Prayer before flying

Josephine Rogers arrived at Kennedy International Airport last Saturday at 3 p.m., her heart heavy and her luggage loaded with the gifts she had collected for her 70th birthday, during what was supposed to be a celebratory three-week visit with her relatives in New Jersey.

Mrs. Rogers had five hours left before her flight was to leave for Ireland, so she had plenty of time to check in, get her boarding card, have a cup of tea and go to church. That Mrs. Rogers, a Roman Catholic, could attend Mass at the airport seemed too good to be true, she said. But while searching for the Aer Lingus check-in counter, she bumped into a priest, who not only gave her directions to the airline but also told her that there was a chapel upstairs, one floor above the food court.

There, along a corridor on the fourth floor of Terminal 4, are four small, brand-new places of worship for Muslims, Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

While Mrs. Rogers, along with 30 others — passengers, cargo workers, flight attendants and customs agents — attended the 5 p.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Skies Chapel, a candelabra flickered in the international synagogue next door. Two doors down, Muslim travelers knelt on tiny carpets to pray.

The Mass, celebrated by the airport’s chaplain, the Rev. James T. Devine, and dedicated to the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center, was interrupted every few minutes by a loudspeaker announcing final boarding calls for flights and reminders about new security measures inside the terminal. Mrs. Rogers wept quietly and got jittery when the announcements — ”For security reasons, all passengers must remain with their baggage at all times” — blared and echoed through the terminal.

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”I never will forget,” she whispered, explaining that she arrived in New York on Sept. 10, a day before the terrorist attack.

Father Devine, weary from weeks of airport evacuations, grief counseling for airline employees and funerals and memorial services for Port Authority colleagues, prayed on, leading his nerve-racked congregation through a short and somber service.

”We offer our prayers in this Mass that God will grant peace and happiness to the victims,” said Father Devine, before beginning the homily. ”All of us have been touched by this terrible tragedy.”

In their various incarnations, the places of worship at Kennedy date to the 1950’s, with the first chapel, a Catholic church, opening in 1955. The chapel was taken down in 1965 for an airport expansion and reopened in 1966, along with two others, a Jewish synagogue and a Protestant church, all of them housed in separate buildings in what was called the Tri-Faith Plaza. Each cost about $1 million to build, Father Devine said, with the money raised by the congregations and the religious organizations that help sponsor the airport chapels.

Each seated 300 people and served airline employees, airport workers and travelers. Father Devine said the Catholic chapel, designed with stained glass windows, became so popular with airline employees that many flight attendants were married there. He said 1,700 weddings — some of which he officiated at as a visiting priest — were held in the chapel between 1966 and 1988, when the chapels were taken down to make way for another renovation.

During the latest construction project, the three chapels were merged and housed in one room in the International Arrivals Building, which is now called Terminal 4. The chaplains agreed to keep the room religiously neutral and stored their artifacts and icons, Bibles and a Torah in metal cabinets in a storage room, taking them out and placing them around the shared space before services.

The somewhat unusual arrangement lasted 13 years — about a decade longer than any of the chaplains expected — until last May, when the terminal renovation was complete and the chapels were able to relocate into their own spaces.

Construction on the chapels is not quite finished. Our Lady of the Skies, for example, has no door, and Father Devine said he was still awaiting construction of an altar. But all the finishing touches were expected to be completed on all four rooms by Christmas, he said.

The Rev. Patricia A. Evans, the airport’s Protestant chaplain, said that in the last week, she has borrowed space in the synagogue and the Catholic chapel for Bible study classes and Sunday services. She has not minded the inconvenience, she said, adding, ”We’re used to sharing a chapel.”

In the process of renovating the terminal, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Kennedy Airport, added a fourth room, an interfaith chapel, in Terminal 4, for meditation and Muslim prayer. The floor is covered with Oriental rugs and stocked with copies of the Koran and Islamic literature. The room is mostly used by Muslim travelers and airport employees.

As Father Devine said Mass, Muslim travelers drifted into the meditation space, in pairs and clusters. (The Protestant chapel, the Christ for the World Chapel, was closed because of the construction, and the international synagogue, equipped with folding chairs, prayer books and a lighted menorah, was empty.)

Among the Muslim worshipers stopping in to pray was Muhammad Naim, who is from Islamabad, Pakistan, and was visiting with his sons in Philadelphia for two months. He was at the airport to see off other relatives headed back to Pakistan.

”As you know, we will pray anywhere,” he said. ”But it’s very kind that they made a prayer room for us at the airport.”

A short while later, Father Devine said his final prayers at Mass and wished all travelers a safe trip. The congregants filed out of Our Lady of the Skies, scurrying back to their posts at check-in counters and in hangars, or heading to their gates to await departure. A customs agent who regularly helps Father Devine pack up after Mass stacked crosses, chalices and prayer books into a cardboard box for storage in the priest’s office across the hall until the next airport Mass the following morning.

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This feature is an excerpt from Greg Surratt’s new book, Ir-Rev-Rend: Christianity Without Pretense. Faith Without the Facade.

The alarm went off at 4:00 a.m. No one should be up at that hour. Almost no one was. Some people are happy and cheery when they first get up. Not me. Especially not at 4:00 a.m.

I’d made a quick trip to Birmingham to be with my friend Chris Hodges the day after his father died. Now I had to be back in Charleston to celebrate my grandson’s birthday, and the only flight with a seat available was the first one of the day. Lucky me.

I packed quickly, slapped a hat on my head (if you can’t comb it, cap it), and hopped a ride to the airport. It’s not easy to get in and out of Charleston. You don’t go through our fair city to get to somewhere else. We are a destination point. Some Charlestonians would say that we are THE destination point. Many natives still believe that the Ashley, Cooper, and Wando rivers came together to form the Atlantic Ocean. Life begins and ends with Charleston. That’s great for civic pride, but it makes traveling somewhat difficult. There are very few direct flights out of Charleston. When the rapture occurs, I’m confident that we will be routed thru Atlanta or Charlotte, depending on the severity of our sin and the sincerity of our repentance. Which one will serve as a sort of travel purgatory, you ask? I’d rather not say, in the fear that my Georgia brethren would be offended. Travel can be complicated, especially when nocturnal creatures (such as me) have to take the early flight.

The final leg into Charleston is almost always done on an aircraft that looks more like a long silver piece of PVC pipe than an airplane. Even a person of my stature (5’8″ in heals and fully stretched for pictures) has to bend at the waist to keep from bumping your head on the ceiling once you enter the plane. The good news is that there are generally two seats on either side of the aisle, eliminating the dreaded center seat. The not as good news is that the remaining seats are so tightly packed that you tend to share more intimate space with complete strangers than you really care to.

Travel to and from Charleston does improve the intensity of your prayer life. At least it does mine. I find myself praying more fervently about my potential seatmate than I did when I was single and praying for a spouse. My travel prayers basically go like this:

Prayer #1- “Lord, please let there be no one in the seat next to me.” I know it sounds selfish, but actually, it’s not. The purpose is not so much my comfort as it is so that I can give myself more completely to God and his work in my life. With no one next to me, there will be less distractions and more time to focus. (Okay, so it is a LITTLE selfish.) I was praying that prayer once when I spotted a young woman walking toward me. Arriving just before the door closed and the start of the fascinating instructional video, she was obviously the last one on the plane. By that time, there were just two seats available, and I was hoping that she would walk on past my row. As she melted into the seat next to me, she exclaimed, “What an answer to prayer; you are my pastor!! I am so glad I’m sitting next to you. I’m afraid of flying so I waited until the last minute to board. I’ve been praying that God would give me a sign that everything would be okay, and here I am sitting by you!” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her loving pastor, who was currently being used by God as a sign of his providence, was actually praying for an empty seat. I guess both prayers couldn’t be answered so God went with the less selfish one.

If prayer #1 – “Lord, please let there be no one in the seat next to me” goes unanswered, I move onto Prayer #2 – “If I have to sit by someone, make it someone small.” If you’ve traveled much, then you’ve probably prayed this prayer even though you would never include it in your Small Group Bible Study praise report time. “Praise God, there were no fat people next to me on the plane.” It just doesn’t sound right. But the truth is no one wants to sit next to someone who flows over into the space you have purchased, especially not on a long trip. Honestly, this prayer reveals a hint of my own hypocrisy in that I am currently overweight and was born with relatively broad shoulders, so I may very well be the object of other travelers’ prayers. I still pray it, nonetheless, because contrary to the opening line of Rick Warren’s bestseller, Purpose Driven Life, in my own mind, most of the time it really is about me. Just keeping it real.

