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Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

While celebrating my birthday recently, I began reflecting even more than usual on all those years that have passed since I was born. Where have they gone—and what have I achieved in the time allotted to me? Perhaps this is a sign of impending old age—because, of course, I have not as yet reached that part of my life, whatever my children and grandchildren might say!

This introspection may also have been fuelled by the fact that I recently completed writing my tenth full-length book. For me, this represents around 850,000 words that have flowed onto my computer screen over the last fifteen years or so. Added to that, I have also written about 440,000 words in the hundreds of blogs on my own site, as well as others for writers and readers. Could it perhaps be time to write—and speak—a little less?

But then I came across the following verse I have thought about often:

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 1 Peter 4:10

Throughout my life, everything I have been able to do that has served others in some way has been a gift from God. My task has been, and still is, to be faithful in using those gifts to the best of my ability, whatever my age. And that puts a whole different slant on everything we do, don’t you think?

Over the next few days, I read on and eventually came to a chapter in Peter’s 2nd letter headed ‘The Day of the Lord’. There I found several verses that made me stop and take stock of my life even more carefully:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. … So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 2 Peter 3: 8-10a, 14

I kept reading on into the next letter in my bible, this time written by the Apostle John. And there I found a similar command:

And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming. 1 John 2:28

Yes, God has reached out to us with such grace and mercy. We don’t have to earn our way into God’s family—all we need to do is believe fully in Jesus Christ. But we need to continue being faithful in using whatever gifts we have to bless others. And we need to seek to remain at peace with him, ready to meet him whenever that day comes.

While we still can, let’s love and serve God with all our hearts. The way we do this may well change with the years, but let’s stay focused on the Lord and keep the main thing the main thing—to the very end.

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I wonder if you can think of a time when someone treated you or spoke to you in a way that made you feel particularly valued and respected. I am thankful to say I can. Perhaps you have had the opposite experience too, however, as I have once or twice, causing you to feel more than a little used or worthless.

Many moons ago, I worked as a casual teacher in various nearby Sydney high schools. Some of these experiences were excellent, but others were far less enjoyable, to say the least! At one school, I asked a girl standing nearby as politely as I could if she would mind moving a chair that was in everyone’s way.

‘Move it yourself!’ she snapped back in a very surly manner. ‘That’s what you’re paid to do!’

At another school, after filling in for a few days in the History Department, I was asked to stay on longer as they had discovered the teacher I was replacing would be away for some time. Not wanting her classes to get behind, I asked the subject master, whose role was to help his staff, for advice on what to teach the classes. I was happy to put in the extra effort required rather than merely babysit them but, since I usually taught Languages, felt a little at sea.

‘Work it out yourself!’ he responded in an angry, abrupt way. ‘That’s what you’re paid for!’

In the end, I did. But I also eventually reported him to the Principal—and never returned to the History Department of that school.

On the other hand, I have experienced some wonderful moments when I have felt so valued and respected. I think of one occasion early on in my writing journey when I was invited to speak at a well-attended women’s breakfast. From the outset, I felt so well cared for. Someone volunteered to sell my books on my behalf so I could focus on speaking. There was a prayer team ready to pray alongside me for others afterwards. And later, I discovered this church had given me what I felt was an embarrassingly generous monetary gift for coming and speaking.

Only recently too, I came away from an online interview with a potential publisher feeling unusually warmed and respected. Later, I realised why. I had been listened to well, had been given time to ask my own questions and, in general, had been treated with kindness and professionalism. What a joy!

This past week, I noticed a simple, little statement in one of Peter’s letters to the early believers that, while clearly being directed at Christian slaves, surely applies to us all today too.

Show proper respect to everyone. 1 Peter 2:17a

No, this is not a command for us to let others ride over us roughshod and rush to do everyone’s bidding. Instead, it should remind us to see others, whoever they are and whether we like or agree with them or not, as human beings created in the image of God, as those loved by God equally as much as we are, as those who have gifts to offer, as those who may well long to feel honoured, respected and loved.

Don’t you feel this is the best attitude to have as we walk this earth together?

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Recently while at home recovering from Covid, I decided to tackle a jigsaw puzzle belonging to our daughter. Now, I am not usually a fan of such things. After all, why put ourselves through such torture to create a picture we can already see, only to pull it all apart when we finish?

