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Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

IMG_20190915_165700397I own an interesting, old sewing machine, a Husqvarna 3610 model I must have bought sometime in the seventies. I used it to make our younger daughter’s uniform when she began school—and now she is over forty! It sat relatively idle for some years after that, until I lent it to our older daughter who eventually returned to me. But alas, there is one slight problem with it—it is determined only to sew backwards! However much I might clean and oil and wiggle and jiggle that reverse button, it stubbornly remains stuck fast.

As I reflected on this phenomenon, I remembered how I too have at times become stuck in life, unwilling or unable to make any changes that might help me move forward. Sometimes I have not wanted to let go of the past or put aside some dream that has little chance of coming to fruition. Sometimes I have been afraid to move on or launch out in a new direction. I remember thinking at one stage I could never give up high school teaching because that was what I had studied hard to do. Yet, by the grace of God, the opportunity to move into editing school curriculum material presented itself and my working life took a whole new turn. Not only did I enjoy that job, but, unbeknown to me, God was preparing me through this editing experience to become a writer myself many years later.

But we can also become stuck in our spiritual journeys—and that to me is even sadder. Sometimes we power on, growing rapidly in our knowledge and experience of God and hungry to learn so much more about spiritual things. I can remember many exciting periods in my own Christian journey, when I felt as if I was almost bursting with all the wonderful truths I was learning about God—as a new Christian in my teenage years, later as a young mum, then even later as I understood more of the Holy Spirit’s role in my life. But then there may come times when everything seems so much harder, when we become discouraged or disillusioned with other Christians, when the busyness and pressures of life cause us to take our eyes off God and stop growing in our faith. When that happens, we may even find ourselves going backwards, like my sewing machine, perhaps doubting God, becoming critical of others, unwilling to change and even deciding we do not need God at all.

Yes, things may happen that cause us to stray into such dangerous territory. Yet, whether we feel like it or not, that’s when we need to seek help and encouragement from someone we trust whose faith is real and honest. I’m so glad God has always provided me with such people to talk to—and I hope you know such folk too. But wherever we are at, may we all continue to press on, just as the Apostle Paul chose to do, ever moving forwards rather than backwards in our spiritual journeys.

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 and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. Philippians 3:13 (New Living Translation)

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Jo 17Sometimes we need a gentle reminder of what life is all about, don’t we? I know I can become so focussed on what I am doing from week to week that I can easily forget the bigger picture. And that bigger picture is important because it helps me sort out my priorities in the best possible way and reminds me why I am doing what I am doing in my life. In short, it shows me my life from God’s perspective—and that always gives me much food for thought.

Last week held one of those big picture moments for me. One day, I decided to drive up to the Blue Mountains to see my lovely, older friend Joy, who is now in a nursing home. I crept into the room she shares with another older lady and found both of them sound asleep. So what to do? I did not want to wake my friend and perhaps disorientate her, so I decided to sit and wait—and reflect.

It was peaceful in that room. At one stage, a kind staff member came in and we chatted for a few moments, but apart from that, all was quiet, except for my friend’s gentle breathing and that of the other occupant. Joy looked so small and fragile and somehow defenceless as she lay there, yet she also seemed at peace. Around her in the room, her beautiful family had placed photos of themselves and pictures of the flowers Joy loves, as well as other items she can enjoy touching or looking at. As I sat there, I remembered how much she had enriched my life and the lives of so many others too, over the years. And that is the sort of richness that really counts, isn’t it—the richness of drawing others into a closer connection with God, of passing on the utterly gracious, forgiving love of God to others?

I know that, when the time comes, Joy will be filled with delight that she is finally in God’s presence, just as I believe God will be to welcome her home. She does not have great earthly riches, but her soul is so rich in God—and that richness has been shared with so many others along the way.

That very morning before leaving home, I read the following:

Do not be overawed when a man grows rich, when the splendour of his house increases; for he will take nothing with him when he dies, his splendour will not descend with him. Psalm 49:16-17

… But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 1 Timothy 6:6-7

My friend Joy, and all of us, came into the world as defenceless, little babies, bringing nothing with us except ourselves. And all of us, including Joy, will leave this world equally defenceless, through age or illness or injury, taking nothing with us except ourselves. How important it is then for us to be rich in the things of God, to know deep within ourselves that we are God’s beloved children and to be content with loving and serving God and others! That indeed is ‘great gain’—the only sort of gain that really matters, when all is said and done.

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Jo 23One of our daughters works at a charitable organisation and occasionally gets to deal with people who phone up to make a donation. She has had some interesting conversations as a result, but one memorable one went something like this:

‘Good morning! How can I help you?’

‘I’d like to donate a thousand dollars to the foundation.’

‘Did you say one thousand dollars?’

‘Um … is that enough?’

What a strange question! Was this gentleman honestly thinking this might be too low an amount for them to accept? My daughter suspects he had given more in previous years and felt bad he could not now do the same. Or perhaps he was actually questioning his own level of generosity. Perhaps to him, a thousand dollars was a mere pittance—he would never miss it. So was it indeed enough?

Sadly, this question is all too familiar to me. As a people-pleaser from way back, I have often asked it, either aloud or in my head. For example, if someone at our dinner table eats everything on their plate, I wonder if I gave them enough. Are they still hungry? Are they thinking what a mean hostess I am? If this happens at a family gathering, usually one of my children, just to tease me, pipes up with what they know I will say next: ‘Did you have enough? Would you like some more, love?’! In other contexts too, even when I have given my best to some task, I can still ask myself, over and over: ‘Was that enough? What did people think of it?’

People-pleasers want everyone to think well of them. They cannot bear to let anyone down or upset anyone—after all, it’s up to them to keep everyone happy. Yet how wearing that can become—and how impossible to achieve anyway!

Of course, this can affect our view of God too. When I was in my early teens, I thought that, if I went to church on any given Sunday, surely this would put me in God’s good books. Surely I would have a great week all round, because God was so pleased with me. Thankfully, a few years later, I came to experience the amazing love and grace of God in my life and to see there is no point in trying to impress God. My ‘good’ will never be enough. But Jesus, the perfect, sinless Son of God, who lives in me by his Spirit, has taken care of that for me on the cross and become all the ‘enough’ I need.

God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. Romans 5:8 New Living Translation

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

It’s not about striving to measure up. It’s not about making sure we have done enough or given enough to get in God’s good books. Instead, it’s about doing our best to honour God because of the grace we have been shown through Jesus. And that’s an entirely different and wonderful thing, don’t you think?

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Jo 12Isn’t it strange how we sometimes gain a perception of a role or occupation in society, then refuse to budge from there? Take ministers of religion, for instance. Over fifty years ago, when I introduced my husband, then training for ministry, to an aunt of mine, she burst out with the following comment: ‘Oh, so you are nice, after all!’ Did she expect him to look a particular way or be boring or not smile and joke, because he was at theological college? Hmm.

But only two weeks ago, I had a similar experience. I had just spoken at a particular club about my author journey and was standing at my book table, when two ladies came to chat.

‘I love your beautiful jumper,’ one of them said. ‘Where did you get it? It looks very jazzy indeed!’

‘Actually, it’s an op shop buy passed onto me by my sister!’ I told her.

But it was what the other lady said next that left me speechless.

‘Yes—and you don’t look anything at all like a minister’s wife!’

I was sorely tempted to ask her what she thought a minister’s wife looked like! However, I refrained, thinking I might embarrass her. Instead, I laughed and left it at that, yet her comment made me feel sad too. What had she meant? Did she think ministers’ wives always looked dowdy or old-fashioned or stern or colourless or such like? If so, where had she gained her perception of these poor, sad women? Of course, in old movies and even now on TV, ministers are often portrayed as weak and old-fashioned and prosy (think some Mr Bean-type character!). But what of their wives? I felt quite indignant when I thought about the many ministers’ wives I know (not to mention women ministers themselves!) who are always neatly and attractively dressed, have wonderful personalities and are interesting and able women all round.

I know God does not judge us by how we look, as Samuel tells us, and I am so thankful for that:

The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7

But because I also know how I myself often judge others by their outward appearance, just like those two women had, I always try to look as good as I can, particularly when speaking somewhere. To help with that, I frequent a great second-hand clothing shop that also sells brand new ‘ends of lines’, with labels still attached! I want my money to stretch as far as it can but, much more importantly, I want to honour God even through the way I look. I do not want my appearance to be a stumbling-block for my audience or anyone I will chat to on the day who does not as yet know God—I do not want them to judge God in any negative way because of how I present myself.

I’m so thankful for my lovely, ‘third-hand’, black and gold jumper that apparently helped smash those ladies’ image of what ministers’ wives look like! But more than that, I hope and pray it might have helped them begin to see God in a more attractive light too.

Sometimes appearances do matter, don’t you think?

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Jo 17It has been an interesting experience these past few weeks to pick up my novel writing again, after completing two non-fiction books. While I love writing non-fiction, it is such a joy to feel I can let loose and create a whole new story from scratch.

Novel writing can be a slow, exhausting process, but it can also be so fulfilling, as the various characters develop and the strands of the story come together. And for me, it can easily become all-consuming too. I relate deeply with my characters. I feel their joy and pain and confusion. I immerse myself in their world. I ache for them and hold my breath at times in the hope they will make good and right decisions.

With my current novel, I felt relieved when I completed the first five chapters—always the hardest for me. The story seemed to be taking shape and gaining momentum. But because I knew I was approaching a very sad section, I baulked. I did not want my main character to endure such grief, yet I knew that was where the story needed to go. I put it aside and wrote other shorter pieces for a while, but eventually, I decided to take the plunge again.

Yet as I wrote, I became sadder and sadder. You see, without giving too much away, a little boy drowns in this novel—and his death is intrinsic to the plot. I had to describe the actual event. Then I had to portray the family’s grief and anger and lack of forgiveness too from one family member towards another. As well, I had to visualise the lasting effects of such a tragedy on my main character and begin to help her work through these in a realistic way.

At that point, I felt exhausted, as if I had struggled through those raging floodwaters myself. My earlier chapters, while being so fulfilling to write, had taken much perseverance—and now that I was on the other side of this difficult part of the plot, I wondered if I had what it took to unfold the rest in a sensitive way that would touch readers’ hearts. Had I perhaps forgotten how to write a novel, after living in the world of non-fiction for so long? Was I capable of allowing the story to develop as it needed to?

With these questions bombarding my brain, I soon descended into a morass of self-doubt and self-pity—until I remembered how helpful the Psalms had been to me during past writing struggles. I began reading them yet again and eventually came to Psalm 18:16-19:

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. … He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.

While that dear little boy in my novel might not have been rescued from actual deep waters, I knew God would rescue me. At other times in my life when I felt things were all too hard, I have experienced that loving hand grasping me firmly and helping me stand on solid ground again. God has drawn me out of many deep waters—and I know God will delight to do that for you too.

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Jo 23One recent Saturday night, I set out to drive our daughter to her home in an entirely different part of Sydney. As usual, I headed for James Ruse Drive, then onto the M4 freeway. As usual too, my daughter and I were talking about all sorts of things, while I endeavoured to keep my eyes on the traffic around me. We were almost at the end of the freeway when, to my horror, I suddenly realised the road we were on looked very different from usual. Somehow I had ended up in the newly completed tunnel that speedily propels drivers towards the city rather than on Parramatta Road near my usual turnoff!

What could we do? Absolutely nothing—except keep driving until we could actually exit onto Parramatta Road, albeit at a spot way past where I wanted to be. But then I had another dilemma. Should I now try to drive our daughter home a different way through unfamiliar suburbs late on a dark night? Or should I backtrack along Parramatta Road and stick to my well-known route?

In the end, I chose the latter. But it was indeed a loooong journey that night.

When I arrived home, my helpful husband asserted that, although he had never been in the new tunnel, there must be signs everywhere that could not be missed. So we decided to take a drive in the daytime to ensure we knew which lane one needed to stick to in order to exit before that shiny, new tunnel swallowed us up again.

Perhaps you can guess what happened. There was my husband, driving along looking at all the road signs, when … poof … suddenly he too found himself careering into the tunnel rather than straight onto Parramatta Road! At least he enjoyed checking it all out. But again, how easy it had been, despite all those signs, to glide along with the other traffic on that wide freeway towards the tunnel!

Later, I thought about what these two interesting experiences where we so easily took the wrong road might teach me for my life in general. It can be so easy to go along with what others say or how others live who do not know or care about God, can’t it? It can be so easy to be seduced by all those ads urging us to do or buy this and that rather than think about what God might want. It can be so easy to drift into watching shows or playing computer games or reading books that do not honour God. But, as Jesus himself taught, this wide, easy road that many others might choose to take does not lead to real life.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Matthew 7:13-14

I’m so thankful I veered off onto God’s narrow road many years ago now, rather than powering on along that obvious, wide, easy freeway, heedless to God’s voice. My road might twist and turn, but I know where I’m heading. And I have the perfect Navigator beside me forever who will never lead me astray.

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This might sound strange, but I love spending time staring at certain things. For example, I used to sit in front of our open fire when the children were little and stare into those flames for ages. I still enjoy gazing at the washing as it flaps on the clothesline. And I also love watching the leaves in the trees as they are tossed about in the wind—or even their tiny movements as a gentle breeze stirs them. On a slightly more normal note, I love looking at the various types of foliage on the shrubs and bushes outside my study window and the different shapes and colours and textures of their leaves. And of course, I love the shapes and colours of the beautiful flowers, large and small, growing in the garden right at our front door and on the nearby trees and shrubs.

Now these trees and shrubs and flowers do not say anything out loud that I can hear at least—although I have a neighbour who believes in talking to her plants to encourage them to grow, so maybe they do! Nevertheless, surely they speak volumes in their own beautiful, silent way of the heart of God for our world and for us all, don’t you think?

This past weekend, I presented a writing workshop to help others get started on a project for our church’s Art Installation to be held next month. The theme for this year’s Installation is ‘Creation Speaks His Name’—and what fun I had preparing my input! The more I thought about it all and the more I gathered bits and pieces together to inspire us on the day, the more in awe of God I became. I know there are places in our world right now that are crying out for rain, where nothing much will grow. But in general, as we look around us, creation does indeed speak God’s name, telling us something about God’s nature and personality, shouting aloud to all who listen that God is indeed the all-powerful and all-loving creator of the universe.

As I selected various nature photos taken over the years to use in my workshop, I found myself in awe of the beauty of creation depicted in them. I heard them speak loudly of God’s own beauty and glory and God’s abundant grace in surrounding us with such splendour. Some photos I included of rugged, snow-covered mountains, swiftly flowing streams and unique rock formations also spoke to my heart of God’s awesome power and strength and majesty. I noticed too, in the flowers and fruit and vegetables I gathered together to inspire our writing, the amazing variety in creation, which surely mirrors God’s boundless creativity and endless resources. And, in those tiny, perfectly formed blossoms and leaves I had collecteIMG_20190807_120901938d, I saw God’s generous, extravagant love that would bother to make even a little wildflower no one may ever see or an insignificant leaf on a common, household pot plant into a miniature work of art.

Yes, surely creation speaks God’s name, loud and clear. In response, may we join with those winged creatures Isaiah describes around the Lord’s throne and shout out our praises too!

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah 6:3

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