Mourning the Tragic Ethiopian Airlines Crash

While John Njoroge was checking into his flight on Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he saw the news that Flight ET302 had just crashed, killing all 157 on board. Read his emotional and powerful reflection.

The world is never short of solemn reminders of the brevity and fleeting nature of human life. A few thousand years ago, the writer of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes declared that life, viewed horizontally (i.e., “under the sun”–a phrase he repeats about 28 times), is totally meaningless. Existentialist philosophers, such as Jean Paul Sarte and Albert Camus, blew this trumpet loud and clear for all the world to hear: save for the tiny, subjective meanings we choose to create for ourselves, human life is devoid of ultimate, objective meaning. “Life is hard, and then you die”–so goes a bumper sticker.

Those were the thoughts weighing heavily on me two days ago as I waited to board an Ethiopian Airlines jet to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and on to a different country. I had just gone online to check into my flight when I saw the headlines announcing the horrible news of the crash of an Ethiopian plane, Flight ET302, that killed all 157 people on board. I gasped as the thought crossed my mind that it might have been the same plane I was waiting for in Nairobi for my flight to Ethiopia.

I thought of the hundreds of people affected directly by this great tragedy. I thought, for example, of the young Kenyan couple, Jared Babu Mwazo and his wife, Mercy Ngami. They had just attended Mercy’s graduation in the UK, and no doubt there was much rejoicing among them and their family members. But all of their worldly hopes and dreams came to a cruel, tragic and ignominious halt in a matter of minutes. Instead of planning a grand celebration party, the family now has to plan a double-funeral. The couple left behind a 15-month old baby.

The rest of the stories are just as heart wrenching. As it often does, the world will soon forget and move on to the next crisis, but for those directly affected by this horrible tragedy, their lives will never be the same again. The moment they dreaded has come, and nothing can fix it; not another cup of coffee or tea. Not a nap. Not a trip to the shopping mall. This is a painful moment etched in their hearts for the rest of their lives. They say time heals, but I doubt this applies in all cases. At times, the best time can do is give us the space to learn to cope. Those mourning intensely have our deepest sympathies, and they can be assured of our sincere prayers.

I did board the flight to Addis Ababa, as scheduled. I am pretty sure it was the first flight to Ethiopia from Kenya after the crash. Nobody talked about what had just happened. In fact, I don’t recall hearing anyone talk to anyone else about anything on the flight. Some people turned down offers of meals from the polite and subdued flight attendants. Everyone seemed to be in a very quiet, reflective mood. An occasional turbulence seemed to accentuate the sensitivities.

This called for more reflection about life on my part. I thought about the fact that our lives are always hanging by a thread. Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, we are sometimes slow to recognize our precarious situation until it’s too late. But our condition is actually worse. While the frog’s fate unfolds gradually, disaster could strike us even before the water begins to warm up.

“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:37-39)

Given the Bible’s prophetic track record, we can be sure that the Son of Man will indeed come. We await that day. But there is another sense of his coming that happens every hour, nay, every second. It is his coming for individuals like you and me.

So, I had to ask myself the dreadful and inevitable, “What if such a tragedy happened to me?” What if it had been this flight, and not the previous one? I thought of my dear wife, Leah. I thought of our children, Jonathan, Benjamin, and little Aneesa. I thought of our 31 children at Valley Light Home. I thought of my family, colleagues, and friends. All the people on Flight ET 302 had such treasured relationships. That’s a difficult truth to dwell on. The fact of the matter is, I know such a day will eventually come for me as well. I know not how, when, or where.

I know of only one adequate response to this dreadful question–to remember that there is a vertical dimension to our existence. Existentialism looks at life horizontally and concludes, with Ecclesiastes, that it is meaningless. But Ecclesiastes goes farther. After declaring everything under the sun to be meaningless, Solomon concludes the book as follows:

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

I once experienced some difficulty trying to make sense of an X-Ray photograph in the office of a doctor friend. The doctor gently pointed out that I was holding the image upside down. He then proceeded to point out what I should have been looking at and what it all meant. It all made sense–the right side up. It is true that life, viewed only horizontally, is ultimately meaningless. But there is a vertical dimension to our existence that helps us make sense of the horizontal. The Apostle Peter, quoting the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, captures these two realities in a beautiful way. He writes,

“All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” (1 Peter 1:24-25)

That’s a grim but honest look at human life and achievements under the sun. But the last phrase suddenly tilts our gaze upwards where God’s word points us. In the face of tragedy, our thoughts shift immediately to the relationships that matter the most to us. That is a powerful clue to the purpose of our existence–meaningful relationships, and the ultimate relationship is with the God who created us.

Once our lives begin to be lived the right side up, then the reality of eternity shines bright, and death loses its sting. Jesus did not cling to his equality with God so much that he could not come to the earth to save us. But neither could he cling to the earth once he had tasted it and what it has to offer. He left it voluntarily at the prime of his life, and with a following many a fame-seeker can only envy from a great distance. That was because he knew of a world beyond this one that could not be compared to it in any way. That is our real home–a new heaven and a new earth where there shall be no death or mourning.

In the next day or so, I will be on Ethiopian Airlines twice, headed back to Nairobi. I suspect my thoughts will mirror what I have recorded here.

May God bring comfort to those in mourning and may we all live within the vertical dimension that helps us make sense of our broken world.

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