Every once in a while, something happens that lets us see life up close — not just the way we think life is — but the way life really is. Something like that happened to me recently.
I was flying to Pensacola for a conference. Everything had been on time — nothing unusual (which in and of itself is pretty unusual). Our plane was taxiing to our arrival gate when the pilot came on the intercom with an announcement I had never heard before as a passenger.
Ladies and Gentlemen, let me have your attention. We will be stopping just short of our gate today to allow Officer Joe Smith* and a family member of Private John Taylor* who was killed in action several days ago, to leave the plane first. We have had the honor of bringing this fallen hero home to his family today. He will be met by a homecoming detail and his family. I ask you to be patient while we take a few moments to honor this soldier as his casket is deplaned. I will let you know when you can exit.
What happened next was so overwhelming to me I could barely watch, but so riveting that I couldn’t look away. As we got closer, I saw a detail of eight Marines in parade dress and full salute. As the plane was slowing down, the family came into view on my side. When we came to a stop, I could identify a mother and a father both crying so hard they couldn’t stand still, the husband holding her up. Right in front of them, a young wife, babe in arms, weeping as another family member, perhaps a sister, brushed her hair and face. All in all, there were about 20 people — maybe the younger brothers, trying to be strong yet visibly shaken, a grandmother and other younger children — all huddled on the tarmac in the cold wind. I sat in stunned silence as the soldiers respectfully ended their salute and moved in lock step toward the plane. The whole scene intensified as the flag-draped casket made its way down the same conveyor belt my luggage would be on in a few minutes. I was overwhelmed and cried as though it was my own brother moving into the hearse. I guess in some ways, it was.
I’ve heard the news reports many times about the brave Americans who have died in defense of our freedom. But after this experience, I will never feel the same way again. You see, now I’ve seen that slice of life up close. Now, it has a face — twenty faces — indelibly etched in my mind. Now, I have a little bit more of an idea of the price those families pay.
It makes me wonder about the people we serve in our ministries every week. What if we could see their lives up close — their hurts and fears — their failures and successes? How would we love differently? How would we serve? Would we have more patience? Would we be more understanding or forgiving?
You know, that’s what makes Jesus so amazing. He sees life up close; and in so doing, He knows perfectly how to love us and lead us.
It didn’t seem to matter to anyone on the plane that our arrival was delayed by 15 minutes, or that we had to wait an unusually long time on our luggage. Those concerns didn’t seem all that important as we watched this family of a fallen hero face one of life’s ultimate realities.
Perhaps the most interesting moment of the whole scene happened when I exited the walkway and came into the gate where the passengers for the next departing flight waited. Sitting among them was a soldier, wearing fatigues and watching the ceremony from the window at the gate. I thought, We brought one home and now another one is leaving. What must he be thinking? I prayed for that soldier as I walked by him.
The lesson in this for me is to slow down enough every day so that I can see life up close and learn to love people the way Jesus does. One of my favorite quotes of Dr. Jimmy Draper, former president of LifeWay, is, “Be nice to everybody, because everybody you meet is having a hard time.” How true.
Life is hard. I am most humbled that God permitted me to see this slice of one family’s journey that shook my soul. And I will be eternally grateful for a Savior who knows all about life up close and gives His children enough grace to make it home.
Director, LifeWay Worship
*names have been changed