Today there was a public memorial service for a father and his daughter, and the words of tribute moved me to tears. I have not cried in a long time. This past weekend I was present at two memorial services and one funeral home visitation – and I did not cry. When I attended those events I embodied a pastoral role, being present and supportive of others while coming alongside them in mourning. When I heard the words of tribute that were shared today I took them in as a father, as a son, but primarily just as a human.
When I first saw a report of the tragedy that took place on January 26, 2020, I was sitting almost exactly where I am now. I checked a few sources to search for credibility before sharing the news with anyone, aware of how surreal the news sounded. A person who had competed at and attained the highest levels of athletic success was suddenly and tragically gone. As details began to unfold, the news grew worse – Kobe Bryant and his daughter, along with seven other individuals had all perished in a helicopter crash.
In the days that followed, tributes poured in from across the globe, and The Staples Center, where Kobe played all 20 of his professional seasons, became a site that resembled a sitting shiva. People surrounded the arena, music was played, artwork and flowers left behind, and the world collectively groaned. You do not need to be a basketball fan to be impacted by the story. There are certain events that capture the fierceness and the fragility of life, and this was one of them.
It’s not that God makes extra-special people, but God does make people in extra-special ways. It is for us to not only live out the special design of our crafting but also to discover that in others. One of the ways that Kobe was made in an extra-special way was his athletic ability, but also his fierceness that drove him to achieve. Many of us were invited to publicly watch his gifts in ways that few of us will ever experience. When I stepped into the journeys of grief over this past weekend, I was able to see families loving each other. I was able to hear stories that made me laugh. I learned more about the extra-special ways in which they had been made. And I was able to listen as so many people wrestled with the question of, “Now what?” as they begin a journey of a new normal.
This is why the Church should mourn – people are hurting all around us.
We do not need to have met any of the people who died in the tragedy in order to know someone who is personally impacted by the deaths. Four days after the event, I walked into the room where we have our weekly worship services. I noticed a colleague who appeared to be sad, and I asked her how she was doing. She replied with, “This whole Kobe Bryant thing…”
She was letting me in on the fact that she was struggling with the brokenness that we see all around us. She was letting me know that she had questions. And if I had dismissed her concerns and her questions because she did not know the people who died, I would have lost my opportunity to ever offer hope to that sadness.
If the church cannot mourn a tragedy that rips apart families, when can it mourn?
If the church cannot lament a father and daughter who die holding each other, when will they?
If the church cannot light a candle to hold in the darkest places, what good is the news?
This event is not one that needs to elevate any one person’s life over another. Instead, it should draw all of us a little lower so that we do not miss any of the extra-special creations who surround us every day. One of the realities that we have to filter is that there are people who are dying every day. Some of them close to us by their relationship. Some of them live in our communities. Some of them die, on the other side of the world, completely unknown to us. And some of them die because we, as the universal Church, have not done all that we can to eradicate poverty and injustice in our broken world. I am not highlighting the death of Kobe and Gianna Bryant in order to take our attention away from others, but rather to call us back to the humanity that all of us share.
Today one of my athletic heroes, openly and without shame, wept as he delivered words of tribute for someone he thought of like a little brother. It reminded me of my own effort to deliver words at a funeral for someone who was like a brother to me. Even though I wrote out my words, I still reached a point when the reality of his absence moved me to weeping. I still have my text messages with him on my phone, almost two and-a-half years later: “Love you bro,” and his response, “Thanks brother! Love you too.”
There are moments when the veil between the “already now” and the “not yet” has tears large enough for us all to look through. This is one of those. Those moments that remind us of just how full life can be, and yet remarkably fragile. Those moments that remind us of our loved ones whom we cannot hold in our arms any longer. Those moments when we feel drawn to love a little harder. Those moments when we all ask questions that cannot be answered.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” – Romans 8:15
There are countless angles to this loss which invite us in to mourn with those who are mourning. Even if you only consider the loss of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, you are already connected to so many hurting people. The loss of a son, a husband, a father, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a teammate, all gone – for us – too soon. We also have to wrestle with the reality that a black man who had, in many ways, only begun his work to create his legacy, will not see the work through to completion. That is a wound that reverberates throughout the history of our nation. And we cannot offer the light of hope if we do not enter the darkness where it is needed the most.
The church should not respond passively when the brokenness of our world is so evident. The hope of what is to come is magnified by the reality of the suffering around us. But let us do everything that we can to not be a reason for another person’s suffering. One of the most striking aspects of this public process of mourning is to wonder how many words were left unheard. How many people truly loved and cared for those who died but never shared it – because they thought there was still time to say it? Who is it that needs to hear what you have to say? I feel more compelled to ensure that I do not leave words unsaid, but that will require a change for me. This tragedy has been a pause button, of sorts, for me. It has invited me to reflect. There’s a certain holiness to the interruption, for God can be heard more clearly when we are silent.
If we are going to live life fully, if we are going to discover more about what is extra-special within us, we will love those around us with a deep compassion. And if we are going to live with the knowledge that life on earth is fleeting and fragile, we have to remain rooted in the hope that God, through Jesus, extends to us all.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16
Love well, so that you may live well.
rereverberates through the history of our nation and should not be ignored.