On the short list of many people’s favorite movies is “Forrest Gump.” Savannah, Georgia already had a storied history before the filming of this movie. The movie added to tourists’ favorite places for pictures, like Chippewa Square and the Independent Presbyterian Church area where people arrive daily to sit on a park bench for photos, much like the one Forrest sat on in the movie to tell his story to anyone who would listen.
Long before there was a Forrest Gump, there was a Chandler Lanier. I’m not about to tell you stories about Chandler that you cannot believe. He never interrupted an Alabama Football practice while running, prompting The Bear to give him a scholarship. Nor did he meet President John F. Kennedy at the White House. Neither was he a Vietnam War hero, although he was a United States Army Veteran.
What Chandler has in common with Forrest Gump was his love for sitting on a park bench and telling his story.
For over two decades, Rev. Chandler Lanier and his wife Sallie served as Southern Baptist missionaries to Israel. Their work there demanded a command of the Hebrew language and an understanding of Jewish and Arabic cultures. This couple assimilated into these cultures and felt as much at home in Israel as in America.
However, during a career that spanned nearly three decades, Chandler and Sallie did not have the same religious freedoms in Israel that we experience here in America. They were not free to openly preach the gospel or teach the Bible. They had to be creative.
Guided by a deep prayer life, Chandler believed strongly that God would send him the people He wanted him to speak with and influence, so he went to the park and he sat on the bench and he waited.
Just as the Psalmist believed that the Good Shepherd went before him and prepared a table (meal) for him in the midst of difficult circumstances, Chandler believed God could prepare in advance the people he should talk to in the park or wherever he chose to sit and wait. Without fail, God provided because He is Yahweh yir’eh, The Lord Will Provide. Chandler witnessed to many people in this way.
Chandler and Sallie have lived by faith and have known God as a God Who Will Provide.
When we watch a movie like “Forrest Gump” we laugh and we cry and in the end we are touched by the humanity of a character who had something in his soul that’s missing in a lot of us. We are touched that he didn’t mind sharing it with whoever he met, with whoever sat down on a park bench long enough to listen.
We don’t have to know Hebrew or have seminary degrees like Chandler Lanier or have a great testimony like Corrie Ten Boom or preach like Billy Graham to share our story with others. Like Forrest we just need to be ourselves and like Chandler we just need faith that God can use us all and God will if we ask for His help.
Fewer and fewer people believe that the town square and the Church intersect anymore. They still do but it appears the Church is having less of an impact on the town square than in decades past. Fewer people are willing to listen to the preached word but that doesn’t mean they will not listen to our shared stories of what Jesus means to us.
We still live in a place where we are free to share our stories. Chandler’s method is a compelling example that evangelism doesn’t have to happen inside the church. In fact, evangelism can and needs to happen in the marketplace, like it did in the Holy Land where Chandler and Sally worked and where Jesus walked the shores of the Sea of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem. That’s where it all started.
If the Church is going to have an effect on the marketplace, we are going to have to return to some first century evangelism. We need to take a page from Chandler’s book.
So next time you see a park bench let it be a reminder that it just takes a little willingness to engage people where they are in life and share what you know about the One who sets the table for us each day and provides for all our needs.
Rev. Chandler Lanier died July 4, 2016. His obituary can be found at http://www.hillsidememorialchapel.com/obits/obituary.php?id=610968