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Jo 12My husband and I are entering an extra busy period of our lives this week. Yes, we are yet to discover what that interesting word ‘retirement’ means! Two things are happening simultaneously that should help keep us both out of mischief for the next few months at least.

The first is that, to help our daughter and her husband out, we will be caring for their two young children a little more than we do already. Various things have happened for them in quick succession—the selling of their unit in western Sydney, the buying of a house even further west and also a new accountancy job in the city for our son-in-law, which means he will be unable to pick up our grandchildren from school and day care as much as he has previously.

But the second commitment we have agreed to is to take on a support role at our local church, assisting the ministry team while our two team leaders (husband and wife) are on sabbatical leave. To do this, we have each promised to be available in our church office one day a week to help with different aspects of our church life, particularly in the pastoral care area.

Obviously, these two commitments, while quite different, will no doubt require a fair amount of energy on our part. I am sure God wants us to undertake both ventures, but at times, I must admit I have allowed more than a little anxiety about what we have taken on to creep in. Will we have the energy and strength to see it all through? Will it be too overwhelming? Will I ever get any time to myself to continue writing that next novel I truly want to complete? What if our church commitment in particular grows out of all proportion to the hours we have available in our busy week?

In the midst of these rather fearful thoughts, I ‘happened’ to come to some interesting verses in one of Paul’s letters where he addresses some quarrelling and jealousy that had emerged among the early Corinthian believers. Apparently there was a good deal of ‘one-upmanship’ going on, where some claimed they followed Paul, while others stated they followed Apollos. Paul rebukes them for their worldly way of thinking and points out that both he and Apollos were simply God’s servants doing the tasks they had been given—he to plant the seed and Apollos to water it. But without God, nothing would have taken place among them.

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 1 Corinthians 3:6

I read on, slowly realising why God had arranged for me to read these words at this strategic point.

For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. 1 Corinthians 3:9

Yes, Lord, I get the message. It is our role simply to cooperate and work hand in hand with you in the tasks you have called us to do. And what a partner we have—the almighty God of the universe! As for those at our church, you will continue to nurture them and build them up in their faith, whatever happens. You are in charge, not us!

Lord, may I always remember that. Amen

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Jo 12Have you ever noticed how some English words that have an unpleasant, negative kind of meaning seem to sound unpleasant as well? Take for example the words ‘gloat’, ‘brag’, ‘skite’ and ‘boast’, with their rather hard, guttural consonants. Or does the meaning of these words merely colour how I hear them? Would someone unfamiliar with English still think they sound unpleasant?

A few months ago, I spoke at a meeting in a club. My topic was focussed on the lessons we learn throughout our lives and how, as we grow, we hopefully become more of the person we were created to be. While talking about my own school years, I showed a photo of an old report card of mine and mentioned my determination to come first in every exam in primary school—which I managed to do. But then I heard a lady at a nearby table say in quite a nasty tone, ‘Well, why don’t you skite about it!’ Now I had not meant to boast in any way. In fact, my aim was to point out how foolish I was to try to impress others with my academic achievements and thus make me more popular. That night, that little word ‘skite’ I overheard sounded particularly ugly to me. And, rightly or wrongly, I decided to respond.

‘That’s the very point I’m making,’ I told this lady, who now seemed just a little embarrassed. ‘Why skite about such things? There’s so much more to us than what we can achieve or do well. And it’s foolish to depend on these things to win friends and impress others.’

Maybe I should have let the comment pass, but words like ‘skite’, ‘brag’ and ‘boast’ do not go down well with me! And that might be why some words Paul wrote on the topic caught my eye recently:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the word to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. 1 Corinthians 1:26-29

Paul then quotes the prophet Jeremiah:

Therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” (31)

I then checked out the passage in Jeremiah where these words come from—and what treasure I found there!

This is what the Lord says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord. Jeremiah 9:23-24

Wow—what a wonderful Lord we are privileged to know! Who else could ever treat us with such perfect justice and righteousness or delight to show us such kindness? Only our Lord—and I’m happy to be accused of boasting about him anytime.

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Jo 17Who would have thought? Way back in July 2009, I started my personal blog journey, wondering whether I would continue to have enough things to write about. Yet here I am, five hundred blogs later, still finding something each week to share with others.  Also during this time, I have written over ninety blogs for various Christian author groups, sharing lessons from my writing journey and encouraging other authors. Phew!

Now that represents a lot of words cobbled together—around 325,000 in fact. If I had decided not to blog and instead shaped all those words into full-length books, I could have produced three and a half more novels in that time, to add to those I did manage to complete and see through to publication. No one made me choose to churn out those blogs each week, but I continued doing it for various reasons.

Firstly on a practical level, committing myself to producing a blog each week—or perhaps several ahead of time, if I planned to be away or had a busy schedule coming up—has kept me writing consistently, even if that meant less time to spend on bigger writing projects. Also, for wordy writers like me, it is good discipline to restrict myself to around 550 words, while attempting to say something worthwhile each week!

But perhaps more importantly, writing my blogs has become a little ministry that seems to suit my particular gifts and personality well and provides a way for me to connect with those I have known in past years, as well as many readers I don’t know personally at all. It is a way I can encourage others via sharing something God has done in my life or some lesson I have taken to heart from God’s Word or perhaps something God seems to highlight in the people, places or events in the world around me. And in the process, I often encourage myself all over again, as I reflect on what I feel God wants me to say and crystallise those thoughts running around in my brain.

Recently, I chatted with a friend who was preparing a eulogy for the funeral of a close relative. I shared with her how some of Jesus’ words as he prays to his heavenly Father, just prior to being arrested, had challenged me that morning:

I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. John 17:4

How wonderful it would be, we decided, if we, like Jesus, could truly say that at the end of our time here on earth! It is what we both aim for in our lives—to do the work God has given us to do, however big or small that might be. And I feel that my writing, including my little effort with my blogs, has been part of that work God has gifted and enabled me to do.

Recently when I spoke at an event, I mentioned some similar words that the Apostle Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy and that I would like at my own funeral:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 2 Timothy 4:7

I hope I can say that when my time comes. Is that your hope too?

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Jo 23I wonder if you’re like me and find airports fascinating. As a writer, I enjoy looking around at everyone and dreaming up all sorts of stories about who is waiting for whom and what the connection is—and even why they might perhaps look sad or glad or bored or excited as they wait.

Recently, however, I had a slightly different airport experience—in more ways than one. We were there to meet a friend who needed to return home suddenly from overseas because her father had passed away. So even though her flight was not due in until after 10.00 pm, we were happy to be there for her. We arrived a little early, so my husband suggested we buy coffee.

Now I have a reputation for being miserly at times and therefore objected.

‘The coffee’s bound to be so dear here. If it costs $5.00, let’s not have any!’

It turned out to be $4.50 per small cup, so my much more generous husband handed over that $9.00. And I admit I did enjoy that cup of coffee!

In the end, our friend did not take long getting through customs and we were soon heading to our car. My husband paid via credit card at a parking ticket machine, but it was not until we arrived home that he looked at the docket. Instead of the $19.00 he expected to see there and that he is positive flashed up on the machine, he had been charged only the half hour fee of $9.50.

At that point, we laughed as we realised that meant we had recouped that $9.00 we had paid for our coffee that I had been so concerned about!

‘And that still leaves us fifty cents better off,’ my husband added. ‘Perhaps that should be our “tithe” to God!’

Immediately, I felt we owed God so much more than that fifty cents from this whole experience. To me, it was as if God was smiling at us lovingly and saying, ‘This is a little touch of my grace to you both, so please just receive it. You have gone the extra mile to pick your friend up late on a cold winter’s night—and I’m delighted to bless you as you serve her.’

What a humbling experience! And what a wonderful, gracious God we have! We can never outdo God with our giving of ourselves to others—or with our material giving either.

Yet I think I learnt a further lesson that night too. It was no real problem for us to meet our friend at the airport. In fact, it was a privilege. We love her and were deeply concerned that she has had to make this sudden, long trip back home. We were happy to be there for her. But in a weird way, there was something about all these feelings of mine that reinforced or mirrored God’s own loving heart towards me. As we loved and cared for our friend, I experienced God’s own amazing love that is so deep and wide and will never, ever fail me. What an unexpected, ‘left-field’ lesson in love!

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever. Psalm 136:1

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. Lamentations 3:23

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Jo 12I love my old car. It is a 1999 model Ford Fairmont that has done quite a few kilometres—over 255,000 in fact! No doubt it chews up more petrol than a small, newer car would—but it requires only a gentle touch on the steering wheel to point it where I want to go and it still soars up those hills like a bird.

Sadly, however, little things have begun to go wrong with it. The numbers and symbols on the dashboard telling me what setting the air-con is on stopped working a while back. The remote unlocks the boot, but refuses to either lock or unlock the car itself. And (ahem) certain parts of the car do not lock properly at all anymore! I can live with all that, but I found it hard on a long trip recently when my poor old car refused to warm up inside at all, so that I arrived at my speaking engagement in a slightly frozen state!

As I drove home afterwards, I suspect it was God who reminded me how, back when our children were young, we had no car air-conditioning at all and no fancy numbers and symbols on the dashboard. To cool ourselves, we wound the windows down. To warm up, we wore jumpers. And we certainly didn’t own a remote to lock and unlock the car. Yet now I took for granted and felt entitled to a car that could deliver so much more.

Then it dawned on me to wonder whether God was also pointing out other things I had taken for granted that day—like the fact that I had been invited to speak somewhere at all; or the fact that I was able to drive myself there—and through such beautiful countryside; or the fact that my ability to speak and to thoroughly enjoy doing so comes from God anyway. How grateful I needed to be for all these things—and so very much more!

But then I started to ask myself some even more serious questions. What if I had I begun to take God for granted in my life in general? Had I come to presume too much on God’s grace and patience and long-suffering towards me each day? Was I treating God in too cavalier a fashion, listening only when I felt I needed to, instead of staying in that place of intimacy? Had I forgotten how much I need to thank God for the many blessings poured out on me in all sorts of ways over the years?

I think I need to remember well that recent cold drive to my speaking engagement. I don’t want to take anything in my life for granted, but instead thank God each day with a grateful heart for all I have been given.

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations. Psalm 100

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Jo 17A couple of weeks ago, our church celebrated its fifth anniversary of being in its renovated and revamped premises. To fill everyone in on the journey taken to get the building to its present state, photos taken at different stages of the remodelling were shown during our services. All up, it was a wonderful testimony to what can be achieved when a community trusts God and works together to bring a shared vision to reality.

Of all those inspiring images I saw that day, one in particular has stayed with me. It was a photo of something that looked like a piece of graffiti scribbled on the floor of the main auditorium. You see, the night before the carpet was due to be laid there, some church members decided they would like to write prayers all over the floor—prayers that God would always be honoured in this space, that all who entered would sense the presence of God’s Spirit and feel welcome and accepted, and that lives would be changed as a result. What a surreal feeling to look down and realise our feet were resting not only on carpet but, more importantly, on all those prayers written and prayed on our behalf!

Later, I remembered a similar but much smaller project I was involved in years ago at a different church. It was in the days when banners were still used on church walls to remind us of certain truths or words from Scripture. I had seen a banner somewhere else that featured a vine covered in fruit and felt we needed one like it in our own church. So some of us created one with a twirling grapevine and lots of bunches of big, purple grapes on it, along with the words ‘Chosen to bear fruit’. Then as we began attaching those grapes, we decided to write the names of all the streets in our area underneath them. We felt this was a way of praying for all those living nearby, that God would touch and transform their lives, so that they would not only become the fruit of our labours but would, in turn, bear fruit for the kingdom themselves.

We prayed and we sewed—then prayed and sewed some more. And that banner hung on our church wall for quite some time, reminding us why we were there in that place and what God could do as we prayed. It was a hard area, but people did come to know God more and see God work in their lives.

Time passed and we moved on—and that banner too disappeared eventually. But I believe God heard those prayers of ours, as well as the ones written beneath the carpet in our current church. Our role is to pray—and God is not deaf to our pleas. That fruit will come, both in our own lives and in the lives of others, as we continue to trust and to share God’s love. How blessed we are that we can pray in all sorts of diverse ways, leaving those requests with our gracious, loving God!

This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Matthew 6:9-10

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Jo 23From time to time, I meet people who make me sit up and take notice. Somehow, they seem to march to the beat of a different drum—and I want to find out what that drum sounds like and how they keep in step with it.

Many years ago, after moving across Sydney, we met some people whose Christian commitment and experience of God seemed so much more real and vital than mine was at the time. One day, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer to find out more.

‘What is it you’ve got that I haven’t got?’ I asked them point blank.

They looked at each other, as if unsure how to answer me. In the end, all they said was ‘Just wait. Just wait. God will show you when the time is right!’

Now I found their response frustrating, if not plain annoying, but they were right. Not long after, God broke into my life in a fresh and sovereign way, overwhelming me with such deep love and opening up a whole new journey of being led by the Spirit in my life and ministry.

I was reminded of this recently when farewelling a friend at the airport. The person at the check-in counter thought she had found an issue with my friend’s visa, so went to check it out with her boss. When she returned, she told my friend it ‘should all be okay’, which didn’t sound so reassuring to me. But my friend stayed calm and seemed to take everything in her stride.

‘You’re so calm about it all!’ this lady finally blurted out, as if she couldn’t help it. ‘It makes me want to say “I’ll have what she’s having!”’

My friend and I looked at each other and laughed. You see, we had prayed for God’s peace to fill her as she said goodbye to family and friends. And here was this staff member wondering why my friend was so calm! I mumbled something about how we had prayed for peace, but there was no time to explain further, with that queue lengthening behind us.

Recently too, I met someone who decided to attend church again one Sunday, after an absence of many years because of having all sorts of doubts about the Christian faith. As the service ended, the pastors announced they would be delighted for anyone with questions about God and Jesus to come and spend time chatting with them about it all.

‘What church ever does anything like that?’ this person thought, amazed—and promptly took them up on the offer.

But the best example of amazement I have ever seen or heard is one I read recently in John 7. Here, the people of Jerusalem are trying to work out who Jesus is and how he could do the things he did. Some want to seize him, but ‘no one laid a hand on him’ (5:44). Finally, the temple guards return to those in authority, who ask why they haven’t arrested Jesus. Then comes this amazing statement:

No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards declared. John 7:46

How could this be? Could Jesus truly be the Messiah, the Son of God? Should we sit up and take notice of him?

I think we should—don’t you?

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