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What United’s indifference to losing 10-year-old Phoebe Klebahn says about us—and our gospel

This past June in San Francisco, Annie and Perry Klebahn put their 10-year-old daughter Phoebe in the care of United Airlines’ unaccompanied minor program on a flight to a summer camp in Michigan. When Phoebe landed in Chicago, however, the program “forgot” to send someone to walk her to her connecting flight to Grand Rapids. When the girl asked for help, she was repeatedly told by busy attendants to wait. When she asked to call her parents (three times), they told her to wait. She missed her flight—but her parents had no clue until the camp frantically called to inform them that Phoebe had never arrived in Grand Rapids, and the United employees there had no idea where their daughter was.

What happens next only compounds United’s already deplorable conduct—and reveals something about our culture, ourselves and our faith.

Bob Sutton, who wrote about the experience on his Work Matters blog, details how the parents spent almost an hour on the phone trying to locate their daughter, but “United employees consistently refused to take action to help … her parents locate her despite their cries for help to numerous United employees.”

Then comes what Sutton calls this “the most disturbing part, the part that reveals how sick the system is.”

Phoebe’s dad was talking with a United employee who, says Sutton, “knew how upset the parents were and how badly United had screwed-up.” But when he asked if the employee would check on Phoebe, she said her shift was ending and she couldn’t help. At that point, he asked her if she was a mother. She was. Then he asked her how she would feel if it were her child. Fifteen minutes later Phoebe was on the phone with her parents.

“This is the key moment in the story,” writes Sutton:
…note that in her role as a United employee, this woman would not help Perry and Annie. It was only when Perry asked her if she was a mother and how she would feel that she was able to shed her deeply ingrained United indifference -- the lack of felt accountability that pervades the system. Yes, there are design problems, there are operations problems, but the to me the core lesson is this is a system packed with people who don't feel responsible for doing the right thing.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to United, the airline industry or even large corporations in general. I think it pervades our culture and is due in part to our tendency to compartmentalize. We assign our jobs to one compartment, our marriage and families to another, our leisure and entertainment to an additional one, our faith to yet one more—the list goes on. This gets at how a mother could consider walking off her shift without helping another parent find their missing child—or how addiction to pornography happens when we separate our marriage from our entertainment or questionable ethical choices are made in a job when we compartmentalize it away from our faith.

I find this is particularly disturbing when it comes to our faith. When we narrow or box up our faith, we are left with not only a shadow of the life for which we were intended but an ineffective one as well. Our faith may as well be, well, dead.

Perhaps one of the reasons we do this has to do with how we view our faith to begin with: our gospel is too small. I’m currently reading Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel in which he basically calls for a deeper and broader understanding of the “good news.” Too often, we narrow the gospel to salvation alone—which is, of course, central to it. McKnight asks us to consider the gospel Jesus and the apostles preached in which Jesus is the fulfillment of the Story of Israel (the Messiah). “The Story of Israel, or the Bible, is the sweep of how the Bible’s plot unfolds,” says McKnight—from creation to that “flourishing, vibrant, culture-creating, God-honoring, Jesus-centered city” in Revelation 21-22. This story isn’t the same as the gospel, says McKnight, but “the gospel only makes sense in that story… without that story there is no gospel.”

To tell the gospel told by Jesus, Paul and Peter, says McKnight, is “to tell the story about Jesus. Salvation flows from that story, but that story is both bigger than and framed differently from the Plan-of-Salvation approach to the gospel.” It does not, says McKnight, “displace salvation but puts salvation in the context of a gospel story that has a beginning (in creation and covenant with Israel), a middle (David), and a resolution (Jesus and the final redemption)." This, says McKnight, “shifts the entire focus from the benefits of salvation that we experience to the Person who himself is the good news” (italics McKnight’s).

This may seem like a subtle difference, but it is profound. If we understand Jesus himself is the good news, are ushered into an infinitely deeper and broader place. The good news expands from solely the cross (which is crucial) to everything about Jesus—the life he showed us how to live, the kingdom breaking into the world, a new citizenship, etc.

It also moves us back into the whole vast and rich Story, from the very beginning to the very end. “To grasp the gospel we have to grasp what God is doing in this world,” says McKnight, “and that means we’ve got a story to tell.” The Story—and I love the way McKnight lays this story out in The Gospel Sketched.

And that Story embraces the creation of a people of God who, as McKnight puts it, “need to become the true people of God.”  And in Jesus, God’s people-together are created anew: the church—a people through whom, as Dallas Willard puts it, God “is tangibly manifest to everyone on Earth who wants to find him.”

This far reaching gospel within this vast Story reaches into and encompasses every part of history and our lives, individually and together. It bursts apart the compartments we build and refuses to let us build them back.

But we must work together with God and each other to, as Dan Stone puts it, let God’s truth become our experience. “If the gospel isn’t about transformation,” says McKnight, “it isn’t the gospel of the Bible.” We must work together with God, as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster put it, to become the kind of persons who naturally and freely express 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control' (Gal. 5:22-23).” The kind of persons who look like Jesus. The kinds of persons who love God and love others. The kind of persons who don’t compartmentalize—who can’t compartmentalize because God and his kingdom and new life permeate it all. The kind of persons who “do the right thing” because that is who we are, no matter where we are.

This story reminded me that compartmentalizing is a cultural problem—and one that affects our faith. Far too many of us (including me) are guilty of this; we just don’t make national news in the process. But the good news is we don't have to live this way. The good news is there's a larger Story we are living in where selfishness loses to love, darkness to light and death to life. The good news is Jesus.