What can we learn from Kobe Bryant’s untimely death? A Christian fan’s perspective.

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RIP Kobe.

Legendary NBA player Kobe Bryant has died in a California helicopter crash, reports said Sunday.

He was 41.

Bryant was among at least four people traveling in his private helicopter over Calabasas when a fire broke out, sending the chopper spiraling from the sky, according to TMZ Sports.

I gasped when I first read the news.

I then realized that his daughter died with him.

Imagine being in that situation where your daughter is afraid and only you can do is to hug her tight. Kobe died twice today. How can a man be a god one day and nothing in the next? How can a man be lionized with the world in his hands, to be in helpless fear that he couldn’t save himself as well as own beloved creation?

I was a Kobe fan.

He was the closest thing to MJ since MJ.

I remember fondly as a rookie, with the Lakers’ season in the balance, an 18-year-old Bryant took four shots that all airballed- contributing to the Lakers losing in five games to the Utah Jazz in the 1997 Western Conference semifinals.

Then I this guy went on to become a 5-time NBA champion.

What a journey.

A very colorful past, a sex-scandal in between, rapping diss tracks to Shaq, speaking in Italian, but ultimately a great basketball player with great ambition and intelligence. How many basketball players end up starting their own private equity fund, as well as win an academy award for his animated film Dear Basketball?

This was supposed to be the best time of his life. A father to a beautiful family, a champion, a ton of money to pursue any project he wished and great ambition to match it all. I would see Kobe on TV appearances. I would see Kobe at NBA games as a spectator, enjoying watching the new superstars. He looked as happy and relaxed as I’ve ever seen him. Heck. He even seemed to have finally patched up things with Shaq! My heart warmed when I finally saw the two of them sit together in an interview. They seemed mature and had forgiven each other, each giving the other sincere compliments and played the “what if they had stayed together” thought experiment.

But all the hard work he put in to make that boatload of money, to get to a point where he could start a new legacy, pursue bigger and more meaningful projects, to bury the hatchet with old rivals, and to be regarded universally as legendary …

Gone in an instant.

Many people would have dreamed to be in his position, resources and accumulated wisdom and world experience at his disposal. He was king of one domain, the sport of basketball; and he was moving on to be king in other domains, film and the financial markets. He relished to consume knowledge, and become bigger, as a person and personality.

Gone in an instant.

Immediately, I recall the wisdom of a great king 2 millennia before him, and see the same truths evident today as yesterday.

In fact, Kobe’s situation reminded me of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes 6:2 seemed to be written exactly with Kobe in mind, “God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless …”

King Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes, estimated to be one of the richest men in the world in history if you converted his assets to today’s currency value, claimed to “indulge in every pleasure”, “pursued every big building project”, saught after both wisdom and folly. He literally did everything a human being could do to find worldly satisfaction. He called knowledge leading to grief (Ecc 1:18),  accumulation of money as meaningless. In fact, he summarized his pursuit of worldly satisfactions like so: “Everything is meaningless!” (Ecc 12:8).

I appreciate the gravitas of that statement. I lost almost everything I had, health, career, and love life to incurable debilitating eczema worsening over a decade. At the point close to death, I realized that almost everything I had built for myself… wealth, a college degree, reputation … all of these would be meaningless when we become worm food. There must be something else, I thought.

When I read the book Ecclesiastes more carefully, I wondered what his conclusion for life was, since almost everything he endeavored to do was meaningless. His conclusion is especially bleak when the Bible describes him as the wisest king there was, having wisdom that was world-renowned.

I found that in my intense suffering, I found the exact same conclusion as the conclusion of his collective wisdom. My life was characterized by extreme suffering, Kobe’s and Solomons characterized by worldly pursuits and pleasures. In college, I won the basketball shooting competition, hitting 24 out of 25 shots beating out college players, but my health prevented me from growing as a player. Kobe probably did the exact same thing at my age, but then went on to be the best in the world. What could we have in common?

In my suffering, I realized a few things.

One of which is this, in life, we are frustrated when people block our goals, disappointed when our goals look like it might be blocked, and resigned and depressed when we feel we can never achieve our goal. In this world, almost any goal we can have can easily be stymied, especially when things go against us. Whether your goal is to buy an expensive car, be an excellent athlete, marry the girl of your dreams; so many things can stop your plan. If not another person with different agendas than your own, its disease, calamity, even being born in the wrong place or just blind luck. How can we possibly find rest in a world like this? We must either find a worthy goal that can never be blocked, or not have any goals at all. Not having any goals at all will also disappoint, because we were obviously made for a purpose.

What goal could we possibly have that no one can block except for ourselves? What goal that leads to true satisfaction exists that cannot be blocked by worldly oppression, disease or bad luck?

For me, it was to seek out Jesus Christ, and in doing so, establish my identity as a child of God. I can work with Christ to change my character and work to be more like Christ and have the same concerns that He has. This goal can never be blocked by anyone.

As I did so, unexpected things occurred.

The disease that was supposed to take my life away, healed to the surprise of doctors.

God’s grace, through the atonement of Jesus Christ, changed everything.

Today, I am a high functioning person, and not debilitated; but the bigger blessing is that my perspective in life and my purpose had changed. My goals changed from having “Ivy-League” aspirations to being the best I can be on earth through God’s empowerment, and being a blessing to others as I represent God.

The stripping of my physical blessings, the silent lucidity created by isolation and suffering, my hopelessness was like goads that led me to Christ.

Solomon came to the exact conclusion by experiencing the full extent of worldly blessings and endeavors. You’ve heard the phrase, all roads lead to Rome? In this case, all suffering, all wisdom, all human endeavors, when our minds explore them to its logical end will always make us realize that we have a God-shaped hole that only the God of grace can fill. His grace was maximally seen when He sent His beloved only Son Jesus to die on the cross on our behalf. Jesus was punished for our sins so that we don’t have to take the penalty for our sins. Instead of spiritual death, we are free to commune with the holy God, the creator of the universe and partake of his blessings and purposes for our lives. This was paid by Jesus … the great Shepherd, both arms pinned to the cross by nails.

Piercing the depths of my soul was when I read Solomon’s conclusion to the voyeuristic answer to the meaninglessness of all worldly pursuits. The answer was not philosophical, but it was prophetic instead. The answer was out of this world. His answer pointed to an event close to a thousand years to the future.

Solomon tells us to remember our creator in our youth, but, what does it mean to “remember” our Creator? How do we remember Him in the appropriate way?

Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
Ecc 12:1

But then the only “solution” to judgment as well as the whole book’s conclusion to worldly meaninglessness is …

He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
(Ecc 12:9-12)

Solomon searched and searched, pondered and pondered, utilizing all of his collective wisdom, the knowledge he accumulated studying history and cultures, his experience in every human pursuit… and his final answer is “… firmly embedded nails by one shepherd.”

He even very specifically said to not have “anything in addition to them”, in other words, those nails given by that one shepherd seems the only answer to the answer to the meaninglessness of worldly experiences, be it the pain of unjust suffering, or the emptiness of worldly pursuits, philosophies, and pleasures.

In those times, there was no traditional connection between nails and shepherds. And, Solomon is referring to one very specific shepherd.

He was pointing to Jesus. Jesus was nailed to the cross for our redemption.

John 10:11 
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.
Hebrews 13:20
Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord,

 

Eph 1:5-10
He predestined us for adoption as His sons through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the Beloved One. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And He has made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure, which He purposed in Christ as a plan for t/he fullness of time, to bring all things in heaven and on earth together in Christ.

In Christ, we have access to a new grace and new purpose. In Christ, eventually, all things will make sense, and what we only thought existed in heaven will be brought together on earth. The reason worldly pursuits can never satisfy is that we are actually citizens of heaven and only tourists of earth. We need a touch of heaven to be satisfied for that is where we came from. Jesus is a bridge to bring back home.

The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I realized that extreme suffering and maximal worldly pursuits are like two sides of the same coin. When we put this coin into the slot machine of life, we realize that perhaps we are playing the wrong game when the machine spits out the name “Jesus”, instead of other coins.

We owe it to ourselves to explore such prophetic words. How could Solomon, who found all worldly pursuits meaningless, know of Jesus, the Great Shepherd that was to come hundreds of years later? When Job, whose life was characterized by great suffering and hopelessness, was crushed by experiences he could not make sense of, his heart leaked a profound secret his intellect could not know. In the midst of existential problems, physical pains, and unyielding rejection, his heart yearned for a Redeemer that could represent him to God. Like Solomon’s prophetic utterance of nails and one shepherd, this is also unheard of at the time. God was God. How would Job know a redeemer existed that could satisfy God’s justice on his behalf? No one taught Job that, his soul already knew it, it was like this truth was planted deep within and only the unrelenting fires of suffering forced it out. How could Job know, unless, he too was uttering prophetic words that got squeezed out by the hopelessness and crushing suffering?

But I know that my Redeemer lives, and in the end He will stand upon the earth. Even after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. I will see Him for myself; my eyes will behold Him, and not as a stranger. How my heart yearns within me!
(Job 19:25)

All roads lead to Rome.

The rat race game part of life is just an endless interplay between suffering and worldly achievement. But God says that you will find Him when you seek Him with all your heart. (Jer 29:13) The problem is that many of us are usually trying to seek Him with some of our heart and not all of it. We end up seeking with all of our hearts when either we tried all possible worldly pursuits and realize it’s meaningless, or that great suffering makes it impossible for us to attain worldly pursuits, forcing our attention to something deeper. Either way, hopeless suffering and the meaninglessness of world pursuits point us toward the same direction, correction, towards the same person.

When I think of Kobe, I think of Solomon some 2500 years before him. Kobe never got a chance to fully indulge himself with every worldly pursuit. He died in an untimely manner before he had a chance to put his great wealth amassed and new opportunities to work. But I suspect that if he did have a chance to experience all those human pursuits that he hadn’t yet, he would have come to the same conclusion of Solomon, that there is a God-shaped hole that the best of his world cannot fill and somehow the character and person of Jesus satisfies the soul.

RIP Kobe. Thanks for the great memories.

Ken

 

 

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