This essay is dedicated to my husband in appreciation of his game face.
Plaid Bags and Providence
For the Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work.
Providence – it literally means foresight, but is generally used to denote God’s preserving and governing all things by means of second causes. God’s providence extends to the natural world, the brute creation, and the affairs of men and of individuals. It extends also to the free actions of men, things sinful as well as to their good actions. The mode of God’s providential government is altogether unexplained. We only know that it is a fact that God does govern all his creatures and all their actions; that this government is universal, particular, and efficacious, embraces events apparently contingent and is consistent with his own perfection and to his own glory.[i]
March 29th, 2011 was my daugther’s 18th birthday. She was so excited. Spring Break had finally come, along with our much-anticipated trip to Europe. The bags were packed, the itineraries confirmed, and all the documents were in order. The first stop on our journey awaited; London via Dubai, Doha and finally to Heathrow.
My excitement for her was tempered by compassion for my husband. I knew he needed this trip. He was weary from the weekly sojourns into Iraq and the total mental investment required by his arduous project. Having been back less than 24 hours, he had not yet made the transition from work to vacation. The game face was still on, he still walked with a sense of stern and unerring purpose and spoke with an intense and scary gaze etched into his face. His Blackberry was more of an appendage than a communication device. Our eGate experience confirmed his need for an attitude adjustment. eGate is an electronic gate that allows frequent fliers in Dubai to bypass the passport control queue with a card swipe and a thumbprint match. It’s a great time saver….when it works.
Always fifteen feet ahead, m husband sprinted through the gate and was standing impatiently on the other side. Impeded by line cutters, my progress was slower. That happens a lot in Dubai, where chivalry is sometimes lacking. Also, the gate was being finicky with me, my thumbprint wouldn’t scan. My daughter stood patiently by the manned desk reserved for family members with no card. My husband began shouting instructions.
“Put your card down on the front! Now, lick your thumb! Lick your thumb! Make sure you use the correct hand according to the diagram!” he commanded.
At some point during their many trips through the Dubai airport, my husband and his comrades had decided that the eGate worked better if you licked your thumb before placing it on the thumbprint scanner.
‘Gross,’ I thought. ‘I am not going to lick my thumb. That’s digusting. I have a Master’s degree for crying out loud. I’m not an idiot, I can do this. Does he not remember I’ve been through this thing before?’
His game face explained the attitude. I understood – mentally he was still in Iraq, where meeting any objective required a commanding posture. But at that particular moment, I was pretty exasperated and he knew it by the look I gave him as I finally exited the gate.
A couple of hours later, we were comfortably settled on Qatar Airways flight 17, bound for London’s Heathrow Airport. The flight was good, but I steeled myself for Heathrow, knowing that their incredibly tight security makes people tense. My last experience still haunted me. Security lines backed up, out the door and down the escalator through a narrow doorway. The escalator kept churning, sending people stumbling and falling forward into the crush of humanity. My scream for someone to hit the red auto stop button finally brought the madness to an end. I prayed things would go smoothly this time. Jeff was already tense, the game face was still on and so was the Blackberry as soon as we landed. All was well until we stood before the passport control agent. For some reason, he annoyed my husband. Jeff’s terse answers and his stern and aloof attitude made it clear that this man was the enemy, barring our way to baggage claim. The agent looked intently at my husband, asking more questions than normal. My daughter and I tried to smooth things over with our smiles and chatty tones.
“Dad, you act like a terrorist. Why were you so mean to that guy?” she asked. “Your scary frown made him suspicious.”
“Immigration agents don’t want to chat with you”, he replied. “They just wanted the facts and I gave him the facts”.
Relieved to clear immigration without being detained, we made our way to baggage claim. By that time the crowds and the bags were significantly smaller in number.
“There’s mine!” my daughter exclaimed with confidence.
Hannah’s pink and purple plaid rolling duffel is very distinguishable among other luggage. We picked out the set together the previous summer in preparation for our move to Dubai. The noticeable nature of the bags’ appearance influenced her choice.
“Easy to spot on the baggage carousel,” I assured her, “and cute too.”
We collected our bags, hailed a cab and headed for the hotel. Before leaving Dubai I informed the staff that our arrival would be on her 18th birthday. Even though it was late and we were dead tired, I was looking forward to seeing her reaction to the tray of chocolates sent to our room, an addiction to be sure and much preferred over birthday cake.
She was happy over the gourmet chocolates artfully arranged on a tray by her bed. They were a hit and our room was lovely. We thanked Papa Jack and Gram for the fabulous accommodations overlooking the Thames and the London Eye. It was truly a great location for touring London. Her appreciation suddenly turned to puzzlement when her gaze fell on her duffel.
“Why does my bag have a ‘Priority Handling’ tag on it?”
I shrugged. Fatigue kept me from fully processing this question. A more alert mother would have instantly recognized what had happened.
My daughter’s puzzlement turned to despair when she unzipped her bag. There inside, instead of her jeans, shoes and make up, lay men’s suits, hand tailored shirts and cologne.
The look on her face was one only an 18-year-old girl could master. She was quite horrified.
We all looked at each other, both of us silently processing the sequence of events that brought about this strange scenario. Clearly, the first class owner of this bag mistakenly grabbed Hannah’s bag without realizing it. She had done the same – not paying attention to the priority handling tag. Neither one really had a reason to pause before grabbing that plaid bag. After all, who else has a bag like that?
