Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Creating a Christ-Centred Christmas

I am sure I have mentioned before how much I love advent. For me, there is something so special in taking time to really reflect on what the birth of Christ meant, both for the whole world but also for me as an individual. Since having children, I have loved being able to create family traditions and memories, and to open our home to those who may not have known these things before.

But somehow this year I feel unsettled. I think part of it is simply that we are getting to the end of a busy year, and there have been plenty of targets and deadlines to aim for, and not much opportunity for rest. But some of it is also this funny feeling I get from time to time - a kind of longing for 'home', but realising that the 'home' I long for is not to be found in this world. Occasionally I can think that I am missing the country of my birth, missing the crisp cold mornings and evenings by the fire drinking mulled wine with good friends (probably the best Christmas memories I have!). But even if I were to get on a plane and do exactly that, I know that it would likely fall short of the longing I describe. It is something I have written about quite a few times before (for example here, when I felt a lot like I do today, here when reflecting on leaving one 'home' for another; here, when reflecting on how grief and loss can make this world feel somehow unreal).

As always, I am thankful for times when I feel unrest, because it always drives me consider what God is teaching me. I often pray, as in Psalm 139, that He would 'search me, O God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offence in my way, and lead me in the way everlasting' - am I uneasy because of a lack of faith, or because I am walking in a way that is displeasing to God? These are questions we should all ask ourselves regularly! I have recently been reflecting on how Christians these days (in general, and I know there are likely many exceptions...) don't treat holiness and purity with the same seriousness as Christians of a bygone era. For example, reading the 70 resolutions of Jonathan Edwards, I am very challenged. I remember thinking quite a lot about this when the children were younger, considering how we teach them that God requires us to 'be holy for I am holy', without that slipping into legalistic lists and rules.

I digress a little. But I am thankful that God reminds me to search my heart and bring everything to Him.

I am also reminded of the amazing family that I have been given in God. I remember one day my son, who was six at the time, drawing a picture of a castle with 19 flags on top (and the flags were all very accurately drawn, for the 19 countries where he had friends). I remember explaining to him that this was a great blessing, to have so many people from different tribes, tongues, nations, colours and cultures having a role in his life. (The flipside being that we have so many friends that we do not see often, and indeed may never see again before heaven, and that can bring sadness). There was once a time when I really did not feel I had a family, living with strangers at the age of 15. I can only feel overwhelming thankfulness for all God has provided for me and my growing family. I can thank God that He can turn a situation around entirely, mourning into dancing, doing more than I would ever have believed possible.

But even in that thanksgiving, even in the certainty of faith, there can still be a sense of loss. As every year goes past, somebody I know goes through a time of real testing. Serious illnesses and death. Out of the blue accidents leading to death or disability. A sudden change in circumstances and a person can feel as though the carpet has been pulled out from under their feet and life will never be the same again. These things are simply sad. I think about how Jesus responded when He heard that His friend Lazarus had died (see John Chapter 11 for the full story). Jesus knew He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead and that God would be greatly glorified. Yet, when He heard the news, 'Jesus wept'. Why? Why would He do that when He knew that the death was temporary and served a far greater purpose? Because Jesus was also fully man, and because grief and loss are painful. He was not just crying out of empathy for Martha and Mary, but out of a sense of personal loss too. I find it helpful to remember that - that sorrow and faith are not opposites. Again, this is something I write about reasonably often, but perhaps as another year ends and we enter a time of 'celebrations', I feel more aware of those around me who have known loss.

This too is good. We need to remember how broken and lost we are to really appreciate why Christ had to come. I sometimes wonder, if life were 'comfortable', and if I were part of a large, 'close' family who made me feel very loved, whether I would take my eyes off the things that matter most of all. The Apostle Paul talked about his 'thorn in the flesh' for which he was thankful because it made him realise that 'Christ's power is made perfect in weakness'. For me, the feeling of unease can be a bit like a thorn - something which I wish wasn't there, but actually when I think about it for more than a few minutes, for which I am thankful.

So, as advent continues, and the children work on their Jesse tree tasks and practice their carols, as we bake (whenever there is sufficient electricity) and prepare to open our home to many friends over the next week, I pray that I can help everybody who visits to leave feeling encouraged in Christ. I pray that even when the home is busy, that I can hear the person who needs to talk, or the person who finds celebrating difficult this year because they miss somebody so much. I pray I can challenge the person who has become to comfortable in this world, and the ones who are chasing after worldly dreams. I pray that from my own weakness, I can be like 'treasure in jars of clay' (2 Corinthians 4:7) and show others the light and glory of the God we are celebrating.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Preparing for Advent

The year has absolutely flown by, and once more we are approaching Advent. I love Advent. I love taking the time to reflect on just how amazing Christ's incarnation was. I find having a very intentional approach to be a powerful antidote to all the distractions that different cultures may offer at this time of year. And I love watching how my childrens' understanding of what God planned since the beginning unfolded increases year on year.

This will be our fourth year of using a Jesse tree project - I've written about our experiences here, here and here. Each year, we add something. Last year, I wanted to add something that helped the boys focus on godly character, and chose the area of kindness. I have seen a few websites which list 'kindness tasks' to help a child take the focus of themselves during advent, but many of the tasks were not possible or applicable to us living in East Africa. So, I amended the list to suit our needs. I put one of these tasks into each of the Jesse tree envelopes and then gave a week of 'grace' for the task to be completed (it seemed a little contrived to insist that it was completed that same day - I wanted to encourage thoughtfulness). We had a checklist where each boy had a column and we could tick off when the task was achieved. Here is our list in case you would like to try something similar.

1.       Write a letter
2.       Offer to help with something when it is not your turn
3.       Say something encouraging to one of your siblings
4.       Read a story to one (or more) of your siblings
5.       Make a card for somebody
6.       Bake somebody a cake
7.       Help one of your brothers tidy his box
8.       Make a thank-you card for Irene (sports) or Sara (choir)
9.       Find a toy you no longer use to give to somebody
10.   Help tidy the garden
11.   Set the table without being asked
12.   Draw a picture for somebody back home
13.   Tell somebody how much you love them
14.   Write a note for one of your brothers, saying kind things
15.   Teach somebody something
16.   Help to cook dinner
17.   Invite some friends round to sing carols
18.   Skype somebody you have not spoken to for a while
19.   Ask somebody how they are
20.   Ask how you can help
21.   Tidy the bookshelves in the play corner
22.   Bake something using a recipe you have not made before
23.   Share something with somebody

24.   Let one of your brothers have first choice

This year, I also want to focus on character, and will include the kindness tasks. Other visual things we have done at times are 'fruit of the Spirit' trees - a large picture of a tree with nine branches, each representing the fruit of the Spirit. Each child is given a colour, and when they have displayed one of the fruit, they are allowed to draw their fruit on the right branch. It is a useful way of getting the children to reflect on their actions and consequences.

I am also quite challenged by the verse, 'Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds' - the children do not always consider others, and how they can be encouraging. So I may try and think of some tasks that encompass this area.

I hope to have a little time over the weekend to plan more. I wonder what your plans for Advent are, and what activities you incorporate to build family traditions and have a household that focusses fully on Christ at Christmas?

Sunday, 5 November 2017

5 things to be thankful for

It has been another busy month in our household. Both parents have been travelling back-to-back for work, and time together has been limited. But the children seem well adjusted to this - they know that there are special things they will do (and eat!) when Mum is away, and different things they will do (and eat) when Dad is away. They also know that we are likely to bring back surprises from our travels, most of which are edible. They love to hear stories of where we have travelled to, and to see photos and read about the history of the place. For example, I was recently in Italy, and they had been studying the Renaissance over the past few weeks, so they were particularly interested in what I was able to see. (Truth be told, my main time for sightseeing is usually when I go jogging before dawn with a digital camera in my pocket, but this does often produce dramatic photos of beautiful buildings lit up against the darkness).

It is always good to stop and reflect and give thanks, and I find this particularly the case when life is busy. Sometimes it can be too easy to lament the challenges and complain about the consequences of choices we have made, and to neglect to see the abundant blessings that are present in every day. So here are five things I am thankful for:

1. As described above - I am thankful that our family structure enables both parents to work flexibly, and that we are able to share many of the experiences with the children.

2. Because our time together has been limited, we decided to head to a rainforest for three days, bringing with us no digital devices. We hiked through the forest and enjoyed an amazing array of wildlife - birds, butterflies, insects, plants, fungi. The children astonished us by the things they spotted, and their ability to recognise particular species and confidently explain why they knew it was one rather than another. We all learnt something, but even more importantly, we enjoyed being together and considering the vastness of God's amazing creation. When you are busy working, it is easy to become very focused on a specific task or project - and rightly so. But it is so restful to remember that there is so much more! This really helps us to regain perspective with regard to what matters most. In the evenings, we sat round a bonfire and told stories and sang songs. It was refreshingly simple, and both children and parents came back refreshed (there are other holidays which are fun, but where I have returned feeling more tired than before).

3. Their love for learning. When we started to home educate, one of the driving reasons was to preserve their natural curiosity and desire to find out more about the world around them. We had seen too many bright and inquisitive children enter mainstream school and within a year or two to seem dull and frustrated by the educational process. At first, our 'education' was very practical, and we spent most of each day out and about. Now that the children are a little older, we also cover the necessary building blocks of language arts (spelling, grammar, handwriting, creative expression) and  mathematics as well as the more interest-driven areas of history, geography, world cultures, science, art, music, cooking and so forth. We tend to spend about three hours each morning working on these, and there have been days when one or other child has complained about the need to concentrate and work hard on an area which doesn't automatically come naturally. As parent/teachers, we have felt the tension between letting the child do things 'in their own time' and to abandon the tricky subject and come back another day, against teaching them the value of good hard work (actually, either approach might be right, depending on the exact situation). But over the past week I have been encouraged again by just how much they are learning and developing, and by how much they have absorbed through reading around their areas of interest or simply exploring and experimenting.

4. Just how much they are all growing and developing. We felt quite happy for the boys (aged 8, 7 and 5) to set, light and tend the bonfire (with supervision). It seems like yesterday that we felt we could not turn our backs for a moment without risk of some disaster or other, but suddenly we seem to have some sensible and responsible boys. The five year old has regularly been asking to help with tasks around the house, and has actually been helpful (as compared to the toddler who tries to help and ends up creating twice as much work). Meanwhile the two year old is communicating well, is potty trained and can walk many miles carrying her own water bottle. Whilst celebrating these things, I also feel a kind of wistful awareness that the 'days are long but the years are short'. When I see a parent with a baby in the airport, I remember those days, but realise they are past. I am thankful that we have chosen to spend so much time with our children and to be able to enjoy their childhoods.

5. For technology. This might sound a random point, but often I reflect on how I am able to run projects in several different countries whilst working part-time with the young children largely because I can do so much work by email or teleconference. I feel it is a job that simply would not have been possible ten or fifteen years ago, and I am thankful for the advances that have changed the way we are able to live and work.

So, five things to be thankful for! As I write, I am sitting at an airport preparing to travel between Africa and Europe again. Often when I travel I feel challenged by the contrasts that I see in life all around me - so many different situations and circumstances, so many hopes and dreams, trials and frustrations - and at the same time, I am reminded of how alike we all are, irrespective of our backgrounds. I am also thankful for that perspective - that every challenge brings an opportunity, that times of suffering and pain can lead to greater joy, and that even as I feel sad to be apart from my family for another few days, it makes me realise just how precious the times together are.

Friday, 6 October 2017

9 reasons I remain thankful through pain

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17

What do you think of when I use the word 'gift'? Most likely, you think of times of celebration, Christmas and birthdays, of beautifully wrapped packages containing lovely items that bring real joy to the recipient. In the Bible, the word 'gift' is used in this way, particularly through the Old Testament. Moving into the New Testament, the emphasis becomes more on spiritual gifts - of the gift of the Holy Spirit and of salvation itself as being a gift. In that sense, many of the good things God gives us relate to our spiritual rather than material prosperity and growth.

So, could pain and adversity be a gift? Could this be something we give thanks for?

The Psalmist wrote, 'It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees' Psalm 119:71 (NIV). Other translations of this include, 'Suffering was good for me; I learned your laws' (ERV), 'It was for my good that I was humbled; so that I would learn your statutes' (ISV), 'The punishment you gave me was the best thing that could have happened to me, for it taight me to pay attention to your laws. They are more valuable to me than millions in silver and gold' (TLB - I know we need to take care with this one, since it is a paraphrase, but I think it captures the meaning well).

Such trials and hardships, whether external to us, relating from our circumstances, or internal physical or mental pain, can help us to have real perspective and see those things that matter most. This has been something I have thought over considerably lately. As it approaches ten years since my firstborn daughter died, I have been reflecting on the aspects of our faith that can help a believer be prepared to stand firm in trial (here, here and here). I have had a couple of weeks of extreme physical pain due to a chronic medical condition that flares up from time to time. And some days, I have just felt sadness - sadness at the state of the world, locally of the hardship I see in some communities around me, and loneliness resulting from living and working cross-culturally and often feeling misunderstood. In all these things, I have been greatly encouraged in my faith, and have come to realise that these are part of the 'life in all abundance' that Jesus promised.

Let me explain a little more:

1. Pain is a reminder that this world is fallen and broken. When life is comfortable and easy, I can forget that every day, people who do not know Christ are heading to a lost eternity. Pain reminds me of this reality - that the harshness of life can serve a purpose.

2. Pain reminds me to stop and reflect on all the things that are not painful, and to count my many blessings. For me, it is often a sharp rebuke to self-pity, reminding me that God has provided so many blessings, and that this pain is only a small part of the picture.

3. Pain is humbling. Sometimes you have to ask for help physically. Sometimes it is necessary to be more vulnerable emotionally. Spiritually, one can only cry out with 'groans that words cannot express' (Romans 8). It is a rebuke to the 'I am strong and can do it all' mindset that can become proud in having a 'can do' approach to problems. I think this was what the Apostle Paul learnt: 'Therefore in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleased for the Lord to take it away from me. 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 Cor 12:6-9

4. Pain brings empathy. 2 Corinthians starts with a reminder to believers in a suffering community that they can 'comfort others with the comfort which they themselves have received from Christ'. Understanding some aspects of pain equips a person to draw alongside another and to 'weep with those who weep'. The circumstances and specifics will differ, but the turmoil and confusion, sadness and sorrow, fear and doubt may be similar.

5. Pain helps me understand others. This may relate to the point above, but I am aware of how different people respond to pain. Some speak very freely of it, in real life and on social media and seem able to communicate their distress and need. Others deal with it more internally, giving little outward sign of distress. I probably fall into the latter category (although I do sometimes try to communicate, I often feel I am not 'heard'). This makes me aware that a smile can hide a lot, and that when I care about somebody I should seek to listen carefully, to draw alongside them and to understand. Sometimes, this involves asking specific questions which I would not have done ten years ago.

6. Pain helps counter idolatry. It can be tempting to put confidence and faith in relationships, in things, in family, in work, in status, in comfort. Pain makes me realise that any one of these could be stripped away in the blink of an eye. I feel I have had a glimpse into how these are unstable foundations for a life - whereas perhaps if life always felt smooth and comfortable, I may not have done so.

