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Archive for August, 2021

‘What was it like when you were at school, Nanna?’ our youngest granddaughter asked me recently. Apparently, her Year Two school work that day involved talking to ‘someone older’ about such things and she had chosen me.

‘Well, we had to be very quiet in class, otherwise we would get into trouble,’ I told her. ‘Sometimes, children would be hit a wooden ruler if they were naughty—or they might even get the cane! We had long, wooden desks, with holes for inkwells—we dipped our pens in ink to write in our copybooks.’

Maxine became quite animated then.

‘Nanna, did you write with a feather?’

I tried not to laugh, as I responded. No doubt she must have seen someone writing with a quill in a TV show or book.

‘Hmm, I’m not that old, but a pen and nib were a bit like a feather!’

So much was strange to her. How come we didn’t get driven to school and picked up afterwards? What did we wear? What did we have for lunch? The more she asked, the more those memories surfaced. ‘Canteen’ was called ‘tuckshop’ back then. No compulsory uniforms in primary school, but I wore a hat, gloves and black stockings at high school, in Brisbane’s stifling, summer weather. On it went—so different from now.

Later, I began to reflect on the positives as well as the negatives of those school years. In primary school, we learnt how to write that lovely Queensland cursive our grandchildren cannot read today. We recited our times tables. We were drilled in mental arithmetic. In English, we did analysis and parsing, so useful to me as a writer today. We marked towns and rivers on maps. All up, I am so grateful for that firm foundation laid in my education back then.

In my early years too, I went to piano lessons twice a week before school, where, as well as mastering pieces and practising sightreading for those scary exams, I learnt music theory. Again, all this laid such a good foundation for those many times in later years when I was suddenly given unfamiliar music to play at church or elsewhere.

As children, we were also sent to Sunday school, but I was fifteen before I came to experience the wonderful, close relationship God offers us. Over the years, my faith grew firmer, as I read Scripture and connected with other Christians. And by God’s grace, I came to experience more of God and more of the Spirit’s leading in my life, sometimes slowly and sometimes in big jumps. Yet in it all, for me, the bottom line was—and still is—that the Lord who called me into his family is himself my firm foundation, my rock, the cornerstone of my life. Without him, I am on shaky ground, like that man Jesus talked about who built his house on sand (Matthew 7:24-27).

Right now, in the midst of these strange, uncertain times, let’s remember who forms that firm foundation of our lives. Let’s remember that, whatever is happening around us, the Lord is always there and will never let us down. Let’s remember—and be so thankful.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. Psalm 18:2

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It is a grey Sunday afternoon, in the middle of our strict, Sydney lockdown. I sit at the table in our living room, idly wondering what to do next. I have various options, but I am too unmotivated to take any of them up. Instead, I sit and stare, almost frozen into inaction. It is as if those restrictions in the world outside our four walls are reaching inside me too, shutting down my heart and mind and restricting any creative thoughts I may have.

I take a deep breath and, as I do, the first few words of Psalm 23, read again recently, come to mind.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.

My soul does indeed feel a little weary right now. Day after day, we hear news of ever-growing numbers of COVID cases in our city. Week after week, we cannot go to visit family members. And, one by one, events I was looking forward to participating in or speaking at are cancelled.

Yet, as I sit there in the silence, I hear God’s gentle but insistent whisper. Look around you, Jo-Anne. Look at all you have and be thankful!

I gather my thoughts together and try to focus. My eyes settle first on some things right in front of me on the table. I see an excellent, helpful book I am reading, while next to it lies a pen and a book of crossword puzzles. I love words—and I love challenging myself to work out the answers to those rather cryptic clues. And there is my steaming cup of tea too, along with a buttered scone—simple, heart-warming pleasures. Yes, Lord, I truly am grateful for each of these things and the joy they are giving me right now.

I lift my eyes then and notice my precious, old piano, inherited from my grandparents, with its lid up and some music open, as if waiting to be brought to life. Even as I glance across at it, so many memories come flooding back of hours playing this same piano in my grandparents’ home as a child. And I know God is reminding me to be so thankful for these memories—and for that fact that I can still play and enjoy doing so.

My eyes continue to roam around the room. I see comfortable lounge chairs, a TV, family photos and some precious, little possessions in a nearby china cabinet. The room is warm on this cold afternoon and I glance up at our very effective reverse cycle air conditioner. Once again, I hear that whisper in my spirit. Look at all you have, Jo-Anne—and be thankful.

Then I gaze out through our balcony doors to the shrubs and trees beyond, their various shapes etched against the sky. They look so green and vibrant, even on this dull day, and remind me that, whatever is happening everywhere right now, God’s natural world out there is so still amazingly beautiful.

Yes, Lord, despite everything, I know you are still watching over me, still caring about me, still longing to lead me and to restore my soul. You are my faithful, ever-present shepherd—and I am so thankful.

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I received an email recently that gave me much food for thought. It was from someone who had just read my first two novels, Heléna and All the Days of My Life. This reader had found them among a pile of second-hand books a friend had been given and now wanted another novel of mine, Heléna’s Legacy, which explores the journey of a minor character in my second novel, then continues Heléna’s story.

I laughed out loud. The day before, I had found my lone, second-hand copy of this novel in my cupboard and thought, ‘No one will want that.’ Imagine my surprise when, the very next day, I discovered someone did!

My contact then told me some friends are now waiting to borrow these novels from her. This was gratifying news, yet I also found it somewhat disconcerting. You see, my first two novels were published back in 2007 and 2008—and I like to think I have learnt much more about writing since then. This reader might have enjoyed them, but would her friends?

