Open Air: The Distance

Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4.8.)

Here are Stephen’s recollections of last week’s Open Air.

I handed out a normal number of tracts and 2 bibles were taken. I had conversations of some length with 2 individuals, both of whom professed to be believers. The first was with a lady called K. She was a bit evasive when I asked her whether she was part of a local church. She has tried Audacious and King's Church but is looking for a good church. She took a chapel leaflet and asked whether I had anything else for her to read. I don't really carry material aimed at believers so I gave her a copy of “Ultimate Questions” which she thanked me for.

The second conversation was with a man who gave his name as P. J. He came to know the Lord while in prison for drug dealing and has been baptised. However, since he came out of prison he has lived in a number of different towns and isn't currently living in Manchester. He hasn't been able to settle into a church and feels that he has drifted away. He asked me to pray for him on the spot which I did.

Let’s go back a week or so. Janette and Peter have just joined us, on a fine afternoon in autumn. The wind is blowing the leaves about, Stephen is speaking, and a man is asking me where the bus station is. His English is pretty poor, but he understands me well enough to head off in the right direction, a tract and a leaflet in his hand. I trust that he’ll take the time to puzzle out what they have to say.

Ah! Over by the Halifax I can see Kieran and a friend. Are they coming this way? No, they’re keeping their distance, talking animatedly about something or other. Suddenly, the wind whips up and our poster flaps about and Stephen complains that the wind noise is interfering with his head mic, despite the fact that it’s protected by a baffle. He presses on, nevertheless, explaining the Fall and all that followed on from it; I straighten the poster and turn back to tracting.

The GoPro sees him before I do: a hirsute character in a green sweater and green jogging bottoms, a bulky black pack on his back. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see him bending over our amplifier. Is he interested in what make it is, as people often are? No, he’s picked up my head mic, which I’ve left on top of it!

I step over to him in the character of a stroppy shopkeeper: “Excuse me! Don’t touch the merchandise unless you’re intending to buy!” He straightens up and the wind blows his long, lank hair across his face and into his eyes. “Churn dadoff!” “What?” “Wanna churn idoff!” “Why?” “Cozziz a nidjerd!” he mumbles, indicating Stephen. “Really? But…” But he’s already in the distance, and Stephen speaks on, entirely unperturbed.

I turn my gaze towards Kieran and friend and wave, but they’re headed for Janette; and soon they’re in earnest conversation about something or other. Then, for a while, it’s all quite quiet. Then comes a brief chat with a man who says that we’ve met before and can he get a train to our chapel and why didn’t I answer him when he rang the number that I gave him? But I don’t make a practice of giving out personal information, and certainly not my telephone number. He goes on his way, leaving me wondering what he was really after.

It’s two by two today, since it isn’t raining, and I’m on now. As I ready myself, a gent with short, dark hair and a neat beard and a black Adidas tracksuit settles himself on a nearby bollard. He looks on expectantly, then, as I start to speak, he begins to eat his lunch. When he’s done, he vapes contentedly, and a woman in a grey duffel coat comes and stands beside him, her arms hanging loosely by her sides. She’s joined by another woman in a blue woollen beanie, skinny blue jeans and a navy overcoat.

They like the light-hearted introduction, and engage in a little banter; but, as the sermon takes a more serious turn, they begin to look uncomfortable. A few minutes more, and the women are off - but the man makes his way over to Stephen and takes a tract, then gives his attention to me again. A woman with long, dark hair listens for a minute or so, then she too takes one of Stephen’s tracts. They talk together as a little light rain starts to fall. The man in the tracksuit waves as he walks away, and I thank him for his kind attention. That’s good!

The wind gets up again and there’s a sudden shower. There should be a rainbow somewhere, because the sun is shining. I look for Kieran & Co. - but they’re gone! “Gone, gone, and never called me ‘mother’…” Umbrellas and hoods are going up, but I hardly notice the rain as I contemplate the consequences of godlessness in nations and individuals. Janette is in conversation, and Peter is busy as always, and - oh, there goes the box of bibles, blown right off the top of the junction box!

Stephen sets things right and I ask the question that Jeremiah put to his own people in Jeremiah 5.31: “but what will you do when the end comes?” A man passing by claps Stephen on the shoulder and waves encouragingly at me. I end my first stint on “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts…”

Stephen begins, and I’m accosted by the smiling young woman from a week or two ago. It’s another pleasant chat, and there’s nothing wrong with that - but the main focus of the afternoon is meant to be evangelism. I know I sound a bit churlish, but I’d prefer it if people took a bundle of tracts and joined in rather than taking up time otherwise. Fellowship can follow on when we’re done.

Again, the GoPro sees him before I’m aware of his presence. He looks unwashed and unkempt: a rough sleeper, perhaps? His hair and his beard are badly in need of a trim. He’s all in black apart from a yellow Hi Vis vest. He has a bright yellow carrier bag in one hand, a book in the other, and a rucksack on his back. He drops his bag by the junction box and plonks his book on top of it. It’s a big, old-fashioned bible, minus front and back covers, looking as though it’s been out in the rain more often than my Open Air one.

He talks to himself, turning this way and that and smiling. When he turns to me I offer him a tract. He takes it and bows his head. As he does so, here comes the gentleman that I’ve mentioned a few times before, the one whose son is struggling with addiction. I must give him my full attention.

He clasps my hand and puts his other hand on my arm. He speaks softly and gently and my heart goes out to him as he brings me up to date on his son’s progress. In a week’s time he’ll be doing a supervised detox - so by the time that you read this, it will be under way, God willing. It’s a harrowing experience. I doubt that you can imagine it unless you’ve been through something similar.

Let me pause for a moment to ask you to pray for this man and for his son. As I listen to him, I’m conscious of the heartfelt love that he has for him, despite the distance that his condition has put between the two of them.

Ethan arrives and I greet him briefly and then I ignore him - but, to his credit, he grasps the situation immediately, and waits patiently until we’re done.

Hang on, our friend in the Hi Vis vest is beginning to wander around. He examines his tract and then he slides it behind the small poster Blu-Tacked to the big lamppost! I retrieve it and return it to him. His eyes are unfocused. He may seem to be here on the edge of Piccadilly Gardens, but he’s really a long way away, and it will be some time before he’s back with us again.

He pockets the tract with difficulty, and puts the chapel leaflet on his big bible, and the wind whisks it away. I retrieve it, but it’s so soiled that I have to bin it. He sways from side to side, his hands in his pockets, as I talk to Ethan; and then, all of a sudden, he drops onto one knee and bows his head. And there he remains…

Ethan meets someone he seems to know, a gent in a dark gilet over a white tee shirt; a tract changes hands and a conversation ensues. Our friend rises from his knee at last and tries to open his bible, but most of its pages are stuck together. He wipes his fingers on top of the junction box, again and again, and then on his clothing. He picks up the bible, puts it down, looks in his carrier bag, and wipes his fingers again. He tries to tell me something about the “w’st sin’ve all”, but it’s impossible to follow him. I look down into his carrier bag: various odds and ends, some paper cups, a hefty volume with “Alcoholics Anonymous” on the cover - and a big bottle of cheap red wine.

An anxious-looking lady in a pink tracksuit approaches him and tries to talk to him. He packs up his things and walks away. She speaks to me for a moment. I tell her that it’s no good trying to reach him until he’s back with us. She looks at me reproachfully and departs. Our friend finds a patch of sunlight near the shops: he takes a grey blanket from his rucksack, spreads it neatly on the pavement, arranges his possessions around it, and sits down cross-legged. He fills a paper cup with wine and begins to drink.

Ethan is still talking and Stephen is still preaching. And that’s how it should be in an Open Air: whatever else is going on around him, the preacher needs to keep going, holding the door open for as long as he possibly can.

And now I’m on again, and I feel the need to make an effort, to make these last few minutes count for as much as I can. I pick up where I left off, on the last two steps to heaven, as an old friend jogs up with a fist bump (even though they’re a bit passé, I’d say), shouting out: “Victory in Jesus!” “He’s on the right road, and that’s the next step, getting on the right road to heaven!” Well, it fits in, doesn’t it? You can take it from there, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, a tall cove in a dark coat with a rucksack on his back is shaking hands with Stephen. Ethan has finished with the man in the gilet and joins them. The tall cove turns round to reveal a familiar face: it’s N., our “anointed preacher” acquaintance. And now I can catch something of the deep, dark tones of his voice… but I’d better focus on this last step to heaven, being freed from the burden of sin by being born again. I can see six or so casual listeners dotted around in the distance, and I want them to remember at least a little of what I say.

Meanwhile, Stephen has found someone else to talk to, while Ethan and N. are waving their arms about and getting quite excited about something or other. I press on.

I don’t notice him at the time, but a portly fellow in full-length clerical costume is walking right across the GoPro’s field of view, walking in slow and stately fashion, walking with a stick that he obviously does not need, looking neither to the left nor to the right, ignoring all around him - as distant from the rest of us as I am from the man in the moon. As I offer free bibles, someone approaches Stephen and is led over to receive one. That’s good!

I end with a prayer; and when I open my eyes again, there is a blue sky above us, and the shop fronts are suffused with soft autumn sunlight. As we pack up, the wind rises once more, and a siren wails in the middle distance. I turn off the camera. It’s all over…

But not quite. Our friend in the Hi Vis vest comes to get a bible from us. Fortified, feeling more normal (for him), he’s better able to function for a while. But, tomorrow? Whether he will read his new bible, how much he heard and understood of what was said, and what his future holds, I just can’t say.

I straighten up from packing our case and ask N. if he’s been tracting or preaching today. He smiles, as usual, but says that he’s not doing that any more. Hmm. “But when we first met you, you told me that you were ‘an anointed preacher’.” He smiles again and says: “Well, I think I was deluded, then…” A moral beckons, I would say. Wouldn’t you?

So many folk so far from God. And yet, “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or His ear dull, that it cannot hear”. (Isaiah 59.1.) Please pray for one or more or all of those mentioned above, if our Lord puts it upon your heart to do so.

There are so many of His children still to be brought home.

Every blessing.