Perspective: The road to redemption (via Cambodia)

Perspective: The road to redemption
By Erica Bartle
Photography: Annika Salisbury
I am extremely self-conscious. I am not a missionary, nor an NGO worker nor a tourist – what am I? Why am I here? I am a journalist-come-blogger – though into titles we read too much or too little – and I am on a bike in Kampong Cham, Cambodia, en route from a girls' school with a filmmaker friend who wants to take my picture.

I feel like a bit of a twit, because being seen here is not my intention; I want to fade into oblivion and let the journey, the work, the country, the people be legitimate in their own right. The cliche churns over in my head: this is not my Elizabeth Gilbertian escape. Her work was of its time and importance and place – a searching for self beyond divorce and a world that demanded too much and disappointed too often and failed to dig deep enough to quench the thirst.

I am content with my lot. Relishing the nothingness of being anything apart from who I am when in the company of God and those who matter most, though I think of you, reader, also as I go. But I am more keenly aware, now more than ever, that to live a life of faith and to see that faith fail to transpire in any tangible way would be a terrible waste.

"It's action stations!", as one dear friend says. But I am finding my place, tentatively. I believe that in order to do good work we must first have a grasp of goodness itself.

Action without first introspection, contemplation, and an illuminated sense that one is on the right path – guided, as is my case, by the very word of God – will surely go awry. If nothing else, Cambodia has shown me how one man's aspirations can go terribly wrong and that still – still! – there are people in the world who wish to assert themselves over the other and steal and thieve and take away life itself. Devastation.

This is what can happen when the human soul is led astray; when it seeks to satisfy its own wants, needs and desires over another. I shiver on the Killing Fields as I take in the vision of the tree where children – children! – were picked up by their legs and smashed to death. Coloured bracelets have been placed there by kindly people who aren't afraid to feel.

To breathe life and not death onto the world is what I want. Jesus himself did not come to judge but to save the world from its self-inflicted condemnation and futile departure from the will of God. Pick up your cross and follow me, he says. And, of course, we must do so joyfully, willingly, diligently. For forgiveness, grace, comfort and knowledge gifted unto us should be returned in kind, should it not?

Because to feel that love – His love? It is sublime.

Jesus said that if we had faith small as a mustard seed we could move mountains. There is a collective awakening happening right across the earth, the sense of a greater purpose; a grand narrative in which good versus evil is not just the stuff of fairy tales, the fluff of picture books, and in which some will succumb to the darkness, but where the war might be won. Though there are hints that rapid-fire social justice campaigns and uprisings are the order of the day, one by one we are given the chance of new life, of seeing the world in a different way, of seeking a better path.

It is the dawn of a new day. Do you see it that way?

"You women who live an easy life, free from worries, listen to what I am saying," said God to Isaiah, putting fear and trembling into each listener. "You have been living an easy life, free from worries; but now, tremble with fear! Strip off your clothes and tie rags around your waste. Beat your breasts in grief because the fertile fields and the vineyards have been destroyed and thorn bushes and briars are growing on my people's land...".

I have felt the thorn bushes and briars in the infertility of my own land, the devastation of a life in ruins as I opened the door for sin to come in and threw it a party. But I also know – I see, I feel – that God is a God of redemption, restoration and grace who emerges in the most hopeless of places; that His intention is to bring each of us to a place of utter contrition, so we can perform His work, focus on His love, His doings, His creations, and not our own.

I saw butterflies hover over the Killing Fields and I was mesmerised. 

Perhaps we think ourselves too wonderful, and wonder not enough about Him, God? Our minds are finite; His is not. But what He has in store for each of us is unfathomable. "You are not your own, you were bought with a price," wrote Paul to the Corinthians. And for that price, what to give in return but the whole of yourself? The humble admission, the deep contrition, that we human beings are but a breath away from returning into the earth but also – now the good stuff comes – capable of being, seeing, doing so much because of the Christ who bore our sin, our shame, onto His name.

It is a scary thing, this letting go of the human will and succumbing to a greater will, but to do so is liberating. The road to redemption is strewn with challenges. C.S. Lewis wrote,

"Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other." 

