Friday, January 11, 2013

Grace on a Plane

When I purchased my flight home to Cincinnati for Christmas, I had avoided airports like Chicago where winter weather might cause delays.  Despite my strategic planning, Mother Nature affected my travels anyway.  My flight out of El Paso on Wednesday, December 19th, was delayed due to high winds throughout the Southwest.  Hopeful that I’d still make the connection in Dallas, I called my parents from the departure lounge to confirm my airport pick-up for 9:05pm EST.  My Dad did his usual joke: “Welllll, maybe if we’re not busy.  If we can’t make it, you know how to get a cab, and we’ll see you in the morning.”
When we landed in Dallas, I turned on my phone to see how tight the layover would be because of the late take-off.  I had only 25 minutes, so I rushed off of the plane and asked the airline rep, “Where is the 5:55pm Cincinnati flight taking off?”  She scanned her list. “Oh, you’re going out at 8:30 now,” she said. “You’ll be at gate B5.”  Understanding that the delay would give me a few hours to kill, I exhaled and walked leisurely toward the B terminal.
As I walked, I happened to glance up at one of the digital boards listing departures.  My eyebrows crinkled in confusion as I saw the 5:55 Cincinnati flight still listed as on time out of B27.  Below it was another Cincinnati flight – at 8:30pm, going out of B5.  I realized that when the agent had told me, “You’re going at 8:30,” she had really meant just me. Although the airline had already bumped me from the 5:55 flight, I took off running for Gate B27 just in case there was any way I would still be allowed to board.  I arrived at 5:45 pm to closed doors.  A few other late-comers and I were issued boarding passes for the 8:30 flight.
I tried to embrace the delay, but it kept getting longer. The 8:30 flight became a 9:25 flight.  Then, it was 9:45.  Then 10:30.  Then 11:30. The faces of the other passengers waiting told me that they were as frustrated as I was.  Finally, the departure time on the board switched from 11:30 pm to 7:30 am.  An announcement confirmed that we’d be spending the night in Dallas.  I sighed.  Due to all of the flight cancellations and delays in the region that day, the hotels near the airport were all full, so we had to go to one 25 minutes away.
                It was a cold night, and the hotel shuttle swayed back and forth in the strong winds.  Tired and wedged between two strangers, I converted into full-fledged Grumpy Tracy.  I got mad at whoever had bumped me from the first flight and thought helplessly, “I should have been in Cincinnati 4 hours ago!”
Thankfully, a few hours of sleep and a shower did my mood some good.  In the morning, my fellow travelers and I filed out into the hotel lobby, most of us wearing the same clothes from the night before.  I smiled a little; the faces of my fellow travelers were becoming familiar.  We mumbled good mornings and piled into the 6 am shuttle back to the airport.  As we gathered at the gate, people were striking up conversations and laughing together.  We realized that many of us were born and raised in Cincinnati, but our lives had taken us far from home to the Southwest or West Coast.  Now we were all just trying to make it home for the holidays.  We began to feel like a little team, united by our life experience and our current predicament.
The predicament wasn’t over yet.  After boarding, sitting, and then deplaning due to an aircraft malfunction, we finally boarded the plane that would actually take us home.  Cheers erupted as we lifted off.
The whole thing could have been miserable.   But it wasn’t.  Despite all of the delays, I was happy to be surrounded by such a great group of human beings.  We shared about our lives, our experiences, and our faith.  I couldn’t believe that we’d been strangers just thirteen hours before.
There was Heather, a thirty-two year old who got a masters degree in Architecture and now works in medical design in California. She was warm, conscientious, intelligent, and easy to talk to right away.  I was fascinated as she shared about her job.  We found out that she is passionate about improved health care for all.  We connected on how going home is like stepping into a time capsule; both of our childhood bedrooms are pretty much intact.  We talked about the joys and struggles of choosing a life path that is “different” and takes you far from home but blesses you with new experiences.
Our flight attendant was Evan.  His hilarious, friendly and loving way was a bright spot on our trip.  As we boarded (finally) he said, “I like you guys!  You guys are jolly!”  He kept us laughing through the safety briefing.  It showed that he really loves his job.  Then, when he heard that I work at the U.S.-Mexico border, he told us that his roommate is a Mexican girl who is separated from family members that have been deported.  We lamented the struggles that migrants face; we spoke of a desire that every human being would be treated with respect and equality.  He was authentic, funny, and caring.
Across the aisle was Eric who just graduated with his Masters in Theology and Intercultural Studies.  He worked for an organization that fights human trafficking while in grad school and is now a youth pastor in Los Angeles.  His energy was contagious.  He is one of those people that can seemingly get along with anyone because he looks for the good in everyone.  We talked about social justice and faith in action.  It was easy to see that he is bright, passionate, kind, and unafraid to live exactly what he believes.
As we landed in Cincinnati, we were all aware that something special had happened in our group.  We gathered our luggage, awaited our rides, and bid each other farewell.  My luggage didn’t show up on the carriage, so I waited for that as Eric waited for his mom to arrive.  We talked over the unexpected blessings of the last sixteen hours and smiled in gratitude.  When his mom came in she said, “Is this one of your new friends you told me about?”  We all hugged and wished each other a blessed Christmas, and they were on their way.
I was tired but happy. Is this not what Christmas is all about? I thought about Mary and Joseph and their long journey to Bethlehem.  They traveled long and far, and who knows what they thought when they saw that their delivery room would be a stable.  It was dark, dirty, and smelly – and yet, there was the Son of God.  Christmas reminds us that God comes to us in surprising ways and even ways that we didn’t want.  On a sixteen hour delay that really could have been quite miserable, we felt Christ’s birth in our hearts through each other. 
The celebration of Christmas has passed, but it cannot remain as an isolated holiday or something that happened once two thousand years ago.  It must be a reminder that He continues to be born to us daily in the events of our lives.   This journey of life is one of light and darkness that we walk together.  Sometimes it takes us places we didn’t plan to go.  Sometimes, it takes longer than we’d like for our dreams to be fulfilled.  Maybe they’re never fulfilled in the way that we expected.  But can we open our hearts enough to see the ways that Jesus lives in each moment, even on the bad days?
Thankfully, we are not alone on this journey.  Just like the shepherds or the Magi who journeyed to see baby Jesus on that holy night, we help each other seek His face.  Grumpy Tracy’s stint may have lasted a lot longer had I not been surrounded by other people who chose to see the bright side of the situation.  We were united by sharing our stories, and laughter, and even the annoyances and inconveniences – and voilĂ !  We were no longer frustrated individuals pushing to get home. We were a community.  The burden was lighter and the joy more radiant.  Christ is born when we walk together.   Who leads you to kneel down at the cradle of the Lord in wonder?
Eric had commented on the plane that any struggles we were living during that trip were certainly “first world problems.”  This reminder was a gift that stopped me in my tracks: how lucky I am to be able to afford an airplane ticket, to live in a place where I can do fulfilling work, and have a loving family and friends to come home to.  After Eric left the airport, my luggage was found, and I walked out to the curb to wait for my family.  My heart sighed peacefully as I saw that familiar red Toyota Corolla rounding the bend.  Mom, Dad, and Nathan had all come to greet me.
As we start 2013, I pray that we can be aware of the many moments that Christ is being born into our lives.  If this was our New Year’s Resolution, who knows what could ensue.   True happiness will not come from a better diet or working out more.  It will come when we learn to look at what is and savor God’s presence in it.  As surprising as a Savior born to a poor couple in a stable; as unexpected as community born through a 16 hour delay – He is born to us!