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Jo 12There I was, busy unpacking the final carton from our move, when the lights in our living area went out. I heard voices outside, went to investigate—and was hailed loudly by a gentleman from upstairs.

‘Hi, my name’s Bill. You’re new, aren’t you?’

‘Yes—my name’s Jo-Anne.’

‘Good to meet you, Jo-Anne. Welcome to this wonderful place where the electricity isn’t working!’

Soon, more folk from neighbouring units appeared.

‘Why are the lights out?’ one lady asked.

‘Oh, we mustn’t have paid our bills!’ another man joked.

We all chatted for a while. Then those lights came back on and everyone disappeared inside again.

Another day, I had walked up to our Village Centre to use the wifi there. Before we moved, we arranged with a certain well-known telecommunications company to have our phone connected at our new address and also the internet. Alas, four weeks later, we are still waiting! During that time, I have realised how much I rely on touching base with author friends and others via email, Facebook and blogs. So there I was, hoping to work quickly and quietly at my laptop in the coffee shop. But soon a man and a lady sat down nearby, obviously wondering who this newcomer might be. I chatted with them for a while, then tried to return to my work. Yet, every few moments, one of them would say, ‘Excuse me, do you know …’, ‘Excuse me, have you seen …’, ‘Excuse me, are you aware …’ and so on. They simply wanted to connect with me and be helpful to someone new. So in the end, I forsook my online friends and opted for the folk seated right in front of me.

On yet another day, I met a lady slowly coming downstairs with some rubbish.

‘Do you need help?’ I asked reluctantly, a little unwilling to stop and chat.

‘No thank you, I’m fine. My name’s Marie.’

‘Oh, that’s my second name,’ I told her—and she was delighted.

Soon I discovered she is ninety and has a twin sister who lives just across the way in another unit.

‘We can wave to each other from our balconies!’ she told me—and I could see how important this connection was for her with the one she has known for all of her ninety years.

As I have reflected on all these recent connections with others and how ready each person was to chat, I sense I have been strongly reminded of God’s heart to connect with me in a meaningful way each day. Yet how often do I momentarily touch base, then scuttle away, as when that electricity came on again in our block?  How many times do I ignore God, as I tried to ignore that couple while answering my emails? How often do I refuse to acknowledge God’s presence at all, as I almost did with ninety-year-old Marie?

It’s about stopping in the midst of our busy lives. It’s about becoming aware God is with us and wants to relate to us. It’s about truly connecting—then listening and responding.

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I given them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. John 10:27-29

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Jo 12I have never been a great furniture shopper. After all, we lived in a small house for thirty-two years where there was often no room and no funds for a bigger—or better—this or that. If something worked, we tended to hang onto it, even if it looked a bit worn or old-fashioned.

Since we have moved into a beautiful, new unit, however, the picture has changed. We decided we needed several lovely, new things. As it happens, I have a friend who has a good eye for colour—plus she tells me she has such fun spending other people’s money! So we embarked on a shopping spree. Over several hours, we managed to tick five items off my list. Wanting to save a few dollars, we decided to pick up a TV unit I had bought rather than pay to have it delivered—and noted it came in a rather large flat pack. Hmm.

I knew my husband would sigh when he saw it, because he has had some interesting experiences putting together things in flat packs. One TV unit we bought years ago was supposed to take three-quarters of an hour to assemble. Three hours later, it was finally finished! With this bigger, new one, I did offer to help, but he decided to work quietly by himself, methodically checking every step. And several hours later—voila! There was our completed unit—and I must say it looks excellent. Yes, it took a while, but if I had attempted it, I would probably still be working on it!

We have both had to put not only several individual items together in this move (some without any instructions!), but whole rooms of furniture. Where would this or that fit? Where would it look or work best? Should we throw it out and buy something new? And that’s when I began to reflect on God’s amazing ability to arrange not merely rooms in a house, but our entire, very messy, complicated lives.

