Instead of hoping for snow and searching out good deals on post-holiday sales, I'm off on a bit of a journey. A friend and I are taking off for Laos on Christmas afternoon with six days to explore some of the Northern parts of the country. We have two basic goals: to make it to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and apparently all-around amazing place; and to ride an elephant at one of the eco-tourism places in the area. I'll be able to report on whether or not we achieve these objectives after the New Year, when I'll be back in Phnom Penh.

Of course, photos to come at that point, too. As quite a few Cambodians have sang to me in the last few days, now I'll share with you... I wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!



It’s that time of year again! I’m certain that many of you are cringing at what promises to be another reminder about Christmas. How’s your shopping? The cards? Any travel plans? You see, I’d almost forgotten that it was Christmas. Aside from the pile in my junk mail box, there is a lack of “holiday sales” and certainly no commercials about the impending holiday. No one is reminding me that I have to find something perfect for everyone on my list, and I feel no pressure to go shopping. I’m not even sure where I’d be able to find a stocking, let alone fill it! And the weather remains sunny and in the 70s and 80s.

There have been small reminders of the season. I’ve heard carols playing at the grocery store, and hummed along as I purchased my milk. The best, however, was riding in a car only to hear a Christmas song by none other than New Kids on the Block, a band that in 1989 I thought was the “best ever” (though I was 8 at the time, and my tastes have changed a bit). This catchy tune was followed up by none other than that Christmas smash “Feliz Navidad.” I will let you draw your own conclusions about a Spanish song playing in Cambodia.

I went to lunch recently at a small restaurant in my neighborhood. It’s operated as an NGO, and gives women some training in hospitality. Imagine my surprise when I found the place decked out for the holidays, with a tree and even carols playing over the loudspeakers. I couldn’t stop smiling. Later, when I found the staff at World Relief putting the finishing touches on a Christmas tree in our office, they made fun of me and how happy such a small thing made me feel. The extent to which I decorated at home was this small nativity scene. It’s hard to tell, but the baby Jesus does have a face.

I’m torn between being grateful that Christmas remains unsullied and pure here and sad that there’s little recognition of the holiday. Those who celebrate it do so because it reflects their faith. No traces of materialism here. Those who don’t get excited about evergreens, snow, and baby Jesus… well, most of them haven’t even heard the story.

I was leaving the house last week when I was surprised by my landlords. They handed me a little bag and said, “Merry Holiday.” It was possibly the sweetest thing I’ve seen in awhile. Inside were some small gifts and a card that said in English, “Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.” I am trying to think of a way to share with them in a return gift just why this holiday is so important.

I heard a radio commercial a few years ago proclaim “This Christmas, it’s all about YOU!” Which, of course, made me laugh and then soberly reflect on how many people find that statement to be true. I’m excited to try out Christmas in a culture that doesn’t expect packages and ribbons, cookies and candy. I miss my family, my traditions, and I will really miss all the holiday goodies, but I’m curious to celebrate boldly in a place where this story, and my beliefs in general, are not the norm at all.



Every Thursday, the World Relief office has a devotion time. We sing a few songs and someone shares some insight from the Bible. Every week, without fail, I forget this is going to happen. It’s even more pronounced when it is my turn to lead. So this week, when one of our staff members came in to tell me that 1) it was time again for the devotions and 2) I was in charge, I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of insight I’d have. I sheepishly walked into the devotion time, and immediately started flipping through my Bible. We decided to sing Christmas songs, so I thought about just reading the Christmas story and pondering that miracle. But, as usually happens, something else caught my eye.

In Luke 1, Mary bursts out into song. I kind of wish that I had been there, to see this very young woman (probably younger than me) either recite this beautiful poem, or start to sing in the middle of the day. Did everyone look at her like she was crazy? Did they sing along? Who wrote it down? Would she remember it later and be embarrassed? She doesn’t really pull any punches at the beginning: My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant (Luke 1: 47-48a). What a thing to say!

I started to think about this young lady, and the fact that her response to an unexpected and potentially shameful pregnancy was this song. Then I realized that she’s not reacting to the nine months of waiting, or the pain of labor, but to something wholly different. This kid is going to change her life. She will have to raise this child, care for him, and the whole time she’ll know she’s doing it because God asked her to, and though she probably knows that all babies are a miracle, she’s got the inside scoop that this one is the Messiah. She has been chosen for something, has a purpose that includes this very unique task. Of course she should be singing!

So then, of course, being incredibly selfish, I started to think about my own response to something like this (not that I’m having any children over here, I just want to make that clear). When God calls us, we get the inside scoop on something transformative. We are always called to a purpose, to something very unique. Over the past few months, I’ve been a bit whiny about how that purpose is hard, and how it includes some things that are difficult for me (that would be what I mean when I say that I am “incredibly selfish”). I’m sure Mary had her moments, too, and they probably weren’t pretty. Yet, she also has this great song to go back to, to remember the feeling of being chosen. He has been mindful, she says, of the humble state of His servant. Later, she sings, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name (v. 49).

As I sit here on a Saturday morning in Cambodia, drinking my coffee and listening to the sounds of this new country, I am thinking about how phenomenal it is. How incredibly wonderful that out of all the people He might’ve used, I get to be here, working with amazing people, riding on motorbikes, in the dust and the rain, with the mosquitoes and the mangoes, learning a new language, discovering a culture, finding new friendships, being homesick, feeling stretched, feeling loved. This time here, it will change me, just like that long-ago moment did for Mary. My whole life will be different, simply because I’ve been here and done this. It is a miracle, I think, that God lets us in like that, invites us to participate in something extraordinary. In this moment, my soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. How can I do anything other than sing?



I’ve been reading a book called Blue Like Jazz recently. It’s a nice book, about God and spirituality and faith, somewhat intellectual and fairly post-modern. I think quite a few people have read it, and it’s kind of a trendy Christian read. It was recommended to me by lots of people, and half price at a bookstore I visited, so I bought it, and now I’m about half way through.

Somewhere just before the middle of this book, the author, Donald Miller, discusses passion and belief, and why passion without any belief is nothing, and gives us nothing. He talks about how our faith, our belief, should be passionate, and should concern us with many things, like justice and truth, and how Christ would walk through a fallen American world. I agree with this. But I think there is something more than passion.

I was reading this book the other day at a café across town. I had a fruit shake and a little snack, and enjoyed the shade and the quiet, and read about God, and belief, and one man’s thoughts on these things. When I got up to leave, or rather, just before, three little kids—one girl, two boys, all under 13—started begging. The girl took my water and one of the boys slurped down the rest of my fruit shake when I gave the okay. They wanted 1000 riel (a quarter) or even 100 riel (around 3 cents). They were dirty and persistent. I said no. The café where I was eating, and several places nearby are set up as NGOs, working for the poor in Phnom Penh, and I’m wary of begging children because it is an outlet for trafficking. In other words, the kids may not see the money that they “earn.”

I tried to say no nicely. The kids would have none of it. They asked me for ice cream, and the boys climbed onto the back of my bike, as if I would be willing to take them somewhere. They pleaded and smiled, and were so dirty and heartbreaking, and I refused. For some reason, I couldn’t reach into my pocket and help them. I wanted to buy them some food, but despite standing outside a café, I couldn’t, and I don’t know why. It was terrible. As I finally drove away, I had tears in my eyes. The only word I could think of at the time was compassion.

Compassion means a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. The word appears all over the Bible (I even looked it up) and usually in reference to God. The psalms are littered with mentions of a God who is gracious and compassionate. Some of the darkest places in the Old Testament—while Jeremiah laments, when Hosea is married to a prostitute, as a bitter Jonah cries out in the belly of a great fish—mention compassion. It describes Jesus, who sees crowds, has compassion, and heals, feeds, and cares for them.

Recently, as I was traveling to one of the provinces, we crossed a river, and a little boy spent nearly the entire 20 minutes we were on board the ferry banging on my car window, pleading for money. As we drove away, his greasy fingerprints were visible on the other side of the glass. Perhaps I can choose to self-righteously explain my reluctance to help these kids by saying that I don’t just want to help them with a meal today; I want to bring healing to a system that leaves them on the street in the first place. That sounds like a good excuse, but it doesn’t put food in their stomachs. Maybe the true answer is that I am jaded, and I feel like 1000 riel for each of these four kids (a total of a dollar) is simply a drop in the bucket of the ocean of poverty I know exists here.

This is why I cannot accept that passion is enough. I looked up the word “passion” and found it mentioned only 7 times in the NIV, all in reference to sin. Passionate beliefs are still capable (as my own behavior suggests) of looking hungry children in the face and walking away. If we believe with passion the truth of the Gospel, it is not enough for the hungry, for the poor, for the lost. I think if we believe with compassion, though, there may be hope. I think it’s the second part of the definition that makes the difference: strong desire to alleviate the suffering. It is this desire, to couple belief with action for the oppressed, the broken, and the hurting that will move us to help, to feed, and to care.



When I was a sophomore in high school, I went on a school trip to New York City. While there, we saw the musical, Cats. This was a pretty neat experience, after all, how often do you watch people dance and sing in colorful costumes, etc? Not being a very discerning theatre-goer at the time (what with being 15 years old), I liked it pretty well, and had fun seeing a Broadway show.

From what I can remember, the plot of Cats revolves around a junkyard full of felines and their stories, and is based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot. They sing the lines he wrote and the goal is to make you feel all emotional for them as they do it. Simple enough.

My home in Cambodia is not in a junkyard (though there’s a lot of trash on my street). Yet, we seem to have a number of stray cats running around at night. Unlike the characters in Cats, I don’t think these animals have glitter on their fur, and certainly no spandex. At least, not that I’ve noticed. The most distinct difference, however, is that the screeching and hissing of these cats is not even a little bit musical. Also, they don’t appear to have any kind of emotional story to tell.

Adding to the cacophony of animal noises are the neighborhood dogs. While American guard dogs are taught to lie quietly or growl menacingly before attacking a stranger, Cambodian dogs take a different tactic. These dogs are trained to bark. Constantly, and for both friends and foes (and especially stray felines), which means barking all night long. I don’t recall any dogs in the story of Cats on Broadway, but I’m thinking this is a pretty serious plotline in the drama taking place outside my door each night. Cats show up, dogs bark. Cats retreat, dogs bark. Cats come back, dogs bark louder. I’m sure there’s a story here.

I guess the main point of this little digression is to point out that, 10 years after watching Cats on Broadway, I seem to be living it out, but without the spandex and song, of course. The whole experience is making me reevaluate my initial impressions of the musical, and my feelings on animal choirs in general. Not in a positive way, I assure you. Just another thing that's changed as a result of life in Cambodia.



Having passed the six-month mark here in Cambo (as I like to call it occasionally), I find myself having lots of answers to questions I formulated before moving. Such as, where will I live? How will I get around? Will it be hot all the time? (Answers: in an apartment; on a moto; no)

Instead, these have been replaced by other, somewhat strange questions. I’ve decided to pose them here, because, frankly, I think they might be entertaining. So, in no particular order, questions about (and from) Cambodia…

Why does the smell of my laundry change depending on the time of day it is hung outside to dry?

Will I ever see a lizard out of the corner of my eye and not think it is a mouse?

Does barking all night long strain a dog’s vocal cords?

Is it possible not to flinch every time I take a cold shower (which is daily)?

Why, when I’m not interested, do I see at least 6 men riding bicycles selling things I need to buy, but when I’m thinking about it, no one is around?

Will my feet (or shoes) ever be completely clean again?

Why are Cambodians so into bad 80s (and 90s) love ballads?

How is it possible that the average Cambodian man is shorter, thinner, and still stronger than me?
(hmm, maybe I don’t want to answer that)

Do my landlords know my name or do they actually think it is “Madame?” Will they ever call me anything other than “Madame?”

Is there a limit to the number of mangoes one person can eat in a lifetime?

Inquiring minds (okay, just one mind) want to know.