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Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Jo 12During this coronavirus time, I have worked steadily on my next novel. I edited as I wrote and also edited the whole manuscript four or five times after completing it. Then I sent it off to my first manuscript reader/editor—and the next—and the next—and the next. Then I submitted it to my old publisher. And each time, there was more to edit—and more—and more. My manuscript was around 97,000 words initially, but is now around 87,000 words. And I’m still going. Is it any wonder that some nights I have gone to bed with words swimming before my eyes?

In this time too, I have written three short stories, critiqued two manuscripts and a portion of two more. And I have kept writing my blogs each week—and emailing friends and family who have felt a little isolated. I was glad I could do all this, but there comes a point where all this reading and writing can become a little tiring—especially the discouraging task of throwing thousands of words out that you have laboured long and hard to put in your manuscript in the first place!

So recently, we went away for a short break. And while driving along near the coast north of Sydney, to my surprise, I caught sight of some olive trees. Immediately, my mind went spinning back to my visits to Turkey in past years. During one trip, a friend and I travelled along the Mediterranean coast together, hopping on and off buses at various spots and taking in the mind-blowing sights and experiences of that region. Along the way, I saw many, many olive trees growing on the rocky hillsides and, to me, they were a beautiful sight, with their silvery foliage and often rounded, compact shape. I was amazed too at the way they could still flourish in such dry, barren terrain through the hottest of Turkish summers and produce those nutritious olives that are such an important part of the Mediterranean diet.

The same day I saw my olive trees here in our own country, I read the following verses in the Psalms:

But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good. Psalm 52:8-9

When things coincide like that in my life, I have learnt to suspect God might want to say something to me, so I listen. And I realised I could relate to what David wrote in this psalm. I am indeed like that olive tree flourishing in God’s house. After all, God has enabled me to write all those thousands of words I have written in recent weeks—and God will sustain me as I complete the necessary editing and polishing. I don’t need to fret or complain or wonder if I will stay the distance. Instead, I know I can grow and flourish under God’s protective covering, watered and fed and cared for by our all-loving, all-powerful Creator God.

May you too be aware in this time of God’s unfailing love and nurturing hand on your life, as you grow and flourish like that olive tree.

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Jo 17I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with a certain TV show on at the moment that pits one singer against another. I enjoy hearing the contestants sing, but I fear for them as they put themselves in such a vulnerable position, slap bang in front of thousands of viewers, not to mention a live audience and those judges who will choose between them. I hate to see so many head home disappointed, with their dream of success shattered.

You might not be about to get on a stage and sing, but perhaps you can think of a time when you had to put yourself out there in some way and risk being judged. Perhaps you had drawn or painted a picture. Perhaps you had to play a musical instrument in public. Perhaps you had to read aloud something you had written. Can you remember how you felt?

I suspect I relate to these music show contestants so strongly because of my many experiences when younger of playing the piano for scary music examiners and also playing or singing in eisteddfods, while the judges busily wrote notes about my performance. Yes, these experiences made me feel so vulnerable, but they stood me in good stead for playing and singing in churches in later years—and also for getting up and speaking in public, as I still often do. And I believe that, by the grace of God, they have also armed me well for my current writing journey.

Yes, giving your new manuscript to others to critique can be a daunting prospect. And having books published can be even more daunting. It has been said that, to be an author, you need a sensitive heart, but the hide of an elephant! Yet, if we know God has called us and gifted us to write—or paint or sing or play or dance or bake or create in some other way—how important it is to keep putting ourselves out there, whatever others might say or think!

That certainly applies too when speaking about the things of God, whether in a formal setting or informally in our daily lives. Right now, when so many in our world are particularly vulnerable, there are opportunities all around us to share that encouraging word with others and to show them God’s love. But sometimes it can be hard, can’t it? Sometimes, sadly, I still choose to keep quiet and stay in my comfort zone, rather than risk being rejected.

Years ago, when I was about to start theological college and feeling very vulnerable as an older student in my late forties, a visiting speaker came to our church and, prompted by God, gave me the following verse:

Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. 1 Corinthians 16:13 NLT

So many times, these words kept me going through all the challenges of college, helping me focus on the final goal. But these words speak to us at every stage of our lives, don’t you think? So, whatever is happening around us right now, may we all stand firm, knowing we are secure in God’s love. Then let’s step out, put ourselves out there and grasp hold of the things God has given us to do with courage and strength!

