St. Peter’s

2010 Julie at St Peter'sIn the fall of 2010, about six weeks after my first trip to Lebanon and Syria, Steve arranged for two of us to take a vacation, a rare event in our life together to that point. It was a full ten days in Rome, Italy. It still seems like a dream! We rented this sweet little apartment off the Piazza Navona, up three flights of well worn marble steps in a building that was young by Roman standards, maybe sixteenth century. There was no television, no internet connection and the only phone was wired in. We were disconnected from email, the daily news and everything else, except each other. Bliss.

Every day we would eat a late breakfast, decide which way our steps would take us that day and then set out with our packs and a map. We walked for miles and miles every day, sometimes jumping on the bus, and once even taking the train to Asti and Hadrian’s Villa. But mostly we walked. We had lunch every day in a different place, but always the same lunch: pizza margherita and wine. It was like a game deciding where we would have it, but we always did. When we walked home in the evening we would always stop at a market and pick up something to make for dinner. Then we would eat, drink some more wine, watch a Rome-themed movie (we had brought some from home with a portable dvd player) and then head out for a late snack of gelato. Like I said, it was bliss.

Most days we turned to the right when we left the apartment, toward the Piazza Navona. But one day near the end, we went left toward Vatican City. We had tickets for the museum, which was endless corridors of amazing paintings and sculpture and wood carvings and glass. On and on it went and so did we in a sea of tourists. We spent our allotted twenty minutes or so in the Sistine Chapel, again overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of someone’s amazing creativity. No sound was uttered by anyone. It was just hundreds of pairs of eyes looking up, looking around, widening more and more with each view.

Leaving there we made our way to St. Peter’s Square and then into the basilica itself, where we marveled at Michelangelo’s Pietà, the white marble statue of the virgin mother Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus. It is hard not be to be moved at this expression of love lost and love given: a mother’s greatest loss and the world’s greatest gift, or so those who profess faith in Jesus – like me – believe.

We continued walking around this beautiful church and admiring all the artwork, which is everywhere, and then heard the announcement that Mass was going to start and you should only go past the barricade if you were participating. We weren’t, so we didn’t, but we did stay. And as we walked silently behind the worshipers the strains of the music of Mass arose and did what they always do to me. They reached to the very core of my being, back to my earliest memories of what it meant to be in church, to be a part of the body of Christ, and raised me upward with “Hallelujah, ha-a-le-lu-jah, hallelujah.” And I wept with joy to be in the mother church of my faith, my mother’s and grandmother’s and so many greats past that who called the Roman Catholic Church their own. It was the community of saints singing for the one I call Lord. And it was bliss once again.

I have been to so many churches around the world and I always get this same feeling, the feeling of being home again. And I know one day I really will be home, singing the hallelujahs with so many I have known and so many others too. And that will surely be bliss.

The Old Piano

The old pianoIt is sitting here even now in my family room against a wall that is too short to hide its open back. It’s a Mendelssohn upright piano made in Derby, Connecticut, sometime around 1905. You can still find something about it on the Internet. The serial number is something like 102. It’s old, the soundboard is cracked, it’s scratched and beaten, but for something that has celebrated its centennial, it sits up straight. And I love it for the memories it brings back and the people I most associate with it. I had it tuned several years ago for a choir retreat at my house. The tuner said the best he could do was tune it to itself because of the crack in the soundboard, but that was good enough. The fact that he was willing to tune it told me he appreciated it for the music it could still make.

George Anton Piskac, about age three.

George Anton Piskac, about age three.

My grandpa bought it used for my dad when he was between three and four years old, so the story came to me. My dad was a musical prodigy. Why not? Everyone in his family had that musical gene! This picture of him at that tender age was in the local paper sometime around 1932 or 1933. Grandma used that photo as a publicity shot several years later when she sent a letter to MGM, suggesting that her young son would be perfectly cast as Jody in “The Yearling.” They didn’t choose him, but they did send her a nice letter back.

But my dad tickled those ivories as he grew up. (They were actually ivory when that piano was manufactured!) And when he got married and had kids of his own, it came to our house and lived in the basement. I don’t know how many of us took lessons from his sister, our Aunt Suzy, but several of us did, including me. I wish I could say that I inherited that musical gene, but it seems to have skipped me when it comes to the piano…or any other instrument I tried. Susan could play, and still does!

Mostly the Prescott kids used that piano for all kinds of other things, most of which had nothing to do with music. It still bears the scars and scratches of games we played with it. It was scaled, used as a launching pad, and other assorted adventures, and it was part of the structure of many forts we created down in the rec room. Grandpa refurbished it for us once, even replacing many of the missing ivories with synthetic materials, but it never ever looked like new.

When my dad and stepmom decided to move to an apartment back in 2000 or so, they couldn’t take it with them. My brother Mike – the obvious choice in my opinion, he had kids who could still learn! – didn’t want it. No one wanted it. You couldn’t sell it and you couldn’t give it away. So I took it. I paid a piano mover to move it the seven miles or so to my home, down an outside set of stairs to the basement, where it lodged untouched for two years. I would give it a longing glance when I would go down to change the furnace filter, but never another thought except, “I sure wish I could play.”

When I got married to Steve in 2002, we moved to a new house about seven blocks away. It took over a year to sell that house and we slowly moved my things to the new one. No rush. No one was buying anyway. My thought was that the piano could stay there for the new owners when they came. They would probably have kids, and kids need piano lessons, right? (All except Mike’s, that is.) I was wrong.

The house sold thirteen months later and the sales contract clearly indicated that the piano had to go. Still no one wanted to buy it and no one wanted it for free. I asked a local dealer, “What do people do with their old 100+ year old uprights?” His answer: We send them to the landfill. So once more I called the same piano mover to come and pick it up.

They met me at my old house that day at that same outside back stairwell that led to the basement. Did I say it was steep? Three big guys yanked and pulled and maneuvered it up those concrete stairs, swearing all the way, complaining about how heavy it was. They were piano movers, the same ones who moved it down there. Aren’t they all heavy? They’re pianos, after all. Anyway, it took a long time to get it out of there and I just stood at the top of the stairs. My eyes were closed and I was trying to picture that old piano sitting on the landfill, surrounded by the other things we just throw away when we’re tired of them. And I couldn’t do it. All I could see was the old photo of my dad as I had never known him, a child full of promise, full of talent – full of music! – with his whole life ahead of him. I could see him sitting there in later years playing the “doodley-do” song for us, which is really called “Nola.” I could hear the notes. I could feel the pressure of the keys under my own fingers when I played for Aunt Suzy. I couldn’t do it.

When they finally hoisted it to the top of the stairwell, I opened my eyes and said I had a new plan. Instead of driving it the twenty-five miles or so to the dump and waiting in line to unload it, what if they just drove it seven blocks away and moved it into my new house? No steps! Just come right in the back door.

And there it sits. I still use it to pick out my choir parts. It’s not really playing, but it does help me make music. Others who can actually play have sat down to it and brought Christmas carols and other melodies out of it, and like I said, we used it at that choir retreat.

There is still music to make with that old piano, even it doesn’t fit on that wall. And when I close my eyes, I can still see my dad and hear him play it.

Dancing in Circles

Dancing in circles photoI visited a refugee camp near Zahle, Lebanon, on a trip I made in May, 2013. It was part of a visit of presence to offer fellowship and encouragement to Christian brothers and sisters in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon who were dealing with the refugee crisis from the war in Syria.

Eight months later, in January, 2014, I went back on a similar trip and we visited another camp near Zahle which hadn’t existed eight months before. Instead of visiting a pretty small camp of 45 families, we visited one of two in the area that was now home for thousands of families.

In Lebanon alone, there are approximately 1.5 million refugees from the Syrian war which has raged since March, 2011. It was the onset of that war that had prohibited my wonderful group of faithful women friends from returning to Syria to take part in a women’s conference that would allow more of our Iraqi sisters to join us. So much sorrow and pain is concentrated in this small part of our world. It’s heartbreaking to say it in my most understated words. There is an ever-flowing stream of tears to accompany them.

At that camp last January our group was surrounded by a sight I never expected to see in such a place of sadness. Children singing and dancing came pouring down the dirt road beside the sewage filled canal that drained their camp. Singing. Dancing. Smiling. Laughing. We were swept into their midst and joined in.

From that encounter came this poem:

Down the hill they came running with smiles on their faces
Unusual I thought, in this saddest of places
But they sang and they clapped
Oh my word! How infectious
So we clapped and we smiled in this moment of grace notes.
They grabbed on to our hands and soon came the dance
Round and round we did circle in this desperate land
We kissed and we cooed, just like all children do
Voices raised in sweet choruses of “I love you too!”

It wasn’t ‘til later when I learned that their song
Was a reminder of all in their world had gone wrong
“I used to live in a house” – so it went,
“But now I live here in this land in a tent.
Tomorrow will come and a house there will be
For me and my folks, the whole family.”
It made me so grieved for the horror of loss
I still cannot grasp the heartbreaking cost
Of hatred and war that would drive them away
From the home where they spent every night, every day.

And yet here we were in a circle of glee
And they had this vision, in mind’s eye could see
That where they were now was just temporary
Even though it was alien, maybe even quite scary
It was only a stop on the journey of life
That someday the end would come to this strife
And they would be dancing and singing with glee
Enlarging their circle with people like me
God in heaven above, hear my prayer, let it be.

I came home from that place with an idea I have no clue how to proceed with, but I have. I have a wonderful co-worker, friend and brother in Christ who has taken a version of this poem and put it to music. Mike did it because he could see what I saw with my heart and not with my eyes. I would like to take that song and make a video to share the story of the suffering and the sadness, but also of the hope that exists there, to raise money for the needs of the refugees from this war and the now renewed war in Iraq. I want the video to be able to take on a life of its own – it won’t be mine or Mike’s or whoever can help me make it – but it will be a tool that almighty God can use to bring a small amount of love to a place of overwhelming need.

Please pray with me that God will make a way.

Amen.

Jana

Jana enjoying the homemade ice cream off the dasher. That's the Prescott way!

Jana enjoying the homemade ice cream off the dasher. That’s the Prescott way!

She is the second born of the seven Prescott siblings and the oldest of the five girls. That’s Jana, and she is my big sister and I love her. For the last almost 30 years we have been housemates.

Jana was hit by a train on February 14, 1983, when she was 25 years old, in Longmont, Colorado. I was living in Omaha then as now, and was woken up by an angry roommate who took the call that came to our apartment at about midnight that Valentine’s Day. It was my sister Sally calling to tell me the horrible news about Jana and Susan. My job was to go wake up my dad and tell him. That’s another story for another day.

Jana and Susan both survived what should have killed them both, and now, over 30 years later I still have those two sisters, the one born thirteen months before me and the one born sixteen months after me.

Jana spent just over five months in hospitals and then moved home with my dad and stepmom. After living with our parents for a bit over a year, she and I bought our first small house together and have been roommates, as I said, ever since. We have welcomed two pairs of wonderful canine mutts into our lives, and when I got married to Steve in 2002, he joined the household as well.

But this is about my sister Jana and how these two sisters have grown and changed over these thirty years. There are many days when we are just two sisters: we laugh, we have inside jokes that Steve will never understand and we can mix it up in anger and disagreement just like when we were small. Sisters will always be sisters after all.

Over the last several years, especially when she started having seizures at the site of her head injury, I have become caregiver in addition to trustee, bookkeeper and chief transporter. The latter three are things that just went with being her sister and her roommate. She can’t drive and I have a head for numbers. But caregiver is a different category. It involves worrying about whether or not she will fall down the stairs or just on a flat surface when she can’t pick her foot up. It means paying attention to when she has seizures and asking doctors if we don’t need to adjust medications. It means always being vigilant and listening if I need to run to help. It’s a fine line between letting her have the independence every adult should have and being alert to when that has to take a back seat.

I am so lucky to have Steve as a partner in all this. I always say he is a saint. Who would choose this kind of family life, after all? But he is there at every step and I count on his strength, which seems to be inexhaustible.

But there are days when I look at Jana – and I know she has these days too, too often perhaps – when I remember the woman who did wilderness/survival training on below-zero nights at Fontenelle Forest, the woman who played guitar and flute and sang a strong alto, the woman who climbed Mt. Meeker and wrote a ballad about its beauty outside her Colorado cabin window. There are days when I look at her and miss my big sister, the one who looked out for me.

But there are days that I still see her spark and smile and wicked sense of humor. And I plan on spending more than plenty of those with her yet.

A Journey With the Living Christ

Here is the 2000 West Hills Church Germany team. We were not the choir but we sang like one!

Here is the 2000 West Hills Church Germany team. We were not the choir but we sang like one!

I am really enjoying this medium of the weblog. It gives me a chance every day, if I take it, to put down stories of people I know or have known or places I’ve been so I remember them once again. I am a collector of memories, but they are all collected in my head and heart. I have bits of flotsam around that remind me of some of them, but others just come to me at odd moments. As I was reading through some of what I’ve written over the last three weeks, it seems I need to write about George and Germany.

George Moore was my pastor for 18 years at West Hills Church until he died November 24, 2012. For the almost eleven years I worked for him, I called him my pastor, mentor, boss and friend and he was all those things. He was also the one who showed me what it really means to be on a journey with living Christ.

