Peaches–shame, jam, and a recipe

peach-treeProbably someone had eaten a peach and thrown away its stone. Thoughtlessly. But it fell on fertile ground, sprouted roots, and grew into a little tree. Unnoticed, along the path that I walked every morning. A tiny trunk among bushes and brambles.

One sunny day in autumn, five years ago, I spotted two small fruits, deep yellow with red blushes. Their aroma tempted me to take a bite–the juicy flesh released its intense flavor in my mouth. They were the best peaches I ever tasted.

Jan and I transplanted the young tree to our garden. To stimulate root development, we pruned its little crown and waited for the new growth season.

It died.

When Jan wanted to remove it, he found that the withered stump had sprouted a fresh shoot. In the beginning, it flowered but didn’t bear fruit. It just grew.

Last year, we harvested our first peaches, about six pounds, which I turned into three big jars of delicious jam.

Then this year! Its branches hung low with their load of colored fruits. I checked them daily, trying to find the perfect moment for picking; they had to be ripe, but not mushy. Last week, I knew that harvest day was close.

At the end of a prayer meeting, one of my dear Italian sisters in Christ, Orietta, asked, “Can I pick your peaches?” The image of my velvet-skinned treasures disappearing from our tree must have made me temporarily insane. “No, you can’t. I want to make jam.”

The next morning, I called her to apologize for my ugly, greedy reaction. She forgave me on the spot. “I didn’t intend to pick all of them, just one or two to eat right away.” I cringed. “I’ll bring you a bag full!”

I picked and picked, but the little tree kept supplying. My shame grew deeper as I pondered the possibility of God multiplying the harvest.

Two afternoons of peeling, cutting, cooking, and stirring have produced peach jam for at least half a year. I am grateful for God’s blessing of a rich harvest, but even more for Orietta.

God can make shoots grow out of dead trunks and turn them into fruit bearing trees. He can transform a depressed woman–like Orietta when we first met–into a passionate, joyful Christian, whose greatest desire it to bear fruit for His Kingdom. peach jam

Orietta’s easy no peel, no stir, no added pectin, low-sugar recipe for jam (which will save me a lot of time next year): Clean and cut the fruit. Leave to macerate overnight with 1 cup (200 grams) of sugar for each pound (500 grams) of fruit. The next morning, let it simmer for three to four hours—don’t stir—until it is thick and syrupy.

And how about this for a practical tip: if God blesses you, be sure to share the blessing!

Two of a Kind*

cat and dog“Max, no! Go back.”

I groaned as I struggled in vain to push our Golden Retriever back inside the house. He lunged at the cat, which narrowly escaped climbing the nearest tree. Her hisses and snarls mingled with Max’s staccato barks.

Why did Vincent ever get this dog? I told him it would go after Molly.

Using my husband’s favorite ham, I managed to lure Max back into the house.

After cuddling a purring Molly, I headed for the car. Two pairs of gleaming eyes stared at me through the car’s side window.

“Okay, boys. Let’s get you back to your Mom and Dad.”

Sweat beads had formed on my forehead. I switched on the air-conditioning and eyed the eight-year-old twins in the rear-view mirror.

“Why do dogs and cats always fight, Grandma?” asked Jason.

“Because they’re different kinds of creatures, I guess. They don’t speak the same language.”

“They don’t talk, Grandma,” he scoffed. “They just hiss and bark at each other.”

“Yeah,” added Harold, his twin. “Just like you and Grandpa. But you don’t climb a tree!” They rolled with laughter.

“Watch your mouths, young men. Don’t make fun of me.” But a smile made its way up my face at the image of my sixty-five-year-old self, sitting on a branch, hissing at my husband.

The kids were right; Vincent and I squabbled a lot. For no apparent reason, I would grumble, or he would raise his voice.

I sighed as I merged the car into the highway traffic. It’s probably what forty years of marriage do to a couple.

Vincent’s work had always been demanding. I homeschooled our two daughters and later, combined volunteer work with a busy social schedule. Vincent had never developed any hobbies, so when he retired five years ago, he expected me to spend most of my time with him. I wasn’t ready to give up my activities; spending time with my husband was just one more item on my agenda.

Feeling neglected, he bought Max so that he would have a friend around when I was busy. Still, I felt constant pressure to entertain my husband.

Maybe we never really adapted to this new phase in life.

Grandma?” Jason interrupted my thoughts. “If God made both cats and dogs to live in our homes, why are they so different?”

“Good question, honey. I think they both have a role to play in people’s lives. But their roles are different. Cats are quiet company. They can stay home alone. Dogs can be real buddies, but they need more attention.”

“Why doesn’t God help them to understand each other?”

“Well, maybe they would get along better, if they were able to listen to Jesus.”

“So why don’t you and Grandpa listen to Jesus?” asked Harold. “You’re the same kind, aren’t you? It should be even easier for you to be friends.”

I almost missed the exit. “Harold! How Grandpa and I are getting along, is none of your business.”

The boys were quiet until we reached our destination. In the silence, thoughts about my marriage gnawed at my mind. Maybe it is time for a change. But how?

***

Upon my return, I telephoned a fellow volunteer to confirm tonight’s meeting. As I waited for her to answer my call, I realized that the house was empty. Vincent was probably walking with Max, now that the worst heat of the day was over. Or he took the dog for a swim. I smiled–they made a good pair.

Suddenly, a thought popped up. Why don’t you surprise Vincent with a dinner for two?

When I got my friend’s voice mail, I heard myself saying, “Hello, it’s Martha. I…uhm…I can’t make it tonight. Sorry. I’ll call you tomorrow. Bye.”

***

I just finished a garden-grown bouquet when Vincent came back. I quickly reached for the lighter.

“Max, no!” The dog stormed into the living room and was about to ruin my long dress with his filthy paws.

“Sorry dear, I didn’t know you were home.” Vincent entered as I lit the last candle. His eyes scanned the set table. “What–?”

“Surprise!”

“But…why?”

I wrapped my arms around his waist. “Because we’re two of a kind. And I love you.”

Vincent enveloped me in a powerful hug. “I love you too, darling.” He kissed the top of my head.

I looked down to see Molly brushing up against Max, who sat peacefully on the floor, wagging his tail.

 


 

*Another article (fiction) that I submitted to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge. The topic was “Cat and Dog.”

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?

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?