In the end, I decided I could do nothing about that. Besides, back then, I wrote as best I could, with my whole heart and soul—and how fulfilling that was!

Then came another thought. I might have learnt much more about writing in those intervening years, but did I still write with that same heart and soul now? Back then, I wanted to write stories that would highlight themes I believed were vital for us all to grasp and experience. I wanted to write about the importance of holding onto our faith in God, whatever happens. I wanted to write about experiencing God’s amazing love and grace, about forgiveness and about becoming all God purposes us to be. Did I still feel so passionately about such themes now?

Since 2004, when I began my first novel, I have written nine books and around 650 blogs and have also spoken over 250 times at all sorts of gatherings. Through it all, I have learnt much more about God and experienced God’s amazing faithfulness and enabling in so many ways. Yes, I am still passionate about those same important themes, yet some things I held dear back in 2004 have fallen by the wayside. Some needed to be discarded—others did not. Some changes in my life and faith have been for the better, I believe, yet others have not. Looking back, I am sad about those times when I may have failed God, others and myself in different ways. But I am so thankful God is merciful and forgiving, always persevering with us and always lovingly pointing us to higher ground.

Yes, I’m still the same person I was back in 2004, yet different too. I want to change what needs to be changed. I want to grow where I need to grow. And I want to keep drawing closer to God, don’t you?

Let’s hold onto those key themes of our faith in God, but let’s keep humbly learning and growing too, as we seek to become more like Jesus each day.

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. 2 Peter 3:18

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In late June/early July, our church’s annual Art Installation was set up, ready to open to the public for two weeks. We had all worked hard to prepare paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs, pieces of writing, and various other creative endeavours on the theme of ‘God of Wonders’. But alas, due to COVID, in the end, no one could come to view our works and take time to reflect on God as they did. Dates were changed, but still no one could come when lockdown here in Sydney became even more restrictive. Then the idea of a digital tour through the Art Installation was born. Please click here to start your own personal, virtual viewing!

This year, I submitted two photographs in connection with a brief piece of writing. I love roses and decided to feature a special variety I discovered only a few years ago—‘Just Joey’, a beautiful, apricot-coloured rose with delicate, frilled petals when fully open. I bought one and planted it. And … well, below is the piece of writing that will explain why I had to do that and what God showed me as a result. I hope you enjoy reading it and that it encourages you to continue to spread that exquisite perfume Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians quoted at the end.

Just Joey

I cannot resist buying the little rose bush. After all, its name is ‘Just Joey’—and I too was called Joey as a child.

The soil is stony where I plant it, but my little bush grows. Then one day, to my delight, a beautiful, apricot-coloured bud appears, its gentle scent wafting towards me as I cut it and place it in a vase.

The bud soon opens. It is a more old-fashioned style of rose, but I love how its layer upon layer of delicate petals are frilled at the edges and quiver at my touch. I gaze at them in awe—I have never seen petals like this before.

Then I sense God saying tenderly, ‘This rose is you, Joey. You are unique too, created with many interesting layers waiting to unfold. Some may see you as old-fashioned, but you are beautiful in my sight. May you continue to be “Just Joey” for me in all you do. And may you spread the sweet aroma of my Spirit everywhere through your writing and through the words you speak.’

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­In the Messiah, in Christ, God leads us from place to place in one perpetual victory parade. Through us, he brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God… 2 Corinthians 2:14-15 The Message

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One Sunday morning recently, I walked past my husband’s study and heard his voice, loud and clear. He had been invited to preach at a ‘live’ service for a church across town via Zoom. I could tell he was putting his heart and soul into his message, as he tried to ensure this multicultural online congregation would understand and take his words to heart. Later that day, however, he felt quite tired. He had done it gladly, but it had taken extra effort to communicate in a way that would make his message understood by all. 

The previous afternoon, I had connected via Skype with a friend who has recently arrived home from overseas. We found it ironic that, even though she now lives only five minutes from me, we had to communicate in the same way as we had when she lived thousands of kilometres away. I felt disappointed, as I truly wanted to be present for her and hear her heart, which I find much easier face to face. But I tried hard to understand and empathise—and I hope she felt she had been listened to well, by the time we had finished.

A few days later, I took part in a Zoom interview hosted by a staff member of the Locker Valley Libraries in the area of Queensland where my latest novel Down by the Water is set. It was a little nerve-wracking, as I had only a vague idea beforehand what questions I would be asked. Nevertheless, I tried hard to focus and respond clearly, because I wanted any who might view the video to understand my heart in writing this particular novel and my motivations for writing in general. And thankfully, despite the challenges involved, I truly did enjoy the experience in the end.

It’s wonderful that, in these times of COVID restrictions, we have such ways of communicating at a distance. Yet it takes extra energy and effort too, don’t you think? It’s as if we have to compensate for all that space between us—as if we somehow have to add extra warmth and life and a sense of immediacy to the conversation as best we can. Yet I’m so glad that, when it comes to communicating with God, I don’t have to try to compensate for anything. I’m so glad God is always there, in me and around me, always ready to listen and to speak. I don’t have to work hard to explain myself or share what is on my heart, because God knows already anyway. What a relief!

Yet could it be that I sometimes take all this for granted? Would my times of connecting with God perhaps be even more wonderful if I put the same effort into them that I put into my Skype and Zoom calls, if I listened more with my whole heart and if I sought more earnestly to understand God’s heart?

This week, may we all be fully present to God. May we sense God’s loving gaze on us as we do. And may we listen well, with our whole hearts.

This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him! Matthew 17:5b

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. John 10:27

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