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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 12There I was, standing as directed in the loooong queue of shoppers spaced one trolley apart in our local supermarket. It was all very orderly—although everyone looked a little glum. So I decided to chat to the lady behind me and she began telling me all sorts of things about herself.

Then I realised I should text my husband—and, as I did, a daily bible verse ‘pinged’ onto my phone. Now at first, I thought I would keep that verse to myself. After all, I had no idea where this lady behind me was coming from in matters of faith. But then I felt convicted. Here we were, with time to chat. Here we all were, down to the basics in our lives, with so much we rely on in all sorts of ways for our wellbeing no longer available. And here I was, not perfect by any means, yet secure in God and so grateful for the firm foundation I have in my life because of Jesus Christ. So I decided to risk it and share my verse with that lady.

‘Well, here’s a bible verse that might encourage you!’ I said—and proceeded to read it out.

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:19

She looked a little surprised, but then laughed. ‘Hmm—but not toilet paper!’

I laughed too—after all, what else could I do? I suspect, judging from other serious things she told me, that she was masking her real feelings via humour. But I left it at that. And who knows whether she might reflect on my verse at another time?

Finally, I made it to the front of the store and saw a staff member beckon me to a checkout. But just then, another lady appeared out of nowhere and forged ahead of me to that same checkout—so all I could do was slink back to my spot!

‘Did someone push in?’ a staff member then asked me in a shocked voice.

YES!!!’ at least ten people in the queue behind me immediately yelled out.

‘It was the lady in the pink jumper!’ someone added loudly, as the staff member scuttled to find her.

At that point, I felt relieved I had been saved from accusing anyone or causing a scene—especially after sharing a bible verse with the lady behind me! In the end, I suggested to her that maybe this queue jumper truly had thought she was the one being beckoned forward. Or maybe she panicked or was unwell.

‘No, no! I’ve seen her do shonky things before in this store!’ she told me in an irate voice.

Yes, maybe I am naïve, as someone said to me later when I shared my interesting experience with her. And maybe, as I am often told, I constantly try to think of too many excuses for others’ behaviour. But I do know one thing for sure. All of us in that store that morning needed reassurance that God is still in charge. We don’t have to panic. We don’t have to push in. We don’t have to accuse. Instead, we can choose to be at peace and to trust God who has indeed promised to meet all our needs.

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Jo 12This past week, I actually managed to finish the first draft of my seventh novel—over ninety-eight thousand words. Woohoo! It still feels a little surreal—I have lived with my characters for so long that they feel part of me. At times, I have even found myself thinking in real life settings, ‘Oh, how would Meg (my heroine) have responded here?’ Or ‘This is what happened to Stephen.’ Or ‘Meg has just done that!’ It has been quite a journey.

I can’t remember exactly, but I think I began this novel around three and a half years ago, not long after my second non-fiction book, Becoming Me, was published. I love writing non-fiction, but felt drawn to write yet one more novel, this time inspired, a little at least, by the lives of my maternal grandparents. Yet I cringed at the thought. Only one of my past novels could truly be classed as historical (ie set prior to and during World War Two) but, after writing it, I vowed and declared I would never write an historical novel again. You see, doing so brings with it a second huge task, on top of actually writing. Everything needs to be checked to see if the characters could truly do such things in that time and place—and if they could, how long it would take them. Certain things could not be mentioned either, since they were not around then. And certain words could not be used. Yet in my heart, I still wanted to write this novel, set in Queensland in the period 1909 to 1926.

Now I am supposed to be ‘retired’ (!), but somehow I have still not quite discovered the meaning of that word. As a result, writing this current novel has been punctuated by speaking at a variety of places, supporting the pastoral team at our church for four months while our senior pastors were on sabbatical, minding grandchildren on a regular basis, accompanying the village choir, meeting with others—and so many other good and right things. I do not regret any of them. But it makes completing a full-length historical novel just that little bit more challenging.