My eyes were really opened to this when I signed up to be a part of the team that went to southwest Germany in June, 2000. There were sixteen of us on that team and we had two full weeks together. There was George, of course, leading us with his wife, Pam. Dwaine Price, who was our choir director at the time, came along. Leisha Eiten was the elder for mission, and she along with me and my sister Jana, formed a trio of “maiden aunts” also known as the “unholy” sisters because we were not nuns! Priscilla Powell and I came to know each other and she would later be my best woman when I married my Steve. Steve Thedens, who can quote entire passages from Monty Python routines, shared the back seat of a Volkswagen van with me for many miles and I heard them all! Hank and Marna Davidson, Karen and Loren Loibl (Karen and I share a birthday), Gwen Mason, Linda Schuchmann, Randy Hess and Char Srb rounded out the team. I list them all because that was the first thing I really experienced on this trip: a community bound together in our love of Christ and the idea of incarnational witness. Our love for God and our fellowship together was lived out loud. We opened ourselves to each other in love, in fellowship, in honesty and vulnerability. It was an expression of the body of Christ that I had never known or opened myself up to experience before then. And two important words that I learned on this trip: Glaube and Liebe, faith and love, and their inseparability that I have experienced over and over again on other travels.

I traveled to Germany twice more for West Hills Church. In 2002 after Steve and I were married (six weeks later!) we took our honeymoon mission trip there, repeating the steps of the 2000 journey, which Steve was not on. Leisha came with us as elder/chaperone. We still laugh about that. Once again we stayed in homes with friends we had made in 2000, members of the Evangelische Kirche (protestant church) in Öhringen, near Stuttgart. It was post 9/11 by then, and we had amazing conversations with pastors and others about our president’s careless use of God’s words: You’re either with us or against us, he said. Having conversations with those from other places about faith was part of my learning experience on this journey.

In 2005, we returned again as part of the choir, where we spent a day at Dachau. I was the chaplain on that trip and also the mission coordinator for West Hills. My mentor and pastor George had prepared me well to have an experience of God that allowed me to lead worship for our group in scripture and song. “Precious Lord, take my hand,” we sang as we had experienced the last steps of many who were led to slaughter in gas chambers and ovens. Who else would take their hands? The Twenty-third Psalm became more than just a scripture to be read at funerals for me there. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me.” I could hear the voices of people speaking those words in context. On a quiet Friday here in Omaha, my mind wanders and these memories come flooding back like they happened just yesterday. They are as fresh and alive even now.

My journey with the living Christ continues as I experience new family relationships in the Middle East. But it goes back to George and Germany and I needed to put that down today.

Civilization

I read this article from The Daily Beast today. (http://thebea.st/SUnUNQ ) It was published in June when Mosul, Iraq, was overrun by ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It was written by a U.S. serviceman who was there for a year as part of the surge. These are his words, not mine:

“That’s the Tigris,” I said to my gunner as we drove along its banks, “the Cradle of Civilization.” “Well, that’s a lot of bull,” said my gunner. We laughed. We’d come to civilize the cradle of civilization. To us, it looked like a backward dump. Because, you see, the joke is, civilization had nothing to do with Mosul. Civilization was a strip mall in Wisconsin.  Mosul, logically, had no civilization, for if they knew how to act civilized, we wouldn’t have been there at all. Civilized cities don’t have wars in them. This assumption, by and large, was a fair one, justified by our particular experience. Civilized cities don’t need to be stabilized. They don’t need American soldiers training former prisoners how to fire rifles. They don’t need curfews. They don’t need a big rich country like ours to help them. Civilized countries have their act together. I doubted many things my superiors told me, but I believed this: someone had to get Mosul back on its feet, put it on the path to civilization. So we set to work. We busted into houses with shotguns, cleaned up decapitated bodies, harangued local authorities. Another evening, the kind with all those beautiful stars war poets wax nostalgic about in memoirs, we dragged an older couple into their overgrown courtyard and demanded they tell us secrets about their neighborhood. To my surprise, they spoke English. “We have no secrets,” they said, “we are doctors, not terrorists.” “You are liars,” I said. Doctors would not let the Cradle of Civilization come to this.

