The kindness of strangers

Manchester. Kabul. Baghdad. London.

Such a world of pain we are living in these days. It keeps me up at night, like tonight.

In this short narrative, I want to give thanks to God for the reminders of his goodness in the strangers around me, some of whom I now know by name. It doesn’t ease the pain of those places in the world that are experiencing hatred and the way it is acted out. But it gives me pause to really think about the fact that I believe love wins.

We moved into a small apartment two months ago, away from the place where we have lived for thirty-some years in Omaha, away from the place where our neighbors knew Jana and looked out for her. We live in a place of strangers. But in these brief two months, some of those strangers have names. They have reached out in our time of need, just as people have reached out in those places listed at the beginning of this blog.

Gloria and her dad who came upon us in the parking garage as Jana collapsed to her knees on a day when her brain was too tired to let her stand. They helped me get her to the apartment and kept her smiling the whole way.

Angela who lives across the hall from us, held the elevator doors for us today as I was juggling groceries, and once again, trying to keep Jana on her feet. A simple gesture, but reaching out with hands to fill the gap when mine were already full.

Scott and Sara who live down the hall and always smile and laugh with us. They even know Jana’s nickname is Sprout. More than that, many days our paper is at our door before I can retrieve it because they think of us in the morning.

So many people rush around Jana and me because her pace is so slow, and I have slowed down to match it or am just holding on to her to steady her. They look past us. Today at the grocery store a woman whose name I don’t know caught us on the way in and said, “Hey! Where have you two been? I have missed seeing you.” It is a reminder to be thankful that not everyone looks past the humanity of others.

So as I watch the news tonight of another attack, it reminds me that God is present in all the hard places. He is there in the first responders. He is there in the hospitals. He is there on the streets as strangers reach out to each other to comfort and to just be present.

I am thankful tonight.

Dona nobis pacem.

A Day’s Contrasts

Standing outside the Nicholas Sursock Museum in Beirut is "The Weeping Women." This sculpture depicts two women, one Christian and one Muslim, mourning together in the loss of sons to senseless wars.

Standing outside the Nicholas Sursock Museum in Beirut is “The Weeping Women.” This sculpture depicts two women, one Christian and one Muslim, mourning together in the loss of sons to senseless wars.

I find myself once again in a place that has become so close to my heart. When I return to Lebanon and Syria it is like coming to a second home, and I think that is pretty amazing for someone who has lived her whole life in Omaha, Nebraska! But on a January day in this new year of 2017, I have returned to Beirut, and from here I will travel on into Syria to places I have been before in a time of peace and in this time of war.

From our first appointment on Friday to our last cultural experience at the Beirut National Museum, my mind kept focusing on the contrasts.

We spent the morning visiting the Our Lady Dispensary, a partner of The Outreach Foundation, a Presbyterian mission-connecting agency that I have traveled with. OLD is run by a real life angel named Grace Boustani. Well named, she exudes grace and gives glory to God for placing her right where her sweet spot is: serving in his name. OLD provides social and medical services to thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq who find their way to this poor mostly Christian neighborhood in Beirut. Grace herself grew up in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). She and her family left for a time, but she returned as a social worker to bring healing to her country. She uses that same touch with every person who walks through the door at OLD, Monday through Friday.

Grace and Rula of Our Lady Dispensary in Beirut are the smiling presence for refugees of wars in Iraq and Syria.

Grace and Rula of Our Lady Dispensary in Beirut are the smiling presence for refugees of wars in Iraq and Syria.

Today we had the opportunity to hear three very personal stories from three women who fled the Mosul area of Iraq in 2014 when ISIS moved in. Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa each had similar stories, but to hear them each tell their own experience was a reminder that everyone who has been affected by the happenings in the Middle East since we first invaded Iraq in 2003 has an individual story to tell. We owe it to them to hear them, see them as real people with real families. They have names! And now, we know them and can put faces to those names.

They each told of fleeing in the middle of the night. “Leave now or you will be killed! Take nothing with you! Just go!” Taking nothing but the clothes on their backs, they each left with their husbands and children, walking the fifty-plus miles from Mosul to Erbil. In Erbil, they lived in a refugee camp located in the open-air courtyard of a church there. Months later, living in extreme conditions, they made their way to Beirut and the neighborhood of OLD. They told of leaving everything behind. Former neighbors sent them photos of their homes burned to the ground by ISIS. Family graves were dug up in the Mosul cemeteries and the remains of the family members were strewn around to leave no trace of their existence. Two years later, they are all trying to be resettled in other places by the UN, but the lists are long, resources few, and the list of countries willing to take refugees from Iraq and Syria is shrinking.

It sounds hopeless, but at OLD they have found caring hearts and listening ears. Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa have each been through the trauma healing ministry led by Roula al Kattar, and have been able to talk through their grief, forgive their trespassers, and be reminded that the God they have known all their lives is still with them. It was a humbling experience to meet these three women and share the morning with them, tears and all.

The contrast came later in the day as we made our way to two museums. The first is housed in an old Beirut mansion that is filled with contemporary art. Works by people whose names are written down and celebrated are displayed in home that once was a gathering place for a wealthy family. The Sursock Museum is indeed a treasure; their belongings are well displayed and preserved, unlike the former possessions and now burned down houses of Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa.

13th century children's clothing in the Beirut National Museum

13th century children’s clothing in the Beirut National Museum

In the Beirut National Museum, well restored since the civil war, we visited the newly reopened lower level where we saw well-preserved mummies, a child’s garment from the 13th century, and a long line of beautiful sarcophagi. There were steles engraved with the names of the long dead. And yet, there were the names of someone’s ancestors. There were the preserved remains of ancient people on display for those of us walking in this century to see and marvel at. There was the evidence of lives lived in specific places.

There was and will be no evidence of the life lived in Mosul by Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa, or their families. The only memory for them is what is in and on their hearts that they shared with us. And so we will be their museum, holding onto these treasures. May God grant them new lives and new homes to make new memories in the days to come. May they continue to process their grief and call on the Lord who knows all our names. May they find restoration and peace.

Sarcophagi lined up in the Beirut National Museum

Sarcophagi lined up in the Beirut National Museum

Dona nobis pacem.

O Holy Night

15740751_10211438722274199_4657497256410435989_nIt’s 12:55 a.m. on Christmas morning. I just came home from the late Christmas Eve service at the church next door to our house, a tradition I began about nine or ten years ago when the services at our church were moved to earlier times. It’s a short walk to Dundee and I love being an anonymous worshiper in a church where I know practically no one. It is always a blessing to see the people I do know, Meri and Ron Crampton, and to give them a Christmas hug. Tonight I walked out of the church with another Ron I know. His wife Tami was sick, so if you think about it, please say a prayer for her healing.

Christmas at West Hills was bittersweet. There were glorious moments of praise on this night as we sang “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and other familiar carols which take me back to the earliest Christmases I can remember. Our dear Michael Dryver soloed on “O Holy Night,” and did it in a way that would have put you right there in Bethlehem. It is my favorite Christmas carol, and I especially love the third verse: Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease. The bitter came as I reflected that this would be the last Christmas Eve service I would get to share with Nicole and Mike Geiler. There they were, seeing to all the details of a wonderful service. They didn’t miss a beat. They love Jesus and they have helped us celebrate his incarnation for all these years. I don’t even want to think about next year. Steve, Jana and I were the Advent candle lighters and readers for this night. And I know in the bitter and the sweet that lighting that center Christ candle is the visual symbol that he is the light of the world and the darkness does not overcome it.

