Sewing School


I don’t remember exactly how old I was when someone first put a needle and thread in my hands, but I remember who it was. Actually it was three people. My Grandma Thirtle had a sewing box filled with bits of embroidery floss and sharp needles. She used to embroider pillowcases and dish towels. Many years later it was large tablecloths. For someone whose hands shook so badly with Parkinson’s disease, I realized many years later just how difficult the task must have been for her. But those dishtowels and pillowcases usually became gifts for someone, and I can remember that it took two of her tablecloths to cover our holiday tables because we were such a big family.

When my sisters and I were small, she would iron a pattern onto a muslin towel or pillowcase and show us the stitches. Running stitches. Satin stitches. Daisy stitches. The hard to master French knot. When you learned the stitches and used the appropriate ones, when you changed the color of thread in your needle for a new part of the pattern, eventually you would have a frolicking puppy or a bunch of daisies or maybe even a butterfly. As we grew older, we would find designs to put on shirt jackets or tops. It wasn’t high fashion, but it was our own artwork.

Before our mom died when I was seven, she used to sew all our clothes. There is this great Easter photo in which Jana, Susan, Sally and I (Cathy hadn’t come along yet) were in matching dresses. It is not the only time we were, but oh! how I remember those dresses. She left us when we were so young, that she didn’t get the chance to teach us what she knew, but that’s where the aunts came in. Aunt Suzy and Aunt Heddy made sure we learned how to use a machine. In seventh grade – back in the good old 1970s – all the girls took sewing. Because of those good aunts, we already knew how. We had sewn clothing for ourselves for more than two years before Mrs. Schiebe had us in class.

That same Aunt Heddy hooked me on quilting when I was in my early thirties. Cutting large pieces of cloth into smaller ones of different shapes and then stitching them back together in new patterns created a top that was then layered with backing and batting. After quilting the layers together and binding the edges – presto! – you had made a quilt. I still have a large stash of fabric and many projects ready to finish that just await some good free time. It is therapy, and something that will blanket you with warmth comes out at the end.

The best gift received from those lessons was the good time spent together in the learning process. Sharing moments and sharing love. Making something for someone else. Easy sisterly chatter. It was all good.

I have had the joy and privilege of seeing that same kind of community in much harder circumstances than the ones I shared with Grandma and my aunts. There are thousands of Syrian girls and women who have fled the war with their families and are currently living in tents in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, among other places. When husbands or brothers are lost to the war, how do these women provide for their families? Who provides the milk? The diapers? The every day needs? How do you plan for a future? A special woman I know named Izdihar – an artist by trade, a lover of Jesus to the core – has taken some of these women under her care. A number of years ago she saw a need in her own country of Lebanon to care for the overlooked impoverished families residing there and began an NGO called Together For the Family. Izdihar and TFF have channeled resources in these days to use what they have learned from those earlier years to reach out to Syrian women. And part of her ministry revolves around the needle and thread and sewing machine.

Today our team visited her in the new campus she has set up near one of the non-UN organized camps. It was a sweet group of women we discovered inside. Wafa, a Kurdish woman from the northeast of Syria with five children, has worked with Izdihar for several years to help shepherd her sister refugees through a process of learning to sew. With other women about Wafa’s age (early 30s) all the way down to 11-year old Alla from Raqqa, these women were gathered together in a small room working on projects that would be part of their portfolio as they worked toward graduation from Izdihar’s sewing school. They make table runners, tissue holders, dresses, pants, baby clothes, pajamas and other items, all learned together in this little classroom that is furnished with sewing machines and a serger. Upon graduation, they will be each be given a sewing machine so that they can begin their own small business, producing some income for their family. Income means food on the table. Survival. As the saying goes, they are not given fish, but they are taught to catch fish. Izdihar has been able to sell some of what they make now as they learn, so they earn some money before the graduation day.

We were shown the first of a number of quilt tops that they are making. In the center panel is the simple shape of a baby sleeping on a quilt. Once these are layered, quilted and bound, they will be given to babies, also cared for by TFF, who have been born in the camps where Izdihar works. Stitched with loving hands of women who have borne much pain, those new babies will be wrapped in the love of Christ.

From 30,000 feet, the view can be daunting. There are thousands of women and children like the half dozen we met today. Where do we start? Come in closer where Izdihar is and hear her prayer: “Please Lord, give me this day work to do.” She sees the ones God puts in her path and she meets them where they are. She gathers them in. She puts the needle and thread in their hands. She teaches. She loves. She shows them a future. They will pass it on as it was passed on to me, and through the work of women’s hands, chattering together at the table in this small room, a little corner of a great big world will be blanketed with love.

May God continue to bless this work and the hands that move the needles.

The work of peace

Homs peace signsI am now officially a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Ministry program at Creighton University here in Omaha. I have spent two weeks with the other members of my program in resident classes there in June. What a joy to meet face-to-face with these wonderful young people! Most of our class time together will be spent online, discussing in Facebook-like posts on what we are reading about, so be together in the classroom was great fun.

During the weekend that came between the two weeks, twelve of us spent time together in an Ignatian silent retreat led by one of the Jesuits from the Creighton community. Father Larry Gillick guided us through those hours of silence with scripture to pray on, stories to think on and the reminder that our identity is found in what we receive from God and not in what we achieve on our own or what the world tells us we are.

A silent retreat. I survived. And yet I still have to make it through an eight-day silent retreat to fulfull the requirements of the class. EIGHT DAYS! Please pray for me. 🙂

I think back on the wonder of that weekend on this day as I prepare to leave once again for Lebanon. I will be spending precious time with sisters in Christ, many of them from Syria. I think how the luxury of quiet would be to them in the days of war they continue to walk through. I think they would love to hear…

Bird song

Wind song




One of the best things Father Larry gave me on this retreat was a name: Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Father Larry would bring a well-worn Braille book of poetry with him when he came to our gatherings to direct us. The poetry was all by Gerard Hopkins, a Jesuit and poet from the nineteenth century, who had a way with language that brings me to tears. As we were meeting in the library of the retreat center for these meetings, I investigated the card catalog for some of Fr. Hopkins’ work. Surely in the Jesuit library in the Jesuit retreat center I would find a book of Jesuit poetry…

I was not disappointed.

In my quiet time (there was a lot!) I thumbed through the book and found this waiting for me like a gift under the Christmas tree:

Peace by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

When will you ever, Peace, wild wood dove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To my own heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

“He comes with work to do.”

peace.jpgThere it was. The peace I have been praying for, and continue to, requires work. It is not going to just sit there and say, “Here I am! All is quiet now.” It is the beginning of work and not an end. We have work to do to make peace and keep peace.

And so I go to be with those who are peacemakers and peacekeepers. And they are blessed. Says so in Matthew 5:9, you can look it up.

Just as Fr. Larry introduced me to Fr. Hopkins and his beautiful poetry and this special one about peace, he also gave me a scripture to contemplate which describes the work I am to do, and you can too if you want to join me in working for peace:

Finally, brothers an sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

Back to work!

Dona nobis pacem.


That's my trip journal for four trips to the Middle East. The spine is busted from stuffing it full of inserts of hymns, printed prayers, photos and bios of my teammates, devotionals I've led and other memories on paper too important to discard.

That’s my trip journal for four trips to the Middle East. The spine is busted from stuffing it full of inserts of hymns, printed prayers, photos and bios of my teammates, devotionals I’ve led and other memories on paper too important to discard.

I was looking through my dog-eared, spine-busted journal tonight for an email address. There are so many inserts into this broken-backed book! And while I found the email, I also found this. On this night, before I begin my journey into a master of arts study of ministry at Creighton University, it reminds me of one of the big reasons I am stepping out.

I wrote this article in May, 2013, shortly before my second trip to Lebanon. I am so happy to share it tonight.



Wading Into Deeper Waters

There is a difference between heartburn and a heart that burns. The former is felt usually around some poor eating habits or gastrointestinal issues. It’s very uncomfortable if you’ve ever experienced it, but you can take a pill. The latter can also be uncomfortable, but I would describe it more as comfort-afflicting. If your heart has ever burned for something or someone, your only response is action. If you don’t do something about it, it just gets worse. There is no magic pill.

My heart has burned for the situation across the Middle East since I was in high school and my step-brother Charlie worked for NBC News in Lebanon, covering their civil war which raged for fifteen years. Every night we would watch the news and see pictures of the atrocities that Charlie had stood in the midst of to get the story to us in the U.S. It was hard to watch and understand why these things went on, but more than anything, we hoped Charlie would be safe.

My heart kept burning through the years and then I met Maya in a women’s bible study here at West Hills. A native of Lebanon, she returned there to visit family in 2006 and was stuck in the middle of another war. When she came back thoroughly shaken, heartbroken and angry, reliving her childhood, she shared with us her story. This woman of faith simply asked, “Why do they hate us?”

Then I met Marilyn Borst of The Outreach Foundation and she was taking a group of faithful women to visit the churches of the Synod of Syria and Lebanon. We would travel to Beirut and visit the churches founded by missionaries in the 1800s. We would travel to Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, doing the same. We shared worship. We shared time at a women’s conference. We were welcomed into their homes. We shared coffee and tea and sweets. We met with Iraqi refugee families who were being cared for by the church. We heard stories of courage and of love and of faith, a faith lived out for over 2,000 years.

And I came home with new friends and new connections in this global gathering we call the Body of Christ. And my heart burned to return, to be back in the company of those women and those churches, to share life together again. And we would have returned the following year, 2011, but once again, war broke out.

This time the war was in Syria – first an uprising in a small town, now a two-year old war – and we couldn’t go back because it wasn’t safe…for us. It’s not safe for them either, but they live there. Or they did.

The Presbyterian Church in Aleppo, Syria, where we sang Amazing Grace and shared with the families who were caring for Iraqi refugees was completely destroyed in November, 2012. We got this news from synod officials who had traveled to be with us in a large gathering in Erbil, Iraq. Those of us in that room who had worshipped at the church in Aleppo were grieving: grieving for the ministry that would no longer be done in that neighborhood, grieving for the plans of the renovation of a Christian high school that would have served all faiths, grieving for the work that Assis Ibrahim and his congregation had done together as incarnational witnesses. Their church home was destroyed, many of their own homes were destroyed, their jobs were gone. Those who cared for refugees were now refugees themselves as they fled to safe parts of their country or to Lebanon.

In some of Paul’s epistles he refers to a collection for the church in Jerusalem. The churches created from his and other missionary journeys were collecting money for the benefit of the persecuted church there. The Outreach Foundation and other churches in our denomination are doing the same thing for the present day persecuted churches in Syria. They are collecting money to send to the Synod of Syria and Lebanon to aid these now displaced brothers and sisters in the small but important ways they can. And the people of our church have responded to that plea in the form of a $10,000 gift granted by our Mission Team. And my heart burns with gratitude at this response. We are not called to suffer as they have been. But we are called to stand with them: to show up when we can, to release the resources that God has provided us to be used in their time of need.

This burning heart of mine will return to Lebanon in May. My prayer is that these people of God will know his peace that passes all understanding. That they will be comforted by his gracious Holy Spirit. That they would have abundant life restored to them. That they would continue to shine the light of Christ wherever they are. And that they will be strengthened in this time of trial.

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Romans 8:18

And now in January, 2016, I am happy to reflect back on this. The church building in Aleppo has been rebuilt in a safer place and the saints worshipped there for the first time on Christmas. The church body never stopped meeting, climbing five flights of stairs to meet in an apartment together for the last three years.

The Aleppo College for Boys, that Christian high school, has never closed its doors during the continuing conflict, now approaching its fifth anniversary. It continues to be a place where Christian and Muslim learn side by side.

My church, West Hills Presbyterian, has given other gifts to the Syria Appeal of The Outreach Foundation totaling some $25,000. (You can give too!

I have traveled back to Lebanon three times and to Syria twice. Steve and I will be returning to both again this spring.

And the inspiration of the church in persecution has put a vision of ministry in front of me, and the fulfillment of that vision begins tomorrow night when I take my first class at Creighton University.

May God continue to cause my heart to burn, and may he inflict you with that as well.

Dona nobis pacem.

All is well

Pam Kragt and I worked together for eight years at West Hills Church. Pam left her job this past January to pursue her dream job. It didn’t turn out to be the dream, but it in a period of waiting this summer, that dream did materialized for her. She is serving the people she loves the most, the Greatest Generation. It is her mission call and she was gifted by God for that purpose. She does it well!

I left six months after her and am in my waiting period as my new journey of school begins in January.

We are two women who found a way to be friends and sisters in Christ even though we represent the two ends of a political spectrum that can be very divisive. We had our moments, oh yes, we did. But at the end of the day and the end of our time on staff together, we were grateful that the common ground we shared was much broader and connecting than our political divide. We remain friends.

But now that we are not serving together, we haven’t seen each other since January.

Until today…

Pamela Sue, as she is known professionally, came to sing the Christmas program at church for our 55 and over group. Yes, I qualify. I earned my way in two Decembers ago when I hit the double nickel birthday. I didn’t really want to go, but Jana did, so we went. I was happy to see Pam again and hear her sing.

When we served on staff together, there were times when we would just start singing a hymn in the workroom at church. I would take the melody and Pam would just purr out her beautiful deep alto harmony. She learned all those hymns growing up in the church in northwest Iowa. For me, they were all fresh and new and singing with Pam in the workroom was just a joy.

The Lemon Sisters sing for the first time, West Hills Church Super Supper, 2007. Kathy Padilla, me, Pam Kragt

The Lemon Sisters sing for the first time, West Hills Church Super Supper, 2007. Kathy Padilla, me, Pam Kragt

One year for the annual church meeting known as the Super Supper, we formed a fabulous trio with our friend Kathy Padilla: The Lemon Sisters. Our motto was “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade for the Lord!” Our original song, West Hills Mission Trip, sung to the tune of Route 66, was a big hit that year.

This little group would pop up periodically to provide light entertainment and provoke laughter as we did in a sadder moment at church in 2013. Pam Moore was heading to Colorado Springs to take a new job after the death of her husband and our pastor George the year before. We gathered together as a staff to send her off and the Lemon Sisters were there to do it up right. This little video always makes me smile at the memory.

And so today we went to hear Pam sing. I had so many things to ask her and to tell her about life since we last shared time together. Upon seeing each other we just had a great big hug and it was such a gift. But then she said, “Oh Julie! I am so glad you are here. I was praying that you would come because there is a song I wanted to do for you.”

She had prayed. For me. She wanted to do a song. I thought maybe she was going to sing Sentimental Journey which we had done as Lemon Sisters, or maybe I’ll Fly Away. But that wasn’t it.

She couldn’t look at me as she introduced the song because she started tearing up. The truth is as she began to talk, I teared up myself. She said as she rehearsed it she would see me and my heart for the people of Syria. We had talked so many times about the places God has called us to, her to senior citizens and to Honor Flights and me to the church in the Middle East. She had heard me ask for prayers so many times for them, that they would know peace. And so many times in staff prayer she would be prompted to pray for them.

Always, even in our differences, we would find the words to pray for each other’s hearts.

And today, for me and for the peace of Syria, she sang this song by Michael W. Smith.

All Is Well

All is well all is well
Angels and men rejoice
For tonight darkness fell
Into the dawn of love’s light
Sing A-le
Sing Alleluia

All is well all is well
Let there be peace on earth
Christ is come go and tell
That He is in the manger
Sing A-le
Sing Alleluia

All is well all is well
Lift up your voice and sing
Born is now Emmanuel
Born is our Lord and Savior
Sing Alleluia
Sing Alleluia
All is well

I have written before about my birthday season. I have a season because my birthday is in the time of Advent, the Christmas season. The gifts I receive come on many days, not just the nineteenth of December. And so officially, today, December 4, 2015, my 57th birthday season began with the gift of song from my friend, Pam.

All is well.

Born is Emmanuel.

Let there be peace on earth.

Sing Alleluia.

All is well.

Fathers loved. Fathers lost.

Easter Sunday, 2007. Daddy is on the far right of the couch in the light blue shirt.

Easter Sunday, 2007. Daddy is on the far right of the couch in the light blue shirt.

I lost my dad on April 23, 2007. As a family, we knew it was coming because he had decided to stop dialysis after one year. Three days a week he was tethered by tubes to a machine for four hours. The machine would do the work his kidneys could no longer accomplish due to the ravages of diabetes. A good man of sound mind, he made the decision for himself. As his children we were glad he could make this decision, but we knew it would mean we would no longer have him and his sense of humor and his love for high notes.

We were all by his bed in the hospice house when he took his last breath. We had been sitting with him for thirty hours, rushing there when the nurse told us to come. He wasn’t awake. His breathing was labored. The end was coming. It was the most precious time we have ever had as brothers and sisters with this man who had brought us up day by day. Since Mom died in 1966, it was his love and persistence and faith that held us together without her, and it was that same love and persistence and faith that brought us to his bedside for that very long night.

He donated his body to the medical center and a whole group of young doctors-to-be learned about the anatomy of a human body from him. I am most positive that they were even able to identify his funny bone, and were amazed by the make-up of his vocal cords, even though they never heard him nail a pun or sing “Danny Boy.”

We lost him that early Monday morning eight years ago. And as I was supposed to receive his ashes back after the anatomy department was finished with him and then never did, I thought, “Well, I guess he won’t get to lay next to Mom at Calvary Cemetery.” It was okay. I knew where he was and that Mom was there with him, rooting us all on in the lives we had left to lead.

And then Daddy came back to me.

My stepmother had apparently been the recipient of his ashes back in 2008. She recently passed away and my sister-in-law asked me what to do with Daddy’s ashes.

“You have them?” I asked, astounded at the information.

“Yes. We can put them in with Pat, or you can have them back,” was her end of the conversation.

Knowing that my sisters and brothers would, like me, want them with Mom, I asked for them back.

My lost father is now in my laundry room. I need to convince the cemetery to let us bury them with Mom and our sister Cathy, who are resting side by side. Again, I know my dad’s essence is not in those ashes. Mom and Cathy are not in the ground. They are all living in heavenly glory, free of the grief and pain and troubles on this side of life.

But there is a place we can gather as a family when we need to to remembere them together.

There was no impediment to us gathering to sit with Daddy in the moment he passed. Some had to come from miles away, but good roads and peaceful times make roads shorter.

And I think sometimes we take that for granted. It’s 2015, for Pete’s sake. There is nothing hard about traveling from one side of this big country to the other.

I pray that it would be that easy in other parts of the world.

My friend Hala lost her father this past week.

IMG_0019I pieced it together from the weirdness of Facebook’s Arabic translation and the photos Hala had posted of her dad and her on her wedding day and when she was a child. It became very clear when I saw photos of his service posted from the church in Aleppo, Syria. I knew it was Aleppo because Assis Ibrahim was in the pictures. Again the Arabic translation indicated that the coffin pictured contained the earthly remains of a person named Bitar, which is Hala’s last name. It was confirmed when I exchanged messages with this dear sister in Christ.

And so I am grieving with and for Hala and her family. Grieving for the loss of a father, something I know well.

But my grief for her is compounded by the circumstances of this death. You see, Hala lives and works in Beirut. She is an amazingly gifted and educated teacher at the Beirut Evangelical School for Girls and Boys. She teaches religion and leads chapel services for students who are Christian and Muslim. I have been the recipient of her gift of teaching as she led our summer group of women in a study of the book of Ruth.

Hala lives in Beirut, but she is from Aleppo, and that is where her parents live.

Aleppo. Syria. Where war has destroyed 60% of a city of two million. There are no safe roads in or out.

And so where me and my brothers and sisters could gather at my father’s bedside in response to a phone call in the middle of the night, Hala could only pray and grieve from a distance. It used to be only a few hours’ drive from Beirut to Aleppo. Now, it is a journey that is impossible.

I am grateful that there was a church community to celebrate the resurrected life of Edward Bitar with his family still in Aleppo. There was the family of God to grieve his loss in Hala’s absence and to comfort her mother as the man who said, “I do, in sickness and health, in good times and bad, till death do us part,” was laid to rest. These are the tender mercies of life in Christ.

But sitting in my home, eight time zones west of Hala, I grieve with her. And I share the deep feelings of loss as a beloved father is gone. I wanted Hala’s words to be in this essay and I take comfort from her description of her father. I see in her words that she loved him as the father and teacher and faithful man he was. So hear my sister’s voice:

My father’s name is Edward Bitar, and my mother is Najah. We are four in the family, Amal, Bashar, Manar and me. My father was more than a father, he was my example of faith and love. He never received a day without the Bible in his hand, and never ended a day without having his knees down to the ground praying, asking for blessings.

He was a teacher, but not like any teacher I ever met. He taught English, he dedicated his time to his students and us. He used to go around from one library to another to check out new novels and we were his first audience and listeners.

As a woman living in the Middle East I was raised by one of the most well educated and open-minded persons. His dream was to see me and my sisters happy, but happiness had to be through finishing our college degrees and continuing education. I shocked him when I decided to study theology, but knowing I will dedicate my life to serve God gave him extreme joy. He used to tell me whenever he used to see me tired and depressed, “Hala, you are serving a powerful lord, depend on Him and he will be beside you.”

His memory, his picture, his smile, his hands touching my face and head will never leave my eyes. His spirit is a source of joy, and I will never forget him. Having a father like him was so helpful to understand the meaning of the word “the fatherhood of God.” I will never forget him Julie. I will never.

Fathers loved. Fathers lost. Tender memories of times shared and lessons learned.

My prayer for Hala is that peace will return to Syria, and the road from Beirut to Aleppo will be as in the days of her childhood. That she will be able to travel that road and sit by his resting place, mark it with flowers and in the silence, hear his gentle voice and leading. She will know that she can depend on the Lord, the same one she learned of from Edward Bitar. This same Lord who was beside him, and continues to be by her side and by mine.

Fathers loved. Fathers lost.

The Father who finds us. We are sisters in him.

Family ties

I had a great week with the Pope last week. He was in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. And I was home in Omaha. But, oh the magic of television! I watched him speak to Congress and to the United Nations and to school children in Spanish Harlem. I watched him lead masses in all three cities. I prayed the Lord’s Prayer with him – me in English and him in Spanish. I thought of my first communion as he broke the bread and lifted the cup. It was a great week.

