About Me

I am a Christian mother of five, and our highest goal as a family is to serve God in every aspect of our lives. Jesus promised His disciples 'life in all its abundance' (John 10:10) - that has been our story, a rich life, not devoid of challenges, but certainly abundant. Previously writing at www.homeeducationnovice.blogspot.com, we have come to realise that education is just one area where our faith shapes our choices and direction in life. This blog seeks to share our adventure (using font only to enable access in settings with poor internet)

Friday, 27 December 2013

Priorities. A checklist

I think it is important to think carefully about choices we make in our lives, and choices that affect how we raise our children. If you are also home educating, you probably spend more time considering these things than many, and I may well be 'preaching to the choir'.

As we approach the start of a new year (and the start of a new academic year in most of the Southern Hemisphere), I've been thinking about what we do. Is there anything new we need to start? Has anything run its course? Are there any big gaps? Are there any areas which need a bit more work? Are there places where one child needs a bit more time and effort?

Rather than discuss specifics (that post will come), I would like to give some principles which help our family make decisions regarding day to day decisions:

1) Does this activity encourage us in our walk with God? Does it enable us to learn more about Him? There are many day to day activities which do so, although you might not realise it at first glance. Quickly thinking through a day, there are the obvious ones like Bible time, family worship, music (which overlaps), nature studies, biographies. Then there are those which help us understand more about the world God has placed us in - science, cooking, relationship building activities. There are things which build character traits, such as discipline (sport comes in here), attention to detail, concentration, listening, narration, description, use of imaginative language - these are skills and tools which enable us to appreciate more of God as revealed to us in His word, the Bible.

2) Does this activity discourage or distract us from our walk with God? Again, there are some things which might obviously fall into this category, whereas others may be more subtle. I think for Christian parents it is often those which are subtle that can be most damaging. I've previously considered my views on television (and referenced writings of others). Others whom I respect do not share my view here, but my concern is the subtle influences which are not immediately obvious. That is just one example.

3) What is my motivation for pursuing this? Why do I want my child to be doing X, Y or Z? Is it to gain essential skills (literacy, numeracy, linguistics, physical agility, etc)? Or is it to push them into an area where they may have success in the future? I think one has to be so careful here, as it is often difficult to work out what our motives are. However, at the same time I often read of 'helicopter parents', or the very focussed 'tiger parents' more prevalent in Asian societies, and of the long term adverse consequences these well-meaning approaches can have. My interpretation of some of these reports it that it is good to help our children focus and develop all the essential areas and any additional ones for which they show desire or aptitude. But at the same time, to keep coming back to the wellbeing of the child as central. At the end, what is our greatest desire for our children?

4) Do I feel a pressure to prove something as a homeschooling parent? I've considered elements of motivation in point 3, but I think a specific temptation for homeschooling parents may arise from skeptical attitudes of friends and family. I know I can feel this way at times. I can almost hear the voices of some of these people telling me that 'if only you put them in a normal school, then A, B or C would not be a problem'. At times I also feel a need to prove that our methods are working. Whilst one of the major benefits in homeschooling is that each child can progress at their own pace, and there is no pressure to have achieved specific targets by specific ages, many of us were brought up under systems where they only way something could be proven was through tests and targets. The fallacy of this is that any home educating parent will know how well their child is progressing, what his strengths and weaknesses are, and not need to constantly test. Indeed, a major reason for governments reliance on testing is large class sizes, insufficient individual attention and frankly not knowing the individual child; it is not for the child's benefit that the testing is done. But even knowing this, we must beware of the temptation to try and prove.

The Bible has much to say about our motivations, and I find it helpful to prayerfully consider my choices in the light of some of these exhortations:

'Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ' Philippians 1:27

'Search me Oh God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offence in me, and lead me in the way everlasting'. Psalm 139

'If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.' James 1:5

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas reflection

It's 7pm on Christmas Day. My boys are asleep (a little unwell, and tired from the excitement of the day). My husband is sleeping before his night shift. For the first time in a while I am sitting peacefully in my front room and taking some time to reflect. Sorry for the absence of blog posts in the past six weeks!

What is Christmas about? 

What really matters? What do we want our children to understand about this time of year? I've found some things challenging this year - we are in the UK, whereas last year we were in west Africa, working in a mission hospital; somehow there was a much greater focus on Christ, His incarnation, His salvation and the priorities were to honour and worship Him. Yes, we enjoyed special food, and exchanged small gifts, but the priority, the emphasis was on the birth of our Saviour. Here, even within the churches that I know, there seems to be a skewed emphasis. One of my four year olds was almost laughed at the other day, when somebody was asking what they thought the best thing about Christmas was, and he said 'Jesus dying on the cross'. I don't know if the laughter was because they thought he was confusing Christmas and Easter, or because all the other children were talking about food, toys, television and parties. But it made me sad because this took place in a Christian context.

How do churches portray the celebration of Christ? 

The preamble to a service might talk about gifts, maybe even ask the children what gifts they had recieved. That happened this morning, whereas we as a family do not open gifts until after church because our priority is worship. We want the children to know that God comes first, and that Christmas is primarily a celebration of Jesus. I'm not against gifts, or joyful celebration by any means! Today, we'd had a lovely morning, special breakfast muffins, a brisk walk across two frosty parks watching the pink and yellow sunrise, time together as a family. But it was confusing and distracting to have the pastor start by asking lots of people to tell the church what presents they had recieved. And then to conclude with remarks to the effect that its now time to go back to feasting and enjoying gifts - also suggests that God is somehow an added extra, even though the focus of the sermon was entirely the opposite. As an adult, I found this frustrating, and I was aware of how this may confuse children by sending mixed messages. On the one hand, as Christians we can really celebrate Christmas because we understand its deeper meaning, but on the other hand, we celebrate very much in the same way as the world.

I knew some Canadian missionaries who did not celebrate Christmas Day at all. I think that approach misses the point too, because it is a time worthy of great celebration. But I can also understand some of their reasons. In the UK, it seems to me that 'Christmas' often becomes a celebration of materialism, of the family, of feasting (which can turn into gluttony and drunkenness) and often brings much of the opposite of what Christ brought into the world. But at the same time, is it not a real opportunity to challenge people to consider what they are truly celebrating, and who Jesus was and what He did? I don't think we should not celebrate. But I would also urge caution. There can be a tendency amongst the church to think that because they are not as extreme in their excesses as those in the world, that it is somehow OK. It is true that we are called to be 'in the world but not of the world' and that we need to understand the people around us to be able to know them more, and to love them more. But at the same time, we are told to be 'holy' - to be set apart for God, to be different. Often, I come to think of what it means to be in the world but not of it, to live here but never fully belong, to be a 'stranger'. The motivation is that we are longing for our heavenly home, the place where we will truly know rest, the place where all things will be restored and made new. And that is the celebration of Christmas.

How can we truly celebrate?

I hope what I have written above makes sense. I am not a miserable, joyless, legalistic grouch! But I feel concerned when churches seem to bend over to reach the world to the point where they almost seem to forget what their highest priority is. People long for something more. In the book of Ecclesiastes, it is written 'You put eternity in the heart of man' - there is a longing for something higher, purer, better than this corrupt world that surrounds us. And Christmas is a time to remember that glory and to truly rejoice!
Pondering these things, I came across another Christian parent with similar concerns.

So, you might wonder, if I feel a bit conflicted by some church activities, and if I am anxious not to celebrate in a way which is too worldly, and if as home educating Christian parents we are seeking to instill in our children a greater understanding of God and what it means to rejoice in Jesus' birth - then what have we done over the advent period?

1) Memory verses/ passages. I've reflected before that young children are expected to be able to remember nursery rhymes or songs from TV shows, but that somehow Bible memory is seen as too serious an activity or too advanced for them at this age. We were first challenged by this when we celebrated our first African Christmas with a family who home educated their seven children. Each of them had prepared something, right down to the three year old. This year, our four year olds learned most of Luke Chapter 2, the passage from Isaiah 9 proclaiming, 'Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders. And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace'. They now get extremely excited when they hear these words spoken in church, and have been writing their own songs with them in!

2) We baked cookies and sweets, made cards, and then took them round to friends as gifts. It's difficult these days - most people have everything they want or need, but there is something personal about a home made gift, and few people don't enjoy something nice to eat. Also, it makes it tangible for the children to see that effort goes into making something good, but that it brings real pleasure. Again, it reinforces the importance of relationships and community, which sometimes seem lacking in current society.

3) We've done music. Lots of it. Recently we got a new piano (having left our old one behind when we left Africa). I've brought down my saxophone (which had been hiding upstairs for too long) and the boys have various percussion instruments. We gather round the piano most evenings, and over Christmas have had extended singing times after dinner. Its a really special thing to do, to be able to worship God together as a family. (It also has the added bonus that the boys become more accustomed to times of singing/ bible reading/ prayer and so cope better with Sunday church services). Through the words of some of the great Christmas carols, we've all been able to reflect and know something more of God.

4) Making decorations. We've collected pinecones, holly and ivy, and some of these we have spray painted silver. We made a large collage of shepherds out in the fields, watching over their flocks by night when suddenly an Angel of the Lord appeared to them. We've asked the boys to think about what they've read in the Bible and what needs to go on the collage. As well as being fun and making a lovely decoration, they've thought quite a bit about how it must be to be out in the fields at night - hence we lit a fire for the shepherds and made them some warm clothes!

5) Visiting family. We live quite a distance from most relatives, but were able to visit a large section of the family last week. Like I said, I'm not against visiting friends and family, enjoying meals together and having fun - its just that I think the emphasis needs to be on why we are having the celebrations.

6) Lots of baking. Cooking is a big activity in this house, in that we do plenty of it, but involve the boys and embrace the many educational opportunities that present themselves as one follows a recipe. Sometimes I stick to things I know are simple and will work well, but this month we've experimented a bit more

7) Singing carols in a nursing home with a group from church. This was a very special thing to do. Many of the old people in that home were confused and suffering with memory loss, but their faces lit up as they started to sing along to the old carols that they remembered from their youth. It was good for the boys to be involved in this, and to seek to share some of the good news about God with those who may not know it themselves.

In all these things, my prayer is that the boys know and love God more each day as they grow. Somebody recently told me I was thinking too much about things, maybe being a bit 'hard on myself' when I was reflecting on mixed motives and whether we truly live to serve and honour God in all things. But as a parent, what is the most important thing of all? What is your priority? Truly? Is it simply to get through the day, or to do the things that everybody else does without thinking about it? Or is it worth stopping and thinking a little more. 

'And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.' 
Colossians 3:17

Sunday, 17 November 2013

A new song

'He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.' Psalm 40 verse 3

'Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them.' Isaiah 42 verse 10

Many times in the Bible, somebody will sing a 'new song' of praise, when God has done something new in their lives, or when they are simply overwhelmed by His amazing love and grace in a new way. A new song is something fresh, something unique, the overflow of a heart which has been transformed. And to God, this is beautiful.

God looks at our hearts, and His delight is when we seek to live according to His pattern, according to His will.

'You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.' Psalm 51:6-7

Previously I have reflected on how even young children can know God in ways beyond which our adult minds would consider. We are often suprised by this (at least, I know I can be!) but in fact the Bible makes clear that Jesus not only loves children and welcomes them to Himself, but also that 

'Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.' Psalm 8 verse 2

I think there is a tendancy to stifle a child's freedom and imagination. It's one of our reasons for home education - that we want our children to be able to explore, to discover, to find their place in this world, to form a rounded understanding of who they are and where they stand before God. But is there a tendency to fill a child's mind with brightly coloured pictures, entertaining illustrations and other distractions which somehow prevent them from seeing the greatest and most glorious things of all?  

Every morning we start with a Psalm. The boys particularly like the ones which praise God for all His marvellous works. They then delight in singing 'new songs' to God. For the 4 year old, these are often strikingly theologically accurate, and show not only his own grasp of some of the things we have been learning, but I believe a heart which is genuinely seeking to know and love the God that his parents always speak of. For my 3 year old, it can be harder to tell - one minute his song will be thanking God for sending Jesus to die on the cross, and then thanking God for bunk beds and pudding. But again, it is a sincere song, and both boys love to be able to do what the psalmist did before them, and bring before God something new and fresh and heartfelt. At times, it can be tempting to laugh because of their sincerity, or at other times to quash their long-winded and slightly tuneless efforts, and sing something better known that we can all join in with. But at the same time, it is a wonderful stage of development and I love to share their freedom and imagination as they discover new things.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Community, fellowship, ministry. Jargon? Or opportunity?

I've been thinking quite a bit about the concepts of 'community', 'fellowship' and 'ministry'.

I'm going to start with a story. One evening, when I was 17 years old and had not been a Christian for many months, I was invited to a barbecue. A retired gentleman, dapper in his blazer and shiny shoes, asked me 'Where do you worship?'. Immediately, I thought of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, and of how 'the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father....The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will workshio the Father in spirit and in truth...' (John 4:21-24). So I replied, that I worshipped wherever I happened to be at that time, whether that be in my room, or out on my bike, or walking along the road. The man laughed and asked again, 'I mean, with which fellowship do you worship?' The barbecue I was at was with an organisation with Fellowship in its name, so I thought quickly and replied, 'Here. This is a fellowship, so I am worshipping here!' The man looked at me like I was a bit crazy, and we both went on to other conversations. I went home very upset; I really had not understood what the question was about. I had never heard the phrase 'where do you worship?' used to mean 'where do you go to church?', and I had never heard the term 'fellowship' used for a church. At the time, I was mortified because I knew I had missed the point, but did not know what the conversation had been about. Looking back, I see it as a useful illustration.

Beware Christian jargon!

It is easy to assume, especially when one has been moving in Christian circles for some time, that people understand the kind of phrases we tend to use. However, we must remember that especially in this current generation, people will not understand. As a young Christian I felt alienated and upset through my misunderstandings; how much more so may people who have never set foot inside a church be made to stumble through thoughtless use of 'jargon'.

In some ways, this was a digression, but I wanted to make a serious point. We may assume that we are all on the same page when we talk about things such as 'community', 'fellowship' or 'ministry'. Once, in a country far from the UK, we made a comment about what we saw as a lack of fellowship amongst those who attended a church together; the pastor looked absolutely astonished, and said, 'Did you not see everybody having a cup of tea togther at the end of the service?' You see, to some people, the absolute pinnacle of meaningful Christian fellowship is a cup of tea together after the service on a Sunday. Other readers here will perhaps feel more like I do, that true 'fellowship' consists of a shared life, of a sacrificial love, of a genuine concern and compassion which motivates to action, to an open door and availability for those in need. But to others, this really does cross into a foreign realm.

I've recently considered many ways in which having a slightly alternative lifestyle involving both work (and that being work in more than one continent) and home schooling children can lead to unique opportunities for the formation of community.

But what about 'ministry'?

What is ministry anyway? The verb 'to minister' originally meant to serve or help one another; overtones of religious duties have become superimposed upon that, such that some of the original meaning is lost. Basically, it is to serve one another, both those within and those outside the church.

So, how can I do it with my 'lifestyle'?

I think I'll start by considering some of the things I cannot do. There are times when I feel quite guilty about this, and I have also heard the challenge from other Christian parents that homeschooling is fundamentally selfish as it reduces our availability and opportunity for 'ministry'.

So, what can I not do?

  • I find it difficult to have 'deep and meaningful' conversations. 
  • It is not always easy to visit those who are unwell or feeling fragile (over the past couple of years, I've had a couple of friends who have told me that they would like to see me, but would not be able to cope with the boys; and given that I haven't had an easy childcare solution, I have not been able to visit as I would have wished.)
  • I am not able to be as 'intense' or focussed as if I did not have boys to be watching. There have been occasions when people have popped round (often bang on dinner, bath and bed time) and seemed a bit frustrated that I have not been able to engage in these type of conversations (although I have made clear they are welcome to help put the boys to bed and then stay for a cup of tea!)
  • I am not so able to do things in small, enclosed spaces. What I mean by that is that if somebody acutally would like to spend some 'quality' time with me, then the best thing to do would be to join us for a walk in the park. The boys could run ahead, go exploring etc; but the person who was joining me would need to be willing to wrap up warm, potentially get rained on, and be willing to go off the beaten track into the undergrowth.

But sometimes by dwelling on these things, perhaps feeling quite guilty, I can forget the things that can be done, and things that can potentially be done even better given our 'lifestyle choices'. For example:

  • One of us will be based at home during the day (although is likely to be out in a park, by the river, in a library, art gallery or museum, or off having some other kind of adventure). There are not many things we do where somebody would not be welcome to join us. If somebody were to text us, we would invite them to join; one or two people do this, and I would say we have really strong, encouraging relationships
  • We always have plenty of food, enough for an unexpected guest, and lots of strong coffee (or a range of tea for the caffeine sensitive). If somebody was to drop by at mealtime, they would be most welcome.
  • There are times when people who are needy, worn out and discouraged do not need intense, one on one time. They might think that they do, but in fact it is far more beneficial to forget the problems for a while and just relax, run around, climb trees, forage for fruit, explore uncharted territories (the undergrowth in the park) etc. I have seen that to be true in my own life and in that of others. We saw it with stressed missionaries last winter.
  • I can pray. Often, as I walk around with the boys, I have time when I can bring the needs and concerns of my friends before the throne of grace.

So my 'ministry', or more appropriately, the ministry of our family, also does not fit into a box. I cannot easily say that I am involved in X, Y and Z and have these clearly defined roles, and am 'ministering' to these specific people. I can't easily quanitfy it. But I have people passing through my home. A frequent conversation that takes place is when I am introduced to somebody, and we are trying to work out where we know one another from. It might then be realised, 'I know where I met you! It was at your house'; because we often host student groups or have random, spontanoeous gatherings. We are always willing to host guest overnight, and again, this often leads onto a strong and challenging Christian relationship.

