To any airport nerds out there: I’m with you! Baggage claim, terminals, café stops, and gates are my jam.
Need to arrive early for a flight? Fine by me. More time to explore, people watch, and make new friends.
It’s strange, I know, but the love of airports and planes is just one of many reasons that I love traveling.
On a recent flight from Kenya to Rwanda (one that I barely made from 2+hours stuck in insane Nairobi traffic…) I sat next to a sharply intelligent, young, Ugandan medi-physicist who lives in Bahrain, in the Middle East. We exchanged typical flight partner pleasantries as you awkwardly squeeze together like little sardines. The airline attendants gave their routine speeches and we settled in for the journey. This man, inquisitive and open, like myself, shared that he is feeling led to move back to Africa, his “homeland”. He is researching cancer treatments in Bahrain – and is only one of two Ugandans specialized at this point in doing so. I asked about this “calling” home and he spoke directly and assuredly –
“God will show me, I’m sure.”
I tilted and nodded my head slightly. “That’s great…are you by chance a Christian?”
He chuckled sardonically. “No, I’m Muslim.”
He wasn’t defensive; either was I. This created the opportunity for both of us to feel comfortable to delve further into a conversation that most people could dread having.
I was undeterred, however. I wanted to respect this man, but not convolute the truth of my relationship with God. Essentially, be clear. That’s a semi-messy challenge if I have ever seen one – don’t you think?
He was quick to speak and said that he grew up in a house full of Christians. Religion had been shoved down his throat, he admitted. He clarified his experience specifically,
“I’ve read the Bible back and forth. I know the laws. I know your theology. I know what Christianity stands for. Growing up, I knew I was a Muslim. It’s not that different, you know. We worship the same God.”
I disagreed – but before I could continue, the crickety cart of snacks came through the crowded 2-foot aisle. I asked for both a cup of coffee and soda water. “Sorry,” the flight attendant muttered, “there is not coffee.”
Woah. What. Of all times…!
I took the soda water gratefully, and turned back towards my new friend. He changed the topic and pressed further into his own faith curiosity and asked about my “religious background.” I took a sip, and shared.
Well, let me start by saying that for me, God isn’t a religion. It’s the purpose of my life.
From a family of divorce, I just wanted something that would stick together and church seemed to have it. At first, the God I followed was demanding of perfectionism, deeds, and self-promotion. I saw a lot of brokenness, poverty, and suffering and figured the antidote was good works. Later, I conceived of a God that was much more free-flowing; love-all, do-all, we all got a bit of truth. Nobody had it all figured out…right?
He stared at me compassionately as I articulated my testimony. I hadn’t expected to give this on a plane; but I suppose in the skies is just as well as anywhere else.
Life in Rwanda dramatically impacted my experience with God – and I changed. I was kept safe (sometimes explainable only by miracles!), surrounded by love, and met people that spoke of the Spirit of God unlike I had heard before. Echoes of Jesus and his ministry became real and tangible. Yet, I was at times obsessed with goodness. Instead of God’s love consistently fueling my actions – it was sometimes my desire to be accepted, do well, and find approval in the world. I was doing all the right things, but not always with the right motivation. He was using me, I am sure, but spiritually, I never felt good enough. I could FEEL the power of God around me; I could SEE the fruits of faith; but a fear of vulnerability kept more from total surrender to this God I was witnessing work.
God wasn’t done. He would press vulnerability into me like the mashing of sweet potatoes in the fall. A friend that would challenge my entire belief system, life, and identity entered my life. Divine, God-fearing, funny, and kind, became a close friend in Rwanda. She taught me about being a Rwandan woman, about the complexities of this country, and ultimately, what was required to be a part of my small, rural community. It was strangely one of the easiest friendships I had ever had. We had no reason to relate (culturally, economically, emotionally, and geographically) but a foundation of trust was instant. She demonstrated to me what raw vulnerability could be like from the beginning.
Something happened along the way and the openness I was feeling with Divine became a replacement for God. I felt so safe in that relationship that I placed it on a pedestal and felt identity-less without it. I became confused. Our relationship slipped into romantic involvement and for the next weeks, months, and yes, even years, would be uncertain about my heart and who I was. I tried dealing with this confusion by excessively exercising, under-eating, and ignoring any inclination for God in my heart. I could do figure this all out, I told myself. I could fix this.
I took a deep breath. That’s a lot to tell someone on a plane.
“Wow….you have quite a story here…”
I cut him off. If he wanted the story, he was certainly going to get it.
That wasn’t the end. I didn’t figure it out by myself.
I surrendered my life to God – and then (and only then!) could anything make sense. God found me this summer, drew me up, and showered forgiveness, grace, and promise unlike I had ever known to be possible. The life of Jesus and the importance of the resurrection began to make sense for the first time; with God’s people there could be no saving themselves. In my life, there could be no peace from my own work. So, we need Jesus. I needed Jesus. He wants us that badly. When I resigned to defining my own identity, finally – that in fact, I couldn’t figure it out – He met me in that very real place of weakness, submission, and brokenness and took care of everything else. For idolatry, for sexual immorality, for selfishness, for anger, for sin – I asked for forgiveness. It sounds crazy, but in those sweet moments with God, I saw the gospel alive and I experienced the power of the Holy Spirit come to life. It’s real. God’s real. I am still the same, messed up, woman. But, I have been made new. The confusion that so long had ruled my life, reigns no more. I know who I am. I acknowledge the imperfections of my humanness and surrender to serve God anyway. He chose me first, after all.
I released a sigh. “Yes, now….yeah. That’s my story with God. As much as I can really summarize, anyway.”
Surprised with this kind of candidness, I think, he graciously thanked me for sharing. I was exhausted, surprised that I shared so much, surprised that he had listened. I thanked him also for giving me the space and the respect to give a personal testimony like that – all in the comforts of Seats 10A and 10B.
“You talk a lot about Jesus.” He pauses for a single moment.
“And while I appreciate your story, I still don’t quite understand what you mean by ‘encountering Jesus’ and ultimately, why you would need Jesus to find God. I hear Christians praying TO Jesus and I find this incredibly confusing. Don’t you think God might be offended by the fact that you would need to go through Jesus to get through Him?”
Woah. Now we’re getting serious. This is the core of the Christian faith – why the gospel?
(Where’s the coffee when you need it?)
“If there was no Jesus,” I slowly say, “there could not be reconciliation. God did not to reconcile Himself – He needs us to be reconciled to Him. He is perfect. Unable to reconcile ourselves amidst our own depravity, Jesus was God’s gift, heart, and love for the world. He gave Jesus all authority and thus He was both man and God – ”
“But see! How is that possible?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know! I can’t tell or explain everything perfectly. But, I can tell you that Jesus was sent to free us. Evil swarms the world and without any point of grace, we will be lost to it.”
“You see, that’s where we differ. I follow God. I follow His commands. I seek to submit to Him and He works in my life.”
It was around this time I could sense we would have to agree to disagree. The flight was coming to an end, our seatbelts needed to be fastened.
“A life with Jesus recognizes that your power is limited. It’s all from Him – He’s the one that found you in the first place. Jesus – and then knowing God – has far less to do with your own actions as much as it does as allowing Him to work in your life. It’s seeing His glory in everything – not our own. It’s a faith unlike any others. It’s less about you, more about Him.”
I stopped there. I recognized there wasn’t much more I could say. And, really, that was okay. This passenger-neighbor of mine again thanked me for the conversation. He kept it simple,
“Perhaps we’ll meet again. You aren’t like a lot of Christians that I know.”
I had no idea what the heck that meant, but okie dokie, then.
Exiting the tarmac that cool Rwandan evening, I found my bags and glided onto the back of a moto.
I recounted this conversation in my head (did I say everything right? Was my theology sound? Did I glorify God?). I found myself laughing aloud. I had prayed specifically for opportunities to share my faith – only then did I realize that of course, it would happen on a plane. Less about getting it all right, I was honest and spoke truth. Less about forcing someone to think the same, I gave glory to God.
In the skies, I guess, anything can happen. Conversations can lead to deep testimonies or small musings over tea. It doesn’t really matter. You don’t have to throw your ideas around in other people’s faces – but you can share, humbly and definitely, what has happened in your life. It’s your story.
Not everyone will listen. Not everyone cares. But if you are faithful, you will get a chance. People want to know why the gospel or why faith or why (fill in the blank). You never know when you might need to be heard.
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Romans 6: 3-4