Jay Erickson thought about death. He and his wife Katrina, along with their two little girls, moved in next to a bush hospital in Zambia earlier this year where he wrote they could "hear quite clearly the wails of mourning with each death" (Pondering Death). Jay was trained as a bush pilot and aircraft mechanic at Moody Aviation. Seeking to make Jesus known, he and his family were serving a remote mission hospital along the banks of the Zambezi River too difficult to access by roads. He transported medical supplies and food along with doctors, patients, and missionaries.
On April 20, he wrote of how his current reading and this new context coalesced to make him ponder death.
[I]t has caused me to realize again in a new way that there is nothing sad about the death of a Christian. The only sadness (and I do not intend to belittle this aspect) is in the loss of companionship by those left behind. And yet, to contrast this, the level of tragedy is so vast for the passing of an unbeliever.
On June 2, Jay's bush plane crashed into the Zambezi River killing both he and Katrina. Their two daughters, Marina and Coral, had stayed back in the village. A missionary couple in their late twenties are now dead in service to the gospel.
I am shaken by this event, maybe because Jay and Katrina are the same age as my wife and I, or maybe because they have small children around the ages of my own, or maybe it's because, in my gut, I find it hard to believe that many American Christians can agree with Jay's assessment of death. Many American Christians don't understand real tragedy.
And do I?
Now, I can recite the line from a 1998 Reader's Digest about "Bob and Penny's early retirement in Punta Gorda, Florida." And I don't want to "buy that dream." I don't want to spend my life collecting seashells or playing softball or wasting away on a boat. But do I really get it?
Do I really get that death is gain (Philippians 1:21), that Jesus really is worth the loss of all things (Philippians 3:8), that my citizenship really is in heaven (Philippians 3:20)?
Do I care that my life makes a difference, or do I just want to be liked? Is all I'm aiming for in this vapor of years just for me "to die easy and then no hell"? (See John Piper, "Boasting Only in the Cross.")
Jay and Katrina's witness is a wake-up call. It's a call for us to ask these questions to ourselves again, no matter how much Piper we've read, or Platt we've heard, or Bonhoeffer we can tweet. Now I don't mean we fixate our attention on how much we are compelled, or if it compares to this or that. Jay and Katrina's death doesn't leave us to marvel at how compelled they were, but to marvel at the One who compelled them.
Our brother and sister, along with several others over centuries whose names we don't know, have died for Jesus' sake and the point is that we see Jesus. That we see his worthiness and excellency. The point is that, as we're stirred by their sacrifice, we rediscover the absolute wonder that God became man and died to save rebels. That he did it not because of our works, but according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace. That Jesus' death in our place and victory over the grave frees our hands from the white-knuckled grip we once had on the comforts of this world.
Thank you, Father, for Jay and Katrina. Thank you for their witness, and for your glory that captivated them to pour out their lives in love. Make us to learn from them and know more of your surpassing worth in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Read more about the Erickson's story, and listen to some related sermons from John Piper: