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What happened?

I’m sure it was only yesterday that our oldest granddaughter used to ask us this as a young toddler. ‘What happened?’ she would call out, as she came running to investigate, if I dropped something. From when she was only a few months old, we would mind her every Friday—and I have many memories of trips to parks, morning teas in shopping centres, cuddles as we read books and interesting conversations as we played games together.

Recently, when I saw this same granddaughter’s photos from her Year Twelve school formal, my mind catapulted back to those days with a vengeance. Around seven o’clock, Amy would arrive, still in her pyjamas, and her dad would hand her over, then rush off to his teaching job. First off, I would give her breakfast and check in her bag to find her clothes. But then the fun would begin, as I tried to brush her fine, blond hair and put it in pigtails. I would sit her in front of our TV, hoping the Wiggles or Hi5 would distract her enough so that she wouldn’t cry, as I worked as gently as I could. But no, Amy was often not impressed.

Yet there she was in those photos now, happy and smiling, with that lovely, long, blond hair of hers looking so beautiful and stylish. So … what happened? Where have those seventeen years gone? Weren’t we minding her only yesterday?

I remember too how Amy would often look up and say ‘Lovely day!’, as we stepped outside to go to the park or play in the front yard. Even now, we mimic how she used to say this, as we head out ourselves somewhere. Yes, we had many lovely days together then—and since as well. And right now, there are many lovely days in Amy’s life, as she celebrates the end of her school years. But … what lies ahead for her? What will happen in her life? What will the world be like for her in the future?

As I look back on my own high school and university years, I remember dreaming about the things I wanted to do—and feeling I had all the time in the world ahead of me to do them. Yet, while I still lead a busy life, so much is now behind me too. So … what happened? In the blink of an eye, those years all passed, just as the bible says.

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. James 4:13-14

Now I hope and pray Amy has many more ‘lovely days’ ahead in her life, as she grows in her love for God and others. But in reality, we all have such a short time on this earth, don’t we, in the light of eternity? Yet in those moments when we look back and say ‘What happened?’, what a joy to know we can also look forward to that day when we will see Jesus face to face and be with him forever!

It’s time!

I thought I was seeing things, as I drove to our local shopping centre. Could that possibly be jacaranda trees blossoming everywhere? Even today, I feel nervous whenever I see them, as these were always a reminder in earlier years that exam time had come! Then I noticed some other trees nearby covered in small, smoky-red flowers. No … surely that could not be Christmas bushes in bloom already?

As I made my way into the shopping centre a few moments later, I looked up and saw Christmas decorations dangling from the ceiling everywhere. But … Christmas was months away yet—wasn’t it?

Still bemused, I went to buy a birthday card, only to discover most of the display had been given over to Christmas cards. Then I walked on further and came face to face with a large, fenced-off area where helpers were busy putting the final touches to a big throne at one end. Surely it wasn’t time for children to have their photos taken with Santa? What had happened to all those months since last Christmas?

I headed to the supermarket then—and yep, there near the bread section I saw Christmas puddings and fruit mince pies, while nearby were special shelves of Christmas chocolates. Was this just some ploy to distract or cheer everyone up during COVID19? It couldn’t be time for all that Christmas fare yet. Were we all being duped?

Feeling a little confused and dismayed, I started to head out of the shopping centre. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something nearby in the main thoroughfare. In the midst of all that other Christmas paraphernalia beginning to appear, could that … could that truly be a large nativity scene?

As I stood staring at it, I felt my whole body relax and found myself smiling. In a world that seemed to have gone a little mad, there in front of me was the age-old scene that depicts the true heart of Christmas and speaks of things with eternal significance. With no words at all, it was declaring the truth that the King of Kings came into this world as a humble child, born in a manger, to save us and show us God’s heart of love for this world.

Then it was as if God whispered to me, as I stood there, ‘I’m still here, in the midst of the chaos and confusion in the world right now. I haven’t changed. And I haven’t forgotten you. Don’t worry—don’t be dismayed. I am still the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. It’s time for everyone to know this and to remember it this Christmas.’

Yes, maybe we do need to start thinking about preparing for Christmas—soon at least. But as we do, let’s keep our eyes focussed on Jesus, the babe in that manger but also the Son of God, who alone can bring peace to our chaotic world and to us. This difficult and uncertain time will soon pass, but Jesus, our eternal King, will remain—and reign—forever.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

At the moment, I am making my way yet again through my current novel, checking for errors and tweaking this and that to make it the best I can. It is painstaking work—and it seems to have gone on forever. But each morning, as I open my laptop and go to the relevant document, I am cheered by the polite, little greeting that awaits me there. On the right of my screen, I always see a little box that says happily:

Welcome back! Pick up where you left off.

How encouraging is that? But recently, that little message did more than cheer me up and inspire me to pick up where I left off with even more determination. It also alerted me to open my ears to hear what God might want to say to me. It was as if God highlighted that little box on my screen so that I could not miss a much more important message it contained.

Then it hit me. In an instant, I sensed God saying: ‘That’s exactly what I’ve said to you so many times over the years, Jo-Anne. Whenever you have pulled back from following me for a while and gone your own way, but then turned around and repented, I have always been there waiting for you with open arms. Time and time again, like your laptop does each day, I have said to you, “Welcome back! Pick up where you left off.” What a joy it has been to offer you forgiveness each time—and how good it is to pick you up and help you stand firm again!’

Then my mind went to the Apostle Peter’s story in the bible. I love Peter. He seems such a full-on person—always the leader, opening his mouth on behalf of the other disciples and stepping out when others might well have feared to. I love how he was brave enough to get out of that boat and walk towards Jesus on the water (Matthew 14). I love how he realised early on that Jesus was the only one worth following and the only one who could offer eternal life.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God. John 6:68-69

I love too how he declared he would never deny Jesus, fully thinking that was true—and I always feel sad when I read how he did deny him, then wept bitterly over it (Matthew 26:75). But later, when the resurrected Jesus appears on the shore as Peter is fishing with the other disciples and proceeds to provide them with breakfast, I hold my breath at what unfolds. Three times, Jesus asked Peter if he loves him. And three times, Peter replies, Lord, you know that I love you (John 21).

Can you imagine how Peter must have felt, as Jesus treated him in such a loving way and reinstated him to be the strong shepherd and leader he had called him to be? What grace Jesus showed him that day! And what grace Jesus shows each of us today, whenever we turn back to him, as he says with such love: ‘Welcome back! Pick up where you left off.’

Being bold

There we were, walking past some shops while on holidays, when we saw a girl on a seat at the edge of the footpath. She was quite well-dressed and attractive, but what drew our attention to her was that she was crying loudly. She would stop for a while, then start again—it was distressing to witness.

I hesitated, unsure what to do. What could have happened to cause her so much grief? It seemed bizarre to wail and sob in such a public place—perhaps she had long-term mental and emotional issues and found it hard to stay grounded in reality. Whatever the reason, she was obviously in great need.

Yet I did not know if it was wise to approach her—and what could I offer anyway? We were strangers in the area and unfamiliar with what local help would be available to her. I hated to leave her as she was, but in the end, we decided to move on, hoping there was someone else nearby who knew her history and could assist her.

After reaching the nearby waterfront and looking around for a while, we headed back to our car along the opposite side of the road from where the distraught girl had been. As we did, I looked to see if she had moved on—but no. There she was, still wailing and still alone.

‘Perhaps I should go over and talk to her,’ I said to my husband. ‘Maybe I can offer to pray for her at least.’

He agreed, so I went to cross the road. But just as I did, I saw a salesperson come out of a nearby shop and walk towards the girl. I hesitated again, wondering if I should join them or wait until the girl was alone again. But then the saleslady sat down with the girl and stayed there for some time, trying to talk to her. Yet the girl seemed to cringe away from her, as if lost in a world of grief and pain that could not be shared.

What should I do? I did not want to be like the religious leaders in the story of the Good Samaritan who crossed over to the other side of the road and ignored the person needing help (Luke 10). But we had to keep moving, so I decided to pray for this girl right where I was. And I continued praying for her after we left. Then the story in Matthew’s Gospel came to mind where Jesus heals the centurion’s servant, even though this servant was not even present (8:5-13). Just say the word, the centurion tells Jesus, and my servant will be healed. Could Jesus do the same for this girl?

I don’t know if I should have been bolder in approaching this girl. But I do know this. God can handle it when we pray bold prayers. In fact, we are encouraged to do exactly that:

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. Hebrews 4:16 NLT

May God continue to heal this poor girl. And may I learn to be bolder in sharing God’s love and grace with others however I can.

Lost

‘We want to go the long way—we’ll still beat you to the car!’ our two youngest grandkids informed us, as we went to drive them home after a happy day together during the school holidays.  

