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!

Holy Tears

This is my final reflection paper from my recently completed mini-class in my master’s program at Creighton University. The class was the first part of three on the history of Christian spirituality, and was appropriately titled “Martyrs and Monks.”

I first traveled to the Middle East, Syria specifically, in August, 2010. This was before the war in Syria, and the country was intact. Muslims and Christians lived together in a secular, mostly peaceful society. I visited a number of places, and one that struck me deeply was St. Simeon, the ruins of a fifth century church near Aleppo built around the pillar that St. Simeon the Stylite sat on for most of his life, praying to God. I had quiet moments of contemplation as I thought about this saint and his life and his attitude of prayer. But the highlight of my trip in 2010 was a visit to Aleppo and the Presbyterian church. This church had an amazing outreach to refugees from the American-led war in Iraq, which had begun in 2003. I met a woman named Nawal, a faithful and prayerful saint of her church, who chastised us (and rightfully so) for what our country had done to the Iraqi people. I have never forgotten Nawal, and had the chance to reconnect with her this past summer in Lebanon, but I will reflect on that later. We also had the chance to share a meal with an Iraqi refugee family in the less than modest apartment they could afford.

As a member of a group of women traveling together to learn about our sister Presbyterian church in Syria, we were each given the opportunity to lead devotion. I had chosen this passage in Acts: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:44-47a). As I began to read, I was overwhelmed with tears and could not get through to the end. Hearing Nawal’s words to us about what we had done to the Iraqis, being welcomed into the home of an Iraqi refugee family who shared the bounty of their poverty with us in the hospitality that is the hallmark of Middle Eastern culture, I was utterly convicted of the corporate sin my people committed against the Iraqis. It was this memory that grabbed my heart as I read the readings for this class.

Over and over in the stories of the desert harlots – of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt specifically – there are waterfalls of tears. Anselm’s prayer to Mary Magdalene captures it well:

St. Mary Magdalene,
You came with springing tears
To the spring of mercy, Christ…
How can I find words to tell
About the burning love with which you sought Him
Weeping at the sepulcher
And wept for Him in your seeking?…
For the sweetness of love He shows Himself
Who would not for the bitterness of tears.[1]

In his gospel, Luke tells us that a woman (possibly Mary Magdalene) who was a sinner, washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair in an act of repentance (7:37-38). Mary of Egypt tells us, “Thus I understood the promise of God and realized how God receives those who repent…‘you will find rest.’ When I heard the voice say this, I believed it had come because of me, and I cried out weeping…”[2] As she tells Zossima her story of her prostitute’s life and the temptation to return to it she tells him, “When such thoughts grew in me, I would fling myself on the ground and flood the earth with weeping.”[3] When she asks Zossima to pray for her, he falls to his knees and his prayers and tears flow together.[4]

The connective tissue of tears and prayers in these stories resonated deeply with me and my experiences in the Middle East in 2010 and continuing for nine more trips through this past summer, including time in Lebanon, Iraq, and the now war-torn Syria, all places where the desert fathers and mothers actually lived. Why do the tears flow so easily, and especially in times of their prayers and mine? “Tears connect us with a part of ourselves and an expression of our deepest feelings that is far beyond our words or even our thoughts. Tears are a way that our bodies express our hearts.”[5] Said another way, “Tears are an outward manifestation of a biological release that is usually triggered by a profound emotional sensation.”[6] Being able to express emotion instead of suppressing it is a way for me to be real. On the thinking-feeling spectrum of the Myers-Briggs assessment, I register an absolute zero on thinking and am off the chart on feeling. To not express my feelings, especially to God in prayer, would violate the very meaning of prayer, according to Mother Maria. “It is only if we are rooted and grounded in reality, if we have found our own ‘heart,’ if we do not hide, that we can truly pray. All true prayer is a prayer of the heart, because it is the heart – not our physical heart but the deepest centre of our being – where we are touched by the divine, where we are fully ourselves, fully alive, fully one…present before the face of God.”[7]

As I have read through these texts, I have been thankful for what my friends have called my prayer language, which is tears of the heart. In further reading, I discovered St. Catherine of Siena and her great question to God: what is the reason and the fruit of tears?[8] Reading about the six kinds of tears God explained to her, I find that mine fall somewhere between level three and four:

Sweet tears of imperfect love: These are the sweet tears of those who have abandoned sinful ways and are beginning to serve God because they have begun to know and love him; however, their love is still imperfect, causing their tears to be imperfect as well. The person’s life is then characterized by exercising virtue, acknowledging God’s goodness, practicing self-discovery in the light of God’s goodness, and moving away from fear and toward hope in God’s mercy.

Sweet tears of perfect love: Perfect tears of mature love come from those who have developed perfect love for their neighbor and learned to love God without regard for themselves. These are the people who live the words of the Great Commandment: to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself.[9]

Between those two levels is a maturing, a growth in love and in humility; a growth in the knowledge that it is only God’s love and goodness that invites us closer to him and his mercy, and away from our own sins and fears. I think those tears of mine somewhere between the imperfect and the perfect fall into the same place that St. Benedict described: “With growth in humility came ever-deeper awareness of one’s own sinfulness, as well as compassion and tears for the sins of other people. Such mindfulness meant deep feeling, and deep feeling meant tears.”[10]

As Mother Maria talks about the prayer of the heart, I discovered that my tears open my heart to the love of God. My heart moves from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, which is what God promises in Ezekiel 36:26. Tears are a part of that process of heart softening, making real meaningful prayer possible. Abba Poemen says it this way: “The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone.”[11]

With the Presbyterian church in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

With the Presbyterian church in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

So as I end this reflection, I want to return to my story of Nawal in Aleppo. Sitting on the porch of the Carslow Building at Ain Al-Kassis (which translates to “fountain of the father,” an appropriate description for how my tears flow!) in the mountains above Beirut, Lebanon, I was waiting for some of the Syrian women to arrive for the annual gathering of Presbyterian women in the Synod of Lebanon and Syria. A young woman came and sat on the porch with me, and as it turned out, we were Facebook friends although we had never met. Her name is Nisryn, and she lives in Paris, France. She had come to the conference because her mom was making the long and dangerous journey from Aleppo to be there as well. She told me it had been six years since she had seen her mother. As we sat and talked, I realized who the woman she was talking about was. “I know your mother!” I exclaimed. I jumped up to get my laptop and found this picture from my 2010 trip. I am standing behind the little boy in the front row, and Nisryn’s mom Nawal is to the right of me in the blue dress. Nisryn’s mom is the same woman who gave me pause to weep as I read the text from Acts about sharing everything, and no one was in need. She was the woman who showed me what the hands and feet of Jesus look like when serving the refugees of war. And now she was living in Aleppo still, a victim of another war and was coming to experience Sabbath at the women’s conference. Here I was, sitting with her daughter, and together we prayed at the fountain of the father for her safe travel…and our tears flowed as we came into the presence of God together and brought Nawal there with us.

Nawal, me, Nisryn, Ain al Kassis, Lebanon, July, 2016

Nawal, me, Nisryn, Ain al Kassis, Lebanon, July, 2016

It is only because we long for the presence of God, for a glimpse of his perfect beauty, for holiness, for ceaseless prayer, for union of love, for Paradise, that our hearts break with sadness when we realize how far away from it we are. It is this sadness – this “affliction” – which, I think, the Fathers called “compunction” and why they called the life of prayer – the life of trying to pray – “white martyrdom” – a way of pain. Without the longing, without repentance, without the breaking of the heart, there can be no practice of prayer and no true prayer on earth at all.[12]

These two weeks of reading the stories of the desert fathers and the harlots of the desert have touched a deep place in my heart. The message I took was so clear. My life of praying with tears is a gift I take with me in my experiences of ministry with and for the people I am privileged to journey with in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. In repenting – in turning to God – in this way, I am my true self. I have found my heart, and it has been softened with tears of mercy and compassion. I know I have many more to shed.

Bibliography

Kangas, Billy. “The Role of Tears in the Spiritual Life: Lessons from the Desert Fathers.” The Orant. Entry posted May 2, 2011. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/2011 /05/the-role-of-tears-in-the-spiritual-life-lessons-from-the-desert-fathers.html (accessed November 2, 2016).

Sheetz, Jenny. “The Gift of Tears: A Reflection.” stjosephinstitute.com. http://www.stjosephinstitute.com/_Assets/pdf/jennysheetz/The%20Gift%20of%20Tears.pdf (accessed November 2, 2016).

Stewart, Columba. Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998.

Ward, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: a Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987.

Zeleski, Irma. Encounter with a Desert Mother, 108-126.

Footnotes

[1] Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert: a Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987), 20.

[2] Ibid, 48.

[3] Ibid, 50.

