For whatever mysterious reason unknown to me, I can’t sleep on airplanes. I bring earplugs. I bring a neck pillow. The lights go down. I close my eyes. It’s all very relaxing. But I just can’t drop over the edge.
For that reason, when I flew a red-eye from Southern California to Toronto recently to speak at a church retreat, I arrived at six in the morning having not slept a wink all night. I blearily trudged my way through an unfamiliar airport, following the crowd, following the signs, occasionally asking for directions.
Eventually, I found myself face to face with a customs official who almost didn’t let me into the country. “So,” he asked, with a slight narrowing of the eyes, “what brings you to Toronto for four days?” He emphasized the word “four” as if that were already cause for suspicion.
“I’m here to do a church marriage retreat,” I responded without a thought.
Now he was definitely suspicious. “A marriage retreat,” he repeated. “Then where’s your wife?”
I sighed with exhaustion. “No, no,” I said, fishing for the right words. “I’m not here to participate in a retreat. I’m here to teach the retreat. I’m the speaker. I was invited by a church in Toronto.” He pressed for details. Embarrassed, I realized that I didn’t even know the location, which definitely didn’t help.
“Do you have a letter, or a copy of the invitation?” he asked. An annoyed thought flitted through my mind: “Dude, if I were a terrorist trying to enter the country illegally, would I make up something about a church marriage retreat?” But I kept the thought to myself. If I’ve learned anything about dealing with airport security, it’s that you should avoid the phrase, “If I were a terrorist.”
I shook my head instead. “No, it was all done by email.” Then I had an idea. “I have a printout of what I’ll be teaching — will that do?”
“Okay, show me that.” I dropped my backpack to the floor and retrieved the folder with my PowerPoint slides. He frowned as he leafed through the pages; I don’t know what he made of all that material about peacemaking, humility, compassion, and forgiveness.
And then he added a new concern: I probably needed a work visa to do what I had come to do. I quickly went from my terrorist face to my astonished face, as I blurted out, “Seriously?”
He had more questions, but seemed to soften bit by bit. At the last, he asked, “So if I were to run a background check on you right now, would anything come back?” I wanted to laugh, but shook my head gravely.
“Not even a DUI?” he pressed.
This time, I couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “No,” I said with a smile, “not even a DUI.”
He sighed and stamped my passport. “Okay, don’t worry about it. Have a good conference.”
Let me be clear: this isn’t about the customs official nor the policies he was trying to uphold. We live in a fragile, violent world. The man was trying to do his job, and people crossing national borders don’t come with tattooed foreheads reading “Safe” or “Dangerous.”
It’s just that at that moment, all I wanted was to find a nice comfortable place to lay down and sleep.
The retreat officially started after dinner that evening. Thankfully, all I had to do was introduce myself; I didn’t start teaching until the following morning. But by the time I entered the chapel, I hadn’t slept in a day and a half, and the hassle at the border wasn’t the only difficulty I had encountered just trying to get from point A to point B. I was bone-tired and in the mood to whine.
Then the congregation prayed. In their tradition, everyone prays aloud at the same time, while listening for cues from the leader that tell them when to stop. The room was filled with the sound of prayer: prayer for a pastor who had gone missing on the mission field; prayer for the retreat; prayer for me.
And all in a moment, my perspective shifted. I saw beyond the hassles to the bigger picture. People had been praying for me and for the retreat for weeks, and I had been borne along without noticing. People were bringing their own hopes and hassles into that room, just like me. And it was an opportunity for all of us to discover together what God would do with the time.
I still needed sleep. But right then, lifted by prayer, I felt just a little less tired.
During this season of Lent, as we look toward resurrection, may we learn to see beyond the daily hassles to the vision of a sovereign God who holds our heavenly hope.