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Jo 12It’s a strange experience, isn’t it, to try to avoid others or have them avoid us as we go about outside at the moment? Yes, those social isolation measures are important, but to me, keeping our distance definitely feels weird, however much we might smile at each other in the process.

Recently, I was walking along a nearby footpath, enjoying the beautiful weather, when I noticed a couple coming towards me. Suddenly, they veered off onto the edge of the road. At first, forgetting our distancing rules, I wondered why they were doing such a thing. For a moment, they reminded me of the priest and Levite who crossed to the opposite side of the road to avoid the person in need, in the story of the Good Samaritan! But no, they were only being considerate of me, as well as careful on their own behalf.

And in the supermarket that same week, when there was a bit of a ‘log-jam’ in one aisle, some of us back-pedalled furiously to keep those social distancing rules and waited more or less patiently, while others continued on with their shopping in blissful ignorance. One lady even tut-tutted and shook her head in disgust at everyone. For a moment, I felt I had no right to be there—that I was ‘barred’ from that aisle and should take myself off elsewhere. How good it was to reach that cheery checkout person at last and be on my way home again!

As I thought about these experiences, I began to wonder if they might be showing me something about my attitude towards God at times. How often have I cringed from meeting with God and stepped off the footpath, so to speak, in order to avoid facing up to things in my life? How often do I choose even now to reject that gentle voice in my spirit, urging me to listen and to change my ways, and want God to keep a respectable distance from me?

Many years ago, at a very busy stage of my life, I pushed God aside for a while and chose instead to focus on things I needed—and wanted—to do. But one Sunday, I heard a story from Scripture read aloud in church that contained the words ‘Give me time …’. These words, taken completely out of context, nevertheless pierced my heart, as I realised that was exactly what I had been saying to God: ‘Oh, just give me time! I’ll come back to you when I’m good and ready!’ I felt so convicted that I had been treating our most holy and loving Lord in such a proud and careless way. Each day, I had been rejecting the Lord’s outstretched hand to me, offering me a wonderful, close relationship with him again. But I wanted him to keep his distance. I wanted him to move aside. I did not want him anywhere near.

How blessed we are when we realise how foolish it is to try to keep our distance from the Lord and instead, choose to welcome him into our lives each day with open arms!

Come close to God, and God will come close to you. … Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honour. James 4:8,10 New Living Translation

Why?

Jo 23Sometimes it’s good to stop, isn’t it, and think about why we do the things we do? Perhaps for you, this isolation time has been an opportunity to do exactly that. And once we have thought about whatever it is, we can decide whether to continue on or try something different—or perhaps simply stop and be refreshed for a while.

Take blogging, for instance. This blog happens to be Number 600 of my personal, weekly blogs, each around 550 words long—yikes! That’s more than three of my novels put together! I began blogging in July 2009 and here I am, still going strong. But when I remember each blog would have taken me at least two hours to write—and some much longer, as I reflected on what I was trying to say—I shake my head a little.

So … why am I still writing them? Is it all worth it?

I still blog for various reasons and the first is quite practical. As a wordy writer, restricting myself to around 550 words each week on a topic that has touched or challenged me is an excellent exercise! My 550 word limit is self-imposed, but I try to stick to it, as it forces me to express myself more clearly and succinctly, remove unnecessary information and focus on my main point.

Much more importantly, however, I enjoy reflecting on some event in my life or something I have observed or that God has shown me and putting it into words, so that others too may be blessed in some way. Yes, sometimes I end up taking hours to come up with those 550 words. But in the process, through trying to listen to God as I write, I internalise more of what God is saying to me and always end up the richer for it. So even if I do repeat myself and write about things I already covered years ago, I am not in the same place as I was back then. We all change over time—for better or worse! But I do believe that, when God’s Spirit is alive in us, we can change for the better, as we listen and apply the lessons God is teaching us.

I also blog because I want to continue to use the gifts God has given me to the best of my ability. We all have seasons in our lives, don’t we? In my life, I have found I have used certain gifts where God has placed me for a time, but then that time passes and I need to use other gifts and abilities. Now in this season, surely, as well as doing other things for God when the opportunity arises, I can write and share from my heart in a way that will hopefully encourage and build others up?

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

Yes, let’s keep asking those important ‘why’ questions. But let’s also be faithful in doing what God gives us to do. After all, what a privilege it is to be entrusted to share God’s grace with others, however we can, in our world that is hurting so much right now!

Jo 17Recently, the women of our church held a ‘Quarantea Party’ via Zoom. All sixty or so able to participate were mailed a teabag, along with a few questions. Then on the day, we were to be at our computers or tablets or phones with our tea, ready to connect.

It was fun to watch everyone turn up and to greet one another. One screen on my laptop filled—then two—then three! Initially, one of our pastors shared with us all and then we ‘zoomed off’ into our smaller ‘breakout’ groups which had already been organised.

But at that point, something went wrong so, then and there, our Zoom organiser needed to reallocate us all into groups, person by person. As that happened, we chatted and laughed together, but then we noticed people disappearing from our screens. One by one, little black squares were appearing where someone’s face had been a moment earlier. They had been allocated to their breakout group and had zoomed off!

As the number remaining became smaller and smaller, someone joked, ‘This is like being picked for a sports team when I was at primary school! I feel like calling out “Pick me! Pick me!’” I could identify with this and laughed along with everyone else, but my mind also headed in a different direction. In fact, I had found it quite disturbing to watch all those lovely people I had not seen for ages disappear from the screen, one after the other. One moment those vibrant faces were there, the next they were not. One moment, they were laughing and chatting—and the next, all I could see was a black square.

Soon after, those of us remaining were organised into one final group and we enjoyed a special time together. But later, I still could not get that image of those black spaces on the screen and the sense of loss as each person departed out of my mind. Was God perhaps challenging me to think about my own life and to realise that, in the big scheme of things, I too appear somewhere on that huge screen of world history for only a brief moment in time? Was God reminding me to seize the moment and do the things I have been called and gifted to do?

We are each given a life to live. We have that one opportunity to connect with others, to shine God’s light as best we can and to make an impact in this world. Then our time is over. All around us in our world at the moment, we see lives being snuffed out in such an unexpected way. And for many of us too, all our best laid plans for this year have gone awry. How much we need then to take to heart James’s warning to the early believers:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. James 4:13-14

Our lives. A mist that vanishes. A zoom in and a zoom out. May we all use each moment well for God.

Jo 17No one seemed to be around, as I drove through our village on my way home from shopping. But as I turned into our lane, I saw someone in the distance. He was standing out on the road, all by himself, but when he saw my car, he slowly moved to one side. It was one of our neighbours who recently turned 101! And he looked so dapper, all dressed up in a long-sleeved shirt and tie, fawn trousers and a sportscoat, as if he was heading somewhere important.

‘Hello!’ I said loudly—he often has trouble hearing as he is very deaf.

‘Good morning—or rather, good afternoon!’ he replied in his gentlemanly way.

I did not have the heart to tell him it was still only the middle of the morning!

‘Are you going somewhere special?’ I asked him, concerned that he might be confused and think the mid-week service he often attends at his church was still on, despite our coronavirus isolation rules. Was he waiting for his lift there? But he soon put my mind at ease.

‘Oh no. I just came outside for a bit of sunshine!’ he said.

‘Well, you look very smart indeed!’ I told him.

He simply shrugged, as if to say, ‘Well, why not get dressed up?’ and ambled off up the lane.

I felt so sorry for him then. Over and over, the words ‘All dressed up and nowhere to go’ kept coming to mind. You see, this man’s wife is actually 103, but she is now in the nursing home on the far side of our village. Usually, he walks all the way across to visit her each day, but with the current restrictions, he has been unable to, even on her recent birthday. No doubt the staff would have arranged for him to talk to her using technology, but this is difficult for him, since he is so deaf.

Later, the thought came to me that, even if our neighbour is all dressed up with nowhere to go right now, one day soon, he and his wife will no doubt step right into their heavenly home where their Lord will be waiting to welcome them with open arms—whatever they are wearing! You see, this couple have a deep faith in God. They planted a church over seventy-five years ago now that is still going today—and up until the last year or two, we would often see them all dressed up, waiting for their lift to church each Sunday morning. Then, they had somewhere to go, for sure. And soon they will both have somewhere even better to go—that special place that Jesus himself has prepared for them.

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. John 14:1-2

Jesus spoke these words to his own disciples, but surely they can encourage us today too. When we follow him, we know that, whatever happens in this crazy world, we are headed somewhere wonderful where we will see Jesus face to face at last. And what a day of celebration that will be!

Jo 12Each day, there seem to be so many opinions and pieces of information aired on the internet and on TV about surviving and thriving during this isolation period. Some of these contain advice on how to behave and care for ourselves and others, which may or may not be helpful. Some aim to encourage us to think and act in positive ways. Some make us laugh and are full of dry humour. But some also seem to do nothing except induce fear and panic and even more uncertainty. Should I really download that Covid 19 tracking app? Should all these children really head back to school at this stage? Should I really make that trip to the shops or go wherever right now? Should I really plan that event for later in the year?

Whoa! All this can do our heads in, can’t it? And this is where I have found it helpful to step back, so to speak, take a deep breath, and ask myself a different set of questions.

Whose voice am I listening to?

What effect does that voice have on me?

What thoughts am I allowing to take hold of my mind and guide my actions at this time?

Recently, I read the tiny New Testament letter written by Jude, who it is thought was one of Jesus’ brothers. Towards the end, he encourages the early believers to persevere and writes:

But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Jude 20-21

Yes, I thought to myself—this is what I need to do! I need to pray and allow the Spirit to speak God’s true and encouraging words into my heart. I need to allow God to build up my faith and to remember all God has taught and shown and done for me in the past. But above all, I need to place myself right in the centre of God’s love afresh each day and be at peace, knowing God will watch over me forever.

And that is why I risk adding yet another blog each week to all those words already out there in cyberspace right now. I want to encourage others to listen to God’s loving voice rather than that voice that would cause us to fear or lose hope. Whoever we are, we all need to know that God is for us, that we truly matter to God, that God longs to provide for us and speak peace into our hearts at this time. At least, I know I do!

And what a wonderful, uplifting, final flourish Jude adds to the end of his letter to those early believers that surely still speaks to us today and encourages us to remember who we belong to and who is in charge:

To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. Jude 24-25

Now what better final word could there be than that?

Jo 23Things have changed a little on the communication front since our children were young. Back then, we did not even have a home phone—or a TV until our oldest child was eight. And there were certainly no mobile phones or computers around. Instead, we read, enjoyed music and played games. And I also wrote many long letters, particularly to the grandparents interstate.

But the other day, within the space of a few hours, I accessed several means of communication that are now commonplace. I began by emailing on my laptop. Then I checked my Facebook posts. Next, I wrote and scheduled my weekly online blog. Soon after, my mobile rang—and it was a friend who lives in another town wanting to talk, as her husband is ill. Later, she put me on speaker phone so her husband could also hear, as I prayed for them both.

That afternoon, I sat at my laptop and ‘attended’ a friend’s funeral, livestreamed from a chapel in a cemetery on the other side of Sydney. No, it was not the same as being present, but at least I could join in to some degree as those close to him said goodbye to our friend.

Not long after, I managed to turn up at a family birthday party via Zoom—that day, our oldest granddaughter turned seventeen. This was a new experience for me, but how amazing to be able to see all our family members in their respective homes and to chat to one another! We  tried, with mixed success, to sing Happy Birthday together, as the candles were lit, then watched longingly as our granddaughters consumed that enticing looking ice cream cake right before our eyes!

Two days later, we ‘attended’ our church’s online service, pre-recorded and available on YouTube, which we watched on our TV in the comfort of our lounge. Then I accessed another service being livestreamed from a friend’s church. This past week too, I talked with another friend whose son’s recent wedding was livestreamed to all the wedding guests elsewhere, including interstate and overseas, then later enjoyed seeing the wedding photos sent to my mobile.

I am so glad we have all these wonderful means of communication in this time of isolation in particular. But some do take a bit of getting used to—and not everyone has a tech-savvy husband nearby like I do who can rescue me! Yet however much knowledge we have, sometimes those connections just do not work, do they? Sometimes, the mobile phone or Skype or Zoom reception can be poor in our area. Or sometimes, the person we wish to contact is simply unavailable.

And that’s why, as I sit quietly reading my Bible and talking with God, I am so grateful God is always there and always accessible, always listening and always ready to respond in love. No technical devices are needed. Instead, we can communicate heart to heart and spirit to Spirit with our loving Lord, wherever we are and whatever is happening around us. Surely, nothing can be more amazing than that?

The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfils the desires of those who fear him. He hears their cry and saves them. Psalm 145:18-19

So valuable

Jo 17One morning this past week, I was woken by a chorus of birds chirping loudly outside our bedroom window. I went out onto our balcony to investigate, as I have discovered that this can sometimes signal the presence of a bush turkey proudly stalking along near our garden, eating whatever he (or she) likes, including our lovely roses! But no—this time, there was no bush turkey in sight. I looked up at the birds in the nearby trees. There they were, chirping their little hearts out like a well-trained choir, all lined up to perform their best for their conductor. I stood there for some time, but could not see anything that was upsetting them. And in the end, I concluded they were merely welcoming the beginning of another day with gladness.

But often at dusk as well, we can hear other beautiful birdsongs floating into our lounge, even through our thick balcony doors. The cadences are so varied and musical that I have come to see why a songwriter I once heard speak maintained that he based most of his songs on birdcalls. And a short walk away any time of day, we can hear the bellbirds loud and clear—a lovely, tinkling sound like no other.

On occasions too, I see those amazingly-coloured rainbow lorikeets feasting on the grevillea flowers nearby. And now and then, a kookaburra perches on the railing just outside my study window, much to the consternation of the resident noisy miners who sit squawking at a safe distance! Yes, even though we live in a village in busy western Sydney, we still have ample opportunity to observe nature close up and to enjoy the amazing diversity of God’s creation everywhere, including the bird life around us.

And as I stood there the other morning watching and listening to that bird chorus nearby, I believe I heard something else from God too: If I can care for each one of these birds so well and have the ability to give them such distinct songs of their own, why are you weighed down with worry about this and that? Here I was, feeling so burdened about the world during this coronavirus time and concerned in particular for our children and grandchildren. Yet here was God, waking me up in a way I could not ignore and reminding me, in no uncertain terms, of some words Jesus himself said:

Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds! Luke 12:24 New Living Translation

Yes, God had my attention well and truly by then. I remembered Jesus’ next words too:

Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And if worry can’t accomplish a little thing like that, what’s the use of worrying over bigger things? Luke 12:25-26 NLT

Of course I need to help others in this difficult time, including in practical ways. And of course I need to pray for God’s provision for those near and dear to us and for our hurting world in general. But I am valuable to God. We all are. I can trust in God at this time and rest in God’s love, instead of worrying. And so can you.

Jo 12There I was, standing as directed in the loooong queue of shoppers spaced one trolley apart in our local supermarket. It was all very orderly—although everyone looked a little glum. So I decided to chat to the lady behind me and she began telling me all sorts of things about herself.

Then I realised I should text my husband—and, as I did, a daily bible verse ‘pinged’ onto my phone. Now at first, I thought I would keep that verse to myself. After all, I had no idea where this lady behind me was coming from in matters of faith. But then I felt convicted. Here we were, with time to chat. Here we all were, down to the basics in our lives, with so much we rely on in all sorts of ways for our wellbeing no longer available. And here I was, not perfect by any means, yet secure in God and so grateful for the firm foundation I have in my life because of Jesus Christ. So I decided to risk it and share my verse with that lady.

‘Well, here’s a bible verse that might encourage you!’ I said—and proceeded to read it out.

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:19

She looked a little surprised, but then laughed. ‘Hmm—but not toilet paper!’

I laughed too—after all, what else could I do? I suspect, judging from other serious things she told me, that she was masking her real feelings via humour. But I left it at that. And who knows whether she might reflect on my verse at another time?

Finally, I made it to the front of the store and saw a staff member beckon me to a checkout. But just then, another lady appeared out of nowhere and forged ahead of me to that same checkout—so all I could do was slink back to my spot!

‘Did someone push in?’ a staff member then asked me in a shocked voice.

YES!!!’ at least ten people in the queue behind me immediately yelled out.

‘It was the lady in the pink jumper!’ someone added loudly, as the staff member scuttled to find her.

At that point, I felt relieved I had been saved from accusing anyone or causing a scene—especially after sharing a bible verse with the lady behind me! In the end, I suggested to her that maybe this queue jumper truly had thought she was the one being beckoned forward. Or maybe she panicked or was unwell.

‘No, no! I’ve seen her do shonky things before in this store!’ she told me in an irate voice.

Yes, maybe I am naïve, as someone said to me later when I shared my interesting experience with her. And maybe, as I am often told, I constantly try to think of too many excuses for others’ behaviour. But I do know one thing for sure. All of us in that store that morning needed reassurance that God is still in charge. We don’t have to panic. We don’t have to push in. We don’t have to accuse. Instead, we can choose to be at peace and to trust God who has indeed promised to meet all our needs.

Jo 17I have always loved Easter. As a child, of course it meant Easter eggs, which, for some reason in our household, were brought by the ‘Easter bird’ and put in our upturned hats on our beds on Easter Sunday morning! But in our family, Good Friday was always a very quiet, solemn day. Occasionally, we would attend the three-hour service at our local Anglican church where we would sing and pray and listen to Scripture readings, as we stood in front of various pictures on the walls depicting Jesus’ journey to the cross.

And that Good Friday solemnity stays with me to this day. Each Easter, I like to make my own solemn journey through one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last days. I like to read these chapters slowly and carefully, identifying with Jesus as best I can and trying to comprehend the enormity of his sacrifice for us all. But this Easter, I also decided to read 1 John again and was soon pulled up short by the following words:

Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did. 1 John 2:6

Whoa! Walk as Jesus did? What a challenge! And what should that look like for me right now, in the midst of our coronavirus measures? Immediately, my thoughts went to some of the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion that I had been reading about in Luke’s Gospel. How did Jesus walk through each day then, in the light of his impending death?

I remembered how Jesus told his disciples he had ‘eagerly desired’ to eat the Passover meal with them (Luke 22:15) and how he gave them such a powerful way of remembering him that still ministers to us today, as he shared the bread and wine with them. I remembered too how Jesus reached out and healed the high priest’s servant whose ear was cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:51). And I also recalled how, even as the soldiers put Jesus on that cross, he asked his Father to forgive them because they were acting in ignorance (Luke 23:34). Then, out of perfect love for us and perfect obedience, he gave his life for us all.

What sobering reminders of how selflessly Jesus lived! But how should it all play out in my life now in this time of semi-isolation at home?

  • I can pray for God to intervene and have mercy on our desperate world. And I can pray especially for those who do not know God’s love and have no firm foundation in life.
  • I can contact family and friends in various ways to encourage them.
  • I can give financially to those in need and also support our church as our pastors continue to serve us.
  • I can watch my attitude at the shops, choosing to be generous rather than selfish. And I can live considerately at home too out of a place of peace rather than fear and turmoil.
  • As a writer, I can ask for God’s guidance and work hard at wording things well so that my readers will be blessed and encouraged.

May we all allow Jesus’ selflessness to impact us this Easter. And may we all learn to walk a little more as he would in this challenging time in our world.

Jo 23I have had some notable cooking disasters in my life. Several times, I have baked cakes that were well-browned on the outside but, alas, still gooey in the middle. I also remember roasting a chicken once as a newlywed, only to find that when I cut into it, the middle was still pink. Then as I tried to put it back in the oven, I dropped it in a sink full of washing-up water instead! Yes, sometimes things might look good on the outside, yet turn out to be far less desirable on the inside.

Or perhaps you have had the opposite experience of something appearing not so good on the outside, yet once you delved a little deeper, it turned out to be surprisingly palatable. When our daughter was little, if she did not like the appearance of something I served up for dinner that she had not tasted before, she would say, ‘I won’t like it!’ She had already made up her mind, merely on the strength of how that particular food item looked.

Recently, our youngest granddaughter and I had an interesting experience. Someone we did not know was rude to us because we had unwittingly inconvenienced them. This person’s plans were messed up—and she let us know that in no uncertain terms. Now, I did not know quite what to say to our granddaughter to explain this person’s behaviour, so I just said something like, ‘I think she was a little bit mean, don’t you?’

Sometime later, when we saw this person again, Maxine waved to her in her usual friendly way—and, lo and behold, this person waved back enthusiastically, as if we were her long-lost friends! Maxine then said to me, ‘Well, they’re a little bit nice—and a little bit mean!’

Later, I wondered whether she had said something quite profound. Perhaps she was right. What’s more, could this be true of us all, including me? Are there times when I too can be ‘a little bit nice—and a little bit mean’? Hmm!

This seems to be what even the Apostle Paul experienced at times as well.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. Romans 7:18-19 New Living Translation

I can relate to that, can’t you? But thankfully, there is a way out for us, as Paul goes on to say:

Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 7:24-25

But wait—there’s more!

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. Romans 8:1-2

Phew! What a relief that we can have God’s Spirit within us to empower us—that we can belong to the one who is more than able to help us be a little less mean and a whole lot nicer!