Stations of the Cross

With one of the parishioners inside St. Maroun Maronite Catholic Church in Homs, Syria.

With one of the parishioners inside St. Maroun Maronite Catholic Church in Homs, Syria.

I grew up as a Roman Catholic. Baptism. Confession. Communion. Confirmation. These four sacraments I received in the church I was born into and I am so grateful for parents who showed me this way.

As a Roman Catholic, we made a pilgrimage of prayer each Good Friday at our church through the Stations of the Cross. We walked the Via Dolorosa, the way of tears, as part of our penance during Holy Week. In a remembrance of the actual events, we were walking in holy places, on holy ground.

The old city of Homs, Syria, from the rooftop of a bombed mosque.

The old city of Homs, Syria, from the rooftop of a bombed mosque.

I have made another pilgrimage of prayer as a Presbyterian. I have walked in a city where war has raged for over three years. I have walked in a city where a two-year siege was lifted only six months ago. I have seen damage and destruction and piles of rubble around every corner where our cars drove so we could make it to holy sites. Piles of rubble guarded by men with guns to protect the few people who have made the difficult journey home to see what is still standing.

I have walked in the old city of Homs, Syria.

I came here with six other American Presbyterians. People like me who go to church on Sunday to worship the Lord who saved us by his grace. We come from different places in the states, but we all belong to Presbyterian churches.

We walked these places today with Presbyterians from Lebanon and Syria, including the pastor of the Homs Presbyterian Church, also called the National Evangelical Church of Homs, a young gentle man whose name is Mofid Karajili.

I first met Mofid in January in Lebanon at a consultation for the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon and global partners supporting the relief effort of NESSL due to the war in Syria. He had made his way to be with us and share what was happening in his congregation. The church building had been destroyed during this siege, but the congregation – the gathered and sent Presbyterians of Homs – continued to meet in a home for the elderly in what he described as a safer part of Homs. Safer meant that insurgents and terrorists had not rooted themselves in the buildings in that part of this expansive region of Homs. But that did not mean that they did not hear the mortars and the guns. It also did not mean that people weren’t killed when shells exploded, because they were. It just meant they were not the frontline of this war. Mofid still commuted back to Beirut once or twice a month to continue his pursuit of a more advanced theological degree at the seminary there. His wife and children lived in Damascus (another safer place) while he continued to lead his flock in Homs. Faithful. Steadfast. Loving. Courageous. That is Mofid.

But now in Homs, Mofid was our host as we made this pilgrimage. Surrounded by security guards and other Christians, many from Mofid’s church but also Catholic and Orthodox, we went from place to place to visit seven Christian churches in this very ancient city, all of which had suffered severe damage during this war and siege.

I didn’t expect to find much hope here.

But what I found overwhelmed my heart with the truth of my faith: resurrection always follows crucifixion.

The churches here have been battered and bombed from within and without. It should have marked an end. But it really marked a beginning. A resurrection. And I was a witness.

We were met today by the priest of each of these churches in the old city of Homs. We stood in their sanctuaries and heard their stories. We saw the holes in their roofs. We saw the metal frames where stained glass once refracted sunlight into rainbows of colors. We saw icons and sculptures whose faces had been mutilated. We saw doors now filled with cinderblock as the heavy wooden or iron ones needed to replace them are not available.

We prayed together in different languages, but to the same God with the same fervency.

We walked the stations of the cross, two stations for each church.

Jesus is condemned to death. Jesus carries his cross.

St. Maroun Maronite Catholic Church: The bells were being rung by a man at St. Maroun. He was pulling hard on the rope and his feet would actually leave the ground as he repeated the pulling over and over. I have never heard bells sound out so joyfully before!

Jesus falls the first time. Jesus meets his mother.

Msgr. Kassab, bishop of the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Homs, Syria.

Msgr. Kassab, bishop of the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Homs, Syria.

At the Syrian Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit, the Syrian Catholic Bishopric, we had to hurry our visit as the priests there were preparing for a funeral. But we took time to pray the Lord’s Prayer there as a community of believers. Later, as we headed to the next church, we heard them before we saw them as they sang their mournful chants accompanying a procession from the church. Monsignor Kassab, dressed in the red colors of a bishop, smiled and greeted us at this church, explaining that they had been able to remove the remains of other bishops from this place before it was damaged.

Simone of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

Fr. Ibrahim presents us with the gift of an icon at Notre Dame of the Belt, the Syrian Catholic Church in the old city of Homs, Syria.

Fr. Ibrahim presents us with the gift of an icon at Notre Dame of the Belt, the Syrian Catholic Church in the old city of Homs, Syria.

In the Syrian Orthodox church we heard the story of why they are called Notre Dame of the Belt. It seems the relic in this church is from the belt that the mother of Jesus wore around her waist. This relic touches the past in a very physical way. A very special gift at this church was hearing the priests sing the Lord’s Prayer in Syriac, as close to the Aramaic language of Jesus that still exists to this day. Fathers Anthony and Ibrahim led this beautiful sung prayer.

Jesus falls the second time. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.

Mutilated face of Jesus Christ on a mosaic at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the 40 Martyrs, Homs, Syria.

Mutilated face of Jesus Christ on a mosaic at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the 40 Martyrs, Homs, Syria.

At the Greek Orthodox Church of the 40 Martyrs the Father Spyridon told us that bone relics of some of these early martyrs of this church are kept here. He also showed us the bronze bust in the courtyard of a former bishop, Athenosis, which had been welded back together after rebels had sliced it off. You can weld a head back onto a statue. You cannot weld the heads back on humans who have been slaughtered this way in this place.

Jesus falls the third time. Jesus is stripped of his garments.

At the Jesuit Monastery, I knelt at the tomb of Father Frans van der Lugt, the Jesuit priest who had ministered to the 70 or so Christians who were stuck in this city for all those days and months of the siege. A Dutch priest who came here forty years ago,

The resting place of Fr. Frans vander Lugt, at the Jesuit Monastery in the old city of Homs, Syria.

The resting place of Fr. Frans vander Lugt, at the Jesuit Monastery in the old city of Homs, Syria.

I heard his cries to remember these people on Youtube videos. He was shot in the head by rebels one week before the siege was lifted. We met Mazar, one of these faithful who tried to stop the murder but was pushed back. I embraced him on our way out and thanked him as best I could as we both cried tears of loss: me for a man I never met and Mazar for a man who had been his priest, his confessor, his comforter, his rock during this time.

Jesus is nailed to the cross. Jesus dies on the cross.

The crater left to the basement of Our Lady of Peace Melkite Catholic Church in Homs, Syria. This is where the pulpit used to be.

The crater left to the basement of Our Lady of Peace Melkite Catholic Church in Homs, Syria. This is where the pulpit used to be.

At Our Lady of Peace, the Melkite Catholic Church, we heard the story of how it survived the bombs and mortars. It survived until three days later when a bomb wired to the pulpit from which the priest proclaimed the Gospel each week exploded and blew out all the doors, the stained glass, the iron framework of the huge dome overhead and created a crater to the basement. Father Abdullah calmly explained all of this as we looked through the metal frames which once contained the colored glass that bathed this space in a spectrum of light.

Jesus is taken down from the cross. Jesus is laid in the tomb.

Cross-shaped hole in the roof of the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church of Homs, Syria.

Cross-shaped hole in the roof of the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church of Homs, Syria.

At the Evangelical Church of Homs, the entire youth group sang a hymn of praise for us in the sanctuary, below a cross-shaped hole blown into the roof, standing in puddles of water and mud on the floor. Two mosques on either side of this church were also blown apart. This war was a war on the entire city.

Sacred places.

Sacred spaces.

Sacred faces.

A pilgrimage of prayer on holy ground.

Christ is laid in the tomb. And yet…

…resurrection always comes after crucifixion and we were seeing it before our eyes. That is the fifteenth station of the cross. Praise God.

Kab Elias, Lebanon

P1080389I am in Beirut, Lebanon, for the fourth time since 2010, when I first came and was introduced to my Presbyterian brothers and sisters in this small country by the Mediterranean Sea. We spent about four or five days here on that trip visiting various expressions of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), whether the leadership of the synod, the pastors and churches, a beautiful mountainside elder care facility or a brand new school in the Bekaa Valley. These are amazing, resilient, intelligent and educated people. The evangelical, or reformed, church took root here in the 1830s as American missionaries came in the great movement of that century.

We also spent a week in Syria, visiting the ancient cities of Damascus and Aleppo and the Syrian parts of NESSL, as well as historic places such as the Street called Straight and the Ananias House (see Acts 9), the Grand Ummayyad Mosque in Damascus, and the ancient maze-like souq and the citadel in Aleppo.

These are old places bearing the marks of an ancient church as well with names like Chaldean, Maronite and Melkite Catholic, and Greek, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox. Christians have walked here since the first Pentecost after the resurrection.

In 2010 in Lebanon we learned how the church had a prominent role in offering hope and witness during the civil war here that lasted from 1975-1990, and we also saw how the church in Syria offered that same hope and witness to refugees who had fled from the Iraq war to their east, beginning in 2003.

Looking down at the stairs below from top of the Kab Elias school, now apartments for refugees.

Looking down at the stairs below from top of the Kab Elias school, now apartments for refugees.

Returning to Lebanon in 2013, there was a completely different set of circumstances. The new war being fought was in Syria and had been going on for two years at the time of that trip. Refugees from that war had found their way to Lebanon as well as being internally displaced in Syria. And what we found was that same church offering hope and witness anew.

Now, in November, 2014, the crisis has increased ten and maybe a hundredfold. There seems to be no end to the streams of people being forced out their homes in one place, carrying only what their hands can hold, and setting out in a vast migration to a new place. And hopefully one where they can find at least a semblance of peace. Syrians – maybe a million or more – have come to Lebanon, a country of only four million people. They live in tents. There is really no infrastructure for their children to go to school. There are no jobs. But at least the war and the bombs and the killing machine are on the other side of the mountains.

About halfway up the stairs of the former Kab Elias Evangelical School compound there is a door to your right. Inside is the small church where worship is still held on Sundays. Now part of the worshiping community are the refugees from Syria who are living here.

About halfway up the stairs of the former Kab Elias Evangelical School compound there is a door to your right. Inside is the small church where worship is still held on Sundays. Now part of the worshiping community are the refugees from Syria who are living here.

But one thing that is common on both sides of the mountain is the church. It is a common and constant presence in Syria and Lebanon. The church is here. God is here. Hope is here.

In 2013 we had the chance to visit one of those places of hope. NESSL was refitting an old, now unused school to become apartments for refugees from Syria. Rooms where once uniformed students learned reading and math and science, would be transformed into bedrooms and kitchens and bathrooms. There was even a small church here and that would remain as a weekly gathering place to come together and worship the God of peace and salvation and to study his word in the Bible.

Walking up the hundred-plus stone stairs of this multi-level compound, we saw workmen installing kitchen equipment and making bathrooms for the families who would eventually call this place home. All of those items needed for daily living – sinks, toilets, cooking stoves, refrigerators, heating stoves – had to be hauled up those stairs that had been worn by years of small feet going up and down to learn the lessons of life. Now they would be trod by families who had learned the lessons of war and fear, and would find peace in this place of God.

Yesterday upon my return here, I met three of the families who have found refuge here.

Ziad from Homs.

Ziad from Homs.

There was Ziad from Homs, who was sharing his apartment with another young, single man who was not there when we arrived. Homs is a city that had been under siege for a full three years, having been liberated just this past May. I am sure if we had more time and more ability to communicate, we could have heard some horrible stories from Ziad, but also stories of escape and survival. His simple room contained a small bed, a chest with a television on top and some meager mementos from home. It looked like a college dorm room. Young men really don’t need much, do they?

Another room was occupied by Dunia, who had come from Safita in the northwest. Her apartment was much cozier, made so by a beautiful rug on the floor, a couch and chairs in the living room and a few more reminders of her home. Her son was living there with her and he has been recruited by a local Christian leader in helping others. He has applied for admission to the Near East School of Theology in Beirut with the hope of studying to be a pastor. These are seeds of hope being planted for the future of his land.

Climbing to the very top level of this vertical compound we met Elder Moussa from Aleppo and his daughter Fibi. Elder Moussa was an electrical engineer by trade and one day his skills will be needed desperately as a city of two million people will have to be rebuilt. We have heard that 55% of Aleppo has been destroyed; ISIS is active there and soon the government forces will try to surround them and deprive them of weapons and supplies to snuff them out. There is more tragedy still to be experienced in the months to come. There is still an active Presbyterian congregation there meeting in a fifth floor apartment with no electricity or water, led by a courageous pastor named Ibrahim Nsier. But that is another story.

Elder Moussa of the Aleppo Presbyterian Church and his daughter Fibi.

Elder Moussa of the Aleppo Presbyterian Church and his daughter Fibi.

Let me tell you why Moussa and his daughter Fibi and her sister Grace were in this apartment at the top of the stairs. They had not fled Aleppo in fear for their lives. Indeed, they were a part of that congregation still meeting there in an equally high place at the top of five flights of stairs. Moussa is an elder there (and I most likely met him in that church in 2010). He is a leader, seeing to the spiritual needs of that congregation. But his wife had cancer. Oh, how I curse cancer! His wife had cancer and there were no longer working hospitals or even doctors in Aleppo. (Think about that for a minute. In a city of two million people, what used to be a modern 21st-century city, there were no working hospitals.) Moussa and Fibi and Grace left with wife and mother to find treatment in Latakia to the west.

Moussa’s wife died two months ago. This man, who is probably only in his early 60s, this educated electrical engineer who owned his house and raised his family with a wife of decades, now lives with his daughters at the top of the former school. A widower, he can look out the window to the mountains, knowing she is not buried in her homeland, but that she is in the arms of a loving God.

This is the view out of Dunia's window, looking to the church steeple with its bell.

This is the view out of Dunia’s window, looking to the church steeple with its bell.

A loving God, who has led him to this place for this time.

A loving God who will see him come home, either to Aleppo to help rebuild or to one of the mansions in his father’s house.

A loving God who walks up the stairs with him to the top of the school, now made home.

A loving God who walks among the thousands of tents in the valley below.

A loving God he worships in the small church a few flights below.

A loving God embodied in the churches and pastors and flocks of this place.

I pray a prayer of thanksgiving to this loving God for allowing me to enter into the lives of these people who are living in a place prepared for them by brothers and sisters of mine and yours.

And I pray to this God for peace in this land.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.


Bringing the Word

In the chapel at NEST with my well-worn, broken-spined journal of travels with the living Christ in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. I always take it with me, even though the people are engraved on my heart.

In the chapel at NEST with my well-worn, broken-spined journal of travels with the living Christ in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. I always take it with me, even though the people are engraved on my heart.

I had a new experience today. I was asked to bring the message to the chapel at the Near East School of Theology today in Beirut, Lebanon. I had prepared it about three weeks ago and have been pondering about it ever since. I am not good at self-critique, but I did edit it several times, never taking anything out, but adding to it.

Originally I was going to talk about the story of “Hope Came Down,” which you can watch at the end of this post. But what came out of me was the story of how scripture has become real to me in the people I share my life with. God’s story has intersected with mine in a powerful way. And that is what I shared.



I stand before you as a student, as a member of a flock. I am not a shepherd or a pastor and I find it amusing and humbling to be bringing a word to this gathered group of pastors and leaders and students who will one day be pastoring and shepherding your own flocks. I am a business administrator. I work with numbers and it is a very rare opportunity when anyone gives me the podium or lectern. I have a tendency to talk when given the opportunity…just ask my husband. And though I can speak confidently and clearly about numbers (and they will be accurate!) I usually like to remind people that numbers tell a story. And so today as I come before you, I will be a storyteller. I want to tell you through personal stories how shepherds and pastors and indeed, students, have taken God’s story – his word – and made it more than just words or numbers on a page. They have made these words part of my life and given me understanding of them in ways I could never have learned in a classroom. My prayer for you here, now, studying to be pastors, is that you would bless people in this same way.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8

That is the first scripture I memorized and I did that in May, 2001, while visiting the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon. I learned it alongside a classroom of about 150 children. And all of us memorized it with the entirety of the Sunday school children in the PCC that Sunday…tens of thousands of them!

I had read the Bible completely through three times by then, but a scripture never came as alive before that Sunday. I stood in front of a large congregation on Pentecost Sunday in 2004 when I returned as the leader of another trip that our church made and I recited it…and they all recited with me, having learned it with me three years earlier! I could see that the Holy Spirit had indeed descended upon this group of brothers and sisters so far from where I lived, and that they were great witnesses for the Lord. I learned a lesson about riches there as well: money in your pocket or in your bank account does not make you wealthy. True wealth is being transformed by God’s power and spirit and sharing that wealth through witnessing for God and telling his story.

“’I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jeremiah 29:11

Those words were declared for Steve and me as we exchanged vows and rings in a service of Christian marriage on May 18, 2002. Can you imagine two 43-year-olds discovering the reality of that promise one year after their first date? It’s a living word, isn’t it? And Steve and I have experienced God’s grace in those plans which were not our own, but his, and those plans have included returning here again, to be with the family of God at NEST.

“…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40:31

Steve and I live with and care for my sister, Jana. Jana was hit by a train almost 32 years ago, and her life is difficult. She has trouble walking, trouble talking and these days does not have much strength. But in these last almost 32 years she has traveled to Ecuador to work with orphans and to help install a waterline to a native village high in the Andes. She has been back and forth to Washington, D.C., many times to advocate for poor and hungry people all over the world. She has led her sister – that would be me – back into the community of faith, which is how the first two parts of this story happened! She does wait upon and hope in the Lord, and I know that a day is coming in the kingdom of heaven where she will walk and dance and run and soar on eagle’s wings, renewed in an eternal strength that does not run out. This is the verse that speaks to Jana’s heart.

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

Oh, how I love this verse! It’s the one I lean into every day. Justice and compassion are two words that I use to describe my life and my calling, but where I finally understood the humility part was when I heard Abuna Elias Chacour speak to a large gathering of Presbyterians in Houston, Texas, in August, 2007. That was the year my father died, Steve’s father died and I thought God had shut the door on my further travels in his mission. But then Abuna exhorted us to learn about what is happening in Israel/Palestine and not to take any side but that of God. Get the politics out of it and find the justice, the mercy…and the walking humbly part. (And three years later I discovered one of God’s previous plans for me was to meet a woman named Barbara Exley, who was at that same gathering and challenged in the very same way. And his plan was for us to walk that scripture together and be friends for the rest of our lives in that walk.)

“We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. “ I Thessalonians 1:2-3

In August, 2010, I traveled for the first time to Beirut with Marilyn Borst and the Outreach Foundation. Marilyn was the first Presbyterian I had ever met who gave me an amazing picture of a church I have since come to love very much, and this was the scripture she put on the hearts of eight women who traveled here that very hot summer to see in this part of the world what the church has done, what the church is doing and what the church is leaning into for the future – that sure hope we have in Jesus. And we met those who had lived through fifteen years of civil war and who had endured and kept the church alive through faith and love and hope, people like Dr. Mary Mikhael and Assis Nuhad Tomeh. I still remember sitting in a room just down the hall from here listening to Assis Adeeb Awad tell of his travels as a pastor during those years of war, all the while holding those prayer beads. Pray without ceasing… you can find that in I Thessalonians 5:17. And I do. I want you all to know that you come to bed with me every night as I pray for peace in these lands.

I was hooked! And I have returned. I have witnessed these scriptures, now all so dear to my heart, in three dimensions and in living color in the people and places I have walked in Lebanon, in Syria and in Iraq. They are not just black words on a white page speaking to a people from long ago. They are words lived out in the here and the now by children of God who have inhaled the breath of his spirit.

