A decade is quite a long time and quite a lot can happen. It’s been great reflecting on what happened and how God has been at work during this time. This is quite a long post, so get yourself a cup of tea, sit down, relax and read. (Or, simply skip to the highlights reel at the end.)
I was working my first “real” jobs after having left university. I was a part-time youth worker at a church and a part-time teaching assistant at a sixth-form college. Possibly the most important part of this year was the people I came to meet.
First, the Bemrose family joined our church. They were to have a massive impact on many people in the church. Their warmth, hospitality and generosity will have an eternal legacy they probably don’t even realise.
Second, Duncan came back from somewhere in the antipodes. At first, he thought I was weird. Later, he knew I was weird. We had a quickly-forming, slightly bizarre and irreverent friendship. Duncan would have an influence over how the end of the decade would pan out, and takes whatever opportunity he can to remind me.
There were of course people who had a massive influence on me this year, but I knew them already. Also, there are others that I may have met somewhen in 2010-2011, but not so sure.
I moved house! Twice. I moved out of my parents house to the St Denys area of Southampton. At first I was in a house with a slightly strange vibe. The landlady (who was on one of the Olympic sailing teams) decided to sell the house so I had to move again. This new house would introduce me to a wide array of people. I can say I was very blessed as pretty much all of my house mates were great. That’s quite unusual.
The Deakin and Bradbury families joined in a blessed union. I played keyboard at their wedding. I almost vomited from stage fright.
My brother got engaged, then swiftly left to live in Palestine. His fiancée just as swiftly got to work with wedding arrangements.
Sadly, my grandmother died this year.
I decided that I would be moving on from my jobs the summer of the following year; however, I felt God wanted me to stay in Southampton. Therefore, I applied for two routes. One was a post-graduate conversion course into medicine. The other was for a PGCE course as a secondary school teacher. This decision meant God was going to teach me a number of lessons about following his will the following year.
This year was quite a momentous year for me, both in terms of hearing and understanding God’s will, but also in terms of the track I would end up going on.
In January, I had my PGCE interview. Most of the places had already been filled so there were three candidates for one place. I didn’t get the place. Okay, I thought, medicine it was to be, then. So, I had to wait for the results of that application.
One morning, some weeks later, I was sitting in the college staff room, when I had a ridiculously strong sense that the results of my application were in. It was almost an audible voice. I logged onto the application website, and sure enough, moments previously, the results had been updated. My application had failed, it told me. I had no options left. My PGCE application got me nowhere; my medicine application had been denied.
I went to the bathroom and (mostly silently) railed against God. I told him, in no uncertain terms, that it was unfair. I told him that I knew he wanted me in Southampton, but I needed a job in order for it to happen. So I told him that he needed to sort it out. I was angry and frustrated.
That same afternoon, I decided I would go to my parents; it being a place of refuge and solace. To get there, I had to take a train. While waiting on the platform, I received a phone call. It was from the coordinator of the PGCE program I had applied to. Some positions has opened up; I was asked to reinterview for the course. That time I was successful.
This process was quite an important one for me. There’s a saying that “when God closes one door, he opens another.” Well, that hasn’t been my experience. It’s usually, “God closes all the doors until stubborn Thomas finally concedes it’s God’s job to sort it out, not his.” I’m not talking about a passively lying on the floor waiting for God to wave a magic wand. It’s just that I have a small, slight, barely significant (read: huge, massive) problem with clinging onto control and diving headlong into what I think is best. God has to remind me to stop and talk to him about it first.
This process had another important consequence, one that I would only realise the following spring. It gave me an unswerving confidence that God wanted me to be a teacher. It was one of the main things that kept me going through 2013.
In the summer of 2012, I was introduced to WEC and the idea of cross cultural mission. Duncan pestered me to help at WEC’s teenage summer camp. For this, I’m very thankful. Obviously, I was aware of world mission, as a distant, interesting but personally irrelevant concept. It was this camp that prompted me to pray about whether world mission was for me. I asked God if I should go, and if so, where. The answer was instant. It was Cambodia.
September 2012 was massive for the Ashmead family. I started my teacher training. Only days later, my brother got married.
This year was probably the most difficult of my life to date. Training to be a teacher is tough. It is tough in a school you like and feel a part of. If you are in a school you don’t quite fit in with, it is really hard. I was even told at one point that teaching wasn’t for me. These words are ones I still carry with me, and often give rise to terrible moments of self doubt. I am probably still clinging onto some bitterness and have perhaps been somewhat unforgiving about how I was treated during that part of my teacher training. I think that letting go of that part of my life is long overdue.
However, as I was confident that God wanted me to be a teacher, the thoughts of others had little to do with it. Therefore, it gave me the conviction to persevere. Despite some tears and heart-ache, I knew I should continue. I remember thinking, at some points, “Well, God thinks otherwise, so you are wrong.” (There were other pedagogical or practical reasons why they were wrong, but God has the last word on the matter.)
On the plus side, my placement at the difficult school was ended and I went back to a school I thoroughly enjoyed working at. I even got a 12-month job there for the following academic year.
I went on my first short-term mission trip. Yes, short-term trips have an ambiguous place in the world of cross cultural missions. (Who do they serve? Who are they for? Do they help or hinder?) This was probably a significant trip as quite a few on those on the trip continued to pursue mission in one form or another. The trip was to South East Asia and I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the team. I was blessed to get to know some amazing, faithful believers.
I began my first year as a newly qualified teacher. PGCEs don’t really equip you for teaching. You’re working with dozens of people each day, and each person brings a seemingly infinite capacity for surprises. A PGCE (and teaching in general) equips you with two important skills: ploughing on regardless of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and the ability to pick yourself up and dust yourself off. If you have a bad lesson you have to get to the end by hook or by crook. Furthermore, when you finally reach the end, there may be as little as 30 seconds to get over it and to mentally prepare yourself for the next class. You also learn to moderate your emotions and to process your thoughts, experiences or frustrations at a later, more appropriate time. You’re also taught to be reflective. You almost form the ability to stand outside yourself and see the events as an observer would. The challenges of teaching, I think, have definitely helped me adjust to life in Cambodia. There’s been lots of picking myself up and dusting myself off (sometimes literally).
I returned to South East Asia again on my second short-term mission trip. Again, this was significant for a quite few of the team.
In 2013, the first of my lovely nieces was born. That was certainly a significant change for the whole Ashmead family.
As far as I am aware, 2014 was much of a muchness. God continued to prepare my heart for mission and confirm my calling to Cambodia.
My job at my school was difficult. It always had been a challenging school to work out. However, during 2015, I wanted out. This enabled me to take the plunge to ask for a sabbatical year and apply for a yearlong short-term trip to Cambodia.
Then something interesting happened, I fell back in love with my job. Perhaps I needed the discomfort in order to actually move me forward.
This was a momentous year. This is when this blog starts, so if you want more detail, search the archives.
I left the home I moved into in 2011; a few months later, I left the UK. In July, I arrived very jet-lagged into a hot and dusty Phnom Penh. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. However, within less than a few weeks, I had fallen head over heels in love with Cambodia.
I met Vitou, first as a reliable tuk tuk driver. This quickly turned into an enduring friendship. When you move to a foreign country, it’s often helpful to have a person you go to with any quandaries or problems. Vitou was this person to me.
My first few months was spent learning basic Khmer. Then, in October I moved to Siem Reap to start working in the project school WEC had there. It was a bit of a slow start and I learned a lot about the practicalities of such a project and also a bit into how Cambodian culture worked.
The first half was extremely blessed. I thoroughly enjoyed living in Cambodia, despite an array of challenges. I realised returning to the UK would be hard. Even before my plane tires hit Heathrow airport, I decided I would be returning to live in Cambodia.
Starting back at my previous school was hard. The second half of the year was hard. The academic year started with a significant bereavement in the school community. Ofsted quickly arrived on the back of this. Then there were endless changes to classes and syllabuses, as well as regular mock exams. A long term sickness added extra pressure to the department. As a result, despite not having a GCSE class I still had to mark a set of exam papers at a rate of once every month. This was on top of the extremely large load of marking I had for my own teachers. The previous teacher in my classroom did not have the opportunity to tidy her classroom before she left. She was a prolific hoarder and had left three skips worth of trash to be disposed of. This process took a number of weeks. Finally, I was chronically missing Cambodia. It was hard.
I was living with my parents at this point, but I doubt they saw me. Most evenings, I got home and went to sleep.
An opportunity to teach in HOPE school, an international school in Cambodia, had come up. In fact there were two opportunities. I applied for both and either. HOPE has two campuses: one in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap. They both needed and English teacher. I applied to the school, saying I was happy to choose where I went.
(There is a more thorough overview here.)
I interviewed for the job at HOPE and was successful. They didn’t let me know until some months later which city I would be in, but that was fine. Finally, I found out it was in Phnom Penh. There was a little grieving in this decision (there would have been if the other decision was made).
The job of packing up to go happened all over again. This time it was far more thorough, expecting for it to be far more permanent. Finally, I said my goodbyes and began at HOPE school.
The second part of 2018 was great. My friendship with Vitou and his family continued to deepen.
(There is a more thorough overview here.)
This started and ended on holiday with Vitou. In January, I went to Mondulkiri with him. The first months of 2019 were challenging: heat, mosquitoes, power cuts, water issues. The sound of a fan being switched off still makes my stomach churn, because from February-April it usually indicated a power cut and a long, hot, sleepless night.
My second, equally delightful niece was born. My other grandmother passed away too.
At the very end of 2019, I moved house. I have in fact moved into a house with Vitou and his family. Then for the last few days, we headed to the coast and spent a few days mainly lying in hammocks.
- Biggest events: Stephen’s wedding, the birth of my nieces, moving to Cambodia.
- Biggest challenges: my teacher training year, learning Khmer.
- Biggest transformation: not considering cross-cultural mission to being pretty involved. I think I’m more open-handed with my plans and open-minded to possibilities.
- Biggest thanks: James Bemrose, for listening to all the tears and tales of 2013; my awesome colleagues that guided me through teaching; Peter Short, my pastor for displaying a faithful work in Christ; of course, my long-suffering parents. There are so many people who joined with me in this decade that deserve thanks. So if that’s you, thank you.
- Biggest surprise: moving and loving living in Cambodia. If someone told me that in 2010, I’d have laughed or been concerned for their health.
- Biggest lessons: submitting plans to God, relying on God’s perspective on a situation, that God does speak to us.
- Significant verse to sum it up: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6 NIVUK