Saturday, February 28, 2015

Saturday Post -- 28/02/15

Eduardo Rojas, from Langham Bolivia, presenting Langham's hopes for a
course in Trinidad to the locals, last night. See prayer points, below.
My gap year here in Trinidad was instructive on several levels, but especially in getting me thinking about issues of faith, many for the first time. Seeing how things were done in a very different church culture woke me up to the fact that, in practice, there's very often more than one way to skin a cat. Having a ringside seat on the very different way that, say, the offering was given each week in church, or a generally more conservative attitude towards women's roles here, sent me back to the Bible and forced me to think carefully about what God, and not humankind, had to say on these issues.

One early development that year certainly had me sitting up and taking notice. One of the young Bolivian men in the church began going out with one of the long-term volunteers. But things weren't exactly done as they were among, say, my teenage friends in Scotland. And, of course, still a teenager myself -- because you've basically managed to work out everything by that point, right? -- I afforded my contemporaries a ludicrous level of respect in these areas. Even in church circles in Scotland, a camp flirtation would be followed by a largely unsupervised dating period of weeks or months (they wouldn't last longer than that, the significance of which hadn't quite yet dawned on me).

So when Walter and Nikki stood up before the church that October evening and announced that they were beginning a year-long 'courtship' (a word I'd thought had been buried somewhere in Victorian England), that the relationship would be lived out under the watchful glance of trustworthy friends, and that their intention was to marry a year down the line, I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing, and immediately started asking questions of people in the church. Why insist on marriage -- isn't that for 30-year-olds with several promotions behind them? Why no privacy? Why the public service announcement? 

Why, I was the very poster child of naïveté! 

15 years later and, quite frankly, I long ago lost count of the number of young Christians I have known here, many in active ministry, who have not darkened the door of a church for years, having made terrible decisions in the area of sex and relationships. Something I learned early on when we came back here in 2010 (seven years since we'd been here previously) was not to inquire if I noticed a conspicuous absence in the church, because the answer would probably only disappoint me. I know as well as anyone that things are less than puritanical in the developed world, but compared to the hot-blooded natives round these here parts, the UK and Canada at the moment are about as sexually charged as an episode of Antiques Roadshow. The slew of Miss Somewhere-or-other contestants are idolised; soft-pornographic billboards advertising beer and motorcycle parts are ten-a-penny; men have two, sometimes even three, families on the go at once; mobile phones in secondary schools have simply become the go-to place to let your friends see another side of you, in a very real and disturbing sense.

More than anything, though, Trinidad is an especially poor city by Bolivian standards, and poverty has a way of awakening people to sex and sexuality at a far earlier stage in life. It is not unusual for three or four generations to live in the same home, and I would think the average reader hardly requires a detailed explanation to understand that, in such cramped conditions, children cotton on to things quickly.

Walter and Nikki's pursuit of support and accountability, then, strikes me as a shining example of the way things really ought to be done in such choppy waters (they are, by the way, happily married with a daughter in the USA; a great couple!). Sadly, young people here rarely declare their intentions so publicly, and all too often the first we've known of such relationships has been a surprise pregnancy. Career plans are then usually abandoned, guilt takes hold, and the church loses another great asset. Rare and greatly prized are those young people who make it to the other side of 20 unscathed.

I touch on this issue because, in our young church, it has reared its head this week in a big way, in a way that we have, quite frankly, been unprepared for. As I've mentioned before, a group of five young people were invited on to youth leadership about three months ago. It has transpired in the last few weeks that one of these young people is still in a relationship that we had been told was over and done with. We are told that the romantic partner in question is a Christian, and yet the covert nature of the relationship raises serious questions about this young person's integrity. 

The whole situation has caused us, as leaders, to think long and hard as to the church's stance on such issues. A difficulty we face is that, with most of these young people coming from non-Christian homes, they tend to have their parents' full endorsement for any such relationship. We can't claim to uphold Scripture as the word of God whilst questioning parental authority.

Yet at the same time, even if we did have such authority, could we realistically tell them not to engage in any such relationships? We only see these young people for a few hours each week; how on earth could we possibly know how they were behaving day-to-day?

And so, after much thought and prayer, we've decided to meet with these young people before their regular youth meeting tonight, to put the following to them.

Firstly, we can't tell them what to do, but we can certainly recommend how they should live their lives as highly visible Christian leaders. And our strong recommendation is that they do not pursue courtship at this stage of their lives (bear in mind also that these young people are 16- and 17-years-old; hardly ready for commitment even by non-Christian standards).

Secondly, if they choose to pursue such a relationship regardless, they must: a) have full parental permission; b) introduce the person to us as church leaders so we can get to know them, their faith, and their intentions for the relationship; and c) announce the relationship publicly to the church and state marital intentions, seeking the congregation's support and accountability. Failure to comply with any of the three will result in us asking the young person in question to step down from leadership.

I'll be honest: though the rigorous steps we're asking them to take if they wish to pursue a relationship are, in our opinion, correct and God-honouring in a culture fraught with minefields in this area, we'll be much happier as leaders if they serve as a deterrent at this formative stage of their lives.

If all of this strikes you westerners as legalistic, joy-killing and puritanical, bear in mind the heartache we have experienced time and again over the many young lives we've seen ruined by simply following the pattern of this culture. But if you have experience yourself in this area, or anything you'd like to add, I'd be really interested to hear what you have to say. As I said, we are a young church, with young leaders (I'm referring to the eldership here), and the wisdom that only experience can supply is always welcome! Thoughts to 

  • Please pray for our meeting with the young leaders tonight (Saturday), and for the young people as they think seriously about this issue. Pray that these requirements would be seen by the young people for what they ultimately are: an expression of our deep love and concern for them, and a desire to protect them stumbling. We are going to give them a couple of weeks to decide what steps they are prepared to take. Pray that these steps would only go to strengthen the witness of the youth group here in Trinidad.
  • For the new men's ministry, which begins next Friday evening in our home. The idea is to meet once every couple of weeks to study the Bible together. We'll most likely kick things off this week with a meal and a simple discussion as to the great need in the world and in our culture for men of faith and integrity.
  • Amanda has had to deal with a few difficult issues in her HR role at Fundación Totaí this week (often involving workers who are Christians, which can take the frustration to a whole new level).  Amanda is a very quick learner, but is keenly aware at the moment of her lack of experience in this area. Pray for encouragement and wisdom.
  • Thank you for your prayers for the Langham Bolivia information meeting. We were really encouraged to see about 30 Bible teachers from all over Trinidad attend the meeting, and the enthusiasm for starting a new course was tangible. The idea is that each year, over three years, there is an annual four-day residential conference, in which the principles of expository teaching are taught; this is led by Langham Bolivia staff themselves. But in the months between conferences, the conference attendees are to meet in small groups at least once a month, to preach to one another on a given topic, and offer constructive feedback. In other words, the course really depends heavily on the commitment of the participants. As Eduardo said last night, the Bolivian church is full of eventistas, i.e., people who get excited for conferences and camps, particularly when there is an authority figure from outside taking the reins, but who struggle to apply this learning to their ministry. So a lot of prayer is still needed here. Eduardo has formed a local organising committee comprising three of last night's attendees (including Craig), with the view to working towards a conference over the weekend of the 6th of June. Please pray, then, for Craig and the other committee members as they plan for this and promote the course between now and June, and for the course to make a lasting impact over the next three years, in order that the word of God would be taught faithfully in Trinidad's churches, and God would be glorified.
  • We both had some really meaningful discipleship sessions this week. Amanda met with Yoselín properly for the first time this year. Amanda had been meeting with her once a week for two years before we left. Craig began meeting with Daniel, our new Cuban friend whom you may remember from a post a few weeks ago. Both are enthusiastic to grow in their faith, but lacking in support, so please pray for Yoselín and Daniel.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Saturday Post -- 21/02/15

Last January, the Beni region -- which is flat, vast, and susceptible to rain-related hazards at the best of times -- was hit by the worst flooding it had witnessed in 60 years. Dozens lost their lives and around 60,000 families were displaced. The floods had a devastating impact on agriculture too, with 150,000 cattle killed and 43,000 hectares of cultivated land destroyed.

Of course, we were not actually in Trinidad when this happened; indeed, having arrived here in 2010 just after some similarly bad flooding, we seem to have an uncanny knack of avoiding the worst of it. We're probably due one.

It's not likely to happen this rainy season (which tends to run from December to early April), but the last couple of weeks have seen a spate of prolonged and heavy rainstorms. We reckoned we'd got off the hook again this year when we made it to the end of January with nothing worse than a daily half-hour sprinkling. But February -- often the peak month -- has been a different story altogether, with the streets around us often completely submerged in water. No-one is having to leave their home or anything, but when we look around us, we're thankful for that council regulation we followed somewhat begrudgingly a few years back when building the house, that required us to raise the height of our land by a metre or so. Good call. 

Just about the only day we haven't seen such downpours over the last fortnight was Monday, which was a particular bonus given that it was the day of the annual Carnaval youth event. This year, the youth committee invited a guest speaker, a youth leader from a local church, having (probably rightly!) come to the conclusion that the young people are probably bored of hearing from the same people every week. He did a couple of talks -- one in the morning and one in the evening -- on the attributes of God, and did so in a way that the young people could really relate to. As is tradition, the afternoon was spent outdoors playing games mostly involving oversized water balloons. No avoiding a good soaking here even on sunny days.

The Carnaval weekend takes in Tuesday as well; if you're new to the blog, you'll soon find out that bank holidays are a national pastime round these here parts. So it's been a pretty compressed 'working week' (whatever that means in ministry), with the usual mix of HR and one-on-one work for Amanda, and sermon preparation and church leadership meetings for me. Due to the weather and other factors, I wasn't able to touch base with my own discipleship charges. Some Carnaval-like conditions, then, would be most welcome in the coming week.

This is a bit shorter than normal, but I think perfectly fair, given that we've just sent out our latest update. If you'd like a copy sent to your inbox every three months or so, just send us an email at

  • Tomorrow, Craig will be preaching his first sermon of 2015 -- and his first Spanish sermon in over a year -- as he begins a three-week stint in the pulpit, picking up the 1 Peter baton from Elías. Pray especially for clarity in communication.
  • We have had to deal with a very difficult domestic situation this week involving some people we know from the church, and will probably be knee-deep in it for some time to come. This is not the place to go into details, but needless to say, we need love, patience, and a lot of wisdom. Pray for a gracious bestowal of all of these.
  • This coming Friday sees the visit from Cochabamba of Eduardo Rojas from Langham Bolivia, who is coming to give information about a proposed Langham Preaching course here in Trinidad. Over the next few days, Craig will be reminding the various Bible teachers he's touched base with over the last few weeks. Please pray for a really good turnout at the meeting.
  • For a great Carnaval event with the young people, and particularly for a conspicuous lack of rain!
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Saturday Post -- 14/02/15

The best image I could find online of the below-mentioned jigsaw.
Deary me. McCartney's left nostril alone must've contained the 'Help' film
poster, the 'Revolver' album cover, and a Gretsch Duo Jet.
There haven't been too many ministry developments to report this week, but to be honest, it's just a relief that I'm even able to upload this week's scribblings. 

With many hundreds, or even thousands, of miles separating the overseas worker and loved ones back home, the importance of communications can be keenly felt. One of the fascinating aspects of the on-off relationship I've had with this unique country over 15 years has been to witness developments in this area.

Of course, back in September 2000, I didn't exactly set off for Bolivia on a cargo ship from Southampton, waving a handkerchief to a family whom I never knew when I'd see again. Things weren't that bad (though it wasn't too long ago, of course, that such a scene was perfectly normal). But the adjustments required for an 18-year-old, well into the internet age, were not insignificant. The postal service was sluggish and unreliable. My Mum sent me a Beatles jigsaw for Christmas that year, opting for land mail given the bulk of the package. It arrived some time in mid-April. My Dad kindly bought me a subscription to a weekly digest of a British newspaper, specially put together for ex-pats. The enjoyment of reading this was largely dictated by how much of the past three weeks' news I was able to forget.

Not that that was too hard, given that the only 'international' TV news source here was CNN, and the internet had only just got off to a sluggish start. A five-minute wait for pages to load was pretty much par for the course. The phrase, 'I'm going to check my email' was never so accurate (one email was about as much as you could cover in a session!).

As for phones, forget about it. Calls cost a small fortune and the line was beset with a five-second delay as standard, which proved particularly problematic one December day. That same Christmas as Jigsawgate, Dad (they really do mean well, my parents!) brought a conference phone home from his office so that the 20 or so family members jammed into my parents' house could take it in turns to wish me a happy Christmas. I got the distinct impression that Dad's good cheer extended only so far when it came to the phone bill, and I'll forever have in my head the imaginary image of him standing there by the phone, in Alex-Ferguson-pointing-at-watch mode, while I asked my Grandma what she reckoned to her new games console, and my aunt Ruth what she reckoned to United's chances of silverware. 

Two years later (the summer of Amandagate), things were picking up a little, with internet cafes more prominent and dial-up speeds picking up. It was therefore something of a surprise, when we returned seven years later in January 2010, to see just how little things had come on. The postal service was worse than ever, and broadband hadn't even taken off yet.

So it was with no small delight that we came back a few weeks ago to something of a communications revolution, with internet speeds now so fast that we could stream Netflix in high definition, and I could even watch Match of the Day on iPlayer (though like the aforementioned newspaper, the thrill in this depends greatly on staying well away from sports websites till Monday night -- ouch).

It was surely too good to be true. Wasn't it? Well, while the internet speeds have shown no sign of a decline, alas the same cannot be said of customer service, which has remained reassuringly average.

I spent half of Monday (our day off) in the offices of our service provider, as our internet had cut off around lunchtime. We assumed this was down to us using up our monthly data quota, which was surprising considering we'd arranged only a week earlier for it to be doubled. In fact, I was informed that we had almost all of our allocation remaining for the month (surprising after a week's heavy use).  The problem, they suggested, was with the modem itself. Feeling like I was trapped in a pinball machine, I then made a tour of the offices, as one person after another suggested it was the-guy-over-at-that-desk's problem.

Eventually, the problem was identified, but with a slight hitch: the repair to the modem could only be authorised by Miguel-Ángel (Fundación Totaí's president) as our modem was bought in the foundation's name, at the same time as the foundation's own unit. With closing time fast approaching, I'd have to wait till the next day to get it sorted.

On Tuesday morning, the repair was authorised, and I got the modem back. So far, so good. Except that around lunchtime of that day, FT's own modem started playing up. The next morning (Wednesday), they sent that in for a repair. Amazingly, it was the same issue!

But on Wednesday afternoon, our modem started playing up again, so I had to go back in, and was told that the line hadn't been re-registered after the repair. They apologised for this, fixed the problem, and we, at least, haven't had a problem since. But FT then came down with the same issue the following day. Having thought they'd got it fixed, their internet went down completely yesterday, and no-one has any clue what's going on any more -- least of all, the service provider, it would seem! What's more, we've been poring over the monthly receipts for the past few months, and it's looking like we were charged twice for the same period. We all now suspect there has been a mix-up in the modem payments somewhere.

So the issue needs dealt with quickly in order for FT to get its communications back up and running. The only problem is: a) everything has to be done in tow with Miguel-Ángel who, as well as being the FT president, is also the dentist -- he's busy enough as it is; and b) this weekend is Carnaval, meaning no businesses are open again till Wednesday. 

I think all concern for the quality of my writing went out of the window about three paragraphs ago. Ultimately, I think the purpose of the blog this week has been to get these frustrations off my chest, in any way possible. I guess we can only hope that, like a Christmas present from Mum, fully-functioning internet will surface some day in the future. Only please let it be more straightforward than that Beatles jigsaw. It was a photo mosaic. Those things are murder.

  • Carnaval, for the uninitiated, is the pre-Lent long weekend celebrated throughout Latin America, though it makes no attempt at all to hide its distinctly non-religious activities; the very name alludes to a celebration of all things fleshly. And all things fleshly will most certainly be indulged to the max this weekend in Trinidad. Prayer appreciated.
  • As ever, the youth group will be staging their special Carnaval event this Monday, a 12-hour marathon of messy games and solid Bible teaching, with a special guest speaker coming to talk about the attributes of God, and what they mean for us. Simply for getting them out of Carnaval, the event is important, but pray for encouragement in all that the young people hear.
  • We're now both into our one-on-one discipleship routine, with Amanda meeting with Adriana during the week. Give thanks for the progress already being made there.
  • Craig spoke to two groups of pastors and church leaders during the week about the Langham Preaching course, and there seems to be a lot of interest in the course, which we're hoping will take place later this year.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Saturday Post -- 07/02/15

Daniel, Yonatán and Craig enjoyed a Bible study over breakfast (for one
week only, lads!) as they began their discipleship sessions on Friday.
Last week, we signed off by asking for prayer for me (Craig) as I looked into launching some new initiatives which I feel could be of real help to the church here in Trinidad. Well, one of these began to take shape this week.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, my year at Cornhill Scotland, with its particular focus on expository preaching, was a tremendous help in preparing me for this new stage of our time in Bolivia. As the year progressed, I became increasingly convinced of the need to teach the Bible responsibly, holistically, and clearly. And as my thoughts turned ever more to Bolivia in the latter stages of last year, I knew all too well that Bible teachers here in the Beni region would benefit greatly from such insights.

A few factors here limit good Bible teaching. Firstly, there is very little high-quality in-service training and equipping available for Bible teachers. The Beni region of Bolivia is considered something of a backwater, and so there is not much here in the way of courses and conferences; the best people tend to focus on the cities. Secondly, some pastors do not have formal training of any description; indeed, it is remarkably easy here to start a new church (which can mean that congregations don't tend to persevere through difficult times). And thirdly, education here discourages critical engagement with information, meaning that people can pretty much say what they like. In my own ministry, for example, it is a rare day indeed when I receive any feedback, simply because people are conditioned to accepting that what the Bible teacher says is right -- no need for criticism there, whether good or bad.

As I thought about this state of affairs, I decided to at least look into possible approaches to addressing it. Last year, some friends of ours had passed on contact information for Langham Partnership workers in Bolivia. Langham began in the late 1960s in a move by founder John Stott to fund scholarships for young evangelical leaders in the developing world. In the decades since, it has developed into an international ministry, and one of the strands of its work is Langham Preaching, which seeks to equip Bible teachers in the developing world to better preach from God's word. Normally, the course is taught over three annual four-day conferences. In the year following each conference, the delegates are divided into smaller groups, who meet once a month, taking turns to preach to each other and receive constructive feedback on their efforts (not at all unlike Cornhill, in that sense).

Anticipating our return to Trinidad, I made some enquiries towards the end of 2014 about the possibility of starting such a programme here. It turned out, in fact, that Langham had run a course here some years ago. The annual conferences were a smash -- but few people made the effort to meet in their small groups during the year! Regardless, my contact from Langham (based in Cochabamba) said he would still be interested in starting a new course, and I expressed my own desire to help ensure that the small groups meet regularly as required, if such assistance was required on the ground.

Now that things have settled down for us here, and we are back into something of a routine, Elías (our pastor) and I drove around town this week to gauge what kind of interest there might be in having Langham again, particularly targeting those people who haven't done the course before, and Bible teachers who are in full-time non-church work. The response was fairly positive, though people still had a few queries that I wasn't really equipped to answer as a non-Langham representative. So my contact in Cochabamba has kindly offered to come through to Trinidad towards the end of this month to meet interested parties and look into a possible launch date. As you can imagine, I'm excited to see where this is going.

Things have definitely been getting busier, as I've also made renewed inroads into ministry among the younger generation. Late last year, the youth team asked a group of older teenagers with potential to come into ministry alongside them. One of the prerequisites for participation was that they sought out weekly discipleship opportunities. Three of them approached me over the last couple of weeks, and this week I sat down with them to begin these weekly sessions. Daniel has played guitar in the church music ministry with me for a few years now and comes from a Christian home. Yonatán's family are a little more 'mixed', with both evangelical and Mormon tendencies. While the third boy, Yordy, has no Christian influence at home whatsoever. Due to restrictions on their availability, I'm meeting Yordy on Wednesday afternoons and the other two on Friday mornings. We'll be working through  a Spanish translation of 'God's Big Picture' by Vaughan Roberts, to help them get a better grasp of the Bible's overall message -- so important now in their position -- and using the rest of the time at each session to pray together.

Amanda, too, has been approached by one of the team to the same end, a girl called Adriana; we've worked with Adriana for years and have seen an amazing transformation in her since our return. However, the old Trinidad-commitment-baggage (see the fifth paragraph) lingers and Amanda has twice arranged dates to meet with her, only for Adriana not to turn up. We really want to continue to encourage Adriana, while reminding her of her new responsibilities -- a difficult balancing act! Pray for wisdom there.

Otherwise, Amanda has continued this week to plough on with her new administrative responsibilities in the Foundation. The board had their monthly meeting on Friday, and simply by dint of her new HR role, she felt much more engaged and in touch with what is going on in the wider Foundation, than she had pre-furlough when her focus was Audiology. 

Later that same day, we had our first dinner guests since coming back, in Daniel & Romina, whom we'd mentioned last week. It was fascinating to learn more about life as a Christian in Cuba. He was telling us that he has only recently come to terms with the fact that his salvation is secure -- because the possibility of losing one's salvation is taught in most denominations in Cuba, including the Baptist church of which he was a member. Daniel was particularly complimentary about our Cuban musical selection for the evening (thanks Spotify!) and the steak we picked up from a local restaurant -- we also learned that meat is still prohibited for Cuban natives under the rationing system. And we thought we appreciated the steak here!

The house was also made available, as per usual, to the young women's Bible study, who met last Sunday. Encouragingly, this wasn't a case of waiting for Amanda to come back -- they'd simply continued to meet every two weeks, taking responsibility for chairing the studies themselves. We're enjoying becoming newly acquainted with our new house (which was only finished eight months before home assignment year), and particularly aware of what a great resource it is for ministry; we pray that the Lord will look upon us wise stewards of this small example of his goodness to us.

  • For Amanda as she seeks to disciple Adriana; and for Adriana herself, that she would re-dedicate herself to the vital task of being discipled.
  • For Daniel, Yonatán and Yordy, and for Craig as he disciples them.
  • We're hoping to begin looking into adoption this week. These will probably be some very tentative first steps -- it's a long process -- but please pray for Lord's blessing upon the whole process.
  • For progress in establishing a Langham Preaching course here in Trinidad.
  • For the opportunity to get to know Daniel & Romina a little better, and open up our house to a range of people throughout the week.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda