The best Christmas gift

The front of the 1965 Christmas card with all seven Prescott children. Cathy would have just celebrated her first birthday on December 7.

The front of the 1965 Christmas card with all seven Prescott children. Cathy would have just celebrated her first birthday on December 7.

I wrote a bit about those old family Christmas cards a few days ago in “The birthday season.” I had most of the cards my mom and dad made during the years they had together when we were children, until my mom died in 1966.

I couldn’t put my hands on two of them: 1964 and 1965. 1964 was the year the last of the Prescott siblings was born, Cathy, on December 7. I think my sister Sally has a copy and I will get my hands on it soon!

But Sally did find the one from 1965 and looking at it now, I was reflecting on its simplicity.

Like the rest of the series begun in 1956 when George was born, it has each of our faces cut into a Christmas scene. These kind of graphics are popular again. They are just so cliche and that is what makes them cute and timeless. Jana gets the privilege in this one of placing the star on top of the tree as George holds the ladder for her. (Just for the record, Daddy was the only one who ever put the star up there!) The rest of us are all lined up in age order to pile the presents under the tree. This is the only card that has our names on the front. I guess there were so many of us by now they needed to remind everyone who was getting a card who we were. And even Cathy – only one! – was bringing a present.

The inside of the 1965 Christmas card with a simple message.

The inside of the 1965 Christmas card with a simple message.

The back side of the 1965 Christmas card with our dog Candy. Uncle Bob gave us this Saint Bernard puppy earlier in the year.

The back side of the 1965 Christmas card with our dog Candy. Uncle Bob gave us this Saint Bernard puppy earlier in the year.

The inside of the card had a simple message, and for once, the back of the card was printed. Yes, there was one more family member added that year. Candy the Saint Bernard had come to us sometime during the spring or summer. My Uncle Bob, a bachelor at the time, thought we should have a dog. On a visit to Omaha from Milwaukee where he lived, he stepped off the plane with a furry bundle of joy. A gift for his nieces and nephews (not sure Mommy and Daddy smiled at this one) of a puppy who would grow to be larger than any of us. Thank you, Uncle Bob!

With almost fifty Christmases between this one in 1965 and now, my memory is fogged on details. I am sure we spent Christmas Eve at Grandpa Piskac’s house with the rest of our extended family. There would have been Uncle Tony and Aunt Hon, Uncle Jerry and Aunt Tillie, Aunt Suzy; maybe Aunt Heddy and Uncle Jerry would have come in from Lincoln, and all the cousins who went with these brothers and sisters of my dad. I know Grandma Piskac would not have been there because she had died earlier in the year, but the rest would have been there.

We would have had Aunt Hon’s Christmas tree cake and Aunt Tillie’s always festive Christmas cookies. There would have been some dried fruits with those delicate little plastic forks to spear the fruits with. There would have been a Christmas tree in Grandpa’s living room, somewhere in the corner by his fish tanks. And there would have been piles of presents for all of us. And everyone would have given Grandpa a can of tobacco for his pipe. (All these years later, I love the smell of a tobacco-filled pipe being smoked. It always reminds me of Grandpa.)

In the morning at our house, there would have been a great big pile of presents as well. Our stockings would be hanging on the fireplace at the house on 105th Street that we had just moved into that September. Our first Christmas in a new home! We each would have a net bag of goodies – apple, orange, sack of salted peanuts in the shell, candy cigarettes, Brach’s chocolate stars – from the Shriners. Uncle Jerry was a Shriner and he always made sure that we each got one of these bags of goodies. There would be shredded paper everywhere once the gifts were opened. And then we would go to church.

But what I remember looking back now is that 1965 was the last Christmas that my entire family – all those names on that Christmas card with the dog on the back – had together. It was the last Christmas Eve and the last Christmas morning and the last Christmas card designed by a couple who loved each other and loved each of us and wanted everyone to know it.

Mom died March 27, 1966.

Looking at the card from 1965, it made me remember one of my favorite Christmases. I’ve shared the story with others when someone asks, “What is one of the best gifts you ever received on Christmas?”

