Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Leaving your Family: Moms, Orphans, and Stuff like that

“Do you have a mom?” one of the boys asked me when I was reading my Bible one morning.


That was it. That was all he asked. I waited for a conversation to take place, but he started talking to his friends in Khmer. But I stayed fixated on his question.

Yes, I have a mom. No words can describe how much she matters in my life, how I could not imagine a world without her. I feel my mom’s presence always. It’s strange to explain, but my soul feels permanently nurtured. Like no matter where I go in the world, or how old I am, or what I’m going through, permanently loved and accepted in the world. To feel not alone; I think that’s the purpose of moms.

These kids don’t have a mom. I wish they did. I’m not worthy of such a family, I didn’t do anything to earn them. I was just born into my condition and so were they. Maybe God knew that I needed a mom when he made me, that I wouldn’t be able to make it without her.

Living at an orphanage affords you the opportunity to think about moms. To think about family, belonging, rootedness. There is a family here, but it’s not conventional. Everyone brought in is a part of it, even if you’re a privileged White American staying for only 2 months. Their unconditional acceptance of me helps me better understand what grace looks like. It’s easier to understand when you see it rather than read about it. It’s not all roses here. Kids fight, the days can be long, and tensions can rise when people are exhausted. I sometimes need to get out, be alone, escape. But I guess that makes it more real. More like a family.

I’m about to leave. Tomorrow I will step on a plane that will rocket me away from these people; to the other side of the globe where I will live a separate life from them. But this time I leave a different person changed by another family I was blessed to be a part of. A family that played in the rain with me, that held my hand when we walked through the streets. That spoke a foreign language for me when my tongue fell short, and that called my name and laughed during countless games on the courtyard pavement.

My mom cries every time I leave home for a long journey. She’s not an overly emotional woman, she just loves me. I’ve left home several times in the past 5 years; sometimes leaving the state and sometimes the country. I’m a man now, but sometimes I still feel like a child. A few months ago I left my mom again for Cambodia. I walked out of the arms of one family but was soon embraced by the arms of another family. Goodbyes are hard sometimes, but I think that’s a good sign that something is right. It means I’m leaving something I have come to value. It means I know that I’m about to lose a part of me. Some things I will take back with me on that plane. Memories, changed perspectives on the world. But part of me cannot come back; like baggage that exceeds the carry-on weight, Nature won’t allow it. Part of me will have to stay at Palm Tree. That’s the way love works. You give a way of piece of yourself without becoming incomplete.

I gave away a piece of myself and got something much bigger in return. From moms to orphans, best friends in New Braunfels to the sweet old lady across the street in Phnom Penh that makes my coffee every morning. I travel from family to family now, finding life happens wherever I go. I can only hope that life continues in such a way so that when I’m an old man, I’ll have a huge family. 


"[Have] minimum possessions,

and live [your life] for the

welfare of all...

The Lord is [your] true home."

- Paramahamsa Upanisad
                 (Easwaran, 291, 292)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Give Me Your Eyes

"Give Me Your Eyes" was written by Brandon Heath. Its about seeing through God’s eyes. And in the spirit of seeing, this post is more about pictures than words so you can see more of what things are like here. Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

Looked down from a broken sky
Traced out by the city lights
My world from a mile high
Best seat in the house tonight
Touched down on the cold black top
Hold on for the sudden stop
Breathe in the familiar shock
Of confusion and chaos
All those people going somewhere,
Why have I never cared?

Give me your eyes for just one second
Give me your eyes so I can see
Everything that I keep missing
Give me your love for humanity
Give me your arms for the broken-hearted
Ones that go far beyond my reach
Give me you heart for the ones forgotten
Give me your eyes so I can see
Step out on a busy street
See a girl and our eyes meet
Does her best to smile at me
To hide what’s underneath
There’s a man just to her right
Black suit and a bright red tie
Too ashamed to tell his wife
He’s out of work
He’s buying time
All those people going somewhere
Why have I never cared?

