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.

Dependent

My heart was racing as I sat before the screen, staring at the multiple choice answers and wondering whether my calculated guess as to what the road sign meant was enough. Thirty five questions, twenty eight correct answers needed for me to pass the Illinois driving theory test and I was struggling. I had even done some revision, but clearly not enough in my complacent foolishness.

Thankfully, I scraped through with one wrong answer to spare. And praised God that the practical test was simply a drive around the block with an examiner who wanted to talk all things England. As I walked out of the test centre, after several hours of queuing, admin and tests, I breathed an audible sigh of relief. I was back on the road, with no bikes or trailers involved.

The last three weeks had been spent walking past the car, rather than jumping in it. Due to insurance and administrative issues, I was unable to drive and so we had an unexpectedly home-bound first few weeks back. No bad thing considering we had just spent eight weeks on the road, but also a huge inconvenience when life has to happen and my driving husband is away with work.

The way in which people helped us during this time was amazing. A car pool of people from the church family, and kind neighbours in the mix as well. One friend didn’t even wait to be asked, but just turned up to take us to school. Another dropped groceries off on the doorstep, and plenty more drove us from one place to the next. What a blessing.

And what a humbling experience of being utterly dependent on others. As someone who often prides themselves on being a self-sufficient adventurer, this was a pride-flattening time as I had to ask for help to do the simplest of daily tasks, and quickly accepted any offer of help that came my way.

It’s tiring having to plan the logistics of life days before you need to go to the supermarket or pick up children from school, but I think it has been a good position from which to start this new semester of American life.

Humbled, dependent on others, and with very little to boast in on my own.

This posture reminded me of my greater need for the one who gives me everything when I clearly have nothing. Jesus says that the ‘blessed’ person is the one who is ‘poor in spirit’ because they are those who receive the ‘kingdom to heaven’. Blessed are those who see their need, know they’re spiritually bankrupt and ask for help from the author of life himself. Humbled, no reason for pride, and utterly dependent. And from this position, we are best able to receive the abundant, generous and ongoing grace of Jesus himself.

Dependent on others to travel, but ultimately dependent on God for life now and on into eternity.

Dependent, and tethered to the cross through which I gain all that I need.

Dependent, irrespective of whether I teach others the Bible, host a podcast and appear to be more capable than I am.

Dependent, now and always, and graciously provided for in every way by Jesus.

I’m praying that I wouldn’t forget that feeling of being helpless that came with being unable to drive, and that it would cause my heart to be ‘poor in spirit’ and so to delight in what I have and who I am in Christ.

Back ‘home’

It’s been over a month since I last wrote. Weeks filled with family in England, a quarantine-mandated holiday in Mexico and our return to the States, with Rufus starting school within a couple of days of us being back.

Full.

Heart-filling, heart-breaking and heart-resting…and then heart-racing as we kick back into normal life, picking up pace rapidly.

The tail-end of our England trip was spent in Newcastle, enjoying sister/cousin time, and then a family holiday in North Wales as we all packed into a house within reach of the beach. Classic English summer holiday, as we headed to the beach come rain or shine. The sort of activity that bemuses my American friends, as they embrace tropical summers and hit the beach only when temperatures are high.

Tearful goodbyes as we drove away, thoughts turning to our next adventure as we began our convoluted journey back ‘home’.

The home which has our everyday, our normality and contains the last couple of years of our lives. The home which within a few days of being back in England felt suddenly far away and even alien. The home which held toys that were longed for, and friends who frustratingly couldn’t come and play on a Welsh beach. The home which, after six weeks travelling, was becoming more appealing than it had been when we first arrived back in that most familiar, history-holding ‘home’ of England, peopled with those we love and miss.

But, in God’s good and perfect timing, we were headed back home to the States via Mexico. Covid restrictions demanded fourteen nights in a place outside of Europe before we were allowed back in, and so began an enforced but very welcome family holiday in the sunshine.

Restful, lazy days together. Ups and downs that come with life, despite being on a beach. Energetic boys to entertain. So much for which to be thankful.

And time to transition from the goodbyes to hellos as we began to feel ready to return home. Heart equilibrium began to be restored as we relaxed into being exactly where we were, rather than where we had been or where we were going. A privilege to have some limbo before touchdown in Chicago.

We have been so welcomed and loved upon our return. Church family have abundantly blessed us with meals to fill the empty fridge, and the company of friends has been a joy that has reminded us of life here. School is bringing smiles, and I’m looking forward to podcasting and bible-studying in the margins of it all. Jonathan has hit the road, books are going out and we’re remembering why the Lord has us in this place, at the time, for however long. Praising Him as we run the race, whether it’s here at home or in the interludes of visits to other places, including England.

Joyful and Teetering

Alone, awake and enjoying the silence of sleeping children. 

Thanks to the kindness of friends, I am sitting in a sky-lighted nest at the top of a peaceful house having slept for longer than many of the past nights, and there is even a cool breeze slipping through the open window. 

It feels very different to the tumult of recent days as we rollercoaster our way through our whistle stop visit of England. 

The last ten days have been spent in gloriously sunny Keswick, as Jonathan has been running the bookstore at the Convention. I’ve never seen the Lake District basking in such continuous sunshine, and its brought much joy as we’ve enjoyed the water, warm evenings and picnicking with no need for a wet weather plan. There have been precious times with grandparents, and catching up with friends as we pick up where we left off a couple of years ago. 

Alongside the joys of being in a beautiful holiday destination were the realities of a husband working under pressure and accumulative tiredness, the demands of looking after two little boys on my own and then the emotional hit of hellos, goodbyes and a heart that jumps from one continent to another within the space of a conversation. 

Thankful to be here, grateful for time with family and friends, joyful in the familiarities of home…just coloured with a slight feeling of teetering on the edge as I anticipate emotion sweeping in, and we consider the uncertainties of our path back to the States and the restriction-determined timing of our next visit here. 

Leaving Jonathan in Keswick, the boys and I arrived in Bristol yesterday, spilling out of a hot, sweaty car after a journey that was fuelled by jellytots and having just about survived the inevitable irritabilities of tired people in close quarters without air conditioning. We were met by the wonderful welcome of the oldest of friends, and the joyous enthusiasm of her daughter eager to play. 

Amidst the ups and downs, and travels from one end of the country to another, I’ve found it hard to find the rhythm of reading the Bible and praying. But over recent days, I’ve been enjoying slowly reading, and dwelling on, psalm 16. King David writes of having ‘set the Lord always before me’ and ‘because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.’ I’m challenged to fix my eyes on my unchanging God, and thankful for stability that is found through him irrespective of where I find myself, both emotionally and geographically. 

Bristol for a few days with the easy company of the best of friends, and then on to Newcastle for the long awaited reunion with my dear sister. Thankful for each moment, and smiling at the thought of the days ahead and grateful for anchor of my God. 

Here and There

‘We go to lots of houses’, says Billy to our friend as we leave her house.

It has been a happy afternoon of catching up on the months that have passed since we were last together, playing with friends who used to be a regular fixture in our weeks and enjoying the comfortable warmth of English summer sun. 

Our English trip is filled with many houses, as Billy says, but more importantly familiar faces. People who fill my heart with joy as we reconnect, and break that same heart a little as we say goodbye. Our whistle-stop tour is made up of many hellos, and often same-day farewells. It produces an emotional rollercoaster of highs, lows and a certain level of exhaustion that I, naively, hadn’t anticipated. 

But it is wonderful. Nearly two years of time and distance, but more often than not it feels like we were in the same room just yesterday. I have a new-found appreciation for friendships that can pick up where we left off, and for the constants of cups of tea around a kitchen table or kids playing in a park while mums chat. 

The strangest thing about being here is the separate ‘there’ of our American life. Familiarities of ‘home’ fill our days while we enjoy being back in England, but our daily lives are anchored the other side of the Atlantic. The hint of an accent as the boys talk with their English friends is  a reminder, and the texts that fly in from precious friends over there. The pandemic realities that mean no-one has visited contributes to the separation. Sitting here, at the kitchen table in Leyland, it’s hard to imagine being back in the humid heat of Illinois. But sitting there, enjoying the fabric of the life that we’ve settled into, it’s hard to envisage ourselves doing life here. 

Limbo. 

And so we take one day at a time. Thankful for the joy of being back, and stopping myself dwelling too much on the goodbyes. All the while, remembering that we are where God would have us be for His purposes and for our good. 

Good that is most definitely evident in our American life, despite the stretched heart of being caught between two places. 

Finally Flying

3am and my three year old has just called out needing a drink. He sips from the cup that he could have reached without my help, and falls back to sleep within minutes. I, on the other hand, lie in bed thinking on the day ahead. The day that is filled with travel dependent on negative covid tests. Covid tests that we took two days ago, but have apparently not yet been received by the labs and so are very much not offering us the travel pass that we need. 

Nineteen months after our last trip ‘home’, we are heading to England and anticipation has been building. Building but ticking over on amber as we jump through the numerous hoops and meet all the requirements that allow us to set foot on British soil. 

Ticking over, waiting, and holding back on allowing hearts to leap at the thought of seeing parents, siblings, friends and all the rest. 

Holding back until we know we can get on that flight. 

The actual morning – the one after the sun rises and breakfast is a viable possibility – is filled with packing, mediating energetic boys niggling each other and pressing refresh on the test site every half hour. A precious friend swings by for a cuppa, goodbyes and to empathise with the stress. I hit refresh as she leaves the house. 

12pm and no results. Our flight is at 5pm, we need to be at the airport by 3pm, and the rapid, ‘pay through your nose’ tests are looking like the only possibility. 12.30pm and we’re on our way to a local Urgent Care. The extortionate sum is paid before any swabs are stuck up noses, and we wait in the van until they’re ready to do the tests that allow us to fly. Thankfully van seats morph into an obstacle course (making us wonder whether we’ll be in Urgent Care for a small boy’s broken leg) and we’re soon inside for that uncomfortable moment when the silent medical assistant pokes us in the nose. Naturally, the boys are wailing before the poking begins and most definitely when it’s happening. 

Praise the Lord for negative results, and we’re en route to the airport via one last Chick-Fil-A. Forms checked, security gates cleared and we’re on. Rufus bouncing with excitement at the thought of being on an aeroplane and being able to watch a screen for longer than in normal life. Billy saying he’s excited, but mainly copying his brother and every now and then saying he’s tired and a little bit scared. 

But all is well. A peaceful flight so far. Some spare seats enabling legs and little bodies to be stretched. And I’m finally full of let-loose anticipation and excitement at the fact that we will be with family within hours. 

Anticipation and expectation, and a slightly strange feeling of waving goodbye to this life we’ve made in Illinois. Granted, it’s only for six weeks (maybe longer if Covid restrictions don’t change) but it’s  strange sensation to be trans-Atlantic having not left America for a long time. The stranger thing is that no-one has been able to visit, and so our home, our life, our existence over there is filtered through FaceTime, Instagram and snippets gathered through text messages. No-one has been to the park we go to every day opposite our house, or sat in our backyard while the grill is fired up, or met our church family, or hung out in our everyday existence. 

I’m thankful for technology that means there has been a window into our Glen Ellyn existence, and for the power of language to describe. I’m thankful that our God is not limited by geography or restrictions, and so our lives are seen and know and loved irrespective of whether others can see it or experience it. I’m thankful for much time spent connecting with family and friends when sitting in different countries, sipping cups of tea in contrasting time zones. 

Thankful, and wondering what it will be like to be back in that familiar, and yet distant, home. Praying, and trusting God with the days and weeks that are to come. Loving that as we fly from one continent to the other, He is still our loving, never-forsaking Father. 

