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!

The Lord’s Prayer

Arabic Lord's Prayer

Every night for as long as I can remember, (and I can remember a long, long time back!) I have prayed the Lord’s Prayer before going to sleep. It used to come in a long litany of prayers starting with, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” and ending with “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost…” And in the middle of all of those prayers came my own personal petitions of, “God bless this and God bless that. God protect him and her…” through multiple verses and choruses until I had named every family member, every cousin, aunt, uncle, friend… It was usually a very long time before I could actually fall asleep.

But the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father” as I called it, was the main point for me. The words of that prayer have brought me comfort in sorrow. They taught me a new way to pray one night, as if I really meant it. The night Jana and Susan were hit by that train 31 years ago, I finally listened to my heart as I said the words, “Thy will be done.” Did I really mean that? And it forced me to come to God in total humility as I prayed for his will to be done in the lives of my two sisters. I didn’t pray for their survival or a perfect recovery or that they would be without pain. I prayed that “thy will be done” and for me to accept that, even if they didn’t survive. That was one of the biggest lessons in my life.

The words of that prayer have joined me in community. I have prayed it in English while others around me were praying in Spanish, Italian, Czech, German and Arabic. I have been in the midst of the body of Christ all over this globe and been amazed at the wonder of its poetic meter. No matter what language the body was praying in, we always ended our phrases at the same point. Miraculous? Maybe. Purposeful creation? I’m pretty sure!

The first time I went to Lebanon and Syria, Dr. Emily Brink, one of our faithful women, brought us some songs to learn that they would sing in Arabic in the church. One of them was “Abana in Heaven,” the Lord’s prayer in Arabic. This is how I imagine we will all sing it in heaven someday:

I close my eyes and I’m there. Hauntingly beautiful, isn’t it?

But it was in Iraq this past March that someone else gave me an even more wonderful picture of this prayer, and so I would just close my post today with the blog I wrote that day in Basrah as we were preparing to leave our family there once more.

The Bread We Need (March 19, 2014)

We have come through our last full day in Basrah with an ending culminating in the centuries old tradition of baking naan, the Arabic flatbread served with schwarma. Bread. It is served at every meal. Daily. And it was the focus of Meryl’s devotion this evening. The Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6:9-18: so familiar! Say it with us now, Give us this day our daily bread.

Meryl led us through several translations of this line from the familiar one above from the Greek to the one they use here in Arabic: Give us our bread sufficient for the day. It’s interesting how the focus changes from one of time to one of amount; the difference between a western understanding and an eastern understanding. And when the Greek is translated backward to Syriac, so close to the Aramaic which was the language of Jesus, it comes out this way: Give us today the bread that doesn’t run out. It’s the promise of sustaining life. It’s a prayer to deliver us from fear. It’s the vision of the great banquet with Messiah. It’s communion.

From our visit with the Chaldean church earlier this week, to our visit with the dear Armenian Orthodox Abuna (Father) Turkum today, to every moment with the Basrah Evangelical Church, it has been a time of holy communion.

Basrah crossThe benediction for today came at the end of our schwarma – our communion – this night. We shared words of gratefulness, words of love – the words that families share when they don’t know the next time they will gather. Hugs all around! Kisses galore! One more backward glance at sweet new babies, playing children, nodding elders. And as we left this place with gifts in hand and hearts full of pictures and stories, we walked one more time under the light of the cross at the top of the church. May it shine in this place for generations to come.


Thin Places

Thin places are those places where you can just reach out and grab a hold of God or feel that he has grabbed you in a big bear hug. I love those hugs and try to give as many as I can. I gave one to Julia Ann, also known as Peg, yesterday, and she hugged me back. I received an embrace from Jesus yesterday in the arms of an elderly lady with beautiful white hair. A thin place. The veil was torn. The divine invaded the mundane in an incarnational and relational way as we would say here at West Hills Church.

I have experienced those places on my holy trips to Lebanon and Syria and Iraq as well.

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

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

Can you imagine being invited into the home of an Iraqi refugee family in Aleppo, Syria? Neither could have I, but it happened. The Aziz family had found their way to Syria to escape the sectarian violence of Iraq due to our invasion and subsequent war in 2003. Why would they invite in the source of their loss and pain? Why would they use their meager treasure to prepare a banquet for us? Why would they let us share their dreams of a bigger and better life for their lively son Martin? Why indeed. The hospitality they offered to three American women around that table in a place not their home was the communion table that we are all invited to. It was a thin place.

