By Tom Wacaster
Based upon a true story, ‘The Terminal’ is an amusing tale of an imaginary man, Viktor Navorski, who arrives at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport only to discover that his passport is suddenly no longer valid due to an outbreak of a civil war in Krakozhia, his homeland. As a result, the United States no longer recognizes Krakozhia as a sovereign nation, and Mr. Navorski is not permitted to either enter the United States or return home, as he is now stateless. Due to his inability to communicate in proper English, US Customs and Border Protection seizes his passport and airline ticket. As the story unfolds, the movie viewer is pulled into the emotional turmoil that Mr. Navorski finds himself in as he struggles with issues that arise from his taking up residence in the airport. In the opening ten minutes of the movie, Viktor Navorski finds himself sitting at a the desk of Frank Dixon, senior US Customs official for the airport. Every effort is made by Dixon to communicate with Navorski, and explain to him the predicament he now faces. He cannot enter the United States, nor can he return to the his now non-existent country. Finally, Mr. Dixon attempts to illustrate Navorski’s situation with a bag of chips siting on the desk. Hitting the bag of chips with his hand, he likens Navorski’s home country of Krakozhia to that now, shattered bag of chips. I have watched the film two or three times, and each time I come to that scene, I laugh, and I think to myself, “An imaginary story that simply would not happen in real life.”
I arrived in the Philippines late last night after a grueling 17 hour, non-stop flight from DFW to Hong Cong, and then a two hour connecting flight from Hong Cong to Manila. The customs hall was full, the result of four international flights arriving at the same time. There must have been 2,000 people standing in various lines awaiting clearance into the Philippines (I didn’t count them; that’s only an estimate; what we call ‘a preachers count’). Curiously, as the hoards of people poured out of the airplanes into the corridor that would eventually lead to the huge customs hall, I found myself thinking about the opening scene in ‘The Terminal’ with the hundreds of people pouring into that customs hall at JFK. I joined the masses and selected one of the shorter lines (keep in mind that ‘short’ is relative; a line with 65 is short compared to a line with 80), and awaited my turn to clear customs, pick up my luggage, and meet my daughter who was, hopefully, awaiting my arrival downstairs. Murphy’s law says that if you pick a short line, it will always move the slowest; and it did. With only about 12 people remaining in front of me there were issues with three or four of them, and it seems the process was painstakingly slow. So I waited; and I read; and I waited. My time finally came, and I placed my passport in the hands of the customs agent, only to hear him say, “Invalid passport! You have only three months left before expiration, and you must have six months or more remaining to enter our country!” All of a sudden I had visions of Viktor Navorski being refused entrance into the country. Would I now spend the next year or so in the terminal of Manila International Airport with its dozens of shops, duty free ‘bargains’ and fast food eating establishments? Was Burger King going to be a basic staple of my diet from now for the foreseeable future, and chasing down baggage carts for instant refunds my only source of income? I was shuffled into the hands of a second, and then a third customs agent, each one expressing my predicament in precisely the same words: “No valid passport!” Each time one custom official passed me off to another, I became a little more anxious about what would be the final outcome. It was becoming apparent to me that I could very easily find myself in the same predicament as Viktor Navorski; stranded in the airport, or on my way back home at tremendous expense to myself.
Eventually I arrived at the desk of someone who seemed a little more sympathetic to my plight. I was immediately relieved that he was not eating a bag of chips (you’ll have to watch the ‘The Terminal’ to understand the importance this). He asked what I would be doing while in the Philippines, how long I would stay, and to see my return ticket home. Maybe they thought I was somehow connected with ISIS, or that I had some kind of secret plot to infect all of Manila with the Ebola virus. Thankfully he was a little more congenial than the others before him, and, after examination of all the facts in the case, he gave the authority to stamp my passport and proceed to the baggage claim area, and then out into the streets of Manila—45 minutes after my having stepped of the plane.
There are some lessons to be learned from this incident, not the least of which is, don’t ever take anything for granted when you are travelling internationally. The authorities at DFW should have immediately realized I did not have a valid passport and told me so. That is part of checking documents before printing a boarding pass for any international flight. Be that as it may, here are some observations surrounding this entire episode.
First, the problem with the custom agents here in Manila was not their problem; it was mine. It was a matter of authority, the law, and regulations. Each one of those men were simply doing their job. They recognized all that is involved in what I have often called ‘the authority principle.’ More often than not, men in positions of authority are aware of this principle. But when it comes to religion, it seems that respect for authority among most of those proclaiming allegiance to the Lord is either ignored, nor treated as if non-existent. Under the huge umbrella of ‘Christendom’ it is the proverbial ‘Burger King’ mentality: “Hold the pickle; hold the lettuce! Special orders don’t upset us!” I read in the online edition of the Fort Worth Star Telegram that one church in the Fort Worth area now offers “drive by blessings” for those who want to grab a cup of coffee at Starbucks, pick up a quick do-nut at the pastry shop, and then swing by for a blessing from a so-called priest. The complete disrespect for the words of Paul in Colossians 3:17 (or any other sacred writer for that matter) in the various areas of life is manifested in a morality that is not “moral,” marriages that are not God-ordained “marriages,” and religion that is not true religion.
Second, I learned the shame of being a law-breaker. When I was “arrested” and dragged off by a custom agent, I had no doubt that those in line were wondering what I had done! I could feel the eyes peering at the back of my neck. Two or three custom agents gathered around me, and although I was not put in cuffs, the embarrassment was no less than had I been thrown to the ground, my arms twisted behind me and my wrists placed in chains (OK! So I exaggerate a little!). Yes, I was ashamed and embarrassed that I had not followed normal protocol, checked all my documents, and investigated before I left for the Philippines. I find it sad that our society has reached the point where, like Israel of old, we are rapidly losing our ability to blush! In fact, we have gone one step further; we have folks who actually glory in their sin. Do you doubt that? What about ‘gay pride month’ - something that comes around every June! Beloved, when we sin, we ought to be ashamed! When we violate God’s law, and tread upon His love for us, and the wonderful sacrifice of our Lord, we ought to be ashamed!
Finally, I learned the wonderful value of mercy! I did not want justice that day. I did not want the custom agent sitting behind that desk to drag out the law book and quote law to me. I wanted—and I needed—mercy! When I was informed that my passport was not valid, by heart sank; but when I was told I could pass through customs, my heart was lifted, and my hope restored. Therein, beloved, is the great value of mercy. Sin destroys; mercy restores. Sin removes hope; mercy gives it back to us. Sin grieves the Holy Spirit; mercy brings delight to the Father, for it is said He “delighteth in mercy” (Micah 7:18-19). Thank God for His lovingkindness; without it how dreary and hopeless would life be.
Oh, one more thing; I am resolved not to repeat my mistake. I will make sure that, should I ever have opportunity to return to the Philippines, before doing so I will have my papers in order. To tread upon the mercy of the custom agents at Ninoy Aquino International Airport would be a slap at their compassion and mercy. Perhaps all of us could learn an important lesson here when it comes to our response to God’s wonderful compassion and mercy. To tread upon His grace would be an act of utmost arrogance. I am grateful that heaven will be my home because of that grace and mercy of the Father. And for now I am grateful that I do not have to wander the corridors of a foreign airport as did Viktor Nivorski!