside her I became aware of a young woman kneeling beside me. It was her flaming, red hair that first caught my eye. She started to talk to ‘Maggie’, her face etched with concern and worry. She told us that she had only recently moved to Northern Ireland from the United States and had lived on the streets in Los Angeles as a teenager. She then did the most remarkable of things, removing her coat and handing it to ‘Maggie’. ‘You’re freezing and you need this more than me’ she explained.

I don’t know who was more shocked, ‘Maggie’ or myself but there then followed a bizarre reverse tug of war between the two girls. ‘Maggie’ is fiercely proud when lucid and very reluctant to accept charity. She will never say no to a hot cup of tea and I have also persuaded her, after much effort on my part, to allow me to buy her food and cigarettes. ‘But only the cheapest brand. You do enough for me as it is’ she would holler after me as I entered the shop.

In all the time I have known her, however, I have never once considered giving her an item of my clothing. I was instantly shamed and humbled by this staggering act of kindness. The American girl, let’s call her ‘Abby’, looked cold herself and I could almost count the goosebumps popping up on her pale arms as she struggled to get ‘Maggie’ to accept her coat. Belfast is hardly Sunset Boulevard in deepest January I reflected, cosy in my heavy coat, cap, scarf and gloves. Yet here she was offering up her coat to a complete stranger who she knew needed it more than her.

The tug of war continued and I assisted where I could in translating West Belfast slang with Southern California drawl as best I could. They were both speaking English but struggling to understand each other. In the end ‘Maggie’ triumphed (she normally does) although she allowed ‘Abby’ to buy a cup of tea for her. I thanked the American girl afterwards and we talked a little as I filled her in as to what I knew about ‘Maggie’.

She screamed ‘Young Christian’ in her language, actions and dare I say it appearance. She looked as if she had just walked off the set of a Bethel worship music video. I’m not sure how but our brief conversation led to her asking what place of worship I attended. ‘I’m kind of between churches’ I mumbled, a bit embarrassed to admit as much to such a paragon of virtue. ‘What about you?’ I replied, bracing myself for a Christian CV as long as your arm. No doubt the daughter of a pastor, worship leader aged ten and veteran of countless global missions and city soup kitchens.

‘Oh I’m an atheist’ she cheerfully replied before saying her farewells and veering off into a nearby cafe in search of ‘Maggie’s’ tea. I stood there, my jaw scraping off the ground, in stunned silence. Here was a non-Christian performing perhaps the most ‘Christian’ act I had ever witnessed. A modern day Good Samaritan. In the space of five minutes she had shown more love and compassion than I had seen many devoted church goers display in five years.

Christianity is just a word, a tag, a label. It means nothing really. It is actions that make the person, not memorising Bible verses or rolling up to church every Sunday. The word ‘Christian’ was nothing more than a nickname given to the first followers of Jesus by the Romans. It was intended as derogatory, mocking term. The early followers referred to themselves as ‘The Way’. The three year ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus paved the way for the early church to explode onto the global scene and bring the mightiest civilisation known to man to its knees within a few centuries.

Atheist, Agnostic, Christian at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. They are nothing but labels. What defines us is love. Do we love those around us? Not just our family or friends but also those on the fringes of society? We need to radically rethink the ingrained stereotypes and prejudices which colour our view of the world. We need to stop judging others and shoving them into neat little compartments which tally with our outlook life. We need to value and include the ‘Maggie’s’ and ‘Abby’s’ of our lives. We need to love the homeless and the atheists (but we also need to love like the homeless and the atheists. Actually love as opposed to just talking about it.

Who are you going to love today?

Sanity Scissors

On Christmas Eve I said enough was enough and decided to get a haircut. I was starting to resemble a cross between Boris Johnson and Wurzel Gummidge (I suggest a quick Google search if you don’t know who either of them are). When I woke up in the mornings I looked like I had been electrocuted. Whenever I entered the office and took off my cap my colleagues shot me the strangest of looks. I’m not a pretty sight at the best of times first thing in the morning but this was a bridge too far.

As I settled into the barbers chair the young Polish barber asked me what I would like. ‘A number four all over please’ I confidently declared trying to avoid looking at my myself in the full length mirror. ‘Are you sure? That’s very short’ he dubiously replied before spending the next five minutes attempting to talk me out of it. But to no avail. The bit was well and truly between my teeth. It had to go. Hair today, gone tomorrow.

