They've always been places I drove by, those ubiquitous Waffle House restaurants along main highways and interstates. The last time I remember being in one, before this Spring, was the Fall of 1975 in Durham, North Carolina.
They just never were a place I wanted to stop.
A few weeks ago, though, I found myself in Buckhead, Georgia. Attending a conference of preachers. It was late enough the cool coffee shop down the road had closed up. So two friends and I found the only place open that might offer an inexpensive cup of coffee: a Waffle House.
Other than ourselves, there was only one other paying customer. Three employees were working the place. All African-Americans. They seemed glad to see us. Seemed thankful for the company. Stood nearby while we had our coffee and our raisin toast...our slice of pie...and talked with us. About the weather and traffic in Atlanta and the way folks from South Carolina talk. About the weather up north. One woman told us about her son, who is graduating from Oberlin College, and her youngest who is doing well in school...she sees to that! There was such a gracious spirit in that place!
Last night, here in Columbus, we didn't leave the hospital -where our second granddaughter had just been born the day before- until after 11. None of us had supper. Not many options at 11:20 at night if you are looking for something other than a hamburger. So I pulled into another Waffle House located across from a truck stop...and adjacent to I-670 West.
Ella, our 21-month old granddaughter, was a bit worn around the edges. Sharon rocked her. We ordered something to eat and then Sharon walked Ella outside. They stood there in the night air, under a nearly full moon, and the little girl found her second wind.
Our waitress was young. Doing her best. Working behind the counter. Unaware that her co-workers had taped a ragged piece of white paper to her back that said, KICK ME. When she forgot my decafe coffee she came over and apologized. Then, tried to finish a cheeseburger she had ordered, and which was growing cold on the plate sitting on the counter.
Sharon, Ella and I sat in the booth. Ella refused any food...but she did dip her finger in the syrup on my waffle and lick the sweetness off her finger! An older woman was sitting in a booth, by herself, about twelve feet away from us. She watched us...watched Ella. Sharon told her about Ella...how old she is.
Before we left the older woman, Agnes, approached our table. She bent down to talk with Ella. Asked her if she had a piggy bank. Ella looked perplexed. The woman opened her hand to reveal two quarters. "Put one in your piggy bank," she said quietly, "and put one in the piggy bank of your new, little sister."
The woman didn't look like she had two nickles to rub together -let alone quarters to give away.
I found myself thinking about the widow in the Jerusalem temple. Putting her last copper coins in the temple's offering box as a way of saying "thank you" to God. No one else noticed what she did, but Jesus had his eyes on her the whole time. And he told us about her.
I also found myself thinking of the Sermon on the Mount. Where Jesus says the poor and the humble and the seekers after God will be blessed.
Looking around, as I paid my bill, I had a hunch Jesus would have hung out in places like that...with people like that. We sing and talk a lot about God's grace in churches. Theologians write about that in journals and books too heavy to lift. Then, you pull into the parking lot of a Waffle House. The sound of tractor-trailers a non-musical backdrop to the scene. A nearly full moon adding a touch of beauty to such an ordinary setting. And you come face-to-face with grace.
It's surprising...which is a kind of judgement, you know? We talk about God's grace being loose in the world, and then we are surprised when we run into it.
Somehow, as I drive north and west tonight, towards home...I hunch that these places...glowing with their yellow lights late into the night...will not look the same to me.