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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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).

Peace in God’s will

Darius and Pepita

This morning I went to the office of the Associazione Italiana Allevatori, the Italian Breeding Association, to register the change of ownership of Pepita. We have Pepita, a small horse with haflinger blood, since a couple of months and we are sure that she is an answer to our prayers. Nine years ago, we arrived with two horses in Umbria: Forsane, a chestnut mare, and Darius, our dun fjord pony.  Both of them almost twenty years old, we didn’t want to leave them in France, although we had no intention to ride either of them.

Two years ago, after Darius showed us the way, we found Forsane lying helplessly on an incline, with her back against a huge rock and her legs upwards the slope. There was no way she could get up and we had no idea how long she had been lying there. A morning, a whole night, or 24 hours? The vet, who we called right away, told us later that she had fallen because she was dying and not the other way around. We could only hope that he told us the truth and hadn’t said it just to make us feel less bad. Anyway, from the moment the vet put the poor horse out of her misery, Darius was alone. Now, horses aren’t created to live on their own, they are herd animals. On the one hand, we didn’t want to insert new animals into our small menagerie, because we think that at some time we will need to travel in our work for God. Animals are wonderful company, but they also tie you down. On the other hand, though, it hurt to see Darius trudging in the meadow or standing staring in the stable, obviously suffering from solitude. Therefore, we started praying. “God, if it is in Your will that we’ll have another horse, please let it cross our path.” We specified that we wanted an older mare, preferably a pony so that it wouldn’t eat that much hay, although Jan worried a bit that a too small pony could easily escape through our rickety fences. It wouldn’t be the first time that we’d hear the sound of horses’ hoofs outside our bedroom window in the middle of the night. We prayed for more than a year, almost every day.

Then, one day, I got a phone call: would we be interested in a small, retired, twenty-year old mare? We made an appointment. When we saw Pepita, it struck me how much she looked like Forsane: chestnut with a white blaze on her head. She was a lot smaller though, but still higher than Darius. The stableman explained that she was a very calm and sociable horse. She had just one vice; she was a master escaper. Oops. When I looked at Jan, I almost could visualize his worries about getting up at night for horse rescue missions. Then I felt a Nudge. Before I knew it, I heard myself say confidently, “We have prayed so long. If we really believe this is God’s will, we must trust Him also for keeping Pepita safe within our fences. I believe she won’t run off.” A couple of days later, I went to fetch Pepita. I walked into the valley to the riding school on my own, and up the hill again with Pepita behind me. She reacted very well to the “Pat Parelli” instructions I had learned in France and we arrived at home without any problems. I think it was love at first sight. After the initial ritual of nuzzling, chasing, and running to establish the hierarchy, Darius and Pepita were inseparable.

On the third evening after Pepita’s arrival, Jan heard a horse neighing very loudly. “Milly, come quickly, I think Pepita has escaped!” Jan panicked, and we ran outside with a flashlight in search of a run-away horse. Nothing. Jan was about to start the car to hunt her down. “Maybe we should control the meadow first,” I said. Jan hesitatingly agreed, and we walked into the field, moving the beam of light nervously around in search of our equines. Suddenly, we saw them: caught in the circle of light, they stood with their heads over each other’s necks, hugging–no, caressing–each other, visibly exhilarating. Probably, they had lost sight of each other, but now were reunited. And happy. Pepita never tried to escape, not once. She was peaceful and safe in God’s will.

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you (Isa. 26:3).

God loves all – and wants us to come directly to Him

Olives

Yesterday morning, we brought our harvest to the olive press in our village. After we put our thirteen crates on a pallet and received the promise that our oil would be ready in the afternoon, we rang the bell of the lumber jack, who lives around the corner, to pay for the 2 cords of firewood he delivered a couple of weeks ago. We had tried to pay several times before, to no success, because we found nobody at home. This time we were lucky; his wife opened the door, a friendly woman, who is always interested in how we are doing. She accepted the money and proudly showed that she still had the Christmas card we had brought her last year. Of course, we had written an encouraging Bible verse on the card, and almost naturally, we began to talk about our faith and our mission in Italy. “We love Jesus and the Italian people, and Jesus loves the Italian people even more! We really want to share His love with all of you,” I said. “Yes, but doesn’t He especially love the believers?” she asked. For one moment, I was dumbstruck. Then I answered, “No, He loves every single person, believer or non-believer. That’s exactly why He came to the earth; to enable everyone to come to Him. But He loves them already before they do so,” I explained. “We cannot win God’s love through our faith,” I continued, “but if we believe in Him and in everything He has done for us, we can feel His love. And we want to answer His love.” She looked at me for a moment. Then I could see that another thought popped up and she asked, “And what do you think of the current pope?” The expression on her face told me that she liked him a lot. Many Italians ask us this same question, expecting us to respond positively. Pope Francesco is a friendly man, appealing to many people with his humble behavior and easy-to-understand words, but He still represents an unbiblical function in an unbiblical institution. Jan and I never engage in a discussion about the pope though; instead, we start talking about Jesus. “Did you know that you can relate to God without any intermediary person?  Jesus made that possible!”

It hurts every time we realize that most Italians simply don’t know the truth about Jesus.

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. […] So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. […] We love because he first loved us (1John 4:10, 16, 19).

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus,  by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:19-22).