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Archive for August, 2014

Jo 23‘Savour the moment,’ the little, old nun told me during a time when I was experiencing some deep sadness, ‘because you might not pass this way again.’

I did not know her—our paths crossed for only one session at a conference. Yet, the more I thought about her words, the more I realised what a gift they were to me. In essence, she had encouraged me not to miss out on what God had to teach me right in the midst of that difficult time. I had been given a unique opportunity to experience more of God’s love and grace, to grow in my relationship with God and to learn some important lessons about myself too—and I needed to grasp it fully.

‘That’s not humility—that’s self-protection!’ an insightful pastor friend told me once.

I was a little shocked. Yet I trusted him and knew he was challenging me in love. I had just refused to take up a new role in our church that he felt was so right for me. I thought I was being humble by pointing out how hopeless I would be at it. Yet, in reality, I panicked and wanted to protect myself from any humiliating failure rather than allow God to help me grow and to use me in a different way to bless others. I needed to think again—and respond to the challenge before me.

‘They might not be able to have you,’ my dear spiritual mentor told me gently, as I questioned whether I was truly wanted at the place where I was then employed.

Again, I was shocked. In fact, I found her words quite amusing. Imagine thinking something like that! The privilege of having such a position was all mine, wasn’t it? Surely I had no right to choose to go elsewhere or do something different? Yet I respected my friend and tucked her comment away in my mind to consider at a later date. And when that date arrived, I realised what little sense of self-worth and self-respect I had had for so long and how blind I was to the work of God’s grace and love in my life.

This week, I came across one of the littlest parables Jesus ever told:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches. Matt 13:31-32

So many times, God has given me precious mustard seed moments when one small comment has ended up changing the course of my life in some significant way. With each one, God has shown me a better way to respond to my circumstances or a healthier and more courageous way to live. These brief words have enlarged my heart, leaving more room for God and providing a place of shelter and strengthening. Some have impacted others as well as I have shared them both personally and via my writing. God has been at work, building the kingdom in me and in others, little by little, word by word.

Let’s not downplay those tiny mustard seeds. In God’s hands, the possibilities are infinite.

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Jo 23Early on in my writing journey, I discovered the unpalatable truth that not everyone is going to love all my literary creations. I remember well how, not long after my first novel was released in 2007, I walked into a small meeting to be welcomed loudly with the following words:

‘Jo-Anne, I’m sorry to tell you, but I couldn’t get past Chapter Two of your book!’

It so happened, however, that this person’s daughter was standing nearby. Her greeting was somewhat different.

‘Oh, I loved it! When’s your next book coming out?’

What could I do but laugh? I look back now and am so thankful to God for helping me realise I cannot please everyone. It stood me in good stead for those times when my other books have elicited entirely opposite responses from readers—or potential readers.

Recently, I finished my ‘final’ draft of my second non-fiction book. I think it’s worth reading. But by this stage, as with all my books, I tend to lose perspective. Maybe it’s okay. Maybe it’s my best writing yet. Maybe it’s awful. Maybe I’ve said it all before. No doubt I will soon find this out via the opinions of my manuscript readers and editors. But, while the situations do not bear comparison, perhaps it was this recent book experience that caused me to take particular notice of something I read recently in Matthew 11.

Here, John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus tells them to report back to John in prison about the miracles they have seen and goes on to speak to the crowd about John, the man who was ‘more than a prophet’ (9). Then, using the lovely image of children playing make-believe weddings and funerals and wanting others to join in, he proceeds to challenge the crowd—and us:

To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners”.’ Matt 11:17-19

It’s not a matter of life and death at all if people don’t like what I have to offer. But it definitely is a matter of life and death if they reject Jesus and what he offers. Yet Jesus could not please everyone—and neither could John. Some listened well, accepted their message and acted. Some were in two minds. Some disbelieved and could only scoff and criticise.

I don’t want to be among those who refuse to dance or sing. I don’t want to be among those who do not hear or accept what God says because it doesn’t tick the right boxes, in their opinion. I don’t want to have a closed mind that does not value what Jesus offers. Instead, I want to do just what he suggests I do. I want to join in that dance or sing that sad song wherever and however Jesus leads.

How about you? Is this your heart too?

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Jo 23Last Saturday night, another historic moment occurred in our household. At 10.30pm, I walked out of my study and announced with a great sigh to my husband, ‘I’ve finished writing my book!’

‘I don’t know how you do it!’ he responded with feeling.

‘I don’t know how I do it either,’ I replied with even more feeling.

Now let me clarify a little. Because this is my eighth book, I know I haven’t exactly ‘finished’ yet. I know this is only the beginning of the next part of my journey with this particular volume. I finished the first draft some time back. Last night’s milestone marked the completion of a very thorough edit and rewrite. Next step is obtaining comments from my first reader/editor. Then it will be back to editing again—and on it goes.

I know all this, yet last night at 10.30, I felt great relief. This book, my second work of non-fiction, has proved difficult to write. I can’t even remember when I started it because so many things have intervened since then. I almost gave up on it once or twice. With so many interruptions, I became a little disconnected from it all and found myself having to check back often so as not to repeat myself. Yet I wanted to finish it because I felt the idea for this book was something God had given me. So I persevered. And I’m glad I did because I learnt so much yet again about God and about myself.

This book, currently titled Coming Home to Myself, has taken me on a journey through so many memories of childhood years, of years at university, of marriage and children, of university again, of returning to teaching, of other jobs, of theological college, of ministry, of writing and speaking. As I wrote and remembered, I tried to highlight how God persevered with me through it all, rescuing me, restoring me, helping me emerge and grow and learn, drawing me on to become more of the person I had been created to be. And, in the process, I have been brought face to face with my own weaknesses and shortcomings and slowness to respond to what God has been teaching me. But, once again, I have also been overwhelmed with the reality of God’s absolute faithfulness and patience and perseverance and longsuffering in so many ways.

‘I don’t know how you do it!’ I have found myself wanting to say to God so often in response.

Yet I do know. It’s right there in the pages of my bible and it’s written on my heart. In Jeremiah 31:3, God declares to the children of Israel:

I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.’

And in Ephesians 3:17-18, Paul prays:

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ …

That’s how God does it—by loving me without end with the most amazing, pure, self-giving, accepting love. And that’s how I plan to do it too—by loving God till the end and by letting this amazing love of God inform my writing and flow onto others.

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Recently, I had reason to think more about the great power one particular little word in our English language can wield. Yet this word seems to stick in our throats so often or is too much even to think about saying because the stakes may be too high for us.

Yes, it’s that one little word ‘sorry’.

IMG_20140614_152459Now it appears this is a hard word even for two-year-olds like—well, like our beautiful, little grandson Zain to say. Recently, while visiting us, he did something naughty and, as a result, his dad took him on his knee and decided Zain needed to say sorry. But no—that was not an option for our Zain. Not at all. Time after time, he sat there, shaking his head and refusing to say that one little word that would resolve the situation. Yet how could he, a two-year-old, know how to be so stubborn? What might cause him to decide he was not prepared to stoop so low as to apologise?

Now at that point, his conflict-avoidance grandmother decided to resort to bribery and offered him a lollipop if he would say sorry. But even that did not change his mind. When his dad began to eat that lollipop instead, there were great cries of anguish—but still no sorry. That lollipop began getting smaller and smaller until it had almost disappeared. Yet that little word was never said.

A few days later, out of the blue, Zain apparently said to his mum:

‘Lollipops at Nanna’s house. But I didn’t get one. I didn’t say sorry.’

Even at two, he understood what the issue was and how high the stakes were. After all, a lollipop is a big deal to a two-year-old.

But what about us when it comes to saying that little word? How mature are we about this?  In particular, what happens when we know we need to tell God we’re sorry? There’s much more than a lollipop at stake, in this case. Yet I for one, just like my grandson, so often seem to have too much pride and stubbornness to admit my faults, even to such a loving, forgiving God. On top of that, I seem to have an endless, inbuilt supply of excuses ready as to why I don’t want or need to admit to those ways I have fallen so far short of how God would want me to behave.

It doesn’t matter.

God will forgive me anyway.

It wasn’t so bad, after all.

Others have done much worse than I have.

I’m too ashamed—I don’t even want to think about.

I hope, like Zain, I will grow up one day.  I hope I wake up to myself soon and remember how important it is to keep short accounts with God. I hope I never forget the freedom God’s amazing forgiveness brings when we come before our loving Father with contrite hearts just as that prodigal son did.

How about you? Is sorry a hard word for you to say too—especially to God?

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 Jn 1:9

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