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!

Sounding Stones

sounding stones panoramaI took a walk on a beautiful day in Omaha this past Sunday. On days like that, I just set out and let my feet go where they will, and on this day, they took me south toward Elmwood Park and the Sounding Stones.

This five-piece concrete sculpture was moved to this corner of the park along Dodge Street several years ago from another park about two miles east. A new development in midtown called for changes to Turner Park and so the sculpture was carefully packed up and moved west. There was quite a bit of resistance to this move by folks in my neighborhood. “That’s art? It’s ugly!” The NIMBY crowed was vocal, but city officials were unmoved and the Sounding Stones arrived.

Personally, I like them. I drive by them daily on my way home, and now several years later, they are a part of the landscape.

So Sunday, my feet took me along the path where they sit and for the very first time I saw them up close.

sounding stone brokenness sounding stone submission

sounding stone humility     sounding stone simplicity

sounding stone communityThese are the sounding stones. Five values or attributes, five nouns that describe my life of faith. And amazingly, when I went home to search out the story of this sculpture, this is what I found in artist Leslie Iwai’s own words:

“The location of these stones in Omaha – a city in the middle of our nation – is important. Soundings are taken in the middle of a body of water to measure its depth. Likewise, in taking the ‘soundings’ of our community, we measure its depth. The open core of each stone is to be a place for crying out. God purposes for all people to break complacency and praise Him. But even, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’ (Luke 19:40),” Iwai wrote in her artist statement about the work. (Wayne State College Magazine, Summer, 2006 issue)

I don’t know what the depth of faith is in the middle of my city of Omaha, but on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the middle of Omaha, I lay down in the hollow of that first stone labeled “brokenness” and knew that the depth of my faith starts there, in the brokenness of my life. Loss of my mother at age 7. The child abuse of my siblings by an evil stepmother. My sisters’ near life-ending car/train collision. My brother’s HIV diagnosis. The death of my father from renal failure. The rape and murder of my baby sister.

All those broken parts of my heart have brought me closer to the one who can heal.

And I wondered where the stone of brokenness would take me on that path and so I left that hollow in the middle of brokenness and walked on. I found myself looking upon humility and submission; I found myself at the foot of the cross where I kneel in obedience to a Lord whose blood was poured out for me and for all of us. Humbly. Gratefully.

And then I wandered on to simplicity, because it is so simple. He takes it all away: the loss, the pain, the horror, the fear, leaving just me, the Julie he created me to be. He is all I need and all I want.

And just when I think there is no more, he leads me down the path to community. He has shown me his body – the global church – and connected me into something so much bigger than I could ever imagine.

A depth sounding in the middle of Omaha, landlocked in the middle of the USA, on the staple of the map.

But even as I lingered at community, I thought how each of those stones has become more real to me as I have traveled far from the staple of this map to the places where human sounding stones have fleshed out the depth of faith for me in the past five years.

I thought of the brokenness of Syria and Iraq. I saw the humility of people who have lost everything and yet serve their neighbors who have lost even more. I saw the simplicity of life lived without stuff, yet lived in joy because of their love for a God who holds them and comforts them in their losses. I have seen the obedient submission of those who stay where they have have been planted and grown deep roots, to continue to share the good news in a place that needs to hear it more than ever. I have seen the community of orthodox and catholic and protestant come together as one family and love their Muslim and Yazidi neighbors who are also broken.

My friend Marilyn is currently in Iraq sending back stories of this faithful community of God’s living stones, and two lines in her recent emails struck me as I ponder these five sounding stones standing in my park nine time zones to her west:

  • “Do not cry for us—we have may have lost everything, but we still have Jesus.” – A woman driven from Mosul by ISIS, now living in a tiny space in a former Sunday school room of a church in the safer northeast
  • “how strange that we (Muslims) try to kill you (Christians) and you help us anyway.” -shared by an elder of the church in Kirkuk

As Marilyn added, “What a powerful testimony to the of sharing Christ’s love and of God bringing good out of evil!”

