In 1980, Cambodia was just emerging from one of the most horrific periods of time that any nation has ever endured. Between 1975 and 1979, the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, under the leadership of the infamous Pol Pot, abused the Cambodian people in a way that is hard to describe and even harder to comprehend. An estimated 2 million people died either of starvation, malnutrition, or disease or were killed outright by the Khmer Rouge.
When the North Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979 (or at least drove them out of the highly-populated areas and into their jungle hideouts) they assumed by default the responsibility of picking up the pieces of the Khmer Rouge’s razing of the country and its people. I recently read an account of that time in Cambodia’s history and the difficulty that was faced in getting emergency aid distributed to the people, and it gave me some things to think about with relation to the Great Commission.
Rats in the Rice
When the Vietnamese rolled into town, their first task was dealing with the starvation, malnutrition, and sickness that abounded on every hand at some of the greatest levels ever seen in modern history. Sadly, when foreign aid and relief began to come flooding in, they had a very difficult time getting it properly distributed to those who were in need. Ships waited for weeks to dock and unload, because of the interminably long time (mostly due to inefficiency) that it took to unload each ship.
Once rice and other aid was unloaded, the distribution was just as bad, if not worse. Various aid organizations had donated 1,100 trucks for delivering food and relief supplies, but they were misappropriated, kept mostly around Phnom Penh and used for transporting people. Meanwhile, the stockpile of rice and other food items was getting infested with rats as it sat undelivered.
Journalist Henry Kamm went on a 500 mile journey on the main roads and saw only 3 of the relief trucks. Every time he stopped in a village, he was told the same story: very little rations had been delivered and no seed at all. Mr. Kamm told of meeting a 25 year-old man who pedaled his bike for two weeks from Kampong Cham province to Phnom Penh in search of rice. With 80 pounds of rice strapped to his bike rack he began to push it home to his waiting family.
Instead of distributing the relief supplies and food, certain people at the top of the “food chain” were hoarding it. High-ranking Cambodian officials were eating very well while the rest of the people were still starving. Many who had enough for their own family seemed unconcerned with the plight of those who had nothing.
Does this sound vaguely familiar? Christ commissioned the church to deliver the Bread of Life to the world, but sadly there is a bottleneck in the distribution. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that there is a lot of gospel-hoarding going on.
In America, a person would have to work very hard to NOT hear
the gospel. It is everywhere. Churches in just about every town in America have
services, Bible studies, small group meetings, institutes, camps, seminars,
conferences, workshops, etc. going on constantly. Not only are there multiple
translations of the Bible, but these days there are specialized Bibles for just
about every demographic known to man. You can have your Bible in traditional
form, story book form, comic book form, chronological, topical, devotional, on
your Ipad or Iphone, and on and on it goes. I recently checked on the website
of a major Bible distributor. Under the heading of “Bibles” there are 6,984
products! Most families (including mine) have multiple copies of the Bible
lying around their house.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not believe it is a sin to be well-fed. It’s just a sin to hoard the gospel, to heap more and more upon yourself without any thought for those who have yet to receive a morsel. For every one person who suffers from spiritual obesity, there are thousands who suffer from spiritual malnutrition.
When Jesus told the 5,000 men on the hillside to sit down for a meal, He didn’t tell His disciples to feed the same 50 people over and over until they were ready to burst. No, He told them to feed everyone—the ones that were close and the ones that were the farthest away, the back row as well as the front row.
We would do well to remember the story of the four lepers in 2 Kings 7. When they discovered that the Syrians had fled and abandoned their tents and food, they began to eat (and who can blame them...after all, they were starving). But then one turned to the others and said, “We do not well: this day is a day of good tidings and we hold our peace.”
One of those guys realized that they themselves had been starving until God dealt graciously with them, so he felt indebted to their fellow-countrymen who were still starving. Similarly, the Apostle Paul said, “I am debtor.” It is a wonderful day when a person comes to the conclusion that the only reason they are no longer starving for the truth is because of God’s grace, and then decides that everyone else in the world deserves to know about this grace too.
Sorry, Today’s a Holiday...
Another problem that greatly hampered the aid distribution was the fact that the workers were so easily and quickly distracted from the task at hand. Holidays came along with unbelievable frequency, and every single one of them brought the life-saving work of distributing food and medical supplies to a screeching halt.
Mr. Kamm reported that while he was in Phnom Penh, one Sunday, all work stopped for three days to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Work resumed Wednesday, but stopped again the very next day for another national holiday.
He said (obviously, tongue in cheek) that the next week was more rigorous because only one holiday stopped the work. The same problem also affected the distribution of medical supplies. An international medical official went quickly to the Health Ministry when he heard that a much-needed and long-delayed plane of medical supplies had arrived. But when he arrived (on a Friday), he was told that he could not obtain the supplies until at least Wednesday (due to the New Year celebration), but for sure by the next Friday.
After living here for 12+ years, I don’t have a bit of trouble believing that account. It’s frustrating to deal with this type of thing now, but in 1980, during the early days of recovery for this traumatized nation, when several days of delay could have meant the difference between life and death, it must have been a hundred times more exasperating to those who were trying to get the job done. In their hour of greatest need, the distraction of holidays rendered the relief efforts to be incredibly and painfully slow.
How often is this the case when it comes to getting out spiritual relief to a hungry and dying world! Many churches in America are distracted by every new fad and trend that comes down the pike, while failing to remember that our number one purpose is to reach the world with our life-saving message.
Want to gauge a church’s commitment to God’s Great Commission? Look at the church calendar and the church budget. Even more telling, look at the youth group’s calendar and budget. How much time and money is spent on distractions? And how much time and money is spent on our main purpose?
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with a teen snow trip, just like there was nothing wrong with Cambodians celebrating an occasional holiday. But, please! A little moderation! When the main task is sacrificed on the altar of continual distractions, it is time for an adjustment of priorities.
Of course, it is easy to point the finger outward and say “Churches are too distracted,” but the truth of the matter is that often there are just as many distractions or more in our personal lives. A missionary, though he has left the home country to help spread the gospel around the world, can easily allow distractions to so overwhelm his life that the task which is supposed to be in first-place fades to a distant second or worse. We need God to help us to minimize, reduce, and even eliminate distractions so that our hearts may stay focused on the job He has given to us.
You Can’t Eat a Teapot
A third issue that greatly hindered the relief effort in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia was that ships bearing non-essentials tied up to the docking berths, and the ships with the essentials could not get in.
On one occasion, Mr. Kamm saw a Russian unloading crates from a Soviet freighter. When he asked what was in them, he was stunned at the reply: teapots. Crate after crate of a non-essential item was being unloaded while the relief goods and the food of which the people were in desperate need was sitting in the ships anchored in the harbor.
To me, the teapots seem symbolic of the trinkets and trivialities that are so often offered to people in lieu of what they really need—the gospel. It’s unbelievable how many aid groups, humanitarian agencies, and even missions organizations come to a place like Cambodia and teach the people everything but how to be saved. Of course, there is nothing wrong with teaching English, computer skills, or musical instruments any more than there is something wrong with using a teapot. Certainly it has its place. But starving people can’t eat teapots.
Probably the saddest thing about this story is that there was no shortage of aid, but from deep within the villages of Cambodia, it must have seemed like there was. Inefficiency, hoarding, distractions, and wrong priorities kept the needed aid out of the hands of the needy.
When we consider the spiritual aid that we are here to distribute, the soul-saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, there is no shortage either in amount or in efficacy. There’s plenty of God’s love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation to go around. But we need to work smart. And we need to distribute the Bread of Life with compassion.
It’s not enough that my family knows the Lord. Every other man, woman, boy, and girl deserves to know Him too. We need to work through the distractions. Take breaks and rest as God has instructed, but be careful not to slip into lethargy. Some distractions need to be eliminated completely because there is no redeeming value in them. And finally, let’s make sure we are not just giving out shiny trinkets, but that which will last for all eternity. What a tragedy for someone to live a life of total spiritual malnutrition and starvation and sadly assume there just must not be enough Bread for him to get some too.
Note: my source for the information contained in this post was chapter 16 of the book, Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land, by Henry Kamm. I highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in Cambodia’s history, especially the past few decades.