Friday, March 16, 2018

Saturday Post -- 17/03/18

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Well, we made it out of Trinidad. All our paperwork is in order and a visa-stamped passport is in our hands. To be frank, the decision to take a time-out in the early days of January had since been backed up by so many little confirmations in the succeeding months that any other result would have seemed inconceivable.

But, my goodness, we're not half made to sweat these things out!

The UK's consulate in Bogotá (where South American applications are sent) have a three-week target time in which to process all applications. And this target is generally met -- we have enough experience to know! So it was pretty unnerving that on the morning of the 7th, exactly three weeks later, we'd heard barely a word. However, that afternoon, we finally received an email confirming that the application was now in the hands of an entry clearance officer. The following day, we were advised that the decision had been made and that the documents would be back with us in four working days.

And so it was that this past Tuesday -- one day short of four weeks since we'd submitted the papers, and one day before we were due to leave Trinidad for Santa Cruz -- we received word from our friend in La Paz that, yes, the visa had been granted. By this point we had very much 'packed in faith', with half of our luggage already on its way to Santa Cruz with one of the local bus companies (the best way to deliver large items in Bolivia is to use road or air travel operations). So, yes, exhalations all round.

That's better.
And, yes, more to the point, that Canadian passport could not come sooner!

The visa's granting was the final piece in our paperwork jigsaw, with both our national ID cards and driving licences pending the last time we filed. Amanda's were due to expire on Sunday -- a day before we leave the country -- while I spent over a week, er, driving without a valid licence (in fairness, in doing so, I was perfectly in step with the vast majority of Trinidad's motorists; curiously enough, the local fuzz only tend to check for licences when big national and local boozefests -- sorry, holidays -- are approaching).

Anyway, when the woman at the office confessed to us that she was still awaiting the outcome of applications submitted last year, our stress levels again took an upward trajectory. However, in this case, too, we made it by the skin of our teeth; on Monday, two days before we left Trinidad, we were handed our new five-year ID cards and driving licences. In truth, we could probably have just about managed without them before leaving the country; it was our re-entry later this year which would have become much more complicated.

Sam, Amanda and Jessica, who has the good fortune of sharing her name with
the classic Top Gear theme tune.
In hindsight, then, the calming influence in our midst over the past week or so was surely providence writ large. Amanda's old friend Jessica Morris arrived a week past on Thursday and proved an immense help, whether in the tedious practical chores required before such a big departure, or keeping an eye on His Lordship while we dashed from one government office to the next, or in simply helping us stay positive and distracted from these big concerns through stimulating conversation. Amanda had been commenting that, perhaps one reason we have come to this crossroads in our lives and ministry, is that there has always existed a temptation to prove to others -- and, by extension, to ourselves -- that we are 'doing stuff'. Certain platforms, if we're not careful, can encourage this mentality: this very blog, of course, is one; and visits from the outside world are often another. 

With Jessica, mercifully, that was never going to be the case: firstly, because, of course, our tanks were pretty much empty anyway; and secondly, because, like any friend or family member who has taken the effort to come out and visit us, our value to Jessica was in no way based upon what we do.

What's more, Jessica also falls within that very small bracket of friends whom Amanda would describe as, "Those people you can hang out with for the first time in years and just pick up from where you left off." No targets to meet, no big shows to put on, no judgement, no big deal. But yes, lots of exquisite beniano steak and fish to sample with abandon, per our guest's explicit instructions.

*                 *                 *

That, friends, is probably it in terms of our weekly/fortnightly updates for the time being. We are under orders to ensure these coming months will be a time not only of restoration, but of rest, and removing the regular pressure of coming up with something to riff on every weekend is certainly part of that (I know what you're thinking: we make it look so easy, don't we!). 

However, this impending season is likely to be crucial for us in terms of our future direction, and so we're hoping to keep regular readers appraised as to our progress, say, once a month or so. We'll see how that transpires.

We also intend to keep producing our usual quarterly email updates, so if you'd like to receive these regularly, please do send us an email at cramandaham@gmail.com. 