And that reminder came in the sweetest of forms as I watched the global church celebrate Christmas in the hours before I did. Nine hours east of Omaha came the posts from Basrah, Iraq. Merry Christmas Zuhair Fathallah and all the faithful there! And in the darkest of places on the world stage these days, in places where I have been praying for God’s gospel of peace and for the ceasing of all oppression, came the posts from Syria. Mathilde Michael Sabbagh leading in the children to the sanctuary in Hasakeh singing pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. And there was Assis Salam Hanna of Latakia soloing in a bass voice on O Little Town of Bethlehem, and I didn’t know he could sing! Elias Y. Ousta Jabbour was playing the keyboard, and that song had an awesome beat. Tami Dekrmnjian Nseir had posted a video earlier of the church in Aleppo singing “Silent Night.” Can you imagine? A silent night in Aleppo.

So here it is Christmas in Omaha and I am celebrating the reality that the word was made flesh and moved into our neighborhood, into Basrah, into Hasakeh, Latakia and Aleppo, and indeed the whole world. That word was the light of the world and all the darkness in it yesterday, today and tomorrow, cannot and will not overcome it.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of the dear savior’s birth.

Merry Christmas!

Celebrating Christmas

Another question from my final exam in Theology 331, Jesus Christ, Liberator, asked us how we might celebrate the birth of the Christ child differently this year after being in this class. Here was my answer.

As a family of people who profess to follow Jesus – Christians – we act in faith and hope and love. These virtues are the highest exercise of our humanity, and in them we participate in the very life of God. But what does this look like for us as we look ahead to Christmas? Do we just believe that Jesus was incarnated so we could have a new television? Is that all we hope for on December 25? Is that how we show our love for each other as husband and wife? Is it so small? This Christmas we need to seek more deeply what it means to be human persons beloved by God so much that he would share this human life.

It begins in prayer. Not the prayer that says, “Bless us Father with all good gifts, especially the 55” one,” but the one that draws us to the foot of the cross and centers us in this reminder of how much he poured out his love for us. Let us pray that our lives would be poured out for each other and for the sister we share this home with. In the light of a candle burning, let us look around at each other’s faces and see the gift of each one and our need for each other. We cannot do this alone, but only together.

As we come together at the supper table, we can break the bread and drink the cup in communion as we remember what Jesus taught here: in the broken bread and poured out cup, he is there, and we share it together. In this sacrament of meal, our lives are joined in a dance of humanity and divinity. The only cookies we make this year shall not be a sugarfest of over-consumption, but a reason to walk the neighborhood and share this gift of love in the form of food with those around us.

martha-stewart-treeTo counter the culture that says BUY! BUY! BUY!, that is what makes for a good solid marketing dream of Christmas, we shall expend our resources in ways to benefit the poor and outcast in our community. The opportunities to provide for the homeless and helpless are the messages we will look to. Instead of presents under a tree in the living room, we will mark each ornament as a gift we have made to someone in the name of love. Here is the one for Wendi who needed a ride to Bible study. Here is the one for Verda Leigh who needed a weekly phone call to remind her that God loves her. Here is one for the gift to Bread for the World, to remind ourselves that advocating for the voiceless is a joy to participate in. Here is one for Amariah, in the hope that she is back with her family in California after a long bus ride from Omaha.

And we will mark the eve of Christmas in worship as we share in song and word with those who have shared our lives, who have mourned with us and rejoiced with us and listened to us unburden our hearts for people living in war in Syria and Iraq.

Jesus Christ: Liberator

I have had a great year as a student at Creighton University. Earlier this year, as I was fulfilling some undergraduate theology credits for my master’s program, I was enrolled in an amazing class with a professor who inspired me. The class was Theology 331, Jesus Christ: Liberator, a christology class. Here is one of the answers I gave on our final exam last May. Who is Jesus?

Mt St Francis last supper

“For me, in the figure of Monseñor Romero, Christ passed through El Salvador.” This one line in a documentary has stayed with me since I watched it. This is the Jesus I have come to know in my life, through my readings of scripture and story and narrative. The Jesus who reaches out to those left behind or discarded. I first met this Jesus as a seven-year old whose mother had died. That poor lost little girl was tended to by three nuns when she made her first communion in second grade. They saw her grief and worry and brought her to the table.

I have seen that Jesus who cares in a very special way for the poor all over the world as I have walked the halls of congress with my own disabled sister as we advocated for food and nutrition policy, for sustainable development, for increased funding for HIV/AIDS patients.

I have seen that Jesus in Iraq and Syria as he walks in the refugee camps and tends to newborn babies whose parents have nothing and no one to turn to. I have heard others tell his story in the form of kidnapped and murdered priests, just like Oscar Romero.

Mt St Francis Love like FrancisAs I have participated in this class and read all three authors, I have read the words out loud to my precious husband. “Look! Do you see this? This is what I keep saying over and over! You cannot profess to love God and not love your neighbor. These two are inseparable! That neighbor on the side of the road who looks scary is obviously in need of help. We can’t walk by her like the others.” What would Jesus do seems so cliché…but how do we answer that question, cliché or not?

That question and so many others rise from the depth of a heart that has not been immunized against empathy and compassion by the consumer society around me, but inflamed by the lack of justice in our laws and institutions. Sometimes it has been a lonely journey to walk. To sit in church and hear about Jesus week after week, but only in the sense that he is some kind of ideal absolute, is not what has given me cause to step out and walk with him. That Jesus is an idol, a statue on the shelf that I cannot reach.

The Jesus in this class is the Jesus that asks me to open my eyes and look around to see that others need this hands-on, give-me-a-hug, wipe-my-tears-away, human contact that reminds them that they, too, are human beings, made to love and to be loved. This is the Jesus who tells me to conscienticize myself: ask the questions of why is the world like this? What have we done to make it this way? What can we do to liberate and heal it? See. Judge. Act.

From my first reading of the entirety of scripture upon discovering Micah 6:8, my faith finally had the simplicity of six words to guide me: Act justly. Love tenderly. Walk humbly. This is the praxis of Jesus that his life demonstrated and I believe him when he tells me in Matthew 25 that our judgment will be based on this. Even when we don’t call on his name and step out in this way not expecting to see him in the moment, he is there, and we are loving him by loving our neighbor.

This is the Jesus who calls out the rich who withhold from the poor and can’t understand how serving the common good is how we all develop fully as persons, and the hypocritical church leader whose letter-following legality keeps people out and denies them hope.

This is the Jesus I have met in the community of this class. This is Rutilio Grande, Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, anyone who stands against the commodity form and sees their lonely neighbor as a person in need of human contact and comes into her life as friend. I have met this Jesus in this class and will always be grateful that I had the chance to share him with others.

Dona nobis pacem.

Holy Tears

This is my final reflection paper from my recently completed mini-class in my master’s program at Creighton University. The class was the first part of three on the history of Christian spirituality, and was appropriately titled “Martyrs and Monks.”

I first traveled to the Middle East, Syria specifically, in August, 2010. This was before the war in Syria, and the country was intact. Muslims and Christians lived together in a secular, mostly peaceful society. I visited a number of places, and one that struck me deeply was St. Simeon, the ruins of a fifth century church near Aleppo built around the pillar that St. Simeon the Stylite sat on for most of his life, praying to God. I had quiet moments of contemplation as I thought about this saint and his life and his attitude of prayer. But the highlight of my trip in 2010 was a visit to Aleppo and the Presbyterian church. This church had an amazing outreach to refugees from the American-led war in Iraq, which had begun in 2003. I met a woman named Nawal, a faithful and prayerful saint of her church, who chastised us (and rightfully so) for what our country had done to the Iraqi people. I have never forgotten Nawal, and had the chance to reconnect with her this past summer in Lebanon, but I will reflect on that later. We also had the chance to share a meal with an Iraqi refugee family in the less than modest apartment they could afford.

As a member of a group of women traveling together to learn about our sister Presbyterian church in Syria, we were each given the opportunity to lead devotion. I had chosen this passage in Acts: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:44-47a). As I began to read, I was overwhelmed with tears and could not get through to the end. Hearing Nawal’s words to us about what we had done to the Iraqis, being welcomed into the home of an Iraqi refugee family who shared the bounty of their poverty with us in the hospitality that is the hallmark of Middle Eastern culture, I was utterly convicted of the corporate sin my people committed against the Iraqis. It was this memory that grabbed my heart as I read the readings for this class.

