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Jo 23

In the recent Christmas heat, I watched some of the shrubs and plants near our unit struggle to stay alive. Even some of the hardiest ones in pots on our balcony suffered, as the hot sun scorched the leaves and shrivelled the flowers. The native trees nearby survived the best—those gum trees and grevilleas and callistemon have had to learn to be tough in our dry terrain. And it was in the midst of observing all this that I read the following:

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God.

They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” Psalm 92:13-15

Have you ever noticed how some folk in their sixties look and act old before their time, while others in their nineties still seem quite young and are happily engaged in life in all sorts of ways? Of course, ill health and other difficulties can make life hard for some. Yet even apart from that, some seem to shrivel up before their time, like my pot plants, and resort to sitting on the sidelines rather than fully participating, while others much older continue to lay hold of life with both hands.

Recently, I discovered that one gentleman who is a member of our Village choir is actually ninety-nine years old! I would never have guessed it. He is interesting to speak to, alert and observant, obviously highly intelligent and also a gifted artist. Someone else told me that when he didn’t turn up to choir last year for a while, they discovered he had gone to Poland for his great-grandson’s wedding!

Now while some might consider me so old already—including our youngest grandchildren—I am actually thirty years younger than this lovely gentleman! So I have been asking myself what God might have in store for me, should I too have another thirty years ahead of me. After all, I did not waste the first thirty years of my life or the second thirty—so why waste the third thirty or beyond? In my old age, which I’m sure I haven’t quite reached yet, I feel there is still so much for me to do. I have ideas for books I would still like to write. I have many more ideas for my blogs. I would love to continue speaking for a while yet. I enjoy mentoring several wonderful women leaders. Everywhere I look, I see other opportunities for ministry. And of course, beyond all that, I want to see our grandchildren grow and flourish and still be invested in their lives for many years to come.

So in 2018, and for as long as God enables, I hope and pray I can be more like the native trees and shrubs I can see from my balcony and not those sad, wilted pot plants. As I keep my feet firmly on that Rock who is the Lord, I hope I can continue to flourish, bearing good fruit and staying fresh and green, for a long time to come yet.

How about you?

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piano-1655558_1920I wonder if you have ever been thanked for something you truly had not even thought twice about—something that perhaps came easily to you or was almost automatic? This happened to me on two occasions recently—and, with each one, it had to do with playing the piano, something I have not done seriously for many years.

The first occurred just before I was due to accompany our Village choir for their Christmas presentation in the nearby nursing home. Before the program started, I decided to play some carols softly, more for my own sake than anything else, to get my fingers working. I did not think many were listening—but I was wrong. Later, as I was about to leave, a lady stopped me.

‘I truly enjoyed your soft playing before the choir came,’ she said with some emotion. ‘It was so beautiful—it made me cry!’

I was quite shocked—but also extremely humbled.  I had not really thought about those residents sitting patiently waiting—I was just running through some simple carols. Yet somehow God used my playing to bless one other person at least.

The second occurred a few days later at a Christmas gathering for our particular area of the Village, when a lady I had only vaguely seen in the distance prior to this approached me.

‘I want to thank you so much for playing those carols in your unit!’ she said. ‘My husband is not well at all and can barely get out of bed. But he wanted me to tell you how much he has enjoyed lying there, listening to you play. So thank you!’

This time, I was very shocked. I am always aware when I play my piano in our lounge area that nearby residents may hear me, but I did not think the sound would reach as far as the unit where this lady and her husband live. Yet in this case, what I thought might annoy someone intensely turned out to bless them deeply instead. Once again, I had underestimated God. Once again, even when I was not trying much at all and not producing any sort of polished performance, God used my playing to bless this sick man.

At first, these events almost made me feel guilty. I should have tried harder. I should have put more thought into my playing. But then I stepped back and decided instead simply to be grateful that something I could do relatively easily could bless others so much. And I remembered too my old music teachers of many years ago who schooled me so well in sight-reading and music theory. As a result of their efforts, I had much less trouble swapping from one key to another for each carol!

It’s kind of like the story of the loaves and fishes, don’t you think? An insignificant offering—yet the end result was something I bet that young boy whose lunch it was could never have envisaged (John 6). So in the new year, let’s continue to offer up and use our God-given gifts, even without thinking too much about them, and watch God do the rest!

Each one should use whatever gift he (or she) has received, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various ways. 1 Peter 4:10

It’s about peace

Jo 17‘So what do you think Christmas is all about, Zain?’ my husband asked our five-year-old grandson, as we drove him home from school last week.

There was silence for a while in the back of the car, but eventually he responded.

‘It’s about peace,’ he said in a very definite tone.

‘That’s an excellent answer, Zain!’ I told him—but then the moment passed and we left it at that.

Later, however, I reflected on his simple response. Why would he have chosen to say what he did? Was he repeating something he had heard at school? At kids’ church? At home? Did he even understand what the word ‘peace’ meant? Yet wherever he had heard it and whatever he thought it meant, in one word he had got to the heart of the matter, don’t you think?

