West Ohio – When Prayer Moves on Hands and Feet

During the West Ohio Annual Conference in June, Bishop Ough wondered what if …we prayed for the West Ohio Conference every day. When we came home, Roger and I pledged that we would pray everyday for the West Ohio Conference and Concord UMC and invited others in the church to do the same. So even in Cambodia, we prayed for Concord and West Ohio and begin to view prayer a bit differently. Throughout the mission we were known as the West Ohio team and we felt graceful pride as we represented West Ohio to Cambodia. We also knew that we represented several churches- Oxford, Antioch, Concord-Englewood, Grace-Dayton,Linworth-Columbus, Korean Grace-Dayton, Milford First, Shiloh-Cincinnati, Church of the Messiah-Westerville, Christ-New York and a host of individuals who made generous gifts so that the mission could unfold. So over and over again, we became aware of the way that prayer of many people can be embodied in the action of hands and feet. We had been sent by the gospel and sent with the prayers of many. In 14 days we have logged 43 hours in the air plus 8 hours by bus to and from Sihanoukville (not counting the daily bus trips). We have seen and experienced more than we can process yet. But these are the things I am sure of: God’s love is beyond understanding, God moves us to reach out to our sisters and brothers, we have a gospel to tell, we are called to live out the gospel we know wherever we find ourselves, the life of discipleship is ever unfolding, prayer and prayers that engage our hands and feet make a difference.

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The Longest Day

We are all home safely now, mid afternoon on what is already the longest day of our lives. We left Siem Reap at 11:25 p.m. last night and arrived home today at 2:20 p.m. By the end of the day, there will have been 37 hours for us on the 20th of September, 2011. Ah the magic of air travel across the international date line!

It’s good to be home. We’ll post more pictures and reflections after we sleep a little and get organized.

Reflections on the Bus

By Elizabeth Rand

We are riding the bus back to Phnom Penh, heading for the airport to catch a flight to Siem Reap. We see rice fields, water buffalo, and the inevitable motos passing us on hairpin curves. Amelia is quite brave to sit in the front seat! We will drive past mountains and cultivated palm tree forests. We will also pass mounds of trash, abandoned by the side of the road. Tara, one of our translators, told us that sanitation is a huge problem here. We experienced this even when we swam in the Gulf of Thailand. We saw trash, not sea creatures, floating in the waves.

It will take a long time to process all I experienced this week at the biblical storytelling training. Tola, my translator, and I facilitated three workshops, at which pastors learned to tell the stories of Jesus and his Family, Jesus Walking on the Water, and Peter’s Denial. We always began by doing the story learning activity called “Repeat After Me”. I said a line of the story and did a gesture. Tola translated the line into Khmer and did the gesture. Finally, the pastors repeated Tola’s words and actions. This was time-consuming at first, but the pastors learned the story quickly and were able to explore the stories more deeply and connect them to their lives. At the end of the workshop, we invited pastors to take turns coming up to tell the stories. This inevitably became a group telling, as all of the pastors did the gestures and prompted the teller if she or he faltered. On Thursday night, I watched the pastors take turns telling stories in their circles of ten. As I looked around the room, I saw the pastors from our workshop making very familiar gestures, and I knew which story they were telling. I felt so honored and humbled to be part of this storytelling community, which is a community in every sense of the word.

Amelia has already posted a blog describing our day with the Christian Education committee and Sunday School trainers. As we demonstrated a whole array of story learning activities I got some fun new ideas for teaching at home. One activity is called “Sing a Line”. We all chose a line from the story we were learning and set it to a tune. (I kept wishing for my friend Kim, who is brilliant at composing songs to sing to her daughter, Maya.). Amelia and I sang our line up and down the scale. We gave our Cambodian colleagues five minutes at most to set a line from the story to music. Then we invited the groups to sing, and they sang sophisticated melodies. One group even used motions! It was amazing. At the end of the day we recorded some if the songs so we can show them to others at home.

This was more than a storytelling training, however. This was also the first Pastors and Spouses retreat. Pastors and their families rested and played together, some seeing the sea for the first time. Some pastors, including the family my church supports, live in challenging conditions, lacking running water, electricity, and indoor plumbing. They had all if these things at the hotel where they stayed. On Wednesday night the pastors and their families gathered for a gala. They ate a special meal together and then took turns singing and dancing with a band. We were invited to this celebration. Elisha, Will, Tara, and Tola formed a band and played four songs. They sang the song, “Give Thanks”, which I did and I do, for all of the ways God’s kingdom was revealed to us in this place and with these brothers and sisters.

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Aw Kuhn

To all the generous donors who have supported this mission with your generous gifts and your prayers, we say Aw Kuhn, thank you. This is what you helped make possible.

Imagine a world devastated by war and genocide, where the remnant of a people struggle to survive. Imagine people battling the elements to produce enough food for their families. Imagine a world where exploitation and enslavement are well known societal realities that no one feels powerful enough to challenge. Imagine a world where animism (the worship of animal and elemental spirits) is freely mixed with the epic stories of many gods while some around simply seek enlightenment. Imagine a world where the Christian gospel is an anomaly, such a small minority that few take it seriously, but those who do are filled with such passion and energy, they cannot help but tell the story of a Savior who has shown them a way not only to find life personally, but also to live together in a radical new way of forgiveness, generosity, and love. You are imagining the New Testament world; and you are imagining Cambodia today.

The world then and the world now are not without hope. Communities are shaped by their stories. When the stories of Jesus were first told, they transformed not only individual lives, but a whole society and eventually the world. It is something like a mustard seed, Jesus said. Though the tiniest of all seeds, when planted in the ground it grows into the biggest shrub in the garden, with large branches within which the birds of the air come to make their nests. Our prayer is that the tiny seeds we planted this week will grow and flourish as they did in the first century, and that the people of Cambodia, the people of America, and the people of the world will all come to make their home in Jesus’ loving arms.

The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ is alive here. Thanks be to God! Aw Kuhn Preah Jesu!

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Post-Retreat Training

The pastors and their families finished their “retreat” (they did a lot of work for a retreat!) last night and went home this morning. However, two groups stayed on for another six hours of training today: the faculty of the Methodist Bible College in Phnom Penh (most of whom are also District Superintendents) and 25 Christian educators and Christian education trainers. Tom Boomershine, Tom Rand, and Angela Meeks led the faculty training and Elizabeth Rand and I led the Christian Education training. Both workshops were very productive and energizing.

In our work with the Christian educators, Liz and I plowed through a great deal of material about how to teach biblical stories to children, youth and adults. We outlined the four basic stages of a biblical storytelling workshop: Learn, Understand, Connect, Tell. We led specific activities for each stage, using the story of Jesus Calming the Sea from Mark 4 as our model story. I have never had such a responsive and creative group, and I’ve had some good ones in the past. It was amazing how fast they caught on to each activity, especially given that everything was done in translation.

We also gave the participants significant time at the beginning of our work together to discuss what they have learned this week, what they have heard pastors say about the retreat, and what obstacles they identify to establishing biblical storytelling as a primary approach to the mission and ministry of the church in Cambodia. And at the end we provided opportunity for them to consider next steps in their districts, congregations, and communities.

Hearing (through our translator) their reports on these topics enabled us to assess what had been of value for them and what they intend to do in the future. It assured us that the time, money and physical stresses of the trip were well worth it. We all felt that the results far exceeded our highest expectations. Here are excerpts from some of their comments:

–I learned that as children of God the pastor and teacher need to study the Word of God deep in the heart, to learn it by heart, to have faith in the stores, to believe in the stories.

–We heard from other pastors that this is a very good and helpful training to help them tell stories in Sunday School.

–When I was young I went to the pagoda and heard monks telling stories so I haven’t taken stories seriously. Now I think it is very important for me to tell the stories.

–We have learned to tell the story using our body, voice, facial expression. Also that it is best to use the words of the Bible to tell the story.

–This is a very simple way of telling stories, but very powerful.

–We will include all these techniques in our CE plan and have a trainng in local church and district.

–I will teach my congregation to tell the stories.

–Every month we share the good news with children by hair washing to rid them of lice and nail clipping. Now we will use storytelling as an opening part of this time.

–I see the potential for children in sharing the good news this way.

–In my community most believe in animism. My vision is to have a preschool in my church. We plan to do this in Oct-Nov. We cannot share the good news directly to older people in the village, but if we tell biblical stories to the children, they will tell their parents. This is God’s response to my prayer.

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Training District Superintendents by Marilyn Evans

Connecting the mission theme of biblical storytelling, the leadership team for the DS training began and ended our sessions by telling stories from the Gospel of John. Marilyn told John 15 to remind the twelve district superintendents the importance of maintaining deep prayer lives. Roger used John 13 to highlight that power and authority should be used in ways that honor the servant leader example of Jesus. Chad utilized John 21 to emphasize the necessity of equipping the church for faithful discipleship. Additional we discussed a biblical foundation for various supervisory behaviors and ways to view supervision as ministry.

A point of pride for the Methodist Mission in Cambodia is that now all district superintendents are native Cambodians. Five of them were newly appointed at the annual meeting (annual conference) September 1. All have 10-15 years experience as pastors and are passionate about ministry.

As the DSs reported the challenges they face, we heard themes similar to those of superintendents in the US. Yet clearly, a new church in a culture where 50% of the population is 15 or under presents some unique opportunities.

None of our training sessions would even be possible without the gifts of translation provided by Tola and Tara who travel with us. This talented, dedicated, hard-working young couple have been generous teachers who have helped us connect with the people here.

Gift from the Methodist Church in Cambodia

An extraordinary day today. The final plenary and workshop this morning and tonight a mass storytelling extravaganza and epic telling. For the first time ever anywhere, we tried a group of 200 plus into groups of ten. The leader had them create a circle of ten chairs each and made a competition out of who would get their circle together first which was great fun. And everyone in each of the circles told a story. It was an ecstatic experience, like Pentecost. People standing and telling to their groups. The groups applauding for each storyteller. People celebrating all over the room. It was beautiful to watch and hear.

Then we had an epic telling of 28 stories from Mark. Primarily Cambodians, and six Americans. It was particularly powerful for me to hear these stories told by this global community. I was aware as an American of what American intervention and bombing back in the 70’s precipitated in Cambodia. What our team did felt like a real gift and they were joyously grateful. At the end Tom Rand, as leader of our team was presented with the gift of a beautiful wall hanging. Thanks to everyone who contributed to making this possible.

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“I will tell this story”

cambodians and ameliaFirst thing this morning we had our third and final storytelling workshop. The last story I taught “my group” was the anointing of Jesus in Mark 14. The group was so cooperative and responsive in learning the story, telling it to each other and sharing connections. Our connection today was to recall how the woman showed her love for Jesus by pouring fine oil over his head and then to consider how we can show our love for Jesus by telling his stories from the Gospels, and also by telling the stories of his people as recorded for us in the Hebrew scriptures.

Our questions to reflect on were: What story will you learn by heart and tell when you go back home tomorrow, and to whom will you tell it? First I shared my reflection: I will be learning the parable of the Lost Sheep to tell the children of Grace Church in Children’s worship. Then I had them pair up and share with each other their answers. Lastly, we went around the circle and everyone stood and told what stories they would tell and to whom. It was such a blessing to hear the variety of stories and settings for teaching, and also to hear the confident commitment to this basic way of proclaiming the Good News.

I will miss this group and our story-work together, but I will be happy to remember it and to imagine the stories being told in their churches and communities.

Healing Touch

We’ve been on the road most of the day and are finally settled in Sihanoukville. I, for one, feel a little bit like I’ve been on a cruise with Gilligan, since the “3 or 4 hour drive” took us SEVEN! I think that experience has left some of us a little nervous about the return trip on Saturday, which will need to happen quickly enough for us to catch our flight to Siem Reap!

I know others from the team will be sharing reflections on our Sunday worship experiences soon, but I wanted to share a story or two that were especially meaningful to me. As you may already know, the team split into two groups, and each group visited 2 churches.

For morning worship, our group (Amelia & Tom B., Juliana, and the Meeks family) went to Methodist Emmanuel. The hospitality of the congregation was splendid ~ radical, in fact! We were surprised when the pastor’s wife asked us to forego the Cambodian custom of leaving our shoes outside the door. We learned that, because the skies were threatening to open at any moment, our hosts did not want our shoes to be left outside to get wet alongside their own. I was deeply touched by this gesture of hospitality.

After the service, a woman I would guess to be about my mother’s age approached me and after exchanging customary greetings, she reached out as if to take my hand, and so we clasped hands with one another. She spoke no English, I’ve learned only 2 Khmer phrases (hello and thank you), and our translator was busy speaking with someone else. So we exchanged no words, but stood eye-to-eye, holding hands for some time. Then the pastor of the congregation stepped over. Also unable to communicate in English, he tapped my shoulder, smiled broadly, then gestured toward the woman’s feet and hands.

That’s when I realized that for all practical purposes, they were missing. Most of the fingers of both hands, and over half of both feet. I wish I had been able to learn her story. I didn’t. She clearly was of an age to have been a survivor of “the time of Pol Pot” (as I’ve most often heard Cambodians refer to that era). Having now seen the horrific evidence of that brutal time at the Killing Field and Toul Sleng, my mind can’t seem to resist conjecture. I’ve also learned that many people are still being maimed throughout rural Cambodia by landmines buried during the Vietnam war, and so part of me can’t help wondering if my own country has a part in her story. Perhaps her story isn’t so dramatic, and my imagination has run away with me. I guess we’ll never know, but that wouldn’t be my story to tell anyway.

Mine is the story of the sacramental moment she and I shared in that little log cabin church, as we held one another’s hands and looked into one another’s eyes. There was a special connection that drew us to reach out to one another, and there was healing in that moment of touch. Like the healing that happened every time Jesus reached out to touch what those around him deemed untouchable.

I don’t know what the moment meant to the other woman. But for me it meant healing from pain that I had expressed to only one or two people before now. Pain that I had been wrestling with ever since we left the Killing Field on Friday. Pain that I had tried and failed to blog about, because it was still too close.

You see, the day we walked the pathway of the Killing Field and the hallways of Toul Sleng, I walked past dozens of people whose hands were reaching out to me. Dozens of people with disfigured faces, missing limbs. Dozens of people whose eyes I refused to meet because I knew I wasn’t going to drop a dollar in their hat. Dozens of people whose humanity I was afraid to see, because it might mean seeing the image of God within them… and that might mean I’d be unable to keep walking past them. Dozens of people who indirectly answered the question for me: “How could Pol Pot (or Hitler or … ) get people to do those kind of things to other people?” It’s not so hard to ignore human pain and suffering so long as one refuses to look upon it. And once you learn to ignore it… to really shut out the humanity of the suffering one… it’s only a small step to becoming the one who inflicts it.

And so I have been wrestling with these demons this week. And it has hurt. But in that moment in that little log cabin church in rural Cambodia, Jesus showed up and reached out to touch two women who stood holding hands, and meeting one another’s gaze. And I know one of them was healed.

I told Tom R. part of this story on the bus this morning, and he asked me to blog about it. I didn’t tell him the whole story, because I hadn’t even finished processing it enough to “get it” myself at that point. I thought it was all about her need… her healing… So, “thank you Tom” for encouraging me to share, and “thank you reader” for listening as I discovered the story I really needed to tell. I pray that hearing the story has touched you as much as living the story has touched me.