Loving Cambodia

Many years ago, someone said to me that you haven’t truly settled in a country until you can talk about what is wrong about it. Now, this person has probably forgotten they said this by now. But I remember it because I remember my strong reaction to it. My exact immediate thoughts would be too strong to write here. Fortunately, I managed to hide my feelings somewhat. (I’ve actually written about this incident on the blog already, so 10 stars if you can find out where it’s mentioned before!)

Also, I sometimes find it hard to be around expats. This is because expats like to moan and complain and I hate it. I have actually had to walk away from a group of people because of what they said about Cambodia. Also, I was quite blunt with someone when they said that they didn’t get the sense of recipes being passed down through the centuries when eating Khmer food. I did point out that a genocide may have been a contributing factor. (It’s also really not true; if you actually go to eat nice Khmer food, you’ll realise it’s really nice.)

This frustration around criticising Cambodia is because of a simple reason. God called me to love Cambodia. “Well, you can still love Cambodia and find it hard!” you might cry. This is true. I often find it hard and I will be honest about it. But that, most of the time, it isn’t Cambodia’s fault. It’s just life. And it isn’t an excuse for a critical attitude. It is easy to become cynical and weary, especially when you’re sweaty, hot and tired. But, as I like to say, cynicism is just a Poundland version of wisdom. It’s cheap, easy, and worth very little.

There’s also a very clear Biblical passage on what love is meant to look like. It’s often now used for weddings, but its use was not isolated to just that.

Love is patient with Cambodia and Cambodians; love is kind (in thought, word and deed) to this country.
Love does not become jealous with Cambodians' ease in this country.
Love does not boast about its own customs or country. Love does not think itself better than Cambodia.
Love is not rude to Cambodians. It does not demand that it's own needs, culture and customs be respected above that of the Cambodians.
Love does not keep a record of the wrongs of Cambodia and discuss them endlessly.
Love does not delight in the injustice of global wealth and poverty and rejoice in our own unfair opportunities and privileges.
Love delights when the truth of God's love and justice wins out in this nation.
Love does not give up on Cambodia; love never loses faith in the gospel in Cambodia, is hopeful for transformation, and endures through every circumstance Cambodia throws at it.

Prophecy and speaking Khmer and Mnong and Kraol and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever.
How can you not love a country with sunsets like this?

British phrases #1

I’ve written about British communication styles before. However, the more live here, the more I realise how much of what we say has additional meanings or purposes. The problem is that when used with those from a different culture, especially when English isn’t their first language, those meanings or purposes get lost. I thought I’d start collating them on this blog, just for some fun.

This weeks phrase was “Am I right in thinking that…?” or simply, “is that right?”

British people do use it for clarification and to avoid confusion. However, this phrase has an additional purpose.

Today, I have a meeting with my supervisors. I know that they are particularly busy at the moment with a lot to think about. The meeting had not been mentioned since it’d been arranged and it was one of those things that could easily fall through the gaps.

So I sent a message to one of them saying “I’ve got a meeting written in my diary for tomorrow. Is that right?” Now, I knew with 99.9% certainty that I was right. So why did I ask?

First, it was to check that my supervisor had remembered without accusing him of having forgotten. I knew that he is very efficient and usually remembers these things, but like I said, he has a lot on. He’s only human so he may have forgotten. So, I wanted to gently check that it was still on without causing a fuss.

Second, if he had forgotten and had subsequently double-booked himself, it would give him the opportunity to pretend that I had made the mistake. This isn’t lying, because we’d both be well aware of the actual situation. But, to save him any embarrassment, we would both pretend that I had got myself confused. He could have replied with “Oh, I didn’t think we’d set a date yet” or “Isn’t it next week?” We would then rearrange the meeting and no one would have to admit any real fault and there’d be no unnecessary embarrassment.

Third, if he hadn’t forgotten and it was still on, he could easily reply, “No, that’s correct!” And we’d meet as previously planned.

However, my supervisor isn’t British. I realised afterwards that this additional purpose would have been lost on him and that perhaps I just looked stupid.

Would you have picked up on those additional meanings? (Sometimes it will get lost on Brits too.) Also, I’m interested in native English speakers that aren’t British. Would you have realised what I meant?

The cracks are starting to show…

Missionaries often have a reputation of being holy, serene and really spiritual people. I believed this too when I first started, but I soon realised I was wrong. For those who count themselves as missionaries, what I’m about to say will be no surprise to you. To others, you may have heard this, but do not yet quite believe this. Missionaries are broken, unholy and sinful. I would say, we are just like everyone else. I might go as far to say we are even worse.

Believe it or not, we squabble, get frustrated, offend people, throw petty tantrums (with others and with God). We develop saviour complexes; we go through seasons of being arrogant and believing that God called us because we are special and have the answers. We delude ourselves that God wants us to save the world. We fail in our Bible reading and our prayer life. We can be bad tempered. We try to do too much. We get caught up in ourselves and forget the important things. We continuously gets it wrong while trying to maintain the facades of getting it right, lest we be found out.

However, there is a painful privilege of being a missionary, and that is of the refiner’s fire. When you first arrive in your new country, you are suddenly like a young child. You literally know nothing. You don’t recognise half the things in the shops and markets; everything is unintelligible; even crossing the road becomes a totally different process. Nearly everything you took for granted is gone. Suddenly you are utterly dependent on others and on God.

In the first stage of arrival, praying constantly is easy. “Lord, give me strength and wisdom to go to the market and buy the food that won’t make me sick. Lord, help me understand what is happening.” I have a special travelling prayer: “Lord, keep me safe or make it quick.” Amen.

That stage comes and goes and after a while you become adept at surviving. But God isn’t done with you yet. Throughout the years we experience culture shock, frustrations, unexpected obstacles, leaks, floods, hot season, rats, mosquitoes, ants, bed bugs, power cuts, sickness, trying to survive a pandemic in a country where you don’t understand what is happening, other missionaries, lack of faith of the locals, your own lack of faith, not seeing progress and the fruits of your labour, feeling unappreciated. It can be hard. And the worst part of it is that it reveals to you how sinful you are. I can be short tempered. I can be resentful. I can be nasty. Not a little bit nasty like a frustrated cat; I can be a sly, spiteful, sharp-tongued, serpent spitting venom when I feel cornered. The missionary life (and I am told marriage is the same) is a mirror that shows you for who you really are. It’s also an x-ray machine, exposing what lies beneath the veneer of respectability. Missionaries are nice people, except when we are not. And that turns out to be a lot of the time.

But there’s two things that we can do with this horrifying information. We can become hardened and bitter. We can focus on the problems of other missionaries (because, don’t worry, they’ll have them too). We can establish a martyr complex. We can complain and close our hearts to those around us. This does happen.

The other thing we can do is realise we are in complete and total need of Jesus. His grace and power alone can sustain me. I’m becoming more and more convinced that God didn’t send me here to save the locals. God sent me here to save me from myself.

I’ve downloaded the Church of England’s “time to pray” app, that guides you through the morning and evening prayers found in The Book of Common Prayers. Every day it starts with “O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.” Everyday we need saving. We need saving from our spiteful, supercilious, self-centred, sinful selves. Everyday, we need God’s assurance of salvation and his power to help us.

And my hope is, that eventually, God chips away at me enough, that the cracks grow large enough, the veneer wears down so thin that the love and grace of God in me shines through. I hope that the grace that I cling to and the mercy that upholds me becomes what people see. I don’t want people to say “Thomas is such a holy, serene and spiritual person.” I want people to say, “Thomas is broken and weak; but his God is good.” I want the cracks to start showing my beautiful salvation.

Podcast: Phnom Penh in Lockdown

I have a new project (which will probably be short-lived)! A podcast. I chose this format because I have done videos in the past but trying to do them when you’re not sweaty and gross has been hard. Podcasts are easier as you only have to worry about the microphone and not what you look like.

I had a few problems with getting WordPress to agree to this (it’s still on-going – it decided to change the embed code to a random link). This is about attempt number 6 to get it to publish here, so rather than embed it, just follow the link below!

https://thomasincambodia.buzzsprout.com/1755649/8361125-phnom-penh-in-lockdown

(Just a note, this was recorded when the COVID-19 cases were somewhat lower than they are now.)

Mark 9: 30-37: childlike foolishness

This passage is only seven verses long. However, it holds a message that has really been shaping my faith recently, as well as holding a lot of other lessons on how (not) to behave. In it, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be handed over to men and he will die. How do they respond? They bicker about who is the best out of them.

Now, imagine this. You have just been given a terminal diagnosis. You know soon you are going to die and it is probably a terrifying, daunting, sad prospect. So, of course, you tell your close family and friends. But rather than supporting you and consoling you, a fight breaks out. They start telling each other that they are better than the rest. Imagine how that would make you feel? This is pretty much what is happening to Jesus right now.

Jesus, knowing them pretty well, knows what the argument was about. He tells them that they need to stop worry about who is the greatest but who is the least. In fact, they need to be like children: utterly dependent on their father and having no status away from their family. I wrote about this in a blog post about 2 Peter 1. We often kid ourselves that God wants us to join in his work because we’ve got something important to contribute. Imagine the thought process in that. “Oh, I have been called to this work because God needs me.” I know I often fall for this trap. God does not need me whatsoever. He is wholly able to solve any problem or do any task infinitely better than I am. So, if I start thinking God needs me to do this, I am clearly missing the point.

