Shifting in Flight

Irrational labels limit relationships

By Norris Burkes
December 2020

In a time before COVID, I found myself in a boarding line clinching the coveted A-lister pass issued by Southwest Airlines. The pass granted me privileged first-choice seating while B- and C-listers scrambled for significance.

Inside the plane, a flight attendant cheerfully suggested a front seat. “Wonderful. Looks like I’ll be flying first class.”

I took the aisle seat and soon a woman scooted past into the window seat. After several minutes, the plane took off with no one between us.

We engaged in the routine seatmate-stranger conversation. She proudly announced she raced cars with her boyfriend and they’d just won first place in three races.

Race car drivers! Impressive! Definitely an A-list person. Eventually, she put her racing monologue in idle long enough to ask what I did.

“I’m a health care chaplain.”

“Oh,” she said apparently doubting my qualifications as an A-lister and a human being.

After a pause, she added eleven words demoting me to her F list.

“My ex-husband is a hospital chaplain. He left me for God.”

I offered condolences, mentioning that I’d been happily married for more than three decades.

“Well, we were married 32 years, so….”

She left me twisting in a 650-knot headwind and then offered, “He is Southern Baptist. What are you?”

May Day. May Day. My ego rapidly depressurized as this woman tried to morph me into someone she hated.

Fortunately for me, I found some relevant questions tucked beneath my chaplain cap.

“Where has all this left you spiritually?” I asked.

“Nowhere. I have nothing to do with church.”

“Church is only a vehicle for spirituality. I hope you’ve not given your ex the power to dismiss your spirituality.”

She returned a pained look suggesting she’d cordoned off her life from anything remotely reminding her of the person who’d brought her so much pain.

Suddenly, our conversation was interrupted by the overhead announcement of final approach. I adjusted my seatback and stowed my belongings.

But more than that, I quietly admitted to myself that I had once followed a similar strategy. A few years ago, I had let rumors spread by a Lutheran colleague spin me into a major depressive episode. Despite the fact that God showed me a U-turn out of my depression, I still found it hard to appreciate Lutherans.

I tried building an emotional dam that would prevent me from drowning in Lutherans. I assumed there could be no good Lutherans, so I had crossed these people off my A list.

However, when one works as an interfaith chaplain, meeting Lutherans is a fairly common experience. In addition to many Lutheran patients, God placed a Lutheran supervisor in my life who became a caring colleague. Furthermore, my daughter did the unthinkable and enrolled in a Lutheran college.

I relearned the truth that people can’t be grouped or cloned. Attempting to judge people by A, B or C lists is a futile way of building our own private biosphere of quarantined living. Life needn’t be a set of hostile rerunning tapes that doom us to poor relationships.

Our conversation remained engaging and before we knew it our plane landed, and we were taxiing to the terminal. Our attendant issued the perfunctory warning to be careful unloading the overhead bags as they may have shifted in flight.

During our short taxi, the woman’s expressions exhibited a new friendliness, suggesting a willingness to consider that I might not resemble the hurtful person she knew.

Once on the ground, I stood to open the overhead as the woman braved a venerable request.

“Do you have a card?” she asked. “I’d like to stay in touch.”

“Sure,” I said.

Our seats had given her the perfect opportunity to target a Southern Baptist hospital chaplain, but in the end, she chose a different path. Her opinion of chaplains, like the luggage in the overhead, had indeed shifted during flight.

Norris Burkes can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit

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