Irwin was a Jewish college professor on an urban campus. I was in my early thirties, earnestly engaging in evangelism. I sought to tell Jewish people the verdict was in: Jesus is definitely the Messiah – their Messiah!
I never specifically sought out Irwin. But my consistent presence on campus with a table full of books, Bibles, and literature bothered him. He was especially annoyed when I engaged students and campus employees with the message of “salvation in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.”
One morning I was sitting in a chair behind the table as campus life scurried by, largely ignoring my presence. I quietly waited, prayed and hoped for someone to stop to engage in conversation. I was eager to engage people to seriously consider the claims of who Jesus is and their need for Him.
I hadn’t seen Irwin approach and was clearly startled when I heard his voice next to me.
“So, did you hear that woman on the news THANK JESUS for saving her in that plane crash that happened?”
In a voice growing louder and angrier by the moment, more words exploded from the professor’s mouth, “I Guess JESUS didn’t give a [expletive] about all those other people who burned to death, huh? It makes me sick to hear people PRAISE JESUS because they live while others burn. No thanks to that kind of compassion!”
I looked up at my antagonist. Unfettered outrage marked his facial features. I had seen that look many times before when Jewish people spoke of “Christian crusades” or the Holocaust.
No words would change Irwin’s feelings at that moment. Likely he did not even want to elicit a response. My presence at my table screamed to him of a putrid history of bloody persecution against Jewish people. In his mind, the Jesus whom this woman praised was the source of ugly anti-Semitism.
I had other memorable encounters with Irwin over the years on that campus. But what I observed that day still teaches me until today – especially when I hear how people respond to tragedy.
On that fateful 9-11 day that is etched in Americans’ memory, I thought of Irwin. And when I recently read of the tourists killed in the Sinai, Irwin’s words again came to mind.
As I scan news headlines and see stories like “Three die in rush hour collision” or “Two bodies found in rubble after gas explosion” I pause. I pray for surviving loved ones and co-workers of those who died.
Tragedies remind me of our frail, temporary status on earth as humans. When after a disaster or tragic accident survivors are quoted as thanking God or praising Jesus, now I have a mixed response. In addition to the joy for those miraculously delivered, I have inside deep empathy for the families who suffered loss.
Yes, I believe stronger than ever in the message of salvation in Jesus. But now I give much more thought both to what my audience is hearing from me and how the message is being received.
Irwin reminds us that the same message has varying impacts depending on the circumstance of the hearer. As the clouds burst, the gardener and farmer cheer the rainstorm. And the Little League ball player hangs his head in disappointment as his game is called off.
As Scripture teaches, we should “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).