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Sign Man

I had driven past him for years.

Less than a mile and a half from my house, on an incredibly busy corner, a man stands three to four afternoons a week, holding a sign. I call him “Sign Man.” For several years his sign was apocalyptic in nature: WARNING! FEAR GOD’S WRATH. THE RAPTURE IS COMING. REPENT NOW.

Admittedly I did not always have the most Christian reaction to this man of faith, considering him a little loony. I recall driving past him at a time when a horrific event had taken place in our nation and thinking his message was tone deaf. Driving back from visiting a friend who had lost a job and didn’t know how her family was going to survive; hearing the rising COVID numbers and statistics on unemployment: all of these experiences turned my anger toward him. What good was holding a sign when so many people were hurting. Why not pass out food to the poor, visit the lonely. What kind of religion was predicated on a message with no actions to back it up.

Can one’s personal theology be reduced to 13 boldface words?

Most of all I was befuddled by his call to action—or lack thereof. What really was he asking us to do? Yet day after day, he was there, pacing back and forth with his sign.

Then one day I noticed his sign had changed. Gone was the word fear. Rather, the message was somewhat softer: WARNING! RAPTURE SOON THEN JUDGMENT. REPENT. TRUST IN JESUS NOW. The sign and the man himself were still unsettling to me; I vehemently opposed his approach to evangelism, to his view of God as a wrathful deity. I felt we were on diametrically opposed planes when it came to religious beliefs. But if I’m being honest I also felt judged. Was that the true source of my discomfort? That I felt I had to plead my case to a sign?

During the months of COVID shut-down, and throughout the bitter winter months, Sign Man no longer patrolled his corner. Then with the buttercups he was back—this time with a new message: JESUS LOVES YOU. RAPTURE SOON. TRUST IN JESUS. ESCAPE WRATH. BEST NEWS EVER.

Wrath was still in the message, but at least the sign now spoke of love and hope.

One day, heading home early from work, as I approached the busy intersection, I saw him there with his sign, trudging the sidewalk back and forth in front of McDonald’s. For a long time I had wanted to talk to him—but discomfort held me back. Was I afraid he was crazy? Would he spew judgments at me? I noticed his lips moving incessantly. Was he singing to his earbuds or talking to voices?

Before I could talk myself out of it, I whipped into the McDonald’s parking lot, climbed through the boxwoods, and was face to face with him. I introduced myself and asked if I could take a picture of his sign. He introduced himself as Ron and posed for the picture. I asked him my most urgent question: what did he want me to do? What did he want all of us to do?

“Repent,” he said. And after a slight hesitation, “Have you repented?”

My hesitation was palpable, and he cocked his head quizzically. Yes, I had repented for things I have done in the past, I said. I believe in confession. But it seemed as if his god has a soul-processing center with scorecards and check marks. I said as much.

“It’s all in the Bible; you just have to follow God’s word.”

I asked him how often he’s out there and told him I hadn’t seen him in a while.

“I come out whenever I can after work,” he replied. “With COVID, I was laid off and did over 200 inquiries before I got a job. My wife sure was relieved when I was gainfully employed again.”

I discovered Ron is a project manager and has a relative who, he believes, is sinning in his lifestyle, his sexual choices. “I can still love him, though. Everyone sins. His sin is just bigger than other sins.”

Again I thought of that scorecard. I asked some more probing questions—about literal translations of the Bible, about which book in the Bible alludes to the Rapture, about interpretations and inconsistencies. Although it was a friendly dialogue, after 20 minutes, it was obvious that Ron and I are miles apart in terms of our theologies.

Before I left him, I asked why he changed his sign.

“The previous one was too harsh,” he said. “It scared people. I don’t want to scare people.”

I was not surprised to hear that, in addition to horn honks, Ron receives the occasional third finger, as well as yelled curses. I told him I appreciated his changing the sign—that I thought the world needed messages of hope and love now. He nodded his head. So we agreed on something.

“I still don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish,” I said. “How will people know if they have repented fully?”

“You’ll know if you’re right with the Lord,” he said.

Hmmm. Something else we agree on.

With the afternoon sun sinking and numerous tasks ahead of me, I bid Ron goodbye and told him I hoped he would stay employed and healthy. He thanked me for stopping to chat.

“God bless you,” I said.

“And you,” he replied.

Our benedictions over, I climbed back through the bushes and made my way home. I had confirmed that there are more disparities than agreements in our faiths and I still think holding a sign is a futile exercise; I’d rather see faith that spawns actions and looks for solutions. But who am I to judge another man’s faith? Is that not akin to holding my own sign?

Now when I see Ron on the corner at a distance, I can recall his features and hear his voice. He is no longer Sign Man; he is a man. I usually wave—although he often can’t see me. It doesn’t matter: I’m not waving for him. Somehow, my greeting is an important reminder to myself — to see the human behind the cardboard.

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