It was a very hot Saturday morning at the North Hollywood Metro Station. It had not yet reached the noon hour and it was already over 100 degrees.
Maurice, a 24-year-old, African American, son of a pastor approached me as I was standing atop my stepladder preaching the gospel. I cannot remember his initial question. But the conversation soon deteriorated into an argument between two sinful men -- the open-air preacher and a pastor's kid.
I was angry with Maurice. He became belligerent and disrespectful. And, to my shame, I responded in kind. After it was all said and done, my team and I gathered to pray. We prayed for Maurice. I knew I would likely never see him again, and I had little hope for his soul.
Over the next couple of weeks, reflections of my conversation with Maurice, along with a very timely and important conversation with my sister, Cheryl, about my open-air preaching, caused me to do some painful soul searching. My sister shared with me that she thought I was sounding angrier, over the last couple of months, when I preach.
I didn't take what she said with a grain of salt. I took it to heart.
Then on a Thursday morning not long after my conversation with my sister, I was once again at the North Hollywood Metro Station, preaching the gospel. I tried to be vigilant to watch my tone of voice and the sharpness of my rhetoric, and I have done so ever since.
After I finished my preaching for the morning, I noticed a young man standing off in the distance, close to the subway structure. I walked up to him and tried to hand him a tract.
The young man glanced at me, and I could tell he was not happy that I approached him.
“You don't even remember me, do you?” The young man said.
It was Maurice.
Maurice, while remaining calm, let me have it. And I thank God he did. He told me that I belittled him and humiliated him in front of his friends.
I apologized to Maurice. I made no excuses. I told him he was right. And I asked him for a second chance.
We spent the next half-hour together, talking to one another -- listening to one another. This time Maurice heard the law and the gospel, and not merely the words of an angry street preacher. I do not know if the Lord saved him at that moment; but I do know God the Holy Spirit was at work in both of our lives. The conversation ended with us embracing each other, with a hug.
I sinned against God in a terrible way. I used the preaching of the gospel as a hammer to beat a struggling young man over the head. I used the preaching of the gospel not as the double-edged sword to change Maurice's heart. I sinfully used it to crush Maurice's spirit. I did something I vehemently oppose -- something I make very clear to those I teach and disciple they should never do. I had become the offense, instead of the word of the cross, which is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18). Maurice wasn't offended by the truth that day. He was offended by me.
But God is greater than my sin! And God is so loving and gracious and kind that he allowed me the opportunity to be reconciled to an unsaved young man I had hurt deeply with my words.
The Saturday following my reconcilliatory conversation with Maurice, I was back at the North Hollywood Metro Station to preach the gospel. I have preached at the North Hollywood Metro Station for a few years, now. By and large, I have preached with negligible contact with security and law enforcement. Unfortunately over the last several months, security has shown obvious preferential treatment toward the Jehovah's Witnesses who are at the station every day of the week. The disparity of treatment has gotten so bad that security has sought to have us removed from the property while asserting the Jehovah's Witnesses are welcome there.
Every Saturday, for several weeks, the security guards at the station called the police to complain about us -- going so far as to lie about what we were saying and doing, trying to paint a picture for the officers that we were there to cause trouble. Each and every contact with the police was resolved without us having to stop our activities.
Well, on this particular Saturday, my frustration with the ongoing harassment reached critical mass, and I was not my typical diplomatic self with the security guards.
Once law enforcement arrived, talked to us, and left the location I walked over to the security guard and apologized to him for my tone of voice. The security guard was standing inside the tented area of one of the vendors who sells food and drinks at the station. The vendor's name was Rick.
Once I finished talking to the security guard, Rick decided to interject.
"Ya know, I'm here every day. And I hear a lot of you preachers. And you're a jerk."
I appreciate a man who says what he thinks and doesn't beat around the bush. Reminds me of someone else I know.
Rick, a Mexican man probably a few years older than me, went on to tell me that sometimes I sound angry when I'm preaching. He told me he was amazed that someone hadn't yet hauled off and hit me.
Rick was a Catholic by way of tradition who had a "live and let live and it doesn't matter what a person believes" mindset.
I spent the next 30-45 minutes talking to Rick. I spent most of the time listening to what Rick had to say. Of course I took advantage of the time and shared the gospel with him.
Toward the end of our conversation, Rick said, "Now that I've had a chance to talk to you, I feel like I know you better. I don't think you're the same guy I've heard preaching."
That really resonated with me. "I don't think you're the same guy I've heard preaching."
I should be the same guy. The guy who steps atop the stepladder to preach in the open-air should be the same guy who engages a person in a one-to-one conversation. Granted, there will always be a difference in volume between open-air preaching and one-to-one conversations. There will always be a greater chance and frequency of heckling with open-air preaching than one-to-one conversations. But I should be the same guy in both situations, both environments.
Rick opened my eyes to that.
I still see Rick every day when I'm at the North Hollywood Metro Station. Today, we're friends. We greet each other every morning. We say goodbye to each other when I leave.
The Fine Line Between Passion and Anger
There is a very fine line between passion and anger. As the above testimonies show, there have been times when I have crossed the line -- when I have crossed the line from righteousness to self-righteousness, from righteous indignation to sinful anger, from humility to pride, from Christ-likeness to sinfulness. Oh, there are explanations for these times, but there are no excuses. There are no excuses for sin.
Since it is so very difficult to avoid stepping on or crossing this line, especially in the dynamic, emotional, and fluid context of open-air preaching, a wall -- a barrier, if you will -- must be erected between the realms of passion and anger. I've come to realize, at least for myself and my ministry, I must grow in this area of my life if my open-air ministry is to continue and grow. I need to build a protective barrier that will help me to stay on the right side of the spiritual battle between passion and anger.
The Wall of Compassion
The word "compassion" or "compassionate" is used 56 times in the Bible (ESV). For the purpose of this article we will consider two occurrences -- Matthew 9:35-38 and Colossians 3:12-13.
"And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.'"The Greek word translated as "compassion" in Matthew 9:36 is the verb form of the word splagchnon. It is defined as follows: "to have the bowels yearn, i.e. (figuratively) feel sympathy, to pity -- have (be moved with) compassion."
Jesus's compassion for the people, as he went through the cities and the villages proclaiming the gospel, was more than a passing feeling of pity. His was a deep sympathy that moved Him to respond and act. It was more than a fleeting emotion. It was quite literally a "gut feeling." It was a deep, to-the-core, other-minded sacrificial, loving emotional response to the spiritual plight of the people.
In Colossians 3:12-13, Paul wrote:
"Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive."In Colossians 3:12, Paul uses a combination of two Greek words to form the expression translated as "compassionate hearts." The word "compassionate" is a translation of the Greek word oiktirmos, and "hearts" is a translation of the same Greek word Jesus uses in the Matthew passage: splagchnon.
Oiktirmos literally means: "pity, mercy." And what is mercy? Mercy is best understood as not receiving what one deserves for a sinful act.
Taking these two passages at face value and in their proper context, along with applying a right understanding to the word compassion and the phrase compassionate hearts, the application of these things to the context of open-air preaching becomes obvious to me.
Brick, Mortar, and Rebar
The wall of compassion, which prevents the open-air preacher from crossing the line between righteous indignation and sinful anger, is built with bricks of mercy, mortar of sympathy, and rebar of pity.
The wall of compassion is built with bricks of mercy. To be merciful in an open-air setting toward passive-aggressive listeners (the eye rollers, those snickering, and those making negative gestures) and aggressive hecklers (the verbally, even physically abusive) is to keep one's self from responding in kind. While the flesh of the open-air preacher may want to give what he's receiving from an angry, blasphemous heckler, and while many present (even the unsaved) may feel the heckler deserves a sharp rebuke and a corrective "tongue-lashing," the Bible gives no such behavioral latitude to the Christian. It is not for the Christian to give the unsaved heckler what he or she may deserve, for the open-air preacher (a fallible man) cannot apply such corrective measures without the possibility of falling prey to sin.
To be merciful in an open-air setting is to hold one's tongue when appropriate and wise to do so.
"Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself" (Proverbs 26:4).
"A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1).
"Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person" (Colossians 4:6).
The wall of compassion is built with the mortar of sympathy. One way to be sympathetic in an open-air setting is for the open-air preacher to be ever-vigilant to remember he is not better than the lost person in front of him or yelling from the crowd. He is simply better-off. Paul reminds the believers in Ephesus of this very truth.
"And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (Ephesians 2:1-3, emphasis mine).The open-air preacher must remember to be sympathetic to the spiritually dead and spiritually blind (1 Corinthians 2:14), for that's exactly who the open-air preacher was before God caused him to be born again (1 Peter 1:3), and extended to him the gifts of repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
And the wall of compassion is built with the rebar of pity. Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that the whole of the Christian faith relies upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
"Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope[b] in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, emphasis mine).Yes, if Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead, Christians are of all people the most to be pitied. But the reality is that Christ is indeed risen. He is alive! And He will return at a time of the Father's choosing. That being true (and it is true) the Christian is not the person who is most to be pitied. It is the person who denies the resurrection of Jesus Christ who is most to be pitied.
Those who deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ, those unbelievers who blasphemously discount the resurrection of the King of kings and the Lord of lords are the most pitiful people in the world today. The wrath of God abides on them (John 3:36). And in their repetitious unbelief (Proverbs 26:11), relying on their own intellect instead of the fear of the Lord for wisdom (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7), merit the open-air preacher's pity and not his scorn.
I will never forget my conversations with Maurice and Rick. In fact, just yesterday I told Rick that I daily think of our conversation and that I'm thankful to God we had it. As a result of these two conversations I am working hard to build the wall of compassion in my open-air preaching. With the Lord's help, I want to help prevent myself from sinning against God and hurting people by lacking the mercy, sympathy, and pity I should not only feel for the lost, but also express to them in my preaching.
I have been adopted by God and beloved by Him. How shameful to dishonor Christ by showing less compassion to others than He has shown to me! Lord, help me to never sin this way again!
"For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:36).