Sunday, 24 June 2018

Why does God answer the same prayer in different ways for different people?

'Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit'. James 5:13-18

A well known passage. God can do amazing things! He is a God of miracles. He is good and loving. He answers prayer. He forgives sin. The Bible is full of inspiring examples.

But what about when the healing doesn't happen? In the past year, I've had two friends in very similar situations. Both had babies with serious heart problems who needed to travel abroad for surgery. Both had similar underlying medical problems. In both cases, the parents were strong, vibrant Christians (worship leaders and missionaries, respectively). In one case, prayer after prayer was answered, doors were opened, things that seemed impossible came to pass, surgery was uncomplicated, recovery smooth and there has been much celebration. In the other case, whilst the surgery seemed initially to go well, the child died some months later. I have no doubt that the parents (and their friends and loved ones) would have been praying very similar prayers in both instances. So, why the difference? My children, knowing both families quite well, have also been asking these questions!

My eight year old was very clear. 'God answers prayer in three possible ways. Yes, no, or not now'.

My nine year old was also quite clear. 'God knows the way in which He will be glorified most, and that will not be the same for every person. He chose things to happen the way they did so that more people can hear about His goodness'.

I agree with both of these, but it is quite poignant when you see a friend torn apart by grief, not necessarily seeing just why God would be more glorified through the loss of her child! And when faced with the question, I realise that the question can only be answered with the eternal perspective.

Platitudes come into being because there is often truth within them. So, when God doesn't answer a prayer in line with our deepest human longings, of course He is still working good. 'And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose' Romans 8:28. It's a wonderful, powerful verse. And yet it can feel like a slap in the face to somebody wrestling with this question.

One of the first things I think it is essential to remember is that, 'Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever' (Hebrews 13:8). When the Lord revealed Himself to Moses, He described Himself thus: 'The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin...' (Exodus 34:6). The character of God does not change and will not change. Our perception of God may be challenged. But that does not mean for a second that He has changed. I think time spent meditating on the attributes of God is very helpful when facing difficult questions, and I recently wrote more about that here.

It is important to consider all of His attributes, rather than focussing one one or two alone. This article summarises these attributes well. The perfect combination is important - because one can accept that God is omnipotent, all powerful, but might not appreciate that He is also good, and wise. One might accept that God is omniscient, knowing all things, but then feel rejected and abandoned because He must have chosen to ignore your pain and circumstances. But when we remember that He is wise, good, just, merciful, gracious and loving - then we recognise that He is fully aware of the situation, of the prayers that have been uttered, the tears that have been shed, and the currently overwhelming sorrow that is being experienced.

Our God is triune - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Considering Christ the Son, 'He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him'. (Colossians 1:15-16). Despite this power, 'We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need'. (Hebrews 4:14-16). He knows our sorrow, our confusion, our questioning - and invites us to come to Him in prayer and find the help we need.

But all of this only answers the question in part! So far, we have established that:

1. God does not change
2. God is able to perform miracles as He is fully powerful
3. God is aware of everything that any person is going through and is compassionate
4. God is perfectly kind, loving and wise
5. As a man, Jesus walked through trials and pain, and invites us to bring these to Him in prayer
6. God works in every situation for good

But still the question remains: Why then, would this good, powerful, unchanging God work in different ways in response to similar prayers? Why would He put some of His children through extreme pain and suffering, and seem to provide a way out for others?

Earlier this evening I read Philippians to my children, and noted this: 'For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it might be conformed to His glorious body, according to the workings by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself' Philippians 3:20-21. Illness and death is a sign of our bodies being subject to decay, to brokenness, and here we are reminded to look to eternity - to transformation and restoration. This echoes of Paul, 'Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal'. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. And it leads forward to the promise given in Revelation, 'Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away'. Revelation 21:3-4.

When we look with human eyes, considering the here and now, we see a paradox between the apparent 'answered' and 'unanswered' prayers. But when we consider what is happening from the eternal perspective, I find things start to fall into place:

1. Heaven is better by far! As Paul wrote, 'For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain' (Philippians 1:21). Those who have died in faith have been 'fast-tracked' or 'promoted' to glory. For them, suffering and pain has ended and they are fully free to worship perfectly for eternity. (I am aware I am not bringing in the added complexity of when a loved one dies, apparently not in faith - this also presents a challenge, and I should aim to write about that separately).

2. Sufferings and affliction are used by God for His glory. There are so many passages about how we should expect suffering and tribulation, about how trials present unique opportunities for growth, and about how God is honoured in these situations that I shall not attempt to list them all here. My favourites include 1 Peter 1, James 1, Romans 5.

3. In the light of eternity, the pain and frustration we face here is short-lived. If you study the circumstances that Paul described as 'light and momentary', you can see that few people enduring these would use such language to describe them: 'in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and in nakedness - besides the other things...' (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

4. Whilst God might display some of His glory through 'answered prayer' here and now, He is achieving eternal glory (some of which may be apparent, other of which may only become apparent in eternity) through the prayers that seem to be unanswered, or which are not answered according to our human desire.

