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I wonder how many of you, authors or otherwise, struggle with this whole area of looking for praise for what we produce? I  have been thinking about this in connection with the recent release of my fifth novel Heléna’s Legacy. Of course I want people to like this book. And of course I want it to impact and encourage as many people as possible. After all, I believe in this novel – and I believe it was something God wanted me to write. So I’m happy to get out there and promote it for all it’s worth. And I’m very pleased (and relieved!) when people respond positively – when they congratulate me, when they say they love the cover, when they warm to what I’ve written.

In one sense, I have to ‘pursue’ praise. By that I mean I have to listen to my readers – there is no point in continuing to produce novels no one likes and no one buys. And that includes taking on board praise as well as criticism. But in my uncertainty as to whether my book is ‘good enough’, I find myself on occasions seeking so desperately for that reassuring praise that may never come. I look too eagerly for people’s responses. My wellbeing begins to depend on it. I analyse their words too closely and, if face to face, try to discern if they mean what they’re saying. Perhaps they’re merely trying to be nice and not hurt me. Or perhaps while they compliment me on some aspect of the novel, they’re secretly glad they can find at least something positive to say about it!

So where is the point where I begin to seek praise for praise’s sake only – to make me feel good or to boost my ego – rather than look for it to show me I have written something that will be well-received and hopefully used by God? Where do I step over into self-centredness, caring more about my own honour rather than God’s? Where is the dividing line between humbly and thankfully accepting people’s praise and letting it go to my head?

I guess the real question in my heart is this: Whose praise am I seeking the most – men’s (and women’s!) or God’s? Recently I read the account in John 5 of how Jesus heals a disabled man, telling him to pick up his mat and walk, but is persecuted for this because it is the Sabbath. The persecution then gets worse when Jesus calls God Father, yet this doesn’t deter him from confronting his opponents even more strongly. ‘I know you,’ he tells them (v 42). ‘I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.’ Then he asks a question that pulled me up short: ‘How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?’ (v 44)

Yes, I know and am so thankful for the fact that I am fully accepted by God and saved by grace – that none of my works, written or otherwise, will ever ‘earn’ me eternal life. But here Jesus clearly shows the importance of taking God’s opinion of us into account over that of mere mortals, of living in a way that please God above all else. And I’m sure you too look forward to the day when, like the faithful servant in Matthew 25, we ourselves hear our Master’s ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’ (v 21)

Now that’s definitely some praise worth pursuing, don’t you agree?

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If you’re wondering right now what on earth a croquembouche is, then please check out the photo opposite. This one was a gift from our elder daughter to our younger daughter Tina and her husband Kofi for their recent wedding celebration – and what a work of art it was! It was created by Jean-Francois Perron of ‘Choco Cannelle’ (www.chococannelle.com.au) and is a French celebration cake made from profiteroles filled with crème patissiere. The profiteroles were dipped in toffee and the whole creation liberally decorated with more toffee and a sprinkling of nuts and sugared almonds. Along with some separately baked profiteroles, this croquembouche (literally, ‘crunch in the mouth’) was the dessert for around a hundred guests at the wedding reception.

It was an extremely generous gift from one sister to another, but the journey of obtaining the croquembouche was not without its hiccups. Jane thought she had understood exactly how many profiteroles would be in the croquembouche. However, to our horror, her sister discovered only the day before that there would not be nearly enough to go round our guests. Yet all was not lost. After some panic and tears and a quick visit to the patisserie to pay for extra profiteroles, the problem was solved. And on the night, when everyone had finished oohing and aahing and taking photos, the kitchen staff pulled our croquembouche apart and we proceeded to munch our way through it.

Some days later, for some odd reason it occurred to me that this is how we often treat God’s creation around us. We see or experience an amazing mountaintop view, a breathtaking sunset, the lushness of a rainforest, the clear blue of ocean waters, the delicate fragility of a tiny wildflower, the intricacy displayed in the body of a small insect. We admire it all – then so often, with or without thinking, destroy it. We forget to treasure it and care for it well, as good stewards of God’s creation. Just as with our croquembouche, which was proudly delivered to the venue with extreme care by its maker himself, so, way back in the beginning, God delivered something that was perfect in every way – our created universe that God himself declared in Genesis 1 to be ‘good’, in the full sense of the word. Yet it wasn’t long before that creation was marred. It wasn’t long before we as human beings ignored God’s instructions and took things into our own hands.

The misunderstanding about the size of our croquembouche was not a matter of life and death. It was only a cake, after all – albeit a very special, expensive one! But treating God’s creation as if it’s unimportant is in another league altogether. This truly is a matter of life and death. Who knows how much longer this planet will be able to hold together with the treatment it has received from us?

So I ask myself … how carefully am I treating God’s wonderful gift of creation all around me? In fact, how am I treating God’s greatest and most costly gift of all – Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God? Am I truly treasuring him and honouring him each day in my life as he deserves? Or am I indifferent, even despising and rejecting him, as described in Isaiah 53?

Most of our croquembouche is gone now – just a few pieces of toffee remain. Our world too may not last much longer. But ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). And that’s what really matters.

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Last week I wrote my hundredth blog for this site – a milestone in my blogging ‘career’! So many of my thoughts have gone ‘out there’ into cyberspace since I began my weekly words of wisdom in July 2009 – but has it all been worth the time and effort put into it? My site stats tell me well over a hundred people decide for some reason to open my blog each week, with one amazing week recently when 375 people accessed it. What I write about is just something I consider might be worth sharing – nothing special. But each week I hope and pray these words convey some aspect of God’s heart – something that will encourage or challenge any who read them.

I like to think I have learnt a few things in this blogging journey of mine. I can certainly see via my site stats that some topics are more popular than others. I notice that those aimed more at other authors tend to lose or miss the mark with those who aren’t at all interested in writing. I’ve discovered it’s worth taking time to think up a good title for my blog – plus some sort of interesting and arresting comment to write on Facebook when I put my blog link up there each Tuesday morning. I’ve had some winners and some losers – some of my blogs have fizzled and some have, for no obvious reason, sparked a great deal of interest. Obviously, I still have a way to go to make my blogs consistently readable.

So I smiled when I realised this particular blog I am writing now is listed as ‘Blog 101’ on my computer. Even now, after writing a hundred blogs, I still feel I am in the basic learning stage of ‘Blogging 101’! There are so many skills and key aspects I’m sure I have overlooked and have yet to master. I think I often forget to keep my readership in mind and tend to use both personal examples and vocabulary that may not mean much to the average reader. I am frequently far too wordy. I play it safe at times and don’t honestly write what is on my heart to say on a given subject. I occasionally write my blogs when I’m too tired, with the result that my writing becomes stodgy and uninteresting. And some days I labour far too long over a blog, pouring time and effort that should be spent on my current novel-in-progress or talk I am preparing rather than ‘second guessing’ what originally came to me to blog about.

I hope my blogs will continue to improve. I don’t want to be lazy or shoddy in the way I write or too preoccupied with other matters that I don’t give my best effort to them. I want my current readers and supporters to keep on reading what I write, whatever the subject. I want new readers to find my blogs and be interested enough to return often to my site. I want to write with integrity, from the heart, about things I know are true and will hopefully build up and encourage others. But most of all, I want God to be glorified through the words I write.

So here I am by God’s grace, launching into my second ‘century’ of blogging, praying God’s wisdom and insight will flow through my words and the gifts of writing and of encouragement I believe God has given me will bear fruit.

May it be so, Lord!

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I have been thinking a lot about faces recently for several reasons. Firstly, my fifth novel, ‘Heléna’s Legacy’, is due for release in about a week – and featured on the front is the face of one of the main characters in the novel. This was something I vowed and declared I would never agree to with any of my novels. I like my readers to imagine their own heroes and heroines. After all, many of us have no doubt been disappointed in how the main characters in our favourite books are depicted when seeing the movie adaptation of the stories.

