Friday, November 28, 2014

That it's time to move on

I'm not disappearing! I'm just changing where you'll find me.

Although I'm not moving to a new suburb or house, this is still a pretty big announcement for me as I've loved putting time and care into this blog for several years. It was like my personal garden plot, reflecting my personality through changing times.

I'm transferring my reflections to my other blog, The Vince Review. Not long ago, I mentioned a feeling of being over-blogged to friends on Face Book. Some people whose advice made sense suggested that I merge my two blogs. That's exactly what I'm going to do. From now on, the 'Just Occurred to Me' style posts will be found under the heading of 'Articles' on my other blog. As well as getting these, you'll find fiction and non-fiction book reviews, interviews from other authors and fun lists. There will be something for everyone.

I hope you'll be happy to join me over there. For my part, I'm relieved to be focusing creative energy on just one blog address. I've never been a true multi-tasking type of person, and I guess cracks have been evident to me for some time. When you get there, I'd love it if you'd add yourself as a follower on the toolbar.

I'm leaving 'It Just Occurred to Me' up for nostalgia and old time's sake, so please browse through all these old posts if you feel inclined, but I'll see you over at The Vince Review. I'm feeling a little twinge as I prepare to press post, just because I've enjoyed my time here a lot.

Friday, October 31, 2014

To learn from the Frogs

A couple of weeks ago, we were able to play Good Samaritans to a large frog which got stranded in the middle of the road near our house. Living so close to wetlands, we get visitors like him. Apparently he'd been hopping, but dried out on the warm bitumen. Not wanting to see him run over and squished, we poured water over him until he took a great hop into a plastic container, and then we tipped him out in some long grass. It feels good to save the occasional life.

We hear frogs singing all the time in the wetlands, especially at night, which must be a sign of a healthy ecosystem. I've heard it said that frog life is a good indicator of how healthy an environment is. The have such ancient origins, if they start dying en masse, something must be wrong. It's remarkable to think that they do have such a long history, when they are delicate enough to run out of juice in the middle of our road. Perhaps God has simply been looking after them. Their acronym FROG, supports this. You might have read that it stands for Fully Rely On God.

A couple of weeks ago, while it was still early spring, I was hiking with my husband and younger son. We chose a dry track which had some sort of four wheel drive vehicle along it recently, because the tyre ruts it left were full of rain water. It seems some frogs had decided to lay their eggs in these shallow ruts, because there were tadpoles swimming merrily around in them, oblivious to the fact that their home was soon to evaporate. We figured that if those little swimmers don't grow quickly, they'll be left high and dry to sizzle. Will they make it? That's anyone's guess, as we won't be around to find out.

My younger kids sometimes get anxious about reports they hear from the media about global threats to our planet. Climate change, global warming, war, disasters, the list goes on. What's more, we read that earth is on a very specific path in space. If it were to deviate off course by just a few degrees, our globe would be uninhabitable. I remind them that in some things, all we can do is FROG, like the hoppers we rescue from around our house, and like the little babies in the shallow puddles who don't know if they'll live to grow up, but don't realise there's a threat.

I was reminded of a novel I read years ago, by Brock and Bodie Thoene, set in the Second World War. David, one of the soldier heroes, was on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean heading for action. He was always terrified at night, fearing threats from sudden enemy ships, and he didn't even know what cargo their own ship was carrying. He made a few enquiries and found out that it was live ammunition. That might have sent some people into more of a panic, but David decided to take off his uniform, get into his pyjamas and have a comfortable sleep, as he should have been doing all along. He saw that his only real option was to FROG. Basically, it's the same for all of us.

No matter how hard we try to control things, we're all equally helpless when it comes to some things. It makes sense to rely on the creator who was holding all things together before we were even born. We may have the potential to dry out easily, but there is someone who cares. Did you know that it's impossible for frogs and toads to jump backwards? I love the sudden, enthusiastic forward leaps they make, covering several of their own body lengths. Maybe God planned them that way as part of the analogy, to remind us that there's no point getting so anxious, hedging and retreating, that we never do anything.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What sort of work we should be about

I remember watching one of those fun reality TV shows in which modern contestants attempt to live the same way as those of bygone eras. Two young men in their early twenties stick in my memory. One was given the role of a servant in the Victorian era, while the other got to be a wealthy squire's son. You'd assume his would be the better part to play, but the reactions of both toward the end of the first day were very revealing, because they were identical. Both were struggling to hold back tears of frustration, declaring that they hated living in the ridiculous Victorian era. But they were behaving the same way for opposite reasons.

The servant had been working hard around the estate from the crack of dawn, and he was exhausted. Some of it had been pretty heavy work, but the last straw was when he was asked to clean his master's muddy boots. He'd expected to be allowed to leave the set for the night, and having to do a thorough shoe polish would take more energy than he thought he had left to give.

The squire's son was the owner of the boots. He was pleading, 'Please let me clean my own boots. Let him go to bed. I've done nothing all day but hang around the Manor House, trying to fritter away time, and I'm bored to tears. It would be a welcome relief.'

They were both denied by the directors. 'You signed up to live authentically, and he would have been the one to scrub the boots, not you. Get used to it. Welcome to the Victorian Era.'

Earlier this week, I was thinking how confusing Christians sometimes make the subject of work. We hear some say, 'We're saved by grace, so all we need to do is rest in what Jesus has done on our behalf. We have nothing to prove anymore. We don't need to race around like Martha. Nor do we want to fall into the trap of having to earn approval through our work. It means nothing, because all we need to do is believe.' This is all true and scriptural, but then others add, 'Yeah, but we're supposed to work hard because we are God's hands and feet in the world. He's created good works for us to do. Grace without works is dead. The Bible tells us those who don't work don't eat, and the sluggard is a shameful blot on society. If we just sit there without doing good works, we should be heartily ashamed of ourselves.' Okay, this is scriptural too, but I remember feeling so confused in the past because they seemed such polar opposites. If somebody had asked me, I'd have no idea which of these two apparently contradictory points of view to claim as mine.

 The two lads on the reality TV show make it easier for me to place it in perspective. I think of them as extremes on each end of a spectrum. Neither of them are living the ideal life. The fellow cast as the servant represents the slave mentality. We don't realise that we have been delivered from trying to earn our salvation by obeying all the points of the law, which is impossible. Then we race about getting worn to tears, and still feeling that we fall short. With this mindset, we tend to crumble when somebody suggests that they don't like our work. And we race about, trying to earn approval by pleasing people.

On the other hand, the squire's son discovered that waking up to a clear slate each day, with nothing to do but fill in time while other people do all your work for you, is a poor lifestyle choice too. I believe we are designed by God for meaningful work, not for hanging around always taking and never giving. That's why he was anxious to pounce on any task, such as cleaning the boots, just to have something to do.

I want to try to remind myself that in all I do, I'm not working for validation from humans, but partnering with God. We work for the satisfaction of stretching the bodies and brains that were designed to be used. We don't do it to prove to others or ourselves that we're good people. We do it because God designed us in His own image, which includes His delight in creating things. It's so sad to think of thousands of people working at something which isn't stimulating just for the paycheck at the end. We work because we notice a need, whether it's for people to be helped, stories to be told, or inventions to be introduced, just because we know it's something we can willingly fulfill. We don't respond blindly to guilt trips, doing shoddy jobs because these 'favours' don't utilise our strengths.

