I might be a slow learner.
I’ve been writing newspaper columns almost 30 years — and I still can’t predict how readers will react.
My April 17 column is an example.
I tried to explain why evangelicals are so eager to share their faith. That impulse defines evangelicals as evangelical.
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I said it’s because they, or we, view the gospel as a marvelous gift we were given by a loving God when we badly needed it. In gratitude, we happily and, I hope, humbly, offer that gift to others. Some want it, some don’t, and that’s fine. But we offer.
As an analogy, I told about an Easter celebration that our congregation undertook. I said this was not, repeat, not, an attempt to evangelize.
We thought it would be fun to collect money from within our congregation, buy $25 gift cards to local stores, bag them up with candy, and give them to strangers in the stores’ parking lots.
Think random acts of kindness. The dozen of us who gave away the cards didn’t hand out tracts. Didn’t invite people to church. Didn’t ask if they knew Jesus. We only asked if they’d like a gift card.
Most people we approached were tickled. Others looked understandably wary but took the cards. One guy huffily refused his. Which was unusual but OK.
Our goal was just to do something nice.
I was caught off-guard by the anger this column provoked — especially the card giveaway.
Rather than try to answer each criticism individually, I thought I’d excerpt a sampling here, edited for space or clarity. Two or three of these comments came from one reader, who emailed me nine enumerated objections.
Reader: The nerve of that guy not accepting your gift card!!! Did he not know it was the Great Paul Prather offering the card?!? Gee, Mister Humble Non-Judgmental Church Guy, perhaps that man was going through a hard time, had gotten some bad/sad news. Maybe he would have reacted that way to anyone in any situation.
I know, I know. ... It’s still not an excuse for refusing a gift card from YOU!
I guess, since you’ve publicized your “humble” deed in your column you won’t be receiving your reward in heaven ... That’s a shame.
Answer: I don’t believe I implied anything critical of the man who refused a card. What I expressed was mild surprise: Somebody didn’t want a freebie? That’s rare. In any case, “The Great Paul Prather, Mister Humble Non-Judgmental Church Guy” has a ring to it. I may get that printed on a T-shirt.
Reader: People don’t really want free money … even if they’re dirt poor. People want to earn money. They want the confidence and self-sufficiency of knowing that they and their efforts have value.
Answer: I wonder how many poor people you know. I spent swatches of my childhood in borderline poverty, and my early adulthood in grinding poverty (fighting rats out of the kitchen with a baseball bat kind of poverty). I gradually entered the middle class in my 30s, but I’ve spent much of the ensuing decades working with and among the poor.
I don’t know many poor people who don’t like a free gift. I don’t know many people of any economic station who don’t enjoy getting something for nothing. It’s the human condition. Personally, I love receiving a gift card from anybody for any reason. In fact, anyone reading this can send me as many gift cards as you want.
Trust me, I will not be offended. The larger the denomination, the less offended I’ll be.
Reader: Do you think you can buy a person’s spiritual allegiance with $25 and Easter candy?
Answer: You can’t buy a baked ham for $25 these days, much less a soul. We weren’t trying to buy souls. Our goal was less ambitious: To do a small, nice thing for strangers. Sometimes it’s fun to do something nice just for the sake of being nice. Have you never experienced that joy? If not, my condolences.
Reader: Face it … it’s really about YOU, not God. It makes YOU feel good and it makes YOU feel powerful.
Answer: Giving doesn’t make me feel powerful; I’m not sure why it would. But it does make me feel good to help people. I’ve been on the receiving end, too. And I’ve found that Jesus was right, as usual: It’s even better to be the giver. Giving helps both giver and recipient, obviously, but it helps the giver more. So, yes, I like to give, and it makes me feel good. Sue me. Being stingy makes me feel bad. Are you suggesting I do that instead?
Reader: How do you evangelicals like it when Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses witness about their religion?
Answer: My late dad, an evangelical pastor, had the best approach. When he saw Mormon missionaries going door to door on freezing or rainy days, he’d stop and pick them up — and drive them on their rounds. Then he’d take them to dinner. “They’re so young and homesick,” he explained to me. “They get doors slammed in their faces all day. They get cursed at. They need a friend.”
Once he brought two white-shirt-and-tie-clad Mormons to our church’s midweek Bible study. We all passed a pleasant hour. They explained what they believed, and we explained our beliefs. They didn’t try to convert us, and we didn’t try to convert them. But everyone in both camps left with a better understanding of a different worldview. Mormons are just people. Like you. Like me.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.