Pity

A king, pouting in his palace. He’d seen some prime property, but the owner refused to part with it. So he sulked. He fumed and fussed, refused his food. King Ahab’s swollen sense of self-importance was assuaged only when his wife, Jezebel, arranged to have Naboth murdered – 1 Kings 21 tells the story. You may know the tale well.

You might not have created so much drama that eventually someone lost their life, but self-pity is part of the fallen human condition. We are all born self-centred, wickedly wired to insist upon life on OUR terms. And when we have decided that life has not treated us as the important humans we believe we are, we cry foul! We fume and fuss and sulk.

Let me break it down for you. At some point in your life, you are going to be hammered by adversity – it’s a ‘when’ and not an ‘if’. Past pain could have meant you were rejected or abused by someone you trusted, treated unfairly or unjustly. Someone you loved died – a child, a spouse, a parent, a sibling and nobody understands how badly you still hurt over that. Your neighbour doesn’t greet you, no-one visits you. You can’t find a job, no matter how hard you try. You go by unnoticed and unseen, you’re so lonely that you’re quite sure no-one will miss you if you’re gone. I’ve been there. MANY have been there. The problem is that self-pity robs you of seeing matters for what they really are, preventing you from making good choices, denying you the chance to be the blessing to the world you were meant to be. Here are some thoughts which have helped me steer (mostly) clear of the self-pity trap:

You’re not God. Stop disagreeing with Him on how you think He has treated you. When your self holds sway over your moods and decisions, you’re in full danger of what C.S. Lewis called ‘the sin of Satan’.

“The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first—wanting to be the center—wanting to be God, in fact. That was the sin of Satan: and that was the sin he taught the human race.” (C.S. Lewis)

You’re moments away from becoming an Ahab.

Surrender to Jesus. Sins of the self are hard to pick up on but they are symptoms of an ego that won’t bend the knee. If you want to follow Jesus, you count your old nature as crucified with Him (Gal 2:20), thereby freeing you of the onerous burden of offence because you were mistreated.

Contemplate the Cross. Identify with Christ and what He endured for your sake. We have been treated way better than Him. He has, anyway, carried all that terrible hurt you’re feeling – what a waste to keep mentally churning on it! Turn your gaze to the tree of Calvary.

Walk in forgiveness. God has forgiven you everything, so don’t hold grudges against others. Naturally, tell people if they have hurt you and then leave it there. Let forgiveness wash your heart. Pray for your enemies, the Word tells you, for those who despitefully use you (Mat 5:44).

Go do something good for someone else. Reaching out might not necessarily make you feel happier, but it is going to stop you from being a pain to be around. Many of us tend to withdraw when we feel betrayed in our relationships, we go off and sulk on our beds like the King in the story. But by saying, ‘I’m not going to wait for someone to come and save me, I’m going to look around for someone I can save,’ you are changing focus. Self-pity says, ‘You owe me.’ A heart unfettered says, ‘How can I serve?’

We have a warped sense of self when we allow life’s injustices (perceived or real) to determine our emotional state. Before long, bitterness sets in really hard. It is my feeling, though, that we can make a choice to trust that God “will work everything for the good, to those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). He’s done it so many times before and He’ll do it again.

So, let yourself go.

Quick-Eyed Love

Sometimes I feel a little bombarded.

I take it as business-as-usual when the world hurls arrows at me that I’m not smart enough, rich enough, thin enough, pretty enough. It’s accepted, it’s the norm. It becomes harder to handle, however, when those messages come from circles closer to the heart, where those arrows do damage.

“You shouldn’t be so analytical.”

“You shouldn’t be sick.”

“You shouldn’t say that.”

Think like us, talk like us, dress like us, sing like us. Which to me, the ever-analytical Antz, equates to: you’ve been weighed and found wanting, you don’t fit. I slink off into the distance, dejected and lonely.

Most of us – nay, I am going to hazard ALL of us – don’t want advice. Perhaps what most of us wish for is a little kindness, companions on Life’s Journey, the kind of friendship that ” … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves). There is nothing superior in an attitude that comes alongside, commited to connection before correction.

1 Cor 13:8 says that spiritual highs and thrills are going to fade. It says even knowledge is going to drift along like deadwood on a rapid riverstream. Absolutely every THING you think is grand will pass… but LOVE remains. It’s the steady constant. And this LOVE doesn’t ride rough-shod over its object:

“Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.” (1 Cor 13:7 MSG)

Love others, and love them deeply. Love them as they need. Cultivate, feed. Share a meal, show some interest. Think twice before you impose an opinion. It’s so rare – the world sitting right next to you is so thirsty for this love, so very hungry for it. Hundreds of years ago, George Herbert penned a poem about this Love. He speaks here of a Love that is quick to spot discomfort, unease – Love that notices shame but does not shame. You aren’t ‘too much’ for this Love, you aren’t ‘not enough’. This Love will go the distance with you. It’s not a weak Love, but neither does it raise its Voice – it beckons, it invites, “Come sit, and eat”.

Love

George Herbert. 1593–1632

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

(Source: Bartleby)

Crisis

An early morning Sunday, the air clear but heralding the intention of heat later on. I’m spruced, I’m dressed, I’m breakfasting – signs of my intention to head off to church soon. I throw open my balcony doors to welcome the cool breeze before the day warms, and suddenly I hear desperate birdsong, panicked screeching. I look out and see cats surefootedly stalking a fluttering, vibrant-green parakeet flying from bush to bush. I hurriedly leave my eggs and juice to dash down flights of stairs, church dress flailing about me in my rush to save a little bird.

But all I can do is chase the predators away – I have no rescue plan, here on my own. And the frightened ball of feathers won’t let me near him and flies off to a balcony way beyond my reach. I’m late for church. I shoot off a prayer to the Creator of the bird, who made me too, asking Him to salvage this situation – but then I must rush to be on time for the service.

It’s a lovely time together, we sing a song about trusting Jesus in the valleys and the minister reminds us of belief and faith, to hope for things unseen. I make my way home, my heart fed and full.

As I get closer to my door, I hear it again –this time a stronger chirp from somewhere high above my head. I halt for a while under the tall trees outside my home, trying to find brighter green among a greater sea of swaying leaves. A woman makes her way to me – it’s her bird, and she’s heartbroken over his escape. Two pairs of eyes are now trying to pinpoint the location of the chirping, and we’re talking, talking as two women do in such a situation. I find out she attends church too. We exchange numbers. She invites me for tea sometime. I like her instantly, we laugh like old friends, and collectively cry out with dismay as her beautiful parakeet takes flight to a tree beyond our fences. Gone. I promise to come over in the week for that promised cup of tea, if only to commiserate with her over this loss.

It’s only later in the afternoon, returned from family visits, that the thought starts forming in my mind. We furiously pray against hurdles and adversity in our lives, banishing the negative with positive affirmations, visualising the glorious solution to all our problems – and call it faith. I don’t dispute the place of hope in our darkness, it is indeed what keeps the ship from sinking. But the escape of a bright little parakeet reminded me that there’s often an opportunity concealed in the folds of a hardship or event not to our liking, something that would not have come otherwise. Because today, I made a friend.

The tale has a joyful conclusion. The following day, the bird returned – and of own accord came to sit down on the top of his cage, in search of his mate inside. My new friend was able to quickly throw a towel over him, scoop him up and return him to safety. We rejoiced over our cup of tea that our Creator still cares for his creation!

Survivor

Twenty-eight. I was only twenty-eight when the doctor said to me, ‘I’m sorry, the biopsy has come back negative and you have cancer. Would you like someone to speak to?’

When you’re in your 20s, you’re invincible. Absolutely unstoppable, filled with energy, plans for days, friends, fun, life to the hilt. And suddenly the giddy merry-go-round that is your young, happy life jerks abruptly to a halt, and piece by piece, life as you know it falls to bits. You lose not only your physical resources to get through a day, but friends disappear. Replaced by the doom prophets of You Did Something Wrong for this to have happened, and You’re Going to Die. Mirrored in the faces of my younger sister and brother too: fear of it all being over too fast, too soon.

I could fill library shelves with tomes on tests and doctors and endless waiting in government hospitals, sitting on hard seats, watching people emerge sometimes from a consulting room crumpled in misery as death sentences got handed out. I could fill galleries on end with snapshots of my memories: concern and love (oftentimes clumsily dressed up as misplaced ‘help’), advice (it’s too late for the Raw Foods Diet, really, I already HAVE cancer, but thanks….), terror in an operating theatre and so much pain, especially the second time round when I knew what to expect from being sliced in the neck (I had thyroid cancer).

Somehow, though, I survived. I lost my singing voice – that was terrible. But I’m living and breathing today and I’m deeply grateful to the skilled surgeon who was able to save much of my laryngeal nerve from total destruction. I got a reprieve instead of the expected death sentence. One October afternoon, I emerged from a consulting room with a come-back-in-six-months for a check-up on my appointment card. And my father in tears, leaning against a hospital wall crying that he thought he was going to lose me.

Having cancer taught me that not every disaster is a death sentence – and that adversity need NEVER … NEVER… be the final word on where you’re headed. I have been in the valley of the shadow of death, and its terrifying fangs could only nip at me, and not shred what was most important. I am not so quick to open my mouth now with quick counsel when people confide their misery or pain to me. I know the value of sitting in the dust and mourning. And I have witnessed firsthand how treasures found in the darkness glitter resplendently in the light of a new day.

And I am so grateful.

 

Storm

Storm

A storm is coming. I see it on the horizon. I see its thunderous clouds gather. I see its menace and its power to undo me.

How do I survive it this time?

Provisions. I’ll make sure I’m stocked up with things to feed me while the windows rattle and the roof threatens to rip off and join the wild winds tearing about. Fill my kitchen shelves, my fridge, with wholesome nourishment for my body. Take my supplements. Fill my bookshelves with food for my mind – currently Timothy Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering has already thrown lifelines. AW Tozer, CS Lewis, all of them within arm’s reach.

Companions. Past losses and grief have shown me to be wise in surrounding myself with godly counsel, seasoned sailors of the high seas of adversity. As this tempest blows in, I will grab hold of the help that is a phone call, an instant message, an email, a coffee date and be deliberate in building meaningful connections around me. And remind myself of Who is in the boat with me….

Anchors. And I will tie myself to the mast, which is Christ. The wounded Lamb, the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. And look forward to the day that ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.’ (Rev 21:4)

Arrivo

Arrivo.

It was the first Italian word I learnt on Italian soil from Italian lips. Up until then I had studied Italian from a book. I had just moved into Via Cassio Parmense with Adriana of the Crazy Hair. The doorbell rang on the first day I was there and she sang out loudly, ‘Arrivo!’ – I’m coming, I’m on my way. The English ‘arrive’ isn’t quite the same thing. Adriana could yell really well, evidence of optimum lung capacity. I am thoroughly certain whoever was waiting on the other side of the extremely thick and solid, well-made, fortified Italian door heard her clear as a bell.

Last Sunday marked the start of Advent, the time of anticipation and waiting for the celebration of the birth of Christ – observed largely by the Western Church. Advent is from the Latin adventus – meaning ‘coming’, much like Adriana’s arrivo. In Roman times the adventus was the ceremony of welcoming a triumphant emperor into a city. Adventus is the Latin translation of the Greek word parousia – you might have heard that before. Parousia is all about… well, I’ll get to that.

Exactly a year ago, we were also awaiting the arrival of not exactly an emperor (although I am led to believe he has his royal moments), but of a little baby boy far, far away. My sister was counting off her final days of pregnancy as my mom and brother flew over to visit her for two months. Tiny, adorable, beautiful – my nephew arrived a couple of weeks later, just two days after Christmas. A precious gift of joy to us.

And now, we wait again – this time for my sister’s little family to make the long journey of a day’s constant travel by plane to reach our sunny shores. Just in time for Christmas and just in time for the cutest nephew in the world’s first birthday. The anticipation is enormous. I am so excited, I could probably go into orbit with giddy glee. I haven’t seen my sister for two years, and I have yet to hold that little boy and plant a kiss on his beautiful little head.

The cutest nephew in the world

Over two thousand years ago, another young, expectant mother similarly travelled to visit a relative, who was also expectant, but not so young. The Message paints the passage in Luke 1:39-45 like this:

“Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and travelled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,

You’re so blessed among women,
and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
believed every word would come true!”

Even while yet unborn, unseen, Christ stirred the spirits and listening hearts of those waiting for him. Those who were expectant. And we know that he is coming again.  This is parousia – the second coming.  And Advent is intended to remind us of his return. Advent has made me wonder – am I delighted about the prospect of his arrival? Am I all organised for his appearance? As I make mental lists of all the fun things to do with my sister, I ponder Christ’s return and its implications. As I contemplate how to baby-proof my home in anticipation of an impending visit from a curious, crawling little person, I ask myself if my King will find me ready?

