Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I, and people in "the West" take Sabbath for Granted

Perhaps one of the more disturbing elements of my trip thus far, is the fact that I stopped in for a Cambodian massage. Another member of our Peace Fellows cohort, pointed out that a 1 hour massage was advertised for $4.00. Later in that day, I happened to walk past the same $4.00 massage location – and decided that I needed one. I wish I would not have gone in.

The massage itself was perfectly comfortable – and while I am not used to people rubbing my body – I will admit that the massage for my muscles was relaxing in many ways.

The complicating problems for me stem from the conversation with the delightful Khmer (Cambodian) girl who provided my massage. Her English was good, but far from perfect. But, I am quite certain I accurately got the gist of her story. Her name was something close to “Presawn.” She is 23, with four sisters and her parents living in a village somewhere outside Phnom Penh – I am not sure how far away. Her sisters ranged in age from 12 to 19, with two sisters the age of my girls. She has been in Phnom Penh for 2 years, and at this massage storefront for 6 months. She said speaking she liked speaking English with me because it gave her good practice. She pays $10 per month to take 1 hour per week of English. She said she is taking the cheap course, because she can afford it. Her English teacher is himself studying English at University. If I understood her correctly, she did not like her teacher too much because in her one-hour course, he often tries to speak Khmer and she is there to learn English.

Her English class is important to her – not only because she wants to learn English and is paying for it – but also because it consumes 16% of her monthly salary – and is the single hour she gets off work every week. She works 7 days per week, from 9 a.m. to midnight (15 hour days). She sleeps in a back room of the massage store – and has access to a small kitchen area there for preparing her meals. For her work, some 105 hours per week, every day, of every week for 15 hours per day, she earns $60.00 per month - $2.00 per day. 14 cents per hour.

I paid for my $4.00 one hour massage – but before I left, I insured that I emptied my wallet of every U.S. Bill that I had, by privately handing it to Presawn. It was about $24.00. I would have given her a $100 if I had it.

She was not and is not a conscripted labourer – she had freedom to move for work and she had not debt – as best I could discern in our communication – but she works in a country, as part of a culture, within a context, where something close to slave labor is permitted – or – at the least – labor that does not value full human dignity for their time, for their personal existence, for their rest and refreshment, for their Sabbath.

In the Westt we fail to live into the provisions of the explicit commands of the Jewish Tradition, six days you shall work on the seventh you shall not work. In the West, we see such a law as oppressive and restrictive.

I wonder, though, how Presawn would respond to a law that forced her to cease from her labor. I wonder, though, how Presawn would rejoice in a culture and a God who not only permitted – but required her rest and relaxation.

I wonder how much I – and those with me in the West – do not “get” the pleasures intended by God for the Sabbath when God commands, “Stop!” I wonder, how Presawn would stand in awe and adoration of someone who would go to her boss and require from him, that he give his employees an entire 24 to cease their striving.

Sabbath has taken on new form for me today.

And my awareness of my privilege leaves me humbled – and willing to work for a better world.

Sabbath - Reconsidered because of Terror

The Sabbath is to be characterized by rest and redemption – but it did not feel like that for me today. In fact, if anything, the Sabbath today felt like an experience of strife, slavery, suffering and trauma.

As part of a program in peace and conflict transformation I am engaging in Southeast Asia, I visited two locations today that memorialize the incarceration, torture, and genocidal campaign of the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – from 1975 to 1979. Estimates are that more than 2.5 million persons were killed in these few years – by direct violence or intentional starvation. As the established Communist government attempted to consolidate their claims, they ruthlessly sought out and punished any possible or (mis)perceived threats, resulting in torturous prisons established throughout the land. Today, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre and the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum memorialize two places in and near PHNOM PENH, Cambodia where torture, death, and mass burials took place.

I visited these places today. The Choeng Ek Genocidal Centre is better known as “the killing fields” – and I stood for several minutes in front of the Stupor – a SE Asian Memorial stone, like a Western “Head Stone” – but larger and different. This particular stupor was perhaps 60 feet tall – and perhaps 20 feet square. Inside the stupor, encased in a glass cairn some 8 feet square, were the skulls of those who had been buried here. Starting at the ground level and on rows of shelves that ascended to the top of the structure – the eye-sockets of 40, 50, perhaps 60 skulls peered out from each shelf. Thousands of empty eye sockets peered out to those who came to “visit” this place. We walked among the fields where they had been buried. With each season of new rainstorms, new effects of erosion result in new fragments of bones appearing from the earth.

We know that more than 17,000 persons passed through the 21st Security Prison to be established, more famously known as Tuol Sleng. This prison, though, was less about incarceration, than it was about torture. Under horrendous conditions, of those who passed through this prison, no one escaped alive. All who were incarcerated here, except seven, died. Those seven who survived, only survived because they were useful to the prison guards, redeemed when the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh. Of the seven who survived, only three remain alive today. I sat for a time with one of those three. He autographed his biography for me and I brought it back to my hotel room, where I sat to read it later this same day.

Sabbath is supposed to be about rest. Today’s Sabbath reminded me of the toils of human persons, trials, tribulation, and terror.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Nazarene Youth Conference meetup

I had the great pleasure of taking seven of my own students, combined with about fifty other students from our church district, to Nazarene Youth Conference (NYC) in Louisville, Kentucky. This conference is for high school students only. Since it is held only once every four years, high schoolers get one chance to attend the conference. This year, over 6300 people participated in the conference. It is a big deal to attend NYC as a student for multiple reasons. Financial commitments, time commitments, travel commitments and family commitments all are valid and usual reasons why students are unable to attend.

While I was walking with some students around the exhibit hall at NYC, I bumped into someone that I vaguely remembered from a past mid-west life of mine. You may recognize him as well:

Yes, two-fifths of the Fallow for Faithfulness group met up at NYC for a brief word and a picture! It was great seeing Levi and the students that he had brought to the conference. We hadn't planned on seeing each other - so many people at the conference make it difficult to meet up with each other - but it was great getting to catch up!

For now, I am back secure in my spot as the West Coast Affiliate, but undoubtedly looking forward to our September retreat!

-- Stephen

Friday, August 5, 2011

Surgery and Sabbath

Recently, my wife needed to have surgery. It was not a very invasive procedure. It was an outpatient ordeal. The surgery went fantastic. I was very thankful to hear. Upon release my wife received instructions about caring for herself while she recovered. The main requirement was rest and not to over-exert herself. Rest does not come naturally to my wife. Sitting around, for her, makes her thinks she is being lazy. Her natural inclination is to make herself busy with things to do and accomplish. But, if she really would like to recover quickly and totally she had to rest and allow the body to restore itself in time.

Sabbath, I am learning, is more than just resting. It's healing. Rest is an important factor because of what it leads to: wholeness. Perhaps continuing to push ourselves without allowing proper rest and healing is akin to straining the body too much after a surgery. It can only lead to more complications, weariness, and pain. Healing cannot happen without rest. I am reminded of Jesus' words, "Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest." Jesus came to heal and make whole. We are restored to new life as Sabbath becomes an entering into the wonderful rest of a Savior that brings healing to our hurts.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Garden, a Daughter, and a Grandson

My daughter and I (with a little help from my grandson Kendrick) prepared a small plot of ground and planted a very small garden (yellow and zucchini squash; bell peppers; broccoli; and strawberries) in my backyard in May. The record-setting heat wave in Oklahoma has significantly adversely affected any harvest; I have only raised one zucchini squash and two yellow squash out of about six squash plants. I saw several small strawberries early on, but no other plants “made” any produce. A book I finished recently, Tired of Trying to Measure Up by Jeff VanVonderen has helped me to understand in a more indepth manner my "performance orientation" and my unhealthy excessive need to be "productive" all the time. I am “driven” to "accomplish" to a very unhealthy degree.

This is the first time since leaving home (I grew up on a small acreage and my dad and maternal grandpa had big gardens when I was growing up) that I have attempted even a small garden and, while the results have been discouraging, the almost daily watering and very little weeding, has caused me to slow down and contemplate my unhealthy tendency to be self-reliant rather than dependent on God. This has been difficult and painful, and has caused me to do some more reflections on growing up with one alcoholic and one workaholic parent. Yet, I have learned so much from both of them, who have themselves overcome much. I am discovering that underneath it all may be a trust issue. One of the scriptures brought to mind is 1 Cor. 3:6 where Paul records, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth" (NASU). In an excerpt from Sermon 85, John Wesley states in relevant part: "We shall then see there is no opposition between these, 'God works; therefore, do we work;' but, on the contrary, the closest connexion; and that in two respects. For, First, God works; therefore you can work. Secondly, God works, therefore you must work.”

My daughter and I observed that the two squash plants that yielded any produce at all were ones that we planted outside the “hot box” in clay soil with no fertilizer and very little top soil where I predicted nothing could grow. She now loves reminding me that God does the impossible! There are some lessons there for sure. I am guilty of too much self-effort and not enough dependence and trust in God. I have much difficulty with Sabbath significantly precisely because I have great difficulty resting and not being what I see as productive.

I have been babysitting my grandson on Wednesdays this summer and while it has been enjoyable, it has exposed the tension with my need to be doing something considered to be “more productive.” I am in the process of redefining the meaning of productive. I cannot think of anything more important than spending time building a healthy relationship with my grandson and “giving up” one day a week during my summer break is not being unproductive in an unbiblical way. In fact, it is life-giving to me and provides a service (much deserved break) to my daughter. The section on Sabbath in Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun helped me to understand that “playing with children” can be spiritually nourishing and therefore an acceptable Sabbath practice (42). My grandson’s laugh and showing of affection is good medicine for the soul! I am also a little fearful of realizing the depth of tiredness, emotionally and spiritually, that I feel from years of neglecting a healthy Sabbath practice.

I need the daily watering of the Holy Spirit (John 4:14) and the recognition that ultimately everything positive we accomplish is ultimately traceable to the grace of God and never solely to self-effort. Apart from the enablement or empowerment of divine grace, we can do nothing of eternal significance (John 15:5).