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Jo 23‘I enjoy the challenge of learning new things,’ one of our pastors told me, as he settled me in front of those glaring lights, ready to record a segment for our online church service last Sunday.

I agreed—albeit a little weakly. You see, I was about to do something I had never done before. I had been asked to pray out loud for our church while being filmed, with just the two of us present. And that felt a little weird to me.

I decided I would begin with a few verses from Psalm 40. I had thought of writing my prayer out in full, but felt that was not me. Usually, I like to be more spontaneous when I pray. Yet now, with that camera on me and those glaring lights shining in my face, I wondered if I had made the right decision. I had jotted down some things I had been asked to pray about, but that was it. Would my mind go blank? Could I truly trust God to show me how to pray?

The first time through, I stumbled a few times but soon became immersed in praying. There are so many urgent needs in people’s lives right now. Some have big financial concerns facing them. Others are seriously ill and undergoing tricky medical procedures or in the midst of long-term cancer treatment. Then there are those who are not in a good place mentally and emotionally who need to know God does indeed hear their cry, as Psalm 40:1 says. I feel for them all and meant every word I prayed. But at the end, we decided we should film it one more time—and make it a little shorter too.

We started again. Soon I was in the midst of praying for the same people and situations once more, although in a slightly briefer and more restrained way. But afterwards, I felt unsettled and even worried. Had I truly prayed from the heart that second time around? It had sounded a little flat to me and I hoped no one would feel short-changed as a result, particularly those I had prayed for in such difficult situations.

Later, however, as I reflected on the whole experience, I almost laughed out loud. What a silly way of thinking! After all, God knew it was my desire to pray earnestly for our church and for those going through challenging times. God saw my heart. And, judging by what Jesus said about those hypocrites who wanted everyone to notice how well they prayed or the pagans who used so many words (Matthew 6), surely what I said or how I looked was irrelevant?

Yes, there is always something new to learn or something different to experience. But there is nothing like that old, familiar experience for me of being held in God’s loving arms, knowing my prayers have been heard and feeling that firm rock once again beneath my feet.

I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. Psalm 40:1-2

God hears. God understands. God cares. And we can be at peace.

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Jo 23In this time of COVID19, as I entered our local supermarket, I looked for the hand sanitiser. Yes, there it was—but alas, there were no wipes left for hands or shopping trolleys or whatever. I decided it might be good to point this out to one of the staff members—and watched as this message was relayed from one to the other without much action. In the end, I could not wait any longer and went on my way.

I did not get far, however, before a tiny, elderly lady stopped me and held something out to me. Her English was minimal but her actions spoke louder than any words ever could. With a smile and a kindly nod, she held out a packet of her own wipes and offered me one.

‘Thank you so much—God bless you!’ I said to her as I took one, at which point she smiled even more broadly.

Her little act of kindness changed my whole attitude that morning. I had been feeling just a tad put out, but this lady’s thoughtful action lifted my spirits so much, like a sudden ray of sunshine peeping through the clouds.

Not long after, I noticed a rather short lady trying to reach a carton of long-life milk high up on a shelf in one aisle. At first, I hesitated, recalling how we are not supposed to get too close to other shoppers. But then I remembered my lovely, little lady who had given me one of her wipes. Being tall, I could easily help this person.

‘Can I get a carton down for you?’ I offered.

‘Oh yes—two, please!’ she told me in a relieved voice.

I did as she asked—it was no problem.

‘Thank you so much!’ she said, beaming. ‘Now you have a lovely day!’

Again, I felt my spirits lift as I walked off. Such a little thing—yet it had made two people happy.

Eventually, I reached the checkout where the cheery staff member began chatting to me. I cannot remember what she said now, but I do remember how every second sentence ended with the word ‘darl’!

‘How are you, darl?’

‘I’m fine, thanks. How are you?’

‘I’m good, darl. Give me your bags—I can pack them. Is that too much in this bag for you, darl? No? No worries, darl!’

Yes, just a pleasant checkout chat—and yes, perhaps this was her natural way with everyone. Yet it too lifted my spirits. She could have looked glum. She could have worked on without connecting with me at all. Instead, she was warm, pleasant and kind.

