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)

 

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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).


 

A Prayer about Worn Socks

Worn Socks

Dear Jesus,

This morning, I dropped a pair of worn socks in the trashcan and suddenly felt a twinge of guilt. My Mama went to be with You three years ago, yet I could almost hear her sneering, “Your Aunt Terry is a lazy bum. She doesn’t mend holes in socks; she just throws them away.”

Am I lazy, Jesus? I know I’m not the diligent housewife my Mama modeled. To her, housekeeping was a way of life that began at fifteen, when her father sent her away to be a round-the-clock maid. A relentless sense of duty made her toil every day, all day long.

Her countertop was always cleared. She prepared breakfast and invariably had lunch ready in time for us to get back to school for the afternoon. She didn’t vacuum the house by pushing the handle of the vacuum cleaner; she removed the handle, put the smallest nozzle to the tube, and went down on all fours to make sure it swallowed every crumb and dog hair from the carpet. The day she dropped a frying pan, and boiling oil splattered against her legs, the first thing she did was mopping up the mess. By the time she got to the doctor’s, her legs were two big blisters. The house was always spotless, from fridge to bathroom, from cellar to attic. Every cupboard, drawer, and wardrobe was neatly organized. When my father lost his job, she got a job as a janitress at a local school, doing what she did best.

And at the end of each working day, she put up her crooked feet—the painful result of a lifetime spent standing—and took out her mending basket. She never idled.

Ever since I was twelve, Mama urged me to tidy up my own bedroom, “Because you’re a girl and you must learn housekeeping.” I hated it. Dirty, she wrote in the dust on my bookshelves.

I’m in my fifties now and have my own family. But I still detest cleaning. Please don’t misunderstand me, Jesus—I love a tidy house. I just don’t like the process of achieving it. Somehow, it always ends up last on my list of priorities. I prefer talking with my husband over a cappuccino or worshiping You. Visiting friends, sharing Your love, and praying with them. Hiking in the woods, working on my book, or studying my Bible. Chatting with my daughter, helping her doing homework, or reading a good book.

I vacuum quickly, never on all fours. I never iron. Our wardrobes are a random pile of loosely folded clothes. I wash the dishes once a day. Never in my life have I done a spring cleaning. And I don’t mend holes in socks.

The other day, my daughter asked, “Who’s coming for dinner tonight?”

“Why, honey?” I stopped scrubbing the washstand.

“Because you’re cleaning the house.”

Jesus, it’s true that some days, I loath the idea of unexpected visitors, with dirty dishes piled up, a smudged floor, three dogs in the hallway, and schoolbooks plus half the contents of my daughter’s dressing table scattered in the dusty living room. But then You encourage me with the words that You spoke in Martha and Mary’s house, and I decide I’d rather be found amidst the clutter, radiant at Your feet, than grumpy in a spick-and-span house.

I can’t imagine dust or dirt in heaven. Mama must be having a good time.

By the way, can you please tell her that I love her—and assure her that I’m not a lazy bum?

Thank You, Jesus.

Amen.


You can find the story of Jesus in Martha and Mary’s house in the Gospel of Luke 10:38-42.

I submitted this article first to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge.

photo credit: New socks required ! via photopin (license)

GraceTruth-Featured

A desire ran wild, handed over

Even a normal, healthy desires can turn unhealthy if we allow it to run wild and dominate us. In this article, I share with you how in 2006, I surrendered my “baby lust” to God, and how He molded it into sheer beauty.



 

Verdant hills roll to the horizon; a river glistens in the sun. The breeze caresses my face as I look at my belly, which bulges under a wide dress. Smiling, I wrap my arms around myself and embrace the wonder of new life.

Beep, beep, beep!

Three minutes had passed. I half opened one eye, eager to know the result, but afraid of disappointment. A little pink line stared at me. Hoping to detect a second pink line, I opened my other eye as well. I blinked. Nothing. My womb was empty.

I grabbed the pregnancy test stick off the washstand and tossed it in the trashcan, along with my dream.

