02 September 2010

These accidents of faith and nature

The gate--and most of the terminal--was deserted but for a bored woman at the desk who seemed to be spending her shift talking on her cell phone.

With a ridiculous 3-hour layover ahead of me, I settled in to read.

It was the noise, of course, that alerted me first. Raucous high spirits. The group of men who approached the gate were really loud. I inspected them carefully without appearing to really look at them. They were diverse, and dressed with equal diversification: some in attire better suited to a basketball court, others in business casual. Some had lanyards around their necks, and one of the better dressed men was carrying a large, well-used Bible.

No threat, I decided and went back to my book.

But they were loud, and they ranged all around the gate area, calling back and forth to one another, carrying on conversations with each other and on their cell phones. I gathered--whether I wanted to or not--that they'd been to some sort of a conference, Christian in nature, with speakers and preaching and book signings and meet and greets. I couldn't help but be amused by their assessments of evangelists who aggressively passed the hat and those who trusted the faithful to be generous. I also smiled over their discussion of a particularly popular female speaker who evidently was popular for more than her fine speaking skills alone.

After a bit, an older woman came and sat down across from me. We exchanged smiles, and she pointed out the tiny plane that awaited us and I groaned. She noted that she'd missed her earlier flight out, which would have been on a real plane, and it would be dark when we arrived in Ohio and she still would have to face a two-hour drive. I commiserated with her on this bit of bad luck, feeling fortunate that tiny plane or no, at least I'd face only a 10-minute taxi ride once we landed.

The time came to board the toy airplane, and we lined up and had to gate-check our carry ons. The flight attendant was a happy man who was cheerful and pleasant, and greeted every one of us as though we were friends.

And I walked in the door.

I am tall and found myself ducking down to avoid hitting my head on the ceiling, then scuttling sideways, crab-like, down the aisle toward my seat. Two hours, I thought, sighing inwardly.

The other passengers packed in: the older woman was in front of me, the group of conference-goers sprinkled throughout, a soldier behind me. There was a good deal of chatter and considerable complaint about the size of the plane, and the flight attendant wandered about dispensing good-natured commentary, telling everyone that he'd had the entire team of Harlem Globetrotters on this plane and they fit just fine, so stop complaining about how small it is!

The conference goers were still comparing notes on their books and the speakers they'd seen, in addition to teasing one of their number who was especially tall. The older woman turned around and called out to the soldier that she appreciated his service, that she had a son near his age, and was he on his way home? He thanked her and responded that he would be attending school for a time before he was redeployed. The woman behind me was speaking to her cat, who was along for the ride, and telling everyone excitedly about her new job.

After taxiing for miles, the plane took off. As we ascended, the conference goers started to pass around chewing gum, and kindly offered me some as well. Conversation continued, and the serviceman regaled those of nearby with a story of landing in Pakistan in a transport plane that required skis. I smiled to myself, wondering when I'd last been on a flight where there was so much camaraderie amongst strangers.

Eventually, I settled back to reading, and the flight was proceeding smoothly while I pretended I was on a train. Before long, the horizon was nothing more than a thin line of pink and the sky darkened. Finally, I felt the plane shift, nose pointing downward, as we began to descend into Columbus.

I'd stopped paying much attention to the people talking around me, but I suddenly became aware of a man--one of the conference goers--praying aloud in the deep and booming tones of a person accustomed to making sure that his voice carries throughout a church. I wasn't sure why he was praying but for a moment, I listened only to the cadence of his voice, not really paying any mind to the words, until I saw that he was holding the hands of the older woman in front of me and that her head was bowed. She was on her way to pick up a loved one who'd become very ill on vacation, she'd told us shakily. I don't remember the man's exact words, only the sense of them, as he asked that the woman be protected on the remainder of her journey and that the person that she was on her way to see be restored to health. His voice was compelling and warm, and as he spoke, several of the other men joined him, their voices resonating in the tiny plane.

I turned my back on organized religion and its practice a lifetime ago, primarily because I could no longer endure the self-important tyrants who did the unspeakable in the name of a God they'd created in their own foul image. I am mystified by the adherents who cry divinity and yet lack the imagination that would allow their God to rise above the petty humanity with which they endow Him. It is the abuse of religion that offends me, the use of it as a weapon and to engender fear that I cannot abide.

While religious constructs are meaningless to me, I know too well that the meaning is deep and the convictions concrete for others, including the majority of my extended family. That's fine. There is plenty of room in my own flexible worldview for others to practice what is important to them, as long as they practice what they preach.

I bore witness to something magnificent that night as the plane returned to Earth, something small but heartening, something that seems to exist too infrequently: true brotherly love. A heart with comfort to give responded to the heart that needed it most at that moment, unselfconsciously. What occurred was real communion between two strangers, and it was very moving. It was the kindness that religious teaching is meant to create.

The plane landed and we all gathered our belongings, said our goodbyes to the cat that had been so silent throughout the trip. As we filed off the plane, we bade our flight attendant farewell as though he was our friend. I wished the serviceman well and told him that I hoped he never had to ride in a plane with skis again. I waved goodnight to the conference goer who had offered me gum.

Singly, in twos and threes, and in small groups, we walked through the deserted terminal into the night.

Go listen to some good music: "The Lightning Strike" from the album A Hundred Million Suns by Snow Patrol.

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