Saturday, November 30, 2013

Saturday Post -- 30/11/13

Church band night out (see below).
Wilson in Roman-emperor-at-Collisseum mode. The tease.
Crazy, crazy day ahead. Amanda and I are both tasked with overseeing 'clausuras' (closing ceremonies -- Bolivians love to pomp it up) in FT and the church, and I also have a sermon to polish off for tomorrow. To that end, Amanda had kindly volunteered to write this morning, but last night she received an invitation to a kindergarten graduation from a family whose children attend the church, and then this morning we get word that one of the young women in Amanda's Bible study group has had an emergency C-section, four weeks ahead of her due date -- good job Amanda had the baby-shower last weekend!

It never rains but it pours, as they say. If only that were really the case -- it's been hotter than a Shanghai sauna over the past week.

So, you'll permit me to head straight to the prayer points this morning. Well, OK, maybe you won't, but tough cheese. 

  • You know the familiar saying: "It ain't over till your plane's left Santa Cruz". As well as tomorrow's sermon (on Christmas-themed prophecies in the Old Testament) Craig has had plenty more to keep him busy in the church. Last weekend, one of our leaders resigned from his post, very much out of the blue. And over the past couple of days our pastor, Elías, has come down with dengue fever and has been ordered by the doctors to go on bedrest for two weeks. Tomorrow was technically going to be Craig's last day of work in the church, and we know fine well after four years here that things rarely go to plan in Bolivia, but the timing of these twin blows is certainly hard to stomach, when we both have so much still to do to get ready to go home. So please pray for perseverance and that Elías's recovery would be swift.
  • Pray for new mother Maye and her baby, who is currently in an incubator.
  • Pray for a course which is taking place in the church tomorrow afternoon, called 'The Culture of Blessing'. It's being run by two of our members and the material, which focuses particularly on encouragement, looks like it could be of real benefit to us as a church. Pray for good attendance and a positive response from the church.
  • With FT now more-or-less done and dusted (see below), we now move into leaving preparation mode. Lots of stuff to do still: some minor repairs in the house, car maintenance, packing (not only for Scotland but also clearing space in the house for Rachel, who will be looking after it in 2014). Oh, and we still have to put together our presentation for churches, which we'd really like to polish off before travelling so we don't have it hanging over us over Christmas. Pray for energy and patience.
  • Yesterday was our last day at Fundación Totaí. We are so thankful to the Lord for what he has done through us, and very much in spite of us, over the last four years. Given the financial difficulties of the last couple of years, we're especially thankful that FT is still standing and continues to provide such high quality services to our community and beyond.
  • Craig took the church band members out for dinner on Wednesday night as a thank-you for all their hard work over the last three years, and they had a special time together. Give thanks for the amazing growth of these guys and girls as musicians -- most couldn't play a note before coming to the church -- and for the unity the Lord has forged between us as a music ministry, both technically and spirtually.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Friday, November 29, 2013

Home Comforts -- The B-Sides: Punctuality

“Ahoringa, amigo, ahoringa.”

The above term (pronounced ‘hour-een-ga’) is by some distance the most misused word round these here parts. It means “right now” and is the Benian rendering of the Spanish word “ahorita”.

In the West, we are often guilty of reflecting on Latino-Caribbean culture and thinking to ourselves, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be lovely to live in a society where everyone’s just so darned chilled out!” The chief culprit for the proliferation of such lazy thinking is obvious: Lilt adverts. Yes, there is no doubt that things are somewhat relaxed down here. But you only have to live here for a week or two to work out that a stress-free existence is the last thing that such a culture yields.

By some distance, the worst ‘ahoringa’ offenders are workmen. Here, you have to be very careful who you let into your house, and so, earlier this year, when we’d just moved in the new house and the expected new-home teething problems were surfacing, we lost whole Mondays (our only real day off work here) to the ‘ahoringa’ merchants. The day’s proceedings would go something like this:

“Hi there, Javier. Mind I was telling you yesterday that we haven’t had running water in the house for three weeks. You’re still coming this morning, right?” “Ahoringa!”

“Hello again. Just wondering if you’re going to come at all today?” “Ahoringa, amigo, ahoringa!”

“Javier, have you at any point today lost the ability to use your legs?” “Ahoringa!”

Indeed, one of my favourite ‘ahoringa’ buddies, who was meant to come and finish the work on the windows here, never even turned up. If I called him today, I have a funny feeling I know what he’d say.

Alas, this attitude – which, let’s face it, is a point-blank violation of the ninth commandment – is not uncommon in the church. We had a friend who needed a brother in Christ to help them with a motorbike issue and all they got all day long was the ‘ahoringa’ runaround.

To an extent, you get used to it and learn how to work within the lax attitude towards punctuality. The other night, for example, we turned up at a girl’s 15th birthday party (a big deal in Latin America) three hours later than stated on the invitation, and many guests had still not arrived – took us a few years, and a fair few headache-inducing parties, to work that one out! If you’re a teacher like me, you learn not to turn up to school on the ‘first day of class’ – nay, during the first month – as nothing will have been organised. Instead of waiting for home and car malfunctions, you start anticipating them and calling the relevant people some years beforehand, thus increasing their chances of dealing with the problem on the day they occur.

But one can only hope to work around the chaos, not avoid it altogether. And so, once again living in a culture where people’s clocks perform more of a function than simply having a picture of Jesus in the house is an exciting prospect. Here’s hoping that flight-times, unlike 15th birthday party invitations, are as advertised.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Home Comforts -- The B-Sides: Irony

The charge for the last biscuit at the youth leaders' meeting that day
would prove to be of particular interest.

In fairness, this yearning is largely based upon our narrow perception that the world has singularly failed to engage with us Brits’ very ‘individual’ brand of humour. Still, in a society where Mother’s Day is celebrated with a parade of Miss Bolivias, and where the government gives parents an ‘educational support’ bursary the weekend before the cerveza-sodden ‘Day of the Beni’ weekend (which comes at the end of the school year, no less), you need a healthy dose of humour to stomach the appalling contradictions.

Day-to-day conversation can be full of pitfalls too. When you’re in, say, a youth leaders’ meeting, and the issue is raised of how to make the teaching spots more interesting, and you pipe up that maybe the speakers should consider wearing superhero costumes, and your colleagues start looking up the numbers of local spandex merchants…a little bit of you does die inside. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Home Comforts -- The B-Sides: Customer Service

Inevitably, after preparing the top-ten list a few weeks ago, a few experiences in recent days have staked a claim for the ‘revised edition’. Too late to make any changes, so to mark the halfway point in this thrilling countdown, over the next few days I'll be writing about a few more hankerings…

Try a stunt like this in Bolivia and you're probably looking at a
20-year stretch.
This is not something I thought too much about back home, I must say. Indeed, excessive attention from waiters/shop staff/FBI agents became an increasing bugbear of mine on our transatlantic forays back in the day.

American waiters in particular, whose confidence in the future knows no bounds. “Hey thur, everybody, mah name is Jim-Bob and ah’m gonna be taking y’all’s order today, and ah jist want yew to know that if there’s anything at all yew need from me, yew just press this here button and ah’ll be raght on over.” Strange to say, but when my ‘waiter for the day’ is checking on the progress of my meal at an approximate rate of every thirty seconds (almost always interrupting a truly fascinating conversation on the contents of the suitcase in ‘Pulp Fiction’ in the process), said button seems a tad redundant.

Things came to a head in Virginia one evening back in the autumn of 2011, when we enjoyed an otherwise lovely evening out with my aunt and uncle. After 90 minutes or so of this incessant pestering, Jim-Bob showed up with a sample of the desserts and got into future-tense overdrive. “Wayuhl, you’re gonna have a biscuit base with a lemon-scented cream topping…you’re gonna have a strawberry flavoured mousse with sprinkles…you’re gonna have a coconut sorbet coated in a spearmint sauce…”.

To which I really only could muster one reply: “AM I?!?!?!”

Oh, but how I yearn for Jim-Bob and his band of litigation-avoiders here in the tropics of Bolivia. Even in the sniffier UK, the prevailing attitude in retail is that the customer is always right. Here, the customer should be jolly well grateful the poor embattled shop owner is even giving them the time of day.

As evidenced by the time when I bought a box of Bible reading notes only for the office of the transport company in Trinidad to lose them. As compensation, I was offered half of the price of the books (pitiful, I know, but positively philanthropic down here). I reluctantly accepted the offer and held out my hand for the anticipated wad. “Oh no,” said the office manager, “you have to go and speak to the two ladies who run the office, work out who was there at the time of the delivery, and ask them to give you it from their paycheck”. Corporate responsibility?

Or the time I picked up three packs of 4 Duracell AAs, lured by the ‘3 for the price of 2’ offer on the boxes. At the checkout, the third box was not discounted. “You do know these are advertised as 3 for 2?” I put it to the shop owner. “Yes, but I can’t possibly let you take advantage of the offer,” he replied. “And why not?” I pushed. “Well, who would make up for the 10 Bolivianos we’d lose on the third packet?”. “Er, you would,” I posited.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Home Comforts -- Number Six: Seasons

In terms of the scenery, I alluded to this a little in Numbers 10 and 8. In Scotland in early September, for example, the signs that a change is gonna come are there for all to see. Browning leaves. Longer nights. Afternoon Sportscene with Dougie Donnelly.

Here, we just have to make do with varying shades of green. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Light isn’t much of a giveaway either. So close to the equator are we that the difference in daylight between June and December doesn’t even clock in at two hours.

So, with no chance of those glorious (if damp), long summer days we enjoy back in Scotland (and to a lesser extent in Canada), it’s best to make the most of the daylight while you can. Or is it? As I wrote back in September, there are probably only a couple of months, at most, in which one could describe the climate as ‘pleasant’.

And so, Scotland, in the immortal words of Delia Smith, let’s be ’avin’ you! January: cold, with snow. April: cold, with rain. July: cool, with a strong chance of rain. October: cold, with aesthetically redeeming features. I can’t wait.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Saturday Post -- 23/11/13

Some happy campers, with leaders Alex Wann (top), Mariana Garrón
 (3rd from right) and Ana Urquiza (far right).

Since our church was founded in 2005, our youth group had been attending an annual camp hosted by another church in town. But over the last couple of years, we’d been a little concerned about one or two things we’d heard in the aftermath of these camps, particularly with regard to the supervision of campers by leaders.

So, way back in January of this year, when we were planning the calendar for the youth group, a recurring theme was the possibility of running our own camp. Not only would this give us greater control over the participants from our church, but it would be a hugely positive experience for the group to have their very own camp; many a reader can surely look back on their times at such camps and see God shaping their lives in significant ways.

Furthermore, the camp would be a great signpost on our church’s road to maturity, as the organisation and execution would require no small effort of all of us; falling back on the missionaries would not be an option in this case (not least as, by the time camp came around last weekend, Amanda and I were the only missionaries in the church not back home on furlough).

What happens when you play a game in which your team's aim is to
burst as many water balloons as possible, using only one's head?
We had initially hoped to stage the camp in July (the mid-year school holiday here), but the closer we got to that date, the more we realised the scale of the task we had taken on. The issue was mooted here and there over the ensuing months until, in early October, we saw that it was now or never, in terms of 2013 at least. So we committed to a weekend, announced it to the church and the youth group, and over the next few weeks went about preparing for this huge task. Amanda took charge of the enterprise and barely had time to think about anything else for a month or so beforehand.

A curiosity here is that November tends to be the month when most churches have their youth camps, yet it usually sees the first rumblings of rainy season. And, after a mostly dry and sunny week, we were hit with a deluge on Saturday morning, which seemed only to be gathering in strength the closer we got to the campsite, some 50 miles south of Trinidad. At least this campsite had dormitories, but the main outdoor facilities were totally waterlogged. And as we began our first praise/teaching session in the conference area, the wind picked up significantly, totally drenching much of our sound equipment as it wheeched through the windows, whose only defence was a sheet of mosquito netting. Acoustic we went. 

Despite this setback, our speaker, Jerry (one of my fellow church leaders) did a great job of kicking off the week’s theme of Family, focusing on our relationships with our parents and our duties to them as Christian sons and daughters. Many of our young people come from homes where the parents neglect their own God-given duties, and so this made for some excellent and very practical discussion in the ensuing small-group time. The camp's name was 'Adoptados' (surely no translation required there) and each camper and leader was given a T-shirt with the word 'Adoptado' on the front, and the text of John 1:12 on the reverse ("But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name").

Jerry Soleto: the man at the mic.
The morning’s planned outdoor games obviously had to be suspended, but San, our ‘sporting director’, if you like, managed to improvise in the conference area. And by this point, the rain was easing off.

Indeed, by the time our post-lunch session (this time, on children) had ended, the sun was out, giving as good as it had got that morning (the sheer heat of the sun down here is surely the only thing keeping the bowl-like Beni region from becoming the next Atlantis) and the outdoor area was mostly dry enough to play some team games. Not that dryness is all that big a deal. Weirdly for a race of people who will usually run for cover at the merest spit, the youth of this city prefer their camp games wet. And so, inevitably, the nearby pond was brought into play for the final act. Ingeniously, the participants were required to fill their team’s bucket with water, but only by wringing out their clothes, sodden from multiple dunks in the pond. Chaos reigned.

Young and young-at-heart embraced the camp's activities with equal
fervour. Apart from Amanda, who singularly refused to get wet. Party
That evening featured another praise time, but rather than listen to Jerry once again, the youth were tasked with performing a sketch/skit (delete as appropriate to your side of the Atlantic) based on what they’d learnt that day about the Bible’s teaching on the family. This is another activity that the youth here really relish, and we had some excellent responses, ranging from the hilarious to the genuinely heartbreaking.

Due to the morning’s rain, the planned late-night campfire session had to be shelved, so those who were still semi-conscious stayed up and watched a film together. The rest of us hit the hay for the first and last time over the weekend; we’d made a conscious decision to limit the camp to a single overnight, so as not to bite off more than we could chew at our first attempt.

Seeing young people like Jonathan take a leading role among their
peers was a major encouragement.
But a second very full day lay ahead, which began with a pre-breakfast meeting of the small groups. Here, we leaders gave each of our groups a passage of the Bible to read and reflect on as part of a daily devotional time. Again, very few of the youth in our church come from homes where such a practice would be encouraged, so we felt it was important to help them start the day in the best way possible, while perhaps giving them a model for their own devotional times.

While this was going on, back in Trinidad our bus driver was picking up a group from the church, who were due to arrive at 9 o’clock. The normal Sunday morning services had been temporarily suspended to allow the church to share in the activities at camp for a morning. Typical church attire was out of the question as the games that morning very much picked up from where Saturday afternoon had left off.

The young people listened attentively to the
weekend's teaching, and fully engaged with
the theme of Family.
We were mostly dry enough by noon that we could have our Sunday service on the campsite, during which Jerry gave the third part of his sermon series. A lunch of spicy chicken followed (a traditional Sunday lunch dish here) and our visitors then headed home, while the rest of us entered the final stretch of the camp.

After the morning’s exertions, the afternoon saw some slightly calmer indoor games, before Jerry gave his final talk, a summing-up of the weekend’s theme. In the proceeding small groups, we had some great discussions on what the young people had learned over the course of the weekend and how they could carry these lessons into the post-camp, everyday grind; a particularly important question for those from non-Christian homes.

The weekend ended with a short Communion service – reminding ourselves of what ultimately unites us as believers is a great way to bring the curtain down on such a weekend, but in this case it also gave us the opportunity to share with the youth the importance of this practice. And then, at 5 o’clock, all that remained was to return the facilities to their former state and wait for the bus.

Camp director Amanda in full bossyboots mode. Just how she likes it.
I’ll close with one big personal encouragement, in a weekend littered with them. Regular readers of the blog will be well used to our frequent prayer requests for greater maturity in the church, a much less missionary-dependent culture. On Sunday, as I was heading to the dining hall for lunch, I swung by the cabin for the boys and male leaders. As I approached, I saw a young man I know very well, sitting outside the cabin in some state, clearly having been convicted of a particular sin in his life. But he was not alone. About half a dozen other guys in the group were sitting with him, and as I passed by, I heard the utterance of very wise words from one of the guys in particular.

I entered the cabin and a fellow leader said “you should probably go and deal with that, being a leader and all”. But I politely declined, explaining that what was going on outside the cabin was exactly what we have been praying for for so long. God is good.

Thanks to short-term volunteer Aline for her help with this one.
  • One of our leaders at the camp was Alex Wann, our friend from Samaritan’s Purse Trinidad. The day before camp, Alex got a message from the US telling him to have his bags packed and ready to leave for the rescue effort in the Philippines. Thankfully, he was not required over the weekend, but on Monday morning he received confirmation that he’d be flying out of Bolivia the following day (from Santa Cruz, to Miami, to Dallas, to Seoul, to the Philippines – rather him than me!). Please pray for spiritual and mental fortitude for Alex over the 30 days he is required to be over there; and pray that people might come to know Jesus as their Lord and saviour through the work of Alex and his team (whose remit is sanitation).
  • The coming week is our last official week at Fundación Totaí before we leave Trinidad on the 12th of December. We have plenty of work to do before we can even think about next weekend, so pray for the energy necessary to get through it. Pray that we both might ‘finish well’.
  • We had seen camp as something of a last big emotional hurdle before we left, but, well, this is Trinidad, Bolivia, and a few tough situations have arisen this week. Pray for continued energy.
  • For camp: that the youth had a great time; that the whole activity really brought the whole church closer together; and for so many signs of church maturity throughout the weekend. 

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda