The Runaway Street Preacher

Terry Lieb Coping with Adversity, Judging Others, Living out your Faith 2 Comments

One Sunday afternoon after a special council meeting at a downtown church in Allentown I went for a walk just to check out some of the recent changes in the city. I came across a young man, probably in his thirties, who was preaching on a busy street corner. He had his hat on the ground with a sign: “$ for food and housing.”

At the beginning of his sermon, he explained how he started his “life of evangelism” several months earlier. He then read a passage from Luke 14: “If you come to me but will not leave your family you cannot be my follower. You must Love me more than your father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters, even more than your own life.”

“If you come to me but will not leave your family you cannot be my follower.”

“Wow!” I said when he eventually finished his sermon and stopped for a Gatorade break. “You left everything to basically proclaim the gospel as you see it?”

He quickly corrected me, “Not as I see it, but as God sees it.”

“So you feel you have the ability to interpret the scripture correctly?” I asked, not having realized that I was talking with a man who had the absolute correct interpretation of Scripture.

“There’s no need to interpret it, the scripture is very clear. Read it again yourself,” he said.

“What would happen if all us read that passage in Luke the way you did and left our families to wander the world and preach the gospel?” I asked.

“Don’t worry most folks don’t have that level of faith and commitment to Jesus,” he replied.

Photo by Ben White –

“Do you have family and how have they responded to your decision?”

Frowning, he said, “Ironically everyone seems to be extremely worried about my wife and son but not at all worried about the salvation of the world.”

From his statement, it was clear that others before me had raised their concern for his wife and son, a matter that obviously did not trouble the preacher himself at all. Based on his level of conviction that he was following God’s explicit and unambiguous instructions, I figured that trying to reason with him would be futile. I wished him well and turned to go.

Before I left, he shook my hand and introduced himself. I immediately recognized his last name as belonging to a large family in the area and wondered if I might not know some of his relatives. Later, unable to get the man’s wife and son out of my head, I did a little digging and quickly connected with one of his relations who seemed happy to share the story with me, perhaps wanting an outside perspective on a situation that had been hard on the whole family.

Elmer told me that Jonah had married an amazing woman named Julie, who was his high school sweetheart. After several years of trying, they felt they were probably unable to have children. In fact, Julie was looking into adoption when she became pregnant.

“The whole family was as excited as I have seen them in a long time,” Elmer said. “Then during some of the initial testing they found out the baby had Down syndrome. It was extremely difficult for everyone in the family, but Jonah just refused to talk about it at all. Evidently he wanted Julie to have an abortion soon after they found out Lucas’ diagnosis. Julie adamantly refused.

“The entire family reached out to support them when Lucas was born. Folks described Jonah as simply ‘not present.’ He went from an occasional beer to drinking whiskey daily. He refused to get help but then started attending what we call a ‘fundy’ church. ‘Fundy’ meaning fundamental,” he explained.

This lasted for a few months then Jonah had an issue with the pastor and he switched to another “fundy” church north of the valley. Eventually he found fault again and moved to yet another church. That’s when he began to talk about himself as a prophet. This entire time he had very little interaction with Lucas and rarely helped care for him. He told Julie on several occasions, “You made the decision, not me, so he is primarily your responsibility.”

Jonah became more and more focused on reading the Bible every moment he wasn’t working. He would quote the Bible all the time. He then latched onto the verse he had cited in his sermon: “If you come to me but will not leave your family you cannot be my follower.” This became like a mantra.

One day Jonah put some personal things in their old SUV and told Julie God had called him to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, devoting his life to take the gospel out to all people. She later discovered that he had also felt “called” to take the majority of their savings account to support his ministry!

Photo by Ben White – Unsplash

After the initial shock Julie decided this might be the best thing and that she and Lucas could now get on with their lives. She did give him three months to return to the family and become a husband and father, but explained that after that, she would begin divorce proceedings so she could heal and move on. Both sides of the family totally got behind Julie and Lucas. They remained very supportive, helping out with money and childcare. Meanwhile Jonah made the statement he had to shake the dust off his sandals and focus all his energy on what God called him to do!

Elmer finished by saying, “I was never that much involved in church but that did it for me and religion! I don’t understand why anyone would want to worship a God who expects fathers to abandon their wives and children. What kind of God does that?”

My first impulse was to assure Elmer that Jonah’s interpretation of that scripture was surely not one that I—or most Christians I knew—shared. I was just as certain that God didn’t want a father to abandon his family as Jonah was certain “He” did! It seemed obvious to me that Jonah’s concentration on that single passage was a transparent excuse for running away from his responsibilities as a father, especially given the fact that he conveniently ignored his ‘fundy’ church’s teachings on divorce and abortion. I wanted Elmer to know that Jonah didn’t represent Christians like me or the God I worship!

However, as I reflected back upon the incident later, I wondered if I was quite as different from Jonah as I wanted to believe I was. It was easy to condemn him, to see how his beliefs were self-serving and hypocritical. But isn’t his contorted thinking only different in degree, not in kind, from what we all do? I know I have blind spots, justify my actions, and selectively attend to evidence that supports my favored position. Despite my best efforts, I sometimes think I’m more righteous than others or have a more evolved understanding of God. And I occasionally retreat to my “head” when “heart” work is too hard. Yes, I’m afraid I have more than a little Jonah in me. How about you?



  1. When have you ascribed pure motives to yourself for actions that you know in your heart are self-serving? If you can’t think of an example, keep trying. It just means you’re in more denial than most people!
  2. Have you ever buried yourself in work, volunteer activities (including church), or other endeavors to avoid problems at home? Do you ever use avoidance to deal with issues in general rather than address them head on? How has that worked?
  3. When having an argument or disagreement, have you ever enjoyed the emotional high of “being right” so much that you allowed winning to be more important than the other person and your relationship with them? Has this ever damaged or ended a relationship?
  4. If you are Christian, do you sometimes find it easier to proclaim the gospel rather than live it? Is it easier to believe in Jesus than follow his teachings? Do you sometimes feel more interested in converting others than loving them? How can you “walk the walk” better?
  5. If you are not involved in organized religion, have you sensed that church folk sometimes are more interested in converting you than loving you? Do you consider Christians (and other “religious” folk) to be hypocrites? When you hear someone is a Christian, do you make automatic assumptions about them or do you get to know them and what their faith actually means in their lives?
  6. Do you think Jonah took the Luke 14 verse “out of context” for his own purposes? How can we take steps to make sure that we aren’t doing the same? Is there any way we can become aware of our own blind spots?
  7. Do you, like Jonah, believe the Scripture doesn’t need “interpretation,” that there is one, clear meaning? If not, have you ever wished there was, that it would make life easier if there was one fixed, unchanging interpretation that everyone agreed on? Have you ever considered that Scripture’s openness to interpretation and the necessity that we wrestle with its meaning is actually what makes the Bible a living document, allows our faith to breathe, and encourages our relationship with God to be a dynamic dialogue rather than passive, one-way communication? What do you think of this idea?
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Ron Wildasin
Ron Wildasin
October 1, 2019 5:03 pm

These stories are so relevant to everyday living. The opportunity for group discussion is very valuable. As a resource, the life stories capture the struggles they each of us see and hear. The non-judgemental probing is a teaching tool that comes only through years of experience. I am always looking for material that might lead to good adult study guides for our church. I think this approach in short stories is a wonderful gift. Thank you.

Connie walraven
Connie walraven
October 7, 2019 1:25 pm

Thank you Terry, well written, & thought provoking. I often wonder what makes people make the decisions they do. There is a street in Toronto that is lined with homeless people that have fallen through the cracks. Our daughter took me for a walk there a few years ago. She said, “I don’t usually walk this way, too depressing, because I can’t help them”. My brother struggles with a daughter, who is bipolar. She is sometimes one of the street people, as she just disappears. Life is full of trials & tribulations, and with help from our Lord & Saviour,… Read more »