7. Pain draws me closer to Christ. I love the description of 'a friend that sticks closer than a brother' (Proverbs 18:24). I am aware that He both knows and cares, and walks with me through these trials. I am reminded that 'it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him...' Philippians 1:29. Many of the types of pain I describe may not be in direct consequence of living for Christ in this world, but they do remind us that Christ suffered immensely for our sakes, and God the Father suffered in having His only beloved Son die for our sin.

8. Pain causes me to long for eternity. Revelation 21:4 specifically tells us how there 'will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain''. Eternity is forever and ever. We can look forward to that with real hope.

9. Pain teaches patience. There are times when things cannot be done in the timescale that I might have wanted, or where plans have to be adjusted. This is a reminder that God knows what each of us needs to endure, and does not expect more of us than what is possible. Sometimes I may not have strength to do everything I may want to, and I need to trust that God gives me strength enough to do all that He requires of me.

I am thankful for the hope that we have in Christ, a hope that does not disappoint. I often wonder how on earth a person can make sense of trials without an eternal perspective. I am thankful that in recent situations where I have either been in physical pain, or have felt very sad, that I've known the love and comfort of my Saviour. And I hope, if you are reading this, that God brings such comfort to you also.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Standing firm in trial: Appreciating what Christ's death saved us from

Over the past few months, I have been reflecting what particular things may help a Christian stand firm in the face of a trial. I am particularly wondering whether there is anything that we should, as parents and people who are involved in ministry, be emphasising more in order to prepare and equip young people for the day of trial. Recently, I've discussed how I believe understanding just who God is - His attributes, and perhaps particularly His sovereignty and goodness, underpin our perspective.

I think also, we need to know clearly what it is a Christian has been saved from. In John 10:10, Jesus says 'I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full'. Other translations talk about life in all it's 'abundance'. In fact, this is why I chose the name 'An Abundant Adventure' for this blog. But I think we have to take care when we consider what abundance means. I have heard people suggest that it means physical and material prosperity in the here and now, a life of pleasure and of ease. That would be inconsistent with what Jesus said a few chapters later in John 16:33: 'In this world you will have trouble.' Or the writings of Paul (Romans 5:3-4) who describes how 'we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope', James (James 1:2-3) who tells us to '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', or Peter (1 Peter 1:6-7), who reminds the believers that in their hope in Christ 'you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed'.

So - the aim of salvation is clearly not to provide a life of comfort, ease and material prosperity!

I often consider how previous generations (perhaps read some writings from the Puritan era, or some missionary biographies from years past) and certain parts of the world today know many more physical trials - sickness, high maternal and infant death rates, poor infrastructure, poverty, corruption, conflict - and yet from among these circumstances, there will be Christians with faith that shines as brightly as a beacon, overflowing with heartfelt thankfulness to God for His goodness, and living with joy that is almost impossible to understand when one looks at the circumstances. How can that be? What is it that these people have grasped?

That without Christ, we are all destined to eternal death. Without Christ, all the problems in this world make no sense, will only get worse, and will be even worse when a lost eternity is faced. It does not seem 'popular' in churches today to speak of judgement, of hell, of a lake of fire, of eternal damnation, of separation from God with no hope of return. In a day where it seems any philosophy or value system is acceptable other than a belief in the God of the Bible and absolute truth, it sounds too harsh to discuss such realities. But that is what they are. Realities.

The darkness and all-pervading nature of sin is such that even the physical world was affected by this. I don't fully understand, but the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8 of how, 'the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who  have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies'. (Romans 8:22-23). Nobody escapes the darkness of sin: 'There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is non one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one'. Romans 3:10-12. Today, people would argue that there are 'good people' who are 'not religious'. But this fails to appreciate what sin actually is. 'Everything that does not come from faith is sin' Romans 14:23. Living without submission to God is sin.

I think many people today do not appreciate how dark sin really is. Again, returning to writings from a bygone age, I am always struck how the most godly, sacrificial people were overwhelmed by the darkness of their own hearts. As they got closer to God, their sin seemed all the more abhorrent. It's not something I hear many Christians speak of today. I remember when I first heard the gospel, how aware I was that 'He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins' Colossians 1:13-14. It is as black and white as that. From death to life. From darkness to light. No ambiguity, no half-ways, no grey areas. Through Christ's sacrificial death for us, we are free, and there was no other way that freedom could have been attained. Christianity is not an 'add on' which enhances the quality of our life in this current world. It is an appreciation that without Christ's death for us, we were headed to a lost eternity, without any hope that we could somehow claw our way back or give a justification for ourselves.

Appreciating this, we can start to understand how the Apostle Paul could assert, 'For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain' Philippians 1:21. Our life here is not about comfort and freedom from trials, but about living for Christ. Indeed, just a few verses later, the Philippians were reminded, 'it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have' Philippians 1:29-30. Christians often spend time wondering what God's plan for their lives might be - but don't often like to consider the truth, that we are often called to a life of suffering in order that we can fully display His glory to the suffering world around us.

When I consider my sin, and the amazing truth that God sent His only, beloved Son into the world to willingly die in my place -  when I stop and really think of that, then suddenly things fall into perspective. I am promised an eternity in heaven, where there will certainly be no more sickness, sadness, tears or pain. That is made clear through the Bible. In the meantime, the trials that we face help us to see the eternal perspective and help us to realise what the biggest issue of all really is: A life lived without God, and the need for repentance and salvation.

As I understand this, the question turns on its head, and becomes much less about 'why a good God would allow suffering', but much more about 'how can God use this pain for His glory'.

I am aware that I have not fully explored this issue, and that there are others who could do so much better than I. My writing here is more personal - as it approaches ten years since my daughter's death, and as I reflect on all the ups and downs of the past decade, I am spending time reflecting on what doctrines have been most essential in enabling my husband and I to not just stand, but to grow in God's grace during times of trial. And it is my prayer that some of these writings bring encouragement to others.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Give thanks in all circumstances

'Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus' 1 Thess 5:18

This weekend, I had planned to spend more time reflecting on the aspects of our faith which can most help a believer stand firm in the face of trial. Instead, I've had crippling pain in my neck and arm, and have only been able to function by taking four classes of analgesia. However, this has given me cause to reflect, and to be thankful:

1. I am thankful I am not in this amount of pain all the time! I have a genetic condition which means that from time to time I do get severe pain from my joints, but much of the time I am able to function perfectly well. On the days when I feel incapacitated, it is a reminder of what I am spared, much of the time.

2. I am thankful that God gives sufficient strength to function. I had important work meetings this week, and yesterday was a seven hour thanksgiving service at church. I was able to give as much to these as I was able (and most likely, very few people would have noticed anything amiss). 

3. I am thankful for medicines. I usually carry a selection with me, so that if I have an injury or a flare up, I can treat the symptoms rapidly. I have been considering how disabling this condition would be without these medicines

4. I am thankful that it gives me a greater understanding of what people with 'hidden disabilities' must endure. I am better able to 'rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn'. It makes me aware that other people might be facing unseen challenges

5. I am thankful that the Lord knows all things. Sickness, including genetic conditions like mine, is ultimately a consequence of the fallen world we live in. God knows the challenges we face every day - be it physical limitations, pain, mental health challenges, every bit as much as He is aware of our external circumstances. We can draw close to Him in our times of trial, and for that I am most thankful.

6. I am thankful that this teaches me humility - when life and work are going well, there can be a temptation to become confident in ourselves. Setbacks like this remind me that we are frail humans, dependent on God's gracious provision every day.

7. I am thankful for the reminder that God's timing is perfect. Sometimes we wonder why things happen when they do - why does a challenge or an illness come at what seems to be a most inconvenient time? It's a reminder to trust that God knows about this, and can work in and through it. In fact, I was meant to travel this weekend and the trip was postponed; whilst initially disappointed, I have been very thankful that I have no travel and a relatively empty diary this week.

So, as the week starts, I am in pain and feel a bit daunted. My husband has just travelled for a few days so I'm alone with the children. I can't easily rest the way I would like, and I can't take the stronger painkillers as they make me a little drowsy. But I do know from previous experience, that God will give me strength and grace enough to get through the day, and that He will surprise me with joy and encouragement along the way.

I wonder what challenges you face this week? Do some situations feel impossible? Let me encourage you to trust God, who knows all about it - even more about it than you do. Look back over God's faithfulness and provision to you, and trust that He will continue to provide all you need.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Understanding the Attributes of God (in the face of trial)

Lately I have been considering what enables one person to stand firm in the face of trial, whereas another person may be utterly crushed. Is it just a random thing? Is it to do with genetic predisposition? Does it relate to how much support a person is given during the trial, and how strong their social networks are? Is it so arbitrary that there is nothing that we can do to prepare ourselves for such an eventuality in our own lives?

As I reflect, I am increasingly convinced that there are some doctrines which are fundamental to our faith in Christ which enable us to see our trials in true perspective. Lately, I wrote about how I believe a correct view of God's sovereignty, coupled with His perfect goodness, helps us to truly understand that trials will come, but are not mistakes made by a weak or uncaring god, and neither are they deliberate acts of cruelty by a capricious sovereign being. I believe that having a worldview that deeply appreciates these attributes of God is incredibly important to prepare a Christian for whatever may come, for the celebrations and the trials, for the successes and the discouraging failures. And if the phrase 'attributes of God' sounds like jargon to you, let me recommend a couple of good books. The Knowledge of the Holy by AW Tozer is a beautiful book; a copy was given to me for my 18th birthday, when I had been a Christian for just a few months. Until I was 17, I had never been to a church, Sunday school or holiday Bible club, and had been raised completely without a biblical worldview. I am thankful for friends who directed my reading (both excellent Christian books, and also to read the whole Bible systematically and prayerfully), since these things gave my faith a strong foundation. The Attributes of God by AW Pink is another excellent summary of God's attributes, and available online via the link. An 'attribute' is basically a fundamental aspect of God's nature - what makes God God, and not human. I found that taking time to reflect on these as a young Christian instilled in me a deep understanding that 'My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways', declares the Lord. 'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'. Isaiah 55:8-9. I remember how helpful I found it to consider how if God is Creator, and we are created beings living in a created world, then we can only understand things in terms of other created things, perhaps in terms of metaphor or hyperbole. We will not fully understand God, since we are not God. There is a point where we must simply rejoice in who He is, and trust Him. That is but one example.

I think this is an important place to start - to spend time considering who the God of the Bible truly is. It is easy to create in our minds a false god. We may call ourselves Christians, we may regularly attend church and sing the latest gospel songs, but do we really know God? Sometimes, the proof of this comes when our faith passes through trial. The Apostle Peter wrote that trials 'have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may result in praise, glory and honour when Christ is revealed'. 1 Peter 1:6-7. To whom is your faith proven genuine? Perhaps to the cynical friends and family who think it will evaporate when challenges come, but also I believe to yourself. The Bible is clear throughout that we live in a sin-damaged and fallen world, that trials, grief and pain will mark our existence here, but that there is an eternal hope. Later, Peter writes again, 'dear friends, do not be surprised  at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed' 1 Peter 4:12-13. We may ask many questions during trials and times of suffering, we may face periods of dark depression where nothing seems to make sense, but if our view of God is that He is not good, does not care, or is powerless to help, then I would suggest that this is not 'God' at all, and that you are yet to experience the true delight of resting in His embrace.

In our generation, even in many churches, I can see how easy it would be to build a false view of God. We live in a generation that has made many technological and scientific advances. Day to day life is often physically much easier than in generations past, leisure time (which was basically unknown by our great grandparents) is now seen as a fundamental right rather than an occasional luxury, answers are available at one quick 'click' and we can lose perspective. I am not saying that any of these advances are wrong - I believe that science is the means by which we understand more of the world that God created, and through appreciation of the amazing order and detail that exists, I am brought to a place of worship: 'I will praise You for I am fearfully and wonderfully made!' (Psalm 139). I would not work as an academic physician if I considered scientific advance contrary to worship! But my point is that we live in a rapidly changing culture where instant answers and cures are expected. And that is not the world we live in. God is not a 'genie' who responds to tend to our needs, but rather a loving heavenly Father who wishes us to relate to Him in true worship. It's a world apart.

I do not mean to say that anybody sets out to create in themselves a false view of God. But what I am saying is that it can easily be done, and that a Christian ought to prayerfully seek to know God more. I am often astonished when I read the words of the Apostle Paul, often hailed as one of the greatest Christian missionaries that ever lived: 'But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ - yes, to know the power of His resurrection and participation in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus' Philippians 3:7-14 What I find amazing here is that the Apostle Paul, who by this point had experienced a miraculous conversion, visions, divine knowledge of which he was unwilling to write fully, had founded several churches, had faced persecutions, had endured much - and yet he did not consider that he yet fully knew Christ! To me that is an important lesson - that it is not something that one does at a static point in time. There, I know God now. It's not like that - it's a relationship where we grow to know and love Him more, and given that He is infinite (again, returning to those attributes...) there is no limit to us having done this.

I will stop here, and encourage you to reflect on just who God is. And my prayer is that in this, you find perspective in your current situation. I pray that you may be overwhelmed by God's goodness and love, and His compassion and care for you right now in whatever trial you may face.

Next time, I plan to consider what God has saved us from, and what He has saved us to.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

God's sovereignty and goodness: Comfort in grief

Sometimes I am acutely aware of dates and anniversaries, and at other times they creep up on me. For us, because we have lived in some very different cultures and climates, some of the usual 'triggers' are not there, and in our current location close to the equator where there seem to be so few changes in season, we often don't really appreciate what time of year it is at all. So perhaps I have been a little surprised at how aware I am that it is August, and that 10 years ago, we discovered we were expecting our first child.

I remember those days... Feeling tired, really tired, but very happy. Having a secret (we didn't tell people around us that I was expecting until it was obvious, and people in our passport country until we came home for the birth), but feeling very thankful for this gift of new life. One of the reasons we didn't tell people was because of our awareness that life is fragile. I had miscarried before, and I knew quite a number of friends who had suffered miscarriages at all stages of pregnancy (not just before that mythical 'twelve weeks' at which time many people tend to assume that they are 'safe'). I remember a quiet thankfulness and awe, and I would often reflect on Psalm 139 - how God knows about all life since even before conception, and that it is all perfectly in His hands.

Fast forward ten years... Three boys are working on electronic circuits whilst my two year old daughter sleeps. It is a peaceful Saturday where none of us have had many pressing tasks to achieve, and we've been able to sit under palm trees drinking strong black coffee, talking over the next few months and reading adventure stories aloud to the children. Shortly I'll go to church for music practice, we might go running in the cool of evening before sunset. Again, I am overwhelmed with thankfulness and all that God has given me.

It is not how I would have expected things to be. Sometimes I look back to ten years ago as to days of innocent hope, to a world that felt different. Life had not always been easy up to that point, and we'd had to grapple with questions about why a God of love would allow pain and suffering - yet somehow the trials that we had known until that point could clearly be related to sin (either our own or somebody else's). The illness and death of our daughter was different - excruciatingly painful, yet free from complex feelings of guilt, shame or blame.

Over the past ten years, I have interacted with many families who have grieved the loss of a loved one, including many where the person who died was a child. I've wept with them as I have sought to bring comfort from what we learnt as we also walked through those deep waters. Lately, I have been reflecting on what really helps a person through that grief. Three years ago, I reflected on what a 'wish list' of a bereaved parent might look like several years down the line, and whilst I would say much the same things today, I have been thinking at a deeper level. What is it, deep down, that helps a person come to terms with excruciating loss and move forward with hope, joy and thankfulness?

I think much can be summarised in a single phrase: The sovereignty of God'. Or two phrases: 'The character of God' and 'the sovereignty of God'. Let me explain.

Psalm 139 verse 16 reads, 'All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be'. Do we really believe that? Do we really believe that God would ordain some people to have many thousands of days, and others to have only one or two, or indeed no life beyond the womb? But in considering that, do we really believe that God is good? That He is love? I know some people who have walked away from the church or any desire to seek or know God because they come to consider him as a 'capricious being who throws dice'. They cannot come to terms with the fact that God knew in advance the tragedy that would befall them, and yet in His wisdom, permitted it to happen.

I think there are several reasons for this. In part, I think it can be easy whilst living in this world to lose sight of eternity. Yet throughout the Bible we are encouraged to keep our eyes on the bigger picture, on the long game. In the words of the Apostle Paul, 'Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal'. 2 Cor 4:16-18. I find it absolutely fascinating to read what Paul described as being 'light and momentary': 'I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day on the open sea. I have been constantly on the move, I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and often gone without sleep, I have known hunger and thirst and often gone without food, I have been cold and naked'. 2 Cor 11:23-27. I wonder whether many modern Christians, facing even one or two of those circumstances, would consider their trials 'light and momentary'? But Paul had his eyes fixed on the final goal, on eternity, and on God's purpose through it all, and therefore he did not lose heart. One of my favourite verses, especially when my heart feels like it is breaking, is in the description of heaven found in Revelation chapter 21: 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.' Rev 21:3-4

But Paul didn't just have a blithe acceptance that somehow all the suffering and pain would one day be erased. He understood that God was working in and through these trials for His glory. Similarly, the Apostle Peter wrote to a church who was facing such severe persecution that many Christians had needed to flee, and so the church had been 'scattered'. He described it thus: 'In this you greatly rejoice though now for a little while you have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuiness of your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end of your faith, the salvation of your souls' 1 Peter 1:6-8. So, trials prove our faith genuine. Does that mean that a person who struggles greatly in the face of a trial does not have faith? Not necessarily, but I do think there may be a misunderstanding of God's great purposes throughout history and through our lives. (I am fully aware I am not addressing this issue fully!)

Throughout the Bible, we are never given any assurance that knowing the amazing love, grace, forgiveness and salvation of Christ will mean our life in the here and now will be easy. Indeed, one of the last things Jesus told his disciples before his death on the cross was this: '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. We are warned of conflict within families, misunderstanding and potential rejection by our communities. We are told that we will be like pilgrims and strangers in the world - which may sound poetically idealistic, but in fact might often be cold, lonely and fraught with challenges.

I love to read writings of the Puritans. I've recently remarked on reading a simple novel written by a Puritan, where there is a strong worldview of God's sovereignty radiating off the page. Read many biographies or commentaries written in that era, and this is an overwhelming strength of their faith. You read of families where 19 children were born but where only 8 survived to adulthood, and yet the family rejoices in God's goodness. You read of real hardship, of poverty, of illness, of the toil and grind of daily life in the pre-industrial era, and yet a real thanksgiving is apparent. More latterly, one can read of Christians like Elisabeth Elliott whose first husband Jim was killed with several friends by the Auca Indians to whom they were seeking to bring the gospel. In the wake of this, Elisabeth remained among that tribe and saw many come to a genuine faith. Her writings are strongly Biblical, and often filled with a real pragmatism: life may be difficult and painful, yet we need to look to what God has called us to do. And that is inspiring!

But such a strong confidence of God's goodness in the face of extreme trial seems less common today. In many parts of the world, life is much less troublesome and traumatic, and those who face trials such as the death of a child or the premature death of a spouse are seen as unusual. There is no quick or easy answer to these situations, and so loved ones, and indeed often fellow Christians may step away, lacking the confidence and assurance required to address these deep questions in a loving, but Biblical way. 'How can a God of love allow this?' is one of the deepest, most heart-felt questions a person can ask, and yet many Christians today seem ill-equipped to answer.

Many modern Christian songs focus more on us or our response rather than on God's goodness and sovereignty. Erroneous prosperity teaching does not just relate to matters of finance, but also to areas of health, wellbeing, relationships and comfort, and our current generation often has a sense of entitlement (for more about this, read this book!). And these are errors which diminish appreciation of the true power and glory of God. The gospel was never about us having an easy, long, comfortable and healthy life in this world, but is to do with the amazing freedom that arises from having our sins forgiven and being able to approach God with confidence and boldness, having that relationship restored. It is about peace in the face of trials, and an incredible everlasting hope.

My prayer is for a generation of Christians who can really get to grips with God's sovereignty without losing sight of his perfect love and goodness. For me, these are the elements that enabled us to see our daughter's life as a precious gift, and to have been a life which pointed many towards God's glory.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Robinson Crusoe: An unexpected encouragement

I had never read Robinson Crusoe until I started to read it to my sons aged 5, 7 and 8 last week. Of course I knew the basic story, about a man marooned on a deserted island for many years, and about his companion Man Friday. I'd heard re-tellings of the story, and had read The Swiss Family Robinson to the children last year, which clearly has parallels. But I had never read the original, and we have found it a treat.

I want to draw out two ways in which I have been delighted by this book.

Firstly, I must comment that I found the first few pages quite tough-going to read aloud, in terms of the literary style. The language is rich and complex, but beautiful. Initially, I was concerned that my sons might not understand it well, especially the parts where the author is describing the thoughts and reflections of the main character. However, they have rapidly adjusted to the tempo, and apart from the occasional question over a specific word, are very much learning through hearing a rich vocabulary used in context. This reminded me of some articles I recently read, describing the differences in second-grade literature in 1879 compared with today, and comparing middle school reading lists from 100 years ago with today. Why should an eight year old only be expected to understand very simple vocabulary and basic plots? And does that not become self-perpetuating, whereby our expectations of our children diminish? I confess I have been surprised by how much my boys are enjoying Robinson Crusoe read aloud, but I have been delighted and also have noted them using many new words correctly without having been 'taught'. As is their style, they have been acting out sections of the book in the garden, building shelters and defences, and this clearly shows their understanding (it's almost like their form of 'narration').

The second thing I was unaware of was the strong Christian message in the story*. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Robinson left home against his parents' wishes at the age of 18 to go to sea. He met with quite a number of early trials and near-disasters, and whilst grappling with his conscience, turned his back on his parents' wisdom and on any consciousness of God challenging him. However, later on, on the island, he became conscious of the blackness of his own heart, and having found a Bible amongst his possessions on the shipwreck, began to diligently study God's word and listen to His voice.

So even whilst alone on the island, the character described his situation thus:

'I spent the whole day in humble and thankful acknowledgements of the many wonderful mercies which my solitary condition was attended with, and without which it might have been infinitely more miserable. I gave humble and hearty thanks that God had been pleased to discover to me that it was possible I might be more happy in this solitary condition than I should have been in the liberty of society, and in all the pleasures of the world; and He could fully make up to me the deficiencies of my solitary state, and the want of human society, by His presence and the communication of His grace to my soul; supporting, comforting and encouraging me to depend upon His providence here, and hope for His eternal presence hereafter.'

'From this moment I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition than I should ever have been in any other particular state of the world...'

This is rich gospel truth, and providing plenty of food for hearty discussions with my children. That it is embedded in one of the most famous novels of all time, not in a book specifically marketed as 'Christian', is an unexpected and wonderful treat.

If you are looking for adventure, rich literature, reflections on resourcefulness and creativity and a clear reflection upon God's amazing grace, this book has it all!

*Clearly, I had not done my 'homework' but had simply picked up a 'classic' novel. Daniel Defoe, the author, was a Puritan who wrote books on other topics, and had a very strong sense of God's sovereignty and providence. That makes a lot of sense - and I have found it refreshing to have that strong worldview come across through literature.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Home is here

The last few months have been tiring. Many of the reasons are predictable - busy work schedules for both of us involving a lot of travel, homeschooling the children, being involved in church and regularly hosting meetings in our home, runs of minor illnesses, and sometimes just the thing where being in a 'different' culture can make simple tasks seem a lot more tiring than one might expect.

A friend shared this article about 'ten things a missionary may not tell you' - I resonated with some of this. Indeed, last year, I wrote about how I think the best ways to support your cross-cultural overseas workers is sometimes to simply be a friend and remain in contact and keep the relationships alive. Sometimes I share these kind of links with friends in the hope that they hear me, and realise just how aching the loneliness can be at times, but somehow I find it hard to be 'heard' and that can only compound the feelings of isolation and misunderstanding.

However, today there blew a breath of fresh air. I have some colleagues from the UK who are here for a few days, one in Africa for her first time. So the children and I took them downtown - not to the particularly tourist places, but to the places where you can buy fabric cheaply, where you see men carrying huge packages on their heads (my favourite must be when they stack about twenty mattresses up high!), to where children crawl around the stalls, and where you think it must be possible to buy just about anything if you knew where to look. But the thing I found remarkable was that it didn't seem strange at all. Here we were, in a part of town where you rarely see foreigners, with four children in tow, darting in and out of traffic and dodging the head-carriers, but it just felt normal. There were one or two things (like crossing the chaotic taxi park) that I used to find absolutely terrifying and completely perplexing all in one, but somehow even that felt normal. My friends assured me that this absolutely was not normal and it was completely eye opening and crazy.

What I realised was that this is home. The children were leading the way, explaining about all kinds of things (some of the history, the different types of military vehicle on the street, the different street foods they prefer) and I saw just how at home they are here too.

Often the loneliness I feel is not a consequence of being overseas from my passport country, so much as a phase of life. My children are young and still require a lot of input and supervision. When my husband is overseas, I rise very early and stay up very late to get my academic work completed. The only evenings I don't work are when I am hosting a Christian meeting of some type, often leading a Bible study and making sure everybody is comfortable, with drinks and cake. There just isn't a whole lot of time for 'socialising'.

I remember when we left our neighbourhood in the UK, how I hadn't quite realised how settled we were and how strong some of the relationships were until it was time to leave. I  think I am beginning to see that here. My children love the Bible studies, especially when one of the young men comes a little early to play raucous games outside with them. Their favourite songs are in multiple different languages. They enjoy laughing (in a healthy way) at the differences between the cultures (and in return, are often laughed at too - the people here have a very robust sense of humour).

I was encouraged to simply give thanks that this is our home. This is where God has brought us, and where He has provided community, fellowship and life.

Yes, there are tiring days, lonely days, and sometimes sad days. But these are irrespective of my physical locality - and I must take care to see that as the case.

And now, I must stop blogging and return to preparing Sunday lunch for a group of friends who will join us here.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Enjoying childhood

This post is a type of reminder to myself: that the children are young for such a short time, and I will most likely look back on these days as being among the most blissful of our lives.

Lately I have been tired. I've had a run of viral illnesses, mostly minor with one a bit more serious. Through work schedules, either my husband or I are away from home for five out of six weeks (this is very unusual - more often one of us is away for about a week a month). One or two things have been frustrating me, but at the same time I recognise that I am more easily irritated when I feel tired and worn out. And there have been times when I have wished my children were a little older and more independent - particularly when I am trying to teach the three boys and each of them is clamouring for my attention at once. I find myself longing for the day when I can assign them a task, knowing they have the attention and perseverance to work through it with little adult input.

But then I need to take a step back and enjoy the moment. I wrote about this recently. Yesterday, we enjoyed walking to basketball - a dusty hour-long walk under the midday African sun, providing many opportunities to talk through all kinds of things that we'd been reading about, or things that were on their minds. On a few occasions, we talked about attitude, and what the Bible says about speech, and what we can do about it (with God's help) and I was reminded of Deuteronomy Chapter 6 - these are they days of sitting together to eat, of walking along the road, of frequent conversations about God's goodness. These are the foundational years, when their worldview is forming and they are starting to understand that the world is not just a glorious, amazing adventure, but is also punctuated by hardship, suffering and pain. These are the moments when a childlike question could be easily brushed aside by a tired and irritable parent, but which reflects the searching of their young soul for eternal answers.

Today, they have made planes out of left over pieces of cardboard, the insides of toilet rolls and various other packets and things they have been saving for such activities. It is amazing to step back and observe their development, and particularly their team work in making sure the youngest is able to create something also. As well as the creative and fine motor skills I observe, I note their kindness to one another (most of the time) and their ways of negotiating to obtain the items they want most. And again, I am reminded that these times are a great benefit of homeschooling - having time to play, to create, to explore, to design and to share.

I write these things partly because I've worried lately about doing 'enough'. I gather, from reading home schooling blogs, that 'enough' is one of the temptations of a homeschooling parent! How would one define 'enough'? One of the reasons we chose homeschooling was to embrace their natural love of learning and desire to explore the world around them, and to give them time to be children and enjoy a simple childhood which contrasts with so much of the modern world around us. And yet at the same time, I am tempted to compare, to worry, to feel that we need to be achieving X, Y and Z every day or we are somehow exposing our children to risk. When I say 'enough', perhaps I don't mean in terms of what the children do, since they are making good progress in all areas, but maybe in terms of myself - I think I should be more dynamic, more creative, more full  of interesting and exciting ideas for projects. But then, when I step back and give them space to play, I find that many of  their games relate to the history and world cultures we have been studying. Their building (shelters, fireplaces, other things that boys build out of sticks and stones in the garden) uses some of the mathematical concepts they have been working on, and often they will then write about these things in letters home. I love our  curriculum, but sometimes I need to step back from it a bit, and allow a more 'natural approach'.

One way I have addressed this overlaps with the concept of 'stealth attacks' as proposed by Julie Hogart at Brave Writer. I read ahead, see what concept or task I am meant to cover, and then find away of bringing it in without the child realising they are doing 'school'. An example might be my son who is currently on LA3 from Sonlight. He is using the Diamond Notes to learn about paragraph structure. Sometimes the assigned tasks seem a bit artificial, but if I encourage him to write a letter to a grandparent about a recent hike, or his latest pet (an insect or a lizard usually), or something he has cooked, then he can flesh out a paragraph with relative ease. The Singapore Maths home instructor guide has some nice ideas for games to help them learn their number facts, and changing venue, or using chalk to draw out on the tiles in the back yard can bring variety and an element of fun (and the questioning minds of the boys, 'What is mummy doing now??'

Another thing that is helpful when feeling tired and maybe a bit overwhelmed is to consider again the core reasons for choosing home education (I wrote a list of some of these five years ago now). For many of us, these are far broader than pure academics. Sometimes we can be so busy looking at the current 'challenge' or concern, and not take time to reflect on the progress which has been made by each child, and in particular in relation to worldview and character formation. I need to stop and remember these things, particularly when we are often told by friends and relatives that, 'So and so is doing marvellously at school'. (Interestingly, I have never had a friend or relative that is not doing 'marvellously' at school....) I also need to remember that the people who are constantly posting pictures of beautiful craft and science projects on Facebook groups tend to be the exception, and that such creative activities are not essential for well-rounded learning.

Today, I am choosing to 'Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, with prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving' to bring my concerns to God. (Philippians 4:6). I am choosing not to be discouraged by comparing my children to others. I am choosing to celebrate each day as a God-given opportunity. I choose to rejoice in having a curriculum which means very little lesson planning - a great blessing when I have been tired and a bit unwell. And I choose to celebrate these peaceful moments of childhood, recognising that the time will come all to soon that the children do not want to tell me every little thing, all the time.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Quiet thankfulness

Yesterday my children were eating lunch on a 'raft' they had built out of fallen branches from the palm trees. It was warm, but pleasant and we enjoyed the sound of birdsong and counting the different types of beautifully coloured butterfly we could see. It was one of those moments that you wish you could freeze in time and keep forever.

I was overwhelmed with thankfulness for so many things. Nine years ago, we were grieving for our firstborn, and in the strange situation of being parents, but having no living children. I remember the days feeling long, feeling lonely, feeling cold. Fast forward to today, and I am surrounded by four lively children who are so full of curiosity and enthusiasm, continually learning and exploring new things. I thank God so much for these blessings; I often can barely believe I have been given such privilege and responsibility as to raise them.

Lately, I have thought about grief - that it is a process, but one which has no real end. The sorrow of our daughter's death remains, along with the pain of knowing there is so much pain and wrongdoing in this world. But I wonder, having tasted that deep sorrow, whether it does not mean that moments of joy are all the greater. I remember that feeling of having lost everything. I know that I cannot take these moments and these days for granted.

Yesterday, I felt it was the first time in several weeks that I actually stopped and seized hold of a beautiful moment. So often, my mind has been working through checklists and tasks even as I have been 'relaxing'. In the evenings, if not occupied with church activities or academic work, I have often been considering different teaching methods and reviewing our home education materials to ensure we are providing each child with the best opportunities to build upon their unique learning style. There has always been a list of tasks to work through. Probably there always will be.

But yesterday I felt a calm peace descending as the Lord gently reminded me of His sovereignty. There will be unexpected surprises and disappointments in life, and there will be times of trial and sorrow. There will be days of peace and stability, but also times of disquiet and turmoil. I cannot control these things, but He knows each of these days before it comes. Sometimes when I look at my young children, I find myself wondering what kind of world they will be adults in, what kind of trials and pressures they may face; but my job is not to worry about that - but rather to provide them with a solid foundation and worldview, to pray for them diligently and to teach them to critically appraise situations and arguments to reach a rational judgement.

I was thankful to be reminded of all that I have been blessed with, and to be reminded to open my eyes to the beauty and blessings that surround me.

I have not written much lately - there has not been much free time to write and reflect. The months seem to be passing quickly, and the children seem to be changing rapidly (in many good ways). I am reminded of the quote that 'the days are long but the years are short', and am thankful for the reminder to stop and be thankful for these busy days surrounded by noise, activity and laughter.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Trusting God as we raise our children (subtitle: ignoring the pressures of this age)

I recently saw an amusing quotation on Facebook - it was along the lines of all the things a modern day mother needs to buy, cook, utilise and consider in order to raise a family, whereas 50 years ago, a mother would simply seek to feed, clothe and keep her children safe. I was also amused when reading how the laptop and tablet ban on some airlines has led to an outcry among parents who think it is impossible to travel without some kind of digital entertainment for their children. This blog summarises it better than I can, considering how parents of a bygone age managed without screens.

But this isn't a post about technologies and their pros and cons, but rather a reflection on how we can best raise our families in different settings where there is different availability of resources and activities. What got me thinking about this was a recent trip to my passport country. I enjoyed some activities like park run and heard my friends speak of a recent home education co-op trip to a castle. I saw piles of library books, and enjoyed walking down streets with safe pavements and using safe and efficient public transport. I missed these things! In fact, I wavered slightly, feeling sad that my children do not currently have these opportunities. However, when I reflect on that, I must remember that here we have exposure to a diverse array of wildlife, even in the city. We recently had opportunity to run through a game park with herds of zebra intermittently crossing our path. We spent a night in a rainforest and hiked to a waterfall. We camped beside a lake and lit a bonfire. We are exposed to a wide range of cultures and languages, and live in a climate whereby spending many hours each day out of doors is the norm and never burdensome. Which is better? (I think I would argue that neither is better - each presents unique and valuable opportunity)

I also was reflecting on what parents consider to be 'activities for children'. When I first moved here, quite a few parents mused that, 'There isn't really much for children here'. A friend is leaving an east Asian country for the six week school holidays, because 'its hard to find things to do'. Another friend is prayerfully considering cross-cultural mission but is concerned about the impact it will have on her children, particularly with regard to availability of safe, enjoyable activities and resources for them. I just can't help but wonder if some of this misses the point, and whether the current western cultural view of what is 'good for children' has become incredibly narrow.

For many years, children would help with the family business as soon as they were able to carry out even basic activities - be that farming, sewing, baking, manufacture and so forth. That remains the case in many parts of the world today, where young children take on responsibilities that might astound many in different parts of the world. (I note that this is not always a good thing - young boys herding goats along dangerous main roads is one example, or forced child labour in other places. But that is not the thrust of the statement I am making!) Children can thrive when given responsibility, and we've seen that in our household (I've also been amused by some online arguments about whether children should participate in chores, or whether we should 'let them be children'; it seems these are entirely asking the wrong question because these are not mutually exclusive by any means).

Before modern forms of transport and telecommunications, people would live in much smaller, tighter communities. This need not be a bad thing. Rather than lament that our children may not have exposure to such a wide range of friends as they attend a range of activities, we can be thankful that they have the opportunity to build strong, perhaps more stable relationships. Another aspect of this which has surprised me was the tendency for some people to want to separate our children so that they could 'form their own friendships'. Often it is not seen as healthy for children to play well together across a wide range of age groups, and yet this was considered normal in so many places for so long. Indeed, evidence indicates that home educated children often do better socially because they learn to build a diverse range of relationships. There has also been much written about the fact that children should be given opportunity to be 'bored' since it is then that creativity and team-work often flourish; we'd testify that has often been the case here!

How many toys and games does a child need? I have friends in other countries who have whole rooms overflowing with toys and games, and yet the children can still complain that they are, 'bored and have nothing to do'. Indeed, it can seem that with so much choice, the children are bewildered and unable to focus. Whereas in African villages, you will see children happily playing for hours with a stick and an old tyre, or some other simple game or toy. I think we find a medium approach - yes, we have a train-track and boxes of lego and a few other things, but try and have a 'one game at a time' rule (except perhaps now, where they are building a Duplo camp next to their railway, and there seems to be a very clear aim). There are other parenting articles (for example, here, here and here) which describe what constitutes a 'good' game or toy for a child, but my basic rule is that I want something where they can really use their creativity and imagination - I do not want something that can only be used in one way, for one thing.

When I first arrived here, I confess that I had many concerns about 'finding things to do'. I remember walking along a road, dodging motorcycles which had mounted the basic pavement, and wondering how on earth I would ever be able to move around here with the children. One thing I really miss is public parks, large areas of safe, green space where children can run, climb, cycle and play. Previously, we would spend several hours per day there, come rain or shine. Here, we have had to be more creative. The roads rarely have pavement, the traffic is unsafe, and it is often hot and dusty (you sweat and then get coated with bright orange dust). However we have found some roads in a residential area which are quite green and leafy, are a little wider and sometimes have a grass verge, and where the traffic is less if we choose the time wisely. The children have invented games about being explorers or wildlife photographers, and even have several 'bases' (usually the underside of a bush or the shelter of a tree) where they make camp. They have also become very aware of road-safety and as they get older, I feel increasingly able to relax whilst out there. Now, I don't miss the parks so much (until I make a visit back and see them afresh!). We also have a quiet section of dirt road outside our gate, several hundred metres long. That is perfect for sprint training and playing on bikes, again if we choose the time of day wisely. I look back and the time when I felt such anxiety, and see how God has provided us with what we need - it was not immediately obvious, but with time we have found what we needed.

These are just some examples and thoughts. I know that when moving overseas, providing for our children is often one of the biggest concerns and priorities. At first glance, it can seem that there are 'fewer things for children to do', but I would counter that this need not be the case. It might require a paradigm shift, but even in a bustling city, there can be fresh opportunities. Children often see things differently to adults - I've enjoyed watching my children develop their games and fun things to do.

I want to encourage you that if you are considering cross-cultural work and are concerned about this, that you may well be surprised! Children often do adapt much better than their parents, and pick up language, culture and customs better than adults do through 'cross-cultural training'. You might need to adapt to this - for example, my sons rarely wear shirts, are rarely clean and enjoy eating insects! But they are busy, happy, have built friendships and are developing spiritually and educationally. What else really matters?

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Living between different worlds

I am sitting in an airport lounge waiting to fly back to my home in East Africa. I am returning from a week-long work-related visit to my passport country, and am now longing to be back in the warmth, chaos and dust of home.

It has been over a year since I was last here. So many people have asked me open-ended questions, such as ‘How are the family?’, or, ‘How is work?’, or ‘What is your church like?’, or ‘How is Africa?’ Often I am quite bewildered to know where to start. There are some things that are just too difficult to fully explain, and it is easier to focus on concrete facts (like, ‘Please pray for a favourable judgement at my daughter’s adoption hearing’). As I return home, I feel quite emotional and jumbled, and from that perspective, offer a few reflections of what it can be like for a person who now lives far away to parachute back into their ‘old’ life for a short time:

1.       General bewilderment: It is just like parachuting back in to a life which in some ways feels absolutely familiar and which in other ways feels completely foreign. I find this really unsettling – examples this time have included a change in several denominations of the currency used, some quite dramatic fashion trends (for example full beards on young men), people who have undergone significant life events in the time I have been gone, computerisation of all medical records in the hospital where I work and even the building of a brand new, very shiny hospital (not open yet – likely to be by the time I am next back)

2.       Relationships. It can be immensely rewarding and encouraging to meet with friends, even for a short time, and yet at the same time, this can also be frustrating as there just isn’t always enough time to really connect. I have not worked out a particular formula to predict which encounters will fall into which of these categories, but I have noted a couple of things. For me, I don’t even tell very many people that I will be around – I pray about this a lot before making the trip, and then get in contact with a few people. It is much easier to meet one on one with a person and talk properly than to be surrounded by many people, but not actually get to talk to any of them at any level. I often find it quite bewildering to be surrounded by friends who are all chatting away about many different things – particularly when I am just back, I’d much rather meet for a quiet meal, coffee or walk in the park with just one or two people. At the same time, I also pray that God shows me any opportunities I should make the most of – for example colleagues going out after work, a group of friends going to a run together, or somebody you had not planned to meet who has a particular need. This time, I particularly enjoyed something called Park Run where I went with two friends and bumped into a number of people I had not seen for years. It was relaxed and enjoyable and conversation was easy as we’d all just shared a run on a beautiful morning.

3.       Cultural changes. There are often subtle changes in the way people think, talk and behave, and it can be noticeable even after a year. I had read a statistic that in the UK apparently more food is now consumed outside the home than at home (I am still not quite convinced I believe this). On my first two nights, staying with two different friends, both decided ‘just to go out for dinner because it’s easier’. It’s a small thing, but took me by surprise. (Both were extremely pleasant evenings, and I am not commenting on whether this choice is a good one or not, but rather that this was not something that I would have ever thought of doing!). More sadly, there is a huge amount of pressure towards general tolerance, and particularly shifting of gender and sexual norms. There are subtle (and not so subtle) signals of this everywhere, and I have found myself relieved that I have not needed to explain such things to my children (yet). I have little doubt that when we visit for longer as a family, that my now capable readers will ask me some interesting questions about things they see and read out and about, on billboards, in newspapers and on screens. I think in some ways it is helpful to come back and be a little shocked by a shift away from biblically correct worldview – it is a reminder that we need to live in this world as strangers and pilgrims, being as innocent as doves but as shrewd as snakes (in the words of Jesus). It helps me to pray for the country of my birth, for my friends and family, for the political decisions that are made, and also to prayerfully consider how to prepare my children for their first visit back.

4.       Emotion. I tend to be quite pragmatic about life, and tend to see problems as challenges to overcome and opportunities for growth. I tend to be thankful for what is in front of me in different places (people, food, gospel opportunities, fun things to do) rather than lamenting the things that are not available in that place. But I find short visits a strangely emotional whirlwind. In Africa, I have good friends and feel very settled in a church where we can both serve and grow as Christians. But there is often just a level of separation – of not quite feeling really understood, having to be a little careful about use of humour, of always feeling a little guarded and aware that there may be cultural undertones of which I am unaware. When I am back in the culture where I grew up, I do not feel some of these subtle barriers, and with some friends, there is this amazingly liberating feeling of being understood. This is really precious, and I think you don’t always realise quite how precious it is until you do not have it. This week I have been greatly encouraged and refreshed by some of my closest friends, and I feel sad to be leaving (but thankful at least for the internet and ways of trying to remain in touch). At church this morning I felt quite overcome by a wave of emotion – thankfulness, sadness and a real awareness of eternity where every tribe and tongue will sing God’s praises in harmony.

5.       Loss. If you read this blog, you know I am thankful for so many things that I could not even begin to list them. But with that, there are feelings of sadness and loss. Two days ago, it was nine years since my daughter died, and because I was in the right country, I was able to visit her grave. I was able to reflect on all she taught me, and all I am thankful for. But there is always going to be sadness there. When she died, I really did feel like a part of me died too. I think the part of me that died was a selfish, worldly part that feels entitled to pleasure and comfort in this current world. Another part was a fresh innocent hope that this world was not as bad as many people say, but her death was a reminder that this world is fallen, broken and in need of redemption. The Bible is clear on those points. So whilst I am thankful too for these lessons, I can still feel the raw pain – almost as though somebody had ripped my heart out and thrown it at a wall. Another reflection that comes is that as we live in this world, almost all of us will face pain and loss of one degree or another. Many of my African friends have been through more than my European friends could possibly imagine. Some of my European friends have been through more than many of my African friends would understand. One group might face political instability, genocide and prejudice, hunger, poverty and high death rates from illnesses which might be preventable in other parts of the world. Others might face abuse from dysfunctional families, mental illness and addiction, financial insecurity and bereavement without the support structure to support them through it. Nobody is immune to pain and loss. And when I move from one world to another, sharing the lives of people from many places, I feel aware of the pain that is a universal part of being human. I long for the new heaven promised in Revelation chapter 21, where we are promised that there will be no more illness, pain or death and that the Lord Himself will wipe away every tear. True comfort is found nowhere else.

I am aware that this reflection is not particularly well structured, and that I have touched on a number of challenging themes without really working the thread through to a conclusion. In attempt to draw things together a little, I would say:

1.       If you have friends or family who have moved between cultures, be aware that coming back for a visit may bring complex thoughts and feelings that can be difficult to articulate

2.       Be aware that this must be very similar for those who have moved into your country and culture from elsewhere – and take the time to listen

3.       Remember that God’s family will be made from every tribe and tongue. We are all made in His image, and in this world, we all know joy and pain, sadness and loss, hope and despair, often all jumbled in a complex tangle

4.       Be thankful for what you have – relationships, material provisions, health and strength – and where you feel loss in these areas, find things that you can give thanks for

5.       Remember that confusion, misunderstanding and loss will be in this world until Jesus returns to make all things new. Beware of the idol of earthly comfort and security and seek to live as a stranger and pilgrim in this world, spending your life (your time, your strength, your resources) to build His kingdom