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I have always longed to be an artist. I would love to be able to create beautiful scenes or stunning portraits for others to appreciate. Instead, I am a writer who weaves together words and sentences, in the hope of inspiring my readers to create their own scenes in their imaginations as the story unfolds. And I have to say I love doing this. But, while I might admit to being a tad envious, I also love celebrating those with different, God-given, creative gifts—artists, sculptors, photographers, craftspeople of all sorts—and allowing their creations to speak to me in their own unique way, maybe even revealing more of God in the process.

IMG_20171001_103745359And right now, there is a unique opportunity to do just that at our church’s Art Installation, which features a variety of creative works, all centred around our church’s vision statement—Led by God’s Spirit. Compelled to share Christ. Restoring the broken. Each weekday evening from 7.00pm to 9.00pm and on weekends (Sat 9.00am to 12.00 midday; Sun 9.00am to 1.00pm, 4.30pm to 8.00pm) until Sunday 15th October, someone will be present in ‘The Basement’ at our church, Parramatta Baptist, 84-94 Kleins Rd, Northmead, Sydney, to greet visitors and invite us to wander and look or simply sit and reflect on what God might be saying to us through the various creative works on display.

I hope my piece of writing below that is included in this year’s Art Installation will bless and encourage any who pause to read it. It is more a brief meditation than a poem and came to me one morning as reflected on the beautiful, well-known words of Psalm 23, the ‘shepherd psalm’. As you too read it now, may you be reassured of the presence of God’s loving ‘Shepherd Spirit’ with you to guide, restore, comfort, strengthen and encourage.

 

Shepherd Spirit

you long to lead me in paths of peace

to provide for me,

to empower me to live and serve.

You whisper gentle words to me–

‘This is the way–walk here!’

‘Don’t be afraid–I am with you.’

‘Not yet–wait!’

                Shepherd Spirit,

at times your voice is firmer, more fervent,

impossible to ignore, urging me

to lay down the old,

to explore the new.

Even when darkness descends and loneliness engulfs,

Even when I stumble on, seeking my own path,

you rise to rescue me,

securing my steps,

attending to my needs.

              Shepherd Spirit,

as I come to my senses, I see you are there,

offering me the finest of fare,

seating me at your table,

where healing and wholeness await.

Shepherd Spirit,

I stand in strength,

inspired again to write of you,

empowered again to speak of you,

rejoicing in your love,

relishing your leading,

ready to be all you call me to be.

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Jo 12Last week, some long-time friends decided to drop in on their way to Canberra from Queensland.

‘We’re up the Central Coast,’ they told us. ‘We’ll be there in around a couple of hours!’

After getting a few things ready, I made a quick dash to the shops. I raced around the supermarket, then fumed as I became stuck behind a very slow-moving, elderly gentleman on my way down to the car park. Why couldn’t he move faster? What if my visitors arrived before I got home?

Still feeling frustrated, I finally hopped in my car and headed home. Just as I reached a roundabout near our Village, I noticed a motor-home approaching from the opposite direction. Oh, our friends have a motor-home, I thought to myself, but I can’t remember what theirs looks like. …  Hold on a minute! It couldn’t possibly be them, could it?

I waved, hoping that, if it was indeed them, they would follow me. And they did! I pointed them to a parking spot and we all marvelled at the absolute ‘coincidence’ of our arriving at the roundabout at exactly the same time. Had that old gentleman not slowed me down, I would have missed seeing them and helping them find our unit.

Over the next twenty-four hours, we shared many experiences from past years of how God had guided, rescued and enabled in all sorts of situations. Our friends told us about their three children, now parents and grandparents themselves. When the eldest was born many weeks premature, the nurses put him aside in a humidicrib when they saw he wasn’t breathing and focused on our friend’s wellbeing as the mother. But when she was told her baby was dead, she declared firmly, ‘He’s not dead!’‘ The next moment, nurses noticed he was breathing and scuttled to care for him.

‘I just knew in my heart he wasn’t,’ she told us, tears in her eyes, even after all these years.

As for their second son, it was discovered just prior to his birth that the cord was around his neck. Before an emergency caesarean could be organised, however, he arrived. to everyone’s amazement, the cord was not around his neck at all and the birth went perfectly smoothly! Later, our friends heard how someone they barely knew had woken up in the early morning hours and felt prompted to pray earnestly for them at the exact time of this baby’s birth.

When their third child was born, she seemed fine. But later in life, she was found to suffer from a severe congenital brain malformation involving not one aneurism, but thirteen! A brilliant surgeon happened to operate on her and managed to fix them all—a super-amazing, life-saving miracle.

As we talked, we saw again how God had indeed been present, not only in those bigger, key moments but also in the little ‘coincidences’ along the way—like arriving at roundabouts at the exact same time! What a wonderful God we serve, we decided, as our friends went on their way to continue with their amazing ministries, even in their late seventies!

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10

Tripping up

IMG_20170915_104850396Last week, I decided to walk to some nearby bushland to explore a path my husband had told me about. As instructed, I headed down some rough, wooden stairs and turned right at the creek bank. I continued on slowly, stopping at times to enjoy the beautiful setting and listen to the numerous birds in the surrounding trees. While I was familiar with the tinkling bellbird sounds and the raucous screeching of the sulphur-crested cockatoos, all the rest left me feeling so curious—and ignorant.

But as I kept walking, I began to experience a different feeling as well—an unwelcome sense of fear. While the path ahead looked well-used, it was uneven, with rocks and tree roots protruding in spots. I had good walking shoes on, but I knew I still needed to be careful where I put my feet. Then my mind and imagination began to work overtime. What if I fell over and hurt myself? There was no one else in sight and no houses close by. What if I was not found for a long time?

You see, a couple of years ago, I did fall over while out walking. My foot twisted under me when I stepped on a small, innocuous looking branch on a perfectly flat, concrete bike path and pow—I hit that concrete with one almighty thud! On that occasion, a cyclist passed by soon after, stopped to help me to my feet and made sure I was okay before riding on. I thought I was—but, as it turned out, I ended up with a chipped ankle bone.

As I dwelt on this past experience, I believe God intervened, halting those tumbling thoughts and enabling me to put things in better perspective. This time around, I was indeed taking much greater care as I walked, whereas on the day I fell, I was still mulling over a talk I had given that morning and was oblivious to my surroundings. I also had my mobile phone with me, so could easily call my husband, as I did when I hurt myself. Besides, another walker would probably come along soon—and there was a busy road not so far away. All up, I was quite safe.

Then I remembered something else—and almost laughed out loud at myself. All week, I had been reading whole passages of Scripture on the theme of ‘Learning to live trustingly’. These included various verses about getting rid of worry and anxiety, about being more than conquerors, about trusting God in every situation—even about walking on straight paths!

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6 NIV

Yet here I was, forgetting all those beautiful words in a moment of fear. I had indeed tripped up badly.

At that point, I sensed God smiling at me and whispering: ‘I’m right here with you, Jo-Anne—I haven’t left you. Don’t let that old enemy trip you up with fears and worries. Don’t let him bring you down. Just enjoy my creation around you—and enjoy this moment with me!

I think I need to read all those verses through again very soon and truly believe them this time—don’t you?

I must admit I like to find a bargain when out shopping. Perhaps it is the way I was brought up to be careful with money that is to blame. Or perhaps I am just a bit of a miser at heart—who knows? Whatever the reason, I can feel quite gleeful when I realise how much I have saved via those specials at the supermarket. And I am not above poking my nose into second-hand shops or ends-of-line clothing stores either!

Recently, I found IMG_20170908_102150034_HDRmyself in bargain hunters’ paradise, after volunteering to help set out items donated for the ‘white elephant’ stall at a Spring Fair. As we unpacked all sorts of interesting pieces of merchandise people no longer wanted and tried to find a spot for them on tables already grossly overflowing, I could not help but shake my head at it all. How could people give this good stuff away? Wouldn’t they miss such lovely and such useful things?

The next day at the fair itself, I soon became caught up in the whirl of excitement, as I hunted through all those bargains on offer. There were so many quality items at rock-bottom prices. I found some things I felt I needed for our kitchen and a picture or two for our walls and some very cheap gift wrapping and … On it went. I had such fun!

I took my precious purchases home, but later went back to see what was still on offer. And as I strolled around, this time in a quieter frame of mind and less bent on acquiring this and that, I began to realise what a wealthy country we live in. No, not all of us have money to spare. But, on the whole, we are well off. If we as a society can throw away so many ‘white elephants’—not only household items and other odds and ends but also an absolute mound of books—then we do not live in the poorest country in the world. At least all the recycling and finding of new owners I could see happening around me that I too had benefited from was a much better outcome than simply wasting these items and sending them to landfill.

As I looked around at all this offloading of possessions and buying and selling, however, I looked within myself as well. How easily I can get into an acquiring mode, thinking I need this and that! Yet what had I heard at church recently and read in Scripture about living in a humble and contented manner?

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19-21

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 1 Timothy 6:6-8

Will I be content with that? These words, along with all those white elephants I saw, have given me much to think about.

Before we know it

Jo 17‘What day is it today?’ I ask my husband.

‘It’s Thursday,’ he tells me, without comment. He is used to my strange ways.

‘It can’t be!’ I say, aghast. ‘What happened to Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday? Before we know it, another week will be over!’

It seems I am not the only one in our family who is familiar with this ‘before we know it’ feeling. Recently, after picking up our three-year-old granddaughter from day care, we chatted together as we drove along.

‘I fell over at my brother’s school and hurt my knee,’ she told us at one stage.

‘Oh, that’s sad,’ her grandad said. ‘Did you cry?’

‘Yes, I did,’ she replied, ‘but before I knew it, it didn’t hurt anymore!’

This concept of time passing so quickly seemed such an adult thing for a young child to grasp—but obviously Maxine knew what it meant. One minute that pain was there and the next, it was gone. And that’s the case with so many things in life, don’t you think? We think and act as if a particular stage of our lives will last forever—but it doesn’t. At times, we cannot see beyond the now. Yet when we step back and view things with a wider perspective, we realise everything is finite.

One of my favourite movies from years ago now is Dead Poets Society. A key thought the main character, innovative teacher John Keating (played by Robin Williams), often expressed resonated strongly with me—‘Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.’ I suspect I saw this movie at a time in my life when I felt a little restless and was wondering what God had ahead for me. I wanted to make my life count, in whatever way God had gifted me to do so. But time was passing, so I needed to grasp hold of those ‘God opportunities’ that arose, however challenging they might be. And I’m so glad God enabled me to do just that. Not long after this movie was first released, I changed jobs—and this change eventually led to my being able to attend theological college fulltime in my late forties and obtain my Bachelor of Theology degree, a dream I had had ever since I was around nineteen years old.

Now at this stage of my life, I wonder again what God has for me to do. Should I persevere with my writing and speaking? Or is God leading me into a different kind of ministry? Whatever the answers to those questions might turn out to be, I know I still want to ‘seize the moment’ and make my life count, because, before I know it, I will no longer have these opportunities. Even though we live in different times from the Apostle Paul, I want to heed his commands to do just that.

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Ephesians 5:16-17

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Colossians 4:4

May God guide us all as we seize those moments we have been given and make the most of them.

Jo 23‘Do you think a visit to IKEA might be in order soon?’ a friend texted me.

‘Great!’ I texted back. ‘I’ll look around here and see if I can think of anything we need.’

Then it struck me how ironic my response was.  If I had to work hard at thinking of something I might need, then the chances are I do not truly need whatever it might be at all! If I have to wrack my brains to come up with something that would make life better or easier for us, then it’s more than possible we can well do without it.

A few days later, after visiting a nearby weekend market, I sat down and enjoyed a lovely cup of coffee my husband had bought for me.

‘I really needed that!’ I told him, as I swallowed those last few drops.

But did I? Yes, it gave me that temporary energy boost I was looking for—and yes, it made me feel less thirsty. But I think I might have been able to survive without it. I wanted it, but I didn’t really need it—unlike people lost in the desert need water or a newborn baby needs milk to survive.

Then yesterday, I found myself using that little word ‘need’ in yet another context.

‘I need to fit in a swim this afternoon,’ I told my husband. ‘I’m heading up to the pool now.’

Yes, I do need to swim to help my back recover from past damage. So I am grateful for that heated pool in our village—and that I had it all to myself yesterday! But did I really need to relax in that beautiful, warm spa right next to the pool for as long as I did afterwards? Still, it was wonderful—and, all the while, I felt God was smiling and saying to me, ‘It’s okay to relax, Jo-Anne, and enjoy my company in the process!’ Sometimes we do need those moments of pure relaxation, don’t we—doing nothing except letting those ideas flow in and out of our minds and talking to God in the process, as I did while the water bubbled around me in that spa?

I’m so glad God knows what I need and is always there, ready to supply just that. In fact, all the resources I have, material and otherwise, are gifts from our generous and loving God, who, as Paul assured the early believers, is able to meet all my needs ‘according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:19). So how can I continually grasp at things, wanting this and that? Instead, I am trying to hold everything more lightly and to be much more willing to supply what is lacking for others.

If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:17-18

For me, it’s about walking hand in hand with God each day, listening well, opening my eyes to see the real needs around me—then doing something about them. And because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need to do just that (Psalm 23).

Our very best

Jo 12There we were, our youngest granddaughter and I, chilling out together on a beautiful, sunny day. She had come to visit, complete with her pink, plastic, three-wheeled scooter, so we decided to explore the nearby paths together. She is only three, so I was genuinely surprised at how well she could manage that little scooter of hers.

‘Wow, that’s excellent, Maxine!’ I told her. ‘You ride your scooter so well!’

‘I can only do my very best,’ she replied in a cute little matter-of-fact way.

‘Pardon?’ I said, taken aback.

‘I can only do my very best,’ she repeated in her most satisfied tone.

I was more than a little impressed. Where had she learnt such wisdom at her young age? From her parents? Her teachers at day care? One of her little friends? Some TV program? I could only guess—but I knew she hadn’t learnt it from me.

You see, I think I developed a rather warped idea of what doing one’s best meant as I grew up. I am sure my parents encouraged me to do just that in all sorts of things—keeping my room tidy, clearing the table after meals, doing homework, piano practice, choir practice and so many other areas of my life. But somewhere along the line, I managed to decide that doing my very best was not enough. Instead, I wanted to be the best. I needed to beat all those other children in my class when it came to those term exams. I had to come top. I had to be on that prize-winners’ list. And I needed to get that honours mark in practical music and theory exams too. In short, I became a bit of a perfectionist all round.

While I believe there are pluses in aiming high, even perhaps aiming for perfection, there are down sides too. We can become too hard on ourselves. We can become dissatisfied with our efforts. We may find ourselves unable to enjoy any of our excellent achievements. And we can also become far too hard on those around us, as we put our own expectations onto them. So what a joy to hear how our Maxine already seems to have grasped the concept of doing one’s very best and being content with that!

Some of you, like me, might have grown up with a parent who asserted that ‘if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’. Yet, over the years, I have come to prefer the words of Paul in Colossians 3:23-24 so much more:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

I prefer these because I now know the Lord Paul talks about here. I have experienced his amazing heart of love, his grace, his forgiveness, his understanding. Yes, truly he deserves our very best. Yet, whatever happens, I know he will accept me. His yoke is easy and his burden is light, as the Lord himself has told us (Matthew 10:30)—and I know he will strengthen me and help me grow, as I seek to serve him.

Now that’s the best news any perfectionist can hear!