Spiritual Progress

Rude passengers expose our imperfections

By Norris Burkes
September 2023

There’s nothing I love more than travel. Like the circuit-riding preachers of old, I’ll fly anywhere to speak to a crowd.

The only way travel improves for me is when I use frequent-flyer points for free flights.

So I was in a good mood recently as I took a free seat on a Southern California flight to see my family.

My usual airline doesn’t assign seats, so I’ve developed a strategy to find the best seat. Unfortunately, the strategy failed me this time. I took the last available spot, a middle seat over the wing.

As the plane began its ascent, the sun bounced off the wing directly into my eyes.

Squinting with a hand above my eyebrows, I asked my seatmate if she’d mind lowering her window shade.

Without bothering to look away from her tablet, she said, “I got this seat for the view. Sorry.”

Really? I wasn’t sure how anyone might consider a wing so picturesque. I wondered if there might be a spiritual way to convince her that it was in her best interest to close the shade.

First, I took the biblical highroad, trying to “pray for those who spitefully use you.”

True, I wasn’t really praying. I had mixed motives. I hoped the sight of me praying with face in palms might guilt her into lowering the shade.

When that failed, I began thinking unchaplain-like thoughts. Buckle your seatbelt lady, this just might be a turbulent flight.

I remembered how sometimes bright sunlight forces me to sneeze. I plotted a glance toward the glaring wing view in hopes I might squeeze out a sneeze. Surely then she’d close the shade. I’d apologize. Hand her a towel and call it a baptism.

Alas, no sneeze. God bless me. Then I thought about evoking a sneeze by pulling a nose hair.

Yes, I was being petty. I prayed harder. “Forgive me, Lord, for thinking such terrible things. Amen.”

But my prayer failed to restore my spiritual equilibrium. Quite the opposite. I reached for the airsickness bag and played with it a moment, wondering if I ought to recall the famous Clint Eastwood “Dirty Harry” line, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question. ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”

I leaned back and looked at the ceiling. “I’m sorry, God. I guess I can be a real jerk sometimes.”

Then I thought of another religious “jerk.” His birth name was Saul, but God struck him with a blinding light to rebuke him for preaching hate. And even after that blinding revelation when Saul’s name changed to Paul, he still found himself entangled with less-than-perfect attitudes.

In Romans 7:19, the renamed Paul wrote: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”

My plane event tells me how easy it is to bring unholy intentions to plain events.

However, if we choose to see these irritations as moments to remember God, they can become a reality check on how we walk in this world. That’s called “spiritual progress.”

In the end, I realized it’s not about my ability to be perfect, but my ability to confess my imperfections to a forgiving God.

The late Rev. Ray Stedman may have said it best: “Sometimes God simply folds his arms to wait and lets us go ahead and try it on that basis. And we fail, and fail miserably, until, at last, out of our failures, we cry, O wretched man that I am!”

But take heart. That just means, like me, most of you are frequent flyers in God’s grace.

Norris Burkes can be reached at comment@thechaplain.net. 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 thechaplain.net.

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