Open Air: Centre Stage

Others may beg to differ, but I think it’s fair to say that neither Stephen nor I particularly relish being the centre of attention. “Oh, but you’re standing there in the middle of a big city talking to loads of people through a loudspeaker, so you must do!” Well, see me afterwards and we will discuss the matter of motives. That said, we meet many people who definitely do wish to be the centre of attention; indeed, their desire is to take centre stage wherever they are - and the bigger the cast of characters that they can assemble, the more they like it.

The day is fine, the air is cool, and the clouds above are a light grey, parting every now and then to reveal patches of blue. Will we get some sunshine later on? I hope so. Anyway, it’s time to get going and - oh, I’m being interrupted already! A young gentleman in an olive hoodie under a padded camo anorak is smiling at me as he approaches. His supersized Adidas shorts come right down over his knees, making his lower limbs look too feeble to support him. But his smile is a delight to behold, and his words are encouraging. He shakes my hand, has his say, and then goes on his way.

Let me get on, now… but here comes a tall gent - perhaps a subspecies of Rastaman, judging from his appearance. He is, as they used to say, one cool dude. He’s got side-swept dreads braided with gold thread dangling down the right side of his head. He’s wearing a big, beige jacket, and multicoloured trousers ending above his ankles. Gold rings and medallions complete the picture. Only his shoes seem out of place, being rounded, bulky and black.

He wants to talk, but I tell him that I’m preaching at the moment, and would he mind speaking to Stephen? He’s courteous in his response, and strolls over to where Stephen is standing. Now, where was I? Ah yes, things that I don’t know much about in the material world, and then things that most know nothing about in the spiritual realm.

I focus on the few folk who stop to listen from time to time, but I keep an eye on the Rastaman. He’s talking nineteen to the dozen and his body language is that of an orator in full flow. Stephen looks singularly unimpressed. Whatever the man is selling, Stephen is not in the market for it.

As I come to my first brief gospel summary, the sun struggles through the clouds and the pavements brighten and the shop windows sparkle momentarily. Then I’m on to my second point, and the Rastaman is walking briskly away, his head held high like a male model on the catwalk. A minute later and he’s back, striding up and down, talking into his phone, his finger in the other ear so he can’t hear me. And then he’s gone.

The breeze gets up and Stephen checks the literature balanced on the junction box. I finish my third point and wonder whether the girls leaning on a nearby lamppost are listening or just waiting to meet someone. I stop to let Stephen take his turn. Was it a useful conversation he’s just had? The answer is a terse “No!” “Well, what did he say?” Stephen summarises. Apparently the Jews are really black folk, and our Lord Himself was a black man. Hmm. It’s a notion that has gained a good deal of traction since the 1880s, and it’s something that only Arthur C. Clarke could have explained to us, but he’s dead, so it will have to remain a mystery…

Stephen begins. I move forward and to his right to begin tracting, waving to Brendan who has just joined Peter near Superdrug. The sun comes out at intervals, but the wind keeps shifting our poster. Stephen straightens it every now and then, but without missing a beat.

Here comes Kieran, smartly attired as usual, looking fit and well. We shake hands and talk for a moment, then he strolls off to tract and talk to whomsoever he might meet. That’s good! There are a couple of young men listening to Stephen, and I note that several young folk walk out of their way to take tracts from me. A Deliveroo rider stops to listen. I offer him a tract: he smiles and says he’s a believer. We shake hands and exchange a few words.

Up comes a tall man in a red and grey waterproof, wheeling a bike along. He’s called Paul, and he wants to know where our church is. I tell him, but he’s about as good at geography as I am, so I hand him a chapel leaflet instead. We chat, and he says he’s a Christian, but he’s a bit vague about it, so I make sure he has a copy of Blanchard’s “Why On Earth Did Jesus Come?” before he goes.

Peter seems to be busy over by the shops. Later, he tells me that his tracts went out in their hundreds. Listeners come and go, a middle-aged, grey-haired lady stops to encourage us, and then a thickset gent with close-cropped hair approaches. He’s wearing a dark grey, padded jacket, and blue jeans with black trainers. He has a rucksack on his back. He’s jovial at first, taking a tract and a chapel leaflet, but not really reading them. He’s a man with something on his mind. “Hmm, well,” I think, “Stephen’s had one today, so it must be my turn, now.”

And it is.

What does the GoPro show? It shows him standing by my side and smiling, at first. Then, as he warms to his theme, he moves around to face me. After a while, his body language goes into overdrive, his finger stabbing forwards, his arms waving, his bulky body darting this way and that. What a performance! “How many times has he gone through this routine?” I wonder. What’s it all about? He’s a victim: abuse, violence, the occult, witchcraft, drugs, demon possession… The only thing that he doesn’t mention is his time in the SAS. That’s strange, they usually do.

When he tells me that he’s a born-again believer who still has a hundred or so demons within him, I beg to differ. Some of what he says may have some truth in it, somewhere - but I draw the line at that. He’s pleased! Off he goes again, and up a gear, throwing in a random selection of texts, “old odd ends stolen out of Holy Writ”, as Shakespeare puts it. And all the churches that have neglected, nay, persecuted him, he wails, and me, and Stephen, we’re preaching a gospel of lies, and we’ll be responsible for thousands of people killing themselves in despair, and…

The GoPro shows that Kieran has returned, and is listening to all of this from a distance. After a while, he joins us, and eases himself into the conversation, around about the point where our accuser threatens to go round the corner and hang himself: “and you’ll be responsible!” he cries.

Slowly, gradually, Kieran takes over; and slowly, gradually, I step back towards Stephen, who has got to the end of what he has to say and is preparing to start again from the beginning. I pause for a moment to give a tract to another Deliveroo rider who has been listening to him. Then: “Just two minutes!” I say, as I turn on the amp. The Deliveroo employee comes over and speaks to Stephen. As I finish off what I began earlier, I note a tall man in a dark blue anorak and green cords standing nearby, smoking and listening to Kieran and our accuser. Then he turns his attention towards me, and is with me until the end.

I’ll have to hurry. “All roads lead to Rome, they used to say, but not on my satnav they don’t!” introduces my final gospel summary, followed by “No one comes to the Father…” - but you can take it from there, I’m sure. In conclusion, I feel led to pray out loud for those who have listened, and for those who have not. The man in the anorak is still listening, standing with legs apart, arms folded, and one forearm extended upwards to his face, his fingers pressed against his lips, looking thoughtful.

I turn off the amp, we pack up and pray, and we go over to invite Kieran to join us for refreshments.

Hmm. Our accuser seems to be quite calm, now. He says he’s sorry for having a go at me. He shakes me by the hand. Well! Who’d have thought it? Kieran has obviously had words with him, and been the right man at the right time, in the providence of God.

We invite them to join us, and they say they might, but they’re still talking as we leave, and they don’t arrive at the Bagel Factory before we have to go, so they may have gone on for a long time.

Hmm… “Well, there you go,” as Miss Pilling so often used to say, during those long, languorous afternoons in the basement book room. “From somewhere in this (as in any) matter/ A moral beckons.” That’s what Kingsley Amis said. I dare say most of you can come to your own conclusions as to what it might be, here; I’ll leave it with you. As for me, I’m reminded that those who are driven to seek centre stage and the prominence of the protagonist in every encounter are not confined to the world of the unchurched and the ungodly.

In every church I’ve ever attended there have been men (and women) who have jostled their way to prominence and power, promoted their own piety by finding fault in others, and insisted on their own interpretations of the scriptures, whatever they really meant in context. Why not, when you have your very own hot line to heaven?

They have a reputation for their frank and fearless rebukes, often accompanied by “God has told me to tell you…” or “and I’m telling you this in love, brother!” Like the two men we met that afternoon, they’re always ready to take a discussion and turn it into an argument, often warning you that if you oppose them, the consequences for you and for the innocents you will be leading astray will leave you with blood on your hands.

They will never wait patiently in the wings, never be prepared to play a minor rôle in anything wherein they can be seen to shine, never miss an opportunity to talk about themselves and all their days and ways - in short, they must always take centre stage, no matter how unpleasant they have to be in order to bring this about.

There is one difference between the fellow to whom Kieran spoke (to such good effect) and the folk that I’m on about: he apologised in the end, but they never will, no matter how often they may be proven wrong - not without someone putting a gun to their heads, anyway.

Exaggerating, am I? Well, as above, see me afterwards and I will give you chapter and verse - taking centre stage to do so, of course…

All that said, I always come away from Wednesday afternoons with the clear conviction that it has been time well spent: which is more than you can say for many of my days on Earth.

Thus, I’m already looking forward to next week. Feel free to join us if you can, and pray for us otherwise. Please pray also for any or all of those mentioned above, if the Lord puts it upon your heart to do so.

Every blessing!