It felt like a case of mistaken identity and it happened while flying with an airline that lets the passenger identify their own seat. That’s a good thing only if you arrive early enough to get on the “A” list, and I did.
Those passengers not lucky enough to be on the A list were further divided into B and C groups. At the first whiff of jet fuel, they responded like Pavlov’s dog and formed an indistinguishable mob, surging the gate.
Worried I was stuck in the C queue, I asked someone which line I was in.
“Not sure” was the woman’s reply, but I’ve got a B ticket.”
“Whoops,” I said, “I have an A ticket. I better move before I’m seen with B people.”
“Sorry,” she said.
“No problem, you can’t help it. B people are just, well B people.”
Once in the A line, I was cut off at the merge point by a B person. Fortunately, a vigilant attendant caught the line jumper and directed him to the security check area. The guy was nothing but a line jumpin’, B boarder, looking to scam an aisle seat. He got what was coming to him.
Once on the plane, I was cheerfully greeted by David, the flight attendant, who urged me to choose a seat.
Pointing to the front row, I said, “Looks like I’ll be flying first class.”
“Yeah, right,” he said throwing me a coloring book, wings and Oreos.
Kind of surly, I thought. Didn’t he realize he was talking to someone on the A list?
I took the aisle seat while another passenger took the window seat. We were “golden” -two “A” list people ready to share their stories and a bag of broken crayons.
My seatmate told me that she races cars with her boyfriend, winning first place in her last three races.
Race car drivers! Impressive! Definitely an A list person.
Of course, I’m wondering when I’d get to impress her with the fact that I’m a man of God. People are usually very impressed with that. If that doesn’t work, I usually tell them I’m a columnist and they fall over with astonishment.
Ok, well, at least that was my mom’s reaction at the news.
Finally, the racing gal put her monologue in idle and asked what I do.
“I’m a hospital chaplain,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, in a manner doubting my identity as a human being. I guess not everyone is so enthralled with my noble profession.
Then, with eleven words, she demotes me to her F list.
“My ex-husband is a hospital chaplain. He left me for God,”
Hoping to persuade her not to morph me into an image of her X, I let it drop that I had been happily married for 23 years.
“We were married 32.”
I was twisting in a 650 knot headwind as I reached to draw a stronger distinction between me and X.
“What kind of chaplain was he?”
May Day. May Day!
My ego was rapidly depressurizing as I reached for the dropping mask of professionalism.
“Uh, I’m a certified chaplain, endorsed by my church.”
“Yeah, that would help.”
Suddenly, I realized that I had become someone else to this woman. She desperately needed me to wear the mask of someone she hated, but Halloween wasn’t for another week.
Fortunately for me, I began to find some relevance in my questions.
“Where has all this left you, spiritually?” I asked.
“Nowhere. I have nothing to do with church.”
“Church is only a vehicle for spirituality. Have you given this man the power to rob you of your ability to touch God?”
Her pained look gave answer. She had cordoned off her life from anything remotely resembling the person she perceived to have brought all her pain.
I sympathized with the strategy. Years ago, rumors spread by a Lutheran colleague spun me into a major depressive episode. Despite the fact that God allowed a U-turn out of that depression, I still found it hard to appreciate Lutherans.
I tried building a dam designed to prevent me from drowning in Lutherans, but when you are an interfaith chaplain, meeting Lutherans is fairly commonplace.
In the days that followed, I gained a new and wonderful Lutheran boss and a caring Lutheran colleague. Furthermore, my daughter enrolled in a Lutheran college and to make it worse, started dating a Lutheran!
Agh! What was God doing? Figuring there could be no good Lutherans, I had crossed these people off my “A” list.
The truth is that people come into our lives in different ways seeking to become individuals to us. People can’t be grouped and cloned. Attempting to identify people by A, B, or C lists is a futile way of building our own private biosphere of quarantined living.
As our plane approached Las Vegas, she began to voice a willingness to gamble that I just might be a person with little or no resemblance to the hurt she knew. She had the perfect opportunity to lash out against Southern Baptist Hospital chaplains, but in the end she chose a different path.
With one last question, she introduced the possibility that life need not be a set of hostile, revolving tapes which doom us to poor relationships.
“Can I have your card?” she asked. “I’d like to stay in touch.”