Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Celebrating Christ at Christmas

I can hear the cicadas and some early birdsong, which I expect will soon explode into a symphony, heralding a new morning. The air is cool and the house is peaceful. It is our first morning in a new home, and today is Christmas Eve.

Advent has been very different this year, refreshingly so. We've been busy, that is for sure! But the things that have occupied our time and the imaginations of my sons have been far removed from what we would more typically associate with 'Christmas' in the UK.

1) Last year I waxed lyrical about the Jesse Tree project. I am still amazed that we had not discovered it previously. As I considered different versions that could be used, I noted that some have strong roots in catholicism with different symbols drawing out some traditions rather than biblical principles. I wonder if some Bible believing Christians have just discarded the idea because of such roots, but then again, I had not even heard it being discussed. Interestingly, as a Christian home educator, we know of many families in different parts of the world who use a similar structure for Advent. If you haven't heard of it either, let me encourage you! The principle is described in Isaiah 11, where the 'root of Jesse' is prophesied. Every day, there is a Bible reading and a 'symbol' or 'emblem' of some kind to draw/ make/ colour. The stories build the picture of creation, fall and redemption as well as illustrating the key figures in the lineage of Christ. It is a wonderful overview Biblically and it has amazed me how well their young minds grasp these truths. For the 'symbols', what we have done so far is print a set, mount them on different colours of card, and for each day I have an envelope hung on a string. On the outside is the number of the day and the Bible passage, and inside there are the three pictures, each on a different colour of card (one for each boy). We read the passage, colour the picture. One is hung on our 'Jesse tree' - we have found the best branch we can in the park or out and about, and spray painted it gold or silver. The second is being glued onto a large timeline we have running across the wall (rolls of Ikea paper are made for timelines!) together with other related drawings and verse written out beautifully (reading, handwriting, copywork etc all come in here!). I can see how this project will develop and change as the boys grow and they increasingly add their own creativity.

I love the fact that it is simple, Biblical, flexible and keeps the whole family focussed on what Christmas means. There is plenty of room for colour and decoration, and it can bring out a lot of 'educational' things such as drawing, craft, reading, handwriting and so forth.

2) Church celebrations. This has been refreshing for us. We have been here three months now, and as we have become involved in some of the music and dancing at church, we have been able to build relationships. I think when people realise you are not just a visitor passing through, but actually here to stay and get involved, then they start to invest in you too. The boys have enjoyed this, although they were a little reluctant to join in at first. What I have loved is that the singing and dancing has sought to focus on telling the Christmas story and sought to honour God. Everybody has been welcome to join in, and they were able to find a task for everybody - some people sang more, others danced, my husband who doesn't really sing or dance much was given an important task as 'narrator' to explain the Biblical thread running through the story and so forth. It was delightful for me to see the boys dancing away with their new friends. I think what refreshed me here was that although the service on Sunday was to some extent a 'performance' or 'production', nobody was running round getting stressed about the quality or the sound or the set, or any of these things. Really it was kept simple and the desire of those leading was to honour God above all things. It may sound a subtle difference, but for me it was important. Many years ago, I used to play music with the group on a Sunday morning. I stopped doing it after a couple of occasions where there was great angst and raised voices due to a malfunctioning PA system or mixing desk (some kind of technical thing which might have meant the music sounded less 'professional', but which would not have stopped us being able to worship God!). I realised at that point that the 'performance' aspect was becoming too important, and that my role (saxophone) was not essential but rather just to embellish, and so I stopped. Interestingly, a few years later, in a different part of Africa, when there really were very few musicians, I did cautiously get involved again because I saw the need. My point is that I do have concerns at times with music and performance in churches - I think the Psalms make it clear that music, instruments and singing should be used, should be done well - 'Play it skillfully and shout for joy!', but should be done all and always for the glory of God. It is one of these areas where there may be a fine line - because the attitudes and motives of an individual heart are known only to God. I digress a little, but what has seemed lovely to me this advent is that it has all been God-centred.

3) That as Christians, we do have something to celebrate at Christmas! I have known very devout believers who have eschewed all Christian celebrations because many are based in pagan roots, because Christmas is not a 'biblical' feast, and because many things that take place do not honour God. Many of the leaders at the time of the Reformation took this view too. I can kind of see their point, but at the same time, I wonder if in some ways they have missed the point. I believe that what the world needs and yearns for at Christmas is something different. People do not come to church for a watered down and mediocre version of what is taking place outside (in terms of music, decorations, entertainment, food and so forth). I think people yearn for something deeper, some peaceful reflection, some genuine hope. Christmas is a time when those who do not know Christ might well come to church, and I think we do a great disservice when we seek to become too like the world in order to reach them. And for Christians, we should be celebrating the birth (and life, death and resurrection) of Christ daily! That can become a cliche - and that is why I think it is great to take the period of Advent and the Christmas activities to really focus again. This can be particularly important for children who love family traditions and the build up of anticipation. I think the key thing is, what do the children anticipate? Is it gifts and food? If so, they will ultimately be disappointed. Is it time with family and friends? That too, does not fully satisfy, although it is a good thing. As parents we need to pray for wisdom as we enjoy the good things that God has blessed us with, without seeing them as an end in themselves.

4) Complete lack of materialism. We have not heard any comments from the children along the lines of what they might get as a Christmas present. They know there will be some small gifts, but that hasn't really been a priority or concern to them. We have not heard any of their friends mention shopping or presents, and in church we haven't heard it either. The larger shops have had a bit of tinsel up, and maybe one or two aisles that are remotely 'Christmassy' in some ways, but there hasn't been the constant bombardment of advertising, Christmas jingles, conversations about shopping, gifts, money and so forth. I think as homeschooling parents, it is easier to shield our children from this, even back in the UK, and to focus on the more important things. But here, it almost hasn't felt like there has been much to shield them from. The children have some friends who have no shoes. Another friend mentioned how his mum made great chapatis (if you know my boys, you will realise that the street chapati has become a friend to them!). However they realised that what he was saying was that what he would eat for his evening (often only) meal was something we would buy as a snack without a second thought. None of these things affect the friendships, and we don't spend ages reminding the boys that they are privileged to have a balanced diet of three meals a day, or shoes on their feet; we don't need to because they can see for themselves. And I think it is helpful for them to realise the blessings they have - that material things are just 'things', but they are God-given blessings we should not take for granted.

It is still dark, the birdsong is escalating and I can hear a chorus of The First Noel coming out from the boys' bedroom. Christmas Eve is going to consist of gardening - we moved yesterday, but grew some plants from seed on the balcony of our apartment, which are ready to plant. We have work to do on our Jesse tree timeline. And there is a carol service in the cathedral at 5pm. And yes, there may be some presents too - my grandmother was Polish, and in many European countries the celebrations take place on Christmas Eve not Christmas Day. We remember her, and the family traditions, by opening one present each on Christmas Eve.

Happy Christmas! 
I wonder how you will celebrate this year?
Do you have any family traditions which help you focus on the things that really matter?

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Sonlight: Week 12 in our new home

We started to use Sonlight 12 weeks ago, just after moving to east Africa. It was a time of much change in our lives - moving to a new culture, new climate, adapting to urban life here, new forms of transport, new languages heard, new foods, new friends, almost everything different. The thing that has remained stable has been our home life. Working in medical research and medical education, we are able to both work part-time and have flexibility regarding some tasks which can be done from home (indeed, often done better from home in a quiet evening with no interruptions). One of us is always home with the children, much as when we were in the UK. This provides stability, and using the curriculum provides structure. I wrote previously about how we had found the transition, and it seemed a good time for an update.

The first thing to say is that we aren't ending term! We've all enjoyed it so much that we see no need to stop for a holiday. Charlotte Mason, an educationalist whose philosophy has certainly influenced the Sonlight team (although purists would argue it does not strictly adhere to her principles!) said, 'Education is an atmosphere, education is a discipline, education is a life'. That being reflected in our family, we are not going to take a break from the atmosphere of our home, from consistent Biblical discipline and from the continual dialogue and experience that develops as we live our lives! Also, the boys love the books, the activities and the routine. By proposing a 'Christmas holiday', it would almost imply that there was something we needed to take a break or a rest from.

However, the routine will change a little. Our regular home school sports is being replaced by a daily two hour swimming lesson in the middle of the day, in a place 10 Km from here (requiring two minibuses or quite a lot of walking). This is a great opportunity, but might well mean we take slightly longer over the curriculum. That is just fine! I think it is important to remember that any curriculum is simply a tool we use to enhance our home education experience, rather than a master to whom we must slavishly submit. Flexibility is key.

Highlights so far have been:

1) I think the best thing of all has been my middle son (recently turned six) suddenly realising that he could read, and that this was exciting! Previously he had objected, often with tears and great angst, and yet suddenly, perhaps with the start of something new, perhaps with the beautifully designed, 'I can read it' series which enables a simple story to be told with very few words, perhaps simply as a matter of developing maturity, he just embraced the concept. He is now half way through the second book, and also takes time to read (or try to read) just about anything he can get his hands on.

2) Similarly, although perhaps slightly less dramatically and with fewer whoops of delight, my eldest son (also aged six) has been progressing rapidly through the 'Grade 1' readers (the aim is to start him on the Grade 2 ones after Christmas). He has also been reading more and more independently and is starting to read stories out loud to our three year old. The progress seems rapid - its a bit like when they learn to speak, when they go from a few words to sentences, paragraphs and perfect use of grammar.

3) Both of the older two are enjoying writing and spend time trying to write their own sentences (for example, writing captions on drawings). The younger one is making a gentle start with Handwriting Without Tears - not following any real structure, just learning little by little and following his own desire to learn.

4) The science forms a nice foundation. We had covered many of the principles and have a range of other books that complement the Sonlight resources. They are all starting to think a bit more scientifically, forming a 'hypothesis' and learning to develop experiments to test this. I find this exciting because at that age (and indeed even through secondary school), I didn't really understand the concept of hypothesis-driven research; I simply memorised the facts. Things were as they were. I had not learned to question and to test. They seem to have grasped this well, and as a scientist, this excites me!

5) They also love maths. My second son in particular asks for extra maths, and sometimes wants to start the day with maths. We are using Singapore Maths, and mainly what we are doing at the moment is addition and subtraction. We build on this using various manipulatives - for example, we collect the bottle lids from the sodas we occasionally drink and invent addition and subtraction games we can play, as well as categorisation tasks. Also, in the market, the bartering we do here helps with some of the concepts - 'If she is selling one pile of tomatoes for 2000 shillings, and we get two piles for 3000 shillings, how much have we saved?' And from that also, some economics. 'We have 500 shillings. You can choose to spend it on the minibus fee, or we can walk home and spend it on a chapati.' You can guess what the choice invariably is there! I think with maths, quite a few home schooling parents have a bit of a mental block towards it, and we need to take great care not to let our own attitude influence the children. For example, if we often say it is 'hard', or unpleasant or leave it until last every day, then they will be influenced by that. I have been delighted by the way they enjoy it, and particularly that moment of revelation when a concept makes sense.

6) Plenty of time for electives, which can vary to suit our setting. Some things will be the same as in the UK. Cooking (although with some different ingredients and different challenges), drawing, music and singing (again this has the added flavour of learning local songs and learning how to dance!), exploring the nature that surrounds us, swimming and climbing trees, walking and talking about all we see and so forth.

7) That that books have been chosen. The Sonlight team apply stringent criteria to select the books used in their materials. We have really enjoyed the quality of the stories, and that they teach many other things as well as literature. We are using Ergermeier's Bible Story book which we had not come across previously. I am slightly surprised I had not heard of it, given the quality. It tells the stories beautifully, the illustrations are helpful and not distracting, and there a some nice questions at the back to test their comprehension. Similarly, 'I heard good news today' tells great stories of missionaries throughout the ages (I must comment there are a few grammatical/ typographical errors in this, about which I have written to the Sonlight team, but notwithstanding these, it is a very encouraging and inspiring book). I could go on... I think we always need to remember not to restrict ourselves to these books only, but to continue to enjoy other materials.

8) The other books that we continue to draw on frequently are the biographies by Little Lights and Lightkeepers. I continue to receive encouragement as I read these stories, and my prayer is that the children grow with the worldview that being a Christian is not always easy, and might even lead to ultimate sacrifice, but that it is the most important way to live. By exposing them to a wide range of examples and stories I believe they are developing that mindset too.

So, as we reach the end of our third month in our new environment, I feel encouraged. Yes, there  are still challenges - as any family will attest to. There are days when discipline is a challenge, and it can seem to take us many hours to get through the materials because of continual interruptions to deal with an issue in one or other child. I feel tempted to frustration at these times, but need to remember that this is also an intrinsic part of education, and perhaps even the more important part. It would be better to deal with all the heart issues as they arise than to complete all the scheduled activities swiftly! (I need to remind myself of that).

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Book Review: Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung


How to make a decision without dreams, visions, fleeces, impressions, open doors, random Bible verses, casting lots, liver shivers, writing in the sky etc.

I read this book not because I was seeking God's guidance about any particular decisions, nor because I felt particularly 'led' to read it, nor because I was recommended it, but rather because my husband was currently reading it, found it sensible and pragmatic, and because I was captured by the subtitle!

The testimonials by pastors and Bible scholars are impressive. The book is heralded as being an essential 'go to' book for young people seeking answers to the big questions such as, 'What does God want me to do with my life?'

I found it cut to the chase. I have known many Christians almost paralysed through fear of 'missing God's will', as though this is some elusive quest where mistakes carry high penalties. I've always felt a uncomfortable with this, as it is contrary to the nature of God. Why would a good and loving God who cares about us with father-like love play such games with us? It doesn't make sense. Alongside this, some Christians who are paralysed into inactivity over-spiritualise decisions. 'I'm waiting for peace about the decision', or 'I'm waiting for a clear calling'.

DeYoung writes in a refreshing manner (some quotes from this, and other books, are here). He makes it quite clear that the God who created heaven and earth is quite capable of using extra-ordinary means to speak to His children. He cites the Biblical examples where dreams, visions, fleeces, writing on the wall, a talking Donkey, visits from angels and other supernatural means were used to communicate direction. However he also makes clear that this is far from the norm, and was far from the norm even in Bible times. Secondly, he does not dismiss praying about decisions, asking God to give us wisdom and help in making the best decisions. He does not dismiss seeking Godly counsel (indeed recommends this, and quotes several passages of scripture to underline this point). But the point he makes is that some decisions can be made simply as decisions.

His style can be shocking at times. He makes bold statements including, 'God does not care where you study or what career you choose'. He then qualifies this by explaining that there is not a single best 'perfect will of God' for your life, and that we need to take care not to treat non-moral decisions in an over-spiritual manner. Sometimes the choices can be made by weighing up the options, considering the pros and cons of them all, and making a logical and rational decision. If the decision does not lead you into sin, it is likely to be an opportunity that can be used by God.

There was an interesting overlap with the book I recently discussed on the error of 'self-esteem' teaching. In our current generation, we are encouraged to look for perfect fulfilment, and it is instilled in us that 'we deserve it'. DeYoung writes, 'my peers and I were among the first ones to experience grande inflation, where we got A's for excavating our feelings and 'doing our best' at calculus. We were among the first to be programmed for self-esteem, as we learned that having a pulse made us wonderfully special. For as long as we can remember, we've been destined for superstardom.... We've been stuffed full of praise for mediocrity and had our foibles diagnosed away with hyphenated jargon and pop psychology.' He points out that this attitude brings a sense of 'entitlement' which is almost certain to be disappointed. By contrast, he describes he grandfathers, both God-fearing men who had lived through some difficult times. In that generation (and indeed as I reflect on this, for my grandparents too, and for many people who live here in East Africa), life was more about providing for the essentials in life. Providing for one's family, with whichever job was available to be able to do so. Being involved in the day-to-day activities of a community. Raising and educating the children. Yes, some people at this time would have followed a vocation or calling, but often people were too busy getting on with life, discharging their responsibilities in a God-honouring way, to spend much time considering whether or not they were 'fulfilled'. I remember something similar when I asked my mother-in-law whether she had had a happy marriage. She looked at me as though I had asked the most peculiar question. You see, to her, marriage was about commitment through thick and thin, about providing for a large family on a meagre income, and about seeking to honour God in all things. Happiness, or lack of, simply did not seem to be a question that made sense.

(I read an insightful blog post that relates to this here. Protecting our children from perceived failure by micromanaging their lives is only set to exacerbate this anxiety in decision making, and perhaps particularly as home educating families we must take great care not to fall into this trap, but rather to prepare our children for life in the 'real world' - which is actually one of the great potential benefits of homeschooling)

DeYoung also tackles marriage. He is pragmatic on this. If you get on well, you are both Christians (and he expands a bit on this, to discuss ideologies which may be incompatible), then maybe you should just get on and get married. Years ago, people had much smaller social circles, and it would be likely you would marry somebody you knew through church or youth group, or somebody you had grown up alongside. Now we have such wide social circles and so much social mobility, that we can become paralysed through fear of missing 'the one'. When I read about Biblical marriage, I do not see descriptions of wild passion (although for sure, Song of Songs comes close!), or seeking a 'soul mate'. The Bible does not say that a marriage partner makes a person 'complete'. There are many errors in thinking in the world around us which have infiltrated the church and make young Christians make too much of decision making.

The book concludes with 8 short studies which could be undertaken as individuals or groups. I have no doubt that at some point in the future I will work through these with a younger Christian who is seeking to find 'God's will' for their lives.

The book is relatively short and easy to read. The style is challenging (although I do not find it offensive in any way). He does not offer worldly pragmatism, but correctly handles Scripture throughout. Indeed he provides a very helpful summary of the instances where the Bible refers to 'God's will for you', and this is invariably with regard to matters of godly living, rather than specific directional instructions. He points out that if we are living close to God, being obedient in the areas where we have been given specific instructions, then when the time comes for us to make choices, these should more naturally follow.

This is certainly one to keep to hand, to buy several copies of, and to refer to often.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Book Review: The Big Ego Trip by Glynn Harrison

I met Glynn Harrison at a recent Christian Medical Fellowship conference in the UK. He is a psychiatrist with a strong biblical worldview and the ability to speak clearly into some of the more challenging issues facing today's society. Having heard him speak, I was keen to read his book entitled, 'The Big Ego Trip', subtitle, 'Finding true significance in a culture of self-esteem'.

In the first section of the book, he moves quickly through the the philosophical and psychoanalytical work that led to the concept of 'self-esteem', making the key findings of these works accessible to those who would not be inclined to read the full texts. He rapidly touches upon a key limitation in much of this work: Association does not mean the same as causation. Just because something is observed, it does not mean that one caused the other. For example, I may sit at my desk to work. I might only work at my desk, and only sit at my desk when working. The two could be very strongly correlated, but one could not jump from there to suggest that it is my desk that makes me work. It sounds quite obvious when stated like that, but sadly throughout science, it is a common error to make. In the more quantifiable sciences (biochemistry, pharmacology etc), researchers are often keen to point out the limitations and the difficulties in unravelling causation. In epidemiology, we are asked to consider the 'Bradford Hill criteria' for causation. Yet somehow in the 'softer' disciplines of sociology and psychology, it seems a major error has been made here.

However, as Harrison points out, the emerging data on self-esteem meshed perfectly with societo-cultural changes in the 1960s and 70s and became mainstream thought. Acting on somewhat flawed and limited evidence, leaders in education, in the USA and then later in the UK, decided to build 'self-esteem' into the curriculum. Some shrewd critics have pointed out that if there were so little and such limited evidence evidence available for a drug treatment, there is now way it would ever be marketed! However, this 'new thinking' was rolled out and has become entrenched into mainstream society.

Some of the fruit (or fruitlessness) of this is exposed. For example, how can children be widely taught to believe that they are 'special' or 'above average'? Doesn't the very term 'average' imply a middle point? And also, although surveys show that teenagers today have higher belief in themselves and higher expectations of life, they also show a higher sense of disappointment and lower satisfaction with life. Does that not naturally follow, since such boosted expectations are surely only going to lead to disappointment. As a medical educator, I have also been witness to the rising trend amongst students to complain against or appeal against their marks, sometimes in a somewhat aggressive manner, as though a distinction or top grade is somehow their right. Other examples are given in the book.

Throughout the first part is woven the thread of thought: What is life all about? Why I am here? What is it for? What is my place in society? How do I contribute to the greater good? And it is pointed out that there has been a real cultural shift here - again longitudinal data is quoted to clearly show this. But of equal concern is the way this thinking has infiltrated the church. Around the 1970s, there was a real shift in the words of popular Christian songs - the emphasis is increasingly on 'me', on my response, my worship, my adoration, my heart. Songs that speak of sacrifice and humility are less popular. The concept of suffering in this world is also going out of fashion, and there is a rise in prosperity teaching (you can have it all, and you can have it now).

So the second part of the book seeks to bring truth into the situation. The correct Biblical stance is outlined. Yes, we are made in the image of God (what could be greater?) with the hope of heaven (again, an amazing privilege). There is that part of us which is unique, pure, noble and made for higher things than this. But at the same time, as individuals we have fallen, we have sinned, we lack hope and we need redemption. The gospel is clearly and appropriately presented.

As a psychiatrist, Harrison daily deals with broken, suffering people. He does not at any time dismiss the devastating impact of abusive relationships and traumatic situations. However, he provides an approach to begin to deal with these (whilst acknowledging that such change may be a lifetime task). He points out, time and time again, that we are part of something bigger. And that either skill or mistakes in one area of our life does not define the whole of our being. For example, I could be a terrible doctor, and excellent mother and a mediocre friend. So what does that make me? Terrible? Excellent? Mediocre? None of the above?

One quote study that caught my interest was where students were randomised into two groups and given the same task. One group was praised for the output (ie that is a beautiful picture, you must be a gifted artist), and the second was praised for the effort (I really like the way you have given attention to detail here or here). The students were then given a choice for their next task - either something they knew they could accomplish with ease and do 'well', or something which would be more of a challenge. Interestingly, the students who had been praised for output went for the safe option, whereas those who were praised for the process aimed higher and were willing to stretch themselves, not being afraid of failure. This made a lot of sense having considered the data presented, and will influence the way I encourage my boys.

I am glad I read this book. I had been increasingly concerned about some 'modern' approaches, such as the 'positive' parenting which praises good things and ignores the bad. I've been concerned about the boosted (often inappropriately so!) self-belief of young people, and I have also been aware of a drift in our understanding of suffering and sin in this world.

This is a refreshing read - it draws on a wealth of academic work in a fully accessible way, and speaks as a voice of Biblical reason into our current generation.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Celebrating World Adoption Day

Today is World Adoption Day. Here is an article I wrote a couple of years ago comparing our adoption of children to our adoption into God's family.
Quite a few people have asked us why we wanted to adopt a baby. There are many reasons and circumstances which led us to this point.  This response was written on May 30th 2010, four days after our successful adoption hearing in the High Court of the country where we had been working for the previous four years:
In some ways, the answer is incredibly simple. Working as doctors here, we see parents dying every week on the wards, often leaving very young children. The extended family often struggles to cope. We hear of children being abandoned, with desperate relatives seeing no other solution. There are too many children here without families, with a future which seems so uncertain. We longed for a home filled with children, and to be able to give a home and a family to an orphaned child was to be a great privilege.
When we were first married, we became frustrated by those who discussed contraception and childbearing as issues completely within human control. Adoption was often seen as a last resort, something only considered when all other avenues had been exhausted. Sometimes it is easier to form your stance on an issue when it does not affect you directly. Through the Christian Medical Fellowship, we were encouraged to consider biblical truth regarding issues of life and death, including matters surrounding fertility treatments, contraception and abortion.
The Bible makes clear that life begins long before birth. God reminded the prophet Jeremiah: ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you’.[1] A new life does not come about by accident. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that murder is contrary to the will of God;[2] so most Christians would agree that termination of pregnancy is wrong. However, if women requesting termination are counselled to consider alternatives, including putting the child forward for adoption, how should Christians respond? These children need a loving home where they will be nurtured.
We met many families who have adopted; each told a story of blessing and grace. We asked frank questions, and received honest, helpful answers. Each conversation increased our certainty that we should adopt. Nobody has pretended that things are always easy. However, I don’t know any family with biological children who would claim this either!
Our decision to adopt was also shaped by our understanding of the gospel. As Christians, we are adopted into God’s family. We were lost, helpless, without stability or direction and yet we have become heirs with Christ. I feel intensely aware of this. In the church I meet people who are my brothers and sisters, knowing a bond and a closeness which I never knew growing up in my home.
A biological link means something, but true Christian fellowship is far greater. God rescued us from darkness,[3] slavery,[4] pain[5] and death,[6]bringing us into his kingdom of light,[7] freedom,[8] joy,[9] peace[10] and everlasting life.[11] ‘For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship by whom you cry out, “Abba, Father”. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ’.[12] We are shown grace[13] – the abundant blessing of God which we could never have earned through our own actions.[14] We are given a brand new start.[15] John Piper describes adoption as ‘the heart of the gospel’[16]mirroring many aspects of our salvation in Christ. In adoption, a child is taken from a difficult situation and given a new start. The child is given the same legal rights as a biological child. The orphan who had no family is given a home.

[1] Jeremiah 1:5
[2] Exodus 20:13; Matthew 5:21; Romans 13:9
[3] Colossians 1:13
[4]Romans 8:15
[5] Romans 8:22
[6] 1 John 3:14
[7] Ephesians 5:8
[8] Romans 8:21; 2 Corinthians 3:17; Galatians 5:1
[9] Romans 14:17; Galatians 5:22
[10] John 14:27; Romans 14:17
[11] Romans 5:21
[12] Romans 8:15-17
[13] Romans 5:15-21
[14] Psalm 14:3; Romans 3:12,
[15] John 3:3; Galatians 6:15
[16] Piper J. Adoption: the heart of the gospel.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Engagement without Entanglement

You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier. 2 Timothy 2:3-4

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2

How do we engage in warfare without becoming entangled? How do we live our lives in cultures that are often hostile to the gospel without being sucked in?

I think Christians have battled with this throughout the ages. There are two opposite errors. The first would be to withdraw entirely from the world, to live in monastic seclusion and spend days in prayer, fasting and meditation. However, this misses the point for several reasons. Firstly, people who do this are quick to discover the darkness of their own hearts. Secondly, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans, how can somebody hear about God if nobody tells them? We have a responsibility, as Paul instructed Timothy, 'Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering...' (2 Timothy 4:2)

The opposite error is to try so hard to 'be all things to all men', that we forget our purpose, our mission and our holiness. There are times when well-meaning Christians try so hard to walk amongst their unbelieving friends that they are sucked into a vortex of attitudes and behaviours that do not give God glory. Does much effective Christian witness occur in noisy nightclubs? Really?

The other morning as I read Paul's letter to Timothy, I was challenged afresh. We are called to be here, and to seek to serve and honour God with every thought, word and action. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism stages, the 'ultimate end of man is to serve God, and to enjoy Him forever'. But how do we really do that? How do we protect ourselves from the errors of the extremes described above?

I do not think there is a simple catchphrase answer to this! I believe it might be a tightrope that we continue to walk throughout our Christian lives! However, here are some initial thoughts:

1) Do not forget that the Lord said, 'Be holy for I a holy'. Take time to reflect on what holiness means. Do not become blase to the amazing work of Christ. I suggest reading Leviticus followed by Hebrews and reflecting on these things.

2) Pray about everything (Philippians 4:6). Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). God cares about the small details. Jesus gave us a model prayer, and part of that included the words, 'lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil'. We are warned that 'the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking who he may devour' (1 Peter 5:8). Paul's letter to Timothy, quoted above, clearly sets the context as that of a battle - we must not forget this.

