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So faithful

2016-08-04 11.26.04I leave my study with reluctance, my mind miles away. I am in the middle of editing my latest book, yet I know those mundane household tasks cannot wait. I reach the kitchen, then pause for a moment when I notice how four of my pot plants on our old sideboard nearby are in bloom, despite the neglect they have suffered at my hands.

As I stand admiring them, I remember who gave them to me and when. The lovely salmon pink cyclamen on the right is quite old. It was presented to me after I spoke at a women’s meeting in a church in 2007 or 2008, early on in my writing journey. A friend on the staff there had invited me—and that friend is still part of my little prayer team today. How faithful she has been—and how faithful God has been to me over those years, I realise with a grateful heart.

The pale pink cyclamen on the left has a beautiful, sweet perfume. It was given to me by an old school friend, after one of several occasions when I have spoken to a group of women at her church. Again, another faithful friend I am privileged to have, I realise.

The large peace lily with the tall, white blooms was a gift from our son and his wife and daughters for Mothers’ Day this year. How faithful my family has been too in supporting me, I reflect, as I thank God for them all. As for the little purple and gold primrose (primula acaulis) at the front, I recall how I received it only recently from another friend, after I had presented a three-hour workshop at her writing group. How faithful she too has been in supporting me—how much God has blessed me through all those responsible for giving me my special plants!

Jobs completed, I eventually return to my desk. I glance at my Bible lying beside my laptop and realise I have forgotten to take time that morning to reflect on the things God has to say to me from it. I take up from where I left off last time—Zechariah 4 in the Old Testament. I come to verse 6 and read:

 ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.

These words in themselves are so powerful, reminding me how God is the one who enables me to achieve things in my writing and speaking journey and that I am not to rely on my own strength and ability, forgetting God in the process. But they mean far more than that to me too. In an instant, I am back in our old church on the day a visiting speaker gave this verse to me in 1995, before I began studying at theological college. For years, throughout my time at college and on into ministry, I carried this verse, written on a scrap of paper, in the back of my Bible. I recall now how many times I turned to that scrap of paper and read those words and how they spurred me on, reminding me God’s Spirit was with me and in me, whatever was happening around me.

God is so faithful, I reflect with thankfulness. God is so, so faithful—and always will be!

Jo 12I find I often have mixed feelings when I watch the Olympic Games. Part of me revels in it all, rejoicing in those successes and admiring the skill of the various competitors. But another part of me feels sad when someone is beaten, often by such a small margin. Surely they are still amazing athletes, whether they came first or second or third—or nowhere?

I am no sportswoman, but I love seeing excellence in action as I watch those swimming, gymnastics, rowing, cycling and track and field events. These athletes have committed themselves to persevere and become the best they can be at their chosen sport. They have spent countless hours working hard, no doubt training when they did not feel like it, some making huge financial sacrifices to do so. No wonder they have their eye on the prize and want to win.

Yet I feel relieved when I hear one of them say they are just delighted to be part of it all, that they are stoked with their silver or bronze rather than gold, that they are happy to see others, especially their teammates, do better than they have and win. And I also feel a little annoyed when commentators focus only on the medal winners and relegate other competitors to the background. All the competitors are winners, in my books!

Perhaps I am more like a friend of mine than I think I am. She refuses to play competitive games even as harmless as Scrabble or Monopoly—because someone has to lose! Or I think of something someone in my household who hates football once said: ‘I don’t understand why they don’t give them a ball each. It’s so unseemly for both teams to fight over just one!’  And a friend told us once that, in one part of the world he visited, when a team from one village scored a goal in a football game, they would then decide it was the other team’s turn to score the next one!

I’m so glad being a follower of Jesus is not competitive in any way. In fact, in Matthew 20, Jesus describes a very upside down kind of approach to this ‘game of life’ in which we all participate. He tells a story about some men who are hired at different times throughout the day to work in the vineyards. Yet that evening, they all receive the same wages. When those who worked longer object, the landowner points out how they agreed to be paid the amount they received and that he was not being unfair to them. He asks: Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? (20:15)

But then comes the most upside down bit of all, as Jesus makes his point:

So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (16)

Hmm. That wouldn’t go down too well in the Olympics, would it?

Yes, we are to ‘run in such a way as to get the prize’ (1 Corinthians 9:24). But that prize is awarded irrespective of when we join the race and wherever we come, as we persevere in fixing our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2).

So, let’s all cheer each other on in these upside down Olympics!

Jo 12Can you remember a time when you heard someone say something and nodded in agreement with them, but then realised what they had really said or meant? Or perhaps you might have been happily reading something but stopped with a jolt when you saw what those words actually implied. On these occasions, it’s as if the brakes slam on in our minds and we say to ourselves, ‘Whoa—hang on a minute! What was that?’

I can recall a time in late 2005 when this happened to me. One day, I received an email from a publisher to whom I had submitted my first novel around ten months earlier. Oh yes, I thought, as I began to read, the same old rejection letter I’ve received before from a few other publishers! But then I took a second look—and a third. Finally, I asked my husband to come and read the email too, because this is what it said: ‘We are interested in publishing your novel Heléna.’

I could not believe it. I was sure there was a ‘not’ in that little sentence. After all, I had seen that ‘not’ before—quite a few times!

This past week, I had a somewhat similar experience as I read in Matthew 22 about Jesus’ encounter with those sent to ask him about paying taxes to Caesar. Now we are told their task was to trap him. But, as I read what they said, I was lulled into thinking how nice these people were being:

“Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. (16)

That’s all so true, I thought to myself. I’m glad they could acknowledge those things about Jesus—good on them! But then came the first twist in this tale. Finally, light dawned. Surely they were just trying to flatter Jesus and pretend they believed these things about him? Hmm. Whatever their motive, I decided in the end, they still spoke the truth—very clearly, in fact.

I started to move on, eager to read Jesus’ response. But I didn’t get far before I discovered the second twist in this tale for me. ‘Whoa—hang on a minute!’, a little voice inside me seemed to say. ‘Look a bit more closely at what these people said about Jesus.’

Then I realised what God was trying to show me. I had spoken at one or two places recently where I had wondered how clear I should be about my Christian faith and had been tempted not to mention certain truths I usually share. Yet here, God was reminding me how Jesus was known as ‘a man of integrity’ and that he taught ‘the way of God in accordance with the truth’. I had also felt a little overawed at a particular gathering of professional people where I had been invited to speak. Would my input be acceptable? Yet here, God was pointing out that Jesus was not ‘swayed by men’ and that he paid no attention to who they were.

What a challenge to me! Kind of important I didn’t miss those twists in the tale, don’t you think?

Have you ever found yourself embarrassed or overwhelmed by a generous gift someone has given you or by the time and effort someone else has expended on your behalf? Realising how much someone else has put themselves out for us can be a humbling experience, don’t you think? Yet it can also be heart-warming and life-giving when we are able to accept such a gift with grace and truly receive the love the giver wants to convey to us.

I can remember quite a few moments in my life when someone did something amazing for me. On one occasion, I wanted to attend a particular three week prayer training course, but the several hundred dollars required to do so was too much for us. Imagine my shock when a young woman at our church told me she felt God wanted her to pay for me to attend. At first, I was reluctant to accept such a generous offer, but she insisted. In the end, I accepted—and that course turned out to be vital for me in so many ways.

Then there was the time when I was tired and unwell but still needed to keep going as part of our church ministry team. One day, I arrived home to find a big box on our doorstep. When I investigated, I found about a dozen containers with casserole meals in them, all neatly labelled—but with no name or clue as to the giver. What a wonderful, anonymous, sacrificial gift!

2016-07-27 12.16.25Then last week, I received another wonderful surprise. I had been asked to speak at a women’s event in a new church in western Sydney. As I finished my input, my friend who had invited me stood up to thank me. Then she opened a large bag, took out a beautiful quilt she had made and held it up.

‘I just whipped this up for Jo-Anne!’ she blithely told us, as she presented it to me.

What an understatement! Even I, with my limited knowledge of such things, could imagine how many hours of fabric choosing, arranging, sewing and neatening had gone into making such a precious gift, not to mention the cost. I was gobsmacked. My friend had previously told me about the quilt and that she thought God might want me to have it, but I had forgotten about it. And I certainly did not expect her to hand it over that afternoon.

Immediately, my mind went to the account in Matthew 26 of a woman pouring an alabaster jar of expensive perfume over Jesus’ head. The disciples complained that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus said to them:

Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. (7)

Now I am not Jesus. And I was not being prepared for my burial, as Jesus was. Yet, as I received my quilt, I felt my friend had also done a beautiful thing to me. I was moved to tears—I felt humbled and privileged, as if Jesus himself was blessing me with this gift.

So … what resources have you been given to express God’s amazing love to others? Could God perhaps be challenging you to ‘whip up’ a beautiful thing for someone else?

Jo 12I admit it does take a little effort to remember those years when I was a busy, young mum living in South Australia. It is quite a while ago, after all! But this past week, in the second or two it took for me to read one sentence from a story Jesus told, I was there again, in the midst of an event that happened way back then.

I was holding our baby son in the crèche during a Sunday morning service. As I stood rocking him gently, someone began reading aloud Matthew 18:21-35, the parable of unmerciful servant. At that point, I was kind of listening, but I was also distracted and concerned about our son—I knew he was quite unwell. Yet as soon as I heard the servant’s words in verse 26, something happened. In an instant, God had my attention.

‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’

Why did these words jump out at me? After all, they are nothing more than a simple cry for mercy. Yet God used them in an amazing way, completely out of their context in the story, to speak to me. From then on, I heard nothing more—not even the input from the excellent visiting speaker about the real point of this story Jesus told. It was as if an electric current had run through me and I had been shocked into seeing things clearly in my life. You see, through those few words, I knew God was saying in a loving but firm, confronting way: ‘This is how you have been treating me, Jo-Anne!

I was a young mum with two little children at the time. I was busy with so many things—looking after my family, cooking, gardening, sewing, shopping, cleaning. I was also involved in at least two ministries of the church. My faith was real—but I knew I had lost that close, intimate relationship with Jesus I had once had. If I had any spare time during my day, I would rarely decide to spend it with him. Instead, I chose to do all the other interesting things I liked so much more—playing the piano, singing, reading, writing letters. After all, Jesus would still be there when I was less busy and had nothing more interesting to do.

In essence, I had been saying to God, ‘Just be patient—you can wait. When I’m good and ready, I’ll spend more time with you.’ What an insult! How dare I treat my loving, heavenly Father in this way? I felt as if a knife had been plunged through me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remember thinking, ‘So this is what that little phrase “cut to the heart” must mean!’ I knew I could never ‘pay back’ the huge debt I owed God for sending Jesus and for saving me, but surely I could give God first place in my life, along with all due honour and respect?

That morning, a whole new, more intimate journey with God began. And today, I am still reaping the benefits of God’s grace to me in challenging my ‘when I’m good and ready’ attitude back then.

I want to be ready—all the time. Don’t you?

Jo 17‘Well done! I’m so proud of you!’ I wonder if you can remember when someone said this to you. Perhaps it was a long time ago. Perhaps it was when you managed to do something particularly difficult as a child, like riding your bike by yourself or making your bed or behaving well in some situation. Do you remember how you felt?

Perhaps you heard them later in life when someone noticed how you put yourself out for others or how you worked hard to achieve a particular goal or realise a God-given dream. Perhaps some of you find it hard to remember hearing such words at all, although you suspect you would have. Perhaps some of you would love to hear them again right now.

I thought I was over needing to receive such encouraging comments. After all, I have done many things in my life and am much more comfortable in who I am now than I used to be. Yet when I heard those words ‘I’m so proud of you!’ last week, I almost cried. And what made them particularly special was that they were spoken with such sincerity by someone who happens to be ninety years old!

Around Christmas time, this lady would often phone to order some of my books yet again as gifts. Over the years, she had mentioned how she would love me to come and speak to the seniors’ group at her church and how she had given my name to the organisers. Eventually, it all fell into place and, last week, I met this lady face to face for the first time. However, we did not have an opportunity to talk after I spoke, apart from saying a brief goodbye, so she decided to phone me the following day.

‘I just wanted to say thank you so much for coming to speak. Everyone really enjoyed your input—we didn’t want you to stop! It was all excellent—and it made me think too what I could still do for God at ninety years of age. I’m so proud of you!’

So proud of me? What encouraging, comforting words to hear! In that moment, it was as if God was allowing me to experience what to me seemed a kind of blessing from one generation of women to the next. It was as if God was saying to me through this lady, ‘Well done for sharing your faith as you do through your speaking and writing! I am using it to inspire others to grow in me and to be all I purposed them to be, whatever their age. Keep going!’

This past week, I read similar lovely phrases in Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of the talents—or the parable of the three servants, as the New Living Translation calls it. I love what the master says to each of his first two servants in the story:

‘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!’ (21)

One day, I hope I hear similar affirming words of welcome from Jesus when we meet face to face. But right now, I hope I am making him proud. And I hope you are too.

Beyond words

Jo 23This past week, I have found myself the recipient of some wonderful, warm, welcoming hugs. What a joy! Each time, as those arms have wrapped around me, I felt my heart kind of melt and go to mush. It was as if, in one unguarded moment, we reached out to each other in all our vulnerability and opened a window into our very souls.

Now it’s not as if we did this on a conscious level—at least, not in the case of our four-year-old grandson. I had arrived to pick him up from day care and quietly entered the room where he was busy playing. He turned around and, in an instant, I saw joyful recognition and sheer delight written all over his little, smiling face. The next moment, bits of puzzle scattered everywhere as he raced over to hug me tight. And, of course, I hugged him back. Our Zain can be very strong-minded at times and always full of energy. But he can also be warm, loving and gentle, wanting us to cuddle up close.

My other wonderful welcoming experience occurred after speaking to a seniors’ group in a church on the opposite side of town. As I chatted with people at my book table, I saw a younger man walking towards me. I recognised him immediately—I had known him years earlier when he was still at theological college but knew he was now the senior pastor of this church. How would he greet me in front of all those older members of his congregation? Would he be a little guarded? He smiled at me and, before I knew it, I was enveloped in the biggest bear hug and welcomed warmly to his church.

Then his wife arrived. For some years, I had met with her in a mentoring capacity, as she worked back then to support her husband. Now as we embraced, I could sense our hearts meeting again in a deep and moving way that went far beyond words. Later, I met up with another girl I had mentored—and again received a heartfelt hug. What a delight to see how both these women, now with families of their own, are still serving God in the most amazing ways!

As I reflected on all those wonderful, welcoming hugs, I could not help but think of the father we read about in Luke 15 who welcomes his lost son home with such joy.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (20)

True, my recent hugs were not given because I had returned from having squandered all my inheritance, as the young man in this story had. I was merely picking up our grandson and renewing old friendships. Yet these hugs have enabled me to imagine and appreciate all over again how much that father’s warm, welcoming, forgiving embrace must have meant to his son. And right now too, as I reflect on this wonderful, healing reconnection, I can feel those warm, loving arms of my own heavenly Father, welcoming me into his presence with equal joy and delight.

I am accepted. I am forgiven. I am loved.

And once again, my heart melts.

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