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I have another confession to make. I have felt more than a few twinges of fear and dismay at the prospect of releasing my latest novel, Down by the Water, later this month. Putting a book out there in public can be exciting and rewarding, but it can also feel a little like serving oneself up on a big platter for anyone to pick at or carve up or even reject altogether!

I can still remember what it was like to have to watch someone reading my very first novel, after they had purchased it from my book table at a conference. Eek! That was quite a few years ago now, yet that same trepidation at sharing something I have created and laboured over long and hard is still there.

But this time around, a much bigger challenge is how best to promote my book online in these days of COVID restrictions when larger face-to-face meetings are too uncertain to plan and rely on. While I happily write copious emails, produce this weekly blog on WordPress, use Facebook and Skype and often cruise around reading and researching online, pretty much anything beyond that is way out of my comfort zone. So … why would a technophobe like me ever decide to host a sudden death, Facebook Live Book Launch event?!

Thoughts that this might be all too hard for me did cross my mind. Yet I love this seventh novel of mine, probably more than any of my previous ones. And I want it out there because, apart from anything else, it deals with important themes such as giving and receiving forgiveness and knowing God’s love and grace. So … what to do?

Firstly, I opened my Bible and found some passages dealing with fear and dismay. Then I settled on the following verses to leave open right beside my laptop, so I could glance over at any time and read the words out loud again:

But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend. I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:8-10

Of course, these words are clearly addressed to the children of Israel way back in Old Testament times who were in a far more desperate situation than my current little scenario. But they spoke to me this week too. And strengthened me. And reassured me so much.

Then I prayed, reflecting on and using the words I had read. And later, I asked my little prayer team to pray too. Now it is up to me to keep my eyes and ears focussed on God and not fall for that undermining from the enemy, don’t you think?

So … if you too have been experiencing a touch of dismay lately, may these words encourage you to hang in there. And may the Lord our amazing God be very close to you, strengthening and upholding you, whatever challenges you are facing right now.

I have a confession to make. Even though I prayed throughout writing and editing my latest, soon-to-be-launched novel, Down by the Water, I doubted the moment would actually come when I would hold it in my hands. I thought it might—and I sensed God wanted me to persevere with it. But what if I was wrong? What if it never came together and I had spent three or four years writing it for nothing?

Besides, what was I thinking to release another novel in the midst of all the current uncertainties? After all, while my books are sold in Christian bookstores across Australia and online in various ways, including from my own website, most of my sales come via speaking engagements that cannot happen at the moment.

I am sure end-of-year tiredness did not help either. While 2020 was a quieter year, which in fact enabled me to finish my novel, it also held its challenges. I was concerned about the welfare of family members and others in our wider community. I missed meeting face to face with our beautiful church family, despite hosting a group in our home most of the year. And I missed my speaking engagements, where I could share from my heart and encourage others.

But then on Christmas Eve, those shiny, brand new copies of the novel I had poured my energies into for so long arrived. I was in the middle of my Christmas baking, so at first took it all in my stride and left the boxes where they were, unopened. After all, I knew what the cover would look like. Yet I was a little afraid too. What if I was disappointed with the end result? What if what I had seen and approved online did not come together as I imagined it would?

Slowly, I prised open that first box. And as I did, memories of eight other similar occasions in previous years came flooding back. I paused for a while, as I realised again how faithful God has been to enable me to see six other novels and two non-fiction books through to publication. Then I lifted out that first copy—what a surreal moment! Yes, there it was at last in my hands, looking even better than I had imagined.*

At that point, I was filled with remorse for my lack of faith, but also such gratitude to God for persevering with me and for being so kind and gracious towards me anyway.

Is there something God has put on your heart to pray about or work towards in the coming year? Yes, we need to remember God is sovereign and knows what is best for us. But in 2021, I for one know I need to be bolder in my faith and firmer in my trust, as I keep my eyes on the Lord. I want to believe more and not doubt. Truly, I want to be so much more like Mary, the mother of Jesus, about whom her cousin Elizabeth exclaimed:

Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’ Luke 1:4

Is that your heart too right now? May we all continue to hope and trust in our amazing God, whatever 2021 might hold for us.

*Please watch for further news about my novel Down by the Water and my Facebook Live book launch later this month!

On being shaped

Have you ever in a rash moment said yes to some activity or event way out of your comfort zone, then later wondered why? Perhaps you agreed to walk x number of kilometres or lead a group or sing in public … or anything else you would not normally choose to do. Such experiences can feel surreal, can’t they—as if we are there, yet not there?

Last week, I did something I have in fact done before, but not for some years—I took part in a radio interview via phone from another state. During this 20-25 minute interview, my task was to share why I had written a particular short story that won a place in a recent writing competition (‘Stories of Life’), then talk about the events that shaped me to become the writer I am today, using stories as much as I could.*

Sounds easy, right? Yet at this stage of the year, and especially after seeing my current novel through to publication, my brain is a little tired. I had a script—a few dot points I had submitted earlier to my interviewer—but still felt nervous on the day and well out of my comfort zone.

What to do? First off, I prayed—and I also asked my little email prayer team of nine women to pray, if they happened to read my email in time. How wonderful it was to hear back from three of these faithful friends almost immediately, assuring me they would be praying! But I was also touched when my interviewer prayed for us both, before flicking that switch and launching into our conversation.

At first, I stumbled a little. But as we reached that part of the interview where I needed to share my writing journey via stories, I became so involved in it all, I forgot about everything else. I was even able to laugh at myself at one stage (although not out loud!) when I realised I was holding my phone in one hand and waving the other around as if speaking to a live audience! But as the interview proceeded, I also began to feel a deep sense of awe as I shared how God has led and shaped me via all sorts of experiences during my various occupations. All over again, I was reminded of the loving hand of God on my life, shaping me, teaching me, guiding me, setting me on my feet again. And as I kept talking, my heart filled with praise and thanks to God for all God’s gracious, constant love and care through it all.

As 2020 draws to a close, may I encourage you too to look back on this year—and on your life in general—and see how faithful God has been, through the good and the bad. And as you do, may you see and sense afresh, as I did, the gentle hand of God, our awesome potter Father, shaping us, his clay, to become more and more like him.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Isaiah 64:8

*Should you wish to hear my radio interview, please tune into ‘The Story’ on Vision Christian Radio at 9.30am (EST) on 13th January 2021.

I was in our local shopping centre again, not far from the large nativity scene in the middle of the main walkway, when I heard some children calling out in excitement. They were running here and there and seemed to be by themselves. Then one of them, a little girl, discovered the porcelain figure of the baby Jesus in the manger.

‘Oh look, a baby doll!’ she yelled. ‘I’m going to pick it up.’

Just then, her mum appeared and told her not to, after sending a quick, embarrassed glance my way. I am glad she was not close enough to hear my gasp at what her daughter had started to do, but I’m sure she saw my slightly horrified look. I wanted to tell her it was fine and quite a natural thing for a child to want to do, but they scurried away.

I was not worried that the doll the little girl wanted to pick up represented the baby Jesus, although I suspect that mum felt she might have offended me and others nearby. It is just that—a representation, not some sacred relic. Rather, I was more concerned the doll would smash if the little girl dropped it—and that would have been embarrassing indeed for her mum. But as I continued shopping, my reaction kept niggling me. Had I somehow acted a little like the disciples who rebuked those who brought children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them? But Jesus’ response had been so gracious.

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:16-17

I prayed for that little family then. The mother had seemed so harassed and overwhelmed, but it all happened so quickly, there was nothing I could have said to her or done for her. Yet later, as I thought more about this event, I wondered if God had been teaching me a big lesson through it all.

How many times have I figuratively ‘picked up’ Jesus, listened to his words and connected closely with him, only to discard him after a while and rush off to something more exciting or interesting? How many times have I treated Jesus as if he were some mere effigy, instead of someone alive and powerful who loves me and wants to walk with me each day in my life? Even now, am I still like that little girl at times, not understanding or forgetting what that manger scene is all about? Have I truly grasped the enormity of the fact that God sent his Son Jesus Christ into our world out of love for us to save us and restore our broken relationship—forever?

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16

This Christmas, let’s all carefully ‘pick up’ that baby Jesus, our Saviour, take him into our hearts once again and truly value the gift we have been given—freedom, peace, joy, a loving relationship with God, forever.

Can you think of a time when you put off beginning some big, new project because the whole thing looked far too daunting? That was how I felt earlier this year when I decided to open that cupboard where all our old photo albums were stashed and do something about them. And that was how I felt too, when I began writing my current novel, Down by the Water, around four years ago. I had already written six novels and two non-fiction books—surely that was enough? To make things more difficult, this novel needed to be set in Queensland in the early 1900s—and hadn’t I vowed and declared I would never write another historical novel? I knew what a time-consuming task that could be, with so many facts needing to be checked.

Yet soon those ideas for the opening chapter began to emerge. Yes, since then, those first few pages have changed many times over, as I realised what needed to be revealed early on and what did not. But I knew I had to keep working on them, because those early pages are vital in winning or losing potential readers.

Beginnings can be hard, can’t they? Yet so can endings. And that is where I am now, tying off those final details of my novel before it is published. The actual writing is finished—and I have lost count how many times that manuscript has been checked through at various levels, not only by me but also by seven other people. I even have a lovely cover for my book. Yet, while I have heaved a sigh of relief that this whole, huge task is almost complete, I also feel quite tentative about releasing this novel out into the big world. What if all that work turns out to be for nothing? What if no one else thinks the story worthwhile? What if …?

Yes, this year, I have been very clearly reminded how challenging both beginnings and endings can be. And perhaps that is why, while reading Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians recently, I noticed in particular how he began and ended these.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 1:3 and also 2 Corinthians 1:2

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. 1 Corinthians 16:23

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. 2 Corinthians 13:14

Curious, I then discovered similar greetings in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians and also Timothy. In the midst of all the challenging situations those early believers faced, Paul obviously sees God’s grace as key—that overwhelming kindness of God shown in particular in sending Jesus into our world. And as we too choose to rest in that same grace that accepts us and loves us unconditionally and forever, we can know that same peace Paul prayed for those early believers, right here in 2020.

However difficult you and I have found those beginnings and endings this year, God’s grace and peace are always there for us. So Let’s truly hear Paul’s words and take them to heart. Let’s reach out and receive these amazing gifts and be strengthened and comforted as we do.

This past week, we celebrated another birthday in our family—our second oldest granddaughter Olivia turned fifteen. This time around, we decided we would have an afternoon tea together instead of our usual dinner, which Olivia seemed happy about—except for one thing. That would mean she could not have her favourite meal ever that Nanna has always made for her birthday.

‘Um, do you think Mac and Cheese would be okay to have at an afternoon tea?’ she asked her mum when told of our arrangements.

Yep, the humble old Macaroni and Cheese dish I learnt to make in Domestic Science classes way back in the early sixties (!) has always been Olivia’s choice of birthday food. It is nothing special at all. Just macaroni and … um … well … cheese … with a layer of breadcrumbs and some white sauce holding it all together. Comfort food personified—and so cheap too.

So what to do? We could hardly have it for afternoon tea. But then I had an idea. I could make some for her anyway and present it to her as a special gift to take home and eat all by herself to her heart’s delight! It might not be quite the same as when freshly made, but I was sure that would be no problem to Olivia.

As I stood in our kitchen cooking this exotic dish, the memories of learning to make it myself in Brisbane when twelve or thirteen came flooding back—and also memories of our granddaughter’s eyes lighting up whenever she spied it on the dinner table. Simple, heart-warming memories of a simple, humble dish. Each year when I would ask Olivia what she wanted for her birthday dinner, I would roll my eyes at her choice and we would laugh together, but she never wavered.

It’s the simple things that can often mean the most, don’t you think? This past week, I decided to put up our Christmas tree and also set out our little nativity scene. Now our nativity scene is very humble indeed. Some of the figures who should be there are missing altogether, while one wise man has a broken arm. There is even an angel with only one wing! But as I set it out, there was something heart-warming about remembering the simple yet profound truth of Christmas—that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born into our world as a humble child in humble surroundings to a humble couple. And that humble event has changed everything.

Then one morning this week, I read the following:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. 2 Corinthians 8:9

It’s that love and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ that makes all the difference, isn’t it? When I come back to this basic truth, all the complexities of the world around me and the things I worry about on a daily basis seem to fade into the background. So this Christmas, may we not get carried away with all the hustle and bustle and commercialism around us. Instead, let’s remember the simple yet profound event at the centre of it all—and be so thankful.

I wonder if you can recall a recent conversation with someone or a recent event that encouraged you, even in some small way. It’s like something melts deep down inside us when that happens, don’t you think? Somehow, we feel just that little bit more seen and understood and appreciated. And that in turn can spur us on to keep going, despite any difficulties we might encounter.

One day this past week, I replied to a friend’s email, saying how much I enjoy her writing style. Her words always flow well and her descriptions are so colourful and interesting. When she wrote back, she thanked me and went on to explain how she had never felt she was a good writer, because, to this day (she is now in her seventies), she vividly remembers the red corrections her high school English teacher would write all over her essays.

‘Just one kind word would have made all the difference,’ she added—and that sentence made me feel so sad.    

But this week, I too have received some lovely, unexpected encouragement that has lifted my spirits.

The first of these came as I watched the launch of the Stories of Life 2020 anthology The Swimmer and other stories of life and the announcement of the prize winners of their writing competition. This was livestreamed via Facebook from Adelaide and, as I sat listening, I saw various people I knew taking part. But then, to my surprise, I heard my own name and that of my short story, ‘The Ring’, announced as having won third place in the open section! I was delighted, especially since this particular story is about an event that happened to a dear friend of mine—so this honoured her indirectly too.

Yes, I value the $200 prize money I won, but it was more than that. Right now, I am in the midst of seeing my current novel Down by the Water through to publication and taking those final, few steps in what has been a long journey of several years, with many interruptions. There are those all-important checks to be done with the utmost care, as well as many decisions to be made about cover and layout. For me then, this encouragement came just at the right time, when I was almost beginning to doubt whether my own writing was worth putting out there for others to read.

Then, even as I was writing this blog, my husband opened our front door to find someone had left some flowers from their garden there anonymously for us. As I arranged them, I could not help reflecting on the amazing creativity and kindness of God who uses all manner of people and ways to encourage us. And I sensed God’s own Spirit, the Comforter and Helper who lives in me and is there beside me each day, rise up and whisper such wonderful words of encouragement too: You see, Jo-Anne—I have not forgotten you. I’ll always be with you—don’t be afraid!

Can you hear those wonderful, encouraging words from God for you too today? Let’s listen well—and then let’s share that encouragement with others, because it could make all the difference in a way we might least expect.

 So encourage each other and build each other up … 1 Thessalonians 5:11 NLT

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.’