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)

Sunday 22 June 2014

Holiness: What we teach our children

Lately I have been considering holiness. What is it? What might it look like in 2014? How do we teach our children the importance of a holy, godly life without introducing legalism? Whilst the children are still in their formative years, whilst they do not yet have a transforming relationship with the risen Lord, how can our homes best model not only the love, joy, peace and hope of Christ, but also appropriate reverence and honour?

‘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 Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’. 1 Peter 1:13-16

‘Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord’ Hebrews 12:14

What does this word even mean? I often find words become somewhat corrupt with time, and the word ‘holy’ might bring certain unhealthy stereotypes to your mind. Perhaps the person who is described as ‘holier than thou’ who is basically judgemental, or maybe people who remain in a ‘holy huddle’ and do not engage with the world and its challenges and difficulties. But what does it really mean.

Quoting RC Sproul (link contains a more detailed discussion of this point), To be holy is to be separate, in a class by oneself. It is derived from an ancient word meaning ‘to cut’ or ‘to separate’. When the Bible calls God holy, it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost foreign to us. To be holy is to be ‘other’, to be different in a special way.

To be holy is to be morally pure. But it is more than just purity. ‘Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifeted up his soul to an idol, and has not sworn deceitfully’. Psalm 23:3-4

The first ever Bible study I did was on holiness. I was seventeen years old, in my first year at university and had been a Christian for about three months. I had acquired an exhaustive concordance, and basically looked up ‘holy’, ‘holiness’ etc and worked through, verse after verse. Many of the references were found in the Old Testament books of the law, particularly Leviticus. It became clear to me that the punishment for anything that fell short of God’s perfect holiness was death. Often this could be appeased for through the complex sacrifices which were offered day after day, month after month, year after year. But it was only through Christ’s death, His atoning sacrifice once and for all, that we have the liberty to ‘approach the throne of grace with confidence and boldness’. (Hebrews 4:16). I think Christians can become blasé to what Christ has saved us from. (I would recommend you read Leviticus and then read Hebrews immediately afterwards to really appreciate this amazing salvation).

Lately I have been shocked (and I do not think that too strong a word to use) by a few things. One example was our Bible study being cancelled for an ‘evangelistic’ event of watching the football and drinking beer (or at least the beer drinking was not compulsory, but it was clearly on offer). I really struggle with this type of thing; yes, we are called to be ‘in the world but not of the world’ (John 17), and yes, we need to build some level of relationship with those around us to be in a position whereby they ask us ‘to give the reason for the hope that you have’ 1 Peter 3:15, but are we not at risk of becoming so like the world that there is no distinction? This is not to mention my concerns about serving alcohol at church events (described extremely frankly by a friend of mine. I do not think Christians need be fully abstinent, but I do think we need to be very wise, and if there is any doubt then to abstain).

I think to fully cover how we can be in the world, actively proclaiming the gospel, drawing alongside those that do not know God from all walks of life and all nations, and yet remain pure, distinct and holy would require at least half a dozen books. (I’d love to know your recommendations if you have any!). The Apostle Paul is often quoted for saying ‘Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win  the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some’ 1 Corinthians 9:19-22. What I think the enormous challenge is, is how we do that, without compromising our own holiness. Of course a point of great importance is that holiness has a lot to do with our heart attitude towards the Lord, to do with our own reverence, and that this is something which is only seen by God. One could do all the ‘right’ things, yet simply be exercising legalism and so not bringing God glory. Conversely, I am sure you can think of examples where somebody has been criticised by the established Christian organisations (churches or mission organisations) for being too worldly, yet has achieved much for the Kingdom of God. Hudson Taylor was spurned by some of the other missionaries because he chose to live and dress like a Chinese man, growing his hair long and dying it dark; in that respect he paved the way for much of what is now taught about cross-cultural work. It might not be appropriate for somebody engaged in a ministry to the homeless and street workers to wear a smart suit and a shirt and tie. These are examples of external things. One could argue that it is not possible to reach those who enjoy going out for a drink without going to the places where these drinks are served.

Sometimes the key is whether something is done with what could be termed ‘gospel intentionality’. Is a person really going to a certain place, dressing a certain way, consuming a certain type of food and drink, exposing themselves to particular music and entertainment in order to reach others with the good news of Jesus Christ? Really? If so, then they should also have prayer partners who are aware of this, who are praying for their witness and who will hold that person accountable to remain pure and holy in that situation, and to stand firm in the face of temptation. I knew many students who were active in the Christian Union who would go to nightclubs to ‘witness to their friends’, but often what I would see was the much stronger pull of the world on my Christian friend who would then fall into sin and compromise, and achieve the exact opposite of what their spoken intention was. And on honest reflection, I was guilty of the same error in certain situations; my initial intention might have been good, but did I really achieve anything of eternal value? 

With my children, the types of questions that arise when I consider personal holiness include:

1)      What entertainment they are exposed to (we do not have a television, something I have discussed here before)
2)      What books they read (so many childrens’ books seem to glorify disobedience and dishonouring of parents, and the stories for slightly older children often have a sinister, slightly occult theme running through)
3)      What clothes they wear, trying to teach the importance of being appropriate for the circumstance (and I am often relieved I have boys, because some of the clothes that are sold for young girls do not encourage purity and modesty, and possibly leave those girls vulnerable)
4)      What we talk about and how we talk to each other and about other people
5)      Standards of discipline when out and about in a group
6)      And so often we quote Philippians 1:27 ‘whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of Christ’

The second, related issue which has bothered me relates to the Sabbath. When Moses received the ten commandments, these included ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor the stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord created the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it’. Exodus 20:8-11. I have never heard a professing evangelical Christian claim that any of the other nine commandments are no longer relevant, but honouring the Sabbath is often seen as a little quaint and old-fashioned, or frankly legalistic. Why should this be? And it seems so ‘controversial’ that pastors are afraid to preach about it plainly and it is often glossed over as a matter of individual conscience at Bible studies. But the word of the Lord is there, and I believe it to be of great importance.

This link is to a helpful discussion of why the Sabbath is still important. Thinking more specifically about our children, what do I want them to learn?

1)      That we have a special day to really focus on the worship of God which is the most important thing of all
2)      That God has given us this special day not for mundane tasks that can be done at other times, but for worship, for fellowship, for taking time to enjoy the gifts He has given. This is a delight, not a burden.
3)      That one can prioritise and do everything that is truly necessary in six days; the only times when one should work on a Sunday would be when there is an unforeseen situation (Jesus talks about the man whose sheep falls into a ditch on the Sabbath and points out that it would be daft not to pull it out because that might be considered ‘work’) or when we are scheduled to work (this might apply to nurses, policemen, doctors, etc)
4)      That we can trust God. He promises ‘those that honour Me, I will honour’; even when we feel pressures of exams or preparation, we should trust God by working hard six days and then resting on the Sabbath.
What I find challenging is when well-meaning Christians undermine this, almost laughing at the idea of holiness in our current generation. I don’t think we always get things right by any means – there may be times when we are inconsistent, or where we set a rule or a standard that is not required. But the principle of keeping the day separate, special, holy must remain.

A challenge with children is that when they have not developed that relationship with  the Lord, they will not fully understand our motivation. We want them to see that Christianity is not about rules and regulations, about things they cannot do, but about God’s grace, provision, protection and about His love towards us as His children. As I have written before, it is so important that as parents we model this to them, and that they see our passionate love for Christ and our delight at living within the boundaries that He gives us.

I’d love to know how  other Christian parents approach some of these issues, and whether you have helpful resources you can recommend!

Friday 13 June 2014

Unless the Lord builds the house....

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early
    and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
    for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Psalm 127 v 1-2

Jesus said, 'What does it profit a man to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?' (Matthew 16:26, Mark 8:36, Luke 9:25 - clearly very important if recorded so clearly in three of the four gospels!)

We've been talking about this quite a lot in our household lately. The boys have been asking what 'in vain' means, and what 'futile' means. It is interesting to find ways to explain!

But one of the best ways we can teach our children is through our own attitudes and focus. Do we live as though Christ is our all? Or do we live as though this world is our home and our security? When we talk and dream about the future, what comes across most? Is it our own ambitions, or is it that 'Whatever happens we may conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of Christ'? (grammatical alteration of Philippians 1:27, the verse I have written across the top of the white-board on which we scribble our goals and aims). When we approach challenges and decisions, what do we communicate to our children. 'Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks' (Luke 6:45).

Whatever is going on in your life - whether life is simply ticking over, or whether you face a major decision, what is your highest goal? What matters most?

Psalm 127 is interesting - people tend to either quote the first part (as I have one above) or the second part (verses 3-5) which reads:

Children are a heritage from the Lord,
    offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
    are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
    whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame
    when they contend with their opponents in court.

I haven't ever heard anybody speaking about this psalm bring the two together, but I think those of us who have children, particularly those of us who seek to raise our children with a Biblical worldview, can gain much from reflecting on this.

As we prioritise the things of God in the midst of a 'crooked and depraved generation' (cf Philippians 2), we may suffer 'loss' in worldly terms. We may not have a large and beautiful home, we may not have financial and material security, we may not be popular among our 'peer group' (whoever a peer group might happen to be - I'm thinking of mums groups, or work colleagues, or sometimes family members, who often feel uncomfortable with our simple home educating lifestyles, and sometimes see it is a direct criticism of their choices). We may have to turn down work opportunities, we may not always be able to do the things that we would personally find most fun because our children come first. 

But the Bible is clear (and Psalm 127 is just one example). Our children are a gift from God, a blessing, an inheritance. And our responsibilities as parents are not to be abdicated, avoided or ignored. We may say that our greatest goal is for them to grow up to love and serve God - but is that reflected in our choices, our words, our actions? 

If you struggle with this (keeping God your focus, accepting worldly loss for His glory, being willing to lay down your personal dreams and 'idols') then spend some time praying about it. It is not a secret to God, and I believe it is something many of us struggle with from time to time. Its important that we have a strong and healthy relationship with God (its important for many other reasons too!) if we want our children to grow with a godly worldview and set of priorities.

Sunday 8 June 2014

How does grief change with time?

Recently a couple of people have asked me how things seem now, six years after our daughter died. One of the first big changes is simply the pace of life – now that we have three young boys, and are both working part-time (which involves quite a lot of hours and a lot of juggling of schedules) there simply isn’t all that much time to really stop and think about it. Or at least, there doesn’t seem to be time to really reflect on things but that does not mean we do not think about her, some days more than others. We’ve recently passed through the strange week in May, where we remember her death and our second son’s legal adoption exactly two years later, and our first son’s birthday three days after that. That week is always a strange jumble of emotions, and really it is a reminder that God’s timing is perfect, that He can bring hope out of sorrow, and that He simply does not make mistakes.

There are some things which are harder as the years go by. When she died, we had been living in one African country, and then were evacuated to Johannesburg for the six weeks of her illness. We returned for a further two years after she had died, and during that time our next son was born (during a four month stay in the north east of Scotland, where we had never been and where we had no friends or family at the time when we arrived) and our second son was adopted. He had his life-threatening illness around that time, and by the time we returned to our UK base four years ago, we had a one year old and a recovering seven month old. A lot of the drama had passed, and the people who had walked beside us during those challenges were now many thousand miles away. Of course some people in the UK had met our daughter before we moved back to Africa when she was three weeks old, and many came to the funeral. But that was not the same as living the events with us.

I think that is the thing that is hardest now. I do not know whether it is a result of our itinerant lifestyle, or whether this is normal after several years, but people simply don’t remember or know that we even had a daughter. It can be a dilemma for me when meeting new people who often remark on our boys, whether or not to speak about her. Sometimes it just seems to make others uncomfortable. Much depends on context; if I think it is relevant or helpful I will talk about her. I always say I have four children, but then people are so taken with the three boys so close together in age that they forget to ask about the fourth. It’s often easier that way.

We never wanted to define ourselves as people who had lost a child. I do not wish to seem harsh, but it does seem that in countries where child death is a less frequent occurrence that a family who has a child die can be almost smothered by the responses of others. And yet at the same time, there is a distance, that ‘we can’t possibly imagine what you have been through’ kind of response. We were always clear that we were thankful for her life, and that God in His wisdom would be more glorified through that short life than through many much longer lives. And if God is glorified, and she is now perfectly restored in heaven, then what is there to be sad about? And on one level, it really is as simple as that. It certainly is to the other children, who cannot really understand why we get sad from time to time. For them, it is something to rejoice about and to look forward to!

However, despite that, perhaps more so now, I sometimes do wish that people remembered. There have been a couple of instances lately where I have found people a little insensitive as they have spoken with lack of faith about more minor illnesses in children, or where people have tended to put parents of an ill child on some kind of pedestal as though they have shown some kind of extremely remarkable faith. I don’t wish to sound unkind, and some of it may be me coveting a bit of human sympathy or encouragement myself. There are times when I feel like pointing out that sometimes children do die, and that is not a result of anybody’s lack of faith, nor is it a reason to fall apart, but rather that God knows the day ordained for each of us. Sometimes I want to point out that in the city where we were living when she died, one woman in two would have a child die under the age of five. It was so normal, so much part of life, that without minimising the sadness and sorrow, there was no room for dramatic emotions, and over the top responses. Sometimes I want to tell people to open their eyes to the world around them, to turn on the radio for just a few minutes or to read a newspaper, and then they will realise just how comfortable and easy many of us have things here.

