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Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

For years now, it has been my custom to leave my tattered, old bible open on the desk beside my laptop as I dive into my writing day—or hour—or even minutes. Yet it is not there for mere show. And it is not there either as some kind of talisman to ensure God blesses my writing time. Instead, to me, it serves as a strong reminder that, whatever is happening in my life and however my writing day unfolds, God is still God. Even if everything else falls away, God will still be there, loving me and watching over me.

I wonder if you have some tangible reminder of God’s presence and faithfulness around you too, as you step into your day. I have other things as well as my bible—a special cross stitch on my wall nearby that features a large butterfly, flowers and leaves and says, ‘Let us be silent that we may hear the whisper of God’, and a candle, a gift from a lovely writer friend, that has a beautiful aroma when lit. Then outside my window, I can see God’s own creation—trees and shrubs of different shapes and sizes and hues, bright pink azaleas during this spring season and, above them all, a glimpse of wispy clouds and blue skies. Yes, everywhere I look, I am reminded of God’s presence around me, of God’s amazing creativity and of God’s desire to reach out to me in love in so many beautiful ways.

Each day, as I sit down at my desk, I am so grateful I can pick up that old bible of mine too and read some part of it slowly. Even while writing this blog, I have glanced across and noted again some wonderful, reassuring words I found recently in Psalm 91.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”
Psalm 91:1-2

I turn the page to the next psalm and am reminded of the encouraging words I read there yesterday:

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
    they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
planted in the house of the Lord,
    they will flourish in the courts of our God.
They will still bear fruit in old age,
    they will stay fresh and green,
proclaiming, “The Lord is upright;
    he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”
Psalm 92:12-15

Yes! Thank you, Lord—I may be a little old, but I can still bear fruit! Then I come again to today’s beautiful reminder of God’s rescuing heart:

When I said, “My foot is slipping,”
    your unfailing love, Lord, supported me.
When anxiety was great within me,
    your consolation brought me joy.
Psalm 94:18-19

Yes, I think to myself again—God is there for me and always will be, loving me, supporting me, comforting me. I leave my bible open at that page and turn to light the candle on my desk. All those words I have just read reassure me I can move on into my day with complete confidence in my heavenly Father. God is trustworthy. God is my Rock—and I am indeed on firm, solid ground.

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There are always new things to learn in life, aren’t there? At times, I hear or read of some author or composer or artist and realise I have never explored any of their work, despite how interesting it sounds. At other times, I see glimpses of intriguing places on TV I know little about. Then occasionally, I poke my head into the inner workings of my website and quickly retreat. How true it is that, the more we learn, the more we realise we don’t know!

I discovered this again recently when helping a granddaughter with her art assignment. Now, I am a writer—definitely not an artist. In fact, I know nothing about art. Granted, I was helping because of my writing experience, but one does need to know something about a topic before writing about it! And so began my journey of reading how the 16th century artist Titian, the 20th century artist Picasso and the present-day artist/photographer Morimura have portrayed the female form!

To my surprise, I soon became truly interested. It was fascinating to discover what certain symbols meant in their artworks and how these artists connected with issues in society. As a result, I am now keen to find out about other artists too and learn to appreciate their works more.

Then, last week, our oldest granddaughter asked my advice about her religion assignment for the Catholic teachers’ college she attends. She was simply checking she understood what she had to do, but our conversation set me thinking. This assignment involved the parable of the lost or ‘prodigal’ son—or, as some call it, the parable of the forgiving father—and one task was to explain the main theological point of this story. So, I decided to try it for myself—I was sure I could write five hundred words on the topic easily and quickly.

I turned to Luke 15—but, as I began writing, the whole profound nature of this parable Jesus told began to impact me more and more. Soon, I had to stop and reflect on it all over again. How arrogant and uncaring was that younger son, in asking his father for his inheritance then and there? Then how could he have gone off and wasted it all? In the light of all that, how could the father in the story keep watching out for him, then embrace him and welcome him home with such joy and compassion? But … I wouldn’t have been as resentful as that older son was—or would I?

As I sat there, I was overwhelmed once again with the enormity of our heavenly Father’s love for us in seeking us out, running to embrace us and welcome us into his family, as we too return home and believe in Jesus. I did nothing to deserve such compassion and forgiveness. Instead, it is all about grace—the most amazing, wonderful grace.

I did not anticipate such a profound and humbling experience that morning, as I sat thinking about our granddaughter’s assignment. Yet what a joy to be reminded in such an expected way of the incredible richness I have in God!

