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What Gathering Around the Table Has Taught Me

Photo: Sarah B. Gilliam

Photo: Sarah B. Gilliam

On a warm October evening, eleven long tables were set end-to-end to form one big, long table down the center of a meadow. Dressed in white tablecloths, mismatched fabric napkins, clear glass plates, flickering candles and lanterns, magenta and orange wildflowers in turquoise Mason jars, and twinkle lights draped overhead, the table shined like a beacon as dusk started to settle on the Tennessee hillside.

A young man played guitar in the background. In the pasture near the table, without any electricity, chefs created a makeshift kitchen using fire and iron grates and grills. Over these burning coals, they cooked the finest seasonal, farm-fresh fare: fire-roasted squash, potatoes, and beans, fresh bread and desserts, homemade pasta with Bolognese sauce, and porchetta from pastured pork that had been happily raised in the adjacent pasture.

As this fresh and rich meal was being carefully prepared, 88 dinner guests slowly began arriving. Everyone was chattering excitedly; no guests were in a hurry. As they passed over the crest of the hill encircled by blazing autumn trees flickering at the edge of the forest, they saw the long table set for them, waiting for them, and their eyes widened. Each person chose a seat with friends they already knew - or perhaps, they were brave to sit next to someone new. They sat and talked and awaited the first course, and soon, wooden salad bowls piled high with buttery lettuce grown in the field just down the hill were placed before them.

This scene is real - it’s from the first farm-to-table dinner we hosted on our organic produce farm in October 2017, and it was absolutely life-changing for me. This surreal night of gathering both old and new friends on our own farm at a long table under the stars and twinkle lights, was a dream literally years in the making. Even so, I had been slightly nervous about welcoming people we didn’t know to a dinner on our land just steps from our house. Would this feel invasive? Would it go smoothly? These people were purchasing tickets and trusting we would deliver. But my husband and I moved forward with the clear vision He’s given our family to gather people around the table on this beautiful land He’s entrusted to us. I’m so glad we did.

Before we even got to the feasting part, the behind-the-scenes preparation and anticipation of gathering around the table brought unity. Every friend, farmer, chef, and artisan involved in the event offered up their God-given gifts and abilities, and with each person doing his or her part, things went smoothly. A close friend offered her time and expertise as our event planner, and without her, we would have missed many important details.

Others came over and hustled to finish constructing our barn, paint a mural on the side, hang signs, and cut tree stumps to hold lanterns. Our photographer/farmer neighbor grew and picked the wildflowers that would dress our tables and agreed to capture photos during the evening so we could sear it into our memories. For the bonfires and cooking fires, her husband delivered trucks of firewood from his own woodlot, selecting the most fragrant varieties so you could walk past the fire and smell the sweet perfumy wood scent perfectly intermingled with the savory smell of food. The chefs spent hours developing and collaborating and prepping an exquisite menu.

And we did it because of one reason...it’s the biggest thing that gathering around the table has taught me: The table is for everyone.

There’s something about gathering around a physical table that unites us.  No matter who you are, where you’re from and whether or not you recognize it, feasting together is something human beings were meant to do.

In Scripture, God repeatedly compares the Gospel to food and drink and welcomes us to this feast of all feasts. “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him!” (Psalm 34:8, NLT)

In the book The Lifegiving Home by Sally and Clay Clarkson, they share a quote from author Leonard Sweet that’s a perfect analogy of the table:

“The first word God speaks to human beings in the Bible - God’s very first commandment - is ‘Eat freely’ (Genesis 2:16, NASB). The last words out of God’s mouth in the Bible - his final command? ‘Drink freely’ (see Revelation 22:17). These bookends to the Bible are reflective of the whole of the Scriptures: Everything in between these two commands is a table, and on that table is served a life-course meal, where we feast in our hearts with thanksgiving on the very Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation: Jesus the Christ.”

Clarkson goes on to detail the importance of “tableology” in the Bible and how an actual, physical table draws people together. Clay Clarkson says the table creates unity and interaction with other people who you look at face-to-face and becomes a physical anchor where people sit and stay for awhile without wandering. “It creates a physical unity - all who sit at the table become, in a sense, one with the table, and so one with each other while at the table...And that in turn helps to create koinonia, which means fellowship or partnership with others.”

Gathering around the table in community is something that’s innate - it’s how God wired us. I’ve experienced it firsthand over and over again...

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, some of our best Thanksgiving holidays were those where people we barely knew from the community accepted my mother’s invitation to join us. She always opened our table in a cramped dining room to anyone she would meet at church or the grocery store or just in town. “Do you have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving?” she would ask. If they said no, she would invite them without stipulation, and most Thanksgivings, several new friends would show up. We added chairs and all rubbed elbows while we reached for spoonfuls of mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. We welcomed people into our small, humble home and family traditions. It might have been uncomfortable at first, but once we sat down around that table, it just felt right.

Our farm dinner took months of preparation, a small army of friends volunteering, and the talents of some of the best chefs around. It wasn’t thrown together but was carefully planned down to every last detail and aesthetic. But it’s just one example of a feast, because we can prepare any kind of “feast” in our homes using any kind of food or table. It doesn’t have to be fancy - it just has to be welcoming and created with love, offering a taste of what Jesus ultimately has to offer us as we nourish people’s souls and bodies. I’ve written some practical steps on how to do that in this post: How To Engage Your Family in Sharing Meals Around the Table.

~ ~ ~

I hope for another table...except this one will be filled with every single person I know and love, and it will go on as far as the eye can see. The feast will stretch on for hours, and no one will have any food intolerances or restrictions. We will never be full. Our souls will be satisfied in a way we could not even fathom now if we tried.

One day, it will happen...

“In Jerusalem, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat. There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears. He will remove forever all insults and mockery against his land and people. The Lord has spoken! In that day the people will proclaim, ‘This is our God! We trusted in him, and he saved us! This is the Lord, in whom we trusted.  Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!” (Isaiah 25:6-9, NLT)

Until then, I’ll keep remembering the tiny glimpse of heaven’s feast that we experienced on a warm October evening, at a long table in a meadow under the stars.

~ ~ ~

This post was originally written in November 2017 as a contribution to JellyTelly.

3 Things I Love About the Enneagram

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Image: JellyTelly.com

“What number are you?”

Chances are you’ve already been asked this question or engaged in conversation with someone about the Enneagram, a personality assessment tool that’s exploded in popularity lately.

Read more at my latest JellyTelly post: 3 Things I Love About the Enneagram.

Why I Need Community

Image: JellyTelly.com

Image: JellyTelly.com

Today on JellyTelly, I'm sharing about something dear to me: Why I Need Community. I hope you'll read and be encouraged!

I drove down the winding country road, sunroof open, worship music blaring, smile on my face and singing at the top of my lungs. You’d think I was on a joyride or something...or at least on the way someplace fun like a friend’s house or coffee shop...

How to Empower Our Kids to Face Hard Things

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In my latest JellyTelly post, I'm sharing about some ways to empower our children to carry light, love, and kindness in an often cruel world: How To Empower Our Kids to Face Hard Things.

At bedtime one night, my three-year-old daughter said out of the blue, “Mommy, I have to tell you sumpin.  Everyone in the world is connected.  Did you know that Mommy?”
It stopped me in my tracks. This wasn’t the only time one of my small daughters had taught me about kindness and love for God’s people when I wasn’t even thinking about it...

Life Lessons From Farm Living

Image: JellyTelly.com

Image: JellyTelly.com

This piece was originally posted on JellyTelly.com.

As I write this, I’m sitting on the floor of our farmhouse on 17 acres in Tennessee. My husband is out back in the field of our organic produce farm, and our two boisterous girls are giggling and running circles around the bottom floor. I’m stunned when I think about how our journey had led us to this place...not exactly as I’d imagined but still so close to what I’d hoped.  In the 7 short months we’ve lived here, Kindred Farm has already been the setting for multiple gatherings, meals shared around the table, and a revolving door of overnight guests. Everyone who comes says that this place surrounded by green Tennessee hills and woods helps them slow down.

Deciding to raise our children in the country and have our own farm wasn’t a quick or easy decision, but it was the one that felt most congruent with our dreams, desires, and the way God has wired us. So how did we get here? At the end of 2015, our family sold our home and organic produce co-op in Dallas and took a leap of faith to move to Tennessee without a job or home. We stayed in a rental house for a year until we happened upon this small 1940s home and gorgeous land 45 minutes south of Nashville just off the Natchez Trace Parkway. The first time we stepped foot here and my feet sunk into the front yard’s lush grass, I said aloud, “This place feels like us.” After months of struggle and wondering if it would work out, we signed the closing papers. God had provided the place for us to build our farm.

Shortly after we moved, my oldest daughter announced, “I love living in the country. I’m never living in the city again!” The quiet, the sky filled with stars, the ability to be immersed in nature, all speak to her adventurous 6-year-old soul. She calls herself a “farm girl” and takes pride in donning her baseball cap, jeans, and boots to set out and help Daddy in the field some afternoons. She’s equally happy in a sunhat and sundress, coloring under the apple tree. I love that this life allows her the opportunity for both. My toddler often joins me in the tomato rows (that are taller than she is) and examines plants for tiny unripe green balls or gasps when she finds ripe, red ones.

In his beloved book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv writes,

“In an agricultural society, or during a time of exploration and settlement, or hunting and fathering--which is to say, most of mankind's history--energetic boys were particularly prized for their strength, speed, and agility. [...] As recently as the 1950s, most families still had some kind of agricultural connection. Many of these children, girls as well as boys, would have been directing their energy and physicality in constructive ways: doing farm chores, baling hay, splashing in the swimming hole, climbing trees, racing to the sandlot for a game of baseball. Their unregimented play would have been steeped in nature.”

Some people wonder if by moving to a rural environment, we’re isolating our children or keeping them from growing up in modern society. I feel the opposite. By immersing them in this environment, we’ve slowed down time a bit, and I can’t help but feel that in some way, the innocence of childhood is being preserved. When you’re removed from “keeping up with the Joneses” it’s easier to see the things that really matter - time together, time in nature, exploring, reading a multitude of books, imaginative play, community. I’d so much rather my girls be in wonder over the first ripe tomato found in our garden than the newest trendy toy or gadget. I don’t desire for them to be immersed in pop culture or to measure up with what other kids their ages are doing. Going to parks, the library, art classes, and friends’ houses are still priorities for us. But true socialization and healthy personal growth can happen on the farm, as they interact with people of all different ages and have diverse experiences on a regular basis.

Here are some other important lessons the farm is teaching us:

1)    Working hard. Hard work is required in life, and it can be so fulfilling. Our girls see the value of their mommy and daddy working hard right in our backyard. Sometimes they have to sweat alongside us or entertain themselves for awhile, and they don’t like it. As a society, we don’t like to be uncomfortable. But we can’t appreciate the good things in life - the little luxuries - unless we know the feeling of the opposite. And nothing beats that bone-tired-but-deeply-fulfilled feeling at the end of a long day working under an open sky...and the cold drinks and hot showers afterwards.

2)    Independence. This is the biggest amount of land we’ve ever had. They can play outside unattended and don’t have to be glued to my side for safety. They get to dip their toes into independence while still having the security of their parents close by.

3)    Real life skills. Our modern society spends a lot of time doing things that don’t increase our primal, real life skills, but how important they are - growing, harvesting, and tending food, being enterprising, building fires and cooking over them, understanding ecology and biology, raising animals, dealing with the weather, learning outdoor safety. I love that our children have learned how to help plant, feed animals, turn on irrigation and unhook an electric fence. Our oldest daughter knows how to top the basil, and our youngest helps prune tomatoes. We're all learning together.

4)    Loving our neighbors. Although I was worried about isolation when we moved here, we’ve had more meaningful interaction with people here in the country than we ever did in the city. Although this can certainly happen anywhere, perhaps in rural settings neighbors are more willing - and available - to pitch in and help each other. It wasn’t long after we moved here that our neighbors whose land borders ours, a family with 5 homeschooled children, showed up on our doorstep one evening.  They’re close friends now, their three teenage boys walking over often to play ball with our girls or help on the farm. They make us s’mores bars, we send them back with chocolate chip cookies. They help with the electric fence, and we make them homemade salsa. We invite each other over for morning coffee at a moment’s notice, and I’m encouraged by a mother who loves Jesus and is a little further down the road than I am. Our neighbors across the street have a stunning year-round creek on their property which they’ve invited us to play in anytime. Another group of neighbors a few miles up the road gathers every Thursday evening for a potluck dinner on their farm, and whoever wants to come is welcome. What a diverse group of people it is - from singles to young families to a man in his 60s who’s owned a magical blueberry farm nearby since he was 19. We’ve found that this give-and-take happens naturally, without hidden agendas or expectations.

5)    Imperfection. Although it may sound idyllic at times, I think that starting a farm together is one of the hardest things a family can do, and there are a lot of struggles, physically, emotionally, and financially. We’re exhausted a lot. I obsessively spray my girls with tick spray made from essential oils every single day. My floors are scattered with mud and dirt 95% of the time. We can’t ride bikes or take walks on pavement unless we haul everything to a nearby park. We’ve given up a lot to be here, and I don’t know if we’ll be here for 5 years or 20. But it’s still the best place for us in this season, and we practice gratefulness for that.

So, what if you’re not able - or willing - to live on a farm?  We can raise our children to love Jesus no matter where we live - the city and suburbia are equally as full of life and beauty! But if you’re wanting to add a bit of farm life to your everyday, here are some ideas:

1)    Get your children (and yourself) in nature. Let them get dirty and explore. Find local hiking trails, lakes, or waterfalls. Take field trips with other families willing to do the same. Says Richard Louv, “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.” Start small - a little time in nature goes a long way!

2)    Create more free time.  I love this quote from Kim John Payne in Simplicity Parenting: “In the tapestry of childhood, what stands out is not the splashy, blow-out trips to Disneyland but the common threads that run throughout and repeat: the family dinners, nature walks, reading together at bedtime, Saturday morning pancakes.” The greater quiet and slowness of country life makes these things a bit easier, but we can prioritize them no matter where we live.

3)    Support your local farmers. Go to the Local Harvest website and find your local farms, and then commit to supporting them in some way. Try to replace some conventional store-bought food with locally grown food or buy your produce at a farmer’s market. Volunteer on a farm for a morning or afternoon. Add your own small backyard garden or a few chickens, and let your children feel their hands in the dirt, to help with planting or harvesting and feeding animals.

I never could have imagined this is where we would be today. Raising kids on a farm isn’t perfect or idyllic, but it’s a whole lot of lovely. Now in our digital and social media age more than ever, farm life can teach all of us - adults and children alike - ways to return to a simpler way of life, if even for a few hours on a Saturday.