I persevered for days with those thousand little pieces—at least, there should have been a thousand! Towards the end, I began to suspect I had lost a few—and, alas, I was right. Months earlier, our youngest granddaughter had helped me find all the edge pieces but had soon given up. In haste, I had bundled the puzzle back in the box, thinking we had not dropped any. Yet, days later, I can vaguely remember finding an odd piece or two on our carpet. Perhaps our vacuum cleaner had swallowed up even more pieces?

Whatever the case, when nearing the end of the puzzle, I realised none of those remaining pieces looked anything like the three I needed. However, I decided to keep going—and I’m glad I did.  Yes, finishing with an incomplete picture was disappointing. Yet in the process, I made some interesting discoveries.

For a start, I can now admit there may be something exciting and perhaps even addictive about finding the right piece, seeing it fit perfectly and watching that picture grow! This involved using a different part of my brain from that which I need when writing—a novel and refreshing experience indeed.

Then, to my surprise, I also discovered I could actually find the patience and perseverance required to complete this puzzle. Time and time again, I thought I had found the right piece, only for my hopes to be dashed—yet I was able to keep on trying. Perhaps this has to do with all the patience and perseverance God enabled me to have in recent years as I wrote and re-wrote and edited and re-edited entire manuscripts time and time again. And as I thought about this and thanked God for it all, I was also thankful for God’s own patience and perseverance with me over so many years.

My biggest discovery, however, was to realise how much unnecessary angst my perfectionist tendencies have often caused. Normally, I would have been much more annoyed about those missing pieces but, instead, I surprised myself with how calm I was—surely a clear indication of how God has changed me. It was as if God was saying, ‘See how far you’ve come? You did you very best with what you had. Well done!’ That picture I managed to put together, even with its three missing pieces, was still excellent—not perfect, but still excellent. After all, I had managed to match up all those pesky, cat-hair pieces with the right cat—quite a feat, in my opinion, and one I thought several times might well be impossible!

We can learn from God through every circumstance in life, big or small. I hope I continue to do this as I walk through the coming year with God—and I hope you can too.

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Romans 12:2a NLT

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I recently did something I have been putting off for years. With great regret, I at last steeled myself enough to throw my much-loved and much-used NIV bible I have had since somewhere in the middle 1980s into the bin. In one way, it felt as if I was throwing part of me out along with it. My hands had held that deep red cover so often that a lot of the fake leather had worn off and my fingers had turned some of those pages so much that the corners were ripped, with one or two having disappeared altogether.

Now many might think, ‘Why all that fuss? It’s just an old book!’ And at one level, that is true. After all, it is not the book itself that is sacred but rather the words it contains—and they can be found just as well in my brand-new, more recently translated NIV bible I received at Christmas or in any other bible. And yet … and yet …

You see, that old bible symbolised so much to me in so many different ways. It was my companion through countless amazing times in my life, as well as hugely difficult ones. I carted it with me to all sorts of places—on camps and retreats, away on holidays, to lectures at theological college, to nearby parks to sit and reflect, to places where I spoke. When it finally become too risky to use while speaking somewhere because it threatened to fall apart on me, I let it rest on my desk beside my laptop and bought another copy to take with me instead. And there my favourite, old bible has remained for many years now as I have written several more books and many blogs. I have read it each day, then left it lying open so I could look over at any time and be reminded of what God had said to me as I read. And sometimes that re-read turned into a little prayer, either whispered or spoken aloud—perhaps for perseverance in writing or in preparing a message to speak somewhere or as intercession for someone else.

As well as featuring occasional finger-marked and dog-eared corners, some of the pages of that old bible also contained verses I had underlined or highlighted with a little line at the side. At times, I had even put an exclamation mark beside some words that had particularly impacted me or left a brief comment there in tiny letters. And I had read some passages so often that I could visualise where the words I wanted to find were on the page before I even looked them up—so much so that even my other NIV bible of the same vintage did not seem quite right to me at first.

Yet, I know I will soon become used to this other bible now open on my desk. I am familiar with its wording and will keep my more recent Christmas NIV for speaking somewhere. Whichever bible I use, it is still God’s precious Word that I look forward to exploring again in the year ahead and finding great wisdom and encouragement in its pages. And I hope you do too.

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. Psalm 119:105

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This Christmas and New Year period has been a little different for us. Instead of perhaps catching up with friends or hitting the shops or going anywhere really, we have been at home in splendid isolation. Yep, somehow, we both contracted COVID. We are much better now but, during our time of staying put, we each learnt some interesting things about ourselves.

Of course, there were some foods we found we felt like more than others—and we did have some rather crazy meals, using whatever I could find in the house. For once, I was thankful for my tendency towards having a little too much on hand in my freezer or food cupboard. As a result, we had enough to last us for quite a few days, without resorting to ordering anything in or accessing the help others offered us.

I was happy too just to be quiet at home, edit a friend’s book, work on a jigsaw puzzle, read, watch cricket or tennis on TV—and sleep. I could have done without feeling sick and coughing and sniffling, yet there was still plenty I was able to do. On the other hand, my poor husband, who is much more extrovert than I am, began to become a little stir-crazy and even bored. I felt sorry for him—‘bored’, I realised, is thankfully something I have yet to experience as there is always some new idea in my brain to think or write about.

Needless to say, there were numerous jobs staring me in the face each day that needed to be done. Our Christmas tree was still up and there were other Christmas decorations that needed to be removed. There was the Christmas ham to cut up and do something creative with. There was vacuuming and mopping to do. Yet neither of us had any energy for such things. Now, normally, this would bother me. If I see a job to be done, I like to attend to it as soon as I can. But this time, I decided these things could wait—except perhaps the ham! Right now, our bodies and our health were more important.

But as I sat or lay in our quiet surroundings here, I realised God had things to show me too in this time. For a start, I saw how blessed we are in this country that, even on public holidays, we were able to access the medical help we needed via a teleconsultation and texted prescriptions. I thanked God indeed for such provision. But beyond that, I began to see all over again that, when we feel quite helpless, when we have nothing to offer God or anyone else, God is still there, loving us totally and wanting to reach out and care for us in every way. Here was an opportunity, a window in my life, when, even though feeling unwell, I could draw close to God, receive God’s comfort and healing and be at peace. One day, I read the following words in James’s letter:

Come near to God and he will come near to you. … Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. James 4:7. 10

May I continue to do just that as I step into whatever God has ahead for me in the coming year.

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Recently, while taking part in a Christmas carol service, I found myself sitting straight and tall in my seat and automatically taking a deep breath before singing each line. After all, I did not want to gasp for air halfway through—and definitely not halfway through a word as I sometimes hear singers doing on TV and elsewhere. I also tried to sing all the words clearly, even though I was certainly not giving any solo performance. But then I laughed at myself. You see, suddenly I realised that, without any conscious effort on my part, I had slipped back into singing exactly as I had learnt to do over sixty years ago! It all felt so natural—and so wonderfully fulfilling too.

During my middle school years, I belonged to two different choirs. The first was the Queensland Junior Conservatorium Choir which I joined after a nervous audition with the rather scary Director there at the time. In that choir, we learnt so much about the basics of good singing and about performing two-part songs well. The second was the Brisbane Junior Eisteddfod Choir where I ended up in the second soprano section as we sang three-part madrigals, sacred anthems, folksongs and all sorts of other beautiful music. In this choir, I learnt to keep my eyes on the conductor at all times, to listen to the other singers around me and to commit our whole repertoire to memory. We practised long and hard and in a very disciplined way, yet it was all so enjoyable, especially when we staged our own concerts and competed at eisteddfods.

These were the same skills then that popped up all over again, even in a humble little carol service. And I was glad. Perhaps you have experienced something similar in another context—perhaps you may have discovered to your great surprise that you still know how to ride a bike or swim or knit or sew, things you put a lot of effort into learning when very young. What a joy to find you still remember the basics, even if you might be a little rusty on the actual execution of your hard-won skills at this stage!

On the other hand, like me, you may also have other less joyful skills you acquired early on and have honed over the years so that they are second nature now. For me, I suspect they may be things like easily becoming defensive, too readily judging others, finding it difficult to apologise, not caring enough about others—the list goes on. Instead of celebrating these skills and continually resurrecting them, I need to let them disappear forever. And to do that, the best way I have found is to listen to what God says, both in Scripture and directly through the Spirit.

Perhaps you were blessed to learn to do this early on in your life so that it is second nature for you now. Yet this is a lifelong lesson we all need to keep learning, isn’t it? So, in 2023, let’s do exactly this— then faithfully put into practice everything we hear and learn.

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

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. James 1:22

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I wonder if any of you tend to feel a little low at this time of year, despite all those lovely Christmas celebrations and gatherings with family and friends. This is something I have often experienced, especially if my year has been particularly busy or particularly draining in some way.

