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Archive for February, 2022

Some years ago, a friend pointed out how I often use a particular little word when writing or speaking about family members. ‘Our Jane changed jobs’ or ‘Our Zain is doing better’ or ‘Our Amy started university’—yes, that little pronoun ‘our’ in these and other similar comments made in an email or while chatting seemed to have captured her attention.

‘It sounds so nice’, she said, although I cannot remember why she thought that. Perhaps to her it spoke of how we love and value whichever family member I was referring to. Perhaps it conveyed our concern for their welfare or joy at their successes or pride in their decisions. Perhaps it showed we truly identify with that person, believe in them and want the best for them. One day, I will ask her what she meant but, whatever the reason, that little three-letter word of mine seemed to touch her heart.

One morning recently, however, I suspect I caught a glimpse for myself of how my friend might have felt, as I started reading the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians once again. It was not long before I had to pause—in fact, I did not get past Paul’s greeting right at the beginning:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus. To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:1-2

What could be so remarkable about these verses? Why did I stop at that point and sit staring into space? Somehow, that little word ‘our’ in the last sentence had touched my own heart. I knew Paul had written that greeting and that he was no doubt referring to the fact that Timothy and he and the believers in Philippi all belonged to the same heavenly Father. But that morning, it was as if Jesus himself was saying gently to me, ‘Grace and peace to you, Jo-Anne, from God our Father—yes, our Father. I gave you the right to be part of my Father’s family when you believed in me. We will always watch over you, so be at peace today and know you are surrounded with our love and grace.’

How could that little word ‘our’ convey so much to me that morning? Perhaps it was merely my imagination. After all, I am a writer. But something changed inside me as I sat there, reading those words over and over. I had been feeling tired and quite discouraged, yet now I sensed Jesus understood, identified fully with me and had reached out in love to remind me who I belong to. I could be rational and tell myself this is not what those verses actually say or mean—or I could choose to listen with my heart and be reminded deep in my spirit that I am included in the beautiful, warm circle of God’s family, joined to other believers but also to Jesus Christ—forever.

I remembered then too those first words Jesus himself uttered when teaching his disciples how to pray:

Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. … Matthew 6:9

There is that little word ‘our’ again. Important to Jesus then and now—and so important for us too.

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I am not a seasoned solver of jigsaw puzzles. I enjoy them when I have time—and I enjoyed helping my husband with the two puzzles I gave him last year, even when he did not want or need my help! But the one-thousand-piece puzzle he gave me for Christmas certainly exacted any revenge he might have wished to exact—and then some! Eventually, however, I conquered the challenge and felt quite chuffed when I did. Then I saw that extra puzzle piece lying on the table nearby. I had noticed it on and off while doing the jigsaw and wondered where it could possibly fit. It did not look quite the same as the other foliage pieces in the puzzle, so each time, I put it aside. Now there it still was, with no more spaces available where it could possibly go.

For a while, I gazed at it in disbelief. Surely a jigsaw puzzle company would not make that sort of mistake? I checked the completed puzzle again—nope, definitely no spare spots. Then my mind jumped to the possibility that, somewhere out there, some other poor person was trying to complete their own puzzle, only to find one crucial piece missing! I would certainly hate that to happen to me, after all my efforts. Someone else then suggested the puzzle creators might have put that extra piece in just to make things harder or to tease their poor victims. But again, surely not! Or… could they?

Soon I will pack my completed puzzle away, spare piece and all. And maybe sometime in the future, I will do it again, forgetting about that pesky extra piece! But there is one memory I will never forget that surfaced as I worked on my puzzle. A few times, I tried to put a piece in place that seemed right, yet I did not hear that soft, little ‘click’ that would tell me the piece was a perfect fit there. And those little ‘clicks’ brought back a memory that is almost sixty years old now.

In 1963, a friend invited me to a youth camp run by the then Methodist church. One night, after the speaker had invited us to commit our lives to Christ, I was one of the first to move quickly to the front. I was overwhelmed with the thought that God knew me and loved me—that I mattered to God. And somewhere deep inside, I felt and heard a loud, satisfying ‘click’ like the sound of the last piece of a child’s wooden jigsaw puzzle falling into place. Suddenly, the fact that Jesus Christ loved us and died for us made sense to me. It was as if a veil lifted from my eyes and I knew I had found the reason I was on this earth—to love and serve God.

One day, we will see the whole, completed picture of our lives from God’s perspective. One day, we will understand fully. But for now, let’s keep believing and trusting in the one who loves us totally and can bring all the pieces of our lives together in the best way possible.

