when you need an ebenezer

I stood there in the dark with the weight of her – soft knees tucked almost to soft armpits, her fresh bathed head pressed against my shoulder. She fit perfectly in my arms, not yet sleeping but not struggling against it. So, I held the weight of her and looked long into her slow blinking eyes, especially round and knowing in the window light.

We filled our bellies with breath, my weight holding her weight and moving from side to side. Slow and holy. Her soft fingers played on my wrist and I wondered why I would ever rush these moments.

What do I tell this little life that fits so snuggly in my arms? What do I say about wars and rumors of wars? How do I nursery rhyme this world for her?

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

The lines came out because I needed a lullaby. I guess I needed something to say to those round eyes looking up at me in the dark. The verses tumbled together with the chorus and a little monument grew in the corner of our bedroom. Count them, name them, remember Him, praise Him. When I trailed off, I felt my little bundle fill her lungs with one big, shaky breath and then let out the sweetest sigh I have ever heard. It filled the quiet completely.

It’s nights like this I need an Ebenezer.

“Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us’ ” (1 Samuel 7:12).

Yes, ok. Remember and sing and believe and sway and sigh and say our redemption.

living slowly, breaking ground

Slow does not seem to happen anymore.

Slow hangs like an abstract painting between more palatable pieces – between fast and lazy. This season is sick with fast and lazy, with running around shopping malls and with hiding under thick covers. Too much spending and too much rushing, too much pampering and too much justifying selfish pursuits. Too much. And the hustle is exhausting.

Somewhere along the way, we equated slow with “unproductive” and savor with “inefficient.” We let ourselves slide into routines of excess that glorify our gluttony. We are either obsessing about productivity or obsessing about recuperating from productivity.

We forget to experience good things slowly.

Last week was an exception. Last week, twelve new and old friends gave beautiful meaning to the phrase, “reclining at table” when we lingered for hours over our Thanksgiving meal. Our hodgepodge living room was candlelit and crowded. The laughter reached all the empty corners where bare walls still meet bare floor. We passed our potluck food around three stretched tables and no one was rushing. We lingered. From appetizers to desserts, we lingered.

A week later, I am learning these lessons of slowly. I am learning to be selfless with a “list of things to do on my day off” when what I think I want is fast and lazy. No, everyday cannot be a day I host a thanksgiving feast in my apartment. But everyday can be about intentionally experiencing good things slowly, like conversations and thoughtful gift making.

Rush, buy, build, pamper, play. I can’t keep up with the Joneses and I don’t know who can. I’m going to be honest: are the Joneses even happy, whoever they are?

It isn’t about doing less in life. Well, maybe it is. Maybe it is about choosing wisely so the good things we choose can be done slowly. I am tackling a “to do list” today, just like anyone would on a day free of 9-5 schedule. But, I want to tackle it slowly. I want my checkbook and my dayplanner to reflect a slow, savored, unselfish day.

And then, I guess I want that to be every day. It’s an upstream swim here in NYC, but it is everywhere.

This song by Sara Watkins is on repeat, literally. The rhythm reminds me to breathe deeply and walk slowly when more important people are rushing around my shoulders. The words remind me that slow living is not less important, not less accomplished. Living slowly and savoring good things is still hard work with sweet reward.

Living slowly is about breaking ground for good things.

There is a reward inside our slow, hard work when it is done unselfishly. We are free to be unselfish because Christ gave Himself for us. We are not confident in our efficiency and neither do we trust our cleverness to complete what we’ve started in breaking ground. We do not revel in past accomplishments or dwell on past failures. As we build on broken ground, we are not hasty in construction or worried about completion because that has already been promised.

We savor good things when we work slowly for others, trusting God to complete and perfect the work. He will take our hodgepodge to-do lists and our hodgepodge gatherings and our hodgepodge 9-5 work days – He will take them all and make them productive. We are left to savor slowly the miracle of working and serving and loving at all.

preparations // anticipations

I called my Grandma last week for advice about pie crust made from scratch for my pretend thanksgiving gathering. She’s my domestic expert – the neighbor lady who is always volunteering to drop off baked goods for baby showers and has a steady store of homemade cookies in the freezer. She’s that kind of grandma and I know she loves my phone calls for domestic advice.

“Oh, honey just buy one,” she said, which didn’t sound as fun (though I’m sure it was much more practical).

Instead, I Macgyvered a recipe involving a (knock-off) food processor and let my butter-chunked dough plates cool for 2 hours in the fridge when I ran in the park. While warming (but not boiling) apples on the stove and manhandling an unconventional pie recipe to fit my NYC kitchen, I cut up sweet potatoes for a maple mash situation. I was a little nervous I would end up combining both recipes in a typical disaster, but I managed to keep them separate.

Mid-bake I realized I was supposed to brush on egg whites to the crust… who has a pastry brush? Not this girl. I pulled the pie out and smothered some across the top, but I knew it was a mistake (that I ended up scraping off later).

My lumpy, delicious smelling creation came out about 15 minutes before we walked out the door. We maneuvered it into a paper bag and then inside a tote with the maple mashed sweet potatoes and a bottle of wine.

The kitchen is sometimes my favorite place because it is where magic is made – the magic of gatherings and spread tables and finger licking and… community. Community gets baked inside kitchens, even if they are skinny like closets and even when they don’t have pastry brushes.

And there is magic in the preparation.
Maybe that’s why people like to crowd in the kitchen space.

I don’t know if my mom would call her kitchen method “magic” – but I do know what it felt like to crowd in and taste the spaghetti sauce, to keep one eye on the broiling toast in the oven and the other eye on the fruit salad, to run out to the garden to cut a head of broccoli so it could be smothered in cheese. There was nothing gourmet or fancy about what she did in there, but we wanted to be close to the preparations because it was magic.

Soon enough, all seven of us would sit down around the long wooden table in the dining room and my dad would end grace with the words, “…bless this food to our bodies and our bodies to your service.” I’m not sure where he picked that up, but I like it. And we all knew that it was code for, “dig in” so it was a pretty popular phrase amongst the siblings.

All that preparation in the kitchen happened so we could gather and “pass the food to the left, leaving our right hand free for self service.” All that sweat in the kitchen got us to sit around in a circle, scooping out large helpings and chatting about the day and the farm and the news in our little town and the news in the big world.

Preparations.

I’ve been thinking a lot about preparations, since I’m hosting real thanksgiving this Thursday but also because Advent is a season of preparation. Next Sunday is the first day of Advent and it seems fitting that it should follow a week of thanksgiving. I can’t imagine what these last few weeks must have been like for Mary as she made preparations to give birth to the Messiah – what her prayers must have sounded like and how her fears must have felt.

Preparations are magical because anticipation is hidden inside.

When my brother Samuel “sampled” the chili and when my sister Christina “tested” the stir-fry, a scolding would accompany my mom’s raised eyebrows, “It’s not dinner time yet.” Because preparations are about something that is going to happen. 

I don’t want to rush past what it feels like to anticipate.

I don’t want to lose the magic of the kitchen space, preparing for something wonderful. I especially don’t want to waste the magic of preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth. If you are looking for a way to celebrate the season of Advent with your family, this Advent guide from the Gospel Project is free right now. I’m hoping my roommates will agree to be a family for the next month, so we can anticipate our Savior together!

Thanksgiving (crowded kitchens and tables and stovetops) is a great place to start.

if you are in the area, you are welcome to come to our thanksgiving gathering
if you are in the area, you are welcome to come to our thanksgiving gathering

miracle: a guest list of practical strangers

Let me tell you about a miracle that happened last night.

It happened in one of those warehouse-turned-apartments in Williamsburg because that’s where my new friend Schuyler lives. That’s the address we took two buses to find because the trains were a mess.

She’s been here three months, a transplant from San Diego and she happened to be sitting behind me at church a few weeks back with her friend and recent transplant from Texas, Grace. Grace lives far from Williamsburg on the Upper West Side, but the two of them work at Patagonia in Manhattan. When I turned around for the “passing of the peace” we almost instantly talked like old friends. We followed up after the benediction and in those short 10 minutes we had exchanged numbers and agreed to throw a pretend thanksgiving party together.

I didn’t try to temper the excitement I felt. It was more like we were reconnecting than just meeting for the first time, more like we couldn’t wait to get back into the groove of friendship than just starting a series of awkward introductions.

Because this is usually how it goes:

“Hi, nice to meet you… what was your name?”
“Caroline, yes so good to meet you – have we met before?”

“I’m not sure but good to meet you again, now what do you do?”
“I work for a non-profit in Cypress Hills, working with middle school students. How about you?”

“I’m a freelancer (video editor, producer, photographer, actress, animator, painter).”
“Wow, that’s really cool!”

“Yeah, well good to meet you – again, I guess! We should get together sometime.”
“You too and that’d be great!”

It sounds pretty normal, if it only happened once. But it’s a constant conversation in this city because how does anyone have time to follow up with people, to invest time and treasure, to sit down and listen to the longer version of stories? So, instead, we run into people at church or in the apartment hallways or at the corner store and we have these same conversations all over again.

The emails flew across the interwebs in preparation for our pretend thanksgiving. We shared the recipes we would be “trying out” (because everyone needs a practice run before setting the real Thanksgiving dinner table) and confirmed the date/time/address. Invitations went out to more people and our pretend thanksgiving party of practical strangers grew to ten.

Yes, strangers throw parties together and this is what the menu looks like when they do:

To Drink:
Sierra Nevada Celebration
Mulled Holiday Wine
Pinot Noir

Appetizers:
cheese and meat plates
fresh sourdough bread
bacon wrapped dates

Dishes to Pass:
buttered, roasted chicken
mashed maple sweet potatoes
cornbread stuffing with mushrooms and herbs
roasted butternut squash with brussel sprouts
fresh bean and couscous salad

Desserts:
Classic Pumpkin Pie
Apple Pie a la mode

What makes this a miracle? you might say with your skeptical spectacles pulled down on your cynical nose. Well, let me tell you.

may have been the only photo snapped all night... too many other wonderful things to think about
may have been the only photo snapped all night… too many other wonderful things to think about. My new good friend Grace is taking the picture.

Ten brand new friends held hands around two pushed-together-tables last night to say grace over a delicious spread of humble, homemade offerings. Ten brand new friends laughed and toasted and slowly savored small kitchen victories on paper plates inside the concrete city that never sleeps. Ten brand new friends reclined with full bellies, drawing the joy of the night out into the morning.

This is a miracle.

God made a way for friendship – for ten new friends to linger over fellowship and to let laughter seep out the warehouse windows into the night.

He planned and ordained gatherings such as these before we ever made our first introductions. I imagine His delight as we act out the miracle He authored in friendship – as we celebrate around a table and enjoy one another.

Delight is the taste on my tongue this morning – Lord’s delight and mine (I imagine) are intermingled as I think about the next menu, the next guest list of practical strangers, the next gathering to glorify the One who ordained friendship in the first place.

Coming soon: the Amelia Bedelia kitchen experience leading up to the pretend thanksgiving party.

counting blessings, and what to do when there are too many

We sang, crowded in concentric circles around the basement with my mom pounding out the hymn on the piano. We sang the familiar song that has accompanied every Thanksgiving I can remember – even the Thanksgivings where I have been far from this little countryside gathering. It seems that counting blessings got into my bloodstream real early and has never left.

When we had little, we counted. When we had much, we counted. When we struggled, we counted. When we prevailed, we counted.

The blessings always seemed to outnumber our math, so we counted by song and we’re still counting.

I can’t put my finger on the emotion hanging in that long skinny room this past Thursday, but every year it seems to swell for the new little ones and the ones married in. The emotion is heavier than the scent of turkey and stuffing and Aunt Jane’s coconut pecan pie. The emotion of counting blessings is a heavy one.

I wonder if we count our blessings like someone counts a harvest… and we’re accountable for what happens after it’s been stored away.

Sometimes I find myself getting caught up in the counting, overwhelmed by what I’ve been given. I’m drawn into thanks and into joy as I reflect on these gifts – as I look on the storehouses of blessings that are bent to bursting. And as I get caught up, I get stuck.

I stop at counting and thanking.

This year, I’m feeling the Lord asking me to count my blessings so that I know exactly what I am giving back to Him. It is not enough to be thankful. It is not enough to get overwhelmed and weepy at the Lord’s provision. It is not enough.

