Airplane Seats and a Cross-Shaped Life
By the time you read this, I will be in St. Louis for the annual meeting of Presbyterian bureaucrats. Officers and staff of General Assembly, synods, and presbyteries will gather to talk about everything from the future of ministry to child protection policies. But first, we will have to fly to get there.
I hate flying. When the person in front of me leans back, I can no longer use my laptop effectively. If you read my column last month, you can easily guess how I feel about losing several hours of work.
What are my options? I can confront the one who reclines, or ask the flight attendant to do so. I can lean my own seat back, and pass my discomfort on to the person behind me. Or I can give up my comfort and a few hours of work.
My daughter’s generation would call this a “first-world problem.” They would be right. Airplane seats may belong to questions of courtesy, not Gospel obedience. But if you will indulge me a few minutes, I would like to suggest that even small courtesies, when done with Jesus in mind, make room for the way of the cross.
I have never sacrificed compared to what many believers endure. I have not lost a job for the Gospel. I have not been forced to choose between jail, death, or exile. And I look with awe upon the response of the Coptic believers in Cairo this past April.
But great faithfulness begins in small things (Luke 16:10). When I graciously accept the loss of four inches on an airplane, I become a little more fit for bigger sacrifices. When I leave my bed to help after a 2:00 AM phone call, I model the Kingdom of God (Luke 11:5-8). When I buy a smaller house or an older car in order to give away more, I act a little more like a follower of Jesus (Luke 18:22). When I accept an attack upon my character and neither strike back nor gossip against my adversary, I take on the life of Christ (Matthew 5:38-45; Romans 12:14). All of these actions are within regular reach of a first-world person like me.
Why am I devoting this space to nurturing a cross-shaped life? Because I believe it is the only hope for our human predicament.
In these last few months we have witnessed grave anger and sorrow. Our hearts have been immersed in vicarious, and sometimes not-so-vicarious, suffering. What are we to do?
As I have struggled with that question, Bill Pannell’s words at our gathering last February keep returning to mind: “When we ask, ‘What are we to do?’ the question leads us to Jesus. And when we come to Jesus, he leads us to the cross.”
I don’t remember that Dr. Pannell proposed any particular actions. But if I understood right, he certainly did not mean that Jesus leads us to a once-and-for-all event that occurred two thousand years ago.
Yes, Christ’s death was decisive. The atonement is complete. But the cross is also a way of life that Jesus expected of his followers (Mark 8:34-37). If we find ourselves facing the question, “What are we to do?”, the answer for the Christian will surely lie along the path of self-sacrifice—laying down our lives for the sake of our neighbor (Luke 10:25-37), our friend (John 15:13), and even our enemy (Romans 5:10).
And that way of life has the power to bring about deep and lasting good. Tiny acts of sacrificial love, by God’s mustard-seed logic, will affect the world in ways we cannot anticipate. Even my first-world efforts may have the impact of “yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures [about fifty pounds] of flour until all of it was leavened” (Luke 13:20-21).
And that is why I will not be reclining my airplane seat this coming week.
Somewhere along the Way—
Disclaimer: I am a white, educated, professional-class male who is a citizen by birth in the United States. What I say here has been an important part of my growth in faith, and I believe it is a good word to people like me. But the cross-shaped life takes on unique forms in distinct cultural contexts. If you come from a different background from mine, the specific applications may be different as well.