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

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Five years of blogging!

I started blogging at Home Education Novice five years ago, on May 17th 2012. At that time, I had three sons aged under three, and we had decided that we would home educate from the start. In the country where I was living (UK), my oldest son was reaching the age where he would be eligible for 15 hours per week of free nursery placement, and many people expressed real shock that I wouldn't take up that offer. I started to write as I researched home education, and sought support and encouragement from others who had chosen a path which was less well travelled.

What a lot can change in five years!

Some of this has been physical - we have moved seven times involving three different countries. But more than that, as the family have grown and as we've continued to embrace home education, we are thankful for the choices that we made, and for friends who supported us in those choices. I have been very thankful for the online community, through blogs, Facebook pages and discussion forums. I think we all have days when we are tired, and perhaps question our decision-making, or are tempted to compare ourselves and our children to others. It helps to recognise that others feel that way too, and that whilst we need take care never to become arrogant or rigid in our thinking, that our basic underlying motivations for homeschooling remain. It was a good choice then, and it is a good choice now.

I love watching each child develop. There is something almost magical about that moment when 'the penny drops' and a child grasps a concept or moves forward a step. But it's important to remember that on all the days in between, there is progress being made, and by being able to work at a child's own speed and tailor resources and supplementary materials to their needs is a wonderful benefit of home schooling. There are other days when you see real character development - perseverance in the face of trials, showing kindness and going the extra mile for another person, becoming more aware of the needs of those around them. These are every bit as important as academic milestones.

We don't often notice people criticising our choices these days. I think part of it is that people who thought they might change our mind in the early days have accepted that we are convinced this is right for now. Some of it might be that we are less sensitive. Perhaps we are more surrounded by friends who have also made alternative choices. And some of it will be the simple evidence of observing my children, seeing how the speak, occupy themselves and interact with others. (Yes, they have dreadful moments of selfishness and disobedience too, but the general trend of their lives is positive).

This week we celebrated our third 'Box Day'; Sonlight users know what I refer to. We have a busy year ahead of us, but plenty of fun is planned. It was great to unpack and organise all the resources and reflect on just how much each of the children has moved on in the last year.

I aim to continue to blog - my aim is to write once a week, on a topic relating to Christian living. That might relate to home education, or family life, cross-cultural living and Christian missions, life-work balance, adoption, discipline and home-making or another area where I feel the impact of our faith warrants discussion. I hope and pray that these posts bring encouragement, where-ever you are reading from.

Here's to another five years!

Monday, 1 May 2017

Longing for home

Sometimes I feel a deep longing for 'home' - a place where we are fully understood, a place where we do not need to explain ourselves, a place where we can rest and receive refreshment and nurture, and somewhere were we are surrounded by loved ones. But I know that if I were to get on a plane tomorrow and go back to the country of my birth, it would not help in the slightest because it would no longer seem like 'home'. This is something others who have lived and worked overseas often find to be a challenge - that you long for something, perhaps a particular place, or a relationship - but when you get there, so much as changed that you realise that longing had been misplaced. Some months ago, I came across this interesting article that describes the feelings a little more poetically than I might.

I don't think it is just to do with being overseas (although it would be lovely to hear the day to day news from friends and family more often!). I recognise this to be an area I have written about several times over the past few years, sometimes typing from the house that we own in our 'home' country. Yes, we may have moved about more than many people, yes, there are few people that we have regular contact with who have known us for more than a couple of years, but it is something more than that.

1 Corinthians speaks of our true home in Chapter 13, the famous passage about love. 'For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known' 1 Cor 13:12. It is only in heaven that we will really be fully known, and have that perfect rest that I long for here.

Hebrews Chapter 3 speaks of heaven as 'entering into rest'. There are other passages that I could point to that make it clear that as a Christian, this world is not, and will not be our true home. We should not expect to find true rest here, and should not be surprised when we feel the deep longing inside ourselves.

Whilst it is true that as Christians, our true home is not here in this world, I also wonder whether there are some times of life and some choices we make that can increase the sense of isolation a little. There are times when it almost aches in a way I can't easily verbalise. Some of the current challenges include:

1) The children are young. As parents, we are the only ones who really know them well, and we embrace our role and responsibility to raise them in the fear of the Lord. They need a lot of supervision - help with practical tasks like eating, dressing and bathing, but also guidance and discipline with regard to how they interact with one another. There are days when you can feel that you don't get a second to rest, or that as soon as you turn your back to take a phone call or take part in a conversation, that something happens that calls your attention away. I think here it is so important to remember that these days are fleeting. One theme that emerges time after time when I speak to older Christian women, or gain encouragement from their blogs, is that 'the days are long but the years are short'. There will be a time when they don't need such intensive interaction and guidance. There will be a time when they might not want to tell you every single little thing that comes into their minds. I need to remember this - right now, this is one of my God-given roles, and I can choose to seek God's strength to do this with joy, patience and love.

2) We home educate. This decision brings with it responsibility, and means that we may well be less free during the day than other adults. At this time of life, we can't easily nip out to run errands, or to spend time with somebody who needs encouragement. It is also tiring - physically, but also at times emotionally as you reflect on your choices, on the different children and their respective needs, and question whether you are doing what is best for each of them. It can be difficult to talk about the tiredness and isolation that comes at times - because many people would just say, 'Send them to school', or, 'Get a nanny', or provide a solution which rather than encouraging us IN our role, seeks to remove us from it. I think probably most homeschooling parents feel this way at times, and this is one reason why groups and co-ops are so helpful (and why I like to read blogs when I don't have so much day to day interaction with other like-minded parents).

3) In our family, we work part time, sharing the homeschooling. This is great for our family, and brings a lot of flexibility and other advantages as summarised in the link. But it might increase our feeling of isolation both in the workplace ('Why would you work part-time?', 'Are you really committed to your work?', 'You could earn far more...', 'What do you mean you can't meet on Thursdays?' - probably harder for my husband as it is a less typical role to take) and in the homeschooling community (this one is certainly harder for my husband - he has felt quite unwelcome at some homeschooling meet-ups, which saddens me. Even the curriculum we use sends a note with the delivery to 'Moms', even thought it does make clear that they'd like more photos of homeschooling dads interacting with their children for the catalogue!). I think basically, when people don't understand what you are doing or why, that can bring with it a sense of isolation. It doesn't matter so much what the reasons are - sometimes people may feel threatened somehow, or that they are envious of our life-work balance, whereas others probably just think we are completely crazy! The point is, we don't have many like minded individuals that we can draw alongside.

4) Work in general - as we get more senior, we both find ourselves in challenging situations from time to time, and have less of a natural peer group than we did as juniors. Even amongst our own profession, we can find it difficult to explain the different roles we have. So whilst we are very thankful for the diverse roles we can take on, the flexibility in our working schedules and the overseas opportunities that arise, it can be isolating.

There is not an easy solution, but perhaps some clear principles:

1) Our true home is in heaven, and it is there we will finally know perfect understanding and rest. Our ultimate source of solace and comfort is in our relationship with God, and this must be a priority in our lives (no matter how busy we are).

2) If we live wholeheartedly for Christ, we will face times of isolation, even from others in the church who have made different choices. If we are fully persuaded in our own mind that our choices are right before God, we must persevere and pray for the strength we need.

3) We need to focus on the immediate God-given task in front of us, being thankful for what we have rather than lamenting what we do not have. Elisabeth Elliott has written some great truths through her own life of faith which bring encouragement here.

4) When we meet like-minded people - whether that be homeschooling parents, Christian colleagues, those who feel they have swum against the tide or stepped off the beaten track, we should celebrate the encouragement we can share

5) We should be honest with those close to us. I often find this a tension - to not grumble about or resent what God has given me, but to also be able to share honestly with friends that there are times of trial.

6) We can trust that God gives us 'our daily bread' - what we need for each day. We should not worry about tomorrow, or compare ourselves to others around us. God knows what is best (see Romans 8) but does not promise that it will always be easy!

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Mastery versus Spiral

Sometimes I wish I had more time to really think about educational theory and debate. When we first started homeschooling, I made this a bit more of a priority, and at the same time I was studying for a Certificate in Education. What really made an impact on me was the importance of recognising, and responding to different learning styles. This has been very much brought home to me by teaching two boys who are six months apart in age, but massively different in their approach to learning.

When considering which maths programme to use, we chose Singapore Maths. This blog article summarises some of the strengths nicely. An interesting point of debate is whether one should use a 'mastery' or a 'spiral' approach. For me, like many other areas of education, I feel it can be wrong to 'religiously' adhere to a particular approach, but to remain flexible according to the prevailing need at the time. I would say we use a predominantly mastery based approach, but also seek to spiral the curriculum to bring reinforcement after a period of time looking at a different topic.

I like that Singapore maths provides extra 'intensive practice' workbooks - there are times when my children seem to grasp a concept rapidly, and the lack of drilling and repetition is valued. But there are other times when they (sometimes one more than another) just need a little more time. I also like the optional 'Challenging word problems' which seek to provide true to live practical application of where the numeracy skills are important. I recently had a discussion with a friend where she asked, 'What is the point of quadratic equations?' I would have probably asked the same question at the end of secondary school, but now through the biomedical science research with which I am involved, I regularly use quadratic and differential equations. Would it not have really brought the topic to life had we been exposed to such real-life examples in secondary school? Anyway - I digress!

The importance of mastery is that a child really comes to understand and be fluent in a particular area. This is not learning for learning's sake or 'teaching to the test', but developing a mature grasp of the material at hand - be that language arts, mathematics, scientific discipline, musical skills, foreign language... I could go on. A beauty of homeschooling is that we can take time to re-inforce areas where a child struggles, and take time to develop that fuller understanding before moving on.

Over the past year, there have been times where we have paused in our 'schedule' because we have recognised that one child or other needs a little longer on a topic. Then, we use both the materials we have to hand, and seek other, creative approaches to communicate the topic, before returning to the structured materials. It is very encouraging to see that moment when the penny drops, and a child suddenly moves forwards in leaps and bounds. Overall we have not found this to delay us - whilst there might be some topics which require extra time, others are grasped immediately, or perhaps have already been covered almost in the course of daily life. It is great to be able to move forward quickly at times, and slow down at others, and indeed to spend longer going over the basics with one child whilst setting the other a more advanced assignment.

We will finish our 'academic year' next week, and the next batch of resources are on order. This gives us a short break, and it is often valuable for us to reflect on which areas have been a little weaker, and seek other, creative ways to re-inforce principles. For language arts, this is often letter writing, for maths it might be practical problems, using manipulatives or drawing number grids in chalk in the back yard. Often I try to use 'stealth attacks' - so that the child/ren don't always realise they are being taught. We try to choose games and puzzles which also build on what they have learnt, and it is good to have a couple of weeks where we do more of these types of activity. (As a parent, these days are every bit as structured and planned as the more 'formal' days, but the children hopefully don't see this and enjoy the freedom!)

But whilst I love the mastery concept, I am also grateful for the way the curriculum spirals - this means that with three boys doing language arts at different levels, between them there will be re-inforcement of concepts without them feeling they are repeating the same  topic. I have found that an added benefit of home educating a group of children who are close in age, but are covering slightly different materials.

In conclusion, I am thankful for the flexibility of home education. I am glad to be able to choose resources that seem to fit the learning styles of my children, and where there is space to slow down or speed up depending on aptitude. 

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Highlights of the homeschooling year

I haven't written for a couple of weeks. A few friends in different places have been facing trials - bereavement and serious illness. I've been feeling far from home, wishing I could be closer to my friends and really stand with them, but at the same time am amazed at how our good and loving God provides so abundantly. I have been challenged by the contrast between those who 'do not grieve as those who have no hope' and those who have no hope whatsoever. It truly is the contrast between life and death, light and darkness, hope and hopelessness. Everything else seems trivial in comparison.

But of course, meanwhile time has been passing. We will finish our academic year in two weeks time, and I was excited to place the order for next year's materials. I need to write reports on the boys (I do this lightheartedly, but I find it a helpful exercise to stop and reflect on their development, on their strengths and weaknesses, on major achievements and accomplishments, and on areas which are more challenging and perhaps need a slightly different approach. As a Christian homeschooling parent, it is good to be able to include areas like spiritual growth and character formation alongside the more traditional subjects).

Last night I was reading a couple of old blog posts from homeeducationnovice.com. I looked back with a smile to the days when I had two toddlers and a baby, and when we spent many many hours walking in parks and learning about nature. At the time, it felt that we would be in that season of life forever, but as I read some of the posts, it seemed a long, long time ago. I read about some challenges I faced, and again, these seemed like distant memories, and I had to think, 'Oh yes, I do remember feeling that way'. So often, we are kept fully occupied dealing with the needs of each day, and that is not a bad thing. But I notice that I can forget to celebrate milestones and achievements, or simply to reflect on the things which make the homeschooling lifestyle so rewarding.

1) Reading. We have always spent hours every day reading aloud, and that was a major driver in us choosing a literature based curriculum. This continues to be highly enjoyable, but what has really taken off this year is the ability of my older boys (aged seven) to read independently. It is not just that they can read, but that they love to read, and can often be found hiding in a quiet corner with their noses in books. My older boy is forever surprising me with facts which he has read somewhere (this also warns me of the importance of only having things I am happy for them to read lying around! Thankfully we have been very intentional about our book collection). Another advantage of being able to read well is that they can read aloud to the younger children, and that brings a wonderful shared family time (and I can do something like cook dinner whilst this is going on).

2) Logical thought. Another major reason we chose to home educate was that we wanted our children to be able to critically appraise situations or evidence, and to reach a logical, balanced conclusion. This was something I felt was lacking in my own education, and seems to be even more lacking in mainstream UK education these days (although granted, there may be exceptions). I did not want them simply to be spoonfed and be able to regurgitate facts, but to be able to think. The balance of 'living books' chosen by Sonlight really helps foster this critical thinking, and the Science packages are great in that they encourage the children to form a hypothesis, then design experiments with a specific aim and method. I often find them puzzling things out in the garden or with their lego (or other toys), trying to design and work things out. I have really enjoyed watching this develop.

3) Vocal expression. I suppose this links with both language arts skills and logical thought, but I am impressed with the way my boys can explain what they like or want (or what they dislike) and explain why. My husband and I are never satisfied with 'Because I don't want to', or 'Because I don't like it' - we get them to explain why. It is just a gentle questioning that goes alongside every day life, and would not obviously seem to be an educational tool, but it helps them consider how to order their thoughts and make a compelling case for what they are saying. I like that as homeschooling parents we are always around our children, and so can gently reinforce lessons from earlier in the day or week, and we can consider practical illustrations which might complement an area they are struggling to comprehend. We sometimes plan 'stealth attacks' as described by the Brave Writer author. So, whilst we don't set homework, we don't have a clear demarcation between 'school time' and 'life time'. I love that.

4) Creativity. I have always enjoyed the way the children will act out stories they have listened to. It has often surprised me just how much they have taken in. As they get older, some of these games get more prolonged and elaborate. We are not quite a screen-free home - we occasionally take the children into the study and watch a programme (usually a documentary, rarely a film) on the computer, but this is not even a weekly activity. We see other children of similar ages who prefer to spend long periods of time on tablets and screens, and indeed whose parents think life and particularly travel would be impossible without these. I find that a little sad because there is so much more!

5) Freedom. Perhaps relating to the point above, I love that my boys have plenty of time to play, to create, to imagine, to be children. They are not ferried to endless extracurricular activities, nor are they stimulated with excessive screen time and 'entertainment'. This gives them time to play, learn and explore together. Through playing together, there are of course times when disagreements and squabbles arise; they need guidance in how to navigate these, and each is an opportunity to remind them of their memory verses and Biblical principles regarding how we should treat one another. It is easy to forget what an important aspect of education this is.

These are simply five areas where I rejoice in how homeschooling enables my children to develop not only academically, but more importantly, into people who can think logically, can apply truth into situations and can develop creative solutions to problems. What areas have been the highlights for you?

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Christians working overseas, but not 'missionaries'?

'Are you a missionary?' is a question I am often asked. And just as often, I don't really know how to answer.

At first I would always say, 'No'. I am a Christian doctor working in an overseas setting because I want to use my God-given gifts here, to share my faith and to serve in our local church. But my actual job is in a secular university setting, and I receive a part-time salary for the work I do. So, no, I am not a missionary. (But then I would reflect, my husband is working as a doctor and tutor in a Christian institute, and serves as a volunteer with no salary. Does that then make him a missionary?)

So, what is a missionary anyway? I think that is where we can face a real challenge! What is it that the person asking the question has in mind?

Some people would say that all Christians are missionaries, just that we might assume this role in our 'home culture' or further afield. People who make this argument point to the many places in the Bible where we are called to share our faith, to make the most of every opportunity, to love and to serve others, to be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have, and so forth. However, there are flaws with this argument too, as discussed here. I used to hold this view - that what we are currently doing in east Africa is pretty much the same as what we did in the UK - we serve in several ministries through our local church, we seek to have a reasonably open home and show hospitality, we homeschool our children and we work part-time using the skills we have. It's pretty much the same here. Except when it isn't!

Some people would define a missionary as a person who has been sent by their local church with a specific purpose and 'calling'. But even then, the word 'calling' can be quite emotive and has its limitations. Our calling is to be children of God, faithful to Him and loving Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is relatively rare for a person to have a very specific, crystal-clear sense of calling to a specific country or people group; more often, we are given some liberty to consider the spiritual expediency of different opportunities. Certainly, we feel it is right to be where we are for now, and we were sent out with the blessing of our UK  church. So, are we missionaries?

Or, does one need to be affiliated with a mission organisation? Is it necessary to have been to Bible college and have had a period of cultural orientation and language study? But that definition would have limitations too!

Or is it relating to the source of income? Does a missionary need to raise full support and 'live by faith', or could one have a part-time source of income enabling them to work without needing to depend on external resources and donations? Didn't the Apostle Paul and some of his companions work as tentmakers for that very reason? So it can't just be a source-of-income issue!

One might suggest this is an academic argument, and doesn't really matter, that it is pedantic semantics. And in many respects it may not matter - it is just a label. However, I have lately felt that it does make a difference how we broadly define ourselves, and what 'bracket' people put us into, perhaps particularly in terms of how we relate to one another and those around us.

One important area is support. (And NO, I do not really mean financial support, I mean spiritual support, and perhaps even simple friendship and encouragement). If a church is supporting 'missionaries', in likelihood (although I do know that this is not invariable, and can often be erratic), they will consider carefully how best to support these people - perhaps through regular contact (email or Skype), praying for them, following up on challenging situations and prayer requests, spending time with them when they are back in their 'home country' and so forth. But if a church member is located overseas but doesn't seem to fall into that 'missionary' bracket, there might be less thought given to the support that a person or family might benefit from.

More locally, there might be a bit of a missionary community - friendships where people can talk honestly about some of the struggles and dilemmas, and the approach to situations where it is not always quite clear what the most loving and helpful thing to do is. It can be just so amazing to be able to talk with people who seem to understand what the job involves, understand the frustrations and understand the desire to know and love a different people but often feel one is falling short of that. Recently, I have built friendships with people in this country who are 'missionaries' - and the bond there is strong, largely because of that shared motivation and desire, and that the challenges we face are often broadly similar. It is a huge relief when you realise that you are not alone in this, and that others grapple too, and that there are no simple 'one size fits all' answers to some situations. But it can be strange - I can still feel that I am a kind of 'imposter' because my job is secular! It can be difficult for somebody like me to break into this kind of network, and it has taken time (we've been here a couple of years now) to build relationships.

I love the blog alifeoverseas.com because the writers often touch on themes that I resonate with, but which I don't often have the opportunity to talk about. I think there can also be different challenges for a Christian who is serving in an overseas setting but is not what they might consider to be a missionary. For some people, their desire to serve God might not have been the major factor in their geographical situation. And yet, circumstances have called that person to be where they are, and there are many opportunities to serve. Especially if that person's faith is quite new or immature, there can be a great need for teaching, support and discipleship as challenging cross-cultural situations unfold.

Perhaps there are added challenges for the 'non-missionary' - for example, in the medical NGO world, there many be many Christians but there are also well-meaning people with strongly opposing worldviews - strongly humanist or athiest for example. How does a Christian reach out to this group? Another 'people group' I can find challenging are those who seem very immersed in an 'expat community' and seem to have very little awareness of what life is like for the people of this country; this group often includes Christians, and it can be easy to feel judgemental or frustrated (or, if I am honest, sometimes envious when life seems to involve many wonderful adventures to high-end lodges and enjoyment of the 'good life', especially at weekends when we are often busy with our church-related roles and of course celebrating the Sabbath). Such people sometimes might suggest we are making things more difficult for ourselves than we need through some of the choices we have made, and this can be a subtle but dangerous discouragement (reflecting on the temptations thrown at Jesus in Matthew Chapter 4!). Working in a mission hospital might involve a day that starts with prayers, working on a predominantly Christian team and having team Bible study once a week; a Christian doing a similar role in a secular organisation would not have that spiritual environment; one could argue this brings great opportunity, but it can bring isolation.

Furthermore, there can be different challenges that arise - I remember during the ebola epidemic feeling unsettled by how some of the people who seemed to be doing the most, and doing so selflessly, seemed to be the non-Christians, whereas those whose hope was in Christ often had excuses as to why they shouldn't risk going to west Africa at that time. (Of course I generalise here). Whilst I might academically 'know' the right answers to some of my questions, they can be unsettling and there are times when it would help to have older and wiser Christians to glean from, and to really discuss what the Bible has to say. I feel that I am reasonably grounded in my faith, and yet, some questions and challenges and situations can leave me asking questions which I felt I had resolved long ago. A Christian working in a challenging situation overseas needs spiritual encouragement and pastoral support, and one should not assume that because they are 'mature' or capable, that they will never waver in their faith. There needs to be a 'safe place' to ask questions or to admit to struggling with something - for me, that might be understanding why I was born in a country with access to high quality universal education, free healthcare, a good climate and economic and political stability, whereas my nearest neighbours here live in a slum area with high rates of HIV and teenage pregnancy, struggle to afford to have their children in school, are frequently hungry and have walked through significant trauma during conflicts over the past two decades. I can rationalise that, I can read books on it and listen to sermons and podcasts, and yet some part of me still screams out, 'Why???' I need somebody who is not afraid by that question, and who does not give platitudes. I need somebody who is not scared by the fact that a Christian who has been working in international healthcare for more than a decade can still grapple with these questions.

If Christians working overseas attend a local (as opposed to international) church, it might be that there are few in the congregation who understand their role, their challenges and responsibilities and the cultural context within which their spiritual questions are framed. That is to be expected, and much of the time it is not what would be considered a 'problem'. Often, as outwardly confident Christians who love to open their home (and have space to do so), it is easy to 'drift' into hosting and leading Bible studies and fellowship groups. I feel like we suddenly are involved in quite a number of ministries, and whilst this is absolutely what we want, and an ideal opportunity to serve, we also want people back home to know we are doing this, and to pray that we have wisdom - for example in distinguishing where a cultural tradition brings a moral challenge or a sin issue, or where it is simply a matter of preference or style. Also, it can sometimes just be tiring to host, bake, be cheerful and interested, and there can be a risk of burnout. As a homeschooling family, I don't believe time with our children suffers (in fact they love having a full home, and often invite people round), but it can be hard to make time for a marriage that doesn't feel like a series of business meetings and goal-setting workshops. One would expect 'missionaries' to be doing this type of work, and to face these kind of threats, but might not realise that medical academics may also do so.

I think if we assert that we are not missionaries, this whole element of spirituality - the need for spiritual support, encouragement and accountability, and that what we engage in is often spiritual warfare - can be neglected.

So, how would I conclude? Sometimes, I  reflect the question back: 'What do you mean by missionary?' Other times, when I feel that the question has more to do with whether I am motivated primarily by my desire to love and serve God here, and that includes through my professional skills, I simply say, 'Pretty much' or something that is almost, but not quite a 'Yes'. I would encourage churches who have members who spend time overseas for studies or work-related activities to be aware of the challenges and opportunities that may present themselves, and to commit to supporting these individuals through communication and prayer support. And I would remember that all Christians are called to love, to serve and to witness - and that each of us will face different challenges arising from our environment and our relationships. It is not that a 'missionary' is in any way spiritually superior, it's just the set of challenges faced tend to be different.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Sonlight: Review of Year 2/ Planning Year 3

Somehow, despite it being mid-February, we have reached week 29 of a 36 week curriculum. Actually, I understand why we are a little ahead of what we might have expected. You see, the whole reason we chose Sonlight was that it was a perfect match for our family. Even before we moved to having more structure, the backbone of our family life has been reading books together. Sonlight really embraces this as both a wonderful learning opportunity and also a time to build strong family relationships. And for us, if we have days where we are not reading together for several hours, something feels missing: the children can be restless, the parents are not quite sure what to do, and we'd all much prefer to settle down on the sofa and read. So, for that reason, we don't take many breaks. Even if we have a day or two off some of the 'table' subjects like maths and spelling, we find it can be very easy to catch up on these by the end of the week. So we just keep ticking over.

As I look ahead to the next year, I find it helpful to consider each subject in terms of what we have enjoyed most, what has been challenging, and whether we need to set any specific goals for the next year.

1) Bible. This year, we've been going through Leading Little Ones to God. Somebody gave me a copy of this years ago, and I was not so keen on it, but actually we've found it very helpful. The boys have a very good knowledge of the Bible and memory verses, but don't always understand the application of these verses. LLOTG has a very gentle, conversational style and discusses how the wonderful truths might apply to our lives. There is then a recommendation for a hymn and a prayer; we have rarely used the hymn in the book (we have known few of them) but I ask the boys to choose a song they think matches what they have learnt. I also have some copies of Christian Hymns - I am keen that whilst we are living in east Africa and singing in many languages, that they don't miss out on the rich heritage of hymns that is there. I love starting the day with a devotional time, and I pray this is a habit that goes with the boys as they grow (and my daughter - I tend to talk about 'the boys' since she is only 17 months old, and we aren't really focussing on her specific educational needs at the current time). I'm not sure what the Bible materials that go with Level C are, but I'd be equally happy to repeat this year, or go back over Ergermeier's storybook Bible from last year.

2) Language arts. My boys have been doing Grade 2 and Grade 3 language arts and readers. This is something I love about the Sonlight programme (I am sure it may be the case for other curricula too - I just haven't explored these). My older boys are both aged 7, but have quite different learning styles. One is quick to rush ahead (sometimes rushes a bit too much) but can write screeds and screeds of reasonable quality English, and is reading everything he can get his hands on, and reading fluently (for example, now he often wants to read the Bible passage at cell group, and does so perfectly). The other boy is making steady progress but really lacks in self-confidence. If he feels too much 'put on the spot', he gives a really silly answer, or writes a word completely incorrectly, almost as though he chooses not to try, so as not to fail. I came across this when I read John Holt's 'How Children Learn' a couple of years ago, and immediately recognised my son in what was described. Partly for this reason also, it is good to have him working at a different level to his brother; there is not a feeling of competition or of failure. An interesting thing is that they often are covering similar themes, since there is a spiral curriculum. So one can encourage and reinforce things for the other, and it's been interesting to hear the less confident boy remind his older brother what an adverb is, for example. I like the fact that the lessons are simple, but build on one another; I also love that as homeschooling parents, we know what they have covered and what they may have struggled with. So we can later on say something like, 'Describe how you ran across the sports field, using at least two adverbs' and they will often do it well. Or, 'Thank Daddy for dinner, but you can't use the same words you usually do', and encourage wider vocabulary. Often we write letters home, and we can sneakily bring in some of the themes. I particularly like Brave Writer too, since there is a very natural approach to writing (I love her concept of 'stealth attacks' - this is something that has worked well for us.) For both levels, the readers have been great; they don't just have increasingly complex language, but the stories are good too and the boys love them. They are hungry to read more. Next year, I'm just going to keep going - LA3 and LA4, and for the one who is about to turn five, he will probably start LA1 a couple of months in. We are using Explode the Code with the four year old, with which he has a love-hate relationship. But he is steadily learning. I've never been that convinced by phonics programmes - they seem to learn quite well just through reading.

3) Handwriting. We use Handwriting without Tears and the three boys are on three different levels. The younger one is very pleased to sit up with his own book and work alongside his brothers. We haven't encountered any particular challenges with handwriting, and generally find it a nice, user-friendly programme. So, next year, we will just continue also! (We have modified some of the letters slightly when it comes to cursive; we found some of the additional loops made it quite hard to read, and so we've made some of the letters a bit simpler, more like what both parents were taught. I think that's fine, so long as we are consistent).

4) Science. We are on Science B, but often flip back to some of the activities of Science A. All three boys have their scientific notebooks and enjoy having a hypothesis and then designing an experiment to test that. I am really quite impressed by the way scientific discipline is taught from a very young age; my school education seemed to be more about memorising facts, and it was only at University, or even as a postgraduate, that I really started to understand what hypothesis-driven research was. We are currently enjoying the story of Pasteur, and the way his enquiring mind is described has captivated the children. They also enjoy the Discover and Do DVDs - these can be great when it is really hot or stormy out, and they just need a bit of chill out time. They find them hilarious, but also are learning to question from them (especially my boy who is a bit less confident - he is really strong on science and figuring things out, and I can almost imagine him being an engineer!) We tend to supplement the science materials with other books we have to hand, or activities that come naturally. My husband and I are both medical doctors and I am a postdoctoral scientist as well, so I think we tend to have a natural inclination towards the scientific; but I am cautious not to be complacent in that, and to provide the children with the materials to learn and explore for themselves. We enjoyed the studies on nature and the different wildlife that is found in different parts of the world; because we've lived in a few different places, this captivated them. We also watch as many nature documentaries as we can get our hands on - the classical David Attenborough ones, but they have also loved Gordon Buchanan and his team who use a lot of complicated photography to explore unanswered enigmas.

5) Maths. We use Singapore Maths, and I particularly like the 'mastery' approach - to go deeper rather than faster. This is useful when I have two boys who are almost, but not perfectly in synch with one another. Sometimes one needs just a little bit longer, and rather than having the other rush ahead, I can get him to do some of the more challenging problems. Whereas in Language Arts, it has felt beneficial to separate them, it would feel wrong to do so for maths. The four year old is doing Level K, and again, likes to do his maths at the same time as his brothers do theirs. I try to bring in games where ever possible, particularly to help them memorise number facts (addition and subtraction, multiplication). Some are simple games using the flashcards, and others involve jumping around (which with boys is often necessary). Often I am surprised by the four year old chiming in with answers, quietly learning alongside his brothers. As with the other areas, we try and reinforce concepts as often as possible through daily life - for example, counting in the market, measurement when cooking and so forth. We've got a small bag with British money in it, so that they can be at least a bit familiar with the money 'from home'. I suppose being familiar with several currencies might be a strength, but that is one area which  is a bit confusing. We have our local currency, and other things here are done in US Dollars. The Singapore Maths we use is the US edition, so more dollars. Dollars and cents are OK, but I do get confused with nickels and dimes! For next year, we are just going to continue. If you use Sonlight, remember to get the 'extra practice' books (I forgot with my first order).

6) History, geography and world cultures. So, we are using Level B, and will progress to Level C. We like the structure a lot. I know many parents say this, but Sonlight really is 'the education I wish I had had'. They know so much more about the world than I did at their age (and even when much older). For us, having lived in several countries and having a very multi-cultural friendship group, it is great to learn about each of these cultures. We like to build upon what we are reading by cooking meals from different places and if we have friends from somewhere we have read about, asking them to tell us more. I've got a stack of missionary biographies aimed at children from about 8-12 (Trail Blazers) and we've been slipping these in at what seem to be appropriate places.

7) Spanish. We are using Rosetta Stone. I think the biggest challenge is scheduling. Most of the activities noted above take place between 8 and 11am, and then the children go out to play, the baby gets up and joins them, it's lunchtime and then we might be going somewhere in the afternoon. To come back in to do Spanish can feel burdensome (to the boys!). The younger seven year old, the one who is a bit less confident in some areas, is the most committed to language learning and has very good pronunciation. I hope to bring a bit more structure into this next year - maybe aiming for 2 lessons each per week or something. I  am aware that this is the age when they can learn languages far more easily, and so don't want to miss the opportunity. I'd like to get hold of some CDs to listen to, maybe some Spanish Christian music or something. I need to spend a little time searching.

8) Art. This goes in fits and starts. Around Christmas, we did plenty of art and craft, and there are other times where we make huge paintings, or some other complicated project. Then we will do nothing for a few weeks. We have the Artistic Pursuits book, but this year I forgot to order the consumables, and we can't get much out here. So, this year, I'll get the consumables and try and aim for at least a lesson a week - probably on a Friday, which is often quite a quiet day. It is interesting to see how the boys are all interested in art at different times - they will all go through phases when they can sit at the table for quite a long time drawing or colouring, whereas at other times they are not interested. A challenge in homeschooling is trying to keep that natural curiosity and rhythm - not to force them to do things, and so stamp enthusiasm out of them, but at the same time, to encourage practice and discipline. (I suppose I also need to remember that they are still quite young!)

9) Sports. We are blessed with a homeschool sports co-op which does a different sport each term. We've had swimming, athletics, field hockey, basketball and football. I like they way they are exposed to a range of sports, and also it's a great opportunity to meet other local home educators. In between that, we try to do a range of games (I love Homeschool Family Fitness for ideas) and ride bikes up and down the road outside when it is quiet. We usually walk 3-5 Km every day, and on Sunday mornings we all go for a run (except the toddler).

10) Read alouds. I nearly forgot one of the best things! Children learn so much from being read to, and the Sonlight team choose a really good selection of books that are often more than just nice stories - they often bring in elements of history, world cultures, character and so forth. It is really nice to be able to start reading and be fairly confident that I won't get any unexpected shocks or have to rapidly start editing as I read. We enjoyed all the Level B books. We added a few extras - some more Boxcar Children, revisiting Little House in the Big Woods and some of the following stories, a few Jungle Doctors, and as I already mentioned, quite a few biographies. I love that learning can be so natural and enjoyable, and I often find myself encouraged, inspired and uplifted as we read together, and that is important in this season of life where it can be busy, and I can feel a little drawn in many different directions.

So, all in all, it's been a good year, and we are particularly thankful for the way most of this just feels so very natural, just really building upon our family life. I love the way homeschooling does allow for flexibility - we had some sickness and went a bit slower for a week, we had swimming camp for three weeks, so covered two weeks of materials over that time, and at some point we might return to the UK for a month or two, and again the pace would change (oh, just think of the museums, art galleries, docks, parks, libraries, friends to catch up with...) I love the way there is space to add extra activities and books if we wish (without missing out on the benefits of the scheduled resources), and that we can tailor each subject to the needs of each child. There are times when I wonder whether my middle son would attract some kind of label if he was in a mainstream school; I don't think he has an educational challenge, but rather that it is some kind of confidence or personality issue. When he's relaxed he can do everything perfectly fine (spelling, maths, reading out loud etc), but when you put him on the spot, or he's in a funny mood, it can just be painful to get him to do anything, and he can get into a very negative spiral. With him, often giving him a high energy snack and sending him off to play for half an hour is enough to re-set him, and that wouldn't be possible in a classroom. I wonder how many children are given labels simply because they cannot conform to the structures of a classroom setting and working at the same rate and in the same style as 25 other children of their own age. (Actually I kind of know the answer to that, and I'm sure I'll write about it again).

There are no areas where I feel the curriculum is not matching. Occasionally we have had frustrated tears in maths, but that is more often to do with temperament - a child not listening, and then getting frustrated when he does something wrong (older seven year old), or seeing quite a number of questions, just panicking and thinking they can't do it (younger seven year old). I don't think it is a curriculum mismatch, but when this happens I try and bring in more games and supplementary activities to try and consolidate what they do know before moving on to the next topic. The other areas are all going very smoothly, and in general, I'm just going to order the next level up for next year. I also saw a workbook on logic or critical thinking which I think would go well, so will get that.

I remember when I started blogging four years ago, when we were just starting on the home education journey (and when we were facing quite a bit of opposition, as I believe many people do when they declare they are not going to follow the crowd). I really look back over those years with thankfulness. It has been wonderful to enjoy time with the children, to see each one grow and develop and to share rich time together as a family.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

10 things I learnt through my daughter's life

Often I comment on how thankful I am for all that our daughter taught us through her life, illness and her death. Often I look back at that time as a real pivotal point in our lives, something which really crystallised our priorities and values and caused us to focus on what things mattered most. Back in 2012, I wrote a series of blog posts on what we learn through several different aspects of parenting (here, here, here and here). Today, I thought I'd write a short summary of the key things I learnt personally through my daughter. Here are 10 points:

1) Unconditional love. I had never really understood how God could love us irrespective of what we did or didn't do. I could not really understand how one person could love another truly without condition or expectation. But suddenly you hold a helpless baby who depends on you for absolutely everything. And whilst a lot of baby care involves cute cuddles, there are also jobs which are smelly, messy and tiring, and the child never once stops to thank you. Yet that does not diminish your love for the child in the slightest. I perhaps began to understand how we can't earn God's love, but that His love is perfect and absolute already. We can respond to it in worship with thankfulness, but that doesn't change the love itself. It truly is Amazing Grace!

2) The flip side of the above comment was that it made it even harder for me to understand the choices and actions of my parents towards me when I was a child. (I wrote a little about this recently here). I never felt good enough, never felt I could meet some kind of impossible standards, and figured that it must have been because I was unloveable (and indeed, those exact words were frequently spoken towards me). Having a child of my own made it even harder for me to understand how a parent could reject and abandon their own child. I know there are mitigating factors; illness, addiction, sin. But even so, it brought a fresh wave of grief.

3) Priorities in terms of achievements. I used to worry more about small things which ultimately had no lasting value. The Bible talks much of this. We are told that 'everything that does not come from faith is sin' Romans 14:23. We are taught 'do not worry about tomorrow for each day has enough trouble of its own' Matthew 6:34. There are places where were are reminded to build with materials that last, to make sure our treasure is in heaven (Matthew 6:19), and that unless God is central in our endeavours, they are basically worthless (Psalm 127). Whilst I knew all that, when we were suddenly facing a life or death situation, it crystallised for me just how worthless a lot of what we are tempted to run after really is. I remember shortly after her death, there was a minor setback at work. I had to laugh; previously it would have upset me quite a lot, but in the face of what we had just walked through it seemed utterly trivial. And looking back, it was indeed trivial. It is easy to obsess about a detail, or a target, deadline, goal or whatever - and think that if that is not achieved that the whole of the future seems dark. However that is rarely the case. I learnt the truth of 2 Corinthians 4:18 'what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.'

4) Priorities in terms of material things. I have never been one to particularly worry about clothes, hairstyles or the decor of my home. But simply by living in the culture in which I grew up, I did spend some time worrying about my appearance, my weight, the external impression which I might make on others. Also, perhaps as a consequence of some of the things I described in point number 2, I had struggled with anorexia through a lot of my teens and into my twenties. Somehow, when my daughter lay dying, it really did not matter if I was fat or thin, whether my hair was glossy or straggly, whether my clothes were fashionable or simply functional. It didn't matter then, and it hasn't really mattered since! It felt like a choice: to waste a lot of time worrying about things that really don't matter, or to look above and beyond those things. I am not talking about the lack of self-care that might come with depression, but rather a sense that there are things that are more important. The Bible teaches that too. The first letter of Peter instructs Christian women that 'Your beauty should not come from outward adornment such as elaborate hairstyles or the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit which is of great worth in God's sight. 1 Peter 3:2-4

5) That we have a choice to make, sometimes every day, to keep living to the glory of God. I clearly remember one day, whilst our daughter was still on the intensive care unit, going out of the hospital for a coffee. We walked past some very beautiful flowers - vibrant orange bird of paradise blossoms. The coffee was strong, bitter and delicious. The air was crisp and fresh. Every sensation seemed somehow heightened and I realised that life is full of beautiful details provided by God. We can choose to ignore these things, to focus entirely on our problem or situation, or we can choose to pause, look outside of our circumstances and find things to thank God for. A strong coffee was the trigger for a real change in mindset. I found (and still do find) that in the face of overwhelming emotion or a temptation to despair that it is really helpful to focus on something tangible and beautiful and to thank God for that thing.

6) We have a choice to keep walking by faith. After she died, I also felt there was a choice to make. It would have been fairly easy to fall into despair or self-pity, and indeed there were those around us who seemed to expect us to 'curse God and die' (in the discouraging words that Job's wife spoke to him). But I remember thinking that our daughter didn't have a choice, didn't have a chance to make that kind of decision. It made me realise what a privilege God had given us to keep living in the world, to keep serving Him for as many days as He has given us. That did not mean that it would always  be easy - in fact Paul wrote to Timothy that 'everybody who desires to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer tribulation' 2 Timothy 3:12. We should expect times of pain, trial and confusion. But we have a choice to fix our mind on Jesus in these trials. Hebrews Chapters 11 and 12 are really helpful as they outline the 'heroes' of our faith, and remind us that they, and even more so, Christ Jesus, went before us and modelled for us a life of faith. I do not wish to negate the pain people may go through, or that there may be times when somebody suffers from clinical depression which requires medical help; however I think in our modern age we can struggle to distinguish between clinical depression and simple human grief and sadness. There are days when it can be hard to get out of bed. There can be floods of emotion. It can be difficult to eat or sleep. One friend encouraged me at this time - just keep doing what you know to be right, putting one foot in front of the other and doing the next thing, and one day the fog will lift. Simple words, but they proved true and I have used them to encourage others.

7) That God does not let us be tested beyond what we can bear 1 Cor 10:13. Sometimes, if I was to tell you ahead of time what trials you might face in the future, you might feel that you could not stand up under it. Believe me, I would have been just the same if you had spoken to me of her death. But when we were in the storm, God was very much in the midst of it with us. We knew that more clearly than ever before, and it was a real gift to have 'our faith, which is of greater worth than gold which perishes though refined by the fire' proven genuine. (1 Peter 1)

8) The value of every single life. We had a six week period when we knew that our daughter would be profoundly disabled, but there was a chance that she might live for a few years. All my human hopes and dreams for her had evaporated - she would never climb a mountain, she would never make friends or marry, she would never learn to play music and sing, she would never run barefoot along a beach at sunrise... And yet, her life was as God had ordained. I did not find this easy to accept. God provided a wonderful Christian neurologist who told us that we should try and see her as the child God had made her to be. God had created her body, soul and spirit. The body was broken, badly broken, but the spirit had not changed. I cannot express how much those words meant, and how God used one of His servants who was just in the right place. It has also given me a greater respect and compassion for parents of 'special needs' children, and perhaps some insight into some of their deeper (and at times, darker) feelings. I see this also as a gift.

9) The value of simple comments and conversations: In the example above, I do not think the neurologist really had an idea of how immensely helpful his words were. He just spoke from his godly worldview and his medical experience. It made me realise just how powerfully uplifting simple encouragements can be, and has encouraged me to seek to use my words wisely. The book of Proverbs is instructive as to the healing power of wise and gentle words, and yet the destruction that can be brought by foolish and unguarded use of the tongue. Every one of us can be used by God simply through wise and godly conversation.

10) The biggest one of all I have kept for last. It was extremely painful to have our daughter die. We would have done anything possible to stop it from happening. It made us think long and hard about the sacrifice God made for us, sending His Son to die willingly for people who at that time hated Him. Would I have chosen to have my daughter die? No way! And yet God was willing to go through that pain because of His love for us. Taking the bread and wine at communion has never been the same since - I feel utterly overwhelmed and humbled by what Christ did for me.

Each of these lessons has been a gift; I've seen God's love and grace more clearly. I've appreciated the truth of eternity, the power of faith and the importance of priorities. I feel that distracting superficiality has been stripped away, and the remaining days of life are focussed on serving Him. And I've learnt the value of generosity and kind words, and the impact this may have on others without us even realising it.