Sanaa Koreh in front of what used to be the nursing school at Hamlin Hospital. Her vision is to remodel it and give it life again as a nursing school. And when Sanaa sees it in her head, it usually happens!

Sanaa Koreh in front of what used to be the nursing school at Hamlin Hospital. Her vision is to remodel it and give it life again as a nursing school. And when Sanaa sees it in her head, it usually happens!

I have experienced that same thin place in the mountains above Beirut at a place called Hamlin Hospital. Started by missionaries to treat those with tuberculosis, it is now an elder care facility run by Jesus incarnate, also known as Sanaa Koreh. In the most holistic and gentle ways possible, Sanaa and her staff care for those near the end of life whose families cannot bear the burden anymore. Christian, Muslim, Druze, it doesn’t matter. Each is a soul loved with beautiful mountain air, fed with homemade food that was grown in the gardens, clothed, sheltered and loved amid music, games and play. When I have been to Hamlin, I have walked as close to heaven as I can get in this world.

Our presbyterian church home in Basrah with radio antenna.

Our presbyterian church home in Basrah with radio antenna.

In Iraq – in Basrah and Kirkuk – I have heard the stories of an amazing radio ministry that reaches out kilometers across the country to share the good news with those far and near. One of those stories was about a young jihadi who had been bent on killing his own sister for what he thought were violations of some religious code. And then he heard the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery. You remember it, it’s in the book of John. “Let any among you without sin cast the first stone.” And they all walked away. And so did this young man. He walked right into the arms of Jesus because of what he heard on that radio station. He is now a pastor, working to plant churches. And I imagine he is somewhere in the north, caring for those who have fled from the fires of hell in the form of ISIS.

And another story of the radio ministry: the signals from the broadcast tower itself miraculously kept a car bomb from exploding in front of the church. It was abandoned there, ready to be exploded by remote device because the driver who was supposed to blow himself up with the church got scared and ran. The robots of the bomb squad showed up and were stopped in their tracks too. It was only after the police learned that the radio signal was being broadcast at that time that they figured it out. The frequency of the signal had stopped the remote blaster from working as well as the robots to defuse the bomb. All came out well in the end. Saved by a holy frequency! A thin place indeed.

I know when I go back to Lebanon and Syria in November I will have these encounters again, feeling those embraces from a savior who walks with me, invites me to his table in communion with family and shows me over and over again that the promises in that holy word are true.

I wrote this poem in Basrah in 2012. I come back to its message time and time again, like yesterday when Julia Ann, also known as Peg, tore down that veil once more.

“Thin Places in Him” (11-12-12, Basrah, Iraq)

Sometimes we get a chance to see
A glimpse of heaven, gloriously
Where life mundane and life divine
Come close together, intertwine
We stand upon such sacred ground
We experience love that is so profound
It happens when his word is spoken
It happens when the bread is broken
It happens when FM radiowaves
From towers emit and lives do save
It happens in him and nowhere else
It happens when we forget ourselves
And look into another’s life
And share their joy and share their strife
When we find these places thin
When we choose to enter in
We look upon his loving face
We feel the warmth of his embrace
There is no time, there is no space
There is only His amazing grace!


500 a day

That was my journal entry for Nov. 11, 2011, while in Basrah, Iraq, and it became the first poem from my journeys. It is mostly how I journal now on those trips.

That was my journal entry for Nov. 11, 2011, while in Basrah, Iraq, and it became the first poem from my journeys. It is mostly how I journal now on those trips.

My friend Barbara and I had a great discussion in the summer of 2011 about our proposed further travels to the Middle East with Marilyn and The Outreach Foundation. We had been to Lebanon and Syria the summer before and were so excited to return, maybe even helping to plan another women’s conference that would include sisters from Iraq. We would meet at a location in eastern Syria for that to happen…and then the war broke out in March, 2011, and the trip didn’t.

Feeling so called to go back and learn from and about the church, I asked Marilyn if there was another trip going that I could participate in and she said, yes. Iraq. She was taking a group of people to Iraq because elder Zuhair had said it was safe now for us to come as American Christians. Wow. Just wow.

