Tuesday, February 10, 2009

When we fly the not so friendly skies

The Dallas Morning News has republished Katharine Jefferts Schori's sermon at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Fort Worth this past Sunday. It's makes for quite an interesting read. Here is an excerpt of one of her opening stories:

We have quite a bit of experience dealing with people whose anger is out of control, for the church is one place that will receive you, usually, whatever emotional or spiritual state you’re in.

I had a similar experience on Sunday, on one leg of my flight to Egypt. I’d noticed the same very well-dressed man a couple of times on my way from one terminal to the other - he stood out. When I arrived at the gate, I went over and stood near the door of the gate to the plane, as I knew they would start boarding very soon.

As soon as the door opened, the same man rushed up and pushed in front of me. He tried to get in front of the handicapped passengers who were boarding first. I wasn’t terribly surprised to discover that I was assigned the seat next to him. We stowed our things and sat down. The flight attendant came by with newspapers to offer, and this fellow pushed over me to grab one. I very politely asked him not to touch me, and he began to scream and swear at me. So I simply stood up and asked the flight attendant to reseat me.

She goes on to talk about rage, the rage of this man and rage in Ft. Worth, you can read it all here, and perhaps revealed more than she intended.

I found this particular story incredible. So here’s a guy who’s obviously under a great deal of stress and through some kind of “coincidence” is seated next to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. What an opportunity! But when he begins to reveal his obvious stress (and it's certainly not a happy situation), the Presiding Bishop - oh so very politely - tells him not to touch her. When he responds emphatically and colorfully (obviously he could be a litigator), she just stands up and requests that she be seated elsewhere.

I know a litigator (or perhaps several) who fits the description of this man (no, not one of the Virginia church lawyers!) He could be him, for all I know, except he changed. He’s still very intense, but he used to yell and use rather colorful language quite a lot. One time he came into our offices looking for the supervisor and when he couldn’t find her, he yanked her telephone right off the desk and threw it on to the floor and then started yelling. But when I looked into his eyes what I saw was fear.

What is the first thing the angels say to the shepherds out in the fields that night when Jesus was born? “Fear not.” It is, indeed, so much at the heart of who we are - our fears and the first reassurance from the angels was “Fear not.” We are so often afraid. What is it that we fear?

John writes in his first letter (1 John 4), “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” It was obvious that that Bishop Schori was also afraid. Her response showed her own fear as well. Love was not near, only fear.

And so she fled.

So while she raises interesting questions, her response to those questions is still based in fear. She was able to identify it, but not able respond in the very way she says we should. In both of her examples, she fled. In fact, in her first example, she literally ran away.

In her sermon, she assumes motives and actions by those who are not in the room, thereby inflaming even more fear. Her words ring hallow because she’s in fact projecting more of her own fear onto these people gathered in Ft. Worth - who may be indeed afraid.

What did she fear from the man sitting next to her on the plane? Did she honestly think he would attack her? What if he did? What if he lost control and started hitting her? Would anyone have come to her assistance? Was she afraid that no one would, that she would be humiliated, that she wouldn’t be able to fight back, that she would be powerless? What did she fear from this man?

Does she inadvertently in both of these stories reveal herself as a victim? She puts herself, especially in the second story, as a victim. She then in her sermon pulls in her audience to feel like victims as well. She gains solidarity through victimhood - showing an elevated sense of pity toward the aggressor, but not standing down from the position of victim. So who then is the aggressor?

Who did she really see sitting next to her on the plane? Stories like that reveal more about ourselves (which is why they are sometimes scary to tell - talk about fear!) then the man on the plane.

I might also wonder, what if I found myself sitting next to a man like that? In fact, in my profession I often have found myself in the company of peopel like - both on the Hill and on “K Street.” God knows what they are dealing with, sometimes stuff right off the front page of The Washington Post. Most of the time when I looked into their eyes - and I would look them in the eye - I saw their fear.

What do we say to fear? Do we choose to be victims, especially when someone does have power, as certainly the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has. Certainly she should, her God is very powerful (and I would hope she knows that). Even without that connection, her position is very powerful. She’s the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, not exactly someone anyone should be yelling at in public. If the man knew, if his employer knew, if his client knew, if his family knew, if his mother knew - would he not be ashamed? She has power - but also the power of a different kind, one that he may not know or comprehend until he is recipient of it, the power to show compassion and forgiveness and yes, love, not fear or contempt for this man.

Who did she see sitting next to her? Who do we see? Who do I see?

Recently, I heard a story about a pastor from New Orleans who was also on a plane flying out from Louisiana and found himself sitting next to a woman who was a chatterbox. She just would not stop talking. The pastor really didn’t want to talk to her and kept answering her questions with single words, “yes,” and “no,” trying to read his book. Finally, he told her that he wanted to read his book and she stopped talking.

As he read his book, it seemed to him that the Lord put in his mind information about this woman that he could not know. The Lord seemed to say to him, that she was leaving New Orleans after having an affair with a man who was not her husband. The pastor thought, oh no.

The woman started again and asked him what he was doing in New Orleans and he then in frustration from having been interrupted yet again, he told her he was a pastor and then he told her that he knew that she had been having an affair while she was in New Orleans. When recounting this story he said her jaw dropped and then his jaw dropped, he couldn’t believe he’d said it.

But it was true. And she poured out her heart to him and he listened and prayed for her and encouraged her to go and find a church when she got home where she could find healing and restoration.

One just never knows why God puts people next to us on planes, or why some are so filled with fear, but the question I ask myself is how am I to respond? Do I ask for another seat (and I know the feeling well), or do I ask the Lord, why did you put me here? What do you have to show me?

And perhaps that is a question for us all, as we continue to work through the issues that face us in and outside the Episcopal Church and in the other avenues of our life. It does cause one to pause.


redleg82 said...

The PB obviously ain't from around the DC area. That scene at the airport could decribe almost any number of pushy, self-entitled, Type-A's found at almost every flight to and from National or Dulles.

What she described not only was her perception of a man she didn't know but the lack of love I feel for my neighbor until I remember the grace granted to me every day, and how could I do any less.

Anonymous said...

You didn't expect her to witness to him, did you?
Nope, not her.

Anonymous said...

I think KJS' sermon is worthy of a Dramatic Reading...

BDP in Texas

Anonymous said...

On the basis of the fact that she said later on that she was tired, I'll cut her a little slack. I've been tired or in a bad mood and so I've have missed opportunities too.

Unknown said...

Perhaps it did work to the gentleman's advantage after all.

By the way, where were you that day?


Perpetua said...

My reading of this sermon is that she is saying that the people she is addressing, the remainder who did not go with +Iker, feel rage that they have been excluded. And she is saying don't seek revenge.
I think she is casting the people in the room in the role of the raging skateboarder and the maybe even the raging airplane seat mate:
"It's a road of daily encounters, where we struggle with our fellow skateboarders when they really tick us off, it's making peace with a fellow traveler who has unwittingly made your day more threatening." In that last phrase, she could be referring to feeling threatened by the man, or, I thought she was thinking that she had made the man's day more threatening when she asked him not to touch her.

I like that she admitted she had not done what she ought to have done:
"I missed a couple of opportunities to try to build a bit more peace in this world. I was too rushed to go down and find out what was wrong in that school yard. And I was too tired to find out what was wrong with my seatmate on the plane. It is both in refusing to retaliate with violence, and in continually seeking to heal the pain the drives the rage, that our gospel work proceeds."

Unknown said...

I suppose her regret would resonate more if, while at the exact time she was meeting with the primates in Alexandria, she was directing her lawyers to file appeals in Virginia. We are asking to sit down and talk and that's been rebuffed. Maybe she's thinking now. We will see it in her actions, not in the talk.

I do think though that she encouraged victimization - it's subtle. She sets up a strawman that something terrible has happened to these people against their will and control by that horrible Jack Iker and then tells them that she's going to make it all better. I have no idea what she was even doing running their meeting - the video was a whopper and one could expect that certain former bishops of Virgina must be spinning in their graves.

I don't know, it just doesn't have any feet to it. But I would love to be wrong!!!


Anam Cara said...

This is why I never fly alone.

