When we first moved to Stung Treng five years ago, we breathed a huge sigh of relief, thrilled with the prospect of discontinuing our habit of moving every 1-2 years, and hopefully staying in this house for many years (decades?) to come.
The house meets our needs in so many wonderful ways, and we have often thanked God for it. Even its countless quirks—from the teeming bat colonies upstairs, to the leaky roof, to the 5’11” doorways that bring me to tears every time I bang my head on them (why can’t I learn!?)—have all attained a place in our affections as we think through our years here.
But the maxim is universal, transcending all cultures: Location3. And this is what has increasingly become a heavy burden for us. For our first seven years in Cambodia, we eschewed the thought of building our own house, knowing all the mental energy (frustration) inevitably involved in building in a third world country. About a year and a half ago, however, we began considering the possibility that investing that energy and time into building might actually repay itself with greater long-term sustainability. Since then, this inclination to buy/build has risen and fallen several times, for various reasons. But after much prayer and counsel, we are confident that this is the best route for both our family and ministry. Our current location is so crowded with people, animals, and places of business, we feel we have lost nearly all margin. As just one example: in the past eight months, the lots on two different sides of our house (just a few feet from our house) have become the new homes of metal cutting shops and a scrap metal disposal lot (junk yard). From about 6am to 6pm, 7 days/week, the intermittent scream of power hacksaws serenades us through our always-open kitchen, bedroom and schoolroom windows. Our family generates its own share of noise and pollution, but we feel like we’re losing the battle.
Three months ago we began earnestly inquiring about land prices, praying for all the things anyone would want: the right price, location, and neighbors. Based on the ubiquitous “for sale” signs and on what we know about the debt situation among many Cambodians, we assumed that good land was ours for the choosing. But after 75 phone calls and visits to various properties, it became increasingly clear that any one of these qualities was not guaranteed, and that finding all three together was practically impossible. It appears that foreign investors (from Cambodian’s increasingly intimate Asian ally) are quickly gulping up land all over the country, driving prices to exorbitant heights. At several points, we have despaired of finding anything affordable. And then there’s the location—our current house is a convenient 2-minute walk from the market, which comes in handy when feeding a family of ten. It’s also well situated for our current ministry opportunities. But almost every piece of land that was even remotely affordable would have demanded some significant lifestyle changes and additional challenges to accessing the people we minister to. Finally, the neighbors. For five years, we’ve lived at the center of a mini-village and have had only positive relationships with our many neighbors; our kids spend hours a day playing with their friends, which is how several of them have learned the language). Relationships like these were also looking to become yet another casualty of moving. Most of the places that promised to provide a measure of quiet, did so by cutting us off from all human life; and while my inner Wendell Berry finds that appealing, my inner Holy Spirit keeps calling me to love and serve people.
Two weeks ago, we were able to purchase a beautiful piece of land—reverently dubbed Haaretz—that truly is the best of all possible worlds. The Lord has answered every request we have been praying, and we are reeling with gratitude. The price tag on this 2.5 acres of old cashew grove was one of the very few that were even close to feasible and is by far the lowest of all 75 pieces we looked at. Several of those pieces were 10x as much, for less land. And if we weren’t already asking “Why us?!”— the week after we purchased the land, we learned that the adjacent lot (same size, same seller) had more than doubled in price. The location is perfect—well situated for all our current ministries and a 10 minute moto drive from the market and town. And as for neighbors—it’s amazing that this piece that feels and sounds so secluded is nonetheless alive with friendly neighbors. So far we’ve met 12 neighbor kids who flock to our land every time our kids show up with us. This land has been all gain, no sacrifice. God has been so kind.
So now we’re embarking on something we said we’d never do. We’re clearing land, drilling a well, drawing house plans, digging a cesspool, getting electricity hooked up, and a hundred other tasks we’ve never done before. The learning curve is steep but we’re enjoying it. We’re thankful for a couple of experienced advisors who have already been extremely helpful.
So first, please join us in thanking God for this great kindness to us. To fuel your praise, scroll down for some pics. Second, we would greatly appreciate your prayers as we embark on this project. Of necessity, we’re acting as our own contractors, so we need wisdom as we search for skilled laborers and oversee the work. We also need strength as our normal obligations in and out of the home continue apace (more on those in a forthcoming update). We are praying that we can complete a house by late July, 2021, when our rental contract ends for our current house. Finally, please pray that this new home will be a place of rest that better enables us to accomplish the work we came here to do.
Dear Gospel partners,
Thank you for your continued work with us. Here is how your prayers and gifts are at work in NE Cambodia, and how we need you to further direct your prayers …
Old Testament overview class
Starting Saturday morning, I will begin teaching an Old Testament overview class (meeting twice monthly for the next nine months) to about 15 leaders and potential leaders from several churches throughout the province. Please pray for me as I teach and for my students, that they would grow in their understanding and ability to handle God’s word.
Our various other ministries continue apace …
Lao village of Na Ong
This past Sunday in Na Ong, I taught on the first sin. “And how do you think the woman responded to the serpent’s lie?” I asked the 9 adults who had gathered under Sali’s house to listen to the lesson. “We don’t know,” several responded honestly. “She said NO!” several others said hopefully. But none of them truly knew the correct answer. And Na Ong is not unique—it is one of many villages all around us full of people who have truly never heard the most foundational stories of Scripture, including the death and resurrection of Christ (and we’ll get there as quickly as my faltering Lao will let us!). Please continue to pray for us and our Lao friends.
Another highlight from Sunday was our learning and then teaching them a Lao hymn with a traditional Lao tune—as far as I know, the first ever song of praise to the Creator in this village! Bonnie Ruth and I were fully prepared for our duet to meet with a combination of bewildered stares and giggles, if not full-blown hysterics. But wow, Na Ong got talent! Almost immediately, a couple literate villagers shared my song sheet and tried to sing along; others began rhythmic clapping, while others added whooping and hollering (sorry, no video recording equipment was permitted in the sanctuary). In short, we were a hit! An unexpected and unsought response, certainly. But a happy motivation to pray—O Lord, may the village of Na Ong one day sing your praises from hearts full of faith and understanding!
The church in Pum Tmai
The church in Pum Tmai continues to maintain our membership of five sweet Christian ladies along with our family. Our Sunday worship times include a study of the book of Acts. Would you pray first for our faith in the Spirit’s power to turn family and neighbors from darkness to light? Conversion is a miracle that we have not seen often, and I sense a weariness in our prayers. Please pray also for one of our dear ladies who has become the target of a group of false teachers who claim that their leader is “the Appointed Son of God” and “Owner of the Universe,” through whom alone is salvation. Please pray both for this lady’s own soul and that she would have the courage to refuse these teachers entrance into her home (Cambodian hospitality along with family connections to the false teachers are making it extremely difficult for her).
Please pray for Can Own, my language helper. In our most recent conversation about the gospel, Can Own told me clearly that his struggle is not Christ vs. Buddha. It is rather Christ vs. his good job that requires him to participate in various religious ceremonies at the village temple. Please pray that God would give him eyes to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, making him eager to sell everything to obtain this treasure.
New school year
The new school year is two weeks old and off to a solid start. We’re very thankful both to God and you for your prayers for us as a family. Indeed, we rely heavily on your labor for us in this way. We didn’t think it was possible, but in recent months, our neighborhood has become even noisier than before! As you pray for us, please ask for stamina, focused minds, and joy.
Since you last hear from us …
Covid-19 and Cambodia
For the most part, and in great contrast to many of you, our lives have continued unaltered since the onset of the pandemic. According to some studies we’ve seen, Covid-19 and I are alike in that we cannot handle the heat and humidity. So while I am struggling as always through another hot season, the nation as a whole is healthy, suffering only 124 cases, 122 full recoveries, and no deaths. The primary changes we’ve experienced are …
- No religious gatherings of more than 10 people are permitted. So I leave most of the family at home for our Sunday gatherings in Pum Tmai village.
- Our work in the Lao village of Na Ong has been almost completely set on hold, though we have been allowed to visit twice recently. This is a matter of concern, since several villagers professed Christ just before our return to Cambodia in February. These are the first and only believers in this and the surrounding villages, and they continue with no spiritual care. Please pray that God would keep them during our absence.
- The hot season session of the Ratanakiri Pastors Institute has been cancelled.
So what have we been up to?
- Bonnie Ruth, Brooke, and the kids have continued with their regular schedule of school. Please pray for strength for them all, especially as hot season continues (typically until the rains begin in June).
- Some of us have continued to meet with the four ladies who make up the church in Pum Tmai village. Many of you will remember the story of this seedling church and have prayed faithfully for Yeng, Eng, and Chantii. Thank you. Their faith is strong! Chantii in particular, the newest believer among us, is a great blessing to me as she seems almost surprised that “no one wants to listen” when she tells them of the Creator. Yeng and Eng have been believers long enough now (the only ones in their village for 9 years) to feel a certain cynicism about their neighbors—“they’re never going to believe,” an attitude which is all too tempting for me to succumb to as well. So we have been giving ourselves more fully to praying for the conversion of specific individuals. Please pray with us, that God would add to our numbers. Actually, since our return to Cambodia in February, God has added one new lady, 93-year old Own, who has been the only believer in an adjacent village for many years now (our church is comprised of 4 ladies from 3 separate villages). Though 93 years old and mother of eleven, Own regularly reminds me that she still gardens, carries her own water, and exercises! She also faithfully brings a list of the names of her unbelieving children and grandchildren for us to pray for. On Sundays, we have been reading through the book of Acts together, seeing how the testimony of Christ’s resurrection has indeed reached to this uttermost part of the earth. Please pray for these ladies, specifically that they would be bold, faithful, and gracious in speaking about Christ to their family and neighbors.
- I have continued to study Lao, mostly on my own. Please pray for a breakthrough in my understanding. This continues to be a source of potential discouragement for me.
- For the past three months, I have pursued our many neighbors much more persistently than in the past and have had numerous opportunities to share the gospel in part or whole with several of them. Please pray that I will be diligent with this. I need love and boldness. Pray mostly for my neighbors, young and old, that they would be saved.
- Lastly, please continue praying for clear signs of the Spirit’s fruit in our lives, specifically love and joy.
To inform, amuse, and burden you to pray …
- When the rain on your tin roof is so loud you can’t hear preach, sing, or talk, you pull out your Rubik’s Cube.
- Cambodians often place “scarecrows” in front of their houses to ward off the latest sickness that may be passing through, and Covid-19 has been no exception. Here is a sampling of the handiwork near our home.
- Here are three videos compiled from the week-long funeral of our elderly neighbor last month: Procession 1, Procession 2, Cremation.
Thank you for praying for us and the peoples of Cambodia. We depend heavily on this work that you are doing. May God strengthen you to persevere with us.
As we’ve visited many of your churches these past seven months, we’ve told you three stories from our past term in Stung Treng, Cambodia. All of those stories are as yet unfinished, but one of them in particular, “The Lao of Stung Treng,” is still embryonic.
We told you about our warm reception in the Lao village of Na Ong, particularly from the village head, Mr. Saa-lii, and his wife, and asked you to pray with us as we continue scattering seed in this field.
I’m thrilled to tell you that I just received a message from a friend in Stung Treng saying that Mr. Saa-lii and a few others have confessed Christ.
He sleeps and rises night and day,
and the seed sprouts and grows;
he knows not how
- Mark 4:26-27
Praise God for this miraculous growth! And pray earnestly now, as the inevitable heat of persecution seeks to wither these young shoots and the ever-present cares of the world seek to choke them out. May these indeed be those who bear fruit to eternal life!
As our eight months in the U.S. draws to a close, here are some things to thank God and you for:
Successful visits with nearly all of our gospel partners (and disappointment for those of you we missed). Success for us consists, first, in the many reassurances that you have indeed been praying for us and that you will continue to. Few things encourage us more than hearing that you are praying specifically for us and the people we are serving in the gospel. Second, based on your responses, we’re hopeful that we were able to communicate a bit of what life in that other universe called Stung Treng, Cambodia is like, both some of its joys and challenges. (If you missed it, you can hear a report on our work that I gave at our home church in Nashville, and here are the slides that go with it.) Third, the many cups of coffee, plates of food, and hours of conversation with you have been a great encouragement to our hearts. You have shared so freely with us. Again, thank God and thank you.
A successful semester for our kids. Praise the Lord for his help for our six school-age kids. Their time at Jonathan Edwards Classical Academy was everything we prayed that it would be, and again, we have both God and many of you to thank for this opportunity and its successful completion. Now we pray for a happy transition back to a one-room schoolhouse, and strength for the teachers who manage it!
Some down time. The regularity of the school semester and the opportunity to worship with our sending church for consecutive weeks provided a much-needed reprieve. We feel like we have finally caught our breath and regrouped mentally and physically and are eager to return to Cambodia (Feb. 6).
Family. It’s never enough, be we have had some great time with family here at the end of our U.S. time.
Snow! One of our kids’ biggest prayers for this trip was to see some real snow. Despite the 70 degree, mid-January weekend in Boston(!), our Christmas visit with family in Pennsylvania gave us 3 inches, enough to build a snow dwarf and enjoy a half-day of sledding!
We return to Cambodia three weeks from today (Feb. 6). Here are three ways you can pray:
Miraculous living. As I’ve read Paul’s letters in recent months, I’ve been struck again by just how supernaturally Paul lived. I’m not thinking primarily of the miraculous visions or healings, though these are indeed remarkable and desirable. What stands out is the all-pervasive influence of the Spirit that led Paul to rejoice in the midst of suffering and persecution, to love those who rejected and mistreated Paul. The disparity between Paul’s M.O. and my own has been striking and disheartening. More than ever, I long to see a miracle in my life, specifically, the kind of transformation of character that Paul testifies to and expects all believers to experience. Put another way, we are praying and laboring to see the Spirit produce his fruit of love and joy in us.
Logistics, logistics, logistics. For the past few months, Bonnie Ruth has been buying up four years worth of textbooks and supplies for school and life. Now it’s time to pack it all up, close up the house, sell the van, and catch our flight (Feb. 6). [If you are interested in a Chevy Express 3500 15 pax van, mention this update at checkout and receive a free prayer for godspeed. Seriously, please let us know if you’re interested or know someone who is.]
Re-acclimation. We are asking the Lord for a quick adjustment to Cambodian life, languages, and work. Especially pray that we can quickly renew relationships with those to whom we minister.
We’ve been in the U.S. for 3 months now, traveling hither and yon’, reporting to you our partners on the progress of the mission in NE Cambodia. Thank you for the love and kindness you have lavished on us. We truly could not have handpicked a better group of fellow workers in our mission. The lines have fallen to us in pleasant places.
We’re now set up in Nashville where our kids have the opportunity to attend school while we continue meeting with partner churches. As much as ever, we are feeling our need for rest, physically and spiritually. Please pray with us that God would restore us and prepare us in every way for our return to Cambodia.
Back in Cambodia, a friend has been able to visit occasionally with the 3 Christian ladies in Pum Tmai village. Please pray for Yeng, Eng, and Chan-tii, that God would preserve and encourage them during our absence.
Pray also for the conversion of Can Own and his wife. Can Own is my language helper who has heard and understands the gospel. Pray that he would see the beauty of Christ and desire his approval above that of his family and neighbors.
Thank you for your work of faith and labor of love in Christ.
This week (May 13-17), my teammates and I will be teaching basic hermeneutics to our students in the Ratanakiri Pastors School. One of the major obstacles facing the church in Cambodia (as well as society at large) is the low level of education. Here’s how my teammate described our student body:
… most of our students are self-educated. Because of the remoteness of this province, and the attitude of the majority population toward the minority—not to mention the upheaval of the Khmer Rouge period when nearly all the teachers were killed—most of our students have received, at most, a third grade education. (A handful have graduated from high school and two from college.)
So imagine teaching a course in interpretation of Ancient Near Eastern literature (in this case, the Bible) to third graders! Praise God, however, that the Author of this ancient Text actually lives inside each of our students (as has been evident in past courses in the pastors school), and we have invited Him to take the lead in the teaching. For these reasons, we are full of hope that this will be yet another success. Please pray with us to that end.
Following pastors school, we will continue our mad rush to close up shop here in Cambodia and begin our home assignment in June. I will update you soon after that.
Hello brothers and sisters. The following is a brief update on one facet of the work here in Stung Treng.
I’ve often asked you to pray for Yeng and Eng, a mother and daughter who have miraculously continued faithful to Christ for 8 years as the only Christians in their village (hopefully I can elaborate later on the truly miraculous nature of this fact). For the past year, we have been worshiping each week with Yeng and Eng in their home (in Pum Tmai village, about 15 minutes from us).
In February, Chan-tii heard the gospel for the first time at a medical clinic and expressed interest. Since then, she hasn’t missed a Sunday as we’ve carefully explained the gospel to her. Recently, Chan-tii told Yeng that she believes “with all her heart, with all her liver.” Praise God. On Easter Sunday, I rejoiced to lead the first-ever Easter worship in Pum Tmai village, baptize Chan-tii, and join in her first Lord’s Supper. Chan-tii lives in the neighboring village and is now the only Christian there.
Another completely unrelated (until recently) facet of our work has been our relationship with Sopiap (pictured below; you’ve prayed for her too). Sopiap lives in town near us, and through a now-humorous mix-up (none too few in our life here!), she ended up joining us for worship out in the village two weeks ago. For various reasons, having Sopiap join us for worship was not a high priority for me right now, but it appears the Lord’s priorities may be somewhat different from mine. Sopiap and her grandson attended for the second time on Easter as we baptized Chan-tii and celebrated the resurrection of Christ.
In response …
Praise God both for his saving work in Chan-tii and for this boon to my spirit. We’re in the midst of the hottest hot season we’ve experienced, and we have been very weary this past month, both in body and mind. Easter Sunday was an unexpected refreshment to my soul—how appropriate!
Please pray for these dear ladies, particularly as we return to the U.S. for 8 months, beginning in June. Ultimately, pray for laborers (both foreign and Cambodian) who can fill these and many other similar needs; until then, pray for the continued miracle of preservation in the absence of spiritual oversight and care.
Pray for Sopiap, who continues to be open to the gospel but has not yet publicly confessed Christ.
In his book, Prayer, Tim Keller outlines twelve touchstones of prayer, the first of which is work: prayer is a duty and a discipline. This reality has never pressed more heavily upon me than in recent months; but so has also the corresponding fact that this is not a fruitless labor, but rather one that will yield a harvest to eternal life. Please read below some of the major requests we are laboring with before God; please join us in this labor, and let us wait for much fruit.
In late November, we held the fall session of the Ratanakiri Pastors Institute where we worked through message of Samuel and Kings together with our students. Again, thank you for praying, and please praise God for answering our prayers. Our men are indeed growing in their love for the Bible—all of it—and in their ability to read it humbly, prayerfully, and intelligently. We are now preparing and praying for the upcoming May session when we will cover basic hermeneutics and Bible study. Please pray for my teammate J.D. as he finishes up the material for this course.
Can Own and his family
About sixty percent of my time now is occupied with language study. My language helper, Can On, continues to be a blessing. Please pray for his conversion. For three weeks in a row now, Can On has welcomed me into his home to share the gospel with him and his wife. Each time, they have listened with increasing attention as I explain what the Bible is, who the God of the Bible is, and the origin of all things. This week, we’ll learn why the world is now the way it is. Please pray that that the evil one will not steal these newly-planted seeds.
Mr. Saa-lii and Naa-Ong village
Please pray for Saa-lii, the village head of Naa-Ong, about an hour north of us (just south of the Laos border). Naa-Ong is a Lao-speaking village (though many also speak Khmer). In recent months Joyce (a fellow missionary) and I have made several trips to share the gospel with Saa-lii and some of his family and neighbors. Each time, they have been unusually attentive and asked good questions. They have welcomed us to continue our visits. Please pray for Saa-lii and his village. Joyce and I plan to continue teaching there at least monthly.
Related, pray for Lao-speaking laborers. God continues to encourage and motivate us to pray for the unreached Lao as he brings more and more people across our path who have been praying for the Lao population for many years. But nearly every time of prayer and conversation ends in the same place: we need Lao-speaking evangelists. Pray for me, as I seek to become one; pray for other Lao speakers, that the Lord would direct their steps to Stung Treng province.
The (proto-)church in New Village
Perhaps the greatest joy of the past 8 months of ministry here has been our Sunday morning worship with Yeng and Eng, the only two Christians in their village (Pum Tmey, trans. “New Village”). I’ve asked you to pray for Yeng and Eng before as I taught the Bible to them each Tuesday afternoon for the past year. About 8 months ago, our family began joining them every Sunday for worship. Praise God for the miracle of preservation in the lives of these two ladies who have remained faithful for 8 years with only minimal spiritual care. Pray for our weekly worship, that God would indeed meet with us and that he would soon increase our numbers. Pray that God would raise up a shepherd who can care for these sisters later this year when we return to the US for home assignment.
A brief update: three reasons for much praise and prayer …
Next week (Nov. 19-23) about 70 Cambodian church leaders from 5 ethnic groups will meet for the fall session of the Ratanakiri Pastors School. We’ll continue working through our new Biblical Theology curriculum, focusing this time on the books of Samuel and Kings. Please pray, both for teachers and students. All of us need stamina during these long, warm days, but especially our teachers. For our students, pray that each one will read the Bible with increasing regularity, delight, skill, faith and obedience; then that they would lead their churches to do the same.
Please thank God with me for providing yet another needle in the haystack. Can On (pronounced like it’s written) is my new Lao language helper and meets every qualification I’ve been asking for. Thank you, brothers and sisters, for praying him my way. Now, please pray (1) for profitable language sessions together and (2) for On’s conversion.
In October, our dearest friends, the Boomershines (some of them, at least) spent 10 days with us here in Stung Treng, feeding both our souls and bodies. Such joy.