Not Sure About Visiting?

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

Hard Landings

Because I could recall no previous experience flying a transcontinental jetliner into the teeth of the Category 4 hurricane barreling across North Carolina beneath us, I paid fairly close attention to what the captain was saying on the cabin intercom. Because my peculiar vocation requires me to exercise a certain level of care in selecting my words, at that particular moment in our encounter with Hurricane Matthew it may have been advisable for our pilot to have refrained from announcing that we were about to make our final descent. Even so, you had to admire the sheer pluck of the fellow up in the cockpit who was telling us in an impeccably calm and Sully-esque airline captain sort of voice that, and I quote, “We still think that it looks do-able, so we should be on the ground in a few minutes.” In exactly what kind of condition we would shortly be on the ground he did not happen to say, but true to his word our plane made a few more hard bounces than usual before the pilot gunned his way across the tarmac right up to the welcoming door of the terminal jetway. Everyone onboard seemed suitably impressed; cheering, clapping, selfie-taking, even fist-bumping and high-fiving the captain when he emerged from the cockpit to bid us a fond farewell from behind the mirror reflection of his vintage aviator sunglasses. So let me give the man his due: Our plane landed with both wings still intact, which is always a plus in my book. And as we disembarked from the plane, I simply thanked the pilot for all his good work, resisting the urge to tease him over the fact that he did not exactly stick the landing. But who am I to complain? Captain Sully Junior had deposited me safely back in Durham, North Carolina, the Land of Sweet Tea, Tobacco Road, and those Southern restaurant servers with hair big enough to get caught in ceiling fans. Now it was dinner time in hurricane country, and I was off on my way to find one of those waitresses who are always ready to ask, “What-can-I-get-for-you-Darlin’?”

To tell the truth, I am hoping that may be a good enough introduction that you will allow me a few moments to observe that a hurricane is not the only kind of storm you might encounter, and it may not even be the worst that you can imagine. For without intending in any glib way to minimize the devastating impact of the floodwaters and hurricane-force winds that we witnessed in North Carolina this week, I also found myself completely bumfuzzled on several occasions as I bumped into complete strangers curiously ready to speak about some of the hard landings they had experienced in recent days. “Why were they so willing to dump their bucket with me?” I wondered silently in each instance, knowing all too well that there are often quite a few moments when I prove more adept at shutting rather than opening my ears as well as the sometimes stony and preoccupied heart to which those ears are connected. But the miracle is that they did in fact choose to speak, each time telling me just enough about the difficult things they happened to be carrying that for the brief minutes together that we had been given by Providence, something essentially human and holy seemed to have descended upon each of us. “What were the odds?” I found myself asking repeatedly, thinking how I never would have guessed in a million years that the people I was listening to would be so willing to let a brief conversation with some perfect stranger pull the cork from their bottle so they could pour out their story. Who knows? Maybe all that it takes at times is the courage to say something like, “Maybe it is still do-able, so I’ll give it a try.” In retrospect, I am simply grateful that I somehow managed to be just quiet and available enough to actually be there when it happened.

Now if I pause briefly to mention a few of those unlikely moments, may I trust you to understand that the grace that seemed to be in evidence was without any doubt due to the quiet and patient work of the Holy Spirit rather than something I actually planned to do? Take for example the conversation that opened up shortly after I boarded a packed plane and somewhat grumpily began to fold myself into the last available seat after the man assigned to my left had pre-positioned all of his electronics gear and moldering bags of airport fast food. My initial observation was that he was ready to put the smash into Smashburger, while I was simply trying to figure out what had become of My Personal Space. But instead of indulging my Spiritual Gift of Sulking and Pouting for the next several hours as we flew across an entire continent, something generous caught hold of my heart long enough that he was able to tell me about the failing family business he had assumed when a loved one of his was murdered just a few days before we met. By the time we left that plane, I knew him well enough to pray for his grief and loss as well as the hurried wedding he would be attending this weekend to support the Navy son that he no longer seemed to know particularly well after years living apart. It occurred to me at the time that the bumper stickers were wrong. Grace, and not just that other Stuff happens, if only you can keep your emotions in check and your mouth disengaged long enough to let such a gift finally occur.

Or maybe I should tell you about the slightly bedraggled woman for whom I opened a Starbucks door, and how an exchange of smiles and morning greetings contributed to a kind of sacred place neither of us could have anticipated.  Smiling at strangers and opening the door politely is merely the ordinary kindness you learned from the good upbringing that your Mama provided you, but it may also at times be just enough to change the compass-heading of someone’s entire day. Today I say this because quite unexpectedly, that weary looking woman who had been stumbling toward the Starbucks door absolutely insisted on buying my cup of African Sunset tea even though I had been just as insistent that she step ahead of me in line. But after making a confession to me as well as anyone else who happened to be listening in that coffee shop, she explained that I had somehow managed to turn around a morose Monday morning that began with her feeling disconsolate and thoroughly discombobulated due to a host of sad circumstances. I left thinking that maybe I should begin making a point of hanging around Starbucks more often, for apparently they are marketing their goods and services to a rather sad but generous clientele.

