A couple of weeks ago I had a meeting in California for campus ministry that demanded a great deal of focus and attention, which of course, between that and the travel with short turn around, let me drained. So I was looking forward to the return trip where I could become anonymous and delve into the page of notes I had made for my upcoming sermon.
Because of the demands of the meeting, I had failed to check-in online exactly twenty-four hours to the flight so I was dealt a lousy boarding number. While I had managed to score a window seat on the flight out, I knew I wouldn't even get an aisle seat. I was going to be stuck in the middle.
My strategy then was simply to grab the first available center seat I came upon on on the side of the plane that would be facing north during the flight, since the north side would not have the sun shining on it. That side of the plane is cooler, at least in my mind. As I walked back the aisle, I saw my target, dropped my laptop bag in it so I could work, and stowed my shoulder bag. And then I discovered to my horror, that the guy I would be sitting next was a guy who had been loudly talking with another guy at the gate about their Italian heritage. Everyone can recognize an evangelist, whether religious or not. This guy was an Italian evangelist. His identity was thoroughly steeped in the history and culture of Italy and he was happy to talk to anyone about it. And I dreaded this.
Then a miracle happened. The woman in the woman seat offered to take the middle seat. The two of them had been in conversation and she wanted to continue. I don't know what they had been talking about, and at that moment, I did not really care. Salvation was at hand. We jockeyed our seats around and I was happily against the window. I pulled my tablet out to write my sermon and just blend into the background for the next three hours or so.
The joy of my situation was short-lived. The Italian Evangelist had a very robust voice and when talking with the woman who swapped seats, he was speaking in my direction. His voice cut through all other background noise. I had a hard time shaking it. He was constantly in my head. I couldn't escape their conversation, no matter how hard I tried to focus on the words on my screen. So I began to stare out my window until hopefully they would tire and settle into a more normal flight silence.
That silence never happened. We weren't even twenty minutes into the flight when he asked the woman the following question about she and her husband, "So are you and your husband in spiritual agreement?" The woman and her husband had recently gotten married and the Italian Evangelist was asking if they shared a similar religious background, which is a good question, although a little private for me, but hey, whatever. Her response was that they were both Roman Catholic. And with that answer, my flight was irrevocably changed.
If you were to place a bet on whether or not Italian Evangelist would be also be Roman Catholic, the safe money would be to go with that he was. I would go with that. I can't imagine an odds maker in Las Vegas giving anything but a long shot that he would not be. But long shots do occasionally place. On this flight, the long shot took the jackpot.
No sooner had the woman responded about she and her husband being Roman Catholic, the Italian Evangelist began spinning a tale that would have anyone else breaking out the tin foil hats. He spoke of conversations that he had had with people high up in the Roman Catholic while on flights who admitted that essentially to gathering all people regardless of belief in order to create nothing less than the dreaded one-world government. His claim was that these various officials all admitted caring nothing about the gospel. They said people could believe whatever they wanted. The Roman Catholic church would let people believe whatever they wanted: Hindu, Buddhist, Satanist... the only point was to get people under the umbrella so to speak.
To recount the entire path this gentleman went down would be nearly impossible, but he got to the point where he had made some connection between the Roman Catholic church and genetic experimentation upon humans that were helping to create super soldier-type beings with thick lizard type skin.
For about forty-five minutes I sat there staring out the window, unable to work on the sermon because my mind was barely able to comprehend the connections this man was making. I was torn between inserting myself into the conversation and holding my peace. There had been plenty of news stories about people getting into scuffles during flights. I did not want to be next. The lack of wifi on this flight probably kept the conversation from being live tweeted. But after somewhere between forty-five minutes and an hour, I decided to enter the conversation.
Why? Why butt in? Was I likely to change this guy's mind? No probably not. But I stepped in for the sake of the woman sitting there being fed the story line of Dan Brown's next novel. I wasn't getting work done on the sermon anyway. I was too busy making mental notes about what he was saying. So I finally decided to interrupt and enter the conversation. I just said, "I'm sorry. I really don't mean to interrupt, but I just feel like I need to say something. I'm a Lutheran pastor and it might seem odd, but I think I need to speak up for the Roman Catholic church." The remaining two-plus hours went by peacefully as we all engaged in conversation. I only got frustrated after we landed and were taxiing to the gate and our conspiracy enthusiast had moved on to how the speed of light isn't constant because there was a time when the speed of light was measured significantly slower than is generally reported. I still don't understand what his point was on that other than somehow trying to support a creationist view of Genesis.
All in all, I am pleased that I was able to join the conversation so the woman was not left to hear the onslaught of science-fictional political theologizing. There were moments when she had agreed with him about some particular point that I was a little surprised anyone would have said "Oh yeah, I totally get that." But I found that I was able to speak the good news to them in ways that seemed new to them both. If I had plugged up my ears and tried to ignore him, I wonder what good that would have served.
After that conversation my mind has turned again and again to the verse about being Christians being turned over to persecutors and that we should not fear because the Holy Spirit will give us the defense that is necessary. I certainly was not turned over to persecutors but that row of seats felt like holy ground where the Holy Spirit was clearly present, in our conversation and not letting me just sit back to remain silent.