Monday, October 29, 2018


This week David and I hit our three-year anniversary of moving to Cambodia. Three years! The saying, "The days are long but the years are short," definitely rings true for me. As David and I celebrated over dinner, we talked about the highs and lows, accomplishments, and lessons learned in the last few years.

What really surprised me the most was thinking back to our first days and months here and how little we knew. We sometimes still feel like we know very little, until, of course, I compare myself to how I showed up three years ago.

Language, of course, has been a big change. We arrived only knowing two words of the language (hello and thank you), and we were unsure of how to correctly pronounce even just that. We dove right in, but it would be more than 6 months before I would even start to learn how to read and write in the world's longest alphabet. Then, after a year of full time, intense language study, we would still attend our Cambodian church each week and not understand more than a word or two of the songs, prayers or sermons. We didn't really even understand how the royal version of the Khmer language worked, much less what all the royal and religious words used at church meant.

Now, after three years, I am able to read the Khmer Bible out loud with a tutor for an hour and a half at a time. I can read the hymns at church and sing along. Even if it's not always grammatically perfect, I've found myself in conversations lately explaining how earthquakes work and thinking through the pros and cons of different political systems. I've given and received personal advice. I can even make people laugh from time to time (and not just at my mistakes!).

There are other areas where progress has slowly snuck up on me, too. After a lot of listening, asking questions, observing, researching, praying and listening some more, we feel like we have grasped enough to step into more active ministry roles without hurting more than we help in the long run. The same process has brought us closer to our partners and their work. Our knowledge of how and why they work has expanded a hundred-fold, and we are excited about the projects that are now in the works. Also, after months of paperwork and meetings, we were able to start referring pastors and people from our congregation to receive quality, low-cost healthcare at a local ministry clinic. While we often still crave deeper community ties, I have gone from not knowing another soul here besides David to having a small group of women whom I can count on. We've also been honored to help bring together a collaboration of missionaries from around the world who are also here to support our partners.

There are small things, too, that I often take for granted that I have learned or gotten used to. I can drive a hard bargain in the market and can inch the car through a crowded five-way intersection without a traffic light. I can identify and eat a dozen tropical fruits I never knew existed. I'm no longer bothered by a few floating ants in my drinks. I've even conquered the squatty potty.

Three years in, there are plenty of things I still have left to learn about this place, this work, and myself. There are things I'm still not adjusted to. I still read slowly, I've still not adjusted to the heat, and I still have no desire to eat crickets or spiders. (And, I'm not sure those things will ever change!)

Yet, I can look back and see in these and a hundred other ways that over the last three years, God has been faithful to show up in our lives. And, while the increments were small, God was faithful to bless our meager efforts to show up as well. I'm reminded afresh that daily persistence does add up over time. Houses are built brick by brick. Saved pennies add up to dollars. And obedience and faithfulness, however small, can be transformational.

So, for those of you who have followed our journey, who have prayed for or supported us, who have sent notes and encouragement our waythank you! We can't wait to see how far we have come and the ways God will show up in another three years.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018


Lauren had fallen asleep, but I was still awake, lying in the bed reading. I could feel her turn over and rustle around, trying to find a comfortable position. I kept reading, but I was surprised that she was still rolling around in the bed. I looked over to see if she was awake. I was quite surprised by what I saw. She had not woken up. She had not moved. And yet, the bed was still shaking. If she wasn’t shaking it, what was? As the situation began to sink in, I realized there was an even more pertinent mystery to solve: what was shaking the entire hotel room? 

We were on the island of Bali for a meeting with our organization, and we stayed afterwards for a few days of vacation. About two weeks before we arrived in Bali, a couple of powerful earthquakes struck Lombok, the next island over, causing significant damage. We knew it was possible that there would be more in the area. And late on the first night of our vacation, that possibility turned into reality. A magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck near Lombok and was felt in Bali.

The shaking was strong enough to wake Lauren. We peeked into the hallway and saw guests pouring out of their rooms. We entered the groggy flow of people and made our way outside. Once outside, we stood near the big green “Assembly Point” sign. These signs mark places to come together during emergencies. The Assembly Point signs all over the place are eerie reminders that no matter how much fun you’re having on this famously beautiful island, you are still sitting on the Ring of Fire, and earthquakes can happen any time. After a few minutes, the hotel staff told us it was fine to go back inside. During the rest of our vacation in Bali, there were a few more aftershocks, but we never again had to visit the big green Assembly Point sign.

As I reflect on my time in Bali, I keep remembering this Assembly Point sign. In fact, for me Bali was like a metaphorical assembly point. It was also an assembly of colleagues from across Asia gathered for the CBF Asia meeting. We told stories, encouraged each other, laughed, shared our struggles. And we had a business meeting or two. Can’t ever get out of those, I suppose. But all of it, from the sharing time with teammates to the business meetings, helped me see how I fit into the big picture of the global work we are participating in together.

One night during the meeting, a local took us on a tour of his village and then did a cooking class with us. Calling it a cooking class is a bit misleading. Rather, our guide would hand some of us a plate of herbs and tell us to chop. He told another group to stir and another group to slice. He would call for two people to mix in the kitchen, two more to squeeze some leafy greens, two more to fry tempeh (he also would call for one person at a time to take pictures of what was going on because if he’s learned anything about Americans, it’s that they love pictures of their food). Each of us contributed one or two things, and none of us saw the whole picture. We could only guess what would end up on our plates at the end, and we didn’t always know exactly which items we had contributed to. But the end result—the “assembly point” of all those ingredients and all that work—was alarmingly good.

Another night, we learned to play the gamelan. The gamelan is a traditional percussion ensemble used for ceremonies and festivals. I was assigned to a small instrument like a xylophone with only ten bars. I was told to play the same two notes over and over. They were clangy and repetitive. Then after each of us had practiced our individual parts, we put all the instruments together. When those discordant notes came together, they made music. At this assembly point, things which did not seem beautiful, came together to create haunting, complex, shimmering music. Again, the big picture was made clear at the assembly point.

My daily life is mostly consumed with the small picture. I learn Khmer vocabulary, write a sermon, fill the car up with gas, write a quarterly report that I send into the ether, have coffee with a partner, or any of the other tasks that make up my ministry here. Just like squeezing spinach or banging on two notes of the gamelan, they don’t seem like much. How could the chef use all these small efforts to make a banquet? How could the gamelan conductor use all these discordant notes to make music? How could God use all these small tasks to make a ministry? And yet—defying all laws of logic and physics—meals, music and ministry arise out of these efforts. I pray that you too would be richly rewarded by the assembly points of your efforts to serve God, even if they are a long time coming. I also pray thatlike us, you would be blessed by assemblies of people—teams, communities, family—who would encourage you on your journey.

Learning to trust that my small efforts contribute to God's big picture was the main lesson of my time in Bali. But there was one final lesson to be gleaned from my visit to the big green assembly point sign. I learned that Cambodia does not sit on any fault lines. I learned that, no matter how many difficulties come from living in Cambodia, at least I don't have to worry about earthquakes. I enjoyed my visit to Bali, but it felt great to be back on solid ground in my home sweet home.

Friday, July 27, 2018


It surprises some people these days to learn that I played basketball all through middle and high school. It was a long time ago, and I’ve rarely even picked up a ball in the last decade, but I’ve found myself thinking about those afternoons in dusty gyms lately. Surprisingly, it’s not the camaraderie of teammates or the stories of crazy coaches, the game winning shots or black and blue injuries that have been rolling through my head lately. I’ve been thinking about the very worst part of the basketball seasons—the first few weeks (or longer!), usually called “fundamentals."

These introductory workouts focused on alternating conditioning—meaning we ran until we literally fell over and then kept doing it again and again until we didn’t need to fall over—and learning the very basics of the sport. The first part was physically exhausting. The second part was mentally exhausting. Learning how to hold a basketball or how to pass a ball with 100% correct form and practicing it for hours is incredibly boring. At the beginning of the season, we were jazzed up to get on the court, but it always seemed that the coaches didn’t let you actually play the sport for weeks. It was all stretching, passing and dribbling drills, and shooting literally hundreds of free-throws.

That's me in the back row, number 30.

