Sunday, 21 August 2016

Hope in Eternity

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:34

Tonight I touch down in the city where my firstborn child died, just over eight years ago (something I have written about here). And as I do, I reflect on many things. This is the city where I knew, without a shadow of a doubt that my faith was genuine. It was the place where the words in 1 Peter about trials, which ‘have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith - of greater worth than gold which perishes though refined by the fire - may result in praise, glory and honour when Christ is revealed’, were proven true. It was a place where I saw Christian love and hospitality like never before, as strangers opened their homes and together Christians provided for all our needs. It was a spiritually rich time where we learnt much about eternity. And yet, there is no changing the fact it is a city tinged with sadness as it is the place where our daughter died, early one morning in the middle of an unseasonal thunderstorm. It reminds me of that morning when we realised that never again would we feel fully at home on this earth, but would long for the days described in Revelation Chapter 21: ‘The Lord Himself will wipe away every tear, and there will be no more sickness or sorrow or death’.

I was reflecting on how that grief changes us. One thing that is absolutely clear is that it is hard to plan for tomorrow. I hear others with young children talking about university fees, or desired events a long time hence such as graduations, marriages, becoming grandparents. I don’t think about such things. Part of me doesn’t really believe that I’ll see my children grow up, cannot assume that we will all live to see such a day. I know others who talk about a time in the future when they might know more rest, but I can’t really look ahead to such a time.

I do know that I am here today, and that my husband and children are healthy and safe in our East African home. I do know that my current God-given responsibilities include loving and supporting my husband, raising our children in a God-honouring way, and undertaking my professional duties to the best of my ability, ‘as working for the Lord, not for men’ (Colossians 3:23). But beyond the immediate future, I cannot really see.

Is this a problem? At times, professionally, I am asked about my ‘five year plan’. I can produce a nice chart showing goals and milestones, but it’s hard to really believe any of it. Personally, I have aims and desires that each of my children grows to maturity knowing and loving the Lord with their whole heart, but I find it difficult to imagine them as teenagers or young adults. In our marriage, I am thankful for seventeen years where we have grown closer to one another, closer to the Lord and had numerous opportunities to serve God together; but I can’t imagine us growing old together, slowing down, spending those twilight years giving thanks for all God has done.

However what I can see is the immediate God-given tasks in front of us. Today, as I departed from home, my husband and sons were entertaining visitors from a different African country. Before I left home, I helped them prepare a meal to share, and was able to spent time encouraging my children in the Bible verses they had learnt this week. I can see the work laid out for the next two days – to bring together a team and train them for a specific purpose, and at all times to seek opportunities to share ‘the hope that I have’ (1 Peter 3:15) I can pray for friends around the world in diverse situations, some of whom I know are facing challenges. And I can sleep peacefully at the end of the day, knowing that God is sovereign and is the One who does know the future and all things that will come to pass.

Jesus taught His disciples, as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount, not to worry about tomorrow. In the letter of James Chapter 4:13-17, some people are rebuked for making future plans presumptuously, saying that ‘today or tomorrow we will go to this city or that city and do business’. The reminder is that God is the one who knows the days and the times. Our responsibility is to live for Him today.

Sometimes I feel there are conversations I cannot relate to. Sometimes I am so very aware that we are ‘strangers’ or ‘pilgrims’ in this world. But again, I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing, and it is certainly a worldview I wish my children to grow up with.

So, flying through a city where my human hopes and dreams were shattered, yet where my faith was strengthened as never before, I give thanks. I give thanks to the One who knows all things, who holds the future and who promises a ‘hope and a future’ (Jeremiah 29:11)

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Homeschooling on the Challenging Days

There are days when homeschooling feels like a dream come true. The children are happy and engaged, they are building on their strengths and working on their weaknesses and we have the right amount of outside activities such as sports and music. The birdsong is beautiful, mornings outside are peaceful and life feels good. If you look through my photo albums, these are the type of photos you might see.

But there is the other side. There are days when nobody really seems to want to do anything. Rather than smoothly being able to teach three different levels at some subjects, one or other child will be complaining and requiring (demanding?) more attention, with the result that the others feel neglected and start to act up too. Sometimes then I decide to cut our losses and get out one of their favourite games which has some educational benefit - lego, building blocks, a trainset, that type of thing - but even then, on these types of days, they might not even engage with that. Often then, I end up taking them all out for a walk - it doesn't matter where we are going, we just walk and walk until they start to relax (usually at about 4 Km). It is as though they just have a restlessness for no particularly good reason. (Or on reflection, there is often a good reason - perhaps tiredness, mild illness, a chance in circumstances such as one parent being away, being too hot - sometimes these can be easily recognised and remedied, but at other times less so).

Hardest of all for me are the days where the attitudes are wrong. I can understand a child who is a bit clingy and tearful through illness or fatigue, but there are days when there is a high level of wilful disobedience and attitude issues are very clear. On those days, it does not seem right to get out a favourite game or change pace to break things up - because somehow then I might be rewarding the behaviour I am seeking to correct. These are the times when it is necessary to stop, to talk to the child and to show them clearly and specifically where they need correction. We start every day with the Bible and increasingly are moving beyond simple knowledge of Bible stories through to application to day to day life - and so often there is a memory verse or a recent discussion  to draw from. But it takes time. It is not always straightforward, and isn't quite as black and white as, 'The Bible says this, and therefore you should think, feel and act like that...' It can be difficult as an adult to remember what a six year old or a seven year old should know; at times they surprise me with their depth and understanding, and at other times I find myself having to remember that they are just young children. Sometimes we can spend a significant proportion of a day dealing with attitude. And on those days, I sometimes find myself wondering whether we are even doing the right thing in homeschooling them!

I was therefore encouraged by a series of blog posts from the Sonlight team this week, in particular this one about attitude. It helpfully reminded me of something that I know, but need encouragement in: that these days are among the most important in homeschooling and give us a wonderful and unique opportunity to teach our children the things that matter most (far more than maths or language arts or electives!) In mainstream school, our children would have exactly the same sinful hearts and character flaws - I think one major difference is that children learn quickly how to externally conform or to hide how they are feeling. And in truth, it is a blessing that one of my sons simply cannot hide his defiance from his face: it is instantly recognisable. It is a good thing that they giggle when they are being naughty because I am immediately alerted to the problem. I should be thankful for this - but there are days when I wish they would simply sit nicely, listen well and do the things I want them to do!

I have also felt quite alone in this. There are some wonderful Christian blogs I love to read - you probably have your own encouraging reading list. But somehow some of them have inadvertently discouraged me, but suggesting that if my children do not obey FIRST time EVERY time, that I have clearly failed in my role as a parent. There are people who will be quick to give advice, and tell me that if I simply do X, Y and Z, then everything will be fine. Often there is also what seems to be a subtle accusation (perhaps I am being sensitive) that I am not working hard enough or being creative enough or somehow not sacrificial enough. And that is hard! I know I am not perfect, but there are many hours of prayer, preparation, soul-searching, reflection and the actual day-to-day teaching and looking after them that go into it all. It is more tiring and takes more of myself than working 13 hour night shifts dealing with medical emergencies!

However, I also have some good friends who share their experiences about how they deal with these challenges - here I am thankful for networks and Facebook groups, since whilst I am far from many of my friends, I can still communicate with them often (and to be honest, sometimes a frank online discussion in a hidden group can be more focused than trying to snatch a conversation face to face with a large number of young children running around!) The kinds of suggestions they have made include:

1) Make sure there are no obvious problems (illness, hunger, tiredness) - and if possible fix. I have discovered that for one of my children, a mid-morning snack works wonders
2) Jumble up the order of the lessons and the order of your day
3) Take a field trip or focus on electives (art, music, experiments, cooking, nature) instead of whatever might be in the timetable for that day
4) Make sitting down time short, and intersperse plenty of physical activity
5) Press the 'reset button' - somehow!
6) Use a 'stealth attack' - don't let them know they are learning
7) Check your own attitude - and make sure you are not exasperating them by unrealistic expectations
8) Remember the priorities - that taking the time to correct poor attitude is really worthwhile
9) Top up on coffee - my suggestion, but on these days I often realise I have not eaten nor drunk enough
10) Should probably be #1: Pray. Pray for strength and for wisdom. Pray that you do not react in anger or frustration, but rather with firm gentleness. Pray that you don't get into a vicious spiral of negative attitudes
11) Remember that this season of life is short even when the days feel so very long. Remember that the opportunity to speak truth into their lives and to discipline and correct on a daily basis will not last forever. And take encouragement from those who are further down the road, such as this blog post

I have found this week difficult at times. My husband is overseas and the boys have been restless. However, I am reminded of the important work we are doing as we seek to lay a foundation in their lives. I am reminded that it is often the days which are most difficult which might present the greatest opportunities to show the children the truths which matter most.

How do you respond on the more challenging days?