• John MilhousFour Sunday nights ago, I was finishing up hang gliding lessons, when my new friend, John Milhous, who had been waiting for me at the hangar with his shiny yellow ultralight, asked, “You want to go up?”

    “Really?!  No way!  Yes!  Oh, dude!”

    After donning helmets, checking the communication system, and taking safety looks to the right and left, I heard John warn into my earphones, “Clear prop!”

    A whirl of wind immediately rushed behind my head, and we started to bounce out onto a grass runway.  Within a minute or so, we were at the end of a grass strip; seconds later we took to the warm colors of a summer dusk.  John, ever so proud of his Amherst, VA, showed me some of the area landmarks that were new to this Lynchburg transplant: the town’s high school football stadium, Sweet Briar College, Poplar Grove—his home under the trees.  We banked down to follow the meandering Buffalo River then headed toward the purple mountains, as pinks and oranges glowed around the setting sun.  At highway speeds, we followed and crossed the highway I’ve so many times driven to take myself home to Maryland and Western New York.

    Sweet BriarIt just might have been the flight of my life.

    I let John know, too, with “Oh, wow!” and “Dude, this is incredible!” and lots of similar exclamations.  I think he took joy in that wonder of the virgin ultralight flight.  And though casual and common for a man who flew his trike three or four times a week, I knew John took great joy in the bird’s eye view and open breeze of this pastime.  A former Air Force pilot and biplane owner, he’d been avoiding gravity for almost as long as my dad had been alive.

    Amherst County Sunset

    The following Sunday in the church atrium, John told me he wanted to take me up for a real flight—a longer tour than the introductory circuit he had shown.  Maybe the mountains, maybe over places I had hiked in Nelson County.  He smiled, as he saw my face light with the possibilities.

    That very next Saturday night, I got a phone call.  On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, celebrating my brother’s graduation from Air Force language school in my parents’ back yard—by the pool and picnic tables, I popped up to answer.  On the other end Greg asked, “Are you sitting down?”  (I thought Greg had some super good news about some potential hang gliding adventures we had discussed.)  I don’t remember Greg’s exact words after that.  I just remember the punch in the stomach with the news that John had suffered a heart attack while flying his trike and that he and another man from my church had perished in the ensuing, fiery crash.

    John, 77, and Carl, 46, flew from dusk to eternity in a matter of seconds.

    The following Friday night, I arrived at church 45 minutes before John’s memorial service and watched over and again images from his life pass on the screens in the atrium.  When the doors to the auditorium opened, I slipped into the back row against the front of the sound booth.  I let the multiple hundreds of others—who knew John better than I did—fill rows upon rows of padded chairs.

    Family and friends told stories of a man I had only known a few months from a Bible study table, a man whose friendship revolved around not much more than a shared interest in gliding and God.  Dave, one of our pastors, talked about what made John alive—his God, his wife, his family, his time in the air.  His legacy was truly global yet as personally tangible as the seat belts that had held us so securely in his ultralight.

    As we sang, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” John’s widow, Carol, worshipped with both hands in the air.  She had told Dave the night of the crash to worship God the next morning, because He still deserved it.

    I welled with tears.  As the family filed out shortly thereafter, I bent in my chair and wept.  Not very long, just enough to relieve the pressure.  Then I had one of the most intimate encounters with a pastor in my three decades in the American church.  I felt the arm of Dave, who shepherds well over 2,500 people, fall across my shoulders, his leg against mine.  “You alright?”

    Dave knew what I was feeling.  “Makes you wish you could have known him better, huh?”  Yes, it did.  He spoke some more truth into my life, and then I blurted, “That could have been me, dude.”

    “Or me,” Dave answered.  He told me how he had almost called John the night of the wreck—to take him up on John’s offer for a free ride in the passenger seat.

    “God left me here for a reason,” I inserted later into the indelible conversation.

    “Yes, he did.”

    The weight of that is still heavy on me, as I struggle to be the big brother I should be to my siblings and spiritual “younger brothers and sisters.”  I struggle to leave a legacy beyond my selfish adrenaline adventures, my career accomplishments, my speeding tickets, my Facebook photos and videos, and my waving antics in a first service parking lot.  I would love for my death to fill an auditorium of lives touched—wouldn’t we all?  But I’m not sure I’m ready for the kind of selflessness that requires.  I want to be like John—to chase his physical and relational highs and yet somehow impact an entire community with contribution.

    I wish it were as easy as words.  But it’s going to take hours and sweat and upset schedules to one day hear the words John heard on Saturday, August 21, 2010: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

    This entry was posted on Monday, September 6th, 2010 at 11:00 pm and is filed under Ponderlust. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
  • 1 Comment

    Take a look at some of the responses we have had to this article.

    1. Mark Walters
      Oct 11th

      Beautiful story. Faith is what makes life worth living. My success has not been found in my worklife except for spots here and there. Kairos Prison Ministry and answered calls in ministry are the substance that give me reason to live, although I do like to work, prosper and accomplish. Thanks for sharing.

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