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. 1 Corinthians 13:12 NLT

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I have discovered I need to be prepared for anything when heading somewhere to speak. Sometimes I arrive, only to find some promised piece of essential equipment has not materialised. Or I may turn up to find everything has been taken care of beautifully. Some helpful person has the data projector or TV screen ready and connects my laptop up so that everything works perfectly, while another offers to help with my books. I always go well-armed, however, for all situations—because you never know, do you?!

Then there are the adventures of connecting with people before or after I speak. Sometimes, I discover someone knows someone in my family—my husband or one of our children. Or sometimes, someone tells me they have heard me speak elsewhere in the past. I hold my breath a little at that, but am touched as they perhaps mention something I said back then. And I am touched too, as happened this past week, when someone bounds up to my book table to say they bought my first three novels years ago after I spoke at their church—and thankfully loved them. But each time, I never know who will be listening as I speak and what interesting encounters I may have with people.

All this has taught me some important lessons. Wherever I go, I need to go prayerfully, listening for those prompts from God. Whatever I say, I need to say carefully, with gentleness and sensitivity, but also with honesty. And whatever words I put in my books, I need to write them with much deep thought and prayer. Wherever I go, I want to be the best co-worker with God I can possibly be (1 Corinthians 3:9 NLT). And wherever my books end up, I want them to reflect something at least of the heart of God for our world.

Recently, a friend wrote to tell me how she picked up one of my older novels from near the letterboxes in her section of the retirement village where she lives, took it home to read and ‘thoroughly enjoyed it’. Residents often leave books they have read in such places in the village, so, after finishing it, she then put my novel near some letterboxes in another part of the village. The next time she went past, someone had taken it. ‘It’s so good to see the seeds being sown,’ she wrote. ‘Only eternity will reveal it all.’

Whether writers or speakers or not, we all have the privilege of being God’s co-workers however and wherever we can. And no particular person’s efforts are more important than another’s. Yes, I wrote the book, but my friend grasped the opportunity and put it out there for someone else to read. And ultimately, while we might sow the seed or water it, it is God who enables that seed to grow and flourish, as Paul tells us:

It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. 1 Corinthians 3:7 NLT

Let’s be ready, always, to plant or water or speak or share or encourage or do whatever God gives us to do. We may never know when that will be. We may never know the end result. But God does—and that’s what matters.

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I had made my way bright and early to a large shopping centre nearby. There were two things I needed and I was definitely focussed on finding these quickly, then scuttling home. As I passed a particular clothing store selling ‘intimate apparel’, however, I gasped out loud and stopped dead. No, it was not the very skimpy garments in the window that caught my eye first off. Instead, it was a bold sign there written in large letters:

I COME FIRST

Really? Is that how we are supposed to live our lives? Despite my slightly shocked state, I realised this could be a mere marketing slogan, an overstatement aimed at making potential customers decide they deserve to pamper themselves or buy this or that expensive, perhaps frivolous item, rather than something for someone else or something a little more practical. And maybe there are times when we should do such things. For some of us at least, it may be the right thing to care for ourselves better and put ourselves first more at times, so we can regain our strength or our health. But… ‘I come first’ all the time? Really? Is that what God wants us to do?

I remembered then a recent TV ad I had seen for a reality series that apparently ‘all Australia is waiting to see’, according to the promoters! I had gasped when I heard one of the contestants declare something to the effect that she likes to make all the decisions because ‘it always has to be my way!’ Imagine living or even be friends with someone with such a selfish, arrogant attitude where everything has to suit them and where their needs always come before the needs of others!

Somehow, I think God calls us to march to the beat of a different drum, don’t you? Even in the middle of the shopping centre that morning, I thought of the parable Jesus told on one occasion when he went to eat at the home of a prominent Pharisee and noticed how the guests chose the places of honour at the table (Luke 14). Instead, he urged those present to take the lowest place and leave it to the host to invite them to move up to a better spot. Then he ended with the following:

For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 14:11 NLT

I remembered too some challenging words the Apostle Paul wrote about putting others’ welfare before our own:

 Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. Philippians 2:3-4 NLT

Paul then urges us to remember Jesus, who put everything aside for us, became a man and humbled himself completely, even to the point of dying on a cross.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave… Philippians 2:5-11 NLT

Really? What a challenge! And what a different attitude from the one that declares ‘I come first!’

Let’s choose it anyway. Let’s dare to be different. Let’s remember Jesus’ example. And let’s do our best to put others first—always.

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