22 Oct The Hope of Home in a Homeless Society
I bought my house eight years ago. This was such a gift. After years of renting and rotating housemates, I just couldn’t handle the transience anymore. “I just want to plant a garden that’s not in pots” or “I just want to paint the wall the colour I want” were familiar cries. It was more than the need for a practical shelter. It was a need deep within my soul for rest: for a haven and a sense of place.
I could afford this house because while it was good enough to move into, it needed work. I did small renovations and planted a garden—a native garden. I’d never been interested in native flowers before, but something about buying my own property gave me a connection to the land, and I wanted to grace her with her original beauty. The house is west facing; it had no insulation and no shade, and, with summer approaching, I knew I needed some kind of air-conditioning. Musing about this one day, a home electrical shop in my local area caught my eye. I hadn’t noticed this one before. It wasn’t one of those big ones—the “you can’t miss it” type. It was hidden in plain sight and had “SALE” signs all over it. I walked in.
The showroom was full of electrical goods and boxes, and I was met by a man I will never forget. John Boer walked up to me with a strong and steady countenance. He was dressed in grey tailored pants, tucked-in shirt, topped with a woollen jumper and an aptly placed burgundy tie. His neatly combed grey hair made me smile. This was a man who took pride in his appearance—not power-hungry pride, but the stewardship-of-something-greater pride. He inquired if he could help, and I said that I needed an air conditioner. He motioned for me to take a seat and said, “Tell me all about your house.” I was struck by his genuine care and interest. This was not a man in it for the sale; this was a man in it for the story and for the purpose of the sale. I was not used to this. He grabbed a notepad, and I drew the layout of my house. We talked about air flow and my recent move to the area. He shared his story. He’d lived in Heathmont all his life. He told me the history of the strip of shops and how people have come and gone. The butcher had been there for as long as he had. John had six children and 23 grandchildren, and struck me as a man who knew himself, knew his home, and, most importantly, was at home. At the end of our discussion, he confidently said, “I don’t have the air conditioner for you. What you need is (such-and-such model).” He suggested where I could buy it, and that was technically the end of our transaction. I was intrigued by this man and wanted to continue the conversation, so I asked him, “Why the big sale and why all the boxes?” He proceeded to tell me he was closing the store. After 38 years of owning and running the business, he couldn’t keep up with the big chains anymore. It was time to shut shop.
I walked home grieved that such a man was in a position where he was forced to close. On the surface, it could be rationalised away: life and culture have moved on; we now live in a global culture where productivity and consumerism have replaced social and familial values. These are just the realities. What does it matter anyway? My life will be the same whether or not John Boer’s store exists. But I couldn’t shake it. Something bigger and perhaps more disturbing was happening. Somehow, our culture has traded a deeply rooted story marked by presence and relationship for a more diluted and disconnected story. In the pursuit of progress, wealth, and “more”, we live, as Alan Durning says, in a world where we have “careers and not places,” and the ongoing effect is an ever-increasing disconnection from life, self, and each other. I walked home feeling homesick.
To say the closure of a store like John’s marked the end of an era was more than mere nostalgia. It pointed to a significant shift in the values and narrative that were shaping society. I went back the next day to share my remorse. John was happy to see me again and welcomed me by name. I shared my sense of injustice and sorrow. I asked him how he was coping with this forced change. He just looked at me and smiled. He said, “I’m fine. I have a faith that is much bigger than this, and it gives me a hope that’s not changed by circumstances.” The penny dropped. I just knew there was something about this man. “Are you Christian?” I clarified. “Yes. And, once you know Jesus, it changes everything.”
In the eight years since then, John’s store has been a pet shop, and then a hairdresser; now, it’s a ski shop. If you were to drive past my house, you will see that the garden has grown, and the cladding has been replaced and painted with the right shade of grey. I’ve been able to install some lovely windows, and, inside, the house has had a repaint, the carpet has been replaced, and the kitchen has been redone. I have loved working with colour and texture, delighting in space and light. I have learnt new and significant things about who God is as we’ve worked together in creating this home—a place where we can both dwell. It’s a little place, but it’s our place, and I am forever grateful. Oh, and in a nod to John Boer, the air conditioner sits on the right wall in the right position, just as he had suggested all those years ago.
