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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.’

Being bold

There we were, walking past some shops while on holidays, when we saw a girl on a seat at the edge of the footpath. She was quite well-dressed and attractive, but what drew our attention to her was that she was crying loudly. She would stop for a while, then start again—it was distressing to witness.

I hesitated, unsure what to do. What could have happened to cause her so much grief? It seemed bizarre to wail and sob in such a public place—perhaps she had long-term mental and emotional issues and found it hard to stay grounded in reality. Whatever the reason, she was obviously in great need.

Yet I did not know if it was wise to approach her—and what could I offer anyway? We were strangers in the area and unfamiliar with what local help would be available to her. I hated to leave her as she was, but in the end, we decided to move on, hoping there was someone else nearby who knew her history and could assist her.

After reaching the nearby waterfront and looking around for a while, we headed back to our car along the opposite side of the road from where the distraught girl had been. As we did, I looked to see if she had moved on—but no. There she was, still wailing and still alone.

‘Perhaps I should go over and talk to her,’ I said to my husband. ‘Maybe I can offer to pray for her at least.’

He agreed, so I went to cross the road. But just as I did, I saw a salesperson come out of a nearby shop and walk towards the girl. I hesitated again, wondering if I should join them or wait until the girl was alone again. But then the saleslady sat down with the girl and stayed there for some time, trying to talk to her. Yet the girl seemed to cringe away from her, as if lost in a world of grief and pain that could not be shared.

What should I do? I did not want to be like the religious leaders in the story of the Good Samaritan who crossed over to the other side of the road and ignored the person needing help (Luke 10). But we had to keep moving, so I decided to pray for this girl right where I was. And I continued praying for her after we left. Then the story in Matthew’s Gospel came to mind where Jesus heals the centurion’s servant, even though this servant was not even present (8:5-13). Just say the word, the centurion tells Jesus, and my servant will be healed. Could Jesus do the same for this girl?

I don’t know if I should have been bolder in approaching this girl. But I do know this. God can handle it when we pray bold prayers. In fact, we are encouraged to do exactly that:

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. Hebrews 4:16 NLT

May God continue to heal this poor girl. And may I learn to be bolder in sharing God’s love and grace with others however I can.

Lost

‘We want to go the long way—we’ll still beat you to the car!’ our two youngest grandkids informed us, as we went to drive them home after a happy day together during the school holidays.  

We thought they meant their usual trick of heading upstairs in our unit block and down again, while we walked the normal way—but this time, they went further afield. And to their dismay and ours, they soon became lost in our big retirement village.

We waited and waited—but no grandkids showed up. I ran around our unit block several times, calling their names. Nothing. I raced up to the village centre. Nothing. I asked others along the way and, while one lady had seen them dash past, there was now no sign of them. My husband drove around looking. Again nothing.

What to do? I stood on a corner, hoping they would see me, and thought of calling the police. But at last, a lady I know came walking towards me, holding Zain and Maxine’s hands. At that point, she seemed like an angel to me!

‘Would you like two grandchildren?’ she asked, as I tried not to burst into tears.

Zain and Maxine looked even more sober and scared when they saw they had upset me. They did their best to explain how they tried to find their way back but had become completely confused, and their rescuer also explained how Zain had been very sensible and asked her nicely where our unit was. But what a fright for them—and us! The next time they were with us, they willingly made thankyou cards and some chocolate brownies for their rescuing angel—and their thanks were indeed heartfelt.

I wonder if you have had a similar heart-in-mouth experience of losing someone or of being lost yourself? Once when travelling in Turkey with a friend, I went to find a bank, while she waited at the bus station. On the way back, I took a wrong turn—and there I was, lost in the middle of Turkey with minimal Turkish at my disposal. To my relief, however, after managing to ask directions in a shop and then having a stern Turkish policeman come to my aid, I was reunited with my friend, just before our bus arrived. Phew!

We can feel so helpless in such situations, can’t we?  But I have discovered that such experiences can also teach us something more about God. By being lost in Turkey, I realised again my deep need of a rescuer, both then and in my life in general. Without God, we truly are lost, without hope and without purpose in life. And by losing our grandchildren, even for only a while, I sensed again God’s deep grief when we lose our way in life or reject God’s offer of rescue and reconciliation. Yet how eagerly our loving Father waits to welcome us home, just as the father in the story in Luke 15 welcomed his lost son home.

Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. Luke 15:23-24.

It is not pleasant to be lost. But it is the most wonderful experience ever when we find our way back into the loving arms of God.

Remembering …

Have you ever thought about all those billions of memories stored inside your brain? We can consciously remember so much—but even when we think we have forgotten certain experiences altogether, some little thing may happen that catapults us back in time, whether we like it or not. In an instant, we are in the midst of some past event again, noticing everything in vivid detail and even feeling the same emotions we felt then.

This happened to me recently when our washing machine decided not to spin anymore. I resorted to washing by hand—and immediately, a memory surfaced from around fifteen years ago when I was travelling around Turkey with a friend. Often, we would wash our clothes in the shower, then drape them over chairs on our balcony to dry. In an instant, I could hear again in my mind the voices of the nearby shop owners vying for custom, smell the freshly baked bread and feel the warm Mediterranean sun on my arms. In my mind, I was back there in Turkey, revelling in it all once again.

But I know painful memories can sometimes be triggered too and catch us completely off guard. Years ago, I experienced this in a public setting, to my embarrassment. Everyone else was laughing at something funny that was happening, but I found it hard not to cry, as it triggered a memory of a distressing event in the past. Yet I was thankful for this painful moment in the end, since it helped me understand the agony those who have survived great trauma in their lives often experience on a regular basis via flashbacks.

As I thought more about these memories, both good and bad, I sensed God prompting me to apply my reflections to my faith journey too. Yes, I can remember many times when God lovingly rescued and strengthened me in all sorts of situations and when I sensed Jesus’ presence right beside me, even to the point of feeling his hand on my shoulder. But it was as if God wanted me to realise there have been so many other such occasions that have now passed from my conscious memory—difficult times when God watched over me and held me close, but also wonderful, happy times when God rejoiced with me and cheered me on in my journey.

Whether I can clearly remember each time or not, God has been and always will be with me, wherever I go and whatever happens in my life, in joy and in sorrow—forever. I love how God keeps reassuring us of this fact in different ways and places in Scripture.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:26

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever. Psalm 136:1

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Matthew 28:20

I will not leave you as orphans … John 14:18

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5

In these strange times, may we constantly remember these words. May they remain embedded in our hearts and minds—forever.

Sometimes at a funeral or when someone’s death is reported on TV, as I hear all the positive things people say about the person who has passed away, I often wonder if these same things were ever said to them during their lifetime as well. Could these things have perhaps made all the difference to this person no longer with us and encouraged them along on their journey so much more?

Last month, during ‘The Festival of Lionel’, which we held for around ten days to celebrate my husband’s eightieth birthday, I thought about this again often. In that time, Lionel received many, many positive and uplifting greetings that I suspect almost blew his mind. Some were spoken to him face to face, some via phone calls from family and friends. Some were written by hand inside special birthday cards. Some arrived via text messages and emails. Then there were the more than 150 birthday greetings and ‘likes’ posted for him on Facebook—he thought they would never end! It was all a little overwhelming at times, but wonderfully encouraging too. 

Yet there were even more encouraging words ahead for him to hear and read, as we celebrated his final birthday event with a small family party. Our son Andrew and his family had thought long and hard about what to give Granddad for his 80th and came up with two excellent, creative ways to commemorate this milestone. The first was the fun poster below, put together by our two older granddaughters. The only thing is, while those chocolates and lollies are very tempting, we are loath ever to dismantle such a special creation!

As well, the whole family brainstormed their ideas to create the lovely framed gift below, ‘80 things we love about you’.

Can you imagine how moving it was for Lionel to hear all these read aloud? For a moment, I thought he would burst into tears. He could not take it all in at first—or even later at home as he read through the entire eighty little comments. But how affirming they were for him to see, including the classic ‘That you will count these to check there are really 80!’, along with others such as:

Being generous

Granddad and granddaughter date nights

Always being there for me

Taking me to the best parks

Your love for your family

Your strong faith in God

For buying me ice-creams

For being a positive person

You make good dad jokes

Picking me up from school

You make people feel welcome

Always having nice things to say

You are trustworthy

… The list goes on.

What a clear reminder to me all this has been about the power of encouragement, both in word and deed! No wonder we are exhorted in Scripture to encourage one another whenever we can.

Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. 2 Corinthians 13:11

So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 NLT

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another … Hebrews 10:25

May we all take these words to heart and be the best encouragers we can be!

We matter

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.

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?

Celebrating!

This week marks a big milestone in our family, as we celebrate my husband’s eightieth birthday! To keep things COVID-safe, we are staging ‘The Festival of Lionel’, several small get-togethers over ten days or so with friends and family members. It all seems a little surreal—as one kind friend wrote when invited to come and celebrate with us, ‘But … are you sure he’s eighty?’

Yes, Lionel was born in 1940—a very long time ago indeed, although in some ways, it seems to have flown. And what a lot he has packed into those many years! After ministering at a small church in Brisbane where our first daughter, Jane, was born, Lionel accepted a call to a church in Sydney, where our son Andrew came along.  A lecturing role at the Bible College of South Australia in beautiful Victor Harbor followed. We loved those six years of living near the beach and surrounding farms and our third child, Tina, was born there.

But then the college relocated to Adelaide, where we lived until Lionel’s role there finished a year later. We returned to Sydney, where he became a local church pastor again, until he was offered another lecturing role, this time at our theological college, which necessitated a move across town for us. Twelve years later, after that role ended, Lionel joined our church’s pastoral team full-time, before training as an intentional interim minister. He then worked in this capacity at several different churches, helping them find their feet again, and trained others in this ministry too.

Can you imagine the number of sermons Lionel has preached down through the years, often two different sermons each Sunday? And what about all those lectures—and the thousands of hours of preparation that went into them? Lionel already knew his bible well when I met him way back in 1968, during his own time at theological college, but along the way, he added to that knowledge with further study in the USA. He was—and still is—convinced of the truth of the gospel. His desire was to equip others well for their own ministries, whatever shape or form these might take, and to this day, even at the ripe old age of eighty, he still enjoys doing that.

Lionel has touched many lives through the years—college students, those who made up the church congregations where he ministered and also friends along the way, as well as family. His life has been well spent, serving the Lord and equipping others to do the same—and we hope and pray he can continue doing such things for quite some years yet.

Right now, however, what fun we are having, celebrating this milestone birthday! Yet it’s wonderful to know that one day a much more joyful celebration will take place for him when he meets Jesus face to face. On that day, I’m sure he will hear the same words the faithful servant who used his talents well heard when his master returned:

“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ Matthew 25:21

What a celebration that will be, sharing in the Lord’s happiness! Are you looking forward to that for yourself too?

I watched in my rear vision mirror as the van behind me came closer and closer. The young driver looked impatient, yet I could not immediately move to the left-hand lane—and I could not go any faster because I was already on the speed limit. Eventually, however, it was safe to move over and the young man passed me. But then he pulled into my lane right in front of me and proceeded to sit there.

Perhaps I imagined this was a clear statement on his part—except I have seen it happen before. It’s as if some young drivers have a neon sign flashing on their foreheads that says loud and clear, ‘Ugh—silly old grey-haired lady driver! She’s going to slow me down, for sure. I’ll get in front her as quick as I can. And I might even teach her a lesson!’

Once years ago, as I was waiting to enter a busy, main road, an impatient driver pulled around me and squeezed into a small space between two cars in the oncoming traffic, only to run into the back of someone a short distance further on. He deserved it, I thought to myself on that occasion—hardly a loving, Christian response!

Perhaps you can tell I do not appreciate being put in a box—particularly a box that says, ‘silly old grey-haired lady’! And neither do two of my neighbours, one of whom is ninety years old and still driving.

‘Oh, I make sure I put my foot down and drive right on the 80k limit on my way home from shopping,’ she told me recently. ‘I like giving the car a good run when I can!’

‘Me too—but I don’t worry about any speed limit!’ my other slightly younger neighbour responded with spirit.

It’s easy to put people in boxes, isn’t it? I find myself making snap judgments about people all the time, according to how they look or talk. One could even say I have done this right here, as far as young male drivers are concerned, after all! I have done it as I looked around outside our grandchildren’s classrooms at the parents and other grandparents waiting there. I have done it as I gazed down at my audience, even while in full flight speaking somewhere. I have caught myself doing it here in our village, only to discover that people twenty years older than I am, whom I would perhaps have written off, are still doing amazing things—walking kilometres each day, volunteering, running groups, painting beautiful pictures. The list goes on.

Just as well God doesn’t put people in boxes according to their age or how they look or speak or act. God called Abram when he was already an old man (Genesis 12). God commanded Moses to deliver the Israelites, even though he was not eloquent (Exodus 4). God chose David over his older brothers as king, explaining to Samuel:

The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7

One day, I hope I learn not to judge by appearances. One day, I hope I learn not to put people in boxes—and I hope that young driver does too.

It’s an omen!

There I was, congratulating myself that I had finished my shopping in record time. I settled into the driver’s seat and went to take off my facemask. But something was missing. I had lost one of my special earrings, a souvenir from our golden wedding anniversary trip to New Zealand.

While the earrings were not particularly expensive, I was determined to try to find the missing one. I felt around on the floor of the car. Nothing. I looked under the seat. Nothing. I slid my hand down the side of my seat near the handbrake. Again nothing. But then my hand stuck fast—my watch had twisted on my wrist!  I tried to undo the clasp, to no avail. Finally, with a desperate yank, I managed to pull my hand free, but then saw what I had done. The face of my watch was now at right angles to my wrist and some of the links of my watchband were bent out of shape.

What to do? I retraced my steps up to the supermarket, checking on the ground in the car park all the way. To my utter surprise, I found my earring—although the pretty paua shell that had been part of it was broken. But now my watch still had to be fixed, so I headed to our friendly watch repair man and told him the whole story.

‘Wow!’ he said. ‘I can straighten your watch up—I’ve seen others like this. But this could be a warning to you. It’s an omen. You’d better go straight home, before something worse happens!’

At first, I laughed—but then a weird sense of fear crept over me. What if he was right? What if I went and did more shopping and lost my purse? What if I caught coronavirus from someone in the centre? What if I had a car accident as I drove home? I had better get home as quickly and as carefully as I can, before anything else bad happens, just like he said.

But as I returned to my car, I came to my senses. What was I doing, letting such thoughts take hold and control my actions? Yes, fear can be a helpful warning. It can stop us doing foolhardy things like driving too fast or standing too close to the edge of a cliff or being with someone who will do us harm. At times, it is important to listen to that voice telling us to stay safe. But at other times, that voice seeks to bring us undone.

I sat there then, letting various verses from Scripture about fear surface in my mind instead.

The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid? Psalm 27:1

I sought the Lord and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Psalm 34:4

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

Yes, these words bring comfort. This voice speaks freedom. And security. And peace. These words are so much more worth listening to than any weird omen warning, don’t you think?