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…

If Not You….

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On this day, 73 years ago, in Lancing, Tennessee, in a house whose wooden walls were covered with brick siding on the outside and newspapers inside, a baby boy was born. That baby boy grew up to be my daddy. For this, I am grateful.

For you, Daddy, some thoughts on what the world might have looked like if there had not been you…

If not you, who would have helped Grandpa kill the hogs and make his legendary sausage? Who would have been the star of the typing class in high school? Who would have bought the first car your family ever owned, and waited patiently, or not so patiently, with your brother and co-conspirator for the spring thaw so you could finally drive her.

If not you, who might have courted my pretty mama? Who would have looked at her perfect face, the smartly tailored clothes she crafted for herself, and her hungry mind, seeing the remarkable wife and mother she would make?

If not you, who would have tamed the wild lands of our farm, cutting underbrush, felling trees for lumber to build the barns, carving out spaces for planting, always seeing what could be? Who would have crafted our ever expanding house? Who would have plowed the garden and planted the orchard, the berries and grapes? Who would have built the arbor, the clothesline, and houses for bluebirds and bats.

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If not you, who would have fixed stuff? At home, at church, for the grandparents, even for your children as they moved into homes of their own. Who would have carved a crochet hook for Mama and me so we could make latch rugs?

If not you, who would have given light and power to homes, churches, elementary schools, nuclear reactors, and one particularly intriguing house hanging over the edge of a cliff? And who would have made sure the breaker boxes looked like street maps; orderly, beautiful, works of art?

If not you, who would I remember shining his shoes every Sunday morning, then sitting in the living room with his Bible across his knees readying himself to be in God’s house? Who would have taught me to approach God reverently and humbly?

If not you, who would have made the music? At church, at home, in the cornfield and in the car? At tent revivals, brush arbors, and river baptisms? Who would have planted music so deep in your children that it has flowed through them to your grandchildren and even your great granddaughter?

If not you, who would have looked after Grandma when she could no longer look after herself? And who would have been mama’s constant companion as she fought the ugly enemy: cancer.

If not you, who would have taught your children to be curious? To approach the world, especially the natural world, with a sense of awe? Who would have taught them that there are lots of swear words that are not exactly cuss words. 😉 Who would have taught them the names of trees? Who would have shown them how to love long and deep?

If not you, there would be none of this:

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Happy Birthday, Daddy! I am awfully glad there is you in the world. God grant you many years!

 

List of Candidates 2014

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Life is too short to read bad books. Life is also too short to read all the wonderful books I want to read before I die, but I am doing my dead level best. One of the resources that helps me with this is to keep a perpetual “list of candidates”. The books on this list come to me in all sorts of ways.

Every time an author I love mentions a book or an author he or she loves, I add it to the list. Christian Wiman was especially helpful in this respect this year as I read My Bright Abyss. Many of the books have come to me across the table from a friend–sometimes in whispers, sometimes in passionate testimonial–either way, if it is a true bosom friend, I write it down. A few have been gifts. Others are second and third volumes from an author whose works have already moved me.

Some of the very best books I have read over the past several years have come from YOU. Every year I throw this list out there as seed, then wait for you to tell me what I am missing. Don’t let me down. 🙂

Incidentally, this year I have categorized somewhat. The first list is broad in scope, including fiction and non-fiction, poetry, prose, etc… I seem to be somewhat short this year on old books (as in more than a century old). Any help you can provide here will be appreciated.

The second list is only poets. I have chosen 6 poets with whom to spend some quality time. If you know of an important volume I have omitted, let me know.

The third list contains books about writing and art (for inspiration). Only the first two will be new reads. The rest I have read before, some of them several times. But a truly great book bears rereading. And rereading…

Elegantly Egalitarian

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Matsuo Basho*
Divine Eros, St. Symeon the New Theologian
Roots of Christian Mysticism, Olivier Clement
Faith Under Fire, Canon Andrew White*
The Ordering of Love, Madeleine L’Engle
Dispatches From the Edge, Anderson Cooper*
Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd
Traveling With Pomegranates: A Mother Daughter Story, Sue Monk Kidd*
The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus
The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran
Walden, Henry David Thoreau*
Immortal Diamond, Richard Rohr
The Naked Now, Richard Rohr
A Place on Earth, Wendell Berry
The Scent of Holiness, Constantina R. Palmer
Everyday Saints, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov
The Outdoor Athlete, Courtenay Schurman
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak*
The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle
A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle*
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
The Age of Miracles, Marianne Williamson
The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh
The Lake of Dreams, Kim Edwards
Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
At Swim, Two Boys, Jamie O’Neill
The Dog Stars, Peter Heller
Love Does, Bob Goff

Poets Please

Aimless Love and Bright Wings, Billy Collins
Thirst, At Blackwater Pond, and A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver
A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver
Bright Star: The Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats
Given: Poems, Wendell Berry
A Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, Rainer Maria Rilke
Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke
Rumi: The Book of Love, The Illuminated Rumi, The Essential Rumi, Jalal al-Din Rumi

Word Wranglers

Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, Christian Wiman
Story, Robert McKee
Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L’Engle
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Greenberg*
On Writing, Steven King
The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield
Steering the Craft, Ursula LeGuinn
Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor
The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron

*Completed

Memorable Literary Companions of 2013

There is something magical about opening a new book. The promise. The anticipation. New worlds I have never yet seen. The story of a life very like, or unlike, my own. Ideas, thoughts, words that will rankle, discomfit, expand, illumine. This year I opened the pages of 36 books. Some new. Some old and much beloved. As I looked back over them in preparation for this post, I was filled with gratitude for every writer who sat down and penned the beautiful words that have nourished and delighted me this year.

Here are a few of the more memorable encounters…

 

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Christian Wiman

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this…

And so begins the most important book I read this year. Christian Wiman grew up in a west Texas town where faith was a presumption. Unquestioned. When, as a college student, he discovered that there were people who did not believe in God, he shrugged off his inherited “faith” like a jacket that has grown too warm for the afternoon. For two decades he lived comfortably with the absence of God until two cataclysmic events shook his life. He fell in love…

…when I met Danielle, not only was that gray veil between me and the world ripped aside, colors aching back into things, but all the particulars of the world suddenly seemed in excess of themselves, and thus more truly themselves. We, too, were part of this enlargement: it was as if our love demanded some expression beyond the blissful intensity our two lives made.

…and he learned he had a rare and incurable form of cancer.

The book chronicles the several years between then and now. Years that have included unimaginable pain, bones dying, locked joints, bowel failure, and isolation. And in the midst of this, a wrestling with God, with faith, with poetry and art. A raw, authentic quest to penetrate to deep things. To drink hungrily of the beautiful. To weave together moments of exquisite clarity with moments of excruciating loneliness and pain into a tapestry of life that is rich and expansive and true.

His writing style is evocative and lovely and threaded throughout are delicious lines of borrowed poetry and prose that nourished and challenged him along the way. I am grateful to Makoto Fujimura for whetting my appetite for this one. I give it my highest recommendation.

What a relief it can be…to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck.

 

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, Billy Collins

I had the distinct privilege of hearing Billy Collins at the Porter’s Call Evening of Stories last year. I was already a fan, but to hear him articulate the poems–his cadence, the pregnant pauses–was remarkable. Mike gifted me with this new collection of old and new poems for Christmas. On AUDIO. In the poet’s own voice! I have listened to it over and over. It is a spectacular collection of Collins’ work anyway–funny, poignant, clever–but completely irresistible when he reads them to me. If you are unsure of poetry, start here.

 

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg

This book has been on my list of candidates for a while, but this year my friend Nina put it in my hand. Thank you, Nina!! Clean, concise, and chock full of brilliance. If you are a writer or you want to be, you need this book. One of the best I have read on the craft.

 

I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brene Brown

It is difficult for me to imagine any human alive who will not find herself in this book. Brene Brown has done years of research on shame and she uses her discoveries to help us build “shame resilience.” She understands that as long as we are alive, we will encounter experiences that shame us. It is what we do with that shame that determines whether we become captive to it or move past it. I read this one with bosom friends, and we laughed and cried our way through it with lots of “oh no!”s and “me too”s. You can get a taste with her Ted talk which has over 12 million views to date. Yep, it’s that good.

 

Tuesday’s With Morrie, Mitch Album

It took me a while to get around to reading the bestselling memoir of all time. I think I was suspicious of the fact that so many people liked it. :/ But when my friend Julie recommended it, I decided to check it out. Thank you, Julie!! Mitch Album spends several months of Tuesdays with his old college professor, Morrie, who is dying. Morrie has always been wise man. A man of examination and thought. But death sharpens that vision and helps him see with even keener perception. This is, in some ways, a book about dying. But it is much more a book about really living.

 

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

I read several books this year by Marilynne Robinson after Christian Wiman tempted me with excerpts in his book. They were all very good, but this was my favorite. Apparently the Pulitzer committee and I are in agreement. John Ames is 76 and knows he will not live to see his 7 year old son reach adulthood–a beloved, unexpected son of a sweet, unexpected second marriage–so he writes a book for his son telling of the life he has lived, the people that have mattered to him, and what all means in so far as he understands it. This narrative is woven in and out of these precious last days he is living with his beloveds. It is a tender, beautiful story told in clean, spare prose.

 

Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

The characters of Port William have become dear to me. Jayber might be my favorite. The life questions which were not answered in seminary work themselves out in front of him in the confessional of his barber chair, and in the community of characters to which he belongs, and does not belong, as a lifelong bachelor. An unlikely instructor in philosophy, perhaps, but instructor he is. Alternately ponderous, humorous, and sweet.

 

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

This was my year to read ghost stories. Not necessarily by design. I already knew this story from Hitchcock, of course, but when my friend Chelsea told me it was one of her favorite BOOKS, I checked it out. Naturally, the book takes you further into the subconscious of the characters, subtly weaving a web that begins to press against the chest. Artful storytelling, well developed characters, and a host of plot twists make this a terrifically engaging read.

 

Silence, Shusaku Endo

This book was one of the reasons I chose to use the word “memorable” rather than “favorite” in the title of this post. This was a difficult read. Though there are shifts in perspective, much of the story is told in the voice of Rodrigues, a Portugese priest filled with love for the Japanese people who travels to Japan to encourage persecuted believers and find news of a lost priest. He is almost immediately captured. As he observes the cruel torture and relentless persecution of the remnant church, he wrestles with a God who is “silent”. Can his fragile faith withstand the anguish, the futility, the silence?

 

The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

Lily Owens wants desperately to be loved. He father is cruel and her only memory of her mother is of the afternoon she died. She sat in a closet while her mother and father fought. There was a gun. Lily picked up the gun. There was a loud noise. Her mother was dead.

Lily runs away from home seeking answers and follows her mother’s picture of a Black Madonna to Tiburon, South Carolina. Here she will live with the “Calendar sisters” and learn the art of bee-keeping. But she will learn much more than that. A complex, poignant coming of age story.

p.s. Jenna Lamia who reads the audio book is fantastic! I highly recommend listening if that is an option.
p.s.s. The movie is good, but you miss so much of the story. Read, then watch. 🙂

 

Davita’s Harp, Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok writes brilliantly of the liminal spaces in life. Of paradox. In this book, Davita’s parents have rejected the faith of their childhoods, Jewish and Christian, and are staking everything on socialism. There are frequent, hushed night time meetings at their home, which force them to move repeatedly, and always an undercurrent of impending danger. Davita has to string truth together for herself from many disparate influences; her Christian aunt who sweeps in like an angel in times of trouble, her devout Jewish cousin whose home radiates peace and warmth, and her radical parents who are risking everything to make the world better for her.

 

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

Another ghost story. Or is it? A haunting tale set down by a governess some years after it happens. Perplexing, nuanced, mysterious, spine-tingling, it leaves one with more questions than answers. Positively delicious.

