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Jo 12One day last week, our grandson told his dad he would like to pay Nanna a visit. At first, our lively five-year-old was content to play hide-and-seek in our new unit. Then I suggested a simple card game, but he wasn’t interested. And why would he be? After all, he recently mastered the much trickier game of Uno and now has marathon tournaments with his parents! Eventually, I found an old ‘Dora the Explorer’ version of the game ‘Trouble’ and suggested he learn how to play that.

Once our game started, I discovered our son-in-law remembered playing a similar game during his boyhood days in Ghana. Just as I had grown up playing Ludo with my sister, so Kofi had played that same old game as a child too—except he remembered those rules much better than I did.

‘We used plastic counters and dice,’ he told me. ‘If you landed on your own counter, you could put one on top of the other. Then no one could go past you!’

I recalled those double counters, although not how they stopped others from passing. But obviously, this had been a big deal for Kofi as a child because, even as he mentioned it, his eyes gleamed with glee! No wonder his son is now more than a little competitive!

We explained the rules to Zain as we went along, but I soon noticed Kofi and I were doing things a little differently. Several times, I could have landed on one of our grandson’s pieces and sent it back home, but … well, I admit I pretended I didn’t see. I didn’t have the heart to squash his enjoyment of it all—or his hopes of winning. But his dad was having nothing of that. No way! On several occasions, he sent one of Zain’s precious pieces back home with great glee! And, to my surprise, Zain simply accepted this as part of the rules of the game. So much for Nanna’s misplaced kindness!

Yes, rules have their place, don’t they? We would not enjoy those games at all, if we could each do what we liked. And, while life can hardly be called a game, we would soon be in trouble if there were no rules to govern our society. But I’m so glad that, when it comes to the things of God, it’s not all about adhering to laws or rules. Yes, we are called to live in a way that honours God and displays respect and fairness towards others. But living life with God involves so much more than playing—or living—by the rules. It’s about true relationship. It’s about receiving God’s amazing grace, that undeserved favour and kindness that is never misplaced, as my ‘grace’ to Zain was. And it’s about loving the Lord with our whole hearts in return and our neighbour as ourselves, as Jesus tells us:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Matthew 22:37-39

Those rules set a high standard, don’t you think? Yet I’m so happy to take them on board. And I hope and pray our Zain will be too one day.

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Jo 17Recently, our grandson went to dart across the driveway in the grounds of our church when his lovely Kids’ Church teacher managed to grab him in time.

‘Careful! We need to stop, look and listen for cars before we cross,’ she reminded him.

‘Oh, I have supersonic hearing,’ Zain blithely told her. ‘I can hear from a long, long way away. I can even hear people in Ghana!’

Last year, Zain went to Ghana with his family to visit his dad’s home town and to meet his other grandmother, so he knows how far away it is.

‘That’s interesting,’ his teacher said. ‘What are they saying?’

‘They’re saying they need help!’ he told her in all seriousness.

What could he have meant? In Ghana, Zain did visit some little villages not far from his dad’s home town where the children have very few new clothes and hardly any toys, so perhaps he meant his friends there really do need our help. On the other hand, perhaps he was thinking of his favourite ‘Power Rangers’ TV characters, who seem to have all sorts of abilities like supersonic hearing that enable them to know when people need rescuing!

Now our Zain has an amazingly vivid imagination. Sometimes he can become so lost in his imaginary world that he has trouble hearing his parents or grandparents or teachers calling him or telling him to do something. So, while he may not have supersonic hearing, there is no doubt his selective hearing is well developed at least! And that’s something I can easily relate to, especially when it comes to hearing what God is saying to me at times. The reasons for this may vary, but I know that, on occasions, fear and unbelief have caused my ears to become deaf to God’s voice and very selective about what I choose to hear.

One example of this occurred in mid-2003 when I was overseas, visiting a friend. I was reading my Bible one morning and asking God to show me what I was to do next in my life. I had recently left a ministry role and sensed God wanted me to write, something I had wanted to do for years. Yet I was unsure I could do it, so found myself reluctant to try. Then I came to Isaiah 42:18-20:

Hear, you deaf, look, you blind, and see! Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send?  …  You have seen many things, but have paid no attention; your ears are open, but you hear nothing.”

Wow! Gulp! I knew immediately that God was saying to me, with even perhaps a little sigh: ‘Come on, Jo-Anne—how many times do I have to show you? Go home and start writing!’ So that is what I did—and here I am, almost fourteen years and eight published books later, still writing.