It was Christmas, 1966, the very year after this last card. I’m sure we spent Christmas Eve at Grandpa’s. I am sure all the aunts and uncles and cousins were there and that we ate Aunt Hon’s Christmas tree cake and Aunt Tillie’s festive cookies. I am sure the dried fruit and the little plastic forks were on the table as well. The tree was laden with gifts and the fish tanks were there nearby. Grandpa got the usual supply of pipe tobacco and the smell from his smoking added to the memory.

The next morning there would be the stockings and the Shriner goodie bags. But there weren’t many gifts. Really, there were just two. One for the girls and one for the boys. I can remember it quite distinctly. There were two car-racing sets that had come from the Texaco station down the street. And that is all. And it was the very best Christmas gift I ever remember receiving.

And here is why.

What does a father of seven do for Christmas when his wife, the mother of his seven children, dies nine months before? Ten years and six months and seven children after they said their “I dos” she is gone.

I think he grieves. He grieves in private so the seven young children are unaware of his loss. He grieves privately because they have grief of their own that he needs to tend to.

Nine months go by and he realizes that the presents she would have bought and wrapped and put under the tree aren’t going to materialize. So he does what he can. He stops at the gas station at the end of the street where they are selling these Texaco-themed car race sets and buys two, one for the boys and one for the girls.

He takes them home in the middle of the night and assembles them and sets them up under the tree, ready to play with the next morning – Christmas morning – before church.

The funniest part of this story is that Jana and Susan were in on the surprise. The three of us shared a bedroom upstairs just down the hall from the living room. I was in a deep sleep – sugarplums, no doubt dancing in my head. Jana and Susan heard something, however. Thinking it was elves they crept down the hall to discover Daddy putting together the car sets…and he let them help.

It makes me smile to look back on this gift. It remains the best gift I remember receiving. Daddy going out in the night to make sure his children had a Christmas. Daddy who worked so hard every day to provide for seven children in all their needs, loved us so much that he didn’t want us to miss Christmas. And we didn’t.

Love. That is the best gift. And sometimes it looks like matching car racing sets from Texaco, at least it did in 1966.

She 22 December 2014

Words of my wonderful sister Sally who writes beautifully about our sister Cathy who was taken from us too soon. Not just too soon, but too abruptly. She lived a heroic life and we miss her.

Sally Gerard

IMG_2406I found myself lost in old photos and memories, wishing my little sister back.

She protected me when she helped us find food. She sat close to keep me warm. She kept me company in a cold, dark basement. She distracted me from my growling stomach. She came home from California that first time. She moved to Colorado for summer camp with me in the mountains. I, pregnant, went to her in California to care for her after her surgery.

She came to Colorado to meet her nephew, Jared. She drove to Allenspark and Yuma, time-after-time to care for Jared, and Alex, and me. IMG_2408
She stood up to him. She kept care of little Alex in that park in Wray. She bought groceries or pizza or ice-cream. She came over just to spend time.

She came with oils, crystals, chi machines and the knowledge of what they could do. She played…

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A Christmas poem, 2011

At a West Hills Church staff Christmas party at my house, probably Christmas 2010.

At a West Hills Church staff Christmas party at my house, probably Christmas 2010.

For many years I have written an end of year poem for the pastor at my church. It started kind of innocently and not deliberately around 1997 or so. Doctor Seuss-like verse pops out of my fingers without thinking most days. That year I had become more involved here at my church and really started listening to the sermons. By listening, I mean absorbing.

So, George Moore was our pastor then, and he was the inspiration. He had spent many sermons trying to get us to understand the word incarnational. That word and the word relational were the two words that really described our church. Well, once we understood what they meant!

So that Christmas I began to understand how the two went together and how we define our life here in this community of worship and faith.

I also realized the two words made a great rhyme!

I don’t have that poem as I wrote it out longhand in his Christmas card that year, the first time I wrote him a poem, and the first time I gave him a Christmas card.

And that continued all the way through 2011, when he preached his last Advent series. He had one ready for 2012, but sadly, he died on November 24, 2012, before he could give it to us.

I wrote one for the associate pastor that year; I’m not sure she appreciated it like George did. She never said anything. I wrote one for our interim last year, and I would say the same thing. I realize neither of them is George, and no one can ever take his place.

I used to put it on his desk between the two late Christmas Eve services with a little gift.

He would always find me and say, “How do you do it? How can you write a poem about my Advent series and always include something about the sermon you haven’t heard yet? The one from tonight?”

I would just smile and say, “You have led me to this place by the previous sermons. You wrote it. I didn’t.”

This year I’m not writing one. There just hasn’t been any inspiration. Maybe it’s me. My heart is in a very sad place right now. My friends and sisters and brothers in Syria and Iraq are not experiencing a silent night. I take hope from the fact that they are still there worshiping the same God who came to earth as an infant. I take hope in the fact that their voices are still lifted in worship. I take hope in the fact that they are still there serving those living through these days.

But my heart is not inspired to a Christmas poem this year.

Inside Joe Mbiy's home in Kumbo, Cameroon, summer 2001. This was the second time I had met Joe. The first was in Germany the year before. He has now completed seminary and been ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon.

Inside Joe Mbiy’s home in Kumbo, Cameroon, summer 2001. This was the second time I had met Joe. The first was in Germany the year before. He has now completed seminary and been ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon.

So I wanted to share the last one I wrote for George. And in it I mention another dear friend, a Cameroonian man I met in Germany in 2000. Upon visiting him in his country on a return trip there in 2004, he pulled me aside and told me his dream of becoming a pastor. (That’s Joe in the picture, standing with the hat on.)

Joe is one year older than me, making him 57. His birthday is tomorrow, December 22.

He had a fourth grade education when he asked me if my family might see the way to help him achieve his dream by attending seminary. I asked him how it was possible if he only had a fourth grade education. He said he would work to get his equivalency diploma allowing him to take the entrance exam.

Thinking this was a total impossibility, I told him we would pray about it. If he could make it that far, we would take him the rest of the way, never believing myself that it was possible.

Well the poem indicates that Joe did make it. He worked to get his equivalency diploma, all the time he was a father, grandfather, farmer and Sunday school agent for his church, the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon. He made it through seminary, and graduated at the top of his class.

Steve and Jana and I supported him for those four years of seminary and he worked as hard as anyone ever could.

Two weeks ago, we sent him an ordination gift. He is now Reverend Joe Mbiy.

This poem is for those two pastors from two different continents who inspire me even today. One has gone home to be with Jesus, and one is in Africa, six time zones to the east.

A Christmas Worth Remembering, 2011

My purse was full when I made my start
As I walked in, I grabbed for a cart.
The store was full of so many others:
There were brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers.
This time of year we spend and spend
And Santa’s line, it has no end.
As far back as I can remember,
This is how we have spent December.
It’s Christmastime! The lights! The splendor!
The shopping that’s a never-ender.
A shirt, some shoes, a brand new jacket,
Toys and games that make a racket,
The cart it overflows with plenty,
And when I return my purse is empty.

This ritual of consumption seems so permanent,
and yet I wonder, should it be different?
What if instead of filling a cart,
I took a step and emptied my heart?
If I just stopped and took a deep breath,
and thought long ago of a nativity crèche,
The scene before me would surely reveal
A Christmas worth remembering, God’s ideal.

He asked a young girl to open her heart,
And bear his son, this plan to start.
Her simple peasant acquiescence,
Allowed room for this holy presence.
A song she sang to worship fully,
Her soul glorifies the Lord most holy.
She and her mate had nought to spend,
But with this gift to us portend
That in giving all they had to give
They showed God’s plan on how to live.

To empty my cart and open my heart
I can give to just one, it’s a step; it’s a start.
How easily love can be made manifest
I can give even more, maybe even the rest!

For the story we hear every year on this night
Is about a little babe born to set it all right.
He is the word of our God, sent to us in the flesh
It’s him we should worship, much more and not less.
He spent all he had, his life, in his giving.
To show us the way to love while we’re living.

So when he asks me, and my answer is “yes,”
I should look forward, and not second guess.
As I think back on my “yesses” in this year that has passed
I look in my cart to see what I’ve amassed.
My brother in Cameroon shall soon be called “Reverend,”
I’ve worshiped in Basra, I’ve gone where he’s sent.
I’ve sung in the choir, in the plate I’ve put treasure,
I’ve given my all in ways I can’t measure.

