The Tree of Life

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  (Rev. 22:1-2)

I cannot help but mention that this is Earth Day, which reminds me that from the beginning God made us stewards of his garden and all of creation. And I come from Nebraska, the home of Arbor Day, which we set aside to recognize the importance of planting trees. These things struck me as we began our day at the National Presbyterian Church of Aleppo with the planting of an olive tree, but I will return to that later.

Rev. Jim Wood of First Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia, receives a stone from the demolished Presbyterian church in Aleppo from Rev. Ibrahim Nseir.

As we gathered with our brothers and sisters for Sunday worship, I couldn’t help but think back to a hot August Sunday in 2010, the last time a group from The Outreach Foundation experienced the Lord’s day in this place with these people. It was in a building, which dated to sometime in the mid-19th century. That building was destroyed in November, 2012. We stood in the midst of the rubble of that place today with Rev. Ibrahim Nseir and some of the church’s elders. “Where was the sanctuary, Assis?” we asked. As he stood on the broken stones of the place where he once preached and served the Iraqi refugees who were in his city, he pointed over his shoulder to show us. Broken bits of crystal chandeliers and terrazzo flooring were scattered about with pages of burned books and Sunday school papers with the story of Noah. All of this was hard to see for two of us who had been there before the war, and I could hardly imagine how it was for those who then called it their church home.

Rev. Tom Boone of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Cornelius, North Carolina, preaches while Rev. Nuhad Tomeh, of The Outreach Foundation, translates.

But destruction was not the message we received in their new building today, a building which opened for worship on Christmas day, 2015. Today Rev. Tom Boone told us the story of a Syrian name Ananias, a story we know from Acts 9, where Saul the persecutor has his eyes opened by Ananias, the persecuted. Tom wanted us to grasp what Ananias knew and what the church in Syria knows as well as they serve in this place: If we are in Christ, we are called not to be safe, but to be obedient. God hears our, “Why should I? He wants to kill me,” and answers not with punishment, but with grace because he understands our fear…and yet still he sends us. Just as for Ananias, so for the people of Aleppo church: In courage they stay and serve, because it is not fear that defines them, but hope.

There are many things I could write about in a day that began at 10:00 a.m. and ended at 11:00 p.m. Indeed, it is very late when I write this. I could write of meeting with the leaders of the church ministries and hearing their challenges and dreams. I could write of the challenges facing the elders of the church as they deal with needs that would send most of us back to our beds with the covers pulled over our heads. I could write of imams cleaning up and reconstructing the Great Mosque destroyed just a few blocks from the rubble of the Presbyterian church. I could write about the amazing hospitality we experienced in this place and the food we consumed. And if my fingers and brain had the energy, I would do so.

An olive tree newly planted in hope.

But instead, I will write about hope, for we are a people of hope, and the planting of an olive tree, for that is what we did as the family of God today in Aleppo. In a small yard next to the church building we put our hands on the muddy red root ball of a very young olive tree. After Rev. Ibrahim poured water into the hole prepared to receive it, we lifted the young tree into the hole and pushed the dirt around it.

Who would plant a tree in a place where destruction is all around? Who would go to their persecutor and open his eyes? The people of God, called out of their fears into hope, into life. This small tree is the church of Aleppo, and it has, it does and it will bear fruit, fragile as it seems, and will be a part of the healing of this nation.

Thanksgiving 2015

Every day is a day to give thanks, and I try to do that every night in my evening prayers. But in the U.S. we set aside the fourth Thursday of November as a special day.

Happy Thanksgiving!

On this fourth Thursday in 2015, I have so much to be thankful for.

Steve and I on the top of the Krak de Chevaliers, Wadi al Nassara, Syria, November, 2014.

Steve and I on the top of the Krak de Chevaliers, Wadi al Nassara, Syria, November, 2014.

First on my list is my husband, Steve, who is standing in the kitchen chopping vegetables for a savory bread dressing, a staple of the meal that goes with this day. I am thankful for the miracle he is in my life; not looking for a life mate, our paths crossed fourteen years ago and here we are today. Sharing life. Sharing love. Sharing joy and sorrow. ‘Til death do us part.


Six siblings at the memorial service for the seventh, our baby sister Cathy.

Six siblings at the memorial service for the seventh, our baby sister Cathy..

I am thankful for brothers and sisters who have walked through the hard times of head injury, of broken marriages and of new marriages, of loss through disease and grievous loss through crime. We once were seven, and now we are six, but the six remain a unit bound together through love. We are family.

I am thankful for friends who open up the world as a place to experience God’s glory and his grace. They encourage. They grieve for, mourn with, and on the other side they celebrate in joy. They are faithful women. They are lay and clergy – men and womenI am thankful for friends who open up the world as a place to experience God’s glory and his grace. They encourage. They grieve for, mourn with, and on the other side they celebrate in joy. They are faithful women. They are lay and clergy – men and women.

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.

They sing. They dance. Their tears flow with mine. Their laughter is a symphony. They will go anywhere. They will do anything. Even when it is so hot the sweat pours off their faces; even when they are drinking their tenth cup of deep, dark, sweet Arabic coffee when they would rather have an iced tea. They will venture to places that cause people to say, “You are so brave!”, even when they know it is not their courage, but the courage of others that draws them into participation in life because they know where real courage comes from.

Kirkuk, Iraq, November, 2012, with The Outreach Foundation. The gentleman in the front row, second from the left, is now the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, His Grace, Louis Raphael Sako.

Kirkuk, Iraq, November, 2012, with The Outreach Foundation. The gentleman in the front row, second from the left, is now the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, His Grace, Louis Raphael Sako.

I am thankful for the church I have come to know in Lebanon and Syria and Iraq. I am thankful that when I say I believe in God the Father almighty, and in his son, my savior Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit who is my guide and comfort, that I say it in community with the saints of old and the saints of now. They are embodied in Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed congregations and the faith and courage and perseverance they model every day in the midst of war and terror and death is a reminder to me of what it means to follow this triune God. He does not promise us life without loss, but he does offer us life abundant. And when I see how abundant life is in the church in these hard places, I have seen this promise lived out daily.

I am thankful for grace. For I have deserved it not, earned it not, purchased it not. But it has been freely given at great cost.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Dona nobis pacem.

Dancing in church

I have shared a couple of wonderful memories of the summer of Steve, 2001, the summer we began the relationship which continues in a marriage now in its fourteenth year. We spent a lot of time together, and we also spent a lot of time writing to each other. Those notes and cards and emails and letters tell a great love story, and they are all sitting in a basked upstairs that I have found some time to go through.

But our relationship really began with a dance in church. It wasn’t a prom. It wasn’t at a wedding. It wasn’t some gathering for singles, especially older ones. It wasn’t a two-step or a quick step or even a polka. It was a long, slow dance in circles around each other.

It started in Sunday school.

My entry point back into church was because Jana kept bugging me to come with her. So one January, I think it was 1997, I made a New Year’s resolution to go back to church, the one resolution I have ever kept. I went for 9:30 worship and then stayed with Jana for the 11:00 Sunday school class, which I really enjoyed. It was about the scripture texts that were given to Handel to write his great oratorio, Messiah. I loved it!

So I kept going back and by 1999, Jana and I were on the Adult Education Committee, planning Sunday school classes for adults. I went on my first mission trip (to southwest Germany) in 2000, and then finally joined West Hills that fall, when I had come to the conclusion that being a part of the body of Christ WITHIN the body of Christ was better than standing alone, outside.

The dance with Steve started in one of those classes that we put on, a year-long study of the Old Testament. Steve sat in the back. Jana and I sat in the front. He would tease me about always knowing the answers and being the teacher’s pet. I called it flinging arrows at my back from the rear. There we were, learning about God’s word together while circling around one another.

That fall, after I came back from Germany and took our new members class, Steve was the enabler, or facilitator, of my small group. Part of the process was to learn each other’s story and so our dance continued, bit by bit, no one leading, but the circle spiraling in.

That OT class led to another on the parables of Jesus and Steve and I found ourselves in the same small discussion group. And for some reason one week the discussion led to me asking this question: “If I asked you to jump off a cliff, would you?” It was a snarky, silly comment, and yet somehow the answer came back. Yes. He said, yes. And all of a sudden the dancers were face to face.

Never having been in this position before, I was overwhelmed. One hot night, I wrote a letter and sealed it in five envelopes. And somehow, the next day I found the courage to put a stamp on it and mail it. And that letter and its response are the first two things in that basket of memories I have thought about while walking these last weeks.

IMG_2047Dear Steve,

Would you please STOP! It’s 4:30 in the morning and I have a busy day ahead and I need to sleep! Just stop. It’s hard enough that it’s hot and I refuse to break my June 1 rule about the a/c, but you won’t leave me alone. Steve, Steve, Steve… You’re like the wind blowing right now — it’s noisy but welcome because it’s cool. The worst part is you’re probably totally unaware that you’re making so much noise! When you said you’d jump off a cliff if I asked you to, the reality is, you pushed me over. I’m falling and I can’t get up, but there’s that wonderful feeling like the down cycle of a ferris wheel. Over and over and over… Steve, Steve, Steve. Cut it out! I’m sealing this in all these envelopes to muffle the noise. Sorry if this rambles, but it’s 4:30. A.M.! So, I will now make one more attempt to sleep. Good morning to you.

Sincerely, but sleepily, Julie

P.S. See you Sunday at 8!

It was a small, brave step forward in our dance…and it scared me. Two days later, this arrived:

IMG_2048Dear Julie,

You’ve been making a lot of noise in my head also. I don’t know what to say! I’ve been trying to get to know you better as carefully and secretly as possible. But now you’ve flushed me out into the open. Your first card [an Easter card sent earlier in the spring – JPB] was the first clue I had of your possible interest, but I didn’t want to misread anything, nor was I ready to say anything. For that matter I’m still not sure I’m ready. But here I am! Talk about falling off a cliff, your second card was wonderful! Whatever comes next, I will treasure it always.

So what does come next? I’ve been thinking about asking you out for some time now, but the very word “dating” makes me cringe. Maybe we can start figuring this out this weekend. Call me when you get this card.

Truly yours, Steve

P.S. Your handwriting is atrocious! You didn’t really expect this correspondence to go by without at least one gibe did you?

I called. We went to dinner. We started, not dating, but keeping coming. I went to Cameroon five days later, came back, and the dance continued. It continues still, now in the wonderful and miraculous state of wedded bliss.

I never went to the prom or the homecoming dance. But it’s okay. I danced in church,  and my card was – and is – filled.



That's me, sandwiched between Huda and Rev. Michel Boughos of Yazdieh, Syria, in their home.

That’s me, sandwiched between Huda and Rev. Michel Boughos of Yazdieh, Syria, in their home.

Steve and I returned to Beirut from our six days in Syria on Thanksgiving Day, November 27. He was sick so he missed having a marvelous dinner that was prepared for us by Dr. Mary Mikhael, the former president of the Near East School of Theology (the NEST), the seminary in Beirut. He missed the meal, but he did not forgo being thankful for all we had seen and done and especially for the people we had met and shared life with for those six precious days.

Two of those nights in Syria we spent in the company of Rev. Michel Boughos and his wife Huda. Steve and I spent those nights in their home, a home they had shared for 37 years. Michel graduated from the NEST in 1977, married Huda (who was from Lattakia,) and was assigned to be the pastor of the National Evangelical Church of Yazdieh, the Presbyterian church.

The church bell in its tower at the National Evangelical Church of Yazdieh, Syria.

The church bell in its tower at the National Evangelical Church of Yazdieh, Syria.

When they moved into this home, it was very tiny and I as understand it, the house was just a tiny appendage of the tiny church. The two are still attached, but both parts are much larger now with 37 years of ministerial work by Michel and Huda.

Our first experience of both of them was when we arrived in Amar Hosan on the day of the two-lane trip which you can read about here:

Michel reminded me of a little elf, with a quick smile and twinkle in his eye. Huda was his counterpart in smiles, and it was obvious she was a real worker bee; everyone flocked to be with her and share their needs. She listened to every person and every story. These two were just meant to be together, ministering together. Two gifted saints, who would serve amazingly as individuals, but when the two were joined, synergy was created. God sure had a plan there!

