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Jo 17I wonder how you are feeling, in the midst of this crazy pandemic. What words would describe what is going on inside you as a result of what is happening—or not happening—around you? … Fear? Confusion? Concern? Anxiety? Anger? Grief? Worry? Depression? Loneliness? Perhaps all of these? Or perhaps you are personally at peace, yet feeling these things in and for others. That too can become a little overwhelming at times, can’t it?

Until recently, I was too busy completing my current novel to stop and contemplate how I was feeling deep down about the weird events in our world. My mind was full of different questions instead. What parts of my early chapters could I leave out to get to the action quicker? What other sections could I remove? How could I bring my characters to life more? Writing a novel can be all-consuming—it can be tricky to weave things together in a way that draws readers in and keeps them turning those pages.

Yet now I have put this novel aside, for the moment at least, I am noticing more how coronavirus has impacted us all. Yes, I have been concerned for family members trying to hold onto their jobs and pay mortgages. But I can sense something bigger around me too—a kind of desperation and even panic. When will this end? How will it end? Will our country be in ruins? How will we all survive?

Then one morning, as I sat at my desk, enjoying the warm, winter sun streaming through my window and listening to the birds outside, I picked up my old bible and turned again to the Psalms. They are my ‘go to’ place when I feel in particular need of God’s comfort and reassurance and encouragement. I began to read Psalm 94 and soon came to the following verses:

When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your love, O Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul. (18-19)

The New Living Translation puts it this way:

I cried out, “I am slipping!” but your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me. When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer.

Sometimes, it does seem as if everything is slipping away from us, don’t you think, as we look at all the things we had hoped to do in these months? Many we know were planning overseas trips and looking forward not only to seeing special places but also family members in other countries. Then there are those in much more disastrous situations, watching their livelihoods slip away, as shops and businesses are closed or as customers are afraid to venture into such places. Meanwhile, our leaders must wonder at times if their ability or power to make the wisest decisions for our nation and turn things around for everyone is slipping through their fingers. Yet, whatever our situation in life, that unfailing love of the Lord is still there, willing and able to hold us firm and stop our panicking, downward slide.

So right now, I’m reaching out my arms to the Lord and holding on tight, drinking in that comfort and hope and deep joy only he can give. And I hope and pray you can do that too.

Jo 12There I was, standing peacefully at the supermarket checkout, when the lady in front shook her head, turned to me and started muttering:

‘I could have done this in ten minutes! It’s not worth it, bringing my husband with me, I can tell you that!

I looked and saw her husband happily chatting to the checkout girl. Then the lady went on:

‘I asked why she hadn’t put our cold things into the blue bag but he’d packed it away! He’s no help at all!’

I glanced at another lady behind me in the queue then and caught her grinning.

‘Well, if I brought my husband shopping with me, he’d still be back in the chocolate aisle now!’ she announced.

Then I decided to add my contribution to the conversation.

‘My husband doesn’t come with me either. If he did, he’d organise everything with military precision and know exactly what was in each aisle and what order to get things! I know where things are and usually have a list, but I like to see what’s on special and get ideas for different things to cook.’

(I rest my case!)

I watched then as the first lady and her husband left, with things apparently reconciled between them. Phew! No doubt she would be very happy to have his help with loading everything she had bought into the car and unloading it later.

All the way home, I chuckled at this amusing little episode. I shared it with my own husband then—and, thankfully, he laughed too! After over fifty years of marriage, we are well aware how different we are and how we can help each other best. But then I began thinking a little more seriously about this whole experience. The first lady’s husband looked as if he was only trying to help—had he felt rejected and rebuffed by his wife’s response? Had she overreacted, thinking she was holding the queue up? Was she perhaps a little tense and stressed that day anyway? Who knows?

I wonder what you are like when it comes to accepting help. I know I am not the best—I am quite independent and am also reluctant to bother others. Yet recently, when someone offered to make a cake to help out with some catering I needed to do, I accepted—and it felt good. Not only did this lady look pleased, but I was quite relieved too and grateful for her thoughtfulness.

Often too, I know I have rejected God’s help in my life and gone it alone, preferring to do things in my own strength rather than trust God. Yet how much that must grieve God’s heart! I think we see a glimpse of this in Isaiah 30, where the Lord says to his people:

In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it. (15)

Instead, the Israelites decide to do it their way and flee on horses, even though the Lord warns them they will be defeated. Then we come to these beautiful words:

Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. (18)

It’s all about the right help at the right time, don’t you think? And the Lord’s help is always exactly that.

