Persona non grata in the Friendly Skies

Persona non grata in the Friendly Skies

Not long ago, I was flying Southwest Airlines on my way to a conference. If you’re unfamiliar with the Southwest experience, there are aspects of it that are wonderful, such as the excellent customer service and the lack of baggage fees. However, there are also aspects that are, shall we say, less wonderful, like the lack of assigned seating.

During the Southwest check-in process, in lieu of a seat number, you’re given a boarding number. There are three boarding groups, A, B, and C, and boarding positions 1-60 for each group. Unless you’re a frequent flyer who qualifies for an upgrade, or you decide to purchase an upgrade, it’s quite likely that you’re going to end up in the B boarding group, between positions 15 and 30.

Unfortunately, this was not my experience on the trip in question. It was worse than that. Even though I’d checked in around 23 hours and 45 minutes before my flight, the confirmation screen on my Southwest app held bad news. “C14,” it said. I was middle of the pack in the final boarding group for a multi-hour flight—and too late to purchase an upgrade.

On the day of my flight, I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare—better early than stressed. I quickly found my gate and took a seat, while I waited for the boarding process to begin. When it was time to board, the flight attendant’s instructions over the loudspeaker were very clear. Only those holding a pass for the current boarding group should stand and take their places in line. Holding C14, my turn would come after 80% of the passengers had boarded.

“C boarding groups, numbers 1 through 30, please line up for boarding,” said the voice over the speaker. It was finally my turn. I took my place in line, worked my way to the flight attendant manning the gate, scanned my app, and walked down the jetway toward the plane. As I entered the cabin, a quick scan confirmed my fear—all of the window and aisle seats were full. For this flight, it would be a center seat for me. A friendly flight attendant greeted us in a voice that was almost syrupy-sweet, “We’d like to welcome our “C” boarding group to the cabin—and as we say here at Southwest, ’C is for center,’ so please select a seat and we’ll be underway.”

As I surveyed the cabin for seats, I quickly learned that my low boarding position meant that I was persona non-grata. Seated passengers were hoping to avoid center-seat occupancy in the pursuit of more elbow room, so eye-contact with them became non-existent. Instead, I received horrified, darting glances as I walked toward their row. I’d received my own version of a scarlet letter. In this case, it was a big, red, “C”. When I finally selected a seat, I almost felt obligated to apologize to the passengers on either side. My choice had marked them as losers in the seating lottery that is synonymous with the Southwest experience. I stowed my bag under the seat and paused to reflect on what I’d just experienced.

Obviously, sitting in a center seat of an airplane for a few hours isn’t a life-altering disappointment. At worst, it’s a “first-world” inconvenience. Yet, as a pastor, I couldn’t help but draw a spiritual comparison to the experience. I’m so glad we serve a God who doesn’t see us as persona non-grata. In fact, it’s quite the opposite! Consider 1 Peter 2:9:

“…you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;…” Focus on the words chosen and special. They tell the opposite story of my Southwest experience. God doesn’t simply tolerate us. He isn’t silently thinking, “Please don’t sit here! Please don’t sit here!” No, this verse is a covenant verse, which demonstrates the commitment He has to us and His desire for us to be in relationship with Him.

The next time you feel less than desired, remember your value as defined in 1 Peter 2:9. However, we should also be mindful to “flip the script” if we see someone else who may be feeling undesired. The words in the verse serve as our marching orders in order to “proclaim the praises,” telling others of God’s goodness and reminding them of their chosen, special status in the eyes of our Heavenly Father.