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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

I have another confession to make. I have felt more than a few twinges of fear and dismay at the prospect of releasing my latest novel, Down by the Water, later this month. Putting a book out there in public can be exciting and rewarding, but it can also feel a little like serving oneself up on a big platter for anyone to pick at or carve up or even reject altogether!

I can still remember what it was like to have to watch someone reading my very first novel, after they had purchased it from my book table at a conference. Eek! That was quite a few years ago now, yet that same trepidation at sharing something I have created and laboured over long and hard is still there.

But this time around, a much bigger challenge is how best to promote my book online in these days of COVID restrictions when larger face-to-face meetings are too uncertain to plan and rely on. While I happily write copious emails, produce this weekly blog on WordPress, use Facebook and Skype and often cruise around reading and researching online, pretty much anything beyond that is way out of my comfort zone. So … why would a technophobe like me ever decide to host a sudden death, Facebook Live Book Launch event?!

Thoughts that this might be all too hard for me did cross my mind. Yet I love this seventh novel of mine, probably more than any of my previous ones. And I want it out there because, apart from anything else, it deals with important themes such as giving and receiving forgiveness and knowing God’s love and grace. So … what to do?

Firstly, I opened my Bible and found some passages dealing with fear and dismay. Then I settled on the following verses to leave open right beside my laptop, so I could glance over at any time and read the words out loud again:

But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend. I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:8-10

Of course, these words are clearly addressed to the children of Israel way back in Old Testament times who were in a far more desperate situation than my current little scenario. But they spoke to me this week too. And strengthened me. And reassured me so much.

Then I prayed, reflecting on and using the words I had read. And later, I asked my little prayer team to pray too. Now it is up to me to keep my eyes and ears focussed on God and not fall for that undermining from the enemy, don’t you think?

So … if you too have been experiencing a touch of dismay lately, may these words encourage you to hang in there. And may the Lord our amazing God be very close to you, strengthening and upholding you, whatever challenges you are facing right now.

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I have a confession to make. Even though I prayed throughout writing and editing my latest, soon-to-be-launched novel, Down by the Water, I doubted the moment would actually come when I would hold it in my hands. I thought it might—and I sensed God wanted me to persevere with it. But what if I was wrong? What if it never came together and I had spent three or four years writing it for nothing?

Besides, what was I thinking to release another novel in the midst of all the current uncertainties? After all, while my books are sold in Christian bookstores across Australia and online in various ways, including from my own website, most of my sales come via speaking engagements that cannot happen at the moment.

I am sure end-of-year tiredness did not help either. While 2020 was a quieter year, which in fact enabled me to finish my novel, it also held its challenges. I was concerned about the welfare of family members and others in our wider community. I missed meeting face to face with our beautiful church family, despite hosting a group in our home most of the year. And I missed my speaking engagements, where I could share from my heart and encourage others.

But then on Christmas Eve, those shiny, brand new copies of the novel I had poured my energies into for so long arrived. I was in the middle of my Christmas baking, so at first took it all in my stride and left the boxes where they were, unopened. After all, I knew what the cover would look like. Yet I was a little afraid too. What if I was disappointed with the end result? What if what I had seen and approved online did not come together as I imagined it would?

Slowly, I prised open that first box. And as I did, memories of eight other similar occasions in previous years came flooding back. I paused for a while, as I realised again how faithful God has been to enable me to see six other novels and two non-fiction books through to publication. Then I lifted out that first copy—what a surreal moment! Yes, there it was at last in my hands, looking even better than I had imagined.*

At that point, I was filled with remorse for my lack of faith, but also such gratitude to God for persevering with me and for being so kind and gracious towards me anyway.

Is there something God has put on your heart to pray about or work towards in the coming year? Yes, we need to remember God is sovereign and knows what is best for us. But in 2021, I for one know I need to be bolder in my faith and firmer in my trust, as I keep my eyes on the Lord. I want to believe more and not doubt. Truly, I want to be so much more like Mary, the mother of Jesus, about whom her cousin Elizabeth exclaimed:

Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’ Luke 1:4

Is that your heart too right now? May we all continue to hope and trust in our amazing God, whatever 2021 might hold for us.

*Please watch for further news about my novel Down by the Water and my Facebook Live book launch later this month!

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Have you ever in a rash moment said yes to some activity or event way out of your comfort zone, then later wondered why? Perhaps you agreed to walk x number of kilometres or lead a group or sing in public … or anything else you would not normally choose to do. Such experiences can feel surreal, can’t they—as if we are there, yet not there?

Last week, I did something I have in fact done before, but not for some years—I took part in a radio interview via phone from another state. During this 20-25 minute interview, my task was to share why I had written a particular short story that won a place in a recent writing competition (‘Stories of Life’), then talk about the events that shaped me to become the writer I am today, using stories as much as I could.*

Sounds easy, right? Yet at this stage of the year, and especially after seeing my current novel through to publication, my brain is a little tired. I had a script—a few dot points I had submitted earlier to my interviewer—but still felt nervous on the day and well out of my comfort zone.

What to do? First off, I prayed—and I also asked my little email prayer team of nine women to pray, if they happened to read my email in time. How wonderful it was to hear back from three of these faithful friends almost immediately, assuring me they would be praying! But I was also touched when my interviewer prayed for us both, before flicking that switch and launching into our conversation.

At first, I stumbled a little. But as we reached that part of the interview where I needed to share my writing journey via stories, I became so involved in it all, I forgot about everything else. I was even able to laugh at myself at one stage (although not out loud!) when I realised I was holding my phone in one hand and waving the other around as if speaking to a live audience! But as the interview proceeded, I also began to feel a deep sense of awe as I shared how God has led and shaped me via all sorts of experiences during my various occupations. All over again, I was reminded of the loving hand of God on my life, shaping me, teaching me, guiding me, setting me on my feet again. And as I kept talking, my heart filled with praise and thanks to God for all God’s gracious, constant love and care through it all.

As 2020 draws to a close, may I encourage you too to look back on this year—and on your life in general—and see how faithful God has been, through the good and the bad. And as you do, may you see and sense afresh, as I did, the gentle hand of God, our awesome potter Father, shaping us, his clay, to become more and more like him.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Isaiah 64:8

*Should you wish to hear my radio interview, please tune into ‘The Story’ on Vision Christian Radio at 9.30am (EST) on 13th January 2021.

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Can you think of a time when you put off beginning some big, new project because the whole thing looked far too daunting? That was how I felt earlier this year when I decided to open that cupboard where all our old photo albums were stashed and do something about them. And that was how I felt too, when I began writing my current novel, Down by the Water, around four years ago. I had already written six novels and two non-fiction books—surely that was enough? To make things more difficult, this novel needed to be set in Queensland in the early 1900s—and hadn’t I vowed and declared I would never write another historical novel? I knew what a time-consuming task that could be, with so many facts needing to be checked.

Yet soon those ideas for the opening chapter began to emerge. Yes, since then, those first few pages have changed many times over, as I realised what needed to be revealed early on and what did not. But I knew I had to keep working on them, because those early pages are vital in winning or losing potential readers.

Beginnings can be hard, can’t they? Yet so can endings. And that is where I am now, tying off those final details of my novel before it is published. The actual writing is finished—and I have lost count how many times that manuscript has been checked through at various levels, not only by me but also by seven other people. I even have a lovely cover for my book. Yet, while I have heaved a sigh of relief that this whole, huge task is almost complete, I also feel quite tentative about releasing this novel out into the big world. What if all that work turns out to be for nothing? What if no one else thinks the story worthwhile? What if …?

Yes, this year, I have been very clearly reminded how challenging both beginnings and endings can be. And perhaps that is why, while reading Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians recently, I noticed in particular how he began and ended these.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 1:3 and also 2 Corinthians 1:2

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. 1 Corinthians 16:23

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. 2 Corinthians 13:14

Curious, I then discovered similar greetings in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians and also Timothy. In the midst of all the challenging situations those early believers faced, Paul obviously sees God’s grace as key—that overwhelming kindness of God shown in particular in sending Jesus into our world. And as we too choose to rest in that same grace that accepts us and loves us unconditionally and forever, we can know that same peace Paul prayed for those early believers, right here in 2020.

However difficult you and I have found those beginnings and endings this year, God’s grace and peace are always there for us. So Let’s truly hear Paul’s words and take them to heart. Let’s reach out and receive these amazing gifts and be strengthened and comforted as we do.

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I wonder if you can recall a recent conversation with someone or a recent event that encouraged you, even in some small way. It’s like something melts deep down inside us when that happens, don’t you think? Somehow, we feel just that little bit more seen and understood and appreciated. And that in turn can spur us on to keep going, despite any difficulties we might encounter.

One day this past week, I replied to a friend’s email, saying how much I enjoy her writing style. Her words always flow well and her descriptions are so colourful and interesting. When she wrote back, she thanked me and went on to explain how she had never felt she was a good writer, because, to this day (she is now in her seventies), she vividly remembers the red corrections her high school English teacher would write all over her essays.

‘Just one kind word would have made all the difference,’ she added—and that sentence made me feel so sad.    

But this week, I too have received some lovely, unexpected encouragement that has lifted my spirits.

The first of these came as I watched the launch of the Stories of Life 2020 anthology The Swimmer and other stories of life and the announcement of the prize winners of their writing competition. This was livestreamed via Facebook from Adelaide and, as I sat listening, I saw various people I knew taking part. But then, to my surprise, I heard my own name and that of my short story, ‘The Ring’, announced as having won third place in the open section! I was delighted, especially since this particular story is about an event that happened to a dear friend of mine—so this honoured her indirectly too.

Yes, I value the $200 prize money I won, but it was more than that. Right now, I am in the midst of seeing my current novel Down by the Water through to publication and taking those final, few steps in what has been a long journey of several years, with many interruptions. There are those all-important checks to be done with the utmost care, as well as many decisions to be made about cover and layout. For me then, this encouragement came just at the right time, when I was almost beginning to doubt whether my own writing was worth putting out there for others to read.

Then, even as I was writing this blog, my husband opened our front door to find someone had left some flowers from their garden there anonymously for us. As I arranged them, I could not help reflecting on the amazing creativity and kindness of God who uses all manner of people and ways to encourage us. And I sensed God’s own Spirit, the Comforter and Helper who lives in me and is there beside me each day, rise up and whisper such wonderful words of encouragement too: You see, Jo-Anne—I have not forgotten you. I’ll always be with you—don’t be afraid!

Can you hear those wonderful, encouraging words from God for you too today? Let’s listen well—and then let’s share that encouragement with others, because it could make all the difference in a way we might least expect.

 So encourage each other and build each other up … 1 Thessalonians 5:11 NLT

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At the moment, I am making my way yet again through my current novel, checking for errors and tweaking this and that to make it the best I can. It is painstaking work—and it seems to have gone on forever. But each morning, as I open my laptop and go to the relevant document, I am cheered by the polite, little greeting that awaits me there. On the right of my screen, I always see a little box that says happily:

Welcome back! Pick up where you left off.

How encouraging is that? But recently, that little message did more than cheer me up and inspire me to pick up where I left off with even more determination. It also alerted me to open my ears to hear what God might want to say to me. It was as if God highlighted that little box on my screen so that I could not miss a much more important message it contained.

Then it hit me. In an instant, I sensed God saying: ‘That’s exactly what I’ve said to you so many times over the years, Jo-Anne. Whenever you have pulled back from following me for a while and gone your own way, but then turned around and repented, I have always been there waiting for you with open arms. Time and time again, like your laptop does each day, I have said to you, “Welcome back! Pick up where you left off.” What a joy it has been to offer you forgiveness each time—and how good it is to pick you up and help you stand firm again!’

Then my mind went to the Apostle Peter’s story in the bible. I love Peter. He seems such a full-on person—always the leader, opening his mouth on behalf of the other disciples and stepping out when others might well have feared to. I love how he was brave enough to get out of that boat and walk towards Jesus on the water (Matthew 14). I love how he realised early on that Jesus was the only one worth following and the only one who could offer eternal life.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God. John 6:68-69

I love too how he declared he would never deny Jesus, fully thinking that was true—and I always feel sad when I read how he did deny him, then wept bitterly over it (Matthew 26:75). But later, when the resurrected Jesus appears on the shore as Peter is fishing with the other disciples and proceeds to provide them with breakfast, I hold my breath at what unfolds. Three times, Jesus asked Peter if he loves him. And three times, Peter replies, Lord, you know that I love you (John 21).

Can you imagine how Peter must have felt, as Jesus treated him in such a loving way and reinstated him to be the strong shepherd and leader he had called him to be? What grace Jesus showed him that day! And what grace Jesus shows each of us today, whenever we turn back to him, as he says with such love: ‘Welcome back! Pick up where you left off.’

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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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