It wasn’t the first time I considered having a child, but I had always found a reason to tuck the idea away. Now I wasn’t in control. Baby clothes brought me to tears. Imaginary telephone conversations to announce my pregnancy to family and friends made me beam. Whenever my husband, Jan, and I sketched our future, I drew a little one into the picture. I planned a nursery. I even named my baby. The prospect of morning sickness, stretch marks, or labor pains didn’t ruin my reverie; rather it added a heroic touch.

As the months crept by, my jubilant anticipation gave way to fear and frustration. The craving intensified with each negative test result, clutching my heart so tight it hurt.

Jan was at peace. “If God wants us to have a baby, we will conceive. Otherwise, we will remain a family of two.”

I fought his words. “If God exists, surely He wouldn’t be so cruel as to stir up this devouring need and then deny me a child.”

Later that year, when I surrendered to God, I learned that He might have given me the desire, but He wouldn’t want it to run wild and dominate my life. I decided to let Him reign.

But then early menopause hit, and I had a hard time accepting that I would never feel life grow within me, give birth, or nurse my baby. Jesus received my tears and tended to my wounds.

When He promised me a child through a Bible verse, “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear…,” I was confused and terrified. “Lord, what if I heard You wrong? What if my scars rip open and the craving creeps out? Can I bear it?”

Yet I chose to trust Him.

Ever so gently, Jesus molded my desire into a longing to care for a child—any child, no matter in whose womb it had been conceived.

Instead of enduring nausea, a big belly, and contractions, we struggled with adoption information sessions, psychological assessments, and a huge pile of paperwork.

Two years later, when the adoption agency proposed a seven-year-old Ethiopian girl, we knew Aisha was to be our daughter. Mesmerized, we gazed at her pictures. “When can we bring her home?”

Cheerfully, the psychologist answered, “The Ethiopian court must study your dossier and approve you as Aisha’s adoptive parents. If everything goes according to plan, the process will be completed within six months.”

Waiting at least another half a year and facing the risk of being rejected—o Lord, I need your help.

While collecting and authenticating the last documents, I submitted the adoption procedure and my fears to Jesus. He was faithful. He armed me with confidence and patience to fight the lavish longing that was about to organize a coup in my heart and rule once more.

One autumn day, we found ourselves sitting on the edge of a rickety couch in an orphanage in Addis Ababa. There, amid dusty furniture and boxes piled up to the ceiling, I first pressed Aisha’s small body against my chest. There, I felt Jesus wrap His arms around us, embracing the wonder of new life—a new family.

 


Notes

The Bible verse, “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear…” is from Isaiah 54:1.

This article was first published in the FaithWriters’ Weekly Writing Challenge.

 

Keyword for 2015: FOCUS

Foto by Lisiane Detaille

Foto by Lisiane Detaille

December 30, 2014

Wind gusts stung my cheeks. Two degrees below zero, but the temperature didn’t stop me from taking my daily walk with the dogs. I squinted as I admired the ever-enchanting, Umbrian landscape from the top of a hill. Sunrays warmed my face, and I relaxed.

These last weeks of the year, I felt tense. Of course the frenzy of the period leading up to Christmas contributed (including a rare cleaning rage), as did having guests, breaking the daily routines due to school holidays, watching the new Hobbit movie, shopping, cooking, visiting friends, and worrying how to get our daughter to the long abided Christian winter camp in a snowy Abruzzo.

As much as I loved to write, I simply didn’t get to it. At times, my mind was skimming the surface of potential subjects, but whirlwinds of irrelevant thoughts blew them out of reach. The continuous distraction irritated me.

“God, please give me focus so that I can write again.”

Focus on Me, and you’ll have the right focus in anything you’ll do.

Bible verses popped up. Hebrews 12:2, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. Isaiah 26:3, You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.

I realized that I had spent little time with Jesus, because my days were filled with other activities—activities I didn’t even fully enjoy, because I constantly felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”—yes, just like Bilbo Baggins after years of owning the master ring of evil.