I thank you for helping me have vision to see
That the love of my Jesus, is all that I need.
He gave up his life for the sake of us all,
And that’s what he asks when we answer his call.
This answer does mark us, it makes us distinct
That’s what you told me, at least what I think!
That’s your gift to me in this month of December.
It surely will be a Christmas to remember.

Merry Christmas George!
Peace to you and to all in 2012

The Birthday Season

Engagement ringMy mom and dad got married on September 17, 1955, and my brother George was born eleven months later on August 4, 1956. And the other six of us arrived one at a time over the next eight years: Jana on November 19, 1957; then me on December 19, 1958; Susan on April 9, 1960; Mike on September 17, 1961 (yes, child #5 came on anniversary #6); Sally on July 24, 1963 and finally Cathy on December 7, 1964.

Birthdays were pretty spread out, with only Cathy and me sharing a month.

Yes, we each had a special day to celebrate. And today is mine, December 19, 2014. I am 56 today.

But the name of this blog is “The Birthday Season.” And because my birthday is so close to Christmas, I celebrate a birthday season and not just a day. Let me tell you why.

My birthday and Christmas are intertwined.

1958: Jana, Baby Julie, George

1958: Jana, Baby Julie, George

I was always told that my real due date was closer to Christmas than the 19th, but Mom and Dad wanted me home from the hospital in time for Christmas Eve at Grandpa and Grandma Piskac’s house, so I was induced. (Amazingly enough, new mothers and their babies used to stay in the hospital for several days, even a week or more. Now they send them home practically the hour after birth!)

My birth announcement inside the 1958 Christmas card.

My birth announcement inside the 1958 Christmas card.

And so the very first celebration of my birth was Christmas Eve, 1958. And as I look back, I think that is very special. I have a birthday celebrated over the course of days from the 19th of December to the 24th.

1956: Baby George (this is the only one that is an actual original photo)

1956: Baby George (this is the only one that is an actual original photo)

My mom and dad used to create their own Christmas cards every year. My dad was a printer after all. It’s not so unusual in this day and age to do that with electronic files and digital printing, but back in the days of letterpresses and newspapers cuts, it was quite a process. I have copies of most of those cards.

1957: George, Baby Jana

1957: George, Baby Jana

The only one I am missing (and it makes me very sad) is the one from 1964 when Cathy would make her first appearance. I am working on finding one.

I always loved these cards when I was older. I inherited the boxes of old pictures and cards and report cards and communion certificates. There are copies of pictures of us with good face shots. Some of the copies are missing the heads as they were used as the pictures that Daddy would use to make the printing plates or cuts.

1959: Jana, George, Julie (no new babies this year.)

1959: Jana, George, Julie (no new babies this year.)

Years later when Jana and I became roommates we decided to revive the tradition. We have a whole series of similar cards with our heads cut into Christmas scenes along with our two dogs.

But let me get back to my birthday (she said selfishly).

1960: Baby Susan, Julie, Jana, George

1960: Baby Susan, Julie, Jana, George

Today is my birthday, the beginning of my birthday season.

In 2001, my idea of a birthday season was reinforced when I spent the Friday night of my birthday week with a new person. Steve.

1961: Baby Mike, Susan, Julie, Jana, George

1961: Baby Mike, Susan, Julie, Jana, George

My birthday was on Wednesday that year, but who goes out for a birthday date on a Wednesday? Steve had made plans to take me to a wonderful, expensive, dress-up kind of restaurant on Friday to celebrate my birthday. We went to the Flatiron, a dark, romantic place, with Christmas lights twinkling inside and out. We had wine. We had duck. It was just divine.

1962: George, Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike (no new babies this year)

1962: George, Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike (no new babies this year)

And then he took me to his house to give me a birthday present. It was a Christmas CD of the Trans Siberian Orchestra.

“I remember that you said ‘O Holy Night’ is your favorite carol and it’s on this CD,” he said.

“I love that song! Thank you so much. I can’t wait to get home to listen,” I replied.

I was sitting on his sofa, marveling that someone like Steve would give me a birthday present of a CD with my favorite Christmas carol. It’s good to have a birthday season!

And the next moment he was on his knee.

1963: George, Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike, Baby Sally

1963: George, Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike, Baby Sally

“Actually, I got you something else to go with it. It comes with a question.”

And then that ring with a bright blue piece of the sky was on my finger.

“I was wondering if you would marry me?” was the question.

“Pinch me. Real hard.” I replied “And then ask me again.”

He did both. And I said yes.

That was thirteen years ago, and tonight we are going back to the Flatiron to celebrate my birthday in the midst of my birthday season.

I look back at all those old Christmas cards and marvel that the little girl whose picture showed up in the 1958 card, who made her entrance before Christmas so she could celebrate as part of a family, is the same woman with the piece of sky on her finger, in love with a saint who shares her life every day. Somehow all those years later he has kept up my birthday season and made it even that much more special and sparkly.

And all I can say is, “Happy birthday to me.” And it is. And I am, happy, that is.

And I’m ready to celebrate.

‘Tis the season.

The two-lane journey

Worshiping at the church in Amr Hosan with Syrian families who have been displaced from elsewhere.

Worshiping at the church in Amr Hosan with Syrian families who have been displaced from elsewhere.

I love long car rides, the kinds we used to take as kids when Daddy would load us all up in the Suburban and head up to Ponca State Park. Some years he would take the speedy, less scenic route up I-29 on the Iowa side of the river. But the best trips happened when we drove up on the Nebraska side of river: highway 75 to 77 to 20, the two-lane roads.

I learned to appreciate the two-lane roads later in life as well when taking road trips with my brother Mike. Mike’s idea of a good road trip is to eventually get off the two-lane road with a shoulder, to a more narrow road with no shoulder, and eventually to a dirt track that just ends.

The two-lane roads take you through small towns and you have to slow down when you reach them. Slow down and observe the life in the towns, that’s what driving on a two-lane road asks you to do. Don’t speed by and miss the park, the churches on each corner of the main intersection, the old brick school (or perhaps they have passed a bond issue and have a new, technologically up-to-date one!), the front porches of houses that have seen generations of families lazily enjoying the porch swing on a warm summer day. You will see people living lives uninterrupted by the cars who have slowed down to pass through on the two-lane highway that is their main street.

Observing life on the two-lane road has become a point of grace for me in a over-scheduled family/church/job world.

And so I found the trip we made in Syria a couple of weeks ago a reminder of the two-lane road vacations we used to take.

But something was different on this one.

We had headed out from Homs after walking the Stations of the Cross through seven ruined churches and worshiping with the still active Christian community in that devastated place. We were on our way to the Wadi al-Nasara, the Christian valley, to visit and worship with others, Presbyterians like ourselves, who were living in or had relocated to this relatively safer area.

We were on a two-lane road, through farmlands, just like the old highway 75-77-20 route to Ponca. Steve rode in the front with Nuhad, and I was in the back with Marilyn, our leader from The Outreach Foundation. There was another car with the rest of our group plus the car with our military escort to keep us safe…that surely was different from any family vacation I had ever been on.

We drove along under blue skies with the nice fluffy white clouds Bob Ross used to paint on that old PBS show. I was wondering why I didn’t have sunglasses with me. There were beautifully tended fields around us; bucolic, I think that is the word I am searching for here. We sped along, slowing only for the occasional checkpoint, which we were mostly waved through due to our escort.

We headed up the more circuitous mountain roads which would eventually take us to the Krak de Chevaliers, an old Crusader castle still in amazing shape. (That will be another blog. Watch for it.) And here is where we came to the towns on that two lane road. They kind of ran together and it was hard to tell where one stopped and the next started.

And here was where it was different.

There were homes and churches and mosques and businesses and schools, to be sure. Or at least they used to be those things…

Now they were empty of life. There were no people. Anywhere.

This is a typical picture of what it looked like driving down that two-lane highway through destroyed and empty towns.

This is a typical picture of what it looked like driving down that two-lane highway through destroyed and empty towns.

Not only were they empty of life, but they were open to the outside. Walls blown out, doors hanging from hinges, broken blocks with broken glass windows. Some had sandbags still stacked in the openings to protect from the bullets and mortars that had surely been lobbed at them.

Some looked just like random piles of dominoes, or like card houses that had been built by children and then fallen down, crazily stacked up pieces of walls and ceilings.

