“… and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Fourteen hours of flying in the economy section. Not something I was looking forward to when I boarded the Emirates flight to Dubai. The span of my shoulders is 2 inches wider than the standard airplane seat. At least I had on the aisle, so I could lean towards it and not intrude on the space of the person who was unfortunate enough to have the middle seat. While waiting to board, I saw another wide-shouldered guy in line behind me and considered the odds that he would be next to me in the middle seat. No way! Yep, he was.
We joked about our misfit for these seats as he sat down. Gary was on his way to Afghanistan. He retired from the military two years ago and is now an intelligence contractor. He was home with his family for a few weeks over Christmas break and now on his way to a nine-month deployment. When I told him I was a pastor, he asked me, “so will you give me a biblical, theological answer to the question of war?” He had given up on faith on his first deployment.
What unfolded over the next hour was a transparent and soulful search for answers. Gary grew up Catholic. He got involved in an evangelical youth group when he was fourteen and he was all in. He studied the Bible. He felt called to be a youth pastor. He met the girl he would one day marry in a church group. Then he went to war. The carnage he saw blew up everything he believed about this world and the God who created it. To him, the evidence no longer added up to what he thought he knew of God.
Gary’s wife was still a strong believer, has a Bible study group, and prays for him to come back to faith. And here he was crammed on a plane on a fourteen-hour flight next to a pastor. I remembered reading of a man who said, “I don’t believe in God anymore… but I miss Him.” Everything in me said that Gary was like that man. The longing was there, but the obstacles were seemingly insurmountable.
So, doubt-by-doubt, obstacle by obstacle, we explored the questions that remained unanswered in the God he knew in his youth. I took my Bible out and we searched the Scriptures for things that spoke to his doubts—precept upon precept…. line upon line… here a little, there a little. I sensed the powerful presence of the Spirit during our conversation. As we wound down our discussion, Gary thanked me. He said I gave him some answers and some things that he would be considering as he explored the possibility of a renewed faith. I encouraged him to get a Bible again and open His heart to a God who would speak to him in the midst of the doubts that vexed him. He asked me to pray over him. So, at 38,000 feet over northern Canada, I was able to pray for a man whose journey was surprised by an encounter he didn’t expect.
Gary was deployed to serve the military. His role in signal intelligence was complimented by others who worked on other kinds of intelligence. He spent most of his time pouring through details in order to find anything that could shed light on the situation in the field. We are both collaborators. I was on my way to Nepal— deployed by my church to work with a Christian school that is giving children a hope to be something more than an indentured servant for life, a certain fate for most of them. Or maybe I was deployed by the faithful prayers of his wife to collaborate with Gary on a long flight. Or both. Praise God.