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Posts Tagged ‘the Apostle Paul’

When I was a Girl Guide in my early teens, we enjoyed a variety of interesting activities, both indoor and outdoor. We also went on hikes and camps, but one thing remained constant, whatever we did. We always wore our Guide uniform, which was a navy-blue dress, with four large pockets. And in those pockets, we carried all sorts of things that might come in handy out in the bush in particular, including a compass, a notebook and pencil, some band-aids, a plastic groundsheet and even a snakebite kit back then! Also, the light-blue tie we wore was made by folding a triangular piece of material in a certain way, so it could double as an arm sling, if needs be. Our Girl Guide motto was, ‘Be Prepared’—and we certainly took that to heart.

This motto came to mind again recently, as I read in Nehemiah how, halfway through rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, the Jews became discouraged and afraid when they discovered that their enemies planned to attack them. However, Nehemiah and the other leaders prayed (4:9), then stationed the people in strategic positions, with swords, spears and bows ready, urging them to stand firm.

Don’t be afraid of the enemy! Remember the Lord, who is great and glorious… Nehemiah 4:14 NLT

With God’s help, the enemy’s plot was foiled, but Nehemiah remained vigilant. He organised half the men to protect the people, while the other half kept labouring to finish the wall. He also ordered the builders to work with their swords strapped on, ready to fight at a moment’s notice, and the labourers to carry all their building materials in one hand and a weapon in the other (4:17-18).

But that was not all. Because the workers were scattered, he organised a man to sound the trumpet to warn everyone, should the enemy attack (4:19-20). Yep, Nehemiah was determined to be prepared—and made sure his people were too.

As I pictured all this military activity in my mind, I realised what a powerful image it is for my life today. I may not have human invaders on all sides, plotting to bring me down. Yet I am well aware of the extremely alert, cunning enemy the Apostle Paul warns us about who constantly seeks to discourage, especially when I set out to tackle something I believe God particularly wants me to do.

For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:12 NLT

I don’t know about you, but, unlike Nehemiah’s men, I need both hands to work on my writing each day! Yet I can still put on the armour Paul goes on to urge the Ephesians—and us—to wear, including the sword of the Spirit, the word of God (Ephesians 6:13-17). And I can pray constantly, just as Nehemiah did and as Paul taught too (6:18). Even as I keep working, I can hold these amazing weapons in my hands, so to speak. And I can also keep trusting in our ‘great and glorious’ God who watches over us, just as Nehemiah did, and not be afraid.

Let’s stay close to God each day, but let’s be armed and prepared too—always.

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Some years ago, a friend pointed out how I often use a particular little word when writing or speaking about family members. ‘Our Jane changed jobs’ or ‘Our Zain is doing better’ or ‘Our Amy started university’—yes, that little pronoun ‘our’ in these and other similar comments made in an email or while chatting seemed to have captured her attention.

‘It sounds so nice’, she said, although I cannot remember why she thought that. Perhaps to her it spoke of how we love and value whichever family member I was referring to. Perhaps it conveyed our concern for their welfare or joy at their successes or pride in their decisions. Perhaps it showed we truly identify with that person, believe in them and want the best for them. One day, I will ask her what she meant but, whatever the reason, that little three-letter word of mine seemed to touch her heart.

One morning recently, however, I suspect I caught a glimpse for myself of how my friend might have felt, as I started reading the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians once again. It was not long before I had to pause—in fact, I did not get past Paul’s greeting right at the beginning:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus. To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:1-2

What could be so remarkable about these verses? Why did I stop at that point and sit staring into space? Somehow, that little word ‘our’ in the last sentence had touched my own heart. I knew Paul had written that greeting and that he was no doubt referring to the fact that Timothy and he and the believers in Philippi all belonged to the same heavenly Father. But that morning, it was as if Jesus himself was saying gently to me, ‘Grace and peace to you, Jo-Anne, from God our Father—yes, our Father. I gave you the right to be part of my Father’s family when you believed in me. We will always watch over you, so be at peace today and know you are surrounded with our love and grace.’

How could that little word ‘our’ convey so much to me that morning? Perhaps it was merely my imagination. After all, I am a writer. But something changed inside me as I sat there, reading those words over and over. I had been feeling tired and quite discouraged, yet now I sensed Jesus understood, identified fully with me and had reached out in love to remind me who I belong to. I could be rational and tell myself this is not what those verses actually say or mean—or I could choose to listen with my heart and be reminded deep in my spirit that I am included in the beautiful, warm circle of God’s family, joined to other believers but also to Jesus Christ—forever.