What is the point of this blog post? It is not to justify my own existence and choices! But rather, it is to challenge the stereotypes. It is very easy to focus on what you cannot do, what is not currently possible, of your limitations; and it is relatively easy from there to become discouraged. However, let me encourage you! I believe that one of the greatest needs of modern society is for family, for relationships. If you are home educating your children, you have also chosen to invest in your family in a sacrificial manner. In fact, it is likely that you are more available for 'ministry', for spontaneously reaching out to those who are needy and lonely than the average family which spends a lot of time juggling between both parents working and taking children back and forward to childcare or extracurricular activities.

We can indeed minister, but it does not fit into a box. I've reflected a few times here on my good friends, role models and mentors. These women were not heavily involved in standardised 'ministries' such as structured activities or progammes within a church, and yet I would say had the greatest ministry of all: an open home and a shared life.

Let us pray that we can use those opportunities that present themselves to us day by day.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Community/ Fellowship

This week, a friend asked me ‘What does community look like with a lifestyle like yours?’ The lifestyle referred to involves my husband and I both working part-time so that one of us is always home with the children; but ‘part time’ can exceed 40 hours per week, and may be comprised of unusual and antisocial shifts such that we can often pass several days and only see each other long enough to ‘hand over’ the essential information about the children. The question was motivated by concern for my wellbeing, and I believe, a specific concern about my spiritual wellbeing and the opportunities I have to develop relationships where I can encourage others and be encouraged in my faith. However, it was also a question that caused me a small amount of frustration, as it had a hint of a rhetorical tone, perhaps even an implication that ‘community’ is not possible when one lives as we do.

Beginning this reflection, it is helpful to consider the definition of community. ‘A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common’ or ‘the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common’. 

I think that is quite fundamental – one forms community with those who have something in common. Specifically, as it relates to my own life, I experience community in these areas (and I am deliberately combining secular and spiritual at this point in my discussion):

1)      With my neighbours, as we meet going about our daily business. This is perhaps mostly experienced with those who either have young children, or who can fondly reflect back to the time when their children were young. My husband and I often reflect that since having had children and both being part time, we know our neighbours far better than in the days when we got up, went to work and then came home basically to eat and sleep.

2)      On my route to work; I run the three miles there and back, and often pass the same people at the same times of day. Often this is not much more than a friendly greeting, but repeated short conversations at traffic lights can build into a form of relationship over the years.

3)      Meeting other like-minded parents out and about with their children. When I say ‘like minded’, I mean those who are likely to be in similar places doing similar things. I’ve blogged elsewhere about my astonishment how few families with children are out in the open air enjoying nature, for example. I have built relationships with several families who can be found sheltering under sycamore trees in the pouring rain, or jumping across the stepping stones, splashing in puddles, building shelters in the undergrowth and generally embracing the beauty that surrounds them, whatever the weather. It doesn’t take long before these shared pleasures form the basis of relationships where we talk about more significant matters than the amount of mud on our babies’ faces.

4)      In my workplace, building relationships with those who have shared motivations and interests. Specifically, I often become involved in mentoring of young women who wish to combine their academic pursuits with a healthy life-work balance. Often conversations will lead to a discussion of what things are truly of lasting value, and are an opportunity to give consideration to those matters of eternal significance.

5)      Through a faith-based organisation focussing on the field in which we work. Often the challenges discussed relate to long, irregular hours, evenings spent revising for exams or preparing research proposals, feelings of misunderstanding from within the church when one cannot always be regular at meetings (and this can be interpreted as lack of commitment) and grapplings with various ethical and moral issues that arise. Through a shared meal, and honest conversation about things that matter much to us, a real sense of community develops. Some of my closest friends are involved in this organisation, and the bond grows as we are able to be genuine about the things that matter most to us, and honest about the challenges of living an authentic Christian life in the workplace.

6)      Through home schooling events and networks locally. Both a general network which brings a diverse range of families with many different motivations and aims for home education, and a Christian home education group where we share some of the more specific ideological reasons for our choices

7)      Through blogs and networks online, relating to both home education and also matters relating to the outworking of our Christian faith in the midst of an increasingly secular, post-modern society. Whilst there is no substitute for real-life relationships and time spent together, I believe the internet is an extremely valuable resource especially for the home-educating family who may feel a little isolated.

8)      Through spending time with people who identify with our children and see them as an intrinsic part of the family. By this, I mean those who treat the children as individuals, and who are happy to go places and do things that suit them best – such as a walk in the park, a trip to an art gallery or museum, a brisk stroll along the beach etc. When the children are happy and included, then as parents we are much more free to build relationships. To try and push the children aside to allow time for ‘adult conversation’ does not enhance my sense of being in community, but rather of isolation and misunderstanding. I recently reflected on this after meeting up with some missionary friends of ours. And my appreciation that children are an intrinsic part of life, community, ministry, whatever you may term it was enhanced during ten weeks in West Africa where our children were key to the role we had in the village.

9)      Through specific Bible studies and Christian meetings – but I suppose for me this does come a little far down the list. As a family, we are currently in a slightly unsettled, far from ideal situation of being ‘between churches’ although we have been attending a place of worship every Sunday. I love discussing the Bible, how it relates to our lives, how we can seek to radiate the love of Christ to those around us, how we can raise our children in a God-honouring way, and just generally marvelling at all God has done for us. But I suppose I also enjoy a lot of this through points 5, 6, 7 and 8 above.

I’ve specifically been broad in these points, and jumped from the neighbourhood where we live, through to relationships formed on the way to and at work, through to relationships based around the shared pursuit of raising children, through to specific Christian groups (or ‘para-church’ networks) focussing on both personal and professional outworkings of our faith, and finally moved onto the organised church itself. I’ve chosen this order in part to stimulate thought.

Community does not take the shape of a neatly packaged box. 

Christian community, or as it is often termed ‘fellowship’, springs from the concept of ‘koinonia’. This refers to the idealised state of harmony within the Christian church. The Acts of the Apostles details the events which took place following the death and resurrection of Christ. I am often taken by how the disciples ‘had everything in common’ and would break bread together, and move from house to house sharing all they had. The relationship of Christians to each other is deep, and often is closer than that experienced in biological families; Christ Himself said that ‘by this all men shall know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another’. It is counter-cultural and challenges the self-centred mentality seen in the world today.

But what does koinonia look like in 2013?

I will not attempt to replicate the detailed work of several wise Christian authors. But the point to be made is that there is not, nor cannot be, a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It is extremely easy for one Christian ‘box’ to be replaced by another. One form of meeting is replaced by another, but all that has really changed is the time or the place or the structure. The important thing is what is attempted to be achieved by such meetings; to facilitate the type of relationships where one can truly share one’s life, to move beyond ‘community’ into that deeper sense of fellowship, of koinonia, of being part of the body of Christ on earth. 

So how does it work for the person who works shifts or moves around frequently? Is true fellowship impossible? That cannot be so, but creative ways may need to be found to maximise the opportunities available. And often, for that individual, feeling tired and isolated, it may not be easy to think creatively at all. I do believe that the church as a whole must take care not to further discourage such people by making them feel strange, or uncommitted, or simply wrong in their choices. 

My understanding of the Biblical principles behind some of this is that we will be placed within a biological family, within a neighbourhood, perhaps within a workplace, where we are given the task of being salt and light (being a visible and distinct presence with a worldview based on our relationship with God rather than secular values). We cannot all be the same, nor should we be. There may come a time when a Christian reflects on their responsibilities and time-management and realises that difficult choices have to be made; this may involve changing or leaving a job, moving to a new neighbourhood, making simpler financial decisions etc. But one cannot extrapolate a Biblical precedent to say that we all need to be living in a stereotyped way.

For me, the biggest challenge, perhaps the biggest frustration is not from the long hours, irregular shifts or moving between cities or countries. It relates more to the attitude many have towards children, even (or perhaps especially) within the church. I’ve blogged about the concept of family-integrated church – of whether this is a realistic possibility or an unattainable ideal. I believe the challenges are two-fold. Firstly, there is a general lack of discipline in our generation which means that children do not know how to conduct themselves in certain situations; it is perhaps easier for them to be pushed aside or kept in a separate room so that the adults can focus on the ‘important’ matters. But the other side to that is that our expectations of our children are often too low; they know when they are being given a simplified version of something, and can feel patronised or excluded when they are treated as though they cannot understand what the adults are talking about. Personally, I find that other people get defensive when you do something different with your own children, perhaps seeing it as some form of indirect criticism. As well as placing a strain on a relationship, it also can increase my sense of isolation as others seem to see me as being somehow immune from fatigue, discouragement or exposure to the general cares of this world. (That I also resolve never to moan about my children, about tiredness or ill health, about lack of ‘me time’ etc is also a little counter-cultural, even within church circles). 

So, what can I conclude? Community is possible for all of us. As John Donne wisely said, ‘No man is an island’. We all experience some level of community with others as we live our lives; but for some this may not take the same shape as for the majority. Fellowship, that deeper level of Christian relationship, is also possible with a wide range of lifestyles and working patterns; it just may not fit the stereotyped expectations of others. For us, we are often involved in ministries/ discipleship etc with others from a range of different congregations. Is this right or wrong? Or neutral? I believe the church is bigger than one individual congregation or group of believers, although commitment to (and perhaps even membership of) a local church is clearly an important priority.

I’ve touched on a large range of different topics and am approaching 2000 words. So, I’ll stop here! I’d love to know your own thoughts and experiences of community, and how this relates to your own unique circumstances.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Quality Time

Today the boys asked me which was my favourite season. I think there is much that can be said about them all, but crisp autumn days must be among my favourite times of year. The clocks changed last night, which meant we had longer between getting up and going to church, and it was wonderful to have a long walk, running through deep piles of leaves, enjoying the way the sunlight danced and played through different types of trees, collecting wild apples and walnuts which had fallen during the high winds overnight, jumping over puddles, climbing on tree trunks, and generally celebrating all that is glorious about God's creation at this time of day.

As the boys ran ahead, I reflected on how thankful I am for days like these. Days when one neither regrets the past nor considers the future, but rather where what happens now is of greatest importance. When I was younger, there was a time when living seemed to be in the future. When I am old enough. When I pass this certain hurdle. When I finish this course. When I go to this or that place. When I'm older, when I'm married etc. Maybe you can relate to this. I think a huge benefit of home education is that some of these pressures are removed and each day can be embraced for its simplicity, for its beauty, for the moments that cannot be replicated or even repeated to another. People who spend less time with their children speak often of 'quality time'. But the error in this way of thinking is that one can manufacture such 'quality', that the moments can be created, chosen, planned and accurately predicted. To me, the moments of 'quality' occur in the midst of a 'normal' day. The quality is the pleasure of unrushed, free relationships. Of the fleeting glimpse of a rainbow before the storm. Of the lightening which makes the sky dark in the middle of the afternoon. Of the particular discovery of that day.

I've reflected much on how society pulls against such relationships, against such structures within families, against simplicity and enjoyment of the wonders which surround us. Many people consider me naive, that my ideas are unrealistic in 'this day and age'. Even this morning, for almost two hours in some large and beautiful parks, we saw our usual joggers and dog walkers, but no other children. I am almost tempted to ask the question on Facebook, 'What do people with children do on weekend mornings?' - but I fear I may be seen as being provocative, and I am not convinced I want to hear the responses anyway.

God has blessed me with time to enjoy days like these, and for that I am thankful. Like every other parent, I perhaps would have cherished an 'extra hour in bed', but the blessing of this quality time with my children in the beautiful autumn sunlight was of far greater benefit. Rather than focussing on what you don't have, what you cannot achieve, of what you feel you may miss out on, celebrate and embrace that which has been given to you.

I pray that this week God surprises weary homeschooling parents with moments of indescribable delight. I pray that God encourages families to consider what things really matter. And I pray that you start this week with a focus on those things of lasting value.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Nature Deficit Disorder

I've been reading a report by the National Trust on a phenomenon which they have termed Nature Deficit Disorder. I found it compelling reading; much of what is said there supports some of the conclusions I have developed since having children. It summarises some of the root causes of the problem - exaggerated fears among parents (both of road accidents, other injuries and of 'stranger danger'); the increasing amount of time spent in front of screens (the statistics on how much television and computer time the average UK child and teenager spends continue to shock me); the hectic pace of life which results in less time spent at 'leisure'.

Of particular interest here is the discussion about how children who are freed from their desks learn better in four specific ways:

1) Cognitive impacts (greater knowledge and understanding)
2) Affective impacts (attitudes, values, beliefs and self-perceptions)
3) Interpersonal and social impacts (communication skills, leadership and teamwork)
4) Physical and behavioural impacts (fitness, personal behaviours and social actions).

'So, children who learn outdoors know more, understand more, feel better, behave better, work more co-operativel and are physically healthier. Importantly, this is not just for able and motivated pupils: under-achievers also do better in a natural environment, especially when exposed to high quality, stimulating activities'.

Further barriers and potential solutions are discussed.

Consider the report. Are there any simple changes you can make which will allow your children more time outside to explore, and to harness all the benefits of increased contact with nature?

