"There is no new thing under the sun," King Solomon wearily wrote almost a millennium before Christ. But in a keen observation on the capacity of human beings to forget, he added, "There is no remembrance of former things." (Eccles. 1:9-11)
Nearly 30 centuries later, Harry Truman offered a similar perspective: "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."
If the historical knowledge of America's schoolchildren is any indication, little has changed. How many kids today can identify Solomon, or Harry Truman? Adults display just as much historical ignorance; many are products of a public school system in decline and a society that lives for the moment.
"The fabric of our way of life is in jeopardy because we are losing our national memory," warns David McCullough, historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a book about Truman. "We are raising a generation of historically illiterate young Americans." Most high school history teachers "have never really studied history," he states, and 60 percent of their students graduate with "basically no knowledge" of what happened before their living memory.
If we know nothing of the past, McCullough says, we lose our identity. We also become more susceptible to lies and manipulation. Ignorance and evil walk hand in hand.
Is it possible that God's commands could not only be defied but virtually forgotten in two or three generations? It happened in ancient Judah. When the earnest young king, Josiah, discovered and read the lost "book of the law" while repairing the temple in Jerusalem around 622 B.C., he tore his robe in repentance for his people's sins. He also proceeded to eradicate the idol worship and cult practices permeating the land (2 Kings 22-23).
Less than a century before, Josiah's righteous great-grandfather, Hezekiah, had done the same thing with the support of the prophet Isaiah. But the long reign of Hezekiah's wicked son, Manasseh, led the people back into abominations. It also led to Judah's eventual destruction.
Many American Christians look at the state of their nation and see abundant evidence of a similar decline — and it happened here in less than a generation. Even within evangelical churches, widespread ignorance of the Bible undermines God's work in this and future generations.
It also threatens the future of missions. The Bible is a missionary book, from God's covenant with Abraham in Genesis to Jesus' promise to return quickly in the last chapter of Revelation. But if it isn't preached and taught that way, where will missionaries of the next century come from?
God will find them elsewhere. He already is doing so as churches on one-time mission fields overseas become missionary senders. But it would be a tragedy of monumental proportions if American churches cease to participate in God's world mission.
Think of the personal testimonies of Southern Baptists now serving as missionaries. Many who grew up in church say God first drew them toward missions as children. Frequently, the divine urging comes through a human channel — a faithful parent, church mission organization leader, Sunday School teacher, pastor or missionary speaker.
The stories of missionary heroes like Lottie Moon, Buck Bagby, Bill Wallace, and Bertha Smith must be passed from one generation to the next. History, Thomas Carlyle said, is the biography of great men. Missions history is the biography of great missionaries — ordinary people who attempted great things for God.
In the book, A Journey of Faith and Sacrifice: Retracing the Steps of Lottie Moon, Foreign Mission Board President Jerry Rankin writes: "As a child I was captivated by the story of Lottie Moon, told to us along with accounts of contemporary missionaries as if she were still alive. And in a sense she is; her calling and sacrificial commitment continue to inspire hundreds of Southern Baptist missionaries who still follow in her steps." Rankin himself followed Lottie to Asia as a missionary for 23 years.
The current era of mission advance "did not just happen," Rankin reminds. Missionaries of the past, "including many who have given their lives in distant and hostile lands, have laid a magnificent foundation for our era. Because of their obedience to the call, their suffering and their sacrifice, Southern Baptists today serve (worldwide) and report record baptisms and church growth."
But that tradition could crumble in a generation or less if we don't pass the torch to our children.
We often search desperately for role models for our children. Our children search for them too, sometimes even more desperately. What better models could they find than missionary servants of the past — and present?
Not long ago, I came across a comic book with stories about missionary heroes and heroines — some of them martyred. I took it home and read it to my 4-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. In one of the illustrated stories, a young man responds to an appeal for missionaries in Korea by exclaiming, "I'll go!"
My daughter took the comic book to her room before bedtime. Later, passing by her room, I heard her say, "I'll go!" I peeked in and saw her studying the pictures in the missionary story.
Age 3 is a bit early for a missionary call, I admit. But could the Lord be whispering to her about days to come?