Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Christmas Activities - A Skills Audit

Do you worry about keeping up with the 'academic year'? Do you ever feel you are 'behind', or feel guilty for spending too much time doing 'extracurricular activities'?

Over the past few weeks I've really enjoyed watching my children becoming absorbed in a range of activities in addition to the main tasks outlined by our curriculum. Whilst our objective in these was not purely to develop a list of skills or to reach a specific educational objective, I found it quite instructive to reflect upon what they gained from these. To do this can be referred to as a 'skills audit'. Here are some examples:

1) Making Christmas cards

We have a plan to design a card each year, and for each person to have a role. That way, the children who are able to write can do that, whereas the little ones can have fun cutting and sticking. At the moment, the parents were having to do quite a bit of the design and supervise the whole process, but hopefully over time our role would be less. Here are some skills that they developed:

  • Design
  • Team work (and leadership)
  • Writing/ calligraphy
  • Drawing and craft
  • Making the list of recipients 

2) Christmas Baking

One of my favourite education tools is following recipes, particularly baking. There are many skills that are built:

  • Reading
  • Organisational skills
  • Planning and preparation
  • Consideration of what is seasonal and economical
  • Maths and measurement
  • Creativity in choosing shapes and decorating
  • Science
  • Kindness - deciding who to give the products to

3) Choir/ being involved in a performance

I am keen for the children to be able to sing nicely in a group since I think there will be many occasions in the future where this comes in useful. I had not expected them to be involved in a production at the National Theatre, with all the lighting and sound effects, and there were many additional things they learnt here:

  • Singing alone and in a group
  • Different styles and rhythms
  • Patience - a lot of the rehearsals involved sitting and waiting
  • Working in a group with a range of ages
  • Seeing the lighting effects
  • Different types of microphones, and which are most useful in different situations
  • How costumes and sets can enhance a production

4) The church Christmas production

This was quite complementary to what they did in choir - a broader range of ages and abilities were represented, and the rehearsals and planning meetings went on for a little longer. Additional things they learnt include:

  • Understanding how it can boost a person's confidence to have even a small role
  • Team work and leadership - hearing the discussions take place
  • That it takes hard work and commitment, and that we all learnt from mistakes
  • The pleasure in working hard together as part of a team
  • That each person has a valued role (even looking after the baby sister so both parents could have an active role)
  • That messages (here the message of Christmas) can be communicated in different ways - through word, song, acting and even dance

5) Watching documentaries

One of our treats is to watch documentaries, particularly about nature or about different places. They have loved David Attenborough, but more recently have come across a team led by Gordon Buchanan who use a range of different technologies to film unique aspects of the living world. (See here for an example of some filming in Burma). This has them absolutely captivated, and often their games involve setting camera traps, building hides and using night-vision and heat-sensor cameras. Often it is when they are playing that I appreciate just how much they have learnt. For us it is nature documentaries, but for you it might be something different. Something highly enjoyable but with immense educational value

6) Lego, models, other active toys

If you have a child who builds with lego and duplo, you probably don't need me to discuss all the skills they are developing through this. The boys all received something in this category for Christmas, and have had many hours of constructive play with them. Skills might include:

  • Organisation and planning
  • Reading
  • Visuo-spatial awareness
  • Familiarity with shapes and colour
  • Team work
  • Imagination

7) Creative play

One of the gifts we got for the boys was a masai-style blanket, so they can dress up as Masai warriors whenever they fancy. (Also to stop them pinching the throws from our chairs for this purpose). It's been amazing in the past three days to see the creative ideas for which these are used. Yes, we have had Masai warriors, but have also had several styles of tent and a north African souk in the garden. I love the fact that a simple, square piece of fabric holds so much potential. Skills noted:

  • Imagination
  • Acting out (and narrating) of history and geography learned over recent years
  • Team work and planning (the games are often quite complex)
  • Visuo-spatial skills
  • Design and engineering (building shelters out of sticks, rope and fabric)

8) Other games

It has been wonderful to appreciate that the children are now old enough to play games which are highly enjoyable as adults too. (It's not that I haven't enjoyed some of the Early Learning Centre games such as the Lunch Box Game, or the slightly quirky, Stop the Pigeon Driving the Bus). But I really enjoyed a game of something like Taboo the other day. (You might have a different equivalent - it is the game where you have to describe a word without saying the word or anything too close to it). I was amazed at how even the four year old was able to do this well. Their concentration is improving too, so we are able to do games which take a little longer (especially when the smallest one is asleep). Skills here are many and depend quite a bit on what the game is, but would include:

  • Language skills
  • Numeracy
  • Following rules and order
  • Kindness to one another

9) Time and space to choose activities and to explore

How often do your children actually do nothing? I appreciate that there might be some activities which are of more value than others, but what we find is that they really appreciate some time built into the day where they can choose what to do. So for example, every day we have an hour of 'quiet time' where they can choose a selection of books and read these - and could also choose to draw or write or do some other quiet and solitary activity. In the afternoons, we try not to take on too many extracurriculars to allow time most days to  simply play. I've read quite a lot about how 'modern' children don't always have enough time to play, and how they need time and space to allow their imaginations to develop. I am thankful that we are able to create the time and space needed here.

So, whatever you have been doing over the holiday period, I am sure your children will have benefitted greatly. If you are a homeschool family, I'd like to encourage you that even if you haven't been progressing through your set materials, your children will have likely developed in a range of areas simply through the opportunities presented in your day to day life.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Advent activities and traditions

It's nice to sit down and reflect on the past few weeks - there has barely felt like a spare moment, and even though the days have been filled with good things, I have longed for a little peace. It was relatively recently that I discovered that my personality is more introvert than extrovert; people tend to assume that if you have a leadership role, and are comfortable with public speaking and teaching, that you love being surrounded by people all the time. It's not that I don't enjoy company, but if I really seek refreshment, some quiet time alone is more profitable.

Christmas is suddenly very close, and it is the related activities that have made the weeks busy. I'm going to reflect a little on some of these things. First and foremost, I have rejoiced that everything we have been involved in has been very Christ-centred, and represents a real change from the more materialistic, entertainment driven culture found back in the UK (at least in our experience!). I wrote a little about that last year here. Also, as a home educating parent, I find it interesting and encouraging to reflect on the lessons and skills that have been developed through a wide range of 'extracurricular' activities (or put less formally, through enjoying advent together as a family in the context of a vibrant church).

1. The children had the opportunity to join their choir singing at the national theatre over the weekend, and that involved plenty of rehearsals including seeing how the lighting and sound was set up. I was encouraged by the boost to their confidence that this was, and the things they learned through the experience (other than simply learning to sing in a group - in fact their part was relatively small, but as I realised watching them over that time, that didn't matter so much).

2. I recently reflected on multi-cultural celebrations, and last weekend our church had a day of sharing food, music and dance from our different cultures. The theme was 'unity in diversity' and it was like a small foretaste of heaven when 'every tribe and tongue' will be found rejoicing before the Throne of God. The children are old enough now to really enjoy these occasions, and they wore their national dress, learnt several songs and were involved in teaching a dance. Whilst the theme of the day was more about worship, it was also encouraging as a home educating parent to see the number of skills that they are developing without even really trying; relating to people from all over the world, being aware of their own cultural heritage (s), learning and singing songs in public, enjoying a range of different foods (my friend who was going to bring grasshoppers cooked in a kind of peanut butter sauce was unfortunately delayed and unable to bring his favourite dish).

3. This weekend was the Christmas production, and again, we were able to get quite involved as a family. So, there were days when we had 25 people over for breakfast (a bucket of local porridge, drank out of cups), followed by singing and dancing in the front garden. It was good for the children to see how a performance is developed - to see the mistakes made in practice, to see different people trying the different roles, to see songs abandoned and new songs chosen, to help decide how to build a set, to find out how to make multi-purpose costumes on a budget and to be involved in each step of the process. The actual event was fun (and got nice feedback), but for me, it was the practices that were most enjoyable. It is always through serving together that relationships move from being superficial acquaintances to something more meaningful, and it was very encouraging to watch all of the children interacting so well with their many friends at church. A year ago, we began to get to know people through being peripherally involved in the Christmas production, and I was able to look back and reflect on how God has blessed us this year through becoming integrated into our church and community. (In fact, it's that which has made me struggle to find time to blog lately - that the house has often been full. A blessing and a privilege, and I really would not want it any other way).

4. So now, we have a relatively quiet week heading up to Christmas. We will have our house group over to sing carols, and will be spending some time with friends, but we have more time to focus on the Jesse tree and related activities, something which is becoming quite a tradition for our family. (As an aside, I read this blog from somebody overseas about Christmas traditions, and it made me a little sad; I see that having your own family traditions assumes even greater importance in a cross-cultural setting) As well as the 'emblems' to draw or colour and hang on our spray-painted branch, we have a large timeline across the wall where the children are free to draw or write anything that goes along with the Bible narrative. It's been very interesting to see how their understanding develops year on year. I love watching how they draw some of the Bible stories as it shows their interpretation and understanding. I'd seen some other resources online about 'kindness' tasks to be done through advent, and I thought that might be a very useful supplement to what we were already doing. So in each of the Jesse tree envelopes, they have a 'task'. None of the lists available online were really applicable to our cultural setting, the resources we have access to or the ages and interests of our children. So I made a list. I thought about areas where they struggle. I also am keen for them to go through their books and toys and see what can be given away. Our church has an outreach into a nearby slum in January, so it is an ideal time to put things aside to give to those who have great need. It is also good for the children to see how much they have, and how they can bless others. Other tasks have been to write letters to the people who have taught them (choir, sports etc), to Skype somebody they haven't spoken to for a long time, to write home, to help cook, to read stories to their siblings and so forth. I've been encouraged by how much they have embraced these tasks.

5. In between these things, we've enjoyed making cards together as a family. Each person has had a task. We have palm trees that regularly shed leaves and sections of wood, and so we've been able to make a nice design, and get the children to choose verses and use nice pens to write the cards. Each time a person is heading to the UK, we've given a batch of items to post. We have also tried via the local post office, and will be interested to see whether things actually reach their destination. In amongst this, again there have been many valuable lessons - art and craft, design, team work, discipline, kindness and so forth. There have been some days where I have felt that we have been so busy having fun that we haven't done much 'school' (although we are keeping up with the schedule for the curriculum we are using). But then, I need to remember that at this age, many mainstream schools would spend a lot of time on art, craft, working on performances and so forth. As a home educator, that really isn't so very different, except that we can choose tasks that we feel build the skills we wish to cultivate.

So, five different areas where we have been blessed and encouraged. Personally, I am now looking forward to a slightly quieter week. The children are tired, and need a bit more rest. We are continuing our typical homeschool pattern (basically 'school' between 8 and 11am with extra things in the afternoons) right up until Christmas, as we all find the routine makes the home more peaceful. I know others take more of a break, but for us, it can be counter-productive and we do better with the discipline and structure.

I wonder how you have found advent? Have you any family traditions that help you learn and grow together?

Thursday, 1 December 2016

International celebrations and rich diversity

One of the things I love most about home education is how the whole of life is an education. It does not have boundaries and limits with a clear delineation as to where 'school' starts and stops. The only time that ever presents a challenge is when we have visitors who don't understand that - people who have not come across home education sometimes seem to expect to see children sitting quietly at desks doing worksheets for hours at a time, but really nothing is further from the truth.

Yesterday was St Andrews Day. One of my children was born in Scotland (as was I). We are in the slightly unusual situation where our four living children were all born in different countries. This is a great opportunity to celebrate four times as many national holidays as many other people might, and to learn the foods, dances, songs and traditions of four different cultures. So, yesterday, the boys wore kilts, hoisted the Saltire outside the house, learnt some songs (either describing key historical events, or simply the beauty of Scotland) and some poems. We cooked haggis and tatties. We had to improvise neeps (Swede, which you cannot get here) out of carrot, pumpkin and sweet potato, but it worked reasonably. We toasted the haggis. And we enjoyed remembering my beautiful homeland.

As I reflected, I saw all the wonderful educational opportunities that came from this. We'd recently watched some Scottish history DVDs and as we learnt some of the songs, we were familiar with the history that was referred to. We talked about language development - our most famous poet, Robert Burns, wrote in Scots, which is very different to Gaelic. We looked at recipes and talked about the reasons why it is harder to get oats in East Africa than in Scotland - to do with climate etc. We discussed why haggis in its purest form is illegal in the USA (because it contains sheep lung). When our guests arrived, the boys led some singing (and I was surprised at just how well they had learnt some of the songs and how well they did this) - in the Sonlight curriculum, there are times when the children are meant to memorise a poem and recite it for friends. We've never really managed that, but I realised that we were actually embracing the opportunity to do this which came naturally.

Yesterday I also reflected on another experience of the rich diversity to which my children are exposed. My seven year old had the task to write about the 'history of a coin' - to find a coin and then to consider the story of that coin before it came to us. Who it belonged to. What it was spent on. How it came to us and so forth. Now, this particular son collects coins. Whenever one of us travels, he doesn't want anything other than a few coins from that country. Another friend who also travels extensively has also provided him with a range of coins, so now he has quite a collection. So yesterday, we invented a new game. You pick a coin and tell the story. Yesterday, we were young children in the Andes, living in the mountains but going to town to trade. We were in Denmark living on a dairy farm. We were in a city in the USA. We were enjoying a barbecue on an Australian beach. I could go on. What struck me was just how much three boys, aged seven, six and four know about countries and cultures throughout the world - more than many much older people. I think with home education, it can be easy to look at the things we are not achieving, and not pause to consider the areas where progress has been made. One of the main reasons we chose Sonlight was because worldview and having a broad understanding of the world we live in was a priority. The mechanics of reading, writing and arithmetic will come with time and practice, but there is so much more, so very much more to an elementary education. And often with the three R's, progress is made most when the child sees the reason for acquiring the skill and how it will be used - and that can often be to write about and describe the rich world around us!

In just over a week, our church is having a celebration of unity in diversity. People will wear their traditional dress, will cook regional foods, will sing songs or tell stories from their own culture. Again, this is a wonderful opportunity for the children to learn more than could be gained from sitting in a classroom reading a book!

I feel encouraged as I look at these things, and am thankful for the freedom of home education to provide a child with a rich perspective on life.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Where are the 'still waters'?

'The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters; He restores my soul' Psalm 23:1-3

That is one of the best known parts of the Bible. Even many people who have never been to church or who have very little understanding of Christianity are familiar with the words. But at times, familiarity can breed contempt; we can become so familiar with words that we neglect to stop and really consider what these mean and how they can apply to our lives today.

Over the past couple of weeks, a question I have been asking myself is, 'Where are the still waters when life is busy with small children and a seemingly endless list of tasks and responsibilities?' I hear of others who go on retreats, or go out for coffee with a good friend, or have some time away with their spouse in order to simply spend time thanking God for that relationship and to pray about and plan. I speak with those who have recently read a challenging book, or who have had time to really dig into what the Bible says and spend time refreshing their soul. I don't often find such times, and I know that I am far from alone in that!

In Isaiah Chapter 40 verse 11, it reads, 'He tends His flock like a shepherd; He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young'. That is a beautiful promise - that 'those that have young' are recognised and words of special tenderness are spoken. It is a reminder that God knows about this phase of life, and promises to be gentle with us through it. It's this gentleness that can sometimes be lacking when we lack understanding of God's grace; it is easy to become our own worse enemies in that respect.

But back to my question. Still waters. Where? Well, I have been encouraged by finding these in several places. Five examples:

1) First and foremost through reading the Bible. I might not have as much time as I would like to quietly read the Bible alone early in the morning, or to be able to read commentaries and look up the original texts. But I read the Bible to my children several times each day. Often through reading aloud, and through answering some of their questions, there comes a fresh perspective. We can put our devotional time into a 'box', thinking that if it is not done in a certain way, then somehow it doesn't 'count'. But by stepping back from that, I realise that I have more time to read and discuss the Bible each day than many others, and that this is a privilege and a blessing.

2) By stopping to enjoy the moment. 'Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself' Matthew 6:33-34. There are times when the children are playing well in the garden, pretending to be explorers, or savages, or pirates, or kings. It is easy at those moments for me to rush inside and try and tick of some more tasks on my mental to-do list. However, there is often no need. I can sit and enjoy a coffee, enjoy the sound of birdsong and children playing and reflect on how abundantly God has blessed me. I think most parents can relate to this: that sometimes you just look at all your children in amazement. Do we spend enough time simply doing this, or are we often too busy dealing with some issue or other?

3) By choosing their read-alouds carefully. There are some poor books out there, and many mediocre ones. But there are also some excellent books which bring out important values and teach many lessons. This is one thing I love about the curriculum we use, Sonlight, because great care has been taken to choose books that are of great value. We supplement this with Christian biographies (mainly Trail Blazers [written for children aged 8-12ish], but sometimes ones which are written for adults - although we need to take care to avoid some topics which are not age-appropriate). I find these wonderfully encouraging! And by reading books that I find encouraging, and discussing them with the children, I find refreshment. I've recently commented on the Jungle Doctors books - these have also been enjoyable, encouraging and have stimulated some great conversations.

4) By choosing to focus on the task immediately at hand, rather than running through the next lot of things that needs to be done. That may sound fairly obvious, but when I am tired I can start to feel anxious about everything that is piling up. However this week we've enjoyed some painting, some baking, a couple of lovely walks - all precious moments with the children which will not necessarily come again. I know that one of the major reasons why people choose to home educate is to maximise these opportunities, but I can see that you can also start to get into a bit of a rut where you fail to embrace these.

5) By not comparing. It can be so easy to look at others who appear to have something which you lack - whether that be a strong social support network, particularly studious/ athletic/ musical children, more time for friendships, a more comfortable financial situation or whatever. But that is not the life God has given you. God has placed you here, now, for a good reason. When you take a step back and remember that even (at times especially!) through the mundane God can be glorified, it brings a wonderfully refreshing perspective. Who are you doing it for? Are you seeking the approval of others, or from God? 'Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord and not for men. It is the Lord Christ you are serving' Colossians 3:23 There can be times when weariness comes from discontentment, and we can choose to rejoice in what God has wisely given each one of us.

So, whereas a week or so ago, I felt really low spiritually and emotionally, God has provided me with much encouragement. I am still tired. I still feel a little like I have hit a wall at a certain point in the evening. Physically I haven't seen a huge change, but I feel far more peaceful and able to trust God through this season of life.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016


And God is able to make all grace [every favor and earthly blessing] come in abundance to you, so that you may always [under all circumstances, regardless of the need] have complete sufficiency in everything [being completely self-sufficient in Him], and have an abundance for every good work and act of charity. 2 Corinthians 9:8 (The Amplified Bible)

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:9

Last week I wrote about exhaustion, about how I felt I was approaching burnout, and how I had become aware that something needs to change in order to enable rest and refreshment whilst not neglecting my responsibilities in and out of the home.

This week, I have thought much about grace. I began to see clearly that there can often be a disconnect between what we might believe and how we actually apply that truth in our own lives. I sometimes can be aware that I can help and encourage a friend through a situation or trial where I myself am actually really struggling. I can say the words to others that I need to hear more than anything.

I've been thinking about my professional training. There are different types of training. There are the facts that you learn in a lecture theatre or in a practical class. There is the application of these which builds as you are exposed to increasing numbers of clinical cases. Then there are the subtle things that you are never really aware of being taught, but which develop with time. I remember as a medical student being told that you can learn something of great value from every clinician you work alongside, even if what you learn is how NOT to do things. That was so true! You could see the doctors who were able to communicate well with a patient, were really able to express empathy and show the patient that they were being heard, were in good hands and that they were fully respected as a person. I remember one day realising that those seniors who always seemed in a hurry and not to have time to listen actually took the same amount of time with each patient. I suddenly saw that there was a skill there, a real art, in being able to put the patient at ease and use the time wisely. Putting people at ease is something which I find I do naturally now - I tend to sense when another person is feeling uncomfortable in a situation and to reassure them. But what I can sometimes forget is that this might not be a natural response to others. It may not be because they don't hear or don't care, it just might not be a skill that has been acquired.

Why do I use that example? Well, over the past week I've been a bit more honest with a couple of people about how I have been feeling. And a couple of friends have replied to say that in their own lives, they feel frustrated when other people seem to be being offered lots of help and support, but nobody seems to hear them or recognise their needs. Hearing this, I started to realise this kind off thinking is risky - there is a risk of bitterness. It is only a small step towards thinking that nobody cares, and triggering a negative spiral of self-pitying thoughts. I know. I've been there before, it helps nobody and it is not in line with God's truth.

Its the disconnect between what we say we believe about grace, and what we really live in the light of. The Bible has so much to say about grace that I can hardly know where to start, but there are two verses that really struck me this week - the ones quoted above. ALL grace to ABOUND. Not just a little bit, but abounding. Plenty. Perfectly sufficient for every situation. Grace. No need to struggle, or fight, or try to earn. No need to clamour, no need to protest. No need to have external recognition (whether that be words of appreciation or acts of support). Simply perfect rest in the knowledge that God's promises are true, and He promises rest and peace.

Of course this doesn't change the things that need to be done, but it does change my attitude. There are some things which cannot be put off or delegated. But for me, some of the problem has also been worrying about the 'to-do lists' and worrying about not responding rapidly to queries and tasks. There are times when I can switch off. When the children are playing, rather than thinking about the next item on the list, I can sit down and just enjoy watching them. I've discovered there are small pockets of time in a day where I can rest, and even if not able to read my Bible or a book, I can meditate on what I have read earlier. I can pray. I can thank God for my family and all He has blessed us with. I can enjoy the moment rather than worrying about all the other things that need to be done.

It may sound small, but it is a small thing that has made a big difference. 

Where do you see grace in your everyday life?

Tuesday, 15 November 2016


Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. 'I have had enough, Lord,' he said. 'Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.' Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, 'Get up eat.' He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, 'Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.' So he got up and ate and drank. 1 Kings 19:3-8

The passage above comes immediately after one of the most powerful demonstrations of God's power. 

'At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: 'Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.' Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, 'The Lord - He is God! The Lord - He is God!' 1 Kings 18:36-39

Lately, I've not been feeling myself. Life is full of good things. Our daughter has settled amazingly well into the family and has recently started to walk; she is far and away the healthiest child we have had at this age. Homeschooling is going well, and we seem to have hit a nice rhythm. Of course, there are the occasional challenges and days where we seem to be correcting attitude more than working through our resources. But on the other hand, this is one of the important aspects of home education, and we embrace that as a blessing and a privilege (once we've had some coffee and a little time to reflect). We are involved in a lively church where we have several ministry opportunities where we can use the gifts we have, and where we can open our home for lively discussions of the Bible. The children are increasingly involved through singing and playing with other children whilst the mens' Bible study takes place on Saturday afternoons. Our home has been alive with visitors who have brought fresh perspectives and energy. My work outside the home is going well, we've recently obtained a big grant to expand some aspects of the work, I recently won a prize for my own work, and in general things are moving well.  There are hiccups and challenges that occur at unexpected moments, but by and large things are progressing. We are all in good health, and we have found some lovely routes to run or walk over some leafy hills near our house. On the surface of things, all is good.

So why do I just want to curl up and cry?
Why am I not looking forward to things the way I usually do?
Why do I have constant checklists in my mind of tasks that need to be done?
Why do I wake up at night remembering something that hasn't been done?
Why am I doubting whether any of this really has value?
Why do I feel as though anybody else could be doing a better job in all areas listed?

I realised that some of the symptoms I am feeling can be classified as 'burnout'. This is a term I have come across through my medical work, and as I re-read some helpful resources (for example here), I came to see that what I am feeling right now is quite classical.

What I found interesting was that many of the characteristics and personality traits that may be considered strengths are exactly those which may predispose a person to keep going for a bit too long. For example (see a full article from the US Christian Medical and Dental Association here)

  • You have a high tolerance to stress.” – Isn’t that a good thing?
  • You’re the emotional buffer.” – We call it supporting our patients, and it’s a skill we worked hard to perfect.
  • Your job constantly interferes with family events.” – Ok, we certainly don’t say aloud that this is a good thing. But haven’t you at least thought that someone’s request for time off was “weak,” especially during a busy season?
  • You lack control over your work schedule and free time.” – Of course we do. People can’t control when they get sick and need our services, can they?
  • You don’t take care of yourself.” – Once again, not explicitly encouraged…but we all spent at least 11 years (and some of you many more than that) subjecting our wants and needs to a long and gruelling training process through college, medical school and residency. Then we were overrun with patients whose needs were “more important” than ours. Who has time for massages, for goodness sake?
I think there are some other factors which might be involved, at least in my life. The first of these is:

PRIDE. It is actually quite difficult to say to somebody that you are struggling/ exhausted/ discouraged or whatever way you might wish to phrase it. There is no real reason why suddenly I am finding things a bit more difficult, and I can look around me and see many active, successful, vibrant people who are juggling similar lists of responsibilities. Why am I the one who is not coping? Is this not further evidence that I am inadequate? I don't want to admit that. 

However, the Bible makes abundantly clear that God brings many challenges into our lives to humble us. 

'Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything' James 1: 2-4

'Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us' Romans 5:1-5.

I gave a lengthy quotation from Romans, since I believe the context is key. Our hope is in Christ. It is ours by grace through faith. It is not of ourselves, we cannot boast, we cannot earn it. It is a passage that reminds us of our frail humanity in contrast to the amazing love of God. And I find that humbling and liberating!

Pride can also make us feel that  we are indispensible and that we cannot possibly stop or drop any of our responsibilities. 

COMMUNICATION. I find it quite difficult to express myself. I've written about that here. I can feel that I am telling people around me that I am tired or discouraged, but it is as though they do not hear or  do not know what I am trying to say. I can find that frustrating. Maybe I find it difficult to be completely honest and say things like, 'I really need some rest'.

LACK OF GRACE. Quoting Romans above, it is amazing to reflect on how our salvation, our lives, our ministry, our families, everything is all a gift from God.  Reading a helpful article from desiringgod.org, I found this quotation:

Although no two burnouts are the same, as I’ve counselled increasing numbers of Christians through burnout, I’ve noticed that most of them have one thing in common: there’s a deficit of grace. It’s not that they don’t believe in grace. Many of them are well-grounded in “the doctrines of grace.” Many of them are pastors and preach grace powerfully every week. The “five solas” and the “five points” are their theological meat and drink. Yet grace is missing in five vital areas. There are five disconnects between theological grace and their daily lives.

I would agree with that. There are times when I know the answers I would give others. There are times when I encourage others to do exactly the things which I find so hard to do in my own life. And yet, now I've hit a point where I feel something needs to change.

So, what is the solution? I am sure this is something I will return to in the weeks and months ahead, but  here are some of my initial thoughts:

1) Recognise that there may be a problem

2) Tell somebody about it, and take care not to expect others to be able to read your mind

3) Pray about it and rest in some of the amazing promises of God. Focus on His grace, and His compassion. Focus on your identity in Christ (as opposed to in the different roles you have in life)

4) Catch up on sleep before making any big decisions or really trying to unpick your situation. That is why I love the passage in 1 Kings 19. I know from my own life that often a couple of early nights or afternoon naps can make an amazing difference. And it IS possible to do this, if I communicate to those around me that it needs to be a priority. If you are the sort of person who stays up late and gets up before dawn, you cannot expect people around you to realise you need to have a short break from that unless you communicate!

5) Eat well. 1 Kings 19 again. I find it hard to eat enough when I am tired. Good fresh food makes a difference

6) Fresh air and exercise. But with the caveat that this should not become another 'task' - I've stopped running so much over the past week or two, in order to rest

7) Look at your responsibilities. What is an essential God-given responsibility, and what have you taken on in addition? I've read articles relating to burnout among Christian doctors and relating to burnout in Christian ministry which recommend such an approach. Maybe this can also be done with your spouse or with a close friend

8) Consider which things you find most draining. It was relatively recently I came to realise that my personality was introverted, whereas most people consider me an extrovert because I CAN keep talking and being outwardly confident in group settings. But I find it draining, and for relaxation would much rather be alone, reading, writing or walking. The element of life which may have tipped me from managing my responsibilities to feeling burnt out may have been having a very full home. It is a great blessing and a privilege, but I need to find ways to carve out space and peace in the midst of that (without having to stay up later and get up earlier in order to do so). For you, it may be something entirely different.

I am thankful that God brings a whole range of situations, both delightful and challenging into our lives. My prayer is that through this current challenge I can draw closer to Him, become more like Him and be able to use what I have learnt to bless others.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Do nothing out of selfish ambition

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, and being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death - even death on a cross!
Philippians 2:3-8

Isn't it wonderful how Christ is our perfect example? And how 'all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work'. 2 Timothy 3:16. We have the Holy Spirit to guide us and continue to teach us, and are reminded that 'His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by His own glory and goodness' 2 Peter 1:3.

I have been thinking much about this over the past few days. As well as being a Christian mother sharing the home education of our children with my husband, I am also a medical academic. I do a mixture of clinical work, research projects, clinical trials of medicines and teaching of students and colleagues. Through this work, I believe there are many opportunities to serve 'the orphan and the widow', and show compassion to those who are in real need. As we are reminded in Micah Chapter 6 verse 8, 'He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God'. As Christians in most walks of life we have opportunity to do that.

The other evening we hosted some colleagues who are not Christians, who do not share the 'hope that we have'. They are hardworking, kind and funny, but the thing that really stood out to me was the clear and almost aggressive ambition to succeed professionally. It made me feel uneasy. It made me question whether I had missed something, or was doing something wrong in some way. You see, I do the work I believe I am called to do, to it to the best of my ability, but I never really consider 'my career'. 'Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord and not for men. It is the Lord Christ you are serving' Colossians 3:23. I don't aim to become a professor within a certain period of time; I acknowledge that this might be something that happens if the work continues well and the opportunities continue to arise, but to me that would be a by-product of doing what I believe to be right. Similarly, at work there are currently some colleagues who are involved in a bitter argument regarding who should get the most credit for a piece of collaborative work. I don't understand such arguments; to me, the important thing is that high quality work is done that improves patient care. There are times when I am ridiculed and called naive for such a stance! I have had to stop and reflect, and to remind myself of what truly matters. For me, if the work that I do required aggressive selfish ambition, it might be time for me to leave.

Similarly, these are often the people who complain most about terms and conditions, about hours worked, about external recognition and so forth. But Paul reminded the Philippians, 'Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, 'children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation'. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.' (Philippians 2:14-16)

Sometimes, when we spend much time with those who share our worldview, it can become easy to forget the way those who do not know the love and grace of God tend to think. It can be easy to assume that everybody shares our hope and motivation. It can be quite uncomfortable to be confronted or challenged by a conflicting perspective, but on the other hand, is this not a wonderful opportunity to show a difference? And is it not important for junior colleagues to see that you really do not need to have that attitude? Is it not important to tell a different story, to show that it is possible to do vocational work to the best of your ability without it becoming an idol? We have many wonderful examples through history - in our home we often read Christian biographies and learn about people who have stood firm in their faith in the face of challenging situations, or against a godless culture. But who is proclaiming the Truth in all areas of society today? In another hundred years time, who from our current generation will be remembered as having lived a holy life giving glory to God? As Christians, we will be misunderstood. In fact, it could be argued that if we never felt misunderstood, never felt different to the prevailing mindset that surrounds us, never felt ridiculed for having a childlike faith, that we were not truly any different to the world around us!

What is the response? For me, I must continue to pray that God keeps my heart gentle and humble before Him, and that I continue to remember that 'I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.' John 15:5-8

People around us will not understand. We will feel odd and different at times. But perhaps this should be reassuring rather than unnerving. It is my prayer that by living differently, by having a different motivation and a different perspective that my life and work can bring glory to God.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The poor you will always have with you

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. 
Micah 6:8

I recently travelled for a work-related conference. Arriving early at the venue, I went out for a walk to see my surroundings and get some fresh air. In the mid-afternoon, I was astonished to see clear drunkenness among both men and women across a range of ages and from what appeared to be diverse socio-economic status. In many doorways slept homeless people, and outside many shops there were beggars. I was stunned by the vulgar language used and the aggressive tones which were used, particularly by younger women. There seemed to be no joy, just anger, alcohol, and angst.

This was the city of my birth.

Recently, a visitor to our home in east Africa was clearly shocked by the poverty which she saw around us. Children in ragged clothes would play football barefoot outside our gate. People lived in much more basic housing and had fewer possessions, and live on what can sound like an impossibly low amount per day. She kept sighing and commenting on how difficult it was, and how she would find it hard to 'live among such hardship'.

What has struck me is that poverty is everywhere. Deuteronomy 15:11 reminds us that 'There will always be poor people in the land'. In three out of four gospels, Jesus is recorded as stating, 'The poor you will always have with you'. Poverty is always among us, but perhaps when we are in our own familiar environment, we don't notice what is staring us in the face. In a country where there is better social welfare and universal access to healthcare and education, the disparities might be less obvious. Indeed in some places, it is those who are 'poor' who seem to have the most disposable income, or at least who spend in a way which is more externally apparent. It can seem paradoxical. But my recent observations reminded me that there are as many social problems in a UK city as there are in a developing world context. I think it is helpful to consider what poverty actually is. Is it purely related to the amount a person lives on per day, or does the definition extend beyond being materially poor? A very helpful resource is the book 'When Helping Hurts', and the associated Chalmers Centre. This really helped me understand what poverty meant, and why simply providing 'aid' was not the answer. It also made me appreciate that people become trapped and disempowered and so unable to lift themselves out of their situation. This is seen across cultures and in all environments.

Many of my friends and colleagues in Africa think that Europe and America are places with the streets paved with gold. Their view often comes from films, books or seeing the computers and cameras that people tend to come across with. They struggle to believe that life can be hard, that the cost of living is much higher so money might not go far, and that there are as many, albeit different, social problems. However for me, returning briefly after many years to the place where I was born, I found myself more shocked by what I saw than by the more obvious material poverty in my neighbourhood in east Africa.

What is my point here?

1) The words of Christ are eternal. As long as we live in this world, there will be poverty among us.

2) In every society and context, there are opportunities for us to love and serve.

3) We must take care not to become numb to that which surrounds us daily, but prayerfully seek to see the situation and see how God can use us in it

4) We must not feel that people living in other places have a more 'spiritual' role; I know sometimes people can see their overseas workers or missionaries as being somehow on a pedestal. My argument is that there is every bit as much work to do where you are. Working amongst angry, hopeless people in a cold European city may not seem as 'glamorous' or 'special' as working with HIV-positive women in an African city, but I would encourage you that there are every bit as many opportunities.

5) Get involved and seek to love and serve those around you.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

What is a family?

God sets the lonely in families Psalm 68:6

Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me Psalm 27:10

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart Hebres 4:12

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. 2 Peter 1:3

What is family? When you think of your 'family', who do you think of? Are you close, or is there hurt and pain? Is there any hope for reconciliation? Do those who are related to you share your faith and worldview? Is there fellowship or misunderstanding?

I have been pondering this topic much in recent weeks. In my life, some of the most painful experiences have stemmed from broken family relationships. As a teenager I was removed from the care of my parents after many years of abuse, and it took me many years to feel I had 'dealt' with some of the emotional pain resulting from this. I have to struggle to find any 'happy childhood memories' or times where the family dynamic was normal and balanced. I suppose the scars remain to an extent - there are areas of vulnerability where I do not always feel as secure as I ought, or where a random conversation or event can trigger a cascade of unexpected thoughts or emotion.

However, from this dark background, the light of the gospel shone so clearly and brightly and as I accepted the truth therein, I knew what it was to be freed from guilt and shame, to be freed from fear, and to know that my identity was in Christ. If you go through the Bible and look at all the statements that speak of who we are in Christ - it is a remarkable and mind-blowing exercise. As it says in the epistle to the Ephesians, we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing. That is just incredible!

The love and kindness of Christians was key in my conversion. I was a lost, abused, confused seventeen year old, and yet I was treated with love, care, compassion and dignity by the Christians I met. I had never known such acceptance - and came to understand that the love of Christ was unconditional. After years of striving for acceptance (and feeling I failed dismally in this), I knew the freedom of a perfect heavenly Father. I know that some people find that having had a poor role model in their human father can make it difficult to understand and accept the glory of our heavenly Father; however, for me it was the opposite. Knowing that my human parents were so deeply flawed, I was able to embrace the perfect love of my heavenly Father. I remember the first time I read Psalm 27: When my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me. Even now, that verse melts me; the Bible is inspired and speaks into every situation, and that verse assured me that God knew what I had been through, cared about it, and promised to provide me with something better by far.

Time moved on, and I had my own children. Again, I had no role models to show me how parenting should be - but God provided several amazing families who welcomed me into their lives and let me see how family life worked. Helpful books on Christian parenting were recommended, and I was encouraged to look at what the Bible said about family, parenting, discipline and so forth. Not having had 'natural' role models, God provided me with people who became closer to me than any biological relatives, and for that I am so very thankful.

Two of my children are adopted. As I've written before, adoption is something I find so very beautiful because in many ways it mirrors the work of the gospel in our lives. Something which is broken, and seems beyond hope is restored and given new life and new hope. Yes, as long as we live in this world, there will be scars that remain - perhaps (probably?) at some stage my children will ask difficult questions about abandonment and the circumstances of their early lives. Yet they have a family where they are loved, valued and accepted, and where with the strength God gives us, we will raise them to His glory.

Coming full circle, I recently came to know that my biological family have 'issues' with the fact that we have adopted, and that the adoptions have been cross-cultural. For years, I had wondered why the relationships which were tentative at best had become more and more non-existent (emails not replied to, phones not answered, calls hung up and so forth). At times I felt myself back in the place of an insecure rejected teenager, wondering what I could do to win their love and affection. And now I feel not only rejection for myself and the choices we have made as a family, but also of my children - and that is deeply painful. I do not want my children to be exposed to the same irrational, hurtful rejection which I endured; I want them to know they are loved. (Yes, their behaviour will require discipline, which is not pleasant at the time for them, but that is because of our love for them - see also Hebrews 12! Another topic for another day!) I wish to protect my children (as much as it is possible, depending on me) from harmful attitudes, and many of my own memories of my own family situation remind me of just what I wish them not to know.

Again, I have turned to the Word of God which has everything that is needed to deal with the most crushing and painful situations. Christ Himself knew pain and rejection beyond anything I can imagine. He knew verbal and physical abuse and pain. He knew injustice. 1 Peter 2:21 reads, 'To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps.' As Christians, we are called to suffer. Jesus said, 'I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world' John 16:33. Again I have marvelled at how some of the words of Scripture have been so perfectly apt, so encouraging and so reassuring, guiding me into a closer relationship with God, my perfect heavenly Father. And I have been thankful that whilst my biological family is characterised by deep hurt and broken relationships, that in Christ I am part of a wonderful family of believers.

Why do I write these things tonight? Where is the relevance to a blog focussing on living as a family wholeheartedly for Christ? Here are ten reasons.

1) To acknowledge one of the most painful areas in my life. Perhaps you also have an area which causes great sorrow, and it can be easy to read blogs where everything seems 'perfect' and where there is always the happy ending.

2) To remember that God knows our pain, and cares deeply. Jesus, being fully man, can fully understand our trials and sorrows. We can trust Him and pour out our hearts to Him.

3) That as long as we live in this fallen world, there will be pain. If you have walked through a trial, it may well leave scars. There may be times, even years later, even when you think you have 'dealt with' something, that you walk through a season of sadness again

4) To remember how far God has brought us. As a teenager, I knew no hope at all. Coming to know salvation transformed my life, and gave me a 'hope and a future' (Jer 29:11) I would never have imagined having the family I do now, having my own children, being able to serve in the community where we are, to no longer be labelled as the 'problem child'. Sometimes you just don't realise how far God has brought you until you stop and reflect

5) That through the darkest and most painful times, we see the wonderful blessings of God all the more clearly. Perhaps if I hadn't felt the rejection of my biological family, I might not be able to fully embrace the wonders of my adoption into Christ's family. Perhaps if I felt my own family were good enough role models, I might have missed the blessing of learning from all the wonderful people God has put around me

6) That we no longer need be defined by our past. Many of us do have things which we remember with sorrow or shame. But in Christ, we are new creations, set free for a new life.

7) That we can be freed from negative behaviour patterns. I used to be terrified by statistics that suggested that if you were abused as a child, you were significantly more likely to abuse your own children. Or that if your parents were alcoholics, you would be at much higher risk. I was afraid of having my own children and repeating the behaviours to which I had been exposed. In many places, the  Bible speaks of how we are set free from the curses which may have previously bound us. And for this, I am entirely thankful!

8) That as parents we need to be alert to influences which might harm our children, and seek to minimise their impact. That sounds like an obvious statement, but I was a little taken aback to hear some of the attitudes of my own family towards my children described. I have not fully worked out how to keep a relationship open enough for restoration to be possible, and for reaching them with the love of God to be a priority, whilst not exposing the children to harm. However, we currently live 10 000 miles away, so do not need to work out the precise details right now.

9) That even if our biological families have not been as we would have wanted, that God gives us a wonderful family in Christ

10) And putting it round the other way, maybe your home is stable and loving, and you can welcome somebody from a broken home and show them what true family is.

I don't know what you might be experiencing right now, but I wish to encourage you that God knows the beginning and the end of the situation. His grace is always sufficient, and He is there to comfort us in any sorrows we experience.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Jungle Doctor Books

Do you ever struggle to find good, edifying and yet exciting stories for your children? In our home, reading together is very important. However, we have noted that more modern books have a trend towards themes that we do not wish to expose our children to - for example, dark spirituality (often under a more 'lighthearted guise' which one could argue is even more dangerous) or broken families and psychological angst. Rather, we seek to find books that bring something positive to inspire our children - tales of bravery, of moral uprightness, of strong and healthy relationships, of kindness, of going the extra mile, of standing firm for the truth. Friends and Christian education blogs often make helpful recommendations. One good friend suggested searching out Newbery Medal winners. Sonlight chooses good, edifying fiction which often links in with history and world cultures. A good friend had suggested the Jungle Doctors books, and it is these I wish to write about tonight.

These stories (we are only on our second, but are already captivated) bring in almost everything you would be looking for in a story for children. My boys are ages 7, 6 and 4, but even as adults we are enjoying the stories. They are tales of a missionary doctor set in Tanzania. We've worked as doctors for many years in central and east Africa and find the descriptions of the scenery, the culture, the food, the language, the worldview, the medical conditions encountered and the interpersonal relationships very authentic. The boys particularly enjoy references to things we encounter in our daily lives, and the use of words they are familiar with (there are Swahili phrases, but many of these slip into other Bantu languages too). The doctor (based semi-autobiographically on Paul White) lives an authentic Christian life. When situations seem impossible, he turns to prayer. He and some of the Christian staff with whom they work often draw from passages in the Bible that they have recently been considering - in a way which seems natural and not contrived. There is often a deep moral to the story too - that sin always finds you out, that God provides the opportunity for repentance but that some people do not listen and so forth. The gospel comes across plainly, but not in an awkward or embarrassed way. These are true to life missionary adventure stories which I would wholeheartedly recommend.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Nothing to write home about

I like to blog when I feel I have something to say. Perhaps something interesting has happened which has challenged the way I think about things. Perhaps one of the children has learnt in a different style to that which I would expect. Perhaps there has been a situation where I have had to 'live by faith and not by sight', putting what I know to be true ahead of what is immediately staring me in the face. Often I like to write about encouragements, obstacles overcome, difficulties resolved.

Lately, I have felt that there hasn't been so much to say. We are living in a reasonably nice pattern - the daily routine stays much the same, we are progressing through our curriculum at the expected rate, there is enough space and margin in the day for plenty of extras, we feel reasonably settled in the country where we have now lived for a year. Like many other homeschooling mothers, I have felt lonely and isolated at times; I can be surrounded by people, and yet somehow don't feel the deep sense of connection and understanding for which I yearn. However, through chatting with friends and reading blogs by likeminded writers, I realise that this is quite a common feeling when the children are young. I am reminded that firstly this is just a season which will pass oh so very quickly, and secondly that this challenge will resolve to be replaced by others; I simply need to trust God for today. It helps a little to know this - and reminds me of the importance of contentment and obedience to the commandment 'Do not covet'.

But I haven't much to write about that! I could tell you that I feel tired, often lonely, sometimes discouraged. I could discuss some of the more specific challenges that are in our lives, but none of these feels very significant. It is simply 'life'.

However, when I contemplated that feeling of 'having nothing to say', I began to reflect on our culture and worldview (I am referring to that of a person growing up in the UK). There is something that feels the need to make a statement, to be fresh and interesting, to have significance. Facebook is testimony to that - people making status updates containing trivial information in the misguided belief that people are interested and care about what they had for breakfast or what their 'selfie' looks like today. Our current generation are being raised with a strange sense of entitlement; I've reflected on this elsewhere, how we have reached the point where students are formally complaining if they do not attain top grades rather than being able to accept that their work simply had not made that standard.

Does this view affect our parenting? I believe it does: the danger of prevailing worldviews is that they can subtly influence our thinking without us really appreciating what is happening. We all want our children to be 'above average', whereas basic maths tells us that it is impossible for every child to be above average. Is there a secret part of us which wants to be able to show 'evidence' of our excellent parenting, and if homeschooling, of our excellent tuition? Do we expect every day to be marked be achievement, excellence, progress and exhilaration? Is this a realistic expectation?

In 1 Timothy 2:2, the Apostle Paul calls us to live, 'peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness'. That is a far greater aim, a far more beautiful picture than the more superficial 'excitement' that is sometimes craved in our current generation.

So on reflection, as I considered that I 'had nothing to write about', instead I can write with great thankfulness for several reasons:

1) That we can worship the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and have family worship underpinning all that we do
2) That we are settled into a routine and pattern
3) That steady progress is being made, with some good and some not-so-good days
4) That we haven't faced any life-defining challenges in recent months
5) That I can seek to shape my childrens' worldview so that they do not expect every day to be full of 'excitement' but rather to life quiet and godly lives in our community

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Fellowship, hospitality and encouragement

'Be hospitable to one another without grumbling' 1 Peter 4:9

'Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels' Hebrews 13:2

'A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed' Proverbs 11:25

Beautiful classical piano fills my home, and the scent of night jasmine filters through the window. It is slightly cooler this evening after a late afternoon thunderstorm. It has been a while since I felt so relaxed.

Recently I wrote a little about a challenging guest - and in honesty, the way I felt after that experience was that I did not want to have anybody stay for a long, long time. I knew that feeling to be wrong, but I felt exhausted, drained, criticised, stretched, frustrated, isolated and misunderstood. Anyway, we had a weekend to ourselves before our next guest arrived - and for this I am most thankful.

There have been many times in my life when I have been greatly blessed by people who have opened their lives and their homes to me. In fact, it was non-judgemental, patient hospitality which enabled me to hear the gospel in the first place when I was seventeen years old. Up to that point, I had frequently felt judged and simply never 'good enough'. I met missionaries who simply loved me, cared for me and spoke the truth gently to me, and God used that to transform my life. 

I am thankful that I have tasted true fellowship and hospitality - more than simply having 'the young people' over for a meal or providing a basic need, but rather people who have been lavish in their care, without begrudging the time and effort that has required. Recently I reflected on the time we suddenly ended up in a city in a strange country - where I did not even know where we were until I looked it up on a map. Our daughter was dying, we were far from home, and a Christian family that were friends-of-friends welcomed us into their home for six weeks. It could have been longer; none of us knew how long we would be there. It was not simply a roof over our heads, it was a family who loved and cared for us, who considered the details (thinking about what we might need, trying to smooth the way for us as much as possible, taking far greater care of us than we were taking of ourselves). Indeed, this was among the most powerful testimonies to non Christians around us; just who were these strangers who were providing for us in such a way? 

We prayerfully trust God that He will bring people to stay with us. I remember being very challenged as a young Christian reading about L'Abri fellowship in Switzerland, the ministry of Francis and Edith Schaeffer. They did not advertise their ministry, but rather prayed that God would bring the right people to them. We seek to have a similar principle in our home.

So, two weeks after having felt apprehension about another guest, we are enjoying a wonderful blessing as we host a young woman who has come here for a few months to teach music. She was homeschooled herself, the eldest of seven children, and has experienced a range of church contexts and challenges. She understands children well, knows when to be strict, is able to get down to their level and seems to know instinctively when to get more involved and when to take rest. And this evening, whilst my husband is overseas (him being the pianist in the family), we were able to enjoy a beautiful time of worship followed by the treat of her simply playing beautiful music for pleasure.

It might sound a small thing. But to me, I could see God's blessing, encouragement, provision and refreshment. It's been a tiring few months. I always find things a little harder when my husband is away and I am juggling homeschooling, professional work (squeezed into the night hours), the necessary chores of running a household and making sure that I eat and rest enough. So to have an evening like this was an unexpected treat, and a rebuke for my attitude of a few weeks ago.

How do you feel about offering hospitality? Does it fill you with fear? Do you feel drained before you even start? Or do you see it as a God-given opportunity to serve? I am reminded that the Lord does know how we feel. There were many times in His ministry where endless people with diverse needs would flock to him. He was fully man, so knew fatigue, hunger, discouragement and loneliness. And yet, there are promises in Scripture too. Through sharing, through moving beyond our comfort zone can come abundant blessing.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Celebrating a year in East Africa

Last week we celebrated the first anniversary of our move to east Africa. It is always good to stop and give thanks, and perhaps particularly so when life has been busy. It can be so easy to see the next challenge, the immediate problem, the list of urgent tasks, the lengthening to-do list and focus more on the things that have not been achieved than to pause with thanksgiving for all that has taken place.

The Bible makes clear that we must give thanks in all circumstances. 1 Thessalonians 5:18

Moreover, thanksgiving is a clear antidote to anxiety; as one reflects on who God is, and all He has done, there is little place for fear: 'Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus' Philippians 4:6-7.

There is so much to be thankful for. Some examples for us include:

1) That we have settled into a community, into a church, into a place where we can both worship and serve and where the children are able to join with us in this with joy. This is not something that should be taken for-granted, and is a wonderful gift. In this city where there are traffic issues, that we were led to a house and a church only 20 minutes' walk apart is an incredible blessing and makes it so much easier to nip back and forward for midweek and evening activities (a big challenge for those who live at a distance, as they are often then stuck in traffic). I remember when I first came here, feeling something close to despair regarding whether we would ever find a sensible house, whether we would ever be able to move freely around the city. It's quite amazing to reflect on just how much this place has become 'home'. I am also so very aware that even if somewhere is not what you might have chosen (for example, I much 'prefer' rural Africa, wide open spaces, plenty of dust and erratic power and water supplies), if you are where God has put you, He will provide what is needed and that brings real contentment.

2) For our daughter! Whilst we had felt confident that we should explore adopting a baby, it was amazing to discover that she had been born just a couple of days before we arrived here. She has been with us five months now, recently celebrated her birthday and is thriving in every way. I still can hardly believe how amazing this has been, and how well she has settled into the family. Adoption is an amazing blessing, and to me it speaks so clearly of how God has adopted us in Christ. Something which was not ideal has been redeemed and made beautiful.

3) That the older two boys can read fluently. The seven year old was already reading, but the six year old suddenly grasped it on the first week here. It was as though he suddenly realised that yes, he could do this, and yes, it was good fun. I think there have been many milestones reached this year, but somehow learning to read is a massive one which transforms so many other areas of life and learning. It is a very beautiful thing to come downstairs and find your children reading to one another, or helping one another on the difficult words. Learning then becomes such an explosion as they can access more and more information in their own time rather than having to wait for a parent to read aloud.

4) That we found a curriculum that was a perfect match for our family. We are on week 9 of the second year of Sonlight, and loving it. It has blended so well with our routine, priorities and philosophy of education and we can see how the boys are learning so much without even realising they are learning. We don't always stick rigidly to every task or assignment, and where possible we try to keep the assignments 'real' - for example writing diaries and letters to friends back home, but using the creative writing skills and language arts topics that we need to cover. On that note, we were also delighted to discover The Life of Fred - it has a very eccentric and problem-solving approach to maths that the boys do well with, and it's a great supplement to Singapore Maths.

5) That we've had guests who have brought blessing and encouragement. One thing I love about being part of a massive Christian family is how we can support and encourage one another, and through having friends and even people we know less well to stay, we have ourselves been refreshed. It is a blessing to have space to share.

6) For homeschool community - sports, music, friendships... I did not know if I would find other homeschoolers here in the city, since a lot of people rest very confidently in the International School structures. So it has been a great encouragement to be able to meet with others on a weekly basis for sports and for choir. Here, almost everybody who homeschools is Christian, and we are often on a very similar wavelength regarding our priorities.

7) That we have remained healthy and safe during our time here. We are so aware that these things are not to be taken for granted!

I could keep going, but seven seems like a good place to stop. I wonder, as you reflect on  the past year, what you are most thankful for? I pray that as you take time to  give thanks that any current anxieties or difficulties are put into perspective and you can be encouraged that  God works in all things for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8)