Sunday, May 25, 2008

What God Gives on Plane Flights

So there I was, in the airplane, hunkered down in my seat next to the window on the first leg of the flight back from Kansas, on my way from Kansas City to Detroit. I am clearly reading my book on Ephesos (getting ready for my trip to Turkey in August). But it doesn't really matter which book, any book will do. You have to understand that I approach conversation with seat-mates on an airplane with about the same enthusiasm that I reserve for root canal work. They are something to be avoided if possible as far as I'm concerned.

This time I have the creeping feeling that my tactic isn't going to work. The guy next to me is obviously noticing me reading. He's working up to something. I get a little more curled up in my corner. He glances over again. Now I know it's coming. And it does: "I see you're reading about Ephesos." "Yes." (will a monosyllable be discouraging enough?) "Are you reading it for reasons of faith or just for information?" (Oh no - conversations between Episcopalians and Evangelicals on a plane can be a real nightmare of religious manipulation). "Well," I say, (not prepared to be outright rude,) "I am going to Ephesos this summer, so it's largely for information, but there is certainly faith involved in this journey."

Now the gates are open. Now it's going to come. There's no way out.

And it doesn't turn out to be what I'm expecting. Not at all. The guy, in fact, really needs somebody to talk to. He's hurting. He's looking for some comfort, and he has decided that a nice white-haired gentleman reading a book about Ephesos might just do the trick. And here's the story. He's fairly young - in his mid-20's, and he is a youth worker in a large church in the mid-west. He has developed some philosophical conflicts about his work with the parish he serves and has been looking for another job. And he's just finished the big interview weekend in a new place. It looks like a dream. Great church, fits his outlook like a glove. He loves the place, and they show all the signs of loving him - the staff likes him, the pastors like him, he loves the set-up, it looks like a go.

However in this congregation, they require a consenting vote from the congregation when hiring any important staff member, so the congregation has to meet and take this vote. He has to get an 85% majority to be hired.

He gets 84%.

Now he's on his way back to where he came from. I can't even imagine what it would be like to have that experience. Now I know why he needs someone to talk to, and I'm ashamed of my reticence to be open to the encounter. I can understand not getting a job. I can even understand coming close. Missing it by 1% really horrifies me. I can't think what that would feel like.

He's in deep pain. I wouldn't describe his state as a crisis of faith, but he sure is having trouble fitting the faith as he knows it into the framework of what has just happened. Prayer seems impossible. He describes a lot of self-doubt and insecurity. There's anger and some self-directed negative stuff in there too.

So we talk. I try to think if I have anything that which would be both genuine and which stands a chance of being helpful. If you read this column regularly you won't have any trouble imagining what I come up with. I ask if he has prayed the pain. I inquire if he has taken the self-doubt to God. And of course at the beginning I might as well be speaking Urdu. No one has ever talked to him in these terms. This isn't surprising. He works in the context of a very American form of religion and Americans don't operate this way. Success is the name of the game. What God does with pain is take it away. Self-doubt is to be conquered. I'm asking him to take this stuff and treasure it enough to offer it to God as the basis of some communication.

But I'll have to say that he takes to it pretty quickly. He's amazingly and genuinely both open minded and open hearted And we haven't been talking very long when he reveals to me that just a couple of weeks ago he gave a talk to the kids he works with about being so dedicated to God that you are willing to have everything taken away from you. He even said that he could see himself being destitute for the sake of his faith. "And who," I say, "do you suppose you were preaching that for?" He guffaws. That's not a word I ever use, but it's the only one that fits this particular response. There's an explosion of laughter and relief and he struggles to get out his answer: "Me", he says.

Ok - I've managed to put a bit of perspective into this situation, and I've suggested a change of view that he can explore and even respect. But here's where it gets really interesting, because here's where stuff begins to flow in the other direction. With a good deal of enthusiasm he gets up and fetches his computer and pulls up a sermon from the Internet. It's where his talk to the kids came from. It's entitled: "God is Enough". And boy, is it powerful. It is by a talented and anointed preacher saying something something that reaches all the way down to the bottom of me. It's a sermon designed to counter the arguments of the Propserity Gospel - the view that all you have to do is believe rightly and act faithfully and you will be rewarded monetarily. And over and over again in the course of a homily of about 5 minutes, this guy drums out: "Whatever your circumstance, whatever your needs, whatever your demands, God is enough." Some of his illustrations are outrageous - they are intended to be. This talk is designed to break through ordinary human resistance with the Gospel. God is enough.

Because, of course, I'm worried at this particular point in my own history. The economy is tanking, and I don't know how this is going to affect us here at Holy Cross. Next year's budget looks pretty serious. We have no endowment and no large reserves. And if the cost of oil causes people to come to the guesthouse in smaller numbers that will lower our income. And the cost of gasoline, and the cost of insurance, and the cost of medical treatment are skyrocketing. You know the story. You are affected by it, too. And I'm in charge here. This all lies at my doorstep.

And into my worry and anxiety comes the word of the Gospel, conveyed by a hurting mega-church youth worker: "God is enough".

I've had plenty of conversations with Evangelicals on airplanes and they were mostly very unpleasant, with people who were unwilling to grant that my religious experience or my viewpoint had anything positive to be said about it at all. I've been mowed down by professionals, and if I insist on holding my own it can get really nasty. I've don't believe I've ever had an airplane conversation that was actually an experience of genuine faith exchange and heart sharing like this. He isn't even put off by the fact that I'm a Benedictine Monk in the Episcopal Church. That just intrigues him a bit. We each have a gift for each other that comes straight from the Lord.

As the plane touches down on the runway in Detroit, he suggests that we pray. We reach for each other's hand and start praying. (My God, I don't believe this, I'm actually doing this willingly. Usually I experience this stuff as more of a nightmare than an opportunity.) The prayer flows, it comes quite naturally. It's just sharing between two people who have been blessed.

Will this change the way I approach such encounters in the future? I'm not sure. I expect that my crusty exterior may be a bit thinner, though. And I do know that the heart of my prayer for the past couple of weeks has been hearing a phrase sounding in the depths of my heart: "God is enough. God is enough."

That ought to do something for my leadership, shouldn't it?

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