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)

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).


 

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.

A Gem of Hope

chrissie

 

My best friend, Chrissie, died in a car accident when I was almost sixteen. When the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge called for autobiographical stories, I wrote the following story about our friendship and her death, which “shocked me and rocked all securities in a phase of life that is insecure enough in itself” (Destination Italy, page 73).


Chrissie and I

Chrissie and I were like sisters; straight blond hair, glasses, and acne. Side by side, we faced our inferiority complexes. We wrote in each other’s secret diaries. Together, we fell in love with faraway idols and with schoolboys who vaguely resembled them—and who, like our idols, didn’t notice us either.

A rap on the door drags me out of deep sleep. The grey light of dawn breaks through the caravan windows. Who can that be, at this hour? I hear my father getting up. Soft voices, a muffled cry. Then my father enters the small room, his eyes horrified. His mouth utters the unthinkable.

Woodpeckers and blackbirds provided the music for the campsite where our families each had a caravan. Moss was the sofa where we did our homework–and giggled about that handsome teacher. Lying on our backs, we gazed at the endless sky through pine tree crowns and dreamed of future fame and fortune. Throwing cones at sturdy trunks, we complained about how our parents just didn’t understand us.

“Nooooo!” I stumble out of bed. “How—what happened? She can’t—nooo!” Passing by a mirror, I catch a glimpse of my contorted face, my heart-broken wails reaching far beyond the caravan walls.

The dike of a highway in construction served as our belvedere over the world. We pondered love and hate, peace and war. We wrote a letter to the US President, urging him to end all the fights on earth, as well as a letter of rejection to the marriage proposal from a French boy Chrissie had met during a holiday.

Amid the tumult of Monday morning class, I lay my head down on my arms. The school desk rattles under my sobbing body. “Hey, why are you laughing?” My classmate’s eyes reveal her shock as she sees my tears. The rector enters the room with a solemn face. “This weekend, a terrible accident took place…” Soon everyone is crying.

The portable radio in Chrissie’s bicycle basket broadcast our favorite pop songs. We sang along at the top of our lungs with Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, while we cycled to the park where we would eat our sandwiches and drink our Cokes. We spent hours recalling last Saturday’s experiences–our first-ever visit to a discotheque, where we had drunk beer and collapsed into fits of irrepressible laughter, nullifying our painstaking efforts to look mature through a lot of makeup.

A brief look—an everlasting image etches itself into my mind. That can’t be Chrissie—she never wore her hair like that. Where are her glasses? What’s that small Band-Aid doing on her left temple? My vision blurs, my legs give way.

In her moonlit bedroom, I was lying In Chrissie’s romantic four-poster; she slept on the couch. We talked far into the night about faith, heaven, and God. All of a sudden, we were overwhelmed with inexplicable joy. Unable to stop smiling, we decided that God must be in the room.

The enormous church is too small to contain all the mourners—the entire school is here. Among hundreds of teenagers, I’m anonymous. Who am I? I was Chrissie’s best friend. Now she’s gone.

We drank tea and burned incense. In the smoky room, Chrissie told me that she would meet a group of young Christians. Despite the divine experience we had shared, I didn’t want to join her. How could a loving God be in control, while the world was full of injustice and suffering? How could I believe in creation, while science claimed evolution?

The majestic sound of organ pipes fills the church. The mourners, hesitant at first, start singing in unison, “The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want…”*

After that fateful night, when Chrissie died on the asphalt after being hit by a car, I was left to sail the stormy sea of life alone. Unmet expectations, bad choices, and hurtful disappointments tossed me around, dragging me in the wrong directions.

It was not until I met my Christian husband that I recognized that Jesus had always been there, ready to capture my heart, refill me with joy, and put another bubbling smile on my face.

I now cherish the countless treasures of faith that Christ bestowed upon me. Among them sparkles this gem of hope—Chrissie and I will meet again.


 

* Psalm 23, arranged by Francis Rous. Copyright: Public Domain.

Just Trust God for a New Day

my_just_trust_story_1-333x500

 

 

When writer and blogger Arabah Joy called for Just Trust Stories to support the release of her book Trust Without Borders, I knew immediately that I wanted to write about being barren and yet trusting God for a child. At the beginning of October, Arabah published my story on her blog.

“A New Day” tells about the first morning after we met our daughter—the first morning after the last chapter in Destination Italy.


 

A New Day

Addis Ababa, November 26 2008, 5 a.m.

An amplified male voice awakens me. Lying on my back, eyes closed, I hear the call to prayer from the minaret of a local mosque. The melodious sounds wash over me while my sleepy mind retraces the journey that brought me to this Ethiopian hotel room.

More than four years ago, at the age of forty-three, I hoped for a child. One year later, the onset of early menopause crushed my hope. My womb would remain forever empty.

Meanwhile, my husband Jan and I had moved to Italy. Apparently, a child didn’t fit into God’s plan for our lives in this new country. But why had He planted the love for a child inside of me? I struggled to understand.

Then one day, God touched my heart through a sermon.

Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;

break forth into singing and cry aloud,

you who have not been in labor!

                                   —Isaiah 54:1 ESV

Although the pastor was referring to birthing spiritual children through preaching the Gospel, I felt God promising us a real child. I meditated about the women in the Bible who became pregnant in their old age—Sarah, Elisabeth—and decided to give my desperate desire to God, simply trusting that His will be done.

Several months later, something shifted inside me, and a new longing came to life: to mother any child, no matter whether by birth or otherwise. I had pondered adoption previously, but fearing it would be too difficult, I set it aside. Now it was as if Someone had pressed a seed firmly into the soil of my heart, and this seed germinated. Patiently, I let the sprout grow until I was sure it was viable before I shared it with Jan. He agreed that we should begin the adoption procedure. We knew that if it were God’s will, we would overcome any problem.

As we moved forward in the adoption process, we felt God guiding us at every step. To our great joy, we were approved for adoption despite our age; Jan was fifty-six and I, forty-five. A prophetic word led us to the right adoption agency—one that was willing to consider our preference for a girl and licensed to work in Ethiopia, a country to which we felt strongly drawn.

When they told us of seven-year-old Aisha, we accepted without a moment’s hesitation. After another six months, the adoption process was complete.

Yesterday, we arrived in Addis Ababa and went to the orphanage to meet our daughter. Two and a half years after God’s promise, we wrapped our arms around our girl—the most beautiful gift of God.

A movement next to me calls me back to the present. I open my eyes to gaze at Aisha. Last night, after we invited her into the “big bed,” she happily fell asleep right away. Although murmuring and stirring, she’s still sleeping.

Hoping to nod off again, I roll over on my side.

Suddenly, I feel a child’s arm around my neck. I turn my head and meet two wide-awake eyes above a beaming smile.

Not wanting to awake Jan, we sneak out of bed; I beckon her into the bathroom. I whisper and gesticulate, trying to transcend the language barrier that still separates us. “Too early.” I point at an imaginary watch. “Sleep.” I fold my hands against my cheek.

Aisha follows my gaze to the bed, then shakes her head. She takes my hand and leads me to the window where she pulls back the curtain and triumphantly points outside. Lifting up my weary eyes to the pale sky, I concede. It’s dawn.

I look at my daughter’s face, which sparkles with anticipation of this new day, her new life.

My exhaustion gives way to love, and I kneel down to hold her tight. Then she says it—the one word we both know and have longed for. “Mama.”

Overwhelmed by God’s faithfulness, I realize it is indeed a brand new day.

Do I bear good fruit?

image

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?