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Next week, I plan to give away something I have hung onto for over thirty years and never used in all that time. It is a Fowler’s Vacola bottling or preserving outfit, complete with large, metal boiler, thermometer, clamps and around three dozen glass jars and lids. My sister is soon to move to a large, country town and hopes to make good use of it there.

I first began bottling when we moved to Victor Harbor, South Australia, thirty-seven years ago. To our delight, we discovered several fruit trees in the backyard of our new home – an apricot tree, a huge nectarine tree and two varieties of peach trees. When summer came, we were inundated with fruit, so I decided to buy a preserving outfit and ask one of the local ladies to show me how to bottle fruit.

It was a very satisfying endeavour. I learnt how to overlap the fruit in the bottles so it would look attractive, how to achieve just the right level of sweetness in the syrup and how to seal those bottles well. It was a lot of work, but it was so wonderful to have a supply of homemade preserves on hand, especially when unexpected visitors arrived. When we moved to Adelaide and then interstate, I thought I would buy fruit and keep on bottling, but it never eventuated. The fruit was too expensive and besides, I no longer had the time. So even though I loved the idea, I gave up on it.

And now as I pack up my old bottling outfit, I see something of a parable of the Christian life in it all. Many times, it seems we taste the sweetness of a close relationship with God and reap the benefits of this in our lives. But then things happen. Our lifestyle changes or we get too busy or Christians disappoint us or we think we know it all – and God is marginalised in our lives, even perhaps packed in a box, put on a high shelf and forgotten about.

But God doesn’t forget us. We might forget God – but God is different. ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’, the Lord says to Joshua in Joshua 1:5. Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me’ David writes in Psalm 27:10. And God tells the children of Israel something similar in Isaiah 49:15:

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!

We can even try to fool ourselves and others and pretend our faith in God is still vital to us, but God sees through it all. Psalm 139:1-4 describes how the Lord knows us intimately – our thoughts, our actions, even the words we haven’t yet said. But God is so faithful to us – and so merciful.

My parable falls down, however, in that I am giving away my preserving outfit – yet I certainly don’t intend to give my faith in God away! I want to remain full of God’s sweetness and flavour until the end, just like that wonderful fruit I used to preserve. And I know God will keep me that way, as I continue to stay close to him and allow his Spirit to permeate my life.

So how about you? Have you put God up on the shelf in your life somewhere?

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Have you ever had the experience of sensing that the person to whom you are speaking is having trouble working out exactly where you ‘fit’ in the scheme of things, according to how he or she sees the world?  Have you ever seen that slightly confused, glazed expression appear, accompanied by some vague comment that peters out into nothing, as the person disengages from you and retreats to safer ground?

Since embarking on my crazy writing journey, I personally have experienced this many times.  And that’s one of the reasons I love this beautiful poem someone passed onto me recently, written by the fourteenth century Sufi poet Hafiz:

The small man

Builds cages for everyone

He knows,

While the sage,

Who has to duck his head

When the moon is low,

Keeps dropping keys all night long

For the

Beautiful

Rowdy

Prisoners.

Some years back now, a friend wrote me an anguished email, when her way of life and of doing things was questioned by those whose role it should have been to encourage and build her up.  Instead, they inferred how wrong it was of her to dare to be different from them and how strange the choice she had made to ‘step out of the box’ was.  Here’s part of what she wrote:  When people are used to thinking in a certain way, it seems so hard for them to think differently or accept something different, or to think it might have merits, or to think that there just might be some faults in the way things are done in the status quo too!!! They only seem to be able to find fault with the attempts that people make to try and think outside the box.  Is it really so comfortable inside the box that it hurts people so much to consider stepping out of it?  What is it about the box that stops people from thinking how it could be outside of it or makes people try to bring the people outside of the box back into the safety of the box, with its familiar hard walls, corners … limits?   

I won’t attempt to answer my friend’s questions here, but like her, I don’t want to be confined to the same old box all my life.  And I don’t want to make people fit into a box that isn’t the right ‘shape’ for them either or cause them to feel too restricted and uncomfortable.  As a Christian, I believe God has much more than that for each one of us.  I believe God’s heart is to bring freedom for us all through Jesus and then to strengthen us to be all we are called and gifted to be in this life, whatever shape or form that might take.  In Luke 4, we read how Jesus claimed that the Spirit of the Lord had sent him ‘to proclaim freedom for the prisoners’ – and he is still doing that today. 

So let’s all stand tall in God, letting him tell us who we are.  Who knows – we may even have to duck our heads if the moon is low!  Let’s walk in the true freedom God gives – and let’s not forget too to keep on dropping keys for all the beautiful, rowdy prisoners!

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‘Bothering’ God

The other day I heard a radio announcer talking and laughing about a particular group of politicians in our federal parliament he derisively called ‘God-botherers’.  It wasn’t so much what he said, but the tone in which he said it that ‘bothered’ me.  These people were dangerous, he seemed to be implying.  These people should not be allowed to gain the upper hand.  This was some kind of ‘plot’ to force their ideologies on others and to take the majority of Australians in a direction they do not necessarily want to go.

This announcer did not seem to be talking about an actual Christian minority party, but rather politicians across the board who happen to have a genuine faith in God, who want to govern with integrity and in a way that they believe honours God, who actually spend time praying, meeting with other Christians in and outside parliament when they can and even reading the bible.  And there are quite a few of them, apparently – enough to ‘bother’ this announcer anyway.

It isn’t the politics of the matter I’d like to comment on, however.  It’s more the implied criticism of the whole idea that people seriously think they can ‘bother’ God.  Is it that this announcer feels it’s ludicrous to believe in a God who isn’t even there, or for some other reason is unable to listen to our piffling problems?  Or is it that this God might really be out there somewhere, but is obviously uncaring about the world and what goes on in our little lives?

Strange, but this isn’t what I glean from the bible.  In Matthew 6, we see how Jesus himself showed his disciples how to pray by giving them Lord’s prayer.  In Philippians 4:6 we read:

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything.  Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.

Then in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 we are told simply to ‘keep on praying’.  Just as succinctly, James 4:2 tells us: ‘You do not have, because you do not ask God’.  And even way back in the Old Testament, God seemed pretty keen on being ‘bothered’.  ‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land’, 2 Chronicles 7:14 says.

So I’m into ‘bothering’ God in a big way.  How about you?

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This past week, I have been forcibly reminded of the fact that in this world, people get hurt.  People disappoint other people.  People speak out of their own wounded places and either deliberately or inadvertently inflict further pain on others.  This seems to happen even in places we might least expect – even, dare I say it, amongst Christian people, amongst people in the church who should, one would think, be able to do better.

Just yesterday I received an anguished email from a friend who had tried her best to be hospitable, to invite those from within her circle of ‘church friends’ and those from without into her home.  Yet from her perspective, it was a dismal failure.  One friend from ‘without’ went home apparently the worse for the experience, left out of the conversation for a large part of the afternoon and in fact, totally alienated by it.  Others present had not been sensitive to where she might be coming from and – even worse – had not seemed to care.  Instead, they were too focussed on their own issues, achievements and needs, too keen to steal the limelight, to be heard and appreciated.

Well, the church is essentially people, after all – a bunch of sinners saved by grace.  Jesus loved us enough to die in our place, to rescue us and bring us back into relationship with God.  I – and probably you – will never be completely ‘perfect’, in this life at least.  We are all ‘a work in progress’.  But is it too much to expect that we might ‘progress’ a little more thoughtfully and graciously, treating our neighbour with love and respect, putting others’ needs before our own?  One of my favourite chapters of the bible is Philippians 2, where we read in verses 3 and 4:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Maybe if we all took these words to heart a little more, we would fare better.  Maybe fewer people would get hurt and, in particular, be alienated from the church and perhaps from God.  Maybe my friend would not have to write any more anguished emails to me.  Maybe God’s heart would not be so grieved at the way we treat one another.  Is that too much to hope for?

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Recently I came across some timely, sobering reminders for me from different parts of the bible.  Firstly, I read some wise words written by Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:18:

[For] it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.

Then I happened across Psalm 118:8-9:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.

Both in their own way highlighted for me the fact that in the end, it’s what God says about me that matters – not what others say they believe about me or even what I believe about myself.  God knows my heart.  God sees and understands my motives in everything I do.  Yet, however pure they are or however mixed, God will still be there for me.  I can always, always ‘take refuge in the Lord’, fully knowing I will be protected and sheltered, but also strengthened to move on and pursue the things God has given me to do in my life.

Knowing God can be trusted and is ‘for’ me kind of gets rid of the whole idea of having to ‘commend’ myself to others, of always wondering what people think of me and what I am doing and of somehow having to convince them that I am ‘worthwhile’ and that what I produce is too.  Instead I need to put my efforts into living as God wants me to, into listening to that loving ‘Well done!’ that the Lord speaks into my spirit, into truly believing these words, whether I myself believe I have ‘done well’, either by my own standards or those of others around me.

So I don’t have to justify myself.  I don’t have to make sure everyone knows how good I am or how clever or how faithful I am.  Instead, I can relax, be at peace and leave all that up to God, who will never betray my trust.  And that’s all pretty empowering and freeing, don’t you agree?

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