A Woman of Valour

I was to lead a spiritual hour at a seniors residence with about 15 elderly women present. Mother’s Day was coming up and I wondered what to say to these wise elders who have lived such full lives, and who could probably teach me a lesson or two. What to say to these mothers and grandmothers, most of whom were lamenting that their off-spring seem so uninterested in things spiritual, let alone church itself.

And then, just last week, Rachel Held Evans died at the shocking age of 37, a young wife and mother, and a prolific millennial Christian writer and speaker. Ruthlessly taken before her time, she leaves behind two small children, a grieving husband, and a world community of faith that hung on her every word. For an entire day, I engaged Rachel’s witness, her life and her writing. I was riveted. And then I knew — I knew that I needed to share her story with the women elders in my small prairie community.

And so I did — here below are Rachel’s own words, dedicated today to all mothers who grow into women of valour and strength:

The subject of a twenty-two line acrostic poem found in the last chapter of the book of Proverbs in the Bible, the “woman of noble character,” or “P31 Woman,” is cited at nearly every Christian women’s conference as the ideal to which all godly women must strive.

Growing up in the Church, I sat through many a sermon explaining how domestic exploits like these represented the essence of true womanhood, and over time, I began to see myself as less-than, once again falling short of some idealized notion of womanhood each time I turned to Sara Lee for dessert, used duct tape to “hem” my pants, or was reminded for the millionth time by well-meaning deaconesses who didn’t know the half of it that maybe, just maybe, God could still use me, “even though you aren’t a mother…yet.”

So when I decided to commit one year of my life to following all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible as part of a somewhat ill-advised book project, I knew I’d have to come face-to-face with the Proverbs 31 Woman in a way I hadn’t before.

I started by attempting to turn the poem into a to-do list, which should never be done, and which resulted in a 16-item list that included everything from lifting weights each morning (“she girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong”), to making a purple dress to wear (“she makes coverings for herself; her clothing is fine linen and purple”), to knitting scarves for my husband (“when it snows, she has no fear for her household, for all of them are clothed in scarlet”), to making a homemade sign and literally praising my husband at the city gate (“her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land”).

I had a bit of fun with that last one, but the rest proved exhausting. Within a few weeks, I’d started and unraveled at least two scarves, broken the old second-hand sewing machine I’d dug out of my closet, cursed at the picture of Martha Stewart smiling glibly from the cover of my cookbook, and embarrassed myself at Hobby Lobby by crying in the fabric aisle.

Finally, I consulted Ahava, an Orthodox Jewish woman from Israel I had befriended during the project. The woman taught me to make homemade challah, so we became forever friends. “So do Jewish women struggle with this passage as much as Christian women?” I asked. Ahava seemed a bit bewildered. “Not at all!” she said. “In my culture, Proverbs 31 is a blessing.”

Ahava repeated what I had discovered in my research, that the first line of the Proverbs 31 poem—“a virtuous woman who can find?”—is best translated, “a woman of valor who can find?” And in fact, the structure and diction employed in the poem more closely resembles that of a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a warrior than a domestic to-do list. Like all good poems, it was intended to highlight the glory of the everyday; it was never meant to be used prescriptively as a to-do list or a command.

“Every week at the Sabbath table, my husband sings the Proverbs 31 poem to me,” Ahava explained. “It’s special because I know that no matter what I do or don’t do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and creativity. All women can do that in their own way. I bet you do as well.” In addition, she said, “eshet chayil”—woman of valor!—is invoked as a sort of spontaneous blessing in Jewish culture, Ahava said.  Think of it as the Hebrew equivalent of “you go girl,” or perhaps even better, “Carry on, Warrior.”

Friends cheer one another on with the blessing, celebrating everything from promotions, to pregnancies, to acts of mercy and justice, and honoring everything from battles with cancer, to brave acts of vulnerability, to difficult choices, with a hearty “eshet chayil!”—woman of valor.

So I set aside my to-do list and began using Proverbs 31 as it was meant to be used—not as yet another impossible standard by which to measure our perceived failures, but as a celebration of what we’ve already accomplished as women of valor.

When my friend Tiffany’s pharmacy aced its accreditation, I congratulated her with “eshet chayil!” When my mom finished her final treatment for breast cancer, I made a card that said “eshet chayil” on the front.  When I learned that three women had won the Nobel Peace Prize, I shared the news with my readers in a blog post entitled, “Meet Three Women of Valor.” When I read an early review copy of Glennon’s brave and beautiful book, Carry on Warrior, I cried a little and then hammered out an exclamation-point-ridden email declaring “ESHET CHAYIL – WOMAN OF VALOR!”

And I realized: We women are brave in so many ways. We are brave in ways worthy of poetry. We are Proverbs 31 Women, not because of what we do, but how we do it—with guts, with vulnerability, with love.

Now, each morning, my inbox is stuffed with stories and pictures from men and women celebrating the daily acts of valor in one another’s lives. I heard from a pair of best friends who, having both recently navigated some scary spaces in their lives, decided to overcome their fear of heights by repelling down a sheer cliff together. They went out and got matching “eshet chayil” tattoos afterwards.

