Friday, January 2, 2015

A few thoughts at New Year

Any modern missionary knows that one of your tasks is to keep up the blog, preferably with lots of fantastic photos and inspiring stories. I haven’t even tried to write a blog in the last year. It’s not that I don’t have something to say or that nothing has happened. I just don’t know how to communicate adequately the depth of God’s work when this last year has been for me one of inner change and there are no photos to show what that looks like.

It’s also not that I haven’t been writing but my writing has been more personal reflection or for work and study. Writing something public has felt too confronting. I have this drive to be honest and vulnerable and that makes it hard to write what I imagine people want to read. In some ways it feels too much like striving to be part of a competition one can never hope to win. There is so much written now. Everyone is posting, tweeting, blogging and commenting that it feels like we are trying harder and harder to capture attention in an age of shortening attention spans and over stimulation.

Maybe I’ve just grown weary. Actually I know I have grown weary. The last 15 months have been a real challenge health wise for me. But the experience of lowered energy levels has made me search for slow and restful rhythms that are restorative and kind and I am losing interest in trying to impress anyone anymore.

The danger in being open and saying what is on my mind is that I may be misunderstood or risk rejection. If I express my frustration or rail against the injustice I see around me here in Cambodia, let alone in the news, my words may well be unbalanced, critical and unkind and 2015 seems to me like a time for greater gentleness, consideration and compassion. Maybe now is not the time for too many words.

Richard Foster, in A Celebration of Discipline, wrote “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not a greater number of intelligent people or gifted people, but for deep people”.

As we start 2015 I believe we need a new depth of love and wisdom. We need spiritual discernment and to be moulded and led by the Holy Spirit. 

One way to grow in this is to delve into the riches of ancient Christian devotional practices and explore how they can be used to deepen and reinvigorate our connection with God in a new age. There is no real need to invent something new. The new is so quickly superseded these days. Something new will soon be something old.  We have a rich heritage that has been tested over the centuries. There is much to gain from those who have gone before us.

I am continuing to learn how I can take things such as the Jesus Prayer, the Examen, Sabbath, Lectio Divina and the use of daily offices and merge them into my 21st century life with all its challenges and underappreciated privileges.  

How can you seek to grow in depth this year? 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

There is an alternative

In recent years I have become concerned that High school groups have been visiting Cambodia and spending significant time, or all their time, in orphanages ‘helping’ – playing with the kids, teaching English, and do work tasks like painting and building. 

The overall impression they get of Cambodia and Cambodian kids is very limited.  The vast majority of children in Cambodia live with their parents, extended family and community. To spend any time in an orphanage or children’s home is harmful to both the kids living there (attachment disorders and other psychological issues in the children are exacerbated) and those visiting (who develop misunderstandings about appropriate responses to poverty and disadvantage).

Trips to many other countries by Australian school groups never include visiting orphanages. When a school group goes to Europe, for example, the emphasis is language, history and culture. But rather than coming to learn these same things in Cambodia they so often follow the well-trod pathway of volun-tourism and orphanage tourism. It is easy to do, and is encouraged by the orphanage managers for whom a constant stream of visitors amuses the kids, gets a few jobs done around the property and the volunteers, emotionally moved by being with the kids, will often leave money with the managers before they depart.

Of course the volunteers are doing what seems needed and with the best intentions. But it is not all about them. It should be all about the kids in orphanages and Children’s homes and it is clear visiting such places anywhere in the world does harm to the most vulnerable kids of all.

In Cambodia, if you build an orphanage you will fill it, not with orphans but with kids from poor families sent for a “better life”. But what kind of life is it away from mum and dad, family and friends? (See website on institutional care issues internationally)

There is an alternative. Emmaus Christian College from South Australia have recently visited Vietnam and Cambodia and focused on history and social justice. During their time in Cambodia they have learnt Khmer language each day, learnt from key members of the ‘emerging’ civil society in Cambodia, and sat with young people deeply committed to empowering the youth of Cambodia to find their voice and bring change to a country desperately in need of transformation from within. In the process the students from Australia have been changed and challenged in many ways. When Cambodian people heard the students were learning ‘their language’ each day they were surprised and often asked “but why are they learning our language when they are only here 10 days? When they realized that the programme was to ‘learn’ rather than ‘help’, and to ‘engage and understand’ they were impressed.

So, Australian educators, please re-think what you do when you send a group of your students to poor countries to ‘experience’ poverty and ‘serve’ the poor.  There is damage done to those you meet and your own kids get a warped view of both themselves and their place in the world. There is an alternative.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Orphanages - an Aussie reflects

When I was a kid growing up during the 1970’s in Blackwood, a suburb of Adelaide, South Australia, I remember regularly passing Colebrook Home.  We all understood the Aboriginal kids there didn’t have parents or family and they had been brought to the city for education  – it was an orphanage.

Years later, in the mid 1990’s, I was involved in a coalition of community groups that supported Indigenous and migrant people. I met some of the women who had grown up in Colebrook and I discovered that in fact the kids weren’t orphans but actually taken as part of what is now called the Stolen Generation. I remember the release of the Bringing Them Home report in Adelaide when Ron Wilson spoke so passionately about what the inquiry had found.

For me the news that those kids in Colebrook had been taken and were not orphans at all was staggering.  That a ‘well meaning’ collaboration between government policy and church agencies had led to this terrible outcome of kids taken from their family and community was terribly disturbing.

Fast forward to Cambodia in the 2000s and we have a another ‘well meaning’ activity also damaging kids. That is taking kids from their families and communities and putting them into institutions (not by Government policy but often through pressure and guilt laid on parents facing abject poverty).  At a time when the number of orphans in Cambodia is decreasing (due to a better economic situation generally and a decrease in the number of deaths from AIDS over the last 15 years), the number of children’s homes is increasing.

There are lots of Christians involved. For the Cambodians running an orphanage it can be a means of bringing in money from overseas and is often a good income source for pastors and churches struggling for funds. For International people a children’s home is a relatively easy thing to set up and run and you surround yourself with a whole lot of dependent kids who ‘love’ (need) you. It’s a good feeling.  It’s also a great place to have short term teams visit – church and school groups.

How will this be seen in the future? Will there be a ‘Bringing them Home’ report on this era in Cambodia and mission activities of this kind around the globe?

And now there is the Royal commission into Child Abuse in Institutions that is looking into the terrible suffering of kids in Australian orphanages last century. 

There are many Australians involved in orphanages and children’s homes here in Cambodia. Many of them are Christians.  Are we doing to Cambodian kids what we did to our own in a previous generation?  Taking them from families and putting them in institutions. We should be the most sensitive nationality to this issue.  And yet we may be the most involved nationality of all.

Why am I writing about this? I’m an Australian. I’m an International mission leader in Cambodia at this time. I remember the kids in Colebrook Home.  And tonight there are thousands of kids in orphanages in Cambodia most of whom have a home, a family and a community.

God have mercy on us all.

Check out this article from the Age and this website of Children in Families an NGO developing alternatives to institutionalisation in Cambodia.  Also a bit about Colebrook Home and the Bringing them Home Report.  Also check out the Sky Project at ICC here in Phnom Penh.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Every child needs a gift - really?

The premise that ‘every child needs a gift at Christmas’ is flawed and needs to be challenged.  I have been concerned with this for many years but only recently I was encouraged by some Australian visitors to Cambodia to share my thoughts with a wider audience.

The desire for Aussie families to help the poor of the world, especially at Christmas, is a wonderful sentiment that should not be wasted by putting ‘stuff’ into shoe boxes and transporting it internationally.

The economic and environmental implications of this approach just don’t stack up – ie buying cheap stuff from China in Australia, then paying to send it back to SE Asia using a range of transport methods that all have an environmental impact. I know some of the items sent are lovingly handmade by dedicated volunteers across Australia, but the negative environmental impact remains.

The cultural inappropriateness of gift giving to individual kids in a collectivist social context is problematic. The message to thousands of kids that their parents are so ‘poor and useless’ that an unknown foreigner is giving them a gift perpetuates the oppressive ‘power and wealth’ assumptions the rich of the world make about the poor, and that the poor understand about themselves.

Picture for a moment a poor family in Cambodia with 8 kids - 15 years old down to 9 months – successfully creating a safe environment for their kids to grow up and trying to have enough food for them to eat each day. The kids have no toys and only one set of clothes, but they have each other and their wider family and community. One day the kids come home from school with a shoebox given by some foreigners. Full of amazing stuff like they saw in the market the one time they went to the local town a few years ago. Why haven’t their parents ever given them stuff like this before? What is wrong with their parents, because people they don’t even know are giving them gifts? Within a few weeks most of the stuff in the box is broken, spread out around the village and basically forgotten about. But their questions about their parents remain, tucked away in the back of their minds.


Picture for a moment a poor family in Cambodia with 8 kids - 15 years old down to 9 months – successfully creating a safe environment for their kids to grow up and trying to have enough food for them to eat each day. The kids have no toys, only one set of clothes,  but they have each other and their wider family and community. One day the father/husband comes home with 50 ducklings for the family to raise so they have a small daily income to help pay for the kids schooling.  The children look after the ducks and sell the eggs each day from the front of the house or door-to-door around the village. The parents got this small grant to buy the ducks from a local organisation that comes by sometimes to see how the family is going. The kids don’t know where the money came from but it has made a real difference to their lives. They think their Father is amazing and he really cares for them and their Mother.

Over the years I have become aware of the pressure church pastors in Asia feel to ‘get rid’ of the boxes that are accumulating in their houses before the next installment comes later in the year.  Recently (in late May) a pastor desperate to move shoe boxes cluttering his house offered them to whoever would take them, and even thought my sons (17 and 15 years old) might like some.  No ‘good news’ message accompanied the hand out, no ‘blessing at Christmas time’, just a confused moment when random kids were given boxes.

There are the smiling faces on the video reports and all kids love to get gifts, for a few minutes at least, even though they don’t really understand what it is all about.

But talk to the pastor we met about what he really needs to ‘bless’ his ministry and he won’t mention shoes boxes. He’d love some budget to help him buy toiletries (soap, toothpaste and brushes) and some basic medicines from the local market for the prisoners he visits in the appalling conditions of the local provincial prison.  He would have a significant impact for the kingdom through these interactions and the ‘good news’ he shares would have a long-term impact on some of the most vulnerable people in Cambodia.

This is the fundamental problem with the shoes boxes – someone in the Christian West came up with the idea that all kids need a Christmas gift.  They should have asked the church in the countries they want to support (across Asia and Pacific in the case of Australia) “How can we bless you (our sisters and brother in faith) this Christmas”. I guarantee the answer would not have been “put some stuff in a shoe box and send it over”…

Almost a 100 million shoe boxes have been sent over the last 20 years.

It’s time to stop.

But what about this great sentiment to give to the poor at Christmas time? Here’s a few ideas:
·      Support poor families in Australia to provide gifts to their kids who are expecting something at Christmas time because that is the ‘culture’ in our country.
·      The ‘shoe box’ organisation does some great development work across the globe. Find out about their programmes and support them.
·      Use one of the many Christmas catalogues available from aid and development organisations to purchase gifts (like some ducks) with real impact for poor families outside Australia.

I know some will find reading this hard and I would welcome a dialogue about how we can do all this better.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Do you ever feel tongue tied? Lately I’ve found it hard to make my thoughts coherent or feel confident in expressing them, especially when I speak in Khmer. I often become quite shy and introverted, not knowing what to say next, at times avoiding situations where I will be expected to carry on a deeper kind of conversation. A lot of this has to do with not having the fluency and vocabulary to express myself as I would like or to fully understand what is said to me. I am concerned that I will say something stupid or offensive because I’m not competent enough to speak sensitively in the language. I feel in some ways my personality changes in this other language and I can’t quite be myself. I guess it’s like that for others when they are speaking in a language not easy for them. It makes me wonder how I can really know people when they are relating to me in English if it is not their first or most comfortable language. How can I know their real self?

When I write in English, even though I feel confident in the language, I also hesitate out of fear of what others may think. I am concerned that I will hurt or offend or fear that I will be misinterpreted. 

Speaking or writing in a public way takes courage. There is real power in having a good command of a language in order to express and exchange ideas clearly. Teaching language, literacy, writing and confident communication to people opens up the world to them and them to the world. This is real empowerment.

I have a Khmer friend who cannot speak. She lost her speech after sustaining neurological damage in a traffic accident. It has also affected her arms. She knows three languages but can only express herself by typing on a computer with one finger or texting on a mobile phone. Although very intelligent, this accident has dramatically impacted her sense of self, her mental health and her confidence to meet people and express her ideas. My prayer is that she will grow in courage to engage more with the world that is now available to her through technology both for her benefit and also for the benefit of those who can learn from her. I want to see her empowered to find her voice. 

I wonder how we can more effectively use what skill we do have in language and communication to promote deeper thinking, greater understanding and more generous living. 

At my sister in law’s funeral she was quoted as saying ‘great words are great deeds’. She had a PHD in English literature and loved words. 

We are often told that deeds speak louder than words but in my life words have been profoundly helpful. Words have conveyed the love and the message and the ideas that have brought me meaning, comfort and inspiration for life. 

There is certainly a time for living out the words and simply being in a silent way, a time for presence. A time when no words are adequate or when the pain is too great to articulate. Words do have their limitations. We can only speak of what we understand and know. We speak in response to the words of others. Listening too is a great power. I have found that when we ask powerful questions we can draw out the ideas of others and empower them with their own words. Communication, the speaking and the listening, can be a most profound act of love.

One of the most beautiful passages in the Bible proclaims that ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). Jesus is the Word. God created though His Word. God said let there be and there was. Words have incredible power and Jesus shows us in his embodiment of the Word that God longs for communication with us.

May God empower us, through His Spirit, to listen and receive. May He also release our tied up tongues and fill us with the courage to speak words of life and love.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Sitting Still

Ay is forced to be still. She sits alone for hours waiting for her mother to return from work so that she can be fed and helped to the bathroom. A progressive muscle wasting disease has left her with a little hand function and an active mind but no ability to do the things that most young women take for granted or fulfill the roles expected of her. Thankfully a smart mobile phone and facebook provide some connection with the outside world. It is also a distraction from the constant grinding and whirring of saws from the metal working shops that surround the little upstairs room she now shares with her mother and younger brother.

Not only does Ay endure this loneliness, discomfort and boredom, she carries the loss of her previous life and her family’s dreams for the future. Ay was finishing university when she became ill, progressively getting weaker and weaker. Her mother spent all their money, sold their house and borrowed from others, going from doctor to doctor both in Cambodia and in neighboring countries desperate to find a cure. When they eventually came to Mercy Medical Center they still had no clear diagnosis despite many costly investigations and useless treatments proscribed by doctors more concerned with profit than patient care. It was heartbreaking to tell them this is a progressive condition for which there is no cure and no expensive medicine will make any difference. All we could offer was physiotherapy, prayer and a willingness to be friends for the long and difficult road ahead.

There are plenty of painful and unjust situations here in Cambodia that I long to see changed. At the same time I am recognizing more and more the need to be patient and endure the frustration of going slowly so that we can learn as we go and move at the pace of those we travel with.

In a world that emphasises action, efficiency, instantaneous results and constant stimulation it can be hard to hear the call to stillness, quietness, waiting and patient endurance. The scriptures are full of these themes (Col 1:11; Ps 37:7; Isa 30:15). We are encouraged to develop these qualities and pray for the power to endure and persevere.

There is a need for wisdom and discernment about what things we are to endure or persevere in and what we are to confront and transform. I believe it is in the stillness and quietness that we find this clarity.

Recently, while visiting Ay, a Khmer colleague and I shared with her the story of Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary. We talked about how, although Martha was busy doing what was expected of her as a woman and hostess, Jesus praised Mary for sitting at His feet and being a devoted learner.  Ay had expressed her sadness at the impact her disability had on her family and how she felt she was a burden. Through this story, however, she could see that in the eyes of God she was a beloved child and a student of the Lord able to spend her days at his feet, listening and learning and this was more important that anything else she might do.

In the business, noise and demands of our lives may we also risk stepping outside the expectations of others as we take time to quietly sit at Jesus feet and learn from him.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Calling and Leading: Some reflections

I have been spending some time with a small group that came to Cambodia with Interserve for two weeks of exposure to medical mission. They were all considering whether medical mission work across cultures in Cambodia or elsewhere was for them. A great group who really engaged with everything they encountered along the way.

I reflected with them about call and leading. For me call is what happens when we decide to be Jesus’ followers. We are of course saved by grace, but there is no doubt that God has a plan for each of us to be a part of what God is on about in the world. This is our calling and I think it should remain broad, general and encouraging. But clearly it is not an option or a choice for us to decide on. It is part of the package we ‘signed on for’ when we decided to be followers of Jesus. Keith Green had a song with lyrics:
Jesus commands us to go,
It should be the exception if we stay.
These words have inspired generations of people to be part of ‘mission’ in other cultures and countries, but I’m sure left many more feeling they weren’t obedient and desperately trying to explain to others and themselves that “we all can’t go”? Keith Green’s passion and all-or-nothing approach inspired my generation but perhaps his legacy got confused in the ‘go’ and what that really meant.

Today, mission is used everywhere in the church, and perhaps it is overused and thereby in danger of losing its meaning (“If everything is mission, then nothing is mission” - Stephen Neil) but what it does do in many circumstances is make people open to how they can serve God where they are. That is, to intentionally and strategically seek to bear witness to Jesus and his ways.

Leadings are the various directions that God takes us along this journey of following his calling on our lives or our discipleship to Jesus. God leads us into various expressions of our overall calling during our lives and these are the tasks, roles, places, and ministries that we are involved with in our local communities and across the globe. God leads us where he wills and we choose to follow. We should do some discernment with our faith community, our friends and mentors. We should pray and seek clearly God’s leading for our lives. In a sense this process is constant for all who “seek to follow Jesus”, certainly something we do regularly along the way, and should be a part of the regular life of Christian communities.

Is this just ‘playing with words’? Perhaps, but the importance of the distinction becomes clear for me when people say “I don’t feel ‘called’ to mission work” (ie cross cultural mission in Cambodia). This can then lead to them thinking they are not called to ‘mission’ in general. Indeed perhaps they are not ‘lead’ to mission work in Cambodia but they are called to mission – it’s part of their discipleship. The question for them is where is God leading them to serve.

So, we are called to follow Jesus as disciples. He is the one leading us to serve in mission.