I remember how my special ‘soul friend’ Joy used to encourage me at such times to listen to my body and take note of what it was telling me. Perhaps I needed physical rest. Perhaps mental relaxation. Perhaps a lifting of emotional burdens—those I carried for others as well as my own. Perhaps I needed spiritual refreshment. Or perhaps it was all of the above. Some of us keep going, don’t we, always tackling that next job or seeing things we feel we should do? No wonder we can end up a little exhausted and spent as our year draws to a close.

So, each year around this time, I try to step back a little and view my year past from a distance, so to speak. Yes, there were those many things I could have done better. And yes, there were those opportunities I did not fully grasp or take up at all, for some reason. Yet there were also those times when I did listen and do what I sensed God was calling me to do. There were those many rewarding moments when I spoke somewhere and sensed God used me in the process, when I completed writing or editing a manuscript after much effort, when I wrote blogs that touched others, when I was able to bless others by serving them in some way. What a relief, however, to know God longs to reach out to me with forgiveness and compassion, despite those apparent failures of mine, and also delights to celebrate and rejoice with me in my successes and achievements!

Whatever has happened this past year then, I can be at peace. And I can stay in that place of peace too as I step into whatever God has for me in the new year. After all, God’s heart in sending Jesus Christ to us was indeed to give us deep peace, not only in our lives here and now but also concerning the life to come. In Zechariah’s song in Luke 1:76-79, we see that John the Baptist’s role was to prepare the way for Jesus through calling the people to repent and receive God’s mercy—that mercy that would culminate in sending Jesus, the ‘rising sun’ to us from heaven:

 … to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Then there are also the angels’ wonderful words of declaration to the shepherds, speaking out hope and peace for us all:

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” Luke 2:14

As we contemplate the year that has passed then, may we each sense God’s favour and peace deep in our hearts. And in the new year to come, may our feet easily find that path of peace God has for each one of us to take.

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A few weeks ago, someone pointed out to me how the immediate response many of us seem to give these days when asked how we are is not, ‘Good, thanks!’ or ‘I’m fine!’ Instead, what we often say is ‘Oh, I’ve been so busy!’ or ‘I’m actually so tired—I’ve had so much to do!’ or some other phrase that indicates life is currently a little too full or perhaps even overwhelming for us.

It seems to be a badge of honour, in some circles at least, to be able to point out how many tasks and activities we manage to pack into our lives. Yet, in the midst of it all, how are we ourselves truly surviving? What is happening deep down inside us—to our soul or our spirit? Have we perhaps lost sight a little of who we are, apart from all that we manage to do and achieve? Have we forgotten how to sit and simply be? And, beyond that, have we perhaps allowed our faith to recede into the background somewhere, as if there is no room for God in our heads and our hearts, in all the busyness of life?

No room. Those words have such a sad, empty ring, don’t you think? Centuries ago, it seems to me, I used to sing a Christmas solo occasionally by John Peterson that began with the words:

No room, only a manger of hay,
No room, He is a stranger today,
No room, here in His world turned away,
No room, no room.

Perhaps nothing has changed really since that time over two thousand years ago when Jesus came as a baby to live among us. And perhaps nothing has changed since those days when Jesus, despite the many amazing miracles he performed and despite his wise teaching, was rejected as an adult either. Recently, I read some strong words Jesus spoke as he challenged the Jewish leaders to honestly believe in him in their hearts.

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32

Yet, they kept arguing with him, which resulted in Jesus speaking even more strongly to them.

I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word.  John 8:37

Wow—there are those sad words ‘no room’ once again. These people back then seem to have been so proud of their heritage and position in society and so bent on disproving Jesus’ claims that they would not even let Jesus’ words truly enter their hearts and minds at all.

But what about us right here and now? To my shame and regret, I know there are times when I say a rude and disrespectful, ‘No room!’ to Jesus—times when I am just too busy to bother to leave any space for him in my life. How much wiser it would be to let Jesus order my days and lead me through them, as I listen to him and make room in my heart for his loving words!

No room. Let’s not say that to Jesus this Christmas—or at any time, for that matter.

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I have seen books meet all sorts of fates. Some fortunate ones end up on a ‘favourites’ shelf. Some are relegated to lower shelves and end up covered in dust. Some are lent out to friends and perhaps never seen again. Some are donated to op shops or second-hand bookstalls. Some may even end up in the bin. Yet there is something else interesting one can do with books too, as I discovered recently.

This year, our church held a special Christmas fair, featuring handcrafts church members had produced. Our youth group girls decided to make pretty little candles in glass holders, but it was something else on their display table that truly caught my eye. Inspired by their leader, the girls had also created Christmas tree table decorations out of old book pages, with a gold, hand-painted, scrunched-up page moulded into the shape of a star on top!

Now, being an author, I was unsure what to think. Would I really want my books to end up as Christmas tree decorations? Yet, as I chatted with the youth leader involved and joked about how I would tell my author friends about it all, I realised those old books could come to a much more ignominious end than being fashioned into a table decoration!

Later, however, I began to see even more positive aspects to this whole project. For a start, these books had been repurposed so well and in such a creative way. And in this their final format, they would continue giving joy to others, even if not in the way their author had intended. Also, I expect the girls who made them had great fun doing so. Besides, people had paid several dollars for each little tree—and this money is earmarked to go towards a great project our church supports that helps poor families and children in Uganda. Surely this is a much better outcome all round than having those pages gather dust somewhere or end up in the bin?

Sometimes, just like these books, our lives do not unfold in the way we expected. Sometimes, things happen beyond our control that change our futures forever. Yet, if we have committed our lives into God’s hands, then God will always faithfully watch over us and lead us on, bringing to us new ways we can bless others as we listen and step out in faith. And in every phase of our lives too, God seems to prepare us for what is to come.

At different stages, I have been a high school teacher, a fulltime mum, an editor, an office secretary, a church pastor and now a writer and speaker. While I always wanted to be a writer, I never thought I would end up as one, but God did it. Life can stop us in our tracks, turn us upside down and sometimes dismantle us, just like those books that ended up as table decorations. Yet these little trees are still so beautiful and useful—and we can be too as we allow God to re-purpose us and lead us along new paths.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. Proverbs 3:5-6 NLT

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Recently, I spent some hours promoting my books at our closest Koorong bookstore. The time flew by, with many enjoyable, fruitful conversations. Yet at one stage, I decided to sit down at my book table for a while and have a brief break from connecting with customers. Earlier, I had eaten a hurried lunch and had also tried to buy a coffee, but the café was so busy I had given up. Now, however, more than anything else, I wanted that nice hot cup of coffee to keep me going.

Soon after, I noticed a middle-aged couple browsing nearby. For a moment, I thought of getting up and chatting with them but decided against it. I was too tired—and besides, they did not look like the sort of people who might be interested in my books. The man seemed quite serious and already had a pile of other books under his arm, while the lady appeared somewhat vague to me and … well, just a little quaint.

But then they came closer—and eventually ended up right in front of my book table. I explained a few things about my books to them as politely as I could, and then the gentleman looked straight at me and said in his rather loud voice, ‘Do you need anything? What can I get you?’

‘Oh nothing! I’m fine,’ I lied. ‘I wouldn’t want to bother you anyway, but thank you!’

‘No, no!’ the man insisted. ‘It would be our privilege to serve you. What would you like? Some water perhaps? Or a soda—or coffee?’

I could not resist at that point.

‘Well, to be honest,’ I admitted, ‘I would truly love a coffee. I’ve tried to buy some twice today, but the staff were too busy, and I had to get back here to my book table.’

‘Our pleasure! What sort of coffee? Milk? Sugar?’

Feeling so humbled and more than a little embarrassed, I gave them my order and off they went.

Not long after, they returned, coffee in hand. And I almost burst into tears.

‘Wow, you are such lifesavers!’ I told them—and I truly meant it.

We chatted for a while then—and, in the end, the man’s wife happily bought one of my novels, which humbled me even more.

Afterwards as I sat sipping my wonderful, hot coffee, I sensed God whispering gently, ‘See, Jo-Anne? They wanted to do that for you. There is no shame in acknowledging your need—and it gave them joy too. But … don’t judge so quickly next time, will you?’

As I watched this lovely couple leave the store, I saw them afresh with God’s eyes and thanked God for their soft, servant hearts. They had treated me, a complete stranger, in exactly the way Paul urges us to treat others:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:3-4

And in the process, unbeknown to them, they had taught me important, key lessons about humbly acknowledging my needs to God and others—and especially about being far less judgmental all round.

I want to be more like that couple who served me that day, don’t you?

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