The Summer Stretch

Over here, in the States, summer starts early and goes big and long. The boys finished school three weeks ago, and we have acres of time ahead of us. The new school year begins halfway through August.

When it dawned on me, a mere few weeks ago, that a long summer of unstructured time was imminent, I had a flat panic. The sort of panic that lead me to grab a pen and paper, and seek out my husband with a slightly desperate plea for ideas for the months ahead. We broke it down, mapped out the diary and realised that my angst was a little unfounded as our summer is punctuated by book adventures, an England trip and a pool of people within reach to have frequent play dates in parks, paddling pools and play rooms.

As we’ve been finding our summer groove (slightly hindered by the lack of steady sunshine in Illinois), my perspective is beginning to shift. I still spend my Sunday evenings mapping out the week ahead, panic texting in order to make sure we see people during our days, but I’m learning to relax into the opportunity presented by bonus weeks in the company of these two little men.

It’s meant that I can be deliberate about sitting down with Rufus to help him learn to read. I’m enjoying the giggles that escape as he reads a sentence, thinks about it and realises that Gerald the Elephant is saying something funny to his friend Piggie. And as Billy watches Rufus, he’s beginning to see the point in learning those pesky letters for this reading and writing lark.

As life slows down, the nuances of mood and emotion are more on display. The rush out of the door that can obscure the feelings behind the face has stopped. There’s time for the sounding out of the heart behind that surprising comment heard at the breakfast table.

Many benefits to having time. Many opportunities during this summer stretch. And big prayers for my own heart as I give over my days, seeking to give grace again and again as I hear my patience slide out of the front door before we’ve got to lunchtime.

I’m grateful that rather than mustering up a summer of perfect parenting, I can pray to my powerful, ‘in the everyday’ God who loves to pour out His love on me so that I can pour out my love on them. The opportunities are big, for their hearts and for mine as we jog through this summer, trying to keep our eyes on Jesus.

All In

My eldest son sits by the front door, laboriously donning his protective gear to go on his skateboard. He is new to the sport, having received a second hand board for a recent birthday, but is enthusiastic to the extent that the remnants of snow on the ground are not going to put him off (despite my attempts at persuasion).

Two months later, my youngest son is sitting in the same spot asking for help with his soccer boots and shin pads. He is heading out to kick the ball around with his brother, but has already spent a good ten minutes choosing the perfect footballing t-shirt and finding the gear that has been buried at the back of his wardrobe.

One of the qualities I love about both of my sons is that they are ‘all in’. Whether it’s skateboarding, school, that Sleeping Queens game or protestations about bed time…they are ‘all in’. Energy levels are high, and there’s no holding back. This is wonderfully evident when they find themselves amidst a new crowd (a frequent occurrence in our book-adventuring travels) as they recruit all and everyone for their conversational desires and game-playing plans.

My sister and I have been dwelling deeply in Psalm 119 as our podcast has kicked off a new season digging into this lengthy, treasure-filled chapter of the Bible. I have been struck again and again by the psalmist’s ‘all in’ attitude as he seeks to run in the ways of the Lord. Again and again, he asks God to open his eyes to the wonderful things in His word because he knows that his life is secure through the gracious promises that stack up behind every statement and command. ‘Save me, for I am yours’, he says and then goes on to declare that God’s statutes are ‘the joy of my heart’. The writer is ‘all in’ from the very depths of his heart, and to the very edges of his existence. He hangs off every word of his God, because he knows that he has the firmest of footings with Him.

As I’ve been reading, pondering and praying in response to this psalm, I’ve loved watching the heart-deep dives that the psalmist takes as he cries out to the Lord at every juncture, and eagerly speaks of the Lord to whoever will listen. My sons are heart-deep into whatever their day brings, but this level of ‘all in’ shouts of life-giving certainties that make me want to jump in with him rather than dither on the edge.

The psalmist writes from the other side of the cross. He trusts God’s promises for salvation, and jumps ‘all in’. I hear the psalmist from this side of the cross, and am reminded that my hesitancy can become a heart-deep dive because of the spilt, redeeming blood of Jesus Christ. And so I pray that I might be able to sing with the psalmist of ‘all in’ delight in my saving God as I seek to run in his commands, echoing my sons’ deep dives in every aspect of life.

Fakes and Fragility

The snow boots have been moved. Having dwelt for many months within reach of the front door, they have been relegated to the fringe of the hallway cupboard. Fringe meaning that they aren’t quite in, but they aren’t quite out. As a result, they threaten to trip us up several times a day.

The boots are hovering, along with the big coats, wooly hats and gloves, because we are in the little known season of ‘fake Spring’. The snow has melted, neighbours have been spotted who have been hibernating since about November and we even spent an afternoon at the park yesterday without coats.

But today’s walk to school was accompanied by a bitterly cold wind, rain is currently pounding the windows and snow is forecast tomorrow.

Fake Spring.

Rumour has it (heard amidst the usual chit chat about the weather over school pick up) that there are at least three fake Springs before we get the real deal. With each warm moment, the flips flops and the Toms edge into pole position, but I think the snow boots will remain as a shadowy, cupboard cluttering presence for a few more weeks.

It feels like we all have a little winter fatigue, and these fragile fake moments that tumble back into Narnia-esque Winter are wearing. Bring on the real deal!

Fakes, fatigue and feeling fragile have been on my mind this week in other ways. Jen Oshman, in her new book, Cultural Counterfeits, speaks of the need ‘to live in harmony with reality’ and suggests that we spend much of our time running after empty promises given by fake ‘gods’ who fail to deliver.

As my snow boots dither on the fringe of my hallway, I’m waiting for real deal Spring to deliver the sunshine that will carry us out of Winter and into short-wearing, park-playing warmer times.

Sometimes it can feel like we’re dithering on the fringe of life, wondering which way to look in order to gain all that we need. Maybe it’s in the acceptance and approval of others, maybe nailing it as a parent, maybe achieving in the workplace or even ministry…any of these things, and so many more, that promise everything but just don’t deliver. They are as fake as the Spring that is currently being washed out by the rain outside.

I find that I’m more fragile and more weary when I’m ‘in the dither’ and trying to work out which way to look. My heart can be pulled towards these ‘fake gods’ and I begin to expect fundamental life-giving results from having people accept me, or approve of what I’m doing, or laud any achievements I make. I was reminded again this week that there’s only one real deal, and Habakkuk 2:20 says it all: ‘But the Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silent before him’.

Our living, active, relational God – all the more evident in the person of Jesus – is the God who determines reality and who delivers life to the full. Life now, and life on into eternity. Secure, anchored and living in harmony with reality as I look to him.

Chaos and Church Days

It’s a church day. And chaos has a foothold in the house that is beginning to fray at the edges since I’ve been solo parenting for a few days.

When 7am came and went without any little footsteps emerging, I was hopeful for a calm, slowly emerging Sunday morning before we piled into the car and skidded off to church amidst our continually snowy surroundings.

Instead, emotions ran high from about 7.19am and the smallest person was disintegrating into tears at the thought of the playmobil rocket being moved two foot to the left by the insistent slightly bigger person. Having established a compromise on location, with plentiful space for the steam and fire that would accompany the imminent launch, life seems to return to an equilibrium. By 7.31am, the tears have returned because apparently there was a the need for a pile-on of brothers to ensure protection from the space launch. Hugs administered, I retreat to the shower and decide, while enjoying the fact that the streaming water drowns out any external drama, that pancakes may be in order to redeem the morning.

It turns out that while I’d been deliberately drowning out the noise, ninja costume had been donned and a nerf gun grabbed in order to ambush the younger brother at every opportunity. And, of course, prompt tears.

A few more outbursts occur before the fruity, yoghurty, syruped American breakfast is served. But we seem to be smiling. Until I mistake a request for a cut up pancake to mean actually cutting up into bite-size pieces. Unstoppable sobs. Tears dripping onto the plate. And the promise of the next pancake remaining in one piece.

Phew. And it’s only 8.30am. We have yet to embark on the ‘get clothes on, brush your teeth’ adventure that has to happen before we make it out of the house.

We make it to church. Littlest seems surprised that we are singing and not providing an activity for him before he goes for his class, and eldest is unsure why I haven’t brought every book in the house for him to peruse.

But we’re here. In amongst precious church family who know us in the highs and the lows, and the frayed edges. The songs are balm to my soul after a heavy week, and the sermon speaks of the reality of who we are in Christ irrespective of the circumstantial paths that have wended their way to this point in the week. New in Christ. Being renewed in the knowledge of God himself. Changed, but also battling sin in order to be who we really are. Yes.

Inevitably church days come with chaos, but even when the mess stretches out into the others sides of the week, I’m thankful for the unchanging reality of who God is, and who I am in Christ. Solid rock on which I stand. And praise God that Jonathan is back in a few hours!

Trudging and Talking

‘It’s not so cold out there…maybe we should walk to dinner?’, I say as I look out on our snow-blanketed backyard, and watch Rufus shake off the icy remnants from his coat cuffs.

‘Cold’ and ‘warm’ take on relative meanings when the temperature is hovering perpetually around the -3C to -6C mark. When the -9C levels sweep in, the word cold is of no use and we’re struck breathless by the freezing breeze as we open the front door.

In the relatively balminess of a -3C evening, my husband and I donned double socks, several layers and zipped our coats up as high as they would go. We walked into our local town, enjoying the trudge and the talking while also wondering if the feeling in our fingers would ever return.

Jonathan is happier than he looks!

There is something about walking to dinner that gives the space and side-by-side time to talk around, and over, and under whatever is on our minds before sitting down with food in front of us. It also comes with the bonus feeling that you’ve earned the meal and are thoroughly deserving of dessert as well as the first course. It started with sunny summer evenings back when snow was a ridiculous idea, but is still a winning date night even when wrapped up to the extent that only one’s eyes are visible.

The physical walk alongside one another pictures and points to the greater reality of our shared, intertwined lives. The privilege of doing life together is big, and I’m grateful for God’s gift of a husband with whom I have a deep friendship through which we enjoy the belly-laugh highs and the tear-marked lows.

But rich, deep and long-lasting friendship is not just for marriage. There is change afoot in our everyday as our church enters a phase of transition, and there’s a burbling anxiety about it that keeps nudging into my thoughts. And then I remember that our everyday is not defined by the structures of our church, or even the day in, day out routines of a child’s life, but is filled with the overflowing reality of people. Friends who are eager to be in it together, to talk it over, and to pray for one another. Friends who are quick to point me to the God is in the thick of it and working out His good.

As I seek to walk alongside as a friend myself, I feel blessed by the privilege and thankful for the riches of ‘one another-ing’ amidst the ups and downs of everyday life. And my gratitude is great for the many friends, geographically scattered, who are eager to keep in step with me as life carries on.

Slowing and Seeing

One of the realities of living in the far-reaching country of America is that long road trips are a normality. Americans think nothing of a three hour round trip for a day out, while us Brits are planning a whole week’s holiday around such a journey. My sons and I recently had a five hour stint in the car together, and we listened to the audiobook of J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’. Having encountered numerous adaptions over the years, mainly courtesy of Disney, I realised as I was listening that I don’t think I have ever read the book before. The rye humour, the rich detail and surprisingly sinister pirates were something of a revelation as we trekked from Illinois down to Kentucky. (The wagon ride in the photo was on arrival rather than down the motorway!)

My sister and I have just kicked off season 4 of our podcast, and we have chosen to dig into the first few chapters of John’s gospel together. As we walk slowly through the verses, chatting along the way over our cups of tea, I’ve found myself blown away by the rich, revealed reality of Jesus Christ himself. Verses that are familiar to the extent that it’s tempting to skim through that first chapter are coming to life as we pause and reflect on the realities of what John is showing us as he points to God himself coming to dwell with us. 

As my heart is stirred up by this delightful meander through the eyewitness account of Jesus’ life, it’s reminded me to look around in the here and now, give things a second glance, and dust off assumptions as the pace of life picks up and 2022 gains momentum. It’s in the extra moments given to listening to the non-stop chatter of my youngest, or matching my eldest’s slow pace as we walk back from school and he relays the morning’s events, or sitting for minute with my husband as I bring him a cup of tea at his desk. Rich details, life-giving pauses and heart-stirring thankfulness as I try and slow down and look around.

Light and Dark

Over the last few weeks, my husband has been reading to our boys from a book called ‘Treasures of the Snow’. There’s been much anticipation each evening as to what is going to happen in the next chapter, and our eldest in particular has been completely enthralled by the story.

While Rufus sits himself, favourite cuddly ‘zebby’ in hand to listen, Billy skitters around the edges, often hanging upside down off the sofa. He claims to not be listening, but is quick to interject when the story is being re-told or if anyone asks about Annette and Lucien (the main protagonists in the tale).

It’s been precious times, and all the more so for it being Daddy reading rather than Mummy. It’s very much been ‘boys’ time’, and it fills my heart to see such delight as they settle in for the next instalment.

The tale itself is rich with carefully crafted storytelling and deep truths that stir the heart. The shocking start sees a kitten being thrown down a ravine, with its young owner following and falling as he tries to rescue it. While the realities of the accident are gripping, it’s the internal workings of the young characters that really grab the reader. Matters of the heart are threaded through the story as people grapple with anger, revenge, forgiveness and letting the light overcome the darkness.

Annette’s godly, kindly grandmother asks her one day how the darkness is banished in the morning as the family awakes, and people begin to stir. She points out that they don’t spend the first minutes of the morning shooing, sweeping and urging the darkness to leave. Instead, they open the shutters and let in the light. Within seconds, the darkness has been overcome and the day has arrived.

Annette is battling anger, and other dark thoughts, in her heart and has desperately been trying to sort herself out. In a sense, she’s been attempting to sweep the darkness out of her heart. But her grandmother is pointing to the light of the world, to Jesus Christ himself, as the means of banishing the shadows. Rather than scrabbling to sideline the darkness, it’s about welcoming life-giving, heart changing Light.

As the dust settles on Christmas, and I begin to look towards another year, I find vague resolutions begin to fill my mind. Read more books, get fitter, be a better Christian…and all the rest. ‘Treasures of the Snow’ comes to mind though, and I think to myself that 2022 should be the year when I do all I can to welcome the Light, resting in Jesus and running His way in every sense. Doing giving way to resting in what Christ himself has already done, and what He continues to do in me and through me for His light-giving glory.

Mom and Mum

It’s confirmed.

As if there were any doubt.

My children are growing up American.

Rufus came back from school this week with his ‘snap words’, and ‘mom’ is top of the list. He’s just learning to read, so it’s an interesting one because this word will be more confusing for him than his classmates. English accent in full flow, I am called Mummy rather than Mommy, and with classic ‘sound it out’ strategies, mom is not the straightforward result.

Of course, he will learn ‘mom’ and I imagine that will become his written form of what he calls me. Maybe the accent will fade, and it will slide slowly into his spoken version too.

I don’t want him to stand out from the crowd for the sake of a spelling, but I also do. I don’t want him to feel different, but I also don’t want him to forget his roots. I don’t want him to be confused unnecessarily, but I also don’t want him to feel entirely at home in this place that is our home but not our homeland.

It’s only a word. And I haven’t shared any of my disproportionate thought process with him (you’ll be glad to know). But it raises questions as we bring up our boys here with no fixed idea as to how long we will here rather than there.

Billy has taken up basketball, lever and ‘z’ are bandied around with broad American accents, and Rufus is wondering whether we’ll be eating turkey on Thanksgiving like the rest of his friends. It’s a cultural adventure, and one that we’re watching being played out through our children.

I’m grateful for the enriching, perspective-widening, comfort-shifting experience. We’re enjoying the American ride.

I’m grateful, too, that our God is not bound by cultural location. He is steadfastly true and faithful wherever we are living, and whatever culture our children choose to embrace. Praise God for unshifting, eternally secure ground there for moms and mums trusting in Jesus.

Halloween and Hope

We arrived in America two years ago, just as Summer was ending and Fall was beginning. Autumnal sunshine, warm temperatures that contrasted with England…and then the Halloween decorations begun to appear.

House after house spun cobwebs over their front garden, buried supposed corpses in their yard and sat skeletons on their porch. Driving through our suburban streets was more sinister than the Fall sunshine suggested, and we struggled to know what to do with the holiday extravaganza that seemed to characterise the scariest date in the calendar.

Last year was no different, decorations going up earlier due to Covid and the need for something to distract. This year, I think we’ve noticed more hanging figures from trees and the houses of two years ago have stepped up their game to include horror-filled additions.

The boys flip flop between laughter at what they’re seeing and the odd nervous question as to what that hanging entity might be. Without realising it, I’ve become quick to say that a house has gone all out with a laugh, and I have two little parrots in the back seat who are quick to say the same. I have come to think laughter is the best way through because it suggests we don’t need to be afraid.

It’s a strange sight, and a tradition that is beginning to take hold in the UK but one that I think will always lag a little behind the American levels of ‘all out’.

For the first year here, I felt paralysed by it all, I think. Not quite knowing whether to engage or hide away until it was all over. The second year came with glorious sunshine and genuine delight at meandering through our neighbourhood with friends from our street. Costumes (the least sinister possible) donned by the boys, and bags full of sweeties and candy, and sunshine to banish the dark edges of it all.

And last year’s experience has shaped the way I’ve thought about it all this year.

We don’t love Halloween, but we love people. We don’t want to look at scary decorations, but we do want to see and connect with those living around us.We don’t want our boys to get into anything dark, but we do want to hold out the light and encourage them to as well. We don’t want our children be scared, but to know that God himself overcomes all of the darkness and those fears. We want the fun without the funny stuff.

This year, inspired by Nay Dawson and her interview with Faith in Kids, we went all out as a House of Light. Fully in the community and eager to connect with those around us, but wanting to be different. The one day of the year when people knock on our door, we sought to hold out a bit of Jesus. We gave our little bags, but also sought to get to know those around and about.

It wasn’t much, just a story, accompanied by sweets and a glow stick. But it was something. And who knows what will come out of it. Our windows spoke of Christ, and we’re praying that we are transparently of Him as we seek to love those who live around us.

Making and Creating

Billy is currently obsessed with ‘making’.

His desires are ambitious, and his pool of resources is the recycling bin and a roll of masking tape. I wholly admire his artistic, architectural aims, and feel lamentably lacking in my own offerings in terms of being able to help. He’s sweet in his compliments towards my stick men and wonky houses, but also quick to get frustrated that things are not turning out just as he would like.

It’s like watching my sister in a past life, who leans towards the crafty at every opportunity. Ironically, her son echoes my childhood habits of having a book to hand and grabbing every moment to get lost in the prose.

I love that Billy is thinking about what he wants to draw, paint and make before he’s even doing it. I love that his face lights up when he spots me throwing a promising looking box or lid in the recycling. I love that he sees the joy in that which I have already dismissed.

As I’ve been watching him conjure up constructions, whether it’s a home for his teddy or armour for himself, I’ve been reminded of our Creator.

God, who made everything from nothing.

God, who makes us alive with Christ when we were dead without him.

God, who points us to the new creation with his new song that shouts of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

God, who claims us as his ‘workmanship’ and has created us in Jesus to walk his good ways.

Billy is often frustrated with his efforts, challenged by the fact he is only four and yet a perfectionist when it comes to his projects. I love that our God looks at us, newly created as we are in Christ, and loves us and gives us all we need to live out who we are in him.