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Jo 12For quite a few Christmases, I have worked hard at perfecting a certain little trick with my mind—the art of deliberately forgetting. Now I can already forget many things without much effort. For instance, this Christmas, when the time came to put our grandchildren’s presents under the tree, I discovered I had forgotten where I had hidden several of them. Then after finally locating them, I found I had no idea what was in those carefully wrapped parcels!

The older I get too, I find I am improving at forgetting people’s names. How embarrassing it can be, when I find myself unable to introduce someone whose name I was told only moments earlier! Then recently, while reading the Psalms again, I was a little shocked to discover some key verses I had almost forgotten hidden away there. How could I do that? How could I forget Psalm 52:8, for example:

But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever.

Or Psalm 55:22:

Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.

Or Psalm 56: 4:

In God whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?

So why would I want to fine hone this skill of forgetting things any further? Well, the reason I do this each Christmas is to help out my husband, who is often stumped for gift ideas for me. So if I see something I would like for myself for Christmas, I buy it—providing it’s not too expensive, that is! Usually it is a book—perhaps a new one by a favourite author or one a friend whose opinion I trust has recommended. But once the checkout person puts that book in its carry bag, my little forgetting trick comes into play. There is a way, I have discovered, of not letting my mind dwell on that purchase anymore, of choosing to delete it from my memory—perhaps not completely, but close enough to it. If I tried, I’m sure I could recall the author of the book, although the title might escape me. But … why would I want to? After all, why spoil the lovely surprise on Christmas morning when I am presented with my gift and discover it is just the sort of excellent book I love to read?!

There are much more important things, however, than Christmas presents bought for oneself that God challenges us to forget or not hold onto—past failures, past regrets, past sins already forgiven as we have come to God in repentance. How wonderful that, by God’s grace, we can let go of them instead and move on with a light, joyous step, looking forward rather than back, as the prophet Isaiah challenged the Israelites to do:

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? Isaiah 43:18-19

So as you step into 2019, what is God challenging you to remember that will strengthen you and give you much needed wisdom and peace? But also … what things might be better to forget?

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Jo 17It can be disconcerting at times to discover certain literary ‘masterpieces’ on my laptop that I wrote over ten years ago now! My style has changed markedly since I began my writing journey in earnest in 2004, as has the style of novels publishers and bookstores want. So when two people asked me recently about my earlier novels that are no longer available for purchase, I almost baulked at lending them my own copies, because I find it hard to open them without wanting to change things and edit out more than a few words! I also own recorded versions of these novels produced by CBM Australia and narrated by well-known Australian actors, yet I cannot bear to listen to them because I know I would want to change far too much.

In the end, I went ahead and lent these friends the novels they wanted. After all, they understand they are my earlier novels—but they still wanted to read them. So far, one friend has returned her copy, telling me in the process how much she enjoyed it, to my great relief! Yet I know there was so much more for me to learn back then about the art of novel-writing—and there still is.

In the light of all this then, you can imagine my feelings when I recently found the following poem of mine, written way back in 1985! I am not a poet, but that year, many things were stirring in me that I felt I needed to express somehow. So, having been inspired by Isaiah’s amazing prophecy about the coming Messiah (Isaiah 9:6), I wrote the following—and I have sensed God challenging me to share it once again with you all:

 

Wonderful Counsellor, surround me with your wisdom.

My mind is tired, with indecision torn.

Where is the path prepared for me to follow?

I need you, Lord, to watch, to guide, to warn.

 

Almighty God, defend me with your power.

My weakness wins, my courage ebbs away.

O Holy One, great Lord of all creation,

For strength to stand secure I humbly pray.

 

Everlasting Father, how you love me!

I am your child, forgiven, forever free!

O hold me fast, transform me to your likeness,

Till men in me your face more clearly see.

 

Prince of Peace, bestow your calm assurance.

My heart is troubled, turmoil takes control.

O send your soothing Spirit to surround me.

Speak, Lord, till I am still within my soul!

 

Perhaps this Christmas, you too are at a crossroads in your life, as I was then. Or perhaps you feel plain weary and spent, after a year in which you have given of yourself in so many ways. If that is the case, I pray that, this Christmas, you can truly welcome the Prince of Peace into your heart afresh and receive those life-giving words I know the Wonderful Counsellor has for you. And may each of us, however we feel this Christmas, stop and give heartfelt thanks for the amazing gift of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings.

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 Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

IMG_20181206_130821659I have decided I am a little technically challenged. First off, it was my almost failed recent effort at putting some train tracks together for our youngest granddaughter. But then came the challenge of assembling those free little cardboard cut-out Christmas images from a well-known supermarket chain for her! Somehow, I managed to put the snowman and the gingerbread house together. Then I tackled the tiny Santa sleigh, complete with its little striped cardboard gifts and strange-looking Christmas stocking. Hopefully the checkout person will have run out of such things next time I shop!

Maxine then decided these works of art would look good on our window ledge, so our neighbours could admire them. She arranged them neatly in a row, but then disappeared. I wondered where she was, but then spied her hiding under our lounge and holding something in her hand.

‘Oh, there you are!’ I said to her. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Yes, but I broke this!’

She held up the little sleigh I had created, now slightly squished—and minus the little cardboard gifts we had positioned in it.

‘Oh, don’t worry!’ I told her. ‘I can fix it. But where are the little gifts?’

I thought they were probably lost somewhere, but Maxine immediately pointed to the manger scene we had placed on a nearby table together on another day. On that occasion, when I had asked her to help me, she had clapped her hands and responded:

‘Oh yes—I love the baby Jesus!’

Now I saw she had carefully put that little cardboard cut-out stocking right in the baby Jesus’ hands and strategically placed the two striped gift boxes near Joseph and Mary, along with the snowman’s little pencil and Christmas gift wish list! My first instinct was to move them and put them back on the window ledge. After all, they did not really belong in our manger scene. But then I noticed Maxine’s trusting look and her matter-of-fact manner, which seemed to say to me, ‘Of course the gifts should be near the baby Jesus! It’s the natural place for them to be, isn’t it?’ So who was I to argue?

Later, as I gazed at our manger scene again, complete with Maxine’s additions, I sensed God pointing out to me what a simple yet profound thing Maxine had done. She had wanted to bring gifts to the baby Jesus—it was her own little way of honouring him. So this Christmas, how was I planning to honour Jesus? In the midst of buying for others, what gifts was I intending to offer him? Should it be more giving to those in real need, both here in our own country and overseas? Should it take the form of extra financial support for friends sharing Jesus with others? Should it be offering more of my time to help others? Or should it be something as simple as giving Jesus more space in my life each day to listen to him—and do what he says?

What will your gift to Jesus be this Christmas?

Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2:11-12

Jo 12We sat on the Manly Ferry together—two couples who have known one another for around fifty years. Our friends were down in Sydney from Brisbane for the weekend, so we joined them in the city and headed for Circular Quay. It’s wonderful, isn’t it, how conversations between old friends can flow on seamlessly from where we left them whenever we last met up!

Our day unfolded beautifully, with a great trip across the harbour and a stroll through the Manly Plaza, with much laughter along the way. We decided to have lunch early to avoid the crowds, so my job was to ‘bag’ a table on the beachfront while the others went to buy lunch. Now we had planned to pay for our friends’ meal, but when they all arrived back with that obligatory fish and chips, I discovered they had got in first. We protested, but in the end, had to accept defeat.

Afterwards, we strolled through nearby market stalls until we saw a coffee shop. This time, we managed to shout our visitors—phew! But not long after, they spied an ice cream shop. Now one cannot go to Manly, we decided, without having an ice cream, so there we were, all in our seventies and even eighties, standing on the footpath, licking our huge ice creams like kids! And you guessed it—our visitors paid again.

Soon after, we headed back on the ferry to Circular Quay and caught the train to near our friends’ hotel. But we could not part without yet another cup of coffee, now could we? When our friends managed to get in first again to pay, we protested, but then gave up, as our friends explained how they had put money aside for this particular weekend and this was how they wanted to spend it. Then the husband made an interesting comment:

‘Don’t worry about it, Jo-Anne!’ he said, his voice kind but a little exasperated. ‘It’s only silly old money! In a couple of years, we won’t even need it anymore!’

I was shocked at first, but then realised the truth of what he was saying. When our time here on earth is over, we can’t take anything with us, as the Apostle Paul reminds us:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 1 Timothy 6:6-7

I know for many in great need in our world right now, it is not ‘only silly old money’. For many, those dollars could well mean the difference between life and death, between putting food on the table or not, between paying the bills or bankruptcy, between meeting the monthly mortgage bill or losing the family home. Yet what our friend said is still true and so important to remember. And he himself has taken heed of what Paul goes on to say:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. 1 Timothy 6:10

Our friends might have accrued some money through much hard work and wise investing, but they do not love it and hang onto it. Instead, they are so generous and use it so well to bless others in all sorts of ways—because, after all, ‘it’s only silly old money’!

All about doors

I have a friend who loves photographing doors, particularly ones that look a little weatherworn. And if they are any shade of blue, that’s even better! On one trip together, it became a joke between us to find as many blue doors as we could and decide if they truly warranted being photographed. As a result, whenever I see an interesting door anywhere, I think of her. And this was the case when I recently came across the intriguing door below, about a third of the way down this beautiful, old staircase in the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney.

IMG_20181124_102331114
IMG_20181124_102226413I don’t think anyone will open this door in a hurry, do you? Yet how inviting it looks! Could it hide an escape route for those overwhelmed by the expensive clothes, shoes etc sold in the QVB, do you think? Or does it lead to a little room where those tired workers from the endless coffee shops in the building can hide for a brief respite? And what about that interesting Number 417 on it? After all, if I’m correct, that equals three times thirteen squared, so perhaps some superstitious official in the distant past may have decided to block that door right up for good!

Yet my thoughts took a serious turn too as I looked and reflected on those figurative doors barred to me at certain times in my life. When I was nineteen and studying at Queensland University, I tried to change from my Bachelor of Arts degree course to a five-year combined Arts/Divinity course. Way back then, I felt God was calling me to train for some form of ministry, but I soon discovered my Commonwealth Scholarship could not be extended to cover those extra years at university. I knew my parents could not support me through any further study—and I had no part-time job. So I reluctantly abandoned the whole idea.

Then in my middle forties, I felt God again calling me to prepare for some form of ministry, this time at theological college. I left my job and wanted to start studying straight away the following year, but that turned out to be impossible. So instead, I spent that year praying for our church, attending two schools of prayer, auditing two college subjects and reading many books—all of which turned out to be vital for what lay ahead. Then the next year, I began my college course in earnest. Three years later, at the age of forty-nine—thirty years after I first wanted to study divinity/theology—I graduated with that degree, plus a ministry diploma.

Was it a mistake that I did not undertake these studies earlier? I suspect not—because, in those intervening years, God brought so many different experiences across my path, teaching me things I would never otherwise have learnt. In the end, God answered my prayers and those doors I thought would never open for me did indeed open, just as Jesus promised.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Luke 11:9-10

May those doors that have been barred for you open in God’s time too.

Making mistakes

IMG_20181121_121203912Recently, I found myself wondering whether our four-year-old granddaughter truly is only four and not a hundred and four! There we were, sitting on the floor, trying to set up some wooden train tracks together. I could see on the box that those train tracks were meant to link up in a certain way, forming three intertwining loops, yet I could not seem to make them do what they were supposed to do.

‘Oh dear!’ I told Maxine at last. ‘I think I’ve made a big mistake somewhere. These tracks aren’t going to connect up at all.’

Thankfully, Maxine did not show any disappointment or frustration.

Don’t worry, Nanna!’ she said in a lovely, compassionate tone. ‘Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone!Even I made a mistake once!’

I tried not to laugh or even smile—I knew she would be highly embarrassed and offended if I did. Besides, she had meant it so kindly. And there was so much wisdom in the first part at least of what she had said. As for her last sentence—well, even it was meant to be kind and generous! At that point, I let her know I appreciated her words. And I realised too how weirdly comforting they had been, because I was feeling a little silly that I could not put a simple train track together.

Eventually, I found some instructions in the box and, after my husband and Maxine disappeared to the playground, I managed to work them out. What a sense of accomplishment I felt, as that train track came together!

Maxine’s gracious response, however, led me to reflect on the many other much more serious mistakes I have made in my life, some more accidental than others. Sometimes I have said or done things out of ignorance, thinking I was right and even, in fact, acting in a godly manner. On those occasions, God has known my heart, seen my sorrow and graciously picked me up, strengthening me to do better. Yet on other occasions, to my regret, I have deliberately chosen a wrong course of action, knowing full well I am making a huge mistake—sinning, in fact. Many times, I have said that hasty, angry word or judged someone harshly or refused to listen to God and do some kind act or speak those life-giving words to someone. Yet each time, God has still reached out to me, shown me my wilful mistakes and in kindness led me to repentance, setting my feet on solid ground once again (Romans 2:4). What a loving, patient God we have!

The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbour his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him: as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:8-12

Yes, Maxine is bound to make more than that one mistake in her life, but I hope and pray she will always know her loving, compassionate Lord is with her to comfort her and enable her to move on in his strength.

Jo 12I wonder if you can remember a time when you felt so frustrated that you could not get on with what you truly wanted to do because of other pressing commitments in your life. Perhaps you had to work while others were enjoying holidays. Perhaps you had to be at home minding young children or caring for someone with ill-health while colleagues pursued their careers. Or perhaps you had to put study aside, in order to pay the mortgage and support a family. It can be hard, can’t it, to see others doing exactly what you yourself would like to be doing?

For the past four months, my husband and I have been supporting our church’s pastoral team while our two lead pastors (husband and wife) have been on sabbatical leave. We have felt so privileged to be able to work alongside our team and so many wonderful volunteers. Yet even though it was such a positive experience, at times I felt a little rebellious about where I found myself. I am a writer, after all, but in these months, I have not touched my current manuscript. In fact, I can barely remember my characters and what they have been up to! So why was I there ministering, instead of writing? Besides, I have missed my times of solitude, sitting at my laptop, lost in another world as I churn out those words.

Then it dawned on me that, for someone who belongs to God and is committed to doing what God wants, this is a rather silly way to think. After all, if I truly believed God called us to support our pastoral team, then surely I need not worry about what is not getting done—or written! Instead, I can be at peace and do what I have been given to do.

As I realised this, a second thought emerged. Could God possibly have had some further purpose in drawing me back into a pastoral role for a season? Through it all, what did God want to show me or teach me that could not happen any other way?

I decided to journal my responses. Firstly, I felt God wanted to point out how far I have come in those sixteen years since laying down a formal ministry role. I have grown so much, as I have gone on my writing and speaking journey—and I realised how thankful to God I need to be for that. Secondly, as a result of this growth, I believe I have approached this temporary pastoral role in an entirely different way. My trust in God has grown and I have gained greater confidence in using my God-given gifts. Thirdly, as I have ministered this time around, I have felt God’s deep love and affirmation and also a kind of healing from any regrets or sense of failure I may still have felt at leaving ministry all those years ago.

What a lesson, to realise I would have missed out on all this, if I had not helped out for these four months! God is so gracious and long-suffering with us, don’t you think?

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God. Psalm 42:11