“How was your trip?” “So, how was Cambodia?” “Dad, did you bring back any fried tarantulas?” These have been common questions to me and ten other leaders and young adults from Bel Pres over the past few weeks. It’s always difficult to sum up in a 30 second answer the impact of 12 days in a place like Cambodia. There’s something about this country – these people – that gets under your skin, stretches your worldview and captures your affection. So I’ve asked a few trip members to help me tackle themes from the trip that we’ll share over the next several days.
As we enter the second week of Lent, a time for listening and for Jesus’ followers to reflect on their desperate need for Him, I’ll start with: Exile.
As a leader in a large suburban church east of Seattle who’s closest experiences to exile were 1) having to remain in Richland, WA for two years of community college while most of his high school buddies went off to school, and 2) leaving his much-loved Seattle for (gasp) the suburbs of north Kirkland, the biblical experience of exile is foreign to me. Sadly, that’s not the case in Cambodia. Forced evictions lead to the exile of thousands from their homes. In 2008, according to Amnesty International, 283,000 people in Cambodia have been evicted or are at risk of forced relocation nationwide. As of 2004, it was estimated that 20-30% of landowners held 70% of the country’s land, while the poorest 40% occupied only 10%. In the countryside, 45% of families were landless or near landless (there’s a related film project you can read about here).
“This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit. My children are destitute because the enemy has prevailed.” –Lamentations 1:16
Since 2009 the families of Oudong Village have twice been violently evicted (exiled) – the first from their homes in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh; the second from where they were initially relocated to. They are now quite isolated 38 km north of Phnom Penh. The dilemma is that for many families, one or both parents have to go back to Phnom Penh or other more populated areas for work. In the case of the woman with the child pictured, it meant her husband would be gone for weeks working construction in Phnom Penh. She must also leave for days at a time to work in a nearby town. This has left grandma to care for the five young children – all while suffering from difficult medical issues of her own, including being blind in one eye.
Amidst the brokenness of such exile, it was inspiring to meet Kevin and his wife who have been working, and soon will be living among, the families at Oudong. It’s incredible to hear Kevin’s story as a onetime well-off plumbing foreman from Vancouver, Canada who ended up as a homeless junkie living in lice and bed-beg infested spaces. The same God who’s heart broke for the people of Oudong was redeeming the experience of a drug addicted, homeless plumber from Vancouver to come and be Jesus with skin on there. What was also incredible was Kevin’s hunger for God and his thankfulness at how God had blessed and redeemed his life. He said to us: “I get to cry a lot in my work. When I was in drug addiction my tears were of despair. Now they’re tears of compassion and I let my years guide me.”
A friend of mine described Cambodia as a place where the hope and the hurt live side by side. Check out these videos and pictures; reflect on the hurt of exile taking place in Cambodia. But also look for the hope present in the lives of people like Kevin and the villagers themselves. Comment with your thoughts and reflections.
I’m scheduled to talk next Tuesday, 5/31, on “Just Me and My Enemy: Grace Gets in the Way” for a young adults worship service at Bel Pres. It’s got me thinking alot about ‘pop-culture karma’ – you know, that vanilla spiritual concept that permeates our culture. I hear it talked a lot about by people like Oprah and just about every drive-time radio talk show host (it seems) – “you get what you give”…”what goes around comes around”…”you reap what you sow” (does the Bible teach Karma?). I’d go so far as to say the default mode of the human race appears to be Karma. Even within my Christian tribe we pull out verses – like the reaping and sowing above or even our ‘golden rule’ – to get on the Karma train. We may not call it Karma and most Hindus and Buddhists would likely cringe at these pop-culture understandings of Karma. But it’s all a part of this meta-idea that our thoughts, words and actions impact what comes back on us in the world. And in my opinion, it’s a little…insidious. Too strong? Maybe. But the more I think about it, the more I see this thinking as a prison – a train hurtling through our world that you can’t jump off.
Let’s take an extreme example. I spent 10 amazing days in Cambodia this past Spring. Karma is everywhere in this country dominated by Buddhism and it’s syncretistic blending of Hinduism and animism. Here’s how it plays out on the streets: Something bad happens? Karma. Bad sales in your shop or market stand? Karma. Lose a bunch of money; lose your house or moto? It’s your bad Karma – or for the person who gets your money, house or moto, th
at must be their good Karma. Experience one of the worst examples of genocide this world has ever known? Must be collective bad Karma. Not the choices of people to commit evil acts. But Karma. Now, I’m speaking pretty generally but this is part of the insidious nature of Karma-thinking. Evil and human choices often get off the hook. How about in our context? Does this kind of thinking creep into your mind about how and why the things in your life have gone the way they have? With either the good or the bad things, do you chalk them up to being what you deserved based on how you been livin’? How about the way you view others? Ever looked at a homeless or cleary impoverished person on the streets of Bellevue or Seattle and thought, “well, their bad choices got them there.” Maybe, maybe not. Regarless, we live amidst a spiritual smorgasboard – an “Old Country Buffet” of ideas, practices and rituals – and pop-culture Karma is the main dish for many. And you know what? It makes a lot of sense. I’ve got my mashed potatoes, jell-o salad and veggie medley; it’s time for some prime rib or fried chicken. Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe our choices matter. The way we treat others impacts what happens in our family, friend, neighbor and work relationships. There are consequences for our actions. Just ask Osama Bin Laden – I mean if anyone ever got what he deserved, right? But, particularly as Christians, we need to give Karma up. Why? Because grace changes everything. Grace comes along, smiles and kicks Karma right in the junk and runs off inviting us to follow. Grace pulls up alongside that Karma-train and yells “jump!” Unlike Karma, Grace doesn’t force us to follow or jump, but why wouldn’t you? Grace is about redemption and not holding you hostage with guilt and shame. Grace offers hope instead of fear, Grace makes beauty out of ugly things (shameless U2 reference). If you’ll allow it, Grace will welcome you back into the fold and says, “Let’s try that again from the top.”
But Grace isn’t cheap and it isn’t your spiritual a%& cover. It is a force to be reckoned with – THE force to be reckoned with. It costs a lot and it will eventually ask a lot. I realize this sounds like an oxymoron, but Grace is a big spender that likes a big party. Eventually grace is going to ask you to make some room on its own freedom-train. At first, it sounds great – of course we should make room. But then you see who Grace wants you to sit with and you remember you’re supposed to be somewhere.Grace isn’t cheap. Which means it can cover some pretty big debts. An old mentor of mine used to say, “If you hang out with Jesus long enough, he’ll piss you off.” (BTW, you can’t talk about grace without talking about Jesus – he’s driving the train). One minute Jesus is hanging with you and your crowd and then you look around and he’s over across the street having dinner and drinks with that group you can’t stand. Call it, “pulling a Zacheus.” That’s irritating – but what will really infuriate you is when he asks you to host the next party for everyone. But that’s the nature of Jesus and his grace – grace can’t help herself and eventually, if you let grace set you free, you’ll ‘get it’ and ask to host. Here’s a video testimony about the effect of grace on one young community. As you watch, ask yourself – “is there grace enough for me?” “Who is God asking me to forgive and extend grace to?”
One of the unfortunate parts of being a church planter engaged in grassroots, urban ministry is that you rush around alot. I say unfortunate because it causes you to miss what’s happening around you while ‘rushing‘ in the name of Jesus. One Sunday evening I was rushing to the Safeway at 47th and Brooklyn in the U-District to get candles, or salad dressing or chips or focacia bread or grapes or wine or…you get the picture. I had to perform a rush side-step to get around a young guy sitting on the curb, panhandling. In the U-District, you gotta get a little creative and his sign said something like “cheeseburger fund” or “beer fund”. I blazed right by him probably getting my wallet and club card ready so I could rush even rushier through check-out. On my way back out I had to navigate this same dude and an older woman who appeared to be the definition of “down on her luck.” It’s hard to tell the age of folks who’ve been on the streets a long time – but she must have been north of 60, dressed in a mishmash of quilted clothing that at one time would have been collage of colors but now were just various tints of gray. And I’ll always remember her shuffling feet – whatever had happened to her prior to that moment in life had taken the life, the health, the stamina – the whatever – out of her so that she could no longer even pick up her feet all the way. And believe me, the sidewalk in front of that safeway is not something you want to draaaag your feet across. As I passed these two folks, I hear the guy behind me say, “Hey, come here. Stop.” to the woman. I turned just in time to see him reach up and dump all the change from his paper coke cup into whatever little cup she had. She muttered a couple words to him and shuffled on her way. He said something like, “You take care of yourself,” and went back to pithy requests for shoppers’ change. I. Was. Crushed. I slunked back to my Subaru and drove the four blocks back to the church. I don’t know if there’s a Christian ‘fail blog’, but I was the homepage story in my own mind that night. I was reminded of that experience today seeing this article of incredible generosity from someone who not only lives in poverty but probably also experiences a fair amount of societal rejection:
For better or worse, I’m guessing that this article will lead to more articles about this man, his history and why he’s on the streets of Chicago. He’ll likely get offered a job and maybe a home. But I’m not sure he’ll ever make a bigger impact then he did in the life of this banker and her son.
How about you? Have you ever experience a moment like mine where you’ve been educated / shamed / inspired in a surprising way? Did it cause any change in your thinking or actions?