I have gotten rather hooked on that “all you can eat” soup and salad deal at the Olive Garden (breadsticks are included, too!). How they make a profit off us guys who order every soup every time is a mystery but I don’t worry about it. Instead I stick a napkin in my collar and go to work. Now and then I carry a book to pass time between the servings; usually, discreetly, I observe my neighbors.
The other day I had a fresh bowl of minestrone in front of me when something made me glance over a couple of tables. There was a family of, oh, about twelve, just beginning to celebrate a birthday it appeared. What I noticed next, though, was that each of the four kids was playing with a hand-held computer. I had almost no time to get indignant (we told our kids to put theirs away so we could have conversation!) before I looked again to see that of the eight adults at the table, five of them were talking on cell phones.
Maybe you have seen this kind of thing yourself—a family, even a group of friends, but everyone at the table is talking to someone else or living in another world. They are “together,” if you look at it one way, but at the same time separated as they can be. If we are honest we might all of us confess that we felt this kind of thing, too—that even among friends and family, sometimes geography is the only thing we have in common.
On the one hand I can understand and in some ways even bless the hunger for something more than we might be experiencing at any given moment. Though this desire is without doubt the root of more than one of the Deadly Sins, at the same time we all of us have the disquieting sense that there is a Conversation yet to be had which is more crucial than the ones we’re in. There is an Adventure awaiting us that deserves our immediate Attentions. We long for Friendship deeper and more life-giving than the often codependent ones we have now. And so we take the call, play the game, turn away from the ones who are with us—in the often unspoken and mostly unconscious hope of the Other. Augustine meets Verizon, if you please: this generation’s wireless version of our wired-in restlessness.
Still, the Incarnation demands that we see this moment and this people as the place where Jesus is present—when two or three or twelve gather together—and therefore it is a call, a spiritual obligation as much as it is a challenge, to put down the games (electronic and otherwise) and to switch off our phones. We turn back—repentance in this case is also reconciliation—to listen, to watch, to pay attention to this word, this conversation, this very moment.
While the Bible tells us that strangers may be angels and far away lands the precincts of promise, the corollary is that if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, members of our own family, folks in our circle of friends, even people in our classes and congregation may be the flesh of God’s abiding word, and this very place a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit. If so, whether at Olive Garden, old First Church or the dinner table, we hearken to other siren voices (or eat only alone) at our spiritual peril.