Holiness in the Midst

Saturday, February 5, was the half-way point of my year in Cambodia.  Living abroad has brought me more joys and challenges than I’ve ever experienced before.  This blog is a small glimpse into my thoughts during this time.

 

On Friday, my co-workers headed home after a busy week at the office. I told them I hoped they’d have a good weekend and went to eat lunch. When I came back, my co-worker Phon was still waiting to leave. I sat with her for a while and we talked about cross-stitching. I love learning about the work that LWD does but I also love the moments where I just get to talk to my co-workers about their lives. Their joys, their sorrows, and everything in between.

After she left, I went to my room. I worked on my own cross-stitch. I listened to some cool new John Mayer songs. I can’t explain why but that moment was just so wonderful. It was so full of life & love & joy so I lit one of the pieces of incense that Matt and Jen gave us at our Worship Weekend in December.

As the waves of incense rose up to the ceiling, I knew it was a holy moment. I can’t really describe it more than that. Nothing else spectacular, nothing else monumental. Just holy.

I never wanted that moment to end. I wanted to light another piece and another. But I knew that the incense didn’t make that moment holy.

The holiness was already there. God was already there. God is present in every single moment, in the midst of my life, wherever I am. It’s just that sometimes I realize it. Sometimes I wake up, smell the incense, and pay attention to God.

 


 

On Sunday, I cried. I cried because sometimes there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of justice in this world. I cried for my country. I cried because I feel so useless so far away from home in the US. I cried because while I feel so afraid of the future, I know so little about what it feels like to fear for my life or my livelihood. I cried because there are just so many things worth crying about.

 

This is the way the past couple weeks have gone for me. Experiencing just about every emotion possible. Experiencing the joy, love, and grace I receive from my host community everyday. Experiencing disbelief, anger, and sorrow when reading or hearing about events at home. I am learning so much here in Cambodia and I know that this is where I need to be. I’m in the groove, I’m just doing life here, and I am happy.

But while I don’t particularly miss home, it’s also so hard to be away right now.

So I lit a piece of incense again. And again, I knew that moment was holy. It was different but it was still holy. Again, I wanted the incense to burn forever, as if the incense itself was my prayer for a just world.

Then, I remembered the eternal flame that is lit in my home church right now and in churches around the world. My incense may not last forever but the eternal flame certainly does.

I remembered that just as that flame is always lit, God is always present. And sometimes, I realize it.

But that realization, great as it may be, hasn’t fixed a single problem. It hasn’t made this world a more just place. God may be present but God works through you and me and people we don’t know. We are the body of Christ, freed from sin to create this just world that we so desire.

What can I do though?  I’m over 8,000 miles away from home and sometimes it feels even further than that.

I do know that everyday I wake up and walk and eat and talk and breathe and love and I try, with every fiber of my being, to do justice in all of these things. Some days that’s enough. And some days, it feels like I’m trying to fill the ocean with an eyedropper.

But right now, that’s what I can do. My very being, which sometimes involves my words but more often involves my actions, is the only thing I have.

So I keep waking up and walking and eating and talking and breathing and loving for justice.

And as it turns out, that’s exactly what God asks of me. That’s exactly what God asks of you.

Micah 6:8

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with our God?”

We may not always realize it, but there is holiness in our midst.

Will you think with me?

A couple weeks ago, I went on a field visit with two of my coworkers.  We had been driving around on the motorbikes for a while, going to different villages and visiting with people so we decided to stop for a bite to eat.  My coworkers ordered some beef kabobs (the meat & spices used here are so tasty!) and pickled vegetables for us. I gobbled down the delicious food and asked my coworker, Sokun, how much I owed him for our snack.  He told me that I didn’t need to pay him but I insisted that I should.  He responded, “No, no.  Sometimes friends are more important than money.”

——————————————-

I was caught off guard for a moment, not expecting such a profound response.  The weight of his words seemed to ring in my ears for what felt like minutes.  After a little while, I felt embarrassed.  I wanted to reply, “Oh of course I know that, that’s why I’m here!” or something like that.  I didn’t want to be the stereotype of an American who is so materialistic and only concerned with money.  I quickly realized this was one of those moments that is just loaded with significance.

I sheepishly replied, “Okay, thank you” and we rode off to another village.  But I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said.

I thought of my friend and college roommate, Allie, who loves finding the perfect gift for her friends & family.  When it comes to finding Christmas gifts, she starts doing research in the fall.  She scours every website and store until she find something that is perfect for that person. When she finds this perfect gift, she is never too concerned with the price.  She just wants to find a gift that will bring that person joy.

“Sometimes friends are more important than money.”

I thought of my small group leader form YAGM orientation, Sally, who shared with our group some of her thoughts.  She said that so often in the US, we unknowingly rank our relationships with people by the amount of money we are willing to spend on them.  For friends, we grab a coffee.  For close friends, we go out dinner.  For the best of friends, maybe we go on vacation together.  The closer you are, the more money you are willing to (and perhaps feel obliged to) spend on gifts.  She shared with us that her time as a YAGM in Argentina taught her that doing things like spending time in the park with a friend are so valuable.  Activities like cooking dinner together, going for walks in the park, and playing board games, allow us time to share with our loved ones and simply enjoy their presence.  Spending quality time with our friends and family is a wonderful way to show that we care, one that doesn’t require a price tag.

“Sometimes friends are more important than money.”

I thought about my own life, do I show the people I care about that friends are more important than money?  Do I buy snacks for my friends and coworkers, just because?  Do I take the time to search for gifts that my friends and family will truly enjoy, not just to check something off my Christmas to-do list?  Do I take time out of my day to check in with friends, just to see how they’re doing?  Do I put the people in my life before the busyness of life?

“Sometimes friends are more important than money.”

I thought about stewardship.  As a Young Adult in Global Mission in Cambodia, my life right now is entirely supported by gifts given to the church.  I have been given the glorious burden of constantly contemplating how I choose to spend the money I have been given.  Am I honoring God with this purchase?  How can I use this money in a way that will build relationships within my host community?  Am I being a good steward of the gifts that hardworking people like you have so graciously given to the church?

“Sometimes friends are more important than money.”

Ask anyone who’s ever been asked to give a Stewardship talk at church, money is not an easy subject to talk about.  It makes us uncomfortable.  So often in our world, money becomes a stumbling block in relationships between friends, families, neighborhoods, and churches.  A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to witness one of the many beautiful ways money can be used as a tool to build relationships, not tear them apart.

I haven’t stopped thinking about those wise, wise words my coworker said to me.  I don’t think I have even begun to understand the depths of his words.

Thanksgiving has passed, Advent is upon us, Christmas is coming soon, and I don’t think there could be a better time to share this story with all of you.  As we move through this holiday season, will you think about the ways in which we can use our money to honor our friends, family, & God as well as the ways we can cherish our loved ones more than our money?  Will you think with me?

– Amanda

Embracing Grace

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The Cambodian countryside – isn’t it beautiful?

I have been at my placement site for just over a month now!  Actually, that’s not entirely true — I’ve been travelling a lot due to holidays and a workshop with Life with Dignity.  Settling into my host community has certainly been different than I expected.  It’s been really exciting to learn about my new community and coworkers but if I’m really being honest, it hasn’t been easy either.

I love trying new things and experiencing the world but I also get intimidated pretty easily.  This presents a whole new challenge when I’m trying to live and work in another country, speaking a totally different language!

I often will try speaking (short sentences only at this point) in Khmer only to be met with a confused look.  This is so disheartening for me, particularly when I think I’ve figured out how to say a new word or phrase.  It makes me want to give up, to find someone who speaks English and have them translate for me.  How crazy was I to think that I could ever learn how to communicate well in Khmer?

These feelings were so overwhelming that in my first week, I didn’t speak very much.  I was happy to go through the day listening to everyone, hoping I could pick up Khmer that way and that at some point, I would suddenly be able to speak in perfect, beautiful Khmer.

But then I was reminded of something that I need during this year in Cambodia: grace.

One of my coworkers stopped me before dinner on my first Thursday in Phnom Kravanh said to me, “Do you miss your home?”  I said, “A little bit, but not too much!” trying to communicate that I was indeed enjoying my time here.  Then he said, “Are you shy?”.  I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at but I replied, “Yeah, I guess so.  But not once I get to know everyone and figure out my way around Kravanh!”  He nodded and replied, “I don’t think you should be shy”.  Then, he proceeded to show me pictures of his family and went downstairs for dinner.

At first, I was pretty confused by what he meant.  But then, I realized that he (and probably the rest of my coworkers) didn’t expect me to speak perfect Khmer.  They just wanted me to try, to be with them.  I was already forgetting the main reason I’m here (refer to previous blog)!

I realized I wanted to avoid speaking Khmer because I was scared of messing up, scared of being wrong, scared of offending someone, scared of sounding stupid.  Which is ridiculous because I will mess up, I will be wrong, I will offend someone, I will sound stupid.  I’m not here to be perfect.  I’m here to learn from and to build relationships with the people I have been called to serve and I can’t do that without embracing grace.  I know I am so undeserving of the many instances of grace I have already received, which is the entire point, but it isn’t always easy to accept.  I often like to think I’m a strong, confident, independent young woman and while these things may be true, going abroad and serving in another country is such a humbling experience.  In a lot of ways, I am utterly useless in Cambodia.  I need to be able to accept moments of grace from God, my coworkers, the other YAGM in my cohort, my country coordinators, and myself.

So after the conversation with my coworker, I marched downstairs and proceeded to eat with my coworkers.  I tried out a few words and tried to ask questions.  I listened, I smiled.  I laughed when they laughed, hoping I wasn’t laughing along at something inappropriate!  I can’t promise that my Khmer stellar now but I do my best to learn something new every day and I try not to worry about making a fool of myself.

As Charlie Chaplin once said, “Failure is unimportant.  It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.”  Have courage and I hope you will be able to accept grace in your life as well.

-Amanda

Being the Hands & Feet

Hello from Cambodia!

I realized that I left home exactly 1 month ago today and in some ways, that’s hard to believe and in other ways, it feels like much longer than that since I was in Ohio.  So much has happened!  I’ll try to sum up this past month..

On August 16th, 2016, I said good-bye to my family and home and left for Chicago.  I find good-byes really hard so believe me when I say, there were lots of tears!  But nonetheless, I met up with other YAGM and arrived in Chicago to start orientation, which was held at the beautiful University of Chicago.  Orientation was tough in a number of ways.  First, it felt so weird to be packed & ready for this year in Cambodia and to have said good-bye to all my family & friends (dog included!), only to find myself in Chicago — where a number of my friends live and 1 hour from my sister’s college.  Second, we had many difficult conversations.  From race and privilege, to accompaniment, to details about insurance, newsletters, and fundraising, there was a lot of listening, note-taking, and discussion.  As difficult as some of these conversations may have been, they were so important for us to try to understand our role as young, American, Christians (and many other identities as well) in our global context (I hope to unpack some of these things more throughout my year).  But after many discussions, wonderful services at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), and a fun closing talent show of sorts, I found myself in Chicago’s O’Hare International Aiport getting ready to board a plane to Cambodia!  Well, not exactly.  Here was our flight plan:

Chicago ➡️ Detroit ➡️ Seoul, South Korea ➡️ Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The flight from Detroit to Seoul was the longest flight I’ve been on to date and I was thrilled when we finally landed about 15 hours later.  When #YAGMCamFam (that’s what we call ourselves, silly aren’t we?) landed in Phnom Penh, we were greeted by our new country coordinators, Matt and Jen.  Though I had never met them before, they were so kind and welcoming, qualities you need to be surrounded by when you are suffering from massive jet lag and culture shock!

The next day we started in-country orientation.  Over the course of the next 2 weeks, we ate many delicious Western and Khmer meals (as we acclimated our bodies to the new environment), shared our stories, toured the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields, attended a Khmer cooking class, rode around in tuk tuks, learned about the ELCA’s partners in Cambodia: Life with Dignity (LWD), RACHA (Reproductive and Child Health Alliance) and the Lutheran Church of Cambodia (LCC), haggled our way through the markets, visited the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom, and spent time together in prayer, singing and sharing devotionals.  I had a wonderful time getting to know my fellow Cambodia YAGM cohort and our country coordinators and honestly, I was sad to leave them.  But as important as those relationships have become to me, that’s not really what this year is about.

As a Young Adult in Global Mission, our job is to go out into the world and be the hands and feet of Jesus.  I like to think that being the hands of Jesus refers to our placements.  For me, this means serving with Life with Dignity, an entirely Cambodian-run organization that works to address the needs of the poor and oppressed through innovative, community-based techniques, and teaching English at the local school.  I can already tell that I will be doing a lot of different things & witnessing amazing work this year and that is very exciting.  However, the other, more important, part of our role as YAGM is to be the feet of Jesus.  I believe that this refers to our call to serve in accompaniment with our partners.  Accompaniment can be complicated and I won’t dive into the details right now, but it boils down to building meaningful relationships with God’s people (Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or otherwise) all over the world and simply being.  This means recognizing that I will not change the world this year.  I will not end hunger in Cambodia or repair the wounds left by the Khmer Rouge’s bloody regime.  I will not be able to ensure that every child receives an education or clean drinking water, which every human being on this Earth deserves.  Hopefully, you weren’t actually expecting me to accomplish any or all of those goals!  All I can really do is be here.  Now, as a recent college graduate who is used to doing so much, this is a challenging part of my role.  Though I can edit reports, teach English to the staff, and suggest new ideas, my main purpose here is to walk alongside my Cambodian counterparts.  I am here to show support not just from myself but also from the ELCA.  I am here to bear witness to the incredible work that LWD, RACHA, and the Lutheran Church of Cambodia do and to share these stories with all of you.

I have been at my placement for almost 1 week now and I look forward to sharing the stories and lessons I will learn.  But for now, peace and joy to all of you!

-Amanda