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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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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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In recent days, I have been involved in finalising the cover of my fifth novel, ‘Heléna’s Legacy’, due for release in June. I was asked by my publisher, Ark House, for suggestions and in the process, told them one thing I don’t like on a cover – a front view of the hero or heroine! I like my readers to imagine these characters themselves. And as the author, no image ever seems to do justice to this ‘real’ person I have walked beside for months who has persevered and struggled and triumphed and lived through so many different experiences.

When the cover was returned for approval, however, I found a front view of the main character on it! And yet … well, she looked lovely, with a rather pensive, sad expression that exactly suits the storyline. So I rapidly had to revise my own mental concept, step back a little and try to appreciate what the graphic artist had come up with. Now I’m very happy with the result – and I hope my readers will be too.

It’s sad but true that we do tend to judge a book by its cover. For this reason, I’m very glad all my novels have excellent covers. In this day of economic downturn and questions about the future of books and bookstores, we authors need all the help we can get! But all of this has led me to wonder how I myself come across to people – how the ‘cover’ I present to the world expresses what is inside me. What do people see when I get up to speak somewhere? What do people notice about the way I live my daily life?

Well, I know they see a grey-haired woman who is definitely not slim and perhaps make judgments about that! It is amazing how people are put in ‘boxes’ simply on the strength of having grey hair, I’ve discovered. Perhaps we would be suitable to speak to Seniors’ Groups, it is suggested nicely – when I absolutely love speaking to young mums or people of any age, including Seniors! But much more importantly, I hope I carry with me in what I do and say – and yes, even in my appearance – something of who God is. After all, each of us is created in God’s image, as Genesis 1:27 tells us. And as the psychologist David Benner puts it in ‘The Gift of Being Yourself’, each of us, when we are prepared to be our true selves, actually is a ‘unique face of God to the world’! What a privilege – but what a responsibility as well.

So I hope both in my life and through my novels, by God’s grace, I reflect that grace and love clearly in a way that points people to God. ‘Let you light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven’, Jesus tells his disciples (Matt 5:16). I hope as I speak, that my words carry something of the ‘fragrance of life’ that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 2:16. And I hope and pray that the ‘cover’ of the book of my life will attract people to God and not turn them away.

But I’m so relieved that when God looks at me, the inside matters much more than the outside! In 1 Samuel 16:7, when Samuel is sizing up Jesse’s sons as potential future kings, the Lord reminds him:

Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.

How about you? What does your ‘cover’ convey? And what does God see in your heart?

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My family will tell you I am not the world’s best patient. There is too much to do to lie still for long – after all, I have my latest novel to edit and speaking engagements to prepare for. And yet I know the severe sciatica in my right leg has a much greater chance of improving if I look after myself, apply heat to the affected area and stay off my feet as much as I can. I know too that pain and anti-inflammatory tablets will help – and yet I am reluctant to take them. I try to remain stoic – and not too grouchy and grumpy!

So what’s to be done? Well, eventually I do rest and take medication – but I also pray. And when I pray, I have two things in mind. Firstly, I ask God to bring healing and relief from the pain – at least enough to enable me to speak where I’m supposed to speak.  I know God can do this, because I have experienced it before. Several years ago, I was about to head to Turkey to visit a friend, when I ended up with excruciating lower back pain. We had planned a holiday together in the mountains near the Black Sea, which I knew would involve carrying a heavy backpack, climbing on and off buses, sleeping in hard beds – plus lots of walking. How would I ever manage? I couldn’t let me friend down – and besides, I really wanted to go. So I finally asked someone to pray for me at church one day for healing. At first, nothing seemed to happen – and I must admit I was slightly sceptical about it all. But later that afternoon, the pain lessened and finally lifted altogether. And during my time in Turkey, I had absolutely no problem doing all the things we had planned to do – praise God!

But the second thing I ask God as I pray is what I can learn through this time of pain. Is it perhaps that I have become a little too self-reliant, thinking I can do everything in my own strength? Is it that I need to learn to empathise more with others who are going through painful times? Or is it merely to develop more patience and perseverance in me? After all, writing novels does need both these qualities in vast measures – especially when it comes to that painstaking editing and re-writing process I have just begun.

And while I wait for God to answer both aspects of my prayer, I try to relax, knowing God is listening and will never forsake me. I am held in God’s loving arms, now and forever. I don’t know how or when God will answer, but I will keep praying and not give up, just as Jesus taught his disciples to do when he told them the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18). Jesus ends this story with some words I always find quite sad and challenging:

However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8)

I want to be among those who are found to be full of faith. I want to learn to trust God more, whatever the circumstances. And right now, I pray for you too, if you are persevering through pain in any way. May God bring healing to you, just as you need, and the strength to stand firm until the end.

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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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Well, I’ll admit it. One of the delights of the summer season for me is watching the tennis and cricket on TV. Some days both are on – and then I am faced with the excruciating dilemma of which to watch! Sometimes that’s an easy decision, according to who or which side is winning. Of course we all like to see our favourites or our home team win. But as I watch sportsmen and sportswomen expend their energies hour after hour on a hot playing field or tennis court, the sweat dripping off them, I find myself challenged by the effort they put into their game right to the bitter end. They might well know they don’t have a great chance of winning – but they keep trying, still determined to give of their best. And who knows? The tide might turn in their favour at any time and they might be able to fight back.

This determination to keep slogging it out challenges me in my own writing journey. I am halfway through writing my sixth novel. But largely because of a very busy past few months, I am only a chapter or two further advanced than I was around a year ago. Part of me can’t wait to get back to it and find out what my characters will end up doing and saying – but another part of me is definitely daunted by all the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ needed to complete the novel. You see, having written five novels already, I sense there is too much still to happen for this novel to fit into the word count usually required for books like mine. My main characters have grown and become more complex, with each needing space to resolve their personal and relational issues in a satisfactory way. So when I have finished the first draft, I know I will have to be brutal and throw out thousands of my precious words that I have slaved over these past months.

Yet I’m not planning to give up on this current novel. I’m in it too far to pull back. After all, my characters are real, so can’t possibly be left hanging in mid air! Besides, there are things I want to say through this novel, ways I want the storyline and the characters to impact my readers. And I am remembering too the words of Paul in Colossians 3:23-24:

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 have believed God has had a purpose for each of my novels and I believe this is true of the current one too. So in faithfulness I will keep writing away, endeavouring to make my runs, hit my boundaries and slog those aces! And however much I complain about the difficulties, I have to admit it is so enjoyable and fulfilling as well – and I am sure many of the elite sportsmen and women I watch so avidly would say the same.

But how about you? What is God calling you to work at with all your heart this year? Whatever it is, may God enable you to press on with passion and determination – and may you find great joy and fulfilment as you hit those aces and make those runs in the process!  

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I wonder how you are feeling as you look towards the year ahead. Apprehensive? Daunted? Bored? Overwhelmed? Even a little trapped? Perhaps you have no idea how you feel – or perhaps you are still in holiday mode and don’t even want to think about it at this stage. On the other hand, perhaps you are like my granddaughter who asked excitedly when her father joked how he would see her next year, as he put her to bed on New Year’s Eve: ‘So am I going to school tomorrow?’ She had been told for so long that she would be going to school ‘next year’, that to her delight, she thought the moment had finally arrived! Maybe some of you share Olivia’s excitement and anticipation at what the coming year might hold and can’t wait for things to begin.

Some of you who, like me, had a very big year last year might be wondering how you will handle another similarly busy year. As I get ready to launch into 2011 with both my writing and speaking, I find myself feeling a strange mixture of emotions. I have a fifth novel, ‘Heléna’s Legacy’, due for release in June. I have some speaking engagements and an interstate trip lined up, and no doubt more will emerge as the year unfolds. I have a half finished novel on my computer that I can’t wait to get back to – after all, I want to find out what happens in the end! I am thinking of beginning a work of non-fiction – something I thought I would never do. So I am excited about the prospects ahead. Yet I feel challenged and a little apprehensive too. Will my fifth novel find a ready readership? Will my sixth turn out to be my best writing yet, as I hope it will? Will it perhaps be the ‘breakthrough novel’ for me? Is what I write worth spending so much time on? Will it make a difference in anyone’s life? Will the things I say when I speak anywhere truly bring honour to God and impact those who hear?

I turn to Isaiah, one of my favourite books of the bible, and see these words in Chapter 51:16:

I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand – I who set the heavens in place, who laid the foundations of the earth, and who say to Zion, ‘You are my people.’

And then I find myself on firmer ground. Then I sit back with a sigh of relief, knowing I am one of God’s people and that these words apply to me too in 2011. God tells me here that I have his words in my mouth – surely as I stay close to God, these will flow both onto the page and into my listener’s ears. Even more than that, I know that as I step out into this year, God’s hand is overshadowing me and protecting me. Whatever the year might hold – success, fulfilment, disappointment, challenge, loss, joy – God will uphold, God will equip, God will comfort, God will watch over me.

And this assurance is there for you to take hold of too. So 2011 … here we come!

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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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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to stay motivated, largely in preparation for a writers’ workshop I’ll be taking on the topic at the Word Writers’ Fair in Brisbane on 6th November (see www.thewordwriters.com). It has been a timely journey – I never cease to be amazed how, when I am preparing input for some speaking engagement, God so often uses it to speak to me first and foremost! You see, the fact is that I have now completed seven years of solid novel writing, plus preparing for many speaking engagements over that period. Is it time then for me to have a sabbatical? Or should I forge ahead, complete Novel Number Six and fulfil those speaking engagements that are beginning to emerge for 2011?

Please don’t get me wrong. I love preparing talks – and delivering whatever God has given me to say. And I love writing with a passion. I can’t wait to complete my current novel and find out what happens to my characters! And I have several more ideas for novels sitting on my computer, almost begging me to investigate them more fully. Yet on certain days at least, it can be an effort to stay focused, to pick up the threads of my current novel and to move my characters forward in a way which is consistent with who they are and the journey they have already travelled.

I have heard what God wanted me to, I believe, as I have prepared my workshop input. I know there are vital ‘God factors’ in staying motivated – things like remembering our call from God to write, reading God’s Word, practising the presence of God, praying, and being thankful for the journey thus far. I have seen again the importance of receiving encouragement from others in the form of a mentor who understands the creative process, a wider faith community, friends who will pray for us and teachers and editors who will give us specific, helpful writing input. I have noted too the place of watching our responses to any negative feedback and of learning to say no to things that are not right to undertake. And again I have been reminded of the whole self-care aspect – getting enough exercise and sleep; finding words, objects, places that motivate me; disciplining my time; setting goals; celebrating my little writing ‘victories’; and putting past failures behind me.

But then God takes over again and drops those extra encouraging words into my spirit. This morning I read the following beautiful, simple prayer from 2 Thessalonians 3:5:

May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.

That prayer to me highlights the two key things I need to remember in my writing journey – the real direction I need to be heading in my heart. If I focus on God’s amazing love for me and remember that this love will never change, whether I write well or not so well or even whether I write at all, then I am on solid ground. And if I keep Christ’s example before me of persevering to the end and of being so determined to do his Father’s will – well, what motivation could be stronger than that?

And just now, again in God’s exquisite timing, an email has arrived, telling me my fifth manuscript has been accepted for publication! Do you think God is sitting back, smiling and enjoying this special encouraging gift along with me? I do!

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What did we do before the advent of email, Facebook, skype, blogs, and all the ways of linking us to others via the internet? Yes, we phoned, sent cards and letters – even telegrammed at times. But that was way back. Now – well, let me tell you a story about some conversations in a purple dressing-gown!

I have a good friend who lives in Turkey, with whom I communicate often via email but also by skype. At first she would skype me on our normal home phone, but then, after I also installed the program, we graduated to speaking via a small handset attached to my computer plus a webcam which didn’t seem to work, so I gave up on it. Finally, however, with the advent of my new laptop, I now simply sit at my computer talking to her – all the necessary ‘bits and pieces’ are built-in. Now, with one click of the mouse, I can even choose between a normal skype call and a video one, enabling my friend to see the top half of my body at least as I chat away.

The first few times we talked via video skype, I joked about what I was wearing. It was always the same – my warm, fluffy, purple dressing-gown! My friend tends to skype me later in the evening, by which time I am often comfortably ensconced at my computer, writing a few more precious lines of my latest novel before heading to bed. One time when I apologised for how I was dressed, my friend commented that it didn’t matter one bit to her. After all, we know each other well and have travelled around Turkey together several times, sharing a room in all sorts of B and Bs, ancient and modern!

But her response made me think. Whenever she skypes me, I want to ‘look nice’ on that screen. Almost unconsciously, I tidy my hair and straighten the collar of my purple dressing-gown – and yet, she doesn’t care! All she wants to do is connect with me and feel she is being heard and getting some response in return.

And that, I realised, is how God is with me too. God actually doesn’t care what I look like – in fact, God can see me any time at all, whether I am dressed carefully in my best or lounging around in my old jeans, jumper and ugg boots – even in a purple dressing-gown!  So why put on a ‘front’ for God? It doesn’t change anything – except perhaps make our communication just that bit more difficult.

In 1 Samuel, we read how God sent Samuel to find Jesse and anoint one of his sons as the next king of Israel. At first, Samuel went by outward appearance, as Jesse’s first son came before him. Surely, he thought, this was the one God had chosen – but no. In 1 Sam 16:7, God says:

Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

The Lord looks at the heart. God sees right inside me, past all the pretence, past all the self-justification, past all the outward trappings. God knows. God understands.

And as I sit snuggled up yet again in my purple dressing-gown, I’m so glad of that.

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