Last Monday our nation carved out three hours to join in on a memorial service. It was impossible to miss the celebration of the lives of Kobe Bryant and his young daughter, Gianna. They were heralded through kind words and moving music. Nearly 20,000 guests filled the Staples Center in LA where Bryant had attracted crowds as basketball’s golden child who thrilled fans for 20 seasons. The arena was filled with A-lister athletes and entertainers, each trying to wrap their hearts around the knowledge that a larger-than-life figure died tragically with a daughter who emulated his love for the game. Mourners lined the streets outside Staples Center, grieving the 41-year old athlete who attracted visitors to the city to see him do his magic on the court.
The funeral came four weeks and a day after the horrific helicopter crash that killed nine people. I was struck, as the news spread rapidly that Sunday in January, that the fame of Kobe eclipsed the loss of the other victims. It wasn’t an intentional slight. It’s what happens when two people go through the same experience. If one is a cultural icon, the other person will hardly be noticed. So the news was broadcast that Kobe Bryant and his daughter had died….and seven others.
I wonder if the families of “the seven others” were hurt that their pain was discounted. There were admirable traits among the seven other victims but the press only had energy to focus on the basketball star. I was struck that the Altobelli family lost three family members: a married couple and their daughter, Alyssa. John served as the baseball coach at Orange Coast College for 27 seasons. Two other children survive the loss of their parents and sister, Alyssa. Can you imagine what life feels like for them now? These are two young people who need our prayers.
Matt Mauser was widowed that day when his wife, Christina, died in the crash. She was a teacher and the assistant coach at Bryant’s Mamba Academy. A talented player, she leaves behind three small children. Ara Zobayan was Kobe’s most trusted pilot who chauffeured Kobe countless times between home and court. He was a flight teacher who had been licensed as a commercial pilot for thirteen years. Another one of Gianna’s team mates, Payton, was on the flight along with her mother. The girl’s uncle gave voice to the grief felt by families of “the seven others” in a written message: “While the world mourns the loss of a dynamic athlete and humanitarian, I mourn the loss of two people just as important. Their impact was just as meaningful, their loss will be just as keenly felt, and our hearts are just as broken.”
When someone who has captured the hearts of a nation dies, any other news event falls out of view. Perhaps you remember the memorial service for Mother Teresa in 1997? Maybe not! She died just six days after Princess Diana’s terrible car crash, one day before the royal’s funeral. I suspect there would have been a lot more fanfare over the highly revered nun’s death if it hadn’t happened right as the entire world grieved the gut-wrenching loss of a princess. I was struck at the time that Mother Teresa probably preferred that her entrance into the place of eternal reward was overshadowed and, therefore, modest. With a gentle smile, I can picture her slipping from earth’s bounds and into the waiting arms of Jesus. She didn’t need human acclaim for her beautiful ministry–just the object of her adoration, Jesus.
In the aftermath of the Bryant memorial our church family honored the memory of two faithful servants. In the beauty of our 145-year old sanctuary we remembered the contributions of two individuals who had poured themselves into the needs and joys of our congregational life. On Thursday we grieved the loss of Bill, an 86-year old man who has quietly cared for our church for several decades. He fearlessly took his place at the soundboard each Sunday, making sure the voices of those leading worship could be clearly heard. He never wished for his own voice to be dominant. After a brisk bike ride, Bill picked up the sticky cans and bottles that people deposit in our side entryway. He returned them to the nearby grocery store so that 10 cents per container could be added to our general budget. He would come into my office with an envelope of four dollar bills and a quiet smile. It all adds up to pay the heat bill! Our Tuesday morning bible study is predominantly comprised of retired women who have prepared and cleaned up after thousands of meals in their lifetimes. Bill was a faithful member of the class, coming early to turn up the heat and get the coffee brewing. By the time the rest of us slid into our places, there were ceramic mugs set out next to the coffee pot and he was the one to wash them by hand afterwards. His skills as an electrician were put to the test any number of times as areas of our old building needed some TLC. He was the first one to arrive on Sunday mornings to unlock the heavy wooden doors to the sanctuary. He turned on the lights so that we were ready for business. At a community Ash Wednesday service last week I fully expected him to walk into the neighboring church that was hosting worship. Any time we went off site as a congregation for the lesser-observed services, I could count on Bill being one of those from my flock who smiled up at me as I preached or imposed ashen crosses on foreheads. Our congregation still can’t believe he is gone.
On Friday we celebrated the life of Marilyn. She lost her husband of more than 60 years just over a year ago. She never got over that loss. But courageously she moved forward and reached out to fellow residents in her retirement facility with love and genuine interest. She was part of a generation of women who rolled up their sleeves to take care of their church. She took her place in the church kitchen to prepare meals when the public was invited in for a church bazaar. Remember those? She and the other women spent several days sorting and arranging donated goods for a rummage sale that drew crowds from nearby towns. They lined up early in anticipation of some quality goods at a bargain price. About 20 years ago a younger generation of women made it clear that they didn’t have the time or desire to spend a week pulling off a fundraiser that would make $1000 for our budget. The rummage sale was put to rest and the church dinners became less frequent. Marilyn painted a ceramic nativity set that still adorns the front altar during Advent and Christmas. I didn’t learn that she had made it until her funeral! Like the moms of her generation, she poured herself into shaping a home that was blessed for her daughters and husband. Those of us who are working moms, living on the fly, have lost the ability to sit still in the moment and savor the family moments that flee too quickly and join the stockpile of treasured memories. Conversation with Marilyn inevitably included the latest accomplishments of her grand and great-grandchildren. What else could matter more?
After each of the memorial services on back-to-back days, a new generation of servants prepared ham buns and potato salad so that the community could linger together over a meal. The folks who sat in the sanctuary were not celebrities. Not even the local newspaper was there to capture the event for their weekly publication. It was a pastor who presided over the service, not a nationally-syndicated MC. Bill and Marilyn were commended into God’s eternal keeping with humility and grace which, I suspect, is how the rest of us will be heralded when our time comes. The vast majority of people we know are among the “…and seven others.” In our own sphere of influence we will be missed. We will be remembered when a family member makes our apple cake recipe or rides a bike on the trail where our father rode. The legacy we leave will not be broadcast on national television but carried in the hearts of those who grieve our passing and are grateful for our example. In this loud culture of selfies and selfishness, our greatest joy will be to find ourselves in the warm embrace of Jesus who welcomes us home, face-to-face.