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.


Models of Faith

arabic letter n

Today, the voice from Sojourners Verse and Voice blog:

“If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.” – James Foley, journalist who was executed by Islamic State jihadists this week, on his captivity in Libya in 2011, as written in Marquette Magazine

Again, the prayers of the faithful remind me that when nothing else makes sense, walking with God in faith frees and heals. I will remember James Foley, not for how he died, but for the memory of his life and his witness in a very dark place. May his parents, family and friends find comfort knowing he is in the arms of a loving God. Those left behind who shared space, indeed were shackled, with him tell stories to us of a man of God, a man who encouraged them even as he was singled out for the most harsh treatment.

I never had the chance to meet James Foley, and now I never will. There is another man of God whom I know only through the stories told by others. I will never meet him either, although I hope to walk in the city where he walked and is buried in November.

Father Frans van der Lugt was a Dutch priest, a Jesuit, who lived nearly fifty years in Syria, serving Christians and Muslims alike. He first came to my attention when I heard about him in May, 2013. The Christian community of Homs, Syria, which numbered in the tens of thousands before the war began in 2011, had been decimated. Many had been killed and many, many more had fled. About 75 remained and Fr. van der Lugt stayed with them. None of them were Catholics, but that did not matter to Fr. Frans. He stayed with them through all the days that Homs was under siege: through bombardment, through lack of utilities, through the hunger that ensued. I saw a video of him pleading to the world in Arabic to remember that they were still there. He was a shepherd, caring for his flock, and they knew his voice.

He stayed with them until he was abruptly called home to Jesus on April 7, 2014. He was killed by extremists, the same kind that took James Foley’s life in the middle of the desert this week. It was not the same group, not the same manner, but it was the same hatred, the same lack of humanity. And I know the grief of God above was the same, too.

I don’t know if my faith will ever be tested this way. I pray that it never is. But if it ever is, I want to be found encouraging those with me. I want to be found sharing what I have with those who have less. I want to be raising my voice so others will hear and respond. I want to be a witness to my God, father and creator, savior and redeemer, counselor and guide. I want to be found faithful, faithful as James Foley and Fr. Frans van der Lugt.

There are other models of faith to me in those places, still serving like Fr. Frans: Assis Mikhael in Sidon; Preacher Rula in Tripoli; Assis Ramsey in Zahle; Assis Hadi in Minyara; Joseph, Adeeb, George and Fadi, all pastors in Beirut; Najla and Mary, preachers in Beirut; Assis Boutros in Damascus; Assis Maan in Mahardeh; Assis Saoud in Hesekeh; Assis Firas in Kamischli; Assis Mofid in Homs; Assis Haitham, Assis Magdy, Elder Zuhair, Assis Farouk, Assis Magid, His Grace Patriarch Louis Sako, Saidna Habib, Msgr. Emad, Father Aram, Father Turkum, all in Iraq. These are the ones I know and have worshiped with. These are the models I pray for regularly. They are my friends, my brothers and sisters, my heroes of faith.

My friend Assis Salam Hanna at the grave of Fr. Frans van der Lugt in Homs, Syria, May, 2014.

My friend Assis Salam Hanna at the grave of Fr. Frans van der Lugt in Homs, Syria, May, 2014.

Several weeks after Fr. Frans was murdered, the two-year siege of Homs was lifted. My friend Assis (Rev.) Salam Hanna posted this picture at his grave. He also posted a video of the church bell being rung at the Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church of Homs, where his father Samuel had served as pastor for decades. Salam and Samuel were fellow ministers with Fr. Frans in Homs.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Homs, Syria, May, 2014.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Homs, Syria, May, 2014.

That church building, like many others in Homs, suffered damage during the siege, but the church body had returned to start repairing it even before their own homes. With God’s blessing Steve and I will walk in that place in November when we return to Syria with a team of fellow sojourners.

And this will be my prayer (thanks again to Sojourners) that I will pray at Fr. Frans’ grave:

O God our deliverer, we thank you that you have not left us alone. Thank you for the Spirit who intercedes for us. Give us wisdom beyond ourselves that we might see the path you have set before us. Grant us words that bring life to the broken, the suffering, the addicted, the lonely, and those who long for the fulfillment of your kingdom. Amen.– From Common Prayer

And I would add “those who long for the fulfillment of your kingdom, like your faithful sons James and Frans.”