A few weeks ago, our village gardeners finally had time to renovate the garden area near our unit. It used to be our neighbour’s pride and joy, before she could no longer look after it. The men worked busily, leaving some of the old plants but also adding lots of extras. Now we have a mixture of hardier shrubs such as azaleas, gardenias and baby nandina, along with some of our neighbour’s special plants—alstroemeria, gerberas, primroses, cyclamen, some kangaroo paw and even a patch of thyme.

Now that was pretty much all we thought was left of our neighbour’s original plants—until I looked closer in one spot and saw some little green shoots almost covered over by the wood chip the gardeners had put everywhere on top to deter any weeds. As gently as I could, I flicked the pieces of wood off them and hoped those little fronds would survive.

IMG_20200727_140611536Lo and behold, when I walked past a few days ago, there they were, standing so much taller and stronger and looking as if they might burst into flower at any moment. I suspect they might be daffodils, but who knows? We will have to wait and see. As well, beside these shoots, there was a cluster of dainty snowdrops on one side and another cluster of little star-shaped daffodil-like flowers on the other. And behind them, some wider shoots had also popped through the ground, along with a beautiful, dainty blue flower—all seemingly out of nowhere.

Yes, many of the other special plants our neighbour had nurtured with such care are now gone, including her hollyhocks and irises and the precious peony she particularly loved, along with the parsley we all enjoyed picking and using! Yet now, what looked like bare patches covered in wood chip are suddenly yielding special, unexpected treasures that remind me each day of our lovely neighbour.

I suspect this little patch of garden could be a fitting image for the strange period we are all in, don’t you think? For many, this is a difficult time when jobs have gone, money is tight and the future looks bleak. For others of us, this isolation time feels more like a weird hiatus, as if the pause button has been hit on our lives and nothing is as we knew it or expected it to be.

Yet, beneath it all, there still is life—and hope. Out of this time that may seem fruitless and bare, good things will come. They may be hidden for now, but soon those fresh possibilities will burst forth, just like the green daffodil shoots did. Eventually, when this isolation time has passed, we will look back and see the new things that blossomed in these months that would never otherwise have seen the light of day.

And God is still there too, watching over us and walking with us each day, willing us to keep trusting, whatever is happening—or not happening—around us. So let’s encourage one another today as we join together in a prayer the Apostle Paul prayed long ago:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

Jo 17One night last week, I went to bed early to read, but in the end, did not feel like concentrating on all those words. Instead, I decided to relax and try to stop recycling the disturbing issues in my mind that had been fuelled by the many negative news reports I had heard on TV. And these days, that can be a little hard, don’t you find?

I lay there in the half dark, listening to the sound of our TV from the lounge. Often all I can hear is the monotone voice of some expert on planes or machines or battles that my husband enjoys listening to—surely enough to send anyone to sleep? Or it might be the sound of laughter from some comedy show. But this time, it was neither of these things. This time, it was a simple but beautiful old hymn, written by Charlotte Elliott in 1835:

Just as I am, without one plea,

but that Thy blood was shed for me,

and that Thou bidst me come to Thee,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

When I first heard these lines as a fifteen-year-old, I am sure I did not understand fully what they meant. One way of putting them today might be: ‘Jesus, the only grounds I have for coming to you are that you died for me and that you tell me to. I have nothing else of my own to plead my cause.’ But back then, all I knew was that I had to get to the front of the meeting room as fast as I could, because Jesus was calling me and I wanted with all my heart to be close to him. In that moment, I was overwhelmed by the truth that I mattered to Jesus—that he knew me and loved me so much, exactly as another verse of this hymn says:

Just as I am, Thy love unknown

has broken every barrier down.

Now to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

What a joy then, having felt so tired and disheartened, to lie in bed and hear this wonderful reminder of how Jesus’ love drew me to him all those years ago—to be taken back to the beginning of my journey as a Christian in an instant and to realise how faithful God has been to me through the years!

I realised too that, in one way, nothing has changed since then. Jesus certainly hasn’t—and here I am, still so thankful he loves me and that I belong to him. Yet, in another way, everything has changed. That day, I was made new. That day, my life took on a clear purpose—to live for God. And over the years, Jesus has been so patient with me, as I have sought to grow in my faith and know him better.

… anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT

Today, as so many disturbing things are happening in the world around us, may you too be able to rest in the simple truths that Jesus loves you, that you belong to him and that he will never let you go.

 

 

Jo 12



I had obviously failed bigtime in our grandson’s eyes. There he was, excitedly commenting on his favourite superheroes characters in a puzzle book I had given him, while I stood beside him, blank and befuddled. Now, I know my basic superheroes like Spiderman and Iron Man and The Hulk, but alas, there were so many others I did not recognise. As for how they ended up with their various superpowers, it was clear to our eight-year-old grandson that I did not have the foggiest idea.

‘What? Don’t you know anything, Nanna? Everyone knows that!’ Zain told me in a tone dripping with disgust, as he launched into an exasperated explanation of how Spiderman came to be Spiderman and The Hulk came to be … well, hulky.

Later that day, as I sat eating dinner with our granddaughter, she suggested we might watch something on YouTube at the same time.

‘I like this show,’ Maxine told me. ‘It tells you what to do in an emergency, like when there’s an earthquake or someone gets hurt. You’d better watch it too, Nanna, because you don’t know!’

Hmm. Once again, I seemed to be a dismal failure, at least in a six-year-old’s eyes. So much for my two university degrees and teaching diploma!

Later, I remembered a response I learnt as a child that might have come in handy in both these instances when our grandchildren seemed to decide I know nothing. It originated from something that happened during my mother’s own growing up years. There were seven children in their family, with the youngest being a boy. One day when he was still quite little, his older siblings teased him about something he did not know or understand. But to put them in their place, his response apparently went something like this:

‘Well, I don’t care—I only just know a good couple of things!’

At my stage of life, I think can say without too much pride that I know a ‘good couple of things’ in some areas at least, as I’m sure you do too. Yet there is so much more I would love to know—so many great works of literature and art and classical music yet to explore, for a start. I would love to learn how to paint too. And I would love to own a violin and know how to play it.

I wonder what things you would like to know more about or be able to do. Yet, whatever knowledge or skills we gain, one day it will all be put aside and forgotten, won’t it? In fact, one day, the only thing that will matter for us all will be whether we know Jesus, the one ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Colossians 2:3). This is the knowing that can truly satisfy us deep down and enable us to stand tall, whatever knowledge we might lack in others’ eyes.

At the end of our lives, may we all, with complete honesty and humble certainty, be able to echo the words of the Apostle Paul to Timothy:

… I know the one in whom I trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until the day of his return. 2 Timothy 1:12 NLT

Jo 23‘Nanna, why do you say ‘love’ all the time when you talk to me?’ our six-year-old granddaughter challenged me last week.

‘Pardon?’ I asked, wondering what Maxine could mean.

‘Why do you call me ‘love’ all the time?’

Before I had a chance to respond, she answered her own question.

‘Maybe it’s because you love me!’ she said in a satisfied tone.

‘Yes, I do!’ I told her, ‘so I like to tell you that.’

She went on with her day then, quite happy with herself and the world in general. But this little interlude set me thinking. Yes, I do love her—and her brother, who was also often called ‘love’ that day, as we looked after them. But I know too it has been a habit of mine for years to call lots of people ‘love’. Now the word slips out without my even realising. And now too, on those occasional ‘seniors’ moments’ when I forget someone’s name, it can be a handy substitute—as long as it’s appropriate enough!

Later, as I thought more about it all, my mind jumped back to the beautiful way my special ‘soul friend’ Joy used to greet me, each time I arrived at her door:

‘Oh, hello, Jo-Anne—dear friend! So lovely to see you!’

On the odd occasions too when she would email me, she would often begin with the words, ‘Dear friend’ or perhaps ‘My very dear Jo-Anne’. Somehow, those simple words touched and encouraged me, even before I read on. By them alone, I knew she loved me and valued our friendship. I felt treasured. I felt significant. And I also knew that, whatever her email was about, her words would have been written with much thought and care and with a heart to bless me.

The way we address each other can be so important, don’t you think? But I wonder if you have thought about how important it is to know how God addresses us—to hear and take into our hearts the words God loves to use when speaking to you and me. If others can touch our hearts and encourage us via a few loving words, how much more can God do the same for each one of us?

One evening many years ago, when I was in quite an exhausted state, I believe God gave me a picture of Jesus, holding me in his arms as a baby and looking down at me with the most amazing love and delight shining from his face. And all he kept saying was, ‘Wow—Jo-Anne! Wow!’ Through that simple yet utterly profound experience, I knew deep in my heart that Jesus saw me as his precious creation, that he was so delighted in me, that he valued me and that he would always love and care for me. I can hear his voice even now, as I write this—and that beautiful voice still has the power to speak such love and grace into my spirit.

May you too, even today, hear that gentle voice speaking clearly to you, calling you by name and letting you know you are indeed God’s much-loved child, so valued and treasured.

