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.