Mother of God

 theotokos

It has been a process. Coming to know Mary, I mean. Still is.

For years she was mostly an ornament in the Nativity scene; the fretful parent when her 12 year-old goes missing; a grieving mother watching her dear one die.

Then, there was the year I was pregnant at Christmas. I thought a lot about her that year. I would run my hands over my belly and imagine her, feeling this miracle baby moving inside her, as she walked past whispers and pointing fingers on the way to the market or the well. Rehearsing the angel’s words over and over in her head,

“Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou among women…You will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call his Name Jesus…that Holy One who is to born will be called the Son of God.”

A tender knowing opened between us that year. It was a beginning.

Five and a half years ago we stepped into a tradition that holds Mary in highest esteem. She is not worshiped, but she is constantly held before us as the example of complete surrender. She is the first one to bear God in her body. And, because of her, we can now bear him in ours. So we mention her often. Her images fill our churches alongside those of her Son, and of the saints who followed her example of surrender.

We ask her to pray for us. Because we believe those saints who came before us are ever in the Presence of God, we ask them to intercede on our behalf, just like I might ask you to pray for me. And this is where I have come to love her best.

In this season of grown-up or almost grown-up children whose lives are mostly their own, I have very little control. Perhaps I never had very much. But I still worry about them, I still want good for them. And so I pray. I have always prayed for them, but as more and more of their lives are out of my reach, I pray more.

And it is good to be able to ask Mary to pray for them as well. Because she knows. More than anyone, she knows what it is like to see your child have to walk a very difficult path. To be misunderstood. To pour himself out for others, then have those others turn on him. She knows what it is like to watch a child die. It is difficult to imagine any experience that would fall outside her compassion.

I speak to her of my godchildren and their families, friends that are hurting, young adults in my life who are navigating the world alone and who need a mother to watch over them. We grieve together over children in places like Syria and Iraq who are being driven from their homes. Hungry. Scared. In constant danger.

As we walk these stories together, as I bring my mother’s heart to hers, we are knitted every more deeply together.

blossoms

Today we commemorate her falling asleep in the Lord, and her translation to Heaven.

On Wednesday we gathered to decorate her funeral bier. Kenzie and I brought blossoms from our garden. That evening we sang songs of lament; tender, intimate, sweet. And the grief in those hymns, and the joy, was my grief, my joy. I kissed her icon with a love born of knowing.

“Receive, O Mother, from thy children our love and these hymns and odes to bid thee farewell which we offer from the depth of our souls.”

dormition-3

Last night we celebrated her life. We considered the icon in which Christ holds her in His arms, as she so often held him, carrying her into heaven. Bringing his mama home. Our priest reminded us that just as she preceded us in bearing Christ in her body, so she precedes us in her entrance to heaven. And the words of welcome that Jesus speaks to His mother, he will someday speak to us.

“Come, My most lovely one and enjoy the beauty of thine own Son thy Maker. Come indeed, My Mother, come into divine joy and enter into the Kingdom.”

May it be so.

*Quote at the top of the page is from the first chapter of Luke. The others are from the Lamentations at the Bier of the Mother of God.

*If you are interested is spending some time with the Mother of God yourself, or would like to understand more of the teaching of the ancient church with regard to her, may I recommend these excellent resources:

Mary as the Early Christians Knew Her: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts by Frederica Matthews-Green
Mary Mother of God: Her Life in Icons and Scripture by Giovanna Paravicini
Full of Grace a glorious recording of the music of Dormition Vespers by Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Chorale

In the Radiance of His Light…

IMG_8464

Everything is transformed in Christ into its true wonder. In the radiance of His light the world is not commonplace. ~Alexander Schmemann

IMG_8465

I had risen early for a run. The sun was just climbing out of bed himself, sending out long slanting rays, gilding cattails, painting auroras against the mist. I couldn’t stop looking at it. Everything was transfigured in this light. I kept stopping to snatch photos, trying to gather up souvenirs of this moment, this unrepeatable onceness. The way common ditch flowers and stalks of grass, tired old buildings and fields of corn were aching into their true selves, and for an instant I could see them as they really were.

IMG_8463

They were his closest friends.  True, he had been investing himself deeply in a group of men and women for three years.  But these three…they had gone deeper. And he wanted to share something with them.  Something very intimate.  An extraordinary moment.  A memory that would linger long after he was gone.  And he would be gone.  Soon.

So they climbed a mountain.  Mount Tabor.  Funny how much of his story had been unfolded, would be unfolded, on mountains.  The three planted themselves, but he walked on a little farther.  Suddenly, he was not alone.  There were figures on either side of him.  Figures from beyond…from the other…

And he was changed.

transfiguration

The glory had simmered inside him for as long as they had known him.  Sometimes they caught glimpses of it in his eyes.  It had wrapped them round when he had calmed an angry sea.  It had filled their bellies with fish and bread and wine.  It had flowed from his fingers into people who were wounded and hurting and had made them well.  But now….now a visible glory radiated from him like fire.  His face shown like the sun and his garments were whiter “than any launderer could bleach them”.

The hymnody of the ancient church says Peter, James and John saw his glory that day, “as much as they could bear“.  It makes me think of the recurrent phrase that permeates the Gospel of John, “and his disciples believed in him”.  They believed…as much as they could.  And the next day, or the next week, they saw more of who he was, and they believed a little more.

He had been creating a space in them…for belief…for glory…

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. On this day I am reminded that God’s glory is all around me on a daily basis. I have only to walk with eyes open. And I pray that as I continue to look for His glory in humble places, that I will become able to bear more, and more of His glory. And that one day that I may see His Uncreated Light.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.“  ~John 17:24

Where the Wild Things Are…

IMG_8080

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.
~John Muir

photo(39)

I lie on my back looking up through a mishmash of leaves–silver, chartreuse, deep green–at a powdery blue sky. The cold of the stone presses against my hot skin and I feel it seep into me like ink in water. The taste of blackberries, harvested along the trail, lingers on my tongue; sweet and wild.

