hope

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

 

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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

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