“There is no problem on earth that can’t be improved upon by a cup of tea.”

“There is no problem on earth that can’t be improved upon by a cup of tea.” This well used proverb is accepted wisdom here in England. Hot black tea, which first came to England from China in the 17th century became very popular beginning in the 19th century. From my unscientific observation it remains the most popular beverage of choice in England. Okay, well maybe beer gives it a run for its money, but tea has to be up there! C.S. Lewis once said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” When the character Hagrid is upset in the third Harry Potter book, Ron Weasley responds with, “Er-shall I make a cup of tea?…It’s what my mum does whenever someone’s upset.”

In the past week we have enjoyed tea with English breakfast, tea with bacon sandwiches, and tea with scones and cream. The first thing both of my grandmothers do when we arrive is put the kettle on for a cup of tea. We’ve been invited over by new friends to have a “cuppa” as it is often referred to. But today I discovered a new use for tea that broadens its reach even further.

The weather here has been absolutely magnificent (highs of 65 and bright sun). It is very unusual for this time of year and this part of the world. So I took advantage of a beautiful day to get out on another bike ride. I scoured the maps and chose a 40 mile route up to a lovely little village called Bellingham and back. On my way up I passed through the very English sounding hamlet of Wark and stopped to use the toilet (restroom). [By the way, most villages that have more than one or two homes have public toilets in the center – a very useful touch for cyclists and other travelers!] There I met a group of mostly retired cyclists who were headed towards Bellingham and I was told repeatedly that it is pronounced bell-lin-jum. They invited me to join them. One was a 69-year-old Italian who had raced bikes since he was 12. Another was 78 years old! They weren’t extraordinarily fast, but they were riding a total of 80 miles and they took me up some steep climbs. Many of them ride everyday.

When we arrived in Bellingham we went to a local cafe and sat around a plastic table in the front garden (yard) for a lunch of sandwiches, beans on toast, scones…and tea. The very first thing these guys did at their rest stop on a long, hard ride, was order pots and pots of hot tea. Nobody cracked open a single Gatorade, gel, or Powerbar. But they all had to have their tea. Before I knew it a cup was placed in front of me, tea was poured, and I was drinking my first cup of exercise tea. Apparently there is no problem on earth, including sore muscles, that can’t be addressed by a cup of tea.

– Mark

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Learning to look over my right shoulder…

The girls started school today here in England. They are having the unique opportunity to study abroad at an early age! They both reported having a good first day. The highlight for our older daughter was swimming at the local pool during the school day – not something she gets to do at home during school. She also fielded a lot of questions from the other kids about America. The youngest had her first “kindergarten” experience here since kids begin full day school a year earlier in England. So far so good! She has made some new friends already. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that the upcoming months are a good experience for them that they will remember (positively!) for years to come.

With the girls at school for a good part the day I had the chance to nip out (get out) for a cycle (bike ride) in the hills around Hexham. And there are lots of hills! I thought that the Madison area was hilly but the roads around here put Madison hills to shame. They are also very narrow and I am getting used to riding on the left side of the road and therefore looking over my right shoulder to check for cars and traffic. Thankfully many of the roads in this part of England are also very quiet. There were a number I rode on (like the one below) that had few to no cars on them at all. I am very grateful to have been able to arrange for a long term rental of a decent bike for while I am here. It is a real joy to be able to get out into the countryside on a bike.

– Mark

Sunday in Hexham

Our Sunday began by going to the Hexham Abbey. Although not for worship.

We were invited to observe the weekly Sunday morning bell ringing in the Hexham Abbey tower. The couple whose home we are living in here are avid bell ringers and their friend who picked us up at the airport has been ringing for over forty years! Hexham Abbey has quite a serious bell tower complete with ten bells. The largest one weighs a ton. Rather than describe the experience here is the little video so you can see it for yourself. We hope to get up into the actual bell chamber later this week and give it a go ourselves at one of their practices!

Sunday is the day of the week that I most notice being on sabbatical. It is odd to not be leading in worship on a Sunday – or like today, even attending worship. After the ringing we made the trek back down the tiny staircase (that incidentally was quite treacherous for my large feet) and out the door to join the bell ringers for tea and bacon (English bacon) sandwiches. Apparently they ring the bells but don’t go to worship most Sundays. From what we hear this is consistent with the general public’s worship attendance record throughout England. The other day I was invited to join a bicycle ride that leaves from Hexham each Sunday morning. A great deal happens on Sundays, but most people aren’t at church.

It was a bit awkward for us today when we returned to the church parking lot to retrieve our car after tea and ran into the Rector (Head Pastor). We hastily assured him that we would be attending worship next week! I now know how students at Pres House feel when I “catch” them missing worship. 😉

It has been a great relief though, to not face Sunday as a work day each week and instead to just be. It is a particularly freeing experience as ministers for us to do other things on a Sunday besides attend church, but we have found that we do in fact miss worship. I am not missing preaching much at the moment, maybe that will come as time goes by. But I do miss worship. So it was special when the girls led us in an impromptu worship service this afternoon at a tiny country church right along Hadrian’s Wall.

Chester’s Roman Fort

We spent some time at Chester Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall. The Roman Wall is an incredible piece of history. Today the girls played in the ruins of barracks and bath houses that were constructed around 130 AD. After enjoying a lovely warm, sunny day at the fort we headed back towards Hexham. Along the way we stopped at St. Oswald’s Church at Heavenfield. The church is located on the site of a battle that took place in 634. Oswald, the son of a previous English king of Northumbria, had been exiled when his father was killed. He was converted to Christianity by the monks of Iona. Oswald came back and defeated king Caedwalla at Heavenfield despite all odds against him. Oswald went on to be a major player in the spread of Christianity throughout what is now the north of England. He looked to Celtic monks to assist him in spreading the faith and so St. Aidan established the great spiritual center of Lindisfarne. St. Aidan and later St. Cuthbert served as pastors and spiritual leaders throughout the northeast.

But this afternoon the kids got it in their heads to lead a worship service in St. Oswald’s church. They sang songs, read Psalms from the Bible in the pulpit, and led a prayer provided to visitors of the church. Together we prayed:

Father in Heaven, thank you for bringing me here today.
Thank you for the peace and beauty of this place.
Give me your peace in my heart and in my life.
Thank you for the faithful people of the past,
and for the people who are special to me.
Help me to love all people, especially those who are hard to love.
Give peace in our world, and show me how to be a peacemaker.
Lead me in your way, and forgive me when I lose it.
I commit myself to follow you
and to live a life of love and truth, peace and justice.
Send me from here to live and work to your honour and glory. Amen.

For a few special minutes we had the chapel all to ourselves. Just the four of us and our loving Lord. On this Sabbath Sunday, as I live and breath the stories of such faithful people of the past and give thanks for many special people in my life, I pray for God’s grace to live each day in love and truth, peace and justice.

– Mark

St. Oswalds

Across the Generations

Today we went to visit my grandmothers (our daughters’ great-grandmothers). They both still live in the homes that my mother and father grew up in. They are in two different neighborhoods in the Newcastle area. My mother’s mother is 100, turning 101 this summer. My father’s mother is 92. Remarkable! We enjoyed the usual English hospitality of tea and biscuits (cookies) with each of them. We look forward to more visits in the coming months. My parents and sister are coming from California to visit in May so we can get four generations together on both sides!

The other adventure of the day took place when I tried to take the girls to a park while Erica was at a tae-kwon-do class in Newcastle between visiting the grandmothers. Even with the “help” of a sat nav (GPS) we got ourselves lost and turned around near Newcastle University. We followed the friendly sat nav voice which led us onto a series of roads for buses only. As we drove along streets with signs saying “no cars” trying to get back to a road we were allowed on, our eldest daughter noticed people shaking their heads and waving fingers at us. But no harm was done and we eventually made it back to pick up Erica. Next time we go to downtown Newcastle we will do what locals do – take the bus or the train! We are being weaned off of our American love of cars.

– Mark

Keep Calm and Carry On Driving!

This morning on my birthday I had the pleasure of eating breakfast at Cafe No. 6 in Corbridge and opening up a gift from Andy and Anna: the English posters from WWII (see Mark’s earlier post, “Keep Calm and Carry On”). I’m sensing a theme for our Sabbatical!

Driving the English Way
Last spring when we visited, Mark did all the driving as I tried to remain calm in the passenger’s seat. Yesterday I had my first go at staying on the left side of the road as Mark anxiously kept saying, “You’re really close to the curb, you’re really close to this side, YOU’RE REALLY CLOSE!!!”  I’m proud to say that I managed just fine, even with the stick shift being on my left. A sidenote: unlike the U.S., you can parallel park any direction you want on the roads. I find this very disorienting. Ironically, I parked the right way on the street (the direction of traffic) but the car two cars in front of me were facing the opposite way–so I turned the car around because I thought I was wrong.

