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Jo 17There I was, seated behind my book table at a school Christmas Market on a hot, Sydney summer day. The first mad scramble of students was over and the bell had rung. Around me, all sorts of interesting wares were on display—handmade Christmas cards and decorations, clothing, jewellery, festive food, plants and other miscellaneous items. The idea was that teachers would bring their students, class by class, to buy Christmas gifts for parents and other family members.

Soon the youngest students began arriving, many clutching tightly to little plastic bags containing their precious five dollars to spend. It was touching to see how teachers or older ‘buddy’ students tried to help them pick out something they could buy. Some found what they wanted by themselves, but most needed a lot of help and guidance. After all, it is hard to understand why that money in your little bag isn’t enough for just anything you like! My books were out of the question for them, but I tried my best to point them to some greeting cards I sell for a friend and to the one and two dollar items on the table next to mine.

When the older primary students turned up, however, it was a different matter.  Some perused the tables slowly, trying to work out what they could buy with their limited funds, while others headed straight for what appealed to them. But that definitely did not include one young boy I noticed. I watched as he circled all the tables at a great rate—once, twice, then yet again, each time getting faster and faster. Then he suddenly stood still and looked totally lost and confused, as if it was all too much for him. His face was red—and he seemed close to tears.

Just then, one of the organisers came by and I mentioned this boy to her.

‘Which one is he?’ she asked straight away. ‘Some can find it all a bit overwhelming.’

I tried to point him out, but it was difficult, in the midst of so many children. Then I lost sight of him altogether.

Later, I wondered where he went. Did that organiser find him? Or did he give up and not spend anything? Did he leave happy? Or was he still upset?

As Christmas comes closer, I am reminded of that young boy whenever I am out shopping and take a moment to look at those around me, as they head through the centre with bulging bags and trolleys. Some seem relaxed and cheerful—but many appear decidedly harassed and overwhelmed, just like the boy at the Christmas Market. And soon I find myself remembering some words from Matthew’s Gospel about all those people who came to receive healing and teaching from Jesus in the places he visited:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36

This Christmas season, let’s watch out for those around us who seem harassed and helpless, for whatever reason. Let’s do what we can to walk alongside them and ease their burdens. By our kind words and helpful actions, let’s do our best to point them to Jesus, the true Shepherd, who alone can bring that deep peace we all long for in our hearts.

Jo 12Doesn’t it warm your heart when you see and hear about people quietly helping others in amazing ways?  These people are not looking for any recognition or even for anything in return. They are simply serving someone else with a heart of humility and love.

Recently, I heard of two such instances via two emails, one after the other. The first was from my husband’s cousin, telling us with joy and excitement—and a good dose of humour—about their interesting adventures of the past few weeks. She and her husband had just returned home from a trip to North Queensland when they received a call from a friend, asking if they could possibly head to a quite remote property in Central Queensland for a few weeks, in order to help an eighty-year-old man trying to manage on his own, after his wife’s death. He needed to get to hospital for an operation, followed by rehabilitation—could they look after his property for a while?

Not only did this couple go, but, while there, they thoroughly cleaned inside the house, replaced rotted window sills, painted doors, railings and other bits and pieces, cleaned up the yard and workshop, took old cars to the dump, fixed tractors, put up wire mesh on verandas—and completed so many other difficult jobs. Also, one day, they drove to four other nearby properties, one after the other, to deliver a special gift hamper to each from a lady in their church. In previous years, they had made contact with these folk through helping to deliver truckloads of hay to them during drought time—and now someone from the city was still touching their hearts through this ministry of love.

My second email was just as moving. This particular friend shared with me how she and her husband had been caring for their adult daughter for weeks, travelling to and from where she lives, in order to bathe and dress some huge ulcers on her feet.  Then when the ulcers had healed a little and she was back at work, they faithfully drove her to work each day and returned in the afternoon to take her home. This couple does all this, despite the fact that my friend is herself in a wheelchair. Her husband has cared for her too for many, many years and continues to do so.  Yet these folk always appear bright and happy—the love of God truly shines through them both.

I am sure you could add many other similar amazing stories to these, just as I can. For example, each week, people from our church put on a barbecue lunch in a park in Parramatta, in order to feed homeless folk or those not doing so well in life. Others I know help rescue and retrain girls overseas who have been trafficked for prostitution. Still others care for orphans in countries where there are few resources. The list goes on. All these people are amazing—and they give of themselves time and time again in extraordinary ways, to reflect God’s love to others with a humble, servant heart.

I want to be like that—don’t you?

… Serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Galatians 5:13-14

Jo 17I must admit I can be a bit of a loner. I don’t mind my own company—along with the imaginary company of whichever characters I am writing about! Yet, recently, I came to see once again the huge value of doing things in partnership with others. Together, we can often achieve so much more. And together there is often twice the enjoyment to be had as well.

Last week, my sister came to stay for a few days and, in that time, we managed to fit in some great shared experiences. One day, we drove to a spot near Canberra to visit our cousin. I loved seeing her beautiful home and extensive garden and enjoyed her gracious hospitality. But it was the conversations we had with her that I will treasure most and also the deep discussions my sister and I had as we drove there and back together.

On other days, the two of us took a ferry ride into the city and back and also a train trip to the Central Coast. The weather was beautiful and we enjoyed all the different vistas we saw along the way on both occasions. We also visited the Opera House, the new southern Barangaroo precinct and the gracious, old Queen Victoria Building . Yes, I had seen most of these places before. But it was sharing such experiences with someone else that added to the enjoyment of it all.

And on various occasions, we caught up with family members at an assortment of restaurants or relaxed over a cup of coffee. The food was all excellent—but it was the laughter we shared and the personal connections we enjoyed that made these times so memorable.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all this gaiety, I found myself emailing four writer friends back and forth, as we tried to arrange some shared book promotion events. The ideas flowed and, gradually, as I believe God led, the right shape for each unfolded. I am looking forward to them all—the launch of a new friend’s very first book this week, a joint bookstore event with her next year, another with a different author friend on 3rd December, and a radio interview arranged by yet another writer friend and radio personality. A further shared event with a friend proved too hard to fit in, yet, as she and I discussed what to do, her desire to promote my books and see them bear fruit touched my heart.

It’s wonderful, isn’t it, even for us loners, to do life together with others in such supportive, encouraging ways? Yet, whoever we are and whatever our personality or our situation in life, we need more. We need to find that friend who is with us at all times, who understands us completely, who loves us unconditionally and who cares what happens to us. Others may not be available when we need them or in the way we would like them to be. But we can choose to lives out our lives together with the best friend ever—in company with our amazing, loving Lord, sharing our hearts with him, walking through each day with him. What a joy and privilege!

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Psalm 34:8

Encounters

Jo 23‘What do you do when you visit a bookstore to promote your books?’ I was asked recently. ‘How do you fill in the time? Do you just sit there and smile nicely?’

‘I don’t sit much at all,’ I replied. ‘I walk around the store and engage with people. I give out bookmarks, advertising my books. And I pray for eyes to see those God wants me to connect with and for wisdom to know what to say.’

And that is exactly what happened one recent Saturday, as I visited a nearby store to promote my latest book, Becoming Me. What heart-warming connections would God have for me, I wondered, as I tried to make my book table look inviting.

I had barely finished when a youngish man approached. He turned out to be a pastor, serving on the staff of a church on the other side of town. We chatted … or at least, he did. I could not easily get a word in—it seemed he simply needed to talk and talk to someone about his difficult family and church situation. He mentioned his father too, a famous pastor who had planted many churches overseas. How could his small efforts compare?

What could I say? Nothing really—but I could listen and empathise. And I will not forget the deep pain I saw in his eyes. He bought a copy of my new book—and I silently prayed it might help him in some small way.

Next, a lady in her mid-thirties almost bounced up to my table, as if to say, ‘Here I am!’ I did not know her, but it was as if we had some divine appointment. She was feeling a bit lost in life, she told me, with her youngest having started school. Years ago, she had worked in an industry she now did not enjoy and did not want to return to. What did God have for her to do? I shared some of my own experiences and she seemed to appreciate our time together. And again, as she walked away with my book, I hoped and prayed God might speak to her through it.

Late in the day, another lady approached and we began chatting. She asked about my writing journey and we talked a little about her own difficult life and bitter divorce.

‘Oh, you should meet my new husband,’ she told me. ‘He’s a poet—he’d like your advice about a potential publisher. I’ll go and find him!’

He came, took out his smart phone and, one after the other, began to read his sad but beautiful poems to me that spoke of his despair over his own divorce. Again, I felt his pain. I urged him to contact me for publishing information—I did not want him wasting thousands, taking up the expensive self-publishing deal he was being coerced into accepting. Surely just at the right time, God had brought us together as well.

God has such encounters for each of us, I believe, whatever our situation in life. Let’s open our eyes and ears, as we go about our days. Let’s always be ready to speak the words God gives us and encourage those we meet along the way.

A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. Proverbs 25:11

Jo 17Our memories are amazing, don’t you think? They are like huge filing cabinets in the recesses of our brains, with drawers that seem to go on forever. As one memory emerges, another can follow closely on its heels. And, when we least expect it, something may trigger a vivid image from far-off times that can surprise and even overwhelm us.

Recently, a high school friend came to stay and to accompany me to a writers’ conference. It was like old times, we decided, as we shared a room at the conference venue—more than fifty years after we had first done so at a camp as teenagers!  Over our time together, I was amazed at the little things she remembered from our high school years. Her parents lived in country Queensland and we met up when she was boarding with relatives in Brisbane.

‘I remember when your mother lent me your sister’s navy skirt to wear to school,’ she told me. ‘I was horrified when I realised mine was miles away back home, but your mother was so kind about it. And the skirt fitted perfectly too!’

I could not recall this event, but was touched to hear how my mother’s kindness had impacted my friend so deeply that the memory had remained with her down through the years. She had not wanted to be embarrassed as a teenager by having to wear something other than the complete school uniform prescribed—and my mother had saved her from that fate.

‘I remember too the ham sandwiches your mother made for us to eat on the train home to my parents,’ my friend went on. ‘We couldn’t afford ham— that was a luxury!’

Again, a memory I had definitely forgotten, no doubt because I took ham sandwiches for granted. But I had memories of my own from that trip home to my friend’s family. I remember the lovely experience of being part of a large family of seven children for a week and of living in a country manse next door to a church. But, above all, I remember something that happened one morning—and every morning after that. I remember how that family gathered together around the breakfast table and how, before they went about their day, they dropped to their knees beside their chairs and prayed for all sorts of people. On the first day, I was shocked—I couldn’t work out what was happening, but I followed suit. And that image is now etched in my brain—an image that speaks so strongly of the importance of faithfulness in prayer.

The little things we do can impact others—and vice versa. Yes, we may remember the hurtful moments—and those barbs can stay with us for years. But let’s celebrate all those lovely memories we have too. And let’s remember that, in this present moment, as we go about our daily lives, we have the opportunity to impact others with God’s love and to bring glory and honour to God in all we do.

You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. … In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. Matthew 5:16 NLT

Jo 12I had just finished speaking at a service club. The men and women present had been attentive and I had enjoyed sharing from the heart about my writing journey and about the joys and challenges of being a published author. As I stood at my book table, two elderly gentlemen approached.

The first wanted to tell me all about his visit to ‘Lorna Doone country’ in south-west England. I had mentioned the fact that R D Blackmore, the author of Lorna Doone, was an ancestor of mine, so this gentleman joyfully shared how he had dined at the Lorna Doone Hotel and even slept in the ‘John Ridd Room’, Ridd being the main hero in Lorna Doone! Despite this gentleman’s age (I guessed he was well into his eighties), his warm, enthusiastic manner made me wish so much I too could visit those places my ancestor wrote about.

The next gentleman seemed even older—I soon discovered he had recently turned ninety. He spoke beautifully and his words were measured and thoughtful. He had obviously listened with great interest to what I had shared, but I was not prepared for the compliments he then paid me:

‘I believe there are two things that have kept you going in your life, Jo-Anne, and especially in your writing journey. The first is your obvious enthusiasm. You speak with passion and heart about all you do—and that’s wonderful. And the second is your perseverance. Your determination to keep going and to keep learning is inspiring. Well done!’

I thanked him, touched that he had taken the time to encourage me in this way. I wondered what he had done in his own life to be able to speak with such gentle authority, but sadly, there was no time to find out.

This man’s comments about my enthusiasm stayed in my mind as I drove home—so much so, that I later decided to look up the derivation of the word. I vaguely remembered it was linked to the Greek word for a god—‘theos’. Sure enough, the Oxford English Dictionary said the following: From French enthousiasme, or via late Latin from Greek enthousiasmos, from enthous, possessed by a god, inspired (based on theos, god).

Now that encouraged me even more. If this gentleman had been touched by my passionate and enthusiastic manner, could God’s Spirit have been at work through me as I simply shared about my writing journey in this ‘secular’ setting? And when I touched on my faith in God, had that enthusiasm shone through even more? Had God been evident in a way that was completely unintentional on my part?

I hope and pray this is so. I hope and pray that the presentations I give in these contexts not only entertain, but also reveal something of the image of God in which both you and I are created, giving others a glimpse of something beyond myself and pointing them to God. I hope in some way I can always be that ‘letter from Christ’ Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 3:3:

You show that you are a letter from Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

So … how are you at being enthusiastic?

BecomingMe-OFC-I like to think it wasn’t old age that caused me to make a rather crucial mistake recently. Stocks of my latest book Becoming Me had arrived, so I promptly sent out emails to lots of contacts, along with an attached brief document about the book’s release.

I vaguely remember a number of these emails taking much longer to send than the rest—which should have given me food for thought. But I ploughed on, eager to have my mammoth job completed. And soon I began receiving some encouraging responses and quite a few book orders via my website.

But last week, an email arrived from a friend who had just finished reading my first non-fiction book, Soul Friend. After explaining how much she had enjoyed it, she commented on my recent email about my latest book: I look forward to reading this one…. by the way, did you realise that you emailed the book transcript out, not the news release?

I was horrified. Surely I hadn’t sent out the whole manuscript of my new book to all my email contacts? With shaking hands, I checked my ‘Sent Items’. Phew! I could see I had attached the right document in most cases. But alas, around twenty-five people had indeed received a free digital version of the entire book!

Hmm—what to do? I decided to email these twenty-five again, apologising for my blunder and attaching the correct document this time. Now I am sure some would have quickly deleted this second email, as they had the first. But others reacted differently. One lady emailed that, after perusing my manuscript, she had decided to buy a hard copy at Koorong, which I know she did. Another lady wrote saying that she looked forward to reading the book ‘in some format’, as time permitted. Did that perhaps include my ‘freebie’, I wondered. Meanwhile, a writer friend was honest enough to admit she was puzzled at what I had done, yet was so happy to receive a free copy that she stayed quiet!

But one lady, way across the world in Ireland, exceeded all expectations. We have never met, but had been in contact about some workshops of mine she hoped to attend while visiting family in Australia. She began her email with the following:

So that explains why your manuscript popped into my inbox and ibooks! A most interesting read.

This lady went on to comment on various things she had enjoyed about Becoming Me. But she didn’t stop there. She also posted a review on Amazon UK! Not only that, she gave the book a five star rating!

This lovely, positive outcome from my silly blunder began to give me food for thought. Would this lady have ever purchased a copy of Becoming Me? I doubt it. Perhaps others who received my book by ‘accident’ might never consider buying it either, but still read it out of curiosity and be helped in some way. Whatever the case may be, I have decided to relax and trust God to bring good out of this whole event.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

A silly blunder? Maybe—maybe not.