Birds have nests, foxes have dens,
But the hope of the whole world rests on the shoulders of a homeless man.
You had the shoulders of a homeless man;
No, you did not have a home.
So sang Rich Mullins in his Gospel-inspired (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58) song “You Did Not Have a Home,” one of the last songs he recorded (on a portable cassette player!) in an abandoned church just nine days before his much-too-young and unexpected death. “…the shoulders of a homeless man,” echoing Jesus’ “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” I wonder if the late Bob Marley (why do the greats always leave us while still so young?) had Christ in mind when he sang, “Cold ground was my bed last night, and rock was my pillow, too” (“Talkin’ Blues, 1974). Or maybe he was channeling one of the disciples, that rag-tag bunch who could not possibly have known the entirety of what their lives were about to become when they heard the words, “Follow me,” and did follow, unquestioningly (Simon and his brother Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee, in Mark 1:16-20 & Matt. 4:18-22; and Levi in Mark 2:14 & Luke 5:27-28).
Have you ever slept on cold ground with a rock for a pillow? I think of the times I came closest to that, camping (by choice rather than necessity) with a tent to shield me from the elements and a RidgeRest® pad to offer a bit of relief from that cold and uneven ground. Or hitchhiking back to Durango and spending the night beneath a billboard in Walsenburg, Colorado with just a sleeping bag and ground pad. My pillow was usually a sweater rolled up inside a stuff sack; and while it may have lacked the comfort of a Tempur-Pedic® down-filled bit of heaven, it was a far cry better, I would wager, than any rock could be.
I mentioned Jesus’ “rag-tag bunch.” I suppose the phrase was inspired by thinking about Rich Mullins, for he and his fellow musicians were called “A Ragamuffin Band.” The band took their name from The Ragamuffin Gospel, a book by the late Brennan Manning, who was a Franciscan priest and a recovering alcoholic. Rich struggled with his own addictions, and Brennan was one of the saints who helped him in his recovery. I did not learn about this until recently (from the biopic “Ragamuffin,” in fact—look for it on Netflix!), but it made perfect sense when I did. You see, his music is the most authentic in the “Christian Contemporary” genre that I have ever heard.
A lot of Christian music is of the “Jesus, Jesus, rah, rah, rah!” variety, and while I don’t begrudge anyone the joy and wonder of getting to praise God in song, I believe that true faith, true worship, is born of struggle and suffering. That is what I hear in Rich’s songwriting, in lyrics like “Hold me, Jesus, ‘cause I’m shaking like a leaf. You have been King of my glory; won’t you be my Prince of Peace?” and “There’s people been friendly, but they’ll never be your friend; sometimes this has bent me to the ground.” It is why I have long felt such kinship with him. (Okay, full disclosure: “Awesome God” is not, in my estimation, one of Rich’s best, but it was arguably his most popular song. So, yes, even he knew how to “rah, rah” it up from time to time!)
One more thing: Rich and I shared a predilection for performing and proclaiming the gospel in unshod feet. We embraced the spirit of Moses on Mount Sinai, where God told him to take off his sandals, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). You won’t find me barefoot on Purple Cliffs, though. Faced with all its rocks, cacti, broken glass, and discarded hypodermic needles (because, yes, the camp has its share of drug addicts, God bless them), I have decided that a bit of caution is wise. Even with shoes on, I can feel the presence of Christ, in the soil upon which I stand and in the eyes of the ragamuffins with whom I walk.
Jesus is most certainly visible in this band of unhoused misfits. Even in the self-professed atheists, who, despite their (dis)beliefs, carry a spark of humanity, of life, dare I say: of God. Maybe those sparks are the result of being persons who “did not have a home.” Maybe it’s when your life is quite literally attached to the ground, and when you rely on others (and they on you) for your basic survival, that you cannot help but be connected to, and in conversation with, the divine. And maybe they have chosen a name other than “God” for that divinity. But a name is just a box, a crude attempt at containing that for which it stands. As Moses learned on Sinai’s peak, no name could ever hope to capture the majesty, the magnitude, the infinitude of “I Am” (a non-naming name if ever there was one!).
Thus, most of the “atheists” I know are not without God in their lives. It is not the deity that they have given up on, but rather the church. “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today,” Brennan Manning observed, “is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.” Many of those whom I have walked with have pointed to this sort of hypocrisy as the root cause of their having lost or discarded their faith. It might appear, to the outside observer, that they walked away from God and the church; but more likely it was the church—me and you—who walked away from them. Jesus asked his disciples, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46), and I often hear myself included in that indictment. How often have I turned my back on those who needed my love? How often have I walked away?
Have I said all of this before? Probably so. I’ve heard it said that each preacher really only has a single sermon, the same message conveyed week-in and week-out in slightly different words. Well, then, if this is my message, I would be remiss not to include this addendum: remember that there is grace. Jesus asks me why I do not always do what he tells me, but Jesus also loves me—no less so when I slip and stumble than when I occasionally get it right. He loves you, too. And he wants you to love yourself. And as you love yourself, so, too, may you love your neighbor!