This morning I decided to go to Panera Bread to pick up some bagels for breakfast. I ended up coming back with bagels plus a few other goodies, enough for maybe 8 people, certainly more than Marlene and me and Dave and Lynette. But that’s part of the fun. You start looking at the display case and you end up buying more than you need or want. As I was waiting for them to fill my order, I looked around and noticed how many people seemed to be using Panera as a meeting place. By the door two students were sitting together, one of them working on his computer. Two women were chatting in the corner. Five or six other women sat around a table, drinking coffee and laughing a lot. I saw four men who looked to be in their 60s sitting together. Perhaps they were commiserating about how the Bears need a quarterback. Then I saw a man in a booth by himself who looked exactly like Stephen Colbert. He had a dark suit, white shirt, glasses, and his head tilted down as if he was thinking about something. Maybe he’s planning on restarting his presidential campaign in Illinois. Maybe he’s meeting Barack Obama at the Elmhurst Panera. Maybe I’ve got a scoop on my hands. Maybe I should call Comedy Central. But I digress.

Recently I read an article suggesting that Starbucks has become the new American meeting place. You could say the same thing about Panera, the only difference being that Panera has more seats and a larger menu. Panera Bread is not just a place to buy bagels and such. It’s a destination, a pace where people come to hang out, to meet, to chat, to talk, to see their friends. It’s not like a regular restaurant where you go and eat and leave. Here you come and stay for a while, maybe you work on your computer, you meet someone, you chat with people. It’s a mini-version of the old town square on Saturday morning where everyone came to buy and sell and see everyone else.

Speaking of Facebook (how’s that for a segue?), a few weeks ago Mark signed me up for the wildly-popular social networking site. In the olden days (as in maybe 18 months ago) Facebook was for the kids–high school and college and early 20s. It’s still largely for the kids but geezers like me have now arrived. Last week I heard that Facebook is adding a quarter-million new pages every day. That’s wild. And when someone started a Stephen Colbert for president group, over 1 million people signed up in a week compared to Barack Obama’s 400,000 in six months. Maybe that’s why they were meeting at Panera this morning (how’s that for starting a rumor based on nothing at all?). So without doing anything–or almost nothing–I now have 213 Facebook friends. My page is really pedestrian compared to most people who have all these extra gizmos–add-ons or special apps or whatever they call them. I heard from my brother Ron via Facebook this week. And I now have friends whose names and faces I don’t recognize. (I know you can refuse them–but why take the chance?) And through Facebook I’ve heard from some people for the first time in years.

So I think it’s pretty cool. People want ways to connect to each other–sometimes face to face and sometimes via the Internet. Facebook is amazing, and so is Panera Bread.

You can reach the author at ray@keepbelieving.com. Click here to sign up for the free weekly email sermon.