Friday, June 03, 2011

the change-of-heart evangelist

The Evangelist

by Murray Andrew Pura

There was a man of God. And everywhere this man preached churches and auditoriums were packed and thousands came to believe in Christ. He travelled all over the world. He crossed and re-crossed the oceans. Millions became converts to Christianity because of him. He slept in snatches. He only saw his wife and children two or three times a month. His children mailed him packages of their drawings which he never had time to open. “I am a man on a mission,” he said, “and that mission is to save the lost.”

One rainy day the evangelist sat down with his board of directors. “You know,” he told them, “something is not right.”

“What’s the problem?” they asked him.

“Well, I have been reading about the state of Christianity here in the western world. There are as many divorces among Christians as there are among any other group in our society. Almost as many cases of wife abuse and child abuse. Almost as many addicted to pornography and gambling. Almost as many racists and warmongers.”

“So what’s the problem?” they asked him.

“If the Holy Spirit really is in our converts,” he replied, “they ought to be better than that.”

They laughed and slapped him on the back. “These things take time. Why do you think Paul had to write so many letters of correction and instruction? You just keep bringing them into the Kingdom and after awhile the sheer weight of numbers will make a difference.”

So the evangelist kept on preaching in packed churches and packed auditoriums and thousands and millions kept giving their lives to Christ. But the world did not change. It seemed to the evangelist that it was getting worse. And for all the impact his converts had on society they might as well have never been.

“Nothing has changed,” he told his board of directors a year later.

“What is it you want to change?” they asked him.

“I want marriage to be stronger in our churches,” he replied. “I want to see wife and child abuse eliminated. I want to see racism eradicated. I want to see Christianity make a difference to right and wrong and the sacredness of human life. I want more integrity. More justice. More courage.”

They smiled and shook their heads. “The pollsters can’t measure the work of God in a human life,” they chuckled. “It isn’t a question of divorce or abuse or racism. Or integrity or justice. It’s simply a matter of trusting God.”

“What should I do?” he asked them.

“Just keep on preaching and saving the lost,” they told him. “Once they are in a church program for awhile they will change into the kind of people they are meant to be.”

“I’m not so sure,” he responded. “Why haven’t those changes happened by now?”
They grinned and shook their heads. “These things take time. Keep your head. Just continue to do the work of God.”

So the evangelist went back to the halls and arenas and millions came and millions believed and another year went by and still the world did not change and still the church seemed to be making no difference. So one warm night in Atlanta the evangelist came to the pulpit and poured out his heart. Only a few hundred came to Christ. The following night only a few dozen. The final night none.

“What’s going on?” the board of directors demanded.

“I am telling the people about Christ as I have always done,” the evangelist replied.

“No, that can’t be,” they challenged him, “because the response is no longer the same.”

“Well, it’s true that I have added a few things to my messages,” he admitted.

“What things?” they snapped.

“Come to Toronto next week and find out,” he invited them.

They did. For three nights they sat in the Sky Dome and listened to him. On the first night, he told the crowds that if they believed in Christ they had to be ready to face contempt and disgust and hatred. On the second night, he told the crowds they might never have cars or homes or TVs or even a proper place to sleep again. On the third night, he told them that if they wanted to believe in Christ they had to be ready to die.

The board of directors held an impromptu meeting in the evangelist’s hotel room at midnight. “This is totally unacceptable,” they said.

“Why?” he asked them.

“You are not being Biblical,” they growled.

“Jesus told us to carry a cross like he did,” the evangelist answered.

“First get them saved,” they demanded, “then you can tell them about the cross.”

“Jesus said the son of man had nowhere to lay his head,” the evangelist spoke up again.

“You do not tell new converts the hard things!” they barked.

“In the sixth chapter of John, “ the evangelist reminded them, “Jesus said things that were so hard most of his converts gave up on him.”

“They were disciples,” the board of directors shot back, “not new believers.”

“We do not even say hard things to disciples,” he responded.

“Leave that to the church programs,” they muttered. “You do the work of an evangelist.”

“Jesus told the rich young ruler,” he said, “to sell all he had and then follow him.”

“Never mind,” the board warned. “The bottom line is this. Bring the people into the Kingdom or you’re fired.”

The next week the evangelist was in New York. Come and die, he told the crowds. Give up your dreams and schemes and take on God’s, he preached. Pick up the thing that can kill you and carry it, he shouted. Go where women and men are most desperate and find God’s salvation, he promised. Give away your money, give away your guns, give away your land, and you will find treasure in heaven, he challenged, and then come and follow Jesus. In one week only three hundred people gave their lives to Christ. The board of directors fired the evangelist as they crowded into the washroom after him at the completion of his last message. “Your mission,” they snarled, “is finished.”

The evangelist went home to his family and stayed with them a year. Then they boarded a camper together and drove to Mexico. Old friends remembered him. Although another evangelist now spoke at all the big auditoriums in the big cities they found him a few churches and a few halls to speak at. He spent a month in Mexico emptying those halls and churches. Only two hundred people decided to believe in the Jesus he was preaching about. Then the evangelist followed the spring into Texas and the American South.

Come and die, he preached, and he emptied halls from Austin to Nashville. Give up your authority, give up your hatred, give up your racism, give up your prestige, he pleaded, and eight people became Christians after four days in Richmond. His blood, his body, that’s all you need, he said in Orlando. Get rid of your toys and follow Christ and heal a hundred people’s lives. “If you want holiness in every bone and fiber of your being, follow Jesus,” he whispered in Washington. “If you want to be turned inside out and live upside down, follow Jesus. If you want to be a stranger, a pilgrim, an unknown on this earth, follow Jesus.” “His evangelism,” ministers throughout America concluded, “is unbalanced.” “Maybe, maybe,” some other ministers murmured, “but when his converts come to our churches they are not the ones who say, Meet my needs, or, I don’t like the worship music, or, Those children are too black and too loud. His converts are the ones who come and try to live out all the teachings of Jesus.”

For years he drove the camper from city to city and from town to town. Two persons came to Christ in one place. Five in another. Sixteen somewhere else. Always in small halls. Always with smaller and smaller crowds. But on his second and third runs through those cities and towns many ministers attended and encouraged all sorts of people to join them. The physically and mentally challenged. The poor. Battered women. Men just out of prison. The unhappy rich. The burnt out powerful. The cynics. The bitter. The angry. The obsessed. “One convert to Christ from his preaching,” the ministers said, “is the equal of a thousand already warming our pews.” Only a handful might respond to his messages, pastors in Dallas and Chicago and Los Angeles conceded, but those handfuls were changing the face of America.

One night when they were camped in a trailer park near Phoenix he laid down on his bed and died. There were drawings all around him and he had stopped speaking in the middle of a story to his two youngest, David and Rachel. “So the man gave up everything,” he was saying, “for this incredible pearl.” Some ministers in Europe and North America shrugged when they heard the news. “He turned his back on the Kingdom,” they grumbled. “It’s just as if his life ended five years ago in New York.” Others agreed: “He kept saying the message wasn’t strong enough. That Christianity wasn’t changing the world. But look. There have been changes. And all without his help.” A few shook their heads, “Can’t you see? It’s his message that has started to give us the kind of Christianity that is making the difference. It wouldn’t have happened without him.”

“Nonsense,”scoffed a number of denominational leaders. “His numbers were miniscule. They made no impression on our society. The big churches are responsible for this great awakening.” “Funny,” growled the Texans, “we never thought God ever needed a whole lot of people to make his point.”

Few came to his funeral in Vermont. The flowers left at the grave quickly blackened in an October frost. Crows and magpies perched on his headstone. But when spring came robins and meadowlarks took their place. It was an old cemetery where his parents and grandparents had been buried and it was not always well tended. Grass and thistles swarmed around his stone. Rain and snow erased the lettering after a hundred years.
In a new century, people came looking for the grave. Ministers, scholars, church history professors, ordinary folk.

“The great evangelist,” one PhD mumbled as he searched. “Why couldn’t they have marked his grave properly, for heaven’s sake?” A woman in his party rested her hand on a blank headstone and scanned a cemetery that jumped with blue and purple and yellow flowers. “Perhaps, Dr. Steeves,” she said, “because they didn’t think that he was a great evangelist.” “Nonsense,” rumbled the professor, bending down to squint at an inscription beneath a tall angel. “The verdict of history is clear. You’ve read more of the transcripts of his messages than I have. His words were brilliant. They changed a whole world. Did people fail to recognize St. Francis or Martin Luther or John Wesley for who they were? No generation on earth could miss the influence God had through this man’s life.”

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