Crushed chocolate cookies

Foster childDing dong!

“There he is.” I smiled at Craig as I finished placing the freshly baked chocolate cookies on a plate. We walked to the front door together.

“Hello, Mr. White. Mrs. White. Good to see you.” The social worker placed his hand on the child beside him. “This is Benny.”

The boy stared down at his sneakers, which seemed too big for his body. He held a sagging plastic bag.

I kneeled down. “Hi Benny, I’m Karen. I’m so glad you’re here.” He avoided my eyes. When I touched his arm, he stiffened. For a second, I feared he would bolt.

“Please, come in.” Craig’s invitation reduced the tension of the first contact with our eight-year-old foster child. We were to be his third family in the four years since he saw his mom die from an overdose, and we were determined to be the last.

While Craig and the social worker completed paperwork, Benny sat on the edge of the couch, still studying his shoes and clutching his bag.

“I made chocolate cookies; do you want to try one?” I held out the plate.

After what seemed an eternity, he raised his hand, grabbed three cookies, and stuffed them in the pocket of his hoodie.

I cleared my throat. “Okay, these are for later. Why don’t you take another one for now?”

He shot me a glance, then took one more.

Craig saw the social worker to the door and came back with a ball and glove. “Hey Ben, would you like to play catch?”

“Sure.” The last cookie disappeared in his pocket.

From the window, I watched Benny trudge alongside Craig to the playground. Looks like a good start. I turned around to see his bag lying on the floor. I was about to bring it to his room when I thought better of it. We’ll do that together.

By the time Craig and Benny returned, I had started cooking, and food aromas filled the house. “Drumsticks and French fries—I hope you like it.”

Benny slumped into a chair.

“Honey, please, wash your hands first. Craig, can you show Benny the bathr—”

“Nooo!”

I almost dropped a dish as Benny sent the chair crashing to the floor.

“I hate you! I hate you!”

“Benny, what’s wrong?”

Craig reached for the boy, but Benny slapped him, ran to the couch, and seized his bag. “I won’t stay here! Tell Social Services to get me!”

“They’re closed at this hour, Benny. Why don’t you come and eat something?”

“No! I hate you!” He whacked the couch.

“You want to see your room?” Craig tried to distract him.

“I want to leave!” Tears streamed down his contorted face.

“We’ll see about that tomorrow. But if you don’t want to eat, I’ll bring you to your room so that you can sleep.” Craig picked him up, seemingly immune to the yelling and frantic kicking.

I followed them upstairs. When Craig put him down, Benny threw himself on the bed—shoes and all—and hid under the blankets, crying all the while.

Craig whispered, “I’ll eat something, then leave for my night shift. I’ll pray.”

The next moment, I found myself standing alone in the middle of the bedroom, its bright colors shouting failure.

God, I need You.

I sat down at the bedside and laid my hand on the crumpled heap of a child.

“Leave me alone!” He wriggled away from me.

“No, Benny, I won’t go anywhere when you’re so sad and upset. I’ll stay right here with you.”

The leering racing car on the bedspread seemed to mock me as I waited and prayed for a breakthrough. Finally, the sobs subsided.

Following a hunch, I asked, “Benny…may I hold you? I mean—like a baby?”

To my surprise, he pushed back the blankets and climbed on my lap. I held him in my arms and gently rocked him, until his body relaxed and he was fast asleep.

Carefully, I took off his shoes and pulled down the covers—revealing crushed chocolate cookies. I couldn’t help but smile as I wiped them from the bed and tucked Benny in. Then I bent down and planted a kiss on his forehead.

Dear Father, You loved us before we loved You. Please, now help us to love this child. Even if our love will be crushed…like a chocolate cookie, under the weight of his pain, we want to persist in loving him. Amen.

***

AUTHOR’S NOTES

This short fiction story was inspired by:

• “Removed,” a short film about foster care. See www.removedfilm.com and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOeQUwdAjE0.

• An newspaper article about foster care. See http://www.volkskrant.nl/binnenland/verwaarloosde-en-misbruikte-kinderen-wie-helpt-ze-nog~a3889487/

Karen’s prayer refers to the following Bible verse: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10 ESV).

photo credit: via photopin (license)

 

Wings

It has been quiet on this blog… but today I publish the poem I wrote for the FaithWriters’ Challenge in October—the topic was “Zest.” Since then I have concentrated on writing in my mother tongue, Dutch. I am grateful to have been accepted as a member of a Dutch writers group, LetterSpinsels, where I will have every opportunity to further develop my writing skills. But I still love to write in English and who knows, maybe one day, I will write another book in this beautiful language.

If you are curious about my Dutch writings, see Kleurrijke Koorden (Colorful Threads).


Wings

Wings

While I stare into the dreary dawn of yet another day,
I am struggling for the strength and the steadiness to pray;
the constant whipping of a storm has left my spirit frayed.
God, please show
me how to grow.

All is quiet but a flitter: wings against the glass.
A fritillary at the window, frantic, tries to pass
the unseen obstacle to life. At the impasse,
it sits inert.
Maybe it’s hurt.

Despite myself, I scramble up to save the little thing.
Carefully, I cup my hands around its tender wings.
Against my palm, it tickles as it grasps and tightly clings.
Fatigue aside,
I stride outside.

My hands unfold. It sits so still, hiding its colored dress,
as if waiting for a sign. A breath of wind caresses…
It climbs the air; its rising, circling flight expresses
my delight;
a joyful sight.

A twisting dive, a swoop of wings, a swallow’s beak snaps shut
around the tiny butterfly. The cruelty converts
the blissful fluttering into a cramping knot of hurt.
With drooping head,
I trudge to bed.

How can I live abundantly when life resembles Sheol,
where I’m straggling through the dark—no map, no route, no goal—
and predators are on the prowl to feast upon my soul?
I shroud my face
and my disgrace.

Don’t hide and keep your heart from me, by circumstances bound.
Hide in the shadow of My wings, where steadfast love abounds.
Profounder joy and brighter light are nowhere to be found.
Come to Me
and be free.

Hues of pastel pink and blue now paint the new day’s sky.
I get up and spread my arms—I am God’s butterfly—
In His protection and His force, with eagle’s wings I’ll fly.
No time to waste—
there’s life to taste.

***

Bible references: Psalm 36:7-9, Isaiah 40:31.

photo credit: Silver-washed Fritillary via photopin (license)

“And On This Rock…”

Many are the interpretations of  Jesus words, “And on this rock, I will build my church” (Matthew 16:13-20, Mark 8:27-29). In this post, I placed the words in their social historical and geographical context. It is fiction, but Biblical fiction—I tried to describe the scene as seen through the eyes of a contemporary. I pray it will enlighten you.


 
The Rock

Have they seen me? Two men glanced my way. I ducked deeper into the bushes and held my breath. On the bank of the stream, about forty men and women prepared to sit down in small groups. I frowned. Such an odd place to linger.

I lifted my gaze to the rock defaced by temples and shrines. Behind the biggest temple, a cave gaped like a wolf’s maw, ready to devour its prey. “The gates of Hades,” the pagans called it. To placate their gods, they threw their babies into its depths and practiced other unspeakable rites in the temples.

Abba would raise his rod to my back if he knew I was here. Many people visited this “rock of the gods”—located near Caesarea Philippi on a crossroad of trade routes—some to sightsee, others to sacrifice. But a devout Jew would never set foot near this place. So why had the rabbi led his disciples here, all the way from Galilee? And was it really him? I counted the men that formed a close circle around the rabbi—twelve disciples. He must be Yeshua. Uncle Amir, who lived in Capernaum, had spoken passionately about him. “He truly is a man of God. He travels through all of Israel to teach about Yahweh’s Kingdom. And he heals the sick!”

The people rested in the cool of the shade near the water that flowed from the cave. I desired Yeshua to be my rabbi after I completed Beit-Talmud at fourteen. Abba scorned my wish. “He is nothing but a rebel and a raver. And far too young to be a serious rabbi.”

Bleats interrupted my reveries. I prayed that Abba’s flock, which I had left under the care of my little brother, would not stray.

The twelve fixed their eyes on Yeshua as he began to speak, and I strained to hear his words over the rushing water.

“Who do people say that I am?”

The men looked at each other. “Some say you’re John the Baptist,” one said.

“Others say you’re Eliah or Jeremiah,” said another.

“Or one of the other prophets of old, risen from the grave,” suggested a third.

By now, all twelve were talking at once, until Yeshua lifted up his hand. “But who do you say that I am?”

The huskiest disciple scrambled to his feet. “You are the Anointed One, the Son of the Living God.”

I gasped. Surely Yeshua would rebuke his disciple for this blasphemy.

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

What? Is Yeshua admitting to be Yahweh’s anointed king who will deliver Israel? My heart hammered in my chest.

“And I tell you, you are a stone, and on this rock I will establish my ekklesia—my assembly of people who I will call out to govern—and the gates of Hades will not defeat them.”

The disciple looked as confused as I felt. On this rock—did Yeshua want his followers to conquer the rock of the gods and govern Israel from here?

For their rock is not like our Rock. Yahweh is my Rock and my fortress and my deliverer. Yahweh is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. Fragments of scripture raced through my mind as I struggled to comprehend Yeshua’s words. Could the rock be the kingdom of the Anointed One? And would Yeshua appoint people to rule under his kingship, just as Caesar had authorized Philip to reign over this area?

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

The semikhah Yeshua pronounced over his disciple confirmed my impressions. I couldn’t wait to tell Abba.

Restraining myself from leaping up and running, I cautiously crawled backwards. Then Yeshua sternly reminded his disciples, “Don’t tell anyone that I am the Anointed One.”

I froze. How could he ever usher in his kingdom if nobody knew who he was?

“Levi!” my brother called. Fearing his voice would give away my spying on Yeshua, I scurried out of my hiding place to join him.

As I walked into the meadow, questions tumbled around in my head, but they would have to wait. In a few months, shortly after Pesach, I would turn fourteen. I’d locate Yeshua again, and he would explain everything.

 


AUHOR’S NOTES

I first published this article on FaithWriters.com.

The “rock of the gods”—or the Grotto of Pan—is nowadays a major tourist attraction in the north of Israel at the archeological site of Banias, which in Biblical times was the city Caesarea Philippi.

Translation of Hebrew words:

  • Beit-Talmud: House of Learning, religious education for Jewish boys from ten to fourteen years.
  • Semikhah: transmission of rabbinic authority to make religious and legal decisions.

The Greek word ekklesia, translated to “church” in most Bibles, in the Greco-Roman society referred to a political assembly of citizens, called out of the local population by the ruling power, to govern in his name.

Bible references (ESV):

  • Matthew 16:13-20, Mark 8:27-29
  • Deuteronomy 32:31
  • Psalm 18:2
  • Jeremiah 10:10

Background information:

My Treasure

Red Necklace

“A precious stone,” the owner of the souvenir shop had assured me. I loved the shiny pendant, so we spent our last birrs on the necklace before flying back home. Now the fading red paint reveals plastic, and I know that I’ve been scammed. But I don’t mind.

About seven years ago, my husband and I spent ten days in Ethiopia—days we’d been looking forward to so long. We had planned to make it a vacation, to explore Addis Ababa and its surroundings; to get to know Aisha’s country, and to give her the opportunity to say goodbye. Photos of monuments would serve as memorials of her roots.

Instead, the Lonely Planet Guide we pored over during our preparation, lay unopened on my nightstand. We spent most of our time in and around our hotel, immersed in bonding with the nine-year-old girl who now was our daughter.

Aisha bubbled with energy, despite the restless nights she spent coughing and tossing between us. She was relentless in her demands, but her little voice wafting through the air as I pushed her on a swing—wada fee, wada sa, wada fee, wada sa—made me give in every time. The first time in the swimming pool, she tripped and nearly drowned. It didn’t stop her from soaking in the pool an entire afternoon, until her golden skin showed goose bumps—and my teeth were chattering. We played Memory at least a hundred times. I only won once—the first time. That was when I explained the game to her.

She liked joking. During dinner, we felt something tickling our knees, and Aisha explained, “A cat. A big cat.” Looking under the table, we didn’t see anything but a pair of little hands. “Oh—it’s gone.” Her laughter at the look on our faces echoed through the room.

Milk and cheese were labeled “me no,” whereas chewing gum was at the top of her list of favorite foods. Our “no” to some of her wishes triggered several crying fits. I spent an hour rocking her, holding her tight and whispering, “I love you, I love you, I love you…” to reassure her that even if we didn’t allow her to watch television all day, we still loved her.
Standing in front of the mirror for hours, she adorned her short, curly hair with pink ribbons and countless flower clips. Her best friend was my lipstick.

What little we experienced of the city affected us deeply. Modern office buildings rose high above corrugated iron shacks. Goatherds and donkeys wove through rows of honking cars. Elegantly dressed businessmen strode among begging lepers.