IMG_8076

And I am filled with gratitude: for feet that keep moving one step after another; for the boy beside me who is generously supplementing my store of water with his own; for extravagant, gratuitous beauty; for the gift of being wildly, utterly alive in this moment.

IMG_8078

I could have stepped on this little guy. He is only three inches across. But even tiny turtles receive their own measure of grace, and he and I were both spared the grief of his undoing. Meanwhile, I try to reconcile the fact that the same Artist who spread out the vast panoramas that we keep stumbling across also took time to mold the intricate copper mosaic of little bit’s ruffled shell.

IMG_8143

Keep close to nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
~John Muir

IMG_8107

Everywhere we go we can hear the water. Gurgling, gushing, falling over itself, leaping over rocks, plummeting, dashing, stilling for a moment, collecting in pools, then being hurled through some impossibly narrow channel to form a funnel of foam. Sometimes it comes soft, droplets forming along mossy rocks, languidly lengthening til they tumble through the air onto a smooth shimmer of rock below, gliding effortlessly into some hidden underground cavern before oozing along the edge of a cliff in a slow meander to the stream below. All the while, the water is in me. Washing. Stilling. Despite the exertion of climbing over and around rocks, I feel my heart softening. Slowing. This is why I am here.

IMG_8119

One makes unexpected acquaintances along the trail. :) I think of the woman, nearly 70 I imagine, hair done, make-up on, practically bouncing on the uphill portion of the trail, smiling and greeting us as though she were walking to her mailbox. Mike and I are both taking notes. We make a promise to one another to still be on the trail–smiling!–when we are her age. There is the Indian family with their lilting, musical words, and another family from Brazil. And I wonder how they found this place when I have lived only two hours away from it my whole life and am only just now getting here.

IMG_8141

Boys will be boys. Especially when you get them away from all the responsibility and weight of the everyday. Maybe this is the best part. And we talk about things out here, this boy and I. The deep things that we never seem to have time for elsewhere. Here, we are insulated by all the trees and the air, the crickets and katydids, the water and the stone. Here we find a safe place for wrestling with hard things, and for dreaming, and for being utterly vulnerable. A great deal of growing into one another happens in these wild places.

IMG_8144

There is a testing that happens on the trail. A pushing beyond boundaries. A going farther than I think I can go. Choosing to do the hard thing because I know it is making me stronger. It is good practice. For life. And when the testing is through, there is deep thankfulness. And sometimes it looks like this: plunging hot, weary feet that have carried me over 23 miles of hills and rocks, roots and steps, bridges and boulders, into the icy cold of a mountain stream. And the sweetness of it flows into my body like a thousand amens, like a chorus of hallelujahs. And the veil between this world and the other is thinned. And I know that I would do it all over. Will do it all over. Again and again.

IMG_8070

O Lord, how lovely it is to be your guest:
Breeze full of scent; mountains reaching to the skies;
Waters like a boundless mirror,
Reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds.
All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing depths of tenderness,
Birds and beasts bear the imprint of your love…
~Akathist in Praise of Creation

*The first four photos, as well as the last, were taken inside Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park on the trail from Signal Point to Mushroom Rock. The others were taken inside Cloudland Canyon State Park, one of the most beautiful state parks I have ever visited.

Though I have hinted at it here, I cannot tell you all it means to me to be in wild places. But I encourage you to give yourself a chance to find out. Look up the nearest state or national park in your area. Get out there for an hour or two. Take your time. Meander. Look closely. Leave your phone in the car. Go by yourself, or with someone you love. If you need inspiration, check out some of these resources:

Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Any thing written by Jean Craighead George, but especially My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves (Your kids will love these!)
Also, the books of Gene Stratton-Porter, especially Girl of the Limberlost
The poetry of Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke
The poetry and novels of Wendell Berry, especially the Port William series
The films: Into the Wild, Mile…Mile and a Half, 180* South
The prayers of Thomas Merton
Kim’s raw, audacious blog So Many Places
Backpacker magazine

A Company of Women

Most of the truly great women I have known are not very flashy. They do not call attention to themselves. Daily, they do a thousand small things that over a lifetime have an incalculable impact. The lessons they offer are quiet and subtle, and most of the time we do not even realize we are learning until one day we are aware that wisdom resides in us that is not of our own making. On this day, I would like to offer a word of gratitude to some of the women God has been kind enough to place in my family. Women from whom I have gleaned valuable truths about mothering and about life. I am ever in their debt.

photo(35)

The Grandmothers

Grandma Howard taught me to make ordinary things extraordinary by making them beautiful. Even though she has been with Jesus for 20 years, I sleep every night under a quilt she made. And her love keeps me warm. And just any day now her precious peonies will fill her yard with fragrance and color. Again.

Grandma Nelson showed me that food is a love language. Her table groaned under the weight of her love for us. Her legendary chicken and dumplings, vegetables from her garden, and a whole array of homemade cakes and pies. There was always more than enough. There was always room for everyone. And each delicious morsel nourished far more than our bodies.

photo(37)

My Mama

What did she not teach me? She taught me to love words, to play the piano, to sew my own clothes. She taught me that when you go out on a date you should have plans for every minute you are going to be out, or bad things can happen. :) She taught me to give a proper handshake and not to sing out of my nose. She taught me how to drive and how not to plant iris too deep. She showed me how to take on a scary disease with practical wisdom and extraordinary grace and how to find gifts in the hardest of places.

photo(36)

Sisters in Love

Lori has taught me that sometimes mothering is letting go, and sometimes it’s going and getting. When Erin died in a car accident just before her ninth birthday, Lori walked this most excruciating of seasons with grace, and later comforted other grieving mothers in this same place. But when God called their family to bring home Keeli, then Ellie, from China, Lori was a bulldog, following all the paperwork trails and keeping things moving til she could bring her babies home.

Tammy teaches me to celebrate the uniqueness of each child. She throws the very best birthday parties, and they always say something very particular about the child. She has gone to basketball games, horse shows, 4H public speaking contests, even to the State Legislature to support her children in their many endeavors. She is, without a doubt, their biggest fan.

Candy taught me that sometimes mothering asks far more of you than you could imagine, but that it is always, always a gift. When Tucker was born with severe heart problems, she studied relentlessly to understand his condition, then became the one who tied together his disparate doctors when they did not communicate well. She poured all she had into caring for him and was grateful for every day of the 3 1/2 years she had with him.

Kristina is teaching me that love is a choice. When she married my brother, she got two tweens in the bargain who already have a mother they love. But with courage and tenacity, humility and kindness, she is walking this challenging path with grace, and I am inspired. Anna and Ethan are lucky to have two women in their lives who love them so.

photo(38)

My Daughter

My daughter reminds me that love can be costly, but that it also is the source of the deepest joy. Many days, she rises before dawn to head into work and provide a life for her daughter. This year she bought a house after living frugally and saving diligently for three years. It has not been easy. But I rarely hear her complain. However, I do hear her laugh. A lot. She is having so much fun being a mommy. She treasures all the silly and confusing and unexpected and crazy things about having a three year old in the house. She is so gentle with her daughter; a trait that I am sorry to say she did not learn from me. But I am trying to learn from her.

In Her Third Year…

photo(30)

Three years ago today, our world changed forever when our baby girl gave birth to a baby girl of her own. We could not imagine in that moment all the delights that awaited us. It has been a wild and exhilarating ride. And this year was exceptionally grand. It has been a year of letting go and moving on. A year of firsts. A year of long strides.

newhouse

In her third year she said goodbye to pacis, diapers, and the baby bed, and hello to a new dog, Cinderella (and Superman) underwear, and some pretty fabulous bunk beds. In her third year, she and her mommy moved into a home of their very own. In her third year she drank in language like milk, memorizing favorite stories and “reading” them aloud. (see below) In her third year she built roughly a million houses, palaces, and pieces of furniture out of Duplos and wood blocks. She painted pictures, and drew with markers, and sang songs. In her third year she danced. A lot.

photo(31)

In her third year she learned to create fantastic worlds out of her imagination. She acquired a couple of imaginary friends and assigned them roles in the scenes she regularly acts out from films and books. In her third year she traveled to the beach and to the mountains, to tea parties and to the zoo. She delighted each of us with these words, “You are my best friend,” and “I been missing you all night morning.” In her third year, she befriended frogs, lady bugs, birds, and even a (slightly dead) bumblebee. She lit candles, breathed incense and prayed.

photo(29)

In her third year, she helped all of us see the world again. New. With eyes of wonder. She taught us how to leap out of bed each morning in expectation that something truly wonderful awaits. Every day.

kels&kenz

In her third year, she stitched herself ever deeper into our hearts. She filled our lives with joy and delight. And magic. And extravagant love. Happiest of birthdays, dearest Kenzie!! I am awfully glad there is you in the world. In my world. God grant you many, many years!!

 

thanks

photo(34)

photo(28)

photo(32)

photo(33)

*photo credits: The second and fifth photos taken by Kelsey. The black and white is a self-portrait. :)

Once Upon an Appalachian Spring

The year was 1916 and the world was at war. But all of this seemed a million miles away on that April day when Emmie Nelson gave birth to a baby boy, her first. She named him Leo Samuel. The Samuel was after his daddy. Eventually he and his older sister Glennie would be joined by 3 more brothers, Lonnie, Lloyd and Lester, and a baby sister, Anna Mae. He would spend most of the next 98 years in this hilly little corner of east Tennessee known as Catoosa. And I would have the great good fortune to be his granddaughter.

photo(26)

When Grandpa was a little boy going to the three room school, Catoosa was a thriving railroad town with a depot and a store. Later, when the trains stopped coming, the government would buy up most of the surrounding land for the Catoosa wildlife management area. Grandpa’s family would be among the few who refused to sell. Their little world became an island in the middle of wilderness. A magical place for growing up with hillsides cloaked in mountain laurel, deep cold swimming holes, a frenzy of fireflies, and a broad sky littered with stars.

He tells me about school. About the primer he received as a first year student. On the first page was one dog, on the second two cats. The third page had three rabbits, then four yellow ducks, and five baby chicks. I try to remember the pictures in any of my school books. My brother asks him if he ever got in trouble. He had only two switchings, he says; remarkable, for this teacher of theirs was generous with the switch. Once he got in trouble for rough-housing in the school room while the teacher went home to get her lunch. The other time, his younger brother Lloyd was to be switched because he had not learned some words assigned to him. When he began to cry, Grandpa couldn’t take it. He told the teacher to whip him instead. This does not surprise me at all.

My Grandpa is the archivist of the family. Partly because, at 98, his memory seems to be better than any of ours. Partly because the stories and the people are so important to him. In his mind they still live and breathe. And in his stories, they live and breathe for us.

He tells about a relation of ours who was about to be hung by the Union army for giving aid to Confederate soldiers. He already had the noose around his neck when he was saved at the last minute by the testimony of Union soldiers who had also been cared for by him.

He tells of a great, great grandmother Zumstein who came over from Germany. They ran out of food on the ship before reaching America, and there was serious talk of cannibalism. So far as we know, it was only ever talk.

He points to the faces in faded sepia portraits and gives their names, whose son or daughter they were, who they married, and the names of all their children. He tells of another ancestor who had left his family in North Carolina to try his luck out west. He and his young bride decided it was not for them and began the long journey back home. They lost a wagon wheel in a river crossing near Crossville, TN. That night, she gave birth to their first child. Unable to go on, they settled down and made a home where fate had dumped them.

grandma and grandpaI don’t know when it became so important to him to live to be 100, but it is. I suppose it just seems wrong to have come this far and not finish. :) He tells me that if his body were as fit as his mind, he might well live another 98 years. I do not doubt him. His voice grows quiet and his face clouds as he tells me, “I only wish your grandma could have had as many years as me.” He misses her so.

Their loving was not a frilly affair. It was lived out in a thousand daily kindnesses. In pre-dawn trips to the barn together to milk the cows. In warm breakfasts. In the silent sitting on the porch and this invisible something that passed between them there. In the stories and years, the griefs and joys that had irrevocably bound them together, body and soul. In talking over each other, in filling in the blanks, in picking up a sentence where the other left off.

That love flowed out from them into their prodigious progeny. Five children, seven grandchildren, fifteen great-grandchildren, and one great, great grandchild (with another due in October). We all still crave being together, that invisible web they spun around and among us tethering us no matter how far away we may be.

On Saturday we gathered to celebrate the extraordinary life of this ordinary, extraordinary man. His baby sister drove down from Ohio with her daughters. They two are the only siblings still living. Friends and family told stories and ate and laughed. The great grandkids roamed the hills and the pastures and climbed trees and found hiding places just like their parents before them.

Happiest of Birthdays, Grandpa! I am grateful to be part of a world with you in it. Thank you for the stories and the hugs. For always remembering my children’s names. And mine. For providing us such a grand legacy of quiet, tenacious love and for helping us understand where we come from. Certainly, your quiver is full of years already, but I look forward to celebrating the century mark with you in 2016. I love you.

photo(27)

Photos:
Top: Grandpa with his 5 children, from left, Benny, Wanda, Diana, Janie, Martha
Middle: The dashing groom and his beautiful bride.
Bottom: With (clockwise)… baby sister Anna Mae, the youngest of the great grandbabies, Sophia Rose–97 years his junior and utterly enthralled :)–, yours truly, and Kelsey.

I Wish You…

Dearest boy of mine,

How is it that you have come to be so grown? With ideas and dreams and thoughts all your own, with your own questions and wrestlings and hurts. From whence comes this voice to speak truth into the world, to help it see something it has never seen before? I am in awe of the young man you are becoming.

I know that today is your day for wishing, but if I were the one blowing out the birthday candles, here are some of the things I would wish for you…

joshnola

I wish you beauty. It has always been so important to you. From artful presentations of your food, to decorating the house for holidays and events, to the constant reconfiguring of your bedroom, you must make things lovely. And now you are finding beauty on the other side of a lens. Your photographs are exquisite and help me see the world anew. You are a weaver of words and a maker of music. Your creativity is without bounds. I wish you a world brimming with loveliness and the eyes to always see it.

I wish you wisdom. Acquiring it can be costly as it often comes by way of mistakes. But I pray that you will pursue it with all your heart. I pray that truth will be dear to you and that you will value it more than popularity or wealth or even what many would perceive as success.

photo(25)

I wish you a lifetime of explores. Your curiosity is one of my favorite things about you. It has always been fun to watch you rummage through a hotel room, uncovering its secrets. You are the one who detours from the trail, climbing something or seeing where that little side path goes. You are not intimidated by new technology or by finding your way in unfamiliar terrain. Sometimes it takes a great deal of courage to follow untrodden paths. Bon courage, my love!

I wish you faith. I wish you a faith that is vibrant and living, strengthening and emboldening. It is a daring thing, to stake your life on something bigger than you. But you have always had a heart for God. I pray that your love for Him will only grow with your years. It has been so for me, even though there have been difficult and confusing seasons when I thought I was ready to chuck the whole thing. You too will probably have seasons of wrestling and doubt. Persevere, my love. Keep your heart open to God. His will always be open to you.

joshstageI wish you a voice. Yes, I know that your vocal skills are already dazzling. :) That’s not exactly what I mean here, though it is part of it. There are treasures inside you that the world needs. Stories that only you can tell. I pray you will always find a way to tell them, whether through poetry, song, stories, photographs, plays or some medium you have not yet explored. I wish for you joy in the making of them, regardless of whether they ever bring you money or fame. The important thing is that you tell them. For you. And for us.

But

above

all

this…

I Wish You Love.

And I hope life, will treat you kind
And I hope that you have all
That you ever dreamed of
Oh, I do wish you joy
And I wish you happiness
But above all this
I wish you love

More than anything, my darling boy, I hope that you will always know that you are dearly loved. Unconditionally. All the time, no matter what. By God, by your family, by friends. I pray that your life overflows with people who pour themselves out for you, who pursue you relentlessly, who are willing to ask difficult questions and challenge you. And I pray that you will do the same for them. I pray that your relationships are characterized by grace and truth. And by much joy.

Happy Seventeenth Birthday, my love!! May God grant you many, many years!

*Song excerpt from “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton

*Photo credits: The photo at top was taken by the birthday boy, the photo at bottom by Lauren Gill Photography.

Confession Shortly Before the Forty-Eighth Birthday

When my friend Amanda kindly lent me her beautiful hard-cover, deckle-edged volume of Madeleine L’Engle’s poems, I’m sure she never imagined that I would keep it for MONTHS. But it is a book that begs to be savored. Slowly. In sweet sips. It just so happens that I did some sipping last night.

I woke just before 2:00 and could not get back to sleep. So, I pulled the volume from the stack beside my bed, along with my reading glasses, stopped by the kitchen for a banana, then curled up in the yellow chair near the stained glass lamp, the one with the dragonflies. The third poem I read was the one that here follows. A delicious irony given that in 3 days, I myself will be forty-eight. They are the very words I would say if I were wiser and more elegant. It is not the first time the poet has captured precisely where I am at a given moment. I dare say it will not be the last.

