When a Long-Planned Trip Fell Through, She Put Herself in God's Hands

She missed her flight to a much-needed spiritual retreat in Assisi. Now what?

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Posted in , Feb 24, 2022

Clare Biedenharn; photo courtesy Clare Biedenharn

The first rays of morning sun shone through my rental car window. It was the middle of August. I was in a small black Ford in a giant parking lot at JFK Airport in New York City.

I had no idea what I was going to do next.

It was 6 A.M. Five hours earlier, I’d been at the boarding gate for a transatlantic flight, on my way to Italy for a long-anticipated retreat at a monastery in the town of Assisi.

Except I’d fallen asleep at the gate and missed the flight.

I awoke with a start to an empty terminal. My airplane was taxiing. I rushed to the gate agent.

“Can I book the next flight?” I asked in a panic.

“The next flight is in 24 hours, ma’am. I’m sorry, it’s full.”

“Can I get my ticket refunded and try a different airline?”

“I’m sorry. We can’t offer refunds to no-shows.”

I made a lot of phone calls trying to salvage the trip, but the best I could manage cost a fortune, and by the time I got to Assisi, the retreat would be half over. I had a return flight from New York to Indiana in one week. Unless I wanted to cancel that flight and find another one (no refund, huge change fee), I was stuck in New York.

This trip was supposed to be part of my healing from the death of my beloved husband, James. He and I were married 41 years until he died from a rare form of cancer.

James and I were both Methodist ministers. We had counseled countless grieving people. Nothing prepared me for my own grief. I had hoped this trip would center me again in God. Give me back some of the confidence and independence James always inspired in me.

That’s not how I felt right now, staring out at the sea of cars around me. I truly had no idea where to go. James and I had lived in New York once—ages ago. I considered just driving home, but that felt like defeat. I wanted to do something.

A feeling of reckless abandon came over me. Or maybe I was just punchy from exhaustion. The trip from Indiana to JFK had been complicated and worn me out. That’s why I’d fallen asleep at the gate.

Okay, God, I thought. What if I just turn this over to you and trust you totally? Tell me where to go.

I sat there, watching the summer sunlight strengthen.

A name popped into my head: Rachel Lohmeyer.

Rachel Lohmeyer? She and I had met years ago at a writing workshop. We kept in touch on social media, but I hadn’t spoken to her in decades. Did I even have her number?

Well, I told God I would trust him, so…I looked up Rachel on my phone and, to my amazement, there was her number. I had no memory of putting it in. I called.

“Clare!” Rachel exclaimed. “I was just thinking about you. I’m having surgery for a brain aneurysm in a few days. When I was picturing people to ask for prayer, your face appeared. This is God’s timing!”

I told Rachel about the misadventure I’d just had at the airport.

“Come stay with me,” she urged. “I’m in Maryland. We have guests right now, but they leave tomorrow. Can you come then?”

“I’ll be there,” I said.

I hung up. Wow. Okay, now I just have to figure out tonight.

I looked up motels in New York and found a cheap one in Queens not too far from the airport. I started up the little black Ford and pulled out of the rental lot.

Soon I was creeping along through New York City traffic.

People of every conceivable variety crowded the sidewalks. Horns blared. Music echoed out of apartment windows. Stores had signs in multiple languages. Enticing smells wafted from restaurants and food trucks. Wow, I’d forgotten how much I love New York!

I even liked it when people yelled at me for going too slow. Very New York. Truly a contrast with my small heartland town. Yet both places were quintessentially American. My love for this big, diverse country swelled.

The motel was bare-bones, but I was too tired to care. I slept the rest of the afternoon and through the night.

I awoke refreshed and went downstairs to the small buffet breakfast. Two women were speaking Spanish as they ate at a table. They began singing softly to themselves. Even in Spanish, I recognized the song: “To God Be the Glory.”

I started singing along. I must have sung too loud. The women stopped. They motioned me over to their table and introduced themselves. We sang the rest of the song together: them in Spanish, me in English.

A tall, regal woman in a traditional African outfit of green and white robes stood up across the room. She joined in with a big, resonant voice. The hymn rang out in the breakfast nook. We all grinned at one another.

The Spanish speakers offered to pray for Rachel when I told them about her. It turned out Rachel’s father was from their hometown in Puerto Rico.

So New York! I drove down to Rachel’s house, and she and I picked up right where we’d left off the last time we talked in person. Some friendships are like that. I prayed for her, and we visited a church, which happened to be a Franciscan parish.

The retreat I was missing was at a Franciscan monastery in Saint Francis’s hometown of Assisi. It was as if everything had been prearranged.

One of my nieces lived in Brooklyn, and I phoned her as I left Rachel’s house the next morning.

“Aunt Clare!” Frances said. (It was funny how that name kept turning up.) “I’d love to see you. Stay as long as you like.”

On the way back to New York, I stopped in East Brunswick, New Jersey, and found the small rental house where James and I were living when I became pregnant with our first child.

I drove past the decorating store where I’d worked back then. I remembered how my coworkers had taken me in and befriended me when I was a young newlywed. Everywhere I went, there were so many reminders of God’s faithfulness.

Frances was my cool niece. She was in her late twenties, working as a web designer and living the New York life. Her apartment was small but chic. She was having a cookout in her building’s tiny backyard that evening, and I got to know her neighbors.

The next day, I took the subway into Manhattan and found the hotel where James had worked when we’d lived in the city, before having kids. How naive we were back then! We’d arrived in New York with dreams of becoming an actor (me) and a writer (James). Not quite what God had planned.

I walked into the lobby of the Hyatt right next to Grand Central Terminal in Midtown. James had once worked as a bellman there.

A rush of sadness came over me. I looked around the soaring lobby. Suddenly I missed James so much, I could hardly stand it.

I pushed my way back out to the street. The people and noise felt overwhelming. I wanted to go home. I wanted my husband.

My cell phone rang. It was Ben, a fellow Methodist minister. Originally from Korea, Ben now served at a church on Long Island.

“I saw on Facebook that you’re in New York,” he said. “What are you doing for lunch? It’s an easy subway ride out this way. Grace and I would love to have you over.”

I wiped the tears from my eyes and said yes. It turned out that the subway line I needed left from Grand Central Terminal.

Thank you, Lord!

Ben and James had been close. It felt good to spend an afternoon sharing memories. We ate a delicious Korean lunch and took a walk along Long Island Sound.

The end of my week drew near. I connected with Nicole, a critical care nurse I had worked with once who now lived in New York. She took me on a boat tour of the harbor followed by some authentic New York pizza.

I told Nicole how nervous I was about turning in the rental car and catching my flight on time. It was an early-morning flight. I sure didn’t want to oversleep.

“I’ll book you a hotel near the airport,” Nicole said. “That way you’ll be right there in the morning.”

I said goodbye to my friend and spent the night at the hotel. The next morning, I turned in the little rental car and made it to the airport terminal on time.

As I waited for my flight to board, I sat in a row of chairs near the gate and watched the sun come up. What a week it had been!

I still missed James. I still wished I could have spent that week in Assisi. But I would go next year. The Franciscans told me they’d hold my spot. And my airline had even sent me an e-mail: They’d overbooked my return flight from Rome—did I want to cancel for a full refund?

Why, yes, thank you very much.

Thank you very much, indeed. I had given God the wheel. He gave me the road trip and the reconnections I so badly needed.

I can’t wait to see where God takes me next.

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