Thursday, January 17, 2019

HOLIDAY ROUND-UP

The last couple of months have been a bit of a whirlwind for us here in Cambodia. We thought you might like to take a peek at some of what has been going on with us here during the holidays. Here are some snapshots!

This year Thanksgiving lined up with Phnom Penh's Water Festival. We decided to scout out some American ingredients around town and cook up a (mostly) traditional meal for ourselves and our Japanese missionary colleagues. The next day we headed out to the countryside to help teach at a university student retreat. The day included a lot of time on one of Cambodia's worst "highways," but it was a real joy to get to spend time with the students and hear from the other teachers and missionaries at the retreat. David also preached his first full length sermon in Khmer in November!

Water festival

Students performing a role play that had us all in stitches 

Eating together with students and other ministers

David's first sermon all in Khmer

Soon after Thanksgiving, Christmas season picked up here in Cambodia. Rather than centering around December 25th, Christmas services are held all throughout the month of December. The Cambodia Baptist Union supported and attended Christmas celebrations for small and brand new churches throughout the country. We were excited to help support this ministry as well as to attend some of the services. We traveled to Battambang province to attend two celebrations in villages there. One of the churches we attended was started in October and anther about a year ago, so it was a real joy to be with these churches on their first Christmas. We also got a chance to meet and talk with several pastors, see several churches and to learn a lot about the theological education by extension classes that are taught there.

CBU Christmas celebrations in the village. Each child receives a small gift after the service. 





Kids preparing to sing and do the motions to a Christmas song at a brand new house church

David giving a quick Christmas lesson at one of the celebrations

We returned back to Phnom Penh so that David could preach at a Christmas celebration at a dorm ministry. We had a quiet Christmas day at home on the 25th, which was restful and meaningful. Finally, we ended December with two more Christmas celebrationsone at the church we attend weekly and one at another dorm church that we attend and David preaches at monthly.


The dorm students performing a special Christmas song they prepared

A quiet Christmas morning at home: complete with a few Christmas decorations and some homemade sausage balls

The children at our church performed a hand bell version of Joy to the World in Christmas tree costumes they created themselves. We were very impressed!

Dorm students performing a Christmas pageant

We started the year with some time to plan, catch up and, for David, work on sermon planning for the year. We also celebrated our 5 year wedding anniversary and renewed our visas. The official and unofficial visa rules have changed considerably over the last few years (sometimes in contradictory ways), so we are very thankful to have our new visa extensions in hand!



Monday, December 10, 2018

MILESTONES

When we first started to learn the Khmer language, we would practice the first few words we had learned with people. It was surprising how many Cambodians would say, with eyes wide, “Oh, wow! You know Khmer!” It seemed like an exaggerated response to my meager efforts, but I was glad that they seemed to appreciate it.

As the months passed, people started paying us a new compliment: “You speak clearly.” My pronunciation was improving. They could understand not just that I was pretending to speak Khmer, but that I could actually say something intelligible.

Recently, after being in Cambodia for three years, a teacher told us, “Talking with you is like talking with Khmer people.” We are still a little puzzled by that. What she clearly does not mean is that anybody would ever confuse us for a Khmer person. We think it must mean that our teacher can talk comfortably around us without “dumbing it down” much. We can speak and respond in a way that allows her to speak naturally around us.


I’ve been thinking about language milestones lately. They often take surprising forms and require a bit of interpretation. None of the milestones I mentioned in the previous paragraphs seemed true to us at the time. I would not say that “I know Khmer” just because I know a few words. I would not say “I speak clearly” when there’s still much I can’t say. Nor would I say I speak like a Khmer person...probably ever! Receiving language feedback is never straightforward and always requires a bit of interpretation and discernment.

I got to put these discernment skills to the test as I recently hit another language milestone. For a while, I was sharing monthly testimonies in the Khmer language at church as a way to help develop my public speaking skills. The first few times I shared, people were polite and moderately encouraging (Cambodians, or at least the ones I know, are almost never effusive in their praise, so “moderately encouraging” seemed significant). But after I had shared a few times, I got a different reaction. They laughed at me! After I said a particular word, a few people repeated it back laughing. Was it the wrong word, the wrong pronunciation, or just a big word they didn’t expect me to know? I’m still not sure. Later on, I stumbled over my words a little, and a couple of people hollered out corrections as I was still speaking. So much for polite and moderately encouraging! I must admit I was a little discouraged when I finished.

As much as I might prefer polite and moderately encouraging, I think this episode marked a language milestone for me. I think people felt that I was advanced enough that they could correct me and I would understand. They could give feedback on my word choice. They could talk to me more like they talk to their own family members and less like they talk to the foreigner that they don’t quite know what to make of. I am less like the new guy who is trying very hard but still sounds like a toddler, and more like the person who’s obviously going to be around a while so we might as well tell him that his grammar was off in that sentence.

It’s not the kind of language milestone I was looking for. I was really hoping my next milestone would be the one where I get non-stop praise and increasing requests to do exactly the kinds of ministries that I want to do. Instead, I get laughed at and interrupted. I can choose to be discouraged, or I can choose to notice a reaction I haven’t gotten before. Something changed. I must have hit a new milestone. I made people comfortable enough to correct me. To heckle me a bit.

Sometimes you just have to take the milestones as they come. Some milestones are more obviously encouraging, while others make me feel a little more vulnerable. But I can’t run from the milestones that makes me feel vulnerable. I have to receive them the same as I receive the praise. And I have to be willing to see through the discomfort to the hidden blessings inside. The path to progress passes through some milestones that don’t seem like milestones.

I pray that both you and I would be able to see progress as it is, not as we wish it would be. I pray that we wouldn’t seek only the progress that makes us feel good, but also the progress that makes us feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. I pray that God would bless you in the midst of milestones that don’t seem like blessings at all.

Since I got laughed at, I’ve preached two full sermons in Khmer. People were, shall we say, polite and moderately encouraging. We’ll see how they really feel after I do a few more. Then I can see what my next milestone is and how I can grow as a result.

Monday, October 29, 2018

THREE YEARS

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

ASSEMBLY POINT

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

FUNDAMENTALS

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

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.