Holy Week Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ the Lord is risen today! Hallelujah! Amen.

Vah-sayers invited to the table

A service of Holy Communion in Tripoli, Lebanon, January, 2018.

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” – Matthew 26:26-28

Last evening we gathered at West Hills Church for a solemn Maundy Thursday service. It’s Holy Week, and this is the reminder of the table we are invited to on this day between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. I say it every year: we can’t get to Easter without this in between time of suffering, loss and grief. We come to the table and remember who did this great sacrificial thing for us. And then we walk through the Friday we call “good.”

Last night was special because the choir played the role of those who called for the death of Jesus. We sang Dubois’ beautiful “Seven Last Words,” and marvelous soloists took the parts of Jesus, the Father and the Mother. But the choir took the part of the crowd yelling “Vah! If thou art king over Israel save thyself then!”

Because we are the crowd. We yell like that all the time when we choose to not see Jesus in the homeless man: Get off the sidewalk! Quit panhandling! Vah! Or in the grieving high school students whose friends have bled out in front of them: Don’t walk out of class! You are too young to preach about gun control! Vah! Or in those seeking refuge from war and poverty: We don’t want you here! You’re not like US! Vah!

We come to the table spread for us by the one whose bread/body is broken for us and whose wine/blood is spilled for us. And even though we cry “VAH!” he still…





All over the world his actions are repeated in churches big and small. And we remember that it is Jesus who invites the broken, sinful, vah-spewing mob to his table of forgiveness. May we be taken and blessed and broken and given in his name and in his memory to love like he showed us to love.

This is my prayer for Holy Week.


Three days

Cathy and Mommy's headstones 2014

March 24 was this past Tuesday, and it marked the second anniversary of Cathy’s brutal, inhuman exit from this world. Sally and Susan had asked us Omaha siblings to put some flowers at her cemetery marker that day. Mike, Jana and I, along with Barb, did just that. It was cold and rainy, but we put a beautiful small bouquet in the vase by Mommy’s stone (soon it will be between the two matching stones). Mike brought some of Cathy’s own stones which were precious to her, and some sage, which we burned. I reminded him that in the church when incense is burned, it is a fragrant representation of our prayers rising to God in heaven.

We each prayed in our own way that day. And we took pictures and shared them with Sally and Susan and George. As I have said, we once were seven even if now we are only six.

The picture above is from last year when we began this new, poignant tradition. Year one, and now year two; next year will mark three years.

But standing there in the chilly misty air, I was again struck by the dates on the stones: Cathy’s death was on March 24 and Mommy’s was on March 27.

Three days.

It took me back to 1966, when I was seven years old and we had said good-bye to Mommy at the mortuary as they closed her casket. I can still see Daddy kissing her good-bye one more time.

I don’t remember the funeral at all. But I remember, a spring day after the funeral. Mommy’s rosebush was blooming so it must have been many weeks later, May or June, and not the chilly spring days of late March or early April. The bush by the front door was covered in those tiny pink roses and I picked some. I broke some small limbs off the yews that were planted across the front of the house, and I made a little floral altar where I could pray. I can remember this all so clearly, just like it happened this past Tuesday, but it was 49 years ago.

Genuflecting in front of my little homemade altar, I prayed:

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Dear God. You brought your son Jesus back to life after three days. Would you please just bring Mommy back like that?

Here we are now in 2015 coming into Holy Week. Palm Sunday is three days from now. Maundy Thursday is three days from then. And then Easter, three days later.

Three days.

In the hymnal,  it goes like this:

  • All Glory, Laud and Honor
  • O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
  • Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!

And as I look at the twin headstones and see the three days there (47 years apart) separating the end dates of two women whom I have loved and who loved me, I have to pause here in that middle place. I have to get through Maundy Thursday and O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. I can’t leap from the joy of life to the joy of resurrection without walking through the suffering and death of the cross.

Yes, I have to go through. But…I can’t stop there. The deaths of Mommy and Cathy have colored and shaped my life, just as the death of Jesus has. I have mourned, I do mourn and I will mourn.

But oh, that third day – Resurrection Sunday – is where my victory is. And it is where Mommy’s is and Cathy’s is as well. And so I will celebrate their lives and I will find joy there.

Christ the Lord is risen today! The third day.



Baby bunnyI admit it. I love bunnies. Every time I look out the kitchen window into our yard that contains our tomato and raspberry gardens, I expect to see at least one. Sometimes there are as many as four or five out there and it just makes me smile. I will stand at the window and say “Hello, bunny!” as if they can hear me. Apparently they can’t because they never respond.

We have had many bunnies in that yard since we moved here twelve years ago and every year there is at least one crop of baby bunnies. Our dog Yoshi (she has since moved on to the Rainbow Bridge) was a master bunny hunter. I won’t go into the time we found just a bunny head in the sill of our back window, but just take it as proof that she could catch them. One Mother’s Day about seven years ago she swallowed a whole nest of baby bunnies whole. I felt so terrible! Poor bunnies! Poor bunny mother, and Mother’s Day to boot.

We never really had much trouble in the main backyard while we had Yoshi and Reese, but once in a while a bunny would get back there and eat roses, hostas, coneflowers. You name it, they chewed it down, and that we could not stand. We found a way to defend against their entrance by clipping chicken wire all around the fenced perimeter and that worked pretty well. We have a construction project going on right now and that has lowered our defensive bunny shield, so Steve has had the live trap going most of the summer. Suffice it to say that three bunnies have been transferred to new, undisclosed locations in the public area of our city.

We had a new crop of babies this year. A mama bunny made a nest in a flowerpot right on our back porch. On our twelfth wedding anniversary as Steve and I were going out to celebrate, we must have scared them as we left the house and five babies jumped out! It was amazing to see them hopping all over the place, and mama kept a watchful distance. I am pretty sure the three that we moved to a new home were part of this batch. That picture at the top is one who just stays in the safe yard. And again, whenever I see it out there, “Hello, bunny!” is my greeting through the window.

I know why I love bunnies so much and it goes back to our childhood. Grandpa Piskac raised bunnies in his garage. (It was many years later that I learned it was for his DINNER!) That garage was a magical place for us, especially with those rabbit hutches situated on the south side. There was an earthy smell in there that was so amazing.

Mike, me, Heather, Susan and Heidi. Prescotts with our bunnies. The white one is Cuddles and she was mine. The big black one was Midnight and he was Heidi's.

Mike, me, Heather, Susan and Heidi. Prescotts with our bunnies. The white one is Cuddles and she was mine. The big black one was Midnight and he was Heidi’s.

Daddy would not let us have a dog or a cat when we were growing up, but for some reason he said “yes” to rabbits. Heidi got the first one, a big black rabbit that she named Midnight. We could put a harness on him and take him for a walk! He was beautiful. For several months he was our only rabbit, but one Easter we went to a local pet store and they had a whole batch of babies. “Please Daddy? Can’t we get them?” We must have had very imploring eyes and voices because at least three more rabbits joined the family after that. Mine was a white bunny with black ears, one of which was torn. Nobody wanted her but me. Her name was Cuddles. I remember Heather named hers Grey Shadow, but those are the only names I remember.

Heather and Susan with the bunnies and their hutch.

Heather and Susan with the bunnies and their hutch.

With his cousin Joe’s help, Daddy built them an awesome hutch and we learned how to care for them. We cleaned their hutch, we fed them Purina rabbit chow and we just loved them. They lived in the backyard, eventually under the weeping willow tree at the end of the driveway.

One spring day about a year later there was a tornado warning after school and we were so worried about those bunnies! We brought them inside into the basement where they would be safe with us. We had an old, large dollhouse frame and we turned it on its side. It made a great high-walled container for those bunnies while the tornado sirens wailed outside. They were safe and so were we.

Several weeks later Cuddles gave birth to a new family. All my dad could do was roll his eyes and sigh. I’m pretty sure I said, “Hello, bunnies!”

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.