A little over twenty years ago (1994 to be precise) I got a very pointed lesson in humility. At the time I was the pastor of a small (read tiny) church in Gravette, Arkansas, population around 1,000 at the time. There were twelve churches in Gravette, and the one I was serving was hardly the biggest, but as I always wore a clerical collar, I was the pastor everyone knew and called “Preacher” on the street. As a rural pastor of a small church, I was particularly honored when my seminary, Boston University, invited me to be a part of a twelve person ecumenical team traveling to Greece, Turkey, and Switzerland, as the guests of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the 300 million strong Orthodox Catholic Church. We would fly from Boston to Zurich, Switzerland, and then from Zurich to Athens, Greece. We would then travel to Istanbul, Turkey, and from there to Geneva, Switzerland. It was to be a three-week trip, and the congregation of my church was proud for me to go and even bought me a good camera (a 35mm SLR as digital cameras were yet to be invented) so I could take lots of pictures and put on slide shows when I returned. The head of the group from the several seminaries in the Boston area represented on the trip was a friend of mine and made me the number two guy for the trip. My job was to handle press releases and communications with churches and officials. I thought I was perfect for that job and loved being second in command of such an august group that included conflict resolution specialists that worked with the United Nations. Felt pretty good about myself. When we got to Zurich, we changed from a huge plane to a much smaller one for the flight to Athens where we would be greeted by the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens. The seats in the small plane were quite narrow, and so I was moved to First Class because of my size, although I didn’t find that out till later. I thought it was because of my position as press and local official liaison which flattered my ego. I was seated next to a woman I didn’t know or recognize, and she made it quite clear that she did not want to chat with me during the flight. I was wearing my clerical collar, so I wasn’t offended as lots of people don’t want to talk to clergy. I chatted with the man in the row across from me who was a microphone salesman traveling to karaoke bars around the world. When we arrived in Athens, we descended the plane on a small staircase. I looked up and saw lots and lots of photographers and police. I could also see the Archbishop of Athens in his all black cassock as he waited for us. I waited for the others of our group to gather behind me and then marched toward the Archbishop. I was getting my statements ready for the press which was there to meet us when all of sudden, the photographers burst through the police lines and charged toward us. They didn’t stop to talk to me, though. The throng rushed right past me and our group. They were all clustering around the woman at the bottom of the stairs—the one who didn’t want to speak to me. I was a bit deflated, no, I was a lot deflated as it seemed we were not important at all. I felt even worse when I found out that the woman who had been my seat mate was none other than the American actress, Sharon Stone. She was in Athens for the premiere of her movie with Sylvester Stallone “The Specialist.” We quietly made our way out of the airport and onto a waiting bus as the fans and photographers and police crowded around the movie star still near the plane. Two nights later, we had difficulty getting to a famous museum in Athens because the police had closed off the streets around it because of the premiere of that movie—a movie that I have never seen as a matter of protest.
I don’t ever have to worry about my ego getting the best of me, as God surrounds the inflating balloon that is my pride with cactus plants. It can never get too big before it gets blown up. It certainly wasn’t as big as Sharon Stone’s. I was properly humble for the rest of the trip, and it showed in all my interactions with folks in Athens, Istanbul, and Geneva—which was a good thing. God doesn’t have to hit me in the face with a wet mop but once. I think He was smirking as he put me next to Sharon Stone in First Class on that Swiss Air flight. Oh yes, I am sure He was involved, and I got it. The trip was a huge success and accomplished much in the way of ecumenicism. I’m sure that Sharon Stone never knew the role she played in the success of our trip, but she played that role perhaps better than the one she played in “The Specialist,” but I wouldn’t know as I’ve never seen that movie. Lesson learned—and remembered.