Last week as I hiked the canyon near my home—not my usual mountain hike, but an up-and-down course along a soothing river—I ran into Scripture Lady. I was heading down the highest climb on the trail as she approached, a hiking aberration in her long skirt, baggy socks, and shoes that resembled house slippers. Despite the heat, her long hair was untied, and she moved slowly up the trail like a dreamy float in a parade. I hadn’t seen her in over a year, but I knew once our paths crossed she’d have a question for me.
“Can I read you a scripture for today?” She didn’t appear to recognize me, and I wondered how often she got a “yes” from passing hikers. In the three or four times I’ve seen her—every year or so— I’ve always said yes. I mean, why not?
“Sure,” I said. “I’d love to hear a scripture. I was just thinking about a verse in Hebrews 4.”
She carried an empty toilet paper roll, and from it she withdrew a little homemade scroll, inscribed with tiny handwriting. So far, the verses she read always came from the book of Revelation. I couldn’t see what else was on her list, but she took a minute to scan the scroll before choosing what I needed to hear. As usual, it came from Revelation; on this day, nearly half of chapter 21.
“Thank you,” I said when she finished. Despite her initial boldness, she always seemed reluctant to engage in conversation. Her mission was simply to read a passage and float on. But this time, based on my earlier comment, she went further.
“Hebrews 4. That’s the chapter that talks about keeping the Sabbath, how essential that is for God’s people. Oh, and the verse about the Word being like a sword, dividing soul and spirit.”
“That’s right.” I’d long suspected she was a Sabbatarian, among other things, and knew it would be pointless to point out that references to the Sabbath in said chapter had nothing to do with keeping the Sabbath today. Her mind, like her mission, was clearly set.
“Actually, I wasn’t thinking about either of those passages, but about an earlier one: “But the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.”
This was, in fact, the verse I’d been pondering when she appeared, but it suddenly sounded (to both of us, judging by the look on her face) like an indictment on her mission: that sharing a verse (or two, or ten) with passing strangers had no value, if those who heard didn’t act on the message. Like scattering seed on the dry, dusty trail we were hiking, nothing would germinate.
Not that she was wrong to share. Indeed, God could be using her encounters to challenge the hikers who declined her invitation: God had given them opportunities to hear the Word as they rushed through life. On Judgement Day, I believe the lost will be confronted with every incident of spiritual opportunity, as well as their refusals and excuses.
And he could also be using her example to convict ME— and other believers she meets (a small minority, in my secular community). When was the last time I stopped a stranger to share God’s Word? And even if I doubt her method is effective, given the verses she shares and her detached presentation, who would God commend at the end of the day?
I used to invite strangers to Bible study or church everywhere I went: in stores, at bus stops, on subways, at the hair salon, the dental office, the bank, the park. Most people said no, but I invited thousands of people over the years, and some said yes. Of those, many came and went, but some stayed, and studied, and became disciples of Jesus. Many of these are still among my dearest friends.
What changed? Many things. I went through a long, dark night of the soul, a decade of mourning and questioning and painfully reconstructing my faith after my spiritual world collapsed. I still invited the odd person, but it was hard, given my inner state: I felt like a walking example of what not to do. I went from wanting to show off my spiritual family, the church, to feeling ashamed of our cracks and weaknesses, our shaky history. I made new church friends who fell away or left; I felt intensely lonely. How can you want to invite strangers to share your misery?
I recovered; or rather, God healed me. I started reaching out again, not as fervently as before, but more than I had in years. I met a series of women who became friends, grabbed a corner of my heart, and then walked or drifted away, with flimsy excuses or no excuse at all. My heart broke afresh, though I cautioned myself against growing too attached. I was in a new decade—my sixties!—and though I don’t look or feel my age, it struck me as uncomely, in my golden years, to walk around the mall and talk to strangers about God.
I basically talked myself out of talking.
But I pray for open doors, for new ways to meet people who might be seeking. I’m trying to make new friends and share more ‘naturally’, rather than use the front-door approach like Scripture Lady. But it’s slower and far less satisfying than my old ways.
I know I’m not the only one who’s floundering here, who feels conflicted and nostalgic and perplexed about how their evangelism path has dwindled over time. The first thing I did after my baptism, nearly forty years ago, was go to the mall and share my faith, not because anyone told me to, but because I wanted to. I had no clue how to be effective, and no doubt did and said some stupid things. (I still smoked a cigarette a day, until lighting up with a prospective convert and realizing it was time to quit.) But God blessed my efforts, and I kept sharing.
I started this article intending to discuss Heb.4:2, the verse I shared with Scripture Lady. Look where it led me! It’s as if we took a side path, looking for a place to water the dogs, and ended up finding a whole new side trail. Kind of an uncomfortable one.
Next time we’ll discuss the verse at hand, though we already have, in a roundabout way. I’ve convicted myself: I need to combine my faith in the power of the Word with action; to find more ways to share my faith, face-to-face, like I used to. To make room for God to melt my cynicism.
In other words, to be a little more like Scripture Lady, minus the detachment, and a lot more like Paul, my secret biblical crush.
What about you?