By Paul Nelson –
I am sitting in Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok waiting to check in for my flight to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. I am alone. My wife is jetting back to Hanoi, and because of several unexpected twists and turns, my colleague isn’t accompanying me to HCMC. Neither is my interpreter. I’ll reconnect with him at the airport in HCMC, as we’re on separate flights and departing different airports in Bangkok. In the meantime, I’ve had to negotiate my own way to the airport, the check-in process shortly, and immigration when I reach my destination. I’m in a city I barely know, clinging to a Wi-Fi connection as my only real means of communicating with anyone I know. And the vast majority of people I know are on the opposite side of the globe. It’s a strange feeling to be a stranger in a strange land, and this is the first time I’ve had to sit with this reality alone, without my wife or my colleague. I’m not worried but keenly aware that I stick out here like a sore thumb.
So it is that I’ve been grateful for opportunities to experience community and a drink!
Three nights ago in Hanoi, my buddy and I found what might be the only pool hall in Hanoi and enjoyed a couple of hours of shooting pool and sipping drinks. I enjoyed my traditional pool-shooting standby, the Jack Daniels & Coca Cola (never Pepsi, remember?) while my buddy opted for a few Singha beers. While I haven’t been homesick, per se, during this trip, and while the differentness of Southeast Asia hasn’t worn on me psychologically or otherwise, the familiarity of a cue in one hand and a drink in the other and a friend across the table was definitely wonderful.
We didn’t drink because we had to but because it was an evening to celebrate an unexpected find (the pool hall) and the comforts of more familiar things (good friends). Alcohol, like food, can serve as a conduit in these situations. It isn’t necessary, any more than it isn’t necessary to sit around a home-cooked meal in order to enjoy friendship. But the rituals of food and drink are similar in that they give us opportunity to pause and really savor the people around us as we enjoy the food on our plate or the beverage in our glass.
Then, last night, after a long day of seeing some of Bangkok, my wife and I returned to our hotel. We don’t speak Thai, so we wandered off on the most gossamer threads of Internet suggestions to destinations we couldn’t remember, let alone pronounce. There were moments of uncertainty as we found our technology resources uncooperative. But in the end, we made it there and back again, albeit on a much smaller scale than Bilbo. We were proud of our intrepidness and grateful for God’s provision.
We stepped into the relative familiarity of our hotel lobby and found my colleague sitting nearby with a group of the Americans working at the conference. We were greeted warmly as we approached. Seats were pulled over and we were quickly offered plastic cups with ice and Jameson’s Irish whiskey from a bottle one of the guys had procured for the occasion.
Here we sat, on the other side of the globe. We barely knew each other, yet we were invited to join the circle and the fellowship. The glasses served as a part of that ritual, a giving and a receiving that created a connection in a more tangible way than just words. I can say you’re welcome here and I’m glad to see you, but in extending you a plate or a glass, I put that welcome into words. In our receiving of the glasses, we reciprocated the welcome and the bond. We accept your offer. We receive your companionship with respect and appreciation. We are together in this, for this time.
Humans are created for ritual, and ritual transcends conscious efforts at communication. Ritual is a source of comfort and a bit of familiarity in the midst of what might otherwise be a great deal of confusion and offense, but it runs far deeper than that. Rituals take different forms, but as we engage in them, we enter into something larger and older than ourselves. We agree to be bound by the terms of those rituals. Receiving someone’s bread or water or whiskey creates a relationship which shouldn’t be disposed of lightly. Part of the shock of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is the fact that he remains committed to his path of betrayal despite not just breaking bread with Jesus but actually receiving bread from Jesus’ own hand (John 13:25-30). There is something in us that recoils at such callousness. We recognize a sacredness in the giving and receiving of food and drink as not just the necessities but the joys of life, as well. We resonate at a deep level with the idea that you don’t violate the elements of trust that the ritual of shared food and drink create.
Jesus was very intentional in conveying the new covenant of forgiveness and grace through bread and wine. He pronounces us forgiven and reconciled with God the Father, but we are privileged to taste this, to enter into a ritual that creates and communicates that bond in a unique way. Christ invites us to his table, extends to us his body and blood in bread and wine, and in receiving these realities in faith, we receive everything they convey: life, peace, hope, joy, and many other things. Granted, this ritual is very different in scale and purpose than a drink by a pool table or a foreign hotel lobby. It’s the completion, the ultimate expression and experience of every other ritual, that must need pale in comparison and even be misused and abused. In the cup Christ extends to us is the ultimate foretaste of that eternal homecoming and welcome that all of us long for and oftentimes try to fulfill in lesser ways. He could have left us on the outside looking in, but He willingly extends himself to us in the cup so that we might not be alone and lost but welcomed back home at last to the prodigal feast that never ends.