by Jim Reapsome
Staring at the back of the head in the pew in front of me, I wasn’t sure if it was a male or female. The tiny gold earring stuck in th left ehar lobe caught my eye first, but that was inconclusive.
If you’re a pre-World War II missionary, and male, and a baseball fan, youo might remember broadcaster Red Barber, who for many years made his home in the catbird’s seat at Brooklyn Ebbetts Field, where the Dodgers used to play before they moved to Los Angeles. Red passed away lat last year, leaving behind a rich legacy of broadcasting integrity and wholesome use of the language. He called his broadcasting booth the catbird’s seat because from there he surveyed the arena of the game and called it as he saw it. This column aims to do something similar for the fans and players in world missions.
Staring at the back of the head in the pew in front of me, I wasn’t sure if it was a male or female. The tiny gold earring stuck in th left ehar lobe caught my eye first, but that was inconclusive. I had to be sure, so I searched the right ear lobe. No earring. Sure enough, it was a boy, about 14. (Yes, I tried to "make a statement" as they now say, when I was 14, but wearing an earring was not the way to do it then. So instead, I wore my infamous "monkey tie.")
I cannot precisely interpret what pierced ears and earrings say for boys (and men) today, but I do know what the pierced ear said in the days of Moses. It marked a devoted lifelong servant. Every missionary should belong to the "order of the pierced ear," so to speak, because today the notion of lifelong missionary service is getting plowed under by our prevailing cultural attitudes toward careers and vocations in general.
Phil is one of the old order, a veteran of 30 years in some of the world’s toughest places, where gratification does not come from hugh numbers of converts. He’s got a pierced ear for Jesus and for the cause of making him known in hostile territory. Like John Wayne riding, crawling, and slugging it out to capture the villans of the Old West, Phil has stayed with his primary task.
Why? A paragraph from his last prayer letter says it all:
"Often we are asked about our future plans. Attractive offers to teach and administer in the states have come and gone. None have every really enticed us. We are very, very happy (where we are). My life’s motif is to ‘persevere to the end with integrity.’"
That’s the pierced eary motif. Why are pierced ears becoming scarcer and carcer in world missions? Some would say it’s because today’s newcomers belong to a generation that ties on jobs like someone posturing in Marshall Field’s hat department. Other’s think it’s because nobody makes lifetime commitments to anything anymore, not even to marriage, let along to some Christian vocation like being a pastor or a missionary.
Another theory says it’s unrealistic to expect this of missionaries in today’s world because conditions on the field change so rapidly (civil wars, visa restrictions, and so on), and the national churches don’t want you to stay around for life anyway. Being a lifelong missionary is a false hope, some say, because of changing family demands (taking care of elderly parents, educating your children, and so on), to say nothing of health and financial risks.
None of this is new. Missionaries have always had to change their field of service for these reasons, and some have always had to come home. But that was not their intention when they started out. What we are seeing more of today are the intentional short-term expectations of new missionaries, not the lifelong commitment denoted by the pierced ear.
Is this trend caused by a mysterious spiritual malaise descending upon our homes, churches and schools, like deadly carbon monoxide escaping from your furnace? Perhaps so. Perhaps almsot unconsciously we have succumbed to the noxious fumes that lure us to think that we can carry on world missions on a purely secular basis.
Do we give the impression that being a missionary is just like any other career or vocation, and if it doesn’t work out you can move into something else? In our zeal to attract recruits, do we lower the demands just a little lest we risk turning some away? Jesus never did that, nor should we.
Far better to have a few devoted lifelong servants with their pierced ears, than a lot of people trying it our for a career fit. To that end, we need some resounding teaching, preaching, writing and encouraging among the youth of America. We must refuse to allow culture to set the agenda for tomorrow’s would-be missionaries. Nothing less than having your ear nailed to the wall will do.
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