Incidentally, I did this morning what I should have done some time ago. I purchased my own copy of The Ordering of Love. I plan to return Amanda’s, hopefully no worse for the wear, this evening.

Confession Shortly Before the Forty-Eighth Birthday

Here I am, beyond the middle middle,
According to chronology,
No closer to solving cosmic or private riddle,
No further from apology
For clumsy self’s continuing ineptitude,
Still shaken by the heart’s wild battering.
Intemperate passions constantly intrude;
I cannot keep small hurts from mattering,
Am shattered when met with mild irritation,
Need reassurance, feel inadequate and foolish,
Seek love’s return, bump into abrogation,
Am stubborn beyond the point of being merely mulish.
So I am saved only by the strange power of silence,
The disciplined joy of work and rule
Inner and outer imposed, steel cold. The violence
Of the freezing wind sustains the heart. So this poor fool
is fed, is nourished, forgets then to be concerned with rust;
Repentance, too, is turning, if towards dust,
And gratitude sings forth in adoration
Of the one who touched and healed the halt and lame
With the aweful, blissful power of his spoken Name.

Letting Go

I realize I am holding my breath as I make the cut. Red leaves are just unfurling on the tips of the limbs, full of promise. And I am lopping them off. It hurts my heart a little, and I feel like I owe my roses an apology. But I hold my breath again and make the next cut.

Because I love them.

photo(21)

Roses need air. When their limbs become all tangled, they suffocate. They stop blooming. They become vulnerable to disease. Even death.

So every spring I choose a sunny day (to strengthen my heart), I give myself a little pep talk, and I ruthlessly cut away the excess. I gather up bundles of limbs with their tender new leaves, and it’s all I can do to not cry.

___________________________________

It is an inescapable irony that all this cutting away happens smack dab in the middle of Lent, when I myself am feeling the slice of the pruning shears. And I wonder if my Father has tears in His eyes as He cuts away at my excess, giving me room to breathe. Strengthening. Restoring me to health.

Instead of freedom from possessions, O Savior, I have pursued a life in love with material things, and now I wear a heavy yoke…I have discolored with the passions the first beauty of the image, O Savior. But seek me, as once Thou sought the lost coin, and find me.

Have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy upon me.

~The Lenten Triodion, Canon of St. Andrew

As I feel hunger in my belly; as I make prostrations; as I borrow words of deep repentance from those wiser than I; I wear this letting go, this cutting away, inside my body. And sometimes it hurts. I see my own tender leaves fall to the earth, and I am too much attached to them, sure that I cannot be me without them. But I hold my breath, and stretch my arms out to the Gardener as He makes the next cut.

Because He loves me.

photo(22)

Jesus said, “I am the true Vine, and My Father is the Vinedresser. Every branch of Mine that bears no fruit, He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit….” ~John 15:1-2

CIMG2581

50 Reasons Why…

photo(19)Fifty years ago today, a baby boy entered the world, full of promise. In the years that followed, he would stitch himself deeply into the hearts of friends and family, and into the heart of one lucky girl who would have the good fortune to be his bride.

My life has been blessed in a myriad of ways because of Mike. But mine is not the only one. So I asked a few friends and family members to share why they are glad he is in the world. I was hoping for 50. I received more. Their responses have had me in stitches. And in tears.

(It should be said that I asked them to keep it brief. Not an easy task. Also, I have arranged individuals in roughly the order in which Mike would have come to know them, except that I kept families together.)

For you, my darling, a little birthday something…

photo(18)Mike, words cannot express the deep love I have for you. You make me so proud to be the dad of such a godly young man. Happy Birthday! ~Dad

Mike, Happy birthday! I am so proud of you and all your accomplishments, but most of all for the godly man, husband, dad, and granddad that you are. I love you so much! ~Mom

You are my favorite roommate, other than my wife! Thanks for the years and years of companionship and fun! Couldn’t have asked for a better brother. Happy Birthday! ~Ray

I love the way you care for those close to you! You seem to know when to let go of your own agenda. Glad you’re my brother-in-law! Happy 50th! ~Lori

You are the most stylish old man I know!!! Happy Birthday! ~Alex

You’re a pretty cool uncle!! Have a happy day! ~David

Happy 50th birthday! Thanks for loving me!! ~Ellie

Uncle Mike is funny. He makes me laugh! ~Keeli

One of my favorite memories is seeing Mike and Bryan, as babies, sitting in their jump seats side by side, swapping pacifiers! ~Betty Arnold

Some of my earliest and fondest memories would include you Mike. From learning to swim at Battlewood together, to playing with “Billy Blast-offs”, to going to church camp our first time away from home. So many memories that make me smile and some even laugh out loud. Shelia asked me to list something I admire and it is hard to narrow it down to one but from my earliest memories you constantly displayed a well honed sense of fairness and gentility that belied your age and best I can tell you continue to bless others with these and other gifts still today. ~Bryan Ansley

Mike is my cousin and I love him; I know him to be a warm, kind person with a great sense of humor.  And I remember him complaining that Gwen was such an immaculate – compulsive? :) – housekeeper that his friends hassled him because his bedroom looked like a picture from a J.C. Penney catalog. ~Julie Reynolds

photo(17)I remember one day, I think it was the summer of 1980, my Aunt Gwen was babysitting my sisters and I. She had given each of us a couple of Chocolate Chip cookies for snack. Of course, I wanted more, lol. I asked, but she said NO, because she was making a big Spaghetti dinner for the family, and didn’t want me to spoil my appetite. My cousin Mike told me to meet him in the car port out in back. So I went outside, and then Mike came out, slipped a Chocolate chip cookie in my hand, told me to eat it quickly, and swore me to secrecy. I guess that is just the kind of person he has always been. The kind who will do what it takes to make others happy. Such a rebel. Happy Birthday!!!! ~Andrea, Mike’s cousin

