These days, as sure as the day ends with a ‘y’, a tradition you can set your watch by in the British sports media is the annual league table predictions, particularly in the top flights. Most outlets wheel out their big-name pundits around early August, with the remit of looking in to their proverbial crystal balls and foretelling the order of the Premier League nine months later. A fool’s errand, if ever there were one, and thus one that, come May, tends to yield no shortage of fuel for wanton mockery; and that, of course, is a British tradition that predates football by centuries. The folly of such predictions was exposed most ferociously by the events of the 2015/16 season, as those who remember Gary Linker’s appearance on Match of the Day that balmy August evening will remember with no shortage of fondness/queasiness.
All of this comes to mind most forcefully as I look back on a blog entry from January 2015. Like this, it was the first for many months; also like this, we used it to outline our plans for our new term in Bolivia. To save you a long read, the main gist was that we were going to avoid getting sucked back into old habits of trying to spin too many plates at once; this we hoped to do by thinking more clearly about where our gifts and passions were better used, rather than where there was a need to be met at all.
Well, it was a good idea while it lasted. One of my own plans, for example, was to lay aside the music ministry, where I was certainly gifted, but where my enthusiasm was running low, and also where – to the best of my knowledge – there were plenty of others who had done a decent enough job without me during my year away from the field. This masterplan went out the window within, er, just a couple of days of setting foot in Bolivia. Indeed, we were not even back in Trinidad yet! We had been met by one of the church’s musicians shortly after getting off the plane at Santa Cruz, en route home. He wasted no time in telling me how greatly the ministry had deteriorated without me, and so I capitulated.
(As it happens, I’ve had a similar experience this time, though I hope I’ve demonstrated greater resistance. Within 24 hours of arriving in Santa Cruz, someone from Trinidad texted me to ask if the English classes – which God firmly closed the door on last year – were beginning again. When I replied, saying, “Sorry, but I won’t be teaching English any more,” my contact said, “And why not?” I opted to leave that question unanswered.)
So I am mightily aware of the pitfalls of this endeavour. But I hope that, this time around, with lessons learned, this will not be so much an exercise in predictions, as plans (though I use that term with caution: there is, of course, much about the next few years that our gracious Heavenly Father, in his wisdom, has chosen not to reveal to us yet). A big reason for this is that, after a period of prayer and reflection during our time away, we informed the relevant locals of the main changes to our ministry some months ago, giving them time to digest these developments and plan for the future.
This is a little counterintuitive for our friends in Bolivia, as the response from one or two individuals to this news demonstrated. Regular readers will be aware that, as a culture, the Bolivians have much to teach us westerners about responding to the needs of others: in a crisis, no matter the seeming scarcity of resources, needs are met and no questions are asked. This is fundamentally a good thing. But in ministry, this becomes more problematic where there is no gifting; just because a new ministry that requires a dozen helpers is being set up doesn’t necessarily make you the right fit for it. Despite everyone’s best efforts, it eventually becomes exhausting for the one who makes the gesture, and discouraging for the intended recipient.
In our desire to bring only glory to God, then, and to be best equipped for his purposes, here are some fundamentals we wish to keep at the forefront of our thinking over the next two or three years. I was going to share all of this in a single blog post, but it got so out of control that we have decided to split this into two parts. Next weekend, we will outline what our individual roles are set to look like this time round; here, we will share a couple of fundamental goals we have this time around in our approach to ministry and family.
Working from a place of rest
Despite this culture’s laid-back attitude to principles such as commitment and organisation – or, perhaps, as a response to such attitudes – the evangelical church here takes commitment pretty seriously. Most churches have not one, but two midweek meetings for Bible study and prayer. Youth work tends to take place on Saturdays, and some churches will have special events on Friday evenings. Throw in planning meetings and other meetings for specific groups such as men and women, and it is easy to see how church and its activities can take up pretty much every day of the week. In many cases it does, and we know people who, if they could, would happily attend church, or help at a church event, every day of the week.
This is exacerbated somewhat in our own church, which is small, and therefore has fewer people to help run things. Nonetheless, recognising needs (see above), they often do just that, meaning that spare time for, say, family, is severely limited.
Now as outsiders to the culture, Amanda and I have been aware of these issues from the beginning of our ministry. And yet, also as outsiders to the culture, we have at times felt nervous about addressing such issues, not wishing to come across as superior or dismissive of the people here.
Yet, if we are honest, there have been times in the last few years when our involvement in Christian ministry has left us exhausted, barely functioning as we sleep-walk from one activity to the other, and harbouring a little resentment at the impact church work is having on our lives as individuals and as a family. And the reason for this is quite simple: for all our seemingly good intentions, we have neglected the model of rest that has been set for God’s people from Trinidad to Timbuctoo.
So it is our intention to sensitively, but firmly, establish boundaries in our lives that can better enable us not only to survive, but to thrive. This will include, for example, ring-fencing our devotional time each day, physically leaving the house and going somewhere we can’t be found on Mondays (our rest day), and leaving the goldfish bowl that is Trinidad on a regular basis for some proper R&R. Above all, it will mean that we politely say ‘no’ to certain things, something we have already begun doing in withdrawing from certain areas of ministry.
In doing so, our prayer is that others will not simply regard us as awkward, or work-shy, but as setting an example that is worth emulating, and all the more so because it is Biblical.
Putting family first
Overlapping with the goal of having proper rest is our desire to nurture a more healthy family life.
We will long look back at last year with a mixture of delight and regret. Sam came home with us at the tail-end of 2015, and we took the decision to look after him ourselves rather than sub-contracting this to a nanny; after all, we had a lot of catching up to do.
In practice, this meant that one of us would ‘have’ him in the morning while the other person worked, and then in the afternoon we would swap. And while we relished this focused time with our new addition, Amanda and I essentially became like two ships passing in the night. We would see each other briefly at lunch, and then by the time Sam had gone to bed in the early evening, we were both so exhausted that we would retreat into our own worlds just to get a semblance of ‘me time’. But the consequences of this were a little painful: inevitably, as we saw less and less of one other, we increasingly forgot how to communicate with each other, and how best to meet the needs of the other person.
We are determined not to make this mistake again. For this reason, over the last few months, we have drawn up a new schedule that will enable us to overcome these difficulties. In particular, we have ring-fenced a weekly ‘marriage time’ (I would call it a date-night if it wasn’t a Monday morning!) and committed to pursuing more common interests together in our spare time. Furthermore, we have ensured that there will be regular time during the week when the three of us can be together as a family, without the shadow of work hanging over us.
Conclusion: Adapt first
We never quite get ‘there’ in this life, which is for the most part a constant experience of making mistakes and making ham-fisted attempts to learn from them. This is no exception for overseas workers such as ourselves, and we know that, even if we successfully address the issues outlined above, others will surely arise. But we know from time spent with other, more experienced missionaries, that a better balance is possible.
We could have used this opening post to outline the various ministries and activities we feel God is leading us towards this time around. To a certain extent, that will come next weekend. But all this will be for naught if we seek power for these endeavours from within ourselves or fail to ‘manage [our] own family well’ (1 Tim 3:4). Putting it more bluntly: if we continue down such paths, we may as well not be here.
You have stood with us in the past in prayer, and we need this now more than ever. And while you’re at it, please also consider the following.
- Well, we made it. And we are so thankful for journeying mercies, especially for Sam. On the eleven-hour flight across the Atlantic on Monday/Tuesday, he slept for nine solid hours (count ‘em!). He held up well the rest of that day, despite the time-zone shift and not landing in Santa Cruz till late that evening. The boy positively scoffs in the face of jetlag. Equally, he held up well on the long car journey back to Trinidad yesterday. Not a case was lost, not a sleep was missed. Give thanks.
- Habemus auto. Back in January, we sold our fast-diminishing 1995 RAV4 with the help of a friend in Santa Cruz, and the same guy was able to source us a replacement, which we paid for a couple of weeks ago, and picked up on Wednesday from a reassuringly careful owner. It has a lot more space than our last one, which was a great help in the journey yesterday.
- Speaking of thriving, give thanks, too, for Mariana, our former colleague at FT, who is now studying at a seminary in Santa Cruz with a view to working in tribal missions in the longer term. We had a chance to catch up with her this week and she is doing great. She is a young woman with a heart that breaks for the lost of Bolivia. We are delighted for her.
- This being Bolivia, there is still a little registration paperwork remaining on the car, some of which will require Craig to head back to Santa Cruz in the next week or two. Pray for a swift conclusion to all of this.
- Pray for our preparations for the team from Strathaven Evangelical Church, who follow us across the Atlantic in just two weeks’ time. Pray that we might be able to get our house in order (I mean that literally!) and attend to this and other matters fairly soon.
- Pray for a stress-free readjustment to this unique place. I might add that we have already noticed a big difference between returning after six months away, and doing so after a year’s absence; feels a lot more natural.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!
Craig & Amanda
Craig & Amanda