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Posts Tagged ‘Church’

There’s something very precious about finding friends who will hang in there with us through thick and thin, isn’t there? They know we have imperfections and we know they do too, but they are still our friends – and that’s the bottom line.

It’s wonderful too, isn’t it, when, after having lost touch with good friends over the years, we meet up with them again only to find they are just as warm and welcoming as they always were? It’s like we pick up the conversation where we left off all those years ago, as if we had seen them only yesterday.

Recently I was reminded of how wonderful true friendship is through three events that happened in quick succession. The first was the wedding of a girl I have known for about twenty years. Some time back, she went through a very difficult patch in her life which she would not have survived without the love and care of genuine friends around her, who went the second and third mile for her sake. While I had lost touch with her a little, these friends had not and were still standing with her and around her at her marriage ceremony, helping out with the various tasks involved with such an occasion.

The second event was a church service back at the church I attended for thirteen years and then served as one of the pastors for a further five years. Here I experienced, as always, a warm and loving welcome from the people there, and a sense that nothing had changed between us, despite nine years having passed since I was part of that fellowship.

And the third was a simple time of catching up with an old friend over coffee. This friend is about to head overseas and will be spending some time with a mutual friend of ours, so offered to take some gifts to her on my behalf. We are all at different churches now and all separated geographically, but our friendship is still as warm and as caring as it ever was.

These three recent experiences have highlighted again for me the truth of Proverbs 18:24:

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

And they also served to cause me to reflect on what sort of friend I am myself to those around me. We can get so wrapped up in our own affairs and overwhelmed with life at times that it’s easy to overlook our friends’ needs. We mean to contact them to see how they’re going or to remember their birthdays or to include them in some event in our lives, but somehow we don’t attend to it. Yet I am so aware how much even a brief email from a friend means to me and encourages me in my rather lone writer’s life. Paul’s words in Philippians 2: 4 are always a challenge to me in this regard:

Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Paul goes on to remind us that our attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ, who ‘made himself nothing’ and gave his very life for us to bring us back to God. What a friend we have in Jesus, as the old hymn says! And Jesus calls us his friends too, as we follow him and listen to him and do what he commands (John 15:14).

Now there’s a friendship that makes all the difference, don’t you agree?

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One Sunday recently, I found myself part of an interesting lunch-time conversation. We had just consumed the most amazing meal, which our friend, a mother of five young children, had somehow managed to serve us, despite having been at church most of the morning. In complimenting her on her fantastic effort, we mentioned how she is following in the footsteps of her mother, also a wonderful cook.

‘Yes,’ her husband said then. ‘It’s always important to take a good look at your girlfriend’s mother before proposing.’

Now on the surface, his words could have been taken as a compliment. But it was the rolling of his eyes, the resignation on his face and his doleful tone that conveyed something quite different. And the muffled chuckles of other family members reinforced his opinion. You see, our friend’s mother is a great person, but is also known to talk – quite a lot!

I felt sorry for our friend. The comment seemed quite a ‘put down’ to me. Had her husband merely been trying to lighten the moment with his particular sense of humour or perhaps shift the focus onto himself, I wondered? But no, I suspect he was at least partly serious.

‘It’s strange, isn’t it,’ I therefore responded sweetly, ‘how men make these comments about their wives. Have you ever considered that a woman might be well advised to look carefully at her prospective partner’s father before deciding to spend the rest of her life with him?’

My words were greeted with stunned silence and also some surprise. Obviously the males present had not thought about this possibility. Hopefully without being too judgmental, dare I say sexism was still alive and well around that table?

Yet our friend’s comment made me think – and this time along much more spiritual lines! Certainly, his wife resembles her mother, yet, knowing both her parents, I could also see glimpses of her father in her. And I was glad she reflected them both in ways that honoured them and their influence on her life. But she also reflected something of God to me, I felt, with her warm, friendly smile and the gracious, caring way she welcomed us after not having seen her for so many years.

Now I know I too am like my parents in various ways, both positive and negative, but how much do I reflect my heavenly Father in my daily life in a way that honours him? Do people see God in me in the words I write and speak? I am created in God’s image, Genesis 1:27 tells us, but just how clear is that image and ‘family likeness’ to those around me?

In 2 Corinthians 3: 18, after commenting how we reflect the Lord’s glory as we gaze on him, Paul maintains we ‘are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.’ Yes, we were all created in God’s image, both male and female – but something happened. Sin entered the world and that image became marred and blurred. Yet as we choose to become part of God’s family again, keeping our eyes on the Lord, his Spirit will transform us more and more into his likeness. So God’s image is slowly being restored in me as I cooperate with his Spirit.

Now that sounds pretty amazing and wonderful to me. How about you?

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The discussion flowed back and forth in our lounge room. Our son had just maintained to us that he does not fear God. What he meant, he hastily assured us, was that while he does stand in awe of God, he does not ‘fear’ God in the way we usually understand this word. God for him is a loving, forgiving Father and a close Friend whom he can approach at any time.

Also present in our lounge room was our new son-in-law, who comes from Ghana. And Kofi was determined to have his say too. He and our daughter Tina had just returned from a few weeks in Ghana, so the memory of what they had seen there was fresh in their minds. In Kofi’s hometown, all the houses have bars around them to stop people breaking in. And any showers, toilets etc outside the houses have locks on them – otherwise if you go out there at night, people can hide there and attack you. Yet virtually the whole town closes down on Sundays as most people go to church – and there are plenty of churches to choose from.

So what is going on here? Kofi explained that when his people still had their old gods, everyone could leave their houses unlocked and nothing would disappear. You see, the people were really scared of these gods and the power they had to bring down curses on you and punish you if you did wrong. But once they had their ‘new’ God, things changed. This new God was, and is, different – this new God is loving and kind and forgiving and understanding. So it seems the people aren’t scared to do wrong things because they know if they confess them, they will be forgiven. In their new-found freedom, they have forgotten about the fear of the Lord – and they have also overlooked what Paul says in Romans 6:1-2:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?

But I suspect it isn’t only some people in Kofi’s hometown who live this way. How often have I myself had thoughts such as ‘Well, I’ll just go ahead and say that cutting comment or pass on that juicy bit of gossip. God won’t mind!’? Of course it’s wonderful that when we do repent and ask for forgiveness, God freely gives it to us. Yet surely it is right for us to remember who God is and that one day we will all stand before this awesome God and be called upon to give account for our lives?

Recently I read a comment written by Australian man working in the Middle East: In the West we’ve largely forgotten God’s wrath and chosen to focus on His love. We’ve created a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out God, who can only have one emotion at a time – and only the emotion we like. Yet the Bible continually reminds us that God is angry with those who rebel against Him. Hmm …  And I am also reminded of Hebrews 12:28-29:

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire”.

So may we all continue to live our lives filled with awe of God – but also with the grace of God.  Let’s ‘fear’ – but not fear. And hopefully one day in heaven we will understand fully how God holds both of these in perfect tension.

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I have discovered that our granddaughter Olivia is becoming very wise in her old age. After all, she turns five this week! Recently when minding her and her sister Amy at their home, I suggested we tidy things up a little before Mummy came home. This comment was greeted very airily by Olivia, however, who announced with a wave of her hand in a somewhat exasperated tone:  Oh, don’t worry! It doesn’t matter!

I am sure she has heard older family members say this many times – including her grandmother! And yes, she’s probably right that some things don’t matter and aren’t worth ‘worrying’ about. I come from a line of great worriers, actually. My mother, bless her heart, spent a lifetime worrying about so many things that never eventuated. I used to think of her often when reading the final page of the Mr Men book ‘Mr Worry’ to our children. The author declares there that Mr Worry, having got rid of all his worries, is now worried again. And why is that? Because now he no longer has anything to worry about!

