Foghorn

It would have been early, 5 am or thereabouts, when our sleep was interrupted by a long, loud blast on a ship’s horn. My other half was not impressed, saying it was a bit antisocial. It blasted again a few times more and then stopped. Later when we got up we couldn’t see the water or the bank opposite. It looked as though a cloud had parked in front of us. The blast was probably a cruise liner or cargo ship moving out along a stretch of river also used by small boats and rowers. So the foghorn may have woken the folks along the shore, but those on the water needed it.

One of the more ridiculous lies I have wrapped my scaredy-cat self in over the years goes like this: offence is worse than warning. So the best thing to do is to say nothing and hope that by being a really super-nice person others might be intrigued enough to give me opportunities to share the hope I have in Jesus. If I was really serious about that I should have got myself one of those badges pyramid sellers used to wear. ‘I’m a Christian. Ask me how.’

But I didn’t. Because for one thing, I was not nice enough consistently enough to arouse much curiosity. Truth. For another, I didn’t really have much to tell people in response to any question they might ask me. Thinking about talking to anyone about my faith made my palms sweaty. Still does at times. But I saw a cartoon that gave me pause. It showed the devil leading a man off to hell and an angel leading another off to heaven. The condemned man is looking at the other with disbelief. The caption reads: Bob! You never told me you were a Christian!

If you’re in the dark and you’re in danger you need someone to warn you. If you choose not to believe them that’s your choice. If I see the danger but am too shy/scared to tell you, that makes me not at all nice. That makes me something else entirely. As Penn Jillette, not shy about his atheism, puts it so well here.

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Evangelism the party game

Last night I went to a Christmas dinner with an amazing diverse group of women with a shared interest in Italian language and culture. The group has been meeting over nearly twenty years to have Italian conversation, eat wonderful antipasti and generally have a nice time.

It was my first Christmas dinner and so I was unaware of the traditional activity, which varies each year, but usually involves some kind of party game. Last year they all had to wear hats with a word they couldn’t see and they had to guess it from the clues others gave them.

This year we all had phrases taped underneath our chairs. These were random, mostly surreal statements that we had to slip into conversation without detection. Once we’d all had our first go at the munchies and got settled, we were allowed to read our slips of paper. Mine said ‘I love Italian cheese but I prefer Kraft singles’. I couldn’t say it with a straight face, not between mouthfuls of delicious Italian nibbles, so I gave the game away instantly. My partner worked hers into an otherwise perfectly normal chat about holiday destinations. Mind you her sentence was much easier than mine: ‘if I won the lottery I’d buy a house in Tuscany’.

It was a great game, and funny to see people leading conversations off in weird directions so they could work their phrase in undetected. It was a lot of fun but for a while I was silent, paralysed by the need to fit this unfamiliar set of words into my conversation. My phrase felt like a burden I had to get rid of. Others had the same problem, to the point where they couldn’t play the game at all.

And it made me think of the formulaic evangelism that I was taught growing up, the three- or five-point scripts intended to show people their need for God, His work in Christ and the great plan of salvation. I never used any of them because they felt a bit like a set of random sentences inserted into a completely different context. Like this party game.

I dislike scripts. They feel manipulative and inflexible. But I know they work for some. For those who, like in this game, spend the time to bring the conversation round, set the context and then gently introduce the script. For a long time I felt that there must be something wrong with me because I have always found it so hard to even set the scene for prepackaged words about God. For me it simply doesn’t work. It feels awkward and false. Not because God is false, but precisely because He is real.