My kids are growing so fast, and my eldest is now an adult (they tell me). As I grow older, I'm beginning to realise how valuable each moment of time is. This post is a challenge for us to choose what we know deep down is the right work for us, and ignore the thousands of urgent demands to get sidetracked with busy-work, to earn a smile and a pat on the back. Even when these are great endeavours, each individual has the right to stand back and decide, 'I need to be about my own calling, not his or hers.' So the sort of work we should be about will be different for each of us, but we will know, when we stop to examine the honest place in our hearts.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Our work is like honey

I bought a new tub of honey today. Facebook has been challenging us to think of normal things which we appreciate, and I've got to put honey on my list. Today's purchase made me remember a homeschooling excursion the kids and I took with a group years ago, to a local, Adelaide Hills honey operation. It's situated in a beautiful spot in the middle of nowhere, and we knew the owners, a husband and wife team who used to attend our old church. They led us through each stage of their business until the end, when Buzz Honey jars as we know them, are ready to be distributed among all the shops.

I was very impressed with how hard the staff work each day, to ensure that people have a sweet spread for their toast and cups of tea. Like the farmers who provide other produce, conditions must align perfectly for honey to happen. There must be a variety of nectar bearing flowers and healthy hives. But I couldn't help being just as impressed with the dedicated labour of their thousands of unpaid workers in their black and yellow striped uniforms. It's incredible to think of all those bees doing it just for the sheer love of it. Instead of thinking, 'I wonder how I should spend my life?' they just know what business they should be about. And the Buzz Honey family can rest assured that none of the bees will ever pull a fake sickie to go off to the beach instead. They are fully dedicated to the making of honey, because it's their calling. It's in their DNA.

But is honey really so significant, that God made a whole class of insects dedicated to processing it? I set myself the challenge of searching for the blessing of honey in the Bible. It's definitely hidden away there on several occasions. During the famine, Jacob sent his sons to plead a second time for food in Egypt, hoping to butter up the gruff ruler with some of their local honey, among other things. Years later, God promised to lead the Israelite slaves out of Egypt back to a land 'flowing with milk and honey' as an incentive to make them willing to leave. Then, when they'd settled in their land in the time of the Judges, Samson was very impressed to find some bees had made a makeshift hive out of the carcass of a lion he'd killed. He even wrote a riddle about it.

 In the time of the kings, Saul declared that his army must fast completely until the enemy Philistines were vanquished. His son, Jonathan, wasn't around to hear about the oath. Jonathan stuck the end of his staff in some honeycomb and licked it, and we're told 'his eyes immediately brightened.' When Jonathan found out about his father's decree, he sensibly reasoned, 'My father has caused trouble for the country. Look at how my energy was renewed with just a little bit of honey, compared to how weak and faint you guys are.' And he averted the punishment of death.

Honey appears in the New Testament too, as part of John the Baptist's staple diet. I imagine he might have used it to dip his locusts into. I wouldn't blame him for wanting to sweeten them. If it's good enough for John, it's good enough for me, although I'd pass up the locusts. Honey gets enough mentions to make me think it's a pretty good sweetener, anyway. (I don't think sugar gets one plug from Scripture, although it didn't really take off until Medieval times. It wasn't unheard of in ancient times though. Persia's King Darius invaded India in 510 BC and found 'the reed which gives honey without bees, presumably sugar cane.) I haven't even mentioned the many times honey is referred to in the books of Psalms and Proverbs as something sweet, desirable, even health-promoting. Those bees really are carrying out a fabulous work.

Maybe, when we think about it, we're not all that different from the bees. Many of us do quite a bit of work solely for the love of it, just because we consider it part of our calling. In my case, I'm thinking of parenting and writing. Nobody who ever throws their heart and soul into either of those two things can be accused of being in it just for the money! Yet like the bees, those of us who do these things don't give them a second thought, because we'd rather do them than stop (thankfully for our families). Every so often, somebody says, 'You work so hard on these things, it really is a shame that there isn't a regular minimum wage,' and we think, 'Hey, yeah, that would be nice.' But it really doesn't make a lot of difference to us either way, because we're not going to stop the work we do. And if we are like the bees, it follows that our work may be like honey. A stable family of happy, good-humoured kids and several books to inspire  others do add their own type of sweetness to the world.

 Perhaps a good antidote to those grumbly days is to spread a bit of honey on some toast, and remember that we're just the same as those hard-working bees.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

to treat all group members as individuals

I was walking at our wetlands, when I saw this magpie. He was digging around in the grass but I kept a wary eye on him because it's spring time and a few days earlier, I'd been savagely swooped by one of his kind. It had happened along another walking trail, beneath a line of gum trees which must have had nests in them. The magpie meant business. He zoomed straight for my head five or six times, and I felt the wind from his wings. Knowing that some of my friends had been pecked until they bled, I went running and waving my arms around my head, but could see him following from rooftop to rooftop with his beady eyes fixed on me, waiting for his next move. I reached my car safely, but around this time last year, my daughter and her best friend were so freaked out by another swooping magpie that they fell face down on the cement, afraid to move. Then, when they had dared to make a run for it, Emma lost her purse, which I'm glad somebody honest found.

Anyway, I walked past this fellow and said, 'Are you a bit of a stinker? I don't think I like your kind, especially this time of year.'  But he was cool with me being there.

It occurred to me that's exactly how any form of discrimination begins. I used to think it was crazy to base our expectations of a group of people on the behaviour of couple of individuals. I would have liked to think I was above doing that, but one innocent magpie showed me that I'm not.  

I read recently, in a passage by Thomas Merton, how absolutely convinced Adolf Hitler used to be that sin was unforgivable. You might say, 'I can't figure that one out. If that was his attitude, why did he commit so much evil?' The scary thing is, Hitler didn't think he was evil at all. He believed he was a zealous Christian who was eradicating the group of people he considered, 'Christ killers.' That is why sending thousands of Jews to concentration camps and gas chambers; mothers, fathers, children, professionals alike, didn't smite his conscience one bit. It's sickening to reflect upon.

Automatic discrimination even occurs in the Bible, from 'good guys.' I'm thinking of the time when Philip went off to tell Nathanael, 'We've found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about... and he comes from Nazareth.'

Do you remember Nathanael's response? He said, 'Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?' It would seem Nathanael's knee-jerk reaction probably had something to do with prejudice he'd developed, having met some people from the backwater province of Nazareth in his past, who he didn't think highly of. But I find it encouraging that Jesus didn't rebuke Nathanael for the way his mind worked. Just before their first introduction, he even said, 'Here comes an honest man. A true son of Israel.' Jesus knew that Nathanael was sound at heart, but simply prone to that quirk of human nature in which we jump to conclusions, basing every member of a group on the behaviour of a couple.

I think the biggest challenge is not to wallow in guilt when our minds automatically do this, but to get into the habit of reminding ourselves that we need to step back and consider everybody as individuals. It also helps to pause sometimes, and think about the sort of impression we might be giving others about groups we identify with.

Just today, I was reading some Amazon reviews of a book I was considering buying, by a well known Christian author. Among them was a One Star review by somebody who had issues with the Christian content. They had written that it would have been nice to have been warned from the blurb, because if they'd known, they might have steered clear of it. At the bottom were several angry comments from Christians. Although these were worded differently, they basically said the same thing. 'Our hero is a Christian author, you idiot, so of course he's going to include Christian content! You know where you can take your one star!'

 I thought it a bit lame that the twentieth respondent would bother to add his vicious two cents worth, even though he could see that nineteen others had already soundly ticked off this reviewer. If they wanted him to remove his review, none of their reactive ranting worked anyway, as it was still up there, along with all their unfriendly feedback. Saddest of all is the reputation they may be giving all Christians, including those of us who wouldn't kick up such a fuss.  It makes me squirm to think that, based on something like this, somebody who is introduced to me may think, 'A Christian! Ha, I know what your type are like.'

I'm glad that simple little magpie reminded me to be careful before making judgments about other people, and also to think about the impression my behaviour might give others about many people apart from me. I even looked up the Australian magpie on wikipedia, and read that the male breeding magpies who become aggressive and attack those who approach their nests are actually a small minority. I've got to remember to warn my daughter, every time she shakes her fist at another magpie and says, 'I hate you.'


Monday, September 22, 2014

we are living in a labyrinth

My son, Blake, and I recently found a lovely surprise while we were out having a walk at the wetlands near our house. Somebody had celebrated the beginning of spring by creating this labyrinth out of sticks, twigs, rose petals and sprigs of lavender.

I know labyrinths have ancient origins, which piqued my curiosity. Some people say they have deep spiritual meaning, while others simply see a twisting path which ends in the middle. Looked at like that, it may be hard to see their significance. I remember being let loose in hedge mazes on holidays, but labyrinths don't even have dead ends to get lost in. I can imagine kids saying, 'What's the fun of them, then?' That's why I decided to look them up on Google.

I already knew that some Christians get a bit edgy about them because they are found in other spiritual traditions. It didn't take long to discover this is true. Some labyrinths are said to have been used as traps, with fierce, mythical creatures in the centre, a bit like an elaborate cage. Yet they've also been used as part of worship in the Christian tradition. They started appearing on church and cathedral walls and floors around 1000 AD. The Chartres Cathedral labyrinth in France is said to have the most famous design in labyrinth history. It would seem that devout pilgrims such as those Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about in Canterbury Tales might have used them as substitutes for actually visiting the Holy Lands. I can imagine these people crawling through the labyrinths on their hands and knees, wearing out the edges of their cowls as they scraped along the ground, and having their time of intense prayer in the centre, which represents the heart of God.

Some people regard the journey through a labyrinth as a three-staged trip. First comes the journey inward. Second, you get to spend time in the centre, regarding it as a nesting place where you're held in God's safe and loving embrace. Finally, there's the trip back out, to join the world again.

With all this in mind, I've returned to our wetlands labyrinth, sometimes with the kids and sometimes alone. We've fixed it up from time to time, when twigs have blown away in the wind. I've walked through, and although I haven't felt quite the same awe as the ancient pilgrims, I can see how people may say there are life analogies.

1) With all the twists and turns, it may look as if you've simply walked in circles, and returned back where you started from, but appearances may be deceptive. Although you're standing by the start, it will take only one more curve and you'll have arrived at the centre. In the same way, we've probably all had a whine, saying, 'After all my hard work, I'm right back to where I started,' without realising that we have actually have come a long way along the labyrinth that is our life.

2) Similarly, you may think you see the end in sight, because you're standing right beside the centre, and then another sudden sweep will take you right back to the outer limits of the labyrinth again. It's not going to be as quick and easy as you've hoped. We may think we've exhausted our knowledge about a particular topic, and then a curve in our path will reveal that we probably know only a fraction of all there is to know. We've been fooled by the labyrinth twists. It turns out we may be self-proclaimed 'experts' who are really further away from our destinations than we thought.

3) We may appear to be walking alongside other people, so close that we can reach out a hand to touch each other and speak. But we're actually at different stages in the labyrinth. Suddenly, one of us will be veering out to one of the outer paths again while the other is on his way around the last little curve to the centre. And the one who looks as if he's closest to the middle may, in reality, be further away. That's why we shouldn't judge each other for the way we react to the peripheral subjects of life. We're simply on different stages of the labyrinth.

4) When you're on the ground actually walking it, every step of the path may look pretty much the same as the rest, with the centre coming suddenly. It takes more of a birds-eye view to see the beautiful pattern we've been walking. The bigger the labyrinth, the more true this may be, and I can't think of a bigger one than life itself. Unlike a maze, there are no actual dead-ends for us to get lost in and have to turn back. There may seem to be dead-ends in life, but looking at them from a higher perspective, they turn out to be part of the labyrinth after all. We learn our lessons from the apparent false detours and kept moving toward the centre.

The famous labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral, France, which has been duplicated for other places.

5) We get an enforced chance to deliberately slow down to the speed at which life is meant to be lived. In these fast-paced 21st century times, we're encouraged to choose our goals and zoom after them, like an arrow whizzing straight to the target. Life is really designed more like a labyrinth, with twisting paths we all have to follow, and the walk is as important as the destination. My older son and daughter seem to be on a stage of life's labyrinth where they don't get this. If we ask them to come for an afternoon walk with us, they say, 'No, because you don't walk with a particular destination in mind. You just ramble around for the sake of it, and that's boring.' Our younger son still seems to understand the point of doing things which seem to have no point, but I think he's showing signs of catching up to the part of the path which they're on.

I can't help hoping our local labyrinth will last for a long time. No people or animals have walked past and messed it up yet, after several weeks, which I think is a nice surprise on its own. When I go to walk in the wetlands, I can often tell with a glance that it's still there, when I occasionally see people walking in weird circle shapes on the ground. I wonder if that's how we all look to the angels above.  

Monday, September 8, 2014

that we may be waiting for the wrong type of fame

I think it's easy to get the idea that fame and fortune is the ultimate measure of success. I've been writing novels for years, and the idea pops up all the time. If you're not getting accolades, and if your target audience don't recognise your name, some people suggest you're not doing the 'platform' thing properly.  The juicy carrot is always dangling a few inches beyond your reach. Yet you assume the goal of fame must be achievable, because you see others in your same field taking great, crunchy bites of their own magnificent carrots. Sometimes that encourages you to never give up, and other times, if you're honest, it makes you envious because their offerings seem to be no better (or maybe even worse) than yours.

Author Julia Cameron suggests that it feels a bit like waiting for rain in a drought. 'We keep squinting toward the horizon, jealous of our luckier neighbours and dissatisfied with our own condition,' she says. Her words gave me funny images of Elijah asking his servant, 'Can you see anything yet?'

After several fruitless looks, the young man replies, 'Yes, there are a couple of new reviews on Goodreads and a slight increase in your Amazon sales ranking.'

We know what happened in the Bible. Elijah and his servant rushed out in order to beat the soaking deluge they'd already predicted to King Ahab. In our analogy, we grasp these measly signs and push on, trying to prepare ourselves for the downpour of sales, ads, praise and money we hope will follow. But in our case, the small cloud just wafts away. 'Hey,' we complain. 'That's not what happened with Elijah!'

Julia Cameron goes on to muse that our culture has taught us to think of fame as a necessary by-product, but she suggests that it's full of empty calories with no nutritional value. We are taught by the media to keep seeking the amazing breakthrough, after which our lives will be abundantly blessed, but we only need to look at the sad revelations, not to mention several premature deaths, of many celebrities who seemed to have had it all to see that fame is not all it's cracked up to be.

'Not all artists will lead public lives,' she goes on to say. 'Many of us as talented as those who fame strikes may toil out our own days in relative anonymity.' And that's okay, because it may not even be healthy for us. I'm reminded of an article written by Ann Voskamp recently, in which she argued convincingly that the human soul isn't really even built for fame. I couldn't help but be convicted by her pointed question about which platform I'm trying to scramble up on anyway. The article is here.

A couple of days ago, I came across a touching article by Ann Swindell. I love how she found perspective about all this bothersome business from 'The Great Divorce' by C.S. Lewis. Basically, we may be surprised to find that while our desire to be recognised as offering some meaningful input is natural, fame in heaven is very different from fame on earth.  You can read it here.

And then this morning, as I was scrolling through my news feed on Face Book, I chanced upon a great article by Lisa Mikitarian, which gave me another clue that we may stress far, far, far too much over something which God doesn't necessarily think is that big a priority. Read it here.

If you haven't had enough yet, here's one more link to follow, by Yours Truly on this very blog. Even though I wrote it a few years ago, somehow, the worries about this stuff started creeping up on me again, as they tend to do if we don't keep our focus. It's here.

So with all this, I'm encouraged to make sure we're listening to our Creator and not our culture. I think, keeping in mind how easy it is to get the two mixed up at all times may be a key to help. I appreciate anything that may clear my mind in this confusing world where we're brought up not to be attention seekers as children, and then later, chastised for not seeking attention in the adult world of self-promotion.

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