Well, I definitely don’t want to be like Mr Worry. Yet sometimes I do find myself tending that way a little – particularly when it comes to decisions about my novels and future directions with my writing. Thankfully, however, God steps in then, reminding me of certain Scripture passages on the topic. This happened in church just last Sunday, when one of our ministers preached from Philippians 2:6-7:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

In Matthew 6, we find that Jesus also had some things to say on the matter. Why worry all the time about food and clothing? Since we are so valuable to God, these will be provided. And can we add a single hour to our lives through worrying? No, of course not, he implies. I love how Eugene Peterson puts verses 31-33 of this chapter in ‘The Message’:

What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

It’s all about perspective, isn’t it? It’s about looking to God first and foremost, then seeing the world and living our lives from that place of deep security in our loving God – from that place of ‘rest’, as I heard last Sunday. Yes, these everyday things are important – but keeping our focus on God and not fussing over this and that or getting lost in it all is how we need to live.

Well, Olivia probably should have helped tidy up when I suggested it – but then again, I suspect the salutary reminder she gave me about not worrying was of much more lasting value! I hope and pray both our granddaughters will go through life functioning from that place of rest in God. And I hope and pray that, whatever concerns you may have right now, you too will know God’s deep peace in your heart in the midst of it all.

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Around six years ago, I finished writing the first draft of my very first novel. It had been a dream of mine to write for so long that when I completed that very last sentence, I could not believe I had actually done it! It was a surreal moment – one which I had to share with a dear friend of mine who had supported me throughout my college and ministry years and now my writing journey. I remember even now picking up the phone with a hand that shook and announcing to her in a breathless voice, ‘Guess what? I’ve finished my novel!’

Two days later, a card arrived in the mail from my friend. I still have it to this day – and this is what it says: The Book! Well done, dear Jo-Anne! Congratulations – and my prayers and love for the next phase.

My friend knows how to share unreservedly in another’s joy – how to savour that most precious of moments with someone when that is exactly what is needed. Her response made me feel loved and respected – and yes, empowered. I knew she believed in me and in what I could also go on to do in the future.

Earlier this week, I recollected this experience when our younger daughter Tina announced her engagement. She walked in with a decidedly pleased expression on her face and a very large white gold ring adorning her left hand – so needless to say, we were impressed! We warmly congratulated her, but later I felt we could have been more joyful and enthusiastic for her. The truth is, I have had two very busy, exhausting years of writing, releasing novels and speaking on more than sixty occasions. Right now, I am looking forward to winding down a little over the Christmas break, but that is no excuse for short-changing another and not sharing fully in their joy. So since then, I have put my mind to it a little more – and yes, we do plan to celebrate and truly enter into the moment with our daughter and her fiancé in the next few days.

I am aware too that Tina has been very touched by the well wishes of so many of her friends and family members. An older church friend sent her a card the very next day, as did an aunty, and I know she was moved by the speed at which they congratulated her. Text messages have flowed every which way – Tina has waited quite a while for this moment and I am both delighted to see others sharing in her joy and also challenged to do better myself.

In Romans 12:15, we are encouraged to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn’ – to truly enter into the depths of another’s feelings and to walk the journey with them, whether it be one of joy or sadness. Paul also writes about those in the body of Christ in particular that ‘if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it. (1 Cor 12:25-26) So that’s how I want to respond to those around me. I want to get past my own self-centredness, however tired and busy I am, and have a much more generous and loving heart towards others.

How are you doing at ‘rejoicing with those who rejoice’?

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This past week, I had the joy of visiting a school friend from around forty-five years ago! As we reminisced, I was amazed at the memories that came flooding back – some quite funny, but others much more poignant. My friend remembered, of all things, the yummy ham sandwiches my mother made for us to eat during a train trip to my friend’s home in a country town one school holidays! I, on the other hand, remembered being part my friend’s large family for that holiday week and especially the family devotions around the breakfast table, which would end when they all scraped their chairs back and knelt to pray for various family members and missionaries.

My friend went on to remind me how I had sung at her wedding a few years later. Initially, I had no memory of doing so, yet as she talked, I dimly recollected standing outside her minister father’s church and thinking how lovely my friend looked. The memory was there, but it needed some prodding. But then my friend truly managed to shock me when she showed me a collection of favourite recipes I had painstakingly typed out for her as a special wedding present and put in a green ring binder, all in the days before home computers! I had absolutely no memory of doing that for her, but the evidence was there, clear before my eyes – even to the point of their being a handwritten note from me tucked inside the cover!

Well, my memory is definitely not as good as it used to be. But quite often when writing my novels, some image or experience from years ago will surface so vividly in my mind that I am at once back there in the moment and my fingers can scarcely fly fast enough across my keyboard. It is as if God’s Spirit stirs inside me and says: ‘Remember that, Jo-Anne? Yes, go ahead and describe that exactly as it happened! Look at all the riches and resources you have tucked away in your mind, ripe for the picking!’ I thank God for so many memories from the varied occupations I have had, from the travel I have done, from my happy childhood and school years, from the people who have enriched my life – and yes, from the difficult times too that have caused me to face my grief and pain and move on with God, strengthened for the journey ahead.

It mightn’t matter if I don’t remember some things in my life. My friend wasn’t offended when I forgot the gift I had made for her – or at least I hope she wasn’t! But it does matter if I forget what God has done for me. It matters a lot – for all of us. In several places in Scripture we are encouraged to remember. In 1 Chronicles 16:11-12, David writes:

Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.

Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced …

We are to remember who God is and his goodness to us – and we are never to forget God’s Son, Jesus, and what he has done.  Jesus himself pleads with us to remember him each time we share in the Lord’s Supper:

This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me. (Luke 22:19)

So how are you doing at this kind of remembering?

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Already I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked if my latest novel ‘Jenna’ is really my own story. Whenever I hear this question, however, I honestly don’t quite know how to answer. At one level, it is not ‘my’ story at all. For starters, my character Jenna is in her mid-twenties, has dark, curly hair and lives in Adelaide – which cuts me out on all counts! Also, when the story begins, she is a youth leader at her local church – a role I have never had. Then she gets engaged to someone who … but I don’t want to spoil the story for any of you who plan on reading it!

And yet, at another level, ‘Jenna’ is my story. It is in fact lots of different parts of my story – little snippets from here and there taken totally out of their original time frame and context and melded together to form a new and unique narrative. But it is also various other people’s stories – again snippets I have heard or read about or watched unfold. And then around and through and above and below all that are the characters and events completely from my own imagination, with the result that it is difficult even for me, the author, to tell now where fact and fiction begin and end.

It’s true too that I am the author of my novels – the creator of these characters and this storyline. I bring them to birth – I give them names. Maybe I even ‘play God’ a little at times, creating the odd one or two in my own image, or part thereof, allowing them to respond to situations as I probably would – or at least think I would. And no doubt this is a natural thing to do – after all, I’m told we write best about the things we have personally experienced. So in this regard, is my character Jenna perhaps really me?

I think the wisest thing for me as the author is to stop worrying about all this. As I wrote ‘Jenna’, I felt I was putting into words something worthwhile and something God wanted me to say. And I hope and pray that everything I have written brings God honour and glory, as well as challenging and encouraging my readers – and yes, entertaining them. Recently I read again the words of Psalm 139:1-4:

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord

God perceived my very thoughts as I wrote ‘Jenna’. God was aware of my motives and in fact knew every word I was going to write, even before I started. God was with me as I wrote, I am sure of that. And my task was to listen well and to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ (Gal 5:25) as the story unfolded.

I hope I did that. And I hope and pray my readers forget about finding ‘me’ in the story and instead discover something more of God in it all.

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