Spiritual Conversations at Waffle House
Many years ago, I was with my friend and mentor, Mark Beeson, as he stopped for fuel. He always went to the same gas station every time, even when it was out of the way. He would always walk into the station to pay for his gas, rather than pay at the pump. On this particular day, I asked him about this strange habit. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say I sarcastically mocked him for wasting so much time.
Mark nonchalantly answered that he was trying to build rapport with Dave, the guy who owned the station and was often inside. I learned a few years later that Dave and his wife were taking steps in their walk with Jesus, and were even getting baptized as a next step.
Even though this isn’t natural for me, I’m learning the power of intentionally creating patterns in my life for the purpose of loving others. This came alive for me recently when I read the following story from Gary Liederbach:
(Warning: Some language might be offensive)
My morning office is the Waffle House. About 3 months ago I went into the Waffle House and sat down in a chair at the “low bar,” the bar you can sit at that is at normal chair height. I did not notice the used coffee cup that was on the bar in front of the chair I sat in. It belonged to a man I will call Chuck, who happened to have gone outside to smoke a morning cigarette. Chuck is a man who comes frequently to the Waffle House. He is a rough and crude man in his late 50’s. He cusses a lot and gives the waitresses and customers a hard time, especially when he is “in that mood.”
Chuck walked back into the restaurant, saw me sitting in “his chair,” walked up to me and said coldly, “Hey mother F*%ker, you are in my seat!” I turned to him, but before I could say a word the two waitresses who were standing there almost jumped over the bar and verbally attacked Chuck.
One said, “Now you listen here you mother F&%ker, this man here is a f*#king man of God and if you ever talk to him like that again I will kick your f*cking @ss!!“
The other waitress jumped in, “Ya, you d#ck, he is my f*cking pastor! What the f@ck is wrong with you.! Show some f@cking repect!”
The waitresses high fived each other and one said to the other. “Sword of the spirit b#tch!” And Chuck turned and walked out.
I sat there and processed what had just happened! First, the waitresses have never come to my church, though I have invited them many times. And I never told the waitresses I was their pastor. But since I have been coming to Waffle House four or five mornings a week and talking, listening, and praying with them—it appears that is how they saw me.
The other day the waitresses were talking about how life seemed to be attacking them. I took out my phone and I read to them from Ephesians 6 about the armor of God and explained it to them. I guess when the waitress shouted, “Sword of the spirit b#tch!”, it shows they were listening and retaining what I told them. I just need to work a little more on their application of that verse!
Fast forward to a month ago. I was walking into Waffle House and Chuck was in front of the restaurant smoking. I said good morning to him as I walked by and Chuck kind of quietly and nicely (especially for Chuck!) asked if I had a moment. I told him sure and stopped by him.
He said quietly as he looked at the ground, “I know you are kind of a religious guy and it’s not that big of a deal but I was wondering if you would pray for me for something.”
I said, “Sure what’s up?”
He went on to say the doctors think he may have prostate cancer and he had a test today to confirm the diagnosis.
I said, “of course,” but before I could say anything else he opened up and told me a story for about ten minutes. The short summary of it was that he used to go to church a long time ago and was kind of close to God. Then he was drafted to Vietnam to fight in the war. He said he did some things there he was not proud of, things God could not forgive him for. He said in attacks on villages he shot and killed enemy soldiers who were just kids, also women, and elderly. He saw children killed and witnessed and participated in other atrocities of war. He stopped praying after the war and has never gone back to church since he came back to the states. I offered to pray with him right there, but he declined.
“Pray as you feel God will listen,” he said as he left.
As he walked away my heart both mourned for him and was convicted for me. I had joined in with others at Waffle House at times commenting on Chuck and his behavior. However, I realized Chuck was angry and hurtful to others because he was filled with guilt—from the things he did that he thought were unforgivable.
I’ve taught others that God can forgive anything, But I have never put him to “the test” of his forgiveness like Chuck has. If I was the one looking down an M-16 and watching bullets splatter bodies of kids and women from my gun, the event might make me an even bigger, hateful, guilt filled ass than Chuck. It reminded me that people are never the enemy.
Fast forward to yesterday morning. I was in Waffle House at the bar talking with customers and the waitresses when Chuck walked in. He took a seat in a booth where he’s never sat before, quiet and alone. No cussing, no loud comments to other customers. He looked devastated. One of the waitresses said they heard his son had died the previous night.
My spirit told me to go sit in the chair next to him and I did. I said good morning to him and he said “Hey,” and then his eyes began to fill with tears.
I told him I had heard that his son had died and if it was true, I was so sorry. We talked again for 20 minutes. He recounted the story that his 31-year old son was on the front porch talking to Chuck, his wife, and some other friends. His son told his friends he had bought a new pistol. They asked to see it. He went into his truck and got it out, removed the clip, and thought the gun was empty. It was not. He came back to the porch and in handing the gun to his friend when somehow it went off and the bullet hit is son in the head from less then two feet away.
They rushed him to the hospital, but he died a few hours after he arrived. Chuck said he and his wife witnessed it. He could not get the sight out of his mind. It reminded him of the war. He had to come home from the hospital and clean his son’s blood, hair, and other parts from the side of his house and porch. Tears were flowing down his face. He asked me if this was God’s punishment for the kids he killed in Vietnam. I said of course not and we talked awhile. His son had a wife and two kids 8 and 10 years old.
After we finished, I went home and my wife and I took the chicken I had grilled for dinner, along with sides, bread and a dessert, and I put it in a box and took it up to the Waffle House. I also wrote a note to the family stating I was praying for them and asking to let me know if I could help in anyway with my phone number on it and put it in the box as well. I pulled into the parking lot just as Chuck was walking to his car to leave. I parked, got the box and gave it to him. Chuck teared up again as he took it. He said I did not have to, but I insisted, told him I was praying for him, and I left.
Fast forward to today. I received a call today from Chuck. He thanked me for the food. He then said he and his family do not have any money. They are getting the cheapest cremation they can, and just going to do a remembrance service at their home. Their family does not attend a church, they do not know many church people, let alone preachers, and he asked if I would be willing to come to their house and share from the Bible and some words over their son and their family. I told him I would be honored to.
I have been going to the Waffle House regularly for over 3 years now. Sometimes I wondered if I should continue going. Only one or two people, employees or customers, have ever come to one of our church gatherings. So if you go by traditional church metrics, my time investment has not led to “church” growth or increased “numbers in the pews.” It has not resulted in one penny going into our offertory plate or pastor support.
Yet God reminded me of my prayer I say to him every morning, which is, “God, please send me today the ones that no one else wants.” No one wanted Chuck. Even I found it hard to be around him. But God through his faithfulness has given me an amazing opportunity; to be welcomed into Chuck’s house; a house, a circle of family and friends that no other pastor has ever been invited into, to share the love of God with them. And that is my hearts desire, not to see my Waffle House friends as a project or future sermon illustration—but people who are in pain that simply need somebody to love them.
Credit: Gary Liederbach, One Direction Church, Original Article
Gary’s story both challenges and convicts me. I wrote more about the “principle of proximity” (loving those who you cross paths with every day) in my new book, Marked By Love. I haven’t arrived yet—but I’m trying every day to become more loving toward those who are closest to me—as well as those who I cross paths with each day.