I've had the opportunity to do some work at Denny's this week - something I haven't done much of since starting the roofing job. I've been reminded of the numerous friendships developed and great interactions that took place in that booth by electrical outlet. This is a paper I wrote for my first class at SMU a couple summers ago...
It wasn’t God that let me down.
I’ve had to say those words to myself at various times over the past few years, which was a gradual and disturbing development. Faith has always been such a large part of my life; such an important part of my childhood home. I never blamed God for the difficult times we experienced when I was a child. It never even occurred to me.
In college I went through a difficult period with my mom; I was confused and hurt, but I didn’t blame God. Then my dad got cancer and struggled more, but blaming God still didn’t seem like the appropriate response.
When Rachel and I had a miscarriage, I was devastated. But outside of a few emotional moments, I didn’t really blame God.
When I lost my job and church and friends one Tuesday I began to wonder if perhaps God had something to do with it after all.
After nine solid months of looking for a new ministry position; after being the runner-up in five different search processes; after using my master’s degree to alphabetize books at Barnes & Noble; after what little bit of my ego that remained was destroyed, the seeds of doubt moved in and started rearranging furniture. God was certainly beginning to appear culpable...
Then we took the leap of faith and moved to New Orleans only to have trouble after trouble and heartache on top of heartache, and I started to wonder if the whole “God” thing was a cosmic joke. I was starting to fear that, like a grown up version of Santa Claus, at any moment someone was going to sit me down and say, “Look, don’t be upset, but...” In the times when I wasn’t doubting God’s existence, it is safe to say that I was beginning to blame God.
Then one day I had coffee with God...
I’ve never said it that way before, but over the past few weeks I’ve begun to realize that was precisely what happened. A woman who had been hurt by church people started a conversation with me at IHOP one evening. We talked for over an hour before she asked anything about me. Kay was very surprised when I told her I was a preacher. I’m not sure how she expected me to respond, but she told me that she doesn’t trust Christians and she was perhaps even more surprised when I replied, “I know what you mean.”
I had not put it together before right now, but that was the moment that my healing truly began; perhaps God sent Kay Moody to minister to me. In my mind I’ve always thought that God sent me to IHOP to minister to Kay and later to her whole family, which did happen, but I think in some ways, she was the missionary and I was the one who needed to experience the reconciling ministry of community available in God. This lady, who hadn’t been to church in decades, served priestly, pastoral and prophetic roles in my life.
That process of healing continued over the next couple years right up to a recent event at Denny’s when once again, God showed up to have coffee in an unexpected form.
Sitting in Denny’s has certain similarities to what I imagine it would have been like to sit in the middle of the Athenian Areopagus. In Acts 17 we read of Paul walking around this area where people “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21). A few people come to Denny’s to eat, most are there to talk.
Perhaps when I walk in to Denny’s I’m showing up for an appointment to have coffee with God in the place where people like to share ideas. The struggle is that I never have any idea what God is going to look like this time.
On this particular day, God could have easily been found working in any number of people. It was busy when I arrived and as I looked around the room I can specifically remember thinking, “I may not get much work done today.” Anita greeted me from the smoking section, I smiled, said hello and walked past her to my booth.
On this particular day there were several young African Americans laughing and talking about any number of things; there were three hispanic construction workers conversing in Spanish, I picked up a few words here and there; cerveza (beer) was a popular topic. Mike, an older man who always wants to talk about my MacBook was on the other side of the room. Keith was his server but Mike kept yelling at Anita, who was still in the smoking section. Keith was getting ready for his trip to Las Vegas, which has been a major topic of conversation in the past.
However, on this day, God met me for coffee in the form of a young woman with shoulder length hair and the weight of the world on her shoulders. Our conversation started with something safe for both of us: I asked about her children and showed her pictures of my own.
As I continued asking questions and she continued revealing more of her story, each time letting her guard down a little more, I began to grow anxious. Her story was so similar to Kay’s. And both of their stories are so similar to my mother’s.
I did not fully recognize it at the time, but my primary task at that moment was maintain control of my identity. Like the moment when your car begins to hydroplane, my internal response at that moment would decide whether this event would become an adrenaline rush or a devastating crash.
The temptation was to cease operating as a distinct person and begin to take on Brandy’s concerns, fears, doubts and anger. She made the statement, “I trusted in God and things were crap, so I decided to do things on my own and now things are fine.” I understood that feeling, or at least, there’d be times when I asked myself if this would be the case. But these trials were not mine, they were Brandy’s and taking them away from her would only do harm to both of us.
As we continued to talk, her defenses continued to come down and I can now see that with the revelation of each new layer, God - standing there by my booth, looking exactly like a girl named Brandy - was giving me a chance to experience a moment of sacred connection with the God who had at one point had seemed to nearly vanish from existence.
I can neither remove, make up for nor dismiss Brandy’s past experiences, and I believe that it was my not trying to do so that encouraged her to trust me. It also wouldn’t have served much purpose to get into a church bashing session with Brandy. I simply acknowledged the painful reality, adding a brief comment or two about my own history of disappointments.
I can see that, though I was struggling to not become anxious about “helping” Brandy, I was not anxious about whether or not God was to blame for her situation. Or mine. She isn’t ready to hear it yet, but it wasn’t God that let Brandy down. The opportunity to see that in Brandy, just as I saw it in Kay, becomes a mirror where I begin to see it in my own story. But it isn’t a great mirror. Its more like the mirror that Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 13:12 “Now all we can see of God is like a cloudy picture in a mirror” (Contemporary English Version).
I don’t get the full picture at once, I get bits and pieces here and there, so will Brandy and so does everybody else.
Or maybe it isn’t like a cloudy mirror, maybe its like a series of small windows. I look out one and I can only see green leaves. Another reveals a break in the leaves and behind them is blue sky. Yet another frames no leaves at all, but rather a fence and on the other side a large pasture and rolling hills. No one picture is the complete picture, but they are all important clues to where I am.
In many ways I believe that the setting of our conversations are at least as important as the content. Brandy asked, “Why don’t you have an office?” There are several answers to that question, but one of them is that I spent several years in ministry behind the doors of an office with little or no interaction with other people, except when I worked at a church with multiple staff. I remember complaining that no job could possibly be less conducive to evangelism than ministry - I spent my time either isolated in our castle or swamped with the concerns of Christians. By moving my office to public space I began to encounter people.
I’m not in a situation where I need to go to Denny’s to find those encounter’s anymore. There are plenty of opportunities to connect with non-Christians in my context - at Shenendoah, even on Sunday mornings. But there is something different about the coffee shop. Perhaps each time I enter Denny’s I’m hoping that this will be a day that I look up over the rim of my coffee cup and find God sitting at the booth again.
The Athenians, in a place where people came to discuss stuff, confronted Paul with the statement, “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean” (vs 20). When Paul responded, he spoke to them of the “unknown God” honored by one of their altars and he quoted their own philosophers in doing so. Like the Areopagus, Denny’s is a place where people share ideas with each other. It is a place to discuss “strange things” in community. And I’m not the minister there.
Sure, I’m a minister everywhere I go, and because I loathe inauthenticity I’m careful to make sure people know that part of my story. But nobody hired me to be the minister of the Denny’s Church (even though that’s what a few people have come to call it). I can have coffee with God and not feel obligated to always be the one representing God in the conversation.
This isn’t the same as being in an anonymous setting where no one knows I’m a minister. These people know, and they expect me to respond as more than just a person who believes in God, but one who takes it very seriously. But, at least at a certain level, Brandy doesn’t care if I’m a minister, because she doesn’t even consider herself a Christian. So she doesn’t have any problem telling me that she thinks the Mayan prediction of doom in 2012 is probably accurate. I can offer my opinion on the matter without having to wonder if she’s going to just adopt my perspective because I’m her pastor.
I had a conversation with an angry teenager in my youth group once (...more than once) who challenged my motives in showing concern for his destructive behavior: “You only care because you’re paid to.” That wasn’t true, and later I realized that he knew it, but it was still painful.
When I’m at Denny’s I don’t worry about people questioning my motives. Early on this was a slight concern because people could view my presence as a gimmick or a possible bait-and-switch trap. But over time through the ministry of presence and relationship, people at Denny’s have come to trust me and have accepted me as part of the herd. When issues are being discussed my opinion is sought - not because I’m the authority but because I’m part of the community and will likely have an interesting perspective.
The authority I have in this setting is solely relational authority, it has been granted to me because the community has recognized my voice as worth listening to. I often describe my ministry in this setting as acknowledging people’s humanity - making eye contact, greeting people by name, not treating them as just another transactional relationship. However, given these realizations, perhaps it is they who are affirming my humanity.
I owe Brandy a debt of gratitude. Her willingness to engage me in conversation was an act of compassion and ministry. A large part of the mission of the Church, as I understand it, is to reflect the image of God by functioning as a story of the Community of Love in action. And perhaps that is another aspect that attracts me to this event. Both Brandy and I ended up modeling the image of God to the other.
I do believe that this is in fact where I come to have coffee with God and sometimes God looks like a girl named Brandy.
*PS - this was written in the summer of 2009. Since then Brandy has become a valued and valuable part of the Christ Journey community. She recently moved to Fort Worth and started going to school...while still working to support herself and her daughter. She doesn't have many opportunities to gather with us on weekends and whatnot right now - but we're still family and we appreciate any opportunities we get to share life.