Or maybe I should tell you about the young man who guided me to a table at one of those Italian restaurants where I can usually hole up in a corner with a new book whenever I’m feeling like a Wild West desperado whose canteen has finally run dry and whose gun belt holds no more bullets. On this occasion however, the maître d’ appeared to know very little about desperadoes and their worries, so he just kept talking even after I had collapsed into my seat at the table. When he at length realized that it had taken him more than 10 minutes to escort me to my seat from his greeting station only 15 feet away, he began apologizing for telling me so much about his stress taking a 4-hour SAT test the previous day, his hopes for one of those coveted early admission letters from the faraway college he admires, and even the forbidden tattoo that he had driven into Virginia to engrave upon his left arm. It seemed he had discovered that the Commonwealth of Virginia was sufficiently progressive to require no parental permission for seventeen-year-olds seeking way-cool naval trident tattoos that itch really bad for much longer than he could ever have imagined. But when I noticed and correctly interpreted the Greek lettering that had been added to his itchy forearm just below that trident tattoo, as far as he was concerned we were now pretty much bonded for life as Bros-Who-Totally-Get-One-Another. Who knew that years of New Testament Greek would one day give me indisputable street cred? It was 15 minutes later than I had hoped to be settling in for dinner in hurricane country, but once again it appeared that the good Lord had scheduled me right-on-time as designated listener for someone deeply in need of a willing set of ears.

Before his death, Henri Nouwen brilliantly defined hospitality as a way of creating free space where strangers can enter and be transformed into friends instead of remaining those we might regard as inconvenient and obnoxious obstacles or even enemies. “Hospitality is not to change people,” wrote Nouwen, “but to offer them space where change can take place.” That actually sounds right to me these days, especially given the way we are lately listening to all of the demands and dire warnings being issued by those powerful people who seem to have so little regard for the apparently inconsequential and insignificant folks who actually live around and with them. At the very least, Nouwen’s definition of a Christian’s vocation to create and protect this kind of free and transformational space that others may inhabit to their own benefit lines up with the kind of good and beautiful community to which we aspire in this congregation. For at its best, a good church is not so much like our families, at least not the kind of I’m not OK and you’re not OK, but let’s not worry about it dysfunctional families that have become more and more familiar to us in recent decades. No, we aim to do even better than that. The true Biblical standard for a healthy family is that it functions like a good but completely normal church. In other words, we are intentionally created to be held lovingly accountable to one another in the type of free space where positive changes can and do occur over time. All of us encounter at least a bit of turbulence at times, and hard landings may occur for any number of reasons. But being part of a community where I am known and loved and prayed for and protected is the best chance I will ever have for finally growing into the spiritual maturity to which I am called.

Now if that seems at first to be just a bit too precious and theological for your taste, let me be quick to acknowledge that I often leave a few skid marks whenever I come crashing back down to earth. In fact, after all those feel-good moments in North Carolina earlier this week, I had something of a reality test when I came back to work. With a rain-drenched hoodie pulled low to shield her bloodshot eyes, she was sitting on the curb amid a collection of soggy bags just as I was turning into the parking lot to unlock the church office. She said her leg hurt. The mud splattered on her jeans and soaked tennis shoes confirmed it had been a long and difficult trek on foot during the overnight rain showers. She was waiting for a friend who had gone on to who-knows-where to secure a ride back to their home in one of the downtown neighborhoods familiar to the police because of rampant drugs and prostitution. And for a period of time longer than I care to admit that religiously superior, obnoxiously parental voice inside of me was groaning and complaining that This is going to take far too long to resolve, especially when I have a long list of Very Big And Important Things To Do. But mercifully, at some point after I had notified my administrative Next-of-Kin in the office where the local police could likely find me if Something Went Terribly Wrong, my stony heart began to soften just enough to let me start to listen more attentively to my latest new acquaintance from the mean streets of Spokane Valley. So she told me about the drugging that had messed up her life. She told me about the mother and siblings who wanted nothing more to do with her. She told me about the man who had pushed her out of a car at 4 AM that morning. And then, she finally told me about the wreck in Montana that landed her in an Emergency Room where a chest X-ray for what she imagined to be broken ribs instead turned out to show multiple lung tumors on her way to a brand new diagnosis of metastatic cancer. She was just one more passenger bound for a much different destination now trying to hang on after a very hard landing.

“Why am I telling you all of this?” she asked aloud of herself more than me. Honestly, I recognize enough about the way that I sometimes seem to possess earlids that only God might be able to accurately answer her question. But I’ll tell you what I think. I think that on most days it seems that a full nine-tenths of the grace of God let loose in the world simply happens as a result of the fact that some of us determine to keep showing up, available and Open for Business even when we don’t always feel like it. God knows that there will perhaps always be more work available for people like that, and certainly more need for an actual community determined to live like that. I guess you might even say that the Kingdom is always hiring. So I really have only one question to ask of you: May I give the Lord your name?

Jeff Crosno