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Jo 12This week, our oldest grandchild turns fifteen. Fifteen!  How did that happen? Surely there’s been a mistake, I think to myself—she must have skipped out a few years along the way somewhere. Surely it wasn’t fifteen years ago that we rushed to see her in that hospital, just after she was born?

I remember well those growing up years of our little blonde-haired mite with the grey-green eyes. Each Friday during her preschool days, we had many adventures when we minded her until her father picked her up in the afternoon. We became well acquainted with all the nearby parks and soon worked out which had the best play equipment for whatever age our granddaughter was at the time. And we also came to know which shopping centres provided the best spots to have our important morning tea of juice and donuts!

We enjoyed endless games at home too—card games like ‘Donkey’, where somehow Nanna, with great skill, always ended up with that tattered donkey card left in her hand! We played Snap and memory games and later, Uno. We played Snakes and Ladders and others such as Charlie and Lola’s Pink Milk or that aptly named game Trouble. We watched old videos of The Fairies and The Wiggles and Hi5. We made pretend cakes and biscuits with play dough—but we baked yummy, real ones too, always keeping some for Mummy and Daddy.

Recently, I listened as our granddaughter groaned about the many school assignments she currently has to complete. Her life is so full—she is an excellent dancer, with classes and performances consuming many of her spare hours. Right now, she cannot even think much past these school years, with all those assignments and tests. Yet soon they will be over. And soon those university years will be over too. Soon, she will be a young woman, finding her own way in the world.

Will both my husband and I still be around to see her life unfold? I hope so, with all my heart. Yet none of us knows how long we have on this earth—not even our fifteen-year-old granddaughter. We often think we have years ahead of us, but nothing in this world is truly certain, as James warns us:

Now listen you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. James 4:13-14

Even if we all live into our nineties, that is such a very, very short time, isn’t it, when compared to eternity? Of course we have to plan and ‘carry on business’ in life, but how easily we can take our eyes off God and allow things that don’t matter in the end to consume us!

When I am about to vanish like that mist, I don’t want to find myself saying, ‘Where has the time gone? How did that happen? I know there were things God had for me to do, yet I chose not to do them.’ Instead, I want to use those God-given gifts each day as best I can—and I hope you do too.

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Jo 17I have embarked on a new writing project. At least, it’s not actually new—it has been hovering around on my laptop for a couple of years, patiently awaiting my attention. Whenever I find time, I open the relevant files and try to work out where I’m up to. One contains a chapter outline for the whole novel, while another is filled with notes about the characters. A third contains the beginnings of the first chapter, which has morphed several times, as I have reflected on it further.

One thing that has kept me from becoming fully launched into this novel is my concern about how best to spend my time. What does God want me to do now? Since 2007, I have had six novels and two non-fiction works published, with many resulting opportunities to speak. Could eight books perhaps be enough?

As I prayed about it, I sensed God’s green light either way, as if God were saying, ‘Jo-Anne, I will be so delighted in you if you write this novel—but equally delighted if you don’t!’ What a wonderful, gracious, freeing message to hear! I could be at peace about it all. I could write it—or not write it.

The months passed and that novel still did not grow at any great rate. Then one day, I read Isaiah 26:8 again:

Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.

These words seemed such a good, timely reminder to me to check my motives in continuing with my novel. Was I writing it merely to get my name out there again? Did I want to be known as this prolific author who keeps producing books? Did I hope this novel would bring me greater personal kudos or renown? Or did I truly desire to write it to honour God and to share God’s amazing love and grace once again in story format?

My heart said a fervent ‘yes’, in response to this last question. Furthermore, I felt a strong urge deep inside to create the sort of novel I personally want to create this time around, irrespective of current writing conventions or literary fashion or whatever! Yet I was still wary about it all. Already, my life is full—would I ever be able to find the necessary time?

I read on in Isaiah 26 and came to the following verse:

Lord, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us (12).

I know this was written in the context of Israel’s finding peace as a nation. But what a good, personal reminder to me to be at peace and allow God to shape this future novel—and its time frame! After all, it was only through God’s strength, guidance and inspiration that I was able to write my other eight books, when I initially thought it would be impossible to write even one. Truly, whatever I have accomplished has all come from God.

So I plan to trust God to guide and inspire as I write—and be at peace in the process. Surely that’s the best perspective to have in it all? And, whether you seek to serve and honour God through writing or something entirely different, I hope and pray this will be your perspective too.

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IJo 23t was 1968 and I was in my busy, final year at university, but I decided I couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to be a counsellor at the upcoming Billy Graham Crusade. This involved several training sessions, then attending as many crusade meetings as we could at the Brisbane Showgrounds. I was new to it all—and in both the training and the actual meetings, I learnt some lessons I have never forgotten.

During our training, we were asked to memorise some key Bible verses in order to counsel someone better—Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23, John 3:16, John 1:12, Ephesians 2:8-9 and others. Those verses remain clear in my mind, fifty years on.

But one day during our training, I learnt another key lesson. Some, it seemed, were questioning others’ fitness as counsellors because they were not baptised or not taking communion in a certain way or not following some other church practice these critics regarded as essential. I remember the gracious way our trainer handled the matter, gently warning us all against being judgmental.

Later, he asked if any of us had been able to put into practice what we had learnt the previous week about sharing Christ with someone. There was silence—until a little, old Salvation Army lady stood and, with a beaming face, told us about how she had talked about Jesus with someone on the train that day. What a profound and salutary lesson! This lady represented a group of Christians who do not usually practise baptism or take communion—yet she was apparently the only one present who had shared Christ with someone that week. Hmm.

But I was to learn an even more profound lesson in not being judgmental one Sunday afternoon at the crusade itself. I had made my way to the old ‘Machinery Hill’ section of the grounds, proudly wearing my counsellor badge, and was waiting for the meeting to begin. Two men were sitting in front of me and one of them was smoking. I could tell he was nervous—he was fidgeting around and his friend was obviously trying to put him at ease. Then a man wearing an usher’s badge approached them, red in the face.

‘Excuse me!’ he said loudly to the man smoking. ‘Would you please put your cigarette out? This is a religious meeting!’

The man seemed stunned, then apologised and did as asked.

Right then, crusade or no crusade, I wanted to get up and punch that usher! I could not believe what I had witnessed—after all, it was an open air meeting and no one else seemed to mind that the man was smoking. At least he was there! I could feel the deep embarrassment of both men seated in front of me—I was sure neither would hear a thing Billy Graham said that day because of that officious usher. Surely he could have been more discerning and prayed quietly for the man instead?

Yes, one of those verses we learnt mentions grace—and that is what we all need, don’t you think? Tons and tons of it!

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:8-9

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Jo 17

I always look forward to Easter, not because of all those chocolate eggs and bunnies I don’t eat but enjoy giving our grand-kids—and not even because of those hot cross buns I do eat but shouldn’t! Instead, I look forward to Easter because I know it will bring me face to face again with the absolute beauty of Jesus and his love for us in a way I can’t ignore. I know his amazing sacrifice will shake me to the core again—just as I need to be shaken. And each Easter, I try to stop and reflect on what for me is the bottom line in my life, which is this: Jesus loved you and me enough to give his life for us, in order to save us and bring us back into close relationship with our Father God—forever.

I cannot get my mind around that—but I know it’s true.

I cannot get my mind around so much about Jesus. But I know he rose from the dead and is alive today—and that he knows me and loves me.

I am so moved as I read again the account in Matthew’s Gospel of the events leading up Jesus’ crucifixion. As Jesus celebrates the Passover meal with his disciples, he says, with a voice that must have been filled with pain:

I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.”(21)

One by one, they ask him: “Surely not I?”—even Judas. But Judas doesn’t fool Jesus—and Jesus makes it clear to him that he knows. (22-25)

Jesus knows his disciples so well, yet goes on loving them, pouring out his very life for them—and for us.

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (26-28)

He then predicts how they will all fall away and describes in chilling detail how even Peter will disown him three times before the rooster crows. (31-34)

I read on, wondering how Jesus feels as he hears each one passionately refute this:

Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same. (35)

I sense Jesus’ utter desolation and loneliness at Gethsemane, when he finds Peter and James and John asleep and asks them the simple, poignant question:

Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” (40)

The soldiers arrive and Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss. But then comes what I find the saddest little sentence ever:

Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. (56)

All these words cut me to the heart. Would I too have disowned Jesus? Would I have fallen asleep? Would I have fled? Where am I right now in following him? Is that bottom line in my life still firm and strong?

This Easter, may you too find time to stop and reflect on that bottom line in your life and reconnect in a fresh way with our wonderful Saviour and Lord.

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Jo 17I could not believe it. Early one morning, I went to check out our little garden just beyond our balcony. At least, it isn’t really ‘our’ garden, because the village gardeners look after it and have planted shrubs there. But I recently added some small, purple lobelia plants a neighbour gave me when some of her garden was dug up to allow for plumbing repairs nearby. I felt sorry for her and wanted those little plants to flourish, for her sake. But this particular morning, I discovered three of them had been dug up and were lying on top of the ground looking extremely forlorn, their roots dangling in mid-air.

How could this happen? I knew it hadn’t been our grandchildren—or the gardeners—or any of our neighbours. Then I noticed our big, local water dragon nearby, scratching the ground with its sharp claws. Could he (or she) be the culprit? Perhaps it was my imagination, but I suspected that cheeky lizard looked a tad guilty as I glared at it! Or could the real culprit be that even cheekier brush turkey who occasionally struts along the bushland corridor beside our unit? One day, my husband even saw it head upstairs to the units above ours, as if it owned the place!

Whoever the culprit might have been, those little plants needed rescuing. I stuck them back in the ground, held up their limp leaves and watered them carefully. And as I watched their progress (or lack thereof) in the ensuing days, I was reminded forcibly of the parable Jesus told about the farmer who went out one day to sow seed (Luke 8:1-15). Some fell along the path and was trampled or eaten by birds. Some fell on rocks, but the resulting plants soon withered because there was no water. Some fell among thorns, which also grew and choked those new plants. But some fell on good soil and yielded an amazing crop.

Jesus explains to his disciples that the seed along the path represents those who hear the word of God, yet never truly believe, because the enemy quickly tramples on their faith or snatches it away. The seed on the rock represents those who receive the word with joy, yet their faith soon withers, like my plants did when their roots were exposed. The seed that falls among thorns represents those whose faith does not mature because their worries, along with the riches and pleasures of life, choke it. Then Jesus says:

But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (15)

How quickly that new life drained out of my little plants, as they lay in that hot sun! One day they were happily growing—and the next, they were not. What a stark reminder to me how easily we can die spiritually when, for one reason or another, our roots do not go down deep into God, so that we can withstand any attempts to trample on or snatch away or dry up or crowd out our faith!

May we not only hear the word, but retain it well—and may we persevere, ever maturing and producing the most abundant harvest possible, as God enables.

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Jo 23It was only a small difference of opinion—at first. I was sure I had mentioned some simple thing I had done, but it soon became obvious the other person present had not heard all I had said. Or perhaps it was that I thought I had added my initial explanatory sentence, but it had remained just that in my head—a thought and no more. Who knows? I was tired and cross, however—and I did not want to entertain that quite reasonable possibility. So, casting caution to the wind, I stuck to my guns and maintained I had in fact explained everything. I argued my case with vehemence. With great fervour, I maintained I was right. In my anger and frustration at being accused unjustly, I might even have raised my voice significantly! And all in order to defend myself over something that did not matter too much in the bigger scheme of things.

Later that day, shame at my response kicked in, but my anger at being wrongfully accused still hung on too. Why did I have to apologise when I knew I had been right? Better just to let it all die down—it would probably be forgotten by tomorrow anyway. Yet something nagged at my conscience. And some verses that I knew from past experience make complete sense kept coming to mind:

 … Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Ephesians 4:26-27

So at last I apologised—and my apology was accepted with grace. We talked a little more about how much better it is to let differences of opinion over trivial issues go rather than try to justify ourselves, then left it at that.

But I soon discovered God wasn’t finished with me. Still feeling a little disgruntled, I sat down at my desk and picked up a book of devotionals someone had given me a few days earlier. I turned to the relevant page for the day—and almost laughed out loud, despite my negative feelings. Right at the top, standing out in bold, red letters, was James 1:19-20:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

I don’t know about you, but these words have always been a strong challenge to me. Somehow, that order of ‘quick … slow … slow’ can so easily be reversed—often, I am much more likely to be slow to listen, quick to speak and quick to become angry, as I rush to defend myself and my actions! In fact, I may not even hear exactly what the other person is trying to tell me before I crank up the volume and start talking—sometimes over the top of them.

Hopefully, I am slowly learning not to do this, to hold back more, take a deep breath and give the other person a chance to say what is troubling them. And hopefully one day, I will improve, as I model myself more closely on how God has treated me and still does on a daily basis:

But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. Psalm 88:15

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Jo 17Recently, the funeral an elderly gentleman who had never married and whose closest relative was a sister living in the USA was held at our church. He was a quiet, unassuming man who had worked with a Christian organisation in various parts of the world. Each Sunday, he would catch two buses to get to our church from his home a few suburbs away. But one Sunday a few weeks ago, he apparently fell over at home while getting ready and it was two or three days before friends or neighbours realised something must be wrong. The police broke in—and he was taken to hospital.

As soon as our church heard about his plight, various people started visiting him. Some helped by getting things he needed from home. Others washed his clothes. Still others prayed for and with him. Our pastors liaised with medical staff and kept his sister informed. And when the difficult decision had to be made to turn off his life support system, his Christian friends gathered around his bed, surrounded him in prayer and farewelled him in the most godly, dignified way possible.

At one stage, a nurse commented how sad it was that no family members could be with him at the end of his life.

‘But we are his family—we’re his church family!’ one of those present exclaimed.

Perhaps most moving of all, however, were the words of the head ICU doctor, after noting the love, care and respect shown to his patient by those who visited.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it!’ he said with feeling.

Now that was both a wonderful but sad comment, don’t you think? It was wonderful that the loving, sincere, Christlike care given to this elderly man seemed to amaze this doctor, but sad too that he had never before experienced people who were not biological family acting in this deeply caring way. Perhaps he may have come from a culture where such tasks are shouldered by family members only. Who knows? Yet what a reminder to us of the importance of caring for those alone and in need, not only for their sakes but also for any who might be watching and wondering!

For me, it was also a sobering reminder of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 about gathering the nations together, putting the ‘sheep’ on the right and the ‘goats’ on the left, then welcoming those on the right to take their kingdom inheritance, on the basis of having helped him when he was hungry or thirsty, in need of clothes or shelter, ill or in prison. He goes on to explain how the ‘righteous’ hypocrites will argue that they never saw him in such situations—and then adds some words that always cut me to the heart:

The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (40)

How thankful I am that that elderly gentleman, who surely qualifies as one of those whom Jesus called ‘brothers of mine’, with no biological family close by to help, had his church family around him who treated him in a way that honoured both Jesus and him! May I have the grace to follow their example, show the same love and be true family to others.

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