I remembered then too those first words Jesus himself uttered when teaching his disciples how to pray:

Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. … Matthew 6:9

There is that little word ‘our’ again. Important to Jesus then and now—and so important for us too.

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I have discovered I need to be prepared for anything when heading somewhere to speak. Sometimes I arrive, only to find some promised piece of essential equipment has not materialised. Or I may turn up to find everything has been taken care of beautifully. Some helpful person has the data projector or TV screen ready and connects my laptop up so that everything works perfectly, while another offers to help with my books. I always go well-armed, however, for all situations—because you never know, do you?!

Then there are the adventures of connecting with people before or after I speak. Sometimes, I discover someone knows someone in my family—my husband or one of our children. Or sometimes, someone tells me they have heard me speak elsewhere in the past. I hold my breath a little at that, but am touched as they perhaps mention something I said back then. And I am touched too, as happened this past week, when someone bounds up to my book table to say they bought my first three novels years ago after I spoke at their church—and thankfully loved them. But each time, I never know who will be listening as I speak and what interesting encounters I may have with people.

All this has taught me some important lessons. Wherever I go, I need to go prayerfully, listening for those prompts from God. Whatever I say, I need to say carefully, with gentleness and sensitivity, but also with honesty. And whatever words I put in my books, I need to write them with much deep thought and prayer. Wherever I go, I want to be the best co-worker with God I can possibly be (1 Corinthians 3:9 NLT). And wherever my books end up, I want them to reflect something at least of the heart of God for our world.

Recently, a friend wrote to tell me how she picked up one of my older novels from near the letterboxes in her section of the retirement village where she lives, took it home to read and ‘thoroughly enjoyed it’. Residents often leave books they have read in such places in the village, so, after finishing it, she then put my novel near some letterboxes in another part of the village. The next time she went past, someone had taken it. ‘It’s so good to see the seeds being sown,’ she wrote. ‘Only eternity will reveal it all.’

Whether writers or speakers or not, we all have the privilege of being God’s co-workers however and wherever we can. And no particular person’s efforts are more important than another’s. Yes, I wrote the book, but my friend grasped the opportunity and put it out there for someone else to read. And ultimately, while we might sow the seed or water it, it is God who enables that seed to grow and flourish, as Paul tells us:

It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. 1 Corinthians 3:7 NLT

Let’s be ready, always, to plant or water or speak or share or encourage or do whatever God gives us to do. We may never know when that will be. We may never know the end result. But God does—and that’s what matters.

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I had made my way bright and early to a large shopping centre nearby. There were two things I needed and I was definitely focussed on finding these quickly, then scuttling home. As I passed a particular clothing store selling ‘intimate apparel’, however, I gasped out loud and stopped dead. No, it was not the very skimpy garments in the window that caught my eye first off. Instead, it was a bold sign there written in large letters:

I COME FIRST

Really? Is that how we are supposed to live our lives? Despite my slightly shocked state, I realised this could be a mere marketing slogan, an overstatement aimed at making potential customers decide they deserve to pamper themselves or buy this or that expensive, perhaps frivolous item, rather than something for someone else or something a little more practical. And maybe there are times when we should do such things. For some of us at least, it may be the right thing to care for ourselves better and put ourselves first more at times, so we can regain our strength or our health. But… ‘I come first’ all the time? Really? Is that what God wants us to do?

I remembered then a recent TV ad I had seen for a reality series that apparently ‘all Australia is waiting to see’, according to the promoters! I had gasped when I heard one of the contestants declare something to the effect that she likes to make all the decisions because ‘it always has to be my way!’ Imagine living or even be friends with someone with such a selfish, arrogant attitude where everything has to suit them and where their needs always come before the needs of others!

Somehow, I think God calls us to march to the beat of a different drum, don’t you? Even in the middle of the shopping centre that morning, I thought of the parable Jesus told on one occasion when he went to eat at the home of a prominent Pharisee and noticed how the guests chose the places of honour at the table (Luke 14). Instead, he urged those present to take the lowest place and leave it to the host to invite them to move up to a better spot. Then he ended with the following:

For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 14:11 NLT

I remembered too some challenging words the Apostle Paul wrote about putting others’ welfare before our own:

 Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. Philippians 2:3-4 NLT

Paul then urges us to remember Jesus, who put everything aside for us, became a man and humbled himself completely, even to the point of dying on a cross.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave… Philippians 2:5-11 NLT

Really? What a challenge! And what a different attitude from the one that declares ‘I come first!’

Let’s choose it anyway. Let’s dare to be different. Let’s remember Jesus’ example. And let’s do our best to put others first—always.

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We have almost reached a milestone moment in our family. Very soon, our second car, which mostly I drive, will be pensioned off. I thought I wouldn’t mind saying farewell to my faithful, old chariot, yet it has become like an old friend to me, after owning it for over twenty years. In that time, it has travelled around 270,000 kilometres in Sydney and country areas, as well as interstate. And it is still eminently drivable, so much so that we recently lent it to a friend, until she could get her own car.

We bought our Ford Fairmont second-hand in 2000—it was only eighteen months old and had been well cared for. However, when we took it home, it refused to fit fully in our small garage. As a result, over the years, its lovely, shiny, maroon paint faded on the boot and nearby areas, leaving it looking more than a little battered. On top of that, my faithful, old car has recently developed some quirky characteristics. The remote key does not work anymore. The bonnet now refuses to open, except by force. The driver’s window may wind down, then refuse to wind up. Or it may even go down further—or perhaps up, when it’s good and ready. Who knows? Yet through it all, the car itself keeps purring along beautifully—and I particularly love the way it can tackle any steep inclines with ease.

In the last thirteen years, during my writing and speaking journey, my car has taken me on all sorts of adventures. Many times, I have packed my books into its roomy boot, along with my laptop and other paraphernalia, and set off for some event, wondering what lay ahead. Would many people turn up? Would my audience be interested in what I shared? Would I sell any books? At times too, I wondered if I would even find where I was to speak, but somehow, I always got there. Of course, my car does not have GPS, so I have relied on printed maps—or, in desperation, my phone. Yes, my faithful, old car holds many emotion-filled memories for me.

Yet recently, as I looked at its battered appearance and recollected its funny quirks, I sensed it also had something to teach me—and perhaps all of us. We too may have developed some funny quirks along the way. We may look a little more battered and worn that we used to—I know I do! We may even refuse to do certain things anymore, just like my old car. But we still have so much to offer. We can look back on all the years during which God has been with us and guided us and taught us. And from that experience, we can still share the love and grace of God with others, however we are gifted and whatever our age.

At the end of my life, I hope, like my car, I can be called ‘old faithful’. I hope I can still say honestly, when that day comes:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 2 Timothy 4:7

Is that your desire too? Let’s all stay strong in the battle. Let’s finish well. And, above all, let’s keep believing in our amazingly faithful God.

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It can be interesting—and challenging—to think about the casual phrases we use at times. Recently, I received an email from a friend that ended with the following:

Thanks a bunch. You’re a legend!

Those final three words in particular made me think. Why was she calling me a legend? Yes, I had spent time doing something for her, but it will also benefit me, so I doubt I deserved the title. Even a similar statement such as ‘You’re wonderful!’ or ‘You’re amazing!’ would have been an overstatement, from my perspective. To me, a legend is someone who has done something outstanding that will be or has been remembered down through the years—or, as the Oxford Dictionary says, ‘an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field’. Nope—definitely not me!

But this term ‘legend’ can also refer to a story of someone and their feats that cannot be historically verified and perhaps has been exaggerated over time. Did King Arthur and those knights of the round table really exist, for example? Did Robin Hood do all those daring deeds we have read about? Hmm—I very much doubt anyone would ever have cause to talk about my daring exploits, however, let alone exaggerate them, so I will never reach legend status on that front either. But … what story will I leave behind me? What sort of mark will I leave on this world?

Not long after my first few novels were published, someone commented to me. ‘What a wonderful legacy to leave for others!’ At first, I laughed—I had never thought of my books in that way. After all, I know novels do not have a long shelf life in bookstores, unless they are best sellers. And no doubt many of my books have ended up buried under piles of other books in people’s homes or in a second-hand bookshop—or in the recycling bin! But then I realised that person had a point—and that I should be so thankful for the opportunity hopefully to draw others closer to God through my books. Recently, I received two emails from friends, sharing how God had spoken to them through my most recent novel Down by the Water and encouraged them. I felt so humbled and so grateful to God. What a privilege!

We don’t have to be legends or our exploits legendary to matter in God’s eyes. In fact, as the Apostle Paul reminds us:

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 1 Corinthians 1:26-27 NLT

True, some may become legends, as God empowers and guides. Yet whether legends or plain ordinary people or absolute nobodies in the world’s eyes, we need to remember it is how God sees us that matters. God has chosen each of us and will work through us in all sorts of ways to make a difference in this world, as we in turn choose to love and serve God with all our heart.

Legends? Maybe not. Lovers of God? Yes!

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Can you think of a time when you put off beginning some big, new project because the whole thing looked far too daunting? That was how I felt earlier this year when I decided to open that cupboard where all our old photo albums were stashed and do something about them. And that was how I felt too, when I began writing my current novel, Down by the Water, around four years ago. I had already written six novels and two non-fiction books—surely that was enough? To make things more difficult, this novel needed to be set in Queensland in the early 1900s—and hadn’t I vowed and declared I would never write another historical novel? I knew what a time-consuming task that could be, with so many facts needing to be checked.

Yet soon those ideas for the opening chapter began to emerge. Yes, since then, those first few pages have changed many times over, as I realised what needed to be revealed early on and what did not. But I knew I had to keep working on them, because those early pages are vital in winning or losing potential readers.

Beginnings can be hard, can’t they? Yet so can endings. And that is where I am now, tying off those final details of my novel before it is published. The actual writing is finished—and I have lost count how many times that manuscript has been checked through at various levels, not only by me but also by seven other people. I even have a lovely cover for my book. Yet, while I have heaved a sigh of relief that this whole, huge task is almost complete, I also feel quite tentative about releasing this novel out into the big world. What if all that work turns out to be for nothing? What if no one else thinks the story worthwhile? What if …?

Yes, this year, I have been very clearly reminded how challenging both beginnings and endings can be. And perhaps that is why, while reading Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians recently, I noticed in particular how he began and ended these.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 1:3 and also 2 Corinthians 1:2

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. 1 Corinthians 16:23

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. 2 Corinthians 13:14

Curious, I then discovered similar greetings in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians and also Timothy. In the midst of all the challenging situations those early believers faced, Paul obviously sees God’s grace as key—that overwhelming kindness of God shown in particular in sending Jesus into our world. And as we too choose to rest in that same grace that accepts us and loves us unconditionally and forever, we can know that same peace Paul prayed for those early believers, right here in 2020.

However difficult you and I have found those beginnings and endings this year, God’s grace and peace are always there for us. So Let’s truly hear Paul’s words and take them to heart. Let’s reach out and receive these amazing gifts and be strengthened and comforted as we do.

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Jo 12



I had obviously failed bigtime in our grandson’s eyes. There he was, excitedly commenting on his favourite superheroes characters in a puzzle book I had given him, while I stood beside him, blank and befuddled. Now, I know my basic superheroes like Spiderman and Iron Man and The Hulk, but alas, there were so many others I did not recognise. As for how they ended up with their various superpowers, it was clear to our eight-year-old grandson that I did not have the foggiest idea.

‘What? Don’t you know anything, Nanna? Everyone knows that!’ Zain told me in a tone dripping with disgust, as he launched into an exasperated explanation of how Spiderman came to be Spiderman and The Hulk came to be … well, hulky.

Later that day, as I sat eating dinner with our granddaughter, she suggested we might watch something on YouTube at the same time.

‘I like this show,’ Maxine told me. ‘It tells you what to do in an emergency, like when there’s an earthquake or someone gets hurt. You’d better watch it too, Nanna, because you don’t know!’

Hmm. Once again, I seemed to be a dismal failure, at least in a six-year-old’s eyes. So much for my two university degrees and teaching diploma!

Later, I remembered a response I learnt as a child that might have come in handy in both these instances when our grandchildren seemed to decide I know nothing. It originated from something that happened during my mother’s own growing up years. There were seven children in their family, with the youngest being a boy. One day when he was still quite little, his older siblings teased him about something he did not know or understand. But to put them in their place, his response apparently went something like this:

‘Well, I don’t care—I only just know a good couple of things!’

At my stage of life, I think can say without too much pride that I know a ‘good couple of things’ in some areas at least, as I’m sure you do too. Yet there is so much more I would love to know—so many great works of literature and art and classical music yet to explore, for a start. I would love to learn how to paint too. And I would love to own a violin and know how to play it.