So Jesus walked into church today

Peace hands worldI get a daily email from Sojourners called verse and voice. This was today’s verse:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. – Psalm 139:1-3

And this was the prayer that went with it:

All-powerful God, we pray that you might send us your Holy Spirit. May that Holy Spirit help us to model a pace of life that strives to keep in step with the movement of the Spirit. May the comfortable be discomforted by Your Spirit. May the afflicted find rest in your Spirit. God, help us walk together in our journey here on earth. Amen.

So many days these verses and prayers cut right to the center of what is on my mind and heart for that day. It can be a bit unnerving to think that others know what I need prayer for! But it happens so often.

Today’s were no different, but I didn’t really give them too much thought until Julia Ann walked into the office.

She was elderly, with a great head of short white hair that in my current state of active alopecia – handfuls comb out of my head every morning – made me a bit envious. It’s quiet here today because most of our staff are out at a conference. The day-to-day office worker bees were here though: the support staff! I happened to be walking through the copy room for something and she came in through the other door. I asked if I could help her and she said she came to look at our church because an old friend had invited her to a class and she wanted to know where she would be going. I smiled and said “That’s great!” (I was also thinking what a good friend she has and wouldn’t our pastor be glad to know that our people are inviting others in!) And then it got interesting…

I asked her the name of her friend. The poor woman searched her brain and it came up empty. She was so embarrassed that this blankness came over her and she just couldn’t come up with it. We both laughed and she said, “Don’t tell her I forgot her name!” I said, “Don’t worry. I can’t tell her if I don’t know it either!” It was just so funny. She couldn’t think of the name of the class or the name of the friend or the friend’s husband and out of that came the most interesting conversation.

In trying to come up with the name of the friend, she went through how they knew each other from years ago and then lost touch. Not too long ago their paths crossed again and they were talking about church which prompted the invitation. But then she went on to tell me about how her dad died when she was little and her mom worked all day, every day. She was of that generation when days off and five-day workweeks weren’t the norm. A teacher of hers would take her to Sunday school and teach her the bible stories we all know. She taught her about Jesus. She was given a bible with her name engraved on it. She raised her own children in the church and they were baptized. She was widowed about five years ago. It was a long conversation we had, about thirty minutes. And all the time she was so befuddled, trying to remember the name of her friend.

She told me her name was Peg and I introduced myself, Julie. She said, “That’s my name too! Julia, but everyone calls me ‘Peg.'” I said my middle name was Ann with no “e” on the end, and she said hers too! It was just such a weird thing. And again, she kept trying to pull the name of her friend who had invited her to West Hills out of her brain, but it just wouldn’t come.

She went on to tell me that after her husband died, she remembered that little bible she had received as a child and wondered where it had gone in all the moves of their life. As she was going through her husband’s things to give away to family or to donate to Goodwill, she discovered a small box in his desk. Inside the box were several small things, including her childhood bible. Her husband had an eye for the valuable, not just monetarily, but for the memories and meanings attached to things. She took this as a message from him to hold on to that word and its promises. Again, all this was very befuddled and hesitantly offered and she kept trying to remember the name of that friend.

And then she told me about how she had refused counseling after her husband died because she knew she herself could get through the grief and come out on the other side without help…until she couldn’t. She spent one hour with a counselor who just listened; that amazing gift of presence is so important!! And at the end of the hour that counselor wanted to tell her one thing. She said, “Peg, there is nothing you can do about this now. God owns it. He will make all things right in their time and your time here is not done yet. Let God have this grief because he knows what to do with it. It’s his. Let him have it.”

She thanked the counselor and they never met again. But Peg would put her head down on the kitchen counter every morning after that for a year and just thank God for what was his and not hers. And daily she would start to feel different from the day before, until one day God spoke to her and said: “I have given you a new heart.” And she believed it.

And then she looked right at me and said, “He will give you a new heart because you have thanked him for it over and over again.” And she was standing there, speaking clearly, not befuddled, not struggling to come up with a name, clear-eyed, clear-minded and all I could see was Jesus. It wasn’t Peg after all. It was all I could do to keep the tears from streaming down. She was there to comfort me.

And then Peg was back, reaching for the handle of the door. “I am so sorry to have taken so much of your time. You have work to do.” And I reached over and hugged her – probably scared her! – and I said, “I know why you came here today. You came just for me.”

Oh Lord, you searched me and you knew me. You discern my thoughts from far away.

God, help us walk together in our journey here on earth.

I know it was Jesus. And her name was Julia Ann but people call her Peg. And in my grief over so much, he sees it, he knows it, he owns it. And he’s giving me a new heart.