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Jo 12I well remember how, as a child, I was at times particularly averse to being told what to do. If my poor mother wanted me to do something I did not want to do, my response would often be ‘But why?’ I would keep asking this until my mother, in exasperation, would eventually snap, ‘Because I said so!’

Perhaps that’s why a certain phrase jumped out at me recently when I read Luke’s account of the calling of Jesus’ first disciples. After Jesus sits in Simon’s fishing boat and teaches the crowd on the shore of the lake, he tells Simon to head for deep water and let down the nets. Then Simon replies:

Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” Luke 5:5

No wonder Simon respected Jesus enough even then to do whatever Jesus told him to do. After all, Jesus had just healed many people while in Simon’s home, including Simon’s own mother-in-law. But Simon soon becomes much more astonished when his fishing nets start to break and both his and his partners’ boats begin to sink from their enormous catch. In fact, in fear, he falls at Jesus’ knees and says “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (8) It’s almost as if he is saying, ‘What have I got myself into? I can’t handle this!’ But Jesus reaches out and reassures him, so much so that he and his partners James and John end up leaving their boats and following him:

Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.” (10)

Recently, I learnt how a newcomer to our country heard this story for the first time while fishing in the Parramatta River. He laughed loudly at the idea of catching men—yet now he has begun a journey just like Simon’s and we hope his mind will also soon be boggled by Jesus’ awesome power and authority. But what about my own response to Jesus’ authority? What is Jesus calling me to do in 2020? Am I going to say like Simon, ‘Because you say so, I will do this or that?’ Or will I instead curl up in fear and decide not to let down my own ‘nets’ in the coming year?

I have always felt Jesus’ gentleness and love, as well as his quiet authority, whenever he has challenged me to step out and do something. And this was particularly strong when I began my current novel. Back then, I sensed Jesus saying, ‘I’ll be so delighted if you write this book, Jo-Anne. But I’ll be just as delighted with you if you don’t!’ What wonderful freedom that gave me—simply to write as time permitted and enjoy the process, irrespective of the outcome! Yet surely this is Jesus’ heart for us all in whatever he calls us to do. Jesus has the power and authority to call us to act—and we need to listen and be obedient. Yet it seems to me he also surrounds us with such love and grace and mercy, however we respond.

‘But because you say so …’. May that be my honest response—and yours—as we embrace all God has for us in the coming year.

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Jo 23I wonder if you own one of those clever washing machines like we do that actually sends little messages to you at times. Recently, ours made a few clanging sounds, then beeped insistently. When I scurried into the laundry to see what was happening, this is the message that was illuminated on the front panel of the machine:

Help! My load is out of balance. Please redistribute and press start.

I hastily did as I was bidden. I removed the big towel that had managed to wrap itself around everything else and straightened out the heavy pair of jeans that was also causing trouble—and lo and behold, my machine then happily went on to finish its cycle. I happily returned to my desk too, but those words I had read stayed with me. Could they possibly have a wider application? Could God ever use a message on a washing machine to challenge us about our lives in general?

I suspect God does sometimes do things like that to get my attention. But what an important challenge for us all to think about, as we begin a new year!

How was this past year in your own life? Was your load ‘out of balance’ at times? Did you feel you were struggling far too often with finding time for things like simply relaxing and taking care of yourself or being quiet with God or contacting someone to see how they were going or working on a project close to your heart? The list could go on, couldn’t it? Sometimes we need to stop, take stock and make those hard decisions to bring things back into balance and enable our lives to run much more smoothly.

Sometimes our lives can end up feeling more than a little askew because of external demands placed upon us, while at other times, this can come as a result of choices we ourselves make. I know in my own life I am very good at doing all the jobs I see around, instead of allowing myself to spend time writing—something that is life-giving for me. Often too, I can overlook spending time with God, in order to complete these same jobs. Yet that is so self-defeating, because my heart is not at rest and at peace as a result and I end up feeling drained and out of kilter, like that washing machine of mine. At times, I need to listen to the warnings of those around me whose wisdom I trust and restore a better balance in my life. But above all, I need to listen to God about it, because God’s heart is to watch over me as a loving father who cares about my wellbeing and does not want to see my life so out of whack.