However, God choose me. He chooses me despite my lack of qualifications, my inability, my sin. It’s like a really bizarre job interview process. My CV is scant and lacking. My references are appalling (God knows all my sin and failings) Yet he gives me the job because I am his son. It is the biggest case of nepotism I can think of.

So, I need to learn to live each day reminding myself, “I am just a foolish, dependent, needy child who is in the care of his heavenly Father.” I need to put aside all thoughts that God chose me because of my abilities and I need to really humble and submit myself into the hands of the Lord.

This may seem like I’m unnecessarily destroying my self-esteem for no reason. But have you ever seen a child play? When they make tea for their dolls or race their cars, they don’t care whether they are good enough to do that. They don’t worry, “Am I adequate enough to stack blocks?” It’s not stifling; it’s freeing! You are not good enough to do God’s work but you still get to do it anyway! It’s through God’s power and help that you accomplish great things. It’s such a privilege that God would use a loser like me.

Mark 9:1-29 – Transfigured and transformed

I don’t know about you, but the transfiguration passage in Mark (and it’s equivalent elsewhere) is probably the part of the gospels I find the hardest to wrap my head around. It seems relatively unbelievable. It’s one of the passages that I read with a hardened heart (much like the disciples hardened their heart after Jesus calms the storm previously). It all seems a bit too nebulous and, dare I say it, weird. I don’t know how to respond to this passage.

Peter and the other disciples, too, don’t know what to do. They are fearful by what they see. I suppose I am also fearful of this scene. It challenges my predefined ideas of what is acceptable and also pushes against my logical and empirical sensibilities. (Thanks, Enlightenment scholars for that heritage.) So, I often try to overlook this passage. (“Whoops, that’s obviously there by accident. Let’s move on.”)

As Peter babbles on — even in front of a transfigured Jesus and two dead prophets, he finds it hard to shut his mouth — God interrupts him. God says to the disciples, “This is my Son, whom I love! Listen to him!”

Listen to him. Now that’s something I often fail to do. I get caught up in busybody work. Maybe that’s my version on babbling on. Am I scared to really listen, to look upon Jesus and see him for what he is? Will I cry, “Away from me, for I am a sinner?” Will I find having everything I believe confronted to uncomfortable? So, I frantically fill the silence with “helpful work” and, I tell myself, “God’s work”. But really, God tells us what he wants us to do in the light of a resurrected Jesus. God wants us to listen to the Son he loves.

After Jesus returns from the transfiguration, the disciples that were left behind were in a bit of a bind. They were in a crowd and there was a quarrel. The argument centres around a demon possessed boy.

Jesus is able to heal the boy where the disciples could not. Although this transformation of circumstances is miraculous, I find the transformation in the heart of a desperate father more so. The father, just before Jesus heals his son, says, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

How many times have I cried that? I do believe. I want to believe. I want to believe the transfiguration. I want to believe that Jesus indwells in me. I want to believe I can be transformed and transfigured. Help me overcome my unbelief!

Jesus’s belief doesn’t come from nowhere though. Jesus’s power comes from prayer. Not some incantation, but daily, faithful prayer and communion with the Father. That is what overcomes unbelief.

Lord God

Transform me. Change my heart. I want to believe but my faith is as small as a mustard seed. Help me overcome my unbelief. Let me come with childlike wonder at your Word. Help me to listen to your Son, whom you love.

In Jesus’s holy name, Amen.

Mark 8:22-38 – Are you for Jesus or Satan?

In this passage, we continue to see how we can still be ignorant of Jesus’ plans in our lives. We see the motif of blindness and it seems to echo what is happening in Peter.

Jesus heals a blind man, but the revelation of sight is a gradual process. The man can see the figures before him, but can’t truly recognise them for what they really are. Later, we see Peter confess that Jesus is the messiah. He can see the figure before him. He knows who Jesus is. But he cannot really recognise who the Messiah is. Peter’s understanding of who is before him is very limited.

Peter has grown up with this preconceived idea of what a Messiah would do. You couldn’t really blame him; it is based on Scripture. However, as we saw in yesterday’s passage, the disciples (and much of society around them) have an extremely worldly perspective. Their concerns before were bread and hunger. The concerns that shaped the interpretation of Scripture that Peter obviously believes are very human too. They deal with human kingdoms and politics and power. Jesus cam to deal with the cosmic and spiritual realms. Compared to what Jesus was here to do, Peter’s vision is tiny.

Yet, Peter is completely set on this idea. He is so set in fact, that when Jesus suggests that the plan is different, Peter tells Jesus off. Imagine that conversation: in one breath Peter says that Jesus was sent by God and in the next tells Jesus he can’t do what he wants to do. If Peter was right in the first instance, he is definitely overstepping the mark. As a result, Jesus actually says Peter is Satan.

Here, Peter is being used by Satan to get in Jesus’ way. Peter’s perspective actually doesn’t forward God’s plan, but instead promotes Satan’s agenda. The question is, when do we behave like Peter? When do we get in Jesus’s way and when do we act, by accident, on behalf of Satan? Peter loved and followed Jesus, even believed he was the Messiah. And yet, he could still get it so wrong that Jesus would tell him he was doing Satan’s work. We can love and follow Jesus and still do Satan’s work.

The next passage tells us how to avoid this pit fall. We need to be completely submissive to Jesus’s plan in our lives. We need to crucify ourselves and deny ourselves. Now often we turn that into something frankly pathetic. We turn this submission into giving a small sum to charity while we still live in the highest comfort compared to most the world’s population. We turn it into petty sacrifices, like opening our home to a Bible group once a week. We think we deny ourselves when we stand in the rain for street ministry. But the we go back to our flat screen TVs, plush couches, play on our state-of-the-art phones, and live our lives in abundance and comfort. We pursue our dreams and our desires. We plan our lives out according to our or our society’s values.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am no better. Often people will paint my life as one of difficulty and hardship. It is not. It is quite different to the one I was previously used to and the life of those back home. But it is no less comfortable and filled with the trapping of materialism. It is no less determined by my own desires and plans and dreams. I have simply replaced one set of distractions and dreams for another.

Norman Grubb, a famous missionary, would pray each morning, “Good morning, God. What are you up to today? I want to be part of it. May I? Thank you.” He would want to put his own desires and dreams for the day aside each day, and do his will.

“Good morning, God. What are you up to today? I want to be a part of it. May I? Thank you”

Norman Grubb

So let’s live each day by submitting our desires and will to our heavenly Father so that Jesus may work in us and through us. Let’s do Jesus’s work today. Amen.

Mark 8:1-21 – Sourdough and signs

This passage can be obscure in some places, and we perhaps feel a bit like the disciples when reading it. However, there is one thing that is clear in the passage: it is easy to fail to recognise Jesus for who he actually is.

Throughout Mark, Jesus has performed miracles: healed the sick, opened the eyes of the blind, calmed storms. Here is no exception: he feeds a crowd of at least 4,000. This crowd has been with Jesus for three days. (I often feel like a 90 minute church service drags. Shows how pathetic my thirst for the word is.) Naturally, they are hungry to the point of potentially fainting on the journey back. Now, Jesus hadn’t forced them. They were aware of the risks. When have I ever thought, I feel dizzy and starving, but one more church service? These people obviously did.

So, Jesus feeds them and again multiples bread to a miraculous amount. Another miracle. Then almost immediately, the Pharisees ask for a sign. You can’t help but wonder at their thinking. (One commentary suggests they asked for a particular, apocalyptic sign. But still, Jesus is obviously powerful and has authority, yet they still want to test him.) Jesus does not give them what they are looking for.

Then the disciples get in a boat and they’ve forgotten to bring bread. The disciples squabble and are fixated on this. Jesus tells them something, which although related, is not about the bread. Jesus warns them not to let the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod taint them. This is where a bit of historical context is very helpful.

When we think of making bread and yeast, we often think of the instant yeast packets you get from the baking aisle in supermarkets. That’s not how you made bread in ancient times. It was more like a sourdough. You would keep back a part of the dough, and use it the next day. This process happened pretty much everyday. Take your portion of old day, work it into the new dough, then keep a portion back, and repeat. Therefore, if your dough went bad, it would contaminate all your subsequent doughs. Therefore, Jesus is saying the Pharisees and Herod are a bad batch that have a pernicious potential to contaminate many others, and for a while.

When the disciples hear this, they are still thinking about the lack of bread. In verse 4, they were concerned about the lack of bread too. Previously, they were concerned about the lack of money or food or other resources. The disciples are very concerned about the lack of provision. They have Jesus with them and they still worry about whether they will have enough. Jesus has proven his ability to provide again and again and they still fail to trust that their needs will be met.

They are such bad disciples, aren’t they? We would never doubt or focus on world worries, would we? We are far above that. It’s easy to judge the disciples, especially as they literally have Jesus in front of them. But doesn’t Jesus promise that he will be with us, just like he was with the disciples? Doesn’t he promise to fulfil our needs? Doesn’t scripture reassure us again and again that God cares and provides?

