The Sovereignty of “Luck”

By Sarah Stonier

Mat Kearney kept the beat through my ear buds as Genevieve and I were jostled along the Cambodian countryside.  The bus tilted through rock-riddled roads the color of rust, skipped by faded turquoise elephants with gilded tusks, and narrowly missed woven mats of chili peppers the color of scarlet rosebuds. Tall trees launched themselves into the sky supporting tufts and prongs of spiky leaves giving off airs that they belonged on the pages of a Dr. Seuss creation. Plumb colored hammocks, lime green grass fields and peach roof tiles announce themselves loudly against their muted backdrop of dusty huts and quiet villages. We were traveling north from Phnom Penh to see the ancient temple ruins of Angkor Wat in Siem Riep, Cambodia and with each kilometer the Sabus become thinner; their milky gray skin stretched over bones like the leather of a drum. Angkor Wat is far more than its famous silhouette will tell you. There are sprawling acres filled with incredibly preserved temples, stone structures with intricately carved turrets, busty statues of Buddha and stairs at such an incline you just stop and marvel at how the quiet monks were able to tread so lightly upon them, for so long.

Genevieve and I scheduled a tuk-tuk driver to pick us up at 5 a.m. so we could see the sunrise envelope the expanse of the temples. The hotel would arrange for our driver to then bring us back to the hotel for our complimentary breakfast of eggs and a cold glass of an orchid adorned juice, and, who would wait to transport us back to Angkor Wat for the rest of our temple climbing excursion. But, though we had painfully wakened in the early morning quiet, at 5am all we saw down the long throughway of The Golden Banana was rainwater dripping off red lanterns like freshly watered tomatoes, and no driver. We presumed that the unprecedented rainfall is what kept our tuk-tuk driver at bay or running late and waited patiently until the soft singular glow of a headlight announced our adventure was beginning. Angkor Wat is, in a word, massive. Yet, how could I possibly only choose one word for the brilliant, giant, stone structure that stood before us. White horses trumpeted our arrival, vibrant lotus flowers popped up here and there and the gray and white stone pathways followed a geometric pattern through old hallways of foreign worship. The lines of tourists increased to see the trees that have swallowed the temple made famous by Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and along the routes between the temples you’ll find children singing songs for tourist dollars and bands comprised completely of land mine victims, their bodies broken but their music so full of joy.

It wasn’t until we announced we were ready to be taken back to The Golden Banana for breakfast that we all realized this was not the driver the hotel had arranged for us. His confusion at our request slowly melting in to his sincerest apologies for having taken his fellow drivers work for the day. We assured him it was completely fine, that we could eat from the road stands here and then travel on; and with that, “Chamreun” or Mr. “Lucky” became our companion for the day. It was a happy accident as Mr. Lucky was kind-spirited and light hearted and whose grin would light up as we exited the grounds of each temple; our eyes scanning the rows of tuk-tuks for our faithful escort. He drove us underneath the beautiful stone carved entryways, between other tuk-tuks and beside wrinkly elephants; that surprisingly have a quicker gait than I expected. At the end of the day he insisted he bring us back the following day to carry us to and from an additional area of temples; Genevieve graciously put his number in her small aqua phone but explained that tomorrow was Easter and we would be attending church. “What is Easter?” he asked, quite straightforwardly, to which Gen explained it was a Christian holiday.  His face of inquiry came again as he said; “What is Christian?” Genevieve gave me a smile, the smile a friend gives you when they’ve known you for so long, they understand the very beating of your heart. I passionately explained what it meant to be a Christian and who Jesus Christ was and how special and important the risen Savior and the Easter holiday meant to me.  Writing the word “Christian” into his cell phone he hopped back on his tuk-tuk seat, gave us that familiar grin and delivered us home through the hot winds. That evening as Genevieve and I languished beside the pool; she staring intently into the glowing Kindle, and I watching the rhythm of confident geckos speed up and slow down as they stalked their evening meal, I made a very confident decision. I would ask that Mr. Lucky be our driver to church for Easter Sunday and once there I would invite him in.

In Cambodia, church is in the evening, and all day long I couldn’t wait to ask Mr. Lucky to church with me. Our happy group of three pulled up to the quaint opening of the church and he prepared to yet again to join the customary row of tuk-tuks with the sleepy drivers, their hats pulled down low over their faces. I said; “Bong” (meaning my equal, my friend) “would you like to come in with us?” Without hesitation he said yes, parked his vehicle and slipped out of his sandals before crossing the threshold of The Christian Fellowship Church. He held the church bulletin tenderly in his hand; his nails all kept short and clean, except for his pinky, which he allowed to grow long and curved; a cultural symbol that shows he is spared from hard manual labor. He pointed to English words he recognized saying them out loud. He stopped when he came to the title of the previous weeks sermon and said each word one at a time, by itself, as if to punctuate the meaning; “The. God. Who. Died. For. Us.” Looking at me, searching for meaning, I explained that the Jesus I spoke of the day before was the one true God, and He chose to die in our place so that His righteousness would stand in the place of our sin or wrong-doing. My heart felt like fireworks were exploding with each beat. As a little girl I would spin the globe round and round, praying for the nation my finger stopped upon; now here I was, in such a foreign nation, sharing my Jesus and His story.

The church was mainly geared for “ex-pats” or ex-patriots; foreigners who live full time in Cambodia, mostly to assist in its economic and infrastructure development.  I had hoped this would be a Khmer Church where Mr. Lucky could hear the Gospel in his own language but as the Associate Pastor prayed in his thick Syrian accent, and the Senior Pastor began to conduct the order of the sermon with his strong Northern Ireland speech I began to wonder if even would be able to understand. I watched as Mr. Lucky now and then copied into his phone the words projected boldly on the stone wall: “He is risen, He is risen indeed”

What beautiful mercy.

As the sermon slowed and it appeared to be the close of our service I began to frantically wonder how Mr. Lucky would continue seeking Jesus, who would be there to answer his questions? I wondered if he would drift back here from time to time; his curiosity in the Living Water leaving him thirsty for more that he might come back and drink deeply, to a point where he would never thirst again. Then, another circumstance that assured me, it was no accident we had gone with the wrong driver; the pastor announced that for this special Sunday their sister Khmer church would be selling biblical materials written in the Khmer language if anyone was interested. My heart skipped a beat; would there be a fully translated Bible?!  Could those even exist with the difficulties of Khmer?! While Genevieve took Mr. Lucky out to the warm courtyard to enjoy very Western style after church refreshments, I sorted through stacks of children’s books and country maps until I found exactly what I was meant to find; A Khmer translation of The Book of Romans in pristine condition.

I will never forget handing that gray book over to Mr. Lucky, explaining that it was a gift for him and it explained more about being a follower of Jesus Christ. I can still see his face lighting up, exclaiming; “Will read on break! Read on break!” and tucking it in carefully to the cracked red leather seat of his tuk-tuk. I feel like it was over all too fast, that I didn’t spend enough time with him or maybe that I talked too fast the whole time. I looked back as we walked into the Golden Banana; Mr. Lucky was standing around the huddle of tuk-tuks showing off his book that the “barang” or “foreign woman” had given him, the other drivers leaning in to read the title. A lump formed in my throat and I prayed that one day I would get to see Mr. Lucky in heaven, in glory, with the Savior who had redeemed us both.

As I write this, remembering the thoughtfulness of Mr. Luckys face my heart begins to ache for Cambodia, I miss the way she smells, her oddities and extreme differences, her strange-tasting food and her gracious citizens. I miss the way her people will take your hand the first moment that you meet, or the way you can play duck, duck goose with her children without speaking the same language. My experience with Mr. Lucky was one of my most treasured moments in Cambodia, not because of anything I did, but because it showed God moving brilliantly 9,000 miles from the church where I worship and the culture I know. Even now I can see Mr. Lucky rocking back and forth on his bare brown feet, humming along to the rhythm of our worship songs; we sang “In Christ Alone”. And it is in Christ alone that I’m confident that one day I could possibly raise my hands and my voice in worship alongside Mr. Lucky before the Throne; not by any stroke of luck, but through a beautifully orchestrated, sovereign grace.

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