As I went on my way, I could not help thinking what a difference all these brief connections had made to my morning. Sometimes it’s the little things that count, isn’t it? Sometimes being kind to someone can act like a lovely, soothing balm to their spirits and perhaps even reflect one tiny aspect of God’s kindness and grace to them. Yes, I love those times when God prompts us to say more or do more. But what a privilege to be part of showering God’s grace on others via the little things too!

As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Colossians 3:12

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Jo 17At first when the person phoning me told me her name, I thought it was someone else. But as I listened further, I was catapulted back to a time around thirty years ago when I worked as an assistant editor. Back then, this person had been one of my colleagues and we had spent many lunchtimes chatting together.

It was good to catch up with what had happened in her life, but also sad. Her husband had passed away and she herself has faced many health battles. But afterwards, as the memories swirled around in my brain, I began to feel quite sad for another reason. In that role, I learnt much about writing and editing. Back then, I had no idea I would become a writer many years later—but God knew. Yet instead of dwelling on these positives, I began to think how much better I could have done that job. Back then, I lacked confidence. Back then, I was afraid to say what I thought and unwilling at times to make good and necessary decisions. Yes, if I were given that role again, I decided, I would do things differently.

Around a week later, the phone rang again. This time, it was another work colleague from that exact same job! He had no idea our other colleague had called and we had a wonderful conversation, catching up on what had happened to us both since then. But again afterwards, I could not get the memories of that job out of my mind. While it was good to laugh along with this second caller about the mistakes I had made and how long it had taken to edit certain jobs, I found that sad feeling slowly creeping over me again. Back then, I was such a perfectionist. Back then, I did not know enough. If I had my time there again, I would work so much faster.

Eventually, as I reflected on all that regret, God enabled me to see things in a different and much healthier light. I had done my best in that role, after all, and the staff seemed sad when I left. I also grew emotionally and spiritually in that time. And God used that role to equip me not only for my next job but also for my whole writing journey. Back then, God had loved me and cared for me—mistakes and all!

And now, God is doing the exact same thing in this season of my life—and yours. It can be good to learn from the past, but God longs to pick us up and move us on too. Thousands of years ago, this is what God told the Israelites to do:

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? Isaiah 43:18-19

The Apostle Paul also writes:

but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race … Philippians 3:13-14 New Living Translation

May God strengthen us all to forget those former things and, instead, grasp hold of what God has for us to do in this new season facing us in our world right now.

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Jo 12It’s a strange experience, isn’t it, to try to avoid others or have them avoid us as we go about outside at the moment? Yes, those social isolation measures are important, but to me, keeping our distance definitely feels weird, however much we might smile at each other in the process.

Recently, I was walking along a nearby footpath, enjoying the beautiful weather, when I noticed a couple coming towards me. Suddenly, they veered off onto the edge of the road. At first, forgetting our distancing rules, I wondered why they were doing such a thing. For a moment, they reminded me of the priest and Levite who crossed to the opposite side of the road to avoid the person in need, in the story of the Good Samaritan! But no, they were only being considerate of me, as well as careful on their own behalf.

And in the supermarket that same week, when there was a bit of a ‘log-jam’ in one aisle, some of us back-pedalled furiously to keep those social distancing rules and waited more or less patiently, while others continued on with their shopping in blissful ignorance. One lady even tut-tutted and shook her head in disgust at everyone. For a moment, I felt I had no right to be there—that I was ‘barred’ from that aisle and should take myself off elsewhere. How good it was to reach that cheery checkout person at last and be on my way home again!

As I thought about these experiences, I began to wonder if they might be showing me something about my attitude towards God at times. How often have I cringed from meeting with God and stepped off the footpath, so to speak, in order to avoid facing up to things in my life? How often do I choose even now to reject that gentle voice in my spirit, urging me to listen and to change my ways, and want God to keep a respectable distance from me?

Many years ago, at a very busy stage of my life, I pushed God aside for a while and chose instead to focus on things I needed—and wanted—to do. But one Sunday, I heard a story from Scripture read aloud in church that contained the words ‘Give me time …’. These words, taken completely out of context, nevertheless pierced my heart, as I realised that was exactly what I had been saying to God: ‘Oh, just give me time! I’ll come back to you when I’m good and ready!’ I felt so convicted that I had been treating our most holy and loving Lord in such a proud and careless way. Each day, I had been rejecting the Lord’s outstretched hand to me, offering me a wonderful, close relationship with him again. But I wanted him to keep his distance. I wanted him to move aside. I did not want him anywhere near.

How blessed we are when we realise how foolish it is to try to keep our distance from the Lord and instead, choose to welcome him into our lives each day with open arms!

Come close to God, and God will come close to you. … Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honour. James 4:8,10 New Living Translation

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Jo 23Sometimes it’s good to stop, isn’t it, and think about why we do the things we do? Perhaps for you, this isolation time has been an opportunity to do exactly that. And once we have thought about whatever it is, we can decide whether to continue on or try something different—or perhaps simply stop and be refreshed for a while.

Take blogging, for instance. This blog happens to be Number 600 of my personal, weekly blogs, each around 550 words long—yikes! That’s more than three of my novels put together! I began blogging in July 2009 and here I am, still going strong. But when I remember each blog would have taken me at least two hours to write—and some much longer, as I reflected on what I was trying to say—I shake my head a little.

So … why am I still writing them? Is it all worth it?

I still blog for various reasons and the first is quite practical. As a wordy writer, restricting myself to around 550 words each week on a topic that has touched or challenged me is an excellent exercise! My 550 word limit is self-imposed, but I try to stick to it, as it forces me to express myself more clearly and succinctly, remove unnecessary information and focus on my main point.

Much more importantly, however, I enjoy reflecting on some event in my life or something I have observed or that God has shown me and putting it into words, so that others too may be blessed in some way. Yes, sometimes I end up taking hours to come up with those 550 words. But in the process, through trying to listen to God as I write, I internalise more of what God is saying to me and always end up the richer for it. So even if I do repeat myself and write about things I already covered years ago, I am not in the same place as I was back then. We all change over time—for better or worse! But I do believe that, when God’s Spirit is alive in us, we can change for the better, as we listen and apply the lessons God is teaching us.

I also blog because I want to continue to use the gifts God has given me to the best of my ability. We all have seasons in our lives, don’t we? In my life, I have found I have used certain gifts where God has placed me for a time, but then that time passes and I need to use other gifts and abilities. Now in this season, surely, as well as doing other things for God when the opportunity arises, I can write and share from my heart in a way that will hopefully encourage and build others up?

Each one should use whatever gift he (or she) has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. 1 Peter 4:10

Yes, let’s keep asking those important ‘why’ questions. But let’s also be faithful in doing what God gives us to do. After all, what a privilege it is to be entrusted to share God’s grace with others, however we can, in our world that is hurting so much right now!

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Jo 17Recently, the women of our church held a ‘Quarantea Party’ via Zoom. All sixty or so able to participate were mailed a teabag, along with a few questions. Then on the day, we were to be at our computers or tablets or phones with our tea, ready to connect.

It was fun to watch everyone turn up and to greet one another. One screen on my laptop filled—then two—then three! Initially, one of our pastors shared with us all and then we ‘zoomed off’ into our smaller ‘breakout’ groups which had already been organised.

But at that point, something went wrong so, then and there, our Zoom organiser needed to reallocate us all into groups, person by person. As that happened, we chatted and laughed together, but then we noticed people disappearing from our screens. One by one, little black squares were appearing where someone’s face had been a moment earlier. They had been allocated to their breakout group and had zoomed off!

As the number remaining became smaller and smaller, someone joked, ‘This is like being picked for a sports team when I was at primary school! I feel like calling out “Pick me! Pick me!’” I could identify with this and laughed along with everyone else, but my mind also headed in a different direction. In fact, I had found it quite disturbing to watch all those lovely people I had not seen for ages disappear from the screen, one after the other. One moment those vibrant faces were there, the next they were not. One moment, they were laughing and chatting—and the next, all I could see was a black square.

Soon after, those of us remaining were organised into one final group and we enjoyed a special time together. But later, I still could not get that image of those black spaces on the screen and the sense of loss as each person departed out of my mind. Was God perhaps challenging me to think about my own life and to realise that, in the big scheme of things, I too appear somewhere on that huge screen of world history for only a brief moment in time? Was God reminding me to seize the moment and do the things I have been called and gifted to do?

