In June of 2013, I flew to Belgrade, Serbia to take part in a four-day ecumenical conference in Belgrade, Serbia organized by the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network. The conference, entitled “Religion, Authority and the State: From Constantine to the Secular and Beyond,” brought together theologians, religious scholars, and clergy from a variety of religious traditions. The conference commemorated the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan. That was the edict in which the Emperor, Constantine and Licinius, his co-Emperor at the time, proclaimed religious tolerance in the empire, allowing Christians to practice their faith openly.
Belgrade was chosen as the site for the conference because Constantine was born in the ancient city Naissus in the Roman province of Moesia, the area on the south side of the Danube River, in what today is the modern Serbian city of Nis, located about 125 miles southeast of Belgrade.
At the conference, I presented a paper entitled, “Theo-political Visions: Post-secular Politics and Messianic Discourse” in which I discussed a variety of secular philosophers in Europe who are interested in the writings of St. Paul primarily for the form of their argument and not for their religious content. (The paper later was published in the academic journal, Ecclesiology.*)
I packed my bags so that I could take my suitcase onto the airplane with me. For reasons still inexplicable to me, Air France required me to check my suitcase at the last minute. My flight arrived late in Paris leaving me with less than forty minutes to get to another terminal and board my flight on the former Yugoslav National Airline, JAT. JAT stands for Jugoslovenski Aerotransport. The troubled politics of the Balkans are still evident in little things such as the name of the airline. Yugoslavia ceased to exist more than twenty years ago, but Belgrade, the former capital of Yugoslavia, is now the capital of Serbia. The Serbians have not given up their past and cling resolutely to whatever they can of their former pride.
When I arrived early on Monday morning in Belgrade my bag had not made my connecting flight. Fortunately, I had the medicine I needed, my phone, and a few electronic devices in my carry-on but some of the power cords and adapters were still in my suitcase. If I had planned to lose my bag, I might have made some different decisions about what I packed and where I packed it. (I might also have gotten some insurance to cover lost or delayed baggage.) As it turned out the only clothes I had on arrival were the clothes I was wearing— blue jeans and a long-sleeved dress shirt with black dress shoes. That might have been fine if it had not been ninety-five-plus degrees with high humidity for the entire week I was there. The heat index made it even hotter than it was at home that week, and it was pretty hot at home.
Without my suitcase, I tried to make the best of it. On Monday, I was fine. Tuesday, my shirt was thoroughly soaked with perspiration and I was miserable whenever I ventured outside. On Wednesday I bought a short-sleeved black t-shirt for around 5 dollars and a pair of sandals. On Thursday, my bag finally arrived in the afternoon, just one half-hour before I was scheduled to present my paper. I was thankful to have my baggage with a few changes of clothes to wear over the next two day until I departed Belgrade for Dulles International Airport early on Sunday morning.
Reflecting on my trip, I realized once again, in case I really hadn’t already learned this lesson, that “things do not always go as planned.” I also was reminded that it is possible to live with very little. I do not have to have all the things that I have to live a full abundant life. In Belgrade, I did not need a full wardrobe of clothes, or even a small suitcase full of them, to enjoy the company of friends and fellow travelers. The same is true when I am home with all with which God has blessed me. These things are easy to forget.
When things do not go as planned, we can get angry, despair, or move on as best we can. It is better, I have found if we can do so thankfully and happily rather than in disgust and bitterness. I find great assurance in words written by St. Paul to the Christians in Thessalonica:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thess. 5).
You might ask, “how can Paul really say that I should learn to “give thanks to God in all circumstances.” In all circumstances? That’s what Paul says and that is what he meant. In another letter, this time to the Philippians Paul wrote the following:
…For I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need (Phil. 4:11-12).
Next time you find yourself in a situation in which things do not go as planned, remember the admonitions of Holy Scripture and try as best you can to give thanks to God in every circumstance in which you find yourself.
* Craig A. Phillips, “Theo-political visions: Post-secular Politics and Messianic Discourse,” Ecclesiology 10 (2014), 337-354.