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I wonder if you can recall a time when you felt very much on the edge of a group somewhere. Perhaps this describes your situation right now. Or perhaps, like me, your mind went to some setting years ago where you found you did not entirely belong.

At one stage, my husband returned to pastoral ministry, after some years of lecturing. Our new church welcomed us warmly, but I soon discovered the women had plans for me. You see, this church fielded a large number of netball teams in an inter-church competition, so it was assumed I would happily coach some of these players. Yet there was one small problem. I had never, ever played netball—or even basketball, which was more popular where I grew up!

‘Well—never mind,’ one lady told me, her disappointment obvious. ‘You can give out the oranges at half time instead!’

I knew this was not me, however. Instead, I taught three Scripture classes each week at the local primary school, played the piano at church and hosted various events in our home. I even spoke and sang once when the Sunday School anniversary guest speaker dropped out at the last minute! Yet none of this seemed to matter. I did not join in the business of netball, so never quite fitted in.

Perhaps this is part of the reason I have hated to see people left out in any church communities we have joined—or anywhere else either. And perhaps too this is why my heart went out to our seven-year-old granddaughter, when I heard about a recent conversation that took place at her home. Apparently, Maxine had tried to cheat a little, while playing a game with her mum.

‘If you’re going to do that, I won’t play with you again,’ her mum told her firmly—at which point, Maxine became very upset.

‘Well, Daddy’s too busy working and doing things and my brother’s always playing on his devices and … and because you’re angry at me now, I feel alienated from the whole family!’ she sobbed.

Poor Maxine—although it was her fault, partly at least! Yet where on earth had she learnt the word ‘alienated’? And how did she know exactly what it meant or how it felt?

Most of us, even introverts like me, do not want to feel alienated. We are created to connect, to support one another, to do life together. At times, our church communities may disappoint us in this regard—we are all still works in progress. And at times too, as believers, we may feel alienated from others in the wider community. After all, we are now ‘aliens and strangers in this world’ (1 Peter 2:11), marching to the beat of a different drum. Yet however alienated we might feel from others, we can find such comfort in the fact that we are no longer alienated from God. Instead, through Jesus, we who were far off have been drawn near and warmly welcomed into God’s family with loving, open arms.

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! I John 3:1

We belong in God’s family. We are accepted. We are known. We are loved—deeply and forever.

Some things in this life are hard to understand, aren’t they? Often when we hear of some tragic event, we can feel so helpless and dismayed. We may be able to be there for those involved, provide practical support and pray for them, but still those big questions can remain.

This whole matter of life’s hard-to-understand questions was brought home to me recently, as I helped our granddaughter with a uni essay. This involved reading C S Lewis’s The Problem of Pain and grappling with how the idea of a good, all-powerful God could be reconciled with the reality of all the pain and suffering in our world. What a challenge for an eighteen-year-old—and what a challenge for me too, to help formulate a reasoned defence of Lewis’s Christian position!

During this time too, I heard a tragic story about a young mother who had just passed away from cancer not long after the birth of her second child. The mother was so ill that the baby was delivered early—and the grieving father is now left with two young sons to rear, one a premature newborn. It is hard to get our heads around such awful events, isn’t it?

As our granddaughter and I persevered with her essay, however, we came to some basic conclusions at least. We do not claim to be clear, logical thinkers—and we would not want to give any pat answers either. But we decided that God chose, from a position of strength and authority as the Creator of the universe, to give us free will—the ability to choose how we act. In one sense, it could perhaps be said God’s options then became limited, yet God is not intrinsically limited. God is still good and all-powerful, even though we may not be able to see that clearly at times.

Yet we also felt that, while our wrong choices may account for much of the world’s suffering, this does not seem to be the case with the young mother’s death mentioned above. Nor does it account for those large-scale natural disasters in our world, although it could be argued some are the result of man’s not caring for the earth’s God-given resources. We remembered too how sometimes God has judged the world in this way, such as in the days of Noah (Genesis 6). And we wondered too if, at times, God may allow suffering—sometimes suffering teaches us things we might never otherwise learn and refines our faith. Yet right now, through it all, God also longs to comfort and strengthen us in our troubles—God does not leave us to struggle on alone.

It is all so complex, isn’t it? Truly, we know only in part—but one day, we will know fully (1 Corinthians 13:12). And one day too as Christians, we have the wonderful hope of eternal life, where there will be no more pain and suffering at all.

God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Revelation 21:4

One day, those big questions will be answered—or perhaps then they will not matter anymore. But until that day, let’s keep on trusting and walking with our loving, good, all-powerful God.

I was standing in our local Koorong bookstore, promoting my latest novel, when I noticed a lovely young couple nearby. Initially, I thought they might not be interested in talking or looking at my books, but how wrong I was! I cannot remember now whether they approached me first or vice versa, but I do remember their smiling, relaxed manner and how intently they listened as I explained why I was there. Soon we were deep in conversation about writing and about my books. Then after buying two, they said goodbye and moved on.

Not long after, however, the girl came back.

‘Tell me, how did you actually start writing?’ she asked me. ‘How did you know that was what you should do?’

I explained how I had always loved writing, but never considered becoming a writer and opted for teaching instead. I told her too how, twenty years before writing my first novel, I had declared to my husband I would write a book ‘one day’, never truly thinking I ever would. Then I began sharing how, when I was in my fifties, God used some words from Isaiah 42 to challenge me to start writing while visiting a friend in Turkey—at which point she stopped me in mid-sentence.

‘Um … this might be a weird question, but … were you on the radio recently?’

For a moment, I was dumbfounded, but then remembered my Vision Christian radio interview in January about a short story I had written and about my writing in general.

‘Well, yes I was earlier this year, although I understand the interview was re-broadcast a few weeks ago too.’

She was stunned, but eventually managed to tell me how, as soon as I mentioned Turkey and Isaiah 42, she remembered hearing someone share this story on the radio. She had sensed even then that God was nudging her to start her own writing journey—and now she was overwhelmed that she had ‘randomly’ met me in person and was standing there hearing that same story again.

We stared at each other, both blown away at what had happened and how surreal it all felt. Yet it soon became clear too that we both knew we were on holy ground. Now she could not ignore that nudge God had given her already to start writing—now, through our ‘random’ conversation, she was not left in any doubt that this is what God wants her to do.

What an amazing God we have—a God who continues to love us and reach out to us and challenge us to step out in trust and do the things God has put in our hearts to do! When I think how I almost missed talking to this couple because I felt they would not be interested, I cringe. Yet God overruled—and I am so grateful.

It’s about listening to God well, rather than those negative, discouraging voices in our heads, and recognising God’s hand in those ‘random’ encounters, don’t you think? And when we do, God will surely will make the way forward so clear for us.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6

I wonder if you’re like me and can at least occasionally catch a glimpse of how absurd some of our attitudes and actions are. When this happened to me recently, I shook my head at my own foolishness and began laughing out loud at myself—it was just as well I was driving along with the windows up.

You see, the previous day, I had received an order from a library supplier for nineteen copies of my latest novel, Down by the Water. I put these books in a box and went to tape it up, but then remembered the company had stipulated that our invoice needed to be inside the box, along with the books. And on that invoice, we needed to include a charge for freight. So, what to do? Our own scales were a little too unreliable to use, so I realised I would need to carry that rather heavy box out to my car, make a special trip down to our local post office, find out the exact weight and postage charge and bring the box back home again. Then I could put the completed invoice in with the books, tape the box up and head back to the post office.

I sighed. I complained to my husband. I wondered aloud if using our scales would be good enough after all. But when he shook his head, I gave in, let him carry the box to the car for me and drove off in a distinctly disgruntled mood. What a waste of time and effort!

Soon, however, I sensed God saying gently, ‘Come on, Jo-Anne—how about looking at all this from a different perspective?’ And a few moments later, as my crankiness lifted and light dawned, I began laughing aloud at myself.

Yes, there was indeed a different perspective to discover in it all. For a start, we have a car—and I can drive. The post office is nearby and the staff there are very helpful. It was a beautiful day and good to be outside. But apart from that, I actually have another book to do something with! I have always felt God strengthened and sustained me to finish this particular novel—and I am well aware not every author gets to complete his or her book. What’s more, the libraries seem interested in it—enough at least for this particular library supplier to order nineteen copies. When all these blessings were considered, how little my momentary inconvenience mattered!

Of course, sometimes it’s much harder to find that different perspective when huge things are happening in our lives and the going is tough. Yet even then, God is there for us, in the midst of all the turmoil and uncertainty. And God, who is all-knowing and all-powerful and ever-present, longs to hold us close and help us see things from an eternal perspective. In Isaiah 55:9, we read:

As the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

We cannot see the whole picture, can we? So, let’s stop, take time to pray, listen to those higher thoughts of God and be willing to let go of our much more limited perspective on things—and also to laugh at ourselves more often too!

