Relational Ministry

One of the questions I have been asked a lot during my YAGM year is: what do you do? This question is hard to answer for a few reasons. First, what I do changes from day to day and week to week in the same way normal life does. Some weeks are busy, other weeks are slow. The second reason is that we are asked to do ministry here through the accompaniment model. To clarify that, because I had to learn a lot about it before it was clear to me, it means that we are here to walk alongside those in our host communities, and focus a lot more on being than doing. There is a technical definition that includes the words interdependence and mutuality, but at a basic level it means that we do not come here with our own agenda, we come here to do whatever is needed in our community.

That being said, when I am asked what exactly I do is here, I have come to answer that my call is all about “relational ministry.” Back in February we had a group of adults from the Lutheran Church in Australia come to City Church and I had the opportunity to have coffee with them after service and at one point this question came up. As I explained what “relational ministry” was, I found it frustrating that I had to keep defending the fact that my call here was not about placing me in a position of power. One of the quotes toward the end of the conversation was about my interaction with the hostel students. They asked: “so, you are the leader, a teacher for the students, you are like a mentor?” I answered quite quickly saying, “No, I am their peer. They are my friends and I am theirs. All of us are in our early twenties, pursuing or finishing a college degree, and living together. We share stories, we eat meals, we live in community. I am simply another member of that community.”

This conversation, combined with a recent suggestion from a fellow YAGM here, has led me to think about what “relational ministry” means to me. So, I made a little list of what I think of when I say my call here is about relational ministry.

Relational Ministry means…
…hanging out in the common area for hours if only to have a short conversation with someone.
…saying yes when invited to an activity or event, especially when it means leaving right now.
…eating meals with many different people throughout my months here and getting to the point of knowing how the rice tastes depending on who cooked it.
…planning something for myself and moving it until later because someone needs to talk about life or classes.
…drinking tea, eating dessert, and playing games on the roof each Thursday to celebrate another week of classes almost finished.
…practicing English formally and informally with students who want to learn more.
…editing essays or job/internship applications when asked for help.
…cooking dinner for myself on a Tuesday and leaving it in the fridge until Friday because groups of friends repeatedly say to eat with them now, eat the other food later.
…dancing until late into the evening to celebrate the latest holiday or party.
…buying coffee or tea or waffles or pork and rice from different vendors on my street and catching up to hear about their day.
…learning Khmer on my own, even when I get discouraged, so that I can hear more stories.
…sitting in the church office during the day and being part of numerous conversations, but possibly only “doing” one five minute task.
…listening to life stories of my friends, co-workers, and neighbors.
…joining multiple Bible studies just to be with people as they explore their faith, even when I only understand “God,” “Jesus,” “Holy Spirit,” pronouns, and a couple of verbs here and there during conversation.
…growing with and in my community every day.
…living into the opportunities that arise with others here and now.
…being. Sometimes just being.

Some of these may make sense to you, and some of them may not. The longer I am here, I find it much more helpful to define my time through the people I meet than through the things I do. However, I know that the closer I get to returning to the United States, the closer I get to a society that is always focused on “doing.” This is not a critique on either culture, but merely an observation I have come to see during my time here. How I lived before this year is different than how I live here now, and how I live here now will be different than how I live when I return. With any hope, I will continually be able to see how relational ministry happens in everyday life and appreciate the time when it was my call here in Cambodia.

Ashley

Easter Reflections with John 20:1-18

I knew this Easter would be different. Not just because I would be away from family and the church I have attended for over ten years on Easter Sunday, nor purely because I am in Cambodia, but because there was a National Holiday on Easter Day in a country that is primarily Buddhist. Easter is not the priority. Easter is not the focus. Much like Mary, and the disciples on that third day, I did not know what would happen as I ventured out into the world.

1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 

Sunday morning I had the opportunity to attend church in Kruos Village, which is the site of the first LCC congregation. There were many familiar faces, including two other YAGM volunteers, and it felt almost homey, even if it was far from Phnom Penh, not to mention Iowa. Before the service started, Lindsay, Mallory, and I spoke with one of our friends from Kruos, Dada. We wanted to know how to say ‘Happy Easter’ in Khmer, and what people thought of Easter in general. His answer was disheartening to me as he told us that there was not really a way to say it, and that people in Cambodia don’t think about Easter much, especially because it is around New Year. He said they did not really know  what it was about. I felt like the Easter I knew, the resurrection I understood, was not the one I found here.  I didn’t know where it had gone.

So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

We began with songs and I found that none of the tunes were natural on my lips. None of the lyrics resembled an alleluia. Another friend, Sophouen, stood to preach the message of the day. I felt on the outside of the celebration. Too afraid to continue forward into what I was unsure of.

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in.

She began with a familiar call and response practice, but the words were different than I was used to. “Sou s’day ch’nam t’mei!” “Happy New Year!” The congregation repeated and when she told them they were too quiet, they did the call and response again louder. By now, I felt like I was in a different world. This was not an Easter I understood. One that was not filled with a symphony of “alleluias” and choruses of “Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed.”

Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 

Then the passage of the day was read, John 20:1-18, and as the sermon progressed, I found myself drift into the introspective thought process I have come to cherish on Sunday mornings. Usually they revolve around the readings of the day and how they apply here. How they apply now. However, this Sunday I could not seem to get the words out of my head, Happy New Year! So I read the passage again and I thought more. I thought about a ‘year’ being time and ‘new’ being an adjective. Then I realized, that perhaps a new year is what Easter means.

Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

When we celebrate the new year, we celebrate a new start, a fresh slate, a break from the troubles of the past. It is a transition from before to now, and often one that we mark in definitive ways. Is that not what Jesus’ death and resurrection means for us? Isn’t the glory of Easter Sunday filled with grace and renewal after the betrayal of Maundy Thursday and the grieving of Good Friday?

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

I realized that I could continue to spend that day saddened by the unrepresented traditions of my past, but I could also choose to embrace the beauty of the moment I was in. To remember that I am, right now, a new creation because Christ died and rose again for me. For us all. Every moment is a new year. And Easter is the reminder. Messengers are all around to wipe our tears and lead us to the moment when we realize that Jesus’ is there, beside us.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

Then I thought to myself, “while I have wallowed in my loss of tradition, where have I missed Jesus?”

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

I thought of a friend inviting me to her home when I had nowhere to go. A little sister saying she missed me after only hours apart. Friends setting an alarm for 2:45am to show me a New Year program on TV that they have seen for most of their life. My fellow YAGMs sending words of comfort as I grieved the loss of a family member. A mother repeating herself in Khmer until I understand the gist of her directions. Party-goers motioning me to join the dancing, and showing me how to improve. Random people inviting my friend and me to join their New Year celebration as we walk by their house. Another sister asking what my name is and trying to get it just right.

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

In that moment I realized that in all those places I recognized Jesus pouring out of the people around me, and I felt saddened by my distraction with tradition that had preoccupied my mind. Luckily, I remembered again that Easter is about grace. About a God that loved us so much, death could not win. Darkness could not overcome. So, I am reminded this Easter of all my brothers and sisters in Cambodia. The ones who share my faith, and the ones who do not. Each day is filled with many ways that they do not only tell me of our God, but show me the love incarnate that Jesus represents in his resurrection. They demonstrate the grace of Easter in both the biggest, and simplest of ways.

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

My community makes me want to keep going out to see the world and the ways God is at work. To find the moments of grace that abound from the people around me. To seek the ways their light shines as the sun did into the empty tomb. To tell everyone who I meet during my walk here, and what they teach me.

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. 

So here I am. Sharing my news, showing and telling the ways I see the risen God in my community here this Easter. Another day, another reflection from the amazing journey of my YAGM year. The things I have seen, the words I have heard, and the grace I have been given.

Happy New Year, Christ is risen indeed.

Ashley

Prayah Dteenee

Back at the end of February I attended the LCC retreat for a few days. There were many sessions, meals, and times for bonding with one another. Multiple sessions were led by representatives from Singapore that had come to be at the retreat which presented some difficulty when none of them spoke Khmer, and an interpreter was not always available or ready. However, we made it through and I learned some things along the way. Language interpretation has always astounded me. The way that a mind can think in two languages at once, creating meaning out of sounds that may be pointless otherwise. A good interpreter pushes others to examine their own language.

Although there are many things I could say about this retreat, I was struck by one interpretation in particular. It has stuck with me since February too, so I figured writing a little about it was a good idea. We were in a session that was more of a devotional time and our speaker said the words, “God is with us.” Now, at this point in my year I enjoy making small attempts in my mind to interpret things for myself and see where I am lacking words. This was a sentence I could do! Prayah cheeah-moi yeung. Emmanuel if you want to get into the Hebrew. But that was not how it was interpreted in Khmer.

 Prayah Dteenee, God is here.

At first this seemed like an easy transition. If God is with us, God is here. But then I thought about the larger idea of those words in English. When someone says, “God is with us,” I tend to associate that with mental or spiritual location. The Holy Spirit is in us, with us, but in our mind, or heart, or soul. As I thought more deeply about word associations I realized that I made this form of God into something wispy, flowing, and more of an aura than a palpable person. But if someone says, “God is here,” God just became a lot more tangible. Sitting in the chair beside me, standing at the back of the room, leaning against the wall. Here. Now.

Think about it this way. When someone we love dies, we may hear the sentiment that even though the person is gone, their spirit is still with us. Their body has left, but their spirit lives on. But, if someone comes to my front door or sits in my living room, I am going to say that person is here. Next to me, alive, being part of this moment.

