The news of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter came in a flash. Not like an insight with the proverbial light bulb going on, but the stark pain of a migraine.
The basketball phenom was killed in a helicopter crash on a hillside of Los Angeles. Shocking enough at first blush but then compounded by the reveal that his young daughter, GiGi, was on board. Then, slowly, the reality of nine lives lost on a west coast Sunday hit our psyche.
News crews flood the scene, with an eerie camera shot of a hillside crash still smoldering, a grayish-blue column of smoke rising, in the background of a press conference from the police department. NTB officials doing their thing in DC, ready to deploy eighteen investigators to the scene to chase down the proverbial question: WHY? Weather? Equipment failure? Pilot error? We know the drill.
Interviews begin. Fellow NBA players. Current players about to hit the court for their Sunday games. Contemporaries who played with him, telling funny stories that break the pain with a restrained laugh. Oddly, the evening moves to the Staples Center, the “house that Kobe built” with the strange coincidence of the Grammys that evening. Alicia Keyes is masterful in dealing with the odd juxtaposition of this tragedy with the celebratory feel of an awards show. She deftly makes the point of how music unites us and sees us through the tough times. That’s been my experience as music is my go-to in the tight spaces of my life, where my finitude can not be denied or ignored. This is such a time.
Oddly, Tuesday came along a day later to remind me of the Challenger disaster. Seven astronauts sent into space on the space shuttle on a bright Florida morning. Televised, and holding our interest as a woman, a teacher, is being launched into outer space, to break the surly bonds of gravity. The rocket ignites on cue, pressing the human cargo into the vast blue morning.
We watch, inspired by our ingenuity and technological skills, our mouths agape with wonder as the Challenger sweeps across the sky toward outer space. And then it happens as Mission Control announces “throttle up”. The thing explodes, like a carefully planned Burt Reynolds crash movie, only this is real. Silence. What is to be said. Well, I said it. I remember the expletive distinctly.
That day, that fateful morning, I was at the Cathedral, in my office. We instinctively moved the daily service of the Holy Eucharist from the normal setting of an intimate Mikell Chapel to the large Cathedral. Even before the normal Noon hour, people came to this holy space, silent, pensive, searching for answers, looking for something just out of reach, peace. It was a moment, what we call in the business, a moment of kairos, a time measured not in seconds but depth.
The same thing happened on September 11th, when our life in this country changed forever. We were attacked. At home. Not some island in the Pacific, but here in our backyard, in the commercial capital, the iconic Twin Towers came tumbling down as did our psyche. People came, speechless to my holy space at the time, seeking…..something.
My office fills up around those times of national public tragedy, with people wanting to make sense of things. “Why” underlies the perplexed stares. How could God let this happen? What the hell is going on?
As a priest, such tragedy presses for explanation. What IS going on? What word do you have for us, holy man, medicine man, rabbi?
And the normal line of religion is to reassure you. God is still in control. How many times have I heard that line?
Early in life, I experienced a large number of my high school graduating class dying from a variety of reasons. One minister glibly explained to us that God needed a new angel in heaven. I vowed on that day to never offer such a shallow answer to such a profound question, and I think that is one vow that I have kept, even in a press.
In college, at my home church, I experienced the killing of a Vietnamese child by his refugee father in distress. And to compound the tragedy, there followed the father’s subsequent suicide in an East Point jail. with some church people offering their reasoning that it must be God’s will.
Or the day in my first professional job as a minister in Decatur, a young boy, Ed, was hit by a car and killed as he was bicycling to school, and I am supposed to say something of meaning, to make sense of the senseless.
A bad human decision and technological failure, an explosion in the January blue sky.
A terrorist attack and a childhood friend dies on the top floor of the South Tower.
And now a helicopter goes down on a hillside. Fog, pilot, equipment. Why?
My sense is that these moments merely peel back the reality of the life we live. While folks want to drape these moments in tragedy, and wonder how such things happen, breaking into the comfort of our “normal”, the truth is that “normal” is, in fact, out of control. We work our tails off trying to deny the reality of how out of control things are in order to soothe our sense of reality. Those moments remind us of how precarious life is, and we have no choice in these reality moments to acknowledge that fact. But we quickly get back to our “normal” of denial, moving through our daily gig, secretly waiting, anticipating the next interruption.
This Kobe thing interrupted me in the middle of my life, in a particularly tender time. The fact that he was with his daughter, who had her own promising life waiting in the wings, added to the sense of tragedy. Kobe, a young forty one, had so much left to live, but to cut down a life still waiting to begin just rubs your nose in the reality of tragedy.
It caught me thinking about my own vulnerability, bringing to mind the relationship I have with my own daughter. Being entrusted with the safety of a child is something every parent takes seriously and lives with that burden. The contours of life change when one is charged with this responsibility.
The news flash of Kobe and his daughter got me thinking about my daughter, MG. I remember a time when I was driving her in my Tahoe across country to meet her Texas friend’s family in Vicksburg, crossing the Big River on I-20, I recall an eighteen wheel truck moving suddenly into my lane, forcing me into the median, avoiding a crash. It was not a helicopter, but the same fate could have easily have happened., My young daughter is now a young woman, preparing for her upcoming wedding, having lived her high school years, negotiating her time in Athens in college, her first jobs. She has so much left ahead of her to live. But Gigi didn’t get even that. Nothing is guaranteed in this ride we are on..
Could it be that the critique of religion is true: religion acts as an opiate to keep the people calm, settled down? In the face of a life that is out of control, are we not in desperate need of a tranquilizer, pharmaceutical or spiritual? Do we require a way of assuaging our fears and anxiety? Is our faith nothing more than a thin way of explaining away the tragedy that impinges here and there capriciously, and in such times as this, forcing its way into our consciousness?
What are we to do with such intrusions? Try to ignore them with happy platitudes or fall into despair with no sense of hope?
As I was finishing up this article, an old priest friend wrote an entry on his Facebook page, noting the recent suicide of another priest. Lee’s response was to make an offer, literally posting his phone number to offer a willing ear to listen if one found themselves in such dire straits. Lee actually had been the minister involved in the suicide mentioned earlier of the Vietnamese father. He provided a listening ear to many who were seeking to make sense of that. He was willing to be there for others, just as he is offering himself today.
And maybe that’s my answer, at least for today, to these moments of tragedy that impinge on our normal. It’s about the connection that the faith community offers to remind us, in the face of tragedy, especially in the face of Death, that life is good, and worth our living well. It does not have to deny the tight space of our finitude or the awareness of not being in control. A healthy faith embraces that moment of the loss of control, of brokenness, of death, and allows us to affirm life, leaning into the future with hope. No denial, no kidding oneself, but embracing all of life, the good the bad, and the ugly, and concluding that it is gift. A long, strange trip, perhaps, but a good ride.
The community of faith can not grant us immunity of prosecution of all that life can dish out, but it can re-mind of our connection to something that is bigger than our individual concerns. Faith is that human capacity to trust that life is good. Faith is the thing that keeps us going forward, even in the face of precarious living. My take after the experience of tragic death, famous or not, is that faith celebrates a deep conviction that life is a good thing, even when bad things happen to good people, innocent people.
How do you make sense of life, particularly when tragedy comes? How have you made it through the dark nights that you have faced? What got you through the night? Let me know, if you will.
I have been reminded in the wake of Kobe’s death of his Mamba life, his deep commitment to give his best in all his endeavors in life, be it basketball, or particularly in being a father. It touched me that he and his daughter had attended his local Catholic parish to receive communion that morning before boarding that fated helicopter. I am hoping he felt and experienced a deep connection with God, with Creation, and especially his daughter in that moment of communion. And I’m betting the Black Mamba left this world, wishing for one more day, but glad he made the ride.