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Posts Tagged ‘Parramatta Baptist Church’

It’s strange how wearing a facemask in a public place can cause us to feel so isolated, isn’t it—perhaps even invisible? We may try to make eye contact with others, but it’s hard to convey friendliness and warmth with our eyes alone. We may smile—but no one can see that smile. And is anyone smiling back? Who knows? Or are they merely wondering why we are staring straight at them? Better to stay in our own little world, go about our business and get home as quickly as we can. Is that how you feel at times?

Recently, as I walked up the travelator into our shopping centre, a lady coming the other way saw me and said hello. At first, I did not recognise her, even though she had no facemask on—but then I realised I knew her from our church. She had managed to connect with me, even with my own mask covering half my face—and it was lovely to see her smile and hear her warm greeting.

But as I went down that same travelator after finishing my shopping, I saw a girl coming up on the opposite side. She had a facemask on and seemed to be talking loudly to herself. Then I noticed she had some ear-pieces in and realised she must be on the phone behind that mask! She was completely engrossed in her conversation and well and truly in her own little world—such a contrast from my earlier experience.

Yes, we are becoming adept at keeping others at a distance and isolating ourselves in our own little worlds behind those masks. And technology can isolate us even further. I sometimes encounter this even in our own home, since my husband wears hearing aids that pick up the sound from our TV. But I still often try to comment on something to him when we are watching a show, forgetting about all that noise already blaring in his ears! And by the time he has asked me what I said, the moment is gone.

But as I look at my own life, I see how adept I often am at keeping God at a distance too. Sometimes there is so much going on inside my brain—plans for this and that, writing ideas, interesting things to think about—that I deliberately refuse to stop and reflect on the things of God. I want that close, loving relationship with God, but I also want to hold God at arm’s length at times. I love God—but I want my own way too.

Surely I should know by now that, whatever ‘mask’ I might try to wear to isolate myself in my own little world will not work with God, who sees and knows everything anyway and is present everywhere? How much better then to remember who I belong to, open my heart to my loving Father again, listen for his voice and invite him into every part of my life.

“Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.” Revelation 3:20 NLT

Truly our own little worlds are so much richer in every way when we welcome God into them, don’t you think?

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Jo 17Recently, the women of our church held a ‘Quarantea Party’ via Zoom. All sixty or so able to participate were mailed a teabag, along with a few questions. Then on the day, we were to be at our computers or tablets or phones with our tea, ready to connect.

It was fun to watch everyone turn up and to greet one another. One screen on my laptop filled—then two—then three! Initially, one of our pastors shared with us all and then we ‘zoomed off’ into our smaller ‘breakout’ groups which had already been organised.

But at that point, something went wrong so, then and there, our Zoom organiser needed to reallocate us all into groups, person by person. As that happened, we chatted and laughed together, but then we noticed people disappearing from our screens. One by one, little black squares were appearing where someone’s face had been a moment earlier. They had been allocated to their breakout group and had zoomed off!

As the number remaining became smaller and smaller, someone joked, ‘This is like being picked for a sports team when I was at primary school! I feel like calling out “Pick me! Pick me!’” I could identify with this and laughed along with everyone else, but my mind also headed in a different direction. In fact, I had found it quite disturbing to watch all those lovely people I had not seen for ages disappear from the screen, one after the other. One moment those vibrant faces were there, the next they were not. One moment, they were laughing and chatting—and the next, all I could see was a black square.

Soon after, those of us remaining were organised into one final group and we enjoyed a special time together. But later, I still could not get that image of those black spaces on the screen and the sense of loss as each person departed out of my mind. Was God perhaps challenging me to think about my own life and to realise that, in the big scheme of things, I too appear somewhere on that huge screen of world history for only a brief moment in time? Was God reminding me to seize the moment and do the things I have been called and gifted to do?

We are each given a life to live. We have that one opportunity to connect with others, to shine God’s light as best we can and to make an impact in this world. Then our time is over. All around us in our world at the moment, we see lives being snuffed out in such an unexpected way. And for many of us too, all our best laid plans for this year have gone awry. How much we need then to take to heart James’s warning to the early believers:

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

Our lives. A mist that vanishes. A zoom in and a zoom out. May we all use each moment well for God.

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Jo 23Things have changed a little on the communication front since our children were young. Back then, we did not even have a home phone—or a TV until our oldest child was eight. And there were certainly no mobile phones or computers around. Instead, we read, enjoyed music and played games. And I also wrote many long letters, particularly to the grandparents interstate.

But the other day, within the space of a few hours, I accessed several means of communication that are now commonplace. I began by emailing on my laptop. Then I checked my Facebook posts. Next, I wrote and scheduled my weekly online blog. Soon after, my mobile rang—and it was a friend who lives in another town wanting to talk, as her husband is ill. Later, she put me on speaker phone so her husband could also hear, as I prayed for them both.

That afternoon, I sat at my laptop and ‘attended’ a friend’s funeral, livestreamed from a chapel in a cemetery on the other side of Sydney. No, it was not the same as being present, but at least I could join in to some degree as those close to him said goodbye to our friend.

Not long after, I managed to turn up at a family birthday party via Zoom—that day, our oldest granddaughter turned seventeen. This was a new experience for me, but how amazing to be able to see all our family members in their respective homes and to chat to one another! We  tried, with mixed success, to sing Happy Birthday together, as the candles were lit, then watched longingly as our granddaughters consumed that enticing looking ice cream cake right before our eyes!

Two days later, we ‘attended’ our church’s online service, pre-recorded and available on YouTube, which we watched on our TV in the comfort of our lounge. Then I accessed another service being livestreamed from a friend’s church. This past week too, I talked with another friend whose son’s recent wedding was livestreamed to all the wedding guests elsewhere, including interstate and overseas, then later enjoyed seeing the wedding photos sent to my mobile.

I am so glad we have all these wonderful means of communication in this time of isolation in particular. But some do take a bit of getting used to—and not everyone has a tech-savvy husband nearby like I do who can rescue me! Yet however much knowledge we have, sometimes those connections just do not work, do they? Sometimes, the mobile phone or Skype or Zoom reception can be poor in our area. Or sometimes, the person we wish to contact is simply unavailable.

And that’s why, as I sit quietly reading my Bible and talking with God, I am so grateful God is always there and always accessible, always listening and always ready to respond in love. No technical devices are needed. Instead, we can communicate heart to heart and spirit to Spirit with our loving Lord, wherever we are and whatever is happening around us. Surely, nothing can be more amazing than that?

The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfils the desires of those who fear him. He hears their cry and saves them. Psalm 145:18-19

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In our home, I have a reputation for liking to let as much light in as possible. Each morning, one of the first things I do is pull the blind up in our bedroom. Then I open the heavy curtains next to our dining table and the shutters on our kitchen window. And finally, I walk into my study and pull the blind up there. Usually, my husband has already opened the curtains over the glass doors that lead onto our balcony, so I can see the sky outside. And, because we live in a downstairs unit, I often like some electric lights on as well—especially in our recent dull weather.

There is something attractive about light, isn’t there? A few weeks ago, when all that smoke cleared after the bushfires, many of us felt so cheered to see sunlight and blue sky again. Somehow that natural light has a positive effect on us and lifts our spirits, doesn’t it? But light is so useful too, in all its various shapes and forms. Without it, we can lose direction, stumble over things and, in general, be unable to function to the best of our ability. Light is attractive. Light is useful. And light can even save us. Just think of those lighthouses that have prevented so many ships from floundering on the rocks below.

Recently at our church, we held a women’s retreat day, with the theme ‘Let there be light!’ Everything was set out beautifully, with fairy lights strung here and there and little IMG_20200222_092925131pretend candles on our tables that we all turned on at one stage. But my eye was caught by two beautiful collections of lights at the front of our auditorium, each containing a fascinating mix of lamps big and small, along with candles of all shapes and sizes in various intricately made candleholders. As the day unfolded, all those lamps and candles were lit, one after the other, to reflect the fact that each one of us is called to be a light to our world, whatever shape or size we are or however we are equipped to shine.

But we were also reminded at one stage that it is God’s light we are called to bring to the world, as we allow it to shine through us. As we receive God’s grace and mercy and step from darkness to light ourselves, we have the wonderful privilege of belonging to God and being chosen to show God’s goodness to the world, so that others may be drawn towards that light as well.

… for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. 1 Peter 2:9 New Living Translation

At some point that day, I saw in my mind a picture of a huge throng of women, each carrying a light high, as they streamed from all corners of the world towards a beautiful, shining throne surrounded by light. And I was overwhelmed at the privilege of being counted among that throng and being able to hold my own lamp high, as we all praised God. What a wonderful day that will be, don’t you think?

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I wonder if you have had time lately to stop and truly look at the beauty all around us in nature, on both a small and large scale. Even as I write this, I can see from my study window a vast expanse of clear, blue sky, feel the warmth of the spring sunshine and enjoy the amazing pink blossoms on the nearby azaleas.

IMG_20190925_115106702Yet it was the tiny, almost hidden intricacies in God’s creation that recently blew me away  most—including the endless variety of sizes and shapes of leaves on the nearby shrubs and the amazing speckles and colours of the petals on the humble, little alstroemeria flowers our neighbour planted near our front door. How easily all this inspired me then to write the following poem for our church’s upcoming Art Installation (6-20 Oct, Parramatta Baptist), the theme of which is ‘Creation Speaks HIS Name’! Surely, as the psalmist says:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. Psalm 19:1-4

Silent Speech

­Did you have fun, Lord, creating such beauty

for us your children to enjoy?

It’s as if in pure delight you waved your palette high

and splashed your vibrant colours everywhere with glee,

as if you had to share each fresh design of flower

and then, in pure extravagance,

add speckles to already perfect petals.

In tender tones, you sought again

to speak your name, to show us who you are,

to swell with one more voice creation’s choir

that endlessly declares your perfect love,

that shouts your glorious grace across the earth,

that paints your name with joy on canvas vast.

Lord, in small and large, we hear your silent speech

and, in reply, we speak aloud your praise!

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IMG_20190418_100541803Recently, I did something I have wanted to do for a long time. I bought an original painting at an art exhibition. I already own two lovely paintings—one of the Charles Bridge in Prague which featured in my very first novel and another my brother-in-law painted for my seventieth birthday of a street scene in Paris. Yet I have always dreamt of roaming around myself at an art exhibition until I found that special something that spoke to me in a deep, personal way. And that is exactly what happened.

Since the artist, Jo Sterland, was standing nearby, I decided to ask her what had inspired this particular painting. I discovered it was titled ‘The Change of Season’, with the rich purples and blues depicting the past contrasting with the bright tangerine splashes of colour in the foreground, speaking of vibrant, new life—and in between, the white, swirling cloud of change and uncertainty but also hope, so often felt in moving from one season to the next in our lives. Jo also explained that this particular painting had come into being during a time spent listening to God, alongside other artists with a similar heart for God, and endeavouring to follow those gentle promptings of the Spirit to paint in a certain way.

At that point, my eyes filled with tears. I understand the concept of listening to God as I write, so to paint in this way resonated with me. I also understand well those change of seasons in our lives, having moved from one career to another several times over and having put aside a beloved ministry role at one stage, only to have God give me the awesome privilege of becoming a published author. But I sensed God was speaking to me for the here and now too, reminding me of past blessings but also reassuring me of joys to come and future answers to prayer.

At this exhibition, it was wonderful to witness the fulfilment the artists experienced through displaying their works for us. Inwardly, I applauded them for their courage in baring their heart and soul in this way and risking rejection in the process. But if these artists had not been prepared to put their work on public display and offer it up for God to use, I for one would have missed out. And so would those vulnerable women and their families in Thailand, towards whose support and care the money raised from the sale of these artworks is going.

Each of us is creative in some way. Yes, I have met a good number who say they do not have a creative bone in their body! Yet surely, if we are all made in the image of God, the Creator of our amazing universe, that cannot be the case.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them Genesis 1:27

I wonder what creative gift you have that reflects something of God to the world in your own unique way? Did you perhaps put it aside for a season? Is it time to change that? May you find great joy and fulfilment as you dust it off, listen to God and offer it to us all again!

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I am a writer. I play with words—a lot. I rearrange them. I delete them and replace with more suitable ones. I shape them into phrases and sentences for hours on end. I love to tell stories and paint pictures with them, hopefully touching others’ hearts in the process and giving them a small glimpse at least of the loving heart of God. I am so grateful for this gift of writing, yet I also find myself in awe of those who can create via some form of visual art, in all its infinite variety.

This year at our church, Parramatta Baptist, our pastors have sensed God calling us to focus on the theme of ‘Ask, Seek, Knock’, as Jesus invites us to do in Matthew 7:7-8:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

So recently, they invited us all to commit ourselves to ask—to pray by name for God’s transforming presence in others; to seek—to pursue more of God’s transforming presence in our own lives; and to knockto appeal for the places and lives that we long to see open more to God. As I listened, I realised this was no man-made challenge they were giving us all—there was nothing of the ‘You should do this’ or ‘You must do better’ about it. Instead, we were being freely and joyfully invited to be part of God’s purposes for us as a body and for others. And what a unique, creative way they found to do just that!

One Sunday, we arrived to find several tables dotted around the chapel and on each were a pile of small, oval-shaped pieces of vinyl in grey and brown shades, along with some felt pens. As well, right in the centre of the church was a bright red wheelbarrow, decorated with fairy lights. As the service progressed, we were invited to commit ourselves to ‘ask, seek and knock’ by writing our name on one of these vinyl pieces and placing it in the wheelbarrow.

IMG_20190303_101333209That day, and on two further Sundays, around four hundred people did just that. Then last Sunday we arrived to find this beautiful piece of artwork installed in our chapel, with all those signed pieces of vinyl arranged to form the soil from which the tree of God’s kingdom would grow, flourish and bear fruit. It was created by our ministry assistant, Jo Sterland, a gifted artist and graphic designer, who blesses us and others in so many ways with her God-given gifts and abilities. Yes, now we could see, depicted clearly and beautifully for us, what a vital role we each play in providing that fertile soil of prayer to grow God’s kingdom more in our own lives and that of others. Truly, a picture paints a thousand words, don’t you think?

Yes, it’s a privilege to write or paint or create in any way for God. But it’s also a great privilege to be part of that living soil of prayer, as we focus on our amazing God who can do so much more than we can ever ask or imagine!

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Jo 12I wonder if you can remember a time when you felt so frustrated that you could not get on with what you truly wanted to do because of other pressing commitments in your life. Perhaps you had to work while others were enjoying holidays. Perhaps you had to be at home minding young children or caring for someone with ill-health while colleagues pursued their careers. Or perhaps you had to put study aside, in order to pay the mortgage and support a family. It can be hard, can’t it, to see others doing exactly what you yourself would like to be doing?

For the past four months, my husband and I have been supporting our church’s pastoral team while our two lead pastors (husband and wife) have been on sabbatical leave. We have felt so privileged to be able to work alongside our team and so many wonderful volunteers. Yet even though it was such a positive experience, at times I felt a little rebellious about where I found myself. I am a writer, after all, but in these months, I have not touched my current manuscript. In fact, I can barely remember my characters and what they have been up to! So why was I there ministering, instead of writing? Besides, I have missed my times of solitude, sitting at my laptop, lost in another world as I churn out those words.

Then it dawned on me that, for someone who belongs to God and is committed to doing what God wants, this is a rather silly way to think. After all, if I truly believed God called us to support our pastoral team, then surely I need not worry about what is not getting done—or written! Instead, I can be at peace and do what I have been given to do.

As I realised this, a second thought emerged. Could God possibly have had some further purpose in drawing me back into a pastoral role for a season? Through it all, what did God want to show me or teach me that could not happen any other way?

I decided to journal my responses. Firstly, I felt God wanted to point out how far I have come in those sixteen years since laying down a formal ministry role. I have grown so much, as I have gone on my writing and speaking journey—and I realised how thankful to God I need to be for that. Secondly, as a result of this growth, I believe I have approached this temporary pastoral role in an entirely different way. My trust in God has grown and I have gained greater confidence in using my God-given gifts. Thirdly, as I have ministered this time around, I have felt God’s deep love and affirmation and also a kind of healing from any regrets or sense of failure I may still have felt at leaving ministry all those years ago.

What a lesson, to realise I would have missed out on all this, if I had not helped out for these four months! God is so gracious and long-suffering with us, don’t you think?

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God. Psalm 42:11

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Jo 17I watched my neighbour’s eyes fill with tears as she told me a story about her great-grandson. His grandfather recently passed away and, in order to explain this sad event, his family told him his grandfather had gone to ‘the sky’.

‘I want to go and see him,’ was his natural reply.

‘But we can’t do that,’ he was told.

‘Well, you get him to come here.’

‘We can’t do that either.’

Because this little boy’s parents have separated, he is used to packing his bag and staying for a week with one parent, then the other. So he apparently decided to fetch his bag and head for the front door, ready to find his grandfather himself.

While reflecting on the image of this little boy holding his case at the door, I remembered some words the Apostle Paul wrote, as he warned Timothy about those who see godliness as a way to obtain financial gain:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 1 Timothy 6:7

My neighbour’s great-grandson sadly cannot visit his grandfather or take that little bag of his with him. And neither can we take anything with us, when our own time comes, whatever our particular bag might contain. What a reminder to look at the things we spend most time and effort pursuing in life!

Recently at our church, a lady told us about something that happened to her and her husband while overseas. They were in Rome and had to wait a couple of hours until their B and B accommodation was available. So they parked their hire car at a shopping centre and looked around for a while. When they returned to their car, however, it had been broken into—and everything they owned had gone. All they were left with were the clothes and money and whatever else they had with them.

That evening, the B and B owner kindly contacted the police for them to try to get some of their property back, but to no avail. Yet this lady was calm through it all, because, just that morning, she felt God had told her that, whatever happened that day, he was watching over her. In fact, she was so calm that the B and B owner became quite puzzled.

‘You seem kind of “zen-like”,’ he told her—at which point she explained what she felt God had said to her!

Eventually, this lady and her husband continued their trip, with only a couple of much smaller bags between them. And as she told us this, she commented how free it felt to travel so much lighter!

This story caused me to reflect even more on what baggage I myself am carrying right now through this world. Is it light? Is it something I can let go of without being destroyed? More importantly, am I putting my time and energy into those things that really matter and that Paul goes on to mention to Timothy?

But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 1 Timothy 6:11

May our bags be packed full to overflowing with all these things when our time comes to meet God face to face!

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Jo 23I wake up feeling tired, after a rather restless night. As my mind begins to clear and I work out what day it is, I realise I need to head to our church office for the morning. For four months, my husband and I are helping to support our wonderful ministry team, while our two lead pastors (husband and wife) are on sabbatical leave. It is an honour to do this—yet today, I feel decidedly less than adequate for the task.

I get ready, all the while thinking of the many jobs waiting to be done at home while I am out. So … why am I doing what I am doing? I have more than enough to occupy me, without any added responsibilities. What was I thinking, to say yes when asked? I have moved on. I left a ministry role many years ago and, since then, God has unfolded such a fulfilling writing and speaking journey for me. How could I have agreed to put my current novel aside for these months? Besides, some of my ministry gifts and skills are quite rusty. Surely there are others who could do these things so much better?

I grumble to myself as I eat breakfast and leave home, feeling so unsure about the day ahead. I plan to work on some training material for the pastoral team, preparing input I have been asked to give on a topic I myself originally suggested. Yet as I arrive and open up those documents on my laptop, I wonder how what I have already prepared will connect with our team members. I don’t know them very well yet—will they understand where I’m coming from? Will they feel that giving up their precious time in the middle of the day to sit and listen to my input is a big waste? Will they decide it is irrelevant for them in their particular area of ministry?

Eventually, I turn to a sermon I am currently working on. I thought what I have already written was what God wanted me to say. Yet, as I look at it again, I begin to wonder. Today, it seems a little trite—perhaps too simple, too fanciful even. I want to honour God in what I share on the day—and also honour the trust our leadership has shown in asking me to speak. But am I making a huge mistake with all that input I see on the screen before me?

Then I stop and reach for my Bible, turning to some verses I read earlier before heading out. In these, the Apostle Paul lists the many sufferings he has endured in his ministry, then writes:

But he (the Lord) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.   1 Corinthians 12:9-10

Yes, I may be weak—but I am also strong, because I have an amazing God whose grace and power are able to shine through my weaknesses. How wonderfully reassuring is that?

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