Khmer New Year – our first go round

“Sous-Dey Joul Chnam T’my!” says the auntie who lives in the bottom of our building. We’ve just returned from a 7 day trip to Malaysia, and it’s April 14. We’ve been struggling to remember that today is Good Friday, and it felt weird to be travelling during this important day in our Christian calendar. Now we’re back at our home in Cambodia, but it’s not Good Friday here – it’s New Year’s Day, the first of 3 days to celebrate Joul Chnam T’my.

We’re still so new to life here in Cambodia, that we can’t adequately explain the history or meaning of a holiday like this very well. If you’d like less anecdotal information, allow us to direct you to wikipedia – Cambodian New Year.

What we heard from others who have lived here longer is that Khmer New Year is the biggest holiday of the Cambodian calendar. Although it is officially 3 days, most people are given 5 to 7 days off of work, depending on how the holiday falls around a weekend. The vast majority of people will return to their hometown, and everyone enjoys a huge family reunion. We live in Phnom Penh, the capital city, but we’re learning that not many people who live here were born and raised here. One of the first questions we ask when we are practicing our Khmer with a stranger is, “What province are you from?” Out of maybe 30 cases, I can only think of 2 or 3 people who were from Phnom Penh. Wow! So we were told that Phnom Penh ‘shuts down’ during the New Year holidays.

Our language school gave students and teachers April 9 – 17 off, and we thought since the city would be vacant, why not look into going to another country in South East Asia? We ended up choosing Malaysia because of ridiculously cheap flights (for photos, see Facebook). The timing of our trip had us arriving back in Phnom Penh on the 14th of April, which allowed us to experience a few days of the quiet streets. If you remember the video we took of us cycling through Phnom Penh, then the following video will show quite the contrast:

Fortunately for us, we didn’t miss out on all of the celebration and games that come with the New Year holiday. Our church, which is about 70% Khmer, was not going to have any services over the April 14 – 16 weekend since most of them would be leaving town. So they held a special pre-New Year celebration service with a focus on outreach on April 2. There was worship (Colin got to play his cajon), a message, lots of food, and games. One thing we’re learning is that Khmer New Year means game on! Here’s a video from that service with Colin participating in a game:

Today is Monday the 17th, and the streets are filling up again with people returning from their hometowns. We went to our favourite vegetable shop, and they were open, but low on stock. Some of the shops on our street have slid away the heavy metal gates that protected them in their owner’s absence. Tomorrow is back to language school for us, and back to the daily grind for most Cambodians. I wonder if the weeks ahead they will feel the same way we would feel the first few weeks of January: post-holiday syndrome. Before the New Year most of the people we talked to were visibly excited as they told us how much they looked forward to time with family and friends, food and fun, and those games!

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Another game: blindfolded, with one chance to swing at the clay pot, she must listen to one person give directions as everyone else shouts out wrong directions

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The streets are dirty, so after almost 3 months we decided it was time to get our bikes washed

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While on a bike ride south of the city, we found some Chinese men working on a new road

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If you’re a roofer here, harnesses are optional

Transition Time: Culture

Culture: it is mysterious, yet blatantly obvious; we try to define it, yet it is always in flux; it shapes who we are today, yet it has roots in a history long before our birth.

Culture is least obvious to us when we are in our own. When the majority of the people around you behave and think the same way as you, we tend to forget the vast differences between people.

For the record, if you are hoping to find an elaborate exposition on Khmer culture in the following paragraphs, wow, are you going to be disappointed! We have been here less than 3 months, and we are doing our best to reserve judgement. What does reserve judgement mean?

As humans, we seek to build our knowledge based on our observations of the world around us. For example, as children most of us learned that a red stove top is hot, and we will be burned if we touch it. We need this knowledge so we know how to act when we see another red stove top in the future.

In the same way when we come to a new culture, our tendency is to try and create knowledge based on our observations. For example, we see a father and mother laughing and playing with their young child in front of their house. They show affection to their child, and seem filled with joy at being parents. We may think, “wow, Cambodian parents really love their children!” And without knowing it, we have begun to make conclusions about a culture based on little evidence.

So we won’t be trying in any way to explain the culture here in Cambodia for you. Instead, we will share a couple short stories of experiences we’ve had in our brief time here.

Wedding Time: did you watch the video at the beginning of this post? Do you know what was happening in the video? What was all that loud strange music for? We asked ourselves these same questions, because this video was taken the first day we were in Cambodia. This video was taken before 8am on a Sunday morning! What we learned from our hosts was that there was a wedding taking place just across the street. You can see the white wedding tent between the two rows of houses in the video. It turns out, for a typical Khmer wedding in Cambodia, the wedding tent takes over the street and the multi-day event is heard by all neighbours, including the traditional music playing at concert decibels shortly after sunrise in the morning.

Wrong Number: one evening back in February Colin’s phone rang. It was a number he didn’t have saved in his phone, but he picked it up anyways. A man started talking fast in Khmer. Colin tried to use his limited Khmer to explain he didn’t speak much Khmer. The caller switched to English and asked for a certain name. Colin said he didn’t know him, and the caller said this number used to be his old friend’s. Once it was clear the caller had the wrong number, Colin expected the typical, “whoops, sorry, wrong number, bye.” But instead, the caller started asking questions: what’s your name, where are you from, how long have you lived in Cambodia, what is your job, etc. Colin answered all these questions with great patience. Then even more unexpected: “can I keep your number saved in my phone, so maybe we could talk more?” Colin: “um, what for?” Caller: “maybe we could be friends!” Colin: “ah… sure, why not.” Sure enough, occasionally Colin gets a text from a guy named Paully asking how he’s doing. Sometimes you just have to embrace the uncomfortable and the unexpected!

These are just two examples of a myriad of ways in which we are being exposed to the culture here every day. We are gradually learning more each day, but we are a long ways away from understanding even the tip of the iceberg of Khmer culture. When the differences between us seem too big, and we long to be with people who really understand us, we must remind ourselves that God made all people in His image. And as we’re starting to experience here at church, it is a beautiful thing when we can find unity in our identity in Christ!

From one person God made all nations who live on earth, and he decided when and where every nation would be. God has done all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him. He isn’t far from any of us, and he gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are. “We are his children,” just as some of your poets have said.” – Acts 17:26-28

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Temple at Angkor Wat

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Colin bombed around the Siem Reap countryside on this rental moto until the belt snapped.

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Kathleen’s friend SherryAnn from Singapore came to visit and we had a great time with her!

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Mmm… mango on crepes!

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Hauling the bamboo shoe rack home

Transition Time: Transportation

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All humans are mobile. Whether you grow up in a village where everything you need is within a 10 kilometer radius of your home, or you commute 80 kilometers to work one way on 6 lane highways in a fast car, or you are a nomad herding your livestock over 1000 kilometers a year in search of pasture and water, we are all on the move. We all need to find a way to get where we need to go. Our road could be a dusty worn out path in the grass, a narrow street flanked by market vendors, or a concrete freeway wider than a football field. Our mode could be an animals back, a heavy old single speed bicycle, or a car that reminds us to wear our seatbelts.

Six weeks ago we moved from Canada to Cambodia. Back in Canada, we were no strangers to hitting the road. We love cross country road trips in the car, short rocky climbs around Whitehorse in the truck, and riding our bikes when the roads were finally clear of snow. But here in Cambodia, transportation is different. We’re transitioning to a new way of getting around. We hope this blog post helps you “come along for the ride” with us as we share what transportation is like for us here!

The Street:

The street is an extension of the home, a place of business, and a parking lot all at once. Driveways don’t exist here, and parking lots are few and far between. Most people park their cars and motos in their living rooms. Let me explain: most houses don’t really have ‘front doors,’ they have gates or fold-away walls that open up the ground floor room of the house in its entire width to the open air of the street just a meter or two away. Sometimes this room is used by a family to eat meals, or to host guests, or it becomes floorspace for the family business (a barber shop, a restaurant, a printing house, you name it!). But many times it becomes a ‘garage’ for a car or two and a handful of motos. The short few meters between the houses and the streets means that the street often becomes an extension of the home. ‘Sidewalks,’ if a street has them, are rarely walked on. They become floorspace for businesses like moto repair pitstops, a home restaurant’s patio, or more parking for cars and motos.

The Mode:

Motos outnumber cars and trucks 100 to 1 it seems. You’d be surprised what a moto can do. They can pull a covered carriage and become a “tuktuk.” Hook a 4′ by 8′ box trailer on one, and voila! You can haul a pickup truck load worth of vegetables. Or how about 16 foot lengths of rebar or i-beams? No problem, a moto can haul that too! Some of these poor motos sound desperately close to blowing an engine. Other motos’ bent frames are evidence they have hauled way too much weight way too many times.

Of the cars that do roam the streets here in Phnom Penh, you’d be surprised how nice most of them are. There is an incredibly high import tax for vehicles, which somehow shrinks the price gap between regular and luxury vehicles (it also means cars are more expensive here than in Canada). We don’t entirely understand how this works, but the result is we see way more Lexus, Mercedes, and Land Rover vehicles here.

The New Normal:

We brought bicycles with us when we moved to Cambodia. Within a few days of landing here, we entered the flow of traffic like an aquarium fish would enter a raging river: scared, timid, but ready to learn. Six weeks in, and we are getting the hang of it. Biking here requires absolute attention. Even at our slow speed, we rarely have the opportunity to take our eyes off the road and see what shops we’re passing by.

Intersections are the most tricky. Traffic lights are only found at the big intersections where multilane roads divided by concrete medians meet. The other 98% of intersections are without traffic lights or stop signs of any kind. It’s really hard to describe how they work… basically when we bike up to an intersection, we slow down a bit and look left, right, straight, and sometimes behind us. We are trying to guess the intentions of other riders. We are looking for an opening, and ideally we try to keep moving so we don’t have to stop and put our foot down. There is a lot of creativity involved, especially in left hand turns!

Although we have front and rear lights, we usually take tuktuks instead of riding our bikes at night. The risk level increases beyond our comfort level once the sun sets. Most streets are lit, but some blocks are left in the dark. Many motos don’t have working headlights or taillights, or the driver simply hasn’t turned them on. Later in the evening the traffic is lighter, which means the speeds are faster. Combine all these factors with the added probability that some people are driving drunk, and you have a recipe for a risky ride home.

I mounted my iPhone to my handlebars and videotaped a bike ride. The quality is not great, but hopefully it gives you an idea of what it’s like, especially the left hand turns!

“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” – Proverbs 16:9

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The travelling banana stand man.

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Weddings happen on the streets too. This wedding tent filled a busy street one block from our house. The result on our street . . .

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Our small and usually tame street became jammed because of the wedding one block away. Cars took 10 minutes to pass through this photo.

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Rail transport is making a comeback in Cambodia. Passenger train service from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville via Kampot started last year. These tracks through Phnom Penh double as an unpaved road.

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The streets were very quiet over the Chinese New Year weekend. It was a great time to bike around and explore the city.

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Transition Time: Food

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Greetings from the Kingdom of Cambodia! We have been in country for 17 days, and we’re right in the midst of transition. On our 3rd day here we began language school. Although officially on our schedule the only task we have is learning the Khmer (pronounced k-my) language and the homework we receive each day, we have quickly come to realize how many other realms of life we need to relearn. We have decided to start a series of blog posts titled “Transition Time.” Each post will cover a different area of life. Today we’ll talk about food.

What is Khmer food? What food is grown locally and what is imported? Where should we buy food? Where should we eat out? How much does food cost?

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For the first week of our arrival, we did not have the ability to cook for ourselves, so we were eating out for both lunch and dinner every day. The hard part about eating out is whether we can communicate Kathleen’s celiac needs to the staff, and whether they will actually understand and make the food without gluten. Without any language skills or resources when we first arrived, every meal became a huge risk to her health. We were able to get our language teacher on the first day of class to write out in Khmer, “I cannot eat soy sauce. I cannot eat wheat. Please make my dish without soy sauce or wheat.” Kathleen was then able to present the instructions to the server, who hopefully reported them to the cooks, who hopefully obeyed. Kathleen recently found some help from another expat who has been living in Cambodia for a couple of years who also has celiac. Kathleen and her sat down for an hour or so and she gave Kathleen all sorts of tips on what local dishes to avoid, where to eat out, and even some recipe ideas. Thank God for those willing to help out!

One of the ideas we had before arriving was to avoid eating meat, which could be riskier based on how it’s butchered, cleaned, and prepared. But we quickly found that almost all restaurants have meat in every dish, so that plan has been harder to follow through on when we eat out. We have yet to cook meat at home these past 10 days since having our own kitchen. It is definitely nice to be able to prepare and cook our own food. It gives us much more confidence that we can stay healthy for our language studies!

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Learning our vegetable names in Khmer class

We were also really curious how much money food would cost. After about 2 weeks in, we are starting to learn the value of different products. Eating out, we’ve found most meals cost between 4 and 6 dollars. Some restaurants serve both Khmer and western food, but there isn’t a big price difference between the two options. An eating out experience we have yet to dabble in is eating street food. Colin bought a grilled corn on the cob for about 30 cents, which was a bit tough and not quite as sweet as what he is used to back in Canada. But other than that, we haven’t tried any street food. There is so much more to learn!

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Colin checks out some cashews at the market

To buy food for home, there are 2 main options: stores and markets. Markets have the energy. There are the smells, the sights, the noises, the crowds, the haggling, the characters, the heat, and the language practice. At this point in our transition journey, we dabble only a little in the markets. So far we have only bought fruit, mostly because the fruit is usually on the outer edges, and it looks so good that we can’t resist. The mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and oranges we buy at the market taste great! As far as price, we still have no idea what the going rate is for most things. I usually try to bargain for a lower price, but they don’t budge. At this stage, I ask myself, “would I pay this price in Canada?” My mind churns for a second as I recall the price of pineapples back in Whitehorse, and then I say, “2 pineapples pre-cut for $1? I’ll take them!” This is where knowing what is local comes into play. You can buy apples here, but they don’t grow anywhere near Cambodia. The Chinese ones are the cheapest, but the price for apples from Canada, USA, or New Zealand is outrageous. We ask ourselves, why would we pay $4 for 2 apples when we can buy 3 mangoes for only $1? We have a feeling we won’t be eating apples for a few years…

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These guys are about to go under the knife to become a tasty stir fry

Then there are the stores. If the markets have the energy, the stores have the comfort. They are air-conditioned, the prices are all marked (no haggling involved), and usually there are less crowds, depending on the time of day and how narrow the aisles are, of course. If markets win for freshness, stores win for selection. Some of the bigger stores have food from all over the world, even Doritos made in the USA, Dutch gouda, and Canadian maple syrup! We are still figuring out where to buy food and how much to pay, but we’re on our way.

This is all we can say about food for now. We know there is so much we don’t know, and it will be interesting to look back on this post months and years from now when eating here is second nature. For now, we remind ourselves to seek the most important food, God’s Word:

Deuteronomy 8:3: “so he made you go hungry. Then he gave you manna, a kind of food that you and your ancestors had never even heard about. The Lord was teaching you that people need more than food to live—they need every word that the Lord has spoken.” CEV

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Our last seconds in the Canadian winter air

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Traffic view from the seat of a tuktuk

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Our Whitehorse memento

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Khmer has 33 consonants and 58 vowels

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At the entrance to our great school, Gateway to Khmer 

A Look Back at 2016

On January 1st, 2016, we woke up ambitiously ‘early’ for new years day: 8:00am. The day before Colin had delivered mail for Canada Post, and that night we enjoyed a fun celebration of the New Year with friends. We hopped in Timmy, our 2012 Matrix with 46,000kms on the odometer, and began to drive south. We must have looked so funny passing those transport trucks on the Alaska highway with our red canoe strapped to the roof. Why were we driving away from the Yukon with our car loaded down and our canoe on the roof? Why weren’t we sleeping in and looking forward to the second half of winter in Whitehorse when the sunlight increases noticeably each day? Why weren’t we enjoying the stat holiday before returning to our letter carrier and substitute teacher jobs?

The answer: We were beginning our ‘year of preparation,’ as we coined it. You could say we have spent all of 2016 driving from our home in the Yukon starting January 1st towards our goal: Cambodia. And now it is complete. On January 5th, 2017, we fly to Cambodia!

Let’s take a look back on the incredible year God has brought us through. Although at times 2016 was difficult, daunting, and even drab, we don’t want to forget all the bountiful blessings we received, and all the extraordinary experiences we enjoyed! We’ve decided to do a bullet point recap, for your rapid-fire reading pleasure.

  • 55,000 kms (35,000 miles) of road trips (see map)
  • 95 nights camping in Bonnie, our tent trailer
  • only paid for 4 nights of camping!
  • Slept in over 50 different locations
  • over 200 visits and meals with friends and family all over Canada
  • 7 weeks of training
  • 14 days of fieldwork in Niger (Kathleen)
  • 3 months of plumbing apprenticeship in Calgary (Colin)
  • Drove through 18 American states, most of them new for us both

We are excited to see how 2017 will unfold.

Here are some photos from our time in Whitehorse and with family for Christmas this December.

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Homeward Bound x2

Man those were good movies eh? Cute pets get lost in the wilderness (or San Francisco) and have to embark on an epic journey to find their way home. In a couple ways we are homeward bound too. The journey we’ve been on this 2016 year has taken us away from our home in Whitehorse and brought us through so many experiences where our endurance, our patience, and our trust in God was tested. We have travelled many miles, met many people, and learned so much. Now the end is in sight. We’re so close to getting home (x2)!

In a couple days we head back to our home in the Yukon. We’ll spend 2.5 weeks in Whitehorse visiting with friends, worshipping with our church, and playing pond hockey – all in the place that is dear to our hearts. We are very excited!

The second way we are homeward bound, you ask? We have our flights booked to Cambodia! Yes, we have crossed the fund-raising threshold of 90% and were able to book flights. It feels more real now that there is a departure date! We hope and pray that God will one day give us a sense of Cambodia as ‘home,’ and that is why we are homeward bound – times two.

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Some of the excellent friends we’ve been blessed to spend time with!

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Leafs take a Time-Out against Buffalo

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K’s Bday dinner with part of C’s Fam

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Some of K’s Waterloo classmates reunite

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Camping by Lake Nocona, Texas

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Biking around Austin, TX

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Cotton fields near Lubbock, TX

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Timmy’s shadow

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K’s childhood friend visiting in Empress, AB

A Fall to Prepare

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Morning dew falls heavy on the W farm

It is a season of change. The summer light and warmth have faded to coolness. Dew falls thick and wet, stays well into the afternoon, and then one day it freezes everything in a blanket of ice. Often the changes of Fall are accompanied by a return of routine. We go back to school, Bible studies start up again, and we look forward to 4 straight months of work until Christmas. Yet sometimes Fall throws us a curveball, a new role, an unexpected friendship, or a life change.

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In recent years, Fall means football for my family (brother Michael at QB for Laurier)

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An unexpected role for Timmy

This Fall, Kathleen and I had the opportunity to take the MissionPrep course in Guelph along with our Cambodia team and 18 others preparing to start overseas mission work in the near future. We were unsure what to expect. To be honest, before the course I thought, “Do I really need more training before going to Cambodia?” To my pleasant surprise, yes! Not only did we learn so much through the course materials, but the interactions we had with the other students was incredible! It was so enriching to hear their stories of how God called them, where they have been, and how they hope to serve God where they are going.

Here is a shortlist of the topics we covered: spiritual vitality, understanding culture, ethnocentrism and stereotyping, worldview, gospel and culture, barriers and bridges, mosque visit and discussion with Imam, missionary kids/third culture kids, conflict resolution, moral purity, transition, grief and loss, staying healthy, theology of suffering, team building, spiritual warfare, multiple expectations, saying goodbye.

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We heard from a dozen amazing speakers

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One of many pages of collaborative notes from our class

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Using hymnals to represent the expectations we have to carry

One of our favourite aspects of the course was the Ebenezer moments. We learned how Samuel set up a stone to remember how God rescued Israel from the Philistines (1 Sam 7:12). He called the stone ‘Ebenezer.’ As a group, we took time to remember and share these moments in our lives and to add our own Ebenezer stone to the pile.

Moving to Cambodia will be hard. Working in a cross-cultural setting will be hard. We will encounter many nasty, difficult, painful, and sad things. But we learned how important it is to remember how God has been faithful to us in the past, to mark our own Ebenezer moments, and to share them with eachother as an encouragement.

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Pile of Ebenezer stones

One thing we really appreciated about the MissionPrep course and its facilitators was how real it was. Nothing was sugar coated. We battled through tough topics like suffering, grief, and conflict. We heard time and time again how the mission field is not a glamorous place constantly filled with joy, success, and celebration. We were brought back to this verse over and over again, to remind ourselves that in our weakness, God is strong:

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

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Kathleen wants one for her birthday. Find out soon if her dreams will come true!