This past academic year I was on a flight from Chicago to New York, seated in 29D. As I boarded the plane, I noticed a handful of Orthodox Jewish men, distinctive by their dress and beards. Just before the doors closed, a man boarded, looking hurried and disheveled. He too was an Orthodox Jew, and he took the last open seat, a middle seat beside me.
As soon as he sat down, he took out his cell phone and made a call. The flight attendant asked him to turn off the phone, as by now we were pushing back from the gate. He wasn’t done talking. A few minutes later she came by again and asked him to turn off the phone. He clicked a button that turned off the screen, but it kept the call going. He kept talking, hiding the phone behind his beard and fedora rim.
As we taxied toward the runway, the flight attendant sat down, oblivious that my neighbor was still on the phone, now speaking in hushed tones. I felt a peculiar urge to point out his indiscretion. So when I caught her eye, I made a hand motion. She jumped up and confronted him like an angry elementary school teacher would a troublemaker.
“Sir, this is the third time I told you to get off the phone! I will have the pilot return to the gate and the police will escort you off the plane if you don’t get off now.” As everyone turned to look, he shut off his phone, saying nothing. He looked over at me, and I sheepishly shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “Can you believe she saw you?”
Not long after we took off, he got up, squeezed into the galley kitchen across from my seat and proceeded to open his pouch for a prayer ritual. He wrapped on his phylacteries and prayed for the next 10 minutes or so. He seemed to do everything just right, from the band on his arm to the Scriptures on his forehead to kissing the shawl to gently nodding throughout.
When he finished, he returned to his seat and began reading a Hebrew text. Not long before we landed, I couldn’t hold my curiosity anymore. “Excuse me, sir. May I ask you a question?” He looked up.
“You know, I’m not religious like you are,” I began. Which is true. I’m religious, but not like that. I continued. “I’m not being condemning or anything, but I find it a bit ironic how careful you were to obey all of the rules when you prayed but didn’t seem to care about the FAA rules the flight attendant was trying to enforce. How do you reconcile obeying religious rules but not safety rules?”
He quickly replied, “I turned off the phone when she told me to.” But it hadn’t happened that way. I wished he’d said, “You’re right. I should have gotten off the phone sooner. I’ll apologize to the flight attendant.” Instead he saw no dichotomy between his religious actions and his in-flight decisions.
Once his defenses relaxed, he went on to tell me about the 613 Levitical laws he tries to follow. Our conversation continued about law and freedom and what God had in mind with the laws. He picked up quickly that I was more religious than I had at first led him to believe. We kept talking until we separated in the LaGuardia terminal. He ceded little.
As I’ve thought about my neighbor in seat 29E, the story has become far more about me and us than about him. This story is not meant to stereotype the Jewish man next to me. It’s to point the lesson back at me. The first thing I said was, “I’m not religious like you are.” But that’s not completely true. I am a “religious man.” Maybe it’s not obvious by what I wear, but it is by what I do. People watch to see if my life as a religious man — a disciple of Jesus — is consistent, whether I’m doing the religious thing or not. And if it’s not real in what they see, they don’t want it.
And the truth is, we are a religious university. And just as I watched the man with the fedora, we are also being watched. Our position on biblical truth means people and culture see us wearing a phylactery. If that man in seat 29E had been unremarkable, I probably wouldn’t have said anything about his disrespecting the flight attendant. But because of his appearance, I watched to see if his actions were consistent with the faith he was proclaiming.
We are being scrutinized more than ever as a major Christian university within a culture that may see us as out of step because of our values. We must be even more diligent to love liberally as we live out our faith. We need to model what it means to be winsome voices of conviction without a hint of hypocrisy. May we be known as a place where our center is firm, our edges are soft, our faith is lived out consistently and our posture is humble. May we be willing to acknowledge our mistakes. As a university grounded in biblical integration and steeped in a reasoned faith, anything that seems inconsistent is not only a bad witness, it’s a violation of our understanding of God’s truth mattering in all we do.
More than ever, people are watching us. We must stay the course as a university arcing toward grace and truth, and to be a bright light at that.