A few months ago I was sitting outside of a café in Orlando, Florida. As much as anywhere, Orlando is a crossroads of the world. Watching and listening, we saw European tourists who were speaking German, French and Spanish. A large, cigar-smoking Italian sat to my right, who I learned was a chef at a restaurant down the road. To my left two young men sat, obviously a couple, drinking their beer and talking about work. The owner of the café came by – he was from Miami originally and was working hard to make a living, we learned.
People were getting off of the airport shuttles in droves, wearing everything from Mardi Gras beads and rainbow wigs to pinstripe suits and night gowns. There were young families and couples, drag queens and hookers, cops and business men, diners and shoppers, users and pushers, Mickey Mouse, and at least two preachers – all together in the same place. I thought for a moment: “I know what all these people have in common. I have probably never said anything in twenty years of speaking from church pulpits that matters to any of them. They don’t care what we have to say.”
In the world in which we now live, where everything and everybody is so different than the Christian world that incubated and shaped us, how do we say anything that matters to those who do not know or follow Christ? One of Soren Kierkegaard’s legendary parables begins: “It happened that a fire broke out backstage at a theater.” Kierkegaard goes on to explain how the fire spread quickly and threatened to consume the entire building.
One of the actors backstage at the theater that evening was a clown, and it fell upon him to go onto the stage and warn the public of the danger. He stepped onto the stage, dressed as he was, and the crowd began to laugh and applaud. He stopped them and gave his warning: “You are in great danger! Run for your life!” They laughed all the more. He repeated his warning, even more forcefully this time. The crowd laughed and shouted even louder. On and on this went, the clown growing more and more passionate and the crown more and more entertained. They did not take him seriously. “But after all,” Kierkegaard says, “he was only a clown.”
Why are we as Christians not taken seriously when we speak? Maybe it is because it doesn’t matter what we say as much as it matters more how we live, and who we are? Then, and only then, will we have anything to say that is honest, credible, or effective to the society that surrounds us. It is a worn out cliché, but there remains some truth in it: People don’t care about what you know until they know how much you care. What matters at the end of the day, at the end of our careers, at the end of whatever time God gives us – what matters is that we cared, and cared deeply, for the people who crossed our paths and that we served them as Christ served us.
Taking a truly compassionate approach, where we see people as people – living, breathing, laughing, crying, struggling but priceless creations in the image of God – and not as statistics or votes or sales or dollars in the coffers or names on the roll or notches in our gun or people who will agree or oppose us – this will infuse the church with credibility and integrity so needed in the world today.