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Posts Tagged ‘the love of God’

Recently, after waiting several months, I finally took delivery of a brand-new car. Now I thought my trusty, twenty-two-year-old Ford Fairmont was luxurious enough, but my mind has been boggled by all those amazingly clever features my Toyota Corolla has. I mean, how did I ever drive before without keyless ignition? And how did I ever get by without being able to lock and unlock the car even if my key is still in my handbag?

Sometimes I suspect my new car could be smarter than I am, especially when it refuses to lock if a window is down a fraction or when it winks at me from those little lights in my outside mirror, if a car is near my blind spot. Even during school holidays, whenever I drive near a school, a bell dings and that very polite lady hidden in my car somewhere says in a state of mild panic: ‘Caution! You are approaching a school zone!’ And when she later informs me I have now left the zone, I feel I have been given an early mark for good behaviour.

However, this lady completely floored me when I discovered she can read every speed sign around. I mean, I had barely erred a few kilometres over the fifty kph limit near where we live when her voice startled me almost out of my wits. ‘Please obey all traffic regulations!’ she boomed in a highly accusatory tone. It was as if she were saying, ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing, Jo-Anne? How dare you go over the speed limit! Stop it this instant!’

I was shocked and embarrassed. I do not normally speed and, if I did, it was probably because I was distracted by all the bells and whistles in my new car. However, not wishing to upset her again, I immediately slowed down and toed the line.

This experience helped me drive more safely, which is a good thing. But, as soon as I heard that lady’s urgent, reproving voice, it somehow reminded me of my old view of God. As a young person and even on into my adult years, I used to think of God as being much more of a judge than a friend.  Often, I would picture God as frowning at me and as disappointed in me, if I failed to reach those high standards I was required to meet. If I behaved, God would love me and be pleased with me, I thought. But otherwise…

Imagine my relief then when I experienced how gracious and loving and accepting God is! Gradually I saw too that I need to love God in return with all my heart and soul and others as well (Luke 10:27-28). And that involves living in a way that pleases God and brings God honour—which includes obeying the road rules! But I do not need to fear being told off by a harsh, disapproving, heavenly judge. Instead, I can step into each day at peace with God, rejoicing that Jesus has bridged the gap between us and ready to love and serve God and others as the Spirit leads.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood… to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. Revelation 1:6

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I received an email recently that gave me much food for thought. It was from someone who had just read my first two novels, Heléna and All the Days of My Life. This reader had found them among a pile of second-hand books a friend had been given and now wanted another novel of mine, Heléna’s Legacy, which explores the journey of a minor character in my second novel, then continues Heléna’s story.

I laughed out loud. The day before, I had found my lone, second-hand copy of this novel in my cupboard and thought, ‘No one will want that.’ Imagine my surprise when, the very next day, I discovered someone did!

My contact then told me some friends are now waiting to borrow these novels from her. This was gratifying news, yet I also found it somewhat disconcerting. You see, my first two novels were published back in 2007 and 2008—and I like to think I have learnt much more about writing since then. This reader might have enjoyed them, but would her friends?

In the end, I decided I could do nothing about that. Besides, back then, I wrote as best I could, with my whole heart and soul—and how fulfilling that was!

Then came another thought. I might have learnt much more about writing in those intervening years, but did I still write with that same heart and soul now? Back then, I wanted to write stories that would highlight themes I believed were vital for us all to grasp and experience. I wanted to write about the importance of holding onto our faith in God, whatever happens. I wanted to write about experiencing God’s amazing love and grace, about forgiveness and about becoming all God purposes us to be. Did I still feel so passionately about such themes now?

Since 2004, when I began my first novel, I have written nine books and around 650 blogs and have also spoken over 250 times at all sorts of gatherings. Through it all, I have learnt much more about God and experienced God’s amazing faithfulness and enabling in so many ways. Yes, I am still passionate about those same important themes, yet some things I held dear back in 2004 have fallen by the wayside. Some needed to be discarded—others did not. Some changes in my life and faith have been for the better, I believe, yet others have not. Looking back, I am sad about those times when I may have failed God, others and myself in different ways. But I am so thankful God is merciful and forgiving, always persevering with us and always lovingly pointing us to higher ground.

Yes, I’m still the same person I was back in 2004, yet different too. I want to change what needs to be changed. I want to grow where I need to grow. And I want to keep drawing closer to God, don’t you?

Let’s hold onto those key themes of our faith in God, but let’s keep humbly learning and growing too, as we seek to become more like Jesus each day.

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. 2 Peter 3:18

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On this particular Monday morning, I did not feel like grocery shopping. Still, it had to be done, so off I went. I scooted around the supermarket in record time and headed for the nearest checkout. Then I noticed the worker there was a lady with whom I had previously had a conversation about my books. On that occasion, she had asked me what I wrote about, but someone had interrupted and there had been no time to answer her. I had left the store that day feeling rather frustrated—would I ever get another opportunity to talk with her? Yet there she was now, about to serve me again—but I felt too tired and grumpy to connect with her. Perhaps she had forgotten all about that question she had asked me anyway.

Imagine my surprise then when the first thing she said was, ‘So … are you still writing?’

My heart sank. I did not want to talk about writing—or anything serious, for that matter. Yet I was touched she had not forgotten our previous conversation.

‘Wow, I’m amazed you remembered I’m a writer,’ I managed to say. ‘Yes, I’m still writing—and speaking. I’m speaking at a club this week, but I’ve also spoken at quite a few churches.’

‘Oh … what sort of things do you write about?’

At that point, I decided to opt for a relatively safe response.

‘Well, my novels focus on different serious issues we all face in our lives sometime or other, such as forgiveness or grief or dealing with life’s challenges … lots of things like that.’

‘Wow—I must check your books out online.’

By this time, I was wider awake—and praying hard!

‘Um, I have a card here,’ I told her, as I fished around in my purse.

She finished packing my groceries and I paid her. For a moment, it seemed she had moved onto the next customer, but she turned to me again.

‘So, where’s your card? Thanks so much. Have a good week!’

I left, feeling somewhat stunned but also a little ashamed of myself. God had given me a wonderful, unexpected, second opportunity to connect with this lady, yet I had not wanted to engage with her at all. Instead, I had wallowed in my tiredness and grumpiness and it had not even entered my head to consider what God might want me to say. Then the Apostle Peter’s words came to mind:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. … 1 Peter 3:15

I had not been prepared. I felt I could have been much more open. I should have mentioned other themes in my novels like the love and grace of God, but now the moment was gone. Yet, in the midst of all these whirling thoughts, I sensed God’s amazing grace and acceptance pour over me. And as I drove home, I prayed. Lord, please may she look up my website and see why I write and what I write about. And please may we have an even better conversation soon.

I’m so grateful God understands. And I’m so grateful God uses us even in our weakness in ways we may least expect.

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Have you ever in a rash moment said yes to some activity or event way out of your comfort zone, then later wondered why? Perhaps you agreed to walk x number of kilometres or lead a group or sing in public … or anything else you would not normally choose to do. Such experiences can feel surreal, can’t they—as if we are there, yet not there?

Last week, I did something I have in fact done before, but not for some years—I took part in a radio interview via phone from another state. During this 20-25 minute interview, my task was to share why I had written a particular short story that won a place in a recent writing competition (‘Stories of Life’), then talk about the events that shaped me to become the writer I am today, using stories as much as I could.*

Sounds easy, right? Yet at this stage of the year, and especially after seeing my current novel through to publication, my brain is a little tired. I had a script—a few dot points I had submitted earlier to my interviewer—but still felt nervous on the day and well out of my comfort zone.

What to do? First off, I prayed—and I also asked my little email prayer team of nine women to pray, if they happened to read my email in time. How wonderful it was to hear back from three of these faithful friends almost immediately, assuring me they would be praying! But I was also touched when my interviewer prayed for us both, before flicking that switch and launching into our conversation.

At first, I stumbled a little. But as we reached that part of the interview where I needed to share my writing journey via stories, I became so involved in it all, I forgot about everything else. I was even able to laugh at myself at one stage (although not out loud!) when I realised I was holding my phone in one hand and waving the other around as if speaking to a live audience! But as the interview proceeded, I also began to feel a deep sense of awe as I shared how God has led and shaped me via all sorts of experiences during my various occupations. All over again, I was reminded of the loving hand of God on my life, shaping me, teaching me, guiding me, setting me on my feet again. And as I kept talking, my heart filled with praise and thanks to God for all God’s gracious, constant love and care through it all.

As 2020 draws to a close, may I encourage you too to look back on this year—and on your life in general—and see how faithful God has been, through the good and the bad. And as you do, may you see and sense afresh, as I did, the gentle hand of God, our awesome potter Father, shaping us, his clay, to become more and more like him.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Isaiah 64:8

*Should you wish to hear my radio interview, please tune into ‘The Story’ on Vision Christian Radio at 9.30am (EST) on 13th January 2021.

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I was in our local shopping centre again, not far from the large nativity scene in the middle of the main walkway, when I heard some children calling out in excitement. They were running here and there and seemed to be by themselves. Then one of them, a little girl, discovered the porcelain figure of the baby Jesus in the manger.

‘Oh look, a baby doll!’ she yelled. ‘I’m going to pick it up.’

Just then, her mum appeared and told her not to, after sending a quick, embarrassed glance my way. I am glad she was not close enough to hear my gasp at what her daughter had started to do, but I’m sure she saw my slightly horrified look. I wanted to tell her it was fine and quite a natural thing for a child to want to do, but they scurried away.

I was not worried that the doll the little girl wanted to pick up represented the baby Jesus, although I suspect that mum felt she might have offended me and others nearby. It is just that—a representation, not some sacred relic. Rather, I was more concerned the doll would smash if the little girl dropped it—and that would have been embarrassing indeed for her mum. But as I continued shopping, my reaction kept niggling me. Had I somehow acted a little like the disciples who rebuked those who brought children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them? But Jesus’ response had been so gracious.

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:16-17

I prayed for that little family then. The mother had seemed so harassed and overwhelmed, but it all happened so quickly, there was nothing I could have said to her or done for her. Yet later, as I thought more about this event, I wondered if God had been teaching me a big lesson through it all.

How many times have I figuratively ‘picked up’ Jesus, listened to his words and connected closely with him, only to discard him after a while and rush off to something more exciting or interesting? How many times have I treated Jesus as if he were some mere effigy, instead of someone alive and powerful who loves me and wants to walk with me each day in my life? Even now, am I still like that little girl at times, not understanding or forgetting what that manger scene is all about? Have I truly grasped the enormity of the fact that God sent his Son Jesus Christ into our world out of love for us to save us and restore our broken relationship—forever?

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16

This Christmas, let’s all carefully ‘pick up’ that baby Jesus, our Saviour, take him into our hearts once again and truly value the gift we have been given—freedom, peace, joy, a loving relationship with God, forever.

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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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At the moment, I am making my way yet again through my current novel, checking for errors and tweaking this and that to make it the best I can. It is painstaking work—and it seems to have gone on forever. But each morning, as I open my laptop and go to the relevant document, I am cheered by the polite, little greeting that awaits me there. On the right of my screen, I always see a little box that says happily:

Welcome back! Pick up where you left off.

How encouraging is that? But recently, that little message did more than cheer me up and inspire me to pick up where I left off with even more determination. It also alerted me to open my ears to hear what God might want to say to me. It was as if God highlighted that little box on my screen so that I could not miss a much more important message it contained.

Then it hit me. In an instant, I sensed God saying: ‘That’s exactly what I’ve said to you so many times over the years, Jo-Anne. Whenever you have pulled back from following me for a while and gone your own way, but then turned around and repented, I have always been there waiting for you with open arms. Time and time again, like your laptop does each day, I have said to you, “Welcome back! Pick up where you left off.” What a joy it has been to offer you forgiveness each time—and how good it is to pick you up and help you stand firm again!’

Then my mind went to the Apostle Peter’s story in the bible. I love Peter. He seems such a full-on person—always the leader, opening his mouth on behalf of the other disciples and stepping out when others might well have feared to. I love how he was brave enough to get out of that boat and walk towards Jesus on the water (Matthew 14). I love how he realised early on that Jesus was the only one worth following and the only one who could offer eternal life.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God. John 6:68-69

I love too how he declared he would never deny Jesus, fully thinking that was true—and I always feel sad when I read how he did deny him, then wept bitterly over it (Matthew 26:75). But later, when the resurrected Jesus appears on the shore as Peter is fishing with the other disciples and proceeds to provide them with breakfast, I hold my breath at what unfolds. Three times, Jesus asked Peter if he loves him. And three times, Peter replies, Lord, you know that I love you (John 21).

Can you imagine how Peter must have felt, as Jesus treated him in such a loving way and reinstated him to be the strong shepherd and leader he had called him to be? What grace Jesus showed him that day! And what grace Jesus shows each of us today, whenever we turn back to him, as he says with such love: ‘Welcome back! Pick up where you left off.’

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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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Jo 17I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with a certain TV show on at the moment that pits one singer against another. I enjoy hearing the contestants sing, but I fear for them as they put themselves in such a vulnerable position, slap bang in front of thousands of viewers, not to mention a live audience and those judges who will choose between them. I hate to see so many head home disappointed, with their dream of success shattered.

You might not be about to get on a stage and sing, but perhaps you can think of a time when you had to put yourself out there in some way and risk being judged. Perhaps you had drawn or painted a picture. Perhaps you had to play a musical instrument in public. Perhaps you had to read aloud something you had written. Can you remember how you felt?

I suspect I relate to these music show contestants so strongly because of my many experiences when younger of playing the piano for scary music examiners and also playing or singing in eisteddfods, while the judges busily wrote notes about my performance. Yes, these experiences made me feel so vulnerable, but they stood me in good stead for playing and singing in churches in later years—and also for getting up and speaking in public, as I still often do. And I believe that, by the grace of God, they have also armed me well for my current writing journey.

Yes, giving your new manuscript to others to critique can be a daunting prospect. And having books published can be even more daunting. It has been said that, to be an author, you need a sensitive heart, but the hide of an elephant! Yet, if we know God has called us and gifted us to write—or paint or sing or play or dance or bake or create in some other way—how important it is to keep putting ourselves out there, whatever others might say or think!

That certainly applies too when speaking about the things of God, whether in a formal setting or informally in our daily lives. Right now, when so many in our world are particularly vulnerable, there are opportunities all around us to share that encouraging word with others and to show them God’s love. But sometimes it can be hard, can’t it? Sometimes, sadly, I still choose to keep quiet and stay in my comfort zone, rather than risk being rejected.

Years ago, when I was about to start theological college and feeling very vulnerable as an older student in my late forties, a visiting speaker came to our church and, prompted by God, gave me the following verse:

Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. 1 Corinthians 16:13 NLT

So many times, these words kept me going through all the challenges of college, helping me focus on the final goal. But these words speak to us at every stage of our lives, don’t you think? So, whatever is happening around us right now, may we all stand firm, knowing we are secure in God’s love. Then let’s step out, put ourselves out there and grasp hold of the things God has given us to do with courage and strength!

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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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