We were on a classic family road trip this past summer when I first heard of their deaths.
I’d never even heard of them before, yet the news caption caught my attention: “Three YouTube Stars Die In Waterfall Plunge.”
These three young people - two guys and a gal - were key members of a very successful group of close friends who traveled the world and then made their living by posting their pictures and travel videos across several social media platforms. They called themselves “High On Life.” On YouTube, they had a library consisting of literally hundreds of videos, and on Instagram, they boasted more than a half-million followers. In fact, it was on Instagram just days before their deaths that one of them posted an adventure photo and included the following comment:
Life isn't about responsibilities, tough decisions and hard work. It's about feeling bliss and living in the moment.
Then on July 3 of this summer, the trio was at Shannon Falls in British Columbia. All three members were in a pool at the top of the waterfall when the female member slipped and fell into a lower pool at the edge of the 1,099 ft. tall waterfall. Immediately her two friends jumped in after her, but seconds later all three were swept over the high ledge and fell to their deaths.
In what I hope is a respectful way, I’d like to consider with you the inconsistency between these young people’s words and actions, for I see in them a tragic parable of myself and so many others. I see that in their youthful vigor they passionately grabbed hold of a life philosophy with some good and beautiful qualities, and they ran with it. Consider again the words one of them had written just days before their death:
Life isn’t about responsibilities, tough decisions, and hard work. It’s about feeling bliss and living in the moment.
Yet what is true about all self-made credos is also true about theirs and mine and yours: They can sound good in the moment, but given enough time, if they are false or lacking, they will be shown for the shams that they are. In the case of these three young people, when one of their number was in trouble the other two very quickly set aside wishful thinking that true life isn’t about responsibilities and hard choices. Instead, very quickly, and very selflessly, they took responsibility and made the costliest decision of their lives.
It’s a hard thing – a terrible thing – that they all died. But to be frank, the whole situation could have been worse. If they had been consistent with their credo, if they had held back from taking responsibility and making the grueling decision they did make, and if they had done so out of personal resolve, well that would have been downright devilish. But they did not act devilishly. They acted nobly. And still, it wasn’t enough.
As I said at the outset, this story caught my attention mid-summer. Three months later, I find that I’m still thinking about these three young people. But what further can be said about them and this tragedy? In answer to this question, I have a few thoughts.
It may surprise you that in the first place I applaud their zeal for life and in a way ‘I get’ what they were after. I’ll never forget the day my wife and I, on our honeymoon, saw a young man and his dog. He – or they – appeared to be purposefully homeless – truly free – just a young man with dirty clothes, a dirty face, a dirty backpack, a dirty dog, and endless freedom. Here was a young man fully embracing Kerouac’s ‘Rucksack Revolution’! After we passed this man and his dog I turned to my wife and said, “I think I get that.” Her response? A horrified expression filled her face and she replied with some measure of fear, “You do?” On occasion, through the years, we’ve remembered that little episode. Then last year, 15 after that encounter, after passing another such young man and his dog she turned to me and said, “I think I get that now, too.”
We take what we perceive to be freedom and turn it into a new credo, a new law, an idol to be lifted up and lived out.
We long for freedom, don’t we? We long for the very things those young people sought to live out. And like these young people, we take what we perceive to be freedom and turn it into a new credo, a new law, an idol to be lifted up and lived out.
But thank God this world has a way of exposing these false things. "Thank God that even when we lift up a new law of our own making, we can never obey it consistently." Thank God that on July 3rd of this past summer, two young men didn’t take a personal stand on avoiding responsibility and remaining clear of hard decisions. Thank God for what I will call a happy inconsistency between their credo and their actions. Thank God those happy inconsistencies show up at times in our own lives too.
But beyond such inconsistencies, something that Jesus said in the Gospel of John comes to mind. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). On July 3, this love was in action even as it proved too little.
I believe that this horrific story caught my attention and is sticking with me precisely because I can’t stand outside of it. I don’t offer here a critique of their tragedy. Rather, I’m caught up in their story with them, not voluntarily, but factually. I get their zeal. I get how enticing it is to come up with a credo to live by. I applaud how they were trying, in fact, to live it out. At the same time, I hope to God that on days and in moments that really count, I too will act in ways that cut through the foolishness of my own credos. And I hope to God that on the day when life is threatened by death that I too will be willing to lay down my life for my friends.
A what’s-the-moral-of-the-story kind of story could stop here, and along with it, our reflections. But the Good News of Jesus Christ does not stop here. For Jesus Christ is also caught up in all of human tragedy. You and me – we aren’t caught up into it voluntarily, but factually on account of our participation in sin and rebellion in a sin-filled world. But Jesus, he volunteered his way into our human tragedy (Philippians 2). He took on flesh and entered into the chaos of our false philosophies and misplaced allegiances. And Jesus didn’t just lay his life down for friends. He laid down his life for the enemies of God.
“[P]erhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… [W]hile we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:7b-8, 9a).
As the verse states and the rest of the Bible affirms in a myriad of places, Jesus reconciled us to the Father. By voluntarily coming into a world filled with our betrayal, by taking the plunge into our flesh, and by His innocent death on the cross followed by His resurrection to new life, Jesus emptied all false credos by which we have attempted to live. He secured life out of death, makes a family out of enemies, and gave us His true-creed-making Word filled with His actions and His certain promises for this life and the life to come.
In Jesus, we have a creed that celebrates His taking responsibility for us, His hard decision, and His grip on us through His own blood on the cross, so that we pass through death to new life with Him both now and in the age to come. In all of this we offer up only the betrayal, but He took the plunge for all. That alone – Christ alone - forever means true freedom and true life for us.