Overcoming Darkness

Her name was Bec. Small in stature, with shoulder-length, sandy hair, a face free of make-up and an unpretentious manner, there was nothing to give the impression of authority or passion as she took her place at the lectern. But when she opened her mouth, I realised she had the heart of a lion.

Bec had been living for several years in Cambodia, a nation where trafficking of women and children was common—and many nationals viewed it as a way to survive financially. Fathers sold their young daughters into prostitution. Some children were rescued and returned to their families, only to be sold again. The blindness and injustice of it made my stomach churn. Yet Bec’s tone held steady as she shared. How can she be so calm? I wondered.

After reading some sad statistics, Bec lifted her eyes to her listeners. ‘Because of this, many people view Cambodia as a very dark place. When we look at the darkness in our world, we can shake our heads in despair, fearing the darkness will grow so large that it snuffs out the light.’ Her voice grew louder. ‘But that’s because we have the wrong idea. We think darkness and light are equal and opposite forces. They’re not. Darkness isn’t a force at all. It doesn’t have a power of its own to do anything.

Darkness is just the absence of light. To overcome darkness, all we need to do is turn on the light. Even the tiniest flame can cut through it.’

I sat in my seat, stunned, as Bec’s words cut through the shadows in my mind.

She opened her bible and read from John chapter 1 verse 5. ‘”The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”’

Hope stirred inside me. Light overcomes darkness. Darkness—no matter how black it is—cannot overcome light.

Bec continued, ‘This principle is the foundation of our work in Cambodia. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.”’ (Matthew 5: 14-15) She smiled. ‘To overcome darkness, we need to find the highest stand—the highest platform—we can and shine as brightly as we can, so our light reaches as many people as possible.’

Photo by Pezibear on Pixabay

For Bec and a team of Cambodian nationals, that meant working together to shine the brightest light they could into arenas which held the greatest sway over young people’s minds—music and media. The team formed a band, wrote music and worked with some media experts to produce albums and advertisements that challenged popular views on issues such as drink spiking, date rape, prostitution and trafficking. As they shone their light, they were changing mindsets, little by little.

It’s been fifteen years since I heard Bec speak, but her words have stayed with me—and they came up again a couple of months ago. In fact, I woke with them echoing through my mind.

It’s so easy for us to be overwhelmed by the darkness we see in our world, especially in this COVID season when there’s upheaval almost everywhere we look. Now, more than ever, we need to remember that we can overcome darkness—if only we’ll turn on the light.

So, how do we do that?  

We fix our eyes

First, we shift our gaze from the darkness—all the doom and gloom around us—to focus on God. The bible says He is light and darkness has no place in Him. It’s only through His light, His enabling, that we can overcome.  When we fix our eyes on the pure brightness of His light, everything else is put into perspective. He gives us hope. He exposes any darkness residing in our hearts, washing us clean and setting us free to move forward and live at peace with others.

‘If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin.’ 1 John 1:7

We act in the opposite spirit

Darkness cannot be overcome by more darkness. Instead, we live in God’s light and let it shine through our lives.

Where there is hatred, we show love.

Where there is division, we build unity.

We offer hope in the face of doom, truth where there is deception, comfort where there is pain, peace amid turmoil, acceptance where there is rejection. Enabled by God’s overflowing love, we press forward, relying on the wisdom and power He offers.

‘Do not be overcome by evil,

but overcome evil with good.’ Romans 12:21

We let the Light guide our steps.

As we choose to walk with God, He shines His light on our path, revealing His specific purpose for each of us. As we give ourselves wholeheartedly to that purpose, His light emanates from our lives, dispelling the darkness around us.

He may lead us to do something as small as smiling at a neighbour who’s struggling, or as large as funding a programme to help those who are homeless. For each of us, the path will be different, but we all have a part to play.

‘A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other.’ 1 Corinthians 12:7 (NLT)

Our light may seem small to us. Insignificant, even. But think of a flickering candle. The tiniest flame still penetrates the darkness. And if we all shine together, think of how bright the light will be. Together we can overcome.  

Photo by Irina Anastasiu on Pexels

‘In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Romans 8:37-39  

Hope in the Face of Inadequacy

Can you see him? A little boy, six or seven years old—round, dark eyes full of wonder peering out from under a tangled mop of brown hair. He creeps through the darkened city, heart pounding against his ribcage while thoughts ripple through his mind. Can it be true? Is the promised one really here? What will He be like? And will my gift be enough? Clutched tightly to the boy’s chest is a small drum.  

Of all the Christmas carols we sing, “The Little Drummer Boy,” though fictional, is one of my favourites. The inner wrestle it depicts is so familiar to me. When I consider the lavish kindness and grace of God, any gift I seek to offer Him seems so small. Yet God finds joy in my offerings, because He sees my heart—just as, in the song, baby Jesus smiled his approval to the boy who wanted so desperately to bless Him.

Six weeks ago, this song was far from my mind. Christmas was over, we’d begun a new year and my thoughts were consumed with preparation for the release of “Skinny Girl”, my very first book. In December, I’d spent many hours poring over the manuscript—editing and re-editing till I was sure the wording was clear. I’d prayed my way through decisions about cover design and texture, page colour, font style, font size and artwork. Perfectionist that I am, getting all the little details right was crucial.

When everything was done, I sent the final documents to my publisher and my family celebrated the end of a very drawn-out season of writing. Early in January, ten boxes of “Skinny Girl” were printed and delivered—some to our home, some to Tasmania, ready for my southern launch. My heart soared as I opened the first box and stared inside. After almost eleven years, my dream was becoming a reality. Overflowing with gratitude, I began gifting books to family members and other people who’d helped me through the writing process.

I gave our family’s copy of “Skinny Girl” to my teenage daughter, mindful this was her first opportunity to read my full story. “If you want to talk about anything as you read, just come and see me, darling. I’m happy to chat,” I told her. Over the next couple of days, she asked some questions and we talked through parts of the story.

One morning she approached me in the kitchen, the book in her hands, her face sympathetic. “Mum, I found a typo.” She opened to a page in one of the final chapters and pointed to a word I’d failed to adjust during one of my final edits. In that moment, two unnecessary letters shattered my hopes of a flawless book.

I sighed. I’d tried so hard. I lifted my eyes to my daughter’s face, knowing she was sorry to give me the bad news. “Thanks for telling me, sweety. I’ll let the publisher know so they can correct it ready for the next print.”

The next day, I told my sister about the typo while we chatted on the phone. “I don’t know how I missed it. I went over the manuscript so many times.”

She hesitated, then spoke in an apologetic tone. “There are actually three typos, Sue.”

“Three?” My heart plummeted. “Oh, no!”

How could it be? I knew how many hours I’d spent reading and re-reading, arranging and rearranging words to make sure everything was ‘just right’. I wanted the book to be perfect, to look professional and leave readers with a good impression. My publisher had also done a final proofread before ordering the print run, yet somehow, despite our determined efforts, three errors had slipped through and been duplicated—more than three hundred times. Every single book in those ten boxes held the same flaws.

Late that afternoon, I knelt beside our bed, lay my head on the mattress and poured out my disappointment to the Lord. Almost immediately, I felt His calming presence. He reminded me of a boy in the bible, a little guy whose hunger to honour Jesus burned stronger than the emptiness of his stomach. This boy’s meagre offering of two fish and five small loaves opened the way for Jesus to provide a feast for a vast crowd.

The boy didn’t have much to give.

Lyrics from the Little Drummer boy drifted through my mind. That boy was poor—he didn’t have much to give either. But these boys’ hearts were devoted, so they offered what they had to Jesus and left the results with Him.

Two little boys. Two beautiful stories of devotion and blessing.

What is it about children that makes them so different?

Children are accustomed to having others make up for their lack.

If a child can’t reach something, they ask taller people to lift them up or get it down for them. If their little hands don’t yet have the skills to open a container or build something special or untie a knot, they look to someone bigger to help.

Children are not afraid to admit their limitations.

 Adults prize self-reliance, competence and mastery. We measure success by how much we can achieve in a particular timeframe. We struggle with the concept of weakness and, sometimes, take a very long time to acknowledge we need help.

Maybe that’s why the Lord so often puts us in a position where we’re out of our depth. He wants us to recognise our need and look to ‘someone bigger’ to make up for our lack. He wants to show us the fullness and joy we can experience in our inadequacy—if we’re willing to look to Him.

That afternoon, I heard my Father whisper to my heart,

Daughter, remember, it’s not about your perfection. My power is made perfect in your weakness. Just as with the loaves and fish, I can take whatever you surrender to Me—however flawed it seems—and make it into something great that nourishes and brings life to many.

Trust Me and watch what I will do.   

So, I’m trusting. I’m watching. And, over and over, I’m marvelling at the work He’s doing in other people’s lives through my flawed offering.

What are you offering to the Lord today? As you surrender it to Him, you can be confident He will take your gift and do something wonderful through it, despite its seeming limitations.  

Just be sure to keep your eyes open. You don’t want to miss the show.

‘And Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”’

Matthew 18: 3-4.

Image from Pexels – Alexandr Podvalny

Little boy featured image from Pexels – Jonas Mohamadi

On Christmas Morning

On Christmas morning, my husband and I were up well before our children—not so unusual now they’re all teens and young adults. The weather was cool, so I pulled my robe from the cupboard and wrapped myself in its warmth. While my husband busied himself in the kitchen, I made a hot drink then moved to the lounge, where I sank into the couch closest to our Christmas tree.

Up till that point, my days had been full of activity. Finishing the year at school, sorting final details for the design of my book, making gift lists, shopping lists, lists of things to cook, shopping then chopping and baking and creating in the kitchen—all the while my mind whirring with everything I needed to remember and consider and organise.

Finally, on this special day, there was time to stop all the activity and savour the moment. 

Coloured lights glowed in the semi-darkness, drawing me in and slowing my mind and heart. I wrapped my hands around my mug and sipped, smiling as my eyes drifted between the decorations adorning our tree. There were felt stars and hearts and stockings, odd-shaped and lumpy with stuffing, sewn by eager little hands so many years ago. Nearby were wooden figures, large and small, painted by the same hands a year or two later. Red and white tasselled triangles took my thoughts to a visit from old friends, missionaries to Tibet. There was a swirly purple bauble I’d received from our mothers’ group and a red satin chilli given by friends from New Mexico when we celebrated Christmas together, in Taiwan, thirty years earlier. There were baubles and beads and sparkly stars, each looped over the ends of bristly green branches.

Our tree wouldn’t be chosen to grace the pages of a Home Beautiful magazine. It didn’t stand especially tall or impressive. In my eyes, though, it was a treasure trove, covered with emblems of life and love and the beauty of relationships.

My heart was full as I gazed at the display before me. Truly, we were blessed. Those decorations represented relationships I’d cherished over the years. The time and effort that went into making or choosing these ornaments was an outflow of the love we shared. A prayer lifted from my heart. Lord, thank you! Thank you for all the people you’ve brought into my life and the special times we’ve shared. I’m so grateful. Far beyond any material gift I could be given, I valued the gift of relationship.

My thoughts moved on to Jesus, the reason for Christmas—for the carols we sang, the gifts we shared, the feasting and goodwill to those beyond our home.

How could I put into words my gratitude for Him?

God gave His very best, His own Son, to show the world His love and power. When Jesus lay down his life on the cross, He offered forgiveness and rescue from all our failings and invited us into God’s family, with all its privileges. The most astounding gift I’ve ever been given is to belong to God and have Him walking with me through every day, every season—even the unexpected challenges of the past year. I can’t imagine facing any stage of life without Him.

My relationships with people would wax and wane as time and movement affected our level of connection. But God’s presence with me would be constant, bringing deep peace and security to my heart. He knew me. He loved me. He would never stop loving, even for a second, for His entire essence was love.

Whatever the days ahead would hold, whatever surprises the new year would bring, God would be there. He would lead me through every season, all the way into eternity, and through the process our relationship would grow stronger.

I pulled my eyes from the tree, climbed off the couch and strode to my phone. It was time to put on some carols. There was so much joy bubbling up from my spirit, I couldn’t help but sing.

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God!”

1 John 3:1

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Revelation 3:20

What If?

Do you ever hear a voice whisper, “What if . . .?”

What if things don’t turn out the way I hoped?

What if they don’t like me?

What if the test result is bad?

What if our money runs out?

What if we lose x? y? z?

I wonder how many ‘what ifs’ we’ve allowed to tromp through our mind, bash and crash their way through our dreams, keep us tossing and turning all night, stealing every trace of peace . . . only to come to nothing, like a rolling storm that evaporates to reveal the sun.

Some days what ifs simmer under the surface, quietly unsettling our soul. Other times, their voice is booming and powerful, drowning out all other sounds. In our mind’s eye we see the what ifs’ predictions playing out, our emotions surging as if they were already a reality. At their worst, what ifs bind and cripple us, making us unable to function at all.

The crazy thing is, as convincing and real as they may seem, what ifs are merely that—what ifs—figments of our imagination, with no real substance. The only hold they have over our mind and heart is because of the time and attention we give them.

A couple of months back God cut through my time of prayer and reflection with these words: You’re forming a habit of listening to what ifs.

He was right. I was.  

What if I fail? What if things don’t go to plan? What if? What if? What if? Unknowingly, I’d been letting my imagination run off on negative tangents, even though I knew they would do me no good. So subtly had the what ifs crept in, I hadn’t noticed them building, bringing heaviness and tension to the way I worked, the tone I used with my family, my mood when I contemplated the days ahead. God had shone His light on these recurring questions, exposing the load of doubts I’d taken on—and I was grateful.

Once the truth was out, His remedy was swift, His instruction clear. Stop it now.

Okay, God. I will. Please show me how to break this pattern.  

He planted a new word pairing in my mind—one so minimally different to ‘what if’, the change seemed almost insignificant. Yet, unlike the fear and anxiety ‘what if’ provoked, the new duo pulsed with truth, security and authority.

‘Even if.’

Even if . . .

Even if things go wrong . . . God will be there. He will be enough. His love will stand firm.

I scribed His words in my journal as He worked this truth into my heart.  

Even if plans don’t turn out quite as you’d imagined, even if something terrible happens, even if circumstances turn upside down or you fail at something, My love for you never fails, My presence still offers you rest and I will show you the way through.

Photo by nicollazzi xiong on Pexels.com

In Isaiah 43 God doesn’t shy away from the reality of tough times in our lives. If anything, He hints they are inevitable, the only question being ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. In the face of this hard truth, His accompanying promise gives a firm foundation for hope—when we pass through the waters and walk through the fire, we will not be overcome, for He is with us. We will not drown. We will not be burned. He will bring us through. (Isaiah 43: 1-5a)

And how about Paul’s declaration in Romans 8?

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,

Neither angels nor demons,

Neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation

Will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 38-39)

Did you notice the first obstacle Paul mentioned? Even death—what we may view as the most devastating ‘what if’—cannot separate us, or those left behind, from God’s powerful presence or His tender love.

We can’t predict what the days ahead will hold. This year full of strange happenings has taught us that. But the one who already sees our future is with us and He will never let us go. When we drag our thoughts away from what ifs and fix our eyes on His loving face, we find a peace and strength that holds us steady—even if the unexpected happens.

 

Learning to Rest in the Land of Busy

This blog was birthed out of a season when I was a stay-at-home mum in Tasmania savouring slow time after eleven years home-schooling and a bout of serious illness. Rest— body, soul and spirit—was my primary focus. I savoured leisurely days in our spacious, sun-drenched home—reading, praying, writing, pottering in the kitchen and garden, reflecting on life with dear friends and finding joy in simple pleasures. My eyes were opened afresh to the wonders all around me—plump spring buds, alpacas frisking in the back paddock, fairy wrens hopping on the lawn in search of food.

In that season, God taught me how to enjoy ‘just being’, secure in His love irrespective of what I achieved. Like an ailing tree in fertile soil, I plunged my roots deep into Him and marvelled at the quiet strength anchoring me as I transitioned back into normal life.

Today I live almost 1400km north in Wollongong, the third largest city in New South Wales. Wollongong is a city of contrasts. Its golden ribbon of coastline and lush rainforest speak of adventure, discovery and relaxation.

Then there’s Wollongong’s busy face. I see it in the endless plume of steam rising from the steelworks, the creaking of the coal train as it rocks back and forth along its time-worn track, tall cranes reaching skyward as they lift materials for yet another apartment block and the myriad of people coming and going—always coming and going. I, too, am one of the busy ones these days, bustling out the door four mornings a week to play my part in the local workforce.

The hours I spend at home now are carefully apportioned between family, housework, writing, reading and seeking God for fresh strength to juggle it all. Many nights, dissatisfaction grumbles as I climb into bed. I didn’t get through my to-do list. Or I stayed up much too late trying. There’s an unrest I’ve noticed creeping into my heart—a frustration with my lifestyle and desperation to find a better balance. I’ve tried allocating small time periods for demanding tasks, hoping to chip away at them gradually over time. This gave me some sense of progress, but not enough to restore the peace and rest I used to enjoy.

A few weeks ago, in weariness of heart, I turned to Matthew 11:26-28, where Jesus explains that we find rest by coming to Him. Lord, I’m already coming to you—every day—and still I’m not at rest. I’m restless! How can I find that place of calm again when life is so hectic?

With soul open and thirsting, I read through Jesus’ familiar words. He spoke of the yoke, a timber crosspiece laid across the necks of two oxen so they can work together, the lead ox bearing the load’s weight and setting the course while the younger ox—the novice—walked beside.

image by 2211438 on pixabay

                                                                                                                                                                    Image by 2211438 on Pixabay

“Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus said, “and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” He said His yoke was easy and His burden light. Clearly, if I felt so heavy-laden and discouraged, I wasn’t wearing His yoke.

This made me wonder, did my circumstances need to change? In some areas, the answer was yes. I had set too many goals, was trying to squeeze too much into each day. I needed to recognise my limits and let God sift my priorities. I knew the busy weekdays would remain as He had clearly led me into my job. But there were other, optional pursuits I could lay down—at least for a time.

I sat quietly, pondering this, until a clear realization cut through my thoughts. Changing my routines might offer some relief. But my circumstances weren’t the problem.

The real issue—the root of all my unrest—was the state of my heart.

Most of the weight I was carrying came from the expectations I put on myself—to perform, to achieve, to keep everything under control. Added to that load was my frustration over my limited time at home. Wistfulness had grown into resentment, a heavy burden that made me drag my feet and overlook the blessings in each day.

My focus shifted again as I felt God draw my attention to the posture required to take on a yoke. The young ox had to bow its head—and thus its will. To bear well the yoke it had been given and fulfil its purpose, it needed to align its body with the lead ox and submit to that ox’s strength and wisdom.

 

I sensed God speak to my heart, Yieldedness is the place of rest. As you choose to trust Me and bow to My will—the yoke of My choice for this season—you’ll feel the burden lift. Then there will be a new lightness and ease in your days.

image by skeeze from pixabay

                                                                                                                                                                    Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Ah, yieldedness. That surrendering of control and laying down of our own efforts. It’s something we might fear and try to shirk, yet it offers a path straight to rest. The author of Hebrews said anyone who enters God’s rest ceases from their labour. That means we throw off the mindset that says it’s all up to us, that we need to wrestle and juggle and figure everything out. Yieldedness means letting go and taking our place as the learner beside the Lord, fully aware of our frailty and trusting in His rock-solid, abiding presence. It means surrendering each situation and each relationship to Him and trusting Him to show us the way through.

Humbled, I yielded. I recognized the yoke Jesus had given me was just what I needed—whether I thought so or not. As I surrendered, I recognized and began to thank Him for the many gifts in my busy life—the beautiful and challenging people who cross my path, daily opportunities to learn and grow, the shelter and peace of our home, the family I gather with over candlelit dinners who devour mountains of food and create piles of dirty dishes. The more I thanked God, the more clearly I could see. I was blessed! And shining brightly above all God’s gifts was His constant, strong presence beside me—a source of stability, nurture and enabling to do far more than I thought I could.

This rest of God is not dependent on our physical condition or our circumstances. It flows from a state of firm confidence in Him—His kindness, His ability, His constancy—and cannot be taken away, unless we allow it. If I shift my focus away from the Lord and onto myself, my rest is quickly stolen. Knowing my own weakness, I now begin most days with this prayer.

Lord, thank you for this new day. Please make it what you want it to be and lead me through it. And make me who you want me to be, Lord. I want to walk with you.

The moment those words lift from my heart, my perspective is renewed and I’m released from the drive to strive. I feel His response. Rest in me, daughter. I am more than enough for you. Trust me and I will show you the way through.

Daily, God calls me into His rest. He’s calling you too. He wants all of us to dwell in that place of intimacy and peace and strength in Him. It’s only by remaining yielded, yoked with Him, that we can walk in His plans and bring Him the honour He’s due. That is our highest purpose.

“Look to the Lord and his strength;

Seek his face always.” 1 Chronicles 16:11  

Don’t Push!

Last Saturday was a day for celebration. Late in the afternoon, as the heavens opened and released a torrent of rain outside, I sat with my computer in the quietness of our study and emailed the final documents for “Skinny Girl” to my publisher. Finally, the work was done! The fact this event took place almost two months later than planned was sure to mean the book’s release date would be delayed. Yet, I smiled as deep peace and satisfaction flooded my heart—more than I would have felt, I’m sure, if I had sent the documents on time.

Often, when we set goals, we have a clear picture in our minds of how we want things to play out—what will happen, how and when the goal will be achieved. Later, looking back, we measure our success by how close the reality was to our imaginings.

But what if there was a better route to achieving our goal than the plan we’ve created? And what if we switched our focus from the outcome to the process? How would that change our understanding of success?

When I was asked to consider changing some crucial points in my book manuscript just five days before the due date for submission, my whole mindset had to shift. Already—numerous times—I’d sought feedback from a range of people, discussed necessary changes and prayerfully gone over the material again. To be told I needed to retrace my steps once more, and at such a late stage, had me feeling like a marathon runner plunging towards the finish line, only to be intercepted and told I must turn around and run the last two kilometres again. The loss of momentum felt awfully like defeat—until I was able to quiet my heart and listen to my Father’s still, small voice.

I was reminded this book was God’s idea, not mine. I needed to yield to His process, even when it didn’t make sense to me. Over the next few days, I was able to lay down my expectations and time frame and release myself from the drive to ‘just get it over the line’. I explained the situation to my publisher, who offered an extension for however long I needed. Her grace released me to yield completely to God’s plan.

Several weeks in, I felt Him remind me, Rest. Don’t rush. If you push ahead for the sake of expediency, you are no different to Saul.(1 Samuel 13-15) An image of  King Saul impatiently taking things into his own hands, disregarding God’s command and consequently losing his crown sent a shudder through me. I didn’t want to be like that! Be like Mary, the Lord continued. Sit at My feet. Worship. And know that the practical things that need to be done will be—if you truly put Me first.”

Those words transformed my perspective on the setback. Suddenly, it was no longer a hindrance but a gift. Rather than being blocked from achieving my goal, I’d been given an opportunity to rest, listen and allow God to add new dimensions to the story, to make it even better. He dropped a picture of two pieces of fruit into my mind. The first was fuzzy and pink with a sweet outer layer, but a firm, sour centre that made it difficult to digest. The second was plump and fragrant and richly-coloured, dripping with flavour and lasting, life-giving nourishment. To give readers an incomplete book simply because I felt it had been ripening long enough was like picking a piece of immature fruit and offering it to someone I cared about. Its benefit would be limited and some of its effects could be unsettling.

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Image by flockine from Pixabay

With renewed desire to let things develop according to God’s plan, I spent long periods studying my bible, poring over verses on trust, submission and rest and scrawling long prayers and notes in my journal. I consulted with key contacts and asked for prayer from people at church, all the while keeping my eyes and ears open to see what God would do. There were moments I felt Him draw my attention to particular words spoken by someone in conversation. Another when a phrase I heard uttered in prayer echoed in my heart for days afterwards. Each little piece I recorded in my journal, and as I did, I noticed a gradual shift taking place in my thinking. Slowly, beautifully, as days and weeks ticked by, God put each piece in its place to create a clear picture showing me what I needed to do to bring the book to ‘maturity’. The changes were not difficult—they took only a couple of hours to write—but they were significant to the message of the story. Even more precious to me, though, were the hours I spent resting in His presence (Psalm 91:1)

King Saul’s grandson, Solomon, showed greater wisdom than his grandfather when he said,

“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.”(Psalm 127:1)

Esther Wine Glass Bay lookoutI often hear God whisper a simpler version of this proverb to my heart. Don’t push. We may try to build good things—very good things—through our own efforts, but it’s only when we yield to God and His plan that we can produce something of real value. There is a time to work hard and put energy and effort into our task, but we need to be mindful of the motivation for our effort.

It’s easy, even when God plants a dream in our heart, for us to begin with Him then run ahead because our eyes are so firmly fixed on the finish line. But there’s more to the story than the endpoint. The journey has a richness of its own. If we disregard the value of the process, we’ll miss the beautiful things God wants to do in us and for us along the way. The process is what prepares us for the time of the project’s completion. It makes us ripe and ready for what comes next.

Esther holding flowersSo, if we’re not to push, what’s the alternative? To rest and be led—by the one who sees the whole picture and whose way is always best—in timing and in process.

On Saturday, as I pressed ‘send’ on the email to my publisher, I marvelled at the way God, who began this venture so many years ago had sealed it by directing, in such intimate detail, my final steps. Truly He is the Alpha and Omega—the first and the last—the one who brings the first gleaming rays of dawn and plants the sun’s final kiss on fruit-laden branches at day’s end.

“We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.” Proverbs 16:9

“. . . the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace . . .” Romans 8:6b

 

 

It’s All in Your Mind

I was surprised how quickly I slipped. For several months I’d been mulling over some wonderful truths, gaining understanding and mentally preparing to share them on this blog. I’d learned to see challenges as an opportunity for growth and felt I could approach any difficulty with a positive attitude. Yet all it took was a few unexpected comments at a crucial moment to send me into a spin.

I was six days away from sending my final documents for my book, “Skinny Girl”, to the publisher when an email came from a trusted contact suggesting further edits. By this time—ten years into the writing and editing process—I hoped I had worked through every change that was needed.  I was wrong.

The point my friend made was important and I was glad she raised it. Still, I felt myself plummeting into a crazy mental tug-of-war, my thoughts flitting back and forth between accusations of failure and quieter assurances that correction would only help improve the book. Tiredness and hormones added their weight to the gloomy side, whispering in my ear, No matter how many changes you make, there will always be another error to fix, another fault to correct. This is never going to end.

Always. Never. I’d heard taunts like that before. I knew how to deal with them. But that day—my daughter’s birthday—I was too busy bustling through my list of essential birthday tasks, so the struggle simmered on. Late that evening I finally stopped, took a deep breath and verbalised what God had already whispered to my heart. “It’s gonna be okay. God will work it for good.” As soon as the words left my mouth, the inner battle waned and I could view the setback through eyes of hope. When I read the email again next morning, the words that tormented me had lost their sting and I began to get a sense of the way forward.

Sometimes our thoughts seem to run out of control.  Like cars on a racetrack, they hurtle through our mind, leaving impressions that guide our decisions—often without us realizing. Some days negative thoughts fire at us like a volley of bullets, making us cower in the corner, unable to function. Sometimes they even make us sick.

But are our thoughts really beyond our control? Are we helpless victims to their fluctuations?

Here’s what I’m learning.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2b). He wouldn’t say this unless change was possible. This process of renewal begins the moment we place our lives in God’s loving hands. He infuses us with His life-changing power, giving us a new heart and a new spirit. (Ezekiel 36:26, Titus 3:5) Then He calls us to partner with Him on the journey of transformation—a makeover that begins in our mind.

Holding hands looking at viewIt’s important to note that the verse in Romans doesn’t say, ‘Sit back and watch while God does all the work.’ It instructs us to, ‘Be transformed’. ‘Be’ is an action word. When we say, ‘Be quick,’ ‘Be thankful,’ or ‘Be quiet,’ we expect the listener to make a choice to do what’s been asked of them. When, through Paul, God says, ‘Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,’ He’s telling us to choose to change the way we think, so we can grow into the people He designed us to be. He doesn’t leave us alone in this. He’s with us—offering strength and wisdom—every step. But the choices we make are vital to the process.

There are many people who’ve already put this principle into practice:

Wise King Solomon advised his listeners to, ‘Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and lean not on your own understanding.’ (Proverbs 3:5-6)

When David battled depression, he told his soul to, ‘Put your hope in God,’ (Psalm 42: 5) Many, many times he made a decision to shift his focus from the hardships in his life—which were extreme—to the goodness of God. ‘My soul is downcast within me; Therefore, I will remember you . . .’ (42: 6)

Isaiah said, ‘You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast because they trust in You.’ (Isaiah 26:3)

The writer of Lamentations followed his outpouring of grief over his homeland’s devastation with a determined re-direction of his thoughts. ‘Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail . . . great is your faithfulness.’ (Lamentations 3:19-23)

Paul wrote to new Christians, ‘Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.’ (Colossians 3:2) He told his readers to think about whatever is true, noble, pure, lovely and so on. (Philippians 4: 8)

These verses are the kind we look to for hope and perspective when we’re in a rough patch. We admire the faith of these people and the victories they experienced, often overlooking the fact they made a choice for hope and peace—even while their circumstances screamed pain and hopelessness. They faced their despair and negativity, renewed their mind, rose above the trials and ultimately went on to fulfil God’s purpose for their lives. Their example urges us to do the same. To acknowledge the Lord. Put our hope in Him. Remember His love. Trust in His strength and stability. Call to mind His great compassion. Set our minds on Him and His inherent goodness.closer slow down sign

‘Mindfulness’, the practice of slowing our thoughts and calmly observing them, is popular in our world right now. Many people are adopting it as a lifestyle in the hope of finding peace. To recognize what we’re thinking is an important first step— as we see in the example of David. However, like him, we have opportunity to go beyond merely observing our thoughts to leading them into truth.

Through God’s enabling, we can make a conscious decision to redirect the traffic in our mind. As we recognize destructive thoughts and turn them around, the truth will set us free. Then, further transformed, we can press on to fulfil God’s purpose for our lives.

So how do we renew our mind? Here are a few techniques I find helpful. I’ve mentioned some of these before, but they’re so important they’re worth repeating.

1. Read your Bible. Find verses that address the area where you need renewal.

“For the word of God is living and active . . . it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12

  1. Display truth. Put these words in a prominent place and read them often.

“Pay attention to what I say; listen closely to my words . . . for they are life to those who find them and health to a man’s whole body.” Proverbs 4:20 – 22

Studying word on deck

3. Meditate. To meditate, in its most general sense, means ‘to think about something very carefully and deeply for a long time’, much like a cow chewing its cud. Journalling can help with this. Dwelling on specific verses over a period of time can help embed them in our memory. Then they’ll be available for us to draw on any time.

“My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises.” Psalm 119: 148

  1. Speak life daily. In conversation, in prayer, in gratitude. There is power in the spoken word, especially when it’s God’s word.

“From the fruit of his mouth a man’s stomach is filled; with the harvest from his lips he is satisfied. The tongue has the power of life and death.” Proverbs 18:20 – 21

  1. Learn. Listen to teaching related to your struggle on YouTube and podcasts.

“Let the wise listen and add to their learning and let the understanding get guidance . . .” Proverbs 1:5

  1. Sing. Use music that lifts you out of those mental tug-of-wars and into freedom. Lyrics tend to stick with us long after the song is over, so choose carefully.

“But I will sing of your strength, in the morning I will sing of your love; for you are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble.” Psalm 59:16

  1. Sift. Disconnect from anything you read, watch or listen to that feeds destructive thought patterns. Replace them with good fuel.

“I will not let anything worthless guide me . . .” Psalm 101:3a

The process of mind renewal is a lifelong one and it will often be challenged. It’s good to remember that each time we make a choice for truth, God will strengthen us and give us clearer vision for the things to come.

Joy's misty morning

Photo credit to Joy Van Namen

“. . .we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2 Corinthians 10: 5b

“. . . be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2b-c

 

References

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, Lexico, 10 June, 2020, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/mindfulness

COLLINS COBUILD, Collins, Glasgow, UK, 10 June, 2020, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/meditation

 

 

 

Be Still and Know

There’s something special about buying a new diary. Every time a year draws near its end, I head to the Christian bookstore, eager to get ready for the next one. I ponder all the diary options—their size and themes and layout—and flick dreamily through the hundreds of pages, wondering, What will these be filled with? What will the new year bring? Usually my heart dances in anticipation.

Except last time.

Last time, I already knew what lay ahead. 2020 was going to be punctuated by multiple major events, each of them God-ordained and exciting when considered on their own. Crammed together within a twelve-month span, though, they felt overwhelming.

At heart, I’m a girl who likes stability. Balance. Breathing space. This year loomed as one packed so full, I knew it would drag me out of my comfort zone and hold me there for a long time. There would be new responsibilities at work, an overseas holiday with extended family, several months involvement in a course at church, a three day writer’s conference in Queensland, the release of my first book,  launches of that book in two states and a journey to Thailand to meet our sponsor children. Phew! All of these lined up in my mind as though they were a series of wild waves I was about to ride, exiting each one just in time to turn around and ride the next. It wasn’t only the events that stressed me. It was all the organization required to see them run smoothly.

So, my diary-shopping trip last December was far more serious than usual. If I was going to survive the coming year, I knew I’d need something to remind me of the truth—often. My diary was something I looked at every day, at least once a day. It had to provide something that would help me keep perspective. Around and around the display table I circled, picking up one book then another, reading, flicking, thinking. Finally, I settled on one with a cover inscription that instantly quieted my anxious heart.

“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10.

That was it. I needed to fix my eyes on the One who ordained all these plans. He was God. And He was more than enough. If He had directed that our year be full and hectic, He would give me all the grace I needed—not only to survive but maybe even to thrive.

Grey diaryThat was December. Now it’s May. Five months have passed since that moment and I’ve found myself referring to those words many, many times. Just a few days ago, I sat on the edge of our bed, staring again at the curving letters on the cover. Again, I was struck by the first instruction. ‘Be still’.

This year is turning out so differently to what any of us expected. Most of the big events we planned have been cancelled or postponed. With each cancellation, I noticed myself breathing easier. My world was settling down, becoming more manageable.

Then, everything changed again. The ‘Stay Home’ policy brought drastic changes to my work as a teacher’s aide.  Suddenly, I had to acquire a whole new skillset so I could support students while they learned at home. I’ve spent countless hours in front of a screen—learning how to use new technology, creating timetables, scheduling Zoom meetings, sending emails, talking with colleagues and children and recording everything in detail. I’ve scrawled pages and pages of notes to help me remember what I’ve learned and remind me of all I need to do. Every day has had a long list. Sometimes, particularly in the early weeks, my mind was so busy, it was hard to switch off. Stillness came only when I made a very deliberate choice.

When I was still, as often happens, all that was building in my heart came pouring out. I told God how desperately I needed His help, how hard it was that everything at work changed just when I’d adjusted to my new role, how much I missed my life in Tasmania where there was time and space and quiet. As my eyes ran again over my go-to verse, I felt God emphasize the second part. ‘And know that I am God.’

He is God.

You thought you needed this diary because of all the plans you had, He whispered. But I knew you would need it for this. He was God. He was still in control. None of these restrictions or demands were a surprise to Him. His plan—as always—was to grow me through them.

Most of the time, when I’ve pondered those words— ‘know that I am God’—I’ve been comforted by the assurance that my God is powerful, able to protect and provide for me. Psalm 46 describes Him as refuge and strength, a mighty fortress, the one who holds us together, even when everything around us is crumbling. But there’s another aspect to the psalm, where the writer speaks of God as ‘the Most High’, greater than any ruler or kingdom, the one who will be exalted over all the earth.

Wow.

When I see that reality afresh, I am humbled. He is God. It’s only when I acknowledge who He is that I see more clearly who I am. It’s a privilege to belong to Him. A privilege that brings responsibility to also honour Him as ruler of my life.

Who am I to question His wisdom in allowing me to go through times of stretching? He is God. None of the changes in my life, in any of our lives, have taken Him by surprise. He is God. He has a plan and is able to work it out through all the challenges of this time—and the process goes far more smoothly if we choose to yield rather than wrestle. That day, I sensed God’s encouragement to fully embrace this season, to allow it to refine, grow and strengthen me for His purposes. The clincher came when I felt Him speak to my heart, If you shrink back, you’ll miss out.

What a challenge! I don’t want to miss out on the growth and plans God has for me. I’m sure you don’t either. We can’t always see what lies ahead in our lives. This year has made that clear. But God can—and He wants to get us ready. If we’re willing to make time to be still—regularly—we’ll see clearly again both who we are and who He is. This knowledge gives us fresh confidence to walk forward in His plans, whatever they might be, knowing He walks with us every step.

75241040_2457141721231176_2607380473948667904_n

 

Overcoming Anxiety

Of course I was worried. Anyone would be in my situation. There I was, five months pregnant with our fourth child. Our house had been sold. Soon we’d need to hand over our keys. We’d made a good profit in the sale, so I should have been excited. But one fact loomed large in my mind, casting its shadow over everything else. We didn’t have anywhere to go.

For weeks we’d been scouring the internet. Rental houses in our target area were few. Those we found were either too small, too expensive or were snapped up before we could pursue them. Now we only had two weeks left.

I stood by the stove, turning sausages in a frying pan and trying to imagine the weeks ahead—where we’d end up and how we would we get there. Through the kitchen window, I watched our children, bouncing in rhythm on the trampoline—up, down, up, down, so carefree—and terror gripped my heart. God, what’s going to happen to us? What’s going to happen to them? What if moving day comes and we still don’t have a home?

Fear clutched at my throat and my eyes brimmed with tears. I pictured us standing on the footpath, surrounded by all our belongings, our children’s faces covered with confusion. Frantically, I tried to think of words from the bible that offered hope for our situation, but nothing came to mind. All I could hear was, What if? What if? What if? My heart thrummed in my chest and my stomach began to churn.

Then God opened my eyes . . .

If I let this fear control me, I’d be no help to my family through all the upheaval. I needed to find hope. We all did. Later that evening, I sat in bed, my bible on my lap, and searched for every verse I could find about God taking care of His children. It took a while. The next day I printed six of my favourites in large letters and placed them in key locations around the house.

Every morning and afternoon, with our children in tow, I walked from room to room and we read those words together. Every time, between readings, when fear whispered doubts in my ear, I turned to the nearest page and repeated the truth.

God’s children would never be forsaken (Psalm 37:25).

We need not worry about tomorrow (Matthew 6:25-34).

He would supply all our needs (Philippians 4:19).

In those final weeks, while we packed linen and crockery, books and toys into boxes, I felt my faith grow steadily and my heart settle to a place of deep assurance. Those words we’d been reciting weren’t merely nice thoughts. They were promises—straight from the mouth of God to His children, unchanging and unbreakable.

bible page re God not forsaking His children

Moving day arrived. We still didn’t have a home to move to, but I was anchored by a peace so strong, it passed understanding (Philippians 4:7). My Father knew what we needed and He had a plan. We decided to accept an earlier offer from friends to stay in their home for a week while they were away. Another couple provided temporary storage for all our gear in the vacant unit of their grandfather. These two homes ‘happened’ to be sited in the same suburb as a house we’d applied to rent two days earlier.

Big-bellied and weary beyond words, I relished the chance for a few days rest in our friends’ very comfortable home. Midway through that week, we were told our rental application had been approved. The homeowner had chosen our family of five (almost six) as her new tenants, rather than the professional couple with no children who also applied. Miraculous! Three days later, we began moving in—an easier feat this time as the unit where all our belongings were stowed sat just around the corner.

Hand feeding lorikeetsLooking back, I was awestruck. God had kept His promises. Things hadn’t happened according to our desires or time frame, but I could see His tender fingerprints everywhere—from the proximity of all the houses to the luxurious rest period between moves. We even discovered our new landlady had lowered the rent significantly from what we were originally quoted.

What a life-changing time that was for me! I discovered God’s word truly is our sword, our key weapon against every negative attack. With the word, we can cut down the lies that try to destroy us and find peace, hope, rest and direction.

Every believer has been provided with the same powerful weapon. The question is, are we using it? Or is it sitting in its sheath, rusting, while we try unsuccessfully to deal with daily assaults on our own?

Sometimes, our emotions are so intense, it can feel too hard to pull our sword out of its sheath. That’s when we need to make a decision to start, even if it’s a tiny step like opening our bible and finding one relevant verse. As we seek to push through those negative feelings to the truth, God will show us the way and strengthen us for the battle.

I’m not immune to struggles. Sometimes anxiety starts shooting its fiery darts before the sun is even up. Intimidation snarls, telling me I’m not strong enough, brave enough, wise enough for the things God has called me into. Those emotions often taunt me—but I don’t have to agree with them. It may take a while for me to recognize what’s happening and pick up my sword. Sometimes the feelings are so entrenched, I need to persist over a period of days or even weeks. But as I choose to fix my eyes on the truth, as I wield my sword again and again, God always brings the breakthrough.sword-790815_1920

“You will keep in perfect peace

Those whose minds are steadfast

Because they trust in you.”

Isaiah 26:3

 

                      Image by azboomer from Pixabay

 

 

You Are More Than a Body

Have you ever felt it—that rush of excitement when you receive an invitation? Whether it’s for a wedding, a ball or a lavish birthday celebration, your mind swirls with images of beauty and music and celebration, then leaps to the vital question—“What will I wear?”

Last time I went through this routine, something about it bothered me. I felt honoured to be included in the guest list for a family wedding and I wanted to look my best. But my dreams of how I might dress were marred by sharp prods of anxiety. Will everyone approve of my outfit? More importantly, Will everyone approve of the way I look in that outfit?

My body is changing. Skin doesn’t spring back the way it used to. Weight is shifting to new locations and clothes don’t sit like they did before. After years of having little concern about my fitness, I need to work harder for the same results. And I am. But there’s a new body-consciousness simmering under the surface, a fear of judgement by others—and I’m annoyed. I’ve been in that place before and I know it does me no good.

Many years ago, I learned the compulsion we feel to fit a certain mould is based on this lie—our worth is measured by the size and shape of our body. Every day, through all sorts of means,  we’re bombarded with perfectly crafted images telling us how to look, what to wear and how much we should weigh if we want to measure up—and they suck us ever-downward into a spiral of comparison, discouragement and striving. Even when we know the truth, those messages can still creep in and warp our thinking. If we let those lies take root in our souls we sell ourselves short—way short.

We are more than a body. Much, much more. And, deep down, I think we know it.heart-shaped hands

God gave us our bodies as a powerful instrument to help us express who we really are. The way we treat people, the things we throw our energy into, what makes us happy or angry or sad all reveal to others what’s in our heart. And it’s our heart that truly defines who we are—not our appearance.

The world’s standard of beauty changes all the time and from culture to culture. To spend our days running after an ever-shifting ideal is like a dog chasing its tail—lots of energy expended but very little reward. Real beauty, God says, comes from a heart at peace with Him and with others—and it doesn’t fade with the passing of years or the trials of life. How much better would we be to focus on that kind of pursuit?

So how about we shake off the lies? How about we lift our sights higher than the mirror, to the One Who looks straight to the core of our being and says we’re worth dying for? That kind of love sets us free to flourish. And it gives us the desire to appreciate the beauty in the women around us.woman-girl-freedom-happy-39853

Instead of comparing and competing, let’s cheer each other on as we learn to be the best versions of our unique selves. And let’s get busy pouring all God has put inside us into lives well-lived.

When we focus on what really matters, there’s a joy that goes far beyond skin deep.

“Your beauty should . . . be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” 1 Peter 3:3-4

“Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16

B and W four young women laughing

Photo credits:
1. Hassan OUAJBIR ( https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-doing-hand-heart-sign-1535244/)
2. Jill Wellington (https://www.pexels.com/photo/dawn-sunset-beach-woman-39853/)
3. Hannah Nelson (https://www.pexels.com/photo/grayscale-photography-of-four-women-wearing-clothes-1065081/)