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Archive for August, 2016

Jo 23In a recent writers’ group I attended, we were asked to write a few lines on something we feel passionate about or that annoys us intensely. I did not have to think for long, because, to my shame, I realised I had just done the very thing that irks me so much. Prior to this in the group, we had each shared about a book that had inspired us in our writing journeys. But, as the person before me spoke, I did not listen well at all. Instead, I was busy thinking about what scintillating piece of wisdom I myself I would share next!

Yes, one of my pet peeves is when people do not listen—perhaps because it is something I do not like in myself and am trying to rectify.

Sadly this trait may well run in our family, because our four-year-old grandson has the most wonderful knack on occasions of totally ignoring anyone who might try to get his attention! Even if we repeat his name over and over and speak louder and louder, he pretends not to hear—especially if he is doing something we don’t want him to do! He is in his own little world, looking for interesting things, testing out how this or that works, wanting to explore everywhere. Eventually, when we almost shout, he listens—but it takes patience and perseverance.

One interesting upshot of this sequence of events is that, whenever Zain himself wants to tell us something and we aren’t listening or are busy talking ourselves, he simply shouts! He is so full of what he wants to tell us that he can’t possibly wait. He wants to be heard, but he doesn’t always want to listen. Or obey!

Now one day last week when we were minding him, along with his little sister, Zain chose some books for Granddad to read to him. Among them was Mr Noisy, of all things! We had forgotten the storyline, but we soon discovered how apt it was. You see, Mr Noisy makes so much noise and shouts so loudly that he scares all his friends and neighbours and makes them shudder. So they devise a cunning plan. One day when Mr Noisy goes into a shop and shouts for something he wants, the owner pretends he can’t hear him. Others do the same—and soon Mr Noisy gets the message!

Hmm—could it be worth a try?

The next day, I came across some sobering words in Zechariah 7. I read how God’s people were scattered because they were so focussed on themselves rather than on the Lord and were dishonouring him in the way they lived. When the Lord chastised them, instructing them to administer true justice and to show mercy and compassion to one another (7:9), they hardened their hearts and refused. Then verse 13 says:

‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the Lord Almighty.

Wow—gulp! How sobering is that? What a risky thing not to listen to the Lord Almighty!

I hope both Zain and I soon acquire the art of closing our mouths more often and open our ears instead. Such an important thing to learn for everyone concerned, don’t you think—especially when it comes to hearing God?

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2016-08-04 11.26.04I leave my study with reluctance, my mind miles away. I am in the middle of editing my latest book, yet I know those mundane household tasks cannot wait. I reach the kitchen, then pause for a moment when I notice how four of my pot plants on our old sideboard nearby are in bloom, despite the neglect they have suffered at my hands.

As I stand admiring them, I remember who gave them to me and when. The lovely salmon pink cyclamen on the right is quite old. It was presented to me after I spoke at a women’s meeting in a church in 2007 or 2008, early on in my writing journey. A friend on the staff there had invited me—and that friend is still part of my little prayer team today. How faithful she has been—and how faithful God has been to me over those years, I realise with a grateful heart.

The pale pink cyclamen on the left has a beautiful, sweet perfume. It was given to me by an old school friend, after one of several occasions when I have spoken to a group of women at her church. Again, another faithful friend I am privileged to have, I realise.

The large peace lily with the tall, white blooms was a gift from our son and his wife and daughters for Mothers’ Day this year. How faithful my family has been too in supporting me, I reflect, as I thank God for them all. As for the little purple and gold primrose (primula acaulis) at the front, I recall how I received it only recently from another friend, after I had presented a three-hour workshop at her writing group. How faithful she too has been in supporting me—how much God has blessed me through all those responsible for giving me my special plants!

Jobs completed, I eventually return to my desk. I glance at my Bible lying beside my laptop and realise I have forgotten to take time that morning to reflect on the things God has to say to me from it. I take up from where I left off last time—Zechariah 4 in the Old Testament. I come to verse 6 and read:

 ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.

These words in themselves are so powerful, reminding me how God is the one who enables me to achieve things in my writing and speaking journey and that I am not to rely on my own strength and ability, forgetting God in the process. But they mean far more than that to me too. In an instant, I am back in our old church on the day a visiting speaker gave this verse to me in 1995, before I began studying at theological college. For years, throughout my time at college and on into ministry, I carried this verse, written on a scrap of paper, in the back of my Bible. I recall now how many times I turned to that scrap of paper and read those words and how they spurred me on, reminding me God’s Spirit was with me and in me, whatever was happening around me.

God is so faithful, I reflect with thankfulness. God is so, so faithful—and always will be!

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Jo 12I find I often have mixed feelings when I watch the Olympic Games. Part of me revels in it all, rejoicing in those successes and admiring the skill of the various competitors. But another part of me feels sad when someone is beaten, often by such a small margin. Surely they are still amazing athletes, whether they came first or second or third—or nowhere?

I am no sportswoman, but I love seeing excellence in action as I watch those swimming, gymnastics, rowing, cycling and track and field events. These athletes have committed themselves to persevere and become the best they can be at their chosen sport. They have spent countless hours working hard, no doubt training when they did not feel like it, some making huge financial sacrifices to do so. No wonder they have their eye on the prize and want to win.

Yet I feel relieved when I hear one of them say they are just delighted to be part of it all, that they are stoked with their silver or bronze rather than gold, that they are happy to see others, especially their teammates, do better than they have and win. And I also feel a little annoyed when commentators focus only on the medal winners and relegate other competitors to the background. All the competitors are winners, in my books!

Perhaps I am more like a friend of mine than I think I am. She refuses to play competitive games even as harmless as Scrabble or Monopoly—because someone has to lose! Or I think of something someone in my household who hates football once said: ‘I don’t understand why they don’t give them a ball each. It’s so unseemly for both teams to fight over just one!’  And a friend told us once that, in one part of the world he visited, when a team from one village scored a goal in a football game, they would then decide it was the other team’s turn to score the next one!

I’m so glad being a follower of Jesus is not competitive in any way. In fact, in Matthew 20, Jesus describes a very upside down kind of approach to this ‘game of life’ in which we all participate. He tells a story about some men who are hired at different times throughout the day to work in the vineyards. Yet that evening, they all receive the same wages. When those who worked longer object, the landowner points out how they agreed to be paid the amount they received and that he was not being unfair to them. He asks: Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? (20:15)

But then comes the most upside down bit of all, as Jesus makes his point:

So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (16)

Hmm. That wouldn’t go down too well in the Olympics, would it?

Yes, we are to ‘run in such a way as to get the prize’ (1 Corinthians 9:24). But that prize is awarded irrespective of when we join the race and wherever we come, as we persevere in fixing our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2).

So, let’s all cheer each other on in these upside down Olympics!

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Jo 12Can you remember a time when you heard someone say something and nodded in agreement with them, but then realised what they had really said or meant? Or perhaps you might have been happily reading something but stopped with a jolt when you saw what those words actually implied. On these occasions, it’s as if the brakes slam on in our minds and we say to ourselves, ‘Whoa—hang on a minute! What was that?’

I can recall a time in late 2005 when this happened to me. One day, I received an email from a publisher to whom I had submitted my first novel around ten months earlier. Oh yes, I thought, as I began to read, the same old rejection letter I’ve received before from a few other publishers! But then I took a second look—and a third. Finally, I asked my husband to come and read the email too, because this is what it said: ‘We are interested in publishing your novel Heléna.’

I could not believe it. I was sure there was a ‘not’ in that little sentence. After all, I had seen that ‘not’ before—quite a few times!

This past week, I had a somewhat similar experience as I read in Matthew 22 about Jesus’ encounter with those sent to ask him about paying taxes to Caesar. Now we are told their task was to trap him. But, as I read what they said, I was lulled into thinking how nice these people were being:

“Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. (16)

That’s all so true, I thought to myself. I’m glad they could acknowledge those things about Jesus—good on them! But then came the first twist in this tale. Finally, light dawned. Surely they were just trying to flatter Jesus and pretend they believed these things about him? Hmm. Whatever their motive, I decided in the end, they still spoke the truth—very clearly, in fact.

I started to move on, eager to read Jesus’ response. But I didn’t get far before I discovered the second twist in this tale for me. ‘Whoa—hang on a minute!’, a little voice inside me seemed to say. ‘Look a bit more closely at what these people said about Jesus.’

Then I realised what God was trying to show me. I had spoken at one or two places recently where I had wondered how clear I should be about my Christian faith and had been tempted not to mention certain truths I usually share. Yet here, God was reminding me how Jesus was known as ‘a man of integrity’ and that he taught ‘the way of God in accordance with the truth’. I had also felt a little overawed at a particular gathering of professional people where I had been invited to speak. Would my input be acceptable? Yet here, God was pointing out that Jesus was not ‘swayed by men’ and that he paid no attention to who they were.

What a challenge to me! Kind of important I didn’t miss those twists in the tale, don’t you think?

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Have you ever found yourself embarrassed or overwhelmed by a generous gift someone has given you or by the time and effort someone else has expended on your behalf? Realising how much someone else has put themselves out for us can be a humbling experience, don’t you think? Yet it can also be heart-warming and life-giving when we are able to accept such a gift with grace and truly receive the love the giver wants to convey to us.

I can remember quite a few moments in my life when someone did something amazing for me. On one occasion, I wanted to attend a particular three week prayer training course, but the several hundred dollars required to do so was too much for us. Imagine my shock when a young woman at our church told me she felt God wanted her to pay for me to attend. At first, I was reluctant to accept such a generous offer, but she insisted. In the end, I accepted—and that course turned out to be vital for me in so many ways.

Then there was the time when I was tired and unwell but still needed to keep going as part of our church ministry team. One day, I arrived home to find a big box on our doorstep. When I investigated, I found about a dozen containers with casserole meals in them, all neatly labelled—but with no name or clue as to the giver. What a wonderful, anonymous, sacrificial gift!

2016-07-27 12.16.25Then last week, I received another wonderful surprise. I had been asked to speak at a women’s event in a new church in western Sydney. As I finished my input, my friend who had invited me stood up to thank me. Then she opened a large bag, took out a beautiful quilt she had made and held it up.

‘I just whipped this up for Jo-Anne!’ she blithely told us, as she presented it to me.

What an understatement! Even I, with my limited knowledge of such things, could imagine how many hours of fabric choosing, arranging, sewing and neatening had gone into making such a precious gift, not to mention the cost. I was gobsmacked. My friend had previously told me about the quilt and that she thought God might want me to have it, but I had forgotten about it. And I certainly did not expect her to hand it over that afternoon.

Immediately, my mind went to the account in Matthew 26 of a woman pouring an alabaster jar of expensive perfume over Jesus’ head. The disciples complained that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus said to them:

Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. (7)

Now I am not Jesus. And I was not being prepared for my burial, as Jesus was. Yet, as I received my quilt, I felt my friend had also done a beautiful thing to me. I was moved to tears—I felt humbled and privileged, as if Jesus himself was blessing me with this gift.

So … what resources have you been given to express God’s amazing love to others? Could God perhaps be challenging you to ‘whip up’ a beautiful thing for someone else?

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