I might not have supersonic hearing quite yet, but I hope in those years I have become a little better at hearing God’s voice and at acting on what I hear—because that, after all, is what really matters.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. James 1:22

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. John 10:27

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img_20170106_175801393As the years go by, it so interesting to see what captures our grandson’s interest and imagination and what doesn’t. Last week, our Zain turned five and, right now, he has such fun pretending to be one of his two favourite ‘heroes’. Yes, as can be seen from the photo of his special birthday cake his mum made, Michael Jackson currently ranks pretty high in his estimation! Wimg_5707hile in Ghana around a year ago, visiting his father’s family, he heard lots of Michael Jackson songs—and that was that! And of course, with a beautiful Australian mum and a handsome Ghanaian dad, ‘Black or White’ is one of his favourite songs! If Zain can be enticed to sing and dance for us, we soon discover he knows only some of the lyrics—and fortunately only some of those dance moves too! But he has fun trying, especially in his glittery Michael Jackson outfit, complete with sparkly white glove, and especially with the new karaoke toy his aunty, uncle and cousins gave him.

But if you look carefully at the photo below, taken when blowing out his birthday candles, you can see Zain is quite partial to fictional superheroes too—especially Spiderman! So when we reminded him at his party that, when we saw him last, he was convinced he was actually Peter Parkeimg_20170106_194218996r, aka Spiderman, off he went and put on his Spiderman costume over the top of his glittery Michael Jackson one! His imagination is so vivid and all-encompassing that he seems to have no trouble swapping from one to the other—with a good dose of active, normal little boy Zain thrown in as well!

Now while I might laugh at Zain, I wonder at times if I am so different from him. I can easily pretend I am someone other than who I truly am. I might try to be that well-read, experienced author person when promoting my books in a bookstore. I might hope I come across as completely confident and at ease when getting up to speak somewhere. I might pretend to be more extroverted or more patient or more understanding than I am. And—dare I say it—I might pretend to be more Christian than I am at times. I might even think I am fooling God, as well as others, yet in my heart of hearts, I know I can’t. Anyway, why would I want to? After all, I am well aware God not only knows me through and through but loves and accepts me as I am. As David declares:

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. You hem me in, behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Psalm 139:1-5

I hope one day our Zain will experience the deep comfort of these words and that amazing love of God for himself. I hope he will realise he doesn’t need to impress God by pretending to be other than he is. And I hope I realise this more and more too in the coming year.

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We had been waiting for that text message for a couple of hours by the time we finally heard. There had been some delay in our son-in-law’s being able to use his phone. ‘It’s a girl!’ the text told us—and the next minute we were off to the hospital, along with the new baby’s two-year-old brother.

I walked into the Special Care Unit and there was our daughter, still looking somewhat dazed after her caesarean but proudly holding her new baby. We later learnt the baby had been wedged up under her ribs in a perpendicular position, so had needed some firm extricating. But there our daughter was, so grateful this little bundle of joy was now outside rather than inside her still! I walked up to the bed and gazed at our new little granddaughter—our fourth grandchild. At first, I found myself merely thinking Oh that’s lovely—the baby’s well and it’s a girl. But as I stood there, I realised I was looking down at another unique and absolutely amazing example of God’s incomparable handiwork. Here was a brand new little person, created in the image of God to live and do and be in a way no one else on this planet ever could.

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Maxine Marie Antwi Konadu

This past week, I have been able to cuddle little Maxine quite a few times and examine her more closely. Her little fingers attract me first—lovely long ones with beautifully shaped fingernails. Her toes too, so minuscule. I love her sweet, button mouth—such a pretty shape—and her cute little ears, tinged on the top with darker skin. Her father is from Ghana and has beautiful, deep black skin and we have been told that the colour on Maxine’s ears is the colour she will end up. We found this to be true with her brother Zain, whose skin is now a lovely, milk chocolate colour. I gently stroke her mop of black, straight hair and cup her head in my hand. I know much of this hair will soon go or change to a lighter colour. Then eventually, those gorgeous tight curls, just like her brother’s, will hopefully appear and her mother will be delighted!

For a moment, little Maxine opens her eyes and seems to want to work out who is holding her and where she is. A puzzled look appears on her face and then her eyelids droop closed again, as if it is all too much effort. I stand looking down at her, smiling and rocking her gently. And all the while, I marvel. How amazing that our God can create such an exquisite little creature, down to the minutest detail of exact skin colour and curl of hair! How wonderful that right now, God is doing this same thing all over the world for all sorts of families this very moment!

I love Psalm 139 in any shape or form, but here are verses 13-14 from The Message version of the bible:

Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother’s womb. I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvellously made! I worship in adoration—what a creation!

May these be Maxine’s own words of praise from her heart too in the years to come, by God’s grace!

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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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There are some things in life we say thank you for quite easily – it’s really nothing more than a habit or a custom. For example, with my thoughts far away, I have just said a very mechanical thank you to my husband as he brought me my morning coffee. And yesterday I blithely waved my thanks to the driver who let me into the line of traffic on a busy motorway. But more than I care to acknowledge, my mind focuses in on the difficulties in my life and the things I don’t have – and I can so easily forget to be thankful.