Monday, 14 October 2013

Secular versus Spiritual Wisdom

Lately I’ve been reading some secular works on the education of young children, and some of the social advantages in home education. If you read this blog regularly, you will know that I am a Christian who believes the Bible to be the living word of God, the absolute truth and final authority on all matters. Many of the books and resources that I read and refer to are by authors who hold a similar view. But lately I am reading academic works from those who do not make clear whether or not they believe in the same truths. Is there a paradox? I have some Christian friends who are cautious, indeed at times suspicious, of anything written from this perspective; they explain clearly the differences between wisdom that comes from God in heaven and ‘worldly’ wisdom which often has a very different motivation. However, I’d like to add a short note to explain my stance on this.

Firstly, I read everything through the lens of my biblical worldview. There are books, magazines, and blogs which I glance at and then go no further as I feel the attitude with which they are written is simply not helpful, and that I will not be able to draw anything beneficial for my family from them (I must comment that this will include writings by Christian authors, which I simply do not find helpful or encouraging). With others, I can recognise truth, indeed wisdom, and then I ask myself whether this fits in with my understanding of how God sees things. Is what I am reading consistent with a biblical view on children, family life, marriage, humanity, society and so forth? Using the recent example of John Holt’s 1967 publication, ‘How Children Learn’ I will illustrate this.

What does the Bible say about children? How does God view children? This list is far from exhaustive!

Psalm 128: 3-4: ‘Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of your house, your children like olive plants all around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord’.

Psalm 127: 3-4: ‘Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth’.

In the words of Jesus,

Matthew 18:3-5: ‘Assuredly I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.’

Matthew 19:14: ‘Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven’.

The following principles can be drawn:

·         Each child is known by God; indeed, each child is placed within a family as a blessing from God

·         God entrusts our children to us, to train them as arrows in the hand of a warrior (with purpose)

·         Each child is precious

·         Time invested with children is more important than much time invested elsewhere; Jesus’ disciples thought He had more important priorities, and He rebuked and corrected this view

·         The childlike mind is different to that of an adult, and finds it easier to trust and accept things about the world around them; Jesus does not suggest that children are too  young, simple or naive to understand the things of God, but quite the contrary.

Reading John Holt, I see certain things about his attitude towards children, and the attitude he is keen that the reader comes to adopt:

·         He respects children as individuals

·         He trusts children, and is impressed by the workings of their mind and their understanding

·         He sees each child as unique, precious, worth investing time in

·         He has a desire that each child should be nurtured and encouraged rather than forced into a mentality of failure and disappointment

·         He has a humility, recognising that in fact children can teach us many things

There is no appreciation in Holt’s writings of a greater purpose, of a perfect creator. There is no reference to the verses in Deuteronomy Chapter 6 which exhort us: ‘And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.’ – but his model of education approaches this holistic description (except sadly lacking in the spiritual dimension which one could argue is the most important of all). It is sad that a man with such a gentle, humble, and dare I say, enlightened, attitude towards children could not see beyond the created beings to the glorious Creator. (I could also comment that his attitude towards children seems to me more Christlike than some of the attitudes I have encountered within the church, where it can seem that they are a nuisance, to be seen and not heard, and certainly not to be encouraged to remain during the full worship service on a Sunday morning! But I’ve discussed this aspect elsewhere under my posts on ‘Family centred church’ and some of the writings and sermons of Voddie Baucham).

And there are elements that are absent by omission. No mention is made of discipline, for example, although a reasonable proportion of Bible teaching on child-rearing relates to consistent and firm discipline when it is needed. None of the children Holt described were his own, and he did not spend prolonged time with any of these; I wonder whether some of his approaches may have led to a home which is dominated by the whims of a wilful toddler. This is a limitation, but I do not believe detracts greatly from the value of the thesis.

Can a non-believer offer anything of value to a Christian parent? I sometimes am asked a similar question in relation to my own scientific academic work, and I believe the question shows a fundamental misunderstanding of a human being in relation to God. The letter to the Romans starts by describing how ‘since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse...for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them.’ (Romans 1:20, 2:14-15). All people are made in the image of God. Much of God’s glory and goodness is made manifest in creation; even by examining the workings of a young child’s mind, it is conceivable that John Holt was able to glimpse something of God’s amazing creator, and perhaps in his heart may have cried out with the psalmist ‘I will praise You for I am fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139). Even if not, is it not within the bounds of possibility that his writings were able to capture some essence of God’s love, compassion, concern and purpose for children? 

Yes, one must be careful in how far this argument is taken. And I pray that I have the wisdom to read what is helpful and to ignore that which is not. I pray that what I write here on this blog is a challenge and encouragement to both Christians and to those who perhaps do not know and love this God, but are keen to explore the fact that there is a spiritual dimension to this world.