Prayer # 2 – “If I have to sit by someone, make it someone small” actually has a second part to it that goes something like this, “But don’t make them too small.” As in loud or unattached children. I remember being a reluctant babysitter to a hyper energized three year old on a flight in the middle of the night somewhere over the Indian Ocean. Her parents, whom I’d never met, were sleeping soundly in the seats next to me while I was the source of her nocturnal entertainment. My brother, who was seated across the aisle, would occasionally wake up and just laugh. I’ve never liked him much. I actually do like kids, I tell myself, just in small doses of my own choosing.

Prayer #3 – “Lord, please let them not be in need of constant conversation.” No conversation is awkward. Some conversation is good. Constant conversation to a borderline introvert can be draining (at least that’s how I justify this prayer in my mind).

Prayer #4 – “Lord, help me be a blessing to whoever I sit by.” That’s the prayer that I throw in so that I will feel better about myself. I’m not sure how sincere it is, but hey, this is my book, and you’re probably secretly relating to what I’m talking about.

Here’s the deal, God usually answers Prayer #4 by bringing me the opposite of what I’m praying for in Prayers #1-3. In fact, I’m pretty sure he ignores the first three like we ignore unhealthy requests from our kids as they are growing up. “Daddy, I’d like my ice cream before dinner this time.” He knows what we need, when we need it, and he knows what part we play in the big scheme of things. It’s easy to forget that it really isn’t about us, especially when you are tired or uncomfortable or just a little unclear about the mission he’s called us to everyday of our lives.

I was all of the above on that early morning flight from Birmingham when it became obvious that the really big guy hunched over in the aisle was eying the seat next to mine.
“I’m in seat A,” he said as he rechecked the number on his ticket.

“That figures,” I thought as I struggled out of seat B and into the aisle so he could get past.

Honestly, all kinds of negative thoughts started to vie for a place in my mind. I’m not proud of it; it’s just the truth. I wasn’t thinking about him, what God may have wanted to do in his life through me, or about why our lives were aligned in that moment, or the fact that I am to live “missionally” and “incarnationally” every day of my life because of the sacrifice that Jesus made for me. I wasn’t thinking about the power and responsibility of the good news. I wasn’t thinking like the men in 2 Kings 7 who, because of their leprosy, were forced to beg for their food daily, and then one day found a stash of goods so large that they could never consume it in a lifetime. They were tempted to keep it to themselves until one of them came to his senses:

2 Kings 7:9a (NLT) Finally, they said to each other, “This is not right. This is wonderful news, and we aren’t sharing it with anyone!”

I was just thinking about me and my comfort. I thought I knew what I needed, but the next 38 minutes proved to be highly instructional to this tired, grumpy, and out of alignment pastor. It was a divine appointment. And I almost missed it.

Prayers #1, 2, & 3 died quickly on the tarmac in Atlanta. There was someone sitting next to me. He was big. And he was definitely a talker. As he settled into his seat (and maybe one quarter of mine), he apologized for my discomfort and asked if I lived in Charleston.

“I do,” I replied. “How about you?”

“Oh no,” he responded. “I used to, but that was nearly thirty years ago now. I loved this place. I grew up here. I live in Alaska now, but it’s always good to get back for a visit.”

“Visiting family?” I asked as he shifted around in the narrow seats, trying to get comfortable. When he moved, I moved also. Not because I wanted to, but out of necessity. We were a team now.

“Yeah. Cousins. My parents both died about two years ago, but I’ve got cousins I’ll be seeing,” came the response from my new dance partner. “What do you do, and how long have you lived in Charleston?”

I measured my response.

“23 years…and I’m a pastor.”

“Really?” He asked. “What church?”

When I responded with “Seacoast,” he lit up like a thirteen-year-old girl at a Justin Beiber concert. “Then you know my cousin Sue.”

Seacoast is a fairly large church, and I’m honestly not too good with names. Sometimes, when people will ask, “Do you know _____; they go to your church?” I’ll get a glazed look while the search engine in my brain tries to find a match. More often than not, I’ll nod politely and hope that they don’t ask for details because I’m coming up blank. That wasn’t the case when my seat partner mentioned the name of his cousin. She and her husband had actually been apart of the group that started the church. They had been in a successful student ministry years earlier in our mother church, Northwood Assembly. Many of the leaders in that ministry had been a part of the founding of Seacoast. “John” who was currently occupying both his seat and an increasing portion of mine, had been one of the leaders of that group.

That really got him going. He became as animated as a large man could in the cramped quarters of a flying toothpick. His voice picked up both volume and pace as he recalled what had obviously been one of the highlight seasons of his life. He teared up as he recalled the night he really dedicated his life to Christ and the joy of following him with the abandonment that only the idealism of youth can truly appreciate. He asked me about various other people he’d known from those days. With each name came a story, and then a story on top of the story. I knew many of them, and it was actually fun to listen to my enthusiastic new best friend recount some things that might be useful to me in the future.

“So what took you away from Charleston?” I asked.

“Well, originally it was school,” he replied. “I followed God’s call to a Bible College in Florida. My dad was a pastor of a small church for a while when we were growing up, and I so enjoyed my youth ministry experience that it just seemed like the natural next step. I stayed there for two years and then transferred to another school in Tennessee for three years and then on to seminary for two more years.”

“So you’re a pastor now?” I asked.

“Well, not exactly. At least not the way that you see the word ‘pastor’.”

I shifted around in my seat, trying to get comfortable because I sensed a story coming; I was actually somewhat intrigued.

“I’m a chiropractor now, and I see my patients as my congregation. I attend a local church on the weekend, but my work is my ministry. Everyday, I go to my pulpit. See, everybody is hurting somewhere. Your job is to bring wholeness through the Scriptures. I just get to their hearts through the adjustments I make on their bodies. I feel God’s hand in everything I do. I love my job.”

“So,” I asked, “how do you go from preparing for ministry to being a chiropractor? I mean, seven years is a long time.”

“It is a long time,” he responded. “But if you mean, do I feel like I wasted seven years and lots of money and never became a real pastor? Definitely not. It was preparation for ministry, and I’m in the ministry now. So I can see God’s hand in it all the way.”

“I can see what you mean,” I said somewhat apologetically. “But obviously, you went into school thinking that there would be a “traditional” pastorate on the other end. Wasn’t it frustrating at times? Where did you make the switch?”

“It’s all about trusting God,” he said. Now I sensed that he was preaching a sermon to the “real” pastor, and I wasn’t offended. In fact, I was beginning to realize that maybe this was the reason that the two of us were squeezed into this small airplane for the next few minutes. God had something he wanted to say to me, and the only way he could get my attention was to seat belt me into a sardine can next to a rather large authentic “pastor.” “Fire away,” I thought. “I’m all ears.”

“Like I said, I felt a call of God on my life so I naturally thought of Bible College. With my dad being a pastor and being around some great role models in ministry, it just seemed like the right thing to do. We prayed about it and decided to pursue ministry training.”

“When did you decide that pastoring a church wasn’t in the cards for you?” I asked, still fascinated that a guy would invest seven years in ministry preparation without any apparent regrets.

“It was while I was in seminary,” he answered. “It just seemed like everything I tried was harder than it needed to be. It just wasn’t clicking for me.”

“Wasn’t that discouraging?” I asked. “How did you handle it?”

“Discouraging?” he stopped to think about his answer. “Yeah, I guess so at times. But how can you be that discouraged when you know you are where you’re supposed to be?”

“Interesting,” I thought. “Things are not working out, you’ve just invested seven years of your life in a dream that’s not happening, and you’re not discouraged because you are confident you are where you’re supposed to be?”

“Tell me how you can be in the right place, but it’s not working out, and you’re not worried about it,” I asked.

“God’s in control. It’s his job to figure that stuff out. I guess my job is to keep my attitude right and just follow his lead.”

“Cool idea,” I thought. “Sounds like something Jesus would say (if he were here today, occupying an oversized body in a very small plane, sitting next to a whiny pastor).”

“So how’d you get into being a chiropractor?”

“Like I said, things weren’t working out. Studies were hard, and there were no jobs available when I graduated, so I decided to go into the Army until I figured it out.”

“The Army’s a great place to go while you’re trying to figure things out,” I thought. “You don’t have to worry much about what’s next. They’ve got plenty of people telling you what to do.”

“Shortly after I got in, I started having headaches,” he said.

“The military will do that to you,” I added, helpfully.

“No, it’s not like that,” he said. “They were migraines. A friend said I ought to try seeing a chiropractor, and I did. The headaches went away, and I found my calling.”

“All in one visit?” I asked.

“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” he replied.

I’m thinking I should be a chiropractor.

“After I got out of the Army, I enrolled in school to become a chiropractor,, he said, completing his thought.

“So how long did that take?” I asked. Not that I’m thinking about it. I just wanted to know.

“Eight years,” he answered proudly.

“Eight years,” I repeated in disbelief. “So let me get this straight: In your pursuit of finding God’s calling on your life, you went to Bible College, Seminary, three years in the Army, and then back to eight years of college? And you didn’t get discouraged along the way?”

“That’s right,” he said with an oversized grin on his face. “Oh, I had my days, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I met some great people, and the process is what made me what I am. I love my job. And I love my life. I couldn’t be happier. If that’s what it took, don’t you think it was worth it?”

I couldn’t argue with that. I noticed that he didn’t have a ring, so I asked him if he’d ever been married.

He paused and looked down for a few seconds before he answered. “Yes, I was, to a wonderful woman. She died in a car wreck three years ago. I guess you could call me a single parent. We’ve got four teenagers living at home.”

Now that totally wrecked me.

I thought back to my selfish prayers just before he entered the plane. I thought about my reaction when it became obvious we were going to share a portion of my seat for 38 minutes. I thought about how I sometimes complain when the smallest things happen or my plans are delayed or I have to stand in one of life’s waiting lines for longer than I think I deserve. I thought about how far I am from where I need to be. I felt as if I’d been touched by an angel, and it made me want to be more like Jesus. In a strange way, I felt hope. And I wanted to hear more.

“How have you…how have you managed?” I asked as we started our descent into Charleston. “Losing your wife and your parents and raising four teenagers by yourself. I have so many questions. I can’t imagine.”

“It hasn’t been easy,” he replied. “The kids have missed their mother terribly at times. They are good kids, and their faith in God is strong. It’s hard to explain, but we have experienced God’s grace in some really incredible ways.”

“In fact,” he continued, “I can see where those years of being forced to trust God when things didn’t go the way I thought they would was great preparation for what we’ve gone through in the last three years. God was faithful then, and he has been faithful now.”

There was something different about this guy. It wasn’t just the words he spoke. He was pouring out his life and his hopes in those words. They were alive to him; he was living in them. They weren’t a shallow mimicking of something he’d heard or a Pollyanna, “everything is good,” type of misplaced naivety. There was a kind of authenticity to his faith that was at the same time simple and profound. Life had dealt him some serious setbacks, stuff that most of us would feel justified in questioning God about. But he didn’t let himself go that path. He simply trusted God, and his life was better for it.

As the wheels of the plane touched the ground, he grabbed my hand and asked if I would pray for him. I agreed to, but I felt a little like John the Baptist when Jesus asked him to baptize him:

Matthew 3:14“>Matthew 3:14 (NLT) But John didn’t want to baptize him. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said…

I prayed for continued grace, wisdom for his children, that his little congregation of patients would keep growing, and that he would always have a childlike awe when he saw God at work in his world.

When we finished, he gave me his card and told me to look him up if I ever get to Alaska. “I’ll take you to some of the most beautiful places God ever created. We’ll go hunting and fishing and hiking. You’ll love it,” he said. “It’s beautiful, but it can be unforgiving. You need somebody to show you the ropes. I’ll be your guide.”

What he didn’t know was that he already was. My guide, that is. Hopefully, I’ll be a better traveler for it.

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