I have lots of fond memories of Cousin Mike, but the one that most often & most vividly comes to mind is this one: when we would all get together at Mamaw & Papaw Crouch’s house. Whether it was Christmas or just Sunday family lunch, Mamaw would always want Mike to sing “Rise Again”… And he always would! Her face immediately lit up with the biggest smile! To this day & forever, “Rise Again” reminds me of Mike … & my Mamaw. Just a couple more: Going to Brentwood Academy to see Mike in Hello, Dolly! I just thought he was The Best!!! And, Mike took me to my 1st Amy Grant concert. I was probably around 9 or 10 & it was a late concert (or at least late for me). At the end of the concert, I woke up & was Mortified!!! I had slept thru half of the concert. I’ve been teased about that over the years, but I’ll always remember that night! It meant so much to me that Mike would take me, his much younger ;) cousin to such a grown-up event. Happy Birthday, Mike!!! ~Stacie Neely

It is hard to write a few words about this guy as we have known each other for around 45 years or longer. If I summed it up in one word I would say “genuine”, always there and always doing the right thing! Mike is Real! Happy Birthday! Age is just a number! ~Buddy Bacon

Mike, My favorite memories of growing up include you! Thank you for your Godly example , encouragement and friendship! (You and Shelia even singing in my wedding!) Happy 50th sweet friend! ~Kim Burgess Jones

The first thing that comes to my mind is the first thing I ALWAYS think of when I think of Mike. When we were teenagers we were in the youth group together at Forest Hills. Since the Mullicans lived right down the street from me and since Mike is several years older than me, he would often give me a ride home before I could drive. Sometimes no one was home when he dropped me off. When that was the case, Mike never let me walk into the house alone. He (usually accompanied by Kirk McLemore) always went inside with me and checked things out before they left. Now, in all honesty, this was often pretty comical because they would pretend they had guns and would go from room to room for the “all clear.” It’s likely that they had been watching way too many cop shows! But, in all seriousness, I do remember vividly him always making sure everything was OK before he left me alone. And I seriously doubt that he has any memory of that at all, which is one of the things that makes Mike who he is. He cares well for others and doesn’t give it a thought. It’s just who he is and what he does. Always has, always will. And I’m thankful to have known him for more years than I really want to admit! ~Gena Rogers

Mike, if ever there was a time for you to heed the warning “Beware the ides of March”, this is the time to hide!  50 years is, well … getting up there.  I consider myself a very lucky man to have known and worked with you over the years.  I’ve always admired the tremendous love and devotion you have for your family and how you have lived a personal and professional life epitomized by trust, integrity, and kindness toward others.  (With parents like yours, you must’ve just been wired that way.)  Not only were you a great and valued business partner, but you continue to be a great and valued friend.  I hope this Saturday finds you surrounded by the love of your family, lots of fun and laughter, and a truckload of Little Debbie snacks!  Happy 50th Birthday, Mike!  ~Ed Routon

We first loved you because you brought joy to our daughter. Then we loved you for yourself. We knew you would always take care of Shelia if she would allow it. You always have a positive attitude. We like that you feel comfortable to look for something you like in our refrigerator and cabinet, and if we’ve moved the goodies it doesn’t take you long to find them. :) ~Diana and Wesley

photo(16)Fifty years on this earth,
1964 was the year of birth.
A little bitty baby, oh so small,
Who even as a man never grew very tall.
A kind heart for others
Treats everyone as a brother.
Fell in love with a sweet country gal
Quickly became the whole Howard family’s pal.
Built a house, became a daddy three times over
Must have found him a four leaf clover.
He is one lucky man, this Mike Mullican
To have so much love in his life.
Friends and family galore
All celebrating many years more!
You, Mike, deserve the best of it all
So treat yourself kindly and have a ball!

We love you and are proud to call you family!
Love,
Marvin, Tammy, Andrew, Tabitha and Samuel

To belittle is to be… little. Mike? Still laugh when I think about that one! It takes a big man to put up with this family and you’ve done it well. Thanks for marrying my sister and becoming my brother. Happy Birthday and may God grant you many, more wonderful years. ~Monty, Kristina & younguns

Mike, I appreciate the way you have become a part of the family that you married into.  We’re a pretty big group and we must have seemed pretty overwhelming at times.  I admire your quiet sense of humor.  Most of all, I appreciate your devotion to your family.  They are a testament to your love and devotion.  Happy 50th!  May God grant you many more years. ~Wanda Fowler

Mike has a way of making the people around him feel like they matter. Whether it’s engaging them through shared experiences, careful questions about their lives or disarming awkward situations with humor, Mike is simply enjoyable to be around. He helps create an inviting atmosphere that is admirable. ~Amy and Buddy Creech

Mike, Happy Birthday to you my brother!!!! Thankful for the day God crossed our path at Haywood Hills Baptist Church. Such sweet memories of you as Minister of Music and our small group of young childless couples. Though the years  have taken our families in different directions, some of our fondest memories of our twenties include you and your beautiful bride! We loved spending time in your home on Apollo Drive, and our late nights in our basement apartment playing Pictionary. We never lacked for fun and laughter when we were together. I remember all those movies (at least the beginning of them) that we slept through as Paul and Shelia watched to the very end.  They would tease that we slept together while they watched….scandalous!! I never eat at a Mexican restaurant, to this day, that I don’t think of you.  When I see the word quesadilla on the menu, I am reminded of you and your pronunciation to our server was typically, “quaz a dilla.” Random memory, but it’s there. There are many many more, but most of all, we just want you to know how thankful we are that God crossed our paths in this lifetime!!! Love you lifetime friend. ~Paul and Debo Morris

photo(20)

Daddy, I’m so lucky to be your daughter. You have led our family courageously through good and bad. You have a humble and graceful strength that I admire so much. You have the best sense of humor, and every time I see a video about farts I think of you. I love you! ~Kelsey

