Why do I go?

Dear Tom,

You asked me twice why I go to Lebanon and Syria and Iraq, and in my own ineloquent way I tried to answer. In flying off to those lands today I took a book from my shelf of unread books to accompany me on this journey. Mystics was written by Fr. William Harmless, S.J., a former theology professor at Creighton, now deceased. First of all his name is a reminder to do just that: harm less. How could I not take it to a war zone?

Studying the mystics is part of my master of arts in ministry program at Creighton and I spent part of the summer and fall in the readings of Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Alice of Foligno and others including men. But I didn’t quite grasp the meaning of mysticism in the sense of Christianity until I weirdly grabbed this book at four this morning on my way out the door.

A 15th century theologian named Jean Gerson offered a definition that was very helpful to me as a strong feeler on the thinking-feeling spectrum of the Myers Briggs assessment. “Where scholastic theology focused on the mind, mystical theology sprang primarily from the heart, the affectus.” (Pg. 6 – I love that, affectus…affect us…touch our heart!) “…the way he says that mystical theology offers a knowledge of God that comes from love.”

And Fr. Harmless used this wonderful analogy of marriage to explain that, words that were so life-giving to me this morning that I texted them to Steve, a man who shows me God’s face every day:

Think about the knowledge that married people have of one another. They have not read books about one another. They have not studied each other academically. They know one another through the union of their lives, an intimacy that touches heart and mind and body…it is not what we would call an intellectual knowledge. It is certainly not theoretical. Instead it is a love-wrought knowledge. (6)

After that text I emailed Wendy Wright, my theology professor who introduced me to the mystics as part of our coursework, I was so grateful!

(I am getting to why I go, by the way, it just has to run its course through the journey I have had with this book this morning. That’s what I do best. Blather.)

So as I was contemplating love-wrought knowledge and “the embrace of unitive love,” (as Gerson put it, that whole affectus thing) Fr. Harmless began with a chapter on a modern mystic, Thomas Merton, a man who converted to Catholicism during college and eventually became a Trappist (of the Benedictine tradition) monk and priest. He was a prolific writer (and now I need to get some more books…), but Fr. Harmless quoted from one in particular, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. The title of the book alone might be a partial description of why I went the first time. But it was the quotation that said, “Julie, here are the words you needed to say to Tom. Get to Houston and write him!”

From a man who had decided the world we live in was a place to escape from, came this:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, and they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence in a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life; but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being…And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” … It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes; yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. (30-31)

He went on and it just got better:

A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstakes. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate…There are no strangers!

Here it comes, this is what I tried in my own feeble, stumbling words to say to you about why I go:

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts [affectus!] where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed… (31)

The Aziz family, refugees from Iraq living in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

It was on that first trip back in 2010, as I told you. We were in Aleppo, invited into the home and to the dinner table of the Aziz family, displaced to Syria from Iraq by our war. We could see the depth of pain in their manner, in their eyes, in their reduced circumstances. Where there should have been hatred and shunning directed at their American visitors, there was an invitation to the table, the table of grace. The Lord’s table.

And that is why I go. My eyes have been opened to see the other, to see me, to see us all as we really are: Beloved children of God.

Affectus. Let it affect us. It has affected me.

Thanks be to God.

Soli deo gloria.

Encounter

Baalbek, Temple of the Sun, 2010

Beirut, Lebanon, is a fascinating city. There are places we have found to visit once that draw us back again and again. One of those is the Sursock Museum. It was once the home of the Sursock family (funny how they named it after them…) and is a grand old three-story Lebanese home, now filled with modern art. Mr. Sursock and his family were great patrons of encouraging and collecting modern art and every time we come there is a new display. This trip was no different. I have encountered two rooms that are my favorites. One usually has a great collection of old photos, much older than the rest of the art in the place. On Friday, there were late 19th and early 20th century sepia photos of Baalbek, a place I visited in 2010. The color quality of the old photos seemed to match my 2010 versions; the sun was so bright the day I was there that any color simply washed away in its brightness, sacrificed as it were in the Temple to the Sun. The other room is a beautiful old salon with benches that curve around a small fountain. You can just imagine sitting there with a good book and wiling away the hours escaping that same sun on a hot summer day.

After I scanned the Baalbek photos and poked my head into the salon, I walked a bit farther down the corridor and came across this painting. It is called Encounter and it is by Amine al Bacha, the artist whose work was the feature display of the Sursock. I was entranced by the face-to-face encounters he depicted. Except for the one pair of humans, they are all birds, which I found to be kind of whimsical, as I don’t think I have ever seen birds gaze into each other’s eyes. I noticed that in some of the blocks of the painting they were farther apart and some closer together. They are even touching beaks in one block. They are encountering each other, maybe for the first time, or maybe for the second or third. And I love how the distance closes.

This is how I have experienced my own encounters as I have traveled in these places. The first time in 2010, I encountered new people from a distance. I encountered my roommate, my team members, the church people we met, first in shy conversations and then near the end in nose-to-nose embraces. We encountered each other in those spaces and drew closer to one another in deep relationships. That first roommate is now my dear friend and sister, Barbara Exley. Those team members are faithful women who have gathered me in by Facetime to pray with me over my continued travels. Our faithful leader and my now mentor and friend Marilyn Borst, along with The Outreach Foundation, have enabled me to encounter the churches in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in ways that help me understand that the body of Christ is much bigger than my church in Omaha, Nebraska. In their midst, I have encountered Emmanuel – God-with-us – who closes the gap between us that our sin and failings create.

Past the painting of encounter, I discovered a series of paintings Mr. al Bacha did of the last supper, a meal we celebrate and remember every time we have communion. We encounter that same Jesus in the bread broken and the cup raised. That is the place where the gap is closed. And we all are invited to the table to encounter our brokenness and his sacrifice that forgives and heals and redeems us. It was fitting today that in Tripoli, Lebanon, we encountered him again. The words were in Arabic, but the breaking of the bread and the raised cup are universal. He drew us to each other as we shared the elements, and we were all drawn closer to him.

Rev. Nuhad Tomeh and Rev. Rola Sleiman offer the words of institution.

Whether for the first time, or the second, or the thirteenth, I remain grateful for these encounters and the opportunity to meet Jesus face to face.

The family gathers

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49 NIV)

I love that story of the young Jesus. I’m not a parent so I cannot appreciate the worry they must have when a child turns up missing, but I can appreciate that this child wandered to the place where God would be: His father’s house, gathered together with those who could teach him about the Father.

I love family gatherings! Indeed on the weekend before my 59th (egad!) birthday just one week ago, my siblings gathered as family with assorted spouses and children in a big house in the sandhills of Nebraska to celebrate our Christmas. It’s the only way the Colorado Prescotts and the Nebraska Prescotts can meet halfway in neutral territory where no one has to host, but everyone contributes.

It is reminiscent of Christmases in our youth when we would gather at Grandpa Piskac’s house with all the cousins. When the George Prescott clan grew to seven children, that gathering was eventually moved to the George Prescott house. When the family kept expanding with grandchildren and cousins and second cousins, and the responsibility of hosting grew ever larger, it moved to the house Jana and I purchased for just that reason on Chicago Street. That tradition eventually disappeared as families kept expanding and wanted to start their own Christmas traditions.

Over all those years we lost so many of the familiar faces who would make those gatherings so special. Bubby Piskac. Grandpa Piskac. Aunts and uncles and eventually our own dad who left us in 2007, and our own sister Cathy, the baby of our family, in 2013.

For the six of the George Prescott children who remain after the loss of our Cathy four years ago, it is still important that we do gather. And so we meet at the lake. We cook. We eat cookies! If the weather is good like it was this year, we hike. We look for eagles. We laugh. We hug. We gather. The family gathers.

I know of other families who gather as well, and they gather in the Father’s house. I have watched over the last two days as the family of God has gathered in Basra, in Homs, in Aleppo, in Mahardeh, in Hasekeh, indeed all over Syria and Iraq. With all of the loss they experienced though years of war, they still gather in the house of the Father, light the Advent candles, sing the carols, lift the prayers, and welcome the Christ child into their homes, their lives, their hearts. They follow the star to where it leads…the incarnation of God lying in the manger.

For me, it is the family gathering at church on Christmas Eve, that is the best gift of Christmas. For my church, West Hills in Omaha, this has been a difficult year. Though a difficult transition in leadership, many have left. Elders like Steve, who built so many VBS sets that transformed the building into castles and swamps and airfields. Leisha, who traveled with Steve and I to Germany on our honeymoon mission trip. Gene, Janet and Barb, who all served in worship and music. Oh! How their voices are missed in the choir. Henry and Paul who worked so hard on making our building welcoming and well kept. So many others, too numerous to mention…all missed and not gathered with us on the twenty-fourth as we lit the candles.

