And a clime for every purpose under Heaven

As I write this, I’m just coming off my jet lag from a meeting in Hawaii. No, I don’t expect sympathy and yes, it was awesome. Tammi and I wandered about for a few days like the tourists we were, commenting endlessly about how pretty and nice everything was. It was perfect weather, a consistently lovely environment, and a totally laid-back culture. All three of these traits dull in their charm over a longer period of time than I’ve experienced them, I suspect.

That’s one reason (or three) that I looked forward to returning to wintery Texas. A conversation with a local Hawaiian pastor clarified the matter for me. There are some good reasons why every place is not so idyllic as a tropical island.

My pastor friend shared some of his concerns about the way the Polynesian culture tends to affect Christians and harden non-Christians to the gospel. People go to Hawaii or move to Hawaii because they like the easy-going nature of the place. It translates into much more than the use of time. Urgency about temporal and spiritual matters is hard to translate into a culture where seasons don’t change much, where food grows wild, and where the sun always shines. I’m sure there are 100 such places around the world that have similar appeal.

The cultural inertia in paradise tempts people into an easy attitude of tolerance and torpor. The delightful relaxation of the tourist can become the careless malaise of the resident. French expressionist painter Paul Gauguin is an extreme example of how what seems like paradise is found to be less so over time. His distaste for European sensibilities led him to move to the South Pacific region in search of the more perfect primitive life. His best known painting of that era was titled “Whence? What? Whither?” and implied that the answers were: we come from nowhere, we’re nothing, and we’re going to nowhere when we die. Paul Gauguin found the same despair in Polynesia he left behind in Europe. He tried to kill himself but instead died of syphilis and alcoholism at 54 years.

My point is not that the tropics killed Gauguin but that the glory of paradise initially masked to him universal aspects of the human experience. Some, living in a glorious locale, are less sensitive and remain focused on the mask. So these lotus eaters worship the waves or the ski slopes instead of the God who made seas and mountains.

Desert places also show the wonder of God, but in a different way. Anyone who just lies down there will eventually perish from the heat or be killed by the local fauna. The desert inspires more ambition than do tropical islands. In fact most places will make a person very uncomfortable if he does nothing to improve his situation. Heat, cold, fresh water, food, and safety are only rarely balanced for comfort and survival in the places people live. It is easier for us to see the need for spiritual change because we must daily change something physical to provide for ourselves and our families. Reality, to casual observers, is closer to the surface in Texas (or Ohio or Pennsylvania) than it is in Hawaii.

God reveals himself in creation, all of it?even in the physical laws that govern the construction of human designs. That means created things tell the truth about their creator. Hawaii speaks of a God who loves beauty and who has purpose and who sustains lovely created things even as sin eats away at them. Paradise is a place more temporary than the eternal God, though; it is an expression of his but not God itself. I’ve seen places in Iowa and Russia and Africa that bear the same message in their own unique voices.

The temptation of each place is different. In a challenging environment, we may tend to take pride in our accomplishments without regard to the God who blesses us. In a big city we might be cynical toward God’s power or goodness because of the poverty and crime that concentrates in large populations. Some place we consider marvelous will tempt us to worship its sensory glory without worshipping the God of all things. In each place, God speaks to those who have ears.

Some places are God’s art galleries, others grocery stores, lumberyards, storehouses, and so on. I’ve visited a few of those art galleries and each one has a culture that is challenging to Christian ministry in a unique way. People love the art too much. Southern Baptists should do more to export prayer and money and energy and people to those who minister among the art gallery residents, and to millions of tourists each year. These missionaries need more than our respect.

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