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I had arrived bright and early at a nearby bookstore to promote my books. As I settled in, I wondered what adventures awaited me. From past experience—and also because I and others had prayed—I knew there would be at least one special ‘God appointment’ with someone that day. And that is exactly what happened. Four or five times as I chatted with various customers, I sensed God connecting our spirits in a way that is hard to describe. It might have been for only a fleeting moment, but I knew something was happening outside of or beyond the words I was saying.

At one stage, I began talking with a young woman who was a little hard to understand at first. Her voice was soft and she wore a mask, but English was obviously quite a challenge for her too. I explained about my books, but could see she was still mystified. Eventually, she picked up a copy of Becoming Me and we talked about receiving God’s love and about understanding who God created us to be. She opened up a little more then, telling me in her faltering English about her husband who suffered from depression but was now doing better. Then she took the book to a spot where she could sit down and glance through it.

Later, however, she returned it, telling me she wanted something that would explain things more or teach her about it all. But then, as she went to leave, she thanked me sincerely in her soft, gentle voice for listening to her—for simply listening! Even though her eyes just peeked over her mask, I could see such gratitude in them and also that she was trying hard not to cry. I will never forget those pleading eyes and my heart went out to her yet again, as I silently prayed for God’s love and grace to fill her and meet her needs.

We can’t all be in bookstores, promoting our books, but most of us at least connect with others during our weeks, however fleetingly, either in person or by phone or some other way. I certainly do, not only in my own home but also in the village where we live, as well as wider afield. So… how do I act then when talking with others? How well do I show respect for them by truly listening? How carefully do I take note of their tone of voice, their manner, their facial expression—and particularly their eyes? How often do I put their needs first, instead of thinking of my own or of what clever comment I myself might make next?

This week, I came across the following blunt proverb in my Bible:

 He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame. Proverbs 18:13

What an important warning—to me and to us all! How much better if we were to be ‘quick to listen and slow to speak’ instead (James 1:19). And how much better too if we were to listen more to the voice of Jesus our Shepherd as we engage with others and follow the leading of the one who knows us all so well (John 10:27). Perhaps then we would remember to give that gift of listening more often, don’t you think?

We are complex beings, aren’t we? Sometimes we think we know why we do the things we do, but then we may discover other reasons lurking beneath the surface. We may try to help someone, yet find in the end our actions are more to make us feel good about ourselves. Or we may give that help in the hope that, when we need help, they will perhaps return the favour. We like to think our motives are pure, but sometimes they can be more mixed than we care to believe, as I myself discovered recently.

Sometime last year, a gentleman invited me to speak at a secular venue and told me I would receive a monetary gift towards my travel costs. I thought that was quite generous as, often in the past, I have received instead either a bottle of wine, which I usually give away, or some chocolates, which I don’t eat! I thanked him, but then enquired whether I could also display my books. This seemed to shock him, however.

‘Well, either we give you the money or you sell your books!’ he told me in a rather incensed tone. ‘But if you want to bring a few, I’ll look the other way.’

I felt like some mercenary criminal. Why he would need to look the other way? I have sold my books at such meetings many times before and still received some sort of gift at least. Besides, any author will tell you writing books is not a good way to get rich quickly—unless one’s book is a bestseller!

This particular meeting was cancelled because of Covid but, when we made a new date, I discovered this man would not be there then. So, I decided to display my books after all and see what happened as far as any monetary gift was concerned.

Nothing did. I sold two books, which of course did not cover travel costs, and returned home more than a little disgruntled.

As I reflected on this experience, however, I began to feel more ashamed than disgruntled. Hands down, if I had to choose, I would prefer to sell my books rather than receive money to cover travel costs. After all, I want readers to enjoy my books and also hopefully be drawn closer to God in some way. Besides, many times I have happily spoken at different places, well aware there will be no monetary gift afterwards. Yet this day, I sensed my motives had shifted a little.

In the end, I decided to sit down and remember who gave me the gifts of writing and speaking and who has enabled me to do both for years now. I might not have made a great deal—but I am not in debt either. And I have met many interesting people along the way and learnt so much. Soon I began to feel thankful again for my wonderful, God-given, unexpected, later-in-life journey. And I remembered too the verse featured on my website, reminding me to glorify God, rather than seek glory and gain for myself.

Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness. Psalm 115:1

I hope I keep that wonderful, pure motive in mind more often in future.

Such a small word

Some years ago, a friend pointed out how I often use a particular little word when writing or speaking about family members. ‘Our Jane changed jobs’ or ‘Our Zain is doing better’ or ‘Our Amy started university’—yes, that little pronoun ‘our’ in these and other similar comments made in an email or while chatting seemed to have captured her attention.

‘It sounds so nice’, she said, although I cannot remember why she thought that. Perhaps to her it spoke of how we love and value whichever family member I was referring to. Perhaps it conveyed our concern for their welfare or joy at their successes or pride in their decisions. Perhaps it showed we truly identify with that person, believe in them and want the best for them. One day, I will ask her what she meant but, whatever the reason, that little three-letter word of mine seemed to touch her heart.

One morning recently, however, I suspect I caught a glimpse for myself of how my friend might have felt, as I started reading the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians once again. It was not long before I had to pause—in fact, I did not get past Paul’s greeting right at the beginning:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus. To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:1-2

What could be so remarkable about these verses? Why did I stop at that point and sit staring into space? Somehow, that little word ‘our’ in the last sentence had touched my own heart. I knew Paul had written that greeting and that he was no doubt referring to the fact that Timothy and he and the believers in Philippi all belonged to the same heavenly Father. But that morning, it was as if Jesus himself was saying gently to me, ‘Grace and peace to you, Jo-Anne, from God our Father—yes, our Father. I gave you the right to be part of my Father’s family when you believed in me. We will always watch over you, so be at peace today and know you are surrounded with our love and grace.’

How could that little word ‘our’ convey so much to me that morning? Perhaps it was merely my imagination. After all, I am a writer. But something changed inside me as I sat there, reading those words over and over. I had been feeling tired and quite discouraged, yet now I sensed Jesus understood, identified fully with me and had reached out in love to remind me who I belong to. I could be rational and tell myself this is not what those verses actually say or mean—or I could choose to listen with my heart and be reminded deep in my spirit that I am included in the beautiful, warm circle of God’s family, joined to other believers but also to Jesus Christ—forever.

I remembered then too those first words Jesus himself uttered when teaching his disciples how to pray:

Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. … Matthew 6:9

There is that little word ‘our’ again. Important to Jesus then and now—and so important for us too.

I am not a seasoned solver of jigsaw puzzles. I enjoy them when I have time—and I enjoyed helping my husband with the two puzzles I gave him last year, even when he did not want or need my help! But the one-thousand-piece puzzle he gave me for Christmas certainly exacted any revenge he might have wished to exact—and then some! Eventually, however, I conquered the challenge and felt quite chuffed when I did. Then I saw that extra puzzle piece lying on the table nearby. I had noticed it on and off while doing the jigsaw and wondered where it could possibly fit. It did not look quite the same as the other foliage pieces in the puzzle, so each time, I put it aside. Now there it still was, with no more spaces available where it could possibly go.

For a while, I gazed at it in disbelief. Surely a jigsaw puzzle company would not make that sort of mistake? I checked the completed puzzle again—nope, definitely no spare spots. Then my mind jumped to the possibility that, somewhere out there, some other poor person was trying to complete their own puzzle, only to find one crucial piece missing! I would certainly hate that to happen to me, after all my efforts. Someone else then suggested the puzzle creators might have put that extra piece in just to make things harder or to tease their poor victims. But again, surely not! Or… could they?

Soon I will pack my completed puzzle away, spare piece and all. And maybe sometime in the future, I will do it again, forgetting about that pesky extra piece! But there is one memory I will never forget that surfaced as I worked on my puzzle. A few times, I tried to put a piece in place that seemed right, yet I did not hear that soft, little ‘click’ that would tell me the piece was a perfect fit there. And those little ‘clicks’ brought back a memory that is almost sixty years old now.

In 1963, a friend invited me to a youth camp run by the then Methodist church. One night, after the speaker had invited us to commit our lives to Christ, I was one of the first to move quickly to the front. I was overwhelmed with the thought that God knew me and loved me—that I mattered to God. And somewhere deep inside, I felt and heard a loud, satisfying ‘click’ like the sound of the last piece of a child’s wooden jigsaw puzzle falling into place. Suddenly, the fact that Jesus Christ loved us and died for us made sense to me. It was as if a veil lifted from my eyes and I knew I had found the reason I was on this earth—to love and serve God.

One day, we will see the whole, completed picture of our lives from God’s perspective. One day, we will understand fully. But for now, let’s keep believing and trusting in the one who loves us totally and can bring all the pieces of our lives together in the best way possible.

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. 1 Corinthians 13:12 NLT

You never know

I have discovered I need to be prepared for anything when heading somewhere to speak. Sometimes I arrive, only to find some promised piece of essential equipment has not materialised. Or I may turn up to find everything has been taken care of beautifully. Some helpful person has the data projector or TV screen ready and connects my laptop up so that everything works perfectly, while another offers to help with my books. I always go well-armed, however, for all situations—because you never know, do you?!

Then there are the adventures of connecting with people before or after I speak. Sometimes, I discover someone knows someone in my family—my husband or one of our children. Or sometimes, someone tells me they have heard me speak elsewhere in the past. I hold my breath a little at that, but am touched as they perhaps mention something I said back then. And I am touched too, as happened this past week, when someone bounds up to my book table to say they bought my first three novels years ago after I spoke at their church—and thankfully loved them. But each time, I never know who will be listening as I speak and what interesting encounters I may have with people.

All this has taught me some important lessons. Wherever I go, I need to go prayerfully, listening for those prompts from God. Whatever I say, I need to say carefully, with gentleness and sensitivity, but also with honesty. And whatever words I put in my books, I need to write them with much deep thought and prayer. Wherever I go, I want to be the best co-worker with God I can possibly be (1 Corinthians 3:9 NLT). And wherever my books end up, I want them to reflect something at least of the heart of God for our world.

Recently, a friend wrote to tell me how she picked up one of my older novels from near the letterboxes in her section of the retirement village where she lives, took it home to read and ‘thoroughly enjoyed it’. Residents often leave books they have read in such places in the village, so, after finishing it, she then put my novel near some letterboxes in another part of the village. The next time she went past, someone had taken it. ‘It’s so good to see the seeds being sown,’ she wrote. ‘Only eternity will reveal it all.’

Whether writers or speakers or not, we all have the privilege of being God’s co-workers however and wherever we can. And no particular person’s efforts are more important than another’s. Yes, I wrote the book, but my friend grasped the opportunity and put it out there for someone else to read. And ultimately, while we might sow the seed or water it, it is God who enables that seed to grow and flourish, as Paul tells us:

It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. 1 Corinthians 3:7 NLT

Let’s be ready, always, to plant or water or speak or share or encourage or do whatever God gives us to do. We may never know when that will be. We may never know the end result. But God does—and that’s what matters.

Really?

I had made my way bright and early to a large shopping centre nearby. There were two things I needed and I was definitely focussed on finding these quickly, then scuttling home. As I passed a particular clothing store selling ‘intimate apparel’, however, I gasped out loud and stopped dead. No, it was not the very skimpy garments in the window that caught my eye first off. Instead, it was a bold sign there written in large letters:

I COME FIRST

Really? Is that how we are supposed to live our lives? Despite my slightly shocked state, I realised this could be a mere marketing slogan, an overstatement aimed at making potential customers decide they deserve to pamper themselves or buy this or that expensive, perhaps frivolous item, rather than something for someone else or something a little more practical. And maybe there are times when we should do such things. For some of us at least, it may be the right thing to care for ourselves better and put ourselves first more at times, so we can regain our strength or our health. But… ‘I come first’ all the time? Really? Is that what God wants us to do?

I remembered then a recent TV ad I had seen for a reality series that apparently ‘all Australia is waiting to see’, according to the promoters! I had gasped when I heard one of the contestants declare something to the effect that she likes to make all the decisions because ‘it always has to be my way!’ Imagine living or even be friends with someone with such a selfish, arrogant attitude where everything has to suit them and where their needs always come before the needs of others!

Somehow, I think God calls us to march to the beat of a different drum, don’t you? Even in the middle of the shopping centre that morning, I thought of the parable Jesus told on one occasion when he went to eat at the home of a prominent Pharisee and noticed how the guests chose the places of honour at the table (Luke 14). Instead, he urged those present to take the lowest place and leave it to the host to invite them to move up to a better spot. Then he ended with the following:

For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 14:11 NLT

I remembered too some challenging words the Apostle Paul wrote about putting others’ welfare before our own:

 Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. Philippians 2:3-4 NLT

Paul then urges us to remember Jesus, who put everything aside for us, became a man and humbled himself completely, even to the point of dying on a cross.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave… Philippians 2:5-11 NLT

Really? What a challenge! And what a different attitude from the one that declares ‘I come first!’

Let’s choose it anyway. Let’s dare to be different. Let’s remember Jesus’ example. And let’s do our best to put others first—always.

‘We’ll show Mummy you can do something she says she can’t do!’ I told our two younger grandchildren blithely, before they came to spend the day with us. Now the moment had arrived. There was my sewing box, complete with needles, buttons and coloured thread. And there too was seven-year-old Maxine, needle in hand and eager to be shown how to sew a button on the piece of cloth I had given her.

After overcoming the problem of threading that pesky needle, Maxine did well at pushing her needle through the cloth, then carefully through each hole in the button and finally back down through the cloth. I tried to guide her needle close to her earlier stitches with minimal success, but we kept going. And soon she had repeated the process often enough that her button was well and truly attached to that cloth, after Nanna’s help to tie one final knot. Sure, it looked a mess on the underside, but fine on the side that really mattered! Two more buttons followed—and Maxine was soon quite chuffed with all her efforts.

I thought ten-year-old Zain might not want to join in, but when I reminded him how his dad does any mending needed in their family, he seemed more interested. Soon there he was too, carefully sewing on his first button. Despite usually having difficulty with fine motor skills, he managed to thread his own needle and also get it through the cloth and the hole in his button in one go—an impressive feat indeed. Then he chose a more challenging four-hole button and another after that, which he sewed on mostly by himself. Sure, his was a mess of dark thread on the underside too, but those buttons were indeed on there to stay.

At times as I sat frantically trying to rescue both children at once, I sensed a little niggle in my spirit that God wanted to show me something via this whole exercise, but I pushed it aside. Later, however, when I had time to reflect more, I felt I had been offered a gracious, little glimpse into my own sometimes stumbling journey with God.

As I reflected, the image in my mind of the tangled stitches beneath those buttons spoke to me of the messes in my own life at times. I might have looked good on the outside, but God has always seen beyond that to the confusion below and lovingly reached out to help. With much more patience than I could muster as I helped our grandchildren with their sewing, God has graciously rescued me from the tangles my own thoughts and actions have often created and has persevered in teaching and refining me and helping me grow. Sometimes, I have welcomed that help, like my grandchildren did—and sometimes I have not. Yet God has still persevered, weaving the threads of my life together in a much better and much more satisfying way than I ever could have.

I’m so glad we have a gracious, merciful God who is not fazed by messes, aren’t you?

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live. Psalm 116:1-2

I hate to admit it, but sometimes I can become so good at feeling sorry for myself for one reason or another that all the lovely things around me do not get a look-in. Instead of stepping back and seeing the whole picture, I focus in on only one little part—and perhaps even the darkest, most uninteresting part at that. At times too, I can be so busy airing my woes that those various gentle, encouraging words spoken or sent to me simply go unheard or ignored.

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? I hope not—but I suspect we all might fall into this trap at times.

Recently, I tried to begin arranging some more speaking engagements for the coming year, but soon gave up. It’s all too hard, I decided. What groups or organisations want to arrange anything right now, given all this COVID uncertainty? Even if some events are set up, no doubt they will need to be postponed, just like many of my speaking engagements were last year.

In the midst of this delightful bout of self-pity, an email popped into my inbox from a lady I met way back in 2013 when I spoke at an event at her church in another state and have not seen since. In it, she told me she had been looking for a book to read when she thought of me. She had enjoyed my most recent novel when it was released a year ago and wondered if I was writing another one—perhaps a sequel? Then she added a few, final, lovely words: Your inspirational writing is very needed.

In my self-pitying state, I almost missed this simple, little, closing sentence. I read it, but I did not take time to savour her words or truly allow them to encourage me—at least, not then. But thankfully, God alerted me to this state of affairs soon after via yet another encouraging email, this time from a lady I have never met. She told me she had ‘been fortunate enough’ to find my first two novels, Heléna and All the Days of My Life, in a ‘Save the Children’ op shop and wanted to enquire about another of my books. Then she concluded by thanking me for the truly Christian perspective in my novels.

At that point, I began to realise God was up to something. Yes, these women had written my two lovely, little emails, but God had surely inspired them to do so to spur me on to keep going in the coming year. What an Encourager God truly can be to us each day via the Spirit in us and via others, as we listen and take note! And how important it is to pass this encouragement on too, just as these women did for me.

Today, whatever is happening in your life, may you too hear and truly receive God’s gentle encouragement deep in your spirit. May you not miss those moments, as I almost did. And may God use us all to reach out and encourage others as often as we can.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Hebrews 10:24

Words matter

I think about words a lot. After all, I am a writer. As I weave my sentences together, even in a short blog, I am always asking myself, ‘Can I put things in a better way? Will this be relevant to my readers? Am I saying something worthwhile that may comfort or encourage or challenge?’ Beyond that, I also ask, ‘Is this something God wants me to write—or am I off course? Does it honour God? Does it line up with God’s Word?’

When it comes to novel writing, there are many more questions I need to ask. Is this part necessary? Does it move the plot forward? Is this character believable? Do I need more or less description here? With non-fiction, there are questions too. Should I expand this or that point? Do my chapters each build on what I am trying to say? Should I add more illustrations—or quotations—or Bible references? On it goes.

As COVID allows, however, I am also a speaker—and this is where I need to think even more about my many words. Here they are not tumbling out of my mind onto my computer screen where I can then edit them. Instead, they roll off my tongue so easily and, once spoken, are very hard to take back. I may have been invited to speak somewhere to inform or entertain a secular audience for an hour or so, but I want to honour God in it all too. And in a church context, I want to share a message that will enable those present to draw closer to God in some way and allow God’s Spirit to touch hearts and change lives. What a responsibility! And how careful I need to be to listen to God through it all.

Yet we all need to be so careful in our normal, everyday lives too with the words we speak and write—a quick instruction here and there, a sharp response, a friendly chat with a neighbour, an email, a Facebook comment. Sometimes it can be so hard, can’t it, to reign in that tongue of ours, as James reminds us (James 1:26), or those words that can flow out so thoughtlessly into cyberspace? Before we know it, we can either build up or tear down.

In recent weeks, I have been thinking even more about the power of words as a possible topic for yet another book project of mine, along with trying to plan my speaking schedule for the year as best I can in our COVID context. And no doubt that is why I sat up and took more notice than usual when I read the following verses in Proverbs one morning:

Wise words satisfy like a good meal; the right words bring satisfaction. The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences. Proverbs 18:20-21 NLT

Wow—gulp! What power we have at our disposal each day with those words we wield!

I want my words to be wise and satisfying, don’t you? And I definitely want to bring life and not death via what I speak or write. Words matter indeed—to God and to our listeners or readers. May we each choose them carefully. And may we always harvest good fruit from them.

Mixed reactions

I watched with interest and a little heart in mouth on Christmas Day, as our younger grandchildren opened their presents from us. I had spent a lot of time tracking down things I thought they might like, but had I made the right choices? Besides, they had already received wonderful gifts from their aunties and uncles. What were our contributions in comparison?

They opened their main presents from us first, followed by the bulging Christmas stocking we give our grandchildren each year. Yes, our almost-ten-year-old seemed to like the game we gave him and the books. But it was the much cheaper T-shirt that delighted him most—all because of one word on the pocket and a few symbols scattered elsewhere on it.

‘Oh, a Minecraft T-shirt!’ he exclaimed in an excited voice.

Yep, I had made the right choice!

I then watched our seven-year-old granddaughter open her gifts. Suddenly, joy lit up her face when she saw that pesky Mousetrap game—yay, it seemed I had again made the right choice. Then both children attacked their Christmas stockings. And how delighted they were to discover their favourite chocolatey things ever inside! Other little gifts I had included paled into insignificance when compared to those Smarties… and M and Ms… and chocolate frogs… and Cherry Ripe… and little jars of Nutella, as well as other sweet treats. Hmm.

During the course of that Christmas Day, I watched various adults too, as they opened their presents. Again, there were some delighted reactions, especially from one of our daughters when her husband surprised her with a brand-new phone. But other responses were a little more muted and restrained. In each case, the recipients might well have greatly appreciated their gifts, yet in some instances, I was left wondering. Did this person really get the gift she had wanted? Was that other person disappointed with theirs too? Had I made a big blunder with some of the presents we gave?

Then my mind turned to the reason we give and receive all these gifts. Supposedly, they serve as a symbol of our earthly love for one another that mirrors the heavenly love God showed us in sending Jesus—a kind of joyful reminder of the greatest Gift of all. But… well… how easily that reason can be lost! And how easily I myself had overlooked it, in my flurry of getting and giving! Surely, at Christmas—and at least before I step into another year—I needed to reflect so much more on the amazing God-given Gift at the core of Christmas.

We live in uncertain times, for sure. Who knows what 2022 will hold? Only God. Yet we have each been offered the wonderful privilege of stepping into this new year hand in hand with our Saviour who will always watch over us in love. May you and I not place this priceless Gift to one side, preferring other cheaper, more enticing things. May Jesus not receive any mixed reactions from us. Instead, may we welcome him into our lives with great joy and thankfulness and follow him wholeheartedly into whatever the future holds.

He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God… John 1:11-12 NLT