Comedians like to start with the same line over and over again and put different spins on the punch line.  For instance, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” or “Knock-Knock” or “a guy walks into a bar…”.  We have learned from experience what will come, knowing that it has to be a lot funnier than “to get to the other side”.  Each new joke-teller has to at least do better than that.

It turns out that preachers and pastors have their own set of opening lines they use when getting together with one another.  Some of the favorites are, “So, how big is your church?”  “When did you become a Christian?” and “Where did you go to seminary?”  To that list I want to add another.  “I was sitting next to this guy on the airplane…”  What follows is typically an amazing, astonishing, and tear-inducing tale of how (with just the right blend of courage, wit, Scripture quoting, and Holy-Spirit anointing) the preacher was able to engage that fellow passenger in conversation, save his soul with a powerful presentation of the Gospel, and seal his eternal destiny.

Other preachers hear these tales and testimonies and feel simultaneously guilty over their uneventful recent plane flight and awestruck at the courage and skill of these preachers.

“Knock-Knock”

“Who’s there?”

“The best preacher in the room!!!”

But I am finding more and more than my best gift as a preacher might not be my speech at all.  It might just be a set of listening ears.

Here’s my plain plane story.

A fellow sits down next to me with earrings and tattoos and spiky hair and we make small talk and then find something to laugh at in the captain’s intercom address to the passengers.  Our captain wouldn’t stop talking!  It was as if he was going to give us a comprehensive description of the entire mechanical system of our 737 jet.  We learned more about wind tunnels and the air conditioning unit and the time spent by each crew of mechanics and, while it may have been kind of interesting in its own way, the captain was talking SO LOUDLY into his mic that we were kind of going crazy.

Anyway, my new friend was, not surprisingly, an artist.  He was in charge of setting up the Mini Cooper showrooms all across the country.  He had both mechanical skill and artistic acumen and was able to exercise them both in his job…which he loved.  After sharing some photos of our kids from our phones, another LOUD announcement came across the intercom that we would be having turbulence due to a storm, but we would miss the bulk of it and have a smooth landing.  The captain made a comment about how he was praying that storm would clear out and it did (Thanks, Captain, you just gave me an opportunity!)

You see, up to this point, I had not shared my name or my vocation, but then saw an opportunity to say, “Well, I am a pastor and talk to God for a living, but my prayers regarding the weather don’t typically seem to make much of a difference.” (Easter Sunday, 2013, at Refugio Beach the one clear exception!!)

A few minutes later as we were descending into Charlotte, NC, I was able to encourage my new friend about God.  It turns out his wife’s two sisters were committed Christians, although he and his wife did not go to church.  He went as a kid, but hadn’t as an adult because he felt that Christian people were too pushy.

“I get that.  I have been part of churches that did that kind of thing, and I know it can be a turn-off.  But most of those people’s intention is good, despite imperfect execution.  But, most important of all, Jesus is always good.  He is graceful and kind and instructs us in the best ways to live life.  And you know how we are about to land and those people on the runway will be there with their glowing sticks waving our plane into the terminal?  Well, maybe God just put me here to wave a glow-stick toward Jesus.  He changed my life.”

“Cool, man. Cool. It was good to meet you.”

People’s Park Pizza

July 24, 2013

My stomach was turning in knots as I approached, knowing the disappointment that my words would cause.  Jerry has been coming to our church for the last year and has been a model of faithfulness and hard work.  Whenever there is a spill that needs cleaning, chairs needing to be moved, or a garden project to be done, Jerry is the most willing and able of us all.

On this morning I had to break the news to Jerry that he couldn’t come with us to family camp.  It was a decision that was painful to make.  You see, Jerry is alcoholic and homeless and is given to fits of rage with a nasty habit of stealing things.  His behavior around the opposite sex is also questionable.  Family camp is not the place for Jerry at this time in his life.

But I didn’t want to tell him this.  I desperately want Jerry and all the other homeless to know that they are dearly loved and are a part of the family of God.  They are also important members of our faith community.  How was I to tell him that he was loved but yet not allowed to be with us for a fun weekend at the lake?

After consulting several friends and asking for lots of prayer, I went searching for Jerry on the morning we were supposed to leave.  I saw Ralphie-Boy and asked if he had seen Jerry.  “Yes.  He’s waiting for you.  He’s been talking about camp all week.”

My only thought? “Great. Just great.”  I walked over to the park where Jerry was supposed to be at but there was no sign of Jerry.  I walked back to Ralphie-Boy and the others.

“Hey Pastor Dave.  If you aren’t going to be here this weekend, then are we having tacos?” asked Mike.

“No.  We will all be gone.  There won’t be any tacos this Sunday.”

The disappointment was palpable.

“Hey Pastor Dave.  I have an idea”, said Ralphie-Boy.  “What if I buy some pizzas and we have People’s Park Pizza on Sunday?”

“That’s a great idea!” I said.

“Would it be alright if I said a prayer?  I really like it when we pray” asked Ralphie-Boy.

“Of course!” I exclaimed.  I pressed a few bucks into his hand, walked away and a smile came across my face.  It held there for about 3 seconds, until I saw Jerry walking directly toward me.  I steeled my will and determination and came to meet him, but he beat me to the punch.

“Hey Pastor Dave, I have been doing some thinking.  I am not going to go camping at the lake.  I know how hot it gets up there and I get really cranky when it’s hot.  I won’t be any fun at all.”

“Well, Jerry, that’s probably the right call.”

“So are we going to have tacos on Sunday if you all are camping?”

“No, but Ralphie-Boy is organizing People’s Park Pizza for Sunday.  Do you think you could help him out?”

“That’s a great idea.  Do you think I could read a Scripture?  Could you help pick out a Scripture for me to read when we begin?”

I said once again, “Of course!”

As I walked away, the smile came back to my face even bigger and wider than it had been before.  A prayer was said, the 23rd Psalm was read, and the community meal in Isla Vista took place once again under the banner of Jesus Christ.