Allowing my own program to drag me away from the source of light, I gave darkness the opportunity to further distract me, steal my joy, and become superficial and ineffective.

“Forgive me, Lord—again.”

It wasn’t the first time and it probably won’t be the last time I let circumstances reign my life, but I know that it’s best when He is King.

In the first week of 2015, I dwelled in His presence every day, and enjoyed every single thing I undertook. Including writing this post.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17).

Human trafficking from Nigeria to Italy

 

childtrafficking

 

Sadly, the following story–first submitted to the FaithWriters Weekly Writing Challenge–is based on facts, although the girl is fictional. I combined a personal testimony of a girl we met in Orvieto, with details I read on the Internet.

 

 


Hope

My name is Hope. I’m from Nigeria. I’m the girl on the street you try to ignore as you hurry past. Just before you turn your head away, I see your cold eyes, the corners of your mouth pulled down. Don’t worry—you don’t have to buy what I’m offering. But why do you despise me? Is it the color of my skin? My poverty?

I lived with my family in a village in Edo State, the South of Nigeria. My parents were jobless. We were always hungry— sometimes, my mother cooked tree leaves for dinner.

When my brother met a man whose niece in Italy would have work for me, I was thrilled. I could help provide and give my little sister the opportunity I never had—to go to school. The man promised, “You’ll get rich working as a hairdresser.” I’m good at plaiting hair. He even advanced me the travel expenses. Little did I know that it was a ruse.

Before I left, my brother took me to a juju priest for good luck. The grim man, all dressed in red, cut off some of my hair and took blood from my hand. Then he made me kneel before him and swear to pay my debt and be obedient to my sponsor and his niece; otherwise the evil spirits would torture me and take my soul. He marked my forehead with clay, so the spirits would recognize me. I longed to go to Italy, but the pictures next to his shrine scared me—the horribly disfigured faces of girls who had broken their oath.

I didn’t travel alone. We were crammed into the open back of a truck, more than thirty Nigerian girls. At day time, fine desert sand penetrated our clothes as we drove under the scorching sun. At night, the escorting men raped us. I struggled to break loose, but they had knives. “You’d better get used to it,” they scoffed. Some girls complained that they didn’t get paid for the job. They were going to Italy to be prostitutes and mocked me when I said I was going to be a hairdresser.

To cross the Mediterranean Sea, we loaded into a rubber raft, which almost sank under our weight. We had no food, no water. One of the girls fell into the choppy waves. She screamed, but the boat continued steadily forward.

When we arrived in Italy, I found out the other girls were right. The niece had no hair salon; she was a madam. She said that I would have to work hard to pay my debt—50,000 Euro. I had no idea it was so high. At first, I cried every night standing on the curb, shivering and barely dressed. Tears attract no men and no money, so Madam beat me often. Running away was impossible—the evil spirits would find me. I just tried not to feel anything.

One night, I met Victor. He didn’t want sex; he just gave money. He asked my name and talked with me. “Hope, do you know Jesus?”

“Yes. My grandma told me about Him—said she liked Him more than the other gods she worshiped.”

“Jesus is the only God. There are no others. And He loves you.”

“How can God love me?” I wondered. “I do bad things.”

Victor read from his Bible how Jesus blessed and restored women like me. “If you want, I can help you start a new life.”

“No. My oath…the spirits—”

“Jesus is stronger than any evil spirit. You’re safe with Him.”

Victor got me to a women’s shelter where Madam cannot find me. I also met his wife. She teaches me about Jesus and helps me to get my documents, so that I can find a real job.

For now, I’m still on the street, but instead of selling my body, I sell fabrics and other household items. I don’t make much money, but I can send all my earnings to Nigeria. My family is proud of me. And my sister is going to school! I pray that Jesus protects them from the evil spirits, and from the men who threaten them because I escaped.

I’m not afraid anymore.

“You want to buy tissues, ma’am?

“Sir, do you need socks? Two pairs for five Euro only.”

My name is Hope. I’m from Nigeria. Please, don’t ignore me.

***

For more information on human trafficking in Nigeria, see: