I stepped up to the counter. “I’d like a grande latte, please, lowfat milk.”
She: “How are you today?”
Yours truly (embarrassed): “Ah, fine, thanks.”
I was in Oklahoma City, just off an airplane from my then-home in New York City, stopping at the Green Giant coffee shop on the way to my parents’ home. I had forgotten that introductory part.
It’s not just a stereotype that New Yorkers are brisk and skip over pleasantries. There was a hamburger place in a hotel, popular, always a long line, funky, handwritten signs everywhere. One said: “Don’t spit on our floor; we don’t spit on your sandwich.” That kind of place.
They did nothing but burgers but you had a lot of choices to make and, let me tell you, you needed to make them before you got to the front of the line. If you didn’t know what you wanted, well, you could go back to the end of the line and figure it out.
That Oklahoma City barista was reminding me of something important.
The abruptness of New Yorkers can be stereotyped as rudeness. The corresponding southern stereotype is superficiality. The politeness, the genial greeting, the how-are-you-today slow introduction to what you are there for: it does not go deep. The person asking how I am today is not volunteering to be my therapist. She’s just, what do we say, being nice. And yet it can be nice to live in a place where people are at least superficially friendly to each other.
And why say “superficially”? It is real friendliness. What it isn’t is real friendship.
Let me say a good word for the niceness that is friendliness. It’s something I learned from Oliver O’Donovan, a brilliant moral theologian in the U.K., but it’s roots are in universal human reality.
We cannot have very many friends in this life, because true friendship is a time-invested physical reality. At any time, it seems to me, we are blessed to have a half-dozen close friends. Indeed, many people struggle to name more than one or two. With prayer and dedication, our friendships can deepen, and at the same time it is also true that God ever wants to give us more friends. Still the sheer fact that we are finite beings, embodied persons, means that there is not time for us to become friends except with a rather small number of people.
Friendliness, shown by the the courtesies and kindness of social interaction, is a way of saying this: “Although you and I are not in fact friends, if it should turn out in God’s good providence that we became friends, that would not be a bad thing.” Friendliness is a way of holding open the door to a new life. That new life is the life of the world to come, the life enjoyed by resurrected bodies. In that life, unlike this one, the possibilities of friendship will not be limited by finitude of time: all the friends of Jesus will be able to be friends in fact with all the friends of Jesus.
Which is something I would like to remember, and not only when ordering coffee.
Out & About. Lots of classes and other activities are upcoming. These three I have mentioned before: Sunday, September 18, at 10:20 a.m., I'm to teach a class on "Service" in the Book of Common Prayer. That evening at 5 p.m. I lead a seminar on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The morning class is 45 minutes; the evening seminar is an hour and a half. Visitors welcome to either: in the education building of Church of the Incarnation, 3996 McKinney Ave., Dallas.
Sunday evening, October 9, at 5 p.m., also at Incarnation in Dallas, I will give the fall theology lecture: “Theology of Walking,” in the Ascension Chapel. The following week, October 16, (and this is a new announcement) the book seminar will meet to discuss Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor.
Does Bilbo have wise blood? Does he offer up prayers of service? Who’s to say? At the least we can say that to get there and back again he walked!