A number of years ago, I was sitting in LaGuardia Airport in New York, preparing to take a flight to Sweden. I knew the flight was going to be a long one, but I was ready for it. I had just started a great novel, and I was looking forward to some quiet time to collect my thoughts and get ready for my Big Adventure Abroad. As I was getting ready to board, I noticed with some amusement a woman with way to many carry-on bags and a huge black straw hat with a pink polka dotted ribbon fussing at the agent at the desk. She seemed like a real handful.
When I got on the plane and settled into my seat, I looked up to find the movie screen and saw her coming. I froze with panic--surely she wasn't going to sit next to me? I prayed silently that she would sit down far behind me, but no, she plopped down next to me, looked and me and smiled, and started talking. Within the first half hour, I heard her entire life story. Only then did she pause to inquire about me--what did I do for a living? I sputtered for a moment, trying to think of a good lie, but nothing came to mind so I had to say it--I'm a studying for the ministry.
"OOOOOH!" she squealed in delight. "Isn't it just like the Lord to put me next to you?"
And for hours to come, she talked to me about her take on religion, her interpretation of key Biblical passages, various churches she had attended, the reasons she had left each one. I finally had to pretend to sleep in order to get her to shut up--and then she talked to the flight attendant and all the other people around us. As I sat there with my eyes closed, I had to have a serious talk with God. Did you have something to do with this? I wondered. If this is the kind of thing you orchestrate, you have a really sick sense of humor.
I was on my way to Sweden to reconnect with my long-time Jewish boyfriend, Dan, who I ended up marrying a couple of years later. The following year I got ordained as a minister, and no, Dan didn't convert. And no, we haven't worked it all out, harmonized our differences, issued joint statements on the Meaning of Life. And no, that's not always easy. But when I'm start to really wonder how we ever ended up together, I think about that flight that preceded our reunion. I can diffuse a lot of situations by saying to Dan, "Isn't it just like the Lord to put me next to you?"
I thought of that story again today as I looked through the list of people signed up for our annual retreat this weekend. At the retreat, we talk about what it means to make a commitment to our community, and then we invite everyone there to consider whether they feel called to make that commitment this year. It's a pretty amazing group of people on that list, but it's not necessarily a harmonious group. If we agree to all be together this coming year, we are, in part, agreeing to be in conflict with each other. To have differences of opinion. To wonder why we even ended up in the same place.
But when I read Paul's letters to the early churches he planted, it's clear that we're in good company. This is, I'm pretty sure, how the Lord tends to place us. Right next to someone different from us. I'm not always sure why, but I'm quite certain that's how God works.