I too am loved. I too have come home.

… this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ Luke 15:24

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I enjoy board games—well, many of them anyway. My sister and I grew up playing endless rounds of Snakes and Ladders, Ludo, Chinese Checkers, Draughts and Monopoly, not to mention Dominos, Pick Up Sticks and a little quiz game called ‘Tell Me’. There were card games too—children’s ones at first such as Donkey, Old Maid, Comic Families and good old Snap, then, later, Coon Can, Euchre and Five Hundred. What fun!

Nowadays, however, children’s games somehow seem to have become trickier—for me at least! Our two younger grandchildren still enjoy their Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly, Dominos and Donkey, but, well … what sort of person would think up such annoying, confusing games as one our ten-year-old grandson introduced me to recently called ‘Exploding Kittens’?! Ugh!

Zain is good at explaining the rules of games and did his best this time around, then patiently continued helping me. Yet it seemed that, whatever card I chose to throw out, something worse happened to me, until our grandson could block my every move. And, of course, I ended up becoming the victim of that dreaded ‘exploding kitten’!

At least this experience was marginally better than the time a few weeks ago when Zain tried to teach me how to play chess. We gave him his chess set for Christmas—and, suddenly, he has taken to it in a big way, strategically plotting his moves ahead of time. Meanwhile, I had to be told over and over the names of the various pieces and what they are allowed and not allowed to do! No wonder I ended up cornered in this game as well, with nowhere to go.  

At times, life can be like that too, can’t it? For whatever reason, sometimes we find ourselves in a real-life board game situation where we can feel quite cornered, even powerless, with very few options available to us. Perhaps we end up stuck in some exhausting job or ongoing argument or draining relationship or debilitating health challenge where there seems to be no way out. And that can be very hard indeed.

I remember a time years ago when I was employed in a demanding teaching job which left me feeling exhausted and trapped. I knew I had to keep going to help pay our mortgage at the time, but each Sunday, my heart sank, as I thought of the week ahead. In the end, God graciously provided a way out for me and into an editing job I loved. Yet it does not always happen like that, does it? Sometimes in life, there is no way of escape provided. Instead, we have to press on, doing our best to remain positive, as we look to God for the strength and courage we need. And God is surely right there beside us and in us, comforting and encouraging us, even as we walk through those deep, dark valleys—and will be forever.

Whatever your situation and however cornered you feel right now, I pray you will sense our strong Shepherd’s hand on your shoulder today and know again his deep love and compassion for you.

Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. Psalm 23:4 NLT

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Do you remember a time when you had to blow your own trumpet, so to speak, and convince others you could handle a particular task or fulfil a particular role well, perhaps when applying for a job you truly wanted? It can feel very awkward, can’t it—not to mention downright pushy! 

Ever since my first novel was published, I have had to promote myself in ways I would never have dreamed of doing earlier on. I thought I was becoming more used to it and beginning to see it as merely a necessary part of the writing journey. Yet, recently, I felt daunted all over again when I filled in an author submission ‘pitch’ for a potential publisher of my next non-fiction book I am currently completing. This form consisted of only five questions, but each one necessitated much thought and re-writing. And two in particular made me cringe as I tried to answer them as best I could.

The first of these asked, ‘How will new readers benefit from your book?’ Now, I am indeed passionate about this book I am writing. It deals with the many words we all speak and write throughout our lives and urges us to leave a life-giving legacy behind us when we share them with others. I believe one hundred per cent in the thoughts it contains and sincerely hope and pray they will indeed benefit and build up many of my readers. Yet, it still seems presumptuous to me to declare with certainty, in black and white, ‘My readers will benefit from this book in the following ways …’. What happened to any humility I might have gained over the years?

Another question I sighed over asked, ‘Why are you qualified to be the person to write this book?’ Hmm! I do have a couple of tertiary degrees and diplomas in the areas of language, education, theology and ministry. I have written nine other books and hundreds of blogs. I have also spoken in all sorts of meetings in recent years, had many conversations with people and written countless emails. Yet, surely in stating all this on that form, I would be loudly blowing my own trumpet?

This strange saying ‘blowing our own trumpet’ apparently refers to past days when heralds sounded trumpets to let everyone know the king was coming! Instead, Jesus, our King, set us such a perfect example of true humility and grace when he put everything aside, came to this earth in human form for us and died a criminal’s death (Philippians 2:6-8). What a contrast! And we too are called to have that same heart of humility today.

 Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves … You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Philippians 2:3, 5 NLT

This is the attitude I indeed want to have in all my writing and speaking and in life in general. Yet, we are also called to use our God-given gifts to their fullest extent to bless others and draw them closer to God—and I want to be faithful in doing that too. It can be tricky, to step out in confidence yet also to remain humble—but let’s keep trusting God to show us how.

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Some mornings can go smoothly, as we set out to conquer whatever the day may hold for us, can’t they? Then there are other mornings when we may think we have plenty of time to get ready and be wherever we need to be or take children wherever we need to take them, yet, at the last minute, everything unravels.

This happened to our daughter recently, as she hurried to take the children to school on her way to work. She knows our grandson hates the sound of the kitchen blender—he has ADHD and finds it hard to cope with such a noise at that time in the morning. Usually, she makes sure he is somewhere else before she uses it, but this time, she was in a hurry and a huge meltdown ensued.

When they finally arrived at the school gates, our grandson was still very unhappy and angry, but apparently calmed down and made it through the day. And that night, he apologised to his mum, without even having to be prompted. But I loved how our daughter then talked more about it all with him in a calm, reasoned way. She asked him what he thought she should do to help him calm down and not be so angry, next time something like this happened. Would there be a code word she could use that would remind him she is on his side? He soon thought of one and, hopefully, this will indeed help next time! Yet, whatever happens, I believe she gave our grandson the most important gift ever through the wonderful, merciful, forgiving message contained in those four simple, little words she said to him, ‘I’m on your side!’

Our grandson knows his mother loves him unreservedly. He knows she has advocated for him so much through the years at school, where judgments and misunderstandings of his behaviour have abounded at times. He knows she will always be there for him and believe in him. And he loves her deeply in return. But sometimes, when his impulses get the better of him, he forgets all that in an instant, loses control and fights her. And so, time and time again, she asks him how she can help him better and reminds him, with such love and grace, ‘I’m on your side.’

And that, to me, is exactly what God has said and still says to us all each day. In sending Jesus Christ to live amongst us and die for us, God declared in no uncertain terms, ‘I’m on your side! I love you. I am for you, not against you! Yes, your wrongdoing matters so much—it has separated you from me and spoilt our relationship. But come, believe in my son, receive my love and forgiveness and let me welcome you with open arms into my family—forever!’

Every day, it fills me with such joy and relief to know God is watching over me, strengthening me and restoring me when I fail. I may forget and fight that love, just as our grandson does at times, yet God is still there for me and on my side—forever.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! 1 John 3:1

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One recent afternoon, we heard a loud ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ at our front door and found our lovely friend there, holding a small, glass vase in her hand that contained a beautiful, pink camelia and some dainty, little blue flowers.

‘This is for you,’ she told me. ‘Someone gave me this camelia and it’s so perfect, I thought you would enjoy it too. The little blue flowers are forget-me-nots.’

After she left, I sat gazing at those beautiful flowers for a long time. The camelia was indeed exquisite, almost salmon pink in colour, with each petal overlapping the next in such an orderly, perfect way and changing to a lighter shade as the petals spiralled out from the centre. But the forget-me-nots captured my attention too, the dainty, baby-blue flowers in each cluster absolutely perfect in themselves, with their bright yellow centres and white, starlike markings on the tiny petals. How could so much beauty exist in such minuscule form? Surely only the hand of a loving, overwhelmingly creative God could produce something amazing like this?

I remembered then the first few lines of a poem I wrote some years ago on this same theme:

Did you have fun, Lord, creating such beauty

for us your children to enjoy?

It’s as if in pure delight you waved your palette high

and splashed your vibrant colours everywhere with glee,

as if you had to share each fresh design of flower

and then, in pure extravagance,

add speckles to already perfect petals.

Truly, the natural world around us brims with wonderful extravagances of colour and design and intricacy. And it has always blown my mind that many of the tiny flowers and plants and animals and insects created by God will never even be seen by human beings. Perhaps their habitat is some hidden corner in a jungle or some isolated spot in a dry, desert area, far from any sort of civilisation—yet still they flourish. Thomas Gray expressed this same thought in his poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ which I remember being drawn to in my early teens when we studied it in our English class:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,           

  And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

But, above all, as I sat gazing at my little posy, I remembered some words Jesus once said that encourage us not to worry:

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” Matthew 6:28-30

I continued sitting there for some time, sensing God’s presence around me and taking in the lesson I was doubtless being taught through my special flowers. Yes, I could indeed trust God to provide for me and those close to me in every way. I need not worry, because I belong to a loving, creative God who is more than able to care for me—and for you. Surely a lesson worth learning all over again, don’t you think?

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Around four years ago, while attending a women’s event at our church, I began talking with a young mum sitting nearby. Her face and manner were so open and honest, as she shared the good things happening in her life but also the challenges of balancing all the demands of managing her young family with work and other responsibilities. As we finished talking, I felt God prompted me to bless her with one simple, little phrase. ‘Peace on your home’, I said to her—and immediately saw how moved she was.

Since then, each time I see her leading worship or notice her chatting to someone after church, I repeat quietly in my heart, ‘Peace on your home—peace on your home.’ What a joy to be able to ask God to do this for her and her little family!

Recently too, I was reminded of the lovely, gentle words of farewell my dear mentor and ‘soul friend’ Joy used to say to me when I had finished pouring out all my troubles and questions during my visits to her, especially during my years at theological college. Sometimes, it would just be a simple sentence like, ‘Go gently, dear friend, in God’s love.’ Sometimes, merely a short phrase like ‘God’s peace to you’. Or sometimes, she would quote a line from a favourite poet to me or perhaps the well-known words of Julian of Norwich, written way back in the fourteenth century:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Through this quote, I knew Joy was encouraging me to keep on trusting God, in the midst of all the busyness and stresses of life. Whether things turned out the way I expected them to or not, God was still there, holding me close, and always would be. Therefore, I could be at peace.

These instances of giving and receiving words of peace resurfaced for me while writing another chapter of my work-in-progress, warming my heart and encouraging me to continue. But this past week, I have been encouraged even further, as I have explored the countless references in Scripture to God’s peace —that peace God longs to give us, both on a personal and corporate level. What a privilege to reflect on such verses as those below and breathe in God’s deep comfort and peace in the process!

And as you read them now, may the Lord bless you so much and speak deep peace into your heart too.

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”’ Numbers 6:24-26

Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you. Isaiah 54:10

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

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I watched as our eight-year-old granddaughter pulled several crumpled sheets of paper from her school uniform pocket. When she smoothed them out, I saw they contained long spelling lists, starting at an easy level, but soon becoming quite difficult.

‘My friend and I were finalists in our class spelling bee and now we have to learn these words and compete against the finalists from other classes,’ she told me, obviously pleased with herself.

‘Well, how about I get you to spell some for me?’ I suggested. ‘Let’s try this middle level. What about ‘abandon’? Do you know what that means?’

Maxine not only spelt it correctly but proceeded to act out what the word meant with gusto, showing how a classmate would feel if left all by themselves. We then tried ‘dungeon’ and ‘nocturnal’, again spelt correctly, along with a graphic explanation of their meaning. A couple of harder words followed where she needed some help. I could see she was becoming a little discouraged, but then she had an idea.

‘Ask me the word “encouraged”,’ she told me. ‘I know that one!’

And she did. This time, however, we did not talk about the meaning as I was well aware she knew it. Not long before, she and her brother had wanted me to play a certain game on my phone, but I had declined.

‘Oh, I’d be no good at that!’ I had said emphatically.

But Maxine was having none of it. ‘Nanna, you have written lots of books, so you could do this,’ she informed me. ‘You’re not silly!’’

Yep, Maxine sure knows how to encourage someone.

In the end, I tried to play their game but failed abysmally, despite their expert help. Thinking back later, however, I realised I had learnt some important lessons about encouragement in the process. Firstly, I saw I needed to take smaller steps forward in choosing words for Maxine to spell rather than jump to harder ones that discouraged her. And secondly, as Maxine tried to encourage me, I saw the value of being reminded of those times when I had succeeded in doing something relatively difficult, albeit in an entirely different field from our grandchildren’s challenge to me! I am glad of both these reminders, because they are so relevant for encouraging those facing much bigger challenges than spelling bees and computer games.

I love encouraging others, seeing that smile on their faces and that flame of hope being lit inside them again. Yet this can also require much wisdom, patience and perseverance at times, can’t it? And sometimes, we may find ourselves so unsure, as we grope for the right words to say. I never want to offend or be too forceful, nor do I want merely to bolster someone’s ego or give them false hope for the future. So I am doubly glad God is always with us, empowering us and giving us insight, as we seek to spur others on to be all God purposes them to be and do the things they have been created to do. God will give us the right words, as we seek to encourage, so let’s go for it!

… Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. Ephesians 4:29 NLT

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Years ago, a friend and I were eating breakfast in a B&B in Stratford-on-Avon during a trip to the UK. There was only one other couple in the dining-room that day—and they turned out to be from right here in Sydney, close to where we lived! But that story pales into insignificance, compared to one I heard last week. A couple I met while speaking at another secular club told me how, once when they were in Kenya, they met a man from the UK. This man mentioned the name of someone he knew who had emigrated to Australia and asked if they had met him.

‘Yep, we’ve met him,’ the husband replied. ‘In fact, right now, I’m sitting next to his sister—he’s her brother!’

The reason they told me this amazing story was that, in the talk I had given, I had included some photos from times when I had travelled with another friend of mine. My friend featured in some of these photos, although not many and not very close up either. However, this couple recognised her, so came up to me after I had finished speaking.

‘Um … we noticed those photos of your friend in your slides. Would her name perhaps be …?’ The man asked.

‘Yes, it is!’ I managed to get out.

‘Well, we know her too—she’s visited our church quite a few times over the years!’

We chatted for a while, marvelling at the amazing way God connects people at times. Then we also talked about the final slide I had used in my presentation that features some words from a psalm.

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
Psalm 139:7-10

I chose to include this slide when giving this particular input at a secular group because, to me, it is a fitting end to a talk about various travelling adventures I have had. Yet, in speaking to such groups, I am always aware I need to be careful when and how I mention anything about God and faith. I know such places are non-sectarian and I need to honour that. Yet, because faith in God is such a huge part of who I am, I go ahead, hopefully in a gentle, non-threatening way, knowing I and others have prayed God will guide. So far, I have noticed that, whenever I read these words aloud from this particular slide, a hush tends to fall in the room. And twice, I have had someone come afterwards and talk about ‘the little prayer’ or ‘that lovely little poem’ I shared with them.

We can experience some amazing, unexpected connections with others, wherever we roam on this earth. Yet how much more amazing it is to be truly connected with our God who knows where we are 24/7, who holds us fast and who guides us continually! May we each find ways to share this wonderful privilege with others with sensitivity and grace, however God guides.

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Sometimes it’s the simple things, the things we can do so easily, that matter most to people, isn’t it? Sometimes it can mean so much to others, for example, when we actually pay attention to them, when we listen with our whole being, when we respect them as human beings created in God’s image.

I was reminded of this last week when I gave a talk in a secular club environment. I began as usual by engaging with those present and making sure everyone felt included. Several times during my talk, I asked for audience responses—and I also continued to ‘read the room’, checking that everyone still seemed interested and awake! Nothing I did seemed special or new to me—in fact, I thought this is what every speaker they invited would naturally do. After all, who wants to drone on to a bored audience for forty-five minutes?!

Imagine my surprise then when two lovely gentlemen sitting right down the front spoke to me afterwards.

‘That was wonderful—thank you so much! You seem to …’ one man said, groping for words to express himself.

‘Yes,’ the other man chimed in. ‘It was excellent. I like how you … well … connected with us. You’re very …’

At that point, I took pity on them.

‘Inclusive?’ I suggested.

‘Yes—that’s the word!’ they agreed, beaming.

I was stunned and felt almost teary at their sincere compliments. But later, as I drove home, I began to think more about their response. At our church, all our preachers speak in a warm, inclusive way. It is what I am used to hearing and seeing, week by week. And it is also how I have always tried to speak myself—it simply seems natural to me. Yet these men, along with others present, had found it somehow different and were touched.

As I realised this, I began to feel both sad and ashamed. I felt sad that these people somehow seem to have missed out on experiencing similar warm, inclusive input. And I felt ashamed that I had taken such warm experiences of my own for granted, along with my God-given ability to speak in an inclusive way.

After my talk that day, one of these two men also told me with tears in his eyes how he does not practise his faith anymore, although he still believes in God in his heart—and my own heart went out to him. What had happened in his life? Had no one truly listened or shared the things of God with him in a loving way? He bought one of my books—and I hope and pray God will speak to him as he reads it.

But I also hope that, from now on, I treasure my own warm experiences of being part of a church family so much more. And I hope I will be much more grateful too for my own God-given gifts that enable me to speak and connect warmly with others. God has graciously given us all so much—let’s always be ready and willing to share whatever gifts we have with others.

Be generous with the different things God gave you, passing them around so all get in on it: if words, let it be God’s words … 1 Peter 4:10-11 The Message

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