By Mark A. Taylor
US Airways Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger doesn’t view himself as a hero.
The celebrated pilot of the January 15 Flight 1549 successfully landed his Airbus A320 in the Hudson River shortly after its engines were stalled by a bird strike. The feat soon became known as “The Miracle on the Hudson.” But, as Jeffrey Zaslow writes in the October 14 Wall Street Journal, “that description never felt right to Sully.”
Of the many letters of gratitude and congratulations Sully received after the incident, it is significant which are his favorites. Zaslow, who is cowriting Sullenberger’s book, quotes only one in his newspaper column. Written by Paul Kellen of Medford, Massachusetts, it was, in Sully’s view, “particularly touching.”
I see a hero as electing to enter a dangerous situation for a higher purpose, and you were not given a choice. That is not to say you are not a man of virtue, but I see your virtue arising from your choices at other times. It’s clear that many choices in your life prepared you for that moment when your engines failed.
This, in fact, is exactly Sullenberger’s assessment. He defines “hero” as someone who runs into a burning building. “Flight 1549 was different because it was thrust upon me and my crew,” he says. They relied on their training and their concern for the lives of their passengers. “It’s more that we had a philosophy of life, and we applied it to the things we did that day.”
As Kellen observed, we never know when such an opportunity may face us. His letter continues:
There are people among us who are ethical, responsible, and diligent. I hope your story encourages those who toil in obscurity to know that their reward is simple—they will be ready if the test comes.
The letter reminds us of people we know. Lifetimes of good, godly choices have equipped them to pass whatever tests come their way. When they face the challenge—a frightening diagnosis, a financial setback, a job loss, or the death of someone close—we see their true character.
But for many faithful Christians, no headline-grabbing crisis ever comes. Kellen’s phrase aptly fits them: they “toil in obscurity,” far away from convention platforms or widespread recognition. Yet their quiet, consistent commitment ultimately points thousands to Christ.
The three missionary stories we tell this week fit this category. We could probably find a hundred more like them among the missionary “heroes” produced by our fellowship of churches. Each of them encourages us to make daily choices that prepare us for the ultimate test, whether or not anyone is around to see how we pass it.