From the Front-lines: Learning from Failure

As the days lead up to my recent trip to California, my wife and I prayed that God would place someone next to me on the airplane, someone that He was preparing to hear the gospel. I took my seat on the connecting flight into Las Vegas and ended up next to an older couple. I began talking to them and asked them simply, “Where are you guys from?” They answered that they were from close to my house and that they have owned a bar for over 25 years. I didn’t let on to my disapproval and continued, “So what draws you out to Las Vegas?” They answered, “We save up all year and spend a month in Vegas, drinking, gambling, and partying. It’s great!” I didn’t have time to say anything before they asked, “And what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a pastor,” I answered gently.

The apologies began flying, and I hadn’t said a word about their lifestyle. Naturally, they told me that they were devout Catholics, and “very spiritual people.”

I started in with the gospel, asking them what they were trusting in for forgiveness of their sins and eternal life. They gave the typical Catholic answer regarding not being able to know if they really are forgiven and granted eternal life. I then began at 1 John 5:13 and started explaining that they indeed could settle this issue for sure. After I briefly explained the gospel, the woman said with a sneer on her face and with an angry and somewhat loud tone, “Well, I just believe that God is a whole lot more forgiving than you want to make Him out to be.”

Other passengers noticed her irritation. Her husband got very uncomfortable. The flight attendant was just two chairs away.

My stomach started to ache, as fear gripped my heart and paralyzed my tongue. “I don’t want to make a scene. I don’t want the flight attendant to talk to me,” I thought. I could almost see the headlines: FUNDAMENTALIST, PROSELYTIZING PASTOR CAUSES SCENE ON LAS VEGAS AIRPLANE. All the sensational words in that one would have made for a good read – Vegas, Fundy, Proselytizing. Anyway, I digress.

Like a scared and disciplined little puppy, I sat there quietly, listening to my ipod for the rest of the flight. During my four hour layover, I was gripped by my failure. It’s not that I thought her blood was on my hands; I have a big enough view of God’s sovereignty to believe that God can overcome my failure. What really bothered me was that I felt like Peter, like I had just denied the Lord at the very time when I should have defended Him and His gospel most passionately and firmly.

I ended up at a pastor’s conference in which one of the speakers preached on these sayings of Jesus from Luke 12:

And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows. Also I say unto you, Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God: But he that denieth me before men shall be denied before the angels of God.

I was convicted, realizing that I had not properly dealt with my disobedience. I asked the Lord to forgive my ungodly fear and failure and to give me another chance on the flight home.

I boarded my flight from Las Vegas to Milwaukee and sat next to a woman who is from my community exactly. We began with some small talk and before long we were engaged in a discussion about God. Since she lives in the community in which I pastor, I asked her to which church she belonged. She responded, “Well, my husband is Catholic. I am Lutheran. We raised our kids Catholic. My daughter continued with our same church, but now my son is a Buddhist. I’m just glad that all of my kids have found salvation in their respective ways. That’s what it’s all about – finding inner peace.”

I gulped. God answered my prayer and gave me another chance.

“Ma’am, you know, that really captures the essence of popular religion in our culture today. Honestly, though, it doesn’t make much sense to me. Christianity, Catholicism, and Buddhism each teach different ways of salvation, ways that directly contradict each other. They can’t all be right. I’ve been to several Buddhist countries and have the opportunity to visit many temples there. The ultimate goal for a Buddhist is to reach nirvana, to be completely free from all desire through self-discipline, focus, and determination. True Christianity teaches, however, that we cannot master our wicked desires through self-effort, that were born with a sin nature, that we do sin actions, that we violate God’s laws, and that we are in desperate need of a Savior. Christianity teaches that the only Savior is Jesus Christ, the son of God, who died on the cross for our sins and rose again the third day.”

The woman responded, “You know, I’ve talked to a lot of Christians, and I’m just sort of turned off by the ‘only way’ thing. It comes across so haughty and arrogant, like you are right and everyone else is wrong.”

I said, “Ma’am, I’m not trying to be arrogant. If I’ve come across that way, forgive me. What I am saying is this: the slaughter of God’s perfect and sinless Son was required to grant forgiveness and eternal life to me, this vile and disgusting sinner. This is the gospel, and it really shatters my pride because I am not the perfect Jesus but rather the greedy, selfish one for which the perfect One died. I am telling you that an innocent party had to die because of my sins.”

And that interchange began our 20 minute conversation regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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