Sotto una buona stella

Sotto Una Buona Stella

I’ve never been in a cinema so often as since I’m a mother. I’ve seen most cartoons and animation films that have been produced the last five years. From The Princess and the Frog to Despicable Me 2. And I loved them all.

However, our daughter is getting older and we encourage her to broaden her horizon. Watching something different than the latest animation film is just one the ways to introduce her to “real life” and open her eyes to situations other than living in a small village in the Umbrian countryside. We don’t like action, horror, thriller or any other genre in which there’s a high probability of seeing people bleeding or hurting one another. Furthermore, in Italy, all films are dubbed and I prefer hearing the original voices and languages.

Therefore, last month, we opted for Sotto Una Buona Stella (which means literally, “under a good star”), an Italian comedy. At least, that was the official description. It’s the story of a man in his fifties. Divorced when his kids were still little, he has a good job as a broker, and a much younger, nice-looking girlfriend with whom he shares an expensive apartment and a mundane life. He isn’t the handsome, big spender type of man though. He’s short, a bit chubby, balding, and he wears big glasses before eyes that glimmer with a kind of clumsy innocence.

His life takes a very different turn when his ex-wife unexpectedly dies and his grown-up but immature children, who still lived with their mother–as is normal in Italy–, come to live in his apartment. His son dreams of becoming a guitar-playing singer; his daughter, a poet and a single mother of a less than two-year old girl, makes very little money with some translating work. Both children treat their father with disdain, full of bitterness, still mad at him for abandoning his family while they were only toddlers. On top of that, he loses his job because his employer is arrested for fraud. His beautiful girlfriend, unable to cope with the changed situation, leaves him.

Now, where’s the fun? The situation is rather tragic, I would say. Luckily, there’s a neighbor who breaks into the story and takes care of the comic touch. But overall, the tone of the film remains a bit sad. It gives an idea of how life is for Italian young people. One phrase, said by the daughter, still keeps coming back in my mind. “In this country, we [young people] don’t exist. We’re ghosts. This isn’t a country for young people.” At the end of the film, both young adults emigrate to the UK.

Obviously, the film reveals something about the economical situation in Italy, with a youth unemployment rate of more than 42% (http://www.tradingeconomics.com/italy/youth-unemployment-rate), in spite of the fact that many of them have a university degree. Numerous young academics, indeed, “flee” abroad to find work; they call this phenomenon la fuga dei cervelli, the brain flight or “brain drain.”

Moreover, the young ones have no hope, no spiritual anchor. They loath the religious tradition of their parents. At the same time, they long to give a sense to their life, to find a scope in what they’re doing, to see a ray of hope for their future. Many of them seek to still their spiritual thirst in New Age activities; they “create” their own religion. (In fact, the film title Sotto Una Buona Stella refers to the name of the song that the son wrote for his dead mother, who he now sees as a star in heaven.) However, as their self-built spirituality lacks the fundamentals of truth, they keep floating aimlessly through life.

Through the film, our daughter caught a glimpse of the state of mind–and spirit–of the generation that walks ahead of her, here in Italy. We can only hope that she won’t follow them, but, instead, goes where Jesus will lead her.

It is our heart-felt prayer that countless young people in Italy will come to know the only One who can give them a hope and a future, who has a purpose for each of them, and in whom they will find abundant life.

And, o yeah, at the end of the film, after his kids left for the UK, the father and the neighbor get together. But does the film really have a happy ending?

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Dancing into spring!

Dancing cowsAlthough my favorite season here in Italy is autumn, with its vibrant colors and invigorating temperatures after a long hot summer, I also love spring. The winters are not particularly cold in Umbria, but nature is still resting. The trees are bare, the grass doesn’t grow. It rains quite often; sometimes it snows. It’s cold.  Spring, on the other hand, is full of bright green and warm sunlight. Trees and plants sprout, grow and blossom. It makes me want to run outside and dance into the promises of the new season!

Almost ten years ago, I felt the same. I had lived in a long winter, behind thick walls, in artificial light, waiting for life to get better. When I–finally–surrendered to Jesus, he took me into a completely new season. He said to me,

“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,

and come away,

for behold, the winter is past;

the rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth,

the time of singing has come,

and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.”

I felt like dancing as he led me into green pastures, besides still waters, and on paths of righteousness. He restored my soul. I was free to enjoy my life in his light!

Do you want to see a funny video that conveys these feelings? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFatvYjIIqU

The Heart-Knower

Heart-KnowerAt 8:30 this morning, after I dropped our daughter off at school, I sat in the waiting room of the local dentist. Nothing serious, just one tooth needing a small reparation. I was the first and only person and, while allowing the assistant to prepare the rooms and the dentist to arrive, I took my mobile phone out of my purse. Not to call anyone, but to spend a few minutes with the Lord. “On your phone?” Yes, because it has a wonderful Bible Study app, which includes a reader for other books as well. I opened Bill Freeman’s The Supplied Life, and read the meditation for March 13:

Who do we live to? Our orientation in our fallen nature is to live to ourselves—to our own reasoning mind, to our feelings, to our reactions, to our own analysis of ourselves. In the past the self has been our point of reference. When the self is our point of reference, we really do not know ourselves as we should in God’s light. I fact, according to the Scriptures, apart from Him we are prone to being deceived about ourselves. The self cannot accurately know the self. No one really knows himself without God’s light. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Who can know their own heart properly? We may think we are fine, when we are totally off. Or we may think we are off, when we are fine. Brothers and sisters, we are unable to know our hearts. God says that our hearts are desperately sick, whether or not we agree with His diagnosis. It is God who asks the question, “Who can understand the heart?” In Jeremiah 17:10 the Lord answers His own question. It is the Lord who knows and searches our hearts. He is even identified by a compound title in Greek—“The Heart-Knower” (Acts 1:24; 15:8). Thus, to know ourselves we must first come to know God. We may think we know ourselves by introspection or by analyzing our own heart. We may imagine that we know ourselves rightly. But apart from being in fellowship with the Heart-Knower, we are prone to deception.

