Monday, 29 December 2008

Great time!

It has been a cold week this week with some pretty low temperatures -11C (12F) last night. Not as cold as it has been in Fort Collins apparently, but then again in Fort Collins it is a dry cold, here we have thick ice and I don't do well on ice. I fell over right outside our local supermarket, thank goodness the only thing that really took a dent was some pride, thought I was going to end up with a cracking bruise but didn't. This first picture was taken by Mark on our Christmas Day walk.

The beginning of the week saw more emails arrive out of the blue. One was posted to our old Danish account and another from someone we had lost contact with two years ago. Getting very weird now and almost freaky. One of the emails we were quite glad to receive the other one was from someone we had rather been left in the past. When I saw the stork a while ago, and felt that I should expect the unexpected I didn't feel excited, I kind of felt it will bring both good and not so good things our way. I am not worried either, it just has a feeling of inevitability about it, as if it has to happen. As we move into the next year I feel like it will be a year that sets the pattern for the years ahead, it will not be like what has gone before. It all sounds a bit vague so I was quite relieved, well almost, to read this in Martin Scott's blog from a group of prophets meeting in England

"There are more volatile shakings coming to the earth. So God has planned for us a Season of Acceleration. In this season we will be faced with defining choices, taking a leap into the future, and walking in faith without seeing the next step. We will even be challenged in our faith with understanding the spirit realm."

That kind of sums up how I feel like we can't quite see the next step ahead, the picture that comes to mind is when Paul was in a ship in a storm and in Acts 27:17 it talks about how they fastened ropes around the ship to hold it together and dropped the sea anchor and allowed the boat to be driven along. I know God is in charge, I know we will go where he wants us to go and all he asks of us right now is to do one thing at a time knowing that he has the timing and the place in his hands. Can't think of a safer place to be!

We might not have had all our children with us this year for Christmas but Scott and Sarah stepped in and joined our family. Scott is the friend of our son Mark and Sarah is someone that Scott met at camps here in Latvia and they were both doing a camp either side of Christmas with nowhere to go in between. We also met Sarah this year when we looked in on one of the camps and she is on the same course as our other son Matthew. We had a really fun time cutting down a couple of Christmas trees, one for our flat and one for the flat they were staying in and then we went to the hotel for a late lunch. We didn't have any early lunches as Scott and Sarah were both pretty tired from the first week of camp and took the opportunity to sleep in. As we were eating lunch our friend Chris drove by and noticed us in the restaurant so popped in to say hello. I found out that he hadn't got any plans for Christmas day as his mother was in the States so we invited him over as well. It was cramped in our little kitchen with 6 of us round the table and required full participation of everyone to pass plates, or cutlery or kettles etc. which was quite funny at times but added to the occasion I am sure. It was lovely to have the gift of company to help to celebrate the special day, the shortbread was welcome to. 

In the summer we met Andzejs who has led worship for quite a few of the camps we have been to at Gančausķas and we agreed to meet up sometime. Problem is that he is quite busy now as he is a drummer in a pop band here in Latvia, so trying to sort out a time to meet up was quite difficult. Well we finally managed a meeting and arranged to meet up in Sigulda, it was quite funny really as he came by train. He doesn't have a car as he lives in the middle of Riga and it is easier for him to get a taxi to go to gigs. Can't imagine many English superstars travelling by train and there is no first class compartments here in Latvia that I know of. We had a great couple of hours over cups of tea or cocoa and pancakes. 

This photo was taken at our other flat by Mark. It is a picture of a plug socket for a radio. Every Soviet house has one so they can plug in a little radio and listen to the one radio station that they could pick up. Our friend Victors who is making our kitchen was explaining to us that every morning you would hear "Good morning comrades" type propaganda encouraging the people to work for the country - that sort of thing. It is an amazing little piece of history slowly disappearing.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Greetings from snowy Latvia

Well it has been snowing on and off again this week and the snow ploughs were out again today, at least we didn't get as much ice as the previous week. That stuff is not nice. I also got registered with the British Embassy today. Did you know they recommend that you do so every time you travel? I think it is something new so they know if something happens such as a major catastrophe then they know if they have any of their nationals in the area. It is also recommended if you are moving to another country - didn't know that and we left nearly 6 years ago. Lol!

Unexpected happenings are still happening, this week's out of the blue occurrence is an email from one of Ian's old school friends who was rifling through old Christmas cards and found one of my email addresses and sent an email to us. We haven't been in touch for a while as his last address for us was Copenghagen, it is really nice to be in touch again and catch up a little on some news.

We got a goose for Christmas, a bit pricey and the girl on the check out asked us if we were sure we wanted to buy it, bless her. Always wondered what a goose would be like and this one is a small one so will fit in the oven. Could have got a duck but there is not much meat on a duck. Will also be interesting to see whether it might be worth raising geese instead of turkeys for next year - or both - or none. We will really need to sit down at the beginning of the year and work out exactly what we do want to be heading towards as far as raising animals and food, although that does also depend on what resources we have available next year.

Had one of those moments when I forgot which country I was in. We were listening to KUNC which is a radio station Ian used to listen to at work in the US as he like the range of music they played and they don't saturate the air time with adverts, they were talking about the airports that are shut in the north of the US due to winter storms and for one moment I was desperately trying to think which airport Mark (our middle child for those who get mixed up and a photo that kind of sums him up - crazy at times!) would be flying into. We and our kids have flown into the US via Chicago, Newark, Houston, Atlanta, and Washington and then it dawned on me that unless Mark was going to take a humungous detour he wouldn't be flying into any of those airports, he would be on a direct flight between Gatwick, London and Riga. Oh boy! Think I might be losing it. At least we both didn't lose it and we managed to get to Riga airport at the right time on the right day. It has been known for me to mix up days (suddenly found out once that Ian was actually going to arrive one day earlier than I had thought. Whoops!) and times, which I did this time as well. I had organised for us to call in at our new friends Roger and Valerie, we always have a riotous time of laughter and we chat such a lot which is absolutely refreshing. The problem was that I organised to call in for lunch on the way to pick Mark up but he was actually not going to arrive until much later than we anticipated, fortunately our good friends were flexible enough to allow us to arrive for an evening meal instead. Phew! Unfortunately it also meant we didn't roll into bed until 3am. 

On one of my jaunts around the net and having got fed up of bad news I typed in "good news" as you do and found this "Riling against the ills around me won’t change them nor [does] real change, the personal one, require any special powers- only some commitment. In early 2006, I decided I would search and care for a piece of derelict land and make it productive. A small part of India where nothing had ever grown, a land that had been abandoned as worthless, an orphaned part of India as it were, seemed a good place from which to begin a new journey."

This was such a wonderful concept I had to include it and wondered what we can do to return derelict lands in our own lives, real or spiritual derelict lands with just a bit of commitment.

I was reading in my course book about "social capital" which is how groups work together and how trust is so necessary for that to happen. Kind of obvious really and yet it is not obvious. Trust is a major factor in development. Without trust power games become prevalent. The fostering of trust is more important than many strategies as many of these strategies will fail without trust. Latvia lacks trust between political and institutional structures and the people, this is partly due to recent experience but also due to 800 years of occupation which does not lead to a trusting nation. Communication between participants is necessary as well as more open and sympathetic institutions. Our experience has been very good here and positive but it is easy to suspect that this is because we are from another EU country, if you are from the country itself there is far less trust expressed. Latvia has come a long way but trust is lost so easily and difficult to gain and so much work needs to happen. 

Oh I could go on but I won't, instead I will wish you all a blessed Christmas from snowy Latvia and may you discover a richness and a depth to this time of year that you have not experienced before, a sense of peace that transcends all understanding.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Bad news and Good news!

A sad day this week Oliver Postgate died Tuesday, he was the creator of Bagpuss and Clangers. For any who have visited our abodes you may have noticed my pink and cream striped cats - my mini Bagpusses, which my children have bought for me, I even have a DVD and I once had a pair of Bagpuss socks but I am not sure what happened to them, maybe they got a hole in them. I used to love Bagpuss as a kid, in fact I used to like most of Oliver Postgate animations, they had a simplicity and childlikeness about them. They told simple stories with imaginative themes. What I hadn't realised was that the Clangers noises were actually real words done on a swanee whistle, so they had a real script. One particular script written by Oliver Postgate led to a summons by the BBC chiefs to explain the script which included a few swear words but of course the kids wouldn't have heard the real words so I guess that was okay.

Well unexpected happenings still keep happening and we certainly got one of those this week, a tax demand for an unpaid bill from Denmark for 2005 of 545DKK ($98, £66) and it cost us 16 LVL's ($30, £20) to pay the thing. We kept paying everything they sent bills for, so goodness only knows where this came from, that had better be it or I am going to blow a gasket. It was one of the reasons we couldn't even face a short time in Denmark, before Latvia. if Ian had to work some notice, as it has taken us ages to extricate ourselves from the system. They have made plenty of mistakes and I suspect this payment was actually interest from the time they overpaid us, then asked for it back - having taken over a year to sort it out, and it took us a while to work out how we owed money when they had just paid us!!!!!!!! Complicated! You should see our file! If there is one thing that depresses me it is dealing with incompetent tax authorities, and closely followed by incompetent tax consultants who need to be told their jobs. There! Got that out of my system now! Really looking forward to the end of the year to deal with a new tax system. Not!

Had some good news this week. I sent in my first assignment for my course last week and 
got the results back this week and I got a Distinction which as you can imagine I am rather pleased about. I have loved the course so far and found so much of it fascinating and it is wonderful to see the ideas that have floated around my head have relevance to this course. I had one of those ahah moments today when I was reading about high taxation on rural peasant farmers often leads them to give up on cash producing crops and resort back to subsistence farming. I think the system here is too complicated with EU directives for this and that and it does not surprise me that the farmers take the EU funding for cutting the hay in their fields and then just leave it to rot. That is taking easy money but what do you do with it when it is cut? How easy are markets to access? Where do you sell your excess produce? How many legal hoops do you need to jump through? What receipts do you need to keep in order that the taxman does not take all your profit? Many of the farmers here are at least in their 50's and most are older and they have spent most of their life under the communist system, with the state control of what you do and how you produce things and a certain level of recompense as long as you did some semblance of work and now they are expected to compete in a competitive, complicated market? It is no wonder they go back to subsistence farming, it is at least simple as the Latvian farmers are usually land rich even if they are not cash rich. I have got some ideas buzzing around in my head about centralised cooperatives that provide a market place with at least one person who is au fait with computers so they can keep a record of stock for sale and stock wanted by supermarkets. I know there are cooperatives for milk 
here and I am sure there is probably more scope for greater cooperation, although I recognise that sometimes trust is in short supply here, another legacy of Soviet times. Maybe any excess stock could also be used for making biofuels or electricity, just throwing ideas out there but they need investment - another sticky problem.

I wrote last week that I saw a shooting star which for me is really rare, well on our way home from visiting our friend Natalija we saw three more shooting stars well four if you include the one that Ian saw, and one lone firework. The shooting stars were part of the Geminids meteor shower and occur round about this time of the year every year but up till now I haven't seen them. I am still really perplexed at what God is saying, mind you he might be saying nothing at the moment just raising my alertness level, so it is still watch this space and maybe one day I will understand what this is all pointing to.

I wrote such a lot last week that I didn't mention that we had our heating bill for the month of November and it was 88LVLs (£109, $166) not sure what your bills are like but for an average Latvian 88LVLs is a lot of money. The average wage of a Latvian is 389LVLs (£482, $737) and so the 88LVLs is a big chunk of that, and the average pensioner gets 124LVLs (£154, $235) a month so you can see that 88LVLs is a very big chunk of that. It is also easy to see why they wait until late on in the year before putting on the heating. It is no wonder that some people also have a huge debt when it comes to heating bills. This didn't happen in Soviet times and it is easy to see why some people are nostalgic for the Soviet era, at least you were warm. 

Ian got to play this week with a mean machine. He needed to take a wall down in our new flat between a pantry and a bathroom to make a decent sized room. He was expecting a concrete wall but it turned out to be a concrete covered brick wall and his drill, while being a fine tool for drilling holes for electrical wires, which he as also being doing, was not up to taking a full wall down built with the aforementioned construction materials. A call to our friend Chris who we ate with last week resulted in a mean looking demolition hammer. It did the trick anyway and the wall is now in pieces. Now we just need to clean up and get the place sorted for Mark, our son, and friends to come over Christmas. We will also be getting the kitchen ready here in the flat we live in for the installation of the units at the end of this week - we hope. Lol.

Here are two pictures of doors. I like pictures of doors, especially those with character. I sense this next year will be a gateway year, one that will lead into our next phase and characterises what we will be doing for the next five or so years. One of the things I read this week was that the year before a jubilee year there would be produce enough for three years, one for the year they were in, one for the jubilee year and one for the year after while waiting for the harvest of that which was sown. So next year should be a sowing into our future harvest that will be reaped later. Interesting to see where that will lead.

 I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year 
that the land will yield enough for three years. 
While you plant during the eighth year, 
you will eat from the old crop 
and will continue to eat from it 
until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.
Leviticus 25:21-22

Monday, 8 December 2008

Pontification abounds

Well we had more snow this week so Ian and I went out for a walk just to take photos. It was a nice break from course work for me and rewirng for Ian and there were some wonderful scenes. Hope you like the pictures.

I forgot to switch on the slow cooker for our evening meal one day this week and so we decided that we would go out to eat a day earlier than usual instead. We try and go once a week to our local hotel ( I am sure I have mentioned it before), a treat for us but also about spending money locally - such a hardship sometimes. Lol Just as we had decided a friend of ours rang to see if we were in and we said we
were actually just heading out and he asked if he could join us which we were more than happy for him to do. We had a great meal with Chris  and a great time of bouncing ideas about to help youth to engage. He runs the youth group in a town nearby along with a few others and he was wondering how to encourage the youth to feel part of the church community. It is really sad though that we have to think in terms of how to get youth motivated shouldn't we be holding them back trying to reign in their enthusiasm their idealism? Not that I am proposing putting a block on what they want to achieve, just helping them move forward with advice along the way to guide not hinder. Why do our youth give up so easily? What blocks have we and life in general taught them that says everything is useless? It's not worth bothering! Well just in case any younger folks are reading this then I say to you "Go! Try it! Reach out and dream! We of the older generations need you to be dreaming big". To parents I say "Let them go! Help them in anyway you can to try and live those big dreams and be their biggest cheerleaders and then watch them fly and help them out if they come in for a crash landing." 

On a different note we are soon to get our kitchen, we went to have a look at it while it is in the process of being made. Victors the guy who runs the business is so enthusiastic about making inset doors which costs more but matches our other furniture. It is lovely though to watch this craftsman get so much happiness out of the creative process. We are paying more but then the kitchen will still be around for a long time, and we get to see it being made, it is also being made with love and care. It got me thinking and the following phrase came to mind "Stop saving pennies by buying cheap stuff but start saving pennies to buy things worth having". I think William Morris's statement from 1882 still has much value and maybe even more so nowadays.

Have nothing in your houses that 
you do not know to be useful 
or believe to be beautiful. 

We have got so used to quantity that we sometimes forget about quality and I am not talking about the expensive named stuff, that can be as bad as the cheaper stuff sometimes. I am talking about the quality of relationships, the interaction with the craftsman that makes the piece of furniture just for you. We don't need a lot of stuff really so why not go for one or two really nice pieces instead of a whole load of junk that will fall apart in three or four years time. Some of my thoughts are hard to actually write down, you had to be there to see the joy on Victors face, we have worked on the creative process together, each contributing ideas, to come up with something that will be unique to us and fit the space we have perfectly, that has been more precious than the kitchen itself.
Another unexpected happening this week was a shooting star, although Ian has seen lots of them I have only seen them once before and that wasn't long ago in Colorado. That just raised my expectation of something that is imminent, so close. 

On my course this last week I have been reading about various happenings in the world which led us the market systems we have now. In the 80's communism was dismantled, the 90's saw the collapse of state led development which only left captialism as a viable option for economics and that has just had a spectacular crash, although this isn't mentioned in the book because it was written a few years ago. It did set me thinking, in fact my course does that a lot to me and I sometimes have difficulty keeping focussed as it sets me off on another train of thought. Anyway what I was thinking was that now is not the time to retreat into protectionism but a time to advance. The world needs and is indeed waiting for an advancing army to which it can rally but it needs to be one that proclaims love and justice not hatred, judgmentalism and triumphalism otherwise those who have been abandoned will rally around the sounds of war, making this world an even unsafer place to be. My suggestion is simple less greed and more compassion, how we work that out is between you and God. If anyone wants to tell me that I am pontificating up the wrong tree then I would love to hear from you, I value debate and I think we need fresh ideas and fast or even better some God ideas. The world is waiting, paralysed, people don't have a clue what to do next, they don't know where to turn to or what crisis is going to hit next and that includes our leaders. For those of my age and younger many of us have not known hardship, I only vaguely remember power cuts and reduced working weeks due to the oil crisis of the early 70's and I must admit to the crises of the 80's and 90's largely passed our family by. Just found out today that it was in December 8th 1991 that the Soviet Union was officially dissolved, a significant day I think.

We have to believe though that our contribution counts as Christians. If one small boy's contribution of five loaves and 2 fish can feed five thousand in the hands of a living and loving God then what can our contribution to fairness and justice in the markets make? Or our care in the field of old peoples homes, hospitals and schools? One small nun made an magnificent contribution to the care of the unloved in Calcutta through her devotion. Our contributions maybe small but we can make a difference, it might not make us rich but it will enrich our lives and those around us. Well my small contribution this week was to fast for one day. I haven't fasted since I had gallstones around 6 years ago, it made me nervous of fasting, something I used to do quite regularly. I prayed for a shift! When I used to fast it was usually something short like that, a change or a shift, something to break and God was faithful. Sometimes I wasn't sure what the shift was for, I just understood it was God's timing and that was what I was meant to do. Well I fasted on Saturday for a shift and one notable shift I have seen is that Sweden have got involved in the discussions with Latvia and the IMF. There was talk that the Lat might have to be devalued a position that the Government was keen to dismiss, and the Swedish Government would be keen to avoid too. Now why would the Swedes not want their Baltic neighbours currency to be devalued? Nothing altruistic I assure you, it is pure economics, many of the Swedish banks have been lending irresponsibly here in Latvia, for instance ten year loans for a car, cars do not last 10 years on the poor gravel roads here in Latvia. The Latvians do a fantastic job of grading the roads to keep them usable but the weather soon puts potholes in them again and it takes it out on the cars. If the Lat was devalued the Swedish banks would be hit either because the value of the loan would be decreased or due to the increase on defaults owing to the fact that many loans are in Euros and devaluing the Lat would instantly increase loans to unsustainable levels. Well I guess I have pontificated long enough so time to finish and if you wish to read more pontification you can always read Clive Jame's article entitled "The brilliance of Creative chaos"  very funny! Well I thought so!

Monday, 1 December 2008

Unexpected happenings

The first unexpected happening this week was seeing a stork flying around Ergli. They are supposed to have left a long time ago, like September, so as you can imagine this was not a happy looking stork flying around with two foot of snow on the ground. I felt God was telling me to expect the unexpected, not sure what that meant and still don't.

The next unexpected happening was our youngest son, Matthew winning the Let's mUve competition where he designed a new concept for a wheel - don't ask me what exactly but it looked good. It is amazing because it was a competition for undergraduates and Matthew is not even an undergraduate yet. We were amazed as we were just really pleased he had got to the finals and were telling him how brilliant it was that he had got that far, we didn't actually expect him to win - mind you I don't think he did either! I also felt that it was another sign to expect the unexpected.

We managed another day of snowshoeing which was good but the snow has nearly gone now leaving some fantastic ice structures, pity they are a yucky colour though.

Last year we spent Thanksgiving in Colorado with the usual trimmings that go with Thanksgiving. I loved the Turkey, potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes and salads but I have to say I was not that keen on the sweet potatoes baked with brown sugar and marshmallows on the top - a little too sweet for my liking, and cranberry and jello (jelly - often strawberry) salad I find a little too unusual. I did like my friend Tina's cranberry and apple salad though (thinking about it I think that was a different meal but I do remember eating Turkey and pretending it was Thanksgiving). This year was a little different, there was lamb and errr pork (surprise, surprise), and lots of salads made from fresh vegetables, a red cabbage and onion baked dish which was really nice but no Turkey and no sweet potatoes - not exactly something you find about 15 miles away from the Russian border which is where we spent Thanksgiving. It was a good time though and there was even pumpkin pie (made from real pumpkin not out of a can) and apple pie for dessert. The food and the company was good though and I did say that I thought having a day set aside to be thankful to God and to spend with family without opening presents was an idea which should be exported but I was told that really it is often only about stuffing ones face and has little to do with being thankful at all in most American homes which is a shame.

I have been reading on my course about the change in production from Ford's original mass production to the Toyota model of batch production and this set me thinking in terms of employment generally. The basic minimum wage has become a symbol of the difference between ideological thinking of the right and left parties. The right argue that to have a basic minimum wage is detrimental to the markets and the left arguing that it is a basic human right to have a fair minimum wage. I have to side on the left side of that debate for a different ideological reason and that is I think it is wrong for companies to expect the state to provide their workers with subsidies while at the same time complaining about the level of taxation. I wondered if there was some sort of a biblical principle on the matter and I am beginning to think that maybe the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 21:1-15) is actually a good principle of an employer being fair in a sociological sense. A denarius was the equivalent of an unskilled workers daily wage and so the vineyard worker was ensuring that people of the area were at least achieving a basic daily wage. I can almost hear the employers squeaking now that production would become too costly but I would argue that it is too costly not to, and also those at the top seemed to have managed quite nicely on the backs of many workers who do not ask for much beyond a decent living wage. 

Monday saw us taking a trip to Riga to see if we could find a stove with a boiler for a reasonable price and reasonable quality. We could find some wonderful looking stoves but not many with boilers. We only saw one which was in stock but without the boiler that seemed to have a good build quality and would take two weeks to order with the boiler but it was pricey. We were informed of a stove with a boiler that was cheap enough but we couldn't see it before putting down 50% of the price and was made in China.... hmmm! We loved our Danish stove and the quality was good, and we are kind of spoiled but a good quality stove with a boiler shouldn't be impossible to find .... should it? Well we will have to keep looking I guess.

Additional note for my American friends I mean a wood burning stove that heats the house and water not something you necessarily cook on.