"First time to fly?" he asked.
"Yes", she replied, "is it that obvious?"
"Just a little", he chuckled as he extended his hand and introduced himself. "Bob Simmons"
"Tricia Lankford", she responded, meeting his handshake. "I'm on my way to Dallas to visit family."
"Really? I'm on my way to a convention.
"What kind of convention?" she asked.
"It's a leadership conference", he responded, "I'm a youth pastor in Orlando"
"Oh"...she replied, and withdrew her hand. She suddenly felt more nervous about sitting next to the pastor than she did about flying. She turned her head to look out the window.
Pastor Bob was not put off so easily though, and he continued to engage her in conversation.
"What do you do, Tricia...is it all right if I call you by your first name?"
"Sure", she replied. "I'm a student at UCF."
He continued to smile at her and nod his head as if wanting to know more.
"I'm studying criminal justice", she offered.
"Oh...criminal justice", he repeated, and then, looking for an opportunity to share the gospel with this young woman, he added, "You know, God's very interested in criminal justice, too."
She didn't bite. Just smiled and turned her head back to the window.
They had been in the air about fifteen minutes when the the plane suddenly lurched and the "fasten your seatbelt" sign pinged on.
Tricia began to look around her nervously.
"It's all right", he told her, "I fly a lot. We probably just hit a little air turbulence."
They both fastened their seatbelts. And the pastor continued to talk to her about God.
"As I was saying, God is very interested in justice. Criminal justice. You see we were all criminals. Law breakers, if you will. Sinners. And the Bible says that the penalty for sin is death. There is no plea bargaining with God. You break the law...you die."
"That hardly seems fair." she responded. I thought God was a god of love."
"Oh, but it is fair", pastor Bob replied. "It is fair and just. God established the law and we broke it. That let sin enter. God keeps His word which says, "The wages of sin is death". *
The plane lurched again and the pilot's voice came over the speaker system explaining in as soothing a tone as possible that due to mechanical problems, they would be returning to Miami International Airport.
Tricia looked back and forth between the window and the pastor. "Where is the love in that?", she asked, putting the emphasis on the word "that" - meaning a mandatory death sentence.
"I'm glad you asked, Tricia. **The love is in the fact that God loved us so much that He gave His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty for our sin. We are the ones who broke the law, Tricia...but Jesus took the sentence. OUR sentence. If you believe that and tell God you believe. He will commute your sentence. And you will receive eternal life. Have you ever done that, Tricia?"
She shook her head no. Pastor Bob knew that this young woman was close to accepting Christ, and he was struggling to keep his focus on the conversation at hand rather than the flurry of activity he was seeing amongst the flight attendants. He had flown enough to know that something was not right. And everything in him wanted to stop and call his wife and tell her he loved her...just in case. He made a choice, instead, to press into the call God had given him many years ago.
"Tricia, I can lead you in a prayer right now if you like."
The lights in the plane flickered. Tricia looked around her and saw people were beginning to show fear. Someone yelled that the engine was on fire. The plane began to lose altitude.
Tricia looked into the eyes of the youth pastor and said, "yes, I do want forgiveness."
He took her trembling hands in his, and led her in the sinner's prayer. Even as he did so, he was, in his heart, saying good-bye to his wife and to life on this planet. It would be his last act on earth...leading this young woman to Christ.
The plane crashed in the Everglades of Miami, Florida on May 11, 1996, approximately fifteen minutes after take off.
It was the end for them here. But for everyone on that plane who knew Christ...it was only the beginning.
In memory of my cousin, Terri Bell, who was a passenger on Valujet flight 592, the airliner that crashed into the Everglades of Miami, Florida in 1996.
*Romans 6:23 - "The wages of sin is death"
**John 3:16- "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life."
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