“Do you know Jesus’ real name?”
This was the first question my fellow traveler from Dallas to Columbus asked me on our two-and-a-half hour flight home after learning that I was a pastor.
I have to confess something: I don’t like telling people I’m a pastor when I am forced to share such an intimate space with no chance for escape. Airplanes are the worst for this. To out myself as a pastor leads to, in my experience, one of two outcomes.
Option one: I encounter a lapsed Christian who clearly feels a wave of guilt come crashing down on them the minute they learn that God has vindictively seated a pastor next to her and that she ought to make amends for every sin she has committed since she was last in church, which was probably sometime in the weeks following September 11. I spend my time taking confessions and failing to convince them that God really does forgive her through Jesus Christ. It’s exhausting, but at least I get to proclaim the gospel (again and again and again and again).
Option two: I encounter an opponent to all things Christian (or religious) and spend my time trying to avoid arguing with someone who clearly, deeply wants to argue. It’s like the worst part of Thanksgiving with your extended family, but done at 10,000 feet while federally required to stay strapped in because the pilot hasn’t turned off the seatbelt sign yet. It’s exhausting and if the gospel is proclaimed, it is done so to hard hearts and stiff necks.
Whichever option, my Stephen King novel lies unopened on my lap.
All told, I try to talk to my fellow passengers – when it is clear they don’t just want to read, sleep or listen to music (which is all I really want to do) – about themselves, the weather, where they’re coming from and where they’re going. Yet without fail, I’m eventually asked, “So, what do you do for a living?”
That’s how I got started talking with Yusha, the man who asked me the question that began this blog. But what followed did not, blessedly, fall into either of the above options. As if by the Holy Spirit, Yusha was authentically interested in matters of faith and life, while simultaneously bringing none of the extra emotional energy the typical two options involves.
“Yeshua,” I answered Yusha. “It could just as easily be translated ‘Joshua.’”
“Correct,” Yusha exclaimed and then proceeded to tell me that his name is derived from Yeshua. “Most Christians don’t know that,” he said.
I agreed. It is a particularly church-nerdy thing to know that the Hebrew “Yeshua” becomes the Greek “Iesous,” which then turns into the Latin “Iesus,” that ultimately ends up as the English “Jesus.” It’s one of those lessons of language that makes me mischievously wonder if the church in 3,000 years won’t worship a guy named “Bruce” or “Dwayne.” Language is weird.
Thanks be to God that I am that sort of church-nerd because in knowing just the teensiest bit about etymology, Yusha (my plane-mate and not the Savior of the world, just in case you’re getting a little confused) was much more prepared to ask and listen, to speak and be heard.
Yusha was, by his own admission, a lapsed Muslim. Blame it on my Midwestern roots or my lack of cosmopolitan experiences, but I’m much more likely to know a Muslim actor (I see you Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani!) than I am to know a lapsed Muslim. I was riveted as I listened to him explain how scientific advancements and technological growth caused him to question his Muslim upbringing. “Huh,” I thought, “I’m used to this line of reasoning with lapsed Christians who have a bone to pick with Jesus. This is new.”
I realize my evangelical readers, at this point, are probably hoping this story ends with a conversion and prayer. My more progressive readers, meanwhile, may just hope that I guided him back to more seriously consider his childhood faith and worship the God of Abraham in his own unique way. As I’m increasingly used to, I failed both of these camps.
I would’ve very much liked to see Yusha come to live a life that responded to God’s love and grace through the worship of God’s Son (and his namesake!), but I’ve never been a great evangelist. Ultimately, there is nothing particularly miraculous to report from this question and this conversation. Yet it remains one of my favorite questions I’ve ever been asked for a number of reasons.
First, it’s not often that my church-nerdiness leads to anything more than “Oh, that’s interesting” in conversations with others. So that was certainly validating. I hope it encourages you to double-down on your Sunday school attendance and continued intellectual growth in the faith.
Second, Jesus redeemed plane rides as possible holy ground and not just a compressed space for repressed pathos. I hope this encourages you to consider how God might redeem the unholy (or even uncomfortable) spaces in your life, whatever they might be.
Finally, I was reminded that people want to talk about God andthat they are going to approach God in a nearly infinite number of ways. Such is the inevitable when approaching the holy, majestic One. God is not passé nor have we somehow evolved or moved on from such archaic musings. God is real and present, even in the lives of agnostic, lapsed Muslims.
Yusha is a good reminder for me – and I hope for all Christians – that God is always at the edges of every person’s life. We do not bring people to Christ, as some would have us believe. We are not spiritual travel agents. We are not religious FedEx. No, the God with whom we want people to have a relationship is already sitting right there, sometimes knocking and sometimes waiting patiently and quietly. Ours is the task of being able to see God and being bold enough to point to Jesus.
JEFFREY A. SCHOOLEY is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church to Marysville in Ohio. He’d still much rather read a book on a plane, but is learning to be more open. If you have a great plane story or a favorite question you want to share with him, please do so at [email protected]