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FIRST-PERSON: Throwing our hats over the wall

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — Irish writer Frank O’Connor told the story of two boys standing beside a tall orchard wall launching a small, felt, round object up in the air like a Frisbee. If you had been there to see them, it would have looked strange — even foolish. With the enthusiasm of a college graduate, one of the boys hurls his hat and you arrive just in time to see it leave the hand of its owner and travel high — up and over an imposing and significant wall.

You might have wanted to call out and say, “Why did you do that? Now you are going to have to climb over and get it!” To which, the boys would reply with sly and knowing grins, “Exactly. That’s the whole idea.”

President John F. Kennedy referenced this story in 1963 when speaking of his commitment to space exploration despite the dangers and many unknown factors. He explained how O’Connor and his friends “would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they would take off their hats and toss them over the wall — and then they had no choice but to follow them.” Kennedy then applied this to the nation and declared that the United States had now “thrown its hat over the wall of space and had no choice but to follow it.”

When it comes to the willingness to take the Gospel to those who have never heard it, I am convinced that we share a similar position and outlook that our nation held when considering the prospects of sending a man to the moon. Standing beside what seems an insurmountable wall of fear, excuses, distractions and, if we are honest, selfishness, we sit down. Or we turn around. Or we try to find some other wall that is easier to climb.

Often, though, all it would take for us to follow God to the ends of the earth is to stop the analysis and debate and instead take off our hats, hold them firmly in our hands, and throw them over the wall by faith. If we made that decision to reach the unreached, then we would have no choice but to find a way over the wall to reach them.

After returning from a 10-day trip to southern Madagascar for the purpose of establishing a plan to send teams of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary students to reach the Antandroy people with the Gospel, the question I have been asked most frequently is, “So, what exactly are you all going to be doing there?”

This fair and honest question and others similar to it often come when someone learns of the great lengths or expense one takes to visit a people so very different than those around the corner. In short, they are asking not just what are we doing there but why are we even wanting to go in the first place. Why would a seminary send two vice presidents, an academic dean and other staff halfway around the world to explore this distant culture? In these cases, Romans 15 and Coca-Cola often come to mind as a way to respond.

The book of Romans gives the model example of a missionary-theologian. As Paul concludes his letter containing life-changing theological explication, he reveals his ultimate ambition. Paul hopes to travel to see the believers in Rome but then to continue to the then-known ends of the earth, Spain. In chapter 15, Paul explains that in the geographic area where he has labored for his entire ministry he has “fulfilled the ministry of the Gospel of Christ” (15:19). The idea here is not that he preached the Gospel to every individual but rather that he sufficiently established in every area believers and churches to take over that task. Seeking now not to “build on someone else’s foundation,” Paul desires to move on to areas where Christ has not yet been named (15:20).

By way of further explanation of this specific calling, Paul quotes Isaiah 52:15, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” In this passage, Isaiah tells of a day when peoples who have not heard of the Messiah would see and understand. Paul is acknowledging, by the use of this verse, that such a day had come with the advent of Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel.

The U.S. Center for World Mission documents that more than 90 percent of the global evangelical missionary effort is concentrated among the 60 percent of the world that is reached or within reach. This means that only 10 percent of our missionary force is working among the remaining 40 percent who have never heard the Gospel or have little access to the Gospel.

To those who would rightfully remind the ones zealous for unengaged peoples that there are plenty of lost and even unreached peoples at home, I gladly acknowledge that the call to leave all and go is not universal. However, Romans 15 makes clear that a specific calling exists in the New Testament for believers to see that the Gospel is taken to the unengaged and unreached peoples of the world. While not the specific vocational call for all believers, all are to contribute to the task. Just as Paul left some working behind in the reached areas, many should stay behind today. But, just as Paul sought to enlist those believers in Rome and other cities to aid in reaching the unreached, all should support that ultimate task to see the fulfillment of Psalm 67 for God’s saving power to be made known among all nations.

Even with advancements in technology and travel, one reason why there exist still many people who have not heard of Jesus Christ is simply because travel to them remains very difficult. The Antandroy, meaning “people of the thorns,” live among thorny plants in the bush. You will find the majority of these 850,000 people along a remote 400-mile stretch across the southern portion of Madagascar. With a single unpaved road traversable only part of the year, exposure to the Gospel for these people created in God’s image has only just begun. However, difficult to reach does not mean unreachable.

An early chairman of Coca-Cola set out as his goal to see a bottle of Coke within “an arm’s reach of desire” of every person on the globe. This strategy led to the exponential growth of the company throughout the 20th century and the virtual fulfillment of that dream by the 21st century.

While traveling among the tribal villages in Madagascar on sandy roads navigating quad-four-wheelers, there was little that reminded me of home in the USA. Stick huts, homemade canoes and ragged clothing met me in every village. Yet along with these scenes came the familiar red signs with white script announcing the availability of Coca-Cola. Local missionaries told us that in many regions where drivable roads stop, porters are hired to carry Coca-Cola to the remotest villages, proving that if one is committed to achieving his mission in this world, few earthly obstacles remain to prevent it.

The father of modern missions, William Carey, writing in his mobilizing manifesto, “The Enquiry,” recognized even in 1792 the often-unparalleled commitment of commercial enterprise to reach the ends of the earth. Carey noted that if “we should have as much love to the souls of our fellow-creatures, and fellow sinners, as they have for the[ir] profits … all these difficulties would be easily surmounted.” Thus, while difficulties in travel abound, the unreached for Christ are already reached by many for monetary gain, who come just as far at great expense but not with “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

To those who ask and are puzzled as to why Southwestern Seminary would expend effort, time and resources to assist the International Mission Board in reaching the Antandroy people of southern Madagascar, I suppose Southwesterners must look like the two boys standing at the base of a seemingly insurmountable wall dangerously close to throwing their hats to the other side.

However, when asked whether we realize the weight of what we are attempting to do and that our attempts to go to the ends of the earth will necessitate following through regardless of hardship and challenges — you might just see a few sly grins of joy and expectation and hear the boyish reply, “Exactly. That’s the whole idea.”

A wall exists that appears high and too difficult to traverse when it comes to the planning, funding, sacrificing and sending of those to engage the unengaged and reach the unreached with the Gospel. Nevertheless, believing God and His Word, and with a love for the peoples of the earth, we have thrown our hats over the wall. Will you join us as we seek to retrieve them?
Jason G. Duesing serves as vice president for strategic initiatives and assistant professor of historical theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the editor of the forthcoming book, “Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary” (B&H Academic, 2012). This column first appeared at TheologicalMatters.com, a blog of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Jason Duesing