Language differences

I love learning Khmer. I’m getting to the point where I know some really random words but some normal words pass me by. (I know how to say “circumcised” thanks to reading the Bible in Khmer but I still don’t know how to say “different types of” very well.) One of the biggest struggles is where the definition of a word doesn’t fit neatly with an English definition, so I end up writing an insanely long definition to clarify. So this post is about some of the conceptual differences between Khmer and English. This is of course the same with all languages, but I feel that Khmer has rather stark differences in cases (perhaps by virtue of it not being derived from Proto-Indo-European but in a separate language family – but I’m no linguist). It also makes speaking Khmer harder because you have to remember these nuances rather than just directly translating.

Colours

When you’re learning languages at first you learn some basic translations: red = this, blue = that. However, you learn that perceptions of colours are not always the same. Khmer uses colours in ways that English wouldn’t. For example, what we would describe as verdant greens, especially when occurring naturally, Khmer would describe as kheav ខៀវ which is often translated to mean blue.

When you fry meat, you don’t fry it until it is “golden brown” as in English, but until it is “red”. Browny-blond hair (such as mine) is often described as red (which red-heads might see as something sacrilegious or a victory). Dark woods are often red as well.

The pinky sandstone of the temple Banteay Srei is sometimes referred to as gold.

Falling in Cambodia

There are different ways to fall in both English and Khmer. We have different words such as fall (which is mostly general), to tip over, to collapse, etc. The three main ones that give me difficulty are the distinctions between ធ្លាក់ tleak /tleak/, ដួល duol /duəl/, and ជ្រុះ jroh /croh/. Tleak is to fall from a height downwards; to descend. So a waterfall is ទឹកធ្លាក់ (tuk tleak), which is the same as in English.

Duol essentially means to tip over. If you or an object have contact with the ground or a surface, but then find yourself less upright than before, this is the one to use. So if you trip over, you use duol. If you are riding your motorbike, but it slips in the mud, you duol. If, however, you are sitting on the back of a motorbike and not driving it, but fall from it and the motorbike continues, you use tleak.

Jroh is for when something is attached or kept in place and then detaches and falls. So you use this for leaves and fruit falling from trees. Also, if something is in place in your pocket then falls out, this is the version to use.

Hold on tight!

This is where my vocabulary fails and I know there is a distinction between the words but I don’t know what they are yet. Khmer has a different word for carry/hold depending on how you do it. Carrying it on your head, shoulders, back, cradling it in your arms, holding it in your hands, or carrying goods using a bar across your shoulders all have different words. I found this out when reading the Book of Ruth in the Bible. In a part of it, she carries some grain. The translation I was reading told us she was carrying it in a bundle on her head. The English version doesn’t specify this as far as I remember.

You asked for it

One that I always get wrong and my teacher always corrects me on is the word to ask. There is a difference in Khmer between the word to ask a question in order to get information and to ask someone to do something. Because English has no distinction in day-to-day speech (we do in more formal, literary circumstances: to question and to request, etc.), I always use the wrong one.

The struggle

So learning Khmer can be a real struggle. It has alphabet with the most characters in the the world (over 100); there are really difficult sounds and sound combinations; lots of writing and reading rules; and now these differences I have to remember and get used to.

However, this is of course true for any language. And the more I teach English, the more I think I’d rather be learning Khmer.

Why you should become a missionary…

I’ve heard quite a few times that people couldn’t possibly do what I do or that they just aren’t meant to be missionaries. Now, I’m going to ask you, for just a short moment, to ask yourself, “What if I am wrong? What if I am meant to be a missionary?” You’ve probably already listed forty-thousand reasons why you’re not meant to be a missionary and why it’s a stupid thing to even think about. But just let me briefly explain why it could be at least worth considering.

I haven’t been called…

Yes, this is an important one (and somewhat messy and confusing in terms of what it actually means). But the question to this one is how do you know that? If you have got a clear calling for where you are right now, then, yes, you are probably right… for now.

However, if you don’t know without actually knowing, you might just be wrong. One day, my dad was serving turkey and pheasant for my grandparents. My grandmother instantly said she just wanted the turkey because she doesn’t like pheasant. We asked if she had ever tried it, to which she replied “No, I just know I don’t like it.” We all laughed and said that she should at least try a bit. Saying you haven’t been called without considering it is a bit like that. How can you be certain without actually exploring the idea? Exploring the possibility of something then realising it isn’t for you is not wrong. However, closing your mind to the possibility of what God actually has planned for you is disobedience. You’re on a ship to Tarshish, but, unlike Jonah, you don’t actually realise.

I know it can be confusing. It might be because we hear stories of God calling missionaries when they were just out of the womb and were clearly destined to go overseas. Or sometimes, we hear of stories of spectacularly clear and surprising commands to go somewhere particular. However, this is not often the case and it wasn’t for me. I had no inkling that God wanted me to come to Cambodia or even to become a missionary until I asked Him. I had always thought I would be in the UK until I died (except maybe a year in France or somewhere similar just to be extremely middle-class). Then I listened to some missionary speakers and thought, “Oh, maybe I should at least ask God if that’s his plan.” So I prayed and asked. He answered and here I am.

I couldn’t give up what I have

If you’re thinking about your house, car, job and worldly possessions, you’re possibly in for a bit of a shock because of what I am going to say next. You probably shouldn’t become a missionary simply because you might not believe in what the Bible says. Unfortunately, the Bible is very clear that we are not to cling onto worldly things but be willing to offer them for God’s service.

Remember, it was the rich man’s unwillingness to give up everything he had that resulted in Jesus saying it would be difficult for him to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (see Matthew 19:16-24). We often say we are willing to give up everything, but unless you’ve actually asked God if he wants you to, it might just be all talk.

Now, before we go any further, I would like to add that often being a missionary doesn’t mean giving up all home comforts. In fact, my home is amazing. Both the bedrooms have en suite bathrooms; I live near a beautiful lake. I have been able to buy beautiful furniture and accessories. I have a nice motorbike. I have a fridge, air con, washing machine. For many missionaries, the standard of living is very comfortable. So, in your willingness and obedience to offer God what you have, you may find yourself with blessings you did not expect. I’d be a complete hypocrite if I painted a picture that I was a typical missionary martyr. My life is great! God gives us great things to enjoy. But He does not give them to us for us to cling to and squeeze the life out of.

Of course, I do also have the realisation that this might not be forever. I may end up in some remote location, with few amenities and with more difficult conditions. Many missionaries find themselves in these situations. But God is good and faithful even in the midst of harder living conditions.

What about my family?

Leaving family behind can be really hard. Also, the uncertainties of bringing a young family onto the mission field can be complex. This is certainly something, as Kristi and I start our own family, we will have to navigate (but not for a few years yet).

However, God can be trusted with our families. He knows so much better than we do what is good for us and our loved ones. If I didn’t come to Cambodia, I would not have a wife. God knew about my situation and He cared about me having family whilst I was pursuing His call for my life.

Furthermore, a bit after the “camel through the eye of a needle” comment, Jesus makes this statement:

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.

Matthew 19:29

I know that I may never own a house. I left my brother, nieces and parents in the UK. I’ve never owned any fields, but I did leave a very stable and relatively well-paid career as a teacher. But God has provided me with Cambodian friends that have become as close as brothers, and Cambodian nephews to ease the hurt of not seeing my nieces grow up first-hand. This promise can be relied on.

Trust God with your family and your situation. He is so faithful and so good.

I’ve made other plans/dreams/ambitions

If you’ve become a Christian and you’ve submitted your life to the lordship of Christ, you’ve also submitted your dreams and plans to him. So, quite frankly, it’s not up to you. But, on the plus side, God’s plans for you are so much better than your plans. I’m not saying His plans might not involve suffering and pain, but they are still good.

Even 10 years ago, if you had asked me what my future plans were, I’d have said probably living in the UK, teaching. I’d have a house with a cute garden and my life would look quintessentially English. I’d have never, ever considered Cambodia. But God knew what was best and I love it. If God calls me somewhere else now, I would be utterly heart-broken. However, I’d have to remind myself that God was good enough to give me Cambodia, so whatever was next is a part of His perfect will too.

I’ve got nothing to offer

Every person that God uses in the Bible has very little to actually offer. They are always the youngest in the smallest family of the smallest tribe of Israel. Or they have a speech impediment or some other reason that they should not be God’s immediate choice. Remember King Saul? He was pretty much the tallest and most handsome person in Israel. But he was a rubbish king. Remember Mary however? She was a teenage girl from a remote town in an area where everyone was considered a bit dim-witted. She was a faithful servant of God.

Consider also the widow’s offering at the temple. She gave what she had, even though it was so small. However, Jesus considered this offering the the piles of wealth rich people added. Give what you can, even if you don’t think it is much.

What to do now

  • Pray for faith and trust. Ask God to help you trust Him with your situation, whether that’s finances, family, health, work, etc.
  • Submit and humble yourself. Remind yourself that He is God of the universe. He is well within His rights to ask anything of you. However, remember that He is also a good and generous God. Offer that you have to Him.
  • Ask him. Tell God that you are willing to go wherever or do whatever He asks of you. Ask God if He wants you to become a missionary or go to go somewhere. (I asked God to tell me where to go, and He did.) Let God know you are open to receiving signs and direction in your life.
  • Watch this space. It may that you are not called to be a missionary but instead to support mission in another way, through faithfully praying for a missionary (such as me) or financial supporting a missionary or mission organisation. He may speak to you about how to serve your local church, local area or even other organisations too.
  • Speak to other missionaries! Get in touch with mission organisations or even send me a few messages! I’m happy to help.
  • Act on it but be patient too. Sometimes, the plan that God reveals to you might not be for straight away. However, keep pursuing it, walking faithfully and with the faith that God knows what He is doing.

Why is living abroad so exhausting?

When I first moved to Cambodia, in pre-pandemic days that feel like centuries ago, I wrote a blog post about how exhausting living abroad was. I think it still caused confusion as to exactly why I felt so tired. It’s got better, in that I know how to manage it a bit better and I can push myself a bit further. But a new couple arrived in Cambodia recently and said how tired they were. They asked us to pray that their tiredness would get better. I didn’t want to tell them the truth that you are probably always just as tired, but you are simply more used to it.

There are lots of factors that can leave people more tired than normal. Some days I won’t be as tired but other days, I’ll do a little bit and then just go back to bed for an hour. Also, living abroad affects people differently. Some people don’t even find it exhausting, whereas some people will find some aspects more exhausting than others. It can also change depending on your life-stage, how long you’ve been in the country and how much you wish to integrate with the local culture. However, if you are finding life tiring, these might be some of the reasons.

The climate

Cambodia is hot and humid. So, unless you are sitting in a room with air-conditioning, or is very shaded and breezy, you are probably sweating. Even if you are in front of fan, you are probably loosing fluids (it’s just that the fan is doing it’s job and taking the moisture from your skin into the air, helping you cool down).

This means that any activity can be so much more draining. Yesterday, we were going from one shop to another. They were about 600 metres away from each other. However, it was midday, so there were no shadows being cast. It was very humid and we were already carrying shopping. So, we still had to take a tuk tuk, because we knew it would be too hot to walk. (Later in the day, I was able to walk a similar distance between shops because the sun was lower meaning one side of the road was shady.)

Unpredictable storms, sudden downpours, the dust picking up the wind all make the environment we live in different to what we grew up with and therefore different to what our body is used to. You do adapt a bit, but unless you move overseas when you are very young, it’s unlikely your body will get used to it completely.

Rules of life

Imagine you woke up one day and every rule about life had changed. Everyone knew but you somehow missed the memo. This included

  • Where you buy your shopping
  • What side of the road you drove on
  • Road rules (is it okay to cut corners or drive on the pavement?)
  • How you got to places
  • How you paid your bills
  • What money you used
  • The prices for things (what was cheap is now expensive, what was expensive is now cheap)
  • How you drink your water

These are just the practical elements. Then there are the cultural rules. Often people think learning about culture is just a little, often superficial thing (‘This is how you say hello in this country!’). Imagine if you had to learn the following all over again…

  • When and how to say please and thank you
  • What topics are taboo and what is now okay to talk about
  • Table manners
  • When and what you eat at different times of the day
  • How to give gifts
  • How to extend invites, and whom you should invite
  • How to apologise and make amends
  • When you go to bed
  • When you get up
  • How to negotiate prices
  • How to make a joke
  • When to arrive at scheduled events (which will differ for each type of event)
  • How to pass people you know on the street
  • How to interrupt someone
  • How to give advice
  • How you introduce and talk about yourself

Again, it’s very easy to say, “oh in Cambodia, you barter the price”. First, this is not always the case. There are some things you don’t barter for and some places you wouldn’t barter. You need to learn these rules. Second, how do you barter? Do you offer a different price? Do you simply ask if they can drop the price? Do you say about how the product isn’t as good as one you saw the other day from a different store? Do you simply wait? Do you pretend to lose interest? Do you only barter for each item individually, or do you buy a number of items and see if you can get a good price for them altogether? What is considered a good price for that product? What offer would be demeaning? Do you look serious or do you smile when you do it? Is it okay to check the product and take it out of it’s packaging? What questions should you ask (Where is it from? What if it is faulty? Will you replace it?)? How long should the process go on for?

Culture has rules, and these rules have rules. They have nuance that you should try to be aware of.

It’s not only about trying to operate in your host culture, which is exhausting enough, it’s about trying not to operate in your own culture. British culture has so many more rules about what is taboo and about table manners than Cambodia. For instance, in Cambodia, talking with your mouth full is perfectly fine with friends. Asking the price of a recent purchase is also okay. In British culture, these things are rarely acceptable. And it will grate on you. You will have an instant, visceral reaction to it. There have been so many times when I have had to really struggle against my immediate, innate response to situations. It’s usually when something has been said that if a Brit said it would have been rude or hurtful. The person did not realise that there was implied meanings to their words or actions. It is so hard, especially when you are tired, to switch off the part in your brain saying, “if they said that it means they are angry with you!” Sometimes it’s impossible to do it, and you just need to have a good cry and try to move on.

A simple example is the difference in the American/British version of the phrase, “I don’t care.” In American English it is the same as, “I don’t mind.” In British English, it can hold the connotations of “I don’t think much of this discussion. The topic bores me. Stop asking me questions about this. I’d rather not be here with you anyway.” I know that Kristi has learnt not to say it in front of British people. She said it once to her British friend after she asked “where do you want to go out to eat?” and slightly offended her. She said it to me once, and my immediate reaction was one of shock, but I managed to tell the little voice in my brain she just meant “I don’t mind.” However, doing this constantly can be tiring.

Decision fatigue

There is a reason why routines and cultures exist. They prevent you having to think about every small thing and your brain can just do it on autopilot. However, when you move to a new country, you have to think about everything. (When should I go to the shops or to the market? – First thing while it is cool is the answer. Do I drive to the shop or take a tuk tuk? Etc. Etc.)

It’s now recognised by psychologists that humans have a limited capacity for decisions within a day. We’ve all experienced when we’ve had a hard day and we can’t decide what to have for dinner. It’s like we’ve forgotten what we would normally eat or what we enjoy. We cannot even begin to process the options, let alone decide on one. This is decision fatigue.

The automatic decisions barely make a dent in this capacity, whereas when you have to consciously think about the choice it makes a larger dent. The more you’ve eaten into this decision-making capacity, the more difficult it is to make a good choice. (It’s interestingly why supermarkets have an over-abundance of exactly the same product and why car salespeople offer you all these bizarre added extras to your car. They are trying to diminish your capacity to make a good decision – a good decision for you that is.)

Now, when you arrive in a new country, many of those decisions that were once automatic now have to be conscious. This eats into your ability to make good, healthy, sustainable choices. It’s also hard when a lot of these decision have important consequences. The question “What do I have for dinner today?” in Cambodia can translate to “What’s the quickest route to a week of diarrhoea I have available to me?” When you make the wrong choice, it’s not just that you’re left with a dinner you don’t really fancy; this time you’re left with bilharzia.

Establishing routines that keep you healthy and happy can be a long process too. It also means that we can become reliant on comforts such as cafes and expensive supermarkets. They are familiar and easier, but often not sustainable. It can take a concentrated effort to get a sustainable routine in a world that is so different from what you knew.

Second language

Working in a language that is not your own, until you are fluent and comfortable with it, can be tiring. You not only have to think about words, but grammar, pronunciation and processing lots of information at once. This one gets considerably easier. When I first arrived, my 2-hour lessons were completely draining. Trying to speak Khmer for that length of time was so hard. Now, it’s relatively easy (unless the lesson involves completely new vocabulary or concepts).

What’s funny about this one, is when I have completely drained myself speaking Khmer, I lose my English too. It’s like my brain is just constantly buffering. I become a real-life version of a Zoom call on bad Wifi.

Just having a language barrier can make situations so much more stressful and confusing. Paperwork, any government or official dealings, buying expensive things such as vehicles, renting houses become so much more difficult when you’re trying to do it in a language you barely understand. And even day-to-day interactions have problems, from getting the wrong drink or food given to you at a restaurant to your tuk tuk driver dropping you off at totally the wrong part of the city.

Sensory overload

Have you ever tried to concentrate whilst there has been a flickering light or a crying baby nearby? It’s hard isn’t it. When your different senses are being stimulated, it can be tiring. There is a reason why we have a phrase “an assault on the senses”. It’s because we can feel like we’re being attacked by what is around us.

A new country will have lots of sights and sounds that you have not experienced. This will be tiring. However, even after a few years, you may still experience a wealth of sensory input. For example, a general tuk tuk ride will take you past a lot of sights, sounds and smells that you will be taking in, whether you choose to or not. You will pass a food stall frying garlic one moment, and a heaping pile of stinking garbage the next.

In the West, we have become very good at creating sensory bubbles. We drive in cars, with the music we want to listen to turned up. We have double-glazing and live in detached houses. We have zoning rules (or at least practices) so you don’t get houses next to loud workshops for example. This doesn’t happen in Cambodia. One of the main problems of Phnom Penh is the constant construction that is happening. Even as I write this blog post, my neighbours are building an additional floor to their house. This means there is drilling, and banging and hammering that is happening most of the day, everyday (even the weekends).

Also, Phnom Penh can smell really bad. A lovely combination of a sudden downpour flooding the sewage system followed by a burst of hot sunny weather makes for a very fragrant afternoon. And just the rubbish at the end of the day, the fish markets, the durian, the trash piles, the rubbish being burnt, the charcoal grills being used all make for a heady sensation.

Without double glazing and gaps in the sliding windows, or driving in a open tuk tuk, you’re exposed to all these senses. And it can make you really weary. Noise pollution has been linked to sleep disturbance, high blood pressure, stress and mental health issues.

Other things…

There can be loads of other things that are exhausting, but I have written about elsewhere. There can be cultural or interpersonal conflicts, culture shock, and many more.

What can you do?

If you know those living abroad such as missionaries, there are things you can do to help.

First, don’t expect to much of them. If all they’ve done is gone to a language lesson then spent the rest of the day in bed, it’s probably what they needed to do. Language learning can be so draining.

Pray for them. Pray for energy, wisdom, time management, and that they get used to things.

Chat with them about their stresses and see if there is anything you can do about them. Sometimes, just having a listening ear can make a huge difference.

For the missionary, there are some great books and resources out there. It’s also really important to realise that you are not a martyr and your life is not necessary more difficult than what the people back at home are experiencing. They have their own problems and stresses, they just look different to yours. It may be hard when you feel like they don’t understand your problems, but make sure you’re not guilty of the same thing! You can be as much a listening ear to them as they can be to you.

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.