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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?

I watched in my rear vision mirror as the van behind me came closer and closer. The young driver looked impatient, yet I could not immediately move to the left-hand lane—and I could not go any faster because I was already on the speed limit. Eventually, however, it was safe to move over and the young man passed me. But then he pulled into my lane right in front of me and proceeded to sit there.

Perhaps I imagined this was a clear statement on his part—except I have seen it happen before. It’s as if some young drivers have a neon sign flashing on their foreheads that says loud and clear, ‘Ugh—silly old grey-haired lady driver! She’s going to slow me down, for sure. I’ll get in front her as quick as I can. And I might even teach her a lesson!’

Once years ago, as I was waiting to enter a busy, main road, an impatient driver pulled around me and squeezed into a small space between two cars in the oncoming traffic, only to run into the back of someone a short distance further on. He deserved it, I thought to myself on that occasion—hardly a loving, Christian response!

Perhaps you can tell I do not appreciate being put in a box—particularly a box that says, ‘silly old grey-haired lady’! And neither do two of my neighbours, one of whom is ninety years old and still driving.

‘Oh, I make sure I put my foot down and drive right on the 80k limit on my way home from shopping,’ she told me recently. ‘I like giving the car a good run when I can!’

‘Me too—but I don’t worry about any speed limit!’ my other slightly younger neighbour responded with spirit.

It’s easy to put people in boxes, isn’t it? I find myself making snap judgments about people all the time, according to how they look or talk. One could even say I have done this right here, as far as young male drivers are concerned, after all! I have done it as I looked around outside our grandchildren’s classrooms at the parents and other grandparents waiting there. I have done it as I gazed down at my audience, even while in full flight speaking somewhere. I have caught myself doing it here in our village, only to discover that people twenty years older than I am, whom I would perhaps have written off, are still doing amazing things—walking kilometres each day, volunteering, running groups, painting beautiful pictures. The list goes on.

Just as well God doesn’t put people in boxes according to their age or how they look or speak or act. God called Abram when he was already an old man (Genesis 12). God commanded Moses to deliver the Israelites, even though he was not eloquent (Exodus 4). God chose David over his older brothers as king, explaining to Samuel:

The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7

One day, I hope I learn not to judge by appearances. One day, I hope I learn not to put people in boxes—and I hope that young driver does too.

It’s an omen!

There I was, congratulating myself that I had finished my shopping in record time. I settled into the driver’s seat and went to take off my facemask. But something was missing. I had lost one of my special earrings, a souvenir from our golden wedding anniversary trip to New Zealand.

While the earrings were not particularly expensive, I was determined to try to find the missing one. I felt around on the floor of the car. Nothing. I looked under the seat. Nothing. I slid my hand down the side of my seat near the handbrake. Again nothing. But then my hand stuck fast—my watch had twisted on my wrist!  I tried to undo the clasp, to no avail. Finally, with a desperate yank, I managed to pull my hand free, but then saw what I had done. The face of my watch was now at right angles to my wrist and some of the links of my watchband were bent out of shape.

What to do? I retraced my steps up to the supermarket, checking on the ground in the car park all the way. To my utter surprise, I found my earring—although the pretty paua shell that had been part of it was broken. But now my watch still had to be fixed, so I headed to our friendly watch repair man and told him the whole story.

‘Wow!’ he said. ‘I can straighten your watch up—I’ve seen others like this. But this could be a warning to you. It’s an omen. You’d better go straight home, before something worse happens!’

At first, I laughed—but then a weird sense of fear crept over me. What if he was right? What if I went and did more shopping and lost my purse? What if I caught coronavirus from someone in the centre? What if I had a car accident as I drove home? I had better get home as quickly and as carefully as I can, before anything else bad happens, just like he said.

But as I returned to my car, I came to my senses. What was I doing, letting such thoughts take hold and control my actions? Yes, fear can be a helpful warning. It can stop us doing foolhardy things like driving too fast or standing too close to the edge of a cliff or being with someone who will do us harm. At times, it is important to listen to that voice telling us to stay safe. But at other times, that voice seeks to bring us undone.

I sat there then, letting various verses from Scripture about fear surface in my mind instead.

The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid? Psalm 27:1

I sought the Lord and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Psalm 34:4

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

Yes, these words bring comfort. This voice speaks freedom. And security. And peace. These words are so much more worth listening to than any weird omen warning, don’t you think?

It is well known amongst our family and friends that I am not the world’s best caterer. Yes, I can cook. In fact, I quite enjoy baking cakes and biscuits in particular. But as for how much food to provide for any special event—well, that’s where I come to grief. You see, what I have prepared never looks quite enough to me. What if I have underestimated what we need? What if there’s nothing our guests like on the table? Perhaps I had better make another dish or some more slices—just in case. And before I know it, that table is laden.

Over the years, we have had many visitors in our home. At one stage when our children were young, a horde of bible college students used to come to our house on a Saturday night at regular intervals to relax and enjoy a home-cooked supper. Later, we often had ‘after church fellowship’ at our place on Sunday evenings, where the young people would devour everything! In more recent years, I have held many birthday parties in our home. And seven times, I have catered for my own book launches, carting my home-cooked food to the various venues where these were held. But these days, I have to say I am a little over such efforts. Catering was never my great strength—and now I feel it is even less so.

Yet, during this isolation time, I have discovered all over again the joy of providing something home-cooked and hopefully tasty for others. Each Sunday, a handful of folk from our village who normally attend our church but who cannot access our church’s online service for various reasons have been coming to our home to join in watching the service with us via our TV. We are careful to do everything in a COVID-safe way, with hand sanitiser at the door, chairs spaced one and a half metres apart, no singing etc—and the same goes for our morning tea afterwards. Everyone seems to enjoy watching and interacting with our church service. But somehow, I suspect that morning tea afterwards is almost as important to them. They chat on. They are listened to. They share from their own lives. And people’s spirits are lifted.

At times, I laugh at this turn of events in my life. And I suspect God might be smiling too. It’s as if God is saying to me, with a little wink, ‘Well, Jo-Anne, I know this is out of your comfort zone a little and that I’ve turned the clock way back on you, but … will you do this just now for these folk who need others around them? Will you love me and serve me in this way, as if I was one of those guests at your table?

I wonder what God has challenged or is challenging you to do in this isolation time that is a little out of your comfort zone. Whatever it is, in God’s strength, we can do it, don’t you think?

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Colossians 3:23-24

Jo 17Have you ever come across those children’s activity sheets where you can colour in a small picture, then cut it out and put it in the oven, where it soon shrinks and hardens? Or maybe you did as our children liked to do at one stage and put certain empty potato crisp packets in the oven until they shrank to a tiny size. What fun!

Or perhaps, like me, you might have washed a particular jumper yourself rather than have it dry-cleaned, as the label said. Alas, even though I used mild soap powder and dried it flat, somehow it has never looked the same and tends to creep up my back a little!

In this isolation time, however, most of us are experiencing a different and much more serious kind of shrinking. Many are working from home instead of going to an actual place of employment each day—and many do not even have a job to go to each day now anyway. We all cannot do some things we took for granted and loved doing. We cannot go to some of the places we liked to go or see the people we enjoyed seeing. We may not be able to travel interstate here in Australia—or even more than a few kilometres from home, in some instances. It’s like our world has physically shrunk around us. And that can feel weird and disorienting—not to mention depressing or even perhaps quite devastating.

Yes, most of us have the ability to connect electronically with others at a distance via phones, tablets, Ipads, laptops and desktops, which is wonderful. As well, most of us are blessed to be able to watch TV shows and movies or listen to radio or read books that broaden our world in some way. Yet all that does not seem quite as satisfying as going and doing something ourselves or connecting with people face to face, does it? At times, it can feel as if we are watching the world through a window or merely looking on at life, rather than participating in a meaningful way.

So what’s to be done? Somehow, in the midst of dealing with this shrinking feeling in our lives and trying to abide by the ever-changing COVID isolation rules, we all need to find a way of stepping back to ‘take a long view’, as Bishop Oscar Romero once wrote, of keeping the bigger picture in mind and of holding onto hope for our worlds to enlarge again soon.

But beyond all that, let’s remember this difficult period is only a moment in time, when compared with eternity. And God will see us through it all and on into that same eternity. God has not shrunk in any way. God is still high and holy, almighty, all-knowing and all-seeing, but so loving and caring and understanding too. So, however weird our shrinking worlds might feel, may we remember to keep looking to the Lord for our strength and to keep praising our great and awesome God with all our hearts!

Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always. Psalm 105:3-4

Jo 17I wonder how you are feeling, in the midst of this crazy pandemic. What words would describe what is going on inside you as a result of what is happening—or not happening—around you? … Fear? Confusion? Concern? Anxiety? Anger? Grief? Worry? Depression? Loneliness? Perhaps all of these? Or perhaps you are personally at peace, yet feeling these things in and for others. That too can become a little overwhelming at times, can’t it?

Until recently, I was too busy completing my current novel to stop and contemplate how I was feeling deep down about the weird events in our world. My mind was full of different questions instead. What parts of my early chapters could I leave out to get to the action quicker? What other sections could I remove? How could I bring my characters to life more? Writing a novel can be all-consuming—it can be tricky to weave things together in a way that draws readers in and keeps them turning those pages.

Yet now I have put this novel aside, for the moment at least, I am noticing more how coronavirus has impacted us all. Yes, I have been concerned for family members trying to hold onto their jobs and pay mortgages. But I can sense something bigger around me too—a kind of desperation and even panic. When will this end? How will it end? Will our country be in ruins? How will we all survive?

Then one morning, as I sat at my desk, enjoying the warm, winter sun streaming through my window and listening to the birds outside, I picked up my old bible and turned again to the Psalms. They are my ‘go to’ place when I feel in particular need of God’s comfort and reassurance and encouragement. I began to read Psalm 94 and soon came to the following verses:

When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your love, O Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul. (18-19)

The New Living Translation puts it this way:

I cried out, “I am slipping!” but your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me. When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer.

Sometimes, it does seem as if everything is slipping away from us, don’t you think, as we look at all the things we had hoped to do in these months? Many we know were planning overseas trips and looking forward not only to seeing special places but also family members in other countries. Then there are those in much more disastrous situations, watching their livelihoods slip away, as shops and businesses are closed or as customers are afraid to venture into such places. Meanwhile, our leaders must wonder at times if their ability or power to make the wisest decisions for our nation and turn things around for everyone is slipping through their fingers. Yet, whatever our situation in life, that unfailing love of the Lord is still there, willing and able to hold us firm and stop our panicking, downward slide.

So right now, I’m reaching out my arms to the Lord and holding on tight, drinking in that comfort and hope and deep joy only he can give. And I hope and pray you can do that too.

Jo 12There I was, standing peacefully at the supermarket checkout, when the lady in front shook her head, turned to me and started muttering:

‘I could have done this in ten minutes! It’s not worth it, bringing my husband with me, I can tell you that!

I looked and saw her husband happily chatting to the checkout girl. Then the lady went on:

‘I asked why she hadn’t put our cold things into the blue bag but he’d packed it away! He’s no help at all!’

I glanced at another lady behind me in the queue then and caught her grinning.

‘Well, if I brought my husband shopping with me, he’d still be back in the chocolate aisle now!’ she announced.

Then I decided to add my contribution to the conversation.

‘My husband doesn’t come with me either. If he did, he’d organise everything with military precision and know exactly what was in each aisle and what order to get things! I know where things are and usually have a list, but I like to see what’s on special and get ideas for different things to cook.’

(I rest my case!)

I watched then as the first lady and her husband left, with things apparently reconciled between them. Phew! No doubt she would be very happy to have his help with loading everything she had bought into the car and unloading it later.

All the way home, I chuckled at this amusing little episode. I shared it with my own husband then—and, thankfully, he laughed too! After over fifty years of marriage, we are well aware how different we are and how we can help each other best. But then I began thinking a little more seriously about this whole experience. The first lady’s husband looked as if he was only trying to help—had he felt rejected and rebuffed by his wife’s response? Had she overreacted, thinking she was holding the queue up? Was she perhaps a little tense and stressed that day anyway? Who knows?

I wonder what you are like when it comes to accepting help. I know I am not the best—I am quite independent and am also reluctant to bother others. Yet recently, when someone offered to make a cake to help out with some catering I needed to do, I accepted—and it felt good. Not only did this lady look pleased, but I was quite relieved too and grateful for her thoughtfulness.

Often too, I know I have rejected God’s help in my life and gone it alone, preferring to do things in my own strength rather than trust God. Yet how much that must grieve God’s heart! I think we see a glimpse of this in Isaiah 30, where the Lord says to his people:

In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it. (15)

Instead, the Israelites decide to do it their way and flee on horses, even though the Lord warns them they will be defeated. Then we come to these beautiful words:

Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. (18)

It’s all about the right help at the right time, don’t you think? And the Lord’s help is always exactly that.

A few weeks ago, our village gardeners finally had time to renovate the garden area near our unit. It used to be our neighbour’s pride and joy, before she could no longer look after it. The men worked busily, leaving some of the old plants but also adding lots of extras. Now we have a mixture of hardier shrubs such as azaleas, gardenias and baby nandina, along with some of our neighbour’s special plants—alstroemeria, gerberas, primroses, cyclamen, some kangaroo paw and even a patch of thyme.

Now that was pretty much all we thought was left of our neighbour’s original plants—until I looked closer in one spot and saw some little green shoots almost covered over by the wood chip the gardeners had put everywhere on top to deter any weeds. As gently as I could, I flicked the pieces of wood off them and hoped those little fronds would survive.

IMG_20200727_140611536Lo and behold, when I walked past a few days ago, there they were, standing so much taller and stronger and looking as if they might burst into flower at any moment. I suspect they might be daffodils, but who knows? We will have to wait and see. As well, beside these shoots, there was a cluster of dainty snowdrops on one side and another cluster of little star-shaped daffodil-like flowers on the other. And behind them, some wider shoots had also popped through the ground, along with a beautiful, dainty blue flower—all seemingly out of nowhere.

Yes, many of the other special plants our neighbour had nurtured with such care are now gone, including her hollyhocks and irises and the precious peony she particularly loved, along with the parsley we all enjoyed picking and using! Yet now, what looked like bare patches covered in wood chip are suddenly yielding special, unexpected treasures that remind me each day of our lovely neighbour.

I suspect this little patch of garden could be a fitting image for the strange period we are all in, don’t you think? For many, this is a difficult time when jobs have gone, money is tight and the future looks bleak. For others of us, this isolation time feels more like a weird hiatus, as if the pause button has been hit on our lives and nothing is as we knew it or expected it to be.

Yet, beneath it all, there still is life—and hope. Out of this time that may seem fruitless and bare, good things will come. They may be hidden for now, but soon those fresh possibilities will burst forth, just like the green daffodil shoots did. Eventually, when this isolation time has passed, we will look back and see the new things that blossomed in these months that would never otherwise have seen the light of day.

And God is still there too, watching over us and walking with us each day, willing us to keep trusting, whatever is happening—or not happening—around us. So let’s encourage one another today as we join together in a prayer the Apostle Paul prayed long ago:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

Jo 17One night last week, I went to bed early to read, but in the end, did not feel like concentrating on all those words. Instead, I decided to relax and try to stop recycling the disturbing issues in my mind that had been fuelled by the many negative news reports I had heard on TV. And these days, that can be a little hard, don’t you find?

I lay there in the half dark, listening to the sound of our TV from the lounge. Often all I can hear is the monotone voice of some expert on planes or machines or battles that my husband enjoys listening to—surely enough to send anyone to sleep? Or it might be the sound of laughter from some comedy show. But this time, it was neither of these things. This time, it was a simple but beautiful old hymn, written by Charlotte Elliott in 1835:

Just as I am, without one plea,

but that Thy blood was shed for me,

and that Thou bidst me come to Thee,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

When I first heard these lines as a fifteen-year-old, I am sure I did not understand fully what they meant. One way of putting them today might be: ‘Jesus, the only grounds I have for coming to you are that you died for me and that you tell me to. I have nothing else of my own to plead my cause.’ But back then, all I knew was that I had to get to the front of the meeting room as fast as I could, because Jesus was calling me and I wanted with all my heart to be close to him. In that moment, I was overwhelmed by the truth that I mattered to Jesus—that he knew me and loved me so much, exactly as another verse of this hymn says:

Just as I am, Thy love unknown

has broken every barrier down.

Now to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

What a joy then, having felt so tired and disheartened, to lie in bed and hear this wonderful reminder of how Jesus’ love drew me to him all those years ago—to be taken back to the beginning of my journey as a Christian in an instant and to realise how faithful God has been to me through the years!

I realised too that, in one way, nothing has changed since then. Jesus certainly hasn’t—and here I am, still so thankful he loves me and that I belong to him. Yet, in another way, everything has changed. That day, I was made new. That day, my life took on a clear purpose—to live for God. And over the years, Jesus has been so patient with me, as I have sought to grow in my faith and know him better.

… anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT

Today, as so many disturbing things are happening in the world around us, may you too be able to rest in the simple truths that Jesus loves you, that you belong to him and that he will never let you go.