going abroad

Yes, it is the same image as yesterday!
Yes, it is the same image as yesterday!

Foreign travel sounds exotic, exciting, and adventurous. If you have ever flown on a commercial airline you will know that once you arrive at the airport expectations of ‘exotic, exciting and adventurous’ are replaced with ‘queueing, waiting and boredom.’

First of all you arrive and find where you have to go to check in to confirm your place on the flight and send your bags into the mystical baggage handling system in the hope that they will travel with you and that you will be reunited at the end of the journey. You queue. Eventually you reach the front of the queue. You hand over your passport and ticket, confirm that you packed the bags yourself and that nobody has tampered with them, wave goodbye to your suitcase, remember to pick up your passport and boarding pass, and head off to the security gate.

You arrive at the security gate where they will examine your belongings with an x ray machine and check that you are not carrying anything you shouldn’t be. But first, you queue.

And after a long time queueing you reach the front of the line. You put your hand luggage in a plastic tray, take off your belt (hoping that your trousers will stay up) and put that in the tray, make sure you have no coins in your pockets, put your watch in the tray too, put your jacket in the tray, and wave goodbye to your belongings as they go off to be examined while you take a deep breath and step through the magic door that may or may not beep as you go through.

(At this point I want to make a personal detour. I have battery implanted in me and some wires that go into my head in order to stop chronic migraine. I have a special card that I carry for airport security (and other metal detecting places) that explains what is in me in the expectation that it will make the magic gate beep. It has never done so, which disappoints me. I want to be special and wave my card at the security person. But I am normal.)

If you do make the magic gate beep then the security person has to frisk you to make sure you haven’t got anything you shouldn’t have on your person. Then, finally, you proceed to the end of the conveyor where you wait for your hand baggage and other belongings to join you again.

When they arrive you grab the box, hope your trousers remain up, and join the ever-changing group of people who are reassembling their ensemble.

From the security gate you go into the wonderful world of duty free shopping. Big discounts are promised but, in my experience, the prices don’t seem much cheaper than in the high street. But if you want to buy anything you have forgotten to pack, or that was confiscated at the security gate, or simply because you want to carry more stuff around you join a queue. Because you can’t just buy it, you have to show your passport and boarding pass. And some people in front of you won’t have realised and can’t remember where they put them. So you wait.

Finally you have bought what you need and look for somewhere to sit while you wait for the electronic board to show which departure gate your flight will be leaving from, and to tell you when to go there. In the meantime you might feel peckish, go to buy some food, and join a queue to pay for it.

Then you wait. (This bit always seems a lot longer than it actually is).

The board suddenly changes and shows that they want you to go to the departure gate. Depending on the airport you then either have a long walk (occasionally using the travelators that enable you to walk at hyperspeed until you step off at the end and come to a juddering halt) or you get on a transit vehicle to take you there.

When you arrive at the departure gate, guess what, all the other passengers are there too and you have to find somewhere to sit until the plane is ready for boarding. So you wait. You wait for the moment when you hear the announcement that the flight is ready for boarding. And then everyone rushes to the desk and forms yet another queue.

So you wait, shuffling slowly forwards, until you reach the desk, hand over your passport and boarding pass one more time, and are told that you are worthy of flying on their aeroplane and admitted into the mysterious world beyond the desk. There may be a passenger boarding bridge (jetway) that enables you to walk from the desk around a series of unnecessary corners and straight to the aeroplane. Or you may have to go down a series of stairs or escalators and outside where a bus will take you to the plane, or you will walk across the tarmac to the plane.

When you get near the plane (whether on the boarding bridge or ready to ascend the stairs from the tarmac to the plane) you join the end of another queue. Slowly but surely you get closer to the plane and as you enter the door you show your boarding pass to the flight attendant who tells you that your seat is ‘down there’ (where else will it be?). You shuffle slowly along the aisle as people ahead try to cram unfeasibly large bags (how do they call that ‘hand luggage’?) into unfeasibly small overhead lockers and finally find your seat. You deal with your own hand luggage and collapse into your seat.

Then you stand up again quickly because you have sat on the safety belt buckle.

You move the belt and sit down again.

Then you wait.

You wait for all the passengers to board the plane. You look disappointedly at the person who arrives a few minutes after everyone else looking flustered at having run and almost missed the flight.

Then you wait.

Various announcements will be made over the intercom, most of which are ignored by most of the passengers.

The flight attendants will go through the humiliation of doing the safety demonstration while being ignored by most people.

Then you wait.

At last you sense the plane is moving as it is pushed away from the terminal and you get ready for take off.

Except that the plane has now joined a queue of planes awaiting permission to take off.

So you wait. The plane slowly shuffles forwards in the queue.

And just when you think the plane may as well drive to your destination it turns and pauses. You hear the engines start to increase in power and the plane leaps forwards. I love that moment. Judging by the white knuckles and vice-like grip on the armrest I perceive that others around me perhaps don’t share that joy.

Soon the rumble of wheels on tarmac is replaced by a funny lifting feeling and the sound of wheels being retracted as the aircraft climbs into the sky at a seemingly impossible angle. Then, slowly but surely, the angle of ascent gently lowers and the flight attendants burst into life.

Depending on the airline you are on food is either offered on a complimentary basis (ie included in the cost of the ticket) or you have to pay for it. But the flight attendants spend an inordinate amount of time travelling up and down with trollies dispensing food and hot and cold beverages, collecting the debris from the food and hot and cold beverages, offering duty free goods for sale (see above) and interrupting the flight in other ways.

I have a theory about this. My theory is that it is less to do with feeding the passengers (who could bring their own packed lunches, subject to restrictions on drinks) than it is about crowd control. If the trollies are going up and down the aisles we have to stay in our seats. If the flight attendants are constantly offering us things we feel like they are concerned for our wellbeing and are happier. If they keep interrupting us they are stopping us from becoming bored and restless. That may be a cynical approach, I have never tested the theory with anyone who knows about these things either.

If you are on a posh flight you may have some in flight entertainment system offering you a range of films, old TV shows and a map showing you where your aeroplane is relative to the departure and destination points. If you are on a budget flight the in flight entertainment is whatever you brought with you.

All of this action takes place in a relatively confined space for however long it takes to get to the destination. It is punctuated occasionally by turbulence and the ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign being illuminated. (It’s fun to watch those in the queue (!) for the loo working out whether or not to remain in the queue or return to their seats. My observation is that most stay where they are.) Rumours that the ‘turbulence’ is the way the pilots deal with the monotony of the flight by jerking the flight controls up and down are not to believed at all.

Then comes the moment when you sense that the aircraft is starting to descend. The ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign is illuminated, the flight attendants check to ensure that everyone has obeyed, their seats are upright, armrests are down, tables are stowed, electronics (in flight mode) are off, headphones are taken out and luggage is not around people’s ankles. The aircraft may circle around for a while as the pilot awaits our slot in the queue (!) for landing and then the final descent begins.

If I can see out of a window I like to play a game on the landing descent. It starts with trying to see if I can identify any traffic moving. Then I like to be able to identify a human being on the ground. Soon after that we are usually on the ground (with or without ‘whump’ depending on the landing).

The aircraft engines are thrown into reverse, breaks are applied and the plane slows to taxiing speed. Where it joins a queue (!) to taxi to the stand where we will disembark. Even though the flight attendants (and captain) may tell everyone to remain seated with their seatbelts fastened until the plane has halted there’s always at least one person who thinks that they can get a head start on everyone else by getting up before the plane has stopped. Everyone else gives them a hard stare or tuts silently – hoping that a flight attendant will tell them off.

As soon as the plane stops it’s every person for theirself. We all grab our luggage and seek to push our way into the aisle, even though the doors are not open. We all wait impatiently to disembark, knowing full well that there will be more queues waiting for us as soon as we do. Queues to transfer into the terminal building. Queues for passport control. And then the interminable wait for the luggage.

We try to anticipate which carousel the luggage will appear on. We try to manoeuvre as close as possible to the place where the luggage is ejected from the conveyor belt onto the loop on which it will travel until claimed. And when it finally all starts up we look expectantly at the conveyor in the hope that our bags may be first off. They never are. I have another theory that they send down dummy bags to start with because I have never been the first and have never seen anyone else collect the first bags.

Joy of joys you see your bags and fight through the scrum to retrieve them – checking for footprints and other damage. Once they have all arrived (hopefully) you join the procession through the customs check and out into the airport arrivals area. You check all of the people holding up names in the vain hope that someone somewhere has decided to pick you up (even though you didn’t arrange anything). And then you emerge, blinking, into the daylight or even the night – breathing in the fresh air.

Then you go to whatever destination you have – you holiday or attend a business meeting – and then you repeat the whole process in reverse.

Some of you may be wondering why I have spent so long talking about the flight and only a sentence about what you do at the destination. The reason is that this is intended as a parable. About church. Or more specifically about church services.

Church services are not the destination of our Christian faith, they are the journey. They are to inspire, equip and encourage us for the rest of our lives. What we do, who we are, how we are, what we say when we are not in church is the destination. That’s where the rubber hits the tarmac and we live out our lives as followers of Jesus and witnesses to his love and good news. If we spend all our time focussing on church services we are like someone who travels abroad and focusses on the journey rather than the destination.

Be blessed, be a blessing

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