And as I have said, I have returned to this place. This is my second trip this year and my fourth overall to Lebanon. While here in January, Steve and I had the opportunity to visit a large refugee camp near Zahle. I had been in that part of Zahle the previous May and had visited a small camp of about 45 families. In January, however, the camp we visited was 500 times the size of the small one and we were told it was one of two, neither of which had existed the year before. I was prepared to be overwhelmed with sadness and hopelessness.

And then the children appeared.

They surrounded us with singing and laughter and soon we were all dancing together in a big circle, enlarging as more joined in. I found out later these sweet ones were singing, “Yesterday I lived in a house. Today I live in a tent, but tomorrow I will live in a house again.” Our President Obama wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope. I have never read it, but I had just witnessed it all around me. It struck me in a way that nothing ever has and that evening as we rested in a hotel in Damascus, I wrote a poem called “Dancing in Circles” about that experience.

The pictures of those children came home with me in my head and my heart and I couldn’t let them go. And then a funny thing happened. I had one of those scripture lessons like those I described earlier overcome me. This is how I described it in an email to one of my church friends:

And when I came home and looked at the pictures I saw the dear smiling faces of the clergy who were with us. The pastors in that area have visited the camps many, many times, carrying the love and the joy and the hope of Jesus into a place where he is so desperately needed. And I couldn’t help but think of the scripture I had heard so often from John 1:14, “The word was made flesh and dwelled among us,” or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, “he moved into the neighborhood.” And I of course remember my own pastor George phrasing it like this: “He pitched his tent with us.” His glory – his shekinah – his tent was right in the middle of ours. There it is: Hope came down.

And those children were hopeful! And the passage from Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is being sure of what you hope for, certain of what you do not see.” And those kids were singing that tomorrow they would be in their homes again. I couldn’t see it, but they could! That is a hope-filled faith and that is what I want to honor.

And so a vision given to me by God through his word and through his witnesses here kept me busy all year trying to fulfill it. It is in the words of the song “Hope Came Down” and the pictures of it being fleshed out in a refugee camp near Zahle, Lebanon. And I have sent it out into the world so that God may be glorified through the work of his church.

God has plans for us all and when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, through his power we will be witnesses of justice and compassion; we will be humble laborers of love in the midst of tents of refugees; and we will be certain of what we do not see but sure of what we hope for…and we will endure, inspired by the hope we have in Jesus. And in the waiting and the hoping, we will be renewed.

Hope came down and pitched its tent, in our midst, went where we went. Hope came down for you and me, hope came down and we could see with the longing of our hearts. Hope came down.”


Traveling with the church

praying hands in DamascusSteve and I are on the road again together. It’s not a vacation like the ones we have had in Venice and Rome…and Brownsville, Nebraska. We are not marveling at wonderful wines…or even Nebraska wines. Nebraska wines are not set up with the adjective wonderful. 🙂

We are traveling as members of a church with other members of other churches to be with still more members of yet other churches. And yet, we are all one church, part of the body of Christ.

My travel companion (besides Steve!) is the book “Reversed Thunder” by Eugene Peterson. The same Peterson whose paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, is my favorite. The words he uses are so much more accessible to me. And this book is his reflection on the last book of scripture, the Revelation of John. It is very helpful for me as one who struggles with all the imagery and code, or whatever you want to call it.

And on the way into Houston, I read this:

The gospel is never for individuals but always for a people. Sin fragments us, separates us, and sentences us to solitary confinement. Gospel restores us, unites us, and sets us in community. The life of faith revealed and nurtured in the biblical narratives is highly personal but never merely individual: always there is a family, a tribe, a nation – church. God’s love and salvation are revealed and experienced in the congregation of the people “who know the festal shout” (Ps. 89:15), not in “the garden, alone.” (Chapter 4, The Last Word on the Church, Revelation 2 and 3, pg. 42-43)

And that has been my experience on a journey like this to a place so far from home. I have discovered that the gospel – this good news – has brought me into a family much larger than the one I was born into. This family has shown me by the living of this word in real life and real time, that it is for us all together.

So let us not be separated by geography or culture or language. Let us be together in the word – the Word incarnate. Let us be the body of Christ.

And so we go.

And I will drink to that.


Grandma’s picture

A couple of weekends ago my brother Mike took Jana and me and Barb up to Dubuque to have a quick visit with one of our favorite people, Sister Aunt Carolyn. We call her SAC for short. We came up with that acronym many years ago. The order of the letters made sense because, after all, she was a holy sister before she became an aunt to a collection of unholy nieces and nephews.

It was a beautiful fall weekend in Dubuque, a city on the Mississippi known as the San Francisco of the midwest because of its amazing hills. We drove up in the hills to Eagle Point Park on the last weekend it was open for the season. We went all the way to the top, surrounded by that amazing autumnal palette of colors as the leaves were getting ready to separate from the tree branches. We looked across the river to see Illinois and Wisconsin, looking equally as beautiful as Iowa. We watched a barge go through the lock and dam on the river, its containers empty now, but headed back down the river to gather more coal to bring upriver before the season ended. Or maybe it was headed downriver to be parked for the season…I don’t really know; I’m just surmising here.

From there we headed back to SAC’s apartment to pick up some furniture she had for Mike and Barb. But on the way we went by the cemetery where SAC’s mom and our grandmother was laid to rest in 1981. Grandma Thirtle (as we called her) is buried on one of those beautiful Dubuque hills next to a pine tree.

Grandma Thirtle prayer cardI remember when she died in January that year and we headed out from Omaha to go to her funeral. Grandma Thirtle lived with us for several years when we were young. Since Grandma Piskac had died in 1965, Grandma Thirtle was the grandma we knew and remembered and made good memories with. I thought that when Grandma Thirtle died she must have been very old, as in my mind’s eye she always was old. But there on the gravestone were the dates of her birth and her death: July 19, 1908 and January 26, 1981. She was only 72 when she died. And here we were standing by her grave with her daughter Carolyn, who will be 77 next year. SAC is a really young 76-year old! And it just struck me that if she is 76, Grandma must have been much, much older than that. But she wasn’t.

I said a quick prayer to myself and kept myself from crying. I have often wondered about the life my Grandma Thirtle must have experienced in her younger days. And then we went back to SAC’s apartment.

She has some wonderful family pictures on her wall. One of them was so familiar as I have the whole album of originals in my possession. It is a wedding picture of my own mom and dad, George and Jeanne Prescott, taken on September 17, 1955, in St. John’s Cathedral on the Creighton campus here in Omaha. They are so young! They would go on to have the seven of us – George, Jana, me, Susan, Mike, Sally and Cathy – from August 4, 1956, to December 7, 1964. And then on March 27, 1966, my dad would sit by Mom’s bed in the hospital as she took her last breath. Still, that wedding picture makes me smile.

It was another wedding picture on SAC’s wall that brought out some stories:

Grandma Thirtle's wedding day

June 30, 1931, in Omaha, Nebraska, was the day my grandma, Beatrice Chicoine, married my grandpa, Robert Thirtle. She is just shy of her 23rd birthday, and there she stands in her youth, a smile on her face, standing between her new husband and her own mother, my great-grandmother, Cora Chicoine.

I have never in my life seen a picture of my Grandpa Thirtle until this moment. And I have never seen a picture of my Grandma Thirtle as a young woman. And there she is, happy, radiant as a new bride. What must she have been thinking on that day in her white dress, white hat upon her head, holding onto a bouquet of flowers with a new gold band on her left ring finger?

Was she thinking that when her own daughter got married some 24 years later that she too would stand in a picture smiling, while her siblings looked on? Was she thinking that she would have five children of her own? Was she thinking of the possibility that two of them would precede her in death? Was she thinking that the man to her right would cheat on her and abuse her and cause her to flee with her children for their protection? Did she know that her own mother would be her strength and protection from this man? Did she know that life as a divorced Roman Catholic single mother would be as hard as it was? Did she know that she would inspire such love and loyalty from seven grandchildren who lost their own mother, her daughter, at such a tender age? Did she know that she would be the model for one of them in nightly prayers?

