So You Believe in God, Huh?

Prop Plane

By Mark A. Vermilion

I travel a lot for my work. And a lot of my travel is by air. I’m usually very tired when I get on flights, and it’s always a challenge for me to talk to the person sitting next to me on the plane.

It’s not that I’m anti-social, but I am an introvert who talks to people all day and interacts with groups of people for a living. Especially when I travel. By the time I drop into my seat on a plane, I’m ready to go into an introvert coma (only an introvert would fully understand that last sentence.)

But God often seems to have other plans when I’m on planes. He has different ways of letting me know when he wants me to rise to the occasion and engage with the person next to me. At times, I can sense that he’s orchestrating an important connection. I never know where it’s going to lead, but the conversations usually lead somewhere meaningful.

That’s what happened a couple of days ago on a short flight from Indianapolis to Chicago. I was on a small plane with two seats on one side of the aisle and just one seat on the other. I got the window seat on the two-seat side of the aisle. The seat next to me was empty.

Just seconds before the door closed on the aircraft, a large, slightly-graying, middle-aged businessman plopped down next to me in the aisle seat. He was dressed in an expensive suit—although his big belly made his shirt bunch at the waist. He was very forceful as he shoved his carry-on in the overhead bin above us and then thrust his large body in his seat. He overflowed into my seat as well.

Our plane didn’t have a first-class section, and I got the sense that the man next to me hadn’t sat in coach for a while. I kept my head down in my book and tried to give off a vibe that I wasn’t interested in talking.

“I hate how small they make these damn planes,” he said as he fumbled around with his seatbelt. “It’s like the assholes who make these planes have never eaten a steak before.”

I spontaneously chuckled.

“You ride these death-tube propeller planes much?” he asked as he continued to adjust his seatbelt.

“Nah, I’m not a big fan of them either,” I said flatly, my eyes still focused on my book.

“You headed to Chicago on business?” he replied.

“Just connecting to Denver,” I told him. Surely he could see that I didn’t want to talk.

“Denver, huh? What do you do?”

I paused before I answered. When someone asks me this question on a plane, I have to make a choice. I can either tell them the truth and send the conversation in one direction, or I can change the subject and send the discussion in a different direction.

I decided to tell him what I do.

“I’m a strategic consultant for Christian ministry organizations,” I replied with as little emotion as possible.

“Oh, so you believe in God, huh?”

Ugh! I knew that questions was coming.

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Going on offense
I had been in this conversation a number of times with guys like him, and I knew where it was going. It would go something like this: He will try to bait me into a debate and “help me realize” that I really can’t prove the existence of God. The conversation may have a few twists and turns, but it will eventually lead to an insinuation (or a clear proclamation) that I’m an idiot for believing in God. Ultimately, he wants an argument. He won’t listen to any logical argument I make, and the chances of him changing his position are nil.

I was tired, and I wasn’t in the mood to have that conversation. So, I went on the offensive, hoping I could get him to back off.

“Yes, I do,” I replied slowly. “I take it from the tone in your voice that you don’t believe in God,” I added with a sarcastic tone.

The man laughed. “I like that answer,” he replied.

“And if I may be so bold, I presume that you’ve already put me in the same category as clowns and idiots,” I continued.

He laughed again. “You’ve either run into a lot of atheists or you’re pretty good at reading people,” he said in a jovial voice.

The conversation trailed off for a moment.

“So, is it true? Do you think I’m an idiot?” I started again. It came out more abrupt than I meant it to.

“Wow, you’re cutting to the chase, aren’t you?” he observed with a less jovial tone.

“I’m not the one who asked a complete stranger if he believed in God,” I shot back. “I thought maybe you liked for people to cut to the chase. You seem like that kind of guy.”

I was trying to sound ironic, but it sounded much more rude than ironic.

The man kept his calm, confident demeanor as he answered me: “Okay then, you asked a blunt question; I’ll give you a blunt answer. I think it’s understandable that people believe in God—people want to feel like there’s someone in control of this mess—but it’s a fantasy. No thinking person believes in God,” he said and then paused. “So, yes, I guess I think you’re an idiot for believing in a fantasy.”

He paused for a moment and added: “Does that offend you?”

I chuckled. “No, the irony is that I was thinking the same thing about you,” I retorted. “I guess I think you’re an idiot for not believing in God.”

I mimicked him by pausing for a moment. “Does that offend you?”

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Over the line
Time out. I’m seldom ever harsh with people. But I realize that some people don’t respond well to soft-sided love. They walk all over it. Living my love in this moment was strangely hardcore. It was so out of character for me that I felt like I was being mean. Still, every time I opened my mouth, I got bolder and more offensive with my co-traveler.

“While you were categorizing me as a clown and a fool, I was doing the same to you. I can see why people want to believe there’s no God—it’s convenient to not have to answer to anyone else but yourself. But it’s a fantasy to believe that there’s no higher authority than yourself.”

“I didn’t say I think I’m the highest authority,” he defensively responded. He started to explain, but I cut him off.

“Not with your words, maybe. But you’ve been giving off that vibe since you boarded the plane. And I know it didn’t just start now. I’m guessing you do business, your family (I saw he had on a wedding band), and everything else in your life like you’re the highest authority. I bet if I asked anyone in your life who’s the boss, they wouldn’t hesitate to point to you. Am I right?”

His face got red, but he stayed quiet. It felt like the calm before a tornado. I braced myself for his verbal defense.

It didn’t come.

“Nobody talks to me like you are. They have more respect than you obviously do. I’d take great pleasure in putting you in your place, but then I’d just be validating what you said. You would just tell me that I’ve proven to you that I think I’m a higher authority because I don’t let anyone talk to me that way,” he said with an ambivalent sense of anger and respect.”

I kept up my aggressive tone. “I actually hadn’t thought of that at all,” I replied. “You’ve already given me enough to work with. Remember, the people who make these planes are assholes. And you’ve already called me an idiot. Seems like you enjoy your role as God. You like being the judge of all things.”

We sat there in a few moments of awkward silence. It was long enough for me to realize that I crossed the line. I still felt like this guy needed some tough love from someone who could go toe to toe with him. But it felt weird. Disrespectful. Over the line.

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The apology
The annoyed man looked around the plane to see if there was another seat to sit in, but there wasn’t another open seat on the plain. He was stuck with me.

“I apologize for what I just said,” I stated as I turned my body again to look over at him. “I don’t really know you, and I’ve made a lot of assumptions about you. Maybe I’m playing judge.”

He nodded his head once to let me know he accepted my apology (or that he agreed with me) and he then grew quiet for a few more awkward minutes.

I went back to my book. But I wasn’t thinking about the book. I was dissecting everything I had just said to that man—and how uncharacteristic it was of me to talk like that.

“God, please redeem this conversation!” I silently breathed.

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From the heart
The man spoke again and startled me out of my thoughts.

“Okay, let’s start over,” he calmly stated. “I’m not picking a fight, okay, but I really want to hear your answer. How do you know? How do you know there’s a God?”

I sensed it was time to let down my guard and engage with my heart. (This was territory I was much more familiar with.) No more verbal sparring.

“Because I cry,” I responded.

“What are you saying?” he replied. I could tell he wasn’t sure if I was still playing with him.

“You’re probably expecting a logical argument from me about the existence of God, but I’m not going to give you one. I’m guessing you’ve heard it before, and I’m guessing you know how to tear it apart. And I’m guessing it wouldn’t change your mind, anyhow,” I explained. “And truth is, I really don’t want to argue with you.”

“Fair enough,” he said softly, “but what do you mean by the crying thing?”

“I could never cry in my teens and twenties. Even when I wanted to, I couldn’t cry. I’d go to funerals, and I had no emotion. I’d see something that would make most normal people cry, and I couldn’t come up with any tears. Then, a few years into my marriage, I held my tiny, mangled stillborn daughter in my arms, and I couldn’t come up with any emotional expression for what was going on inside me. I got angry at myself.”

I could see the man was listening intently to my story. “What happened?” he asked when I paused.

“I asked God to break my heart and allow me to cry for things that are sad. Two weeks later, I was watching the movie, Schindler’s List, and there was this part where everyone around me was crying. Even the guys. And I started to tear up. And then I began to cry. And then I began to bawl uncontrollably. I had to leave the theater.

“I’ve been crying for sad things and hurting people ever since.”

“That’s a great story. I’m sure you tell it a lot. But it doesn’t prove there’s a God,” he responded in a respectful tone. “I don’t say that to be mean, but it really doesn’t prove anything.”

“Well, for one thing, I’ve never told that story before. And you have to remember that I’m not trying to prove the existence of anything. You asked me how I know there’s a God, and I told you. But there is more to the story…”

“Give me the quick version,” he granted.

“Okay, I’ll keep it short. Later, I asked God to take away the anger that filled me and replace it with peace and joy. The aggressive tone you just got from me was not even close to how I responded to everything. And over a matter of several months, God took away my anger. Before that, my first response to any conflict was anger. After that, I was able to choose peace and joy. I know you haven’t seen the peaceful, joyful side of me, but my response to you is not the norm. Everyone else around me saw the change in me.

“But that’s not all. I used to be a workaholic, and I was hurting my wife and young children. God took me through a hard process of beginning to prioritize my family ahead of my work.

“I could go on, but you get the picture, right? I still have things that God is changing in me even as we speak,” I added.

“Yeah, I get it. And I appreciate that you’ve had that kind of experience. But you know it doesn’t prove anything,” he replied.

“Like I told you, I don’t mean for it to be proof. At some point, you can’t ‘understand’ God through reason alone. I’ve seen lots of people reason their way to God, and I’ve seen others reason their way away from God. At some point, it takes faith. When you take steps of faith toward God, God meets you there and shows himself through your life experience. And then you begin to see God in creation, in your life, and even more fully in your reason. God honors faith.”

What’s faith got to do with it?
“So that’s your answer, huh? I just need faith? I ‘m sorry, but I just can’t get there,” he replied.

“That’s not true. You have faith that there’s a pilot flying this plane, right? You haven’t seen him—I know you haven’t because I saw you get on this plane late. The door to the cockpit was shut. And yet, you’ve trusted your life into this unseen pilot’s hands. Did you see the Denzel Washington movie, Flight? How do you know our pilot isn’t stoned out of his head? I’m sure that, like me, you’ve reasoned that there are very few plane crashes each year and the chance that ours is going to be one of them is very low. Even though there’s nothing about the plane itself that tells you you’re safe, you have faith that you are. What did you call this plane—a death tube?

“That’s really what faith is: Believing in something you cannot see because something you can see points to it. People of faith are usually very reasonable people. They believe that they can see proof of something unseen in what they do see. Just like you and that pilot. It’s not unreasonable for you to have faith in that pilot, because what you’ve seen gives proof to what you haven’t seen.”

The man nodded his head, but he didn’t respond, so I continued.

“I don’t want to sound hokey—you’re too smart for that. But that’s why faith is a reasonable thing to me. What I see suggests that God exists. And, as I’ve already told you, what I’ve experienced tells me He’s real. I was hard and he helped me cry. I was angry, and he gave me peace. I had my priorities wrong, and he helped me have a heart for my wife and kids so that I didn’t want to work all the time anymore. You may not think those are big things, but I know how big they are. I lived through them.”

“Okay, I hear you. Faith in God is reasonable for you. But I’m not there. Doubt that I ever will be.”

At that point, we were interrupted by the flight attendant telling us our short flight to Chicago was about to end.

“I tell you what,” I said. “Ask God to show you he’s real. If He’s real, He will. Right?”

He pondered what I was asking him to do, but he wasn’t willing to commit.

“Look, I know you don’t sleep well. When you’re lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling and the clock, ask God to show you He’s real,” I added.

“How do you know I don’t sleep well?” he quickly replied.

“You have dark circles and bags under your eyes,” I observed. “Besides, I can tell you carry a lot of responsibility and stress.”

“You realize how absurd it is for me to talk to a God that doesn’t exist?” he said while rubbing the areas under his eyes with his finger.

That’s when I came to the conclusion that I was wasting my time. It was another conversation with an atheist that went nowhere.

I’ll do it
We were on the ground in Chicago and the plane pulled up to the gate at O’Hare Airport.

When the flight attendant gave us the cue that we could get up, the man jumped to his feet and jockeyed for his place in line to get off the plane. He gathered his carry-on bag and waited impatiently for the line ahead of him to move. He peered intently straight ahead.

I was still seated.

Just before the line ahead of him moved, he looked down at me and said, “I will do it. I’ll ask God to prove to me that He’s real. That’s all the faith I can do without more proof.”

I gave him a warm smile in return. “Sounds like a good next step,” I encouraged. I started to say more, but I sensed that I had said enough.

God was clearly already at work in the man’s life.

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Planting seeds
As I think back to last week and my encounter with the atheist man on the plan, I think of the Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthian church: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow,” (1 Corinthians 3”6-7).

Sometimes we get to plant seeds or water seeds that others have planted. When we live our love daily—sometimes with hard love, most of the time with soft love, frequently with imperfect love, but always following the leading of God’s Spirit—we will constantly be planting and watering seeds.

As the man walked off the plane, I thanked God for a chance to plant seeds in his heart. And then I committed the man into God’s hands. After all, God is the only one who can make the seeds grow.