Before we all press that ‘Start’ button on another year then and are caught up in a whirl of activity again, let’s look to God to order our days, fulling trusting that God will show us how best to live. Then let’s be obedient in 2020 and put into practice what we hear!

Trust in the Lord will all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6

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IMG_20191007_105632077This spring, I decided to plant a tomato seedling in a pot on our balcony. I hoped it would grow into a nice, rounded little bush and, in time, bear at least a few little cherry tomatoes. But, to my surprise, it has continued to shoot up, sprouting more and more leaves and yellow flowers, daily growing ever higher! Yet it was not its size that captured my attention this week, but rather the pungent scent of its leaves as I touched them gently. Immediately, I was wafted back many, many years to those lush tomato bushes my father took delight in growing in our backyard in Brisbane, where I grew up.

As a little girl, I often liked to join my father while he gardened. One day, I decided I would help him, so I gathered up my skirt to form a soft kind of pouch and made my way along our rows of tomato bushes, picking whatever fruit I saw there.

Once finished, I joyfully showed my stash to my father. But alas—he took one look, then chased me up our steep backyard, roaring with rage, as those tomatoes scattered everywhere! You see, they were all still green—my father had been patiently waiting until just the right time to harvest them. But I did not know that—and I had picked them far too early to be of use to anyone.

Perhaps one could say I was scarred for life, since I still remember this event so vividly! Yet, as someone who has also enjoyed gardening, I can well understand how devastated my father must have felt at losing his precious tomato crop—or a good portion of it at least. Besides, this whole childhood experience taught me a good lesson which, even now as a writer, I need to put into practice. Stories ripen too, like those tomatoes. A whole novel needs time to grow and develop, perhaps even to change shape from what I as the author originally envisaged. It needs gentle nurturing—and often much pruning—in order to be palatable to any future readers. So the whole process cannot be rushed, if my precious story is ever truly going to provide enjoyment and nourishment and blessing to others as God intended.

Recently, I heard two excellent sermons both based on Ecclesiastes 3, which begins:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot … (3:1-2)

What a good reminder to hear—twice over—just when I was feeling frustrated that my current novel would not be ready in time to pitch it to a potential publisher at an upcoming writers’ conference! As a result, I decided to relax about it all and to keep on faithfully writing and fine-tuning my story, trusting God for the eventual outcome and for the Spirit’s enabling throughout.

I remembered those green tomatoes. I remembered there is a time for everything. I remembered my times are in God’s hands and that those hands are so trustworthy—and I pray you will too.

But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hands …’ Psalm 31:14-15

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I wonder if you have had time lately to stop and truly look at the beauty all around us in nature, on both a small and large scale. Even as I write this, I can see from my study window a vast expanse of clear, blue sky, feel the warmth of the spring sunshine and enjoy the amazing pink blossoms on the nearby azaleas.

IMG_20190925_115106702Yet it was the tiny, almost hidden intricacies in God’s creation that recently blew me away  most—including the endless variety of sizes and shapes of leaves on the nearby shrubs and the amazing speckles and colours of the petals on the humble, little alstroemeria flowers our neighbour planted near our front door. How easily all this inspired me then to write the following poem for our church’s upcoming Art Installation (6-20 Oct, Parramatta Baptist), the theme of which is ‘Creation Speaks HIS Name’! Surely, as the psalmist says:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. Psalm 19:1-4

Silent Speech

­Did you have fun, Lord, creating such beauty

for us your children to enjoy?

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

and splashed your vibrant colours everywhere with glee,

as if you had to share each fresh design of flower

and then, in pure extravagance,

add speckles to already perfect petals.

In tender tones, you sought again

to speak your name, to show us who you are,

to swell with one more voice creation’s choir

that endlessly declares your perfect love,

that shouts your glorious grace across the earth,

that paints your name with joy on canvas vast.

Lord, in small and large, we hear your silent speech

and, in reply, we speak aloud your praise!

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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 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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