Missionary Diary: What is all this 'red and gold’ about?

Jill and Jeremy Horrocks are serving God with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Jill and Jeremy Horrocks

Jill and Jeremy Horrocks

Jeremy and I recently arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to serve again with CMS. Previously, we had served with the same mission agency in Tanzania, going there as a young married couple with no children.

When we returned to Australia in 2005, our children had nearly completed primary school.

As grandparents, we have taken another opportunity to serve overseas with CMS, this time in Cambodia, which means another language to learn and a new religious (Buddhist) culture to become familiar with!

Jeremy will soon start teaching Mathematics at a Christian school for predominantly foreign Christian workers’ children (Hope International School). I am hoping to be involved in teaching English at a Bible college.

Learning to observe

Our time of training at St Andrew’s Hall before leaving taught us to observe, observe, observe. So, we have been using opportunities to look carefully at the everyday practices of local Cambodians.

The language school has helped us not only with language but also with beginning to understand some aspects of the culture. One of the topics we discussed was colour. The colours we see everywhere are red and gold, which are considered to be religious colours bringing blessing, good luck and protection. There is even a special religious flag that displays these religious colours.

Meaningful colours

Recently, we spent some time riding bikes around the area to get a closer look at the local Buddhist temple called Wat Samroung  Andet, which is next door to where we live. The wall surrounding the wat and the gateway into the street that leads to the temple has just had a coat of gold paint added. Gold is thought to represent purity, knowledge and enlightenment.
Apparently, most Cambodians visit their Wat only on special celebrations or festivals, though people seem to come more often to this one, using the quiet, green space to walk and enjoy.

The other colour we observe everywhere is red. In Khmer culture, red symbolises the blessings received from practising Buddhist traditions. Our impression is that at least 50 per cent of people wear or display some observable red colour. For individuals, this is the wearing of red strings around their wrists or on their vehicles to ensure protection and blessing.

Efforts to appease

Spirit houses can be seen outside or inside most homes, shops and buildings. They will generally be provided by a landlord if the building is rented. Many believe it is important that offerings be made daily to the displaced spirits that may have resided in the area to ensure that the spirits do not cause trouble. Every day most Cambodian Buddhists usually leave some food and coffee (and sometimes fake money) for the spirits.

We have noticed plenty of shops that offer the religious requirement items thought to bring blessings and good fortune. These can especially be found in the vicinity of the Wats.

When we are out and about in the mornings, we see Buddhist monks walking around with their begging bowls. Monks generally do their rounds in the morning as they apparently don’t eat until 11 am. Often people come out from houses and shops to greet the monks respectfully and deposit something into their bowls. In the city, people usually give money, though in the provinces, people generally give food. Our understanding is that people believe this will provide blessing and good fortune for the giver.

Living in fear

From our discussions with Christian Cambodians, we understand that Buddhist Cambodians live in fear of spirits and the trouble they can cause if not appeased correctly. We have learned that the fear of not practising these rituals can make some Cambodians antagonistic towards Christians-Cambodians who choose to follow Jesus, and therefore not maintain these practices. The fear is that the spirits will be angered and cause havoc for a family associated with a Christian.

Looking forward, sharing the hope of Jesus

All these attempts to appease the spirits remind us of the peace we can only find in knowing the God of the universe, who does not live in houses made by man, nor desires that we represent his image in any way.

Acts 17:24-31: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. …29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past, God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

As we continue to observe and learn, we are committed to serving here long-term, seeing how we can be used by God in our different ministries to share of the hope found in knowing Jesus. We look forward to building deeper relationships with Cambodians and finding out about their core beliefs and world views. Please pray with us for the people of Cambodia to come to know the true God and what he has done through his son Jesus on the cross.

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