Each day, on our way to the nearby breakfast bar, we passed a person so marred by leprosy that it was impossible to tell whether it was a man or woman. We always put some money in the stump that was once a hand. One morning, my husband shared the Gospel. In the absence of a lower jaw, the person could only nod to confirm his words.

Just as we were about to continue our walk back to the hotel, Aisha cried, “Wait!” From her pocket, she fished the chewing gum we bought her that morning. Carefully, she pushed one—then two—sticks out of the package and laid them in the stump. The person nodded again, and Aisha skipped away, right into my arms.

We didn’t make photos of monuments, but monumental moments in our first days as a family were forever engraved in my memory.

So today, as I put on the red necklace with its fake gem, I feel grateful; a worthless souvenir from a country that birthed my greatest treasure—Aisha.


Although she doesn’t speak it anymore, Aisha’s native language is Amharic. Her song on the swing, “wada fee, wada sa, wada fee, wada sa” (written phonetically, as I heard it) means “back, forth, back, forth.”

God’s Candy Bar

Candy BarI recall neither my misdeeds nor the spanking, but I do remember the humiliation when my dear mother demanded that I lower my panties to show my buttocks. The sight must have been worrisome, because for the first time in all my three years, she took me to the grocery and bought me a candy bar. I don’t think I understood her regrets over the punishment, but the unexpected treat elated me.

Jan and I promised that we would never raise a hand against Aisha. However, I confess that I am guilty of raising my voice regularly. I love my daughter more than life, but when she pushes the limits of my patience or defies my parental authority, my self-control tends to grow wings and fly out of the window.

A source of recurring friction is Aisha’s lack of sense of time. Every single school day, I have to urge her, “Come on, honey—it’s late, hurry up now.” I’m always the first to get in the car, waiting for her to race out of the house, her jacket dangling by one sleeve as she holds socks or earrings to put on.

One morning last week, she dragged herself out of bed at 7:45 once again. She got dressed, packed her school bag, and gulped down her yogurt. While she was brushing her teeth, I headed outside to the car. The engine hummed as I sat drumming my fingers on the steering wheel for more than five minutes. Only the concern that I might wake up my husband prevented me from honking the horn in a frustration frenzy. Finally, Aisha jumped into the car. The clock showed 8:08.

“What took you so long? You know we need at least twelve minutes to get to school—you’ll be five minutes late.” I backed out of the driveway and drove as fast as possible around the potholes in the dirt road.

Instead of replying, Aisha flipped down the vanity mirror. “Yuck! My eyeliner is a big failure today.”

As the car roared uphill, the implication of her words hit me. “What? Did you put on makeup when you were already late?” My voice grew louder. “And I sat waiting for you in the car?”

Silence.

I slapped the wheel and further increased the volume. “How in the world did it enter your mind to put on makeup at a moment you’re supposed to be on your way to school?”

No answer.

“Today you won’t escape, young lady. I’ll have to sign a tardy slip, and it will go on your record.” I knew she loathed the idea. “That will teach you.”

A glance to the side revealed that she had her eyes shut. I knew she was praying to be allowed in without a tardy slip; she always does when she’s late.

Well, sweetheart, your prayer won’t help you this time.

8:20—The gravel crunched as I parked the car in front of the school. Impossible—the doors are still open. Aisha grabbed her school bag and rushed inside the school building without saying goodbye. Surely, they won’t let her pass.  I opened the car and was about to step out when she appeared in the doorway and gave me a thumbs up, her face flushing with triumph.

I slumped back in my seat. God, what are you doing? She deserves a rebuke! I could use some backup in my attempts to educate my daughter. How will she ever take me seriously?

Grumbling, I reached for the key.

What do you remember—the spanking or the candy bar?

My hand froze in midair. As the thought sank in, a sigh escaped my lips, and I bowed my head. Okay God, You win. I’m sorry. Not my way, but Yours.

Feeling small before the great God of grace, I started the car and drove home.


photo credit: Mars Honeycomb split via photopin (license)

I first submitted this article to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge. The topic was “Pride.”

Shards of Life

Broken Vase
About three weeks ago, I did an attempt to write a serious poem. It was the first time in my life (okay, since adolescence…). After I submitted it to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge, I discovered that God used it to speak into my own life. I had indeed built some walls that had dark corners with ugly growths. Covered by God’s grace, I put everything in the light. Restoration is in process. God is so good.

Here’s the poem, and I pray it will bless you.


 

The Broken Vase

 

A heavy weight has crushed my brittle heart

A vase that broke into a million pieces,

Its purpose lost. My emptiness increases.

I’m floored, oh God, all hope from me departs.

 

Betrayal, loss, affliction, and despair

Piled up until too bulky to be carried.

Under the crashed-down rubble now lies buried

My soul. Into the face of death I stare.

 

You say you’re near and you’ll revive my spirit.

So God, pick up this shattered heart of mine

My fallen, fractured selfand please align

Reality with what’s my rightful merit.

 

Your quiet’s hard to stand; my strength is streaming

Into the soil beneath my suff’ring soul.

A vortex drags me down, out of control.

Anxiety attacks, depression’s scheming.

 

Still waiting here for You, my God. Restore me.

Accomplish what you promised. I believe

That you exist, so why don’t You relieve

My anguish? Why not chase the gloom that’s o’er me?

 

Dear child of Mine, I’ve heard your ev’ry prayer,

Your cries and wails resounding in My heart.

I know the pain that’s tearing you apart.

You yearn, yet you don’t yield all to My care.

 

When you hold back, I cannot make you whole.

If you build walls, defensive with dead angles

Where anger broods and bitter roots entangle,

To shield your sin, I cannot mend your soul.

 

You do believe, but why don’t you surrender?

Why don’t you trust My mercy, love and grace?

Hand over all the fragments of your vase;

I’ll glue—renew—and pour it full of splendor.

 

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).

 


 

photo credit: Day 207: Shattered Chivas via photopin (license)

The Photo Album

Photo Album“Mom, look what I found—pictures. Can I have a look?” Aisha’s voice interrupts my afternoon nap; a square photo album lands with a thud on the kitchen table.

“Sure, honey.” With a sigh, I hoist myself out of the recliner and sit down next to my teenage daughter. She lifts the heavy cover to reveal the first page, which displays the photo of a woman in her late twenties. Her complexion is perfect, her body athletic.

A stab of envy pierces my heart. I don’t need a mirror to remind me of my crow’s feet and the worry lines on my forehead. Without thinking, I reach up to touch the loose skin of my throat.

Aisha turns the page, careful not to tear the glassine interleave; the same woman smiles at us from a rowboat. She is a sportswoman and I know how she enjoys the rhythm of her strokes as the skiff glides through the water. On the opposite page, she is wearing a runner’s outfit; I recognize how she’s counting her steps, breathing deep, and reveling in the endorphin surge.

I look down at my fifty-plus body. It’s starting to sag. Arthritis is destroying my spine’s cartilage, sending painful messages to my right leg through compressed nerves. Walking is all I can do.

It is as if she’s mocking me, that woman in the pictures. She is in the prime of life, taking beauty and health for granted. In the arrogance of youth, she is confident that she will find the perfect love and lead a purposeful life, satisfying her innate need for happiness. A few bad experiences—and a couple of poor choices—have shaken but not shattered her conviction. She is in control.

Aisha studies the pictures, then looks up. “Is that you, Mom?”

“Yes, that’s me—about twenty-five years ago.”

“Wow. You’ve grown old.”

My mouth puckers. “Well, that’s what happens as time goes by.”

“What is it like to grow old, Mom? Do you feel worse now than when you were young?”

“Uh—” Suddenly, I remember the void. Because the woman I used to be searched for happiness in all the wrong places. The longing for love led her to make hasty decisions and choose harmful relationships. She hadn’t yet figured out that the career path she had taken wouldn’t lead to self-fulfillment. The pride elicited by a compliment of a manager and a significant raise—these things did nothing to fill the emptiness of her soul. And the runner’s high never lasted.

“I definitely feel better now.” As I talk, the truth of my words makes me smile. “Certainly, I’ve lost a bit of beauty and my body is wearing out, but I wouldn’t want to go back in time.”

“But why not? Didn’t you like being young?”

“Maybe I looked better, but I wasn’t happy.”

“Because you didn’t know Jesus?”

“Exactly.”

“Are you happy now?” Her gaze scrutinizes me.

I wrap an arm around her shoulder and plant a kiss on her cheek. “Definitely. And life is getting better every day.”

She leans against me as we quietly leaf through the rest of the album.

My outer self may be wasting away, but my inner self is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16—ESV).