I’ve been traveling a bit more than usual as of late. Over the years I have done my fair share of traveling for vacations, mission’s trips and various speaking engagements, but in the past two weeks I have flown in or out of Chicago, Miami, Panama, Bolivia, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles. It was my most recent flight for a conference in southern California that provided an unexpected interaction that will not soon be forgotten.We are all aware of the rigors and challenges of air travels in our post 9-11 world. Where you could once stroll through an x-ray machine with your shoes laced up and some spare change in your pocket, now you essentially need to choose your travel outfit anticipating those potentially stressful moments when you empty your pockets into a bin, remove your laptops from your carryon luggage and place your shoes on the conveyer unbelt (not in a bin). If all goes well, a few minutes later you’ll be able to gather your belongings and scramble to collect yourself before heading to your boarding gate. General Mitchell International Airport boasts the world’s only “Recombobulation Area” to add a little levity to often frustrating process of juggling small items and electronics, all while you attempt to lace up your shoes.
Before you get to breathe that sigh of relief in the in the “Recombobulation Area” you must pass through a somewhat imposing hexagonal chamber where you strike a very specific pose that would not make for a flattering selfie. These chambers are more scientifically known as a millimeter wave scanner, and according to Wikipedia they are a “whole-body imaging device used for detecting objects concealed underneath a person’s clothing using a form of electromagnetic radiation”. Some deride them as invasive, others insist that they make our air travel safer. Millimeter wave scanners have the ability to peer through our outer layers of clothing and see what we might be hiding underneath.
Ok, “hiding” may not be the best word, as it implies that there may have been some intentional deception like smuggling candy in to the movie theater. Millimeter wave scanners don’t judge intentions, they merely peer beyond what is visible on the surface to reveal what is underneath. Loose coins, boarding pass, lipstick, granola bar, or passport are just some of the commonly hidden items lurking in pants pockets overlooked by the anxious or weary traveler more focused on finding the right gate and less concerned with the very specific instructions by the TSA agents reminding you to remove everything from your pockets and go on to list a handful of frequent offenders—apparently boarding passes are particularly dangerous. After you pass through the millimeter wave scanner you need to pause for a moment until another TSA agent give you the ok to go and recombobulate yourself…that is unless you have something in your pocket.
As you may have guessed by now, I was greeted on the far side of the hexagonal chamber with the question, “Anything else in your pocket.” “Me? No. I don’t think so.” I thought to myself as I snapped out of my traveler’s trance to process the question. Just as soon as it registered what was being asked, my mind just as quickly jumped to the extremely unpleasant reality of why this TSA is wearing latex gloves. I began patting down the superfluous pockets cargo shorts are notorious for, determined to find what was hidden before being asked to enter the cavity search area, and that is when I found a red Tootsie Pop® that I had forgotten I had brought for an in-flight snack.
A single red Tootsie Pop, that is what stood between me and my goal of boarding the airplane. I wasn’t carry a large knife like a good friend, and police officer, once tried bringing on an airplane, nor did I intentionally try sneaking contraband by the security checkpoint. No. It was a red Tootsie Pop. I may still not know how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, but now I know how many Tootsie Pops it would take to keep me from being permitted to fly that morning.
“You are going to have to put that sucker through the x-ray machine”, I heard as I pulled the small piece of candy out of my lower right leg pocket. This small encounter had proven to be a little disorienting, as I was both tired and certain that my pockets were empty, so it took me an extra moment to register who he was calling a sucker and what I was supposed to be doing at this point. It may have taken him three requests before I finally placed the lollipop in the small tray that is usually reserved for sending loose change and car keys down the conveyer belt for the x-ray machine. Today, that small tray was going to be the temporary home for my sucker as it was about to be showered in electromagnetic radiation and inspected for anything suspicious.
It is interesting how the mind of a preacher, or any public speaker who needs to speak before the same group of people once or twice every single week, works. We are always in sermon prep mode looking for new sermon illustrations. I kid you not, as I stood there in my socks and recently separated from my cherry lollipop, I began to wonder if there was any spiritual application to this whole ordeal. Immediately after lacing up my sneakers as I was walking towards our terminal, I pulled out my iPhone and began to take some notes on how I might use this simple everyday encounter to illustrate a bigger biblical or theological point. So, whether you are looking for some launching point for a speech, sermon, or public presentation, or simply open to applying God’s Word to your life today, here are a few thoughts that I feel the Lord quickly brought to mind.
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This might sound obvious, but what are you carrying around with you that you didn’t know you even had? You have no doubt heard the quote credited to Plato, “An unexamined life is not worth living”, but have you stopped to think how practical that advice is for us today? Whether resentment, an unfulfilled dream, misperception of something a loved one once said, unforgiveness, or a gift or talent waiting to be developed, are there are unknowns in our pockets that God desires for us to dig down and explore?
