Early Will I Seek You

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The sun climbs as I make my way through a world shrouded in mist. Sometimes I can see individual droplets dancing in the air on their lazy meander back to the sky. I pass an untended lot where bag shaped webs hang from last years dried grass. They capture bits of mist and sunlight and glow like lanterns on a summer evening.

I traverse this early morning wonderland to receive the Body and Blood. During this week of Passion, the Church gives us the gift of daily liturgy. We gather before work, before a day with children, errands, meetings, responsibility, to consider the cross. On this first morning, Jesus tenderly prepares His disciples for His coming death and for the suffering that awaits each of them. In the service, this is interwoven with the story of the Hebrew captivity under Pharaoh and Satan’s request to have his way with Job.

In the midst of all this, we pray. For the peace of the world, for forgiveness, for illumination. We are reminded that the voluntary Passion of Christ will “raise us who are dead in sin; for He is good and loves mankind.” Then, we are nourished with the Eucharist. The “medicine of immortality” St. John Chrysostom called it. And as I carry this mystical treasure about in me all day I cannot help but remember what it cost. And I am changed by it.

Flannery O’Connor and her mother began every day with liturgy. She carried the Body and Blood with her as she returned home to write. And I wonder how much that living quality, that indefinable something that makes her works breathe and meddle and transform, has to do with the fact that she housed that extraordinary gift inside her as she wrote.

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O God, you are my God: early will I seek you. My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips shall praise you.
~Psalm 63:1-3

Of Paradox and Palms…

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Lent is perpetual paradox. The church is dressed in somber purple. We are a people of longing. Yet, we meet on Sundays to celebrate Resurrection. The Resurrection that has been, that is, that is not yet. In between, we lament, we fast, we wait.

This weekend the church was all dressed up in gold again. We commemorated the raising of Lazarus and the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem. After this morning’s service, we formed a corridor out of doors with candles and palms, and as the priest moved among us with the icon of the feast we cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord!” We were Jerusalem receiving our King. We were all joy.

Tonight, we prayed the poignant and lovely Bridegroom Matins service. The purple is back. The hymns are somber. The coming days will be dark.

Palm Sunday has been melancholy for me for some time. Mostly, I blame it on the flannel graphs. When my children were little, I told them Bible stories using flannel graph pictures. A sweet remnant from my own childhood. It always troubled me that I was expected to use the same crowd of people who shout “Hosanna” to later shout “Crucify”. Truth is, they were the same people. And He knew it. Even as He moved among them, even as He received their adoration, He knew.

And I want to be angry at them. For breaking His heart.

Til I remember.

I am them.

I receive Christ with gladness. I adore Him. I long for Him with all that I am. Until I don’t. Until I become arrogant. Again. And seek my own way. And though I do not call out for His physical death, I close the gate against Him and behave, in that moment, as though He were dead.

Lord have mercy.

Tonight, in my head, songs of the triumphant King riding into Jerusalem on a colt mingle with songs of the suffering Bridegroom who gives Himself for the beloved. And my heart is restless as the paradox that was Lent spills over into Holy Week…

 

When God Weeps…

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*By way of explanation, the Eastern and Western calendars do not always align regarding the date of Pascha (Easter). I don’t completely understand it all. Something about full moons and the vernal equinox. Anyway, for us, Lent is coming to a close and Holy Week begins today*

And we begin where Christ began this week, at a tomb in Bethany…

Lazarus, the friend of Christ, becomes ill. His sisters send for Jesus, but he delays. He will not go until Lazarus dies. Even then, his disciples warn him of the danger of this proximity to Jerusalem. The environment there is becoming increasingly hostile. But there is work to be done…

Our priest began his homily this morning by revisiting a passage we had read on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son several weeks ago, just before commencing our Lenten return.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars
we hung our harps,

for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?

If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.

May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

Psalm 137:1-6

He reminded us that we are a people of exile. Although our world, like ancient Babylon, is comfortable and beautiful, it is not our home. Sickness and death offend and grieve us because they were never meant to be. They even grieve God.

We are told in the gospel of John that Jesus comes to the home of Mary and Martha after their brother has been dead for 4 days. Long enough for his body to stink. Long enough for his spirit to be irreconcilably absent the body. Jesus enters into the grief of His friends. And God weeps. He weeps for their sadness. He weeps for a world that is broken, for a people of exile. For all that we have lost. And in this moment, He is completely man. Feeling completely human sorrow.

Completely man, AND completely God.

He asks that the stone be removed from the tomb. Then he calls to Lazarus. By name. Which brings me to one of the more interesting parts of vespers last evening. In one of the canticles, death is given a voice and it seems to be nervous. It hurries Lazarus along saying,

“I implore thee, Lazarus, rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of  all those whom I swallowed in my anger.”

Prophetic words. For in just 8 days, the Resurrection and the Life will burst forth from his bonds with such impact that hundreds will be raised along with Him. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Jesus restores Lazarus to life, to the astonishment of all present. “And many believed in Him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done…from that day on they plotted to take his life.” (John 11) And so it begins…

We are a people of exile. As such, we know deep griefs. But we do not grieve alone. We have a God who weeps with us. Who understands the depth of our sorrow. A God who perpetually speaks life to us, by name.

*First in a series of reflections on Holy Week. If you live in the greater Nashville area, I would love to introduce you to the beauty of this week in person. Take a look at our service schedule HERE and give me a shout if you are coming.

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For I Will Consider My Granddaughter Kenzie…

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FOR I WILL CONSIDER MY GRANDDAUGHTER KENZIE

For she catches sunbeams in her hands and puts out her tongue to taste them.

For she looks at me just before plunging both feet into a puddle and she is all mischief and wonder and delight and I try to remember why I shouldn’t let her but I forget.

For she must spin if the grass is green and the lawn is large.

For sometimes she pauses just at the top of the slide to gaze at the lawn and I know she is spinning in her heart.

For she buries her whole face in a blossom to breathe its scent and emerges blissful and flecked with pollen.

For she loves her mommy.

For she awakens a sweet radiance in her mommy, soft and gentle and all joy.

For she is generous to all, especially to old people.

For she holds her head sideways when she poses for a photograph.

For after the photograph, she says “awww, cute”.

For she loves her Pops

For she loves music and making music and people who make music and instruments that make music.

For music makes her dance.

For she wields both fork and spoon with dexterity but prefers to eat with her hands.

For when she asks for candy she always says “just one”, but does not mean it.

For she loves Josh and Jake.

For sometimes she holds her cup with her feet just because she can.

For she tucks one corner of her paci inside her lip.

For she colors with mad, bold strokes and makes no apologies about that.

For she loves books.

For she is a mixture of gravity and waggery.

For she greets every morning, every moment, with expectation that something wonderful is about to happen.

For sometimes when I hold her she puts one hand in my hair and one on my face and I know what it means to be truly happy.

For she has a shoe fetish, yet prefers to be barefoot.

For her toes are soft and round and make sweet wet footprints on the porch after she has walked in the dew.

For she loves to pray.

For she laughs easily and often and always out loud.

For she climbs everything.

For she loves water and perceives it as a personal gift to her from someone who loves her.

For sometimes she kisses me first.

For there is nothing sweeter than her peace when at rest.

For there is nothing brisker than her life when in motion.

For she is of the tribe of angel.

For she loves me.

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*The form of the poem is borrowed from Mary Oliver’s “For I Will Consider My Dog Percy” She, in turn, borrowed it from Christopher Smart’s “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry.” Lines in italics are borrowed from both.

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Boston

A week ago yesterday, while my husband attended the home opener of the Boston Red Sox, my son and I climbed to the top of the Bunker Hill memorial, photographed squirrels playing in Boston Garden, and strolled along the wide lanes of Commonwealth Avenue, just a block and a half from where two explosions rocked the world yesterday.

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I grieve for those who lost their lives, and for those who love them. I grieve for the injured, some of whom are fighting for their lives even now. I grieve for runners who dreamed of this day all their lives – a dream I understand only too well – who trained for months, years maybe, just to qualify, and had the clean joy of this moment stolen. Mostly, I grieve for a world that is broken. A world where hate is sometimes nourished to a point that this is an inevitable result.

And yet, even in the grief, there are reasons to give thanks: For first responders who once again ran toward while most of us would run away. For capable, dauntless medical teams on the ground and in hospitals who provided, and continue to provide, the best medical care in the world. For ordinary heroes; runners and spectators who put themselves in harms way to aid the injured, doctors and nurses who flew back from vacations to assist, hundreds of volunteers, including marathon weary runners, who are offering to donate blood.

The running community is a generous community. Always. Being part of it is one of the things I love most about being a marathoner. But this is far bigger than that. At the precise moment when we witness the worst of which we as humans are capable, we see, in startling relief, the most ordinary, extraordinary heroism. The mark of God in us all.

May all of us seize this opportunity to love better. To feed generosity and not hate.

“Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother.”
~
from the Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem, the Syrian

My love and prayers are with those who grieve in Boston and beyond, and with those who continue to care for them. Shalom.

Artful Extravagance

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While God puts His lovely fingerprint on all of creation, it sometimes seems as though He spends extra time in certain places crafting an extravagance of beauty. Artful, elegant, and so exquisite it creates a pang in the heart. Bermuda is one such place.

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Sapphire skies hover over an impossibly turquoise sea that rushes toward pink sand beaches in a flurry of foam. Dark stones lie strewn about the shore and shallows like left over toys. The water hurls itself against them, spouting skyward in great white flumes.

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Along the beach, we discover treasures from the sea. And, even as I mourn their death, I marvel that God graced a creature that would rarely be seen with such extraordinary loveliness. Prettier than it has to be.

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Sea Glass Beach yields treasures of another sort. Trash, broken bottles and the like, rolled around by the waves, pummeled against the sand, wash up onto this beach smoothed and remade. We brought bits of it home. As a reminder. Fragments of resurrection for the garden path.

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The beauty of the natural world seems to inform and inspire the works of man. The houses that cling to the hills look like they spilled out of an Easter basket. Gardens and flower boxes are a profusion of texture and color. And we climb the world’s oldest cast iron lighthouse to find a most utilitarian beauty. The prisms that help magnify the light bend land, sea and sky into a marvelous upside down landscape.

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There is even a nod to whimsy. This is Kenzie’s favorite of my photos from Bermuda. The creative impulse is a one of the surest imprints of the Creator within us, even when the form it takes is unconventional. And Rastafarian. And awesome. 🙂

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The sun is painting with pieces of glass. She flings them like spatters of watercolor against the window frame with a Kandinsky-like exuberance. I can’t not look at it.

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Doors are flung open to breezes blown up from the sea. The song of them blends with voices in the liturgy. A curious mix, this. And wonderful. Like the languid, feathery palms swaying against the outside of this great stone church that looks as though it were plucked from the English countryside.

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Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

~ Mary Oliver ~

For Joshua…

Josh Baby with Hat

Dearest Joshua,

We almost missed you, you know. We thought for a while that maybe two children were enough. But I began to have this awful feeling, this sense that someone was missing. It was never about having three kids really. I just knew we weren’t all here yet. And then there was you. The moment you were born, everything was right. Our family was complete.

I love your passion. You have this way of settling into a moment and drinking its nectar to the dregs. I think of you when I read these words from Jack Kerouac:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…”

I envy your audacity; your willingness to dream BIG dreams. I exult in your joie de vivre. It is contagious, you know. You are a celebration waiting for an excuse. And I love the way a person’s face lights up when he or she talks about you. 🙂

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Do you suppose there is anyone in the world as curious as you? Hotel room, new car, hiking trail, doesn’t matter. You are always up for an explore. And you do not stop until you know everything there is to know. For you, the world is a wondrous place, full of possibility. Never lose that.

Your creativity inspires and delights me. Whether you are decorating the table, arranging food artfully on a plate, redecorating your room, or assembling an outfit, you are compelled to make things beautiful. I like that about you.

You are one of my very favorite singers. I enjoy singing with you in the car or around the house. But I especially love seeing you on stage. You belong there, you know. I remember the first time you sang in the talent show at school. You sang Amazing Grace. Clean. Clear. And when you finished, no one moved. They just sat there letting the last echoes hang in the room, afraid to breathe, afraid to disturb the magic. It was a marvelous moment.

Your skills as an actor seem to have grown exponentially in the past couple of years. Seeing you in Legally Blonde was remarkable. I was so caught up in your storytelling, I sometimes forgot it was you I was watching. Keep telling stories, my love; in your art and with your life. The world is hungry for them.

I love that you give your talents to God. And I love that you have the courage to try new things, things that scare you: auditioning for shows, leading worship at church. I am eager to see where your art takes you.

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Seeing you with Kenzie is gift. You have always been pied piper of the littles. Younger cousins love to be where you are, and children who visit our home always remember “Josh”. And now there is this niece who adores you; who comes in the house asking for you every morning. You will be a wonderful father someday. Of this, I am sure.

I don’t remember exactly when it was that you started giving me three kisses at night or when we part. It seems like it has always been so. When I am an old lady and can’t remember my name, give me three kisses and I will remember you. 🙂

I am so grateful that I did not miss knowing you, beloved. Life is more vivid, more vibrant and vivacious because there is you. Blessings to you on this, your 16th birthday!

I love you.

Always.

joshgatlin

 

Collision…

annun

It is an unforeseen serendipity, really. In Orthodox practice, there are intersecting cycles of worship. Some are fixed and some float according to where Easter falls (and it falls really late for eastern Christians this year: May 5th). But, somewhere in this seemingly random whirl of rubrics and such, two observations collided this year. The Sunday of Orthodoxy and the Annunciation. And I can’t stop thinking about this.

In the early church, an iconoclastic faction arose, a group that contended that to use images of Christ or of the saints in worship amounted to idolatry. It is an opinion that some might support even today. The church council called to consider this ultimately decided that the use of icons is appropriate because since Christ became man in the flesh, it is reasonable to depict Him in images. These images facilitate our worship. This decision is what we celebrate in the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”.

Of course, without the Annunciation there would be no Incarnation and Christ would not have become man. Therefore, the two are already intertwined in theme. But last night, they were intertwined in practice.

In a beautiful vesper service, members of several different Orthodox congregations in the Nashville area converged upon our church. We sang and prayed together. There was singing and commemoration in Greek, Russian, Serbian and English. We processed with icons. We broke bread together afterward. And woven all through this evening was the celebration of the blessed moment when the angel gave the news to Mary that she was to be the sacred vessel that would contain the Son of God.

I cannot tell you what it meant to be in that place. To experience a foretaste of the Kingdom where all tongues and tribes will sing together. To remember the great condescension in which God became like us so that we might one day be like Him. To commemorate the purity and the devotion of Mary, of her willingness to be the handmaiden of the Lord. The very first to welcome Him into her heart. Into her body. Into her life.

This morning we will celebrate liturgy for the Feast of the Annunciation. And we will remember the moment when Christ began His physical movement toward us. To step into our lives. To be God with us. To redeem us so that we might be with Him…

Thanks be to God!

 

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A Ballade of Place…

We almost missed it. Many people do.

It was our last morning in Paris, and we had seen everything on our list. We had one ticket left on our City Pass. Sainte Chapelle. A church. We had a little time to spare and it was near by.

Sainte Chapelle was built to house relics brought back from the Holy Land, including what was purported to be the crown of thorns worn by Christ. It was constructed at the pinnacle of the Gothic age when architects had perfected the flying buttress system to an art. Hence, the church is filled with windows. Three walls of her are very nearly windows only, beginning a few feet of the floor and soaring into the heavens, separated by only the finest ribs of support.

It is made even more dramatic by the fact that you reach it by climbing a dark, close spiral staircase. You wind your way up and up through the darkness until you are suddenly turned out into a magnificence you could never have imagined.

Standing in that place was, and still is, one of the holiest moments of my life. God was a presence that could be touched and breathed and worn there. His grandeur leaked from every pane of glass.

I have never explained that moment to my satisfaction, though I have tried. My latest attempt at giving it voice was inspired by a creative lectio experience with my beautiful friends Nita and Patsy. It is, perhaps, the closest I have come. Yet.

Sainte Chapelle

The steps have been hollowed out
by centuries of use. Still they spiral
upward through the dark, close
column of stone till they spill me out
into the upper chamber.

I am assaulted by color.
Jeweled windows hang
suspended from the sky.
Sunlight scatters the jewels across the floor
and in my hair
and on my skin.

And I find that I have forgotten
to breathe. And my face is wet.

And I think of poor, hungry peasants
who gave of their meager means to build
great edifices for God, and how I scorned
their impracticality.

And I realize I would gladly starve
to stand, just once, in a place
where holiness rests
like jewels
on my skin.

 

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sainte chapelle ceiling

stuck

stuck. surrendering to despondency. numbing myself to the creative impulse because i am afraid. i feel tired and empty. nothing to say. where to start?

i watch others. new content, brilliant life-giving thoughts beautifully articulated day after day. a seemingly endless supply. i envy them. i hate them. a little.

god forgive me.

i blame my circumstances. so busy. so many demands on my time. but who isn’t busy? i imagine stephen king sitting in his utility room, typewriter on his lap, after a long day of teaching, crunching out novels. i watch friends who work full-time jobs, raise families, and write books. and i feel like a sluggard.

but mostly i’m a coward.

tentative, whipped, barely holding things together myself. how do i give anything to anyone else? paralyzed by my inactivity. inertia feeding inertia.

once upon a time i created every day. was most of it garbage? or did creativity beget creativity? did surrendering to the flow mean that the flow carried me? and now i am the artless swan, hauling my clumsy heft, afraid to surrender to the very flow that would carry me if i let it.

i don’t trust it.

i fear i will drop down in and there will be nothing there. and no one will read. and i will have no excuse. and it’s safer to pretend that i don’t want it, or that it is impossible, or that it is someone else’s fault, or that if circumstances were different, i would be different.

i am weary of myself.

weary of excuses. weary of lazy. weary of blaming.

ready

to surrender.

The Swan

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Robert Bly

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a mostly unedited, stream of consciousness blather, lifted from my morning pages.

Mad props to Nita Andrews and Patsy Clairmont who shared this provocative poem with me. It has been good food for thought.

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