Not Sure About Visiting?

We would be happy to answer some questions you may have.

Backup Plans

As business travelers go, my guess is that I tend to fall pretty squarely on the Compliant Passenger end of the airport Threat Assessment spectrum. Rubbing sleep out of my eyes at dark o’clock a few mornings ago, I was in a groovy, mellow mood while shuffling through the TSA Pre-Check line to pose for an X-ray glamour shot before receiving my complimentary security sniffing from the overly familiar German Shepherd doing his part to make sure we would be flying friendly skies on the first plane of the day. Wanting only my own dog-eared copy of the airline magazine and one of the thoroughly impenetrable bags of peanuts-and-pretzels that flight attendants throw to passengers like zoo handlers feeding a congress of chimpanzees, I settled into the departure lounge to wait eagerly for our boarding call. What could possibly go wrong?

If at this point in our story you have answered, “Plenty,” then you, my friend, are an experienced traveler showing outstanding potential for the Spiritual Gift of Martyrdom. But in my case, it wasn’t until the gate ticket agent wearing cargo shorts on that rainy day started breathing heavily into the microphone that I began to sense we might be in some trouble. First, Mister Cargo Shorts explained that we should not worry over the fact that the plane originally scheduled for our departure had just come up lame after arriving from Denver. Everything would be fine, he breathed reassuringly over the microphone, for we would simply wait for a replacement plane the airline was now scrambling to send us from San Francisco in expedited fashion. Honestly, it made me feel special at first. After all, who was I to worry or complain?  At that moment, I was envisioning a San Francisco flight crew running across the tarmac to clamber into our replacement plane after being summoned to duty by the blare of a klaxon horn which had undoubtedly awakened them from their bunks in some airport hangar. But after considering that it might actually take a fleet of taxicabs and hotel vans to ferry some unsuspecting flight crew toward that backup plane, I started to do what Mister Cargo Shorts had specifically told us not to do. I began to worry that a four-hour delay in my departure would cut into the margin of safety in my travel plans. For after finally arriving at my intended destination, I would still have another two-hour drive in a rental car to get up to the mountain lodge where I was scheduled to begin speaking that evening to a few hundred ministry households already gathering for their annual retreat. I might be cutting it a bit closer than planned, but really, what else could possibly go wrong?

Yes, I know. You have the Spiritual Gift of Prophecy, and at this point in the story it is indeed crystal clear to you that I was doomed. But given that even without my reading glasses I could still see our replacement plane through the terminal windows when it pulled up to the gate exactly four hours late, I remained completely relaxed and confident. I even stood to my feet before trudging over to assume the position next to my assigned place in the boarding line, as if by sheer force of will and punctuality I could help coax our plane back into the air on time to get me to that lodge where I would speak to what by now I had envisioned as a crowd of thousands of burdened and bedraggled pastor-types breathlessly waiting for me to share with them the Word that would keep them going for another day, week, or year of parish ministry. But alas, it was not to be. Once again, Mister Cargo Pants began blowing on the microphone, telling us that upon arrival at our airport, the cockpit warning indicator for the Anti-Skid System of our replacement plane had flickered on, and we would not be able to take-off until a contract airplane mechanic could be summoned to our location to see what might be done to reset that dashboard safety signal. Usually, Mister Cargo Pants explained to us, the captain and co-pilot would simply make a safety note in the maintenance logbook regarding this inexplicable Anti-Skid warning light and turn the plane around to head out for the next flight. But, on this particular rainy day, it would be de rigueur for the pilots to go strictly by-the-book to avoid aquaplaning down the slickened runway. Who knew? But after recalculating my remaining chance of making it on time to the mountain lodge where I was scheduled to speak to that imaginary gathering of presumably tearful and trembling pastors and spouses, I do not mind telling you that I was getting worried. By this time I was envisioning a waiting throng that probably numbered only slightly larger than the crowd that gathered on the National Mall for the Inauguration of President Donald J. Trump.  So, I did what any clear-headed man who has been happily married for at least three weeks would do: I called my wife to see what she might advise under these circumstances. I guess you could say that this is how I roll when it finally becomes clear to me that I am doomed, just as you had probably surmised much earlier.

Let me skip most of the rest of the blow-by-blow account of my lost day waiting almost fourteen hours at the airport through four cancelled flights before taking the last ride out of Dodge.  But it only seems fair to mention that I eventually made it safely through winding mountain roads to gratefully collapse at dark o’clock in a hotel room reserved for me by the very kind people whose guest speaker somehow managed to miss the opening session of their annual retreat. So, instead of further whining and complaint, perhaps I should simply state for the record at least a few of the initial theological conclusions that became evident to me while exploring every square inch of that airport terminal with my fellow passengers from Doomed Flight Number 378. First, with apologies to the Ordination Committee which had initially voted to approve my ministerial credentials three-and-a-half decades ago, having spent fourteen hours in an airport waiting for a plane that could safely get me off the ground, I am now open to reconsider the doctrinal concept of Purgatory. Seriously. If you ask me why this is so, let me merely share with you that for me, the coup de grace which finally put me out of my worry and misery had to be what happened when I went looking for a quiet place of solitude and relative silence in the terminal after learning that our fourth flight had been canceled due to rain. I know what you are probably thinking: Where would you find such a place of quiet rest in an airport? But after seeking some space to relax near several of the “terminal restaurants” (and here I am using quotation marks in a completely ironical sense) only to be driven away by the sound of jackhammers and hydraulic drills while these fine-dining establishments appeared to be under renovation, I did manage to make myself at home in a secluded spot where nobody seemed to bother me. However, I could not help but notice that passersby were in fact looking at me with some mixture of confusion and disdain while I sat contentedly in that place reading through my sermon files in preparation for the upcoming pastor’s retreat. At first, their dark glances in my general direction made very little sense to me until I looked again carefully at my own immediate surroundings to discover an overhead sign that solved this mystery. Mine was an honest mistake. It seems I had taken up residence next to the breastfeeding station for nursing mothers. Again, let me speak theologically. Some days a guy just can’t catch a break.

In the end, you might expect that the experience brought to mind a Scriptural text for a preacher like me who is rediscovering the fact that we are never really in control of our own circumstances. Honestly, the other day at the airport made it clear that I was traveling in the company of no less than the Apostle Paul whose own failed attempts to get successfully from Point A to Point B are recorded in the 16th chapter of Acts. If you look it up yourself, you will read a rather unusual itinerary for Paul’s business travel on what is known to us as his Second Missionary Journey. For there in the text, the Gospel storyteller lays out the history not of where Paul intended to go, but instead a perplexing itinerary of places where God did not allow him to go. He wanted to speak the Word in Asia, but Paul was forbidden to do so by the Holy Spirit. Then Paul attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow him to travel there. In the end, this bold and extraordinarily stubborn missionary of Christ ended up in a place called Troas only to learn by a vision in the night that where the Lord actually wanted him to go was the lone, remaining direction that he was still free to travel. So, after trying unsuccessfully to go South and North following his initial journey from the East, Paul and his traveling companions were eventually convinced that God had determined to send them with the Gospel for the very first time to the continent of Europe in the West. Maybe it just plays out this way at times when you’re trying to figure out the will of God. For after you’ve tried to travel faithfully toward the East, South, or North, perhaps the Lord may simply be telling you that it is finally time for you to consider moving West!  Indeed, sometimes discerning the will of God can turn out to be every bit as prosaic and pedestrian as discovering that you are being directed to keep moving forward in some new way only after all other roads have been closed off to you. Or to put it in another way, maybe the real issue is to just keep going.

Now I recognize that this is a rather counter-intuitive message in an evangelical subculture that generally tends to tell us that we should always be receiving at least our fair share of cherished dreams and hopes fulfilled if we are following hard after Jesus. But judging from what I know of both Scripture and our life of faith following this rather odd Messiah who was Crucified, Dead, and Buried before being Raised by the power of God, it should come as no surprise that sometimes we will instead have to become accustomed to encountering an occasionally inexplicable “No” in our journey with the Lord. We may not understand, agree, or fully appreciate that “No” that we are given at times along this way of faith, but being a disciple of Jesus often requires enough growth in grace that we can at least begin to hear and respond faithfully to those times when God has said, “No.” So, if you determine that you are willing to live in this way, you just might also find yourself praying more deeply, passionately, and obediently to that holy and wholly other One who has confused you at times by saying a Divine No that will frustrate your most carefully designed and best laid plans. But here is the Good News: When you are praying more intently and honestly out of the bewilderment and consternation you are experiencing, well, that is the best path for you to be on. The saints of every age will testify to that fact. For as David put it long ago in Psalm 25: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.”

Because I do not wish to overlook the many times that this steadfast love and faithfulness (our Hebrew Scriptures call this hesed, or the “long-acting love” of God) often shows up precisely because things do not seem to be happening according to plan, something I read recently from pastoral theologian Craig Barnes sounds just right to me. He summarized it this way: “I think we need to develop a profound theology of Plan B. Theology goes like this: I thought I was supposed to do Plan A. I was wrong. Now I need Plan B. This is not a particularly sophisticated theology, but it works in my life. You would be amazed at how many times people in the Biblical drama are going to Plan B. But if you look it up, you’ll find it there over and over again . . . All of them had to go to Plan B, but along the way in their confusion they drew close to God, they learned to worship, and they experienced more [transformation] in their lives as a result of the worship, which was God’s Plan A all along. [And while] some of you may be up to Plan X or Y or Z, that’s all right. Go to double letters if you have to, but you have got to get off the hook for being right all the time with these choices. That’s called hubris, and it’s one of the deadlier sins.”

I missed an airplane the other day. In fact, I missed several flights, and as a result, I ran way late in getting to my intended destination. But that turned out to be OK. The whole ordeal simply became an experience in waiting, an extended exercise in grace given to remind me that at times God might force me to follow in some unexpected ways until I can rest content in the knowledge that truly all of the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness. Of course, I was thick-witted and obtuse enough that I did not see any of this at first, for at times I am not even attentive enough to recognize where I have taken my refuge in a noisy airport terminal. But maybe that posed no real problem to the patient Lord who was my Traveling Companion that day. For ours remains the God of this inconceivable hesed, a God of steadfast love who can and will use even the wrong roads to get us to the right places.

Jeff Crosno