See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! 1 John 3:1 NLT

Jo 12During this coronavirus time, I have worked steadily on my next novel. I edited as I wrote and also edited the whole manuscript four or five times after completing it. Then I sent it off to my first manuscript reader/editor—and the next—and the next—and the next. Then I submitted it to my old publisher. And each time, there was more to edit—and more—and more. My manuscript was around 97,000 words initially, but is now around 87,000 words. And I’m still going. Is it any wonder that some nights I have gone to bed with words swimming before my eyes?

In this time too, I have written three short stories, critiqued two manuscripts and a portion of two more. And I have kept writing my blogs each week—and emailing friends and family who have felt a little isolated. I was glad I could do all this, but there comes a point where all this reading and writing can become a little tiring—especially the discouraging task of throwing thousands of words out that you have laboured long and hard to put in your manuscript in the first place!

So recently, we went away for a short break. And while driving along near the coast north of Sydney, to my surprise, I caught sight of some olive trees. Immediately, my mind went spinning back to my visits to Turkey in past years. During one trip, a friend and I travelled along the Mediterranean coast together, hopping on and off buses at various spots and taking in the mind-blowing sights and experiences of that region. Along the way, I saw many, many olive trees growing on the rocky hillsides and, to me, they were a beautiful sight, with their silvery foliage and often rounded, compact shape. I was amazed too at the way they could still flourish in such dry, barren terrain through the hottest of Turkish summers and produce those nutritious olives that are such an important part of the Mediterranean diet.

The same day I saw my olive trees here in our own country, I read the following verses in the Psalms:

But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good. Psalm 52:8-9

When things coincide like that in my life, I have learnt to suspect God might want to say something to me, so I listen. And I realised I could relate to what David wrote in this psalm. I am indeed like that olive tree flourishing in God’s house. After all, God has enabled me to write all those thousands of words I have written in recent weeks—and God will sustain me as I complete the necessary editing and polishing. I don’t need to fret or complain or wonder if I will stay the distance. Instead, I know I can grow and flourish under God’s protective covering, watered and fed and cared for by our all-loving, all-powerful Creator God.

May you too be aware in this time of God’s unfailing love and nurturing hand on your life, as you grow and flourish like that olive tree.

Jo 17I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with a certain TV show on at the moment that pits one singer against another. I enjoy hearing the contestants sing, but I fear for them as they put themselves in such a vulnerable position, slap bang in front of thousands of viewers, not to mention a live audience and those judges who will choose between them. I hate to see so many head home disappointed, with their dream of success shattered.

You might not be about to get on a stage and sing, but perhaps you can think of a time when you had to put yourself out there in some way and risk being judged. Perhaps you had drawn or painted a picture. Perhaps you had to play a musical instrument in public. Perhaps you had to read aloud something you had written. Can you remember how you felt?

I suspect I relate to these music show contestants so strongly because of my many experiences when younger of playing the piano for scary music examiners and also playing or singing in eisteddfods, while the judges busily wrote notes about my performance. Yes, these experiences made me feel so vulnerable, but they stood me in good stead for playing and singing in churches in later years—and also for getting up and speaking in public, as I still often do. And I believe that, by the grace of God, they have also armed me well for my current writing journey.

Yes, giving your new manuscript to others to critique can be a daunting prospect. And having books published can be even more daunting. It has been said that, to be an author, you need a sensitive heart, but the hide of an elephant! Yet, if we know God has called us and gifted us to write—or paint or sing or play or dance or bake or create in some other way—how important it is to keep putting ourselves out there, whatever others might say or think!

That certainly applies too when speaking about the things of God, whether in a formal setting or informally in our daily lives. Right now, when so many in our world are particularly vulnerable, there are opportunities all around us to share that encouraging word with others and to show them God’s love. But sometimes it can be hard, can’t it? Sometimes, sadly, I still choose to keep quiet and stay in my comfort zone, rather than risk being rejected.

Years ago, when I was about to start theological college and feeling very vulnerable as an older student in my late forties, a visiting speaker came to our church and, prompted by God, gave me the following verse:

Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. 1 Corinthians 16:13 NLT

So many times, these words kept me going through all the challenges of college, helping me focus on the final goal. But these words speak to us at every stage of our lives, don’t you think? So, whatever is happening around us right now, may we all stand firm, knowing we are secure in God’s love. Then let’s step out, put ourselves out there and grasp hold of the things God has given us to do with courage and strength!