The background story
Ten years ago, as a keen and eager university student doing life by her own persuasions, I took on a subject called 'Media and the Asia Pacific'. I relished the opportunity to immerse myself in the media systems and cultural peculiarities of our South East Asian neighbours (this at a time when we were emerging from Banana Republic status and Asia from the 1997 economic crisis). Of course, when you are interested and engaged, you do well. I adored my tutor and received a grade of HD. Chuffed, I was.

And over the years, as the romantic dream of ever becoming a journalist in such a far-off place as the Indonesian archipelago, which I focused on for my final assignment, was buried as I set off down a different path. But I can see now that I have always had a heart for these places, an interest beyond the 1994 Bali holiday I was privileged to take with my mother and sister, well before Schapelle Corby became a household name and the 2002 Bali bombings took away life and ruined the 'happy holiday' vibe. Holidays to such places now are tainted with the distant smell of death... how dare they!

Just this week, militant Muslim group Jemaah Islamiah, accountable for that attack, is seeking to have its official status as a terrorist organisation revoked. And, right now!, Syrians are suffering their own genocide. The Cambodians could sympathise more than most. The world, it is imploding, is it not? And, yet, butterflies continue to come out of the cocoon; goodness is everywhere, too. The kindly man whose chook was chewed on by my dog is testimony to that. And so too the smiles of the Cambodians I meet.

All is not lost. "In the shadow of your wings I sing for joy," wrote King David to his God. "I cling to you, and your hand keeps me safe."

I do not entertain lofty dreams of preeminent articles published in esteemed journals, but I do see the sense in God's planning for our education in whatever area He wishes for us to venture into: we may weather storms, but it it is not His intention for us to do so blindly, with no sense of hope nor equipped with the right tools and understanding. "I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid," said Christ.

We must hold onto that thought in our every waking moment, and see the sense in God's perfect provision for accomplishing His purposes. Just last year I met a beautiful woman from World Vision who passed onto me Richard Stearns' book The Hole in Our Gospel: it enlightened, and lightened, my thinking. This "doing" aspect of the faith needn't feel burdensome, complex: it happens organically as we allow God's will to usurp our own. But we still have to submit. The rebel within doesn't always take to this notion kindly.

Our interests may lie dormant but generally never wane nor go to waste. But I can see that we must be open to the idea that it is not for our desperate striving or self-willed timing that passions are given back to us; it's all about the bigger picture. Look up to the canopy of stars tonight and think for a moment on your smallness. And then contemplate what a privilege it is to even exist.

I would never in a million years have orchestrated this momentary stroll down the road to Cambodia; would never be so bold as to entertain the thought, nor have envisioned that my husband – his heart beating not for South-East Asia but for the Australian outback – might be the conduit for this journey. God hears the whispers of the heart. He blesses obligingly. Ostentatiously. Overwhelmingly.

Two years ago I wouldn't have had the resilience to tackle it, this trip; not the physical strength nor the mental wherewithal, nor the spiritual robustness to take it all in without being overwhelmed. I did not have the mental clarity to see that the weight of expectation – whether imagined or real – often robs us of the joy of living. And deep within we harbour dreams, not always with the capabilities to realise them until we are propelled along, often by surprise.

God's sweetly divine planning tailored just for us.

Dying to self, alive to Christ

The gradual awakening of purpose happens over a few days together with the practicalities. Before we leave for Bangkok, Thailand, I have arranged to have this blog edited by two trusty friends who will amuse and delight with their words and thoughts in my absence. This at the recommendation of two wise Christian women who see in me someone who can get caught up in the seeming necessity to "be present" in my work, which is a fleeting, ephemeral thing, to the neglect of my own wellbeing, my more intimate relationships, because the need to be accepted and acknowledged and seen by anyone but God is something I've worked hard to shrug off.

I also consult a Christian businessman friend who quotes to me the words of author Richard Swenson:

"Please understand, progress is not evil. Similarly, stress, change, complexity, speed, intensity and overload are, for the most part, not enemies. But we have different conditions at play than at any other time in our history, and we must learn to discern our course carefully, lest we be overwhelmed by forces out of control. 

