Street Preacher

456984652_dd7b5870b4Easter Sunday was a glorious day in more ways than one.  Not only did we gather for worship and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at First Baptist Church, but God himself was in a celebratory mood, festooning the city of Richmond with sunshine and soft, swirling breezes in honor of his Son.  Or so it seemed as I strolled along Monument Avenue with family and friends that afternoon, soaking up the joyful ambience of an event called “Easter on Parade.”

“When does the parade actually start?” I heard someone ask.

“Um, this is it.  YOU are it.”

And so we were: a great throng of happy people—friends walking arm in arm, parents pushing strollers, children in Osh-Kosh overalls, and dogs EVERYWHERE, many of them in costume.  I loved the three Greyhounds wearing tiny hats; the Dalmatian whose black spots had been supplemented with pink, green, blue, and yellow ones; and the Yorkshire Terrier who looked up at me over the frames of her very stylish sunglasses. 

I couldn’t stop smiling.  Christ had risen and everywhere I looked people seemed to be grateful for the gifts of warmth and sunshine, friends and family, children eating ice cream cones and dogs wearing funny hats.  But then I came to that corner where the street preacher was plying his trade. 

He stood on a stepladder, holding a microphone and shouting words of judgment at the crowd.  “Are you perfect?  Do you think you’re perfect?  Well, you’d better be, because if you’re not there will be hell to pay!”  I could see people cringing, complaining, and moving away from the sound of his voice.  I cringed and moved away, although I felt a little guilty about it.  Shouldn’t I be supportive of someone who would stand in the midst of that secular crowd and try to preach the gospel?  Shouldn’t I admire this young man for his courage, and at least give him a collegial thumbs-up? 

Maybe I should have, but I didn’t.  I winced and walked on by, my perfect afternoon tainted by that encounter.

I don’t think I would have minded so much if he were preaching the gospel, if anything he were saying sounded like good news, but all I could hear for as long as I could hear him were words of judgment and condemnation.  If I were strolling down Monument Avenue and knew nothing about God I might assume that the Maker of All Things was really mad at me, and wanted to roast me in the flames of hell forever.  Where is the good news in that?  The street preacher did mention Jesus occasionally, but only in the context of “bleeding and dying on the cross” to save me from my sins.  Again, if I knew nothing about God, I might gather that the Maker of All Things was really mad at me, but took his anger out on his Son instead, nailing him to a cross where he bled and died.  “Yikes!” I would think.  “This is one angry Maker!  And if I get saved I get to spend eternity with Him?  With someone who would send people to hell and nail his son to a cross?  No thanks!”

I said to a colleague later, “People like that make our job harder,” and he agreed, because reaching people who don’t know much about God and don’t want to have anything to do with Him is a little bit like coaxing wild deer to eat out of your hand.  You have to stand very still, and hold out that handful of grain in the least threatening manner possible.  Any sudden movement, any noise at all, will cause the deer to turn and bolt.  You have to earn their trust, and you do it by approaching them gently, offering them something good, and meaning no harm.

Here I was, walking among my fellow Richmonders on Monument Avenue, within sight of First Baptist Church.  I was speaking to people, smiling at people, trying to open myself up in every possible way to friendly conversation that might, in time, turn to important things.  But then the street preacher showed up, shouting judgment at the top of his voice, and it was like watching a herd of deer turn and bolt. 

What will those people think the next time God comes up in conversation, or the next time someone invites them to church?  How long will it take to undo the damage done on one sunny afternoon by a street preacher?

Accessible to the Faith-Impaired?

I’m back from Homipalooza 2008 and my head is still hurting.  Not because it was such a wild party (it wasn’t), but because of all the big ideas my colleagues and I shared and all the heady discussions we had.  For example: it was my job to look ahead to Easter 2009 and talk about how we might plan our preaching for that season.  I began by saying that while the resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of Christian theology it is also one of those things some people have a hard time believing, people like Doubting Thomas, for instance, who swore that until he put his finger in the holes in Jesus’ hands and his hand in his side he would not believe.  In every church I’ve served there have been at least a few like Thomas who confessed that an Easter faith was hard for them.  They have studied enough science to know that dead bodies don’t (usually) come back to life.  They have a hard time quieting the many questions that keep them from believing. 

My colleagues at Homipalooza agreed that the same was true for them.  There were people like that in all their churches.  As good pastors and not only good preachers they wondered how to proclaim the good news of Easter without running roughshod over the honest intellectual struggle of those “doubters.” 

I found something in my files that spoke to that concern, and without asking you to read the whole thing let me share the closing paragraph of a sermon delivered three years ago at the First Baptist Church of Washington, DC.  It was about Doubting Thomas, who eventually looked on the risen Christ and believed, and about all those doubters who are still waiting for such a moment.  It was called “Easy for You; Hard for Me”:

We’ve worked pretty hard in the last few years to make sure that our building is accessible.  We put in a wheelchair lift over here, automatic doors on the front and back of the building.  We want to be sure that when a disabled person comes to our church it will be easy for him to get into our building and find a place in our pews.  You can see that symbol on some of our doors, the one with the little wheelchair on it, that proudly proclaims: “this church is accessible!”  I wish there were some way to put another symbol on the door, some small icon or image of Thomas, maybe, that would tell the world “This church is accessible to those who have some doubts.”  Because you never know when Jesus is going to show up.  You never know when someone who has been struggling with doubt might look on His face and say, as Thomas did, 

“My Lord and my God!”