Saturday, December 19, 2015

Saturday Post -- 19/12/15

The journey to Monday afternoon past began, as these things tend to, on the Belfast to Dublin bus.

“Here, what do you think about the whole idea of adoption?” It was December 2004 and Amanda was over for her first visit to the British Isles since we’d gone ‘official’. But, in all honesty, she might as well have asked me: “Quantum mechanics: discuss”.

As I was about to learn, in Amanda’s circles back in Canada, adoption was fairly par for the course, and a particularly big thing for Christian couples. I had had limited experience at best and was beginning to wonder if I was supposed to have produced an engagement ring at this point. So I brushed the notion aside, saying we could perhaps think about it after the first couple of ‘naturals’, expecting we probably wouldn’t, and assuming (i.e., hoping) that the matter was closed.

Just over five years later, we found ourselves in Bolivia, with two-and-a-half years of marriage under our belts. “Why don’t you have kids?,” the local women would ask, bearing in mind the fact that we were over 20! As it happened, we had been talking about it ourselves, and decided that it was time for another new chapter to begin.

By spring 2012, we weren’t getting anywhere, and on our way out to LAM Canada’s missions conference in Costa Rica, we had an appointment with a urologist to begin investigating further. But a far more significant development was to take place at the conference itself.

There, we had been assigned a lodge with a young couple called Dave and Esther Bettany, serving in Honduras. They had recently welcomed a new addition to their home, and we had the pleasure of meeting her face to face. I was particularly struck by the connection she had with her parents; she was perfectly contented in their company. It was, I reflected, typical of the relationship that can only be forged in the womb, between biological parents and their children, a key weapon in my armoury as I continued to resist the adoption question.

Except, a few hours later, in the quiet of our room, Amanda informed me that she was, in fact, adopted.

My prejudices addressed, if not eliminated, we headed back to Bolivia and, eventually, a spell in a private fertility clinic that woulditself end only in further disappointment. Forget about ‘conceive first, adopt later’; if we were to have children at all, it was beginning to seem as if I would have to make a big compromise.

And, in theory, we could have gone ahead with it there and then. But we were also conscious of our home assignment in 2014. Though it was a whole eighteen months away at this point, we were required to be away for a year in order to pursue further training, meaning we would not have been in Trinidad for the required post-adoption visits from social work over two years. During this period, however, my resistance was further diminished by the adoption of a baby boy by some close friends (he even looked like his adopted dad!).

Still, however, I was not completely convinced. And it was here that we learned that our home assignment year really was, in fact, an important part of this journey. Towards the end of our spell in Scotland last year, we attended a conference for Christian couples struggling with infertility and infant loss, with yours truly signing up for the seminar session on adoption. There, the speaker shared about his own personal journey to adoption (he and his wife had only recently taken in a four-year-old boy, with a view to adoption), and it was one remarkably similar to my own. Indeed, it was here that my eyes were opened to how prideful I had been over the years. Like the speaker, I had played the role of a typical man, inventing difficulties where none existed and resisting the possibility of there being any children in my family, living in my home, who were not mine.

Or, to put it another way, I had completely denied the essence of the gospel in my own domestic life. Where, indeed, would I be if not for the greatest adoption of all? What right, then, had I to enforce selection criteria?

Of immense help in this process has been Russell Moore’s ‘Adopted For Life’, a text I would recommend to anyone. Moore, no slouch as a theologian himself, has personal experience of adoption and its associated stigma, and so helpfully and clearly unpacks adoption as Biblical theology.

I commend Moore’s work particularly to my fellow Christians, parents, would-be parents or otherwise; indeed, if I may, I’d like to impart some friendly counsel at this juncture to the people of God. Since deciding to push ahead with adoption, we’ve had several variations of the following conversation with a number of people, and not just here in Bolivia (where people can be a touch more liberal with their tongues):

Friend: “So, I hear you’ve decided to adopt.”

Craig/Amanda: “Indeed we have. We know God has clearly brought us to this point, and we’re hoping to have something in place fairly soon, God-willing.”

Friend: “Och [OK, maybe not in Bolivia, that one], that’s lovely.”

Pause

Friend: (lowers voice slightly) “You know, you mustn’t stop trying.”

C/A: “Indeed. That’s why we’re going ahead with the adoption.”

Friend: (it’s a whisper now) “Yes, I know, but, what I mean is, it’s still, you know, possible.”

C/A: “Well, of course we believe that, but--”

Friend: “I mean, you must have faith. God can still provide you with a child, you know.”

C/A: “Oh, of course, we know that. But you don’t have to be Don Carson to see the centrality of adoption in the sweep of salvation. In God’s eyes, we are all adopted, wouldn’t you agree?”

Friend: “Yes, well, I suppose you have a point.”

Pause

Friend: “But, seriously, have faith, alright!”

Friends, there is no hierarchy here. Let those of us who are biological sons of God be the first to waggle the finger of faith in the faces of the infertile. As for the rest of us, our best approach in such moments would be to keep our fallen thinking to ourselves.

                                                                            *        *        *

January saw us arrive back in Trinidad and hit the ground running on the adoption question. Pre-July (which we spent back in Scotland for a family wedding) was all about filling in forms and making sure no egg-shell was leftbehind. We had only been back in Bolivia a matter of weeks when things cranked up several notches.

We got word form a nursing friend of an abandoned baby boy in the maternity hospital – music to our ears, as our preference was for a baby. We got in touch with a lawyer friend, whose husband works there as a paediatrician. He confirmed the boy was there, but that there were other family members now on the scene. In other words, adoption was a non-starter. Not the first time something like this had happened in our experience.

A few weeks later, we were at a fundraiser for the children’s ministry at the church, where we bumped into a former colleague, now working as a GP in the local orphanage. She told us of a very bright and sweet four-year-old girl who was ‘available’ there, and suggested we get in touch with a legal representative. Up until this point, we had ruled out older children, but we were beginning to sense that God was challenging us on this; how did a baby have any more right to a loving home than a four-year-old? Struck by the hard fact that ‘adoptability’ decreases with age, we prayerfully decided to pursue this lead.

And so, a couple of days later, we found ourselves in our lawyer’s office, she too being aware of the situation. However, she had to inform us that, in fact, another family were interested in the girl, and were already a few steps ahead of us. “But aren’t you aware there’s a baby boy in the hospital?” she asked. We quickly worked out that she was talking about the same boy who, it turned out, was far from a lost cause; it transpired that the ‘family members’ were not who they claimed to be, for reasons that I cannot go into right now.

Indeed, much that follows is heavily filtered due to the fact that the legal situation is ongoing; hopefully, there will be time to write in greater detail when I get round to writing the book, something I’m seriously considering – it can’t be denied that we have more than enough material.

Over the next few weeks, we faced a rollercoaster of emotions as the situation seemed to be changing day by day until we came to a hard realisationthat the ball was no longer in our court. This was made all the more difficult by the fact that we had visited the boy in hospital (from which, by the way, he should have been discharged weeks earlier) twice daily and had very quickly developed a deep connection with him. He was little, weak and helpless (drinking his milk from a syringe – welcome to Trinidad), but at the same time, the most supremely contented infant we had ever met. We loved him to bits, and the feeling seemed mutual, making the disappointment of the legal roadblocks even harder to deal with. Especially when we could have given him a home situation far superior to most in Trinidad at the click of a finger.

As we were coming to terms with this, the Santa Cruz possibility opened up (see here for the full story on that). Yet it was an episode that ended with a twist, like a well-honed chapter of airport fiction. Because before heading back for Trinidad, we received word that, as far as the boy was concerned, we were very much ‘back in the game’.

The last two months, then, saw us get back into a visiting routine, this time at his new home of the orphanage, to which he’d been moved at long last. To fortify our hearts, we enforced upon ourselves a limit of two afternoon visits a week. These joyful times were sufficient to solidify the connection, while keeping our emotions at bay in the event of another disappointment.

All of which led to Monday, and the long-awaited hearing, at which we were granted foster care of the boy, albeit on a provisional basis; no fault of ours, just that the officials who were supposed to terminate the mother’s rights had – no joke – simply not got round to it. There is to be a further review meeting in February, at which we’re hoping the adoption process proper (which would take two to three months) will formally begin.

In the end, Monday’s meeting was remarkably straightforward. And we had been fairly hopeful of a positive outcome. But so careful were we to protect ourselves that we had done very little to prepare the house for his arrival that same evening. The last few days, in other words, have occasioned a seismic change of circumstances, made tougher by the fact that the Samuel Archie, as we have named him, is no newborn.

But, as we suspected might be the case, he has so far played ball. Every morning, I am woken at around 5am by the most joyfully innocent creature I have ever met, and getting another hour or two’s sleep before the long day ahead just feels like a waste of time. We, too, have been granted the reserves to cope physically and mentally.

Amidst the confusion, delays and frustrations of the past six years, God was preparing the way for us to meet dear Sam, just as he has been doing from eternity past. And whatever happens from now on, his purposes will be fulfilled in this relationship. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Adoption? The best thing I’ve ever done.

Prayer
  • We are not out of the woods yet on this (hence the deliberate lack of legal detail and photos here), so please pray for the couple of months and the decision to be reached at the review meeting in February.
  • The adjustment proved a bit much for Sam’s health, with some diarrhoea and vomiting, followed up by some respiratory problems. He’s settling now and is getting into a really solid eating schedule, so much better than what he was on at the orphanage. He’s a little bit premature and needs to bulk up a little. Continued prayer appreciated here.
  • Pray for the events at the church over Christmas, particularly the Christmas Eve service on Thursday, where we hope to welcome many friends and family of participants.
  • With the upheaval of the adoption, we’ve decided not to travel to La Paz next week, where we were due to attend a wedding. So we’ll be here in Trinidad for Christmas after all. It’s never the easiest time to be away from home, and this year may prove especially tough as, for the first time out here, we’ll be the only non-Bolivians around (i.e., the only people who eat their main meal in the late afternoon rather than at 1 in the morning on Christmas day!). Still, mustn't complain: we’ve been given quite a present this year.

 Praise
  • For the outcome of Monday’s hearing. Thank you all so much for your prayers.
  • For energy to get through this gruelling – yet so rewarding – first week of parenthood.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Saturday Post -- 12/12/15

Craig's train-of-thought: Revelation = scary horses = classic Guinness commercial!
Like the grass on Centre Court, this week's missive is necessarily short, owing to very Trinidad-like circumstances. Firstly, we got an invitation late last night to a graduation ceremony taking place all this morning (see here and here for past entries on December's annual applause-a-thon). Secondly, I was intending to get up earlier to write a post of more substance, and I did precisely that, only to discover a not insignificant, and very urgent, termite problem. 

We went out for some food last night, and Amanda commented on how busy we've been this week and how that, for once, that has felt like a real provision. Because looming over us this whole time has been Monday, 4pm: the hearing where a decision will be made on the child we wish to foster, then adopt. Aside from a couple of our usual visits to the orphanage where said child resides, it's been good to be distracted.

And Christmas has been a common factor in that. As well as the usual extra shifts with the musicians in the church, I've been preparing a sermon based on Revelation 12:1-6. Revelation is a little outside my comfort zone, so the preparation was heavier than usual. I'd been keen to present the text for a while, however, as it offers, in a sense, a cosmic perspective on what was going on down in Bethlehem. In other words, it's a Christmas passage but not as we know it, Jim, while touching on the important theme of spiritual warfare, and how there is so much more going on behind the everyday trials and tribulations we face. It also gives me an opportunity (much anticipated!) to critique the phenomenon of Revelation in his culture. Pretty much anyone here -- churchgoer or not -- could tell you something about Revelation, a book that people in Trinidad get generally pretty worked up about -- probably about 90% of the questions I'm asked by youth about the Bible stem from Revelation, and you'll even have TV news items about it (!). Yet few know how to read it.

Meanwhile, our dining room table has somehow disappeared as, in between her usual HR duties at Fundación Totaí, Amanda has spent any spare moment preparing various arts and crafts for upcoming Christmas events, specifically FT's end-of-year dinner on the 21st, and the Christmas Eve service. So if you need a Beaver-from-Narnia mask, you know who to ask.

Well, the shops are opening, I desperately need to pick up an anti-termite spray, and a friend is about to graduate. To the prayer points.

Prayer
  • Monday, 4pm. Or, if you want to be more specific, 3pm EST, 8pm GMT. We would greatly value your prayers for this. We will endeavour to relay any news as soon as we can (i.e., before next weekend).
  • For Craig's sermon tomorrow morning.
Praise
  • We've both had our usual diet of one-on-one discipleship appointments this week and have been encouraged by these times, for various reasons. Give thanks for the growth in these individuals.
  • For a busy, productive and highly distracting week!
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Saturday Post -- 5/12/15

A mere 24 hours following our last missive, we awoke to a dramatically different Trinidad, with heavily-wind-assisted rain battering our house on all sides. The wind was uncharacteristically southerly for this time of year, but that aside, the impression was that rainy season 2015/16 had fired its opening soggy salvo. Indeed, the torrential conditions persisted well into the afternoon, making for a cosy gathering at church in the morning. I suppose we like to think of ourselves as something of an island of hope in our community, and as the rain came down and the floods came up, things went way beyond the metaphorical.

The rain could not, however, put a dampener on this year's surgical campaign, taking place all this week at Fundación Totaí. Dr. Richard Wagner from the USA and a team of specialists here in Bolivia oversaw 20 surgical cases, with another 100 people seen as outpatients. The surgical campaigns always bring hundreds of people to the Foundation, with the patients' families tending to hang around in the corridors outside the operating theatres and out-patient ward. So this year, Elías (the church pastor) and I had the bright idea of giving short evangelistic talks to the assembled masses, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Unlike much of Europe and North America, people here remain pretty receptive to such ventures, even shifting seats in the waiting area so they can hear you better (no small hurdle during an ENT campaign, admittedly); it certainly eases the mind to know that people are at least listening rather than looking up the number of a human rights lawyer. All in all, the message was well received, and it's got us thinking about perhaps doing something similar throughout the year. 

That aside, we as a couple are fairly removed from the campaign goings-on, and with the year's end nearing, the week has been largely taken up with the kinds of activities they never told you about during the 'missionary of the week' slot at Sunday school -- activities largely brought to you by Microsoft Office. 

Things are rarely truly 'routine' here, though, and accordingly, we've had to deal with a couple of difficult situations involving families in the church, including a Priscilla-and-Aquila tag-team effort one afternoon. And while the parties concerned are by no means out of the proverbial tree collective, we felt we were able to bring healing to both situations, with God's grace. As an elder of the church, I was particularly encouraged. In recent months, we have re-prioritised the ministry of visiting which, quite frankly, was being neglected. Both of these families had received recent visits, and so the foundations had already been laid for an open, secure dialogue, which was what resulted. 

Oh yeah, and this thing went up in the final hours of November. 


Call it a few hours of good, clean distraction. And boy, do we need it these days (see first prayer point).

Prayer
  • This week, we were informed that a decision on a possible adoption will be made on Monday week, the 14th of December. To put it bluntly, parenthood could be a mere nine days away. We would really appreciate your prayers for patience during this time (maybe we'll find another tree to put up).
  • For the church's Christmas programme. This week, the youth and children's ministries will begin rehearsals for the special service on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Many parents and other family members come to this service (in many cases it's the only time we'll see them all year) presenting us with a tremendous evangelistic opportunity.
  • For all those who heard the gospel message this week during the campaign.
Praise
  • For God's help during those difficult visits this week, and for positive outcomes.
  • For the great freedom -- social as well as legal -- to preach the good news here.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Saturday Post -- 28/11/15

You know things are bad here when even the locals are complaining about it. Over the last week we've been in the grip of a ferocious heatwave, taking temperatures to a supposed 36 degrees, but with searing humidity thrown in, it has felt like a lot, lot more. Sleep has at times been hard to come by, with even our co-workers (Benians could sleep through an Iron Maiden concert) turning up bleary-eyed and groggy most mornings. Our air conditioning units in the house, meanwhile, have been working overtime, with every pressing of the 'on' button evoking ever greater dread over next month's electricity bills. 

Mercifully, we woke up yesterday morning to the slightest of south winds, yet it has been enough to make living conditions significantly more comfortable. More wind and showers are expected over the weekend as we anticipate the first throes of rainy season.

The week's lowpoint came on Tuesday lunchtime. I'll be careful how I put this (this is a family blog, after all), but in times of such humidity, when clothes practically have to be removed with a wallpaper stripping tool, the privacy of lunchtime in one's own home often affords one the opportunity to shed any (though not all!) unnecessary, er...ballast. Gallingly, our cleaner, Julia -- who gives the house a go-over on Saturday mornings and Tuesday afternoons, though usually from about 3pm onwards -- had turned up a whole three hours early so as to get away for an appointment. Never have I been less delighted to see such punctuality in a Bolivian!

Julia, truth be told, is the most reliable cleaner we've had so far, and proved her mettle last weekend by summoning me from this here computer keyboard and pointing out several evidences around the house of a rodent problem, which we First Worlders would have completely missed otherwise. Thus warned, we armed ourselves to the teeth with cheese and the most humane execution devices conceivable (humane as in you'd be gone before you could even say 'Red Leicester') -- I almost lost a hand just arming the things. Sure enough, Mickey bought it late on Wednesday night. In fairness, he had as much chance of survival as AFC Bournemouth.

If you're a seasoned reader of the blog by this point, you'll probably aware that the hearty servings of extraneous waffle mean only one thing: it's been a slow week. Indeed, for Amanda and most others at the Foundation, the real focus has been the coming week, when Fundación Totaí hosts another ENT surgical campaign, once again aided by Dr. Richard Wagner from the USA, and other visiting specialists (though on Wednesday of this week, weekly surgery resumed, with our new ENT doctor  -- trained in Argentina -- overseeing his first case since his approval to operate here in Bolivia was confirmed). With the year's end looming ever larger, Amanda and her fellow board members have also been going over 2016's budgets with a fine toothcomb. 

As for me, my time's mostly been taken up with one-on-one discipleship sessions, church administration, and preparation for sermons. It's looking like we're going to be in La Paz for ten days or so in late December (a Bolivian white Christmas???) for a wedding and a conference, so that's pushed several things forward as well. 

Without further ado, then, this week's prayer points.

Prayer

  • For the surgical campaign. Pray for the various health professionals involved and for those going under the knife. Craig and Elías (the church pastor) will also be giving evangelistic talks to the many family members who will be gathered in the waiting area. 
  • For the adoption process, of course. We are currently awaiting a key decision.
  • For the family of Miguel Ángel (FT president, church elder) and Ruth; Miguel Ángel's mother died earlier this week.
  • For our friends Carlos & Carla. You may remember Carlos had his motorcycle stolen back in September. We meet with them regularly and continue to be bowled over by their maturity in some challenging economic circumstances -- if anything, their involvement in ministry has only increased in recent weeks. Please pray for continued sustaining.
Praise
  • November sees the end of both the school year and several activities at FT. This last week has seen end-of-year celebrations for the afternoon community classes, the football and basketball teams, and the mother-and-toddler group. Give thanks for the many young people who have come to a saving faith through these activities, and pray for continued encouragement during the long (and often boring!) summer holidays.
  • OANSA (the church's children's ministry) also wraps up today. As above.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Saturday Post -- 21/11/15

With Asalia (a former nurse at FT) and her baby daughter. Her husband, Yasir,
took the picture. Santa Cruz now has a Papa John's!
Our aims and objectives for our sojourns to the city are pretty straightforward: eat nice food, catch a flick or two, stock up on the harder-to-find groceries, rest well and, most importantly coming from the goldfish bowl that is Trinidad...be anonymous.

Last weekend in Santa Cruz, we succeeded in all but the last criterion, making contact with no fewer than three groups of people over our four day stay. Yet by the end of the trip, we were delighted to have broken our rules a little; and in the process, we found true satisfaction.

The main driver of our visit, indeed, was the opportunity to get together with newborn Amanda's parents, who named her after the great woman herself and asked that we be godparents (if you missed out on that saga, here's all you need to know). On Sunday afternoon, we met with the couple -- Christian and Analía -- Amanda and their other children at a kid-friendly restaurant in town; it was my (Craig) first time meeting Christian, having only met Analía at the conclusion of proceedings back in October.

Analía (left) gatecrashes the Amanda convention.
Accepting the role of a godparent in this culture can be a little tricky, as some tend to see it in purely economic terms. Foreigners like ourselves, in particular, can be asked to be godparents, only to find that the only meaningful contact with the family is a phone call from the parents in the run-up to the child's birthday, asking to fund this year's party. Aside from the very brief contact we had with them last month, we really did not know this couple very well, and so, in a way, we were taking a risk by accepting their request. Yet, for all of the hijinks of our initial meeting, we had been really impressed by their maturity, and prayerfully accepted.

Sunday afternoon confirmed that we had made the right decision. Three hours flew by as we got to know each other better while the children happily submerged themselves in the neighbouring ball pool. I had an interesting conversation with Christian, who told me he'd been involved in an evangelical church some years ago during a crisis, but working on Sundays had gotten in the way of going back (as it happens, he started a new job this week that gives him Sundays off, and told me he is hoping to return to church with the family). 

At one point in our discussion, I felt particularly enabled to say something of use. Christian shared that a struggle he has is with unanswered prayer, particularly why there are seasons when prayers are answered, and others when it seems like it is not. And in the moment, I thought of what had led us to this point. We were having this conversation because Christian and Analía had asked us to be godparents; they had asked us to be godparents as a result of that traumatic situation that had brought us together last month; that situation last month had taken place because we want to adopt a child; we want to adopt a child because we are unable to have children naturally (see also: Tim Keller's indebtedness to Watergate). In other words, a whole lot of prayer had gone 'unanswered' to bring us to this moment where we were having such a good time getting to know each other better. Genesis 50:20 indeed. He seemed helped by that.


A few hours after our arrival on Saturday morning, we made the trip to one of the city's outlying suburbs to spend some time with Graham & Debbie Frith, a couple we had heard so much about, and had been meaning to get together with for some time (a mutual friend had pointed us in their direction). The Friths have been in Bolivia for a couple of decades now, firstly in Sucre, and now in Santa Cruz, having overseen the development of a tremendous ministry called 'El Alfarero' ('The Potter'), which is doing a great work among students and young people in both of these cities (we had the privilege of visiting their headquarters on Tuesday). Here is a link to the website. 

The visit proved to be of real help to us. Amanda and I had been feeling a slight sense of aimlessness and perhaps a lack of drive in our ministry of late. Despite only having just met us, the Friths -- as a couple with significantly more experience of living and serving here -- had no qualms about asking some searching questions about the way things were going for us. We left feeling challenged, but also with a greater sense of clarity as to the way ahead. In particular, we sensed that we had subtly fallen into a trap which we spend much of our own ministry warning others about: that of seeking to minister to others without first of all being 'fed' ourselves.

And in this respect, God also proved faithful. If I may go all Genesis 50:20 on you again, our usual lodgings in Santa Cruz -- a guesthouse on the campus of a seminary -- were, for the first time in memory, fully booked. We got in touch with a friend, who pointed us in the direction of another guesthouse, this time operated by a ministry called World Gospel Mission. And this guesthouse, unlike our usual haunt, had acres of garden space: ideal, then, for finding a quiet corner and allowing God to minister to us. And on a couple of mornings, we set aside a few hours to do precisely that.

All too often, we have arrived back in Trinidad after such excursions in survival mode, counting down the months till the next break. This time was different. We feel refreshed, re-focused and, most importantly, re-fastened to the Rock which cannot move.

And Spectre? Hmmm. A 006 out of ten at best.
Prayer
  • Potentially a very big week, this, for the prospective adoption. On Monday, we're hoping to get a formal request in for fostering (as a precursor to adoption) and from our experience in September, an formal hearing could take place by the end of the week. Prayer much appreciated.
  • The new men's and women's groups in the church got off to a solid start two weeks ago. Pray for the second pair of meetings tomorrow afternoon.
  • Craig is preaching tomorrow on Philemon 1:8-16.
Remembering the persecuted on Thursday evening.
Praise
  • Thursday night saw us mark Persecuted Church Month in the church with a prayer meeting held in the usual venue, but without chairs and in complete darkness, but for candles that people were told to bring. It proved to be a small but really powerful way of identifying with those around the word who have to be so clandestine when they meet together, and it helped us greatly in praying for them too.
  • For a great break in Santa Cruz and for the various relationships forged and consolidated there. 
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Saturday Post - 07/11/2015

Last year Craig and I spent a week at Guelph Bible Youth Camp in Canada where we had air conditioning, a heated pool and powered water slide, and hot showers. This year we went to El Jireh's 3rd Youth Camp... where there was definitely no air conditioning, a muddy pond for swimming and cold showers, but to top it off the girls keep finding a goat in their dorm room. We had a great time!!!!

I am honestly surprised at how I've been able to adapt to some 'rough' conditions, but I really did enjoy camp. My only rule about attending camp in Bolivia is NO TENTS... you never know what kind of creepy crawlies could easily get into a tent. But dorm rooms with bunk beds... I can do that just fine. I also had the added advantage of being half blind without my glasses, so at night when I was lying in my top bunk with my glasses off I couldn't see the bats swooping within inches of my face. I mean, that's what Mariana said happened to her... I couldn't tell you if it happened to me, because I couldn't see. Thank God for small mercies, eh?

In the run-up to camp this year, I found myself quite stressed. Preparation for the marriage course had taken over a lot of free time that we would normally have to organize camp, and as is quite often the case in our church, the same people were in charge of both activities. We were able to organise the reservation of the camp site earlier in the year, and during the craziness of the marriage course prep we were able to make sure permission forms were sent home to parents, but in all honesty, not much else was done until the marriage course finished. Then of course, Craig and I had that week in Santa Cruz with that adoption possibility so we lost another week of camp prep there. We were not as organised as I would have liked to be before a full youth camp. Thankfully, we had much earlier in the year decided to ask an outside speaker to come and teach, so we just had to organise his travel and nothing else. So, with a week to go we were all desperately trying to organise camp fees, camp food, materials, transport to the site, last minute cancellation and confirmations, and get enough leaders together to actually run a camp. It was definitely busy.

The Tuesday before camp we got all the leaders together and had a meeting. It had been decided earlier that I would direct (which suits me fine as I get to boss everyone around and not have to actually participate in any activities that I don't want to, like the tough mudder-esque assault course). So, I talked the leaders through our crazy three day/three night schedule and what would be expected of them. We talked through ideas and generally got a feel for what working with each would be like that coming weekend... one of our leaders was a newer Christian in his early 20s, who kept saying "But I've never been to camp." Poor guy, he didn't want to be a leader, but a camper, but we were completely willing to utilise peer pressure to get what we wanted. Everyone keep saying, "You'll be fine... it's easy... we promise." I.e. "You're doing this and you don't have much say in the matter." :) I was so grateful after that meeting, because I finally felt that we had gotten a handle on the details and that everything would be really great.

And they were! We had 21 campers overall. I think I was a bit discouraged during the run-up, because it would have been nice to have a bigger turn out, but God brought those to camp who He wanted to be there and the dynamics between all the campers were awesome. There was only one fight, and that was between brothers, so that doesn't really count, right? Everyone got on really well and there weren't really any cliques. The majority of campers were between 12 -14, but we had some older ones, 17 +, to balance things out. We had 8 leaders, plus one games coordinator, one speaker and one director (me!)... plus one three year-old running around being absolutely delightful.

Our theme this year was 1 Timothy 4:12 (yes, we totally stole that from Guelph's Youth Camp last year... no shame). "Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity." So every teaching session, Roger (from Cochabamba) explained the importance of being an example and how to be an example in each of these areas of our lives. Roger has 20 years of working in youth and camp ministries and you could tell. He made the teaching sessions interactive with mini games to highlight the points he was trying to make. It was definitely the best teaching we've had at our three church camps so far and the youth themselves were very effusive about how much they appreciated his style and content. After every teaching session we had a time of small groups where one leader and a small group (3-5 youth) talked through the teaching using questions that Roger had prepared before hand. Craig lead us all in worship at the beginning of all of these sessions and he taught four new songs that the youth seemed to really enjoy. It was definitely a huge blessing to all.

And how can we have camp without games!!!!! San, the director of football at FT, ran all the games and they were definitely intense. They ranged from indoor relay course activities, to outdoor field games, to jumping in the muddy pond, to the absolutely massive muddy assault course. And the kids loved every minute of it. We had two teams (green and blue) and they were competitive in all things. It is true that blue won in the end with a small margin, but the participation and energy level was high all the time. One of our campers had recently had his appendix removed and so he was kind of benched for a lot of games... but he kept following his team around encouraging them in everything, to the point where he jumped in the queue during the assault course and insisted on showing some of the girls how to properly pass the obstacle before we could stop him. I said to one of the other leaders, "He is desperate to get muddy too, isn't he?".

Our first night we watched "The Power of the Cross" with popcorn, and we all really enjoyed it. I was crying like a baby by the end and a lot of others were too. Yoselin, with whom I do discipleship, looked at me after it and with tears streaming down her face and shouted, "Where did you find that film?" She's off to find her own copy now. The second night we played group games of "Mafia" and "4-on-the-Couch"; they enjoyed both, but I'm not sure I'm teaching Mafia quite right. I don't know, they didn't seem to care... but I know that after playing it so much at camp I never want to play Mafia again. Ever. 4-on-the-couch, however, I could play everyday... LOVE. And the final night we had a camp talent show that went really well; we even had one girl come up and do a Christian rap. Impressive! One guy told a joke and it was really funny, but more than that I was one of the only people that understood it (despite it being in Spanish) and I was so chuffed with myself. Of course, no one wanted to sleep the last night and I finally gave them a curfew of 12:30 and roped in two younger leaders to stay up and supervise because I had to get to sleep (all the older leaders and some younger than me had already packed it in for the night). And in true camp style... all the camp newbies woke up with toothpaste all over their faces the next morning. Awesome.

God was gracious to each and every one of us in giving us the energy that we needed to make it through on little sleep and demanding activities. It was a lot of fun and everything happened without much of a hitch. I have always felt really passionate about camp ministry, having been involved in it since I was a little girl; but even more so in Bolivia, camp gives us, as a church, an opportunity to get these kids out of their homes and give them some undivided attention for three days. They receive solid Bible teaching, the opportunity to make friendships based on their shared faith with other young people, and they can take any leader aside and talk about bigger things if need be. They get to know that they are loved, cared for and are worth all this effort in organising an activity like this. Camp can be such a formative experience and we are so excited to be able to provide this time to the young people in our church.

Thank you to everyone who supported our Youth Camp this year, prayerfully and financially. We are so grateful for providing this support to us as a church and to the individual campers that benefited from this. We were back at work this week, but this week was also a bit of a catch-up in sleep... but in the not too distant future we will have to start thinking about next year's camp. Can it get even better?

Teaching Time

Apparently Craig says I flap my hands like a bird when I am directing.



Post-Assault Course


Group Pic


Prayer:

  • For some massive financial decisions before the FT Board and the Church Leadership due to changes in Bolivian law. 
  • The formation of the official FT Budget for 2016 (this is quite a tedious task - I had the nursing department asking for 12 calculators for next year... ya, that's not happening). 
  • Craig and I are traveling next weekend for just a three day break, as we're knackered. Wee baby Amanda's baptism is next weekend, which was kindly organised around our desire to see the new Bond film (though her parents, Christian and Analia, don't know that specific detail); so we're off to Santa Cruz for the weekend. We will not be posting a blog next weekend, but please remember us in prayer as we travel. 
  • After a month and a half break for the women, and a longer break for the men, the Men's and Women's Ministries are starting again tomorrow. Women are meeting here in our house and the men in the FT Auditorium, with child care being organised for any relevant children. The idea is that having the men's and women's groups meeting at the same time opens up more time in the week for needed family and marriage time. 
Praise:

  • A great youth camp!!!!! For safety, provision, energy and great teaching especially; praise that God provided the way to bring all the kids to the camp that He wanted to attend. 
  • A great prayer meeting on Thursday where Carlos shared his testimony and was open and honest with his struggles with alcohol. 
  • The upcoming chance to rest a bit next weekend!
¡Que Dios les Bendiga!

Craig and Amanda Cunningham

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Saturday Post -- 24/10/15

Amanda, at about 11pm last night. In honour of the Blue Jays' towering
achievements this year, so she says.
Fields are a-burning, bedsheets are an irrelevance, and electricity bills are soaring in direct proportion to the mercury. It's October in Trinidad, Bolivia, and temperatures have been in the high-30s all week, with the smoky air (people tend to do maintenance work on their land at this time of year by setting fire to it) only consolidating the oppressiveness. And once again, we're knowingly falling for the same of trick of longing for rainy season in its attendant flash floods and mosquito bites. 

Right now, the five minute walk from here to the Foundation generally requires that I drink two full flasks' worth of water upon arrival, so as not to remain a soaking, stinking mess the rest of the morning. Given all that, then, I'd say we've put in a good shift this week.

As mentioned in previous posts, the church's annual youth camp is now the main focus of our attention. Amanda has largely occupied the unenviable task of debt collector (she learned a few tricks during our years in the east end, I'd vouch). Thankfully, the campsite we use are pretty relaxed about payment; they just need about half of the food budget a couple of days before arrival. And it's a good job because getting the monies together for camp is certainly one of the most wearisome tasks we face each year.

From as early as February (when the school/youth group year tends to get going here) we tell the youth to get saving for camp, and we seek to do this by providing a bank. Camp only costs about £20 ($30 or $40 in Canada), but that's often a lot of money for people to stump up as a one-off. However, our experience is that a lot of parents -- most of whom are not Christians or involved in the church in any way -- tend to use this as a convenient pretext to not let their kids go at all (and we know of several who, when duty calls, are able to get such sums together remarkably quickly for their own, er, extra-curricular activities). 

And really, with a savings scheme, there is no excuse. Most kids here will get a few Bolivianos here to spend each day during their school break. So we say to them, why not set aside one or two Bolivianos each day and bring those to youth group on Saturday night? Even saving one Boliviano each day would yield 50p for the week, enough for a cumulative total of £20 over the course of the year. 

Yet saving is not really ingrained in a culture where many people live hand-to-mouth. And so, as we move into the third quarter of the year and the piggy bank has plenty of rattle-room, we naturally start to get a bit nervous.

Over the years, we have been grateful to a particular individual who provides significant external support to make sure all the young people get to camp; we really couldn't do it without this person. At the same time, some of the kids who have been with us for a few years are clued into these machinations, expecting that they will probably be bailed out anyway, and so the whole thing can become something of a game of 'who blinks first'. To address this, we've attached that support specifically to an incentive scheme this year; the young people are guaranteed money towards camp for each time they learn the memory verse from the weekend before, bring a Bible, bring a friend, or attend church on Sunday. 

And still, we're scrambling. Ah well. We'll figure out next year's hare-brained scheme in January. Right now, we just have to get everything in place for next weekend. So in addition to some sermon preparation this week, I've begun getting some new songs together to learn and sing at camp. With six meeting sessions throughout the weekend, we'll need a fair old arsenal. Meanwhile, Amanda and Mariana have been putting the finishing touches to the design for the all important camp T-shirt, which is now with the printers. 

The campsite we use is very isolated, and a tad spartan for western tastes, but one of the great benefits for the purposes of the camp (in a culture where Whatsapp is the new oxygen) is that there is barely a mobile signal to be found -- and only then if you do a handstand two steps to the right of the flagpole, or something like that. In other words, don't be coming round here checking for an update next weekend. There's more chance of 40 fully-paid-up youth getting to camp than that happening.

Prayer
  • For all things camp next weekend. For money, for transport, for safety, for a good old time. And most of all, for the campers themselves. Pray that God would be preparing their hearts even now to receive his word to them (our speaker this year is a guy called Roger, from Cochabamba). The theme is 1 Timothy 4:12: 'Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.' Pray for renewal and recommitment for the Christians in the group, and for those who are not yet Christians to make the most important decisions of their young lives. God-willing, we leave on Friday afternoon and get back to Trinidad by Monday lunchtime (Monday is a local holiday).
  • Pray for the adoption process, specifically for the opportunity that re-surfaced last week.
  • Pray for wisdom for us both in some weighty matters we are dealing with both in the Foundation and the church.
  • Pray for Miguel Ángel and Romina from our church, who are attending Langham Preaching Bolivia's annual weekend in Cochabamba next week.
  • Pray for a good time together for the FT staff on Thursday evening as we mark our anniversary with a meal in a local restaurant (and a day off for everyone on Friday!).
Praise
  • For an extremely smooth trip back to Trinidad this time last week. No spitting up of radiator caps this time.
  • For some important time together as a couple last night, the first opportunity we've had since the marriage course to talk in detail about some of the issues raised there. All in all, we've felt greatly helped by the course in the weeks since.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Saturday Post -- 17/10/15


“Those who honour me I will honour…” 

"Nice guys finish last," so we're told. As Amanda and I reflect on the truly remarkable week just past, our proverbial mantelpiece may be lacking a shining gold trophy, but to say that playing by the rules has hurt us would be to completely misconstrue recent events.

With Andrew and Ruth in tow, we arrived home from the marriage course’s fifth session on Friday evening to a litany of missed calls from a friend of ours in Trinidad. We made contact, and it turned out that he had a work colleague who knew of a woman in Santa Cruz who was close to giving birth to her fourth child, but who could not afford to raise her and so, with the apparent blessing of her partner, she had decided to give the child up for adoption to a family with greater means. On Saturday, we made contact with the intermediary to register our interest, and also to state our own requirements: namely, that the paperwork be done in Trinidad, not in Santa Cruz.

On Sunday evening, following the marriage course’s conclusion, we learned that the woman had, in fact, given birth on Saturday, to a baby girl, and wished to make contact with us. We called her directly this time and explained those terms again, making it clear that we would be happy to put her and her partner up in Trinidad, and deal with their transport costs. The mother was keen to sort things out as soon as possible, even requesting that we get to the hospital in time for her discharge so that she wouldn’t have to deal with the emotional turmoil of taking a soon-to-be-adopted baby home to her other children. She was initially reluctant to make the trip to Trinidad, but said she and her partner would probably be able to manage by the end of the week. We immediately felt that we were best taking the car there, so as to drive them to Trinidad ourselves.

So, our plans for the week – and those of Andrew and Ruth – changed immediately. Of course they did. This is Bolivia. They were due to be in Trinidad until yesterday, when they would fly to La Paz. However, it became clear that we would all need to make the trip to Santa Cruz, and we could change their travel plans once we arrived in the big smoke. Monday, then, was largely spent quickly tying up loose ends in Trinidad while preparing to travel. Following a scheduled meeting with pastors and leaders in town on Monday evening to promote the marriage course, we set off directly for the bus station, where Amanda and Ruth took an overnight coach to Santa Cruz, with Andrew and I planning on setting off early on Tuesday morning in our car (a not uneventful voyage, by the way; see prayer points for more). The goal for Amanda and Ruth was to be ready to head to the hospital in time for the mother's release later on Tuesday.

Girls on tour.
On a route largely lacking in decent telecommunications reception, I was finally able to make contact with Amanda at a service station halfway on the journey, where Andrew and I had stopped to fill up both ourselves and the car. She had arrived several hours earlier with Ruth, and was positive as to the general direction of things. 

But a few minutes later, she was to receive a message that set the tone for the rest of that strangest of Tuesdays. The father got in touch via Whatsapp and informed Amanda that he had indeed consented to the adoption some months ago, but under false pretences. His partner had lied to him, telling him that a brain tumour had been detected in the ultrasound scans, and they had thus agreed that it was better for the child to go to a family who could afford the necessary care. He arrived at the hospital over the weekend only to find a perfectly healthy baby girl, and immediately felt utterly duped. To his great credit, he told Amanda in his message that he would honour his partner’s word to us, but not without great sadness. 

Looking back with the benefit of a few days’ hindsight, it was from this moment on that we began to understand the unavoidable: this adoption, if it happened, would always be tinged with great regret over the mother’s deception, and the father’s lack of emotional blessing, despite legal approval. 

As this news came through, we were a few hundred miles apart, but we both instinctively realised that, no matter how strong our desires for a child, the rules of the game had just changed completely. And so, though we were perfectly within our rights to say, “Your marital issues are not our problem – deal with it,” we decided to do the right thing by offering to step out of the situation completely. The parents responded to Amanda, saying that they would have a final decision by mid-afternoon.

