I sat in a classroom a number of years ago at a wealthy church on the northwest fringe of San Antonio. I spent a couple of hours a week listening to professors, preachers, and lifelong missionaries teach.
The class was called “World Missions” or something along those lines. I had just returned to America from South Africa where I was a missionary, so I went into the class with a certain level of cynicism. I wondered what a professor with a power point could know about the plight of the billions of desperately poor and hopeless in the world.
The class began by focusing on great Christian missionaries of the past, on their journeys, their triumphs, and the occasional tragedy (nothing says you preached poorly louder than getting eaten by your loin-clothed congregants).
I spent most of every class wondering why we were actually sitting in a classroom. I became a missionary with absolutely no training. I didn’t know Christian history or the names of great explorers. I knew how to get on an airplane and to make peanut-butter sandwiches. As far as I could tell, there was not a whole lot more that went into being the hands of what Jesus called “true religion”.
Eventually, my bewilderment grew to a silent rage, as I listened to my classmates (almost all a different generation than me) debate the best way to “reach” people or how we could really define if a place had been given a clear representation of the gospel. Judgment filled my heart as I wondered how we could reduce suffering humanity to a list of check-boxes that either had or had not been given proper opportunity to pray a prayer that would apparently lead to eternal salvation (even though it was neither a biblical solution nor a concept that most hand-raising natives even understood).
I spent my energy crafting the perfect public statement to deliver to the class, to wake them from their holy slumber. My greatest discontent lay on the collective ring fingers of the class. We sat lamenting the poverty and deplorable life conditions of so many around the world and we probably had 75 carats of diamonds in that room, just gathering dust.
In my day-dreaming, I would stand up and give a great speech about the stain on our souls. I would chastise the group for their feel-good attendance that impacted absolutely no one. I would tear at the system that claimed that humanity only needed a properly translated bible to be ministered to, when I knew full well that the world was flooded with bibles and yet dying due to a lack of people willing to obey the words inside.
I would then challenge the group of wealthy Americans to look at those sparkling gems on their fingers and consider that $1 can feed more than a dozen children. How many meals (or immunizations or mosquito nets or clean-water wells) would the collective wealth in that room buy? How could we expect the world to listen to our words about grace and mercy, sacrifice and uncompromising love…how could we expect the world to listen to our mouths when our hands speak of a very different message, a message of consumption and scarcity, of hoarding and gorging and general malaise?
I never did muster up the audacity to stand in front of that class. Perhaps I stayed silent out of respect for the friend who had taken me to the class. Perhaps it was the conviction in my own heart that I was no different than my bejeweled classmates. I had my own hang-ups and strongholds. I had my own unnecessary possessions and selfish vices. Perhaps it was the simple knowledge if I was going to rail against our proclivity for preferring talking over action, talking at a bunch of folks about it would probably be the epitome of hypocrisy. So, I stayed silent.
I have been grappling with issues of wealth and our faith again recently. I have been probing at the heart of God (if such a thing is even possible) as to why some have so much and others so little. I have been taking inventory of my own possessions, again wondering where the least of these could be served by the shedding of my excess. I don’t suppose I’ll ever give my little speech to the well-intentioned folks in the wealthy church. I imagine, however, that for as long as I am here I’ll be giving the speech to myself.