Open Air: Mercury Rising

Well, yes, the mercury is rising, and it’s hot out here - but you wouldn’t be wishing away the sunshine so readily if you’d spent as many hours as we have outside in the cold and the wind and the rain. This bright and unclouded blue sky is a bonus, even if we have to wear hats. We have plenty of water, lots of bibles, bundles of tracts, and many people passing by: what’s not to like? And so we begin…

Stephen is on first, and, as he readies himself, his small, red rucksack catches the camera and turns it to the right. “No matter,” I think, as I review the recording, “it’s easier to see what I was doing while he was speaking.” I’m a few yards away from him, and Peter is passing me on his way to his usual station outside McDonald’s. His new hat is an eye-catching yellow, which will make him easier to pick out in the crowd.

Stephen starts with a few pleasantries, but soon he’s pressing on with the gospel, going through the whole of human history and divine revelation in the time that it takes me to make my opening remarks.

Tracting gets off to a slow start, but after a quarter of an hour they’re going out in a steady stream. There are plenty of people out enjoying the summer sunshine: all kinds of folk, from here, there, and everywhere, all ages and colours and classes and creeds, in saris and suits and tee shirts and shorts and uniforms and work clothes and gym kit and joggers… The tram drivers have to sound their horns again and again as they round the bends, in order to part the crowds crossing the tracks.

I see Brendan arrive, but then my eye is caught by a youth wearing a white tee shirt with “Yeshua” emblazoned upon it. As he passes, I point to it and say the name. “I’m a Muslim,” he replies, and walks by - but I call him back. “Yeshua, eh? A great prophet! Here’s some information about him…” And he takes the tract with its accompanying leaflet, and I’m happy. Now here comes a tall, tanned fellow with a full, white beard, and he’s taking a photo of our text on the lamppost. I offer him a tract. He refuses at first, then comes back to get it. It’s all good.

I look round to see how many people are listening to the preaching: just a few at the moment, mostly people eating their lunch. But some stay on afterwards, including a young man who parks himself on a planter and listens with interest for quite a while. In the meantime, over by McDonald’s, Peter and Brendan are in earnest conversation with someone, but I can’t make out exactly who it is, from here. And that gent who was sweeping the street earlier - he’s stopped to listen, too, and he stays for a good, long time.

I’m on to my second tract envelope now, and a dark-skinned, shaven-headed gent of imposing appearance is walking up and down, away and back, until he finally asks for a tract and walks off reading it. Dearie me, our motto has fallen from the lamppost! I stop to reposition it, wishing I’d brought some more Blu Tack with me.

Someone is addressing Stephen. “D’you have leaflets and pamphlets?” It’s a well-upholstered older lady in a pink patterned top over a purple one, over a pair of black trousers. Stephen directs her to me, and I help her to some literature. We discuss churches, our own and a couple of local ones. She calls out to Stephen as she goes on her way: “You’re doing very well!” And, a few minutes later, he’s done.

I straighten the camera, remove my hat, and take a long drink. Then off we go with an encouraging opening: the tagline to Cronenberg’s version of “The Fly” - “Be afraid. Be very afraid…” and thus to the fear of God, and then, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…” A man passes by offering insults and obscenities, so I rehearse a familiar response: “We’ve come all this way from Chaucer and Shakespeare and Shaw, and where have we got to? A man with nothing but a mouthful of mumbled obscenities…” Oh, all right, that’s lifted from a film, too, from Dennis Hopper’s mad bomber in Jan de Bont’s “Speed”. Nobody says you have to be original in an Open Air, and it works for me…

Also, it seems to satisfy that young man in the white tee shirt standing to my right, his arms folded in front of him, a slight smile on his face. On I go with sin and the smokescreen of our supposed innocence, the Invisibility Drug illustration, and… and an elderly man turns back after he’s passed me, and shouts that he’s going to hell, and that “the conversation will be better down there!” I admonish him at some length, which is easy for me since I’ve got a loudspeaker and he hasn’t. I end up back where we started, and the fear of God which is so lacking in our land in the present day.

These little exchanges attract attention, and Stephen’s tracts are flying out of his hands. A crop-headed man in a light green tee shirt and rusty brown shorts has been listening, and now he takes a tract from Stephen, and they talk. A short, plump, bespectacled lady in black listens as I attempt to prove that children are not born innocent; and then she takes the crop-headed man’s place and speaks to Stephen in her turn.

The terrorist illustration seems to strike home with one man. He’s perspiring profusely, flapping his damp shirt over his chest. Then there’s a distraction, as here comes yet another couple who have drunk not wisely but too well in this heat. The man breaks away from the woman, and heads towards me. He has the skinny arms and legs and protuberant abdomen of a dedicated drinker. He wears long blue denim shorts and his tee shirt is stretched over his stomach, which is the part of his anatomy that reaches me first. “Would you mind not touching me, sir?” He doesn’t take the hint, so I prod him in the ribs and he steps back, his arms raised in mock surrender.

What’s he saying? It’s hard to make it out. “Wezzawaybar?” he asks a few times, as his female friend cackles like a hen laying an oversized egg. Then: “Ah’m an alckerholic… yer no good to me… ah’m an unbeliever!” As he goes on his way, I remind him of the ignominious fate of the alcoholic, but he’s too far gone to take any notice. Not so the perspiring man on my left in the pink, short-sleeved shirt, cream shorts, and white plimsolls. He fumbles nervously for a cigarette, and lights up with difficulty.

And on I go, as the familiar face of an Asian police officer passes by, scanning the crowd for any signs of unrest, but entirely unconcerned at our presence. Stephen pauses for a drink as I come into the last lap. I quote those familiar lines from Toplady: “Rock of Ages, cleft for me…” - the whole of the first verse, since I’ve got it written out in my notes, and it seems a shame to waste it…

A well-set-up gent in a white tee shirt and faded blue jeans, his hair prematurely grey, goes to get a tract from Stephen as I close. He stands reading it in the sunshine as we pack our things away. I offer him a bible, but his attention is on the tract, and so I leave him to it.

And then Dan arrives, just as we’re about to pray! Well, better late than never…

The forecast for tomorrow is set fair, but without quite so much sunshine. We’d be happy to welcome you, whatever time you manage to arrive; but we’ll be there, God willing, at 12.30pm - just on the edge of Piccadilly Gardens, opposite Superdrug. Stephen can’t make it, alas, so a couple of extra helpers would be most welcome. Meanwhile, please pray, if you would, for any or all of those mentioned above. Please pray also for the two burly travellers who spoke with Brendan and Peter at some length and who took tracts away with them.

Every blessing!