Jo 23‘I enjoy the challenge of learning new things,’ one of our pastors told me, as he settled me in front of those glaring lights, ready to record a segment for our online church service last Sunday.

I agreed—albeit a little weakly. You see, I was about to do something I had never done before. I had been asked to pray out loud for our church while being filmed, with just the two of us present. And that felt a little weird to me.

I decided I would begin with a few verses from Psalm 40. I had thought of writing my prayer out in full, but felt that was not me. Usually, I like to be more spontaneous when I pray. Yet now, with that camera on me and those glaring lights shining in my face, I wondered if I had made the right decision. I had jotted down some things I had been asked to pray about, but that was it. Would my mind go blank? Could I truly trust God to show me how to pray?

The first time through, I stumbled a few times but soon became immersed in praying. There are so many urgent needs in people’s lives right now. Some have big financial concerns facing them. Others are seriously ill and undergoing tricky medical procedures or in the midst of long-term cancer treatment. Then there are those who are not in a good place mentally and emotionally who need to know God does indeed hear their cry, as Psalm 40:1 says. I feel for them all and meant every word I prayed. But at the end, we decided we should film it one more time—and make it a little shorter too.

We started again. Soon I was in the midst of praying for the same people and situations once more, although in a slightly briefer and more restrained way. But afterwards, I felt unsettled and even worried. Had I truly prayed from the heart that second time around? It had sounded a little flat to me and I hoped no one would feel short-changed as a result, particularly those I had prayed for in such difficult situations.

Later, however, as I reflected on the whole experience, I almost laughed out loud. What a silly way of thinking! After all, God knew it was my desire to pray earnestly for our church and for those going through challenging times. God saw my heart. And, judging by what Jesus said about those hypocrites who wanted everyone to notice how well they prayed or the pagans who used so many words (Matthew 6), surely what I said or how I looked was irrelevant?

Yes, there is always something new to learn or something different to experience. But there is nothing like that old, familiar experience for me of being held in God’s loving arms, knowing my prayers have been heard and feeling that firm rock once again beneath my feet.

I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. Psalm 40:1-2

God hears. God understands. God cares. And we can be at peace.

Jo 23In this time of COVID19, as I entered our local supermarket, I looked for the hand sanitiser. Yes, there it was—but alas, there were no wipes left for hands or shopping trolleys or whatever. I decided it might be good to point this out to one of the staff members—and watched as this message was relayed from one to the other without much action. In the end, I could not wait any longer and went on my way.

I did not get far, however, before a tiny, elderly lady stopped me and held something out to me. Her English was minimal but her actions spoke louder than any words ever could. With a smile and a kindly nod, she held out a packet of her own wipes and offered me one.

‘Thank you so much—God bless you!’ I said to her as I took one, at which point she smiled even more broadly.

Her little act of kindness changed my whole attitude that morning. I had been feeling just a tad put out, but this lady’s thoughtful action lifted my spirits so much, like a sudden ray of sunshine peeping through the clouds.

Not long after, I noticed a rather short lady trying to reach a carton of long-life milk high up on a shelf in one aisle. At first, I hesitated, recalling how we are not supposed to get too close to other shoppers. But then I remembered my lovely, little lady who had given me one of her wipes. Being tall, I could easily help this person.

‘Can I get a carton down for you?’ I offered.

‘Oh yes—two, please!’ she told me in a relieved voice.

I did as she asked—it was no problem.

‘Thank you so much!’ she said, beaming. ‘Now you have a lovely day!’

Again, I felt my spirits lift as I walked off. Such a little thing—yet it had made two people happy.

Eventually, I reached the checkout where the cheery staff member began chatting to me. I cannot remember what she said now, but I do remember how every second sentence ended with the word ‘darl’!

‘How are you, darl?’

‘I’m fine, thanks. How are you?’

‘I’m good, darl. Give me your bags—I can pack them. Is that too much in this bag for you, darl? No? No worries, darl!’

Yes, just a pleasant checkout chat—and yes, perhaps this was her natural way with everyone. Yet it too lifted my spirits. She could have looked glum. She could have worked on without connecting with me at all. Instead, she was warm, pleasant and kind.

As I went on my way, I could not help thinking what a difference all these brief connections had made to my morning. Sometimes it’s the little things that count, isn’t it? Sometimes being kind to someone can act like a lovely, soothing balm to their spirits and perhaps even reflect one tiny aspect of God’s kindness and grace to them. Yes, I love those times when God prompts us to say more or do more. But what a privilege to be part of showering God’s grace on others via the little things too!

As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Colossians 3:12