When the family gathers, we miss the ones who are not present, even as we revel with the ones who are. Sitting in the choir loft last night before the service began, I was feeling the joy of that night just as I have for so many years. And then the gift appeared. Melissa, whose family had departed back in the early spring, came up on the chancel to hug our organist. I blinked twice to clear my eyes. Yes! It was Melissa! Which meant that Kevin was there as well. When the service was over, I found them all for Christmas hugs, and thanked them for being there.

“Where else would be on Christmas Eve?” Kevin asked. “Truth be told, it was Mia. Mia is why we came.”

Mia is Kevin and Melissa’s high school senior daughter. She had been raised at West Hills and confirmed there just a few years before. This is the church – the family – that she has spent Christmas Eve with for as long as she could remember. Where else should they be, but the Father’s house?

As we know, Christmas is not about the presents. It’s about the presence. And as the family gathers, presence is a gift.

So eat the cookies. Light the candles. Follow the star…to the manger, to Grandpa’s house, to the Father’s house.

The family gathers.

Merry Christmas!

New day’s redemptive Psalm

On my first trip to Iraq in November, 2011, we spent time with people who had endured decades of war. So much of their experience had been suffering and dying from weapons of war carried in American hands. It was hard to be an American and hear the stories of their pain at our hands. Steve is on his way there now, to be with them again and share their lives and hear their stories.

Today one of those weapons of war was used to kill 59 people and wound over 500 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Our country weeps for the loss and some of us cry for the answer we know will end these mass killings by gunfire: gun control. Why is it possible that we can buy guns meant to mow down people as if in war? It makes no sense.

As I have read the news and have taken in the pain of people as they post on Facebook, I thought of my journal of poems from that trip back in 2011. It will be my prayer for this night and the new day ahead. Dona nobis pacem.

******

A reading from the book of Isaiah, chapter 2, verse 4: He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

The word of the Lord.

They drove down the highway with all of their tanks.
Leaving this country, rank upon rank.
Their guns were now silent, yet still able to cause fear
An exodus home from this place over here.

Oh what will they do with the weapons of war?
What can they become?
What can they be for?

Most will return, although some cannot
Their families will smile. They’ll hug them: a lot!
They’ll take off their armor, when they get back home.
Their tanks and their guns, shelved one by one.

Oh what will they do with the weapons of war?
What can they become?
What can they be for?

Back to the world of the normal and neat,
Back to the yard with grass under their feet.
They march now to work, and to play, and to bed.
They sleep with this thought that will come to their head:

Oh what will they do with the weapons of war?
What can they become?
What can they be for?

A dream begins forming, thoughts from a reading long ago,
words that were given to a prophet you know.
“Beat them to plowshares, to hooks that will prune.
Use them to harvest, use them for good.”

That tank can be flattened, he saw in his dream,
can be flattened and rebuilt to a plowing machine.
The fuel inside of its bombs and its missiles
can power the tractor to plow out the thistles!
And if we took all of the rifles we held,
and melted them down into metals to meld,
we could make ovens for the baking of bread!
And from the bread we could share with our neighbor.
We can transform our training to life-giving labor.

We heard from this prophet, whose name is Isaiah,
that He who made us and loves us, now wants to train us.
He wants us to walk in the light of his love.
He wants to make much of his people because
it shows off His work, it reflects His glory.
He is after all, the point of the story.

The soldier awakes to a new day at dawn.
He opens his eyes and goes for a run.
Not running away now, but running toward
a plan to bring peace where once there was war.

That’s what they’ll do with the weapons of war.
That’s what they’ll become.
That’s what they’ll be for.

Nor will they train for war anymore.

Amen.

A Day’s Contrasts

Standing outside the Nicholas Sursock Museum in Beirut is "The Weeping Women." This sculpture depicts two women, one Christian and one Muslim, mourning together in the loss of sons to senseless wars.

Standing outside the Nicholas Sursock Museum in Beirut is “The Weeping Women.” This sculpture depicts two women, one Christian and one Muslim, mourning together in the loss of sons to senseless wars.

I find myself once again in a place that has become so close to my heart. When I return to Lebanon and Syria it is like coming to a second home, and I think that is pretty amazing for someone who has lived her whole life in Omaha, Nebraska! But on a January day in this new year of 2017, I have returned to Beirut, and from here I will travel on into Syria to places I have been before in a time of peace and in this time of war.

From our first appointment on Friday to our last cultural experience at the Beirut National Museum, my mind kept focusing on the contrasts.

We spent the morning visiting the Our Lady Dispensary, a partner of The Outreach Foundation, a Presbyterian mission-connecting agency that I have traveled with. OLD is run by a real life angel named Grace Boustani. Well named, she exudes grace and gives glory to God for placing her right where her sweet spot is: serving in his name. OLD provides social and medical services to thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq who find their way to this poor mostly Christian neighborhood in Beirut. Grace herself grew up in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). She and her family left for a time, but she returned as a social worker to bring healing to her country. She uses that same touch with every person who walks through the door at OLD, Monday through Friday.

Grace and Rula of Our Lady Dispensary in Beirut are the smiling presence for refugees of wars in Iraq and Syria.

Grace and Rula of Our Lady Dispensary in Beirut are the smiling presence for refugees of wars in Iraq and Syria.

Today we had the opportunity to hear three very personal stories from three women who fled the Mosul area of Iraq in 2014 when ISIS moved in. Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa each had similar stories, but to hear them each tell their own experience was a reminder that everyone who has been affected by the happenings in the Middle East since we first invaded Iraq in 2003 has an individual story to tell. We owe it to them to hear them, see them as real people with real families. They have names! And now, we know them and can put faces to those names.

They each told of fleeing in the middle of the night. “Leave now or you will be killed! Take nothing with you! Just go!” Taking nothing but the clothes on their backs, they each left with their husbands and children, walking the fifty-plus miles from Mosul to Erbil. In Erbil, they lived in a refugee camp located in the open-air courtyard of a church there. Months later, living in extreme conditions, they made their way to Beirut and the neighborhood of OLD. They told of leaving everything behind. Former neighbors sent them photos of their homes burned to the ground by ISIS. Family graves were dug up in the Mosul cemeteries and the remains of the family members were strewn around to leave no trace of their existence. Two years later, they are all trying to be resettled in other places by the UN, but the lists are long, resources few, and the list of countries willing to take refugees from Iraq and Syria is shrinking.

It sounds hopeless, but at OLD they have found caring hearts and listening ears. Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa have each been through the trauma healing ministry led by Roula al Kattar, and have been able to talk through their grief, forgive their trespassers, and be reminded that the God they have known all their lives is still with them. It was a humbling experience to meet these three women and share the morning with them, tears and all.

The contrast came later in the day as we made our way to two museums. The first is housed in an old Beirut mansion that is filled with contemporary art. Works by people whose names are written down and celebrated are displayed in home that once was a gathering place for a wealthy family. The Sursock Museum is indeed a treasure; their belongings are well displayed and preserved, unlike the former possessions and now burned down houses of Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa.

13th century children's clothing in the Beirut National Museum

13th century children’s clothing in the Beirut National Museum

In the Beirut National Museum, well restored since the civil war, we visited the newly reopened lower level where we saw well-preserved mummies, a child’s garment from the 13th century, and a long line of beautiful sarcophagi. There were steles engraved with the names of the long dead. And yet, there were the names of someone’s ancestors. There were the preserved remains of ancient people on display for those of us walking in this century to see and marvel at. There was the evidence of lives lived in specific places.

There was and will be no evidence of the life lived in Mosul by Hala, Ramzeh and Wafa, or their families. The only memory for them is what is in and on their hearts that they shared with us. And so we will be their museum, holding onto these treasures. May God grant them new lives and new homes to make new memories in the days to come. May they continue to process their grief and call on the Lord who knows all our names. May they find restoration and peace.

Sarcophagi lined up in the Beirut National Museum

Sarcophagi lined up in the Beirut National Museum

Dona nobis pacem.

O Holy Night

15740751_10211438722274199_4657497256410435989_nIt’s 12:55 a.m. on Christmas morning. I just came home from the late Christmas Eve service at the church next door to our house, a tradition I began about nine or ten years ago when the services at our church were moved to earlier times. It’s a short walk to Dundee and I love being an anonymous worshiper in a church where I know practically no one. It is always a blessing to see the people I do know, Meri and Ron Crampton, and to give them a Christmas hug. Tonight I walked out of the church with another Ron I know. His wife Tami was sick, so if you think about it, please say a prayer for her healing.

