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 best Christmas gift

The front of the 1965 Christmas card with all seven Prescott children. Cathy would have just celebrated her first birthday on December 7.

The front of the 1965 Christmas card with all seven Prescott children. Cathy would have just celebrated her first birthday on December 7.

I wrote a bit about those old family Christmas cards a few days ago in “The birthday season.” I had most of the cards my mom and dad made during the years they had together when we were children, until my mom died in 1966.

I couldn’t put my hands on two of them: 1964 and 1965. 1964 was the year the last of the Prescott siblings was born, Cathy, on December 7. I think my sister Sally has a copy and I will get my hands on it soon!

But Sally did find the one from 1965 and looking at it now, I was reflecting on its simplicity.

Like the rest of the series begun in 1956 when George was born, it has each of our faces cut into a Christmas scene. These kind of graphics are popular again. They are just so cliche and that is what makes them cute and timeless. Jana gets the privilege in this one of placing the star on top of the tree as George holds the ladder for her. (Just for the record, Daddy was the only one who ever put the star up there!) The rest of us are all lined up in age order to pile the presents under the tree. This is the only card that has our names on the front. I guess there were so many of us by now they needed to remind everyone who was getting a card who we were. And even Cathy – only one! – was bringing a present.

The inside of the 1965 Christmas card with a simple message.

The inside of the 1965 Christmas card with a simple message.

The back side of the 1965 Christmas card with our dog Candy. Uncle Bob gave us this Saint Bernard puppy earlier in the year.

The back side of the 1965 Christmas card with our dog Candy. Uncle Bob gave us this Saint Bernard puppy earlier in the year.

The inside of the card had a simple message, and for once, the back of the card was printed. Yes, there was one more family member added that year. Candy the Saint Bernard had come to us sometime during the spring or summer. My Uncle Bob, a bachelor at the time, thought we should have a dog. On a visit to Omaha from Milwaukee where he lived, he stepped off the plane with a furry bundle of joy. A gift for his nieces and nephews (not sure Mommy and Daddy smiled at this one) of a puppy who would grow to be larger than any of us. Thank you, Uncle Bob!

With almost fifty Christmases between this one in 1965 and now, my memory is fogged on details. I am sure we spent Christmas Eve at Grandpa Piskac’s house with the rest of our extended family. There would have been Uncle Tony and Aunt Hon, Uncle Jerry and Aunt Tillie, Aunt Suzy; maybe Aunt Heddy and Uncle Jerry would have come in from Lincoln, and all the cousins who went with these brothers and sisters of my dad. I know Grandma Piskac would not have been there because she had died earlier in the year, but the rest would have been there.

We would have had Aunt Hon’s Christmas tree cake and Aunt Tillie’s always festive Christmas cookies. There would have been some dried fruits with those delicate little plastic forks to spear the fruits with. There would have been a Christmas tree in Grandpa’s living room, somewhere in the corner by his fish tanks. And there would have been piles of presents for all of us. And everyone would have given Grandpa a can of tobacco for his pipe. (All these years later, I love the smell of a tobacco-filled pipe being smoked. It always reminds me of Grandpa.)

In the morning at our house, there would have been a great big pile of presents as well. Our stockings would be hanging on the fireplace at the house on 105th Street that we had just moved into that September. Our first Christmas in a new home! We each would have a net bag of goodies – apple, orange, sack of salted peanuts in the shell, candy cigarettes, Brach’s chocolate stars – from the Shriners. Uncle Jerry was a Shriner and he always made sure that we each got one of these bags of goodies. There would be shredded paper everywhere once the gifts were opened. And then we would go to church.

But what I remember looking back now is that 1965 was the last Christmas that my entire family – all those names on that Christmas card with the dog on the back – had together. It was the last Christmas Eve and the last Christmas morning and the last Christmas card designed by a couple who loved each other and loved each of us and wanted everyone to know it.

Mom died March 27, 1966.

Looking at the card from 1965, it made me remember one of my favorite Christmases. I’ve shared the story with others when someone asks, “What is one of the best gifts you ever received on Christmas?”

It was Christmas, 1966, the very year after this last card. I’m sure we spent Christmas Eve at Grandpa’s. I am sure all the aunts and uncles and cousins were there and that we ate Aunt Hon’s Christmas tree cake and Aunt Tillie’s festive cookies. I am sure the dried fruit and the little plastic forks were on the table as well. The tree was laden with gifts and the fish tanks were there nearby. Grandpa got the usual supply of pipe tobacco and the smell from his smoking added to the memory.

The next morning there would be the stockings and the Shriner goodie bags. But there weren’t many gifts. Really, there were just two. One for the girls and one for the boys. I can remember it quite distinctly. There were two car-racing sets that had come from the Texaco station down the street. And that is all. And it was the very best Christmas gift I ever remember receiving.

And here is why.

What does a father of seven do for Christmas when his wife, the mother of his seven children, dies nine months before? Ten years and six months and seven children after they said their “I dos” she is gone.

I think he grieves. He grieves in private so the seven young children are unaware of his loss. He grieves privately because they have grief of their own that he needs to tend to.

Nine months go by and he realizes that the presents she would have bought and wrapped and put under the tree aren’t going to materialize. So he does what he can. He stops at the gas station at the end of the street where they are selling these Texaco-themed car race sets and buys two, one for the boys and one for the girls.

He takes them home in the middle of the night and assembles them and sets them up under the tree, ready to play with the next morning – Christmas morning – before church.

The funniest part of this story is that Jana and Susan were in on the surprise. The three of us shared a bedroom upstairs just down the hall from the living room. I was in a deep sleep – sugarplums, no doubt dancing in my head. Jana and Susan heard something, however. Thinking it was elves they crept down the hall to discover Daddy putting together the car sets…and he let them help.

It makes me smile to look back on this gift. It remains the best gift I remember receiving. Daddy going out in the night to make sure his children had a Christmas. Daddy who worked so hard every day to provide for seven children in all their needs, loved us so much that he didn’t want us to miss Christmas. And we didn’t.

Love. That is the best gift. And sometimes it looks like matching car racing sets from Texaco, at least it did in 1966.

A Christmas poem, 2011

At a West Hills Church staff Christmas party at my house, probably Christmas 2010.

At a West Hills Church staff Christmas party at my house, probably Christmas 2010.

For many years I have written an end of year poem for the pastor at my church. It started kind of innocently and not deliberately around 1997 or so. Doctor Seuss-like verse pops out of my fingers without thinking most days. That year I had become more involved here at my church and really started listening to the sermons. By listening, I mean absorbing.

So, George Moore was our pastor then, and he was the inspiration. He had spent many sermons trying to get us to understand the word incarnational. That word and the word relational were the two words that really described our church. Well, once we understood what they meant!

So that Christmas I began to understand how the two went together and how we define our life here in this community of worship and faith.

I also realized the two words made a great rhyme!

I don’t have that poem as I wrote it out longhand in his Christmas card that year, the first time I wrote him a poem, and the first time I gave him a Christmas card.

And that continued all the way through 2011, when he preached his last Advent series. He had one ready for 2012, but sadly, he died on November 24, 2012, before he could give it to us.

I wrote one for the associate pastor that year; I’m not sure she appreciated it like George did. She never said anything. I wrote one for our interim last year, and I would say the same thing. I realize neither of them is George, and no one can ever take his place.

I used to put it on his desk between the two late Christmas Eve services with a little gift.

He would always find me and say, “How do you do it? How can you write a poem about my Advent series and always include something about the sermon you haven’t heard yet? The one from tonight?”

I would just smile and say, “You have led me to this place by the previous sermons. You wrote it. I didn’t.”

This year I’m not writing one. There just hasn’t been any inspiration. Maybe it’s me. My heart is in a very sad place right now. My friends and sisters and brothers in Syria and Iraq are not experiencing a silent night. I take hope from the fact that they are still there worshiping the same God who came to earth as an infant. I take hope in the fact that their voices are still lifted in worship. I take hope in the fact that they are still there serving those living through these days.

But my heart is not inspired to a Christmas poem this year.

Inside Joe Mbiy's home in Kumbo, Cameroon, summer 2001. This was the second time I had met Joe. The first was in Germany the year before. He has now completed seminary and been ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon.

Inside Joe Mbiy’s home in Kumbo, Cameroon, summer 2001. This was the second time I had met Joe. The first was in Germany the year before. He has now completed seminary and been ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon.

So I wanted to share the last one I wrote for George. And in it I mention another dear friend, a Cameroonian man I met in Germany in 2000. Upon visiting him in his country on a return trip there in 2004, he pulled me aside and told me his dream of becoming a pastor. (That’s Joe in the picture, standing with the hat on.)

Joe is one year older than me, making him 57. His birthday is tomorrow, December 22.

He had a fourth grade education when he asked me if my family might see the way to help him achieve his dream by attending seminary. I asked him how it was possible if he only had a fourth grade education. He said he would work to get his equivalency diploma allowing him to take the entrance exam.

Thinking this was a total impossibility, I told him we would pray about it. If he could make it that far, we would take him the rest of the way, never believing myself that it was possible.

Well the poem indicates that Joe did make it. He worked to get his equivalency diploma, all the time he was a father, grandfather, farmer and Sunday school agent for his church, the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon. He made it through seminary, and graduated at the top of his class.

Steve and Jana and I supported him for those four years of seminary and he worked as hard as anyone ever could.

Two weeks ago, we sent him an ordination gift. He is now Reverend Joe Mbiy.

This poem is for those two pastors from two different continents who inspire me even today. One has gone home to be with Jesus, and one is in Africa, six time zones to the east.

A Christmas Worth Remembering, 2011

My purse was full when I made my start
As I walked in, I grabbed for a cart.
The store was full of so many others:
There were brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers.
This time of year we spend and spend
And Santa’s line, it has no end.
As far back as I can remember,
This is how we have spent December.
It’s Christmastime! The lights! The splendor!
The shopping that’s a never-ender.
A shirt, some shoes, a brand new jacket,
Toys and games that make a racket,
The cart it overflows with plenty,
And when I return my purse is empty.

This ritual of consumption seems so permanent,
and yet I wonder, should it be different?
What if instead of filling a cart,
I took a step and emptied my heart?
If I just stopped and took a deep breath,
and thought long ago of a nativity crèche,
The scene before me would surely reveal
A Christmas worth remembering, God’s ideal.

He asked a young girl to open her heart,
And bear his son, this plan to start.
Her simple peasant acquiescence,
Allowed room for this holy presence.
A song she sang to worship fully,
Her soul glorifies the Lord most holy.
She and her mate had nought to spend,
But with this gift to us portend
That in giving all they had to give
They showed God’s plan on how to live.

To empty my cart and open my heart
I can give to just one, it’s a step; it’s a start.
How easily love can be made manifest
I can give even more, maybe even the rest!

For the story we hear every year on this night
Is about a little babe born to set it all right.
He is the word of our God, sent to us in the flesh
It’s him we should worship, much more and not less.
He spent all he had, his life, in his giving.
To show us the way to love while we’re living.

So when he asks me, and my answer is “yes,”
I should look forward, and not second guess.
As I think back on my “yesses” in this year that has passed
I look in my cart to see what I’ve amassed.
My brother in Cameroon shall soon be called “Reverend,”
I’ve worshiped in Basra, I’ve gone where he’s sent.
I’ve sung in the choir, in the plate I’ve put treasure,
I’ve given my all in ways I can’t measure.

I thank you for helping me have vision to see
That the love of my Jesus, is all that I need.
He gave up his life for the sake of us all,
And that’s what he asks when we answer his call.
This answer does mark us, it makes us distinct
That’s what you told me, at least what I think!
That’s your gift to me in this month of December.
It surely will be a Christmas to remember.

Merry Christmas George!
Peace to you and to all in 2012

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.