Until next time, then, here are our prayer points:

Prayer
  • For our time in the UK, specifically...
    • For Craig: That he would learn to rest properly and be enabled to make healthy decisions as to his ministry life.
    • For Amanda: That she would be restored to a place where she is better able to serve others while taking better care of herself.
    • For Sam: That he would have regular opportunities for play, learning and interaction with his contemporaries.
    • For us all: That we would be built up and encouraged by our time with friends and family; that our treatment would enable us to be better equipped to return to Bolivia later this year; and that God would guide us as to the next steps we should be taking in our lives as a family.
  • For smooth and safe travels over the coming week. Pray particularly for abundant reserves of patience and endurance, with a toddler in tow, an overnight transatlantic flight, and a seven-hour layover the next day in Frankfurt. A heady brew!
  • Pray for the work in Trinidad, both of Fundación Totaí and the church (see our last entry) from which we are recusing ourselves in order to get a proper break, but which, of course, will continue in earnest in our absence. 
Praise
  • Perhaps the strongest confirmation of God's will for our return to the UK has been the way he has so emphatically met our needs. We will have a car and we are a pen to about to put pen to paper on a flat for the next few months. Give thanks.
  • For the great encouragement and refreshment of Jessica's visit (you can find Jessica's own reflections here). 
  • For the various documents coming together in time for us to be able to travel with a great weight off our minds. We got there in the end.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Saturday Post -- 3/3/18

Church planning. Calm yourselves.
"It's getting tickly now – squeaky-bum time, I call it."

Wise words, indeed, from the greatest football manager of all time, Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson, on the occasion of the closing weeks of the 2003 Premier League title race. And it's fair to say that, with all that's going on just now -- or, indeed, not going on, as the case may be -- the bums are a-squeaking.

We knew after our last experience that the visa wait would not be without its complications, though we are a little surprised not to have heard anything by this point. We are due to leave Sao Paulo for Scotland on the 20th of March -- and Trinidad a good few days before that -- so an answer of some kind this week would be most welcome.

However, things are a little stickier -- or squeakier -- this time, owing to other "events, dear boy". For our (Craig & Amanda's) government-issued ID cards are due to expire just before we're hoping to leave the country. These are required to perform most transactions here. Now our paperwork has all been submitted, though there have been some major delays due to IT problems in the relevant offices in La Paz and Trinidad. Now, if we had to travel before they were issued, it would simply be a case of a friend picking them up and somehow getting them to Scotland from Bolivia over the coming months, so we could have them when we return later in the year. No big deal then. Except that tied to our ID cards' expiry dates are our driving licence expiry dates. And our driving licences are a separate submission which can only be accepted once our ID cards are issued (and may itself take any number of weeks to process). So we can get the car to Santa Cruz, where we are hoping to leave it with a friend while we're in the UK, but there is no guarantee that we'll have even submitted the driving licence paperwork before we leave Bolivia, meaning we'd not be able to drive a car for a good few weeks upon our return!

It's all very complicated, isn't it. If you don't need a lie-down after reading all that, simply pray for "all that paperwork stuff" -- the Holy Spirit will doubtless fill in the blanks (Romans 8:26).

Amidst all the bureaucratic busyness, there's a lot to be excited about. 

Firstly, my Excuse Of The Week for last Saturday's non-post was a long-awaited church planning day, the first time we had embarked upon such a venture. It's par for the course for many churches at the beginning of the year, and we had been talking about it for a while. However, the need became more urgent when it became apparent that Amanda and I would be gone a good few months, leaving Miguel Ángel as the sole elder. 

So a couple of months ago, Miguel Ángel and I took the decision to appoint a group of capable young guys to come alongside us and, while not take on the role of elder as yet, at least provide a team that can give support to Miguel Ángel, whose plate is already very full in his role as a father and as president of the foundation. And we thought that we may as well dust down the planning day idea as a way of marking the occasion.

Trinidad is not the biggest of cities, and it can be difficult to be truly free of distractions within its boundaries. So we opted to head for the lake which, though just three miles outside of town, feels like another world. A friend of ours graciously offered us some space on the grounds of his hotel and we simply sat at a big table in a quieter spot, spending the day prayerfully mapping out the coming months. We were able to thrash out a new mission and vision statement (something we hadn't revised for six years as a church) and put together a strategic plan with three main targets: firstly, getting the message of the new mission and vision into the lifeblood of the everyday life of the church; secondly, giving clearer definition to the roles of people in various positions of responsibility; and thirdly, establishing better contacts with the families of the many under-18s in attendance every week (most of whose parents are not yet believers). 

