by the Rev. Scott Walters
My flight had already been twice delayed, and the chances of making my connection in Houston were dwindling. I decided it might be best for everyone involved if I paused with a glass of beer on my way to gate A33. The pleasant woman behind the bar slid the drink toward me along with a bill for $13.11. American dollars. Pre tip. In Memphis, Tennessee. I bit my tongue and smiled. The night was young.
Half an hour later it was confirmed that no one was making the flight from Houston to Albuquerque that night, so the good people of Southwest Airlines were booking hotels for the evening and flights out the next the morning. After making my way through the line with one particularly loud and foul-mouthed flier, I accidentally sat down within earshot of the customer service desk. Which meant I heard every calmly venomous (if grammatically perfect) word of a half-hour exchange in which a man, whose situation didn’t seem meaningfully more urgent than the rest of ours, negotiated forcefully. I think he may have walked away with a majority share in the airline.
“Alas, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor the more generous vouchers to the polite,” said the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Or something like that.
Eventually, I found myself on a flight to Dallas (how is not pertinent at this point), on which a nearby family argued masterfully, from takeoff to landing, about a spilled drink (or a small portion of a drink, depending on whose version you believe). Their annoyance was like a beachball they kept aloft together for an hour. Each time I thought it was about to drop, someone would make a diving save and tap the argument right back into play.
It was all I could do not to turn around and ask whether it was really worth all this effort to go through life so thoroughly miffed. Which is exactly what I was by now. Miffed. Late. Flying toward the wrong city…
“Being Reconciled.” That’s the theme for Christian Formation at Calvary for this fall and next spring. Some days it’s even more obvious that the resting state of things in this world is not reconciliation. It’s so easy to slip into separation, conflict, estrangement. Or to let such things move into us.
I felt like I was in a Flannery O’Connor story that night. She had a brilliant way of throwing irritated and irritating people together in doctors’ offices or city buses or, if need be, she’d have some shyster wander in from elsewhere and bring to the surface the remarkable mess we humans can be. The stories can be emotionally brutal and even violent, but, as a devout Christian, Ms. O’Connor insisted to the end that they were about the presence or possibility of grace, even if her method was to show us how skillful we can be at ignoring or resisting it when God offers.
I wonder how much grace drifted past me unnoticed as I made my way eventually to Santa Fe.
The Bible—even and especially the teachings of Jesus—is not filled only with predictably sweet stories of people getting Christianly along. It’s full of petty rivalries and horrifying violence, broken families, tribal conflict, failed covenants, unfaithful lovers. But maybe the harshness and the sin, like that in a Flannery O’Connor story or contemporary air travel, can form a familiar, if slightly amplified, backdrop for the reconciling action of grace.
Because within this world lives a deep and unmet desire to be reconciled. Broken as it is. And the people God wants to do the reconciling are none other than us. Broken as we are.
I suppose most days that reconciliation will be as ignorable as one traveler back at gate A33. Amid the unfolding chaos, he calmly folded his book, walked over to the customer service desk and said, “Thanks for how hard you’re working on getting us all where we need to go.”
I wish I’d been a more reconciling force that night. But here I am, telling you about a stranger’s kindness for somebody else. Realizing the brief flicker of his grace that night is somehow still helping me to get where I need to go.