The tears came immediately. Her birthday, the chocolates, the 10th grandchild’s trip to Europe lost its entire luster without her stuff. How is she going to do anything without her clothes and shoes, I asked myself.
“Don’t worry girl. Worst case scenario, if we don’t get your bag back, you’ll get a shopping trip out of this deal. And look at it this way, you’re Economics and AP Statistics books were in that bag. Now you don’t have to study!” I said, trying to sound cheerful.
My husband’s game face intensified. For him, this was a dilemma to be solved and I could see him mentally going through all the possibilities for getting her bag back. He instructed Hannah to look for any information on the bag that would identify the owner. The imposter had no luggage tag so she began to rummage through it, looking for clues.
“This is so weird. What kind of businessman carries pink and purple luggage?” she said. “Ugh, I hope whoever owns this doesn’t mind me going through his stuff”.
She found a few receipts for coffee, food, etc., finally hitting pay dirt with a laundry receipt. I googled the name which brought two promising possibilities: Dubai or Isle of Man. Figuring Dubai to be a better bet, we tried to contact potential pink and purple plaid businessman but to no avail. Efforts to contact Qatar Airways were also unsuccessful as they were closed until 9am the next day. Our concern lay mostly in the fact that we only had a couple of days in London. We were assuming this man had her bag but we didn’t know for sure. And, if he did, what if he was on his way to China?
At this point in our dilemma, my husband realized a very important fact.
“Shirley, what information do you have on your luggage tag?”
Jeff correctly read the expression on my face, “Why would that matter?”
“I put one of your luggage tags on Hannah’s duffel.”
On the same trip to the luggage store last summer, I purchased neon pink Velcro luggage tags for my own new luggage (clearly, I wasn’t operating on all cylinders that day because I neglected to get some for Hannah). In preparing for the trip, Jeff, in his super-efficient, get it done mode, had overachieved and put my hot pink luggage tags on everyone’s bags.
“Covering all the angles,” as he put it.
I ripped the Velcro tag off my bag and looked to see that I had indeed recorded my current email address. Eventually, Mr. pink and purple duffel businessman from Dubai or the Isle of Man would open that bag, filled with girly things and, as we had done, search for the identity of the owner. We just hoped and prayed he was still in the area.
Sure enough, early the next morning and email came from the very apologetic luggage usurper from the Isle of Man. He explained that he had been on the phone when he picked up the bag, completely missing the neon pink luggage tag attached to the handle and its lack of a Priority Handling tag.
“It just never occurred to me that someone else would have a bag like that,” said Mr. Isle of Man.
“Likewise!” We laughed at the irony.
A couple of hours later, after a few phone calls, emails and a pricey cab ride to Heathrow and back, my husband, still in high gear, had recovered my daughter’s bag. The entire ordeal barely put a dent in our tightly packed schedule. And yes, he still had his game face on.
As I thought about our first twenty-four hours in London, I wondered about our curious and seemingly random sequence of events. Information on a luggage tag, a luggage tag on a bag, two identical bags on the same flight, picking up a bag while talking on the phone, picking up a bag and assuming you are the only person in the world who has one. The temptation is to think Murphy’s Law, coincidence, perhaps fate or just bad luck.
I know that God’s providential hand hovers over us, even in the smallest details. And the Holy Spirit guides us, even in the smallest decisions. What in the world had caused my husband to put my pink luggage tag on my daughter’s duffel? Without it the chances of those two duffels finding the right owners would have been slim to none. In his article, The Ministry of the Spirit in Discerning the Will of God, J.I. Packer references James C. Petty’s great explanation of the Holy Spirit’s role in our everyday life in his book, Step by Step;
1) the Spirit illuminates the connection between God’s word and our lives
2) The Spirit personalizes and particularizes the will of God for us
3) The Spirit gives discernment and wisdom for specific situations – this is progressively built into us as a character trait, and
4) God’s wisdom becomes our wisdom through our renewed mind (Romans 12:2). [ii]
Lost bags and luggage tags are part of the tapestry of our lives. Why would God possibly care about a lost bag? I don’t know. I’m reminded that concern about lunch spurred Jesus to perform two very significant miracles in scripture (Mark 6:30-44, 8:1-10). I know it seems weird, but He really does care for us that much. And perhaps, one of the underlying purposes for my story is to encourage you that God is present in the everyday stress of your life. Take heart my friends, your Counselor is at work.
Further readings: Psalm 18:35; 63:8; Acts 17:28; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3 Psalm 104:14; 135:5-7; Acts 14:17 Psalm 104:21-29; Matthew. 6:26; 10:29; 1 Chronicles 16:31; Psalm 47:7; Proverbs 21:1; Job 12:23; Daniel 2:21; 4:25 1 Samuel 2:6; Psalm 18:30; Luke 1:53; James 4:13-15; Exodus 12:36; 1 Samuel 24:9-15; Psalm 33:14, 15; Proverbs 16:1; 19:21; 20:24; 21:1; 2 Samuel 16:10; 24:1; Romans 11:32; Acts 4:27, 28; Philippians 2:13; 4:13; 2 Cor. 12:9, 10; Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 5:22-25; Psalm 103:17-19; Matthew 10:29-31; Psalm. 33:11; Job 23:13; Proverbs 16:9, 33; 19:21; 21:1; 2 Tim. 2:13; Romans 9:17; 11:36
[ii] James C. Petty, Step by Step [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1999], 165. .http://bible.org/seriespage/ministry-spirit-discerning-will-god#P57_29510