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Encounter in the Russian Skies

I sat awaiting take-off on the 8.40am flight from Heathrow to Moscow. At the last moment a man arrived and sat down in the unoccupied seat beside me. His greeting indicated that he was American but for the next hour or so we travelled in silence with typical British reserve.

The arrival of the catering trolley brought with it a polite exchange between us. Was I stopping in Moscow? Was it business or pleasure? From this brief exchange I learned that he was visiting family and he, in turn, learned that I was a psychologist which opened further conversation. He mentioned stories appearing in the news and wondered if a psychologist might have any insight into things happening in the world.

We quickly discovered we had much agreement on many issues. As civilisation advanced and wealth increased, many things seem to have become worse rather than better. From a psychological perspective, I spoke of how, in the West, we are materially very much better off, yet research shows that we are less content and, since the end of World War 2, there has been a steady and significant increase in mental health problems in society, such as anxiety and depression. Alongside this is the breakdown of family life. I told him that when I began working as a child psychologist in the early 1970s, 9% of children lived in families disrupted by divorce or separation. That figure has now risen to 41%.

I went on to say, however, that in my view the answer does not lie with psychology. At a more fundamental level, the problem is that we have forgotten God. In Britain, where our society’s structures were once based on the laws of God, we have seen those ancient laws systematically eroded, along with the ancient institutions that upheld them. At the same time, church attendance has fallen dramatically and prayer has been banished from our classrooms and our council meetings.

The enthusiastic agreement of my fellow traveller led me to feel that he might be a Christian but at that point he said, ‘I am a Jew’. He added, however, that he might be described as a ‘Messianic Jew’, since he was of the view that there was good reason to believe Jesus was the Messiah. I told him of the great debt Christians owe to the Jews and that, above all, my Saviour was a Jew. I added that when he and I worshipped, we were ‘literally singing from the same hymn sheet’, since I go to a church where our book of praise is the Psalms of David.

In this air of bonhomie and mutual agreement we continued, until he said, ‘The one thing I can’t stand is fundamentalist Christians who tell you that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation’. I then realised that our bonhomie was going to reach a crisis more swiftly than I might have expected. I could only say that as I believed in Jesus as Messiah, I indeed believed in him as the only Saviour. If Jesus was Messiah then he was Emmanuel, God with us, and I must believe in his teaching. He said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me’. The apostles taught the same: ‘For there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.’

Here our conversation reached a cross roads or, rather, a cul-de-sac. We could go no further and an awkward silence followed.

It was at this point something remarkable happened. That morning, when I was leaving home, I was pondering what reading material to take. On this occasion I had felt a very strong urge to take the CWI Herald. It was not handy at the time and I had to look for it. I have flown on hundreds of occasions and had never taken it with me before. I reached below my seat and told him I had something he might like to read. I explained that there was much in it of common Christian and Jewish interest, including testimonies from Jews who had found Jesus. He took the magazine and gazed at the front cover. He then began to read it slowly, starting right at the beginning and carefully reading every word. The rest of our long journey continued in silence.

When we touched down in Moscow my companion was still reading. He said he would have liked to read to the end but had not been able. I told him to take the magazine away with him and, as we rose from our seats, he shook my hand and told me he believed that God meant him to be on that flight. His parting words were: ‘I now believe in Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation.’ Thus we parted. I trust to meet again someday in a higher sphere than the Russian skies.

This article first appeared in the Spring Herald 2014

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