The four episodes of series three of The Walking Dead downloaded onto my iPad for the four hour twenty five minute flight back from Sydney to Perth would have to wait. The bloke sitting next to me wanted to talk. Short, bald, stocky, friendly, good aftershave, Stephen Fry’s latest book ready to go. Not the worst companion to have sitting next to you in QANTAS cattle class.
Me? I hate flying. Loathe it. And although the Geneva Push Multiply 12 church planting conference on the Central Coast was excellent (It’s a crying shame that that Gangnam style Youtube video goes viral and not Dr Carson’s talks on Ephesians), I had been antsy all the last day waiting for the flight. The Walking Dead (most downloaded tv series in download’s short history – geek Ed) was going to get me through the bulk of it, along with the standard airplane beef and pasta/chicken in white wine and rice meal to fill the twitchy stomach. I settled in.
But Pete wanted to talk. He was a chatty, cheerful, “sarf londoner” with, it turned out, a PhD in urban planning and criminology. He was, like me, the first generation in his family to go to university. He was coming back from a conference too, all to do with his work as an academic at a WA university. And, surprisingly, I found myself wanting to talk.
Now, I’d just been at a church planting conference, just been hearing how we should look for opportunities to share the gospel, just been challenged to believe that God can break hard ground. Yet four episodes of The Walking Dead were just waiting there, ready to calm my nerves for the 3313km flight home. And I’m so careful not to be the over zealous Christian dude with the bloke trapped in the seat next to me, just trying to get him over the line before the fasten seat belt sign comes back on for landing. For many people there’s only one thing worse than snakes on a plane, and that’s eager Christians looking for a convert on a plane.
But Pete wanted to talk. And the more we talked the more I liked him. Turns out he was my age, and lived a couple of streets away from my mate who works with me doing evangelism for Providence Church. And so, with the odd snatched prayer, I started to talk, not simply to evangelise him, but to ask questions, find out what made him tick, explore something of his vocation, which, I have to admit, I find pretty interesting anyway. And, just having written a novel on crime in an urban setting, it seemed like I had plenty of entry points to talk.
But not only did Pete want to talk – he wanted to talk about religion. He kept saying he wasn’t “religious”, but kept bringing up the fact that he wasn’t and asking me what my perspective was. He seemed intrigued. He’d had a couple of negative experiences with Christians in the past, but still he kept coming back to the religious issue. We got to talking about Jesus a lot. We got to talking about the strange fact that the Bible starts in a garden, but, perhaps surprisingly for many people who are searching spiritually, ends in a city. I pointed out that God is the only Person capable of planning an urban centre that will be free of crime. He liked that. He liked it too that Jesus had meals with people who don’t get to share meals with too many good people. And he liked the idea that there were Christians around who didn’t think they had a right to have a say, and that, for now at least, they have to earn that right.
The trip was over soon enough – too soon actually. We exchanged emails in order to swap articles we had written and links to articles about crime, urban landscape and a conference talk he’d heard that week about how religion is being utilised to create safe places within cities in South America. Oh, and he said that he might like to come to Providence to see what we do.
And that was it. Pete shook my hand and was gone, my series 3 of The Walking Dead remaining unwatched. What struck me was just how eager he was to keep the conversation going – even when, especially when 50 per cent of it ended up being about Jesus. Pete was a man in search of something – in search of life beyond the life he is currently living. And it struck me, apart from my friend Nigel in row 28, everyone else on the plane may have been the flying dead – those for whom Jesus came to earth to offer life.
It’s too early to say what will happen with Pete – I may never see him or hear from him again. But it certainly sounds like God is working doesn’t it? It certainly sounds like, whether I see him again or not, he can’t “unsay” his conversations and they will linger in his mind. It’s an opportunity for me to add him onto my list of people to pray for. I left Pete with an image of a cosmic cityscape in which there would be no need to plan for, or around, crime. And Pete left me thanking God for the opportunity to speak about the magnificent Jesus yet again; a privilege and responsibility that turned a four hour twenty five minute dreaded experience into a divine encounter with God.