Several years ago, my soon-to-be husband and I were on an international flight heading to China. I was pumped. I love traveling. Even the airplane part makes me giddy (of course, I am not a 6’5 man with lanky arms and legs like my husband so I don’t care about boarding early just to get the emergency exit row or at the least an aisle seat. I prefer the window because I don’t want to miss out on the scenery and fluffy clouds).
But this particular flight was a tiny bit different. I had a problem. A few days earlier, I had been standing in the lovely Texas sunshine at an outdoor wedding as a bridesmaid in a stunning strapless dress that I wish I could still fit in. It was April, which for Texans translates: temporary outdoor bliss. The heat hasn’t permanently set in yet (although we might have an occasional 90-95 degree day), so we can bask in the sunshine without sweating buckets or getting eaten by mosquitos. It did not cross my mind to apply sunscreen. Besides, who wants to be all sticky and smelly in a sassy dress when you will be dancing with cute boys at the reception (this was pre-marriage, I promise).
My point: I got the most severe sunburn I’ve ever had (it looked way worse than this picture; don’t ever Google images of sunburns – lots of disgusting and inappropriate pics. This was the best one I could find). You could tell which direction the sun was shining that day and my position in relation to it by the manner in which the lobster-red hue spread across my shoulders and seeped down my back. It was one of those sunburns that wakes you up in the middle of the night because your skin is cracking with dryness and fire-hot, so that you have to get up and re-apply aloe vera and sleep with your shirt off if you aren’t already doing so. When you’ve lubed yourself up and you get back in bed, your body sticks to the sheets but you try not to move because it feels like your skin could rip off. Ironic side note: I worked at the American Cancer Society where it was my job to promote wearing a daily sunscreen with an SPF of no less than 45. My husband found that hilarious, as I was known to lay out on a regular basis in high school, college and well, beyond. He even bought me one of their posters that said: Fry Now, Pay Later with a picture of a beautifully tanned girl in a bikini. My response to the poster: wow, great tan! Of course, now “I am paying later” with saggy, thin skin and freckles and sun spots. Oh, youth is ignorant bliss.
I digress. A few days later, we were boarding our plane to China. I was still in a tremendous amount of pain, so of course, I came prepared, knowing it would be a 20 something hour flight, equipped with plenty of Aloe Vera and my new favorite pain reliever for sunburn: Solarcaine aerosol spray, in my carry-on bag. Nowadays, I don’t think you can get through security with aerosols. But this was pre-9/11.
Pretty soon, we were in our seats and getting ready to take off. I was giddy with glee, eager for the adventure that awaits when traveling to a new place, especially an international one. I couldn’t wait to experience China, to hear the up and down tones of the Mandarin language and maybe even try to pick up a word or two (I came away with: shay-shay (thank you) and si-jen (good evening) – like my phonetic spelling?) and that’s about it. Holy cow, it would be hard to learn a tonal language! I couldn’t wait to see the Great Wall in person, to hug my friend who I hadn’t seen in two years since she moved there and was now conversationally fluent in the language and would serve as our awesome tour guide. Oh, I was thrilled. A silly sunburn could not slow me down.
The first 8 hours or so were fine. Totally fine. I made sure to stay on top of my Aloe Vera application. I hadn’t even gotten out my Solarcaine spray yet. Awesome, I thought, my sunburn is getting better. It was about hour 10 or 11, when the pilot turns off all the lights so the passengers can sleep or watch movies or whatever, when that familiar fire on my back and shoulders flared up. No problem, I thought. Just time for a little Solarcaine. After carefully climbing over my sleeping husband, I made it to the lavatory with my new best friend. Most of the passengers were sleeping, so there was no line. Perfect.
I squeezed inside the tiny bathroom, flipped the switch to ‘Occupied’ and gently pulled my shirt and sports bra (no painful strappage) over my head to begin the application process (it was a process, I’ll tell you that. If you missed a spot with the spray, a few minutes later, you would feel the burning sensation and have to go back and do it all over again.). I loved how almost immediately, I felt relief from the cold, soothing aloe and whatever the heck else is in that spray that numbs the pain. Lidocaine? Oh, it was nice.
Suddenly, I heard a loud, beeping sound.
Then, a fierce knock on my bathroom door.
“Someone’s in here!” I said. Duh, the red Occupied light was on.
Another knock, this time, a rather hard, slamming one that made the door shake. The beeping was still going on.
Oh no, maybe there’s an emergency?
“Open the door, ma’am! This is the stewardess! I ask you to open the door right NOW!”
She sounded pretty mad.
My bra and shirt were still off, mind you, but this lady was so freaking frantic, I thought surely our plane was going down and she was concerned for my safety, so I unlocked the door and peeked out of the crack. Her face was crinkled in fury.
“Are you smoking in there??” she demanded, her eyes darting behind, trying to find evidence of that evil little habit. Then, I think she realized I was topless and gave a sort of stunned look. Maybe she thought there was a guy in there and we were joining the mile high club?
“No ma’am!” I said, as realization and embarrassment set in. “No, no, I promise! I’m just treating a sunburn. With this. See?” I thrust the bottle of Solarcaine out of the crack as proof.
“Oh,” she said. Long pause. “Well, you set off the smoke alarm. Don’t you know that you can’t use aerosols on the plane?”
“Oh. Oh no. I didn’t think about that” (story of my life!!!)
She was pretty nice after that. But the rest of the cabin wasn’t so happy.
After I gingerly, tenderly, pulled my bra and shirt back over my head, I had to do the walk of shame. All the way back to my seat. At this point, the cabin lights were on. Pretty much everybody was awake. And they did not look happy. I glanced quickly over the sea of faces, hoping for one sympathetic one. None. I figured that what most people probably heard was “are you smoking?” and nothing else. Because the rest of the exchange had been in slightly hushed, embarrassed tones.
Awesome. People thought I was some desperate smoker who had to get her nicotine kick and was willing to wake everybody up to do it. How pathetic. How selfish. I bet some of them were hoping I’d die of lung cancer and it wouldn’t be quick.
There is a moral to this long-winded story (I’m sorry, I’m really wordy. That’s a no-no in the blogging world, I think. I am impressed if you are still reading at this point. Gold star for you!) and it is this: I felt the harshness of judgment in that moment and it was painful. Is that even a moral? Or just a fact? The pain of judgment was probably much more so for an approval person like me. I wanted to explain. I wanted to rationalize. I wanted to tell them my part of the story. But there was no chance for that. They probably wouldn’t have believed me or cared anyway. Their minds were made up. I was a pathetic smoker.
Smoking is not a huge deal in my mind (not a huge deal in the sense of judging someone else. I mean, it’s a huge deal in that it can kill people. Duh. I worked for the American Cancer Society, remember? Tiny confession: I smoked a little bit in college. Just a little) so it wasn’t really about the smoking. It was about being judged and misunderstood. And suddenly, God gently prompted my heart with a whisper of: haven’t you been in that position before, judging someone, when you might not know the full story. At first I was like, nope. Not to that extent, atleast. Funny how self-righteousness often seems to be my first response as a Christian (I think somehow I start thinking I’m awesome and I am actually ‘helping God out’ with a few things here on earth that He couldn’t possibly handle without me). But then I thought of all the mean people, clingy people, angry people, or outright crazy people I had interactions with in my life. Yeah, sure. I judged them. And honestly, it often felt legit. They were off. Or out of line. Or rude or whatever. But maybe I don’t know the whole story.
And then I thought of Jesus. Talk about being judged. Misunderstood. Mocked. Beaten. Crucified. (Thank goodness my fellow cabin-mates didn’t take it that far. Maybe just with their eyes. And in their hearts).
Why would Jesus endure all of that? To some, he was just a helpless, innocent victim. A good guy with bad luck. To others, He was blasphemous, how dare he claim to be the Son of God? And to others, He was a miracle-worker, a teacher, a friend, a son, a brother, and maybe even the Son of God. But then He was killed. Like a criminal. And everyone was like: what the heck? This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. But maybe they just didn’t know the whole story, the one that the Maker of the Universe was writing.
For those of us who believe, Jesus let Himself be crucified intentionally, purposefully, without putting up a fight or complaining or demanding His own rights (and I’m guessing there’s a lot of them when you’re the Son of God). We believe He was more than just a good guy with bad luck. We believe He was perfect. Fully divine, but also fully human. And we believe that this was all part of the original plan. That He was born to die so that we could live in freedom, reconciled to our Maker. It sounds crazy. And pretty brutal. And harsh on God’s part. Yet just. And necessary. For our sakes. For this, I am eternally grateful.
So next time I set off a smoke detector on the airplane and get a bunch of angry stares, I’m gonna be like: Thanks Jesus. For putting up with all that. Just for me.