You may have caught the story of a United Airlines flight that had to make an emergency landing in New Orleans on Monday. The plane had just departed moments before and had no visibility due to cloud cover. Almost immediately after takeoff smoke began to appear in the cockpit. Like a page out of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie script amidst the cloud outside and the smoke inside, with a jet full of fuel and passengers, suddenly the pilots lost all instrumentation. With only the directions of air traffic control to guide them, the pilots had no choice but to attempt a completely blind landing.
When the pilots had radioed the tower of the compounding problem of having lost all instruments the tower responded with an emergency-assessing question: “UNITED 497 SAFE, SOULS ON BOARD, AND FUEL REMAINING?”
“Souls on board” is aviation-speak for, obviously, the number of people on the plane. I could not find the credible origin of the phrase. There are many wildly bad guesses though. Wherever the phrase came from, it is both succinct and accurate. It minces no words getting to the heart of the crisis. It is the ultimate gauge for what is at stake in a moment. It vividly captures the profound truth: Whatever we are in this life, we are never anything more than souls on board.
Pastor imagine the view from the pulpit. Survey in your mind’s eye the audience before you. You probably know most of them. There may be some visitors too. We all get into a comfort pattern. Have they gradually become just people? Have you lost the urgency of the crisis and forgotten that they are souls at stake? If you were to preach to the “souls on board” on a commercial airliner in trouble, what would you preach? With what urgency would you preach it? The application is evident: When was the last time you preached like that to the “souls on board” before you?
As I write this I am stung by the fact that I’ve lived where I am for 9 months and have not shared the gospel with my neighbors. 9 months. I’ve written blogs for three different web sites, I’ve done door-to-door tract distribution in other neighborhoods, and nearly completed a year in seminary, but there are “souls on board” a wall apart from me and I have said nothing to them of the Savior! Lord, I repent; help me to see these nice people as souls—lost souls that need You!
What about you? You may never preach behind a pulpit and before a crowd, but you preach every day in your words, actions, and reactions at your job, your school, in your neighborhood, or in your own home. What is your life saying? When you speak, what are your words saying? Have you been lulled into thinking of people as mere coworkers, friends, family, or strangers…and not as eternal souls heading for eternity?
United flight 497 landed hard and went off the runway but stayed together. God sovereignly allowed all 106 souls on board to land safely. Spinning along with you today there are nearly 7 billion people on this planet. They are dictators, doctors, preachers and peasants. They are nurses and bus drivers, farmers and stock brokers, and old people and young people. They speak nearly 7,000 languages comprised of tones, clicks, whistles, or all of these. The diversity of people in this world is incalculable, but the common denominator of them all is the emergency of the hour: They are souls on board and they need to be saved.