525,600 minutes

“525,600 minutes…how do you measure a year?” Jonathan Larson did the math for me when he wrote that beautiful song in his musical Rent.

365 days times 24 hours times 60 minutes equals 525,600 minutes in a year. And today on the first day of 2016, I want to look back and see how my 2015 was measured.

WordPress, this wonderful platform on which I pound my thoughts out to share with whoever wants to read them has measured my year in this way:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,400 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 57 trips to carry that many people.

There were 102 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 761 MB. That’s about 2 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was January 26th with 189 views. The most popular post that day was Not as she died, but as she lived.

I write the blog for me, but it makes my heart feel joined with you when you stop and read my words, so thank you. If I say something that triggers a response – good or bad – please take a moment and comment. My two most faithful commenters are my writer sister Sally and a sweet padre I have never met named Michael. Interestingly enough, Padre Michael is going to marry Sally to Robert in April so we will both get to meet him!

My sister Susan took this picture as walked on my birthday. On UNO's campus, it is the Castle of Perserverance, one my favorite places.

My sister Susan took this picture as walked on my birthday. On UNO’s campus, it is the Castle of Perseverance, one my favorite places.

My walking app, MapMyWalk, also measured my year. I really started walking seriously in August after I returned from the Middle East. MapMyWalk logged 322 miles on 82 walks that took a total of 88 hours and amounted to 771,000 steps. I lost twelve pounds and hope to lose another ten in the next year. It was a resolution I didn’t make in January!



Flanked by Rev. Kate Kotfila of Cambridge, New York, and my new friend Mahsen, from Hasakeh, Syria, we fold peace cranes together.

Flanked by Rev. Kate Kotfila of Cambridge, New York, and my new friend Mahsen, from Hasakeh, Syria, we fold peace cranes together.

I made my eighth trip to the Middle East, traveling to Lebanon with my mentor Marilyn Borst as she led a group of faithful women on behalf of The Outreach Foundation. We spent blessed precious time with our counterparts, women from Presbyterian churches in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. We worshiped. We had communion. We laughed and cried. We went on a memorable field trip to a Bekaa Valley winery on three buses and each bus rang out with singing and shook from dancing. We folded paper cranes for peace together on a quiet porch in hot weather. One hundred women with ten thousand stories to tell of love and loss.

Paper cranes 209Besides the cranes I folded there, I have folded 500 here at home, with 500 more to go to make my 1,000. Each one has been prayed over at least four times: as I write the name or memory on the paper, as I fold the paper and rewrite the words on a wing, as I string them together in strands like rosary beads, and as I hang them in the flock in my office. The first 323 had two additional prayer times: as I removed them strand by strand from the church office where they flew initially and the rehung them reverently in my office at home.

Dona nobis pacem. Dona nobis pacem. Dona nobis pacem.

Write. Fold. Repeat.

I can measure this year in uncountable songs. The worship set that plays randomly in my ears as I walked those 771,000 steps. The choir anthems sung on Wednesday night rehearsals and most of the 52 Sundays in the year. Hymns and praise songs on Tuesday night worship team rehearsals with two or three voices and an amazing band that are lifted to the glory of God on Sundays as well. Singing Handel’s Messiah for the eleventh time in thirteen years with the Voices of Omaha, a choir this year of 165 voices.

2015 marked some endings.

We finished the addition to our home so that Jana can have a safe place to live. No more stairs for her to go up and down. Her seizures make that a gamble for her safety we could not live with. In the process we said good-bye to a tree that had been planted in Daddy’s memory.

My Aunt Heddy died on Christmas day. She was my dad’s last sibling and she lived for 95 years, longer than either of her parents and all of her four siblings. She taught me how to embroider when I was a little girl and she became my mentor and guide into the world of quilting.

Sami Sadeeh was killed in Syria, defending his country from rebels. He was one of four national guardsmen who watched over our safety as we journed through Syria in 2014. God rest his soul.

My friend Hala, a religion teacher and a preacher who lives in Beirut, lost her father. He died in Aleppo, Syria, and she could not be there to say good-bye because of the war. May God continue to comfort her as she lives not so far in miles from her mother and siblings, but an uncrossable distance in time of war.

I left a job I had held for ten and a half years as director of Support Ministries at West Hills Church. It was my own decision and I was and continue to be at peace with it.

Julia Child SteveIn those 525,600 minutes of 2015, there were celebrations, too! Steve and I marked thirteen years of wedded bliss. We opened the year with his 57th birthday and closed the year with mine. All my siblings – the Omaha ones and the Colorado ones – made it to 722 N. Happy Hollow to celebrate Christmas together on my birthday weekend. All these moments were marked with Steve’s amazing cooking and good bottles of red wine.

Even as I get ready to step into a new year of adventures – back to school for goodness sake! – I marvel at this year that was. And the thread through the whole 525,600 minutes is the faithfulness of God experienced in whatever place I was standing in each of those minutes. And I know that this golden thread of his love will continue to weave and tie and hold together the minutes of life to come.

So happy new year. And it’s leap year, so we get 527,040 minutes. I know they will be as full and memorable as the last 525,600.

Let’s get started…

Finding peace at gate G5 in Rome

Paper crane gate G5 RomeAs a little girl I made a memorable visit to the United Nations in New York. It was the summer after third grade so I must have been all of nine, but I remember being struck by all the different flags and all the different people. It was and is a place where those of many nations come together to seek the good of all of us who share this big blue marble of a planet.

As a now much older woman, middle-aged at 56, I have seen the United Nations at work in the refugee camps in Lebanon that are filled to overflowing with those who have fled the war next door in Syria. UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, is stenciled on the tents and on shipments of food and supplies. Nations have come together to provide for those in need, and there are millions upon millions in need.

But I think the biggest purpose of this organization is to somehow help nations come together to talk and to prevent such wars, and maybe even to stop those already in progress. I think the bigger purpose is peace, and it is seems impossible in these days to achieve.

The stories I heard in Lebanon about what is happening in Syria are overwhelmingly horrible. Loss of work. Loss of home. Loss of life. No peace.

And so last Friday I traveled home from there, my heart left behind with some pretty amazing women. The only peace I expected to find in my 24-hour journey from Beirut to Rome to Chicago to Omaha was with a pair of noise-dampening earphones stuck to my head while I lost myself in movies. But something happened…

Gate G5, Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, Rome, Italy, happened.

My plane from Beirut landed on time and my friend Meryle and I, who had spent those amazing days in Lebanon together as part of a team of eight women, said our goodbyes to each other. I sent her off to gate G3 with a hug as she headed home to Santa Barbara. I had two hours to settle into a seat at gate G5 until my Alitalia flight headed to Chicago was scheduled to leave.

Gate G6 was next to us with a flight headed to Tel Aviv, Israel. My attention was drawn to those over there who seemed to obviously belong in Tel Aviv by their attire: long black coats with wide-brimmed black hats. Prayer shawl tassels dangling. Yarmulkas on the heads of several men, young and old.

At my gate was a collection of all sorts of people, including many Muslims, some of whom had been on my flight from Beirut, including a sweet mother of two four-year-old twins who were heading to Chicago to visit family. The hijabs and abayas were visible, as well as the longish beards on some of the men.

And I will say there were Christians, too, as I am one and I was there.

So in the airport of the eternal city of Rome, not far from Vatican City where the patriarch of the Roman Catholic Church leads a large flock in the name of Jesus, at these twin gates – G5 and G6 – the three Abrahamic faiths were sitting together in peace, waiting to go someplace else.

And then came the music. Not the swelling soundtrack of a movie scored by John Williams, that might be playing in my head because I thought I had discovered how to achieve peace, but actual music. There was a grand piano in the corner and someone sat down to play it. A woman with short, dark hair started picking out a jazz melody. A man quickly joined her to watch and listen, and she stopped, kind of embarrassed that someone would come over. They had a quick conversation about their joint love of music and the piano, and then he sat down and started to play. She stood by his side and periodically leaned over and added some notes on the high end.

