Precious Death: Flight 5191, Cancer, Brittany Maynard, and Eric Johnson

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. –Psalm 116:15

I will never forget waking up on a Sunday morning in late August to my dad weakly, yet urgently calling me into the living room. Both of my parents were glued to the TV. My dad looked like he had seen a ghost. As I begrudgingly woke from my slumber, I saw a sight that made my heart drop out of my chest.

Lexington. News coverage. A plane. A mistake. A crash. And…death.

On August 27, 2006, my cousin Jon Hooker and his new wife, Scarlett, boarded a flight that was to take them to their honeymoon. They had just married the night before at an unbelievably gorgeous ceremony filled with laughter, tears of joy, family and friends, and celebration. But with the laughter and joy fading into the darkness of the night, the morning brought something none of us were prepared for.

Comair Flight 5191 had 48 passengers on-board along with two pilots. For reasons unbeknown, the aircraft began traveling down the wrong runway. The plane was supposed to be taking off from the much longer runway 22, but instead it attempted to take off from a much shorter runway. Take off was unsuccessful. The plane crashed. My cousin, Jon, was killed. So was his wife. So was one of the pilots. So were the other 46 passengers.

So, there I stood in my living room with my parents, brother, and sister. Speechless. Helpless. Stunned by death. That is always what death does, no matter how expected or unexpected it comes.

In recent days I have seen two stories dominate much of my social media feeds. One is the story of a 29 year-old woman with terminal cancer who is planning to end her own life through assisted suicide. The other is of an 18 year-old boy who just died of Leukemia. One is Brittany Maynard, who understandably desires to escape suffering and face “whatever is next” peacefully. The other was Eric Johnson, who courageously suffered with full knowledge of what was next. Both stories have tormented my soul. My tears, love, and prayers are with both the Maynard and Johnson families.

There is no way for me to know what Brittany Maynard is going through or what Eric Johnson went through. I do not know them, except from what they have written about themselves and from what others have said and are saying. I do not even have a close relative who is currently suffering with cancer. I cannot even begin to know just how deep the confusion, anger, pain, and sorrow is that accompanies cancer. I weep with them and all who are battling cancer, but my tears are not laced with personal experience.

However, I have experienced tragic death in my family in various ways. And what I wish to do here is simply to offer some consoling words for those dealing with the death of someone they loved and those facing death even as I write.

Death never takes a holiday. Death is a certainty that none of us can escape. It is frightening, painful, and sorrowful. Death brought Jesus to tears at Lazarus’ tomb, most likely because of his holy hatred of death and its perverted place in God’s creation. Death exists because of sin’s perversion of God’s creation. None of us can elude its chase, but the way we face death is entirely based on where our hope and trust is found.

In Psalm 116, the psalmist is giving thanks for God’s deliverance from some unidentified trial (Ps. 116:8). This person has been “greatly afflicted” and “suffered distress and anguish” (vv. 10, 3). While the circumstance is not given, it is safe to assume it is one that was leading to death. It was most likely a personal struggle, either between the psalmist and another person or even sickness. We could easily apply this psalmist’s cry to that of someone suffering from cancer. Whatever the case, the psalmist was near death: “The snares of death encompassed me” (v. 3).

In the midst of this chaos, the suffering psalmist “called on the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:4). In his innate grace, mercy, and righteousness, God responded with salvation and deliverance (vv. 5-7). Recognition of this deliverance is then followed by lines of praise and thanksgiving: “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” (v. 12; see also vv. 13-14, 16-19). It makes total sense that someone suffering through something as terrible as cancer would respond with a praise of humble thanksgiving after being delivered or healed.

That is the basic make-up of Psalm 116–deliverance and praise. For those who are cancer-free who were once suffering like this psalmist, there is reason to praise God! May your song be, “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live” (Ps. 116:1-2).

Still, as some can fully identify with the totality of the experience in Psalm 116, others only know one part of the story. Some have indeed experienced suffering, anguish, and distress. But they have yet to experience deliverance. Cancer rages on. And for some, it will rage on until death comes, and takes. Is there any hope for those who are encompassed by death? Praise God, the answer is yes! The prospect for real and lasting hope is found even in Psalm 116.

Hidden between the expression of suffering, call for deliverance, ultimate salvation, and praise is one verse that changes everything. Psalm 116:15 reads, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”

Precious? Death?

How can it be? How can something so manifestly divisive and severing be precious? See the beauty in what this psalmist is saying. Even though he has been delivered from death, he sees beauty in death for those who find life in God. As devastating as death is, it is precious for those who have hope beyond death’s grip. But death can only be faced this way if legitimate and grounded hope exists.

You see, the primary difference between the deaths of Brittany Maynard and Eric Johnson is that Brittany is uncertain what lies beyond death for her, while Eric was evidently secure in what he was to face once death finally came. The only way any of us could face and receive suffering like Eric, and not like Brittany is for there to be something greater than ourselves for us to hold on to. The key in the attitude toward death is found in the hope one has in what follows death, and whether that hope is true.

The hope Eric had was not fanciful, nor a mechanism to keep his mind off of the inevitable. No, he faced impending death with boldness because of his deep confidence in the real and reigning King who died to give him life and hope.

Only in Christ is death found to be precious.

Death is precious in God’s sight for those who have trusted Jesus not because he delights in the sorrow of death, but because he delights in the joy of life that follows death as a result of the work of his Son.

Death, which once served as a dreaded enemy, has now become a friend to those in Christ, for it ushers them into the presence of their eternal lover–the One who gave them life. By faith in Christ we walk from the valley of the shadow of death into the beaming and radiant light of the eternal glory of God. Death was defeated in the death of Christ and by his death his people find life that never ends. Death, yes even death, is beautiful for those in Christ.

In the end, neither cancer cells nor plane crashes have the last word. Jesus does.

Death is not precious simply because physical and emotional suffering has ended. Death is precious only when the sufferer is united to the one who suffered to obliterate suffering altogether.

Cancer is a dreaded enemy. It takes life. It severs families. It causes pain that for some never ends on this earth. Something both Brittany Maynard and Eric Johnson have taught us is this: Cancer robs us of our independence and it teaches us more than anything, except death itself, just how human we are. It is totally out of our control.

But there is a disease that is far more sinister and deadly than cancer that we all need delivered from. The cancer of sin kills and severs, and robs. The suffering it brings is eternal and there is no pill to relieve it. But in Christ, we have something better than a pill. Jesus lived the life you and I cannot live and died in our place to bear the wrath of God. He rose from the dead to eternally defeat sin and death, and by faith in him, you can experience the sin-defeating, death-conquering life that he gives.

So, what will we do? If we are faced with cancer and death, should we desperately grasp for the last bit of control we can find and end our lives to avoid suffering? Or, like Eric Johnson, will we walk courageously into the dense fog of suffering not knowing when it will end, but with absolutely confidence where it will end?

I am praying for Brittany Maynard. I am thankful that she has told her story. I am thankful that she has expressed her suffering. Her honesty has broken my heart. The snares of death encompass her. She is suffering distress and anguish. Oh, but I pray. I pray she would call on the name of the Lord. Because the moment she does, she will find deliverance that is far greater than temporary comfort from the pain of cancer. She will find that the Lord is gracious, righteous, and merciful.

She will be able to say, “Return, O my should, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you” (Ps. 116:7). I desperately pray that Brittany would not seek comfort in the pill she carries around, but in a cross where death died and where cancer does not have the last word. My desire for Brittany is to have what Eric had. Real hope. Real comfort. Only by faith in Christ can Brittany know what is “next.” If she would trust Christ, she would “walk before the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 116:9).


Back to August, 2006.

My mind often travels back to the day death tragically and unexpectedly invaded my family. My family has struggled with the death of Jon and Scarlett since that dreadful August morning, and nothing will stop those moments when we painfully think about that day. We will always have days when we cry. Only one thing brings light into the darkness of those moments. It is knowing that they knew Jesus. Oh, and this thought makes even the most tragic death precious!

Death is precious for the saints of the Lord. If you turn from your sin and believe in Jesus, the one who died to defeat death, you can face death confidently and see it as a precious friend and defeated foe, that will lead you to God, in whose presence there is fullness of joy, absence of cancer, and pleasures forevermore!

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.


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