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Second chances

‘My tomato bushes have started blooming again!’ our daughter announced recently with glee.

‘Well, I don’t think my one poor plant’s going to do anything more,’ I told her. ‘I’ll pull it out soon.’

IMG_20200207_093825904Somehow, that ‘soon’ of mine did not happen—and just as well, because last week, when I went to check how my other pot plants had fared in the recent heat, I discovered that tomato plant had taken on a new lease of life. There it was, standing tall and proud again, its new green leaves reaching high and with several yellow flowers on display as well!

As I looked closer, I saw how some of the dead branches that had already borne juicy, little tomatoes were still there, but had shrivelled up and given way to new, strong, green ones that had emerged from the main stem. Could this be possible? I checked online—and, sure enough, I discovered there actually are tomato bushes that produce more than one crop a season. I remembered buying my plant at a nearby market, with no idea what I was actually getting, except that it was some dwarf tomato. Now I discovered I must have bought what is called an ‘indeterminate’ variety, as opposed to a ‘determinate’ one that is programmed to bloom and fruit in abundance just once a season. So it seems I can look forward again to walking out onto our balcony and picking even more of those flavoursome, little tomatoes to add to our salads from time to time!

As I thought about my rejuvenated plant, however, it seemed to me that God wanted to show me something more through it. How many times in my own life, when I felt as if I had died inside after some bad experience or deep disappointment or loss, has God drawn me close, comforted me and given me strength to go on and keep being fruitful? How many times in my life, when I felt so disgusted with myself at making some sinful choice and ignoring the Spirit’s voice within, has God picked me up, forgiven me and set my feet on solid ground again? How many times even now, each day, does God lovingly continue to encourage and inspire me when I feel I have nothing much more to give?

I love the story of the lost son Jesus told to the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ who had gathered around him, as well as the critical Pharisees and teachers of the law listening in (Luke 15). The story ends on a gently rebuking but joyous note, as the father reasons with his older son:

‘My son,’ the father said, you are always with me and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ Luke 15:31-32

Yes, when I too was dead, God gave me new life, as I was born anew through the Spirit. And now, each day, God continues with such love and grace to restore and renew me, as I seek to bear more fruit. I am so grateful for that second chance in my life—but also for that third and fourth and fifth and …

Is that how you feel too?

Phew—at last!

Jo 12This past week, I actually managed to finish the first draft of my seventh novel—over ninety-eight thousand words. Woohoo! It still feels a little surreal—I have lived with my characters for so long that they feel part of me. At times, I have even found myself thinking in real life settings, ‘Oh, how would Meg (my heroine) have responded here?’ Or ‘This is what happened to Stephen.’ Or ‘Meg has just done that!’ It has been quite a journey.

I can’t remember exactly, but I think I began this novel around three and a half years ago, not long after my second non-fiction book, Becoming Me, was published. I love writing non-fiction, but felt drawn to write yet one more novel, this time inspired, a little at least, by the lives of my maternal grandparents. Yet I cringed at the thought. Only one of my past novels could truly be classed as historical (ie set prior to and during World War Two) but, after writing it, I vowed and declared I would never write an historical novel again. You see, doing so brings with it a second huge task, on top of actually writing. Everything needs to be checked to see if the characters could truly do such things in that time and place—and if they could, how long it would take them. Certain things could not be mentioned either, since they were not around then. And certain words could not be used. Yet in my heart, I still wanted to write this novel, set in Queensland in the period 1909 to 1926.

Now I am supposed to be ‘retired’ (!), but somehow I have still not quite discovered the meaning of that word. As a result, writing this current novel has been punctuated by speaking at a variety of places, supporting the pastoral team at our church for four months while our senior pastors were on sabbatical, minding grandchildren on a regular basis, accompanying the village choir, meeting with others—and so many other good and right things. I do not regret any of them. But it makes completing a full-length historical novel just that little bit more challenging.

Can you see why I still feel a little numb at this point? Yet I also feel so grateful to God and thankful for this amazing opportunity to write a story that has been in my heart and mind for many years, long before I sat down to write the novel. I am well aware it may or may not be published—that will be my next challenge, along with many edits! But whatever the outcome, I am so glad God enabled me to persevere. Yes, I chose to sit down and write—but God inspired me to keep going and gave me the strength and ability to do so. And that can be true for each of us, however we are gifted and whatever God puts on our heart to undertake.

I have long been encouraged by the words the Lord spoke to Zerubbabel, who had undertaken the task of rebuilding God’s house in Jerusalem:

Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord. Zechariah 4:6

May these words also encourage you today to keep persevering in doing what God has given you to do.

2016-06-05 15.27.04For Christmas, I received one of those digital photo frames that changes the displayed photo every few seconds. My husband painstakingly went through all my photos, chose a random selection and uploaded them to my new device. Now, as I sit at our dining-room table and glance across the room, I am reminded of family and friends, of significant events, of places I have visited and beautiful flowers I have admired. But there is one photo that always sends a little shudder down my spine—and that is the one pictured here of the backyard of our old home in Rydalmere on one of those wonderful occasions years ago when the creek over our back fence suddenly became a raging torrent and spread far and wide.

Thankfully, this did not happen often—but when it did, a major, backbreaking clean-up needed to be undertaken. Yet I was always grateful that, while the flood would leave an incredible amount of mud and rubbish in our yard and even semi-flatten our side fence, we knew the water would not rise high enough to get into our house. And that was because our house was built on a rocky kind of protrusion that formed a little headland and included our neighbour’s land on the upside of our house. Yes, the water would swirl around that headland and flow into our back yard with glee, then onwards into all the other yards lower down our street—but it would never rise further than the bottom of our back steps.

So … can you see why I shudder a little whenever this photo catches my eye now? Yes, we could replace it with one that conjures up much more pleasant memories, yet I am also grateful for the reminder that photo has brought me in recent weeks. And that, of course, is the reminder that, just like our homes need a solid foundation to remain secure when those floods come, we too need a firm foundation on which to base our lives, year in and year out.

I think God wanted to reinforce this reminder because, this past week, as I was reading Luke’s Gospel, I came to the story Jesus told about the wise and foolish builders.

Why do you call me, ’Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say? I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete. Luke 6:46-49

At times, I know I can take in God’s words and, sadly, let them flow straight out of my brain a moment later—before I have allowed them to change me at any deep level and stir me to action. What a sobering story Jesus told—and what a salutary reminder not merely to listen to the Lord but to do what he says!

All the time

Jo 17Last week, in preparation for speaking somewhere on Australia Day, I went on a little foray back into our nation’s history—and also into the depths of my brain, as I tried to remember what we learnt at school about Captain Arthur Phillip and Botany Bay and Port Jackson and such like. How amazing that, after eight months of sailing across thousands of kilometres of ocean, those eleven ships of the First Fleet managed to arrive within a few days of one another! But can you imagine being tossed around in the depths of a small, wooden ship for eight long months, scared, starving—and probably sick too? I feel ill even thinking about it!

No wonder the first chaplain to the new colony, Reverend Richard Johnson, chose some verses from Psalm 116 as the text for his first sermon here a week later—in particular, verse 12, which he would have read from the King James Version:

What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me?

Or, as the New International Version puts it:

How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?

Perhaps some of those present—particularly convicts—might not have felt as thankful as Richard Johnson did. How had God been good to them? Here they were on the other side of the world and so unsure what lay ahead for them. I read about the youngest convict to reach our shores—a nine-year-old boy, transported for stealing. I wonder what his life had been like before that and what happened to him as he grew up in New South Wales. Others too seem to have been sentenced so unjustly, then suffered further injustices after arriving here.

Yet the writer of Psalm 116—most likely David—had been in equally terrible situations. And his response here is a very moving, heartfelt song of thankfulness to God. So, as I read it through several times, I began to think about my own response to all God has done for me over the years. How thankful have I been for God’s constant rescuing, providing, comforting, healing and guiding, along with so many other things?

Verse 7 seemed to challenge me the most:

Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.

Yes, I can be at rest. God provided for and sustained me in the past—and God will do the same in the future. It irks me a little at times when I hear people say things like ‘Oh, God was so good to me—I found a car park easily.’ Or ‘But God was good and I didn’t miss my bus.’ No doubt they are simply expressing their thanks to God, but I am often tempted to pipe up, ‘So does that mean God was bad when you couldn’t find a car park or did miss your bus?’ Of course not. God does not change (Malachi 3:6). God will remain faithful and I can therefore be at peace.

God is good—all the time. In the midst of widespread drought in our country when bushfires rage and people lose so much, even their very lives, God is still good. One day we will understand. But for now, let’s keep on trusting God—all the time.

Jo 17During the school holidays in particular, I am thankful for the lovely heated pool and spa in our village. Usually, our two younger grandchildren enjoy being taken there, but one day recently, our grandson elected to play games at home with Granddad instead.

Meanwhile, his sister Maxine and I headed for the pool. Almost two hours later, as we were still bobbing around there, the cleaning lady arrived to mop out the change rooms.

‘She’s like Cinderella!’ Maxine announced after a while.

‘Pardon? … What do you mean?’

‘Well—she has to do all the work!’

Of course! Why didn’t I see that connection immediately? I laughed, then pointed out that must mean we’re the Ugly Sisters!

Later, however, I began to reflect on Maxine’s immediate response to the scene before her. She loves those old fairy tales, especially the ones featuring beautiful heroines with long, flowing hair. So far these holidays, along with the inevitable, more recent Frozen, we have watched DVDs of Snow White and Tangled (the story of Rapunzel), some more than once. We have also read different versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and such like together over the years. And recently, Maxine even managed to cajole her granddad and me into acting out one of these stories with her—this time, Little Red Riding Hood, including cutting that big, bad wolf open with relish, stuffing stones in him and sewing him up again with a flourish! These stories have well and truly made their way into Maxine’s imaginative little mind and continue to play out there in technicolour—for her, it’s natural to think of Cinderella immediately, when she sees a cleaning lady working hard, with no one helping!

All this caused me to reflect again on the power of story and on the fact that Jesus chose to use stories at times as he taught (see Matthew 13). I have read them often, yet how deeply have I allowed them to impact my mind and spirit? How much have they changed the way I see the world and the way I respond immediately to situations around me?

I thought back then over some of these stories Jesus told—the parable of the sower, the good Samaritan, the lost sheep, the unmerciful servant, the wedding banquet. As I see people in need, such as right now, with our bushfires and drought, have I been shaped into thinking immediately of the good Samaritan? Am I prepared to put myself out and give in a costly way—or am I more like that Pharisee who stayed at a safe distance? In my life, am I still acting like that unmerciful servant who was happy to receive the king’s forgiveness, yet did not extend that same forgiveness to another? Or have I allowed God’s mercy to transform me and flow onto those around me? Am I like that dry ground in the parable of the sower where the seeds could not take root? Or have I truly softened my heart and provided a fertile space where the things God says can flourish, bear fruit and bless others?

In 2020, may I remember Jesus’ parables and internalise them more and more. And may Jesus open my eyes too to see the ‘Cinderellas’ around me and reach out to any who need comfort, help and understanding.

Jo 12I well remember how, as a child, I was at times particularly averse to being told what to do. If my poor mother wanted me to do something I did not want to do, my response would often be ‘But why?’ I would keep asking this until my mother, in exasperation, would eventually snap, ‘Because I said so!’

Perhaps that’s why a certain phrase jumped out at me recently when I read Luke’s account of the calling of Jesus’ first disciples. After Jesus sits in Simon’s fishing boat and teaches the crowd on the shore of the lake, he tells Simon to head for deep water and let down the nets. Then Simon replies:

Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” Luke 5:5

No wonder Simon respected Jesus enough even then to do whatever Jesus told him to do. After all, Jesus had just healed many people while in Simon’s home, including Simon’s own mother-in-law. But Simon soon becomes much more astonished when his fishing nets start to break and both his and his partners’ boats begin to sink from their enormous catch. In fact, in fear, he falls at Jesus’ knees and says “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (8) It’s almost as if he is saying, ‘What have I got myself into? I can’t handle this!’ But Jesus reaches out and reassures him, so much so that he and his partners James and John end up leaving their boats and following him:

Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.” (10)

Recently, I learnt how a newcomer to our country heard this story for the first time while fishing in the Parramatta River. He laughed loudly at the idea of catching men—yet now he has begun a journey just like Simon’s and we hope his mind will also soon be boggled by Jesus’ awesome power and authority. But what about my own response to Jesus’ authority? What is Jesus calling me to do in 2020? Am I going to say like Simon, ‘Because you say so, I will do this or that?’ Or will I instead curl up in fear and decide not to let down my own ‘nets’ in the coming year?

I have always felt Jesus’ gentleness and love, as well as his quiet authority, whenever he has challenged me to step out and do something. And this was particularly strong when I began my current novel. Back then, I sensed Jesus saying, ‘I’ll be so delighted if you write this book, Jo-Anne. But I’ll be just as delighted with you if you don’t!’ What wonderful freedom that gave me—simply to write as time permitted and enjoy the process, irrespective of the outcome! Yet surely this is Jesus’ heart for us all in whatever he calls us to do. Jesus has the power and authority to call us to act—and we need to listen and be obedient. Yet it seems to me he also surrounds us with such love and grace and mercy, however we respond.

‘But because you say so …’. May that be my honest response—and yours—as we embrace all God has for us in the coming year.

Jo 17I had always thought I was not judgmental—until one night over twenty years ago when someone challenged me in a way I have never forgotten. I have written about this before but, at the risk of repeating myself, this is what happened.

For many years, we were part of a church in an area of Sydney where quite a number of marginalised people lived. As I walked out of the church office late one Sunday night, I glanced across at a youngish man seated nearby whom I knew from the area. He would often wander into our services in a half-drunk state and sit somewhere at the back. On one famous occasion, he even interrupted the sermon with the pithy statement ‘Pigs might fly!’!

On this particular night, however, he must have decided once again not to beat around the bush.

‘You don’t like me, do you?’ he challenged me out of the blue.

I denied it, but he simply sat there staring at me and grinning.

I could feel shame mounting inside me as I walked off. You see, what he had said was true. I did not like him—or, at least, I did not like his behaviour. Yet I had never bothered to find out anything about him as a person. Admittedly, he was often drunk and past communicating well with anyone most nights, but I had never cared about who he really was or why he had ended up living the way he did.

This salutary lesson has stayed with me ever since and, hopefully, prevented me from being too judgmental of others like this man. But in the past few months, I have learnt a lesson about a different kind of judgmentalism. I have learnt that not all children who look like they are behaving badly and being disobedient to their parents or teachers or carers may deliberately choose to do so. They may have ADHD or something similar. They may be overwhelmed by noise and unable to think clearly or respond well. They may not understand exactly what they were asked to do and be afraid of failing. The list goes on.

Recently, a phrase written by a leading expert in this area of childhood behaviour caught my attention. He talked about approaching such children with curiosity rather than judgmentalism—about taking time to explore their personalities and how their brains are wired rather than confronting their behaviour head-on in a legalistic way. Then it occurred to me how helpful it could be if we also showed a little grace and love and patience, along with that curiosity he mentions. Of course these children need to learn what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t. But I see now there may well be better ways of helping them achieve this than my old, critical, judgmental approach.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had some straight words to say about judging others:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2

Wow! I hope I can remember this warning well and be open to more changes in perspective, as God continues to help me grow in grace towards others.