I’m a planner. I’ve always been one to plan out my day, to plan out a trip, to plan out my life.1 And if you’ve been following this ridiculous life of mine for any length of time, you’ve probably figured out that God doesn’t like this controlling tendency of mine. He’s spent years teaching me to trust him, to let him be God. He’s changed my five year plan more times than I can remember, pulled the rug out from under me when it comes to daily plans, and established me in a life where I regularly wake up in the morning unsure what state I’ll be in when I go to bed. And I’ve been learning to roll with it. After all, he keeps providing for me, so at a certain point it seems a little silly not to trust him.
Last Tuesday, he gave me a pretty intense opportunity to trust. On my way to Manchester to begin my evangelizing tour of Europe, I was stopping through Istanbul. Turkish Airlines has this great deal where they’ll give you a long layover in Istanbul and a free hotel room while you’re there. I was thrilled by the opportunity to see one of the world’s great cities, albeit briefly, so I jumped at the chance. I booked the ticket and waited for information on the hotel. When I got none, I called the airline. “Oh, when you get to Istanbul they’ll give you a room.” “Can you check my itinerary and see if I qualify?” “Oh, yes, you’ll be fine.”
Well, I didn’t love the idea of going to a country where I know nobody and can’t speak a word of the language without even an idea of where I would sleep, but I figured it would all work out. After all, they’d told me I’d have a room, right?
You can see where this is going.
After a long (and very pleasant) flight in from DC, I rushed through the Istanbul airport, making it through customs and immigration, finding someone to direct me further, and finally stumbling across the Hotel Desk to be told that I couldn’t have a room. Turns out my flight out of Istanbul left too late for me to take advantage of the offer.
I gave the desk clerk a very disappointed look (which I’m sure he was entirely unaffected by) and walked off to freak out. Yes, I have enough money for a hotel room but I have no internet, so I’m sure to be cheated. And if I spend all that time finding a hotel, I won’t make it to Mass.
Then I stopped.
Last Tuesday was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The feast of the miraculous triumph of Christendom over the Turk. Here I was, in trouble in Turkey on Our Lady of the Rosary. What on earth did I have to worry about?
I’ll go to Mass, I thought. That’s really what matters. And God will take care of me from there. Don’t be too impressed–I had several occasions in Israel where I had nowhere to stay so I went to the church to see about Mass times and found a hostel or a friend from the US or a guest house. It stood to reason that the same thing would happen here.
I was astonishingly peaceful. Really, I kept remarking on how powerful the peace of the Spirit is and how far God has brought me. I’m not spontaneous and easy-going by nature, but I felt such a reassurance that God who is sovereign over death, who was sovereign over Lepanto, who is sovereign over creation and salvation and everything in between was also sovereign over my travel plans.
What’s the worst that can happen? I asked myself. This confusion isn’t going to get me sent to hell, which is the only thing that should ever really frighten me. And while I’d rather not be assaulted or have to spend the night on a park bench, I probably wont and I trust that God will be sovereign in whatever happens. Forget the hotel question, I’m going to Mass.
I got on the bus into the city center and got off, following the directions a friend from Turkey had emailed me. I’d spent the evening before trying to download maps I could use offline but to no avail. Standing at the bus stop, confused by the directions I had, I pulled out my phone out of habit and discovered that I had access to nothing—no data, no wireless, no cell signal, not even the correct time—except a map of the area with GPS telling me exactly where I was and a star I’d put on the map telling me where to go. So I went to Mass.
When I got to church, the young gentleman next to me introduced himself and asked how long I was in town. Before I’d been in the chapel 5 minutes, I had an advocate who’d promised to help me find someplace to stay. After Mass (which was in Turkish, so I’m now at 12 languages I’ve been to Mass in) another young man approached to say he worked at a hotel and he could help me, too. But I felt like God wanted me to ask the Church for help. So I approached a Sister and asked her in rusty French if there was a Christian guesthouse or Benedictine monastery nearby. She lived at the hospital, she said, and couldn’t do anything. Father was put off that I hadn’t asked earlier, not understanding that I was only in town for 20 hours. But I explained a little better and dropped the name of a friar I thought we both knew and before I knew it he was on the phone with a community of Italian sisters. “Follow me,” he said, dismissing my guardians.
As I rushed after Father, he explained that there were protests in the streets outside the church. “They may throw gas bombs,” he said. “Can you run?”
Protests. Police in riot gear with gas masks hanging around their necks. Angry-looking Turks shouting something I couldn’t understand.2 But it was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. What was there to be afraid of?
We pushed through crowds, our path occasionally blocked by heavily-armed cops. We scurried across a wide divide between a menacing mob and determined riot police. Finally, we turned onto an empty street and Father slowed down, turning to me. “We’re safe now.”
Of course we are, I thought. We always were.
There followed an introduction to the sisters who had offered to open their home at the last minute and an hour of awkward conversation where I made the best use I could of my college Italian. “Why are you Catholic?” one of them asked me, and I gave my testimony in a language I kind of spoke a decade ago. As always, I felt bad to be imposing on them. As expected, they were happy to help. Finally, I got a good night’s sleep and headed back to the airport in the morning, having seen none of the great sights but also having avoided being caught in a riot or stuck sleeping outdoors. All in all, far worse than I expected my visit to Istanbul to be, but also far better.
For all my life is lived in the hands of Providence, I’m not great at trusting God. Sure, I know he’s going to take care of me ultimately, but I get mad when he doesn’t do it the way I want. I’m anxious when faced with the unknown not because I’m afraid but because I’m obsessed with having my way, with things going perfectly. And God just keeps showing me that my way isn’t perfect. If I’d had a hotel to go back to, I still would have gone to Mass at St. Anthony’s. But then I would have had to navigate an angry mob and a foreign police force on high alert on my own. After dark. Without any idea where I was going. Thanks, I’ll take the uncertainty of having no hotel over that.
Here’s the thing: I’m nothing special. Sure, I may have more opportunities to see God stepping in dramatically, but he doesn’t do it any more for me than he does for you.3 Maybe he’s not going to have a chance to give you a place to stay in Istanbul, but he’s working in your life. He’s leading you to new relationships or away from dangerous situations. He’s offering you peace in turmoil and liberation from bondage. I’m not saying everything that happens to you will be pleasant if you trust God. This is not the Osteen Gospel of “Love God and he’ll give you a BMW.” All I’m saying is that if you try every day to trust God there’s peace even in the midst of disaster. There’s an ability to live in the knowledge of who God is even when you don’t know what he’s doing. It gives you hope when the world would tell you to despair and joy when there seems no cause. I’m not good at it yet but last week God gave me a taste of what it means to trust him. And that time things worked out. Maybe one day I’ll be strong enough to trust him and then find things going disastrously wrong. Even then, my head knows the truth, whatever my heart may say: “Though he slay me, still will I trust in him.”4