The success or failure of my own formation in Christlikenss can be measured by how irritable I am. – Dallas Willard
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. – Saint Paul
One time I was traveling from Phoenix to my home in Seattle and got my usual window seat. I put the earbuds in, got my book out and got as comfortable as my 6’4” tall and wide-body can get on a plane. Then a lady sat down beside me and ignored my warning signs—scowl (stink eye), no eye contact, earbuds, book, etc— and started talking to me. I had to take my headphones out of one ear to hear her. She was nice enough, but she was clearly not heeding the markers that I didn’t want to be bothered. When she engaged the man in the aisle seat in a conversation, I reloaded my ear with my headphones and thought, “Just open up your book, turn the music up, never look at her, and maybe she will leave you alone.”
It worked for about 30 minutes. Then 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 The Care of Souls.
“What is that about?” she asked.
I mumbled something, but I didn’t tell her that it was about how to be present with those God puts in your path and really listen to them. I put my headphones back on and pretended to be more interested in my book than I really was.
She pulled out a newspaper she had brought on board. It was a copy of the latest National Enquirer with headlines like “Hillary Clinton gives birth to Alien Baby” and “Donald Trump Embraces Christianity” and other bizarre story titles. She spread the paper wide and leaned towards me so that our arms touched. Thus, I surrendered my territory on the armrest that separated us. I moved even further away from her. But 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 put my head in my hands and sighed. I was so weary of this person and it was only an hour into my two- and a half-hour flight. When she came back and saw me with my head down, she re-belted and began to rub my shoulders. “You must be very tense,” she said over the whine of the jet engine.
What could I do? I let her massage my shoulders for what I assumed was the appropriate time for a stranger giving a neck rub on a plane and smiled and said thanks. I opened up my book again, not reading—just staring at the page. I can’t describe the bile that came into my soul if not my throat.
About this time the man in the aisle seat pulled a care-worn Bible out of his briefcase and began to read. This caught her eye and she began to ask questions about God, faith, and spiritual things. The older man smiled and answered every one of her questions with grace and aplomb.
She shared with this older man some of her pain and struggles. He nodded, listened and gently asked if he could pray for her. She allowed that he could and then took her hand and pressed it between both of his knobby hands and prayed so sweet and low that the lady began to weep.
Thinking in Jerusalem
You would think I would have rejoiced that the old man had distracted her from bothering me. You would have thought I would have paused and prayed for this woman to hear the Gospel. But I found a strange thing happening—I began to sense the resentment that had reached a saturation point with the woman, start to leach toward the grace-filled gentleman.
Now I had two people with whom to be frustrated, an irritating-National-Enquirer-reading-sinner and an irritating-King-James-Bible-reading-saint.
The woman was offensive to me, no question. But so was the kind man who was a much better saint to her than me. Why did he offend me so much? I suppose it was because he was behaving like Jesus to the woman and I was behaving like—Joe. His kindness and grace were pointing a luminous spotlight on my banal behavior.
I can still see her face and sandy-colored hair in my memory.
Lord, we’ve talked about this incident before. I want to say again, that I am sorry for my boorish behavior. There is no way for me to apologize to the woman, but I can change the way I deal with others when I am grumpy and tired. I have tried to do that since this encounter. And by your grace, I am changing—incrementally—but changing nonetheless. I can also pray for her and so I ask that You,
…Bless her and keep her;
Make Your face to shine upon her, and be gracious to her;
Lift up Your countenance upon her, and give her peace.
This was many years ago, but the memory of the darkness of my heart that day serves to remind me that I am a long way away from the man God had in mind when he thought me up. I have to keep surrendering, stay with my training, keep remembering that I am stumbling towards Christlikeness.