We had been introduced to an Iraqi refugee while we were in Damascus that 2010 August named Edward. We had the most amazing conversation about our foreign policy as Americans and our hubris in invading his home. His home was near Baghdad and he was so insistent upon returning there with his family that they did not register as refugees with the UN so they could be sent somewhere safer to begin again. He wanted to go home. To Iraq. It was Edward’s face I saw and Edward’s voice I heard and Edward’s longing to go home that put no pause in my answer when I said “yes” to Iraq.

And so Barbara and I talked. She had been in Iran with Marilyn. (“Come and See.” That was the theme of that trip!) As we roomed in Beirut that hot summer of 2010, she told me the safest place to be was in the call of God. She also said she would travel to the gates of hell with Marilyn. Fearless and faithful, that is Barbara. She’s got the lion’s heart for justice and a Free Palestine sticker on her bumper. I love her, and she goes out with Micah 6:8 on her heart like me.

And so we talked about this trip, a trip to a country torn apart (again) by a war our country had gifted to them to take out their leader. (You can argue with me about whether that was good or bad, but you can’t deny the consequences for the minority Christians and Yazidis and Turkomen who are now paying a very high price for taking out that dictator, whom we supported at one time. Go figure.)

This trip would be for eight days and that included the getting there and the coming home. It was really six days on the ground in Basrah, but we were gone for eight. The cost figured out to be $4,000. $500 a day. We laughed about the ways we could spend that easily on a long weekend or a lovely trip to Rome or Paris. But this was $500 a day to Basrah, Iraq, and back. And we said we didn’t know a better way to spend this money and we went.

We went with those four pastors who served communion at the church for the first time in over two years. We spent time listening to a woman from Mosul – Hana, later we would meet her sisters on a second trip – whose brother the church elder had been killed by Islamic extremists. We heard about the amazing ways the church ministers in a place where it is hard – but historical – to be a Christian. They have kindergartens where 98% of the students are Muslim and they teach their parents how to pray! They have elder homes to care for those seniors left behind when their families move to safer places. They have radio ministries to share God’s love in the reading of his word and his comforting presence when people call in to the shows seeking answers.

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.

My journal is full of these stories. It’s full of sheets of paper that people gave to me: hymns in Arabic, prayers in Syriac, photos and biographies of those I travel with and those we traveled to be with. The binding is broken but its contents are precious reminders of the Body of Christ that I am connected to. In the bigger picture of the body, I am probably the tear ducts and I will accept that description. I’m not the brain and I’m not the best hands and feet, but I can weep. And I do. A lot.

It was on that trip that I started journaling in verse. And it was that thought of $500 a day that poured out of my pen one morning with Barbara. And it still drives me today when I think about where I can spend the resources that God puts in my hands.

$500 a day (2011, Basrah, Iraq)

Where would you go for five hundred a day?

Would you go to the mall and spend ’til it’s done?
At Macy’s and Penney’s, Starbucks and Pier One?
Ten crisp new polos and brand new Air Jordans,
Lunch at Panera’s, a latte, the tall one.
Home again later with bags full of new
With your five hundred, is that what you’d do?

Maybe to Vegas you’d fly with a friend.
The news brings you down; to cheer up why not spend?
The night and the day there are both oh so bright.
The spinning and rolling and dealing delight.
For three days you bask in the decadent fun,
Fifteen hundred later, you’re back. It’s all gone.

No! I’ve got it! To Paris and then on to Rome!
You’ll stay a bit longer before coming home.
The Tower Eiffel, the Louvre with her Lisa,
The forum, St. Peter’s, and then… off to Pisa! T
he wine and the pasta, the chocolate, the cheese,
On five hundred a day, the living’s a breeze.
Take a cab here and tip like a king.
Life is a banquet; it makes your heart sing.
Your tour is over, your wallet is empty.
Back to work and to dreaming…Tahiti sounds tempting.

What we’ve done on this trip to spend the same money
Is fly off to Basra. I know, it sounds…funny.
We’ve followed a call to meet with God’s faithful
And discovered his light in the midst of the rubble.
This city is large, there’s a million times two.
Our corner is small, and it feels cramped too.
From the fourth floor you can see quite a ways,
There are taxis and mosques, in the distance, a haze.
Looking straight down at the view of the street
there’s a guard with a gun and all the cars beep.
The few steps we take when we leave from this place
Lead to the church, where we’ve passed our days.
We’ve gathered to learn, and to worship, and pray;
We’ve gathered as family; we’ve watched children play.
We’ve broken the bread and dipped in the hummus,
In fact, every day, they’ve overstuffed us!
In all of the talking and laughing and tears,
We’ve drawn closer to Him who calms all our fears.
We’ve heard many stories not seen on our news.
It’s not very pretty, and yet we must choose
to take every moment to listen, to learn,
to take it all home and then to discern
how to bring it to you and then how to share it.
The weight is enormous! Just how will we bear it?

