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.”

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Catching Horses at Midnight

Horses

Pepita and Darius

My cell phone on the nightstand buzzes just as my daughter and I snuggle under the covers.

“Please silence it, Mommy. I’d hate to wake up tonight.”

“Sorry–with Dad gone, I prefer it up and running.” I put it back after reading my husband Jan’s message that he had a great day, a thousand miles away. “You could go sleep in your own bed, honey.”

“No, I want to stay with you.” To Aisha, sleeping in the king bed is the only benefit of Jan’s absence—never mind she’s fifteen.

Hugging her tight, I pray for a restful night. We both need it. Aisha had a sleepover at a friend last night—super fun, Mom—but of course, they did anything but sleep. Taking advantage of my solitude, I had been wordsmithing an article until 3 a.m.

I switch off the light, turn over onto my side, and fall asleep instantly.

Drrring, drrring.

Groggy, I reach for the phone. The display informs me that my neighbor, Valeria, is calling me at midnight. “Hello?”

“Milly, sorry to bother you at this hour, but it’s urgent—your horses escaped.”

“What?” I jolt out of bed and start getting dressed with one hand, while she tries to reassure me. “I’m blocking the road with my car, so they can’t go any further.”

“I’m on my way.”

I hastily explain to a drowsy Aisha that I must catch our two horses.

Mamma mia, my luck. They’re always docile, but now Jan’s gone—these few days a year—they decide to get away. I grab a carrot, a headstall, and a flashlight. Outside, I discover the flashlight has a dead battery. Sure, bad luck accumulates. Thankfully, the moon in a cloudless sky lights up my path as I descend the steep dirt road to our neighbors’ house.

Instead of a car and horses, I meet dead silence. “Valeria!” My voice carries off into trees, shadows, and an empty pasture. “Valeria!”

Oh no—forgot my phone.

After a strenuous run uphill, I’m chuffing into the receiver. “Valeria, where are you?”

“Almost there.”

Outside again, I see headlights come around the bend of the road. Despite stress and fatigue, I can’t help but smile at the sight of the equine pair, sauntering toward me in front of the creeping car. I wave to Valeria and put the headstall on the gelding, who willingly exchanges his freedom for a carrot. The mare follows us into the pasture.

Moments later, while they’re munching hay in the shed, I realize that I forgot to feed them since Jan left, yesterday morning. Probably, the late-autumn fields left them greedy for greener grass.

“Now, where did you break out?” I mutter, as I rub their crests and inhale their sweet scent. For a moment, the gelding interrupts his chomping to nuzzle my hand.

Before checking the fence, I phone Valeria to thank her. She warns me, “The gate at the bottom of the hill was open. I closed it as well as I could, but you better check.”

“Mama!” Frustration echoes from Aisha’s voice as she calls me from the doorway.

“Here I am, sweetheart.” I snatch my car keys. “Now, go back to bed. I’ll join you in ten minutes—just need to check the gate.”

“No. You can’t leave me alone.”

“Okay, put on your shoes and jacket and come with me.” Great, now we’ll both be wide awake.

When I inspect the double gate in the beam of the headlights, I discover that the bolt slide isn’t shut. What hunter, truffle seeker, or other nature explorer would leave our gate open after having benefited from our grounds? Groaning—the iron gates are not level—I slide the bolt in place.

When we finally tumble into bed, Aisha mumbles, “You’d better say another prayer; God didn’t hear you the first time.”

I’m about to agree, but all of the sudden, my perspective shifts. “I think God heard us well, honey. He wasn’t the one who forgot to feed the horses, to close the gate, or to recharge the flashlight. He is the One who led me to leave my phone on, made Valeria come by at the right moment, cleared the sky, and calmed the horses…Honey?”

Aisha’s slow breaths reveal she’s sleeping. To whom am I preaching?

Thank You, Lord.


 

This article was first published as an entry in the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge.

At the Mediterranean Sea

SeaThis week, we–Jan, our daughter, a friend of hers, and I–spent a day at the beach at the west coast of Italy, in Marina di Pescia Romana.

Although the school holiday has long started, the beach was still quiet. After all, it’s only the first week of July. The peak holiday season in Italy is August, especially the weeks around August 15–Ferragosto.

It was a lovely day amid bright blue and sparkling turquoise. An inspiring day, which made me seek for the right words to communicate its essence and share it with you.

That evening I read a post on Rosanna’s blog, Writing on the Pages of Life, which was about new writing ideas. I love how Rosanna always looks for creative ways to learn and grow in writing non-fiction. This particular post mentioned ways such as early morning writing, writing by prearrangement, haiku’s, and haibuns.

Then it happened. I too–like Rosanna–fell in love with the haibun, which is the combination of two poems: a short prose poem and a haiku. Here are my very first attempts, inspired by our day at the Mediterranean Sea.

***********

Liquid Embrace

Water envelopes me as I walk into the sparkling waves. I stretch out my arms to embrace the dancing light and the vastness of the sea. Wordless worship wells up from within my soul, overflows to join the praise of all creation.

Floating on the waves
Eyes closed and breathing slowly
Peaceful in God’s arms

***********

BeachOn The Beach

Radiant blue, endless turquoise. Quietly rolling waves softly consign their collars of foam to the golden sand. A breeze caresses the skin. The parasol flaps in the wind like the wings of a helpless bird.

Seagulls, so it seems
With ev’ry wave of the cool
sea, girls’ high-pitched screams.

 

Just Christians

“Mom, today another teacher told me I can’t be a Christian.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart. How did you respond this time?”

“I just repeated that I’m a Christian. But she said I have to be a Roman Catholic, an Orthodox, or a Protestant Christian. She said I can’t be ‘just a Christian’.”

“You want me to talk with her and explain?”

Aisha sighed. “No, forget it. She won’t understand anyway.”

Although I didn’t agree with my fourteen-year-old daughter’s conclusion about the teacher’s ability to understand, I empathized with her. It was the second teacher who stated that Aisha couldn’t be a Christian.

The first had told her, “Go and ask your parents what you are.” After all, Aisha was the only child in her class not to attend the Catholic religion classes. Furthermore, she hadn’t received her First Communion nor did she go to Mass.

My husband, our daughter, and I are a non-denominational Christian family in Umbria, Italy, and we know that God wants us to reach out to Italians.

However, most of the 60 million people in Italy identify themselves as Christians, mainly Roman Catholics.

So what are we doing here, aiming to evangelize Christians?

But do the people we meet really know Jesus? When we ask, “How do you do?” the answer is often, “Si tira avanti,” which means, “I get by”, literally, “I’m dragging myself forward.” Their faces express a mixture of fatalism and futility as they mention family problems, failing health, or financial troubles. They’re living without purpose, without a glimmer of hope.

Despite the omnipresence of Catholicism, most Italians don’t know God, meaning that they don’t know Him personally. They picture Jesus as the dead man on the Cross or the helpless baby in the manger, but the living King has no relevant role in their lives.

We know that God loves the Italian people and wants to be part of their daily lives. He wants to give them identity, a sense of value, meaningful purpose, and clear direction.

How to explain this? How to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God among people who think they are doing fine as far as religion is concerned? What is evangelism anyway?

Evangelism is not necessarily about going into the streets with megaphones and handing out tracts to strangers. From our experience, we know that people won’t trust our words until they trust our hearts. Evangelism is a lifestyle.

We pray to God each day that He will fill us with love for everyone we will meet that day. We listen to people’s problems; we offer to pray for them and with them. We share with them what Jesus has done in our own lives. We talk with them and counsel them.  We open our house and our hearts to them.

When people show interest, we often point them to John’s Gospel to get to know Jesus.

Thanks to their Catholic heritage, many Italians own a Bible. And we know that God’s living Word has the power to lead them to faith in Christ (2Timothy 3:15).

There’s a problem though; most Italians we meet find the Bible an intimidating book that they have never opened, let alone read.

I recently found the solution for overcoming this initial hesitancy in the form of a small evangelism tool, the Pocket Testament.

Pocket Testament LeagueSome weeks ago, I came across the website of the Pocket Testament League (PTL). The PTL has an intriguing history and two main goals: Strengthen people’s faith and equip them to bring other people closer to Jesus. To that end, they offer free evangelism training and free daily devotionals. However, their main tool is the Pocket Testament, a booklet containing the complete Gospel of John, preceded by an explanation of Jesus’ crucial role in God’s reconciliation plan.

Delighted to find out that the Pocket Testament is also available in Italian, I immediately ordered twenty copies.

Upon receiving them, I put several booklets in my handbag. In two of them, I wrote a personal message.

Dear teacher,

I’m taking the liberty of sharing our Christian faith with you through this booklet.

May you be blessed by its content. 

Yours sincerely,

Milly Born

I trust that God will grant me the opportunity to give each pocket testament to the intended recipient. His Word will do the rest.

Hot Flash

hotflashSomething is terribly wrong. I sense confusion, embarrassment, a hint of panic. One second I try to figure out what the problem is, the next I know and brace myself for the evaporating experience of a hot flash. I stand at the kitchen counter, cutting tomatoes, and I feel my face turn equally red. Gradually, the burning sensation spreads over my whole body, and I break into a sweat. Thank God, it lasts only a minute.

Back to normal, I tuck my hair behind my ear and watch my 14-year-old daughter Aisha. She has just arrived home from school. Squatting, she caresses her small dog that jumps up to her, excited that his playmate has returned.

“Mummy, you know what Francesca did today?”

“Well, no, but I would like to.” I turn to the stove and slide the sliced tomatoes into the frying pan, where little pieces of garlic and peperoncino already are sautéing in olive oil from our own trees. We’re having guests for dinner tonight and I’m stressed, because I want to finish cooking before they arrive.

“She told the teacher she needed to wash her hands, but instead she went to the teachers’ lounge and used her cell phone to photograph the test of next week!”

“Wow… that’s serious, honey. That’s cheating. Does she realize that she’s risking suspension?”

Aisha pushes the dog away and turns on her tablet. “No, I don’t think so. Although she’ll do anything to be popular. She said she’d send it to each of us on Facebook.”

Thank you Lord, for a daughter who is always open with me so that I can guide her and show her Your way.

“Ah, here it is already. So what do I do, Mom?”

I ponder a few seconds before I answer, “Sweetheart, what do you think would be the best thing to do?”

“Throw it away?”

“It would, wouldn’t it?”

“So I can’t even have a look?”

“Do you want to participate in cheating?”

I hear a disappointed sigh. “Well, I guess not.”

I stir in the tomato sauce, add some white wine, and inhale the lovely aroma.

“Okay Mom, it’s gone.”

“Good girl. I’m really proud of you.” I put the spoon away and turn around to give her a big hug.

“Whatever grade you get on the test, it’ll be worth a thousand times more than the grades of the kids who cheated, honey.”

She looks up at me and gives me a big smile.

Grateful for my daughter’s honest heart, I let her go and continue cooking the pasta sauce, the lemon chicken, the vegetables, and the jam tart.

Here in Italy, eating together is an important event. It affirms friendships. In addition, we always pray for opportunities to share God’s love and grace while we have fellowship over a meal. However, this country is famous for its cuisine, and its people are reluctant to try unfamiliar food. I want our guests feel at ease; therefore, I prepare genuine Italian dishes with great care.

By the time our guests arrive, Aisha has finished her homework, my husband Jan has set the table, and I’ve just put the tart in the oven. We welcome the lovely family we recently met and invite them to sit down.

After some small talk, Jan says a short prayer that as usual, results in a brief, awkward silence. Then we dive into the pasta all’arrabbiata.

Suddenly, I hear a little squeak. Aisha stares at her food, frowning in disgust. “Yuck! There’s a hair in my pasta!”

Cringing with embarrassment, I suppress the urge to cover my face. Instead, I rack my brain for some reassuring reply, but before I can open my mouth, she adds, “Is it yours or the dog’s?”

A violent hot flash engulfs me. While my husband tries to distract our guests, I manage to teach my daughter what to do whenever you spot a foreign object in your food: push it to the edge of your plate–silently.

Openness. Honesty. Yes, I thank God for Aisha’s praiseworthy qualities. But Lord, I really could use your help with the fine-tuning.

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(I submitted this article also to the Writing Challenge on the FaithWriters website. The topic was “Facepalm”.)

Brainwash

beek3Sunlight filters through bright green spring leaves and tenderly illuminates my favorite place beside the stream. Sitting on a stone, I close my eyes and relax. 

A breeze caresses my face and carries the scent of fertile soil. I inhale deeply. 

The water murmurs a happy song that clears my mind and refreshes my soul.

How fitting that God uses clean, running water as the image of purification.

When I hear gurgling laughs mingle with the music of the whirling water, I awaken from my reveries. Upstream are about ten children and the pastor of the church they belong to; they have come for a day to our house in the countryside.

City children. 

I guess they’re between six and fourteen years old. Perhaps the closest they have ever come to streaming is the downloading of images from the Internet to their tablet through a Wi-Fi connection while they watch an online film.

Digital generation children. 

Ten minutes ago, just after we arrived in the gorge, the older kids complained that their smartphones didn’t pick up the mobile network signal. I notice they’re now chatting with each other instead of with some distant friend through Facebook. 

The smaller children, insecure at first, enthusiastically explore their new environment. Little fingers, trained to manipulate keyboards and touch screens, dive deep into the wet clay and mold grey blobs. Hands, used to holding game boys and joysticks, pick up stones and build a dam. Ears, unplugged from MP3 players, register splashes and gushing water. Eyes that normally cling to TVs and computers follow the course of a floating stick that is searching its winding way between the rocks.

Running along the banks, sprinkling one another, they scream and laugh. Some boys try to follow the water downstream as far as possible, jumping from stone to stone, occasionally stepping into the shallow water. A few girls, huddling together, hold their hands under a mini waterfall, and share their awe of the never-ending flow of clear water.

Cloths are smudged, eyes light up. Barbie shoes are beyond recognition, cheeks glow pink.

When it is time to leave, the pastor reminds the children to rinse their hands. I get up to join them. One of the smallest girls stands on the other side of the stream and stretches out her hands, dripping with mud. She seems desperate. 

I look at her, concerned. “What’s the problem, honey?”

She doesn’t answer, but looks at her dirty hands, then at the water she can’t reach. 

“Would you like me to help you?”

She nods. 

I stand on a rock in the middle of the stream, in front of her, and take hands full of fresh water to clean hers. Scoop after scoop, I wash away the mud from her pulses, her palms, her fingers, the edges of her nails. While washing her, I say a silent prayer.

Please, Lord, let this visit become a vivid memory of living water that cleanses these children’s heads from the digital flow they dive into every day. Not just their hands, Lord, but their minds. Let their minds be purified.

I lift my eyes from the girl’s hands to look at her face. She smiles and, with a spring in her step, rejoins her friends.

 


(I submitted this article also to the Writing Challenge on the FaithWriters website. The topic was “Digital Detox”. The occasion I describe took place on April 25.)

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?