 

Your turn. Best books you read this year? Go!

p.s. Thanks to Kari for recommending “I Thought it was….”, to Ian and Anne for “Jayber…”, to Giorgio for “Silence”, to Karissa and Jen for “Secret Life…”, and to David for “Davita…”. I am profoundly grateful for my bookish friends. 🙂

Brave

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, magic and power in it.  Begin it now!!  ~Goethe

I cannot even begin to tell you how I have struggled with this year’s word. I had some ideas about where I needed to be headed, but to find one word that corralled and gave shape to all of it was difficult. And then, when I began to suspect that the word might be “Brave“, I was really scared and thought maybe this whole one word thing is crazy anyway and it’s not like I really have to do this and I really like Alece and all, but maybe I’ll just do my own thing. But Michael Hyatt told me today, in his excellent interview about goal setting, that my goals should push me out of my comfort zone. So I figured I must be onto something.

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*This year I will write a book. There, I said it. It might not be fabulous. It might not be published. But it will be an honest, working first draft of a book. With chapters. And pages…and stuff. I have wrestled for a year and a half with how I might organize the book I might write someday, maybe. But I know firsthand that those things tend to reveal themselves during the writing, not before. So, I have formulated a structure to get started and am giving myself permission to revamp if necessary along the way. I have devised a schedule to break things into manageable chunks so that I know what I am writing when. Now I just have to be brave enough to get up and do the work every day.

*This year I will lead the choir at church. This is a goal that chose me and I am simply walking in obedience. I am slightly terrified. I have lots of folks to help me, and for this I am grateful. I have done a fair amount of study and will attend the Sacred Music Institute this summer as well. But mostly, it will be on the job training. And making some mistakes. And asking a lot of questions. And praying that God will act through me, and despite me, to do something much greater than me.

*This year I will memorize the Sermon on the Mount. I began it several years ago, finished most of Matthew 5, got distracted, and abandoned the project. But the Tuesday ladies and I began studying these marvelous words of Christ in the fall, and I have been reminded how much gold there is in here. So I begin again…

*This year I will complete all 5 levels of the Fluenz programs for both Spanish and French. Goodness, I am tired after just writing that. Mike and I anticipate a return to Europe for an extended period in the fall of 2015, to include 5 weeks on the Camino de Santiago. In preparation, I am deepening my understanding of both these languages. I want to be conversant, especially with the people along the Camino. I believe this will add a great deal to the experience. I have already begun both of the courses, and am in the second level of Spanish. I will need to complete 5 lessons each week to pull this off, but I am committed to giving it my best.

*This year I will complete a Rim to Rim to Rim hike of the Grand Canyon. If you have been around here long, you know that this was on my list last year. And you might also know that, despite the crazy government shut down, we did get to go and we did hike from the South Rim to the North in one day. We did not, however, make the return trip as planned. Mike had some pretty awful altitude sickness and I was not willing to hike it by myself. So we are returning for a rematch. Mike is doing further research into altitude sickness remedies. We also learned a lot about how much and what to pack from the experience and will do some things differently this time. It was an extraordinary trip and we cannot wait to return.

One word.

This year, I will endeavor to be

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*This post inspired by the One Word 365 project. Check out dozens of like posts (and leave your own) here.

Shimmers…

In the ancient practice of lectio divina, one reads a passage of scripture until a word or phrase “shimmers”. The reader stops reading, and begins to meditate on the word or phrase, rolling it around and sucking all the nectar from it. Not studying, really. No outside sources. Just living with it and letting it seep deep inside.

My house is quiet today. All around me are echoes of Christmas. Shimmers. Vignettes that linger in my memory; inserting themselves over and over into my thoughts. Ordinary moments with threads of the extraordinary woven through them.

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“This is my very beautiful present,” Kenzie whispers in awe, clutching a foil wrapped copy of Where the Wild Things Are tight to her chest. She has chosen the blue bow. She runs her fingers over the shiny paper like it is silk. She does not know what is inside. It doesn’t matter.

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This.

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Christmas Eve. Expectation hovers in the air like incense. Candles, Nativity Icon draped in green, little girls turned out in smocked lawn and velvet. We read all the prophecies, all the Nativity passages. Father Stephen fairly sings the homily. It is too good to be true, this! Incarnation! God with us! The reality of it whirls around us like wind. During the Great Entrance, a whole warren of acolytes spills out of the altar. Father Stephen has told them they can all serve on this most auspicious night. Their faces glow. And God is with us, moving among us, in the Body and Blood. And we sing. We sing a truth that is deeper than we will ever fully understand.

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We named our farm after Tolkien’s mythical land because it was hilly and beautiful, and because we hoped it would always be a haven of hope and restoration to those who lived there, and to those who were our guests. We made the name part of a stone wall that framed the entrance to our long driveway. Five and a half years ago we bade farewell to Rivendell and moved back in to town.

A month ago, we learned that a neighbor had a seizure while driving and ran into the wall, leaving it in shambles. Without a word to any of us, our 16 year old drove out to the farm, knocked on the door, and asked the current owners if they were planning to re-use the stone that bore the name. When they said no, he asked if he could have it. He dug through the rubble to extricate the pieces and loaded them into his car. On Christmas morning he led us out into the garden where he had lain them the night before. And I cried.

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 Happy Birthday Jesus! Love, Kenzie. (Click HERE)

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We can hear the music leaking out the door before we cross the porch. My mom sits at the piano, and my dad, my brothers and their families, my 97 year old grandpa, and my aunt and uncle are singing their way through old church favorites which eventually give way to Christmas carols.  I am home.

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My mom has asked all the grandkids for Christmas suggestions, but has said nothing to my brothers and me. I wonder what is afoot. Each of us is presented with a lumpy, unwieldy package, variously corralled. In them, we find treasures. Quilts made by my grandmother (who is 20 Christmases gone from us, now). String quilts for one brother and myself–Mom, Dad, and Aunt Janice help us find fabrics in them we recognize and remember. A dress of granny’s, shirts for the boys, an apron… Many of them old flour sacks–And for my baby brother, a red and white Drunkard’s Path that my grandmother stitched the summer my mom was carrying him.

Amazing, all that gets accidentally sewn up into quilts. I hold it in my hands, and I hear the treadle of Grandma’s sewing machine. I am a little girl playing under her quilting frame, a legacy from her own grandmother, that hangs from the ceiling like a table, while she pushes the needle in and out with her thimble. One tiny stitch after another. I recall the smell of her: line dried laundry, coffee, Bruton snuff, Juicy Fruit.

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I am curious. What are the shimmery moments from your Christmas? The ones that make you smile every time you think about them. Please, share. 🙂

 

Wounded by Love

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I have run to the fragrance of your myrrh, O Christ God,
For I have been wounded by your love;
do not depart from me, O heavenly bridegroom.

I knew I was going to like Elder Porphyrios when Father Stephen told me he had said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” I bought the book, Wounded by Love, and poured over the account of his life and his wonderful words. I find him easy to connect to because he lived in times so very like my own. I admire his gentle humility and his ability to laugh at himself. His sense of wonder and his goodwill toward all living things, are beautiful. His accounts of divine eros and spiritual ecstasy make me hungry to know God like he knew God. But mostly I am drawn to the great expanse of his love.

On Wednesday of last week, Elder Porphyrios was elevated to sainthood. Today, on the 22nd anniversary of his death, he is commemorated by the church. On this occasion, I thought it fitting to share some personal favorites among his many challenging and lovely sayings. I hope they will invite you to come to know him yourself as a guide and friend.

On Divine Eros:

porphyrios2All ascetics long for this divine eros, this divine love. They are intoxicated with divine inebriation. With this divine intoxication the body may grow old and pass away, but the spirit becomes youthful and blossoms.

The soul of the Christian needs to be refined and sensitive, to have sensibility and wings, to be constantly in flight and to live in dreams, to fly through infinity, among the stars, amidst the greatness of God, amid silence.