I’ve been there a million times
A couple of million eyes
Just moving passed me by
I swear I never thought that I was wrong
Well I want a second glance
So give me a second chance 
                                      To see the way you see people all along
Give me your eyes for just one second
Give me your eyes so I can see
Everything that I keep missing
Give me your love for humanity
Give me your arms for the broken-hearted
Ones that go far beyond my reach
Give me you heart for the ones forgotten
Give me your eyes so I can see

Youtube link to song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5AkNqLuVgY&ob=av2e

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Encountering Teachers We Aren’t Expecting: Lessons from Pahn

I want to tell you about Pahn. He has taught me two valuable lessons at Palm Tree.

LESSON 1: What we are designed for

My fist visit to Palm Tree was with my sister, Taylor, in 2008. It was our first day at the orphanage. Palm Tree was hard to find because it was tucked away in a hidden alley. We paid our tuk-tuk driver and walked through the big blue iron gates. A young boy stood at the entrance grinning. I could tell he had some kind of disability. Without hesitation, he walked over to Taylor with his arms wide open. Taylor, smiling back, bent down to give him a hug. A hug, however, was not enough. While clinging onto her with his hands, he slowly lifted his feet off the ground and into her. What a welcome…

I later came to discover that this little boy’s name was Pahn. He had never seen us before, nor did he have any knowledge of our coming to Palm Tree. None of that mattered though. We were older, strangers, and obviously foreigners, but he didn’t care. To Pahn, we were an opportunity to love. A chance to feel, to connect, to play. Nothing else mattered. It’s as if I saw all of mankind’s potential in that moment. What would this world look like if we were like Pahn? If we could look through the trivial differences in the world and realize we are all the same? I think if you boil it down, Pahn is right; that we were all designed for love and connection.

LESSON 2: Have a smile that stops the wheels

Pahn is doing much better mentally. He speaks and understands a little more Khmer, and travels outside the gates to a special school everyday. He has taken on more responsibilities too, like cleaning. He plays well with the other kids and everyone seems to enjoy his company.

I’ve been particularly enjoying Pahn’s presence during my second stay here. I feel like he understands me more. He walks up to me wearing a deep smile when I’m sitting on the steps and stares into my eyes. He sometimes playfully brings his eyebrow low and frowns, but always follows it with another laugh and smile. Then he sits down next to me and we sit together. He doesn’t talk; he doesn’t want anything from me. We just sit. I feel like there are few people that cause your insides to stir when they smile at you, or perhaps stop the wheels of your head for just a moment. Pahn’s smile can do that, can truly bring you joy. He puts something behind them. 

I’m going to try that more. My smiles are usually just an automatic reaction to someone I’ve made eye contact with. Queued by societal prescription, I do it to avoid any awkwardness. I’m going to try and be more like Pahn, to put something behind my eyes. I often forget they are windows to the soul. But it’s more than that too. I’m going to try and put something behind my words instead of just chatting. To say, “Screw awkwardness!” I want to take time and be here right now. I want to stop time with a look and a smile, and connect like Pahn does.

You never know how lessons will come to you, or who your teacher will be. God teaches us through unpredictable and unorthodox ways. Maybe it’s his way of humbling us when we think we figured out how things work. These are the lessons I’ve learned from a young, Cambodian boy with a disability; invaluable lessons he will never know he gave me. Thanks, Pahn.


“If I speak with the tongues

of men and of angels, 

but do not have love, 
I have become a noisy gong 
                                                       or a clanging cymbal.”
1 Corinthians 13:1

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Matter of Inches

Three inches… about the size of your finger. Well, at least mine. Not that three inches is the rule of thumb for all hands (pun intended). We don’t often find significance in that little of space, especially in a society that often glorifies size or distance (trucks, fish, houses, mountains, how far our morning run is, etc.). I used to play football. I know what its like to weigh importance in how much you can lift. “The more the better” is a motto that underlies American socialization, and becomes ingrained into our philosophies. I don’t think this is holistically good or bad, but it is hard to get away from. And emphasis on one thing always shifts our attention away from something else. 
I’ve taken to driving a motorcycle here in Phnom Penh, whose crowded streets move more like a river of moto-bikes with cars sprinkled here and there. Traffic is fluid, always spontaneous and congested... and exciting! Cars pull in front of you and motos are keen on taking unexpected turns and detours. In the moments where I’m only inches away from the moto next to me, however, there is nothing more important than those inches. All of a sudden, a matter of inches becomes my whole world.
Life, and time, seem to move differently here. Life happens at a closer distance whether you are driving on the street or walking through the crowded markets. Bumping into people and ducking under tarps is simply how life functions. People pack onto a single moto, sometimes up to 4 at a time! The kids at the orphanage sleep close to each other in beds, on tables, or huddled on the floor under mosquito nets. Wherever we go, I usually have a kid on my hand hanging close by my side. The distance in which I interact with Cambodian life has taught me a lot recently.
I love wide open spaces (not referring to the song). The horizon stretched out before you, the clean, crisp air and the silence that holds you. But I’m forced to interact with people at a much closer distance on several levels. Physically, mentally, emotionally. And for me recently, life has been about finding God in the small moments. An “inch” can be something as small as my response to a child after an exhausted day. Even as small as my tone, something so stinging and influential that often goes unnoticed. It could be a simple conversation on the steps, or even a single word. The hard part is this: you never know! You never know which small moments matter, and what the “right” response is. There is no way to tell which “inch” will be the one that grows into something bigger, something they will remember. I will most likely never know if these small moments surmount to anything, but I remember my dad’s words:
“Its not up to me to know what happens later on down the road. I’m called to plant the seed regardless.”
I recently finished reading the Upanishads, the spiritual texts and wisdoms of Hinduism, while sitting on the third story of the orphanage overlooking the city as the sun set behind me and storm clouds rolled in over the horizon in front of me. A verse from the Atma Upanishad read:
The supreme [God], adored in the scriptures,
Can be realized through the path of yoga.
Subtler than the banyan seed, subtler
Than the tiniest grain, even subtler
Than the hundred-thousandth part of hair,
This [God] cannot be grasped, cannot be seen. [Eawswaran, 286]
Beautiful words that recognize that God is found in the subtle things that often go unnoticed in our lives. That though God cannot be “grasped” or “seen,” maybe he draws us close enough to where we can touch something. Close enough to be realized. And this realization is discovered within the little moments of life. A raindrop, a conversation, a tone, a single word. Yes, even within a matter of inches… those small moments that can make all the difference.

The following pictures speak to the “Cambodian distance” I’ve experienced.

“It took a while for you to find Me, 
But I was hiding in the lime tree.
Above the city in the rain cloud.
I poked a hole and watched it drain out.”
- Trevor Hall, The Lime Tree (Unity Album)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In Memory of Taing Heng

I woke up at 7:15 to a surprisingly quiet morning. There were no sounds of kids playing outside or lively chatter on the other side of the door. What a treat! I thought. I got dressed and opened the door. I smelled an unusual aroma as I stepped out. Smoke. No, incense…
Taing Heng (Dong Heng), one of the older Palm Tree kids, had died. He was living in Siem Reap and was on his way to pick up his little sister from work on his moto. He was almost there when he turned the corner and got hit by a bus. His neck was broken. There was no chance of survival. He was 24 years old. 
Taing Heng wearing his hat hanging out with friends

Days like this help me understand the saying “heavy heart.” It truly feels heavier than other days, as if sadness, held in the heart, literally weighs more. It’s as if you can feel gravity’s pull more on days like these.
Taing Heng was one of my favorite Palm Tree kids. I first met him in 2007 when I was in Vietnam on my Semester at Sea Voyage. He came and performed a Khmer dance on the ship. He was always smiling and had a contagious sense of humor around Palm Tree. His constant laughing and joking made me laugh loud and often. I was looking forward to seeing him return after the Khmer New Year. He was the one you went to if you needed something done, or simply just needed a favor... and now he's gone.
We lit incense that morning and held them as we prayed silently together. The smell of sweet smoke filled the air, and though we had no walls or priests or alters, we made a temple with our presence. One by one we placed the incense in the small pagoda-like box. Stopped our busy world to remember the important things lost.
It’s a sad irony that I learned of his death on Easter morning, a day that is suppose to be a celebration of life over death. A day of resurrection. But what seems to be a double-dose of Good Friday is still Easter for me. If I can make sense of anything between Easter and Taing Heng, it’s the hope that death isn’t the end. It’s a part of life that everyone must partake, a transition that for Taing Heng came too early in our eyes.
I’m not justifying what happened. I’m not pretending to understand it, to reason my way out of this sad reality because I don’t understand. It just happened. But I’m thankful for his life. During our silent prayers I thanked him for sharing it with me and making my life more joyful.
In memory of you, Taing Heng. Your presence will always be at Palm Tree… and with me.

Srey Art praying for her friend
TH on the far right. Our first meeting on SAS in 2007

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Christian Among Buddhists

The Khmer New Year is near, a valued holiday among the Cambodian people. They gather around family back in the provinces and celebrate with a week of dancing, singing, feasting, and throwing water and baby powder on each other. It’s the year of the Dragon.
I’m told that about 60% of the population is Buddhist, the remaining 40% agnostic, relativists, or simply no avowal, and just a sprinkling of Christians. I respect Buddhism and find valuable teachings to be found within the tradition and its people. At the same time, my Christian faith is a living reality for me rather than a private preference. It’s a delicate balance of respect and understanding with conviction and truth. I try to share my faith rather than impose it.
I read my Bible on the steps of the orphanage every morning, occasionally enjoying a conversation about faith with an older student or staff member. The Easter holiday has led me to reflect more on the cross over the past few days. I try to wrap my mind around the dialectical complexity held within that divine moment: life in death, beauty in atrocity, strength in weakness, wholeness in brokenness. It’s perplexing, really. An all-powerful God could have revealed his message to mankind any way he wanted. This means that for some reason, the cross was chosen for a reason over all other options.

So in light of Good Friday and Easter, what does the cross mean to a 24 year-old Christian living in Cambodia in 2012? A Christian among Buddhists?
In all my limited understanding:
The cross is not a “get out of jail free” card. Its not something that just covers up our mistakes and justifies us before God. Jesus bore the weight of our sins to show that the Divine way is to bind oneself to humanity. It’s an invitation to share in the sufferings of the oppressed and join in the celebrations of just victories. To only take away a “salvation ticket” from the cross, to me, misses the point of the most beautiful moment in human history.
That when no one understood his parables, or his logic, or his sermons about the Kingdom of God, he took a frustrated and exhausted breath and said: “Fine… I’ll show you.” Its Jesus’ last and most important message to humanity spoken without a word: That when mankind is broken and desperate at the bottom of the dismal abyss, the only thing that can save us is love.
As Dean Brackely said, “[Jesus] will not be the conquering warrior-savior that people long for, and vote for, in every age. His role will be different. As servant of Yahweh, he will confront evil with the naked weapon of truth… and suffer the terrible consequences.” [The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, 78]
The more I come to understand Jesus, the less I worry about doctrine or ideology and the more I learn how to love better. To continue trying to embrace a Divine presence that enables us to respond to the pain, hate, and fear in the world with a fierce love.
So in the end I guess it doesn’t really matter that I’m a Christian among Buddhists, because whatever your avowal, I think we can always do for a little more grace towards each other. 
Celebrating the Khmer New Year
Playing a traditional New Year game
Buddhist monk at a pagoda