He came to the U.S. for his first time for many reasons, but foremost among them was to celebrate the family. And in his celebration, I decided to celebrate mine, too.

My family doesn’t look like the typical family he was celebrating. My family is not the mom-dad-two-kids-and-a-dog kind of family. It is hard to be that when there are seven children and your dad won’t let you have a dog. It’s hard to be that when your mom dies. It’s hard to be that when in his loneliness your dad marries again and three more children come into the household for a total of ten, and then that step-mother turns out to be the evil kind so there is a divorce. It’s hard to be that kind when a now thoroughly wounded dad with seven wounded kids remarries again to another step-mother with three more children.

We’re not the family of Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet, or even The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family. Although we do love to sing and several of my dad’s cars resembled a bus.

But we are a family, and it has expanded and contracted over the years like every family, through marriages and births and deaths and divorces.

This is my family as it looked on the day I married Steve:

Julie and Steve and family on wedding day

The now great big expansive Prescott-Burgess clan. I love this picture! May 18, 2002. Five of my six siblings, their spouses, my three step-siblings and their spouses, Steve’s brother and sister and their spouses, my dad, my step-mom, Steve’s parents, and our assorted nieces and nephews and one very special aunt, filled the chancel at West Hills Church. This big group was newly tied together as two 43-year olds said “I do” to each other.

Tied together in holy matrimony; two families become one.

In the thirteen and a half years since that picture was taken, there have been shared joys and shared sorrows, additions and subtractions.

All of those nieces and nephews pictured have graduated from high school and/or college. Some have even achieved post-graduate degrees.

There are more members now because four babies have been added.

There have been divorces in that group as well, but there have been weddings, too. And another one coming next February, will add a new brother-in-law.

Death has claimed my dad and Steve’s just one month apart in 2007, and my step-mom died just a few short weeks ago.

I see how straight Jana is standing in that photo, and it makes me sad to know that she can’t stand like that any more. Age and disability have caused her to hunch over and appear much older than her 57 years.

But what I love most about the picture is that it is on the church chancel, right under the cross.

The foot of the cross.

That is where this atypical family finds strength to deal with the loss and the pain and the grief.

The foot of the cross.

That is where this atypical family is tied together in joy when the babies come and the weddings are celebrated.

The foot of the cross.

That is where we go when crisis comes. And crisis does come, as it has this weekend. And in a hospital room we gathered around a bed, in prayer to the One who ties us together, the One who holds us together when forces would pull us apart.

Where two or three or how ever many are there gathered in His name, He is there with us.

And the beauty of technological creation, that same thing that allowed me to be with the Pope last week, allows us to join together in prayer, seeking solace from one another, even when we are spread around the country. Email. Texting. FaceTime. Telephone.

And so today in the midst of family crisis, I am grateful for family ties. And I am grateful for the one who binds us together.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Blest be the tie that binds.

More walking memories

Walking is good! Walking is good for me! That is my mantra as I head out of the house, trying to find the cool of a warm Omaha day. It continues as heat builds up in the air and in my body as I take another step. And another. And another.

Today it was shorter because I headed out later in the day. 2.3 miles up to St. Margaret Mary’s where the kids were out for recess in their green and plaid uniforms, running and tossing a frisbee on this bright, sunny day.

I remember recess, and I even remember having it while wearing the brown plaid uniform of Christ the King school. And that is one of the things I thought about while walking this afternoon.

Of course, I can take those long-good-for-me walks because I am kind of living in a recess right now, although I prefer to think of it as a sabbatical. It’s not a permanent recess from work, because eventually I will do that again, even as I try the waters of grad school. Providing they let me in. Creighton? Anyone?

And those memories that come up as I take each of those steps in a 2.3 or 3.5 mile walk just flood in. The other day they took me back to the summer of 2001, or as I like to think of it, “The Summer of Steve,” the grand romance of intrigue and dating and love that led to our marriage. I learned so much that summer about Steve and about myself, and I continue to learn as we live out these days together.

What I've learnedAnd so today I am going back into that basket of written memories to share another. I actually made a list of what I learned that summer. It is a bit shredded and worn now (I must have referred to it a lot!), but they were good lessons and it was a gift to find it and read it and to share it with Steve. He has been a great teacher.

