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Archive for September, 2010

This past week, we celebrated a birthday in our family – my husband turned seventy.  Now that, as we all told him earnestly, is really old. It even sounds old – much older than sixty-something does! Now he definitely qualifies to be called an ‘oldie’ by his children and their generation – not to mention his grandchildren! Recently he joked that, having now reached his ‘three score years and ten’, his time could well be up any day. He is well aware of what Psalm 90:10 says:

The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

Sounds quite pessimistic, doesn’t it? Yet it’s true we will all face trouble and sorrow in some shape or form during our lives. We are all human – and we chose long ago to go our own way and forget about God. But it’s also important to look at the context of those words. In my bible, this psalm is called ‘A prayer of Moses the man of God’ and begins:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.

Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men,”

For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.

To God, seventy or eighty years are nothing – God was and is and always will be. From God’s perspective, we don’t have long on this earth to make a difference here, to do what we were created to do, to live as God would have us live. So I think it’s important we all pray the words of verse 12 from this same psalm before we get any closer to our own ‘three score years and ten’:

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

It’s so easy for the weeks, months, years to slip away and for us not to take stock of where we’re heading in life, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I want to ‘number my days aright’, to live wisely, walking hand in hand with God, listening to that still, small voice within, doing what God calls me to do. Recently, someone commented that I should have started writing my novels years ago. For a moment that caused me to feel a little chilled inside and to wonder if perhaps I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere along the line. Would I have been able to touch more people and been used more of God, had I begun writing earlier? I suspect I needed to be the age I was, however, when I started. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to embark on such a journey any earlier, not to mention the life experience and understanding of people required. And I suspect I needed time to know God better and also acquire more of that ‘heart of wisdom’ mentioned in the psalm. I still do.

My husband has used his ‘three score years and ten’ very well, I believe – over forty of them in some form of ministry – and I hope I do too. But how about you – how are you travelling? Are you gaining that ‘heart of wisdom’?

Are you ‘numbering your days aright’?

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I love Melbourne. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, but I love its quirky, cosmopolitan, coffee culture. And the city itself always seems elegant and refined to me, with its wonderful old buildings and avant-garde shops. On a recent visit, I stayed close to the inner city – and it was there that I had my op shop experience.

You see, I have a sister who coordinates an emergency relief service in the Fitzroy area. Most weeks, on the two days it is open to the public, she and her wonderful team almost exclusively made up of volunteers look after somewhere around a hundred clients. Many are new to our country and need all sorts of help, but others have simply fallen on hard times or face other challenges that cause them to struggle to make ends meet. My sister and her workers can help with emergency food supplies, voucher assistance for some services and also in advocating with other agencies and government bodies on behalf of clients. All of this is carried out with great wisdom and compassion, whatever the clients’ backgrounds or difficulties. And alongside this, they also run a truly excellent op shop in adjoining premises.

One day I was let loose as an assistant there, sorting out bags of clothes donated by various churches and individuals and arranging these for display, as well as serving customers. And what an interesting assortment of people I met in the process! Migrants from various African nations and also from parts of Asia and the South Pacific; interestingly attired students from the nearby university, some of whom were freezing in the sudden cold snap so came seeking an extra jumper or coat; enterprising women with a keen eye for fabric they could recycle to create fashionable items for resale; and one or two down-at-heel, slightly inebriated gentlemen looking more for a listening ear than for any bargain. Word has got around across the social strata that this shop is worth visiting for a couple of reasons. Not only is it very well run, but most garments are sold for a mere one dollar or less!

So what did I glean from my ‘op shop day’? Firstly, I saw how well off our society is on the whole, in that we can dispense with so many clothes we own and still have more than enough. Admittedly, on the day I was there, we sorted through bags of children’s clothes which obviously were no longer needed, but for whatever reason, great adult clothes had also been discarded.

But secondly and much more importantly, I saw how each customer was treated with compassion and understanding. Prices were lowered further for some clients who could not afford even the dollar, while items were put aside for one or two known to my fellow-worker until such time when they would have the necessary funds. At the end of the day, I came away sensing strongly that God had been honoured in that place. Surely, as Jesus explained to his disciples on one occasion when asked about the end times, the King would say to these hard working volunteers in my sister’s organisation, as they sought to feed and clothe people:

I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. (Matt 25:40)

So did I meet the King that day in the op shop? Just maybe I did.

