He stands, black leather bible in hand, between two yellow flags that flap out selectively un-contextualised words of scripture like a pair of oversized budgerigars on steroids.
What I notice first about Him is his eyes, his hunted eyes, that belie his purported belief in the message he wants me to hear, leaving me wondering whether he is preaching to my heart or his own. I’m not sure he knows the answer himself, as the words pour out at a pace seemingly adopted to prevent the interruption of rational though on his own part as much as the occasional heckles he periodically attracts from less tolerant watchers than me.
Though I cannot hear his words, the preacher’s body language and posture resonate me back across the years. This is a belief set I was taught in my childhood, grew uneasy with in my teens and rejected in my 20s. I could not be more relieved to have left it far behind on my journey. Yet I seemingly cannot avoid an emotional reaction, as this brand of theology (or perhaps it is bigotry – you tell me) is a close cousin to that on which I was spiritually weaned. Sometimes my reaction to such messages is uneasy discomfort, re-engendering the latent sense of guilt his forebears were so good at pouring over my young psyche by the Tsunami load. Sometimes it is anger, that in a world crying out for enlightenment and love, such men feel the need to terrorise ‘sinners’ (for which read anyone who believes remotely differently from them) into salvation by fear of hellfire, damnation and eternal separation from the God I know and love dearly. Most often it is sadness; sadness for him rather than the passers-by that do not listen; sadness for the many, many lifetimes he seemingly will need in order to forgive himself for whatever drivers him to externalize his condemnation. Usually I pass such people by, minding my own business, for I hold it to be true that the beliefs each of us espouse are a step on the road to enlightenment. Under normal circumstances it is not for me to intervene in the beliefs of another.
But today is different. Today, our eyes meet. I am, by policy non-belligerent, non-confrontational. But from this arm-lock of eyes, I know today will be different. His lips move. I do not get what he says first time. I put down my shopping and look at him enquiringly. He repeats. This time I get it. “Are you saved?” he asks in a threatening semi-whisper. I have a choice. Will I answer? Will I engage on his selected territory? I make my choice.
“Saved from what?” I reply.
And then the deluge starts. I get some of it. Even in deafness it’s not so hard when you have been familiar with this unremitting flagellation since childhood; saved from my sin for we are all sinners; saved from the sin of eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, knowledge that has set me free from his clutches long ago. When I ask him to repeat, he finally gets it. He looks down at Matt who is standing patiently, unaware that he too must presumably be sinner, condemned to eternal separation from God.
There’s something to be said for being a dog and having body language as your first language at times like these. The preacher evidently disapproves of deafness as it prevents me from falling at his feet in condemnation of the sin he tells me is killing me. But he doesn’t disapprove enough to let me go. And when I mis-hear and ask for clarification he berates me for being witty. “Witty?” I ask his companion in surprise, for today he is not alone.
“Don’t worry,” comes the companion’s answer, for he is indeed quite companionable. “He’s in preaching mode,” as if such a modality excuses the preacher’s impatient cussedness.
I stand before the ineloquence spew a little longer before I can take no more. I offer a hug, but the preacher will not accept a hug. The companion accepts, so perhaps the exchange is not entirely wasted. “Namaste,” I say, hands together in supplication. As I turn to walk away, the words fly past me in an unending stream of condemnation and promises of death in the unquenchable fires of hell.
Walking home I explore my animated emotions and realise that little has been accomplished other than a temporary disturbance to my own equilibrium. There are still changes to make before I am as grounded in serenity as I wish to be.
Sadly, the preacher has sustained an impression I have gained repeatedly over the years from numerous Christians who regrettably have ranked amongst the most obnoxious, confrontational and deliberately offensive people I have encountered. They worship an intolerant God, these loveless men of a harsher Calvary than the one I know. One step out of line and He condemns you to an eternity of pain and loneliness. Their antidote? Derision, mockery and megalomanic narcissism. It seems to me that these smug, self-appointed representatives of God on earth dwell worlds away from the Jesus they purport to follow. Nothing about them endears. I could not conceivably ever wish to emulate them or anything they stand for. I rather think Jesus would have disowned them. Perhaps he still does.
So I return home to my singing bowl, my crystals and my meditation to re-establish equilibrium.
I have written the Preacher a poem. I shall carry a copy and give it to him next time I see him.
Oh My God!
“Repent!” he shouted.
I didn’t know what penting was, but I promised there and then I’d definitely re-do it more in future.
“All ye like sheep have gone astray,” he yelled.
I thought of new season’s lamb with mint sauce and roast potatoes.
The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he snarled.
I looked at my hands. There was nothing on them; certainly not a kingdom.
“I see you, sinner,” he said.
I checked my flies.
“There will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth,” he said.
I wiped a tear from my eye and adjusted my dentures.
“What do you worship?” he demanded in a booming voice.
And they all looked at me.
So I said
That’s my God standing over there.
My God’s the one sweating blood in a lonely garden.
My God’s the one carrying a cross up a hill on his back.
My God’s the one with twelve inch thorns crush down onto his head.
My God’s the one stripped naked and nailed up high.
My God’s the one who forgives thieves.
My God’s the one whose body burned its way through a winding sheet.
My God’s the one that Death wasn’t strong enough to hold (and believe me, Death’s pretty pissed off about that).
My God’s the one who kicked an ‘effin great boulder out of his way and strode out of his tomb.
My God’s the one who forgave every bad or stupid thing I ever did, I said.
And what’s more, He doesn’t give a toss what you or anyone else thinks of me.
So that’s my God, I said,
What’s yours like?
Namaste to all seekers after the light.