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Work Adventures (4): Surprised by dreams

You know when I sit down and rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. (Psalm 139:2)

This series of posts tells the story of a life-changing period in the 1980s when I moved from being a schoolteacher to lecturing at university.

Here I tell how God fulfilled dreams for both Lesley and me in taking us to the USA for six months during my PhD.

A silly dream?

About the time I started at Manchester University in 1986, I watched a TV programme about Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. This world-leading centre in computer science research captured my imagination. I started to dream about how I could go there. What an amazing experience that might be! Realistically, however, that couldn’t happen, so I quickly dismissed it and got on with life.

Not so silly?

In October 1987 I started my PhD at Leeds University. I believed I had been directly led by the Holy Spirit not only to do the PhD but also to the field of study. One evening we invited my new supervisor and his wife for dinner. During the conversation, it came out that he had been a Visiting Professor at CMU for 18 months and there were opportunities for his students to go for shorter periods.

This seemed too much of a “coincidence” to ignore. Lesley and I agreed I should pursue it, but we also agreed that, because of family responsibilities, I should go for a maximum of three months.

In January, the CMU professor interviewed me while he was in Leeds for a conference. When he asked how long I wanted to stay I replied, “no more than three months, because of the family.” He replied “That’s not enough. I’ll pay you extra so that you can come for six months and bring the family.” I left the interview pinching myself in wonder at what just happened. We could all go, it was for longer than expected, and I would have the higher status of Visiting Scientist as an employee rather than Exchange Student.

Lesley’s dream

Lesley had also wanted to go to the USA. While hanging out the clothes, she had often seen planes passing overhead and wished that she could be going “across the pond”. While I was at the interview, she had felt the Holy Spirit reassuring her that she and the boys would be coming with me. So, when I came home from interview, my good news was not a surprise but a confirmation!

More obstacles

As is often the case with God’s good gifts, we found there were obstacles to overcome, just as there had been earlier in this journey.

By July we found ourselves homeless after selling our house (it’s a long story with a great outcome, which I’ll tell in another post) and felt we couldn’t go till this was resolved. We postponed our departure from early September to mid-October, then we found a short-term lease until the departure date. A very capable friend agreed to buy a house for us in our absence, and, despite the concerns of some, we gave him Power of Attorney and access to our bank account. So, we were able to go ahead even though the house situation wasn’t finally settled.

Just before that, my industrial sponsorship had ended, through no fault of mine. The Department of Computing honoured its promise to pay me the equivalent, but when the Research Council that funded me found out, they wouldn’t accept this arrangement, insisting that it had to stop and that I had to repay what I had received so far. This destroyed our financial basis to continue the PhD at all, let alone go off to the USA for six months. My supervisor didn’t know what to do, so I had to appeal to the Research Council myself.

My letter started, “Dear Sirs, this morning my family ate my front door, next week we will eat the roof, the week after that we will start on the windows…” and went on to explain how their decision forced us to eat into the limited capital from the sale of our house if I were to continue my research. The unusual financial circumstances were not my fault, and everyone involved was acting in good faith to enable my PhD to continue. I asked them how they expected the country to develop good researchers if they treated students in this way. My unusual approach paid off and the decision was reversed, so we were able to go ahead with our expedition.

The end of my industrial sponsorship directly affected my PhD work, because there was no further motivation or support for my topic and no expertise in it within my own department. This was something still to be resolved, but with financial obstacles removed we went ahead.

What about church?

Being in a compatible church was very important to us. We tried unsuccessfully to find contacts in the Pittsburgh area through our church network, so it seemed we were going into the unknown.

I had written an article for the June edition of a Christian magazine about my experiences leaving teaching and going into research, mentioning that I would be going to CMU later that year. One day I got a letter in my office, from a man in Edinburgh who had come to this country from Pittsburgh as a missionary. Having read my article, he tracked me down and offered to introduce us to his church in the city’s suburbs, South Hills Christian Centre. After praying about it, we decided to take this up. As a result, church members agreed to meet us at the airport and offered us temporary accommodation. Since the church had its own school, there was an immediate provision for our boys.

Crossing the pond

We arrived in Pittsburgh on October 20, 1988, with just four large and three small suitcases. Met as promised at the airport, we were welcomed into the home of Doug and Dot, one of the most hospitable couples we have ever encountered. During the next few days I settled into the University, the assistant pastor helped us find a car to buy and an apartment to lease, and each evening we were royally fed at the homes of different church families. Simon and Matthew were enrolled in the school; the one fly in the ointment was that Jo was just a few weeks too young, even though he’d been in primary school in the UK, so Lesley had to homeschool him.

We had been told by CMU that it was easy to find furnished accommodation. This was not the case. The flat we did get (with a single-parent church family on the floor above) was mostly unfurnished. However, on the evening when we arrived, a large van drew up outside and three church members carried in virtually everything we could need, much of it on loan but some of it a gift from church members. I don’t think we have ever received such a welcome and generosity. These early days in Pittsburgh later became an inspiration for us to open our own home in the UK to international students.

Fleeting moments

The months sped by. My work was busy and profitable; after some adjustments, Simon and Matthew settled into school; Jo was homeschooled. Lesley had the opportunity to help in the school and soon realised she herself was a much better teacher than she had thought! – an important preparation for her return to work when we were back in the UK.

A few events stick in the memory: jetlagged Jo falling asleep with his head in his dessert; with another church family, eating the Bonanza restaurant out of ice cream at an all-you-can-eat buffet (and being asked never to return!); a Thanksgiving meal in an underground house with a lawned roof; visiting the local fire station on Christmas Day; an amazing New Years Eve Chinese meal with my professor and colleagues while the boys watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Out at the professor’s home; seeing frozen Niagara Falls in February; the luxury of insurance care at Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital when Simon hurt his arm in a school incident; the eye-watering uninsured dental bill for Lesley when part of a tooth fell out; a road trip to Gettysburg, Washington DC and Virginia just before we left; crowds of new friends coming to the airport to see us off.

Lasting impact

In all this, several experiences proved vital to our future.

First, the work I was initially asked to do at CMU had connections with both my previous work for my sponsoring company and the research focus in my department back in Leeds. As a result, I was quickly able to come up with a clear direction for my future research, which came to a successful conclusion later.

Second, Lesley was set free from the fear of playing the piano in public, which had haunted her from the age of 14, when she froze in school while playing the piano during assembly. One Sunday, the pastor announced, without consultation, that next Sunday Lesley would be accompanying somebody singing a solo song. She felt she had no choice and rose to the challenge. In doing so, she found that the fear disappeared.  This was vital for her future work as a music teacher and serving in church worship.

It was while in Pittsburgh that Lesley started writing songs. With an old piano in the basement and inspired by God’s grace to her, she wrote her first song, “There is no one like you.” Over the years, both writing her own songs and singing spontaneously have been important parts of her contribution to worship. “There is no one like you” is still my favourite.

Finally, Lesley had another dream fulfilled. During her school and college years she had played orchestral percussion, particularly timpani. As time went on there was no opportunity for this, but she longed to have one more chance to play. While we were at South Hills Christian Centre an extension to the building was opened.  They had put together an orchestra for the occasion but lacked a timpanist. It was a marriage made in heaven! Although Lesley hasn’t continued with timpani, that personal touch of grace is still part of her appreciation of her heavenly Father’s love.

In supporting me in my dream, Lesley found that God met with her in her own dreams and hopes.

Back to earth

We arrived back in in chilly Leeds on April 20, 1989. But you may be wondering, did we have a house?

In our absence, our friend Janos Taller had had bought us a four-bedroom house, done the necessary refurbishment, arranged church working parties to decorate it, and gathered our possessions together from all the homes where it had lived after we sold our previous house in July 1988. What an amazing testimony to God’s provision and the love of his people! Janos did all this with very limited funds at a time when house prices were rising rapidly, so it feels like this qualifies as a miracle. To cap it all, when we sold the house four years later, at a time when prices had dropped significantly, we made a healthy profit. God is our provider!

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