This past week, one of our daughters returned home safely from Ghana, having married her fiancé there in his home town. She thoroughly enjoyed her visit, meeting family members and friends and experiencing their warm hospitality, but she did miss a few things we take for granted here – hot, running water in our homes; large, air conditioned shopping centres; sealed roads; and the wide variety of foods in supermarkets and restaurants. As a beauty therapist, having to wash her face and hair in cold water and note the resultant mud running off was quite an impacting experience! Needless to say, she was SO thankful to God to be driven home on good roads to her modern, air conditioned unit and to luxuriate in a hot shower again.

I received another reminder to be thankful this past week via my sister, who works with an organisation offering emergency relief. One client recently told her his visit would hopefully be a ‘one-off’ – that he was just going through a difficult patch. Then last week, she received a note from him, written on a recycled card in an envelope made from a piece of paper and sticky-taped together. Even the stamp was recycled, having missed being franked. The note read: I just wanted to thank you all for the kindness you showed me when I was having a really difficult time last month. I really appreciated your support. This man had obviously been in genuine need and was so thankful for the assistance graciously offered him. And he did not forget to say thank you.

And this past week my husband had an experience he will remember for a long time. He wore his brand new, expensive hearing aids one day when he went to pick up our grandchildren after school. After driving them to their home, he realised he had lost one of the hearing aids. They looked everywhere in the house to no avail, so quickly headed back to the school to search the grounds there. But as my husband got out of the car, he suddenly remembered how he had bent down and picked up a ball some child had kicked over the fence. Instantly he knew this must have been when the hearing aid fell out. He looked around on the grass close to the car – and lo and behold, there it was! I leave it to you to imagine how thankful to God he was.

These three examples have forcibly reminded me of the story in Luke 17 of the ten lepers Jesus told to go and show themselves to the priests. On the way, they were healed – yet only one of them came back to thank Jesus. I want to have that same heart of thankfulness that this man had. I want to remember God’s goodness to me on a daily basis and not take it for granted. So later today, when I finally finish writing my sixth novel, the first thing I plan to do is thank God – very fervently! It has been a long road with many interruptions this time around, but I am so grateful to God for enabling me to complete it and for the rich experiences along the way. THANK YOU, LORD!

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It has been brought home so shockingly to us all this past week how uncertain life is and how, while we might think we know what 2011 will hold for us, the reality might turn out to be quite different. As we have watched the TV coverage of people’s homes and livelihoods being destroyed by the floods in Queensland and elsewhere and heard of the loss of life involved, I am sure that, apart from feeling deep grief for those so badly affected, even the strongest of us must have experienced some personal inner quaking and questioning. What if this happened to me? What would I grab if I had to leave my home in a hurry? What really is important to me in life?

I also experienced uncertainty of a different kind this past week, as we farewelled our younger daughter Tina at the airport on her way to Ghana. Her fiancé, who is Ghanaian but a permanent resident here, is currently in Ghana visiting family, and Tina has travelled to join him for around a month. In that time, they plan to get married – but when she left, our Tina was still unsure if this would happen or not. Communication is difficult between Australia and her fiancé’s hometown – and besides, she knows weddings in Ghana aren’t the big, costly events they are here! Well, Tina seemed fine about it all. In fact, she was very much looking forward to all the new experiences ahead – and of course to seeing her fiancé again. It is her mother who is feeling the uncertainty!

And then there is the ongoing uncertainty I should be used to in relation to writing novels and getting them published. After working hard on a book for months, there is no guarantee anyone will want to publish your ‘baby’. Even if they eventually do, there is no guarantee people will flock to buy it! On top of that, I as the author need to do my part in promoting the book – but there is no guarantee these promotional opportunities will be easy to come by either. ‘Don’t give up your day job’ is a piece of advice authors hear very often.

Perhaps you are facing a quite different uncertainty in your life right now. Maybe you are unsure about your job situation or how some difficulty in an important relationship will be resolved. Perhaps the following words from Scripture will resonate with you as they did with me this week:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money. Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (James 4:13-14)

We can’t ‘boast and brag’, as James goes on to say, about what is going to happen for us, as if we are in complete control of our lives. God, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, is the one who has ultimate power and authority and the one to cling to in times of uncertainty. And when our best-laid plans unravel and things fall in a heap around us, God will always be there for us, both now and on into eternity. Yes, we are called to be God’s people in this world, but the best ‘treasure’ we can have, the one that moth or dust – or floods – cannot destroy is the treasure of a rich relationship with our God in heaven, as Jesus himself points out in Matthew 6.

May God strengthen, support and comfort you in this uncertain world.

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