At various times over the years, God has managed to put the pieces of my life together in wonderful ways, rearranging things, pointing me in another direction, giving me hope, showing me the best way ahead. At one stage years ago, friends suggested I might try a different occupation, but I could see no way of doing that. Yet God managed to provide me with a job that suited my abilities so well and even gave me skills I would need years later as a writer. At another stage, when I wondered if my first novel would ever find a publisher, God managed to do just that. And now, as we have recently moved house, God has done it again and provided somewhere special that is so beautiful, quiet and comfortable—just right for us.

I’m very thankful I belong to that Master-builder who is able to put those pieces of my life together in a way that is so wise and just so right. Truly, God’s ways are vastly different from our ways—and so much better too!

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9

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Jo 12After thirty-two years of living in our little, weatherboard house here in Sydney, the week when we move is finally here. Most rooms are filled with boxes, waiting for that truck to arrive on Friday and relocate us just a few kilometres away. Over the past few weeks, I have slowly made my way through all my packing, stopping at times to reflect on memories associated with this or that possession, sometimes culling further, but also holding onto various bits and pieces that still have too much sentimental value to be thrown out.

In many ways, it will not be a wrench to leave. Our old, comfy house owes us nothing—it has served us well, even when our three children still lived at home and it was bulging at the seams. And it has served the next generation well too, with our two older grandchildren spending many Fridays here when they were younger. To me, it is lovely too that even our two younger grandchildren have memories to take with them from Nanna and Granddad’s old house. We hope and pray the next owners will be equally as happy here, perhaps raising their own family to run around the garden and attend school nearby.

Yet in other ways, it is sad to say farewell to a place where so much happened for each family member. For me personally, this is where I prepared all those lessons and marked those piles of exercise books, after returning to teaching when we first moved here. It was here many years later, too, that I returned to study and sat on a stool at our kitchen bench for hours on end at our big, old desktop computer, completing those assignments for my theology degree. Later still, I wrote my first five novels on my trusty laptop at the end of our kitchen table, packing up everything before dinner. Three more books emerged after I finally ended up with my own desk in our spare bedroom—the room where I am now writing this blog for the last time. These are just a few of the many memories I will take with me.

A few days ago, in the midst of this slightly surreal time in my life, I was particularly touched when God reached out to me yet again through the words of a psalm my mother used to sing:

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young—a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. Psalm 84:1-4

Yes, this psalm may well be speaking of a physical ‘house of God’. But it reminded me too that, no earthly home, whether old or new, can compare with being at home with God. What a beautiful place to live, enjoying God’s close, comforting presence each day! Wherever I am, I am in God and God is in me. And this is the home where I plan to stay put, both now and forever.

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Jo 17There are some great perks in selling my books at a school Mothers’ Day market each year. One definitely is watching the children try to decide what to buy their mothers and grandmothers. The youngest students tend to have only five dollars at the most to spend—although this year, I saw one girl waving a fifty dollar note around! Yet, whatever amount they have, each one comes hoping to find something they are sure their mother or grandmother will love—and it is all quite heart-warming to watch.

I couldn’t help but smile as I saw one class sitting together, waiting for the stragglers to finish making their choices. Almost all of them were pulling their prized purchases out of their bags and proudly displaying them to their friends. Some had bought special cards to write in. Others had found sweet smelling candles or soaps. Still others had decided on some jewellery or clothing item. One little girl held up what looked like a rather large, garish, bright red satin cross on a ribbon, complete with white crocheted edging. Hmm! Her face was pink with excitement, as she lovingly stroked her precious gift. In my heart, I hoped and prayed her mother would be delighted when she received it—or at least pretend to be! I could not imagine any mum wanting to wear it, but I hoped this little girl’s mum would think of some special use for it.

Now I go to these markets with other hopes as well. Yes, I hope I will sell a good number of my books. But beyond that, I hope that the books I do sell will be read and enjoyed by the mothers or grandmothers who receive them and that they will draw them closer to God in some way. Can you imagine how lovely it was then when a young girl came bounding up to my table early on with a beaming face and pointed to my latest novel, The Inheritance.

‘Oh, I bought that book last year for my grandmother and she really, really loved it! So she wants another one of your novels!’ she told me, almost breathless with excitement.

Not long after, a staff member came by and pointed to my first non-fiction book, Soul Friend.

‘I bought that as a gift for a friend in Canada last year—and she thought it was wonderful! She’s now in the middle of lending it around to all her friends there.’

How encouraging both these conversations were for me—as I know they would be for any author. We write in the hope that our books will strike a chord with people, but we never know if that will happen. After all, our readers have different tastes and needs—and that’s okay. So I have learnt to be grateful when I receive such positive feedback, but not to set my hopes on such things. Instead, I know I need to keep my eyes focussed firmly on God, the best encourager of all, and trust the One Who gives me deep and lasting hope—hope that will never disappoint.

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. Psalm 62:5-6

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This past weekend saw the beginning of our ‘open house’ days for potential purchasers of our home—as well as the merely curious! In preparing for this event, I found it a weird experience to walk around our house and try to see it from an outsider’s point of view. What would put them off? What personal items should I remove? What could I do easily to de-clutter our home of thirty-two years?

As I did, I began to feel quite vulnerable. We have had plenty of visitors in this house over the years—but that’s a little different from people we don’t know prying and poking everywhere!

IMG_20170414_172906326_HDRActually, I had begun to feel vulnerable the moment a huge ‘for sale’ sign was erected outside our home a few days earlier, featuring large photos of our backyard, kitchen and lounge room. There for all to stare at were key parts of our property only friends or family usually see. As well, on several websites, interested parties could take a virtual tour around our home, room after room. I felt a little unmasked, if you like—as if my precious home where I love to curl up had suddenly been peeled open and laid bare for the world to see.

Later, however, I wondered why I felt this way. After all, I am a writer, with eight books published and out there in the market. Two of these in particular—my non-fiction books, Soul Friend and Becoming Me—made me feel very vulnerable when they were released. After all, there was my life, served up on a plate for anyone to consume! Yikes! True, the publication of my earlier novels was also a vulnerable experience—yet that was different. Writers can hide in novels, giving their characters things to say we have wanted to say for years! And, in the end, they are novels, not my own personal story. Yet … what if no one liked them? What if those reviews were terrible? What if I had made a huge mistake, thinking God had led me to become a writer?

Now I realise I need to remember those lessons from my publishing journey. It is okay to put my work and what feels like my very self out there to be scrutinised. In fact, it is more than okay. After all, what does it matter if people criticise or misunderstand or disagree? Surely God has taught us things that need to be shared, that will make a difference for others—it is well worth the risk. Besides, there is a kind of sweet sense of freedom in letting others into our deepest thoughts and experiences, don’t you think? Here I am—and nothing has been wasted.

I am reminded too of the beautiful freedom and transparency that God, who knows all things, offers us and the comfort this brings. With God, it is ‘open house’ all the time—a place where nothing is hidden. So I can relax in those loving arms, knowing I am totally accepted there, just as I am. And that’s the kind of ‘open house’ where I am happy to live—forever.

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. Psalm 139:1-2

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Jo 17Recently, our grandson went to dart across the driveway in the grounds of our church when his lovely Kids’ Church teacher managed to grab him in time.

‘Careful! We need to stop, look and listen for cars before we cross,’ she reminded him.

‘Oh, I have supersonic hearing,’ Zain blithely told her. ‘I can hear from a long, long way away. I can even hear people in Ghana!’

Last year, Zain went to Ghana with his family to visit his dad’s home town and to meet his other grandmother, so he knows how far away it is.

‘That’s interesting,’ his teacher said. ‘What are they saying?’

‘They’re saying they need help!’ he told her in all seriousness.

What could he have meant? In Ghana, Zain did visit some little villages not far from his dad’s home town where the children have very few new clothes and hardly any toys, so perhaps he meant his friends there really do need our help. On the other hand, perhaps he was thinking of his favourite ‘Power Rangers’ TV characters, who seem to have all sorts of abilities like supersonic hearing that enable them to know when people need rescuing!

Now our Zain has an amazingly vivid imagination. Sometimes he can become so lost in his imaginary world that he has trouble hearing his parents or grandparents or teachers calling him or telling him to do something. So, while he may not have supersonic hearing, there is no doubt his selective hearing is well developed at least! And that’s something I can easily relate to, especially when it comes to hearing what God is saying to me at times. The reasons for this may vary, but I know that, on occasions, fear and unbelief have caused my ears to become deaf to God’s voice and very selective about what I choose to hear.

One example of this occurred in mid-2003 when I was overseas, visiting a friend. I was reading my Bible one morning and asking God to show me what I was to do next in my life. I had recently left a ministry role and sensed God wanted me to write, something I had wanted to do for years. Yet I was unsure I could do it, so found myself reluctant to try. Then I came to Isaiah 42:18-20:

Hear, you deaf, look, you blind, and see! Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send?  …  You have seen many things, but have paid no attention; your ears are open, but you hear nothing.”

Wow! Gulp! I knew immediately that God was saying to me, with even perhaps a little sigh: ‘Come on, Jo-Anne—how many times do I have to show you? Go home and start writing!’ So that is what I did—and here I am, almost fourteen years and eight published books later, still writing.

I might not have supersonic hearing quite yet, but I hope in those years I have become a little better at hearing God’s voice and at acting on what I hear—because that, after all, is what really matters.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. James 1:22

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. John 10:27

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Jo 12I enjoy doing crossword puzzles and was recently given a crossword book that is just the right level for my slightly addled brain. This enables me to take a break from writing now and then, yet still play with all those fascinating words in the English language. What fun!

The other day, while tackling one of those mega crosswords that completely fill a large page, however, I found myself flummoxed. There seemed to be so many clues that could be taken different ways. For example, one clue simply said ‘hide’. So … did that mean the noun ‘hide’ or the verb ‘hide’? But if it meant the noun, ‘hide’ can have at least two different meanings. Or take the clue ‘sort’. Did that refer to the verb ‘sort’ or the noun meaning ‘type’? And what about that one little word ‘dear’? Did it mean the opposite to ‘cheap’? Or did it mean ‘sweetheart’ or ‘beloved’?

But most confusing of all was the clue that simply said ‘badgers’. Now I took that to mean those animals called badgers. ‘They must have another obscure name,’ I thought. ‘I’d never know that.’ So I left the spot blank until the end. Then, when I saw that the answer had to be ‘pesters’, it finally dawned on me that my ‘badgers’ clue meant the verb ‘harasses’ or ‘nags’, rather than any animal! There I was, trying to think of a scientific name for a badger when the clue meant something quite different.

As I thought about those crossword challenges, I began to wonder how often I myself confuse or mislead others with those words that roll off my tongue so readily each day—or spill out onto my computer screen. How glibly I can say one thing yet be thinking the exact opposite! How many times I seem to opt for those pious-sounding words and phrases that sound good but lack integrity and can leave others feeling puzzled or, even worse, discouraged!

There are some verses in Psalm 139 that have always challenged me about the words I speak—or write.

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. Psalm 139:1-4

Hmm. To me, it is a very comforting thought that God sees into the depths of my heart and knows me through and through. There is no pretending with God—and that is so freeing, don’t you think? But it also challenges me deeply that God knows every word I utter, before it even leaves my mouth. I cannot fool God with my words. I cannot get away with saying one thing and meaning another with God. And it does not please God whenever I try to fool others around me either.

So Lord, this day and forever, may all the words I speak and write honour you and be as honest and unambiguous as I can make them. And, as King David also prayed:

May the words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Psalm 19:14

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