I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
During our stay in Sihanoukville, Courtney and I went out to dinner, where an older Englishman sat at the table next to us enjoying a beer by himself. Had he been some wildly attractive young man, the guy most twenty year olds would try to talk to, he probably would’ve intimidated me, and I would have left him alone. Alan, however, was in his sixties, so, being me, I engaged him in conversation, and we ended up spending dinner together.
“Traveling will change you,” he said.
I wrote about a lot of my experiences in Cambodia, but I must confess that I haven’t been entirely forthright, either. I was already writing more than normal, and I’ve needed time to process since then. I spent 21 remember-forever days in a country in which 95% of the population is Buddhist. I spent 21 incredible days on a trip with eleven other Americans that I normally don’t spend time with at school. I spent 21 days without corporate worship, without regular prayer, without any spiritual guidance. My quiet time dissolved to writing time and adventuring. I felt like I was the only Christian left in the world, that there soon may be none. On the night of May 21, while everyone else went to eat dinner, I sat on my hotel bed for an hour in Siem Reap verging on a quiet, existential panic. It’s dangerous for me to sit and brood by myself without any outlet. I began wondering what topic I would write about next for the stem due the following morning. It quickly spiraled to much deeper thoughts, questioning Jesus, His power and grace, and the authenticity of my relationship with Him. It ended with this journal excerpt:
“Have I just eaten religious food they’ve been spoon-feeding me my whole life?”
Before the trip, people had said they were so excited to hear about what God did in Cambodia. Lying on that bed, I thought to myself, What about what He’s not doing? Where are you, Lord? Where is the power of the Holy Spirit? Where is my courage? Where is my belief?
Where was He? Well here’s the thing –
When I was in Cambodia, I might as well not have been a Christian. I was only some twenty year old gal lugging around a Christian identity and some good values. Everyone on the trip knows I am a Christian. One day when we were all packed up waiting in the lobby, I was holding my journal with gold-lined pages and Lauren asked if it was my Bible. While that was stowed in my backpack, I almost took pride in retorting, “Nope,” I’m not just a Southern Christian hanging onto some foolish beliefs in which I find comfort. But…maybe I was. I yearned to pray with someone, to have someone reaffirm my beliefs. I felt like every day they were stamped out a little bit more, being replaced with some kind of worldly humanism. I talked about it some, but in a more academic, this-is-just-what-I-think kind of way. I didn’t get wasted every night, I didn’t cuss every tenth word, I asked one girl about her religious upbringing and said if she ever had any questions about Christianity, I’d be happy to talk to her. After her mom died, I offered to pray with Liesl, who also goes to IV and lived on my hall this past year. Later she said she’d like that. It never happened. Why did it never happen?
I felt stuck in a state of lukewarm falsehood. I did not know how to truly demonstrate or defend my faith. I didn’t want to offend anyone or be the annoying Christian always bringing the conversation back to Jesus, but I also didn’t want to be living like the Bohemians I met or a lot of other people on the trip – sex with acquaintances, black out drunk parties, gossip, and self-centeredness. Their beliefs ranged from a Baptist PK who “just likes to keep it between me and the Big Man,” to no religious upbringing, to secular humanist, to church attendee with the family on breaks. I didn’t want to let go of my beliefs or lifestyle, but I was spending time only with these folks for 21 days, and I wanted to befriend and relate to them.
I was surrounded by Buddhist temples and monks, I didn’t think they were right, but I also found it beautiful. I loved the culture, I loved witnessing the gracious giving of alms every morning and seeing a society which has found structure and support in religion when the government (massively) fails. But what about the Great Commission? If I really believe this, if Jesus is my savior and the cornerstone of my life, shouldn’t I “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,<sup value="(D)”> and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded me?” I felt like I should, yet I had no desire to do so. It seemed so wrong to try to change this religion. Yet you have Life to offer, Jessica!
Whatever I was in Cambodia, I didn’t have the freedom of fully embracing sin (which can, for a time I think, be a fun lifestyle), but I also was not being filled by the Father, operating out of His love and infinite might. So I was just empty and longing, raw and numb, gnawing for spiritual food that I know is real, but I couldn’t quite access. It was awful, and it scared me. Was Alan right? Had traveling really changed me? Had it stamped out my faith? Traveling is something I am passionate about, and I really am considering teaching English abroad for a few years after college. How would my faith in the future?
I was also worried about coming back home. What if I really have changed? What if I just like my Christian friends and my Christian life and don’t actually love
Jesus? What if all of this gets pushed under the rug?
Oh Gosh. I’m telling you, I was freaked out. I’m glad I had the internet and a small connection to home. Toward the end of the trip, one of my best friends, Lizzy
, posted a blog about her weekend jaunt to Charlotte. She was filled with so much joy, talking about the amazing things the Holy Spirit had revealed that weekend and how they had prayed for her aunt’s back and the Lord healed it. That’s all it took for me to remember this good Lord I serve. It didn’t wipe out all of the questions and doubts, those Dark Nights of the Soul John Donne writes of, but it reminded me that when you call on Him (which, really, I had not been doing), He answers. He comes through.
I’ve been back from Cambodia for about two and a half weeks now. As I talk to friends, I’m reminded that it’s probably a good thing to be challenged. I should probably be highly skeptical of those whose faith is always fine and dandy. I’ve been as candid as I can be with those I’m close to, and many of them “get it” more than I anticipated. When I relayed my Cambodia faith experience to my friend Drew
, whose wisdom and discernment I admire a great deal, he emphasized Lizzy’s story and the remembering.
Just like Psalm 77, I can question, but I can remember the good things God has done in my life and community. The answered prayers, the prophetic words, the healings, the grace, the joy. He has answered many times.
I’ve also realized my family and I can be growing together. We’ve been caught up in our own world of graduation festivities, camps, work, and overloaded schedules. Ever since last summer, I’ve wanted to come home and disciple my sisters. Rosa Marie and I have had a few quiet times together, but it is way harder to do than I anticipated. This Tuesday the Compton Clan is headed to Costa Rica for two weeks, though. Mama deserves a much needed break, and I look forward to being able to focus on the Lord with my family. It’s time for the Secret Place, where we can grow and really begin listening to Jesus’ still small voice. I still wonder how this is all going to work out in the end. The doubts are not over, but the faith is not crushed. I’m learning, and I am confident in this one true God.