I now know what a sheep feels like when it is being sheared. Locks of dark hair tumbled past my shoulders on their way to the shop floor. It was raining hair, my hair! As I’d had to take my glasses off before he started I hadn’t a clue what my head looked like but at one point I was pretty convinced that I had a Mohican. Then it was gone as well. Thanks to a generous gene pool I will never go bald but this was the nearest comparable experience. When he had finished I put my glasses back on and marvelled at the transformation. I resembled a fuzzy pool ball.

When I got home the girls were fascinated. ‘It’s so soft Daddy’ they whispered in awe as I lowered my chrome dome for them to stroke my head stubble. Fionnuala observed it was a vast improvement and even Adam, who isn’t impressed by anything, looked marginally impressed. I was a new man. I felt revived, reinvigorated….anything really that you can put the letters ‘re’ in front of. It literally was a massive weight off my mind.

Wouldn’t it be great if a trip to the barbers could rid us of all the worries and concerns that rattle round our heads? If a snip here and a clip here could send them floating to the shop floor never to bother us again? We wouldn’t have a care in the world? Unfortunately I don’t know of a hairdresser who provides such a service. We are left with a head full of anxiety and stress which, if left untended, will grow and grow until it consumes us. It grows and grows until nothing else matters. It becomes us.

Don’t let that happen. Don’t become another victim or statistic. If you had a broken arm you would go the hospital right? There would be no shame in that. Well the same applies to a broken heart or mind. You can’t do it alone. Seek help. Talk to someone, be it a friend, your doctor or a counsellor. Suffering in silence is insufferable. You need to seek out voices in the real world in order to dispel the voices in your head for they will not stop on their own.

They want to destroy you. They will not go away. They will haunt you and taunt you until you lie shattered in a million pieces. Only then will their work be done. Don’t let that happen. You are better than that. You deserve better than that. It worked for me. I sought the help I needed for my OCD and life is so much better now. Not perfect but better. You can’t cure OCD but you can control it. I needed a brain barber to work their magic with the sanity scissors. The intrusive thoughts and overwhelming compulsions are less frequent now. I am in control now.

I’m not a big fan of New Year resolutions but if you do make one this year make one that will count and that you can keep. Get the help you need and become the person you were born to be. Get ahead by sorting out your head. You were only given one brain so look after it. We devote inordinate time to the rest of our bodies with visits to the gym and beauty salon. Let’s start to take care of our most vital organ. For without it, nothing else really matters.

What’s the most daring haircut you have ever got? Did you love it or live to regret it?

Is your mind weighed down today? What are you going to do about it?

Poker Face

I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This is a mental illness whereby distressing, intrusive thoughts enter my head and refuse to leave. These are known as obsessions. The only temporary reprieve is to perform a physical or mental routine, the compulsion, in an attempt to force the intrusive thought from my mind. It invariably returns, however, often stronger than before. The compulsive act reinforces the impulsive thought. It is an ever decreasing circle, a cycle of despair.

One of my earliest OCD memories as a young boy revolved around the fireplace in our family home. It was a coal fire and my mother kept a metal poker on the fireplace in order to rake the ashes. It was nothing. Just an insignificant piece of metal, an inanimate object which served little purpose other than as I have described above.

It was to become the centre of my universe.

I don’t know how or when it started. But unless the poker was in a certain position on the fireplace I would be overcome by wave upon wave of anxiety and worry. Like a boulder sitting on my chest. I was consumed by it. I could think of nothing else and would wait until the living room was empty before scurrying over to the fireplace and setting the poker in exactly the position I needed it to be in. This would alleviate my distress.

Until the next time.

I was embarrassed at having to do this so did everything in my power to ensure that nobody became aware of my fixation. Because it was insane right? But my mother had been watching and one day asked me why I was doing it. I was mortified and had no real answer. Why was I doing it? I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember the feelings of guilt and shame that followed.

I didn’t know what OCD was back then. I felt like I was a freak, a weirdo, an outsider. Something inside me was not right. I was broken and could not be fixed. My obsessions and the resulting compulsions dominated my life. They became my idols and I was brought to my knees time and time again at their altars. I was powerless to resist.

They made me the man I am today. The man I have been working so hard to change. This blog is part of that transformation. I am a work in progress but there has been progress. My OCD is largely under control now thanks to a combination of medication, education and a supportive and loving family. I still display OCD traits and have bad days but the good days outnumber them.

I have slain my idols.

Is your life being controlled by a false idol? It could be a toxic relationship, an addictive behaviour or a mental illness. It is the centre of your universe and try as you might you cannot kick it. To do so would cause your world to shatter into a million pieces. You are paralysed by fear, alone and confused. I see hundreds of posts a day about these false idols. Good people consumed by despair and depression.

You are not alone. I might not comment on your posts because sometimes I don’t know what to say. But I pray for you. There are thousands of us like you. Open your eyes. Be brave. Reach out and ask for help. Do not let your situation dictate the direction of your life. Grab the steering wheel now. Get off that road you are on. You can do this. If I can then so can you.

I believe in a God. You may or may not. But even if you do not share my beliefs do not allow false gods to ruin your life. Drugs, alcohol, sex, money, people. They do not control your destiny. You do. Turn your back on their altars of anarchy. Walk away. I am walking with you. For we are many and this path is well travelled.

Walk away. I know you can.

Have you allowed false idols to enter your life?

How are you coping with this?

Bad Head Day

Today was a Bad Hair Day. A very Bad Hair Day. I would post a photo but I don’t want to scare any of you good, good people. You all deserve better than that. I’m not sure if it was my now infamous cap, the windy conditions or that I’m in desperate need of a haircut but I resembled a 5′ 11′ Northern Irish troll when I finally reached the office this morning. Which is not a good look.

My arrival was greeted by a chorus of guffaws from my rarely sympathetic colleagues causing me to beat a hasty retreat to the bathroom to inspect the damage. I looked like I’d seen a ghost. It would have been a truly hair raising experience if it wasn’t for the fact that my hair was already raised. There followed a frenzied few minutes of wetting it down and trying to restore some semblance of sanity to my appearance. I looked like Albert Einstein after he stuck his finger in a power socket.

Makeover complete I returned to the office looking every inch the suave, sophisticated middle manager everyone knows and loves. Note to self – always keep a tube of hair gel in the office to avoid a repeat performance in the future. Or stop being so lazy and pay a visit to the barber’s to get it all whacked off. Hair today, gone tomorrow. I apologise. That was possibly the worst pun in the history of WordPress.

That’s the good thing about Bad Hair Days. They can easily be rectified, no matter how dire the reflection that greets you in the mirror. But what about those Bad Head Days? When no matter how hard you try and no matter what you do you can’t shift the smog of sadness which silently settles on your mind like volcanic ash. As it settles you become more unsettled. For you know what is about to follow.

Unsettled by depression and despair. Depression like a giant raven which sinks its talons into the meat of your mind and refuses to let go. It is relentless and seeps into every recess, polluting and contaminating your every waking thought and every restless dream. Dreams that make you scream. Screams that nobody hears because you are entombed in the solitary prison that is your consciousness.

Alcohol. Drugs. Sex. Money. They offer only temporary release, a momentary relapse in the onslaught which rains down on you like meteor showers hitting the atmosphere of your soul. Souls full of holes which can never be mended. Irreparable damage to irreplaceable hopes and aspirations. You feel utterly alone and are utterly defeated. You fly the white flag of surrender against a backdrop of nightmarish proportions.

Bad Head Days have a habit of becoming Bad Head Weeks. Then months, then years and before you know it your life is slipping through your fingers and you are left staring at nothing. Why wash? Why eat? Why answer the phone? Why get out of bed? Why breathe another breath? Options decrease as the anguish increases. You are broken. And choking. Choking on the bitterness of empty promises and seductive lies.

Lies. Soul ties. Time flies and before you know it they are gone. The loved ones, the loyal ones, the people you felt would always be there to catch you when you fell. Fell into hell. You’re in freefall. But it’s not free. It has cost you everything you’ve ever held dear. Suicide is painless they say. Not for those you leave behind. They will die every day reliving the day of your death. There is no hope at the end of a rope. Hope is living. Even if living is little more than survival.

In order to thrive you first must survive. A minute at a time. A breath at at time. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat ad nauseum. Until you are sick. Until you vomit up the poison. Until you see that first chink of light on the horizon. That first hazy sunset which cuts through the smog and warms your frozen heart. Scream. Scream until your lungs burst. Scream until you are heard, until you get the help you need to visit tomorrow. And the tomorrow after that.

Are you having a Bad Head Day? Or know someone who is? Please don’t suffer in silence. Get help. Today. Now.

