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So many things

This past week, I have undertaken various shopping expeditions, while hunting for birthday and Christmas presents. I bought what I could online and, after traipsing what seemed like kilometres around shops, have now decided there is much to be said for purchasing something with the click of a button, despite those delivery costs! Yes, it was fun—to some degree. Yet throughout this process, I also found myself feeling slightly overwhelmed—even a little shocked.

So many options. So much choice. So many people. So much noise!

These feelings set in early when I visited two similar stores with an astonishing array of exotically-named perfumes and spray mists, crammed together on shelves reaching from floor to ceiling. I mean—how does one choose? Then in several other stores, I saw whole walls filled with board games of every description. Some were variations of the same game, while others seemed mere modern versions of old board games we played years ago, all now packaged expensively, of course. When I was a child, we used pencil and paper to play many of these—no big, fancy boxes for us!

No doubt suddenly being back in large shopping centres after our long COVID lockdown added to my sense of feeling overwhelmed. Yet even shopping online at times, I found the choice of products available equally overwhelming. There, I could flip from one site to another, comparing this item and that with ease. On one, it was cheaper. On another, it was dearer, but delivery was included in the price. On another, there was a bigger range. On yet another, the item looked better quality. After hours of hunting, I was utterly confused as to which was the best buy and where I had seen it!

Through all this, I have concluded that our son-in-law, who grew up in a different culture, made a very wise observation recently. Our daughter wanted to buy him a bicycle for his birthday, so asked him what sort he preferred. Did he want a road bike? Would a mountain bike be better? Perhaps an e-bike would be good. Or even a folding bike, for his trips to the city.

‘Just a plain, normal bike,’ he told her in the end, exasperated. ‘You people here have far too much choice!’

When I was in my teens, I remember being impacted by William Wordsworth’s poem ‘The World is Too Much with Us’, especially its opening lines:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

All that ‘getting and spending’ must have felt overwhelming for me even then. Somehow, I remember sensing we were made for much more than this. But in later years, a few little words the Apostle Paul wrote impacted me even more:

Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. 1 Timothy 6:6-7 NLT

Yes, those many things I have been super-busy buying are so temporary, aren’t they? How much more important to be rich in the things of God!

May I remember that this Christmas—and always.

Seeds of grace

Recently, I scattered some parsley seeds in the garden near our front door. The seeds were quite old, but I scattered them anyway, thinking I might as well try. Lo and behold, now I can see tiny, green shoots poking through the soil there. It is a miracle they have survived, but I suspect some moisture from the underground watering system nearby has helped, along with the recent rain.

It never ceases to amaze me how the trees and shrubs and plants around us spring from such tiny, nondescript seeds. This thought came to mind again last week when I attended the funeral of my lovely ‘soul friend’ Joy. It was a special time, made even more special by the unique gift each person received—a piece of soft, thick paper containing various flower seeds (see photo). Attached was a label bearing Joy’s name on one side. And on the other was a thank you note from the family, along with the following explanation: Embedded in the paper are seeds of summer flowers so that you can plant a bit of joy at your place—cosmos, love-in-a-mist, Californian poppy.

I am looking forward to planting my seeds and seeing which flowers hopefully emerge. In the past, Joy often gave me various plants and cuttings from her interesting cottage garden, including one I particularly loved growing. It was an old-fashioned plant whose round, filmy seed pods were often used in dried flower arrangements—and this plant was called ‘honesty’. I loved its purple flowers and also those filmy seed pods. But most of all, I loved the idea that I could actually cultivate a plant called honesty in my garden. To me, it symbolised the virtues of honesty and integrity that I value in others’ lives and seek to maintain in my own and was to me a gentle reminder from God of how important these qualities are.

Joy planted many other seeds in my life too—seeds of courage, seeds of love, seeds of strength in God. And as I reflected on these God-given seeds this week, both literal and spiritual, I began to wonder how well I had allowed them all to take root and grow and whether some had been neglected of late.

In the process, Jesus’ parable about the farmer who went out to plant some seeds also came to mind (Luke 8). Some seeds ended up being trampled underfoot and eaten by birds. Some died in rocky ground through lack of moisture. Some were choked by thorns. But some landed in fertile soil and went on to produce an amazing harvest. As Jesus explained, this is a picture of what can happen with the Word of God. I can listen to what God says—or I can turn away and let those precious words fall by the wayside. I can nurture them carefully and allow growth to take place—or I can let them die. I can give them space in my heart and mind—or I can crowd them out.

God has graciously planted so many seeds in my life through the Word and through people like Joy. So Lord, as I plant my little paper-embedded seeds, may I in gratitude allow those other seeds to grow too and flourish, blessing others in turn.

