Tuesday, July 10, 2018

THE WORLD'S LONGEST SCARF

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

STATUS SYMBOL

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

PAIN AND PRIDE


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

OF BIBLES AND DOUGHNUTS

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.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

HAVE A LISTEN: JAMES ONE

As we mentioned before, we are working through the book of James with one of our Khmer language tutors. It's been a lot of fun to dig into the text as we learn what words the Khmer bible uses to translate verses, what Cambodian people might imagine when they hear these words, and how it is different than the ways we have thought about these verses when reading them in English in America.

We often share photos here on our blog, but we thought this week you might like to have a listen, instead of the usual take a peek.

Below is a video of James 1:1-4. You can see the passage in the Khmer language and hear Lauren reading it video below. 


Monday, February 5, 2018

TAKE A PEEK: PASTORS' MEETING


Last week, we were invited to attend a meeting of the pastors that make up the leadership of the Cambodia Baptist Union. These pastors, from all over Cambodia, come to Phnom Penh once every month or every other month to pray for each other, fellowship and discuss CBU business.

We enjoyed attending this meeting for several reasons. First, we have been wanting to meet more of the pastors that we will be working with in the future. These connections should prove valuable as we transition into developing more ministry projects. Second, we were encouraged by the fellowship of these pastors. We worshiped together through song, through prayer and through hearing about the things God is doing through each of their ministries. Finally, we appreciated hearing their prayer requests. We have been praying for these pastors for a long time now, but to hear them share their requests directly made us feel even more a part of the work they are doing.

We were honored by the invitation to join (especially since it means that everybody thought our language skills were finally good enough to mostly keep up), and we hope that this is the first of many opportunities to encourage and be encouraged by our fellow Christian workers. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

THRIVING

If I were to describe 2016, our first full year here, it would go something like: hold on tight and put one foot in front of the other. Go to class, pass your tests, buy your groceries, don't let ants completely take over your apartment...and give up trying to have the energy for much more than that. Culture shock, construction zones, insane heat and the element of unknown mixed into every aspect of our life all combined to make 2016 overwhelming. The year became about showing up and praying for the best. For a chronic overachiever, it was a gut check to hope to only get by.

For me, though, 2017 was about roots. After barely surviving in 2016, I wanted to put down some roots and settle into life and work in Cambodia. Our community here, while still small, grew. Our love and understanding of the people in our church deepened. Our growing language and cultural understanding gave our interactions a lot more nuance. I started to love living in Phnom Penh. We spent the whole year without moving apartments (it's been a long time since that happened!). We bought a car and explored outside of our well worn pathswe saw some of the countryside and a few of the city's hidden corners. We even got to spend 3 months in the US connecting with friends, family and supporters which left us feeling deeply connected on both sides of the ocean.


2017 was still a very challenging, very humbling year, but it was about more than just not falling over. It was about stabilizing, sending down roots, going deeper.

Now that we are already a couple of weeks into 2018, I've spent some time thinking over the coming year, planning and setting goals. So, what's my hope for 2018? My hope for the year could be summarized by the word thrive. After hanging on and then sending out roots, I'm praying this year I'll see many of my relationships, goals and work sprout and send up green shoots. I hope our language abilities finally transition from being able to just communicate to being able to really listen and fully understand the Cambodians we have gotten to know or with whom we hope to build relationships. I hope it's a year where everyday life here not only doesn't drain me, but becomes normal enough that I have the energy to mine the environment around me for the gems of life and inspiration it holds.

As I have begun to absorb the culture on this side of the world, I've started to let go of making big, detailed plans for the days, weeks or even months ahead. I've started, instead, setting goals with an eye toward the next quarter or year, sometimes for the next few years. Before moving here, I never would've guessed it would take two years of ground work for me to even begin thinking about actively thriving here. But now? It makes sense.

I heard a story a while back about bamboo, and maybe you have heard it too. Apparently, there is a kind of Chinese bamboo that requires you to water it everyday, give it sunshine, and maintain it. But for the first whole year there's no noticeable growth. The same goes for the second year. And the third whole year! You constantly care for it, but there are no signs of life above the soil. Yet, in the forth year, a sprout appears and before you know it, the shoot doubles and triples each week until it has grown over 90 feet in 6 weeks.

(Full disclosure: some further internet research gives me some conflicting ideas about how factually true this story is, but I'm going to run with it anyway! It's at the very least a good parable.)

I won't push the metaphor too far, as we have seen some sprouts from our work in much less than 4 years, but this story resonated with me. Sometimes there is a lot of work that has to take place underground before you have any evidence of growth, and sometimes that work takes whole years. It takes patience and faith and a hand to the plow. But one day, Lord willing, those sprouts do come up above the soil. Eventually you have a tall, sturdy, thriving tree.

So, this year I am hoping, praying and working towards thriving. I hope you thrive this year, too. If you're not there yet, take heart. God meets you in the hanging on and the below-the-surface years, too. But, in 2018, I'm praying the ground is finally stirring under us all.