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As for me …

Often, as I read something online or watch a news item on TV, I quickly decide, ‘This doesn’t interest me’, ‘This doesn’t apply to me’ or ‘This hasn’t been my experience’. In this era of information overload, we need to choose what we take on board and what we ignore. Yet this may not be the best way to read Scripture, I realised recently.

I love the heartfelt praises of God I find in the Psalms, but also the honesty, as David or another psalmist cries out to God in times of great need. So at first, I was on board, as I began reading Psalm 55.

Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my pleas; hear me and answer me. My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught… (1-2)

Yes, Lord, I prayed, my thoughts trouble me right now too. I’m concerned for our family and others in this lockdown time—and for our whole nation. I read on, taking in how David’s enemies were reviling him and causing him such great fear and anguish that he wanted to run away and hide.

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.” (6-8)

Poor David, I thought–but this doesn’t really apply to me. I don’t have terrible enemies like he did. I was only half-focussing by then, although I still registered David’s horror at a friend’s betrayal and the violence and destruction happening everywhere (9-15, 20-21). No wonder he cried out to God all day in anguish.

But I call to God, and the Lord saves me. Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice. He ransoms me unharmed from the battle waged against me, even though many oppose me. (16-18)   

I’m glad God listened and saved David, I thought, but by then, while my mind was present, my spirit was far away. I kept reading, keen to finish and move on.

Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall. (22)

Yes, David hung onto God well, despite his circumstances, I decided—I like his certainty here and how he goes on to share this with God directly. Hopefully I would be just as certain, if I were ever in a similar pickle.

Then my eyes caught the final words of the psalm:

But as for me I trust in you. (23)

David had spent the whole psalm describing his terrible situation and crying out to God for help. Yet here he was now, despite everything, clearly stating his own personal, simple, unshakeable faith.

In an instant, his words pierced my heart. ‘Can you say this right now too, Jo-Anne?’ I sensed God asking me firmly but lovingly. ‘The situation is dire for those around you in this pandemic, but aren’t you merely worrying about everything rather than trusting me in it all?’

I made sure I listened then—and I hope I have taken God’s timely challenge on board. Like David, I hope I can say with greater integrity and faith in the coming days, ‘As for me, I trust in you.’

The little things

It’s amazing how some little word or act of kindness can lift our spirits and change our day, isn’t it? Perhaps you may feel you have been lifting others up quite a lot instead lately, in this challenging, lockdown time. Yet we all need to receive as well and experience those special moments when our hearts feel a little lighter.

Recently, I dashed to our local fruit shop to buy some ingredients for our dinner, including parsley. But as I paid for my items, I fell into complaining mode.

‘I can’t believe I’m having to buy parsley,’ I told the girl at the checkout. ‘Right now, our daughter has heaps of it growing in her garden on the other side of Sydney, but of course that’s further than five kilometres away. And her parsley’s so lovely and flavoursome too.’

The girl smiled sympathetically, then looked thoughtful, as she adjusted her pretty, pink headscarf.

‘Um … would you like some fresh parsley instead?’

At first, I didn’t understand what she was saying. Her accent was quite strong—and I was puzzled too, as I had hoped the parsley I had bought was fresh. But then she went on to explain further.

‘I dropped into my dad’s place this morning to give him some sweets I know he really loves and he wanted me to come in, but I said I wasn’t allowed. So he said, “Well, at least take some of the parsley from my garden with you!” We use it to make tabouli, but would you like some?’

At that point, she picked up the parsley I had bought, put it back in its display stand rather disdainfully and hurried to the rear of the shop. After a short while, she re-emerged and handed over a huge clump of her father’s beautiful, fresh parsley to me.

‘It’s good—and it’s organic too!’ she told me proudly.

I know it was only a bunch of parsley, but I was so touched.

‘Wow, that’s wonderful!’ I told her. ‘Thank you so much—and please thank your father too. God bless you!’

She looked a little stunned at my final words, but, somehow, they had just burst out of me. I truly did want God to bless her. She had done something so kind and unexpected for me—and I felt her actions had pleased God’s heart too.

That evening, as I chopped my lovely, fresh parsley for our dinner, I realised this girl’s actions had not only blessed me but taught me something too. We all need those kind words and actions right now, even more than usual—and I needed to remember this more often. I need to be part of the solution, rather than add to the problem by complaining and feeling hard done by. Besides, surely this is what God wants us all to do?

Be kind and compassionate to one another … Ephesians 4:32

Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else. 1 Thessalonians 5:15

An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up. Proverbs 12:25

Little things are so important, aren’t they? Especially those kind words and deeds that reflect God’s own kindness and build us all up.

‘What was it like when you were at school, Nanna?’ our youngest granddaughter asked me recently. Apparently, her Year Two school work that day involved talking to ‘someone older’ about such things and she had chosen me.

‘Well, we had to be very quiet in class, otherwise we would get into trouble,’ I told her. ‘Sometimes, children would be hit a wooden ruler if they were naughty—or they might even get the cane! We had long, wooden desks, with holes for inkwells—we dipped our pens in ink to write in our copybooks.’

Maxine became quite animated then.

‘Nanna, did you write with a feather?’

I tried not to laugh, as I responded. No doubt she must have seen someone writing with a quill in a TV show or book.

‘Hmm, I’m not that old, but a pen and nib were a bit like a feather!’

So much was strange to her. How come we didn’t get driven to school and picked up afterwards? What did we wear? What did we have for lunch? The more she asked, the more those memories surfaced. ‘Canteen’ was called ‘tuckshop’ back then. No compulsory uniforms in primary school, but I wore a hat, gloves and black stockings at high school, in Brisbane’s stifling, summer weather. On it went—so different from now.

Later, I began to reflect on the positives as well as the negatives of those school years. In primary school, we learnt how to write that lovely Queensland cursive our grandchildren cannot read today. We recited our times tables. We were drilled in mental arithmetic. In English, we did analysis and parsing, so useful to me as a writer today. We marked towns and rivers on maps. All up, I am so grateful for that firm foundation laid in my education back then.

In my early years too, I went to piano lessons twice a week before school, where, as well as mastering pieces and practising sightreading for those scary exams, I learnt music theory. Again, all this laid such a good foundation for those many times in later years when I was suddenly given unfamiliar music to play at church or elsewhere.

As children, we were also sent to Sunday school, but I was fifteen before I came to experience the wonderful, close relationship God offers us. Over the years, my faith grew firmer, as I read Scripture and connected with other Christians. And by God’s grace, I came to experience more of God and more of the Spirit’s leading in my life, sometimes slowly and sometimes in big jumps. Yet in it all, for me, the bottom line was—and still is—that the Lord who called me into his family is himself my firm foundation, my rock, the cornerstone of my life. Without him, I am on shaky ground, like that man Jesus talked about who built his house on sand (Matthew 7:24-27).

Right now, in the midst of these strange, uncertain times, let’s remember who forms that firm foundation of our lives. Let’s remember that, whatever is happening around us, the Lord is always there and will never let us down. Let’s remember—and be so thankful.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. Psalm 18:2

Lockdown Sunday

It is a grey Sunday afternoon, in the middle of our strict, Sydney lockdown. I sit at the table in our living room, idly wondering what to do next. I have various options, but I am too unmotivated to take any of them up. Instead, I sit and stare, almost frozen into inaction. It is as if those restrictions in the world outside our four walls are reaching inside me too, shutting down my heart and mind and restricting any creative thoughts I may have.

I take a deep breath and, as I do, the first few words of Psalm 23, read again recently, come to mind.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.

My soul does indeed feel a little weary right now. Day after day, we hear news of ever-growing numbers of COVID cases in our city. Week after week, we cannot go to visit family members. And, one by one, events I was looking forward to participating in or speaking at are cancelled.

Yet, as I sit there in the silence, I hear God’s gentle but insistent whisper. Look around you, Jo-Anne. Look at all you have and be thankful!

I gather my thoughts together and try to focus. My eyes settle first on some things right in front of me on the table. I see an excellent, helpful book I am reading, while next to it lies a pen and a book of crossword puzzles. I love words—and I love challenging myself to work out the answers to those rather cryptic clues. And there is my steaming cup of tea too, along with a buttered scone—simple, heart-warming pleasures. Yes, Lord, I truly am grateful for each of these things and the joy they are giving me right now.

I lift my eyes then and notice my precious, old piano, inherited from my grandparents, with its lid up and some music open, as if waiting to be brought to life. Even as I glance across at it, so many memories come flooding back of hours playing this same piano in my grandparents’ home as a child. And I know God is reminding me to be so thankful for these memories—and for that fact that I can still play and enjoy doing so.

My eyes continue to roam around the room. I see comfortable lounge chairs, a TV, family photos and some precious, little possessions in a nearby china cabinet. The room is warm on this cold afternoon and I glance up at our very effective reverse cycle air conditioner. Once again, I hear that whisper in my spirit. Look at all you have, Jo-Anne—and be thankful.

Then I gaze out through our balcony doors to the shrubs and trees beyond, their various shapes etched against the sky. They look so green and vibrant, even on this dull day, and remind me that, whatever is happening everywhere right now, God’s natural world out there is so still amazingly beautiful.

Yes, Lord, despite everything, I know you are still watching over me, still caring about me, still longing to lead me and to restore my soul. You are my faithful, ever-present shepherd—and I am so thankful.

I received an email recently that gave me much food for thought. It was from someone who had just read my first two novels, Heléna and All the Days of My Life. This reader had found them among a pile of second-hand books a friend had been given and now wanted another novel of mine, Heléna’s Legacy, which explores the journey of a minor character in my second novel, then continues Heléna’s story.

I laughed out loud. The day before, I had found my lone, second-hand copy of this novel in my cupboard and thought, ‘No one will want that.’ Imagine my surprise when, the very next day, I discovered someone did!

My contact then told me some friends are now waiting to borrow these novels from her. This was gratifying news, yet I also found it somewhat disconcerting. You see, my first two novels were published back in 2007 and 2008—and I like to think I have learnt much more about writing since then. This reader might have enjoyed them, but would her friends?

In the end, I decided I could do nothing about that. Besides, back then, I wrote as best I could, with my whole heart and soul—and how fulfilling that was!

Then came another thought. I might have learnt much more about writing in those intervening years, but did I still write with that same heart and soul now? Back then, I wanted to write stories that would highlight themes I believed were vital for us all to grasp and experience. I wanted to write about the importance of holding onto our faith in God, whatever happens. I wanted to write about experiencing God’s amazing love and grace, about forgiveness and about becoming all God purposes us to be. Did I still feel so passionately about such themes now?

Since 2004, when I began my first novel, I have written nine books and around 650 blogs and have also spoken over 250 times at all sorts of gatherings. Through it all, I have learnt much more about God and experienced God’s amazing faithfulness and enabling in so many ways. Yes, I am still passionate about those same important themes, yet some things I held dear back in 2004 have fallen by the wayside. Some needed to be discarded—others did not. Some changes in my life and faith have been for the better, I believe, yet others have not. Looking back, I am sad about those times when I may have failed God, others and myself in different ways. But I am so thankful God is merciful and forgiving, always persevering with us and always lovingly pointing us to higher ground.

Yes, I’m still the same person I was back in 2004, yet different too. I want to change what needs to be changed. I want to grow where I need to grow. And I want to keep drawing closer to God, don’t you?

Let’s hold onto those key themes of our faith in God, but let’s keep humbly learning and growing too, as we seek to become more like Jesus each day.

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. 2 Peter 3:18

Just Joey

In late June/early July, our church’s annual Art Installation was set up, ready to open to the public for two weeks. We had all worked hard to prepare paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs, pieces of writing, and various other creative endeavours on the theme of ‘God of Wonders’. But alas, due to COVID, in the end, no one could come to view our works and take time to reflect on God as they did. Dates were changed, but still no one could come when lockdown here in Sydney became even more restrictive. Then the idea of a digital tour through the Art Installation was born. Please click here to start your own personal, virtual viewing!

This year, I submitted two photographs in connection with a brief piece of writing. I love roses and decided to feature a special variety I discovered only a few years ago—‘Just Joey’, a beautiful, apricot-coloured rose with delicate, frilled petals when fully open. I bought one and planted it. And … well, below is the piece of writing that will explain why I had to do that and what God showed me as a result. I hope you enjoy reading it and that it encourages you to continue to spread that exquisite perfume Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians quoted at the end.

Just Joey

I cannot resist buying the little rose bush. After all, its name is ‘Just Joey’—and I too was called Joey as a child.

The soil is stony where I plant it, but my little bush grows. Then one day, to my delight, a beautiful, apricot-coloured bud appears, its gentle scent wafting towards me as I cut it and place it in a vase.

The bud soon opens. It is a more old-fashioned style of rose, but I love how its layer upon layer of delicate petals are frilled at the edges and quiver at my touch. I gaze at them in awe—I have never seen petals like this before.

Then I sense God saying tenderly, ‘This rose is you, Joey. You are unique too, created with many interesting layers waiting to unfold. Some may see you as old-fashioned, but you are beautiful in my sight. May you continue to be “Just Joey” for me in all you do. And may you spread the sweet aroma of my Spirit everywhere through your writing and through the words you speak.’

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­In the Messiah, in Christ, God leads us from place to place in one perpetual victory parade. Through us, he brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God… 2 Corinthians 2:14-15 The Message

Connecting

One Sunday morning recently, I walked past my husband’s study and heard his voice, loud and clear. He had been invited to preach at a ‘live’ service for a church across town via Zoom. I could tell he was putting his heart and soul into his message, as he tried to ensure this multicultural online congregation would understand and take his words to heart. Later that day, however, he felt quite tired. He had done it gladly, but it had taken extra effort to communicate in a way that would make his message understood by all. 

The previous afternoon, I had connected via Skype with a friend who has recently arrived home from overseas. We found it ironic that, even though she now lives only five minutes from me, we had to communicate in the same way as we had when she lived thousands of kilometres away. I felt disappointed, as I truly wanted to be present for her and hear her heart, which I find much easier face to face. But I tried hard to understand and empathise—and I hope she felt she had been listened to well, by the time we had finished.

A few days later, I took part in a Zoom interview hosted by a staff member of the Locker Valley Libraries in the area of Queensland where my latest novel Down by the Water is set. It was a little nerve-wracking, as I had only a vague idea beforehand what questions I would be asked. Nevertheless, I tried hard to focus and respond clearly, because I wanted any who might view the video to understand my heart in writing this particular novel and my motivations for writing in general. And thankfully, despite the challenges involved, I truly did enjoy the experience in the end.

It’s wonderful that, in these times of COVID restrictions, we have such ways of communicating at a distance. Yet it takes extra energy and effort too, don’t you think? It’s as if we have to compensate for all that space between us—as if we somehow have to add extra warmth and life and a sense of immediacy to the conversation as best we can. Yet I’m so glad that, when it comes to communicating with God, I don’t have to try to compensate for anything. I’m so glad God is always there, in me and around me, always ready to listen and to speak. I don’t have to work hard to explain myself or share what is on my heart, because God knows already anyway. What a relief!

Yet could it be that I sometimes take all this for granted? Would my times of connecting with God perhaps be even more wonderful if I put the same effort into them that I put into my Skype and Zoom calls, if I listened more with my whole heart and if I sought more earnestly to understand God’s heart?

This week, may we all be fully present to God. May we sense God’s loving gaze on us as we do. And may we listen well, with our whole hearts.

This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him! Matthew 17:5b

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. John 10:27

Old faithful

We have almost reached a milestone moment in our family. Very soon, our second car, which mostly I drive, will be pensioned off. I thought I wouldn’t mind saying farewell to my faithful, old chariot, yet it has become like an old friend to me, after owning it for over twenty years. In that time, it has travelled around 270,000 kilometres in Sydney and country areas, as well as interstate. And it is still eminently drivable, so much so that we recently lent it to a friend, until she could get her own car.

We bought our Ford Fairmont second-hand in 2000—it was only eighteen months old and had been well cared for. However, when we took it home, it refused to fit fully in our small garage. As a result, over the years, its lovely, shiny, maroon paint faded on the boot and nearby areas, leaving it looking more than a little battered. On top of that, my faithful, old car has recently developed some quirky characteristics. The remote key does not work anymore. The bonnet now refuses to open, except by force. The driver’s window may wind down, then refuse to wind up. Or it may even go down further—or perhaps up, when it’s good and ready. Who knows? Yet through it all, the car itself keeps purring along beautifully—and I particularly love the way it can tackle any steep inclines with ease.

In the last thirteen years, during my writing and speaking journey, my car has taken me on all sorts of adventures. Many times, I have packed my books into its roomy boot, along with my laptop and other paraphernalia, and set off for some event, wondering what lay ahead. Would many people turn up? Would my audience be interested in what I shared? Would I sell any books? At times too, I wondered if I would even find where I was to speak, but somehow, I always got there. Of course, my car does not have GPS, so I have relied on printed maps—or, in desperation, my phone. Yes, my faithful, old car holds many emotion-filled memories for me.

Yet recently, as I looked at its battered appearance and recollected its funny quirks, I sensed it also had something to teach me—and perhaps all of us. We too may have developed some funny quirks along the way. We may look a little more battered and worn that we used to—I know I do! We may even refuse to do certain things anymore, just like my old car. But we still have so much to offer. We can look back on all the years during which God has been with us and guided us and taught us. And from that experience, we can still share the love and grace of God with others, however we are gifted and whatever our age.

At the end of my life, I hope, like my car, I can be called ‘old faithful’. I hope I can still say honestly, when that day comes:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 2 Timothy 4:7

Is that your desire too? Let’s all stay strong in the battle. Let’s finish well. And, above all, let’s keep believing in our amazingly faithful God.

Each day, I suspect I somehow often miss those many little moments of miracle that can remind us God is still alive and active everywhere. It might be the sound of birds in the trees outside our window, as we wake in the morning. It might be the smell of something freshly baked, filling our home. It might be the sight of a rosebush covered in beautiful, fragrant blooms. Yet often, my mind is so preoccupied that I fail to see these little touches of grace in my life.

One Sunday morning during our Sydney lockdown, I decided to lie in bed for a while instead of getting up. Yes, I had things to do and a church service to watch online, but I felt quite tired and demotivated. So many thoughts ran through my mind of things I was concerned about—and soon I found myself feeling more than a little gloomy.

Eventually, however, I got up and proceeded with my day. But when I returned to our bedroom after breakfast, I stopped suddenly in the doorway. There in front of me, across the bedspread, I saw an ever-changing shadow pattern of small leaves and branches, as the trees outside our window swayed in the breeze.

At first, I thought, ‘How silly to stand here watching this mundane, everyday event!’ Yet I was mesmerised. I then walked over to our windows and gazed up at the trees, silhouetted against a beautiful, blue sky. I noticed the different shades of green in their foliage. I marvelled at the variety of shapes and sizes of their leaves. And I thanked God, not only for my little glimpse of creation in its natural state but also the added bonus of that special, ever-changing pattern on our bedspread.

Then my mind went to the events of the previous afternoon. We had driven into the city to pick up our friend from a quarantine hotel, but we had not navigated our way into this area for many years. We allowed a certain length of time to get there, but were a little nervous about it all. We did not want to arrive earlier than our friend’s allotted departure time, as we knew there was nowhere to park. And we knew too those alert security guards and hotel staff and policemen and even army personnel would not let us hang around.

We arrived a few minutes early to be told that, if our friend was there already, we could stop. Otherwise, we would have to find a park elsewhere or drive around again. Eek! Then, as we began to leave, we suddenly saw her—she had left her room a little early and was outside waiting. Almost to our bewilderment, everything went so smoothly in the end.

Now we could have congratulated ourselves on our cleverness at managing things so well. Yet surely God was there with us in that moment of reunion and had guided us all along? Surely this too was another gentle touch of grace from God’s hand?

I hope I don’t miss too many more of these moments in my life when God reminds me who is in charge and always will be.

How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Psalm 111:2 NLT

I have little to complain about in this current Sydney lockdown. I am so much better off than others whose jobs and businesses have been affected or whose plans have been hugely disrupted. I feel for them all—it must be extra hard to take, just when things had become more normal.  

Yet I have felt a little discouraged myself too, especially when two speaking engagements I had been looking forward to had to be cancelled. This of course also happened last year during COVID, taking away those various opportunities to speak to both small and large groups and promote my books. Yes, my books are still available in Koorong and online via my website, Amazon etc, but there is nothing like selling them in person and being able to engage one-on-one with potential readers.

Around the same time, I received some rather discouraging news to do with my writing, which made me wonder if all my effort was in fact worthwhile. Surely it would be easier to forget about writing altogether and do something else?

In the midst of my little pity party, however, I began reading the final chapter of 1 Peter. But as I did, I noticed the heading there in my bible—‘To the Elders and Young Men’. How could these verses apply to me then? Nevertheless, I read on. As Peter addresses the church overseers, he urges them to shepherd God’s flock with willingness and integrity, not lording it over others but being a good example in every way. Then he writes:

And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. 1 Peter 5:4

Wow, I found myself saying to God, I need to remember that! Whatever happens with my books, whether they are dismal failures or roaring successes, in the end, what really matters is whether I have faithfully served you and others as best I can through my writing and speaking. Any glory or honour I receive or don’t receive here is nothing compared to that crown of glory that will never fade away!

Next, I read Peter’s words to the young men, then to everyone. This part definitely included me.

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7

Hmm, I said to God, I need to do that. And I know I can because you love and care for me so deeply. So why I am I holding on tightly to all this anxiety then?

I kept reading, hearing God’s warning in every word.

Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. 1 Peter 5:8-9

Yes, Lord, I responded, I should know after all these years how the enemy loves to try to drag us down. Yet I don’t have to let this happen. Instead, I can resist—I can stand firm. especially when others are suffering so much more elsewhere, yet remaining faithful.

Stuff happens—or doesn’t. Yet God is always there and always will be.

To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 5:11