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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!

I have done my share of gardening over the years. Wherever we lived, I usually tried to make some sort of garden or use what was already there as best I could. But then we moved to our retirement village, where we have gardeners to look after all the trees and shrubs and flowers everywhere. And, apart from asking if I could plant some roses near our balcony, I was happy to leave all that trimming and digging and weeding to them!

IMG_20171008_170427567But then I met our wonderful neighbour and soon realised she was responsible for the beautiful flowers growing outside our front door and along the nearby pathways. I would see her working there for hours, as she sat on her little stool and weeded or broke up old leaves, then scattered them back in the earth. She would often spend her own money too, buying little, half-dead plants on special, then bringing them back to life, as well as more expensive ones. But the day came when our friend could no longer care for it all and she and her husband moved into our nearby nursing home.

In the following weeks, I watched as her beautiful garden deteriorated. Occasionally, I pulled out weeds or cut off dead flowers, but we knew that the gardeners, who had been happy to let our friend care for it and indeed to learn from her, would deal with it all in good time.

Eventually that day came and soon, many of our friend’s beautiful plants were no more–although some were left in certain spots to continue flowering where they were. And then something else sprouted in those gardens as well—two little signs that read ‘GardenIMG_20200220_092912991 Renovation in Progress’.

What a lovely concept, I thought to myself. My friend’s garden hasn’t disappeared altogether—it’s just being renovated! No doubt it will all look lovely again soon, with the remaining spaces filled with hardier, easy-care plants such as azaleas and nandina.

But as I gazed at those signs, another thought came to me too. Sometimes, I think my life can be a little like that garden outside our front door. Yes, when I first believed in Jesus Christ, I was given a completely new start in life (2 Corinthians 5:17). Yet despite that wonderful ‘renovation’, I can still easily mess things up. I can forget to listen to God—or perhaps deliberately choose not to. At times, my own selfish desires might kick in or I take my eyes off God and let the worries of this world overwhelm me. Then those weeds can begin to grow in my heart—and soon that internal ‘garden’ of mine needs a good overhaul yet again.

I’m so glad God doesn’t give up on us, but instead, graciously sets about renewing us, picking us up and setting us on our feet again. Truly, we are each a ‘renovation in progress’. But we are in the hands of the greatest master gardener ever who will continue to transform us to become more like Jesus. And that has to be the best reno ever, don’t you think?

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18

Jo 12I hope I never cease to be moved by the amazing life stories I hear at times from the most unexpected people. One such story inspired me to write my first novel around sixteen years ago—and parts of others too have found their way into my novels since then. Yet it is often these very parts that people think I have made up myself. Surely that couldn’t happen, one sceptical reader told me once to my face!

But truth can indeed be stranger than fiction, as I discovered again last Sunday when I met a lovely man from South America at a church where I was speaking. After a while, I asked him how he had come to know or hear about God. His face lit up—and, with great excitement, he launched into his story. From what I remember of it all, his uncle belonged to the army back home and was involved in one of the ongoing wars with a neighbouring country. Eventually, the uncle’s troops won their battle with the enemy soldiers, so they entered their town to raid it and take whatever they could find for themselves. But by the time the uncle got there, the only thing left was an old book.

‘What use is that to me?’ he thought in disgust. ‘Oh well, I have some time now—I might as well read it.’

It turned out to be a bible. And as he read, he began to wonder if it was all true, so he showed it to a Catholic priest in his own town.

‘Oh, you shouldn’t be reading this,’ he was told. ‘We’re the only ones allowed to do that. Give it to me!’

But this soldier refused to and eventually found another Christian pastor, who explained to him what this book he had found was about and helped him understand it. As a result, this man then became a believer.

Yet that was not the end of the story. Eventually, this soldier told his sister about the book and about Jesus Christ—and she believed in him too. Then in time, this lady told her son—and he also believed. … And this son was the man I met right here in Sydney last Sunday. Now this man constantly tells his own children in no uncertain terms about God’s precious book, the bible—the word of God that is true and powerful and active.

This man’s uncle did not know, when he first picked up his bible, that it is indeed a much stronger weapon than any gun or grenade or knife he had been issued with—or doubled-edged sword, for that matter!

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12

Yet God spoke deep into his spirit through the book he found, despite his ignorance. And thankfully, this uncle had an open, seeker’s heart that reached out to God and was so responsive, as God’s Spirit drew him close.

What a story—and what a challenge! May my own heart be equally open to God—and may I always value my own ‘old book’ as much as this man did.

In our home, I have a reputation for liking to let as much light in as possible. Each morning, one of the first things I do is pull the blind up in our bedroom. Then I open the heavy curtains next to our dining table and the shutters on our kitchen window. And finally, I walk into my study and pull the blind up there. Usually, my husband has already opened the curtains over the glass doors that lead onto our balcony, so I can see the sky outside. And, because we live in a downstairs unit, I often like some electric lights on as well—especially in our recent dull weather.

There is something attractive about light, isn’t there? A few weeks ago, when all that smoke cleared after the bushfires, many of us felt so cheered to see sunlight and blue sky again. Somehow that natural light has a positive effect on us and lifts our spirits, doesn’t it? But light is so useful too, in all its various shapes and forms. Without it, we can lose direction, stumble over things and, in general, be unable to function to the best of our ability. Light is attractive. Light is useful. And light can even save us. Just think of those lighthouses that have prevented so many ships from floundering on the rocks below.

