The summer vacation season is an extended exercise in delayed gratification. If you didn’t have the prospect of your long-anticipated vacation in the sun, or your reunion with far-scattered family and friends, or the thrill of exploring earth’s remaining wildernesses, you would never submit to the rigors of travel in the 21st century. The list of contraindications is as long as your arm: global warming and the exponentially rising cost of driving your car; gridlock along the highways, airport security checks and hours of waiting in line to check your bags; getting through customs in foreign lands, negotiating visa rules, vaccinations and other vexations. We can put men on the moon, but we are increasingly hard-pressed to get ourselves around planet earth.
All these thoughts were running through my mind as I waited in vain for something to come up on the screens in Frankfurt International Airport to indicate my connecting flight to Johannesburg might depart soon. It was not to be. I was, however, about to discover a carefully guarded secret: there is a little restaurant tucked away in a corner of the international terminal that seems to be specifically reserved for the orphans of dead flights. I came upon it entirely by accident while I was surfing the snack bars, wondering how best to keep myself going through what promised to be a long night on the few euros I happened to have with me, not having planned a stopover in Germany. It was one of those surreal moments, to see a notice on the restaurant door, inviting passengers of—yes, really, my flight—to turn up at 8 p.m., at which hour we would be fed and watered gratis.
It was while enjoying this bounty that I found myself in conversation with a similarly stranded passenger from Linz, Austria. Over our unexpected supper, we chatted about how good it is that so many young people today are traveling so widely and encountering so many different cultures of the world, how it is surely making them more open-minded and more open-hearted, and how that has to augur well for the future. Then my companion, with a central European gravity that sometimes verges on dourness, pointed out that it all depends on the attitude with which you travel. Travel, he said, can open up your horizons and transform you into a world citizen, aware of being part of a wonderfully diverse, yet interdependent family. Or it can leave you thinking that everything, everywhere, is much the same, with ubiquitous Coke signs and Golden Arches and airports that have all been cloned from one ill-conceived original.
This gloomy possibility was reinforced for me recently as I waited at the travel agent’s office while a family completed their arrangements for what sounded like a magical trip to the Caribbean. As the travel agent handed over their reservation papers, she asked them, “Do you know where it is, actually—your destination?” No, they didn’t have a clue, nor did they seem to be particularly interested. She got out the world atlas, nevertheless, and enlightened them.
Perhaps the problem could be summed up in the word “mindfulness.”
How mindful are we, as we wander this world of ours? Being mindful doesn’t mean becoming a head-in-the-clouds mystic. Nor does it require transglobal travel. It can be practiced in our own streets and cities. All it takes is a bit of time, and open eyes and ears. Time and awareness—hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry. Time to stop and think and be available to the world around us, eyes to really see and ears to really listen to what is actually there: the wonders, the beauty, and also the screaming needs and silent sorrows in ourselves and in others.
Ironically, two unlikely institutions of our main streets can help us to see the difference between racing through the world to get as quickly as possible to the place of gratification, and taking time to savor the journey and be responsive to whatever, and whomever, we encounter along the road.
The fast-food outlets are prime offenders in seducing us into the racing mentality. No matter that the choice of food calls for neither effort of imagination nor any discernment on the part of our taste buds. We won’t be standing still long enough to taste it anyway. If we internalize this attitude to life, we will become like the holiday-makers who were asked on their return, “Where did you spend your vacation?” To which they replied: “We don’t know. We flew!”
But close by the fast-food outlets there will usually be one of those congenial coffee shops that invite us into a very different approach to being alive and being human. They encourage us to sit down! Those comfortable sofas may be intended to lure us into buying more and more coffee, but they have a side effect: they also encourage us to be still for a while, to think, to reflect, maybe to read a newspaper or a book, and even to talk to one another.
My guess is that if Jesus were walking our sidewalks today, he would walk right past the fast-food outlets. He had, after all, much more satisfactory ways of inviting people into table fellowship. But we might well find him reclining in a coffee shop, engaging someone in challenging conversation, or even just sitting and watching, and being present to the world, taking time to taste the coffee.
Every square mile of this planet is holy ground if you walk it gently and mindfully and take the time to let it disclose its secrets. Every mile can be sacramental, waiting to reveal something of who God is, and no two revelations will ever be the same.
Enjoy your vacation. And mind where you go.