3) Have accountability. If you are going into a situation which feels very dark, very godless, or where you know you will encounter temptation (such as parties, bars, nightclubs, or other situations which you will be aware of), ask others to pray for you. Ask them to hold you accountable for your conduct. And pray together.

4) Spend regular, quality time alone, reflecting and meditating on the truth of the gospel. Read the Bible. Pray. Sit quietly and listen for the still small voice of God. If you have a true, active, ongoing relationship with God, that will overflow in your speech and your attitudes.

This week, how are you going to engage with the world around you for the purposes of glorifying God, without becoming entangled?

Saturday, 31 October 2015

How do our actions demonstrate our beliefs?

'Even a child is known by his actions, whether his conduct is pure and right' Proverbs 20:11

That was our memory verse the other week. We've been trying to explain to the boys that your actions can betray what you really believe and what you really prioritise. So, it is not enough simply to say that you love God, or that you care for others; we need to show that through our actions. It is not enough to say 'God knows my heart', because so often our actions betray our true attitudes.

Having recently moved to an east African city, the aspect of daily life that I struggle with most is the driving. It is as though there are no rules, and every driver has only him/herself in mind. For example, at a roundabout there is no concept of 'giving way to traffic coming from the right'. If you did that, you would never move, and you would receive abuse from the other drivers around you! Instead, you have to inch forward even when it would not be considered technically your right of way. At junctions, similarly, there seems no concept of giving way to others. You go. And if the two lanes of traffic are not enough, you make a third lane, even if this results in an obstruction to oncoming traffic. As a pedestrian, you have to look both ways on both sides of the dual carriageway, as motorbikes will frequently go down the wrong side  in order to get to their destination more quickly. And at peak times, the motorbikes will mount the pavement and show little regard for pedestrians. As I have watched this (I am yet to drive in this city, but walk 5-10 Km daily), I came to reflect on what this shows about worldview. This is a country where about 80% of people would define themselves as Christian. As I watch the driving, I cannot see much evidence of 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness or self-control' (the spiritual fruit described in Galatians 5:22). As an onlooker, it seems very obvious that people are seeking short term solutions which are only storing up more difficulties for themselves and others. And yet, to the individual, what they are doing is (probably) the logical and right thing, and it is likely that they have never experienced another way to drive.

As I reflected, I also wondered how a person from here would react to going to the UK. They might find our driving very ordered and calm (perhaps frustratingly so). But what would they see in our general lives which betray the values we claim to hold dear? I imagine that one of the first things that would be seen as shocking is the individualisation of society - here, every driver is out for himself, but family and tribal bonds are highly valued. Back home, most people live life for themselves, for their comfort, their security, their happiness or their fulfillment, often without regard for the impact on their family or wider society. What about the materialism? How many people in the western world are thankful that their family of six have a comfortable two bedroom house? Or are able to eat more than once per day, even if it is the same food every day? How many people are thankful for a simple life, compared to always wanting that little bit more? Nicer clothes, more expensive holidays, bigger homes with gardens, more spacious and powerful cars? Would that seem strange to a person from the developing world?

Those are two examples that I immediately think of on a societal level. And maybe it is easy for some of us to be confident that these are not problems for us. But what about at the level of your own life? What do value most highly? Is it comfort? Popularity? Success? Being seen as a good Christian? Being a model homeschool family? Living frugally? Or using seeing every single thing you have as a gift from God to be held lightly and used for His kingdom?

How do your actions reflect what you prioritise?

'Search me O God and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offence in my ways, and lead me in the way everlasting'. Psalm 139

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Book Review: Everyday Church (Tim Chester and Steve Timmis)

I recently finished 'Everyday Church: mission by being good neighbours' by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis. It is an extended study on the first letter of Peter, written to a persecuted and marginalised church, and seeks to challenge the readers to consider how we reach the world around us with the gospel. There were some areas that I found very helpful to consider:

1) We can be tempted to assume some level of judeo-christian heritage influencing worldview

When we move to a new culture, the first few months are spent listening, watching and asking. We want to know what people value highly. We want to know the stories of individuals, and to know what historical and cultural events have influenced their identity and worldview. And then, as Christians, we seek to find ways to interact and engage with this, bringing the hope of the gospel.

But in 'the west', we can easily assume that we know 'our own' culture. We can assume that those around us have the same basic moral compass, and have simply chosen to reject the things of God, or to choose to stop going to church. But in the current generation, there are increasing numbers who never went to church in the first place.

I heard the gospel for the first time aged 17. I had never been in a church, or attended Sunday school, and had been exposed to no  Christian teaching that I can remember. At the time (over 20 years ago now) this was a bit unusual. However, this is increasingly the norm.

We need to stop and take time to consider the prevailing worldviews, values and culture that surrounds us and prayerfully look for ways to engage. Sometimes the best way to do this is simply to listen, and to ask questions

2) Arising from the first point, simply adding more church events and activities may be futile

I know quite a number of Christians who seem to think getting somebody into a church building will have some kind of supernaturally transformative effect. Not only is this an error, but it becomes increasingly difficult to get people to come to church events, because they seem irrelevant. (Of course there will be people who walk into a church and immediately hear and receive the truth with gladness - and this is something we should pray for. But these are few compared to those who would never set foot in a church).

We can assume that people will come in to evangelistic and mission events, but in fact we need to go out and reach out to them instead.

3) People long for real relationship

Western society is increasingly fragmented. One of the best ways to reach people with the truth about Jesus is through building relationships. As we come to understand priorities, concerns, worries and hopes, we come to understand how we can bring the truth to people. (And some simple, practical examples are given). Certainly that has been our experience - so many people are lonely, isolated and long for somebody to take and interest and to care

Think of those around you who do not share your  hope. How can you reach out to them with love?

4) Daily life is full of 'mission' opportunities

Sometimes people can feel that they are too busy for another 'event' or specific outreach activity. Yet when you reflect on your day to day life, you will realise there are many points at which we are interacting with those who don't share our hope in Christ. These can be simple daily tasks - walking to the shops/ work/ the park, playing with our children, taking the car to the mechanic, going to the market, many others (take a moment to consider your life). We don't necessarily need to add extra things, but need to approach every moment with gospel intentionality.

Parents with children in school talk often of the 'school gate' being a mission opportunity; I believe home schooling families also have many daily opportunities to share their faith.

Consider the mission opportunities in your everyday life. Who do you interact with? Where can you spend just a few more minutes with somebody? Is prayer a daily priority?

5) 'By this all men shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another'

As Christians we are called to have brotherly love for one another, to see all our resources as gifts from God to be used for His glory, to be generous and hospitable and to open our lives to one another. This is radically countercultural in our individualistic society. Hence as we live in fellowship with one another, others will be challenged to ask for the 'reason for the hope that we have'. The authors are under no illusion that this is always easy - indeed as imperfect humans, real relationships can get messy, can be painful, can require hard work, commitment and forgiveness! But this is in part the power of it all - those in the world might simply give up and walk away, whereas the kind of relationships that the Bible calls us to would not entertain this option.

Challenge: Do you have true relationships with other Christians, or do you simply sit in the same room for a couple of hours every week?

The book moves on to describe an alternative model of church life, where the Sunday service has importance for corporate worship and Bible teaching, but where the true Christian fellowship and shared living takes place within smaller communities. The authors take care to emphasise that this does not mean that church events, mission activities and Sunday services are unimportant, but rather that reliance on these alone will result in missing a large sector of society.

For me, it was a refreshing read. Our aim in all that we do is to share our lives and our faith. I have had times when I have felt very guilty for not going to a particular event, or doing door-to-door outreach (I actually have concerns about that, and it makes me uncomfortable). However, the times when I have really seen people challenged in their faith, or asking the important questions about life, have usually been around our dinner table as we have opened our door and sought to share our lives with those around us. Similarly, reflecting on the area where we lived until recently, we did not have many (?any) of our neighbours attend church with us, but we did have many opportunities to spend time with people, to speak of our faith, and to help people with particular needs.

If you feel frustrated that church can seem irrelevant and disengaged from today's society, I would suggest you read this book.

If you want to use every moment of your life to serve God and help others see the light of His truth, I would suggest you read this book,

If you know you tend to compartmentalise your life into the spiritual and secular, and don't know how to move on from here, I would suggest you read this book

And if you see nothing wrong with the way church 'is done' but are interested in stopping to reflect and evaluate your outreach, then I would suggest you read this book.

Thursday, 15 October 2015


'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.' Philippians 4:12

'In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you' 1 Thessalonians 5:18

Currently in the northern hemisphere, autumn is in full splendour. Trees of orange and gold, fresh crisp mornings, warm jumpers, the first open fires of the year, the turning of another year. When I first worked with missionaries as a teenager, one thing that several commented to me was that they missed the seasons most of all, and at that time, I didn't really understand what they meant.

Today in science, the boys had some experiments to do. The book we were using as a guide clearly referred to autumn, and the boys expressed disappointment that we weren't having autumn here. But we went off to the garden anyway, to look at the leaves on the trees and to consider all the different forms of wildlife that were contained within each tree (insects, birds, other animals and so forth). And this was where we had the most wonderful surprise. In our favourite jackfruit tree, there was a lizard shedding its skin. The boys watched, transfixed. At one point the lizard ran onto the grass and then looked lost, so the boys rescued it and put it back into it's 'home'. And we all marvelled at how amazingly created these reptiles are, and rejoiced at the opportunities to see things which we had only read about before. Suddenly, the thought of a chilly autumn day back in the UK melted away and we were able to embrace our surroundings.

I think this is an important principle when it comes to transitions (indeed to all of us as described in an older post, but I am writing from that perspective). There is almost a choice to be made. Do you spend time lamenting those things which you miss, or do you take the time to embrace and explore the things which are new? I miss cheese. I really do (you can get some forms here, but they are very expensive and not all that nice. Previously my husband bought me two pregnant goats one Christmas so that we could try to make our own cheese, but our set-up here doesn't really include space for goats!). I digress... I do miss cheese, and nice wholewheat bread, and a few other things. But here I can easily buy abundant fruit - pineapples, bananas, papaya, passion fruit. It is not yet mango season. The vegetables in the market are fresh, flavoursome and there are some things which we don't seem to have in the UK - several types of dark green leafy vegetable, peanut (or g-nut as they call it here) flour, jackfruit of course. Whenever I feel tempted to bemoan the lack of cheese, I have to laugh because there are so many other delicious things to enjoy here. The bread is not great. But nsima/ posho/ ugali/ whatever you choose to call it is quite nice, and the boys love it.

Similarly, I do miss those fresh blue skied autumn days. And in time, I will miss the long summer nights. We are virtually on the equator here, so the day length does not vary. But there are good things there too. The weather tends to be predictable. It gets hot. In the rainy season, it really rains and you are likely to get soaked. And then it gets hot and you dry off. You don't have to carry a jumper and a waterproof and some sun cream all at once just in case of unexpected changes (and when you are nipping out with young children in tow, this really is an advantage!).

We miss friends. Of course we do. But slowly, slowly we are meeting new people and with the improvement in internet connectivity it is possible to stay in touch better than it would have been five or ten years ago. There is always a balance in a new place - how much to spend time keeping in touch with 'home', and how much to realise that your 'home' has now moved and there are people right in front of you to spend time with, love and care for, share the gospel with, challenge and encourage and so forth. And again, at some level, there is a choice in how we approach things.

Today, I feel like God gave us an amazing blessing and encouragement by showing us that the opportunities here are simply different. Yes, no autumn colours, but awesome, watching the lizard shed its skin.

Maybe you are in transition. Maybe you've moved within the city, within the country or between countries. Let me encourage you to open your eyes and embrace the good things about where you now are.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Are you blessed? Don't feel guilty, but give thanks!

And He said to them, 'Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses' Luke 12:15

As we packed up our life in the UK, the headlines were filled with dreadful stories regarding the refugees fleeing from Syria. So many 'normal', 'respectable' families were leaving all they owned and making tremendously dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea. Weekly there were reports of overloaded boats capsizing and many men, women and children being drowned. As I heard these reports, I was in the process of deciding which possessions to bring in our luggage, which to pack into a 20 foot container, which to store and which to give away. I felt acutely aware of the discrepancy; that I had the luxury of more possessions than I actually need and the financial blessings to enable the shipment, in contrast to those who flee with nothing.

What should our response be? Are there any Biblical principles to consider?

'There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land' Deuteronomy 15:11

'Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give,  willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life'. 1 Tim 6:17-19

'From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked'. Luke 12:48

From these sections, I would draw several principles:

1) In any society there will be those who have more and those who have less. 

2) Rather than feeling guilty about what we have, we rather should prayerfully seek how we can best use these things for God's glory

3) Our confidence and security should never come from our material security, but from our confidence in God

4) We have a responsibility before God to see all things as a gift from Him, to be used for His glory

I think new Christians often feel this way - that they immediately want to sell everything they have and give the proceeds to the poor. Yet this is not usually their calling, and indeed by doing so, they might simply join the number of needy people in the population. Instead we need to consider all things as a gift, and possibly a transient gift.

Indeed, there may be times when it is right to spend slightly more on something in order to serve God more effectively - thinking of our field of work, that could be a reliable laptop computer which enables us to work effectively when we move between sites and countries and when there are powercuts, or a car which tough enough to not require frequent repairs from driving on low quality roads in the rainy season and which is large enough to be able to offer others lifts. Sometimes, the best use of your money (after giving/ tithing) is to spend a little more than you might naturally choose to in order to maximise the opportunities. (We are very frugal as a family, and often find the most efficient and economical approach, so it is quite difficult for us to make these choices. However living frugally can also become a kind of idol, and again requires a prayerful approach).

We don't know what the future holds. When my daughter and I were evacuated by air ambulance seven years ago, I was allowed to pack one small bag. My husband followed the following day with 20 Kg of baggage. But we did not know that we would ever return to our home after that. And you know, that didn't matter at all to us then. We were content to leave it all behind, knowing God was with us and would provide all we needed. Things were just things. Here, we are in an East African country, which at the present time is relatively stable. But other missionary friends in West Africa are facing a military coup and much uncertainty which seems to have come about quite suddenly. We do not know the day or the time when such things might happen. Yes, we are expecting many of our belongings to arrive by ship in a few months' time - books, toys, camping equipment and so forth; but that day might never come. And our desire in having all these things is to be able to serve God well, to encourage others, to raise and educate the boys in a godly way, and to use everything for His glory.

When my daughter was ill, and after she died, some friends expressed a feeling of guilt for having several healthy children. I used to counsel them not to feel guilty, but rather to rejoice in what they had. None of us know what tomorrow might bring, and Jesus tells us quite clearly not to worry about tomorrow. And we are clearly instructed that we are to 'give thanks in all circumstances'.

It might be your material blessings, maybe your health, maybe your family - but please don't feel guilty about the areas where you have been greatly blessed. You may well have friends who would long for what you have, there may be others on your street, in your church, in your workplaces, in your city who are struggling tremendously. May I encourage you to give thanks to God and prayerfully seek how to use His blessings for His kingdom.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Sonlight - a couple of weeks in

Recently I described our first week with Sonlight, and how this was a very positive experience for us. Of course not every day is filled with milestones and celebrations, and I imagine with every family there are days of great encouragement and others which feel like plodding up a mountain through thick mud. As we start our third week, I have a couple of further reflections:

1) The pace. I like the steady, step by step pace. Previously we tended to move more in fits and starts, some days doing a lot and other days very little. I know that one of the great benefits of homeschooling is that you can follow the child's pace, speeding up for areas of interest, slowing down during times of illness, life events or when challenges are faced. I never want to lose that! But what we are noting with Sonlight is that there is plenty more time in the day - so when the children are begging for more of something, we tend to switch to a parallel activity, something which complements and expands what we have been doing, rather than going faster through the schedule. (One big reason we won't change the pace from the schedule is because my husband and I are sharing the schooling, and it is really useful for us to be able to come in and know exactly where we got to the previous day. I appreciate this may be different with other families). I think it also helps the boys to know more clearly what will be expected of them every day - and to be able to see when the task is finished. My middle son has been really thriving on the joy of achieving new things and stretching himself - this has been a real joy to see.

2) The potential to go off on tangents remains - perhaps one worry I had about following a schedule was that it might be too rigid. However, with a little imagination, there are plenty of activities that can branch out of what you have been reading about. For example, today we made unleavened bread using some unusual flours (corn and millet) - we had been talking about what people would have eaten in early civilisations, and also had recently been reading about the Exodus from Egypt. So we experimented, made plenty of mess in the kitchen, and learnt about different types of flour (ie the absence of gluten, but high levels of protein and magnesium in millet). If you feel you need a bit of inspiration, the Sonlight forums (which are open access - all you need to do is register regardless of whether you have purchased their materials) - have whole discussions about creative activities which can go alongside the Core curricula.

3) Thinking about how useful it is that the whole package - including consumables - is shipped. Here we have no libraries, and it is much harder to just pop to the shops to pick things up. Yes, we are in the city where we probably can find things if we really hunt, but I can see the huge advantages in having had all the materials sourced, consolidated and shipped together particularly for those in remote areas. I would advise friends of mine who are going to low resource areas to consider choosing a curriculum package since whereas the eclectic pieced together 'do it yourself' style which relies on public libraries, museums and art galleries, second hand shops and ebay and good internet simply isn't an option out here.

4) The need to carefully consider 'electives'. One criticism of mainstream schooling is the emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy at the expense of other areas. Home schooling has the advantage of offering a rich, diverse 'feast' for the child, but I can see how if you rigidly follow the Instructors Guide for the core materials, language arts, science and maths, and then consider that 'school is over' that one could fall into the same error. We've taken advantage of being close to the music school and enrolled the younger two boys in a class for 3-5 year olds, and are considering an instrument (or voice?) lessons also. We've found a local home ed sports group on a Friday (which chooses a different sport every term, which is a good idea). We are trying to do some more art once a week (and have some art appreciation materials on their way to us), and we're going to start Rosetta Stone Spanish in a couple of months when the rest of our things arrive. We deliberately decided to focus on the core materials for the first couple of months, to establish rhythm and routine, but I can see the need to be careful to include the electives and to give the boys the chance to develop their interests and talents. I also think having the philosophy that 'education is a life' ensures that you do not compartmentalise your day into 'school' and 'non-school', but rather aim for a seamless continuity of learning.

5) I feel less pressure now that the days and weeks are mapped out. Previously I was always a bit concerned that I might miss a certain area, or might be neglecting certain foundations. I feel I can now spend more time prayerfully considering the whole of our lifestyle, using the curriculum as a basis, but taking a bit longer to look at the Bible, character formation, consolidating things we have covered as we walk along the road, visit the market, do other activities. I feel I am able to worry less and to focus more. (Not everybody would agree with this - my husband never really worried about these things at all! But he does get to benefit from a more relaxed wife, so he will appreciate this aspect).

I'll continue to write about  how things are going from time to time - particularly if there are any key encouragements or challenges. If you are following a curriculum (or have done at some point in the past) - I wonder what the main benefits have been for your family?

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Priorities when starting afresh

We have often found that moving home (particularly when it involves moving to a different country) makes us reassess our priorities. Some of this can be deliberate - time to leave old things behind, perhaps start a new routine, a time to make new habits. Some of it is borne of necessity - water needs to be boiled and stored, clothes need to be washed by hand and dried in a small space, the electricity is intermittent. And some of it comes through unexpected challenges or questions as we get to know new people. I find it a helpful time, to consider which things have true importance.

Some recent examples:

1) Settling in a church. Wherever we go, if it is for more than a couple of weeks, we desire to get regularly involved in a church. We believe this to be Biblically correct, to join with the body of Christ wherever we are. And it brings other advantages too - we get to know other believers and be encouraged by them (and hopefully bring some encouragement too). We make it known to those around us that our faith is important - either we are seen walking to church, or when people ask how we intend to spend the weekend, we will talk about going to church. It helps the children realise the importance of this in any move - that no time is too short to be important to God. And in many respects it mirrors what we will see in heaven, when 'every tribe and tongue' will worship. We've been amazed at how blessed we have been in places where we have only lived for a few months - and our involvement and commitment to the local church has been a major part of that.

2) Patterns of family worship. We find that keeping our family devotional routines always helps with transition. We start every morning with a Psalm, and end every evening by reading through one of the books of the Bible before praying together. Wherever we are in the world, this has been our pattern, and I believe it brings the security of knowing that 'if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me' (Psalm 139)

3) Increasing involvement of the children in chores. There are more chores to do here - it fluctuates from dusty and dry to wet and muddy, and the beautiful red soil  which is so characteristic of Africa makes a delightful mess on the tiled floors. Dishwashers are unheard of and we don't currently have a washing machine. It is actually very good for the children to see how these jobs need to be done, and to reflect on how blessed we are with labour-saving devices in the UK. And now they are a bit older, we are increasing their responsibilities in terms of folding their clothes, tidying up before meals and at the end of the day. Small things which (in honesty) would be easier done myself, but we are using the move as an impetus to  instill better habits.

4) Building relationships in the community. As an expat living in Africa, it can be possible to live behind a locked gate and travel everywhere by car. We've seen that. Our approach is to try and walk as much as possible, and to find local stalls to buy our groceries rather than supermarkets in air-conditioned malls. (I am not saying the malls are wrong or that we never go there, but rather am describing the patterns we try and build). The market we have found is about 3 Km away, and is bustling, noisy, dirty and a little smelly. It's great! Several of the sellers recognised our family from our time here last year, and it's great for the boys to stop and greet people, to see daddy bartering for vegetables (the mental arithmetic can be quite fun to follow) and to get a much better idea of the value of money and where food comes from. So it's both a rich learning experience, but we also hope and pray it is a chance for us to walk with locals from different backgrounds and for them to perhaps question 'the reason for the hope that [we] have' (1 Peter 3:15).

5) Our commitment to living as a godly family - and that a major outworking of that is the decision to home educate. When I started to write at, one of the big challenges I faced was the reaction of some friends, family members and colleagues towards our decision. I think almost every home educator can tell you the typical list of concerns that well meaning people raise! And most of them can be very easily refuted (maybe I'll do a separate blog post on that soon!). I felt we'd got beyond that, and people just generally accepted it as something we did. Quirky or eccentric perhaps, but I was actually quite encouraged by how positive people tended to be once they saw how it all worked out. However now, in quite a different culture, I feel we are going back through the same kind of process with a slightly different slant. Amongst the middle classes here, there is very much a culture where a child will be raised by a nanny and in some kind of childcare or school from early until late (in fact the sign on the gate of the school next to our compound comments that 'children left before 6.30 am or collected after 6 pm are under their parents' responsibility' or words to that effect. It would be quite normal for a child to be at school from 6.30 until 6! There is always a temptation to justify our choices; sometimes this is right and helpful, as by explaining our priorities we might be able to challenge. But some of it comes back to 'being fully persuaded'. It is also easy to feel guilty for not being able to work between certain hours every day; again, I can summarise how we do this, how actually we are more productive in the hours we do work, and that we have considerable lattitude in terms of exactly when we work. But the point for me is to be confident before God that we have made the right choices, and not feel the need to apologise! I am sure I will write more on this too, as the weeks go by.

So there you have five things we are trying to prioritise as we build our lives here. Central to everything is having a Christ-centred, Christ-focussed household where visitors are welcome, and where we seek to encourage other believers and challenge non-believers. Many of the other things we do in our day to day life are just frills. It doesn't really matter if I walk, drive or take a taxi - the key is that I am seeking to build relationships, seeking to use my time wisely to glorify God and to make the most of every opportunity. I am sure you can think of similar examples - things that are of primary importance, and others which are just a means to that end.

So my challenge tonight is: What are the key priorities for your family?

Friday, 25 September 2015

Sonlight: First Week

Last week we moved back to East Africa. On Monday we started our new curriculum. We chose Sonlight for several reasons:

1) We have seen some really positive results. My first positive encounter with home schooling was about 10 years ago, in southern Africa. A family had seven children aged between 4 and 19, and so you could really see the difference in each stage. What impressed me most of all was the way these children could critically appraise evidence and reach a conclusion in a way which I was unable to do until I worked for my PhD. When I spoke with the family, it became clear that a large part was the well-structured and well-balanced curriculum they used, and this was Sonlight. The children all also spoke highly of their education.

2) It is very Biblically based, and seeks to instil children with a godly worldview. The integration of Bible, history and world cultures enables discussion right from the start about what is conventionally taught and what the Bible teaches (Week 1 of Grade 1 kicks off with a discussion of evolution, dinosaurs, the age of the earth etc - it does not shy away from controversy, but presents the Biblical view clearly and correctly)

3) It is similar to the style we had adapted to over the past few years - lots of reading together, lots of reading out loud, lots of discussion. The only criticisms I have ever heard of Sonlight are that the parents spent quite a lot of time reading out loud, but we had already based much of our education on this anyway, so it seemed a natural progression.

So, after the first week, how has it been? Short answer is: Wow. This has exceeded my expectations and I am thankful to God for such a positive start! More specifically:

1) You can get quite a lot of advice before you choose a Sonlight curriculum, especially if you are teaching more than one child. I chose a Core package with the other subjects added on because the core is recommended for children within a 3 year interval. My boys are 6, 5 and 3, and indeed for the core parts, all three of them seem engaged.

2) Then, I had chosen handwriting K (starting off - with manipulatives and very basic letter and number forms) and Grade 1 for the younger two (my eldest seems to write reasonably so I did not feel needed a handwriting module). The youngest is delighted to have his own materials, and both the younger two have been asking for their handwriting books. I chose 'handwriting without tears' out of the different options. We have quite a strong family history of dyslexia (although haven't noticed any signs in the children as of yet), and also my middle child does seem quite obstinate at times. They love the way the letters are described. It's amazing - to go from objecting to writing to actually asking for it from the moment they wake up!

3) With regard to Language Arts, I have obtained Grade 1 and Grade 2. We've started the older two at the start but are deliberately going faster with the six year old, in order to stretch him. I have never seen anything quite like the elation of my five year old as he correctly read his first page of a book. Sonlight author John Holzman has written the series 'I can read it!', and in our household this has proven very true. Right on the very first day!

4) We went for Singapore Maths, having considered the other options too (Saxon and Horizon). We did not want excessive worksheets and repetition (my boys tend to turn off and make almost deliberate mistakes when they are asked to repeat things too many times!) and also, the people we know who are best at maths are from Singapore. It seems to be working really nicely. We bought the textbooks and an extra copy of the workbook and both older boys are going at the same pace here.

5) Science - a lot is familiar to them, but it's nicely structured and I like the way it ties in with what we are doing in world cultures. They were extremely excited to blow pieces of paper across the floor to prove that air is a substance. It was incredible to see their delight

6) One thing I was uncertain about was they way the schedule involves reading short parts of several books, whereas previously we might read fewer books but complete them in a single or a few sittings. I was not sure how that would work out, and whether it might cause frustration. But in fact it has been working well, and has helped balance out the attention between the boys of three different ages (my eldest could listen to a whole novel, whereas the younger two prefer shorter sessions). The rapid change of pace is good and refreshing. In the afternoons we have spent more time reading some of our non Sonlight books, and so we have the best of both worlds. Also, there have been a couple of days when the boys have been more restless, and so the change of topic can help resettle them.

7) My husband and I were together for the first three days of the week, so able to work together and get a feel for it. Out of the two of us, he was a bit more reluctant to buy a package, but it has been quite delightful to see how much he has been enjoying it too.

I am very grateful for this positive first week! Not every moment has been easy, and I am sure there will be weeks that feel more like a challenge. But for this week, we feel like we have established a new pace, a new routine and are excited about the weeks and months ahead!