Can you see why I still feel a little numb at this point? Yet I also feel so grateful to God and thankful for this amazing opportunity to write a story that has been in my heart and mind for many years, long before I sat down to write the novel. I am well aware it may or may not be published—that will be my next challenge, along with many edits! But whatever the outcome, I am so glad God enabled me to persevere. Yes, I chose to sit down and write—but God inspired me to keep going and gave me the strength and ability to do so. And that can be true for each of us, however we are gifted and whatever God puts on our heart to undertake.

I have long been encouraged by the words the Lord spoke to Zerubbabel, who had undertaken the task of rebuilding God’s house in Jerusalem:

Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord. Zechariah 4:6

May these words also encourage you today to keep persevering in doing what God has given you to do.

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Jo 12Our grandson has a wonderful way of keeping me humble—and this skill of his came to the fore recently when I tried to help him complete his Maths homework. He is only in Year 2, yet sadly I had great trouble understanding some of the questions he had to answer about shapes. What on earth were ‘cuboids’, ‘vertices’ and ‘edges’? I had no idea!

‘I don’t think you have that answer right,’ I told Zain at one stage, as I stared at the cube alongside the first question. ‘I think it has six edges.’

‘No,’ he told me firmly. ‘You’re counting the faces, not the edges!’

I was unconvinced, but decided to go along with him. We counted those edges together and somehow I came up with eight, while he found twelve—or was it sixteen? Another interesting discussion ensued but, in the end, he wrote down my answer of eight. Later, we wrote the same answer for a cuboid—which of course Zain knew straight away was a rectangular prism! Surely everyone knows that, his look implied.

We proceeded then to travel through what for me was the even rockier, more dangerous territory of cylinders and cones and square-based triangles. But when it came to answering an interesting question about whether cylindrical shapes could be stacked, we differed again. While Zain maintained they could not, if they were lying with their curved surfaces lengthwise, as they were on his homework sheet, I maintained they could if they were standing upright on their flat bases. In the end, I felt Zain worked out a clever answer to this one—‘Maybe!’

Eventually, I enlisted my mathematician husband’s help and asked him to check our work. And guess what his first comment was?

‘You have two answers wrong here!’

Yes, I had been wrong about those ‘edges’—and Zain had, I think, been right from the beginning. But, when I told Zain this, to add insult to injury, he responded: ‘Well, you’re just an old lady!’

Now that put me firmly in my place.

Later, as I pondered Zain’s words, I decided that, while I may be ‘just an old lady’ to him—and there is nothing wrong with being an ‘old lady’—I know I am more than that too. I have done many things in my life. I have two tertiary degrees and a couple of diplomas. I have worked in a variety of occupations, including high school teacher, editor and pastor. I have written eight books. I have spoken publicly well over two hundred times in recent years. Along with my pastor husband, I have raised three children. I have had an interesting and varied life and am grateful for that.

But the best thought that came to me was this. Even if I had done none of that in my life, I would still be of such worth in God’s eyes. Whatever my age, I am still God’s precious child. Through Jesus, I have been born again into God’s family. I belong to God. Jesus loves me, this I know.

That’s what really counts in the end, don’t you think?

How great is the 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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I wonder if you have ever experienced one of God’s gentle but firm ‘ambushes’. There you are, getting on with your life, when you read some words of Scripture or someone shares a deep thought with you and—kapow! In an instant, you know God is reaching out to you, longing for you to pay attention.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with someone about an issue she was facing.

‘Lately, I’ve sensed God is asking me, “Do you trust me? Do you really trust me?”’ she said, almost as a throw-away line.

Even as I continued listening, I felt a definite nudge in my spirit and knew God was challenging me with this same question. But inwardly, I blustered a little. Of course I trust you, God! I don’t need this reminder. This person is talking with me to glean wisdom for her own life—not vice versa!

Then we put our house on the market. Hmm … did I really trust God to find that one person who would pay a good price for it? If I did, why did I have so many ‘what if’ questions in my mind? Why did I occupy my time inventing those worst case scenarios where everyone would think the house was too small or too old and where we might not have the money to make our own next purchase?

Then came Easter—and this year, I decided to read the account of the crucifixion and resurrection from John’s Gospel. Of course, John was writing in an entirely different context about an entirely different situation, but as I read, I realised God was speaking into my own life as well.

On the evening of the first Resurrection Sunday, we are told in John 20:19, as the disciples huddle in a room with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus joins them.

Peace be with you!’ he says, as he shows them his hands and side.

In an instant, I sensed those words were for me too.

‘Yes, Lord,’ I admitted at last, ‘My situation is nothing like what the disciples had just experienced, but I know I need that same peace right now too.’

I read on and came to the account of another meeting Jesus had with his disciples a week later, when Thomas was also present.

Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you! Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”  John 20: 26-27

Hmm—‘StopIMG_20170421_145112767 doubting and believe.’ Those words speared straight into my spirit. There was no way around it. I had certainly doubted God was able to look after us in the whole process of selling our house. I felt rebuked—and rightly so. But I also felt deeply comforted. Yes, God knew our situation. Yes, God could indeed be trusted, even in the face of my unbelief. And yes, God was forgiving too!

Then last Friday, even before going to auction, our little house sold for a very good price indeed—and only twelve days after being put on the market. Thank you, Lord, for your unending faithfulness to us in so many ways!

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Jo 17‘They look so joyful!’ I commented rather cynically, while watching some people singing a hymn on TV about, of all things, the joy of the Lord, all the while with decidedly doleful expressions. Yet, even as I opened my mouth, I felt judgemental. Perhaps they were tired. Perhaps this was the tenth time they had sung this same hymn. Perhaps they had to get it perfect for this particular TV program. And perhaps they did mean what they were singing, but simply didn’t convey that in their faces.

‘They look so joyful!’ I commented again, as I watched various well-known singers, actors and TV personalities perform Christmas carols at the Sydney Carols in the Domain on TV.  And yes, most did indeed look joyful, smiling and with eyes glowing, as they sang with great gusto.

‘But do they really believe it?’ a certain even more sceptical member of our family asked.

‘Well … they might,’ I replied, remembering how some of the performers at least had publicly declared their faith in God in past times. ‘We don’t really know, do we? As for those people in the audience, they must love singing carols, if they’ve bothered to turn up—and they might truly love God too.’

‘If you go by the statistics though,’ was the response, ‘chances are only a small portion do have any real faith in God.’

I had to admit that probably was the truth. Yet, whether all those people believed what they were singing or not, I reflected, at least these carols that honour the coming of Jesus were being sung in our city and broadcast far and wide.

The next day, when I sat down to read my Bible, I found I was up to 1 Samuel 16, the account of how Samuel seeks to decide which of Jesse’s sons the Lord wants as the next king of Israel. As soon as Samuel sees Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, he thinks he must surely be the one God had chosen. Yet in verse 7, we read:

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Hmm. Don’t judge by appearances. What a timely reminder! Yes, our cynical comments might have been true—but then again, they might not have!

We can often see how people are feeling by looking at their faces. We may notice, for example, whether someone is happy or frustrated or angry or sad or discouraged or embarrassed. And it’s important to be observant of others and try to discern where they are at. But sometimes we can jump to the wrong conclusion. Sometimes we can assume so much, merely by those outward appearances. Sometimes we can judge so easily—without knowing all the facts.

It’s true only God can know what is really going in someone’s life and heart. The Lord looks way beyond the outer surface, to the very core of a person. But I’d like to think I could become more like him in this regard in 2017 and look beyond those outward appearances more often. Perhaps then, the world would be a more grace-filled place, don’t you think?

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Jo 12It was a beautiful, sunny day—too beautiful to spend at my desk. So from time to time, I took myself outside and pottered around in our garden, pulling out weeds near our letterbox. As I did, I reflected on how little personal mail comes for me these days. I remembered how, when our children were young, I would pounce on those letters from family members far away and relish sitting down to read them. No internet back then—and no mobile phones for those quick texts back and forth either. In fact, we did not even have a home phone at that stage. I remembered my mother’s letters, always written on both sides of small, lined sheets of thin paper, and sighed.

But what was I doing, standing there on such a beautiful day, feeling so nostalgic? Those times were long gone. At that point, I realised I had not actually checked the letterbox. I reached inside—and there was a letter, addressed to me in handwriting I did not immediately recognise. Probably someone ordering one of my books, I decided, as I tucked the letter in my pocket and continued weeding for a while.

Eventually, I went inside and opened it. It was written in gold on black paper—and it was from our son. It was, in fact, a thank you letter, putting into words various things he appreciated about our relationship and the way he had been brought up. So many lovely things, written simply and clearly in his own unique way. I re-read his words several times, allowing them to sink in and touch my heart. Yes, those tears did well up at times, but not from sadness. Instead, I was filled with joy and gratitude at such an unexpected, affirming gift.

I sit here now, perusing that letter once again. Over the years, our daughters too have expressed similar thoughts, face to face or via little messages, as they have thanked me for my ongoing support and efforts on their behalf. Of course, I would never think of doing anything less than my best for our children—yet I reflect on how heart-warming it is to be thanked anyway.

Then I glance out my window at the blue, blue sky and the trees bending in the breeze and realise how often I overlook expressing my own heartfelt thanks to my heavenly Father, not only for the beauty of this world but for everything else I have been given in my life. I know God loves me unconditionally. I know God has rescued me. I know God walks with me day by day. I have experienced all this grace and goodness from my heavenly Father—and so much more. Yet how often do I take it all for granted, as if it was somehow my right to receive, rather than all gift?

So right now today, Lord, I remember all your loving-kindness to me. My words seem trite, but my heart overflows with thankfulness. You are a great, great God, so worthy of all praise and honour and thanks—and I love you.

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving …  Psalm 95:1-2

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I have a friend who is very good at losing things. I had thought of basing my next novel on my friend’s exciting exploits but figure people would probably not believe the half of it!

It all started when my friend was seven. She was given a gold signet ring as a special Christmas gift—something she had long set her heart on. However, it was a little too big and one day not long after, while she was playing at the beach, it slipped off and was lost in the sand. She and others searched in vain, praying they would find it, but it was impossible. The next morning, my friend went back to the beach, no doubt a little disconsolately. She began building a sandcastle, letting the dry sand run through her fingers over the top of the castle, when lo and behold, the ring appeared! It had lain in the sand there for a whole day, even when the tide flowed in and out over it.

Years later, my friend lost a beautiful, little butterfly brooch she cherished, given to her by an older relative. More years passed, until one day when she visited a second-hand shop with a friend, she happened to see a brooch exactly the same as the one she lost. Needless to say, she bought it then and there, redeeming ‘her’ brooch for some relatively small amount. Was it perhaps the very one she lost? We will never know.

Then more recently, while my friend was moving into a new home that is situated at the top of a long, steep driveway, a ring she was wearing came off and rolled down … and down … and down … quickly disappearing from sight. Certain she would never see it again but desperate to find it, my friend slowly walked down her driveway late that night with a torch to look one more time. And then she saw it, lying right at the bottom between two rubbish bins on the footpath, gleaming in the light of her small torch! It could have disappeared in the grass anywhere along the way, rolled into two large drains nearby or bounced right across the road. Instead, it apparently rolled in a perfectly straight line as it went on its merry way down to the road below.

And then there were the gold earrings my friend’s daughter gave her. She had no idea where she could have lost them, so eventually her daughter gave her another pair. Then one day when my friend was tidying some linen in a cupboard, she found a folded over placemat. Wondering why it was folded the way it was, she investigated—and yes, there were the earrings, neatly lying just where she must have left them.

My friend well knows the meaning of rejoicing when something she has lost is found and relates very easily to the woman Jesus tells us about in Luke 15 who loses a coin. But I am sure she understands God’s heart well too for his lost children and shares in the wonderful rejoicing in heaven when one of them turns back to the Father.

… I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10).

This Christmas, let’s rejoice in our ‘found’ state as we remember our Saviour’s birth. And for those of you who still feel lost, may you too find peace and joy this Christmas as you welcome the Christ Child into your heart.

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