LAYERS OF CLAY
I’ve never eaten scrambled eggs & drank coffee with an assault rifle pointed towards my feet, which is a weird thing to happen ever, let alone after you just bumped into a Christian rock star who’s been winning awards and selling lots of records since I was in junior high.
I was at the airport, leaving Nashville after a whirlwind weekend spent reconnecting with the publishing world. Signs by the TSA line mentioned something about additional security measures in place for some reason.
This musician, iconic at least to Christian music fans, buzzed past me and ended up in a faster line while I waited for airline passengers who still, even a decade and a half after 9/11, haven’t figured out an easy way to put their shoes and laptops in bins.
I’ve seen this guy live plenty of times over the past quarter century, most recently when he’d be buzzing around the music festivals I spent some time covering for radio stations and print publications. He wore sunglasses and a dark gray t-shirt that said “Social justice begins in the womb.”
We ended up exiting separate x-ray scanners about the same time and carrying our belongings over to a bench. Since I’ve had opportunities to be around musicians a good bit, and since he wasn’t Dave Grohl or Matt Skiba or someone who might bring out my inner fanboy, this encounter was pretty pedestrian. I said hi as we put our shoes and belts back on. He asked if he knew me. I told him we had met here and there, but he wouldn’t remember. I asked him how his year was going.
“Incredible,” he said. “Going on a little vacation.” I think he said something about D.C. or somewhere, but I didn’t catch it all as I adjusted my shoelaces.
“It just gets better and better,” he said, ebullient. He smiles a lot.
“Can you believe after all of this we get to go to heaven?”
That escalated quickly, I thought, hoping he didn’t mean immediately after putting our shoes on and getting on a plane. I wondered if he was really so excited about heaven or if maybe because of fame he was forced to be “on” all the time. Maybe that’s judgmental, but you get a bit cynical about any group or industry once you spend enough time around them. But this guy has always seemed sincere and has never had a public, moral failing (as far as I know) in lots of years in a judging spotlight.
“Yup, pretty cool.” I said, packing my laptop back up.
“Be about ready to go to heaven after this election year,” he said, laughing.
“No way man, it just gets better and better right? We can’t be fearful.”
“I know, I know you’re right,” he said, still chuckling.
“Besides,” I offered, “I bet Uriah voted for David.”
Uriah was the husband of a woman named Bathsheba, a beauty who the ancient Israelite King David used to watch shower on her roof next to the palace. David took Bathsheba as his own and had Uriah killed.
He laughed. “Yeah, I was just playing.”
Just then, a middle-aged woman came over. “You have got to be [the famous person I know you are],” she said, except she used his real name.
He stood up straight, playful hand on hip. “Can you believe it?”
She thanked him generally for things he does and scuttled away as we grabbed our suitcases, wished each other safe trips, and headed off in opposite directions.
As I walked away, I pondered how odd it must seem to many people for someone to casually make introductions by talking about how exciting it’ll be to go to heaven. For me it was a callback to the kind of evangelism I was surrounded by for years, sincere for the most part but more a numbers game of interactions than actual relationship building.
What most struck me was his joking about how it might be better to be dead than living the good life in America after this election. No, that’s not what he specifically said, but how easily fear can take hold, I thought.
It was mid-afternoon, and I hadn’t eaten yet, so I slipped into Noshville for bacon, eggs, and hash browns, just the type of fare one craves after a late Saturday night in Music City U.S.A.
I was just taking my first sip of coffee when the police officer strolled into the airport diner, large assault rifle in hand, and stood next to me. I got nervous for a moment, staring at him with the coffee cup hovering in front of my lips. An unattended suitcase rested on the seat in the booth right behind me.
“Are they bringing the dog?” asked a waitress. I couldn’t hear his answer as he slowly paced two or three steps past me then back again. He spoke into his shoulder at someone who wasn’t nearby.
I was pretty exhausted or I might have been more nervous right away. “Should I be moving?” I asked.
With both hands holding a gun the size of a trombone, he made a face that seemed to say “Nah, don’t sweat it buddy.”
Nervously nibbling my bacon, I imagined a bad person leaving a bomb at an airport deli. I couldn’t think for the life of me why a murderer would target Noshville. Still, my overactive imagination wrote short, devastating scenes about a mysterious bag, a cop, and the breakfast munching patron sitting right there.
I pictured a sudden explosion. A bright flash. Vaporization. Pandemonium in its wake. News reports identifying me as a victim and interviews with the famous singer who was the last person to see me alive before I went to heaven.
My heart began racing and my face felt warm. Speculative images of the kind of people who would do such a thing tried to force their way into my mind, and I focused on rejecting harmful stereotypes and dangerous profiles.
It occurred to me how many people around the world live in constant fear. So many people face peril during every mundane moment of life. I never really have to think about, let alone face, the violence of extremism in my everyday existence. Yet some leaders would use moments like that one in the diner to try to persuade me to live in terror, and how I better be suspicious of others because they’re dangerous, and how I must vote for people who aren’t afraid to do what it takes to protect me even if their measures undermine everything I believe in.
When you get scared enough, it becomes possible for even good people to profile strangers and act cruelly to the most desperate people among us because you never know and, well, some people just look like terrorists anyway.
In my heart I reject such things. Just five minutes earlier I had been wondering how some people of faith could be so fearful and preoccupied with losing control of their country or life that they casually joke about going to heaven after this election.
And yet, one suspicious bag and heavily armed cop at brunch later, and I realized safety is never a given. Responding the right way isn’t always easy.
The owner of the mysterious bag sulked back in. “Guess I shouldn’t have had that beer,” he told the officer. They confirmed and verified and left me to my sourdough toast.
How fortunate I am that a suspicious moment in a diner is such a rarity in my life and that even when it did happen I still stayed put to eat delicious hash browns. Yes, the dark thoughts and voices calling for suspicion and hostility are real. I understand the temptation to want to safeguard ourselves at any cost. Social justice may begin in the womb, but it should never end for someone because fear causes us to turn against each other.