That’s Ray Peeples in the picture on the left. Ray is one of the finest men I’ve ever known. And it was my privilege to be pastor to Ray and his wife Bonnie for a little more than a decade. They were friends, encouragers, occasional providers of fresh fish, mission-loving, mission-centered Christians who lived lives of service and sacrifice. Ray died a week ago Sunday at the ripe old age of 93. His beloved Bonnie died in 2009. They just made it to 60 years of marriage before she passed. A part of Ray died with Bonnie. The rest of him lived in pretty ill health since then. He’s just fine today.
Ray was a card-carrying member of “the greatest generation”—raised on a farm in the Great Depression, fought in World War II to keep the world safe for democracy, worked hard after the war to become a doctor (first as a G.P. and then as an anesthesiologist until he retired), added to the famous post-war baby boom with three boys of his own, and contributed to the well-being of every organization and institution he was part of.
Ray was decidedly Christian but never lost his humanness in the process. He was who he was—highly educated but still a country boy in many ways, able to get along in social circles but without pretention and without trying to project any kind of image. He was who he was.
I loved that about him. He used to joke with me about his work. The retired anesthesiologist used to say to me, “You and I really do the same kind of work. We both put people to sleep, but I get paid a lot more for it.” Ray described his work as “sitting around all day passing gas.” He was a low-key funny guy.
He flew B-17s over Nazi Germany as the war was moving toward its end. He flew 35 missions and lived to talk about it. On one mission his plane was the tip of the spear of the formation. They were attacked by a Nazi Messerschmitt who came roaring out of the clouds, machine guns blazing, knocking out a couple of planes in the formation. Then the German fighter made a big loop in the sky, turned back, and flew directly toward Ray’s plane—as high stakes a game of chicken as you’ll ever see. Ray was sure he was about to die. The Messerschmitt’s guns were firing when all of a sudden the German took a steep nose dive to the right. That’s when Ray’s co-pilot motioned for Ray to look up to his left. And there they were, “the angels on their shoulders”—two P-51 American fighters chasing off the Nazi and saving Ray and the formation. Ray said he rededicated his life to Christ then and there: “If I live through this war, I want to serve God in all I do.”
And he lived that dedication for the rest of his life. He wasn’t perfect—didn’t claim to be. Ray never lost sight of the gospel and his need. The closing hymn he chose for his funeral was Christ Receiveth Sinful Men—himself included. But Ray served the Lord with a good heart. After retirement, Ray and Bonnie did a lot of mission work, spending, on one occasion, a year in Nigeria working surgery in a missionary hospital, sharing Jesus with the patients. The Peeples were among about three couples that pioneered the mission spirit so prevalent in our church today.
I remember an occasion when some B-17s were going to be on exhibition at Hot Springs Airport. People could come look at them, even pay a steep price to take a ride in one of them. I called Ray and said, “Hey Ray, would do you say we go out to the airport, look at those planes, and you can tell me some stories?” He was glad to do it. We were walking around a B-17 and he was telling me this and that about the plane. And the next thing I knew, this octogenarian had climbed up into the plane. I followed him. He worked his way up to the cockpit and was pointing out things and telling me about the instruments when one of the guys in charge called out from the ground, “Hey, get out of there! You’re not supposed to be in plane!” Ray responded to him through the cockpit window, “I flew these planes during the war.” The guy on the ground replied, “The war’s over.”
And that’s true for Ray today: the war’s over. He is in the land of perfect peace, in the presence of the Jesus he loved and served his whole life long, in sweet reunion with Bonnie, their son Carroll, other believing loved ones who preceded him in death, and some of his buddies from the war. Yep, the war is over for Ray. No more battles with a body and mind that just wouldn’t cooperate anymore. No more frustration over his incapacity to take care of himself. The war is over, and he is enjoying the victory Jesus won for all who put their trust in Him.
In February of 2003, the Shuttle Columbia, on its 28th mission, was destroyed upon reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. Ironically, Michael Anderson, payload commander of the Columbia spoke with his pastor before the flight. Anderson said to him, “If this thing doesn’t come out right, don’t worry about me; I’m just going on higher.”
And Ray, a man who had flown up into the wild blue yonder more times than he could count for both pleasure and for war, just went up higher too.