I have also been considering what might be considered a person's 'lot'. The book of Ecclesiastes deals with this extensively - that a person may pursue pleasures and security in the here and now, and find it all to be 'vanity'. 'Here is what I have seen: it is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage. As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labour - this is the gift of God. For he will not dwell unduly on the days of his life, because God keeps him busy with the joy of his heart' (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20). Basically, we should focus on what God has given us, and accept the good and the bad parts. When I reflect on my life so far, I can see situations where prayers have been answered dramatically, in the way that I would have chosen (the immediate example is when my second son was acutely ill and close to death, that he responded within a few days to treatment and had no lasting consequences, and that his adoption went through within about six weeks without any challenges), and of course others situations where I have felt the sorrow of the prayers being answered differently (for example my daughter's death). Whilst we are caught up in a situation of sorrow or of rejoicing, it is important to remember that there will be other times in our lives when we experience the opposite. And as discussed above, God will not have changed, and will not have made a mistake.

Again, there is a lot we can learn from the Apostle Paul (you can see that reading through the whole of Philippians as the childrens' bedtime reading did us all good!): 'I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content; I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me' (Philippians 4:11-13). Our contentment should not depend on what we have, but ultimately on our relationship with God. 'Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully on the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Christ' (1 Peter 1:13). By finding satisfaction and true joy and peace in Christ alone, we are better positioned to weather the storms of pain and loss, and better able to trust that whilst we cannot fully understand why things are as they are, that we have not been wronged or forgotten by God.

I think there are also other complicating factors that can make the situations very difficult to bear. These relate to the fact that all Christians are sinners saved by grace. We are all open to temptation, and will not relate to one another with that perfect wisdom, kindness, grace, love and gentleness that the Lord displays to us.

A couple of specifics come to mind:

1. Jealousy/ envy. It is very easy to feel envious when another person seems to have had their prayer answered in the way you wanted yours to be! I think this happens a lot in the Christian life - when a friend gets a good job, or married, or the couple who have been praying for children have children, I could go on. When there is a situation as extreme as the death of a child, it can be easier to dismiss the feeling as reasonable or acceptable. However, it fails to recognise that God has, somehow, in His wisdom, given you your current situation. I think it is not going too far to describe every aspect of life, including the painful and sorrowful as a gift (and I recently wrote about that here), but I think it does take a long time to reach that point. It is hard to face up to darker feelings, but remember that God will not be shocked. 'Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep' (Romans 12:15) is a well known verse; I find it telling that the two situations are placed right next to one another. It is difficult to celebrate with one family on the wonderful news, and to stand with another family in their sorrow. I think that verse is there, like that, to remind us that it is tough, but through the strength that God gives us, we should seek to do so.

2. Glory (whether it be through the miraculous 'answered prayer' or through the trial and sorrow) belongs to God alone. At either extreme, there may be people who (deliberately or unwittingly) seek to be in the limelight. Many years ago I attended a church where there was a general feeling that having a certain person pray for you would be more likely to 'result' in the desired outcome. The individual who prayed would try to take the glory from the God who had answered the prayer, and celebrations of 'miracles' often seemed to have more to do with the spiritual prowess of an individual rather than the amazing power of God. This can occur more subtly, and even churches which would stand firmly against any form of 'prosperity' teaching need to take care that there is not a subtle communication contrary to that teaching. Similarly, I have seen bereaved parents who have stood firm in their faith be almost revered by their community as having 'strong faith', to the extent where they have felt isolated and discouraged, longing for Christian fellowship where they can talk frankly about the ups and downs of their grieving process (and all other aspects of their Christian life). These things can be subtle, but can cause damage in relationships.

As is often the case, I am very aware I have not answered the question fully. Returning to the conversation with my children which prompted me to write, my simple answer would be:

1. God is good, powerful and in control, and never changes
2. God's desire is that He be glorified in and through every situation
3. Life here is short compared with heaven
4. Some things will be difficult to understand and painful in this world

How would you respond?

Saturday, 26 May 2018

10 years since my baby died: A reflection

Today marks ten years since our first child died. These past months have been strange as we remember everything that took place between 12th April 2008 when she became ill and 26th May 2008 when she died. We always remember at this time of year, but this year has been different. Sometimes the emotions have been stronger, almost as though it happened yesterday. Some days, it feels so distant that it is almost as though it was something that happened to somebody else in some kind of dream. Sometimes I feel that I have said everything that needs to be said, and that there are no new memories and no new discussion points.

But I am often reminded of how much she remains part of our lives, and how she taught us more in a short life than many children will teach their parents. Even this year, we've had several friends walk a similar path, and it can be an honour to walk alongside them, to share their stories and their tears, and try to help them find their strength and hope in God. Part of the gift that our daughter gave us is that particular role, perhaps not a role that one would choose, but one which we have been prepared for in some ways.

Three years ago I wrote about how grief changes with time, and about the things that I would want people to know about how the grief felt with the passing of the years. Today I will build on that, and share some other reflections. I am writing to those who are walking through grief and loss, and to those who walk beside them.

1. You don't 'get over it', and nobody should expect you. I see it more like a person who has a limb amputated - the immediate pain and subsequent disability might pass, and a person might learn to function to a very high level. Just look at some of the paralympian athletes! But the part is still missing, and there may be days when that causes more pain or disability than at other times - perhaps associated with illness, stress or other trauma. Your life builds around the loss, but there will be a part that is changed forever.

2. Change can be positive or negative or neutral. I find it helpful to consider all the ways that our daughter's illness and death changed our lives for the better, and on the darker days to spend time counting the blessings. I've written more about that here, but in summary, I think we have a clearer perspective of what is really important, tend to be more focussed and live 'in the moment', not knowing what tomorrow holds. I think having known deep sorrow, we can sometimes appreciate greater joy. We are not afraid of discussing difficult topics, and don't run from uncomfortable conversations or emotions. There are many things that are good. But sometimes this can also bring aspects that are not so easy - it can sometimes be difficult to relate to others, especially when people are getting very worried about 'first world problems' or things that seem trivial. There are times when the grief can feel very lonely, and it can be difficult to explain to people who we have met more recently. The focus on what is happening now, and not worrying about tomorrow can sometimes make it difficult to plan more than a month or two ahead.

3. Every person's grief is different. That might sound very obvious, but it is so important to listen carefully to what a grieving person is saying, and not to try and apply any 'formulas' for their recovery. Even if two situations seem very similar on the outside, the individuals involved are unique. This year I've spent some time reflecting on whether there are any fundamental beliefs that might make it easier for a person to work through agonising loss, and I think a large part might be how they view the nature of God. I wrote about that here , here and here. But even then, the way a person will respond day to day, the fluctuations, the temptations - these will be different between individuals.

4. You cannot grade grief. All loss is painful. It does not make sense to try and comfort a person by pointing out all the other people who are in far 'worse' situations, or who have experienced a string of losses. I am thankful that God cares about the details of our lives so very much, and is filled with compassion for each of us. We must take care not to minimise another person's loss (or our own), but rather approach each situation and its context.

5. At the same time, we must remember that suffering is to be expected in this life. As the Apostle Peter wrote (1 Peter 4:12-13) 'Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you also may be glad with exceeding joy'. It is also wrong to think that your own suffering is worse than anybody else can imagine. I have reflected on this before, but I think it was much easier for us to be living in southern Africa after our daughter died, where one out of two women in my city had a baby die under the age of five. It was accepted to be a painful loss, but not beyond the normal experience in society. Sometimes by tiptoeing around a person, perhaps allowing and even enabling sinful behaviours, we can actually hinder their processing of the situation and moving forward.

6. There are days when you just long for heaven, for the place where 'God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away' Revelation 21:4. This need not be a bad thing - I think through pain, we can have a clearer perspective on eternity and those things that matter most. But just because something brings good does not mean that it is not painful.

7. Similarly to the point above, faith and grief are not opposites. I find John chapter 11 very helpful here. When Jesus was told of the death of Lazarus, He wept even though He knew He was about to perform an incredible miracle. Why did He weep? Because death and loss are painful. Did Jesus' sorrow mean He lacked faith? Absolutely not! I think this is important, because one thing that we found difficult was what felt like an assumption that because we were able to hold fast to our faith (and indeed our faith grew!), that this was not a very painful time, and that it doesn't still hurt. It sometimes can be easier to identify people who are obviously struggling - perhaps expressing major doubts in their faith, stumbling into sin, adopting unhealthy behaviours and coping strategies. But even if you think your friend is 'coping well', ask them from time to time even as the years pass.

8. God's word and promises are the rock on which we stand. I love the Psalms - because there, the full range of human emotions and experience are laid bare as the writers bring their pain and fear, or their joy and delight, before God. God is not shocked by our emotions, since they are part of how He made us. We can pour out our hearts before Him, any time we wish. There may be many clamouring voices offering worldly wisdom or passing comfort, but God's word is eternal and will stand the test of time. For me, the Psalms in particular remind me of that.

9. 'Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need'. Hebrews 4:14-16 Those words are pure gold!

Our daughter's life was a very pivotal time in our lives. There were days when it felt very clearly that there was a choice to be made in how we lived and in how we responded. It was a time of priority setting, and considering everything in the light of eternity. It was the time when we knew with certainty: 'In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honour and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith - the salvation of your souls' 1 Peter 1:6-9

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.