Sunday, 11 March 2018

Long time, no post!

This has been the longest gap in my blog for five years. There was no particular reason, except that I felt there was nothing to say. Life has settled into a lovely routine of living and working here in East Africa, the children are all doing well in their homeschooling, with the usual ups and downs and attitudes that most homeschooling blogs describe, and life has just been busy.

Also, round about November, I was hit with some kind of exhaustion. I still don't quite know how to describe it - it was like a tiredness that wouldn't go away, a lack of energy and enthusiasm for things I would normally enjoy, and a very strong loss of confidence in some of my academic work. It is difficult to say whether it was a bout of clinical depression, whether it was simply exhaustion, and hard to work out how much of it was normal and how much was something to be concerned about. There had been a few things that led up to it - having not taken enough leave, feeling life is in a bit of a limbo whilst awaiting the finalisation of our daughter's adoption (the main challenge is that we cannot currently leave the country as a family, and so my husband and I have had to make quite frequent trips alone), and then there were some interesting interpersonal challenges in the workplace. Whatever it was, it was unsettling and frightening and made me take a good long look at my life, consider different aspects of my personality and to reflect on what changes might be necessary to either prevent it getting worse, or to try and prevent it happening again. I am starting to feel a lot more like my usual self, the workplace issues are improving (and a couple of people have remarked that the situation had seemed 'impossible' - I can see God's hand in the changes that have come about!), I am less emotional and more rational about things. But I still feel a vulnerability that is hard to really explain. I am thankful for this time, as with all trials, God has shown many truths to me.

Here are some things I learned:

1. Just how common this type of thing is. I think the devil uses this as a ploy to make us feel alone and isolated, because as soon as I started deliberately trying to be more honest about how I was feeling, it was amazing how many other people told me of times in their lives when they had faced something similar. I think it is easy to only see other people's successes, and this is probably magnified in the social media era - it can seem that everybody else is having a really productive, abundant, joyful life, and that you are the only one who feels ground down and discouraged.

I was reminded again of how God places us in communities, and creates us with a need for interpersonal relationships and fellowship. It can be difficult to open up and be more vulnerable. I find it particularly difficult because at an earlier time in life when I tried to be open about some traumatic events from my earlier life, I was told that I was making things up and seeking to be manipulative, when this was far from the truth. I learnt that one must take a bit of care with whom one shares the deeper struggles - and the book of Proverbs has plenty to say about choosing friends wisely, and taking care from whom one might seek counsel. But this time, I felt encouraged that I have good friends who have walked similar dark paths, and with whom I can be more honest.

2. The need for vulnerability. I love 2 Corinthians 4:7 which reminds us that 'we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us'. A friend told me of a Japanese art form called kintsugi: taking broken pottery and making the cracks part of the design and beauty, something which speaks a lot of how God can use our brokenness. Many people give testimony to how the gospel is more clearly spoken through times of pain and trial, and how seeing a Christian clinging onto their faith and seeking to navigate turbulent waters in a godly way can be a more powerful testimony than a Christian who is bursting with joy and enthusiasm. It can be uncomfortable, it is certainly humbling, but God can use times of darkness to how His light. I have noticed that an element of vulnerability can be helpful in leading teams - to be willing to immediately admit errors and put in place corrective action, to learn from mistakes and keep moving forward, perhaps also to be more aware of the emotions of my team members.

3. The need for spiritual self-examination. Life can get busy, and days can feel like an endless cycle of routine tasks; sometimes even the spiritual disciplines can also feel like 'just another task', rather than relishing in the most wonderful of all relationships. I love the Psalms when I am finding life tough. An example would be Psalm 19, 'But who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; let them not rule over me.' or Psalm 139, 'Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offence in my way and lead me in your everlasting ways'. Both of these are prayers for God to search our hearts and reveal to us ways in which we are not honouring Him. For me, recently I had to consider what the root causes of my anxiety were. I found that some of it was rooted in pride - the fear of failure or public disgrace of some kind, the concern about what others might think of me, generally taking too much of it onto myself rather than trusting that the God who has always provided me with the necessary grace and strength would continue to provide in changing situations.

4. The need for self-awareness - sometimes I would expect other people to tell me to slow down, to take a break, to acknowledge the workload and so forth. However, everybody is busy and people cannot read minds. I have learnt that in the workplace it helps to be positive and enthusiastic in order to motivate the team, and to persuade others of the value of the work (that is important when it comes to getting new grants and being able to disseminate the work in scientific conferences and journals). I also find that positivity can be self-perpetuating. However, I need to be aware of times when I also need to rest. I recently wrote a little about personality types, and how I have found it helpful to consider the best ways I can recharge. I feel this has given me the confidence to make deliberate choices - for example to structure my workload in ways that enable me to use my strengths best, and not get too drained (for example, if there are several days with multiple face to face meetings, I can then do with a day where I spend longer writing).

5. Need to schedule rest, rather than waiting until exhausted. This overlaps with the previous point, but I realised it had been over a year since we had scheduled any time off. Instead I had taken the odd day here and there, often in response to being exhausted rather than as a pro-active positive choice. Whilst I have the enormous blessing of a flexible working pattern and quite a lot of control over where and when I work, this can also bring the drawback of feeling the need to work almost continuously or at least working within every possible time-slot, rarely taking time off to recharge. Last year I noticed how drained I felt after large grant applications, and decided to take time off after those. It has been good to travel with my husband when he goes to work in a beautiful, peaceful and slightly cooler region several hours from here. By leaving town for a few days, this also gives a break from several of the other activities which I love and which I feel are important, but which I find very tiring (like hosting Christian meetings whilst juggling four young children - it is harder when my husband is away!) It sounds a simple change, but it has made a big difference.

I think that will do for now - but these are five things I have learnt or been reminded of through a recent time of trial. I hope that this post brings some encouragement to you, in whatever situation you currently find yourself.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

God-given strengths, personality and leadership styles

Once again, I am blogging from an airport departure lounge. Ahead of me lies a week of setting up a new project, working on three existing projects and meeting some existing and new collaborators to brainstorm about ideas and future proposals. This is the kind of work that I've been involved with for some time, but one difference is that I am taking the lead on the newest project. Whilst this is an exciting step, and could be seen as a logical career progression, it has made me somewhat nervous. I've found myself more anxious about aspects of the work than usual, and being plagued by doubts that 'I can't do this!' Recently I came across the concept of 'imposter syndrome' - and that is exactly how I have been feeling.

Whilst recognising that there are certain personality traits that might predispose me to feel like an 'imposter', even more helpful has been consideration of personality types and leadership styles. I did a leadership course quite a number of years ago, which was where I first came across the concept; however, at that time, we were not really given much information as to what that might mean in terms of channelling our strengths and working on our weaker areas. More recently, I had the opportunity to attend a leadership course which was quite different - attendees were all in leadership roles and had diverse experiences to draw from, and this made the discussion rich. I have also been blessed with a friend who regularly teaches on these topics and has a strong biblical perspective on life too.

If you haven't come across the 16 personality types, you can take this quiz and read some of the related articles. I'll explain some of the things I have found most helpful:

1. That different personality types are valid, indeed God-given. For a very long time, I felt that to be a 'leader' I would need to have an overhaul of my natural personality. I would look at other people, and see the qualities which I desired (confidence, strength, an ability to have people follow you, an ability to maintain a very high standard of discipline among team members) and feel that I 'didn't have what it takes'. However, when I open my eyes and look around, I see that there are many other equally useful styles (summarised to an extent here). Reading the Bible, there are many different styles of leadership - each with its strengths and its weaknesses. Previously I would try and force myself to act in a way which did not feel natural, and this was stressful. I have come to understand that a lot of leadership is understanding ourselves, and building on those strengths whilst being honest about the weaker areas and seeking to develop those. For me, this has been very liberating. (And if you are interested, this is roughly what I come out as): An Advocate, or INFJ, with some turbulence)

2. That different approaches are required in different situations. In our church small-group, we've been considering what love is. I have found it interesting to reflect on how we can stereotype 'love', but when you look at how Jesus responded to different individuals, He was always motivated by love, but expressed it very differently according to the situation. For example, He was very direct with the Pharisees, challenging them and describing them in quite harsh terms (such as 'whitewashed tombs'). He responded very gently to the woman caught in adultery as he reminded those around her that none of us is free from sin. He challenged the rich young ruler by asking him questions in return. He was gentle and accepting of the children who came to Him. Perhaps this doesn't apply directly to leadership, but it reminds me that there is often not just one approach or style when it comes to our relationship with others. Some may come more naturally, but others should be used in some situations. My example in leadership is that I find it much easier to be gentle and draw alongside my team members, trying to understand where they are coming from and motivate them towards the goal. However, there are times, particularly when it comes to the high standards of quality required in the projects, when I have to be stricter and point out that things need to improve. Other people I work with find the former more difficult and are excellent at the latter.

3. In terms of personality types, I found it helpful to recognise that although I work in teams, as both a leader and a member, and do a fair bit of public speaking, I am much more introverted. I think I had previously thought of an 'introvert' as a socially awkward person who would blame their personality for not making any effort socially. However it isn't that (and if you are an introvert reading this, you might be laughing at me for having to say this). It is much more to do with what you find energising and refreshing. I love to be around people, but I find it exhausting. I'd not really understood why this was before. It also helped me to understand that going for a long run in the mornings when I am travelling for work is not just a luxury, but something quite important for me to be able to perform at my best. It has made me understand a little bit of why I've been feeling quite tired and burnt out lately - that I have struggled to get time to recharge. I do not wish to use it as an excuse, but rather to understand how to function best.

4. I have previously heard Christians dismiss things like leadership training as 'psychobabble' or being worldly wisdom and not something we should pay attention to. However, I would disagree - I am seeing it as an ability to understand how God made people, in all their beauty and diversity. I see it as a tool - not to be held rigidly, but to be useful in helping us understand ourselves and others, and being able to give grace to ourselves and others.

5. Appreciating that leadership and personal development is as important an aspect of the work as the scientific disciplines - the more I read and learn, the more some of the situations I have encountered in the past start to make sense. In almost every conflict or relationship breakdown, I can see different personality styles at play, and start to see that there could perhaps have been a better outcome if there had been greater understanding of these factors. More personally, I see it as very important to my own emotional health, to take time to reflect on this.

So, what am I going to do differently? A recent, and not fully resolved episode of exhaustion (possibly something like 'burnout', possibly a bout of depression) has made me appreciate the need to put into place some definite changes, and reflection on my God-given personality and changing roles with increasing leadership responsibilities has helped me recognise what some of these need to be. Here are some examples for now:

1. Firstly, finding somebody who I can trust to mentor me in this process - I am very thankful for that. Also, with two colleagues who also attended the leadership course, we are setting up a small leadership group where we will meet regularly to discuss challenges and developments.

2. Blocking regular time off in the diary. Because my current job does not require my husband or I to book leave significantly in advance, it has been easy just not to take the leave. Something always crops up, a meeting, an emergency, a situation, a deadline. However, we need time away - and so have put some days into the diary.

3. Setting aside an hour a week for personal/leadership development - to read and reflect on this topic

4. Making sure I get enough exercise - when I work from the clinic, I walk 45 minutes each way which is a wonderful time for rest and reflection, but on the days when I work from home, I miss that very much. Realising that enables me to try and get out for a run on those days too.

5. Being honest about the challenges - and the things I am learning. It is so easy to feel you are alone when things are tough, but I am increasingly recognising that a lot of how I have been feeling lately is more common.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Creating a Christ-Centred Christmas

I am sure I have mentioned before how much I love advent. For me, there is something so special in taking time to really reflect on what the birth of Christ meant, both for the whole world but also for me as an individual. Since having children, I have loved being able to create family traditions and memories, and to open our home to those who may not have known these things before.

But somehow this year I feel unsettled. I think part of it is simply that we are getting to the end of a busy year, and there have been plenty of targets and deadlines to aim for, and not much opportunity for rest. But some of it is also this funny feeling I get from time to time - a kind of longing for 'home', but realising that the 'home' I long for is not to be found in this world. Occasionally I can think that I am missing the country of my birth, missing the crisp cold mornings and evenings by the fire drinking mulled wine with good friends (probably the best Christmas memories I have!). But even if I were to get on a plane and do exactly that, I know that it would likely fall short of the longing I describe. It is something I have written about quite a few times before (for example here, when I felt a lot like I do today, here when reflecting on leaving one 'home' for another; here, when reflecting on how grief and loss can make this world feel somehow unreal).

As always, I am thankful for times when I feel unrest, because it always drives me consider what God is teaching me. I often pray, as in Psalm 139, that He would 'search me, O God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offence in my way, and lead me in the way everlasting' - am I uneasy because of a lack of faith, or because I am walking in a way that is displeasing to God? These are questions we should all ask ourselves regularly! I have recently been reflecting on how Christians these days (in general, and I know there are likely many exceptions...) don't treat holiness and purity with the same seriousness as Christians of a bygone era. For example, reading the 70 resolutions of Jonathan Edwards, I am very challenged. I remember thinking quite a lot about this when the children were younger, considering how we teach them that God requires us to 'be holy for I am holy', without that slipping into legalistic lists and rules.

I digress a little. But I am thankful that God reminds me to search my heart and bring everything to Him.

I am also reminded of the amazing family that I have been given in God. I remember one day my son, who was six at the time, drawing a picture of a castle with 19 flags on top (and the flags were all very accurately drawn, for the 19 countries where he had friends). I remember explaining to him that this was a great blessing, to have so many people from different tribes, tongues, nations, colours and cultures having a role in his life. (The flipside being that we have so many friends that we do not see often, and indeed may never see again before heaven, and that can bring sadness). There was once a time when I really did not feel I had a family, living with strangers at the age of 15. I can only feel overwhelming thankfulness for all God has provided for me and my growing family. I can thank God that He can turn a situation around entirely, mourning into dancing, doing more than I would ever have believed possible.

But even in that thanksgiving, even in the certainty of faith, there can still be a sense of loss. As every year goes past, somebody I know goes through a time of real testing. Serious illnesses and death. Out of the blue accidents leading to death or disability. A sudden change in circumstances and a person can feel as though the carpet has been pulled out from under their feet and life will never be the same again. These things are simply sad. I think about how Jesus responded when He heard that His friend Lazarus had died (see John Chapter 11 for the full story). Jesus knew He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead and that God would be greatly glorified. Yet, when He heard the news, 'Jesus wept'. Why? Why would He do that when He knew that the death was temporary and served a far greater purpose? Because Jesus was also fully man, and because grief and loss are painful. He was not just crying out of empathy for Martha and Mary, but out of a sense of personal loss too. I find it helpful to remember that - that sorrow and faith are not opposites. Again, this is something I write about reasonably often, but perhaps as another year ends and we enter a time of 'celebrations', I feel more aware of those around me who have known loss.

This too is good. We need to remember how broken and lost we are to really appreciate why Christ had to come. I sometimes wonder, if life were 'comfortable', and if I were part of a large, 'close' family who made me feel very loved, whether I would take my eyes off the things that matter most of all. The Apostle Paul talked about his 'thorn in the flesh' for which he was thankful because it made him realise that 'Christ's power is made perfect in weakness'. For me, the feeling of unease can be a bit like a thorn - something which I wish wasn't there, but actually when I think about it for more than a few minutes, for which I am thankful.

So, as advent continues, and the children work on their Jesse tree tasks and practice their carols, as we bake (whenever there is sufficient electricity) and prepare to open our home to many friends over the next week, I pray that I can help everybody who visits to leave feeling encouraged in Christ. I pray that even when the home is busy, that I can hear the person who needs to talk, or the person who finds celebrating difficult this year because they miss somebody so much. I pray I can challenge the person who has become to comfortable in this world, and the ones who are chasing after worldly dreams. I pray that from my own weakness, I can be like 'treasure in jars of clay' (2 Corinthians 4:7) and show others the light and glory of the God we are celebrating.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Preparing for Advent

The year has absolutely flown by, and once more we are approaching Advent. I love Advent. I love taking the time to reflect on just how amazing Christ's incarnation was. I find having a very intentional approach to be a powerful antidote to all the distractions that different cultures may offer at this time of year. And I love watching how my childrens' understanding of what God planned since the beginning unfolded increases year on year.

This will be our fourth year of using a Jesse tree project - I've written about our experiences here, here and here. Each year, we add something. Last year, I wanted to add something that helped the boys focus on godly character, and chose the area of kindness. I have seen a few websites which list 'kindness tasks' to help a child take the focus of themselves during advent, but many of the tasks were not possible or applicable to us living in East Africa. So, I amended the list to suit our needs. I put one of these tasks into each of the Jesse tree envelopes and then gave a week of 'grace' for the task to be completed (it seemed a little contrived to insist that it was completed that same day - I wanted to encourage thoughtfulness). We had a checklist where each boy had a column and we could tick off when the task was achieved. Here is our list in case you would like to try something similar.

1.       Write a letter
2.       Offer to help with something when it is not your turn
3.       Say something encouraging to one of your siblings
4.       Read a story to one (or more) of your siblings
5.       Make a card for somebody
6.       Bake somebody a cake
7.       Help one of your brothers tidy his box
8.       Make a thank-you card for Irene (sports) or Sara (choir)
9.       Find a toy you no longer use to give to somebody
10.   Help tidy the garden
11.   Set the table without being asked
12.   Draw a picture for somebody back home
13.   Tell somebody how much you love them
14.   Write a note for one of your brothers, saying kind things
15.   Teach somebody something
16.   Help to cook dinner
17.   Invite some friends round to sing carols
18.   Skype somebody you have not spoken to for a while
19.   Ask somebody how they are
20.   Ask how you can help
21.   Tidy the bookshelves in the play corner
22.   Bake something using a recipe you have not made before
23.   Share something with somebody

24.   Let one of your brothers have first choice

This year, I also want to focus on character, and will include the kindness tasks. Other visual things we have done at times are 'fruit of the Spirit' trees - a large picture of a tree with nine branches, each representing the fruit of the Spirit. Each child is given a colour, and when they have displayed one of the fruit, they are allowed to draw their fruit on the right branch. It is a useful way of getting the children to reflect on their actions and consequences.

I am also quite challenged by the verse, 'Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds' - the children do not always consider others, and how they can be encouraging. So I may try and think of some tasks that encompass this area.

I hope to have a little time over the weekend to plan more. I wonder what your plans for Advent are, and what activities you incorporate to build family traditions and have a household that focusses fully on Christ at Christmas?

Sunday, 5 November 2017

5 things to be thankful for

It has been another busy month in our household. Both parents have been travelling back-to-back for work, and time together has been limited. But the children seem well adjusted to this - they know that there are special things they will do (and eat!) when Mum is away, and different things they will do (and eat) when Dad is away. They also know that we are likely to bring back surprises from our travels, most of which are edible. They love to hear stories of where we have travelled to, and to see photos and read about the history of the place. For example, I was recently in Italy, and they had been studying the Renaissance over the past few weeks, so they were particularly interested in what I was able to see. (Truth be told, my main time for sightseeing is usually when I go jogging before dawn with a digital camera in my pocket, but this does often produce dramatic photos of beautiful buildings lit up against the darkness).

It is always good to stop and reflect and give thanks, and I find this particularly the case when life is busy. Sometimes it can be too easy to lament the challenges and complain about the consequences of choices we have made, and to neglect to see the abundant blessings that are present in every day. So here are five things I am thankful for:

1. As described above - I am thankful that our family structure enables both parents to work flexibly, and that we are able to share many of the experiences with the children.

2. Because our time together has been limited, we decided to head to a rainforest for three days, bringing with us no digital devices. We hiked through the forest and enjoyed an amazing array of wildlife - birds, butterflies, insects, plants, fungi. The children astonished us by the things they spotted, and their ability to recognise particular species and confidently explain why they knew it was one rather than another. We all learnt something, but even more importantly, we enjoyed being together and considering the vastness of God's amazing creation. When you are busy working, it is easy to become very focused on a specific task or project - and rightly so. But it is so restful to remember that there is so much more! This really helps us to regain perspective with regard to what matters most. In the evenings, we sat round a bonfire and told stories and sang songs. It was refreshingly simple, and both children and parents came back refreshed (there are other holidays which are fun, but where I have returned feeling more tired than before).

3. Their love for learning. When we started to home educate, one of the driving reasons was to preserve their natural curiosity and desire to find out more about the world around them. We had seen too many bright and inquisitive children enter mainstream school and within a year or two to seem dull and frustrated by the educational process. At first, our 'education' was very practical, and we spent most of each day out and about. Now that the children are a little older, we also cover the necessary building blocks of language arts (spelling, grammar, handwriting, creative expression) and  mathematics as well as the more interest-driven areas of history, geography, world cultures, science, art, music, cooking and so forth. We tend to spend about three hours each morning working on these, and there have been days when one or other child has complained about the need to concentrate and work hard on an area which doesn't automatically come naturally. As parent/teachers, we have felt the tension between letting the child do things 'in their own time' and to abandon the tricky subject and come back another day, against teaching them the value of good hard work (actually, either approach might be right, depending on the exact situation). But over the past week I have been encouraged again by just how much they are learning and developing, and by how much they have absorbed through reading around their areas of interest or simply exploring and experimenting.

4. Just how much they are all growing and developing. We felt quite happy for the boys (aged 8, 7 and 5) to set, light and tend the bonfire (with supervision). It seems like yesterday that we felt we could not turn our backs for a moment without risk of some disaster or other, but suddenly we seem to have some sensible and responsible boys. The five year old has regularly been asking to help with tasks around the house, and has actually been helpful (as compared to the toddler who tries to help and ends up creating twice as much work). Meanwhile the two year old is communicating well, is potty trained and can walk many miles carrying her own water bottle. Whilst celebrating these things, I also feel a kind of wistful awareness that the 'days are long but the years are short'. When I see a parent with a baby in the airport, I remember those days, but realise they are past. I am thankful that we have chosen to spend so much time with our children and to be able to enjoy their childhoods.

5. For technology. This might sound a random point, but often I reflect on how I am able to run projects in several different countries whilst working part-time with the young children largely because I can do so much work by email or teleconference. I feel it is a job that simply would not have been possible ten or fifteen years ago, and I am thankful for the advances that have changed the way we are able to live and work.

So, five things to be thankful for! As I write, I am sitting at an airport preparing to travel between Africa and Europe again. Often when I travel I feel challenged by the contrasts that I see in life all around me - so many different situations and circumstances, so many hopes and dreams, trials and frustrations - and at the same time, I am reminded of how alike we all are, irrespective of our backgrounds. I am also thankful for that perspective - that every challenge brings an opportunity, that times of suffering and pain can lead to greater joy, and that even as I feel sad to be apart from my family for another few days, it makes me realise just how precious the times together are.

Friday, 6 October 2017

9 reasons I remain thankful through pain

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17

What do you think of when I use the word 'gift'? Most likely, you think of times of celebration, Christmas and birthdays, of beautifully wrapped packages containing lovely items that bring real joy to the recipient. In the Bible, the word 'gift' is used in this way, particularly through the Old Testament. Moving into the New Testament, the emphasis becomes more on spiritual gifts - of the gift of the Holy Spirit and of salvation itself as being a gift. In that sense, many of the good things God gives us relate to our spiritual rather than material prosperity and growth.

So, could pain and adversity be a gift? Could this be something we give thanks for?

The Psalmist wrote, 'It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees' Psalm 119:71 (NIV). Other translations of this include, 'Suffering was good for me; I learned your laws' (ERV), 'It was for my good that I was humbled; so that I would learn your statutes' (ISV), 'The punishment you gave me was the best thing that could have happened to me, for it taight me to pay attention to your laws. They are more valuable to me than millions in silver and gold' (TLB - I know we need to take care with this one, since it is a paraphrase, but I think it captures the meaning well).

Such trials and hardships, whether external to us, relating from our circumstances, or internal physical or mental pain, can help us to have real perspective and see those things that matter most. This has been something I have thought over considerably lately. As it approaches ten years since my firstborn daughter died, I have been reflecting on the aspects of our faith that can help a believer be prepared to stand firm in trial (here, here and here). I have had a couple of weeks of extreme physical pain due to a chronic medical condition that flares up from time to time. And some days, I have just felt sadness - sadness at the state of the world, locally of the hardship I see in some communities around me, and loneliness resulting from living and working cross-culturally and often feeling misunderstood. In all these things, I have been greatly encouraged in my faith, and have come to realise that these are part of the 'life in all abundance' that Jesus promised.

Let me explain a little more:

1. Pain is a reminder that this world is fallen and broken. When life is comfortable and easy, I can forget that every day, people who do not know Christ are heading to a lost eternity. Pain reminds me of this reality - that the harshness of life can serve a purpose.

2. Pain reminds me to stop and reflect on all the things that are not painful, and to count my many blessings. For me, it is often a sharp rebuke to self-pity, reminding me that God has provided so many blessings, and that this pain is only a small part of the picture.

3. Pain is humbling. Sometimes you have to ask for help physically. Sometimes it is necessary to be more vulnerable emotionally. Spiritually, one can only cry out with 'groans that words cannot express' (Romans 8). It is a rebuke to the 'I am strong and can do it all' mindset that can become proud in having a 'can do' approach to problems. I think this was what the Apostle Paul learnt: 'Therefore in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleased for the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.' 2 Cor 12:6-9

4. Pain brings empathy. 2 Corinthians starts with a reminder to believers in a suffering community that they can 'comfort others with the comfort which they themselves have received from Christ'. Understanding some aspects of pain equips a person to draw alongside another and to 'weep with those who weep'. The circumstances and specifics will differ, but the turmoil and confusion, sadness and sorrow, fear and doubt may be similar.

5. Pain helps me understand others. This may relate to the point above, but I am aware of how different people respond to pain. Some speak very freely of it, in real life and on social media and seem able to communicate their distress and need. Others deal with it more internally, giving little outward sign of distress. I probably fall into the latter category (although I do sometimes try to communicate, I often feel I am not 'heard'). This makes me aware that a smile can hide a lot, and that when I care about somebody I should seek to listen carefully, to draw alongside them and to understand. Sometimes, this involves asking specific questions which I would not have done ten years ago.

6. Pain helps counter idolatry. It can be tempting to put confidence and faith in relationships, in things, in family, in work, in status, in comfort. Pain makes me realise that any one of these could be stripped away in the blink of an eye. I feel I have had a glimpse into how these are unstable foundations for a life - whereas perhaps if life always felt smooth and comfortable, I may not have done so.

7. Pain draws me closer to Christ. I love the description of 'a friend that sticks closer than a brother' (Proverbs 18:24). I am aware that He both knows and cares, and walks with me through these trials. I am reminded that 'it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him...' Philippians 1:29. Many of the types of pain I describe may not be in direct consequence of living for Christ in this world, but they do remind us that Christ suffered immensely for our sakes, and God the Father suffered in having His only beloved Son die for our sin.

8. Pain causes me to long for eternity. Revelation 21:4 specifically tells us how there 'will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain''. Eternity is forever and ever. We can look forward to that with real hope.

9. Pain teaches patience. There are times when things cannot be done in the timescale that I might have wanted, or where plans have to be adjusted. This is a reminder that God knows what each of us needs to endure, and does not expect more of us than what is possible. Sometimes I may not have strength to do everything I may want to, and I need to trust that God gives me strength enough to do all that He requires of me.

I am thankful for the hope that we have in Christ, a hope that does not disappoint. I often wonder how on earth a person can make sense of trials without an eternal perspective. I am thankful that in recent situations where I have either been in physical pain, or have felt very sad, that I've known the love and comfort of my Saviour. And I hope, if you are reading this, that God brings such comfort to you also.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Standing firm in trial: Appreciating what Christ's death saved us from

Over the past few months, I have been reflecting what particular things may help a Christian stand firm in the face of a trial. I am particularly wondering whether there is anything that we should, as parents and people who are involved in ministry, be emphasising more in order to prepare and equip young people for the day of trial. Recently, I've discussed how I believe understanding just who God is - His attributes, and perhaps particularly His sovereignty and goodness, underpin our perspective.

I think also, we need to know clearly what it is a Christian has been saved from. In John 10:10, Jesus says 'I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full'. Other translations talk about life in all it's 'abundance'. In fact, this is why I chose the name 'An Abundant Adventure' for this blog. But I think we have to take care when we consider what abundance means. I have heard people suggest that it means physical and material prosperity in the here and now, a life of pleasure and of ease. That would be inconsistent with what Jesus said a few chapters later in John 16:33: 'In this world you will have trouble.' Or the writings of Paul (Romans 5:3-4) who describes how 'we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope', James (James 1:2-3) who tells us to 'Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything', or Peter (1 Peter 1:6-7), who reminds the believers that in their hope in Christ 'you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed'.

So - the aim of salvation is clearly not to provide a life of comfort, ease and material prosperity!

I often consider how previous generations (perhaps read some writings from the Puritan era, or some missionary biographies from years past) and certain parts of the world today know many more physical trials - sickness, high maternal and infant death rates, poor infrastructure, poverty, corruption, conflict - and yet from among these circumstances, there will be Christians with faith that shines as brightly as a beacon, overflowing with heartfelt thankfulness to God for His goodness, and living with joy that is almost impossible to understand when one looks at the circumstances. How can that be? What is it that these people have grasped?

That without Christ, we are all destined to eternal death. Without Christ, all the problems in this world make no sense, will only get worse, and will be even worse when a lost eternity is faced. It does not seem 'popular' in churches today to speak of judgement, of hell, of a lake of fire, of eternal damnation, of separation from God with no hope of return. In a day where it seems any philosophy or value system is acceptable other than a belief in the God of the Bible and absolute truth, it sounds too harsh to discuss such realities. But that is what they are. Realities.

The darkness and all-pervading nature of sin is such that even the physical world was affected by this. I don't fully understand, but the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8 of how, 'the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who  have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies'. (Romans 8:22-23). Nobody escapes the darkness of sin: 'There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is non one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one'. Romans 3:10-12. Today, people would argue that there are 'good people' who are 'not religious'. But this fails to appreciate what sin actually is. 'Everything that does not come from faith is sin' Romans 14:23. Living without submission to God is sin.

I think many people today do not appreciate how dark sin really is. Again, returning to writings from a bygone age, I am always struck how the most godly, sacrificial people were overwhelmed by the darkness of their own hearts. As they got closer to God, their sin seemed all the more abhorrent. It's not something I hear many Christians speak of today. I remember when I first heard the gospel, how aware I was that 'He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins' Colossians 1:13-14. It is as black and white as that. From death to life. From darkness to light. No ambiguity, no half-ways, no grey areas. Through Christ's sacrificial death for us, we are free, and there was no other way that freedom could have been attained. Christianity is not an 'add on' which enhances the quality of our life in this current world. It is an appreciation that without Christ's death for us, we were headed to a lost eternity, without any hope that we could somehow claw our way back or give a justification for ourselves.

Appreciating this, we can start to understand how the Apostle Paul could assert, 'For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain' Philippians 1:21. Our life here is not about comfort and freedom from trials, but about living for Christ. Indeed, just a few verses later, the Philippians were reminded, 'it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have' Philippians 1:29-30. Christians often spend time wondering what God's plan for their lives might be - but don't often like to consider the truth, that we are often called to a life of suffering in order that we can fully display His glory to the suffering world around us.

When I consider my sin, and the amazing truth that God sent His only, beloved Son into the world to willingly die in my place -  when I stop and really think of that, then suddenly things fall into perspective. I am promised an eternity in heaven, where there will certainly be no more sickness, sadness, tears or pain. That is made clear through the Bible. In the meantime, the trials that we face help us to see the eternal perspective and help us to realise what the biggest issue of all really is: A life lived without God, and the need for repentance and salvation.

As I understand this, the question turns on its head, and becomes much less about 'why a good God would allow suffering', but much more about 'how can God use this pain for His glory'.

I am aware that I have not fully explored this issue, and that there are others who could do so much better than I. My writing here is more personal - as it approaches ten years since my daughter's death, and as I reflect on all the ups and downs of the past decade, I am spending time reflecting on what doctrines have been most essential in enabling my husband and I to not just stand, but to grow in God's grace during times of trial. And it is my prayer that some of these writings bring encouragement to others.