What My Neighbors Taught Me

Note: This experience happened awhile back, before both the Night of the Epi-Pen and also the possible attempted break-in. But because what happened in this story is significant to my life and ministry in Cambodia, I’m still going to share it, even if it’s a little late.

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I love my neighbors. Yes, the ones that might move. (Insert frowny face here.) I cherish a special affection for two ladies in particular. They always welcome me to sit down and talk with them while they cook. My communication with them is rather stop-and-start, but they never seem impatient with me.

A couple weeks ago, as my kids were playing outside, I walked up to these two ladies and made small talk. Small talk about babies. My friend just had twins; I asked about the word for twin. Small talk about pregnancy. The neighbor is pregnant; I shared stories from my pregnancies. Small talk about cooking. They asked about mine; I told them it’s not great. Small talk about the weather, about wet season and dry season. About how different it is from America, that for six months, it almost never rains, and then during the next six months, barely a day goes by that it doesn’t rain.

I make small talk because studying 2 hours a day for 6 months just cannot produce a fluent speaker.  That amount of study enables me to navigate life in this city . . . and to make small talk.

They offered me vegetable soup; it smelled wonderful. I sat down to eat it with them; it tasted as good as it smelled. While we were eating together, one of the ladies asked me to tell her about myself. Jonathan had told her I was a scientist, and she wanted to know about my education. So I started to tell her.

I told her I liked studying math when I was younger. I liked studying science when I was younger. Then I decided to go to university to study more math and science.

I realized, though, as I was telling my education story, that it’s not just an education story. It’s a testimony. A testimony to the Creator’s work, and to my love for that Creator.

I still remember Mr. Fox’s 9th grade geometry class, where I first learned about right angle trigonometry and was struck with the realization that God invented those mesmerizing SOH CAH TOA relationships. I used to talk about how I really “found God” in Scientific American magazine. The universe God created, from the tiniest quark to the largest galactic supercluster, and every element of my beloved Periodic Table in between, amazes me. God amazes me.

I wanted to tell her that.

But I couldn’t.

The closest I could get was, “The God that is above everything, the God that created everything, I am amazed by the stuff He made. So I like to study it.”

I once heard another missionary mom say she was on the “20 year plan” to learning Khmer. I liked that phrase so much that I’ve incorporated in into my own personal vernacular. Being on the 20-year plan means I plan to study Khmer, summer after homeschool summer, until I’m no longer homeschooling my children. I thought I would just review my first 6 months of study and practice basic conversation this summer. I didn’t think I’d get to spiritual conversations until, oh, about year 8 or so. I certainly didn’t expect it to happen in year 2.

But my neighbors taught me something that night. Something important. They taught me that when people ask me, the foreigner, “What do you do? Why are you here?” I have this amazing opportunity to inject my testimony, my faith in God, into their lives.

Even if I am on the 20 year plan.

So I have a new goal for my summer study: I can learn how to say my testimony. I can memorize my story. And I can plant tiny seeds of faith while answering the most basic of questions: What on earth are you doing in Cambodia?

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The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. Psalm 19:1-4

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. 1 Peter 3:15

4 thoughts on “What My Neighbors Taught Me

  1. Dear Elizabeth and Jonathan –

    Thanks so much for your newsletters and updates. Meg and I certainly understand where you are in language learning. The Lord has placed 1,000s of refugees in our laps–just here in our little town, not to mention the 100s of thousands north of us about 75 miles away. How can we focus only on language, and not help these that have lost so much, especially those down the street?

    So, we learn new vocabularies. One vocabulary for things of war, like the difference between a bomb, a missile and a mortar (that’s how many lost their homes or limbs). The difference between a pistol, rifle and machine gun (therefore the bullet wounds). And so on. We do this so that we can understand their stories, which they want to tell us. In some way, they know that we love them, and they just need someone to talk to who will listen. Some of these words are in our Arabic study. Most are not. All the words are needed in our conversations.

    As you said, Team Expansion wants us to be fluent so that our ministry isn’t hampered long-term by language deficiencies. However, I figure that the route the Lord is taking us is just–different. Not better, not worse. Just not the one we envisioned when we arrived to focus on Arabic. I figure we are on the 2-year program (give or take 5 years–you do the math).

    May the Lord continue to bless you and keep you; grant you favor among the people and in their heart language. And give you His Peace.

    Much Love–Dan & Meg

    • Wow, Dan, thanks for those thoughts. Many of the “experienced missionaries” I talked about in the newsletter actually learned Khmer while serving here years ago, doing intense relief work. Some of them even worked with Cambodian refugees. They’re my heroes, just like ya’ll.

      Our discussion about Team Expansion’s language requirements was aimed at our friends and supporters who might be wondering what in the world we’re doing. After all, haven’t we been here a year already?! : ) It wasn’t meant to be a treatise on how all cross-cultural workers should do the same thing in the same way all the time. God knows he’s got all of us on a different path, for sure.

      Props to you for following hard after God, in a difficult place and in a terrible situation.

      For Christ Alone,
      Jonathan

      • Hey Jonathan –

        I hope I didn’t come across negatively (although I can see how it might have now after I wrote it). I was just thinking about how language learning never seems to go exactly how we ‘plan’ it. Ha! I’ve heard the same from others as well.

        The fact is that the Lord has us (all of us) here (or there) for His purposes at this time. That means–for us–that we have to adjust to His plans, instead of our own. So, instead of studying Arabic 40 hours a week, we get to study it for 20-25 hours a week, and spend the rest of the time trying to use it with the Syrian refugees. For you, His plans play out differently.

        In a perfect world, we would all already know enough of the heart languages to whom we are sent to be able to speak the Good News plainly to them. The fact is that the Lord rarely sends anyone with that ability in advance. He has to work on us–get us to rely solely upon Him in our new homes–while we are learning language and culture. He equips those whom He calls. I reminded one of our teammates recently that if we can’t explain the Good News to a 4-year old, then we still have alot of work to do. It keeps us focused.

        The fact is that I read about all that you, Elizabeth and your family are doing, and am glad that it is y’all who are in Cambodia and not us. So I am thankful the Lord has us here in the Arab world, where He just ‘happened’ to place our focus people group in our city, albeit through ways we could have never imagined. Praise be to our Lord God, whose ways are so much higher than our ways, and His thoughts higher than our thoughts!

        Please give our love to your family. For His Glory–Dan & Meg

  2. I have a little bit from Moses on my office wall… “But how in the world, God?!” (It’s paraphrased a bit.) I imagine God smiling a bit, leaning in, and calmly answering, “I will be with you.”

    Thanks for all the encouragement, Dan! May we be so consumed with a passion for the King that we are satisfied by nothing else.

    all for ONE,
    Jonathan

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