Delta Airlines, seat 9c. Ruth was in 9a.
9b—between us—was empty.
I asked if she lives in St. Louis.
"I go to school there," Ruth said.
"Wow," I said. "I could never do that. Must be hard."
"It's a challenge, but I love it. And you?" she asked.
"College campus ministry. Headed to our national staff conference in St. Louis. Ever heard of InterVarsity? There's a chapter at your school."
"Yeah," she said. "One of my friends goes to InterVarsity. What do you do there?"
Only 60 seconds gone and I was fully engaged. She was sharp, conversational, mature.
"We study the Bible and try to apply it to our lives. You ever read the Bible?"
"I'm Jewish, Reformed," she said. "Not really practicing Judaism. So, no."
"How do you define what it means to be Jewish?" I asked. "I'm told by my rabbi friend that it's an ongoing discussion in the Jewish community."
"True. Not everyone agrees on a definition. My parents are both Jewish, so I was born into it."
We talked a bit more about Jewish identity—Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, secular. Something along those lines. Then she asked about my Christianity.
"I'm an evangelical Christian," I said.
"What does evangelical really mean?"
"Evangelicals believe in the authority of the Bible and all that it teaches about Christ and salvation."
"So you take the Bible literally?" she asked.
This question comes up frequently in my travels. I was ready for her.
"Just the literal parts," I responded.
After a moment's pause she looked me dead in the eye and said abruptly, "Am I going to hell? Please tell me. I want to know what you think. I won't be offended by what you say."
I hesitated. She reassured me: "Seriously. I want to know."
Looking back across the empty seat between us, I could no longer see Ruth's face. Just her profile in the fading 6pm light, framed in the cabin window.
"Hell is a place God will never bother you again," I said. "None of his good gifts will be there. Is that what you want? It's your choice."
"I believe even an atheist will be accepted by God if they're a good person. More so than a bad religious person," she asserted.
Religious pluralism. I thought as much.
"May I challenge you with something?" I asked.
"It sounds like you're saying that anyone who's a good person will be accepted by God. It doesn't really depend on any religious commitments."
"That goes against how many Christians practice their faith. They believe the only path to God is through Jesus. So you're telling us we're wrong."
"Yes..." she said, "I suppose I am."
"Usually it's the other way around. People accuse Christians of being exclusive. But I guess everyone is exclusive at some point."
"I hadn't thought of it that way."
"Never sit by an evangelist on an airplane," I joked.
She laughed and waved a hand. "No, I love these conversations. I find them enlightening."
"You're a brave soul."
I asked about her studies. She feels called to be a doctor (like her father), to help people in need.
She explained her affiliation with an organization that provides free medical service to the rural poor in Latin America. She was articulate, impressive.
God was with me. I suggested she think of her calling and abilities as divine gifts and that if she would connect them to Jesus they'd come alive. She'd be empowered beyond her imaginings.
"I'll have to think about that," she reflected.
St. Louis was imminent. Before touchdown, our conversation took an unusual turn.
"I have a diagram for you," I said to Ruth in 9a.
The light was dim in the cabin as the pilot announced our initial descent into St. Louis.
"Okay," Ruth nodded.
"Here's Judaism." I drew a vertical line in the air, top to bottom. "And here's an offshoot." Now the line had become an h.
I continued: "This is how we normally think about Judaism and Christianity. Judaism is the straight line, Christianity the off-shoot."
"But what if it's the other way around?" I continued to mime. "What if Christianity is the true Judaism and the offshoot is simply a hold-over from the past?"
Ruth regarded me for a moment without speaking. For the first time in an hour, I was aware of the low rumble of jet propulsion. Finally, I offered gently, "Am I pushing you too hard?"
"Not at all. I want to think about these matters. Maybe you should come and talk to students at Wash U sometime."
"Just invite me. I come cheap."
She grinned and we talked more about her campus.
The big Delta plane was barreling down through the clouds. Sensing the Spirit, I asked Ruth if I could put one final idea on the table. One I rarely use. She agreed without hesitation.
I said carefully, "Perhaps God placed me here to talk with you on this flight."
"You're actually the second InterVarsity person I talked with today," she responded.
I laughed. "Maybe the Lord is trying to get your attention. Anyway, I don't want to get a messiah complex here. I don't normally tell people that God placed me in their life."
"It's okay," she said. "I know what you're saying."
We deplaned and walked up the jet bridge together. In the terminal, there was a brief handshake as I gave her my card, but didn't ask for her info. "Email me if you wish," I said lightly.
"Enjoy St. Louis," she said.
It was over. I kept my distance as we wound through the terminal.
Lord, would you touch the heart of Ruth in seat 9a.
This post was adapted from Rick Mattson's blog.
Plane, train, or automobile. Have you ever had a deep spiritual conversation with someone who didn't know Jesus? How was it similar to or different from Rick and Ruth's conversation? Share your experience in the comments below.
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