I don’t know that this post actually has a title; what do you name something when you are trying to be descriptive, but not give away the wonderful truth contained in its words? So I have named this one “A Mississippi kind of day.” Really, it’s about something else. We can talk about that after you read it. This post was written by my friend and sister in Christ Julie Anna Johnson; thank you, Julie, for your just-right words. Candia Love, this one’s for you. The world needs to know.
After driving for what seems like forever on poorly paved country roads, past abandoned houses and trailer homes that have seen better days, in the middle of hurricane alley where good times have been gone for way too long, you pull into a rutted, muddy parking lot full of battered pickups complete with the mangy dog in the back and every day cars, nothing fancy except the occasional sports car (perhaps belonging to that infamous NFL quarterback you think). Transfer trucks roar by shaking the car as you park.
There on the side of a rural highway near Foxworth, Mississippi sits the Country 35 Diner. As you strategically dodge the craters full of mud, you catch yourself wondering why you are here. You take a deep breath expecting to smell the woods and the recently passed rain; instead you pull into your lungs the smell of trash sitting too long. The cicadas are loudly singing a welcome song.
After the obstacle course of mud holes you come to a simple white door. No fancy signs, not even curtains that you would notice. The door opens with a whine and a creak and the tinkle of the angel chime above it. In front of you are tables left over from a 50’s diner. The chairs are of a similar vintage, four or so to every table. You steel your courage and breathe in deeply. That is when it hits you; you may just be in heaven.
As you walk through the door, you are enveloped in a hug that reminds you how long it has been since you had a real one. You are shown to a table for six by a young girl with an accent you can barely make out and the biggest smile you have seen from a stranger for as long as you can remember. She immediately makes you feel welcome. You are either at home or in heaven, either is just fine.
You slowly sit eyeing the buffet filled to overflowing with foods you know are not on your diet. Fried chicken, catfish done four different ways, pork tenderloin, green beans cooked only the way they can be in the south, sweet taters so sweet they make your teeth ache, the creamiest macaroni you have ever dipped a spoon into, fried corn even better than Paula Deen’s….then there is the banana puddin’…the peach cobbler made from this morning’s left over biscuits…truly heaven on earth.
You eat until you can’t even think about another bite. You put your fork down, visit with your friends, slowly coming out of your coma to look around you. You notice the mural of the country side on the wall. As you look, you realize, if there is heaven on earth, you are there.
There is the old farmer who barely fits into his overalls, talking with the young black man holding his overactive son. There is the society matron leaning down to wipe a young girl’s face. As your eyes travel the room, you see it. People are young and old, skinny and not, black and brown and white, rich and poor. Most every walk of life is represented. There is laughter and joy on every face. People who may not talk outside these doors are catching up on the stuff of life….asking after each other’s mamas, making sure daddy got his medicine, that the new college student got off okay, the vet took care of the mange, the car got fixed, the lead on a new job followed up on…life at its most real.
You begin to ask questions and find that in this place for the time it takes to fill and empty a plate those things that keep people from meeting each other’s eyes are left at the door of this place. The colors that separate become a rainbow of harmony. The age gap is spanned with a smile and a clean hankie. The class chasm has become a bridge where no one goes hungry and no one’s pride is compromised, bills quietly paid with no one the wiser.
Here in the middle of a place torn apart by talk of equality is heaven. That place where differences, while perhaps not celebrated, are set aside for the space of a meal.
How can this happen? In an area where talk of civil rights still makes people go still. In a place where there is still so far to go. How can this happen? Then you meet Jesus embodied by a woman.
A woman who took a chance on a dream and opened a diner in the middle of nowhere Mississippi. A woman who cooks like an angel, hugs like a teddy bear, smiles like the sun, and cherishes everyone she meets. Without seeming to pay attention, she gently tells her staff to bring more tea to the man at 6, coffee for the woman at 8, a towel to wipe up the mess at 3 and all while sitting, eating with the newcomer, and greeting all who enter the door (most by name). The difficulties she has experienced are clear on her ebony face and yet each is a witness to her love, her character, and her heart.
This woman with a dream has brought to life today’s gospel teaching. She understands that honor is not gained by seizing prominence; it must be given by others. Surely she could use her gifts and talents in a more upscale place in a different neighborhood, yet she has chosen to live the Gospel on the side of this rural highway.
She has learned and teaches others by example that community and sharing of lives and bread, what happens as we come to the table together, is too sacred to keep to one’s self. It is in bringing people to this place, in asking divisions to sit outside the door, and truly loving others unconditionally that she allows us to experience the holy.
I can imagine if she wanted to, she could be hugely successful in the foodie world and instead, she daily lives a life of humility. Not seeking the praise of men, yet surely earning God’s blessing. In looking at her God surely sees her generosity and the breadth of her love and sees his kingdom on earth in this tiny little diner.
This woman reminds us that receiving a blessing is not something we can work our way into by our own efforts. God asks us to live through everyday acts toward one another in and through our relationship with God and creation.
On the side of a rural highway in hurricane alley we can see this in living color and experience a taste of heaven in our mouths, yet more importantly in our very souls. We are given just a glimpse of the unity to which God calls.
We remember again, or for the first time, that we are called to holiness and newness of life every day.