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Archive for August, 2010

What did we do before the advent of email, Facebook, skype, blogs, and all the ways of linking us to others via the internet? Yes, we phoned, sent cards and letters – even telegrammed at times. But that was way back. Now – well, let me tell you a story about some conversations in a purple dressing-gown!

I have a good friend who lives in Turkey, with whom I communicate often via email but also by skype. At first she would skype me on our normal home phone, but then, after I also installed the program, we graduated to speaking via a small handset attached to my computer plus a webcam which didn’t seem to work, so I gave up on it. Finally, however, with the advent of my new laptop, I now simply sit at my computer talking to her – all the necessary ‘bits and pieces’ are built-in. Now, with one click of the mouse, I can even choose between a normal skype call and a video one, enabling my friend to see the top half of my body at least as I chat away.

The first few times we talked via video skype, I joked about what I was wearing. It was always the same – my warm, fluffy, purple dressing-gown! My friend tends to skype me later in the evening, by which time I am often comfortably ensconced at my computer, writing a few more precious lines of my latest novel before heading to bed. One time when I apologised for how I was dressed, my friend commented that it didn’t matter one bit to her. After all, we know each other well and have travelled around Turkey together several times, sharing a room in all sorts of B and Bs, ancient and modern!

But her response made me think. Whenever she skypes me, I want to ‘look nice’ on that screen. Almost unconsciously, I tidy my hair and straighten the collar of my purple dressing-gown – and yet, she doesn’t care! All she wants to do is connect with me and feel she is being heard and getting some response in return.

And that, I realised, is how God is with me too. God actually doesn’t care what I look like – in fact, God can see me any time at all, whether I am dressed carefully in my best or lounging around in my old jeans, jumper and ugg boots – even in a purple dressing-gown!  So why put on a ‘front’ for God? It doesn’t change anything – except perhaps make our communication just that bit more difficult.

In 1 Samuel, we read how God sent Samuel to find Jesse and anoint one of his sons as the next king of Israel. At first, Samuel went by outward appearance, as Jesse’s first son came before him. Surely, he thought, this was the one God had chosen – but no. In 1 Sam 16:7, God says:

Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

The Lord looks at the heart. God sees right inside me, past all the pretence, past all the self-justification, past all the outward trappings. God knows. God understands.

And as I sit snuggled up yet again in my purple dressing-gown, I’m so glad of that.

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I have come to the conclusion God enjoys catching us unawares, sneaking up and surprising us when we might least expect it – like the time a few weeks ago when I sat down to prepare a sermon. After reflecting on the first few verses of Romans 12, it occurred to me I needed to check out their context. My eyes flicked back to the end of the previous chapter – and that was all it took for God to ‘ambush’ me and trigger a memory I thought was buried long ago.

In a millisecond, I was back in my bedroom in Brisbane where I grew up, sitting at the brown masonite desk my father had made for me, chewing the end of my pen as I studied and staring at the wall in front of me. The wall was a pretty shade of pink – except for the space right before my eyes. Much to my mother’s disgust, I had insisted on sticking up a variety of quotes, Scripture verses and other bits and pieces there. And in amongst it all, carefully written out by hand, was one of those verses I had just caught sight of again as I sat at my current desk over forty-five years later – Romans 11:33:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

                How unsearchable are his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

As I sat stunned, I felt every emotion from those middle teenage years in Brisbane. At fifteen, I had just come to understand what being a Christian meant – and it had been a momentous, life-changing experience for me. From that point on, I was eager to grow in my faith and do great things for God. Even then, when I had first stuck that verse on my wall, I realised I belonged to an awesome, amazing, ‘unknowable’ God, so high and holy, and so far above and beyond my own wisdom or that of anyone else in this world. But I also knew that this God knew me and loved me, would watch over me and would show me the way forward in my life. Yes, I had the normal teenage doubts and fears – but I belonged to God, who gave me real purpose and direction in life.