I have never seen a picture of my grandmother so young and happy and with her whole future ahead of her. And I am so glad that on June 30, 1931, she didn’t know about that future.

But there is one thing about this picture that is very familiar to me about my grandma and that is her smile. I can see that smile in my mind as we stand in her kitchen making chocolate malts. I can see that smile in my mind as she lets us take the salt and pepper shakers out of her hutch and lets us play with them. I can see that smile in my mind as she sits at the old piano and coaxes old tunes out of it as she plays from memory. I can see that smile in my mind as she teaches us how to play pinochle and canasta. I can see that smile in my mind as we ride the bus together to go downtown to shop at Kilpatrick’s and Brandeis and have a piece of pie at the lunch counter.

I can remember putting flowers on her grave that cold day on the hillside in Dubuque in 1981. We had gone into a florist shop to buy roses. When the clerk heard us say what they were for, she thought it was wasteful to put perfectly good roses on a grave on a sub-zero day. But we knew better.

And 33 years later, I am sure Grandma is smiling. And that is how I will always remember her.

What hurts them, hurts us

Peace hands worldIt is the day after another election here in the U.S.


Personally, as a liberal in a conservative state, it was a tough night politically for the people I supported. But I woke up this morning and the sun was up and God was still on the throne. God’s mercies are new every morning!

And it was not a total disappointment for me and others. The people of our state voted to raise the minimum wage, and the people of our city voted to approve a bond issue that will improve the facilities of older schools in our main district and also build new ones to meet the responsibility to educate future generations.

I guess the best part of an election being over and done with is that the airwaves will now be free of the millions of dollars worth of advertising spent telling us over and over again why that person is a no good, dirty, crime loving, tax raising, hog castrating, gun hating, gun loving, idiot who speaks out of both sides of the mouth. There has been nothing uplifting about any of it. And the waste of money in such a way is just mind boggling to me. Think how many more schools could have been built, or people fed, or cancers healed, if the money spent in an election cycle were used for those kind of building up activities, instead of the tearing down kind.

As I was driving home in the early evening before coming back to church for a meeting, I was listening to NPR. It was too early for any election coverage, but I thought they might be doing some commentary. I was going to be at that meeting during prime time coverage so I was just a bit anxious I guess to hear something now. But what I heard instead was this report about happenings in Iraq’s struggle with ISIS:

The tribe mentioned in this story is the Jubbour tribe, who are Sunni. They are trying to protect themselves from ISIS, who are also Sunni. But as the headline says, “We are not slaughterers.” The Jubbour see ISIS as an ideology not for anyone’s good; they are just a killing machine. The Jubbour reject this ideology and name it for what it is. They have also paid a very heavy price.

What struck me most about the story, however, is the reaction of a neighboring village of Shiite Muslims. The schism between Sunni and Shia happened almost at the beginning of Islam, once Muhammad had died. It is a deep divide of long standing.

This Shiite village, so the report goes, has been working in defense of and to protect their Jubbour neighbors. Why? “Because what hurts them, hurts us.”

What hurts them, hurts us.

What hurts you, hurts me.

And so on a night of people speaking through the action of filling out a ballot, I have found some good news.

In my city, we have decided that it hurts us all when children – yours, mine, ours – don’t have good safe schools to learn in. It is not good for any of us to raise generations of children who lack knowledge, who lack opportunities to debate and discuss, who don’t have access to new technologies and safe surroundings.

In my state, we decided that folks who work in jobs where the minimum wage is the standard rate of pay, should have a raise so maybe they can move a bit farther from the abyss of food insecurity or poverty. Many people working in these jobs work more than one, so maybe this means they can have more time with their families, more time to sit down with their children as they work on their homework. What hurts them, hurts us…or it should.

I woke up this morning feeling some hope. I still believe that when we say “we the people” we mean all of us. I still believe that not only what hurts them, hurts us, but what helps them, helps us all. For really, we are them.

Let us be us together.