They are the living stones who cry out in thanksgiving and praise for the one who made them and saved them and loves them still.

And from the depth of my heart and soul, I cry out in thanksgiving and praise to him along with them.

And pray for his peace to descend on us all.


Watching the news

Micah 6 8We started the day here in Omaha with news from overnight. There was an attempted robbery at a Wendy’s not far from our home. The police responded and fired at the suspect because he had a gun and he shot first. (I am not finding any fault here with the police. I believe they were firing in self-defense.) The suspect was killed. His name was Cortez Washington.

Another man was also killed. The sound man from the television “Cops,” which has been riding along with our police department, was the victim of a police bullet as well. It was totally accidental and everyone is devastated by this, including the police officers who had come to think of him as their friend as they spent the summer together. His name was Bryce Dion.

Both deaths break my heart today, as I am sure they break the heart of God. There are so many deaths due to gunshots in our community and in our country. It just doesn’t happen like this in other places. So many lives lost, so many families with empty places at their tables and empty spaces in their hearts.

The other thing that makes me so sad is that we even have shows like “Cops.” Why is the reality of every day law enforcement considered entertainment? These are not documentaries. Our police chief said he agreed to this because he wanted the citizens of Omaha to have access to how our department does their job in a professional manner. Transparency. This is how it happens in real time. We have nothing to hide. And that is all well and good; it is good public relations to let citizens see how hard our police officers work and the dangers they face. They should be protected and respected as they protect and serve.

But Bryce was just doing his job too, and that’s the part I don’t understand, because in the end this was a commercial show being recorded for entertainment purposes. It would be edited, broadcast with commercial breaks (probably for some drug we should ask our doctor about or beer or some new movie), and then we would turn off the television and forget about it until next week’s exciting episode.

I think that is how we watch the news these days too. The horrors of war and earthquakes and Ebola epidemics capture our attention for the briefest of moments and then we move on. Or we get a twisted picture of all people of a place (like Syria or Iraq) based on the very small part of a much larger story that we get fed to us. It scares us. We overreact. We want to build our own arsenals because ISIS IS COMING! Right?

The other communication I had first thing this morning was an email from my sister. I love my sister and she loves me too. That was the point of her email. She is worried and scared for me and Steve to return to Lebanon and Syria this November.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about writing these thoughts down and sending them your direction. I love you, you’re my sister, but I fear more and more for your safety in your travels abroad. I respect your passion in your beliefs and am proud of you and the things you do. But the part of the world to which you are going in November is increasingly SO dangerous, I felt the need to express my overwhelming fear for your safety and that of Steve and everyone with which you travel.  You are an intelligent and compassionate person, and I need to know that you realize the danger in which you place yourself. I need to know that precautions are taken for your safety, and that you have considered the possible consequences.  They take Americans hostage, they detest Christians and kill them. I know I can’t stop you and Steve from going, but please know that we are all afraid while you are gone. I don’t know what to do if something happens. I pray that nothing happens, but the people committing crimes against humanity aren’t going to pay attention to prayers.

I need you to know that I’m afraid, and I love you.

They take Americans hostage. Yes, they have, but many more hostages are people who look and speak just like them. I am still praying for the release of two Syrian archbishops, His Grace Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and His Grace Boulos Yazigi of the Green Orthodox Church. They were kidnapped April 24, 2013, near Aleppo and have not been heard from since.

They detest Christians and kill them. Yes, some do, but they really hate anyone who doesn’t follow their twisted ideology including their own Sunni brethren. More Muslims have been killed in these wars than any other group of people. And the vast majority of Muslims love their Christian neighbors. They have lived side by side for centuries in peace.

But this is what we understand from the news. We watch it. We get disturbed by it. We turn it off. Hey! Football starts Saturday!

I am so grateful for a police department that protects and serves. I pray for them in the situations they find themselves in, standing between me and my family and those who would hurt us.

I am grateful for news reporters who work hard to get the whole story and present it fairly. I mourn when their lives are taken in the pursuit of bringing that story to me.

I love my sister and am so grateful that all my family worries for what Steve and I are doing. I am also thankful that at some level they understand the call, the passion, the will and desire to go.

I am grateful for my brothers and sisters in the Middle East who are steadfast in their faith, with hearts of great courage. As Marilyn says, their courage makes us brave.

Today from Sojourners came the Verse and Voice blog via email later in the day after the news story and the email from my sister, and as usual, it was what seemed to draw these words of mine together for this day:

Happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in [God’s] ways. You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you. – Psalm 128:1-2

“Every day there are people in our world that do absolutely amazing things. People of all ages are very capable of doing tremendous, courageous things in spite of their fear.” -Mairead Corrigan

Steadfast God, perhaps one of the greatest mysteries is why you continue to entrust the work of your kingdom into our clumsy hands. But we are forever grateful that you do not want to change the world without us. May we become the church you dream of. Amen. – From Common Prayer

I want to walk in God’s ways every day and I look forward to walking with his people in Lebanon and Syria in November. Oh! The fruit of that labor is indescribable!

I don’t think of what we do by traveling this way is an amazing thing, but if Susan thinks so, awesome! Our friends there make us brave.

My hands are clumsy, but God has formed them and calls me to use them for his purposes. I want to be a part of his kingdom come…which is a world changer.



Every night before I go to sleep, I say my prayers. It’s been my habit as long as I can remember, even back to the age of four! Mostly I pray for peace. Oh Lord let it come soon all over your world! But my prayers always end in a series of “thank yous” to the giver of life and all that comes with it. Sometimes my list of things to be grateful for is so long that I fall asleep before I get to amen.

Today I am feeling gratitude for every English teacher I ever had. In my school system which is Westside Community Schools, aka, District 66 here in Omaha, I had some of the finest English teachers who ever practiced the craft. There were Sarol Wiltse in seventh grade, Sid Dunn in the eighth (and we’re friends on Facebook!), Ed Mansur, Don Kolterman, Bob Dornacker and Richard Bock through the final four years. All of them stressed spelling, grammar, punctuation and the nuts and bolts of the language. But they also taught us to write: to compose, to narrate a story, to explain a concept, to argue a point, to express ourselves. I will always be grateful for what they imparted to me, which is a love of the language put down for others to enjoy.

I have a younger sister who had many of those teachers as well. (Most of my sisters had them in fact!) She is the same sister I used to torture with my new found writing skills when I sent her own letters home from summer camp back to her with corrections marked. It still makes me smile to remember how imperious I was about spelling. Okay, I still am. (Sidebar: Please folks! Remember the difference between its and it’s, your and you’re; there, their and they’re. They mean different things!)

That's Sally working the field on her tractor.

That’s Sally working the field on her tractor.

That same sister whose name is Sally is now a published author. (I encourage you to buy her book, “Windows in the Loft.” I may be slightly prejudiced but she is very good. And her grammar and spelling are above reproach.) I am so proud of her! And I’m grateful for the person she is today. She has overcome so much and she is living a life that suits her to a T. She also has a wonderful blog where she chronicles her adventures living on a farm in eastern Colorado. You can follow her at sygoerner.wordpress.com. Read it. It’s authentic Sally.

That's Sally on her horse.

That’s Sally on her horse.

And so I have started this blog. I have found the short items I post on Facebook to be good practice, but over the last months I have experienced the strong desire to stretch myself and really work on writing at more length. Compiling stories of people I have known from years ago and people who have been part of my journey in recent days, is my way of loving the world one person at a time. I think they are stories worth sharing because the people are worth knowing. People like Ms. Wiltse, Mr. Dunn, Mr. Mansur, Mr. Kolterman, Mr. Dornacker and Mr. Bock…and Sally. For each of them, I am grateful.