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The Designated Listener

As a frugal commercial air traveler, I usually board the plane with a suitably protective book rather than those über-cool Bose noise cancelling headphones they are hawking in the SkyMall flight magazine for only slightly more than the cost of your next mortgage payment. It is not that I wish to be anti-social. I love getting shoe-horned into the last available Coach seat on one of those sweaty Friday night milk runs just as much as everyone else. After all, who can resist the charm of sharing that precious 18 inch cocoon of deeply personal space that every North American business traveler will defend against some guy who just washed down his Polish sausage with a few too many brewskies from a noisy lounge back at the terminal food court? So forget for a moment the importance of protecting the cockpit of the jet airliner that you will be flying home from your meeting. What you really hope to guard is likely to be that zone of personal comfort and solitude in which you can briefly be left all to yourself instead of becoming a new Best Friend Forever to the slightly inebriated seatmate who smells rather alarmingly like a billy goat when he ditches his shoes and socks before the captain has received final clearance for takeoff. All I’m saying is that when it’s time for me to fly, I am packing a book . . . just in case.

Apparently this instinct is not entirely unique to me. For instance, the other evening I was boarding a plane with my protective book firmly in hand, heading home after three days of marathon meetings. Although I had taken the opportunity to check-in online into what had been at the time a comfortable aisle seat in an otherwise open row, looking back in the cabin toward my assigned space it was now clear that I would not be traveling solo. When our eyes met, he seemed just as concerned to size me up as his own unexpected seatmate. “You have a book,” he announced in the kind of clinical voice a doctor might use to acknowledge a menacing goiter. But then he quickly went on to explain that as far as he was concerned, this was good rather than bad news. It seems that on his previous flights that day he had been keeping company with a succession of unaccompanied children being shuttled across the friendly skies from one custodial parent to another with bags of toys that he found much more objectionable than my book. Immediately I relaxed. Here was a man who would allow me to decompress a bit on the way back home, somebody who appeared just as ready as I was to enjoy a little quiet, down time without judging the relative silence of an airline seatmate as a breach of etiquette or an expression of anti-social rudeness. So after a polite exchange of introductions, we both settled into our seats while I opened my book in preparation for takeoff. But surprisingly, my neighbor in Coach took this as his cue to begin bringing me up to speed on what he had been doing in his career and personal life over the past six decades. Although this did catch me a bit off guard at first, I guess you could say that you just never know when you are about to bump into your newest Best Friend Forever. 

It’s funny how often this sort of thing happens once you decide that you can afford to give yourself over to the moments that come your way. Whether or not you were actually open to receive such an invitation, our world seems to be chock-full of people who are dying to have someone come along in just the right way at precisely the right time to pull the cork out of their bottle so all the really important stuff can finally pour out of them. For example, early I came to know that as an ordained minister of the Gospel I will often be presented with unexpected chances to pay attention to others in ways that may eventually prove to be as full of grace and healing for them as they turn out to be for me. But the trick of it seems to be that almost as often I find myself blowing right past those glimmering moments of holy possibility with an air of preoccupied self-importance as I am scuttling ahead from one Next Big Thing to another. That may even be the danger inherent in our frequent efforts to become more sophisticated and professional in our dealing with other human beings: Sometimes we get too big and important to actually be of use.

Perhaps there is another option. Frankly, I have no reason to think that this holy vocation of remaining open and available to other human beings was initially intended to be the exclusive, private domain of minister-types. In fact, it may even be true that our preachers will often be among the least effective examples of this kind of active listening simply because we often tend to forget that the Word of the Gospel first begins in the ear before it shows up on our tongue. Like many human beings, and certainly our category of busy people remains quite noticeable in this way, sometimes it merely becomes difficult for all of us to slow down, to be still and silent and observant enough to hear accurately what others really want us to know. In fact, you probably know what we must sometimes say about our frequent incapacity to listen: The spirit may indeed be willing but our calendar is full.

I guess that may be the thing that makes following Jesus so interesting. One minute you are determined to zone out into the solitary oblivion of your swell new set of noise cancelling headphones, the Facebook timeline on your smart phone, or even your self-protective airline book, and in the very next moment you might find yourself serving as the designated listener for the guy crammed into Seat 5C just because you were the first one who drew a breath. It was not exactly what I had planned for the flight back to Spokane, but so what? There I was, available long enough to listen to a man I never met who wanted to tell me about his tours of duty in Vietnam and the wandering of his post-war years. By the time we landed here in Spokane, I had come to know enough about Don, his first and second wives, the grown children he had neglected while working the Alaskan North Slope pipeline, and the regrets and frustrations of his present line of work in the Bakken oil field of North Dakota that I almost came away with something like a contact high when we parted company after claiming our baggage. All it took was a little time as well as the good sense to finally figure out that Jesus had already been on the job to give me the necessary seating reassignment.

Come to think of it, perhaps this should have been no real surprise to me. It happens often enough in a consistently counterintuitive fashion that perhaps I need to come up with a new Beatitude just to remind myself what is really happening when what has been happening does not seem to be at all what I first had in mind: Blessed are the present, for they shall never be bored by the grace of God.

Jeff Crosno