Monday, September 21, 2009

The folks in the next seat...

I just returned from a wonderful trip to Lebanon to help teach/establish the middle eastern version of the Focus Leadership Institute here in Colorado. It is a six week course of study that attracted some 30 students from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. We met in an old monestary in the hill country above the Bakaa Valley. The challenges for Christians in that region of the world are not anything we face here in the west. Students, for example, who were totally disowned by their families for attending. Not just an upset dad or mom, but they were not longer acknowledged as their son or daughter. Tough stuff.

However the teaching and students were not the best part of the trip. The best part was the six people that I sat next to on the six legs of the trip (3 out there and 3 back). They are a testament to the fact that there is a lot of hurt in the world that just needs an ear to listen to, not a condemning voice of a Christian professor.

Seat 29E from Colorado Springs to Atlanta: Phillip

Phillip was a native of West Palm Beach, Florida who had come out to Colorado to make some money in a construction project which had come to an end (out of funds, not the project was complete). The first words out of his mouth when I asked why he was traveling to Atlanta was that he couldn't wait to get out of the s***hole of a state like Colorado. That peaked my interest since I believe Colorado to be one of the most incredible places to live. After a bit of prying his anger was not at the mountains or beauty but of people he'd encountered. He had been exposed to the Christian community (which is vast) here in Colorado Springs and he found it to fulfill all of his expectations of loud and rude; second, he had been working on a commercial construction project that ran out of money and he was bitter toward the owner; and finally (and most importantly) he was a sailor by trade and he was stuck in the mountains. Well, that makes sense - Phillip was wired to be on the water and because of circumstance he was miserable. I asked if I could have his email and I would check in with him 3 months to see if he still felt the same way after being back on the water for a time.

Seat 39F - Atlanta to Paris: Robert

Robert was a business man from Birmingham, Alabama who was on his way to Istanbul to meet his wife and travel down to the Mediterranean to sail a boat around for three months. As we talked he shared his major disappointment in his two sons who had not taken over his business and had gone down paths he didn't think were successful. One had turned to the pastorate and Robert viewed that as weak and with no future. I think he loved them down deep but his lenses that the business world had given him were very clouded with a worldly version of success. I encouraged him to take a picture with his iPhone of he and his wife on day one of their adventure and send it to them with a note of encouragement. I told him how much I knew that meant to me... it was just a thought. I hope he did it.

Seat 29B - Paris to Beirut: Hans

This guy was the most jovial German I'd ever met - he had an infectious laugh and a bubbling personality. He was a doctor in Vermont but was returning to Germany after a short holiday in Lebanon. It was a weird story and hard to follow but I did catch that he moved to Vermont because he wanted to practice medicine in his own way. Not sure what that meant, but the more we talked the more I found out his expertise - women's reproductive health - namely he performed abortions. When we got into that area, and he knew what my background was - his soft and enjoyable personality closed up. Everything changed about him. He expected (and told me so at the end of our flight) that I was going to judge and condemn him for what he had done. We had a number of crying kids on our flight which he quickly pronounced as "spoiled". He was bitter toward children and I could follow why when I heard what he did for a living. I tried very hard to express some concern for life, while all the while affirming him... this was a really tough one. I think I probably walked the line too cautiously and I regret it. Hans and I shook hands when we parted at the baggage claim area and I said I'd be praying for his future practice - he only nodded.

The Return:

Seat 18C - Beirut to London - Helena

This young Arab lady was on her way to study in the UK. She was looking very forward to the freedoms she could express when she got to the west. She had purchased western clothing to blend in and had clearly practiced her English language skills and she even sported a NY Yankees hoody. Other than the fact she was misguided in good taste in teams, :) (I'm a Red Sox fan) she was ready to immerse herself in the freedoms of the new life. On this five hour flight we even got around to my asking if she had a boyfriend, and she responded that no - her family had tried to arrange some but she rebelled. She was looking forward to having lots of boyfriends at school. I don't know if that just didn't come through in translation (my rough Arabic and her English) and she was looking forward to building relationships or whether she was just loose (?). She looked sweet enough, so I pray it was the first not the latter. My only piece of advice to her was that she seemed like a nice young lady and she should never be ashamed of her heritage and not work so hard to be someone else, but to be herself. She thought long and hard about this as we walked together in mostly silence to customs and flight transfers. I hope she does okay. (and by the way we had 10 screaming babies this whole flight - and it made we think of Hans - he'd have loved it!)

Seat 26D and 26E: London to Minneapolis

The very attractive young lady in 26E was British and on her way to America for a national tour. The lady in 26E was the stereotypical British grandmotherly type. She was probably 75, and given the chance I think she would have tidied up a bit if the flight attendants would have let her. She drank tea (very particularly I might mention). This wasn't so much my discussion but overhearing the beginning of their's. As it turns out, the young lady was an "exotic dancer" (i.e. stripper) and her national tour was to strip clubs throughout the U.S. I wish you could have seen the grandmother's face when she figured this out. The word "deary" was used in quite a few comments after that as she attempted to figure out how on earth someone could do that - not that she was judging her (she made that comment almost as much as deary). It made the young lady a bit uncomfortable - because I really don't know if anyone had confronted her in this loving but firm way. You could see a blend of irritation and conviction come over her. I wanted to get into a deeper discussion with her because the conversation was not about vocation as much as it was about motivation for getting up in the morning - a worldview type issue. I didn't get a chance as her attentions were balanced between the grandmother and the growing amount of attention that was coming from the male passengers. I pray that "grandma" gave her some things to think about...

Seat 9A: Minneapolis to Colorado Springs; Ron

Ron was a typical businessman returning home after a week of business meetings. He was wearing a Live Strong bracelet and I asked about it. Tears came to his eyes and I really thought I had overstepped my boundaries. It turns out that he had lost his father about a month before. It was obvious that they had not had a good relationship. Right before we both drifted off to sleep, I tried to encourage him not to live in regret. That is what I prayed for him as we landed. We also exchanged email addresses and I want to see where he is a short while.

I believe God provides us with opportunities to touch the lives of others - it may be in things like these plane conversations we can hear people's stories if we bother to listen. I'm glad I heard each of them and I pray that I will be a better listener in the future. Glad to be home though!