This past week, I received the news that my lovely ‘soul friend’ of previous years, Joy Crawford, had passed away at age ninety-one. On my last visit to the nursing home where she had been for some time, she did not stir or recognise me. Wondering what to do, I wrote her a little note which was eventually found on her bedside table by her daughter. And I sat and prayed and remembered, just as I have this week, after hearing of her death.

Joy and I met together once a month, first during my time at theological college when I needed a mentor—or spiritual companion, as Joy much preferred to be called—and then on into my years in local church ministry. After that, we kept meeting when we could, until she became too frail and unwell. Joy made a huge impact on my life, so much so that the dedication in my very first novel, Heléna, published in 2007, reads: ‘To Joy Crawford—my lifesaver’. I still also have a card Joy sent the day I finished the very first draft of that novel where she wrote: The Book! Well done, dear Jo-Anne. Congratulations—and my prayers and love for the next phase. Joy. Joy always believed in me, encouraged me and supported me in prayer and practical ways—and it was an absolute delight when, in 2012, she was able to share in the launch of what we called ‘our’ book, Soul Friend: The story of a shared spiritual journey, an account of our years of meeting together and the many ways Joy helped and encouraged me in that time.

Joy was doubtful at first about putting parts of our many conversations into print, but I think she would be delighted to know Soul Friend is still selling today and ministering to those who read it. Just last week, a friend told me how much Soul Friend had impacted her and how glad she was it had been written. I am so thankful Joy’s voice can still be heard in this way and that her gracious wisdom can go on blessing others.

On occasions, Joy would email me, although she was much more comfortable sharing face-to-face in her beautiful study at her home in the Blue Mountains. I included some of these emails in Soul Friend and have just glanced through them again. Even her greetings there speak such love and grace to me—‘Very dear Jo-Anne’; ‘Dearest Jo-Anne’; ‘Dear friend’.  What a privilege to be called a ‘dear friend’—especially by someone who we know truly means it. Joy would also use these words often as we parted at her front door. ‘Go well, dear friend!’ she would say in her gentle voice, as she gave me a warm hug—words of blessing, words of comfort, words of love.

Yes, Joy was my lifesaver, in the midst of some choppy seas in my life. But above all, she was my dear friend—a friend who truly mirrored to me the deep friendship Jesus offers each of us.

Lord, may I be such a friend to others too.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. 1 John 4:7

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. I John 4:11

Moving in

This week, one of our daughters is moving house. She will have more room where she is going, so already she has bought more pieces of furniture to fill this space and that. She is looking forward to making her new place feel like home and to tidying up the messy garden that was neglected by previous tenants. Soon this house will feel warm and welcoming to her. And soon, no doubt, she will truly enjoy have guests over to visit and possibly even to stay for a while.

It has been some time since those of us in Sydney have been able to have guests come and stay, especially from interstate. It can be a lovely experience, can’t it, having visitors in our home? But it can also become irksome, if that sharing of our home goes on for a little too long. Some time ago, I heard of someone whose adult child needed a home, ostensibly just for a few weeks. But those weeks turned into months and months until, one joyous day, she finally moved out to a place of her own. What a challenge, especially for introverts like me, to share our personal space with others for that length of time!

I love our home—a spacious, ground floor unit that is comfortable in every way—and the quietness here that enables me to write without distractions. But I also do enjoy sharing our home with others and making them comfortable while they are with us. Yet I wonder if this extended period of COVID restrictions has made me less able or perhaps even less willing to do so. I suspect in some ways in this time, I have come to guard this personal space of mine too strongly, to see my home as a place of safety where I can hole up from the outside world and wait out this crazy time in splendid isolation. And I suspect there may be times too when I try to do the same thing with God.

Recently, I read some words of Jesus where he tries to comfort his disciples before leaving them. In reply to a question from one of them, Jesus says:

If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. John 14:23

At first, these words almost shocked me. Wow, I thought, do I really want God the Father and Jesus around all the time? What about when I want to have some space to do my own thing? But then I realised how silly such thinking is! Years and years ago, I gladly and freely invited them into my heart and life, to be with me forever. And what a joy that was—and still is. More than that, what an amazing privilege it is to have God, the Creator of the universe, willing to move into my life and take up residence in me, to live in me and through me each day! And what loving patience God must have to stay on, even when things get messy!

I’m so grateful God moved in all those years ago. May my wonderful House Guest always feel welcome and at home here, until that day when we actually meet face to face.

Surely not!

I can’t quite believe it. This week, we celebrated a special birthday in our family, albeit in different times and places, for COVID reasons. Our oldest child turned fifty. Yes—fifty! She looks nothing like that age, which makes it even more unbelievable for me. Anyway, how could I have a fifty-year-old daughter? Such a thing simply cannot be possible, at least not quite yet—could it?

Fifty years seems such a long time, in one way. Yet, in another, it feels as if those years have flown. In that time, our daughter has lived in many different places and done many different things. She has faced difficult challenges too, particularly health-wise, yet here she still is, determined to keep moving on in life, still ready to try new things and take risks, as she steps into a further phase of her journey. Yes, our daughter is a very capable, compassionate and courageous woman who tries her best at everything she does. It is a joy to honour her as we celebrate, yet this milestone has certainly caused me to reflect on my own life too.

Only weeks after our daughter was born, we moved interstate. Around two years later, a son was added to our family and we moved interstate again, this time to South Australia, where another daughter eventually joined our family. We lived near the beach at beautiful Victor Harbor, a wonderful place for our young children to grow up. A brief stint in Adelaide followed, then we were on the move again, back to Sydney to another ministry role at a local church. In this time, I decided to return to study to gain my teaching diploma and, when another move across Sydney followed, I was able to teach and thus help buy our own home. Season by season, God unfolded the next thing for me, often in such unexpected ways, and I am so grateful. Later, I took on an editing role, then a secretarial role and finally a ministry role, after gaining a theology degree. And when that concluded, my wonderful adventure of writing and speaking began.

Over the years, we can pack so much into our lives. And in the midst of it all, sometimes it’s easy to forget the bigger picture, isn’t it? In reality, our time here on earth is a mere speck when compared to eternity. Surely then, that means I need to hold onto things more lightly than I tend to do? And surely it also means I need to use my time here well and share the love of God with others however I can? I often think of Jesus’ parable about the rich man who built bigger barns to store his grain and other goods in so he could take life easy and ‘eat, drink and be merry’ (Luke 12:13-21). Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t provide for the future or celebrate happy times together. But, as Jesus tells us, it does mean we need to be wise in the way we live.

Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God. Luke 12:21 NLT  

Let’s continue to live life to the full. But let’s treasure that rich relationship with God that lasts for eternity above everything else.

Our nine-year-old grandson seemed happy enough when he arrived to spend the day with us, along with his seven-year-old sister. We chatted for a while and then he opened his laptop, ready to do his schoolwork online, while his sister showed me her workbook. We let them play a little longer, but then suggested they get their schoolwork out of the way so we could do other things.

However, our grandson was not impressed and objected loud and long.

‘He’s just “hangry”!’ his sister informed us in a resigned tone.

I offered him some breakfast, since he had not wanted any before leaving home, to no avail. Instead, poor Zain remained grouchy and most reluctant to do any schoolwork. But we insisted and told him we would check his work at morning tea.

When that time came, he told us he had finished, but … well, let’s just say there were one or two questions he had decided could easily be ignored! We persevered, but in the end, his efforts definitely left a little to be desired. Nevertheless, he quickly uploaded what he had done, thus making it impossible to change anything. He was so bored with it all, we realised—weeks and weeks of doing lessons at home had definitely taken its toll. 

His morning tea disappeared in record time, but poor Zain was still grouchy and did not want to go to the park. Maxine and I headed out anyway by ourselves, she so happy and chatty and I a little more silent, sensing I had not handled the situation with our grandson as well as I might have.

The next day, as I thought more about the whole scenario, I realised I may be more familiar with ‘hangriness’ than I care to admit. I don’t think I become truly ‘hangry’ when I need physical food—perhaps just a wee bit grumpy! But I suspect ‘hangry’ could also describe that rather unhappy, dissatisfied and disconnected sense I experience when I have been unable—or perhaps even unwilling—to be quiet in God’s presence for any length of time. Are you familiar with this sort of ‘hangriness’ too? For me, it may also include blaming or criticising others when, instead, I should be looking inside myself. And when I eventually do look inside myself, I can often magnify my failures and downplay or explain away those abilities God has given me and the things God has enabled me to achieve in life. No, feeling ‘hangry’ is not a pleasant experience at all.

Perhaps the best way to avoid this sort of ‘hangriness’ could lie in accepting the wonderful invitation offered to God’s people centuries ago—and to us today as well:

Is anyone thirsty?

Come and drink—even if you have no money!

Come, take your choice of wine or milk—it’s all free!

Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength?

Why pay for food that does you no good?

Listen to me, and you will eat what is good. You will enjoy the finest food.

Come to me with your ears wide open.

Listen, and you will find life. Isaiah 55:1-3 New Living Translation

Let’s not stay ‘hangry’. Instead, let’s choose to eat what is good. Let’s choose that finest of food. Let’s listen—and truly find life!

It can be so easy at times, can’t it, to criticise others? I would never say anything so silly or so rude, I may decide, as I listen to someone talk nonsense. Or I may watch someone act in a certain way and think, I would never do that. Yes, I am adept at such thoughts. And my pride will often not allow me to realise I may be just the same.

I had my critic’s hat well and truly on recently as I read Jesus’ words about being the good shepherd who would lay down his life for his sheep and give them eternal life (John 10:1-30). This divided those present who then tried to stone Jesus.

Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”

We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” John 10:31-33

Then I noticed I had put two little exclamation marks in the margin beside these verses on some previous occasion. Yes, I thought, I must have found these verses staggering then, just as I do now. What a weird response from those Jews! How could they possibly not believe in Jesus, after seeing his miracles firsthand? They couldn’t deny them, but, somehow, they simply ignored them and pushed on with their charges against him. How crazy is that?

The next day, I came to the account of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and how many Jews put their faith in Jesus as a result (11:1-45).  Yes, surely this is to be expected, I thought. But then I read how some still did not believe and indeed went to the Pharisees to tell them what Jesus had done. And what did these Pharisees do then? They called a meeting—of course! And what a dilemma they had.

What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him …” (47-48)

How ridiculous, I thought again. They could not deny Jesus’ miracles, yet they could not bring themselves to believe in him either. What a stupid and dangerous way to respond!

Then it was that I heard that gentle rebuke from God somewhere inside me. Would you have been any different, Jo-Anne? And … what about the miracles I perform each day in your own life that you miss entirely?

I sat back and reflected. Yes, there just outside my window were those trees gently swaying in the breeze and that beautiful, blue sky. Yes, this past week, we saw two of our grandchildren and marvelled at how much they had grown. Yes, this past while, God had enabled me to finish editing someone’s manuscript in time. Yes, there was this. Yes, there was that. So many miracles came to mind then—so many I had overlooked or taken for granted or explained away.

I may not have seen any resurrections or physical healings this past week—but I saw miracles, just the same. May I never miss them again. And may I always be so thankful to God for them.

Recently, after waiting several months, I finally took delivery of a brand-new car. Now I thought my trusty, twenty-two-year-old Ford Fairmont was luxurious enough, but my mind has been boggled by all those amazingly clever features my Toyota Corolla has. I mean, how did I ever drive before without keyless ignition? And how did I ever get by without being able to lock and unlock the car even if my key is still in my handbag?

Sometimes I suspect my new car could be smarter than I am, especially when it refuses to lock if a window is down a fraction or when it winks at me from those little lights in my outside mirror, if a car is near my blind spot. Even during school holidays, whenever I drive near a school, a bell dings and that very polite lady hidden in my car somewhere says in a state of mild panic: ‘Caution! You are approaching a school zone!’ And when she later informs me I have now left the zone, I feel I have been given an early mark for good behaviour.

However, this lady completely floored me when I discovered she can read every speed sign around. I mean, I had barely erred a few kilometres over the fifty kph limit near where we live when her voice startled me almost out of my wits. ‘Please obey all traffic regulations!’ she boomed in a highly accusatory tone. It was as if she were saying, ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing, Jo-Anne? How dare you go over the speed limit! Stop it this instant!’

I was shocked and embarrassed. I do not normally speed and, if I did, it was probably because I was distracted by all the bells and whistles in my new car. However, not wishing to upset her again, I immediately slowed down and toed the line.

This experience helped me drive more safely, which is a good thing. But, as soon as I heard that lady’s urgent, reproving voice, it somehow reminded me of my old view of God. As a young person and even on into my adult years, I used to think of God as being much more of a judge than a friend.  Often, I would picture God as frowning at me and as disappointed in me, if I failed to reach those high standards I was required to meet. If I behaved, God would love me and be pleased with me, I thought. But otherwise…

Imagine my relief then when I experienced how gracious and loving and accepting God is! Gradually I saw too that I need to love God in return with all my heart and soul and others as well (Luke 10:27-28). And that involves living in a way that pleases God and brings God honour—which includes obeying the road rules! But I do not need to fear being told off by a harsh, disapproving, heavenly judge. Instead, I can step into each day at peace with God, rejoicing that Jesus has bridged the gap between us and ready to love and serve God and others as the Spirit leads.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood… to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. Revelation 1:6

It’s amazing how so much conversation, uplifting or otherwise, can fly around the world so quickly on the internet via such platforms as Facebook and Twitter, isn’t it? In a trice, someone can respond to a post with a pleasant or unpleasant comment—and a whole interesting ‘discussion’ can ensue. Just a few little words, yet they can quickly become a stream or river—or even a torrent.