Raise your voice. Kill the noise.

❤️🙏🏻❤️🙏🏻

Fuel 

Two nights ago I woke up at 2:45 a.m. And that was me wide awake. No matter how much I tossed and turned I could not get back to sleep. Why? I have no idea. There was nothing particular on my mind and everything I tried to return to the land of nod was doomed to failure. I read, I got up for a while, I even blogged (my blogs have sent many to sleep these last few months but it didn’t work on me) but all to no avail.


In the end I gave up and drove into work early. I was in the office for 07:00 a.m. My colleagues gave me strange looks as they drifted in but thankfully none of the usual hilarious quips that accompany such an early morning premonition; for example ‘Has she finally seen sense and kicked you out?’ or ‘Did someone wet the bed last night?’ Oh my aching sides….

The rest of the day passed in a drowsy fog. No amount of Diet Coke could shake it. I was The Walking Dead. By 09:30 I was ready for my lunch (thankfully not brains) and I struggled to focus on my computer screen and the words on it. A lunchtime run helped lift my slumber a little but by 3:30 p.m. I was ready for home. My working day had been a bit of a non event. Sleep deprivation was wreaking havoc with my Friday. I was tired, grouchy and wide open to any negative, intrusive thought that happened to drift across my consciousness.

When I hit the sack last night I don’t think I managed five pages of the book I am currently reading. I normally need a good twenty pages before drifting off. I must have been asleep by 10:30 p.m. I slept, largely uninterrupted, until 08:00 a.m. I woke up a new man. Fresher, more alert and feeling less sorry for myself. When Fionnuala, who was heading out for the day with the girls, asked me what I had planned I even mentioned the words ‘gardening’ and ‘cleaning’ in the one sentence. Unheard of!

I had caught up on my sleep. I need it just like I need water and food. Without it I struggle to function at the level required of me. Physically and mentally. Deprivation leads to disintegration. The same applies to my spiritual life. These last few weeks I haven’t been at church, haven’t been reading my Bible and haven’t been praying. I have struggled as a result. I have been less patient with people and more likely to get annoyed with them. I have been bearing grudges and unwilling to forgive. I have felt sorry for myself and resentful of others. I have set a poor example to those around me.

I want my writing to inspire and provoke thought. I want to offer hope to those without hope. I want to bring light into the lives of those who currently are surrounded by darkness. I want this blog to be the launch pad for my book. I have a story and I want to share it with others. But without God getting involved none of that is going to happen. Even the most expensive sports car isn’t going to move an inch without fuel in it. I need spiritual fuel just as much as I need sleep. I need it more so. Without it I grind to a halt.

Today is a new day. I will run. I will garden. I will clean. Fuelled by a proper sleep. But I’m also going to make a point of picking up my Bible and talking to God. For without that my soul dries up and the words cease to flow from my keyboard. I just ask that you take care of your own needs today. Physical, emotional and spiritual. Whatever your belief system do what you have to do in order to be properly fuelled to face the challenges of the day ahead.

None of us can do it on our own. You may feel utterly lost and alone as you reading this. Broken and worthless. Running on empty. Let me tell you that you are not. You just need the proper fuel to get going again and back into the race. You are special, unique and precious. We need you to be whole again. Don’t give up. Ever.

Are you running on empty today? I hope these words have been of some comfort to you. Please feel free to leave a comment.

Maggie’s Story

Every morning my commute to work involves a 15 minute walk from the train station, through Belfast city centre, to my office. En route I pass a lot of homeless people and I have been trying to build up relationships with them rather than just throwing a few coins their way, mumbling some throwaway words, and then hurrying away back to my own safe, comfortable life.

I found it a bit intimidating at first. What if they told me to go away (or more colourful words to that effect) regarding me as just another clueless do gooder who knew nothing of their real needs and situation. 

However, pretty much universally, my tentative, nervous approaches have been met with gratitude. Despite their often dishevelled appearance they could teach many of the well dressed commuters that rush past them a thing or two about manners and dignity.

One of tbem is called Maggie. She is a waif of a girl. She has told me she is twenty years old but looks about twelve. Most days you can see her around the city centre huddled in a doorway trying to keep warm. She is totally vulnerable and I shudder to think what experiences she has been through while living on the streets. Sometimes I see her in the company of much older men and my heart breaks for her.

Don’t get me wrong, she is no angel. There are times I speak to her and she can be distant and uncommunicative, rude even. She has issues with drugs and sometimes I find her glassy eyed and monosyllabic. I suspect she lies to me quite a lot but beneath it all is a lost soul with a good heart just waiting to be heard and helped. There but for the grace of God….

Most of the time, however, she is bright, energetic yet proud and humble. I have to force her to take money, food or cigarettes from me. ‘You do enough she says. You’re my mate. I don’t like taking stuff from you.’ When she is lucid she is witty, intelligent and polite. When she is lucid….

The one thing she can never get right is my name. It has become something of a running joke between the two of us. ‘What’s my name?’ I will ask. ‘Paul’ she will confidently reply before slapping her forehead with the palm of her hand upon realising her mistake. ‘I mean Stephen’ followed by profuse apologies.

I laugh now but I didn’t in the early days of our friendship. It annoyed ME. Here I was giving my time and money to someone who couldn’t even be bothered to remember MY name (never mind she couldn’t probably remember her own name when she was high). How ungrateful.

Then I realised one day that it wasn’t about me. It was about HER. Helping her, loving her and revealing the love of God through my actions. Once more I needed to crucify my former self; feeding her with love would simultaneously starve my ego.

Maggie doesn’t go to church. She doesn’t have a Bible. But from my conversations with her I know she has a faith. It is a brittle, fluctuating faith but it is still there, flickering like a candle in a drafty room. If I can in any way strengthen that weak flame in her then I am doing my job. The relationship between Maggie and me is only a conduit to a much more important relationship between Jesus and her.

So it doesn’t matter if she calls me Stephen, Seth or Serendipity. It’s irrelevant. What matters is that she remembers the name of Jesus. At the end of the day, his is the only name that matters.

In order to protect her identity Maggie is not her real name. But please include her in your prayers today. Pray for her protection, provision and salvation.

Please consider helping a homeless person today on your daily commute. A hot drink, a few coins or a friendly word could mean everything to them.

The French Lady

You see some strange sights walking to work. Take earlier this week. I was taking my normal route from the train station to the office which involves walking past a large coffee shop in the city centre. At that time of the morning there are normally a smattering of workers sitting outside getting their last hits of caffeine and nicotine before reluctantly dragging themselves back into the rat race.

This day was no different. I half glanced in the direction of the coffee shop before walking on past it, no doubt day dreaming about my next award winning blog. But then I heard it. A woman’s voice speaking loudly in a foreign language. Appalling  linguist as I am even I was able to tell that she was speaking (or shouting) in French.

The shouting continued. I looked over to see a well dressed elderly lady sitting outside the coffee shop. She was shouting across the street. Thinking she was a tourist (yes believe it or not Belfast has quite a few) I naturally followed her gaze to see who she was talking to. A grandchild who had perhaps strayed too far. Or a husband taking photographs of a sedentary pigeon or passing bin lorry.

There was nobody there. Oh there were people about. But it was quite obvious that none of them knew this lady from Adam (or Eve) and were studiously avoiding making eye contact with her. Hoping she would disappear if they did so long enough. Or at least shut up in order to save their embarrassment.

I did the honourable thing. I put my head down and walked on as well. Not something I was particularly proud of. But I had a meeting to go to and the last thing I needed was trying to communicate with a French pensioner when my sole topic of conversation would have been telling her my name and where I live – Je m’appelle Stephen. J’habite dans Belfast.’

I felt sorry for the lady. She clearly had some kind of mental health issue. She seemed bewildered and confused. Maybe she was asking for help. But nobody understood. Or took the time to understand. Worse still would anyone have stopped to assist her if she was shouting in English? I have my doubts.

There are people all around us who need our help. Some are more obvious than others. But they are on our radar. We might not understand what their specific needs are but it is clear that they are vulnerable and in trouble. Just like I did not understand what the lady was saying but I understood that all was not well with her.

I saw and heard enough to act. But I did not. Just like in your sphere of influence today you will walk past people clearly in need of your help. The desperate, the addicted, the broken. Some are more visible than others. They can be sitting begging on the street corner. But they are just as likely to be found in your classroom, office or neighbourhood. 

You might not be able to do much. But do want you can. Where you can and when you can. Be a light in their world. For the light will always overcome the darkness.

Merci mes amis….


Do you know somebody who needs your help today?

What could you do to help them?

How many languages can you converse in?

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