Spiritual Desert

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The year following my baptism in 2005, I suffered from a depression. I nourished wounds from the past, questioned present pains, and tried to solve my problems through introspection and motivational self-talk. I was lost in an area run dry–until God spoke to me through Palm 63.

He said, “Cling to Me. I am the Answer to all your questions, the Solution to every problem.”

It was my breakthrough. Pride and bitterness dissolved as I reached out to Him and surrendered my all.

He healed me and led me out of my spiritual desert.

Psalm 63 is still important to me, especially verse 8.

My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me.

It has become the anchor that holds me close to the Source of Life.

Inspired by Psalm 63, I wrote the following haibun.

——————

I’m walking–no, trudging.

Where am I? 

My feet trip over a rock hidden under the cover of darkness. Branches slap my face, thorns scratch my skin. A sharp pain shoots through my hands and knees when they hit the rough ground. 

Moaning, I get back on my feet and stumble on.

Where’s the path?

My breath comes in raw gasps. Bitterness burns my mouth, dry despair my soul.

Water.

Evil reaches for my legs, encircles my spinning thoughts. It weaves a web of lies–I’m stuck. I squirm, I twist. Deceiving threads tighten around my heart.

Help

A Voice calls my name. I hear
and cling to Him. Praise!
All’s calm, I’m free, my path’s clear.

The Healing of the Ten

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Goedemorgen! Good morning! Buon giorno!

Speaking multiple languages is a blessing–most of the time. Sometimes it is confusing. I’ve Dutch, English, and Italian Bibles. Which one do I read today?

Italian, my third language, has become our daughter’s first. My husband and I speak Dutch most of the time. I write and read mostly in English.

As I shared in last week’s post, having to communicate in second or third languages can leave me insecure and frustrated. Often I feel like Moses. “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” But he [Moses] said, “ Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” (Exodus 14:12-13).

It’s even harder for my husband, Jan. God has blessed him with a creative mind and with visionary, planning, and building capabilities. However, linguistic abilities are not among his greatest talents. Yet God uses him in Italy to preach, teach, and counsel. His Italian isn’t perfect, but people are edified and encouraged by his messages. God’s messages.

Every now and then though, eyebrows raise and mouths fall agape.

“Now Jesus healed ten lepri. How many did come back to Him?”

I heard someone chuckle as Jan met eyes with the people in the room. “Only one! Out of ten lepri, only one returned and believed.”

A giggle. Another one. Suddenly, it dawned on me. Joy filled the place as we all burst into laughter and explained to Jan that the Italian word for lepers is lebbrosi. Lepri are hares.

Do I bear good fruit?

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Since I have given my life to Jesus, almost ten years ago, I’ve overcome many insecurities. Not because I’m so good, but because He is. I know–and feel–He loves me no matter what. I am where I am supposed to be, that is, in Umbria, Italy. I trust Him for providing for our small family next year, when we’ll have no income. Everything I have ever done and experienced–even the bad stuff–He can transform it and use it all for His purposes. I’m even willing to surrender my will to His without the taste of rebellion and pride in my mouth. I long to bear fruit that pleases Him and nourishes people.

Stop. Here’s where insecurity kicks in. Is the fruit that I bear good enough?

You might want to interrupt me right now and say, “You don’t get saved by your works,” or, “You can’t earn God’s love.”

I know.

But His Word says that I still need to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Col 1:9-10 ESV–italics are mine). If I don’t bear fruit, He’ll still love me, but it’s because of my love for Him that I long to bear fruit. Good fruit.

We–my husband, our daughter and I–are in Italy to share God’s love with the Italians and let His light shine where it’s dark. We witness when, where, and to whom we can. We host worship and prayer meetings, we do Bible studies and counselling sessions. As a family, we bear fruit.

But I know that in addition to the common fruit, God calls me to grow individual fruit. Something that only I can produce because He made me unique.

I am to write.

I’ve always loved to write, so I was delighted that about eight years ago, someone prophesied that God would touch hearts through my writings. Seven long years, I prayed for guidance, for inspiration. Only last year, I started to write seriously, that is, more than the occasional personal newsletter to friends and family “back home.”

With hindsight, it was the perfect timing. Before last year, I simply wouldn’t have had the time between restructuring a house, starting a ministry, adopting a daughter, and fighting my own spiritual battles.

So God made me write a book about my spiritual journey from atheism to Christianity and share it with “the world”. “The world’s” first language is English. So I wrote the book in English–my second language. In addition, I started a blog in English, and set up two English Facebook pages.

However, it takes me an awful lot of time to write in English. Every other sentence I check the Internet if what I wrote is really English, because I always fear that my  Dutch-English-Italian language center (did I already mention that my mother tongue is Dutch?) has brewed non-existent sayings, fussy phrasing, or multilingual idiom (which would certainly add an unintended touch of uniqueness to my writing…). Not to mention downright grammatical errors.

