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.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

That things are rarely as we expect

I recently read a memoir by Rebecca Mead, a lady who is just a little older than I am. She studied English at University in the mid 80s because she loved books, but quickly found that being a book lover didn't really have much to do with it, because the course was nothing like she expected.

'The mid eighties was the era of critical thinking,' she wrote. 'Scholars were encouraged to apply tools of psychoanalysis or feminism to reveal ways the author was blind to his or her own desire or prejudice. Books weren't supposed to be merely read, but interrogated as if they had committed some malfeasance.'

Yes! That brought back clear memories of my late teens. How I used to hate that! Mead might have been describing my experience in the late 1980s. There were no tertiary creative writing courses back then, so I chose English as my major, expecting to get guidance and valuable tips on how to write the novels I intended to write. Instead, it was just as Mead described. I often used to complain, 'Hey, I didn't sign up for this so that I can criticise Charles Dickens and the Brontes, and highlight their perceived failings and limitations. I like Dickens and the Brontes. They're better authors than I am. If I'd known it was going to be like this, I might have chosen something different.' But as it was, I went in like a lamb to the slaughter.

That became my standard complaint all through Uni. Straight out of High School, I'd chosen a list of subjects I thought would suit me to the ground. English, Pyschology, Anthropology and Philosophy. But instead of just looking at people's motivations and attitudes, Psychology was full of more Maths, Chemistry and detailed brain structure illustrations than I cared to dive into.  And rather than just studying different cultures, Anthropology delved into symbolism and all sorts of deep linguistic studies I hadn't expected. As for Philosophy, I thought it was off this planet! What I remember most is that all of the male staff seemed to wear long, bushy beards as apparent status symbols, and the female members had long, long hair to compensate.

My best memories of those Uni years was sitting in the basement of the Barr Smith library, tracking down and devouring ancient, out-of-print novels. They were totally unrelated to the course material I was studying, and I used to put off what I was really supposed to be doing for as long as possible.

I don't think this discovery that things are not what we expect was limited to the late 80s. This year, my older son started his degree at Adelaide Uni, (which makes me feel very proud but quite old.) I'm finding out that the place has changed a lot in several ways since I was there, but in other ways, it's much the same. Some courses still turn out to be nothing like what they sound like.

This semester, Logan has had to tackle a compulsory subject called, 'The Enquiring Mind.' On the surface, the name sounds quite alluring and intriguing, but some of his friends who had tackled it in first semester warned him that it was full of 'arty farty stuff' as they call it. Even the lecturers must have known that word of its true nature had spread. When Logan showed up in the crammed theatre, with students spilling out into the aisles, the lecturer introduced the topic by saying, 'I know many of you are here under sufferance, but I hope you'll overcome any prejudice you may have at the start and get something out of this course anyway.'

And has he? Well, after a couple of weeks I asked, 'What's it all about?'

'I still can't figure it out,' he said. 'Nobody can.'

I read the first few paragraphs of his introductory handout and knew what he meant. It seems to be one of the subjects which are designed just to be a pain in every way. For example, when Logan went to purchase the text book from the faculty office, he was told, 'No, we can't take your money. You have to buy it online and bring the receipt in to show us before we give you one.' And the shelves behind them were piled high with this text book which nobody really wants.

But when you think about it, this quality of not entirely living up to rosy expectations isn't limited to tertiary institutions alone. In fact, maybe it's a feature of life in general. When we decide to get married, we have wonderful images of a 'happily ever after' scenario without the 'barefoot and pregnant at the sink washing dishes' one which is almost as well known a catch-cry. When we decide to have babies, we daydream about their cute, sleeping faces without dwelling on the screaming, colicky fits and stinky nappies which are also part of the story. Maybe the study experiences which don't quite live up to expectations are just like almost everything else. When we dwell on the flip side, we realise there have been quite a lot of good aspects too. In fact, sometimes expectations are turned on their heads the other way, and we are pleasantly surprised by good things we hadn't expected.

This happened to me years ago when I was doing Year 12. I was told that my timetable was too heavy with humanities subjects and I had to drop one to replace with a Science subject. That made me grumble, but I picked Biology, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, easy to pass subjects that year. More so than Drama, which I'd expected to be my favourite subject but turned out to be a terrible drag. If asked, I could rattle off the titles of many novels I've started reading with low expectations and discovered they were brilliant. As for Logan's experience this year, he admitted that although 'The Enquiring Mind' is full of arty nonsense, it does have it's lighter moments, which turn out to be the fun his discussion table have with their jokes at the tutor's expense, while he thinks they're really getting right into it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

that we tend to edit our public persona

Authors don't tend to talk about all the rigorous editing that goes into each of our books. I'm always happy with the final product when editors and publishers agree, 'That's good enough.' I throw those ratty old dog-eared, scribbled over, crossed-out, commented on early drafts away. People aren't ever supposed to know about the paragraphs which got deleted because they are redundant, or the extra pages added to supply what the story was initially lacking. They don't realise that the first chapter may have been written later, and what I used to call the start is now found almost a quarter through Chapter Three. Nor do they know that a scene of dialogue has been so changed, that none of the characters say any of the things they originally said, yet it comes across more spontaneous and off-the-cuff than ever. I never mention all the Word documents I've deleted with names such as More track changes for Best Forgotten, Imogen's Chance fifth edit, or A Design of Gold final, final draft. I'm pleased to offer each novel to the public as if the polished version is what I came up with in the first place. It's a big illusion which I think crops up in most areas of life, time and again.

We've probably all been warned about the discouragement we may face when we believe the polished, picture-perfect lives our friends present on social media trump our own messy reality with its irritations and disappointments. But then we do the same impression management, knowing there are some things we would never share. (Well, sometimes people share theirs anyway, and then we cringe for them and maybe even pretend not to see those posts on our news feed.) But in general, we may try to edit our on-line persona as much as I edit my novels. Facebook  is probably a pretty apt name.

In general, we are brought up to believe that looking our best in front of other people is our social obligation. Sometimes people's masks are torn off, making us gasp at what was concealed. It turned out the young man who took the accountant's job at the Stirling Hospital after my husband quit spent his couple of years there embezzling money from the till, and almost got away with it. His story made it into the newspaper. And recently, Australian celebrity, Rolf Harris, had his title changed from 'children's entertainer' to 'paedophile.' Although most of us don't have such huge, devastating secrets, we'd probably all hate the prospect of having the content of our minds visible for others to see.

This all begs the question I come across from time to time. 'Who are you when nobody is looking?'

In his book, 'Soul Keeping', John Ortberg makes the point that many of us indulge in sneaky, dishonest behaviour when we believe we can get away with it. He cites a study which showed that a significant number of 'family deaths' tend to happen when students have major essays due. Requests for compassionate extensions tend to be made close to the deadlines, and often the deceased person turns out to be 'Grandma.' Ortberg gives senior readers the tongue-in-cheek warning that their longevity may not correlate with their cholesterol or fitness levels, but with whether or not they have grandchildren studying at University whose major assignments are due.

Do we really try to get away with shonky behaviour when we're sure we won't be found out? I'd just finished reading 'Soul Keeping' when my daughter mentioned something interesting. Emma works at the local fish and chip shop. She said that whenever she clears money from the automatic hot drink machine, she finds all sorts of foreign coins. It takes no great insight to figure out why customers decide to use these in the slot machines rather than paying over the counter with them. When I told Emma what I'd read, she said, 'It doesn't matter, because we keep the foreign coins in a little box for the staff to use when we want a hot drink.'

How about me personally? Well, something happened last week, which I'm tempted not to admit, but here goes. My youngest son and I were about to start a bushwalk, and I'd intended to park in a bus exchange car park, because it was right near the path we wanted to walk. We arrived to find one car park left, near a sign telling us, 'This car park is for travelers on public transport only.' All sorts of thoughts passed through my mind. Nobody else seemed to be there, wanting that park. It was already early afternoon, and most serious commuters probably used it in the morning. There were no other parks nearby and it wouldn't be convenient to have to add miles more onto the long walk we'd planned already. I knew we should have left, but I shrugged and joked to Blake, 'That covers us. We travel on public transport sometimes.' I know, I know, what a bad example for my young son.

So what do we take away from all this? I think it's always wise to remember that no matter how polished and good our friends and acquaintances may appear, not to automatically jump to the conclusion that this is their full story. It is their polished persona and they are not necessarily much different than we are. It may help to think, I've probably missed all the editing which has gone into this impression, but wow, they're doing it good. Yet at the same time, I took to heart John Ortberg's point that little dishonesties, indulged in over time, rub the shining edge off our souls and hurt ourselves. Fair enough. Just because we can get away with something without putting our public selves in a bad light, doesn't mean we should. No more using unentitled carparks for us.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

That we are the essence of where we come from

I live in Australia, which as many know, tends to be an obscure country when it comes to the media. Lots of celebrities in the arts have moved overseas to try to 'make it' in places where they believe more is happening. When you look at Australia's situation at the bottom of the globe, it's easy to understand why this may be so. It takes a glance at the whole picture to show how far removed from the rest of the world we are. (Apart from our Oceanic neighbours, such as New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, who share our plight.) It's all very well to say we're surrounded by ocean on either side, but words alone don't paint an adequate picture of just how much Pacific Ocean there is to our east, and Indian Ocean to our west.

Okay, having established that, I remember an interesting message my pastor once gave, about how our position in the world is basically an arbitrary choice made by the world's map makers throughout history. Our planet is out in space, so it could have just as easily been flipped upside down in our Atlas, which would put Australia high in the north. It wasn't done that way though. We are far south in everyone's minds, which has connotations of being 'down there'. We have deserts, kangaroos and blokes slouching around in tank tops and thongs. That's us, in the world's eyes.

So having established that, my state, South Australia, is probably one of the most obscure states in an obscure country. This hit me hard once when I was part of a group of Aussie Christian authors who were talking live online to several American readers. We asked where they would like to go if they were able to visit Australia. The answers, although not surprising, were overwhelming.

'I'd like to see the beautiful eastern coast... Sydney and the Harbour Bridge... the Gold Coast with all the theme parks... it would have to be the Queensland tropics with the Great Barrier Reef... Ayers Rock. How beautiful... I've heard that Tasmania is lovely, with all its produce.' South Australia was mentioned just once, and that was by a lady who had relatives living in Adelaide, who had told her how beautiful it is.

Once I acknowledged that I'm living in the most overlooked state of the most overlooked country, other things began to slot into place. I remember asking my dad, 'Why didn't your father ever become more famous?' He had such a successful boxing career that he'd been asked to retire, to let younger men have a fair go. Yet if you search for my grandfather on the internet, hardly anything comes up. 'Why isn't Red Mitchell's name as widely recognised as Les Darcy's,' I asked.

I took Dad's answer on board without a thought at the time.

'He was only South Australian.' That said it all.

I finally got it when people started suggesting that I might want to change the settings in my books. 'They won't get anywhere if you keep using South Australia. You should make it Sydney. At least the rest of the world has heard of it.'

I don't know about that though. It might not be wise because I'm a South Aussie girl all through. The blood of several generations of others flows through my veins. Some were Germans who wanted to flee religious persecution in their own country, and others were Brits who wanted a brand new start away from the mid-nineteenth century poverty they'd struggled with. They all became South Australians. Although I'm not one of those people who couldn't possibly live anywhere else (such as Emily Bronte and her Yorkshire moors or Heidi with her Swiss Alps), I'm so familiar with my home that the South Aussie authenticity can't help slipping accidentally into my stories. It probably wouldn't work if I tried to adopt another setting.

I use words such as 'Fritz' and 'Fruchocs' assuming that everybody will know what I'm eating. I use long R sounds, pronouncing 'castle' as 'carsel' instead of 'cassel', and 'graph' as 'grarf' instead of 'graf.' I know all about Beehive Corner, the Silver Balls of the Rundle Mall, and the State Bank Christmas pageant without having to research these things. I've always thought of using my own environment for my novels as putting my stamping ground on people's radars. My South Aussie settings have been my trademark, not because I'm doggedly stubborn, but because I'm not sure I could easily change if I tried.

I'm not really sure I'd even want to sacrifice my setting, as it really is a beautiful corner of the world. South Australia has four very distinct seasons. If you were to see a photo of my Adelaide Hills, you'd be able to tell whether it was summer, winter, autumn or spring. When we speak about going to the beach, we're often talking about safe, warm gulf waters which have lost the Southern Ocean chill. It's been a pretty good home for me. At the moment, even though it is the most obscure place in the most obscure place, I tend to think I'll probably keep using it for the time being at least. I'll finish up with this photo, taken in Adelaide last week, of me with the statue of Catherine Helen Spence, a very illustrious South Australian lady who became an author, journalist, politician and well-known suffragist, all from the obscure spot of South Australia. She bloomed where she was planted, and so can we.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

to cut ourselves far more slack

We all know this big man's lowest moment. It's recorded for us. Peter denied knowing Jesus or having anything to do with him, not once but three times. After being so certain in his own mind that he would never desert his master and best friend, it just happened impulsively as a self-protection instinct set in. It was never something Peter intended to do at all.

At least he went further than his fellow apostles, who didn't even join him around the fire at the high priest's court, but that was no comfort to Peter. He was a big, tough fisherman and his first accuser was a lowly servant girl, who merely said, 'This man was with him.' Two other people said the same thing, and each time Peter's knee-jerk reaction was the same. 'No, I wasn't. I've never seen him before. I don't know what you're talking about.'

It was straight after his third denial when the rooster crowed, just as Jesus said it would, and Jesus turned to look at Peter. The Bible often shows that things which may appear random and coincidental are, in fact, anticipated and woven into the fabric of a person's life. This was one of the most gut-wrenching moments for Peter, as he was brought, face-to-face with his own darker side, which he didn't even know existed. There was nothing he could do at that moment but hurry off, horrified and remorseful, to weep bitterly.

Later, we see the loving way in which the Resurrected Jesus addressed him on the beach. Jesus understands the true nature of a person's heart, and he gave Peter three chances to say, 'I love you, Lord,' to counterbalance those three, unfortunate, impulsive denials. You would think that might be it. Peter has learned his lesson. He becomes a head of the new church and is known by all as Peter the Rock, rather than Simon the Fisherman.

It isn't all. Years later, he's at the end of another rebuke, this time from the apostle Paul, who hadn't been around for near as long as Peter. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul explains that he opposed Peter to his face. It seems that Peter had been enjoying the company of several new Gentile believers, freely joining them to eat at the same table. When a delegation of Jewish believers was sent from James in Jerusalem, Peter withdrew from joining the Gentiles, evidently concerned about the impression he wanted to make on the Jews.

It would seem that Peter accepted this rebuke, although I'm sure he could tried justifying his actions by saying, 'It was just to begin with while I got them to understand,' or something like that. But this new knee-jerk reaction makes his real motivation evident again. It would seem that impression management and care about what people thought of him struck again. Although many of us would agree that we probably need to watch the basic weaknesses we're born with, it's astounding when you consider who this man was. Maybe I wouldn't have expected it from him, at this stage.

Peter was the guy who was always full of confidence. He had thousands of converts at his first sermon. He was rescued from prison by the spectacular arrival of an angel from heaven. He'd received some amazing revelations, including a radical one about acceptable food, which led him to understand God's true heart for the whole human race, including the Gentiles. He'd been God's instrument of several healing miracles, to the point that people put their ill friends in a position that Peter's shadow could touch them passing. No, I wouldn't have thought Peter would be the one to fall prone to such insecurity and shallow considerations any more. But we're told that he still did.

In the light of this, I'm wondering if we should cut ourselves, and our friends and relatives, far more slack than we do. We may be quick to say, 'How could my brother have done that same silly thing again?' or 'I thought I had more sense by now! I'm a moron.' But why should we expect more from ourselves than even Peter could deliver? Of course we're being made new every day, but it's a lifetime process and we are human. Instead of blaming ourselves when the same old thing crops up again, and taking it as proof that we were never any good to start with, it may be more helpful to remember that it also happened to somebody far more illustrious than us.

I'll aim to remember this in my parenting, my friendship, my writing, and also try to remember to extend the same grace to others. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Even little gaps may be too big

I'll start with the story about my two sons which prompted this post.

Logan is 19 years old and Blake is 10. Whenever Logan comes home from Uni, Blake acts delighted to see him, but Logan's backpack is the real draw card. Blake knows he may often find packets of lollies or chocolate in there, as Logan likes to stock up at the supermarket before he catches his bus. Blake has learned from experience that Logan's backpack may be his main way of sneaking a treat.

This seemed to work okay in moderation, but Logan noticed that when he started to feel around for a snack in lectures, he sometimes didn't have anywhere near as much food as he thought he did. One day, he came home with a small lock on his bag and a broad grin on his face. He called, 'Hey, Blake, there are lollies in my bag. I dare you to try and get some now.'

That was a challenge not to be missed. After fiddling about, Blake realised that he could make a tiny opening between the zipper and lock about the size of a 20 cent piece. He has small hands and persistent fingers. He was able to bunch up the backpack fabric and wriggle out a Crown Mint, which he popped into his mouth.

Logan walked past and sniffed perpermint around his brother. He saw the smug smile. Now, Logan is generally too old to 'lose it' these days, but it was one of the occasions he felt pushed too far. He was stamping around, furious, and finally sat with his face in his hands.

'He's beaten me. I put a lock on the bag. What more can I do to keep him out? But he's won!'

A little while later, he produced a pencil case which he filled with lollies and locked up. This, he placed in the backpack, which he locked just as before. He said, 'Let's see him break through both locks, then,' but I noticed that he didn't issue the challenge again.

How much like life this is. We may often hear that we should watch out for little vices or holes, because they can turn huge before you know it, if you don't attend to them. I'd go as far as to say that you don't even need to bother about them getting bigger. A little hole, vice, lapse in judgment, mistake, or anything you can mention is already big enough for a lot to damage to be done, even if it never stretches another millimetre. The hero Archilles, from ancient mythology, found this out. He was covered from head to toe in inpenetrable armour but a tiny aperture in his heel was enough to bring him down.

However strong we think our defenses are, it's dangerous to overestimate them, or underestimate the little holes. The Bible tells us to guard our thoughts. I've found that the tiniest negative or rebellious thought may be my undoing on any given day. An instant of jealousy, resentment, self-pity or worry may be enough for all my sweets to be stolen. The joy, peace, calmness, self-control and love I've tried to build up is under threat. Keeping an eye on what we think, making sure it's only uplifting, profitable and kind, isn't just a nice suggestion, but all tied up with keeping our treasures locked. We are told that Satan went away, to leave Jesus until a 'more opportune time.' Even though he never found one, we shouldn't think his minions will leave us alone when we're far more vulnerable to little holes. I'm taking this episode with the boys as a reminder to be far more wary than I am.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

what sort of secrets we should steer clear of

Photo from

Recently, we heard on the news that a young, former Subway employee threatened to leak all their secret recipes over the internet if they refused to pay him a given sum for keeping quiet. My first reaction was, 'What secret recipes could Subway possibly have? Everything is spread out plainly to see. They make sandwiches!' Then I remembered that my nephew, Travis, who once worked there, told us that there are indeed hidden details concerning their bread and cookie dough recipes. (He didn't tell us what they are, though.) It seems there's more to Subway than meets the eye.

How fascinated we all are with secrets. Once, when I was very young, I pretended to have one to tease and intrigue my big brother. He tried to wheedle, bully and trick it out of me, until I tired of the game and admitted that it was all a bluff. My game backfired on me when he refused to believe that, assuming I was backing out so I wouldn't have to tell him. Finally, I tried to make up something satisfactory enough to get him off my back, but couldn't come up with anything that would wow him enough.

What is the big attraction of knowing something that nobody else does? Primary school kids seem to latch onto the intrigue of secrets without ever being taught. 'This is top secret!' they whisper with big bug eyes. Some of us may remember having secret hiding places, or trying to write secret codes with our friends. It gives us a sense of inflated importance, especially if our acquaintances make it clear that they really, really, really wish they could find out.

We don't discard our fascination with secrets when we grow up. The news and internet are filled with tantalising snippets about things which have supposedly been covered up, until now. Rhonda Byrne's best seller was called "The Secret." But sometimes secrets can get nasty and sinister. Adult secret clubs, such as the Freemasons, claim to be full of secrets which they'll only reveal to insiders. Before I was born, my parents were involved with a certain church which filled their heads with all sorts of secrets they haven't divulged to this day. They came up far enough in the ranks to hear 'secrets' they were told not to ever tell anybody, lest bad things happen to them. Although they've long broken away, Mum admits that she's nervous 'just in case' and Dad scoffs, 'I've forgotten all that rubbish, except that it was silly.' But he's still never told us anything, and we're more than happy not to know.

True Christianity has secrets of its own, that's for sure, but when you think about it, they differ in a major way. This may seem a crude analogy, but I believe true Christian secrets are more like scavenger hunts and crossword puzzles. They are created especially to be figured out, and not to be hidden indefinitely for the so-called elite. I'm sure that God completely understands our natural fixation with secrets, and at the same time, he doesn't want to cheapen every good gift by simply handing it to us. Which pearl of great price would you value most? One which somebody throws to you as soon as you decide you'd like it, or one which is strategically hidden so that you have to search studiously, dig up garden beds, plead for clues, scratch your head?

This is why God sometimes presents his truths as secrets. When Jesus walked the earth, he never wanted to hide things for all time, but to reveal them. He spoke in parables to give people the opportunity of thinking and pondering until they got an intuitive sense of what he was trying to say. Even his birth was a secret from the regular or self-important folk, who would never have dreamed that their saviour would be found in a manger full of hay, surrounded by farm animals. But it wasn't hidden from true seekers with honest, searching hearts, like the Magi who came from the far east, bearing gifts.

In some of his letters, such as the one to the Colossians, the apostle Paul reveals one of the biggest secrets, or mysteries, his readers could fathom. 'This message is the secret that was hidden from everyone since the beginning of time,' he writes. 'But now it is made known to God's people. The secret is Christ himself, who is in you. He is our only hope for glory' (Colossian 1:26). What a great secret indeed, unfathomed by those who race around trying to find him in other places. And the margin notes in my Bible add that God provides salvation for anyone who will take it, and doesn't require that we know hidden secrets and accept certain inside information to accept Jesus' message.

So perhaps when it comes to secrets, alarm bells should start ringing when the secrets are covered up with a 'this is not for the likes of you' type of attitude. Another type of secret to steer clear is, 'I'll tell you this privileged information, but whatever you do, don't let the riff raff out there know, because they aren't enlightened enough to ever understand, and something bad will happen to you.' One of the most dangerous bogus secret of all, which has been the downfall of many deluded seekers, is, 'The world is going to end on such and such a date, so let's take action by doing so and so.'

Let's keep enjoying the simple, wholesome type of secrets which are meant to be eventually discovered, and turn away from the other sort which are designed to remain murky, concealed and never known by some. I think, if Eve had kept the distinction in mind way back in Genesis, she wouldn't have been so easily duped by the serpent who suggested that God was dealing sneakily with her, holding back knowledge which may benefit her. She would have been more inclined to say, 'I know that's not the way He operates, but it's your way, so push off!'   

Sunday, July 13, 2014

that this young guy had issues

I'm referring to one of King David's sons, Absalom, who is probably best remembered as the guy who almost succeeded in stealing his father's kingdom.

I find it interesting to trace his story, trying to determine why he would ever make such a defiant move. It isn't hard to figure out. The Bible reveals Absalom as the type who would quietly dwell on wrongs committed against him or those he loved, and let them fester. All the time, nobody could guess what was in his head until he struck. He behaved in that manner when his half brother, Amnon, raped their sister, Tamar. She was Amnon's half sister and Absalom's full sister, all children of David. Absalom quietly cared for Tamar in his own home and waited for an opportune moment to strike back at Amnon, which took a couple of years.

He behaved the same way with his father, when David allowed him back into the city after his time of exile. For a period of time David, although pining for his son, refused to see him. Eventually they seemed to make up. Absalom appeared to be on friendly terms with David, but he was biding his time, ingratiating himself with the people, building a following for himself, behaving like a politician. Then it was evident that striking for the kingdom and seeing his father dead had been his intention for a very long time. He just had to win people's hearts first. Bitterness and patience are a formidable combination.

The thing is, I get where he was coming from. Absalom is easy to understand. He had good reason to feel bitter about the chain of events which had occurred in his life. Amnon should never have laid a hand on Tamar. Their father, the king, shouldn't have turned a blind eye and let Amnon off, scott free. Nor should he have brought him, Absalom, back from exile, if he didn't intend to talk to him. And Joab the army commander, who had fetched him home in the first place, should have explained the way things would be, or at least come when he summoned him. No wonder Absalom took it upon himself to burn Joab's fields to get some attention. But I guess his story shows that even when we feel justified, nothing good can come of letting resentment and bitterness be the rulers in our hearts. We do have a choice. His choice was to let these toxic emotions sweep him away.

What a tragedy, when somebody with as much going for him as Absalom has his own life cut short as a result of his heart's thoughts and attitudes. Ladies, he must have been hot. The Bible doesn't dwell on a man's appearance, so when it does get a mention, it must have been remarkable. King Saul was called a fine young man who stood head and shoulders above other men, and David was described as ruddy and handsome in his youth. But neither of them had anything on Absalom, who must have been simply gorgeous. We are told, 'Absalom was greatly praised for his handsome appearance. No man in Israel was as handsome as he. No blemish was on him from his head to his foot. At the end of every year, Absalom would cut his hair, because it became too heavy. When he weighed it, it would weigh about five pounds by the royal measure' (2 Samuel 25-26).

Interestingly, the same week we were reading about Absalom in our Bible study, we were also assigned to read a convicting passage in 2Corinthians about guarding our thoughts. Especially Chapter 10: 1-5 which instructs us to capture every thought that doesn't line up with what we know God would have us think. With Absalom's situation still fresh in my mind, it was clear that his downfall was because he didn't do this. His attitude was the polar opposite to the one Jesus prescribed, when he said to forgive our enemies and pray for them.

Absalom got scarily close to causing the demise of his father and taking the kingdom, but some bad tactical advice proved to be his undoing, and ironically, all that gorgeous hair he was so proud of. It got tangled in the branches of an overhanging tree, pulling him right off his horse and leaving him hanging. Even though David pleaded, 'Please deal easy with the young man, Absalom,' his army commander, Joab, wasn't one for sentiment, and finished him off swiftly with a spear thrust to the heart.

What a tragic waste. It saddens me to read about the death of somebody who'd been blessed with enough natural gifts to be a potential hero. But two wrongs, or in his case, possibly more than a dozen wrongs, never make a right. It also shows that real life isn't really like Hollywood. Modern movie makers might have chosen a different story ending for a person like Absalom. Good looking hero is incensed when an innocent member of his family is viciously attacked, especially when those who should avenge her decide to do nothing. So he takes matters in his own hands, making it his goal to exact justice, however long it takes. Then he decides to win the people's hands and make himself rightful leader. That's not how he's remembered at all.

His story challenges me to let the past go, to let God be the judge. Let's not follow in his footsteps and let preoccupation with other people's faults suffocate our good thoughts and prevent us from leaving a good legacy.

Here's another post about someone who, when you think about it, would have been one of Absalom's many step mothers (as David had several wives) She was a tragic princess

Monday, July 7, 2014

that technology is the servant and we're making it the master

During a visit to the city not long ago, we bought a couple of drinks from a bubble tea bar. My daughter said it was like chewing tasteless, gelatinous balls floating in flavoured milk. She whipped out her phone in the middle of the Rundle Mall to update Facebook with a status about it. Her cousin, who lives in Cairns, instantly left a comment saying, 'Take that back' (he loves bubble tea). They kept the discussion flowing for a little while, and it occurred to me to be thankful for modern technology. Not even a couple of centuries ago, the first people who settled in Adelaide had to wait months for word from their family members. They would probably think that a girl communicating instantly from a shopping centre with her cousin in far north Queensland, is nothing short of a miracle. Even those of us old enough to remember the 1970s would have to admit that we've come a long way.

Yet not everybody loves technology. It scatters our concentration as we're trying to focus on other tasks and our mobile communication devices start beeping, buzzing or playing bars of music. We get rushed and our communication feels shallow, as our contacts are spread so far. Bad news bombards our senses, whether we ask for it or not, giving the impression that the world may be a scarier place than it really is. These are insidious things which may slowly eat away our quality of life, so that it's hard for some to figure whether the benefits of modern technology really do outweigh the costs.

I read a simple sentence by an author who said, 'We've got to remember, we weren't created for technology. Technology was created for us.' Now, that reminded me of words Jesus spoke to his listeners, about something else. He said, 'The Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath.'

In his time, the Pharisees were those respected religious leaders who set and maintained all the rules in the synagogue. They added many crazy extra codicils to Scripture's simple command to keep the Sabbath holy and refrain from usual work. They totally changed the character of a day God had intended for recharge and relaxation. In fact, they made it just the opposite, making that day of the week more trouble, in many ways, than it would have been had God never set it aside in the first place.

How does this relate to technology in the twenty-first century? Are we making technology our master instead of our servant? Well, we tend to set fixed rules too. Bloggers have assigned days on which they post, and I've come across more than one person who has woken up with a blank mind and fretted herself into a panic. 'I have nothing to say, but I have to say something because it's The Day!' If anyone tells them to cut themselves some slack, they get all noble and say that their fans and blog followers are depending on them. Some even box themselves in by setting different days of the week for different themes. And we tell ourselves (or are told by experts) that we MUST return emails within a couple of days, or even hours.

 I always thought I was far more flexible, but a couple of months ago, I was considering a short holiday with my family and found myself checking that it wouldn't include a day I have a blog post up somewhere, to which I should be sitting home to check comments, so I could comment on the comments and thank people. I decided to leave that sentence convoluted to show what knots we can tie ourselves into. Many of us are always accessible because our technology is so portable. I know several who cannot turn their phones off in case they miss some big opportunity. Each day, dozens of emails appear in our in-boxes, which we swiftly peruse, sorting spam from genuine correspondence. This all takes time and attention. No wonder we are harried and anxious with scattered attention spans. Just like with the Sabbath, something designed to benefit our lives has the potential to create stress and shackles, if we let it.

Our contacts cover far more than the traditional tribal, or pre-Industrial revolution village groups, which were typical ongoing social networks for centuries. Suddenly, many of us find we may have between 300 and 1000 friends on Facebook, and even more followers on Twitter. I consider that maybe humans weren't really designed for a social reach that extensive. We want to follow several blogs, stay in close contact with many people, offer the right support, and write lovely, encouraging comments. Our spirits are willing, and when we don't manage because we're spread too thin, we may feel like pathetic, shallow friends. We're so used to taking modern technology for granted, that we don't stop to reflect that it's pretty stressful to do with a couple of hundred people what our ancestors knew they could manage with about twenty other people at the most.

World Wide Web is an apt title. As our personal influence can spread to friends across the globe within a few seconds, we may feel like Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. This surely wasn't the result intended for something which is supposed to make our lives easier.

I think the best thing we can do is to stay aware of the huge artificial, personal 'villages' we are trying to create, and cut ourselves a bit of slack for being only human, with a limited attention span and only twenty-four hours in any given day. I still believe that modern technology is an enormous boon for which I am tremendously grateful, but we could take time to remind ourselves that it is a servant and not a master. Bombardments with messages, requests and on-line demands before our feet even hit the floor in the morning isn't the only way to live.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

To show our faith in others by taking action

I love Mary's seemingly cheeky behaviour at the wedding in Cana.

When she first pulled her son aside to whisper, 'They've run out of wine,' he said, in effect, 'What has that got to do with me, Mother? My time hasn't come, so don't pressure me to act.'

Her instant response was to summon the wedding stewards to instruct them, 'Do exactly what he tells you.' Hey, what? Does it seem like she totally ignored what he just said? Didn't she do exactly what he said he didn't want, and put him on the spot? Would you have dared to behave in that manipulative manner to Jesus? Instead of telling her off and putting her in her place, see what he did next.

I can imagine Jesus rolling his eyes with a bit of a grin, and telling those servants, 'All right, fill those stone jars up with fresh water. Don't ask me why. Just do it, and you'll see.'

My first thought was, Well, she was his mother. Maybe she could get away with it. I thought of the way I have to behave to my kids sometimes. Sometimes coercion doesn't work. Taking action and saying, 'Logan, I've already booked you into the barber and they're expecting you, so get out of bed,' is more effective than reasoning and pleading.

But there's even more to it than that. I'm thinking of other stories I've heard which show a bit of a principle here. When we expect good things from the significant people in our lives and act accordingly, they are more likely to step up in response.

I've never forgotten the story of a little girl who pleaded with her busy dad to make her a dollshouse. To get her off his back, he said, 'Alright, now off you go.' Once alone in his office, he intended to spend the rest of the day hard at work, but he heard happy humming. From the corner of his eye, he saw his daughter putting her furniture and dolls' clothes into little piles. Then he heard her tell a friend over the phone, 'You'll have to come over and play, because my daddy is building me a dollshouse. He promised.' So that busy man was touched enough to go out to his shed, find his tools and wood, and honour her faith in his good intentions.

There's another true story I read about a teacher who was assigned a group of a dozen students for his gifted and talented programme. At the end of the semester, when they exceeded his expectations with Straight A averages, he was told the truth. He and the students had all been subjects of an experiment. Those twelve had been chosen randomly from a classroom of strugglers. He had simply believed the claims about their giftedness, and they had risen to meet his expectations.

These are quite powerful stories and an incentive to focus on the wealth of good we know is deep within our loved ones (or want to believe is there). Most of us may find we don't have too far to dig. But getting back to the example of Mary and Jesus, I find it interesting that this changing of water to top quality wine was his first recorded public miracle. At that stage, it would seem his mother didn't really have much to base her great faith on. She didn't have the rest of the New Testament, full of its teachings and miracles, to go on, because at that stage, he hadn't spoken or performed them. However, what she did have was a wealth of stored-up anecdotes we'll never know, which she'd treasured in her heart from the time he was born. She also had the remarkable behaviour he'd obviously shown all through his childhood and teens.

Also concerning Jesus, this episode was more than a mother's prerogative. We have been told from his own lips that we may all enjoy the same relationship to him as his mother and brothers enjoyed. We are adopted brothers and sisters in his family. We are definitely invited to search his words and his recorded history for his promises and invitations to us. Then we are to believe that he will keep them when we come to him, expecting him to. It's all based on our belief that he means what he says and our trust in his faithfulness. What a load off our minds.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Maybe it was the best thing that could have happened to them

Just a little over a week ago, I was driving my daughter around our district so she could take photos for a Digital Photography assignment. She was putting together a calendar of landmarks around our town. For part of it, we were rambling through our old country cemetery. It was sad to see graves of children who hadn't lived to see their first birthday. There were several tandem graves of spouses who'd died several years apart but were reunited at last. Some graves were dated from the 1800s, faded, and covered with lichen. Others were recently dug with brand new tombstones. Although it's a lovely old place in its own way, we were happy to leave.

Thoughts of death leave me melancholy, especially when people are taken prematurely. But I was thinking of our recent cemetery walk when I read some interesting thoughts by Max Lucado. He was musing about the fact that although the Bible mentions a countless number of healing miracles performed by Jesus, there are only three records of His raising people from the dead. These were Jairus' daughter, the boy in his coffin near Nain, and Lazarus. Why so few? Lucado wonders if it's because Jesus knew that in most cases, He'd be doing folk no favours by bringing them back. Once somebody gets to heaven, it's like a homecoming. The last thing they would want is to be whisked back to their life on earth.

That makes sense to me when I think of some of the Biblical deaths which have disturbed me. From the very start, why did God allow Cain to murder Abel? It's all very well to say, "Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground," but why allow such a terrible thing to happen when He could have prevented it?

Last year, when we were watching the Bible series on TV, Emma found herself deeply touched by the story of the first Passover. If you haven't seen it, Pharoah's first born son was depicted as a cute little boy, his father's pride and joy. Of course, when death passed over Egypt that night, stealing the first born sons who weren't protected by the blood over their door lintels, that little prince was among them. Emma said, 'Whenever I read that story, I always thought of him as some adult dude, as bad as his father. Not as an innocent little boy. It wasn't fair.' I reminded her that, of course, he wouldn't have been the only innocent child to die that night.

The first son of David and Bathsheba died as a baby. It seemed unfair for him to be taken because of what they did. It wasn't his fault. And how about the thousands of Hebrew baby boys who were cruelly slain by the rulers at the time Moses was born, and the time Jesus was born. I hate it!

But the son of the wicked Jeroboam I, the first ruler of Israel when it split from Judah, put things into perspective. His story is told in 1Kings 14. Young Abijah became very sick, and his mother disguised herself as a commoner and went to a prophet to inquire about what would happen to her son. The man instantly knew who she was, and said these words. 'Go home, and when you enter the city, the child will die. All Israel will mourn for him and bury him. He is the only member of your family who will have a proper burial, for this child is the only good thing that the Lord, the God of Israel, sees in the entire family of Jeroboam.'   

That brings me right back to Max Lucado's theory. This boy was allowed to die because he was good! Death was a reward rather than a punishment. Being taken from the world early was God's protection from the future. Perhaps we're shortsighted when we assume that it must always be a calamity and a bad thing.

Next, I think of the way this is reflected in literature. In Natalie Babbitt's book, 'Tuck Everlasting,' which also became a movie, the hero Jesse Tuck and his family discover that drinking from a particular stream gives them immortality. No matter what physical blows they receive, it's impossible for them to die. Winnie, the heroine, falls in love with Jesse and almost succombs to the temptation to drink from the stream. Instead, she resists it and dies a normal death in old age. I remember the end of the movie, when lonely Jesse, just as young and handsome but now about one hundred years in the future, stands by her grave, knowing that she made the right choice.

And for those of us who love fantasy, remember the poor old alchemist, Nicolas Flamel, from the first Harry Potter book? When he decides to destroy the philosopher's stone, which was keeping himself and his wife alive, Harry knows that now they will die. Professor Dumbledore tells him, 'To one as young as you, I'm sure it seems incredible, but to Nicolas and Peronelle, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day.'

This is a very simplistic analogy, but maybe when we our turn comes to join those in the next life, instead of being sad, it will be like my Wii Fit icon making it to the end of the jogging course. She throws up her hands in triumph as flowers and streamers fall around her, other little people cheer her on, and the program makes a 'Ta-Da' noise, backed by happy music. And I'm relieved to flop back on the couch because I was looking forward to the end. Although the jog around the virtual island was good, I wouldn't want it to be prolonged any longer.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

that my home is in the wilderness

There have been several books on the market over the years about what to do when we're in a wilderness mentality or life stage. I've read several. They mostly suggest that it's a temporary stop-over and that you're bound to come out in a busier, more fruitful, and less barren place if you just hold on. But while you are in the wilderness, they offer tips to help you deal with being there, or get you out faster. None of those authors ever seem to suggest that anyone might want to stay there permanently. The very word, 'wilderness' has connotations of fighting our way through a dense jungle of pesky vines which conceal our view of what we really want life to be, a bit like Prince Charming trying to fight his way through to the enchanted castle where Sleeping Beauty lies.

I started wondering, 'Well, what if you do want to stay there and maybe build a house? To you, wilderness isn't the confusing jungle, or the bleak, empty wasteland of T.S. Eliot's poem, but a welcoming place of peace and satisfaction? You don't mind the thought of making occasional forays out into the wider world, but love having the wilderness to retreat to as your home base.

Jesus often told his disciples to come away into the physical wilderness. He obviously thought highly of the peace and refreshment to be found there.

Early this week, I found a well-known book at the second hand shop which I've been interested in reading for some time. It was 'The Tao of Pooh' by Benjamin Hoff. He extols the value of Pooh Bear's simple, contented mindset, as opposed to the harried, grandiose, hyperactive or depressed attitudes of some of his other friends in One Hundred Acre Woods.

"Emptiness is refreshing," he says. "It cleans out the messy mind and charges the batteries of spiritual energy." He goes on to say, "Many people are afraid of emptiness, however, because it reminds them of loneliness. Everything has to be filled in. Appointment books, hillsides, vacant lots - but when the spaces are filled, the loneliness really begins. Then the groups are joined, the classes are signed up for, and the gift-to-yourself items are bought."

He's probably right. We've been taught to value being busy and stressed, and wear these states as badges of importance. When I think about it, the Bible never suggests that it should be this way. I started thinking about how many very significant events happened far away from the metropolis, where big-wigs were being admired, important decisions were being made, and people were plying their trades. I think the physical wilderness represents the value of the mental peace and quiet I've come to prefer.

*Jacob lay on his rock pillow, and received a dream vision of a stairway to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. He woke up, look around his bleak surroundings with awe and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place."
* Moses saw the burning bush while in the wilderness, and his life changed forever. At that stage, he'd given up the lifestyle of an Egyptian Prince, a 'somebody'. He was simply looking after his father-in-law's sheep in the middle of nowhere.
* David loved the wilderness and surely wrote some of his famous Psalms in its peace and quiet. To him, it wasn't a barren wasteland, but the place of quiet, green pastures and still waters he immortalised in Psalm 23. It was in the wilderness he'd cared for his sheep, rescuing them from a bear and a lion, which later gave him the courage to believe he could face Goliath.
* Elijah lived there for some time, away from threat of weak King Ahab and bad Queen Jezebel, being sustained by ravens through the scorching drought and famine.
* John the Baptist chose the wilderness for his home, going for an austere lifestyle. We all know about his camel hair coats and diet of locusts and honey.
* The two sad disciples were travelling by foot on a lonely road to Emmaus, when Jesus approached, unrecognised by them, and began walking with them.
* Paul was travelling a similar lonely road on the way to Damascus, intending to give followers of 'The Way' a hard time, when he had his sudden, dramatic conversion experience which blinded him for a time.
* My very favourite occurred when the angels, who couldn't contain their joy and excitement, appeared to a group of shepherds, doing the regular job out in the countryside, to announce that the Savior of the World had just been born and lay in a manger. This is while everything that seemed important was going on in the big cities, whose VIPs were oblivious.

I like the physical wilderness too. Australia is full of it. Between South Australia and Queensland is lots of red desert plains that just stretch on and on when we fly over them. Driving the same route takes weeks. We did it when the kids were small. At times, we felt as if we were on a car treadmill, because the scenery on each side didn't change for eight hours straight. But the peaceful, gentle rolling of those plains, and the scrubby desert plants, refreshed something in my brain. It's good to simply sit there in the car because there is nothing else to be done at that moment. I could almost feel my brain re-charging, just as Benjamin Hoff wrote.

That's why, when all is said and done, I'd rather make my mental home in the refreshing wilderness, and come out for the occasional stimulation before retreating back to the peace again. So many people seem to prefer it the other way, by living in all the rush and excitement, retreating to the wilderness to crash when they are absolutely exhausted, before returning home to the hustle and bustle again.

Here are some further thoughts from a fellow who really did choose to go and live out in the sticks by himself.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

that the moon is more significant than we may think

This reflection started when my husband, Andrew, was putting his song list together, for his one-man-band performance at Nursing Homes and Elderly care hostels. He aims to give them a whole hour of music from their past, and as he flipped through the pages, he said, "Back in the War era and '50s, people used to draw heavily on the moon as inspiration for their songs." He quoted a long spiel including Moon River, Fly Me to the Moon, How High the Moon, Moon Glow, Blue Moon and By the Light of the Silvery Moon.

I might have not have given it further thought, except that I drove off to the shop and turned on the car radio. It was in the middle of LeAnn Rimes', Can't fight the Moonlight. I made a mental note to tell Andrew that the fascination wasn't restricted to the war era. Then I started remembering other more modern songs from the later twentieth century which highlight it. Cat Stevens' Moon Shadow, Van Morrison's Moon Dance, and Credence Clearwater Revival's Bad Moon Rising.

Human kind have had a love affair with our satellite all through history, highlighting it in stories and folklore as well as music. It's an aid to romance, making a beautiful, shining focal point for young couples to gaze on. Even Shakespeare had Juliet tell Romeo, 'Swear not by the moon.' And we all know when vampires are said to come out to do their mischief. It's on full moon nights. Anything that has earned its place in both romance and horror stories alike, just by being itself, deserves respect.

There's no doubt that it serves a vital role in science too, as the magnetic pull of its gravity has a significant effect on our ocean tides, and hence, our climate patterns. And whether or not we realise it from day to day, each of our schedules is built around its waxing and waning, as the cycles of the moon are responsible for the months in our calendar.

I wasn't around back in July, 1969, for the moon landing, although I was just five months away from being born. My sister and brother remember everyone being allowed a half day off from school so they could watch it being televised. I can imagine what a significant historical moment it would have been, when something so lofty and unattainable was stepped on by human beings. How everyone must have thrilled to hear the words from the crew.

My younger son, aged 10, asked, 'Why hasn't anyone been back to visit the moon since then? That was ages ago.'

We were quick to tell him, 'It's because a whole lot of money would have to be poured into another expedition, and there's really no point, because we all know there's nothing much up there. Lots of dust and rocks, some craters, and an atmosphere so thin, you can't take a breath without special suits and breathing apparatus.'

That's an interesting thought. Not much up there, in spite of the allure humankind has always felt for it. As a person, have you ever felt insignificant? If people were like landscapes, we might consider ourselves to be dry and barren, like the moon. Have you ever said, 'I don't have much to offer?' Well imagine there really is a man living on the moon, not far from where the Apollo 11 Crew disembarked. Apart from that one flash of excitement in his otherwise ho-hum life, I can imagine him getting discontent and saying, 'Everything is just the same around here all the time. I wish I could have a change, get away somewhere where there's a fantastic view, be important for once.'

Back to the start of this reflection, little does he know how vital his place is for the functioning of life on earth, or the fascination with which earthlings have always regarded the moon, weaving it into their stories and songs. He's so far away from Earth, it doesn't register to him. He's missing the long-range view.

Maybe if we call our own lives dull and dry, we're missing the long-term, long-range view too, with which people far from the confines of Earth may be regarding us. I can't help thinking of how the Bible tells us we're each the subject of angels on assignment, that we're of vast importance to celestial beings, who cheer when we make sound, life-enhancing decisions, and can't contain themselves from popping up at certain times in history. It also tells us that each of us are deeply loved by God, who knew us completely when we were being knit together in our mothers' wombs and has every hair of our heads numbered. We may never find out in our lifetimes how important, and even fascinating, we may have been to others, just as the moon is to us.

We need to keep our chins up as we go about our daily lives, remembering that for all the apparent boredom of routine, we're like the moon. For all we know, songs may have been written about us, maybe even as we speak. We may be impacting the right people, either human or celestial, unbeknown to us, and we may even be scaring the unsavoury, bad influences away, just as we should be doing. I'm sure we won't know our individual impacts in this lifetime, and later we may well be very surprised.

Okay, when I mentioned the beginning of this blog post to Andrew, it inspired him to go searching for other moon songs. We didn't even mention the ones without the moon in their titles, but still featuring it in their lyrics. I find myself humming, "When the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie, that's Amore."

 Here is another reflection about journeys into space helping us find perspective.
And another one about being too close to realise the true significance of our lives.

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