Saturday, December 16, 2017

Saturday Post -- 16/12/17

Mother and conjunctivitis-riddled son, washing dishes
together, Wednesday morning. With hindsight, maybe
not the brightest of ideas.
Freak. Demon-eyes. Pinko. Alien spawn. Watermelon woman.

At this time of year, with its great emphasis upon giving and receiving among loved ones, the above is a mere sampling of the good-natured insults that Amanda and I have exchanged. Yep, you've probably already guessed it. This week, we were given the gift of conjunctivitis.

Trinidad has been in the midst of something of an epidemic these past weeks. For most of the last month, a good number of our friends in the community have been struck down by the highly contagious pink fiend; albeit, to varying degrees. By last weekend, we had somehow managed to steer clear of it, and assumed we were home and dry.

That was until Sunday night, when I felt some low-level itching and throbbing in the middle of the night, and struggled to get back to sleep. Sure enough, the mirror confirmed the worst, and Sam was next in the firing line. Still, for us lads, said mirror and Amanda's barbs were the only reminders of our ocular abnormality; the pain and irritation were minimal. Any pink remaining was of a decidedly Financial Times hue.

So we were glad that the worst seemed to have passed, and especially that Amanda had somehow kept out of its path of destruction.

That was until I woke up on Thursday morning next to an extra from a Star Trek episode set on Planet Zug-Zug. Overnight, Amanda's eyes had swollen to the size of small rugby balls (and more league than union, I might add). Not that I could see them, as it took vast quantities of chamomile tea (supposedly the best solution) just to be able to open the eyelids, stuck together with no end of gunge and gloop. Dynamite wouldn't have gone amiss. The eyes themselves were blood-red and highly painful. A few hours later, she was gripped by a fever. 

Sam shows off a little stable decoration he made at the club
this week.
All this, and Sam's tearing around the house like Hurricane Humphrey. Did this have to happen during the school holidays?

Anyway, with a little help from good friends, we were able to subcontract Sam's care, and I was freed up a little to attend to Amanda, whose eyes haven't shaken off that redness, but the pain is significantly reduced and they have reverted to their normal, beautiful, shape.

Working, as we do, in a health institute, meant we were necessarily based at home for the whole week, and that enabled me to work on end-of-year updates for FT sponsors and our own supporters, as well as starting to prepare for next weekend's Christmas Eve service, where I'll be giving a short evangelistic talk.

On that note, Sam's been able to get along to holiday club again this week, where much of the activity is building towards that same Christmas Eve service. And on Monday, he had his little end-of-year show with his class from school, in which he more than held his own in the much sought-after part of Bunny Rabbit #3. 

Sam with one of his teachers, Valeria,
on Monday evening.

Oh, and Amanda's Mum is arriving on Tuesday for an extended visit. I do hope she packs her goggles. 

Prayer
  • That Amanda recovers soon from her conjunctivitis.
  • For Amanda's mother's (Selene) travels over the next few days.
Praise
  • For Sam's largely cooperative behaviour during these difficult days.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Saturday Post -- 09/12/17

Daddy & Sam on chairlift, Cochabamba.
We have had an unintended blogpost holiday, and it wasn’t until we got  message from someone mentioning how they missed our updates that we noticed. Oops. Sorry. The truth is that last weekend we were in Cochabamba for our 18-month Latin Link review and the weekend before that, well, I have no idea. It was too long ago, but apparently, we were busy. 

I (Amanda) can’t report on our activities from two weeks ago (as I can’t remember), but I can tell you that Cochabamba was fun. It involved good food, Man U football (for Craig) and late-night chats with friends (and a soft play adventure for Sam). We stayed with Jimmy and Brigitte Fernandez, fellow Latin Linkers, and Brigitte completed our review with us on the Friday. For those of you who don’t know, to fully join Latin Link you have to complete their two-year Stride program first. Essentially, it’s a two-year short-term program where you are supervised by the in-country Latin Link short term coordinator (Brigitte). So even though Craig and I have been in Bolivia for almost eight years now, we are technically short-termers with Latin Link. Once we complete our two years (next September), we will then be classed as full-term. One of the responsibilities of the short-term coordinator is to do six-monthly reviews with those under their care, hence our 18-month review. The review was intensive, and it was refreshing to go over all the good and bad of the last six months with someone who understands. 

We have horses in the streets in Trinidad, too; they can
usually be found rummaging around the garbage
at the end of our street.
The truth is that we have so many filters that we consciously or subconsciously apply to ourselves when we have conversations with anyone. The filters can be multi-layered with some people, or completely different with others. I guess as Christians, we sometimes use the phrase ‘the Sunday mask’ to kind of start talking about the topic of authenticity, but I think ‘filters’ goes further than that, and I think we do it with everyone. I choose to deepen conversations or not depending on who I am talking to and my past experiences with this person. I choose to share things or not with people depending on the person’s background and personal experiences. I choose to be vulnerable or not with friends and family based on how I think they are going to react. I filter. The person that anybody is the most unfiltered with is usually the person they are closest to, but even then, there are filters. I am definitely the most unfiltered with Craig, but I still have to filter. Maybe I present information or a scenario to him in a considered way that will most appeal to him, or I choose a moment to share bad news that I know would be better than another. This is still filtering. 