Yet on this occasion, the particular image chosen by the graphic artist seems to convey something of the conflicting emotions my character, Doctor Susan Curtis, experiences in the novel. There is a kind of pensive, wistful air about her that appeals to me – and I hope to my readers as well. (For more information, please visit my website, www.jo-anneberthelsen.com).

My second reason for my focus on faces is that this past week, a rare event occurred for me. I was treated to a blissful facial at the salon where our daughter works! Such things usually come my way only by virtue of a birthday or Christmas present – but I do enjoy them. I experienced the tender, loving care our daughter took of my skin and other facial features – and I must admit I was ashamed of how little I do in this regard. After all, I am made in the image of God, as Genesis 1:27 tells me, so I need to do what I can to honour God through my appearance as well as through my life and the words I say.

But my third reason for thinking of faces – and the reason for the above facial – is that our lovely beauty therapist daughter, Tina, celebrated her wedding last Saturday evening. She was married overseas in February but this was the first opportunity she and her husband, Kofi, have had to celebrate with friends here. Someone commented recently that Tina and Kofi are a ‘shining couple’ – and they did both looked radiant on the night. Their faces clearly displayed their happiness at being together and their joy that they could celebrate with friends and family.

So these events caused me to wonder just how much my joy at being a child of God and the peace and happiness I have as a result truly show on my own face. I know outward appearances aren’t everything. They don’t seem to matter much to God, who, as 1 Samuel 16:7 says, prefers to look at our heart instead. And of course all of us go through difficult periods when it’s hard to look particularly joyful. But if my face is completely miserable most of the time, or has a hard, critical expression, surely that doesn’t convey a very positive picture of God to the world at large?

Some of us have more interesting and attractive features than others – and there’s little we can do about that. But I hope I do my best with what I have to shine forth God’s love and grace to those around me. I hope in some small measure that I mirror the face of God to them, so that no stumbling block is put in their way and that they will long to seek his face themselves with all their hearts (Psalm 27:8; 105:4).

How about you?

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I received some great gifts for Mothers’ Day, among them a fantastic Boston pocket umbrella. Sadly, my precious Liberty umbrella from Harrods in London had finally died, so I wanted one that would be equally noteworthy. And that’s exactly what I got. My new umbrella is a lovely amethyst colour and when folded up in its neat, rectangular carry-case, measures all of seventeen centimetres. I admired its special features and then opened the tiny booklet that came with it to find out more.

Congratulations on your purchase. You are obviously a person of fine judgement’, I read first off. Hmm, I would agree with that – well, at least my daughter is! I continued on. Most of the instructions were serious, but here are some I laughed aloud over:

  • Do not use in the event of storm, hurricane, typhoon or serious climatic disturbance. If you do, your Original Pocket Umbrella may break and then you will be very upset!
  • Please remember this is not a toy and you are not Mary Poppins. Do not use it to fly, float, swing, dance or other bizarre activity for which it is not designed.
  • Do not throw the case away. How would you like it if someone threw your home away?

And as for the one year guarantee, here’s what it says:

The guarantee does not include damage which results from misuse or accident. We strongly recommend that you avoid opening it in a crowded lift, using it to play ‘fetch’ with Fido the dog, or sitting in it while rowing to China. In these cases we are sorry to say your warranty is null and void!

Obviously someone at the Boston Umbrella Company has a sense of humour. But as I later reflected on these fun instructions, it occurred to me that when it comes to God’s instructions, many of us take these with a similar ‘grain of salt’ as the examples above, if not laugh at them outright. Surely Jesus was a little ‘tongue in cheek’ when he declared we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 6:44)? Or surely he didn’t mean that being angry with our brother is just as bad as murdering him (Matt 5:21-22)? What a joke! As for lustful glances being equivalent to committing adultery (Matt 5:27) – don’t be ridiculous! And how can we not worry about what we will eat or drink or wear, as Jesus suggested (Matt 6:25)? Surely, that one’s for the birds! As to becoming great by serving others (Matt 20:25-28), that’s never going to get anyone anywhere in life.