I wonder what things you would like to know more about or be able to do. Yet, whatever knowledge or skills we gain, one day it will all be put aside and forgotten, won’t it? In fact, one day, the only thing that will matter for us all will be whether we know Jesus, the one ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Colossians 2:3). This is the knowing that can truly satisfy us deep down and enable us to stand tall, whatever knowledge we might lack in others’ eyes.

At the end of our lives, may we all, with complete honesty and humble certainty, be able to echo the words of the Apostle Paul to Timothy:

… I know the one in whom I trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until the day of his return. 2 Timothy 1:12 NLT

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Jo 17At first when the person phoning me told me her name, I thought it was someone else. But as I listened further, I was catapulted back to a time around thirty years ago when I worked as an assistant editor. Back then, this person had been one of my colleagues and we had spent many lunchtimes chatting together.

It was good to catch up with what had happened in her life, but also sad. Her husband had passed away and she herself has faced many health battles. But afterwards, as the memories swirled around in my brain, I began to feel quite sad for another reason. In that role, I learnt much about writing and editing. Back then, I had no idea I would become a writer many years later—but God knew. Yet instead of dwelling on these positives, I began to think how much better I could have done that job. Back then, I lacked confidence. Back then, I was afraid to say what I thought and unwilling at times to make good and necessary decisions. Yes, if I were given that role again, I decided, I would do things differently.

Around a week later, the phone rang again. This time, it was another work colleague from that exact same job! He had no idea our other colleague had called and we had a wonderful conversation, catching up on what had happened to us both since then. But again afterwards, I could not get the memories of that job out of my mind. While it was good to laugh along with this second caller about the mistakes I had made and how long it had taken to edit certain jobs, I found that sad feeling slowly creeping over me again. Back then, I was such a perfectionist. Back then, I did not know enough. If I had my time there again, I would work so much faster.

Eventually, as I reflected on all that regret, God enabled me to see things in a different and much healthier light. I had done my best in that role, after all, and the staff seemed sad when I left. I also grew emotionally and spiritually in that time. And God used that role to equip me not only for my next job but also for my whole writing journey. Back then, God had loved me and cared for me—mistakes and all!

And now, God is doing the exact same thing in this season of my life—and yours. It can be good to learn from the past, but God longs to pick us up and move us on too. Thousands of years ago, this is what God told the Israelites to do:

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? Isaiah 43:18-19

The Apostle Paul also writes:

but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race … Philippians 3:13-14 New Living Translation

May God strengthen us all to forget those former things and, instead, grasp hold of what God has for us to do in this new season facing us in our world right now.

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Jo 23I have had some notable cooking disasters in my life. Several times, I have baked cakes that were well-browned on the outside but, alas, still gooey in the middle. I also remember roasting a chicken once as a newlywed, only to find that when I cut into it, the middle was still pink. Then as I tried to put it back in the oven, I dropped it in a sink full of washing-up water instead! Yes, sometimes things might look good on the outside, yet turn out to be far less desirable on the inside.

Or perhaps you have had the opposite experience of something appearing not so good on the outside, yet once you delved a little deeper, it turned out to be surprisingly palatable. When our daughter was little, if she did not like the appearance of something I served up for dinner that she had not tasted before, she would say, ‘I won’t like it!’ She had already made up her mind, merely on the strength of how that particular food item looked.

Recently, our youngest granddaughter and I had an interesting experience. Someone we did not know was rude to us because we had unwittingly inconvenienced them. This person’s plans were messed up—and she let us know that in no uncertain terms. Now, I did not know quite what to say to our granddaughter to explain this person’s behaviour, so I just said something like, ‘I think she was a little bit mean, don’t you?’

Sometime later, when we saw this person again, Maxine waved to her in her usual friendly way—and, lo and behold, this person waved back enthusiastically, as if we were her long-lost friends! Maxine then said to me, ‘Well, they’re a little bit nice—and a little bit mean!’

Later, I wondered whether she had said something quite profound. Perhaps she was right. What’s more, could this be true of us all, including me? Are there times when I too can be ‘a little bit nice—and a little bit mean’? Hmm!

This seems to be what even the Apostle Paul experienced at times as well.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. Romans 7:18-19 New Living Translation

I can relate to that, can’t you? But thankfully, there is a way out for us, as Paul goes on to say:

Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 7:24-25

But wait—there’s more!

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. Romans 8:1-2

Phew! What a relief that we can have God’s Spirit within us to empower us—that we can belong to the one who is more than able to help us be a little less mean and a whole lot nicer!

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