A decade of change

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.)

2010

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.

2011

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.

2012

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.

2013

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.

2014

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.

2015

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.

2016

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.

2017

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.

2018

(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.

2019

(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.

Highlights reel

  • 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

2019 in review

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The old calendars are about to get chucked out, new shiny ones ready to be used. Youtubers, facebook walls and bloggers everywhere are reviewing their year. It’s especially essential for rubbish bloggers like me, who fail to write regularly, and my facebook posts are an eclectic mix mainly detailing my sleeping habits and the weather. So this is what 2019 looked like.

January

On January 1st, I headed off to Mondulkiri with Vitou. It was such a great time to spend with him and a great opportunity to explore more of Cambodia. It amazed me how comparatively cold it was. I bought a scarf. So, okay, it was only about 18C at night, but that was cold enough.

January was a month of mosquitoes. They were everywhere. And I don’t mean a few. I mean hundreds. Mosquitoes are not just an annoying pest. They are dangerous here. They carry dengue fever and although it usually just leads to something like severe flu, it can be fatal if complications arise. 2019 has been a particularly bad year for dengue, but so far I’ve escaped!

The first three or four months of 2019 were actually pretty hard. There were a few times when I had to have a moment’s moan.

January was also the month I melted a teapot. I actually did it again in April. But I eventually found a stove teapot with a louder whistle so you can’t forget about it.

February

February was quite intense and filled with ups and downs. The general struggles of living in Cambodia continued: mosquitoes and rising temperatures.

It was also the month when I turned 31! That was great. Vitou surprised me at 6:30 am with a birthday cake. Then, on the Saturday, we had a boat party. Read about that Saturday here. (Updates from that post- the hair cut turned out to be quite uneven around my ears; the money situation was fine; half the glow sticks spoiled in the Cambodian heat and couldn’t be used. Ah, Cambodia, you do make life interesting.)

The following week was camp week. This was a one-week residential, and I was on team middle school. Therefore, we took grades 6, 7 and 8 off to Shalom Valley, which is near Kep on the coast of Cambodia. It was a really good week. We did, however, have two hospitalisations (they weren’t life-threatening). You’d think the injury was from the dangerous looking obstacle course or the fire juggling or the mountain walk, wouldn’t you? No. One was at sustained at the butterfly farm and the other just walking from their room to dinner. It just goes to show that risk assessments never truly reflect reality.

Straight after this week was the WEC Cambodia prayer retreat. It was good to see everyone, but I was pretty out of it for a lot of the time. Also, I got (mildly) electrocuted having a shower and I then got very ill. Poor Vitou agreed to pick me up from the hotel. I didn’t tell him I was getting unwell, so he decided to take me on an errand another hour out of Phnom Penh. Then, I had to force myself to eat some of the food his aunt offered me, despite feeling ready to vomit everywhere. Finally, after an hour of waiting, I admitted I felt unwell and we went home. It turns out a few other people from my WEC team were ill as well and I probably got off quite lightly. I did have to take a few days off work.

March

The unrelenting march (see what I did there?) of difficulties continued. The temperature was soaring and power cuts were becoming a daily occurrence. My facebook posts reflected this as well as this blog post: It’s a hot mess.

However, there were great moments too. I went to Takeo a few times for the village ministry, which was always great fun.

March definitely taught me some lessons on how to be grateful despite difficulties.

April

April meant a two-week break. It was much needed. I explored the Cambodian countryside visiting various friends and family of Vitou. It was great. However, at some times it was difficult. I was the outsider and I didn’t feel as if I completely fitted in. I also ran over a dog (it was fine!). I also got to go to Khmer wedding number 7.

I bought my own motorbike! She’s called Makara and she’s my best friend.

I also had my first falling out with Vitou. Basically, someone died and I threw a tantrum because I wasn’t the first person everyone thought about. (If you’re judging me right now, please, go ahead. I am fully aware that I am a really terrible person.) Vitou was unnecessarily apologetic and I received a public facebook declaration from Vitou that he had done something terribly wrong. That was a bit of an insight into the shame-honour culture of Cambodia and how relationships exist in the public sphere rather than the being just between you and the friend. We’ve made up. Vitou still thinks it’s his fault, which clearly it isn’t. (Vitou, if you’re reading this: you’re the best!)

May

My brother visited! It was great for him to experience Cambodia, even if it was very brief. He met Vitou and the family. He also met some of my colleagues in Siem Reap. (Poor guy.) He loved it here. It did mean I had to sleep on the floor for a week.

It’s not me!

June

I finished a year a HOPE. I passed my level 5 Khmer assessment with flying colours! I put a post up about these achievements on Facebook. Obviously, I could rely on my brother to be encouraging in this situation.

It was quite a tough academic year in some ways. Much of it was the bureaucratic and administrative aspect of schools. The kids are great. The colleagues are supportive. But meetings, grading, reports, admin just kills me. It makes it hard that HOPE school has bits from all across the globe so sometimes the systems seem nonsensical but do fulfil a purpose somewhere.

July

I returned to the UK for two weeks. It was a very quick trip but it felt like the right length. Any longer and I think I would have got itchy feet. It was great to catch up with friends and family and to gorge myself on British cakes and fried breakfasts.

The most significant part of that trip was meeting my little baby niece for the first time. Of course, it was great to see my older niece too and see how much she has grown. I managed to have some really nice time with family. My sister-in-law also did some amazing baking. She might have even robbed me of my status as “best baker in the family”.

Then there was the ten-day WEC Cambodia conference in Kampong Thom (a province in central Cambodia). It was nice to see another small part of Cambodia. One of the most difficult things I’ve faced over the last year was not feeling a part of the WEC team so much. There are a lot of reasons for this: most of the members I knew already are not in Phnom Penh and simply because school life can be all-absorbing. However, spending quality time with the WEC team was really helpful in reestablishing my sense of belonging in the team. That was a real blessing.

August

School started again, with some logistical difficulties (of course, it is Cambodia). This meant filling in for teachers and merging classes for a few weeks. I also started teaching drama, which was quite scary and daunting. I new the course requirements and I understood the syllabus and exams. However, translating that information into actual lessons was quite a challenge.

Rainy season started with dramatic results, and there was quite a bit of flooding across the country. Fortunately for me, Phnom Penh was not particularly affected.

The general challenges of life in another country continued too.

I also started dating someone.

September

School life seems to absorb everything, especially if you are a yes person. I was working on the school production, being proof-reader for various newsletters and things. However, I had another week off for Pchum Ben, which was an opportunity to sit and relax. I visited a zoo and got to relax on a boat, then went to visit Vitou’s family in Kandal province again.

I also started another level at G2K, this one was Christian Studies 2. It was unbelievably helpful and interesting. Over 10 weeks, I learnt about Khmer culture and barriers to the gospel, as well as learning to pray in Khmer and sing Khmer worship songs.

October

I think one of the biggest journeys I’ve been on this year is exploring my attitude towards cultures and learning more about them. I absolutely love Cambodia. I love its countryside; I love its vibrancy; I love its people. Yes, there are frustrations and difficulties. Most of the time they are funny or momentary.

I do believe missionaries have a God-given responsibility to honour the host culture they are in. They are to encourage and love the people they are interacting with. It challenged me how I can be a good guest in Cambodia.

This month introduced a new, exciting challenge into life in Cambodia: getting to school. Due to building works, bad weather, large factory trucks tearing up the surface and just construction workers dumping soil on the road, it was a daily challenge to arrive clean and in one piece. Also, at school we had to complete a lot of documentation for the Ministry of Education, which put extra pressure on all the teachers. It helped that we had a few days off dotted through the month. 

November

This month was Water Festival month. I really love Water Festival and I got to go to the riverside with Vitou’s family to celebrate. There were fireworks and a procession of lit-up barges. It’s very crowded but great fun.

It was also just busy. First, the WEC Cambodia team had visitors from WEC UK, to do some filming of the various ministries of WEC missionaries here. This meant they were also visiting the school. It was great to have them here but also, in some ways, exhausting. They only visited me for one day, but as I had to sort cover etc. for my lessons it meant that there were logistical aspects that needed organising.

Also, the school production was drawing ever closer. This meant sources, painting, repairing props and things for back stage. Most of my life was spent in Japanese two-dollar stores or Japanese secondhand stores.

It didn’t help that I started suffering from insomnia. I again had to take a few days off because I just didn’t sleep for a number of consecutive days. It’s a lot better now, but I will still have the odd night when I don’t sleep.

December

The school play, reports and the end of the G2K course all hit at once. It was a crazy week and at some points it was a struggle to get to the end. Somehow I did it and now I’m on the wind down towards the Christmas holidays. The school production was a big success and the students who took part made us all very proud! It’s amazing that such a small school could have so many intelligent, wonderful young people.

Then there was the general election in the UK. It’s always strange being on the outside of such events. You get somewhat removed from the media circus and it means that perhaps you can stand back a bit and think about it in a different way. This led to me writing a post about how democracy will never save us.

I’m also going to be moving house. This will mean packing, cleaning my current apartment, buying new furniture, cleaning the new house, then unpacking and settling in. I’m lucky to have a few weeks off as well as a holiday to Kep booked.

2020

2020 is going to see a lot of changes for me, and not everything is certain. The only thing, in fact, that is certain is that I will be making 2020-vision jokes until at least May. And of course, that God will continue to be faithful regardless of mosquitoes, power cuts, dust and other problems.

Why democracy will always fail us

I am sat in Cambodia, seven hours ahead of the UK, watching the general election results roll in. I’m also hovering on social media watching responses to exit polls and election predictions. Having been in Cambodia for the run up to this election and having not been living in the UK for quite some time, I’ve been really surprised by the intensity of people’s social media posts. They speak of depression, despair, broken friendships, lives changed irreversibly for the worse. Now, I’m not saying these elections are not significant, but I’m really shocked at the emotional weight of yesterday. I perhaps understand it from my friends who are not Christians, but I’m probably seeing it more from my Christian friends. They’re writing about dashed hopes and painful fears of what these results will mean.

Before I go further, I want to deflect the potential barrage of complaints and questions and accusations. I do believe Christians should be involved politically. I do think we should exercise our right to vote. (I had to organise a proxy vote to get my ballot in the box.) I do think that Christians should speak God’s truth in the public sphere. I do think we should fight against injustice and fight for mercy. And here’s the massive “but”…

Christians should not misplace their hope in political systems.

There will always be blurred lines between political ideologies and faith. But we should not get the two confused. Faith is for our belief in Jesus. Do not put faith in the people and the powers of this world. There are a few interesting reasons for this.

The knowledge of good and evil

In the Garden of Eden, there were two fruit trees. One was the tree of life. The other was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The former, humans could eat from; the latter would result in certain death. It’s interesting to think that before Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, they were innocent of the distinction between the two. God had that knowledge. (He had called his creation “good” after all.) Man did not.

A lot of our political intentions or ideas are born out of our view of what is good and what is evil. Yes, we can believe we have a biblical perspective on our politics, but our wisdom is limited. It was the arrogance that man can be like God and that they could possibly know what is truly right that led Eve to reach for the fruit. It is the same arrogance today that is dividing friends and communities. Despite having tasted the fruit, we will never know good and evil as God does and we should humble ourselves and remember this. Furthermore, partaking in the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil only heaped calamity and despair upon humanity. Why, then, are we so surprised that our political attempts to discern good and evil result in much the same?

Human sin

After the fall, sin entered humanity. Every heart is full of it. We are all destitute and depraved. As a result, every human system, institution, ideology is flawed. Sin runs through it like a seam through marble. Sin, therefore, invades our politics and parliaments, our chambers and churches, our banks and our ballot boxes. No where and nothing is free from the blood-red stain of sin.

We can see how sin is infiltrating our politics each day. Deceitful campaigns, Russian hackers, sleazy candidates all point to a fallen humanity. This is by no means a new thing in politics.

Just take a look at the Old Testament leaders: Abraham, Moses, Saul, David, Solomon. Each of these people were sinful and flawed. They lied, murdered, jealously clung onto power, and had multiple sexual scandals. If the Twitter witch-hunt existed back then, they would have descended on them like a pack of ravenous vultures. Even though many of these people were seen as good, God-honouring leaders, they still had massive moral failures. If the Israelites could not place their certain hopes on these political leaders, how can we be expected to do the same to the leaders of today?

Saul, perhaps, is the most obvious example where political hopes fell gravely short. The Israelites were desperate for a change in their political system. They wanted a monarchy, just like all the other countries around them. God gave them what they wanted; he gave them Saul. Saul was a cowardly, insecure, jealous, bumbling fool of a man. The hopes of the Israelites were gravely misplaced.

The Christmas Story

So, what then do we do with this? Where do we place our hopes? Well, as the UK prepares for Christmas, they need to look no further than the story it celebrates.

Jesus, the King of kings, was not born into a palace (like the Magi assumed he would). He was born into a dirty stable in some provincial backwater. Jesus, vulnerable and lowly, was twice victim of the political world around him. First, he had to flee to Egypt in his infancy; second, one of the world’s greatest political machines churned him up and spat him out in a humiliating and horrific death. Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem on a warhorse, victorious and glorious. Instead he trotted in on a juvenile donkey. Jesus did not challenge Caesar or bring an end to the oppressive rule of the Romans. Instead, he ushered in a mustard-seed kingdom, no bigger than a widow’s coin.

Jesus’ kingdom is political but never in the way that we imagine it to be. It is subversive and upside-down and defies systems and party lines.

So, rather than putting your hopes in an election, or dwelling on fears caused by the future government, remember the Christmas story.

Remember the lines from O Little Town of Bethlehem:

The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.

Remember what that little baby came to do. For it is not the cross on a voting slip that can save the world. It is the cross on which Jesus died that has already accomplished this.

Let us pray:

Our Father who is in Heaven,

Your name is holy; you alone are good.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
We do not rely on earthly kingdoms or pledge allegiance to human flags. Instead, we humbly kneel by a lowly manger and declare we will follow you and your ways.
We come now to adore you. We place our hopes in you. We give our fears into your hands.
Forgive us, Lord, for the times we have been arrogant. Forgive for when we desired to taste of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Forgive us when we have been unkind in our words and deeds. Teach us your ways. Help us discern your plans in all this.

In Jesus’ name,
Amen.

The collectivistic context

Moving abroad, especially into a culture so distinct and different to your own, can be wonderfully challenging. At the moment, I seem to be going through a period where life is full of question marks. My previous cultural viewpoints are being questioned and interrogated by the cultural viewpoints I see in the Cambodians around me. This isn’t concerning; I am not having an existential crisis. Rather, my view of self feels like it’s being deepened, broadened and refined. This is particularly true of my faith and my interpretation of the Bible. I’m getting to see how it speaks and relates to a context different to my own, and therefore the stories that I thought I knew and the ideas I had are being challenged too.

One aspect of this tension between the concepts of individualism and collectivism. The West is typically individualistic and this will often affect their view of faith. Even their conversion narrative will be based on an individual experience: “In the prototypical born-again experience, people change their outlook on their lives by virtue of being saved, evident in a sudden, highly emotional experience of personal connection with God.” (Cohen, Wu and Miller, 2016) Even if you think of a modern, evangelical church service. It’s a lot of people, eyes closed and ignoring those around them, having a deeply personal and isolated encounter with God. As teachers at a Christian school, we seem intensely concerned that our students progress from having their parents’ faith to their own faith; that they should take ownership of their beliefs. Therefore, the faith of an individualist is centred around themselves and defined by their own internal experiences.

As a result, we often overlook the value of collective, community and social aspects of faith that are common to other cultural contexts (Cohen, Wu and Miller, 2016). This can be somewhat troubling because of the large amount of cultures that would be more collectivistic than the West. Furthermore, many of the countries that are collectivistic are not Christian, and therefore there is a cultural gap between what we are presenting as good news and they need to hear to be considered good news. Finally, my own personal context demands a greater understanding of collectivism and its implications in faith. As a teacher in a school where the students are mainly Asian and someone working and living alongside Cambodians, could it be that my approach to speaking about faith fails to resonate with many of those around me?

(Hofstede, n.d.)

Obviously, the West having a predominantly Judeo-Christian heritage, it’s perhaps easy to answer that this cultural view is in response to this heritage and the Bible promotes a particular worldview. However, this is perhaps worth further consideration, especially as the Bible is a Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean text, deeply saturated in a collectivistic context. There are quite a few Biblical passages that suggest a purely individualistic gospel is somewhat limited.

First, is the fact that our faith is defined outside of ourselves. Hebrews 12:2 reminds us that Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of faith”. Our faith is not because of some highly emotional feelings, but instead because of Christ and what he has done. This idea is also found in Ephesians 2:8-9, where it tells us our salvations is a gift from God and not from ourselves.

The Bible is littered with group or social conversion or miracle narratives. (One could argue there is a collectivistic undercurrent throughout the gospels and indeed much of the Bible, but I will perhaps mention some of the more blatant examples.) Households were converted in one instant. There’s Cornelius’ household, and potentially his close friends too, who were all saved (Acts 10:24; 11:14); Lydia’s household were baptised together (Acts 16:14-15); and the jailer’s household came to salvation as a group (Acts 16:30-34). In Acts 8:4-8, Philip’s missionary efforts in Samaria seemed to lead to the conversion of most of a city. These all seem to be examples of people coming to faith within a group context.

This is not the same as large groups of people at some evangelical event coming to faith. Although hundreds of people may simultaneously declare a faith in Jesus and ask for repentance, this is done individually and seen as a start of a solo journey of faith. What links these people is simply their attendance of some evangelical rally and their response to the same altar call. During this whole time, they may not know the person next to them who is also responding or even acknowledge them whatsoever. In these Biblical examples, those responding to the gospel had strong ties: they were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, masters, servants, friends, neighbours. They were not solo adventurers embarking on their journey. They were not lone rangers. Rather, they were members of a team, an expedition group, joining together in one shared mission. Perhaps a better image would be a rowing crew, all in the same boat.

This too can be seen in the gospels. In all three tellings of the healing of the paralysed man (Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26), there is a subtle detail that suggests this team-like quality to faith. Jesus sees their faith: the faith of the friends and of the paralysed man. The faith was shared between the five of them; the act of getting the paralytic before Jesus was a group effort and their faith was the group value that drove them to do it.

Of course, this is reflected in the image of the body of Christ in Romans 12:4-6; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Ephesians 4:11-16. All speak of various individual parts each working together to perform a job. But perhaps Westerners focus on the individual aspect too much. When we read it, we say to ourselves, “we all have our own job, our own function, our own importance in God’s church.” We forget to reflect upon our interdependence upon the other parts of the body. Different organs nourish or protect or cleanse the others within the body. It is perhaps 1 Corinthians 12:21-26 that highlights the necessity of coexistence and mutual relationships:

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

Suffering and honour comes across the whole body; and different parts of the body must acknowledge their collective need for each other. This is not the business-like view the individualist has: we go in, do our job and go home. Instead, we are unified and our fortunes are intertwined. Our concern, our suffering, our honour and therefore our identity is in terms of the whole body, not just that we are a hand, foot or eye.

Collectivism, by framing identity in terms of the group, also places an importance heritage and tradition. These help to shape the values, the stories and identity of those belonging the group. The context for the reminder that we should be “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” comes from the “great cloud of witnesses” that have come before us. (Hebrews 12:1) Therefore, again, spiritual encouragement to persevere does not come from internal emotion or even a personal connection but from the legacy of spiritual antecedents. The believers of the past witnessing to you is what spurs you on.

Currently, I am studying Khmer and taking a unit on Christian studies. This is what first nudged me towards further investigating and pondering the topic of culture. In a video interview with one of the teachers of the course, she mentioned how “without family we have no identity. We have no history.” Here in Cambodia, a collectivistic society, the family, the group and the heritage behind that is what defines you. This too is reflected in the Bible, with household conversions, friends in faith and the encouragement and value found in your spiritual heritage.

Therefore, when we give an individualistic gospel, it is perhaps little surprise if there is little response from the collectivists in the audience. We tell them to count the cost:

 25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

(Luke 14:25-27)

They are told to turn their back on their family, their identity, their heritage, their security and their own life. When they add up the price, they may find it lacking. It’s perhaps no surprise that Jesus threw down this particular gauntlet, given that it would have shocked and terrified most his audience. However, the Western gospel does not respond well enough. We are content to reject the confines of imposed identities and to forge our independence, failing to see the beauty of unity in interdependence. Like frustrated teenagers, we perhaps find this notion too easy. These verses perhaps pose little threat to us. Of course, those from a collectivistic society will have their cages rattled, and this perhaps could be a stumbling block. They would be giving up a lot. In response, what they might need to hear is this:

 29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Luke 18:29-30

God is the source of a true, glorious, vast, eternal identity. It is a heritage that starts with the Creator of the earth itself and lasts until the end of days. They become a citizen of the kingdom of God, adopted into a vast, spiritual family.

Not only do they have to hear this, they have to see it in action. In the same interview that spoke of the value of family, the Khmer teacher also told us what can overcome the surrounding fears. Our greatest witness is unity and love for one another. Her conversion was after seeing the love of Cambodian Christians for one another. The famous 1 Corinthians 13 passage tells us that love trumps speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 13:1), which Paul tells us is a sign for non-believers (1 Corinthians 14:22). The 1 Corinthians 13 passage is often used in the context of marriage, but rather in its actual context refers to Christ’s body, being immediately preceded by the passage quoted above and then followed by an explanation of how the gifts are to be used to build the church. Love for one another, a crucial part of interdependence, conquers all and covers a multitude of sins.

This is why Jesus prayed this prayer for believers that heard his message, believers like you and I:

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

Jesus prayed that we may be united, that we may be one. We are to be one with each other, but also one with Christ the Son and the Father, just as they are collectively one together. It is through and for this complete unity that we have the glory of Christ. It is this unity and oneness that will witness to the world that Jesus loves us, just as the God of love – the God who is love – loves his son.

What a joy it is to know this and what a blessing it is to learn this. I am not advocating that an individualistic worldview or Bible perspective is wrong. It’s that God is so much bigger. His gospel is so much richer. The gospel allows the individualist to have our conversions, our joy and our individual fears relieved. He cares about us as our own unique person, wonderfully and fearfully made. But also, he draws us into unity with him and other believers. He restores our relationship with himself and with those on earth. God gives us an identity in him and an identity together as his body. We never have to fear being alone, we have his spirit with us, but we have our brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer and rejoice with us. And what an amazing privilege to think that Jesus prayed this for us two thousand years ago. For his is the glory, Amen.

Sources

Cohen, A., Wu, M. and Miller, J. (2016). Religion and Culture. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, [online] 47(9), pp.1236-1249. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308626003_Religion_and_Culture_Individualism_and_Collectivism_in_the_East_and_West.

Stefon, M., Benz, E. and Crow, P. et al. (2019). Christianity – Church and the individual. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Christianity/Church-and-the-individual [Accessed 22 Nov. 2019].

Rishmawy, D. (2013). Is Christianity Individualistic or Collectivist? “Yes” – C.S. Lewis and J. Gresham Machen. [online] Reformedish. Available at: https://derekzrishmawy.com/2013/01/03/is-christianity-individualistic-or-collectivist-yes-c-s-lewis-and-j-gresham-machen/ [Accessed 22 Nov. 2019].

GotQuestions.org. (n.d.). What does the Bible say about household salvation? | GotQuestions.org. [online] Available at: https://www.gotquestions.org/household-salvation.html [Accessed 22 Nov. 2019].

Hofstede, G. (n.d.). Dimension maps of the world: Individualism. [image] Available at: https://geerthofstede.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/IDV-world-map-50.png [Accessed 22 Nov. 2019].

Hofstede Insights. (n.d.). Home – Hofstede Insights. [online] Available at: https://www.hofstede-insights.com [Accessed 22 Nov. 2019].

Holy Bible: New International Version UK

Weston, C. (2011). Understanding My Own Culture and Why it Matters. Insight, [online] (7), pp.10-13. Available at: https://friendsinternational.uk/resources/downloadable-resources/our-periodicals/insight/235-issue-7-winter-2011-12/file.

How could you stay?

As a missionary, you get told “I couldn’t do what you do.” There is a belief that it takes a special type of person or a particular calling to make the move abroad and work building God’s kingdom there. I would say that isn’t true. (At least I don’t think I’m special but I do think I have calling.) It’s thought that it takes great sacrifice, bravery and zeal to do this.

It doesn’t.

What people who haven’t done this don’t see is the joy, the privilege and the real rewards of moving overseas.

You get such a rich experience of humanity and life. You suddenly see how great and broad and universal and varied the human race is. You hear such stories: heart-warming stories; heart-breaking stories; inspiring stories; terrifying and tragic stories; lovely stories, often from the same person’s life. You get to be a part of these stories and then your story and hundreds of other stories become permanently intertwined. The real privilege is when you get to see God beautifully transform these stories, redeeming, renewing, rewriting them into the story of his perfect kingdom.

Your understanding of God’s grace and goodness and glory grows. As you encounter the needs of nations and the cultural perspectives of different peoples, you see how the enormity of the gospel speaks into these different contexts, not just your own. The faith of believers that face difficulties and persecution and poverty you’ve never imagined challenges you and your mustard-seed faith. Worshipping alongside those from different nations, tribes and tongues gives you a small picture of heaven.

You see the beautiful humanity of the saints that go. Often missionaries are put on pedestals but when you’re among them you learn how human the Hudson Taylors and Jackie Pullingers are. I recently read a book Subversive Jesus by Craig Greenfield. I know his family as I work with his wife and their children attend the school where I teach. The family is as amazing and feisty and cool as they sound in the book. However, I also watched Nay, Craig’s wife, walk into a metal pillar today because she wasn’t watching where she was going. The sense of misplaced awe towards these people is stripped away and replaced with the sense of awe that God uses people like me. That is an amazing and also terrifying realisation to have.

Then, of course, are some of the beautiful sights and sounds that you grow to love.

Everyday, I get struck with a feeling of jaw-dropping confusion that I get to live here in Cambodia, serving God.

When you read the eye-watering statistics, it’s hard not to feel the pull. 3.14 billion people have never heard of Jesus. Over 70,000 people die everyday not having heard the gospel. For perspective 70,000 is about the population of Rugby and Shrewsbury. These people are living and perishing in darkness.

So, if you think you couldn’t go, well, I certainly couldn’t stay.

If you haven’t prayed and thought about joining global missions, then please do so. It’d be such a shame that you miss out on such blessings just because it hadn’t occurred to you to consider going.

Being a good guest

Imagine you’ve lived in the same house for many years, with the same people. You’ve built up routines and traditions – every Christmas you do it the same way; every Sunday you sit down in the afternoon to watch a particular TV programme, usually with a similar TV dinner; you listen to the same radio station as you’re doing the washing up in the evenings. You’re comfortable. You’ve decorated your house how you like it. It’s pretty good.

Now imagine, all a sudden, some lodgers moved in. For some reason they were just there. You did your best to accommodate their needs. You made sure there was food they liked in the fridge. You checked whether their rooms were comfortable. You did your best to make them feel welcome.

Then you heard these lodgers talking among themselves. They were complaining about the food you provided and how it wasn’t the same as what you were used to. They grumbled how often you didn’t get hold of the things they really wanted or if you tried, it just wasn’t as good as back home. They didn’t like your taste in music and wished you’d stop playing it. They wanted to watch a different programme on Sunday evenings and found this tradition of watching the same show annoying. They wanted to redecorate because they found your taste garish. They joked about how simple, old-fashioned and, in someways, backwards you were.

Then it started to get really strange. They started to wear your clothes. And all the time they were complaining how the didn’t fit and how they were uncomfortable. You came home one day to find the kitchen gutted. They were remodelling it for you with “better” and “nicer” appliances – ones you never asked for. It was going to be in a more modern style.

Surely, you would think they are terrible lodgers! They’re rude, entitled and opinionated. Their remarks are arrogant and unnecessary.

So why is it that as expats living as guests in a country that is not our own, we often act like these lodgers. We complain that the foods or the amenities we are used to aren’t available. We mock their music or tastes or traditions. If we are inconvenienced by these things in the slightest, we act like they specifically designed it to irk us.

I know that I’ve been guilty of this. I joked to my Khmer friend about how difficult it was to understand how Khmer people don’t plan things. I explained British people always plan and sometimes it was difficult for me that they didn’t plan trips beforehand. He simply replied:

Oh, that’s because we’re poor.

He went on to explain that often they had to wait until a few days before the event to check whether they had enough money to actually go. There was no point in making plans just to be disappointed when you couldn’t afford to do it. Even if they were trying to save, illnesses or flat tires or running out of gas in your stove would mean you’d have to pay out. So, it is just easier to make plans when you know they could happen.

Obviously, I felt foolish and cruel. I had shown no understanding or kindness. I had not attempted to see things from their point of view. I’d thought I’d try their lifestyle a bit, put on their clothes and then complain when it didn’t fit. They were gracious enough to include me in their trips and their holidays, and I just focussed on how one aspect of it rubbed up against my cultural experiences.

There is also an arrogance when it comes how we treat Khmer people. If their worldview isn’t the same as ours, we dismiss them as simple or backwards. We forget that their ideas might just be as complex and meaningful, we just haven’t taken the time to explore them. Or that due to hierarchies and social roles, it’s not the employees’ job to solve the problem, it’s the bosses’.

We also forget that they are not stupid, they just haven’t had the same opportunities. They haven’t had piano lessons and ready access to a computer since they were a child. I know many of my Khmer friends, with their dedication and intellect, would have far outpaced me if we had attended the same schools. It’s just that we didn’t.

So, we often come in, high on our degree certificates and a book we read, thinking we have a solution. We demolish things that may have been working fine and decided they need an overhaul just because they don’t suit our “modern” tastes.

So, I’m trying to learn. Currently, I’m sat in my bedroom with a funeral happening outside. This means loud music, gongs, and my motorbike sometimes being blocked in. But I’m a guest. Why should I feel that they should change years of tradition just for me? Who am I to criticise or moan? So, for now, I’ll try to focus on the privilege it is to have been welcomed into this nation and how rich the experience is – weddings, funerals and all.

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  • When have you been unfairly critical of a part of your host culture?
  • Where could you be more generous and understanding?
  • What areas of conflict between your culture and your host culture have you experienced? How did you resolve this?
  • What resources or experiences have been particularly helpful in feeling more integrated or at least understanding your host culture?

Sit and relax

These last few weeks (or perhaps months) have felt a little bit like death by a thousand cuts. (This was a form of execution or post-mortem humiliation, where a criminal would have parts of their body cut off and limbs amputated one by one.) My problem is that I happen to be a bit of a “yes” person. I like to help where I can and I find it hard to say no. What ends up happening is that I will have a large range of commitments in different areas and I have been struggling somewhat to stay afloat. The first problem is my lack of foresight. I will commit to something in the future, forgetting that, as always, more immediate and unexpected concerns come up. Therefore, currently I am committed to language learning, proof-reading various prayer letters, the school production, fortnightly WEC meetings, meetings with my WEC supervisor. I’ve had to drop the English teaching in the province for a while as my calendar seems to be bursting at the seams.

These could all be manageable if I didn’t have other things to do: plan lessons, respond to parents’ emails, mark work, go to meetings, chase up homework, my washing, shopping. Often these are small tasks, that on their own are not going to create an overwhelming sense of stress, but together they can create a sense of panic. Then, inevitably, someone will come up with “one small thing” or a “little favour” and it’s added to the 1000 other small things that are on your to-do list.

Even while I have been on holiday, the emails have been mounting (316 and rising) and the to-do list has been hanging over me. I’ve found it very difficult to switch off and my mind has already been jumping to the Christmas break.

Despite all of this, or rather because of this, I find that Cambodia is good for my soul. I love this country; I love Phnom Penh; I love the countryside; I love the vibrancy and the distractions it provides. A quick motorbike ride is enough to clear some of the cobwebs and to get you outside of your own head for a little bit. The chaos of the traffic and focusing on all the things happening immediately around you means that you can’t help but forget about the stresses of everyday life.

I’ve also been privileged enough to escape the city for a little bit. I visited Phnom Tamao Zoo then to one of the Cambodian beauty spots for lunch, and yesterday I also went to the province to visit Vitou’s family again. There’s something great about spending some time with Khmer people. You can just sit back, enjoy a few cans of Cambodia lager (I had just 2 throughout the whole day; the Cambodians have a few more), and eat the endless train of food that is set before you.

A riverside hut where river market stalls (equipped with grills) come provide snacks.

For Cambodians, sitting there with others whilst texting or doing something different isn’t seen as rude. There is no real concept of the divide of and public/private life. Most of their life is spent in the presence of others – Cambodians don’t really like time alone. So, it’s fine to spend some of it doing solitary things, with others around you. You can just sit there, enjoy each other’s presence, but have no pressure to be a witty raconteur or fill the awkward silences. It’s acceptable to just listen to conversations, play a game on your mobile, message other people, or just pick at the food laid out in front of you. You may have to interrupt what you are doing to join one of the ceaseless “cheers!” that happen at Khmer gatherings. Whatever the occasion, whether it is in a little bamboo hut on the bank of a river or at someone’s house, it’s okay, expected even, to just angkuy leng (ɑːŋkuj leːŋ) – sit and relax.