Even back then, I could see the point. The way you position your hands when you shoot does make a difference, and bad habits are hard to unlearn. But I hated doing it. I wanted to get on with the plays and the strategies and the competition of it all.

Our first term here on the field in Cambodia has been a lot like an extended fundamentals season. We got here, and we were excited about life and ministry in Cambodia. I was ready to hit the court! But “hitting the court” looked a lot less like hitting game winning 3-point shots and more like sitting in a rooftop classroom learning to hold my mouth just right to be able to reliably hit a uniquely difficult vowel sound. It was about learning how to stretch my worldview to take in so many cultural differences. I have had to condition myself to continue to dig up motivation and diligence to learn a language without many trained or experienced teachers. It was about my body getting adjusted to long days in hot weather. I have had to discipline myself to make observations without automatically filling in the meaning according to my culture. I've gotten good at being wrong. I have sat through so, so many awkward situations and had to condition myself to keep showing up.

I won’t lie. It’s been physically and mentally exhausting. Sometimes it has been incredibly boring. There have been moments sprinkled all throughout the last 2.5 years where I was so ready to just get on with it already.

Yet. As we are finally starting to be able to do more than lay foundations, I am so thankful for the wisdom of these long years of fundamentals. The only reason people can understand me at all when we chat about our lives and dreams and concerns is because I spent entire months practicing the alphabet sounds with a teacher at the beginning (and oh how I would rather have been shooting free-throws!). I understand some of the cultural motivations here because I spent hours reading books on culture and history. The only reason I can escort a friend and church member to get checked by a quality, low-cost health center is because I spent months working through paperwork to become a referring partner at the center. I can hear some hard truths from honest conversations with Cambodians only because I have shown up enough for them to know that I can take it.

Even when I was doing those things again and again, I knew they were important. I knew that I needed to retrain my mouth and my worldview and my patience in order to minister effectively and long-term in Cambodia, but it hasn’t been fun. I knew that one day it would pay off, but that day seemed so far away.

The day has come, though. And I may not be hitting game winning shots yet—or even making all the easy lay-ups—but I feel like I’m at least allowed on the court. We can see clearly how the foundations we have been working on are firming up. We are seeing deeper into the culture than ever and are excited by the dreams and collaborations that are in the works. There’s still a lot of language and cultural learning going on, still a lot of stretching of our worldviews and practicing listening, but we hope at least our form is decent. We hope, even under stress, we have the muscle memory we need.

Working on fundamentals isn’t glamorous. It’s often not only boring, it’s painful. But from someone finally making her way out of a season of fundamentals, I feel the value all the more. So, if you’re in the middle of fundamentals in a new job, a new town, a new ministry, a new relationship, or a new season of life, keep at it. It’s not glamorous or even all that fun sometimes. But, as Paul says to the Romans, we know that running the race, or the laps around the proverbial gym, produces perseverance. And perseverance produces not just great form or great pronunciation, but character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018


Many of you heard us share about the krama—the traditional, checkered, multi-purpose scarf of Cambodia—when we were in the US last year. The krama is unique to Cambodia and serves as both a national symbol and a source of national pride.

Earlier this year, we discovered that an area of the city that was previously overgrown and full of garbage had been transformed into a charming park that celebrates all things krama. It has films, exhibitions, a market, and even a children's maze made out of kramas.

But the centerpiece of the park is a building where you can watch a krama being woven. And not just any krama, but a massive krama that is 1 kilometer in length. This past weekend, the completed scarf was awarded the Guinness World Record for world's longest scarf. It's a great moment of celebrating all that makes Cambodia a special place to live! (In the link, there's a short video that shows more about the process and the krama.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018


When the kids at church want to get my attention, they yell out, “Chuh” (rhymes with duh). When I asked my tutor about this word, he gave me a knowing smile and said, “It’s an English word!” I wondered what English word this could possibly be. Maybe it was short for churro? The real answer: teacher. Or more specifically, an accented version of the second syllable of teacher. While I could write a whole different blog post about Cambodians’ love for using, and sometimes humorously abbreviating, English words, today I want to unpack why I would be referred to as teacher in the first place.

In Cambodia, you mostly use titles to refer to people. Many of those titles come from family terms: parent, child, younger brother/sister, older brother/sister, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew. These can be used with people you are not related to, including people you’ve never met before, and are based on how old the person is. There are other titles, too, such as teacher (both chuh and a less anglicized version), doctor, sir, ma’am, boss, monk, and more.

These titles are not just for getting someone’s attention. They are spread throughout each sentence. Cambodians seldom use the word you. Instead, they just keep using the title. For example, a child might ask, “Would mother like me to get mother’s purse?” The mother would then probably respond with her own title, not the pronoun I, as in “Yes, mother wants mother’s purse, child.” It sounds clunky in English but perfectly normal in Khmer.

One can probe beneath the surface to find the cultural value that drives the need to call people (including oneself) by titles. So much of Cambodian culture and society is ordered around the concept of status. When you meet someone, you are supposed to assess the person’s social status, choose an appropriate title for them, and then give them the respect their status requires.

A picture of me being a chuh.
I once tried to tell a group of adult students for a short English class I taught to call me David. They squirmed uncomfortably and then proceeded to call me teacher. I wanted them to address me as a peer, but resistance was futile.

This concept of status is on my mind because I recently got into a situation where I underestimated the significance of status. I don't want to air the details of the situation here. I will only say that I had expectations of someone based on the idea that we were peers of the same status. That person had expectations of me based on the understanding that I was of a higher status because I am a foreigner who is wealthy compared to them. We found someone to help mediate the conflict, but I had to realize that my social relations in Cambodia are not governed by the same rules as they would be in the US. Trying to relate to everyone as an equal leads to misunderstandings. 

My first thought when I hear about status is that it shouldn’t be this way in the church. After all, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). At the same time, 1 Peter 5:5 says, “You who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders.” The Bible seems to allow for different statuses in at least some instances.

I recently preached from James 2, including the following verses: “If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” How do I apply these verses in a culture where such favoritism, based on the higher status of rich people, is considered a given? My first instinct is to say that they should stop considering status at all. But I think that would be based more on my culture than on what the verse is actually communicating.

After all, there are benefits to living in a status-based society. There is often more respect for parents, elders, teachers, pastors, etc. But there are benefits to living in a more egalitarian society, too. There is, in theory, more respect for those who would otherwise be of lower status.

The answer, I suppose, is to find a balance. If, as in the above verses from James, a poor person is made to sit on the floor during a worship service, I will have to speak up. Status is no excuse for injustice. I can try to find ways to respect those of different statuses while showing that everyone has the same value in Jesus. I will embrace the space given in Cambodia to learn from our elders. And I will try to use the status that Cambodians give me, not for my own benefit, but to work for a more just society.

It is tricky to know what to do with status. Despite my best efforts, I assume I will continue to make mistakes along the way. However, I am convinced that the gospel challenges both the American and the Cambodian view of status and pushes us to look to Jesus for a better way to treat each other. It is a difficult thing to learn, but I believe it is well worth the effort. And I hope we all find—and of course give the proper status-based respect to—some chuhs to help us on the journey.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018


When people learn about Cambodia, what they learn usually revolves around two areas: the temples of the Angkorian era including Angkor Wat and the brutality of the Khmer Rouge years.

For example, most trips here visit genocide memorial sites in Phnom Penh and temples and archeological sites in Siem Reap. Most books or films you’ve heard of about Cambodia are likely from the Khmer Rouge era (First They Killed My Father or The Killing Fields). Most international academic work is on the ancient archaeological sites.

While there’s obviously much more to this country and culture than these two things, I’ve come to see the Khmer Rouge and Angkor Wat as the opposing poles of modern Cambodia. One is its trauma and pain. The other is its pride.

As we more and more often talk guests and interested parties through these two topics and explain the ways we have observed these areas effecting Khmer people today, I have realized that thinking about a culture or community’s pain and pride is not a bad way to begin to understand its people’s motivations, dreams and hesitations.

For example, with the exception of some oversharing of young people on Facebook (which seems to be a transcultural phenomenon!), Khmer people tend to be fairly reserved about personal and family matters. They hold their cards pretty closely. A teacher shared with us that his family has instilled the importance of discretion in him by sharing the ways other peoples’ knowledge, abilities and “business” were used as reasons to torture, kill or pillage people during the Khmer rouge era of the 1970s. I’d imagine most families pass on these habits in much less direct ways, but nonetheless you can see it all around. Understanding Cambodian people’s past trauma makes this evasiveness easy to understand.

One of Cambodia's memorials to victims of the Khmer Rouge

Also, while some in Cambodia are vocally pushing for sweeping political and social reforms in a country that is consistently ranked one of the most corrupt in the world, most people prefer to quietly wait things out. Wanting peace at all costs after enduring decades of civil wars or having extreme loyalty to controversial politicians who led them out of the genocide years makes sense in context.

On the other hand, Cambodia is extremely proud of the ancient civilization of Angkor and the buildings and culture it left behind. The temple of Angkor Wat is even on Cambodia’s flag—in fact, it’s the only national flag in the world with a building on it. Many homes have framed pictures, paintings or even giant cross-stitched images of the temples. For a long time, while most of Europe was in the middle of the dark ages, Cambodia was a massive super power in this region and had some of the most advanced technology in the world. Cambodia today longs to take its place as a competent player in the region and shed its “third world” status.

Cambodia also loves to show off the proof of its glory days to visitors. The tourism industry is one of the largest sectors of Cambodia’s economy and it expects at least 6 million foreign tourists to come to Cambodia this year. Fueled by economic opportunity and cultural pride, young people all over the country study and train to work in the tourism and hospitality industries. At the end of the day, no matter how rough things get in Cambodia, they can always look back or look around at the world-class remains of their people’s prior domination and sophistication. Through these remains and their history, they know that they were and are important to the world. It’s their pride.

Courtyard of the temple of Angkor Wat

After talking about pride and pain in Cambodia, I started wondering what the pain and pride of America would be. Would our pain be in our wars, our racism, our economic downturns? Would our pride be our optimism and opportunities, our world leadership, our diversity? I also wonder what would be in these categories for local communities I have lived in. What would be sitting on these opposing poles of the churches I have been a part of? Of the organizations I have worked for? How has pain and pride—my own and my communities’—shaped me?

I sometimes think about the Israelites in the Old Testament in this way now, too. Among other things, they had collective trauma coming out of their years as slaves in Egypt. They carried pain and shame around the fall of the city of Jerusalem and their temple. On the other hand, they had shared pride around their unique God of power and forgiveness and their lineage and leaders—from Abraham and Moses to Deborah and David. They had festivals throughout the year—or, in the case of the Sabbath, each week—to remind them of the hardships they had come out of and how these pain points changed them as a people. Their pride in their unique God and in their ancestors, led them to stick to a religion that was very different from the religions of the other communities around them. They kept kosher, they cared for the poor and the immigrants and they devoted themselves to watching for a messiah, for a king who would come and transform their pride into a new, concrete reality.

I’ve realized that, unlike in some communities, the Israelites’ pain and pride didn’t just leave outsiders scratching their heads. Recognizing and remembering their pain and celebrating their pride reshaped their community in a way that brought them closer to God and God’s mission in the world. 

While I don’t know what it will look like, I hope one day that same transformation will take place for Cambodians and their twin poles of pain and pride. I hope the same for my community and yours. I pray that as we dig deeper to understand the pain and pride around and inside us, our collective histories—the good and the bad—will draw us deeper into God’s mission.

Saturday, March 24, 2018


Did you know that my first Krispy Kreme doughnut was neither crispy (thankfully) nor cream-filled (less of a good thing; I am partial to cream-filled pastries)? Pressing past those unreasonable expectations set by the name, I remember my first bite of a Krispy Kreme doughnut being transcendent. I was an instant fan!

In those days, though, the nearest Krispy Kreme store was a couple of hours away. It was years before I had my second taste of Krispy Kreme. Then little by little, stores opened up nearer to me. The next time I had one, it was just as good as I remembered. Then Krispy Kremes started popping up everywhere. Grocery stores and gas stations and pharmacies started selling them. People brought them to meetings, church and school activities. And the most surprising thing happened: I got tired of Krispy Kremes. I’d eat one occasionally and enjoy it, but I stopped getting excited.

My journey with doughnuts loosely resembles my journey with the Bible. I’m certainly not claiming that Krispy Kremes are divinely inspired. I’m saying that at one point, every truth in the Bible was as yet unexplored by me. Now, after four years of seminary and another four years of ministry jobs—not to mention fifteen plus years of sermons, Sunday school, Bible studies, small groups, youth camps, etc.—I have more than a passing familiarity with it.

I remember a professor from my first year of seminary talking about how it was hard for him to read the Bible devotionally. He has spent decades studying, writing about and teaching the Bible for his work, and he often struggled to see what new thing the Bible had to say to his life on a given day. I have not studied the Bible as long or as intensely as my professor did, and I haven’t gone nearly as far as he has toward plumbing the depths of devotional truths from the Bible, but I can relate to his struggle. I do believe that familiarity with the Bible can sometimes make it hard to see with fresh eyes how the Spirit wants to use God’s word to shape us.

For me, I recently received those eyes from an unexpected source: reading the Bible in Khmer. I had some anxiety about how difficult it would be to read the Bible in Khmer, and it is certainly challenging. But it’s also been rewarding.

When reading the Khmer Bible for the first time, the first thing you notice is that there are many words that are different from everyday Khmer. That’s because Khmer uses a completely different vocabulary when talking about royalty. Not only does that apply to the many kings and queens of the Bible, but the most widely used translation applies the royal vocabulary to God and Jesus. It can be hard to read all the unfamiliar royal vocabulary, but it does make it easier to remember that Jesus came to earth to do more than be my friend. He came to establish a kingdom.

For example, consider the phrase from John 3:16 (I give credit to Lauren for this example): “God gave his one and only Son.” In America, I usually hear this verse preached in the context of the warm feelings that parents have for their children. In this reading, God’s plan is risky because it puts God’s only son, for whom he must have great affection, at risk. But Khmer uses the royal word for son here. The word could also mean prince or royal heir. The emphasis in the Khmer Bible is that God gave his only heir, the one who is supposed to carry on the royal line. God’s plan is risky because it puts the whole kingdom at risk.

Both American and Khmer cultures offer valid insights, but I would argue that this royal reading of John 3:16 probably offers more insight into the cultural context of the verse’s original audience. It is valuable to read these verses through the eyes of people more influenced by royal dynasties than by helicopter parenting.

In Cambodia, widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor still need protection. The spirit world is an everyday preoccupation. There are temples in every neighborhood, and most people make frequent offerings to stone idols. Daily bread (or in most cases, rice) is not at all a given. All of these things are major concerns of the Bible, but in the US, we usually either gloss over these passages or spend a lot of time contextualizing them to something that makes sense to us. But in Cambodia, many of these passages apply directly to the lives of Cambodians with little explanation needed. By reading the Bible in Khmer alongside Cambodians, I see significant themes in the Bible that are very hard to notice in an American context.

New words, interesting translation choices, and different grammar help me see things I’ve never noticed before in the Bible. In fact, just the act of having to read so much more slowly than I do in English, laboring over every word and trying to work out each phrase, helps me see new things.

You may not be able to learn a new language just for reading the Bible, but I encourage you to think about how you can find ways to see the Bible with fresh eyes. Try studying the Bible with someone of a different culture, perhaps by volunteering at a ministry that works with international populations. Ask people how their Bible translates certain words and what certain verses mean in their culture. You could experiment with reading a different English translation. This might make you slow down a bit and process what you are reading. Finally, as you shift into new seasons of your life, ask how old passages might have new relevance.

About a year or so after we moved to Cambodia, Krispy Kreme opened its first store here. I may have gotten tired of it in the US, but it was a sight for sore eyes in my new home. It had some new flavors that you won’t find in an American store (I’m looking at you, butter cheese doughnut; and don’t get me started on the pork floss doughnuts they sell at Dunkin’ Donuts in Vietnam; I could write a whole different blog post on that monstrosity), making it both new and familiar at the same time, and I could appreciate it in a new way in a new country. And most importantly, they have cream-filled doughnuts that aren’t crispy.

I pray blessings on your journey to find a perspective from which to read the Bible that lets it be both new and familiar to you.