Saturday, 26 November 2016

Where are the 'still waters'?

'The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters; He restores my soul' Psalm 23:1-3

That is one of the best known parts of the Bible. Even many people who have never been to church or who have very little understanding of Christianity are familiar with the words. But at times, familiarity can breed contempt; we can become so familiar with words that we neglect to stop and really consider what these mean and how they can apply to our lives today.

Over the past couple of weeks, a question I have been asking myself is, 'Where are the still waters when life is busy with small children and a seemingly endless list of tasks and responsibilities?' I hear of others who go on retreats, or go out for coffee with a good friend, or have some time away with their spouse in order to simply spend time thanking God for that relationship and to pray about and plan. I speak with those who have recently read a challenging book, or who have had time to really dig into what the Bible says and spend time refreshing their soul. I don't often find such times, and I know that I am far from alone in that!

In Isaiah Chapter 40 verse 11, it reads, 'He tends His flock like a shepherd; He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young'. That is a beautiful promise - that 'those that have young' are recognised and words of special tenderness are spoken. It is a reminder that God knows about this phase of life, and promises to be gentle with us through it. It's this gentleness that can sometimes be lacking when we lack understanding of God's grace; it is easy to become our own worse enemies in that respect.

But back to my question. Still waters. Where? Well, I have been encouraged by finding these in several places. Five examples:

1) First and foremost through reading the Bible. I might not have as much time as I would like to quietly read the Bible alone early in the morning, or to be able to read commentaries and look up the original texts. But I read the Bible to my children several times each day. Often through reading aloud, and through answering some of their questions, there comes a fresh perspective. We can put our devotional time into a 'box', thinking that if it is not done in a certain way, then somehow it doesn't 'count'. But by stepping back from that, I realise that I have more time to read and discuss the Bible each day than many others, and that this is a privilege and a blessing.

2) By stopping to enjoy the moment. 'Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself' Matthew 6:33-34. There are times when the children are playing well in the garden, pretending to be explorers, or savages, or pirates, or kings. It is easy at those moments for me to rush inside and try and tick of some more tasks on my mental to-do list. However, there is often no need. I can sit and enjoy a coffee, enjoy the sound of birdsong and children playing and reflect on how abundantly God has blessed me. I think most parents can relate to this: that sometimes you just look at all your children in amazement. Do we spend enough time simply doing this, or are we often too busy dealing with some issue or other?

3) By choosing their read-alouds carefully. There are some poor books out there, and many mediocre ones. But there are also some excellent books which bring out important values and teach many lessons. This is one thing I love about the curriculum we use, Sonlight, because great care has been taken to choose books that are of great value. We supplement this with Christian biographies (mainly Trail Blazers [written for children aged 8-12ish], but sometimes ones which are written for adults - although we need to take care to avoid some topics which are not age-appropriate). I find these wonderfully encouraging! And by reading books that I find encouraging, and discussing them with the children, I find refreshment. I've recently commented on the Jungle Doctors books - these have also been enjoyable, encouraging and have stimulated some great conversations.

4) By choosing to focus on the task immediately at hand, rather than running through the next lot of things that needs to be done. That may sound fairly obvious, but when I am tired I can start to feel anxious about everything that is piling up. However this week we've enjoyed some painting, some baking, a couple of lovely walks - all precious moments with the children which will not necessarily come again. I know that one of the major reasons why people choose to home educate is to maximise these opportunities, but I can see that you can also start to get into a bit of a rut where you fail to embrace these.

5) By not comparing. It can be so easy to look at others who appear to have something which you lack - whether that be a strong social support network, particularly studious/ athletic/ musical children, more time for friendships, a more comfortable financial situation or whatever. But that is not the life God has given you. God has placed you here, now, for a good reason. When you take a step back and remember that even (at times especially!) through the mundane God can be glorified, it brings a wonderfully refreshing perspective. Who are you doing it for? Are you seeking the approval of others, or from God? 'Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord and not for men. It is the Lord Christ you are serving' Colossians 3:23 There can be times when weariness comes from discontentment, and we can choose to rejoice in what God has wisely given each one of us.

So, whereas a week or so ago, I felt really low spiritually and emotionally, God has provided me with much encouragement. I am still tired. I still feel a little like I have hit a wall at a certain point in the evening. Physically I haven't seen a huge change, but I feel far more peaceful and able to trust God through this season of life.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016


And God is able to make all grace [every favor and earthly blessing] come in abundance to you, so that you may always [under all circumstances, regardless of the need] have complete sufficiency in everything [being completely self-sufficient in Him], and have an abundance for every good work and act of charity. 2 Corinthians 9:8 (The Amplified Bible)

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:9

Last week I wrote about exhaustion, about how I felt I was approaching burnout, and how I had become aware that something needs to change in order to enable rest and refreshment whilst not neglecting my responsibilities in and out of the home.

This week, I have thought much about grace. I began to see clearly that there can often be a disconnect between what we might believe and how we actually apply that truth in our own lives. I sometimes can be aware that I can help and encourage a friend through a situation or trial where I myself am actually really struggling. I can say the words to others that I need to hear more than anything.

I've been thinking about my professional training. There are different types of training. There are the facts that you learn in a lecture theatre or in a practical class. There is the application of these which builds as you are exposed to increasing numbers of clinical cases. Then there are the subtle things that you are never really aware of being taught, but which develop with time. I remember as a medical student being told that you can learn something of great value from every clinician you work alongside, even if what you learn is how NOT to do things. That was so true! You could see the doctors who were able to communicate well with a patient, were really able to express empathy and show the patient that they were being heard, were in good hands and that they were fully respected as a person. I remember one day realising that those seniors who always seemed in a hurry and not to have time to listen actually took the same amount of time with each patient. I suddenly saw that there was a skill there, a real art, in being able to put the patient at ease and use the time wisely. Putting people at ease is something which I find I do naturally now - I tend to sense when another person is feeling uncomfortable in a situation and to reassure them. But what I can sometimes forget is that this might not be a natural response to others. It may not be because they don't hear or don't care, it just might not be a skill that has been acquired.

Why do I use that example? Well, over the past week I've been a bit more honest with a couple of people about how I have been feeling. And a couple of friends have replied to say that in their own lives, they feel frustrated when other people seem to be being offered lots of help and support, but nobody seems to hear them or recognise their needs. Hearing this, I started to realise this kind off thinking is risky - there is a risk of bitterness. It is only a small step towards thinking that nobody cares, and triggering a negative spiral of self-pitying thoughts. I know. I've been there before, it helps nobody and it is not in line with God's truth.

Its the disconnect between what we say we believe about grace, and what we really live in the light of. The Bible has so much to say about grace that I can hardly know where to start, but there are two verses that really struck me this week - the ones quoted above. ALL grace to ABOUND. Not just a little bit, but abounding. Plenty. Perfectly sufficient for every situation. Grace. No need to struggle, or fight, or try to earn. No need to clamour, no need to protest. No need to have external recognition (whether that be words of appreciation or acts of support). Simply perfect rest in the knowledge that God's promises are true, and He promises rest and peace.

Of course this doesn't change the things that need to be done, but it does change my attitude. There are some things which cannot be put off or delegated. But for me, some of the problem has also been worrying about the 'to-do lists' and worrying about not responding rapidly to queries and tasks. There are times when I can switch off. When the children are playing, rather than thinking about the next item on the list, I can sit down and just enjoy watching them. I've discovered there are small pockets of time in a day where I can rest, and even if not able to read my Bible or a book, I can meditate on what I have read earlier. I can pray. I can thank God for my family and all He has blessed us with. I can enjoy the moment rather than worrying about all the other things that need to be done.

It may sound small, but it is a small thing that has made a big difference. 

Where do you see grace in your everyday life?

Tuesday, 15 November 2016


Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. 'I have had enough, Lord,' he said. 'Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.' Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, 'Get up eat.' He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, 'Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.' So he got up and ate and drank. 1 Kings 19:3-8

The passage above comes immediately after one of the most powerful demonstrations of God's power. 

'At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: 'Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.' Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, 'The Lord - He is God! The Lord - He is God!' 1 Kings 18:36-39

Lately, I've not been feeling myself. Life is full of good things. Our daughter has settled amazingly well into the family and has recently started to walk; she is far and away the healthiest child we have had at this age. Homeschooling is going well, and we seem to have hit a nice rhythm. Of course, there are the occasional challenges and days where we seem to be correcting attitude more than working through our resources. But on the other hand, this is one of the important aspects of home education, and we embrace that as a blessing and a privilege (once we've had some coffee and a little time to reflect). We are involved in a lively church where we have several ministry opportunities where we can use the gifts we have, and where we can open our home for lively discussions of the Bible. The children are increasingly involved through singing and playing with other children whilst the mens' Bible study takes place on Saturday afternoons. Our home has been alive with visitors who have brought fresh perspectives and energy. My work outside the home is going well, we've recently obtained a big grant to expand some aspects of the work, I recently won a prize for my own work, and in general things are moving well.  There are hiccups and challenges that occur at unexpected moments, but by and large things are progressing. We are all in good health, and we have found some lovely routes to run or walk over some leafy hills near our house. On the surface of things, all is good.

