Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Flying in the hands of the Maker

by Kevin

We didnt know it, but were about to experience another travel miracle because our lives are in the hands of the maker of heaven.

As we sat down at our gate in Yinchuan, waiting to board our flight, I noticed the sign we dreaded most, "flight delayed." This is was the one circumstance we feared because our two-hour layover in Xi'an didn't leave much leeway for delays. But we figured it was an acceptable risk when we booked because the other available flights all left 4-5 hours earlier. And our Xi'an to Bangkok flight was not only the fastest way for us to get there in one day, but an incredible deal- $150 per person, one way--about half the cost of other options.

When we found out the flight had been pushed back from 12:20 pm to 3:20, we started grasping at straws.

Thankfully we had gotten to the airport more than two hours early, so I quickly used my phone to check if there were any other possible flights we could take that would land in time for ys to make the connection. I remembered that when we were booking there were a couple options that seemed too close for comfort. Indeed there were a few that might possibly get us there in time, but nothing looked promising. The earliest possible arrival was at 2:20. That would give us an hour and five minutes to claim our luggage, check in, get through immigration and security and catch our flight. Not very promising. Another flight would arrive at 2:25 and a third would get in at 2:35. Even worse.

I quickly discovered that if we missed our connection, the earliest we would make it to Bangkok would be the the next day at almost 11 am. We would have to stay overnight in Guangzhoy. Tickets - $334 each. "A thousand dollars," I said pessimisticly, wondering if we would be better off just skipping the days thawing at the beach that we have sorely needed and go straight to our meetings in Chiang Mai.

"Pease God, help us," I prayed quietly. Immediately my mind raced to the travel troubles we had two years ago with Juliana.

Then it went to the story I recently heard about the sovereignty if God and our need to thank him in all circumstances. The story is about a Chinese man living on the border with Mongolia at a time where there were many wars between the countries. One day his horse jumped over the fence and went into Mongolia. The Mongolians stole the horse. The Chinese man's friends came to console him. "Oh what terrible news!" they said. "Why do you think it's bad news?" the Chinese man asked. "Maybe it's a good thing."

After a couple days the mare came back to the man, together with a stallion. The friends came to him and said, "What great news!"

"Why do you think it's good news?" the man asked. "Maybe it's bad news."

Later, while the Chinese man's son was riding the stallion, trying to tame him, he fell and broke his leg. The friends came again. "Oh what terrible news!"

Again the Chinese man said, "Why do you think it's bad news? Maybe it's a good thing."

After a week, another big war broke out between China and Mongolia. A Chinese general came into the town and took all the young men with him to fight in the war. All those young men died, except for the son of the Chinese man. He couldn't go to war because he had broken his leg. The Chinese man told his friends, "See? The things you thought were bad were actually good, and the things you thought were good were bad."

Trevin Wax, The man who told the story, tied it to 1 Thess. 5:16-18:
"Rejoice always. Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."

Really Paul? Give thanks in everything? No matter the circumstance? Even when one delayed flights might cost us more than $1000? Even when we might be adding another day of travel with our sleepy two-year-old?

God's small voice replied, "Even now. Trust me."

Ultimately, We have two ways to respond in difficulty. We can selfishly complain, "why has this happened to me?"  Or trust Romans 8:28: "Everything works together for good for those who love God." As my brother just reminded me, we can take the attitude Joseph had toward his brothers, who sold him as a slave into Egypt.  "Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life," Genesis 45:5.

This picture puts God in the center, so somehow I know that even the bad things are working out for his glory and my ultimate joy in him, Wax said.

I admit I was struggling. But I trusted. In spite of my crankiness and pessimism about the immediate circumstances, I let go. I knew it was going to be ok. But it still felt like a crisis. And I needed to do my utmost to try and do something. Anything.

I hurried around the airport to see if there was anyone from air china I could talk with, discovering that I would have to go back outside security. Great.

I rushed to the ticket sales area and thankfully one of the women there spoke good english. She wore a China Eastern uniform. Air China had no agents. My expectations were low. My Chinese is getting better but it seemed unlikely that I would be able to persuade the China Eastern agent to see if she could convince Air China to switch us onto the 1:20 China Eastern flight that would land at 2:20. I didn't even have the cute baby card to play. Ruth was still waiting with her at the gate.

Then she broke the news: the 2:20 China eastern flight and the 2:25 Xiamen Air flight only had first class tickets left. Cost- 1200 Rmb each. Almost $200. And we still might not have enough time to make our connection.

She said there was no way Air China would give us the first class seats even though the delay was their fault. However, she was fairly certain that they would switch us onto the China Southern flight- the flight landing five minutes before check-in for our Thailand flight would close. I debated, then decided that it would at least get us closer to our destination. She wrote down the phone number i would need to call, then shook her head and picked up the phone. "I will help you to do this," she said with a smile that hinted, "maybe their English isnt very good." As she called the airline, I checked prices on flights from Xi'an to Bangkok. Amazingly they were the same as from Yinchuan. "A thousand dollars," I thought to myself.

When she confirmed the tickets could be switched, I decided we needed to risk it on the slim possibility that perhaps the Air Asia flight might be delayed. "I think that is the only way we even have the possibility of getting there today," I told Ruth. She and Juliana were still waiting in the secured area, so they needed to hurry out. We were down to about 40 minutes before the flight would leave.

As they switched us onto the new flight, we hit another snag: our luggage was headed for our delayed flight. "Can you get our luggage out in time?" I asked. "We will have it for you in ten minutes, but you must go downstairs to the lobby and wait."

They printed out boarding passes and told us to come back upstairs when we had the luggage.

I gave Ruth my phone and she went to work calling Air Asia to find out if they knew if the flight would be delayed. By the time she got through, I had the luggage in hand and hurried her to the check in desk. They gave us passes allowing us to rush through security because boarding for the flight would soon close. It was a good thing we didn't get onto the flights with first class seats because we would have missed it. As I handed the guard the passports and boarding passes, Ruth was still talking on the phone, discovering that the Air Asia flight appeared to be on-time and that if we missed it,  there was nothing the airline could do. She hung up right as the guard was ready for her to pass the phone thru security.

As we ran to the gate, Juliana in my arms squealed with delight. "We're running!" she yelled joyfully. "We're running!" The sign at the gate said "last call," but we were able to rushed on and find our seats. In the next to last row.

Yet another obstacle. Our next flight might close boarding before we even got off this flight if we had to wait for 200 passengers to exit before us. After takeoff, we explained our situation to a flight attendant. Her English level was low, so she                                                                                 seemed confused about why we would want to be the first to disembark, but we explained that it was the only way it would even be possible for us to make our connection. She said she would see what she could do.

Then we began discussing our options: flights via Guangzhou at 5, 6 or 8. All of which would get us to Bangkok the next day at the earliest. We thought through how, in the inevitable likelihood that we missed our flight, we would first need to book a new flight. Then we would need to hurry and call the guest house we booked at the beach in Thailand so their driver wouldn't start making the three hour drive to pick us up at the Bangkok airport. Then we would need to book a hotel in Guangzhou for tonight.

Then we laid out our plan: we would run through the concourse. Ruth would take the backpack. I would take Juliana. She would go to get the luggage while I ran ahead to the check-in counter. Hopefully it would be among the first off the plane since we were the last to board. We would try and repeat what had just happened: I would run as fast as I could to try to get there in time to check in and get boarding passes without the bags and tell them that my wife would arrive with them a few minutes later.

Did I mention Ruth has had a cold the last few days, so she didn't have a ton of energy.

As we began our decent, the flight attendant returned and ushered us up to three open business class seats. Never sat there before, but apart from a few extra inches of legroom and it being at the front of the plane, it seemed the same as any other seat on the plane.

We rushed off the plane with six minutes left before check-in for our flight would close. Six mintues. Is it even possible to retrieve luggage that quickly, or check-in to a flight? Our main hopes were 1) our Air Asia flight would be delayed or that 2) at least we would be in the right terminal.

Neither happened.

When we landed, we had no idea which terminal we knew we were in Xi'an's terminal 3, but we didn't know if the international terminal had been moved there or if it was where it used to be in terminal 2. And the new terminal is huge. We seemed to be at the farthest end of it.

We were in a movie. One of those old scenes (before security restrictions) where a lovestuck man makes a frantic sprint to the gate in an attempt to try and catch their loved one at the gate, only to miss her as the plane takes off. But in reverse and doubled. We were running out as soon as the door opened.

As I ran, Juliana again giggled her head off. She kept laughing and saying "We're running!" There was nobody in front of us. Just long empty hallway after long empty hallway. Couldn't they have used a closer gate?

After several minutes, winded, I spotted a transfer counter with the first listing of flights. I looked at the flights. Ours was not on it. Every one was domestic. Ours was nowhere to be found. I wasn't sure, but it seemed that waiting for the five people in line would only slow us down further. So I made a guess and turned around: we needed to go to terminal two. Crap. Just then, Ruth was passing me up and we strode into the baggage claim area at the same time. Since she could use a luggage cart to get the luggage and our daughter to the check-in counter, she offered to take Juliana. She could sit on top of the bags and free me up to actually sprint without slowing occasionally to rearrange Juliana in my arms.

I looked out the window and spotted my goal: terminal two. Thankfully I knew what it looked like because of our three years in nearby Weinan. It looked about a kilometer away. I ran. And ran more. I kept running right past the international check-in counters.

Dazed, I asked where Air Asia was. The first woman didn't understand me. The second said "back that way," pointing to the familiar place we often flew from in years past. I hadn't recognized it running in from the new terminal.

I ran. My breath was a simple prayer. "Please."

As I approached, there was nobody in line. All the counters looked closed. A clerk glanced at me and looked away as she walked behind a counter and shuffled some paperwork. I asked if we could still check in for the Air Asia flight. She called over to another man and asked him a question. He looked at his watch and said, "we just closed boarding."

"Our connecting flight was late," I told him between heavy breaths. "I ran all the way from the end of terminal three," pointing out the sweat that stained my t-shirt. "Our first flight was late."

It was 2:54, really my one hope was that it had been delayed.

"Sorry. It is closed," he said. Then he asked, "How many people?"


"Ni, ni de lao po he shei?" he moved to Chinese. "You, your wife and who?"

"Wo de nu er. Ta liang sui." I replied. "My daughter. She is two," I added her age in hopes that they might have mercy on us on Juliana's behalf.

 "Do you have bags?" he asked.


"Where are they? Are they oversized?"

"No normal sized."

"How heavy? More than 15 kg?"

"17 and 18," I answered. We paid for "20 kg each."

"Where are they?" he asked. I will give them until 3 pm to get here. We can't wait any longer than that. We have already calculated the weight. I do not know if they will allow us to let you on."

I called Ruth. The bags were among the first off the plane. She had just gotten them and was racing over the same kilometer I had just run. With a cold.

"Where are they?" he asked nervously after another minute or two.

It was now 3:00, but there was still a tiny chance. They were printing out our boarding passes and making calls to the pilot and the gate.

"Call her again. We can't wait."

Ruth said they were just outside the terminal.

"They are almost to terminal two. They will be here in a minute."

He sent another worker out to look for her. He spotted her rushing down the corridor.

"I think she is coming," he announced.

The man smiled, but didn't say anything. I told him. "We will run."

They weighed the luggage, boarding passes and we hurried to the next stage - the immigration checkpoint. If I had rememberd that we would need to fill out departure cards I could have done it while waiting for Ruth to run. But I forgot, so Ruth and I scribbled our information onto the cards. It was 3:10. Again, there were no other passengers in the area. Just us.

The guard fumbled through our passports looking for our visas. The Air Asia clerk prodded him to hurry. Then he set them down and just asked, in Chinese, "What is your job." "We are foreign students, studying Chinese."

"Where?" In Ningxia. Yinchuan. Ningxia University."

I scrawled it onto the form and stamped our passports, letting us leave Chinese soil. I wondered for a moment what would happen if we missed the plane. Would they let us back onto Chinese soil? The clerk escorted us on to the Security station, I fumbled to get the tablet computer and camera out of the backpack so we could run it through the metal detector. Then hurried through. Then directed us toward the gate. Thankfully the international terminal is so small that it was right after the security check. They were waiting. The door was still open.

We gave the flight attendant our boarding passes, she welcomed us, ran in and sat down in our seats and laughed. "I can't believe it. That was a miracle," I exclaimed to Ruth as we sat, wanting to give every ounce of glory to God. "We had no business making it onto this flight. God is good."

Within seconds they closed the door. It was 3:18. Three minutes later we were taxing down the runway. Then, just a couple minutes after 3:25, we were in the air. My adrenaline still had barely worn off four hours later as we touched down in the Land of Smiles. Nobody wore bigger smiles than us.

A song blaring through my headphones as I typed this on the plane drew me into worship and contemplation.

"I lean not on my own understanding / My life is in the hands of the maker of heaven / I give it all to you god trusting that you make something beautiful out of me ("Nothing I Hold On To" by Will Reagan and United Pursuit).

Two days later as I post this, I can't attribute our making this flight to anyone but God. The number of things that had to go perfectly for us to make it were overwhelming. Though our faith was smaller than a mustard seed, we held into that tread of hope and He carried us. I truly lean not on my own understanding. But when you place your life in the hands of the Maker of Heaven, miracles can happen. He turns those circumstances we dread into something beautiful because it brings him glory and pleasure.

I also gained a new perspective on the passage in James that says, "faith without action is dead." Had we just sat there when we found out that the first flight was delayed and done nothing we would have missed our chance to experience this blessing. Had we limited our actions to the outcomes that seemed most likely, we'd have given up hope and had no faith. But had we only relied on our faith we'd be stuck. But faith accompanied by action is alive. We acted, showing our tiny glimmer of faith. God opened every possible door to make that flicker of faith flame into fire. "I will show you my faith by what I do," James wrote. I am in no way comparing our saving money and time by catching a flight to Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, whose offspring God had promised would become as numerous as the stars in heavan, but I do think He wants to bless us abundantly and he wanted to show us a reminder of his love for us.

Granted we'll never know what would have happened had we not acted in faith. Had we thrown up our arms, he could have made another way, but it likely wouldn't have caused us to throw our arms up in worship because it would have have cost us $1000 and taken another day since there were no other flight options to get us in tonight. "I lean not on my own understanding."

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