In Her Third Year…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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*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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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!

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

Forgive Me

The temperature has plummeted 25 degrees since morning. A gray sky oozes raindrops, on their way to becoming ice. But inside, it is warm. Clouds of incense hang in the air making it sweet. And holy. Flames flicker before the icons, and soft, buttery light bathes the images of saints, of Christ and His Mother. The room is crowded with people I love. We have come here to commence the Lenten journey together. We want to begin clean; to rid ourselves of anything that might impede us along the way.

Last fall, when Mike and I hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim, we learned the importance of traveling light. We agonized over every single item we placed in our packs. In the end, we still took too much. And we felt it every step of the way. We resolved that next time we would be more ruthless. We would carry less.

Similarly, we want to commence our Lenten journey unencumbered. So we have gathered for the beautiful Forgiveness Vespers. We pray together words about the coming fast and ask God to purify both body and soul. Then, the priest bows before each member of the clergy and says these words, “Forgive me, a sinner.” Each of them replies, “God forgives. Forgive me, a sinner.” Then the priest responds, “God forgives,” and they embrace one another.

After this, they form a line at the front of the church and, one at a time, we pass before them and have the same exchange, adding ourselves to the end of the line. So that, by the end of the evening, each of us has bowed before every other person and asked for, given, and received forgiveness. It is a deeply moving experience.

Obviously, some of us know one another better than others. Our stories are more involved. There is my wise and gentle friend and hero who teaches me, by her example, what it looks like to purposefully pursue relationship. There is the friend who knows all the worst about me and chooses to love me anyway. There are friends who have generously poured themselves out on my behalf more times than I can count. There are so many who have inextricably wound themselves around my heart, and it is an honor to bow before them and ask for forgiveness. We exchange words of love, and our embrace says all the things we do not know how to say.

There are also those who challenge me; who sometimes rub me the wrong way. And I can only imagine how many people feel like that when they see me coming. But each of us is choosing to let God use the other in our lives to refine us and make us more like Him–There is more than one way for iron to sharpen iron–And this act of humbling ourselves before one another, of forgiving and embracing one another, is a crucial part of that.

All the while, the chanters have been quietly singing the hymns of resurrection. A glimpse of what awaits us on the other side of this journey. An important reminder of where we are headed. Fragments come to me over the voices of the many penitents. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” “Dance now and be glad O Zion.” “Glory to thy Holy Resurrection, O Lord!”

As the evening ends, my heart is full. And I walk out into the night as light as a feather.

We are begun.

Forgive me.

Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat. Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit, may we persevere with love, and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold His holy Passover.
~from the Lenten Triodion, Forgiveness Vespers

Mindful

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Mindful

Everyday
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

~Mary Oliver

Portraits of a Life

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I wish you could know my mother. To hear her voice as she tells a story, to see the fierce determination in her eyes as she tackles a logic problem or a Sudoku puzzle. I wish you could know how generous she is. I wish you could see her with her grandchildren, and her great granddaughter. I wish you could sit at her breakfast table. For as long as I can remember, she has been my hero.

Today my hero is 70 years old. She has packed a lot of life into her threescore and ten. Here are some of the images I have of her. Many I have seen. Some, I have pieced together from story or from photographs. (Incidentally, in the above photo, she is the pretty little girl on the far left.)

I imagine her as a little girl…running barefoot through the grass with her brother and sisters or plodding the long rows of the cornfield, dropping corn into the planting holes. I see her walking to a little two room school where her mother was her teacher. I like to think of her curled up with Heidi, one of her favorite books, letting her imagination carry her to far off Switzerland, and snow, and warm goat’s milk. I can’t think that she ever imagined she would someday travel there. But she would.

It occurs to me that I do not know who taught her to play the piano. Or if she played school with her siblings, and if so, did she always want to be the teacher? I imagine her shivering as she swam at the Moffit Hole, and playing in the barn. I see her standing beside her mother in the kitchen, learning the art of making good food.

I picture her as a high school student, too pretty to wear make-up. I have seen photographs of her in the smart, fitted dresses she made for herself. Her impossibly tiny waist. Her beautiful smile. It’s no wonder my daddy fell in love with her.

I try not to think too much about that summer after she graduated. About the tractor that died and how her daddy, a farmer, could not feed his family without a tractor. And how her daddy, a farmer, could not buy a new tractor and send her to college. I try not to think of her broken heart.

But she made the best of things and took a job in Washington, DC. This seems quite exotic to me when I think of it now. She was so very brave.

It wasn’t too long before she married her high school sweetheart. They cleaned up the little pink house and moved in and planted flowers. And there was a baby who didn’t live. And that must have been so hard. But out of meager means, she and my daddy began to craft a life for themselves. They had some babies. They bought land with a tiny little house that needed a whole lot of work. A house that would grow with their family and be the site of many, many family celebrations, and much music and laughter.

I have so many pictures of her from the years when I was a little girl. How to choose? Book on her lap, reading fairy tales and poems to my brother and me, opening fantastic worlds to us with her words. Sitting at the piano, coaxing the beautiful music from its keys that would become a siren call to me, a deep desire to know how to make that magic. Sewing machine awhirl as she stitched Easter dresses for the both of us. Working tirelessly in her flowers, surrounding our family with a beauty that I didn’t even know I needed til I left it.

I see her as she put her last little one onto the school bus and decided it was time to finally chase that college dream. She was so very brave. And even though we whined sometimes because we were no longer the whole of her universe, it was fun to see her excitement over all the things she was learning. She was a very good scholar. There is a portrait of the two of us in our graduation gowns, high school for me, college for her. Both of us on the threshold of new adventures.

I imagine her in her classroom, lighting fires in the minds of her students. How lucky they were to have her read to them. How blessed to see the fire in her eyes when she talked about all things math. How sure they must have been that this was a teacher who cared deeply about what happened to them.

I see her with her grandbabies. Traveling any distance to be there when they were born. Getting down on the floor and playing with them. Giving so much of herself to the precious one who was born sick and was not with us nearly long enough. Always the first one into the pool with them. Making chocolate gravy and biscuits for them. Seeking to know them for who they were and not who she wanted them to be.

One of my favorite portraits is a sunny afternoon in early spring. The air is crisp and cool. And my mother sits in a courtyard with her mother, my son, and me. We sing hymns. And the stroke which stole so much from my grandmother can’t take the hymns from her. And the music is this invisible chord that ties all of us up in it. And it is wonderful.

I see her as she received the diagnosis: Cancer. The fear, yes. But also this quiet determination. Simply taking the next step. I see her astonishment as people poured around her with encouragement and assistance. I see the deep gratitude she found in this hard place and how she became my hero all over again.

I see her gallivanting all over the world. Eating fresh mangoes in Hawaii. Sailing under the falls at Niagara. Opening the windows of her hotel onto a snow blanketed Germany. Gliding through the locks of the Panama canal. Exploring the wilds of Alaska. Collecting apples and maple syrup in New England.

I asked my mama one time if she ever missed earlier stages of her life. Maybe the one when her kids were little, for instance. In that wise way of hers, she said that each stage has had its great joys and its difficulties. But that for her, the best place to be is always right where she is. I love that about her. I hope that someday I grow to be as wise as she.

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Happy birthday, mama!! I love you! God grant you many, many years!

Creating Space…

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Breaking ground is not one of the sexier garden tasks. Pulling hunks of sod from the earth, beating them against the ground to free the valuable topsoil from the roots, spreading them out to dry. Then, I drive my shovel deep into the compacted earth. I lift and sift and crumble til the soil is fine and friendly for the plants. There will be the addition of compost, of course, necessary for nutrition and proper drainage. The process is long and exhausting, and the only immediate payoff will be aching muscles and probably a couple of blisters.

So why bother? Why not just leave all that grass alone?

Because I dream of something more. Of something beautiful and fragrant, teaming with life. I imagine my granddaughter watching butterflies and hummingbirds come and go. I dream of filling our home with lush blossoms.

But before there can be butterflies or blossoms, there has to be a space for them. Something that is good in its own way has to be removed so that there is room for something that is better.

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Even so, in me. If I wish to create art that is Incarnational, if I hope to carry within me the sweet aroma of Christ, if I wish to flourish and play my unique role in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth, I must create space. I must sometimes intentionally cut away that which is good to make room for that which is better.

There are many practices which serve this effort. Fasting frees me from enslavement to the “unlawful tyranny of the flesh” (A. Schmemann). Contemplation frees me from enslavement to my mind. Silence and Solitude free me from enslavement to the frenetic chaos in which most of us are drowning. Worship frees me from enslavement to my pride. Confession and the relentless practice AND acceptance of Forgiveness free me from enslavement to my past.

As these practices ruthlessly tear up the hard places in my soul, tilling the soil until it is fine and rich, they create space in me to be generous and creative, to give to others out of my abundance.

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In the 13th chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells a story of a farmer who scattered some seed… “Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.

You and I can keep trying to pile the work of loving others, creating beautiful art, and telling good stories into a life that is already stretched too thin. A life that is crowded by things that are good perhaps, not best. But I fear that our offerings will be scorched and withered, or choked out altogether. Far better to do the hard work of letting go, of creating space, so that we might produce a worthy crop.

I would like to invite you to be a part of the Luminous Project, May 6-8 in Franklin, TN. Here you will have a chance to practice letting go. You will be invited into a space of stillness and surrender. Here the soil of you will be gently tilled and nourished, and the gnarled roots and rocks discarded, so that you might become a well watered vineyard whose yield is sweet and strengthening to those who partake of it.

This post was inspired by the Luminous Project. Luminous is a creative spiritual event in Nashville May 6-8, 2014. To find out more, check out luminousproject.com. You can use the promo code ‘BLOGtour14‘ to get 15% off the registration price. 50 spots available with code.

p.s. All flowers in the photos (including the one with our winged visitor) are the yield of our little backyard garden. The photo at top is a promise of things to come…

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