Christmas is about peace—on various levels, it seems to me. It is about peace with God. It is about peace within our own hearts. It is about peace with those around us. And all of these seem to be intertwined.

Peace with God. What an incredible gift, made possible through the coming of Jesus into our world who showed us what God is like! Through Jesus’ death, we have a way back into close relationship with God. And by faith in him, we become part of the family of God—forever!

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. Romans 5:1-2

Peace within our own hearts—that deep, personal peace only God can give. That perfect peace that will sustain us through all the ups and downs of life, as we rest in God’s amazing love and trust God to guide and provide for us. That is the peace Jesus promised his disciples—and that same peace is available for us today too.

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

Peace with those around us. Once we truly know the love of God and have deep peace within ourselves, it seems to me this wider peace is easier to achieve. We don’t have to compete with or be envious of others. We don’t have to score points off them. Instead, we can focus on who God is calling us to be—and allow others to do the same. Yet obviously this is easier said than done on a worldwide scale where prejudices rage that have been in place for centuries. How much we need the reign of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, in the hearts of men and women across our world right now!

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

So … may the peace of God reign in your hearts and homes this Christmas. And may 2018 see so much more of that peace on earth that Jesus Christ alone can bring!

Jo 23Last week, it was wonderful to cross paths again with two men who graduated from theological college the same year as I did—exactly twenty years ago this month. Back then, I was in my late forties. I had wanted to train for ministry for years, but thought this was an opportunity long gone, until God made it clear it was time to return to study once again.

One of these men reminded us that we were the three students in our year who aimed for an honours degree, which involved undertaking three extra subjects, as well as achieving a high overall grade in all subjects. We managed it, but I had not remembered this at all. In fact, I wondered what he was talking about at first.

I had not forgotten I ended up dux of our year, however. I remember how vindicated I felt as I received my award. After all, I was old enough to be the mum of many of the students in my year! Besides, I was a woman—surely I couldn’t have done better than those other bright young men I studied alongside? On top of that, I had struggled with big family issues in my final year, including my husband’s job loss and a daughter’s severe illness. It had been hard going, but God had sustained me in amazing ways and kept me motivated.

That day, as I talked with my two college friends, each of us had stories to tell of great years in ministry—but also of times of difficulty and differences of opinion. For each of us, our journeys had taken more than a few twists and turns, from one role to another and even from one denomination to another, until we have ended up where we are today. With great faithfulness, God had picked us up, time and time again, strengthening us, challenging us to move on.

Later at home, as I reflected on our special catch-up conversation, I remembered a psalm I had recently read:

I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. Psalm 77:11-12

God had not always rescued us from various life situations in the way we thought needed to happen. For each of us there were ‘times of no miracles’—at least from our perspective. But God had not left us. God was always there, watching over us, never letting us stray too far, weaving the strands of our lives together as only God can.

Twenty years down the track, I can honestly say my college honours degree and academic achievements have by and large lost the huge significance they once had. Of course, for some, this is how God has gifted them to make a difference in this world, which is wonderful. But for me now, it is much more about listening to God, about being faithful in doing what God gives me to do, about touching hearts and lives with God’s love, as God guides and empowers.

And that’s something within the reach of all of us, don’t you think?

IMG_20171202_160825689I could not believe it. I had just finished carefully parcelling up two books of mine a customer had purchased through my website. I checked my laptop to find out her address and wrote it clearly on the front of the parcel. I started writing my own address on the back—then stopped, horrified. Without thinking, I had begun to write our old home address. Oops!

To put a positive spin on this sad event, we have been at our new address for only around five months—which isn’t long, compared with the thirty-two years we spent at our old address! Obviously, five months is not long enough for such key pieces of information to embed themselves in my brain, ready for automatic recall.

Now I had a dilemma. Should I tear up all that good wrapping paper I had used and start over? Or should I simply cross out my silly mistake, eat humble pie, risk my new customer’s raised eyebrows and write the correct address underneath?

In the end, I chose the latter, after ruefully telling my husband what I had done.

‘Ah well,’ he said, ‘the other day, for the first time since we moved, I headed home to our old house after I finished shopping, instead of our new one!’

Hmm. I wonder what would have happened if he had tried to put his key in the door?

Yet when we still lived at our old house, I too did something similar once. As I drove home late one night along Victoria Road, thinking about all sorts of things, I suddenly realised I had gone straight past our street and was heading for Parramatta! Eventually, I managed to get back on track, but all the while, I found myself thinking, ‘How could have done that? How could I have forgotten where I was heading after all these years?’

In the natural, it’s not ideal to forget where I live or drive right past my own street. But it’s a much more serious matter when I begin to do the same in the spiritual. How often, in the busyness of life, have I failed to remember where my real home is? How often do I wander around, looking for peace and comfort in the wrong places? How often have I lost sight of who I am and where I truly belong? How often do I head in the wrong direction, oblivious to those promptings of the Spirit and so preoccupied with my own thoughts and ideas rather than God’s? Yet God is always there, arms open wide, offering us the most wonderful homecoming of all, just as Jesus showed us in the story of the lost son (Luke 15). Each day, God longs to provide the rest, peace, shelter, safety, strengthening and restoration we need—yet all too often I seem to have lost God’s address.

I wonder if, this Christmas, we all need to make it a priority to find our way back home to God, to that place where we truly belong?

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew 11:28-29

Dear friend …

Jo 17It is some months since I have been able to visit my friend in the nursing home where she now lives. As I make my way to her room, I hope and pray she will recognise me. At the door, I see the nurses have just settled Joy in her special, comfortable wheelchair. She turns towards me—and her whole face lights up.

‘Oh! What a … what a … sur … oh!’

I reach out and grasp her hand, while Joy continues to look at my face in wonderment.

‘I’ll take her to the sunroom,’ a lovely nurse tells me—and soon we are settled there.

Joy continues to search my face with loving eyes. I resist the urge to tell her my name. I suspect it has slipped her mind, but it doesn’t matter—I know she knows who I am. I remind her of our book Soul Friend that I wrote about our journey together during my time at theological college, then on into ministry and writing.

‘Yes, Soul Friend,’ she says softly—and I know she remembers.

I talk to her about her family and mine. I share some little Turkish cookies I used to make often and take to her whenever we met and she remembers those too. It is a little hard for her to hold them now, as they tend to break easily. I see that the crumbs they leave on her clothes concern her a little, so I try to help her brush them off. We look at each other and laugh—a laugh that is beautiful music to my ears because it reminds me so vividly of other shared moments of joy. She has not changed—she is still the same precious person deep inside. Yes, she may now have trouble completing sentences. Yes, she may grope for the words she is trying to say. Yes, she may not remember names so easily. But she is still my lovely ‘soul friend’ Joy, out of whose face the love of God shines.

Eventually, I see she is getting tired. A nurse comes to wheel her to a lounge area and I prepare to say goodbye. I hold her hand and give her a kiss.

‘Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you—there’s nothing like a kiss!’ she says, closing her eyes in ecstasy.

‘Then I’ll give you another one!’ I tell her, dropping a light kiss on her forehead.  Her face is suffused with pure joy.

And as I hold her hand one last time, then turn to leave, I hear her familiar, beautiful words that have always felt like a blessing to me—‘Dear friend!’

As I drive away, the thought comes clearly to me that these two beautiful, little words are what God desires to speak into our hearts each day. I am not in my friend’s situation, but so often, I too become confused. So often, I let life overwhelm me. So often, I forget God. Yet each day, God reaches out to me and talks to me as with a dear friend. Each day, God is there to help me on my journey—and I am so blessed.

So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. Romans 5:11 New Living Translation

piano-1655558_1920

This past month, I discovered once again how life can have a way of springing interesting surprises on us! Out of the blue, I was asked if I would accompany the small choir in our Village on the piano. And in what was perhaps a weaker moment, I agreed!

What could have possessed me? After all, it’s a long time since I accompanied a choir or singing group—possibly around … ahem … thirty-five years! Yes, I have played for congregational worship in that time—but not a great deal, as I have felt those days too are over.  Yet I could not help but say yes when our lovely conductor phoned and asked if I would help out. Besides, I soon discovered how much we had in common, with our lifelong involvement in music and also with husbands who are both retired ministers.

In no time at all, I was given the music for five items the choir will sing at two Christmas concerts. Four of these turned out to be easy enough, but the fifth one saw me scurrying to the piano to practise. So many tricky twists and turns and unexpected key changes!

Then the moment came for my big return to accompanying.  Everyone was so welcoming—and so grateful to have someone prepared to play for them. I soon felt at ease, especially when I realised the group found that challenging carol even more challenging than I did! I kept my eye on our conductor—and I also tried to help everyone along, wafting up into the melody line at times when the tricky accompaniment was leading some astray. I knew my role as an accompanist was just that—to accompany the singers and enhance their efforts rather than try to outdo them in any way.

As I strolled home that afternoon, it dawned on me that accompanying others in a musical sense is a little like the style of mentoring or spiritual companionship I have tried to give others over the years and still do. As best I can, I endeavour to walk in step with them, to listen to them, to pray for them, to provide resources that may help them somehow and yes, perhaps even to challenge at times when needed.

Then I realised too what a big part the whole idea of accompanying has played in my own journey with God—and still does. Recently when I spoke somewhere, I shared the following quote from Clement of Alexandria:

Prayer is keeping company with God

This is the privilege you and I have as children of God—to walk hand in hand with Jesus each day, listening, learning, knowing we are loved and accepted, talking with him, receiving strength, comfort and guidance. Of course, the difference is that Jesus is the perfect Shepherd, who is also to be honoured and obeyed as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Yet by grace, he chooses to accompany us day by day through all our ups and downs.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. Psalm 23:1-3

Now that’s the fine art of accompaniment at its best, don’t you think?