by Pringle Franklin
Several days before Christmas 2015, I was thrown way off schedule while trying to reach Charleston for the holidays. I was in the wrong place, at the wrong time — or so it had seemed.
At this point, we were still living in France and returning to Charleston for the two-week winter break, but technical delays with United Airlines’ computer system in Paris had cost us. By the time we had landed in Washington D.C. and cleared customs, we had missed our evening connection to Charleston. The airline graciously put us up in an attractive airport hotel and gave us seats for a 9 a.m. flight the next morning.
We would arrive in Charleston about 16 hours behind schedule.
It wouldn’t have been a big deal except that Sunday, Dec. 20 was a red-letter day for me. St. Philips Church had graciously scheduled a book signing for Hope & Healing in Marriage. I had been so excited about returning to my home church and sharing my newly published book; I had promoted the event on Facebook and received messages back from friends who planned to attend.
Yet the unexpected overnight in Washington meant I would miss most, if not all, of the book signing. How could God possibly want to cancel a promotional event for a Christian book designed to help hurting people? To me, it did not make one iota of sense. Even so, I prayed that God would use the travel snafu for his higher good. I claimed Paul’s beloved promise from the book of Romans:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28
This was the second time I had claimed this verse on our journey. First, I had thrown this protective cloak around me when we were stuck at the airport in Paris. The next morning I was proclaiming this spiritual truth while sitting on the commuter plane in D.C., despite the fact that my book signing was basically sunk. If everything went smoothly about getting on the ground in Charleston, and I did not take time to shower or change, I could rush over to the church and might manage to catch the tail end of the Sunday morning crowd.
Nothing could be done to turn back the hands of time, so I decided to stop kicking against the goads and take a deep breath. I would trust in the Lord. As the narrow plane rolled down the runway in Washington, preparing for takeoff, I relaxed and looked around.
The guy directly across the aisle had a French passport stuck in his seat pouch. He was speaking French to someone farther back, but to the stewardess, he spoke perfect English. He was about 25 years old, of Arab descent, and he was wearing Wayfarer sunglasses inside the plane, despite the fact that it was not bright in the cabin. I took that as a sign that he wanted to be anonymous.
Despite this, I found myself opening a conversation with him because I felt the need to be hospitable to a Frenchman who found himself in my home country. I opened things up by asking if he were French. He was clearly surprised, not realizing that I had been observing him. I told him about our ties to Paris. He uncrossed his arms and turned toward me.
After about five minutes of friendly conversation, he removed his sunglasses. That was when I knew that I had managed a break through with Sebastian (as I will call him).
Somehow his sister had found her way to Charleston, and Sebastian and his brother (who was eight rows back) were going to visit her. His parents had flown over from France and would be in Charleston too. His family is Muslim, although Sebastian was quick to tell me that he was non-practicing. His parents had allowed their children to decide for themselves, he said.
As we chatted on, we discovered we had both been stuck one day earlier on the delayed flight from Paris to D.C. Sebastian’s face flashed with frustration and anger as he related how hungry he had been while we sat in the parked plane at Charles de Gaule Airport for three hours. Sebastian had skipped breakfast to get to the airport on time, and he had expected to receive a meal shortly after take off. But instead of flying away, we sat buckled into our seats, waiting, waiting, waiting for the computer issue to get fixed. After several hours, Sebastian was starving. He asked a steward for food and was only given a small pouch of peanuts. Sebastian’s anxiety spiked and he admitted that he was pretty unpleasant with the steward.
I acknowledged his feelings as being universal for stranded travelers. But I went out on a limb and shared my own experience during that time. When I began to feel anxious, I pushed all worries away. Instead, I focused on the soothing thought that God was with me, that he loved me. I trusted that nothing could happen to me which was outside of his will and that, when bad things happened, God could work them for good.
I explained that I am a Christian, and that it was my belief that God surrounds us all the time with love, and that this love was available to us if we would open ourselves to receive it.
This young man, who was had seemed so unapproachable, so aloof, was fascinated by my candor. He seemed drawn to the idea of someone having a loving, trusting relationship with God. His facial expressions ranged back and forth between benign amusement and respect. It was not a monologue on my part; Sebastian repeated back what I was saying, letting me know that he understood and was actively listening.
I felt remorse for my initial reaction to seeing the young Arab guy, wearing sunglasses and a disdainful expression. Airplanes tend to make me jumpy, and my mind had leapt to the fear of terrorists and bombs and the recent attacks in Paris. That kind of association just happens, whether you like it or not. Luckily, I recognized the ugliness of the mindset and refused to entertain it, knowing that God has called me to respect the dignity of every human being. But sometimes it is hard to push such suspicions away.
At one point, I asked Sebastian what kind of work he did. His family lives in the southern part of France, near Bordeaux, and yet he and his brother moved to Paris.
He hesitated before replying, “Finance.”
For a moment before he answered me, a look of alarm had passed over his features. But as he answered with that one word, finance, his face returned to a neutral expression.
My gut told me that he was withholding pertinent information. While perhaps finance was not technically a lie, this vague answer was serving as a cover for something, something he did not wish to reveal. This was not a door that I was going to try and force open. I continued to chat with him in the same cordial and friendly tone, feeling that the most important thing was to help him catch a glimpse of the magnificent way that a soul can know and love God.
We exchanged pleasant good-byes and well wishes after the plane landed. I collected my bags and went outside to wait for my ride by the curb. Unlike cold and dreary Paris, Charleston was sunny, warm, and bright. It felt like leaving Siberia and emerging in Key West. I saw Sebastian, standing and leaning against his suitcase, his face turned toward the sun like a turtle soaking up rays. Naturally his Wayfarers were back in place. We smiled at one another, exchanging gestures about the unexpectedly beautiful weather.
As I turned away, I prayed a silent prayer for his soul to find its way to God.
Later on, I thought again about Romans 8:28. How quickly had the Lord answered my entreaties. When we pray into his will, this is often the case. He is just waiting to make good on prayers that are built upon the foundation of faith in him and in the scriptures. It didn’t matter that I was a day late arriving in Charleston; it didn’t matter that I ended up missing most of the book signing. God had opened a door into someplace eternal and had allowed me, for a few moments, to walk beside him in his work.