What bad yeast have we been kneading into our lives again and again? What evil, what doubts, what blind spots do we keep back then work into our thinking everyday? What is the source of our bad yeast? We probably can’t blame the Pharisees for this one. Is it consumer culture? Individualist cultures that push self-fulfilment and independence to an unhealthy degree? Old fears? What is your unhealthy yeast?

Mark 7: 31-37: Meeting and healing

Given it was such a short passage at the end of Mark 7, I wondered whether it would have enough to write a blog post about. That was a ridiculous thought, because you could probably write a whole dissertation on a single verse (I’m pretty sure it’s already been done).

In this passage, Jesus is passing through another Gentile area, where a deaf and mute man is brought to Jesus. Jesus takes him away from the crowd. Then he sticks his fingers in the man’s ears, then Jesus touches his own tongue and then touches the man’s. This seems really weird to us. However, one reason that I’ve read about was that the man was deaf, so Jesus had to explain what was about to happen somehow. Jesus was symbolically telling the man that he was about to be healed. Jesus was meeting with the man where he was, responding to his individual condition.

Now, here the verses perhaps have an additional layer for the modern reader. We read about these episodes in term of spiritual deafness and spiritual muteness. Surely, it is my prayer that the ears and tongues of those around me are opened so that they may receive and speak of the glory of Jesus? “Ephphatha!” (“Be opened!”) I also pray it for myself. I am aware that I live a lot of my life in a state of spiritual deafness and muteness.

Also, this passage shows how Jesus wishes to make his healing ministry very much unlike the ministries of tele-evangelists and faith healers. Jesus tried to do it away from prying eyes and the crowds. He also looks to heaven for his power, not to himself. Finally, he asks those who did see it not to talk about it (the efforts of which, were very much in vain). Jesus healed the man for the man’s sake, not for his own fame or glory. Jesus did not want the fame of a faith healer. He wanted to show compassion and he wanted his Father’s glory to be known.

Mark 7:24-30 – the anti-Karen

This passage is quite difficult to read, sometimes. A woman comes to Jesus, asking for help for her possessed daughter, and Jesus, who we know is kind and compassionate, calls her a dog. It’s really jarring and hard for us to understand.

There are a few reasons why this happened. First of all is the relationship between oppressed Israel and the wealthy Syrophoenician region of Tyre. Essentially, they hated each other. Furthermore, the region of Galilee often lost a lot of its resources and wealth to the Syrophoenicians. So, usually, it was the Jewish bread being fed to the Syrophoenicians. (Thanks Biblegateway.com for the resources to know this by the way!)

Second, was that Jesus was a Jewish religious leader, serving the Jews. She was a gentle who didn’t even believe in God. It’d be a bit like me going to a busy Imam, asking he stopped everything he was doing for his Muslim community to help me. Aren’t those in his community his priority? Would it be wrong of me to assume I should have preferential treatment?

Jesus is basically pointing out that she isn’t really in the position to be asking for his help. Who is she that she should think Jesus would help her? She is the least of his worries. First, he has work to do for his fellow Jews.

It’s a bit of a slap in the face. So, the woman does what any of us would do, argue, storm off and make a fuss, demanding that she deserves to be helped and that it’s within her rights to be listened to. Actually, she does the opposite. She agrees with Jesus. She a agrees, through her clever and witty response, that she is a dog, but even sometimes, the dogs get something, even if it is just a tiny bit. This takes great humility on her part. She accepts her status; she acknowledges Jesus’s priority. She also testifies to Jesus’s power. Even a crumb would do; just something tiny from someone so powerful would be enough. And, because she is willing to approach with humility, she is blessed.

The NIV Application Commentary you get with a Biblegateway.com subscription (I’m not advertising or sponsored, but if I were… looks at Biblegateway.com) has been really helpful. It asks what would Jesus have said to us to challenge our pride. I think, Jesus would have probably said I was stupid or foolish (often like he says to the disciples). And I would have left. I would not have stayed around and accepted the insult. My pride would have prevented me from accepting Jesus’s blessing.

I think that we often see in Western society an inflated sense of our entitlement and status. The internet meme sensation of the term ‘Karen’ perhaps exhibits this. (I think this term should be used carefully, because it could be used to police well-meaning people’s behaviour and is somewhat misogynistic.) However, the woman in this story is perhaps the opposite. She accepts that she has no entitlement, priority or influence. Yet, she is still persistent in asking for her help and realises that the blessings are actually for those in her position. So, in her humility, she is given what she came for.