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‘You are one of the most loyal people I know,’ someone told me years ago. At the time, this comment puzzled me because I was sure I had never consciously chosen to live that way. Instead, I had always thought that, if anyone truly believed in someone or in what a particular group or organisation stood for, then of course he or she would remain loyal to them.

Since then, I have become a little less naïve and have realised this is not always the case. Sometimes, we become bored or perhaps disenchanted, for some reason, and want to try something different. Sometimes, we get a better offer. Sometimes, we are less than honest and trustworthy in our relationships. Yet we all need and long for those faithful, loyal friends who will stick by us, don’t we?

Recently, I have been busy promoting my latest novel, Down by the Water¸ an historical novel set in Queensland in the early 1900s. In order to let family, friends and acquaintances know the book is available, I sent out emails and also held a Facebook Live book launch. I did not know what sort of response to expect from all this, especially since I have never held a Facebook Live launch before. And I was also aware that many of my family and friends do not want more books lying around at this stage of their lives. Nevertheless, over this past week or two, I have received emails from a good number of them, ordering a copy or arranging to drop in and pick up one—or more—from me.

As well, some have even bothered to email me after finishing the book to tell me how it impacted them. When such emails arrive, I feel relieved, but also so thankful. You see, many of these people have stuck with me throughout my whole writing journey of around fifteen years now, buying a copy of each book I produce and encouraging me along the way. They have truly been such loyal, faithful supporters—and I am so grateful for each one of them.

But experiencing their generosity of heart has caused me to think about myself too and how faithful and loyal I am each day towards others—and towards God. Sometimes, I say one thing, yet do another. Sometimes, I want to be faithful and loyal, yet I lack the courage to do so. Sometimes, I choose an easier way. Sometimes am I more like the Apostle Peter than I care to admit, telling Jesus I will never disown him, then doing exactly that (Matthew 26).

Yet I love how, despite Peter’s downfall, Jesus reinstates him and commissions him to care for his sheep (John 21:15-19). And it’s such a relief to know Jesus will always welcome me back too with that same love and forgiveness, when I am less than loyal to him. But that doesn’t mean I can take such kindness and mercy for granted. Instead, I need to be as faithful as I can be, loving Jesus with my whole heart and serving him with joy—forever.  

Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Proverbs 3:3

May God enable me—and you—each day to do just that.

‘You’re brave, attempting a Facebook Live Book Launch,’ someone told me recently.

I laughed, but wondered if ‘brave’ was the right word to choose. Surely ‘foolhardy’ would be better—or even perhaps ‘slightly deluded’? After all, while I use Facebook often, I have never quite understood it all. As well, our internet connection can be a little hit and miss at times, for unknown reasons. And we also suspected that, when too many people are using the internet at once, the sound quality of a Facebook live video can be affected.

Nevertheless, because of COVID restrictions, we decided to go ahead with an online launch, rather than a face-to-face gathering, which might not be possible on the day. We knew it would not be the same, being unable to see friends and family in the flesh and celebrate together over afternoon tea. And there would be no opportunity for them to pick up my latest novel and decide whether to buy it or not. Yet we realised there were advantages too in hosting an online launch. For a start, friends and family far away could join in. And if someone was unavailable at the actual launch time, they could always watch the saved version later.

At last, the moment came this past weekend for me to sit down at my laptop, take a deep breath and press that red button that said, ‘GO LIVE’. But as I waited for everyone to ‘arrive’ at the launch, I saw some comments from my audience about the poor sound quality. I sat closer to the microphone, but that made no difference. All I could do was forge ahead, hoping everyone could hear well enough.

And they did. To my great delight, even a good friend far away overseas was able to join in at 7.30am her time when it was -6 degrees Celsius where she lives. Undeterred, she snuggled under the bed covers, still in her warm PJs, and watched my live launch via her mobile, as I sat talking at my desk here in Sydney, in the middle of a heatwave!

I’m so glad that sound was good enough for her to understand me. But as I reflected more on my rather heart-in-mouth experience, I began to think how often, in the midst of life’s pressures, God’s voice can sound so muffled and distorted, just as mine did for my audience. Yet that is definitely not God’s fault! God is always there, speaking clearly to us each day through the written Word and in other ways too. Instead, I am the one who muffles or even mutes that loving voice, as I refuse to listen, choosing instead to busy myself with other things. Yet, just as I made the decision to keep talking during my launch, despite that poor sound quality, so God perseveres with us, always reaching out to us in love and grace, always calling us back, longing for us to listen.

In John 10:27, Jesus says:

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.

May we all be such good listeners and good followers. And may we not let those cloudy connections muffle God’s voice and spoil the beautiful, loving relationship God offers each one of us!

PS If you missed the online book launch of my latest novel Down by the Water, please click here.

I have many vivid memories of my maternal grandparents, seen here with my mother and me. Often on Sundays when I was growing up, they would visit us for lunch. Afterwards, my grandfather would ask us to go for a walk with him, perhaps out towards the University of Queensland or to the Toowong cemetery, where we would look at all sorts of interesting gravestones, or even down to the Brisbane River. Then, once home again, we would enjoy a scrumptious afternoon tea of fresh scones and other treats.

Sometimes, in the early days of TV, we would drive to my grandparents’ home to watch a show with them on Friday nights. And, during the summer school holidays, I would usually stay with them for a week. Most mornings, they would allow me to play the piano in their lounge room. I so enjoyed sifting through their old Scottish and Irish ballads, sacred solos and dance music and trying to play and sing whatever I found.

My grandfather had various occupations in his lifetime, including school-teaching at Rosewood, running a fruit shop in Brisbane, then a general store in Harrisville. As a child, I heard many stories about these places, particularly from my mother, who grew up in Harrisville. So, inevitably, this information has shaped my latest novel, Down by the Water, an historical novel I am launching this coming weekend.

Yet this novel is not my grandparents’ actual story. There are many differences, including the fact that my main characters have five children, whereas my grandparents had seven. But so much else about them influenced what I wrote. I even had fun weaving some of their old music into my story, as I described the local dances in Helidon, where my main character Meg grows up—and my grandmother did too. I also had photos and family records to refer to, but it was those memories from times spent with my grandparents and the things I heard as a child that helped most.

Such childhood memories can be powerful, can’t they? And how powerful they are too in shaping our attitudes and making us the people we are today. I can still remember some of the rather stern warnings my grandfather gave me about life in general, during our Sunday afternoon walks. And I hope I never forget my grandmother’s kindness and gentleness towards me on so many occasions.

I have dedicated Down by the Water to my grandparents and am delighted I have had this opportunity to let some of those memories at least live again via my novel. But this whole experience has also challenged me to remember the way God has shaped my life and walked with me and treated me with such kindness for so many years now. Without God’s gracious, patient hand on me down through the years, I would not be here writing these words. I need to remember that—and to let such memories influence everything I write.

In the years ahead, I hope I will continue to be able to say honestly, along with King David:

I remember the days of long ago, I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done. I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Psalm 143:5-6

Is that your sincere hope too?

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.

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!

On being shaped

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.

I was in our local shopping centre again, not far from the large nativity scene in the middle of the main walkway, when I heard some children calling out in excitement. They were running here and there and seemed to be by themselves. Then one of them, a little girl, discovered the porcelain figure of the baby Jesus in the manger.

‘Oh look, a baby doll!’ she yelled. ‘I’m going to pick it up.’

Just then, her mum appeared and told her not to, after sending a quick, embarrassed glance my way. I am glad she was not close enough to hear my gasp at what her daughter had started to do, but I’m sure she saw my slightly horrified look. I wanted to tell her it was fine and quite a natural thing for a child to want to do, but they scurried away.

I was not worried that the doll the little girl wanted to pick up represented the baby Jesus, although I suspect that mum felt she might have offended me and others nearby. It is just that—a representation, not some sacred relic. Rather, I was more concerned the doll would smash if the little girl dropped it—and that would have been embarrassing indeed for her mum. But as I continued shopping, my reaction kept niggling me. Had I somehow acted a little like the disciples who rebuked those who brought children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them? But Jesus’ response had been so gracious.

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:16-17

I prayed for that little family then. The mother had seemed so harassed and overwhelmed, but it all happened so quickly, there was nothing I could have said to her or done for her. Yet later, as I thought more about this event, I wondered if God had been teaching me a big lesson through it all.

How many times have I figuratively ‘picked up’ Jesus, listened to his words and connected closely with him, only to discard him after a while and rush off to something more exciting or interesting? How many times have I treated Jesus as if he were some mere effigy, instead of someone alive and powerful who loves me and wants to walk with me each day in my life? Even now, am I still like that little girl at times, not understanding or forgetting what that manger scene is all about? Have I truly grasped the enormity of the fact that God sent his Son Jesus Christ into our world out of love for us to save us and restore our broken relationship—forever?

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16

This Christmas, let’s all carefully ‘pick up’ that baby Jesus, our Saviour, take him into our hearts once again and truly value the gift we have been given—freedom, peace, joy, a loving relationship with God, forever.

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.

This past week, we celebrated another birthday in our family—our second oldest granddaughter Olivia turned fifteen. This time around, we decided we would have an afternoon tea together instead of our usual dinner, which Olivia seemed happy about—except for one thing. That would mean she could not have her favourite meal ever that Nanna has always made for her birthday.

‘Um, do you think Mac and Cheese would be okay to have at an afternoon tea?’ she asked her mum when told of our arrangements.

Yep, the humble old Macaroni and Cheese dish I learnt to make in Domestic Science classes way back in the early sixties (!) has always been Olivia’s choice of birthday food. It is nothing special at all. Just macaroni and … um … well … cheese … with a layer of breadcrumbs and some white sauce holding it all together. Comfort food personified—and so cheap too.

So what to do? We could hardly have it for afternoon tea. But then I had an idea. I could make some for her anyway and present it to her as a special gift to take home and eat all by herself to her heart’s delight! It might not be quite the same as when freshly made, but I was sure that would be no problem to Olivia.

As I stood in our kitchen cooking this exotic dish, the memories of learning to make it myself in Brisbane when twelve or thirteen came flooding back—and also memories of our granddaughter’s eyes lighting up whenever she spied it on the dinner table. Simple, heart-warming memories of a simple, humble dish. Each year when I would ask Olivia what she wanted for her birthday dinner, I would roll my eyes at her choice and we would laugh together, but she never wavered.

It’s the simple things that can often mean the most, don’t you think? This past week, I decided to put up our Christmas tree and also set out our little nativity scene. Now our nativity scene is very humble indeed. Some of the figures who should be there are missing altogether, while one wise man has a broken arm. There is even an angel with only one wing! But as I set it out, there was something heart-warming about remembering the simple yet profound truth of Christmas—that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born into our world as a humble child in humble surroundings to a humble couple. And that humble event has changed everything.

Then one morning this week, I read the following:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. 2 Corinthians 8:9

It’s that love and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ that makes all the difference, isn’t it? When I come back to this basic truth, all the complexities of the world around me and the things I worry about on a daily basis seem to fade into the background. So this Christmas, may we not get carried away with all the hustle and bustle and commercialism around us. Instead, let’s remember the simple yet profound event at the centre of it all—and be so thankful.

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