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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Right now, our church’s annual Art Installation is open for anyone to come and view. There are all sorts of creative works on display, including painting, sculpture, photography, writing, drawing, hand-made jewellery, tapestries, knitting. And this year, these all highlight in some way the theme ‘What matters to God’. It is open from Sunday 4th October to Sunday 18th October from 7pm-9pm each evening and from 10am-12noon each morning (except for Tuesdays and Thursday mornings) in the basement of Parramatta Baptist Church, 84-94 Kleins Rd, Northmead, Sydney.

This year, I found the Art Installation particularly challenging and moving as I walked around. Some paintings and other creative works powerfully speak of how much those on the fringes of society—the refugee, the prisoner, the poor—all matter to God. Others highlight how every part of creation matters to God, even the smallest creature or tiniest flower, and challenge us to think about how we care for this planet that God has taken such care in creating. There is even a dress on display made of recycled materials and an apron made entirely of plastic bags shrunk via ironing and fused together!

Then there are those creative works that reflect on how much each one of us matters to God—so much so that Jesus Christ gave his life for us to bring us back into relationship with God and to know the joy of being part of God’s family. As a writer, I decided to focus on this theme and, in particular, on that moment in my life as a teenager when it dawned on me that I actually did matter to God—that God knew me and loved me and had a purpose for my being here on this earth. This is what I wrote:

WE MATTER

I sit amazed at what I am hearing. The speaker’s face shines with an inner light and his words stir my heart.

‘You matter to God! … God loves you. … God knows you. … God is calling you tonight.’

Could this be true?

Could that holy, almighty, distant God I had heard about in earlier years know me and love me, an insignificant fifteen-year-old?

Do my life and my future indeed matter to God?

I cannot resist that deep pull inside to reach out and receive. I quickly make my way towards the front of the room, towards that new life, that fresh start, that forgiveness God is offering me with such tenderness and grace.

As I pray, I know now I am a child of God, part of God’s own family.

I belong.

I am known.

I am loved.

I matter to God … we all matter to God.

__________________________

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

How privileged we are to know that we matter to God! May we use that privilege wisely and well in the time we have on this earth to share that same love God has shown us with others. And may we care well too for all of God’s creation—people, animals, plants and all the wonderful, God-given resources in our world—because all of it matters to God.

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It’s strange how wearing a facemask in a public place can cause us to feel so isolated, isn’t it—perhaps even invisible? We may try to make eye contact with others, but it’s hard to convey friendliness and warmth with our eyes alone. We may smile—but no one can see that smile. And is anyone smiling back? Who knows? Or are they merely wondering why we are staring straight at them? Better to stay in our own little world, go about our business and get home as quickly as we can. Is that how you feel at times?

Recently, as I walked up the travelator into our shopping centre, a lady coming the other way saw me and said hello. At first, I did not recognise her, even though she had no facemask on—but then I realised I knew her from our church. She had managed to connect with me, even with my own mask covering half my face—and it was lovely to see her smile and hear her warm greeting.

But as I went down that same travelator after finishing my shopping, I saw a girl coming up on the opposite side. She had a facemask on and seemed to be talking loudly to herself. Then I noticed she had some ear-pieces in and realised she must be on the phone behind that mask! She was completely engrossed in her conversation and well and truly in her own little world—such a contrast from my earlier experience.

Yes, we are becoming adept at keeping others at a distance and isolating ourselves in our own little worlds behind those masks. And technology can isolate us even further. I sometimes encounter this even in our own home, since my husband wears hearing aids that pick up the sound from our TV. But I still often try to comment on something to him when we are watching a show, forgetting about all that noise already blaring in his ears! And by the time he has asked me what I said, the moment is gone.

But as I look at my own life, I see how adept I often am at keeping God at a distance too. Sometimes there is so much going on inside my brain—plans for this and that, writing ideas, interesting things to think about—that I deliberately refuse to stop and reflect on the things of God. I want that close, loving relationship with God, but I also want to hold God at arm’s length at times. I love God—but I want my own way too.

Surely I should know by now that, whatever ‘mask’ I might try to wear to isolate myself in my own little world will not work with God, who sees and knows everything anyway and is present everywhere? How much better then to remember who I belong to, open my heart to my loving Father again, listen for his voice and invite him into every part of my life.

“Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.” Revelation 3:20 NLT

Truly our own little worlds are so much richer in every way when we welcome God into them, don’t you think?

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Jo 17I wonder how you are feeling, in the midst of this crazy pandemic. What words would describe what is going on inside you as a result of what is happening—or not happening—around you? … Fear? Confusion? Concern? Anxiety? Anger? Grief? Worry? Depression? Loneliness? Perhaps all of these? Or perhaps you are personally at peace, yet feeling these things in and for others. That too can become a little overwhelming at times, can’t it?

Until recently, I was too busy completing my current novel to stop and contemplate how I was feeling deep down about the weird events in our world. My mind was full of different questions instead. What parts of my early chapters could I leave out to get to the action quicker? What other sections could I remove? How could I bring my characters to life more? Writing a novel can be all-consuming—it can be tricky to weave things together in a way that draws readers in and keeps them turning those pages.

Yet now I have put this novel aside, for the moment at least, I am noticing more how coronavirus has impacted us all. Yes, I have been concerned for family members trying to hold onto their jobs and pay mortgages. But I can sense something bigger around me too—a kind of desperation and even panic. When will this end? How will it end? Will our country be in ruins? How will we all survive?

Then one morning, as I sat at my desk, enjoying the warm, winter sun streaming through my window and listening to the birds outside, I picked up my old bible and turned again to the Psalms. They are my ‘go to’ place when I feel in particular need of God’s comfort and reassurance and encouragement. I began to read Psalm 94 and soon came to the following verses:

When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your love, O Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul. (18-19)

The New Living Translation puts it this way:

I cried out, “I am slipping!” but your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me. When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer.

Sometimes, it does seem as if everything is slipping away from us, don’t you think, as we look at all the things we had hoped to do in these months? Many we know were planning overseas trips and looking forward not only to seeing special places but also family members in other countries. Then there are those in much more disastrous situations, watching their livelihoods slip away, as shops and businesses are closed or as customers are afraid to venture into such places. Meanwhile, our leaders must wonder at times if their ability or power to make the wisest decisions for our nation and turn things around for everyone is slipping through their fingers. Yet, whatever our situation in life, that unfailing love of the Lord is still there, willing and able to hold us firm and stop our panicking, downward slide.

So right now, I’m reaching out my arms to the Lord and holding on tight, drinking in that comfort and hope and deep joy only he can give. And I hope and pray you can do that too.

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Jo 12During this coronavirus time, I have worked steadily on my next novel. I edited as I wrote and also edited the whole manuscript four or five times after completing it. Then I sent it off to my first manuscript reader/editor—and the next—and the next—and the next. Then I submitted it to my old publisher. And each time, there was more to edit—and more—and more. My manuscript was around 97,000 words initially, but is now around 87,000 words. And I’m still going. Is it any wonder that some nights I have gone to bed with words swimming before my eyes?

In this time too, I have written three short stories, critiqued two manuscripts and a portion of two more. And I have kept writing my blogs each week—and emailing friends and family who have felt a little isolated. I was glad I could do all this, but there comes a point where all this reading and writing can become a little tiring—especially the discouraging task of throwing thousands of words out that you have laboured long and hard to put in your manuscript in the first place!

So recently, we went away for a short break. And while driving along near the coast north of Sydney, to my surprise, I caught sight of some olive trees. Immediately, my mind went spinning back to my visits to Turkey in past years. During one trip, a friend and I travelled along the Mediterranean coast together, hopping on and off buses at various spots and taking in the mind-blowing sights and experiences of that region. Along the way, I saw many, many olive trees growing on the rocky hillsides and, to me, they were a beautiful sight, with their silvery foliage and often rounded, compact shape. I was amazed too at the way they could still flourish in such dry, barren terrain through the hottest of Turkish summers and produce those nutritious olives that are such an important part of the Mediterranean diet.

The same day I saw my olive trees here in our own country, I read the following verses in the Psalms:

But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good. Psalm 52:8-9

When things coincide like that in my life, I have learnt to suspect God might want to say something to me, so I listen. And I realised I could relate to what David wrote in this psalm. I am indeed like that olive tree flourishing in God’s house. After all, God has enabled me to write all those thousands of words I have written in recent weeks—and God will sustain me as I complete the necessary editing and polishing. I don’t need to fret or complain or wonder if I will stay the distance. Instead, I know I can grow and flourish under God’s protective covering, watered and fed and cared for by our all-loving, all-powerful Creator God.

May you too be aware in this time of God’s unfailing love and nurturing hand on your life, as you grow and flourish like that olive tree.

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Jo 17No one seemed to be around, as I drove through our village on my way home from shopping. But as I turned into our lane, I saw someone in the distance. He was standing out on the road, all by himself, but when he saw my car, he slowly moved to one side. It was one of our neighbours who recently turned 101! And he looked so dapper, all dressed up in a long-sleeved shirt and tie, fawn trousers and a sportscoat, as if he was heading somewhere important.

‘Hello!’ I said loudly—he often has trouble hearing as he is very deaf.

‘Good morning—or rather, good afternoon!’ he replied in his gentlemanly way.

I did not have the heart to tell him it was still only the middle of the morning!

‘Are you going somewhere special?’ I asked him, concerned that he might be confused and think the mid-week service he often attends at his church was still on, despite our coronavirus isolation rules. Was he waiting for his lift there? But he soon put my mind at ease.

‘Oh no. I just came outside for a bit of sunshine!’ he said.

‘Well, you look very smart indeed!’ I told him.

He simply shrugged, as if to say, ‘Well, why not get dressed up?’ and ambled off up the lane.

I felt so sorry for him then. Over and over, the words ‘All dressed up and nowhere to go’ kept coming to mind. You see, this man’s wife is actually 103, but she is now in the nursing home on the far side of our village. Usually, he walks all the way across to visit her each day, but with the current restrictions, he has been unable to, even on her recent birthday. No doubt the staff would have arranged for him to talk to her using technology, but this is difficult for him, since he is so deaf.

Later, the thought came to me that, even if our neighbour is all dressed up with nowhere to go right now, one day soon, he and his wife will no doubt step right into their heavenly home where their Lord will be waiting to welcome them with open arms—whatever they are wearing! You see, this couple have a deep faith in God. They planted a church over seventy-five years ago now that is still going today—and up until the last year or two, we would often see them all dressed up, waiting for their lift to church each Sunday morning. Then, they had somewhere to go, for sure. And soon they will both have somewhere even better to go—that special place that Jesus himself has prepared for them.

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. John 14:1-2

Jesus spoke these words to his own disciples, but surely they can encourage us today too. When we follow him, we know that, whatever happens in this crazy world, we are headed somewhere wonderful where we will see Jesus face to face at last. And what a day of celebration that will be!

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Jo 23Things have changed a little on the communication front since our children were young. Back then, we did not even have a home phone—or a TV until our oldest child was eight. And there were certainly no mobile phones or computers around. Instead, we read, enjoyed music and played games. And I also wrote many long letters, particularly to the grandparents interstate.

But the other day, within the space of a few hours, I accessed several means of communication that are now commonplace. I began by emailing on my laptop. Then I checked my Facebook posts. Next, I wrote and scheduled my weekly online blog. Soon after, my mobile rang—and it was a friend who lives in another town wanting to talk, as her husband is ill. Later, she put me on speaker phone so her husband could also hear, as I prayed for them both.

That afternoon, I sat at my laptop and ‘attended’ a friend’s funeral, livestreamed from a chapel in a cemetery on the other side of Sydney. No, it was not the same as being present, but at least I could join in to some degree as those close to him said goodbye to our friend.

Not long after, I managed to turn up at a family birthday party via Zoom—that day, our oldest granddaughter turned seventeen. This was a new experience for me, but how amazing to be able to see all our family members in their respective homes and to chat to one another! We  tried, with mixed success, to sing Happy Birthday together, as the candles were lit, then watched longingly as our granddaughters consumed that enticing looking ice cream cake right before our eyes!

Two days later, we ‘attended’ our church’s online service, pre-recorded and available on YouTube, which we watched on our TV in the comfort of our lounge. Then I accessed another service being livestreamed from a friend’s church. This past week too, I talked with another friend whose son’s recent wedding was livestreamed to all the wedding guests elsewhere, including interstate and overseas, then later enjoyed seeing the wedding photos sent to my mobile.

I am so glad we have all these wonderful means of communication in this time of isolation in particular. But some do take a bit of getting used to—and not everyone has a tech-savvy husband nearby like I do who can rescue me! Yet however much knowledge we have, sometimes those connections just do not work, do they? Sometimes, the mobile phone or Skype or Zoom reception can be poor in our area. Or sometimes, the person we wish to contact is simply unavailable.

And that’s why, as I sit quietly reading my Bible and talking with God, I am so grateful God is always there and always accessible, always listening and always ready to respond in love. No technical devices are needed. Instead, we can communicate heart to heart and spirit to Spirit with our loving Lord, wherever we are and whatever is happening around us. Surely, nothing can be more amazing than that?

The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfils the desires of those who fear him. He hears their cry and saves them. Psalm 145:18-19

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Jo 17I have always loved Easter. As a child, of course it meant Easter eggs, which, for some reason in our household, were brought by the ‘Easter bird’ and put in our upturned hats on our beds on Easter Sunday morning! But in our family, Good Friday was always a very quiet, solemn day. Occasionally, we would attend the three-hour service at our local Anglican church where we would sing and pray and listen to Scripture readings, as we stood in front of various pictures on the walls depicting Jesus’ journey to the cross.

And that Good Friday solemnity stays with me to this day. Each Easter, I like to make my own solemn journey through one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last days. I like to read these chapters slowly and carefully, identifying with Jesus as best I can and trying to comprehend the enormity of his sacrifice for us all. But this Easter, I also decided to read 1 John again and was soon pulled up short by the following words:

Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did. 1 John 2:6

Whoa! Walk as Jesus did? What a challenge! And what should that look like for me right now, in the midst of our coronavirus measures? Immediately, my thoughts went to some of the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion that I had been reading about in Luke’s Gospel. How did Jesus walk through each day then, in the light of his impending death?

I remembered how Jesus told his disciples he had ‘eagerly desired’ to eat the Passover meal with them (Luke 22:15) and how he gave them such a powerful way of remembering him that still ministers to us today, as he shared the bread and wine with them. I remembered too how Jesus reached out and healed the high priest’s servant whose ear was cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:51). And I also recalled how, even as the soldiers put Jesus on that cross, he asked his Father to forgive them because they were acting in ignorance (Luke 23:34). Then, out of perfect love for us and perfect obedience, he gave his life for us all.

What sobering reminders of how selflessly Jesus lived! But how should it all play out in my life now in this time of semi-isolation at home?

  • I can pray for God to intervene and have mercy on our desperate world. And I can pray especially for those who do not know God’s love and have no firm foundation in life.
  • I can contact family and friends in various ways to encourage them.
  • I can give financially to those in need and also support our church as our pastors continue to serve us.
  • I can watch my attitude at the shops, choosing to be generous rather than selfish. And I can live considerately at home too out of a place of peace rather than fear and turmoil.
  • As a writer, I can ask for God’s guidance and work hard at wording things well so that my readers will be blessed and encouraged.

May we all allow Jesus’ selflessness to impact us this Easter. And may we all learn to walk a little more as he would in this challenging time in our world.

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Jo 12I hope I never cease to be moved by the amazing life stories I hear at times from the most unexpected people. One such story inspired me to write my first novel around sixteen years ago—and parts of others too have found their way into my novels since then. Yet it is often these very parts that people think I have made up myself. Surely that couldn’t happen, one sceptical reader told me once to my face!

But truth can indeed be stranger than fiction, as I discovered again last Sunday when I met a lovely man from South America at a church where I was speaking. After a while, I asked him how he had come to know or hear about God. His face lit up—and, with great excitement, he launched into his story. From what I remember of it all, his uncle belonged to the army back home and was involved in one of the ongoing wars with a neighbouring country. Eventually, the uncle’s troops won their battle with the enemy soldiers, so they entered their town to raid it and take whatever they could find for themselves. But by the time the uncle got there, the only thing left was an old book.

‘What use is that to me?’ he thought in disgust. ‘Oh well, I have some time now—I might as well read it.’

It turned out to be a bible. And as he read, he began to wonder if it was all true, so he showed it to a Catholic priest in his own town.

‘Oh, you shouldn’t be reading this,’ he was told. ‘We’re the only ones allowed to do that. Give it to me!’

But this soldier refused to and eventually found another Christian pastor, who explained to him what this book he had found was about and helped him understand it. As a result, this man then became a believer.

Yet that was not the end of the story. Eventually, this soldier told his sister about the book and about Jesus Christ—and she believed in him too. Then in time, this lady told her son—and he also believed. … And this son was the man I met right here in Sydney last Sunday. Now this man constantly tells his own children in no uncertain terms about God’s precious book, the bible—the word of God that is true and powerful and active.

This man’s uncle did not know, when he first picked up his bible, that it is indeed a much stronger weapon than any gun or grenade or knife he had been issued with—or doubled-edged sword, for that matter!

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12

Yet God spoke deep into his spirit through the book he found, despite his ignorance. And thankfully, this uncle had an open, seeker’s heart that reached out to God and was so responsive, as God’s Spirit drew him close.

What a story—and what a challenge! May my own heart be equally open to God—and may I always value my own ‘old book’ as much as this man did.

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In our home, I have a reputation for liking to let as much light in as possible. Each morning, one of the first things I do is pull the blind up in our bedroom. Then I open the heavy curtains next to our dining table and the shutters on our kitchen window. And finally, I walk into my study and pull the blind up there. Usually, my husband has already opened the curtains over the glass doors that lead onto our balcony, so I can see the sky outside. And, because we live in a downstairs unit, I often like some electric lights on as well—especially in our recent dull weather.

There is something attractive about light, isn’t there? A few weeks ago, when all that smoke cleared after the bushfires, many of us felt so cheered to see sunlight and blue sky again. Somehow that natural light has a positive effect on us and lifts our spirits, doesn’t it? But light is so useful too, in all its various shapes and forms. Without it, we can lose direction, stumble over things and, in general, be unable to function to the best of our ability. Light is attractive. Light is useful. And light can even save us. Just think of those lighthouses that have prevented so many ships from floundering on the rocks below.

Recently at our church, we held a women’s retreat day, with the theme ‘Let there be light!’ Everything was set out beautifully, with fairy lights strung here and there and little IMG_20200222_092925131pretend candles on our tables that we all turned on at one stage. But my eye was caught by two beautiful collections of lights at the front of our auditorium, each containing a fascinating mix of lamps big and small, along with candles of all shapes and sizes in various intricately made candleholders. As the day unfolded, all those lamps and candles were lit, one after the other, to reflect the fact that each one of us is called to be a light to our world, whatever shape or size we are or however we are equipped to shine.

But we were also reminded at one stage that it is God’s light we are called to bring to the world, as we allow it to shine through us. As we receive God’s grace and mercy and step from darkness to light ourselves, we have the wonderful privilege of belonging to God and being chosen to show God’s goodness to the world, so that others may be drawn towards that light as well.

… for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. 1 Peter 2:9 New Living Translation

At some point that day, I saw in my mind a picture of a huge throng of women, each carrying a light high, as they streamed from all corners of the world towards a beautiful, shining throne surrounded by light. And I was overwhelmed at the privilege of being counted among that throng and being able to hold my own lamp high, as we all praised God. What a wonderful day that will be, don’t you think?

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Jo 17Recently, I did something I have never done before. Each day for one whole week, I deliberately chose to do some special activity I have wanted to do for some time but always had a reason not to. On top of that, I did not cook dinner any night that week. Instead, we ate out or bought takeaway. You see, the whole thing was a unique birthday present for me—and what fun it all was!

Originally, my husband had wanted me to enjoy a few days away somewhere by myself—to relax, recharge and spend time with God. I thought about this lovely idea and even looked up various venues online but did not feel settled about any of them. Then one night, it came to me. I did not want to go away anywhere. Instead, I wanted to enjoy different, interesting experiences within reach of our own beautiful unit, then come home and not have to cook dinner! A win-win situation, don’t you think?

In the end, we called this wondrous week ‘The Festival of Jo-Anne’ (!)—and I thoroughly enjoyed it all. I went shopping, twice over. I went to the movies. I had coffee out. I had a massage. I read. And in between, I had time simply to sit and be and reconnect with God. Yes, it was all very good indeed.

But one reason I enjoyed it even more was that, two weeks earlier, I had finally finished the first draft of my latest novel that had languished on my laptop for over three years, waiting patiently for me to unfold the rest of the story. This special week of mine then was also for me a time when I came up for air, so to speak, when I allowed my poor brain to rest, when I graced myself a little more than usual—and when I sensed God’s love and grace being showered on me from every angle. It was a lovely, hiatus period—a time to gain clearer perspective, not only on my novel, before I plunged into all that necessary editing, but on my life in general.

At one stage in writing this particular novel, I wondered if I should keep going. Should I be content with the eight books of mine that have already been published? Was that where God wanted me to stop? But one day, I sensed God saying gently to me, ‘Jo-Anne, whether you write this book or don’t write it, remember I’ll be just as delighted with you either way!’ What gracious, loving, freeing words to hear! I did not need to feel pressured to produce in any way. Instead, I had permission to write the sort of novel I have wanted to write for some time and to leave the outcome in God’s hands.

Yet I think God was saying more than that too. I think God wanted to remind me that, all the time, whether celebrating the Festival of Jo-Anne or writing or speaking or whatever, I can rest fully in this amazing love of God that accepts me, no matter what.

How precious is your unfailing love, O God! All humanity finds shelter in the shadow of your wings. Psalm 36:7 New Living Translation

Maybe you too need to hear this reminder right now?

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