Saturday, December 14, 2013

The First Four Years

Here's a little video we've thrown together, using iPhoto slideshow, with some highlights of our time here since January 2010. It was a bit scary doing this, like watching yourself age in four minutes, but also a great reminder of the Lord's faithfulness. We'll try to use this in church visits etc. over the coming year, should time permit.

Saturday Post -- 14/12/13

Our final week in Trinidad continued in much the same vein as its predecessor, a heady mix of housework, packing up and the unavoidable farewells.

Last week I’d mentioned that the band were preparing a little something that very evening. Well, the band, their families and several others arrived at the house straight after youth group on Saturday night, armed with home-made pizzas (I’m pleased to confirm that after four years, I’ve finally come across a decent pizza in Trinidad), guitars and Bibles. And once the food was out the way, we were serenaded!

Serenading is a common custom here among the believers. It usually takes place on a birthday or in the event of someone's departure from town. The songs sung are infused with lyrics rich in blessing. Given that we will, God-willing, be back here in 2015, we don’t particularly feel worthy of such a tribute, but I won’t deny we were both very touched. Our friends sang and shared Scripture with us for some 45 minutes, and we too had opportunities to share from the word and express our own thankfulness to these people who have become so dear to us.

As the week progressed, there were a further three get-togethers, organised by ourselves or others, to say goodbye to people. But we weren’t the only people leaving town this week. Our volunteer Aline Sacher decided to leave Trinidad a little earlier than scheduled to return home to Germany, and she and some female friends, including Amanda, met on Monday evening. And a particularly fond farewell was granted to Kenny Holt, who arrived on Sunday morning for a flying visit to pack up the remainder of his family’s belongings and settle their affairs here in Trinidad. Having left for their own furlough in July, Kenny & Claudia and their three children have opted to stay in Scotland, following the Lord's provision to Kenny of a seemingly tailor-made job with The Vine Trust.

Church, then, on Sunday morning, was a fairly emotional occasion with all these exits taking place in the coming week. Nonetheless, we were hugely blessed over the weekend and encouraged by the kind words of so many. We also had a really special time with the youth group on Saturday evening, with Amanda in full waterworks mode.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, we leave the church without a missionary presence (though Maicol & KC return in March) but we see plenty of evidence that our brothers and sisters can run with the baton. This week’s women’s meeting was a great example, the first for some months after some struggles with attendance and commitment earlier in the year. 16 women from the church turned up and, most excitingly, eight of these were from the youth group. Potential.

By Thursday afternoon, we were packed and ready to leave that evening for Santa Cruz, whence I write as we await our flight to Sao Paulo tomorrow morning. Then it’s on to Heathrow on Monday evening and, provided British airports can get their act together, we will, God-willing, be in Glasgow by lunchtime on Tuesday.

As for this here blog, I think it’s fair to say that we will not be posting with the same frequency over the coming year. We have so many people to catch up with and, with only nine months or so in Sconnie Botland, I’m keen to ensure a decent chunk of my Saturdays are spent on top of hills than in front of computer screens.

However, furlough is as integral a part of missionary existence as time on the field, and so we will certainly endeavour to reflect the joys and challenges of re-adjusting to the Global North, now very much as outsiders, from time to time.

I’ve stated here beforehand that this blog was very much a last-minute idea back in early 2010, with the goal of providing up-to-the-minute (or up-to-the-week, at least) prayer information for anyone who happened to be thinking of us at any particular moment. But 32,000 hits later, we are well aware that we have built up a loyal following of weekly readers from a wide range of countries (readers in China, Russia and Romania, we’d love to hear from you personally!). And we know that the vast majority of you are fellow believers and read the blog not to be educated for knowledge’s sake, but so that you can pray better for us. Be assured: we have felt the impact of those prayers at every juncture over these past four years.

Thank you for your prayerful interest in us, have a wonderful, Christ-centred Christmas, and we look forward to sharing continued glimpses into the missionary lifestyle over the coming year.

  • For the remaining three legs of our journey home. Pray for safety and no luggage complications!
  • For the Lord's work which does not stop at Fundación Totaí and El Jireh church. Please continue to uphold these great ministries in your prayers.
  • For the encouragement of the new women's meeting in the church, particularly the high numbers of youth present. We've been praying that the youth would integrate themselves more fully into other ministries of the church, and this brings us great joy.
  • For those special final moments with our Trinidad 'family' during the past week.
  • For the Lord's work in us, in spite of us, and through us over the last four years. Soli Deo gloria!
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Friday, December 13, 2013

Home Comforts -- Number One: Feeding

In 2014, when we come home on furlough, what I am most looking forward to is a good feed.

“But didn’t you already cover that in number five?!” the masses cry. In one important sense, yes. But what Amanda and I both crave this year is the infinitely more satisfying sustenance of the word of God.

Church work, whether at home or abroad, can be hugely demanding on body, mind and soul. Church ministry that God blesses will inevitably involve people – and we all know how much less complicated this life would be were it not for people.

Having not yet been involved in full-time Christian ministry in a Western setting, I can’t speak to those circumstances. But I know enough about our Western psyches, particularly in Britain, where seeking the help of another is often seen as a sign of weakness and, depending on the circumstances, somewhat ill-mannered. Not so here in Bolivia. People, refreshingly, have no qualms about coming to us as missionaries in their hour of need and asking for our assistance. At times the sacrifices are material. But sacrifices of time and energy are required in greater measure.

And spiritually, we are in ‘giving mode’ for most of the week. A lot of my weeks are taken up with preparing sermons. Amanda disciples a couple of young women whom she meets with every week. She is also heavily involved in running the youth group, where I also lend a hand. And though I'm far from comfortable with the idea, I’ve sort of become the unofficial music director at church. So when Sunday, the day when most of us receive a ‘good feed’, comes around, we are always doing the feeding ourselves, in some capacity. It has been our joy and our privilege to have been at the front line in the Lord’s work here. But, boy, do we need a break.

We need to come back here in early 2015 with renewed energies and a renewed imbuing of the word of God in our lives, or we simply will not be able to go on. So we’re tremendously excited about what the Lord has lined up for us in the year ahead. I’m immensely looking forward to the daily instruction of men who rightly divide the word of truth at Cornhill Scotland. Amanda is equally thrilled to have the opportunity to delve deeper into Scripture via her Certificate in Christian Studies with St John’s, Nottingham. So many of the deep friendships I alluded to yesterday are tremendous channels for mutual encouragement along the narrow way. And, though we will look to get involved in church where possible, we’re naturally looking forward to those Sundays (and midweek meetings, of course) when we can be enriched by the ministry of others.

Meanwhile, back in Bolivia, there’s a potentially positive upshot to all of this too. The missionary presence here will be drastically reduced next year, with the Lord having called our fellow workers Kenny & Claudia Holt back to Scotland. In many respects, the coming year will be a case of ‘sink or swim’ for our church. Missionary dependence, so often the default mode here, will not be an option. Yet what an opportunity for growth and maturity in the local church. Regular readers will know we have been greatly encouraged by several developments in the past few months. We see great potential in several young men and women here. So, while we, as missionaries, certainly expect to continue in the ministry of ‘feeding’ upon our return, how wonderful it would be to be nourished with a little bit more regularity by our dear brothers and sisters here in Trinidad.

Therefore, as prayerful as we know you will be for Amanda and I in 2014, please uphold our dear brothers and sisters at El Jireh church in your daily petitions.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Home Comforts -- Number Two: Friends & Family

April 2013: a rare glimpse of relatives.

As I sat down to prepare this little countdown, it didn’t take me long to realise that the higher up the chart I was climbing, the less Bolivia-specific were my hankerings. And ex-pats the world over will certainly identify with this entry.

Without wishing to seek credit for our decision to come here (we see it as simply having obeyed the Great Commission), there is no getting away from the fact that great sacrifices are involved when you set off for far away lands. And the greatest of these is the emotional wrench of leaving behind loved ones.

Without a doubt, technology has eased the pain somewhat, even within the past decade. When I first came here back in 2000, I mostly relied on AOL Instant Messenger for meaningful ‘conversations’ with family, though occasionally we would treat ourselves to a long-distance phone call. These, however, required no small expense, and the time-delay was so pronounced that it was possible to read a small novel between each exchange.

Nowadays, of course, we can make free phone calls to family and friends via Skype – indeed, a highlight of our week is a Skype date with our respective parents. Facebook is the other web development which has boosted our interactions with loved ones immeasurably, giving us a window into friends’ lives (or, at least, the bits they want you to see!) and enabling us to engage in written conversation instantaneously. In appreciating these tools, our admiration for the missionaries of the pre-internet age has only grown.

But for as long as God permits us all time on this here planet, no matter the great advances which are surely around the corner, there will never be a substitute for face-to-face interactions with our fellow men. In particular, watching significant developments in our loved ones’ lives from afar has been a stretch. Over the last four years we’ve missed several weddings and the infancy of many friends’ children. We had a two-week stop in Canada on our way down here in January 2010, during which time we touched base with one of Amanda’s university roommates, who had just gotten engaged. She and her husband are now expecting their third child! My grandfather’s death was a tough time to be away from home too.

For all the japery of the previous post, this is, in fact, the biggest strain at Christmas time – I just thought I’d save my thoughts on the topic for a single blog entry. Number one is coming up on Friday – forgive me for missing out on the top spot!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Home Comforts -- Number Three: Christmas

"More turkey? Surely you can't be serious?"

It was 13 years ago, but I still remember the first time like it were yesterday. A thunderstorm raging outside, as Bing Crosby did his best to get a word in edgeways. Gifts wrapped in snow scenes exchanged by people dressed in ever-dampening T-shirts and shorts. Every mouthful of turkey requiring its very own serviette, just to attend to the attendant sweat on one’s brow.

You can try all you like – and we missionaries certainly gave it our best shot that year – but Christmas in Bolivia just doesn’t feel quite right. And yet, we never really learn. Every year we’ve gone that extra mile to make things feel as homely as possible – watching the YouTube video of the Queen’s message, importing a turkey from Cochabamba, having someone play the role of a borderline-racist grandparent at the dinner table (OK, I made that last one up) – but when all you want for Christmas is to spend the day in a walk-in freezer, there’s only so far these efforts can take you.

The big problem, of course, is that Christmas celebrations vary wildly from country to country – and, indeed, from family to family. Here in Bolivia, Christmas is definitely in the top-ten of Important Annual Holidays (though they’ve yet to write a series of blog entries about it), but it is relatively small potatoes in comparison with the really big festival here, Carnaval, which in December lurks tantalisingly just around the corner.

Not that a stripped-down version of Christmas is such a bad thing, certainly not for the missionary crowd. Being leaner and meaner definitely keeps the true significance of the season from becoming obscured.

But, like it or not, Christmas and its assorted non-religious traditions become so instilled in us from birth, that a foreign version can only disappoint.

In Bolivia, the major difference (and one which is common to many other countries) is that Christmas is marked at midnight on the 24th, with a huge meal served and the family staying up till around 6 in the morning. So this year, when your 3-year-old kamikazes into your bedroom, slaps you in the face and demands that presents be opened at 4 o’clock in the morning, the Bolivians will already be celebrating.

Over the years we’ve slowly learned the lesson of 2010, our first Christmas here. Deary-me, was that brutal. We reckoned that, as missionaries, it would be a pleasant gesture to invite some other families in the church, for what turned out not so much to be a Christmas dinner as a buffet for a small army. Still, there was plenty of turkey to go around. I was only just steeling myself for round two at the buffet table (naturally, I also had my eye on a spare packet of serviettes) when a bunch of the Bolivian guys declared that they were going out for a game of football. Did these people just not get it? “A game of football?!”, I seethed, “Why, the whole point of Christmas Day is to slowly but surely resemble a human football!” My pleas fell on deaf ears. I hear the goalie had a particularly accomplished afternoon.

So I am in no small way excited at the prospect of not one but two Christmases in Scotland over the coming year. I feel that after three Christmases abroad, it’s the least we’re due. Watchnight services. Cranberry sauce. It’s A Wonderful Life repeats. Zero humidity. Elderly xenophobia. I’ll save the football for Boxing Day, thank you very much.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Saturday Post -- 07/12/13

Bachelor boys Arnold...
...and Paulo.

It’s high school graduation season in Trinidad and, so far, we’ve been invited to three of them, for various teenagers in the youth group, as well as a lunch on Wednesday for the son of some old family friends. So you could certainly say that the week has been a qualified success. Did you see what I did there?

With so many other things to attend to over the past few weeks, we hadn’t really factored in the usual spate of certificate-bestowal, and so we’re increasingly glad for the extra time that finishing at FT a week ago has afforded us over the last seven days. We have been rattling through a fairly extensive to-do list, with Amanda looking to clear the laundry backlog, I looking to clear out our cupboards, and both of us attending to the presentation we’ll be giving, God-willing, from January onwards – we were keen not to have that hanging over us during the Christmas holidays. In the meantime, I’ve been getting my first emails from Cornhill Scotland indicating the arrangements for the new term in January. It’s starting to feel very real now.

A fair few pictures which will be included in our presentation were taken on Sunday, which was another really encouraging day for us as a church. As mentioned last week, a course called ‘The Culture of Blessing’ was organised and overseen by a couple in the church in the afternoon. Between the morning services and the afternoon event, we had a big lunch together. And the course itself was of great benefit to us all. It focused particularly on the huge impact, for better or worse, that our words can make. It was a great message for the church to hear, in a culture where people can be a little less restrained with the tongue than back home. Inevitably, the last exercise required us to act on what we’d been learning, so I ended up having to telling a chap how much I loved him and listing all the things that were so great about him. At first, the two of us could hardly have been more petrified if we’d been forced at gunpoint to attend an X Factor finalists concert. But we got there in the end – and some kind of wonderful it was, too.

Sunday capped off another busy weekend at church, which on Saturday included the end-of-year party for the Bible Explorers’ Club. However, Amanda always prefers to go that little bit further, and so on Wednesday evening she took her teenage girls’ class out for a meal. Indeed, our evenings have more or less disappeared as we aim to spend a last few hours of quality time with as many people as possible. Last night we were out with our Bible study companions Carlos & Carla, tonight my bandmates have invited themselves over after youth group for some pizza (in fairness, they’re bringing the pizza) and tomorrow we’re planning on a meal with our fellow youth leaders. From Monday onwards, we’ll doubtless have to tell people to take the musicians’ approach if they want to see us, as we have a lot of packing to do.

One item we were delighted to stroke off the to-do list was the installation of the church’s new air conditioners, supplied by LAM Canada, which had been purchased about a month ago, yet had lain dormant in the church for nearly two weeks since their delivery. Wednesday afternoon proved a useful ‘test event’ (Brazilian football tournament organisers, take note) in the shape of the end-of-year party for the Community classes. 40 screaming, kinetic kids proved no match for our new walk-in freezer. Attending church will never have been such a refreshing experience.

  • Right. Things are now, as one might put it, very much 'on'. We have six days to organise our house, get round all the people we need to see, and pack our possessions into four suitcases. Pray for good progress and for patience with one another – these things can get a little stressful!
  • On Thursday, we begin our long trip to Scotland with a bus trip to Santa Cruz, whence we hope to post one final entry on this here blog (our flights to Brazil, and then the UK, are on Sunday and Monday, respectively). Pray for safety on the road.

  • Amidst the busyness of all these graduations, end-of-year events and special times at church, we’ve had really tangible reminders over the last week of the special relationship we have with our ‘faith family’, if you like. Life here can be pretty challenging at times, but the closer we get to furlough, the sadder we feel about saying goodbye to so many dear friends for a year. And that’s a happy problem, in our book. 
  • Give thanks, too, for the resolution of the air conditioner situation. We hope these will be a great help to the church, where Sundays can at times be oppressively hot. Pray too that the more pleasant conditions will encourage more people to come along and be part of our community in Christ.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda