Encountering God at the Roadside Diner

Terry Lieb Facing Fear, Judging Others, Mindfulness 1 Comment

“What a character!”

That was my assessment after a twenty-second observation. She wore a rather large bright red hat, very colorful dress, and I guessed she was finishing the second half of her life journey and fighting for the third half!

My wife Rita and I were about five hours into our trip back home to Pennsylvania from our winter quarters in Florida. The driver was getting hungry so Rita checked out Tripadviser for recommendations for a restaurant in the area. Number two of 18 was a mile ahead on the right. It was there that I met the feisty senior lady in the big red hat.

She was on the steps to the restaurant, trying to maneuver herself and her walker with yellow tennis balls on the back two legs up the stairs. Her language became as colorful as her dress as she loudly speculated about the unknown architect who designed the “damn” steps.

I decided that pointing out the ramp on the other side of the entrance would probably not earn me any favors, and indeed might incur some of the ire now being showered upon the unfortunate architect. A (somewhat) safer option was to offer to help her up the steps which, to my surprise, she quickly accepted. Her response, “Hell, at least there is one damn gentleman around,” seemed less a thanks to me than a rebuke to the somewhat-younger senior woman she was with. Soon we’d gotten her up the stairs and into the restaurant.

Once we were inside and I had a chance to take in the room’s décor, I knew this was going to be a “special” dining experience! There was the largest alligator skin I ever saw stretched out on one wall and an extensive taxidermy display everywhere including bobcats, rattlesnakes, largemouth bass, and well over a dozen whitetail deer with respectable antlers. The menu was mostly down-home southern favorites including fried green tomatoes and turnip greens. The restaurant was about three-quarters full with about 25 tables.

As we were placing our order, I noticed a birthday party breaking up in the far corner of the restaurant. A few minutes later I saw a very large man with a full bushy beard, many tattoos, and a well-worn camouflage outfit coming toward us. He was carrying about half of the leftover birthday cake in a domed plastic container.

Immediately a very strange idea lodged itself between my ears. Strange, far out ideas are not uncommon in this bald head but this one quickly set off flashing signals “crazy”, “risky”, “dangerous”! The crazy thought was to suggest to this new interesting character that he share a piece of the cake with an even more interesting character who just happened to be celebrating her 90th with no apparent cake in sight.

As soon as I had the thought, I instantly tried to push it away. The prospects of a negative response seemed high. The man’s rough persona wasn’t particularly promising, and Miss Red Hat had already evidenced a high propensity for cantankerousness. She was as like to bite my head off as be pleased by the outreach. Why take the risk?

But the thought persisted. Rita and I had been trying to practice mindfulness so we could be more attentive to God’s quiet nudges, which often disguise themselves as hunches, intuitions, and “crazy” thoughts. Could this be one of those? I didn’t know, but the thought wouldn’t go away.

Finally, reluctantly, I threw all caution to the wind and approached the big guy. “I have an idea,” I proposed with more confidence than I felt. “Would you consider sharing a piece of your cake with a woman celebrating her 90th birthday today?” His response, “What the hell did you say?” confirmed my worst fears.

Before he had a chance to react any further, I continued, “See that lady in the big red hat and multicolored dress? Her friend brought her to lunch to celebrate her 90 years of life!” He looked at me through squinted eyes and said in a very gruff voice, “Ninety years old? Hell! I’ll give her the whole damn cake!”

He sauntered on over to the table and in the same rough voice said, “Happy Birthday!” as he placed the cake on the table. He then proceeded to plant a big kiss on her cheek, dislodging her big red hat in the process! Jaw on the floor, I waited to see how she’d react to this brazen familiarity. Stunned, I could see by the look on her face that she was “tickled”—and not just by his whiskers!

The big guy quickly exited the restaurant but within minutes he was back, carrying a small bouquet of flowers. Obviously it was one of the bouquets which was given to his mother or mother-in-law earlier at her party. Miss Red Hat was speechless, I expect a rare occasion. Her friend, evidently a crier, began to dampen the tablecloth. Many folks in the restaurant were tuned into the action. Before the lady had a chance to regain her voice, her new gentleman friend scooted out the door.Bearded man

I went over to the table to wish Miss Red Hat happy birthday. In a brief conversation, I found out her name was Norma, she was an obstetric nurse in New York for over 35 years and then moved to Florida years ago to support her aging father.

Caught up in the moment and what I had just experienced, I decided to approach each table and ask if they would help me sing happy birthday to Norma. All agreed to sing along, some rather reluctantly. However, no one was willing to lead the singing. Obviously, no one there knew me and therefore never heard me singing or someone would have surely stepped up to the plate. I did the best a monotone can and folks joined in quickly and rather enthusiastically, probably eager to cover up my off-key notes as swiftly as possible. Again, Norma and her friend were visibly moved.

When we finished, Norma stood up and said, “Now I will sing for you.” When she opened her mouth, the most incredible music poured out. Norma had an improbably powerful voice and a presentation that clearly spoke to a history on the stage. As she finished up the old traditional hymn, the room erupted into applause. Albatros bumps (much bigger than goosebumps) rose on my arms.

I went over to thank her for her song, and she shared the names of several gifted singers in her family, one of whom sang with the New York Metropolitan Opera. Two younger women who were seated next to Norma stopped by the table and offered to pay for her and her friend’s lunch. Several others stopped by on their way out. The climate in that down-home rural restaurant in northern Florida was transformed for a brief period. What began as a group of strangers became a sort of instant, though temporary, family.

Mindfulness has been a real gift in my search for “God Finds” in my everyday life. Striving to live into the present moment is challenging, but when successful is often transformational. The “God Finds” in that remote restaurant were numerous. But the most meaningful one for me that day was to acknowledge and face my tendency to judge others, often on nothing more than appearance, and then, based on that judgment, to allow fear to stand in the way of responding to a nudge from a very sneaky God. Although many more times than I would like I miss a chance to listen and respond, on that day, fortunately, I didn’t succumb to fear based on judgment and consequently was gifted with yet another life-altering and transformative God encounter.

I expect that little restaurant on route 17 in northern Florida will become an annual tradition as we make our way home each April hoping to reclaim just a glimpse of that profound experience each of us was gifted with that day.

Questions for Deepening Your Faith Journey

Do you ever recognize or acknowledge subtle nudges from the spirit or “sneaky” God? Acknowledging those nudges is the first step and often the most difficult.

Can you identify, as specifically as possible, what it is that is standing in the way of your recognizing God’s nudge or still small voice? Do you believe God doesn’t communicate with us on a regular basis, in ordinary circumstances? That God may speak to other people, but not to you? Or that acknowledging God’s nudge will commit you to obeying it, and who knows where that might lead?

What might stand in the way of your acting upon a nudge? Is it fear, judgment, possible embarrassment, or any number of negative self-critical “tapes” each of us have been carrying around for years?

On those occasions when you have followed the nudges of the Spirit what has happened?

Click your favorite social share option below!