Sunday 11 November 2018

Serving with our whole lives (not just a specific 'ministry')

'He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God' Micah 6 verse 8

'Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God- this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - His good, pleasing and perfect will' Romans 12 verses 1-2

Have you every wondered how you can best serve God with your life? Have you ever heard others talking about their 'giftings' and wondered what yours might be? Have you ever heard somebody decline an invitation to serve in a particular way because that, 'Is not my ministry'? Have you found yourself responding in such manner?

I think I could answer, 'Yes!', to all of those questions.

Lately I have found myself frustrated at times when it has seemed others have been so focussed  on what 'their ministry' might be that they seem to miss out on opportunities to serve and encourage those whose paths they cross on a regular basis. This seems to be a particular challenge for some groups of Christians more than others. I appreciate that most people have busy lives with multiple competing commitments and that it is never going to be possible for an individual or group of people to be able to meet the needs of everybody who surrounds them, all of the time. But I wonder whether those of use who work-cross culturally, and are often in a particular country to respond to a particular need, or to work with a specific project or organisation are more at risk of missing the opportunities that God brings to us every day.

One thing that challenged me on this recently was a couple of my local friends commenting how we are unusual for the way we have integrated into our local church. I love our church! It is the greatest blessing to us, and as a family it is wonderful to be up and down to different meetings and ministries through the week, and for the children to grow up seeing the central role of the church in our lives and community. It is not just a Sunday or midweek thing, and it is through serving together in these different aspects that we have been blessed with strengthened friendships in the country that has been our home for these past three years. Of course we have taken delight in embracing the fellowship and different opportunities to serve, and to learn more of the different needs in society here, the cultural beliefs and taboos, the biggest challenges that young people face, and generally the best way to reach out with the gospel. But our friends have mentioned that other foreigners tend to remain more on the fringes and be more distant, and I have found myself responding that we are maybe different because we 'are not missionaries, we are just normal church members'. But that has made me contemplate this area more. There are some areas of church life that are tougher than others, and there have been times when I have invited missionaries who live locally to join and support the work (actually, I am asking them for encouragement and support in a role that I struggle with), but the response is usually that they are too busy with their 'ministry'.

As a young Christian I attended a Christian Medical Fellowship conference where Helen Roseveare was the speaker. She was brilliant because of her honesty and humility. She spoke of her early years in Congo (more detail is in her books, 'Give me this mountain', and 'He gave us a valley'.) Two things struck me deeply, such that I remember more than twenty years later. Firstly she describes how frustrated she used to become by interruptions, because her task had been to build a hospital and establish a nursing school. How could she do that when she was constantly interrupted? But with time, she came to see that the plans God had for her on a particular day were delivered to her in the form of interruptions. The second thing I remember her saying referred to her ministry in later life. She said that when people asked how she was, she would always mention that she was tired and busy, but then she was convicted of that, and realised that if she really was serving God in all ways with all she had, then she would expect that she might be tired and busy. So she stopped saying that.

The other week I was visiting friends and saw a very beautiful quote on their fridge: 'Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you canto all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” John Wesley. This made me think again about the same area.

In the same week, I was able to enjoy a home Bible study with other friends, and we were discussing 'the body of Christ' and how each of us has a role. One friend gave a helpful illustration - he explained that in the army, a person may be a doctor, or a telecommunications expert, or another technical role, but first and foremost, they are a soldier. They cannot neglect their responsibilities as soldiers because of their technical role. I found this very helpful. Yes, the Bible does talk about specific gifts that are not given to everybody - passages detailing this include 1 Corinthians chapter 12. But there are more passages which give instructions as to how to ordinary Christian is to relate both to other Christians (as a Bible study, look up all the passages which use the phrase 'one another') and to those we seek to reach with the gospel. We are called to be wise, to make the most of every opportunity, to watch our conversation carefully, to visit and care for 'the least of these', to look after the orphan and the widow, to visit the prisoner, and to do much of this 'in secret' without drawing attention to our acts, knowing that it is seen and honoured by God. That is very different from publicly proclaiming 'my ministry' and sticking to that.

It reminds me also of the well known story of the 'good Samaritan' (Luke 10 verses 25-37). A man has been beaten and left for dead along a roadside. A priest passed by and also a Levite. They were the religious people of the day, and the passage indicates they saw the man, but they passed by and did nothing. The reasons may have been that they were in a hurry, and this was an inconvenience, or that they were worried about ceremonial cleanliness. Some of it could have been simple pride regarding their positions in society. But they did the exact opposite of what Christ would call us to do for those who are destitute and in desperate need. It was a Samaritan, the last person one might have logically expected, who showed the love, kindness, compassion, patience and generosity that resulted in the man's recovery.

It is too easy for us to justify being like the priest or Levite. We can excuse our actions, but I think the overarching theme of the Bible is along the lines of the John Wesley quote - to do as much good as we can, to as many people as we can, for as long as we can. This might not always be noted. It might not earn us prestige in our communities. For the cross-cultural workers and missionaries, it might not be the kind of thing you choose to report in your newsletters or during your presentations on home assignment. But it is through the mess and inconvenience of daily life that God brings gospel opportunities right to you. Your choice is simply whether to trust God with your time, your energy, your resources and then do your best to do what is right, or to turn the other way.

Sunday 16 September 2018

Drawing near to the brokenhearted

'The Lord is close to the  brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit' Psalm 34:18

'He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds' Psalm 147:3

'The Spirit of the Soverign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners...' Isaiah 61:1

I have read a couple of articles recently that have made me think about how we draw close to the brokenhearted. The first was from a secular source, where a woman wrote about her experience of her child's neonatal death, and how it affected her. She particularly spoke about the social taboo that having a child die seems to bring, and how she wishes that more people would speak about her son and ask what his name was. The second was from the Desiring God website, and gives some practical, Bible-based wisdom about drawing near to those who are grieving; a friend whose daughter died last year commented that it is the kind of article that should be printed out and given to people at funerals because it is so clear and hits the nail on the head.

In the months following our daughter's death ten years ago, I remember feeling very isolated. There was a really tough phase several months after the funeral, when we were back at work and back to 'normality', and yet nothing felt normal at all. At the time, I presumed the feelings of isolation resulted from the grief itself, perhaps a kind of depersonalisation. I also wondered whether my expectations of others were unrealistic, or that it might relate to the fact we had moved between different countries and therefore didn't have the firmly established long term relationships that might be most supportive. Despite being actively involved in churches wherever we had been based, we did not on any occasion have a visit from a member of a pastoral team (nor a phonecall or an email containing more than a sentence in response to emails that we pro-actively sent) - I remember finding that a bit strange, but presumed that there were many more important things to deal with than a young couple whose first child had recently died. To be honest, there were days when I felt like a bit of a nuisance, aware that there were many people who had far more difficult circumstances than we did, and that we should somehow just 'get on with it'. I also didn't want a visit out of pity, and since we didn't have any particular theological questions about what had happened, it felt like there was nothing that anybody could have offered anyway. There were a handful of good friends who did stay close to us, or at least to me, but there were times when I really wanted one of the men from church to spend more time with my husband. People would sometimes ask me how he was doing, but nobody seemed able to ask him that question even when I felt like I was begging them to. Let me be clear - we were not social hermits during that time, and we did spend plenty of time with friends; to the outsider it may well have seemed that we were functioning more or less as we previously had done. But what was missing was the specific conversations where somebody that we looked up to for guidance and counsel would initiate a conversation with us about what had happened, about how we were currently doing and gave us the opportunity, if needed, to talk things through.

It has taken me ten years to say that, and I hope that writing it today, it can be appreciated that I am not writing out of bitterness. Rather I am writing because of sadness and frustration since I have heard very similar stories many times over the past ten years. Each family is different, each support network is different, each child was unique. But there are also a couple of generalisations that I think can be made, and which perhaps those seeking to support a family in such times might wish to consider.

The first 'theme' would be that sometimes our church leaders (whether that be the main leaders, or the leaders of different Bible study groups or ministries) have a God-given responsibility to their church members. If there is a family who are going through a situation which seems particularly challenging, care should be taken to ensure that they are not 'falling between the cracks' - make sure that somebody is committed to following up with them, visiting them, contacting them, praying with them, even (and perhaps especially) when it feel so hard and dark. This may not be particularly easy or feel rewarding. But unless it is made clear that such contact is not desired, I would really encourage you to reach out regularly, particularly in the months after all the drama.

Secondly, it often seems that people who do not have any particular faith are more supportive in times of real trial. It is as though they are more comfortable with uncertainty, with deep and probing questions which do not have easy solutions, or indeed any answers at all. They seem better with the silence, with the pain that cannot really be expressed, with the lack of clear solutions and the need to just be present. I wonder if Christians, perhaps particularly leaders, can feel inadequate if they don't have the words and the Bible expositions to 'solve' the problems and bring comfort. If there were 'easy' answers or quick solutions, I would imagine many families would have found these. Of course, there are many wonderful passages of the Bible which speak to suffering - that it is to be expected in this world, that it is no surprise to God, that God teaches us so very much through it, that it is common to man, that one day there will be no more sorrow or pain - there are these wonderful passages in 1 Peter, James, Romans, Revelation and so forth. I can recite all of these from memory with ease, but that knowledge of Scripture did not mean that I did not need spiritual encouragement. There are times when a person who is grieving is very familiar with the 'suffering' passages in the Bible, can believe them with their whole heart, but still be overwhelmed by a grief that cannot be put into words. There is a time for silence, for just being there. There is a time to just listen. Please don't label people as 'coping well' when you actually don't know how they are really doing. Please don't put people on a pedestal because they frequently testify to God's goodness and grace through their trials. Please remember that grief and faith are not opposites, and these people may be suffering more than you could imagine (and you didn't think to ask, because they seemed to be 'coping well').

Thirdly, in the case of child death, please don't forget the fathers! I wrote about this here a few years ago. Sadly it still seems the case that the mothers are seen as the one who has been bereaved. It is a generalisation of course, but women tend to be more expressive of their emotions, whereas men may be more likely to withdraw. A woman might become very emotional whereas a man might seem more irritable and unapproachable. It might be easier to draw alongside the woman, but the man is facing the same grief and needs encouragement and support to lead his family through this time of trial.

Fourthly, most grieving people seem to appreciate the chance to talk about their loved on, to hear their name, to hear stories about ways in which they influenced the lives of others. Sometimes there is a need to talk about the trials and the pain, and at other times to share again the stories of God's grace and faithfulness. As the years go by, sometimes the need for this becomes greater, the need to have that tangible memory that their loved one was a very real part of their family, and had a life which mattered. I do not know of anybody who would be offended if they were asked to explain a bit more about how things felt, or to be asked about what might be the best way to support them. In general, I think most people are also happy to make it clear when they would rather not talk.

One of the reasons I have blogged less over recent months is because I feel to an extent that the same challenges tend to recur through life and I have often written a bit about a particular topic. That being said, I will flag up some things I have written in the past few years about how grief changes with time, and what I think a family might really need. Six years after she died, I wrote this. Seven years afterwards, I put together a kind of 'wish list'. Ten years afterwards, I reflected on some of the precious lessons we had learned. There are other links within those posts which might be helpful.

I do not wish to imply that the death of a child is somehow different from any other kind of overwhelming grief. The death of a spouse. The death of a close friend. Severe illness either personally or in a loved one which causes the death of life as it once was, perhaps the death of hopes and dreams. There are many situations which bring deep grief. And I imagine that many of these feel just as 'taboo' as the death of a child.

I write today partly out of frustration, and partly out of sadness. As Christians we should do better to support our brothers and sisters in their time of need. Whilst we should 'study and do our best to present ourselves to God as one approved, who correctly handles and rightly divides the word of truth', we should remember that there are times to support more practically, and times to support simply through presence. I will not spend time today looking at all the Bible passages about how we are to relate to 'one another' through times of joy and sorrow; there is much that can be said, but I think many Christians will be familiar with these. But I think it is important to re-iterate that this is not always easy, now always rewarding, and at times can simply be tough. There will be times when we feel totally uncomfortable, and unsure of what is the best thing. I feel that way when spending time with the bereaved, even though I've experienced a couple of difficult bereavements (my infant daughter as I've already written about, and also the death of my mother by suicide when I was 16, which I have never written about). It's uncomfortable and painful because it is simply uncomfortable and painful - it is not how things were meant to be. The chances are, the grieving person has no real idea what they really want or feel they need, but it might be worth asking. If you want to know how it feels, ask!

I hope that by writing on this topic, you might feel better equipped to draw near to bring comfort to those who are brokenhearted.

Tuesday 28 August 2018

Steady state

When a person takes a medication, after the first few doses they reach steady state. If you plot the concentration of the drug in the blood against time, you see a few deep peaks and troughs, and then after a couple of days, everything levels out into steady ups and downs, and we say that the drug has reached 'steady state'. Lately, I have felt a little as though I have reached steady-state in terms of life.

For about five years, I wrote a blog post every week. Those were the early years of parenting. Those were the years of adjusting to cross-cultural living with a young family. Those were the years when we considered long and hard the different approaches to education, decided to home educate, and then decided to use a literature-based approach to develop critical thinking and active learning (we use Sonlight, but there are other curricula that have a similar philosophy). Often I would write to reflect on something we had read, or experienced. Sometimes I would write in response to a challenge or a trial which presented itself.

It is not that life is devoid of trials these days. But rather, I sometimes feel that many of the bigger, more foundational questions about how we structure our life, work, education of our children and other responsibilities have been answered, at least in principle. The goals that we set in these early years remain - but they are long-term goals, with no quick check-lists or neat comments to describe how the goal was met. Rather, we have set the foundations and the directions for our family life, and what comes next is the outworking of those goals and that direction. And that can be a fairly busy time, perhaps with less time for reading and reflection compared to when the children were tiny.

Recently, we reflected how twenty one years ago we met and talked about our hopes and dreams for the future. At the time we were medical students, dreaming about how we might one day use our skills to serve the Lord overseas. Twenty one years later, we can see how we have spent most of the past twelve years living in working in Africa, having lived in southern, west, and now east Africa. We talked about how we would like to have children, and also about how we might consider adoption. We have since had three biological children and adopted two. We considered different potential avenues of ministry, and looking back we can see how we have often become involved in leading small groups Bible studies from our home, often involving students and young professionals who are asking themselves many of the same questions as we did more than two decades ago. Back then, I don't think either of us had particularly heard of or thought about home education, but the more we investigated, read and learnt about it, we became convinced that this was the right approach for our family, at least for the time being. Although not always the easiest path, we can reflect on how each of our children is growing in different areas, and that we have time to focus on the challenging areas (and in that, I would include behaviours). Also, over the past twenty one years we have been through various griefs and trials which have refined our faith, and provided us with a firm confidence that even in the darkest of times in this world, God's truth never fails and we can look forward to a heaven where there will be no more sorrow or pain.

It is not that I think we have answered all the questions, or that we have no more goals! But rather, we continue to work along a steady trajectory. And so, week by week, there is not always a topic that I feel needs unpacking to the extent that I previously did. Or, when I do feel such a topic arises, I can often find a similar post that I have written at some point over the past five years.

So, I intend to write when I think it is helpful - both for myself, and for those who might be reading this blog. Perhaps there will come another season of regular challenges, changes in perspective, changes in direction, response to event within our family, church or society or so forth. And perhaps there will come a time when I simply have a little more time to really dig into some of the issues that I have touched upon in this blog.

Recently I read a helpful analogy (I can't remember the source) - that you spend the first half of your life building a container - building those foundations and structures that will shape your life. And then, you spend the second half of your life filling that container. Apparently a mistake that people can make (and organisations - the analogy applies there also) is to spend the whole of life rebuilding the 'container'. The analogy resonated with me, as I feel we have moved into the 'filling the container' phase.

I hope the blog continues to bring encouragement.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Contentment and small trials and 'irritations'

'But godliness with contentment is great gain' 1 Timothy 6:6

'Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, "children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation". Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life' Philippians 2: 14-16

Often on this blog, I consider how we can stand fast in our faith in the face of trials. Many times I have discussed ways in which we don't just stand fast, but see our faith in our amazing God flourish and see Him working all kinds of good in us, through us and around us through perseverance in the face of trials. (For example, here, here, here or here). But, lately I have also been thinking about what a person might consider a 'trial' to be.

Is it easier to accept a sudden, unexpected, extreme event as within God's sovereignty rather than the more trivial, day-to-day inconveniences? Is it easier to see how God is in perfect control when something that seems entirely outside of human control occurs?

The other morning I read this very helpful article via the Desiring God website: 'Ten Thousand Small Trials' This made me think about the things that can throw me off course and feel discontent during daily life. A powercut on the day I forgot to fully charge my computer and mifi device. A traffic jam, simply because another driver seeks to be selfish and has cut through the traffic to the junction and completely blocked the other side of the road.  A colleague who seems to be struggling to understand and act on some instructions, and it seems it would have been a lot quicker just to have done the task without delegating. A relational misunderstanding that seems set to escalate without easy resolution. A child whose behaviour has been trying in small but persistent ways through the day. Is God sovereign in these? Absolutely! Can God develop our faith in these? Without doubt! Are these trials enough to build in us all the wonderful things that are listed in 1 Peter 1, James 1, Romans 5 and the other passages (things like perseverance, character, hope, faith being proven genuine, hope that does not disappoint). Yes indeed!

Of course everything has it's flipside, and the opposite of contentment is often envy. On that same morning, I also read this article on 'Seven Strategies for Fighting Envy'. Envy is a funny one  - it gets onto all the lists of sins to avoid and characteristics of ungodly people, but in some ways it is different from other sins. It doesn't lure us with the promise of something (pleasure, success, popularity, comfort, ease, whatever it is we perhaps long for). It is something that may not have an obvious external manifestation. And I think (in my circles at least) it is something that is rarely discussed among Christians, and something which people rarely admit to. For me, it is a horrible sin that hits at the most unexpected times, sometimes for no discernible reason.

I think there is something which bring both of these issues to the forefront: social media! The first thing I wish to say, is that I think social media can be very useful, and can be used in many different ways to glorify God. Personally, living many thousands of miles from family and many of my closest friends, I find it a valuable way to be able to maintain relationships, at least to an extent, to share to a tiny degree in life events that I miss out on (birthdays, weddings, graduations, holidays), and to seek to encourage my friends and 'consider how you may spur one another on towards love and good deeds' (Hebrews 10:24). The second thing I would say, is that 'there is nothing new under the sun'. Changing means of communication and technology does not cause sin, but rather might provide a new avenue for sin, or open up a temptation we had not predicted. This is not a rant against one specific thing, but rather an observation.

One trend I have noticed, is the type of post which moans about a small trial. For example, it is currently warm in Europe. For most of the year, people complain about the weather, and now that it is hot and sunny, there are an equal number of complaints. 'How can a person manage with a baby in this heat?', 'This is unbearable', 'Where is the ice?', and so forth. This is just an example. I also see it among new parents, whose post seem to be a continual complaint about the day to day realities of looking after a baby - listing the number of times the baby woke in the night, describing in detail a nappy change that went awry, these types of situations. And the responses are usually affirmatory - 'Poor you, it's so tough, yes, I will validate you in this'. The reason I struggle with those types of posts is that rather than helping the person see their experience as a reality of life, and embracing it as every bit as God-given as anything else, they tend to take a person's eyes off the goodness of God, and onto themselves. And with social media, it is rare indeed for a person to post a comment that does not go along with what the original poster wishes. And so it can be self-perpetuating. Rather than thanking God for a healthy child who wakes in the night for a feed, and thanking God for those quiet night hours which are an opportunity to find strength in Him and to pray, people can be encouraged to self-pity and to think that their experience is outside the normal boundaries of reality. There can be an unhealthy introspection (for example, the pregnant friend who complains daily about the pregnancy might not see how that can be hurtful to the single friend or the one who longs for a child). But within the narrow bounds of social media, it can be very difficult to draw alongside the person who persistently makes these types of posts and seek to encourage and disciple them that there can be a better way. (Here, I am not talking so much about the occasional post, but those individuals who make it a pattern. If you use social media, you know what I mean!)

The Bible makes it clear that thinking positively is both a choice and a discipline. Look at Philippians 4:8: 'Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things'. Or 2 Corinthians 10:5 'We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ'. We should be encouraging one another to learn an 'attitude of gratitude', and yet these subtle things on social media are doing the exact opposite, and seem to encourage one another that it is OK to complain about small things. We should be seeking to live differently to the world around us. And the wonderful promise in Philippians 2 is that by doing so, we can 'shine like stars in the universe as we hold out the word of life'. It is so counter-cultural to be content and thankful, that our attitude in the face of both the big trials and the day-to-day hassles can be a means of sharing 'the reason for the hope that we have' (1 Peter 3:15)

I think one reason this grumbling might happen, and it ties in with the thoughts about envy, is that social media can paint a very false reality. I am aware that when a person looks at my Facebook page (the main page which is open, more than what I might share in smaller groups of trusted friends), it can look as though I live in tropical paradise, with endless field trips and adventures, continual home cooking and outdoor activities, surrounded by friends. These aspects are all there! But between these, is the day to day grind (powercuts, traffic jams, minor illnesses, children to discipline, work to complete, medical emergencies, general life, work and relational issues). But those aren't things that make a nice photo, or that I write home about. One thing I struggle with in this season of life is that my husband and I very rarely have time alone outside the house without the children (maybe once a year at current rates) - and when that is getting me down, I seem to notice that 'everybody' on Facebook has had an evening out with their spouse, has had grandparents take the children for a weekend, has had opportunity to do the one thing that I find elusive. And so, rather than celebrating what God has provided for both my friends, and for my own family, envy creeps in. I tell you for sure, if we did have an evening together, I would not post about it on Facebook but would be off enjoying the time! But you see the principle, and I need to know when just to stop, to stop comparing myself to others or allowing envy and discontentment to creep in and steal the joy in what blessings I have. I need to know when 'catching up with old friends' becomes unhealthy.

One never really can tell what lies behind a perfect picture. And, one never can tell what will happen tomorrow, or even later today. The book of Ecclesiastes is very clear that there is a 'time for everything' time to mourn, time to dance, time to live, time to die. When we look only at a snapshot, that can cause both discontentment or envy, and the root of both is often a failure to appreciate and celebrate God's sovereignty in the rich abundance of life.

Recently, I reflected on why sometimes it can seem that God has answered the same prayer of two individuals in different ways, and how this can fit with a God that is sovereign, good, loving, kind and wise. Many of the principles are just the same in the 'smaller' trials. Why does one person have a baby who sleeps 'through the night' by six weeks, when mine took five years to achieve this? Why does my friend not seem to struggle with the child discipline issues that cause us such difficulty? Why do I suffer with an invisible hidden disability which sometimes keeps me from serving God in a way which I think would be more effective than my current life? Why does my friend have a bigger, nicer home, better for hospitality? Why this, why that? Why not accept all things, both good and challenging, as part of God's wonderful, abundant, bountiful provision for your individual life, and seek to honour Him in that?

So, as I prepare for today - and whatever joys or challenges (and combination of the two) that lie ahead, I resolve to see everything as an opportunity to serve God, and glorify Him.

Sunday 24 June 2018

Why does God answer the same prayer in different ways for different people?

'Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit'. James 5:13-18

A well known passage. God can do amazing things! He is a God of miracles. He is good and loving. He answers prayer. He forgives sin. The Bible is full of inspiring examples.

But what about when the healing doesn't happen? In the past year, I've had two friends in very similar situations. Both had babies with serious heart problems who needed to travel abroad for surgery. Both had similar underlying medical problems. In both cases, the parents were strong, vibrant Christians (worship leaders and missionaries, respectively). In one case, prayer after prayer was answered, doors were opened, things that seemed impossible came to pass, surgery was uncomplicated, recovery smooth and there has been much celebration. In the other case, whilst the surgery seemed initially to go well, the child died some months later. I have no doubt that the parents (and their friends and loved ones) would have been praying very similar prayers in both instances. So, why the difference? My children, knowing both families quite well, have also been asking these questions!

My eight year old was very clear. 'God answers prayer in three possible ways. Yes, no, or not now'.

My nine year old was also quite clear. 'God knows the way in which He will be glorified most, and that will not be the same for every person. He chose things to happen the way they did so that more people can hear about His goodness'.

I agree with both of these, but it is quite poignant when you see a friend torn apart by grief, not necessarily seeing just why God would be more glorified through the loss of her child! And when faced with the question, I realise that the question can only be answered with the eternal perspective.

Platitudes come into being because there is often truth within them. So, when God doesn't answer a prayer in line with our deepest human longings, of course He is still working good. 'And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose' Romans 8:28. It's a wonderful, powerful verse. And yet it can feel like a slap in the face to somebody wrestling with this question.

One of the first things I think it is essential to remember is that, 'Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever' (Hebrews 13:8). When the Lord revealed Himself to Moses, He described Himself thus: 'The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin...' (Exodus 34:6). The character of God does not change and will not change. Our perception of God may be challenged. But that does not mean for a second that He has changed. I think time spent meditating on the attributes of God is very helpful when facing difficult questions, and I recently wrote more about that here.

It is important to consider all of His attributes, rather than focussing one one or two alone. This article summarises these attributes well. The perfect combination is important - because one can accept that God is omnipotent, all powerful, but might not appreciate that He is also good, and wise. One might accept that God is omniscient, knowing all things, but then feel rejected and abandoned because He must have chosen to ignore your pain and circumstances. But when we remember that He is wise, good, just, merciful, gracious and loving - then we recognise that He is fully aware of the situation, of the prayers that have been uttered, the tears that have been shed, and the currently overwhelming sorrow that is being experienced.

Our God is triune - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Considering Christ the Son, 'He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him'. (Colossians 1:15-16). Despite this power, 'We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need'. (Hebrews 4:14-16). He knows our sorrow, our confusion, our questioning - and invites us to come to Him in prayer and find the help we need.

But all of this only answers the question in part! So far, we have established that:

1. God does not change
2. God is able to perform miracles as He is fully powerful
3. God is aware of everything that any person is going through and is compassionate
4. God is perfectly kind, loving and wise
5. As a man, Jesus walked through trials and pain, and invites us to bring these to Him in prayer
6. God works in every situation for good

But still the question remains: Why then, would this good, powerful, unchanging God work in different ways in response to similar prayers? Why would He put some of His children through extreme pain and suffering, and seem to provide a way out for others?

Earlier this evening I read Philippians to my children, and noted this: 'For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it might be conformed to His glorious body, according to the workings by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself' Philippians 3:20-21. Illness and death is a sign of our bodies being subject to decay, to brokenness, and here we are reminded to look to eternity - to transformation and restoration. This echoes of Paul, 'Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal'. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. And it leads forward to the promise given in Revelation, 'Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away'. Revelation 21:3-4.

When we look with human eyes, considering the here and now, we see a paradox between the apparent 'answered' and 'unanswered' prayers. But when we consider what is happening from the eternal perspective, I find things start to fall into place:

1. Heaven is better by far! As Paul wrote, 'For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain' (Philippians 1:21). Those who have died in faith have been 'fast-tracked' or 'promoted' to glory. For them, suffering and pain has ended and they are fully free to worship perfectly for eternity. (I am aware I am not bringing in the added complexity of when a loved one dies, apparently not in faith - this also presents a challenge, and I should aim to write about that separately).

2. Sufferings and affliction are used by God for His glory. There are so many passages about how we should expect suffering and tribulation, about how trials present unique opportunities for growth, and about how God is honoured in these situations that I shall not attempt to list them all here. My favourites include 1 Peter 1, James 1, Romans 5.

3. In the light of eternity, the pain and frustration we face here is short-lived. If you study the circumstances that Paul described as 'light and momentary', you can see that few people enduring these would use such language to describe them: 'in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and in nakedness - besides the other things...' (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

4. Whilst God might display some of His glory through 'answered prayer' here and now, He is achieving eternal glory (some of which may be apparent, other of which may only become apparent in eternity) through the prayers that seem to be unanswered, or which are not answered according to our human desire.

I think a third aspect that we must consider is what might be considered a person's 'lot'. The book of Ecclesiastes deals with this extensively - that a person may pursue pleasures and security in the here and now, and find it all to be 'vanity'. 'Here is what I have seen: it is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage. As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labour - this is the gift of God. For he will not dwell unduly on the days of his life, because God keeps him busy with the joy of his heart' (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20). Basically, we should focus on what God has given us, and accept the good and the bad parts. When I reflect on my life so far, I can see situations where prayers have been answered dramatically, in the way that I would have chosen (the immediate example is when my second son was acutely ill and close to death, that he responded within a few days to treatment and had no lasting consequences, and that his adoption went through within about six weeks without any challenges), and of course others situations where I have felt the sorrow of the prayers being answered differently (for example my daughter's death). Whilst we are caught up in a situation of sorrow or of rejoicing, it is important to remember that there will be other times in our lives when we experience the opposite. And as discussed above, God will not have changed, and will not have made a mistake.

At the end of John's gospel, Jesus has just told Peter about how his life will end. Peter immediately wanted to know about what would happen to his friend, John. 'When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?" Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." Because of this, the rumour spread among the believers that disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?" (John 21:21-23) I opened this blog post with the question of why God would act 'differently' in two similar situations. And yet, the pain of apparently 'unanswered prayer' is much easier to bear when you do not see the other situation right in front of you. I think there is great wisdom in Jesus' words to Peter here: "What is that to you? You must follow me."

Again, there is a lot we can learn from the Apostle Paul (you can see that reading through the whole of Philippians as the childrens' bedtime reading did us all good!): 'I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content; I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me' (Philippians 4:11-13). Our contentment should not depend on what we have, but ultimately on our relationship with God. 'Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully on the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Christ' (1 Peter 1:13). By finding satisfaction and true joy and peace in Christ alone, we are better positioned to weather the storms of pain and loss, and better able to trust that whilst we cannot fully understand why things are as they are, that we have not been wronged or forgotten by God.

I think there are also other complicating factors that can make the situations very difficult to bear. These relate to the fact that all Christians are sinners saved by grace. We are all open to temptation, and will not relate to one another with that perfect wisdom, kindness, grace, love and gentleness that the Lord displays to us.

A couple of specifics come to mind:

1. Jealousy/ envy. It is very easy to feel envious when another person seems to have had their prayer answered in the way you wanted yours to be! I think this happens a lot in the Christian life - when a friend gets a good job, or married, or the couple who have been praying for children have children, I could go on. When there is a situation as extreme as the death of a child, it can be easier to dismiss the feeling as reasonable or acceptable. However, it fails to recognise that God has, somehow, in His wisdom, given you your current situation. It is not wise to spend too long thinking about the situation of another - there may well be things that you are unaware of, and as Jesus said to Peter: "What is that to you?" I think it is not going too far to describe every aspect of life, including the painful and sorrowful as a gift (and I recently wrote about that here), but I think it does take a long time to reach that point. It is hard to face up to darker feelings, but remember that God will not be shocked. 'Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep' (Romans 12:15) is a well known verse; I find it telling that the two situations are placed right next to one another. It is difficult to celebrate with one family on the wonderful news, and to stand with another family in their sorrow. I think that verse is there, like that, to remind us that it is tough, but through the strength that God gives us, we should seek to do so.

2. Glory (whether it be through the miraculous 'answered prayer' or through the trial and sorrow) belongs to God alone. At either extreme, there may be people who (deliberately or unwittingly) seek to be in the limelight. Many years ago I attended a church where there was a general feeling that having a certain person pray for you would be more likely to 'result' in the desired outcome. The individual who prayed would try to take the glory from the God who had answered the prayer, and celebrations of 'miracles' often seemed to have more to do with the spiritual prowess of an individual rather than the amazing power of God. This can occur more subtly, and even churches which would stand firmly against any form of 'prosperity' teaching need to take care that there is not a subtle communication contrary to that teaching. Similarly, I have seen bereaved parents who have stood firm in their faith be almost revered by their community as having 'strong faith', to the extent where they have felt isolated and discouraged, longing for Christian fellowship where they can talk frankly about the ups and downs of their grieving process (and all other aspects of their Christian life). These things can be subtle, but can cause damage in relationships.

As is often the case, I am very aware I have not answered the question fully. Returning to the conversation with my children which prompted me to write, my simple answer would be:

1. God is good, powerful and in control, and never changes
2. God's desire is that He be glorified in and through every situation
3. Life here is short compared with heaven
4. Some things will be difficult to understand and painful in this world

How would you respond?

Saturday 26 May 2018

10 years since my baby died: A reflection

Today marks ten years since our first child died. These past months have been strange as we remember everything that took place between 12th April 2008 when she became ill and 26th May 2008 when she died. We always remember at this time of year, but this year has been different. Sometimes the emotions have been stronger, almost as though it happened yesterday. Some days, it feels so distant that it is almost as though it was something that happened to somebody else in some kind of dream. Sometimes I feel that I have said everything that needs to be said, and that there are no new memories and no new discussion points.

But I am often reminded of how much she remains part of our lives, and how she taught us more in a short life than many children will teach their parents. Even this year, we've had several friends walk a similar path, and it can be an honour to walk alongside them, to share their stories and their tears, and try to help them find their strength and hope in God. Part of the gift that our daughter gave us is that particular role, perhaps not a role that one would choose, but one which we have been prepared for in some ways.

Three years ago I wrote about how grief changes with time, and about the things that I would want people to know about how the grief felt with the passing of the years. Today I will build on that, and share some other reflections. I am writing to those who are walking through grief and loss, and to those who walk beside them.

1. You don't 'get over it', and nobody should expect you. I see it more like a person who has a limb amputated - the immediate pain and subsequent disability might pass, and a person might learn to function to a very high level. Just look at some of the paralympian athletes! But the part is still missing, and there may be days when that causes more pain or disability than at other times - perhaps associated with illness, stress or other trauma. Your life builds around the loss, but there will be a part that is changed forever.

2. Change can be positive or negative or neutral. I find it helpful to consider all the ways that our daughter's illness and death changed our lives for the better, and on the darker days to spend time counting the blessings. I've written more about that here, but in summary, I think we have a clearer perspective of what is really important, tend to be more focussed and live 'in the moment', not knowing what tomorrow holds. I think having known deep sorrow, we can sometimes appreciate greater joy. We are not afraid of discussing difficult topics, and don't run from uncomfortable conversations or emotions. There are many things that are good. But sometimes this can also bring aspects that are not so easy - it can sometimes be difficult to relate to others, especially when people are getting very worried about 'first world problems' or things that seem trivial. There are times when the grief can feel very lonely, and it can be difficult to explain to people who we have met more recently. The focus on what is happening now, and not worrying about tomorrow can sometimes make it difficult to plan more than a month or two ahead.

3. Every person's grief is different. That might sound very obvious, but it is so important to listen carefully to what a grieving person is saying, and not to try and apply any 'formulas' for their recovery. Even if two situations seem very similar on the outside, the individuals involved are unique. This year I've spent some time reflecting on whether there are any fundamental beliefs that might make it easier for a person to work through agonising loss, and I think a large part might be how they view the nature of God. I wrote about that here , here and here. But even then, the way a person will respond day to day, the fluctuations, the temptations - these will be different between individuals.

4. You cannot grade grief. All loss is painful. It does not make sense to try and comfort a person by pointing out all the other people who are in far 'worse' situations, or who have experienced a string of losses. I am thankful that God cares about the details of our lives so very much, and is filled with compassion for each of us. We must take care not to minimise another person's loss (or our own), but rather approach each situation and its context.

5. At the same time, we must remember that suffering is to be expected in this life. As the Apostle Peter wrote (1 Peter 4:12-13) 'Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you also may be glad with exceeding joy'. It is also wrong to think that your own suffering is worse than anybody else can imagine. I have reflected on this before, but I think it was much easier for us to be living in southern Africa after our daughter died, where one out of two women in my city had a baby die under the age of five. It was accepted to be a painful loss, but not beyond the normal experience in society. Sometimes by tiptoeing around a person, perhaps allowing and even enabling sinful behaviours, we can actually hinder their processing of the situation and moving forward.

6. There are days when you just long for heaven, for the place where 'God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away' Revelation 21:4. This need not be a bad thing - I think through pain, we can have a clearer perspective on eternity and those things that matter most. But just because something brings good does not mean that it is not painful.

7. Similarly to the point above, faith and grief are not opposites. I find John chapter 11 very helpful here. When Jesus was told of the death of Lazarus, He wept even though He knew He was about to perform an incredible miracle. Why did He weep? Because death and loss are painful. Did Jesus' sorrow mean He lacked faith? Absolutely not! I think this is important, because one thing that we found difficult was what felt like an assumption that because we were able to hold fast to our faith (and indeed our faith grew!), that this was not a very painful time, and that it doesn't still hurt. It sometimes can be easier to identify people who are obviously struggling - perhaps expressing major doubts in their faith, stumbling into sin, adopting unhealthy behaviours and coping strategies. But even if you think your friend is 'coping well', ask them from time to time even as the years pass.

8. God's word and promises are the rock on which we stand. I love the Psalms - because there, the full range of human emotions and experience are laid bare as the writers bring their pain and fear, or their joy and delight, before God. God is not shocked by our emotions, since they are part of how He made us. We can pour out our hearts before Him, any time we wish. There may be many clamouring voices offering worldly wisdom or passing comfort, but God's word is eternal and will stand the test of time. For me, the Psalms in particular remind me of that.

9. 'Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need'. Hebrews 4:14-16 Those words are pure gold!

Our daughter's life was a very pivotal time in our lives. There were days when it felt very clearly that there was a choice to be made in how we lived and in how we responded. It was a time of priority setting, and considering everything in the light of eternity. It was the time when we knew with certainty: 'In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, 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 it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honour and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith - the salvation of your souls' 1 Peter 1:6-9

Sunday 11 March 2018

Long time, no post!

This has been the longest gap in my blog for five years. There was no particular reason, except that I felt there was nothing to say. Life has settled into a lovely routine of living and working here in East Africa, the children are all doing well in their homeschooling, with the usual ups and downs and attitudes that most homeschooling blogs describe, and life has just been busy.

Also, round about November, I was hit with some kind of exhaustion. I still don't quite know how to describe it - it was like a tiredness that wouldn't go away, a lack of energy and enthusiasm for things I would normally enjoy, and a very strong loss of confidence in some of my academic work. It is difficult to say whether it was a bout of clinical depression, whether it was simply exhaustion, and hard to work out how much of it was normal and how much was something to be concerned about. There had been a few things that led up to it - having not taken enough leave, feeling life is in a bit of a limbo whilst awaiting the finalisation of our daughter's adoption (the main challenge is that we cannot currently leave the country as a family, and so my husband and I have had to make quite frequent trips alone), and then there were some interesting interpersonal challenges in the workplace. Whatever it was, it was unsettling and frightening and made me take a good long look at my life, consider different aspects of my personality and to reflect on what changes might be necessary to either prevent it getting worse, or to try and prevent it happening again. I am starting to feel a lot more like my usual self, the workplace issues are improving (and a couple of people have remarked that the situation had seemed 'impossible' - I can see God's hand in the changes that have come about!), I am less emotional and more rational about things. But I still feel a vulnerability that is hard to really explain. I am thankful for this time, as with all trials, God has shown many truths to me.

Here are some things I learned:

1. Just how common this type of thing is. I think the devil uses this as a ploy to make us feel alone and isolated, because as soon as I started deliberately trying to be more honest about how I was feeling, it was amazing how many other people told me of times in their lives when they had faced something similar. I think it is easy to only see other people's successes, and this is probably magnified in the social media era - it can seem that everybody else is having a really productive, abundant, joyful life, and that you are the only one who feels ground down and discouraged.

I was reminded again of how God places us in communities, and creates us with a need for interpersonal relationships and fellowship. It can be difficult to open up and be more vulnerable. I find it particularly difficult because at an earlier time in life when I tried to be open about some traumatic events from my earlier life, I was told that I was making things up and seeking to be manipulative, when this was far from the truth. I learnt that one must take a bit of care with whom one shares the deeper struggles - and the book of Proverbs has plenty to say about choosing friends wisely, and taking care from whom one might seek counsel. But this time, I felt encouraged that I have good friends who have walked similar dark paths, and with whom I can be more honest.

2. The need for vulnerability. I love 2 Corinthians 4:7 which reminds us that 'we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us'. A friend told me of a Japanese art form called kintsugi: taking broken pottery and making the cracks part of the design and beauty, something which speaks a lot of how God can use our brokenness. Many people give testimony to how the gospel is more clearly spoken through times of pain and trial, and how seeing a Christian clinging onto their faith and seeking to navigate turbulent waters in a godly way can be a more powerful testimony than a Christian who is bursting with joy and enthusiasm. It can be uncomfortable, it is certainly humbling, but God can use times of darkness to how His light. I have noticed that an element of vulnerability can be helpful in leading teams - to be willing to immediately admit errors and put in place corrective action, to learn from mistakes and keep moving forward, perhaps also to be more aware of the emotions of my team members.

3. The need for spiritual self-examination. Life can get busy, and days can feel like an endless cycle of routine tasks; sometimes even the spiritual disciplines can also feel like 'just another task', rather than relishing in the most wonderful of all relationships. I love the Psalms when I am finding life tough. An example would be Psalm 19, 'But who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; let them not rule over me.' or Psalm 139, 'Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offence in my way and lead me in your everlasting ways'. Both of these are prayers for God to search our hearts and reveal to us ways in which we are not honouring Him. For me, recently I had to consider what the root causes of my anxiety were. I found that some of it was rooted in pride - the fear of failure or public disgrace of some kind, the concern about what others might think of me, generally taking too much of it onto myself rather than trusting that the God who has always provided me with the necessary grace and strength would continue to provide in changing situations.

4. The need for self-awareness - sometimes I would expect other people to tell me to slow down, to take a break, to acknowledge the workload and so forth. However, everybody is busy and people cannot read minds. I have learnt that in the workplace it helps to be positive and enthusiastic in order to motivate the team, and to persuade others of the value of the work (that is important when it comes to getting new grants and being able to disseminate the work in scientific conferences and journals). I also find that positivity can be self-perpetuating. However, I need to be aware of times when I also need to rest. I recently wrote a little about personality types, and how I have found it helpful to consider the best ways I can recharge. I feel this has given me the confidence to make deliberate choices - for example to structure my workload in ways that enable me to use my strengths best, and not get too drained (for example, if there are several days with multiple face to face meetings, I can then do with a day where I spend longer writing).

5. Need to schedule rest, rather than waiting until exhausted. This overlaps with the previous point, but I realised it had been over a year since we had scheduled any time off. Instead I had taken the odd day here and there, often in response to being exhausted rather than as a pro-active positive choice. Whilst I have the enormous blessing of a flexible working pattern and quite a lot of control over where and when I work, this can also bring the drawback of feeling the need to work almost continuously or at least working within every possible time-slot, rarely taking time off to recharge. Last year I noticed how drained I felt after large grant applications, and decided to take time off after those. It has been good to travel with my husband when he goes to work in a beautiful, peaceful and slightly cooler region several hours from here. By leaving town for a few days, this also gives a break from several of the other activities which I love and which I feel are important, but which I find very tiring (like hosting Christian meetings whilst juggling four young children - it is harder when my husband is away!) It sounds a simple change, but it has made a big difference.

I think that will do for now - but these are five things I have learnt or been reminded of through a recent time of trial. I hope that this post brings some encouragement to you, in whatever situation you currently find yourself.

Saturday 20 January 2018

God-given strengths, personality and leadership styles

Once again, I am blogging from an airport departure lounge. Ahead of me lies a week of setting up a new project, working on three existing projects and meeting some existing and new collaborators to brainstorm about ideas and future proposals. This is the kind of work that I've been involved with for some time, but one difference is that I am taking the lead on the newest project. Whilst this is an exciting step, and could be seen as a logical career progression, it has made me somewhat nervous. I've found myself more anxious about aspects of the work than usual, and being plagued by doubts that 'I can't do this!' Recently I came across the concept of 'imposter syndrome' - and that is exactly how I have been feeling.

Whilst recognising that there are certain personality traits that might predispose me to feel like an 'imposter', even more helpful has been consideration of personality types and leadership styles. I did a leadership course quite a number of years ago, which was where I first came across the concept; however, at that time, we were not really given much information as to what that might mean in terms of channelling our strengths and working on our weaker areas. More recently, I had the opportunity to attend a leadership course which was quite different - attendees were all in leadership roles and had diverse experiences to draw from, and this made the discussion rich. I have also been blessed with a friend who regularly teaches on these topics and has a strong biblical perspective on life too.

If you haven't come across the 16 personality types, you can take this quiz and read some of the related articles. I'll explain some of the things I have found most helpful:

1. That different personality types are valid, indeed God-given. For a very long time, I felt that to be a 'leader' I would need to have an overhaul of my natural personality. I would look at other people, and see the qualities which I desired (confidence, strength, an ability to have people follow you, an ability to maintain a very high standard of discipline among team members) and feel that I 'didn't have what it takes'. However, when I open my eyes and look around, I see that there are many other equally useful styles (summarised to an extent here). Reading the Bible, there are many different styles of leadership - each with its strengths and its weaknesses. Previously I would try and force myself to act in a way which did not feel natural, and this was stressful. I have come to understand that a lot of leadership is understanding ourselves, and building on those strengths whilst being honest about the weaker areas and seeking to develop those. For me, this has been very liberating. (And if you are interested, this is roughly what I come out as): An Advocate, or INFJ, with some turbulence)

2. That different approaches are required in different situations. In our church small-group, we've been considering what love is. I have found it interesting to reflect on how we can stereotype 'love', but when you look at how Jesus responded to different individuals, He was always motivated by love, but expressed it very differently according to the situation. For example, He was very direct with the Pharisees, challenging them and describing them in quite harsh terms (such as 'whitewashed tombs'). He responded very gently to the woman caught in adultery as he reminded those around her that none of us is free from sin. He challenged the rich young ruler by asking him questions in return. He was gentle and accepting of the children who came to Him. Perhaps this doesn't apply directly to leadership, but it reminds me that there is often not just one approach or style when it comes to our relationship with others. Some may come more naturally, but others should be used in some situations. My example in leadership is that I find it much easier to be gentle and draw alongside my team members, trying to understand where they are coming from and motivate them towards the goal. However, there are times, particularly when it comes to the high standards of quality required in the projects, when I have to be stricter and point out that things need to improve. Other people I work with find the former more difficult and are excellent at the latter.

3. In terms of personality types, I found it helpful to recognise that although I work in teams, as both a leader and a member, and do a fair bit of public speaking, I am much more introverted. I think I had previously thought of an 'introvert' as a socially awkward person who would blame their personality for not making any effort socially. However it isn't that (and if you are an introvert reading this, you might be laughing at me for having to say this). It is much more to do with what you find energising and refreshing. I love to be around people, but I find it exhausting. I'd not really understood why this was before. It also helped me to understand that going for a long run in the mornings when I am travelling for work is not just a luxury, but something quite important for me to be able to perform at my best. It has made me understand a little bit of why I've been feeling quite tired and burnt out lately - that I have struggled to get time to recharge. I do not wish to use it as an excuse, but rather to understand how to function best.

4. I have previously heard Christians dismiss things like leadership training as 'psychobabble' or being worldly wisdom and not something we should pay attention to. However, I would disagree - I am seeing it as an ability to understand how God made people, in all their beauty and diversity. I see it as a tool - not to be held rigidly, but to be useful in helping us understand ourselves and others, and being able to give grace to ourselves and others.

5. Appreciating that leadership and personal development is as important an aspect of the work as the scientific disciplines - the more I read and learn, the more some of the situations I have encountered in the past start to make sense. In almost every conflict or relationship breakdown, I can see different personality styles at play, and start to see that there could perhaps have been a better outcome if there had been greater understanding of these factors. More personally, I see it as very important to my own emotional health, to take time to reflect on this.

So, what am I going to do differently? A recent, and not fully resolved episode of exhaustion (possibly something like 'burnout', possibly a bout of depression) has made me appreciate the need to put into place some definite changes, and reflection on my God-given personality and changing roles with increasing leadership responsibilities has helped me recognise what some of these need to be. Here are some examples for now:

1. Firstly, finding somebody who I can trust to mentor me in this process - I am very thankful for that. Also, with two colleagues who also attended the leadership course, we are setting up a small leadership group where we will meet regularly to discuss challenges and developments.

2. Blocking regular time off in the diary. Because my current job does not require my husband or I to book leave significantly in advance, it has been easy just not to take the leave. Something always crops up, a meeting, an emergency, a situation, a deadline. However, we need time away - and so have put some days into the diary.

3. Setting aside an hour a week for personal/leadership development - to read and reflect on this topic

4. Making sure I get enough exercise - when I work from the clinic, I walk 45 minutes each way which is a wonderful time for rest and reflection, but on the days when I work from home, I miss that very much. Realising that enables me to try and get out for a run on those days too.

5. Being honest about the challenges - and the things I am learning. It is so easy to feel you are alone when things are tough, but I am increasingly recognising that a lot of how I have been feeling lately is more common.