Virtual Voices

All we brothers of the prodigal son

Faith & Inspiration

The sins I find especially repugnant in other people---arrogance, selfishness, judgmentalism---are the ones to which I am most prone. It's always easier to detect and hate sin, as the Psalm says, when it belongs to someone else, isn't it?

I've flown 30,000 miles so far this year, on over 50 flights. Frequent flying affords all kinds of opportunity for arrogance, selfishness, judgment. There is the getting on first, because I have elite status. ("Who are these people crowding the ramp before their turn? Don't they know the airline equivalent of royalty has first dibs on the paper-thin blankets and lumpy little pillows?")

There is my quiet, selfish seething when someone not ticketed for an exit row seat---usually reserved for us elites---spots an empty seat in my row, leaves his cramped little coffin of a seat, and takes the one beside me. (How dare he? Now I have to share arm space and knee space and---heaven forbid---possibly even talk to him.)

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And there is, finally, my specialty---judgment. For example, I despise the fact that we are, largely, an aliterate nation. Schools teach children how to read well enough, but spend enough time on airplanes and you'll discover that the vast majority of adults prefer to flip through the catalog in the seatback pocket, or doze, or stare at the back of the seat in front of them.

It's a national tragedy, but rather than leave it at that, I quietly judge the non-readers. The problem, of course, is that I have no way of knowing whether someone is book-free because he cares nothing for books, or because he gets motion sick, or because he is quietly pondering a poem he's writing. In other words, we can be pretty sure that the 200 non-readers on board aren't all motion-sickness sufferers or quiet poets, but we have no right to assume that any individual isn't one of those relatively rare creatures.

But do I remember this, as I lounge in my exit row seat, relaxed after boarding early, eating the big bag of snack nuts to which I'm entitled by my platinum status?

Of course not.

So on today's flight I think sneering thoughts about the woman whose head keeps lolling off her shoulder as she tries to sleep without slumping over into the aisle. She snores and shifts positions and desperately clings to sleep. Finally, she takes out a laptop and plays solitaire. I, meanwhile, am doing work on my laptop. Big, important work.

Toward the end of the flight, she notices that my desktop display is Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son.

"I love that painting," she says to me.

I nod.

"Have you read the book?" She asks.

She means Henri Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son, in which he describes how we are sometimes the prodigal, sometimes the welcoming father, sometimes the judgmental brother. Reading Nouwen is, I think it fair to say, a sign that one is at least willing to think about things that matter.

And in that moment, as I return her shining-eyed smile with a weak one of my own, I realize which character in that painting I am most often---the judgmental brother, the stand-offish pharisee incensed when people encroach on what he perceives to be his domain.

It hurts, doesn't it, to see ourselves for a moment in the harsh light of truth? But thank God for those moments now, while we still have all the moments and hours and days ahead of us to repent, to be reminded that all of us are the prodigal son on his knees, receiving a mercy none of us merit.

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