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Posts Tagged ‘Soul Friend: the story of a shared spiritual journey’

Recently, I scattered some parsley seeds in the garden near our front door. The seeds were quite old, but I scattered them anyway, thinking I might as well try. Lo and behold, now I can see tiny, green shoots poking through the soil there. It is a miracle they have survived, but I suspect some moisture from the underground watering system nearby has helped, along with the recent rain.

It never ceases to amaze me how the trees and shrubs and plants around us spring from such tiny, nondescript seeds. This thought came to mind again last week when I attended the funeral of my lovely ‘soul friend’ Joy. It was a special time, made even more special by the unique gift each person received—a piece of soft, thick paper containing various flower seeds (see photo). Attached was a label bearing Joy’s name on one side. And on the other was a thank you note from the family, along with the following explanation: Embedded in the paper are seeds of summer flowers so that you can plant a bit of joy at your place—cosmos, love-in-a-mist, Californian poppy.

I am looking forward to planting my seeds and seeing which flowers hopefully emerge. In the past, Joy often gave me various plants and cuttings from her interesting cottage garden, including one I particularly loved growing. It was an old-fashioned plant whose round, filmy seed pods were often used in dried flower arrangements—and this plant was called ‘honesty’. I loved its purple flowers and also those filmy seed pods. But most of all, I loved the idea that I could actually cultivate a plant called honesty in my garden. To me, it symbolised the virtues of honesty and integrity that I value in others’ lives and seek to maintain in my own and was to me a gentle reminder from God of how important these qualities are.

Joy planted many other seeds in my life too—seeds of courage, seeds of love, seeds of strength in God. And as I reflected on these God-given seeds this week, both literal and spiritual, I began to wonder how well I had allowed them all to take root and grow and whether some had been neglected of late.

In the process, Jesus’ parable about the farmer who went out to plant some seeds also came to mind (Luke 8). Some seeds ended up being trampled underfoot and eaten by birds. Some died in rocky ground through lack of moisture. Some were choked by thorns. But some landed in fertile soil and went on to produce an amazing harvest. As Jesus explained, this is a picture of what can happen with the Word of God. I can listen to what God says—or I can turn away and let those precious words fall by the wayside. I can nurture them carefully and allow growth to take place—or I can let them die. I can give them space in my heart and mind—or I can crowd them out.

God has graciously planted so many seeds in my life through the Word and through people like Joy. So Lord, as I plant my little paper-embedded seeds, may I in gratitude allow those other seeds to grow too and flourish, blessing others in turn.

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This past week, I received the news that my lovely ‘soul friend’ of previous years, Joy Crawford, had passed away at age ninety-one. On my last visit to the nursing home where she had been for some time, she did not stir or recognise me. Wondering what to do, I wrote her a little note which was eventually found on her bedside table by her daughter. And I sat and prayed and remembered, just as I have this week, after hearing of her death.

Joy and I met together once a month, first during my time at theological college when I needed a mentor—or spiritual companion, as Joy much preferred to be called—and then on into my years in local church ministry. After that, we kept meeting when we could, until she became too frail and unwell. Joy made a huge impact on my life, so much so that the dedication in my very first novel, Heléna, published in 2007, reads: ‘To Joy Crawford—my lifesaver’. I still also have a card Joy sent the day I finished the very first draft of that novel where she wrote: The Book! Well done, dear Jo-Anne. Congratulations—and my prayers and love for the next phase. Joy. Joy always believed in me, encouraged me and supported me in prayer and practical ways—and it was an absolute delight when, in 2012, she was able to share in the launch of what we called ‘our’ book, Soul Friend: The story of a shared spiritual journey, an account of our years of meeting together and the many ways Joy helped and encouraged me in that time.

Joy was doubtful at first about putting parts of our many conversations into print, but I think she would be delighted to know Soul Friend is still selling today and ministering to those who read it. Just last week, a friend told me how much Soul Friend had impacted her and how glad she was it had been written. I am so thankful Joy’s voice can still be heard in this way and that her gracious wisdom can go on blessing others.

On occasions, Joy would email me, although she was much more comfortable sharing face-to-face in her beautiful study at her home in the Blue Mountains. I included some of these emails in Soul Friend and have just glanced through them again. Even her greetings there speak such love and grace to me—‘Very dear Jo-Anne’; ‘Dearest Jo-Anne’; ‘Dear friend’.  What a privilege to be called a ‘dear friend’—especially by someone who we know truly means it. Joy would also use these words often as we parted at her front door. ‘Go well, dear friend!’ she would say in her gentle voice, as she gave me a warm hug—words of blessing, words of comfort, words of love.

Yes, Joy was my lifesaver, in the midst of some choppy seas in my life. But above all, she was my dear friend—a friend who truly mirrored to me the deep friendship Jesus offers each of us.

Lord, may I be such a friend to others too.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. 1 John 4:7

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. I John 4:11

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Jo 23‘Nanna, why do you say ‘love’ all the time when you talk to me?’ our six-year-old granddaughter challenged me last week.

‘Pardon?’ I asked, wondering what Maxine could mean.

‘Why do you call me ‘love’ all the time?’

Before I had a chance to respond, she answered her own question.

‘Maybe it’s because you love me!’ she said in a satisfied tone.

‘Yes, I do!’ I told her, ‘so I like to tell you that.’

She went on with her day then, quite happy with herself and the world in general. But this little interlude set me thinking. Yes, I do love her—and her brother, who was also often called ‘love’ that day, as we looked after them. But I know too it has been a habit of mine for years to call lots of people ‘love’. Now the word slips out without my even realising. And now too, on those occasional ‘seniors’ moments’ when I forget someone’s name, it can be a handy substitute—as long as it’s appropriate enough!

Later, as I thought more about it all, my mind jumped back to the beautiful way my special ‘soul friend’ Joy used to greet me, each time I arrived at her door:

‘Oh, hello, Jo-Anne—dear friend! So lovely to see you!’

On the odd occasions too when she would email me, she would often begin with the words, ‘Dear friend’ or perhaps ‘My very dear Jo-Anne’. Somehow, those simple words touched and encouraged me, even before I read on. By them alone, I knew she loved me and valued our friendship. I felt treasured. I felt significant. And I also knew that, whatever her email was about, her words would have been written with much thought and care and with a heart to bless me.

The way we address each other can be so important, don’t you think? But I wonder if you have thought about how important it is to know how God addresses us—to hear and take into our hearts the words God loves to use when speaking to you and me. If others can touch our hearts and encourage us via a few loving words, how much more can God do the same for each one of us?

One evening many years ago, when I was in quite an exhausted state, I believe God gave me a picture of Jesus, holding me in his arms as a baby and looking down at me with the most amazing love and delight shining from his face. And all he kept saying was, ‘Wow—Jo-Anne! Wow!’ Through that simple yet utterly profound experience, I knew deep in my heart that Jesus saw me as his precious creation, that he was so delighted in me, that he valued me and that he would always love and care for me. I can hear his voice even now, as I write this—and that beautiful voice still has the power to speak such love and grace into my spirit.

May you too, even today, hear that gentle voice speaking clearly to you, calling you by name and letting you know you are indeed God’s much-loved child, so valued and treasured.

See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! 1 John 3:1 NLT

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BecomingMe-OFC-I will always be grateful I was able to find publishers for my six novels and my first non-fiction book, Soul Friend. Without these publishers, my writing journey would have been severely hampered. But I am also grateful I was able to produce my second non-fiction book, Becoming Me: Finding my true self in God, myself via Ingram Spark in 2016. This gave me freedom to include everything I wanted to include and also to set my own publishing time frame. Now, two years later, I still receive regular reports from Ingram Spark, detailing e-book and hard copy sales.

I love this company’s efficiency, but I often smile when I receive that professional-looking, emailed monthly report for e-book sales in particular. You see, as time has passed since the release of Becoming Me, I usually discover that just one person, someone somewhere in the world, someone I will probably never meet, has bought an e-book version of Becoming Me. Yes, that means a whole USD$2.40 my little book has earned for me as the publisher—what a fortune!

Yet I never feel disappointed with these reports. In fact, this one sale always touches me, as I try to visualise who this reader might be. I pray for them too. I pray that something in my little book might speak to their hearts and provide the word from God for them that they need. After all, I’m sure this one person matters to God.

But occasionally I receive a different sort of email about Becoming Me—one from a reader I often do not know, commenting on some aspect of the book that has been meaningful to them. Recently, a lady wrote how, while she related to so much of what I wrote, the thing that touched her most was one small paragraph where I describe how, for many years, I wrote weekly letters home to my parents interstate, keeping them up-to-date with all our family events. This lady shared how, for over fifty years, she had done the same, even when her mother became a dementia patient in a nursing home. She told me how some people thought she was strange to keep writing these letters. Yet, as she read my book, she felt she had found a companion, someone who understood. How blessed I felt that God had somehow comforted her through my book, even in this small way!

These people whose lives we touch, the ones and twos, do matter to God, don’t you think? Surely we see this in how Jesus often went out of his way to minister to just one person. Examples that come to mind readily are the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak (Matthew 9), Zacchaeus (Luke 19), the woman at the well (John 4), the man born blind (John 9), Lazarus (John 11) and Mary Magdalene outside the tomb (John 20).

People matter to God. You and I matter to God. In fact, God seeks each of us out, like that one lost sheep, and, once found, will never let us go. And that comforts me more than any words I may ever write.

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand, John 10:27-28

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Jo 17It is some months since I have been able to visit my friend in the nursing home where she now lives. As I make my way to her room, I hope and pray she will recognise me. At the door, I see the nurses have just settled Joy in her special, comfortable wheelchair. She turns towards me—and her whole face lights up.

‘Oh! What a … what a … sur … oh!’

I reach out and grasp her hand, while Joy continues to look at my face in wonderment.

‘I’ll take her to the sunroom,’ a lovely nurse tells me—and soon we are settled there.

Joy continues to search my face with loving eyes. I resist the urge to tell her my name. I suspect it has slipped her mind, but it doesn’t matter—I know she knows who I am. I remind her of our book Soul Friend that I wrote about our journey together during my time at theological college, then on into ministry and writing.

‘Yes, Soul Friend,’ she says softly—and I know she remembers.

I talk to her about her family and mine. I share some little Turkish cookies I used to make often and take to her whenever we met and she remembers those too. It is a little hard for her to hold them now, as they tend to break easily. I see that the crumbs they leave on her clothes concern her a little, so I try to help her brush them off. We look at each other and laugh—a laugh that is beautiful music to my ears because it reminds me so vividly of other shared moments of joy. She has not changed—she is still the same precious person deep inside. Yes, she may now have trouble completing sentences. Yes, she may grope for the words she is trying to say. Yes, she may not remember names so easily. But she is still my lovely ‘soul friend’ Joy, out of whose face the love of God shines.

Eventually, I see she is getting tired. A nurse comes to wheel her to a lounge area and I prepare to say goodbye. I hold her hand and give her a kiss.

‘Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you—there’s nothing like a kiss!’ she says, closing her eyes in ecstasy.

‘Then I’ll give you another one!’ I tell her, dropping a light kiss on her forehead.  Her face is suffused with pure joy.

And as I hold her hand one last time, then turn to leave, I hear her familiar, beautiful words that have always felt like a blessing to me—‘Dear friend!’

As I drive away, the thought comes clearly to me that these two beautiful, little words are what God desires to speak into our hearts each day. I am not in my friend’s situation, but so often, I too become confused. So often, I let life overwhelm me. So often, I forget God. Yet each day, God reaches out to me and talks to me as with a dear friend. Each day, God is there to help me on my journey—and I am so blessed.

So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. Romans 5:11 New Living Translation

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This past weekend saw the beginning of our ‘open house’ days for potential purchasers of our home—as well as the merely curious! In preparing for this event, I found it a weird experience to walk around our house and try to see it from an outsider’s point of view. What would put them off? What personal items should I remove? What could I do easily to de-clutter our home of thirty-two years?

As I did, I began to feel quite vulnerable. We have had plenty of visitors in this house over the years—but that’s a little different from people we don’t know prying and poking everywhere!

IMG_20170414_172906326_HDRActually, I had begun to feel vulnerable the moment a huge ‘for sale’ sign was erected outside our home a few days earlier, featuring large photos of our backyard, kitchen and lounge room. There for all to stare at were key parts of our property only friends or family usually see. As well, on several websites, interested parties could take a virtual tour around our home, room after room. I felt a little unmasked, if you like—as if my precious home where I love to curl up had suddenly been peeled open and laid bare for the world to see.

Later, however, I wondered why I felt this way. After all, I am a writer, with eight books published and out there in the market. Two of these in particular—my non-fiction books, Soul Friend and Becoming Me—made me feel very vulnerable when they were released. After all, there was my life, served up on a plate for anyone to consume! Yikes! True, the publication of my earlier novels was also a vulnerable experience—yet that was different. Writers can hide in novels, giving their characters things to say we have wanted to say for years! And, in the end, they are novels, not my own personal story. Yet … what if no one liked them? What if those reviews were terrible? What if I had made a huge mistake, thinking God had led me to become a writer?

Now I realise I need to remember those lessons from my publishing journey. It is okay to put my work and what feels like my very self out there to be scrutinised. In fact, it is more than okay. After all, what does it matter if people criticise or misunderstand or disagree? Surely God has taught us things that need to be shared, that will make a difference for others—it is well worth the risk. Besides, there is a kind of sweet sense of freedom in letting others into our deepest thoughts and experiences, don’t you think? Here I am—and nothing has been wasted.

I am reminded too of the beautiful freedom and transparency that God, who knows all things, offers us and the comfort this brings. With God, it is ‘open house’ all the time—a place where nothing is hidden. So I can relax in those loving arms, knowing I am totally accepted there, just as I am. And that’s the kind of ‘open house’ where I am happy to live—forever.

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. Psalm 139:1-2

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Jo 23There are down sides, I’ve discovered, to having a more reflective personality. For starters, I can wallow in introspection. I can sit for far too long, thinking about things I have done in the past and how differently I would do it all now. In short, I can be the queen of post mortems!

Depending on how tired I am when these take place, I can lose all sense of perspective and end up seeing only the negatives in whatever input I have given or writing I have done. I can even find myself overcome with feelings of embarrassment and self-pity at times. And if I do not come to my senses, these can all too easily paralyse me.

Yet there is an upside to these post mortems as well. With God’s help, I can learn from past mistakes and grow just that little bit more. I don’t want to keep committing the same old errors and be unable to communicate God’s love in the best possible way. So after I speak somewhere, I go through my input, reflecting on what worked and didn’t work, what felt laboured and what seemed to flow well. I make a mental note not to use this or that illustration again, if it seemed to puzzle or not connect with my audience. Then, when I have finished, I file that input away and try to let it fade from my mind.

This issue of post mortems is very pertinent right now as I seek to write my second non-fiction work—another memoir, with a few lines of teaching in each chapter, as well as some reflection questions. As I go to write about some of the more draining periods of my life, I find I have to safeguard my spirit and try to follow David’s example of focussing on God:

My eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare. Ps 25:15

Otherwise, I could spend hours staring at my computer screen, feeling the pressure of that past season of my life, and become exhausted all over again. Instead, I try to look back with more objectivity, relying on God to give me a better perspective on it all and show me what to pass onto others. That’s the mindset Paul seems to have had when he wrote the following:

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Phil 3:13-14

It’s not that Paul never mentions his past. Even in this same chapter, he remembers how he was once a Pharisee and a persecutor of the church. By God’s grace, however, he became a changed person—a new creation, free to love and serve Christ (2 Cor 5:17-19).

That’s what I am too, I remind myself with joy, as I square my shoulders and set to work on my book again. I may well have made that unwise decision or spoken those hurtful words in the past, but, as Jer 31:34 reminds us, God has chosen not to remember them—and so should I. I can let go of it all and move on, knowing I am forgiven and am totally loved and accepted because of Jesus.

And that is such a wonderful, healing thing to be able to do, don’t you think?

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This past week, I achieved a couple of ‘firsts’ again for me. I gave the final of ten talks I had agreed to give at various venues during May—a record number for me all in one month. And I also completed the final few edits of my next novel, The Inheritance.

Now I am so grateful for those ten speaking opportunities—I loved them all. I even look forward to more in the coming months. But it has felt at times a bit like a mini-marathon, as I have juggled preparation and editing. I completed the original version The Inheritance in May 2011, so it has been in my mind for a while—even through the writing and eventual release of my first non-fiction work, Soul Friend, last August. But now I again have a clean writing slate, so to speak. At last I am again on the brink of being able to dive in to another whole project—and that can be a heart-stopping moment, I’ve discovered.

You see, in one way, the possibilities are endless—almost overwhelmingly so. Of course, one key decision I need to make is whether to plunge into writing a second work of non-fiction or to opt for a seventh novel. Which should it be? I have ideas for both. In fact, I have the outlines or general concepts for three more novels already saved on my computer, each very different from the other. How do I decide?

And it’s at this point that, despite all those ideas running around in my head, I can hear that doubting little voice whispering away as well. What makes you think you can come up with yet another book? None of those plots you’ve already thought out are any good. Anyway, it will be such hard work—and you don’t have the time, in the midst of preparing for speaking engagements. As for another non-fiction book, what on earth would you say that hasn’t already been said? I know from past experience this is the enemy using my old self-doubt, so I close my ears to it all. But on it goes.

I turn to the Scriptures, wondering what God has to say to me today. I am excited, as I always am, when it’s time to begin reading a different book in the Bible—and today I am about to start John’s Gospel yet again. I read that first chapter and am reminded that God, ‘the Word’, created all things, that in him was life and that this life brought great light to men, overcoming and confounding the darkness. I read on and take in the mind-boggling fact that ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (Jn 1:14).

I remember that the Spirit of this ‘One and Only lives in me right now, inspiring me, encouraging me, dispelling the darkness of doubt and fear. I know, as I listen to that voice that is so full of grace and truth, it will become clear which of those endless possibilities I am to pursue. The Word is with me and in me, shaping my own words. And I am so blessed.

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As a young child, I loved it when relatives came to visit or when we visited them. These people belonged to us and we belonged to them. We didn’t choose one another—that was decided for us. And yes, as I grew up, I did discover that some relatives were perhaps less enjoyable to be with than others! Come to think of it, they probably thought much the same about me!

I was (and am) fortunate enough to have a great older sister, yet it felt good to have that extended family out there as well. I remember one cousin in particular who was happy to play with my sister and me whenever we visited their family or they us. Together, we would have wonderful, imaginative adventures and plan out special concerts which our longsuffering parents had to endure as we shared our talents with them!

But I am so thankful I belong to another special, extremely extended family. Recently, I took a friend with me to a group some distance from Sydney where I was to speak. This group was from a different church denomination and my friend knew none of the women there. Yet as we drove home, she commented:

‘It’s amazing, isn’t it, how even though I hadn’t met any of these women before, there was an instant connection. It makes a real difference when we are all part of God’s family.’

Since then, I have had cause to think about her statement further as I have spoken at several other venues, inside and outside our own denomination, as well as at one interdenominational group. At the meeting with this latter group, people came to chat to me who remembered me from past connections or who knew one of our children or some mutual friend. One lady, on reading my latest book Soul Friend, had discovered it was about my relationship with my spiritual mentor Joy, whom she had known many, many years ago in another Christian context. She was so delighted to meet me as a result. In this instance in particular, but also in the other connections made that day, I realised again how blessed I am to belong to the huge, multi-faceted family of God. We might have our different ways of worshipping or meeting together. We might even sadly disagree about various issues at times within our own local church family. Yet despite that, something very deep and lasting binds us together in a unique way. And that something—or rather Someone—is the very Spirit of God who lives in each one of us through our faith in Jesus Christ. We are brothers and sisters. We are family.

I love Paul’s heart for this family of God and for the passionate way he challenges us to care for one another and stay united. In Ephesians 4:3-6, we read:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

It is a precious thing to belong to God’s family. May we never take this lightly but do all we can to continue loving, caring for and building one another up as we are able and as God has gifted us to do.

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I knew it wasn’t wise, but I did it anyway. This week, I took on board two facts about other authors and their books and promptly compared their efforts to mine. Yes, I believe I can learn from how other authors go about promoting their books. But is it a good idea to take their excellent sales figures to heart, without recognising the differences in our situations, personalities, style of books and calling from God? I don’t think so.

Comparison Number One happened in the course of a conversation with my husband about a friend’s book.

‘Oh, I think he’s sold about five thousand copies,’ I commented.

‘No, it’s about seven thousand now,’ my husband told me.

Instead of being happy for this particular author, my heart sank a little. Never mind that this person is with a large, overseas publisher. Never mind that his book is entirely different from mine. All I heard was that seven thousand number. And that was enough to cause me to feel more than a little downhearted.

Comparison Number Two occurred as I was idly flipping through Facebook. There I noted how another author is managing to sell her books by the hundreds as she travels around the country. How does she do it, I wondered grumpily. Again, instead of being pleased for her, I began to feel inadequate, wondering if my feeble efforts at selling my books and speaking here and there are enough. And again, I completely lost sight of the fact that her personality and her books are entirely different from mine.

As I sat wallowing in self-pity, I managed to think clearly enough to realise one fact at least. I am doing all I can, to the best of my ability right now, to honour God with my writing and speaking. I am continuing to promote my non-fiction book Soul Friend that was released last year and my novels as well. I have a good number of speaking engagements in the next two months and have spent hours and hours in recent weeks, preparing for these. My sixth novel is being released in September. I write my own weekly blogs and comment regularly on other blogs and on Facebook. I am trying hard. I believe I am listening to and doing what God wants me to do. I cannot do more.

Then I managed to keep thinking clearly enough to do the most sensible thing of all. I reached for my Bible, where I was up to Philippians 2. And sure enough, God had something very pertinent to say to me about the whole situation. In verses 3 and 4, I read:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Hmm. Yes, Lord, I hear you. Why focus so much on my desires and ambitions for my own books? Why not cheer my fellow authors on, rejoicing at their success? Surely this is what is meant by putting their interests above my own? How about cultivating a little more humility, just as Jesus did? It wouldn’t go astray.

I’m hoping I don’t fall into that silly trap again—for a while at least!

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