Definition of arrogant: exaggerating or disposed to exaggerate one’s own worth or importance often by an overbearing manner (Merriam-Webster)
Years ago, I was flying to Nashville for a trustee meeting of Lifeway Christian Resources. When I fly from one city to another, I usually put on headphones, screw up my thick brow over my deep-set eyes—a look that might give Mike Tyson pause—and sit in such a way as to dare anyone to occupy the middle seat next to me.
I secured my earbuds, pulled out my book, fixed my scowl and got as comfortable as my six feet four-inch-tall wide body can get in my window seat. The flight attendant announced that this was going to be a full flight. Knowing someone was surely going to sit next to me, I did not loosen my stink eye one bit. I use it to mark territory on a plane. An older gentleman with a shock of snow-white hair, sloping shoulders, and thick glasses sat in the aisle seat.
People kept flowing by towards the back of the plane. My middle seat remained open. My stink-eye was working.
Just as I was about to relax my brow, a middle-aged, sandy-haired, lady came down the aisle with a huge, braided tote slung over one shoulder and jewel-encrusted reading glasses hanging on for dear life at the end of her nose.
“Excuse me!” she said to the older man in the aisle seat as she sidled past him and sat down in my carefully guarded middle seat.
After she put her seat belt on and got situated, she promptly ignored my warning signs of scowl, headphones, open book, and started talking to me. I had to take my headphones off to hear her. I exchanged clipped pleasantries with her, then she turned to speak to the older man. I sensed an opportunity to re-load my headphones and my stink eye.
Just open up your book, turn the music up, never look at her and she will leave you alone, I thought.
It worked for about 30 minutes until she tapped me on the arm and asked me a question. “What book are you reading?” I held the spine up so that she could see that it read Crucial Conversations.
“What’s it about?” she asked.
I gave her a clipped and terse synopsis of the book.
I began to read again while she pulled out the reading material she had brought on board. It was a copy of the latest supermarket tabloid with headlines like “Hillary Clinton gives birth to Alien Baby” and other bizarre story titles. She spread the paper wide, leaned her arm against mine, taking my arm rest. Our arms were touching. I had to move even further away. The more I moved away from her the more she spread out.
Twenty minutes later she folded her paper up and went to the restroom. I closed my book and rested my head in my hands, elbows on my knees and sighed. I was so weary of this person, and it was only an hour into my two- and half-hour flight.
She came back and saw me with my head down and as soon as she was seated and re-belted, she began to rub my shoulders.
“You must be very tense,” she said.
What do you do at this point? I let her violate my shoulders for what I assumed was the appropriate time for these things and turned and smiled and said thanks. I opened up my book again, not reading—just staring at the page.
About this time the man in the aisle seat pulled a very worn Bible out of his briefcase and began to read. This caught her eye, and she began to ask questions about God. The older man smiled and answered every one of her questions with grace.
As I sat there seething and pouting at this woman who had dared to interrupt my travel preferences and routine, I overheard the older man share his faith with this woman in the most winsome, natural and attractive way. She shared some of her pain and struggles and he gently asked her if he could pray for her. He took her hand and pressed it between both of his aged-spotted hands and prayed sweet and low with her.
I remember thinking, “You want so badly to be like Jesus, but when God brings someone who needs grace in the worst way, you treat them as if they were an annoyance. You have a long way to go.”
Author John Ortberg has a reflective question he often asked himself, “Is the life you are inviting others to live the life you are living yourself?”
That was a painful question for me back then. I would much prefer to invite others to live the life they should live if they followed my advice. The success of my giftedness was eroding my character. I was leaning on my giftedness and neglecting the development of my soul.
You know, we don’t have much to say about our own giftedness. But our character is the one thing that we can cooperate with Jesus and see some incremental improvement. Its available to everyone. But we don’t live in a culture that makes us want it.
The thing about Christ-like character formation is it’s not very fast, not very glamorous, and it won’t really get you very much at all—except life with God, except the healing of our broken, hungry, wounded, hurting, tired heart, and the satisfaction of our souls—things that giftedness can never achieve.
It will also give you the quiet confidence to sit with an open Bible on your lap and explain the Gospel to an annoying woman on an airplane at 35,000 feet.
I’d like to believe, after all these years later, if given another opportunity, my eyes would be soft and inviting to anyone open to hearing about the God who can change the most arrogant of hearts.
So, if you find yourself on an airplane and you see a very large man in your section—sit right down and we will enjoy our time together.
However, mind that middle seat.