I have heard people who are confounded by something in their lives explain that God’s ways are not our ways – that there must be an explanation for pain or suffering or joy, for that matter, that we just don’t understand because we don’t see the whole picture. We see only a sliver in time. But, God sees everything. There are so many things we don’t get. Every once in a while, though, God reveals to us what he means when he says: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa. 55:8-9)
Earlier this week, I was sitting at the San Diego airport for what seemed like an eternity waiting for a flight home. I’d had a hearing that morning in federal court and now had turned to continuing to prepare for my teaching in Zambia next week. I sat at the airport bar/restaurant with my laptop on a long counter that faced the terminal. I was making great progress, both on my powerpoint slides and my hamburger when five young, muscular men sat to my right in the remaining seats at the counter. They were all about 18 or 19-years old and full of energy and curiosity. I concluded from listening in on their conversations (they were really close, okay? I couldn’t help it) that they were brand new marines and were on their way to basic training. Their hair had not yet been shaved off. They slouched and talked with anticipation about “getting there.” One of the men with them was older (just barely) than the others and he appeared to be the one in charge of getting these young men to the right place. He had fire-red hair and impeccable posture. He informed his charges that they could spend $13.00 a piece on food. Remember: we are at an airport. A hamburger alone was about $9.00. By the time you add in a drink, a tip, and fries, you’ve surpassed your allowance. And for these still-growing men, eating a single hamburger would be like eating a couple potato chips.
I have to admit, these men fascinated me in away that was totally unexpected. I have been reading Sebastian Junger’s book War and gaining a whole new perspective about the boys we send to war. (Not to leave out the women, but the book focuses on men.) Junger was embedded with a platoon in Afghanistan for a year and tells the stories of firefights and battles and loss and killing and camaraderie and bravery and loneliness and friendship and optimism followed by pessimism, or the other way around. I began to think that the men sitting next to me were the men I was reading about in Junger’s book, but before they were trained, before they went to Afghanistan, before they experienced things that would change them forever. They were so full of life and anticipation.
As I was sitting there, I felt very strongly that I should buy their lunch. I could give them a little breathing room in their food funding. Maybe they could buy a couple candy bars or power bars this way. When the waitress came by, I asked her to bring their check and that I wanted to pay it. I talked softly and told her not to tell them; I wanted them to feel appreciated. But I didn’t want them to know who was buying because then it turns into a thing about me instead of them. She said she’d bring me the check and told me they were on their way to basic training. We talked briefly and near the end, she said almost off-handedly that her son was leaving for Afghanistan the next day. I was still too busy thinking about the guys next to me, and said something silly like “Oh, wow,” and nodded sympathetically.
About this time, some agitation started to rise from the end of the counter because the waitress had disappeared and had not returned with the bill. The men needed to pay and leave so they could get to their flight. They were saying things like: “where is this lady?” “what’s she doing?” Finally, she arrived and they asked for the bill, but she informed them someone had paid it. They expressed their surprise, each in his own way. “Wow.” “Cool.” “Nice.” Then, despite my clear instructions not to tell them it was me, she told them: “It was the lady at the end of the bar.” After getting over the fact that she called me a “lady” and the men, by not objecting to this term, implicitly agreed that this was an appropriate term for me, I wanted to run out because I really did not want their thanks. I mean, it was nice, don’t get me wrong, but now it felt like I’d done it for that reason and I started to regret doing it at all. I was disappointed and thought deeply about whether I really had paid to bring myself recognition. I concluded I had not, but was this just self-serving?
So, just to take a little breath here, let me say that at this point, I was thinking that it was a blessing to be in a position to do this for these young men. I thanked God for blessing me. My mission had been accomplished. The bill was paid and the new marines were on their way. I too needed to leave to catch my plane.
I got up to leave and as I walked out, I caught the eye of the waitress, who was tending to a table across the room. I waved, but couldn’t move. Not time to go yet, I thought, without knowing why. The waitress walked over to where I stood, paralyzed near the door. Our eyes locked. I said: “I wish your son the best.” I knew immediately as the words left my mouth that they were deficient. Before I could pull them back, or apologize for such a trite expression, I said: “Would it be okay if I prayed for your son? What is his name?” These words came out like a guided missile. They were the right ones.
Tears spilled out of the waitress’ eyes, poured down her cheeks. She pulled out a receipt turned it over and wrote “Jonathan” in shaky handwriting. She pushed the paper into my palm, turned, and ran out of sight.
God’s mission was not my mission. His thoughts are not my thoughts. His ways are not my ways. The difference between the two is the distance from the earth to the heavens.