Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saturday Post -- 31/01/15

After our enforced hibernation in the days following our arrival, this was the week when we made our first tentative steps into our ministry contexts, with participation varying between the passive and the active.

The weekend saw us toddle along to the church for our first services there, and we were encouraged by what we saw and heard. During what is normally the teaching slot, a group of four young people, who had just returned from a national youth evangelism conference in Santa Cruz, were given the floor and asked to share with their cohorts some of their experiences. So excited were they by what they had seen God do that the other youth leaders practically had to wrench the microphone from their hands just so the meeting could finish on time.

The church had paid for these young people to attend the conference because they will be joining the youth leadership team this year. The more senior youth leaders, however, had stipulated that they must seek discipleship opportunities if they wish to serve on the team. Three of this group have approached Amanda and I about this possibility, and we’re really excited to be able to meet with them on a weekly basis, hopefully beginning in the next couple of weeks.

The aftermath of the Sunday services the following morning was a chance to briefly catch up with the last few people we hadn’t yet seen, including Carlos & Carla, whom readers may recall from previous entries (Carlos is a recovering alcoholic whose life has been miraculously turned around in the last couple of years). The church was full and there was a good number of young people around; encouraging, as one of our struggles in the past has been to challenge the youth to participate in the church throughout the week, not just on Saturday nights (the adults, meanwhile, can be a little too removed from the youth work, if we’re honest).

That evening had a first-day-back-at-school feel to it, as we prepared ourselves as best we could for going back to work at the Foundation (Amanda), or going back to the Foundation to work (Craig). First thing on Monday morning, we met with the other members of the FT board to outline what we saw ourselves doing. Amanda re-stated her desire (shared here in early January) to take charge of human resources and use this as an opportunity to minister to FT’s staff, several of whom are not yet believers. I, meanwhile, explained that I would be stepping back from FT activities, for the moment at least, to concentrate on church matters. However, I would be happy to help in taking care of communications with FT’s supporters, a role I had in the past.

And so, while Amanda spent the week getting to grips with the nuances of HR, I spent most of my time writing the 2014 sponsors’ report, something that requires a little more research when written by someone who wasn’t even in the country that year.

Nevertheless, the church is definitely where I want to be working this year, and during the week I had some fruitful meetings with the pastor, Elías. After the year I have had at Cornhill, with all this time to think carefully about what we’re doing at El Jireh Church I’m inevitably brimming with new ideas and methodologies; over the past couple of months, I’ve had to continually remind myself not to land all of these on the leadership at once, so as not to frighten anyone! I also need to be accepting of those times when it will only be possible for us to meet halfway on certain issues. All that said, however, I was able to share a few thoughts with Elías over the course of the week, and he was generally receptive to what I had to say. 

We’ve endeavoured also to spend meaningful time with others. Amanda spent Friday afternoon catching up with Grecia, with whom she is hoping to resume a weekly discipleship session. Grecia comes from a challenging family background; her father’s alcoholism and the family’s impoverished circumstances have not given her the easiest start in life. However, she and her siblings (including Elizabeth, who took over my work in Education last year) are regular attenders at El Jireh. Grecia is just out of high school and was one of the young people in attendance at the Santa Cruz conference. Amanda, naturally, is thrilled to see how she’s progressing.

I, meanwhile, had the opportunity to sit down with a male FT worker who himself used to be a mainstay at the church, but who has had some problems over the last couple of years and has a lot of faith-related questions he struggles to find answers for. I offered him the chance to meet regularly outside of work hours and he seemed open to that; please pray for him. At the prayer meeting on Tuesday evening, I spent some time praying with, and getting to know, Daniel, who is Romina’s husband. (Romina, you may remember, had studied medicine in Cuba for many years before returning to FT to work in 2013. She has also been a great help in the music ministry at El Jireh. Daniel, a Cuban native, with whom she began a relationship when studying there, was finally able to move down to Bolivia in 2014, and they were married late last year.) This was the first meaningful interaction I had enjoyed with him, and it was heartening to get alongside such a spiritually mature guy. We’re keen to encourage young couples like Daniel & Romina, whose desire to glorify the Lord in their marriage is a tremendous example to young and old in the church.

  • The young women’s Bible study group (which Amanda launched in 2011) is meeting again tomorrow evening. We’ve been delighted to see this group go from strength to strength over the past year, with the participants taking turns to lead the twice-monthly Bible study. Pray for God’s continued blessing on this group.
  • Craig has several activities he’d like to develop this year, including a new men’s ministry and regular training for anyone in the church who is involved in Bible teaching. He’s also looking into the possibility of launching a training course for pastors in the Trinidad area. Pray for wisdom to know how to go about all of this, and patience while he waits for the Lord’s ‘green light’.
  • For the various little signs of encouragement we’ve seen in the church over the past week.
  • For further confirmation this week of God’s will for us.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday Post -- 24/01/15

“Ye’ll no miss this weather, will ye.”

The above point was put to us time and again by well-meaning friends over the past few months, with increasing frequency as our departure loomed larger and the west of Scotland skies turned ever more grey. I (Craig) don’t think it was meant as a question, but I tended to take it that way, responding in kind in order to strangle any assumptions about the climate here being particularly pleasant. Given this is rainy season, the last week has in fact been really rather dry, with a half-hour burst of heavy rain most days, but nothing more offensive. Yet at no point during those dry spells have I gazed upon those mid-30s-plus-humidity conditions from the sanctuary of our ventilated four walls and thought, “Cor, I do rather fancy a gentle stroll right now!”

That said, however, it is nice to be back in Trinidad again; nicer, indeed, than we’d expected. We had been bracing ourselves for a tough re-entry, based on our only comparable experience back in October 2011. I wrote back then about a potent and unexpected encounter with culture shock – after a mere two-month absence. How would we cope after thirteen months in a western context?

One week on, and we’re surviving, with two factors no doubt playing their part. Firstly, the memory of 2011’s experience no doubt prompted us to be better prepared emotionally and spiritually. And secondly, if you’ll excuse a touch of materialism, unlike 2011 we have our own house to come back to; in other words, Trinidad, unexpectedly, feels like home again.

The majority of this week has been taken up with unpacking, organising and dumping, and restoring la casa to a state with which we’re more familiar. Providentially, our home assignment year coincided with our friend Rachel Peebles’ return to Trinidad for a twelve-month spell, meaning the house was at least being used; that’s particularly important in climates like this where, if not left unchecked, moth and rust so rapidly destroy. Still, everyone has their preferred settings, and getting it back to a recognisable state was the main task of this week.

Vastly improved internet speeds have also gone some way to soften the
re-adjustment blow!
One task in particular this week was a reminder of how high up the priority-list Taking Pride in One’s Work tends to feature for manual labourers around here (i.e., not very high at all!).

At the end of October, we received a Facebook message from Rachel telling us that one of our balcony windows had been smashed. This turned out to be nothing too sinister in the end; just local kids playing with their slingshots, seeing a particularly glassy house, and putting 2 and 2 together. However, an urgent repair was clearly in order. Naturally, we arranged for the necessary funds to be transferred and, within a week or two, the job had been done.

Well, on Tuesday morning, I was traipsing around the garden trying to deal with a few things, when all of a sudden, I felt a surprisingly crunchy sensation under my shoes. I looked down, and saw about four glistening square yards of thousands upon thousands safety glass particles. Looks like the tidying-up job that November morning had consisted of, er, sweeping the particles off the balcony and hoping nobody would notice!

And so, two days of planned house work went down the black hole of smashed glass recovery. There I was, sat like Oor Wullie on a bucket (in temperatures our mutual dungareed friend could barely conceive of), carefully picking up each individual piece, being careful to avoid injury to hands, and not to place said container on spots where I was liable to bury the glass yet further. A truly shattering experience, I’m sure you’ll concur.

The result of these exertions has been that we’ve not had too much time yet with friends and colleagues, save a couple of fleeing visits to the Foundation during work hours, and an evening in the company of our friends Maicol and KC, their now two-year-old Caleb, and KC’s mother, visiting from the States.

Still, it’s been great to renew these acquaintances, and we look forward to their re-deepening in the months ahead. Santa Cruz last weekend also gave us an opportunity to touch base with old friends. Remember my keyboard-playing protégé, Diego? He’s just moved through to Santa Cruz to begin a degree in music, and on Sunday morning we attended a church service with him, before heading out for lunch and finding out how he’s been doing. Now and again out here, if I’m honest, I have my little Elijah moments, when I look around, see so little visible fruit for my efforts, become wracked with self-doubt, and question the worth of my ministry. The progress of a young man like Diego is someone I need to cling to in those times, his presence in Santa Cruz instead of Trinidad not an insult but an inevitability, given the lack of opportunities here.

Livin' for the Citah: With young Diego Asín
in Santa Cruz.
The house pretty much done and dusted -- quite literally, indeed -- today is the day when we will gradually start easing back into things at work. If Friday night is music night on Radio 2, then Saturday night is most definitely youth night in Bolivia. We shall pop along there, and to the main church service tomorrow morning. The challenge right now, as we’ve stated previously, is to maintain the self-discipline to prayerfully seek God’s will for these next few years; I’ve already had to turn down one or two well-intentioned proposals on this basis. But we strongly feel that it is better to sacrifice a couple of weeks in doing this than to spend a couple of years embroiled in things that, while good, are not the better ‘yes’. And so, despite missing the sensation of jeans on our legs, we’re increasingly excited to find out what the Lord has in store.

  • For continued self-discipline and discernment when it comes to new ministry opportunities, as requested last week and alluded to above.
  • Despite what I wrote earlier, we do have the occasional re-adjustment bumps. Pray that we don’t allow these to become a discouragement.

  • For safety in our final flight to Trinidad, on Monday past.
  • For the opportunity to catch up with old Trinidad friends Diego and Claudia in Santa Cruz, and see the mighty work of the Lord in their lives.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saturday Post -- 17/01/15

This time last week.
Writing from Santa Cruz, where we arrived yesterday in the late afternoon, luggage and sanity just about intact after 30 hours of travelling. Our plan is to be here for a couple more days. Bolivia’s biggest city offers most of the conveniences of a developed world context, while still being unmistakably oriental – i.e., typical of eastern Bolivia and its people. In other words, a few days here en route back to Trinidad tends to ease us back into things a little more gently.

Round about this time last week, we were putting the finishing touches to the sanctuary and coffee area of Strathaven Evangelical Church, where our farewell event was about to take begin. Having received responses to our invitation from far and wide, we had a feeling the numbers would be high, and any doubts regarding this were dispelled when our first visitor came in and took a seat; we had never even met her before!

In all, we reckon the best part of 150 friends came and went over the course of the afternoon, during which we twice gave a short presentation on our return (essentially a more compact version of last week’s blog post), and endeavoured to say cheerio to as many as we could – though this was some task! Indeed, as the afternoon progressed, we became increasingly aware of what a difficult position we’d left ourselves in. We’d long looked at the occasion pragmatically, considering it an efficient way to touch base with, and say goodbye to, as many as possible. But we were probably guilty of overlooking the emotional ramifications of this. With some friends, a quick two minutes simply did not feel like enough. Nonetheless, we can take comfort from the fact that such sadness simply reflected the many happy times we had been afforded with them over the course of the year. We have no cause for complaint.

And, above all, we draw great strength from last weekend’s very tangible reminders -- at Strathaven and at our re-commissioning service the following day at Shettleston -- of our great privilege, to have these people, and several times more around the world, lifting up our needs and our ministry to the Lord in prayer.

Mercifully, we were just about finished packing when
our luggage scales came to an untimely (if inevitable) end.
A good thing, too, because, if we’re honest, in those moments this week when we’ve been able to think about something other than whether the Nintendo (Craig) or favourite pair of jeans (Amanda) will make it into the case, we have felt a little vulnerable. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that this has been harder than 2010, when the novelty factor kicked any niggling concerns into touch. A good friend of ours pointed out this week that we’re probably feeling a little like Moses by the burning bush – an astute analysis.

We think of how little support there will be for us on the field, relative to the past, and like Moses, we are nervous to go back. We think of the great needs that exist in the Foundation and the church; we then look at ourselves and, like Moses, we feel utterly inadequate to address them. But most of all, we know that God has not yet indicated another path for us, and so, like Moses, we simply must return, knowing that it is not about our faltering efforts, but the God who works through them and despite them.

Still, this is no easy lesson to take on board. On Wednesday evening before bedtime, as is our habit, we took these things to the Lord in prayer, and I’ll admit that I had to stifle the odd sob, as more than once I somehow managed to string together the following words: “Lord, I just do not get this.” No doubt, this is a test of faith, perhaps the most profound we have yet experienced. Yet, for reasons I can’t quite explain, there was an undeniable sweetness to those tears, which spoke at one and the same time of the great uncertainty we felt, and the great joy of doing what we know is the Lord’s will.

  • For safety for the last leg of our journey back to Trinidad, on Monday afternoon.
  • For self-discipline over the next few weeks. It will be extremely tempting to dive right back into things, especially where we see need. Pray that we might resist this, and prayerfully work out what God wants from us, and where we might best use our gifts.
  • For patience as we re-adapt to a developing world culture; a big adjustment after a year in the UK and Canada.
  • For abundant reserves of faith!

  • For a pretty much hitch-free journey so far. No overweight baggage, a good sleep over the Atlantic, and half price on excess baggage for the flight to Santa Cruz – just because the guy was in a good mood!
  • For the many people (like you!) who take a prayerful interest in our ministry, as evidenced by last weekend’s event.
  • For an encouraging, stimulating, challenging and (we hope!) maturity-enhancing home assignment year.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Hopes, Dreams and Educated Guesses

The children in the above image are, in fact, both of us on our way to
Trinidad five long years ago.

If you’ve read our blog in the past, or have some awareness of developing world contexts, you will know that the only thing you can predict on any given day is its sheer unpredictability! So it is with a fair dollop of caution that we offer up these insights into what may be on the horizon upon our return to Trinidad. In fact, we know that the very worst thing we could do is to throw ourselves straight back into a load of activities, without having first of all taken the time to assess things; so much will have changed even in the space of thirteen months.

Nonetheless, we know that you, our friends, are keen to know how you can be praying for us. We greatly appreciate this, and hope that the following will help you to get a very rough idea of the coming months.

Craig: Staying Focussed on a Better 'Yes'

In any situation, you will never be useful if your efforts are engaged in providing a need that simply is not there. It is with that in mind that, as stated above, we are keen to take stock of the current situation in Bolivia before rolling up our sleeves.

However, commendable though this is, a further refinement of resources must take place. Because, as human beings, we each bring very different talents to the table, and the danger is that we find ourselves attempting to address specific needs while not necessarily being equipped for the task. Taking this a step further still, we might well have the abilities to meet a need, yet still be wasting our energies as this is not the role that the Lord has for us.

I was certainly guilty of this at times during our first term in Bolivia. As the years went by, I gradually took on a vast array of tasks. These were all ‘good things’; indeed, they were by and large kingdom things! But I found I was scraping by in them, doing many things sufficiently, but few things really well. Worse, I was too proud at times to admit this to myself, yet the last year has certainly confirmed it; by the time we’re finished with our standard 40-minute church report, it’s hard to tell whether we are more exhausted in the telling, or our audience is more exhausted in getting their heads round all the different plates we’ve been spinning.

An extended period of home assignment like ours has its fair share of challenges. But at the same time, something really positive has been taking place out in Bolivia, which I was probably too proud to have foreseen a year ago. While we have been at home, being built up and prepared for the next stage in our ministry, things have not collapsed in Bolivia. In fact, in our absence, the Bolivians have taken on their fair share of things that we used to do. In 2014, our long-expressed desire that the work in Bolivia would decrease in its missionary dependence has taken a big leap forward.

This has been as true in the Education area of the Foundation – my own traditional stomping-ground – as it has been elsewhere. And yet, even up until a few weeks ago, I was in a bit of a fight with God over this.

You see, for some time I have known that God wants me to channel my energies into the work of the church, which is not quite at the same stage of maturity as the Foundation. In particular, there is a tremendous need for disciples to be raised up, for those who are Christians to be equipped to understand the Bible’s message for their lives and ‘set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity’. And, naturally, I’m humbled and excited to be a part of this.

But part of me just could not let go of the education ministry. What about those dozens of people each year who had so enjoyed the English classes I had taught? What about the students in the local schools who, as teenagers, have heard the gospel for the first time in their lives? The possibility of leaving behind these primarily evangelistic activities concerned me, and I don’t think there was anything inherently wrong with this.

Another happy bunch of English graduates.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in a Cornhill class taken by a much older visiting missionary, who has long wrestled with such questions. Indeed, it is only in the past few years that he has truly begun to understand what his gifts are and what God wants him to be engaged in. Yet since then, he claimed to have been much more effective in the Lord’s service. What did he do when presented with the opportunity to become engaged in something that, while great, was not what he had been called to? He remembered the following mantra: It’s easier to say ‘no’ when there’s a better ‘yes’.

That afternoon session may just have been the most important couple of hours for me in my preparation for going back. All of a sudden, two startling realisations dawned on me. Firstly, my utter lack of faith. How arrogant of me to presume the Lord’s dependence on me and me alone to bring the gospel to these people. Secondly, my failure to see the practical ramifications for our church of such evangelistic ministry, were it to prove ‘successful’. If, as a church, we’re not quite the finished article when it comes to getting alongside people on the path of discipleship – as I believe is the case right now – then welcoming new believers into our midst will, until that time, prove challenging.

Having thus been stopped in my tracks, I feel emboldened and unashamed to focus my energies solely on the church, and specifically on discipleship. And I will do so as part of a much-depleted leadership. When I joined the eldership in mid-2012, there were five of us; now, only I and the pastor, Elías, are left. With so many needs in the congregation, and only a couple of us to deal with them, it probably will not do to simply meet every two to three weeks as we had done previously as a leadership. Indeed, I would hope we can create regular time(s) during the working week (Elías is employed by the church part-time) to meet together and prayerfully address the needs of the church on a more day-to-day basis.

The year at Cornhill, of course, will have some bearing on the coming months. I have been assisted greatly in developing my preaching abilities over the last year, and I’m really looking forward to getting to grips with some new texts from the pulpit.

With good friend and shameless mickey-taker, Wilson Menacho.

However, important though that is, I can’t help but feel that it is especially vital that I look to equip others in Bible teaching ministry in the church – be that from the pulpit or the playpen – with the necessary tools for better understanding and communicating the truths of the word of God, tools which I had mostly gone without myself until this year.

Ideally, such equipping would go beyond the four walls of El Jireh church. In Bolivia, we continue to be saddled with a copy-and-paste education system which encourages a great deal of accumulation of disconnected facts and learning by rote, and not much in the way of engagement with information or independent thought. If our pews are largely filled by the products of such a system, it is of huge importance that preachers communicate the word faithfully. I have been in touch with a renowned international organisation that seeks to equip pastors to teach the Bible in a more responsible manner. My hope is that we can begin such an initiative in the Beni region sooner rather than later.

But, more than anything, I am convinced that such a work has to begin in our church, and for this reason, I’ll be seeking to have regular, one-on-one contact with young men in our congregation, in the hope of raising up more disciples and, I pray, some leaders of the future. What form this, or any of the above, will take, I’m still not sure, but I know these needs exist today, and I know that God has graciously given me the resources this year to address them. I would value your prayers as I continue to discern the right path for me in Bolivia, and the right path for El Jireh church.

Amanda: Keeping things Personnel

People who have read the blog before, or know me personally, will know that before our year in Scotland, I spent my mornings in Bolivia working in Audiology in the Foundation. When we first thought about serving in Bolivia, I wanted to use my Health Sciences degree and my experience as a medical secretary/health care support worker experience in my work in Trinidad.

I started out in nursing and after a year was trained as an audiological technician. I have enjoyed all the time I spent in those two areas as well as the relationships I made in them. I learned so much about ear and hearing care and I liked being able to put that knowledge to practical use in a missions context.

Amanda providing a routine hearing check as
part of FT's health check-ups for every
school child in Trinidad.

However, closer to the end of our first stint in Bolivia, I felt that what I was doing maybe wasn’t the wisest use of my time. I felt that there were a number of Bolivians who could do, or could be trained to do, what I was doing, and maybe even do it better.  This sense continued to grow as 2013 was drawing to a close, and I knew with a large degree of certainty that I would not be returning to audiology upon our arrival in Trinidad again. I was not quite sure what I would be doing instead, but I felt confident that there would be a better use of my time and skills.

Craig and I have spent at least the second half of our furlough year praying and sharing with each other about what we think God might have in store for us in Bolivia. From early on in 2014 I knew that the board of directors at the Foundation had taken on the job of human resources on top of their already busy schedule, and the concept of lightening this burden for Mariana and Miguel Angel was bouncing around in my mind.

I also felt strongly about the need for more overt evangelism amongst our own staff. Staff unity has also been a problem in the past and I have wondered in the past five years or so if someone needed to focus on building unity amongst all the staff through team building events or socials. Throughout the second half of the year, as we’ve been praying, I felt God leading me to the conclusion that I could address the majority of these issues if I left audiology and moved to human resources. I want to focus primarily on developing staff unity and a sense of team amongst us all, and evangelism to staff and patients in a more obvious way.

Amanda with FT audiologist, Odalys Arce

God, who has been so good and gracious to us in all things, once again proved to me how it was really Himself leading me to this conclusion. Mariana, at the beginning of September, wanted to have a Skype conversation to talk about what Craig and I were thinking of doing once we returned. I met her online and shared with her first about what Craig was thinking and then went on to outline my own thoughts. After hearing what I had to say, she answered with, “Oh good, that is exactly what we were wanting to ask you to do.” The confirmation that God had been working in both my heart and the other board of directors’ hearts on both side of the ocean was such an encouragement to me. I can return with the confidence that the leadership of the Foundation is supportive of the need for staff unity and evangelism.

Please pray that God gives me the wisdom to perform the tasks necessary. I am confident about getting alongside some people and developing friendships, but I am less confident about conflict resolution and problem solving amongst staff. I have some ideas for developing unity, but I also know that if I really want this to work I need to think outside the box and be creative and I am nervous about this particular challenge. I am so not as familiar with legal matters that might arise and I know I will be leaning heavily on other board members for advice in these cases. And as much as I would like to jump in and make changes, I know I need the sensitivity to move at the pace that the people around me are comfortable with and to follow God’s leading.

Amanda and Elías (centre) with their team at 2013's youth camp.

In terms of my involvement in the church, I am still praying through a lot and am adopting a wait-and-see approach. I feel the need to spend a lot more time with people one-on-one. I feel that a lot of programmes have been running perfectly fine without my involvement this year, so I would like to step back from a lot of programme work and focus on individual or small group discipleship. Depending on what we see when we join the church once again, I would like to take a step back from children’s work altogether and focus on supporting, but not running, youth work. I would like to be an active member of the women’s group in our church, but again, not necessarily organise the group.

However, I feel very strongly about supporting Craig in his church work. I know how hard and challenging this work is and I know he is going to need my help. I want to be there as prayer partner with him, and I definitely want to be available to listen to him and emotionally deal with the issues that are going to come up. I would like to help him practically as well; if this means cooking meals for leader’s meetings, or doing pastoral visits with him to families, couples or women, then I need to be able to fit these things into my schedule.

Although what I have written seems relatively well planned out, the truth is that we will not know exactly what we will be doing until we arrive and settle in. We want to take the time to integrate ourselves in the church and Foundation community before asserting ourselves or stepping on people’s toes. We know that relationships are central to what we do, and we also need to make time to re-establish old friendships and make new ones as well. We appreciate all your prayers as we seek to do these things with Christian love.

Both: Family Planning

One last thing, Columbo-style, which really applies to us both as a couple, and that is the possibility of adopting. We’ve been praying about this over the last couple of years and, now that we have something of a clear run of things for the next year or two (i.e., we probably won’t be leaving Bolivia for extended periods any time soon), we’re ready to begin actively exploring this possibility pretty much as soon as we get back.

In Bolivia, as with many things, the process of adoption tends to be a little more informal. We will first of all register with social work to be able to adopt, and then it’s quite simply a case of keeping an ear to the ground for any possible unwanted pregnancies; putting out the word through friends, making maternity nurses we know aware of our situation – a child could surface within a few weeks or many months, or even years later. We just don’t know.

Then would begin the next stage, of adopting that particular child, which can take a few months. And finally, we would begin looking into citizenship in the UK or Canada.

As you can see, then, much patience will required of us, both in the initial waiting period, and then as we take on the vast paperwork which will follow. Please remember this situation in your prayers.

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Fond Backward Glance

As I have considered (and usually delayed) our re-entry into the blogosphere over these past few weeks, I imagined it would simply be a case of picking up where we left off. And so, poring over our last entry written back in late 2013, I’m not half amused to read a not-so-solemn promise that we’d be posting irregularly on the furlough phenomenon during 2014.

Well, it’s the thought that counts, is it not?

It’s not quite the case that we’ve been too busy to write; probably just that the blog is very much part of our Bolivia routine, and we never quite found a way to fit it in to things here in Scotland and in Canada. Home assignment, indeed, has been a true eye-opener, and I have no doubt that we could, in future, put pen to paper on the joys and sorrows of an extended period away from Bolivia. It is as important a time in the life and work of overseas Christian workers as that on the field, and just as we have done with the blog these past five years, we would be keen to give those on the outside looking in a better appreciation of what missionaries go through when they come home.

But that book deal will have to wait for another day. For now, as something of a dipping of the toe back in these waters, I (Craig) shall offer some thoughts specific to my own experience of these past thirteen months.

The world is more beautiful than I remembered

The Ring of Steall

In the end, I didn’t exactly spend a decent chunk of my Saturdays…on top of hills’, as I’d been promising myself back in December 2013. In that regard, I’d fatally overlooked two important realities of home assignment: a tight budget, and the eye-watering cost of fuel (which, inevitably, is only now beating a steady retreat).

Still, the year abounded with those moments of connection with the natural world which will forever remain seared on my consciousness. I’ll think back on the view over the wilderness of Rannoch Moor on that improbably sun-drenched April morning during our conquest of the West Highland Way. Or contemplating my tee shot at the 10th on Royal Dornoch’s Struie Course, as the sun caught the higher peaks of the Dornoch Firth. Or the lesson in humility and smallness that is Alaska’s Tracy Arm Fjord (particularly enjoyable from the private corner I managed to find on a 1,400-capacity cruise liner). Or the afternoon spent in the company of humpback whales on the same trip. Or the pleasure in conquering ten Munros. Or December’s surprising – yet welcome – opportunity to drive to a last-minute church date in Kyle of Lochalsh, and happily consent to being dumbstruck by Buchaille Etive Mor one last time.

We will be going back to the natural beauty of the Beni region in due course, but my goodness, it has been a joy to re-connect with the inclines and declines of the North.

And the world has come to Scotland

My lunch routine while attending Cornhill Scotland usually involved a two-minute toddle from its Bath Street headquarters to the Sainsbury’s Central on Buchanan Street. The backing noise was almost always a constant murmur of foreign tongues. Prolonged absences like ours tend to accentuate trends, and there is no doubt that Glasgow in particular has never seen such ethnic diversity as it does today. Yes, that brings its own challenges – but, oh, what tremendous opportunities! Should the Lord bring us back to Scotland in the years ahead, our days of ministry to the nations would be anything but over.

Ministry is in our veins

And wherever we’d end up, we’re pretty certain that we’ve now passed a ‘point of no return’ when it comes to our 9-to-5.

A further affirmation of this took place in early July. For years, Amanda had waxed lyrical to me about those endless summers she, her family and friends would spend at a place called ‘Guelph Bible Camp’, effectively demanding that I join her in camp counselling work in the event of us ever being back in Canada for the summer. Inevitably, once our rough plans for 2014 were in place, those pleas re-surfaced, and I agreed, albeit reluctantly – by this time in Bolivia, I was exhausted, desperate to come home and get a bit of R&R, and most definitely not seeking out new ministry opportunities.

Well, Guelph Bible Youth Camp 2014 turned out to be probably the most purposeful, life-affirming and purely enjoyable week of the year. Cornhill, of course, had been a wonderful experience, but Guelph was our first proper opportunity of the year to put that learning into practice and, above all, minister the word of God to young people who, delightfully, were hungry for it. If those special seven days were merely a foretaste of the next two or three years in Bolivia, then the 15th of January could hardly come any sooner.

‘The darkness has not overcome it’

The lads and lassies of Cornhill Scotland
We are slowly but surely learning to beware drawing sweeping conclusions from afar. Occasionally during our time away from Bolivia, we have heard of developments on the field that concern us a little. At the same time, we are all too aware that a distance of over 6,000 miles prevents us from having a fuller appreciation of things in Trinidad. This stops us from getting too wound up about said matters.

A significant contributing factor to this mentality has been our experience of things the other way around. During our four years in Trinidad, all the information we needed about an ever-gathering spiritual gloom in the UK and Canada was just a click away. Chaplains were being thrown out of schools, governments were busily re-defining that which God has definitively delineated, and, most depressingly of all, the Church of Scotland was proving itself about as useful a protector of the Christian faith as a three-year-old child of a bag of chocolate buttons.

None of the above has been reversed, of course, and I suspect we westerners had better brace ourselves for ever more hostile conditions. But the benefit of this year for us has been to witness the lives and work of those who refuse to succumb, to hear of those outside-the-box thinkers who are speaking prophetically into the most surprising of situations, to witness a generation who have had to decide like never before where they stand, and who are choosing with pleasure to plant their feet in the ground marked ‘Solid Rock’: to see, if you will, the bigger picture.

Four years abroad pales in comparison to the four decades that a couple we know spent engaged in overseas Christian ministry; we had the pleasure of their company earlier this year. They, too, are concerned at the general direction of society, yet claim to have never witnessed such wholehearted commitment to the cause of Christ among students and young adults. If the group of young men and women I had the pleasure of studying alongside at Cornhill are anything to go by, their optimism is well justified.

No man is an island

With the Dove family in Ohio

Not exactly a revelation, this. We have never lacked in friendships in Trinidad, a most hospitable town, but the majority of these – by necessity, of course – have tended to require that we shoulder the burdens of others, rather than experience a more balanced ‘weight distribution’, if you like.  This is the experience of many involved in full-time Christian ministry. So it has been tremendously energising to be around friends and family who have made time for us, opened their homes to us, and prayed with us, granting us full permission to behave in as undignified a manner as the occasion will permit.

Thrillingly, some of these are people we did not even know this time last year, further proof in particular of the value of my time at Cornhill. Indeed, in a few cases, Amanda and I have had the pleasure of spending significant extra-curricular time with these students and (where applicable) their spouses.

Having lived abroad for many years, we do not expect to be able to maintain regular contact with all such individuals. But what an encouragement to know that the work in Bolivia will feature in the thoughts and prayers of so many more.

We have a great church family

This one really was a revelation. Having attended Shettleston New for almost two years before going to Bolivia, we knew this to be the case, but it has only been in the last year that we have realised how scant our evidence was for such a judgement.

Our experience of fellowship on a Sunday back then would typically revolve around a core group of friends in the church at a similar age and stage to ourselves. I would play bass with them in the church music group, then we would meet together for a chat in the coffee area post-service, with the banter train more often than not chuntering along to another venue as the afternoon progressed. We knew the names and faces of many others, but in most cases, that was as far as it went. Indeed, come to think of it, our midweek Bible study group was largely made up of the same people.

Fast-forward four years, and that friendship group (with whom we are still in regular contact) had moved on to various other fellowships around the city. Would we still feel at home at Shettleston New?

Any doubts were dispelled within minutes of our first entrance that December morning as, one after another, people welcomed us with the warmest of embraces. They had certainly not forgotten us, though our grasp of their names and faces had become tenuous at best.

Thirteen months later, I suspect things are not quite so one-sided, and it is here that Amanda has to take a lot of credit. She came here determined to dedicate much of her time during the week to supporting the work of the church; Wednesdays were spent helping the mother-and-toddlers ministry, and then serving lunches to the community, while on Friday mornings she made a point of attending ‘The New Place’, a time for tea, toast and a blether, which sees a number of visitors, but is mostly attended by members of the congregation.

As the year progressed, and as most of our weekends were filled with church engagements around the UK, Amanda’s midweek presence at Shettleston proved vitally important in maintaining contact with people we were unable to see on Sundays. But more importantly, our wider church family have gotten to know us much better than before in the process. And while we do not doubt the sincerity of their prayers for us in the past, the emotional connection between us has been considerably strengthened. They now have greater ownership of us and of our ministry, and we, to paraphrase Paul in his letter to the Philippians, have them in our hearts.