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.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Give thanks in all circumstances

'Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus' 1 Thess 5:18

This weekend, I had planned to spend more time reflecting on the aspects of our faith which can most help a believer stand firm in the face of trial. Instead, I've had crippling pain in my neck and arm, and have only been able to function by taking four classes of analgesia. However, this has given me cause to reflect, and to be thankful:

1. I am thankful I am not in this amount of pain all the time! I have a genetic condition which means that from time to time I do get severe pain from my joints, but much of the time I am able to function perfectly well. On the days when I feel incapacitated, it is a reminder of what I am spared, much of the time.

2. I am thankful that God gives sufficient strength to function. I had important work meetings this week, and yesterday was a seven hour thanksgiving service at church. I was able to give as much to these as I was able (and most likely, very few people would have noticed anything amiss). 

3. I am thankful for medicines. I usually carry a selection with me, so that if I have an injury or a flare up, I can treat the symptoms rapidly. I have been considering how disabling this condition would be without these medicines

4. I am thankful that it gives me a greater understanding of what people with 'hidden disabilities' must endure. I am better able to 'rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn'. It makes me aware that other people might be facing unseen challenges

5. I am thankful that the Lord knows all things. Sickness, including genetic conditions like mine, is ultimately a consequence of the fallen world we live in. God knows the challenges we face every day - be it physical limitations, pain, mental health challenges, every bit as much as He is aware of our external circumstances. We can draw close to Him in our times of trial, and for that I am most thankful.

6. I am thankful that this teaches me humility - when life and work are going well, there can be a temptation to become confident in ourselves. Setbacks like this remind me that we are frail humans, dependent on God's gracious provision every day.

7. I am thankful for the reminder that God's timing is perfect. Sometimes we wonder why things happen when they do - why does a challenge or an illness come at what seems to be a most inconvenient time? It's a reminder to trust that God knows about this, and can work in and through it. In fact, I was meant to travel this weekend and the trip was postponed; whilst initially disappointed, I have been very thankful that I have no travel and a relatively empty diary this week.

So, as the week starts, I am in pain and feel a bit daunted. My husband has just travelled for a few days so I'm alone with the children. I can't easily rest the way I would like, and I can't take the stronger painkillers as they make me a little drowsy. But I do know from previous experience, that God will give me strength and grace enough to get through the day, and that He will surprise me with joy and encouragement along the way.

I wonder what challenges you face this week? Do some situations feel impossible? Let me encourage you to trust God, who knows all about it - even more about it than you do. Look back over God's faithfulness and provision to you, and trust that He will continue to provide all you need.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Understanding the Attributes of God (in the face of trial)

Lately I have been considering what enables one person to stand firm in the face of trial, whereas another person may be utterly crushed. Is it just a random thing? Is it to do with genetic predisposition? Does it relate to how much support a person is given during the trial, and how strong their social networks are? Is it so arbitrary that there is nothing that we can do to prepare ourselves for such an eventuality in our own lives?

As I reflect, I am increasingly convinced that there are some doctrines which are fundamental to our faith in Christ which enable us to see our trials in true perspective. Lately, I wrote about how I believe a correct view of God's sovereignty, coupled with His perfect goodness, helps us to truly understand that trials will come, but are not mistakes made by a weak or uncaring god, and neither are they deliberate acts of cruelty by a capricious sovereign being. I believe that having a worldview that deeply appreciates these attributes of God is incredibly important to prepare a Christian for whatever may come, for the celebrations and the trials, for the successes and the discouraging failures. And if the phrase 'attributes of God' sounds like jargon to you, let me recommend a couple of good books. The Knowledge of the Holy by AW Tozer is a beautiful book; a copy was given to me for my 18th birthday, when I had been a Christian for just a few months. Until I was 17, I had never been to a church, Sunday school or holiday Bible club, and had been raised completely without a biblical worldview. I am thankful for friends who directed my reading (both excellent Christian books, and also to read the whole Bible systematically and prayerfully), since these things gave my faith a strong foundation. The Attributes of God by AW Pink is another excellent summary of God's attributes, and available online via the link. An 'attribute' is basically a fundamental aspect of God's nature - what makes God God, and not human. I found that taking time to reflect on these as a young Christian instilled in me a deep understanding that 'My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways', declares the Lord. 'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'. Isaiah 55:8-9. I remember how helpful I found it to consider how if God is Creator, and we are created beings living in a created world, then we can only understand things in terms of other created things, perhaps in terms of metaphor or hyperbole. We will not fully understand God, since we are not God. There is a point where we must simply rejoice in who He is, and trust Him. That is but one example.

I think this is an important place to start - to spend time considering who the God of the Bible truly is. It is easy to create in our minds a false god. We may call ourselves Christians, we may regularly attend church and sing the latest gospel songs, but do we really know God? Sometimes, the proof of this comes when our faith passes through trial. The Apostle Peter wrote that trials '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 Christ is revealed'. 1 Peter 1:6-7. To whom is your faith proven genuine? Perhaps to the cynical friends and family who think it will evaporate when challenges come, but also I believe to yourself. The Bible is clear throughout that we live in a sin-damaged and fallen world, that trials, grief and pain will mark our existence here, but that there is an eternal hope. Later, Peter writes again, 'dear friends, do not be surprised  at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed' 1 Peter 4:12-13. We may ask many questions during trials and times of suffering, we may face periods of dark depression where nothing seems to make sense, but if our view of God is that He is not good, does not care, or is powerless to help, then I would suggest that this is not 'God' at all, and that you are yet to experience the true delight of resting in His embrace.

In our generation, even in many churches, I can see how easy it would be to build a false view of God. We live in a generation that has made many technological and scientific advances. Day to day life is often physically much easier than in generations past, leisure time (which was basically unknown by our great grandparents) is now seen as a fundamental right rather than an occasional luxury, answers are available at one quick 'click' and we can lose perspective. I am not saying that any of these advances are wrong - I believe that science is the means by which we understand more of the world that God created, and through appreciation of the amazing order and detail that exists, I am brought to a place of worship: 'I will praise You for I am fearfully and wonderfully made!' (Psalm 139). I would not work as an academic physician if I considered scientific advance contrary to worship! But my point is that we live in a rapidly changing culture where instant answers and cures are expected. And that is not the world we live in. God is not a 'genie' who responds to tend to our needs, but rather a loving heavenly Father who wishes us to relate to Him in true worship. It's a world apart.

I do not mean to say that anybody sets out to create in themselves a false view of God. But what I am saying is that it can easily be done, and that a Christian ought to prayerfully seek to know God more. I am often astonished when I read the words of the Apostle Paul, often hailed as one of the greatest Christian missionaries that ever lived: 'But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ - yes, to know the power of His resurrection and participation in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus' Philippians 3:7-14 What I find amazing here is that the Apostle Paul, who by this point had experienced a miraculous conversion, visions, divine knowledge of which he was unwilling to write fully, had founded several churches, had faced persecutions, had endured much - and yet he did not consider that he yet fully knew Christ! To me that is an important lesson - that it is not something that one does at a static point in time. There, I know God now. It's not like that - it's a relationship where we grow to know and love Him more, and given that He is infinite (again, returning to those attributes...) there is no limit to us having done this.

I will stop here, and encourage you to reflect on just who God is. And my prayer is that in this, you find perspective in your current situation. I pray that you may be overwhelmed by God's goodness and love, and His compassion and care for you right now in whatever trial you may face.

Next time, I plan to consider what God has saved us from, and what He has saved us to.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

God's sovereignty and goodness: Comfort in grief

Sometimes I am acutely aware of dates and anniversaries, and at other times they creep up on me. For us, because we have lived in some very different cultures and climates, some of the usual 'triggers' are not there, and in our current location close to the equator where there seem to be so few changes in season, we often don't really appreciate what time of year it is at all. So perhaps I have been a little surprised at how aware I am that it is August, and that 10 years ago, we discovered we were expecting our first child.

I remember those days... Feeling tired, really tired, but very happy. Having a secret (we didn't tell people around us that I was expecting until it was obvious, and people in our passport country until we came home for the birth), but feeling very thankful for this gift of new life. One of the reasons we didn't tell people was because of our awareness that life is fragile. I had miscarried before, and I knew quite a number of friends who had suffered miscarriages at all stages of pregnancy (not just before that mythical 'twelve weeks' at which time many people tend to assume that they are 'safe'). I remember a quiet thankfulness and awe, and I would often reflect on Psalm 139 - how God knows about all life since even before conception, and that it is all perfectly in His hands.

Fast forward ten years... Three boys are working on electronic circuits whilst my two year old daughter sleeps. It is a peaceful Saturday where none of us have had many pressing tasks to achieve, and we've been able to sit under palm trees drinking strong black coffee, talking over the next few months and reading adventure stories aloud to the children. Shortly I'll go to church for music practice, we might go running in the cool of evening before sunset. Again, I am overwhelmed with thankfulness and all that God has given me.

It is not how I would have expected things to be. Sometimes I look back to ten years ago as to days of innocent hope, to a world that felt different. Life had not always been easy up to that point, and we'd had to grapple with questions about why a God of love would allow pain and suffering - yet somehow the trials that we had known until that point could clearly be related to sin (either our own or somebody else's). The illness and death of our daughter was different - excruciatingly painful, yet free from complex feelings of guilt, shame or blame.

Over the past ten years, I have interacted with many families who have grieved the loss of a loved one, including many where the person who died was a child. I've wept with them as I have sought to bring comfort from what we learnt as we also walked through those deep waters. Lately, I have been reflecting on what really helps a person through that grief. Three years ago, I reflected on what a 'wish list' of a bereaved parent might look like several years down the line, and whilst I would say much the same things today, I have been thinking at a deeper level. What is it, deep down, that helps a person come to terms with excruciating loss and move forward with hope, joy and thankfulness?

I think much can be summarised in a single phrase: The sovereignty of God'. Or two phrases: 'The character of God' and 'the sovereignty of God'. Let me explain.

Psalm 139 verse 16 reads, 'All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be'. Do we really believe that? Do we really believe that God would ordain some people to have many thousands of days, and others to have only one or two, or indeed no life beyond the womb? But in considering that, do we really believe that God is good? That He is love? I know some people who have walked away from the church or any desire to seek or know God because they come to consider him as a 'capricious being who throws dice'. They cannot come to terms with the fact that God knew in advance the tragedy that would befall them, and yet in His wisdom, permitted it to happen.

I think there are several reasons for this. In part, I think it can be easy whilst living in this world to lose sight of eternity. Yet throughout the Bible we are encouraged to keep our eyes on the bigger picture, on the long game. In the words of the Apostle Paul, 'Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal'. 2 Cor 4:16-18. I find it absolutely fascinating to read what Paul described as being 'light and momentary': 'I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day on the open sea. I have been constantly on the move, I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and often gone without sleep, I have known hunger and thirst and often gone without food, I have been cold and naked'. 2 Cor 11:23-27. I wonder whether many modern Christians, facing even one or two of those circumstances, would consider their trials 'light and momentary'? But Paul had his eyes fixed on the final goal, on eternity, and on God's purpose through it all, and therefore he did not lose heart. One of my favourite verses, especially when my heart feels like it is breaking, is in the description of heaven found in Revelation chapter 21: 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.' Rev 21:3-4

But Paul didn't just have a blithe acceptance that somehow all the suffering and pain would one day be erased. He understood that God was working in and through these trials for His glory. Similarly, the Apostle Peter wrote to a church who was facing such severe persecution that many Christians had needed to flee, and so the church had been 'scattered'. He described it thus: 'In this you greatly rejoice though now for a little while you have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuiness 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. Though you have not seen Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end of your faith, the salvation of your souls' 1 Peter 1:6-8. So, trials prove our faith genuine. Does that mean that a person who struggles greatly in the face of a trial does not have faith? Not necessarily, but I do think there may be a misunderstanding of God's great purposes throughout history and through our lives. (I am fully aware I am not addressing this issue fully!)

Throughout the Bible, we are never given any assurance that knowing the amazing love, grace, forgiveness and salvation of Christ will mean our life in the here and now will be easy. Indeed, one of the last things Jesus told his disciples before his death on the cross was this: 'I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world'  John 16:33. We are warned of conflict within families, misunderstanding and potential rejection by our communities. We are told that we will be like pilgrims and strangers in the world - which may sound poetically idealistic, but in fact might often be cold, lonely and fraught with challenges.

I love to read writings of the Puritans. I've recently remarked on reading a simple novel written by a Puritan, where there is a strong worldview of God's sovereignty radiating off the page. Read many biographies or commentaries written in that era, and this is an overwhelming strength of their faith. You read of families where 19 children were born but where only 8 survived to adulthood, and yet the family rejoices in God's goodness. You read of real hardship, of poverty, of illness, of the toil and grind of daily life in the pre-industrial era, and yet a real thanksgiving is apparent. More latterly, one can read of Christians like Elisabeth Elliott whose first husband Jim was killed with several friends by the Auca Indians to whom they were seeking to bring the gospel. In the wake of this, Elisabeth remained among that tribe and saw many come to a genuine faith. Her writings are strongly Biblical, and often filled with a real pragmatism: life may be difficult and painful, yet we need to look to what God has called us to do. And that is inspiring!

But such a strong confidence of God's goodness in the face of extreme trial seems less common today. In many parts of the world, life is much less troublesome and traumatic, and those who face trials such as the death of a child or the premature death of a spouse are seen as unusual. There is no quick or easy answer to these situations, and so loved ones, and indeed often fellow Christians may step away, lacking the confidence and assurance required to address these deep questions in a loving, but Biblical way. 'How can a God of love allow this?' is one of the deepest, most heart-felt questions a person can ask, and yet many Christians today seem ill-equipped to answer.

Many modern Christian songs focus more on us or our response rather than on God's goodness and sovereignty. Erroneous prosperity teaching does not just relate to matters of finance, but also to areas of health, wellbeing, relationships and comfort, and our current generation often has a sense of entitlement (for more about this, read this book!). And these are errors which diminish appreciation of the true power and glory of God. The gospel was never about us having an easy, long, comfortable and healthy life in this world, but is to do with the amazing freedom that arises from having our sins forgiven and being able to approach God with confidence and boldness, having that relationship restored. It is about peace in the face of trials, and an incredible everlasting hope.

My prayer is for a generation of Christians who can really get to grips with God's sovereignty without losing sight of his perfect love and goodness. For me, these are the elements that enabled us to see our daughter's life as a precious gift, and to have been a life which pointed many towards God's glory.