Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | September 20, 2009

Empty Streets

   As we made our final approach to Phnom Penh, I looked out the window at the lush green patchwork below. The tall palm trees looked like thumb tacks — randomly placed to keep the wind from blowing away the variegated green carpet. Cambodia really is a beautiful country and I am happy to be back for my second visit. We descended quickly, bounced hard onto the tarmac, and rolled our way to the terminal. Once inside, I secured my visa and then made my way to the luggage carousel. I’m always happy to reunite with my luggage.

   Once outside the terminal we met Steve Hyde, the Director of Asia for Jesus and our host. Steve is a big man with a big heart for Cambodia. He grew up the son of missionaries in the Philippines and received his education in Texas. He first came to Cambodia as a Journeyman with the International Mission Board in 1994. That’s when he learned the Khmer language – not an easy task when you consider the alphabet has forty-eight vowels and thirty-five consonants. Each of the consonants has two different sounds. And, then there are the irregular vowels and consonants and a cryptic few of each that apply only to some select words. It’s all very confusing and challenging. But, Steve learned the language quickly and speaks it fluently.

   What I found a bit strange as we made our way from the airport to our hotel was the relatively few vehicles and people on the streets. I was here just a month ago and remember the chaotic choreography of cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians. But today, the streets seemed empty by comparison. And, very few shops were open for business. I wondered if this is what Phnom Penh must have looked like after the Khmer Rouge invaded and evacuated the city in the mid-70’s.

   Steve cleared up the mystery of the empty streets. Today is a Buddhist holiday, locally called Bon Bpchun Ben. This is a day when people pray for their dead ancestors whose spirits may not be at peace. The people fear these restless spirits and believe that they capriciously cause accidents and all kinds of bad stuff to happen. So, it’s incumbent upon the living to pray for these spirits to be at peace. In order for this to happen, family members are required to pray at seven Buddhist temples. They also pay the monks at these temples to perform special chants on behalf of their restless ancestors.

   So today, the streets of Cambodia are empty. And, I am reminded that the hearts of so many Cambodians are also empty, filled with frustration and longing for answers to life’s most important questions. A distinctive of our Christian worldview is the understanding that we can know where we will spend eternity before we step across the threshold that separates the living from the dead. And, because of that understanding, we do not “grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Tomorrow, the streets of Phnom Penh will again throb with bustling humanity, many of whom will wonder if their prayers had any impact on their restless ancestors. I am thankful for guys like Steve who have planted their lives in difficult places like this in order to help the restless souls of the living find peace in Jesus.

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