A bit of grace at Washington National Airport
By the Rev. Stannard Baker
After the first meeting of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM), at the Maritime Conference Center near Baltimore, during the second week of November, I spent an extra night with friends in Baltimore; this meant flying home to Vermont on Thursday instead of Wednesday. On Thursday morning it was snowing in Baltimore (granular flakes, which Vermonters call “corn snow”), but I cleaned off my rental car and had a fairly easy drive back to Washington National Airport (DCA) with only a few cars off the road. Arriving at the airport in plenty of time I found, as I expected, that my flight home was delayed by an hour and a half. Ice and snow covered the runways at DCA, and the planes needed to be de-iced as well. Flights to Philadelphia, JFK, and LaGuardia were all canceled.
So I settled in at Gate 38 to wait and watch the delay time grow longer for my flight to Burlington, Vermont. I did a few clinical notes and then read further in Leonel Mitchell’s Praying Shapes Believing — one of the reads and re-reads I have been doing to prepare for serving on the SCLM. After a lovely section on the Paschal Triduum (the three days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter), I took a deep breath and decided I was now ready to read the pastoral letter from the Bishop of Albany, William Love, which was issued while I was at the meetings in Baltimore. I already had a good sense of what it contained since many had talked about it at the meetings of Interim Bodies of the Episcopal Church; and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the President of the House of Deputies, Gay Jennings, as well as my own Bishop of Vermont Tom Ely, had all issued elegant, reassuring, and inclusive responses to Bishop Love’s words of exclusion.
Nonetheless, perhaps with the caution of my time as a plaintiff in the 1997 – 1999 Freedom to Marry lawsuit in Vermont, the Baker Case, I had decided to put off reading it until I was emotionally ready and had in some sense armored myself spiritually. And, sure enough, it was as bad as I had expected — if not worse, claiming that my husband, Peter, and I, all my LGBTQ friends in committed married relationships, and all those allies who support them in the Episcopal Church, were pawns of Satan and were doing the devil’s work, leading the Episcopal Church into Satan’s trap. And of course, he quoted the “clobber passages,” in a way I hadn’t had to deal with since Civil Union debates in the late 1990s and the early conversations in the Episcopal Church. Using the “tool of Satan” argument has always struck me as a thin position, a feeble, last-ditch strategy. It lacks efficacy because any one of us can aim it at those with whom we disagree theologically, using any number of scripture passages to “prove” our point. I could use the same argument against Bishop Love’s position, implying that he is doing the devil’s work; but I find it a futile and unproductive stance. The Bishop of Albany also chose to go to that place that seems to me all too common for some older, white, conservative, straight men — the place of only being able to imagine what my husband and I do in bed. In my experience, this narrow, sexualized view has, fortunately, grown rarer and rarer. I find that when they meet Peter and me, people begin to get to know us by asking about where we live, what we do, our garden, our dog, our faith — not our bedroom activities. My experience is the same when I meet straight couples. My first thoughts are not what they do in bed; far from it. I want to know about them, about their love, their activities as a family and in the world. An obsessive focus on a couples’ bedroom activities — be the couples straight, bi, gay, or trans — is, I believe, an old malady of narrow minds. My prayer is that those who think this way may mature in their view of human relationship and move away from their own fear.
I have to admit that, sitting there at Gate 38, I was triggered and shaken by what I read from the Bishop of Albany, and I felt darkness surround me. Old internalized homophobia rose up for a moment. To recover, I quietly prayed, starting with the Lord’s Prayer, a Hail Mary, and the Collect for Purity. I followed that by reading Psalm 139, reminding myself that I am “marvelously made,” “knit together in my mother’s womb” by God, who “created my inmost parts.” I also reminded myself that, at Baptism, I was sealed as Christ’s own forever. (Stan, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.)
As I emerged from my thoughts and reactions, I came back into real time; my heart filled with God’s love, and I was able to focus more clearly on the environment around me at Gate 38. Then I heard an announcement over the airport PA system: “This morning’s delayed flight to Burlington is now leaving from Gate 41.” (This was the long-delayed flight from the morning, not the delayed afternoon one I was waiting for.) So, I asked the man next to me to watch my stuff while I ran to Gate 41 and inquired if there was room for me on the flight. The gate attendant said, “Yes. Where’s your stuff?” When I told him where it was, he said, “Hurry and get it; I’m about to close the door, but I’ll wait for you while I change your ticket!”
After running back to Gate 38, grabbing my backpack, thanking the man who’d watched over it, returning to Gate 41, and thanking the gate attendant, I boarded the aircraft (on a first-class seat, no less!) to a warm welcome from the flight attendant, and flew home to Burlington between the snowflakes. Just before the door closed for takeoff, the gate attendant came into the plane to count the passengers. I gave him a thumbs up and a thank-you, and he nodded and said, “No problem; my pleasure.” My luggage came the next day, but I was home with Peter and our dog Daisy, in the warmth, safety, and love of our home.
Do I believe that God looked down and decided to get me a seat on the delayed flight to Burlington? No, I don’t. But I do believe — after being triggered and descending for a moment into a dark place of self-doubt that quiet inward prayer, reading Psalm 139, and the memory of baptism opened the way for several things to happen in my soul. I had a renewed understanding of the certainty of God’s love for me and a sure sense of God’s blessing on the married relationship I have with Peter; and I felt God’s total embrace of and joy in the love between two people. God was alive and present for me. This heightened awareness of God’s love, this moment of theophany, brought about in me a perfect awareness of the environment around me, open to the caring of strangers, and alert enough to pick up on a random announcement over the airport speaker system at just the right time. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, “If it’s not about love; it’s not about God.” This moment in time was definitely about love, and definitely about God. I was the beneficiary of the considerateness of the man next to me who was happy to watch my things, I connected immediately with the kindness of the gate attendant, and I felt completely welcomed and cared for by the flight attendant, who wanted to know all about Burlington. God’s abiding love surrounded me; love abounded. Thanks be to God!
From Psalm 139:
LORD, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting-places *
and are acquainted with all my ways…
For you yourself created my inmost parts; *
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will thank you because I am marvelously made; *
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
My body was not hidden from you, *
while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.