Bits of lives formerly led in these towns could be seen as we continued down the two-lane road:

  • a sink
  • an empty suitcase
  • pink tiles on a bathroom vanity
  • colored bits of glass
  • a shoe
  • empty shelves
  • the sign for a dentist’s office

Bits of life not seen or heard:

  • cats – they’re everywhere else in this country
  • children walking to school
  • women in the market
  • church bells
  • the muezzin’s call to prayer

We drove like this for miles until we came to the castle. And when we left the castle, we drove for miles more. Broken houses. Broken stores. Broken houses of worship. Broken lives. Broken country.

This man is an electrical engineer in a place that receives only four hours of electricity per day. (Amr Hosan)

This man is an electrical engineer in a place that receives only four hours of electricity per day. (Amr Hosan)

We eventually arrived at our destination, the Presbyterian church of Amr Hosan, where a mid-week worship service was going on as they awaited our arrival. We heard stories from these people of their losses; perhaps their stories even came from those towns we had just come through. They had made their way to a safer place. They had found community in their loss, and they welcomed us in. They are in need of money for rent, money for food, money for fuel, as winter is upon them.

They shared their lunch with us.

This is me  with Toeh (on the right) with her mom (in the middle). These are middle class folks, just like me and my family.

This is me with Toeh (on the right) with her mom (in the middle). These are middle class folks, just like me and my family.

I met Toeh, from Homs, who had been a student at the university there, working to become an English language translator. Her family had to flee with nothing to find this place of safety. She cried as she told me they didn’t even have time to grab the photos of their lives before the war. Pictures of her as a little girl were gone. Signs of their life as a family were just strewn about on another street in another part of the country. And there were more stories like Toeh’s. Everyone at this gathering had one.

This was very different than any other two-lane road trip that I had ever been on. But, this was why I had come. This is why Steve came with me. We had come to bear witness to the story of the church in Syria as it goes through this nearly four-year war. We had come to show up, to encourage, to stand with, to stand for. We had come to hold and to comfort, to pray and to mourn, to wipe away tears and to shed our own for these people we now know and love.

And sometimes tears are all we have to offer.

I know a new day will come for Syria. I know God loves this place and these people just like he loves the whole of creation. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world…” I believe that.

I believe that the people of Syria will rebuild their lives and their country, the big places and the small ones on the two-lane roads. They have lived together here in peace before and they will again. I believe God will honor his promise of resurrection and new life.

For God so loved the world. He sent his son. He sends us.

And even if all we have to offer are our tears, we will bring them back as we travel the two-lane roads of Syria.

(You can read more about our trip to Syria on the link posted below. You can also help by responding to the Syria Appeal at the end of the post.)



Reunion in Lattakia

Julie Lamis Bitar and Marilyn at Latakkia churchTraveling to the Middle East has been a life-changing experience for me. I have gone to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq a total of seven times since August, 2010, when I traveled for the first time with The Outreach Foundation and my new friend, Marilyn Borst. I have gained more friends on those trips that I am so grateful to be connected with by email and Facebook. And, of course, reuniting with them when I return.

I will return!

Back on that first trip in August, 2010, I traveled with a group of women – faithful women – as the trip was called. They were all veterans of short-term mission trips to places all over the world. They had been to Cuba, Russia, Malawi, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria…and many many more places. I had been to Germany, the Czech Republic and Cameroon on similar trips. But this one was new for all of us, except Marilyn of course.

We were traveling to be connected with Presbyterians (like us!) in Lebanon and Syria in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL). We got a great overview of the history of the Synod: how Presbyterians from the U.S. came to the Middle East to convert Muslims and Jews to Christianity. Upon arriving, they found no Jews to speak of and also there was this small thing about it being illegal to convert from Islam to something else. Illegal as in the death penalty.

Instead, they reached out to the ancient Christian community already there – Melkites and Maronites and Syrian, Orthodox and Catholic – and built schools and hospitals. The reformed church was planted alongside the ancient, and that is how it still is today.

We visited historic sites in both countries. We shopped in souks. We met with Iraqi refugee families. We visited schools. We sweltered in the 115 degree summer heat.

We bonded as a community of friends, sisters in Christ.