[4] Ibid, 51.

[5] Billy Kangas, “The Role of Tears in the Spiritual Life: Lessons from the Desert Fathers,” The Orant, entry posted May 2, 2011, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/ 2011/05/the-role-of-tears-in-the-spiritual-life-lessons-from-the-desert-fathers.html (accessed November 2, 2016).

[6] Jenny Sheetz, “The Gift of Tears: A Reflection,” stjosephinstitute.com, http://www. stjosephinstitute.com/_Assets/pdf/jennysheetz/The%20Gift%20of%20Tears.pdf  (accessed November 2, 2016), 1.

[7] Irma Zeleski, Encounter with a Desert Mother, 110.

[8] Sheetz, 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 49.

[11] Sheetz, 4.

[12] Zeleski, 125.

Heartburn

That's my trip journal for four trips to the Middle East. The spine is busted from stuffing it full of inserts of hymns, printed prayers, photos and bios of my teammates, devotionals I've led and other memories on paper too important to discard.

That’s my trip journal for four trips to the Middle East. The spine is busted from stuffing it full of inserts of hymns, printed prayers, photos and bios of my teammates, devotionals I’ve led and other memories on paper too important to discard.

I was looking through my dog-eared, spine-busted journal tonight for an email address. There are so many inserts into this broken-backed book! And while I found the email, I also found this. On this night, before I begin my journey into a master of arts study of ministry at Creighton University, it reminds me of one of the big reasons I am stepping out.

I wrote this article in May, 2013, shortly before my second trip to Lebanon. I am so happy to share it tonight.

 

 

Wading Into Deeper Waters

There is a difference between heartburn and a heart that burns. The former is felt usually around some poor eating habits or gastrointestinal issues. It’s very uncomfortable if you’ve ever experienced it, but you can take a pill. The latter can also be uncomfortable, but I would describe it more as comfort-afflicting. If your heart has ever burned for something or someone, your only response is action. If you don’t do something about it, it just gets worse. There is no magic pill.

My heart has burned for the situation across the Middle East since I was in high school and my step-brother Charlie worked for NBC News in Lebanon, covering their civil war which raged for fifteen years. Every night we would watch the news and see pictures of the atrocities that Charlie had stood in the midst of to get the story to us in the U.S. It was hard to watch and understand why these things went on, but more than anything, we hoped Charlie would be safe.

My heart kept burning through the years and then I met Maya in a women’s bible study here at West Hills. A native of Lebanon, she returned there to visit family in 2006 and was stuck in the middle of another war. When she came back thoroughly shaken, heartbroken and angry, reliving her childhood, she shared with us her story. This woman of faith simply asked, “Why do they hate us?”

Then I met Marilyn Borst of The Outreach Foundation and she was taking a group of faithful women to visit the churches of the Synod of Syria and Lebanon. We would travel to Beirut and visit the churches founded by missionaries in the 1800s. We would travel to Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, doing the same. We shared worship. We shared time at a women’s conference. We were welcomed into their homes. We shared coffee and tea and sweets. We met with Iraqi refugee families who were being cared for by the church. We heard stories of courage and of love and of faith, a faith lived out for over 2,000 years.

And I came home with new friends and new connections in this global gathering we call the Body of Christ. And my heart burned to return, to be back in the company of those women and those churches, to share life together again. And we would have returned the following year, 2011, but once again, war broke out.

This time the war was in Syria – first an uprising in a small town, now a two-year old war – and we couldn’t go back because it wasn’t safe…for us. It’s not safe for them either, but they live there. Or they did.

The Presbyterian Church in Aleppo, Syria, where we sang Amazing Grace and shared with the families who were caring for Iraqi refugees was completely destroyed in November, 2012. We got this news from synod officials who had traveled to be with us in a large gathering in Erbil, Iraq. Those of us in that room who had worshipped at the church in Aleppo were grieving: grieving for the ministry that would no longer be done in that neighborhood, grieving for the plans of the renovation of a Christian high school that would have served all faiths, grieving for the work that Assis Ibrahim and his congregation had done together as incarnational witnesses. Their church home was destroyed, many of their own homes were destroyed, their jobs were gone. Those who cared for refugees were now refugees themselves as they fled to safe parts of their country or to Lebanon.

