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