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Thursday, December 31, 2015

URBANA 15: pick me up to write your story

We are closing the year here in St. Louis, MO, along with 16,000 college students and a few hundred mission organizations and leaders, with the theme "What story will you tell?"  Once upon a time, we were students ourselves, attending Urbana in 1981 and 1984.  I remember the colored pencil manuscript Bible studies, the heart-breaking stories from Helen Roseveare, the Scottish accent of Eric Alexander, the midnight communion then trekking through the snow for our all-night bus rides home. Our "Africa Team" committed ourselves during the 1984 Urbana.

Fast forward the story by 30 years (!) and here we are again, only now the event has moved from the bleak utilitarian university and dorm setting to the skyscrapers of downtown St. Louis with it's convention center and football stadium.  The artistry, in music, drama, videos, lighting, integration of themes, sheer movement of thousands of people have all taken leaps ahead.  The worship team has gone to great lengths to be multicultural in content and appearance, celebrating diversity, and to be professional in quality.  The art and drama enhance the truths taught through the Gospel of Matthew.  Our main speaker is the head of OMF, a doctor from Hong Kong with detailed and deep scriptural analysis sprinkled with inspiring stories of OMF missionaries.  Besides the Matthew study, there are a dozen or more other speakers sharing their stories, plus about 200 seminars on a vast array of topics in the afternoons, plus hundreds of exhibitors.  It is dizzying.

A few months ago we volunteered to lead a couple seminars, and were thankful to make the cut.  On Monday we spoke to a couple hundred students on "Child Health in the Majority World:  A Billion Reasons to Hope", which was part public-health stats on the improvements in child mortality in the last 25 years (we've gone from over 12 million under-five deaths/year to just under 6 million), part evidenced-based medicine examining which interventions actually work, and part missionary-testimony talking about what we believe are best practices.  Yesterday we tackled a more emotional topic:  "Risk, Safety, and Faith:  Missions in an Age of Ebola and Terrorism."  As per the conference theme, we told some stories of our own struggles with risk and loss, and examined Jesus' story as an example to us of incarnation (taking on the reality of the people we are reaching), the cross (the path of suffering is the path of love), and resurrection (risk becomes worth it when the redemption of the world is at stake).

When we're not attending the morning and evening massive gatherings in the dome, or speaking in afternoon seminars, we're on the Serge teams at our booth.  We make ourselves available to talk to students, to ask questions, to listen to their concerns, to pray for them sometimes, or to just encourage and offer options for their journey onward.  It is sometimes loud, chaotic, tiring, exciting, fun, draining.  Our Serge team does an amazing job of really ministering to students who are at times confused by the uncertainty of their future, and looking for God's leading.  We also represent our teams as we look for connections with people who can boost them.  Last night we were one of nearly 50 pairs of leaders serving communion to the crowd of students, which was a joy, blessing them over and over, one by one, a moment of individuality in this crowd experience.  Just getting in and out of the halls in flows of massive crowds, or managing to get food, or find our family, can be a challenge.

Yes, find our family.  Jack, Julia, and Caleb are attending as college students themselves.  Experiencing this worship together, discussing the topics speakers bring up, working together at the Serge booth, have all been a priceless gift.  We miss Luke but he is studying diligently for his board exams coming up in a month.

And perhaps that has been the highlight for us, processing the experience in a way that helps us understand our own kids' reality as people raised in Africa and immersed in the American University Culture.  This Urbana has not yet really felt like the call-to-leave-all sort of classic mission-promoting conference of old.  Maybe that comes today, in the final sessions, I hope we focus on what story GOD is telling. But Urbana has tackled some important issues head-on, namely racial tension in the USA, the persecuted church around the world, and our approach to Muslims.

The first day and a half were largely focused on issues of race.  Which felt authentic, since the conference is on the doorstep of Ferguson, in a year marked by tragic injustice and loss.  It also felt uncomfortable at times, as speakers grappled to both acknowledge that weighty iceberg of history that we would rather not see below the surface, and to sound a clarion call towards reconciliation, which was mostly excellent, but at times simply sounded angry and divisive.  My favorites were Christina Cleveland's appeal to move from a dichotomized view of the world separating us from them, to a trinitarian-based view of us-only, unity without loss of uniqueness.  And this quote from an activist named Michelle in one of the videos:  "The goal of activism is not to defeat a person who is your enemy but to defeat the force that is making you hate each other."  Amen.  If only we could truly keep that in mind.

While the call to bring the church to the nations has not sounded so loudly, the truth that the church exists in suffering and danger in many nations has been beautifully and soberly shown.  One night we were invited to bring candles (battery ones, of course) onto the floor of the arena and pray for believers who suffer persecution in about 8 different countries around the world, including Kenya and S-lia.

And lastly, in a climate of American politics where Muslims are presented with fear and blaming, it has been refreshing and courageous to see Urbana speak with calm, loving, joyful rationality.  Several speakers have told their own stories of coming to faith, and pleaded with American/Canadian college students to listen, to build bridges, to pray, to be respectful, to present truth with love.

Tonight we will end 2015 with most of our family, enfolded in the Serge family, and surrounded by the family of God.  The spiritual battle is real, as we tackle racism and persecution and as we move towards others in love.  This spiritual battle feels palpable as we meet a few blocks from the Mississippi river which is flooded to its highest stage, ever.  The conference ends at midnight, at which point we move into the next year and the rest of life.  Pray today that many many students grasp a bigger view of their own story within the context of God's story, and take courageous steps to join wherever that leads.  I'll end with a chorus we sang last night:

O God, here am I, send me, use me for your glory.
O God, here am I, send me, pick me up to write your story.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Praying with you. May God bless you and yours and the wonderful work you do. Judy in HMB