What the Death of Kobe Bryant (and Others) Means to Me

Have you been hearing much about the death of Kobe Bryant? It’s been quite the story here over the last few days. Our family was at a wedding on Sunday afternoon, as the news was breaking. And even among people who don’t follow the NBA, the helicopter crash felt like a significant point of conversation.

I actually disliked Kobe as a player. This was partly because he played for the Lakers, when it seemed like they were on a collision course with the Cavs for a championship. But it was also partly because of his style: a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality, confidence that felt like arrogance, and an unfettered competitive drive that alienated others.

Even so, I’ve found myself more saddened by his death than I might have expected. And it seems like many others have been affected, as well. More than expected. Why is that?

I wonder if the strong reaction to Kobe Bryant’s death is because it reminds us of the fragility of life. It’s a reminder of our mortality. If death could strike an iconic athlete — seemingly out of nowhere — what does that mean for the rest of us? Kobe had a sharp mind and a strong body (for a 41-year-old). He was well-connected and wealthy. Granted: he wasn’t perfect (in fact, he made some rather well-documented mistakes) — but he seemed to learn and grow from his mistakes. So what more could we really hope for? If someone with all of those advantages can be victim to a such a sudden, senseless, violent death, what hope can us “normal people” have?

I wonder if this week has prompted us to grieve our own mortality, more than Kobe’s.

Death is a hard pill to swallow. We’d rather not think about it (though I actually feel like it’s been on my own mind a lot in the last year). But whether we consider our mortality or not, it’s always there. Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about a report that some are clamoring for the NBA to change its logo to feature the silhouette of Kobe Bryant, instead of Jerry West. My friend loves basketball. And he has an appropriate respect for Kobe Bryant. Still, he aptly noted, “Don’t they know that everyone in the NBA is going to die?”

I was eating breakfast with another friend this morning, and we were also talking about Kobe. Something about our conversation prompted the memory of an episode from the life of Jesus. We looked it up in the Bible and found it in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John. The narrative in this chapter starts with Jesus feeding 5,000 people in the desert. He follows that up by walking on water. And then he finds himself preaching in front of a crowd at a synagogue in Capernaum. In this message, Jesus makes some pretty bombastic statements about his identity as “the Bread of Life” — a thinly-veiled claim to divinity. In this midst of this discourse he drops the statement, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” People were, understandably, repulsed by this thought.

Then, at the end of the chapter, Jesus’ followers share their own struggles with the uncomfortable truths Jesus is speaking. So Jesus says to them:

“Does this offend you? Then what will you think if you see the Son of Man ascend to heaven again? The Spirit alone gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing. And the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But some of you do not believe me.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning which ones didn’t believe, and he knew who would betray him.) Then he said, “That is why I said that people can’t come to me unless the Father gives them to me.”

At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him. Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?”

Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.”

John 6:61-69

Where else are we going to go? What else are we going to do? In the face of our mortality, our finitude, our options are hopelessly limited. But there is One who gives eternal life. I know Him. I’ve made my peace with the queasy, blood-and-guts elements of human existence and embraced the Gospel as my only hope — both for this life and the life to come. But there are a lot of other people who haven’t reached that understanding.

I’m asking God for more opportunities to talk about these things with others this week. This week, and for as many other weeks as God sees fit to give me.

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