The loss of basketball great Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others this week brought millions of folks up short, including me.

Tragedies like this often take me back to November 1981 when actress Natalie Wood died in a boating accident. The tribute in The Washington Post began: “What is sadder than a beautiful woman dying young?” 

I’m not sure why those words stuck with me. The death of someone so talented and young (Natalie Wood was 43) is sad indeed. And yet, sad things happen every day.

What makes one thing sadder than another? Does our sadness depend on the fame, looks, character, age, or even the impact of the one who was lost?

I remember President Reagan comforting the nation as the remains of service members killed in a terrorist attack were brought home. No one knew the names of those young men except for their families, but they gave their lives for people they would never know. That was sad. 

Nothing had prepared me for how sad I felt then my Dad passed away, just a few weeks before Natalie Wood. Does our sadness depend on how much someone loved us? The death of some people, like a parent, leaves a hole in our lives that is not easily filled.

Is sadness related to a sense of unfulfilled promise, like the loss of Kobe’s Bryant’s daughter and the others on that helicopter?

Sadness is personal. We all experience loss differently, and every loss reminds us that we will all pass from this life to the next.

Yet in our sadness today, there’s hope. I just read that Kobe Bryant took his Catholic faith seriously. It helped him and his family get through a tough time and led him to fund programs for youth and the down and out.

There was one death that mysteriously takes all other deaths up into itself. It was the saddest death of all, but it would have been infinitely worse if it had never happened. 

Only in Jesus Christ can sadness become joy that will grow every day for eternity.

City on a hill

I’ve written about this before, the 40-minute video that I’ve watched over and over. I show it to new church officers every year. The speaker is Dr. Rodger Nishioka, a nationally known Presbyterian pastor and teacher. Rodger is speaking about the “21st Century Reformation.” The theory is that about every 500 years, God holds a “rummage sale,” throwing out things in the church that are outdated and making room for the new. He says a reformation is going on now, and it’s terrifying to lifelong Christians. But in the end, the church emerges stronger and more faithful. Every time I watch I discover something challenging, new, or encouraging that I hadn’t noticed before.

One major trend is that young adults are leaving the church by the millions. Even young adults who were baptized and grew up Presbyterian aren’t in any church anymore. 

He tells of being with a group of young adults in Arlington, Texas, and asked them about mission. A young woman said, “The problem with ‘you people’ (church people) is that you seem to have no effect on the place in which God has planted you.”  Rodger said, “For her, an assessment of authenticity was what effect do you have on the neighborhood in which God has planted you.”

The young woman said, “We’ve got this church across the street from my condo complex. If the church disappeared, we’d open up our blinds and say ‘Cool, more parking.’ Nobody in our neighborhood would say, ‘Oh no, what happened to that church? How will we be a neighborhood without that church?’ They have no impact on us whatsoever. They drive in on Sundays and do their stuff and then they drive back out. Wouldn’t it be nice if they actually made a difference in the neighborhood?”

Jesus called us to be a “city on a hill.”

By “city,” Jesus meant the church, and by “hill,” he meant neighborhood. Jesus gave us the church to be a light to the neighborhood. Before mission can be global, it first must be local.

Every church must ask itself, “Do the young adults around us judge us to be authentic? Are we making the impact on the neighborhood we should?

Would we be missed if we disappeared?

Google “Rodger Nishioka – 21st Century Reformation.”


Last week Jana and I attended a forum on free speech at the Heinz History Center. The event was hosted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and included a panel discussion led by the paper’s executive editor. Panelists included the rabbi from the Tree of Life Synagogue, a local imam, a Duquesne University law professor, a Rand Corporation scholar, a Post-Gazette editorial writer, and the Pennsylvania Attorney General. A packed house of 600 guests experienced a powerful, wide-ranging discussion. What are the limits of free speech in the Internet age? When does hate speech become criminal? When does censure become censorship?

As we’d approached the history center that night, we met folks handing out flyers. My first thought was that they were greeters for the event. I recognized one of the Post-Gazette writers who’d done a critical piece on me and the church five years ago. I suggested he come by the church to see what was going on today. Maybe he could see that he’d been wrong about us.

I glanced at his flyer. He wasn’t there to greet. He was picketing.

Newspapers, like churches, have been in decline for decades now. Great institutions with vital missions, gone. And the human toll has been great. Jobs lost; families disrupted.

I could feel for this writer. The flyer said he hadn’t had a new contract or a raise in years. But what to do? Hundreds of print organizations have closed, downsized, or gone to on-line only. The Post-Gazette has been trying to transform to meet these new realities. 

I was struck by the irony of a reporter picketing a free speech event, one hosted by his own paper, no less.

And I realized that the writer was doing to his employer what he had done to me and the church in his critical piece years before. Instead of seeking a new way ahead, he was tearing down. Couldn’t he see how the world has changed?

Change is personal, so change makers get attacked personally.

The flyer said he was fighting for the “heart and soul” of a great paper. Really?

When we become too certain that our goals and our ways are right, we move toward conflict rather than peace. We stop listening to others, and to God.

Can you eat your way to joy?

Does joy in life depend on how much you weigh?

This week, the Today Show debuted a new series featuring actress Valerie Bertinelli. Bertinelli has spent her life in the public eye. In 1975, at age 15, she got her big break in the sitcom One Day at a Time. In addition to acting, she’s had her own cooking show and been a spokesperson for Jenny Craig.

“Valerie Bertinelli is feeling positive about 2020,” the reporter said. That includes paying attention to her own needs.”

“When you’re busy taking care of other people you forget to take care of yourself. I’ve been working so hard for so long…I just want to know what true joy feels like,” Bertinelli said. 

Today said that Bertinelli brought joy to others through her TV roles while hiding her own sadness. Over the years she found comfort in food, leading to swings in her weight. But now, with the Today Show documenting her progress, she plans to eat better and lose weight to learn to feel better about herself.

Who can’t feel her pain?

Women of all ages are crushed by a culture that places a premium on youth and beauty. Any standard of beauty that would suggest that the lovely Valerie Bertinelli needs to lose weight is arbitrary, harmful, and impossible to achieve.

And if your eating failed to cover sadness, does it follow that you can eat your way to joy?

The Christian faith has a whole different path to joy that doesn’t depend on one’s weight, bank account, job prospects, number of Facebook friends, or anything that can go up and down.

The great English preacher, the late David Martin Lloyd-Jones, said that the essence of the Christian faith is to say that “Jesus Christ is good enough and I am in Him.” To say that “I’m not good enough” is to deny the very essence of what it means to be a Christian.

Joy will always be illusive if it depends on anything that can go up and down.  

But the good news is that you are so attractive to Jesus Christ that he left heaven to pursue you. When you are in Him, you have the joy of knowing that you’ve been approved by the only one who matters, and that his approval will never change.

Wild kingdom

Back in 2005, soon after I’d made the decision (momentous for Jana and me) to sell our home in Montgomery and move to Pittsburgh to attend seminary, I heard a talk by Ted Wardlaw, President of Austin Theological Seminary. Dr Wardlaw said something startling. He said the church most people had been raised in had served to “inoculate us against the real thing.”

The church most of us grew up in was safe.

The church was where you went to experience religious programs, take part in religious services, be inspired.

Yet the church Jesus gave the world was anything but safe.

Jesus came to bring a new kingdom to all of creation. Jesus was the intersection between his kingdom and the kingdom of the world. Everywhere Jesus went, life as God intended was breaking in.

The early church was wildly countercultural.

The church most of us were raised had become the culture.

It felt safe, but was it what Jesus intended?

Every now and then you meet a Jesus follower who has a quiet calm about them. They’re secure in their person. They don’t need to win every argument. Change doesn’t bother them. Maybe it’s because they’ve had a glimpse of life as Jesus intended.

Maybe they’ve seen the new kingdom breaking in. 

They know that the only safe place is where Jesus is.