Saturday, May 30, 2015

Saturday Post -- 30/05/15

An impromptu photoshoot up at Cristo de la Concordia
Last year as we visited one church after another to report on our work, I tended to dust down the same line to describe the topography of the Beni region: "The street on which this building sits has a greater incline than anything in the Beni for hundreds of miles." And I wasn't exaggerating. It's gotten to the stage now that, when we're out in the car and we approach an elevated bridge on the road, we're practically reaching for the sick bucket just in case, so accustomed have we become to the flatness around us.

But our travels around Scotland last year also confirmed that our hearts were in the Highlands, and so, when the opportunity arose to visit some friends in Cochabamba, we enthusiastically headed for the high lands.

Feeding time in the main plaza.
Cochabamba is known in Bolivia as 'the city of the eternal spring' and is widely considered to have Bolivia's best, least punishing climate. Sitting at an elevation of 2,500 metres, the air is permanently fresh and the sky (almost) permanently blue, with daytime temperatures never reaching any higher than around 25 celsius and the nights offering a pleasing coolness. It is rather like a less exacting La Paz (altitude: 3,650 metres), and unlike Bolivia's de facto capital, the hills are mostly restricted to the surrounding valley ('shop till you drop' would not be an unfair tagline for La Paz's souvenir district).

John 14:6 and 15:12 are inscribed on the Bible.
Since the mid-1990s, Cochabamba's most famous landmark is the Cristo de la Concordia statue, which towers above the city and (gospel illustration ahoy!) is pretty much unavoidable wherever you are, even confronting you as you leave the airport. There is a walkway to the top of the 265-metre hill, but given that visitors are confronted with a sign saying 'In order to avoid getting mugged, we recommend not to use the stairs', I took one look at my bulging camera case and plumped for the cable-car instead. We were rewarded for our, er, efforts, with great views over the city. The statue, by the way, is a full four metres taller than its far more famous Brazilian counterpart, though seemingly Poland have recently taken the whole Christ-statue thing to whole new levels; mind you, it only beats Bolivia's because they ingeniously gave him a three metre-high crown.

Just to reiterate my response to one of my Facebook friends, no, these
are not bullet-holes.
The city itself is perfectly acceptable, though for an area of such outstanding natural beauty, the centre does not really distinguish itself. A couple of pretty plazas are basically all you get. That aside, the sprawl of shops and markets wasn't much different from what you'll find in Trinidad (albeit on a much bigger scale). In fairness, though, Bolivia's major cities are all largely devoid of architectural fascination, with the glowing exception of Sucre (much smaller, though still the official capital), where colonial architecture is all around, and the buildings, by law, have to be painted white once a year (told you it was glowing). 

Another view of the city.
Did we care? Not as long as we had a plate of fresh sushi/chicken wings/crepes/burgers/pizza in front of us. Which we often did, and mostly do not in Trinidad, due to lack of availability/resemblance to the dictionary definition of said platters. Let's just say that by Monday morning, I was seriously considering re-sending my measurements to the kilt-hire shop for my sister's upcoming nuptials.

With the McColls.
And such dining experiences were mostly enjoyed, of course, in the company of friends old and new(ish). Of course, we spent much of that time with our hosts, David & Jennifer McColl, whom we had been determined to visit before their looming exit from Bolivia. Dave and Jenn are something of a curiosity for us, having charted a not inconsiderably similar path to our own as a couple (which wasn't exactly normal in the first place). Dave, just like me, came out to Trinidad many years ago for a gap-year. He then, just like me, returned several years later, whereupon he met Jenn, a Canadian on a summer team. They were married in Toronto in 2012 and now Jenn, a first-generation Canuck, is blessed with a top-drawer Scottish husband. Just like Amanda.

So we all had a most enjoyable time catching up with each other while comparing and contrasting family-culture-clash experiences. And speaking of mixed marriages, we spent en evening in the company of Eduardo & Rachel Rojas. Eduardo, you may remember, is my contact from Langham Bolivia; indeed, that preaching conference begins this coming Thursday (see below). We had hosted Eduardo for a brief visit to Trinidad in February and were delighted to meet him and get to know his American wife, Rachel (in one of the several restaurants Eduardo had recommended to us, naturally). 

(L-R) Paulo, Ruddy and Enoc.
Cochabamba is also now the base for several young people from our own church, who have gone there to pursue work and/or studies. At church on Sunday morning we touched base with four of them: Ruddy and Paulo (Miguel-Ángel's sons), Alan (Elías's stepson) and Enoc, and a more tight-knit bunch of mates you would struggle to find. The four are now in their early-to-mid-20s, and we were greatly encouraged to touch base with them and see how they are maturing in their faith. 

Alan accompanied us on a pleasant walk last
Indeed, something we will be praying for is for someone in Cochabamba to fill Dave's shoes, as his living room has become something of a home-from-home for them, not least for Sunday afternoon FIFA sessions. The quartet came round for a barbecue on Sunday evening and as we caught up, it was evident just how much they look up to Dave as an older believer. 

Perhaps I should go and take up the mantle. Or perhaps I'm just looking for any excuse to breathe that fresh mountain air again. A fine little break.

  • It was back to the grindstone on Tuesday and, in the evening, a meeting with the Langham committee, where we received confirmation that, in fact, we will be getting fed at the conference (see last week's PDF update)! There are still a few final details to iron out before Thursday, so we would appreciate your prayers for the coming days. In terms of the schedule, the bus leaves Trinidad early afternoon on Thursday, to arrive at the retreat centre later that afternoon, when the first teaching session will take place. There is teaching all the way until the final session on Sunday afternoon, though there are plenty of breaks in between as well. Please pray that the event would be of help to the participants in their work of teaching and preaching,  that positive new relationships would be formed, and that the event's impact would last beyond the weekend
  • Amanda is once again in charge of the teaching tonight at the youth group, looking at Moses. It's her last teaching slot before our break in July; pray that she might finish well!
  • Dr. López, the Foundation's ENT surgeon, saw his last patient yesterday after two years of service here. His prospective replacement is attending to a little necessary housekeeping before he can begin work with us. Pray that this might go smoothly.
  • For a refreshing, energising, encouraging long weekend in Cochabamba. 
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Saturday Post -- 16/05/15

My time last year at Cornhill Scotland yielded several benefits: practical tools to aid me as a preacher; deep and meaningful fellowship four days a week; a piece of paper with my name on it. But better than all of these was that at 32 years of age, I finally learned how to read the Bible.

Indeed, I was struck pretty early on by the realisation that, though I obviously regarded the Bible as a unique text, my approach to it was often uniquely stupid!

Behind any text, whether it be a WhatsApp message, a newspaper report, or a journal article, the writer is attempting to convey a meaning. I may come away from it with a range of thoughts as to what I may do with this information -- indeed, I may even disagree with it -- but I have no right to decide for myself the meaning that was being conveyed. So, if Amanda asks me to pick up some lettuce on the way home, I may have wished the message said 'ribeye steak', but if I turn up at home with aforementioned cow-cut, I won't get away with saying, "this is what lettuce means for me".

And yet, this is precisely what we as Christians so often do with a text we supposedly regard with such esteem as to consider it 'God's word'. "I think this means," or, "What this is saying to me", are phrases with which we have become all too comfortable in Bible study groups. As a young man, in evangelical circles, I was often encouraged to read the Bible "to find out what God was saying to me today". To which thinking, the venerable Dick Lucas has replied, "It wasn't written to you, stupid".

(to which I would also add, "It wasn't written about you"; if the Bible is God's self-revelation, then it follows that the enriching information we seek is primarily about him, and not me)

None of this, of course, is to say that the Bible is not 'living and active', or that all Scripture is not 'useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness'. Rather, what I learned at Cornhill is that, if anything, we blunt the Bible's message to us today by losing sight of what the likes of Moses, Isaiah, Mark and Paul were conveying, in the Spirit, to their original readers.

Respecting the Bible book and its author by, for example, investigating the cultural context, picking up on repeated words and phrases, giving consideration to the structure of the text as a whole, is an infinitely rewarding task. You will think again about asking to have 1 Corinthians 13 read out at your wedding when your realise that Paul was demonstrating how genuine love stood in stark contrast to the wretched behaviour of the supremely arrogant Christians at Corinth. 

And yet, I can well understand how we have come to such a point. For one thing, it demonstrates just how firm a grip post-modernism now has on our thinking. And, more practically speaking, such an approach necessarily demands of us time, effort and brain-power.

Which is why, though generally buoyed by my studies last year, I had some reservations at the back of my mind about helping people here to read the Bible in a more responsible way. This is not a culture which generally encourages people to engage with information; the range of material available for reading is limited and expensive anyway. And though Trinidad is relatively relaxed as a city, young people in particular are now armed with smartphones and assume that their gratification will be increasingly instantaneous; not exactly fertile ground for encouraging in-depth study.

However, I am becoming increasingly convinced that my supposedly well-founded doubts did not so much reflect my experience of life in Bolivia as my lack of faith in Scripture's trans-national sufficiency, and the Holy Spirit's 'translation' work across cultures.

Because, since coming back, having given these matters renewed emphasis in our preaching, teaching and other discipleship strands, we have seen a tremendously positive response from the church, with our brothers and sisters taking pleasure in attending to a need that they may not have realised existed (just like me last year); such enthusiasm is natural, as to do so is to begin to understand the meaning of the truth (John 17:17). 

This was evidenced on Thursday evening as I began the series of twice-monthly studies in the Spanish translation of 'Dig Deeper' (here's the Amazon link: it's well worth your time and your tenner) which, in a nutshell, teaches principles I learned at Cornhill in a concise and easy-to-read fashion. Each chapter furnishes the reader with a 'tool' to apply to their reading of a Biblical text (such as author's purpose, structure or genre), with a simple explanation as to its application. 

Thursday's session was very much introductory, as we began to consider the pitfalls of reading the Bible subjectively, and then think about what it means for us for the Bible to be both a divine and human book. And the turnout well exceeded my expectations, with double the numbers we would normally get at our Bible study (I would reiterate my suspicion of the numbers-game in church; I share such information to reflect the passion that exists in the church for this topic, something for which I am thankful). And judging by the several absentees who have approached me in the last couple of days asking for the relevant photocopies so that they can catch up, the response from the attendees has been very positive.

So we'd appreciate your continued prayers as we seek to establish such principles at the core of our Bible reading in church, and please give thanks with us, too, as in re-discovering Scripture's awesome sufficiency, we echo these fine words of Timothy Dudley-Smith:

Lord, for that word, the word of life which fires us,
speaks to our hearts and sets our souls ablaze,
teaches and trains, rebukes us and inspires us:
Lord of the word, receive your people's praise.

  • For Amanda, who tonight will be teaching the youth about Jacob, with a particular emphasis on what Hebrews 11 has to say about the old scallywag.
  • Amanda has had another really encouraging week of staff interviews, with further opportunities to get to know the personnel better, disciple the believers, and share something of Jesus with the rest.
Finally, we will, God-willing, be in Cochabamba next weekend, visiting friends and enjoying a few days out of Trinidad. The blog, therefore, will be getting a well-earned rest (not so sure about its authors), but expect normal service to be resumed -- hopefully with pictures -- on the 30th.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Saturday Post -- 09/05/15

A group photo featuring many of last Sunday evening's participants.
That's Diego standing behind me as I do my 'human-tyrannosaurus-rex'
impersonation. Gotta love those wide-angle lenses.
A very busy week here for both of us, but plenty of positives to be mined from it as we look back.

Last Sunday evening saw the church mark its tenth anniversary with a meal and a time of thanksgiving for the Lord’s faithfulness over the last decade. We were somewhat forced into the timing (we don’t usually have services on a Sunday evening) by the by-election that day, having originally planned for a lunch, which is the big meal of the day here. However, with a day-long curfew imposed here for non-ballot-related activities until 6pm, people’s desperation to get out of the house probably helped us in the end, with a good number of church attenders’ relatives coming along too. Free food isn’t too much of a hard-sell either.

This week also saw the beginning of the church’s new programme, words which all too often spell doom for one’s family and social life, except in our case, it meant fewer meetings and activities, with the Tuesday evening meeting dropped, and a single midweek meeting on Thursday; it will alternate between a prayer meeting and a Bible study. We’d also opted to push the start-time back by 30 minutes to give people more time to get themselves ready (with the siesta splitting the work-day, and many schools open only in the afternoons, a lot of people don’t get home till around 7pm).

I’m very cautious of the numbers game in church – the most important things for us, indeed, are invisible – but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that prayer meeting attendance is a telling indicator as to the seriousness with which a church body takes its faith. And so, we were greatly encouraged to see a much higher turnout than usual, as we prayed for each other and for post-earthquake Nepal.

I took on a new discipleship case this week, albeit an old face. Long-time readers may remember Diego who, with his brother Daniel, have been a part of the music ministry here with me since their early-teens. Diego takes his piano-playing seriously, and he was one of the first faces we saw when we returned in January, having moved to Santa Cruz to begin a music degree at university. Sadly, about a month ago, he was forced to return to Trinidad due to some quite stunning ineptitude on the university’s part. 

Bloodied, but unbowed, Diego has enrolled in a similar (if lesser) course here in the last few weeks, while he has been around the church once again with his family. Diego has great potential (he even preached a couple of times last year) and so I thought it would be of help to him to offer discipleship for a couple of hours each week as he seeks the Lord’s will for his life. As with others I’m discipling right now, we’ll be working through Vaughan Roberts’ tremendous ‘God’s Big Picture’.

Such ‘one-on-one’ time is an increasingly prominent part of our work here as we seek to establish a mature church, and it’s played a big part in Amanda’s FT work over the past few weeks as well, as part of her HR director role. Every six months, the staff here are required to complete a fairly thorough appraisal, either of the Foundation itself or of their own work. Amanda has then been tasked with sitting down with each member of staff to talk in more depth about their responses. This time, the focus was the Foundation, and so Amanda’s been able to go back to the other board members with some revealing insights from staff members as to the way things are done. But, in a fair few cases, it has also proven a great opportunity for Amanda to simply get to know the individuals better, and even, in the case of one or two, explain the gospel message in more detail than is usually possible in the morning devotional time.

And keeping the Foundation’s eyes on the eternal picture has increasingly been a concern of the board, with a number of big decisions over the last few weeks reminding Amanda and her colleagues of the need for greater prayerfulness. With that in mind, a ‘Prayer for FT’ evening was scheduled for Friday evening. My own involvement with FT is now limited to communication with supporters, with church work really my main focus since the turn of the year; essentially, I get office-space there, and that’s about it. But I am all too aware of the needs that exist, and so I was thrilled – for Amanda and for FT as a whole – to see so many staff and family members come last night simply to pray. I doubt we were the only ones who left last night consumed by a thought that is often uppermost in my mind whenever I dust off my knees after some quality time before the throne of grace: why don’t we do this more often?

  • This Thursday sees the first Bible study of the new programme, where we're going to be working through the Spanish translation of 'Dig Deeper', a terrific little book that helps people understand how to read and teach the Bible better. We have asked that anyone in any kind of teaching role in the church be present, and of course it will be open to anyone else who is interested. Please pray that the church would see the importance of taking the time to understand what God has revealed to us.
  • One of the big issues the FT board are facing is the resignation of our ENT specialist, who will be leaving at the end of the month. Pray for wisdom as they seek a replacement.
  • Please pray also for the planning for the proposed Langham preaching course at the beginning of June. Craig met with the other members of the planning committee this week, having received word of another (much bigger) event that has recently been organised for Trinidad's pastors over the same weekend. We've opted to go ahead with our preparation nonetheless, as the arrangements are already in place, and our numbers will likely pale in comparison with those of the other event anyway; please pray for understanding from others, that we would not be seen to be 'rocking the boat' in any way.
  • For the spirit of prayerfulness that has come about in recently -- and particularly in the last week -- at FT.
  • For the Lord's faithfulness to the church over the last ten years.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Saturday Post -- 02/05/15

Hernán and mother, Zonia.
If you subscribe to FT's Facebook page, you will have picked up on the news earlier in the week that Hernán passed away on Sunday evening.

As mentioned a couple of weeks back, the two of us had begun doing a Bible study together, with Friday afternoon being our agreed time. As it turned out, I spent most of the afternoon touring Trinidad's pharmacies in order to get my hands on some medicine that he needed. He had caught a fever, and was in no shape to cope with the rigours of study, lying on his side with his eyes glazed over in pain. I hoped to return the next day, but not for the first time in past weeks, as one medical worker after another passed through his room, I was struck by the dreadfulness of the condition this 19-year-old found himself in.

In the end, that turned out to be the last I saw of him. His mother let me know over the phone on Saturday that his condition was no better, and on Sunday morning Elías informed the church that things had deteriorated further. Amanda and I were relaxing in front of the TV on Sunday evening when we received word of his passing.

Here in Bolivia, the first thing to do in the event of a friend's death is to find out where the wake is, and head there directly; for a culture which can be laid-back at the best of times, such occasions are organised with remarkable haste. So at 11pm, we found ourselves gathered with friends and family in a small church, his casket front and centre, as the rest of us sat quietly while being offered refreshments (it's also customary to bring food here). 

Normally, the internment would go ahead the following day, but with many family members having to travel from the village of San Ignacio (about four hours' drive west), it didn't take place till Tuesday morning. Amanda and I had agreed to transport mourners to the funeral, which usually means turning up at the wake venue and then joining the caravan of vehicles which will trundle along slowly to Trinidad's cemetery. This time, however, the caravan took an unexpected turn into Trinidad's central plaza, with the hearse (or, more accurately, black flat-bed truck) parked outside the cathedral. It turned out Hernán's father had requested a Requiem Mass.

The non-Catholics among us sat on the benches for about 40 minutes before the casket emerged and was re-placed in the truck for its final journey. Upon arriving at the cemetery, I was handed a guitar that someone had sourced and asked to accompany some hymns, including 'When the Roll is Called up Yonder' and 'Because He Lives'. This would normally take place during the internment but, as it was raining heavily, we did this at the entrance to the cemetery where there is the shelter of a high roof. Finally, the party embarked on the ten-minute walk to arrive at the corner of the cemetery where Hernán's hole-in-the-wall was located. And, as is increasingly customary here, the silence was only broken by a strange mix of hearty wails and mobile phones being answered.

The official mourning process here takes place so quickly that it is only afterwards that one can really start contemplating what has just happened, and inevitably the, "Why, God?" questions have surfaced in our minds this week, with such a vital flame being snuffed out so suddenly. 

Of course, we may not know all the answers to those questions in the near future, or even in this life. But we trust there is a purpose, and have seen hints of that during the last three months. For a young church such as ours, Hernán's illness was a great proving-ground for the quality of our compassion for others (especially during the time he spent at FT) and Amanda and I were continually taken aback by the exceeding generosity of the church membership. But this wasn't simply a case of passing a bucket around to raise funds. Rather, our brothers and sisters were continually visiting Hernán and individually providing for specific needs, whether helping with his physio, or making food for the family.

Ours was not the only church to rally around the cause, and although Hernán had a casual church connection, he probably had more exposure to pastors and parishioners in his final months as he did in the 19 preceding years. We don't know if he had made a commitment before this stage, but it was clear from conversations that Elías and I had with him in the final weeks that his trust, by this point, was in the Lord.

The great sadness of this time, however, is that, as Amanda put it to me earlier this week, being on the receiving end of such an injury in a place like Trinidad is something of a death-sentence in itself. Never mind the total lack of societal infrastructure to cope with the reality of disability; accounts of Hernán's 'care' that have emerged from his time in hospital have been truly eyebrow-raising. Thus, we mourn his passing but we are also thankful that he is truly 'in a better place'. That's a phrase that we western Christians are at times perhaps guilty of uttering with a touch of glibness; some of us are so content with this life that we secretly worry about the 'quality of life' to come. No chance of that here.

  • Naturally, we would ask that you remember Hernán's family in your prayers. They, too, have had great exposure to gospel workers in this time. Pray that they would be comforted, and that they would feel the impact of such visits in the days to come.
  • Sunday sees a second round of the by-election, meaning that we cannot meet as a church during the day. However, we will be getting together once again in the evening to share a meal together and give thanks for the Lord's faithfulness over the church's ten years of existence.
  • After a month of waiting, the Langham committee finally received word this week that the retreat centre we had requested had been granted to us for the proposed four-day preaching conference in early June (the civil service here is intensely political, and so the recent spate of elections was a factor in dragging out this process). The planning committee, which Craig heads up, will be meeting this week to discuss final preparations; prayer appreciated for that.
  • Finally, for the non-Facebookers, here are some pictures of the latest addition to the Cunningham clan. Genghis (who, like older brother Arturo, is named after a great warrior-king; it only seemed right) is six weeks old and enjoys car rides, taking power-naps on his Costa Rica towel, and chewing on fingers which he thinks are teats. We're looking forward to seeing how this one turns out. 

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda