Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas in Cambodia

It was Christmas Eve in Cambodia. The sun was shining with temperatures in the 80s and we were being greeted by everyone with “Happy Merry Christmas.” Our presents were wrapped and tucked under the artificial tree we found at a local bookstore, yes, bookstore, and the kids were super excited.

But it wasn’t their presents they were excited about. It was the ones we were getting ready to load onto the tuk tuk.

These little boys had spent a lot of time on these presents. We had to wander a strange and unusual land (aka - a new market) to search for items in bulk. We had some wonderful friends join us as the kids got picked up by strangers, pinched on the cheeks, and called "babies", which neither of them likes at all. But it was worth it.

Let me go back a little bit here.

Just as I’ve been writing about this month, our family felt led to give back this year to the people we have come to love in this nation. Where we’ve given to World Vision or IJM in the past for people in need, we decided to take the items ourselves and put them in the hands of those in need this year.

We knew we had the power to change a lot of lives with what God has given us. After all, He changed our lives by bringing us here, and He did it using the financial support of many friends, family members, and even strangers. He has truly blessed us, providing all we need and often a little extra to make life comfortable for us. The problem is, when it comes to wanting to help the helpless, it’s hard to know where to turn. Here in Cambodia there is a need on every street corner... literally. I pass by people every day that need help. How do you choose?

When we asked others for suggestions we were overwhelmed with ideas. Stephen and I really felt we wanted to reach the children of Phnom Penh, the future of this nation, and we prayed for God to direct us how and where to serve Him. It’s no secret to everyone who helped that Satan was trying to hinder us every step of the way, but just in the nick of time, we were able to serve Him through an organization called the Bong Paoun Project. It’s a big brother/sister program in the city that reaches out to children in the slums of Phnom Penh. The children in these slums live in a housing area that is next to the giant municipal dump and spend their days sorting trash to find something of value to feed their families. I’ll let the story from their website illustrate what the Bong Paoun Project does for them:

     Jesus said: ‘Is there anyone here who, if a child or animal fell down a well, wouldn’t rush to pull him out immediately?’
     Millions of children have come to cities like Phnom Penh, Bangkok or Manila looking for a better life. But as they come, they fall into a pit. The pit of child labour. Many of them as street working children. The pit is too deep to get out. They are damned to stay down there in the filth, for who knows how many years.
     They will grow up and get married in the pit, give birth to more street working children and eventually die in the pit.
     Most people, though moved by the plight of the children, are too busy to get involved in the pit.
Some, with good intentions, will ‘throw’ some help into the pit. But at the end of the day the children are still trapped down there. They are still collecting rubbish. They are still begging on the streets. They are still selling their bodies.
     A Christian doctor reaching out to street children in Bolivia writes this: ‘ One baby from a wealthy country, stuck at the bottom of a well, generates more heartfelt anxiety than 100 million children trapped on the streets of the developing world ever will.’
     But there is hope!
     Near the pit, there’s a rope; long enough to reach the children. As long as there is someone holding the rope, the boys and girls down in the pit will eventually be able to climb out and be free.

I would love to encourage you to read more on their website, including stories from children in the projects and big brothers and sisters who help them. The stories are inspiring true accounts of children who were born into heartbreaking poverty and despair yet now live with hope of a better future for generations to come.

God was showing us that this would be a good place to share His love on Christmas.

So we showed up, not knowing what to expect and not at all seeing what we expected. There was trash everywhere. They were literally living in filth. As our tuk tuk slowed to a stop, loaded with gifts, children and adults alike gathered around us, eyes hopeful and bright. They were dirty and hungry and their homes were falling apart. We only saw the outside of their little community, where 10-12 people could live in one room together. Inside there were others with no roof or no walls or no place to call home.

Yes, poverty and despair would be good words to describe it, though if I could think of more powerful ones, I'd use them.

But, whether they knew it or not, it was Christmas Eve.

It felt like a good place to celebrate the birth of our Lord.

Jesus was born in a stable. They laid Him a manger where the animals ate. His surroundings looked like poverty and despair, yet He brought a hope to the world that no other before or after Him would ever be able to give.

We, along with another IJM family and 4 other friends, all part of our own "IJM family," climbed up in a Khmer house, which is a very basic wooden house up on stilts. Our kids thought it was a treehouse so that made the whole thing even more fun. Then, in a room that might have been 12ft by 15ft, 40 children between age 12 and 18, all little brothers and sisters in the Bong Paoun Project, climbed in with us.

They received new school uniforms, shoes, toothbruses, soaps, shampoo, and a fun Angry Birds pen and notebook that my boys joyfully handed to each child.

They were all extremely grateful.

Stephen was smiling and thankful for what we could do while I was in tears about all those in the community who we couldn’t help. I guess we balance each other well.

I assumed when we got in the tuk tuk to head home the first thing my kids would do would be to ask if we could open presents when we got home.

Instead, my five year old son looked up at me with a giant grin and a sparkle in his eyes and said, “Mom, that was SO fun. Can we do it again soon?”

Yes, honey. We can. And we don’t have to wait until next Christmas.

I pray God blesses all of our families – yours and mine - immensely in 2012 so we may then bless others around us who are in need.

Happy Merry Christmas from Cambodia.

Thank you to everyone who made it possible for us to support these children by supporting our family. 


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Give Christmas Away - Part 2

My family has gone back to a simple Christmas this year and there’s nothing like it. I mean, really, is this what Jesus wants His birthday to be about? People so busy with parties and shopping and wrapping and baking that they don’t have time for happiness or, more importantly, Him? When did we decide that we “needed” that new toy for our child when half a world away, or sometimes just right down the street, children are just hungry for a real meal, or shivering because they don’t have a winter coat? It’s Jesus’ birthday. That’s what Christmas is. Without that, what would we be celebrating?

I know. I’m guilty of going about it all wrong, too. It hasn’t hit me until now just how wrong it all is. And, yeah, part of me kind of misses the shopping. I can’t believe I’m admitting that. I don’t even like shopping, and I usually do most of it online anyway, but this year is different. I’m in Cambodia, and the internet is so smart that it knows that when I try to buy things and most websites won’t let me purchase gifts online, and since I can’t mail anything out, I’m kind of stuck not being able to do much shopping.

But, really, don’t we go way overboard? A Consumer Reports study just a couple weeks ago reported that over 14 million people are still paying off credit card debt from last year’s Christmas expenses.

I wonder how much of the world doesn’t even know what a credit card is.

I pass by them every day.

I’m going back to a simple Christmas this year. I’ll teach my kids to think of others. I want to take them out and have them pick out something they’d like to give each other, something they put real thought into, if that is possible at age 3 and 5.

But then I want us to think of those who don’t have people thinking of them.

And they are all around me. You might be thinking that it’s different for you, you’re not in a Third World country with trash on the streets and homeless people living in it day and night. I disagree. There are so many around you and I, no matter where we live, that need us. That truly “need” things this year, unlike the way our children “need” those cool toys they see on TV commercials.

So how can we help? And how can we teach our children to “Give Christmas Away” and hopefully instill in them a lifelong desire to help others more than themselves this time of year?

I read a great news article about people, often anonymously, who are paying off people's layaway accounts at K-Mart.  That's amazing.  That's inspiring.  That's what giving is.

I want to go a step further and involve my kids in the giving.

I think back to my childhood. My mom and dad would give me the great big toy book to circle whatever I wanted. I think it was Sears or JC Penney catalogs back then. Now its Toys R Us and Target and even Best Buy where kids are circling what they want. What if we have the kids choose some things they really, really, really want, and then we tell them that they are going to go with us to choose and buy that themselves... and give it away? Wow. What a lesson that would teach, right? It’s not purposely choosing some silly toy that they don’t care about for some faceless poor person but instead making a real sacrifice for those in need.

I’d like to do that with my kids this year. Well, minus the catalog, of course. We’ll have to settle for the little toy stand at the market, I guess.

To make it even better, I want my kids to put that brand new toy directly into the hands of a child who will love it. Along with some clothes, shoes, food, and a brand new Bible. I think that both their family and ours would be greatly impacted by that action.

What if we all did that for a family in need this year?

Imagine if many people joined in and a generation of young boys and girls learned to bring Christ back to Christmas.

Maybe then someday people would be less excited about Santa and more excited about Jesus.

Will you join us? We would love to hear your stories.

'For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'     "Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’     “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25: 35-40

Monday, December 12, 2011

Give Christmas Away - Part 1

As Christmas approaches and I keep wondering whether or not I should send Christmas cards and how I’ll do it and if I’ll ever get the perfect family photo in Cambodia, and... you know all that stuff, I can’t help but think how much has changed since last year.

Really though, could that much have changed in a year?



Last year my whole world was different. The biggest difference I remember about Christmas itself was that my husband was in Afghanistan serving with the US Army. The rest was beginning to unfold in last year’s letter here.

But since I keep finding myself reflecting on that time of deployment and my years as a military wife, I think my “Give Christmas Away” theme (which I do plan to have another part to but may or may not actually do) should start with the military.

And this time, I’m not just talking about our soldiers.

See, I’ve been there. And it wasn’t so long ago at all. I miss the military life sometimes. I miss the fun, the friends, the Bunco nights, the book clubs, the wives clubs, all of the social stuff. Most of all I miss the “family” that grows out of every relocation, every move, every deployment. I miss the other moms and dads who grow to know my kids well enough to correct them when they need it and hug and kiss them when they need love. I always found that relationships grew deep quickly because they had to. People were always coming and going so we didn’t have time to waste with small talk. We got close, we got real, and we became family. I miss my family. But the good thing about family is they always love you. Now I have family all over the world.

I don’t miss the deployments, though. The deployments that any of my “family” goes through. Because we are all in it together. I didn’t like watching my husband have to see his kids wake up on Christmas morning to see what Santa brought via a broken Skype connection. I didn’t like having to send the Christmas presents a month early only to find out they made it late. It’s just not really fun at all to celebrate any holiday when half the family is away.

But it’s important, nonetheless. We all know freedom isn’t free. And this time of year, those of us who are not military families are likely to forget that we’re fighting a war over there. I mean, we get so busy shopping and attending parties, and taking exams for school that we don’t even remember Jesus, so of course we forget the soldiers. For the families, though, it’s pretty much all they think about.

I can sit here and see on my facebook page so many of my friends- my “family”- who have the greatest Christmas gift of all coming in on a plane this year. That brings me tears of joy. I can’t imagine that time of reunion coming at a better season. How can Santa Claus or a new iPad compete with Dad stepping off that plane? I pray they make it on time and safe and sound.

But then I see others who celebrated the holidays in October or November because they knew that by December their soldier would be long gone.

Let’s try to think about them a little this Christmas. Because even if they go visit family for the holiday, chances are they are coming home to a big empty house after Christmas, where only one parent will be cleaning up all the new toys, only one parent will be taking down the holiday decorations, and two people half a world away from each other will wake up each day with some sort of countdown to how many days are left until they see each other again.

How can we Give Christmas Away to these families?

Here are some ideas I’ve read online or thought of from my struggles in the past.

Invite a family into your home for a meal or party

Buy gifts and give anonymously to the children

Give money or gift cards to an enlisted family struggling to make ends meet

Offer to help decorate the house for Christmas, as many women will choose not to decorate because they don’t want to ask for help.

Babysit the children so Mom can go shopping for gifts or just have a break

If mom is travelling, pack a “travel kit” for the kids with books, games, toys, and snacks to make the trip easier for everyone.

Hire a cleaning service so the parent has to do less cleaning is family is coming to visit

Take digital family pictures for them to send to their soldier

Leave a bag of groceries on the doorstep anonymously

If the family doesn’t have a webcam, buy them one and teach them how to use skype so they can see their loved ones on Christmas

Make a movie of the family and help them send it to their loved one overseas

Pray. Always pray for these dear men, women, and children, who are living a life unique and special. A life we are all grateful to them for. Thank them and pray for them all.

My soldier and my son the day he left in 2010

Please use the comment form to add some more ideas on helping the families of deployed soldiers at Christmas and throughout the year.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Church in Cambodia

I wrote a note for my church in North Carolina. It was supposed to be an update and a thank you letter for all their support, but you know me... once my thoughts started flowing, it turned into an outlet for so much more (and I decided NOT to share it as a newsletter and start that over later). I thought this might be a better outlet for it here:

This morning during church I thought about you all at Spout Springs Church. I thought about how different church is here. And then I realized that you probably have no idea how different it is for us so I should share a bit of that with you. Here’s what our Sunday morning looks like:

We get up and get dressed but instead of jumping in the car we walk outside our apartment into the busy street and grab a tuk tuk, which is basically a covered two seated fancy wagon that is pulled behind a moped. The driver takes us the 2-3 miles to our church, where we invite him to stay.

We invite him to stay because the service is in his language, not ours. Yes, that’s right. It’s a Cambodian church. So, as we enter, we stop at a desk and pick up a small FM radio with a headset for us to later listen to a translator while the sermon is preached. During the worship songs, words are projected on a screen, much like they are at Spout Springs, but they are written in both Khmer and English. Khmer is the Cambodian language and is made up of symbols and letters that look nothing like our phonetic alphabet. Everyone in the congregation sings the songs in whatever language they choose while the worship leaders sing in Khmer.

It’s neat because most of the songs are familiar to us... songs you would sing at Spout Springs and so they sound great in English. However, as anyone who’s ever learned a language knows, sometimes it takes far more or less words in one language to say the same thing in another language. That makes the songs confusing sometimes.

They have only one English speaking childcare class for kids age 4 to 12. That means our 3 year old son has to sit with us for the service. And it’s a 2 hour service. Any of you with kids know how fun that can be.

So needless to say, church isn’t easy. In fact, some days, it’s downright hard. Like today, when my headset wouldn’t work and it kept getting all staticky when the translator was talking. I couldn’t hear anything! I began praying and asking God why we can’t just find a church like Spout Springs where we can go, know our kids are in great hands, worship without changing up the wording, and have a “family” that understands us because we are all from similar backgrounds and cultures. And God answered me.

He told me it isn’t supposed to be easy.

It never has been easy for His followers. In fact, I even opened my Bible, hopelessly trying to figure out what passage we were in because the lady next to me was using a Khmer Bible and I couldn’t read it, and it opened to Matthew 10, where I found the passage where Jesus prepares the disciples for their future of persecution. He tells them “brother will betray brother to the death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (10:21-22)

Wow. I realized that they had it rough, but that is pretty much as bad as it gets. “All men will hate you” and “brother will betray brother to the death” sound pretty awful. I’m glad I never had to face that in my life.

Yet I was standing in a roomful of people who did.

See, in America we say accepting Christ is easy. After all, all you have to do is accept Him. Salvation is a free gift. Well, here, where families worship Buddha and the spirits of dead ancestors, choosing to accept that gift means choosing the One who is different than the one their family chooses. Often these men and women are not allowed to see their families anymore. Sometimes their salvation is accepted but sometimes these words, these red letters that we sometimes forget are words that our Savior spoke out loud, come true. “Brother will betray brother to the death, and a father his child.”

That little headset that was making static in my ear didn’t even count as a problem compared to that.

Church isn’t supposed to be easy.

Living for Jesus isn’t supposed to be easy.

After all, following Jesus means becoming more like Him every day, and I’m pretty sure there’s nothing easy about working to become perfect. Following Him is about losing our lives. “Whoever loses His life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39

If it’s easy, maybe we aren’t doing it right.

That’s the end of the letter. Oops. I didn’t mean to end so abruptly. I mean, that’s kind of depressing, right! But really, when we are talking about eternity, as in: this life is but a blink of an eye and we have forever to live on after it eternity, isn’t it worth it? Isn’t every struggle on this earth such a miniscule thing compared to the thought of an eternity away from our Creator? Do we want to take the easy way out?

I don’t.

And I don’t want anyone else to have to, either.

Lord, help me be a blessing to everyone I meet today. Help everyone who reads this to pray that prayer with me today. Help us to live so that you may be glorified in all we do. Help us to be missionaries to the world wherever we are. Yes, Lord, I do pray you send another to Cambodia. Right now, Lord. And I pray that you send more to all ends of the earth. But I pray too, that the rest of us can be missionaries right where we are, in our workplaces, in our own neighborhoods, in our homes, Lord, where those who love us most are always watching. Help us be more like Jesus so others will want to know You. Help us BE the church. And not just on Sundays, Lord. You deserve so much more than that. Keep our minds focused on eternity and help us be a blessing to everyone we meet.

Friday, December 2, 2011

I didn't know

A year and a half ago there was so much I didn’t know.

I didn’t know there were real slaves left in the world.

I had no clue that there are more people, many of them children, held in slavery now than over the entire course of the of trans-Atlantic slave trade.

I didn’t realize millions of women and children were being forced to work in brothels against their will and raped over and over again every night by men of foreign cultures and their own cultures.

I had no clue that whole families with children - just like my family - were being forced to work in factories as slaves and not allowed to leave, living in terrible conditions, often dying of hunger or sickness that could have been prevented.

No one had ever told me how many women and children in Africa were left homeless after the man of the house died and perpetrators came in and raped them and took their land.

I honestly didn’t know.

I hadn’t heard of IJM.

I didn’t know what International Justice Mission was or anything about the lives that were being saved day by day because of those who worked for them.  

I definitely didn’t know my husband and my family would be next to join the fight.

Check out this IJM article  (No, not later, right now!)
It's about what Stephen is doing here in Cambodia.  It's definitely worth a read. 

I didn't know then. 
I know now. 

Cambodia is real to me now.  Real to me and oh, so dear to my heart. These statistics I read a year and a half ago are now real faces, real names, real people, real survivors.  Praise God for that!  

I am so grateful for the people at IJM who work tirelessly to rescue girls like these. Please pray with me for more stories like that above in the coming year.  

Here’s a link to how you can join the fight
by giving the gift of freedom this Christmas.

Did you know? How much do you know about injustice today? Comment below... I don't want anyone else to say "I didn't know" like I had to say. I want the world to know so we can make a difference together.