At one point this week I was having a conversation with 3 new acquaintances simultaneously about 1) good and evil 2) greek tragedies, 3) vampires and 4) the broken Democratic machine in Philadelphia. My “Tell Me Your Story” bench kind of blossomed on Monday afternoon. That wasn’t the only multi-person conversation I had either. I’m trying to be “that guy with the sign” and it seems to be working.
I’m trying to make some new friends at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve still got my toes in the water at University of the Sciences and Drexel, but I’m hanging out mostly at Penn. I think that among the 11,000 undergraduates there are some who want to explore relationship with Jesus. The problem I had when I had this idea is that I didn’t really know anyone at Penn. I had to break the seal between me and the thousands of people walking down Locust Walk.
So I found a bench on the walk, held up a sign that says “Tell Me Your Story”, and waited. (I’ve told you some of this before) Today I have a strategy about the waiting that I wanted to articulate.
Not only is the sign itself with its unexpected invitation disarming enough to stop someone in their tracks upon first seeing it, but it also has a cumulative effect. Someone came up to me last week and said, “I’ve seen you here before.” Yes! I want the people walking down Locust Walk to gain a sense of familiarity with me. Why would they come and talk to me? Hopefully because they’ve seen me so many times and they’ve seen other people talking to me. They always liked the idea but they would never just, like, talk to a stranger. But I’m not a stranger anymore–I’m that guy with the sign!
I think Jesus held up a similar sign of sorts when he told his parables-those amazing word pictures he was always painting. My favorite definition of a parable is C.H. Dodd’s “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” I’m teasing the minds of those who see me into active thought. I’m arresting them with my strangeness.
And yes I’m doing it for a reason. That’s the first thing people ask me when they come to my bench. I tell them “I’m a pastor at Circle of Hope and I want to know you and be known. I’m looking for friends.” (Also, a pretty arresting thing to say). Usually people who have already come over won’t walk away after I’ve told them what I’m doing, but it has happened. I’m offering them myself, and that is a little too intimate for some.
I think that is what Jesus is doing in his parables. He’s not serving it up to us in some very concrete way, maybe because it cannot be expressed concretely or at least should not be, but I think also because he wants to offer himself to his listeners. He’ begging their questions. He doesn’t want them to just get his ideas, he wants them to get him and relationship with him. Too often Christians have sold Jesus as an idea. They react to me that way. One woman actually said, “Oh, is this the part where you try to sell me something” when I mentioned Jesus. But I’m looking for people to share a life with me in Christ. I want t be known as Jesus wants to be known. To get there with the people of Locust Walk at the University of Pennsylvania I’m being that guy with the sign.
I’m expanding the idea with a group tonight at 8:30pm in Houston Hall (3417 Spruce). Please pray for me and my new partner, Saul, as we seek those who want to connect with us and Jesus. At the very least tonight will be a good time of prayer for me and Saul. At the very most God will start something new that impacts Penn in astounding ways.