Recently at our church, we held a women’s retreat day, with the theme ‘Let there be light!’ Everything was set out beautifully, with fairy lights strung here and there and little IMG_20200222_092925131pretend candles on our tables that we all turned on at one stage. But my eye was caught by two beautiful collections of lights at the front of our auditorium, each containing a fascinating mix of lamps big and small, along with candles of all shapes and sizes in various intricately made candleholders. As the day unfolded, all those lamps and candles were lit, one after the other, to reflect the fact that each one of us is called to be a light to our world, whatever shape or size we are or however we are equipped to shine.

But we were also reminded at one stage that it is God’s light we are called to bring to the world, as we allow it to shine through us. As we receive God’s grace and mercy and step from darkness to light ourselves, we have the wonderful privilege of belonging to God and being chosen to show God’s goodness to the world, so that others may be drawn towards that light as well.

… for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. 1 Peter 2:9 New Living Translation

At some point that day, I saw in my mind a picture of a huge throng of women, each carrying a light high, as they streamed from all corners of the world towards a beautiful, shining throne surrounded by light. And I was overwhelmed at the privilege of being counted among that throng and being able to hold my own lamp high, as we all praised God. What a wonderful day that will be, don’t you think?

Jo 23‘I have HOMEWORK!’ our almost six-year-old granddaughter announced ecstatically, her big brown eyes wide with anticipation, as we picked her up from school one afternoon last week. ‘I’m going to do it right now!

Then and there, in the middle of the schoolyard, Maxine wanted to set to work. But I managed to get her to the car and then home at least before she tackled this wondrous new thing called homework. Last year, she had spelling to practise at home. But now being all grown up in Year One, she finally had those magical homework sheets in her hands.

First off, she tackled her spelling list for the week. She wrote out all her words in the column marked ‘Monday’ —then the Tuesday column as well, since she might not have time the next day. The Wednesday column soon followed and the Thursday one too.

But wait, there was more. As well, we completed some little ‘Maths’ exercises to do with measuring things and deciding which things were bigger or smaller than something else.

‘This is fun!’ she declared—until her granddad tried to help her draw a map of her bedroom. But she did not want help. She did not care if things weren’t in the right place or weren’t drawn to scale. What mattered to her was making that chest of drawers she drew bigger and brighter than everything else in her room and enjoying the whole experience of doing her very own homework!

As I watched, I found myself hoping she continues to be as enamoured with the idea of doing homework for a long time to come. After all, she has plenty of it ahead of her. But I began to think too how I initially embraced some things in my own life with passion and excitement, only for it all to die down a few weeks or months later. For example, I know I should walk regularly and I do enjoy it. I used to walk every day. But things happened—and now I resent the time I need to take from my writing to go walking. Then there are some books I have started reading too with enthusiasm, even taking notes as I went. But sadly, I soon became too busy—or too lazy—and lost interest in them.

I’m so glad God has enabled me not to do the same in my Christian journey. I well remember the joy and enthusiasm with which I embraced my new-found faith in Jesus Christ in my mid-teens. Over the years, while this joy and enthusiasm may have changed in degree or shape, even becoming a little dulled at times through the pressures of life, it has never left me. Today, many years later, I still rejoice that I am God’s beloved child, through the great grace God has shown me and goes on showing me. And, through God’s strength, I am still embracing with enthusiasm the things I have been given and gifted to do right now.

May that deep joy continue to flourish in my life and yours—and may we, like Maxine, embrace all God has for us to learn and experience with enthusiasm, whatever our age!

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:24

Jo 17Recently, I did something I have never done before. Each day for one whole week, I deliberately chose to do some special activity I have wanted to do for some time but always had a reason not to. On top of that, I did not cook dinner any night that week. Instead, we ate out or bought takeaway. You see, the whole thing was a unique birthday present for me—and what fun it all was!

Originally, my husband had wanted me to enjoy a few days away somewhere by myself—to relax, recharge and spend time with God. I thought about this lovely idea and even looked up various venues online but did not feel settled about any of them. Then one night, it came to me. I did not want to go away anywhere. Instead, I wanted to enjoy different, interesting experiences within reach of our own beautiful unit, then come home and not have to cook dinner! A win-win situation, don’t you think?

In the end, we called this wondrous week ‘The Festival of Jo-Anne’ (!)—and I thoroughly enjoyed it all. I went shopping, twice over. I went to the movies. I had coffee out. I had a massage. I read. And in between, I had time simply to sit and be and reconnect with God. Yes, it was all very good indeed.

But one reason I enjoyed it even more was that, two weeks earlier, I had finally finished the first draft of my latest novel that had languished on my laptop for over three years, waiting patiently for me to unfold the rest of the story. This special week of mine then was also for me a time when I came up for air, so to speak, when I allowed my poor brain to rest, when I graced myself a little more than usual—and when I sensed God’s love and grace being showered on me from every angle. It was a lovely, hiatus period—a time to gain clearer perspective, not only on my novel, before I plunged into all that necessary editing, but on my life in general.

At one stage in writing this particular novel, I wondered if I should keep going. Should I be content with the eight books of mine that have already been published? Was that where God wanted me to stop? But one day, I sensed God saying gently to me, ‘Jo-Anne, whether you write this book or don’t write it, remember I’ll be just as delighted with you either way!’ What gracious, loving, freeing words to hear! I did not need to feel pressured to produce in any way. Instead, I had permission to write the sort of novel I have wanted to write for some time and to leave the outcome in God’s hands.

Yet I think God was saying more than that too. I think God wanted to remind me that, all the time, whether celebrating the Festival of Jo-Anne or writing or speaking or whatever, I can rest fully in this amazing love of God that accepts me, no matter what.

How precious is your unfailing love, O God! All humanity finds shelter in the shadow of your wings. Psalm 36:7 New Living Translation

Maybe you too need to hear this reminder right now?