Saturday, October 24, 2015

Saturday Post -- 24/10/15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Saturday Post -- 17/10/15

“Those who honour me I will honour…” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Saturday Post -- 10/10/15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Saturday Post -- 3/10/15

No time for a literary masterpiece this week, as it's all systems go for the marriage course. Andrew & Ruth's arrival in Trinidad had 'Welcome to Bolivia' written all over it. We were glad on Wednesday morning to hear that they had arrived safely in Santa Cruz, where they would stay a night before travelling on to Trinidad. But we were then advised by a friend that the airport here might be shut for a few days for runway relaying! We got in touch with the airline, who confirmed it would be next week, mercifully. Andrew & Ruth are certainly on a mission to get their hands dirty, but even they might have found the experience of the overnight bus a little too exotic at this stage.

So, there we were on Thursday morning on the viewing balcony of Trinidad, waiting for the flight to arrive any minute now. Well, it at least appeared. Twice within the space of ten minutes, in fact, it approached only to abort the landing due to visibility (i.e., there was a bit of rain). The flight was eventually diverted to Cochabamba, and it wasn't until mid-afternoon that we finally greeted them. Anyway, they are now safely ensconced in the big T and have been a great help so far, whether visiting orphanages, washing dishes, or fixing electric car windows (no kidding). But the real work begins today as we begin to put the finishing touches to the planning for the course.

Edwin (left) leading a workshop.
That's not really been possible till now as I've had to balance something of a double-booking, but in reality, it's been a double blessing. Edwin Fernández of Langham Preaching Bolivia also arrived on Thursday for the first follow-up visit to Trinidad, with a group meal scheduled for Thursday evening, and a joint escuelita (the groups in which we preach to one another, quite literally) on Friday. On Thursday, Edwin shared an exposition with us on the healing of the deaf and mute man in Mark 7, in which he drew out the notion of the man being able to 'speak well' instantly, and how there is a close link in the passage between his hearing and his speaking (you can get where he was going). And once the two sermons for the month were out of the way at Friday's escuelita, he spent some valuable time reinforcing good preaching practice with the group.

But amongst our busyness, I've also been able to spend some time with him, and he has been attentive in dealing with some questions I had about the course in general, and some issues we are having in the church. He's here till Monday morning, and we're very much looking forward to his sermon this Sunday at our church. 

I'm afraid that's it for this week. Amanda needs groceries, Andrew needs a haircut, and I need my breakfast.

  • The encouragement of the visits this week has been counterbalanced by some very difficult conversations Amanda and I have had to have with the couple mentioned last week (they both work at FT, and she is a church member). This has been hugely draining and yet we're still not sure the penny has dropped for them in terms of the damage they are doing to both the church and FT as institutions, and their own witness. Please pray for the kind of heart change that only the LORD can bring about.
  • For the marriage course, which starts this Monday evening at 19:30 (more details in last week's entry).
  • For the blessing it is to have both Andrew & Ruth, and Edwin, among us right now.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda