Sunday, 29 January 2017

Living in the light of eternity

Last week a friend from back home died. It was not altogether unexpected, and he was a fine Christian so we know he is now in heaven rejoicing forever. But whilst the Bible tells us that we 'do not grieve as those who have no hope', that does not mean people should not grieve. There will be sadness, loss, pain and emptiness. Another friend has suddenly become a widow and her young son has lost his father. We feel sadness, and long to be with our friends, standing with them in their grief. (As an aside, missing happy occasions like weddings because of being overseas is a little tough at times, but being far from friends in times of trial and grief is far harder!)

When thinking and praying, particularly for the young boy, I was reminded of the many times my children have surprised me by faith and wisdom often surpassing my own. It feels timely to re-post something I wrote two years ago regarding how having had a sister die has affected my children positively. In the two years that have passed, I would say the same things, but perhaps even more so - our boys have a real confidence and hope of heaven, and that security is surely a blessing indeed!


Often you hear about how the siblings of an ill or disabled child develop unique strengths of character and frequently enter caring professions. Recently I have been encouraged by how my sons approach having had an older sister who died before they were born (more on our story is found herehere and here). Tomorrow would have been her seventh birthday. Her birthday brings such mixed emotions - remembering the fresh hope of becoming parents, the hopes and dreams (many of which may have been unrealistic) that we had, but also the sadness of having watched her die. But we do have hope that we will see her again. Yesterday we spoke of how she can't come back to us, but that one day we can go to her - as David said after the death of his firstborn son, 'But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” 2 Samuel 12:23. And in the light of that, I'd like to share some encouragements.

1) Heaven is a real place - they love the descriptions of heaven in the book of Revelation ie chapter 21 verses 18-21: 'The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.' They ask many questions about how that could be, and I have heard them talking to one another about how amazing and beautiful it must be. I envy their free, childlike imaginations which are filled with awe as they consider these things.

2) Eternity is real. Their questions about what happens when you die are very simple and direct. They want to know! What happens? Does your body rot away? Do worms eat your eyes? Tonight we read Luke Chapter 12: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.' They understand that your soul lives on, and that there will be a time of judgement.

3) They care about their eternal destiny. Many times in recent weeks they have asked whether they will see their sister in heaven. We have explained that we very much hope so, but that they therefore need to know where they stand before God. As I've recently blogged, they are increasingly asking questions which encourage me that they are considering these truths carefully. Sometimes it seems like they want to go to heaven just to play with their sister! But on other occasions, they seem to understand that seeing her will be just one of the many amazing things that they get to enjoy.

4) Their questions about resurrection bodies are interesting! The Bible talks of how we will be given a new body - particularly see 1 Corinthians Chapter 15 verses 38-38. I don't think it is possible for us to fully understand what this means of what it will look like, but it is clear that there will be no more sickness, pain or death and that will be marvellous. (They also particularly liked how some of these verses are set to song in Handel's Messiah, and we enjoyed listening to this for a time). What I like here is that the children don't consider that there are some parts of the Bible that are 'good for children' and others that are 'more complicated' - instead they ask very real questions, and as parents we seek to provide them with the most honest answers we are able to. We also appreciate that with their childlike faith they may well understand some of these issues better than we do. This is something that I come back to time and again when I consider how we are seeking to raise our family - that we mustn't stifle their questioning, but also how as parents we need to be familiar with the Bible. As Paul instructed Timothy, 'Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.' (2 Timothy 2:15).

5) Illness and pain and suffering are a 'normal' part of life to them. As doctors (and indeed as church members, or individuals within a society) we often see adults in mid-life who really struggle to cope when they face a bereavement, redundancy, serious illness or disappointment. Quite often it is the first time in their life that they have come across a real challenge, and there are often undertones of, 'It's not fair!', 'Why me?', 'I can't live with this situation', 'How can I keep going?' I do not want to minimise pain. However, as the Apostle Peter wrote to the persecuted church, 'Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.... So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.' (1 Peter 4:12-19) Our boys understand that people do get ill and die. They know that life can bring hardships and pain. These are lessons that many Christian parents will be seeking to teach - and I would also highly recommend Christian biographies which describe how people have brought glory to God through times of trial (reviews of Christian biographies for children arehere and here). It is my prayer that the boys are equipped with the tools they need to stand firm in the face of trial when it hits them.

