By Dana Bowman
It’s 5:45 in the morning, and I am still late. The airport is crowded with the kind of early flight passengers who are both resigned and exhausted. In other words, they all look like the characters in C.S. Lewis’s description of hell in The Great Divorce. And once I hit the serpentine line for the TSA check-in, it is confirmed. I am in purgatory.
In line, I do that awkward pick up the bag, scootch forward one foot, and then set it down dance, to wait for the next one-foot-forward scooootch.
“Oh girl, you have water,” says the TSA agent. She has a strangely sympathetic look on her face.
“Do you wanna take a sip?” And then she reaches over and slips the unopened, five-dollar water bottle out the pocket of my bag, and waves it at me. She wants me to hydrate with my super expensive airport water, I think. How thoughtful.
It seems a bit pushy, too, but I guess that’s part of the TSA job requirements. Then, maintaining eye contact the entire time, she deftly shoots the bottle into the nearest trashcan. If I didn’t know better, I would say she even silently gestured a celebratory “whoosh” afterwards.
It is not a Sunday morning, but I am now entering church. At the airport.
TSA lady saunters away, and I decide she does not have Jesus in her heart. True, I also know that in my early morning fog I had forgotten the liquids rule, so TSA lady was really not at fault for anything. But still. Waste is not Jesus’s thing.
I look around. The checkpoint has no recycling containers in sight, and I sigh. So, that’s how it is here. Just throw it all away, all willy-nilly. Rampant wastefulness. What about starving children in Africa? Couldn’t that gift pack of artisan barbecue sauce be sent to them? And they might need a bottle of Head and Shoulders.
I narrow my eyes at TSA lady while I undo my belt and kick off my shoes. Another universal truth here is that it is very hard to emanate disdain when your pants are falling down.
Airport Church is well underway, and the first point of today’s sermon is: Love Your TSA Agent as Yourself.
I continue through the airport and find my gate, thirsty, but praying for peace. After all, I know there would be a teensy plastic glass of water and some salty peanuts waiting for me on the plane. The airport giveth and taketh away. I pray for TSA lady, for her really important job to keep all of us safe, and I let it go.
And then I meet my aisle mate, Guy With So Many Tattoos.
I don’t have an issue with tattoos generally, but the grinning skull with the snake coming out of its mouth gives me pause. And this guy is more than just a neighbor. We are both wedged together in that awkward flying arrangement where we dare not make eye contact or speak to each other, yet we are basically sitting in each other’s laps. I have moved on to part two of the sermon: Love Your Neighbor Even When It’s Really Awkward.
We sit in silence for an hour. I slide my leg up to try and maintain blood flow, and it glides up his calf like we’re on a first date. I wonder if I should strike up a conversation as it seems we are now courting. Tattooed Guy buries himself in his earphones and phone, a sullen portrait of non-commitment. And, me being me when faced with anyone who is unavailable, I have to win him over. It is important.
Community is hard. Jesus says we are to be for each other, to go out into the world, to win hearts. To break bread. I am not sure Jesus would have equated this with dropping pretzels in the lap of the Tattoo Guy, but doing so at least gives me a window to say, “Oops! Sorry! My name’s Dana,” to which he responds, “No problem.” We leave it at that.
I do, however, read at least three devotionals with great show in the hopes that he might somehow see Jesus on my phone and want to talk about it all. He does not. He does not, in fact, move, or speak, or interact, in the slightest, for the entire two and a half hours.
It doesn’t matter. I have now moved on to part three of the sermon: Love Your Neighbor Even When They Are Really Awful.
The guy in front of me just chair-backed me.
I look over to Tattoo Guy in commiseration, like, ‘Can you believe this guy?’ but he is emotionally unavailable, so I opt for radiating disdain. I eye my tray and plot to open and shut it rapidly to help Chair Back Guy see the error of his ways. I want him to feel bad for this. My eyes bore into the bald spot of the back of his head, which is nearly in my lap, and I pray for his soul.
My prayer is circa 1770, Jonathan Edwards style. Fire and brimstone could filter down from the overhead compartments, instead of oxygen masks. But Chair Back Guy just orders an alcoholic drink, and all is lost.
Part of church etiquette, however, is that I actually absorb the sermon and not wield it at others. Which means loving my neighbor doesn’t really include wanting to zap him into fiery eternity.
So, I am stuck here, on this plane, with all these awful people. There are the Loud Talkers about Their Weekends Girls, and the I Brought a Garlic Falafel onto the Plane Guy, and Token Crying Baby. There is always a crying baby. I’ve had them myself.
All this community is just all over the place. I’m smushed in here amongst them like one good sardine among a lot of really smelly ones.
I tend to regard community as a bunch of my closest friends, all with the same hobbies, sort of a Christian country club but without the golf. There needs to be some sort of similar interests application first and then, maybe, we can talk.
Jesus nudges me, and tells me there really is no such thing as a good canned sardine. He wants me to forget the application process and actually commune with this community. And Airport Church would have me at least shake hands and say, “Good morning,” to my fellow sardines.
It’s too late. The flight has ended.
And then I try to reach up and grab my bag from above, and as I have no upper body strength I manage to drop it on Tattoo Guy’s head. It seems those bags do actually shift in their overhead compartments while in flight just as the I’m Better Than You Stewardess Lady had warned us. Tattoo Guy takes the thump of my duffel bag in stride. He offers a grim nod to my copious apologies and another, “It’s no problem.”
Nothing is a problem with this guy, it seems. I sigh. I wonder if he is married, where he is flying, whether he hated the pretzels as much as I did. And did his mom know about the grinning skull? It would all remain a mystery. Instead, I just smile at him and kind of hope the glow of Christ would somehow emanate his way, as if Jesus were an air freshener. God by osmosis.
“Have a good trip,” I mutter to Tattoo Guy after I had socked him with my carry-on bag.
“You too,” he mutters right back. We depart.
Of course, we immediately find ourselves right back next to each other in the long line in the entry ramp to pick up our checked bags. “Well, here we are again,” I offer weakly.
And Tattoo Guy smiles.