Before I boarded a plane to return home last week after doing a wedding in Iowa, I prayed, “Lord, please choose the right person for me to sit with on the ride home.”
I was thinking, “I am tired, and all I want to do is recline my seat, close my eyes, and go to sleep. So please, Lord, I hope I don’t end up sitting with someone who is full of life and energy, and who wants to speak all the way from Iowa to Utah. Please, Lord, not on this trip!”
I don’t believe in Murphy’s Law or bad luck, so I was hoping and praying for the best as I made my way through the airport, past the ticket counter and down the airplane isle. I knew that I had a 50-50 chance of getting a little shuteye on the way home. I believe that God always answers prayer, but I also know that his way of answering prayer does not — I repeat, does not — always coincide with our prayer request. When I met the woman sitting next to me, I knew that I was in for it.
She was 61 years old and perhaps had too much coffee before boarding and was in the mood for talking. Lucky me (Oh, wait. I don’t believe in luck, just God’s grace). As soon as she started talking, I immediately thought, “Lord, you didn’t answer my prayer, and why me, why today, why now?”
It didn’t take me long to realize that Flight 3355 was going to have a bit of turbulence within the cabin itself, specifically in seat 28C.
As soon as my “friendly flyer” found out that I was a priest, the race was on. She proceeded to tell me that she was born Catholic, but eventually converted to a different denomination that fulfilled her spiritually — until the pastor insulted her at 16 by chastising her for wearing lipstick and a mini-skirt and by telling her that because of her style of “dress,” she was giving in to the tactics of the devil and could eventually end up in hell.
The woman sitting next to me was an “open book” and was quick to tell me that because of her pastor’s rude attitude, she left the church at 16, swore off pastors, not to mention organized religion, and hadn’t been to church in the last 45 years. On top of all that, she told me the pastor who chastised her ran off with a woman from his congregation. Go figure! Is it any wonder that this woman sitting next to me had a story to tell, and was perhaps hoping that I could make it all better on a flight from Iowa to Utah. Since I was buckled in, I had no place to run or to hide. Lucky me (oh wait…I don’t believe in luck, just God’s grace).
After listening to most of her story, I soon realized that the Lord had indeed answered my prayer. I prayed before I boarded: “Lord, please choose the right person for me to sit with on the plane ride home.” He did! He found me a woman who was hurt by a pastor and who needed to hear from me that we, as pastors, can make mistakes along the way by what we say and how we say it.
As pastors, we have the ability to bring people closer to God, or to drive them farther away, if we’re not willing to model the Good Shepherd who reached out to the sinner, the repentant thief, the adulterous woman, the prostitute, the fragile, etc. in this way:
“When the just cry out, the Lord hears them, and from all their distress He rescues them. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and those who are crushed in spirit He saves (Psalm 34.18).”
“A bruised reed He shall not break, and a smoldering wick He shall not quench (Is. 42:3).”
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted (Is. 61:1).”
The story of this woman on the plane reminded me of this story: “A woman is said to have gone to confession after an absence of 30 years. The confessor barked a bitter question at her: ‘Why have you stayed away from the Church for 30 years?’ Her reply was a logical one. Because, Father, 30 years ago I met a pastor just like you!’”
There is another story about a pastor who showed little mercy to a penitent and who heard a voice from heaven, “I, not you, died for her sins!”
As pastors, we can be as bold as lions when we preach the gospel from the podium; however, when we are ministering to God’s children, who are suffering in silence or who are afraid to approach the altar of God’s grace and mercy, we need to be as gentle as lambs: “A bruised reed He shall not break, and a smoldering wick He shall not quench (Is.42:3).”
July 4 gives us an opportunity to celebrate our national independence and freedom, but let us not forget that you and I have the power within to grant independence and freedom to those who are heavily burdened or weighed down because of past sins and behaviors.
We have the power within us to “set the captives free,” power that comes directly from God and which can even be manifested on a flight home from Iowa. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “No matter how strong the grip of vice, the penitent must still be assured that no mountain of guilt is so great as not to be removable by the Blood of Christ.”
After speaking with my friend on the plane for a long time, I encouraged her to return to church, and she promised me that she would. I will never know if she did become an active church member, but what I do know is that God answered my prayer on Flight 3355 and sent me the right traveling companion.
God wanted me to learn from her on how to be a better pastor. Thank you, Lord — lesson learned and point taken. Thank you for the flight home, and thank you for answering my prayer!
Rev. Vialpando is the priest at St. Marguerite Catholic Church in Tooele.