But that is the wrong thought, and this is the right:
“Your yoke it is easy. Your burden is light.”
You carried the cross for the sake of us all.
You ransomed your children with grace from the fall.
When we choose to pick up our cross and to follow,
You don’t promise us ease, or a safer tomorrow.
You ask us to sell all and give to the poor.
You ask us to love and to care for our neighbor.
Sometimes that love will come at this cost:
Five hundred a day. It doesn’t seem much.

So what would you do with this bounteous treasure?
What would you use for your unit of measure?
Would you shop ’til you drop? Would you show up to be seen?
Would you archive your memories on an iPad…or dream
of a journey that follows the missio dei,
Would you give up your treasure to follow the way?
What would you do with five hundred a day?

First Communion

I remember mine and I have told this story many times.

Julie's first communionMy mom died on March 22, 1966, just a few months before I made my first communion at Christ the King Catholic Church in Omaha, Nebraska. All the other little girls in my second grade class that fall had their moms to make sure their hair was nicely done so their communion veils would sit prettily on their heads. I had a group of nuns – Sr. Mary Christine, Sr. Mary Amy and Sr. Mary Thomas – who did that for me. They took me out that day to get my hair done and just enjoy a day of fun before the big moment at mass that night. When that moment did come, those three ladies saw the distress of a shy, introverted seven-year old, and they hustled me out of mass so I could throw up in the bathroom instead of the pew. After mass was over, they brought me back into the sanctuary, up to the communion rail, so Father Hupp could serve me the body of Christ, represented in that flat, embossed wafer. I have never forgotten that moment. And every time I have come to that part of a church service anywhere, I remember who served me: Jesus. And sometimes he comes in the form of 1965-habited nuns.

Communion is important to me because of the community we become at that meal, the experience that is shared together. I posted this on Facebook on Easter Sunday this year:

“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” Luke 24:30-31

Post-resurrection, they recognized the one who loved them and gave his life for them in the breaking of bread, the sharing of a meal. May we recognize that same love in our breaking of the bread and sharing hospitality. May we look across the table, into the eyes of others, and see what God saw when he made us: a reflection of the divine, something he called very good. And may we know his peace.

Happy Easter to all! Special prayers for God’s beloved in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

I know how important communion is in the church. I remember the look on Father Hupp’s face when he put that wafer on my tongue. I was part of something bigger than me that I would carry throughout the rest of my life.

When Jesus invites us to the table to remember him by serving others, it is a pretty important moment.

But I discovered just how important communion was to others in the church when I went to Iraq for the first time in November, 2011. I was traveling with a group of folks who are now part of the community of my life: Barbara, Marilyn, Tom M., Mark, Tom B., Elmarie and Chris. Four of these saints are pastors and even though it was important for all of us to be there, their presence was a gift beyond measure.

The Presbyterian church in Basrah had been without a pastor since 2004, when the last one fled in the midst of sectarian violence brought about by the U.S. invasion in 2003. A dear elder in the church, Zuhair Fathallah, had been leading this amazing congregation since. In their tradition, it was so important for the pastor to say the words of institution for communion, “On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took…”, and they didn’t have a pastor. There were and are very few pastors in Iraq, so they didn’t have communion in Basrah very often. Not every Sunday like in my young life in the Catholic church, not once a month like at my current reformed church, and not even once a year. They had communion when a pastor could be there, and when we showed up that November it had been over two years since they had celebrated it.

I don’t have a picture to show you, but I remember Marilyn taking a picture of the congregation. Almost to a person there were tears, and they were commemorating that event with their own cameras. I immediately thought back to Father Hupp and the joy that was on his face when he gave me that wafer. Communion is a meal with the divine among the mundane and it should be marked and remembered. And they did and it was.

One year later we returned to Basrah. They still had no pastor and Elder Zuhair was still running the church. (He also made the wine for communion!) And we had 50% more pastors in our group for a total of six: Mark, Tom, Elmarie, Rob, Larry and Marshall. And once again the cameras came out. Here is my picture from that day:

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.

 “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19b

The first communion. And I remember.