We thought they meant their usual trick of heading upstairs in our unit block and down again, while we walked the normal way—but this time, they went further afield. And to their dismay and ours, they soon became lost in our big retirement village.

We waited and waited—but no grandkids showed up. I ran around our unit block several times, calling their names. Nothing. I raced up to the village centre. Nothing. I asked others along the way and, while one lady had seen them dash past, there was now no sign of them. My husband drove around looking. Again nothing.

What to do? I stood on a corner, hoping they would see me, and thought of calling the police. But at last, a lady I know came walking towards me, holding Zain and Maxine’s hands. At that point, she seemed like an angel to me!

‘Would you like two grandchildren?’ she asked, as I tried not to burst into tears.

Zain and Maxine looked even more sober and scared when they saw they had upset me. They did their best to explain how they tried to find their way back but had become completely confused, and their rescuer also explained how Zain had been very sensible and asked her nicely where our unit was. But what a fright for them—and us! The next time they were with us, they willingly made thankyou cards and some chocolate brownies for their rescuing angel—and their thanks were indeed heartfelt.

I wonder if you have had a similar heart-in-mouth experience of losing someone or of being lost yourself? Once when travelling in Turkey with a friend, I went to find a bank, while she waited at the bus station. On the way back, I took a wrong turn—and there I was, lost in the middle of Turkey with minimal Turkish at my disposal. To my relief, however, after managing to ask directions in a shop and then having a stern Turkish policeman come to my aid, I was reunited with my friend, just before our bus arrived. Phew!

We can feel so helpless in such situations, can’t we?  But I have discovered that such experiences can also teach us something more about God. By being lost in Turkey, I realised again my deep need of a rescuer, both then and in my life in general. Without God, we truly are lost, without hope and without purpose in life. And by losing our grandchildren, even for only a while, I sensed again God’s deep grief when we lose our way in life or reject God’s offer of rescue and reconciliation. Yet how eagerly our loving Father waits to welcome us home, just as the father in the story in Luke 15 welcomed his lost son home.

Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. Luke 15:23-24.

It is not pleasant to be lost. But it is the most wonderful experience ever when we find our way back into the loving arms of God.

Remembering …

Have you ever thought about all those billions of memories stored inside your brain? We can consciously remember so much—but even when we think we have forgotten certain experiences altogether, some little thing may happen that catapults us back in time, whether we like it or not. In an instant, we are in the midst of some past event again, noticing everything in vivid detail and even feeling the same emotions we felt then.

This happened to me recently when our washing machine decided not to spin anymore. I resorted to washing by hand—and immediately, a memory surfaced from around fifteen years ago when I was travelling around Turkey with a friend. Often, we would wash our clothes in the shower, then drape them over chairs on our balcony to dry. In an instant, I could hear again in my mind the voices of the nearby shop owners vying for custom, smell the freshly baked bread and feel the warm Mediterranean sun on my arms. In my mind, I was back there in Turkey, revelling in it all once again.

But I know painful memories can sometimes be triggered too and catch us completely off guard. Years ago, I experienced this in a public setting, to my embarrassment. Everyone else was laughing at something funny that was happening, but I found it hard not to cry, as it triggered a memory of a distressing event in the past. Yet I was thankful for this painful moment in the end, since it helped me understand the agony those who have survived great trauma in their lives often experience on a regular basis via flashbacks.

As I thought more about these memories, both good and bad, I sensed God prompting me to apply my reflections to my faith journey too. Yes, I can remember many times when God lovingly rescued and strengthened me in all sorts of situations and when I sensed Jesus’ presence right beside me, even to the point of feeling his hand on my shoulder. But it was as if God wanted me to realise there have been so many other such occasions that have now passed from my conscious memory—difficult times when God watched over me and held me close, but also wonderful, happy times when God rejoiced with me and cheered me on in my journey.

Whether I can clearly remember each time or not, God has been and always will be with me, wherever I go and whatever happens in my life, in joy and in sorrow—forever. I love how God keeps reassuring us of this fact in different ways and places in Scripture.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:26

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever. Psalm 136:1

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Matthew 28:20

I will not leave you as orphans … John 14:18

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5

In these strange times, may we constantly remember these words. May they remain embedded in our hearts and minds—forever.

Sometimes at a funeral or when someone’s death is reported on TV, as I hear all the positive things people say about the person who has passed away, I often wonder if these same things were ever said to them during their lifetime as well. Could these things have perhaps made all the difference to this person no longer with us and encouraged them along on their journey so much more?

Last month, during ‘The Festival of Lionel’, which we held for around ten days to celebrate my husband’s eightieth birthday, I thought about this again often. In that time, Lionel received many, many positive and uplifting greetings that I suspect almost blew his mind. Some were spoken to him face to face, some via phone calls from family and friends. Some were written by hand inside special birthday cards. Some arrived via text messages and emails. Then there were the more than 150 birthday greetings and ‘likes’ posted for him on Facebook—he thought they would never end! It was all a little overwhelming at times, but wonderfully encouraging too. 

Yet there were even more encouraging words ahead for him to hear and read, as we celebrated his final birthday event with a small family party. Our son Andrew and his family had thought long and hard about what to give Granddad for his 80th and came up with two excellent, creative ways to commemorate this milestone. The first was the fun poster below, put together by our two older granddaughters. The only thing is, while those chocolates and lollies are very tempting, we are loath ever to dismantle such a special creation!

As well, the whole family brainstormed their ideas to create the lovely framed gift below, ‘80 things we love about you’.

Can you imagine how moving it was for Lionel to hear all these read aloud? For a moment, I thought he would burst into tears. He could not take it all in at first—or even later at home as he read through the entire eighty little comments. But how affirming they were for him to see, including the classic ‘That you will count these to check there are really 80!’, along with others such as:

Being generous

Granddad and granddaughter date nights

Always being there for me

Taking me to the best parks

Your love for your family

Your strong faith in God

For buying me ice-creams

For being a positive person

You make good dad jokes

Picking me up from school

You make people feel welcome

Always having nice things to say

You are trustworthy

… The list goes on.

What a clear reminder to me all this has been about the power of encouragement, both in word and deed! No wonder we are exhorted in Scripture to encourage one another whenever we can.

Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. 2 Corinthians 13:11

So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 NLT

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another … Hebrews 10:25

May we all take these words to heart and be the best encouragers we can be!

We matter

Right now, our church’s annual Art Installation is open for anyone to come and view. There are all sorts of creative works on display, including painting, sculpture, photography, writing, drawing, hand-made jewellery, tapestries, knitting. And this year, these all highlight in some way the theme ‘What matters to God’. It is open from Sunday 4th October to Sunday 18th October from 7pm-9pm each evening and from 10am-12noon each morning (except for Tuesdays and Thursday mornings) in the basement of Parramatta Baptist Church, 84-94 Kleins Rd, Northmead, Sydney.

This year, I found the Art Installation particularly challenging and moving as I walked around. Some paintings and other creative works powerfully speak of how much those on the fringes of society—the refugee, the prisoner, the poor—all matter to God. Others highlight how every part of creation matters to God, even the smallest creature or tiniest flower, and challenge us to think about how we care for this planet that God has taken such care in creating. There is even a dress on display made of recycled materials and an apron made entirely of plastic bags shrunk via ironing and fused together!

Then there are those creative works that reflect on how much each one of us matters to God—so much so that Jesus Christ gave his life for us to bring us back into relationship with God and to know the joy of being part of God’s family. As a writer, I decided to focus on this theme and, in particular, on that moment in my life as a teenager when it dawned on me that I actually did matter to God—that God knew me and loved me and had a purpose for my being here on this earth. This is what I wrote:

WE MATTER

I sit amazed at what I am hearing. The speaker’s face shines with an inner light and his words stir my heart.

‘You matter to God! … God loves you. … God knows you. … God is calling you tonight.’

Could this be true?

Could that holy, almighty, distant God I had heard about in earlier years know me and love me, an insignificant fifteen-year-old?

Do my life and my future indeed matter to God?

I cannot resist that deep pull inside to reach out and receive. I quickly make my way towards the front of the room, towards that new life, that fresh start, that forgiveness God is offering me with such tenderness and grace.

As I pray, I know now I am a child of God, part of God’s own family.

I belong.

I am known.

I am loved.

I matter to God … we all matter to God.

__________________________

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

How privileged we are to know that we matter to God! May we use that privilege wisely and well in the time we have on this earth to share that same love God has shown us with others. And may we care well too for all of God’s creation—people, animals, plants and all the wonderful, God-given resources in our world—because all of it matters to God.

It’s strange how wearing a facemask in a public place can cause us to feel so isolated, isn’t it—perhaps even invisible? We may try to make eye contact with others, but it’s hard to convey friendliness and warmth with our eyes alone. We may smile—but no one can see that smile. And is anyone smiling back? Who knows? Or are they merely wondering why we are staring straight at them? Better to stay in our own little world, go about our business and get home as quickly as we can. Is that how you feel at times?

Recently, as I walked up the travelator into our shopping centre, a lady coming the other way saw me and said hello. At first, I did not recognise her, even though she had no facemask on—but then I realised I knew her from our church. She had managed to connect with me, even with my own mask covering half my face—and it was lovely to see her smile and hear her warm greeting.

But as I went down that same travelator after finishing my shopping, I saw a girl coming up on the opposite side. She had a facemask on and seemed to be talking loudly to herself. Then I noticed she had some ear-pieces in and realised she must be on the phone behind that mask! She was completely engrossed in her conversation and well and truly in her own little world—such a contrast from my earlier experience.

Yes, we are becoming adept at keeping others at a distance and isolating ourselves in our own little worlds behind those masks. And technology can isolate us even further. I sometimes encounter this even in our own home, since my husband wears hearing aids that pick up the sound from our TV. But I still often try to comment on something to him when we are watching a show, forgetting about all that noise already blaring in his ears! And by the time he has asked me what I said, the moment is gone.

But as I look at my own life, I see how adept I often am at keeping God at a distance too. Sometimes there is so much going on inside my brain—plans for this and that, writing ideas, interesting things to think about—that I deliberately refuse to stop and reflect on the things of God. I want that close, loving relationship with God, but I also want to hold God at arm’s length at times. I love God—but I want my own way too.

Surely I should know by now that, whatever ‘mask’ I might try to wear to isolate myself in my own little world will not work with God, who sees and knows everything anyway and is present everywhere? How much better then to remember who I belong to, open my heart to my loving Father again, listen for his voice and invite him into every part of my life.

“Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.” Revelation 3:20 NLT

Truly our own little worlds are so much richer in every way when we welcome God into them, don’t you think?

Celebrating!

This week marks a big milestone in our family, as we celebrate my husband’s eightieth birthday! To keep things COVID-safe, we are staging ‘The Festival of Lionel’, several small get-togethers over ten days or so with friends and family members. It all seems a little surreal—as one kind friend wrote when invited to come and celebrate with us, ‘But … are you sure he’s eighty?’

Yes, Lionel was born in 1940—a very long time ago indeed, although in some ways, it seems to have flown. And what a lot he has packed into those many years! After ministering at a small church in Brisbane where our first daughter, Jane, was born, Lionel accepted a call to a church in Sydney, where our son Andrew came along.  A lecturing role at the Bible College of South Australia in beautiful Victor Harbor followed. We loved those six years of living near the beach and surrounding farms and our third child, Tina, was born there.

But then the college relocated to Adelaide, where we lived until Lionel’s role there finished a year later. We returned to Sydney, where he became a local church pastor again, until he was offered another lecturing role, this time at our theological college, which necessitated a move across town for us. Twelve years later, after that role ended, Lionel joined our church’s pastoral team full-time, before training as an intentional interim minister. He then worked in this capacity at several different churches, helping them find their feet again, and trained others in this ministry too.

Can you imagine the number of sermons Lionel has preached down through the years, often two different sermons each Sunday? And what about all those lectures—and the thousands of hours of preparation that went into them? Lionel already knew his bible well when I met him way back in 1968, during his own time at theological college, but along the way, he added to that knowledge with further study in the USA. He was—and still is—convinced of the truth of the gospel. His desire was to equip others well for their own ministries, whatever shape or form these might take, and to this day, even at the ripe old age of eighty, he still enjoys doing that.

Lionel has touched many lives through the years—college students, those who made up the church congregations where he ministered and also friends along the way, as well as family. His life has been well spent, serving the Lord and equipping others to do the same—and we hope and pray he can continue doing such things for quite some years yet.

Right now, however, what fun we are having, celebrating this milestone birthday! Yet it’s wonderful to know that one day a much more joyful celebration will take place for him when he meets Jesus face to face. On that day, I’m sure he will hear the same words the faithful servant who used his talents well heard when his master returned:

“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ Matthew 25:21

What a celebration that will be, sharing in the Lord’s happiness! Are you looking forward to that for yourself too?