As I read, joy and wonder filled my heart. Not just because it was a beautiful meditation, but also because I’ve lived it. I know it’s true. Moreover, I’ve written about it in Destination Italy. Here’s an excerpt from “Chapter Seventeen. The Desert:”

In the period after my baptism, I felt myself slip out of the oasis of joy and gratitude and gradually wander off into an area run dry with dejection and listlessness. I didn’t want to go there, but I was unable to stop myself. Anger and irritation consumed me. At the same time, I felt criticized and judged. I didn’t understand what was happening. Was it because I would never carry a baby? Were old emotional wounds that cried out for healing luring me into the wilderness? Did bitterness or pride clot the umbilical cord that connected me to the fountain of God’s love? Or was it all simply the result of hormonal changes? I felt so tired, so lonely. I prayed to God. I begged to understand, so that I could do something about it. Once, I thought God was saying to me through Psalm 147 that I had to sing for him to get out of the blues, “Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting…He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” But I found it difficult to sing when feeling down. Instead, I was looking inside of me, soul searching, digging for possible causes of my depression. We had discovered Christian satellite TV and watched many programs. I was so thirsty for a solution to my problem that I clung to the words of television preachers, waiting for the magical formula that would bring water to my desert. I tried out every piece of advice, prayed every prayer for deliverance, and attempted to chase away every evil spirit. I made a list of all people I might need to forgive and I asked forgiveness for all possible sins I had committed in the past and for those which I might still be guilty of in the present. I read my Bible daily and declared every verse that spoke about love, peace, and joy in my life. At the end, I still felt barren, weary, and useless. And at fault. Maybe that was the worst feeling; I was to blame for not being a joyful, grateful, tenderhearted Christian. I knew God was with me, but I didn’t sense him. I knew Jan loved me, but I didn’t feel it. I was well aware that, at times, I was unbearable. While Jan was busy serving and developing his spiritual gifts–praying for healing and encouraging people– in the Perugia church, I was struggling with myself and was often downright blunt and bitchy. Jan tried to understand me and he said he loved me anyway, but it wasn’t always easy. The more interior turmoil I experienced, the more I shut down, making it all the more difficult for Jan to reach out to me. At times, we had arguments about the lack of affection I displayed towards him, making me feel like an even greater failure.

One Sunday morning in December, I was particularly down. Half an hour before we were to go to church, we ended up reproaching one another, using hurtful words. As always when we fought, I burst out crying in frustration and, in no time, my eyes were red and my head was throbbing. “You go to church alone! I won’t go with you!” I growled at Jan. “Very well!” he snapped back. He put on his jacket, took his Bible, and went outside without further speaking to me. I heard him walk down the stairs, start the Land Rover, and drive away, leaving me by myself in a heavy silence. As I was drowning in self-pity and feeling utterly lonely, my silent sobbing quickly changed into loud crying. “Jesus, please help me, pleeeaaase!” Although I didn’t feel the slightest sliver of divine presence, I just knew that he was my only hope to get out of the wilderness. Tired of introspection, I reached out to him.

Although I never practiced as a psychologist, the master’s degree in this area probably had given me an “introspection reflex” whenever I felt bad. It didn’t help me at all. Only when I surrendered to the Heart-Knower and let Him search my heart, a real and lasting transformation could begin.

Later, when I sat in the dentist’s chair, I was still delighting in His wonderful ways. The spotlight above my head allowed the dentist to look inside my mouth and fill a hole in some tooth’s enamel. But a divine light from heaven allows my Lord to search my heart and fill my soul.

Love from the heart

When I checked Facebook this morning, I saw that someone from the US had published a nice list of ten ways to show our love to other people. The first item on the list was, “Listen without interrupting,” with a reference to Proverbs 18. It made me smile. In Italy, interrupting people when they speak is part of the communication style. A website describing national etiquettes states:

  • [In Italy] It is common to be interrupted while speaking or for several people to speak at once.
  • People often raise their voice to be heard over other speakers, not because they are angry.

During our very first parent-teacher conference, we found ourselves sitting in front of four friendly teachers who started talking all at the same time, while we were trying to phrase our first question. We don’t have a television, but sometimes we catch a glimpse of Italian talk shows on a TV in a bar or restaurant and then we see people who talk loudly and simultaneously. Also during tasty dinners with friends, we keep wondering about the multi-tasking skills of Italian people. Can they really listen and talk at the same moment?

I have to admit, being born and raised in northern Europe, where we were taught to wait for our turn in a conversation, it is sometimes difficult to have to “defend” our speaking time, especially when we are counseling people. “Would you like to hear what God is saying about your situation?”

Yet, Italians don’t interrupt because they are disrespectful or impolite–not always, at least–but because they are vivacious and enthusiastic. Most people actually think they are helpful as they start responding before their discussion partners have finished talking. And if their interlocutors are convinced that they need to complete their line of thought, they simply interrupt right back. Obviously, to be heard while other people talk, you need to increase the volume.

Perhaps, to “listen without interrupting” isn’t a universal way to show other people how much you love them. It might simply be a matter of cultural difference. What matters, is the heart.

We love Italy.

“For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).