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When journalists at major American newspapers write obituaries for the news sections of their publications, the opening sentence usually identifies the reason the deceased person is widely known.
If tradition holds, future obits likely will remember Capt. Tammie Jo Shults as the Southwest Airlines pilot who deftly landed a heavily damaged jetliner with a gaping hole in the side, saving the lives of 142 passengers and five crew members.
It’s a fitting tribute to the former Navy pilot who calmly averted a catastrophic crash, but Shults’ exceptional day at work on April 17 came after decades of focused professionalism. It also came after years of ordinary good works in the context of her family, her community, and her local church.
Shults’ friends told reporters from The Dallas Morning News less about her impressive flying career and more about the Christian wife and mother of two who taught Sunday school at First Baptist Church in Boerne, Texas, volunteered at a school for at-risk kids, and used the guesthouse on her family’s property as a home for refugees from Hurricane Rita and for widows.
It’s not that her excellence in piloting doesn’t matter. (It matters immensely to the thousands who have landed safely after one of her flights.) But her work outside the cockpit matters too, and it’s what the people closest to her will remember when the end eventually arrives—as it will for all of us.
That may sound like a morbid takeaway, but it’s what former first lady Barbara Bush told the fresh-faced graduating class of Wellesley College during her 1990 commencement address at the school. A handful of seniors had protested the first lady’s appearance, saying she was notable mostly for being married to a president.
Mrs. Bush didn’t downplay the role. She urged the graduates to embrace their careers with gusto, and she noted her own advocacy in the field of literacy. But she also told them the relationships they cultivated would be the most important investments they would make:
“At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.”
It’s probably not what most 22-year-olds think about on graduation day, but it’s also not what many of us think about most days, if our health is decent and our lives feel normal.
It probably didn’t occur to the 143 Southwest Airlines passengers on Shults’ flight, including Jennifer Riordan, the lone passenger who didn’t survive when an exploded engine sent debris through the window where she had settled into her seat 20 minutes earlier.
In the moments that followed, some of the nearby passengers tried to revive Riordan. Others bought in-flight Wi-Fi to send what they thought might be final messages.
I haven’t read about anyone emailing a boss about an important file or an upcoming meeting. Pastor Timothy Bourman, who was on the flight with his wife, texted his dad with a message for the couple’s daughters, ages 6, 4, and 2: “Tell the girls we love them and that Jesus is with them always.”
A glimpse of the end brings clarity.
It’s not a call to quit our day jobs. It’s a reminder to pursue them with zeal, knowing God uses our work in His world for His purposes, and when we’re productive we reflect the image of our Creator.
That’s why we encourage people to work, including those who have struggled to provide for themselves or their families, and we recognize that work is a gift and not a curse. Indeed, when we pursue work well, even the most seemingly mundane jobs become a source of blessing to others.
In the end, good works won’t meet our greatest needs. The Bible teaches only the work of Christ on the cross is sufficient to atone for our sins and make us right with God. But that work also enables Christians to serve God and other people in ways that transcend our short lives.
When the end came for Barbara Bush on April 17 (the same day as the Southwest Airlines flight), some supporters still had tickets to a literacy event she had been scheduled to host a couple of days later. She hadn’t quit working. But Mrs. Bush spent her last days at home with her family.
Her New York Times obituary began: “Barbara Bush, the widely admired wife of one president and the fiercely loyal mother of another, died Tuesday evening at her home in Houston. She was 92.”
That’s an opening line I doubt Mrs. Bush would have minded.