Addendum: See above for glorious, familiar Dorset in the sunshine and with the parents, who it feels like I saw yesterday as well as knowing full well it has been much longer! Grateful for boys jumping straight in, grandparents up for joining them in the energetic mix and time to ‘be’ amidst it all. (Words beforehand written in the middle of the night on the plane!)

Braving Tornadoes

‘I don’t think I’ve slept an inch,’ pipes up a little voice from the far side of the bed.

Rufus, while clutching a glow stick, is dangling one arm off the side of the bed. The dangle is from necessity, because I’m lying on my side next to him, attempting to take up minimal space. Nuzzling into me is Billy, thumb in and the remnant of a cuddly monkey in hand. On the other side of the nuzzler is Jonathan, looking like he is balancing on the remaining portion of the bed.

We are hiding out in our basement room. The one that doubles as a guest bedroom (not much use for it at the moment) and Jonathan’s office. As we chase sleep while squished into one double bed, there is a storm raging outside. A storm that has progressed from thunder and lightening into tornado levels. Tornado enough that alarms have sounded, and the neighbouring communities have been instructed to shelter in basements and under tables.

Rapid fire lightening and house-shaking thunder have subsided a little as we’ve moved down into the underbelly of the house. And within an hour or so, it has dissipated and Billy and I migrate back upstairs.

The morning (which comes surprisingly early and energetically for two little sleep-deprived people) brings a windy, cloud-strewn sky with no apparent damage to our street. Fifteen minutes down the road havoc has been wrought. Twitter shows trees, houses and much more destroyed in the localised devastation of a tornado.

Terrifying.

All the more so if you’re five and struggle with bacon-triggered smoke alarms, let alone ricocheting thunder claps. Fear has been a topic of conversation for a couple of months in our house, as it seems that re-entry into the world after the pandemic shutdown awakens more fears than there were before. We’re thankful for a God that never leaves us, who always loves us and who is more powerful than any storm, or even the prospect of the dentist. It’s a frequent prayer that our mighty God would help us be brave, and ‘bosh’ the fear.

Wonderfully, Rufus turned to me during the storm and said, ‘Do you know, Mummy, I’m being brave and it’s actually working!’

We’re thankful we avoided the destructive path of the storm, and are praying for continued ‘working’ bravery as we head to swimming lessons and then the dentist in the morning!

Copying and Following

‘Mummy, I’ve got a few questions for you. How many people will be at your bible study? How many tables of books should we have? Do you think there will be more than one hundred and forty three?’ says Rufus, having thought about my suggestion that he, Daddy and Billy come and run a bookstore at our final bible study evening.

Apart from the wildly optimistic ‘143’ (which seems to be the number of the moment), Rufus’ questions show his keen attentiveness to all that the ‘chief of 10ofThose’, as he refers to Jonathan, does. He is watching, helping whenever he can and is quick to jump on any opportunity to be part of Daddy’s bookselling business. At one point, we had a branch of 10ofThose set up in the basement with books laid out, cash register set up and everyone who passed the table being accosted as the next customer. Billy’s bookshelves were full by the end of the week.

I love his earnest enthusiasm. He will often come and tell me that his business – he’s moved on to a rescue service at the moment – is running well, systems are in place and he’s too busy to be able to do what I’m asking right now.

I love that he loves to be part of his Daddy’s world. More than just participating, he’s watching, following and copying. Both boys echo phrases that I say, the words ‘lovely’ and ‘brilliant’ are bandied around frequently. Rufus even leaned conspiratorially over to me the other day and suggested that Billy was having a sugar rush – definitely a phrase native to me rather than him.

But there’s something beautiful about a son copying his father, and wanting to emulate him. I love it all the more because I know Jonathan is seeking to follow Jesus. Those little footsteps behind him, even when caught up in the packing and loading of boxes of books, are getting used to choosing the Jesus way. At the heart of the 10ofThose ministry is a love for others to the extent that we want to get books about Jesus into everyone’s hands. At the heart of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is a love for others that meant he died in our place to give us a life with God that we don’t deserve.

I pray that our boys would catch glimpses of Jesus in the choices Jonathan makes and the paths he chooses. I pray that as we both fix our eyes on our loving, others-serving Saviour that our boys would love to watch and follow, swept up by and copying the one who died so that they could live.

Anticipating and Expecting

Yesterday was glorious, and today is rainy. Yesterday I picked up the beginnings of a tan, and today the coat is back in action as we go about our Saturday business. I thought summer had arrived, and yet this is not it.

Illinois spring is a yo-yo season in which the sun comes out, everyone spills out into the garden and shorts push trousers into storage. But within a day, the temperature can drop, we’re shivering at the park having based our wardrobe choice on the day before and everyone is feeling a little disappointed.

Anticipation builds, hopes are raised…and then come crashing down as wintry weather creeps back in.

Summer is much anticipated. I’m ready for sunshine. And already I can feel my expectations beginning to take shape. Good weather and outdoors fun feature highly, but on a grander scale there’s the hope of a UK trip for us, time with family we haven’t seen for nearly two years and a return to familiar places, rhythms and foods. Having guarded my heart against expectations of being able to make the trip, it feels like the floodgates have opened and hopes are full blown and expectant as we talk dates and flights.

But as I feel my summer anticipations grow, and see my hope begin to rest on possible plans, I’m reminded to pause, look up and remember.

Centuries ago, six hundred years before Jesus was born, a prophet called Isaiah spoke words that hit my heart, this context and maybe anyone else tempted to rest hopes on shifting, changing, unsteady things.

Isaiah says, ‘ The grass withers, the flower fades, but the the word of our God will stand forever’ (40:8)

The contrast between the fading surroundings and the everlasting word of God pushes me to want that steadying, unchanging, rock-like word. That word that anchors in the same way as God himself, for his words come out of his steadfast, faithful character. The word of God is eternal because God is eternal. This word gives unending wisdom and life; it gives that which will not disappoint, or shift, or wrong-step, or fall flat.

While my summer hopes don’t deliberately take the place of God’s word in my thinking, they begin to nudge in there, share the platform and capture my heart with the idea that it’s a summer as I’ve planned that will give me all I need.

But what is this word about? What does God speak of? What does he want to tell us? Why is it so valuable that it lasts forever?

Isaiah comes back to this everlasting word fifteen chapters later, and speaks of it as an accomplishing word. It is purposeful, and achieves what God intends it to do. He says ‘it shall not return to me [God] empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it’ (Is 55:11).

The fifteen chapters between these two big Word statements tell of Jesus, the suffering servant and God’s king who would rescue God’s people with his sacrificial, loving death and resurrection. The word that never fades or withers, that does not come back empty handed is about Jesus. As it goes out, as we read it in the Bible, as we hear it from others, as we speak of it with others, as we see Jesus through this God-given word…we know of Jesus, we trust Jesus, we cry out to him for salvation, we run to him to have our hopes fulfilled. That is God’s purpose. And it is wonderfully accomplished through His word.

Our church women’s bible study have just finished studying Mark’s gospel, and we’ve been seeing, enjoying, loving, trusting and delighting in Jesus. God’s word, by His Spirit, has been at work and it’s been the most encouraging and beautiful thing to see in action as the year as gone on.

It’s this that stands, and through which God keeps working. It’s in this ongoing, purposeful word that draws us to Jesus that my hopes should be, and in which my expectations rest.

I’m praying that summer plans do go ahead, but I’m glad that they aren’t the be-all and end-all because my hope is in the eternal, working, saving word of God – which ultimately is Jesus himself.

At least if we do make it back to the UK, Illinois spring has sharpened my wardrobe choices for that British summer we’re longing to experience. Coat and shorts will be in the suitcase, but so will my Bible so that those anticipations and expectations rest in the right place.