We must have room to breathe. We need freedom to think, and permission to heal. Our relationships are being starved to death by velocity. No one has the time to listen, let alone love. Our children lay wounded on the ground, run over by our high speed good intentions. Is God now pro-exhaustion? Doesn't he lead people beside still waters any more? Who plundered these wide open spaces of the past, and how can we get them back? There are not fallow lands for our emotions to lie down and rest in. We miss them more than we suspect."

This trip is as much about my marriage as it is the opportunity to see beyond the walls we orchestrate to keep life inside a manageable box; my own personal growth. It represents the coming together of two souls for a united purpose greater than fluffing up their own pillows. We do not have children to dote on, nor to direct our sense of 'This is who we are and what we do and stand for as a family', but we're getting there. The necessity of a commonality of vision, and shared experience, takes precedence over all other worldly cares for now.

They can wait. They have to wait. Good-bye.

Still, I am wary of the idea that to be a writer is to be a ready and willing vessel for words. And so, at the airport before we depart Brisbane, we take a farewell snap for Facebook to alert friends to our last-minute mission, then I log off and buy myself a red Moleskin journal that is quite small: this a metaphor for my intentions for the trip. I want to be very small. To truly engage with all the people I meet without distraction; to learn and appreciate and try to understand it all, and then to piece together the puzzle and find my place within it.

You know, like a "real" journalist.

As Dr Suess once said, "Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than you." How wonderful to think that the you-iest you you can be is just waiting to be developed and loved and enjoyed by God for not only your own gratification but for that of others and His satisfaction. It takes from us the burden of becoming too big for our boots, which inevitably shoots us in the foot. I pack boots in my bag – sturdy, brown, lace-up boots that have taken me up the streets of Manhattan (lucky girl) and will now set foot in the poorest of villages. Whatever I am able to bring to the table of life beyond small, finite me is an honour, though sometimes I feel afraid; what if God gives us something too big for our tiny shoulders? What if I'm not up to it?

That is the beauty of being open to the Spirit of God. He is gentle – like a dove that dwells within, says one of my wise travel companions as we sit in the back of a truck covered in Cambodian dust as we snake and weave through traffic as we travel back to base camp from one of the villages.

I know that I will return home I will be seeking work to sustain the fabric of my own home, to make ends meet with financial practicalities and sustainable activities, like cooking dinner, doing the washing, collecting the mail. Life will get busy. So time must be put aside to reconcile what I have experienced with my first-world reality. My red journal full of late-night scribbles will remind me of the work that I intend to do, the stories I want to tell. I pray it doesn't get lost, like our passports, which fall off our motorbike and are sent into the ether of Cambodia the day before we are due to return home (another story to tell!).

As Isaiah goes on to relate: "Once more God will send us his spirit. The wasteland will become fertile, and fields will produce rich crops. Everywhere in the land righteousness and justice will be done. Because everyone will do what is right, there will be peace and security forever. God's people will be free from worries, and their homes peaceful and safe (but hail will fall on the forests, and the city will be torn down.) How happy everyone will be with plenty of water for the crops and safe pasture everywhere for the donkeys and cattle."

I have seen the green pastures, the healthy crops, taken in the most beautiful visions I have ever beheld, watching schoolgirls in the playground smile and laugh and play though they have every reason to shut themselves away (the shame, the shame, of what they have experienced, not their shame but humanity's, breaks my heart again and again and again).

I have felt God's overwhelming presence and divine purpose in a Cambodia ravaged by the actions of men. It's all jotted down in my red Moleskin. But I truly want to do these people justice, so please bear with me as I endeavour to bring some of that out of my satchel and give it its appropriate time and title and place. Thank you for allowing me to take you on this journey; it's nice to be in good company.

"Remember how the Lord your God has blessed you in everything that you have done. He has taken care of you as you wandered through this vast desert. He has been with you these forty years, and you have had everything that you needed." (Deuteronomy 2:7)

See also: The Virginity Trade and The Girl Who Spelled Freedom

Girl With a Satchel