Of course it is not always so simple! My two year old nodded wisely as I described heaven and eternity, and then asked whether he could go to heaven now in the car, and take his toy plane with him! One of the five year olds wants to spend most of his time in heaven playing with his sister because of all the time he has missed playing with her here. And because tomorrow would be her birthday (and we always do have a cake, although a simple one with plain icing and no candles), one of them asked whether she would come and join us for cake. As with any children, their questions sometimes make me laugh, sometimes make me sad, and really my prayer is that as parents we have wisdom in knowing how best to make the most of opportunities that arise every day as they ask more and more things.

How have times of trial affected your children? Can you think of times when hardship has brought spiritual development to your family?

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Simplifying childhood and natural learning

Sometimes, especially during hot afternoons, I love watching my children play. Our garden has several palm trees which regularly provide us with large, flat pieces of wood and long thin leaves which are perfect for weaving. I am amazed by the variety of different adventures the boys have with these. They have built yurts in Siberia, rafts to float down the Nile, tee-pees and Masai warrior shelters, great ships and tiny canoes. They each have a square blanket (which are actually Masai blankets) that are transformed into all kinds of different outfits, are used as parts of tents or as sails. One is currently in use as a hammock. Often the adventures they embark upon have been influenced by something we have recently read - and the Sonlight curriculum we follow is rich in 'living books' - true to life stories of people who actually lived in an era together with a selection of inspiring biographies. It is good to stop and watch them growing, learning, exploring and developing. Sometimes I feel that they haven't listened 'well' to a particular story or lesson, only to see them acting it out later on (often a week or two later); this is something I have been noticing with the boys for quite a few years, but which I often forget. It is too easy to look for instant 'results' or measurable attainments and lose sight of the bigger picture (at least it is with my kind of goal-directed, problem solving, systematic approach to situations!)

But it does sometimes require taking a step back! We need to provide them with enough space and time for this creativity to develop. We need to allow them to work at a challenge and find a solution. It is quite impressive to watch the visuo-spatial skills of my seven year olds, as they work out the best way to hoist a sail using a home-made pulley slung over a branch on the avocado tree. They have figured out quite a lot about what makes a structure stable and rainproof. The develop ingenious ways of lashing pieces of wood together using palm leaves. It can be very tempting as a parent to watch them working at something and want to jump in, show them what they should do, and launch into a mini-lecture, embracing this as a 'teachable moment'. There may be a time and place for that, but there is also a place in creative play where the parent's role is to step back. Charlotte Mason wrote quite a bit about that - a kind of watchful attention, but giving the children freedom and space.

I had to laugh when reading this article about how we 'protect' our children to the point of depriving them of physical exercise, exposure to nature and many extremely valuable opportunities. It made me laugh because, sadly, this is something we see so often, and I was quite relieved to hear this voice of reason. Our neighbours really worry about having our children play with sticks, and completely miss the fact that they are building and being constructive with these and rarely have even a minor injury. Back home, I remember being astonished on a snowy Saturday when we were alone in our local park, but being told that it was too cold for children to play (it was above zero!). Whenever we return to developed countries, we are often shocked at the rising rates of childhood obesity and how few children seem to play outside. Parents seem to utterly miss the point that by protecting their children from perceived harms now is storing up for them a whole raft of future harms, in terms of their health but also their emotional and psychological (and one might argue even spiritual) development.

Giving the children the space and time they need for creativity, perhaps especially outdoor creativity, also takes an intentional choice in terms of schedule. We are slightly protected from this where we are currently living, but there is an increasing tendency to fill every spare moment with some kind of 'extracurricular' activity. Sports, music, dancing, choir, drama, structured field trips with other children, the list could go on. I've read some very interesting articles on this topic lately. For example, this one describes how the behaviours identified among children who are overstimulated with too much 'stuff' and too much exposure to excessive stimulation and entertainment can actually resemble that of children who have been exposed to real trauma; the children become restless, unsettled, anxious and unable to concentrate. It makes a lot of sense. I have friends back home who seem to have whole rooms overflowing with brightly coloured plastic toys, and yet the children never seem to play with any one thing. Some parents see this as an indication that the children are 'bored' with what they have and need more, but in fact the opposite is likely to be true. I see that in my own children; in how they can be perfectly fulfilled with pieced of wood and leaves and the time and space to really play. Some other suggestions on how you could simplify and unclutter your life are here. Sometimes, as an expatriate living overseas, one can hear a little voice of untruth, telling us that our children are missing out on some of the things they would have at home; however, I need to see the lack of exposure to 'stuff' as an advantage, not something to lament.

