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Posts Tagged ‘using our God-given gifts’

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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Jo 12I am tempted to write a book one day about the many interesting experiences I have had during my journey of speaking at all sorts of venues as a published author or promoting my books. It could also include those occasional moments in every-day life when someone discovers I am a writer—at which point the ensuing conversation usually has to do with what sort of books I write or what their titles are. But occasionally these interesting exchanges take a little more challenging turn, as happened recently.

‘So … you’re a writer. Um … should I know you? Are you famous? What books have you written that I might have come across?’

Fortunately, I managed to laugh and answer in a light-hearted enough way. After all, I could understand the person’s confusion. Is she really a writer? … I don’t recognise her—but maybe I should. I’m sure I haven’t heard her name before though. … I wonder what she writes? Probably nothing I’ve read anyway. Mostly, they are simply blurting out the first thing that comes to mind—although sometimes I do wonder if such questions are actually an attempt to shut me up or put me in my place! But whatever the motive, I never quite know how to respond. What would you say in such a situation?

In the end, I opted for what was probably a rather lame response.

‘Well … it depends what sort of books you read! I’ve written six novels and two non-fiction books—but no, I can’t say I’m famous. Here, I’ll give you my card—then you can look up my books on my website.’

I am so thankful for those business cards I carry around. Many times, they have extricated me from similar situations where I am at a loss to know what to say about my books. If the person asking the questions is really interested, they can look me up. If not, then they are at liberty to throw my card into the nearest bin!

No, I am not famous by any means—and I’m fine with that. You see, I have done my best in both writing and promoting my books for some years now. And I have tried in each one to write the things God put on my heart to write about—the love of God, the grace of God, forgiveness, holding onto our faith in God, using our God-given gifts, encouraging others in their journey with God. Now, as I attempt to write my seventh novel, I find I still have so much to learn in an ever-changing market. However well or otherwise I have written in the past, I can hopefully improve. Besides, God is still God—and as I write, I plan to listen to that gentle whisper of the Spirit, inspiring me and urging me on. This writing journey of mine has never been my idea alone—to me, the whole thing has been an amazing gift from God. And that, above all else, should keep me humble, don’t you think?

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Ephesians 4:2

The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Matthew 23:12

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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 12This week, our oldest grandchild turns fifteen. Fifteen!  How did that happen? Surely there’s been a mistake, I think to myself—she must have skipped out a few years along the way somewhere. Surely it wasn’t fifteen years ago that we rushed to see her in that hospital, just after she was born?

I remember well those growing up years of our little blonde-haired mite with the grey-green eyes. Each Friday during her preschool days, we had many adventures when we minded her until her father picked her up in the afternoon. We became well acquainted with all the nearby parks and soon worked out which had the best play equipment for whatever age our granddaughter was at the time. And we also came to know which shopping centres provided the best spots to have our important morning tea of juice and donuts!

We enjoyed endless games at home too—card games like ‘Donkey’, where somehow Nanna, with great skill, always ended up with that tattered donkey card left in her hand! We played Snap and memory games and later, Uno. We played Snakes and Ladders and others such as Charlie and Lola’s Pink Milk or that aptly named game Trouble. We watched old videos of The Fairies and The Wiggles and Hi5. We made pretend cakes and biscuits with play dough—but we baked yummy, real ones too, always keeping some for Mummy and Daddy.

Recently, I listened as our granddaughter groaned about the many school assignments she currently has to complete. Her life is so full—she is an excellent dancer, with classes and performances consuming many of her spare hours. Right now, she cannot even think much past these school years, with all those assignments and tests. Yet soon they will be over. And soon those university years will be over too. Soon, she will be a young woman, finding her own way in the world.

Will both my husband and I still be around to see her life unfold? I hope so, with all my heart. Yet none of us knows how long we have on this earth—not even our fifteen-year-old granddaughter. We often think we have years ahead of us, but nothing in this world is truly certain, as James warns us:

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

Even if we all live into our nineties, that is such a very, very short time, isn’t it, when compared to eternity? Of course we have to plan and ‘carry on business’ in life, but how easily we can take our eyes off God and allow things that don’t matter in the end to consume us!

When I am about to vanish like that mist, I don’t want to find myself saying, ‘Where has the time gone? How did that happen? I know there were things God had for me to do, yet I chose not to do them.’ Instead, I want to use those God-given gifts each day as best I can—and I hope you do too.

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I wonder if you have ever re-discovered something you once loved or used a lot or thought was wonderful, perhaps after many years have elapsed. It’s a bit like finding an old friend, isn’t it? There it is—just as you remembered it. And in a flash, the memories come flooding back.

IMG_20180216_101532547_BURST001Recently, my sister and brother-in-law arrived from interstate for a visit and brought with them my faithful, old, bright yellow shopping trolley I purchased around thirty-eight years ago! At that time, we lived on the other side of Sydney, just a few doors from very busy King Georges Road. And across that busy road was our local supermarket. It was far too close to drive to, yet too far away to carry all those bags of groceries back home. So that bright yellow shopping trolley came in very handy during the time we lived there.

Then we moved—and that trolley languished in a cupboard near our front door for years. Eventually, my sister relocated to Melbourne where she used to frequent the markets. So during one visit we made to her, we took that trolley along and bequeathed it to her. A few years later, she moved to Bendigo, where she too no longer needed that yellow trolley. So from then on, it languished in her garage—until her recent visit to us. You see, because we now live in a village environment, that yellow trolley is perfect for stashing all those groceries in from the boot of my car and trundling them down a nearby walkway to our front door!

In our family too, toys, games and little girls’ clothes also come around and around again. Recently, our daughter-in-law brought a few tubs of such items to us and, as I checked through them all, I found beautiful, sturdy jigsaw puzzles I remember completing with our now fifteen-year-old granddaughter when we used to mind her as a young child, along with her twelve-year-old sister. What memories those puzzles brought back! There were also some board and card games we played together that I know our younger grandchildren will enjoy now. As for those numerous Barbie dolls and accessories, what a treasure trove for our three-year-old Maxine—and her older brother! And those recycled little girls’ clothes too are still beautiful, many of them top name brands and hardly worn. Maxine is surely the best dressed little girl in Blacktown!

All this has caused me to reflect on my own life and wonder again at how God seems to use our gifts in fresh ways at different stages of our lives. It can be unwise to keep hanging onto things we have done in the past or roles we have filled, can’t it? But it seems to me God often surprises us with new twists and turns in our journeys that require a dusting off and reshaping of the old to be useful all over again. Only God could arrange things in such unique ways, don’t you think? So I hope and pray I can follow God’s leading and recycling and remain faithful and useful to the end—and I hope you can too.

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

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Jo 23Last week, it was wonderful to cross paths again with two men who graduated from theological college the same year as I did—exactly twenty years ago this month. Back then, I was in my late forties. I had wanted to train for ministry for years, but thought this was an opportunity long gone, until God made it clear it was time to return to study once again.

One of these men reminded us that we were the three students in our year who aimed for an honours degree, which involved undertaking three extra subjects, as well as achieving a high overall grade in all subjects. We managed it, but I had not remembered this at all. In fact, I wondered what he was talking about at first.

I had not forgotten I ended up dux of our year, however. I remember how vindicated I felt as I received my award. After all, I was old enough to be the mum of many of the students in my year! Besides, I was a woman—surely I couldn’t have done better than those other bright young men I studied alongside? On top of that, I had struggled with big family issues in my final year, including my husband’s job loss and a daughter’s severe illness. It had been hard going, but God had sustained me in amazing ways and kept me motivated.

That day, as I talked with my two college friends, each of us had stories to tell of great years in ministry—but also of times of difficulty and differences of opinion. For each of us, our journeys had taken more than a few twists and turns, from one role to another and even from one denomination to another, until we have ended up where we are today. With great faithfulness, God had picked us up, time and time again, strengthening us, challenging us to move on.

Later at home, as I reflected on our special catch-up conversation, I remembered a psalm I had recently read:

I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. Psalm 77:11-12

God had not always rescued us from various life situations in the way we thought needed to happen. For each of us there were ‘times of no miracles’—at least from our perspective. But God had not left us. God was always there, watching over us, never letting us stray too far, weaving the strands of our lives together as only God can.

Twenty years down the track, I can honestly say my college honours degree and academic achievements have by and large lost the huge significance they once had. Of course, for some, this is how God has gifted them to make a difference in this world, which is wonderful. But for me now, it is much more about listening to God, about being faithful in doing what God gives me to do, about touching hearts and lives with God’s love, as God guides and empowers.

And that’s something within the reach of all of us, don’t you think?

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