In some ways this is good. I feel very aware of how simple life can be, and of what a blessing it is to have a roof over our head, to have sufficient food, to have jobs which are challenging and enjoyable as well as providing enough money, to have family, to have friends, to be able to worship in freedom, to be able to read the Bible in our own language. I think part of this appreciation comes from knowing we cannot take that for granted. Some of this will be due to our daughter’s death, and some of it will be from having lived in several low resource countries and having seen the harsh realities there.

Sometimes I try to work out what it is that makes us feel different. The Bible talks in several places about being ‘strangers and aliens in the world’, or in other translations, ‘pilgrims’. I don’t think a Christian should ever feel fully ‘at home’ in this world, because our whole worldview is based on eternity. The Apostle Peter writes about trials which come for a time, in order that our faith, which is of greater worth than gold, which perishes though refined by the fire, may be proven genuine and result in praise, glory and honour at the revelation of Christ’. Paul talks about ‘light and momentary afflictions which are achieving a weight of eternal glory’. If our true home is in heaven, then nothing in this world (home, material possessions, jobs) should really tie us down, these things are all temporary. But I think there is another sense of restlessness. I had an interesting conversation about that with another family whose daughter died a couple of years ago, where they described the same restlessness. I think we know the reality of heaven, and there are days when we simply long for this life to be over, and to be reunited not only with our children, but to see the glorious reality of Christ face to face. The other factor that can make us feel a bit misunderstood is having moved around so much and having seen a different side of life. We find it difficult to relate to people who are keen to settle in a nice house in suburbia, get their children in to the right schools, and basically stay put living a quiet life for the next twenty or thirty years. There may well be nothing wrong with this, and that kind of stability can lead to strong relationships being built, commitment to a particular church, and from these, clear communication of the truth and hope of the gospel. But it is not easy for us to relate, because we tend to live one day at a time, perhaps having a ‘medium term’ plan, but always with the knowledge that God could change it all in an instant.

It is very rare that either of us will have a proper conversation about our daughter. Sometimes I long for that. I would love to sit with a friend and talk through her photo album, to laugh and to cry, to remember and to reflect. We don’t really have that level of relationship, again partly because we have moved around (since returning from Africa four years ago, we have lived in four cities in three different countries). Part of it is the pace and schedule of our life-work balance – that we often have work related tasks to complete in the evening, or are hosting Christian events or are attending our mid-week meetings, or there are additional professional training events to attend, and once a week or so we will both be on clinical duties until about 10pm. We home educate our children – there are many reasons for this, partly because it offers good solid continuity as we move around, but even more importantly, we can build the biblical worldview which is our greatest priority for them, embrace the opportunities that arise day to day, allow each child to progress at their own pace in each subject, allow them space and time for imaginative play and a ‘real childhood’ and to encourage the formation of healthy relationships across ages and different sectors of society. But this also takes time and effort, and whilst the boys are young, it is not often possible to have an in depth conversation with a friend.

Most of the time, I am content about this. Each day is filled with blessings and encouragements, yes there are also challenges, but there is purpose and direction. We are responsible before God for how we live for today, not for our reminiscence about yesterday or our dreams about tomorrow. And so we live very much in the present, looking forward to a future with hope. Sometimes it is simple pragmatism. Some things matter, others don’t. And there is no point in getting upset over things that have no lasting value. There is a kind of steadiness and maybe even emotional maturity, whereas when I was younger I would tend to get into a spiral of despair about something which was perhaps trivial, and which certainly could not be changed.

But alongside this, I am so moved when anybody does mention my daughter. There are those friends, although separated by many miles who really did walk with us, bringing comfort and encouragement. These are the people who really understand us. When I receive an email or text message that reminds me of her, or that tells me that others remember her, my heart sings. Often as I spend time out of doors with the boys, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the beauty of creation, as the boys run ahead, climbing and jumping, racing, laughing, playing, then I remember her, I remember the soft, warm bundle of hope that she was, and despite the beauty that surrounds me, know that there is something even more magnificent ahead of us.

Sunday 1 June 2014

In praise of 'Living Books'

I wonder if you have heard the term 'Living Book'? I hadn't until I started to read about education, and particularly when considering the Charlotte Mason style approaches. But as with many aspects of educational theory, just because I was unfamiliar with the term, I recognised the concept immediately.

A good summary of what makes a living book is found here. It is a book written by an author who is passionate about the subject. It is gripping, and makes the reader want to read on. Characters are three-dimensional and become like friends to the reader. Specific historical facts are placed in a context whereby the are absorbed and remembered without the feeling of having to learn a list of times and dates. These books can be either fiction or non-fiction.

We've been enjoying 'living books' in our home this past year. None of the children is yet reading independently (beyond the 'early readers' which consist of about 20-30 words). But we spend many hours cuddled up together with either parent reading, and today we took a picnic blanket and some books to a beautiful nearby ornamental garden.

Here are some of my reflections and recommendations:

The Little Lights publications are lovely. My 2 year old particularly like the stories of Hudson Taylor and Mary Slessor. These are illustrated, and contain a very simplified version of the biography. But the gospel truths are clearly presented and not dumbed down at all. I'd highly recommend these.

Then, there are the Lightkeepers books. These are in volumes containing 10 stories each. 10 boys who changed the world. 10 boys who made a difference. 10 girls who didn't give up - etc. These stories focus very much on the childhood of the individual described, and that is helpful as the boys are able to relate to the people on their own level. For example, it was after reading about how Adoniram Judson learnt to read from the Bible when he was 4 years old that my then 4 year old decided it was time he learnt to read from the Bible! I don't know how many of the childhood anecdotes are true, but again they are engaging and clearly present the gospel.

More recently, we have read some Trailblazer books, specifically one about Mary of Orange, and another about Adoniram Judson. The one about Mary of Orange was captivating. I knew little of English history, particularly not about how much was shaped by the reformation. Whilst following the story of Mary, who as a slightly reluctant queen, served God wholeheartedly. A week or so later, when we got a book about the 'Tudors and Stewarts' out of the library, a lot made more sense (to both me, and to the boys). These books do not shy away from the pain encountered by these people - for example in the story of Adoniram Judson, many missionary wives and babies died, with Adoniram himself being predeceased by two wives, and having at least six children die in early childhood. I was a little concerned as to whether I should abridge certain sections, avoiding some of these more difficult topics. But as many of us have observed, children take things at face value. In our family, we have had one baby die, and we know quite a number of similar families. So it actually helps in some ways for them to realise that death is a very real part of life, not something to be afraid of , but something to remind us of the need to make every day count for God.

Other than biographies, we have enjoyed reading aloud some novels which I would also count as living books:

Little House on the Prairie - a fabulous story of a pioneer family moving across America. Life is hard, there is a need to build their own houses, hunt their own food, to be very self-sufficient and for the children to enjoy games without an abundance of toys and 'entertainment'. I was a little uncomfortable about some of the attitudes towards Native Americans, almost that it was right that they be driven from the land which had been their home for generations. However, when I reflected on this, it makes an interesting discussion point. As with the comment above, we tend to want to sanitise things. History can be presented in a revisionist manner. But in fact the attitudes which made me uncomfortable would probably have been the norm for pioneer families.

Swallows and Amazons, and the series of books that follows on. I love these books. I remember loving them as a child, and my boys are no different. Here you have children really celebrating childhood. Good, clean, wholehearted fun out of doors, with a delightful component of imaginative play, but also good common sense and strong moral values. For example, Titty the 'Able Seaman' lives in a little fantasty world at  times, imagining danger on the 'high seas', considering herself an early explorer to a far off land, approaching life with strong emotions. Susan, the 'mate' is very sensible and practical, making sure that everybody eats a regular balanced diet, gets sufficient sleep, is dressed in clean dry clothes and that supplies are packed for every eventuality. All of them worry about causing offence, and honouring their parents whilst having lots of fun is a recurrent theme ('we must not do so and so, because daddy said....'). I've loved watching my boys invent their own games, calling out to one another 'hoist the mainsail' and asking questions about why somebody responded to something in a particular way.

I find these novels which are very much based in 'real life' most appropriate at the age of my children (5, 4, 2). I tried CS Lewis, 'The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe' which is not a book I ever read as a child, but which many friends had recommended. But the boys struggled with the line between fantasy and reality, and couldn't understand why something was not real. (Whereas in Swallows and Amazons, it is clear what is real and what is imaginative play). Additionally, there were times when the siblings were quite unkind to one another, whereas in Swallows and Amazons, there is never any bickering. Regarding the distinction between fantasy and reality I imagine I would find similar issues with Tolkien at their current ages too.

I've been quite amazed to see how these books influence the children - and by selecting books which I hope will have a positive influence, I am seeing what I consider to be healthy play. I'm also noting an expansion in their vocabulary (some of the older books have a much richer use of English) and an appreciation for different characters.

Whilst I don't stick wholeheartedly to a single curriculum or teaching method, I am extremely appreciative of 'living books' and I can see that these will form a cornerstone of our education for years to come. I remember reading about the Shaeffer family (founders of L'Abri ministries, and also proponents of Charlotte Mason educations) that even in adulthood, they would sit round the fire together reading aloud in the evenings. It seemed quaint when I read this, but actually is something which I hope our family will continue with! Also, should I buy into a curriculum in the future, I would lean towards a literature-based method such as Sonlight.