Over the weekend, three things happened in quick succession: LaBron James surpassed Kobe Bryant in total points scored in the NBA (moving Bryant down from third to fourth on the list—with Kareem Abdul-Jebbar (38,387) and Karl Malone (36,928) remaining at first and second; Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna attended worship at the Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in greater Los Angeles; and a helicopter carrying nine people (including Kobe and Gianna) crashed in heavy fog killing all on board.
The first and third of these will get the most attention. But it is the second that will shape a good bit of the eulogizing in the public media and also in the funeral mass that is sure to come.
It is what people say when someone dies that either delights or disturbs me as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Kobe Bryant went straight from high school in Philadelphia to the National Basketball League and became one of its all-time superstars. For twenty years he played in Los Angeles for the L A Lakers, one of the most storied and successful professional franchises in any sport. Not only was he selected by multiple agents as a member of the 10-player all-time greatest NBA team, he won five NBA titles, played in 16 NBA all-star games, and was twice NBA single year scoring champion.
This skill and success made him a rich man. His fortune is estimated at $600 million, derived from salary and endorsements plus strategic and successful investments. His foundations give away a substantial amount of his income.
Kobe was also married, to a stunningly beautiful wife (Vanessa Cornejo Urbieta—a Italian-Mexican women he married in 2001); together they have four children, all daughters. The marriage narrowly survived his sexual misbehavior more than a decade ago—enduring a two-year separation and near divorce.
What has come to public attention this week is Kobe’s Christian history—raised in a Catholic family—and the role of a particular priest in helping Kobe survive both the temptations of success and the trauma of failure. In fact, just hours before Kobe and his daughter came to the tragic end of their earthly life, they were in church together: praying, singings, listening, taking the bread and the wine of Christian communion, confessing that God saves the rich and the poor, the tall and the short, the young and the old, the saint and the sinner. As the Scripture proclaims, “God is so rich in mercy and loves us so much, that even though we were spiritually dead in our sins, God gave us life when he raised Jesus from the dead. For it is only by God’s grace that we have been saved” (Letter to the Ephesians 2:4-5).
Whether for the rich and famous or for the poor and unknown, what we say at this intersection of life and death is important. It can haunt the living for decades, or it can bless the multitudes for life. Too often, what I hear is meant to console but ends up only confusing.
Like: “God needed another angel.”
People say this when children die; they mean it in a good way, and often people take it that way. Not me. It implies that God initiated whatever tragedy took that young life, a doctrine I reject emphatically. It implies, further, that people become angels; and there is absolutely nothing in scripture or tradition that tends in that direction. People are people, and angels are angels—they are different creations of God. In the life to come, we shall still be people, human beings, and angels will still be angels.
A friend of mine posted this following Kobe’s death:
“I’ve pretty much done all I can here and, you know, God will carry me the rest of the way, so I’m pretty comfortable with that.” Kobe Bryant
That is, he attributed this reflection on his life to Kobe himself. I doubt this very much, and I thoroughly reject what it teaches about life—that the tragic helicopter crash in heavy fog last Sunday afternoon was God’s signal to us that God considered Kobe’s work on earth to be finished and thus had called him home.
God is not the author of death, or trauma, or danger, or disease, or any other form of human suffering and tragedy. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God of life, and peace, and grace, and health, and strength. God is not the author of confusion, or concussion, or contagion; God is the source of light, and strength, and health, and salvation—for you, and for me, and for Kobe Bryant.
Kobe’s death is a tragedy; it is a trauma for family, friends, and fans. But it is also a necessary opportunity to, as the Bible commands, “give honor to whom honor is due”. And we therefore honor Kobe as a Christian man, a family man, a successful man, a generous man, and yes, also a great sports man. And for all of it, I say, “Thanks be to God.”
Rest in peace, Kobe, and rise in glory.
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