Single-Serving Friends

I made my first single serving friend.

In the movie Fight Club, Edward Norton’s character describes the people seated next to you on airplanes as single-serving friends. You catch one snippet of their life, then go on your merry way.

I had never experienced this—mostly, because I am the most anti-social traveler in North America. Something happens to my gregarious personality when I enter an airport alone. Maybe because an apt description for air travel should be: “waiting in uncomfortable seats surrounded by strangers.” Also, somewhat selfishly, I see no real purpose to be overtly friendly while traveling. Friendliness makes sense at work or church. I’m going to see those people again, and I want to build a relationship with them in order to hopefully share the gospel. The lady with her cell phone plugged into the outlet I’m using to charge my laptop—well, she’s in someone else’s jurisdiction.

I made my single-serving friend after waiting a nearly interminable amount of time for my Christmas flight home. Finally, I boarded the toy-like plane that would take me to the town of my birth. Across the aisle from my assigned seat sat a kid about my age. He had all the trappings of my kind of folk. Earlier, I’d seen him simultaneously using his laptop, iPod and cell phone. He wore Buddy Holly glasses, a studded belt and slip-on Vans. Just when I was getting settled for the flight, the occupant of the seat next to me arrived, along with his wife. They had been married recently enough to be excited about sitting next to each other on a plane, so a seat swapping occurred, and I scooted next to my youthful counterpart. When we were situated, he pulled out a copy of Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel.

An important detail: The flight was leaving from Salt Lake City, the Mormon capital of the U.S. and landing in Colorado Springs, a Christian epicenter. There’s a lot of Christians in Colorado Springs. There are not quite so many Christians in Salt Lake City. In a rather abrupt way, I started a conversation with him by asking about 17 questions:

Can I ask you a question? Yes.

Are you from Salt Lake City? No.

Are you from Colorado Springs? Sort of.

I see you have a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel. (That’s more of a statement than a question). It’s a good book. (Statement again).

Are you a Christian? Yes.

To qualify the appropriateness of my inappropriate questions, I told him that I, in fact, had the same book in my bag. To my slightly less uncomfortable companion, I explained that it was rare to find another Christian on a flight out of Salt Lake City. When I saw he was reading a Christian book, I figured I might as well cut to the chase.

For the next 90 minutes we engaged in delightful, one might even say magical, conversation about books, music, family and other life in general topics.

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Astonishingly, we had a lot in common.

My single-serving friend, Robert, was returning home after his first five months in the Air Force. Stationed in Monterey, Calif., after boot camp, he was training to become an Arabic cryptologist. Robert’s father worked for Young Life, and it was this organization that had greatly shaped his spirituality. As we drew closer to our destination, Robert grew restless. He was the oldest of five sons, and the first stint of his military career was the longest he’d been away from his family. He was delighted to be home and desired to impress his family with the way boot camp changed him.

When the airplane tires hit the runway, Robert asked me if I’d like to pray, which I thought was a very nice idea. We took a few moments in the back of the aircraft, as other passengers stretched the kinks in their necks, to thank God for His divine ordination. As God’s children, who more than likely won’t see each other again until the beautiful banquet Jesus is preparing for us, we honored our God and thanked Him for the encouragement of an unforeseen single serving friend.

I didn’t actually say goodbye to Robert as we deplaned. I’m better at starting conversations than ending them, so I allowed the traffic of our fellow travelers to pull me along to baggage claim. Robert’s welcome home party was the largest group of people waiting, all of whom were overjoyed to see him. The scene reminded me of the prodigal son’s story, how the father waited, saw his son coming from the distance and ran to greet him. Always, when I think of the prodigal son, I think of our arrival in Heaven. It brings me great hope to imagine all that Christ has in store for us.

Life is a lot like air travel. There are delays and layovers, and all of our time is spent waiting in uncomfortable seats, our very bodies, that so often interfere with the great dreams of our minds and hearts. Surrounded by strangers, we hope to find just one with whom we can genuinely connect. This need is part of our innate design. Humans must exist in relationship, specifically, a relationship with God Himself.

In my conversation with Robert, we spoke of the mewithoutYou lyric, “God is love and love is real.” That statement resounds with me because I have understood love in my life. If I explain God as relational to someone who has not experienced a genuine, caring relationship, their perception of God may not be accurate. That is why we Christians, the very image of an invisible God in the world, are called to love all of those around us, not just those with whom a relationship will be beneficial. Our relationships may not be perfect. We will not satisfy the deepest needs of the people around us, but at least we will be pleasant traveling companions.

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