Homeschooling provides the perfect way to step off the treadmill of constant activity, but even here there can be a temptation to 'achieve' and to 'give your child every opportunity'. There can also be a temptation to feel the need to 'prove ourselves' academically to those who are unsupportive of our choices. On that note, I was very encouraged to read this article describing an American college Professor's impression of homeschooled students. That particular blog contains links to other studies providing clear data that homeschooled children excel in their early years at college and are more capable of independent, enquiring learning. (There are also some hints as to areas that we might need to work a little on - note taking and timed assignments under 'exam' conditions as the children get towards college age, for example). This didn't really surprise me. When I went to University to study medicine in a different country to where I had attended secondary school, I was quite shocked by students who had apparently 'excelled' in secondary school but who seemed to really struggle with the materials we encountered in first year. I came to appreciate that some of those who had been to the more prestigious secondary schools had been taught how to pass the relevant examinations, rather than having really been taught how to learn. Homeschooling takes that to a different level: we actively encourage our students to pursue their areas of curiosity and to find answers and solutions to their questions from the earliest years; I can fully see how this would prepare them better for life-long learning, and indeed it is maintaining and building upon that natural love of learning which was a major factor motivating us to homeschool in the first place.

Often I read blogs of women (as it is usually the women who write on this topic, not because the dads don't feel the same too!) who remind us that these early years, although intense and at times exhausting, are actually blissful days with unique opportunities that will not come again. I had a recent conversation in the canteen at work about the merits of putting primary school and pre-school aged children into boarding schools; it was quite shocking to hear some of the arguments. Some people are very keen to push their children out of the door, and then lament about the fact they don't know or understand their adolescent. Again, I was thankful for the choices that we have made, and that although tiring, we can enjoy this time with our family. This was reinforced when we found some old short videos made at the time when I had three children aged under three. It feels like yesterday, and yet when I look at them now, I realise just how much they have grown and changed, and how we probably won't play some of those games again.

I have friends in different places of the world who are going through real trial at the moment. Bereavement, illness, separation from loved ones because of visa issues, political instability, discouragement. And as I pray for my friends, I take time to thank God for the simple blessings in day to day life.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Our heavenly home

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:13-16

Lately I have been feeling sort of homesick. I long to be in a place where I feel understood. In almost every situation, I find myself being different and often having to explain myself, or other times, feeling it would take too much effort to explain myself. I feel this in my church, in my workplace, my neighbourhood and even the international community seems strange and foreign. I long for something... In an email over Christmas, a friend mentioned 'relaxing with drinks and nibbles' with some friends, and it is exactly that which I crave. It seems a world way, to have people that we could just relax and enjoy conversation with over simple drinks and nibbles. There are days when I want to go 'home', but then I wonder where 'home' really is. Over the past decade, we have lived in five countries (or six if you count the six weeks we spent in a foreign hospital with our firstborn), have moved a number of times and have left behind friends, belongings, and even the sense of 'belonging'. Like many expat workers, we start to dread the question, 'Where are you from?', since we no longer know what to answer. Our four living children were each born in a different country. Often we celebrate and embrace the richness this brings, but I am aware at times of a sense of rootlessness, of belonging both everywhere and nowhere.

However maybe we should not be so surprised. There are several places where the Bible reminds us that we are 'strangers' or 'pilgrims' in this world. We don't belong to the culture here. We are to be 'in the world, but not of the world'. We are to fix our eyes on heaven, our true home, and press on towards that goal.

The Apostle Paul wrote: 'Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus' Philippians 3: 12-14. We press on. Our true goal, our final and true home, is with Christ in heaven. And for that, we can say with Paul, 'But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ...' Philippians 3:7-8. Sometimes I feel aware of the things that have been lost or left behind. I need to remember that all of this reminds me that our true home is not here in this world, but something far more glorious. When I feel misunderstood, I need to remember that 'there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother' Proverbs 18:24. I need to remember that 'When my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take care of me' Psalm 27:10. 

I need to turn my sadness into thanksgiving. I should rejoice that I feel my ties here on earth are loose. I should rejoice that I know where our true home is, and as we raise our children, that we seek to instil in them that same worldview. I need to remember that when I feel alone that this is not the true picture: as Christians we are never alone, and should not lean on our feelings but rather 'walk by faith and not by sight' 2 Corinthians 5:7

I wonder whether you are facing a trial or some kind of sadness. Can you see how God is teaching you through it? Can you see that even when this world seems strange and foreign, that we are moving towards a wonderful eternal home?

Monday, 2 January 2017

A New Year testimony: God will be with you, wherever you go

Yesterday at church, people gave testimonies of God's goodness over 2016. For me, one of the most amazing things in 2016 was the arrival of our fifth child in April. When we started the year, we did not know whether we would be approved for adoption, of if we were, whether we would wait a long time before being matched. We are very thankful for how things turned out.

But that was not what I spoke about. I spoke about how nine years ago, we were expecting our first child, also a daughter. I reflected about God's faithfulness - about lessons we learnt then, which we carry with us into every day. Sometimes people think that 'testimonies' have to be about major breakthroughs, or healing, or success, or supernatural provision. I wanted to bring a deeper message of hope: that whatever may come, we can be fully confident that God will be with us and be all we could ever need. There were six main points I brought out:

1) Bad things will happen. In 1 Peter, the church are reminded 'do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial that is to try you as though some strange thing happened to you' (1 Peter 4:12). Jesus reminds us that, 'In this world, you will have tribulation'. In part, I was making the point that even as a foreigner, we are not immune to trial (lately, there have been times when I have felt that it is assumed that as a white person we never face trials or loss of any kind). But more than that, it was a reminder that God's word is perfect for all situations, and prepares and equips us for whatever we may face (2 Tim 3:16).

2) We should not worry. Matthew Chapter 6 goes into quite a lot of detail as Jesus tells His followers not to worry about the practicalities of life, not to worry about tomorrow, not to fear. There is no point and it changes nothing. And truth be told, often the thing we worry most about is not the trial which actually takes us by surprise.

3) God's grace is ALWAYS sufficient (2 Cor 12:9). One of the biggest lessons we learnt during our daughter's illness is that God gives enough strength, enough hope, enough peace - at the perfect time when it is needed. It was never that we felt we had sufficient 'in the bank' to draw from. If you had told me before what was to come, I would never have thought we would get through that time. But God proved His perfect love and grace time after time, and gave beyond what we thought possible. Isaiah 43:2 speaks of how, 'WHEN you walk through the flames, I will be with you, WHEN you pass through the rivers they will not overflow you'; not if, WHEN. The promise is true.

4) Our faith is proven genuine. 1 Peter chapter 1 speaks of how 'in this you greatly rejoice, though if need be you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though tested by fire, may be found to praise, honour and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ'. As my daughter faced death, I knew for the first time with complete certainty that my faith was genuine. As I felt I lost everything in the world, heaven was more real to me than ever, and I had no doubt whatsoever. Corrie ten Boon once said, 'I didn't realise Jesus was all I needed until Jesus was all I had'.

5) God's word is proven genuine. For many years we had prayed for the chance to share our faith plainly with those around us, and during the six weeks of her illness (where we were communicating by email since we were far from either our African or European homes) and afterwards, we can be pretty confident that everybody we knew well had heard the gospel. Years later I heard of somebody who became a Christian at her funeral. Even now, I hear people speak of the encouragement and challenge to their faith that her life was.

6) 'All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be' - Psalm 139; these words are on her gravestone. There is no such thing as a life 'cut short'. We all have the number of days God has given us, and responsibility to use those well. God was glorified more through our daughter's three month life than through many much longer lives. It is important to remember that - not to feel wronged or cheated, but to trust entirely.

As I spoke yesterday, and as I write today, I want to encourage you that whatever 2017 brings, God will be with you and will provide all you need.