Soon, many were listening and smiling and just enjoying this spontaneous concert in the airport. And I looked around at the faces and everyone had just been transported someplace else as they listened along.

Eventually these two stopped and others took their own turns at the ivory and black keys. Mary had a little lamb was plucked out, followed by row, row, row your boat. I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood, I hope I could, always be good to someone who’ll watch over me, had me closing my eyes thinking of my sweet Steve at home.

And then came that hymn…

For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth,
Over and around us lies:
Lord of all to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.

She played four verses and added an amen at the end.

I looked around again as we all stood up to have our boarding passes and passports checked before going down the escalator to get on the plane. I saw old and young. Blond and brunette and gray hair, some in dreadlocks piled high, some in the soft curls of youth, and some heads that probably claimed one of those kinds of hair but hadn’t seen it in a while. Men and women, boys and girls. Muslim and Hebrew and Christian and probably some who called on no God. Italian and Lebanese and Israeli and American and other folks from all over.

And as our boarding was delayed, there was simply no pushing or shoving or shouting. There was just this music coming from the piano in the corner. And there was this kind of peace.

And I thought, why not like this all the time everywhere? If we can cram this many people into a small area of space in a busy international airport and throw in a piano for good measure, wouldn’t this be a good way to figure it out? To look at all the others crammed in there with you and say, “Hey! They’re people just like me, trying to get to the place they call home, or maybe just taking some time to see someplace new.”

I know that sounds naive and idealistic, but that’s who I am and I offer no apology for it.

It was just a two-hour window at gate G5/6 in the Rome airport, but it reminded me of that hopeful memory of standing in the United Nations in 1968. And my prayers rose anew for peace. With the help of God, I think we can figure this out.

For the love which from our birth, over and around us lies. Lord of all to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.

Amen. And amen.

Peace in the garden

garden panorama
Paper cranes 323 totalI have been praying for peace for a long time, and lately I have prayed through the folding and stringing and hanging of paper cranes, 323 at last count in my office. It is a beautiful sight when I come in every morning, and catches others by surprise as well.

Dona nobis pacem. Grant us peace.

They are the colors of the rainbow, hanging on their strings, separated by glass beads and hugging my world map, a map that also reflects those same colors.

dayliliesAnd tonight I walked in my garden, which is showing many of those same colors. The oranges of day lilies, the blues and violets of cranesbill, white daisies with bright yellow centers. And so many greens! That God of ours had way more than 64 crayons in his box when he started this whole garden thing.

Daisies and cranesbillAnd so as I walked through my garden tonight, I was reminded of my peace cranes by the colors of the flowers and the greenery and the way the cranesbill and daisies tangle together, just like the strings of the cranes when I brush by them and it made me smile and it stopped me in my tracks to say it again:

Dona nobis pacem. Grant us peace.

As I came around to the steps that take me up to our little circular terrace, a place that is our secret room where we sit on Fridays and Saturdays and enjoy the peace of the garden after a long day, I passed my peace pole which contains another prayer in five languages:

May peace prevail on the earth.

Peace pole in the gardenAs I walk through this peaceful garden with prayers on my mind and on my heart and on my peace pole, I am also reminded that I am not in this alone. Just as the daisies are a gift from Susan and Lee next door and so many of the day lilies came from my cousin Kathy, the cranes in my office are a reflection of those praying with me like Cleo and Wendi and Deb and Kathy and Wilson from church; and all the faithful women like Babs and Marilyn and MC and Kate and Sue and Wendy and Betty and Emily; pastors whom I have met and those I haven’t, the Tobies and Michaels and Tripps and Chrisses; and all the people who read the papers and weep with me.

God made the garden for us as a place to walk with him in peace, and we blew it. And we continue to blow it. But even still, he makes the flowers grow and the cranes fly and invites us all to walk in places with him, inviting us into conversation. And my conversation with him most days – every day! – is for his peace to prevail.

And I believe he hears us.

And I believe he listens to us.

And I believe he will answer and redeem and make it so.

I believe his peace will prevail on this earth.

And so I will keep asking.

Dona nobis pacem. Grant us peace.


Protection while we sleep

Sami Sadeeh Syrian national guardsman from SafitaI am on the worship team this Sunday at church and the special song we are singing is Laura Story’s “Blessings.” It is a lovely song and I am happy to be singing it with three good friends for the glory of the Lord.

There is a line that goes like this:

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace, comfort for families, protection while we sleep.

And it’s true, we pray for all of that. Peace, peace, peace, has been my prayer these last four years especially, since my traveling to the Middle East started.

But today I am centered on these words: protection while we sleep.

Protection while we sleep…

We had it in spades on our trip to Damascus in January, 2014, and I didn’t even realize it until the last day we were there. We would come up to our room in the hotel and there would be two or three normal looking men sitting in the lobby on our floor, like they were waiting on their wives or something. When we left in the mornings to accomplish our schedule and make our visits, there they would be again. Back and forth and back and forth for our three days there, those gentlemen were always in the lobby on our floor.

Walking through the Christian quarter in Damascus after having visited the church where Saul became Paul (Acts 9), we visited a craftsman shop to make some purchases of fine Syrian wood inlay boxes and lovely local fabrics and scarves. As we continued our walk back to the Presbyterian church, Steve commented about our security detail.

“There must be ten or twelve of them,” he said.

“Really?” I replied. “Where?”

In front of us, behind us, bulky automatic weapons bulging from under their jackets, they had been with us the whole time. They had also been staying in the lobby of our hotel floor. Protection while we sleep.

And now I flash forward from Damascus to our trip back to Syria in November. We had another contingent of security with us as soon as we crossed the border. I was not so naive this time and grateful for their presence. I had the opportunity to talk to them and discovered that some of them had come from the city of Raqqa in Syria. Raqqa is now the capital or main city that ISIS controls. These men had lost family members there and their homes as well to this evil that is trying to drag their country back to the seventh century.

And there they were for us: protection while we sleep.

Tony in between Marilyn and I, Syria, November, 2014.

Tony in between Marilyn and I, Syria, November, 2014.

When we arrived in the Wadi al Nassara – the Christian valley of Syria – these troops handed us off to four men from Safita, all members of the national guard. They were with us for our remaining time in Yazdieh, Amar al Hasan and in Lattakia. Sweet, sweet men! The one named Tony held Marilyn’s hand through all our walking and hiking, to steady her as she was due for orthopedic surgery when we returned home.

Up and down the roads we traveled, through town after town on our way to the places on our schedule. Every town had pictures of those who had given their lives for their country, Syria, in this four-year old war. Poster after poster after poster would be at every intersection, in front of every business. And I am sure these men with us knew many of them. And I am sure that every one of those martyred soldiers had families that were missing them greatly, and who would share that same prayer: protection while we sleep.

Steve and I on the top of the Krak de Chevaliers, Wadi al Nassara, Syria, November, 2014.

Steve and I on the top of the Krak de Chevaliers, Wadi al Nassara, Syria, November, 2014.

For four days and three nights, they were with us as we traveled through this beautiful place to meet with churches and refugees and families who had been driven out by ISIS from Homs and that part of the country. They went to church services with us. They ate dinner with us. They stood by while we traipsed through the world heritage site known as the Krak de Chevaliers, a former crusader castle in wars fought long ago. They told us how fanatic rebels had taken this high ground to fire on the Christians and others in the towns below. They told us how terrible things had been done to those captured, including throwing them from the high ramparts where we sat and had our photos snapped.

These four went with us everywhere for those four days, and were our protection while we slept.

On our last day there and before we left them behind, we gave them each an Arabic bible as a gift. All four are Christians, probably Greek Orthodox, and were thrilled to get the bibles and the little peace dove ornaments that we gave with them.

On the grounds of the St. George Monastery near Homs, Syria, with our national guardsmen. Sami is third from the left. God rest his soul.

On the grounds of the St. George Monastery near Homs, Syria, with our national guardsmen. Sami is third from the left. God rest his soul.

When we arrived back in the U.S. we talked about what more we could do for them. Those four gentlemen were all serving in the National Guard of Syria, but their day jobs were just like us, maybe an engineer, a teacher, or some other normal job. They weren’t doing those paying jobs while they were with us. They were volunteering their time as members of their unit to protect us while we slept and while we worshiped and while we ate and while we climbed crusader castles and had our photos taken. And we wanted to do something for them.

So Nuhad wrote to their commanding officer to find out how we could give them a small monetary honorarium for our appreciation of their great service to us, and this was the response we got back:

What he asked instead is that we make a gift in their honor to support the 100 displaced families in Safita that their unit is responsible for.

No money for them, but money for the refugees that their unit is responsible for. That is what they wanted. No greater gift…

Today on Facebook, my friend Nuhad shared this picture of one them, Sami Sadeeh. He has lost his life in this war, in protection of his family and his country. I am sure there will be a poster of him on the roads of Safita, just like the others we saw.

And so now I pray for his family: protection while they sleep.

Paper crane Sami SadeehBut my prayer for Sami is different and I wrote it on the 301st paper crane that I folded just today in his memory. It was not dona nobis pacem, for peace has been granted to him. Instead I used the words from that prayer used at a requiem mass, dona eis requiem sempiternam.

Grant him eternal rest.

And I will sing “Blessings” on Sunday in worship, and when I sing the line, protection while we sleep, I will see Sami’s face, and know how that prayer was answered by God through Sami and all the others.

209…one at a time

Paper cranes 209My one thousand paper cranes for peace have been a journey through this month of May. I have made 209 so far.

One at a time.

I started with two sheets of prayer-printed pages from my church, West Hills in Omaha. My friend and colleague on staff here, our Mission director Caitlin O’Hare, publishes prayers of our mission partners each quarter. When my friend Mark Borst was here visiting in March, he saw our wall of crosses in the reception area and told me about the paper cranes that carry prayers heavenward in the sanctuary at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.

Connectivity being one of my strengths as measured by the Clifton Strength Finder assessment, I connected the two. All those prayer booklets…what do we do with them every quarter when the new come?

Paper cranes, of course!

After folding three of them with that paper, I decided to order 500 sheets of 8″x8″ origami paper from Amazon. Beautiful colors. Lighter weight. Easier to fold and to be held by a delicate nylon string.

I am now a master folder of paper cranes. Stop by my office and see the 209 flying here and I will fold one for you with the prayer of my heart for this project:

Paper cranes dona nobis pacemDona nobis pacem. Grant us peace.

These first 209 are a reflection of the places I have traveled in the last five years with The Outreach Foundation. They are photographic memories developed onto the pages of my heart of the people who live there, the people who love there, the people who are loved there by an amazing God who made us all. Each one. In his image.

And all these God-imaged people are suffering now, as they have suffered in the past. War is a journey no one should have to take.

But at the end of it should come peace. In the midst of it, they seek peace.

And that is what I pray for.

As I have folded these cranes and prayed over them in the process of folding and stringing and hanging, it has renewed my spirit to know that God hears every one of them.

And as I have continued to watch the news, I have found more to pray for, as if I didn’t have enough already. And some of those stories just emphasize that God hears those prayers. They seem to me to be answers for the peace I pray for.

You can read about Karim Wasfi, a cello player in the orchestra in Baghdad, who plays in the aftermath of a car bombing in his city.

A prayer crane for Karim. Dona nobis pacem.

You can read about Zahed Haftlang and Najad Aboud, two former combatants in the Iraq-Iran war who are now friends as they live in Canada. And on the battlefield one said of the other, “He became a human being, not an enemy.”

A prayer crane for these brothers. Dona nobis pacem.

And there is a prayer crane for Hope Came Down, in the prayer and the hope that people will watch it and be moved to send their monetary gifts to a place that is bringing hope and encouragement to those who are suffering.

A prayer crane for Hope Came Down, and others for the scriptures that inspired it, John 1:14 and Hebrews 11:1.

Dona nobis pacem…prayer by prayer…crane by crane.

One at a time.