Marriage and Friendship

We’ve just done those awkward zoom goodbyes that happen after a large-ish zoom call.

The sort that leaves the remnants scrabbling to find the leave button so that they’re not the last on the screen, and means that the last sighting is often of foreheads leaning in as fingers race to reach the red toggle.

The call was a joy though, because it was a celebration of my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. The ruby year, which my Dad seems to have served through abundant red roses rather than any grand jewelled item. And my Mum seems to be delighted so all is well.

2nd May, 1981

It was a call that included extended family, but also a collection of old friends who have journeyed with my parents through the last few decades – there at the wedding, many of them in the picture before my parents met, and all of them very much still in their lives.

My parents are good at marriage, and they are also ‘really good at friendship’, as one of our zoom guests said. Grace and humour characterises much of what they are about, and I think that is true of the way they are with each other as well as with other people.

They value people, and so they invest in their friendships. Investment that looks like detouring from a straightforward route to drop in on someone for a cup of tea; or always being up for a kitchen supper and chatting over whatever has been found in the store cupboards to eat; or organising a meal out and inviting friends from different arenas who they think would get on; or simply picking up the phone with no purpose other than to catch up and converse.

My Dad, until recently, played tennis with the same three or four friends every summer’s Monday up in Oxfordshire. We used to live up there, which is why that was the location but as we moved south, work trips to Oxford were inevitably organised around the precious and brilliant tennis four. Various levels of tennis on show, but steady and stellar quality of friendship sustained over the net but also in the pub afterwards. Sadly two of the four are no longer with us. My Mum still does a three hour round trip every month or so to have a meal with her Oxfordshire bookclub which she started over thirty years ago. Friends who have gathered over books for years, and walked through life’s travails and joys at the same time. A long-standing, unshakeable group of friends.

For those who live nearby, there’s always an open door, a walk to go on, a tennis match to play or a trip out for meal or a drink. Or simply a phone call made while perched in the corner of the kitchen.

There have been various celebratory parties over the years for wedding anniversaries and birthdays, and every time I’m amazed and in awe of the amount of people who are in the room and have travelled from far and wide in order to raise a glass to my beautiful parents.

I’m inspired by them, and long to be such a testimony to friendship as they are at their stage of life. I’ve definitely sought to imitate them in the efforts they go to for the sake of the people they love, and I pray that it would be a sustained characteristic in my life as much as it is in theirs.

Muddling and Modelling

People.

Gathered together.

Distanced but juxtaposed.

Masked but talking, relating, laughing.

Milling and browsing and meandering.

Tasting elusive normality amidst the rubbing restrictions.

An unusual scene for our current climate, but that’s what we were part of this last week. We’ve just come back from a week in Indianapolis serving the TGC conference with a big bookstore. When I say serving the conference, that was Jonathan. I was serving two little boys who scooted the week around the convention centre, helping Daddy, and enjoying a change of scene. They, I think, served the delegates by bringing smiles to faces as they whizzed past them, calling out to each other and greeting people along the way.

It’s a costly thing in many ways to go as a whole family to something like that. We’ve done it many times before, although it’s been at least a year since the last such event because of Covid. There are all the complications of being in a different place and on a different timetable with small children. There’s likelihood that Daddy isn’t very available for anything other than snatched meals together, late night wind-downs and a quick early morning hello. There’s the challenge of entertaining little boys at a conference that is designed for adults (turns out there are empty rooms in a convention centre that are perfect for indoor football!).

But as we muddle along, feeling the strain as well as experiencing the joys, we’re praying that in the muddling there is some modelling. Having us there enables Jonathan to do his job better, I think. We’re sharing in the ministry to which God has called us as a family, and so it’s a privilege to be in it together. We all feel the buzz, love to see good books go out to many people and enjoy the fruition of lots of hard work. But more than that, we get the privilege of serving together. And the boys get to see how their Daddy serves others. They understand more of why he is away from home more than most. They begin to want Jesus-pointing books to go out in big numbers.

And we’re praying that they would want to know, love and serve our loving, kind and gracious God for themselves. Muddling and modelling, and praying for fruit that goes beyond a crazy week in Indiana.

(Check out some more muddling and modelling of a different sort on the podcast, Two Sisters And A Cup Of Tea, my sister and I host that chats through the Bible over a cup of tea – new season just started in James)

‘I’m Open’

‘I’m open, I’m open, I’m open’, come the frantic cries of the boys as they ask for the basketball.

They’re asking for the ball while jiggling around only a couple of feet from me, so there is nothing ‘open’ about their position. They’ve picked up the phrase from a friend down the road who is quick to shout it in any game that is being played. And so now it has become the soundtrack to basketball, football and any other instance where one boy wants the other one to pass something. The danger of the pass comes from a ball flying into the shouting face that is only inches away.

In contrast, this afternoon was spent sitting out in the back garden being ‘spied on’ by two supposed policemen who were very much not ‘open’, and only wanted to be known by their aliases of Policeman Pirate Freddie and Baddie Billy (not sure he got the memo about baddies being on the other side). Every time I mistakenly called them by their real names, I got shouts of denial as they employed a semblance of stealth – mainly involving scurrying from one place to another – and escaped back up the hill.

As vaccines kick in, and restrictions begin to ease, being open takes on a new meaning. Our space is more open, our lives are therefore more visible and conversations can happen without the stilted turn-taking of a zoom call.

It’s been an intense few months for us, with various dramas along the way, and we’re not quite able to stop yet. But I’m grateful for more opportunities to share life, and come alongside one another, as open doors, sunny days and in-person possibilities increase. There’s something about sitting down next to someone that makes it easier to open up about all that is going on – both in the present and that socially distanced past.

The boys are quick to shout that they’re open when there’s very little chance of receiving a pass. While their cries don’t work on the basketball court, there are wonderful echoes of a contradictory reality as we sit in person with people and are more open than we’ve been for months. Passing back and forth the thoroughfare of life.

Heart Work

‘The questions feel like heart work rather than homework’, said my friend in between the ongoing commentary on the passing ducks given by our accompanying two and three year olds.

The three year old offering endless commentary, not just on ducks…

She was talking about our Tuesday evenings spent in Mark’s gospel, and the discussion questions that have been fuelling conversation over the weeks. The comment was perceptive and precious, and reminded me of the profound realities of opening up the Bible together.

Throughout the Scriptures, it’s really evident that God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, works through His word.

God himself is ‘doing stuff’ as we read, grapple with and ponder the Bible. Mark’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus is concerned by internals rather than externals. He is about the heart rather than outward appearances. It is is the unseen humbly sacrificial widow who is praised rather than the loudly praying and parading priests.

And so it makes sense that as God works through His word, by His Spirit, it is the heart that is being softened and changed and shaped; and made to be more like Jesus. As our crowd of women gather around Mark’s gospel, spilling in from hectic kids’ tea times, intense working days and all the rest, God is at work. Hearts are being changed.

We gather under the banner of a church women’s bible study, which sounds like homework would be a requirement. But my friend was right. We study, but it’s heart work that’s going on and the fruit is wonderfully evident as I look around the room on a Tuesday evening.

Women listening to one another as they seek to understand the passage. Loving one another as they show up not just for themselves, but for the others in the room. Praying for one another, and leaning into each others’ lives as the chat continues on past the end of the study.

That humble widow was the stand-out gem from our study this week. Challenged by her whole-hearted love for the Lord, we prayed that God would work in our hearts, making us more like her. I love that the prayer is evidently being answered before the words were even uttered. Heart work in full flow as we gather around His word week in, week out.

Sunshine and Hearts

‘It’s lovely out there, Mummy’, shouts Rufus as he swings open the front door and grabs his shoes.

And so I hear myself in my son, and love that the very English ‘lovely’ is very much a part of his vocabulary and that he feels the need to tell me about the weather. The phrase is from me, and I definitely pass comment on the sunshine, or lack thereof, several times a day.

We are in the middle of a very Spring like Saturday, despite there still being the remnants of snow on the ground. The sun is out, there has been much outside playing and there’s a content, relaxed vibe about the house that is definitely harder to come by when it’s freezing outside and everyone is stuck inside.

Having thought that weather small talk was a distinctively English thing, I’ve realised that Illinois reverberates with similar conversations. In a place where blue skies can give way to a snow blizzard, before temperatures rise and the flowers are tricked into coming out early before the next sleety moment. There is much to say.

And we are all smiling more on those days when the suns sticks around, and the temperatures allow wellies rather snow boots to be first in the line of footwear by the front door.

I’ve been challenged by February in Chicagoland not to be flattened by the simplest of circumstances, the weather. It’s been a cold, paralysing month or two, and I’ve found myself sinking a little as the days have blurred into one in this Covid-tinged world. As much as I’m lifted by the sunshine, and thrilled to be outside more, I’m praying that my heart would be lifted by the non-circumstantial, unchanging realities of life anchored in Christ. And so my smile would be rooted in that truth, irrespective of the weather, and simply topped up by – rather than dependent on – the sunshine.

But…it really is lovely out there!

The Great Melt

Everywhere we go, there’s the sound of running water. No visible streams, rivers or waterfalls. And yet the constant sound of water.

The sun is out, and the snow is melting.

The temperatures have risen from a regular -11 to 1 or 2 degrees celsius, and the appearance of the sun brings joy. Having been sheltering inside, only venturing out decked in layers and snow-suitable garb, it brings a lightness to life to be soaking up the sunshine. Even if we are still in snow-boots and ski gloves.

With melting snow and rising temperatures comes a simultaneous thaw in relationships. Covid isolation intensified through the need to be inside is gradually giving way to park meet-ups, side-by-side walks and cups of tea in a snowy back garden.

There’s an awkwardness to trudging through slushy melting snow, and every chance that a child will stumble and end up puddle-dunked. Similarly, there can be a slight sense of social awkwardness felt as we reconnect, catch up on winter lives and navigate different attitudes and approaches to pandemic life.

But despite the stumbles and the rustiness of friendship, it’s a joy to be with others in wintry sun. Life-giving. It seems to be more what we’re made for in comparison to disconnected indoors isolation. I’m grateful for it!

Firsts and Lasts

Games have hit our house in a big way.

At least three times a day, Rufus asks to play his current favourite, ‘Sleeping Queens’. Knights, dragons, kings and queens manoeuvre cards from one hand to another as a part of the rapid quest to wake up five queens before anyone else. Adding up numbers, trying to anticipate imminent attack from the opposition and, of course, learning how to lose well.

Thankfully, it is an enjoyable game. Even when we’re on our third round since breakfast and I’m eye-ing the clock as we’re supposed to head out on the school run within two minutes.

And Rufus is getting better at losing. He’s also getting better at winning, and I’m realising that I can easily be beaten by a five year old. Billy has picked up that Rufus is winning more to the extent that he claims to be on both of our teams while we’re playing, just to make sure he’s on the winning podium when victory is claimed.

There have been numerous losing meltdowns along the way, and there will be many more, I’m sure. No one likes to lose. There’s no lack of competitiveness in our household, whether child or adult. But we’re all learning to rejoice in the playing rather than lament the losing, and even administer high fives to the lucky winner.

Alongside endless quests for queens (Uno does occasionally get a look in too), I’ve been teaching a part of Mark’s gospel to our women’s bible study that is all about firsts and lasts.

While I’m sometimes trying to be last in a card game for the sake of Rufus, Jesus calls his followers to be last, not first, in life now. Last in the sense that we are to align ourselves more with the servant than the master. We are to welcome the least, love the most unloveable and give up our status as we follow the one who became the servant of all through his death on the cross. Through his death, we gain heaven, the ultimate first place, and because of that we are free to serve now. We are free to choose to be last rather than first, free to lose our life now in order to save it later.

Its upside down thinking in a society that, as you’d expect, strives to be first. Its a pattern of life that only makes sense if we see Jesus to be God’s king, and we see our need for life-giving, heaven-bringing rescue through his death on the cross.

Sometimes I think that, even amidst a little family game, there’s a hint of that thinking as we teach the boys that they can hold winning and losing lightly. There’s more to life than a game’s result. And if you add Jesus and eternity into the equation, there’s more to life now than whether we’re winning or losing in terms of status, wealth and reputation.

Wording Together

Each Tuesday evening, I have the privilege and joy of teaching our church women’s Bible study. We’ve been digging into Mark’s gospel together since September, and it is the most precious time as we gather – both on zoom and in the room – around God’s Word.

Alongside teaching this wonderful crowd of women, I’ve been ploughing as much energy as I can into investing in those amongst them who might just be able to open up the Bible with someone else, or lead a Bible study or even, one day, teach from the front.

Eager to be a giving river than a knowledgeable, but static, pond, I’m always looking to pass on the skills that I’ve been so thankful to receive from others. Sometimes it means nudging discussion leaders as a group into an understanding of why I’ve written those questions; sometimes it’s a 1-1 opportunity to read a part of the Bible together; other times it’s an admin email that sneaks in a little Bible-reading tip. And there’s a whole lot of prayer, as I let my eyes and thoughts roam the room or the zoom and ask that the Lord might raise up godly women who are able to open up His word for others.

Last week brought a joyful hour with three of these lovely ladies (not that they would likely describe themselves as I have above). Having spent an hour the week before digging into an upcoming passage in Mark, and talking through how to understand it for ourselves, we spent this hour taking it from understanding to teaching.

We debated what our aim sentence should be, nit-picked over nuances and wrote some Bible study questions that will, no doubt, bring about fruitful discussion at this week’s Bible study. I’m unashamedly geeky about the brilliance of a well-worked Bible study, and the beauty of a sparsely questioned, but refined route-map, through a passage. And I loved doing it with these humble, hungry and eager-to-learn sisters in Christ.

I’ve been smiling every time I think about it. Along with various other ‘wording together’ encouragements, I’m reminded that God really does work through His word and, by His Spirit, is building up His church – even before my eyes amongst this heart-warming, joy-bringing crowd of women.

P.s. Check out the new podcast my sister, Sarah, and I have started (Word Fuelled Hearts) that offers more ‘wording together’ as we chat through Habakkuk over a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Racing and Resting

Having raced into the week that has just gone, I’m sitting here on the Sunday afterwards and contemplating rest.

Rest. I’ve been pondering it for a few weeks, knowing that I have a tendency to say yes to a lot, enjoy juggling much and need to avoid collapsing with exhaustion as I possibly try and fit too much into the margins around bringing up our two energetic little boys.

I’ve been thinking through ‘Sabbath-ing’ for a while, knowing that, by nature, I don’t rest very easily. I’m more likely to go for a run than sit, get a job done rather than simply slow down, or even write a blog post when I could be resting!

I’ve been challenged this week to think more on it as I digested my sister’s recent excellent blog post on ‘pocket rest’. My priority, and privilege, is to be present for my children – to love the gift of time with them during these little years, and so I don’t want other pursuits and commitments to interfere or distraction.

But there are margins within these days. And there are other things that I love to do, and to which I feel called to commit. Leading our church women’s bible study and investing in the women; joyously hosting a bible/tea/biscuit chat podcast with my sister; writing here and there, mostly as a means of processing. My margins are full – early mornings spent digging into the bible, nap times filled with admin and jobs, and moments here and there dabbling with demands.

I’m sure many are reading this and thinking I am mad! Why fill life so full?!

But I think the fullness is more possible than it looks if I ‘sabbath’ well…it will mean ‘pocket rest’ moments as my sister describes, but also Sundays that look different. Jobs waiting until Monday, social media off limits, even bible study prep being saved for the next day…and time given over to rest. I’m still working out what that ‘rest’ looks like, maybe a mishmash of family – both blood and church, time to reflect on my bible digging from the week, sofa-sitting with a book or a film, or maybe both.

Whatever it looks like, I’m convinced that if I don’t ‘sabbath’, I’m thinking I can do life – in all it’s fullness’ – on my own; and if I do, I’m depending on my gracious, life-giving God to sustain me and I’ll always fall back on Him, rather than me. I’m praying that I would have a bigger view of God, a smaller view of me and so be all the more persuaded to sabbath regularly and so keep going by God’s grace.

Not So Good…But Forgiven

‘I want more trousers’, comes the wail from down the corridor. It’s the same wail, close to a repetitive drone, that has been echoing through the house for the last half an hour.

The demand is coming from the person who has all his trousers laid out on his bed. Laid out in response to the initial request, in the hope that a choice would be made. Instead, it seems that eleven pairs of trousers (the benefit of being a recipient of hand-me-downs) is not enough, and for some reason the record has broken and we are dealing with a full blown meltdown.

Another day, another meltdown.

This time the cause is hard to discern, but the grumpy edge that appeared around breakfast time has developed into a shouted ‘no’ and a dash for his room and the apparent shelter of his covers. Continued refusal to do what’s asked escalates and, before it’s even 9am, time outs, tearful apologies and consequences are in play.

Another day, another meltdown.

But not just the children. Us adults nit-picking with one another, making conversations spiky and pointedly commenting on what needs to be done, or whatever else seemingly should be the other person’s responsibility. More controlled than wailing or sobbing, but maybe uglier through gathered ammunition and stewed on hurts. Fall-out that can only be remedied through a repentant sorry, and graceful forgiveness.

Another day, another meltdown, and another exposure of our hearts.

My last post spoke of the constant desire in our house to be the ‘good guy’ in whatever game is being played. An admirable desire, and one that we pray would continue in our little men. We long for them to be good men who are like Jesus in character and behaviour.

But our hearts are not naturally those of the ‘good guys’. Everyday, whether a child or a grown-up, it’s always apparent that our sometimes kind hearts are often not; considerate hearts turn selfish; and loving hearts swiftly become unlovely.

In Bible terms, our sinful hearts are on full display and the good times don’t cancel out the flaws. Circumstances might expose it more, but they aren’t the cause. It’s my heart that gets in the way of me being ‘good’.

Wonderfully, all is not lost because Jesus is in the business of forgiving sinners, and changing hearts.

As I see my heart, I know my need for forgiveness – from my children and my husband, but most of all from my God. As tantrums, meltdowns and fights expose our boys’ hearts, we can help them see the problem but also know the one who freely forgives and loves to work ‘good’ out of that which was bad. As they hear us saying sorry, asking them and God for forgiveness and praying He will work in our own hearts, maybe something of this reality sticks.

We’re still praying that our ‘good guys’ would grow into good, kind and generous men but we know that will only truly happen, when they start with a repentant, forgiven heart that only Jesus can bring.

‘But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.’ (Romans 5:8)