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.


Steve is the head chef at our house and I am always pleased to serve as his sous chef. In that capacity, one of my main duties is to shred. I shred cucumbers and cheese. I grate lemon rind and ginger. Whatever needs to be moved up and down that four-sided, multi-gauged tin instrument, I do it.

You take that block of cheese, hard or soft, it doesn’t matter, and in a couple of minutes you have rendered it into a pile of shreds. You can’t put it back together. Same thing with a lemon. Use the smaller gauge on the shredder and once you have moved that bright yellow lemon up and down and up and down, you’ve changed its appearance and it will never be the beautiful Sunkist fruit anymore. It’s just an odd-looking piece of citrus with no skin, except that white pulpy stuff. Then you squeeze the juice out for something else and all that’s left is the shredded, hanging pulp of the fruit. There is just nothing left to it.

Yesterday I wrote about how my brothers and sisters and I are finding comfort in the midst of our pursuit of justice for our baby sister Cathy. And I do believe that not only have we found comfort, but comfort has found us. That is what I said. I still hold on to it and am grateful for the gift it is.

But today, we aren’t in control of the grater. We are the ones grated into a pile of shreds. We are the lemon that has not only had its skin shredded off slowly, but the juice has been squeezed out too. Right now I feel like the substance-less pulp of the sunny yellow lemon that is no more.

Our wait will be longer. Word came to us today that the man who murdered and raped and tortured our little sister Cathy is not competent to stand trial for the crime. He won’t even have a hearing to state that he is incompetent. As far as we understand – and it is so hard to comprehend! – he will simply be declared incompetent and moved to a facility to rehabilitate him…for what we do not know. For a trial eventually? That’s our hope and our desire, but we don’t know if that is what will happen. He has been down this road before. After being rehabilitated, he was released as someone considered “not dangerous” to society. And that is how he crossed paths with Cathy, shredding the life out of her.

Here is how we read about it in the Press Enterprise of Riverside County, California, in March, 2013:


This is what we have been living with for the past eighteen months, every day another day of waiting for justice. Every day another day of seeking and finding comfort. And some days, like today, we feel like we have been moved up and down and up and down over the sharp edges of a grater. It feels like being a pile of something that was once a person, but today is just pieces. And the shredding hurts. And we feel helpless to do anything. Even if there is something we can do, we don’t know what it is.

But I got a great hug from my pastor today. That felt like a healing balm where healing is hard to come by. Rich came into my life and the life of my church last July, 2013, as our interim. He has been with me and Jana through most of the stages of this crime and aftermath. He will be moving along soon as we call a permanent pastor and hopefully we will be able to carry on our journey with this new shepherd. I hope he gives as good of a hug as Rich does! But those hugs really do help pull the pieces back together, making me somewhat whole and able to carry on through the day.

We are reading the book of Revelation in staff prayer these days and I just want to hurry forward to chapter 21 where I know this passage awaits me:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Vs. 3-4)

I love that image. It’s a parent pulling out the kleenex or the dishtowel and just smearing the tears out of a child’s eyes and off the face. Maybe that mom or dad just puts their hand of the side of the face and wipes them off with their thumb. The intimacy of that kind of comfort, the in-your-face embrace of it, that is how I think of God the father. Such love…

But this is my favorite part: no more death! No more crying! (That one is hard to imagine for me, but wouldn’t it be amazing?!) No more mourning or pain or shredding or wringing out of our insides. For he has wiped it all away. And we will all be there together and he will be right there with us. And there will be hugs for Cathy and for Sally and Mike and Susan and Jana and George and for me. Our shredded family will be whole, shining like the sun…or a sun-kissed lemon.

Back in one piece, from many.