Monday, March 27, 2017

Show Down with God in the Aral Mountains

ONYX Year 4
 Adventure Retreat in the Aral Mountains

Holding it in Tension

The dissonance was hard to process…. trying to balance two opposing realities that were in blatant contraction the same space and time. Holding them together in tension was difficult. They came in droves, like ants carrying crumbs 4 or 5 times larger than their own bodies up the anthill.  Each gang of twenty or so young men and women had a designated shirtless man carrying a case of beer on his shoulder, and another designated man carrying a large square boom box, much bigger and powerful than the boom boxes of the 80’s, blasting the birds clear out of the trees tops with hip hop and rap music. At least 13 blaring boom boxes were hefted up the mountain during the time I was holding down the fort. As the sound from one faded into the distance, a new one arrived to take its place. This allowed for a continuous stream of loud vibrations emanating from the ants on their way up to the falls for a picnic.

From 9 am to 3 pm, one group after another began their ascent up to the first few levels of the 7 level Waterfall. Carry cases of beer and boom boxes didn’t allow people to get too far up the trail.  It was difficult to guess as to whether more beer or more Styrofoam traveled up the trail to the falls.  Alone, guarding our campsite at the lowest level of the waterfall, I could see the law of gravity work out before my eyes: ‘What goes up, must come down.’  An hour after the groups of picnickers arrived, beer cans, plastic water bottles, and Styrofoam began to trickle down the waterfall until it was a constant flow. The plastic flotsam and jetsam was caught in swirling eddies and in the roots of various jungle plants growing at the edge of the stream.  Along the trail in the picnic areas there were trashcans where you could place your trash for park staff to clean up, but most just left the trash where they sat. Many young people came out decorated with natural wild flowers snatched from the sensitive flora areas.

It was a very painful time for me, this adventure retreat, knowing that concern and action for some of the most sensitive eco areas in Cambodia will get much worse before they get better. I thought to myself,  “Some adventure retreat!  We could have probably found a more secluded, quieter and less polluted place in hotel in Phnom Penh.” 

See You at the Top!

35 people, made up of ONYX students from Phnom Penh and Kompong Chhnang, one advisor (Lynn), one pastor, (Raju), two young girls (4 and 6), the wife of an ONYX student, and a dog left me to watch the camp while they climbed to the top of the mountain. They returned at dusk, limping, sporting bruises, scrapes, sprained and twisted ankles, ripped and stained clothes and in a state of exhaustion.  Even the dog’s paws were ripped up. 

The retreat leader, Mr. Lay, who is Vysal’s replacement, was not happy. He pulled me aside and said, ‘I have to report to you that it did not go well.’ He really wanted to make it to the top of the mountain but had to turn back because of (in his words) “the old people (Lynn and Raju), and the children, and some who sustained injuries.” He felt let down because the people complained to him as they did to Moses – why did we leave the meat in the pots and delicious leaks in Phnom Penh for this? Let us turn back!” This was a first for him. The Kompong Chhnang group, with no women or children made it the top at breakneck speed. PP did not make it. They turned back.

I told Mr. Lay,

“Just look at it another way. Now we have a perfect real life leadership scenario right before us. You were tested, your people were tested, and they just went through very difficult time trying to reach a goal and even to get down off the mountain before sun set. God gave this to us! This more valuable than a dozen leadership lessons by John Maxwell. Now use it to our collective advantage.” 

It took him a while to see it in this light, as a gift, but he soon changed our campfire program so we could debrief and process the strenuous exercise that seemingly ended in failure but was really a success. Some broke down in tears as they testified gratefully for the encouragement and care they received from their fellow students as they forded deep streams, climbed over and on slippery and unstable rocks, and made their way over rough terrain up and down the mountain in jungle humidity.

To me, their trip up the mountain made the retreat.  Although I could feel their pain, I was pleased to watch them limp around camp and nurse their wounds as they went about their camp duties and chores. This group will have a much deeper bond than any previous ONYX classes because they suffered together, and made decisions in consensus in a real life situation.   

The Emmaus Type Gallery Walk

I had planned two exercises for the retreat. The first was an Emmaus-type gallery walk in the jungle, where I posted proverbs, and pithy sayings in places in and along the jungle stream. Both groups did the walk through, meditated in pairs on the sayings at each station, then joined the big group to process the one station that impacted them the most. Most of the students were affected by the sayings that touched on emotional pain – a good reminder that what our students need the most is love, acceptance, a listening ear, and healing of their damaged souls.

Ms. Da:

“My dad never said much to me, just grunted at me, and never once encouraged me. He only scolded me. My mother wasn’t quite as bad but neither ever touched me or held me. When I went to work in PP, my expat boss gave me a hug. It was the first hug I had in my life and I just broke down.  I could not express with words what my first hug was like and I was an adult at the time.”  

Thin Places

The second event was a journey to a ‘Thin Place’ (where heaven and earth briefly touch), the type of place in nature and solitude where one senses the presence of God and experiences a total rearrangement of perspective like Moses, Elijah, Jacob, etc. I sent them off to find a secluded spot to listen with their five senses for the voice of God in solitude and through the beauty of the created world. They could draw, create a poem, compose a song, reflect, mediate or do anything that wasn’t totally cognitive. This group, while more educated and a bit better off, than last year’s ONYX cohort, took less away than last year’s group.  About 70% of the PP cohort came away with no less than brilliant object lessons, which was fine, but not the point of the exercise. 30% sketched, wrote poems, just rested in serenity, and experienced being full of gratitude.  One young man had a vivid dream of God leading him along his life journey, the path being similar to that of the trail that wound its way up the mountain to the 7th waterfall.  Our ONYX assistant, Mr. Poya, a student from year 2, crafted a beautiful poem and recited it to the group.

My intention was for them to take some time to get out of their busy minds, to be still, take in all beauty and rest in it. I have no illusions that I have any abilities to create events where people are guaranteed to experience the presence of God. But I do believe some venues can be more conducive than others for listening to God, and taking something away that can be experiential.

Mr. Chantha from the Center of Peace:

“I was sitting on a huge slanting rock just watching the water cascade down, finding its way through well worn crevices, both deep and shallow, pool up in eddies, and splash into the air as it hit rocks along the way, and come back down to join the water again.  After a while, through the combined sounds of the water, birds in the air, and sensation of the fresh air, and the views above and below, it was like I was hearing God and a chorus of angels singing and I got to be in the audience.  It gave me a renewed appreciation for the majesty of God and his whole creation.”  

The Campfire

At both evening campfires, Rev. Raju Sbagwat told the stories of a few Biblical Prophets to illustrate the need for starting and finishing the leadership journey well. He also incorporated some of the lessons learned from the previous afternoon’s attempt to climb to the top of the mountain into his sermon. It was simple and insightful. The students shared a bit about who they were, gave testimonies, and roasted corn on fire. The second night, Raju took them up to the open parking lot to see a host bright stars that were scattered across the night sky.

The two exercises that I led took place in the early morning and just finished before the hordes arrived. God blessed us with great timing, although our debriefing and sharing time was a bit challenged by the blaring of 21st Century boom boxes in a tag team fashion.

When we arrived before the hordes on the first day, the park was not as pristine as last year but it still shouted out the majesty of God. During both days we watched the majesty of God’s creation become obscured and marred by other human beings. While the ONYX students used imagination to filter out the human activity and only see the beauty, I got stuck in the tension of the two clashing realities. Imagination was a key ingredient for our exercises, and by the time the retreat ended, I was able to redeem my experience through my imagination like the others were already doing.

ONYX Students:  Finding Prophetic Imagination

The prophet Moses, who was outside the reaches of any man-made governing system, was called by God in an age when people had never experienced any form of society that didn’t use power, coercion, and violence to achieve its objectives. Think of how hard it was for Moses to really grasp, in its entirety, of what God was asking him to do.  He had no matrix or paradigm to process what God was calling him to create – a community with an alternative perspective that was based on economic, social and spiritual freedom for everyone – true equality. I doubt that God miraculously changed Moses’ brain chemistry, but rather Moses had to really stretch his imagination to picture what such an alternative perspective and community would look like and how it would work out on the ground. Then, figure out how to convey such a perspective/vision to those who knew nothing but the system. ONYX students largely come from the margins of system and before they become too embedded and committed to the system, we would like to help them imagine alternative perspectives of society as those in the system are not likely able to imagine anything other than the system, especially if they are benefiting from it. In general, human societies over history have not changed much, but like Moses, we are called to bear witness to an alternative way of living together that mirrors Shalom, not system that use power of coercion and violence, and prefer one class or color of people over the next.  Jesus called this the Kingdom of God.

So, one of our big picture agendas is to help our ONXY students meet the God of Moses, who upon revealing himself to Moses, sent Moses on one big social justice errand: to imagine a alternative society and put it to practice, bearing witness to the world of a better way.

By Brian Maher

K.Chhnang ONYX holding gallery walk signs

Group Photo

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