July 11, 2011


Cicadas come out of the ground every thirteen years to make a terrible sound. Somewhere deep down, I know God created them with some kind of redemptive purpose, but for now, I’m convinced that their purpose—which many think is simply to mate—is actually just to make that wretched sound. I would have been okay with this noise while I was stuck working indoors at Carrabba’s Italian Grill in Green Hills, but their horrible hubristic hum invaded the restaurant for most of May. Business had been slow, even for the summer, and the cicadas were not helping.

One upside, however, to adverse conditions is that I can spend more time with the customers. The more time with customers, the more tips I make. One night, I averaged 25 percent for the whole shift—I didn’t hate that—and one of those good tips came from a table of three sitting by the bar. I must have been impressive.

They sat down. I greeted them and brought out their drinks—one decaf coffee, two regular coffees.

I brought out their bread and herb mix—fresh garlic, granulated garlic, kosher salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper, oregano, basil, parsley, and rosemary.

Then, I brought out their salads—one House salad, two Caesar salads. We talked a little bit along the way, so I found out they were with a family from Ohio. The mother and father were in their sixties, and their daughter was thirty-something. They were my second to last table, and it was about closing time. I made my typical corny jokes, and they ordered their food. I had plenty of time to talk, because the cicadas were apparently holding everyone else hostage in the parking lot—two tables was all I had.

I brought out their meals—a Penne Pasta, a Pasta Weesie, and a Pollo Rosa Maria. After they had some time to eat, the husband started in with the questions. Rarely do people ask me any questions. I’m usually the one asking them the questions. For some reason, though, people feel entitled to ask you intensely personal questions when you’re serving them at a restaurant. This is how he began:

“So where are you from, originally?” he asked.

"Originally, I'm from Calgary, Alberta.” I answered.

"Where's that?" the wife asked.

"Canada! But I've moved all over,” I added. “Moved down to Tennessee with my parents when I was eight. From eight to eighteen, I lived here, then moved to Missouri for college, in the middle of that I went overseas. Then, I went right into grad school in Kentucky."

"Kentucky?!" the dad said.

"Yeah,” I responded. Then I noticed my other table needed me. “Hey, I'll be right back, I need to check on my other table real quick."

I refilled drinks at the other table and came back.

"I went to school near Lexington, Kentucky at Asbury Seminary," I continued.

"We're from Ohio," he said in a slow, methodical voice. He tone was very calculated, especially for a causal conversation. He went talked about where they lived, and then he changed the topic. (Why do they feel the right to ask these kinds of questions?)

In a very calm and pensive manner, he paused for a long time. Then he asked, “If you could have what you desire and it worked out how you wanted it to, what would your plan be for the future?” His question took me by surprise. Why did he care what my deepest desires are for the future?

I paused for a while, and then I answered. “If it worked out how I wanted it to, then I would finish my masters degree here in Nashville over the next two years—I’m exactly half the way through the degree—and then, I want to go study in Scotland under a British Bishop named, N.T. Wright.”

“Oh, that’s amazing!” they all said, as if I told them I wanted to find a cure for cancer. They went on and on about my plan, how important it is to travel while your young, and how important it is to live adventurously while you’re able.

Then the man changed the direction of the conversation from my dreams to my theology, getting even more personal. He said, “This is a just a thought-question.” After taking a short respite, he looked to his wife and continued, “which means that it doesn’t require an answer.” At this point I had no idea where he was going with his question.

e said, “If you could change the Ten Commandments to be whatever you wanted, what would you change them to?” It was a “just-for-thought-question”, so I didn’t give an answer. I didn’t know what to say, so I asked him that same question.

He said, “I would put the forth commandment in the place of the second. Then second would be the third, the third the fourth, and so on.” The fourth commandment is “Honor your father and your mother”.

I said, “Well, what about loving other people?” He didn’t have anything to say, so I asked him another question: “If there could be only one commandment, what would it be?” He needed some time to think about it, so I brought their check.

He didn’t have an answer for several of my trips back to the table. When he finally answered, he said, “Honor your father and mother, because if you do that one, the others fall into place.”

“What about other people, though? How does loving your mother and father translate into loving other people, too?” I said.

They didn’t know, so they asked my question back to me. “I feel like I’m cheating,” I started, because someone actually asked Jesus that question—What is the greatest commandment?—and he said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.’ Then, even though the audience at that time didn’t ask, he gave them the second most important commandment—‘Love your neighbor as yourself’—and after a little while, they must have been impressed with Jesus because it says, ‘No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.’”

I ran their payment—a visa credit card. When I came back, they said, “We are so impressed by you!” Immediately, I felt proud of myself for how well I had answered.

“How old are you?” they asked.


“To be a young man with a plan and with desires is so great . . .. We’re just really impressed with you.” My head was swelling with each word, but then something interesting happened. As he talked, I realized that they misunderstood my life—they thought I was the one who was great. I gave them impression that it was me, not God. So I backpedaled.

“I just wanted to say—and I don’t mean this to be corny—but please don’t be impressed with me. Be impressed by the God who has given me so much. Not very many people were given parents like I have that taught me so much . . . .”

I not only deflected the compliment, I even gave glory to God, which must have been really impressive. My head was swelling again. The compliments eventually stopped, and they went back to Ohio. They left a nice tip.

Later, I thought about that conversation and realized my own hubris and noise. Somehow, God used those cicadas to give me a chance to learn that if I really wanted to glorify him, I wouldn’t need to deflected anything; people wouldn’t be impressed with me. Instead, I would have spoken in such a way that unmistakably gave God the credit. I didn't--I talked about my accomplishments, my dreams, and myself, leaving tag-on credits for the end. I gave lip service to God, only because I got caught being impressive, when I wasn't even impressing the one who is impressive. If I really knew the glory of God in my life, I would step aside before people had the chance to think of me as impressive, and they would see God, the truly impressive one, from the very beginning, not just at the end.

April 5, 2011

The Power of Name

Four hundred homeless people sell The Contributer to earn a living in Nashville. Rain or shine, they're on the streets, selling newspapers--the highest-circulating street newspaper in North America, in fact. I met one of the vendors on my walk to work recently as I passed by Donut Den near Hillsboro High School in Green Hills. His name is Bryan. I gave him a dollar for The Contributor; he gave me a paper.

"Thanks," I said. "What's your name?"


I shook his hand and asked how he was doing.

"I've been better."

"You've been better?" I asked.

"I've been a lot better," he said. Then, he did something totally unexpected: looking away, pausing, and looking back at me, he moved his head slightly forward and asked,

"The Lord Jesus?"

"Yes," I said.

All he did was say the name of Jesus. The combination of his tone and his facial expression told me he was asking a question about my faith. When I said yes, he had stepped out from behind his mask and we talked as though we were brothers or long-time friends.

"When I'm bad, me and God are bad," he said. "But when I'm good, we're good."

"I'm sorry," I said, "That's hard." I paused and looked at him the same way he looked at me before. Then I was able to encourage him with the gospel (I knew it's what he needed to hear). I told him that the blood of Jesus has made him holy and to live in that holiness. He received it. Then, I asked his name again.


"Good to meet you Bryan. I'll see you later, man."

I couldn't wipe the smile off my face. In 90 seconds, he unpacked his soul to me and I encouraged him. We became brothers. All he had to do was say the name of Jesus, and in an instant, we connected. He didn't ask, Do you know Jesus? or, Are you a Christian? Just, The Lord Jesus? and I knew. I felt like we were early Christians, drawing fish in the sand.

Thank you, Bryan, for showing me the power of a name.

March 18, 2011

Peaceable Living

I met Karl Meyers on Sunday--Catholic atheist, radical pacifist, and avid gardener. He lives in northwest Nashville and he's got a story worth telling.

Some would say that he's a little coo coo for cocoa puffs, but I think they need the whole story before going that far. He's a man of conviction. They do have reason to speculate, though: he constructed a van in the 1970's as a Peace-mobile and drove it around the country for six years trying to convince people to withhold paying income tax because most of our taxes go toward war. He spent two years in jail and was locked up another 20 times. He's been interviewed, jailed and castigated for his radial protests, beliefs, and lifestyles. You can read more here, here, and here. Those articles should cover some of those issues. One of his friends was Dorothy Day. They even wrote letters to each other. When I went to his house last Sunday, he mentioned reading through Dorothy's letters again. All in all, he's a stud and maybe a little coo coo.

I love meeting people like Karl because they are like a diamond in the rough that you happen upon unexpectantly. I met him through a series of loosely connected, seemingly random relationships--I had a friend, who knew a friend, who knew a friend, who knew a friend, who knew him. The friend who introduced me to him is one of Karl's tenants at the Nashville Greenlands, a non-sectarian community from the Catholic Worker Movement located near Fisk University and Tennessee State. He founded the community. The girl who introduced me to him is Grace. I met her Sunday afternoon when her roommate, Sarah, told me to just come over to check out the community. I met Sarah at a Saturday morning breakfast at Keith's house, whom I met from one of my best friends from high school, Isaac. Somehow I found myself walking up to Karl's house through that tangled web I wove. I felt I was playing a character in some play that was written for me. Surreal.

Here's why I even went to the community in the first place: I have been wanting to practice communal living with Christians in a way that embodies the kingdom of God. Too often, I find myself living out my own individualistic, pietistic religion, ignoring my brothers' and sisters' and the world's need for relationship and love. That kind of religiosity is becoming more and more disappointing and empty to me. When I live self-absorbed, I'm living outside of reality, and God wants so much more for his creation than a disembodied, individualistic spirituality. He wants his kingdom come to earth; he doesn't want us to wait on his kingdom come for when we're long gone, pushing up daisies. He's got a plan for creation--it's called redemption. For these reasons, I've been asking the question, What does a radical follower of Christ do in the Bible belt where everyone has a taste of Christ? Some have a bitter taste left in their mouth, some haven't swallowed yet, and some have tasted that he is good. I ask this question, now, because I think Karl clarified the answer for me this Sunday. He spoke truth and it hit me square in the face.

Grace, one of Karl's tenants, led Nate (my friend) and I up to Karl's house around three o'clock that afternoon. He came out, shook my hand, and invited us in through his backdoor. We stepped into his home which he purchased 14 years ago for $18,000. The previous owner sold it because the house was run-down, taken over by overgrown plants, and located in a poor neighborhood. He could have bought a nicer house on the same street, but he wanted this one. It needed redemption. He spent seven months repairing it. Now, fourteen years later, he's still rockin it hard, living in the same house.

I immediately realized that I was in for an experience when he offered Nate and I some tea. (You know you're gonna stay for a while when someone offers you tea.) He put the water in the microwave. We caught him in the middle of his midday snack of two slices of ciabatta bread. On one slice, he put dijon mustard and green olives; on the other, peanut butter and green olives. We took the tea into the dinning room and sat down at the table.

He began to tell us about his community--the history, the communal meals, the values--and we listened. He's still talking about the things for which he was arrested forty years ago:

"Gas is one of the most violent things we do in the world today," he said. This conviction stopped him from driving the Peace-mobile around in the country in the Seventies. (He still has it on the side of his house--it tooks terrible.) He told us his opinion like it was the new idea he was toying around. He didn't really care too much that we had just met; it was time to talk about what matters, so I let him set the tone of the conversation. He spoke with calculation--each word, question, and topic was important to him--and I liked it. I trusted him.

"Did Sarah tell you? I'm a Catholic atheist," he said.

"No, she didn't, actually."

"Oh, I thought.... We'll, I don't pray or any of that stuff. I was very devout as a young man, but I'm not anymore."

He spoke with a matter-of-fact tone like he had come to terms with his identity when he was young and never changed. The conversation moved from his protesting days, to Dorothy day, to the communal meal they have every week there at the Nashville Greenlands. Every Tuesday the 17 residents share a meal together. Rent is only $100 per month, but he asks everyone to put in 20 hours of work into the garden every month. Did I mention he lives off a $7,000 annual income? He doesn't pay taxes, remember.

The conversation easily moved to the topic of God in whom he doesn't believe. I brought him up, and he asked the questions. I blame him cause I didn't really want a conflict the first time I met him. He's a legend around there. I don't want to make a bad impression on the celeb and my potential landlord one day. I decided I would use the word "God" in our conversation and he jumped on it:

"We'll what does God have to do with it?" he said (or something like that).

"God intended us to live different lives. We're living in a broken world, and it needs to be redeemed."

"The world is messed up. People are abusing resources, consuming and using everthing like it's limitless," he seemed to agree. He brought up gas again and I mentioned how I agree that we are using up what God gave us. He was mad that the governmental officials just sit around all day talking and not doing anything useful in the world, like growing things from the ground (he's a vegetarian btdub).

We talked a while about the nation of America and the kindom of God. I said that Jesus, as the king, set up a new way to be, a way that is different and alternative to the American way of life.

"That's really interesting," I said, "we've come to similar conclusions, just from different ways." This time, I was trying to reel him in.

"Oh really?" he said. "What convinced you of these things?"

"It's been my study of Jesus and the New Testament." This was somewhat shocking to him, it seemed. I told me that Jesus' kingdom was different.

"Jesus never claimed to be king."

"Well," I said, "that's not true. He actually he did claim to be a king." At this point, I knew I was opening a can of worms.


"In the gospel of John: when Jesus was talking with Pilate, he told him that he was a king."

"Well, we don't know what he actually said. We only know what the translations tell us."

I rehearsed the dialogue from the gospel of John, and he doubted me. So he got up and returned with three large Bibles. Opening the KJV he had to John 18 where Jesus talks with Pilate, he read passage including the line where Jesus says, "Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice." He closed the Bible with slight indignation and a humble demeanor. I was excited that he wanted to talk about the nature of Jesus. Not many people will go there on your first meet. We moved to various topics about kingdom, Christ, and community, and then he turned away from the historical Jesus toward Christians today.

He said, "So many Christians do not follow Christ. They can't even get along with each other. And they kill instead of make peace."

"And I would not rightly call them Christians because they don't follow Christ," I interrupted.

"So few Christians actually follow Christ's teachings," he said.

In a moment of inspiration, I asked him a pointed question: "Well, what do you want to see Christians do?"

He paused and said, "Live peaceably together."

I have hope for you, Karl, and for peaceable living. You are not far from the kingdom of God, my friend. Not far at all.

March 13, 2011

A Cig and a Mugging

I walk home from work every night after I get off work. That’s what I told Niekia tonight as I walked her to her car. I didn’t want to let her to get mugged walking out to the car. As she lit a cig, she asked me where I parked.

“I walk home,” I said.

My comment was followed by silence and one of those looks women give.

“I only live a quarter mile from here,” I told her.

“Don’t ever walk home again,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to walk home after what happened to me. Late after a shift, I was walking home at 1:00 in the morning with all my tips from the day and I got mugged…” and she ended the story short with, “That’s why I carry the pepper spray.”

She’d been waiting for that cigarette all shift. I empathized about how hard it is to quit. We walked up to the third floor of the Green Hills’ Mall parking garage. She wouldn’t let me walk home, so I got in the car and rode home.

On the quarter-mile drive down the street to my apartment, she told me about how she got mugged and beat up real bad by some “big guy”. That was the same story of when she was walking home at 1:00 in the morning. It must have been terrible from what I gathered. Because she kept repeating, “You should never walk this late at night.” She was probably right, maybe right. It didn’t really matter in the moment. I said, “Okay.”

She also told me about her three boys, Charlie, Nathaniel, and Caleb—10, 6, and 3—and how her legal husband is only a husband on paper. They are legally married. She told me how he pays her only $60 a week for child support. That money only covers about half of her $133 childcare.

She took her boys to Gatlinburg last year. She spent all her tax return and the four of them—she and her three boys—had the time of their lives in the worst tourist attraction Tennessee has to offer. They rented a cabin with a jacuzzi, just her and her boys. She videotaped the entire weekend. She was more than nostalgic about what sounded like a terriblely boring trip to me.

She went on. “I promised them I would take them to Chattannoga this year—I want to see the aquarium….” Then, she dropped me off to go back to her three boys.

Thanks Niekia (if that’s how you spell your name), you taught me a beautiful lesson tonight. I’m not even sure how to articulate it, but it was beautiful.