Saturday 25 June 2016

Unmasking culture shock

Last week, we thought we had bought a car. We had seen it, driven it, discussed the currency of payment, yet a few days later when we went to finalise the payment, we discovered it had been sold to somebody else. That kind of thing happens all over the world, in relation to cars, goods and houses. In England I discovered there is even a word for it in relation to houses: gazumped. And that was pretty much how I felt.

I was upset. I had started to imagine some things which might be a little easier with a car. I had started to plan in my mind trips out of the city. Being able to move places without a long dusty walk and a squashed minibus ride or two (usually my four children and I occupy two seats, but occasionally the conductor squeezes us onto a single seat. It gets hot). But as I berated myself for being upset over something as inanimate and trivial as a car, I came to realise that how I felt was a symptom of something more.

Suddenly I just wanted to be home. For a moment, through deeply rose tinted glasses, everything in the UK seemed immensely appealing. Through the skewed retrospectoscope, every transaction seemed simple and uncomplicated and everybody was always transparent and helpful. Whereas for me, I felt frustration regarding all the things a car would help me with. Regular power cuts and water cuts. Dodgy electrics and plumbing. Social isolation and cultural misunderstandings. Lack of access to libraries, museums, art galleries, parks and beaches. A car would of course have fixed all that and now my hopes were scuppered.

I write facetiously, but in fact the incident of the car was helpful in revealing some things going on beneath the surface. I have known culture shock before, and have read about it. I have experienced reverse culture shock and published articles on it. I therefore kind of assumed that this knowledge and the understanding and expectation that it might occur would somehow protect me against it.

There has been much written about the process of culture shock, but I thought a diagram would be helpful, such as the one found here. From that, I would say that I've bypassed the initial culture shock stage - we've lived in Africa before, and are used to settling with our family in unfamiliar settings, so I think some of the superficial 'shock' was not there (power and water cuts are normal, we have no worries about insects all over the place, we are used to being stared at). But from that diagram, you can see there is a second phase of confronting some of the deeper issues, and maybe that's where I am now.

However, as much as you read, as with any process, people don't neatly fit into boxes or into curves on a chart. Examples of people who have written about that are here and here. Grief can be like that too - there are well described stages of shock, anger, denial and adjustment, but even in the adjustment phase, you can still be hit by an unexpected wave of shock or anger. But the descriptions, and realising that many others have experienced unexpected waves, is helpful. One of the best blogs I have come across dealing with many issues including adapting to new cultures is the shared missions blog, A Life Overseas. If you are interested in these issues, and how cross cultural living affects all areas of life for both ourselves and our families, I'd recommend you subscribe.

The extreme frustration I felt over the car incident was really just a symptom of ongoing disquiet, and to be honest, I've felt a little unsettled for a couple of months. Some of it is simple tiredness after a busy schedule, many deadlines, a fair bit of overseas travel and adopting a new baby. But some of it is to do with still feeling strange in this new home. Superficial things are fine - we can find our way around quite easily, we've had no difficulty adjusting to the local diet (it is not difficult to adjust to abundant fresh fruit and vegetables!), we are settled and finding increasing ways to serve in our local church, we know our neighbours well and have many acquaintances. We are involved in a number of activities for the children, and I enjoy nattering to the other parents whilst the children do sports, choir or whatever. But what I miss is feeling totally at ease, finding things come naturally and having the level of relationship where I don't feel I have to take care with how things are phrased and where I can freely use humour without fear of getting it wrong. I'd like to go for a walk with the children without being stared at, having people ask me if my two ethnically African children are actually mine, without motorcycle taxis pulling in at every opportunity to offer us a ride (five of us - really?). To be able to stop without people coming and asking for things. To have roads with pavements and safe places to cross so I don't have to be hyper-vigilant with the children. To have a system of public transport which has space and feels safe. These are really small things and I accept that. But I think it is important to acknowledge them, because these small things can build up until you find yourself crying over a car!

I've not spoken about how I had been feeling because it seems trivial. I can rationalise away how I feel. I know that nothing that I have described is a real hardship, and compared with many cross-cultural settings, things are relatively straightforward here. Also, I resolve to look at the positive things. I'll often tell my children to enjoy the things they can get in England when they are in England (apples, cheese, cold mornings, public parks) and to enjoy the things they can get in African when in Africa (hours of outdoor play, mangoes and pineapples that people back home could not even imagine, avocados which fall right outside our front door). I try to have this positive mindset. But the truth is, waves of homesickness do come, and whilst there is no place for self-pity, they should be acknowledged.

In closing I find it helpful to remember the compassionate heart of God our Father towards us. He knows when we feel unsettled and upset, and wishes to comfort and provide for us. Even if we cannot talk things through, we have a heavenly Father who cares deeply for us.

'Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!' Matthew 7:9-11

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Homeschool Schedule with a New Baby

A question which I often see raised by home schooling families is how to manage homeschooling with a baby or toddler or both. Two months ago we added to our family by adopting a seven month old girl. She is at that age of crawling everywhere, curious about everything and very much adored by her big brothers. I thought some reflections on how this has affected our daily routine might be useful.

1) For my boys, some degree of schedule is very important; we have found on days when there is no clear structure, things just do not go so smoothly, and they can end up getting over excited and over wrought. So continuing with things as 'normal' as possible has been important. I also find it important - I struggle on days that seem unfocussed and out of control, and having even a basic structure to pin things on is helpful. (But having said that, we also wish to retain the flexibility and spontaneity that home education offers)

2) One of the biggest challenges I have found in parenting is how you can think you have hit upon a perfect routine or schedule, only for some variable or other to change requiring a change in pace. Having a baby might be a fairly significant life event, but in some respects it is just like any other major change

3) We need to take care not to narrow our view on what constitutes 'an education'; there may be times when we do less structured work, but are in fact benefiting immensely through the education which life events provide

4) Where does 'education' start and stop? We do not like the idea of having to isolate the younger children from 'educational' activities, and try to include them as much as possible from as soon as possible, so that there is a very natural progression. We believe that involves teaching them to listen well, to sit and concentrate for appropriate periods of time and to recognise that there is a time for quiet and a time for play.

What does our typical day look like? I've blogged about this before, but not for some time and I find it interesting to see how the daily routine has evolved.

07:00: Breakfast (a variation on porridge). I have often been up a while before this, getting things straightened out for the day. Even when I am tired and would much prefer to stay in bed, I find having things in order before the children comes down makes the morning run far more smoothly. Ideally I have also had a couple of cups of coffee and some time for quiet Bible study and prayer before the busy time begins

08:00: Move out into the backyard. Here, we sit on lovely garden furniture in a walled area which drips with orange and pink bourgainvalea and where several types of lizards scuttle about. In the mornings it is still relatively cool out there. We start with Bible, family prayers and sometimes songs, memory verses and then move into read alouds. We keep the baby with us during this time, as I really want her to learn to listen well, and she is at the age where language will be developing. Also, joining our family a little later, it is important she comes to clearly recognise our voices. Perhaps the biggest challenge here has been keeping my boys focussed when they are fascinated by their baby sister and frequently distracted by what she is doing (crawling into a new corner, pulling herself up to stand, chasing a gecko, whatever that might be).

09:00: Baby goes to bed for 2 hours. The boys move to the table and do their language arts, maths, written parts of science and any drawings/ letter writing etc that needs to be done. The four year old is just getting started with these things, and so we give him short tasks but don't mind if he gets down after a while just to play

11:00: Baby gets up. We move into the front garden where the boys have free play. Sometimes we are joined by the homeschooled children from next door.

12:00: Lunch (almost always toast or sandwiches, unless I plan to be out until bedtime, in which case I'll give a 'proper' meal and have the toast or sandwiches out and about for dinner), followed by other bits of reading

13:00: Baby goes back to bed for about two hours. Boys have an hour of 'quiet time' - they have to choose two or three books and sit and read these quietly. Until recently they still had a nap, and ideally the four year old still would, but this is a kind of compromise. It is working really well. It gives my husband or I a clear block of time to respond to work-related queries (we both do a fair bit of work from home) and it also teaches the boys to do something quiet, focussed and independent.

14:00: We might be going out now, for homeschool sports, to meet a friend, to choir or to another activity. But if not, it's a great time for games and toys that are not baby-safe, like lego

15:00: Get baby up, and likely head off for a walk or to play outdoors. The boys might do Rosetta Stone Spanish, and it can be a good time for practical experiments or completing other tasks which were not done in the morning.

17:00: Dinner - varies day to day

18:00: Reading, then Bible reading and bed

19:00: Ideally all children asleep by now!

19:30-22:00: Parents often working. We are aware of the need to make ourselves a schedule there too, ensuring a free evening together on a regular basis.

In general, our day does tend to follow this pattern and I feel we have got a lovely balance with the new comer. But I don't want to imply that it is always easy. Lately I've been really quite tired, and a little less generally enthusiastic about many things. My husband reminds me of the need to recognise the life events we have been through and give myself some grace rather than feeling guilty about all the things I would like to do but never quite get around to (especially in the evenings when the children are asleep). I find being reasonably well prepared and having clear goals and structure for each day is an immense help when I feel so tired and muzzy headed that it is difficult to think creatively and energetically; there may be other times when ideas and opportunities arise so frequently that it is necessary to step off the schedule for a while and simply embrace living. I appreciate that some of that is driven by my personality, and that another family with a new child might respond differently.

Saturday 18 June 2016

Physical Training Compared to Spiritual Disciplines

'No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.' 2 Timothy 2:4-5

'For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.' 1 Timothy 4:8

Today, my husband is half way around the world from us, doing a lengthy sponsored cycle ride to raise money for the orphanage where our middle son spent some of his early weeks. What has impressed me most has been his commitment to training in a slightly challenging city. The traffic here is heavy and also does not obey many rules. It is quite usual to have cars and motorbikes mounting the pavement (if there is any) to make an extra lane, or nipping the wrong way down a dual carriageway. In many places, the edges of the road are badly eroded, and there is a deep ditch to the side. And between the dust (when it is dry) and the mud (when it has rained), it could be fairly slippery. Finally, there has only been a short period of time between it being light enough to be safe and the traffic becoming too much, so he has had to get up earlier than he would prefer. Alongside this, I have been impressed with the positive effects it has brought - whilst requiring a bit more sleep at night, he has had more energy, been more enthusiastic and physically is in much better shape and at least 30 Kg lighter.

We've recently obtained a book entitled, 'Home School Family Fitness' which is written by the father of nine homeschooled children who also has a PhD in sports science and many years of experience. It's a great book! It is full of ideas for different sizes of groups of children of different ages, and also brings in plenty of science and exercise physiology. Do you know what your maximal heart rate is? Do you know what your target heart rate for training in the zone of maximal impact is? We do now! And there are great charts which indicate what would be expected of children of different ages. I would recommend this resource highly! But I digress slightly. 

Physical training is not always easy. There are a couple of occasions where the Apostle Paul draws a comparison between physical training and spiritual disciplines. Here are some ten basic and direct comparisons which come to my mind:

1) It requires a choice. It does not just happen by vaguely thinking about it or hoping for it. I could dream of running a marathon, and think the idea of ultra-distance running sounds good but make no progress at all. Spiritually, we often have a vague idea of what our goals should be, yet do nothing about it.

2) It requires specific actions. Especially when training for a specific event, it is good to think about what will be required, and plan training properly. If you want to ride 190 Km, there is no point in only doing 5 Km rides in training. If the proposed route is mountainous, training will require some hill work. We need to look at the different areas (prayer, Bible reading, Bible memory and so forth) and see what tasks are needed to grow stronger in each

3) It needs practice at that specific task. To grow stronger in prayer, one must not just read about prayer, but one must do it. One learns much about Bible study but studying the Bible. We must be realistic. One cannot expect to ride 100 Km on the first day. I remember his first cycle ride in this country, about 15 Km and wobbly-leg inducing; however week by week this increased until the rate-limiting factor was the time available rather than his fitness. Spiritually, many people set out to pray for an hour and read 10 chapters of the Bible a day, and stumble during the first week or two, to abandon these disciplines for many months. It would be better to aim for a few verses and 15 minutes of prayer per day and take it from there.

4) There are times when it is not easy. There were mornings when he really did not fancy getting up before dawn for a long cycle. But he knew this was necessary to reach the goal. Similarly, for us it might be difficult to get up early, or stay up late, or otherwise carve out the time to be alone with God. But we need to make that time. God knows that we all have 24 hours in a day and He knows our human frailties and need for rest. 

5) It requires encouragement. Because I shared his goals, I was able to get up earlier too, help him get out of the door in good time, and take care of things at home whilst he cycled for several hours. Spiritually, we might need somebody to remind us of our goals and to encourage us. People talk about accountability, and this needs to be specific. Did you pray today? How is your Bible reading plan?

6) There were times when fruit could be seen more easily than others. Some days he seemed to cycle a long way in good time. Other days felt more like ploughing through treacle. Spiritually we will have some days where there is clear encouragement, whereas other days we might question whether there has been any benefit or improvement. This is where we need faith to believe we are not working towards things which are seen, but towards those which are unseen and of eternal value

7) Others could see the change in his physique more than we could. Spiritually, one might be wrestling with a character flaw (anger, irritability, envy or so forth) and whilst progress is made, it might take spending time with a person who has not seen you for a period of time for the change to be remarked upon. Change can be gradual, and often as we grow closer to God, we become more aware of our weaknesses and shortcomings. We should not be seeking spiritual growth in order to get a pat on the back from another person, but if it comes, it can bring encouragement

8) It takes perseverance - we are both aware that it would be easy to neglect fitness after this event. Whilst not being able to maintain the recent schedule, we need to work out how he can continue to reap the health benefits of what he had worked towards. Similarly, spiritually after a 'victory' one must take care not to become complacent or to neglect the disciplines

9) People may think you are crazy or wasting your time. Time spent in prayer, Bible study and quiet time before God does not produce an obvious product. Also, the Bible makes it clear that this unseen time is between us and God, and should not be drawn attention to. 

10) It requires sacrifice. There was a need for more early nights, and for some people there might have been a need to modify diet (for us, we eat a very basic diet of market produce and nothing processed or fried anyway, so there wasn't much need for change - except to INCREASE the calories). There were mornings when I would have liked to have slept a bit later. These are small examples, but I strongly believe that everything that requires focussed hard work requires sacrifice at times. Spiritually I have no doubt this is true - we could be using the time to do more immediately rewarding or pleasurable things (or at least, that is how it can feel at the time. Whenever I do feel that way and make proper time for the Lord, I am always richly rewarded and encouraged and gently chided for such an attitude!)

So, where are you up to spiritually? Are there any areas you have been neglecting? Are there any specific steps you can put into place to improve? Any goals to set? Any person to be accountable to? Any habits you might need to change?

Saturday 4 June 2016

Worship: Our true home

Yesterday, I was part of a day of worship celebrations. Our country remembers martyrs who died for their faith several hundred years ago, but this remembrance has become a bit idolatrous as many make a pilgrimage to a shrine. So many of the churches in the city came together to share an afternoon of worship. As we sang, danced and played in many styles and several languages, I was refreshingly reminded of how one day, 'every tribe and tongue' will sing before the Throne in heaven.

Lately, I'd been feeling a little unsettled, and yesterday was a wonderful chance to stop and reflect on what truly matters.

Psalm 84 reads, 'How lovely is your dwelling-place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself where she may have her young - a place near your altar, I Lord Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage...' - there is a deep homesickness which comes from time to time, but I come to see that it is not a homesickness for any place in this world, but a longing for eternity. A heart set on pilgrimage - in this world, we will go where the Lord calls us, and there will be times of abundance and times of hardship, but our eternal destiny is eternal worship.

I love Psalm 27: 'One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of  my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple' - that is my desire, that is my priority. Many other things need to be done, but reflecting on the story of Martha and Mary, only one thing is of greatest importance.

Moving on in Psalm 27, 'Do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Saviour. Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me'. One of the most painful things in my life has been rejection by my parents - it resulted in me being taken into care as a teenager, and in adulthood they do not like the choices we have made, probably largely because they spring from a faith they cannot understand. But there is such comfort in this verse - sometimes I feel it was written there just for me, it is so precious.

One of the pastors spoke on worship - what it is and what it isn't. He reminded us, in the words of John Piper, that 'mission exists because worship doesn't'. We were reminded that worship involves all of us, every aspect of our while lives, and that it is not simply a matter of music or song. We were encouraged to see God in all His splendour and glory, and to take a bigger picture of how God is working throughout the world. Often our prayers are too small and self-centred. Often we lose the big picture of the Great Commission and the greatest purpose of our lives.

It was a real blessing to have a whole day to reflect on these things and to join with others from such different cultures and backgrounds in celebrating our amazing God. Life has been busy lately, and so it was a wonderful gift to be released from my usual responsibilities to be part of the day, and I feel more refreshed than I would have been from anything else.

Let me encourage you when you feel exhausted, discouraged and perhaps uncertain: take time out to focus on the Lord. Maybe not even a whole day, maybe just an hour or two. Re-read some of the Psalms. Remember all the Lord has done for you. Remember His amazing promises.