The Man in the Middle

Ron and I were headed to his 48th Vietnam Veterans Reunion a couple of weeks ago. We had boarded the flight early and were seated across from each other watching as the other flyers headed down the cabin searching for their seats. I noticed a woman coming down the aisle, disheveled, confused, and kind of obnoxious. It wasn’t very Christian of me, but I found myself saying beneath my breath, “Please don’t let her sit next to me!”

Well God has a way of reminding us what it is He expects of us.  She stopped at my row and said, “I’m supposed to be in here.” I took a deep breath, stepped into the aisle, and let her in. She had a really hard time getting to her seat and then getting settled, and I realized 1) this was probably her first flight, 2) she should have had somebody flying with her to help her, and 3) she was struggling emotionally or mentally, I’m not sure which. I thought about my judgmental behavior—knowing this was exactly the kind of person Jesus would have embraced with loving arms and tender patience, and I was ashamed of myself.

A couple of minutes later a burly-type 50+ year old man stopped at our row, looked rather sadly at the open middle seat and said, “I guess that’s where I go.” He sat down, looked at the distressed woman in the window seat next to him, turned to me and said, “This is going to be a LONG  flight.”

Indeed, the woman next to the window had a hard time staying seated and throughout the flight she would suddenly jump up, climb over us, and wander about the plane.  The flight attendants (who were extraordinarily patient with her) had to calm her and tell her to sit down several times. The man in the middle was becoming more and more impatient and so were the people seated in the row in front of us—and the row behind us. I realized the woman was doing the best she could, and I felt a surge of compassion. I closed my eyes and prayed, “Dear God let someone help this poor woman today. Help them show her kindness and consideration.”

There was continuous commotion coming from the woman seated next to the window. Finally, the exasperated man next to me excused himself and walked back to the flight attendant in the rear of the plane and asked for another seat. Unfortunately for him, the plane was completely full. Frustrated, he returned to his assigned seat, resigned to the fact that he would be next to this woman for the remaining 2+ hours of our flight. I told him he was a good man and a good sport. He smiled slightly and shook his head.

Well, long story short, about 30 minutes later, he warmed up a bit and turned to the woman and asked her name. Then he asked where she was headed. As he engaged her in conversation, his level of compassion started to grow. She barely answered his questions and never asked any of her own, but responded warmly to his kindness. And from that point on, each time she jumped up to leave her seat, he kindly sat her down. And when she needed to go to the bathroom, he called a flight attendant to help.

I leaned over to him and said, “I think today you’ve earned your wings.” Throughout the next 2 hours, he encouraged her, calmed her, and treated her with the respect and tenderness Jesus modeled.

As we stood up to exit the plane once it landed, men and women from several rows around turned to the man and shook his hand. Good job, they told him. God bless you, sir!  What a kind thing you did today for this woman.

I wish you could have seen the look on this man’s face as so many strangers turned to him to thank him for his efforts. As he left the plane, he told me he was an ex-cop and I could tell that he felt good about what happened.

As Ron and I walked toward baggage claim to retrieve our luggage, I thought about this experience on the plane and realized something important.

God had used this man this day as His agent—to show the patience, love, and compassion that this troubled woman needed. Would the man in the middle say he was an unlikely candidate for the job? Question the likelihood that he could be God’s agent?  I don’t know. But I do know that he, the woman, and all of us who witnessed his kindness that day were touched and changed by his extraordinary show of compassion.  And I felt blessed to see God’s amazing hand at work inside this 3-hour flight to New Orleans!