ordinary… mostly

"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger



Cambodia, part 18b – Jackfruit chips, clothing factories, and Advent

(Or “Jesus came: Did we get what we expected?”)

In early November last year, Christine Sine invited bloggers to join a “synchroblog” for Advent. She proposed two questions for consideration:

  1. On November 23rd: Jesus is coming: What do we expect?
  2. On December 28th: Jesus came: Did we get what we expected?

I’d like to take on the second question now, even though I’m a month and a half too late. I apologize for the messiness of my thoughts…

A few weeks ago, I shared how the first question was in my mind in the days leading up to my family’s travel to Cambodia. I was disillusioned with American consumerism, with Black Friday, and with stores opening at 10 pm Thanksgiving Evening so that the holiday shopping season could get off to a roaring start. And so, even though Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday were atypical for me (since we were in Cambodia), they were very welcome. Those were days of genuine thanksgiving.

Jackfruit chipsIn my last blog post, I mentioned how my family’s time in Cambodia was nearing an end. As we returned from Kampong Som, we stopped at a rest area where I purchased some jackfruit chips. From there, we continued on and as we approached Phnom Penh, we began to pass trucks full of women. These were pickup-sized vehicles that may have had thirty people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the back. Essentially, the trucks were serving as buses. The Guests Complacent told us that the women were coming from their jobs in clothing factories that were nearby – factories contracted by companies like Wal-Mart.

They make about two dollars a day…

This little fact from Mrs. Guest Complacent sent my mind in about a million directions at once. I thought about the connection between Wal-Mart and my disgust with American consumerism. Then I remembered the bag of jackfruit chips in my lap – the bag that I had purchased for $2.50 – and thought, “guilty as charged.” Then I thought about my yearly salary, and how I am paid about as much in two days as they’d receive all year. She continued…

But before you go judging Wal-Mart, consider this: two dollars isn’t a bad wage. It isn’t a good wage, either, but it’s not bad for someone who doesn’t have education. So before you begin your Wal-Mart boycott, think about the jobs you affect here.

I’m not sure if that’s exactly what she said, but that was the gist of it. I don’t even know if she was aware of my feelings about Black Friday sales (and the stores offering them), but she managed to ensure that I couldn’t settle for easy answers.

Just this evening, I took a survey of the clothes in my closet to see where they were made.* This map shows the results…

* This idea isn’t original with me. I saw someone else do this, but I can’t remember who. You’ll have to forgive me for not giving proper credit.

Clothes made in ???

(Click for a larger image.)

Each pin is a different country – 29 countries in all, or 31 depending on how you count Hong Kong and Macau. And it wasn’t an exhaustive survey. There were more clothes in the house.

What happens when I purchase my clothes? Do I see only the product? Or do I see beyond to the person who made it? Am I able to receive my clothes with thanksgiving for the hands that made them?

As I wrestle with this discomfort about wealth and poverty, as I struggle to discern God’s voice, and as I try to understand how to use this knowledge that some people are paid $2 per day, I think it’s helpful to begin by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Clearly, I have neighbors living where each of those pins is located.

Two dollars isn’t a bad daily wage. It isn’t a good wage, either, but it’s not bad for someone who doesn’t have education…

“For someone who doesn’t have education…” That stuck with me, whether it was intended to or not. The Guests Complacent work with Mennonite Central Committee in southeast Asia. In Cambodia, MCC has a program that supports Angkearhdei Primary School – a school in the same province as my brother-in-law’s host family. My family decided that we wanted to help support the school, as one way of expressing concern for people making $2 a day.

Charitable giving can be a tricky thing. I think that if we’ve been blessed by God, it is so that we can bless others. But the temptation is to give some money somewhere, and then say that we’ve fulfilled some obligation. So what’s the difference here? How can we resist the urge to give and forget? Hopefully, we ask, “Who is my neighbor?” And when we answer that, we remember the people we saw in Cambodia; the homes we ate in; the hands the welcomed us in.

This is a lesson that we try to pass on to our children. This past summer, Oldest Daughter earned a little money by running a lemonade stand. After being in Cambodia, she decided that she wanted to share it with the same school.

So – getting around to the original question…

Jesus came: did we get what we expected?

Well, probably not. Not if I expected a rubber stamp on my righteous indignation with consumerism in the United States. I should know better by now…

I should know that I’m not the 99% (as it’s currently popular to claim). I’m the 1%.

I should know that it’s easier for a camel to go through the of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom.

And in spite of that, this is the image that keeps coming to mind…


This was our meal the day after Thanksgiving. How is it that we received such generous hospitality?

When Jesus comes, there is always grace.

That is my only explanation.

Am I able to receive grace when it is offered?

That is my hope.

Up next: The final day in Phnom Penh


Countdown to Cambodia… 13 days

Continuing the countdown to Cambodia after a few days off…

Ordinary Mother-in-law has made it* across the North Pole** and is now travelling around Southeast Asia with her very energetic grandson. And we begin the journey in under thirteen days.

* Actually, she made it a few days ago. I just haven’t had time to do an update since she arrived.

** Yes – that is how we get there. We fly through the Arctic Circle, over Siberia, and over China. But not over North Korea. Apparently, there are still some unresolved diplomatic issues.

So – what is the Ordinary Family doing these days to prepare? I’m glad you asked. Mostly, we’re finishing off our vaccinations with typhoid shots. And we’ve been receiving travel advice. So my girls will tell you that they shouldn’t pet the animals while we’re travelling. And we’ll only be eating fruits that have to be peeled. (Among other directives.)

At other times of the day, when we aren’t being poked with needles or getting prescriptions for antibiotics and antimalarials filled, we’re creating lists – mostly in our heads at this point. Lists help us to prepare for days that will be more summer-like than any summer that we experience in Illinois. Sunblock is our friend. So is insect repellant. Pack efficiently. Pack light. And pack something to do on twelve-hour flights around the Pacific Rim.

Finally, MCC Cambodia has published two blog articles in the last few days: an update on the flooding and its ongoing effects and a story about an MCC-sponsored program to provide sewing and tailoring training.

Countdown to Cambodia… 19 days

I have no idea whether I’ll have another 18 days of updates as we prepare for our trip, but this one seemed timely…

For the past month, Cambodia has been dealing with significant flooding, although the levels are now dropping. However, things are getting pretty bad in Thailand. Unfortunately, these stories don’t get much play in the North American press.

Here’s a first-hand account from two MCCers…

In other news, Extraordinary Mother-in-law should be in the air on her way across the Pacific right now, even as I type. She’s going early in order to spend extra time with her youngest grandchild (my nephew). Perhaps I’ll refer to him as ‘The Nephew Complacent‘.

Countdown to Cambodia… 20 days

As the Rainbow House of Learning prepares for its global field trip, I’m posting updates, links of interest, and so on. I know that you’re curious about my big news of the day…

I placed a hold on our mail for the days that we’re gone.

Exciting, huh?


During our trip, we’ll have the chance to see a bit of the work that Mennonite Central Committee is doing with the people of Cambodia. For those of you who are interested, check out MCC Cambodia on WordPress or Facebook.

Matters of conscience: The Civilian Public Service story

Mennonites have always resisted serving within the military. Willingness to wield the “sword” is inconsistent with a life of discipleship to the Prince of Peace. During World War II, Mennonites and other conscientious objectors in the United States were able to serve their country in a civilian role, rather than in a military one:

Civilian Public Service (CPS) was a program developed at the onset of WWII which provided those whose conscience forbade them to kill, the opportunity to do work of national importance under civilian direction rather than go to war. Nearly 12,000 men made this choice, and many women voluntarily joined the cause. They fought forest fires, worked in mental institutions, planted trees, did dairy testing and served as subjects for medical experiments in more than 150 camps scattered throughout the United States.

Mennonite Central Committee has just launched a website, The Civilian Public Service Story, to pass along the stories of these men and women. Among the names in the database are those of two brothers from southwestern Pennsylvania – one a “laborer” and the other a “dairy farm hand”. The laborer was my grandfather. According to the site, he served first in Virginia, doing land conservation work. I was unaware of this part of his life.

Later in the war, he was transferred to do work in a mental hospital in Rhode Island. My grandmother also worked at the hospital. My mother was born in Providence shortly after the war came to an end. The information on this CPS unit even includes a mention of the vocal quartet in which my grandfather sang.

These people are part of my cloud of witnesses…

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12.1,2

A Pretty Good Weekend, Day 1

Well – it’s the beginning of another work week, but I wanted jot down some thoughts on this past weekend, in case I ever want to remember it.

So am I a real Mennonite now?

For the sake of the story, I’m actually going to begin right in the middle of the weekend: the worship service yesterday morning at church. We began a series of eight Sundays looking at Stuart Murray’s new book, “The Naked Anabaptist“. It tries to address the question of what Anabaptism would look like if we stripped away all of the cultural stuff that comes with it in North America today.* And yesterday, our pastor gave four examples of the the cultural stuff: food, four-part singing, playing the Mennonite game, and quilting.**

* I may eventually get around to blogging about the book. In the meantime, I’ll just say that I like it. It’s challenging and very readable. Follow the link in order to learn more.

** I think I got those right, but I didn’t jot them down during the sermon.

So why is it that I’d begin telling about my weekend by starting in the middle? Because on Saturday, I partook in all four of those examples at the Michiana Relief Sale in Goshen, Indiana. I don’t know if anyone else would find that amusing, but to me it felt a bit like the beginning of Lent. Saturday was the equivalent of Mardi Gras: Menno cultural extravagence. And Sunday was like Ash Wednesday: getting back to the ‘bare essentials’.

Much to many people’s astonishment, this Relief Sale was my first. Now – to those of you who aren’t culturally Mennonite, that won’t be anything earthshaking. But for someone who is as culturally Mennonite as I am, it’s a bit surprising that I’ve made it this far through my life without getting to one. For example, my sister estimated that she has been to about fifteen of these. And my wife has been to Relief Sales in four different locations. Yes – they happen all over the place.

Since this was my first sale, I decided to record some sights:

We missed the Friday evening events while we were travelling from Illinois to Indiana, but we got up in time to eat breakfast at the sale on Saturday. When we got to the fairgrounds we parked in the orange lot… which is distinguished by a picture of a watermelon! Go figure.

Since this was my first sale, I don’t claim to speak with any authority, but it would seem that getting there for breakfast on Saturday is a ‘must’. Here was the line for the ‘all-you-can-eat’ pancakes.

And here is my breakfast.

(It’s not all-you-can-eat sausage, but between you and me – that’s not a huge loss.)

It was a cold day, so I washed that down with a mocha, courtesy of the Electric Brew.

And from there on, I spent most of the day at the quilt auction.

As far as I know, the highest price paid for a quilt on Saturday was $5000. On Facebook, one of my cousins expressed some incredulity that I’d enjoy watching people buy quilts. But I actually had a great time, in part because I just like auctions. It’s always fun to try to understand the incoherent jabbering of the auctioneer and to watch the crowd’s enthusiasm when the bidding gets competitive.

Let’s see… highlights other than the quilt auction…

  • I saw friends from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. I stopped counting at fifteen while I was still in the breakfast line.
  • My daughters took train and elephant rides.
  • I had a pecan pie for lunch.

And that’s about it. According to my wife, that’s all it ever is: food and auctions.

That was Day 1 of a Pretty Good Weekend. Day 2 is here…

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