Cambodia remains

Cambodia remains
Victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia’s “killing fields.”

On top of my bookcase, where I almost can’t see it as I’m seated at my desk, is a piece of a human bone. A thick, three-inch fragment.

It shocks me when I catch a glimpse of it, even though I am the one who put it there.

For a while, it was on my desk, next to my keyboard. That seems flippant, but I didn’t mean it that way. Instead, I felt I was honoring the dead—for each time my eyes rested on that weather-worn bone, they filled with tears again.

But over time I “got used to” seeing it, and the effect wore off. So I put the piece away, almost out of sight. Not because I wanted to forget about it, but because I wanted to remember.

War and pieces

During the weeks leading up to my Cambodia trip, when I would tell people where I was going, the response was usually mild confusion, something along the lines of, “Cambodia? Really? Why?” My father asked, “It’s not exactly safe there, is it?” A co-worker half-jokingly labeled it “The Trip Nobody Else Wanted.” And a lady at my church hugged me goodbye, wished me a good trip, and cheerfully advised, “Don’t step on any landmines!”

I prepared for the assignment by watching “The Killing Fields,” which tells the story of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, who was trapped in the country when Pol Pot came to power. I also read Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, a book by Dith Pran, who gathered the stories of fellow Cambodians who were children when the Khmer Rouge took over.

The Khmer Rouge murdered or banished the wealthier, educated professionals of Cambodian society. The remaining population were reduced to brutal slavery. Cities were bombed. A lush countryside was littered with the bodies of millions of victims.

This reign of terror lasted from 1975 to 1979, and the Cambodia I saw in 2000 was still scarred and crippled. Streets were unpaved and rutted. The marketplace vendors offered pieces of wartime artifacts as souvenirs. A lot of locals were missing limbs, victims of landmines that still dot the countryside.

Now, I don’t understand all the politics behind the war that spilled over into Cambodia, but my trip brought me face-to-face with the effects.


Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian Genocide Museum, is a compound of five buildings that had been an elementary school before the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. Comrade Duch, a Khmer Rouge commander, turned the school into a prison where people were brutally tortured and killed. Each of the classrooms was turned into a cell. Some housed individual prisoners; others held large groups at a time.

Most of the rooms in Tuol Sleng, the Cambodian Genocide Museum, have been left almost exactly as they were found in 1979.

What makes this museum so powerful is its simplicity. Most of the rooms and artifacts have been left exactly as they were found in 1979 when Vietnamese troops forced the Khmer Rouge out of the city. The Vietnamese found in each room a body chained to an iron bed, left there to rot when the persecutors fled. The officers took a photo (please, click the link) before removing the body and burying it in a plot next to the building. Large, framed prints of those photos now hang on the walls of the rooms, making the space a sort of shrine to the victim who died there. A few signs have been added to explain what happened, but nothing is roped off or under glass. You can walk into each room and touch the shackles that held each prisoner; you can see the blood stains still on the floor; you can grip the barred windows and feel your heart pound.

Grave realization

Tuol Sleng was a place where city people—educated businessmen or government employees—were killed. After lunch we drove out to the countryside, where thousands of peasants had been slaughtered. This site too is haunting in its simplicity. Looking across the field, you see only grass and trees and paths around a series of large pits. It doesn’t look like much, and there are few signs or explanations. But slowly you realize that each pit was a mass grave for hundreds of victims. When you look closely along the worn paths, you find fragments of clothing, bones, and teeth.

The fields look serene and hardly significant, until you realize that each large pit was a mass grave filled with men, women, and children.

That’s where I found the bone that is now on my bookshelf. It was nestled in the grass along the edge of one of those pits. I hesitated to reach for it, not wanting to dishonor its owner any further. But it seemed less honorable to let it lie there, forgotten.

The bus ride back to town that evening was very quiet. The group had been stunned by the enormity of the genocide that decimated a once proud nation of quiet scholars. And the fact that we had been so absolutely unaware made us feel even more helpless and guilty.

Redeeming the remains

When people ask me how I can believe in a God who allows evil to happen, I think of Cambodia. I think of the one-legged children begging in the streets. I think of the social workers trying to rebuild a nation whose teachers, professionals, and elders have all been wiped out. I think of how heavy the hopelessness felt as I stood in the shadow of a tower of skulls.

I think of the human bone I hold in my hand.

But I also think of Vannary, a bookkeeper in the office that hosted my trip. Vannary lost her whole family to Pol Pot’s horror—father, mother, sisters, brother, all killed in front of her eyes. Vannary was with us while we toured Tuol Sleng, but she stayed on the bus. She didn’t want to alter our plans, but she was not able to face what she knew had happened inside those walls. Certainly not in the company of oblivious tourists.

After supper that evening we gathered in the hotel conference room and sang an old song together:

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.
Because He lives, all fear is gone.
Because I know He holds the future—
and life is worth the living just because He lives.

Vannary was singing too. In spite of the horror she has lived through, she sings. In spite of the fear that still threatens her, she sings. In spite of the death all around her, Vannary sings. She courageously believes life is worth living because her God lives, and He has conquered death.

Illogical and undeniable

Why do I believe in a God who allows suffering? Because He is also the God who overcomes it. His answer is not always to protect us from it. But He does promise to walk with us through it.

Much like Vannary, Cambodia remains broken, fearful, scarred. But the tears I saw glistening in Vannary’s eyes reflect her hope in His resurrection power.

I need that glistening hope.

I need a hope that shines through tears. I need a hope that makes no sense, that can’t be justified or explained. A hope that just is. In spite of all the evidence against it.

I know that hope is real. I saw it in Cambodia.

And I can feel it in my bones.


Related: Nonprofit writing

The appeal of Labor Day

LaborA large percentage of the work I do is for the nonprofit sector—healthcare, religion, poverty relief, literacy, and others. So I’ve written hundreds of fundraising appeals.

It is common for nonprofit organizations to schedule their appeals around holidays. Christmas is the most popular (and the most effective), but I’ve also written fundraising letters that are themed to coincide with New Year’s Day, Easter, Mothers Day, Independence Day, Election Day, Thanksgiving, and other recognized seasons.

Labor Day appealBut I’ve written only one Labor Day appeal. And since I know that creative fundraising success is top-of-mind for you in the days leading up to a holiday weekend, I’m here to share it with you. See if it moves you to give:

Dear Friend and Partner,

I love Labor Day — and not just because it’s a holiday!

I love what Labor Day stands for. It’s a whole day dedicated to the achievements of working Americans. It’s a national tribute to ordinary people who have made daily contributions to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our nation.

Now, it may seem ironic on Labor Day to be writing about people whose labors, for the most part, are over. Most of the residents in [our senior living] communities are no longer part of the active workforce.

But they were. And for that, you and I are in their debt.

Think about it: Our retirement centers today are filled with former teachers, missionaries, nurses, homemakers, pressmen, cab drivers, factory workers, and farmers. Our retirement centers are filled with yesterday’s workforce—both paid and volunteer! These people have built a nation. They’ve built a community. They’ve built me and helped make me what I am today!

I don’t ever want to forget that.

The people in today’s nursing homes spent their lives laboring for me and the blessings I enjoy today. I feel obligated to give something back.

How about you?

Will you recognize what yesterday’s workers have done to make America great, and to make your community great? Will you labor a little for them after all they’ve done for you?

Give a little from the fruits of your labors this year. Not only will you be saying thank-you to some forgotten heroes, you’ll also be setting an example for the next generation who will someday need to say thank-you to us.

Happy Labor Day,

The fruits of my labors

Now, to be honest, I don’t know if this appeal letter did its job—the client did not relay any results to me (though they did return for help with several other appeal letters).

Still, I thought it was a creative approach to an unusual holiday request.

If you need creative thinking that is not too far out of the box, consider asking LifeLines to work on your next fundraising campaign.

In the meantime, Happy Labor Day!



When I first moved into my new LifeLines office space not quite a year ago, I gave you a look “behind the screen.” At that time I had nothing hanging on the walls—I was still enjoying the blank canvas of clean, fresh paint.

Throughout the year, I’ve gradually allowed the paint to become a backdrop for other sources of inspiration, and I thought LifeLines readers might appreciate an update:

inspiring - view
I still love my green walls, and I find that my view out the window is more inspiring than distracting.
inspiring - exploring
The wall I look at most often is now covered with this piece I found in a furniture store. The painted beach is textured with actual stones and sand, and I love the three-dimensional effect. The scene reminds me of family vacations in Florida, where I spent long childhood days exploring and discovering and learning from my grandparents.
inspiring - family
To my right are these smaller framed works, including a series of poems I wrote as a child. My young sister illustrated them and my proud grandmother had them framed. Of course, they are not terribly impressive writings, but I kept them after my grandmother and grandfather died because it meant so much to me that they meant so much to her.
inspiring - tragedy
Behind me, where I can’t see them all the time, are these photographs from 9/11/01. For no particular reason, I was deeply impacted by this national tragedy. I had never been to New York City, and I suffered no personal loss during those days, but I was intrigued by our national response and the national mood—immediately and in the months following. There are things about those days that I never want to forget.
inspiring - art
I have just begun filling this wall with masterpieces from people who are an inspiring part of my everyday life: a woman from my church who used to teach art, a neighbor who was willing to part with “Heart to Heart,” my young niece who seems to have some natural talent, and my mother who refuses to believe she is talented and will probably be annoyed that I’ve included her work on my wall as well as in my blog. All of these people teach me something different about art and work and talent and inspiration. I like having them behind me.

I also like having some room on my walls for new inspirations. The thing about inspiration is, it fades. We get used to it, and then we become immune to it. We need a fresh inspiring from time to time. But the new inspirations don’t have to replace the old ones. Instead, those old relics can be polished and brightened and given new meaning as we carry them into the present and build on them for the future.


My neighbor is trying
to convert me

trying to convert me

feet_150She wants me to go walking with her. At the park she likes to go to. At the times when she’s available.

She’s told me how much she loves walking there. She testifies about how good she feels when she walks. In fact, she wasn’t always a walker, but she was saved from a sedentary, nutrition-less existence. She didn’t realize how much better life could be when you’re healthy and active and out in the sunshine and fresh breezes.

Walking has changed her life, and she wants it to change mine too. She’s trying to convert me.

But I don’t want to be converted

I don’t feel the need. In fact, I’ve told my neighbor that I already walk. I walk at least once a day. I’ve been walking for years, all over the place. I walk around the neighborhood. I walk to the store. I take the stairs instead of the elevator. I park away from the door so I will have farther to walk. I walk alone, I walk my dog, I walk with friends and family. Walking is already a lifestyle for me. And I’m pretty happy with it. I don’t really need to add another walk—her walk—to my life. I’m not trying to make excuses, but walking at her time and place would really be kind of inconvenient for me.

Is she really concerned about me?

She says she’s concerned about my health, though she’s never asked if I’m healthy or not. She’s so excited about her message that she’s unable to really hear me or see me or get to know me. “You should walk—it’s so good to be out in the fresh air!” —she tells me this while I’ve stopped to chat with her on my way home after tennis (in the fresh air). She can see my rackets slung over my shoulder. But when she nods at them and asks, “You play tennis?” her interest feels insincere. “That’s good,” she says, and then she segues into the spiel I’ve heard before: “I like to walk—have you ever walked the trail over at the park? You should. It’s really good for you. It’s so good to be out in the fresh air!…” I listen for a while, and nod, and smile, and agree. But the next time I see her, I think about hiding. I don’t want to be cornered and preached to.

Enthusiasm and evangelism

Now, I can’t really fault my neighbor for being enthusiastic. I’m glad she’s seen the light and found the way. I’m glad her life has been transformed, and I wouldn’t want her to keep that good news to herself. Good news is for sharing!

And I do believe that on some level she does care about me. She wants what’s best for me, and that’s nice. I appreciate that.

Still, somewhere in my interactions with her is a lesson for Christians and churches and how we practice evangelism. Don’t ya think?