Wednesday, December 28, 2011

to launch my imagination into space

For the last few weeks, I've been fascinated by the discovery and images of the planet Kepler. It's interesting to know there's another sparkling gem of a planet with blue seas and green land masses, although they appear oddly shaped compared to the earthly ones we're used to. With its pleasant average temperature of 22 degrees C, it doesn't seem too presumptuous to imagine people living there. If they are at least as technologically advanced as humans on Earth, they may have spotted us too. Images of our planet may have been televised across Kepler as they wonder whether there could possibly be life here.

I imagine them as similar two-eyed, two-legged quadrupeds to us, although they would surely have their own random appearance. They may quite likely have their unique flora and fauna. If not, imagine them with powerful enough telescopes to get a glimpse of, say an elephant, and concluding, 'The people on that small planet are big and grey with weird obtrusions coming from their faces.' Of course they'd say it in their own language, which would be nothing like English or any other language on Earth. As their planet is twice Earth's size, airfares may be twice as expensive there, making the notion of international travel even more of a dream. Science fiction writers could have a field day with Kepler.

We had a good conversation in the car the other day, beginning with Emma, my 13-year-old daughter, fascinated with the thought of one day getting to visit there.

Logan, her 16-year-old brother, is a pragmatist. "Forget it, Emma, because nobody will ever make it. It's 600 light years from Earth. It'd take over a thousand years to get there and probably far longer."

Andrew, their dad, likes to be controversial and get them to keep their minds open. "We could find a way to get humans to Kepler if we wanted to. How about a voyage that takes several generations?"

I was beginning to like the sound of this. "You mean it's a family quest? The older generations die off and their babies, who are born on board the space craft, take over the mission they've inherited?" If I was a science fiction writer, I'd be getting excited. Think of all the stops and adventures this dynasty could have along the way.

Logan, who's rolling his eyes and smirking, says, "They'd need a pretty huge fuel tank to last over a thousand years." We need people like him to help us fine tune our plots.

If any aspiring George Lucas type of person reads this post, feel welcome to use my Kepler idea, as long as I get some of the royalties (just kidding). I challenged either Andrew or Logan to write the story but they are more interested in doing other things. Emma's creativity takes a far more 'hands-on' practical bent too. Then I looked at 7-year-old Blake just sitting between the others, quietly taking it all in. Perhaps he may be the science fiction writer. As a homeschooling mother and fiction writer, I've learned to recognise the rich potential of an impromptu, casual car conversation.

As we stand on the threshold of a brand new year, my challenge to everyone is to let your imaginations soar beyond your own sphere of influence and daily mundane duties. And remember that in a cosmos the size of ours, the weird and wonderful things we may scoff at are always possible.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

That annoying circumstances don't mean we aren't blessed. (My Christmas thoughts for you)

The Virgin Mary is one of my favourite people from history. Images of her serene and gentle face always draw me in and give me a sense of being more grounded and trusting. One of the best lessons she brings is that aggravating daily circumstances are not a sign that we're not blessed. When Mary told Gabriel, God's Messenger angel, "Let it be as you have said," I wonder if she knew all that would involve.

Imagine facing the sadness of having former admiring friends looking at you and whispering about the scandal you've been involved in, not to mention facing the real threat of being stoned for adultery by the leaders of her day. Months later, your circumstances involve a grueling trip for miles on the back of a donkey, which can't be much fun for a girl nine months pregnant. Then you're relegated to the straw of a stable to give birth and all you find is a manger in which to place your new-born son, who God has promised will be the Savior of all mankind. I can imagine myself grumbling, "You'd think after all I've been through, at least He could have arranged a comfy inn and trained midwife. Blessed above all women? I don't feel like it right now." Yet we know she was.

The principle operates in the lives of others. Although we know Ruth and Naomi were blessed when they decided to leave Moab to live in Israel, it didn't look like it for some time. Ruth still had to spend days gleaning grain behind the plows of workmen just so they wouldn't starve. And Joseph, one of the most hard-done-by people of all time, spent many of his prime years mouldering away in jail for a crime he didn't do. But was he blessed? Of course.

I think it's easy for us to operate with a twenty-first century sense of entitlement. It's fashionable in this day and age to want to claim our rights. This is the attitude that may make us grouchily assumed we aren't being blessed when we are, abundantly.

A few weeks ago, I met an old friend I'd lost touch with back in 1989. Her name is Judith and she'd been teaching me to play piano for awhile when I was a Uni student. I was sitting in my car reading, filling in time until picking up my daughter from an art lesson. Judith accidentally let her door hit my car and when she glanced over to say sorry, she stared at me and motioned for me to open up.

"Are you Paula? You haven't changed a bit since I knew you before (which was nice of her to say, seeing I was 19 back then)." She went on to tell me that she'd seen the story in the local paper about how I'd won the CALEB prize for faith-inspired fiction. She went on to say how it had brought back memories of old times and how fantastic she thought it was to see somebody with a dream manage to achieve it. When I told her that I'm married to a saxophone player in his second year at Uni and we're homeschoolers, she went on to say what a creative and admirable couple we are, that many people cop-out and miss the best in life, and our children have such a great example to follow.

Now, the thing is, I'd been sitting there feeling a bit glum because Christmas was coming, we were always broke, a few days earlier Emma had said, "I wish my parents had proper jobs" and I felt like a middle-aged, tired old failure and frump. By the time I'd said goodbye to Judith and given her a copy of "Best Forgotten" for old time's sake, my attitude had spun around and I started smiling and realising that perhaps we are blessed abundantly after all. I can't help wondering if such a chance encounter is far more than mere coincidence.

I think I've hit upon some of the cause of modern misery. God doesn't change! We know that much. What has changed, over centuries, might be our expectations and sense of entitlement. The natural fluctuations of life, which swell and subside like a wave, are the same as they have been since the world was put in place.

I wish all who read this blog a blessed Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

That it all depends on motivation

During my Bible study, I'd found an episode in the history of King David somewhat confusing. He'd given instructions for a census to be taken (I Chronicles 21, 2 Samuel 24). This didn't go over very well at all with God. Even Joab, the army commander, who was certainly never known for his gentle, reflective spirit, tried to warn David not to do it. "Why should the king bring guilt on Israel?" David insisted that his instructions be carried out and he got himself and his people in deep trouble.

My initial response was ????? What on earth is wrong with taking a census? After all, we had one to fill out ourselves in Australia earlier this year. We do them all the time.

I thought of this incident again when I was reading an event from Nehemiah's life. Nehemiah was the Hebrew governor who'd been given permission to lead contingents back to their land from exile and rebuild the wall. "God put it into my heart to gather the nobles, the officials and the people in general to be registered." (Nehemiah 7:5)

OK, so why was King David rebuked and chastised for doing the same thing Governor Nehemiah was later instructed to do? I had to conclude that record taking and censuses themselves are not wrong. It must come down to the heart's motivation.

Although the Bible does not state this in words, we get the impression that David must have wanted to do this for his own security and ability to gloat. Knowing the details he sought would allow him to lord it over others, at least in his thoughts, to derive security and satisfaction from his underlings and the strength of earthly things. This seems a step out of character for this illustrious king with a heart for God, but God must have decided that David was veering out into a dangerous "King Saul" way of thinking, or even the way of his own older brothers. Perhaps He had to nip this attitude in the bud before it had a chance to take root and spring up. Nehemiah, on the other hand, must have had a thoroughly different motivation in his desire to take the census, purely for information and wise decision making.

The more I think over this and glean through other Biblical incidents, the more the heart attitude is shown to explain a lot. It shows why Abel's offering was found acceptable by God and Cain's was rejected. It had nothing to do with what each brother physically laid down, but with their hearts. Later, Eli the chief priest's sons made a mockery of the whole system of temple sacrifices, instantly forking out the best meat for themselves. Even though this meat was intended to become food for the priestly family all along, these greedy guys were approaching it all wrong.

As it was important then, how vital it still must be to keep our hearts right. Do I do innocuous looking things for the wrong reasons? For example, with David's and Nehemiah's censuses in mind, why do I sometimes take it into my head to look up Koorong book store's website to see where my own titles fit into their weekly sales ranks? Why do I need to know this information at all? Is it so that I can pat myself on the back and gloat? (If this is the reason, it has often backfired on me when I see that sales have crawled at particular times. Serves me right.)

I believe that our feelings are good gauges that our hearts might have veered off the right track. The presence of annoyance, resentment, self-pity and irritation, all those nasty 'counter-fruits' that make us feel bad and miserable are there to indicate that we've blundered into the wrong land. "Hey, these aren't native plants and fruits in the kingdom I want to get to. There's only love, joy, peace, patience etc. where I need to be.

So with all this in mind, let's keep guarding our motives and be prepared to do some serious weeding when the wrong seeds come up.

Monday, December 5, 2011

That I don't want to be a 'shudder-spoon'

This post was inspired by my dishwasher. I like that moment when the cycle has finished and I open the door to release a hot gush of steam and see all the shiny, sparkling dishes. But sometimes I have a shock when I'm unloading them.

Imagine that you're pulling all the cutlery out of its holder to put away in the drawer, and suddenly your thumb goes squelch into the middle of some sticky substance that could be old porridge, rice, stew, mashed potato or some other mystery. Whatever it is has turned a sort of greenish-grey in the bowl of the spoon and you can't help a ripple of horror up and down your spine because you're so grossed out. This is what I call a 'shudder-spoon.' I also get the occasional 'shudder-bowls' and 'shudder-cups'. On the outside, they look as sparkly as all the others and I fully expect them to be clean because they've just been through an intense washing cycle.

Jesus told some religion scholars and Pharisees, "You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisees! Scour the insides and then the gleaming surface will mean something." (Matthew 23: 25-26) Oh yeah, he's talking about 'shudder-cups' and 'shudder-bowls' here.

I imagined a story about angels looking at a group of human beings and saying, "These people have it all together. They're clean, attractive and the things they say to others are really nice. Wow, we're impressed." But when they get close enough to examine them in more detail, they recoil with shock because they didn't notice all the muck these human containers were concealing; the pride, jealousy, nastiness, bitterness, resentment and greed. I don't want to be a human shudder-spoon with the potential to make angels shudder.

Jesus told those Pharisees to scour the insides of their vessels, and he never tells us do anything we're incapable of. So how do we prevent ourselves from being 'shudder-spoons'? I believe we stay focused on him, and trust that he has put us through the most stringent washing-cycle through his death on the Cross. I used to be puzzled whenever I heard or read that 'the blood of Jesus washes us whiter than snow' before I understood that it's simply what he did for us and we just need to believe it.

Also, we can pounce on the thoughts that we know have the potential to make us dirty on the inside and scrub them straight away, before they have a chance to become baked-on attitudes. Just because something comes into our heads doesn't mean we have to own it. Although it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand this, I'm amazed how often I still have to remind myself.

So stay clean, watch out for nasties and don't take it for granted that anything that looks spotless on the outside is necessarily clean all through.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

That we are bloated with two "S" words

I've been trying to avoid the humble soy bean as I've recently read about its subtle, detrimental effects on health if you consume too much. I thought, That'll be easy because I don't feed the family much soy. Sure, I drink soy milk sometimes, as a change from dairy, but I can easily change to rice milk. I wish everything would be such a cinch.

Wow, was I wrong! Although I'd already been in the habit of scanning ingredients on supermarket shelves as my oldest son has a peanut allergy, I was still amazed by the staggering truth. There are not many commercially prepared foods, from sweets to sauces to savouries, which don't contain soy. Most often I see, "soy lecithin" listed as an emulsifier. Sure, it's often low on the list, but when you think of the packaged and convenience foods families use over time, that's a lot of soy. We put soy-containing treats in our children's lunch boxes, we pour jars of prepared sauces over casseroles, we dish desserts such as ice-cream and packaged custard up for dessert.

My kids would be first to declare, "We hate soy and wouldn't touch it if you paid us." But they're thinking only of heavy doses like soy milk, soy ice-cream and tofu. Little do they know that they're consuming it without knowing on a steady basis.

I couldn't help thinking how similar it is to another three-letter-long word beginning with S. I know the concept of sin has been a stumbling block for many lovely people when they consider the Christian message. They reject what they consider to be the 'guilt-trip' hoisted upon them from the very outset.

"Hey, we aren't sinners! We have enough negativity to cope with without Christians wanting to drag us down and make us feel bad about ourselves. Give us a nice, kind philosophy which builds us up and highlights our magnificence. Sinners are the types of people we see on the News; the murderers, the tax frauds, the paedophiles. We feel affronted by the very notion that you're comparing us to them. We are decent people who are doing the best we can. We are NOT sinners!"

Yet none of us have to search hard to discover hidden ingredients in our make-up. If we could have all our thoughts and attitudes broadcast for the world to see, I'd be first to cringe and plead, "Turn it off!" I wouldn't want it all to be shown; the mean, snide little thoughts, the petty jealousy, the lies of convenience, the simmering resentment and secret pride. We may call these things 'small' and 'normal' but day after day, week after week, it adds up to a steady diet of something we don't realise we're consuming, just like soy lecithin.

God is not paying us out by calling us sinners.* It is just a fact. I often feel very sad thinking that my Christianity may come across to others as an outdated, mind-control sort of doctrine used by people who want to lord it over me with guilt-trips. Sometimes the way people represent Christianity makes it seem this way, but I'm convinced that anybody who cares to delve deeply into it with an open mind will find it's just the opposite; affirming and liberating beyond anything else they've known. I believe nothing honours the human spirit more than Christianity, which claims that we are created in God's own image and therefore worthy of the most enormous respect and awe. It's just the potentially harmful traces of 'soy', sorry 'sin' in us that are bad for our overall health. But something great has been done about that.

If thoughts are like food we consume, as I believe they are, we have somebody who can help us purify what we take in and get rid of unnecessary extras. And we only have to look to him with trust and believe that he has done it. I see Jesus as the most reliable healer and dietician. OK, I may have stretched this analogy really far, but I still think it's quite an apt one.

*John 3: 17, God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

To be my Friend, not my Critic

I'm around myself for 24/7 and others, including my kids, are only around for a part of that time. In other words, they can get away from me on occasions but I can't escape from myself. For this reason, I made a conscious decision that I might as well be a friend to myself rather than a judge or a critic.

You see, too often in the past I've been the sort of 'friend' nobody would want to hang around. I've kept doing the critic routine on myself. Constructive, loving feedback is one thing, but critics are the sort of people who make snide remarks and keep telling us how we've fallen short. We don't enjoy their company because this goes on non-stop. "You didn't handle that very well, did you?... You stuck your foot in it... You have to work harder... You fell short again." They simply make us feel miserable and judged. We are always relieved to get away from that type of person but the problem is, we can't get away from ourselves.

When we think about it, we admit we probably want to be friends with ourselves. We believe the criticism is something we do for our own best interest, to help us improve. So often, people who find themselves frequently miserable and depressed contact psychologists and life coaches, pouring out lots of time and money looking for help outside themselves. All that may be necessary is to simply ask, "Am I my friend or my critic?" I've noticed so often that seemingly difficult and long-standing problems may be best solved by deceptively simple changes in thinking.

A few months ago, I started speaking to myself gently and kindly. "You got through a day selling books plus a rental inspection all in one week, and took Emma to her Art lesson. That's pretty good going." Recently, I made a faux pas and possibly upset somebody by making the wrong assumption; something I would have normally beat myself up over. I remembered that I'm now doing kind self-talk. "It really wasn't your fault because nobody told you any different and you were acting the best way you thought you should." Amazingly, it did make me feel much better and allowed me to quickly put the incident behind me instead of dwelling on it. Wow, kind self-talk promotes closure.

It works when you receive negative feedback from others too. Instead of getting all upset and giving them power over me, I prefer to tell myself, "Well, he/she obviously has a shallow idea of who you are." I love it when people make friendly gestures to me and assure me that I'm doing OK in their opinion. Well, my own word is as good and meaningful as anyone else's. When we practise kind self-talk and being our own friend, we can have days crammed with valuable positive feedback like this.

I find I've got to carefully keep it up though, or it's easy to fall back into old habits without realizing. Last Saturday, I showed up an event where many SA authors were showcasing our wares. I told myself that my seven books presented a really great display, but then later, I wanted to go over to speak to couple of 'high-profile' authors but as they were deep in conversation with others, I chickened out. I didn't want to take the risk of being snubbed or summarily dismissed.

Disgusted with my chicken-heartedness, I started thinking, "I'm never going to change. I'm just a wuss who isn't going anywhere. I'm supposed to be doing positive self-talk. Well, that's a laugh, isn't it?"

Hey, hang on, stop! I'm my friend, not my critic. Time for kind self-talk. "Being a bit nervous is OK. A bit of reticence is nothing to get critical about. Your seven books look very appealing and you know how confident you are that their pages contain some great stories. Do you realise what you're doing? You're getting critical for being critical of yourself, and you also have the sense of humour to see how funny that is."

I'd recommend reaching out to be your own friend to anybody. If you haven't tried it before, I think there is a lot of truth in a saying I once read, that the person who approval you've been trying to earn most is your own.

Friday, October 28, 2011

That there is more than one standard

Rental inspection is over for another four months. Oh boy, sometimes I wish we were still home owners but about eight years ago, when my husband decided to quit work and study, we found out we had a little baby #3 on the way and wanted to take the kids traveling, the rental option seemed like a good temporary one. Now it has stretched into something that feels permanent and definitely has its down side. Not only do we have to wait for problems to be fixed up in someone else's time schedule but it hurts my homeschooling sensibilities to be 'assessed' The lady who comes is the type who notices such trifling things as dust on skirting boards.

So all week I've been rushing about like a hyperactive Siberian mountain goat washing windows, clearing ceiling cobwebs and tidying the garden. This time she wrote that the condition of the place is 'fair' making me feel like a C-grade student. Then I remember that the "Home Beautiful" magazine judging criteria she uses for her rounds aren't necessarily reasonable considering all that goes on in this house. I look around our four walls and, hey, I think it's great. These are the bodies we have crammed beneath a reasonably small roof.

a) University Music Student for a hubby, who seems to have loose sheet music trailing after him like homing pigeons.
b) Avid 16-year-old gamer for an oldest son, whose corner gets stacked with dirty dishes, bedroom gets piled with clothes, and who skilfully blocks out the first 100 requests to tidy up.
c) Almost 13-year-old girl whose favourite pastimes are gourmet cooking and the visual arts, and who gets stuck into both with gusto and enthusiasm.
d) Active 7-year-old boy. I need say no more.
e) Oh, and then there's me. Well, I like to get a bit of writing done.

I think that given our blend of homeschooling personalities and well-used furniture which we can't afford to replace, expecting a "Home Beautiful" A-grade from us is a bit of a tall order. Instead of a wing of Buckingham Palace, our home looks more like the Weasley family's house, "The Burrow", (pictured above) for anybody who has seen the "Harry Potter" movies. It's an interesting, colourful place where books get piled on shelves, saxophones and art canvases abound and current projects get spread across the table tennis table. It's the sort of place where you can kick back to see where your heart leads you. If our home was to be judged on cosiness and creativity we'd surely receive an A, but that's not the way the real estate offices do it.

I must remind myself not to buy into other people's grading systems. Having her come through is a bit like like being assessed for a subject I never signed up to study. I keep it clean. There's always a basic order that we all understand. When the day arrives that we leave, they'll find it ship-shape. We're happy. And as a sentence on Face Book reminded me, women whose homes are always impressive and immaculate don't find time to write books.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

That too many plates were smashing!

Because I do all my work from home, I felt that I should be able to handle anything. But just recently I noticed that there were lots of plates I was keeping spinning; parenting, household maintainence, education, writing, promoting, church based activities, commitments which touch base with others in the outside community. Wow, if they were all paid, I ought to be a millionaire.
I was getting cranky and emotional.

I guess we've all seen images of those plate spinning shows. A number of large dinner plates are placed on long sticks and each given a forceful spin to help them keep their balance. Just as one gets spinning nicely, some of the others begin to wobble as they lose momentum. The fellow in charge rarely gets a chance to sit back and admire them all because he has to be so attentive and alert. This is fine for a brief show, but when we try to live our lives with this same principle, exhaustion and frayed nerves soon set in.

I think there are two accurate signs that we're trying to keep too many plates spinning.

1) The supposedly enjoyable ones get relegated to 'just another plate to spin.' Parties and social events become chores to politely attend and get out of the way instead of relaxing outlets. A womens' author I read mentioned the sort of ladies who want to groan when they roll into bed and their husbands expect a bit of intimacy. I can quite understand that. Oh, I forgot about that plate. I hope he'll be happy if I give it just a quick spin tonight. I need to catch a few hours of sleep so I can jump straight up and check what other plates are slipping.

2) As we think we're coping very well, unbeknown to us, our stress hormones are rising and our adrenal glands are beginning to resemble burnt out matches, but we can't see so we don't know. We only notice that our physical monsters are rearing their ugly heads; those chronic conditions we're prone to when things get a bit too overwhelming. For some it's migraines, for others acid stomachs, we all know what they are for us. Mine is a horrible thing called "IC" which flares up especially when I'm under pressure and has aptly been likened to a headache in the pelvis. Burning and pressure in the bladder happens which I can't easily get rid of because it isn't a urinary infection. It's part of my system's response to my being run down.

Last week, I saw a young couple dressed like gypsies moseying slowly down the street with their baby, looking as if they were having a wonderful time. It reminded me of the lovely, laid-back time I had with my family in 2004 when we took our caravan way up to Queensland and back down the coast. Even though Blake, our youngest, was just a few weeks old when we started, it was one of the most relaxing times.

I've been making the decision to prioritise health and stop some of the plates spinning. I've stepped down from some activities, which although great, were things I realised were other peoples' priorities and not mine. If you haven't noticed yet, I tell you there'll always be people giving us more and more plates to spin if they think we can manage it. We don't have to take them all. I've pared mine back to just a few (the homeschooling, writing and family ones). I'd encourage you to do the same if you feel you need to.

When there are only the essential few, you don't need to spend all your energy just to keep them spinning. You get the chance to spend more time polishing them and even adding pretty designs to them, which is far more satisfying than simply keeping them spinning.

Monday, October 10, 2011

That I experienced some genuine "self" help

Fiction is the genre I enjoy writing most, but when I visit libraries and bookshops I also love to browse the self help and personal development sections. I'm always open to the idea of improving something and if any of these books contain ideas I've been overlooking all my life, so much the better. They often boost my mood when I read them; particularly those with lively anecdotes and stories. Perhaps anybody who has been borrowing and purchasing self help books for as long as I have ought to have their act far more together than I do. That's an interesting thought.

Once I found a website which listed what the compilers called history's Top 100 self help books. I realised that I'd already read a huge chunk of them, which left me puzzled. Surely, in that case, I ought to have what it takes then, whatever "it" is. My husband said, "Maybe you have too many self help books. I think people ought to choose just one and then stick to it."

Well, recently I found Og Mandino's The Greatest Miracle in the World in a second hand shop for 10c, which proved to be a great bargain. It's a personal development book disguised as a fictional story. The mentor character, Simon Potter, tells Mandino that he'd spent several years dissecting all the great self help books which had ever been written, trying to extract their essence. He listed Norman Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie, James Allen, Napoleon Hill and many others I've read over the years. Finally, he was able to compress their messages down to 5 main points, a bit like reducing a scientific substance to its chief elements. Rather than suggesting you all go out to buy the book, I'll tell you what they are.

1) Count your blessings.
2) Recognise and appreciate your uniqueness.
3) Go the extra mile.
4) Use your power of choice wisely.
5) Do all of the above with an attitude of love.

It made a lot of sense to me, especially as God IS love. I'm sure that anybody who follows each of these straightforward suggestions consistently cannot help improving their mindset and condition.

Now, here is the unexpected thing that helped me. I'd just done something silly which I was paying myself out over, and I wanted to forget about. I don't know why, but I randomly decided to read a few pages of A Design of Gold, one of my own novels I've written. It was published in 2009 and since then, I've worked on two others and forgotten some of its finer details. Well, I found myself drawn into the story of how my characters Michael and Jerome had fallen down a pit (an apt analogy but pardon the pun). Their feelings and points of view really struck home with me. I even felt like cheering them on as they realised that they needed to change their thinking patterns to improve their lives. It was great for me to re-visit these two young guys with a fresh perspective.

I decided that the advice they gave each down the mineshaft was good and to take it on board myself. It was all about how a simple shift in the way individuals think about themselves can make an enormous difference to their personal satisfaction levels, even when nothing else changes. Can characters actually be wiser than the author who wrote them? Well, I have to say yes, I think so. At least we all may forget some of the wisdom we once knew. I was smiling for the rest of the day, to think that a story I wrote back in 2008 was now coming back to bless me. It felt a bit surreal in a very pleasant way. I never would have thought of myself as a self help agent, but hey, why not? Maybe I didn't need to spend all the money on self help resources.

Then I couldn't help thinking of the story of Balaam in the Old Testament. If God can choose to speak through a donkey, I guess He can speak through me.

I am down to my last 20 copies of the novel concerned, A Design of Gold. I've been selling them for $20 but I'm willing to sell them for $15 now to clear them. I'm not mentioning the $5 discount on my website because I'd like to do something nice for readers of this blog. If you haven't read this book before and would like to take advantage of my offer, please send me a message either through email (from my website) or my Face Book page, mentioning that you read my offer on my blog, and I'll be sure to get one to you promptly. That wasn't my intention when I first started writing this, but just occurred to me as I got near the end. See, I'm an impromptu sort of person at times.

Friday, September 30, 2011

To take my hands off the steering wheel!

Life has been fairly face-paced with lots of unusual activity happening recently. And I've been battling the recurrence of a physical problem they tell me is a chronic, long-term thing which will always recur when I'm under pressure with depleted adrenal glands. I'm going to choose not to believe that. With God's help, I'll completely recover. I'm a lot better now than I have been for a few weeks, but during those weeks of suffering, I stumbled across a source which supposedly has spiritual, underlying meanings for different physical conditions. Mine was said to be partly due to fear of letting go.

My first thought was that this couldn't possibly be right in my case. But when I asked my husband, he said, "You're one of the biggest control freaks I know!"

No way! He has to be wrong. Control freaks are the people we all recognise on sit-coms, who like to organize other people's lives and boss them around; or super perfectionists. Anyone who knows me or has visited my home will surely know that I have more of a gentle, haphazard approach. What's this control freak thing?

I couldn't dismiss it without more thought. One night last week, I found myself rolling into bed with the usual array of thoughts chasing each other through my mind. Will Logan receive the student card I posted him in time to have ID to get him home from Cairns? (That's another story. All worked out well). How will my book fare in the CALEB prize it's been shortlisted for? (I'm happy to say it's now a finalist). It's only Monday, we're out of money and there won't be any more until Friday (not the first time that's happened, and we always manage). How will I go with the workshops I'll be presenting at the coming Writer's Fairs?

Hey, hold on! I caught myself. Indeed there is more than one type of control freak. I'm the sort who has always worried everything like a dog gnawing a bone. I've done it so often that it's become normal, without any consciousness involved. Way back when I was a little girl, my dad always went for a few drinks with friends after work on Friday nights. It was his regular tradition, but I used to lie awake in bed waiting for him to come home, desperately certain that he shouldn't be so late, while images of car wrecks and squealing ambulance sirens filled my imagination. Whenever I heard the sound of our car arriving in the carport, relief would flood my veins and I'd decide I could go to sleep at last.

One another occasion, a sweet little white kitten of mine was run over by a car and killed while I was away on a school camp. From then on, I found it hard to trust my family to care for any other pet and hovered anxiously over them. I think my subconscious must have latched onto the idea that all my anxiety was partly responsible for keeping my dad and my pets safe from harm. It did seem to be a cause and effect relationship. I'd worry, they'd come through fine, therefore worry was working. I think that, without knowing, I carried this warped way of thinking right into adulthood.

In fact, a few years ago, I experienced a nightmare in which I was speeding around the curves of the Adelaide Hills' South Eastern Freeway in the dark while my three children sat in the back. I had no visibility and the brakes had stopped working. All I could do was try to remember where all the sudden curves and sheer cliffs were. To my credit, I woke up with my heart pumping hard, feeling more concerned for the kids than I was for myself in the dream. It doesn't take a genius to figure out my state of mind.

But I was a Christian. For years I sincerely believed I'd committed everything to God in prayer. But had I really? I'd gone through the motions, but perhaps I'd been more like the little girl who prayed for her seedlings to grow, then kept uprooting them to check. To use another analogy, I asked God to drive and then wouldn't move over and release my grip from the steering wheel. Now it began to make more sense that I should succomb to a condition related to not letting go.

How good it was to realise that and make a solid decision not to. I rolled over, really did trust God to work it all out OK, and enjoyed a peaceful night's sleep. And of course everything is turning out exactly as it should. I could honestly feel stress seeping out of my cells, and the more I consciously remind myself to take my hands off the steering wheel, the more I expect the peace and well-being to continue.

All future symptoms of my condition will surely leave when the underlying angst which set them up has been dismantled. They'll have no choice.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

To Stop Watering those Horrible Plants

When I was a little girl, my naughty teenage brother was given a tiny marijuana seedling by someone he knew. He brought it home and planted it in our garden. Later, when it came time for our dad to do his evening watering, he asked, "What's that new plant and how did it get there?" Dad was proud of his garden and never missed anything.

My brother told him, "It's oriental mint. I thought I'd like to try some ethnic cooking."

"Well, I nearly didn't see it. It won't last long if you forget about it and leave it dry. I'd better look after it for you." From then on, to my brother's amusement, Dad watered the little cannabis plant whenever he watered everything else. Its time in our garden was short-lived but I still remember the sight of my dad, standing there watering something he would've immediately uprooted if he'd known what it really was.

I keep accidentally nourishing plants which I think are OK but aren't. Many people do.

A little bit of jealousy and envy. Don't I have a right to feel bitter?
A smidgin of back-biting and complaining.
A flash of bad temper over an incident a saint would be annoyed at!
A bit of resentment. Hey, these people are so annoying, they deserve it!
A pinch of fear. That one has the potential to spread in a flash and take over the whole garden.

When I think more globally, it seems that society as a whole keeps watering harmful plants until we have a whole forest causing all sorts of problems. Many have been legalised and indulged in for year after year, so it doesn't occur to people that it's the plants that are causing the trouble. Mediums and spiritual gurus peddling all sorts of weird philosophies are treated like heroes and invited to be special guests on our morning breakfast shows, de-facto relationships take the place of committed marriages, one-night stands are treated as a bit of fun and babies are aborted as if they aren't human-beings just like the rest of us. Pre-nuptial agreements are made as loop holes for the brave and among those who do decide to try walking the 'traditional' path are same sex couples. Then we wonder why therapists' appointment books fill fast with the names of hurting people who are battling confusion, hopelessness, guilt and betrayal over what they've done, or what they feel others have done to them.

It upsets me to see that some of the people who take it upon themselves to urge others not to water these plants do it with sneers on their faces and holier-than-thou attitudes. They spread the name of Jesus around in a harsh, judgmental sort of way, without understanding how completely natural it is for people who have never been taught Biblical scriptures to assume that what they see the rest of the world do must be fine. Censorious, vinegar-faced types of Christians who criticize and spread disapproval wonder why their input is repeatedly rejected. Wake up you guys, you've read the Book, they haven't! It's like bagging me for not being able to speak fluent Russian. I just haven't been taught. In the same way, they don't understand that what the twenty-first century western world calls 'normal' is not what the Bible calls 'normal'.

I want to stop watering these plants, not because of some fear-based compulsion to follow external rules and avoid criticism but because I've seen the problems these growths cause when we cultivate them. I've tried jealousy, fear, competition and criticism. Not only have they not worked but they've soured my life. I want to tear out their roots whenever they appear because I know they are bad for my body, soul and spirit. I fully expect the good fruits I want to plant in their place to take off and attract people by the sweetness of their taste and the fragrance of their flowers.

That's what attracted me, after all.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Not to worry about whether I'm appreciated

I was explaining to my 7-year-old son that his dad and I receive the same amount of money, after a question he asked me about incomes. At the moment, it's true. As a full-time student, my husband's Austudy allowance is pretty much the same as my parenting allowance. Anything I receive from writing is a bonus. My little boy was taking that in when his 16-year-old brother remarked, "Well, at least Dad actually works for his," or something like that.

"Hey? What did you just say?"

I'm afraid it regenerated into an exchange of heated words. I found myself beginning to spiral down to a place I didn't want to find myself - the pity party. You may have been there. How can this person not perceive all that I do, not only for him but all day long? This came straight after I was vacuuming around his computer chair while he was sitting in it, etc, etc. I managed to catch myself in time before I really started to wallow in all the bad party food that makes me feel sick. It's a sign that keeping this blog is a good influence in my life, I hope.

Firstly, I remembered some wise advice from Dale Carnegie, in his book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. He'd just told the story of a boss who was burning with bitterness because he'd given each of his staff a Christmas bonus and nobody thanked him. Carnegie remarked, This man made the human and distressing mistake of expecting gratitude. He just didn't know human nature. The crux of his chapter was simply that. Human nature has remained pretty static for aeons and probably won't change in your lifetime, so just accept it and get on with your life.

I remembered other bad-mood-making incidents I've experienced. A common thread they've contained is me chafing over some perceived lack of appreciation or gratitude, and people not giving feedback for a job well done. How silly to get our feathers ruffled because of the way human nature is wired. It's as foolish as griping because the sky is blue and your favourite colour is red. Jesus healed 10 lepers one day, yet only one returned to thank him. Why should we expect anything different? Why should I take my poor son to task when I know in my heart that teenage boys simply aren't wired to notice such things. (After a bit of yelling, he actually said, "I didn't mean it like that," which, while not an apology, is the closest thing I could expect.)

Another silly thing I do is gauge my effectiveness by the amount of positive feedback I receive. When I hear praise, I happily feel that I'm on the right path. When none is forthcoming, I begin to question the wisdom of the way I'm spending my life. It's time to stop being a ridiculous human barometer with praise as the mercury. I'd rather be a steady, glowing thermostat who knows deep in my heart that my contribution to life is valuable, no matter what others are saying.

I think the nature of what I do has made this more of an issue for me than it might be for others. Authors hope for positive feedback from readers and reviewers, while people such as parking inspectors, office workers and train drivers may find it easier to go about their daily work without expecting gratitude. Sometimes I've longed for the simplicity of the job of a parking inspector, office worker or train driver, yet instead of making such a hard core change, I can simply stop my thirst and craving for the one thing human nature isn't naturally inclined to give. When I think about it, this is as silly as someone remaining dissatisfied because of their insatiable craving for dodo-bird schnitzels garnished with hen's teeth.

Over the last few days, I was very pleasantly surprised to receive two thank-you messages from people whose manuscripts I wrote reports for in a competition. I found out that reports were returned to 25 writers and I was genuinely stunned when 2 thought to thank me. This seems consistent with the ratio of Jesus and the 10 lepers, even though writing somebody a few pages of feedback is nothing like healing somebody of a fatal, regressive disease. It proves also that appreciation isn't quite as rare as hen's teeth. I'd like to be found among the number of those who do feel and express gratitude and appreciation. Especially now that I've experienced first hand, after hearing from these two people, how it brightens the day of the recipient.

Centuries ago, Dr Samuel Johnson said, "Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation. You do not find it among gross people." Let's be unlike the mass and be vigilant to sow gratitude seeds always.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

That we are like 'car window' art

This one is for all the creative types out there.

I used to wonder, "What will I do if I never get published?" Then when I got published, I'd wonder, "What'll I do if I can't sell many books?" (I still wonder that one.) That's where we automatically find ourselves. How do we get our work on good-seller lists, and then when and if we do, how do we keep it there? How do we keep interesting the general public enough to invest money into our work?

Why even bother when the shelf life of anything is so short? When I was in Sydney with my family in 2004, I bought an album from the Hillsong Church. I played it a few days ago while I was driving. It's full of songs that are no longer sung in church. They were popular at the time I bought the album but now they've been swept aside to make room for newer songs. Yet their melodies and lyrics are still as powerful and awesome as they were back then.

It can be easy to wonder why we bother expending energy and effort on anything when we know the new is always going to come along to brush the old aside? Why work so hard on something that won't last? What is true for a work of art is just as true for its human creator. Each generation quickly forgets the ones which came before. We visit places that glorify history, such as Ballarat's Sovereign Hill, but the lives of individuals who really lived, loved and toiled during Australia's pioneering era have been long forgotten. The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us, "There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow." We are relegated to names on a family tree or remembered by single accomplishments if we're lucky.

A few years ago, I typed out my dad's handwritten genealogy for him. My grandfather, who was born in 1892, served in both Great Wars and died before I was born, was one of South Australia's most celebrated boxers. Yet now, not many people have heard of him. Maybe those who are yet to be born in my family line will say, "Oh, she was the one who wrote books."

The bottom line is this: we are just as perishable as the things we create. This blog is a prime example of what I'm talking about. We spend precious time forming our thoughts and then expressing them in posts like this which we know very well will soon be buried deep in cyberspace like layers of silt and rock sediment underground.

But I saw a five-minute film on You Tube about a man named Scott Wade who created stunning works of art on the backs of dirty car windows. He was busy making a beautiful landscape, and he could see heavy black clouds in the sky as he worked. That didn't stop him. He just worked faster to finish. The end result was fantastic, and then the heavens opened. His work of art quickly turned to mud and was washed away but the artist still smiled and bowed. I couldn't forget what I'd seen. He was wiser than me. He understood the value of beauty for the moment. I didn't at the time.

Basically, it's just an illusion that any of our work is different from the work of this dirty window artist. Today is really all we have to work with. Just because our creations might not be around to enjoy tomorrow doesn't diminish their beauty today. Every day needs its own beauty. It's sad to assume something isn't meaningful just because it doesn't last for long, or that it won't be seen or heard by many people. Yet that's just what I'd been thinking and feeling.

So keep writing those stories, painting that oil painting, molding that sculpture, composing that song or whatever it is that you do. I believe God loves it whenever we use the talents He's planted within us. He's given us today to fill with our creativity, so let's keep busy brightening today without being gloomy that our work won't be around tomorrow. How boring, dry and stale today would be if everyone stopped working just because we'll soon be forgotten about.

Monday, August 22, 2011

To put the 'random' back into acts of kindness

A few years ago, several people recommended a series on TV called "Random Acts of Kindness" which they thought was great. When I watched an episode, something immediately stood out to me. On this program, a few main groups of people were recipients of hugely elaborate gestures.

1) People who had dealt with long recoveries from serious accidents or injuries.
2) People who had poured resources into their community in the form of service, help or time.
3) People who had committed really heroic deeds.
4) A combination of any or all of the above. (There were more combinations than I would have expected.)

I enjoyed watching the surprise on the recipients' faces and the tears flowing freely from everybody concerned, but I still thought the program's name was misleading. It could have been called DAOK (Deserved Acts of Kindness) To me, the choice of recipients wasn't totally random at all but carefully selected based on the above criteria.

What if it was totally random? What if recipients were selected from the White Pages or a stroll down the street? What if unexpected acts of generosity happened to people who are doing nothing more heroic than trying to pay their next rent or mortgage, put their kids happily through school, and squeeze their grocery shopping into already crammed trolleys and schedules? Our country is full of single mums who struggle to get their children ready for school each day before joining the rat-race. There are dads who are concerned about house repairs which need to be done with not enough month at the end of the money. Think of housewives who face their thousandth load of greasy pans and sauce-splattered plates by the sink while they're exhausted, and families who have to opt for paying off their power bills over taking a short holiday.

I heard about a photograph of an anonymous group of people. Everybody who saw it assumed the subjects were witnesses of some catastrophic event, or attending a funeral at the very least. It turns out they were sitting in a train carriage at 8am on a weekday morning on their way into work. Just a couple of the quiet, unsung heroes and heroines who repeat the same routine over and over, day after day, living their lives in quiet desperation.

Imagine what sort of a world it would be if people intentionally did true random acts of kindness for others each week. I used to think I had no money to manage anything good enough. I've come to see that this makes no difference at all. Most of us are so parched for acts or words of kindness or friendliness that the smallest gesture will be soaked up like a sponge.

When I attended the Writers Fair in Perth last April, I was given a free book by another author named Elaine Fraser. Being on a really tight budget, I was looking at the lovely cover of her book, "Too Beautiful" and thinking I'd have to do without. She said, "Just take one with my blessings." Wow! In my 41 years of life, that hasn't happened to me enough to count on my fingers. I can tell you, that was the first book I wanted to read on the plane back to Adelaide. And whenever I see its spine in my shelf, I remember her kindness.

I love it when acts of kindness are truly random as well as deserved.* I like to think how Jesus set a precedent for them. Many of his recipients were not super-deserving but just normal people going about their usual work. "Hey Zaccheus, come down from that tree! I'm having lunch with you... Hey Levi, would you consider leaving that tax booth and coming with me?... Excuse me ma'am, would you mind dipping that bucket down the well to get me a drink? Yes, I know I'm in Samaria but if you knew who I was, you'd ask me and I'd give you living water."

That's grace. That's his way of showing us that random and deserving should, in fact, blend into one, because we all deserve random acts of kindness.

* For anybody interested in RAOK, my novel "A Design of Gold" explores the subject in more depth. Several characters are determined to figure out exactly how, when, why and where they should be carried out and the specific science behind them. Their conclusions may come as a big surprise. Copies available from Koorong, Word, other selected Christian bookstores, or contact me for a signed copy.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

to push past the barrier of my brain and pray

When I was in my teens, the concept of prayer left me bemused. Even long-standing, mature Christians may understand where I was coming from. At times, we may feel tempted to bypass prayer because it seems to violate our gift of common sense. The caption under the guy at the top of this page expressed it for me. How can talking to an invisible person about things He already knows improve our condition one iota? It would seem that our time may be better employed by getting out there and doing things, or seeking the counsel of flesh-and-blood people whose facial expressions we can see, and whose advice we can actually hear with our physical ears.

Then I was drawn to the story of Naaman, the Syrian army commander who contracted leprosy. He was also advised to do something that made no earthly sense to him. He'd traveled such a long way to consult Elisha, the prophet from Israel he'd heard good things about. He did it out of desperation but hadn't expected Elisha's advice to be so ridiculous. In the first place, Elisha wouldn't even do him the courtesy of coming out to speak to him. He merely sent a message. "Tell him to go and dip himself in the water of the Jordan River seven times."

What a major let-down! The poor guy had common sense. He'd already washed himself several times in clean water at home, to no avail. The dirty water of the Jordan would only swell the sores with more infection and make him worse. I would have said, "So much for that quack! A prophet indeed!" Only one little Hebrew maid helped Naaman put his position in perspective when she said, "Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something costly and complicated, you would have done it, wouldn't you? And this is so easy, what do you have to lose?"

Thank God Naaman was open-hearted enough to listen, because we all know what happened when he did.

That got me wondering if I was like Naaman? The Bible tells us that God loves to use the 'foolish' things of this world to confound the wise. The simple thing He asks of us is to humble ourselves and pray. If He'd asked me to carry out some complex chanting, cleansing or posturing formula ritualistically each day, I tend to think I might have taken Him far more seriously.

Yes, I was dealing with the same God who asked Naaman to dip himself seven times in the Jordan. He asked Joshua to have his army march silently seven times around the walls of Jericho before blowing their horns. He asked Moses to speak to the rock, demanding water. He asked Ezekiel to to lie on his side for months, eating food cooked over cow dung (and originally it was meant to have been human dung, but Ezekiel was too 'straight' for that). As the ultimate craziness, He allowed His Son to die on the Cross in the place of sinners, so anyone who believes in Him would have their sins blotted out. That has been a crazy-sounding stumbling block to many.

What eccentric, unorthodox action is He asking of me? Simply to talk to Him and believe that He's listening and willing to act on my behalf. He asks me to expect that He'll honour my obedience with answers. He asks me to forget any illusions that I'm merely hot-airbagging to the four walls of my room. When I think about it, this is totally consistent with His other 'crazy' behavior and makes perfect sense.

Since taking this attitude on board, I've experienced and heard about many, many answers to prayer and ways in which it has made a vital difference to situations. How about you?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

To Do the Right Thing just because it's the Right Thing

Have you ever been stuck in your usual routine when something unexpected jolts you out of your complacency and changes your life?

During my daily Bible delve, I've been reading over King Josiah's story. He was great grandson of the admirable King Hezekiah but came in line after a very slack and wicked father and grandfather had held the reins for too long. He inherited Judah's throne aged 8, and probably thought the first part of his reign was about keeping the status quo. Yet one day, when this young man was 26, something unexpected happened that proved to be a pivotal moment in his life. The Book of God's Revelation, buried and ignored in the temple for years, was re-discovered.

Horrified and aghast to hear the words Moses wrote so long ago, it struck our young hero forcefully that for years, he and his people were doing all the things they shouldn't have been and none of the things they should have been. He and his closest supporters consulted a prophetess named Huldah, who revealed with great conviction that God did indeed intend to allow judgment to catch up with the people of Judah. It would be a sowing and reaping scenario. She said that Josiah himself would be spared to a peaceful grave, as God intended to honour his earnest change of heart, but as for the mass in general, they were not going to change in a hurry.

Now, knowing this to be true, Josiah went out and began his massive-scale, hard-core reforms anyway. He read out the Law to all the people, got rid of the twisted and perverted sacrificial and prostitution sites and smashed up the obscene relics and images he found everywhere. What impresses me most about him is that he did all this knowing full well that it would be of no long-term use. As Huldah had an excellent track record as a prophetess, he had no reason to doubt her word. The people would turn to their depraved ways again and the land would be taken under captivity. In retrospect, we know this is exactly what did happen. So did he waste his time?

Would I have done the same in King Josiah's place? Although I'd like to think I would, I'm not sure. Knowing the dismal outcome, I think it would have been too easy for me to say, "What would be the use? As well as wasting valuable energy that could be better invested elsewhere, I'll be making myself extremely unpopular. I'll worship God myself, but as for everyone else, what they do in their own time is their business." Thank God Josiah didn't take this wishy-washy approach, and that is what makes him my hero and example.

I've been writing Christian novels set in South Australia. I've been at it for over ten years with no sign that Australian Christian fiction is ever going to 'take-off.' In fact, the only signs that exist indicate just the opposite. It's so much cheaper for our main retail outlets to purchase remaindered books from foreign shores. We can't compete financially, so why bother trying? I'd like to think that if we pray, God will do something amazing, but we just don't have that reassurance. Does it bother me that I might be investing years of financial and emotional energy for no real, tangible success? Yeah, you bet it does! I've got to be honest.

Then I remember King Josiah, who did the right thing just because he knew it was the right thing and there was no way he could sit back and not do it. The one thing I'm certain of is that writing the novels is the right thing for me to do. I sense that deep in my heart. There have been other signs along the way to encourage me. Josiah had a sign too. During his major clean-up, he came across the tomb of an old prophet from years ago who'd actually predicted his reforms and even mentioned him by name (1Kings 13:2). Wow, that must have given Josiah a huge boost in his spirits.

Do you have anything worthwhile but difficult you're trying to achieve? Does it feel more as if you're bashing your head against a brick wall, but you can't stop because it just wouldn't be right to quit? It might involve work, family members or a community project. I'd encourage you to make my hero, Josiah, your hero too, and keep plugging on.

As for him, you've got to love the way his reign and life are summed up.
"There was no king to compare with Josiah - neither before nor after - a king who turned in total repentant obedience to God, heart mind and strength, following the instructions revealed to and written by Moses. The world would never again see a king like Josiah." Wow, that's enough to raise goosebumps. A pretty complimentary epitaph to be found anywhere, let alone in Scripture. So let's keep doing what needs to be done in our own lives.

* You can find Josiah's story in 2Kings 22 - 23 and 2Chronicles 34 - 35.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Why we may feel gloomy when others are praised (no, not jealousy)

OK, when I had the idea for this blog I decided that transparent honesty may be the most effective way to inspire and encourage others who read the reflections. This comes at the risk of looking mean, small or bad at times, but that's the way it goes. It makes me feel really sad to think of other people going through what I went through, and making themselves feel even worse by keeping quiet about it. The photo up above, for example, makes my heart ache. That's why I risk speaking out with a way of looking at jealousy that others may find helpful.

Has this scenario happened to anybody before? You hear a friend receiving lavish praise for an achievement or job well done. You add your own, "Fantastic!" or, "Well done!" and while part of you means it, you're aware of something nasty-feeling eating you away inside. You keep your mouth shut because it's something you'd never want to admit to anyone. You shy away from analysing it. You guess it must be one of those twisted partnerships of bitterness and jealousy, so you just want to thrust it from you. (I think jealousy is one of those taboo emotions we never want anyone to associate with us, so we try to press the lid down on it as tight as we can.)

One day I thought, Running from this thing and pretending it doesn't exist isn't making it go away. Maybe I need to face the monster, give it the attention it wants, to help put it to rest.

So when I did look at it more closely, it surprised me to see that its features weren't quite as disgustingly horrible as I'd expected. Oh, jealousy was there alright, but there was something bigger and arguably more pitiable at the roots; a brittle and fragile self-image. I realised that I'd grown up with the impression that life was an endless quest to prove my worth. The equation I grew up believing was baby of family + school nerd + shy kid = wimp who really needs to work even harder to prove herself worthy of praise. I had to hear the words, "Well done, you've done a great job," to allow myself to bask in the luxurious feeling of achievement. Hearing those words spoken to others while I was standing there seemed as if the speaker was silently reproaching me for falling short.

There was what I'd call a 'double subconscious assumption' going on. I subconsciously felt that they were subconsciously judging me and finding me lacking in some way. Is this crazy? You bet! Miserable, complex creature I was. So to me, the words, "Wow, (Billy or Jane) writes fantastically.... speaks inspiringly ... has great kids ... knows how to look after people....etc" meant that they were actually saying, "and you don't!"

When I finally saw this beast for what it was, it was far easier to exorcise it. I think you have to know what you're dealing with before you can tell yourself, You're doing that thing again! It doesn't mean that and this isn't even about you at all. Something that happened at church years ago was eye-opening too. A pastor was preaching a message about people who dare to step out and make a difference, mentioning several congregation members as examples, while I sat there with a churning stomach feeling like scum. Over morning tea, I mentioned to him that I found his message convicting, and he casually replied, "Oh, well you're already doing it, with your books and your children." It stunned me to think that people might not actually be thinking critical thoughts about me.

Sometimes old-timers' advice, although we may think it corny and cliched, is actually sound because it's stood the test of time. "Face your demons" may be a good example. It also showed me that I was misdirecting my focus. My Bible tells me we're aiming to hear the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant," when we've finally finished our sojourn on this earth - so the desire to please and impress is built into our human blueprint - but getting sidetracked into hearing the words from anybody all the time makes us sad and sour people. "I'm working for an audience of One" may be another of those wise old terms that help when we really take it on board. And remember, a bit of compassion and love with no strings attached from yourself may be just what you need.

You're a wonderfully unique creation of God, full of potential and worthy of kindness and respect, regardless of what messages you seem to be receiving from others. On the flip side of the coin, others are too, so you can feel free to give them admiration and praise without needing to feel that your own position is threatened.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

That there may be too many choices out there!!

We live in an era that offers a tantalizing smorgasbord of choices. My oldest son will commence Year 12 studies next year. We've been thumbing through job guide magazines, bamboozled by the sheer number of possible career paths a young person may take. In 2000 when he was in Reception, somebody remarked, "Some of the jobs these kids will finish up with haven't even been invented yet." I'm sure that's true.

Today's young people are being brought up to perceive the world as their oyster. We're peppered with messages to "MAKE YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE" from many sources, and we're quietly terrified that our dream job may be out there but we'll miss it due to ignorance. That was true for me in the '80s and even more so for Logan in the tweenies (which is what I call this decade). We want fulfilling work choices to give us the trappings of worldly success; great houses, impressive cars and the chance to travel abroad and indulge in upmarket recreational activities. The umbrella over all this is the overwhelming or obligatory desire to 'make a difference.'

Poor Logan is overwhelmed because he's 16 and doesn't really know what he wants to do. He's thinking that perhaps he'll start focusing toward a career in web design, just because he has to pick something, but the burning question that eats us all is, Will that be right for him?

I think back to nostalgic stories of the past when people never worried about finding fulfilling careers. Guys grew up knowing they would work on their fathers' farms and girls' hands would soon fill with keeping homes, vegetable gardens and children flourishing. They worked hard. They ate what they produced. They raised their families, attended church, trusted God and were thankful. The question, Is this the right thing for me to be doing with my life? didn't enter their minds because they had far fewer choices.

With Logan, I'm re-visiting the angst I went through in the late '80s and early '90s. Our minds are racing because we can't stand the thought of cutting off any options. If we choose "A" we feel the sting of not having "B", "C" or "D". As a result, every choice feels worse than no choice. And when we do settle on a plan, we end up with buyer's remorse, wondering if we're settling for second best. Therefore our freedom to pursue any path ends up feeling more like bondage than liberty*. I believe it's no coincidence that psychiatrists and counsellors are experiencing a boom that was never necessary in the olden days when simply getting through each day and keeping your family alive was a feat worthy of satisfaction.

I don't think there are any pat solutions to that depression brought on by the abundance of choices because it is now embedded so deeply in our culture and mindsets. I do think we can actively promote a more peaceful attitude if we remind ourselves each day to consciously choose gratitude for those most precious things we take for granted; the same things our ancestors couldn't help feeling grateful for because they had to work so much harder just to retain them. I'm talking, of course, about blessings such as food to eat, clothes to wear, cosy shelter, family and friends to love and encourage. I even have hot, running water straight to my taps and a computer to use (although you'll probably hear me complain that Adelaide tap water is too full of chlorine and my computer is too slow, because that's the way we of the 21st century are conditioned to think.)

Seriously, if we remind ourselves to be thankful for the basic privilege of life, we may be more content to follow our hearts, doing the jobs before us each day without worrying about whether we'd be more fulfilled doing something else.

Here's a link to a little video which highlights what I'm talking about.

* Some of the ideas in the paragraph are from "Just do Something" by Kevin DeYoung.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

That we shouldn't be anxious to finish a project

Each time I've worked on a novel, I could hardly wait for the whole process to be over so I could hold the finished product in my hands. To see my name on a glossy cover, breathe in that wonderful new book smell and have other people enjoy my stories was the great aim that kept me going.

As I shared in my last post about self pity, for a few weeks I'd decided to stop all work on my most recent project. The pity party I was wallowing in made me decide that until I helped sell all of the seven novels I've already got, there was no point in churning out more.

Well, once I'd made that decision to take a break from writing, I was surprised by something I never expected to happen. I quickly started missing it all. I discovered that I really wanted to be nutting out scenes, dreaming about characters, making my own editing slashes along the way and building up piles of A4 manuscript paper. I wanted to be shuffling scenes around and deleting waffly parts of the story. I realised that this whole process means far more to me than just necessary busy-work to achieve an end result. It's a really rewarding and valuable activity in its own right. When I don't have a current manuscript to keep my imagination occupied for months, I hate it!

I was wondering if anybody is in the middle of long-term project which you're finding a bit of a drag. It might be a study degree, a home or garden project or some enormous art or craft. Maybe it's some sort of outreach mission directed at others which never seems to make a visible difference. Do you ever hear yourself grumble, "I can't wait until I finish this baby," or something like that? Please don't be grouchy and impatient about all the hard work. I want to encourage you to enjoy every moment you devote to it, because pouring energy into a long term project that is larger than yourself is what makes life worthwhile. I've made that discovery in my own personal experience over the last few weeks.

Now I've re-commenced work on my new manuscript and this time I'm not going to be impatient to see the finish. It's not true that my work loses its meaning and significance if I can't sell it to thousands or millions of other people. The whole creative process is very meaningful and significant to me and that includes every tiny bit of progress made each day.

For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin - real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. This perspective has helped me to see there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way, so treasure every moment you have and remember that time waits for no-one - Souza

Thursday, July 7, 2011

That self pity twists our thinking

This has turned out to be a longer reflection than my usual ones, but please bear with me. It's been a wonderful revelation to me and I hope it may be to you too.

I'd honestly decided I was going to quit writing books but didn't tell anybody. I kept it to myself knowing that nobody else wants to accept the invitation to the sort of party I was having, that is, the self-pity party. I'd tried wearing my heart on my sleeve in the past and discovered it never really works and I don't enjoy doing it.

The catalysts were varied. There were two events I'd planned for April and May, poured a lot of heart into, and not many people showed up. One was a book launch for "Best Forgotten" and another was an evening which affected four other South Australian authors as well as me. Then a sort of sad ripple effect happened in my spirit. I thought of all the "Light the Dark" parties which have been canceled because nobody committed themselves to turning up and the luke-warm responses I've been having from our Christian bookstores such as Koorong and Word. I hate the heavy, dragging-down feeling I get when I find a stream of Face Book messages along the theme of, "I'm sorry I won't be able to make it to your lovely event but I wish you all the best." I'd had enough "best wishes" over the years I'd been writing to fill an ocean liner but best wishes never put food on the table or help us pay our bills. I was going to stop writing. I really meant it.

I didn't tell anybody else but I made this sort of statement to myself.
"I'm obviously inept so what's the use?"
"Nobody can accuse me of not giving this a good go. I have seven novels and over fifteen years of effort to show."
"I'll still try to sell those seven, but I'm fed up with pouring so much mental and emotional energy into something that yields such paltry returns."
"Nobody's really interested! That's all!"

The first feeling after this decision was a tired sort of relief. I felt as if I'd thrown off the shackles of a self-made chain, a bit like Jacob Marley's ghost in "A Christmas Carol." This was quickly followed by a weird sort of empty feeling I wasn't sure I liked. I think I can understand how retirees might feel. I was now a lady-of-leisure as far as those spare moments I used to fill with writing were concerned. I started looking for cross-stitches to do instead. Might as well have some pretty bookmarks or wall hangings. Somehow, it wasn't quite the same. Ideas for brand new plots would begin to fill my head, but I'd have to shake them out and remind myself, "I'm not doing that anymore."

The ideas were persistent. Finally, I had to cave in and admit to myself that I simply love to write. It's far more to me than just a career choice or way of impressing people. It turned out the chain I'd forged wasn't heavy and clanky like Jacob Marley's after all. It was more like a shining, unique necklace full of precious gems that I loved.

So I've left the self-pity party. What's the point of cutting of my own life blood? Quitting something you love just because of other people's reactions or adverse circumstances is just crazy, like wanting to shoot your enemy by pulling the trigger on your own head. How mad is that. I'm still going to keep writing, thank you, and now I can face each project with new freedom because I know that I'm doing it because I want to do it, not for any external glory I may get from it.

Somebody else went through a moment similar to mine.* It was the prophet Elijah, who sat by scrubby broom tree in the wilderness, and told God, "I've had enough!" He'd just completed a stunning task, showing the prophets of Baal up as the charlatans they were. Perhaps he'd expected a bit of personal glory, but instead, he got a death threat from Queen Jezebel, a woman used to getting her own way. When the Lord asked him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" get his reply.

Elijah said, "I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of God have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altar and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left and now they are trying to kill me too."This was a massive exaggeration, because there were several prophets and true followers of God still left in Israel. Self-pity makes you exaggerate. I know, for example, that I've had plenty of support and encouraging feedback for my writing over the years.

God's reply to Elijah is interesting. Perhaps he would have appreciated a pat on the shoulder and some, "There, there, you did a fine job and you're a wonderful, faithful fellow," sort of feedback, but he got nothing like this. This is what God told him. "Go back the same way you came... when you get there anoint Hazael to be king of Aram. Then anoint Jehu to be king of Israel and Elisha to replace you as my prophet."

Huh??? My initial reaction is, "What does all this have to do with what Elijah just said?" I believe God doesn't want to waste time coddling people out of self-pity. He knows the ultimate cure for this self-focused, twisted thinking. What is it? Simply getting them to replace it with something more worthwhile, or in other words, get to work on something good.

So I'm believing his response to my pity-party is, "I'm giving you some brand new ideas. Get to work and make reflections and stories out of them."

*1 Kings 19

Thursday, June 30, 2011

That being blessed doesn't mean life will be fair!

I wish I'd figured this one out several years ago. My husband has often told me that I rankle too much over things not being fair. I think it's easy to unconsciously follow this logic that comes across as sound, yet the premises and conclusion are flawed. It is this.

God blesses those He loves
Unfair treatment/events are not a blessing
Therefore, unfair things don't happen to those God loves

This is not a valid logical progression for more than one reason. 1) The conclusion doesn't follow automatically from the two premises. Although God does indeed bless those He loves, and although most people might agree that things we deem 'unfair' are not blessings, the two premises taken together don't add up to the conclusion that people God love can expect nothing BUT blessings. I think we can expect a combination, because even though He blesses us, we still live in a fallen world which is subject to the free will of many, many capricious people. 2) The opinion of whether something should be deemed unfair may be subjective anyway.

Anyway, enough philosophical ramblings. The fact is that annoying, unfair things do happen so we shouldn't be surprised or taken-aback when they happen to us. And when we look at the evidence of people in the Bible who God was clearly blessing, several unfair things happened to them too. For example:

1) God was with Joseph but he was still sold to Egyptian slave traders by jealous brothers and later, framed unfairly by a lying woman with a grudge.
2) God was with David but he was still hounded and pursued by a jealous and bitter rival, King Saul, who was higher in the royal hierarchy for several years after David had been anointed.
3) God was with Jacob but he was still tricked by an unscrupulous uncle to devote twice as long as he'd expected looking after livestock and land that were not his own.
4) God was with Isaac but he still had his wells clogged up by crazy, jealous enemies (and people who'll fill up anyone's well in a parched, famine-stricken land are crazy indeed).
5) And how about poor old John the Baptist? God was clearly with him before he was ever conceived, but he ended up holed up in prison, after all the work he'd done for Jesus, hearing about the miracles Jesus was doing for other people. Surely it would have occurred to him to say, "Hey, it's not fair, what about me?" He was only human.

So it happens! Do you think it would have occurred to the five men I mentioned above to cry to God, "Hey, this isn't fair!"? When annoyances and trials have come my way in the past, I've been quick to assume that doors are closing and that I'm out of favour. In fact, Jesus did his best to prepare his disciples to expect that trials and annoyances will come, to help them not fall into the trap of getting depressed and making mistaken assumptions about God's love and intentions for them.

What God does promise is not to prevent all unfair trials and annoyances from reaching us but to work through them and transform them into things that have helped build our characters. Our lives, including all the unfairnesses, are eventually woven into the good, overall tapestry as blessings. I think we can safely trust that all the events of our lives will turn out for good and that God's specific promises in His Word can be relied on, even when circumstances don't look as if they're taking place. (And see my former post To Choose my Weapons and Seeds Wisely for an overview on the law of sowing and reaping.)

- Joseph got audience with the Pharoah, was able to offer his help, and found himself suddenly raised from the dungeon to second-in-charge of the whole country, surely one of the greatest promotions in history.
- Jacob's son, Judah, through Jacob's set-up marriage to Leah, became the direct ancestor of Jesus.
- David became king when he hung onto God's promise and didn't give up.
- Isaac made peace with those who plagued him, and continued to prosper.
- And John, well, poor old John reminds us that this life is not the end of the story.

So my simple summary, without wasting any words, is this. LIFE ISN'T FAIR BUT IT IS STILL REALLY, REALLY GOOD!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

That I might be a platypus person - someone God made in a random mood

The platypus is a weird and unique animal. I can understand the confusion its discoverers would have had in classifying it. Is it a duck or an otter? A mammal or a reptile. Would you be more likely to find it in the water or on the land? They finally decided to call it a mammal and classify it as a monotreme. Perhaps the platypus is the animal God created in a frugal mood, when He'd finished everything else and just wanted to put something together from the parts He had left over. Maybe it is a sign of our Creator's random sense of humour, or simply a message that not everything can be easily classified.

Do you know, I've been similarly confused when I've been thinking about my own role in this world. When people have tried to pin me down and ask me what sort of person I am, I haven't been able to tell them. Emotional books, films or events which seem to draw tears from the majority may leave me dry-eyed while a simple, throw-away remark has me sobbing like a baby, embarrassing my family because they can't understand why I'm so touched. I used to think I have some characteristics of a hermit but I definitely value some sort of steady social input. I also used to think it would be nice to be an intellectual, but I'm definitely not one of those. Intellectuals frighten me a bit, yet I do like to spend a lot of time thinking and learning. Like other girls, I used to think it would be nice to be a model when I was in my teens, yet I was too short and even though I was anorexic at the time, my bones themselves were still too chunky. Recently I bought a book about discovering your chief spiritual gift from a list of seven, and I got frustrated because I couldn't fit myself comfortably into any one of them, although I could certainly place other people I know.

I always wanted to be the sort of person who fits into a niche. People who give themselves some alternative label such as 'hippy' or 'emo' have a distinct style and seem to know what shops to go to. They all look 'different' in the same way. How I would have loved a label during my life's journey, but I'm not a yuppy, hippy, yummy-mummy, eccentric or anything in between. I'm not even a 'random' (unless you could count this post as something like that).

Once I almost talked myself in to placing myself and my son, Logan, into the category of 'eccentric' because they appealed to me. My husband pointed out that we definitely aren't, because we lack many of their characteristics, including one crucial one. "Eccentrics don't care what people think of them but you and Logan definitely care what people think." So, in the end I had to call myself "weird, style-less nothing-person!" I don't seem to fit anywhere and defy definition.

So I can relate to the platypus. The introduction to the book of Ecclesiastes in my Message Bible says, "Unlike the animals, who seem quite content to be simply themselves, we humans are always looking for ways to be more than or other than what we find ourselves to be." So maybe, like the platypus, my wisest course is simply to be happy being my patchwork self, appreciating the people and things, books and activities that make me smile. I guess the most valuable and acceptable gift we can offer to God and others is to be grateful and content with the way He's made us and all the good things we find in our lives.

We might as well put a good spin on our self-descriptions too. Instead of "weird, style-less nothing person" I can be a lover of beauty, a free spirit, an appreciator of good things, a seeker of interesting things and theories. (And of course there are always the old standards such as 'homeschooling mum' and 'fiction author' and 'Aussie woman' to fall back on.)

I'm wondering whether I'm the only platypus person out there, or whether others have considered themselves "platypus people" too. Let me know if you think this describes you too. I'd be interested. Perhaps this thought is more widespread than we all realize. And let's celebrate because after all, our namesakes are considered unique and cute enough to place on a twenty-cent coin.
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