But Jesus wasn’t joking. We can’t merely laugh off his commands as far too naive or impractical – or even unfair. One day we will all find out he meant exactly what he said. And one day we will all see clearly the wisdom and truth of his commands.

Well, I’m not about to risk my life floating to China in my new umbrella – but I am prepared to stake my life on Jesus and his teachings. And when Jesus gives a guarantee that those who believe in him will have eternal life, I know this guarantee will hold good. And I also know God delights to shelter me from the storms of this life and will watch over me forever (Isaiah 25:4; Psalm 91:1).

Now that’s some umbrella – don’t you think?

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How many things are you able to focus on at the same time? Are you expert at juggling any number of balls and not dropping a single one? Or are you a little like I was yesterday when I tried to answer a question at the same time as signing one of my books? Much to my embarrassment, I made a mistake writing my own name!

Right now, however, my writing challenge is a little bigger than spelling my own name correctly. Recently I reached that delightful stage yet again of checking through two different novels at the same time, while also planning out my next book, writing blogs and preparing talks.

So why edit two novels simultaneously? Well, it so happens that, having just handed my sixth novel over to one of my expert manuscript readers to check, I needed to consider her comments carefully and put the relevant changes in place. Then last week, my publisher emailed me the print-ready version of my fifth novel, ‘Heléna’s Legacy’, due for release next month, for one final check before going to print. My challenge then is to remember who is who in each novel and also what these characters did along the way. And all the while I will have to guard against thinking ‘No, this character wouldn’t have said this or that – it’s all wrong!’ and wanting to change things drastically, only to realise I have a different character from my more recent novel in mind.

But I’m also into planning my seventh book – this time a work of non-fiction. I know I have to get moving on this, if it is going to see the light of day within the next two or three years. Yet my weekly blogs are also important to me – and of course I always want to prepare well for each speaking engagement.

And that’s one reason I’m in awe of our amazing God, the Creator and Sustainer of the whole universe, who is all-powerful, all-knowing and present in all places – who is in fact the ultimate ‘multi-tasker’! Our God, the Alpha and Omega, was there at the beginning of all things and will still be there at the very end, as Revelation 21:6 tells us. And in those intervening millennia, God has watched over his people, and will continue to watch over us all at one and the same time. Unlike me, God does not get mixed up and forget us, his ‘characters’, or the stories of our lives. In Luke 12:6-7, we read Jesus’ own words to his disciples:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God, Indeed the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

I’m so glad that while God is busy looking after you, the same is true for me! I’m so glad that while God is shaping the story of my life in a way that is unique and just right for me, this same God is concurrently writing yours. And I’m so glad that, in God’s perfect author hands, all of these stories will flow well, deal with all the devious twists and turns of the plot along the way and reach their desired conclusion in a most satisfactory manner. We are worth more than sparrows to God. We are not forgotten.

Now that’s some multi-tasking, don’t you think?

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I wonder if you can think of some treasured item in your parents’ or grandparents’ home that you wished would not be displayed so prominently? In my sister’s case, it was a framed set of photos my mother absolutely loved. These large photos took pride of place on her lounge room wall and depicted my sister and me at various ages and stages of our lives. There was one of each of us when we were around twelve months old. Below were photos of the two of us together, one when my sister was seven and the other at fourteen. Below them were again individual photos of us, resplendent in mortarboard and gown at our university graduation and finally, one of each of us on our wedding day. I was reasonably happy with the photos, but my sister hated the whole idea of them.

When our mother passed away, my sister ended up with the photos, still in their frame, but kept them out of sight. Then recently when I was visiting, she decided it was time to make some final decision about them. Should they remain in their frame or should we dismantle the whole thing?