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About a week ago, we returned from a trip to Victoria, just prior to all the flooding in the north-eastern part of the state. As we drove, we enjoyed the lush, green countryside but also noted the swollen rivers and creeks and the large amount of water lying beside the roads. The constant heavy rains have been a blessing to many, filling the dams and soaking the soil, but they have also now caused widespread destruction to homes, farms, roads and bridges in the area. Dorothea Mackellar was certainly right when she talked about both the beauty and the terror of our ‘wide, brown land’ in her well-known poem ‘My Country’.

Towards the end of our time away, an alarming event occurred in my nephew’s backyard in Bendigo, as a result of all the rain. One Saturday morning, the family woke to find their large rainwater tank tilted at a very awkward angle. Realising that if the tank split, then litres and litres of water would cascade through the neighbour’s property, not to mention their own, they called the SES and friends for assistance. As a result, all the water was pumped out and the empty tank moved to another spot. A steel fence was also placed around the now gaping hole beside where the tank had been, in order to keep out my nephew’s three little boys, plus a collection of their inquisitive young friends!

As I write this, it is still unclear exactly why the ground near the base of the tank became so unstable. Many properties in Bendigo are built over old goldmining shafts – was that the reason for the cave-in? After all, the resulting hole was about eight feet long – and no one could actually see how deep it was! Or was it just the relentless rain that had caused the disaster?

Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. The ground near the tank had given way. While the base built for the tank remained strong and firm, the same could not be said for the earth beside and beneath one edge.

Does this remind you of an illustration Jesus used on one occasion? In Matthew 7:24-25 we read:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.

Jesus goes on to contrast this with the house built on the sand, which eventually ‘fell with a great crash’.  I’m happy my nephew’s tank didn’t fall ‘with a great crash’ – but I feel so much happier about the fact that his life and that of his little family are on a very firm footing. While the ground around their tank may be in question, their own lives are built securely on the firm foundation that Jesus illustrates here – that of sincerely trying to take in his words and put them into practice, even in very challenging ways.

So how firm is your foundation? Is your life on slightly shaky ground? Let’s all be sure we listen well to Jesus and then live as he wants us to.

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Already I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked if my latest novel ‘Jenna’ is really my own story. Whenever I hear this question, however, I honestly don’t quite know how to answer. At one level, it is not ‘my’ story at all. For starters, my character Jenna is in her mid-twenties, has dark, curly hair and lives in Adelaide – which cuts me out on all counts! Also, when the story begins, she is a youth leader at her local church – a role I have never had. Then she gets engaged to someone who … but I don’t want to spoil the story for any of you who plan on reading it!

And yet, at another level, ‘Jenna’ is my story. It is in fact lots of different parts of my story – little snippets from here and there taken totally out of their original time frame and context and melded together to form a new and unique narrative. But it is also various other people’s stories – again snippets I have heard or read about or watched unfold. And then around and through and above and below all that are the characters and events completely from my own imagination, with the result that it is difficult even for me, the author, to tell now where fact and fiction begin and end.

It’s true too that I am the author of my novels – the creator of these characters and this storyline. I bring them to birth – I give them names. Maybe I even ‘play God’ a little at times, creating the odd one or two in my own image, or part thereof, allowing them to respond to situations as I probably would – or at least think I would. And no doubt this is a natural thing to do – after all, I’m told we write best about the things we have personally experienced. So in this regard, is my character Jenna perhaps really me?

I think the wisest thing for me as the author is to stop worrying about all this. As I wrote ‘Jenna’, I felt I was putting into words something worthwhile and something God wanted me to say. And I hope and pray that everything I have written brings God honour and glory, as well as challenging and encouraging my readers – and yes, entertaining them. Recently I read again the words of Psalm 139:1-4:

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.

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

God perceived my very thoughts as I wrote ‘Jenna’. God was aware of my motives and in fact knew every word I was going to write, even before I started. God was with me as I wrote, I am sure of that. And my task was to listen well and to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ (Gal 5:25) as the story unfolded.

I hope I did that. And I hope and pray my readers forget about finding ‘me’ in the story and instead discover something more of God in it all.

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