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.

Memory loss

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.

Today was communion Sunday at our church and the familiar words were spoken as we began the celebration of the Lord’s supper:

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19

It’s a ritual I first took part in when I received my first communion in second grade at Christ the King Catholic Church here in Omaha, fifty years ago. I wrote about it in my blog last October:


And every time I receive the elements, the bread and the cup, I remember back to that night.

I remember the communion in Basrah, Iraq, that I witnessed in 2011 as the Presbyterian church there was able to celebrate it because our group brought four pastors with us.

I remember that communion repeated in Basrah in 2012 as we returned with six pastors.

And I remember communion in that same church in March, 2014, as we returned to celebrate communion with them as they now had their own pastor to lead it.

Memories. I collect them like others collect stamps or baseball cards. It’s what makes me Julie, or at least contributes to the essence of me.

Remembering in communion, remembering the sacrifice made for us out of great love, is the center of our Christian worship, its holy essence in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Jana and I just came back from seeing the movie, “Still Alice.” It stars Julianne Moore in the role of a brilliant linguist and college professor, wife and mother of three, who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Bit by bit, she loses the words she is a master of. She gets lost on the campus in her familiar daily run. She forgets where the bathroom is in her home. She forgets the names of those most familiar to her.

And even though her family grieves her loss as she disappears day by day, they love her and care for her and know that she is, after all, still Alice. But in the end, she really is not the Alice that we saw in the beginning. She has been robbed of her essence.

I have seen it happen to others I know as well, real people, not characters in a movie. It is very hard to watch and a feeling of helplessness in the situation is overwhelming.

This movie struck a bitter, minor chord in my heart today because of the recent news of what is happening in Iraq and Syria: the destruction of ancient works of art and ancient manuscripts in Mosul and other places as ISIS deems them idols of the apostate. “These things didn’t exist at the time of the Prophet. They have been invented and must be destroyed,” or something like that.

It’s a bitter chord because it is like a deliberate attack on the essence of who we are as humans and how we developed the languages to tell our story, the grand story of our creation by a loving God. The same creativity he exhibited by speaking us into being and breathing his very breath into us to give us life, has been left behind by those who wrote it down on parchment manuscripts, who sculpted it into winged creatures of bigger-than-life size, who painted it onto canvas or stone walls.

And it is systematically being destroyed, erased, even as the words that Alice knew intimately were wiped one by one from her brain.

I am reading a book right now called High Tea in Mosul by Lynne O’Donnell. She was one of the first journalists to reach this ancient city after the war ended (it never really did, did it?) after the invasion in 2003. I haven’t finished it yet, but in reading it this week I came to a part that just made me want to cry out.

Mosul is the ancient Ninevah of the Bible. The Ninevah that God sent the reluctant prophet Jonah to in order to preach his word of repentance. There is – I mean was – a temple there where Jonah was said to be buried. Lynne talks about it standing there still as testament to the power of the human spirit to hang on even in the hardest and darkest of times.

The book was written in 2007. In 2014, this temple of Jonah was destroyed.

As Alice’s family learns early on after her diagnosis, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s.

I don’t know the cure for the scourge of evil that is ISIS. And bit by bit, this disease is robbing our human family of its collective memories, the ancient artifacts that tell our story.

And so I cry out with my brothers and sisters who live there and who watch it happen and are helpless to do anything,

How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Habakkuk 1:2

And then I remember the bread and the cup of sacrifice. And I say thank you for the gift of memory. And I write it down and look at the pictures I have taken of men and women and children.

And I pray.


The Key

Church keysThose are my church keys. One is the master key and it opens most of the doors here. One is just for the pantry. Sadly, we had to rekey it and carefully distribute the keys, as food and supplies kept going missing. (People never seem to steal our bibles…) One opens the server room and one the mechanical rooms. There is an Allen wrench to dog out the doors from the inside so they will open freely when they’re not locked. There is a key to the safe and a key to the cabinet for important papers. There is a security fob for online banking. There is my flashlight from the Sunday school at the Evangelical Church in Damascus, Syria, which always says to me that even when your light is small, you can still shine it out in love!

And then there is that daily reminder, the most important key of all…pray for the oppressed. It was a gift from a dear friend who opened the doors to me to the church in the Middle East. And if you didn’t already know it, they are suffering greatly these days, and they need our daily prayers.

This came in my email box this morning. It’s the story of another Christian village in northern Iraq – biblical Ninevah – where ISIS has forced the Christians and other minorities out in their zest to create a new Islamic Caliphate and spread their version of a dangerous ideology. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28686998

The town is Qaraqosh and it was one of the places Christians had fled to from Mosul, another ancient place in the history of my faith. The historical loss of artifacts is devastating. The loss of life is too much to bear. And so I pray for oppressed…and the oppressor. This prayer seems to put the words in my mouth and heart that I am just too grieved to come up with myself. Won’t you join me?

From the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


And amen.


I read this article from The Daily Beast today. (http://thebea.st/SUnUNQ ) It was published in June when Mosul, Iraq, was overrun by ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It was written by a U.S. serviceman who was there for a year as part of the surge. These are his words, not mine:

“That’s the Tigris,” I said to my gunner as we drove along its banks, “the Cradle of Civilization.” “Well, that’s a lot of bull,” said my gunner. We laughed. We’d come to civilize the cradle of civilization. To us, it looked like a backward dump. Because, you see, the joke is, civilization had nothing to do with Mosul. Civilization was a strip mall in Wisconsin.  Mosul, logically, had no civilization, for if they knew how to act civilized, we wouldn’t have been there at all. Civilized cities don’t have wars in them. This assumption, by and large, was a fair one, justified by our particular experience. Civilized cities don’t need to be stabilized. They don’t need American soldiers training former prisoners how to fire rifles. They don’t need curfews. They don’t need a big rich country like ours to help them. Civilized countries have their act together. I doubted many things my superiors told me, but I believed this: someone had to get Mosul back on its feet, put it on the path to civilization. So we set to work. We busted into houses with shotguns, cleaned up decapitated bodies, harangued local authorities. Another evening, the kind with all those beautiful stars war poets wax nostalgic about in memoirs, we dragged an older couple into their overgrown courtyard and demanded they tell us secrets about their neighborhood. To my surprise, they spoke English. “We have no secrets,” they said, “we are doctors, not terrorists.” “You are liars,” I said. Doctors would not let the Cradle of Civilization come to this.

And in my anger I fired off an email to my friend who wanted me to see it because she knew the reaction I would have as it disturbed us both. (These are my words. You can tell I was upset.) “And this is what I think is the problem with what we have taught our young people who fight our wars. This young man has no idea that the cradle of civilization was just that: the place where civilization was born and raised. We teach them that it started in 1776 on this side of the ocean and by gosh it was because God gave us the right to own guns. That is in the Bible, right? Sorry for my outburst. Civilization begins where we recognize the humanity in the person across from us: across the table, across the sanctuary, across the border, across the ocean. God’s presence in each one. Our neighbors. I will pray for this young man, damaged by our civilized society.” How is it we can claim to be so educated, so smart, so knowledgeable about the world and still have people who think this way? I can’t take back my thoughts. I have been to Iraq and experienced something far different from what he did. He said, “Doctors would not let the Cradle of Civilization come to this.” Doctors didn’t. We did with our misguided and immoral war. How does he not know that?! But then someone else sent me another story from Mosul, that reminded me that the story of the good Samaritan is a story that crosses faith boundaries, and it comes from the same place this one did. From the vaticaninsider.com today by Giorgio Bernardelli:

He refused to keep silent about the violence against Mosul’s Christians who are forced to choose between converting to the Muslim faith, paying the jizyah (the Islamic tax for non-Muslims) or fleeing. Professor Mahmoud Al ‘Asali, a law professor who lectures on pedagogy at the University of Mosul, had the courage to make a stand against this brutal duress which he believes go against the Muslim commandments. But he paid for this gesture with his life: he was killed by ISIS militants in Mosul yesterday.’

My faith is in God, who said the greatest commandment is to worship him with all my mind, soul and strength, and the second is much like it – to love my neighbor as myself. Today for me, I have heard the story of this being modeled in Mosul by a Muslim law professor speaking up for his Christian neighbors and paying for it with his life. And I praise God for the life of Mahmoud Al ‘Asali, who was my neighbor and yours and a member of a civilized society which has been destroyed by those claiming to be. Lord have mercy.

Mourning for Mosul

Adeeba and me

Adeeba and me

I have been privileged to travel to Iraq three times since November, 2011, to spend time in fellowship and worship with my brothers and sisters in Christ in the evangelical, or presbyterian, churches. I have been in Basrah in the south three times! I have visited Kirkuk and Erbil, and also met some wonderful people from Baghdad and Mosul. As a matter of fact, I have met the entire remnant of the church family of Mosul. Four of them are sisters, Mary, Hana, Nadira and Adeeba.

Hana, Adeeba and me in Erbil.

Hana, Adeeba and me in Erbil.

The Presbyterian church in Mosul, Iraq, was the original of a small but thriving protestant church family that was founded by missionaries in the 19th century, part of the great missionary movement of that time. These four sisters had a brother who was an elder in the church. After the war which began in 2003, insurgents came to Mosul and it became very difficult to be a professing Christian there. The brother was kidnapped and assassinated. The family was asked to pay for the bullet which killed him. I can hardly recount the memory of hearing this story from these women without seeing their faces in my mind, sorrow evident at such a loss.

They stayed in Mosul and found a way to protect the historic building of their church, even though they could not worship there any more. It was located in a very dangerous part of a city in a dangerous part of the world. Yet they managed to hire a guard who would stay there and protect it. It was more than just a precious place to them for the value of a building: it was a reminder that the church was born in places like this at the very beginning. not long after the resurrected Christ instructed the disciples to become apostles and sent them out to build the church. And they did. Mosul was the home of Chaldean Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, and others, including the Presbyterians.

Today I received word that ISIS, this conquering, brutal, extremist group that swept into Mosul a few weeks back and took control, has ordered that all remaining Christians leave or face the consequences. Death. That is what they mean. And so the remaining body of Christ in that place moves into the diaspora that is happening in other parts of the world.

I do have word that these dear sisters had already moved to a safer place in the north, leaving behind the beloved church building they had long protected since the death of their brother. And this must make the sting of his death hurt afresh. I know my heart breaks again for them and for all the faithful in a place where Jonah the prophet was buried. It is an ancient place and a reminder that the faith I profess has been handed down through generations of saints and martyrs who suffered to share the good news with us all.

All four sisters are in this photo along with our small group in Erbil. Mary is next to me and I came to understand why she would never smile with us. Her pain is great and today I am sure it has grown.

All four sisters are in this photo along with our small group in Erbil. Mary is next to me and I came to understand why she would never smile with us. Her pain is great and today I am sure it has grown.

In an upper room in Erbil, Iraq, in November, 2012, we worshipped in song and prayer. Adeeba and her sisters sang out at the top of their lungs because they could, which was something they couldn’t do in Mosul then. On a later bus trip that we took to Kirkuk, Adeeba broke into “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful.” It was the most joyful rendition of that Christmas carol I have ever heard and we all joined in.

When I wrote about “peace through music” yesterday I wasn’t thinking of that. But I am today and I am longing that Adeeba, her sisters, and all the faithful of that place will find peace again and be able to raise their voices in musical celebration.