A prayer to open a new door

 

So grateful to be accepted to this program, here is my letter of application:

My name is Julie Prescott Burgess and I am applying for acceptance to the master of arts in ministry program at Creighton.

By way of introduction, I am 56 years old, married for thirteen years to my beautiful Steve, and live with and care for my head-injured older sister Jana, who is one year older than me. She was hit by a train 32 years ago in Longmont, Colorado. It was a turning point in her life and mine as well.

Baptized in the Roman Catholic church shortly after I was born before Christmas in 1958, I made my first communion in the second grade. It’s a moment that marks my life in many ways. My mom had died a few months earlier leaving seven children with my dad, ages nine to fifteen months. I was seven. On such an important occasion in the life of a young Catholic girl, I was enveloped in the love of the Servants of Mary who were teachers at Christ the King School where we attended. Being a shy, introverted young one without a mom, three wonderful sisters took me to get my hair done, took me out for lunch, and hustled me out of mass later that evening as the gravity of approaching the altar to receive the body of Christ caused me to get nauseous. Those same three women brought me back to the rail after mass was over so I could receive communion for the first time. One of those nuns was my first grade teacher, Sr. Mary Amy, whom I recently became reacquainted with through my blog. Her name is Joyce Rupp and she is quite a leader for those seeking a deeper walk of faith. The first word I remember learning from her was SURPRISE. It was a lesson that stuck with me and in our correspondence, she said she remembered it too.

I tell you that story because it was a marker in my life. Surprise. Remember. Communion. Those three things are the descriptors of my life.

Two months ago I left my position at West Hills Church here in Omaha, where I served for thirteen and half years, the last ten as the church administrator. I was called to employment there by an amazing pastor who mentored me, discipled me, pastored me and was my friend. He died in November, 2012, four days after I returned from my second trip to Iraq to be with the Presbyterian church. Because of George’s belief in me, I found the strength to step out of Omaha and travel all over the world to experience the church in many contexts.

I spent time in southwest Germany, including a short stay with a German family. As a group, we celebrated Corpus Christi Sunday. Even though we were there with the protestant church, the local Catholic priest gave us all the opportunity to receive communion. As a baptized Catholic, but now a member of a Presbyterian church, I thought this was a wonderful moment of communion and community. It was a surprise!

I had the opportunity to travel to Cameroon in west Africa twice, spending time with the Presbyterians there whose church was founded by German and Swiss missionaries. In those travels I met a Cameroonian Sunday school organizer, almost exactly one year my senior. Joe had only a fourth grade education, but he had a call to be a pastor. With the prayers of my family – husband and sister – we managed to see him through four years of seminary, and he is now ordained. As two families – one Cameroonian, one American – we walked this journey together. Surprise! Communion. And I remember.

And then the Middle East happened. I traveled first to Lebanon and Syria in the summer of 2010. Although it was to learn about Presbyterian churches started in those places in the 1850s, we had amazing meetings with Greek and Syrian Orthodox clergy. I met Syrian Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim in Aleppo, a man who was kidnapped in April, 2013, and has still not been heard from. My nightly prayer is for his release. I met Iraqi refugee families who were being cared for by the Presbyterian church. I ate dinner in the home of the Aziz family and heard firsthand of the devastation of our 2003 invasion on their lives. But I also experienced the hospitality and faith of this Syrian Orthodox family. Surprise. Communion. I remember.

I have traveled back to Lebanon and Iraq and Syria a total of eight times. And each time I come away convicted that the most important word in the Bible is “with.” I have spent time with the church – the body of Christ – in worship, in fellowship, in communion. I stood on the Chaldean Catholic Church rooftop in Kirkuk, Iraq, with the man who is now their patriarch, Louis Raphael Sako. As we stood there and looked around, he reminded us that there were snipers in the buildings around us and we needed to be careful, but he stood there with us so we could pray for that city. When we presented him with the gift of a crystal cross, he remarked that it was fragile, like their hope. His honesty in that moment was a surprise, and he shared that candor with our community.

All these surprises, these moments of community, these memories, have weighed on my heart in the last two months. My friend Kathy Padilla called me one day a few weeks back and suggested that this program would be a good fit for this Catholic Presbyterian blogger traveler whose heart is just longing for God’s peace to reign. I said, no, I was too old. And then I went back to Lebanon…

In the waiting for a visa to return to Syria to once again be with the church there in this very difficult time, I had one of those surprising moments of community with the now retired president of the Near East School of Theology, the seminary in Beirut. Her name is Mary Mikhael and although now a Presbyterian, she grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church. As a small girl, she wasn’t allowed behind the iconostasis like the boys, so she crawled through a barred window at every opportunity to see what was back there that girls couldn’t see. Mary has had an amazing life of ministry since those days, and there was no barrier put in her way that would keep her from her call to serve. The only barrier in front of me is, well, me. In that moment, I knew I would apply.

And so I am. I hope this letter isn’t too long, but I wanted you to know some touchpoints in my journey of faith.

I have come to know and love a cloud of witnesses who have helped me put hands and feet to my faith. People like the al Saka sisters, formerly of Mosul, driven from their home last July by ISIS. Their brother was murdered by extremists in 2006, and they took as their duty the protection of their church for all those years until they had to leave. People like Rev. Ibrahim Nseir and his wife Tami of Aleppo, whose church building was destroyed in 2012, but have held it together and continue to meet in a fifth floor apartment with no water or electricity. Hope exudes from them as they are about to complete a new church building in a city that has been 60% destroyed by war. People like Elder Zuhair Fathallah in Basra, who has led his church for almost ten years since their last pastor left and leads a small but mighty band of disciples in a kindergarten ministry where 98% of the students are Muslim. People like Mazar, a man who still lives in Homs, Syria, who tried to stop the assassination of Fr. Frans vander Lugt, the Dutch Jesuit priest who was killed right before the siege of this city was lifted in the last half of 2014. I had the humble privilege of praying at his grave in the courtyard of the Jesuit monastery, where a small group of people were feeding up to 2,500 people a day who had returned after the siege ended. This cloud of witnesses inspires and encourages me to step out in this way.

I want to come to Creighton to study ministry. My mom graduated from CU in 1955, and sixty years later I think she would be so happy to know that one of her seven has chosen this path. I want to study in a Jesuit institution and serve wherever God calls me. I want to be a link between Catholic and Protestant to remind us all that we are parts of the same body and we can’t say we don’t need one another, because we do. I want to continue to learn and to travel in God’s world and bring back the surprising stories of his people. I want us to know and remember the saints who came before and the ones living now in difficult places. I want to bring those too tired or sick or disadvantaged to the communion rail.

If God opens this door for me, I want to walk through it.

Thank you for your consideration.

Peace, always peace,

Surprise

My poor husband. He is the victim of the random thoughts that go through my head every day. They are only random when they pop out, however. There is definitely a flow of thoughts in my brain that connect together for me. Sometimes, the last one just begs to be spoken aloud.

Last night was just the latest in a long series of those spoken thoughts. “What’s the first word you remember learning?” I asked innocently. I actually have an answer for that. I know I learned many words in my journey of alphabet to words to sentences to reading. We all remember “See Dick run,” right? But the first word I actually remember learning is surprise.

First grade, Christ the King Catholic Church in Omaha, Nebraska. Sr. Mary Amy was my teacher and I have the clearest memory of her writing that out on the chalkboard. (Remember chalkboards? Sorry, random thoughts streaming again…)

Surprise

I remember I couldn’t read it at first. I tried to sound it out because that is what we did in 1965. And then Sr. Mary Amy read it out loud: surprise! What a great word to have at my fingertips! Who doesn’t like a surprise?

I realize there can be bad surprises, like when you get a call after midnight that wakes up your roommate who angrily comes to your room to say your sister is calling from Colorado and when you get on the phone you hear that two of your other sisters have been hit by a train. That is a bad surprise.

Or when you’re seven years old and everyone is gathered in the kitchen of your house waiting for your dad to come home from the hospital and tell everyone that your mom is not coming home because she just died. Again, a very bad surprise.

First wedded kissBut there are good, even wonderful surprises as well. Like when the handsome man who was the first to hold your hand (at the ripe old age of 42) after taking you on your first date, leans over and gives you your first honest romantic kiss. That one stayed with me for a long time. A good surprise.

Or when that same amazingly wonderful man gets down on his knee on your 43rd birthday seven months later and gives you a ring that comes with a question. I said “yes,” but not until after I made him pinch me and repeat the question. That was a GREAT surprise!

The reason for writing this down today is because of the surprise that blogging brought me just yesterday.

My Aunt Carolyn is a Franciscan nun. I usually call her SAC, which stands for Sr. Aunt Carolyn, as she was a sister before she was my aunt. She reads my blog and encourages me with the most wonderful emails. She even gives me treasures to write about. Well, yesterday she sent me this email:

Julie the other day I was reflecting on a few things important to me and one of them was the blog you had about your First Communion and the Sisters at Christ the King.This Sister Joyce Rupp is a famous author and has written many books (you would love them) and a national speaker. So as I wanted to receive her free newsletter that I just learned about I sent my request as I saw in a book I was reading, etc. and so used that opportunity to ask if she might have been the Sister or one of them from back then. Remember we did have different names, etc and I had always heard that after Jean died the Sisters brought food to your house…the rest was history. I thought you would be interested to learn she remembers you as I had not mentioned your name only the name Prescott…What do you think? Check out her books – Google: Sister Joyce Rupp and you will be surprised….Take care, Love, SAC

Attached to that email was this one from Sr. Joyce to SAC:

Yes, I taught at Christ the King for two years, in the ’60’s.  I recall having Julie Prescott in one of my classes during those two years.  Sr. Louise Genest was the principal then. A fine woman and would have been very kind to George.

Abundant peace, Joyce

So indeed, I went to Sr. Joyce’s website and there was her picture. And here I was, looking into the eyes of my first grade teacher. Fifty years later. Surprise!

I wrote her an email – surprise! – to be sure it was Sr. Mary Amy, and she wrote me back. Indeed, it was her:

I read your recent blog on your first communion and it touched my heart. Isn’t memory a marvelous gift? How you can go back to a moment that reached into your heart and remains there to bless you even now.

And I discovered that she is a woman of words, of poetry, of compassion, of a deep spiritual walk. She is a woman of God who was an example and teacher to me fifty years ago, and will be even now. Her poetry is beautiful. You can read a piece here:

http://www.joycerupp.com/cupofourlife.html

I am so grateful for a God who would surprise us by joining our human journey, invite us to the table of grace and forgiveness, suffer for our brokenness, give us memory as a marvelous gift. It is a blessing.

And the thing about that table is that he meets us there in the bread and the cup. “My body, broken for you. My blood, shed for you.” In communion with all the saints and all the sinners who show up at that invitation, he meets us.

From my mother, through Sr. Mary Amy and the other Servants of Mary at Christ the King, by and through my wonderful Sr. Aunt Carolyn, and with and through my best friend and husband Steve, I am reminded over and over again that I am loved by an amazing God. We are in communion, all of us, together.

And that is no surprise.