Three days

Cathy and Mommy's headstones 2014

March 24 was this past Tuesday, and it marked the second anniversary of Cathy’s brutal, inhuman exit from this world. Sally and Susan had asked us Omaha siblings to put some flowers at her cemetery marker that day. Mike, Jana and I, along with Barb, did just that. It was cold and rainy, but we put a beautiful small bouquet in the vase by Mommy’s stone (soon it will be between the two matching stones). Mike brought some of Cathy’s own stones which were precious to her, and some sage, which we burned. I reminded him that in the church when incense is burned, it is a fragrant representation of our prayers rising to God in heaven.

We each prayed in our own way that day. And we took pictures and shared them with Sally and Susan and George. As I have said, we once were seven even if now we are only six.

The picture above is from last year when we began this new, poignant tradition. Year one, and now year two; next year will mark three years.

But standing there in the chilly misty air, I was again struck by the dates on the stones: Cathy’s death was on March 24 and Mommy’s was on March 27.

Three days.

It took me back to 1966, when I was seven years old and we had said good-bye to Mommy at the mortuary as they closed her casket. I can still see Daddy kissing her good-bye one more time.

I don’t remember the funeral at all. But I remember, a spring day after the funeral. Mommy’s rosebush was blooming so it must have been many weeks later, May or June, and not the chilly spring days of late March or early April. The bush by the front door was covered in those tiny pink roses and I picked some. I broke some small limbs off the yews that were planted across the front of the house, and I made a little floral altar where I could pray. I can remember this all so clearly, just like it happened this past Tuesday, but it was 49 years ago.

Genuflecting in front of my little homemade altar, I prayed:

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Dear God. You brought your son Jesus back to life after three days. Would you please just bring Mommy back like that?

Here we are now in 2015 coming into Holy Week. Palm Sunday is three days from now. Maundy Thursday is three days from then. And then Easter, three days later.

Three days.

In the hymnal,  it goes like this:

  • All Glory, Laud and Honor
  • O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
  • Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!

And as I look at the twin headstones and see the three days there (47 years apart) separating the end dates of two women whom I have loved and who loved me, I have to pause here in that middle place. I have to get through Maundy Thursday and O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. I can’t leap from the joy of life to the joy of resurrection without walking through the suffering and death of the cross.

Yes, I have to go through. But…I can’t stop there. The deaths of Mommy and Cathy have colored and shaped my life, just as the death of Jesus has. I have mourned, I do mourn and I will mourn.

But oh, that third day – Resurrection Sunday – is where my victory is. And it is where Mommy’s is and Cathy’s is as well. And so I will celebrate their lives and I will find joy there.

Christ the Lord is risen today! The third day.


Sounding Stones

sounding stones panoramaI took a walk on a beautiful day in Omaha this past Sunday. On days like that, I just set out and let my feet go where they will, and on this day, they took me south toward Elmwood Park and the Sounding Stones.

This five-piece concrete sculpture was moved to this corner of the park along Dodge Street several years ago from another park about two miles east. A new development in midtown called for changes to Turner Park and so the sculpture was carefully packed up and moved west. There was quite a bit of resistance to this move by folks in my neighborhood. “That’s art? It’s ugly!” The NIMBY crowed was vocal, but city officials were unmoved and the Sounding Stones arrived.

Personally, I like them. I drive by them daily on my way home, and now several years later, they are a part of the landscape.

So Sunday, my feet took me along the path where they sit and for the very first time I saw them up close.

sounding stone brokenness sounding stone submission

sounding stone humility     sounding stone simplicity

sounding stone communityThese are the sounding stones. Five values or attributes, five nouns that describe my life of faith. And amazingly, when I went home to search out the story of this sculpture, this is what I found in artist Leslie Iwai’s own words:

“The location of these stones in Omaha – a city in the middle of our nation – is important. Soundings are taken in the middle of a body of water to measure its depth. Likewise, in taking the ‘soundings’ of our community, we measure its depth. The open core of each stone is to be a place for crying out. God purposes for all people to break complacency and praise Him. But even, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’ (Luke 19:40),” Iwai wrote in her artist statement about the work. (Wayne State College Magazine, Summer, 2006 issue)

I don’t know what the depth of faith is in the middle of my city of Omaha, but on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the middle of Omaha, I lay down in the hollow of that first stone labeled “brokenness” and knew that the depth of my faith starts there, in the brokenness of my life. Loss of my mother at age 7. The child abuse of my siblings by an evil stepmother. My sisters’ near life-ending car/train collision. My brother’s HIV diagnosis. The death of my father from renal failure. The rape and murder of my baby sister.

All those broken parts of my heart have brought me closer to the one who can heal.

And I wondered where the stone of brokenness would take me on that path and so I left that hollow in the middle of brokenness and walked on. I found myself looking upon humility and submission; I found myself at the foot of the cross where I kneel in obedience to a Lord whose blood was poured out for me and for all of us. Humbly. Gratefully.

And then I wandered on to simplicity, because it is so simple. He takes it all away: the loss, the pain, the horror, the fear, leaving just me, the Julie he created me to be. He is all I need and all I want.

And just when I think there is no more, he leads me down the path to community. He has shown me his body – the global church – and connected me into something so much bigger than I could ever imagine.

A depth sounding in the middle of Omaha, landlocked in the middle of the USA, on the staple of the map.

But even as I lingered at community, I thought how each of those stones has become more real to me as I have traveled far from the staple of this map to the places where human sounding stones have fleshed out the depth of faith for me in the past five years.

I thought of the brokenness of Syria and Iraq. I saw the humility of people who have lost everything and yet serve their neighbors who have lost even more. I saw the simplicity of life lived without stuff, yet lived in joy because of their love for a God who holds them and comforts them in their losses. I have seen the obedient submission of those who stay where they have have been planted and grown deep roots, to continue to share the good news in a place that needs to hear it more than ever. I have seen the community of orthodox and catholic and protestant come together as one family and love their Muslim and Yazidi neighbors who are also broken.

My friend Marilyn is currently in Iraq sending back stories of this faithful community of God’s living stones, and two lines in her recent emails struck me as I ponder these five sounding stones standing in my park nine time zones to her west:

  • “Do not cry for us—we have may have lost everything, but we still have Jesus.” – A woman driven from Mosul by ISIS, now living in a tiny space in a former Sunday school room of a church in the safer northeast
  • “how strange that we (Muslims) try to kill you (Christians) and you help us anyway.” -shared by an elder of the church in Kirkuk

As Marilyn added, “What a powerful testimony to the of sharing Christ’s love and of God bringing good out of evil!”

They are the living stones who cry out in thanksgiving and praise for the one who made them and saved them and loves them still.

And from the depth of my heart and soul, I cry out in thanksgiving and praise to him along with them.

And pray for his peace to descend on us all.


Memory loss

Mark Mueller, Elmarie Parker, Rob Weingartner, Elder Zuhair, Marshall Zieman, Tom Boone and Larry Richards offer communion at the Evangelical Church of Basrah, November, 2012.

Mark Mueller, Elmarie Parker, Rob Weingartner, Elder Zuhair, Marshall Zieman, Tom Boone and Larry Richards offer communion at the Evangelical Church of Basrah, November, 2012.

Today was communion Sunday at our church and the familiar words were spoken as we began the celebration of the Lord’s supper:

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19

It’s a ritual I first took part in when I received my first communion in second grade at Christ the King Catholic Church here in Omaha, fifty years ago. I wrote about it in my blog last October:

And every time I receive the elements, the bread and the cup, I remember back to that night.

I remember the communion in Basrah, Iraq, that I witnessed in 2011 as the Presbyterian church there was able to celebrate it because our group brought four pastors with us.

I remember that communion repeated in Basrah in 2012 as we returned with six pastors.

And I remember communion in that same church in March, 2014, as we returned to celebrate communion with them as they now had their own pastor to lead it.

Memories. I collect them like others collect stamps or baseball cards. It’s what makes me Julie, or at least contributes to the essence of me.

Remembering in communion, remembering the sacrifice made for us out of great love, is the center of our Christian worship, its holy essence in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Jana and I just came back from seeing the movie, “Still Alice.” It stars Julianne Moore in the role of a brilliant linguist and college professor, wife and mother of three, who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Bit by bit, she loses the words she is a master of. She gets lost on the campus in her familiar daily run. She forgets where the bathroom is in her home. She forgets the names of those most familiar to her.

And even though her family grieves her loss as she disappears day by day, they love her and care for her and know that she is, after all, still Alice. But in the end, she really is not the Alice that we saw in the beginning. She has been robbed of her essence.

I have seen it happen to others I know as well, real people, not characters in a movie. It is very hard to watch and a feeling of helplessness in the situation is overwhelming.

This movie struck a bitter, minor chord in my heart today because of the recent news of what is happening in Iraq and Syria: the destruction of ancient works of art and ancient manuscripts in Mosul and other places as ISIS deems them idols of the apostate. “These things didn’t exist at the time of the Prophet. They have been invented and must be destroyed,” or something like that.

It’s a bitter chord because it is like a deliberate attack on the essence of who we are as humans and how we developed the languages to tell our story, the grand story of our creation by a loving God. The same creativity he exhibited by speaking us into being and breathing his very breath into us to give us life, has been left behind by those who wrote it down on parchment manuscripts, who sculpted it into winged creatures of bigger-than-life size, who painted it onto canvas or stone walls.

And it is systematically being destroyed, erased, even as the words that Alice knew intimately were wiped one by one from her brain.

I am reading a book right now called High Tea in Mosul by Lynne O’Donnell. She was one of the first journalists to reach this ancient city after the war ended (it never really did, did it?) after the invasion in 2003. I haven’t finished it yet, but in reading it this week I came to a part that just made me want to cry out.

Mosul is the ancient Ninevah of the Bible. The Ninevah that God sent the reluctant prophet Jonah to in order to preach his word of repentance. There is – I mean was – a temple there where Jonah was said to be buried. Lynne talks about it standing there still as testament to the power of the human spirit to hang on even in the hardest and darkest of times.

The book was written in 2007. In 2014, this temple of Jonah was destroyed.

As Alice’s family learns early on after her diagnosis, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s.

I don’t know the cure for the scourge of evil that is ISIS. And bit by bit, this disease is robbing our human family of its collective memories, the ancient artifacts that tell our story.

And so I cry out with my brothers and sisters who live there and who watch it happen and are helpless to do anything,

How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Habakkuk 1:2

And then I remember the bread and the cup of sacrifice. And I say thank you for the gift of memory. And I write it down and look at the pictures I have taken of men and women and children.

And I pray.