And what will it be like (one of my favourite songs, sung by Mercy Me, is all about this – see the Youtube video a little further down)? When the One who knows me better than I know myself is finally here? Like the nephew I’ve never touched or held, will love overwhelm me when my Saviour and my Lord is before me at last? What will I do?  What will I say? I don’t know. But I do know he is coming again. Adventus. Parousia.

Arrivo.

nicene

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Touch

From a very young age, I always knew there was a God. Always sensed, somehow, He was there… and that I could talk to Him. Don’t ask me how I was aware of that. But what I was burning to know was, would He ever respond to me? Was He able, in some other-worldly way, to stretch the divide between the supernatural into the natural and make His presence known to my very skin?

So, there I was in church, seated in a pew next to my parents, singing from a hymnal. We weren’t regular churchgoers, so the liturgy was half foreign to me, every movement and motion unexpected. We all bowed our heads for prayer at one point. And there it was! A light brush against my hair at the back of my head. An angel had touched me! I was so excited.

Only to discover, moments later, as the minister intoned his sonorous AHHHMEN, bringing solemn prayer to a close, that it was the habit there for men to stand while praying.  The man behind me had accidentally touched my hair.  Not a celestial being.

Oh, the disappointment. I so much wanted God to reach from his heavenly throne and touch me.

I confess, I still do.

Any cursory search of the internet will tell you how important human touch is. It lessens pain. Makes your lungs work better, brings down your sugar level, improves your immune system. Babies don’t grow and flourish without being held. Touch can do great harm too – abuse in various forms, slaps and punches damage the heart long after the bruises have healed. But touch also conveys healing, it can instruct, direct, comfort, play, love.

My mom teaches English to foreign students and once wanted to affirm a young boy’s correct attempts, so patted him on the head with a ‘well done, well done’. He violently jerked away with a ‘lude, lude!’ (he needed more work on pronouncing r instead of l). Turns out, in his culture a pat on the head equates to the Western equivalent of a slap on the rear.

You have to know how and where to touch!

And if human touch can achieve so much, how much more did the touch of Jesus accomplish as he walked in human flesh on this earth?

Our Saviour washed feet. Dirty, smelly, mud-encrusted, likely dung-covered, feet.

He welcomed children brought to him, to have his heavenly hand placed on their little heads for blessing.

But it is in healing that the touch of Christ has such unbridled effect.

The healed leper of Mark 1:40-42 couldn’t keep his mouth shut about Jesus’ touch, despite being told to hold his tongue on the matter. There are four accounts of blind people receiving their sight back in various unique ways involving Christ’s touch – at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26), near Jericho (Mark 10:46-52), in Galilee (Matthew 9:27-31) and the man blind from birth (John 9:1-12). Then, too, Peter’s mother-in-law, bedridden with fever, healed by a hand placed on her ailing frame (Matthew 8:14-15).  And a young girl presumed dead, raised to vibrant health as Jesus reached out and restored her (Matthew 9:18). These are the ones that stand out for me – but there are more.

His touch must have been like a lightning bolt, electrifying their bodies back to vitality.

Something I missed in all these accounts of hands-on healing, however, was a startling and very obvious fact I discovered in a Bible dictionary on my shelf. Something I was vaguely aware of, but hadn’t really connected to the healing ministry of Jesus until now.

The Old Testament clearly forbade touching the sick or the sinful.

Jesus did what was forbidden so that people could be restored, saved, healed, delivered, set free, made new. He didn’t squirm, he didn’t send someone else, he didn’t put on gloves, he didn’t keep his distance. He rolled up his sleeves and made blind eyes see, deaf ears hear, diseased bodies rise up and walk…. and his touch had far more than just physical results. Outcasts were restored to their communities and families, livelihoods were changed (you can hardly carry on begging if you’re no longer blind?).

Once he touched you, your life was never the same again, not in any way, shape or form.

What will it take for you to hug someone today? Put your arm around a suffering shoulder? Hold them as you pray for them? Who around you, near you, needs an affirming hand? A pat on the arm? A welcoming handshake? Or are the sick and sinful ‘forbidden’ territory to you too? Leave your made-up rules behind and set aside your qualms and reservations. Do what it takes to see that someone is healed today because you followed the Healer’s example… and touched them.

