Open Air: Lesser Birds

Like lesser birds on the four winds,

Like silver scrapes in May…

Astronomy.   (Blue Öyster Cult.)

The wide angle lens on the GoPro distorts the face that we see at the start of the video. “We’re on!” says a voice. The face withdraws and we’re looking down Market Street, towards Deansgate. In the foreground we see Stephen in a Day-Glo orange waterproof, several feet away from our usual preaching place. On the right we see the reason for his repositioning: a low-sided lorry is parked right in front of the Air Quality Monitoring Station. Not to worry: the hands-free mic headset allows us to wander away from the speaker as we please.

I move over to Stephen’s left and start tracting. I look up at the sky: it’s a silvery grey, but the day seems fine and the pavement is fairly busy with the usual foot traffic. We were without Peter last week and he hasn’t appeared today, so we’re wondering what’s happened to him. However, Janet is here to take his place again, and she’s already busy outside Superdrug.

Two men turn up and drop one side of the lorry, making heavy weather of moving the dirty red refuse bins that it’s brought. Stephen perseveres. Pedestrians pass in front of him, making their way between the lorry and the A.Q.M.S. He perseveres. Trams squeal and clatter as they swing around the bend from Market Street, but he perseveres. The workmen return, grunting, heaving and straining as though the plastic bins were loaded with barbell weight plates. He perseveres.

I’m playing an easier part, offering tracts - and I’m pleased to see several folk walking up to ask for them, rather than simply taking them if they happen to pass by. Then, the workmen return and raise the side of the lorry once more. A few minutes later and they’re on their way, leaving us free to resume our usual positions, which is done in a matter of moments. I swing the GoPro round and Stephen is off again. I look up: the sky is a lead-like grey, with a hint of rain in the air, now. A flight of birds wheels away above us and is lost out of sight.

I look down and see that a gent in a bush hat and olive anorak has parked himself by a bollard. He’s playing with his phone, but listening to Stephen at the same time. A small figure in a camo jacket, blue jeans and soiled trainers stops his bike in front of me. He’s balding and bespectacled, but not all that old. What does he want? In an Eastern European accent, he tells me that he can’t get the help he needs from social services or from any of the churches he’s visited. Do I know of anyone who can help him? He shows me the little cross he’s wearing around his neck to assure me of his bona fides…

Alas, when I fail to rise to the bait and offer him a handout, his language becomes more colourful, and his condemnation of the state of the nation more forthright. He shakes my hand, though - and then he circles around to try Janet, still over by Superdrug. “You’ll be lucky!” I think. Janet is far too sensible to be taken in, I’m sure.

A fine drizzle is falling and umbrellas and hoods are going up, but it’s not enough to bother us. The gent in the bush hat takes his leave at last. Time passes. It’s gone a bit quiet. Tracts go out slowly but steadily, with quite a few folk who appear to be Muslims taking them. When our Eastern European friend departs, I stroll over to Janet to confer with her - and suddenly, Brendan is with us, materialising as if out of thin air. I’m pleased to see him. We chat, and he tells me that Peter has taken his tent and gone on holiday! That’s good - but I’m willing to bet that he’s taken several bundles of tracts with him…

We split up to continue our tracting; and here comes a little old lady, supporting herself on the shopping trolley that she wheels along in front of her. As usual, she tells me that she “helps people on the streets”, although it’s never clear to me how she manages this. I’m about to ask her when Stephen summons me. It’s my turn.

I take a sip of water, remove my combat jacket despite the drizzle, and pull up the sleeves of my sweatshirt. Brendan joins me for a chat on theological matters, but my attention is elsewhere. “One, one, one…” Someone’s dog barks as if in reply. I pray, briefly, and begin as a police van passes. They show no interest in us, which is fine by me.

I lead off with the elderly man from last week who upbraided me for what I’d been saying: “Half of it was a load of rubbish!” When I asked him to be more specific, he started swearing and shouted, “I should know, because my wife’s a vicar!” which I found more than somewhat entertaining. He couldn’t see the funny side of it and hurried away, effing and jeffing for all he was worth. And that takes me to the second half of the previous week’s topic: “How To Get To Heaven”, rather hoping that he’ll be here again…

As I reach “Putting Away Pride”, a youngish, bearded gent in a black beanie and matching athletic outfit walks restlessly to and fro, giving me the eye. Brendan approaches and speaks to him. I hear snatches of their conversation from time to time: he sounds like a Muslim who has been well trained in “What To Say To An Infidel To Baffle And Bewilder Him”. I doubt that it will be working on Brendan, because… but my train of thought - and my address - is interrupted by the return of our Eastern European acquaintance, complaining about the price of food on the nearby stalls. When I don’t offer him money and ask him to talk to someone else, he raises his fist and begins to call for revolution in the land! No one looks interested and so he cycles off again, while I take the cue to call for a revolution in the human heart.

Circling back to the nature of “True Freedom”, I carry on until the argument between Brendan and friend gets so heated that I stop to ask them to turn the volume down. The man in the beanie offers a riposte: “You’re the one with the amplifier!” “That’s true, but...” - and then our Eastern European joins them to put in his two penn’orth, which gives Brendan a bit of a break, anyway. Soon, they’re off to bend Stephen’s ear until they both get tired and take themselves away.

As I advertise our free bibles, a tall gent in an Adidas outfit stops and squints at our poster. His spectacles are pushed up on top of his head and he looks like a minor heavy in a straight-to-video TV series. In friendly fashion, I invite him to take a good look. He scowls and seizes it, but it’s securely mounted on strong bungee cords and all he can do is to twist it around the lamppost. I offer him a mild rebuke and he offers me a vulgar gesture and a mouthful of effing and jeffing, just like the man from last week whose wife was a vicar. But he, too, dashes off in the process, leaving me to draw the usual conclusions about the nature of the human heart in its unsaved state. It’s all useful in an open air address…

I end by asking for God’s blessing upon all those within the sound of my voice. A grey-haired man, slight of stature like myself, approaches me with a shy smile. I recognise him: we’ve talked before, and he’s told me about his son’s addiction, and I’ve asked for prayer for him in a previous newsletter.

His words are kind and thoughtful and he thanks us for our concern, and he tells me of his hope that forthcoming treatment will be effective and lasting. He asks me to express his gratitude to anyone who has prayed on his son’s behalf in the past. I thank him in turn and say I’ll mention him in the next newsletter. It’s just a few minutes, but it’s a very moving conversation.

Then we pack up and pray, and Brendan says he’s not sure that the man in the beanie really was a Muslim. Was he a Jew of some sort, or an adherent of some exotic Eastern religion? We leave that one open, and pray, and take ourselves off to the Bagel Factory for refreshments.

Later, listening yet again to B.Ö.C.’s “Imaginos”, I’m very taken by that album’s stellar version of “Astronomy” - originally from “Secret Treaties”, of course. I think about the folk that we meet on Wednesdays: they’re people that we encounter for a few minutes, or for just a few moments; and then they’re gone, wheeling away like the birds I mentioned above, lost out of sight. They are the “lesser birds” of this world, seemingly unimportant in man’s scheme of things. Our encounters might well be considered as a product of time and chance, fleeting moments without much meaning.

But neither Stephen nor I believe that at all. We believe in God’s providence, both general and special; and as it says on the sleeve of my combat jacket, “Deus Vult”: God wills it. With that in mind, may I ask you to pray for the following folk - if our Lord puts it upon your heart to do so, for His own inscrutable purposes…

The man in the bush hat.

The man whose wife was a vicar.

The Eastern European gent and the man who might have been a Muslim.

The man who pulled at the poster.

The man afflicted by addiction and the father who spoke so feelingly about him, who earnestly covets our prayers.

Please pray also for Janet, who is between jobs at the moment through no fault of her own; and for all those that we encountered, as if blown there by the four winds, to hear something of the gospel on that overcast Wednesday afternoon of last week.

Every blessing!

P.S. “Like silver scrapes in May”? Well, perhaps another day…