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!