Eldest: "I'm kinda creeped out by the sign that says, 'Weak Bridge.'" Agreed!

English Roads
To say that the roads are narrow is an understatement; there’s really no margin for error. We had a fun, though at times harrowing, drive through the surrounding area today. Two-way roads which really only had room for one vehicle, “weak” bridges, and country roads which you’re not sure are actually roads or a long driveway to a farm.

There's a sensor on the car that makes it beep loudly whenever you're approaching something too close. The car protested all the way across the bridge.

It’s been great fun so far and I’m looking forward to observing the Bell Ringers at Hexham Abbey this Sunday. Stay tuned!

– Erica

Aydon Castle - Near Hexham, so we decided to pay a visit...

...but it was closed, so we tried to peek over the wall to get a look!

A lovely day in Hexham

We are now in Hexham, England!

This past weekend we had a very nice time with the Snooks, the couple who we are exchanging homes with. They came to stay with us a couple of days before we left so we could meet each other and get acquainted. The weather in Madison was spectacular so we were even able to grill some brats to welcome them to Wisconsin.

On Monday we left Madison and flew through Detroit to Amsterdam. Feeling groggy, we watched the sunrise in the Amsterdam airport and then flew the final leg to Newcastle, England. Upon landing on Tuesday morning we were met at the airport by friends of the Snooks. They helped us load up the boot (see note below!) of their car with our luggage and took us to Hexham. Note: I am going to try to start including English idioms and spellings in our posts as we incorporate them into our lives here. I expect you can guess what the boot is, I’ll note others that are trickier!

The Snook’s house is lovely (a word that is used here a great deal to describe anything excellent, great, awesome, beautiful, nice, special, comfortable, and generally anything positive). And the welcome couldn’t have been warmer. We walked into the house to find a couple of champagne glasses filled with American flags. The champagne, along with other sundry items was in the fridge. There is plenty of room for us and a lovely view of the hills surrounding the area. The girls have already made good use of the toys the Snooks and their friends kindly left us.

It is always hard to get up when you fly this many miles east, but we were all finally up this morning shortly before lunchtime. We took sandwiches down to the village park just next to the Abbey. The girls played on some kind of crazy spinning, seesaw thing that surely must send kids to the emergency room every other day. They loved it. Then we explored the library, the leisure centre (centre is spelled correctly and leisure is pronounced lejure – it is the local pool, gym, and 10 pin bowling alley), and the bike shop in town. I’ll have to write more about this cool little bike shop later, but I am very excited to have secured a bike for our time here and will be volunteering in the shop a couple of days a week.

It is a little surreal to actually be here after so much planning and thinking about it. Tomorrow we visit the school the girls will go to and Erica is checking out a tae-kwon-do class. We expect it will be another lovely day.

– Mark

Absence makes the heart…pray more?

The weather in Madison has been spectacular this week. I have found a few hours to get away from prepping the house and packing for a couple of bike rides. As I reached the top of a hill overlooking southwestern Dane County this morning I noticed I had been thinking a lot about family, friends, and staff and students at Pres House. Because I deactivated Facebook I don’t know what is going on with people unless they are my neighbors who I see outside enjoying the summer-like weather. I can imagine many of the posts – about the Badger win in the NCAA tournament today, the heat wave hitting Madison, and I am sure about other more important things as well. I miss knowing what is going on with the people I care about.

But today I found myself praying for these folks (you!) more than I usually do. In a curious paradox, as I have been wondering how everyone is doing, I have found myself lifting them up in prayer more than I do when I get daily status updates. I have been praying for folks who have health concerns as I wonder how they are doing. For students looking for work after graduation and preparing for Spring Break. For friends across the country serving churches or doing other important work.

I like staying connected and knowing about the ups and downs in our lives. But I am reminded that meaningful connection doesn’t come through a few characters on a computer screen. When I read a status update I fool myself into thinking I know what is going on and my duty to care and pray for the other is fulfilled – even if I don’t do anything more than blink and move down the page. But when I have to wonder, I find I am caring more. Maybe sometimes it is better to simply call upon God’s grace in our loved ones lives in whatever ways they need it in that moment – even if we don’t know what that is.

– Mark