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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

In recent days, as I have begun writing another non-fiction book, I have been thinking about various words or phrases spoken to me that have had a lasting impact in my life. Sometimes, these have been negative, sowing doubts in my mind about my ability to do something or undermining my self-worth. Yet thankfully, I can remember many positive ones too. These gave me hope for the future and reassurance that I could do the things I sensed God wanted me to do and, as I have reflected on them, I have felt so grateful all over again for them.

I wonder if there are some that immediately spring to mind for you from your own experience. Perhaps you remember some things your parents or your teachers said when you were growing up. Perhaps a friend has spoken words of encouragement into your life just when you needed them. How did you feel when you heard those words? And how did you feel afterwards, as they still rang inside your head?

I can remember my father teasing me at times when I was young by saying, ‘Oh Jo—she should have been a boy!’ I knew he was only joking and that he said it just to see my reaction. And I admit I was quite an untidy tomboy at times. Yet these words caused me to doubt myself too. Was I somehow wrong? Was I a disappointment to him?

Much later, in my forties, I remember excitedly sharing with someone that I was heading to theological college. Instead of the positive response I had expected, her words were withering and scornful. ‘What would you want to do that for? I don’t have to prove myself!’ she almost sneered. I was shocked and began questioning my motives—but also wondered why my decision had aroused such anger in her.    

Thankfully, I can remember so many more wonderful, positive words that have encouraged me over the years. I think of a time early on in my writing journey when I was so unsure about my whole approach to creating a novel.

‘Do you think this is all okay?’ I asked my lovely soul friend Joy one day.

‘Oh, I think it’s wonderful!’ she said, so delighted to be part of this new thing I was attempting.

Just a little comment, yet it encouraged me so much to keep going and keep holding onto my dream.

Or I think of an email I received only recently from a lovely new contact I have made overseas. My dear new friend, she had written—and those few, simple words stirred my heart. Yes, I thought, this person values me already as a friend. And, even at my age, I find that so encouraging and reassuring.

I wonder if I have said—or written—any unforgettable words to others lately. If I have, I hope and pray they have been of the encouraging kind, not only because they are the sort I like to receive myself but because these are the sort God wants us to say to one another. So, let’s do it—and may your heart be encouraged too in the process.

… Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. Ephesians 4:29 NLT

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Soon after my first novel Heléna was published in 2007, I became curious about where all those early copies would get to. I remember wishing I could install a tracking device on them so I could see who read them and what interesting adventures they had along the way. Of course, I also realised that could be discouraging. After all, some might end up unopened on dusty bookshelves somewhere or, worse still, in the recycling bin! On the other hand, some readers might love the novel and even lend it out—or buy it as a gift. Some copies might end up in libraries too and hopefully be borrowed often. The possibilities were endless!

During COVID lockdown, I had several requests for my older novels, especially All the Days of My Life, the sequel to Heléna. It seemed people had re-discovered Heléna on their bookshelves while bored at home, then decided they would like the sequel. I do not stock any of these two novels now, so asked family and friends if they would part with their old copies. Several were unearthed in this way and it was fun to give them another chance at life with new owners.

Then this past week, I received another request via email for All the Days of My Life. A lady wrote to tell me her husband had just finished reading Heléna and loved it. So … did I have any second-hand copies of the sequel available? I didn’t—but I knew a friend had one. I drove to pick it up and emailed the prospective buyers to sort out postage, only to discover this couple actually live in Canada! Apparently, they found my novel Heléna in their church library—but how did it get there? What’s more, the copy is signed by me, so I must have sold it personally to someone.

To be honest, I am amazed people anywhere are still reading my very first novel published way back in 2007—and I am certainly amazed a copy has ended up in a church library in Canada! Somehow, time and distance have been no barrier for this particular copy at least.

Yet, as I have reflected on this whole story, I have realised something even more amazing. I may not be able to install tracking devices on my books, but God knows where they have all got to—and God is quite able to carry them through time and space to wherever they can minister to someone. Those fifteen years since Heléna was published here in Australia are the mere blink of an eye to God—they are certainly no barrier to the One who was and is and always will be.

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 2 Peter 3:8

I find this verse so reassuring, don’t you? Somehow, it puts everything I worry about into much better perspective. Things may take longer to unfold in life than I might have hoped—and yes, my books may also not have as wide a distribution as others. But I can be at peace about it all, because I belong to the most awesome, powerful Creator of the universe for whom no barriers are ever insurmountable.

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I usually enjoy myself wherever I am invited to speak. I have given all sorts of talks at all sorts of venues to all sorts of audiences—I still do. I am so thankful for these opportunities and for the many lovely people I have met along the way. But occasionally, these experiences can leave a little to be desired. And on those days, I can come away feeling quite frustrated and disappointed.

After a time of reflection, however, I usually become a little more balanced and can see the positive elements in the whole experience too. Also, I try to ask God how I could have responded better and what I need to learn through it. There is always room for growth, isn’t there?

This was the process I went through again only last week, after speaking at two different secular groups on consecutive days. The first day, I came away more than a little cranky. The group leaders were quite disorganised and, as a result, I had to shorten my input and zip through it all so the meeting would not run overtime. I kept a careful eye on the clock, yet, just as I was finishing, someone called out rudely that my time was almost up. I suspect a good portion of my audience felt as embarrassed as I did, judging by the sympathetic looks several of them gave me as they specially came to thank me afterwards and take my card!

That night, I tried to give it all to God, hoping and praying my speaking engagement the next day would be more pleasant. This time, I got to speak first off and, because I could see I had a few minutes to spare, I even managed to read out the words I had put on my final power point slide:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. Psalm 139:7-10

The rest of the meeting was very well organised and finished early, so at the end, I had time to chat at my book table with the lady who had invited me to speak. Then another lady joined us.

‘What was that poem you read out at the end of your talk, dear?’ she asked me. ‘It was so lovely!’

I told her it was from Psalm 139 in the Bible and gave her the page of my notes where I had printed the verse out.

‘Thank you so much,’ she responded a little tearily. ‘I’ve been to two funerals this week and… well… those words are just so… ’

As we talked, I silently prayed and thanked God for this lady. Yes, God comforted and encouraged her so lovingly through the words of this psalm. But God also ministered to me by giving me this precious moment with a complete stranger—a moment that far outweighed all that had happened the previous day and has served to encourage me to keep speaking wherever I am invited.

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I often feel it would be good if we could be in two places at once. At times I would like to attend some event, yet have promised to do something else already on the same day. At times too, my heart may say yes to turning up at some gathering, yet my head tells me I need to catch up on things at home. It can be a dilemma, can’t it?

One Saturday recently, our church held a retreat day. I sensed God wanted me there, yet it was a tussle. Life had been a little hectic and I longed to be quiet somewhere by myself, rather than be with a hundred other women. And I knew that going out for a whole day would make me even busier the following week, as I caught up on everything. Yet, somewhere inside, a gentle but insistent voice urged me to put my name down to attend.

I went—and it was not long before I found out why I was supposed to be there. In the very first of our three sessions, we focussed on the theme ‘Living with a kingdom perspective’, during which the speaker read out Colossians 3:1-2 from The Message version:

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective.

At the end of that session, we were invited to jot down what we sensed the challenge or invitation from Jesus was for us so far, which I did. I wrote how I did indeed want to see my life from God’s perspective. In particular, I needed to discern whether God wanted me to write another non-fiction book at this stage or whether it was time to put the whole idea aside. I had started on a particular project already—I had even written an introduction and jotted down ideas for various chapters, as well as a possible title and sub-title for the book. Yet, my progress had been slow and discouraging. I sensed something was wrong with my whole approach—or was it that the whole idea was just a bit crazy?

As I sat trying to listen to God, something seemed to shift inside me. I felt as if a bright light had been turned on somewhere in my mind. In an instant, an idea for an entirely different way to tackle my projected book seemed to drop into my lap, complete with a title I love and a sub-title that describes exactly what I want to write about. I would never have dreamt these up myself. Instead, God simply gave me a much better perspective on it all and did so with such gentleness and grace. Of course, I still have to write the book—and that will require lots of work. But now that I sense it is God’s idea, I can tackle it with much more confidence.

It’s such a relief to be able to see things more from God’s perspective, isn’t it? Our own view may be skewed, but God’s never is.

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Last week, I reached a milestone in my little corner of the blogging world. I did not notice until this week because of a glitch in my numbering system, so what a surprise to discover I had written 700 personal blogs since July 2009!

At first, I thought, ‘Ho hum—who cares?’ After all, I enjoy writing my blogs and hope to continue for a while yet, regardless what number blog I am up to. But then I paused … and listened. It was as if God was whispering gently to me, ‘Whoa, Jo-Anne! How about you stop right now and think about all that has happened for you over these past almost thirteen years?’

So, I stopped and reflected. What a crazy but wonderful writing and speaking journey I have had in those years! Not only did God enable me to churn out a blog each week, but also to produce five more novels and two non-fiction books to add to my two previously published novels. Who would have thought? Certainly not I. And who would have thought too that I would have the opportunity to speak at all sorts of places along the way? I have lost count of how many such events have taken place, but it would be over two hundred, many wonderful, some … well … interesting!

As I looked back, however, I realised so much else has happened during these years too that I did not expect—personally, family-wise and certainly wider afield. For example, we sold our home of 32 years for what to us was a staggering sum and came to live here in our lovely, restful unit—an unexpected blessing indeed. Family-wise, we welcomed a fourth grandchild—another lovely blessing. In that time too though, my special ‘soul friend’ Joy suffered from dementia, something I did not expect to happen to her, eventually passing away last year. And, of course, who would have thought we would all be facing a worldwide pandemic in 2020—and 2021—and 2022?

We can plan and work towards what we dream of doing and what we may also believe is what God wants for us—and, by God’s grace, these plans and dreams may be fulfilled beyond our expectations. Yet, for many of us, this does not turn out to be the case, for one reason or another. For some, the question ‘Who would have thought?’ may be a joyous exclamation, while for others, it may well be a deep cry of anguish.

Yet, however surprised or shocked we may be at the twists and turns in our lives, positive or negative, God surely is not. And perhaps that is what God wanted me to see, as I reflected on these past thirteen years. Perhaps God is challenging me to remember who truly is in control of my life. Perhaps I need to be much more thankful I belong to such a loving, powerful God. And perhaps I need to realise my role is to keep living for and trusting in God, whatever happens.

Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track. Proverbs 3:5-6 The Message

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I thought I had cured myself of being a ‘glass half empty’ person. I thought I had learnt to be more grateful for family and friends, for the lovely things I own and the wonderful experiences I have had. Yet now and then, I hear this peevish, little voice inside me complaining about something I have missed out on or pointing out things tantalisingly beyond my reach. ‘Yes, you have that,’ it says, ‘but … well, you could have had this instead. Look what you’ve missed out on yet again!’

Recently, I received an email announcing the results of a short story competition I entered months ago. In it, I discovered that, while I did not win, my story was among the ten best entries and that, as a result, I would receive $150. This was a pleasant surprise, especially since I had forgotten all about the competition. But then came that ‘glass half empty’ moment when I remembered that the first prize was ten times that amount—$1500. Immediately, my joy in winning my $150 was dimmed. ‘I could have done lots with that $1500,’ I grumbled. ‘The email says that choosing a winner was difficult. Probably I just missed out.’

Thankfully, God soon intervened and I began to laugh at myself—especially when I remembered that the basic story idea had emerged from something someone else told me rather than from any cleverness on my part. Yes, I embellished it and put time and effort into polishing it up, after gaining my friend’s permission. But in reality, as I believe God showed me, this story was a gift from the very beginning—and any prize I received was an added bonus.

I suspect all of us can think of things or experiences we would very much like to have, including those we may have enjoyed in a past role or setting. Recently, I attended a funeral back at the church where we spent many years and, while it was good to honour our friend who had passed away, see other old friends and be in a place we had loved so much, it was also rather painful to realise those days are well and truly gone now. For a while, I indulged in a little self-pity, but then God reminded me of lessons learnt back then and the wonderful life experiences I have had since, including my writing journey.

I may yearn for times past or for things beyond my reach, for one reason or another, yet it is unhealthy to stay in this negative, ‘glass half empty’ space, isn’t it? Instead, I am called to live fully and realistically in the present moment with God, noticing what there is for me to do right now and doing it with all my heart. And I am also called to be thankful and at peace, knowing God is with me, whatever is happening or not happening around me.

May I soon learn to see that glass not as half empty at all, but gloriously half full—indeed, constantly brimming over with God’s grace and goodness and incredible love!

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5

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I wonder if you have ever run into someone you know in a most unexpected place. When I was a teacher, I well remember encountering one of my more troublesome students in the middle of my weekly supermarket shop. ‘Mum, there’s my teacher!’ this girl blurted out in a shocked voice. I suspect she wanted to see me about as much as I wanted to see her that day!

On another occasion, however, I came across a pastor friend in a bookstore. While we chatted, several folk from her church came by, which perhaps could have disconcerted her. Instead, she seemed to enjoy the moment. ‘It’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven!’ she exclaimed, beaming at everyone.

Recently, I headed to a nearby medical facility for an injection into a troublesome shoulder. I was certainly not expecting to see anyone I knew there—or anyone who knew me. All I was thinking about was whether my scheduled injection would help alleviate the pain I was experiencing. Eventually, a young woman called my name and ushered me into a small room. We chatted together as she prepared the injection for the doctor to give. A few moments later, it was all over, and the doctor left. But then the young woman suddenly said, ‘You must be the author, are you?’

I was stunned.

‘Um … yes, I am, but … how did you know?’ I eventually managed to ask.

‘Oh, I’ve read some of your books!’ she told me then. ‘I borrowed them from my mother.’

So that was it! She must have recognised my name from the patient list—mystery solved. But I was still curious.

‘What would your mother’s name be? Perhaps I know her.’

Sure enough, I did, from two or three occasions in the past.

‘Well, it just shows we have to behave wherever we go, don’t we?’ I joked as I left. ‘You never know who you’ll meet!’

Beneath my joking, however, I was also trying to remember what sort of comments I had made to her. I was so focussed on myself that I had not put much thought at all into anything I said. Had I been polite and considerate towards her? Had I listened well? Had I honoured God throughout our conversation?

It was too late now anyway. The exchange was over.

I came away from that experience realising again that, wherever I go and whether I feel like it or not, I am God’s ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20). I never know whom I will meet. I never know who will recognise my name, even though I am not a famous author—yet! And I never know who will be listening or watching. But I’m so thankful God does. And I’m so thankful too that God’s Spirit is with me and in me, ready to give me those words of grace to share with others and the wisdom to act in a godly way. But I need to listen, to keep any unwise words in check and then to say those things that will bless and build others up.

May I remember to do that next time, because you never know …

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. Colossians 4:6

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In this instant age, it can be irksome to have to wait, can’t it? We have become so used to finding instant answers on the net or buying that instant, fast food or contacting someone almost instantly. As a result, when we have to wait for something, we can feel quite put out and inconvenienced, as I did while waiting for my new car last year—and as I did again recently, while shopping at our local supermarket.

Usually, I am happy enough to wait my turn in that checkout queue, but this day, I had bought a lot of items, some of which were frozen—or had been! As I stood there, I felt for the lady before me who seemed lonely and needed to talk, yet I soon became annoyed with the person serving her. Yes, it is nice to connect personally with customers, but you don’t need to stand with your hands resting on the counter, doing nothing but talking, I fumed to myself!

The lady behind me in the queue rolled her eyes and I did the same in return. There was nothing patient or godly about my response—but I did not care at that point.

I did care that evening, however, when I saw on the news how people in flooded areas of our country had to queue for ages outside their supermarkets to get even a few basic supplies. I felt rebuked indeed—and I knew I could have done better. After all, I have been writing for many years now—and one thing authors hopefully develop throughout the whole long-term endeavour of writing, editing, publishing and marketing books is much patience.

I was reminded of this recently during a promotional visit to a nearby bookstore. At one stage, I noticed a lady near my book table who seemed a little familiar. Eventually, I introduced myself and asked if we had met somewhere before.

‘Yes,’ she said, as she mentioned a particular meeting we had both attended. ‘I remember you talked about your book Soul Friend there.’

I gaped. As she continued talking, I recalled how I had only briefly mentioned the book in passing at that meeting, as we each introduced ourselves. Then I realised this meeting had taken place ten years earlier—ten years! Yet this lady had remembered me, for some reason.

We talked on for ages, after which she bought a copy of Soul Friend.

‘I wanted to buy it back then, but knew I didn’t have time to read it. Now I do!’ she told me, smiling.

Ten years earlier, I would never have known this lady was interested in reading my book. And as she left the bookstore, it was as if God whispered to me, ‘See, Jo-Anne? These things don’t happen all at once. Yet they do happen in my perfect timing. Keep on persevering—keep on being patient.’

Somehow, I suspect God takes a much longer view of everything than I do—right on into eternity, in fact. And somehow, I think I need to cultivate that long view more too, to wait for things to unfold in God’s time—and to be patient as I do.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. Psalm 130:5

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I had arrived bright and early at a nearby bookstore to promote my books. As I settled in, I wondered what adventures awaited me. From past experience—and also because I and others had prayed—I knew there would be at least one special ‘God appointment’ with someone that day. And that is exactly what happened. Four or five times as I chatted with various customers, I sensed God connecting our spirits in a way that is hard to describe. It might have been for only a fleeting moment, but I knew something was happening outside of or beyond the words I was saying.

At one stage, I began talking with a young woman who was a little hard to understand at first. Her voice was soft and she wore a mask, but English was obviously quite a challenge for her too. I explained about my books, but could see she was still mystified. Eventually, she picked up a copy of Becoming Me and we talked about receiving God’s love and about understanding who God created us to be. She opened up a little more then, telling me in her faltering English about her husband who suffered from depression but was now doing better. Then she took the book to a spot where she could sit down and glance through it.

Later, however, she returned it, telling me she wanted something that would explain things more or teach her about it all. But then, as she went to leave, she thanked me sincerely in her soft, gentle voice for listening to her—for simply listening! Even though her eyes just peeked over her mask, I could see such gratitude in them and also that she was trying hard not to cry. I will never forget those pleading eyes and my heart went out to her yet again, as I silently prayed for God’s love and grace to fill her and meet her needs.

We can’t all be in bookstores, promoting our books, but most of us at least connect with others during our weeks, however fleetingly, either in person or by phone or some other way. I certainly do, not only in my own home but also in the village where we live, as well as wider afield. So… how do I act then when talking with others? How well do I show respect for them by truly listening? How carefully do I take note of their tone of voice, their manner, their facial expression—and particularly their eyes? How often do I put their needs first, instead of thinking of my own or of what clever comment I myself might make next?

This week, I came across the following blunt proverb in my Bible:

 He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame. Proverbs 18:13

What an important warning—to me and to us all! How much better if we were to be ‘quick to listen and slow to speak’ instead (James 1:19). And how much better too if we were to listen more to the voice of Jesus our Shepherd as we engage with others and follow the leading of the one who knows us all so well (John 10:27). Perhaps then we would remember to give that gift of listening more often, don’t you think?

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We are complex beings, aren’t we? Sometimes we think we know why we do the things we do, but then we may discover other reasons lurking beneath the surface. We may try to help someone, yet find in the end our actions are more to make us feel good about ourselves. Or we may give that help in the hope that, when we need help, they will perhaps return the favour. We like to think our motives are pure, but sometimes they can be more mixed than we care to believe, as I myself discovered recently.

Sometime last year, a gentleman invited me to speak at a secular venue and told me I would receive a monetary gift towards my travel costs. I thought that was quite generous as, often in the past, I have received instead either a bottle of wine, which I usually give away, or some chocolates, which I don’t eat! I thanked him, but then enquired whether I could also display my books. This seemed to shock him, however.

‘Well, either we give you the money or you sell your books!’ he told me in a rather incensed tone. ‘But if you want to bring a few, I’ll look the other way.’

I felt like some mercenary criminal. Why he would need to look the other way? I have sold my books at such meetings many times before and still received some sort of gift at least. Besides, any author will tell you writing books is not a good way to get rich quickly—unless one’s book is a bestseller!

This particular meeting was cancelled because of Covid but, when we made a new date, I discovered this man would not be there then. So, I decided to display my books after all and see what happened as far as any monetary gift was concerned.

Nothing did. I sold two books, which of course did not cover travel costs, and returned home more than a little disgruntled.

As I reflected on this experience, however, I began to feel more ashamed than disgruntled. Hands down, if I had to choose, I would prefer to sell my books rather than receive money to cover travel costs. After all, I want readers to enjoy my books and also hopefully be drawn closer to God in some way. Besides, many times I have happily spoken at different places, well aware there will be no monetary gift afterwards. Yet this day, I sensed my motives had shifted a little.

In the end, I decided to sit down and remember who gave me the gifts of writing and speaking and who has enabled me to do both for years now. I might not have made a great deal—but I am not in debt either. And I have met many interesting people along the way and learnt so much. Soon I began to feel thankful again for my wonderful, God-given, unexpected, later-in-life journey. And I remembered too the verse featured on my website, reminding me to glorify God, rather than seek glory and gain for myself.

Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness. Psalm 115:1

I hope I keep that wonderful, pure motive in mind more often in future.

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