The Investigation: diffusing danger on a plane and in the church

Phyllis Nissila

As soon as I noticed “Mr. X” sitting in “our” waiting area of the airport terminal I got a funny feeling. Was he up to no good?

He appeared to be of a certain age; he was apparently alone. He had no carry-on or other articles with him except for a crumpled paper bag held tightly to his chest. He glanced around furtively from time to time. There were other things about him that also made me feel uncomfortable. I hoped he wasn’t boarding the same plane we were.

“All those with seats in rows 15 and forward may now board,” the flight attendant announced.

My husband and I gathered our bags and entered the queue. As I feared, X joined the lineup. I said a silent prayer and hoped his seat was far from ours. No such luck. He entered the row directly behind us and took the seat directly behind me. I groaned mentally. Then another man took the seat next to him.

“Hey, bud,” Newcomer began, amiably, “Where you headed?”

No response.

Newcomer settled in; flight attendant gave routine emergency information. Newcomer began again with typical small talk. Still no responses from X. Newcomer paused for a bit, rattled some newspaper pages he was reading, and resumed.

“Say, did I see you at the Wrestling Federation championships in (the city we had just departed)? Man! What a contest!”

X mumbled something.

“Whoa, yeah! Newcomer responded. “That match was the best, ever!” He made a few more comments about the event. Still not much of a response from X. But pretty soon X was participating a little more—and now audibly—in the exchange with this friendly “wrestling fan.”

Then the questions took a personal turn.

“Say,” said Newcomer. “You ever been in the ring? You sound pretty knowledgeable.” Pause. “Say, Haven’t I seen you in a couple of fights at (an arena in our city)? Weren’t you in a match last year with _____?”

X perked up just a little with that and started to talk a bit more, though still with hesitancy. And the two then went on to discuss X’s career, intermittently, throughout the rest of the flight.

But I believe they really “discussed” much more. At least that’s what I think Newcomer was up to, getting more information, and not just about wrestling. I know I got a lot more information.

Because I was in ear-shot, by the time our flight taxied into the terminal I knew X’s age, weight, height, destination, the names of a couple of his wrestling cohorts, and his recent places of residence, that is to say, recent places he’d lived while training for his wrestling matches. And all because of an exceptionally artful, I thought, form of the “small talk” (initiated by Newcomer) typically engaged in on planes, trains, and automobiles one finds oneself on for extended periods of time sitting next to total strangers. Exceptionally artful.

But I had a sneaking suspicion Newcomer was more than just a random stranger. I had a sneaking suspicion he was an air marshal or someone of similar authority traveling incognito and attending to business. And he was good. Smooth. I have a feeling that X, too, knew he was not just another friendly fellow passenger on an airplane. And that maybe he had better answer Newcomer’s friendly queries. I mean, how would it look if X completely ignored Newcomer and continued his furtive glances clutching that crumpled paper bag?

Or worse.

And Newcomer might have more skills than just conversational know-how. And then he had gleaned so much personal information about X… and so effortlessly…

But whatever the case— my fertile imagination or a real-life “situation”—we all safely exited another routine flight. But I so wanted to shake Newcomer’s hand and say, “Thank you!” just because.

In a completely different situation, a Christian might find herself in the company of somebody about whom she also feels just a little uncomfortable. For example, a guest speaker at church with all the right credentials but spinning the Word of God just slightly off kilter. Or a trusted pastor suddenly raising a subtle doubt about the veracity of a core tenet of the faith. Or a popular, charismatic conference leader advertising “brand new revelations from God” for a brand new century. Or an innovative new church CEO announcing a business plan for the church guaranteed to appease seekers and mollify masses…

Each may have passed inspection at the gate; nevertheless, for frequent flyers, as it were, there might seem to be something not quite right about the man, the plan, or the program.

Like Newcomer (at least the Newcomer of my imagination), I believe we can discern certain necessary information quickly, even “artfully,” and defuse possible spiritual damage if not for many, for ourselves and our loved ones. Though we might be of the few raising eyebrows and questions, we are still not alone. There is One sent to lead and guide us into all truth, to assist (John 16:13). And here are a few conversation starters:
1. I’m wondering where, exactly, is that idea/philosophy/paradigm/innovation/plan of salvation in Scripture?
2. I love that Scripture included in today’s message. What is the full context?
3. How can I get hold of your organization’s statement of faith for more information?
4. That was a very interesting quote. What is the source? I’d like to read a little more.
5. Who is the author of that book/program/plan? I’d like to know more about him/her.
6. Can you tell me the precedent in the Old or New Testament for that activity/innovation?
7. I’m not quite sure how this teaching/program/plan/innovation aligns with (whatever biblical concept or established doctrine that applies)? Can you identify this for me?

Questions might prompt replies anywhere from incredulity to indifference, but good “Bereans” (including women, young people, the elderly, and others of lesser visibility or credibility in some churches) need not back away from the conversation or stop asking questions. And who knows, as a result of our queries—and responses—we too might glean key information that will not only clarify the position of the “inquiree” for us but also inform—or warn—others listening nearby so that all of us might arrive safely home.

“That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ […]” (Ephesians 4: 14-15, KJV)

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1 Response to The Investigation: diffusing danger on a plane and in the church

  1. Carl Gordon says:

    Artful questions! Perfect! Simple! Effective!


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