Today, I take my text from page 24 of the United States of America Passport which I hold in my hand. On that page there is a visa stamp, dated May 12, 2003, Republic of Chile. May 12th was a Monday. Two days earlier, my own daughter had walked down the aisle in Alumni Gym to receive her Georgetown College diploma. The next day, I boarded a plane in Cincinnati, changed planes in Atlanta for a Delta Airlines jet headed to Santiago. On Tuesday, May 13, I arrived on the far side of the world.
With me on the trip were one professor, Pat Cooper of the Spanish Department, one intern, Derek Ball of Campus Ministry, and one GC alum, Grundy Janes who had spent 29 years of his life as a missionary in Chile. There were also 11 students: Sarah Lyle, Grace Becknell, Sarah Beth Blewitt, Jennifer Bustle, Jonathan Carr, Vanessa Carper, Jennifer Cooper, Jennifer Kennedy, Clark Lester, Ashleigh Killin and Torey Merrick.
How do I love these students? Let me count the ways: climbing the fortress in the center of Santiago; watching the changing of the guard at the presidential palace; singing, testifying and preaching at the Mapuche church; dipping and double dipping in the hot springs and mountain creek; playing cards past midnight every night; talking, praying, reading, learning, traveling, and most of all laughing.
The trip to Chile was one of the most memorable episodes of my six years here at the College. It reinforced this conviction: some things happen when we travel that cannot happen at home. We grow, learn, explore, imagine; we change; we are transformed by what we see and smell and hear. We meet people, hear stories, visit places, eat food, face danger, read books, and offer prayers that we would never do if we had stayed at home. We cannot be who we are meant to be until we leave the comfort of home to travel to the far side of the world.
Here is the word for today: do not neglect the opportunity to travel to some far corner of the world. Two weeks ago, on Freshman Move-In day, I helped two students unload their cars then went to the plaza outside the Grille. I stood at the hot dog stand and ate lunch. An elderly gentleman started a conversation with me. He is from a local church and was on campus to give our freshman a warm welcome. I do not know his name; to my knowledge, I had never seen him before. He began talking about his own trip this summer. He went with his church to the Mediterranean Island of Malta. After relating to me many wonderful experiences, he said: “I wish I had done this when I was a student, it would have changed my life.”
My challenge to you young people today: do not let this be your testimony when you are seventy: “I wish I had gone when I was a student!” What a tragedy to have waited through seven decades of life before venturing to the far side of the world.
Do you have a passport? I am among those who think owning a passport should be required for matriculation as a student at Georgetown College. I also am convinced that every student should have at least one visa stamp in your passport as a condition of graduation. This service of worship is a CEP event; that stands for Curriculum Enrichment Program. The single most effect curriculum enriching experience you can have is a trip to the far side of the world. The very best CEP ticket you can turn in is a passport with a visa stamp!
Your travel to the far side of the world will also be a spiritual experience. The Bible bears witness to the transformational power of such experiences. Abraham had a passport: that is implied in the narratives in both the Old and New Testaments. International travel is a fundamental part of the biblical record.
Don’t get me wrong: home is good. Everybody needs a home. Everybody needs parents who welcome you, a place that is safe. We hope this college campus will be your home. For a year, the big bench in front of Anderson Hall carried the message, “Georgetown College: No Place Like Home.” Our nation is also our home. I remember vividly, even though it is now 30 years ago, the emotion I felt when we flew over New York after a year overseas and saw the Statue of Liberty. I was thrilled to be home. But too much attachment to home can constrict life, can prevent growth, can inhibit exploration, can stifle imagination. In short, spending too much time at home can prevent you from being all you can be. It can be a tether that keeps you bound to some iron pole.
The world situation may make you fearful to travel, may pull you toward home. On Thursday of this week, we will remember 9-11. That day of tragedy reminded us of the danger that is in the world, that there are people who aim to harm and hurt. It has become an annual day of remembrance and prayer, one that nurtures our sense of patriotism, one that we celebrate with a commitment to community service. But it must also be a day when we affirm again our place in this village we call the world. It is a day when we hear again that oft-repeated promise of the Word of God: “Do not fear.”
I received my first passport when I was 22 years old and a senior at Georgetown College. I traveled to England to study philosophy. It was also a trip of discovery, especially of self discovery. We visited the ancient and awesome monuments at Stonehenge; we saw live stage performances of “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” and “Godspell;” we went to Scarborough, a city made famous by the song of Simon and Garfunkle; we toured St. Andrews Castle in Scotland; we walked across the commons at Oxford and Cambridge Universities; and yes, somewhere along the way we actually learned a little philosophy!
It was my first trip to some far corner of the world, but it wasn’t my last; today, my passport is stamped with visas from Israel, Jordan, Egypt, England, Canada, Mexico and Chile. The most important of these was a year sojourn in the Middle East. A year after my college graduation, I took my bride and my passport and boarded a plane in New York City and headed for Israel. We landed in Tel Aviv late on a Friday afternoon. The Eged bus that took us to Jerusalem travel near Mea Sharim, the orthodox Jewish quarter of the city, just as thousands of black-coated Jews were bustling home for the Shabbat meal. The image in my mind is still vivid. It was the beginning of a year of transformation.
For almost eleven months, we lived in the marvelous, mysterious city of Jerusalem, at the intersection of cultures, religions, and histories. The Psalmist declares: ‘Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, his holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, the city of the great King.” During that year, we traveled over every road, dirt, gravel and paved; and along the way attended a Christian Orthodox mass, observed a Jewish wedding, and drank Arab tea in a Muslim home. We made many life-long friends; we visited scores of biblical sites; we learned a new language; every corner of our minds and imaginations were filled with new ideas and new possibilities.
But it was not always easy and even safe. On a clear Shabbat morning in October of that year, we were sitting on the veranda outside our one-room apartment on Mount Zion. First, jets of the Israeli Air Force flew low over Jerusalem. This was odd, for it was not only the weekly Sabbath, it was also the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Two hours later, tanks came rolling through the city. Something was afoot, it was clear.
It was the beginning of the Yom Kippur War. Once again, the Arabs and the Jews were at war. For eighteen days, Israel fought for her life. Israel is only 50 miles wide and 100 miles long, so everywhere in the nation was close, too close to the action. All of my teachers were called up into the military; most of our students took their place in factories; we lived by candlelight. Each night a 11 o’clock, we gathered around a radio, an old floor model Victrola to listen to the BBC broadcast from London. All the news through the Israeli press was censored.
Yes, there is danger on the far side of the world. Yes, leaving home with a passport involves some risk. Yes, in a certain sense it is always more safe to stay close to home. But all good things involve some risk. Opening a new book is a risky thing; coming to college is leaving behind the ideological safety of home; following Jesus demands that you let go of some familiar things and grab hold of the future God opens up for you.
Does this make you a bit nervous? Do you know the most oft repeated command of the Bible? It is written more times than “Love God” and “Love your neighbor.” It is this: “Do not fear.” We are not to fear the past or the future; we are not to fear the daylight or the darkness; we are not to fear the powers of heaven or earth; we are not to fear the call of God.
Here is the promise of the Word: God goes with you, God protects you. More than that, God awaits you on the far side of the world.
This is the constant message of the word of God. The theme song of the Bible could be “On the road Again.” The Bible teaches us this surprising thing: good things happen on the road, away from home, even on the far side of the world. Moses fled Egypt and met God on a mountain in Sinai. David ran from Saul into the wilderness and there composed much of his music. Israel was conquered and deported into exile; they sang this lament, “How can I sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?” But the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of God on the road, of the Spirit of God leaving the temple in Jerusalem, traveling east over the brook Kidron, over the Mount of Olives, over the vast dessert, to the very place on the far side of the world where the children of Israel were displaced.
Remember the experience of Saul of Tarsus? He was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus when the Lord appeared to him. He then spent most of his life on the road working with other who were either transplanted or itinerant people. The very success of the Christian movement depended upon the movement of people away from home. The last book of the Bible is Revelation: it was written by John the apostle, a long way from home, exiled on the island of Patmos. The Bible is clear about this one thing: good things happen on the road away from home, even on the far side of the world.
The best story of all is Jacob: he swindled his brother Esau and had to leave home. He fled north, not knowing where he was going. At night time he found a rock and went to sleep and had a dream of angels climbing up and down the ladder of heaven. In the morning, he named the place Bethel, which means “House of God” saying, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.”
God will meet you when you travel in his name to the far side of the world. My sister discovered this afresh last summer. Years ago, she was a student here at Georgetown and sat in the old red seats. She was part of a team of eight who went to Afghanistan: two from Africa, one from Asia and five from the United States. They ran a medical clinic in the war torn and tortured land of the Taliban. For more than three weeks, they lived in Kabul. Each day they traveled over very rough terrain to two villages. There they ministered to the physical needs of the people.
The highlight came on the last day, she said, when they were to distribute blankets, flour, and oil. At the beginning of the day, they gathered in a circle of prayer. In the circle were the 20 Muslim elders of the city. Around them were perhaps 400 people, villagers who had come for the ministry of these Christian lay missionaries. One doctor prayed in English, and as he prayed, it was translated into Arabic. My sister said it was an anointed prayer, expressing the deepest desires of the Christian crew and spoken in a spirit and with a power that was unusual. He gave thanks to God that the village had been spared, and also that (the Americans) had been allowed to come to help. He asked a blessing upon the people, that God would prosper them, and keep them safe. He concluded his prayer in the name of Jesus.
Then a surprising thing happened: the chief elder of the village said, “Can I offer a prayer?” Of course, the Americans said. They listened as his prayer to Allah was translated into English. (I am sure that God did not need a translator.) The elder also gave thanks for life and safety, for sparing their village from the terror of the Taliban. He thanked God for the visit of the Americans. He asked a blessing upon them, and also for the prospering of their village.
“It was the most awesome, inspirational moment of our entire trip,” my sister said to me, tears welling up in her eyes. “Who would have expected such an encounter?” Yes, who would have expected such a thing, at this impromptu, open air prayer meeting on the far side of the world? It was a dramatic and powerful way of bearing witness to the goodness and glory of God and at the same time receiving and extending the gift of hospitality. It was the opening of people to one another, people separated by geography, language, culture, and religion; it was the opening of people to the presence and power of the awesome and everlasting God.
This is the word of God for you today: Go from your family and your friends, from your home and habitat; go to the far side of the world. Go to study, to travel, to serve, to pray, to learn all you can. You can not be what you are meant to be until you travel to the far side of the world. God is there waiting for you. Go in the name of Jesus, go in the spirit of Jesus, go with the word of Jesus, go on the mission of Jesus. Take your Bible; take your passport; take the promises of God; and let God bless the world through you.
Dwight A. Moody is Dean of the Chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, KY.