Tell Antz what you think

Weak

My dear friend

A while ago, you fierce cancer warrior, you made this comment:

‘I pray that one day I will be able to come and encourage someone in pain rather than me coming to the hospital.’

I cried for you when I saw you write this.  Not because you’re sick – yes, you’re not well, and I’m so terribly concerned for you.  No, I wept for you because you think, in your weakness, you have no inspiration to offer.

Who told you that?

The world has lied to you, dear heart.  It has told you that in order to be of value, to say anything worthy of listening to, to do anything meriting approval, you need to have it all together.  Be healthy.  In control.  ‘Look’ the part.

You’ve gone unnoticed, maybe without malicious intent, but certainly not deemed a Voice To Be Heard.  ‘You have cancer (insert whatever weakness you perceive yourself to have here), oh what a shame,’ society murmurs, often without truly understanding.  ‘Hurry on up then, get better quickly, we can’t wait to have you back to normal again.’

And so you are excluded from real community (and tell me what is normal anyway?).

So hear these words from me, one who too has been ignored and will be silenced no longer:

If people deem you weaker, then they have made a comparison.  And when we are compared to Jesus, we are all weak.  You’ve probably often heard it said, that the weaker I am, the greater God’s show of strength in me.  Do you know why we say that?  It is because a great display of power doesn’t encourage honesty, the kind that helps you see yourself for who you really are.  We are certainly impressed with the strong, but somehow they always end up making us feel ‘less’, that we don’t measure up.  And this can shame us into silence, or cause us to be envious.  Being vulnerable, letting others in on our imperfections, revealing our shortcomings helps us move beyond shallow tolerance into deeper solidarity with the suffering around us.  The truth is, we are all walking wounded in some way or another.  Some just don’t see it, or won’t admit it.

Being sick (or weak, or without resource) does not disqualify you from a purposeful, God-directed life, nor is it grounds for God to be disappointed with you.   A quick reading of 2 Corinthians tells us a number of people were dismissing Paul because they thought he was:

  • A physical weakling:  ‘For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.”’ (10:10)
  • Uneducated and cheap:  ‘I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way.  Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge?’ (11:6-7)
  • Somehow ‘lesser’ because he didn’t lay claims to rights and privileges:  ‘Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.’ (11:23)

And his response?

‘If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.’ (11:30)

You have so much to say.  Courageously you face your struggles, you don’t give in, you don’t back down.  You are showing a desperate, hurting world the truth of God’s Word – his sustaining power when we are afflicted, his immeasurable might to come to our aid in the face of great adversity.  The way of Christ is Almighty God coming as a helpless newborn, dying a criminal’s death on a cross.  Jesus didn’t even own property or have a position in society.  No money.  No elaborate academic qualification.  And what about Moses who stammered, Jacob who lied and limped, Peter who denied his beloved Jesus, Paul who persecuted the early church? Oh, the list can go on.  So let us not forget this, God’s strong were once the weak.  It is all about HIM and not about us.

To your family, your culture, your community, you are a reminder that God can take what the world regards as useless and turn it into something glorious.  Your life is proof of the fact that brokenness and imperfection are all part of being wonderfully human, and fully alive.

You are a glowing, radiating, incandescent testimony to a God who shows himself strong in your weakness.

You are a blessing…. to me, most of all, to me.

All my love

Antz

‘Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.’ 1 Corinthians 1:26-27

 “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”

Jean Vanier

Daughter

For the longest time I have been in the darkest despair.  When my dad passed away early last year, I found myself ill-equipped to grieve graciously.  I was already struggling, emotionally asphyxiating.  Countless inner wounds had kept me tethered to periods of frustration, seasons of sadness, dark swirls of depression.  I had plodded on – that’s what a good soldier does.  I had learnt coping skills.  I had kept my chin up.  But losing my father sent me crashing into a wall of personal disorientation, my overwhelmed and crushed spirit unable to absorb the blow of death and loss.

I tried desperately to hang on to fraying threads of hope, but anguish pushed forward as a relentless surge, obliterating even the joyful landmarks of my inner landscape.  Lifejoy died that day on the study floor as I knelt beside my father’s still frame where he had collapsed from a heart attack – my words to my aunt, when she arrived, ‘He has fallen down and he will not get up again,’ were meant for my heart too.  Nothing would ever be the same again.

misrepresentThey say there are two kinds of people in the world – those who are wounded, and those who are liars.  Twenty years in the church had taught me that even those who profess to love Christ would rather shout ‘hallelujah’, wear a plastic smile on the outside, yet miserably stuff their sin, shame and pain into the dark attic of their barely-alive hearts.  When we misrepresent ourselves like this, we have no fear of God in us and we cause others to stumble in their faith and the world to call us hypocrites.  I didn’t want this for myself.  If Jesus came to set captives free, well then, I wanted my freedom!

