ST. THOMAS, CANADA – If you can read this, congratulations — you’re better educated than two billion people.
If you have plenty of food to eat, consider yourself fortunate; three out of four human beings don’t.
And if you have money in the bank, be thankful. You’re among the planet’s wealthiest eight per cent.
Such would have bothered Samuel Mills, a young, white American who died aboard a ship in the summer of 1818.
Considered the first North American student missionary, he was exploring territory to repatriate African slaves. Seeking justice for the oppressed was a legitimate Christian mission back then.
Mills would hear postmodern, so-called scholars profess truth is really of one’s own making. This may not give much motivation to get up in the morning, but looking for absolute truth, you know, is a risky business. You may find it. Next thing, it will want to lay claim to your allegiance.
Despite the Niagara of information at our feet, Mills would then discover today’s North Americans are quite ignorant. Trivia we have. But the next time you get your daily fix, ask yourself if it’s causing you to change your life in any meaningful fashion. Final answer? Absolutely. In a culture of infotainment, there is water, water everywhere with nothing to drink.
Mills would then try to convince this continent’s wealthy Christians to let go of more than two per cent of their income for Christian causes and for churches to part with more than five per cent of that for global work. Then he’d face secular charges that Western missionaries are intolerant bigots, never mind that 70 per cent of Christians live outside North America.
He’d deal with the old argument of eternal injustice, that God wants to abolish suffering and can’t, or he can but doesn’t want to. If he wants to, but can’t, he is impotent. If he can, but doesn’t want to, he’s evil. Either way, if there’s a mess, it’s God’s fault.
Finally, Mills would explore the unmapped territory of his own soul. One direction would make him into a person of substance, someone who integrates great ideas with service to others. The other? It leads toward being a non-entity, a heavy walk of slavery and the quiet terror of his own demise.
It’s all a bit much.
But 20,000 university students from several countries and every ethnic backdrop imaginable met at the University of Illinois in Urbana recently to ask how their future vocations might fit into the ongoing story of global missions. For five days, in a typical Chicago winter, they looked hard at things neglected, before celebrating communion as one group and heading home. Canadians — there were 1,500 — were particularly identified as having unique opportunities abroad.
What’s 20,000? Precious little. It’s the number of children around the world in forced prostitution. It’s one 500th of the children in bonded slavery in India alone. It’s the daily death toll during the worst of the Rwandan genocide. The mess is overwhelming. So why try to clean it?
For guilt? No. The Millses of today are not running to Goodwill before leaving on the next global trek. They’re simply not willing to settle for culture as the ultimate source of their identity. And Urbana, a triennial gathering with Canadian roots, shows there is a vision of freedom that goes past living with an SUV in suburbia. How refreshing.
A rich, young ruler once asked Christ what he needed to do to experience his eternal kingdom. It’s the story of our time. While much of the global community reaches for the table and waits for the haves to find their conscience, we would rather, as social commentator Neil Postman aptly puts it, amuse ourselves to a silly death.
The issue is one of resolve. But the divine does not leave us alone. He prods us like loving parents who get a child out the door by saying they have their own coats on already. “I’m going outside to a world that needs me now. And I’ll help you with the courage you’ll need if you want to be with me.”
It’s a warm invitation. But we don’t bundle up and go. The loss is ours.