I was able to re-establish contact with Amanda as we got closer to Santa Cruz over the course of the afternoon. About 4pm, with an hour or so till arrival, Amanda called to say that she had the girl at the hotel, the father and mother having left her with Amanda and Ruth, with the intention of signing the requisite papers in due course. Yet, in truth, nothing had really changed. Both parents were in tears, and the father was particularly distraught. Amanda asked them again and again if they were sure about this and they confirmed their consent, though with obvious reluctance. They left within half an hour, but not before Amanda had told them that, ultimately, she was their daughter, and that we would accept if they changed their minds before any papers were to be signed.

Andrew and I finally arrived at the hotel just after 5pm and as Amanda went over the day’s events in greater detail, our hearts were heavy. Indeed what had happened was not our fault. Yet we stood to profit from a gross deception. As a man, my overriding desire at this moment was to show solidarity with the hoodwinked father; would taking his child without his emotional accord really achieve this?

And so, for the first time, I made contact myself with the woman (we didn’t have a number for her partner), to reiterate what Amanda had already communicated. I said that, much as we desired to adopt a child, we certainly did not wish to deprive a family of their new-born daughter if they wanted her; it was more important for us, I said, to do the right thing.

The girl herself, by the way, was obviously a precious little thing. But during this time, if I’m honest, neither of us fully ‘committed’ to her, emotionally. It was almost as if, in our heart of hearts, we knew where this was going.

Sure enough, after returning from an impromptu supermarket run for nappies, a message awaited me on my phone. The woman told us that her partner had gone home ahead of her after leaving the hotel, packed up his belongings, and left a note saying that he had had enough of her nonsense. 

No conversation was necessary. This was confirmation writ large, and we knew exactly what to do. Amanda immediately called the mother and arranged for her to come and get the baby.

At around 10:30pm, as two would-be parents carried a new-born baby to the entrance of a luxury hotel where her mother was waiting with eagerness, this most unusual day came to a most unusual end. 24 hours earlier, if you had told us we were about to suffer such a reversal, we would have stayed put in Trinidad rather than face such galling disappointment. Yet here’s the surprising thing: bearing in mind the awful domestic situation in which we had unwittingly found ourselves entangled, by close of play on Tuesday night, we felt utterly relieved. In unburdening ourselves of the baby, we had divested ourselves of a creeping sense of doubt that would not have ceased to haunt us until our dying day.

Which is why we were able to get our soundest sleep for weeks that night, and wake up the next day not feeling resentful, but refreshed, relaxed, and thankful to God for providing a way out of this messiest of domestic situations.

Indeed, my only real disappointment was not being able to say more to the mother on the Tuesday evening. I had wondered about using the ‘handover’ (the first time I actually met her face to face) as an opportunity not to settle scores in any way, but to simply share with her the importance of honesty in this life, and to urge her to see the events of the day as a lesson in the damage that lies can wreak. This would not have been vindictive, simply counsel to a young woman four years my junior. In the end, her aunt accompanied her to the hotel, and so I didn’t feel the moment was appropriate. Though we were relieved to have been relieved, we dearly wished that lessons would be learned.  

Late on Wednesday night, we returned to the hotel after our final meal with Andrew and Ruth (who had re-arranged to fly to La Paz a day earlier, on Thursday lunchtime), with a text message awaiting us (we’re getting into something of a rhythm with these late-night-important-text-messages). The father, now back home with his family, had gotten in touch to say how sorry he was for any pain we might be feeling, and how deeply impressed he and his partner were by our attitude over the past few days. He went on to say that, while they would understand completely if we wished nothing to do with the family ever again, they would like us to at least consider becoming the girl’s godparents. He closed by telling us the name they had settled on for their little girl:

Amanda.

Many couples in our situation would not have put up with such games, and would have had every right to demand that the word of these parents be honoured. I say this not to draw attention to ourselves, but to a crude Roman execution device atop a hill outside Jerusalem. It was there two millennia ago that we, the worst of sinners, were saved by an act of amazing grace, and it is this grace alone that empowers us, and other believers, to give others the second chance they most certainly do not deserve, though the very thought is at times an offence to every fibre of our being.

In short, I shudder to think what I would be were I not among the purchased, and I have no idea how I would have gotten through the last few days so relatively unscathed. Call it boasting if you like, but at such times, I love being a Christian. 

Furthermore, I love that my wife is, in reality, a sister. How grateful we are today that we were both given the grace to instinctively make the right calls when required on Tuesday, and that we did so with one voice. What a privilege to know that this week was not in vain. What an honour to be able to jointly share Christ with this humble family over the years to come. 

I have never been prouder to be a member of team Cramandaham. And I have never been more in awe of our great God.

But we never can prove the delights of his love
Until all on the altar we lay;
For the favour he shows, and the joy he bestows,
Are for them who will trust and obey.

Prayer
  • Whisper it, but in the last day or two we have been given indications of a possible turnaround in the adoption we mentioned here last month. We would welcome your prayers here.
  • Please pray for Andrew and Ruth, who certainly cannot complain that they didn’t get an insight into the turbulence of Bolivian/missionary life during their time with us! They are heading up to Lake Titicaca this weekend from La Paz, before some more sightseeing and relaxation in Peru in the following two weeks.
  • Though it now feels like an eternity ago, the marriage course did indeed come to a conclusion on Sunday. Please pray for all the couples involved, especially those who are not yet Christians.
  • Pray for safety for ourselves as we travel back to Trinidad by road today.
  • Pray for energy as we return to deal with various issues in the church, not least the youth camp, which starts a week on Friday.

Praise
  • Give thanks for how well everything went at the marriage course, and for the tremendous feedback we’ve had from the couples involved, who left feeling challenged, yet equipped in moving forward.
No course in Bolivia is complete without the obligatory certificates. Here,
Andrew & Ruth furnish a happy couple with theirs.
  • There was a great response to Andrew and Ruth’s meeting with the local pastors and leaders on Monday (Holy Trinity Brompton had requested that they seek to promote the course while here). Please pray that we might see more fruit from this in Trinidad.
100 miles later...
  • Give thanks for a safe arrival in Santa Cruz, not least for Craig and Andrew! About halfway to Santa Cruz, they pulled aside for an impromptu visit to the, er, bushes. It was soon clear that something was not right, with some very deep gurgling noises coming from the radiator. After giving it five minutes to ‘cool down’, Andrew unscrewed the lid, which, while he and Craig dived for cover from the torrent of scalding hot water, promptly shot off to who-knows-where. Incredibly, about 100 miles down the road, we were able to source a replacement lid (you can really find anything here). In the meantime, to maintain the pressure, an old pair of Craig’s boxers secured by one of Andrew’s shoelaces sufficed. An audition tape is in the post to Chris Evans as I write.
I could cope with this.
  • Andrew and Ruth very kindly arranged for us all to stay in one of our favourite haunts in Santa Cruz, though a hotel we only tend to visit on very special occasions. In truth, our two days there proved to be just what we needed after weeks of a heavy workload and some very difficult issues back in Trinidad. We are rested and thankful.
  • Above all, we are so thankful for Andrew and Ruth’s time with us over these past couple of weeks. Of course, they played a blinder with the marriage course, but they were an equally great blessing to us as a couple, helping us in any way necessary during their time with us, and always ready to lend some words of wisdom. As things were looking good for the prospective adoption of the girl earlier in the week, Ruth joked that they hadn’t realised they were coming to Trinidad to be surrogate grandparents. But in reality, they had established themselves as our own surrogate parents from very early on in their time here. We watched on with awe as they tirelessly applied themselves to the work, as they poured out their love on so many grateful couples, and as they approached every situation with prayer. Their example will linger long in the memory and we look forward to seeing them again some day soon.
We couldn't posisbly let them go home empty handed
either!
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Saturday Post -- 10/10/15

Amanda, Andrew & Ruth in final preparation mode last night.
A monumentally busy week for us is approaching its climax. One of our dogs has fallen ill and multiple trips to the vet have ensued. Our car's ignition gave up completely resulting in an unscheduled appointment with our mechanic. We have no end of staff members to discipline, meetings to attend, sermons to write.

Oh yeah. And we've had a marriage course to run.

Not bad for effectively £1 a night.
But besides exhaustion, the overriding feeling is one of thankfulness for what looks to have been a tremendous blessing for our church and our community. 

Milton & Karen, whom we have gotten to know this week.
Being so involved in church, our 'weekend' usually kicks off somewhere around lunchtime on Sunday. Sound equipment packed away. AC units switched off. A hearty meal somewhere in town. Crash. 

Our pastor, Elías, welcomes the group on Thursday evening.
Last Sunday, however, these proceedings were merely the cue for those women who had been hard at work for months preparing the decor to finally move in and put the finishing touches to their masterpiece. Andrew & Ruth and ourselves were involved here too. Andrew & Ruth and I managed till about 7, when the bunting was being put up and it became increasingly clear our services would now be better put to use elsewhere; Amanda, meanwhile, tapped out at 10:30pm, with much work still to be done. By the early hours of Monday morning, the transformation was complete.

Each evening has a different centrepiece -- all hand-crafted by the women
of the church -- which the couple take home, along with the evening's key verses.
Monday morning and afternoon saw multiple car journeys into town to pick up various supplies for the week, our busyness rendering any first-night nerves irrelevant. Not that we need have worried about that. Andrew & Ruth have spent months planning the marriage course to the minute, and there has hardly been a false step all week.

Amanda and Ruth with Ruth Obando, who has spearheaded the arts and
crafts operation. Typically, Ruth and Ruth have grown very close this week.
The course itself has lasted about two hours each session. We have usually begun with a few words from Andrew & Ruth to summarise past teaching or to cue up the evening's theme (the course covers: Building Strong Foundations, The Art of Communication, Resolving Conflict, The Power of Forgiveness, The Impact of Family, Good Sex, and Love in Action). From here, it's straight into the Alpha-produced video for each night. Some of you may be familiar with the material and its high production values. These have most certainly been carried into the Spanish-language course; the dubbing, in particular, is accurate to the millisecond and in no way distracting. 

Eat, drink...and sort out your marriage!
Each evening's video lasts about an hour. But during the video, there are various pauses for exercises which are found in the accompanying manual. Crucially, these exercises are not carried out by the group as a whole, but they are discussed by each couple at their table (hence the 'date night' ambience; some light music is played during such times as well). These exercises inevitably constitute the meat of the course. And speaking of meat, a light meal has been served each night by a group of young people in the church during the longer exercises.

Nothing if not prepared.
Andrew & Ruth have normally rounded up proceedings with some more scriptural input and/or personal testimony, followed by a prayer.

Video time.
So far (the final two modules take place tomorrow afternoon and evening), the response has been tremendous. Around half of the couples in attendance are not from our church, and Amanda and I have made a point of cornering such people at the end of each evening to guage their thoughts. Granted, not everyone has gaily skipped out the door each evening. But everyone we have spoken to has been deeply challenged by what they considered for their own marriage, yet well equipped to address these issues as well.


The hyper-activity of planning during the weeks preceding meant that we ourselves had barely given a moment's thought to the prospect of asking these searching questions of our own marriage, until we took our seats at around 7:30pm. Yet for all our tiredness come the evening time, we have been given the grace to be able to work diligently through these exercises, to honestly reflect on where we are failing each other, and and to think creatively about how to tackle such areas of our relationship. It's been something of an unexpected surprise.

One of the younger couples hard at work.
The impression left amidst all this by Andrew & Ruth -- with barely a word of Spanish to their names -- has been seismic. Last night, a relatively private chap positively gushed as he spoke to me of their obvious love for the participants in the course. Each evening, no matter how many finishing touches to see to, they have invariably greeted every couple upon arrival with the traditional Beniano warmth, and have staunchly refused to allow their lack of Spanish to be a barrier in spending time with participants once the evening is done. Their wise words from the front each are backed up by their actions. 


Their work behind the scenes has also been noted. The core document for the week is a bulging file with hundreds of pages of notes, with scripts for each evening edited and re-edited. Though much of this work took place pre-travel, they have spent many hours here continually re-assessing the content in light of the culture and the events of the week so far. When they've not been going over such details with a fine tooth-comb, they can be found engaged in the many manual tasks required to run the course, whether that be sewing, shopping, drilling, ironing or baking. Much of this has taken place with the Bolivians themselves, only solidifying further these bonds. And so, this little church community has been left with a big example of marriage as servant ministry. 


We still have a great deal of the course to cover, and Andrew & Ruth still have another five days here with us. We're not half excited to see what's in store.


Prayer
  • Pray for the remaining two modules of the course, taking place tomorrow afternoon and evening. 
  • Pray for lasting change in the marriages of all the participants. 
  • Pray for those couples who are co-habiting (very few couples actually marry in this culture), or who are not believers. Andrew & Ruth will be addressing both of these areas tomorrow evening; pray that these couples would be challenged.
  • This is the Alpha Marriage Course's first ever incursion into Bolivia, and Alpha have asked Andrew & Ruth to look into promoting the course while here. To that end, a meeting of pastors and leaders here in Trinidad has been arranged for Monday evening. Prayer appreciated.
  • Andrew & Ruth are moving on from here to La Paz and the Lake Titicaca region for a couple of days, before a couple of weeks' well-earned rest in Peru. Pray for safety in their travels.
  • We (Craig & Amanda) are essentially running on adrenaline right now. Pray for rest.
Praise
  • For an exciting week at the marriage course.
  • For the great impact Andrew & Ruth have had in their short time here.
  • For the LORD's sustaining of the four of us at this exceptionally busy time.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda