Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cold welcome for international students

A foreign student preparing to return home after several years at an American university left behind a full suitcase with his roommate.

“What’s this?” the roommate asked.

“It’s full of the gifts I brought to give Americans when they invited me to their homes,” the student replied, a tinge of sadness in his voice. “No one invited me.”

The student, incidentally, was from Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps you’ve heard similar stories. The cold “welcome” frequently shown to foreign students who come to America isn’t exactly news — except to the bewildered students themselves, who struggle with isolation and loneliness far from home. Many of them come from families and cultures where hospitality to visitors is prized and the opposite is considered shameful — families more similar, when you think about it, to the ones we read about in the Bible than the hyper-private collections of individuals we exalt these days. Foreign students don’t understand that many Americans no longer open their homes to their next-door neighbors, much less strangers.

“Most of our people who study in the U.S. are amazed they can live there for four or five years and never enter an American home, much less a believing one,” says a mission worker serving in North Africa and the Middle East. “Why is it that God delivers the lost Muslim to our doorstep, and we treat them as if they are not there?”

I suspect a more sinister force than suspicion, fear or prejudice is at work: apathy. Too often, we don’t know they are among us. If we do know, we don’t care.

“We spend a lot of time reaching out to the rich, the famous, the cool, the successful, the powerful, the influential, the ones with the right style of glasses,” observes mission strategist Justin Long. “I could be wrong, but it seems to me Jesus didn’t spend a whole lot of time with people who rejected Him. He didn’t spend years trying to persuade them. So why is it we spend years trying to persuade the stubbornly, rebelliously atheistic cousin (or nephew or uncle or whatever) and never reach out to the foreign exchange student?”

Long asks another, related question: “Why is it that so many Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists (85 percent, to be somewhat precise) do not have a personal relationship with a Christian? … Somehow I doubt it is the fault of most of those Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.”

Don’t stop telling your cousin and your uncle about Christ. Maybe one day they’ll listen. But take a look around and notice some of the strangers in your midst.

More than 671,000 international students were enrolled in American colleges and universities during the 2008-2009 academic year, according to a report funded by the U.S. Department of State. The leading nations of origin: India (83,833 students), China (67,723) and South Korea (62,392). China and India account for more than 45 percent of all foreign students enrolled in American graduate schools. Other top 20 student senders include Saudi Arabia, Nepal and Vietnam.

“Thanks to a push by their government to make secondary education universal, more Chinese students are seeking college degrees, but there are not enough (Chinese) colleges, and too few high-quality institutions, to meet the need,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. “A decline in the value of the dollar has put an American education in reach of middle-class Chinese families — who probably had already been salting away much of their disposable income to pay for education.”

One top Chinese student interviewed by the Chronicle was so eager to study at an American liberal arts college that she applied to 28 of them before enrolling in an elite institution. “They really value education and develop you to be a full person,” she said. “They give you a lot of attention.”

I wonder if this young woman, who is likely to become a leader and influencer when she gets home to China, is getting any attention from Christians in the community where she attends school. It would be a tragedy if she, too, leaves behind a suitcase of unopened gifts.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Rejecting the cult of self

Our daughter graduated from high school a few weeks ago, marching down the aisle with her classmates to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance as we parents swelled with pride.

Then we had to listen to the obligatory commencement address.

As commencement speakers go, our guy wasn’t bad. A local radio talk show host, he was humorous and engaging. He delivered a speech that was part pep talk, part political diatribe. The pep was fine, the politics unnecessary considering the occasion. To his credit, he admitted that he didn’t remember a single word uttered at his own high school graduation many years ago (I could relate to that). He assured the assembled grads they would forget his words, too.

It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was the Gettysburg Address compared to the typical commencement speech — particularly the ones heard these days at major universities. Often delivered by media types or celebrities, such speeches usually consist of clich├ęs, platitudes and outright insults to the young minds and hearts they’re supposed to inspire.

“Worst of all, [students] are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears,” writes New York Times columnist and social critic David Brooks. “[M]any graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.

“But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.”

Misleads how? For one thing, it promotes absurdly unrealistic expectations among graduates entering today’s tough job market. On a deeper level, however, it glorifies the self-worship that has come to define so much of American life. Too many boomers have yet to notice the destruction this mindset has wrought on our culture, so we pass the all-consuming idol of self on to the generation now coming into its own. We tell our children, “It’s all about you, kid. You’re the god of your little world, which you create and which exists only to make you happy. Go forth and fulfill yourself!”

This is a perversion of the American ideal of liberty, which certainly includes individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness, but not to the exclusion of shared responsibility and voluntary, possibly sacrificial service to others.

“The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and a calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy,” Brooks observes. “Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. … Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose of life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”

Sound familiar? It should; it’s a secular echo of the words of Jesus Christ: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:24, 25, NASB).

Following Christ is the antithesis of the pagan cult of self. Indeed, He demands the ruthless, daily execution of self. The Apostle Paul describes such a life:

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant …” — to the point of death upon a cross (Philippians 2:3-7, NASB).

Personal fulfillment — happiness, if you will, though joy is a better word — comes in the daily act of loving and serving Jesus and others. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever,” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647 summarized it.

That once was the guiding principle of the education offered by great Western universities. Now it seems to be: “Man’s chief end is to glorify himself, and to party forever.” Nothing new in that; the prophet Isaiah heard people shouting, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die” seven centuries before Christ. It was an ancient philosophy even then.

But young people in search of a worthy calling want more. They’re rejecting the cult of self, even if their parents still buy into it. They want to give their lives to something greater than themselves.

There is no greater calling than the mission of God — that every people, tribe and nation will know and worship Him. See what it looks like: