He Used a Bullhorn

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Observing someone's actions doesn't mean I know his heart or motives; I acknowledge that. Yet I'm trying to sort out what it means when someone screams at people through a bullhorn and then won't engage someone who stops to respond to the message.

I fear that I do it sometimes, even if I don't own a bullhorn.

Ascending the escalator at the Farragut North subway stop in Washington, DC, I was early to meet a friend for happy hour. I was barely into daylight before I heard the rants of a middle-aged man, bullhorn in hand, worn Bible under his arm, urging repentance, telling everyone on the crowded sidewalks and, I imagine, those in offices nearby too, that they were going to hell and needed Jesus, that it was almost (but not quite) too late to turn back.

It was an assault. People weaved around him, creating a wide berth, and tried to ignore him. I know I was tempted to.

And then it hit me how sad I felt for the man, perhaps well-intentioned, thinking he was doing something helpful or important for people but nevertheless using methods that -- to my eyes at least -- seemed likely to have the opposite effect than what he intended. 

And I felt sad for those walking by... some of whom may genuinely wonder if God would take them back after what they've done and where they've been, prodigal sons and daughters like me who've thought life would work by figuring out our own pathways (when God invites us to depend on him, to rest in the fat cushion of his love for us, and to operate in this crazy world out of his strength, bearing his hope to a hurting world). Because all the bullhorn guy was telegraphing was anger, judgment, hatred. I doubted anyone would want to run to the God he described. Which is a shame. Because the God I know is kind, even as he cares how we live.

So I decided to talk to the bullhorn guy. I wanted to approach him with kindness and curiosity. To just ask what his own story is, what change or reaction he hoped to effect in those passing by, how his day was going out there alone with everyone walking way far around him.

I took up a position about 10 feet directly in front of him. And with my best benign, "I'm open to conversation" smile, I waited and stared, assuming he'd draw a breath soon and see that I wanted to talk. Maybe all day he'd waited for someone to stop and talk, to ask him to open that Bible and tell them a story of good news. And I'd be that person. That's what I thought.

But as four minutes stretched into five, the only reaction I got, the only acknowledgement that I was there, that I was a human person in front of him, the very man so eager to "talk" to people that he was using a bullhorn... well the only reaction I got was that he clenched his eyes tight and kept on yelling. And ignored me entirely.

Thinking better than to walk up and touch him, I eventually moved on. 

And I've wondered since about the role of bullhorns. If we have so much to say and insist that others hear it regardless of context, interest, invitation, curiosity or relationship, what are we yelling for? Who are we yelling for? And how can we expect someone to listen?

Is he still there? Will he keep going? Is anyone listening? 

And more important for me to consider: How often do I answer questions no one is asking? And how often do I forget that people don't care what we have to say until they know we care about them.

And that takes time.

And rarely happens with a bullhorn in hand.

 

Means and Ends

The book journey is just beginning. And I was tempted to think that finishing it was an ending.

Putting on a book launch party was a lot of fun. I gathered random food products mentioned in the book (Red Bull, Twinkies, marshmallows, animal crackers). I chose people for everyone who attended to meet, in the spirit of one of the book's themes of taking risks on strangers, and I wrote the assignments on personalized index cards. I had fun procuring and setting up the food, drinks, and books to be signed.

What sticks with me, however, from the day spent doing errands in preparation, is an elderly, disheveled lady in a chair at the back of my local pharmacy. She was there when I came breezing in, giddy with excitement over "my" book's release, two different times an hour apart. She was awake once, asleep the next time. Both times she looked weary, care-worn, and not likely to be hosting or going to a party that night. 

And I can't stop thinking about her because the book isn't about having a party to celebrate a finished product. The book is about that lady and all the other ones we are tempted to pass by because we have important business or are in a rush. The book is for the people I wrote about — Charles who asked me to eat breakfast with him and who nibbled a giraffe animal cracker as he slipped in and out of clarity, Nicole whom my friend Joey and I found drunk on all fours downtown and ferried home, people I've misjudged and critiqued, and those I've yet to meet. The book is about what God is doing with all of us who are willing to let him mess with us — changing us, transforming us, slowing us down to see each other. The book is about love.

It's not an end in itself — a published book from which I can now turn to other projects.

It's simply the means for sharing all of our lives, for hearing your stories, for gathering people together, for challenging all of us to stop for the lonely woman in the chair even when we're excited about our own successes or wrapped up in our own pain.

The book is about whatever happens next. 

Yes, I wrote this book. But only because somebody had to go first.