Steve preparing to read Psalm 46 as Rev. Michel introduces him.

Steve preparing to read Psalm 46 as Rev. Michel introduces him.

After the visit to Amar Hosan, we went back down the road to Yazdieh to prepare for another worship service there. We spent some time at Michel and Huda’s home having coffee and tea and planning the service. Steve was volunteered to read from the Psalms (46 actually, “God is our refuge and strength, a present help in times of trouble…”) and there would be a Power Point by Huda of the families they serve in the area and the ways they serve.

Bassam tells part of his story as Rev. Nuhad Tomeh translates for us. (Nuhad has been a part of each trip I have been on with The Outreach Foundation. Yazdieh is his home.)

Bassam tells part of his story as Rev. Nuhad Tomeh translates for us. (Nuhad has been a part of each trip I have been on with The Outreach Foundation. Yazdieh is his home.)

Here we met Bassam, a veterinarian by profession. He was a refugee from Qusayr, near the Lebanon border, a place that had experienced tremendous loss at the hands of ISIS. Bassam and his family were now an integral part of this congregation at Yazdieh, serving in many capacities. Where Huda lacked the technical know-how to get the pictures up for the presentation, Bassam stepped in to load the photos and run the computer.

I need to tell you about Bassam.

You can Google Qusayr and find lots of stories about the fighting there. When I am at home I just devour news about Syria because of my relationships there. I had read these stories about Qusayr, so when I heard that Bassam came from there I had to ask.

“Did you lose family members?”


Twenty-two men in his extended family had been murdered by ISIS! He told us the story of one uncle who was missing for several days. When one of the family asked where there uncle was, his thumb was returned.

His thumb.

This beloved uncle was returned over several days in 200 separate pieces. Butchered.

Bassam, the veterinarian from Qusayr, helps unload the truck for the food parcels.

Bassam, the veterinarian from Qusayr, helps unload the truck for the food parcels.

And here was Bassam, calmly telling us the story, bringing up pictures of his now dead relatives on his phone to share them with us.

And here was Bassam, loading the pictures up for Huda to share at the worship service. A man who heals animals for a living, now a refugee in a place not his own, but serving his neighbors in the ways that he can.

And so we went to service and saw the pictures as one by one, Bassam changed them for Huda on the screen.

Here was how they put the food baskets together.

Here was how they did crafts and games with the children at Christmastime.

Here were the blankets they could obtain and share with families for the winter.

Here were refugees needing desperate medical help and this is what we could do to help them.

On and on. Picture after picture of families in need who had left their own homes to find life in another place.

Comic relief was provided for us by a black cat who wandered into the church during this service. (Huda feeds eight cats every day at her back porch.) His name was Simony and he just kept rubbing up against her legs, Michel’s legs, the podium, my legs, Steve’s legs; anyplace he could find his comfort. Priceless!

Steve helped unload the truck as it delivered the last three parts of the food parcels.

Steve helped unload the truck as it delivered the last three parts of the food parcels.

And after the service was over, we went down to the fellowship hall to see the items gathered for the next food parcel delivery. Huda works very hard to collect it, organize it and store it until it is ready for delivery. It was enough food for 300 families, but it would be made into parcels to serve 600 families, so more would receive. (There are 1700 refugee families in their area that this small church reaches out to and tries to serve. The need is overwhelming, but they do not stop serving.) They were still waiting for three items before they started delivering: canned vegetables, zatar (a spice) and tea. (The day before we left Yazdieh, these other things arrived. Steve helped load them down in the hall and Huda began deliveries the day we left.)

Many of the families came down from the worship service with us, and we heard more stories of pain and loss and death. Picturing all this in your head is one thing, and it completely crushed my heart. I had had a meltdown earlier in the day upon arriving at Yazdieh after listening to the stories at Amar Hosan.

But then another family wanted to show us and pulled out their phone to load up a video…

I simply could not do it, but there was my Steve, offering the strength of his heart to share in their pain.

