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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

I am something of a fan of lifelong learning. When I first went to university eons ago, I majored in German and Japanese. In my second year, I added Classical Greek to the mix. Then in my forties, I studied New Testament Greek. And about a decade later, I set about learning some basic Turkish so I could find my own way around Turkey when visiting a friend there. I loved the challenge of learning a new language and remember telling my friend I would rather work out how Turkish fits together than spend my time doing puzzles like crosswords or sudoku. At least I was learning something strategic that could mean the difference between getting lost in Turkey and not getting lost!

IMG_20190525_121805677But times change—and sometimes these days those brain cells of mine do not function as efficiently they used to. So, while I still love recalling the various foreign words and phrases I spent so long learning, I also enjoy a good crossword puzzle. Earlier in my life, I would have regarded them as a waste of time, but now I can see much more value in them. Firstly, they are fun! Secondly, they force my brain to work harder as I try to recall those unusual or not so unusual words I must have read somewhere or unravel the slightly cryptic clue that is all I have to go by. And thirdly, I learn so many new words or reacquaint myself with old ones, all of which adds to the vocabulary available to me as I write.

I must admit, however, that it is a cause for celebration when I manage to solve a whole crossword puzzle in my Times Big Book of Quick Crosswords! Yes, I could find an easier crossword book, but then where would the real challenge be in that? Instead, if I find myself stumped, I look up the correct answer, learn the word or get the connection, then mark that particular puzzle with a cross—I did not solve it myself. But if I manage to do so, then I jubilantly put a big tick and a ‘Yay!’ above it! And to my surprise, in recent months, my strike rate has slowly improved from around one in five puzzles solved to one in four. Maybe one day, I will be able to solve every puzzle—who knows?

But there is another area in which I dearly desire to grow so much more. I want to know God better and keep growing in the things of God. I want to be able to sense the Spirit’s presence in me and around me even more each day. I want to learn to be more obedient to those promptings deep in my own spirit to pray or to act. I want to write more of the things God wants me to write—and to do it even better, as God leads. In short, I want to do what the Apostle Peter urges us all to do:

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. 2 Peter 3:18

Is that your desire too? Let’s all keep growing in the Lord, until that day when we meet him face to face!

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Jo 12One morning around two years ago, I spoke to a group of women at a church on the other side of town. Afterwards, I was introduced to a lady who I discovered had really come to catch up with friends before heading home to Sweden a couple of days later. However, having heard me speak, she told me she was particularly interested in my book Soul Friend and in the whole concept of mentoring or being a spiritual companion. She then shared her desire to set up a program in her church to equip people to mentor others, so I offered to send her some material on the subject.

The next day, I emailed her a basic mentoring course a friend had written and I had edited, after checking that he was happy for it to be shared in this way. Then I thought no more about it—until last week, when an email arrived from this lady. In it, she wrote:

Hi Jo-Anne,

You may not remember me but I attended a meeting at Miranda Congregational church in April 2017 where you were speaking and selling your books. I spoke to you afterwards and mentioned my interest for Christian mentoring in Sweden where I live. You very kindly emailed me your manual.

This was the encouragement I needed to start a course in Christian mentoring in my church, the Lutheran church of Sweden in my area Stockholm. I gathered a team of four people including myself and we organised a one day course for those who would like to be mentors or have a mentor … One of our team members is a skilled translator and translated your manual into clear simple Swedish. We gave each of the 18 participants a print copy of the manual at the end of the course. 

The team then matched up mentors and mentorees during the months that followed … The result was very exciting with the present number of mentors being 11 and mentorees around 15. … Our team will meet again in September to decide if we will run the course again in January 2020 and widen the participants to the three other Lutheran churches in our parish and 5 other denominations.

So, I just wanted to express my thanks to you for being so generous in sharing the manual and for your books …

Isn’t God amazing? As soon as I read this, I thought of the little parable Jesus told about the mustard seed:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the bird of the air come and perch in its branches. Matthew 13:32.

God builds the kingdom using our faltering efforts with such grace, don’t you think? Surely, as we plant whatever little seeds we have, which are a gift from God anyway, God will step in, watch over them well and enable them to bear fruit just at the right time.

Who would have thought that brief, ‘accidental’ contact with this lady would have resulted in our little mentoring course blessing folk in faraway Sweden? But that’s just like God, isn’t it!

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My husband and I can often be found with our noses in a book. Our taste in reading matter is quite different—and it is even more different when it comes to brain teasers, puzzles and the like. While I revel in The Times Big Book of Quick Crosswords, with their almost cryptic challenges and many references to history and literature, my husband loves The Times Super Fiendish Sudoku! Neither of us is in any way tempted to tackle each other’s puzzles—and I would be a dead loss at sudoku anyway!

Twice recently and in very public settings, the different tastes we all have has been brought home to me in no uncertain terms. The first occurred while giving a talk on my writing journey and the books I read during my early years. As soon as I mentioned the Australian novel We of the Never Never by Mrs Aeneas Gunn, a lady right at the front called out loudly with great vehemence.

‘Oh, I hated that book—I absolutely despised it! It was terrible—terrible!’

For a moment, I was floored. How could I pick up momentum after that? In the end, I pointed out how well her comment demonstrated that we all have different tastes and that writers have to let go of the idea that their own wonderful book will please everyone. Even before I had begun speaking that day, I sensed this lady was somewhat antagonistic towards me. Yet now there she was, nodding enthusiastically. Phew!

IMG_20190504_102706212The second occurred during a recent tour of the beautiful, old St Saviour’s Cathedral of the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn, considered one of colonial architect Edmund Blacket’s greatest achievements and a fine example of the decorated Gothic style. Our group listened attentively as our guide pointed out various interesting aspects about the cathedral, such as its huge, marble font, its massive pipe organ, the wonderful stained-glass windows featuring the twelve apostles, and the bishop’s chair, the tallest in the southern hemisphere, intricately carved from oak. I myself was in awe of the skills of all those craftsmen who had laboured over each beautiful piece and whose work had stood the test of time. But then I noticed some of our group frowning and whispering together.

‘It’s all lovely, but imagine what it cost to build! And imagine how much all the upkeep costs now. It’s such a waste really,’ I heard one of them say, as she shook her head.

I could see her point—after all, there is so much need everywhere in the world around us. Yet I could also appreciate how those craftsmen must have wanted to create this beautiful building and all it contains to honour God and enable others to worship.

What would your response have been?

Yes, we are all different, with different tastes, different abilities, different priorities in life and often different ways of worshipping God too. May we learn to celebrate these, as we serve God in our own unique way and faithfully do the things God has called us to do!

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. 1 Corinthians 12:4-6

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IMG_20190418_100541803Recently, I did something I have wanted to do for a long time. I bought an original painting at an art exhibition. I already own two lovely paintings—one of the Charles Bridge in Prague which featured in my very first novel and another my brother-in-law painted for my seventieth birthday of a street scene in Paris. Yet I have always dreamt of roaming around myself at an art exhibition until I found that special something that spoke to me in a deep, personal way. And that is exactly what happened.

Since the artist, Jo Sterland, was standing nearby, I decided to ask her what had inspired this particular painting. I discovered it was titled ‘The Change of Season’, with the rich purples and blues depicting the past contrasting with the bright tangerine splashes of colour in the foreground, speaking of vibrant, new life—and in between, the white, swirling cloud of change and uncertainty but also hope, so often felt in moving from one season to the next in our lives. Jo also explained that this particular painting had come into being during a time spent listening to God, alongside other artists with a similar heart for God, and endeavouring to follow those gentle promptings of the Spirit to paint in a certain way.

At that point, my eyes filled with tears. I understand the concept of listening to God as I write, so to paint in this way resonated with me. I also understand well those change of seasons in our lives, having moved from one career to another several times over and having put aside a beloved ministry role at one stage, only to have God give me the awesome privilege of becoming a published author. But I sensed God was speaking to me for the here and now too, reminding me of past blessings but also reassuring me of joys to come and future answers to prayer.

At this exhibition, it was wonderful to witness the fulfilment the artists experienced through displaying their works for us. Inwardly, I applauded them for their courage in baring their heart and soul in this way and risking rejection in the process. But if these artists had not been prepared to put their work on public display and offer it up for God to use, I for one would have missed out. And so would those vulnerable women and their families in Thailand, towards whose support and care the money raised from the sale of these artworks is going.

Each of us is creative in some way. Yes, I have met a good number who say they do not have a creative bone in their body! Yet surely, if we are all made in the image of God, the Creator of our amazing universe, that cannot be the case.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them Genesis 1:27

I wonder what creative gift you have that reflects something of God to the world in your own unique way? Did you perhaps put it aside for a season? Is it time to change that? May you find great joy and fulfilment as you dust it off, listen to God and offer it to us all again!

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Jo 12Have you ever experienced a time when someone reminded you of something helpful you said to them once, yet you had no memory of ever saying it? You know this person is not lying—you know you must have said those words they remember. Yet you still feel something of a fraud, taking any credit for the encouragement you gave them, when it has now gone from your mind!

Recently, I heard how Jeanie Wood, whom I met around two years ago, was about to release her first novel (The Travel Club, published by Elephant House Press).That’s nice, I thought, I’m so glad she will have the joy of seeing her book in print. Now people often tell me how they would like to write a book ‘one day’—and equally often, I suspect they will never get around to it or have the self-discipline to complete such a big task. But Jeanie had actually followed through with it all and achieved her long-held dream.

Then one day she messaged me, thanking me for encouraging her to write a novel ‘just for fun’. Wow, I thought, did I really say or write that? I remembered chatting to her when we first met and offering to read a few chapters of some of her writing, which she subsequently sent me. I remembered too how one piece of non-fiction she had written was very sad and would have stirred up past memories for her of difficult times. Was that perhaps the reason I had encouraged her to write something quite different? Whatever the case, God had obviously used those three words I can’t even remember saying or writing to spur her on and help usher her into a new and extremely fulfilling part of her writing journey.

But then there are other words we say at times that do not bring joy and fulfilment. I wonder if someone has ever reminded you of something you said or wrote that hurt them, yet you were unaware that was the case—and again, may not have remembered saying or writing it.

This too happened to me once. In that instance, while I remembered what I wrote, I had no idea my words would offend. Imagine my horror then when, a few years later, this person let me know in no uncertain terms how deeply I had hurt her. I then had to write back, asking what she meant, only to be shocked all over again at the depth of her feelings as she reiterated in fine detail what I had said and done. Yet how to apologise? I did try—and I also tried to explain what I had meant, but I am unsure how successful my overtures were.

Sometimes we can be so amazed and grateful that our words have impacted others in a positive way, can’t we? At other times, we may wish we could take those words of ours back and swallow them whole! Either way, let’s continue to learn to listen well to God, to seek to tame our tongues and to share more of those positive, life-giving words rather than any that will hurt or discourage.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. Ephesians 4:29

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Jo 12I am tempted to write a book one day about the many interesting experiences I have had during my journey of speaking at all sorts of venues as a published author or promoting my books. It could also include those occasional moments in every-day life when someone discovers I am a writer—at which point the ensuing conversation usually has to do with what sort of books I write or what their titles are. But occasionally these interesting exchanges take a little more challenging turn, as happened recently.

‘So … you’re a writer. Um … should I know you? Are you famous? What books have you written that I might have come across?’

Fortunately, I managed to laugh and answer in a light-hearted enough way. After all, I could understand the person’s confusion. Is she really a writer? … I don’t recognise her—but maybe I should. I’m sure I haven’t heard her name before though. … I wonder what she writes? Probably nothing I’ve read anyway. Mostly, they are simply blurting out the first thing that comes to mind—although sometimes I do wonder if such questions are actually an attempt to shut me up or put me in my place! But whatever the motive, I never quite know how to respond. What would you say in such a situation?

In the end, I opted for what was probably a rather lame response.

‘Well … it depends what sort of books you read! I’ve written six novels and two non-fiction books—but no, I can’t say I’m famous. Here, I’ll give you my card—then you can look up my books on my website.’

I am so thankful for those business cards I carry around. Many times, they have extricated me from similar situations where I am at a loss to know what to say about my books. If the person asking the questions is really interested, they can look me up. If not, then they are at liberty to throw my card into the nearest bin!

No, I am not famous by any means—and I’m fine with that. You see, I have done my best in both writing and promoting my books for some years now. And I have tried in each one to write the things God put on my heart to write about—the love of God, the grace of God, forgiveness, holding onto our faith in God, using our God-given gifts, encouraging others in their journey with God. Now, as I attempt to write my seventh novel, I find I still have so much to learn in an ever-changing market. However well or otherwise I have written in the past, I can hopefully improve. Besides, God is still God—and as I write, I plan to listen to that gentle whisper of the Spirit, inspiring me and urging me on. This writing journey of mine has never been my idea alone—to me, the whole thing has been an amazing gift from God. And that, above all else, should keep me humble, don’t you think?

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Ephesians 4:2

The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Matthew 23:12

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I am a writer. I play with words—a lot. I rearrange them. I delete them and replace with more suitable ones. I shape them into phrases and sentences for hours on end. I love to tell stories and paint pictures with them, hopefully touching others’ hearts in the process and giving them a small glimpse at least of the loving heart of God. I am so grateful for this gift of writing, yet I also find myself in awe of those who can create via some form of visual art, in all its infinite variety.

This year at our church, Parramatta Baptist, our pastors have sensed God calling us to focus on the theme of ‘Ask, Seek, Knock’, as Jesus invites us to do in Matthew 7:7-8:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

So recently, they invited us all to commit ourselves to ask—to pray by name for God’s transforming presence in others; to seek—to pursue more of God’s transforming presence in our own lives; and to knockto appeal for the places and lives that we long to see open more to God. As I listened, I realised this was no man-made challenge they were giving us all—there was nothing of the ‘You should do this’ or ‘You must do better’ about it. Instead, we were being freely and joyfully invited to be part of God’s purposes for us as a body and for others. And what a unique, creative way they found to do just that!

One Sunday, we arrived to find several tables dotted around the chapel and on each were a pile of small, oval-shaped pieces of vinyl in grey and brown shades, along with some felt pens. As well, right in the centre of the church was a bright red wheelbarrow, decorated with fairy lights. As the service progressed, we were invited to commit ourselves to ‘ask, seek and knock’ by writing our name on one of these vinyl pieces and placing it in the wheelbarrow.

IMG_20190303_101333209That day, and on two further Sundays, around four hundred people did just that. Then last Sunday we arrived to find this beautiful piece of artwork installed in our chapel, with all those signed pieces of vinyl arranged to form the soil from which the tree of God’s kingdom would grow, flourish and bear fruit. It was created by our ministry assistant, Jo Sterland, a gifted artist and graphic designer, who blesses us and others in so many ways with her God-given gifts and abilities. Yes, now we could see, depicted clearly and beautifully for us, what a vital role we each play in providing that fertile soil of prayer to grow God’s kingdom more in our own lives and that of others. Truly, a picture paints a thousand words, don’t you think?

Yes, it’s a privilege to write or paint or create in any way for God. But it’s also a great privilege to be part of that living soil of prayer, as we focus on our amazing God who can do so much more than we can ever ask or imagine!

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