In that time, the world has also changed. Drastically. Enter stage left, a virus called Corona. For good or for evil (or both), we live in a time of great upheaval. The first year here in Melbourne was unnerving: no one really knew what was going to happen, but the change came with a sense of relief—the grace of forced rest in a chaotic and busy world. A global world quickly became a local world, and I found strange comfort knowing that everyone who lived in Heathmont was in Heathmont. We were a local village again. This was a time to enjoy and cultivate home, to resurrect old hobbies, discover sourdough, and enjoy the simple things. I got to know my neighbours better, one of them particularly well, and, at the beginning of 2021, we got married. I know. Crazy. But that’s another story.
That was year one. We thought it would all be over by now. Instead, not only are we still in lockdown, but conditions are even worse. And now that the newness and novelty has worn off and living in lockdown has become our sustained norm, I find myself struck by a confronting realisation: I am sick of my house. At the time of writing, we’ve had 257 days of lockdown in the past 18 months. It’s looking like we will clock 277 before there’s any hope of reprieve. Incidentally, I am in a year of rest—a transition from one job to the next—so my days are spent going from the lounge to the dining room, maybe to the kitchen for another cup of tea, then back to the lounge to drink that cup of tea. It’s difficult to overestimate the effect this has on your soul—my sanctuary home has turned into a prison, and I just want to climb the walls!
I’ve been able to pull myself out of it. I’ve suffered chronic illness before and know what it means to be at home for long periods of time. But this one is different: it’s not just my sickness—the whole world is marked by sickness. This one microscopic virus has unleashed great uncertainty on the world, and everything seems to be shaking. In addition, there is the geo-political climate, the actual climate, and the ongoing clash of polarised views with no unifying narrative. There are fractions and frictions everywhere, and no one seems to know who to trust. All this is a recipe for deep and grave uncertainty. I am not at home as much as I thought. Take away the external narrative that has shaped home, and my soul feels quickly lost, anxious, and in despair. When a soul is troubled, even home doesn’t feel like home.
As I have wrestled with all the above, I have found a fresh connection to Psalm 137:1 where the Psalmist, writing in a time of profound displacement, cries out: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” I have always been struck by the story of Israel’s exile and the ensuing longing for home. The despair of having all that is known and familiar ripped out from under you is unimaginable (unless you are a refugee or an indigenous people group). In Israel’s case, they weren’t just geographically displaced, they endured the loss of the very presence of God himself. The rivers of Babylon said to the exiled ones, “You’re not at home anymore.” In this Psalm, you can almost taste the longing for things to be the way they were; it’s a cry of mourning for a life Israel no longer had. Now, thanks to COVID, large parts of the world, particularly the Western world, are sitting by the rivers of Corona, mourning and longing for a life that once was and may no longer be.
While we pine for the-normal-that-was, it is worth acknowledging that it was not necessarily a normal that gave the sense of home we all long for. In the earlier days of COVID, I had an interaction with a 20-something-year-old stranger who, for all appearances, seemed pretty cool and at home in the world. He remarked with a sense of relief, “This needed to happen. Our normal isn’t even a good normal—we need a shake up.” I agreed; he was right. It has been widely acknowledged that the secular humanism that has shaped our society has only resulted in an endemic sense of displacement. Philosopher Martin Buber calls our age the “epoch of homelessness.” “We have houses all over the place but aren’t at home in any of them,” remarks Frederick Büechner. Brian Walsh identifies the “creeping dread of homelessness” or the “un-healable rift” that has opened between human beings and their sense of place. While on the surface our cultural narrative has provided us with wealth, productivity, and the ensuing freedoms and opportunities, it has left the deepest longings of our souls bereft. “There has to be more to life than this,” is the cry I have heard from many a young adult. It is as if our collective souls know there is a bigger vision for life and wholeness.
God loves home. From the beginning chapters of our Bible right through to the end, we see a God whose passionate pursuit is to dwell with his people: he with them, they with him. Home. Scripture begins in a garden and ends in a garden, and the story in between is marked by the rip tide of exile, and a divine passionate lover who is determined to be back together to fill humanity and all of creation with his presence. The temple becomes the primary motif for the place of his presence. The garden was his temple, Solomon’s building was his literal temple, Jesus himself was the ultimate temple: God with us. It’s worth pausing to reflect on what a marvellous witness and harbinger of home Jesus was. He met sinners with forgiveness. He brought rest to the weary and burdened. He spoke of a Father welcoming home a disobedient son and a self-righteous one too (see Luke 15). He was the ultimate witness to God’s presence on earth and said one day he would come back, and that in the meantime we would face many troubles. He beckoned us to “trust in God, trust also in him.” He spoke of a house he has that has many rooms and that he was going to prepare a place for me and for you (Jn 14:1–4). His primary investment is in you and me being at home with him. And so the last chapters of Revelation are an astounding vision of our end, where the “dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them … He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain’ (Rv 21:3–4). There will be no more COVID, lockdowns, or homelessness.
This gives us tremendous hope. But these promises can feel far removed from our current reality. Or are they? One of the gifts of COVID (they certainly do exist) is that I have discovered many previously unknown areas of beauty in my local area. There are rivers and streams, bush land, and bird life I had never noticed before. John Boer would have known, but, despite my being here eight years, it’s all new to me. I’ve seen turtles, encountered kookaburras, and befriended many a magpie. One hidden gem is a park called Uambi. An indigenous word meaning “Pine Scrub,” Uambi is a four-acre block of land in the heart of Heathmont donated by the Harper family in 1988. Yes, donated. What would have been prime real estate has been gifted by a family for “the enjoyment of everyone.” They seem to be motivated by a different story. Uambi is of particular significance because it houses a remnant of the original vegetation in the Heathmont area. It is looked after by a group of volunteers who are committed to the preservation of this land.
It was with a restless heart and a troubled soul that I recently went for a walk with my husband to Uambi. It was one of those damp cloudy days where it’s clear enough to walk but the air is cold and the ground sodden, almost mystical. I was chatting away to Simon, doing my best to remain positive while sharing my concerns about the world—it was more than a virus and lockdown, it was the climate, the political dis-ease, the state of the church, just to name a few. And then I saw it, an image that bypassed my eyes and went straight to my spirit: a man in his late 60s–early 70s, grey haired, with a knitted jumper graced by khaki overalls was mulching the garden. I went silent and smiled as he walked past with his wheelbarrow. No salutations were exchanged but something was deeply deposited in me that I didn’t realise until later that evening. Simon and I continued our chatter, sat in the bird-watching seat, and drank our coffee. But something was different. My soul was at peace. That evening I couldn’t shake the image of the gardener.
Our creation account tells a story of a God who loves to get his hands dirty. After creating the expanse of the heavens and establishing the earth, he creates a single location: a garden. As Eugene Peterson remarks, a garden implies boundaries and intention. It is not limitless “everywhere” or “anywhere”; it is local. “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east” (Gn 2:8). As the gardener in the garden, we see a God who affirms that place is good; place is essential and foundational for a life of flourishing. The gardener in Uambi was a silent witness to a bigger story. While chaos was upending the world, this man was gardening his patch in Heathmont. That afternoon, we went home and gardened.
The next Saturday we returned to Uambi. Deep down, I wanted to see the gardener again. It wasn’t the original older gentleman this time, it was his son, Will Harper. Will is the grandson of the original owners who donated the land. His little patch is the nature strip. Strewn with colours and variety, it’s a walkway of bounty. There are edible herbs to take at your discretion, but a sign aptly asks, “Please don’t pick the flowers; they are for the enjoyment of everyone.” We struck up conversation. Will loved his garden; he would work it from top to bottom and then return again for another round of weeding, cultivating, planting, harvesting. He was grateful for lockdown—it gave him more time in the garden.
The first week I met the gardener. The second week I meet the son. God was speaking.
Although the Israelite exiles in Babylon were grieving, the prophet Jeremiah didn’t avoid the stark realities of their situation: they were going to be in Babylon for a long time—two generations, in fact. But God had not forgotten them. He had a plan (Jer 29:11). While they waited it out, they were to “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (Jer 29:5-7). Meditating on this passage, Eugene Peterson amplifies the invitation: “The only place you have to be human is where you are right now. The only opportunities you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day; this house, this family, these friends, this joy and these weather conditions.” In exile, life was dislocated, but there was a plot of land to steward and a life to cultivate.
