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Missing the Bombs for the Bottles

TSAMuch has been said about the TSA and their growing freedom to do pretty much whatever they want to us once we enter an airport. I don’t like those backscatter x-ray machines and refuse to go through, which means that I have had to get that full and invasive patdown a few times now. While it’s not the kind of thing I get too outraged about, I do find it frustrating. We all know that it is largely a charade–that giving invasive patdowns to those who refuse to go through the backscatter machines really does nothing to make the skies safer. It is security theater, designed not to stop terrorism but to make us feel like it is stopping terrorism. Patting down toddlers is the price we pay to feel safer.

Patrick Smith, who writes the column “Ask the Pilot” for, writes about an absurd situation he encountered recently. He was snagged for not putting all of his liquids and gels in a little zippered baggy. No problem; though having to put your little travel-sized liquids in a baggy is another silly and largely pointless exercise, Smith complies. But here’s where it gets funny–the TSA guy doesn’t then scan those liquids or do anything else with them; he just wants them in the baggy. As if having them in a plastic bag makes the skies safer. As soon as he is past the checkpoint, Smith takes them out of the bag (as it is his right to do). But at the checkpoint, even after they went through the machine, the agent insisted on having them in a bag. It’s utterly pointless.

At the end of his column Smith writes about an infamous situation in which TSA agents missed the forest for the trees–or something like that.

Are we looking for liquids, or are we looking for explosives? A search for the former is not a de facto search for the latter. Not the way we’ve been doing it. Steve Elson tells the story of a test in which TSA screeners are presented with a suitcase containing a mock explosive device with a water bottle nestled next to it. They ferret out the water, of course, while the bomb goes sailing through.

This is not to say that we do not need the TSA and that airports and airplanes need no security. Quite the opposite. The fact is, though, that most of the public measures are designed to elicit a feeling of security rather than to actually make anyone or anything secure.

Blah blah blah. I could rant about this for a long time. When it comes right down to it, Romans 13 compels me to submit and obey (though technically the TSA has no connection to my government). So I submit to their rules, ridiculous as they are.

Now let me draw an application I’ve had to make to myself.

It seems increasingly clear that as far as the TSA is concerned, agents are being trained to search for water bottles more than bombs. It is more about following the rules than it is about actually protecting the skies. Or certainly that is how it seems. If we get all of the water bottles out of the skies, we’ll also get all of the bombs. But it doesn’t quite work like that.

What does this have to do with me? I began thinking about this and realized how easy it is to begin to train people to look for the wrong things–the things that matter less. And I started to think about what I look for in people. And how easy it is to look for the wrong things. And I realized, I am certainly prone to look for the wrong things, to focus on the wrong things, to even find some sense of satisfaction in the wrong things–to delight in the water bottle while the bomb sails through.

Like sin. I find it quite easy to find sin in people. In fact, I think I’m remarkably adept at it. Ask me to share what is wrong with a person, the things that annoy me, the areas in which they are prone to sin, and I think I can put together a pretty good file. But ask me to identify the ways in which the Lord is working in their lives, and I’m going to have to spend a little bit more time thinking about it. That list will inevitably be shorter.

In our small groups at Grace Fellowship Church we talk about evidences of grace. Every week we single out a person and spend a few minutes just telling that person how we have seen the Lord active in and through him (or her). It’s a bit of an awkward time, if you are the person “on the spot,” but it is also a time of real blessing. It’s always surprising how others identify as strengths what you are convinced are actually weaknesses. Almost everyone will attest to this. And it’s surprising that having several friends tell you about the grace they see in you is not an occasion of pride but of genuine humility.

While it’s a wonderful tradition, it can also be an unexpectedly tough one for those of us who have trained ourselves poorly. And it turns out that I’ve got a long history of training myself to look for the wrong things. Train yourself to look for bottles and you’ll find bottles; train yourself to look for bombs and you’ll find bombs. I admit it’s not the best analogy ever, but it’s been speaking to me. I need to train myself–carefully, deliberately, biblically–to look for what matters most.

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