Why am I talking about filtering? Because missionaries to have filter a lot. I don’t know if we have to filter more than other people, as I have not been a lawyer, doctor, investment banker, teacher, etc. However, I definitely feel like I have to filter more than I did before I became a missionary and its exhausting. We filter what we say and how we say it to the people we are working with here in Bolivia. We have to constantly be aware of being culturally sensitive, and yet be assertive and authoritative in what we say. We have to know when to show vulnerability to build relationships, but when to hold back so as to not negatively affect the ministry. We have to live a Christian life that reflects what we’re teaching and yet show that it’s OK to struggle in this life sometimes (but not too much, because certain sins get higher eyebrow-lifts than others, which would affect our credibility, which in itself is filtering). We have to constantly give advice, care, affection, time etc, and filter out our needs for advice, care, affection, time etc if we feel that the other person is unreceptive to this (which happens a lot). Our job is filtering. 

Cochabamba's Cristo de la Concordia towers over Sam.
Then we have to filter how we interact with our supporters and prayer partners. I think as far as accountability goes, Craig and I try to be as open as we can and limit the number of filters we put into place. We want people to have a genuine idea of our life, which includes struggles. We don’t want to hide the bad. However, that doesn’t mean that our blog posts and emails are not carefully considered, with wording changed, paragraphs deleted and sometimes heated discussions as to content. Sometimes I just want to post a GIF of someone banging their head against a wall, but I choose to apply a filter to that decision (mainly because I don’t know how to post GIFs). And the filters that we need to consider and apply when the ‘M’ word is involved?!?! Money is a touchy subject. And there is no manual written for missionaries that works for everyone on how to deal with fundraising. The way someone can address funding needs in one place is completely different to someone in another place. Sometimes Craig and I have to send separate emails to our North American supporters and our UK supporters because the issue is dealt with in such varied ways. All of this is filtering. 

Then there are the ways that we filter with friends and family. We all do this, but maybe some more than others. What and how I share something with Craig is different than what and how I share something with my Mom, based on how important the information is and how I think the information is going to be received. 

We're not in Cochabamba any more: the scene we woke up to on Tuesday
morning. Rainy season has started here in earnest.
I think the art of filtering is something the majority of us learn to do from an early age and we generally do it subconsciously. However, recently it has started to be something I am noticing more and more and it has begun to be a bit of a strain. I don’t think it is something we can just stop doing, but sometimes I want to rip the filters off and spout off verbal musings to the world and say, “Hah, take that!” So, (going all the way back to the beginning) it was really refreshing to talk to Brigitte about life in general and current struggles because I could remove a lot of the filters. She understands our context, understands the culture, has been to see us in Trinidad and knows our surroundings, and she is our friend. I ripped off a whole pile of the filters that I feel have been constraining me for a while and it felt good. I think we apply a lot of filters to escape judgment from others, and it was so liberating to be listened to and not judged. 

Sam. You'll find him in the club.
Since coming back from Cochabamba, the school holidays have started. For the first time in our lives the school holidays are not quite as exciting as they have been. Sam’s home for two months!!! The church has a kids’ club three days a week for two hours and Craig is helping with that and takes Sam along. He’s also going to a friend’s house one morning a week so he has time with friends. Now we get to participate in the age-old problem: how do we entertain our child for two months without going crazy? It is going to be good times! 

Oh, Christmas decorations went up this week as well!

Sam makes a (sadly inedible) candy cane at said club.
Prayer

  • Preparation for Christmas programmes both in the Foundation and in the church.
  • The local kids’ time in the Kid’s Program, that they would respond to the gospel message.
  • Sam’s time at home with us for the next two months; that we would be blessed by it and not find it stressful.

Praise

  • Time with friends in Cochabamba last weekend.
  • The end of many of FT’s yearly programs and the blessing they have been to people.
  • A visit from Latin Link’s Bolivia Director Louis Woodley Friday evening.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Friday, November 17, 2017

Saturday Post -- 18/11/17

Don't try this at home (or you'll get sued).
There's no dressing it up: this year, it's fair to say we didn't so much enjoy camp as endure it. I think it was last year that we asked our supporters to be especially prayerful for us as we were about to run our first camp avec enfant. As it happened, Sam barely raised a peep the whole weekend. It was probably owing to 2016's overall feeling of smugness, then, that I barely gave such concerns a moment's though.

Hah. What do you get when you cross an all-action youth camp with a sleep-dependent toddler navigating the 'terrible twos'? A lesson learned, that's what!


So it's fair to say that, all said and done, our own experience of our first four-day camp (and fifth overall) was somewhat removed. However, by the time we'd gotten our energy-levels back to something resembling normal (about 4pm on Thursday afternoon, by my estimation), we could step back from things and see God's hand in it. The young people were challenged. The church was built up. And no end of hijinks was engaged in, the likes of which would keep health and safety experts up at night. In other words, much to give thanks for.


Not that, on the face of it, there was all that much to be optimistic about upon arrival on the Thursday afternoon. Nothing quite says 'the joys of Bolivian camping' quite like:
  • Waterlogged floors.
  • A dormitory room with the roof off.
  • An auditorium filled with bunk-beds.
I imagine points two and three were in some way connected!


All hands to the pump, then, and within a couple of hours we were able to mop up the floors and completely reconfigure the vast dining hall so that one half of it could be set aside for music and teaching. Still, it was very much a case of, "OK, Lord, you've made this camp possible. We trust you to help us work within these limits, and bring glory to your name." Still, it's fair to say that by the time I finally sat down at the keyboard, about an hour later than scheduled and without any rehearsal time with the other musicians, my head was anywhere but in the moment.

Craig with 'small' group.
For all Sam's difficulties this time around, we at least stuck with last year's approach of commuting to and from the camp site each day, just over an hour's drive. We arrived on Friday morning to overcast skies and reports of excitable teenagers managing as little as 30 minutes' sleep. Things were going to be just fine.

Romon Gore
Things warmed up as the day progressed and we were able to have our first proper teaching session in the morning. This year, the focus was, er, 'Focused' (Enfocado, in Spanish), using the first few chapters of Daniel. Our teachers were Romon (of newly-arrived couple Romon & Melinda -- see previous posts) and Ruddy, whose father is my fellow elder and Fundación Totaí president, Miguel Ángel. The sessions were highly practical, particularly in a Christian context. I was particularly encouraged by Romon's teaching on Daniel 3 and his observation that stories such as those of the young Jews and the fiery furnace are so often used to glibly declare that God will always deliver us from our problems. Perhaps this seems obvious, but in our context here in Bolivia, it's not unusual for pastors to get away with this kind of lazy application; many simply haven't been given the critical thinking skills to question such a statement. I think the youth were encouraged to see that God can deliver us, but that if he does not, it's not a sign of his rejection of us (as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego also affirmed).

Ruddy Arauz
As the day wore on, I snapped away (the 'official photographer' position is a useful one in muck-avoidance!) while Amanda just about held things together while keeping an eye out for Sam. But by about 5pm, the latter had long given up on even trying to behave himself, the fatigue proving too much to bear. We left early that evening, with Amanda resolving to stay in Trinidad the next day with Sam, even though she'd be without the car.

Not that she would have had much freedom anyway. For this was the scene to which we awoke on Saturday morning.


That picture is taken from our garage door. We live about a mile north of the ring-road which surrounds the central area of the city. From our house to the ring-road, I would have been better served by a dinghy. 

My passenger (Elías, who like us had opted to return in the evenings) and I feared the worst, even if the main road to the campsite was more elevated and, therefore, not flooded. Based on the conditions that awaited us on Thursday afternoon (with leaky roofs being a particular problem), we were beginning to wonder if there would even be a camp site by the time we got there. 


Yet the closer we got, the lesser the intensity of the rain, until we eventually arrived to find the camp site undergoing nothing more than a mild sprinkling. Amazing.

So things were able to proceed more or less as planned on Saturday, and Amanda and Sam had sufficiently recovered their energies during their house arrest to be able to come back on Sunday for an exciting final day. As has become the tradition, we had a brief communion service and, beforehand, without any planning, I challenged the young people to confess Jesus' Lordship over their lives (we know that three of them made a commitment that morning). 

An impromptu post-games shower under an overflowing water-tower.
This really happened.
This done, we then headed over to a large pond on the grounds to witness six young people and two adults declare their faith publicly by being baptised. Long-time readers may remember the tragedy of a teenage boy's suicide early in 2016. Four of those baptised are his family members, including his two parents, who had never before darkened the door of the church. Tears were shed.

Father of five, Alberto, with Elías (foreground)
and Miguel Ángel (background).
All that remained was for the rest of the 115-strong party to become fully immersed themselves, having a quick end-of-camp splash before lunch, group pictures and our departure. Just after we'd put Sam down, at around 8 o'clock, Amanda told me she was having a short nap. I wasn't to see her again till the next morning. Likewise, I have have become gladly reacquainted with siestas these past days.


If I may paraphrase the great king Nebuchadnezzar himself, it has been my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for us.


Prayer
  • Pray for all in attendance at camp -- leaders and youth -- that they would continue to draw encouragement from what they heard. 
  • Pray especially for the new converts, and for older Christians to come alongside them to disciple them.
  • Pray for future camp planning. For the first time, the leaders had a debrief meeting last night, in the hope of keeping the areas for improvement fresh in the memory for next year's planning. Based on the weather, a date-change might be priority number one!
  • Sam has been a little under the weather since we returned. He has managed fine at nursery and at home, but he's not eating very well and has had bad diarrhea. 
Praise
  • Give thanks for safety in the travels of ourselves and the campers, and during the various activities there.
  • Give thanks for Romon and Ruddy and their thought-provoking messages.
  • Give thanks for those who chose to be baptised, and for the awesome work of God in their lives.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Saturday Post -- 04/11/17

A well-timed photo of Sam and his pumpkin to placate
those who were expecting a bit more effort from this
blog entry.

I'm just going to go straight to the prayer points today, as we're in the midst of another very busy weekend. There'll be no post next weekend due to camp, but we hope to update you with a full report on this year's activity in two weeks' time.

Prayer
  • Pray for abundant supplies of energy, patience and grace in the coming days as we embark on the final preparations for camp. Among other things, Amanda is in charge of making sure all the money and permission slips are in from campers (no small task!), as well as printing of the all-important official camp T-shirt. Craig's main task is organising the musicians for what is always a big undertaking. This year will be our longest camp so far (up to three nights from two), so even more music is required of us. Rehearsals will be taking place in the evenings this week.
  • From Thursday, pray for the camp itself. To help Sam sleep well, we will be driving to and from the campsite, just over an hour's drive, every day. This will require us to leave our house at around 6:15 each morning, and arrive back at around eleven o'clock each night. Only Camp Adrenaline™ will get us through all of this safely. Pray that we will be afforded much of this! 
  • Pray for the speakers, Romon Gore and Ruddy Araúz, who will be going through the first few chapters of Daniel. The camp theme is Enfocado ('focused'). 
  • And, above all, pray for the 100 or so campers who will be in attendance: that the Lord would reveal himself to those who have not yet trusted in him, and that he would renew the strength of those who have.
Praise
  • Give thanks for a great film night at the church on Friday, where around 150 people from all over the neighbourhood came to watch the film 'Luther' and hear an evangelistic talk afterwards. A young man publicly confessed Jesus as Lord. Soli Deo Gloria!
  • Give thanks for another encouraging meeting of the Langham Trinidad preaching group this morning.
  • We've had one or two issues with our car in the last couple of weeks (above all, tyres). Give thanks thanks for safety on the roads amidst all of this.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Saturday Post -- 28/10/17

Cards on the table: this will likely be the very definition of 'workmanlike'. Another busy Saturday awaits, kicking off with United-Spurs in just over half an hour (as I write)! Essentially, this will cover anything that comes into my head, and will be assembled in no discernible order. So there.

Tomorrow is the 13th anniversary of Fundación Totaí's founding and we marked the event with a special event for staff on Thursday evening at an indoor volleyball complex (no kidding) which also lays on big steak barbecues. The two hours of physical activity which preceded the meal made me all the more determined to eat far too much as ever. 

Friday, meanwhile, was a day off for staff. We've mentioned here before the preponderance of so-called 'Hallmark holidays'. Say it's 'International Day of the Lobotomist'. All such individuals are legally entitled to take the day off. At FT, with a range of staff across several disciplines, observing these would effectively cost us about a week of work across the year. So, instead, everyone gets the anniversary (anniversaries of any number also being a big deal here).

I've had a busy couple of weeks with preaching, Bible teaching and a whole swathe of other administrative jobs for the church. So when I realised I'd also have to prepare a short thought for a prayer meeting last week, I thought to myself, "This isn't exactly building a church free of missionary dependence, is it." So I prayerfully approached Diego, the 15-year-old I'm discipling just now, and he gladly took on the job! He already had a little experience with teaching children, so I knew he would be just fine. He really is a young man with great potential and a great love for the Lord, someone we'd really appreciate prayer for.

The event dominating today is the AWANA Olympics, AWANA being the Bible-memorisation-based children's programme we run in the church, and the Olympics being a cross-town contest between the various AWANA churches based on games and Bible quizzes. Next weekend we have a special film night at the church, showing the film Luther; we're encouraging people to invite as many friends and family members as they can. And the weekend after that...it's camp! This is why we take Mondays off, y'see.

At least we had a somewhat relaxing time of it last weekend (key word there: somewhat) as we drove down to Santa Cruz for three nights. The idea was to have some relaxing family time and, if at all possible, find a way of seeing the much-vaunted Blade Runner 2049 on Saturday evening. We even had a babysitter lined up through a contact of ours. Well, it didn't quite work out -- nor, indeed, did the whole 'relaxing' thing in general, if I'm honest! Sam up till now has proved himself to be immensely adjustable to new environments, but he was not for sleeping in that bed, and a mild fever the first night didn't help things either. At least we got to hit some of our favourite gourmet junk-food eateries, though Sam's inevitable exhaustion manifested itself in ever-more creative ways there too!

Still, it was great to wake up on a Sunday morning with the only key decision being which T-shirt to wear to church. From our perspective, that is a break! We touched base that day with our Latin Link mentors, Graham & Debbie Frith. This was especially good fun as Spurs were hammering Graham's beloved Loserpool when we got back to their place afterwards.

There'll be no such outcome today, of course.

Prayer
  • For the big events coming up at church: the cinema night and camp.
  • For Craig as he preaches tomorrow.
Praise
  • For a break (of sorts!) last weekend.
  • For FT's anniversary.
  • For the encouragement of seeing young guys like Diego step up to the proverbial plate.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Friday, October 13, 2017

Saturday Post -- 14/10/17

Craig with fellow Mr. Bolivia contestants MCB new membership candidates.
During a dramatic week of World Cup qualifying, one of the big headlines was Panama's president declaring a national holiday the day after their first ever participation in the tournament was secured. The slapdash nature of this was certainly a key component of the story. I joked with a friend that, were the same thing to happen to Bolivia, we'd probably get a week! For spur-of-the-moment days off work are standard practice down here, so much so that we're struggling to remember the last time Sam attended school for a full five days.

(Utterly irrelevant tangent alert: Bolivia, like Scotland, share the honour of having played in the opening game of the World Cup, Bolivia against Germany in Chicago in 1994, and Scotland against Brazil in Paris in 1998. And Bolivia, like Scotland, have since failed to qualify. See also: Senegal, South Africa.)

Local holidays and the like, curiously, have taken on a strikingly different complexion since Sam started school, with things reaching something of a nadir this week. Two consecutive days went down the proverbial, with the added bonus of being announced only on the afternoon of the day before. Wednesday was international women's day so, naturally, all members of the fairer sex were entitled to an impromptu day off (at no inconvenience whatsoever to their employers, one would vouch), while a a maintenance mishap rendered the school unsafe for Sam and his toddler cohorts on Thursday. 

The circumstances were not ideal, not least for Amanda, who had flown solo on the parenting front from Thursday till Saturday of last week, thanks to a conference I attended. This was the annual national assembly of Misiones Cristianas Bolivia, our church's denomination, which, for the first time in its 57-year history, was taking place in Trinidad itself. This was my first time in attendance as a delegate (my membership was confirmed on the opening day), with two others in our church already among the membership. Essentially, the national assembly was an extended business meeting, with a significant chunk of time given over to reviewing the body's constitution (so long that much of it will have to be reviewed via email communications over the following year). A necessary evil, then, if not quite my idea of fun. 

That said, it was a great opportunity to meet like-minded individuals from across the country. Like Mark and Carol, an older American couple who run a seminary in a rural part of the country. Or Mario and Helen, who are commended from the very first church I attended as a boy back in Hamilton. Or Felix, a Bolivian missionary who works with a tribe who are based 12 hours' from the nearest major city. No electricity + no internet + no telephone lines = a calling!

Helpfully, the fellowship opportunities were extended beyond the conference itself. In the evening, three special services were held for the Trinidad churches to attend, with a series of talks given on the Reformation. One of the main speakers was Canadian Jürgen Schultz (or 'Jorge' to Bolivians) whom attentive readers may remember as being our speaker at camp last year -- and a very good one at that! It was good to catch up with him, too, and his 40-minute overview of the life and impact of Martin Luther was soul-stirring.

At the Foundation this week, the annual ENT surgical campaign has been in full swing and Amanda has been helping to keep things ticking over. Meanwhile, I've been preparing more teaching materials for church: a sermon for this Sunday and, for Thursday, a new Bible study based on a book called 'Living in the Power of the Gospel'. It's a book that was recommended to me by a missionary friend as having had a powerful impact on pastors and laypersons throughout Bolivia recently. We began by reading the first couple of chapters and thinking particularly about Colossians 2:6, with its encouragement to the believers to live their lives 'just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord'. In other words, it is the same power that saved us that now sanctifies us, and not an ounce of this comes from within ourselves. If you've read the blog of late, you can see that this ties in nicely with some of the issues that have arisen in the light of our sermon series in Galatians.

Anyway, best get on with the rest of my day. After all, Sam never seems to have classes on Saturdays!

Prayer
  • This week we met with a young couple called Cristhian and Milena, who are having some marriage difficulties. They have a three-year-old son. Please pray for them, and for wisdom for ourselves in counselling them.
  • For our work as board members at the Foundation, where we are occasionally having to deal with some difficult staff issues.
Praise
  • Craig and the rest of the Langham Preaching group had their first meeting this morning since the Level 3 workshop. Give thanks for a good start.
  • For a great initial Bible study on Thursday.
  • For a good first MCB meeting for Craig last weekend.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Friday, September 29, 2017

Saturday Post -- 30/09/17

"So, Clemenza, let me get this straight: Is the law, therefore, opposed 
to the promises of God?" 
"Fuhgetaboutit!"
When it comes to faithfully and honestly expounding the word of God as he has given it to us, there is simply no substitute for working through a book together, Sunday by Sunday, as a church. Thematic or topical series have their place throughout the church year, but if we claim to take the Bible seriously in our congregations, then book studies must be given primacy. 

A criticism that this approach often attracts is that it lacks the flexibility to address issues the church might be dealing with at any particular moment. This can be fairly easily countered. Firstly, when choosing books to teach as a series, a church should be considering the current needs of its congregation anyway, and prayerfully selecting texts which speak to those. Secondly, as stated above, a good church will make room for thematic or topical sermons throughout the year anyway, and these provide particularly gilt-edged opportunities for such ministry.

But I cannot imagine I am alone in positing a third, far weightier reason: we have good reason to trust that God will speak powerfully to us through his word as it has been presented to us. Time and time again in my own preaching ministry, God has aligned circumstances and text in such a way that the particular text, of the particular book, in the particular preaching series, that was programmed for that particular Sunday some months ago, is precisely what the church needs to hear. This is all of God, and all the more reason to give him the glory.

This has certainly been the case here in the last couple of weeks, where I have been working through Galatians 3 and 4. We elected to preach Galatians some months ago owing to the Reformation's 500th anniversary this year, and it being Martin Luther's favourite book (his only commentary was written on the epistle, and if you know anything of his biography, it's not hard to see why). In the particular passages I was preaching on, Paul is showing that God's law, which the Galatians were depending on, is inferior to God's promise (because it came later and through an intermediary), but that it is still integral in that it demonstrates in Technicolor just how far we fall short of God's standards -- and therefore, just how much we need to respond to his unconditional promise in Jesus! He then reminds the Galatians that, as heirs of the promise, they are free -- so why go back to a life of enslavement to works-righteousness?

We have all, then, as Christians, gone from slavery to salvation-by-works, to the freedom of salvation-by-grace. But the funny thing is that Amanda and I have had a lot of experiences here recently, in our own church and in para-church settings, where the noises from the pulpit seem to suggest the opposite, particularly among young people. Something along the lines of: "Don't be like those friends of yours who are having the time of their lives; don't dance, don't drink, don't get into relationships with the opposite sex." And that's it. 

I recently read a book on preaching that contained the following simple, yet powerful, thought: that if you reckon you could get away with your sermon in a mosque or a synagogue, then it isn't worth preaching in church. So many factors, too numerous to detail here, have brought about an 'evangelical' church culture where legalism and The Stuff We Must Do have come to dominate Bible teaching, particularly among those pesky young people, who just can't control themselves, can they. And so, sermons you could get away with in a mosque or synagogue are the meat and potatoes of church experience.

It all comes back, of course, to a faulty understanding of God's salvation. Having been brought up in the school of no-free-lunches, we struggle to accept its totality, finality and unconditionality (I have this moment at least once a day!). And as a result, our obedience is motivated by fear when, in fact, if we really grasped the fullness of what God has done for us, it would flow from us naturally as an expression of love and thankfulness. Why, indeed, settle for these fleeting pleasures, when life in abundance can be ours today?

Going back to my sermons, then, it has been interesting to see how God, in the last few weeks, has used this hefty reminder of his grace to really get people thinking about the kinds of messages we are sending as a church, particularly among our young people; bear in mind that our young people are vulnerable not only because of youth culture in general, but also because they largely come from unchurched homes -- and those whose parents have brought them up in some kind of faith know only the works righteousness so ingrained in this culture. 

So this message is causing people to sit up and pay attention. Two separate young men, both regular youth-group attendees, approached me in the last week to tell me that they had never heard this before. I was simultaneously encouraged and challenged: encouraged that they were simply paying attention to the Sunday sermon (!) and that the gospel was being clearly understood; challenged that this seemed to be inconsistent with the kinds of messages they were hearing elsewhere. That was confirmed to me when a youth leader approached me to say he was concerned that the general teaching for the youth on Saturday nights wasn't consistent with the kind of gospel message being preached on Sunday mornings.

I am not currently involved in the youth ministry, but Amanda is, and has also had some interesting conversations this week on the topic with her fellow workers in the ministry; they are great, committed people, but most are new enough in the faith to be susceptible to these kinds of errors. The material used on Saturdays is essentially solid, but much of it is about making good decisions, and so the possibility of 'synagogue sermons' is very much a live one. It seems like, pretty soon, the teaching on Saturday nights will have to come under some serious scrutiny, and we are encouraged that it's not just us foreigners, for once, asking the big questions.

Of course, as with all such matters, The Godfather nailed it. Hitherto blue-eyed-boy Michael Corleone is in some anxiety as to the impact his upcoming 'hit' on a family rival will surely have on inter-mafiosi affairs in New York. Peter Clemenza ("Leave the gun; take the cannoli.") endeavours to help him see the bigger picture:

That's all right. These things gotta happen every five years or so, ten years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood.

While by no means looking to 'get rid of the bad blood' (!), I wonder if, in the church of Jesus Christ, these little grace shake-ups also "gotta happen every five years or so", much like we are experiencing now. Indeed, I suspect we depend on such seasons. If I, as I mentioned above, need to be reminding myself of God's grace every day, we can never preach this message too much. But first of all, we need to learn accept it for ourselves. 

Prayer
  • We are thankful for this little reawakening which might be taking place among us, and doubly conscious that we must, as a couple, be patient and, yes, gracious with the people we are working alongside, so as not to compromise this message in any way. Pray for tact, for diplomacy, for love.
  • Our fellow Latin Link workers, Graham & Debbie Frith, are due here any moment now for a weekend visit. Please pray for a time of mutual encouragement.
Praise
  • The Gore family (see last week) have settled in well after their move from Cochabamba and we have enjoyed getting to know them a little better this week.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Saturday Post -- 16/09/17

Group Photo no. 1: Langham Preaching, Trinidad. Edwin is on the right,
Igor in the sky-blue polo-shirt.
A little like West Ham United of late, recently I (Craig) haven't been home all that much at weekends. Though, admittedly, for higher motives than the removal of an athletics track.

Two weeks ago, I was with my Langham Preaching cohorts for our final annual workshop, led by our old friend Edwin Fernández, and, for the first time, Langham Preaching's Latin American Director, Igor Améstegui. 

For newcomers to the blog, Langham seeks to improve the quality of expository preaching in the church through cell groups. These cell groups meet once a month, with one of the group 'preaching' to the others, and the others responding with feedback. But before the annual cycle of meetings begins, there is an annual residential workshop, taking a slightly different angle. 


This year the focus was preaching from the Psalms, and it drew heavily on Christopher Wright's recent book, How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth, which Langham have recently translated to Spanish (Wright even visited Bolivia for a special Langham conference earlier this year) and each attendee was given a free copy. 

While there was plenty of material on the different kinds of Psalms and their emphases (lament psalms, psalms of Zion, psalms of thanksgiving etc), Edwin and Igor shaped the weekend by taking a leaf from Walter Brueggemann's book (quite literally!) which groups the Psalms into three general categories: Psalms of orientation, of disorientation, and reorientation. So, for example, Igor and Edwin preached from a different Psalm each day based on these categories. And on the second night, there was a (much welcome!) time of pastoral care, in which we were asked to consider if our life and ministry were on a plane of orientation, disorientation or reorientation, and explain why.


What I particularly love about Langham is that, for all the focus on sound preaching, there is a great emphasis on aspects like this kind of personal care, and also the church as a receptor to preaching. On the second day, there was an exercise in which we had to write extensively about the needs of our churches, and then consider the main themes of the texts we had been preaching recently, and how closely those two aspects aligned. It was illuminating, to say the least, and had me thinking -- not for the first time -- that the Langham participants in our church ought to be getting together on a weekly basis to provide more direction for the preachers (mostly myself right now!). Admittedly, I've been considering this for a couple of years, but it has been difficult to find a time when everyone is free. Maybe it's time to simply go for a time when most people can make it. 

Anyway, as ever, a really stimulating and refreshing few days. Aptly, I think the group in general felt very much 'reorientated' by the Sunday afternoon. That evening, Igor preached at a special joint service of the churches involved, which we held at Fundación Totaí, and the encouragement of his visit with Edwin was shared by our congregants.

Group Photo no. 2: Latin Link Bolivia.
Meanwhile, last weekend, we found ourselves in the country's de facto capital, La Paz, for Latin Link Bolivia's annual retreat. You may remember that we were invited to join the Latin Link Bolivia team just over a year ago, and each year, among other things, we are required to participate in two events: one is the conference (which we attended over New Year) and the other is the retreat. The conference has a teaching programme and seminars, with plenty of time for group fellowship and some necessary group business meetings. The retreat, meanwhile, is really focused on pastoral care, so much so that those who lead the retreat come from outside the group.

La Paz from the air. As I explained to a friend, it's like Cloud City from
Star Wars -- only with even more treachery!
The retreat's focus this year was the Sermon on the Mount, and there were five main sessions. But instead of an aural teaching focus, each session required us to go away for an hour or so, read the required passage, and respond using prompts prepared by our retreat leader, Carlos. Two factors in particular made this possible. Firstly, Sam had his very own paceña babysitter for the weekend. Phew! Secondly, the venue was a place of great natural beauty, with plenty of space to be still and undistracted. Amanda and I both came away feeling -- yep, you guessed it -- reorientated!

Quiet times don't get much more 'quiet' than this!

As did the rest of the group, with whom we had plenty of time to further consolidate the connections we had only begun to establish in December/January. Before we went our separate ways, there was also a quick meeting to discuss the team's plans for Latin Link's upcoming international assembly, a four-yearly event which takes place in Guatemala in February. We have decided to kill two birds with one stone and have a slightly stripped-down version of our own team conference just after the assembly.

The only hitch came on Monday afternoon as the pilot on our homeward flight approached Trinidad, considered the tropical rainstorm that was taking place and thought to himself, "No thanks!" We were re-routed to Cochabamba, where the pilots waited for the situation in Trinidad to calm down. It did not, and we were flown back to La Paz on a No-Expenses-Paid basis (except for the next day's re-scheduled flight). This was particularly infuriating as a member of the crew had assured us all verbally that the airline would put us up in a hotel; we lodged a complaint upon our re-arrival in La Paz. 

As awkward as all this was, I was quietly delighted (don't tell Amanda!). Because our Cochabamba-La Paz flight took place around 5pm, which, for the photographers out there, is generally Bolivia's 'golden hour'. And there are few flights more scenic than Cochabamba-La Paz! Every cloud, then, does indeed have a silver (or, in this case, burnished-gold) lining. 

Illimani, Bolivia's second-highest peak.
The view over El Alto as we approached. El Alto is where
the airport is based and is a city in its own right:
it sits on the edge of the crater, rather than inside the
crater (like La Paz).

One happy customer.
And so, we checked into a La Paz bed-and-breakfast we know well, had a good sleep, got up and went back to the airport. And, appropriately enough, we reorientated ourselves back to Trinidad.

Prayer
  • Pray for boldness and resolve for ourselves and our colleagues in putting into practice the principles learned over the past couple of weekends.
  • Pray for our Guatemala trip next year. It's obligatory (and exciting!), but obviously expensive. Pray that the funds might come together for this.
Praise
  • Give thanks for the great encouragement of the last couple of weekends.
    • For the boost to the various churches in having Igor and Edwin visit us again.
    • For the pastoral care and preaching help so abundantly afforded to the Langham group.
    • For deepening relationships with our Latin Link colleagues.
    • For plenty of time and space to meditate on God's word in La Paz.
    • For the opportunity to simply get out of our ministry HQ for a few days and have time together as a family.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Saturday Post -- 26/08/17

The base of the old tower (left), the old tank itself (right)
and the beginnings of the new tower (centre). Hard hats optional.

A very tangible display of God's goodness to us is slowly but surely taking shape round the back of Fundación Totaí's headquarters. Late last year we were advised that FT's water tower, the delivery system for water to the building, was in bad shape, and dangerously so. The harsh climate here had caused parts of the structure to erode, causing parts of the piping to rust and a potential disaster to ensue, given the decreasing strength of the high tower and its proximity to the building itself. 

But finances were already tight as a drum, rendering any future attempt at a repair a, er, pipe-dream. So, as a Foundation, we took a step of faith and did something we'd never done before: appeal for funding for a repair -- or, if possible, a replacement tank -- from FT's friends and supporters around the world.  

Over the past nine months, that funding has come together, with various churches and individuals from both North America and Europe giving generously -- so much so, indeed, that we have been able to knock down the old tower and start from scratch. The construction team are currently two weeks into an eight-week schedule and things are already coming together nicely. We are encouraged and humbled.

We're also excited about the recent resumption of the men's and women's Bible study groups in the church. That old adage that Christians enjoy judging may be unsubstantiated at best, but the evidence that Bolivian Christians enjoy Judges is all around, with the girls doing a study of Gideon, and the boys a study of the book of Judges as a whole. Us guys had our second study last night and some great, gospel-driven conversations to boot (I was especially challenged by author Tim Keller's point on sin and our excuses for it, when, "I can't" in actual fact usually means, "I won't"). It's particularly thrilling to have one or two young-adult youth group members in attendance at the study, which is being led by our "brother, co-worker and fellow soldier", Carlos. Amanda came back with similarly glowing reports from the women's first meeting last Sunday evening.

I'm thankful for a few weeks out of the preaching game after a busier spell of late, taking charge of four of the past five Sunday sermons. Indeed, this proved to be providential this week under some challenging circumstances, namely some car issues and Sam catching a fever and being off nursery for most of the week. Yet God's hand was so visible even here. A healthy Sam would have gone bananas without some means of transportation to get him out of the house; as it was, he was quite content with cuddles and Dora the Explorer.

Next weekend sees our third annual Langham preaching conference take place, a little later in the year than the first two conferences due to my time out of Trinidad. The group is a little reduced at this point, but the longer wait means that those of us who have stuck with it are particularly excited for this year's edition. This year one of our speakers is Igor Améstegui, who is based here in Bolivia and oversees Langham's preaching programmes throughout all of Latin America. As you can imagine, he is a gifted preacher himself, and we will be having a special service at our church next Sunday evening so that the members of the various churches involved can hear him speak too.

So in the unlikely event of another maratón de Dora next weekend, I'd imagine Amanda will be unable to provide a further update. Furthermore, we are travelling to La Paz the following weekend for a retreat with our Latin Link cohorts. What's the name of that Depeche Mode song again? Oh yeah: enjoy the silence. 

Prayer
  • Pray for a stimulating weekend of teaching and equipping next weekend and that, above all, our churches would reap the benefits.
  • La Paz is not always the most relaxing of destinations. But we're looking forward to meeting with the Latin Link team again for a weekend of refreshing and encouragement. Pray for safety in our travels there and renewed vigour for the task ahead.
Praise
  • Give thanks for the funding for the water tower, and the progress being made on its construction.
  • Give thanks for the positive start to the new session of men's and women's Bible studies.
  • Give thanks for the Lord's providential ordering of circumstances this week, and his abundant grace to endure. 
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Saturday Post -- 12/08/17

Lunch-avoidance for beginners.

This coming Monday marks four weeks since the Strathaven team set off for home at the end of their stint here. Their legacy continues to be felt, not least in the shape of the expertly-crafted mural and banner that festoon the church walls, though it pains me to say that the last embers of their Obligatory British Chocolate Package ran out during the week.

This also means, though, that we've now had roughly one month, since returning, of living a 'normal' existence here (teams, while always welcome, present their own unique challenges every day, and even the two weeks we had here before their arrival was largely taken up with team preparation or sorting out the house). In other words, it's as good an opportunity as any to reflect, and give an update, on the targets we set ourselves for life and ministry earlier this year. I'm delighted to say that, by and large, we see progress here, and are feeling the benefits immensely.

Working from a place of rest

Following a year of essentially juggling two full-time jobs and parenthood (and paying a heavy price for this!), we knew as we left Bolivia in early January that something had to give. This year, as happened during our 2014 furlough, we sought the Lord's guidance as to which ministries it would be best to leave in the Bolivians' hands. But unlike 2014, this time we made the Bolivians aware of these changes some time before we even arrived back in the country, meaning they were both well prepared and less likely to cajole us to change our minds (which, by and large, in January 2015, we did!). 

For Amanda, this has meant scaling back her HR responsibilities at work a little in order to better attend to the practical needs of her 'boys'. The Lord really provided in this respect, as the administrator who started with FT in December was quite happy to take on much of this work, and has continued to do so with aplomb. For a couple of mornings a week, then, Amanda has not only been able to get through mountains of ironing, but also have uninterrupted time with the Lord in prayer and Bible reading. As an onlooker, I'm encouraged.

One of the tasks I stepped down from myself was youth ministry, which takes place on Saturday evenings. This was certainly a case of mind over matter, as the youth group has grown considerably since we left, and more male leaders would be welcome, making it all the more tempting for me to backtrack and play the knight in shining armour (after all, the Lord's work depends solely on us anyway, right?). But I've kept to the original plan, and this has given me the time and space on Saturday evenings to continue in an online theological training course I began on furlough. I've found this not only to be great nourishment for myself, but also of great benefit, already, in church leadership. All in all: good move.

Putting family first

With a slightly reduced workload, we now have increased flexibility to adapt to situations as they arise. During the week, for example, Amanda might ask me to take Sam out for a couple of hours just to get a break, or I might ask her to give me the chance to go out and get some exercise. We are now much better equipped to help each other in this respect.

However, the three of us do still hang out together (occasionally!) and these times have been all the more special for the lack of exhaustion. Additionally, I have begun leading family devotions every day just before Sam's bedtime, and we're delighted by how much he's already embracing this. For Amanda and I, date nights (or 'mornings', in the case of Mondays), have been re-prioritised, and we feel we are working so much better together during the week as a result, both as parents and as spouses. 

Craig's pastoral work

By and large, I'm enjoying my increased role now in the church leadership. I've set aside one evening a week for visits -- an area that had been neglected for many years -- and I've had some great conversations, not only with members, but also with parents of some of the children and young people who attend at weekends. Part of my aim is to make them feel comfortable in the church on those rare occasions when they accompany their children -- and, indeed, encourage them to come more.

My Bible teaching workload has increased significantly. I'm preaching at least three times a month, I take turns with another guy to lead the bi-monthly Bible study, and I'm also making the usual contributions to Communion services and prayer meetings. However, this area is a strength, and so I know my energies are not being wasted in any way. 

Staying with preaching, the Langham group are looking forward to the Level 3 workshop at the end of this month, and I'm praying about starting a new group. There is a lot of interest among people from the churches currently involved, including our own. I'll be looking to get a little more guidance on this when the Langham workers arrive here in late August.

Finally, I'm getting back into some one-on-one discipleship and just this week I had a great time with one of our young people in the church, Diego, who supports the children's ministry. I'm hoping to start this soon with a young man who became a Christian just a couple of weeks ago.

Amanda's work

Though she's cut back on her hours a little, with the delegation of her HR duties, Amanda has had a lot more time to sit down with staff and find out how they are getting on; this pastoral side to her work was something she was looking to improve on, so this is a great start for her. She's also enjoyed being back on the board of directors at the Foundation and has driven a couple of key initiatives just in the last month. The prayer room is still a work in progress; please pray! 

Sam's schooling

Sam continues to thrive in his new environment in the mornings. The only issue we're having is that he arrives home so exhausted that lunch -- the main meal of the day here -- is, well, challenging! It's essentially a race to see how much food we can get in him before he raises his white flag with 'BED! NOW!' written on it. His Spanish is really starting to come along now too; he even addressed me with an 'Hola' at the school gates yesterday. 

Prayer
  • Pray for the preparations for Langham Level 3, taking place from the 31st of August till the 3rd of September. 
  • We're beginning a new series in Galatians this week in the church to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (it was Mr. Luther's favourite book). Pray for Craig tomorrow and next Sunday as he preaches, and on Thursday as he takes a session of the Revelation Bible study.
Praise
  • Amanda and the youth committee were finally able to meet this week to start planning for this year's camp. 
  • Give thanks for the great time of discipleship this week with Diego.
  • Give thanks for the many ways we are seeing God bless us in life and ministry when we simply follow his guidance.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda