It was Saturday, June 11, 2011 around 4 p.m. I was excited to check my email, expecting a check-in reminder from Delta. In 24 hours I was supposed to be taking my first international trip with Music to Light the World. A 20-minute interview and four-piece piano performance were planned for Monday morning. It was amazing to think that these would be broadcast all across Canada on a future air date. This would be a significant expansion of our vision to offer God’s “peace and rest in a hurried world.” The email had arrived, confirming my flight from Atlanta to Toronto on Sunday, June 12.
I clicked “check in” and the next screen said “Please enter your passport information.” Passport!!! How could I have forgotten!? I had been home for several days, so there had been plenty of time to get ready. I couldn’t believe this had escaped my mind for such an important trip. My passport was in a safety deposit box at the credit union, which was closed for the weekend. Thoughts ran through my head…“How can I find a credit union employee to let me in? Should I break in? I could explain later.” I called and got the voice mail. There was no after hours emergency number and no “if you forgot your passport today please press 1” option. I decided to search the Delta website for answers.
It looked like a U.S. passport was required for any international travel, even to Canada. Toronto seemed so close, and yet so far. I remember seeing the city’s famous needle landmark on a trip to Niagra Falls. Couldn’t the friendly Canadians just let me in to play the piano for a few minutes? I googled “passport Canada travel” and it wasn’t looking good. A passport was required to re-enter the U.S. I called Delta and they told me to call TSA (Transportation Security Administration). I called TSA and to my astonishment, a message said, “Our office hours are Monday through Friday, 8 to 5.” It was Saturday. Very embarrassed, I called my transportation contact in Canada. She said there could be a chance I could make it. More embarrassed, I called our public relations contact who had arranged this trip. I had told my wife about my dilemma and she was doubtful.
At 5:15 p.m. I stopped by the dry cleaner to pick up some shirts I was planning to wear in Toronto. My transportation contact called back and said, “you should be okay.” My last trip out of the country had been in 2008. We were instructed to make a photocopy of our passport. This gave me a glimmer of hope. Maybe if I could show this along with my driver’s license I could make it through. I also found my social security statement and my son’s birth certificate that said I, his father, was born in the United States. I told my wife I at least had to give this a try. I said a prayer and let go for the night.
Sunday morning my wife had volunteered us for the infant nursery at church. My flight was six hours away and the little babies were reminding me to have child-like faith. I thought about how nice it was when I was four months old and didn’t have any worries. It turned out that our pastor’s sermon was on 1 Samuel 30 and 31, which chronicles some of David’s ups and downs. He said that God is gracious, yet there is no guarantee that all will go well. Great. Would God be gracious to me at the airport?
I said another prayer with my wife and kids and we said our goodbyes. On the 30-minute drive to the airport I decided I would not stop at the Delta counter, but would go directly to the TSA security checkpoint. I had been able to enter my passport number on the Delta website from the photocopy. This allowed me to print my precious boarding pass. I didn’t have any bags to check, only a carry on that could fly free. I reflected on gratitude and peace in the car. There was nothing else I could do.
I stood in the security line, having my passport photocopy and driver’s license out. As I gave them to the young TSA man, I said “I am very embarrassed, but my passport is in my safety deposit box.” He looked things over and said, “You’re okay here. You should be okay there.” Wow, that was easier than I thought. Shoes off, computer out, empty pockets, smile, say “thank you” and I was in. Now all I had to do was catch the train out to Concourse B to my departure gate.
As I stepped on the subway I had the sense that I was on an adventure that was being written one sentence at a time. It was getting more interesting not knowing what was going to happen in the story, not knowing how it would end. Wham! As I was about to step off the train at the Concourse B stop, a guy swung his luggage over his left shoulder and hit my glasses harder than any time in my life! They went flying to the floor and my vision went blurry. I saw something shiny around my feet as people were walking by and I managed to grab them. I eased off the train just before the doors closed and began to inspect. I had gotten my first pair of glasses at age ten. Along the way you learn that getting your glasses knocked off is one of life’s greatest evils. This pair was only a few months old, my first time with progressive lenses for distance and for reading. They were all I had with me. Somehow they didn’t break. The left nose piece was bent, so I tried to return it to its proper position. As I was doing this, the man who had launched my glasses asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Yes, I think so” and he walked away. I was ready to say “I forgive you,” but he never said he was sorry. I knew for certain now that this adventure would have some twists and turns.
I gathered myself and made the long walk out to gate B36 at the very end of the concourse. I had made it through checkpoint #1 and had my boarding pass in hand, so I told myself, “Maybe it will be that easy again.” Maybe not. My zone came up for boarding and the lady scanned by boarding pass. Instead of the nice “beep” sound that means “good to go” the screen said “Document Review.” She said “Step to the counter please.” After waiting a few minutes for the gentleman in front of me to finish it was my turn. I repeated my plea from the first TSA checkpoint, “I am very embarrassed, but my passport is in my safety deposit box.” Then I said, “This is an important business trip to Toronto and I am coming back to Atlanta tomorrow. I have a copy of my passport and other I.D. and hoped this would be okay.” She said, “Sir, please stand behind the counter.” I guess I had gotten a little too close to her in calmly making my appeal. She was typing, typing, typing and a minute or two went by. I was waiting, waiting, waiting, wondering what the next sentence in the story would be. Was I getting on the plane or heading back home? She printed a new boarding pass, scanned it, and said, “You may board now.” I said, “Thank you.”
Wow. What a relief. I experienced a sensation of grace, unmerited favor. God is gracious, yet there is no guarantee that all will go well. So, in this story, I was going to fly into Toronto now, and see if I would be allowed to enter Canada without a passport. The plane became a symbol of faith in God, and how I cannot get on the plane by being nice, or being good, or having it all together. It is only by grace that I can have a seat on the plane, so to speak.
At Canadian customs I told the young man, “I am very embarrassed, but my passport is in my safety deposit box. I have this copy and other I.D. and am only going to be in Toronto for a day.” He gave me a funny look, like this was a little outside the box from the normal flow of his day and his training. He said, “Things happen,” and sent me to a special review area for conversation with a higher up customs official. This lady looked things over and was surprised I had made it this far. I said, “I am very embarrassed…” and she initialed the customs form that allowed me to enter Canada. Thank you Lord.
I called my shuttle to the hotel to let her know where I was for pick up. Then, as I moved to put my mobile phone back in its holder I bumped my arm and the phone went about two feet in the air. I had moved it to my weaker left hand, and lunged to catch it so it wouldn’t bust into pieces on the concrete below. It was like a hot potato, bouncing up off my left hand about one foot in the air. This happened twice more and I managed to catch it. I shook my head as this adventure continued. It wasn’t as bad as the glasses crash, but I was that close to watching my phone hit the pavement.
All of this became our conversation in the van ride to the hotel. Fear and uncertainty. Grace and mercy. Adventure and mystery. Faith and trust. Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief. It had become clear that this was a story to be told. And it was only half over.
The interview and performance tapings went exceptionally well. It was so affirming to know that I was supposed to be there. That the obstacles I had overcome were for a greater purpose. It is beautiful, wonderful and scary to see our lives as a story being written moment by moment. Embracing the unknown has been hard for me in life, so this was another opportunity to be stretched. Somehow God sees us through each challenge by grace.
I remembered reading online that the real reason you need your passport when going to Canada is to get back into the U.S. This had stayed in the back of my mind, since I wouldn’t have to deal with it until my flight back to Atlanta. Surely I would be allowed to go home.
I wasn’t able to automatically print my boarding pass this time, so I had to go the Delta counter. Since every other passenger had their passport, once again I was the curve ball in the Delta representative’s day. She quietly went about her typing. It felt like there were more key strokes than normal, like notes were being added to my permanent record. Watch out for this Lanier guy. He has the nerve to think he can travel around without his passport. She handed me my boarding pass.
Now I had a 30-minute wait in line at what looked like a serious border patrol station. I wasn’t sure where the actual geographic Canada-United States line was, but this sure looked like it. Again, everyone but me had their passport. There were five customs agents with open stations. I was studying each one, wondering who would be the lucky one to take a swing at my curve ball. It turned out to be Sharma. I went through my “I’m so embarrassed” speech. She said, “Why did you come to Canada without a passport?” She shook her head and started typing. She pulled out a folder and put several items inside. She directed me to a door on the right that nobody else was going through. I was headed to a special screening room and was thinking, “I am so glad I remembered to leave my key chain pin knife at home.”
There were three guys in the special screening area who didn’t seem to be doing much. Tanabe, the customs agent I would meet, sighed as I stepped up to the counter. I shared my story of embarrassment and that I was headed back home to Atlanta. He asked me, “You know a photocopy of a passport is not valid, don’t you?” Then he told me to go have a seat. As he began typing he murmured, “I can’t believe those Canadians let you in. I guess we have to let you go back home.” Shaking his head, he gave me my papers and pointed me through the door to the United States.
By this time I had forgotten that one more person stood between me and getting on the plane home. He was the gate boarding agent, asking everyone to have their boarding pass and passport out. Again, I was the only passenger on the entire plane with a photocopy, and for the seventh time on the trip I briefly explained my story. He said, “You’re lucky. Have a nice trip.”
This adventure will always remind me that God is gracious, even though there are no guarantees that all will go well. I was humbled and things were beyond my control. God taught me to be even more thankful for His grace and forgiveness; to be strong and courageous; to embrace fear, mystery, uncertainty, beauty and wonder in life’s journey. To have faith. And of course, to always remember my passport.