He watched the whole video on the phone and I watched his face as he watched it. There was a language barrier but he knew that one of those poor souls whose head was being cut off was the family member of that family, that was very obvious. I don’t know how he keeps that image out of his head when he sleeps, but this was the gift of being with people that he had come to give.

And so I tell you the story. When you see the news and hear stories of what is happening in Syria I want you to pause and think of this. These are real people – veterinarians, engineers, teachers, pastors, students – who look and live lives just like we do. They laugh, they cry, they learn, they love, they worship, they work. And an unspeakable evil is in their midst pushing them out of their homes and cities and countries and committing crimes against humanity that are unfathomable.

Think of them. Pray for them. And if you can, please help them. You can give to the Syrian Relief effort of The Outreach Foundation by donating at their website:

Thank you.

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.

Hand in hand

Holding hands on wedding dayThere we are on our wedding day, May 18, 2002. Gosh! We look so young you can’t even tell we are 43 and 44 years old (she said while wearing her rose-colored glasses). I remember that day like it was yesterday!

For both of us, it was our first – and we have pledged! – only marriage. First time for two folks in early middle age. Steve’s parents were married when his mom was only 19 and Chuck was 25. My mom was 23 and my dear old dad was 27. It seems so young to me!

So there we are, standing in the church for pictures on the big day, and I love this one because we are holding hands. We get teased often at church for our PDAs: public displays of affection. We often hold hands, stand arm in arm, and even exchange kisses. It’s still first love for me. It always will be.

We did meet at church, in Sunday school actually. I sat in the front row with Jana, and Steve sat in the last row. He used to tease us for being “teacher’s pets” and I accused him of flinging arrows at our heads from the back row…figurative arrows. Somehow we were friends who liked to tease each other and then we ended up on the adult education committee together. Our families joined together with other friends after church for lunch on Sundays at Arby’s. Our pastor George and his wife Pam were part of that group. After we got engaged, George shared the story of how he woke up in the middle of the night after having dreamed that Steve and I would be married someday. He woke Pam to tell her, too. Oddly enough, it was before any of the rest of our “keeping company” started. He just had a vision and I have always loved that story.

Anyway, how we eventually ended up going out that first night is another story for another day. It involves a letter from me and then a returned letter from him. It’s not fodder for an HBO mini series, but I am sure there will be a movie about it someday. Steve will be played by Kevin Costner and I will be played by…me.

The first night we went out was exactly one year before that wedding picture: May 18, 2001. We met at Delice, a bakery/bistro in Omaha’s Old Market area. He had a cup of coffee and I had a Diet Coke. We each paid for our own. I had nothing else to compare this to as I told Steve, “This is my first date. With a man. Ever in my life. Did I tell you I was 42?” That was the truth!

After our caffeine intake, we decided to walk a bit farther into the market for dinner at the Upstream Brewery. And that is when it happened: he reached out for my hand. And for the first time at the advanced spinsterly age of 42, for the very first time, (did I stress that enough?) my hand was nestled into the larger hand of a man who was not my father, not my uncle, not my grandpa. And I will never forget the wonder of that feeling. I can close my eyes and see us walking down Howard Street, hand in hand, and thirteen years have melted away. I knew then and there I would marry him someday, so it was funny when George told us of his dream.

I also experienced my first kiss that evening, but this story is not about that either. It’s about holding hands.

At dinner that evening, Steve ordered a burger and I ordered a salad. My whole self was just in shock that I was even there, and I was so enthralled that I just couldn’t eat, so Steve finished mine. But that was the end of the meal. The beginning went something like this. Steve said, “Should we say grace?” And I just nodded, knowing I couldn’t say anything. He reached his hands across the table and took both of mine in his and thanked God for our meal.

And we have never done it any other way.

After that first date (I only use that term because it’s easier. We never considered that we were dating, just keeping company.) the story got out quickly that we were a couple. We tried to keep it just to ourselves for a while because it was new and special, and frankly, I think we were both a bit scared. But once we were discovered, it was wonderful to be so easy with our PDAs, especially holding hands. We started sitting together in church and when it was time for prayer, somehow we just reached for the other’s hand and held them until the “amen.”

And we have never done it any other way.

I think of how many times we have prayed hand in hand like that in the last thirteen years. So many meals. So many church services. Weddings. Funerals. We have prayed for our family members in their joys and sorrows; we have prayed with and for our friends in theirs as well. We pray with our small group when we gather to share lives and learn more about our God. We have prayed on trips to be with the church in Germany, the Czech Republic, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. We have prayed for peace, over and over again.

I know when we join our hands like that, God meets us right there as we pray.

praying hands in DamascusAnd so this picture means so much to me. We were in Damascus, Syria, in January with The Outreach Foundation. We had traveled to Lebanon to be with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon along with other global partners of NESSL. Sixteen of us made the short journey to Damascus to be with the church in a country that had been at war for almost three years. They still are, and we continue to pray for them even now with the news of the impending U.S. participation in a plan against ISIS. Oh! How we pray for peace.

While we were in the church service that day, surrounded by the members of the Damascus congregation plus the refugees who had fled other parts of Syria to be there, we bowed our heads in prayer as we have done so many times. And we reached out our hands to each other as we have done so many times. And somehow that caught the eyes of a photographer and this photo was posted on Facebook.

If there is only one picture that you can pick to describe the life you have shared with that one person you know God picked for you personally, this is the photo I would pick to tell the story of Julie and Steve. And they are not the hands of Kevin Costner.

They are Steve’s, and they are mine. Hand in hand.

May God Bless Me This Way Too

St Francis

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships, so you may live deep within your heart. May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy. And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe you can make a difference in the world, so you can do what others claim cannot be done.
– Franciscan Prayer

A woman stopped into church today with a flier she wanted us to post. It’s for a prayer vigil for Pastor Saeed Abedini, a reformed pastor in Iran who has been in a horrible prison since September 26, 2012, because of his faith. Folks in our church have asked for prayers for Pastor Saeed several times, I told her. They would want to know. So I have joined her Facebook group, Nebraska Prays for Pastor Saeed and the Persecuted Church, to get regular updates and to join with others who are praying for his release.

September 26, 2014, will mark two years of imprisonment for him and there will be a prayer gathering in Lincoln, Nebraska, at the west plaza of the capitol at 7:00 p.m. People across the world will be praying for his release. If it is possible for me to attend I will, but I will also honor her request to let as many people know as possible. You can read more about it here:

She was directed to me because of my heart for the people and the church in the Middle East, now under pressure in so many places. She seemed weary with her task. She had tried at her previous church and her current church to get the word out. One response was, “That’s the weekend of the men’s retreat.” That’s nice. Maybe the men of a church in Omaha could devote a small period of time during their retreat to pray for a brother imprisoned in another land for shepherding others who declare faith in Jesus. Or maybe not.

She seemed weary and said, “I’m just one person.” And that is where I tried to encourage her. “You are one person called by God for this purpose!” He doesn’t call the equipped, so the saying goes, he equips the called.

I am just one person, too. And yet God has placed a huge vision on my heart to help bring relief to the church in Syria and in Iraq in their work with refugees.

2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of instruction.” (That is quoted from the Aramaic Bible in plain English. If Aramaic was good enough for Jesus, it humbles me to quote it here.)

He has taken my former timid, shy, scared self and given me power and love to do his work. I am walking into that these days with my big project. I have been bold to ask those gifted in ways I am not to help, and they have said “yes.” I may be only one woman, but I have the gift of community and I believe this project will succeed because it is not my vision, but God’s.

God has blessed me in the ways that the Franciscan prayer above puts into words. My tears don’t stop, my anger builds, I have grievous discomfort over what I see and read on the news every day. And I am foolish enough to believe that one woman can make a difference.

So Jesus walked into church today

Peace hands worldI get a daily email from Sojourners called verse and voice. This was today’s verse:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. – Psalm 139:1-3

And this was the prayer that went with it:

All-powerful God, we pray that you might send us your Holy Spirit. May that Holy Spirit help us to model a pace of life that strives to keep in step with the movement of the Spirit. May the comfortable be discomforted by Your Spirit. May the afflicted find rest in your Spirit. God, help us walk together in our journey here on earth. Amen.

So many days these verses and prayers cut right to the center of what is on my mind and heart for that day. It can be a bit unnerving to think that others know what I need prayer for! But it happens so often.

Today’s were no different, but I didn’t really give them too much thought until Julia Ann walked into the office.

She was elderly, with a great head of short white hair that in my current state of active alopecia – handfuls comb out of my head every morning – made me a bit envious. It’s quiet here today because most of our staff are out at a conference. The day-to-day office worker bees were here though: the support staff! I happened to be walking through the copy room for something and she came in through the other door. I asked if I could help her and she said she came to look at our church because an old friend had invited her to a class and she wanted to know where she would be going. I smiled and said “That’s great!” (I was also thinking what a good friend she has and wouldn’t our pastor be glad to know that our people are inviting others in!) And then it got interesting…

I asked her the name of her friend. The poor woman searched her brain and it came up empty. She was so embarrassed that this blankness came over her and she just couldn’t come up with it. We both laughed and she said, “Don’t tell her I forgot her name!” I said, “Don’t worry. I can’t tell her if I don’t know it either!” It was just so funny. She couldn’t think of the name of the class or the name of the friend or the friend’s husband and out of that came the most interesting conversation.

In trying to come up with the name of the friend, she went through how they knew each other from years ago and then lost touch. Not too long ago their paths crossed again and they were talking about church which prompted the invitation. But then she went on to tell me about how her dad died when she was little and her mom worked all day, every day. She was of that generation when days off and five-day workweeks weren’t the norm. A teacher of hers would take her to Sunday school and teach her the bible stories we all know. She taught her about Jesus. She was given a bible with her name engraved on it. She raised her own children in the church and they were baptized. She was widowed about five years ago. It was a long conversation we had, about thirty minutes. And all the time she was so befuddled, trying to remember the name of her friend.

She told me her name was Peg and I introduced myself, Julie. She said, “That’s my name too! Julia, but everyone calls me ‘Peg.'” I said my middle name was Ann with no “e” on the end, and she said hers too! It was just such a weird thing. And again, she kept trying to pull the name of her friend who had invited her to West Hills out of her brain, but it just wouldn’t come.

She went on to tell me that after her husband died, she remembered that little bible she had received as a child and wondered where it had gone in all the moves of their life. As she was going through her husband’s things to give away to family or to donate to Goodwill, she discovered a small box in his desk. Inside the box were several small things, including her childhood bible. Her husband had an eye for the valuable, not just monetarily, but for the memories and meanings attached to things. She took this as a message from him to hold on to that word and its promises. Again, all this was very befuddled and hesitantly offered and she kept trying to remember the name of that friend.

And then she told me about how she had refused counseling after her husband died because she knew she herself could get through the grief and come out on the other side without help…until she couldn’t. She spent one hour with a counselor who just listened; that amazing gift of presence is so important!! And at the end of the hour that counselor wanted to tell her one thing. She said, “Peg, there is nothing you can do about this now. God owns it. He will make all things right in their time and your time here is not done yet. Let God have this grief because he knows what to do with it. It’s his. Let him have it.”

She thanked the counselor and they never met again. But Peg would put her head down on the kitchen counter every morning after that for a year and just thank God for what was his and not hers. And daily she would start to feel different from the day before, until one day God spoke to her and said: “I have given you a new heart.” And she believed it.

And then she looked right at me and said, “He will give you a new heart because you have thanked him for it over and over again.” And she was standing there, speaking clearly, not befuddled, not struggling to come up with a name, clear-eyed, clear-minded and all I could see was Jesus. It wasn’t Peg after all. It was all I could do to keep the tears from streaming down. She was there to comfort me.

And then Peg was back, reaching for the handle of the door. “I am so sorry to have taken so much of your time. You have work to do.” And I reached over and hugged her – probably scared her! – and I said, “I know why you came here today. You came just for me.”

Oh Lord, you searched me and you knew me. You discern my thoughts from far away.

God, help us walk together in our journey here on earth.

I know it was Jesus. And her name was Julia Ann but people call her Peg. And in my grief over so much, he sees it, he knows it, he owns it. And he’s giving me a new heart.

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?