looks like we made it
The look on his face is stern as we approach, as though he knows already that there’s something suspiciously wrong about us. I smile, because I’m pretty sure what he does must be tiring. He must have seen all kinds of things from that perch, watching the hundreds of us file through like worn mules slung with sacks of seed, our backs knotted from the lugging. We all have so much to carry. I admit, this affliction is our own: We’d much rather burn our own backs than owe someone else for the freedom from things; and we’re not sure we trust other people with the more precious items anyway. But standing there at the gateway, we all wish we could enter in feeling completely unburdened and much less travel-worn for it.
I feel like we’re racing against time, but then, I almost always do, even–it happens–after a vacation. I look back over my shoulder at Kevin and he grins, and we toss a gentle thought back and forth with a glance. The first step to coming home, once you deplane, is now automated. We walk from the gangway into a big room where a very serious woman in a blue blazer directs us toward a snaking queue, something like the ones we gladly inch through at the fair while waiting on a ride guaranteed to steal our breath away. For twenty minutes–sometimes even thirty–we can endure a close-up of the stripes on the shirt of someone in front, that thread of lint in their wild hair; we can stand still, despite the anticipation that the five-year-old in the line beside—headed in the opposite direction, wait, isn’t he too short for this ride?–is about to knock our arms with his candy-sticky fingers. But here, no thrill ride waits, just the stern man (and others like him) sitting on his perch. So we trudge through the line, lugging, squinting at the clumps of people at each machine, willing them to move along. We all become extremely helpful as we near the front of the line. Hey–um, miss? That machine’s open down there. The man in front of us before the machines has sweat beading on the crown of his head, a leather bag dangling from one hefty arm. He wears a suit, a striped tie twisted slightly askew as though he’s been tugging at it with his hands. I have discovered that less is more in the airport. It’s best to travel without accessories or jewelry, even without socks, if possible. I wore my hair twisted up in a messy chignon on the way out, and even that they patted and squeezed for hidden intent. Don’t get me wrong; I’m thankful for measures taken in the name of safety; thankful for the men and women who choose to work to prevent harm, but I do think it’s sad that bitter tastes of tragedy have made us ever so aware that lurking, secreted things have lethal potential.
In this room, everyone wears suspiciousness like a cape, and we all feel exposed, as though those x-ray scanners can also reveal our ugly criticisms, our selfish obsessions, the seething capacity for rage, impetuousness, cruelty.
So Kevin and I waited our turn, stumbling through the weary line, back and forth, herded like cattle on the way to slaughter, until finally we stood in front of a machine that scans our passports and takes our pictures, climbing hilariously higher and higher to capture Kevin’s amused expression. After this, an unhappy man pointed angrily toward the doorway where now we stand. His expression said, We’ve caught you now, and there’s no getting away. I smiled at him too, but it didn’t even land as a flicker in hard eyes.
We approach a white line marked on the floor just outside the doorway. WAIT! It warns in three different languages. From here, we can see the man in his chair, the bristly curve of mustache, the shine of light on his bald head and badge. He seems to be interrogating the couple in front of us–an elderly woman whose bag keeps sliding off of her shoulder, the lanky gentleman beside her. The woman gestures, moving a finger between herself and the man. The large, splashy flowers on her blazer shake. Finally, the officer nods curtly and smacks his stamp against their open passports and the flappy white “receipts” they’d gathered from the machine. A beat or two, and then he raises dark eyes to us and moves his hand quickly. Well, come on, then.
“Where did you come from?” He asks briskly, and I pause awkwardly. It wouldn’t have mattered what he asked, I already want to throw my hands up and confess to being an absolute mess. You’re right not to trust me, I want to say. I have no idea what I’m doing. And I probably poked the wrong part of the touch screen with my finger or something. Fortunately, Kevin finds the composure to reply simply with the name of the city wherein our flight originated, and the man says, “Both of you?” as though he suspects our mutual approach to the desk might also have been some deceit. When we nod, he just jerks a glance back at our passports and thunk, thunk goes the stamp. We pass his desk and move on through another queue, shifting, feeling anxious to move freely. Another man behind another desk at the end of the line glares at us when we step forward.
“How much money did you spend while you were away–for souvenirs and things?” He says. I pat the bag I hold in my hand, ready to hand it over so he can see, murmuring the small amount we paid to bring a few gifts home to our family. Is that okay? I want to say, when he repeats the number in disbelief. Too much? Too little? He waves dismissively toward another line, where a woman collects the receipts we took from the machine, tidying the pile with a whack. And still, we’re not done.
We weave through a room to recheck our bags for the flight home, and then walk through another set of doors to security. Used to this procedure, we wait our turn to walk through the scanner, placing our shoes, our bags, all the heavy things we carry in tubs and slide them down a conveyor belt toward a metal box that could, with imagination, represent some sci-fi gizmo—an inator suitable for the offbeat scheming of Doofenshmirtz. A woman peers into the unseen side of the contraption, speculating. We empty our pockets–one by one—into plastic bowls. I dig into my pockets and find only a few crumpled receipts, and I waffle between literalism and substance. They said, take everything from your pockets. But a few bits of folded paper? Really? I withdraw my hand and decide to risk the walk of shame back to the proffered bowls. Ahead of me, a commotion ensues. The man in front of me calls after a beautiful almond-skinned woman with sunglasses balanced on top of her head—wait, don’t those go in the bowl? the tub? and how does she manage not to look ruffled?–just as she starts to move toward the scanner. “Wait, wait, don’t walk there, don’t walk there,” he says, pointing. I catch the slightest lilt of his rich Jamaican accent. He gestures toward a small pool of colorless liquid on the ground beside the conveyor belt and loosely explains that someone ahead, someone now no longer visible, accidentally wet his pants before he went through the scanner. Immediately I feel sad over that humiliation, sad that all this took just a little too long for someone. The security guard shuts down the line, gesturing to the one on our right, another clogged conveyor belt, another sci-fi box. We pick up our tubs and guiltily saunter over, plugging into a quickly dissipating lag in the process probably caused when someone in that line had one too many articles of extraneous clothing to discard or danced awkwardly on one foot while unlacing their shoes. They clean the scanner floor with antibacterial wipes.
A few more moments pushing, pushing our tubs into that metal thingamajig, and it’s my turn to stand in the scanner, to lift my arms over my head. They wave me through and I have to wait as a man scans the image of me, scrutinizing the bones, the shadows, maybe the crumple of paper in my right pocket. At last, he motions me forward, and I go back to the conveyor belt to retrieve our belongings, passing Kevin his shoes just as he too is dismissed from further examination. We smile at each other, gushing relief as we pass through the final set of doors—“I’ll need to check your hands,” the gloved guard says to a man just beside me as we leave—and join the steady flow of people wandering through the concourse.
“It’s crazy,” Kevin says, “but I always feel amazed when I get through those places, like I managed to pull something over on someone. I want to say, ‘You’re letting me through? Really? Because you really might want to reconsider that.'” He grins, and the ridiculous truth of it makes us laugh as we scan the signs looking for our gate.
“Can you imagine,” I say to him, “if it feels like that in the airport—just normal every day you and me traveling home, what it will feel like to enter the gates of Heaven?”
Something echoes in me about God, who is Light, about how in Him there is no darkness at all, no shadows for hidden motives or selfish ambition. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. What we have built here will be tested for eternal impact, but even if we are convicted by our truly imperfect effort, we will be saved as one escaping through the flames. And yet…it’s the time when owning all of our weakness and declaring all of our insufficiencies will be an exercise in victory, His victory–in strength, His strength–instead of shame. Eventually, we’ll all travel that way. For some of us the getting there may just take a little too long, but all will arrive emptied–freed—of the loads we’ve carried, things we maybe should have left behind long ago, things we might have only reluctantly entrusted. When we enter there, I imagine that rather than professing our innocence, we’ll gladly confess instead to the wealth of His grace, to the truth of His redeeming sacrifice, casting our crowns at His feet. But instead of scrutiny, we’ll receive welcome—for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, the dusty ones invited from the streets, given His own robes to wear to a feast. And I feel certain that we will look around the Holy City with awe, dancing right next to each other with astonished recognition of Grace, shouting over the love that let us—me? really?—enter in. It will not be that I am surprised to see you there, but instead that I am stunned to find that I myself walk that glistening, God-lit land.