We are each given a life to live. We have that one opportunity to connect with others, to shine God’s light as best we can and to make an impact in this world. Then our time is over. All around us in our world at the moment, we see lives being snuffed out in such an unexpected way. And for many of us too, all our best laid plans for this year have gone awry. How much we need then to take to heart James’s warning to the early believers:

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

Our lives. A mist that vanishes. A zoom in and a zoom out. May we all use each moment well for God.

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Jo 17No one seemed to be around, as I drove through our village on my way home from shopping. But as I turned into our lane, I saw someone in the distance. He was standing out on the road, all by himself, but when he saw my car, he slowly moved to one side. It was one of our neighbours who recently turned 101! And he looked so dapper, all dressed up in a long-sleeved shirt and tie, fawn trousers and a sportscoat, as if he was heading somewhere important.

‘Hello!’ I said loudly—he often has trouble hearing as he is very deaf.

‘Good morning—or rather, good afternoon!’ he replied in his gentlemanly way.

I did not have the heart to tell him it was still only the middle of the morning!

‘Are you going somewhere special?’ I asked him, concerned that he might be confused and think the mid-week service he often attends at his church was still on, despite our coronavirus isolation rules. Was he waiting for his lift there? But he soon put my mind at ease.

‘Oh no. I just came outside for a bit of sunshine!’ he said.

‘Well, you look very smart indeed!’ I told him.

He simply shrugged, as if to say, ‘Well, why not get dressed up?’ and ambled off up the lane.

I felt so sorry for him then. Over and over, the words ‘All dressed up and nowhere to go’ kept coming to mind. You see, this man’s wife is actually 103, but she is now in the nursing home on the far side of our village. Usually, he walks all the way across to visit her each day, but with the current restrictions, he has been unable to, even on her recent birthday. No doubt the staff would have arranged for him to talk to her using technology, but this is difficult for him, since he is so deaf.

Later, the thought came to me that, even if our neighbour is all dressed up with nowhere to go right now, one day soon, he and his wife will no doubt step right into their heavenly home where their Lord will be waiting to welcome them with open arms—whatever they are wearing! You see, this couple have a deep faith in God. They planted a church over seventy-five years ago now that is still going today—and up until the last year or two, we would often see them all dressed up, waiting for their lift to church each Sunday morning. Then, they had somewhere to go, for sure. And soon they will both have somewhere even better to go—that special place that Jesus himself has prepared for them.

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. John 14:1-2

Jesus spoke these words to his own disciples, but surely they can encourage us today too. When we follow him, we know that, whatever happens in this crazy world, we are headed somewhere wonderful where we will see Jesus face to face at last. And what a day of celebration that will be!

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Jo 12Each day, there seem to be so many opinions and pieces of information aired on the internet and on TV about surviving and thriving during this isolation period. Some of these contain advice on how to behave and care for ourselves and others, which may or may not be helpful. Some aim to encourage us to think and act in positive ways. Some make us laugh and are full of dry humour. But some also seem to do nothing except induce fear and panic and even more uncertainty. Should I really download that Covid 19 tracking app? Should all these children really head back to school at this stage? Should I really make that trip to the shops or go wherever right now? Should I really plan that event for later in the year?

Whoa! All this can do our heads in, can’t it? And this is where I have found it helpful to step back, so to speak, take a deep breath, and ask myself a different set of questions.

Whose voice am I listening to?

What effect does that voice have on me?

What thoughts am I allowing to take hold of my mind and guide my actions at this time?

Recently, I read the tiny New Testament letter written by Jude, who it is thought was one of Jesus’ brothers. Towards the end, he encourages the early believers to persevere and writes:

But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Jude 20-21

Yes, I thought to myself—this is what I need to do! I need to pray and allow the Spirit to speak God’s true and encouraging words into my heart. I need to allow God to build up my faith and to remember all God has taught and shown and done for me in the past. But above all, I need to place myself right in the centre of God’s love afresh each day and be at peace, knowing God will watch over me forever.

And that is why I risk adding yet another blog each week to all those words already out there in cyberspace right now. I want to encourage others to listen to God’s loving voice rather than that voice that would cause us to fear or lose hope. Whoever we are, we all need to know that God is for us, that we truly matter to God, that God longs to provide for us and speak peace into our hearts at this time. At least, I know I do!

And what a wonderful, uplifting, final flourish Jude adds to the end of his letter to those early believers that surely still speaks to us today and encourages us to remember who we belong to and who is in charge:

To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. Jude 24-25

Now what better final word could there be than that?

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