Saturday, 30 July 2016

Be still and know that I am God

'But godliness with contentment is great gain' 1 Timothy 6:6

'Be still and know that I am God' Psalm 46:10

How do you decide whether a day has been productive? How do you judge whether your efforts to do whatever you have been doing are worthwhile? Is this a question you even ask, or are you so busy with the constant stream of tasks and activities that you don't even have time to stop and reflect?

In my professional life, my work can be measured in terms of grants secured, projects undertaken, results presented, papers published, presentations given and so forth. In clinical work it can be harder to quantify the outputs, but there is a clear task ahead of you, and you can normally be clear when the days' work is over: there are no more patients to see or the shift has ended.

But is the whole of life like that? Can we measure ourselves in terms of outputs, achievements, goals and tasks accomplished? Should we try to? Or do we need to step back and consider the greater picture?

I believe that there is a place for clear goals and targets. As homeschooling parents, we find it of great benefit to follow a schedule and to plan additional activities which complement this. We find it helpful to sit down from time to time and consider the progress and challenges of each individual child. I realise that there are other home educators who don't even find this necessary, and prefer to have a more laid-back, child-led approach. I believe some of this will depend on temperament, on the underlying motivation for home educating and many other factors.

Similarly, in our Christian walk, I do believe we need to take care not to drift. I recently considered parallels between physical training and spiritual discipline. I remember being extremely challenged by a speaker at the Christian Union when I was a student, rebuking us that many of us were doing our subjects to degree level, yet were doing our Bible study at primary school level. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy to, 'Study and do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, who correctly handles the word of truth'.

Goals, targets, aims and structures are not wrong. But I think the problem comes when we define ourselves only in these terms.

How does God see us? Does He see us as machines which undertake a list of tasks, and rebuke us when we do not achieve them all? Does He not see far more than that? As a young Christian, somebody encouraged me to go through the Bible and write down all the statements that spoke of who we are in Christ. It was an amazing exercise, and for several years I had this amazing list of promises and truths pinned to the wall by my bed. I came to realise, for the first time ever, that God's love was unconditional, not dependent on my achievements. I came to more fully (I say 'more fully' as I am not sure whether this side of heaven I will ever grasp it fully) understand the amazing free gift of God's grace. I came to understand that I was not defined in what I achieved or did not achieve, but rather in terms of who I was before God. A much loved child. Accepted, forgiven, adored.

As Christians, it is easy to accept this amazing grace in the early days, but subtly start to add layers of man-made pressures and targets on top of this. Not all these things are wrong - we want to be engaged in gospel work, we want to be helping others understand the truth of God, we want to serve and to encourage. But when these things start to become pressures and to define us, then we have slipped. Paul wrote to the Galatian church, 'You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?' Galatians 3:1-3

At the end of a day, do you define yourself by what you think you have achieved, or what you think you can show for your labours? If you are a parent, you will know that there are days when the house is tidy, there is a delicious meal cooked, and the children have produced some kind of art or craft which shows how hard they have worked (and what a creative person you are). You will also know that there are days when you feel you are going round and round in circles and can't fully get into anything because you need to stop and try to correct the attitude of one or other  child. Which is more important? I believe the second has greater lasting benefit, but at the time can feel so thankless. This is one simple example, whereas I am sure you can think of many more!

Similarly, it is an error to think that some tasks bring God more glory than others. Certainly there are things which bring Him less glory, things that are sinful and selfish. But that is not what I refer to. I mean that if our task is to raise our children and look after the home, then all the mundane tasks this involves can be done to God's glory. Brother Lawrence discovered this, as he wrote in 'Practising the Presence of God'. He chose to work in the kitchen rather than do anything more 'spiritual', and learnt to do all for the glory of God. Sometimes the task will be more well-defined and have a clearer outcome; but here our temptation may be to pride, to consider it our own achievement or handiwork.

In work outside the home, there are also tasks that lead to recognition, and others which are done in secret to the glory of God. One could give a well-attended public lecture for an hour, or could spend an hour working one to one with a struggling student. Which is more important? A whole list of tasks could be crossed off, or you could spend extra time encouraging a client who really needs to talk things through. Again, same question?

For me, I need to remember that God loves me for who I am, not for what I do. When there is a quiet moment, it is so tempting to rush on to the next job that could be done, to start organising something, to squeeze in some extra work, to find something clear to do. But there are times when we should simply stop, and reflect on who we are, who God is, and how amazing that relationship is.

This week I choose to remember God's amazing grace and 'be still'.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Trust and hope in day to day life

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 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

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour. Isaiah 43:1-3

God's promises are amazing. And when we have faced dark trials, such as the illness and death of our firstborn, or the critical illness of our second son, these verses among many others sustained us incredibly. We know God is sovereign. He makes no mistakes. He can bring good and glory out of the darkest times, and indeed out of that darkness, His light shines even more brightly. Even our own lives are described as having 'treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us' 2 Cor 4:7

But there are times when we are not facing a major trial. There are days, weeks and months where life ticks along. There are beautiful moments, exciting interludes and times of peace. But there are also times of fatigue, of minor ailments, of discouragement, of loneliness, of not being able to see the bigger picture because of the massive list of tasks that need to be accomplished by the end of the day. Nothing major. Nothing to write home about in a prayer letter. Nothing that even really needs to be talked about. Just life. I imagine you know what I mean.

I struggle more in those times. Lately, I've felt anxious. Non-specifically anxious - there is nothing I can blame, no particular challenge or deadline, nobody is sick, there is no relational conflict and the country where we live is currently stable. And yet I have felt uneasy. Some of it relates to a feeling that I should be doing something else, or that I have forgotten something, or I am dabbling in too many things and not really doing any of them as well as I would like. Some of it is harder to explain - possibly relating to the fact that parenting doesn't have a clear to-do list that can be cleared by the end of the day, and because we don't see the true effects of the decisions and priorities we have now.

Whilst the Bible has promises we can 'claim' or hold onto for the darkest trials and the most severe difficulties, does it have much to say about my current situation? Of course it does! 'For the word of God is alive 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'. Hebrews 4:12

What are these thoughts and attitudes? Firstly, I need to understand who God is, and how as a loving Father, He relates to us. John was able to write, 'There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love' 1 John 4:18 Sometimes I do feel that way - as though I am not doing enough somehow.

In Romans, we are taught, 'everything that does not come from faith is sin' Romans 14:23. By harbouring anxious thoughts, I am somehow not trusting God in the small aspects of my life. I am not trusting that God knows. I am not trusting that God can use the day-to-day grind of life for His glory. I am not trusting that God is building my character through the need to faithfully work at raising the family without necessarily seeing progress, not receiving any praise or acknowledgement from men (the way you might for an academic success, or an diligent work for an employer). I need to trust. I need to remember the truth of working for fruit that lasts, working to store up treasure in heaven.

Our children learned the important verses from Proverbs 3: 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not upon your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths' Proverbs 3:5-6 In ALL your ways - that surely includes nappy changing and the washing up, just as much as it does major decisions and life events.

I could write so much more - there are so many passages which talk of living simple, honest lives before God. Nothing dramatic much of the time. Simple. Faithful. There are many biographies of faithful Christians who have persevered, day after day through times which must have seemed mundane. And we can be greatly encouraged.

This morning, I choose to 'cast all my anxiety on Him, because He cares for me' (1 Peter).

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Marking the end of an academic 'year'

We will finish the first 'year' of materials from the Sonlight curriculum this week. I have always though that one of the beauties of home education is that we don't mark times and seasons, that we are not constrained into 'terms' or 'grades'. However, it does feel special to have completed something, and I think it is important to pause and celebrate. So, how are we doing this?

1) Firstly, there are 'certificates' that come with the materials. Whilst I really dislike the kind of events where 'every child is a winner' or where 'everybody gets a certificate for taking part', I can see how the boys have worked hard and consistently through the year and that they have fully earned these. They will find it very special to be given a certificate.

2) We have a friend from the UK arriving mid next week - so we will complete the materials just in time for her arrival. This is a natural pause in our schedule, a time when we would naturally take a break anyway, and it will be great to do some special things together. She grew up in this country, and also was home educated for that time - so she'll bring plenty of stories and anecdotes about her childhood here which the boys will love. We won't take much longer 'off' - one of the things I love about the Sonlight resources is how natural much of it seems - many hours spent reading books together and talking about them; this is something the boys crave, and they don't see it as learning. (They might not agree with that comment for spelling or some of the language arts tasks!).

3) I'm writing them report cards. I've broken it down subject by subject and am simply summarising their progress in this area, the challenges they may have faced and our main goals moving into the next year. The nice things about home education is that I can include things like 'lifeskills' and 'character development' as subjects. I have found writing this helpful. It is easy to forget the progress which has been made because the struggle has simply been replaced by a new challenge or struggle. It can be easy to feel that progress is slow, and that godly character is not shining through at all times. However, by stopping to reflect, I can see clear areas where all of them have moved forward, and it is important to acknowledge these and give the children praise where it is due. It will also serve as a useful record for years to come - we think we will remember, but time seems to go so fast.

It is with great thankfulness that we mark this milestone. The year has brought challenges, such as relocating to a new country, and yet with that there have also been many wonderful opportunities to embrace. We look forward to moving onto the next 'academic year'!

If you home educate, how do you mark milestones and progress?