In our hallway, there is an icon that EA and I bought in Assisi. It shows Francis, accessorized with glowing halo, bending over to talk to a flock of birds. Behind him, a fellow monk stands with a look that I can't quite figure out. Perhaps Francis' friend is in awe of the commitment to preaching the gospel being displayed. Maybe he's thinking, "This guy is preaching to a bunch of birds? What the heck have I gotten myself into?"
I rolled my eyes the first time I heard the story of field-frolicking Francis preaching to the birds. I was 19 and eye rolling is a default reaction. But as weird as I thought that scene was then, I adore it now. There is an innocence and a joy to that picture. When it comes to religious acts, there is piety, which seems to be birthed out of a sense of obligation. And then there's Frank chatting with the birds about Jesus, which seems to be out of the overflow of one man's ridiculous love for God. Why wouldn't the birds want to hear about that? The bewilderment of the monk in the picture only grounds the entire thing in some kind of reality. "What the heck?" is a natural response if you're not in the same mindset as Francis.
Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words. We're not sure if Francis actually said anything like that, but it is easy to see why such an idea gets attached to him. He was by no means a perfect individual, but it seems that his life impressed upon others an intense desire to point people towards God.
Coming from an evangelical background (and still kind of claiming that even though I'm not sure it would claim me), I have a complicated relationship with preaching the gospel. I believe Christians ought to preach the gospel. I truly do. I think I run into the trouble when those ideas of piety and overflow of love for God collide. Ought sounds like piety. It's like something you have to do if you want to be a good Christian.
As a teenager, I felt loads of guilt because I didn't lead scores of people to Christ. This result requires preaching the gospel by words, because--as good as Francis' model is--words are needed at some point. Trouble is, it's tough to preach the gospel with words...especially for a teenager. So in youth group we strategized, we talked about ways to steer conversations to Jesus, we delved into apologetics so we could verbally jujitsu any arguments from atheist classmates (of which there were probably five in all of South Carolina in the 90s who would have actually admitted to being atheist).
Now I believe that all of this was done with the best of intentions. It all came from the quite good place of wanting others to know about Jesus. Yet it had the result of at least making me feel like we were hawking Jesus door to door. We were not just preaching the gospel. We had to present it in the right way. It had to be appealing. It was pre-packaged piety. The more strategies and talking points there were (and again, I believe these came from a well-intentioned place), the further it took me away from my personal story. It came off more scripted than out of the overflow of any love for God.
All of it made me think that putting so much emphasis on words was putting the cart before the horse. Again, words were necessary at times, but if they weren't grounded in organic Christian faith then they wouldn't have the root to really take hold. Of course, super charismatic people can go with words first and good on them. But I'm talking about the rest of us.
All of which is to say, I don't always know how to preach the gospel for my faith. I believe it's important, but I often feel like my faith is too messy, doubt-riddled, and inconsistent to be presented in any sort of way that would pass for halfway appealing. But let me tell a brief story that I'm still unraveling in my head.
I spent the past month writing some Sunday school curriculum and, in the process, discovered that I do really well writing in bars. This is a development that would have scandalized my teenage self. And it's not really bars where they play pool and most of the lighting comes from neon Bud Light signs. These places were more brewpubs, taverns, that kind of thing. But I would go in, get a pint, and then find myself a corner in which to write. If you go during the week when it isn't too crowded, the room is not distracting but there are enough people that there is a white noise effect that helps me to concentrate. Plus, I feel like I'm in an episode of Cheers.
So last week, I was at a place just off of Main Street in Spartanburg. I had been working off in an alcove for maybe a couple of hours. My laptop and journal were splayed across a small table; an empty glass sat next to it. I was making concentrating faces that I think will make me appear writerly but probably only make me look constipated. Suddenly a guy and a girl stopped as they were walking out to the patio.
"Whatcha studying, man?" the guy asked.
(God bless him if he thought I was young enough to be studying for a college class)
"Actually, I'm writing something," I said, immediately praying that I didn't sound super pretentious.
"What are you writing about?" his friend responded.
"Well...uh...I'm actually working on Sunday school curriculum."
The guy raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
So we talked briefly about what I was writing, which at the time was a lesson on taking up causes of justice for Lent. The guy mentioned that he wasn't religious. His friend then said that taking care of people was something that we all needed to do. They were both incredibly friendly and I was not nearly as self-conscious as I normally am when I talk to strangers.
As they returned to their friends on the patio, the guy pointed at me and said, "Well, as an irreligious person, I appreciate that you can drink a beer, wear a Ninja Turtles shirt, and write a Sunday school lesson." I couldn't have asked for a better compliment in that moment. I chuckled and said thanks as they walked out the door.
I believe we sometimes overthink things. I have spent a good portion of my life fretting over how I preached the gospel to people. I wanted to do it the "right" way and present the "right" message. But I am slowly, slowly, slowly coming to peace that I can simply go out into the world and be myself. I grabbed a pint of beer at a tavern. I wore a Ninja Turtles shirt. I worked on a lesson about how Christians could help those in need during Lent. Those three little things that were natural parts of who I am at this moment interrupted someone's perception of what type of person a Christian is.
When he asked the question, I could have lied or steered the truth in a way that avoided the topic of religion. But I wanted to be honest. And, I think, it was somewhat out of my overflow of love for God. Faith is something I care about. I write about it a lot. I was writing about it that night. Why wouldn't this guy and girl want to hear about that?
That's quite a small thing. It may or may not have meant anything to them once they rejoined their friends on the patio, much less on down the road. Yet I got to organically share something about my faith. And I'm not sure that would have happened had I gone there that night with the intention of "witnessing." It's not exactly preaching to birds, but I still believe it was preaching the gospel. And that's something.