All of us who know and love Jane and Warren and who knew their parents were in shock and grief with them May 11 of 1996 when we got the word that the oldest of their two sons, Ray Warren Lathem III, and other missionaries were on the Valujet plane that crashed in the Florida Everglades.
On October 19, 1975 at 3:33 am, Ray W. Lathem III was born to Warren and Jane Baird Lathem. Jane wrote about that happy day; " I gave birth to my first child. I was young and scared to death but also thrilled and very happy. We only celebrated 20 birthdays with him but we are thankful for each one. Happy Birthday Ray! We love you, miss you and look forward to seeing you again."
Warren Lathem wrote on May 11, 2011, "15 years ago today life changed forever for the Lathems when Ray, Carlos Gonzales, Roger and Dana Lane died along with 106 more people in the VauJet crash in the Florida Everglades. Today there is a service of remembrance in the Everglades at the Memorial, a beautiful concrete structure designed by students at the U of M school of architecture. One of their classmates died in the crash. We were there for the 10th anniversary. We will not be there for this one. Jane and I leave Monday for work at the Seminario de Wesleyano de Venezuela where we have been building a living memorial for the past several years. God has done an amazing work of grace in our lives through this tragedy. We still grieve, but not as those who have no hope. Our hope is secure. Ray, we love you and miss you, but we will see you again in a little while. In the meantime, there is Kingdom work to do and we are committed to doing it as long as we have breath."
The over flowing Mt Pisgah church sanctuary for Ray’s Home Going Service in May 1996 was only a small token of the love and sorrow so many were feeling and continue to feel in the death of such a precious and talented young man. At the time of Ray's death, he was returning from a Christian mission trip to Venezuela. Ray was a gifted student, singer and poet.
I was in Cedartown with the Lathems for the celebration of my brother Tom Baird's 80ths birthday and heard Ray's wonderful Christian testimony about his missionary call just a couple of weeks before the Valujet crash.
To me it did not seem “right” that my big brother Tom's family has had to deal with a sudden family death again. I well remember being the one who had to tell my mother about Tom and Rowena' son and Jane's brother, Jack’s accident and death at age 22 in 1964.
My mother, a devote Christian was “angry with God” when I told her about Jack. Why our precious Jack? Jack was such an adorable little boy and Mama doted on him and loved to recount all his brilliant and cute saying. My brother Tom Baird's wife Rowena had lived with his mother while Rowena was pregnant with Jack and Tom was serving in Europe in World War II. Mama loved Rowena like her own daughter.
While riding from the crowded Methodist church to the cemetery after Jack’s service in Cedartown, Georgia, with a dozen or more Georgia State Patrol cars leading the way, my mind was in turmoil as I kept praying for my dear brother, sister-in-law , their little daughter, Jane, and the grandmothers and all the shocked and grieving family.
Praying also for answers to the “whys” of a young person’s death. Among many other passages of Scripture, Psalm 90 spoke to me then and spoke to me later as I sat in the sanctuary just a few rows behind Tom and Rowena, Warren, Jane and Jared in another oveflow crowd at Mt Pisgah Church in Alpharetta, Georgia at the Homegoing service for out precious Ray Lathem in 1996.
Moses wrote in Psalm 90, “A thousand years in God’s sight are but as a day when it is past and as a watch in the night.” God has made us for eternity and our swift run across the stage of earth, whether just a few months in our mother's womb (as two babies I have conducted burial services for) or a 98 year old man we buried from Trinity church recently. It is as a day in the sight of God, and in the case of Ray it is merely the first notes on a beautiful symphony yet to be played.
It seems to me that measuring the length of life in the light of eternity - whether we live a hundred years or just twenty or thirty years - we have only a brief time. This is why it is so important to learn from God. The eternal God is our dwelling place and underneath are the everlasting arms.
God has given us freedom. We are in a highly mechanized, fallen world and it seems to me many persons' physical lives are cut short needlessly. Human error is said to have been the cause of the airplane crash that took the physical life of Ray and other missionaries to Venezuela? Questions!
Praise God what we call "Death" does not have the final word about what God calls "Life." Jesus took away the sting of death when He said in John 11:25: "I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in Me, Though they die, yet shall they live."