Holy Week Reflection

Notre Dame Cathedral burned this week. Of all the great holy cathedrals and the humble worship spaces I have been in, I have never been in Notre Dame. Maybe it will be rebuilt in as little as five years and I will get my chance, but I just don’t know. I do know that the congregation who gather there every Sunday will not be celebrating Easter within its 850 year old walls and that is sad.

The fact that it burned during Holy Week  just added to the melancholy I was already feeling in my own version of Lent in Omaha, Nebraska.

During the Lenten season many Christians practice a spiritual discipline of giving something up to mirror the forty days of Jesus’ fasting and praying in the desert. Tempted as he was by the devil, he kept to his discipline of fasting and praying and gave the devil his due. I didn’t choose to give up anything this Lent, but it was kind of foisted upon me by circumstance: no choir on Maundy Thursday.

My little church choir has diminished over time and no one seems to want to commit to a church choir with weekly practices anymore. With our tenor section (two great guys) out for personal reasons, we couldn’t field a choir for Maundy Thursday this week. We couldn’t sing this past Christmas Eve for the same reason: not enough vocal mass.

It is so sad to mourn the slow death of something so beloved.

That was not the only loss. The same night we learned we would not be singing on Maundy Thursday, I asked a question at the end of rehearsal:

“Are we going to sing the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of Easter services?”

It is one of the great traditions of our church. As a church consultant once told us, we shouldn’t violate the DNA, the code, of our church. Singing the Hallelujah Chorus by Handel at the end of Easter service would be one of those things that I would say defines the code of our church. Led by the choir, anyone in the congregation who wanted to come up to sing was invited. Even as our choir has diminished over my twenty years as an alto, the choir was always magnified by the multitude who came up. Generations of families would come together. Indeed, Jana and I used to join our dad back before we were choir members. The congregation becomes the choir and it was glorious!

“No. We are not doing that this year. We’re closing with Christ the Lord Is Risen Today. The choir is too small.”

It is a glorious piece to be in the midst of when it is sung. Contrary to popular belief it is not the closing chorus of Handel’s Messiah. That is an even better piece, Worthy Is the Lamb and the great Amen. I am blessed enough to sing them both every year with a large community chorus at Thanksgiving time. But this year in my own church, no.

I gave into my disappointment and went home that Wednesday night to search YouTube files for the Hallelujah Chorus. I was looking for a particular version that I was a part of in 2010 when I organized a flash mob to sing it at our local mall. 2,500 people turned out to sing on the Saturday before my birthday. My pastor/mentor/boss/friend George Moore recorded my favorite version. At the end he gives a “whoop!” and a “happy birthday, Julie!” I have listened to it every day this week, feeling the loss of George two years later, and now the loss of the tradition at my church.

But Maundy Thursday worship went on without the choir, and it was a lovely mournful service as it is every year. Hymns. Readings. The sorrowful rumble of organ and cello together. It sets the mood as we remember why it is we celebrate communion, why we break the bread and lift the cup. That same Jesus who spent forty days in the desert with the devil yapping at him, trying to trip up his holiness, said that when we eat this bread and drink this cup we should remember him and what he was about to go through for our sakes, even for mine.

The church had set up a something called Journey to the Cross. It was a Presbyterian version of the stations of the cross I had walked every Good Friday while I worshiped in the Roman Catholic Church. I thought of the congregation of Notre Dame Cathedral and that they could not walk those stations this year, or next year, or who knows when again. Their DNA had been clipped, their code altered, just like my church.

I didn’t take the journey of the cross at church this week, but I have contemplated and reflected on the stations of the cross that I walked last summer at St. Benedict Center in Schuyler, Nebraska, on a silent retreat with my sister Jana. The stations are beautiful bronze plaques set on a circular path in a cornfield. On one side is a picture in relief of each of the fourteen stations, and on the reverse is a prayer of remembrance.

I contemplated how many of them showed women who were walking that way with Jesus. He reached out to them, and they reached back. In his suffering, they offered care and love and their tears. He accepted it all, and he accepts mine as well.

So it is the end of holy week. We remember. We remember in the bread, in the cup. We remember in words and in music. We remember in steps of a painful journey. We remember those who have gone before us and shown us the way.

And tomorrow is Easter, and although there will be no public Hallelujah Chorus at my church, and no Easter worship in Notre Dame, we will remember and celebrate the one who walked the way of the cross, was dead and buried, and rose again.

Christ the Lord is risen today! Hallelujah! Amen.

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.

The Old Piano

The old pianoIt is sitting here even now in my family room against a wall that is too short to hide its open back. It’s a Mendelssohn upright piano made in Derby, Connecticut, sometime around 1905. You can still find something about it on the Internet. The serial number is something like 102. It’s old, the soundboard is cracked, it’s scratched and beaten, but for something that has celebrated its centennial, it sits up straight. And I love it for the memories it brings back and the people I most associate with it. I had it tuned several years ago for a choir retreat at my house. The tuner said the best he could do was tune it to itself because of the crack in the soundboard, but that was good enough. The fact that he was willing to tune it told me he appreciated it for the music it could still make.

George Anton Piskac, about age three.

George Anton Piskac, about age three.

My grandpa bought it used for my dad when he was between three and four years old, so the story came to me. My dad was a musical prodigy. Why not? Everyone in his family had that musical gene! This picture of him at that tender age was in the local paper sometime around 1932 or 1933. Grandma used that photo as a publicity shot several years later when she sent a letter to MGM, suggesting that her young son would be perfectly cast as Jody in “The Yearling.” They didn’t choose him, but they did send her a nice letter back.

But my dad tickled those ivories as he grew up. (They were actually ivory when that piano was manufactured!) And when he got married and had kids of his own, it came to our house and lived in the basement. I don’t know how many of us took lessons from his sister, our Aunt Suzy, but several of us did, including me. I wish I could say that I inherited that musical gene, but it seems to have skipped me when it comes to the piano…or any other instrument I tried. Susan could play, and still does!

Mostly the Prescott kids used that piano for all kinds of other things, most of which had nothing to do with music. It still bears the scars and scratches of games we played with it. It was scaled, used as a launching pad, and other assorted adventures, and it was part of the structure of many forts we created down in the rec room. Grandpa refurbished it for us once, even replacing many of the missing ivories with synthetic materials, but it never ever looked like new.

When my dad and stepmom decided to move to an apartment back in 2000 or so, they couldn’t take it with them. My brother Mike – the obvious choice in my opinion, he had kids who could still learn! – didn’t want it. No one wanted it. You couldn’t sell it and you couldn’t give it away. So I took it. I paid a piano mover to move it the seven miles or so to my home, down an outside set of stairs to the basement, where it lodged untouched for two years. I would give it a longing glance when I would go down to change the furnace filter, but never another thought except, “I sure wish I could play.”

When I got married to Steve in 2002, we moved to a new house about seven blocks away. It took over a year to sell that house and we slowly moved my things to the new one. No rush. No one was buying anyway. My thought was that the piano could stay there for the new owners when they came. They would probably have kids, and kids need piano lessons, right? (All except Mike’s, that is.) I was wrong.

The house sold thirteen months later and the sales contract clearly indicated that the piano had to go. Still no one wanted to buy it and no one wanted it for free. I asked a local dealer, “What do people do with their old 100+ year old uprights?” His answer: We send them to the landfill. So once more I called the same piano mover to come and pick it up.

They met me at my old house that day at that same outside back stairwell that led to the basement. Did I say it was steep? Three big guys yanked and pulled and maneuvered it up those concrete stairs, swearing all the way, complaining about how heavy it was. They were piano movers, the same ones who moved it down there. Aren’t they all heavy? They’re pianos, after all. Anyway, it took a long time to get it out of there and I just stood at the top of the stairs. My eyes were closed and I was trying to picture that old piano sitting on the landfill, surrounded by the other things we just throw away when we’re tired of them. And I couldn’t do it. All I could see was the old photo of my dad as I had never known him, a child full of promise, full of talent – full of music! – with his whole life ahead of him. I could see him sitting there in later years playing the “doodley-do” song for us, which is really called “Nola.” I could hear the notes. I could feel the pressure of the keys under my own fingers when I played for Aunt Suzy. I couldn’t do it.

When they finally hoisted it to the top of the stairwell, I opened my eyes and said I had a new plan. Instead of driving it the twenty-five miles or so to the dump and waiting in line to unload it, what if they just drove it seven blocks away and moved it into my new house? No steps! Just come right in the back door.

And there it sits. I still use it to pick out my choir parts. It’s not really playing, but it does help me make music. Others who can actually play have sat down to it and brought Christmas carols and other melodies out of it, and like I said, we used it at that choir retreat.

There is still music to make with that old piano, even it doesn’t fit on that wall. And when I close my eyes, I can still see my dad and hear him play it.

Peace through Music

I love this video clip. It’s Jeff Vojtech, Mike Geiler, me and Alisha Sauer singing this beautiful hymn by Stuart Townend. I love the music. I love the text. I love the harmony. And when I sang it with these three, and when I listen and watch now, I feel peace.

I think music is one of those places where we do find peace. It strikes me always when I watch the musical, “The Music Man.” My favorite part of that movie is when Professor Harold Hill diverts the school board from investigating him for fraud by forming them into a barbershop quartet. These four quarreling men who seem to really have no respect for each other, blend their voices into perfect four-part harmony by simply singing the words “ice cream,” each on his own note. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. And the fight is over; there is peace.

I wrote a lengthy essay on that topic a few years back and the thought comes back to me now in this time of global crisis. Wars in Syria, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, the Ukraine. All over the world we are experiencing the lack of peace in the form of conflict and people – people just like you and me – are being killed and maimed and are suffering in so many ways.

It is hard to watch this on a daily basis and feel inadequate to do anything about it. I pray. I cry. I shout at God and say, “Why?”

And then I think back on that fictional account of four school board members in River City, Iowa, singing together. Their fight is over and music was the answer. And I know that is very simplistic thinking.

But that is my dream and my prayer and maybe it is just that simple.

Wouldn’t it be amazing to organize the world’s largest choir? I am talking one or two or six billion people! I imagine that we would all sing just one word – peace – in whatever language was our own, in harmony. And for the briefest of moments, there would be peace and harmony.

And maybe it would lead to more moments. And maybe there would be peace.

On days like today when planes are shot out of the sky, and armies march, and missiles fly, and children die, that’s what I think about.

The Gift of Choir

2012 Worship Arts ladies ensembleI said to someone the other day – it was a choir director, actually – that my favorite place to be is in the middle of the choir, creating a collective offering of music from many different voices and sending it out to be received as the gift it is. My second favorite place to be is in the audience receiving that gift.

I joined the chancel choir at our church in December, 2000. I couldn’t resist the invitation to be a part of the group that was offering beautiful seasonal music back to our creator God whose incarnation we were celebrating. It was a chance to give a birthday gift to the one has given us everything! And I have been a part of that group ever since.

It was a big step for me. I have always loved to sing, but most of my singing was done in the quiet of my room where no one could hear me. I did sing with my sisters as we played our guitars and enjoyed camp songs and folk music. I sang next to my musical dad in church for many years as well. But at some point in time I became aware of my own singing voice and I didn’t think it was very good. I had last sung in a choir in high school. As girls glee ended for our sophomore class, the next step was to audition for the upper level choir which was known as Warrior Voices back in the dark ages of 1975 B.S.C. (That’s “before show choir.” I am pretty sure they hadn’t been invented yet.) The audition required sight-reading a piece of music (I can read music) and singing “My Country “Tis of Thee” alone, a cappella, for the choir director. All that came to my mind when I pictured that was…horror. It couldn’t be done by me. Fear overcame my desire to sing and that was the end of it for me. Being shy and overly self-conscious is not a good combination for stepping out in courage or faith.

Forward the calendar twenty-five years to 2000 and somehow the desire overcame the fear and I joined that chancel choir. And now you can’t keep me out of one. I have become the choir cheerleader, excited at every new person who steps through the door and wants to join. Welcome! Let’s get you some music! Let’s find you a folder and a robe! Are you soprano or alto? Tenor or bass? Come meet someone! Come sit next to me! I’m an alto and we are the friendliest group. Let’s blend our voices and make this offering to the Lord together. I drive some people nuts in that group, but they love me anyway and I love each of them.

Music really is a gift to be given and we give it all the time in our choir. But here is the other thing about the choir: it is a gift of community. You have to work together. You have to listen to each other. You need to follow the one who will bring all the parts together into a glorious whole. You have to set aside your agenda, your desires, your needs. To make it work and work well, the individual voices need to become one voice. And in the midst of our context at church, the best part of community is that we are there to care for each other: to mourn with each other at a loss, to celebrate the joys when they happen and to follow the one who calls us to be there. I think it is the best kind of community and I am so overwhelmed at rediscovering it fourteen years ago. If I could have had the kind of understanding of the community of choir in my youth, I could have filled those missing twenty-five years with precious memories, gifts of another kind.

But I try not to look back and mourn. I look forward…to Sunday. Here comes another chance to give the gift.

When we present our anthems in worship, we are of course facing our director. His name is Michael Dryver and he is an amazingly gifted musician who trusts us with some very difficult pieces. When we get it right in rehearsal he always says, “Just like that.” We know we’ve done it well in worship when his face just lights up at the end. I wish the congregation could see him the way we do. This much I know, God above, who is our only audience, can see his face. And I think in that moment his favorite place to be is in the middle of the choir with us (because he is there!) and also in the audience, receiving the gift. And I’m pretty sure he says, “Just like that.”

Choir: the gift of music and community.  Just like that.