Wineskins Archive

January 27, 2014

A Night With the Homeless (Nov-Dec 2008)

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by James D. Sanderson
November – December, 2008

The first time I went to our local soup kitchen I stepped through the back door into the hall that ran next to the kitchen itself. Here was a madhouse of frenzied activity. There was not much time, apparently, to get a hot lunch ready for a hundred people. Volunteers rushed past me with hot pans and with canned goods from the pantry, and everyone seemed to be shouting to be heard over the din. At the end of the hall was the dining area where obviously homeless and poor people were settling down at their tables before going up to get their trays. I recognized one woman in the kitchen – Linda – and she came over. “I just came by to check it out,” I said, turning to talk into the collar of my coat.

“You should come back when the manager is here,” she said. “He could set you up as a volunteer.”

I shrugged. “I might.” I gave her ten dollars to help out and then backed out the door, relieved to be in the quiet light of noon. Snow was falling. It was February here in Colorado.

The following week I returned. I could not have stayed away. My wife Nancy and I had decided to see about helping the poor as a way of becoming direct disciples of Christ. We are the kind of people who, once we have decided something we follow through on it no matter what.

That was the day I met Donna. She was fifty two years old that year. The morning was relatively warm – the snow was melting. Donna came in with her woolen cap pulled down to her eyebrows and her brown canvas coat soaking wet, her shoulders huddled together; she was shivering violently. “It’s better when it stays cold,” I heard her tell someone. “When it warms up the snow melts. Then it’s hard to keep my pets dry.” She took some rocks out of her pocket and showed them around like a proud pet owner. It was difficult to tell if she was joking. She had a funny lopsided grin on her face. “Rocks are living creatures,” she said, “they just move really slow.” She dragged the word ‘slow’ way out to illustrate her point. (That the rocks might have an existence beyond our perception of them sounds like something from the philosophy of George Berkeley perhaps. Someone that Donna, being college-educated, is likely to have read).

After a time I introduced myself to her. “Tell me,” I said, “what’s it like living out like that all the time?”

“Well let me tell you,” she said with a long wink, “if you want to know what it’s like living out, why don’t you come and try it for yourself.”

“I just might do that,” I spluttered in reply.

The following Friday I accepted the challenge. I met Donna and several others for lunch at the soup kitchen. Then, hauling my backpack with a sleeping bag and a roll of plastic, I followed them across 8th Street and then up the hill toward Horse Gulch.

Chris led the way. A tall lanky Cajun from Metairie Louisiana, there was no way of saying why he was wintering here with the temperature hovering around twenty degrees and the clouds coming in dark and pregnant over the mountains. Before nightfall it would be snowing intently. He was a self-proclaimed pagan who always wore black clothes and a black leather biker’s cap with a dull silver skull and crossbones pin stuck in it.

Steve had joined us, though he wouldn’t be staying the night. He was a high-functioning autistic man who grew up in a church, but who stopped attending after his parents left the area. He lived in a trailer about two miles away. He had walked all this way just to be here.

Ray was with us that evening too. He was the worst alcoholic I ever met. What his interest was here, I had no idea. He just tagged along with the rest of us, and left before dark.

We hiked straight in until we were confronted by a stone wall which forced the road to veer left. Donna, they informed me, lived in the cave that was formed up under the rock shelf on our right. I tried to conceive of how she hiked up that slope to then huddle in the darkness under that damp rock. There was no way to grasp the reality of it.

As we followed the road around to our left we flanked the stone wall until we came upon a place where a narrow trail headed up to a flat table on top of the rock. From there we could look back out on Durango town. “You can bed down here tonight,” Chris said.

“Where’s your camp?”

He pointed further up. “In those trees,” he said.

The wind was growing chilly already. I began to second guess myself. Had I made the right choice in coming out here? People do freeze to death up in these hills, after all.

Before the snow came in earnest, we scouted some dead limbs and started a hobo fire. We heated water and made instant coffee. For dinner we pulled out some sub sandwiches they had been giving away at the soup kitchen. The yellow cheese was hard and cloying in my mouth.

As darkness came, Steve and Ray headed for home and Donna hiked over to her cave. The fire died down to embers; then went cold. Chris saluted and trailed up to his camp. I was left alone with the wind sighing in the junipers. I laid down the plastic, rolled out my sleeping bag, took off my boots and slid down inside. Snow began brushing my face as the last light of day was extinguished. The cold set in.

“Get out of my face,” I heard someone yell. I cocked my head to hear. It was Donna.

“What’s going on?” I called.

“It’s Margarite,” she shouted over the wind.

“That’s her skunk,” Chris said matter-of-factly from his tent up the hill.

I lay back and mulled this over for a time. We would find out later that the wild skunk, Margarite, was not the only pet she had in that cave. In summer a small Timber Rattler came out of the rocks to co-habitat with her.

Being there in that place reminded me that immediately after his baptism Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit where he fasted for forty days and was tempted by Satan. When he was baptized he must have come to a full understanding of who he was and what his mission was about. He probably headed up into those rugged heights above the Jordan River overlooking the area where Elijah had stayed along the Brook Chirith and where John had baptized him.

Satan tempted Jesus in three ways. First, by urging Jesus to turn stones into bread, he was using the natural need for food to bring Christ down. But God’s purpose for us goes beyond the mere meeting of our physical needs, does it not? We are not to live by bread alone. We are called to live on God’s level – not to try to bring God down to ours. Later, Jesus would say, “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” When we put the kingdom first, everything else will be second.

The temptation here, too, is to use supernatural powers to overcome earthly problems. By producing bread from stones, Jesus could easily feed a hungry world. And later he did feed multitudes, but for different reasons. Later, too, he would support his disciples feeding themselves from the grain growing in the fields, even on the Sabbath.

The second temptation, that Jesus should prove himself to be the son of God, offers security in another way. If you establish your identity, this way suggests, if you prove yourself, others will see that you have worth. That you are valuable. Jesus and his authority were challenged time and again. People wanted to know by what authority he did what he did, and demanded that he demonstrate his power. (Just throw yourself down and everyone will know). You could overcome so much if you could simply prove yourself.

But the Lord our God is not to be put to the test. We must overcome the temptation to use supernatural powers to prove ourselves.

The third temptation, in which Christ is offered all the kingdoms of the world, is the temptation of worldly power. As the supernatural ruler of all the world, Jesus could receive the accolades of all the people of the world. It is this idea of the Superman (Ubermensch) explored by Nietzsche, and later the Super Race championed by the Nazis, that leads us directly to the center of the world’s power and control. This, certainly, is not the way of the cross. The way of Christ is humility, servanthood, truth-telling, and love. Power with; not power over. By way of false power and false glory and false teachings, anti-Christ will rise. We are not to be deceived or moved by these things.

If Jesus would only worship Satan, the wilderness story goes, all these things could be placed under his command. And we are led to believe that these earthly kingdoms ‘are’ under Satan’s command. Instead, Jesus worships his Father. An act of worship is not a timid thing. Our worship must be reserved for God alone. It is a direct action. A total commitment. There can be no half-measures in our worship. If we worship the way of Satan even a little, we commit ourselves to evil, something Jesus would never do. We are to worship God only.

Satan is so obvious in this story, isn’t he? Does he not realize, here, who he is dealing with? But really, Satan’s way has always been obvious, even to us. We know what sin is. We are tempted by the obvious in spite of ourselves, and in spite of our God. The only question is, for us just as it was for Christ, will we give in to sin?

Christ does not enter the heart of the believer by force or by worldly power. He comes by way of the cross. He comes by way of love and peace and kindness. His true power provoked all the worldly leaders of his time – the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Romans. Worldly power cannot achieve the new reality of the kingdom of God. Worldly power, in fact, subverts this mustard seed revolution. “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).

Christ did achieve victory in the wilderness, but it certainly was not his last temptation. When Satan departed he did so ‘until an opportune time.’ He would be there with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion. Following this wilderness experience, then, Jesus was ready to begin his ministry.

Lying there that night, huddled up in my sleeping bag, I had no way of knowing what God had in mind for us. I did not know, as the wind picked up in earnest now, howling down through that gulch, that we were going to establish a church in this place, and among these people. I did not know, then, that Christ would feed multitudes here. There was no way of knowing, on that night out there in Horse Gulch, that lives would be transformed. Steve, whose autism led him to shy away when anyone came near him or tried to touch him, and who answered every question abruptly with, “I don’t know”, would later begin to open up to us and hug us and to say, “I love you,” and to even take his turn reading from the Bible during worship. Ray, whose alcoholism would cause him to be disruptive and even threatening during worship services, would later overcome his addiction and proclaim Christ as his Lord and Savior. Likewise Chris would give up his pagan ways and become a Christian right there in the wilderness. And Donna would eventually find a place to live and we would help her move out of that wet cave and celebrate the wonder of God’s mercy together. There have been many others as well.

When morning finally did poke its nose over those eastern peaks, I felt frozen clear through. My sleeping bag had not kept the cold from permeating my body from below and the plastic kept blowing off so that snow had gotten down into bed with me. My boots were stiff with cold and I could barely get them on. My hands were chapped and shaking.

“Well, I did it,” I said grimly when the others gathered around. “I tried it out. Now I know what it’s like to stay out like you do.”

“We’ve never had a Christian come out and stay with us before,” Chris said, trying to get a fire going for coffee.

I looked at him levelly. “What do you think? Do you think it would be all right if Nancy and I started coming out here on Sundays for worship?”

“That’d be alright with me,” Chris said.

“We’d love to have you come,” Donna concurred. “I’m sure some of the others that live out here would come too.”

The die was cast.

For eleven years now – from that day to this – we have faithfully served the poor and have included them in the New Testament Church. In this way we have served Christ.New Wineskins

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James SandersonJames D. Sanderson and his wife Nancy live in southwest Colorado. Together they pastor a New Testament church that meets in a soup kitchen. Many of the experiences from their ministry and other missions find their way into his books. Called To Love, available in hardcover and as an e-book, is available as a download now at [ ]. This less-costly and more environmentally friendly edition, the author feels, will bring the book to the attention of readers worldwide through the internet.

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