By: Jake Johnson
I used to go to the local Barnes & Noble quite often, each time being to do school work, but after about ten minutes in the Starbucks cafe I never failed to find myself thumbing through a book by Steinbeck or Hemingway. I’d go about an hour or two before work, meaning around 1 O’clock. The bookstore is normally filled with who you’d suspect to be there after lunch — stay at home moms having a book club, dental hygienists buying some time after their lunch break at Pita, and high school kids playing hookie and making out in the fantasy section. But there was one man who at first didn’t fit the scene, until, of course, I saw him nearly every time I went. He was a regular.
His name was Matt.
He shuffled into the building around 1:30 nearly every day, like clockwork. I never even had to look up from my computer or from my book to know it was him. If the sound of his nylon windbreaker didn’t give him away, the barista did. With a smile on her face, she had a large, iced water with his name on it as soon as he reached the counter. Those who were not regulars always muted their voices for the few seconds it took for him to walk past them, but those of us who knew him would give a slight nod or wave and go back to sipping our subpar coffees and reading our paperbacks. Starbucks is known for allowing those who are homeless into their building, but it is somewhat unusual in Newnan, Georgia. Unless, of course, the homeless man is Matt.
After about two or three times of seeing him, we started to talk. Mainly about quantum physics and string theory (both of which I know nothing about), but I was glad we could talk. For a man living on the streets, he was educated. I guess that’s why he chose Barnes & Noble — he knew he could get a free water and access to to an entire book section dedicated to nerds who love science. But he knew psychology, too, which I was thankful for. A conversation is always interesting when both people are analyzing the other for possible mental disorders. Unfortunately, we never got too close, and I eventually stopped seeing him at Barnes & Noble. But then one day I saw him again.
It was a week or so before Christmas. I was driving by Barnes & Noble, looking for a place to park so I could go read some Thoreau with an iced coffee. And to my right, a smile grew on my face as I saw Matt walking out the store, wearing a fresh bathrobe with a pair of flip flops and aviators. A cigarette sat perched in his lips, which he promptly removed and flicked to the curb. He seemed like a new man — clearly showing off his bathrobe and aviators as his strutted along the sidewalk, doing a spin like he’s Michael Jackson. It all paired well with the song “Upside Down” by Jack Johnson I had playing through my Aux, of which reminded me of another homeless man, 2000 years ago, who did indeed turn the world upside down. And this Man, who died for his enemies, says that it is guys like Matt who are the greatest in His Kingdom.
I have not seen Matt since, and although I know from previous conversations that he is not a Christian, I pray that he may one day realize the love that his Creator has for him. What I do know about Matt is that he suffers from a rare and incurable illness, one that causes him to have large knots and bumps on his body. I wish that I could allow that sickness to do its worst to me — to take it all on myself and allow it to defeat me, so that he may no longer live in pain. And although I cannot, I know that, in one way or another, that is what happened on that Roman cross, albeit not just with sickness but with all Evil, Sin, and Death. As N.T. Wright says as a paraphrase to Albert Schweitzer, “Jesus […] was like a man convinced the wheel of history was going to turn in the opposite direction. He waited for this to happen, but it didn’t. Then he threw himself upon the wheel, and it crushed him — but it did indeed start to turn in the other direction” (Wright, Simply Good News). The world truly has been turned upside down, and God offers forgiveness to all, inviting all of us to join the party. Including guys like Matt. Especially guys like Matt.