David Ould went from nervous misgivings to astonished joy when a seemingly unlikely scriptural text brought an old man to new birth. David is Senior Associate Minister at St John's Anglican Cathedral, Parramatta, NSW
'And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.’ 1 Thess 2:13
In May 2013 I took up a new ministry position. I went from one of the most affluent suburbs of my city to a place whose name was synonymous with crime and unrest; we switched from an area of tertiary-educated white-collar professionals to equally hard-working tradies. I soon learned it was a place where no-one else used words like ‘synonymous’.
After a while I set my mind to giving evangelism some structure. I grew up on Christianity Explored, leading tables in the enormous basement hall of All Souls’ Langham Place in London where the course itself was developed. It was very clear to me early on that one white upper-middle class man introducing DVDs featuring another white upper-middle class man was probably not the best way forward.
So I looked around at a variety of different options and finally settled on a different course out of England; the Good Book Company’s Jesus and You. The course has lots going for it—it’s only four weeks and so in a low-commitment culture the ask is minimal. Even better, each week can stand alone as a gospel presentation so there’s not the same gap in understanding that can happen in other structures. The presenters come from a similar blue-collar background; a nice contrast to the posh Englishman pressing play on the DVD. Finally, there was more than one rotation of the course—Tales of the Unexpected, Close Encounters and The King and I—so people who were still interested could come back for another round of new material to engage with.
We ran the course over four weeks, morning and evening. There were still some aspects I was uncomfortable with, most particularly the choice of texts. The local stockist only had Close Encounters on hand when we began but when I looked over the material I had my doubts. Week 1 was great—Luke’s account of the paralytic lowered through the roof. I could work with that! But week 2 I wasn’t so sure about—we were being asked to work our way through the complicated Parable of the Strong Man. It wasn’t even the simpler version recorded in Matthew and Mark but the full-blown Lukan retelling (Luke 11:14-26). The course booklet included a chart for participants to work through comparing the demon-possessed man, Jesus and Beelzebub with the various characters in the parable. It was a chart that I wish I’d had the first time I tried to work out this intriguing teaching of Jesus. It’s fair to say that I wasn’t confident going into that week. I thought the text was too complicated, I had no confidence that it would be understood and I wondered what on earth had possessed (no pun intended) the authors to include this Close Encounter when there were so many better options.
My quiet despondency was only increased when at 10am on Tuesday morning there was just one person there. Robert (not his real name) had been in church all his life. He sat in the same place every Sunday morning and was friendly without ever fully engaging in things. But he wanted to come along and here he was with his booklet and a quiet anticipation. I was the opposite. Frankly, because of my misgivings over that week’s text I was glad that only one person was there.
Over the next hour we read the Bible together. We saw Jesus cast out a demon and then declare that he was master over even the great Beelzebub, prince of demons. Then we turned the page to our chart and mapped out how Satan might be a strong man but that Jesus was far stronger. We discovered that it isn’t enough to have the house of our life cleaned out once; we need Jesus to stand permanent guard at the door.
And then, a few minutes after 11 o’clock in the morning, Robert had gentle tears running down his cheek. Well into his 70s, he quietly declared that he had spent his whole life unsuccessfully trying to keep his own house in order and it was time to ask the stronger man Jesus to do the job instead. He moved from darkness to light and I was both ecstatic and deeply ashamed in equal measure. It’s not the text that I would have chosen to declare the gospel but it was, in God’s good timing, exactly what Robert needed and so we prayed right there and then that he would stop trying to clean up his own life and let someone far better and greater do it for him.
And because God is so good (not least in humbling us) he did it again that evening. We had 6 people there and began with me asking what people had made of the previous week with the story of the paralytic lowered through the roof. As we worked our way around the small group there were various comments about how interesting it was, how they were surprised and so on. And then we got to the last person, a young lady whose life had already been complicated enough to prepare her to understand how good grace is when she stumbled across it. She looked up and gently said, ‘I went home last week and prayed the prayer’.
A few months later she and Robert and a number of others stood in front of a packed church building and publicly declared their faith as we held baptisms and confirmations. All because of the powerful word of God. And all despite my lack of confidence.