Sometimes, an undignified and even vicious spat may erupt. Yet at other times, people are kind and courteous, wanting to build others up rather than tear down—and I am convinced God can use such online exchanges at times in ways we would never imagine. In fact, I think God might have even smiled at one I became involved in recently and enjoyed how it unfolded.

It began when our son shared the words of Proverbs 16:24 on Facebook from his home in Sydney, together with a graphic of honey dripping from a piece of honeycomb.

Kind words are like honey—
    sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.

These words are well worth pondering, I thought—and that’s exactly what one of our daughters did. But then she had an honest question, which she shared on her brother’s post from her home on the other side of Sydney: How can kind words actually be healthy for our bodies?

Our son then responded online that he didn’t quite know, but hoped someone out there would. And as I thought about our daughter’s question, several ideas came to me. Kind words certainly make us feel good, just like that burst of sweetness we experience when we taste honey does. We seem to relax inside when we realise someone appreciates us, don’t we? And we feel connected to them too, heart to heart or soul to soul.

Then I vaguely remembered how honey was used in times past as a kind of antiseptic on an open wound. And didn’t some people drink hot honey and lemon juice for their health? After checking online, I soon discovered that a honey and lemon drink can apparently help our digestion, flush out toxins from the body and even stop us putting on weight! So … can kind words actually have a similar healthy effect?  

Delving further online, I read that, as we experience someone’s kindness, our bodies apparently produce the hormone oxytocin. This then stimulates production of nitric oxide which, in turn, dilates our arteries and reduces blood pressure. As well, this oxytocin can act as an anti-inflammatory in our cardiovascular system, thus protecting our whole bodies. Wow—amazing! Apparently then, there really is a scientific reason for those lovely, warm fuzzies we can feel throughout our bodies when we receive a kind word from someone.

From yet another part of Sydney then, I decided to share some brief comments about this on our son’s post, in an attempt to answer his sister’s question. Soon others followed with more comments, resulting in a flow of excellent and uplifting thoughts on the subject. From one little post online of a verse from Proverbs then, a whole group of people across Sydney and beyond were connected and built up in a unique way. Those kind words flowed on—and in the process, I suspect God’s heart was gladdened too.

Being known

I wonder if you can remember a time when you thought you knew someone well, then realised you didn’t at all. Perhaps you were delighted to discover they had done or could do something amazing. Or perhaps your experience was not so joyful. It can be quite a rude awakening, can’t it, when someone we thought we could depend on lets us down or disappoints us?

I can well remember the time years ago when I told some friends I was heading to theological college. This had long been a dream of mine and I thought they would be delighted for me. Yet instead, they seemed offended and asked me bluntly, ‘What would you want to do that for?’ I can’t remember how I responded—but I know I did not say much. I knew they would not be receptive—and by then, they had come crashing down off that pedestal I had put them on where they could do no wrong, in my eyes. Later, I realised they were at least being honest—and we remained friends. But that day, I certainly came to know them a little better.

Yet new revelations can happen even in our own families too. Recently, I mentioned something to my husband about a particular, ongoing difficulty our granddaughter was facing.

‘Oh, I used to have that trouble back in my teens myself!’ he told me immediately, to my great surprise.

He then described an actual setting where this had happened once and how he felt at the time. Yet, in all our fifty-two years of marriage, for whatever reason, I had never heard this personal story of his before. I was amazed—and it also made me wonder what other things I have yet to discover about my husband!

Recently, however, as I read in John 1 how Jesus called his early disciples to follow him, I realised my amazement paled into insignificance when compared with how Nathanael must have felt, when he first met Jesus. After hearing about Jesus from his friend Philip, he was reluctant at first to believe anything good could come from Nazareth, but went with Philip anyway to see for himself (44-46). And he was in for quite a shock.

 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” (47-49)

Nathanael believed immediately because he realised Jesus knew all about him, even though they had never met. And we see a similar response in John 4 from the Samaritan woman at the well, after her amazing conversation with Jesus there.

Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” (29)

There is something freeing, don’t you think, in the fact that Jesus knows all about us too? We don’t have explain anything to him. And we don’t have to justify ourselves or pretend either. Instead, we can be at peace in his presence. We are loved. We are accepted. We are valued. We are known—truly known. Let’s praise God for that!