This is a story of God's grace. Grace that played out in a Phnom Penh conference facility, in a small Cambodian church, in my parents' guest room, and, ultimately, in my heart.
The first act of God's grace on my short-term missions trip three weeks ago was our team's safe arrival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after 20 hours of flight. Four members of my church and I were there to work with one of our church's missionaries, who'd launched a publishing company in Phnom Penh in 2004. Our team was staging a four-day conference; one member would discuss sound business practices with the publisher, while the others would teach graphic design or editing. I was to teach writing.
I had 20 students in my class: 19 men and 1 woman. Many of them worked for missions agencies, including World Vision, TransWorld Radio, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Though these writers were similar in their passion for ministry, they varied in educational level—one 22-year-old was finishing high school, another 30something held a college degree in literature. My class worked hard, asked good questions, and appeared eager to learn. I was eager to learn from these brothers and sister as well, and they didn't disappoint. Three of their stories in particular moved me and represented some of the other students' stories I heard.
Standing just to my left every day was Chhay, my translator. I was startled to learn a Cambodian man Chhay's age, 54, was an unusual finding, since most men his age had been killed during Pol Pot's genocidal reign in the early 1970s. While my students spent time writing in class one day, Chhay told me about that horrific season of his life. How he did hard labor 18 hours a day in a Khmer Rouge work camp and received only a spoonful of rice for each meal. How he got orders to kill his mother, refused at peril to his own life, and avoided punishment only because the Khmer Rouge valued his hard work. How years later Chhay sensed God calling him to start a hostel for college students who had nowhere to stay, besides Buddhist temples, while studying in Phnom Penh. How most of the 50 to 70 students housed at his facility become Christians during their second year there, drawn by Chhay's servant-love.
Sitting eagerly in the front row every day was Kimchoeurng, an orphan who never knew his parents. He was a beggar on the streets of Phnom Penh from ages six to eight before he finally landed in an orphanage—not the kind that attracts adoring parents looking for a child to call their own, but the kind that offers slightly better accommodations than life on the streets. Last year, at age 21, Kimchoeurng started his own orphanage. He now houses 31 children in his three-room, one-bathroom facility, teaching them about the Father whose love sustained Kimchoeurng through a tumultuous childhood.
And sitting toward the back of the room was Sokha. The son of a high priest in a prestigious Buddhist temple, Sokha once accepted a friend's invitation to attend a Christian church, and later told police about the underground congregation. His betrayal led to the arrest of several church members and haunted Sokha for years. His friend and the church members had shown him only kindness, which he'd returned with cruelty. Sokha finally went back to that church, seeking forgiveness from those believers and from the God he then came to know as Savior. His conversion created great strife in his family. They burned his Christian materials, and his father even held a gun to Sokha's head. Years later Sokha led his family to Christ. His father and uncle, once Sokha's biggest persecutors, now serve as pastors in strong Christian churches, and Sokha works and ministers with World Vision.
What gripped me about these stories was the common theme of resilience and perseverance in the face of hardship. In fact, not just perseverance, but ministry. All three men created a ministry out of unthinkable circumstances. All three stories are testaments of God's penchant for creating beauty from ashes. All three stories are beautiful examples of God's amazing grace.
What also amazes me is that during a worship service the day before the conference, God gave me a peek ahead at this theme. The church service was unlike any other I'd attended in my 30-plus years as a believer. We sat on plastic chairs on a poured-concrete floor. A dog wandered in and found a nice place for a nap beneath a chair in front of me. The church provided shelves for helmets, worn by several attendees who arrived by moto, and Bibles, as not all members had their own. Though I couldn't communicate with most of the 30 or so people there that day, I could sense their joy.
I've loved the few opportunities I've had over the years to attend churches in other countries. I listen intently to catch the sermon's meaning from friends' whispered translations, I recognize a few familiar hymns or worship songs and hum along, but mostly I take joy and comfort in realizing God understands all the prayers and praise so foreign to me. Knowing he's the God of the universe is one thing, but experiencing that truth is another thing altogether.
Sitting there reveling in this truth, taking in the new sights and sounds, listening to an unfamiliar Cambodian-penned worship song, I felt an unmistakable sense of God's grace. The kind of realization and appreciation that come with tears. Just as I was dabbing my eyes, the missionary we were assisting leaned in and translated, "This is a song about God's grace."Of course it was. I felt as if God had already let me in on this little sacred secret.
As we flew home after an amazing week of ministry, I prayed I'd remember my students, their stories of grace, and the insights they'd given me. Lord, I prayed as we flew over the ocean, thank you for these new eyes to see the world and my corner of it. Help me keep this vision. I want to come away from this trip with the lessons you have for me.
Just one week later, I traveled to be with family for Thanksgiving. When my parents, my sister and her family, and I returned home from an overnight visit with extended family, my sister and brother-in-law discovered their furnace was kaput. So my sister bundled up her kids—my four-year-old nephew and one-year-old niece—and headed to my parents' place to join us overnight (while my brother-in-law waited in the cold for the furnace guy).
My sister and I shared the queen-size guest-room bed, and we pulled a twin-size mattress onto the floor for my nephew. After sharing a week in a Cambodian hotel room with two other women on our team, and the previous night in a hotel room with my parents and nephew, I, used to living alone, felt a bit cramped and grumpy. Until I realized the amount of mattress space where my sister, nephew, and I slept that night was exactly the same amount where the 17 girls at Kimchoeurng's orphanage sleep each night. With this memory, I went from selfish frustration to humble gratitude. And in that moment God's grace showed up yet again.
I know I'll be tempted to go right back to my old paradigm in the months and years ahead. I might forget about the cramped Cambodian living spaces as I get used to my country's paved roads, well-manicured lawns, and huge grocery stores. I might plunk down five bucks for a mocha, without giving second thought to the fact that that's more than the daily wage for countless people in various parts of the world. But inspired by the Cambodian students' beautiful model of perseverance, I'll try to be different, to see differently. Not so I feel guilty, but so I'm aware and grateful and intentional about my resources. And thankful for a God who provides tangible lessons when I lose sight of the big picture, and who sometimes simply whispers personal reminders of his amazing grace.
Have you ever taken a short-term missions trip? What lessons did God teach you through that experience? How have you kept that perspective alive over time?
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
Click here for reprint information.