By Brett Younger
Less than 10 percent of the world’s population speaks English as their primary language. Less than 5 percent of the world lives in the United States. Less than 2 percent of the world is Baptist. Less than 1/100 of 1 percent of the world is a member of a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church. I have spent most of my life in a good but tiny corner of the world.
A Malaysian saying argues that too many live with limited vision, “like frogs under coconut shells.” Perhaps if, as J.B. Philips put it, “Your God is too small,” it is because our world is too small. St. Augustine wrote, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.”
Six months ago Carol and I went where 99 percent of the population is happy to speak Spanish in a country that is not the United States. While serving as the interim pastor of Santiago Community Church, during a party at the manse (Anglican for parsonage), I said, “Carol is the only Baptist I have seen in several months.”
A Taiwanese woman replied, “I’m a Baptist.”
Sophia and Carol are the only Baptists I saw for several months. The church we served had people from 23 nationalities and 18 denominations.
Carol and I hiked along the Pacific and in the Andes. We saw sea lions, penguins and a blow hole. We ate pepinos, pastel de choclo and Super Ocho candy bars.
We celebrated Chilean Independence Week and the country’s newest holiday, “Protestant Day.” We were entertained by the Andes Highlanders dance team and a jazz tango trio. At a Muslim Iftar I met a diplomat from Iraq whose wife left him in Paris — which he does not consider the most romantic city in the world.
Carol and I went salsa dancing, horseback riding, and to the 56th anniversary of a fire station that has a swimming pool. We saw the world’s largest swimming pool — which is really big. I visited two of Pablo Neruda’s three houses and read two-thirds of a book of his poetry without understanding why he won the Nobel Prize.
We enjoyed being in a country with pictures of Nobel Prize winning poets (Gabriela Mistral) on their money instead of Indian fighters (Andrew Jackson). I was, for the first time, mistaken for an Australian. When asked to bring something exotic from her home country, Carol took Dr Pepper.
We drank coffee with the Archbishop of Canterbury and learned to greet people with a holy kiss just like Paul said we should. We shared church with people who climbed Kiliminjaro, ran with the bulls of Pamplona and hitchhiked to South America from Wisconsin. I led a Bible study that included a 27-year-old who has been to 41 countries and bull riding camp. I worshipped with people who were shocked to meet someone who has only lived in one country.
We shared church with courageous people who became Christians as adults and had their lives changed. God reinvented them.
My experience is that people who have seen the world tend to have a bigger view of God. People who know only those like themselves begin to think God is like them.
Thomas Aquinas said, “I have seen things that make my writings like straw.”
Most preachers do not have to see much for that to be true for their preaching, so seeing the world helps. The more we understand about how big God’s world is, the more we recognize that some things we ignore matter and some things we give a lot of attention to do not matter much. When I studied the Pentecost story (different nations coming together in the Spirit) with young adults from Chile, Finland, Germany, El Salvador, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Jamaica, I was reminded that the church is about the Spirit bigger than we realize.
Ministers are tempted to focus on the success of the institution, but the world needs God. We need to preach to ultimate concerns — love, joy and peace. Churches need to speak of God who is bigger than we have been led to believe.
The kingdom of God does not extend as far as we can see. The kingdom is far bigger. When the trumpet sounds for the party to end all parties we are not going to recognize many of the people there. Come that great homecoming parade, the processional will be filled with those who have nothing in common but the grace of God that invites us home.