I remember when traveling was fun. It was never easy but there was still some excitement about going to the airport. You never knew what kind of restaurants you might encounter or travel pillows might be in the kiosks. The duty free shops were always fun to browse. Now, it’s an amalgamation of lines, strip searches, and everyone carrying over-sized bags. Times have changed. It’s not that new places aren’t exciting to encounter or spotting celebrities in first class isn’t entertaining; it’s that the shine has worn off the glamour of getting there.
There’s an old proverb which tells us that “getting there” is the essence of the journey. Within the art of travel, we learn about ourselves. Truths, which remain conveniently hidden at home, emerge when we are moving between baggage claim and that next stop. Car commercials endlessly recycle a version of this message year after year. Like all clichés, there’s a degree of truth underlying this essential premise. Despite the hardships, misdirection, and inevitable inconveniences; there is something instructive about the journey.
It is possible to miss the lesson. Whether through poor timing, distraction, or simply being unprepared; whatever we’re supposed to learn can be lost. If we’re not listening, looking, or aware the “getting there” can be gone in an instant. Schedules need to be met. Connecting flights wait in distant terminals. We’re busy people. We have our own distractions. Who wants to listen or look at the inane scenes of life being acted out at the café across the terminal, be forced to watch the family fighting at check-in, or witness business men awkwardly gather to be the first people on the plane. There seems nothing to learn in this chaos. The lessons come later, when you’re on the road and have more control. Isn’t that the key word, “control”? We need complete “control” of our surroundings to really take in what the cosmos may be saying? God isn’t in this chaos, right? God speaks in our ability to control what we observe. This is what we lead ourselves to believe. If God is here, God isn’t speaking to me. By this point in the journey, my walls are so high and heavily guarded I don’t notice the red flags being raised all around me.
Alarm bells are ringing everywhere. God is here, at work, and on the move. No, this isn’t one of those “God is about to do a great thing” stories. Sight is not restored to the blind, the lame do not walk, nor is a school for deaf children built in Kenya. What I want to share is the kind of story that normally slips under the radar. It is a story of everyday me running headlong into the work of an extraordinary God in the most ordinary of ways, shapes, and places. I almost missed everyday God at work. I wasn’t ready. There were countless red flags, signs, symbols, and calls for preparation. I wasn’t listening or looking. That’s ok. God was looking for me.
We come from a religious tradition which believes God (through the work of the Holy Spirit) travels ahead of us. God, in one form or another, is always on the move. The Spirit precedes us, wherever we go, bringing God’s grace to places we’ve yet to arrive. So when you step off the ferry or out of an airplane, the Holy Spirit has already arrived on an earlier flight. It’s like an advance team. God has been moving in ways we can’t imagine or understand. The Holy Spirit is working on our behalf before we even fully grasp the reality of God.
Wherever we are, whether it’s walking down the street in front of our homes or traveling hundreds of miles away, we are always responding to something God’s already done. We encounter the results of God’s presence in our lives. It’s like walking on a hiking trail and coming on a camp site. You can tell when people were last there. There is evidence of recent use. Someone was there before you. Our lives are like this as well. In different situations and settings, both large and small, we discover that “God was here”. Traces of divinity were left, evidence of grace can be seen, and the unmistakable presence of the Holy Spirit lingers. God was in this place. God is here. Now what do we do?
The first place I go after a flight, ferry, or car ride of any length is to the restroom. There is no explanation required. Last weekend, returning from Newark to Charlotte, I stuck to my usual routine. I was the third from the last person off the plane (I always sit at the back) and made a b-line for the nearest restroom. I should also tell you every seat on the plane was full. It took nearly as long to deplane as it did to fly from Newark to Charlotte. That’s an exaggeration but it seemed like it took forever. It always feels like it takes longer to leave a plane than it does to board one? I knew the moment I crossed the threshold of the walkway the first bathroom I saw would be my destination. My fear was that I would have to wait on some of the same people once I found the bathroom.
After I walked the fifty feet or so the bathroom, everything worked out fine. Except for one thing; there was someone walking around the restroom talking. Was it some random crazy person? I’d encountered my share of mentally ill people in public places. As I walked to the sink, I listened to what this guy was saying, “This is the time, the place, to be blessed in Jesus Christ. Yes, now is the time and place to be blessed in Jesus Christ today.” It sounded like one of my standard benedictions.
He kept repeating these sentences with slight variations and a degree of joy and excitement, over and over. I had to see who this was. He wasn’t leaving the restroom. I walked to the other side where another row of sinks and toilets were being cleaned by a uniformed man who wanted to bless everyone he met. “This is the time, the place, to be blessed in Jesus Christ.”
God went ahead of me, even into the bathroom, and blessed the journey, time, and place. I received that blessing, this man’s benediction, as I went on my way.
Who am I to judge another person’s joy? Who am I to limit the scope of God’s blessings? I am in no place to judge someone else’s joy or limit when or where God’s blessings may be shared. From the bathroom at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and all points between, there are places where God is coming toward us and meets us before we are yet home.
In that moment, when we encounter Christ’s blessing, Christ comes, and the waiting is over. Our journey and all that accompanies it seems less relevant. Where Christ is, where the Spirit’s blessing rests, there we find our home. Christ has found us, met us, and wherever we are, we’re home. Our journeys are defined not by what we’ve seen, by staring up at the Red Woods or across the Grand Canyon but by our ongoing encounters with the risen Christ. When we’re traveling, waiting, and have written God’s presence off as an afterthought amid life’s mundane duties; we miss Jesus when the blessings show up.
A parable that seems to be about brides, midnight runs for oil, sharing or not sharing, wisdom, and foolishness, is really a story about waiting for Jesus to arrive. It’s a story about getting caught up in the waiting and missing the blessing.
We wait for ferries to load, airplanes to takeoff, baggage to arrive, and packages to be delivered. Matthew’s community was waiting for Christ to return. Many thought it would happen in their lifetime. Imagine their growing impatience. When they sang “soon and very soon”, they really meant it. We become frustrated if the ferries are delayed or our packages are held up. Waiting, while a part of life is not something we do well.
Here’s the thing: it is in the midst of our waiting that Christ arrives. We are not much different from Matthew’s community. We are still waiting on Christ to return. Here is the Good News: Christ is still coming. You will meet the Risen Christ in innumerable forms. He comes in unexpected ways, singing blessings in airport bathrooms, and countless other forms of embodied grace.
My question is this: are you waiting for Christ? Do you expect to encounter Christ? Are you listening for Christ’s blessings in out of the way places? If not, what’s holding you back? Are you waiting and watching for Christ in “this time and place”? Wouldn’t it be great if the waiting ended with us? What’s stopping us from bringing Christ’s blessings into the world (like the man working at the airport in Charlotte)? Perhaps we’re simply traveling with too much baggage.
Richard Lowell Bryant