I sought out some help and got down into the trenches of memory and pain, sorting through disappointment and doubt, grief and fear.  It turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve had to do.  Facing up to myself and the darkness that had hounded me for years took far more courage than I had.  I hung on to verses like ‘Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you,’ (Hebrews 13:5) and ‘As for you, I’ll come with healing, curing the incurable, because they all gave up on you and dismissed you as hopeless – that good-for-nothing Zion,’ (Jeremiah 30:17).  Yet, my terrors remained – looming large, springing traps on me.  Sleep became a problem.  I felt besieged, the enormity of my turmoil weighing me down.heb13v5

As the weeks slipped into months, my self-frustration grew at my lack of progress and shame started building as I then blamed myself for not healing sooner.

But I kept on digging.

Sick, exhausted and heartbroken, I wrote in my journal: ‘Do my remaining years here on this planet hold any good?  I DON’T WANT TO FIGHT FOR EVERYTHING MY WHOLE LIFE.’  And later: ‘The oppressive heaviness won’t lift.  It just stares at me all day and I stare backdreamsgone2, and so we sit, inert and lifeless, too worn down and weary to lift a finger.’  I recalled a line from a poem I had written many years ago at another low point in my life: ‘My dreams are gone, my hope is crushed / My aspirations turned to dust’.

I have a small book by Dutch Sheets called Hope Resurrected.  I’ve read it several times.  It is dog-eared, tear-stained, underlined.  He writes that the giants we face today will always be the biggest we’ve faced – and nowhere in God’s Word could I see evidence in support of running away from my enemies (only running to God).  So, I turned, planted my feet and let the fear and shame and pain and loss come at me.  And come at me they did.

For some freakish reason, they had grown in size, they were worse.  They were huge.  My desperation and depression seemed out of control.  I felt I had waded into hell.

I was encouraged to look up and see a world waiting for me, that I had something to offer – but I couldn’t lift my head, I just couldn’t.  My eyes were glued to the horrifying sight of the ground giving way under my feet.

I read in my book: ‘You don’t have to be well to hope, but you do have to hope to be well.’  As terrified and crushed and depressed as I felt, I simply could not allow myself to give up.  The stakes were too high.

hope wellThen one day, a very small and mundane thing happened.  Crying in my kitchen, soapy water and tears rinsing my dishes, I came to understand the verse from Hebrews, that God is always with me, even in this deluge of misery.  Holding my hand.  Not letting go.  And that others too had faced the losses I had experienced, and had somehow got through it.  So would I.

I spilled my worst shame and pain to someone who would listen and came home later that evening to a dark and cold flat, still filled with so much hurt.  The dam wall broke with such intensity then, collapsing on me, its waters drenching my cheeks, my clothes, my pillow.  I sobbed and wailed into the small hours of the night, and much of the next day too.  I couldn’t make it stop.  Pain welled up from deep inside and I cried like I cried on the day we stood at my dad’s coffin and said goodbye.  I thought the pain was going to kill me.  This time round, though, I was crying over the grave of a lost childhood, wishes and aspirations, longings and hopes – all burnt to the ground.  Curled up in a ball, I cried that no-one had listened to my dreams… but wait.  That wasn’t true!  It suddenly occurred to me that in going to Italy (a dream since age four), a loving God had heard a little girl’s sighs and made it happen for her.

It dawned on me.

I am his DAUGHTER.

He sits and watches me all the time.  He dotes on me.  He sings me songs.  He teaches me things. I BELONG.  I am HIS.  My joys and my sorrows are all his.  I have a place at the family table.  I’m part of the party, no longer hanging around at the edges in shameful shadows.  I have an EQUAL inheritance with my brothers and sisters in Christ.  I don’t need to stand back for anyone or anything.  I have his undivided attention when I speak to him.  He spends time with me.  He has not only saved me from my sin, but he has also saved me from my pain.  Saviour.

Now my immense pain has a day and a date that I laid it to rest.  I still cry, but the intensity is less, and I am assured that, in time, it will fade – eventually taking its proper perspective in the grand scheme that is my life.  I am not swinging from celestial chandeliers just yet.

But I am walking towards the light.

Arise [from the depression and prostration in which circumstances have kept you—rise to a new life]!  Shine (be radiant with the glory of the Lord), for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you (Isaiah 60:1 AMP).

Write to Antz

 

Longest way round is the shortest way home

Ten years ago to the day I stepped on Italian soil for the very first time.  How I got there is a delightful story of God’s kindness and provision.

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On our balcony, aged 4

When I was four, a family member went abroad and brought back for me a small white purse from Florence, with the characteristic fleur-de-lis in gold all over it.  I was enchanted.  You see, I’d stand on our eleventh floor balcony, peering at distant mountains through the railings, wondering who lived beyond the confines of what I considered ‘my world’.  What did they eat or wear?  Did they speak Afrikaans or English?  I looked at my Florentine gift and my little girl’s heart was awash with glorious notions of finding the beautiful people who’d made my exquisite purse.  The seed was sown.

By the time I reached my late 20s, my world was a decidedly less romantic place.  I had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 28 and the questions that now filled my mind were not ones of finding and exploring new worlds, but rather how to stay alive in the world I presently found myself in.  I was afraid – no – terrified. I couldn’t cope with much, I was too sick.  However, my half day job presented me opportunity to rest a great deal, and it was during those endless periods of rest, alone with my finite being and mortality eyeballing me, that I bought a map of Italy, put it up on my wall and started praying for its people.  I enrolled for an Italian correspondence course.  I sunk my heart and soul into it and made a promise to myself, that should I conquer this cancer, I would go to Italy and see what it was that I was praying for.

Four years later, with a clean bill of health, I sold everything I had and went.  Bolstered with bravado, I told God I’d happily die there, wanted to serve and love and bless the Italian church… but how to find them?  Before I left, I checked an Italian website for a list of churches in the city I was headed for.  There were four.

I knew real favour as I travelled to Parma, where I was to live for a year.  I missed my connecting flight from Amsterdam to Milan, and to my utter delight got bumped up to business class for the next available flight with Alitalia.  I flew into Italy like royalty!  I’ll also never forget the first moment I saw the snow-covered Alps, and the Italian coastline.  Such adventure!  Who would I meet?

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Bridge over the Parma river

Adventure it was!  I was met at Parma train station by Vincenzo, the school director.  He greeted me with the typical kiss-on-both-cheeks, almost causing me to punch him for invading my personal space – the first of many cross-cultural lessons I had to master.  A few days later, as I moved into my room on Via Cassio Parmense in the home of Adriana, the culture shock hit with full force.  It didn’t feel like home, it didn’t smell like home, Adriana spoke no English (my Italian was terribly basic) and no-one could understand why, if I was from South Africa, was I white?  I felt so completely adrift.  I felt like a baby, learning to tie my laces from the beginning again – how to catch a bus, buy food, negotiate social niceties, cross the road without being flattened by diabolical drivers and church…. What to do about church?

Adriana and me - 2005

Adriana and me – 2005

I showed Adriana my list, and with my minimal linguistic abilities managed voglio andare alla chiesa (I want to go to church). I got an enthusiastic si si si, she knew where one of those churches was, and what I understood to be ‘I’ll go with you’.  All set!  Roll on Sunday morning, and Adriana and I are hurtling along in her little car to, well, wherever, and the hurtling abruptly comes to a stop in front of a building.  Some whatever-whatever-whatever ensues in Italian, I get out the car – and off she speeds!  It dawns on me she’s not coming back and that I’ve completely misunderstood her.

It was at that very point I questioned my sanity in coming halfway across the world to do… what exactly, Lord?  Alone, in an unfamiliar part of town, with quivering knees, I turned and pressed the buzzer for the Chiesa Evangelica and in a few minutes, my entire life changed and the adventure became a flesh-and-blood miracle.

The door swung open and there was the kindest man who I later learned was Franko – and I didn’t understand a single, solitary word coming from his mouth, but something in his face said ‘Jesus’ to me.  As he led me inside, I could make out from some of the gesticulating he’d bring someone who could speak inglese.  I sat down and he dashed off.

And I thought, ‘Lord, what madness have I committed?’

A lady eventually approached me and introduced herself – in English, God be praised!! – as Rosanna.  She and her husband, Robert, were from – oh, how God can pull off such grand miracles! – Johannesburg!  I had managed to stumble across the only South African Christians in the whole of Parma.  I knew I was home!  Robert and Rosanna proved to be the most invaluable bridge of understanding into Italian culture, and great comfort once homesickness hurled its full weight against me in the ensuing months.

But the holiest moment for me was meeting the people I had prayed for – Simona, Marco, Francesco, Alessia, Armando, Lucia, Mariatheresa, Giorgio, Giuliana.  Finally – names, faces, hands, hearts of the people I’d been carrying before the Throne.  I fell in love with all of them from the very start.

Chiesa Evangelica di Parma

Chiesa Evangelica di Parma

In the year I lived there, these precious people, and a few more – Ilaria, Michael, Damaris, Elena – became my family.  As I struggled with my health and tried to negotiate Italian life and culture, they lovingly cared for me, carried me, but above all, included me in everything they did, as if I was one of their very own.  They fussed and fed and took me places.  They explained culture and customs and history and humour.  They taught me what it meant to belong, how to cook a good risotto (I watched Simona closely) and to be more mindful of my own cultural prejudices.  They probed and questioned, and I was given the grace to reconstruct some of my faulty ideas about God and His world.  I played the piano for their meetings, but they did far, far more for me.

In their care, my tightly held heart started to flourish and feel a lightness I have never been able to replicate elsewhere.  People would actually talk to ME, call me up, invite me everywhere!  So different from the reserved, slightly emotionally detached environment I had sprung from.  They were all-up-in-my-face practically constantly and I was totally delighted with it.

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Italy filled my need for beauty.  The art and architecture provided a steady stream of visual stimulus for me.  I knew that a year was barely enough to skim the surface, but attempts to lengthen my visa or secure more permanent means of staying were fruitless.  My dream of serving the Italian church came to a heart-ripping end, and I had to return to Cape Town, leave the embrace of my Italian family and go back to being… what?  I didn’t know.

I didn’t pray or speak to God for nearly a year after my return – a return filled with great pain and drama and problems.  Eventually I resumed teaching and life.  Outwardly I seemed fine, but inwardly, for almost eight years, I bled over my loss.  I’d lost my Italian family, my dearest friends, a sense of purpose and meaning in life.  What am I meant to do, who am I meant to serve?  Why give me a passion and a dream, then close the door so hard my head reels?

I still don’t have a complete answer for that.  And still no other call, or passion, fills my heart other than to stand should-to-shoulder with the Italian church, to see to it that she makes the finishing line.  Even if I must do it from a distance.  But I was graced with a partial understanding.

Another September, nine years later, I went home to Parma again for a month’s visit – for rest and recovery after my father’s death.  And finally – finally! – got to see a glimpse of why my way back had been barred all those years ago.  With great sadness I learned how the little fellowship I was part of had come undone and was ultimately destroyed.  What I knew then no longer existed.  My heart grieved for what was gone.

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Parco Ducale, Parma

I prayed and prayed as I walked the streets, and this time round, I heard the music:

Va’ pensiero sull’ali dorate (fly, thought, on golden wings)

It’s a line from the chorus of the Hebrew slaves in Verdi’s Nabucco, lamenting their longing for their homeland while refugees in Babylon.  I got to sing the lines of this song the very day before I flew back to South Africa, tears spilling unashamedly down my cheeks, knowing I’d have to say goodbye again, and that I would always, ALWAYS long to return here – home.

 

Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

Psalm 126:5-6

 

Carissimi Simona, Francesco, Alessia, Armando, Lucia, Giuliana, Ilaria, tutti voi

Non ci sono parole per descrivere quanto vi voglio bene e come mi mancate. Dieci anni fa mi avete dato la mano in amicizia e la vostra gentilezza ha toccato il mio cuore. Sono stata cambiata per sempre dall’incontrarvi. La mia preghiera è per voi di conoscere la profondità dell’amore di Dio, la pienezza di Gesù Cristo e di correre fino alla fine questa gara di fede con grande successo. Prego di vedere i vostri rapporti ripristinati, i vostri familiari salvati, i vostri cuori guariti. Che siate dotati di tutto il necessario per risplendere in Italia.

Mi avete dato tanto – mi avete dato voi stessi. Vi sarò per sempre grata.

Dio vi benedica sempre, vi voglio bene

Con grande affetto

Anzelle