Fenn’s Treasure and Motivation for Missions

I am a missions advocate, and so I understand the zeal of the advocate’s heart. If you advocate for anything, you must do it with passion or you will not gain many followers.

Nevertheless, it’s very easy for us missions advocates to become focused on the wrong reasons for others to get involved in missions. At times the reason for missions engagement can be off target, as when an immediate goal (involvement in missions) is substituted for the ultimate purpose (knowing and loving the God of missions). When this happens missions is endangered. After all, what is accomplished if people are attracted to “missions activity” while missing the ultimate objective, “the God of mission”?

When I was a young boy in the 1950s, I would read stories of pirates and imagine their lives to be quite glamorous. The most exciting part of these stories was the treasure hidden somewhere underground accompanied by the rough, hand-drawn maps that cryptically pointed the would-be brigand toward a remote desert isle. Visions of digging up buried treasure filled my imagination!

In 2010, a man named Forest Fenn fed the fantasies of thousands when he climbed the Rocky Mountains and hid what became known as “The Fenn Treasure.” This was a cache of gold and jewels worth as much as $2 million. The box alone in which the treasure was stashed was valued at $25,000! Fenn, who turned 90 last month, pledged never to reveal where he hid the prize, saying in 2016, “If I die tomorrow, the knowledge of that location goes in the coffin with me.”

Over the next decade, enthusiasts searched for Fenn’s treasure. In 2017 Fenn said he believed at least 250,000 people had looked for his stash. Five people even lost their lives in their quest for the treasure, and many were injured or got lost and needed rescuing. Hearing this, Fenn tried to dissuade people from taking perilous risks, saying in a statement, “The treasure is not hidden in a dangerous place. I hid it when I was about 80 years old,” adding “the search is supposed to be fun.” Fenn’s treasure was finally discovered early this year. 

To add to the enjoyment of the search, Fenn composed an ambiguous poem filled with clues, and a tantalizing, though obscure, map. It seems like Fenn is a fun-loving kind of guy who enjoys getting people to hunt for hidden treasure.

I particularly love how Fenn said, “the search is supposed to be fun.” I wish when I was younger that I had been told that the search is supposed to be fun. I mistakenly once thought that the focus was to be on the end of the journey (i.e., heaven), not the actual odyssey that would culminate in eternity with God!

It’s tricky. When one has arrived at a destination, it’s time to relax. The work is finished, and we have arrived. No more looking at maps and wandering down highways and byways. But I wonder how our experience with Christ, church life, and missions life be different if instead of acting as if we have arrived at our spiritual destination we viewed our relationship with God as an ongoing quest for more hidden treasure?

The completed journey has its place, but something is missing if there is nothing left to explore. While relaxing is fine, we were not made to spend our lives at ease. There is a yearning, a desire in the human heart. It longs for more, going deeper, climbing higher, whatever metaphor you prefer.  The electric sensation Fenn’s Treasure provoked illustrates just how desperate people are for adventure, the quest, the odyssey. Ultimately finding the treasure is, in many ways, not as essential as it is just to be involved in the thrill of the hunt.

Jesus knew that everyone enjoys searching for hidden treasure (just watch little children at an Easter egg hunt). And I suspect he believed the disciple’s quest for the Kingdom of God should be at least as much “fun” as rooting around the yard for colored eggs. How easy it is to lose the idea of being on an enjoyable quest while grappling with life’s struggles and Jesus’ sobering challenge to “take up our cross.”

In Matthew 13 when he began to tell stories (parables) to his audience, I can imagine everyone edging forward to get in a good position to hear. And when I think about Fenn’s treasure, my mind goes to Jesus’ parable of the hidden treasure: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he went and sold all that he had and bought the field” (Matthew 13:44). 

Unstated in the parable is the idea that this man was hungry, eager for something. We don’t know what business he was on or how he stumbled onto that particular field, but when he discovered the treasure…Boom! Everything suddenly fell into place. This was it!

The subsequent parable clearly refers to a search: “Again the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46). 

These two parables are “twins” – they are symbiotic in that they are more effective when paired together than when read separately. Valuing what they discovered, the joy and elation of these two men was so great that they willingly sold everything they owned to take possession of their new discovery. 

Once again, I visualize the faces of Jesus’ listeners. I love the impact he has on an audience! They are hanging on his every word. No longer beaten down by guilt or discouraged by failure, they are instead mesmerized by the new invitation he offers. Here is someone who is saying, “Guess what? My kingdom has treasure to offer that is unequaled by earthly kingdoms! Go on a quest to find the treasures I have hidden for you!” And the thought in their mind was, “Yes! Yes! Yes! This is what I have been searching and longing for!! Something more than what my life is now.”

When we realize that earthly systems fail to satisfy, our quest is intensified for what Jesus, our King, has to offer. What priceless treasures has he buried that are just waiting for us to dig down and unearth? Where are those oysters that produce such incredible pearls?

This is the call of missions: an invitation to engage first of all in a quest to plumb the depths of God’s mystery in Christ. This prompts me to recall Jesus’ words: “Seek first the kingdom of God…” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus’ invitation beckons us to the liberating, freeing, serendipitous world of his Kingdom where hidden treasures await the hungry of heart and where the weary take his yoke and find rest.

As a “missions mobilizer,” my advice to you is “Don’t volunteer for missions until you have exhausted your quest to know the God of mission!”