As we approach Easter, this seems like a HUGE difference when it comes to Christian faith. Jesus died on a cross and at that point it would have been easy for the disciples and Mary to just be okay with the idea that his spirit was still with them. Their lives could continue and they could tell one another that Jesus’ spirit was with them in some ethereal way. But the story doesn’t stop there because God was not dead and God was still here. Jesus rose from the dead and went out into the world to be here.

In Luke 24:5-6 and Matthew 28:5-6 the messenger asks why the people coming to the tomb look for the living among the dead, acknowledges they are looking for Jesus’ crucified body, and then tells them: “He is not here, he has risen.” Jesus’ tomb was not the “here” he was meant for. Separated from the world, and from you and me by a slab of stone. Rather, it was the here filled with friends, disciples, and people walking down the road. It was the here that allowed him to show himself to people in a concrete way. And it is the here that we continue to live in. The here that surrounds us now. That is not to say that God is not “with us,” God IS with us. But God is also here. In each moment of our lives, God is both of those and more. God is with us, prayah dteenee. 

 Ashley

A Silly Bow-em

Although I have a few posts in the works, none of them are really ready to post and I haven’t said much in a bit! So, I thought I would share with you a silly poem from this past week. Or, more precisely, a bow-em. It tells the harrowing journey of me walking to market and discovering that the bow has fallen out of my hair. For those of you who do not know, I wear a bow in my hair every single day, and I have been for almost three years now! That inspired the name of this blog, and it has become a part of my life that just makes me feel like me, a trademark if you will. So, here is something fun for your Friday! Enjoy! 🙂

Today, I walked to market without a thought in mind
That on this day my very self might just start to unwind
My walking often spurs me to fiddle with my hair
But on this day, at the end of my braid, my bow was no longer there

My eyes grew big like two full moons, my heart raced fast as stallions
My stomach shrunk to insect size, my arms swung like medallions
My hands began to melt like cups of iced tea in the sun
My mind a new computer, its motherboard overrun

A creamy bow with flowers, in many shades of pink
Delicate and gentle, and then I sadly think
This bow so clean and precious lies lonely on the ground
So, quickly I determined that this bow just must be found

Frantically I spun a circle, but saw no bow in sight
And yet the sun was close to setting, and soon it would be night
My journey must continue, to the market I must away
Though my body would clearly have preferred a trip to market another day

The gazes of the people I passed by along my walk
Seemed trained upon my braided hair, they might as well have gawked
A little voice inside tells me none of them could know
But I don’t care, I still feel naked without my flower bow

I’ve made my trip to market and begin my walk back home,
Eyes fixed upon the ground below, this is no time to roam
Alert, attentive, scanning, every inch of street I pass
Hoping that I find my bow on the concrete, in the grass

My searching has to no avail unearthed the thing I seek
And every second with no bow makes all of me feel weak
Just like a superpower, my bow makes me feel strong
So I can walk and smile and talk with confidence all day long

Now back inside the hostel, I check the office and my room
But even with such detailed searching, my bow has met its doom
I place a new bow in my hair, feeling that once again
I am myself and no one else, my strength returned to ten

My steps have been retraced, but no more ideas emerge
Of how to find this missing bow, though I still have an aching urge
It’s sad to think that fabric bow is out there all alone
So I think of other ways that its power could be known

Perhaps a little girl, with laughter and with joy
Found lying in the street, a brand new dress-up toy
Maybe a teenage student, walking home without a care
Bent down to see an accessory just perfect for her hair
There’s possibly a mom or dad, who saw this little bow
And picked it up as a present for another girl they know

These happy thoughts give me a smile, and put my mind at ease
Whoever finds and keeps this bow deserves to be quite pleased
With the discovery they made, and the life that lies ahead
Shaking off their insecurity to showcase confidence instead

I hope that it has found a home, though I miss it in my heart
It now can spread its power, and have a brand new start
But no matter where it ends up, no matter where it goes
I’ll be thankful for the time when it was called one of my bows

Ashley

Sensory Immersion: Battambang, Cambodia

This post will be the first of a new ongoing set that I will add to as the year continues. The premise of these posts will be descriptions based specifically on senses. Just after the start of the New Year, I found myself using the TukTuk ride home from LWD to individually focus on each of my senses. Perhaps this was spurred by an Oscar Wilde quote I heard once:

Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.

This really only worked with sight, sound, and smell, but I made sure that whatever one I focused on had as little distraction as possible. For sight, I would plug my ears and breathe through my mouth. For sound, I would breathe through my mouth and close my eyes. For smell, I would close my eyes and plug my ears. These short adventures in sensory immersion gave me new insights to a ride I have become familiar with. Two weekends ago, I took a trip to Battambang to explore the area with other volunteers and spend time with LWD co-workers from other sites. One of the days we explored Phnom Banan and Phnom Sampeou. During our time at each place and the rides that got us there, I decided to take a few moments to appreciate each sense. I even tried to pull in touch and taste this time! Here are some thoughts from those moments…


Everything is too quiet. Air rushes past, the TukTuk motor rumbles, a cow moos in the distance, and yet, there is silence. My ears strain to hear the hoking of horns, yelling of neighbors, music of street carts, or laughter of children. But this is no longer the city. My eardrums squirm at the lack of sound, they cannot comprehend it. They put every ounce of focus into the world around, hoping for the movement of sound waves, and come up with nothing. Wind. Air. Silence.

I feel on top of the world. Probably because I am in a way. My eyes scan the broad horizon before me, and I wish the haze would dissipate. It is fun to imagine how far my gaze could reach without the foggy screen of clouds covering my views. Nevertheless, I see what I can. An uninhibited sun blazing down on the world around me. Shadows are cast from the highest point of the pagoda behind me, it is nice to escape the blinding light. We walk a little more and descend a staircase. I stop halfway down and stand in awe at the Indiana Jones-like scene around me. Cavern walls line the sides of the staircase, but provide large openings to allow an abundance of sunlit stones to shine in the daylight. Beams of rock and vine mix with beams of sunrays. The light glow is peaceful; I am happy to stare a bit longer.

We sit for lunch and I am reminded that rice has started to taste like home. Although it has been waiting for us to hike up and down the mountain, it is still warm as I take the first bite. Cold water washes my throat like the first jump into a swimming pool. Rachel opens the mangos she has brought us from her home in Oral. The seasons have started to change and I am taken aback by the sweet, juicy, yellow flavor of the slices. I wonder if I will again have familiar mango with a taste like green sour skittles, but I enjoy the new taste all the same. We have hiked more and now find ourselves at the end of our exploring for the day. A few of us treat ourselves with an icy cup of street vendor sugar cane juice. Cold, sweet, earthy, refreshing.

For a moment I stand with the scent of damp rock as my only sensation. Even if I were to open my eyes, they would be useless without the help of a flashlight. Instead, I stand and try to decipher the aromas surrounding me. One direction has a cool, springy air. Like the fresh start of May after a long winter. Another is full of dry, cough-inducing dust. A reminder of the dry season looming in our future. Finally, there is the perfume of old cave walls unaffected by human existence. Though there is a staleness that permeates all these smells from the lack of airflow only caves can provide, I am comforted by the mix. I appreciate the abundance of fragrances all working as one.

My throat burns from the exertion of air pulsing through my lungs faster than normal. A sigh can be felt in my shoulders as we finally reach the top. Who knew 358 stairs could be such an arbitrary term.  My hand attempts to glide along the ridged back of the Naga banister. Though my palms are calloused and dry they engage every inch of the porous, rough stone, hot from the noontime sun. Each of my feet collapses onto the next step with a heavy, uncontrolled weight. Uneven. Steep. Beautifully chaotic. Sweat forms all over my limbs as I regret the hot, black jeans I chose to hike in. A cool breeze washes over my body, and I am thankful for the sweat that drenches my face enough to absorb the wind as it flutters by. My muscles tremble like jelly in a way that signals the end of a long journey.


Check out any of the other posts in this series on my page dedicated to Sensory Immersion posts. The page tells a little more about the idea and includes links to all sensory immersion posts thus far.

Ashley

Where is the Love?

LOVE.

Stop right now, and think about your emotions as your read that word. Love. Are they positive? Negative? Mixed? Minimal? Infinite? Do you think of family? Friends? A significant other? A pet? Chocolate? Our society has many things that claim the word love. This may be because love can be shown through big moments, and small gestures; be found in a community, and individuals; or be felt longer than eternity, and shorter than a second. And yet, with all the possibilities that love has to offer, we do not have near enough words for the sentiment that it tries to convey. If you have been in my life for any length of time, you may have heard one of the few rants I have about our world. Specifically, one about my dissatisfaction with how the English language expresses sentiments of love. We have ONE word! ONE! How can I possibly convey the same meaning for a best friend as I do to pizza? I can’t. While being here in Cambodia, my understanding of love and how it plays into our lives has grown in exponential ways. But I still feel limited.

Numerous languages around the world have more than one word for love. A few examples: Sanskrit (96) and Persian (80) at rockstar levels of expression, or Greek (3) and Khmer (2) with more fathomable amounts.  English draws from more than 10 different languages to create a combination of words with backgrounds all their own, but we have a single word to describe an abstract concept that none of the other languages could do without multiple possibilities of expression. Where is the love?!  Maybe I am picky. I want words to describe the beauty and sorrow that I see in our world, and often find that a language can only express so much. Perhaps the reason I continue to explore new languages is a hope that I will eventually have enough words to do the world justice. And love is one of those things that I cannot equate into one thousand words, let alone four letters.

Today is Valentine’s Day, which has sparked my inspiration for this post. This is a day of the year that we pair with love. To be fair, there are many ways that this theme is extorted and pursued in negative ways, but if we go back to the root, if we go back to love, perhaps we can use this day for the better. I have always loved Valentine’s Day, because it gives me an excuse to tell people how loved they are. Still, my words are not whole enough to adequately express the immeasurable amount that people are loved. For now, my goal is to spread the love in any way that I can. Today, I will attempt to take words from many, in the hope that together we can depict even a small percent of what love is.


“We accept the love we think we deserve.” -Stephen Chbosky, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” -Lao Tzu
“How do you spell ‘love’?” – Piglet
“You don’t spell it…you feel it.” – Pooh” -A.A Milne
“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” -1 John 3:18
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” -Martin Luther King Jr.
“Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Airman’s Odyssey
“How many slams in an old screen door? Depends how loud you shut it.
How many slices in a bread? Depends how thin you cut it.
How much good inside a day? Depends how good you live ’em.
How much love inside a friend? Depends how much you give ’em.” -Shel Silverstein
“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” -Maya Angelou
 “Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby- awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.” -Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid
“One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.” -Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Well, there you have it! Ten quotes to inspire your definition of love this Valentine’s Day. Love for friends. Love for family. Love for a lover. Love for life. Whoever or whatever you love, make sure they know how much of an impact that love makes in your life, not only today, but every day. If you show them, do it with your whole heart, and if you tell them, maybe choose more than word to give your own emotions the expression they deserve.

Love,

Ashley

A Moment within Many

A moment has come. And a moment has gone.

When I first started this post, I was going to say “the moment has come.” After ruminating on that for a bit, I recalled a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a friend in my English class. She is working through the TOEFL exam study book, and on that particular day was trying to understand when to use “the” and when to use “a.” As a native English speaker, I honestly had to sit and think for five minutes about how exactly to explain. I know when to use each one, I know that one is a definite article and the other an indefinite article, but those fancy words mean nothing if there is not an explanation. I told her something along the lines of, “You use “the” when you know exactly what object you are talking about, and “a” when it could be one of a group, or one of many.” We continued to work through the page in her study book and she quickly grasped the times when to use each, but when writing this, I struggled with which to use in my first sentence.

You see, the moment to which I am referring specifically, is the halfway point of my year of service. Last Saturday we were reminded that since our closing retreat dates have been set, we can now count the number of days we will serve in Cambodia. Not only that, but we can then find the day that marks the middle of the road. Last Saturday. In their message to us, Jen and Matt said, “the division is somewhat artificial; there’s no halftime in YAGM.” And this is where I come to my dilemma of using “the” or using “a” to define this moment.

To use “the” would not be wrong, in fact, many may argue that it is the correct article. The moment has passed of our mid-point. The day standing in the middle of our YAGM year is over. The quantifiable part of our year, the time we are here, could now be thought of as a countdown. All these may make someone believe that my first sentence is meant to commemorate the one moment of the year where I am neither starting nor finishing. The moment where I can just be. But I know that things roll faster when they move downhill; I worry that if I were to dwell in that moment, something that could easily be done, I would be in the moment far too long.

To some, this entire debate may seem arbitrary, or unnecessary. Why think so intensely about the article you use in one sentence of a blog post? Not only that, but why tell us about it? And perhaps it is arbitrary, but then again, so are moments. A sentence is a lot like a moment. Both can feel short or feel as if they go on forever, both can do good or do harm, and both can be remembered or forgotten. However, for those who know me, they know language is part of my soul. No word is too small, and no sentence is insignificant enough for me to ignore the power that it has. And since sentences and moments are so alike, I can find no alternative than to treat them with the same reverence.

So, I chose “a,” instead. I chose “a” because our mid-point is one of many special moments during our time here. I chose “a” because if I were to distinguish this moment from the thousands I have in the Kingdom of Wonder, I would be ignoring the people and places that make this moment significant. Every day here is full of moments that deserve a blog post, or a ‘save as’ button in the files of my mind, but every moment does not get that opportunity. Saturday may have been the mid-point, but that means nothing if the other moments of my year are forgotten in its midst. The middle of our year is a moment of one incredible journey. Therefore, I deem the moment as arbitrarily holy, nonchalantly sacred, randomly divine. Lucky for me, our country coordinators said something else in their message to us, “so if it’s arbitrary, then let us celebrate it, since there’s nothing we celebrate better than the arbitrary.”

So, I took a moment to celebrate, the moment ended, but a new one began. And I celebrated that one too.

Ashley

 

Learning to be Lutheran

As some of you may know, after my year of service with YAGM, I will be attending the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (Or LSTC) to pursue a Masters in Divinity and (hopefully) become an ordained pastor in the ELCA. This decision was made as I journeyed through my years at Wartburg and eventually came to terms with the call I was feeling to attend seminary. One thing that I have found as I continue to serve at City Church, is that I really do not know a ton about Lutheranism. There are basic beliefs that I have a grasp on, and small bits of history, but when it comes to writings like the catechisms, or some beliefs that blur together from denomination to denomination, I still have a lot to learn.

This concept is not super new to my life, but I think the way I am learning here is different. One might think that attending an ELCA college made me a Lutheran from the start, but that is not the case for me. When I started school at Wartburg, I came from a church in my hometown that did not always embrace its Lutheran identity. That is not to say that it wasn’t there, it just wasn’t a prominent topic. I was happy to be a part of the many ministries there throughout my youth, and yet only once I arrived at Wartburg did I really start to understand what it meant to be Lutheran.

Much of my time was spent learning about different denominational beliefs and yet I never found myself identifying with one in particular. This fact could easily have escaped me for a long time had it not been for an interfaith conference I attended after my sophomore year. I vividly remember we were doing a “speed dating” type exercise to learn about one another’s faith and beliefs. We were standing in two circles so we had a partner and when we got a new partner we were prompted with a question. Then had 3 minutes to discuss together, but the first thing you always did was say where your overarching beliefs fell (Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Agnostic, etc.). As we made our way around the circle, I do not remember the majority of the questions, but I do remember one.

This was not a question asked of the whole group, but from one of my partners. We were just starting our discussion and so he said, “I am Jewish, you?” “I am Christian.” But his reply to my response is one of the things I remember most about that conference. His response was, “Oh cool, what denomination?” I wish I could say that I had an eloquent response, but I believe my reply was something along the lines of, “wait, what?” He laughed and asked again, “what denomination of Christian?” I was silent for a while, staring at the space over his shoulder and eventually settled for, “I don’t know.” To which he smiled and said, “That’s okay.”

That moment was the impetus of figuring out what it meant to be a part of a denomination, and if I was part of one. My first two years at Wartburg helped me start to learn what I believed for myself about my faith, my next two years would be spent deciding what denomination created the community of faith I fit with. To jump forward, I eventually found that Lutheranism, and specifically the ELCA, was the denomination for me. My journey to this point led me to find my denominational home, but it also taught me the many ways we are connected, even if we disagree on a verse or two.

At this point you may be wondering why I journeyed into the past to tell you about the present, but I think this context is important. During my time here, I have been asked many questions from friends who are exploring their faith. They ask what Christians believe about “X” or “Y,” and some of those inquiries I can answer. Others, I have to try and explain multiple beliefs, because it can vary widely from one denomination to another. At times, this becomes even harder when they know I consider myself Lutheran and ask, “what do Lutherans in America believe?” This question has so many answers because there are even different believes dependent upon Lutheran denomination.

In the end, my response usually involves asking them a question about the topic, because that is my hope for them. I want them all to have a space where they feel comfortable asking questions, and searching for answers, even the ones that may never come. The longer I am here, the more I want to push myself to discover what it means to be a Lutheran. In America, in Cambodia, in the world. At the same conference I mentioned earlier, there was a keynote speaker name Eboo Patel (look him up, he’s rad.) One of the biggest messages he drove home was the fact that interfaith dialogue is like building a bridge. The bridge is important to see another’s point of view, but if the foundation of either side is not solid, the bridge cannot be built. His point was that as we have these discussions, it is okay for us to agree on some things and disagree on others, but we should not be ashamed of the beliefs we have now to the point that they crumple under questions. Christianity

Questions let us discover who we are, and they do the same thing in our faith lives. We could learn about Judaism, learn about Buddhism, or learn about Lutheranism, but at some point we also learn about ourselves. We learn what we believe, and how that connects with the life we live. We learn that there are differences, but there are also similarities. And we learn that despite the religious title we may wear, we are all people on journeys to figure it out. Let’s journey together, shall we?

Ashley

Stop and Smell the Sunflowers

Well, we are just over one week into 2017 and for me, it has been quite a lovely week! We had a BBQ, party, and prayer on the roof to ring in 2017 at the hostel, which was a wonderful time spent with friends, singing, laughing, and soaking up the final moments of the year. Of course, it was also fun to tease friends back home who had another 13 hours of 2016 left, but they caught up eventually!  For a moment, I felt like a time traveler though!

Spending the end of 2016, and just over half of 2017 in Cambodia is still something my mind has not completely comprehended. Although it does not take living in Cambodia to do so, I find that every day has a new lesson to teach me, a new memory to create. Some days (well…most, actually) I learn a new word in Khmer, which I try to share a little bit about each Wednesday on my language blog (click here if you want to see what I’ve been learning recently.) Other days I learn about Cambodian culture or history. And many days I learn more about myself and the people around me. This past weekend was no exception!

On Saturday last week we took a hostel trip to Kirirom National Park. Now, we started the drive at 7 am, and arrived at 10:30 am. We ate lunch, and about 12 pm we were let loose to hike until 3 pm, when we would leave. In my mind, the trip there was meant for hiking out in the park as much as possible and getting to a high hill for a gorgeous overlook. I wanted that destination, that one reason or purpose for our trip. As the day continued on, I began to understand that this trip was not about a destination, but about the opportunity to see more of the beautiful world with friends.

When our bus first entered the park, we started up a winding, bumpy road to our chosen spot for lunch. After driving for maybe 2 minutes in the park border, we see that there is a small patch of sunflowers on our side of the road. So, we stop. We get out, we take pictures, we feel the sun, and we literally take time to stop and smell the flowers. Sure, we were going to our lunch spot, but these flowers were beautiful, why wouldn’t we take the time to stop and see them?

The bus eventually continued to the lunch spot and we sat to share a meal together. After lunch, we took a little while for some of us to share about the year we just left, and what we want to bring with us into this new year. It was a short time, but it was a sacred time. I got to hear stories from fellow hostel residents, and volunteers. We learned a little bit more about one another in that moment.

Next, we were let loose out into the park and we began to hike. My group started out with a loud boombox attached to a fallen tree branch that was playing upbeat music while being carried by two guys up the trail. This spurred a combination of hiking and dancing that is hard to describe, but easy to imagine if you get the right song beat in your head! (Try this one if you need some inspiration for your imaginings.) It became clear quite quickly that this hike would not be done quickly. Every ten feet or so, it became customary for everyone to stop and take pictures. But, I was still so focused on the destination. I kept asking “Yeoung dtau luhh?” ‘We go to the top?’ And would always be answered with “Yes, yes, we will get there.”

At about 1:25 pm, it became quite clear that our journey back would soon begin, and our hunt for the view from the mountaintop had yet to be found. I had gone a little farther ahead with two other people, but we turned back once we realized the significant distance between us and the rest of our hiking group. When we finally got back to our comrades, it turned out that they had stopped to have a dance party with a popular VBS-type song that we all know the dance to. The closer we got, the louder the music got, and the more I tried to understand what they were doing. Eventually, we reached them and I joined in for the last part of the dance, because I couldn’t just stand there and stare!

The song ended and we told our group that we had to start heading back so we would be on time. Our response was not what I expected, albeit I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Though there were not many words said as a response, the actions were quite clear. To our right there was a large hill that did not have a marked path to the top, but most likely had a view from a higher elevation. And they were heading up the hill. This time I did just stand and stare. There was tall grass, and not a super well marked path, we couldn’t just go up there. But we could, and we did.

The trek up the hill and down again were nothing overly remarkable or necessarily memorable in the eyes of most, but it is something I will cherish. We looked around at a view that was very similar to the one we saw at the bottom of the hill, but there was a sense of accomplishment, a pulse of energy underneath our group after taking our exploration to a new place. We took lots of pictures together and joked around. We took turns wearing the flower crown that our group had acquired at some point during the hike. We breathed in fresh air. And then we made the hike back down the hill, and back to our lunch spot.

If I think about the day, there was not one particular moment that was the reason for our journey to Kirirom. No view that we had to see, place we had to be, things we had to say, or people we had to be with. But it was a sacred time. A time where an adventurous march up an unexplored hill was the motivation, rather than the view from the top. A time where we carry a boombox so we can do a silly dance in the middle of a national park trail. A time where words spoken over and after a meal can be as fulfilling to our hearts as the food was to our bodies. A time where we can stop the bus just to play in the sunflowers for five minutes. And I think that my 2017 could use more times like those. When there is not necessarily a specific purpose, or goal at the end of a day, but the journey itself was the thing we stopped to take pictures of, the thing we knew would be remembered.

Find your sunflowers this year. The moments that make you stop and say, “Wow, life is beautiful, and I am taking this moment, right now to stop and appreciate that.” Soak up that joy, honor the world around you, frolic in that moment. You deserve to stop and smell the sunflowers every once in a while.

Ashley

P.s. Here are a couple pictures of the sunflower expedition!

 

Try to Make Memories

1 year.
12 months.
52 weeks.
366 days.
527,040 minutes. (I know, Rent lied.)

All of this represents time spent making memories that didn’t exist the year before. When I started 2016, I had no memories of the amazing things that would happen this year, because they were not made yet. I remember the last week of 2015 I read many articles titled “10 Ways to Make 2016 the Best Year Yet,” or “16 Resolutions for 2016,” or “20 Things to Stop Doing in 2016.” Reading this plethora of perspectives was intriguing because so many of them had similar themes, but there was one resolution that stood out to me. It was short, simple, and powerful, and that was why I liked it. It read: “In 2016, try to make memories. Not perfect ones, or always happy ones, just memories that you have when the year is over.” So, here I am at the end of 2016. Did I do it? Well….

In January…

I have memories of footie pajama parties, a cancelled Andy Grammar concert, the return of a roommate from Denver, visits from friends who live far away but stay close to my heart, and friends who showed constant support when I was struggling.

In February…

I have memories of seriously contemplating how I would spend my summer, submitting applications to LSTC and YAGM, contemplating life after college, helping with the process of hiring new RAs, suddenly doubting my whole life plan, and the start of my first (and last) Wartburg Service Trip to New York.

In March…

I have memories of being accepted to seminary, receiving scholarship information, running around on a hectic day of Dance Marathon/Band Runout/a best friend’s birthday, having a short time at home for Easter break, and facing the realities of finality at the senior dinner.

In April…

I have memories of presenting a paper at a conference and on RICE day, playing in my last band concert, dancing for the first (and last) time at The Joe’s, attending my last band banquet, turning in my senior capstone paper, learning more about YAGM at DIP, going to Disney World with my family over tour week, and running lights for an Aaron Carter concert.

In May…

I have memories of studying in Costa Rica, watching the underclassmen of crew showcase what they have learned, having fun at a graduation party, wishing some moments with friends could last longer, graduating from Wartburg college, and calling my parents for help when I couldn’t make it home from school on my own.

In June…

I have memories of training for Ewalu, experiencing camp for the first time, showering much less than should have been acceptable, seeing a production of In the Heights with friends, bonding over stray mice and creepy moonlight walks, gazing at the stars, and receiving the nickname “Shark-eisha” from some campers.

In July…

I have memories of Independence Day spent with close friends, a few hoedowns, camping for the last time in a while with my family, grieving the loss of our runaway chickens, staying warm in a flannel with s’mores by a campfire, and breaking three of my front teeth off three weeks before moving to Cambodia.

In August…

I have memories of a week of camp with double the campers, attending the joyous event of a wedding but also saying good-bye for a long time to close friends, fixing my teeth through a dentist near camp at the last moment possible, ending the summer at Ewalu with a late night of good-byes, laughter and tears, expertly packing with my Mom for a year that was coming very quickly, throwing a going away party with the wonderful surprise guests of those same friends I already said good-bye to, being dropped off at the airport in Des Moines by my Dad, orienting myself in Chicago, and boarding some very long plane rides across the world.

In September…

I have memories of bonding with my CamFam, mourning as I learned about Cambodian history, filling with hope as I saw the ways the reconciliation was and is happening, starting in my site placement at City Church, being frustrated with Khmer, and learning to tell the Gospel through storytelling.

In October…

I have memories of being invited home with a new friend in Cambodia, experiencing my first moment of homesickness in my memorable life, worshipping in new ways with new friends, starting to teach English, meeting up with my cohort in various spaces, getting to know my LWD staff at a conference before I even started, and trying to explain Halloween traditions to friends here.

In November…

I have memories of remembering how to use programs like Photoshop and InDesign, watching boat races while eating street food at Water Festival, starting to learn Khmer with a friend at the hostel, having a vendor down the street know my order without even saying it, exploring Angkor Wat, celebrating Thanksgiving with a new kind of family, skyping with my family at home as they ate cranberry sauce made by my little brother, and praying at our monthly prayer night for my country back home in a state of fear, anger, and disagreement.

In December…

I have memories of decorating multiple times at the hostel, new Christmas traditions, being covered in glitter more times than I can count, messages from home on my birthday, surprising my cohort with videos from their families, a surprise from my hostel friends on my birthday, a Christmas surprise from loved ones back home (really just lots of surprises), talking with friends about everything or nothing at all, and contemplating what a year it has been and what a life we live.

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These memories are mere glimpses in my mind of the last 366 days I spent on this earth. There is so much more that these few moments cannot capture, but there is also something so special that these are the ones I want to share with you. Going into 2017, I want to keep remembering. Not because every memory will stick, or because every single one will be happy, but because each memory will be a reminder of the beautiful life I am living. The people I spend it with, the places I go, and the minutes I remember, those are the things I want to cherish in 2017. Another year. Another 12 months. Another 52 weeks. Another 365 days. And another 525,949.2 minutes. How will I spend it? How will you? No matter your resolution this next year, or lack thereof, I pray you find moments of joy, peace, friendship, hope, and love in 2017. I hope you can find the memories you are living this next year, cherish them, savor them, and then share them with the world.

Ashley