Thursday, September 9, 2010


DISCLAIMER: A link to this post has been placed on the blogsite Official Street without notifying me or asking my permission. I find much on that blog offensive and opposed to the gospel message as I understand it. The street preachers I reflect upon in the following post bore no resemblance to many in evidence on the Street Preachers blog -- nor do I.

Following is a reflection on the preaching life written in May 2008.

Corners mark intersections and sometimes turning points. In the southern Appalachian Bible Belt of my youth they also marked the preferred pulpits of street preachers. With dripping white shirts, loosened black ties, and bibles swinging wildly to punctuate each point and sweep away all objections, this pair – prophetic like Moses and Elijah, thunderous like James and John – filled the sticky summer air at the corner of Market and Union with the sulphurous stench of hell. It was a cosmic battle of aromas each noon: brimstone on one corner, Nan Denton’s corn dogs on the next. The fate of immortal souls hung between in the balance. I usually brought my lunch to work and wasn’t often tempted to stray from manna to corn dogs. After all, at Nan Denton, Bobby just wanted to know my order. But these two on the other corner, they wanted to know where I would spend eternity – you know, if I just happened to die that night. Considering my apparently imminent demise, foregoing a corn dog seemed wisdom.

I watched them as they strode the small corner that was their earth, prophets of old somehow called forth like Samuel from his sleep. They bellowed and whispered and accused and plead. In a spiritual tag-team whose rules eluded me, when one tired and grew hoarse, the other, as if on cue, rose to continue the apocalyptic word uninterrupted. Rarely did the message vary: man’s sin, God’s love, the certainty of fearful judgment, and the urgent need for decision. People’s reactions varied. Some hurried by, late for a meeting or simply afraid of being drawn into the drama. Others grabbed a nearby park bench or concrete planter ledge, happy for the fifteen-minute diversion from the tedium of the day. Some listened and even mumbled an occasional, embarrassed, Amen. Rarely was anyone overtly rude and certainly never hostile. There was, in the South of that day, a genuine reverence for the message of God and a respect for the messengers of God, even if those messengers were – what? Characters? Yes, that’s what many would have said about them. They’re real characters, bless their hearts.

Not that they seemed to care what anyone thought. They were in the grip of the Spirit, witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – the world compressed to a point, to a single street corner of a single block in a single southern city on this single summer day. As far as I could tell they were faithful witnesses in their way. That’s not a little thing.

The downtown of my youth is no more. The open-air farmers’ market surrounded by hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop shops has been replaced by the trendy vacuum of new age boutiques and vegan restaurants. Nan Denton is gone. And the preachers. I wonder about them from time to time. It’s been twenty-five years; if still alive the pair have grown old now. What do they do, street preachers in forced retirement? Shopping malls are the corners of our time, or maybe Starbuck’s. But it is hard to imagine street preachers there: mall preachers? coffeehouse preachers? I miss them. I miss the intersections and turning points they marked. I lament the landscape with too few signposts. I grieve the maps with no compass rose and no streets marked because “all roads lead to the same destination anyway and, after all, it’s the journey that matters.”

I preach. Each week I struggle and cooperate, battle and submit to God over the texts chosen for me, and each Sunday I preach my gleanings from the field of the Spirit. And though my little flock knows it not – and could scarcely imagine it – in the holy of holies of my heart, I am a street preacher, standing on the corner, marking intersections, longing to mark turning points. That corner of Market and Union lives now only in my memory, as likely do the Paul and Silas who preached there. I hope they live no less in my sermons, for I too stand at the corner of market and union – of Mammon and God. We all gather there seeking signposts: Which way? Manna or corn dogs? These intersections of our lives are no less real – and I think even more so – than the crisscrossing streets of downtown geography: the corners where our faith and our culture intersect and where decisions must be made. Straight or turn? And there I take my stand, pointing with words, gesturing toward a road less traveled. From a distance it appears a mere alleyway. I am convinced that, in the walking, it becomes a royal highway.

I preach. And when I do I stand at the intersection of heaven and earth, pointing, pointing. Perhaps I am as anachronous in my way as the street preachers – one born out of due season – and as foolish as they appeared to many gathered on that corner. I guess I hope so. Because the gospel is foolishness, as is its preaching. And I hope it is that foolish gospel that I preach. But what appears as foolishness to those who are perishing is to those being saved the very power and wisdom of God. That is the corner on which I stand, the intersection which I mark, the turning point for which I pray.

Grab a park bench or planter ledge if you will. Bring your lunch. Sit for fifteen minutes at the corner, at the intersection of Foolishness and Wisdom. I’ll preach there if the two faithful witnesses will tag me in. And, when it’s over, when the last Amen has been mumbled, feel free to enjoy a corn dog. Or manna.

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