Stranger and Stranger Still by Jake Colsen
After lunch we split up since our preferred browsing places are quite different. I went to loiter in the bookstores while she trolled the clothing stores and gift shops. Finishing before our scheduled rendezvous time, I had perched myself against the wall of a store while nursing a chocolate ice cream cone. I couldn’t help but notice the heated argument going on a few feet up the street on the curb in front of The Gap. Four college-aged students and two middle-aged men were holding bright blue handbills and gesturing wildly. I had seen the handbills earlier, tucked under windshield wipers and lying scattered in the gutter. It was an invitation to a play about the flames of hell that was being produced at a local church.
“Who’d want to go to this second-rate production…?”
“I’ll never set foot in a church again…!”
“The only thing I learned in church was how to feel guilty!”
“Been there, done that, got the scars and ain’t going back…!”
In the few moments since I had begun my eavesdropping, I don’t think any one of them actually finished a sentence. Another would interrupt as if they would burst from the pressure if they couldn’t add their own venom.
“Where do these arrogant people get off thinking they can judge me and…?”
“I’d like to know what Jesus would think if he walked into one of these churches today…!”
“I don’t think he’d probably go, he seemed…”
“And if he did, he’d probably fall asleep!”
Laughter drowned him out.
“Or maybe he’d die laughing…!”
“Or crying,” another voice offered which caused everyone to pause and think a moment.
“Do you think he’d wear a suit and…?”
“Only to hide the whip he’d sneak in to do a little house cleaning.”
The increasing volume drew the attention of those passing by. Their pace would slow as they were drawn into the commotion. Some drawn by the passion and intrigued by the assault on something as sacred as religion joined in like puppies at the food bowl. Still others hung around on the fringes to listen. Some even asked me what was going on.
Now a full-fledged argument developed as some of the newcomers challenged the anti-church cynics. Accusations volleyed quickly in the crowd. Most of them I had heard before–complaints
about extravagant facilities, hypocrites, boring sermons, always asking for money and burnout from too many meetings. Those that sought to defend the church had to admit some of these weaknesses but tried to point out many good things churches have done.
That’s when I noticed him. He could have been anywhere from late 30’s to early 50’s. It was difficult to tell. He was short, perhaps only 5’4”; with dark, wavy hair and an unkempt beard.
Both were peppered with streaks of gray. In a faded green sweatshirt, jeans and running shoes, his rugged looks made me wonder if he was a holdover from the rebellious 60’s; except that he wasn’t shuffling by aimlessly. In fact what had caught my eye was the determined purpose of his gait, moving directly toward the growing debate. His face was as intense as a German Shepherd pursuing an unfamiliar sound in the night. He seemed to melt into the crowd and then emerged in the center of it surveying the more vocal ones. When his eyes turned in my direction, I was captured by their intensity. They were deep–and alive! I was riveted. He seemed to know something no one else did.
By this time the debate had turned hostile. Those who had attacked the church had turned their anger toward Jesus himself, mocking him as an impostor. As intended, that only made the church goers in the group even more livid. “Wait until you have to look in his face as you sink into hell!” one said. I thought the combatants were going to start swinging at each other when the stranger floated his question into the crowd.
“You really have no idea what Jesus was like, do you?”
The words slipped off the man’s lips as gently as the breeze wafted through the trees overhead and were in stark contrast to the heated argument that swirled around him. They were so softly spoken that I read them on his lips more than heard them. But their impact was not lost on the crowd. The noisy clamor subsided quickly as tension-filled faces gave way to puzzled expressions. “Who said that?” was the unspoken question that filled the eyes of their surprised faces as they scanned the others around them.
I chuckled under my breath because no one was looking at the man who had just spoken. For one thing, he was so short that it was easy to pass over him. But I had been watching him and the crowd for the last few moments intrigued by his demeanor.
As people were glancing around he spoke again into the stunned silence. “Do you have any idea what he was like?” This time all eyes turned downward toward the voice and were surprised to see the man who’d spoken.
“What do you know about it, old man?” One of them finally spoke up, his mockery dripping off of each word until the disapproving gaze of the crowd silenced him. He laughed it off and looked away embarrassed, grateful that their eyes had swung back to the stranger. But he was in no hurry to speak. The resulting silence hung in the air, far beyond the point of awkwardness.
A few nervous glances and shrugs shot throughout the crowd, but no one spoke and no one left. During this time the man scanned the crowd pausing to hold each person’s gaze for a brief second. When he caught my eye, everything inside seemed to melt. I looked away instantly. After a few moments I glanced back, hoping he was no longer looking in my direction. After what seemed an insufferably long time he spoke again. His first words were whispered directly at the man who had threatened the others with hell. “You really have no idea what motivates you, do you?” His tone was one of sorrow, and his words sounded like an invitation. There was not a trace of anger in it. Embarrassed, the man threw his hands up and twisted his lips as if he didn’t understand the question.
The stranger let him twist in the gaze of the crowd briefly, then looking around the circle he began to speak again, his words flowing softly. “He was nothing special to look at. He could walk down this street today and not one of you would even notice him. In fact he had the kind of face you would shy away from, certain he wouldn’t fit in with your crowd.
“But he was as gentle a man as one would ever know. He could silence detractors without ever raising his voice. He never bullied his way; never drew attention to himself nor did he ever pretend to like what vexed his soul. He was real, to the very core.
“And at the core of that being was love.” The stranger paused and shook his head. “Wow! Did he love!” His eyes looked far past the crowd now, seeming to peer across the depths of time and space. “We didn’t even know what love was, until we saw it in him. It was everyone, too, even those who hated him. He still cared for them, hoping somehow they would find a way out of their self-inflicted souls to recognize who stood among them.
“And with all that love, he was completely honest. Yet even when his actions or words exposed people’s darkest motives, they didn’t feel shamed. They felt safe, really safe with him. His words conveyed not even a hint of judgment, simply an entreaty to come to God. There was no one you would trust more quickly with your deepest secrets. If someone were going to catch you at your worst moment you’d want it to be him.
“He wasted no time mocking others, nor their religious trappings.” He glanced at those who had just done so. “If he had something to say to them, he’d say it and move on and you would know you’d been loved more than anyone had ever loved you before.” Here the man stopped, his eyes closed and mouth clenched as if choking back tears that would melt him in an instant if he gave in to them.
“I’m not talking about mamby-pamby sentimentalism either. He loved, really loved. It didn’t matter if you were Pharisee or prostitute, disciple or blind beggar, Jew, Samaritan or Gentile. His love held itself out for any to embrace. Most did, too, when they saw him. Though so few ended up following him, for the few moments his presence passed by them, they tasted a freshness and power they could never deny even years later. Somehow he seemed to know everything about them, but loved
them deeply all the same.”
He paused and scanned the crowd. In the last couple of moments perhaps as many as 30 people had stopped to listen, their gaze firmly on the man and their mouths agape in bewilderment. I can record his words here, but am bereft of an adequate description of their impact. No one within earshot could deny their power or their authenticity. They rang from the very depths of his soul.
“And when he hung there from that filthy cross,” the man’s eyes looked up into the trees that towered over us, “that love still poured down–on mocker and disillusioned friend alike. As he approached the dark chamber of death, wearied of the torture and feeling separated from his Father, he continued to drink from the cup that would finally consume our self-will and shame. There was no finer moment in all of human history. His anguish became the conduit for his life to be shared with us. This was no madman. This was God’s Son, poured out to the last breath, to open full and free access for you to his Father.”
As he spoke further, I was struck by the intimacy of his words. He talked like someone who had been with him. In fact, I remember thinking, “This man is exactly how I would picture John the Disciple to be.”
No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than he stopped in mid-sentence. Turning toward his right, his eyes seemed to seek something in the crowd. Suddenly his eyes locked on mine. The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention and my body quivered with a wave of chills. He held my gaze for a moment, then a brief but certain smile spread over his lips as he winked and nodded at me. At least that’s the way I remember it now. I was shocked at the time. Was he acknowledging my thought? That would be silly. Even if he were John, he wouldn’t be a mind reader. What am I thinking? How could he be a 2000-year-old disciple? It’s just not possible.
As he turned away, I glanced behind me to see if anyone else could have been the target of his gaze. It didn’t look that way, and no one around me seemed to take notice of his wink and smile. I was stunned, like I’d just been hit in the head with an errant football. Electricity raked over my body as questions raced through my mind. I had to find out more about this stranger.
The crowd was swelling in size as more and more people poked their heads in trying to figure out what was going on. Even the stranger seemed to grow increasingly uncomfortable with the spectacle the scene was quickly becoming.
“If I were you,” he said with a wink and a smile as his eyes swept over those who’d started the discussion, “I would waste far less time ragging on religion and find out just how much Jesus wants to be your friend without any strings attached. He will care for you and if given a chance will become more real to you than your best friend and you will cherish him more than anything else you desire. He will give you a purpose and a fullness of life that will carry you through every stress and pain and will change you from the inside to show you what true freedom and joy really are.” With that he turned and made his way through the crowd in the opposite direction from where I
was standing. No one moved or said anything for a moment, unsure just how to end the confrontation and break up.
I tried to move through the crowd so that I could talk to this man personally. Could he really have been John? If not, who was he? How did he know the things he seemed to speak so confidently about Jesus?
… I had never heard anyone talk about Jesus the way he did and he had provoked an insatiable hunger within me to find out more about this Jesus I thought I knew.