Raconteuring, Provocateuring

A reporter interviewing me for an article concerning my retirement said, “I’ve been to your website and read a lot of your stuff. You impress me as something of a provocateur.”

That was a first. No one had ever accused me of that, but the more I reflect on it, I like it. A “provocateur,” as the name implies, is someone who provokes you. “An agitator,” the dictionary says. Hmmm. Don’t want to be one of those. But I do love the idea of provoking people to do something good and right.

“Provoke one another to good works,” instructs Paul in Hebrews 10:24.

In his commentary on Hebrews, Kent Hughes picks up on that thought. The Greek word, “paroxysmos,” is the root of our word “paroxysm,” a sudden convulsion or a violent emotion. In most cases in the Bible, this is not a positive word. For instance, used in Acts 15:39, it indicates a sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas.

We are to be “positive irritants,” Hughes says. Ah, now that I like!

Hughes mentions several ways by which we can irritate people productively: by praying for them, serving as a good example to them, letting God’s Word work in and through us, and encouraging them.

When we encourage someone, he adds, we are verbally spurring them onward. He tells of a story from journalist Robert Maynard who while walking to school one day, saw a freshly poured piece of sidewalk, just right for him to write his name. As he scratched it in the cement, he suddenly looked up to see a huge man hovering over him, obviously the stone mason who had just poured that walk! As Robert jumped up to run away, the man grabbed him by the arm. “Why are you trying to spoil my work?”

The boy babbled something about just wanting to put his name on it. At that point, the man did something completely unexpected. He turned loose of Robert’s arm, his voice softened, and he said, “What’s your name, son?”

“Robert Maynard.”

“Well, Robert Maynard,” he said, “the sidewalk is no place for your name. If you want your name on something, you go into that school. You work hard and you become a lawyer and you hang your shingle out for all the world to see.”

As the tears dropped from Robert’s face, the man said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A writer, I think.”

At that, the man’s voice exploded in tones loud enough for the neighborhood to hear. “A writer! A writer! Be a writer! Be a real writer! Have your name on books, not on this sidewalk!”

As Robert started toward the school, the man dropped to his knees and began repairing the damage to his cement. When Robert turned back to look at him, the man looked up and repeated, “Be a writer!”

And he did.

The power of words. They can provoke us to fight, to take someone to court, to meet them at the marriage altar, to get up off the floor and get back into the game. “Your words have stood men on their feet,” Job 4:4. That’s my special Scripture verse.

Words. They can enthrall us, inspire us, humble us, enrage us. They can also provoke a groan.

My friend Jim Phillips gave me this ditty which, he says, is on the wall of the Landmark Church in Cincinnati. “They will not seek, they must be sought; they will not come, they must be brought; they will not learn, they must be taught.”

Good stuff, huh. Well sir, in the wee hours of this morning, when sleep was deserting me, the untamed and undisciplined portion of my brain decided to take that a little further. How does this sound…

“They will not free themselves; they must be bought.

They will not come easily, the devil must be fought.

They will not jump in the boat, they must be caught.”

Okay. Sorry about that.

Here’s the best story I’ve read in a month. It’s from Don Wilton’s book “See You at the Finish Line,” published by Thomas Nelson Publishers in 2006. (The longtime pastor of Spartanburg’s First Baptist Church, Don, a native of South Africa, previously served our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary as a popular professor. His sons Greg and Rob are in seminary here at this moment, and serving local churches.)

The Wiltons and another couple decided to get together on a Friday night for supper and fellowship. Don and the other man ran to the store for supplies. In the checkout line, they noticed a couple nearby with a little girl about 2 years old. The dad held some coins in one hand, and in the other a small carton of milk and a pack of doughnuts. The couple stood there staring at the floor while the little girl was the quietest child Don Wilton had ever seen. Something was not right here.

At this point, God touched Don’s heart. He could not take his eyes off the trio, noticing the sadness written large on their faces. As he and his friend left the store, Don said, “I need to go back. The Lord is telling me to give that couple all the money I have in my pocket.” His friend felt the same way. Together, they had around $200 (Wilton had forgotten he had gone to the bank that afternoon for cash for the weekend).

Don walked back into the store and approached the couple from the back. They were next in line. “In my South African accent, I said, ‘I have a gift for you; please don’t turn around. A friend and I want you to take this cash simply because we love the Lord Jesus Christ. If you don’t know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, find someone who can tell you about Him; it will be the greatest thing you have ever done.'”

The man allowed Don Wilton to slip the cash into his hand, and Don left as abruptly as he had entered. The two men never actually faced one another; the man never saw his benefactor. Neither ever expected to see the other again.

Several years later, as a professor in the seminary, Don Wilton was invited to preach in chapel the first week of the new term. After the service, as is the custom, professors and students come by to shake the hand of the speaker and offer words of encouragement or greeting. On this occasion, when everyone had finished and the chapel was almost empty, Don noticed a well-dressed man coming toward him. He stretched out his hand and said, “Dr. Wilton, may I share a story with you?”

As the man began to talk, he started crying. (I can’t even type the story without tearing up myself.)

“Ten years ago, I had no job, no money, no food, no home, and no hope. My wife and I saw no way out of the situation we were in, and therefore made a suicide pact. We had a two-year-old daughter who was starving and sickly because I could not provide for her. We were living in an old car that would barely run and so, we decided to do the unthinkable. Our plan was to drive to New Orleans, find a bridge or high building, and jump off it, taking our daughter with us. The last thing we wanted was for our little princess to have to live in a world that had been so cruel to her mother and me. We planned to take our daughter with us because there would be no one left to take care of her. We loved her so much and could not stand to see her suffer any longer.”

He continued, “My wife…begged me to scrape together a few dollars so we could at least go into the grocery store and buy whatever we could for her to eat. And so, I scrounged around in my pockets and in the car and finally found enough change to buy a small carton of milk and some white powdered doughnuts. As we were standing in line to pay for our daughter’s last meal, a man walked up behind me, thrust a roll of money into my hand, and said, ‘If you don’t know the Lord Jesus Christ, find someone who can tell you about Him; it will be the greatest thing you have ever done.’ Before I could even turn around, he was gone. When I looked down, I was astonished to see nearly $200 in my hand.”

“That man’s generosity rocked our world. My wife and I sat in the parking lot of that store all night long, weeping uncontrollably while trying to decide what to do. As the sun came up, we knew. With a full tank of gas, we headed back up the interstate toward Hattiesburg, Meridian, Tuscaloosa, and on to the tri-cities area of Alabama where we had come from. I found a job at a food store and gradually our lives came back together. Some weeks later, my wife, my daughter, and I heard some gospel singing as we strolled past a small church on a Sunday morning. It was like a magnet to me.”

“I couldn’t help myself. I had to go inside. As we sat awkwardly in the back seat, the minister began to speak of the love and forgiveness of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. My heart opened and I remembered what had been said to me in a parking lot in New Orleans, Louisiana. Dr. Wilton, today is my first day of classes at this seminary. God has called me to preach the gospel. I have wondered about that man for over ten years, and today, when I heard you preaching in chapel, I recognized your accent. I recognized your voice, and I knew that man was you.”

A foretaste of Heaven.

See why we believe in God? We don’t need arguments; we have Him.

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