During the recent school holidays, we decided to take our two youngest grandchildren to the new zoo in the Western Sydney Parklands, courtesy of the NSW Government’s ‘Dine and Discover’ vouchers. And we are so glad we did.

At first, our grandson wanted to head straight to see the crocodile, but we persuaded him instead to see the animals in order, starting with the cute little meerkats. Then we managed to reach the elephant enclosure just in time to see them fed. When the zookeeper asked the crowd a couple of questions, then chose our grandson to answer, since his hand had shot up so quickly, I held my breath. And to my amazement, both his answers turned out to be correct.

‘I read how African elephants have bigger ears than Asian ones on the sign back there, Nanna,’ he told me. ‘And I just guessed elephants don’t have any bones in their trunks!’

He was alert. He was engaged. And as we kept walking, I began to see all those animals with fresh eyes—the eyes of an eager, nine-year-old boy and his seven-year-old sister. We did our best to spot the African painted dog and the sleepy hyenas. We marvelled at the size of the giraffes and the lion and the weird-looking camels. We watched enthralled as that beautiful, elegant tiger prowled straight towards its ‘prey’—a pretend, cardboard zebra where the keepers had hidden its food. Then at last, we reached the huge, scary-looking crocodile in its big tank. Both children watched fascinated for ages, as it slowly moved to the surface, much to their joy. Yes, they were definitely impressed with their crocodile. And soon, I too began to marvel at its amazing ridged, armour-like skin, large claws—and of course those menacing teeth!

But not long after, we reached the reptile house, where the huge pythons we discovered there almost eclipsed the crocodile, along with gaudy, green tree snakes and large lizards, some so well camouflaged I needed our grandchildren’s help to spot them. Then, of all things, the frogs captured our granddaughter’s attention. Yes, I was definitely seeing even the more ordinary creatures with fresh eyes.

Later, as I reflected on our zoo experiences, it occurred to me to wonder what else in my life I needed to look at with fresh eyes. What about the trees outside my window—and the beautiful flowering shrubs nearby? What about my family and friends? Most importantly, what about God? Do I need to stop and be amazed all over again at who God is and what God has done? Have I lost some of the awe and wonder I once felt when gazing at God’s handiwork in nature and in the people around me? And do I also need to see with fresh eyes what God has done in my own life and be so much more thankful for it all?

I think it’s high time I cultivated a childlike heart again that looks and marvels and truly believes, don’t you? After all, that’s what Jesus told us to do.

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 8:2-3

I did not feel like baking on this particular day—and that should have been a warning to me. I know from past experience that when my mind is elsewhere, whatever I attempt in the kitchen may not turn out well. And that was definitely the case this time around.

I measured out the butter for my fruit cake carefully. Then the sugar followed—and the mixed fruit and nuts. I even congratulated myself that I had enough mixed fruit left for another fruit cake some other time. Then, after adding water, I put everything on to boil for a few minutes. But as I stirred that mixture, it did not look the same as usual. Had I put too much butter in? No—I remembered weighing it out so carefully. Perhaps I was imagining it. After all, I had not made this particular boiled fruit cake for a while.

I put the mixture aside until cool. But later, when I added the eggs, vanilla, flour and spices, it still looked different. I checked through the ingredients again. Yes, I had remembered everything. So, with a shrug, I put the cake in the oven.

Over two hours later, as I went to cut that cake, I noticed a lot less mixed fruit than usual in it. How could that be? Then in a sudden flash of insight, I realised what I had done. I had used only one cup of mixed fruit instead of three! As a result of my lack of concentration, I had left out two-thirds of the main ingredient! Yes, the cake was still edible. But it lacked its usual firm texture and lovely, rich taste my husband enjoys so much.

I slunk off to my study, feeling so disgruntled and annoyed with myself. But as I mulled over my mistake, I decided to ask God what I could learn from the whole experience. Surely something could be salvaged from this disappointing event, apart from a rather crumbly cake?

Then into my head and heart came the following thought. Yes, Jesus is Lord of my life. He died for me, has forgiven me, has brought me into God’s family, has given me fulfilment in this life and hope for the future. I love him and belong to him. Yet at times, I still manage to step into my days without giving much thought to this ‘main ingredient’ in my life. Or perhaps I spend some moments with him, but take on board only a portion of what he wants to say to me. As a result, I miss out on so much of the richness Jesus wants to pour into my days. And there is little of value within me either that I can offer to others for them to enjoy. In other words, I know the best recipe for my life—but I do not always follow it well.

I hope I take more care next time I bake. But much more importantly, I hope I have learnt that deeper lesson God had for me and ensure I am filled each day with the best main ingredient ever—that rich, tasty soul food God offers each one of us.

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Psalm 34:8   

Waiting …

As an eighteen-year-old in my first year at university, I remember studying a play called Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett for our English course. I can still recall where I was sitting in the sloping lecture theatre, the day we all watched a live performance of this play. And I can well remember how confused and ignorant I felt. What was I missing? Did everyone else understand what was happening—or not happening?

I looked around and, to my relief, many others seemed bemused too. We were all wriggling in our seats. And we were bored, oh so bored, as we waited and waited for the person who seemed to be expected to turn up in the play. But even more, we were waiting for that performance to end! If nothing else, Samuel Beckett clearly conveyed to us the hopeless feeling we can get when we have to wait forever for something.

There are different sorts of waiting, it seems to me. I remember what it was like to wait for exam results at school and university. I would be filled with excitement as I anticipated those good marks for the subjects I loved. Yet I felt distinctly nervous at the prospect of seeing a big ‘F’ for ‘Fail’ beside those subjects I did not care for.

And I well remember waiting for our three children to be born, each one of them overdue by around a week. We were so excited to welcome them into the world. Would we have a boy or a girl? Who would they look like? Yet I dreaded the thought of those hours of labour that I knew awaited me. I was not looking forward to that, yet it was part of what needed to happen for the baby to arrive.

These various waiting experiences came to mind this past Easter as I read again what happened after Jesus was crucified.

Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea and he was waiting for the kingdom of God. Luke 23:50-51

The phrase ‘waiting for the kingdom of God’ caught my attention. Joseph, it seems, was a just and godly man—but he was more than that too. John’s Gospel tells us he was actually ‘a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews.’ (John 19:38) Yet at this point, he found the courage to go to Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body, along with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who had earlier visited Jesus at night. Joseph was looking for the coming Messiah. He was expectant. He was ready and waiting to believe and follow him. And, despite his fear and the danger he and Nicodemus might face from their fellow Jews, he acted, treating Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, with true dignity and reverence (19:39-42).

I wonder if that is how I am treating Jesus right now. Am I focussed on living for the Messiah who died for me? Am I filled with hope and expectancy, as I wait for that day when I will see him face to face?

I hope I, like Joseph of Arimathea, am waiting well for Jesus in a way that honours him.

They can slide off our lips before we know it, can’t they? Perhaps they are spoken in a flash of anger or irritation. Or perhaps they slip out in a thoughtless moment when our minds are elsewhere. Whatever the case, those reckless words we say can leave their mark for a very long time—as can those others have said to us.

Recently, I listened and watched, heart in mouth, as someone made a remark to another that was meant to be kind. Unfortunately, they had forgotten how much the other person hated such comments. A moment later, I watched the facial expressions of both parties change. One looked horrified and remorseful, as if they would give anything to take their words back, while the other looked more than a little exasperated and even angry. Immediately, I felt sorry for them both. I tried my best to smooth things over and change the topic of conversation, but was only partly successful. Those words had been said—the damage had been done.

Sometimes, however, we may speak to wound on purpose. I still remember clearly an occasion years ago when I spoke rashly in anger, unconcerned at how hurtful my words might be to the person they were aimed at. In that instant, all I wanted to do was lash out, determined to defend myself and get my point across. Later, I regretted it, although my opinion on the matter under discussion did not change. I apologised—and so did the other person. But ground was lost in the process. And, sadly, there was little opportunity afterwards for that relationship to be restored and for trust to be established again.

No wonder then that the following words resonated with me when I read them last week:

Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18

I long for the words that roll off my tongue to bring healing rather than piercing pain to others, don’t you? Of course, at times, we need to speak firmly and with passion, to stand up for what is right and not let things slide because we lack the courage to confront. In those instances, it will hopefully be righteous anger and the desire for God’s justice to rule that motivate us to speak out. But at all times, our end goal needs to be restoration and healing—for others and for ourselves.

Then further on in the same chapter, I came across the following:

An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up. Proverbs 12:25

We are often unaware what others are going through, aren’t we, or what is driving them to act the way they do? At times we can see anxiety written on a person’s face or obvious in how they speak and act. Yet many of us are adept at burying such emotions well below the surface where others will not notice. How important it is then to endeavour to speak kindly, because those few words from us can lighten another’s load in ways we might never know or could ever imagine.

Be kind and compassionate to one another … Ephesians 4:32

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 1 Corinthians 13:4

How could he?

These days leading up to Easter are always filled with mixed emotions for me. I feel so joyful and relieved when I think about Easter Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. Yet I always feel a sense of dread too, as Good Friday approaches, because those last days of Jesus’ earthly life held such pain for him on many different levels.

This year in preparation for Easter, I decided to read the last few chapters of Luke’s Gospel again slowly, wanting—yet not wanting—to follow Jesus’ journey to the cross. And, as always, I found new challenges awaiting me and a whole new appreciation for the huge sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf.

Central to this was the way Jesus remained in control of all that took place. For our sake, he allowed those terrible events to happen to him. For us, he deliberately remained at the mercy of Pilate, Herod, the soldiers, the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard and the crowd who shouted, ‘Crucify him!’ The physical pain he endured through it all, even before his crucifixion, must have been absolutely excruciating. But what challenged me most this time as I read was the deep mental, emotional and spiritual anguish he must have suffered, as he was mocked and ridiculed. Yet he took it all—for you and for me—and I still find that hard to fathom.

When Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he forbids his followers to defend him in any physical way. When one of them strikes the high priest’s servant and cuts off his ear, Jesus even goes to the extent of healing the wounded man (Luke 22:51). Yet further on in that same chapter, we read how Jesus himself is not only beaten, but cruelly mocked and made fun of too.

The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, “Prophesy! Who hit you?” And they said many other insulting things to him. Luke 22:63-64

How did Jesus, the Saviour of the world, put up with such taunts? How shameful that the Son of God, who knows all things, was blindfolded as if a child taking part in some party game and challenged to guess who hit him! It makes my blood boil just to read it. I myself am often too proud to accept any sort of rebuke or hint of insult or blame. Yet Jesus, who had done nothing wrong and instead healed and restored so many, took this shameful rubbish and cruel play-acting on our behalf.

I read on then, as Jesus quietly answers the chief priests and teachers of the law the next morning and is taken before Pilate, then passed over to Herod. And here the scoffing and taunting continues.

Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate.  Luke 23:11

Yet Jesus does not retaliate or even speak out to defend himself. Instead, when he is eventually led away and hangs on that cross, he prays:

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

What amazing love Jesus showed for us—what a beautiful Saviour we have! This Easter, let’s truly remember this and worship Jesus with all our heart.

It’s not every day we take ourselves off to enjoy high tea somewhere, so we had been particularly looking forward to this one, a special Christmas gift from our son and daughter-in-law. And at last, there we were, standing slightly overawed in the grand entrance to the Wintergarden Restaurant of the Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains, and wondering if we were back in the early 1900s when this amazing edifice was built.

I gathered together as many ladylike manners as I could muster and tried not to boggle at the beautiful, satin upholstered furniture nearby and the dining tables beyond, with their pristine, white linen tablecloths and plush chairs. Then a staff member greeted us and ushered us to our table beside the huge windows that framed a stunning view of the Megalong Valley and the surrounding mountains. By this stage, we were slightly speechless—this did not feel like us!

Soon, a lovely waiter came to take our beverage order. Then, not long after, another staff member brought our sumptuous high tea to us with a smile and asked whether we wanted the different treats explained to us. Yes, that would be helpful, we decided, as our eyes bulged.

But where to start? Soon we were demolishing the middle tier of savoury food—curried egg sandwiches, cucumber and cream cheese squares, tiny rye sliders, delicious lamb wraps and small pastry treats. Then, feeling almost replete already, we slowly moved on to the lower tier of delicious scones, jam and cream. Yum! After that, we waited some considerable time before deciding to tackle those tempting cakes and desserts on the top tier. And what a delight each one turned out to be, when we finally gave in! There was such attention to detail too, with a little chocolate stalk and flower petal leaf on the delicious citrus ball and gold edging on the raspberry that decorated the chocolate mousse creation. They were almost too lovely to eat.

Later, as we recovered and reflected on the whole experience, I sensed God saying, ‘I’m glad you enjoyed it, but the feast I provide for everyone is even more beautiful and satisfying!’  

Then I remembered God’s heart-wrenching plea to the Israelites so many years ago:

If my people would but listen to me, if Israel would follow my ways, how quickly would I subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes! Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him, and their punishment would last forever. But you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” Psalm 81:13-16

I wonder how many times I, like the Israelites, have turned down that gentle but insistent invitation to come and eat the food only God can provide that will truly sustain me, whatever happens in life? I wonder how many times I have struggled on in my own strength, starving myself of spiritual nourishment, when it was there all the time for the taking?

Let’s not turn away or ignore that beautiful feast God offers each one of us. Instead, each day, let’s do what King David urges us to do:

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Psalm 34:8