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One morning recently, I heard a soft knock on our front door. And there was our neighbour, holding something out to me.

‘I wanted you to have these’ she explained. ‘They’re my “first fruits”—and I like the whole idea of that!’

green-beans-2707996_1920I glanced down and saw around eight green beans in her hand. Not only does this lady produce a beautiful array of flowers around her unit but also a few vegetables, herbs and even some fruit. Her garden gives her much joy—a joy she was now sharing with us. And because I know my neighbour is very grateful to God for all she has and can still do, I understood her gift was a thanksgiving offering as well.

While those fresh, crunchy beans did not last long in our house, my neighbour’s words stayed with me, causing me to reflect on the whole idea of ‘first fruits’ and research it for myself. And as I did, I discovered that the concept stems from the belief that everything we have originates from God, the Creator of the universe. After all, Psalm 24:1-2 says:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it, for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.

Then, in Deuteronomy 26 in the Old Testament, we find Moses reminding God’s people, as they were at last about to enter the Promised Land, to be sure to give God the first fruits from all their future crops. They were to bring these to the priest on duty, declare out loud how God had delivered them and their forefathers from slavery in Egypt and brought them to a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ (9), and place their offering before the Lord. Finally, we read in verse 11:

And you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.

So today, deliberately giving up those first fruits of our earthly endeavours, whether things we grow or other items we produce or money we earn, may still well be a great way of thanking God for all we have received. We may not present them to a priest, as in Old Testament times, although some churches still have a harvest festival which incorporates this idea. But as my neighbour did, perhaps we too can express our thanks to God and our joy in all we have been given, by passing on our own unique version of first fruits, thus blessing someone else as well.

Hmm—now that’s a challenge for me! Yes, I do give away a few copies of any new book I write when they first arrive fresh from the printer. But I also tend to cling onto what is mine because, after all, I worked jolly hard to produce it or earn it!  Yet I know in my heart any gift or ability I have is from God—and it is only by God’s grace that I write anything or have anything published. So why be so stingy?

I think that first fruits idea has a lot going for it, don’t you? And I hope I remember my green beans lesson for a long time to come.

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I have always longed to be an artist. I would love to be able to create beautiful scenes or stunning portraits for others to appreciate. Instead, I am a writer who weaves together words and sentences, in the hope of inspiring my readers to create their own scenes in their imaginations as the story unfolds. And I have to say I love doing this. But, while I might admit to being a tad envious, I also love celebrating those with different, God-given, creative gifts—artists, sculptors, photographers, craftspeople of all sorts—and allowing their creations to speak to me in their own unique way, maybe even revealing more of God in the process.

IMG_20171001_103745359And right now, there is a unique opportunity to do just that at our church’s Art Installation, which features a variety of creative works, all centred around our church’s vision statement—Led by God’s Spirit. Compelled to share Christ. Restoring the broken. Each weekday evening from 7.00pm to 9.00pm and on weekends (Sat 9.00am to 12.00 midday; Sun 9.00am to 1.00pm, 4.30pm to 8.00pm) until Sunday 15th October, someone will be present in ‘The Basement’ at our church, Parramatta Baptist, 84-94 Kleins Rd, Northmead, Sydney, to greet visitors and invite us to wander and look or simply sit and reflect on what God might be saying to us through the various creative works on display.

I hope my piece of writing below that is included in this year’s Art Installation will bless and encourage any who pause to read it. It is more a brief meditation than a poem and came to me one morning as reflected on the beautiful, well-known words of Psalm 23, the ‘shepherd psalm’. As you too read it now, may you be reassured of the presence of God’s loving ‘Shepherd Spirit’ with you to guide, restore, comfort, strengthen and encourage.

 

Shepherd Spirit

you long to lead me in paths of peace

to provide for me,

to empower me to live and serve.

You whisper gentle words to me–

‘This is the way–walk here!’

‘Don’t be afraid–I am with you.’

‘Not yet–wait!’

                Shepherd Spirit,

at times your voice is firmer, more fervent,

impossible to ignore, urging me

to lay down the old,

to explore the new.

Even when darkness descends and loneliness engulfs,

Even when I stumble on, seeking my own path,

you rise to rescue me,

securing my steps,

attending to my needs.

              Shepherd Spirit,

as I come to my senses, I see you are there,

offering me the finest of fare,

seating me at your table,

where healing and wholeness await.

Shepherd Spirit,

I stand in strength,

inspired again to write of you,

empowered again to speak of you,

rejoicing in your love,

relishing your leading,

ready to be all you call me to be.

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Jo 17‘What day is it today?’ I ask my husband.

‘It’s Thursday,’ he tells me, without comment. He is used to my strange ways.

‘It can’t be!’ I say, aghast. ‘What happened to Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday? Before we know it, another week will be over!’

It seems I am not the only one in our family who is familiar with this ‘before we know it’ feeling. Recently, after picking up our three-year-old granddaughter from day care, we chatted together as we drove along.

‘I fell over at my brother’s school and hurt my knee,’ she told us at one stage.

‘Oh, that’s sad,’ her grandad said. ‘Did you cry?’

‘Yes, I did,’ she replied, ‘but before I knew it, it didn’t hurt anymore!’

This concept of time passing so quickly seemed such an adult thing for a young child to grasp—but obviously Maxine knew what it meant. One minute that pain was there and the next, it was gone. And that’s the case with so many things in life, don’t you think? We think and act as if a particular stage of our lives will last forever—but it doesn’t. At times, we cannot see beyond the now. Yet when we step back and view things with a wider perspective, we realise everything is finite.

One of my favourite movies from years ago now is Dead Poets Society. A key thought the main character, innovative teacher John Keating (played by Robin Williams), often expressed resonated strongly with me—‘Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.’ I suspect I saw this movie at a time in my life when I felt a little restless and was wondering what God had ahead for me. I wanted to make my life count, in whatever way God had gifted me to do so. But time was passing, so I needed to grasp hold of those ‘God opportunities’ that arose, however challenging they might be. And I’m so glad God enabled me to do just that. Not long after this movie was first released, I changed jobs—and this change eventually led to my being able to attend theological college fulltime in my late forties and obtain my Bachelor of Theology degree, a dream I had had ever since I was around nineteen years old.

Now at this stage of my life, I wonder again what God has for me to do. Should I persevere with my writing and speaking? Or is God leading me into a different kind of ministry? Whatever the answers to those questions might turn out to be, I know I still want to ‘seize the moment’ and make my life count, because, before I know it, I will no longer have these opportunities. Even though we live in different times from the Apostle Paul, I want to heed his commands to do just that.

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Ephesians 5:16-17

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Colossians 4:4

May God guide us all as we seize those moments we have been given and make the most of them.

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Jo 17Years ago, I discovered something that intrigued me. I was in the middle of preparing a talk and had become stuck, as I tried to organise my thoughts. So I took a break and went to have a shower. To my surprise, as I stood there, letting that water flow over me and mulling things over in my mind, my input simply fell into place. Somehow, it was as if the water was cleansing not only the outside of me but the inside too, washing away my muddy thoughts and bringing so much more clarity.

Now some might say it was the relaxing effect of that water flowing over me that cleared my mind—and I’m sure that was part of it. But I suspect there was more to it too. It seemed to me that, as the physical water flowed over me, so did the living water from God’s Spirit, inspiring me so I could express myself so much better. And, while I hadn’t swallowed any actual water, I felt I was being filled up on the inside with ‘spiritual water’ somewhere deep in my being, so that the right words were able to form and bubble away there, ready to flow onto the page and eventually out to my audience.

Only a few days ago, I experienced something similar—but not in the shower this time! Twice a week, usually late in the afternoon when no one else is around, I try to make my way up to the heated pool and spa in our Village Centre, not far from our unit. I am quite out of practice as a swimmer, so each week, I challenge myself to do a few more lengths of our smallish pool and improve on my previous efforts. Gradually, I am beginning to enjoy the sensation of that water flowing under and around my body again, now that I don’t have to focus on whether I will make it to the other end of that pool or not! Instead, I can let my mind mull over whatever blog I am writing or whatever talk I am preparing and chat about it all with God as I swim.

It was afterwards, while relaxing in the spa, however, that I felt that lovely, cleansing flow of both actual and living water strongly again. As those super warm bubbles surged around me and the water jets massaged my body, it was as if a curtain lifted from my mind, giving me much clearer direction for my writing projects. Then, once again, I sensed that deep peace and joy filling me up inside. And I knew the Source of this peace and joy was Jesus, who still delights to provide living water today, just as he offered to give that Samaritan woman at the well all those centuries ago (see John 4).

How much I need that beautiful, life-giving water to fill me, so it can overflow to others as I write and speak! How much we all need it, so we can bring light and life to our hurting world!

… Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” John 7:37-38

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IMG_20170609_143813167I sit at my desk, enjoying the sunshine that streams through my study window. I can see shrubs close by, then taller trees beyond. Today, their leaves are rippling in the wind—it feels somehow soothing to watch them and to note how their shapes are etched against the bright blue sky. It is cool outside, but I am warm and snug, as I try to find words to describe what I am seeing and feeling. I love writing about my beautiful surroundings, but I so much want to do justice to it all.

As I reflect, I realise I am feeling a twinge of what could only be called guilt. How did we end up here, after living in our little, wooden house for thirty-two years? How come that old house sold for such a good price, enabling us to afford our comfortable, spacious unit? Perhaps it’s all a dream, I think to myself. Perhaps I’ll wake up one morning and find myself back in our old home, instead of in this lovely, quiet place where the only sounds are the birds outside, twittering and singing to one another. I know there are people nearby, but we are on the edge of our Village, where our peace is largely undisturbed, unless we choose to venture out somewhere.

In the quietness, I try to slow my racing mind. God is here with me, I know—and I choose to stop, be still and settle into that warm, loving Presence all around me. Yet, for some reason, I feel unworthy at this point in time. God, why have you chosen to give us all this beauty and comfort, my heart cries out. What have we done to deserve so much material blessing? Could it be … maybe you meant it for someone else, God? Has it all been a big mistake?

Then I sense God’s loving arms around me and feel the Spirit’s warmth and fullness flooding my being. I open my Bible, but even before I do, I seem to hear God’s gentle, reassuring voice: This is no mistake, Jo-Anne. This is just a picture in the natural of the grace I have poured out on you in the spiritual. As you look around and enjoy what you have received, know it is my delight to give you a place where you can flourish and where you can serve me with a heart at peace and overflowing with my love for others. And as you do, may you be reminded of the abundance of my grace that called you to be part of my family forever—that grace beyond measure that you can never earn or buy.

I turn the pages then and read one of my favourite verses written by the Apostle John, then another from the Apostle Paul:

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

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God …. Ephesians 2:8

Then I sit back and relax. Yes, Lord, it is all gift. Everything we have, everything we are. Thank you, from the depths of my heart, for your amazing, overwhelming grace.

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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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