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)

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

It's not about you!

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 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, 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 2:1-8

Recently, 'It's not about you' has become a bit of a catchphrase in our home. It sounds simple, but it is an idea which is very counter-cultural. Last year I read a helpful book considering some of the 'philosophy of this age' and showing where Biblical truth cuts through it. But recently I have been caused to reflect again on just how self-absorbed and self-obsessed many young people have become. One of the beauties of home education is that we can avoid certain aspects of culture and peer-pressure with the aim of instilling a healthier worldview in our children. This is a wonderful blessing, yet at the same time, as Christians living 'in the world but not of the world', it is important to be aware of changes in prevailing worldview and consider how we can reach today's generation with the gospel.

There are several things which have caused me to reflect on humility and selflessness over the past few weeks.

Firstly, we had a visitor who did not share our priorities and values. This person is used to having a lot more time alone, rather than being with a large, lively young family who spend a lot of time together, and so quite a number of things were understandable. However some were quite shocking, even rude - until you realised that to this person, it really was 'all about me', and there was very little consideration of what might work well for those around. I often deal with challenging interpersonal situations by trying to put myself in the other person's shoes, by considering how I might approach things had I come from their background and culture. And what sobered me was the consideration that were I not a Christian, had I not come to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ who willingly came to lay His life down for us that we might live, then I might well be just the same. 'Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends' John 15:13. And yet for many people in today's world, the idea of sacrifice is not there. Yes, be helpful when it suits you. Yes, share when you feel you have plenty. But to put the needs of others first, and to be willing to experience some degree of personal loss or discomfort in order to bless others? And to do so willingly? Where does that concept fit? In John Chapter 13, Jesus washes His disciples' feet. 'Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.' John 13:14-16. Jesus taught on this concept often - of the need to go the extra mile, to give generously and secretly, to spend hidden hours in prayer. There was one occasion when the visitor was 'shocked' that my husband was mildly irritable after having just been stuck in horrendous traffic during a humid day with a car full of restless children. She wondered why I was not upset. I pointed out to her that it was, 'Not about me', and that what was really needed was a cool drink, an encouraging word and a little peace and quiet. That perspective seemed utterly foreign, to consider the perspective and needs of another person. There were many such examples, and it was a very thought-provoking experience!

Secondly, I reflected on how having children does change you in that respect. Several years ago, I wrote a series of posts on some of the amazing things that becoming a parent teaches you (here, here, here and here). Not repeating all of those observations, I have become aware how having responsibility for young children changes your priorities - particularly away from self and towards others. I can't just settle down with a cup of coffee whenever I fancy. I can't just eat what I want, when I want. I can't just go for a rest when I am tired. There are times when I willingly get up before dawn in order to prepare for the day, particularly if I am preparing something special or some kind of surprise. Often my husband and I are up late, planning, preparing, praying, and considering both the following day and the next couple of weeks. We don't begrudge this because we love our children and because we want to provide them with what is best. My visitor was concerned about the lack of 'me time' in my life. I had to laugh - it's a concept that is not really on my radar, but as I follow the Facebook feeds of friends and read some of their 'mommy blogs' that they share, I can see that 'me time' is something that is highly desired, at least in the west. It also made me realise how much I have changed since becoming a parent, and how through the challenges, I have had to 'die to self' in many respects, and I believe have a greater understanding of love and greater peace than I have ever known before.

Thirdly, there had been a relationship in my life which has caused me a lot of pain for many years. For a long, long time I have asked myself what I have done to offend, wondered how I could possibly fix it, have made quite a lot of effort to keep communication open, have wept many tears of grief over what I have perceived as loss, and have prayed for hours for healing. People would say to me, 'It's not about you', but I was convinced it must be. However, when I found out the reason (basically an objection to us having adopted children), I saw so clearly that it most certainly is not about me, and is not something I can fix. I can't really explain how liberating this was (although of course it is also deeply sad). I had wasted a lot of time and emotion thinking it is 'all about me'!

Fourthly, consider your children (if you have any). How often, especially as the family grows, does one child have to put their desires to one side and do what is best for everybody? It can be a difficult lesson to learn. I watch only children and can see how they are often able to make their choices of games, books, activities and so forth, and often can appear to be more settled and better behaved when they are at home (there is nobody to squabble with). Often when my children do disagree it is because somebody needs to hear, 'It's not about you'.

It's easy to pass judgement. When I think of the frustrations my visitor brought, I realise that I am just as selfish and petulant before God. How often do I truly appreciate that He gave everything for me, and truly knows what is right and best? How often do I inwardly grumble or covet (my temptation is to covet rest and time more than things)?

What is the antidote? For me, as I spend time considering just who Christ was, what He did willingly and all the many promises of Scripture, I find my selfish desires weakening. I want to be more like Christ, and to be able to speak His truth to my children, to my friends and family, to my colleagues and neighbours. I want to willingly serve, not begrudgingly, not with little comments here and there to show I am counting the cost, but freely. And through God's strength, this is possible.