What a pertinent passage. It certainly shifted my perspective and motivated me to get my garden gloves out. Yet 2,500 years on, we need to realise we have an astounding advantage. Where Israel’s exiles were adjusting to life without the presence of God, thanks to the Son, we now have the indwelling presence of God. It came with the “blowing of a violent wind” in Acts 2 and changed everything. Humanity no longer needed to go to a temple: God’s people are become his very temple. Our “bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit” Paul reminds us (1 Cor 6:19) or, as The Living Bible translates, “your body is the home of the Holy Spirit who now lives in you.” When God’s Spirit enters your life, you become his home. His presence dwells in you and me. This is not mere Christian sentiment; it is core of the gospel. In the words of John Boer, “It changes everything.” In this time of worldwide shaking, could it be that The Gardener is stripping back the narratives of a big global world and enabling us to focus on a local world? Better still, could it be that He is calling us to attend to the part of our lives that matters most?
Song of Songs speaks of our soul being like God’s garden: “My darling bride is a like a private garden, a spring that no one else can have”—in the inner parts of our lives that the gardener stirs up his life within us. “Breathe on my garden […]. Stir up the sweet spice of your life within me […]. Come walk with me as you walked with Adam in your paradise garden” (Sg 4:12–13, 16 TPT). What an invitation! To be in God’s presence and have him mark your life with the fragrance of it, have him inhabit you. There is something about a person who walks with God intimately. Such intimacy and lived knowledge trumps circumstance. You encounter it in the warmth and kindness of a salesperson or in the gardener in the local park. It is a witness and a presence that lingers, ministers, stays with you eight years on; you even write articles about it. It is a presence that the world is in desperate need of.
The Corona virus is drastically changing our external world and, in particular, the large narratives of human progress, power, and sufficiency. While it is unnerving, it is okay. Peter reminds us we aren’t captive to such a world anyway; we are “aliens and strangers” to this kind of home (1 Pt 2:11). Instead, there is a place within us that is hidden and that is not finally determined by external circumstance. For home is not ultimately an external provision; home is God’s provision. This is the life of the soul and the home of the Holy Spirit—you with him, he with you. It is the reality of the gardener who works to cultivate, sow, restore, and renew us—and through us, to bless the place he has set us in. For whatever state our soul is in dictates what sort of presence we bring to the world. Thus, Meister Eckhart writes: “As thou are in church or cell, that same frame of mind carry out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness.” The life that dwells with God and who God makes his home, to the community around becomes—like John Boer—a welcome and gift and blessing that is untroubled by circumstance. Expanding on this thought, Thomas Kelly reminds us that, “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return.” Maybe what we need to be reminded of most is just how available God’s presence is to us. Not just at the end of Revelation—today; now.
In his book, Soul Keeping, John Ortberg details how we can best engage these truths. He invites us to simply start where we are and with what we have. As I have realised that the garden The Gardener wants to tend is my soul, I have been waking each day, asking myself: how many moments of my life today can I have a conscious awareness of and surrender to God’s presence? I am staggered at the renewed sense of hope and perspective this gives in what has been trying circumstances. And when my default takes over, I just try to begin again, just as I am.
And so, where are you?
When was the last time you returned to God’s presence and voice?
If it’s been a while, how might you just start where you are?
This moment in world history is significant. It has aptly been described as a liminal space, when the norms of social reality increasingly appear in jeopardy but when new alternatives are not yet here. I can’t help but think that any good alternatives will come from those who have found home, not the external kind but that of living hope and of life built on rock. It will come from those who, on the macro, have a renewed confidence in the God of History whose plans are not defeated by circumstances or a virus. On the micro, it will come from those who have partnered with this God of History, who have gone inward to go outward again and who, like David, have cried out and said, “Enter me then and conceive a new true life” (Ps 51:5 MSG). It will come from those who have met The Gardener afresh and have cultivated the inner sanctuary of the soul, from which they cannot help but witness to this truer story. Indeed, this is nothing new. It has always been the calling on the church as the mediators of God’s presence in the world—the carriers of God’s future. We are to be those who are learning to walk with him as Adam did in the garden, and, as the sent-out ones, to bring the fragrance of God’s presence into a world longing for home. Our story may have been overshadowed there for a while, but The Gardener is bringing it back.
Brueggemann, Walter. Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.
Büechner, Frederick. The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections. San Fransisco: Harper Collins, 1996
Durning, Alan. This Place on Earth. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1996.
Kelly, Thomas R. A Testament of Devotion. New York: Harper One, 1992.
Ortberg, John. Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.
Peterson, Eugene. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Colorado Springs: Eerdmans, 2005.
Peterson, Eugene. Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at its Best. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009.
Walsh, Brian J. Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
(Images: Supplied by Sarah Hudson, 2021)