New day’s redemptive Psalm

On my first trip to Iraq in November, 2011, we spent time with people who had endured decades of war. So much of their experience had been suffering and dying from weapons of war carried in American hands. It was hard to be an American and hear the stories of their pain at our hands. Steve is on his way there now, to be with them again and share their lives and hear their stories.

Today one of those weapons of war was used to kill 59 people and wound over 500 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Our country weeps for the loss and some of us cry for the answer we know will end these mass killings by gunfire: gun control. Why is it possible that we can buy guns meant to mow down people as if in war? It makes no sense.

As I have read the news and have taken in the pain of people as they post on Facebook, I thought of my journal of poems from that trip back in 2011. It will be my prayer for this night and the new day ahead. Dona nobis pacem.

******

A reading from the book of Isaiah, chapter 2, verse 4: He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

The word of the Lord.

They drove down the highway with all of their tanks.
Leaving this country, rank upon rank.
Their guns were now silent, yet still able to cause fear
An exodus home from this place over here.

Oh what will they do with the weapons of war?
What can they become?
What can they be for?

Most will return, although some cannot
Their families will smile. They’ll hug them: a lot!
They’ll take off their armor, when they get back home.
Their tanks and their guns, shelved one by one.

Oh what will they do with the weapons of war?
What can they become?
What can they be for?

Back to the world of the normal and neat,
Back to the yard with grass under their feet.
They march now to work, and to play, and to bed.
They sleep with this thought that will come to their head:

Oh what will they do with the weapons of war?
What can they become?
What can they be for?

A dream begins forming, thoughts from a reading long ago,
words that were given to a prophet you know.
“Beat them to plowshares, to hooks that will prune.
Use them to harvest, use them for good.”

That tank can be flattened, he saw in his dream,
can be flattened and rebuilt to a plowing machine.
The fuel inside of its bombs and its missiles
can power the tractor to plow out the thistles!
And if we took all of the rifles we held,
and melted them down into metals to meld,
we could make ovens for the baking of bread!
And from the bread we could share with our neighbor.
We can transform our training to life-giving labor.

We heard from this prophet, whose name is Isaiah,
that He who made us and loves us, now wants to train us.
He wants us to walk in the light of his love.
He wants to make much of his people because
it shows off His work, it reflects His glory.
He is after all, the point of the story.

The soldier awakes to a new day at dawn.
He opens his eyes and goes for a run.
Not running away now, but running toward
a plan to bring peace where once there was war.

That’s what they’ll do with the weapons of war.
That’s what they’ll become.
That’s what they’ll be for.

Nor will they train for war anymore.

Amen.

We Are Marked

One of my chances to write the travel blog from my July trip back to Lebanon…

Traveling with The Outreach Foundation on these ministry experiences as I have for the last seven years, I have learned many things. One of them is that you are part of a team, and even though we begin as strangers, very quickly we bond into a family knowing we have a common Father. Tonight we had the privilege of coming into deeper community with each other as we reflected on the day. Pam Hillis of First Presbyterian Tulsa led our devotion around Romans 12:9-16. In my travel NRSV Bible, the heading says, “Marks of the True Christian.” To paraphrase, we share our gifts, we lift each other in faith, we love and we serve. Those marks should reflect our lives in Christ, marked for us on his head, hands, feet and in his side. This is our model, and today we experienced those same marks on those we came to be with.

The focus of our day was Our Lady Dispensary (OLD) in Beirut, a ministry founded in the days of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). In a small second-floor office in a poor area of Beirut, fifty years worth of war refugees have found their way to Christ’s hands and feet in action. For the past seventeen years it has been lovingly and excellently run by Grace Boustani, a Lebanese social worker and sister in Christ. With limited resources, limited even more by donor fatigue due to the length of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, she serves some 500 families looking for help with food, medicine, rent and trauma healing.

Our team of nine women gathered in a circle with Grace and Rola, who has been trained to lead trauma healing workshops with a Bible Society curriculum revised for the Middle East context. We heard of children in a pilot week-long camp who arrived on a Monday with no smiles, no words and no hope, and left on Friday as engaged young people, speaking, playing and using their own hands to draw pictures to share their stories.

We met two young women, one Iraqi, one Syrian, each the mother of three, each having experienced the flight-in-the-night story that is so common among refugee families. It is cruel and heartbreaking, and yet here at Our Lady Dispensary these two young women opened up to share with us. And in their stories is where I find Pam’s scripture so perfectly reflected today. Even in the brokenness of lives torn apart by loss and war, these two were in our midst sharing their gifts, lifting us in faith by their acts of love and service.

Sweet R. from Iraq was pregnant with her third child when forced to flee in the night with but a half-hour’s warning as ISIS moved in. Four days later in the temporary sanctuary of her church, she gave birth to her son, now two years old. Coming to Lebanon, her family found OLD and received some help. Not just willing to receive, she has since become Grace’s chief volunteer for the Iraqi refugees served by OLD, serving as a liaison for the families and OLD. She does whatever she can around the office to help, including making coffee and cleaning. How is it possible for this sweet young traumatized mom and wife to be able to serve out of her situation? A woman just waiting for hope whose prayer is “God, just open a door for us”? The answer we experienced is that she is marked: she uses her gifts, her faith lifts those around her, she loves and she serves.

Our new friend Y. is from Syria with another story of loss. So much loss for such young women! High rents. Menial labor for a husband if he can find it. How do you cope? And yet, when she made her way to the OLD neighborhood and Grace’s outstretched hands she found something different than she had ever known. In her words, “The day I started to know God, I started to hope and everything changed.” Y. met Jesus and came to know him through reading God’s word, going to church, and is now a Christian. Her husband has also accepted Christ. One day when she returns to angry parents in Syria who do not want to accept this she will repeat what she has already told them: “Open the Bible and you will see the truth.” She is marked, and having shared those marks with her husband, will one day share them with the rest of her family.

As we reflected on the lives of these two young women tonight, Pam’s devotion brought us all back to the same place: we are the Body of Christ, and that body is marked. May those marks be seen in us all and shine God’s glory as brightly as the marks on Grace, R. and Y.

Incarnational Witness in Washington, D.C.

I was looking through some old files on my computer recently. Not finding what I was looking for, instead I found this gem from 2005, one of my best trips to Washington, D.C., with Jana. I’ve just got to share it! What follows is a series of stories and emails between me and another hunger advocate named Tracy Young. They remind me of how God calls us to minister out of the broken clay pots of our lives, and just what a gift I have in a sister who never gave up on me, even as others might have given up on her. She teaches me still. Every. Day.

***

This article is reprinted with the author’s permission from “The Advocate,” a publication of the Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action of the Christian Reformed Church, July, 2005

A Glimpse of Hunger No More

By Tracy Young

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Rev. 21:4

I saw her shuffling awkwardly across the American University campus, her body all elbows and right angles, her chin tucked stiffly into her neck. Her movements were rigid, stilted and slow. I wondered if it hurt to be curled up like that, to disappear into oneself.

At One Table, Many Voices: A Mobilization to Overcome Poverty and Hunger, I joined 600 other Christians in Washington, D.C. on the American University campus to work to end extreme poverty and hunger in our nation and the world. About thirty people from Christian Reformed churches, agencies, and related colleges came together to discuss our efforts to overcome poverty – as individuals, as churches, as schools, as communities. We participated in workshops, listened to speakers, worshipped, lobbied, prayed and learned together.

But the most striking moment for me in Washington did not come in the shadow of the Capitol building on lobby day. It did not come during the round of excellent speakers, during my conversations with the people I met, or even at the National Cathedral during the Interfaith Convocation that mourned hunger and demanded action as a storm pounded the stained glass with rain and lighting made the microphones fizz. It came, of all places, at the French Embassy while I greedily shoveled mushroom canapés into my mouth.

One Table participants piled into the not-so-elegant mass transit of school buses and shuttled to the très élégant French Embassy one evening to celebrate the countries who had become eligible for the US’s Millennium Challenge Account program. Our entertainment for the evening was an African dance troupe from the local Market 5 Gallery.

Market 5 came into the room, all drums and joy, moving like people don’t move where I worship, shouting and beaming and raising the hair on our arms. We were entranced by the energy in front of us, clapping and bouncing our bodies to the beat. As the troupe ended an impressive choreographed sequence, they motioned for the crowd to come into the circle and start dancing with them. People poured in, laughing and dancing, letting the rhythms lift their feet.

And as I watched this gleeful group, I saw a couple of the troupe members move to the side of the circle and bring back with them the woman I saw laboring across the AU campus. I watched as they gently guided her into the circle, right into the middle of it all, held her hands and carefully danced with her, stepping their feet lightly as she swayed and bobbed and shuffled, ever so slightly, back and forth. She was smiling, and they were smiling, and the drums were beating, and I think it was as close to a picture of heaven as I’ve ever seen.

I had only noticed this woman because she had trouble walking. The troupe noticed her and saw a woman who could dance. They went straight to her with no thought that she couldn’t or shouldn’t and invited her in, someone who had probably been overlooked, or ignored – by people like me. By the time the group pulled a participant in a wheelchair into the circle to dance, I was uncomfortably stuffed with shame, joy and too many mushrooms. What a strange combination.

One table, many voices. The dance troupe got it. Everyone, all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities and abilities were invited into that circle, invited to that table. Everyone moved a different way, but they all moved together.

As I continue my own work for justice, I’m going to remember that moment. It reminds me that God uses us, unlikely, imperfect vessels to do great things. God uses the timid to speak to the powerful and a teenager to carry the Savior. Even with our heavy feet, God sees that we can dance.

That moment also reminds me of my own sin. How often do I look at image-bearers of God and see only what I consider their weakness? Their homelessness, their poverty, their shortcomings. I don’t like to ask that question. It’s much easier to turn a critical eye on someone else.

But what I take from that moment most of all, and what I’ll remember when I’m discouraged with this hard work called “doing justice,” is that surreal feeling of the in-between. I caught a precious slivered glimpse of the deep and far and wide, pulsing open just so, with each beat of those drums. I saw hunger no more, justice for all, grace, peace and love radiating out the toes of some twirling children of God.

***

July 23, 2005 – Jana shared this article with me when she received it in the mail from David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World and just another friend of Jana’s. I cried while trying to read it to Steve and immediately sat down to email the author so she could hear the “rest of the story.”

Dear Tracy,

I just finished reading your article “A Glimpse of Hunger No More” in The Advocate, and it moved me to tears.

The article was sent to my sister Jana Prescott from David Beckman with this note, “I never see you in the unflattering way that this young woman first saw you. But I think you will be encouoraged to know what a powerful witness to Christ’s life you were to her.”

I wanted to thank you for the moving way you shared the gospel and our call in this article. For Jana’s life is the witness that brought me back to Christ, and also to his call for justice and love.

Jana was injured in a car/train accident 22 years ago in Colorado, where she worked at a Presbyterian camp in her beautiful Rocky Mountains. A very independent woman, you can imagine what this did to her life.

She would tell you that Feb 14, 1983, is her second birthday, and indeed, we celebrate it each year as a second chance at life.I was with her in Washington as I’ve been privileged to be most years since 1991 for the BFW event. (If you saw her walking alone, it’s because I got sick in the cold of the auditorium, and she even brought food over to me in the dorm! Quite a feat with her impaired balance. ) I’ve learned a lot there and have found my voice, even as she has lost hers. She does dance for joy every day! And I might say that even though I’m the “talker” on Lobby Day, her voicelessness always speaks more profoundly to why we’re there and who we’re there for. We are
voices for the voiceless.

So, thank you. I hope you two meet some day. Don’t be surprised if you hear from her.

I’m hoping it’s okay if I reprint your article in our church newsletter: West Hills Church, Omaha, NE.

Dancing for God with heavy feet, but not a heavy heart,

Julie Prescott Burgess

***

Dear Julie,

Thanks so much for your email. I was actually a little nervous that this article would make its way back to “the woman” – who I now know is Jana! At first, I wasn’t sure if I should write the piece at all. I did not want to hurt the feelings of or embarrass the person I was writing about, and that was my primary concern. I didn’t want to exploit her difficulty for the sake of writing an article. But also, it’s really hard to write about your own brokenness and tell a thousand people about it. At any rate, I hope I did the right thing by sharing the story.

I hate to think that I can be so unfair or so dismissive without even a thought as to what I’m doing…what a soft prejudice, what a quiet little judgement I made about your sister. It just snuck into my brain without any hoopla and sat there until God decided it was time to send in the drums and a lesson.

I hope that Jana will forgive my shortsightedness, and know that she has been a participant in a great, grace-filled gift to me. I’m so glad to know her name and her story and feel blessed to have had her life intersect with mine, even for that brief moment.

Please do feel free to reprint the article in your newsletter.

Blessings,

Tracy

Tracy Young
Social Justice Network and Communications Assistant
Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action
Christian Reformed Church in North America

 

Feast Day of Maximilian Kolbe

So important to share the stories of the faithful who stood in the gap for all of us.

Pastor Michael Moore's Blog


Especially as Nazi flags and salutes along with other Hateful flags not worthy of publicity (I was physically threatened because I stood up publicly and spoke for the removal of that flag from Courthouse property in FL two years ago), I remember this Franciscan who laid down his life for decency, compassion, and love…

May the spirit of this gentle friar speak to us today of love…

From the blog:

“The brothers housed 3,000 Polish refugees, two-thirds of whom were Jewish, and continued their publication work, including materials considered anti-Nazi. For this work the presses were shut down, the congregation suppressed, the brothers dispersed, and Maximilian was imprisoned in Pawiak prison, Warsaw, Poland on 17 February 1941.”
The blog:Saint Maximilian Kolbe

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The kindness of strangers

Manchester. Kabul. Baghdad. London.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am thankful tonight.

Dona nobis pacem.

A Day’s Contrasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarcophagi lined up in the Beirut National Museum

Sarcophagi lined up in the Beirut National Museum

Dona nobis pacem.

O Holy Night

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!