Thanksgiving and joy are part of the journey into greater joy and greater thanksgiving as we count the blessings as they go out from our possession. In the same way that we count the blessings we’ve been given, we must also count the blessings as we give. Because we were never meant to hold fast to anything but Christ.

I have so many blessings to count, but having many blessings is never the problem. The problem is my hoarding what has been counted.

As I read through Kevin DeYoung‘s Hole in Our Holiness, I came to his reflection on this passage from Timothy 4 and specifically verse 15, “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.”

I thought of all the ways I make excuses for my slow progress on the holiness road and the excuses I allow others to make for me. I thought of the conversations in my head where I’ve said, “But you aren’t making hardly any money right now…” and “No one really expects you to give…” and “No one really knows your schedule, anyway…”

And I thought about how my beliefs about blessings sometimes stretch a great distance from my behavior with blessings.

Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Timothy 4:11-16 ESV (emphasis mine)

Counting blessings is only the first of a two-part transfer. The second part is the way you transfer the blessings to others. This I must practice in a way that my progress is noticeable. I must make my behavior – my speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity – match my beliefs in a way that transfers blessings into the lives of others.

I’m not discounting the ways I have succeeded in blessing others – by God’s grace I hope it does happen. But, we have never arrived at a final destination on the holiness road, so we must keep journeying.

And when my pack gets full of blessings, I know I must transfer the joyful load so I may travel light.

let LOVE fly like cRaZy

when I go to the country for a holiday

When I go to the country for a holiday, I imagine I will have time for projects and books and all the things that my normal routine squeezes out. I picture myself productive in the afternoons, nestled in with coffee and computer to pound out everything that’s pressing.

When I actually get to the country for a holiday, I laugh at my imagined productivity because the days are full – too full to be productive in projects and books and lists. Full of life and laughter and people. There is never a good time to “get away” because my parents live in a very “away” place. We wake up and wander into the kitchen for breakfast, then we wander into the living room for play time, and then the day wanders along until we curl under the covers for sweet rest once again.

But the day is so full that it pushes my weekly understanding of productivity aside. The best and most beautiful thing to do with those country moments is to live them – to cheer the family football game with cousins and eat leftover turkey sandwiches in the evening, to gesture wildly with charades and chase little ones around for hide-and-seek, to curl up with blankets after everyone else is in bed and ask questions our day routines don’t allow.

The crowded Nichols house was waking up with the dawn on Friday morning and Black was more than an hour away.

When I go to the country for a holiday, the color is warm, the table is full, and the company is unmatched.

let LOVE fly like cRaZy

“Before you go out into the world, wash your face in the clear crystal of praise. Bury each yesterday in the fine linen and spices of thankfulness.” –Charles Spurgeon

exhausted by joy

(First, I must admit that I’ve only just now recovered from a very colorful verbal exchange with my computer after it lost this entire post into the unknown cybersphere. As I go back and try to remember it, I can’t help but think it’s a little ironic.)

I have so many plausible excuses, really I do!
Chasing after early morning 2-year-old squeals and filling the night with laughter, for starters.

There’s something about Christmas that won’t let me sit down and spell it out, blog style. The rumble of excitement as family exchanges gifts with the lengthy explanations from every giver, the soaking in of silly faces with people who live too far, the together-ness that makes memories on it’s own… This joy can be exhausting!

It’ll park your eyes at a willing, wide-open stance. It will put dances into your toes. It will make you “poke the bear” until the bear revolts with a playful roar.

It will fill the air with delicious, contagious laughter that (I’m sure) seeped out from under the old wooden doors at my parent’s house and warmed the night trees.

Exhausted by joy.

I wonder if C.S. Lewis would say we are as likely to be exhausted by joy as we are surprised by joy. Well, I submit that it is so.

I wonder if Mary and Joseph were exhausted by joy. I wonder if, when Mary finally gave in to sleep, she felt more than just relief that her vagabond pregnancy had ended. I wonder if Mary’s soul was so full of joy at the coming of the Messiah that her heart got tired.

I wonder if receiving blessings and naming them in thanks can bring a good kind of exhaustion – one that wearies your bones into a prayerful posture.

I wonder at this beautiful Gift.
Christ, our Substitute for the debt our flesh owes.
Christ, our Provision for an eternal abundance of joy.
Christ, our Hope.

let LOVE fly like cRaZy