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

[Story Break] Being an angel

being an angel

Inexplicably, I woke up about an hour early. Just as inexplicably, I decided not to try to go back to sleep. Instead, I rolled out of bed, got dressed, and started my day. That’s how I got a chance at being an angel.


My poodle-mix mutt and I start each day with a walk through the neighborhood. We take the same route most workdays, so we tend to greet the same people each morning—the bearded man riding his bike, the red-haired woman with her matching Irish setter, and various paper delivery people zipping in and out of driveways.

But today we were out an hour early, so I was not surprised to see an unfamiliar character shuffling down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. I was surprised, however, when he answered my friendly “Good morning” with a loud wail.


“Are you ok?” I asked.

He answered by loudly confessing that he had been drinking all night and was on his way home.

“Ok,” I said. “Do you know where you live? Can you find your way home?”

He ignored my question and told me that his mother had just died. That’s why he had been drinking. I expressed my condolences, though it felt inappropriate to be yelling them across the street at 5:15am.

“What am I going to do?” my new friend wailed again.

I crossed the street toward him, mainly to bring down the volume of our conversation and minimize disturbing the neighbors. “How ’bout if I help you get home,” I told him. “Do you know where you live?” He assured me that he did.


We began shuffling eastward, stopping frequently as he thought of new shortcomings to confess to me. He hadn’t been a perfect son. Then he stopped walking and faced me intently, swaying and saying, “Is God going to forgive me?”

“Yes,” I smiled. “He loves you.”


The man seemed overwhelmed at this idea, and he began crying. And of course I felt bad about his obvious grief, but all his interactions had an Otis Campbell-like quality that kept me on the verge of laughter.

Suddenly “Otis” grasped my hand and asked in drunken hopefulness, “Are you an angel?”

I laughed and said, “C’mon, it’s time for you to go home.”

He would not be put off. He shuffled a few more steps, but then demanded again, “Are you an angel?”

I smiled, sighed, and made a decision. “Yes,” I told him.

Being an angelAffirming

The effect was more than I could have hoped for. Otis gasped and stepped back. “YOU ARE? YOU REALLY ARE?” Then, swaying again, he raised his arms and looked heavenward, “GOD, DID YOU REALLY SEND ME AN ANGEL?” He turned his attention again to me. “Why did God send me an angel?” he wondered, crying.

I stepped into the role and delivered this message: “He wants you to know He loves you.”

“He does?” Otis whimpered.

“Yes,” I affirmed. And then I ad-libbed, “He knows that caring for your mom wasn’t easy, but He gave you that assignment because He knew you could handle it. And He knows you did your best.”

At this, Otis broke down and fell to his knees, praying as sincerely as his inebriation would allow—not to me, but to the God he remembered from what sounded like a well-churched upbringing. He thanked Jesus for dying on the cross. He begged forgiveness for all his failings. He promised not to get drunk anymore.

After a minute or two, I helped him to his feet. We had reached his driveway by this point, so I pointed him toward his front door and told him to go sleep for a while. “But when you wake up,” I added, “don’t forget what we talked about. You’re going to be confused when you try to remember what happened, but it’s all true. Don’t forget that God loves you.”

He nodded, wiped the tears from his face, and went indoors.


I don’t know how much of a compliment it is to be mistaken for an angel by a grieving drunk, and I don’t know if Otis remembered any of our conversation later. Whether or not he did, the experience was a blessing for me. I laughed all the way home, and in the coming days I told the story more than once.

Do I really believe I’m an angel? Not exactly. Angels are spiritual beings, though perhaps they take on human form sometimes. Still, angels are messengers or agents of God—and so am I, though sometimes I’m less intentional about this work than I should be.

Maybe God woke me up early that day and sent an angel named Otis to remind me of that.



My neighbor is trying
to convert me

feet_150My neighbor is trying to convert me. She 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?



Heaven and earth, a poem

My heaven has no
passionless harp-strummers,
no starry-eyed cloud-walkers,
no Peter handing out wings at the gate.

Not a white-washed temple nor marble mansion,
nor misty stage.
No silent mass of robes and halos, no.

My heaven bristles and glows!
My Zion teems with busyness and greenery.
Its people sparkle, inside-to-out—
stone-skippers, kite-flyers, these.

Music, yes,
but not only church choirs—
   in someone’s garage
   guitarist and drummer
   nod laughing at each other and tap their feet,
   while ’round the piano gravelly voices dance.

Worship, yes,
but not only rows of saints sharing hymnbooks—
   in the studio
   an artist completes a sculpture,
   and crowds applaud the Giver’s gifts.

My heaven is
a place of orchestras and didgeridoos,
sixteen-inch softball
and a tug at the end of your line,
children twirling under the fire hydrant
and couples waltzing the ballroom floor.
It’s a land of milk and honey
and ham on rye;
Sunday mornings,
and Saturday nights,
and all the purpose-filled workdays in between.

No dream, no ghost,
no drifting spirit world.

My heaven is real.