Our IJM Cambodia office has a partner church in the US that supports us financially and also joins us every year for a retreat to give us an opportunity to refresh, recharge, and grow as a team and individuals. Last week we went on that retreat in Kampot, Cambodia. This is a beach town by the gulf, a few hours from Phnom Penh and next to Kep (please see earlier blog post on that trip ha).
The theme of this year’s retreat was “Strength.” BOY did I get a lesson in what this means, that continues to unfold. The retreat went like this:
- Day 1- Relax, get to know each other, play some games (I won the Rock, Paper, Scissor contest), discuss the various meanings of strength, discuss biblical strength, delicious food, and enjoy the views.
- Day 2- Team building “Adventure Day” in Kep, then a stunning sunset dinner by the gulf.
- Day 3- Recap the previous days, meditative stillness time, head home
The retreat overall was awesome. We had some great conversations. I can’t say enough about the natural beauty here in Cambodia. And every opportunity I have to get to know the people I work with, unfolds more reasons for me to love them more. But let’s discuss the “adventure day,” or as I like to call it “The Day of My Mountaintop Meltdown.” There were tasks and challenges we had to do, but they were completely ancillary to the task of climbing and descending from this beast. It started with a hike up. The assent was so steep we had to use our hands most of the way (not quite the semi-leisurely hike I was expecting). We were all dripping sweat and rapidly losing our breath. We finally made it to the top and thought we made it through the tough part…nope. The decent was worse, as it was even more steep and slippery. Legs already weak from the climb, this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I fell several times. By the second fall I BROKE. I had been trying to joke about how hard the climb was, and hide the fact that I was struggling so much, but I couldn’t do it anymore. A flurry of obscenities flew out of my mouth (I am from Philly after all). I lost all ability to hold in my feelings. I was hot, tired, in pain and then all the inside stuff came out. More than anything I was ashamed and angry. I was ashamed and angry I wasn’t able to breeze through this task, even though no one else was either. Ashamed I couldn’t keep my feelings bottled up and stay cheery. Angry I had to get through this task, which I just didn’t want to do anymore. Ashamed and angry I was so out of shape that I felt trapped in my incapable body. Thank God I was surrounded by some amazing co-workers. They let me go through my roller coaster of emotions and helped me laugh through it. They never made me feel bad for what flew out of my mouth. They never made me feel weak and when I just needed to be left alone they gave me that space. They were the embodiment of encouragement. Obviously, I survived but when I got off that mountain I felt broken. I felt like such a mess of a person and worthless. To top it off I was ashamed at how quickly any esteem I have can get crushed in a moment. But this opened the door to a lot of internal dialogue. Am I really this weak? Where did my faith and trust in God go when things got tough? What the heck is wrong with me? Where do I draw my strength from?
Talk to anyone and you’ll get a hundred different answers. Strength is being completely self reliant; it’s going to the gym 7 days a week; it’s never showing emotions; it’s not caring what others think…etc. I think these are all delusions. I realized my real strength comes from acknowledging my weakness (ALL of it) and being able to draw from God’s strength. During my stillness time on Day 3 I thought about what that really means and what that looks like in my life. To quote my prayer journal (10/18/13) “I am weak, but I am not worthless. But with God and the power of His Spirit I am strong. Now I need to learn what that means and how I use that when I’m really pushed and life fights back.” As we headed back to Phnom Penh I couldn’t help but think I had learned this years ago when I went through several years of difficulty. Then I realized I had a lot more to learn and I only scratched the surface. The first go around taught me how to keep joy regardless of the storm. I am grateful for that lesson first, because I can’t deny the peace that joy gives me on a daily basis. But now it’s time for me to learn how to be strong and unwavering against a storm. Peace is needed, but so is power and that is something I am lacking.
It only took about 24 hours for the lesson to begin. Saturday (10/19/13) was a great day. I got a little dolled up, feeling super spiritual and peaceful after my 3 days in prayer, relaxation, and revelation, and met some friends at a coffee shop. The weather was perfect. I had a wonderful lunch with a friend and went to a nighttime birthday pool party. I actually said it was the “best day yet in Phnom Penh.” Hours after that statement I was mugged. I was riding my bicycle to meet some friends for drinks at night. In the blink of an eye, two guys on a moto were next to me, my bag was gone and I was on the ground. There were people around, but no one did a thing but stare at me. I was warned Cambodians won’t get involved if a foreigner is hurt for fear of being blamed, but it was shocking to see for myself. Not even a hand to help me up. All I could do was get up and walk my bike to the bar I was supposed to meet my friends/roommate at. I had no keys, money or phone anymore. I got to the bar and just broke down. As I was telling my friends what happened a young Cambodian guy who was at the bar came over. He was so concerned about what happened. He was upset no one had helped me. He asked if there was anything he could do, if he should get the police, and even apologized for his country. I genuinely think he was used by God to keep me from hardening my heart towards Cambodians, the very people I’m here to serve. I quickly remembered this happens everywhere. I told him how much I appreciated his concern and care and that he had no need to apologize for his country. This was an act of people, the same kind of people that are everywhere.
I got home that night and after sitting in a fog for a bit I remembered, thanks to the lessons I had just learned at the retreat, to go to God. I started talking to Him. Where were you? Why did you let me get knocked down, just as I got this resurgence to grow closer to you? Why would you send me half way across the world, then make me scared to be here? Then it hit me. Silly girl! How will I learn to be strong and unshakable without being shaken? Doesn’t a heavyweight champ toughen up by taking a lot of hard hits? I didn’t receive unshakable joy through my brightest days. It settled into my spirit during my darkest. I went to bed comforted that God was absolutely still with me, and was about to help me learn to be stronger.
So there I was on Sunday thinking I’m a-ok. I’ve gone to God. He showed me He’s still here and I’m ok with having my stuff taken because it’s “just stuff.” But why was I still angry and ashamed again? Angry for being violated. Angry that all the pictures from my retreat were gone with my camera, that was also in my bag. Angry no one helped me. Why was I so ashamed of myself? Ashamed I let myself be a target. Ashamed I didn’t try to fight back. Ashamed for losing pictures I took for people on my camera. Old Shaz would keep that to herself and try to “work it out” on her own, but I shared it. I talked to a few people and their words were SO helpful. My amazing boss told me to make sure NOT to keep these feelings to myself and to acknowledge them. I realized that it’s this first lie that I tell myself that keeps me from finding real strength. This lie that “I’ll be ok on my own.” This lie that “my feelings are silly.” This lie that “to be strong I need to keep up a façade of strength all the time in front of everyone.” This lie that “if I dig way deep into myself I’ll find this magical strength I didn’t know I had.” I accepted how I was feeling, and again took them to God, but not in shame. I went to Him knowing these feelings are just part of being human. I’m weak and it’s part of being human, but He can give me strength beyond comprehension. Strength for everything, the little stuff and big stuff. From the drive to get to the gym and push myself, so I can do His work and experience the life He’s given me to the greatest extent; to looking darkness in the face and pushing back so hard it’s like it was never there.
Here I am, a week after my mountaintop meltdown and my mugging. I can honestly tell you I’m ok. I’ve still got a few bruises, but they heal. I have a little less stuff in my life, but they can be replaced eventually. I’m not as freewheeling around town as I was, but that’s probably a good thing. I actually feel stronger than I have before. I’m going to take each punch as a chance to learn a new way to root my strength in more than me and this crazy world around me. The world is not perfect because it is made up of imperfect people having their own free will, and I just won’t/can’t let that be the ruler of my life. Not just my life, but those I’m here to serve as well. How can I even begin to help those who’ve seen the darkest of darkness find strength and rebuild, if I can’t do it for myself?
My latest task at work has been researching some related dark issues plaguing Cambodia. On the heels of many late nights and some difficult research making me go through and dig deep into the issues of rape and labor trafficking, I turned in the initial draft of my findings bleary eyed and drained. I needed a break. I was also becoming a bit paranoid walking around, even indoors, and feeling like the danger was closing in. I really needed a break.
The timing was perfect, as there was a national holiday and my co-workers had planned a getaway to northern Cambodia. So, last weekend I went to Mondulkiri with my fellow interns and fellows. This was my first experience with an eco-friendly nature lodge and will not be my last. The lodge was rustic, but had all the amenities one would need. The food was phenomenal and it could not have been a more relaxing, welcoming, and fun spot to chill. We spent our days exploring and our nights at the lodge’s “tree house” eating, drinking, playing games, and we even taught some of the employees a few of our favorite line dances.
(the “tree house” of fun)
Day one involved a jungle trek, mixed with elephant rides through the jungle. The jungle trek was a definite experience, especially since it is rainy season in Cambodia. I can’t deny I felt like quite the jungle princess walking through fast moving rivers, hiking through mud (which sometimes went up to my knee), and navigating the slippery terrain due to all the rain. I got a nice reprieve when I was able to ride an elephant for part of the way into the jungle and part of the way out. At lunch we also got to go into the river and help wash them/play with them. I definitely had a few of those “is this really my life??” moments and it was pretty awesome!
(the view from the top of my elephant)
Day two involved going to a waterfall, a pagoda, and one of the famous Mondulkiri coffee plantations. The first two didn’t happen due to the muddy roads finally taking their toll on our van. Our guides took us for a swim at a nearby river while the brakes/wheels cooled off so we could try to make it back to the lodge. When we got to the river, there was a whole group of locals setting up a BBQ by the river. They invited us and it ended up being WAY better than any silly old pagoda or waterfall. They were incredibly friendly and welcoming, and willing to share the glorious spread they had. They cut the fish and chicken up right there and grilled it and made fresh hot chili salsa. Everything was so incredibly delicious and fresh I couldn’t get over it. I also ate my first fish eye. Yup, you read correctly. This is apparently one of the best parts, and it entailed sucking it right out of the grilled fish head. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great either. A little slimy, but not much flavor. I’m glad I tried it, but I don’t think I’ll be fighting over that part anytime soon again. After a nice swim in the river, food, and making new friends the van was cooled down enough to head to the plantation on the way back to the lodge. Words can’t describe the plantation, so I’ve attached a few pictures below. The Cambodian countryside really is a sight to behold the more of it I explore. I’ve realized Phnom Penh creates such a skewed view of Cambodia. After the tour and enjoying some of the quality coffee (I’m not a huge coffee person, but I have fallen in love with the hearty mocha flavored coffee of Mondulkiri coffee- YUM!) while taking in the sights, we headed back to the lodge for our last night.
(posing with the fish head I ate the eye from, at our impromptu riverside picnic)
The next morning was an early wake up, one last breakfast in the tree house, and then headed back to Phnom Penh quite pleased with another solid exploration of Cambodia. I can’t deny I was pretty proud of myself for a MUCH better second encounter with the jungle, now that I was much better prepared 🙂
Alright, so I’ve saved the highlight of my trip for last. I have to admit I was most looking forward to the elephant rides. I LOVE elephants! Since I saw my first one as a kid at the circus, there has been something about them I find so breathtaking. Riding on one, I finally realized what it was. They move in this slow, steady, and confident manner through mud, across rivers, up and down mountains. No matter how the terrain changed, the onward march didn’t. I could go into an entire blog post on what that taught me alone…but I think you see where I’m going with it. I got to ride Diplao and her confident steady walk created a hypnotic rhythm that was so meditative and peaceful I felt removed from the world, and at one with it all at the same time. This ride started a spiritual renewal that lasted the rest of the trip, through the ride back to Phnom Penh, and I’m still navigating through it a week later.
This expansive beautiful jungle, the breathtaking mountains, and views from on top of them made His presence palpable in every way. Seeing how perfectly God knits nature together, to perpetuate in its perfect way is always one of my favorite ways to reconnect with Him. In the middle of that God showed me how He is knitting together an army of justice and love from all walks of life in the same miraculous way. As I looked at the 8 incredibly different, but uniquely wonderful women, I was there with I could see a part of this army. I thought of the staff back at our office, the people from our partner organizations, my supporters back in the states, and countless others I’ve met that play a part in this growing global movement and I.WAS.AWESTRUCK!
As I sat in the van on the way back to Phnom Penh unwinding to a little Mumford & Sons, two songs just tied it all together:
“But you are not alone in this.
And you are not alone in this.
As brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand” – Timshel
“In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die.
And where you invest your love, you invest your life.
Awake my soul, awake my soul
Awake my soul
You were made to meet your maker” – Awake My Soul
What an awesome God we serve!