Hey pops! Its crazy to think that you’re already fifty years old! And to think, you don’t look a day over forty eight. Only joking. On a more serious note, I’m so thankful to have had such a strong patriarch in my life. You’ve shown me what it is to be a man in every sense. A person who can be emotionally strong, financially responsible, and most importantly be a man of God to everyone I encounter. I’m glad I’ve been blessed with such great parents. Here’s to another great fifty years of companionship, father and son. I only hope I can be half the father to my children that you have been to me. I love you dearly. ~Jake

Hey Daddio! It’s Josh here. You are such an amazing father. You have supported me in every way possible. You have given me all of your love, attention, compassion and forgiveness. You have given me hope and the power to dream. You have given me a place of comfort and a place of refuge. Throughout these 16, almost 17 years I have spent with you, you have given so much. Today however I get to give back to you. I get to give you the happiness you have given me. I get to give you the love and compassion you have given me. I get to show you the amount of fun that you have showed me. Today is your 50th birthday, so Happy Birthday, Daddy. Thank you for everything you have given to me and here’s to another year of laughter, joy and compassion. I love you! :) ~Josh

CIMG1056

I’m thankful for Sonic tipping (or lack of), U.S. Women’s Soccer, debits and credits, and a chance to work with people that were far smarter than I. But mostly I’m thankful for Jesus in my life because Mike made it so clear He was in his. Happy birthday to Mike! Thank you for everything! ~Rebecca Whitney

Mike is one of the best business partners anyone could ever have.  He is smart.  He is fair-minded.  He is kind.  He is focused on the right things.  He can do the hard things if he needs to.  Mike has been a huge part of what business success I’ve had, and he’s been a great example to me as both a business person and as a friend. ~Jim Alcott

Mike…you and Shelia were the very first couple that Brian and I met when we moved to Franklin 22 years ago.  So thankful that you bought that beautiful black piano and had it proudly on display in your window…cause that’s why the “mayor of the neighborhood” thought we should meet.  So glad we did.  Your friendship through the years has blessed us and we’re so grateful that the good Lord caused our paths to cross. ~Wendi Green

Great memories of singing with this precious Irish tenor! Blessed to share life’s winding road with this “cousin” and fellow child of Abbot Maolain. Mike, you, like our ancestor, personify all that reflects God’s love in this world. Sláinte! Lá breithe shona! (Cheers! Happy Birthday!) ~Rhonda Kemp

Inner strength; outer graciousness. Quiet when he needs to be; speaks up when he needs to. Reliable. Faithful. Responsible. Mike actually is what he appears to be. That is rare. ~Dick Wells

Happy 50th!!  Mike, it’s been great to have a friend with so much in common; even our kids and wives have enjoyed friendships over the years with each other.  Writing this takes me back to our adventures in Kosovo and Rome.  Good times.  I am grateful, friend, for your generosity, consistency and firm humility. ~Ken Morris

For Mike: when I think of who you are as a person I think of these words- forgiver, grace giver, fighter, friend. Happy birthday!! ~Kathy King

Mike has been a constant source of encouragement and example of personal discipline. I can only hope that others would look to me as I look to Mike. What a gift he is. ~Chad Jarnagin

Mike I have such respect for your quiet strength. You are a man that possesses great power within you coupled with the wisdom to know when it’s use would be for the benefit of others. Happy 50th! ~Bethany Gaddis

It is difficult for me to boil down my appreciation for Mike into a one-liner in a blog post, but if I have to choose, I would say I am constantly bombarded by Mike’s unique capacity to lead boldly and simultaneously gently with wisdom and thoughtfulness. I’ve yet to meet another person who can deliver important wisdom with clarity and gentleness like Mike – I’ve benefitted from it personally countless times. As a person far-too cavalier with my own words, I am always challenged by a man who selects his carefully and delivers them thoughtfully – reminds me a lot of how a divine Jewish carpenter would interact with a woman at a well.

The other thing I like about Mike is that in contrast to all of the above, we can laugh about having gas and the number of times he pees at the office. Now that’s a comprehensive man for you! ~Seth Davis

IMG_2459

Happy 50th Mike! We love you dearly as a friend and all the more because you are such a loving godfather to our sweet Ezra. May God grant you many, many years! ~Jon and Jen Gillett

Uncle Mike, you are the best! I love you! Happy Birthday to the best godfather ever! Wanna cracker? ~ Ezra

One thing comes to mind when I think of Mike: integrity.  Integrity in business, family, friendship, and life. You are such a great example.  I couldn’t think of a better person to almost get horribly t-boned by a drunk driver with. ~Jonathan McAdams

Mike…the world would be sadly lacking in fart jokes without him!  (just kidding!) I am forever grateful for the wisdom and business advice – and countless prayers – so generously given to me during ‘the spa years’. We would not have achieved the spiritual things that took place in that spa without his willingness to walk that road with me! Since that time, his support and encouragement to me has literally kept me alive – spiritually and physically – on the mission field! Without Mike’s generosity, without his kind concern, without his support and encouragement, I would not be on this field! I am glad there is Mike in the world because his generosity has made a huge difference in the kingdom of God! And all this sounds so serious for such a funny guy! ~Izabella Italia

I have always felt that Mike has had wisdom beyond his years…now the wisdom and years have simply caught up with each other! Happy Birthday Mike and may the Lord continue to shower His blessings on you and your sweet family. ~Jeff Sheets

What I love about Mike is his kindness, generosity and encouraging spirit. You guys have always been so loving and welcoming to Layza and I. ~Josh Cassidy

Mike, I’m thankful that you’re a friend whose actions & words form one giant invitation to the life abundant–constantly challenging others to believe toward a journey of greater reward & truer joy. ~Nina Coyle

Happy Birthday Mr. Mike! Growing up I always felt at home when I was with your family, and I still do. Your family has been such a blessing to me and I am so grateful to be a part of it. ~Andy Webb

Mike is steady, real, a great listener and a committed friend. He is gracious, generous, and in the midst of all of that awesomeness keenly witty. I love how he patiently takes in whatever is going on or what you are say and how when he responds wisdom and quiet inner calm and insight calms you. Wait…can he really be that awesome? :) ~William Guice

Thank you, Mike, for being a man of great integrity, strong character, & frequent laughter. Your joy is contagious, & the leadership you exude inspires others. Thank you for serving the youth for many years & sharing your life as a testimony of the love of Christ. Thank you for allowing me to walk life with your entire family & raising your children to love others well. May God richly bless you this day & always. ~Heather Norvell

Eric and I were thankful for our short time with Mike in Adziwa. That trip was something that bonded us all for life!! Remembering an afternoon on the bus after a very hard day, seeing an adult with one of our school bags we’d given to the children, watching the children carry off our trash like it was treasure, and seeing a mother beat her child to take his bottled water that we’d given him. Mike brought his sense of humor and levity even when things seemed so dark. So thankful for that, and our “essence of tuna” sandwiches! Happy Birthday Mike!! Love, Ruthann and Eric Ross

Mike is such a humble, gentle business leader.  It’s encouraging to see someone that cares for people so well in the midst of everyday life.  Thanks Mike for offering great council to me as a a young man just about to enter the business world!  Happy Birthday to you! ~Tim Harms

When Mike and I attended the same church I knew how and where to find him.  He always sat near the front.  If I scanned the faces near the front and spotted one that was smiling, smiling at me, It was Mike.  Recently I received an e-mail suggesting that I might have lost Mike’s address.  It was a digital smile that invited me to a closer friendship.  Done deal.  Happy Birthday from an old geezer.  Come on in the water is fine. ~Ken Davis

Mike, I appreciate your heart for others and your calming spirit. Your presence brings Peace to everyone around you. Yakoke, Charles Robinson

IMG_4077

I’ve always appreciated Mike’s loving nature, helpful wisdom, and sense of humor, but what stands out most to me is that time when you guys were at my house and he plopped on the couch, put his feet up, and sprawled out. His comfortability and make-himself-at-homeness is now one of my favorite things about him. ~Alece Ronzino

50 years!  I feel very privileged to have been a part of your journey so far… I’ve rarely met a man as dedicated to the path of loving and serving God and others is such an unpretentious way.  I’m thankful for men like you who remind me that real goodness, perseverance, faithfulness, etc. exist in this world.  Many years, my friend!! ~Monte King

I love how beautifully you love your precious wife. ~Gail Hyatt

I love Mike’s integrity and humility. I remember when he made a special trip over to my house to let me know about a mistake that had been made when we had done business with his company several years before. It really wasn’t necessary, because all was well now, but he was very sensitive to it and wanted me to know. I really admired that. ~Michael Hyatt

Mike, My backyard party would have been incomplete (or on fire) were it not for you knowing how to light tiki torches, and the resident after me in Sylvan Heights would be enjoying a new TV on her wall were it not for you unmounting it. Thanks for always being ready to serve those who need an extra hand. Or two. And a screwdriver and propane. (I’m grateful you have opened your home to me after my heart surgery, and after a heart break or two, too.) ~Anne Marie Miller

A little 50th birthday perspective:  50 years is: 1/2 a century; 10 decades; 600 months; 2,600 weeks; 18,250 days; 438,00 hours; 26,280,000 minutes; 1,576,800,000 seconds!  May God help you to make the next 1,576,800,000 seconds even better than the first! ~Joel Smith

Mike, it has been a real pleasure singing with you in the choir, and getting to know you. Not only are you a talented dude, but your sense of humor really lifts my spirit. I’m thankful for you. ~Dave McEver

There are so many things I admire about Mike, so where to start?  I suppose what strikes me the most is that Mike always seems to have a joyful countenance whenever I encounter him.  As Orthodox Christians, we seek joy in communion with God rather than happiness in the world.  Mike is one of those people whose joy, for me, is infectious. So, Mike, happy fiftieth, and may God grant you many more joyful years. ~Dr. David Oxley

I am so glad you are a part of St. Ignatius. ~Jack Parsons

Mike Mullican is one of the nicest guys I know. There is nothing counterfeit about Mike. Without exaggerating or inflating my adjectives, Mike Mullican is a personable, approachable, unassuming, understated, seasoned, and low maintenance kind of guy who won’t retreat or devalue a friendship in a rough spot. You can trust the gospel in him. His Christ is first warm, then merciful, wise and forgiving. This kind of nobility is rare indeed and I am honored to acknowledge that openly on his behalf. I like what his friendship says about me. ~David Teems

Mike has a loving smile and presence that lights up the darkest of rooms. ~Andy Sowell

Mike is one of those rare selfless people who is constantly and genuinely concerned about everyone else. He is a friend who keeps up with what’s going on in others’ lives, asks specific questions, and listens attentively to the answers. Mike, you make us feel very loved. Thank you for being a great friend and example! ~Sarah and Joel Finley

I love and respect Mikes casual sense of humor.  He is always smiling, always friendly and always quick to laugh. ~Carl Meier

From what I know of Mike, He is gentle and loving. He always comes across as wanting to listen to the heart of others. He seeks to improve the way of life that other people wish to shoot for. He might drink lighter and maybe a little more girlier drinks than we do, :) but I’m still a fan! ~Tracee Persiko

_________________________________________

My darling, you are my favorite companion on the many adventures of life, the ones we choose and the ones that choose us. You have loved me better than I deserve, but I don’t mind. ;) It has been a gift to watch you shepherd our children into adulthood, and a joy to watch you dote on our granddaughter. I look forward to growing very old with you. Many years, my love!

mikegc

Here’s to all the adventures that await you in your next 50 years…. Godspeed!

Page 1 of2612345»1020...Last »