So why do I just want to curl up and cry?
Why am I not looking forward to things the way I usually do?
Why do I have constant checklists in my mind of tasks that need to be done?
Why do I wake up at night remembering something that hasn't been done?
Why am I doubting whether any of this really has value?
Why do I feel as though anybody else could be doing a better job in all areas listed?

I realised that some of the symptoms I am feeling can be classified as 'burnout'. This is a term I have come across through my medical work, and as I re-read some helpful resources (for example here), I came to see that what I am feeling right now is quite classical.

What I found interesting was that many of the characteristics and personality traits that may be considered strengths are exactly those which may predispose a person to keep going for a bit too long. For example (see a full article from the US Christian Medical and Dental Association here)

  • You have a high tolerance to stress.” – Isn’t that a good thing?
  • You’re the emotional buffer.” – We call it supporting our patients, and it’s a skill we worked hard to perfect.
  • Your job constantly interferes with family events.” – Ok, we certainly don’t say aloud that this is a good thing. But haven’t you at least thought that someone’s request for time off was “weak,” especially during a busy season?
  • You lack control over your work schedule and free time.” – Of course we do. People can’t control when they get sick and need our services, can they?
  • You don’t take care of yourself.” – Once again, not explicitly encouraged…but we all spent at least 11 years (and some of you many more than that) subjecting our wants and needs to a long and gruelling training process through college, medical school and residency. Then we were overrun with patients whose needs were “more important” than ours. Who has time for massages, for goodness sake?
I think there are some other factors which might be involved, at least in my life. The first of these is:

PRIDE. It is actually quite difficult to say to somebody that you are struggling/ exhausted/ discouraged or whatever way you might wish to phrase it. There is no real reason why suddenly I am finding things a bit more difficult, and I can look around me and see many active, successful, vibrant people who are juggling similar lists of responsibilities. Why am I the one who is not coping? Is this not further evidence that I am inadequate? I don't want to admit that. 

However, the Bible makes abundantly clear that God brings many challenges into our lives to humble us. 

'Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything' James 1: 2-4

'Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us' Romans 5:1-5.

I gave a lengthy quotation from Romans, since I believe the context is key. Our hope is in Christ. It is ours by grace through faith. It is not of ourselves, we cannot boast, we cannot earn it. It is a passage that reminds us of our frail humanity in contrast to the amazing love of God. And I find that humbling and liberating!

Pride can also make us feel that  we are indispensible and that we cannot possibly stop or drop any of our responsibilities. 

COMMUNICATION. I find it quite difficult to express myself. I've written about that here. I can feel that I am telling people around me that I am tired or discouraged, but it is as though they do not hear or  do not know what I am trying to say. I can find that frustrating. Maybe I find it difficult to be completely honest and say things like, 'I really need some rest'.

LACK OF GRACE. Quoting Romans above, it is amazing to reflect on how our salvation, our lives, our ministry, our families, everything is all a gift from God.  Reading a helpful article from, I found this quotation:

Although no two burnouts are the same, as I’ve counselled increasing numbers of Christians through burnout, I’ve noticed that most of them have one thing in common: there’s a deficit of grace. It’s not that they don’t believe in grace. Many of them are well-grounded in “the doctrines of grace.” Many of them are pastors and preach grace powerfully every week. The “five solas” and the “five points” are their theological meat and drink. Yet grace is missing in five vital areas. There are five disconnects between theological grace and their daily lives.

I would agree with that. There are times when I know the answers I would give others. There are times when I encourage others to do exactly the things which I find so hard to do in my own life. And yet, now I've hit a point where I feel something needs to change.

So, what is the solution? I am sure this is something I will return to in the weeks and months ahead, but  here are some of my initial thoughts:

1) Recognise that there may be a problem

2) Tell somebody about it, and take care not to expect others to be able to read your mind

3) Pray about it and rest in some of the amazing promises of God. Focus on His grace, and His compassion. Focus on your identity in Christ (as opposed to in the different roles you have in life)

4) Catch up on sleep before making any big decisions or really trying to unpick your situation. That is why I love the passage in 1 Kings 19. I know from my own life that often a couple of early nights or afternoon naps can make an amazing difference. And it IS possible to do this, if I communicate to those around me that it needs to be a priority. If you are the sort of person who stays up late and gets up before dawn, you cannot expect people around you to realise you need to have a short break from that unless you communicate!

5) Eat well. 1 Kings 19 again. I find it hard to eat enough when I am tired. Good fresh food makes a difference

6) Fresh air and exercise. But with the caveat that this should not become another 'task' - I've stopped running so much over the past week or two, in order to rest

7) Look at your responsibilities. What is an essential God-given responsibility, and what have you taken on in addition? I've read articles relating to burnout among Christian doctors and relating to burnout in Christian ministry which recommend such an approach. Maybe this can also be done with your spouse or with a close friend

8) Consider which things you find most draining. It was relatively recently I came to realise that my personality was introverted, whereas most people consider me an extrovert because I CAN keep talking and being outwardly confident in group settings. But I find it draining, and for relaxation would much rather be alone, reading, writing or walking. The element of life which may have tipped me from managing my responsibilities to feeling burnt out may have been having a very full home. It is a great blessing and a privilege, but I need to find ways to carve out space and peace in the midst of that (without having to stay up later and get up earlier in order to do so). For you, it may be something entirely different.

I am thankful that God brings a whole range of situations, both delightful and challenging into our lives. My prayer is that through this current challenge I can draw closer to Him, become more like Him and be able to use what I have learnt to bless others.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Do nothing out of selfish ambition

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, and 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 2:3-8

Isn't it wonderful how Christ is our perfect example? And how 'all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work'. 2 Timothy 3:16. We have the Holy Spirit to guide us and continue to teach us, and are reminded that '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.

I have been thinking much about this over the past few days. As well as being a Christian mother sharing the home education of our children with my husband, I am also a medical academic. I do a mixture of clinical work, research projects, clinical trials of medicines and teaching of students and colleagues. Through this work, I believe there are many opportunities to serve 'the orphan and the widow', and show compassion to those who are in real need. As we are reminded in Micah Chapter 6 verse 8, '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'. As Christians in most walks of life we have opportunity to do that.

The other evening we hosted some colleagues who are not Christians, who do not share the 'hope that we have'. They are hardworking, kind and funny, but the thing that really stood out to me was the clear and almost aggressive ambition to succeed professionally. It made me feel uneasy. It made me question whether I had missed something, or was doing something wrong in some way. You see, I do the work I believe I am called to do, to it to the best of my ability, but I never really consider 'my career'. 'Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord and not for men. It is the Lord Christ you are serving' Colossians 3:23. I don't aim to become a professor within a certain period of time; I acknowledge that this might be something that happens if the work continues well and the opportunities continue to arise, but to me that would be a by-product of doing what I believe to be right. Similarly, at work there are currently some colleagues who are involved in a bitter argument regarding who should get the most credit for a piece of collaborative work. I don't understand such arguments; to me, the important thing is that high quality work is done that improves patient care. There are times when I am ridiculed and called naive for such a stance! I have had to stop and reflect, and to remind myself of what truly matters. For me, if the work that I do required aggressive selfish ambition, it might be time for me to leave.

Similarly, these are often the people who complain most about terms and conditions, about hours worked, about external recognition and so forth. But Paul reminded the Philippians, 'Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, 'children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation'. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.' (Philippians 2:14-16)

Sometimes, when we spend much time with those who share our worldview, it can become easy to forget the way those who do not know the love and grace of God tend to think. It can be easy to assume that everybody shares our hope and motivation. It can be quite uncomfortable to be confronted or challenged by a conflicting perspective, but on the other hand, is this not a wonderful opportunity to show a difference? And is it not important for junior colleagues to see that you really do not need to have that attitude? Is it not important to tell a different story, to show that it is possible to do vocational work to the best of your ability without it becoming an idol? We have many wonderful examples through history - in our home we often read Christian biographies and learn about people who have stood firm in their faith in the face of challenging situations, or against a godless culture. But who is proclaiming the Truth in all areas of society today? In another hundred years time, who from our current generation will be remembered as having lived a holy life giving glory to God? As Christians, we will be misunderstood. In fact, it could be argued that if we never felt misunderstood, never felt different to the prevailing mindset that surrounds us, never felt ridiculed for having a childlike faith, that we were not truly any different to the world around us!

What is the response? For me, I must continue to pray that God keeps my heart gentle and humble before Him, and that I continue to remember that 'I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.' John 15:5-8

People around us will not understand. We will feel odd and different at times. But perhaps this should be reassuring rather than unnerving. It is my prayer that by living differently, by having a different motivation and a different perspective that my life and work can bring glory to God.