a highway for our God


The road that runs past New Life Fellowship and Phnom Penh Bible School is amazing.

Smooth. Built up. No potholes. Clearly painted lines. I marvel at the road nearly every time I drive down it. In fact, I’ve found myself changing my routes just so that I can drive down the new road.

I marvel because the road wasn’t always like this. For the first three and a half years that I drove to church, the road was a mess. Potholes everywhere, loose gravel in places, and a poor drainage system to boot.

In the rainy season, the water would be ankle deep, which I suppose I should be thankful for because they tell me that before my time here, the water used to be knee deep.


But it all changed a few months ago.

The old road was dug up, and for weeks, the road was a total mess as work crews laid new drainage pipes and poured concrete. Traffic was rerouted. We had to use a back door to get to church, and Seyha and I couldn’t meet at our usual Monday morning breakfast spot because there was simply no road to get there.

But that’s what it took to make a new road. At first, the solution seemed more of a disaster than the problem as the bad road became impassable. However, sometimes everything has to get worse before it can get better.

Isaiah says, “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (40.3).

This is the advent image that I’m holding on to this year: a highway for our God.

Though Isaiah isn’t talking about road construction in the 21st century sense, I think the point still holds. Preparation might not mean visible progress.

This advent season, I’m waiting and longing for the King, and I’m reminded again and again of how the emperors of this world do not compare. The Phnom Penh Post ran the headline last month “Death of Democracy,” and meanwhile, I find myself holding my breath as I wait for US news websites to load. As far as I can tell, things are not getting better.

But advent hope is not about optimism. Hope is not about looking on the bright side or trying to make the most of a tough situation. Hope is about looking to God to do a new thing.

And so as I drive down that new road this advent season, I hope and I pray. Though it might not look like progress, I pray that my own witness and the witness of the church would be preparing a highway for our God, and I hope and long for the return of the King.

a somber hope


“Will you go to the Killing Fields with me again?” my dear brother Mao asked. He was bringing a group of 30 young people from his village to go and learn about their own history, a history that is sparsely taught in school. He wanted me to go along and help debrief the experience because “you’re good at asking questions,” he says.

I had been maybe 5 times already. It’s not an easy place to visit. It’s a place where some 20,000 people were executed during the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime that killed millions from 1975 to 1979.

The violence and depravity of humanity are almost beyond belief. Upon arrival, you first see a haunting memorial stupa containing thousands of victims’ skulls.


Indeed, most Cambodians don’t go. People usually don’t even talk about the “war time” or the “Pol Pot time,” as it’s often called in Khmer after the leader of the Khmer Rouge. Everyone lost someone during that time, and the effects of the genocide continue to ripple throughout Cambodian society.

But Mao wanted the youth of his village to know something of their national story, and so on Saturday, we went. I watched as Cambodian teenagers put on their headsets and listened to the audio tour as they walked through the unearthed mass graves. Mao insisted they take notes to remember what they learned.


After our tour of the killing fields, we went to a local elementary school, and we spread out a big tarp under a tree.


After a sobering morning, we needed to play some games.



But then we broke up into groups, and Mao and I asked them three questions: What did you learn this morning? How do the opportunities that you have today compare to the opportunities of people during the Khmer Rouge time? And what are the Pol Pots today that want to destroy our lives?

The youth broke up into four groups to answer the questions. By the way, the last doozy of a question is all Mao–and he says he’s not good at asking questions!



And then they reported to the main group.


I helped to facilitate this part and shared a short lesson about the worth of each person. The Khmer Rouge had a saying, “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” I contrasted that with a Christian understanding of the value each of us has, the value we see in ourselves and the value we see in others.

My little lesson was fine, but the real gold was in hearing the youth reflect on the morning and articulate for themselves how drug use, alcohol abuse, and gambling (among other things) were destroying lives around them.

And then Mao closed us off with a home run. His message was simple and true: You can’t change the past. It will always be there. But you can learn from it. You can change the future.

IMG_5453 (3).JPG

The message works on a couple levels. On a national level, Cambodia can learn from the horrors of genocide and find ways of healing and moving forward. There’s a lot of work to be done yet, but these youth could be the ones to write a new, more hopeful chapter of Cambodian history.

The message also resonates on a very personal level. While Mao is talking about the national story of Cambodia, everyone that’s listening knows that he’s also talking about his own story. They all know his past–that he used to be a violent gangster in their village–but they have also seen the changes in his life and his new future, his commitment to Jesus Christ and his desire to see the gospel take root in his home village.

Indeed, you can’t change the past, but mornings like this past Saturday–seeing young people engage their national story and seeing a young leader like Mao lead a changed life–this gives me hope for the future.

slanted storytelling


Last week I made brownies to bring to a pot luck. Let me tell you the story.

My alarm goes off at 5:53 am. I feel remarkably well-rested, and I’m ready for the big day ahead.

Lately, we’ve been having an amazing stretch of unseasonably cool weather–highs only in the 80s, lows in the 70s. After I make my way downstairs, I open the doors and windows on the lower level to let the cool air in. I stand outside for a few minutes and breathe deeply in the fresh morning air.

Cereal. Coffee. Shower. And back upstairs for my morning devotions. I finally make it through the book of Ezekiel on my read-thru-the-Bible plan.

I go back downstairs around 7:30 and chat with Reatrey. He is making breakfast before he goes to school for his midterm exams. I check the fridge and we are low on eggs. I can’t make brownies without eggs, so I hop on my motorcycle and drive to the market.

At the market my meat vendor spots me as I drive past her stand. “Sir!” she calls out with her characteristically big smile. I smile back and wave. When I make it to my egg vendor, we chat briefly as she picks out my eggs, looking for the biggest ones. The eggs are even on sale, 10 for only $1.

When I get home, I mix up my brownies, throw them in the oven, wash dishes, and set an alarm as I go up to the third floor to my office to start work. About thirty minutes later, I am back downstairs to check on my baking.

Oh no! The brownies are goopy and the oven is cold. I am out of propane.

Back on my motorcycle to a gas shop in my neighborhood. It’s not the closest one, but that vendor once came to replace my little propane tank at 10 pm, long after all the other shops were closed. She won a loyal customer that night.

Her husband usually does deliveries, but he isn’t there. She assures me that he is coming back “now,” and he would bring a full tank over to my place.

Back on my moto and back home. Then, in just a couple of minutes, the lady shows up with a tank. She saw the anxiety on my face when I asked for a new tank, and so she thought she’d just deliver it herself.

We chat a bit. She praises my Khmer. “And you can even read and write!” she says. I know from previous interactions that she’s illiterate, and so I start writing out the receipt myself.

“How much?” I ask. “The same as last time,” she says. “$15?” I ask. “No, not for a regular customer. Only $14 for you.”

She actually bargains me down in price. Incredible!

I swap out the tanks, fire the oven back up, throw my goopy brownies back in, and set another alarm. Twenty minutes later, my brownies are baked to perfection.

What an amazing way to start the day! Fresh air, a market run and chats with vendors, and freshly baked brownies.


That’s only one version of the story.

Let me tell you that story again.

My alarm goes off. As I open my bedroom door, I’m instantly struck by the distinctive smell of propane gas.

I rush downstairs as fast as I can. The whole place smells like gas. Someone had left one of the stove burners on last night.

I throw open the doors and windows and go outside. I hope the cross breeze will clear the gas out. What even are the effects of a gas leak? Could my house blow up? I don’t even know. I don’t want to find out.

Finally, I judge it safe enough to go back in, and I go back to my morning routine.

After my morning devotions (can anyone really understand the book of Ezekiel?), I head back downstairs around 7:30 am to start baking. A guilty-looking Reatrey smiles at me. He’s toasting my bread and frying my eggs for breakfast.

Ugh. There had only been three eggs in the first place. Now I have to go to the market. That’s going to eat up at least 15 minutes of my time.

Whatever. When I get back, one of the guys is lounging on the couch. “Where did you go?”

Ugh, isn’t it obvious? Why are you asking obvious questions? I am holding twenty eggs in a plastic bag. Do you think I went to a farm to get eggs?

I snap, “The market!” Not the most polite, but at least I suppressed all my smart alec comments.

Finally, I can make my brownies. I mix them up, throw them in the oven, wash dishes, and set an alarm as I go up to the third floor to my office to start work. This is taking way more time than I expected. About thirty minutes later, I am back downstairs to check on my baking.

Crap! The brownies are goopy and the oven is cold. I am out of propane.

With a gas leak all night, of course I’m out of propane! Why can’t my housemates just be more responsible and turn off the gas? Ugh! What a pain. I have to go out again to get the tank refilled. I technically could call the shop but it’s a little hard to explain where my house is. There are no street signs. Nothing is clear or simple.

At the propane shop, the delivery guy is out, but he’s coming back “now.” Yeah right, I think. Ailov in Khmer doesn’t really mean “now.” It could be anytime between right now and thirty minutes from now, or an hour. Who knows? Or maybe “now” is just a face-saving way of telling me it’s going to be a really long time.

Ugh. So frustrating. Why can’t anything be easy? I just want to make brownies.

In the end the lady delivers my gas for me. I get the tanks swapped out, and I finally get my brownies back in a hot oven.

Ugh. What an annoying way to start the day! Really, why can’t anything here just be easy? I just wanted to make brownies. How complicated does that have to be?

So there it is.

One morning. Two versions of the story. Both of them are true.

When I lived it, I experienced it as the second one. An incredibly frustrating way to start a morning. It was only after I did a bit of personal reflection later in the day that I was able to see all the beautiful parts of the story that I was overlooking. I was focusing only on the negative.

A lot depends on the slant of the storyteller–what details to focus on, what aspects to leave out.

People who do work like I do often are tempted with slanted storytelling. Fill the prayer letters with success stories! Look at those baptisms! Pictures of smiling children! What wonderful relationships I have with local people! I’m making such a big impact! (please give money!)

That might all be true. But there’s also another side that often doesn’t make it into the prayer letters–frustrations, miscommunications, ministry flops, incredible “inefficiencies,” broken relationships.

And so I’m firing up my blog again. My goal isn’t to write complainy posts about how hard my life is (it isn’t). But I do want to give a fuller picture than what I’m able to convey in a prayer letter every couple months. A two-page PDF doesn’t leave much room for nuance.

Stay tuned here for some more posts. My goal is to write at least once a month to share stories, observations and reflections, and of course, pictures about my work and life in Cambodia.

Top 10

I miss Cambodia. Of course, it’s been great to be back in the US and to spend time with family and friends, but I’m also really excited that I’ll be getting on a plane in about 3 weeks–or, actually I’m more excited that I’ll be getting off a plane in 3 weeks. It’s a long trip, and I leave on January 4.

As I turn my sights back to Phnom Penh, I’m going to share a Top 10 Things I Miss list. This list is not about people or my work; the list would be full of names if it were that kind of list. This list is about aspects of my daily life in Cambodia that I’m looking forward to getting back to.

10. The markets.


I go to one person for vegetables, another for meat, another for eggs, another for dry goods, another for fruit. Every price is negotiable. Over time though, you build relationships with the vendors, and even if it’s time consuming and inefficient, I find joy in market shopping (as long as I’m not in a hurry). Just this morning one of my little brothers in Cambodia told me that one of my vendors was asking when “sir” was coming back.

9. The landscape.


Who knew that rice fields would be so beautiful?

8. Iced coffee.


Cambodians like their coffee cold and sweet. They start with a bit of super strong coffee and then add sweetened condensed milk and ice. For me, it’s a nice dessert coffee but not a morning coffee (unless I’m out in a village and battling a caffeine headache).

7. The heat.


High temperatures are in the teens this week in Iowa (Fahrenheit, of course). Meanwhile, highs in Phnom Penh this week are in the mid-80s, and this is the cool part of the year! I don’t know if you really get used to the heat, or just get used to being sweaty, but I could go for some tropical heat now.

6. Rice!


When I lived with Cambodian guys, we bought rice by the 50 kg bag (110 pounds). In Cambodia, I usually eat rice twice a day since it’s the foundation of most meals. It’s addicting (my stomach is actually growling as I write this).

5. Massages.

A guy at my church is blind and has a little massage shop as a means to support his family. I started going once a month just to give him another customer, but then I realized that he’s really good. What his shop lacks in ambiance, he more than makes up for in skill and price ($5 for the hour).

4. My gym.


About a year ago I quit running for a season, and I started going to a local gym in my neighborhood. It’s basic–some free weights and then some older machines. The music is loud; no one racks their weights; and most people don’t wear shoes or shirts (when in Rome…). Nevertheless, it’s good exercise and a really interesting place to watch people (and it’s cheap! only 50 cents per visit).

3. My motorcycle.


I’m not a motorcycle aficionado, but I do enjoy cruising on my dirt bike. In a place where lanes, sidewalks and curbs are merely suggestions, a dirt bike is handy for maneuvering in the city or out of it.

2. Speaking Khmer.


I love language, and in particular I find the Cambodian language to be fascinating. The grammar is simple, but there are a lot of interesting things that happen with word order and context. Plus, one of my little brothers told me, “When you speak to me in Khmer, it touches my heart.” However, I know my skills have slipped in the last couple of months (my goal was to read the New Testament in Khmer while I was gone; I only made it through Matthew…).

1. Worship at New Life.


I’m not Pentecostal, but we all might be better off if we spent more time with them. Three years ago, I found the worship at New Life (the church where I worked) to be disorienting, and sometimes even one of the hardest parts of my week. However, over time, I came to appreciate the New Life approach, particularly their energy and their openness to God. Sure, I could point out lots of critiques, but even so, as I visited churches in the US this fall, I often found myself missing the worship at New Life.

Photo credit: #10 and #9: Jim Triezenberg; #3: Sopheak Cheng; #1: Pheakdey Tel

about the money, again

Today is Giving Tuesday, and many organizations are making appeals for year-end financial gifts. I thought I might take a moment to update people on how my funding works. Lots of people have asked about it while I’ve traveled around this fall.

Here are the very basics:

  • I’m on target to easily hit my funding goal for this fiscal year (thru June 2017).
  • If you still want to give, you can do so by mailing in this form or giving online at www.crwm.org/donate (select my name from the folks serving in Asia).
  • This money will likely go to support ministry projects in Cambodia.

Here’s the longer version…

I work for Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM), and I am responsible to raise 90% of my yearly budget. I don’t have any real say in this budget since my compensation and benefits are ultimately determined by Synod (which determines the compensation for all denominational employees, such as CRWM staff like me). There is a little adjustment for location factored into the compensation but not much.

My funding target is higher in my new position than in my previous position. However, I took the new job because I’m excited about the work in the new position, not because of the money. Trust me–if I were in this for the money, I wouldn’t be in this. Nevertheless, how the money works is important, and I want to be transparent about the process.

When someone gives to CRWM to support the work I do in Cambodia, that money goes into a “Justin Van Zee bucket.” I’m supposed to fill this bucket up to 90% every fiscal year (July 1 to June 30).

If more than 90% comes in, then that money will first fill up my bucket to 100%. After that, the money will start to overflow.

Now this is where people typically get really interested. In my old position, my bucket was basically unlimited; the money stayed there from year to year. In the new position, there’s a cap on my bucket.

So where does it overflow to?

It first overflows to cover unique expenses that are related to me but not covered in my annual budget. This would be something like the laptop that CRWM issued me and the training that I attended this fall. Those are kind of one-off expenses that aren’t included in my annual budget.

If that bucket fills up, then the money overflows into the Cambodia ministry bucket. This covers the cost of the ministry that I do in Cambodia, things like a retreat for young Christian leaders or a scholarship for someone with special leadership potential. This bucket is a pretty big one, and there’s rarely overflow out of this one.

Generally, these other buckets and the top 10% of my bucket are covered by ministry share giving and special gifts to CRWM. I’m not responsible to fill up these buckets, but CRWM is happy to let me help fill them up.

So, how am I doing on filling up the buckets?

This year, amazing! This is because in my old position, I was raising too much money. Last year I wrote about this in a blog post “about the money.” (remember that time when I asked you to support other people?). Well, there was a pretty good sum of money still left in my old bucket, and that money rolls into my first fiscal year (ending June 30, 2017). That money plus what churches have pledged will more than exceed my 90% target for this fiscal year.

This means that the money people give today will flow into some of those secondary buckets. These are still important buckets. My computer wasn’t free, and ministry costs money.

Therefore, I’m inviting people this year to continue to give, but give knowing that you’re giving for Cambodia-based ministry expenses and not my rent or salary (or anything else in my 90%). You can give online at www.crwm.org/donate and choose my name from people serving in Asia. Or, you can print out this form and send it to Grand Rapids.

However, if you would prefer not to give for the Cambodia-based ministry and you only want to give towards my 90%, then you will need to wait until after July 1, 2017. If that’s what you prefer, that’s ok with me (you could even give to someone else again this year!).

On July 1, 2017, the Justin bucket at CRWM will be empty again. Now, I still get paid even if my bucket is empty (that’s a change from my old position; if my bucket was empty then, I got nothing). I’m just responsible to fill up my bucket to 90% before June 30, 2018 (the end of next fiscal year).

But what if I don’t fill it up? For example, what if I consistently raise 50%?

I don’t go hungry, and I don’t get sent home immediately. This is a benefit of working with a denominational agency. However, the next time I’m back in the US to for home service (slated for Fall 2018), CRWM will insist that I spend a longer time here to raise more support. They won’t let me return to Cambodia until my support pledges reach 90%.

Now, if I just think about me and my 90%–which isn’t really a team way of thinking but that’s how the system works—if we just think about that, my greater financial need is for after July 1, 2017.

But here too, I’ve been amazed at the generosity of God’s people, and as I’ve traveled around talking to people this fall, my sense is that I’m pretty close to where my 90% target will be. I’m not a high pressure fundraising guy though; I generally just present the need to people and then go home and wait to see the financial report later. Nevertheless, I believe I’m on target (I base this on giving patterns in the past and new pledges).

Here’s the bullet point summary:

  • I’m in great financial shape. I have a big rollover from last fiscal year. If every church gives as pledged (they typically do), then I’ll exceed my goal for this fiscal year (thru June 2017).
  • Yes! You can still give—but you have to know that your giving will go to Cambodia-based ministry, not my 90%.
  • Giving happens at crwm.org/donate or via this form.
  • Money that is over my 90% doesn’t just get absorbed by the nice people in Grand Rapids. CRWM’s policy clearly states that extra money remains tied to ministry in my area of service.

There’s so much more I could say about this. My original post was three times this long. But I just want to say one more thing:

Thank you!

Really. I mean that.

Many missionaries spend more time scraping the bottom of the barrel rather than talking about buckets overflowing with money. This is because you guys have answered the call to send well, to support the ministry I’m part of in Cambodia, and for that, I’m so incredibly grateful.

P.S. If you have any questions about this, any at all, don’t hesitate to ask–comment, email, call. I can give you lots more details. I’m 100% committed to transparency and not being shady.

checking in

“You were like the prime minister.”

That’s how one of my little brothers described the scene at the airport in Phnom Penh on August 15. Cambodians like to send their friends and family off at the airport, and there was quite the group when I left.

I wanted them all to feel seen and appreciated, so I made the rounds shaking hands, giving hugs, taking pictures–like the prime minister.

A couple of the dorms guys made a video of the send off which you can watch here.

Knowing that my time in the US would be packed, I planned a short week of rest in South Korea. I had lived there for a couple of years between college and seminary, and so I returned to some of my favorite spots and favorite foods. I also connected with a few friends too.

Since then, I was in Iowa for a week, Grand Rapids for four weeks, then Iowa for another week, Costa Rica for a week, and now Ontario for a week. I’ve been on the go quite a bit (my excuse for not blogging in three months!).

At times I have felt a bit like a prime minister. I’ve run around from meeting to meeting. From coffees to lunches to coffees to dinners. I have wanted to share my stories with as many people as I can, and I also want to hear about how God has been working in their lives too. I’ve preached at churches, lunched with mission committees, attended a few trainings, visited some missionaries who are doing some impressive work, and even helped with harvest and played with my nieces and nephews.

It’s tiring, but it’s also a tremendous privilege. And rather than pile words here, enjoy some pictures below.


now and not yet


This past weekend I went to the beach with my housemates (that’s right–matching shirts, matching hair cuts; there’s something special here). We went as a kind of last hurrah before we part ways in a few weeks.

We’re parting ways because a couple months ago I accepted a new job, effective September 1. This will bring me back to North America for about 5 months. For now, I live in the in between times, the now and not yet.

My new role is as Leadership Developer with Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM). I’ll still be based in Phnom Penh, but my role will be changing.

For the past 2.5 years, I’ve worked as a partner of CRWM; that is, I work inside of another organization (New Life Fellowship) that partners with CRWM. In my new role, I will work directly for CRWM rather than New Life.

My new role won’t be a total change as much as a shift. My hope is that my experience at New Life will help me go both deeper and wider in my work.

I hope to go wider by expanding my focus beyond New Life. I work with young leaders at New Life, like those good looking guys pictured above, and in my new role, I’ll be able to work with young leaders from other churches and organizations as well.

I hope to go deeper by focusing more on theological reflection–thinking critically with young Christians about what the gospel means for their contexts. I don’t have pat answers to this, and to be honest, I’m not even totally sure how to do it (though I have several ideas and I know smarter, more experienced people who have ideas and I also like to read books).

There’s much more that I could say about all of this, and that’s why I’m heading back to North America this fall–to update individuals and churches in person. Also, I’ll have a higher fundraising target too, so I’ll be looking for more people who want to partner in this work.

I’ll be in North America from August 23 to Jan 4. As it looks now, my schedule for the fall will be as follows:

  • Aug 23 to 30: Iowa
  • September: West Michigan
  • October: Iowa (first week) and then trainings/visits in Texas, Costa Rica, and Ontario
  • November: Iowa
  • December: Iowa and then likely a brief return visit to West Michigan
  • Jan 4: return to Cambodia

For now, though, I live in the transition time. I send emails to American churches and plan weekend getaways with my housemates. I prepare cell group lessons and dorm devotions while also checking flights to Costa Rica and arranging dates for a visit to New York. There are many details to hold in my head at once as I try to finish my current role well, plan for time away, and prepare for the work I’ll be doing when I get back. Now and not yet is not easy.

There are a lot of question marks about the future, and I’m not really great at uncertainty or transitions (is anyone?). Yet, a dear friend assures me that it’s in these uncertain and in-between times that the Spirit is working and that big things happen.

She’s right, of course, and so I’ll look for that and trust that this is where God is.