PLANES, PANIC, PRAYER
In some contexts, the difference between 7:45 and 9:45 is no big deal. If it is on the departure board at London’s Heathrow airport, however, the difference is a very big deal. I was at the end of a long and tiring trip to Africa with only one more flight to go. I was on my way home to the Chicago suburbs and was tired, very tired. I was not just tired from the unending hours of the travel itself but also from feeling the alien-like tentacles of jet lag reaching into every cell in my body to sap energy from them and then extending their slimy tips deep into my mind to suck out any remaining clarity of thought.
Since I had two hours to wait till my next flight, I ordered a large coffee and pulled out my laptop to get some emails done. Call it the embedded influence of the Teutonic genes that make me who I am, but I walked over to the departure board for one last confirmation that all was well. There it was, Chicago, departure 9:45. Good. But up near the top of the board was a line that said Chicago AA 99, 7:45 Gate 32, now boarding. It was 7:10. I pulled out my boarding pass. It said AA 99 boarding time 6:55. Seeing Chicago 9:45 had somehow blinded my eyes to the rest of the board’s reality and also kept me from seeing what was clearly printed on the boarding pass in my hand. How had I not seen that? I am an experienced world traveler and am always very much aware of my surroundings. Like the Navy SEAL that I coulda/shoulda/woulda been, I often pride myself on my situational awareness. Yet somehow because of fatigue? exhaustion? overconfidence? I had not seen what was clearly meant to be seen.
Sudden-onset panic, blood pressure spike, instant nausea, disgust and anger at self all made themselves an overwhelming presence in my mind and body, each of them vying for supremacy. I didn’t even know where Gate 32 was. I asked a young woman in uniform (a sales clerk at a jewelry store) where the boarding gates were located. She pointed in a general direction and I immediately followed the direction indicated by her finger. The laws of physics infallibly dictate that the shorter the length of remaining time the greater the distance to the boarding gate. My situation confirmed this truth. I began to run, the tiny wheels of my roll-away suitcase spinning to the point of overheating and seeming to reverse direction as their spin matched that of the terminal’s fluorescent lights’ frequency. I hate running through airports. I hate the feeling of desperation that comes from rushing to the gate, not knowing if you’ll make it or not. I hate knowing that ten thousand people are watching me and thinking I was a careless moron for having put myself into this position in the first place: they were right.
The prayers began. “Father, help me make it.” “God, help me make the flight.” I was tired. I had been traveling for two weeks already. I was jet lagged. I just wanted to get home. I ran, each step taking me closer but each step, like the sweep hand of stop watch, indicating vanishing time – step, step a second gone, step step, there goes another. The American Airlines employees had already been boarding the plane for 900 seconds when I discovered my mistake. I didn’t know how many, if any, seconds were left. “Please God, let me make this flight.” My prayers were desperate. As desperate as they were, there was no point trying to negotiate a deal with God. I couldn’t say, God, if you help me make the flight, I’ll become a missionary. I had prayed that prayer decades ago and I already am a missionary. I had nothing left with which to bargain. God’s mercy alone was my only hope; and over that I have no influence.
Gate 32 is, honestly and literally, the last and most distant gate from where I asked the sales clerk for help. Kind of like a dream where one is falling and falling, the distant black numbers on the yellow background signs at the end of a long, long hallway never got any closer. Like trying to push the two north poles of magnets together my running only seemed to push the gate farther away. Gate niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiineteeeeeeeen, gate tweaaaaaaaanty, the passing gates went by slower than a Texas drawl. Decision time: is it faster to run alongside the moving walkway if there are people standing on it, or to ride it, hoping the folks will get out of your way as they see your wild, panicked eyes approaching. Moving walkway – the relaxed riders scattered as they saw the charging Cape buffalo rushing their way.
Gate 32, I made it. The door was still open. Yes, I was the last person to board the plane, but I WAS ON IT! The PA system announced, “The doors are now closed. Please turn off all electronic devices or make sure that your small handheld devices are switched to airplane mode.” Had I been a horse I would have been slathered in sweat foam. I sat in my seat, chest pounding like the army’s artillery practice, lungs sucking in air like the jet engines firing up a few feet from my seat. Sweat poured off me like I was the source of the Nile. But I was there. I was at Gate 32 on board flight AA 99, in seat 23 G. “Thank you God, Thank you, thank you, thank you. Ten thousand times, thank you.”
Had God answered my desperate prayers? Was it God who had prompted me to look at the board and see my mistake before I ever prayed? Did God answer my prayer by giving me the energy to run the entire distance? Had the gate crew, observing some monitor, seen my lonely figure running their way and decided to cut me some slack? Would I have made the flight had I not prayed? Would God have held back the flight had I not run? Since I had prayed, did my running indicate a lack of faith? Why had God, knowing the eventual outcome, ever allowed me to get in the position of having to pray and ask for help in the first place? Had I not made the flight would I simply have accepted that as God’s will, in an Inshallah sort of way? If my prayers were answered, what part of them was dependent on my hard work and what part was God’s? In Spanish we say “A Dios rogando y con el mazo dando” (pleading to God but swinging the sledge hammer).
To my friends it is no secret that I struggle with understanding prayer; the how and why of it baffle me. I am unlikely to believe anyone who says he or she understands prayer. I grow weary of the pat answers and flippant spiritual platitudes often given regarding prayer. Does God always answer prayer? The all-too-frequent response is that he does answer all prayer with a “yes, no, later or different,” which are the exact same results had there been no prayer uttered at all; I do an inward eye-roll every time I hear someone say this. Did God answer my prayer or do I get the credit for catching my mistake and then running like a race horse to catch my flight? Honestly, I don’t know if God intervened because of my prayer or not; but I do know that in honest desperation I called on him for help, I made my flight and I am still saying, “Jesus, thank you. Thank you that I made the flight.”