Saturday, March 28, 2015

Saturday Post -- 28/03/15

There goes another weekend.
I've definitely had worse weeks than the seven days just past. Three points at Anfield on Sunday. Finally conquering the outrageously challenging final level of Super Mario 3D World. And then, in the early hours of Friday morning, a most pleasant surprise: a big, fat, juicy south wind tumbling its way into town.

For the benefit of the relative newcomers, south winds down here are like northerlies in Europe and North America, bringing temperatures down dramatically and generally ruining everyone's day -- except mine! With the vast majority of the year seeing temperatures well over 30 degrees, with a good deal of humidity thrown in, south winds roll in all too infrequently, but are welcomed (in this house at least) with open arms. 

The real surprise was the timing, as the peak sur season is between June and August. Not that we're complaining. With the weather particularly humid at this time of year, the mercury is already beginning to rise again. We shall savour this.

The rest of Trinidad, meanwhile, will have to wrap up well tomorrow, when they will be obliged to stand in line for the local elections, which are taking place across the country, with president Evo Morales' 'MAS' party set to sweep the board once again. Everywhere except here, of course; the Beni region has long been the sole remaining province of Bolivia impervious to Morales' unique charms. Now that we have permanent residency, we would normally be required to vote ourselves, except that no voter registration has taken place this year. So we have been granted a special exemption based on the fact that we were out of the country last year, the last time new voters were registered (to acquire this, we had to submit photocopies of the entry and exit dates on our passports). This is vital as proof of having cast one's ballot is required at a great many everyday junctures here.

Elections here also mean the country is in a state of semi-lockdown, with businesses forbidden to trade, motorists forbidden to, er, motor, and public meetings banned until the polls close at 6pm. That means that we can't have our usual church service tomorrow in the morning; instead, we'll be having our first ever Sunday evening service to mark Palm Sunday. 

Not too much else to report this week, really, so straight on to the prayer points.

  • The youth group at church are beginning a series in Hebrews 11 tonight, in which they'll be looking closely at the examples of faith cited by Professor Hebrews (as my dear old Cornhill teacher Edward Lobb refers to the New Testament's man of mystery). I will be giving the introductory talk to the whole thing. And, being true to those Cornhill roots, I'll be using it to establish the context of Hebrews 11 in the whole book (because, let's face it, the writer didn't wake up one morning and think to himself, "I'm gonna write the faith chapter to end all faith chapters!") while showing how lack of faith so often takes root when we focus on the things we see. Pray for wisdom for me and understanding for the young people.
  • Keep praying for Hernán. He is due to be operated on any day now to receive skin grafts, but surgeons are not yet sure if he is in a fit state to go under the knife.
  • Pray for stability in the country in the next couple of days as the polling booths open, and votes are cast and counted.
  • This time last week, we were setting off with the youth group for a day trip to the lake, which, alas, was also affected by the weather, with very heavy rain arriving midway through the morning. Nonetheless, we had an enjoyable time of fellowship together, and the rain dried up later on, allowing everyone a brief swim.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda Cunningham

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Saturday Post -- 21/03/15

In recent weeks, I (Craig – sorry, you’re stuck with me again) have graciously been granted a first-hand glimpse into the workings of our great God.

Those who know me will be aware that I enjoy setting myself targets now and again, in the hope of infusing my ever-hastening days with structure and purpose. During our time away in 2014, I managed to pick up a cut-price copy of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, which has already established itself as something of a classic in evangelical scholarship since its publication in 1997 (it’s also a bit of a doorstopper – handily for us, this version was in a digital format). Bearing in mind the relative lack of in-service training opportunities available to us out here, I resolved to study one chapter every Sunday afternoon upon returning to Bolivia. Thus far, I have barely dipped my toe into the first major section, on the word of God, but I already feel greatly enriched for the study.

Grudem’s work transcends the academic in its endeavour to apply Christian doctrine to the life of the reader and with this in mind, each chapter closes with a series of questions for personal application. A couple of weeks back, I noticed that, not for the first time, there was a question about how the particular doctrine of that week might challenge the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses; perhaps Grudem has previous in this area. And not for the first time, I felt unequipped to answer the question. To the best of my knowledge, at no point in my life had I had any engagement with a Jehovah’s Witness, and (probably as a result) I’d never really taken the time to study their teachings and see how they measure up with Scripture.

Having been forced to skip a JW-related question for the second week running, I felt this was perhaps a little prompting from the Lord to venture down this particular rabbit-hole. Not that I was motivated by a mere lack of ability to answer homework questions. I knew fine well that I could hardly engage such people without having first gotten to grips with the tenets of their faith. And this would potentially be of even greater benefit here in this corner of Bolivia, where the Jehovah’s Witnesses are more visible than back in the UK – not that I had yet had an opportunity to converse with one.

And so, I spent some time the following day doing some research into the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in the process learning more about the reasoning for their reading of the 144,000 in Revelation, the various day-and-date proclamations of the world’s end, and the sharply contrasting claims (with us evangelicals) as to the divinity of Jesus. I wasn’t exactly ready to write a PhD on the topic, but I certainly had a better understanding as to where they were coming from – though, if anything, I was all the more perplexed as to why anyone with half a brain would give it all more than a moment’s thought. In any case, I would be prepared to engage a Jehovah’s Witness on these issues if and when an opportunity arose.

Five days later, seemingly unrelated circumstances were taking place. I was enjoying lunch with Amanda, not so much for the food as simply the opportunity to relax for the first time last Saturday, having attended the monthly 6am joint pastors’/leaders’ meeting before setting off on the odyssey that is the Saturday Morning Shop (stepping in so that Amanda could write last week’s blog entry). But I knew that I had better make the most of my plate of pasta. In mid-afternoon, I was scheduled to attend the weekly church music group’s practice, with the youth group to follow. But seeming light years ago, when energy levels were sky-high (i.e., Tuesday) I’d pencilled in another appointment for Saturday afternoon: a visit to the hospital, where FT’s former patient Hernán, the 19-year-old quadriplegic, had recently been transferred.

One morning at the Foundation, I paid Hernán a brief visit to read Scripture and pray with him. He mentioned that he really loved films and I suggested I could maybe come round with a DVD. I never quite got round to this when he was with us at the Foundation, so I felt it was only correct that I right this wrong – hence my pledge to come and visit last Saturday.

And so, I made my way to the hospital, but practically running on empty. I resolved in the car that I’d just watch half of the film with him and come back the next weekend (i.e., today) to watch the remainder.

But, as it happens, we both rather got into the film in question, and I thought to myself, “I have time, I might as well stay till the end”. But we didn’t quite get there.

About three-quarters of the way through the film, a medical team came to carry out a routine check-up, and so, to give Hernán and his mother some privacy, I stepped outside into the corridor, only to feel a pamphlet being thrust into my open hand and unwittingly open the door for the very first time in my 32-and-a-half years to…

…a Jehovah’s Witness!

This, surely, was providence writ large. And so I politely declined the copy of the Watchtower, explained that I was a follower of Jesus Christ and (unfortunately for Hernán, it must be said!) spent the next half hour in discussion with the woman in question and her friend, taking them to verses in Scripture that clearly contradict the teaching of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I take no pride whatsoever in saying that they were unable to give satisfactory explanations; their general reaction consisted in their presenting verses to me with total disregard for their context and for biblical genres (a particular favourite was Daniel 2:44 – yet when I asked the women what the overall ‘story’ of Daniel 2 was, they could not tell me).

The discussion ended, unfortunately, with the women walking away while refusing to answer my latest question (one of them, a tad cheekily, explained to me that my being a non-native Spanish speaker was a contributing factor to my inability to understand the New World Translation!). But in the meantime, perhaps sensing the tension, ‘a crowd had gathered’. And for another half-an-hour, I held something of an impromptu Bible study with some of the onlookers, to expose the false teaching of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and point them in the way of Biblical truth as to the person of Jesus and the end times. Alas, at 6:20pm, I realised the youth group meeting was just 40 minutes away, and I would have to take my leave of these people and, of course, Hernán (turns out we’ll be finishing the film today after all).

The spring in my step as I dashed to the car was Super Mario-like. My one slight regret was that the discussion with the Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves ended so abruptly – I do hope that it was not down to any aggression on my part (I did try really hard to keep my emotions in check!). But, overall, I was simply in renewed awe of ‘the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God’ (Romans 11:23).

A few key lessons have hit home as I have digested these occurrences; I do believe they are of universal application.

1.     This chain of events was set in motion only when I became aware of my limitations. If I hadn’t studied these topics a few days earlier, I would have had little to go on in exposing the false gospel of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But this study only arose out of a deep sense of ignorance on my part. Surely this conviction was of God, and he used it to bring glory to himself.
2.     ‘Nothing in my hand I bring’. 95% of me on Saturday afternoon was saying ‘stay at home, get some rest, Hernán will understand.’ I cannot take a modicum of credit for what happened. It was all of God.
3.     The ‘part of pain and pleasure’ of recent weeks could only be fully understood at a later juncture. I sat down to study these matters in the hope that they might be of use some distant day in the future; God, meanwhile, had other plans, determining to throw me in the deep end that very week! More profoundly, what of Hernán’s circumstances, which have been documented here over the past couple of weeks? Naturally, as a church, while endeavouring to care for him as best we can, it has nonetheless been tough to have a ring-side seat on such suffering and trust that there is a purpose. It is certainly not my place to make sweeping pronouncements regarding such a sensitive topic. All I know is that, occasioned by Hernán’s situation, Saturday was my first proper visit to Trinidad’s hospital, and unbeknownst to me, God had a little missionary work lined up in its corridors.

  • Today’s entry was written yesterday – if you can get your heads round that – as this morning we’re off with the youth group to the local lake resort for a morning of fellowship. It'll mostly be a time of relaxation, but one of the leaders will also be showing them how to share the gospel using balloons! Pray for safety and for listening ears during the talk.
  • We have had one of those weeks in the house in which the proverbial rain has been of the ‘pouring’ variety. Just one thing after another to be fixed. Pray for patience and for provision to meet these costs.

  • We had another really encouraging meeting of the men’s group last night. We’re beginning a Bible study using the film ‘Courageous’. Film-buff that he is, Craig would not readily admit to usually enjoying Christian movies (speaking of Daniel, would it be overly-spiritual to say they have been artistically ‘found wanting’?)! However, as a teaching aid, it’s excellent, with themes applicable to men across all cultures, particularly touching on the responsibility for male Christian leadership at home.
  • Amanda was in need of a little mending herself over the weekend, coming down with a 48-hour stomach bug not long after she finished putting pen to paper on the blog (ominous!). Give thanks for a full recovery.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Saturday Post -- 14/03/2015

It is the time everyone has been waiting for: Craig has gone out to do the shopping this morning, leaving me with the blog post. There was a lot of wheeling and dealing to make this happen, but I think we’re both fairly happy with the change of pace. After a 6 a.m. youth leadership prayer meeting, getting to get back into bed and not having to get back out of it for grocery shopping is gift. However, now that I am sitting here having to write an entry, I’m not entirely sure what I should say… this is probably why Craig traded with me.

My problem is not that nothing happened this week, but that sometimes communicating what did happen is quite difficult. I think most people will have picked up form last week’s entry that I had a difficult week last week, and to be honest, I was quite nervous at the beginning of this week probably for the first time since coming back. I was worried if the difficult issues from last week would carry over into my personal relationships, I was worried finding wisdom in the face of some big decisions the Foundation was facing, and I was worried about my mounting level of stress.

I like doing things well; I actually would rather not do things if I can’t do them well, which is why I don’t play sports, but I guess that’s another issue entirely. However, I do recognise that this personality trait of mine isn’t always healthy. Sometimes we are asked to do things that we just have to do, and we can’t be good at everything. I have found working in HR hard because there isn’t necessarily the feedback to assure me that I am doing things even moderately well. I only know when something else has gone wrong or I have to intervene in another situation. I understand that that’s the nature of the job, but I have found myself floundering a little, wondering if I am even remotely tackling the situations in the right way.

So, back to what happened this week… I was nervous going into work this week because I knew some big decisions were coming up and I didn’t know how to go about approaching them. To give you some background, I would like to tell you about Hernan Noza. If you get the FT Facebook newsfeed updates you’ll know that Hernan is a young Christian of 19 years old that fractured his C4 & C5 in a swimming accident. Hernan is from the rural village of San Ignacio, but had to get transported to Trinidad for better medical care. At the beginning it was very touch and go about whether he would pull through or not, but he has had spinal surgery and has stabilized, though he is now a quadriplegic.  Through various contacts with missionaries and churches, Hernan’s recovery was something that many people in our church and in FT took on board as a matter of prayer, but everyone has also mustered together to support him practically as much as possible.

Hernan suffered neglect while in the local hospital and was moved around a lot before finally being invited to stay in a room in FT’s in-patient ward. Many members from our church took his medical care seriously and he was slowly able to recover from very serious bed sores that he had developed while in hospital which had become infected, and he was finally starting to receive the physiotherapy that he needed to prevent further sores. Hernan is now able to move his shoulders and he has some sense of feeling in his arms down to his wrists. Thank you to all of you who have decided to support Hernan’s recovery with extra donations specifically designated for his medical care. The family does not have the resources to be able to afford the level of medical care he requires and they are very dependent on donations from other people. If anyone would like to support Hernan, please contact LAM Canada if you are in North America or FT UK if you are in the UK.

However, Hernan’s care from an HR point of view was getting very tricky. The board of directors initially agreed to let Hernan and his family use the in-patient ward free of charge as a way to support his recovery and not one of us on the board had a problem with this. However, what we did not anticipate was how the situation would snowball so quickly. First our doctors started treating him, then we needed to use our supplies for dressing changes, we had to hire a nurse with experience in wound care, our staff nurses had to start taking care of his needs during the day, and our cleaning staff had various tasks as well… on top of all their regular responsibilities. People were getting upset that other people weren’t carrying their weight, others didn’t understand how we could possibly contemplate this without hiring more staff, others were upset at the lack of support from Hernan’s family and keeping everyone happy was getting difficult.

By the end of last week I was at my wit’s end. I had no idea what to do. I recognised that what we were doing to support Hernan and his family was important and necessary as we are called to uphold prayerfully and practically the needs of our family in Christ. However, I was also so conscious that pushing our staff, especially our staff that still do not have a personal faith in Christ, to the brink of sanity was not showing them the love of God that I so desperately want to show people. That was the whole reason I took on this role in HR: evangelising our staff first and foremost. The tension between the two goals were becoming hard to balance and I felt that many others that I work with here maybe were not seeing that tension like I was. Some board members were working really closely with the family and saw things from their perspective, others looked at the situation in a purely medical frame of mind, while I was dealing with our own staff and their needs. This week the board had to have a very hard conversation and it was really tough that we weren’t all seeing eye to eye on various points regarding this issue. I felt very young, inexperienced and out of my depth.

And then God stepped in. Unbeknownst to us, the hospital where Hernan was staying before coming to us finally decided to take responsibility for the neglect he received while on their care and decided to try to organise a skin graft that he needs for his serious bed sores free of charge. On Tuesday, Hernan’s mother decided to move him back to Hospital Trinidad and it all kind of happened suddenly, actually while we, the board, were in our monthly meeting. From a medical perspective we are not entirely sure if this is the best decision, but the family made the call and we have to respect that. The hospital where Hernan is now staying are taking care of his medical care, but are not providing medicines or materials, so FT is still in charge of coordinating the donations received and buying the things he needs for his treatment. However, from an HR perspective, this was the breather the Foundation really needed and I was so relieved I teared up in the meeting. That might sound horrible, because of course I want the best for Hernan, who is a really sweet, but very scared young man who needs a lot of support, I just didn’t know how to juggle everyone’s needs anymore. The burden that I felt lift from not just me, but the whole situation, was palpable. The board actually turned to one another and said, “Well, guess God took care of that.”

Hernan’s skin graft is looking less likely in Trinidad. The surgeon here has decided, once Hernan had already switched hospitals, that he doesn’t want to operate because Hernan has anaemia. There is the possibility of having the skin graft done in Cochabamba by a Doctor there who seems willing, but the costs involved in that would be a lot higher. In the future, there might be a move to a rehab facility in Sucre, but the situation has not arrived at that point yet. I have been by twice this week to see him and he seems quite bored and lonely in the new hospital as he gets fewer visitors than when he was surrounded by the FT community. Craig is going to swing by this afternoon and try and watch a film with him, so we’ll see how that goes.

While my week from this point on was no less busy, the evidence of God’s intervention in such a stressful situation was exactly the encouragement I needed.

Craig talks about himself most of the time when he writes the blog, right? So I figure you don’t need to know much about what he did this week. Well, maybe I’ll tell you a little. He actually got up with me at 5:30 this morning to go to a prayer meeting of his own; a pastor’s and leader’s prayer meeting in Trinidad. However, his prayer meeting came with breakfast, mine did not. I ate a leftover brownie for breakfast instead and now my stomach hurts. Sigh… Craig also had various discipleship sessions this week, he met with Elias and they went over 2 Peter together looking at overall themes for the church’s next preaching topic, and in his free time he got completely stuck in Super Mario World 3D.

Rest assured Craig should be back next week… I’m sure his post will be funnier and make reference to things that generally go over my head.

  • Hernan Noza and his continued recovery. Please prayer not just for physical healing, but spiritual growth and a sense of peace. His family are also not believers, please pray that they are introduced to God's grace and love through their interaction with His people in Trinidad. 
  • Staff interactions - now that some of the pressure has been removed, the staff are settling back down again, but there might be some lingering bad feelings and underlying issues between people that were present before Hernan arrived.
  • God's intervention when all earthly wisdom fled us - as explained above.
  • A productive week for both Craig and I in our various jobs - Craig is time managing his life months in advance, and as I can't do that, I can only watch in awe. 
  • Good discipleship sessions with various young people for both.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig and Amanda 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Saturday Post -- 07/03/15

Last night at around a quarter past eleven, some seventeen hours since horizontality, and as I applied a little more elbow grease to the last plate's pizza residue, I thought to myself, "Back in Scotland, when visualising what this new stage in Bolivia would look like, it would have looked awfully like today."

In the morning, I met with Daniel and Yonatán for their weekly discipleship session, half an hour earlier than planned, at 8:30am, to accommodate some last-minute changes to Daniel's diary. A couple of years ago, we would have had to scrap the whole thing due to the fact that I would have had to attend Fundación Totaí's morning staff meeting, which takes place around the same time. And while I do still try to make it there most days, the fact that my only real work for FT now is in supporter communications means that I am under no obligation to attend, and can be much more flexible in the mornings. And as anyone who's read this blog with any frequency can attest, flexibility is an important commodity in Bolivia.

It was another terrific session with the boys, during which we worked through the next part of our Spanish translation of 'God's Big Picture' by Vaughan Roberts -- a text I strongly recommend, by the way, if you struggle in your Bible reading to see the macro for the micro; so easy to read, too. Resources of the calibre of 'God's Big Picture' just don't exist here, and naturally, the boys are lapping it up. It's a joy to guide them through these vitally important concepts for understanding Scripture.

Finished by 10am, I was free to head over to FT (just a five-minute walk from our house) and the office which has kindly been lent to me in the mornings. There, I took care of some more church business, writing out music for a new song, preparing for the men's ministry launch that evening, and sitting down with a church member and FT worker to discuss something that had come up in the church leadership meeting the night before.

With everything pretty much in place for the evening's activity, and having worked morning, afternoon and evening since Tuesday (Monday being our day off), I was able to afford myself a few hours of relaxation in the afternoon, during which I touched base with a former Cornhill colleague via Skype. Since coming back, I have set up a network of four friends from the UK, who vary in age and background but who also share a passion for the gospel. They have each agreed to meet online for about an hour once a month, which in turn means that I can get a bit of encouragement most weeks. I hope they can too. The effort it took for me to set all of this up has already paid great dividends.

Weather permitting, Friday late-afternoon usually sees me running podcast-assisted laps on the track at the nearby stadium (I try to do the same time on Mondays and Wednesdays too). Exercise is another important tool I have in maintaining personal sanity, and Fridays are particularly anticipated, what with the Guardian Football Weekly/Kermode & Mayo double-bill.

I then had a couple of hours to make myself socially acceptable again, before the first motorcycles revved up the driveway for the church's first official men's ministry meeting (the front garden soon resembled a two-wheeler garage). We enjoyed some Wii U, the half-dozen pizzas that one of the group had specially made with his wife, and a whole lot of blokey banter, before I gave a short talk I'd prepared about how the world's perceptions of manhood conflict with what God has to say on the topic, prompting a short discussion before we wound things up at around 10:30pm. There was a general acceptance among the group that strong male spiritual leadership both in the home and in church (with the latter's activities all too often encroaching on the former) too easily becomes something for which we eschew our God-given responsibility. I'm very excited to see where this ministry takes our church.

But just to keep our feet on the ground, Amanda's afternoon yesterday could hardly have been more deflating. As has been mentioned here before, she's now in charge of Human Resources at FT and just needs a bit of assurance now and again that she's doing her job well, particularly as she's not been trained in it. Anyone who knows Amanda will know that she most certainly is; the discouragement comes when positive results are not all that forthcoming. 

What with Google translate and other such tools, this is not the place to go into details about what happened yesterday, but I'll try to hit the main notes. Essentially, she had a long-arranged meeting with members of the health staff, most of whom were not Christians. And for most of the meeting she had to walk a tightrope: laying down discipline where required, due to some grumbling about the working conditions; but endeavouring at all times to do this in a way which maintained her own, and FT's, Christian witness. 

The meeting was made particularly difficult by the fact that one of the participants was asked by Amanda to adapt their working method a little to help the others and staunchly refused. This was especially hard to take from the one member of the group who is a believer; indeed, the person in question plays an active role in our church and is someone we would generally consider to be a good friend. The loneliness of leadership, in a nutshell.

A great contrast in experiences, then, yesterday, and not in any way untypical of an average day here; Amanda has had to support me through some challenging days too. As individuals who are not always the most stable, emotionally and mentally, we in no way take for granted the great gift that God has given us to stand strong when such circumstances arise: each other.

  • It's been mentioned here before, but particularly in the light of experiences like yesterday's, please keep Amanda and this new work of hers in your prayers. The FT board (on which Amanda sits) are also dealing with a few weighty matters just now and have their monthly meeting this coming week. Wisdom required by the bucketful!
  • We had a really encouraging members' meeting at the church on Wednesday night, where the leaders (including Craig) put forward proposals to alter the programme. It is possible for a church member at the moment to attend up to six meetings a week, and while we're glad that such a range of services are available, most people quite understandably can't make it out to everything, and attendance has taken a hit. So we've dropped one of the two midweek meetings -- we'll now alternate the prayer meeting and the Bible study on Thursday nights -- and are going to drop the communion service the first Sunday of the month to incorporate it into the family service. There was a generally positive response, and some constructive discussion too as to the overall direction of the church.
  • For the men's meeting last night; an encouraging start.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda