Meanwhile, In The Scientific City Of Murania

Sunshine And Long Shadows

It’s warm today, but we’re in a pool of shade in front of the Air Quality Monitoring Station. The tall lampposts on our right and the trees behind us cast long shadows across the brightly lit, paved pedestrian area in front of us. The shop fronts shine in the sunlight, and above them the sky is a cerulean blue. It’s a day for shirtsleeves and shorts, for sightseeing and shopping, for business lunches and street food stalls, for people from all walks of life to be out and about… and a good day for us to be out and about preaching.

By the time the GoPro is on, I’ve already been in conversation with Winnie, a little old lady of the Roman Catholic persuasion. She’s keen to tell me a bit about her faith, and a lot about her good works, “helping people on the street”. She seems too old and too frail to do much more than put one foot in front of another as she shuffles along. Decisions, eh? I decide not to get into an argument, but to listen to her for long enough to oblige her to take a tract from me as she goes: one of Ray Comfort’s, designed to demonstrate that good works aren’t enough to get us to heaven.

Stephen has gone for the sporting look, in a red top and long shorts. The GoPro shows him taking up his position as I write a few words about Winnie in my reporter’s notebook. He begins, and I take my tract envelope and stand off to his right, close enough to keep an eye on things. Peter went over to his usual stand in front of Superdrug several minutes ago. It’s easy to see him, since his text board today is a bright yellow… and yes, he’s already in conversation with someone. That’s good!

I survey the scene: it’s busy, and there are a few casual listeners over by the shops and by the planters near the food stalls. Nearby, a young man in a dark tee shirt and a black baseball cap leans on a bollard with his back to Stephen - listening, but not wanting to appear to be so doing. That happens a lot.

The ambient noise level is quite high today, and it rises as the man who has turned his bike into a mobile music machine pedals past, around the bend, and down Market Street. As I watch him go, I spot two young men coming towards us from that direction. They’re wearing slim fit suits and Slim Jim ties, and waving and giving us thumbs-up signs and smiles: Mormon missionaries, no doubt about it, and on a charm offensive, too! They circle around, stop to say a few words to Peter, and walk back the way they came.

Stephen is hitting his stride now, and that may be what has caught the attention of this young man approaching me. He’s slim, bearded, and… but we’ll stop there, and I won’t mention his name, or what it is that he wants me to pray about. Suffice it to say that very serious issues are involved, about which he is disarmingly open, even though I’m a stranger to him. After a few minutes, I put my hand on his shoulder and I pray for him, to the best of my limited ability. Then, he thanks me, and he’s on his way. I watch him go until he’s lost in the crowd. “That was a privilege,” I think, as I take up my tract envelope again.

And here comes another elderly lady, in a pink coat and a mustard-coloured cap, carrying a shopping bag and walking with a stick. I’ve seen her several times: she has no time for talk of her own good works, but words of encouragement for us, instead. Like many folk who pass by, she’s there to bless us, and we appreciate it.

Time passes, Stephen presses on, and a young lady stops to ask who we are. I give her a tract and a chapel leaflet, and we talk: she’s yet another Christian without a church. I encourage her to keep on searching, and suggest a few fellowships she might like to try. She’s pretty pessimistic, because of unpleasant experiences amongst the Latter-day Churches Of The Largely Unsaved. I promise to pray for her to find fellowship. Perhaps you might, too. As she goes, an infernal din begins. It’s some sort of busker across the road, near Costa Coffee, beating seven bells out of a set of oversized bongos and yelling his head off. Dearie me!

I’m just jotting down a few notes when a hooded figure appears on Stephen’s right, slipping in between the building and the junction box and the lampposts to stand at his shoulder. It’s a young man in a black hoodie beneath a dark blue puffer jacket, in tight blue jeans and dirty Nikes. He’s dark of countenance, unshaven and hollow-eyed, a half-smoked cigarette in his hand. I beckon him towards me, out of Stephen’s way, and he follows me to where we can talk.

So, what does he want? I have no idea. He talks, but I simply can’t make any sense of what he says, no matter how hard I try. With a struggle, he pulls a little cross on a chain from under his sweatshirt and shows it to me, but then we’re interrupted by a ringleted youth in a black tee shirt and astonishingly baggy black shorts, eating his lunch out of a cardboard container. He ignores me, talks to the hooded one, and walks off; and we talk on until I throw in the towel, telling him I’ve got to get on with my job. I’ve done my best, but… back to the tracts.

Meanwhile, Bongo Man is demonstrating to the waiting world that he has absolutely no natural sense of rhythm whatsoever, and neither can he sing. Instead, he yells, raps, hollers and bellows - and, like the hooded youth, what he says makes no sense at all. Nearby, our Mormon friends move through the crowds trying to accost folk, but with little success. That’s good!

Stephen comes to a close. As I ready myself, I bet him that the young Mormons have “Elder” written on their lapel badges, even though they look about eighteen years old and most definitely do not fit the profiles we have in Timothy and Titus. I mention our busker friend, and we make a few of the more obvious jokes; then, up come the young Mormons, and yes, they are wearing badges with “Elder” on them. More jokes follow, but they keep smiling and depart with “Have a good day!” Well, they’re trying…

I begin, after turning the amp up a notch or two, and noticing that Brendan has arrived, and that the man leaning on the bollard is still there! That’s good! And off I go, with “Who can you trust, in today’s world?” as my introduction. A young man in a maroon shirt and blue tie stops to listen, drinking deeply from a can of soft drink. He steps over to Stephen and asks for a tract, listens for five minutes more, and goes on his way with a thumbs-up and a shout of encouragement. Another gent settles himself on another bollard, and there is a lamppost leaner by the shops.

The noise level edges up, and up again, to the point where it requires an effort to keep fully focussed on my topic. Still, my past lives have prepared me for times like this, and I press on regardless. Later, looking at the GoPro recording, I see the tracts going out in very satisfactory fashion from Brendan and Peter in front of the shops, and Stephen seems to be pretty busy, too.

Time passes; I work my way through my various points, occasionally responding to reactions from passersby - but seldom addressing anyone who hasn’t opened themselves up to comment. However, today I’m on about being born sinners rather than being born innocent and then being undone by our environment… I’ve mentioned my children, my grandchildren, my students, my observations of the offspring of friends and relatives over the years… and here comes a young woman pushing a pram, with a curly-haired toddler in tow. I fall for it.

I wave in their general direction. “So, yes, children are not born innocent, no matter how sweet they may look - like that beautiful little girl over there!” His mother is indignant: “He’s not a girl, he’s a boy, he’s got it written on his shirt!” she shouts. And so he has: “Mama’s Boy!” it proclaims, in big white print on a black background. This causes some merriment amongst those passing by - in which Stephen seems to be joining, alas, as the GoPro later confirms. But I’m on it without missing a beat. I sense that the mother isn’t really angry, and so: “… like that beautiful little boy over there!” Same tone, same voice, same volume. “Oh, and my hair used to be longer than that - once upon a time!” His mother laughs, and pushes along before I get chance to ask her if I can put him on the list for a transplant…

And now Stephen is in conversation with a blue-masked man in a beige gilet, the two young men perched on bollards with their backs to me are still listening, and - and I’m interrupted by the young man I prayed for earlier. He wants to shake hands with me. “Goin’ home now. Thank-you, hope to see you again.” Well, I hope so, too.

Immediately, a man in a red baseball cap and dark jacket and jeans tries to give me a tract! “It’s one of ours, I’ve read it! You take it and you read it! It will do you some good!” And he wanders off, clutching it tightly. Perhaps he’s looking for someone else to pass it on to. At least he hasn’t just thrown it away.

A few minutes later, and I close on John 6.37. “This a pure gospel promise! You can take it home, you can take it to the bank!” (© Dr E. A. Johnston.) “Believe it! ‘All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.’”

We’re done, and we gather round to pray as I pack our equipment away. I ask Peter and Brendan their opinion of our busking friend, who is still banging away and banging on. Peter, who seems to know everyone we meet, is of the opinion that he is yet another person of the ‘Black Hebrew Israelite’ persuasion, and that he has been seen elsewhere, often trying to interrupt genuine gospel preachers. As we walk away towards the Arndale, he puts his oversized bongos on one side and begins to preach - that is, he begins an overly loud and largely incomprehensible rant, if we can call that preaching - thus it may well be that Peter is right.

So, yes, it was a day of sunshine in several senses - and yet, as most will surely agree, there are long shadows over our land. False religions, fake churches, foreign creeds, age-old heresies sporting new names - they’re everywhere. Nevertheless, we will be back on the edge of Piccadilly Gardens next Wednesday, God willing, to do what we can, while we can. Feel free to join us at 12.30pm. Don’t worry: nobody is going to put you on the spot and ask you to do anything that you don’t want to do. Your presence alone will be enough to encourage us.

If you can’t come, please remember us in prayer, and also some or all of those mentioned above. Please consider especially the young man who asked me to pray for him. Without divine intervention, his future looks grim: I commend him to your prayers.

Many thanks, and every blessing.