Over and over in the stories of the desert harlots – of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt specifically – there are waterfalls of tears. Anselm’s prayer to Mary Magdalene captures it well:

St. Mary Magdalene,
You came with springing tears
To the spring of mercy, Christ…
How can I find words to tell
About the burning love with which you sought Him
Weeping at the sepulcher
And wept for Him in your seeking?…
For the sweetness of love He shows Himself
Who would not for the bitterness of tears.[1]

In his gospel, Luke tells us that a woman (possibly Mary Magdalene) who was a sinner, washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair in an act of repentance (7:37-38). Mary of Egypt tells us, “Thus I understood the promise of God and realized how God receives those who repent…‘you will find rest.’ When I heard the voice say this, I believed it had come because of me, and I cried out weeping…”[2] As she tells Zossima her story of her prostitute’s life and the temptation to return to it she tells him, “When such thoughts grew in me, I would fling myself on the ground and flood the earth with weeping.”[3] When she asks Zossima to pray for her, he falls to his knees and his prayers and tears flow together.[4]

The connective tissue of tears and prayers in these stories resonated deeply with me and my experiences in the Middle East in 2010 and continuing for nine more trips through this past summer, including time in Lebanon, Iraq, and the now war-torn Syria, all places where the desert fathers and mothers actually lived. Why do the tears flow so easily, and especially in times of their prayers and mine? “Tears connect us with a part of ourselves and an expression of our deepest feelings that is far beyond our words or even our thoughts. Tears are a way that our bodies express our hearts.”[5] Said another way, “Tears are an outward manifestation of a biological release that is usually triggered by a profound emotional sensation.”[6] Being able to express emotion instead of suppressing it is a way for me to be real. On the thinking-feeling spectrum of the Myers-Briggs assessment, I register an absolute zero on thinking and am off the chart on feeling. To not express my feelings, especially to God in prayer, would violate the very meaning of prayer, according to Mother Maria. “It is only if we are rooted and grounded in reality, if we have found our own ‘heart,’ if we do not hide, that we can truly pray. All true prayer is a prayer of the heart, because it is the heart – not our physical heart but the deepest centre of our being – where we are touched by the divine, where we are fully ourselves, fully alive, fully one…present before the face of God.”[7]

As I have read through these texts, I have been thankful for what my friends have called my prayer language, which is tears of the heart. In further reading, I discovered St. Catherine of Siena and her great question to God: what is the reason and the fruit of tears?[8] Reading about the six kinds of tears God explained to her, I find that mine fall somewhere between level three and four:

Sweet tears of imperfect love: These are the sweet tears of those who have abandoned sinful ways and are beginning to serve God because they have begun to know and love him; however, their love is still imperfect, causing their tears to be imperfect as well. The person’s life is then characterized by exercising virtue, acknowledging God’s goodness, practicing self-discovery in the light of God’s goodness, and moving away from fear and toward hope in God’s mercy.

Sweet tears of perfect love: Perfect tears of mature love come from those who have developed perfect love for their neighbor and learned to love God without regard for themselves. These are the people who live the words of the Great Commandment: to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself.[9]

Between those two levels is a maturing, a growth in love and in humility; a growth in the knowledge that it is only God’s love and goodness that invites us closer to him and his mercy, and away from our own sins and fears. I think those tears of mine somewhere between the imperfect and the perfect fall into the same place that St. Benedict described: “With growth in humility came ever-deeper awareness of one’s own sinfulness, as well as compassion and tears for the sins of other people. Such mindfulness meant deep feeling, and deep feeling meant tears.”[10]

As Mother Maria talks about the prayer of the heart, I discovered that my tears open my heart to the love of God. My heart moves from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, which is what God promises in Ezekiel 36:26. Tears are a part of that process of heart softening, making real meaningful prayer possible. Abba Poemen says it this way: “The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone.”[11]

With the Presbyterian church in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

With the Presbyterian church in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

So as I end this reflection, I want to return to my story of Nawal in Aleppo. Sitting on the porch of the Carslow Building at Ain Al-Kassis (which translates to “fountain of the father,” an appropriate description for how my tears flow!) in the mountains above Beirut, Lebanon, I was waiting for some of the Syrian women to arrive for the annual gathering of Presbyterian women in the Synod of Lebanon and Syria. A young woman came and sat on the porch with me, and as it turned out, we were Facebook friends although we had never met. Her name is Nisryn, and she lives in Paris, France. She had come to the conference because her mom was making the long and dangerous journey from Aleppo to be there as well. She told me it had been six years since she had seen her mother. As we sat and talked, I realized who the woman she was talking about was. “I know your mother!” I exclaimed. I jumped up to get my laptop and found this picture from my 2010 trip. I am standing behind the little boy in the front row, and Nisryn’s mom Nawal is to the right of me in the blue dress. Nisryn’s mom is the same woman who gave me pause to weep as I read the text from Acts about sharing everything, and no one was in need. She was the woman who showed me what the hands and feet of Jesus look like when serving the refugees of war. And now she was living in Aleppo still, a victim of another war and was coming to experience Sabbath at the women’s conference. Here I was, sitting with her daughter, and together we prayed at the fountain of the father for her safe travel…and our tears flowed as we came into the presence of God together and brought Nawal there with us.

Nawal, me, Nisryn, Ain al Kassis, Lebanon, July, 2016

Nawal, me, Nisryn, Ain al Kassis, Lebanon, July, 2016

It is only because we long for the presence of God, for a glimpse of his perfect beauty, for holiness, for ceaseless prayer, for union of love, for Paradise, that our hearts break with sadness when we realize how far away from it we are. It is this sadness – this “affliction” – which, I think, the Fathers called “compunction” and why they called the life of prayer – the life of trying to pray – “white martyrdom” – a way of pain. Without the longing, without repentance, without the breaking of the heart, there can be no practice of prayer and no true prayer on earth at all.[12]

These two weeks of reading the stories of the desert fathers and the harlots of the desert have touched a deep place in my heart. The message I took was so clear. My life of praying with tears is a gift I take with me in my experiences of ministry with and for the people I am privileged to journey with in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. In repenting – in turning to God – in this way, I am my true self. I have found my heart, and it has been softened with tears of mercy and compassion. I know I have many more to shed.

Bibliography

Kangas, Billy. “The Role of Tears in the Spiritual Life: Lessons from the Desert Fathers.” The Orant. Entry posted May 2, 2011. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/2011 /05/the-role-of-tears-in-the-spiritual-life-lessons-from-the-desert-fathers.html (accessed November 2, 2016).

Sheetz, Jenny. “The Gift of Tears: A Reflection.” stjosephinstitute.com. http://www.stjosephinstitute.com/_Assets/pdf/jennysheetz/The%20Gift%20of%20Tears.pdf (accessed November 2, 2016).

Stewart, Columba. Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998.

Ward, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: a Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987.

Zeleski, Irma. Encounter with a Desert Mother, 108-126.

Footnotes

[1] Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert: a Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987), 20.

[2] Ibid, 48.

[3] Ibid, 50.

[4] Ibid, 51.

[5] Billy Kangas, “The Role of Tears in the Spiritual Life: Lessons from the Desert Fathers,” The Orant, entry posted May 2, 2011, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/ 2011/05/the-role-of-tears-in-the-spiritual-life-lessons-from-the-desert-fathers.html (accessed November 2, 2016).

[6] Jenny Sheetz, “The Gift of Tears: A Reflection,” stjosephinstitute.com, http://www. stjosephinstitute.com/_Assets/pdf/jennysheetz/The%20Gift%20of%20Tears.pdf  (accessed November 2, 2016), 1.

[7] Irma Zeleski, Encounter with a Desert Mother, 110.

[8] Sheetz, 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 49.

[11] Sheetz, 4.

[12] Zeleski, 125.