Sunday, 31 May 2015

Where is our true home?

'Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honourable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation' 1 Peter 2:11-12

'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

Several years ago, I read 'Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds' by Ruth van Reken and David Pollock. It was on a friend's bookshelf; at that time I had no children and no particular reason to read it other than that I had heard this phrase 'third culture kids' bandied about quite a lot. Sometimes it was used to describe a challenge, sometimes as what seemed to me to be an excuse, but most often just as a statement of fact, a kind of identity. A 'third culture kid' is a child who has accompanied their parents into another culture which is not their passport nation (often as a result of a parent's career choice - either secular or a spiritual calling). A 'cross cultural kid' is similar, but has lived in many different cultural environments. If you are raising a family between cultures, I would recommend reading the book - quite a lot made sense and it has given me some things to watch out for and potential solutions which might be of help. (I should re-read it now, with a growing family and another international move coming up).

The chapter that stuck in my mind at the time related to the process of leaving - of how often, during the final few months in a place, you start to disentangle yourself from relationships and activities, and almost start to psychologically 'leave' ahead of the physical move. I found that interesting because I had been aware of those behaviours in both my friends and in others. I think as a family we are starting to do that now - there will be an interesting conference, or a home educators meet-up in the autumn, but we know we won't be here. We are watching the apple and cherry trees blossom, and remembering some fantastic foraging last autumn; but by autumn we will be near the equator and the seasonal oranges and browns, crisp cold autumn mornings and fresh apple and blackberry crumble will not be our experience this year.

Whilst I think it is good to be aware of the processes involved in moving between cultures (particularly the ways in which we can help our children through transition), I think it is also important to remember that as a Christian, this world is not our home. A friend sent me a book, 'Inside Out: True Change is Possible' by Larry Crabb, since she had found it deeply challenging. I read part of it on the plane yesterday. One of his key arguments is that modern Christianity often sells the gospel short by suggesting that we can know relief from life's problems in the here and now, as well as looking forward to a glorious eternity. This is NOT what the Bible teaches. For example:

Jesus Himself said, 'These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you WILL have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world' John 16:33 (Emphasis mine)

The Apostle Paul described it thus: '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' 2 Corinthians 4:16-17

I believe a lie that we are often sold as Christians is that we should somehow be looking for peace, security and comfort in this world. If we do not find it, or if we find it temporarily only to then move on again, we may be tempted to feel that something is wrong with us. Our proposed move is to a city in east Africa which is densely populated, has a traffic problem, and where there are not the wide open spaces which one might associate with Africa, particularly an African childhood. In contrast to where we lived previously for four years, where we had a large garden with abundant fruit trees, where we grew many vegetables and kept goats and chickens, we may find ourselves with little outdoor space. When I have been explaining this, and other differences, to friends, I find I am often asked, 'Why are you going there then?' Why are we going somewhere that we do not find beautiful, where we are not sure our children will have the idyllic childhood that probably doesn't exist anyway, but which may be associated with missionary life? I find it particularly difficult when I am asked this question by Christians, because it seems to miss the point entirely.

We are moving here because we are confident that this is where God wants our family to be over the next few years. Quoting the Apostle Paul again, '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

And again, 'And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work' 2 Corinthians 9:8

God is able to provide everything we need. We trust God with all areas of our lives. We trust Him with our children. We trust that He will enable us to serve Him as a family wherever we are, whatever culture we are in. Our highest aim is not for comfort and peace here and now, but for a life that gives honour to God and looks forward to the far greater hope of heaven.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Grief: 7 years later, a 'wish list'

Part of the 'abundance' of life our family has been given has been the experience of having had our firstborn child die when she was fifteen weeks old. Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of her death, and I have found it interesting to observe how grief goes in cycles. At first, it was simply a question of taking each day at a time. I remember the first time I found myself laughing really hard about something, or the first time I did not think of her as soon as I awoke; at those times there was a strange mixture of guilt but also awareness that life was moving on in a way which was right, normal and healthy. Now, seven years later, it is more random. Every year I find the six week period from when she suddenly became ill (unexplained out of hospital asystolic cardiac arrest for those who like detail) to her death hard. There are many anniversaries and triggers. But at other times, there are days when it just hits you afresh for no obvious reason.

Years ago, I came across this 'bereaved parents' wish list'; there are certain points which I find a bit irritating, but most of it is helpful. The items I would really emphasise are those about wanting to hear our child's name spoken, wanting her to be remembered, wanting people to share their memories too. Occasionally (and it does seem so occasional now) people ask me about her and I get a little emotional. I need to explain that I am emotional because they have said the right thing, not because they have said the wrong thing.

Seven years later, not everything on that list seems immediately relevant. But some of it seems more so! Today my list might read like this:

1) When you remember our daughter, speak her name and tell us you remember her. She lived for such a short time, and her life was divided between three countries (three weeks in the UK, six healthy weeks in sub-Saharan Africa and finally six weeks in a South African hospital). Not all that many people met her. We move frequently, and our work colleagues do likewise. Therefore many people don't even know we had a daughter. If your do, and you have memories of her, these are precious treasure to us.

2) If you want to know how we are, how things feel after this time, how having several other children since might change things (or not), then ask! It is not a taboo topic!

3) Similarly, if you want to know how to support another family through the death of a child, and think we might be helpful, then ask! You can ask us direct questions, and there is nothing we would not be happy to answer (all I would ask here is that you don't just see us as a 'resource' but do remember that even when we speak pragmatically about things, there is still sadness there which will never really go away. Please remember that we also continue to grieve).

4) Don't feel afraid to be in touch on her birthday or the day that she died. Let me reassure you, we will not have forgotten, and you will not suddenly cause our day to become sad. Rather, we will be grateful that you have remembered, perhaps more so as the years pass

5) As the years pass, many people face grief and loss in different ways. Rather than hiding from it, let's learn from one another. We can 'comfort one another with the comfort we ourselves have received from God' (2 Corinthians Chapter 1). As the Apostle Peter wrote: '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 may also be glad with exceeding joy' (1 Peter 4:12-13). I have found it sad to observe how others isolate themselves in their grief, rather than drawing comfort and wisdom from those around them

6) Please don't say, 'I can't imagine what you went through'. I honestly think that you can, but that you don't really want to. You might not be entirely correct, but you can certainly imagine.

7) Please don't feel you can't talk to us about things because you haven't been through the same trial. Actually sometimes it is harder with somebody who has been through something similar, but has a different worldview, set of relationships, social support structure etc. It can be easy to assume that a shared experience is helpful (and it can be, and that is how support groups tend to work); don't be afraid that you have nothing to give. And conversely, we haven't had the experiences you have. Please don't see see some trials as somehow 'greater' than others - we are all living together in a world that is fallen and broken, and in which there is much pain. Let's encourage one another!

8) Don't worry about saying the wrong thing. From my experience, some people did say some awful things (in one week, two people said to me, 'I'm glad it was your daughter who died and not hers, because she would not have coped so well' - thanks, I'm glad you feel that way!). But I also knew even at the time that nobody meant to say anything offensive. In fact, these people were trying to build me up and bring encouragement. Back then, and perhaps even more so now, I don't think you can say the 'wrong thing', whereas saying nothing at all, and ignoring the 'elephant in the corner of the room' hurts much more

9) Ask to see photos of her. I have 'first year of life' photobooks for all my children (and two of them are less than one year long, as my daughter only had 15 weeks of life, and my second son did not join our family until he was about 16 weeks old). We often look at these with our children, but they are also helpful to show people who want to know the story. Don't worry about upsetting us. It would be a pleasure to share her story with you.

10) Don't feel that your problems are trivial and so distance yourselves from us. We were sustained by a supernatural 'peace that surpasses understanding' (Philippians 4:7), and we have often read missionary biographies where people are given amazing strength and courage to face persecutions, imprisonments, torture and other extreme hardships. It can often be more difficult to 'conduct yourself in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ' (Philippians 1:27) in the face of more sustained, mundane pressures of life. I have felt less at peace during trivial workplace squabbles than during our daughter's illness. It is difficult when we feel people put us on some kind of pedestal because we did not fall apart seven years ago. It was purely through the strength and hope that we have in Christ that we were able to walk that path. We want to share your life, and encourage you in trials. Just because something is not 'life or death' does not mean it does not matter.

I would also add one or two things to the bereaved!

1) Be gracious to others. There are reasons why some people might not be able to draw alongside you in the way that you would prefer - it is not simply that people don't care or can't be bothered. In recent years, with two babies and a toddler, and now three lively young boys aged five and under, I have had times when I would love to have been able to sit with people, talk things through, really try and be a strong support for others (as indeed others were for us). It just hasn't always been possible in the way I would like. Now, from the other side, I realise that there were some people who seemed to distance themselves from us but perhaps it was circumstance as much as choice.

2) Don't think your grief makes you unique. It may be that you have known an extreme trial and a heartbreaking loss. But it is almost universal that people experience grief and loss, disappointment, sadness and pain during their lives. It is part of living in a world which is fallen, and where there is much chaos and disorder. Rather, seek to use what you have learnt and experienced to show compassion to others (cf 2 Corinthians Chapter 1)

3) Don't think that your grief gives you a license for sin. We struggled with people who expected us to 'curse God and die' (in the words of Job's wife!) or to go wild with reckless spending or drinking or some other form of escapism. It might be that you would never do such a thing. But sin can be subtle. Watch your attitude. Beware particularly of bitterness, self-pity, covetousness and pride. All these things can keep you from living a life which gives God glory.

I hope you find these thoughts helpful, whether you yourself are grieving or whether you are supporting another through the process.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Bereaved fathers - a forgotten group?

Seven years ago when our daughter died, one of my Professors wrote that he particularly wanted to comfort my husband since people often consider the death of a young child as being the mother's loss. He wrote from experience, since twenty years prior, his firstborn child had died suddenly at six weeks of age. He remarked that he struggled very much as others would be quick to comfort his wife, whereas he felt invisible.

Two days ago I was discussing grief with a friend whose father died last year. I commented that it had been easier in some ways to contextualise our daughter's death as at that time we lived in a city where every second mother had a child who died under the age of five. My husband asked why I did not say 'every second family' or 'every second father'. It made me think. In part, it was a culturally relevant comment: in that society only women would attend the funeral of a newborn, and it would indeed be seen as the woman's loss (additionally, it was a matrilinear society with high rates of non-paternity). But the point was there - I had unconsciously fallen into the same stereotype of considering the death of a child to be primarily the mother's loss.

Today, I have received many messages of comfort and encouragement. Some have said little, simply, 'thinking of you today', whereas others, who actually knew my daughter, have said more. Some people have contacted my husband also, but it is more likely that they will email or text me. Why is that? In part, it is because I tend to be the one who sends out emails and updates regarding our family's travels and prayer requests. In part, it might be because I choose to put a photo of her on my Facebook 'wall' on anniversaries, to help other people remember her (and also to send the very strong signal that I want people to remember, I want them to talk about her, I want them to feel able to recall the challenges that there were to their faith, and that God proved Himself faithful even through the trials.) But still, there is often the assumption that fathers somehow just get on with it, whereas a mother might have lasting grief.

There have been a few articles drawing attention to this recently in the blogosphere. In fact, there is even a Bereaved Father's Day! Organisations such as SANDS (the UK Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society) have developed some resources aimed at fathers. But it does often seem as though the father can be a bit of an afterthought, and often he is expected to support his grieving wife rather than have needs of his own.

Watching my husband face the severe illness, disability and inevitable death of my daughter was the hardest part of the whole process. It is a significant life even that changes you forever. Some of the change is good - we long for heaven. Our children have a worldview where they know they have a sister already in heaven and that it is a very real place. We can be more compassionate towards others (although I think we need to take care at times, not to be dismissive of things that seem a little trivial to us). From my experience, I know I don't worry about the small things any more - perhaps too much so at times, I'm really not all that bothered by day to day things, or material possessions. Our faith was truly proven genuine as it was refined as if by fire (cf 1 Peter 1). But there is also an ongoing sense of loss. It is difficult to fully put into words. For me, it is a removal of that fresh innocent hope which comes with your first baby. Sometimes there is just an intangible sadness. It is difficult also to say what we really miss - our daughter lived with us for nine healthy weeks, was in hospital for six, and then was gone. We have had guests stay for longer than that. It was the hopes and dreams for the future perhaps. And just another reminder that this world is fallen, tarnished, longing for the day when Christ returns and all things are made new.

If you have friends who have a child die, let me encourage you to ask the father how he is. Ask him like you really mean it, and give him the time to answer. Let him talk. Don't assume that because he does not say much that he is coping perfectly fine. (And how does one define 'coping' anyway? Somebody may be coping in that they continue to function, to discharge all their ongoing responsibilities and not to show outward emotions. But that does not mean they do not feel loss). It might be that a bereaved father seems withdrawn or irritable - but even if somebody is not the easiest to draw alongside, that might simply be a reflection of the pain he is feeling. Sometimes, the hardest thing of all can be when people say nothing, and try to act as though it never happened. Don't be afraid to talk about the child who has died. By doing this you will not stir up painful memories, I promise you that! Having spent a reasonable amount of time talking with bereaved parents, it seems to be a misconception that we might have forgotten about them at a certain time, or forgotten their birthday or anniversary or some other significant occasion. As time goes on, it is even more precious to me when people do remember, and when they take the time to tell me so.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Three years - God's faithful provision

The past three years have brought a range of encouragements, challenges, experiences and adventures. God has answered prayers and directed us step by step. And as a family, I believe we have grown and continue to grow. Here are a few examples:

1)      Embarking on home education. Three years ago, our eldest was nearly three years old and our youngest two months old. In the UK, all three year olds are offered 15 hours of free nursery education – many people accept this happily as the default position, and even consider that it must be beneficial because it is pushed by the government. I was under pressure from some directions to put my eldest two into nursery, and yet we were convinced as a family this was not the route we felt was right. There was a certain amount of misunderstanding and at times well-meaning friends and relatives would try and ‘reason’ with us; the main reason why people seemed to suggest it was to allow me some ‘me time’, a concept which I find contradicts our God-given roles as parents. Others would feel criticised by the fact our decisions were different to theirs. But over time, people have come to accept that home education is something we do. It becomes easier with time, as people become used to the idea, and also as we start to see fruit in the boys lives from the choices we have made.

2)      Three years ago, we did not know where God was leading us as a family. We had spent four wonderful (I need to beware of rose coloured spectacles here, as there were also hardships) years in sub-Saharan Africa, but were now back in the UK without a specific leading or calling. When the baby was three weeks old, an opportunity arose to spend 10 weeks as a missionary doctor family in rural West Africa. This was an amazing blessing – we were inspired particularly to see how God could use a young family and an open home for His glory. Since then, we have lived in two UK cities, and also spent a month in East Africa; now the doors have opened for us to move there for three or four years in several months time. Our testimony has been that ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.’ Psalm 119:105. God has given us enough clarity to take the next step. We often have not known what would lie beyond that, but little by little He leads and guides us. And never ever fails to provide abundantly.

3)      When we first decided to home educate, I was concerned about which curriculum or materials to use, making sure we were covering the full range of topics, working out what the learning styles of my children were and ensuring there were no gaps. I still spend a lot of time considering these things, and reflecting on whether changes are needed at any point. However I have increasingly seen that a lot of it (remember that my eldest is not yet six) is intuitive – children are born to learn, and to a certain extent we just need to provide them with the right resources and point them in the right directions. Rather than proactively setting out a timetable, I have come to realise that we have naturally formed a routine of Bible and reading first thing, leading onto drawing, writing, numbers, colouring and sometimes craft, painting and baking later on before going out to a nearby park for a run around (and sometimes more focussed nature study). The afternoons tend to be more variable, perhaps more reading, going on an outing, meeting friends, doing group activities with a local home education co-op, swimming lessons, gymnastics etc. And when I consider all that we do each day, I realise that for now, we are covering a fairly broad range of disciplines (having said that I am also aware we need to make a specific effort to include a language and things like coding). We also have been impressed by the ethos and range of materials provided by Sonlight, and plan to start using their resources in a more structured way come September.

4)      I had been ill – hyperemesis and eight admissions during my pregnancy, but then continued vomiting for two years afterwards. There was a lot of frustration because I knew what was wrong, but had to wait months for unnecessary tests before going to surgery. I had the surgery to my stomach just over a year ago now, and am back to better health than I had been for a while. This taught me lots of lessons about patience, about trusting God to give you enough strength for each day, and about valuing what you have (I still have aches and pains here and there, but am thankful I have the health and strength to do everything I feel God is calling me to).

5)      Generally just three years of boys growing, developing unique personalities, different strengths and interests, working through challenges and moving on to new ones, and often not quite having enough time to really take stock

These are just a few examples of how God has led and provided for our family over the past three years.

Challenge: When you look at your life and your family, do you feel overwhelmed by what you have ahead of you, or can you look back with thankfulness for God’s provision and guidance? Take time today to give thanks.

Welcome to the Blog!

Welcome to the new blog! Three years ago, with a baby and two two-year olds, we had made the decision to home educate our family. I was aware this decision might bring challenges, and that it was important to remain faithful to our convictions and to draw from the wisdom and resources of others. So we launched For three years I have posted there, at least once a week and that site will remain. However I have increasingly come to realise that our decision to home educated is simply one element of our life of faith – desiring to live for Christ in all things, and not follow the pattern of the world. Whilst home education will remain a major part of our lives for the foreseeable future, I have increasingly wanted to write about the life of faith – about global mission, about serving God as a family, about hospitality and relationships, about Christians in secular leadership roles, about financial priorities, about Christian marriage, family life and spiritual growth. So on the third anniversary of homeeducationnovice, I am launching An Abundant Adventure (

When describing Himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus promised ‘I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly’ (John 10:10). An abundant life is not necessarily an easy life – elsewhere it is described as entering ‘by the narrow gate’ (Matthew 7:13). However the twenty two years I have been following the Lord Jesus have certainly been abundant, and never more so since embarking on parenthood seven years ago.

It is my prayer that you find the posts here inspiring, challenging, comforting, refreshing and encouraging.