Love like Francis…just like the sisters

Mt St Francis Love like FrancisBeyond this, there is a desire for immediacy sustained by consumerism (and reinforced by aspects of information technology) that tends to encourage a memory-less culture without a sense of historical identity. – Philip F. Sheldrake (The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, chapter 26, page 461, edited by Arthur Holder, Blackwell Publishing, 2005)

In preparation for the journey ahead into the Masters of Arts in Ministry program at Creighton University which begins next week, I am reading some materials assigned by a professor to get ready to dive into the study of Christian spirituality through ancient writings of monks and martyrs. The quote above struck me as I thought back on a quick trip to Dubuque, Iowa, last week to visit my Aunt Carolyn, a 60-year member of the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Holy Family.

Mt St Francis Xaveria TermehrJana and I spent two nights and three meals with the sisters of this order. As opposed to an environment of the “immediacy sustained by consumerism,” we found ourselves in a place of a long vision forward sustained by faith. We met so many of these living saints now retired – if that is a word that can be associated with those whose calling is eternal – in the motherhouse of this order founded in the 1870s in Germany. Foundress Sister Xaveria Termehr is interred in the same cemetery as my grandmother Bea Thirtle, under a plain headstone and surrounded by others like it of her daughter-sisters who followed her into this order and lived their lives in service to God’s kingdom.

It is not an ancient order like those whose words I will read in my theology class, but as I learned in my short visit with heart open to their story, it is a servant group of women who have been called into it. Aunt Carolyn gave me her histories so I could read up on them in the days to come.

Mt St Francis mission statementThey are a Franciscan order after Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. The images of these two are everywhere in the house and also in the close-by Shalom Spirituality Center which was the original Mount Saint Francis motherhouse. When I was a little girl and first visited my aunt as she was then known, Sr. Mary Edith Ann, they wore brown habits like Francis. Their mission statement was framed on the wall: Rooted in the Gospel and in the spirit of Francis and Clare, the Sisters of St. Francis live in right relationship with all creation. The culture of their patron saint is a living witness to those walking today.

They have founded schools and hospitals and elderly homes. They have served the immigrant in a new land both in Germany where they started and here where they have been planted since crossing the sea. They build wells in Africa. They have had a presence in China and the east. And in all those places and to this day, these sisters in Christ have served tirelessly and selflessly those in need of healing and resting and learning. Those with gifts of administration have led the institutions they built.

Mt St Francis b&w of SAC GRandma and Mom Mt St Francis photo redone with us

We went to a now-closed church in Dubuque, Saint Mary’s, which once had an active school, a convent for the sisters and of course, the church. In hand I carried an old black and white photo taken in 1962. There is Aunt Carolyn in her pre-Vatican II habit, my mom Jeanne (holding the hand of an unseen sibling that I believe is Susan) and their mom Bea, my grandmother. They are standing on the playground between the convent and the church. We decided to recreate the photo in the same spot (no more fence or playground equipment) with the same house in the background as the 1962 picture. As we were trying to figure out how to take it, a young woman came up to see what we were doing. It turns out she is a resident in the old convent, now known as Maria House. The building that once housed the sisters like my aunt, is now a home for women coming out of the prison of addiction. This woman was eager to tell us her story. Caught in the cycle of alcoholism by parents of brokenness, she has not had custody of her children for years. But with the help of this project of the Franciscans, she is clean and sober and about to get her children on a five-day-per-week basis. And then she will transition into the new apartments next door: the former school where Aunt Carolyn spent her early years teaching.

We saw how resourceful this group of nuns has been in the years since they began these ministries. A hospital built in the 1940s is now an apartment building. Saint Mary’s Church is being turned into a neighborhood center for small offices and gatherings. The school will be a longer-term residence for those women being freed from the bondage of addiction. These women who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, have lived into those vows by pouring into the lives of others.

We couldn’t go anywhere in Dubuque without someone coming up to Aunt Carolyn to say hello. Either she taught them as children in school or preschool or daycare, or had cared for their aging parents at the Stonehill facility where they lived or rehabbed. They all knew her. And I imagine that other sisters are known in the community in the same way.

Mt St Francis last supperWe closed our visit with a short trip to the Clare House dining room of Mount Saint Francis. In this new long-term residence for the elderly and infirm sisters, there is a beautiful depiction of the last supper done in intarsia by a very talented sister-artist. In this three-dimensional picture of the table of community we find Jesus and his apostles. Not just the ones you know were there like John and Peter, but others whose lives speak to the history and tradition of Francis and Clare, those who served and advocated for the poor and unheard. There is Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day. There is Oscar Romero. And there is Mother Xaveria Termehr. She is seated at the table with Jesus, and even this evening her daughters will be gathered to pray before they share their common table. A tradition that continues under the eyes of a community and communion of saints.

I claim as my own now their sense of historical identity, even as their order now diminishes in size. Through my Aunt Carolyn I will carry the stories she shared with us in those precious hours. As I read the history books she left with me and read the stories of the saints in my theology class, I will be sustained and encouraged by the culture of this way of life. The religious orders may not look in the future like they looked in the past, but as long as I – we – remember, their traditions will carry on.

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

What hurts them, hurts us

Peace hands worldIt is the day after another election here in the U.S.

Sigh.

Personally, as a liberal in a conservative state, it was a tough night politically for the people I supported. But I woke up this morning and the sun was up and God was still on the throne. God’s mercies are new every morning!

And it was not a total disappointment for me and others. The people of our state voted to raise the minimum wage, and the people of our city voted to approve a bond issue that will improve the facilities of older schools in our main district and also build new ones to meet the responsibility to educate future generations.

I guess the best part of an election being over and done with is that the airwaves will now be free of the millions of dollars worth of advertising spent telling us over and over again why that person is a no good, dirty, crime loving, tax raising, hog castrating, gun hating, gun loving, idiot who speaks out of both sides of the mouth. There has been nothing uplifting about any of it. And the waste of money in such a way is just mind boggling to me. Think how many more schools could have been built, or people fed, or cancers healed, if the money spent in an election cycle were used for those kind of building up activities, instead of the tearing down kind.

As I was driving home in the early evening before coming back to church for a meeting, I was listening to NPR. It was too early for any election coverage, but I thought they might be doing some commentary. I was going to be at that meeting during prime time coverage so I was just a bit anxious I guess to hear something now. But what I heard instead was this report about happenings in Iraq’s struggle with ISIS:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2014/11/04/361422673/we-are-not-slaughterers-an-iraqi-village-rejects-islamic-militants

The tribe mentioned in this story is the Jubbour tribe, who are Sunni. They are trying to protect themselves from ISIS, who are also Sunni. But as the headline says, “We are not slaughterers.” The Jubbour see ISIS as an ideology not for anyone’s good; they are just a killing machine. The Jubbour reject this ideology and name it for what it is. They have also paid a very heavy price.

What struck me most about the story, however, is the reaction of a neighboring village of Shiite Muslims. The schism between Sunni and Shia happened almost at the beginning of Islam, once Muhammad had died. It is a deep divide of long standing.

This Shiite village, so the report goes, has been working in defense of and to protect their Jubbour neighbors. Why? “Because what hurts them, hurts us.”

What hurts them, hurts us.

What hurts you, hurts me.

And so on a night of people speaking through the action of filling out a ballot, I have found some good news.

In my city, we have decided that it hurts us all when children – yours, mine, ours – don’t have good safe schools to learn in. It is not good for any of us to raise generations of children who lack knowledge, who lack opportunities to debate and discuss, who don’t have access to new technologies and safe surroundings.

In my state, we decided that folks who work in jobs where the minimum wage is the standard rate of pay, should have a raise so maybe they can move a bit farther from the abyss of food insecurity or poverty. Many people working in these jobs work more than one, so maybe this means they can have more time with their families, more time to sit down with their children as they work on their homework. What hurts them, hurts us…or it should.

I woke up this morning feeling some hope. I still believe that when we say “we the people” we mean all of us. I still believe that not only what hurts them, hurts us, but what helps them, helps us all. For really, we are them.

Let us be us together.

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:

http://beheardproject.com/saeed

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.

The Lord’s Prayer

Arabic Lord's Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bread We Need (March 19, 2014)

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

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

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

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

Inshallah

First Communion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Mueller, Elmarie Parker, Rob Weingartner, Elder Zuhair, Marshall Zieman, Tom Boone and Larry Richards offer communion at the Evangelical Church of Basrah, November, 2012.

Mark Mueller, Elmarie Parker, Rob Weingartner, Elder Zuhair, Marshall Zieman, Tom Boone and Larry Richards offer communion at the Evangelical Church of Basrah, November, 2012.

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

The first communion. And I remember.