On prayer:

If your soul repeats with worship and adoration the seven words, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” it can never have enough. They are insatiable words! Repeat them all your life. There is such life-giving sap within them!

On Spiritual Struggle:

Do not fight to expel darkness from the chamber of your soul. Open a tiny aperture for light to enter, and the darkness will disappear.

Attack your passion head on, and you’ll see how strongly it will entwine you and grip you and you won’t be able to do anything…Let all your strength be turned to love for God, worship of God, and adhesion to God. In this way your release from evil and from your weaknesses will happen in a mystical manner, without your being aware of it and without exertion.

A person can become a saint anywhere…Look on all things as opportunities to be sanctified.

On the Mystery of Repentance:

Every day I think that I sin, but I desire that whatever happens to me I turn it into prayer and I don’t keep it locked within me. Sin makes a person very confused psychologically…Only with the light of Christ does the confusion depart.

Despondency is the worst thing. It is a snare set by Satan to make a person lose his appetite for spiritual things and bring him to a state of despair, inactivity and negligence.

When a person makes confession, grace frees him from his psychological wounds…Don’t let’s turn back to sins we have confessed. The recollection of sins is harmful. Have we asked for forgiveness? Then the matter is closed.

On Love for One’s Neighbor:

Love toward one’s brother cultivates love towards God…No one can attain to God unless he first passes through his fellow men.

We, with our love, with our fervent desire for the love of God, will attract grace so that it washes over those around us and awakens them to divine love…What we are unable to do, His grace will achieve.

On Creation:

All things around us are droplets of the love of God…The beauties of nature are the little loves that lead us to the great Love that is Christ.

For a person to become a Christian he must have a poetic soul. He must become a poet. Christ does not wish insensitive souls in His company. A Christian, albeit only when he loves, is a poet and lives amid poetry. Poetic hearts embrace love and sense it deeply.

On Illness:

I thank God for granting me many illnesses…My illness is a special favor from God, who is inviting me to enter into the mystery of His love and try to respond with His own grace.

Whatever you want, my Lord, whatever your love desires; place me wherever your love wishes. I abandon myself to your love. If you wish to place me in hell, then do so, only don’t let me lose Your love.

On the Church:

When we set ourselves apart from others, we are not Christians. We are true Christians when we have a profound sense that we are members of the mystical body of Christ, of the Church, in an unbroken relationship of love…When Christ unites us, distances don’t exist. When I leave this life it will be better. I’ll be closer to you.

May it be so.

 

 

For This is God’s Will For You…

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Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. ~I Thessalonians 5:18

Last night we prayed one of my favorite services of the whole year, The Akathist Hymn “Glory to God For All Things“. The hymn was composed “by Protopresbyter Gregory Petrov shortly before his death in a prison camp in 1940. The title is from the words of Saint John Chrysostom as he was dying in exile. It is a song of praise from amidst the most terrible sufferings.”

Each year as these remarkable words wash over me, I am reminded that gratitude is possible wherever I may find myself, and that it is a potent and life giving link to the God who loves me. On this day of thanks giving, I share excerpts with you along with images that represent some of the ordinary, extraordinary gifts of this year.

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O Lord, how lovely it is to be Thy guest. Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds. All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness. Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Thy love. Blessed art thou, mother earth, in thy fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last for ever, in the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, the cry rings out: Alleluia!

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Thou hast brought me into life as into an enchanted paradise. We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing. We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams. We have tasted fruit of fine flavour and the sweet-scented honey. We can live very well on Thine earth. It is a pleasure to be Thy guest.

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Glory to Thee for the Feast Day of life
Glory to Thee for the perfume of lilies and roses
Glory to Thee for each different taste of berry and fruit
Glory to Thee for the sparkling silver of early morning dew
Glory to Thee for the joy of dawn’s awakening
Glory to Thee for the new life each day brings
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

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How glorious art Thou in the springtime, when every creature awakes to new life and joyfully sings Thy praises with a thousand tongues. Thou art the Source of Life, the Destroyer of Death. By the light of the moon, nightingales sing, and the valleys and hills lie like wedding garments, white as snow. All the earth is Thy promised bride awaiting her spotless husband. If the grass of the field is like this, how gloriously shall we be transfigured in the Second Coming after the Resurrection! How splendid our bodies, how spotless our souls!

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When the sun is setting, when quietness falls like the peace of eternal sleep, and the silence of the spent day reigns, then in the splendour of its declining rays, filtering through the clouds, I see Thy dwelling-place: fiery and purple, gold and blue, they speak prophet-like of the ineffable beauty of Thy presence, and call to us in their majesty. We turn to the Father.

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The breath of Thine Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets and scientists. The power of Thy supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Thy laws, who reveal the depths of Thy creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of Thee. How great art Thou in Thy creation! How great art Thou in man!

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Blessed are they that will share in the King’s Banquet: but already on earth Thou givest me a foretaste of this blessedness. How many times with Thine own hand hast Thou held out to me Thy Body and Thy Blood, and I, though a miserable sinner, have received this Mystery, and have tasted Thy love, so ineffable, so heavenly.

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What sort of praise can I give Thee? I have never heard the song of the Cherubim, a joy reserved for the spirits above. But I know the praises that nature sings to Thee. In winter, I have beheld how silently in the moonlight the whole earth offers Thee prayer, clad in its white mantle of snow, sparkling like diamonds. I have seen how the rising sun rejoices in Thee, how the song of the birds is a chorus of praise to Thee. I have heard the mysterious mutterings of the forests about Thee, and the winds singing Thy praise as they stir the waters. I have understood how the choirs of stars proclaim Thy glory as they move forever in the depths of infinite space. What is my poor worship! All nature obeys Thee, I do not. Yet while I live, I see Thy love, I long to thank Thee, and call upon Thy name.

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*You may read the Akathist in its entirety HERE.

 

20

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Last night as we drove home from early Thanksgiving in East Tennessee with my family, my sleep deprived son laid his head on my shoulder and slept. And I wondered how long it had been since I pillowed that beloved head. There in the dark quiet, as mile after mile slipped away underneath us, a treasure trove of images came flooding into my mind. Bits and pieces of a life. My life, with this darling boy of mine.

I saw him as a wriggling bundle of soft. Always hungry. Hungry for milk, yes, but hungry also for life. Voraciously drinking in everything around him. Storing it away. Making it part of him.

There was an image of him hunched over paper and pencil as wondrous pictures took shape under his hands. We were astounded by them. So was everyone else. Dragons, robot warriors, complex pieces of machinery, staggering in their detail and precision.

I saw him brandishing a sword. Usually of his own making. Ferocious grimace on his face, eyes blazing, leaping off something.

I remembered my dear boy, tender and serious, telling me that when he grows up he is going to marry me. I could never bring myself to explain to him why that was a problem.

There was Jake the explorer; stick in hand, dogs at his feet, traipsing up and down hills, across creeks, and over the wide expanse of our farm.

And Jake the Lego master, fingers flying as he gathered a gaggle of loose pieces into some extraordinary creation.

I thought of the many, many friends my boy has accumulated over the years. It is almost impossible to not like Jake. Ask anyone who knows him. Loyal, gregarious, funny, smart. What’s not to love?

I saw Jake the musician coaxing marvelous sounds from piano, guitar, mandolin, melodica, banjo…. And singing. Singing with the family on long car trips. Harmonizing with friends. Pulling something from deep inside himself and translating it into a language that we could all hear, and feel, and understand.

How many times has he told me, “Thank you for supper. It was delicious.”? How many long, deep conversations have we had about life, and love, and hurt, and joy? How many sweet hugs? How many hikes and vacations have been better because his delight made them so?

Last night, as I pillowed the head of my baby boy, my heart nearly burst with gratitude for the gift of knowing him. For the weighty responsibility and privilege of caring for him. For the way the world has been different because I have experienced it with him.

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Happy Birthday, Jake!! Welcome to your twenties. I predict it is going to be your best decade yet. I love you. Always. God grant you many, many years.

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