Christmas at West Hills was bittersweet. There were glorious moments of praise on this night as we sang “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and other familiar carols which take me back to the earliest Christmases I can remember. Our dear Michael Dryver soloed on “O Holy Night,” and did it in a way that would have put you right there in Bethlehem. It is my favorite Christmas carol, and I especially love the third verse: Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease. The bitter came as I reflected that this would be the last Christmas Eve service I would get to share with Nicole and Mike Geiler. There they were, seeing to all the details of a wonderful service. They didn’t miss a beat. They love Jesus and they have helped us celebrate his incarnation for all these years. I don’t even want to think about next year. Steve, Jana and I were the Advent candle lighters and readers for this night. And I know in the bitter and the sweet that lighting that center Christ candle is the visual symbol that he is the light of the world and the darkness does not overcome it.

And that reminder came in the sweetest of forms as I watched the global church celebrate Christmas in the hours before I did. Nine hours east of Omaha came the posts from Basrah, Iraq. Merry Christmas Zuhair Fathallah and all the faithful there! And in the darkest of places on the world stage these days, in places where I have been praying for God’s gospel of peace and for the ceasing of all oppression, came the posts from Syria. Mathilde Michael Sabbagh leading in the children to the sanctuary in Hasakeh singing pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. And there was Assis Salam Hanna of Latakia soloing in a bass voice on O Little Town of Bethlehem, and I didn’t know he could sing! Elias Y. Ousta Jabbour was playing the keyboard, and that song had an awesome beat. Tami Dekrmnjian Nseir had posted a video earlier of the church in Aleppo singing “Silent Night.” Can you imagine? A silent night in Aleppo.

So here it is Christmas in Omaha and I am celebrating the reality that the word was made flesh and moved into our neighborhood, into Basrah, into Hasakeh, Latakia and Aleppo, and indeed the whole world. That word was the light of the world and all the darkness in it yesterday, today and tomorrow, cannot and will not overcome it.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of the dear savior’s birth.

Merry Christmas!

Celebrating Christmas

Another question from my final exam in Theology 331, Jesus Christ, Liberator, asked us how we might celebrate the birth of the Christ child differently this year after being in this class. Here was my answer.

As a family of people who profess to follow Jesus – Christians – we act in faith and hope and love. These virtues are the highest exercise of our humanity, and in them we participate in the very life of God. But what does this look like for us as we look ahead to Christmas? Do we just believe that Jesus was incarnated so we could have a new television? Is that all we hope for on December 25? Is that how we show our love for each other as husband and wife? Is it so small? This Christmas we need to seek more deeply what it means to be human persons beloved by God so much that he would share this human life.

It begins in prayer. Not the prayer that says, “Bless us Father with all good gifts, especially the 55” one,” but the one that draws us to the foot of the cross and centers us in this reminder of how much he poured out his love for us. Let us pray that our lives would be poured out for each other and for the sister we share this home with. In the light of a candle burning, let us look around at each other’s faces and see the gift of each one and our need for each other. We cannot do this alone, but only together.

As we come together at the supper table, we can break the bread and drink the cup in communion as we remember what Jesus taught here: in the broken bread and poured out cup, he is there, and we share it together. In this sacrament of meal, our lives are joined in a dance of humanity and divinity. The only cookies we make this year shall not be a sugarfest of over-consumption, but a reason to walk the neighborhood and share this gift of love in the form of food with those around us.

martha-stewart-treeTo counter the culture that says BUY! BUY! BUY!, that is what makes for a good solid marketing dream of Christmas, we shall expend our resources in ways to benefit the poor and outcast in our community. The opportunities to provide for the homeless and helpless are the messages we will look to. Instead of presents under a tree in the living room, we will mark each ornament as a gift we have made to someone in the name of love. Here is the one for Wendi who needed a ride to Bible study. Here is the one for Verda Leigh who needed a weekly phone call to remind her that God loves her. Here is one for the gift to Bread for the World, to remind ourselves that advocating for the voiceless is a joy to participate in. Here is one for Amariah, in the hope that she is back with her family in California after a long bus ride from Omaha.

And we will mark the eve of Christmas in worship as we share in song and word with those who have shared our lives, who have mourned with us and rejoiced with us and listened to us unburden our hearts for people living in war in Syria and Iraq.