In some of Paul’s epistles he refers to a collection for the church in Jerusalem. The churches created from his and other missionary journeys were collecting money for the benefit of the persecuted church there. The Outreach Foundation and other churches in our denomination are doing the same thing for the present day persecuted churches in Syria. They are collecting money to send to the Synod of Syria and Lebanon to aid these now displaced brothers and sisters in the small but important ways they can. And the people of our church have responded to that plea in the form of a $10,000 gift granted by our Mission Team. And my heart burns with gratitude at this response. We are not called to suffer as they have been. But we are called to stand with them: to show up when we can, to release the resources that God has provided us to be used in their time of need.

This burning heart of mine will return to Lebanon in May. My prayer is that these people of God will know his peace that passes all understanding. That they will be comforted by his gracious Holy Spirit. That they would have abundant life restored to them. That they would continue to shine the light of Christ wherever they are. And that they will be strengthened in this time of trial.

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Romans 8:18

And now in January, 2016, I am happy to reflect back on this. The church building in Aleppo has been rebuilt in a safer place and the saints worshipped there for the first time on Christmas. The church body never stopped meeting, climbing five flights of stairs to meet in an apartment together for the last three years.

The Aleppo College for Boys, that Christian high school, has never closed its doors during the continuing conflict, now approaching its fifth anniversary. It continues to be a place where Christian and Muslim learn side by side.

My church, West Hills Presbyterian, has given other gifts to the Syria Appeal of The Outreach Foundation totaling some $25,000. (You can give too! http://www.theoutreachfoundation.org)

I have traveled back to Lebanon three times and to Syria twice. Steve and I will be returning to both again this spring.

And the inspiration of the church in persecution has put a vision of ministry in front of me, and the fulfillment of that vision begins tomorrow night when I take my first class at Creighton University.

May God continue to cause my heart to burn, and may he inflict you with that as well.

Dona nobis pacem.

Welcomed to the table

I learned a Greek word last week in Bible study: prosdechomai.

Now that I am not working but anticipating heading back to school in January, I started attending this wonderful gathering of women on Thursdays at church with my sister Jana, who has been going for over twenty years. There is always a delicious spread of food to feed our bodies even as our souls are fed on the word. This is an experienced group of Bible students and they are being led by three gifted teachers this year who are all friends of mine. Lou and Jackie and Jessica have taken us through 2 Peter, 1 and 2 John, and this past week, 3 John.

Lou took us through this short but meaty epistle where we met three men known by John and actually named: Gaius, Diotrephes and Demetrius.

The word – prosdechomai – was associated with something Diotrephes was not doing. He was not welcoming, not receiving, early missionaries into his home as they traveled with the good news. Indeed, he was even putting people out of the church who did open their homes. We had a good discussion about hospitality in the church, especially as it pertained to those who come to our church from other places to tell the stories of how God is working in this world. In a large church of 750, we have a hard time getting 25 to come to a lunch to hear what they have to say. We chewed on that a bit. And John says in verse 11: “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good.” Don’t be like Diotrephes!

And then on Sunday, just three days later, we dove back into Luke 15 and the story of the prodigal son as our pastor Derek continued his two-part sermon about “the gospel within the gospel.”

Luke 15 starts out this way:

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow [Jesus] welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2 NRSV)

As I first heard from Lou, and was reiterated through Derek who was using a Ken Bailey book (The Cross & The Prodigal) to guide his sermon, the Greek word dechomai means to receive. With the prefix pros- added to it, the meaning becomes deeper: to welcome into fellowship.

So here is what causes the grumbling from the righteous: that Jesus would not only welcome the unrighteous (me and all the rest) for conversation, but that he would go even further and eat with them. He would fellowship with them.

And, of course, we know this from coming to the Lord’s table for the Lord’s supper in communion. This group of unrighteous, undeserving sinners – we the people – are invited to sup with the Lord God almighty.

It is an amazing thing. God invites to his table in fellowship those whose sins have nailed him to the tree. His enemies. Us. Grace at the table of the Lord.

This word came to me in an interesting time. There have been ISIS bombings in Baghdad, in Beirut, in the air over Egypt as a Russian airliner was taken down, and in Paris. And the big message that I have heard is that our country is now wary of Syrian refugees. Somehow the work of a very small group of radicalized terrorists has caused governors in our country (mine included) to say, “No. There is no prosdechomai for the fleeing victims of terror in our state. They might be our enemies.”

And as I walked yesterday and the day before thinking about this word – prosdechomai – a picture from 2010 came to my head and my heart.

August, 2010, Aleppo, Syria (before the war) – Nine women had traveled to Lebanon and Syria on a trip to meet and learn about our brothers and sisters in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. We worshiped with Middle Eastern Christians. We laughed with them. We baked in the sun with them. We had our minds and our hearts and our world expanded by this family connection we now had experienced.

While in Aleppo for three days with the church there, we had the humbling opportunity to visit in the homes of Iraqi refugees who were being cared for by the Aleppo church as they waited for new homes in other parts of the world.

Why were there Iraqi refugees in Syria? Because the U.S. government had invaded their homeland in 2003. Faulty intelligence that said Iraq was responsible for harboring Osama bin Laden, a friend of Saddam after all, right? Faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. Faulty, faulty, faulty. And Iraqi families paid a heavy price.

They were in Syria, chased out of their homes in Iraq because we had unleashed Armageddon on them. And so they sought refuge, and they found it in Syria.

And so it came to pass that nine American women were invited into the homes of three Iraqi families. Three families with nothing. Scare furnishings in their homes, donated by Aleppo church families. They were surviving on what was left of the savings they ran from Iraq with, much like what is happening today in Syria and Iraq.

The Aziz family, refugees from Iraq living in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

The Aziz family, refugees from Iraq living in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

My group of Betty and Sue and me was prosdechomai-d by the Aziz family. And there we sat – sumptuous meal in front of us, tea and coffee and sweets – with people driven out of their homes by the actions of our government, the actions of we the people.

Grace at the table. Prosdechomai.

In his book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Shane Claiborne says this in a footnote about a story of being in Baghdad during the U.S. invasion:

That night in Baghdad, I read Psalm 23. It’s the one folks usually read at funerals: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” And I felt like I was. But I noticed something I have never noticed before. The psalm says that a table is prepared “in the presence of my enemies.” I remember thinking, why are our enemies there? What if after we die, God brings our enemies to the table and asks how we treated them? What if Jesus asks them, “Shane here claims to follow me. Did he love you? Did he feed you and pray for you like I taught him to?” What would our enemies say?

The story of the two sons and the loving father told in Luke 15 ends in an open manner. The father has killed the fattened calf for his younger son who earlier in the parable wished his father dead. And now he calls the older son, who in his righteousness also wishes his father dead, to come to the table. Is this not a setting of table in the presence of his enemies? Two brothers, both sinners, both wanting their father dead. But there is the father desiring to prosdechomai with both.

And so in a week of learning about prosdechomai from the word of the God I love, I believe, I humbly and haltingly try to follow, I thought of the Aziz family. I thought of how they welcomed enemies to the table and ate with us.

And I pray that we will do the same.

 

 

Fathers loved. Fathers lost.

Easter Sunday, 2007. Daddy is on the far right of the couch in the light blue shirt.

Easter Sunday, 2007. Daddy is on the far right of the couch in the light blue shirt.

I lost my dad on April 23, 2007. As a family, we knew it was coming because he had decided to stop dialysis after one year. Three days a week he was tethered by tubes to a machine for four hours. The machine would do the work his kidneys could no longer accomplish due to the ravages of diabetes. A good man of sound mind, he made the decision for himself. As his children we were glad he could make this decision, but we knew it would mean we would no longer have him and his sense of humor and his love for high notes.

We were all by his bed in the hospice house when he took his last breath. We had been sitting with him for thirty hours, rushing there when the nurse told us to come. He wasn’t awake. His breathing was labored. The end was coming. It was the most precious time we have ever had as brothers and sisters with this man who had brought us up day by day. Since Mom died in 1966, it was his love and persistence and faith that held us together without her, and it was that same love and persistence and faith that brought us to his bedside for that very long night.

He donated his body to the medical center and a whole group of young doctors-to-be learned about the anatomy of a human body from him. I am most positive that they were even able to identify his funny bone, and were amazed by the make-up of his vocal cords, even though they never heard him nail a pun or sing “Danny Boy.”

We lost him that early Monday morning eight years ago. And as I was supposed to receive his ashes back after the anatomy department was finished with him and then never did, I thought, “Well, I guess he won’t get to lay next to Mom at Calvary Cemetery.” It was okay. I knew where he was and that Mom was there with him, rooting us all on in the lives we had left to lead.

And then Daddy came back to me.

My stepmother had apparently been the recipient of his ashes back in 2008. She recently passed away and my sister-in-law asked me what to do with Daddy’s ashes.

“You have them?” I asked, astounded at the information.

“Yes. We can put them in with Pat, or you can have them back,” was her end of the conversation.

Knowing that my sisters and brothers would, like me, want them with Mom, I asked for them back.

My lost father is now in my laundry room. I need to convince the cemetery to let us bury them with Mom and our sister Cathy, who are resting side by side. Again, I know my dad’s essence is not in those ashes. Mom and Cathy are not in the ground. They are all living in heavenly glory, free of the grief and pain and troubles on this side of life.

But there is a place we can gather as a family when we need to to remembere them together.

There was no impediment to us gathering to sit with Daddy in the moment he passed. Some had to come from miles away, but good roads and peaceful times make roads shorter.

And I think sometimes we take that for granted. It’s 2015, for Pete’s sake. There is nothing hard about traveling from one side of this big country to the other.

I pray that it would be that easy in other parts of the world.

My friend Hala lost her father this past week.

IMG_0019I pieced it together from the weirdness of Facebook’s Arabic translation and the photos Hala had posted of her dad and her on her wedding day and when she was a child. It became very clear when I saw photos of his service posted from the church in Aleppo, Syria. I knew it was Aleppo because Assis Ibrahim was in the pictures. Again the Arabic translation indicated that the coffin pictured contained the earthly remains of a person named Bitar, which is Hala’s last name. It was confirmed when I exchanged messages with this dear sister in Christ.

And so I am grieving with and for Hala and her family. Grieving for the loss of a father, something I know well.

But my grief for her is compounded by the circumstances of this death. You see, Hala lives and works in Beirut. She is an amazingly gifted and educated teacher at the Beirut Evangelical School for Girls and Boys. She teaches religion and leads chapel services for students who are Christian and Muslim. I have been the recipient of her gift of teaching as she led our summer group of women in a study of the book of Ruth.

Hala lives in Beirut, but she is from Aleppo, and that is where her parents live.

Aleppo. Syria. Where war has destroyed 60% of a city of two million. There are no safe roads in or out.

And so where me and my brothers and sisters could gather at my father’s bedside in response to a phone call in the middle of the night, Hala could only pray and grieve from a distance. It used to be only a few hours’ drive from Beirut to Aleppo. Now, it is a journey that is impossible.

I am grateful that there was a church community to celebrate the resurrected life of Edward Bitar with his family still in Aleppo. There was the family of God to grieve his loss in Hala’s absence and to comfort her mother as the man who said, “I do, in sickness and health, in good times and bad, till death do us part,” was laid to rest. These are the tender mercies of life in Christ.

But sitting in my home, eight time zones west of Hala, I grieve with her. And I share the deep feelings of loss as a beloved father is gone. I wanted Hala’s words to be in this essay and I take comfort from her description of her father. I see in her words that she loved him as the father and teacher and faithful man he was. So hear my sister’s voice:

My father’s name is Edward Bitar, and my mother is Najah. We are four in the family, Amal, Bashar, Manar and me. My father was more than a father, he was my example of faith and love. He never received a day without the Bible in his hand, and never ended a day without having his knees down to the ground praying, asking for blessings.

He was a teacher, but not like any teacher I ever met. He taught English, he dedicated his time to his students and us. He used to go around from one library to another to check out new novels and we were his first audience and listeners.

As a woman living in the Middle East I was raised by one of the most well educated and open-minded persons. His dream was to see me and my sisters happy, but happiness had to be through finishing our college degrees and continuing education. I shocked him when I decided to study theology, but knowing I will dedicate my life to serve God gave him extreme joy. He used to tell me whenever he used to see me tired and depressed, “Hala, you are serving a powerful lord, depend on Him and he will be beside you.”

His memory, his picture, his smile, his hands touching my face and head will never leave my eyes. His spirit is a source of joy, and I will never forget him. Having a father like him was so helpful to understand the meaning of the word “the fatherhood of God.” I will never forget him Julie. I will never.

Fathers loved. Fathers lost. Tender memories of times shared and lessons learned.

My prayer for Hala is that peace will return to Syria, and the road from Beirut to Aleppo will be as in the days of her childhood. That she will be able to travel that road and sit by his resting place, mark it with flowers and in the silence, hear his gentle voice and leading. She will know that she can depend on the Lord, the same one she learned of from Edward Bitar. This same Lord who was beside him, and continues to be by her side and by mine.

Fathers loved. Fathers lost.

The Father who finds us. We are sisters in him.