I must add that over the last half year–since I joined FaithWriters–I’ve grown in skill as well as confidence, but I still feel insecure about my English (did you notice the disclaimer in the right margin of this blog?). Is the quality of my unique fruit good enough for God to touch hearts, as He promised eight years ago? Or do readers get distracted–disgusted–by rotten spots and weird growths?

Then some weeks ago, God told me that it was time to start writing in Italian. You can’t be serious, was my first reaction. Although we live in Italy since 2004, have a local ministry, and interact daily with Italians, Italian is my third language. Third as in “third-best.”

I felt like Moses. Can you please choose someone else for the job? Like a native Italian?

But He was clear. You do the job. I’ll give you the message, you write.

So I started writing in Italian. It’s a long and painstaking process. But God said I should do it. I obey.

He trusts me.

Who am I to feel insecure?

——-

What is your unique calling? How do you feel about it?

Why is it difficult to promote my own book?

Book promotionThis morning my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number.

“Buon giorno, sono Milly.”

“Hello?”

A call from the US.

“Hello, this is Milly.”

“Hi Milly, this is Sarah* from WestBow Press. How’s your book going?”

Sarah is a marketing consultant. We had a long talk at the beginning of this year about the necessity to promote my book, “Destination Italy.” The fact that I live in Italy while my audience is in other countries, and even on other continents, complicates my situation. Her advice was to use the social media. Since then I try to post regularly on this blog and on Facebook, and I joined some great online communities.

However, as I’ve shared in a previous post, it feels awkward to use the relationships I’ve built to promote my book. I love to share with and read from other people–you. I respect you and cherish your friendship. I want to keep our relationship genuine and pure.

In addition — being very vulnerable now — maybe I’m afraid that people will give negative feedback. Since I’m a member of FaithWriters, I’ve learned so much that I now recognize many possibilities to improve my book.  (By the way, if you consider writing a book yourself, I strongly suggest that you participate in the FaithWriters weekly writing challenge — and join a buddy group — at least half a year.)

On the other hand, I haven’t received any negative comments yet, only positive.

Probably the crucial question is why I wrote a book in the first place. Because God gave me a message worthwhile sharing or because I wanted to cheat money out of people’s pockets?

The answer is clear; God called me to write this book, because He wants to touch people’s hearts.

So if I want to enable God to touch your heart through my words, I need to let you know that I’ve written this book and that you can buy it, right?

“Your book doesn’t talk, Milly. You need to do the talking.”

“I know Sarah, I know.” Deep sigh.

All right then, here I go.

Do you want to know how God managed to change me from a stubborn, proud atheist into a follower of Jesus Christ?

Would you like to know how it is to buy a house and build up a life in Umbria, the green heart of Italy?

Do you want to learn from my struggles — and victories — during my spiritual journey?

Do you want to know how God gave us a beautiful, wonderful daughter while I was in early menopause?

Yes, yes, yes, yes?

Just buy my book. :)

Oh yeah – and please leave a review on Amazon.

 


 

*Sarah isn’t her real name; to protect other people’s names I use pseudonyms.

I am…

WhoAmI“Who are you?”

“Well, my name is …, I am … years old, I live in …, and I work as ….”

“No, sorry, I asked who you are–not how you are called, how long and where you live, or what you do for a living. Who are you really? What is your identity?”

We all need a sense of identity. The urge to know who we are arises in adolescence. We search our hearts. We seek role models. We need to know what our place is, where we belong, and what we’re worth. Stroke by stroke, we paint an image of who we think we are—or more often, of who we’d like to be. The degree to which the resulting self-portrait reflects the truth affects our fitness for life.

Speaking for myself–I wanted to be beautiful, lovable, and loved. Recognized for my character and intellect. In control. Known and understood. Needed.

I searched in all the wrong directions, taking the lines and colors to create my self-image from introspection, people, situations, and circumstances. I was deceived, confused, and frustrated. Hurt pride, anger, and bitterness took root inside me. I felt useless. My portrait was a mess.

Until, at the age of forty-three, I found Him. He explained that I couldn’t search my own heart, because it is deceitful. But He also said that I’m wonderfully made. He said that it was better to take refuge in Him than to trust in men. He knew me like no one else, including the ugly growths and wounds inflicted by a life lived without Him.

He is the Most High God, the Creator of all, and the King of kings. Yet He longs for communion with me–so much that He died for me. He restored my soul, uprooting the parasites of darkness. He cleansed me and completed me with His gifts. He needs me to shine His royal light in a dark world. He knows my destination and the way. He is my Guide. I follow Him, step by step.

I was a sinner. He made me a saint.

I was worthless. He made me worthy.

I was skeptical. He made me trust Him.

I was proud. He made me humble.

I was broken. He made me whole.

I was a vulnerable approval seeker. He made me rest in His arms.

I was introspective. He made me focus on Him.

I was a psychologist turned programmer turned technical information developer turned campsite owner turned housewife. He made me a pastor and a writer.

I was lonely. He made me the wife of a loving, godly man.

I am barren. He made me the mother of the most beautiful girl in the world.

I am Nordic. He made me a resident of Italy and bear the hot summers.

I am an introvert. He makes me come out of my comfort zone and witness for His grace and His love.

I am a confrontation-avoiding coward. He makes me brave.

I am His beloved child in whom He is well pleased.

Who are you?

Hope Against All Odds

More MH17-plane-crashthan two weeks ago, on July 17, 298 people died. They were victims in a war that didn’t concern them, because someone decided to down the airplane in which they sat on their way to their home, holiday, or work.

I know—every day innocent people die in senseless wars. But this particular incident rocked me to the core. Maybe because it involved almost two hundred fellow citizens (Dutch). Or because it’s so easy to imagine being in their shoes.

The following article, “Now Is The Time,” which I wrote for yet another FaithWriters’ Weekly Writing Challenge, reflects my thoughts and emotions. It asks the difficult questions that many people will have, but it ends with a message of hope–and a call to all Christians.

 


 

Now Is The Time

Yes!

Wendy leaps between the closing doors into the train, then slumps down onto the nearest vacant seat.

The young man across from her smiles.

“You made it.”

“Yep.” Not in the mood for chitchat, Wendy picks up her smartphone to check Facebook.

Incredible—how can they keep posting all these irrelevant messages after yesterday’s plane crash?

She’d hardly slept. The sickening image of a plane with 298 people being hit by a missile at 33,000 feet kept haunting her. Had they known what happened? Were they still alive while falling? Will the guilty ever be caught? Wide awake, she’d tried to give words to her distress. Her best friend, a marble cover notebook, patiently received phrases filled with grief and frustration. Only at about 5 a.m., merciful sleep arrived.

She hadn’t heard the alarm. When she woke up at last, she ran to catch the 8.15 train. Being responsible for the social sciences section of a national newspaper, she couldn’t afford to miss the early morning briefing.

The phone rings in her hands. It’s her editor, Stanley.

“Don’t come to the newsroom, Wendy. The boss called; she wants you to cover a Christian meeting. Says she needs some hope amidst the tragedy.”

She sits up straight. “What? You know religion isn’t my thing, Stanley.” The last thing I need is being around a bunch of cocooning Christians.

“Sorry, girl. Write something nice about the effect of faith on mourning. Here’s the address.”

“Wait a sec.” Wendy rummages through her bag in search of her notebook.

Oh no.

In the rush, she left it on her nightstand.  All of the sudden, she feels incomplete. Of course, she writes her articles on her laptop, but the first ideas, the raw emotions—she just has to jot them down by hand, ink on paper.

“Hold on, Stan.” She continues digging until she finds a scrap of paper and absentmindedly accepts the pen the young man offers her.

She’s still writing when the trains stops. The man greets her with another smile and leaves. She holds the pen out, but he shakes his head and mouths, “Keep it.”

“Thanks–no nothing, Stan. Okay, I’ll do my best. Ciao.”

Looking at the address, she realizes that she needs to get off as well. Grabbing her bag, she jolts for the exit.

No!

Too late; the doors snap shut in her face.

 ***

An hour later, she approaches a building adorned with a huge banner that says, “Now Is The Time!”

Time for what exactly? For God to show up, at last?

She wonders how any person in his right mind can believe in a good God—unless they close their eyes for reality.

When she enters the lobby, a person walks up to her. To her surprise, she recognizes the young man from the train.

“Hello, my name is Michael. Welcome.” He seems genuinely pleased and hands her a conference kit in which she identifies an information flyer, folders of Christian organizations, a notepad, and a pen. She takes out the flyer and hands the kit back to him.

“I’m here as a reporter. I’m not religious.”

“That’s good. Neither am I.” His eyes sparkle. “But don’t you need the notepad?”

Wendy stiffens. “No thanks. This flyer and my memory will do.”

Then her reporter instinct kicks in. “What are you doing here if you’re not religious?”

He smiles. “I am a Christian though. You know, Jesus never preached religion.”

A band starts playing in the auditorium.

“Did you know that God doesn’t rule the world?”

Wendy frowns. “Well, actually I already guessed so.”

“Tell me… Who’s behind yesterday’s plane crash? God or Satan?”

What?

Behind the doors, many people start singing as one, in perfect harmony.

Wendy raises her voice. “Then where’s the hope?”

“Jesus is our hope.” Michael lowers his head to speak directly in her ear. “God provided a way out of the darkness—Jesus. He’s come to usher in the Kingdom of light and invites all people into that Kingdom.”

“But how–?

“It’s time that Christians get out of their cozy buildings. It’s time they rise and shine His light into the darkness. The more light, the less darkness.”

Wendy takes the pen out of her bag. “Now, where’s that notepad?”

Michael hands her the kit. Their eyes meet; he smiles, his face all aglow.

Marveling, she puts the pen to the paper as words bubble up.

Hope against all odds. Will light defeat darkness?

Selective Reduction

pregnancy-14-weeks“Hey, you’re looking good!”

“Thank you. In fact, I feel good.” A radiant Norma took my arm as we walked into the coffee shop.

We’d been colleagues–two women in the male bastion of the banking world. In addition, we both hoped to get pregnant. When she left the company for another job, about a year ago, we lost contact. To my surprise, she called me yesterday and suggested to meet at our favorite coffee shop for old times’ sake.

While we headed for “our table” in the far corner, welcoming warmth and the aroma of coffee enveloped us.

I took off my jacket and hung it over the back of a chair. “My treat. Espresso, as usual?”

Norma wrinkled her nose. “No thanks. But I’m craving for carrot cake with butter frosting.”

“What? Since when do you eat cake?”

“Curious eh? Why don’t you get our snacks first?”

When I returned with a cappuccino and two oversized pieces of carrot cake, Norma had taken off her coat too. Was it my imagination, or was her slender figure really fuller than it used to be?

For a minute, we just relaxed and enjoyed the cozy ambiance. I scraped some frosting off the cake and savored its creamy sweetness.

“Mmm, this is so good.”

“Isn’t it. How are you doing, Alice? Any news on the baby front?”

“Yes and no. Roger and I found out that we can’t have children, but—“

“Oh honey, I’m so sorry.”

“But we’ve decided to adopt.”

“Adopt? Wow, how courageous.”

“It isn’t courage, Norma. It’s love. Actually, we’ve just been approved as adoptive parents. Now we’re waiting for the agency to match us with a child.”

“You can’t choose a child?”

“Nope. Our agency says that in real life you can’t pick a baby either. Anyway, we’re so excited! This waiting is difficult though; like being pregnant without knowing the gestation time.”

Norma took another bite. “Speaking of pregnancy—I’m in my fifteenth week.”

“How wonderful! I’m so happy for you. Congratulations.” I meant it. Clearly, it hurt being barren, but thank God, the grief had never dominated me. I simply trusted that His ways would bless me more than my own plans ever could.

“Thank you.” Norma avoided my eyes.

“Is everything alright, Norma?”

“Yes, everything’s great.” She hesitated. “I was carrying twins.”

“Oh my, what happened?”

“Winston and I were shocked when we found out. Our life doesn’t have room for two babies. We both have demanding jobs and our apartment has only two bedrooms.”

My stomach churned. “So?”

“We opted for selective pregnancy reduction.”

My hand flew to my mouth. “You had an abortion?”

“They were boy-girl twins. I didn’t have a preference, but Winston always wanted a son. Last week, the doctor just injected something into the female tissue. My own body will absorb the fetal material.”

Carrot cake rose up my gullet. I swallowed hard. “Norma, at three months a baby isn’t just ‘tissue’ or ‘material’. It has a head and arms and legs. Its little face can frown, its hands grasp. Its heart beat.”

“Alice, please, I don’t need to hear that right now.”

I pushed away the cake dish.

She leaned toward me. “Hey, what’s wrong? I shouldn’t have told you this, should I? You can’t even get pregnant. I’m so sorry.”

Closing my eyes, I felt tears flow. “I’m not crying because I’m infertile.”

I need to get out of here before I throw up.

Suddenly, God whispered in my soul. Don’t turn your back on her. She needs My grace.

Did He really say that? Please Lord, I don’t feel like talking to Norma now; she doesn’t seem to regret her choice at all. How can I make her recognize her need to repent?

A persistent Nudge made me decide to trust His discernment more than my own assessment of Norma’s heart. I suppressed the urge to leave and, after a deep breath, I managed to say, “Norma, may I share with you how my life—how I changed when I realized how much Jesus loves me?”

Her eyes turned big. “Do you believe in God?”

“Yes, I do. And He’s there for you too.”

A flicker of uncertainty passed over her face. “I don’t know, Alice. Anyway, if it makes you feel better, talk about it.”

I cleared my throat. “Well, it all started shortly before you left the bank. A friend invited me to a Christian retreat where I heard people sharing amazing testimonies…”

As I spoke, I felt the nausea fade. The disgust gave way to compassion; Norma needed to meet the Author of life.