We ended that trip in the mountains above Beirut at the Dhour Choieur Conference Center to be part of a women’s conference, just like we would have at home, only in Arabic. (They translated for us.) We sang worship songs. We delved into a Bible study about the fruit of the spirit led by my new friend Barbara Exley from Atlanta. She had brought pounds and pounds of Jelly Belly jelly beans in flavors to represent the fruits. For instance, watermelon jelly beans represented patience. It was the most joyful and sweet-filled Bible study ever!

Part of the grace of being in the Middle East is the mindset of hospitality and gift-giving, and it played out at this conference just like every other place. We made friends with women. We traded little gifts. If you admired someone’s bracelet or earrings, she would immediately remove the item and give it to you. Amazing grace in the form of jewelry.

And that is how I met Lamis Bitar from Lattakia.

She was tall, statuesque actually, with beautiful dark hair and eyes. Her smile came slowly, but when it did it was genuine. She and I became friends on that weekend and in the generosity of these people, she bestowed upon me the earrings she was wearing.

And then the conference ended and we made plans to do it again in 2011, with even more women, perhaps from Iraq. And we went back home to the USA.

And then March, 2011, came and war erupted in Syria. There would be no women’s conference in Syria, and we would not return in 2011.

I would wear those earrings at home. Precious they were to me. Every time I put them in my ears I would think of the fun we had at that Bible study with the Jelly Bellys and I would see Lamis’ face in my mind, her beautiful face with the slow smile, and wonder about her in Lattakia. I would pray. I would tell people where those earrings came from if they admired them, and I would ask them to pray for Syria.

I wondered what had happened to Lamis Bitar.

And then just this past month, November, 2014, I had the opportunity to return to Lebanon and Syria with The Outreach Foundation. Steve was with me and Marilyn of course (our fearless leader) and Barbara. We walked through the streets of Homs in Syria, looking at the devastation from three years worth of bombs and mortars, but also seeing the churches beginning to rebuild. There was some hope there. You can read about it in my previous blogs.

And then we went to Lattakia. The third largest city in Syria before the war, had now grown even larger as people found their way there to escape danger in other places. It was relatively safe, although there were still checkpoints and military personnel to be seen. Large as it is it still suffered from the results of the war: high prices and electricity that did not work 24 hours a day. (Think about that for a moment in your own context. How do you manage when the electricity goes out? Maybe for a day, or even rarely for a week? What would you do if it was on for only four hours a day and you didn’t know which four? That is Syria now.)

Joyfully, we were set to visit our friend Rev. Salam Hanna who is the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Lattakia. It was Marilyn’s first time in this city, although she has been in Syria many, many times. So, of course, it was our first time there as well. It is a beautiful old church, renovated in the last couple of years by its previous pastor. It is also the largest church in NESSL, and we expected a large turnout, and there was one.

I wore my earrings from Lamis, hoping against hope that she was still there and had not already departed for another country.

And in the gathering darkness of night, in the midst of a rainstorm that should have kept everyone away, there she was. My friend Lamis had come to meet the American Presbyterians and I recognized her right away.

Tall. Statuesque. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Slow smile. Amazing grace.

We hugged. We reminisced about that women’s conference with the jelly beans. We locked eyes as friends and hugged some more. It was just a moment of pure joy for us both.

And that is why I go. I go to be “with” and to come home, responsible for remembering the people and their stories and to remind the church here at home that there is a church serving in Syria in the midst of war and death and loss and lack of food and fuel and electricity. They are the hands and feet and heart of Jesus walking and loving among those who need the light. And Lamis is one of them and I want you to remember her name and her face and her life.

And I want her to remember me. In addition to the earrings which I was wearing, I now have a beautiful bracelet with a cross. And Lamis has my watch, set to the time in Omaha. When she looks at it, she will know that she has a friend and prayer partner eight time zones to the west who loves her and remembers her.

Lamis, my sister in Christ. Please pray for her and for her church and for her country.

On meeting Mazar in Homs

Homs Christians with Fr FransIn August I wrote these words in a previous post about some of my heroes:

Father Frans van der Lugt was a Dutch priest, a Jesuit, who lived nearly fifty years in Syria, serving Christians and Muslims alike. He first came to my attention when I heard about him in May, 2013. The Christian community of Homs, Syria, which numbered in the tens of thousands before the war began in 2011, had been decimated. Many had been killed and many, many more had fled. About 75 remained and Fr. van der Lugt stayed with them. None of them were Catholics, but that did not matter to Fr. Frans. He stayed with them through all the days that Homs was under siege: through bombardment, through lack of utilities, through the hunger that ensued. I saw a video of him pleading to the world in Arabic to remember that they were still there. He was a shepherd, caring for his flock, and they knew his voice.