As I am finishing the post, I am away for a three-day silent prayer retreat. This beautiful camp ground is swarming with men and a few women not making eye contact or speaking the simplest of pleasantries. I wrote about this retreat last year at this same time. The focus of this time is to get away and quietly spend time hearing from God, and for me, I often hear best when I am typing the words He is speaking to me. I write more for myself in these three days than I typically will do in three months. Why? When you reduce the distractions, and take a long hard look at yourself, you begin to see or hear things that you have been missing. Colleagues keep returning to this retreat year after year because they have learned the value of self-examination. It is a core component to week one of the Ignatius of Loyola’s four-week silent prayer retreat.
What are you carrying around that has been overlooked?
It is one thing to simply not check your pockets before approaching the TSA agents, but I promise you I did check. I looked, patted my pockets, and emptied their contents on the conveyer belt. Or, at least, so I thought. I had missed something. We often have blind spots in our lives, things that we can’t or choose not to see. Ignorance is not a strong legal defense, and I would argue it isn’t the strongest relational or spiritual defense against our blind spots. If we are truly going to live an examined life, then we need to be willing to look at those areas that we would rather not look at.
God can see them anyways. Man may look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). You may not like this truth about God’s nature, but look on the bright side, if you need help identifying what you have overlooked, God has already found it! If my arms had been longer I may have found the sucker when I was checking my pockets. God does not suffer from any shortness or arms issues, He can see and He can reach. Don’t let those overlooked areas go overlooked any longer, allow God to help you see what you’ve been carrying around that has been overlooked.
What have you forgotten that you need to remember?
The truth is, I knew that I had a cherry lollipop, a Tootsie Pop, in my pocket. After all, I had put it there just that morning. Nobody else placed it there when I was unaware, it wasn’t left over from when I was younger, and it didn’t put itself in my pocket. I put it there, and then I simply forgot about it. It was something of value that I had grabbed and placed there on purpose, and then I forgot about it. Have you ever reached inside the pocket of a spring jacket and found five or twenty dollars from the previous year? Well, I never have…not even once. I don’t think I have ever reached inside any pocket and found any cash that I didn’t already know was going to be there. This is in part because I lost my wallet with five dollars in it when I was young and, ever since, I have kept a tight record of where every dollar bill goes. But this is beside the point, the point is most people know what it is like to reach in and find a surprise. Why? Because they have forgotten a gift, a talent, a prayer prayed for them, or prophesy spoken over them. There is something of value that needs to be remembered.
All that I needed to do was to remember, and I would be enjoying the sweet artificial flavoring that people have been enjoying for decades. My inability or inattention to recalling what was already mine caused me to hold up the line and delay myself from passing through to the other side of the security check point. Periodically I will swipe through the apps on my phone to rediscover what was already there. This is fun for me because I don’t even need to pay for any of these apps, these are apps that I have already downloaded. They are already mine, and I just need to remember that I have them to use.
Use it, or lose it.
One final thought and the conclusion to this unnecessarily long story. According to the parable of the talents or bags of Gold (Matthew 25:14-30), when we are entrusted with something we can either use it or lose it. I stood there in my socks for what seemed to be an eternity. My wife finally joined me when I was no longer under the scrutiny of security, and we were chit-chatting about what had just happened keeping an eye on the conveyer belt, when I happened to notice something behind me out of the corner of my eye. Not even ten feet behind me was a young child, up in her father’s arms sucking on a, yes you guessed it, cherry Tootsie Pop. I could not believe what I was seeing. I have heard about stealing candy from a baby, but this baby had stolen my candy!
I tried quickly to piece together what had just happened, but there was one thing that I was sure of. I had lost my sucker. Taken, stolen, given, lost or found, whatever the story would end up being I had failed to use it, and so I lost it. I knew there was absolutely no point in trying to figure out what had happened. I know I certainly did not want that sucker back, and, besides, the child looked happy. The story I have settled on was that the TSA agent placed the Tootsie Pop not on the conveyer belt I was standing next to that had just scanned all of my belongings, but instead walked over to another one ten feet behind me. After the sucker passed through the x-ray machine, some well-intentioned individual took it upon themselves to play Robin Hood and give away what was not theirs. I’m ok with it, truly I am.
The ironic twist to the story is that I had grabbed that very same sucker from my office to give to my son before heading to the airport. He had already had a bunch of candy from a birthday party and I held onto it simply to avoid him getting an upset stomach. I failed to use the sucker as a gift to my son, and I failed to use it as a snack for myself, so I lost it.
Perhaps you have never lost a sucker at the airport, but maybe God is using my small misfortune to speak to you as you have been patiently listening to me share my story. It wouldn’t be the first time that God chose to speak in an unconventional manner. Who knew that air travel could be added to a talking donkey, writing on the wall, dreams, whispers, and blazing shrubbery as ways to hear from God. So, the next time that you are unlacing your shoes at the airport, double check your pockets; once you finally get situated in your seat, examine your life for things unknown, overlooked, forgotten, or unused. Who knows, you just might find something sweet that will make your trip all that much better.