Everyone who travels has an airplane story.
I’m talking about that encounter you had
with someone that you will never forget.
It is such a good story,
it almost feels unreal when you tell it.
That’s the kind of story I am talking about.
This is one of those stories.
It is a true story,a fascinating moment
between strangersthat hangs in my memory
like a moist haze over water.
It was a cross-country flight some years back,
when I had the good fortune
to get an Emergency Exit seat
in the first rowbetween first class and last class.
Since there was no seat in front of me
for someone to lean back in
there was lots of legroom.
They charge extra for those seats today.
I was humming with my good fortune
because it was a Saturday
and I had been at a conference for a week
and I had to preach the next day.
This was going to be my sermon time
and I had room to type.
So, there I was, my laptop outready to go
as soon as the plane reached cruising altitude.
I was in the aisle seatand next to me
was a young Chinese American woman.
As I would come to learn,
she was adoptedby an American couple
ten years previouslyand now,
in her mid-twenties,was a Financial Analyst
for an international brokerage house
on her wayto a two-year posting in Amsterdam.
On the other side of her, in the window seat,
sat a Frenchman who was now living in the States
after marrying an American.
Both fellow passengers could not have been friendlier
or more eager to chat, which was unfortunate
given the sermon hanging over my head.
The womanin the middle,
was also quite the host –
asking each of us a million questions
about our thoughtson every subject
under the sun.
Inevitably an inquiryabout my line of work arrived.
That is always a moment of hesitation for me,
and I hover over the temptationto deflect
the inquiry in order to be saved
from whatever discomfort
or misplaced enthusiasm ensues.
Usually when I tell a strangerthat I am a minister
it producessome discomfortor embarrassment,
as if magically I know
they didn’t go to church last Sunday
or that they stole a cookie from the cookie jar.
OR it provides an immediate silence
and hurried exit from the topic
in order to avoid further conversation.
Alternately it can also produce an inappropriate sense of solidarity
as the person gleefully assumesI share
all their beliefs and prejudices.
My airplane companions
created a new category of experience for me.
The woman was a fearless bundle of energy.
“Oh,” she said,“that means you do not believe in Evolution.”
Before I could get a word in edgewise, she was off.
“My American Mom and Dad are Christian.
But I cannot be Christian” she said,
“because I cannot believe in all they believe…”
The description of her parents’ church
led me to suspect it was a non-denominational congregation
with a theologically conservative approach to religion.
As it turned out,
she attended this church with her parents
but could never accept the beliefs she heard expressed there.
After her long commentaryon all the things she could not believe, I said,
“Well, I don’t believe those things either.”
“What? How can you be Christian
and not believe?”
I could not tell if she was skeptical or amazed.
“I don’t see any conflict,” I told her,
“between the poetic descriptions
of Creation in Genesis
and the observable ideas of Evolution.”
She laughed and laughed and laughed.
“How can you be Christian, and believe in Evolution?”
She was totally flabbergasted
at what seemed to be a new thought.
Needless to say, we were off to the races.
Being religious was so completely alien to her
that she was utterly unselfconscious
and spoke about cherished religious beliefs
in the same way she would ask about why
I liked to wear Nikeinstead of Reebok.
I was a Chinese Philosophy major my first two years of college
so we were able to talk about China
and religion as well.
She confided somewhat quietly,
that her American parent’s church
had the same ‘cult of personality’
as Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution.
She said that her parent’s church
was like Mao and his successors,
in that they were utterly decadent while punishing
and impoverishing others
for straying from the party line.
She said that the cult of personality around Mao
and the total embrace of his ideology
had itself been a religion.
So, beside the fact that this intelligent
and well-educated woman
could not believe that God
made the cosmos in six days
she was also deeply cynical about religiosity,
and wary of the abuse of power
by people who claim religious authority.
In other words, she was a poster child
for that huge portion of the population
that want nothing to do
with organized religion.
The Frenchman seemed less complex.
He simply did not believe in, “any of that stuff.”
My response to them both
was to make the case that spirituality
is not religion
and church is not God.
Religion, I suggested, is to spirituality
as educational institutions are to learning.
You can become an educated person
on your own, without going to school,
but it is a lot harder,
and when you do,
you often have to re-invent the wheel.
Religion is the practice of spirituality, I told them,
whether you do it with others or not
and whether you are Christian or not.
Christianity, I acknowledged,
is only one of the great historicspiritual practices
and we have a choiceabout
which one we practice if we practice any at all.
That caused the Chinese womanto ask me
why I chose to be a Christian
since I started out studying Chinese philosophy.
Then I got more personal.
Soon the Frenchman asked tersely,
“What good is it?”
“What good is what,” I was confused.
“What good is spirituality?
What good does it do you?”
I thought about that question and did not know how to explain
in terms that might make sense to him,
that in fact, it is was not good for anything.
I wanted to say that if we practice spirituality
because we think it will get us something,
it will do just the opposite.
So instead I asked him,
“What good does it do to listen to music?
What good does it doto study paintings
What good does it doto dance?”
It was his turn to look confused.
So I resorted to a favorite metaphor.
I took a piece of paperand poked
a tiny hole in it with my mechanical pencil.
I said to him,
“This is how much of the cosmos we see, right?
“With all of our scientific knowledge,” I continued,
“and with all of our historical perspective,
and with all of our technological advances,
we still only have a peephole
through which to viewall that is out there, right?”
“So practicing spirituality
makes the hole a little bigger.”
I smiled. “There is more than one way of knowing,
and the more ways we have of knowing and of seeing,
the bigger our peephole.
“What does that get us,” I asked rhetorically,
But maybe it allows us to be wiser.
Maybe we get to be more perceptive
and that gives us a chance
to be less reactive in life,
and move more gracefullywith the currents
we cannot see but we can feel – “
“Maybe,” the woman interrupted,
“I could be your kind of Christian.”
And then she laughed and laughed and laughed.
Here is the point:
Prophets are the peoplewho make the peephole bigger for us.
Prophets voice God
the way that a piano voices music.
The prophet is not the music itself
but he or she delivers the sound.
There have always been prophets.
Famous ones whose names we know –
Moses, Amos, Deborah, Micah, Isaiah –
and not so famous ones
that are only known to a few.
Here is what they do.
We humans are herd animals.
We think we are great heroic individuals,
like the roving Grizzly but we are pack animals.
We are easily shaped by media-generated perceptions
and other purveyors of enculturation –ones we prize,
like great classical literature;
and ones we may disparage,
like pornography and racism.
We are herded by people who wield instruments
of power and influence.
We like to think there is someone
who really knows the right answer
and who has the ability to guide us
into safety and security.
And that desire
is easily massaged and manipulated,
and when a critical mass of people respond affirmatively to a suggestion,
then the herd moves as a group.
Our ‘herdness’ is not wrong, or sinful, stupid
or cowardly –
it is just what we are,
and it is better to understand
who and what we are and account for it
than it is to be in denial of it –
and so more easily manipulated.
Prophets break the herd.
They somehow say things,
and say them in such a waythat we can hear them
so that we suddenly see the place
we have been standing in an entirely new light.
It is as if suddenly we see our own living room
with the furniture all moved around
and it gives us an entirely new perspective.
The prophet gives us new eyes like that,
and for a moment
we can see we have been herded
and where we are heading
and the hazard of continuing to go there.
We may get annoyed at the prophet
for pushing us to see
what we do not want to see.
And if the prophet is really effective
at opening our eyes,
and getting under our skin –
and begins to threaten business-as-usual
for those who profit most from business-as-usual,
then we might decide the prophet needs to go.
But the difference between
a prophet and a rabble-rouser,
or a prophet and a revolutionary,
or a prophet and an advocate,
is that the prophet voices God.
The prophet may be allthose other things as well,
and those other kinds of loudmouths
may be prophetic also,
but voicing God
is what makes the prophet unique
regardless of what else he or she is up to.
It is not easy to discern the difference.
In the prophet’s words,
as well as in his or her life,
the love of God will be loud and clear.
And we should remember that a God’s-eye view
has no respect for bordersor special interests.
If that tough sinewy love of God
is not present,
and the point-of-viewso filtered
by assumptions about class,
as to impair it,
then it is probably not prophetic.
So allow me to finish the airplane story
and conclude with what I think
all this has to say to us just now.
We landed and the Chinese American
and the French immigrant and I got ready
to make our flight connections.
We said good-bye with smiles
and even though I hadn’t started my sermon,
I felt strangely energized.
Then an amazing thing happened.
As I exited the walkway
and stepped into the airport,
a woman I did not recognize
stepped up to me and said,
“I want to thank you for that conversation.
I was entertained the whole trip
and I feel so stimulated.”
I must have been wearinga dumb expression
on my facebecause she then explained
that she was sitting in the last row
of the First Class section.
She had listened to our conversation
the entire flight.
We exchanged a few pleasantries
and both of us went our separate ways.
So with all of that in mind,
from the airplane storyto Ezekiel and Mark,
I will endwith what crystallized for me
in those encounters.
First, we live in a timein which Christianity
is an alien religion – largely unknown,
even to many people
who attend church now and again.
Secondly – to be Christian nowis to make a choice among other choices,
and not because those other choices are
heathen or pagan or evil.
Rather, because while we can affirm
that other traditions
have wisdom about God,
we have chosen to practiceour spirituality
through thepeculiar wisdom of Jesus
and the otherJudeo-Christian prophets
Third, Christianitywill go on being defined
by theology and practice that are repugnant to us
unless we – you and me –take the risk
to shareour spiritual yearning and practice
with others who are hungry too.
Finally, we never know,and rarely get to know,
how our willingness to share our own stories
and spirituality with others
will ripple outward.
Just as I could easily have never known
that anyone else was listeningto our conversation, you and I
very often don’t have a clue as to our influence.
Any one of usmay be usedto voice God
at any given time.
The prophets continue to speak, and
you may be one of them.