I spent all of Wednesday of this past week travelling from Northern Ireland to Philadelphia, and the hours of sitting in airports and being herded in queues on and off of various modes of transportation reminded me of an excellent article written by my good friend Jeremy Walker and which I am shamelessly reproducing below, with his permission.
I re-read the article while sitting at the departure gate of Boston airport on the final leg of my journey. As I reviewed the previous 14 hours of travel and assessed it in light of Jeremy’s advice I felt that I probably hadn’t done anyone any positive harm (although I suspect anyone sitting within a few seats’ radius of me when I dropped off to sleep may have disagreed! I’m reminded of a comment by Bill Bryson about his sleeping habits while travelling: ‘Most people who go to sleep on a plane look like they just need a blanket; I look like I need medical attention.’) On the other hand I did feel a dissatisfaction that I hadn’t done something more positive to help a fellow traveller – I hadn’t noticed anyone needing help with their bags or looking lost. I’m not sure I consciously voiced a prayer for another opportunity, but that was certainly what was on my heart as I read Jeremy’s words.
A few minutes later I was seated on the plane reading a book about New Testament studies and the lady sitting next to me said, ‘Excuse me, sir – are you a Pastor?’ She then said she had a question about forgiveness, and we spent the next hour and a half talking about the very difficult family circumstances she was experiencing with her elderly mother who was suffering from dementia, and a brother and a sister who seemed not to care. We talked about the dynamic of the gospel, and our most pressing need of forgiveness from God through Jesus Christ, and how knowing his forgiveness and the power of the Spirit enables us to forgive others whatever wrongs they may do to us.
So next time you’re travelling, read Jeremy’s article before you go, pray for a chance to be salt and light either by your words or actions. And maybe pack a book on New Testament linguistics in your cabin bag.
The Christian Traveller, by Jeremy Walker
While immensely thankful for the benefits of modern travel, there are elements of it that are not in the first rank of Walker enjoyments. I tend toward dislike of the experience of being herded and managed, with even the temperature of the environment sometimes being adjusted in order to prompt appropriate dispositions. And there are, of course, those elements of being in confined spaces with a bundle of other sinners which tend to prompt more carnal reactions.
And so it was with that combination of weariness and amusement that I surveyed the departure lounge at Newark airport a few days ago on my way home from a delightful time of fellowship and ministry. All human life, if not quite there, was certainly well on the way to being healthily represented. Looking about me, I was struck by the prominent ways and means in words and in deeds by which various of my fellow wanderers were proclaiming their personal identity and spiritual allegiance.
There were Orthodox Jews, the coats and hats and hair raising their flags of affiliation. There were flamboyant metrosexuals, all pastel shades and skinny jeans and overcooked poses. There were the Disgruntled, those sour-faced regular travellers who can predict – and do, to anyone who makes eye contact – all that will be slow or go wrong with frightening accuracy. There were Hindu ladies, their dress and make-up speaking of their commitments. Sikhs and Muslims rubbed shoulders in their religious uniforms. There were the Angry, like the chap who uttered a string of distinctly audible curses for a good ten or fifteen minutes after being subjected to a patdown, making sure that we all know that we are in the presence of Those Not To Be Messed With. There were the extravagant homosexuals, all loud giggles and shouty comments, hyper-camping for the benefit of those around them. Here are the Nervous, who do not know where to go or what to do, agitated and antsy, asking everyone the same questions repeatedly. Over there are the languid Rich, dressed up to the nines, oozing through the crowds and the barriers when the call goes out for the privileged few who get to enter the flying can ten minutes or so before the rest of us. Make way, too, for the harried and active Rich, in their well-cut suits and with their high-end luggage, rushing from their last lucre-producing meeting to their next one, and trampling all who are in their path. Over there is that decorated beast, the Tattooed Brit, looking for all the world like a thug of the first water, but possibly one of the most pleasant and cheerful individuals who will board the pla . . . no, my mistake, it was the thug version. Watch out for the Gorgeous Woman, who has gone to more effort for this flight than most would for their wedding days, dressed and manipulated from head to toe to catch the male eye. There is our New Age Friend, burdened by weighty beads and floaty veils, rainbow hues no doubt fending off all manner of ethereal bad news. You begin to wonder what the social media footprint of the gathering might be, as heat and hunger and the passing of time begin to prompt increasing agitation, what vapid online meanderings or noxious electronic effluent rises from the horde as we sit and wait.
All of which fascinating tableau left me asking, “By what means should I, as a Christian traveller, communicate my personal identity and spiritual allegiance?” I could, as a start, do some airport-lounge preaching, but I am not sure that it is the right environment, and the polite though armed gentlemen in the smart white shirts and blue trousers tend to look down on that kind of thing. The age-old device of carrying a Bible larger than a cabin bag is trickier in these days of electronic reading. To the casual observer, I would imagine I don’t look that much different to most of the other reasonably-dressed male travellers (I add that little adjectival qualification for those of you who don’t realise how much I can charge the general public not to see me wearing skinny jeans), and the same would be true of most Christians, I imagine. The prominent wearing of crosses is not my thing, neither would I normally go down the emblazoned garment line, as if “by their T-shirts you shall know them.” Conversations of deliberately-penetrating volume with a fellow-believer are contrived, as would be kneeling for prayer or praying out loud (too much like the Pharisee on the street corner). And then there’s the question of social media comment: is it a Christian response to offer a stream of bilious bleatings or caustic comments on the situation and its participants?
I wonder, though, if the starting point ought to be character, attitude translating into action. It might not immediately declare you to be a true disciple, it might only open the door to speak to one or two people, but it should be the bedrock of our testimony. In the mix with all the variety of my fellow-passengers, and regardless of their identities and affiliations, am I marked out by patience in the face of provocations, cheerfulness despite difficulties, politeness in the experience of frustrations, thankfulness in the receipt of blessings, responsiveness when entreated, helpfulness around the overwhelmed or incompetent, self-forgetfulness in the atmosphere of entitlement, peacemaking among the argumentative, kindness around the selfish, candour among the sniping, calmness in the face of danger, self-control in a place of indulgence, graciousness among the godless, and even prayerfulness when confronted by needs and concerns? If I have the opportunity – if, perhaps, by these means I win the opportunity – am I then equally forthright, simple, clear and winsome in explaining, as the Lord grants opportunity, my attachment to the Lord Christ?
There is no flamboyance here, no extravagant or overblown trumpeting of one’s Christian identity. However, there may and should be a real communication of a genuine and distinctive spirit of one who is following after Christ Jesus. Do those who spend time with us under these and other such circumstances come away not simply with a sense of our niceness (although that may be part of it) but of a character elevated by something more substantial than the fancies of the world or the claims of false religion?
So, the next time you face a journey by plane, train or automobile (other modes of transport are available) and anticipate a prolonged period in close company with your fellow mortals, perhaps it would be worth asking yourself whether or not your demeanour, disposition and deeds will leave those with whom you have come into contact with a savour of Christ. We should cultivate a personal identity so rooted in him and a spiritual affiliation so governed by him that, if people know his name, there might at least be some sense in which they might take notice of us, that we have been with Jesus.