Feet and Paws

In Cambodia we wear sandals everywhere and take them off as soon as we enter a house or school.  This felt a little weird when we first moved here but it only takes a trip or two to the markets and you quickly figure out why! Between discarded bits from the veggie or butcher stalls, animals (and young children) peeing on the road, and general road dirt and grime, our sandals and feet pick up any number of things! Washing our feet several times a day is pretty common.  For our friends, immediately heading to the bathroom to wash theirs when they arrive isn’t strange at all, just a part of life.  Even our pup gets his feet washed or wiped down every time he comes in the house from a walk (much to his annoyance)!

This reminds me of when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet in the Bible.  In the US where I so frequently wore socks and red wing boots for work, I generally pictured dusty, but relatively clean feet that it was very nice of Jesus to wash.  Quick wipe down and he was done, right?  Now I’m realizing that those feet of the disciples were probably GROSS!  Jesus knelt on the floor, grabbed hold of those grimy feet and he lovingly washed them clean.

After seeing my own feet, I’m pretty sure I would have reacted like Peter.  “Jesus, there is no way you are touching my icky feet!”

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

John 13:3-11

It’s just another benefit of living in Cambodia — every day, I understand this story and what it really meant a little bit better.


Never thought of it that way!

In the nine months that we’ve lived in Cambodia, we’ve learned to look at a lot of things differently. Some you will easily guess, things we’ve mentioned before like transportation or food. But others have been less obvious. For instance, there have been a lot of stories, examples and illustrations from the Bible that are starting to take on a new light. Washing feet is a necessity after walking the streets of Phnom Penh in flip-flops each day. Certain passages get a twist in translation, like the Lord’s Prayer — give us our daily bread rice. Eating food sacrificed to idols is much more relevant in Cambodian culture than in America.

Recently I was coming home from the market when I noticed one of the many doll-sized houses that sit on a stand outside a human-sized home.  It was beginning to rain so someone thoughtfully had placed an umbrella over the house. (I wished I had my camera out, but the tuk tuk was going too quickly). A couple homes down, a woman brought a full bunch of bananas and a cup of steaming coffee to place in front of her spirit house on a stand (everything the family spirits might need for a healthy breakfast)!

Most homes and businesses in Phnom Penh have spirit houses like these outside their front door. These are part of a system of beliefs meant to protect the occupants and the property against malicious spirits (and human thieves). As part of the belief, Cambodians traditionally leave offerings of fruit and drinks, as well as burning incense. But, from time to time (particularly Buddhist holidays), that fruit will then be offered to monks or to guests. How should Christians respond?

It’s just food, right?  It’s just bananas or coffee or hard candy — and as I Corinthians tells us “…food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

But as we have asked some of our friends, they have explained the significance of this food in Cambodia.  Culturally, by eating the food given to the household spirits, it signals to everyone around that you believe in the spirits and trust them to take care of your life.  Just as Paul warns later in I Corinthians, this can be confusing for both Buddhists and new Christians alike.

Rooster Shrine.jpg

Furthermore, for Christians, politely declining to eat the food can be a fantastic way to witness to a family.  I’m amazed by the stories of many of our friends who were able to share their faith in Jesus because they or a family member politely refused to participate.  So we choose to follow their example and don’t eat the offered candy from the spirit house!  We away from the spirit houses on the ground too, so he doesn’t eat the food!

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

I Cor 10:25-33

Our Daily Rice

Recently the pastor at our church did a sermon on the Lord’s prayer.  I must confess, as soon as he got started my first thought was that I have heard a LOT of sermons on the Lord’s prayer before.  How would this be any different?  Turns out, a lot!  There were quite a few comments he made that really opened my eyes to how different this culture is compared to how I grew up.  Here are a few examples:

  • It’s okay to pray.  We don’t need our parents permission to pray and we don’t have to go through a monk.
  • We don’t need to give an offering to a monk for someone to pray for us.
  • God does not require a specific posture in a specific location to pray.  We can pray anytime, anywhere!
  • Daily bread?  Makes no sense in a culture that doesn’t eat the stuff.  God gives us our daily rice!
  • Lead us not into temptation…The fact that God helps us avoid temptation is huge in a culture where many people struggle with a lack of moderation.
  • God is willing to forgive us, we don’t have to try to work our way into heaven.

Cambodia also has a separate language when praying, a language used to show respect to someone who is so much higher than us.  It’s beautiful!


Teacher or Student?

Volunteering with Isaiah Cambodia has become a highlight of my week.  I really love these kids and their excitement and passion for learning.  Recently the older kids have been working on Peter and Jane books.  We have them read in English and then translate it back into Khmer, to make sure they are understanding what they read.  When they translate them back into Khmer, it’s a fascinating study for me to see what words they use in the translations.  The girl pictured seems to come alive every time she teaches me something about her language so I’ve started to use that to help her learn English.  Win-win for both of us!

Projects, Updates

Site Visit!

Hello all! It has been a busy time here in Cambodia as we’ve moved into our new home across town. We’re excited to be settled in now and back to a (new) normal schedule.

We have an exciting update — a site visit!

As you know, Laura and I have spent the last 9 months primarily learning the Khmer language. We still have a ways to go there — while we’re passable in many everyday situations, there are a lot of ways we still want to improve. That’s especially apparent now that we are building relationships and want to be talking about life, emotions, and faith. However, we’re also starting to look forward to our roles in the office with the rest of our team.

Today, I (Ian) happen to have the day off from school, so Chris and I went to meet a local ministry constructing a new facility here in Phnom Penh.


They’ve had some questions throughout construction which we’ve answered along the way, but also have some significant questions about wanting to re-purpose their space. Many times, an NGO building process takes several years from original concept to funding to completion, so it’s not uncommon for their personnel and needs to change along the way. We’ll be working with this ministry to help them through this process and make the best use of their new facility.

One other common theme has been a question of matching local construction practices with western expectations. So far, the workmanship we’ve seen has been well-thought out — but NGO’s frequently like to have a professional they can trust observing that rather than going from their knowledge. Most NGO staff don’t have a background in construction — they have backgrounds in education or theology or health. That’s one of the big roles we’ll be playing here, as “owner’s representatives” or “cultural translators”. By knowing both western construction standards and local construction practices, we can bridge the gap, making sure that the NGO ends up with a quality building that meets their needs, without placing complicated, onerous or expensive requirements on the local contractor.

We still have several months of language learning to go — but today, it felt good to get the work gloves back on!