We decided on the latter. With great glee she undid the back of the frame and removed the offending photos from their mountings. We then divided them up and she put the empty frame together again, wondering even as she did if it was worth keeping.

A few days later, she received an intriguing article in the mail. It turned out to be a beautiful, large cross-stitch my cousin had completed and sent to her, together with a hundred dollars for the mounting and framing.

Well, you guessed it! To my sister’s amazement, our mother’s old frame turned out to be exactly the right size for the cross-stitch! And she was even more amazed when she discovered the total cost, using the old frame, would be very close to one hundred dollars. As well, our cousin remembered vividly the photos my mother used to have on her wall for all those years and was delighted the cross-stitch would now be featured in that same frame.

As I reflected on this interesting sequence of events, it occurred to me that God is in this ‘reframing’ business too. When we come to know God, our external ‘frame’ does not change – but something definitely changes on the inside. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul declares:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry or reconciliation, that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.

As my sister and I looked at our old photos, we could see how we had changed over the years. But that’s nothing compared to the radical change God brings about in our very soul and spirit. And this change continues as we allow our minds to be transformed and renewed as well and thus live in the way God wants us to (Romans 12:2).

Yet God’s ‘reframing’ cost much more than the hundred dollars my sister was given. In fact, it cost Jesus Christ, God’s Son, his very life. What an amazing, gracious gift!

I hope the ‘picture’ my life makes now draws people to God and does not repel them. I hope the likeness is there and that God is recognisable in my life ‘photo’.

How about you?  

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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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Today I am embarking on a trip to Tasmania – a place I have always wanted to visit. I have been invited to speak at a conference there and a few other places in the next two weeks. And we hope to have a holiday and enjoy some of the beautiful places and scenery as well.

Now we have planned ahead for this trip. I have thought and prayed about my input and I hope I have made the right decisions with all that. I have plenty of my novels on hand to sell too at these venues. And my husband has worked out the routes we will take and printed out copious number so Google maps! I have also made sure my little prayer team who support me so well wherever I speak knows my itinerary and can follow me on my journey as they are able. But there still comes a time, I find, when I look at all the speaking engagements and travel ahead and feel a little overwhelmed. Besides that, for a few weeks now I have struggled with back trouble and sciatica pain – just when I really need to be full of energy and on top of things! So in my weakness, crazy thoughts begin to come into my head. What if I haven’t prepared appropriate material? What if I speak for too long? What if I have my speaking engagements mixed up? What if we can’t find the places on time? What if I’m in too much pain? What if …? And so the list goes on.

It’s then that I pull myself up short, and realise God has been trying to get through to me for a while now. Lately, I have been reading the book of 1 Samuel and taking in all the ups and downs of Saul’s and David’s lives. Somehow I don’t think I would have liked David’s experience of having to flee for his life from Saul, fight endless battles, live in caves and desert strongholds and be in danger on so many fronts. Many times, his heart must have failed him when people betrayed him and tried to deliver him into Saul’s hands, when his motives and loyalty were doubted, when he was forced to live among the Philistines, and certainly when his wives and sons and daughters were taken captive. On that occasion, Scripture tells us that ‘David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep’ (1 Sam 30:4).

Yet it seems to me that David knew exactly where – or who – to go to in order to find the strength he needed. On an earlier occasion when Saul was searching for him day after day, we are told that Saul’s son Jonathan came to him in the desert ‘and helped him find strength in God’ (1 Sam 23:16). Then when David’s family was taken captive, we read how, on top of that, his own men were talking about stoning him since they too had lost their wives and sons and daughters. Yet in the midst of all this grief and turmoil, the next sentence we read says simply this:

But David found strength in the Lord his God. (1 Sam 30:6b)

I think any qualms I might have about our upcoming trip pale into insignificance for sure against David’s dreadful experiences. So yes, Lord – I get the message! And I know as I look to you, I will find all the strength I need for whatever lies ahead.

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