Then, again in a millisecond, I was back in the present – and realising what God wanted to show me. Through all the twists and turns of my life since those days in Brisbane, God, in his infinite wisdom and knowledge, had indeed guided me and faithfully ‘traced out’ my paths. And as a result, that verse rang even more true for me now. I sat still for some time, filled with awe and overcome with thankfulness for God’s gracious, loving hand of mercy on me throughout my life.

Now I truly was in a place to share God’s word from Romans 12. Now, ‘in view of God’s mercy’, as verse 1 says, I could wholeheartedly encourage others to offer themselves as ‘living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.’ After all, as the rest of this verse is put in the New Living Translation, ‘when you think of what [God] has done for you, is this too much to ask?

No, it definitely isn’t, I concluded, my heart still caught up in that image of the fifteen-year-old sitting at her desk so long ago, wondering what her life would hold.

But how about you? Do you think it’s too much to ask?

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I have some jewellery which I particularly love – a gold bracelet and ring I received as a farewell gift from the church where I was part of the ministry team for some time.  Yes, this jewellery is valuable in monetary terms, but its value lies much more in what it represents – all the love and thoughtfulness on the part of my friends, especially those who so carefully chose the gifts.

I rarely take my ring and bracelet off.  But one night recently, I realised the bracelet was no longer around my wrist. I looked everywhere in the house with no success. And then it dawned on me – I had spent some time pulling weeds in the backyard that afternoon. I had roughly pushed the large pile of rubbish I collected into an old garbage bin and carried it up the steps from our backyard to a spot near the house. Could my bracelet be among all those weeds in that bin?

It was dark and cold outside, so I resigned myself to leaving the search until the following morning and going to bed without knowing if my bracelet would ever be seen again. But my husband had other ideas. Acting on a ‘strong hunch’, he grabbed a torch and headed down our back steps, intent on seeing if the bracelet was lying on the ground somewhere. I tried to dissuade him – I thought it would be a completely fruitless exercise. But he was determined to set my mind at rest.

Within less than a minute, he had returned. I was still yelling out to him not to worry, that I would go through the garbage bin the next day.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to,” he told me calmly – and held out my gold bracelet to me.

Somehow in the dark, with a very weak torch and without even knowing exactly where I had been in yard, he had spotted it lying there on the grass.

At that point, I was forcibly reminded of the story Jesus told about the woman with the lost coin:

Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)

Even as I write this, I am looking down at my bracelet, rejoicing that it was indeed found. But Jesus tells us this is absolutely nothing compared with the joy in heaven when one of us is truly found by God. I know how much I love my bracelet and how sorry I would be to lose it – but that’s nothing at all to how much God loves and values us. God is that woman searching for her lost coin. God is that shepherd we read about in the same chapter of Luke, seeking out his lost sheep, just as he is also that loving father who welcomes his lost son home.

 God paid a huge price to buy us back. In love for us, God went to great lengths to find us. And as I look down at my gold bracelet and am reminded of this, I am truly grateful.

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I get to do some interesting things, I’ve decided. One day last week, I found myself sitting in a large, open tent in the main courtyard at Macquarie University here in Sydney. On the desk in front of me was a sign with the title ‘novelist and minister’ beneath my name, followed by a brief description of who I am and the novels I’ve written. You see, I was taking part in a ‘Living Library’ event as the University Library’s contribution to ‘Diversity Week’ on campus. Potential readers – which included some high school students visiting the campus, uni students and staff – were free to ‘browse’ and choose which of us ‘living books’ they would like to ‘borrow’ and relate to for a while, asking as many questions as they liked.

As we were welcomed to the area by a member of the local Aboriginal tribe and treated to a ‘smoking ceremony’, I looked around at the diverse group of other ‘Living Books’ on hand – a Jewish Czech holocaust survivor, a gay activist student, a recovered alcoholic, a visually impaired Aboriginal woman elder, a young lesbian girl, a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee, an Arab Palestinian Masters’ degree student, a young male Aboriginal activist, a Turkish man keen to talk about Islam and living as a Muslim in Australia, a breast cancer survivor, a beautiful young migrant woman from South India – and ME! What was I doing there, I asked myself? Who would want to talk to me, with all these other interesting ‘books’ available?

But then two young high school girls shyly approached my table and we began talking. One in particular loved creative writing and wanted to know exactly how I went about writing novels. She had all sorts of interesting questions – with the result that about forty-five minutes passed without our realising it. Then a very curious female uni student sat down, munching her ‘vegie-burger’ as we talked. She loves writing poetry, she told me – and off we went, talking about writing ‘from the heart’ and how cathartic that can be. Soon after, a young male social science student arrived – and he too had some interesting observations to make. And in the midst of all that, I got to talk to some degree at least with the other ‘living books’ and library staff.

So what was the point of my being there, I asked myself, as I walked to my car? Well, besides imparting information about writing novels, I hope I inspired the young people who ‘read’ me to hold onto their dreams, to believe they are here for a purpose and have each been given unique gifts. I was not backward in telling them how I love writing about God and about things that will hopefully encourage and uplift people – and they seemed to respect that. And I hope too in all my conversations with those present that God was honoured in the process – that some salt and light at least filtered through my words.

And even as I write this, I find myself praying for those whose lives I touched yesterday, if only for a brief moment. Lord, have mercy on them. Heal their hearts. Bring peace to the troubled ones. Protect the young ones on the brink of life and career and show them who you are. Fulfil their dreams – reveal to them your dreams for their lives. And help me not to hide in my own little ‘cocoon’ – please keep my heart soft to the world out there that needs you so much!

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In a recent blog, I described how one of my granddaughters has a unique theological approach to playing Snakes and Ladders. I have now become used to listening to her anguished pleas for God to help her throw a six and to observing the desperation on her cute, little face as she does so.

The other day, however, I discovered she has further refined her attempts to win. She now has a couple of additions or ‘postscripts’ that follow on after these heart-wrenching pleas to God.  When I heard the first one, I was a little shocked, I have to admit. You see, it was in the form of a veiled threat:  ‘Pleeeeeaaaaase give me a six, God – or I won’t be your friend!

It occurred to me, however, to wonder if some of us respond like that when God doesn’t seem to give us what we have asked for. How many of us feel really short-changed when things we have prayed about don’t happen – or at least not in the way we had hoped? Do we perhaps pull back and distance ourselves just that little bit from God? Maybe we choose to serve God just that bit less. Or perhaps we simply spend less time with God in prayer or bible reading.  But of course we’d never acknowledge this even to ourselves.  At least my granddaughter is being honest.

Then her next words made me think too. After threatening God with the withdrawal of her friendship, she decided God needed reminding who was actually doing the praying. ‘It’s Olivia here!’ she muttered, kind of under her breath as an afterthought. In other words: ‘Just in case you can’t quite tell who’s asking, God, or are a bit hard of hearing, I’m letting you know my name’s Olivia!’

Well, I tried to put her straight at that point and tell her God knows who she is and what she needs, so doesn’t need reminding – obviously she thinks God is perhaps like one of her grandfathers, who sometimes can’t quite tell which of his granddaughters he is talking to on the phone. And of course when he asks, she tells him in a hurt voice – ‘It’s Olivia here!’ So why not treat God like that too? Besides, God might be a bit absentminded as well and not quite remember her.

Olivia’s too young to understand fully yet that God in fact knew her long before she was even born and is intimately acquainted with us. In Psalm 139:2-4, we read:

You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord.

So God knows our names and will hear us. Yet that doesn’t mean we will always get the ‘sixes’ we think we want or need – or at least not immediately. And it also doesn’t mean that when this happens, we sulk because we can’t control God. But I can’t help wondering, as I listen to my granddaughter, whether God would be more honoured my life if I were equally honest with him about my thoughts and feelings when I pray. After all, God knows them anyway – why pretend?

So let’s be God’s true and honest friends – all the time!

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