On the morning of Sunday, January 26, a helicopter carrying NBA star Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, and 8 other people crashed into the side of a hill, killing all aboard. Social media and all news outlets instantly flooded with expressions of grief and shock over the untimely deaths, particularly of Bryant and his daughter.
I don't mean to sound callous, but the first question that came to my mind after my own response of shock and grief was...why? Why do all of us, myself included, feel this way about the death of someone we don't know personally?
Because the truth is: death happens all the time. People unknown to us, young and old and in between, die in hospitals or nursing homes right down the street every day. We see serious car accidents on the highway, and while it may bother us for a few hours, we mostly just think "thank God it wasn't me." We hear statistics about lives lost in Syria to war, or even in our own country to the flu virus, and hardly seem to register the reality of those lost. Yet we communally grieve the unexpected death of a well-known celebrity.
My theory is that the unexpected death of someone we "know," who we've seen on television and in pictures being so very much alive, wakes us up temporarily to the reality of our own fragility. We aren't really mourning the loss of that person, then, so much as we are mourning our own inability to preserve ourselves or those we love.
In addition to their recognizability, I think the "made it" factor of celebrities also makes their deaths impactful. Kobe Bryant had "made it" in the world: he had fame, enormous wealth, family, and an enduring reputation as one of the best basketball players in history. In a society that worships "making it" as the pinnacle of our existence, it's shocking to realize that achieving that status does not make us immortal. The things the world seeks, the things we are willing even to hurt others in order to achieve, do not ultimately do anything to negate our own fragile humanity.
In an untimely death we are reminded of our mortality, we mourn it, and, if we admit it, we are afraid, however briefly.
Our shock originates from living in modern society that is very much death-averse. When someone is diagnosed with a horrible disease, we speak only of "fighting it," "looking for a cure," and "staying positive." We drink kale smoothies and eat organic food and take supplements and exercise and slather on creams in some kind of denial dance, as if we may prolong our lives forever if we just treat our bodies right. We shut our elderly away where their weakness and eventual deaths can be handled by professionals and we can pretend like their ends might not someday look a lot like our own, if we're lucky enough to have a long life. Injury and disease are sanitized by bleached-white hospital linoleum.
In previous ages, death and the overall weakness of the body was an ever-present fact. People were very much aware that at any time, an incurable, unknown sickness might separate them from society, kill them, or take a child or a spouse. They knew that a bad harvest or a drought or a war might sweep through and take everything they relied upon for survival.
But in our enormous wealth, knowledge, and security as Americans, we have become the rich farmer of Jesus' parable in Luke 12:16-21:
“The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
The farmer thinks his life is secure because he has stored up for his future. But Jesus is reminding us here that a nest egg, while nice, in no way secures our future. No matter how much you may have in the bank or that investment account or that 401k, only God knows when your life will end and you will be called to account.
We spend so much of our lives, our money and our time and our efforts, avoiding aging and suffering and sickness and death that we have almost convinced ourselves that we can avoid them entirely. But as Christians we should be dedicating our time and money and efforts not to avoidance, but to things that will survive beyond aging and suffering and sickness and death.
Ironically, Jesus shows us that the only way to find those lasting treasures is to face those terrible things head-on and without fear. The kingdom of God does not avoid, it sees. We mourn the suffering and the sickness and the death because we know that these things are ultimately the result of a world rotted by sin. But we shouldn't wake up briefly when a famous person dies and then retreat back into our gilded cages of self-delusion, because--we know the actual cure!
Jesus came to heal the sick and the maimed and to raise our dead and broken, sin-soaked selves back to life again. Someday, those who trust in Him as their healer will wake into a new world where no one has to fear suffering and death ever again. We have this hope, so we have the courage to face the terrible realities of our world head on and proclaim "Jesus has come to save all of us from this!"
No super food or panic room or gun collection or medical treatment can make that powerful claim we have in Christ: that no matter what happens to our bodies, we are safe forever with Him. So instead of chasing that next snake-oil solution that might give us a few more comfortable years, shouldn't we be living in the reality of the amazing hope we have? Shouldn't we be telling the rest of this terrified world about the only thing that can really, eternally, save them? Shouldn't we be spending our money and our time and our effort in pursuing the treasures of the Kingdom of God, treasures that we can take with us, that won't rot or burn or fade?
Let's live in the reality of our weakness and his faithfulness so that when our lives end, expected or unexpected, we have an armload of true, untarnished wealth to lay at His feet.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16