When I flew down to California to the prison last week, it took four planes to get there. On the last and longest flight of the night, my lottery ticket landed on a middle seat. Groan. I shrunk into the tiny space, strapped between two large men. I did not want to be there.
Sometimes I do not talk on the plane. At all. Especially in the middle seat. But this night, for some reason, I did. I spoke to the man on my right. His name was Jerry. He was warm and conversational. We talked about our families, our kids, our work, where we were going that day and why. It was not long into the conversation when he discovered I was a person of faith. I don’t usually hide this, but neither do I make my seat a soapbox.
As soon as he heard me say “Christian” he charged in. “I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in any of that hocus-pocus,” he said, firmly, shaking his head.
“Really? Wow, that’s interesting. How did you decide that?” I looked at him with curiosity.
He told me. He was raised in a charismatic church, he said. His parents were heavily involved. He was in church all the time. “It’s baloney. All of it. I have a great life. I have a wife and three beautiful grown daughters. I don’t need God. My life is every bit as good as theirs. No, better.“
I listened intently, wondering what to say. Before I could think of a single apologetic, he answered my next question: “I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I don’t do debates or arguments. I just know there’s no god. “ He smiled at me. I smiled back.
The man on the other side of me did not speak for the first hour of the flight. He listened to our long conversation in silence. Finally he spoke. “I was raised Baptist. I’m not anything now. I’m not sure what I believe. “ Then, in the next thirty minutes it came out. He had two sons. No, he had one son. The older one died just 2 years ago. He was bipolar, and became addicted to drugs and alcohol, which killed him.
“We tried to help him. We did everything we knew to do. We followed the expert’s advice. He would come back and live with us, and we’d help him start over. But nothing worked.”
We talked for a long time about his son, about grief, about mental illness. I did not mean to cry, but tears came. I know parts of this story well. But there was more.
“The week after he died, my wife and I were sitting in the back yard, just empty, hollow. A pair of doves, white doves came to our bird bath. My wife and I had never seen doves there before. Ever. They came and bathed in the water for the longest time, two of them. Pure white. We watched, astounded. Then they flew off. We’ve never seen them again. It was a visit I think, maybe from angels? Maybe it was his spirit?”
“It was a message from God,” I whispered. “Don’t you see? That he loves you and is with you. He never left you and He never will.“
He looked at me. We sat 3 inches apart. He nodded. We closed our eyes, hardly able to look at one another in the holiness of that moment. The man on my other side listened and said nothing.
This week, Friday, many of us will watch a man take that middle space for us, the place no one wants, He will climb onto a cross, to hang between two men, a disbelieving mocker and a penitent thief; to hang between judgment and mercy, between the past and the future, between law and grace. In that space, he will not shrink, but will spread his arms wide, encompassing all our rebellion, all our disbelief, all our tragic obsession with trivia, and all the death that results.
He will hold us there in that bloody embrace until all is accomplished.
I was with him there that day. And you were too. We were there. In his mind, his heart, our deadly sins, our names on his lips as his life drained out of him.
"For we have been crucified with Christ, and we not longer live but Christ lives in us. The life we all now live in our bodies, we live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us."
Because of that day 2000 years ago, because of that man on the middle cross, we can step into dreaded in-between spaces every day: I could love the man on my right who insists there is no God. I could cry with the man on my left who lost his son. Who might believe again some day. Because of that day, we are reconcilers, standingwhere we must---in the midst of those who are suffering, opening our arms to the only way out.
On Easter Sunday, guess where I will be. I will not be sitting in church at our sunrise service. I will not be surrounded by my family raising the roof with hands and voice before a cross surrounded by lilies. I’ll be sitting on a plane that entire day (the only day we could get tickets to return home) strapped in a middle seat, of course.
I know now it's the best seat of all.