By Jeff Walling
It seems an innocent question, but it’s one that has turned my life upside down over the last year. You hear it every time you fly. A gracious lady at the airline counter asks it with a smile, and there are few things better than being able to give a self-assured, “no way!” to that one.
Flying with baggage is asking for a disaster. Take it from a guy who spent his first four days in Europe with two pairs of underwear. (As my kids say, “Too much information, Dad!”) I know the airlines do their best, but I’m afraid the poorly translated sign in a Stockholm airport got it right: “We will be happy to send your bags in all directions.” If you’ve ever arrived in Dallas to find that your bags decided they like the weather better in Boca Raton, you know what I mean.
So I tell the lady behind the counter I have no baggage . . . as she stares down at the rolling bag by my side. “Oh, this? It’s just carry-on.” And with that I’m off to the gate.
You see the golden rule of seasoned travelers is, “Cram it all in a roll-aboard: It’s the only way to fly!” Just watch the boarding line at nearly any airport and you’ll see hundreds of these nifty “nonbaggage” bags. What did we do before someone put wheels on these things?
But while sitting at a gate waiting for a plane a while back, some of Paul’s words changed forever the way I look at my carry-on baggage. In his most confessional and self-deprecating of moments, Paul lays his baggage out for all the world to see. “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9).
Did you catch what Paul does there? He admits he has baggage. Put yourself in his place. If you or I had a checkered past that included violence and terrorism against Christianity, would you go around reminding people of it? I sure wouldn’t. I’d make sure that section of my résumé was cleaned up. Why dig up old bones that might offend the audience or even call your credibility into question?
Yet that’s precisely what Paul does. Rather than brush it aside and hope folks will forget his past, he puts it front and center for all to see: I have baggage! Could it be that he understood something we need to relearn in this day of whitewashed résumés and glossy, sanitized church folk?
The unvarnished truth is there’s great power in unvarnished truth. And it begins when you claim your baggage. Paul’s approach is simple and straightforward:
Admit You Have Baggage!
Look around on a typical Sunday morning and you’ll see a room full of folks, many of whom have grown up thinking that good Christians don’t have baggage. We shove it all into our Christian carry-ons and roll right into worship each Sunday as if it’s not there. “How you doing brother Jones?” “Oh, fine! Couldn’t be better.”
Do we realize that when we pretend we are fine we perpetuate the destructive myth that good disciples always travel with no baggage? Paul’s honesty should remind us that all of God’s children have baggage!
While my baggage may not be as sensational as Paul’s, it is still part of who I am. I still need to claim it with honesty and candor. And where better to do so than with my Christian family? Church should be the one place where it is not only safe to admit you have baggage, but where it is expected!
Claim Your Baggage
Tell the truth about who you have been.
Paul doesn’t dramatize his history or use it to wring his reader’s emotions dry. He just tells it like it is: I persecuted Christians. There is little vagueness in his confession. When he preaches, he almost always begins with, “I was on my way to Damascus to kill some Christians when . . . ” And further, he doesn’t dodge the ramifications of his past: “I don’t even deserve to be called an apostle.”
How cleansing and healthy it is to claim my baggage and admit I don’t deserve the grace God has shown to me. Unfortunately, my reaction when I hear another believer say those words is to immediately rush to console and minimize. “Now, now there. You shouldn’t dwell on your past. God has forgotten it, and you should too!” Try telling that to Paul. Forgetting what he was would be to forget what God had done. He knows his history is part of who God has shaped him to be. He shares it so we can see the work of God’s grace in his life.
Hand Your Baggage to Christ!
Do you know the best place to find Jesus? Baggage claim. It’s where he hangs out lending a hand with the bags of tired travelers who are willing to admit they are worn out from lugging it around themselves.
As one friend has put it, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” Only when we openly and humbly claim our baggage can we confidently hand it to Christ.
As Paul continues in that same text, “But by the grace of God I am what I am . . .” Confession is claiming our bags and handing them to the One who is qualified to handle them. He bears our sorrows and our iniquities. And don’t worry about the tip: You can’t pay him. Grace is a free gift!
What if we imagined the church as one big baggage claim area. How would it change things?
Would our praise be more enthralling and our prayers more passionate if we were unashamedly saying, “Yep, that big beat-up bag with the undies hanging out . . . that’s mine!”
Would people from our community be more likely to be real about their needs if we were openly claiming ours?
Would Jesus be more present in a community that knows you can’t begin your journey until you’ve claimed your baggage . . . and given it to him?
So, why don’t we all meet in baggage claim this Sunday? You know who’ll be waiting for you there, because Heaven knows we’ve all got baggage.
Jeff Walling is senior minister with Providence Road Church of Christ in Charlotte, North Carolina.