Coffee House Discourse #2

by Tom Wolpert on April 5, 2019

Coffee House Discourse # 2 – In which our Vagabond Needs, and Finds, A Bridge

I wander into the coffee house on a Saturday morning. The place is quiet – I interrupt a girl looking at her cell phone, who takes my order. I go for a toasted, buttered ‘everything bagel’ along with a large coffee which I will heavily dose with cream and sugar. A few people are scattered around, reading on a laptop, checking their phones for text message or emails, staring into their espresso drinks. The chessplayers have not arrived; the chessboard table is unoccupied, the chess pieces are scattered across the board, frozen into their positions at the end of the last game, which appears to have ended when the time expired for one of the players – the position is complex. On its own terms, the game was far from decided. Five minute lightning chess is the chess played here, with the players slamming the chess clock to stop the running of their five-minute allocation of time and start their opponents time running, as soon as they have made their move. Instant thinking is required.

There is no one immediately to talk to, no one near enough yet onto whom I may impose a torrent of words. I wait patiently, I check my phone. Like a spider waiting at the edge of its web, I know some innocent and unsuspecting patron will soon seat near me, and I can start talking out loud. With any luck, they will be too polite to get up too quickly. I plot my monologue, my ballad of the wandering vagabond, on a pilgrimage to a city seen only in visions.

The tabernacle is a bridge. The tabernacle is a gate, and a wall. The tabernacle of God is with men.

Your vagabond was hitchhiking on the northern Pacific coast along Highway 1, the coastal route. It snakes back and forth toward and away from the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean. When it snakes away, it meanders through redwood forests and small Pacific-coast country highway towns. When it snakes back toward the Pacific Ocean, the highway sneaks up through woods and forests to look over beaches with small strips of rough sand and low dunes and hills covered with seashore vegetation – brush, shrubs, dune grass, ice plants, ferns, succulents, low evergreens, salt marshes, cotton grass – with uncountable large boulders, rocks, crags and stones of every size and shape, dumped and scattered across the overlooking cliffs and hills and onto the beaches. Although it was June, when I was traveling, it was not warm at all.

I was walking through a small town to get to where the outgoing rides were more likely to be lengthy and productive than the incoming rides. As I walked, a stranger, hair that was brown and not long, with a few days’ growth of beard, not a large man, perhaps in his mid-thirties, perhaps a little older, not threatening, wearing workmen’s clothes, approached me and asked plainly, without any introduction, in colloquial language, if I would like to partake in some intoxication. I was agreeable. Clouds were gathering to the west, a storm was approaching, and a coastal storm in Northern California is nothing to trifle with.

My host-stranger’s name was simple and plain – maybe it was ‘Bill’ – he said it once walking in a direction just off the highway, and never said it again. We arrived at a house, a rather substantial ranch house, that looked reasonably well kept. We didn’t go to the front door. Bill looked around in both directions to see if anyone saw us, then led around to the back of the house. Behind the house, a lean-to structure had been built. It had three sides, the fourth side being the exterior of the main home, and a low patchwork shingle roof. It was literally leaning into and loosely attached to the back wall of the substantial ranch house, overlooking a scenic bay that opened onto the northern Pacific coast and a narrow, semi-circular beach.

As we ducked and entered the lean-to, Bill explained that this was where he lived, that he didn’t use or enter the main house. The lean-to behind it was his dwelling, and he seemed content with it. The lean-to had an area in the middle of the dirt floor where a fire could be built. There was an opening in the low roof for smoke to escape. There were blankets, some type of low folding chair, and Bill’s sleeping bag. There were other items and clothes strewn around a small area, probably about 12 feet by 12. This was Bill’s secret hideaway and fortress refuge. He offered some food and his intoxicant. After some time, Bill found a few things to eat – I remember a roll, maybe a left-over cooked and half-eaten potato. Bill suggested making some onion soup. What he meant by making onion soup was pouring water into an empty coffee can, putting a couple of whole onions in the water, and then heating the can on a little metal-leg stand over an open fire.

Bill could read in my face that I had some questions. He didn’t seem to want much from me. I thought possibly he had sexual interests, but he hadn’t shown any indication of that. What was his reason for being so inviting? The storm outside was gathering, we could hear the wind starting to whistle across the bay. As he let the water boil for our onion soup, he just talked.

Bill had been incarcerated, he spent time in jail on more than one occasion. Whenever he was in jail, he had cellmates. Bill liked the company of a cellmate. He was lonely; he liked having someone to talk to. Bill didn’t talk much about his periods of incarceration. His brief narrative was that he was put in jail for burglary – which would also explain why he was so careful about staying outside the four walls of the house against which he built his lean-to. Whatever crime he might be committing by building a lean-to against someone else’s property (and there was never an explanation of why the property was currently unoccupied, but possibly the group of homes around the bay was intended for vacation purposes) – it wasn’t going to be burglary. He may have been trespassing, but he could not be charged with breaking and entering. Whatever back door existed for the main home, it was not within the interior area of Bill’s lean-to.

As the evening wore on, the storm became louder and more violent. The lean-to was well-constructed, as such things go. Although there was wind blowing through cracks and gaps in the lean-to, they did not blow in a way to make us freezing cold. As the wind blew into the corners of the lean-to it whistled and howled, but we were in a shelter that got the job done.

Bill chattered away about nothing in particular, and true to his explanation, seemed to want nothing more than someone to talk to. I was still concerned that he wanted something from me, that his impulses toward unlawful gain might direct themselves toward something that I own. Since as I hitch-hiked, I didn’t have much, the inventory of possible items to steal was limited. The lean-to had only the heat of the fire on a dirt floor that Bill had built, so I kept my jacket on all night. I decided that my boots, brown leather suitable for riding a motorcycle (if I had one, which I never did), were the most expensive, the most theft-worthy possession I owned. After several hours of meandering conversation, most of it from Bill – who asked me a few questions, but never seemed too concerned about my answers – I took off my boots and carefully and protectively placed them in my field of vision and within arm’s reach. Using one of Bill’s extra sleeping bags, I nodded off to sleep, still concerned that he had some ulterior, possibly dangerous or insidious motive. By the time we lay down in our respective sleeping bag, the outside storm was vicious – howling and shrieking loudly. I had to acknowledge, at least to myself, that I was very glad to be sheltered from it by this ex-con who wanted a cellmate to keep him company.

When the morning came, I awoke, unmolested in any respect, as to my person or my property. Bill, that mild and inoffensive fugitive from the law of property, found something for me to eat. Then he led me out of his hobo lean-to, his hide-out from the world, looking carefully again to make sure no one had observed us, and I was back on the highway and on my way. He never did ask me much, or ask me for anything, but he seemed satisfied with our encounter.


As the Westminster Shorter Catechism succinctly puts it, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Much along the same lines is: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.” Rev. 21:3. Which itself seems to be aligned with Bill, an ex-con’s, wanting the company in his lean-to of a teenage hitch-hiker passing by, while a northern Pacific coastal storm threatened across a bay – just for someone to talk to.

We desire companionship, with God, and with each other. We like to have someone to talk to. The desire for companionship is deep; the Living God desires it, ex-cons living in lean-tos desire it, runaway hippies, beatnik poets, theologians pondering the depths of the mystery of God, stockbrokers and college professors, judges and carpenters and waitresses and social workers, all desire it. A spiritual city is first and foremost a city – it gathers a lot of people. There will be someone there to talk to. That’s why I show up in an internet coffee house – there are people around.

Bill’s lean-to wasn’t going to do the job over the long term, as he would have told you plainly. If a spiritual city is going to exist in our world, coming down from heaven, it needs a vision. It also needs a stable platform. The vision needs to be bolted onto steel girders and concrete foundations to rise into the sky. If it isn’t, it just doesn’t get the job done – the home that comes from God is more than a lean-to. Distress and conflict may be the current order of the day, like a storm on the northern Pacific coast, but it’s not always going to be that way.

Let’s go on the road again – all our answers are there. A different road, perhaps – this one led from Jerusalem to Damascus and a long time ago, but was still, definitely a Road Trip. A learned young man, angry, determined, was on his way to make some arrests. He was no vagabond pilgrim; he knew exactly where he was going, why he was going, and what he intended to do there. He carried with him letters of authority, from religious figures of no small importance. He went with escorts; it may be inferred that they were his guards, assigned to make sure none of the hazards of the road overtook him on the way.

It was a very official mission. A miscreant, a Nazarene troublemaker, had started a low-class and disreputable religion, and gathered some uneducated fools to promote it. The mission in question, tasked to our angry young man, to stamp out trickery and nonsense, relied on the well-built road system that was the product of the military—political rule of the Roman empire. Before that, the existence of roads and culture and political stability and common language relied on the insatiable conquering drive of a Greek (Macedonian, if you are into nice historical distinctions) king and soldier named Alexander, who was young himself when he conquered everything he saw, young when he got drunk, as drunk as he could be, and young when he died.

First of all, I note, as one who appreciates a really great question directed to God, that Paul, also known as Saul, our angry young man, asked the single most important question ever asked, when he was on the road to Damascus – I told you all the really important answers are to be found on the road:

Who are you, Lord?” Paul asked, still known as Saul. Acts 9:5. Paul had enormous religious training and knowledge – he had spent his life pursuing what he believed was God’s commandments for him, he knew the scriptures forward and backward. He was committed to persecuting the Christians in the early church for heresy and ungodliness. And Paul/Saul didn’t have a clue. Struck by a bolt of light, he was figuratively and literally as lost as a blind man at midnight, at the bottom of a coal mine. His question was both utterly profound, and utterly pathetic from one of his lengthy religious training, a question for all mankind from the beginning of time to the end. “Who are you, Lord?” he asked. That is exactly the point. Best question ever asked.

Paul/Saul got his answer.

I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Rise and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.”

Acts 9:5-6. Jesus’ answer is monumental because it is God’s answer, astounding and enormous. It is an answer reverberating from before the beginning, and after the end. It shatters everything that went before it, within the universe, and outside the universe. It is an answer within our knowledge and understanding, and beyond our knowledge and understanding. It was an answer not only for a man, or for a place or a time, or to resolve a question asked on a cross-cultural tour from Jerusalem to Damascus with forensic purposes and cruel intentions. It was an answer not only for mankind, or for all or any set of men, women or children, or families or nations – but for angels and demons, an answer for the highest beings in creation to the lowest, from the best to the wickedest.

“I am Jesus.” God has spoken. God has revealed himself. Be ye holy, or be ye evil, pay attention. If Paul, or you or I, asked ten thousand questions, for ten thousand years, we would not know more of essential importance than the brief sentences just articulated. We, the living, have asked a question – “Who are you, Lord?” – and we have received our answer. “I am Jesus.” A child can grasp the essential part of it, no one can grasp it all.

Jesus, speaking with comprehensive, plenary, limitless authority, goes on to let Paul know, and us as well, that we are persecuting him (not a good idea), and need to rise up (a very good idea), enter the city (exactly where we are trying to go) and wait to be told what to do (remember Habakkuk and his tower), with the clear command that we must do it (another very good idea). God, at times, can be inscrutable, veiled, mysterious, but He certainly wasn’t here, on the road to Damascus. “I am Jesus.” So says the Lord, as subtle as an 18-wheeler roaring over a hill, headlights glaring, horn blaring, right down past your little hitchhiking gravel patch.

There was a British philosopher named Bertrand Russell, who, announcing his atheism, suggested that if he found out in the afterlife that God existed after all, he was going to complain that he didn’t get enough information. “Yes, you did,” is my answer. He would have been better off on the road, maybe hitchhiking down the Damascus Highway – he might have learned something important.


There is a passpoint we are going to have to travel over, to reach the Holy City. There is no gentle way to describe this checkpoint. I start to raise my voice in the coffee house. A few of the clientele, who have been wandering in slowly over the course of the morning, look up from their lattes and frappucinos to see who is talking so loudly.

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.

Rev. 21:8. The nature of the words is disquieting – I can see that the customers overhearing me are not finding this as congenial as, say, sitar music. But not all of them are showing signs of being offended – some are listening with at least some curiosity, looking up from the notepads where they are scratching out their own thoughts, looking up from the cell phones where they are checking the news or their friends’ plans for the day.

One customer, a young man who is returning his dish and cup to the dirty dish receiving stand over a trash receptacle, simply stops and listens.

And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be loosed from prison and will come out to deceive the nations which are at the four corners of the earth, that is Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle: their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city; but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Rev. 20:7-10. It’s not easy to be sophisticated, modern or intellectual about these words, but there they are. I’m speaking rather loudly, rather quickly, if not manic, at least excited.

“The beast and the false prophet were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur. Rev. 19:20.”

I announce this quite loudly, more or less making pronouncements into the air. “In case you missed any of this,” I tell my onlookers, “because we are all squeamish. Because talking about judgment, lakes of fire and hell is not fashionable or comfortable. And still, there is more.”

The young man who was standing wanders over toward my table, to listen to me. He seems to want to say something, but he hesitates. A couple who are sitting nearby start an audible discussion between themselves.

“Is that the gospel?” she asks her companion. “Is that the good news?”

“Well, it is in the Bible,” he answers.

“What happened to mercy, grace, or forgiveness?” she asks, but it isn’t really a question.

“Do you want me to ask him to keep quiet?” her companion asks her.

“No, let’s call the manager,” she replies. “We came in her for a peaceful cup of coffee. Why does he get to chase us out?”

So the two of them get up to go find the manager. Meanwhile, I prepare to rant and rave on. A couple of people wander by to stand with the first young man; they also have a curious expression on their faces, somewhat amused. I try to lower the tone of my loud voice, to something more reasonable, calm, mature.

Then Death and Hell were thrown into the lake of fire; and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Rev. 20:14-15. So I announce. Although it sounds a little better when I speak in a calm voice, the underlying message is still – well, it is what it is. Some people at the back of the gathering circle start a discussion among themselves.

“Why are you even standing here? There’s nothing new about this.”

“I’m just interested to hear what he has to say. John the Baptist wasn’t pretty, either.”

“He’s not John the Baptist. If he wants to preach, why isn’t he talking about the cross?”

But I’m still not done. Trying my best to sound as smooth, as mellow as an FM radio disc jockey playing John Coltrane, I speak out loud:

But nothing unclean shall enter into the city, nor any one who practices abominations or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Rev. 21:27. Several people have been talking, and the first couple have found the manager, who is making her way over, politely moving through the small crowd of half a dozen people.

But I don’t wait for her to start a conversation with me. There is still more I have to say out loud.

Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

Rev. 22:15. That language jars almost everyone. The expressions in people’s eyes are not friendly, not encouraging. What I read is harsh language; they wince just a bit. Why do I read these things out loud?

I can tell that the coffee house manager, a middle-aged woman with slightly uncombed brunette hair, wearing an apron and a black turtleneck sweater, with her perpetual businesslike manner, is pondering just how to address the situation. I know her; I know her to be a Christian, a diligent manager, tolerant of people like me, since the atmosphere of a coffee house is supposed to be counter-cultural, eccentric, free-form. Clearly, if I would keep quiet, that would be the easiest for her – she doesn’t want to come off like the heavy authority, enforcing ‘the rules.’ I’m ‘local color’ for the coffee-house ambience – the leftover hippy-madman-religious zealot, and occasional poet. Sometimes I just start reading out loud from the Psalms, and she clearly is comfortable with that, as are the surrounding patrons. I have a nice reading voice, everybody says so.

I am undeterred on my mission today though. Just in case anybody didn’t get the point, the message that contains the words of the Holy City, there is this last fierce warning. So I read:

I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city which are described in this book.

Rev. 22:18-19. I speak out loudly again: “The holy city, like the tree of life, are described in this book the Book of Revelation!” Appropriate to the part I am playing today, I wave around my Bible in the air. Waving my hands, I knock over my coffee cup. There wasn’t much left, so the resulting coffee spill is not too great.

Finally, the manager speaks.

“You know, you have to keep your voice down,” she says, patiently. “You’re not the only one here.”

“Why?” I reply. “I’m reading the Bible out loud. Isn’t this the Coffee House of Grace? This place caters to Christians.”

“Well, you’re disturbing other people. That’s not Christian.”

“I’ve talked to the owner,” I answer. “He said I could read the Bible out loud whenever I liked.” The manager has to think this over. She knows what I just said is true.

“Besides, you don’t object when I read the Psalms,” I press my point. I may be crazy, but I’m legally trained. She’s thinking this over also. “You like me reading the Bible out loud when it’s warm and comforting and encouraging. You just don’t like it when it’s fierce and judgmental.”

“You’re right about that,” she acknowledges. “Warm and friendly is what we’re trying to be here.” A dart of light glimmers in her green-grey eyes. “And you like that, too. You come in here all the time, because you like warm and friendly.”

Now it’s my turn to think this over. There is a silence that envelops not only us, but the onlookers as well. Since I have nothing immediate to say, she concludes the conversation. “You can finish reading your passage, okay.” It’s not a question. “After that, you can pray in silence. You can pray in tongues, but only quietly. You can drink your coffee and plot how to convert the world. But what you can’t do is read in a loud voice and disturb other people.” She doesn’t wait for my answer, and I don’t have one ready anyway. She turns and makes her way back through the small crowd of onlookers to her tasks and responsibilities.

“I was done anyway,” I announce to everyone, but to no one in particular. I feel a little embarrassed – there are some condescending smiles and people shuffle back to their tables and chairs. “Warm and friendly will clean up the spilled coffee,” I announce to some empty seats and tables, walking over to get some napkins. “But you need rules to build a skyscraper.” No one is paying attention.


These words, undiminished for 2000 years, constitute one fierce, intimidating, dismaying, fearful passpoint. The coffee house mystic has finished driving away the paying customers with his rants and raves. But I don’t know how you get to the Holy City without traveling over these words. I would like to say something gentler, kinder, more encouraging – but those pleasant and non-judgmental words, standing alone, don’t seem to get the job done. These words of Revelation are so fierce, so forbidding, they appear almost beyond human experience – who would ever risk traveling in that direction? We are all sinners – where does this lead us?

We need a bridge over all this. The Book of Revelation starts out with warnings and promises to each of seven churches. None of us are sinless; none of us can stand being confronted by the rage of a burning lake of sulphur and fire. The church is the bridge over this lake, the church opens the gate of Christ himself – the church is the wall which separates those who enter from those who don’t. The church is the tabernacle of God, now with men, in which dwells her Lord, Jesus.

And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” Eph. 1:22-23.

“For the church.” It is an odd thing for a spiritual tramp, a wandering vagabond to say.

The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. Rev: 1-19-20.

The Book of Revelation is addressed to the whole, comprehensive Christian church in all her forms and expressions. Not as individuals, but as the seven churches, we have angels, and we are the lampstands.

Perhaps the Letter of Paul to the Romans, written many years after his road trip to Damascus, will slow down, will stop to pick us up and give us a ride, will show us where the steel and the concrete and the bedrock are. I don’t want to be any more doctrinaire than I have to be, but you can’t build a bridge out of feathers. We need a long high bridge over a terrible lake that burns with fire and sulphur – and the Apostle Paul, that zealous, repentant, brilliant, inspired, obedient, loving and fun-loving guy, no longer angry, now tasked with a different mission altogether, is going to provide a design for it, in a letter to be absorbed and applied, to find a path down a very perplexing highway.

The highway we are on now is not a rest stop either – it is becoming more disturbing by the hour. The alternatives to obedience, on this road God has placed us on, are initially inviting, and then become progressively more distressing. If we hang around, being disobedient, or just lazy, people (and other beings) start showing up around us on the highway, who do not appear to wish us well. We have seen the burning lake of fire. It is fed also by streams that appear within our own world. Loving God is the best way to travel, but fearing God works as well.

Fluttering down from heaven – the map we are most interested in goes by the name of Romans ch. 12-15. It is four chapters of instruction, encouragement, and everything else that Paul, once a violent and blaspheming man, persecuting the believers, now has to say to the churches, to get us over some terrifying depths.

I have written you quite boldly on some points,” Paul notes in Rom: 15:15, and indeed he has. Those four chapters in Romans, thoughtfully considered and applied, are very much our get-started marching orders. The instructions may not be easy to follow, but we surely have them. We will have some things to say about how to implement them, as well.  A piece of Revelation is given to us, also.  If employed wisely, they are good for brewing coffee or building skyscrapers. It’s a good map for traveling over bridges that pass over a lake of fire and sulphur, too terrifying for an individual who is not engaged in self-deception to challenge. This road trip is for a group.



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