It’s Sunday afternoon, and both of my flights from Peoria to Minneapolis are delayed.
I’m mostly not bothered by this, though I do wish that there was a restaurant in the Peoria airport. Still, the airport seems as good a place as any to write and watch online TV and recoup from a busy weekend speaking. I learn that my flight has been pushed about the same time that I realize that my only dinner options here are nachos with pumped cheese, heat-lamp pizza, or a bag of Lays. So I decide on wine instead.
There is only one option for red and one for white, and when I order the cab, the woman in fluorescent pink shirt at the bar fills the glass up all the way to the top so that the red wine is flush with the edge. “Wow,” I say, taking a few classless slurps like a puppy before I can finally pick it up and drink it. “For $7.50 a glass, this is how I pour,” she’d said grinning a wide-crooked-tooth smile, her whole face glowing holy in the thrown light of the football game on hanging, sports bar TVs.
And who knows? Maybe it’s that over-filled glass of airport cabernet, or maybe it’s the afterglow of the weekend itself — exhausting and intoxicating and beautiful. Sorting through faith past and present over wood fire pizzas and fancy coffee, heavy chocolate cake and salted caramel ice cream, eating and talking with the pastor and his wife and my childhood best friend late until way past my bedtime. Maybe it was speaking that morning at their beautiful little church, the homeless man in front grinning at me under a mop of unkempt hair, the audience nodding like they understood exactly.
Whatever it is, I can’t seem to stop looking around. I can’t seem to open my computer and make myself write. I want to make small talk with the woman working the bar. She’s having her first baby, her stomach just beginning to round. It’s a boy, she says. We found out early because he was showing it off. I want to talk to the guy next to me, who shows us pictures of his six-month-old daughter and talks about the book he wants to write — the one about his grandfather and the war.
The airport is overheated, and we’re all sweating under the lights, and even though I know it’s perspiration and overhead lighting, it looks to me like they’re glowing. Like they’re straight from an old episode of Touched by an Angel, an open beam of heaven pouring over their seats.
Sometimes I’m stopped still when I ask questions. When I listen. When I stop trying to figure out how to write my own story and listen to someone else’s. So I sit at the airport bar and slurp my extremely full glass of cab, and I am dazzled by the beauty of all these strangers, loved as they are by God, known as they are in all their details. I’m almost disappointed when the flight gets un-delayed, and I have to abandon them mid conversation and hurry to my gate.
But there are people glowing there too — flight attendants talking wryly about the O’Hare delays, rolling their eyes about furious customers. Like we have ANY power to change anything here, they say under their breath to me. Their airport uniforms have little bows tied stiffly under their chins. I ask if they’re itchy. You have no idea. One of them says to me, and then she tags my carry-on and takes it into the airplane for me.
There are six of us on the flight, and it only takes a half hour to cut across the endless farmland between Chicago and Peoria. The thin Indian man who gets off with me has been in town to meet a girl that he met online. How did it go? I ask. He looks at me sadly, Not good, actually.
We walk at a quick gait through O’Hare, pulling our rolling, carry-on luggage behind us, and he tells me how perfect it seemed in writing, and how quickly it disintegrated. I don’t say much, just listen and nod and make sympathetic sounds.
When it’s time to part ways toward different gates, he turns and says, How do you stay so positive? And this would be a great time to tell him about Jesus if I knew what that meant anymore. Once upon a time, I would have known how to segue a perfectly leading question like that one into a three minute testimony and a quick gospel presentation.
If I said Jesus, it would be the truth…but I don’t think it would sound like truth. It would sound like a sound-byte, a reduction, a cliched religious gold star.
I want to tell him that he is beautiful; that everyone here is so beautiful. That every so often, it feels like the heavens part open Touched-by-an-Angel-style, and I can see everything so clearly: we are all in transit. Weary travelers, being led quietly home.
I want to tell him that I’m thinking of God, that I’m thinking of Love, that I don’t understand how God can be close to all of us at once, but that in this moment, I believe it more deeply than I have in a long time.
Instead I shift and grin dumbly at him. He looks at his watch, Keep smiling, he says. And I do. I smile at the woman in the leather boots and the old man on the electric wheelchair and at the woman at gate C8. Did you have a nice weekend? I ask her. Busy. I was moving, she says, scanning my ticket. Next to her, a tired eyed woman fields an angry call. I can tell because she keeps saying, I’m sorry, sir. I’m sorry. Yes I know. I’m sorry. I ask her about the move and she talks and talks. She tells me about loud neighbors and unpacked boxes and new possibilities, and her eyes shine with hope.
In the waiting area, I smile at the woman next to me, who tells me that she just got a new job in Boston. When she leaves, I smile at another woman, and she tells me that she’s heading to a job interview. So many people. So many stories. Listen, listen, listen.
In transit, I never do tell anyone about Jesus. But it’s like Jesus is telling me about them. It’s like he’s pointing out each person, showing me his great love, one by one, all of us found. One by one, strangers tell me their stories, unbidden, and it’s like God is filling my cup all the way to the tip-top with goodness, like it’s more than I paid for, more than I bargained for.
My flight is two hours delayed, and I am exhausted and happy, knocked off balance by all the beauty. The plane boards, and we all settle into our seats. We are in transit. We are, all of us, on our way home.