I hate flying. In fact, behind cruise ships and zeppelins, it really strikes me as our most bizarre form of travel. A hundred or so people heap their possessions into huge wheeled bags to be inspected by strangers, after which they stand in line with little pieces of paper that they must clutch for dear life until the second their numbers are called, and then they cram into a tiny, metal tube that moves at hundreds of miles per hour at tens of thousands of feet in the air. Can no one else see just how crazy that is? When I can drive, I always drive, but on this particular trip, I had no choice but to board the tiny, metal tube to get back to Tampa.
Despite my frustration with this particular form of travel, I have a system worked out to make my flight as pleasant as possible: I always carry a very controversial-looking book that I have no intention of reading. The book is there for one reason: to provoke the person next to me into a conversation so that we can both be entertained for the rest of the flight. This works about 75% of the time, and through this technique, I’ve heard life stories, received wonderful advice, and even gotten to pray with strangers. Currently, the best conversation starter book I’ve found is Charles Kimball’s “When Religion Becomes Evil”. What is the book about? I haven’t the foggiest, but my seatmates are always quick to share their perspectives!
Sadly, on my flight from Memphis to Tampa, I had no such luck. I had the most boring seatmates possible: two middle-school-aged guys silently engrossed in an iPad. Now, under normal circumstances, teens and preteens rank among my favorite people to talk to, but there was a glowing rectangle involved here, and these kids had sunk deep into the “entertain me, magic box” mode of thinking. Any attempts at conversation were greeted with unintelligible grunts and electronic beeping, so I found myself staring absent-mindedly around the plane looking for other ways to pass time on the two-hour flight.
It was about then that our last passenger boarded the plane.
Just looking at her, you could tell something wasn’t quite right. She was wearing multiple sweatshirts and not talking much to anyone. Her face was perpetually contorted in a sort of openmouthed squint, making me wonder if she had suffered some sort of stroke or developmental disability. She was slinging a large purse and a yippy chihuahua in a carrier as she took the last middle seat on the plane (much to the discomfort of the people on either side of her). With her weight and large amount of clothing, she sort of spilled over the armrests onto her neighbors, and she got very defensive when an agitated flight attendant asked her to stow her dog under the seat and place her purse in the overhead bin. She clearly would have preferred to keep both in her lap throughout the flight and put up a bit of a fight as the flight attendant removed the purse from her grasp.
Perhaps the most jarring aspect of her appearance was a fresh wound on her left hand (most likely from the chihuahua, who appeared to be a nervous flier despite his resemblance to a member of the bat family). She had attempted unsuccessfully to blot the flowing blood with paper towels, and it was up to the flight attendant to get her a bandaid and an alcohol wipe. The strange woman’s casual dabs at the dried blood looked almost more out of curiosity than hygiene, and her seatmate (with whom I had been talking earlier) looked back at me with an expression of mingled pity and exasperation. The plane took off, and the strange woman rested her head against the seat in front of her while her seatmates plugged in earbuds and lost themselves in their books.
I too zoned out a little, but it was not long before the strange passenger caught my attention again. The cabin crew came around with drinks, and she got a coke (which the forceful flight attendant set down rather curtly on the tray table in front of her). Rather than entrusting us with full cans, the crew had filled up 8 oz. plastic cups with ice and soda, and while most passengers had little trouble with this, the strange woman struggled. Whether it was related to the dog bite or whatever physical ailment she suffered, her hands shook violently whenever she attempted to raise the little cup to her lips, and the coke sloshed over the sides onto her hands and the tray table. She tried several times, but was only ever able to lift the cup a few inches up before it swirled and spilled and had to be set back down, and that’s when it happened:
The seatmate who had been giving me pleading looks earlier finally couldn’t hold back any longer. She reached over, took those bloodied, shaking hands, and raised the cup to the woman’s lips. As best I could tell, not a single word was exchanged between them. There was no “Let me help you with that.” There was no “Thank you.” It simply happened because there was no other way for the woman to drink from that cup. No one else on the plane even noticed it happen, but there it was: grace.
Show me a “self-made man”, and I will show you a liar. All of us have gotten to where we are because someone else helped us out along the way. Parents, teachers, mentors, employers, caretakers, friends– we are all of us dependent on the people around us, and without them, we would be lost. The knowledge of God and Christ isn’t something that just happened to us; we were taught. We were shown the love of God by other people, and when we forget the love of God, He sends His messengers into our lives to remind us.
As we continue into the season of Advent, take a moment to pause and reflect: Who first helped you raise that cup to your lips? Who might God be calling you to help?
Grace and Peace,