And in my anger I fired off an email to my friend who wanted me to see it because she knew the reaction I would have as it disturbed us both. (These are my words. You can tell I was upset.) “And this is what I think is the problem with what we have taught our young people who fight our wars. This young man has no idea that the cradle of civilization was just that: the place where civilization was born and raised. We teach them that it started in 1776 on this side of the ocean and by gosh it was because God gave us the right to own guns. That is in the Bible, right? Sorry for my outburst. Civilization begins where we recognize the humanity in the person across from us: across the table, across the sanctuary, across the border, across the ocean. God’s presence in each one. Our neighbors. I will pray for this young man, damaged by our civilized society.” How is it we can claim to be so educated, so smart, so knowledgeable about the world and still have people who think this way? I can’t take back my thoughts. I have been to Iraq and experienced something far different from what he did. He said, “Doctors would not let the Cradle of Civilization come to this.” Doctors didn’t. We did with our misguided and immoral war. How does he not know that?! But then someone else sent me another story from Mosul, that reminded me that the story of the good Samaritan is a story that crosses faith boundaries, and it comes from the same place this one did. From the vaticaninsider.com today by Giorgio Bernardelli:

He refused to keep silent about the violence against Mosul’s Christians who are forced to choose between converting to the Muslim faith, paying the jizyah (the Islamic tax for non-Muslims) or fleeing. Professor Mahmoud Al ‘Asali, a law professor who lectures on pedagogy at the University of Mosul, had the courage to make a stand against this brutal duress which he believes go against the Muslim commandments. But he paid for this gesture with his life: he was killed by ISIS militants in Mosul yesterday.’

My faith is in God, who said the greatest commandment is to worship him with all my mind, soul and strength, and the second is much like it – to love my neighbor as myself. Today for me, I have heard the story of this being modeled in Mosul by a Muslim law professor speaking up for his Christian neighbors and paying for it with his life. And I praise God for the life of Mahmoud Al ‘Asali, who was my neighbor and yours and a member of a civilized society which has been destroyed by those claiming to be. Lord have mercy.

Laughter and Compassion

What a sweet moment I had today. One of the funniest men I know came to church to pick up his brother at the end of the day. Matt Geiler is in town for a visit with his family. I work with his brother Mike at church. They are both so talented! They have musical gifts and comedic talent that just make you wonder at how creative God can be. I have sung with Mike in choir and on the worship team many times and he always makes me feel like a contributing member of something special.

Today I got a great big hug from Matt. When Matt left the church staff a number of years ago I needed to tell him that I had two memories that I would always be thankful for of shared moments with him. We had both been speakers at a Thanksgiving Eve service, telling our stories to the congregation. I went after Matt, which is not the billing you ever want. He is so creative, so innovative, so good at improv. I was speaking from a prepared text. Sigh…

The other memory was being part of our annual meeting, which is really more about fun at our church. That year, Matt was in charge of the script…and there was no script. The theme was “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” It was all improv, and I got to take part with this master of the art who is also a graduate of Second City in Chicago.

These are great memories!

The best part of my time on staff with Matt was that I had the chance to see how he was way more than musical comedy. He expressed himself through the written word and none those words was wasted. He had a heart for the youth he was leading, including taking them to Tijuana, Mexico, for the summer mission trip. He had an amazing way of expressing his deep emotions that connected with me as someone who appreciates people who can. He cried. (I tried to tell him that I was fine if he was the funny one on staff, but by God, I was the crier!) He let people in and he was always willing to listen.

He has been gone from Omaha for a while now, but I keep up with him on Facebook, and still, he can make me laugh. But he can also reach out in the midst of my own pain and he has. So today, when I got that hug, it was very special.

Me and Scott Vorhees at the 2013 post-OPC show party.

Me and Scott Vorhees at the 2013 post-OPC show party.

I single out Matt because he was there today, but I have also been the receiver of this kind of compassion from some other funny men. It is such a great combination! Scott Vorhees is a local radio talk show host and I have performed with him twice in the Omaha Press Club show. I never met him before last year, and he let me explore my funny side with him…and he didn’t charge me for cleaning the make-up off of the back of his white dinner jacket when I pressed my face into his back. He also was a great comfort when, in preparing for the show that year, I got the news that my little sister was murdered. Sympathetic hugs and thoughtful gestures, that is Scott.

And there is Tom Becka, another very funny radio man, whom I know from the same OPC show. He has a big laugh and a big personality, but is open to any subject. He gave me the opportunity to sit opposite him for the time it took to record a 60-minute podcast about my travels and relationships in the Middle East. I gave him a handmade wooden inlaid box from Elias in Damascus and he gave me an olive wood carving of Mary and Jesus from Israel. He knew it would mean something to me, and it does. It’s in my office and I look upon it every day and think of those who are suffering there even now.

In a week with so much happening in the world that is unexplainable, unfathomable, unsettling and just plain horrendous, it is good to know people who can make you laugh, and at the same time, understand your tears.