Of course, I say 'we', but we all agree that it's pretty crucial for me not to get involved in the next few months. It's not great for the church to have someone helping to pull the strings from so far away, especially when there are other capable people here. And, more importantly, it's not helpful for us as a family at a time when we need the time and space to rest and re-assess things.

The other exciting development is that, at a time when understanding friends have been hard to come by, one of Amanda's very best friends, Jessica Morris, is due here on Thursday morning, for a week's stay (the idea is to drive her back to Santa Cruz the following week, before we fly out ourselves; but 'one day at a time' and all that). Visits are always good and friends are always doubly welcome. It's just a shame so many of them end up leaving these tropical climes with squeaky bums.

Prayer
  • For "all that paperwork stuff" (see above).
  • For a sense of peace as we prepare to leave while not being 100% sure when that will be.
  • For the new leadership team at the church.
  • For safe travels for -- and good times with -- Jessica.
Praise
  • For God's guiding hand on a great day last Saturday.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Saturday Post -- 17/02/18

Missionaries, eh?
We are now back, safely ensconced in Trinidad, but when we last wrote, our Guatemalan experience was only just beginning. So allow me to fill you in.

We made the most of our remaining time by Lake Atitlán, mostly slumming it by the pool, but also taking a boat ride one day for a little tour of the surrounding villages and towns, where Mayan culture continues to live large. 

Antigua, Guatemala's former capital city (helpfully,
'Antigua' means former).
However, our main reason for being in the Central American republic was, of course, Latin Link's International Assembly, back in Guatemala City, a four-hour drive from the lake on the morning of the 1st. The IA is a gathering of most of Latin Link's missionaries and support workers and takes place every four years. We have only been members of Latin Link for around 18 months and have just about got the hang of the Bolivia team, so while we knew it was probably the right thing to attend, we weren't exactly jumping for joy at the prospect of seeing old friends. So it was perhaps inevitable that the whole shebang surpassed our expectations, but it did so to an extent we had not anticipated; indeed, if you'll permit me a hackneyed cliché, I'd go so far as to call it a 'game-changer' (that hurt!).

La-la-la-la-la-la banda.
If you know my family, you may not be entirely surprised to know that the music at the IA was particularly special for me, though again, this in fact all rather snuck up on me. A few months ago, when the appeal went out for Latin Linkers to sign up to play in the band, I threw my hat in the ring with all the inevitability of an Olympic doping controversy. Because Cunninghams 'n' that. But as the IA approached, and with our family circumstances becoming increasingly challenging, I wondered if it might be best for me to sit this one out. As ever, Amanda knew best, encouraging me to go for it, knowing what a lift it would give me.

The joys were threefold. Firstly, I got to connect with a bunch of similarly somewhat-limited-but-willing people who loved the Lord and wanted to use such gifts to honour him; as a group, we gelled remarkably quickly. Secondly, we were led by the one person who was anything but limited: Santiago Benavides; missionary, musician, poet, artist to his fingernails. And, above all, a great disciple of the Lord, whose every utterance seemed bathed in thankfulness, and who, unlike the vast majority of Latin American Christian recording artists (whose output is largely driven by the immigrant market in the USA) espouses a most grounded, Latin American theology. 'Santi', from Colombia, was as patient and humble as he was professional. It was a privilege for all of us to serve with him (more here). 

A kids' programme was laid on for the likes of Sam.
Thirdly, and probably most crucially, for the first time in years I went back to my bass-twangin' roots, without the bothersome distraction of a microphone in my face. 'Twas very heaven.

With over 150 present from all over the western hemisphere in the morning sessions, the music inevitably had to cater to a range of cultures, and while Spanish was the main sung language, French, Portuguese, German and English songs also made occasional appearances. In the end, not a voice was muted and what could have been awkward became, under Santi's able direction, a spine-tingling foretaste of the new creation.

Mike Fernández, Cornhill cohort.
While I made lots of new friends in the music group, there were a few more of our old acquaintances in attendance outside of our Bolivia team. Peruvian Mike Fernández is now Latin Link's Scottish coordinator, a fair compensation having had the 'pleasure' of my company at Cornhill Scotland four years ago. A fair few missionaries from LAM Canada (which remains our main sending agency) were also present; with the Colombians LAM-ers, we staged a Super Bowl Sunday mid-conference caper (alas, Amanda and I had a long-standing engagement to attend to during the second-half). 

Our fellow Canadians.
Aside from the social stuff, the IA provided a daily diet of plenary sessions covering big, important themes for the world of missions (such as mobilisation, the changing nature of missions), and workshops dealing with more day-to-day practical issues (such as self-care, leadership and working with Millennials). We both gleaned great practical insight from these sessions.

An afternoon workshop.
The main order of business at the IA was welcoming Latin Link's new International Team Leader, Paul Turner, who assumes the role from Alan Tower (a great, warm guy, who served for many years in Bolivia, and who is moving on to Friends International). Amanda and I are really excited to be working under Paul, who, along with his wife, Ruth, we got to know well last year when they attended our Bolivia team meeting. They are a couple with a great interest in people and were a great encouragement to us. We are looking forward to seeing them again later this year, God-willing, at the Scottish conference.

Latin Link's World Cup winners, needless to say. A celtic conglomerate.

All said and done, the International Assembly proved well worth the airfare. What an encouragement to see what God is doing in Latin America; in particular, the increasing numbers of Latin Americans who are themselves bringing the good news to neighbouring countries, to Spain, or, indeed, to the Middle East (where they are, inevitably, much more welcome than the pastier-faced of this world). We are thrilled that Latin Link is actively facilitating such developments. And what a privilege to spend a week in the company of so many others with a love for God and for this corner of the globe. We're not alone, after all!

I'll close with a confession. As effusive as we try to be on this here blog, for the past few years we have often wondered if the time has come to pack up and head back to some kind of ministry back in Scotland; if anything, this has probably been driven by a combination of the relative isolation of Trinidad and the desire simply to be back among friends and family, more so than any real 'calling'. The International Assembly, for us, was confirmation that the Latin missions world is where we still belong. Whether that still means Trinidad, Bolivia, is a question for another day. For the moment, we're just thankful for the opportunity that Guatemala provided -- both for rest and for support -- and excited to see what our great God has in store. All glory, praise and thanks be to the 'Esperanza de las naciones'.



Prayer
  • We arrived back in La Paz last Saturday, which was convenient, as our first big job after the IA was getting Sam's UK visa paperwork submitted (if you aren't aware, we're hoping to travel in late March for a six-month stay). However, being Carnaval weekend, we weren't able to hand over the documents till Wednesday morning, which required us to stay in La Paz a few more days; we were well looked after by a friend who lives in a quiet spot outside the city. Anyway, we appreciate your prayers that this application will be granted (what could possibly go wrong?).
  • Sam starts his day-care again next week. You can pray for that.
  • Assuming the visa gets the green light, we have just three-and-a-half weeks to finalise things here in Trinidad. Pray for focus, energy and patience.
Praise
  • Our stay in Guatemala was also prolonged as the Latin Link Bolivia team opted to have our own two-day annual business meeting straight after the IA. Anyway, it was a good meeting and we had a particularly encouraging afternoon praying for one another.
  • Guatemala also saw Amanda's mother, Selene, head back to Canada at the end of two months with us. She was a huge help during a challenging time for us, particularly in taking care of Sam. Give thanks for family.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda


Saturday, January 27, 2018

Saturday Post -- 27/01/18

How was the view from your treadmill this morning?
Writing from Guatemala, where we landed on Thursday afternoon after a day of frantic flying. The easy route from Bolivia is via Miami, but Sam's lack of US visa (and, still, a Canadian passport) ruled that one out. So our route was through Lima and El Salvador, with only about an hour's layover at each stop. A broken down aeroplane on the Lima runway caused a big delay in finally leaving South America, but the last flight from El Salvador to Guatemala (think Glasgow-Belfast) awaited our arrival. As we jogged down the terminal, for the first time in my life, I heard my name announced with regard to a departing flight: a seismic moment, I'm sure you'll agree.

We are primarily here for the Latin Link International Assembly, a four-yearly gathering of Latin Link workers from all over the world, including the UK (indeed, a former Cornhill colleague of mine from 2014 will be in attendance). That starts this coming Thursday in Guatemala City. Till then, we are based four hours' drive south-west, in the little town of Panajachel, by Lake Atitlán, one of the country's most famous spots and a general hit with tourists. Three volcanoes loom large on the southern flank and the various towns dotted around the shoreline have heavy Mayan influences. 

The weather is sunny but fresh -- never higher than around 25-Celsius -- and our hotel is beautifully situated on the northern side, right by the shore and with a direct view to the volcanoes; all of which, of course, are positively screaming to this exiled Scot, "Climb me." (NB: They are inactive and eminently scalable; I'll hopefully have some pictorial evidence some time soon.)

Amanda samples the local cuisine.
Of course, we're glad simply to have arrived in one piece and without complications, given that this time next week, things in Bolivia were looking very, very different. Along with evangelical churches across the country, we had an extended prayer time last Sunday for the situation in the country, particularly with regard to the new penal code on the table, which would potentially have taken a wrecking-ball to evangelism in the longer-term. More immediately -- and, admittedly, far less importantly -- the various strikes and road-blocks were genuinely threatening our capacity (and that of other Latin Link Bolivia team members) to get to Guatemala.

Well, we had barely arrived back home after church when a fellow Latin Linker texted, suggesting we check out the latest news. The president had just announced the repealing of the new penal code, in a live interview which had taken place at the very same time we, and so many other churches, had been praying. And we know that these prayers were not confined to Bolivia, based on the many emails of support we received from individuals and churches in the days preceding. A great encouragement indeed.

We are in Guatemala for a couple of weeks. After the conference, the Bolivia team is meeting at the same venue for a couple of days for our own annual business meeting, and then we will be back in La Paz, God-willing, on the 10th of February. There we will stay for a further few days, in order to submit Sam's visa papers (we have to stay till the Wednesday owing to Carnaval). And then, it will be back to Trinidad, where we will have just four weeks to get everything in place for returning to Scotland. In other words: enjoy the volcano vistas while they last, Craig.

One happy customer.
Prayer
  • For a relaxing few days here by Lake Atitlán.
  • For a safe trip back to Guatemala City for the International Assembly, starting Thursday, then back to Bolivia on the 9th-10th of February.
  • For encouragement and good fellowship at the International Assembly.
Praise
  • For getting here safely.
  • For the amazing developments last weekend back in Bolivia.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Saturday Post -- 12/01/18

"Classic Queen!"
For British men of a certain age (i.e., mine), a comedy character called Alan Partridge holds cult hero status. Played by Steve Coogan, he has, in his various broadcasting incarnations, presented the sports news, hosted a chat show and tried his hand at graveyard-shift radio. It was that last stage of his 'career progression' that was covered in the mock-documentary 'I'm Alan Partridge', in which our hero, in something of a transitional state in his life, found himself living in a naff roadside hotel, the 'Linton Travel Tavern' for six months, while betting the house on an unlikely return to the BBC. 

These temporary (sort of) accommodations shine a light to the best and worst sides of his personality. He collects his mini-soaps and -shampoos in a box. Using a briefcase, he smuggles an extra-large plate into the breakfast buffet each morning. He dismantles a Corby Trouser Press. He develops a well-meaning, though increasingly uncomfortable, familiarity with the hotel staff, including hapless handyman Michael, formerly of the military. A typical exchange:

Michael: Oh aye, I've seen some terrible things, mind.
Alan: What, like three men burning in a tank going, "aaarrgh!"?
Michael: Ye wouldn't want to know, Mr Partridge.
Alan: I'll be honest, I'm pretty curious. I'd basically like to understand man's inhumanity to man. Then make a programme about it.

Well, these past couple of weeks I had a minor case of the Alans myself, having stayed in a Santa Cruz hotel for a total of eight nights, double what we'd bargained for. 

A little high-tech for Trinidad, this.
The plan had been to take a four-night city break after the busyness of Christmas and New Year, with the express aim of seeing the new Star Wars film and, for the ladies, allocating some Christmas capital in the general direction of clothing. We arrived on the afternoon of the 2nd, expecting to leave on the morning of the 6th. While in Santa Cruz, we also caught up with some friends and enjoyed the hotel facilities; Sam went wild in the outdoor pool, desperate to swim no matter the water temperature.

Saturday morning was going well. Despite the accumulations, I'd managed to get the car packed in no time at all and we were all ready to hit the road back to Trinidad at about 8:30. And that was when the problems began.

I've never felt so simultaneously devastated and thankful
that I don't live in Santa Cruz as when I frequent the
various quality pizza outlets
One of the first priorities was to fill the tank, which was nearly empty. However, this was proving more complicated than expected due to an oversight on my part. In Bolivia, you need to have a licence, renewable annually, to be able to buy fuel. We had not been made aware by the previous owner of our car when this would be 'up', and it turned out ours had expired while we were in Santa Cruz. At a succession of stations on the way out of the city, I implored the workers to consider our situation. No joy.

We came to the last station before the turn-off to Trinidad, indeed, the last station for a good 50 miles or so. The lines were long, so I parked the car to the side and walked to the head of the queue to ask what my chances were of getting a hand. Happily, the staff agreed to overlook my oversight and told me to get in line. 


Which I would have done if the car had then started. Well, we did get it started, but only after about a dozen attempts, by which point it was crystal-clear that to depend on this vehicle to get us home would be the definition of folly. Lumbering and chuntering back through the city streets, we somehow managed to transport it to the home of a mechanic friend. And there it stayed...until Tuesday afternoon!

While I was doing my best to disguise my frustrations, my mother-in-law, Selene, was doing her best to disguise her joy, being something of a lady of leisure, quite at peace with hotel life. We just had to get on with it, though for me, cabin fever was taking hold. A few days earlier, the fact that the staff would trace your every step at the breakfast buffet seemed attentive; now it was becoming an irritation. And why-oh-why were we being subjected to that Ed Sheeran album again

Spot the boy.
Still, in the end, the extra days gave us a little more time with friends and a lot more time with each other. I enjoyed having a little more free time to spend with the family after a busy Christmas and New Year period at church.

On Wednesday evening we finally made it back to Trinidad, glad to be back home in our own beds. We'd best enjoy them while we can; it's Guatemala in two weeks' time.

Prayer
  • Pray for the country of Bolivia. We can't go into details here, but Google searches such as 'Bolivia doctors', 'Bolivia press freedom' or 'Bolivia evangelism' will yield some eyebrow-raising news stories.
  • We have a lot to do at work and at home in these next couple of weeks before leaving for the Latin Link International Assembly. Pray for energy and patience.
Praise
  • Give thanks that our car wouldn't start where it wouldn't start, if you catch my drift. The Santa Cruz-Trinidad road is not somewhere you want to get stuck with a breakdown.
  • For a pleasant time of it in the big city, even if for a little longer than expected.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Saturday Post -- 30/12/17


First things first: the Christmas Day barbecue was a roaring success! After the traditional midnight-on-Christmas-Eve celebrations, over 30 friends staggered out of their beds and joined us in mid-afternoon for a couple of hours of beef and banter. If it were up to me alone, we'd make it an annual fixture. Amanda's not quite made her mind up on that one; please pray for a prompt decision on that, as the next one is a mere 51 weeks away.

By about 5:30pm, our last guests had left, the last plastic plates had been dumped, and the barbecue had been reduced to mere embers. Time, then, to continue the Christmas traditions by putting our feet up and enjoy a well-earned evening's rest. 

Well, not quite. In fact, it was time to go to church.

You'll remember that on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, we had been due to have our big annual Christmas celebration service, an event for which around 100 different children and young people had put in weeks of preparation in terms of dance, singing and drama. Furthermore, an array of lights, tin foil and tinsel was on display; the hall had been well and truly decked. The stage, as it were, was set.

Until this happened.


From around noon on Sunday, well into the night, the heavens rained themselves dry. And Trinidad's geography means that it doesn't take the most prolonged of storms to turn the streets into rivers. Meaning that by as early as 2pm, with the church by now essentially reduced to an island, the WhatApp group was abuzz with concern for the service. 

And so, we took two steps we've never taken before as a leadership. On the one hand, we called off the service. This would never have happened in the case of a usual Sunday morning, where we always manage to get a faithful core, come rain or shine. The difference here was that a whole host of children and parents with little church contact outside of the holiday Bible club ministry were due to attend. It takes the merest spit of rain to send people here running for their houses; they were hardly likely to make it out in these conditions.

This was taken at the Foundation on the morning of Christmas Day, i.e.,
some hours after the waters had begun to recede!
On the other hand, we postponed the service. Recognising the uniqueness of this service -- not only in terms of its overtly evangelistic focus, but also the huge time and effort that had gone into its preparation -- we felt we owed it to those involved to reschedule it and hope for better weather. And so we did, for 6pm on Christmas Day; which, to be fair, was harder on us than for most people, given that Christmas is effectively over by around 6am on the 25th here. 

Still, after all the effort of the barbecue, we weren't exactly pining for two hours sat on our backsides in an overcrowded room. An Evening with John McClane this most certainly was not. 

And yet, you know what? We wouldn't necessarily keep it as a permanent Christmas Day fixture. But while the Christmas Eve service usually serves as a nice little official launch to the annual celebrations, this was an equally special way to bring the curtain down. I think that for many believers,  if we're honest, the 'spiritual' side of Christmas is pretty much over and done with by the time Great Aunt Agatha arrives, the Brussels sprouts are served and the crackers are, er, cracked. This way, before setting it aside for another year, we had the chance to come back to the very essence of it. 


I also felt helped as I gave a short talk at the conclusion on Jesus being the Light of the world, to which people seemed very attentive; not bad, given the general exhaustion.

This weekend, like many other churches around the world, we'll have an event for New Year's Eve on Sunday night. Our thoughts then turn to Santa Cruz, where we're going for a few days on Tuesday morning for a short break with Amanda's mother, Selene. We will likely be travelling home next Saturday, meaning the first post of 2018 will likely have to wait a week.

Thanks to all of you for your prayerful support over these past 12 months. It was a joy to see so many of you earlier this year, and your prayers have certainly carried us as we have settled in here again since June, a transition that has not always been without its struggles. We look forward to sharing our lives and ministry with you again in 2018.

Sam: meet train sets.
Prayer
  • Pray for safe travels and a relaxing time in Santa Cruz this coming week.
Praise
  • For a surprisingly wonderful, blessed experience on Christmas Day.
  • For God's great faithfulness to us as a family in 2017. We have so much to be thankful for.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Saturday Post -- 23/12/17

Coca-Cola don't just own Christmas where you live.
This morning, after a couple of weeks of jazz carols and Handel's Messiah, I got in the car, finally succumbed to my true self and dusted down the downright tacky stuff (The Pogues excepted, of course). I wobbled my way along a flooded, potholed-street, children slipping on their backsides in the mud, while a horse rummaged through the binbags by the side of the road. And all the while, Bing Crosby's telling me 'It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas'.

This, of course, is the toughest time of year to be away from home, the result often being that every year, in an attempt to keep homesickness at bay, we have gone to great lengths -- perhaps greater lengths than we would do in the UK or Canada -- to make things as 'Christmassy' as possible. This was relatively simple a few years back, when there was a sufficiently large contingent of North American and European missionaries here to justify splashing out on a turkey and tolerating Cliff Richard for a day. In recent years, however, it's just been the three of us, meaning a whole day is spent in tropical temperatures, preparing a roast dinner that will be uncomfortable to eat, gone in 15 minutes and will not even feature aforementioned bird.

Well, 2017 may well go down in the annals of history as the year in which we hoisted high the white (Christmas) flag. I miss the traditional Christmas dinner greatly -- my last one was three long years ago now -- but really, what's the point of going to all that effort when it's just not the same? So this year, we're ditching our preconceived notions of Christmas food and embracing the joys of the Beni cuisine. 

That's right. We're having the mother of all steak barbecues.

And while we can't have most of our blood family here, we can certainly throw a party for our beloved church family (indeed, steak would be as futile as turkey were we a mere trio). So, we're inviting them too. There will be no crackers. No Queen's Speech. No mild racism from a grandparent in the corner. And that's OK. We will be surrounded by 'loved ones', in their own unique way. And best of all, unlike your relatives, they'll probably all be gone with the last sausage, clearing the way for an evening of Die Hard, HRH on-demand, and panettone (a Bolivian festive tradition I've wholeheartedly embraced!).

Anyway, a happy Christmas to everyone. Actually, no. ¡Feliz Navidad!

Prayer
  • Christmas Eve sees our church hold its usual annual service with contributions from our children and young people. It is often the only time that their parents will come each year, so please pray that we will be faithful as a church in not wasting that opportunity.
  • Craig will be giving a short evangelistic talk at that same service. Pray for boldness and clarity.
  • Pray for a special time on Monday with our Trinidad family.
Praise
  • Amanda's mother, Selene, arrived on Tuesday afternoon to spend Christmas with us -- and to lend a hand over the school holidays! Give thanks for her safe arrival and for her great help to us already.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

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