He stayed with them until he was abruptly called home to Jesus on April 7, 2014. He was killed by extremists, the same kind that took James Foley’s life in the middle of the desert this week. It was not the same group, not the same manner, but it was the same hatred, the same lack of humanity. And I know the grief of God above was the same, too.

I first heard about Father Frans from my friend Salam Hanna, a Presbyterian pastor who had served among the clergy of Homs, Syria, and knew Father Frans. Salam shared a Power Point presentation with a group of us who had come to Lebanon in May, 2013, for an update on what they church was doing in response to the crisis in Syria next door. He showed us pictures of the churches in Homs before the trouble began and he showed us pictures of the damages after war came there in March, 2011. He explained that there had been a community of 60,000 Christians before the war, but now there were just a few left.

I found that presentation on my computer when I returned home from Lebanon and Syria just this past week because of an extraordinary encounter I had in Homs.

I met Mazar.

DSCN1579Mazar was one of the few remaining Christians who were shepherded by Father Frans through those three long years of siege. (He is in the picture at the top of this post, back row, sixth from the left.) The old city quarter of Homs was where the insurgent extremists battled the Syrian army for control. Siege tactics to force the extremists out led to terrible conditions for those few civilians trapped between the two forces. Father Frans did what he could for anyone who needed help: he offered prayer and comfort and even the little food he could manage to obtain. He plead their cause on YouTube videos which he managed to get out. Comforter. Provider. Advocate.

I had never forgotten this story from the first I heard it and when April rolled around this year and I heard from Salam that Father Frans had been killed, shot in the head by the extremists, I wept for a man I had never met.

One week later the siege of Homs was lifted. Father Frans was buried in the courtyard of the Jesuit monastery in the old quarter of Homs.

IMG_1158It is a quiet place now in that churchyard, and it was my humble privilege to kneel by Father Frans’ resting place on Saturday, November 22, with a group I traveled there with from The Outreach Foundation, as well as other clergy and parishioners of the churches there who accompanied us on a tour of seven churches in Homs. I wrote about it in my post, Stations of the Cross.

This was the one place I desperately needed to come to and pay my respects to a man who gave his life for others in need. If ever there was a present day model of Jesus Christ, this was him. A Dutch Jesuit who poured out his life for the people of a land he came to call his own and whose blood poured out in the place where he served.

But Mazar…

Mazar was one of those who greeted us as we entered this place. Not smiling and happy at the visit of American Christians as others there were. Mazar had sorrow all over his face as we came to Father Frans’ grave. And then we were told the rest of the story of Father’s last day.

One week before the siege was lifted, extremists came to this church where Father had tended the flock for these past three years. Surely they knew the end of their time in Homs had come. And they had come for Father Frans. We were told that they pulled him out of his house and forced him to sit in a chair, guns pointed. Mazar came out of the house to protect him and to stop them, but they pushed him aside. In front of Mazar they took the life of this man of God, this man of peace, this shepherd, comforter, provider, advocate.

This is the picture that Mazar has in his mind’s eye from then to now and to his last day.

In the churchyard of the Jesuit monastery HomsSomeone snapped this photo of me reacting to this story. Mazar is in the lower left corner. His sweater is gray with a black stripe on his sleeve. I will never forget this moment, this story, this gentle man’s face as we heard the story. I am grateful that this trip brought me to this place, this holy ground, where one man was willing to try to stop the violence that was about to happen here.

And now that I know Mazar’s story and how it intertwines with Father Frans and the story of love poured out in Homs, Syria, it is my responsibility to share it with you.

And now that you know, will you pray for Mazar and the community of Christians who are returning to Homs to rebuild their churches and their lives and their country?

DSCN1601Don’t turn off the news when they are reporting about Syria. Turn it up. Turn your attention to it. Remember that there are people who live there and call it home. They worship in churches. They worship in mosques. They are neighbors and friends and countrymen. Father Frans loved them all.

I thank you and I know Mazar would, too.