I never have to ask to be reseated because I am always next to the person I am traveling with. : )

Oh, wait, that wasn't the point was it?

Anonymous said...

"I suppose her regret would resonate more if, while at the exact time she was meeting with the primates in Alexandria, she was directing her lawyers to file appeals in Virginia. We are asking to sit down and talk and that's been rebuffed."

bb, you are deluding yourself and your readers if you say that every filing comes at the direction of the PB.

And the ADV's press releases and statements ask that TEC and the Diocese give up, not for some sort of settlement. It's understandable that you're doing that, but let's not pretend that it's anything more than PR games -- if the trial court decisions had gone against you, you wouldn't be saying that the court has ruled and everybody ought to just let it go.

Anglican Beach Party said...

I'm afraid that I am considerably less optimistic about the identity of the Presiding Bishop's god, and his/her ability to help anyone, than you are.

Really, what could she have done for the man on the plane, given her worldview ... share the Millinnium Development Goals with him?

I think your blog entry makes a better sermon than her sermon does.

I recently had an experience at work, in which a mid-level manager became visibly enraged at his boss, and stormed out of a meeting I was attending. For over a month, I couldn't seem to forgive the guy. Finally, though, I saw what was driving him. In his case, not fear, but impatience with the incompetence he perceived in the people around him.

His cry, were he to put it into words, might be: Lord, you are making me work with idiots!!

Now that I understand what is driving this fellow, I can take a more healthy and effectual approach toward him.

As to the PB, I think she is (whether conscious of it or not) in a battle mentality, where those who cross her are immediately branded as enemies, to be disposed of in the most efficient manner possible. Does anyone really believe, for instance, that she was prayerfully regretful about deposing Bishop Duncan? Or, rather, did she view him as an enemy, to be humiliated and rendered powerless as far as possible?

Unknown said...

No, it's not a game. It's anything but a game.


Unknown said...

Here's an interesting story:

Jim Castle was tired when he boarded his plane in Cincinnati, Ohio, that night in 1981. The 45-year-old management consultant had put on a week-long series of business meetings and seminars, and now he sank gratefully into his seat ready for the flight home to Kansas City, Kansas. As more passengers entered, the place hummed with conversation, mixed with the sound of bags being stowed.

Then, suddenly, people fell silent. The quiet moved slowly up the aisle like an invisible wake behind a boat. Jim craned his head to see what was happening, and his mouth dropped open. Walking up the aisle were two nuns clad in simple white habits bordered in blue. He recognized the familiar face of one at once, the wrinkled skin, the eyes warmly intent. This was a face he’d seen in newscasts and on the cover of TIME. The two nuns halted, and Jim realized that his seat companion was going to be Mother Teresa!

As the last few passengers settled in, Mother Teresa and her companion pulled out rosaries. Each decade of the beads was a different color, Jim noticed. The decades represented various areas of the world, Mother Teresa told him later, and added, “I pray for the poor and dying on each continent.”
The airplane taxied to the runway and the two women began to pray, their voices a low murmur. Though Jim considered himself not a very religious Catholic who went to church mostly out of habit, inexplicably he found himself joining in. By the time they murmured the final prayer, the plane had reached cruising altitude.

Mother Teresa turned toward him. For the first time in his life, Jim understood what people meant when they spoke of a person possessing an “aura”. As she gazed at him, a sense of peace filled him; he could no more see it than he could see the wind, but he felt it, just as surely as he felt a warm summer breeze. “Young man,” she inquired, “do you say the rosary often?” “No, not really,” he admitted. She took his hand, while her eyes probed his. Then she smiled. “Well, you will now.” And she dropped her rosary into his palm.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like you believe the PB should be tolerant of his abusive behavior. To me this is a repugnant distortion of Jesus' message and may indicate that you have been ever so significantly afflicted by the Stockholm Syndrome during your time in the DC beltway maelstrom.

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

Anonymous is an ass.

And not the humble kind that Jesus rode.

I'm a bit jaded and I was moved by Mother Theresa. How can you not be, and how can you miss the point?

Anonymous Catholic

Anam Cara said...

I'm not even Catholic and I would have been overwhelmed at just touching Mother Teresa's rosary!!!!!