What I’ve learned about Steve:

  • His height: 6’3″
  • His weight: 215 lbs
  • Eye color: brown
  • Phone number, address, birthday (Jan 13)
  • Where he gets his hair cut: Dundee Barber
  • His tickle spot is on the bottom of his feet
  • He has strength, size and balance and therefore wins all wrestling tournaments
  • How he almost lost his toe
  • His appreciation for art and detail
  • His knowledge of history, vocabulary, literature and the Bible
  • He is patient, kind, funny, caring, passionate, easy to talk to, quick to laugh, playful, inquisitive, doesn’t agree just to agree
  • He makes me think and think long and hard and be able to explain why I think what I think

What I’ve learned about myself

  • I can’t drink more than two glasses of wine
  • I enjoy A Prairie Home Companion
  • Wrestling is fun and I can’t win
  • I am funny but have more to share than jokes
  • I can laugh at myself, but don’t have to put myself down
  • I need to work harder at developing the arguments I make to explain my positions
  • I can formulate thoughts and put them into words coherently; I can pray out loud!
  • Love isn’t experienced secondhand in books and movies…it’s real now for me and I feel it for Steve
  • I’m pretty sure I’m not going to die alone
  • I’ll never be too old to learn something new
  • God is definitely in control and loves me and shows me by leading me places I would never go and showing me that not only is it okay to go there, I’m supposed to.

I wrote that at the ripe old age of 43. “I’ll never be too old to learn something new.” I’m 56 now and still learning.

Still learning what it means to love and be loved by someone like Steve. It’s a gift every day that I gladly receive.

Still learning to take in information and wanting to learn about complicated things like Middle East politics.

Still experiencing the joy and the power of praying, even out loud when necessary.

Still following God in the journey he has taken me on to Lebanon and Syria and Iraq and knowing it is where I am supposed to be.

Yes, I still know that I will never win a wrestling match with Steve. But I am reminded as I walk in this recess of my life, I am so glad that we still do. We wrestle with what it means to use the resources God provides to serve him. We wrestle with the news of the world and how we treat each other in such horrible ways. We wrestle with why families who look just like us in every aspect of our lives can be suffering the atrocities of extremist ideologies. We wrestle.

But we also pray, out loud, with each other every day, because in the wrestling matches of this life, we are knocked to our knees.

So, yes, walking is good for me. And today, I remember how much I love and how much I have learned. And I think about my teacher, my husband, my Steve.

Remembering while I walk

Norden chuteI’ve got a lot of time on my hands these days. I left my job two months ago, and my Monday through Friday daytime hours are now my own. Even as I think about the next thing, which is probably grad school at Creighton, I need to fill my hours.

I wash the morning dishes. I check in on Facebook to see what is going on in the world of my friends. I pay bills. I balance the checkbook.

And I walk.

I am rediscovering the beauty of my neighborhood as I put one foot in front of the other. I live in a walking neighborhood and many people are out there with me.

I listen to the music that comes through my earbuds and helps me to keep my feet moving.

And I think.

I think of family and friends still on this earth and those who have gone home.

And I remember.

And these days, I am looking back to the first days of my love of Steve and the beginning steps we took together. So today, I came home and brought down the basket of letters and notes we shared with each other, and continue to do even in these days.

Today, I found this prayer which I wrote one sleepless night with his new found love changing my life day by day.

A Prayer

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Help me, help me, help me.

It’s not a cliff, it’s a waterfall. I fly without wings, downward amidst the water droplets of mist; a river exploded, suspended in air. Floating down, ever down, to where it collects itself again into a moving, roaring force. Only now I am in the flood – not with it, not part of it – fighting to get out.

It’s baptism by flood. Don’t fight; give in and relax and soon I am lifted out and he leads me beside the still waters, not bouncing in the rapids, bruised and battered, but beside the now tender, quiet flow. My spirit is stilled by your spirit, Father.

My skin is cooled and cleansed, but my throat and heart are parched and dry. Quench my thirst with the lovely coolness of your water. My cup overflows with your mercy and grace. I am safe. I am loved.

Help me to love with the force of the waterfall, to explode into mist, to gather together, to tumble over rocks, to still, to cool, to quench. Let me be loved the same way.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.


Steve had shared Anne Lamott’s book with me where I learned her three prayers: Help. Thanks. Wow. Those three prayers are still mine as well.

And today, walking has helped me to remember that my hours are not just mine. They are shared with a man who loves me and whom I love, and who has encouraged me in this sabbath until the next thing.

I love. I am loved. I am grateful.




Finding peace at gate G5 in Rome

Paper crane gate G5 RomeAs a little girl I made a memorable visit to the United Nations in New York. It was the summer after third grade so I must have been all of nine, but I remember being struck by all the different flags and all the different people. It was and is a place where those of many nations come together to seek the good of all of us who share this big blue marble of a planet.

As a now much older woman, middle-aged at 56, I have seen the United Nations at work in the refugee camps in Lebanon that are filled to overflowing with those who have fled the war next door in Syria. UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, is stenciled on the tents and on shipments of food and supplies. Nations have come together to provide for those in need, and there are millions upon millions in need.

But I think the biggest purpose of this organization is to somehow help nations come together to talk and to prevent such wars, and maybe even to stop those already in progress. I think the bigger purpose is peace, and it is seems impossible in these days to achieve.

The stories I heard in Lebanon about what is happening in Syria are overwhelmingly horrible. Loss of work. Loss of home. Loss of life. No peace.

And so last Friday I traveled home from there, my heart left behind with some pretty amazing women. The only peace I expected to find in my 24-hour journey from Beirut to Rome to Chicago to Omaha was with a pair of noise-dampening earphones stuck to my head while I lost myself in movies. But something happened…

Gate G5, Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, Rome, Italy, happened.

My plane from Beirut landed on time and my friend Meryle and I, who had spent those amazing days in Lebanon together as part of a team of eight women, said our goodbyes to each other. I sent her off to gate G3 with a hug as she headed home to Santa Barbara. I had two hours to settle into a seat at gate G5 until my Alitalia flight headed to Chicago was scheduled to leave.

Gate G6 was next to us with a flight headed to Tel Aviv, Israel. My attention was drawn to those over there who seemed to obviously belong in Tel Aviv by their attire: long black coats with wide-brimmed black hats. Prayer shawl tassels dangling. Yarmulkas on the heads of several men, young and old.

At my gate was a collection of all sorts of people, including many Muslims, some of whom had been on my flight from Beirut, including a sweet mother of two four-year-old twins who were heading to Chicago to visit family. The hijabs and abayas were visible, as well as the longish beards on some of the men.

And I will say there were Christians, too, as I am one and I was there.

So in the airport of the eternal city of Rome, not far from Vatican City where the patriarch of the Roman Catholic Church leads a large flock in the name of Jesus, at these twin gates – G5 and G6 – the three Abrahamic faiths were sitting together in peace, waiting to go someplace else.

And then came the music. Not the swelling soundtrack of a movie scored by John Williams, that might be playing in my head because I thought I had discovered how to achieve peace, but actual music. There was a grand piano in the corner and someone sat down to play it. A woman with short, dark hair started picking out a jazz melody. A man quickly joined her to watch and listen, and she stopped, kind of embarrassed that someone would come over. They had a quick conversation about their joint love of music and the piano, and then he sat down and started to play. She stood by his side and periodically leaned over and added some notes on the high end.

Soon, many were listening and smiling and just enjoying this spontaneous concert in the airport. And I looked around at the faces and everyone had just been transported someplace else as they listened along.

Eventually these two stopped and others took their own turns at the ivory and black keys. Mary had a little lamb was plucked out, followed by row, row, row your boat. I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood, I hope I could, always be good to someone who’ll watch over me, had me closing my eyes thinking of my sweet Steve at home.

And then came that hymn…

For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth,
Over and around us lies:
Lord of all to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.

She played four verses and added an amen at the end.

I looked around again as we all stood up to have our boarding passes and passports checked before going down the escalator to get on the plane. I saw old and young. Blond and brunette and gray hair, some in dreadlocks piled high, some in the soft curls of youth, and some heads that probably claimed one of those kinds of hair but hadn’t seen it in a while. Men and women, boys and girls. Muslim and Hebrew and Christian and probably some who called on no God. Italian and Lebanese and Israeli and American and other folks from all over.

And as our boarding was delayed, there was simply no pushing or shoving or shouting. There was just this music coming from the piano in the corner. And there was this kind of peace.

And I thought, why not like this all the time everywhere? If we can cram this many people into a small area of space in a busy international airport and throw in a piano for good measure, wouldn’t this be a good way to figure it out? To look at all the others crammed in there with you and say, “Hey! They’re people just like me, trying to get to the place they call home, or maybe just taking some time to see someplace new.”

I know that sounds naive and idealistic, but that’s who I am and I offer no apology for it.

It was just a two-hour window at gate G5/6 in the Rome airport, but it reminded me of that hopeful memory of standing in the United Nations in 1968. And my prayers rose anew for peace. With the help of God, I think we can figure this out.

For the love which from our birth, over and around us lies. Lord of all to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.

Amen. And amen.