Open Air: Chronicles Of Wasted Time

Explanatory Note. Salem Chapel’s Open Air has been going for quite a while now. It has a newsletter, sent out by email to those who are interested in knowing about and praying for its weekly activities. Our pastor has asked that this newsletter be made more widely available, by placing it here on the chapel website. A few words of warning, though, before you go any further. No sense of humour? I’d skip it, if I were you. No notion of what irony entails? Move along now, nothing to see here.

The newsletter is presented as is, although the prayer requests at the end have been omitted, since they sometimes include personal and/or sensitive information. If you are a born-again believer, and would like to support this work in prayer, then you can give your email address to our pastor, and he will arrange for you to receive the newsletter in full.

Chronicles Of Wasted Time

Malcolm Muggeridge died in 1990, leaving the third volume of his autobiography (as above) unfinished, which is a pity. He was well-known in his day: but how many of you remember anything about him now? He wrote well, and he certainly knew how to choose a tendentious title. I trust that he’s in heaven, although we cannot know for sure, and that he doesn’t mind me borrowing this one from him for today…

It’s the first day of June, and so the rain is that little bit warmer. The young people in their summer clothes are getting something of a soaking, and so are we. Stephen has a plastic bag around his bible and is extracting his notes one sheet at a time as his preaching progresses. His hood is up, and his orange waterproof matches the colour of our Latin motto, Blu-Tacked to the junction box. Ethan is front and centre, I’m on his right, and Peter is in front of Superdrug.

Enter two young men who take turns to embrace Ethan under a red umbrella. The first one comes over to greet me, but offers a handshake rather than a hug, much to my relief. We chat for a while, and I invite them to join us, if they are indeed born-again believers. Alas, they have to hurry on their way. I watch them go, wondering if I’ll remember their names. No, of course not, since I didn’t write them down, as I ought to have done.

Stephen’s voice rings out across the pedestrian precinct, and the rain eases off a little. There are plenty of people about, especially youngsters off school. Three likely lads take a look at Stephen, egging each other on to make a nuisance of themselves - but, wisely, they decide against it. A woman stops to say a few words to Peter - and then he picks up the bag she’s been carrying, and walks away with her!

Enter Milan, much to my surprise. He’s all smiles, despite the fact that the last time we met he was spitting verbal vitriol with such vehemence that he could be heard all the way up and down the Arndale. He tries to strike up a conversation, but quickly gives it up as a bad job, makes a few unpleasant remarks about my appearance, and wheels his bicycle away.

Enter Dan! He’s not working today, since it’s a school holiday, and he greets Ethan and myself. We talk for a few moments. Over the tram tracks, the street food stalls are busy, and the competing cries of the vendors drift across to us, along with the aroma of the many and various fast foods on offer. There are few listeners thus far: just the odd one or two by the shops. Ah, I see Brendan has arrived as well, without a hat for once; yes, the rain is over, and I hadn’t noticed it. The sun breaks through a moment later, and I’m glad.

And now, enter a woman in a black jacket, her hood up, and her face obscured by a red medical mask. She sports a colourful carrier bag and has a pink handbag slung over her shoulder. She moves slowly. She looks at Stephen, and then at our poster. She approaches the poster, trying to read the small print at the bottom. Can I help her? She traces the words with her finger. “Is this your church?” I tell her it’s just the address of the T.B.S. She seems sceptical, rubbing her thumb rhythmically against her forefinger as she peers ever more closely at the words. She turns and gives her attention to Stephen, blowing her nose on a tissue without even removing her mask.

Then she turns back to me. Ah, she would like a bible! I hand one to her, and then take it back to remove its protective plastic covering. I tell her which church we’re from, but even when I give her a church leaflet, she’s still convinced that we’re from the T.B.S. At last she finds her spectacles, and I leave her to read our literature in peace. I notice that Peter has returned from whatever errand he was on. Good!

It’s busier now, and the take-up of tracts is getting better. Enter a young man in a blue denim shirt over khaki shorts, and black boots over black socks. His hair is wet with the rain, and he has a curious ginger beard, forked rather than falling straight down. He greets Ethan and they shake hands. Meanwhile, here comes Vincent: so that’s Brendan and Dan occupied for a while, I reflect. Two middle-aged ladies stop to talk to me. They’re encouraging and enthusiastic. Meanwhile, the lady in black is still listening to Stephen. That’s good!

By the time I take over, the pavement is almost dry. I wipe the rain from my head with my handkerchief. I try to clean the raindrops from my glasses, but succeed only in smearing the lenses. Then I tie my fleece to the lamppost, hoping it will dry out before we go home. A gent in long shorts is talking to Brendan and Vincent, but who he is I do not know. And now…

Ethan introduces me to the bearded bloke. He’s carrying a bottle of orange and a plastic bag. Which church does he attend? “I go to a few…” Hmm. I invite him to join us, adding (as always) that is, if he’s a born-again, bible-believing brother. I notice that he sways slowly from side to side as he speaks. “Yeah, I’ve just come to ask how I can serve in ministry. I can preach. I’m anointed to preach. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.” Hmm. I invite him to take some tracts and give them out. Sidestep. He points to our Latin motto: “What does that mean?” I explain its practical purpose. He seems perplexed. I translate it for him. He looks up to heaven, as though seeking inspiration from on high. “Well, it made me laugh,” I say. “Obviously it isn’t working for you…” He forces a wan smile. I point him towards the tract envelope again. He stands there, still swaying slowly from side to side. He sidesteps. He knows Brendan, he says. I bring the free bibles to his attention. No response.

I don the mic. “Well, I must get on.” Suddenly, he says he needs a coat. I point to my fleece. “You can wear mine,” I say, “but it’s a Junior Miss size. “I need a medium,” he says, his hands in his pockets, without a trace of a smile. Dearie me!

I open my bible, ready to begin. He picks up a tract envelope, looks inside it, closes it, and replaces it. He picks up his plastic bag and walks away. He stops by Vincent and embraces him. Vincent leaves, and he speaks to Brendan. A tram approaches. Suddenly, he dashes off across the tracks just in front of it, and disappears into McDonald’s.

Hmm. What was it Kingsley Amis said in “Something Nasty In The Bookshop”? “From somewhere in this (as in any) matter/ A moral beckons.” Well, I’d say so.

It’s an old favourite, “Five Things That Money Can’t Buy”. Stephen is busy by the Halifax, and here comes Dan and Ethan’s friend in the olive puffer jacket again. More embracing! Ah, he’s taking a handful of tracts and getting to work. Excellent! Here comes their other friend as well - but he stands off to one side, content merely to observe events. That’s fine by me, too. A couple of small groups appear nearby, listening at intervals. White van man is much in evidence today, pipping his horn at the people in his way, even though this is a pedestrianised area.

Three young girls stop and smile as I mention the hell of late-night horror films, and at once our three young men hurry over to hand them tracts. Commendable alacrity, eh? It’s just a pity that I don’t have any notes on what was said…When the girls depart, and our young men are on their own again, Milan appears amongst them, smiling from ear to ear… “The Assyrian came down…”*

When I ask whether there is anyone within the sound of my voice who has never sinned, an attractive young woman with long auburn hair raises her hand. She is by no means serious, and smiles at our time-honoured response: “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” A young man and his carer stop to listen, and then Dan breaks away from the gang of three to get some literature for another young woman. Do we have a church leaflet? Alas, there are none left. It’s a pity, but it does show that a lot of literature has already gone out. That in itself has made the afternoon worthwhile. But it’s not over yet.

A young man stands by a bollard in a red-lined grey anorak, black trousers, and shining white trainers. He’s talking with someone, but then that man goes off to join the group around Milan. The young man gives me his full attention, hands clasped in front of him. Several familiar faces offer encouraging words as they pass by, but I hardly notice them. One insists on a response, distracting me for a moment. “Where was I?” I ask out loud. The young man repeats the last thing I said, word for word. Stephen has drifted over by now, his eye on my prompter, but he leaves him alone to carry on listening. Another man joins Daniel (for that is his name, as I learn later on), and then Ethan and his friend approach, but they too leave him to carry on listening. And I go on with the gospel.

When it’s all over, and the others are gathering around the lamppost, I’m deep in conversation with Daniel. He’s much younger than I am, but we have something in common. We need to talk it through together, even if the others are getting impatient. No, it wouldn’t be of much interest to you, but for us, it’s very important. You’ll just have to leave it with me.

By the time I return, everyone is ready for refreshments, and so we pray, and most of us repair to the Bagel Factory.

Chronicles of wasted time? Well, some of it was, without a doubt. But that’s often part and parcel of Open Airs. As for me, I wouldn’t have wanted to have been anywhere else at all, on that wet, warm, and rewarding Wednesday afternoon.

If you’ve come thus far - and, yes, it was quite a long way again, wasn’t it? - then you might well wish to read the prayer requests; and perhaps you might also pray for one or more of the people mentioned, both above and below.

[Prayer requests omitted. Please see above.]

Many thanks once more to all those who came out last Wednesday - whether I’ve mentioned you by name or not. If you want to join us tomorrow, we’ll be there (God willing) at 12.30pm, just on the edge of… [Venue omitted.]

Every blessing!

(*George Gordon, Lord Byron, in case you feel the need to look it up...)