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Jo 12I am tempted to write a book one day about the many interesting experiences I have had during my journey of speaking at all sorts of venues as a published author or promoting my books. It could also include those occasional moments in every-day life when someone discovers I am a writer—at which point the ensuing conversation usually has to do with what sort of books I write or what their titles are. But occasionally these interesting exchanges take a little more challenging turn, as happened recently.

‘So … you’re a writer. Um … should I know you? Are you famous? What books have you written that I might have come across?’

Fortunately, I managed to laugh and answer in a light-hearted enough way. After all, I could understand the person’s confusion. Is she really a writer? … I don’t recognise her—but maybe I should. I’m sure I haven’t heard her name before though. … I wonder what she writes? Probably nothing I’ve read anyway. Mostly, they are simply blurting out the first thing that comes to mind—although sometimes I do wonder if such questions are actually an attempt to shut me up or put me in my place! But whatever the motive, I never quite know how to respond. What would you say in such a situation?

In the end, I opted for what was probably a rather lame response.

‘Well … it depends what sort of books you read! I’ve written six novels and two non-fiction books—but no, I can’t say I’m famous. Here, I’ll give you my card—then you can look up my books on my website.’

I am so thankful for those business cards I carry around. Many times, they have extricated me from similar situations where I am at a loss to know what to say about my books. If the person asking the questions is really interested, they can look me up. If not, then they are at liberty to throw my card into the nearest bin!

No, I am not famous by any means—and I’m fine with that. You see, I have done my best in both writing and promoting my books for some years now. And I have tried in each one to write the things God put on my heart to write about—the love of God, the grace of God, forgiveness, holding onto our faith in God, using our God-given gifts, encouraging others in their journey with God. Now, as I attempt to write my seventh novel, I find I still have so much to learn in an ever-changing market. However well or otherwise I have written in the past, I can hopefully improve. Besides, God is still God—and as I write, I plan to listen to that gentle whisper of the Spirit, inspiring me and urging me on. This writing journey of mine has never been my idea alone—to me, the whole thing has been an amazing gift from God. And that, above all else, should keep me humble, don’t you think?

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Ephesians 4:2

The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Matthew 23:12

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Jo 17Recently, my brother-in-law turned seventy-five—and in that same week, retired from an active ministry role in his denomination. For his last sermon, he was delighted to be given the story of the prodigal son on which to base his message, along with 2 Corinthians 5, which focusses on ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ and includes the following:

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (20)

What a good way to sum up a life of ministry! This surely needs to be the central focus, not only of those in such roles but of anyone who, as a ‘new creation’ in Christ (17), seeks to live a life that honours God. How it plays out in our lives will be different for each of us, but what a wonderful ‘message of reconciliation’ (19) we all have to share with others!

We need reconciliation on so many levels in our world, don’t we—between nations, political factions, neighbourhoods, families, individuals—and even within ourselves. Perhaps it is on this latter level that we need it most because, when we are at peace in our own hearts, our whole perspective changes. We no longer need to defend ourselves so strongly and win against others at all costs. We no longer need to destroy others or grasp what others have to feel better about ourselves. Rather than striving within ourselves, we are at rest—and the best way I know to experience this is to receive the amazing love of God and to allow that love to change us deep down. In short, the best way to be reconciled within ourselves is to be reconciled with God.

At Easter, we have the perfect opportunity to reflect once again on the the depth of God’s love for us in sending Jesus to die in our place. I love it when I can have a very quiet Easter, with plenty of time to remember Jesus’ death on my behalf and then to truly be able to rejoice that this was not the end—that Jesus rose again and is now at God’s right hand, ready to welcome us to be with him forever. How privileged we are to know this amazing love of God! We did not deserve it or earn it in any way. We are no better than anyone else—Jesus’ death was for all. So how can it be okay to keep this amazing love to ourselves alone?

This Easter, let’s take time as best we can to reflect on Jesus’ love for us all over again. Then let’s allow it to impact how we live our lives each day, as believers reconciled with God, with others and within ourselves. Let’s allow it to inspire us to remember others in prayer and in practical ways. In fact, like the Apostle Paul and his co-worker Timothy, let’s allow it to compel us to live for God in any and every way we can.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15

Jo 23While shopping recently, I asked a young salesgirl for a particular product.

‘We don’t have it,’ she told me, ‘but you could check on the net. Um … could you do that?’

Her tone of voice and the sceptical glance she gave me conveyed a crystal-clear message—’I’m sure you wouldn’t know the first thing about computers. You’re far too old!

I tried to suppress a smile. Little did she know that, as a writer, I spend hours and hours at my laptop—and that is why my husband decided recently I needed a new one, complete with the latest Microsoft Office.

As some of you know, setting up a new laptop can be a scary experience fraught with difficulty, but my husband has done this many times before and was sure he could tackle it again. So when my new laptop arrived, he set about it all in his usual meticulous way.

At first, everything worked smoothly—but then something weird began to happen. While I could easily receive emails, I could not always send them! Sometimes they would jack up, dig their heels in and stay right where they were—which they eventually did all the time, unless we connected my laptop to our modem via a cable, instead of using wifi. But that could only be temporary—we still needed to fix the problem.

First of all, my husband explored all the common causes of such difficulties. Then he contacted the manufacturer, who suggested he contact our service provider, who suggested we contact Microsoft. Round and round it went, with various phone conversations with overseas employees whose strong accents my husband had great difficulty understanding! He asked some tech-savvy friends as well—but everyone was flummoxed.

Then one night, as he mulled over the whole issue, he sensed God saying to him: ‘Just relax about it all—leave it to me!’ So he decided to do exactly that, while still carefully working on the problem. And it was not long before, by many devious means, he discovered on the net how a particular little program on my laptop had caused similar troubles for others. He investigated further, found the spot somewhere in the bowels of my laptop where he could turn this program off—and voila! Problem solved, just like that. In the end, his tally of options tried that didn’t work as opposed to the one that did was 18:1!

So what did we learn in all this? Yes, God does answer our prayers—even those to do with troublesome computers. But that does not always mean we are to sit back and do nothing. In this instance, it seemed my husband discovered God’s answer while giving his whole heart and mind to solving the problem—yet the difference was that now he was more relaxed that God would indeed lead him to a solution. Yes, sometimes God steps in and rescues us straight away. But at other times, God gently shows us the way forward, as we continue to persevere and work hard in God’s strength.

Have you found this to be so in your life too?

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6

Jo 17I love it when someone tells me about an event in their lives that they can now honestly laugh about, even though this event may have caused them pain and difficulty at the time. It is as if they have chosen to step through a doorway into a place of much greater freedom and joy and light, rather than remain stuck in some dark cell, enmeshed in anger and bitterness and confusion.

Recently I was privileged to hear one such story from a lovely friend of mine from Korea, Sung Sook. How special it was to laugh with her as she shared something that happened to her during a trip home to Korea at Christmas to see her aging father and other family members. But it was even more special to sense the freedom she now feels about it all and to share in her joy that she was able to respond with such godly wisdom and strength.

While in Korea, Sung Sook and her extended family discovered something about her aging father that caused a great difference of opinion among them, because it had to do with honouring the memory of her mother, who passed away some time ago. Now my friend has six aunties in Korea—surely a formidable force to contend with anywhere—who were all very angry with her father. So what was she to do? She loved her mother, despite being unable to get home to see her often—but she also loves her eighty-six-year-old father and wants his latter years to be as pleasant as possible. How could she honour and respect her father’s wishes but also honour and listen to her aunties?

In the end, she took her father’s side and talked firmly to her aunties, one by one, urging them to leave him alone and not be angry with him. As his daughter, she reminded them she is his closest relative—so they needed to abide by her decision, as well as his. She handled it bravely and well, I believe. But she went even further.

You see, when Sung Sook arrived back here in Australia, she bought a large tin of honey for each aunty and posted it to them as a gift. Now honey is expensive enough in itself—but the postage cost even more! Yes, there is honey in Korea, but it is apparently not as thick as ours, so this was a precious gift to send them. As a result, they were all delighted—and their difference of opinion was swept under the carpet and forgotten!

‘So … honey fixes everything!’ Sung Sook told me, laughing. ‘It is “supernatural food”!’

It is indeed, don’t you think? To me, it symbolises a sweet response that went far beyond our natural inclination to argue and defend and hold a grudge, speaking instead of the supernatural response of forbearance, of forgiveness in God’s strength and of peace-making. This is in fact how we are all called to live:

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. Psalm 34:14

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Colossians 3:13

Perhaps all of us could consider sharing that ‘supernatural food’ around a little more. Then we might see that such honey truly does fix everything!

Jo 12Our grandson has a wonderful way of keeping me humble—and this skill of his came to the fore recently when I tried to help him complete his Maths homework. He is only in Year 2, yet sadly I had great trouble understanding some of the questions he had to answer about shapes. What on earth were ‘cuboids’, ‘vertices’ and ‘edges’? I had no idea!

‘I don’t think you have that answer right,’ I told Zain at one stage, as I stared at the cube alongside the first question. ‘I think it has six edges.’

‘No,’ he told me firmly. ‘You’re counting the faces, not the edges!’

I was unconvinced, but decided to go along with him. We counted those edges together and somehow I came up with eight, while he found twelve—or was it sixteen? Another interesting discussion ensued but, in the end, he wrote down my answer of eight. Later, we wrote the same answer for a cuboid—which of course Zain knew straight away was a rectangular prism! Surely everyone knows that, his look implied.

We proceeded then to travel through what for me was the even rockier, more dangerous territory of cylinders and cones and square-based triangles. But when it came to answering an interesting question about whether cylindrical shapes could be stacked, we differed again. While Zain maintained they could not, if they were lying with their curved surfaces lengthwise, as they were on his homework sheet, I maintained they could if they were standing upright on their flat bases. In the end, I felt Zain worked out a clever answer to this one—‘Maybe!’

Eventually, I enlisted my mathematician husband’s help and asked him to check our work. And guess what his first comment was?

‘You have two answers wrong here!’

Yes, I had been wrong about those ‘edges’—and Zain had, I think, been right from the beginning. But, when I told Zain this, to add insult to injury, he responded: ‘Well, you’re just an old lady!’

Now that put me firmly in my place.

Later, as I pondered Zain’s words, I decided that, while I may be ‘just an old lady’ to him—and there is nothing wrong with being an ‘old lady’—I know I am more than that too. I have done many things in my life. I have two tertiary degrees and a couple of diplomas. I have worked in a variety of occupations, including high school teacher, editor and pastor. I have written eight books. I have spoken publicly well over two hundred times in recent years. Along with my pastor husband, I have raised three children. I have had an interesting and varied life and am grateful for that.

But the best thought that came to me was this. Even if I had done none of that in my life, I would still be of such worth in God’s eyes. Whatever my age, I am still God’s precious child. Through Jesus, I have been born again into God’s family. I belong to God. Jesus loves me, this I know.

That’s what really counts in the end, don’t you think?

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! 1 John 3:1

Living soil

I am a writer. I play with words—a lot. I rearrange them. I delete them and replace with more suitable ones. I shape them into phrases and sentences for hours on end. I love to tell stories and paint pictures with them, hopefully touching others’ hearts in the process and giving them a small glimpse at least of the loving heart of God. I am so grateful for this gift of writing, yet I also find myself in awe of those who can create via some form of visual art, in all its infinite variety.

This year at our church, Parramatta Baptist, our pastors have sensed God calling us to focus on the theme of ‘Ask, Seek, Knock’, as Jesus invites us to do in Matthew 7:7-8:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

So recently, they invited us all to commit ourselves to ask—to pray by name for God’s transforming presence in others; to seek—to pursue more of God’s transforming presence in our own lives; and to knockto appeal for the places and lives that we long to see open more to God. As I listened, I realised this was no man-made challenge they were giving us all—there was nothing of the ‘You should do this’ or ‘You must do better’ about it. Instead, we were being freely and joyfully invited to be part of God’s purposes for us as a body and for others. And what a unique, creative way they found to do just that!

One Sunday, we arrived to find several tables dotted around the chapel and on each were a pile of small, oval-shaped pieces of vinyl in grey and brown shades, along with some felt pens. As well, right in the centre of the church was a bright red wheelbarrow, decorated with fairy lights. As the service progressed, we were invited to commit ourselves to ‘ask, seek and knock’ by writing our name on one of these vinyl pieces and placing it in the wheelbarrow.

IMG_20190303_101333209That day, and on two further Sundays, around four hundred people did just that. Then last Sunday we arrived to find this beautiful piece of artwork installed in our chapel, with all those signed pieces of vinyl arranged to form the soil from which the tree of God’s kingdom would grow, flourish and bear fruit. It was created by our ministry assistant, Jo Sterland, a gifted artist and graphic designer, who blesses us and others in so many ways with her God-given gifts and abilities. Yes, now we could see, depicted clearly and beautifully for us, what a vital role we each play in providing that fertile soil of prayer to grow God’s kingdom more in our own lives and that of others. Truly, a picture paints a thousand words, don’t you think?

Yes, it’s a privilege to write or paint or create in any way for God. But it’s also a great privilege to be part of that living soil of prayer, as we focus on our amazing God who can do so much more than we can ever ask or imagine!

I wonder if you are like me and do not readily allow yourself time off from all the tasks around you demanding your attention at home. It might be something I need to finish writing. It might be cooking dinner. It might be vacuuming—my pet hate! Any of these can prevent me putting time aside to be kind to myself and do nothing—or perhaps something special.

Recently, a friend invited me to see the exhibition ‘Modern Masterpieces from The Hermitage’ at the Art Gallery of NSW, with paintings on display ranging from impressionists such as Monet and Pissarro to the more avant-garde Matisse, Cezanne and Picasso. So we locked in a date and I immediately bought our tickets online. No backing out then!

And what a memorable day we had. After a speedy bus ride to the city, we strolled up through Hyde Park and the Domain to the Art Gallery. It was a beautiful day and, as we walked, we enjoyed God’s creative heart on display all around us, particularly in the towering Moreton Bay fig trees lining the road through The Domain.

As we entered the Art Gallery, we were overawed by the building itself, with its spacious, elegant interior, complete with domed ceilings and marble pillars. Our hearts lifted. Our particular exhibition was superbly set out and included an excellent multi-media presentation. And while some of the paintings were more to our taste than others, all spoke of such creativity, of pushing the boundaries, of trying new styles and techniques.

IMG_20190226_131535052Afterwards, we enjoyed lunch in the open air section of the cafeteria and were reminded again of God’s creativity, as we watched the cheeky and persistent rainbow lorikeet pictured here help itself to any crumbs we had left. What fun God musIMG_20190226_115620622t have had, creating its amazing colours! Perhaps it was this very bird, we decided, who inspired the artist Kandinsky to choose the colours he did for his bold landscape included in the exhibition!

As we eventually made our way home, after sampling the special delights of the Queen Victoria Building, we looked back on our wonderful day and felt so blessed—as if God had poured such kindness all over us in so many different ways. We were tired, but our hearts felt lighter and our minds buzzed with creative ideas birthed from seeing such creativity around us—both God’s and man’s, which surely comes from God anyway.

Recently, a friend commented how we can sometimes be less kind to ourselves than God is—and I think that may be true. Some of us are so hard on ourselves that we can end up becoming quite graceless and may even struggle with receiving God’s amazing grace. We do not deserve such compassion and forgiveness, our hearts cry out—we are not good enough. Yet through Jesus, God has reached out to us with such lovingkindness, drawing us close again. We are loved. We are accepted. We are God’s precious children.

As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. Psalm 103:13-14

I hope you can show that same kindness and compassion to yourself when you need to—and I hope I can too.