The church, The Church, THE CHURCH

Confession: This last post from our trip to Lebanon and Syria will be written in first person. I (Julie) have had several days of traveling time with Marilyn and Nuhad. On the curvy narrow roads from Damascus to Homs and then to Mahardeh, there has been a lot to reflect on between speed bumps, or “sleeping policeman” as Rob told us they were called in parts of Africa. Every time I have traveled on a TOF trip, Marilyn has been my leader and teacher and her words ring in my ears, but never as much as this time. These trips are not about our faithfulness, our bravery, or anything that is preceded by the word our, but they are about the church, The Church, THE CHURCH! In times of peace, in times of war, the church is here. It remains and we have come to stand with it and be embraced within it. Since the rest of our team returned home, we have been with three faithful parts of the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, his church.

The Presbyterian church in Bloudan, Syria.

The Presbyterian church in Bloudan, Syria.

Last summer, Marilyn and I spent several days beyond the women’s conference at Dhour Choiuer to travel to Syria and visit a church she had never been to. Our visas were not granted and so we have waited an extra nine months to finally visit the Presbyterians in Bloudan. Bloudan is a village of about 5,000 permanent residents that in normal times expands to 400,000 as summer residents come up the mountain to escape the heat of the valley cities for its cool breezes, summer homes and restaurants. It is a mere 50 miles from Damascus, so the drive is short. Well, the drive was short. Now, the last nine miles up the road once you’ve turned off the main highway require ten different checkpoint stops. This little village is surrounded by five other villages, one of which is Zabadani. Last summer when we tried to get here, Zabadani was the scene of pitched battles between radicals, Hezbollah and Syrian army forces. Similar battles were fought in all five of the cities, and as we made our way slowly up the road, one of those cities was still cordoned off by razor wire as the battles still rage.

The Bloudan church elders and women's leaders on the chancel of the church. Assis Feras Ferah, who is pastoring the churches in Hasakeh, Kamishli and Malkieh in the northeast, is from this church. Many of these people are family to him. His mother is embraced by Marilyn Borst in the center.

The Bloudan church elders and women’s leaders on the chancel of the church. Assis Feras Ferah, who is pastoring the churches in Hasakeh, Kamishli and Malkieh in the northeast, is from this church. Many of these people are family to him. His mother is embraced by Marilyn Borst in the center.

Upon arriving (finally!) in Bloudan, we were greeted by the faithful elders and members of the Presbyterian church. There have been five years without electricity here. Five years when precious little supplies have made it up the road. Five years of shelling, some of which has hit and killed, including the sone of one of the elders. But in five years this faithful church without a pastor has not missed worshiping the one we call Lord. Indeed, we had an impromptu worship service led by Kamishly pastor Feras Ferah who is from Bloudan. The little children from the KG processed in and recited Psalm 100 from memory, sang us a song and then all bowed their heads and prayed. And as we sat there in this church

The Bloudan KG kids lead us in worship.

The Bloudan KG kids lead us in worship.

together, we were reminded that they might not have electricity but that the light of Jesus shines brightly in and through them all. In solidarity with the other Christians here who are Greek Orthodox, they will all celebrate Easter together on the Eastern calendar day of May 1. And they were teaching the children this word in song: Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed!

This is the church!

After a refreshing drink from the spring that flows from this mountain place, we headed back down the road, through the ten checkpoints, past the razor wire and the pancaked buildings and back to Damascus for our final night there. Saying goodbye to Assis Butros and his wife Wafaa, we headed to Homs.

Michelline Koudmani in her Aunt' Mona's house which is currently under reconstruction.

Michelline Koudmani in her Aunt Mona’s house which is currently under reconstruction.

When Marilyn and I last visited Homs with a group from TOF it was November, 2014, and Homs had only been relieved of its near three-year siege for about five months. We visited seven different churches in the old city, which once was home to about 60,000 Christians. The churches, including the Presbyterian church, had all suffered destruction in different degrees. We gathered together as a group with the newly minted confirmation class under a cross-shaped hole in the roof and they sang hymns of joy for us in the promise that this church would be repaired. Now standing inside the beautifully restored church on an April day in 2016, the promise is indeed fulfilled. God is good. All the time. Elder Abdul Almessieh Salta, a civil engineer, pointed out the beautiful wood ceiling panels. Most of them are original but some are made of new materials to replace the damaged ones. The craftsmanship used on the new ones makes them indistinguishable from the original. Assis Mofid and his wife Michelline also walked us through what will be the pastor’s home once it too is repaired and refurbished.

Elder Najwa's home in Homs, now fully restored. This chair is the only one of her belongings to survive ISIS, but her home is filled with the love and light of Jesus, as she lives here with here brother and sister.

Elder Najwa’s home in Homs, now fully restored. This chair is the only one of her belongings to survive ISIS, but her home is filled with the love and light of Jesus, as she lives here with here brother and sister.

Refurbished homes in Homs was our next order of business. Although there is still much destruction all around on a massive scale, people are returning to this place. We were told that about 2,000 of those 60,000 Christians have returned to the old city. Driving through the narrow streets, we saw small shops and restaurants where hopeful people wait on those few who are back. And there is reconstruction going on. The Presbyterian church identified 39 homes of church members that could and should be repaired so people could return home. With several gifts, including one from TOF, a number of those 39 have been completed or are in different stages of completion. We visited the home of Michelline’s aunt Mona where workmen were busy. Although the rear of the fourth-floor walk-up is still open to the outside, structural posts and beams have been replaced, tiles have been laid in the kitchen and bathroom, and six rooms are defined. In my mind I can see Mona back here with her husband.

From there, we drove a short distance to the home of elder Najwa, who had been our constant companion on this visit in Homs. We had first met her on a video at the consultation of this home-rebuilding project in Homs. She was the first one from the church to return to her place and begin rebuilding it even before this project was put in motion. She was a teacher and a principal in a government school, and before the war lived in this apartment with a sister and two brothers. They had precious little time to leave before ISIS came storming in. These radicals had moved all of her beautiful furniture out of the sitting room and just sat on the floor. Before they left, they burned most of it and stole the rest. Now sitting here with her sister and brother (one died before he could return), it was like every other beautiful home we had been invited to on these trips. Pictures on the walls. Rugs on the floor. Reminders of life all around. And one precious original chair, which had somehow survived.

We enjoyed lunch at a newly opened restaurant called Cello, owned and operated by yet another Presbyterian church member named George. It had always been his dream to have a real restaurant in Homs, more grand than his former fast-food operation, and here we sat. Ninety would be here later this evening for dinner and karaoke. Dream realized. Life renewed.

This is the church!

Assis Ma'an Bitar and wife Gwath Hanna of Mahardeh. Ma'an also pastors the church in Hama which is nearby.

Assis Ma’an Bitar and wife Gwath Hanna of Mahardeh. Ma’an also pastors the church in Hama which is nearby.

From Homs we headed back to the road. Faithful Assis Nuhad drove through more unfamiliar roads on a roundabout way to Mahardeh, our final destination in Syria. Through small towns and farm fields, even where all seems peaceful, there are reminders of war. Besides the numerous checkpoints we stop for (maybe 30-40 on this part of our journey) we drive by gas stations where empty pumps stand. We know when a station has fuel because there will be a long line of cars, trucks and motorcycles waiting, sometimes as long as six hours, for maybe five gallons. Nuhad stops periodically at roadside stands. “Benzene?” he asks. As we watch the fuel gauge drop to about a quarter of a tank, his question is answered in the affirmative and a 20-liter container of gas is brought to the side of the car with a funnel and hose. A quick transaction and we return to the journey, but this is daily life here.

Mahardeh. Sitting peacefully on the terrace of Assis Ma’an and his wife Gwath, I have my own dream come true. Six years have passed since I first made this journey with TOF, Marilyn and a group of faithful US Presbyterian women. Sipping a cold beverage, I take in the blooming beauty of roses, onions and parsley in the garden and a view of the church where Ma’an’s father served before him. As we speak about how the war has affected this place in Syria, the only 100% Christian town in the whole country, we hear about the 6,000 mortars and shells that have rained down since the beginning back in 2011. Claude, a young man without family here now except for this church family, obediently retrieves an unexploded shell that had implanted itself in the garden bed right next to the terrace.

The children, teachers and staff of the Mahardeh KG. The little five-year-olds on the far right will graduate in May.

The children, teachers and staff of the Mahardeh KG. The little five-year-olds on the far right will graduate in May.

A bright beautiful morning greeted us after a peaceful night’s sleep in the Bitar’s home. Breakfast of fried eggs right from the chicken, homemade zatar, dried figs, birthday cake (another story!) and coffee gave us strength for this day. If you think our energy tanks were empty, we quickly had them filled with a visit to the KG run by this church and led by Gwath. 70 precocious children had arrived in the church yard and were standing in lines organized by age groups, singing a welcome for us. Dark hair, blond hair, brown eyes, blue eyes, some in their official KG uniforms, they said in unison “Good morning! We welcome you! Thank you for everything!” This vital ministry has never stopped and its importance cannot be over emphasized. These children will be the reconcilers of this land in the future as they learn the ways of Jesus.

Looking a little closer beyond the group to an individual, we look into the deep dark eyes of three-year-old Fala. Clutching her rolled up bread sandwich, taking intermittent tiny bites, her eyes never leave Marilyn’s face. We are told that her father suffers from mental illness and the church has tried to help him find a job, and to supervise his taking his medication so he can remain stable. This KG is a place of peace and solitude for this precious little girl and all the Falas like her.

Finally we spend some time with about twenty men of Mahardeh who have organized themselves into a kind of national guard unit to protect this place. They have 13 separate points around the city where they take turns on patrol and duty. When shells do hit homes and buildings in Mahardeh, they immediately repair the damage because they are determined that they will remain in their homes. We walk to a place where we can look just a short distance down into the valley and see how close the front line is. All of these men are volunteers with every day normal jobs: contractor, painter, carpenter, engineer, teacher. They are men of the chuches – four Greek Orthodox and one Presbyterian. They are men with families, and their families have suffered loss, but they remain constant and determined. One man named Simon who acts as the leader, invites us into his home and we are served refreshing lemonade and the always present cookies by his wife Reema. And before we leave, in solidarity as brothers and sisters in Christ, he gives us each a Russian icon of Jesus which reminds us that we are one in the Lord.

This is the church!

This is the joy I have as I travel with The Outreach Foundation: the church, The Church, THE CHURCH! I am humbled to be a part of a global body, to be present with them in times of war and in times of peace. To mourn with them. To rejoice with them. To walk with them and to sing with them and to dance with them. I pray it for each of you who reads this: to lift them up daily and see their faces when you close your eyes to pray. They are you and you are them, and we are one together in Christ.

Birthday season: Choir

It’s Wednesday night and for the last fifteen years that has meant choir practice.

Here is the 2000 West Hills Church Germany team. We were not the choir but we sang like one!

Here is the 2000 West Hills Church Germany team. We were not the choir but we sang like one!

Advent, 2000, I decided to take the invitation at our church to join the choir and sing for the season. Four Sundays, two services each. Christmas Eve, two services. I think it entailed five Wednesday nights for a total of ten hours of practice to sing Christmas carols and anthems for ten services. And this year, 2015, I will be singing two Christmas Eve services for the sixteenth time.

I’ve said it before that my favorite place (after the spot next to Steve) is in the middle of a choir. It is a glorious spot! All those voices blending in sweet harmonies, minor or major keys, pianissimos and fortissimos and the mezzos in between, leading a congregation or other audiences to a place of musical and heavenly bliss.

Ah, the heavenly chorus!

Tonight it hit me so closely what this particular choir – the West Hills Church chancel choir – means to me, and especially at this season.

It is Advent. And it is my birthday season which follows the same calendar. That is not hubris. That is just the way I experience this holy season and always have. It is hard to not associate your birthday with Christmas when your birthday is December 19th and your father told you years before that your birth was induced so you would be able to make an appearance at the family Christmas Eve gathering at the home of your grandparents. All month long there are lights and music and bustling. Surely, the fact that you have a late December birthday must be special. It could have been Christmas!

So fifteen years ago I started singing in the choir at West Hills Church and tonight it struck me deeply that in all those anthems and carols and Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, Maundy Thursdays and Easters, the eves of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the cantatas, the madrigal dinners and the occasional retreats, one of the very best birthday gifts I have ever received was to stand in the middle of this heavenly chorus and blend my voice with theirs.

In my fifteen years we have seen Dwaine retire, David lead us to Germany, Matt fail to lead us in the Hallelujah Chorus on Easter, Jared humbly try to lead but also to sing in our Gospel choir and Michael to lead us in a new season of real ministry as director.

We watched Cliff struggle with Alzheimer’s and every week take a new copy of each piece of music until his folder bulged and we always knew where to find a piece to supply someone else.

We sang with Mary – who loved the low, low alto notes! – and gathered at her funeral service when cancer took her.

We sadly let Barb and Virginia retire to the pews to listen to us instead of sing with us.

We prayed for Stan earlier this year when his father died and just this past week as he lost his mother.

We said good-bye to Sherrie as her last Sunday to sing with us just passed. She and Joe are retiring to Kansas City.

We have welcomed the young William and Sherri this year to sing with us and the more seasoned Kevin and Patti.

We have celebrated high school graduations, college graduations and even new grandbabies.

They gathered around me before we sang on Maundy Thursday in 2013, the day after I had learned that my youngest sister Cathy had been murdered.

I wanted them all to know tonight in this my birthday season that they have been such a gift to me! Fourteen years ago tonight was Wednesday, December 19th, my 43rd birthday. Two nights later, Steve gave me the best gift ever when he proposed. The following Sunday the choir was the first group I told and they were over the moon for us.

I have so much family. My siblings. My extended blood relations. My in-laws. My ink family at the print shop. My brothers and sisters in Christ across the globe. My creative Omaha Press Club family.

Tonight I am writing this thank-you note to my sacred and spiritual musical family: the West Hills Church chancel choir. And the note comes in the form of a prayer from God’s word:

I thank my God every time I remember you. (Philippians 1:3)

Mike, Stan, William, Dan, Barb, Ida, Trink, Sherri, Grace, Priscilla, Patti, Jane, Stan, Martin, Bill, Kevin, Michael and Kathy, I thank my God every time I remember you. Thank you for letting me stand in your midst, raise my voice with yours in harmony, and sing to our Lord for his glory.

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.

Burning Man

Mike at the Norden ChuteI don’t really have to cook anymore because I married a man with a passion for cooking. Don’t get me wrong; I can cook. I learned from some great teachers like my Aunt Suzy and Aunt Heddy. Good stuff too, like homemade spaghetti sauce and lemon chicken. But Steve loves to cook and who am I to get in his way?

But baking is not his passion so I still do that. I maintain that baking is how I first caught Steve’s attention. I baked every Saturday for the three years I served on the Adult Education Committee at church. I didn’t feel like I could add anything spiritually or theologically to that team, but I could make sure that those attending classes every Sunday for those three years had something freshly baked to feed their bodies while they were filling their souls. I’m pretty sure that’s how I came into Steve’s line of sight.

Baking cookiesSo today my kitchen looked like this so I could make these for my little brother Mike.Fresh baked cookies

 

 

 

 

 

Mike is heading off to his first Burning Man Festival in the desert in Nevada next week. He tells me it’s about self-expression and self-reliance, so could I please make him some cookies to take along? So I expressed myself through baking so he could rely on himself why he bakes in the desert. It seemed to make sense at the time.

Don’t tell him, but I would actually do anything for Mike. He has grown into a person that I never expected he would based on our younger selves. He answers all my questions about computers at which he is self taught (Macs! Only Macs!) He can build a house and repair anything in one. He can ride a horse and herd cattle and call cattle and brand them, too. He learned all that (not the computers) on a ranch in western Nebraska in his teens. He can fix cars. He can and does run our family printing business as the production manager. He can hula-hoop and do yoga. He knows the entire Frank Zappa catalog, along with anything related to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young collectively and in all their combinations.

He teases me for being a red wine drinker and for living in a Federal style house. He worries when I travel to the Middle East. He is always there for Jana when she needs him and won’t let her get away with feeling sorry for herself. He has a big heart when it comes to his sisters, even when it may not look that way to others. WE know!

As a young kid, Mike was what we called a burn-out back in our day. He smoked, tobacco and other things. He drank. He skipped school. I remember once coming home from church headed south on 105th Street with the whole family (except Mike) and passing what looked like our other car going north. I said to Daddy as we went home after passing the VW squareback with the Road Runner decal on the back, “I think that was our car, but no one was driving it!” Someone was. It was Mike and he was maybe thirteen at the time. He ducked as we passed on the street.

I was home from college one summer and stayed up late to watch television. Mike came in about one in the morning and headed to the bathroom. He was very sick and I was so worried about him I went to wake up Daddy. Daddy came and stood outside the bathroom and listened. After about a minute, he knocked on the door and said, “We will talk about this tomorrow!” I didn’t understand until the next day. (I have not always been such a slow learner, just a bit naive.)

Anyway, I think it is a miracle that Mike lived long enough to grow up, but he did. He is an amazing person. I know he is my brother and I am slightly prejudiced, but it’s true. And I don’t know what our family would be without him.

I know we wouldn’t be as close. With all the trauma we have experienced in our lives from the early death of our mom, to an evil abusive stepmother, to sisters who were hit by a train and survived, to the death of our dad and the murder of our baby sister, we should be a family that has moved as far from each other as possible. But Mike is the strong one who moves us closer together. Mike is the one who organizes family canoe trips on the Niobrara where we camp together, canoe together, prepare family meals and watch movies under the stars. (That’s him hanging out over the Norden Chute in that picture above.) He is the one who has organized our new tradition of going out to Lake McConaughy at Christmas time to make great family memories. He gets me to make cookies so he can take them out in the desert and share them where they are needed.

The best thing that Mike has taught me in this life is to get off of the Interstate and take the two lane roads. There is no need to speed to your ultimate destination and miss all the amazing scenery along the way. Enjoy the journey. He used to just head out on the road and take the least traveled one to where it ended as dirt tracks that tapered off in a field somewhere. You have to stop for cattle…or buffalo. You’ve got to open your eyes and look and if you travel at 75 mph you will miss so much. You’ve got to get out of the city so you can look up at night and see the stars and watch the International Space Station orbit the earth. You’ve got to pull the canoe over on the Niobrara so you can climb up the stairstep falls. If you just speed by with the current, you will never find them.

As he heads out to the desert next week, I know he will get there and express himself in a drum circle or a fire dance under the stars. I am positive he will point out the ISS to new friends that he makes, people that he will share those cookies with. I know he will take time on the journey to look.

I am confident that he is totally capable of self-reliance, but I am oh so glad that he has chosen to remain in this family and to let us rely on him. I am so glad that we get to share the journey with him.

So burn the man, Mike! But come back…we’ve got to figure out the McConaughy trip and we need you to do it.