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…

Birthday season: Choir

It’s Wednesday night and for the last fifteen years that has meant choir practice.

Here is the 2000 West Hills Church Germany team. We were not the choir but we sang like one!

Here is the 2000 West Hills Church Germany team. We were not the choir but we sang like one!

Advent, 2000, I decided to take the invitation at our church to join the choir and sing for the season. Four Sundays, two services each. Christmas Eve, two services. I think it entailed five Wednesday nights for a total of ten hours of practice to sing Christmas carols and anthems for ten services. And this year, 2015, I will be singing two Christmas Eve services for the sixteenth time.

I’ve said it before that my favorite place (after the spot next to Steve) is in the middle of a choir. It is a glorious spot! All those voices blending in sweet harmonies, minor or major keys, pianissimos and fortissimos and the mezzos in between, leading a congregation or other audiences to a place of musical and heavenly bliss.

Ah, the heavenly chorus!

Tonight it hit me so closely what this particular choir – the West Hills Church chancel choir – means to me, and especially at this season.

It is Advent. And it is my birthday season which follows the same calendar. That is not hubris. That is just the way I experience this holy season and always have. It is hard to not associate your birthday with Christmas when your birthday is December 19th and your father told you years before that your birth was induced so you would be able to make an appearance at the family Christmas Eve gathering at the home of your grandparents. All month long there are lights and music and bustling. Surely, the fact that you have a late December birthday must be special. It could have been Christmas!

So fifteen years ago I started singing in the choir at West Hills Church and tonight it struck me deeply that in all those anthems and carols and Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, Maundy Thursdays and Easters, the eves of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the cantatas, the madrigal dinners and the occasional retreats, one of the very best birthday gifts I have ever received was to stand in the middle of this heavenly chorus and blend my voice with theirs.

In my fifteen years we have seen Dwaine retire, David lead us to Germany, Matt fail to lead us in the Hallelujah Chorus on Easter, Jared humbly try to lead but also to sing in our Gospel choir and Michael to lead us in a new season of real ministry as director.

We watched Cliff struggle with Alzheimer’s and every week take a new copy of each piece of music until his folder bulged and we always knew where to find a piece to supply someone else.

We sang with Mary – who loved the low, low alto notes! – and gathered at her funeral service when cancer took her.

We sadly let Barb and Virginia retire to the pews to listen to us instead of sing with us.

We prayed for Stan earlier this year when his father died and just this past week as he lost his mother.

We said good-bye to Sherrie as her last Sunday to sing with us just passed. She and Joe are retiring to Kansas City.

We have welcomed the young William and Sherri this year to sing with us and the more seasoned Kevin and Patti.

We have celebrated high school graduations, college graduations and even new grandbabies.

They gathered around me before we sang on Maundy Thursday in 2013, the day after I had learned that my youngest sister Cathy had been murdered.

I wanted them all to know tonight in this my birthday season that they have been such a gift to me! Fourteen years ago tonight was Wednesday, December 19th, my 43rd birthday. Two nights later, Steve gave me the best gift ever when he proposed. The following Sunday the choir was the first group I told and they were over the moon for us.

I have so much family. My siblings. My extended blood relations. My in-laws. My ink family at the print shop. My brothers and sisters in Christ across the globe. My creative Omaha Press Club family.

Tonight I am writing this thank-you note to my sacred and spiritual musical family: the West Hills Church chancel choir. And the note comes in the form of a prayer from God’s word:

I thank my God every time I remember you. (Philippians 1:3)

Mike, Stan, William, Dan, Barb, Ida, Trink, Sherri, Grace, Priscilla, Patti, Jane, Stan, Martin, Bill, Kevin, Michael and Kathy, I thank my God every time I remember you. Thank you for letting me stand in your midst, raise my voice with yours in harmony, and sing to our Lord for his glory.

All is well

Pam Kragt and I worked together for eight years at West Hills Church. Pam left her job this past January to pursue her dream job. It didn’t turn out to be the dream, but it in a period of waiting this summer, that dream did materialized for her. She is serving the people she loves the most, the Greatest Generation. It is her mission call and she was gifted by God for that purpose. She does it well!

I left six months after her and am in my waiting period as my new journey of school begins in January.

We are two women who found a way to be friends and sisters in Christ even though we represent the two ends of a political spectrum that can be very divisive. We had our moments, oh yes, we did. But at the end of the day and the end of our time on staff together, we were grateful that the common ground we shared was much broader and connecting than our political divide. We remain friends.

But now that we are not serving together, we haven’t seen each other since January.

Until today…

Pamela Sue, as she is known professionally, came to sing the Christmas program at church for our 55 and over group. Yes, I qualify. I earned my way in two Decembers ago when I hit the double nickel birthday. I didn’t really want to go, but Jana did, so we went. I was happy to see Pam again and hear her sing.

When we served on staff together, there were times when we would just start singing a hymn in the workroom at church. I would take the melody and Pam would just purr out her beautiful deep alto harmony. She learned all those hymns growing up in the church in northwest Iowa. For me, they were all fresh and new and singing with Pam in the workroom was just a joy.

The Lemon Sisters sing for the first time, West Hills Church Super Supper, 2007. Kathy Padilla, me, Pam Kragt

The Lemon Sisters sing for the first time, West Hills Church Super Supper, 2007. Kathy Padilla, me, Pam Kragt

One year for the annual church meeting known as the Super Supper, we formed a fabulous trio with our friend Kathy Padilla: The Lemon Sisters. Our motto was “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade for the Lord!” Our original song, West Hills Mission Trip, sung to the tune of Route 66, was a big hit that year.

This little group would pop up periodically to provide light entertainment and provoke laughter as we did in a sadder moment at church in 2013. Pam Moore was heading to Colorado Springs to take a new job after the death of her husband and our pastor George the year before. We gathered together as a staff to send her off and the Lemon Sisters were there to do it up right. This little video always makes me smile at the memory.

And so today we went to hear Pam sing. I had so many things to ask her and to tell her about life since we last shared time together. Upon seeing each other we just had a great big hug and it was such a gift. But then she said, “Oh Julie! I am so glad you are here. I was praying that you would come because there is a song I wanted to do for you.”

She had prayed. For me. She wanted to do a song. I thought maybe she was going to sing Sentimental Journey which we had done as Lemon Sisters, or maybe I’ll Fly Away. But that wasn’t it.

She couldn’t look at me as she introduced the song because she started tearing up. The truth is as she began to talk, I teared up myself. She said as she rehearsed it she would see me and my heart for the people of Syria. We had talked so many times about the places God has called us to, her to senior citizens and to Honor Flights and me to the church in the Middle East. She had heard me ask for prayers so many times for them, that they would know peace. And so many times in staff prayer she would be prompted to pray for them.

Always, even in our differences, we would find the words to pray for each other’s hearts.

And today, for me and for the peace of Syria, she sang this song by Michael W. Smith.

All Is Well

All is well all is well
Angels and men rejoice
For tonight darkness fell
Into the dawn of love’s light
Sing A-le
Sing Alleluia

All is well all is well
Let there be peace on earth
Christ is come go and tell
That He is in the manger
Sing A-le
Sing Alleluia

All is well all is well
Lift up your voice and sing
Born is now Emmanuel
Born is our Lord and Savior
Sing Alleluia
Sing Alleluia
All is well

I have written before about my birthday season. I have a season because my birthday is in the time of Advent, the Christmas season. The gifts I receive come on many days, not just the nineteenth of December. And so officially, today, December 4, 2015, my 57th birthday season began with the gift of song from my friend, Pam.

All is well.

Born is Emmanuel.

Let there be peace on earth.

Sing Alleluia.

All is well.

The Birthday Season

Engagement ringMy mom and dad got married on September 17, 1955, and my brother George was born eleven months later on August 4, 1956. And the other six of us arrived one at a time over the next eight years: Jana on November 19, 1957; then me on December 19, 1958; Susan on April 9, 1960; Mike on September 17, 1961 (yes, child #5 came on anniversary #6); Sally on July 24, 1963 and finally Cathy on December 7, 1964.

Birthdays were pretty spread out, with only Cathy and me sharing a month.

Yes, we each had a special day to celebrate. And today is mine, December 19, 2014. I am 56 today.

But the name of this blog is “The Birthday Season.” And because my birthday is so close to Christmas, I celebrate a birthday season and not just a day. Let me tell you why.

My birthday and Christmas are intertwined.

1958: Jana, Baby Julie, George

1958: Jana, Baby Julie, George

I was always told that my real due date was closer to Christmas than the 19th, but Mom and Dad wanted me home from the hospital in time for Christmas Eve at Grandpa and Grandma Piskac’s house, so I was induced. (Amazingly enough, new mothers and their babies used to stay in the hospital for several days, even a week or more. Now they send them home practically the hour after birth!)

My birth announcement inside the 1958 Christmas card.

My birth announcement inside the 1958 Christmas card.

And so the very first celebration of my birth was Christmas Eve, 1958. And as I look back, I think that is very special. I have a birthday celebrated over the course of days from the 19th of December to the 24th.

1956: Baby George (this is the only one that is an actual original photo)

1956: Baby George (this is the only one that is an actual original photo)

My mom and dad used to create their own Christmas cards every year. My dad was a printer after all. It’s not so unusual in this day and age to do that with electronic files and digital printing, but back in the days of letterpresses and newspapers cuts, it was quite a process. I have copies of most of those cards.

1957: George, Baby Jana

1957: George, Baby Jana

The only one I am missing (and it makes me very sad) is the one from 1964 when Cathy would make her first appearance. I am working on finding one.

I always loved these cards when I was older. I inherited the boxes of old pictures and cards and report cards and communion certificates. There are copies of pictures of us with good face shots. Some of the copies are missing the heads as they were used as the pictures that Daddy would use to make the printing plates or cuts.

1959: Jana, George, Julie (no new babies this year.)

1959: Jana, George, Julie (no new babies this year.)

Years later when Jana and I became roommates we decided to revive the tradition. We have a whole series of similar cards with our heads cut into Christmas scenes along with our two dogs.

But let me get back to my birthday (she said selfishly).

1960: Baby Susan, Julie, Jana, George

1960: Baby Susan, Julie, Jana, George

Today is my birthday, the beginning of my birthday season.

In 2001, my idea of a birthday season was reinforced when I spent the Friday night of my birthday week with a new person. Steve.

1961: Baby Mike, Susan, Julie, Jana, George

1961: Baby Mike, Susan, Julie, Jana, George

My birthday was on Wednesday that year, but who goes out for a birthday date on a Wednesday? Steve had made plans to take me to a wonderful, expensive, dress-up kind of restaurant on Friday to celebrate my birthday. We went to the Flatiron, a dark, romantic place, with Christmas lights twinkling inside and out. We had wine. We had duck. It was just divine.

1962: George, Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike (no new babies this year)

1962: George, Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike (no new babies this year)

And then he took me to his house to give me a birthday present. It was a Christmas CD of the Trans Siberian Orchestra.

“I remember that you said ‘O Holy Night’ is your favorite carol and it’s on this CD,” he said.

“I love that song! Thank you so much. I can’t wait to get home to listen,” I replied.

I was sitting on his sofa, marveling that someone like Steve would give me a birthday present of a CD with my favorite Christmas carol. It’s good to have a birthday season!

And the next moment he was on his knee.

1963: George, Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike, Baby Sally

1963: George, Jana, Julie, Susan, Mike, Baby Sally

“Actually, I got you something else to go with it. It comes with a question.”

And then that ring with a bright blue piece of the sky was on my finger.

“I was wondering if you would marry me?” was the question.

“Pinch me. Real hard.” I replied “And then ask me again.”

He did both. And I said yes.

That was thirteen years ago, and tonight we are going back to the Flatiron to celebrate my birthday in the midst of my birthday season.

I look back at all those old Christmas cards and marvel that the little girl whose picture showed up in the 1958 card, who made her entrance before Christmas so she could celebrate as part of a family, is the same woman with the piece of sky on her finger, in love with a saint who shares her life every day. Somehow all those years later he has kept up my birthday season and made it even that much more special and sparkly.

And all I can say is, “Happy birthday to me.” And it is. And I am, happy, that is.

And I’m ready to celebrate.

‘Tis the season.