I heard from a husband who was looking for the correct pronunciation of “eshet chayil” so he could surprise his wife at their anniversary dinner by singing this ancient blessing. I heard from the mom who tweeted this: “I got a special power in Mario Kart and my five year old turn to me and proclaimed, ‘Woman of Valor!’” I heard from a woman who had survived sexual abuse, depression, divorce, and the rejection of her church. Standing tall in her words she told me, “I know I am a woman of valor.”

So to all the monkeys who are tired, who think those daily acts of faithfulness at work or at home or in relationships go unnoticed—you are women of valor. Eshet chayil! To all the monkeys who do hard things, who dream up Love Projects, and who belong to each other—you are women of valor. Eshet chayil! To all the monkeys who are feeding sweet babies, or longing to feed sweet babies, or going to meetings, or staring at medical bills, or turning in tardy slips, or making macaroni and cheese for the third time this week, or jumping back into the dating scene, or learning to waltz just for the hell of it, or knitting to keep your hands busy, or hammering out that first draft, or starting all over again—you are women of valor. Eshet chayil!

Carry on, warriors. Your life is worthy of poetry. Love, Rachel ………………….

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Rachel.
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold,
a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.
Receive her into the arms of your mercy
and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.


Spiritual Lifeblood

A few days after Jean Vanier’s death, our oldest son David called, saying: “Hey, I heard Jean Vanier died. Didn’t you guys have some connection with this dude?” While we have told our kids about the beginnings of our marriage, for some reason Jean’s passing caused this piece of his parents’ life to appear on David’s radar in a new way. So here’s what we told David on the phone:

Jim: Well, it was 1971. I was travelling in Europe and went to the Canadian Embassy in Paris to read the Canadian newspapers. A Canadian couple was there who told me they were staying at a l’Arche community some 100km north of Paris. Noting my interest, they suggested I come for a visit. By the time I arrived in Trosly, several months later, the couple in question had left, but I stayed the weekend. I was warmly welcomed and included in the life of a little l’Arche household. A year later I went back to spend more time. I had arranged to come for a few months; I stayed four years. The experience marked me profoundly and deepened my Christian commitment in a permanent way.

Marie-Louise: It was 1976. I was a young adult searching for meaning and an authentic expression of Christian discipleship. I had paid many visits to the ecumenical monastic Taizé-community in Burgundy, France, including an entire summer, as part of the army of volunteers assisting the Brothers with the welcome and organizing of the thousands of young people who visited the hill (where I got to speak all four languages I learned in high school!). One of the Dutch Brothers had become like a spiritual director, and he told me about l’Arche (the two organizations had already enjoyed a deep and long friendship). Trusting Brother Leonard’s suggestion, I decided to go and spend a year, sight unseen. Scary really, as I had never even said hello to a person with developmental disabilities. The experience marked me profoundly and sealed my Christian commitment in a permanent way.

Both Jim and I lived in the community where Jean lived (and, by the way, his mother Pauline Vanier lived there as well after her husband George passed away) — we met Jean at prayer and at Mass, we met in house meetings and large community events, we met at work and play, we shared meals and celebrations. While both Jim and I lived in the l’Arche community where Jean Vanier began, centered in Trosly-Breuil but extending to Cuise-la-Motte and the nearby city of Compiègne, we are not aware that we actually met each other there. That happened a few years later when I, with another girl from the Netherlands, traveled through Canada to visit friends made at l’Arche in France (there were indeed lots of Canadians there) and to visit several l’Arche communities in Canada. My friend had one contact in Saskatchewan and had arranged that we spend a week on his farm — never let a Dutch girl loose on the Canadian prairies where bachelor farmers are looking for a wife! Jim and I will have been married forty years this year, and are the proud parents of three amazing kids and grandparents to three beautiful girls.

What was it in our l’Arche experience that remained such a vital part of our spiritual lifeblood? Each of us was deeply touched by the authentic humanity and practical Christian discipleship that was lived at l’Arche, in all its simplicity and complexity of human relations. This Christian faith business wasn’t just some lofty unattainable idea after all. Not that it was smooth sailing to live in community with “the least of these” — far from it. I learnt the hard way that, while arriving with the intent to “help” the handicapped, I had handicaps of my own less visible but equally debilitating for my heart’s capacity to love unconditionally. In a humbling reversal of roles, I ended up being taught and helped and supported by those “less fortunate” than myself. The stubborn intent to see the image of God in the other, however disabled or bruised by social stigma, and to raise up the simple beauty of the other in his/her humanity, including my own broken and inadequate self, was life-changing, causing a joy and peace to spring up from the inside in ways the world cannot possible deliver.

Our marriage drew its courage and inspiration from the l’Arche experience and vision we shared — something we desperately needed to reconcile our very different temperaments, interests and relational styles. For most of the 25 years on the farm, our l’Arche experience drove us to seek community, but we never quite succeeded in creating it in the same way. The closest we got was the group of Christian families who met regularly to share food and kids, prayer and support, joy and tears. We discovered that authentic Christ-centered communion was hard to duplicate. And yet, the memory of having lived it so fully at l’Arche turned out to be enough; the memory that it can happen shaped our faith and guided our engagement with others both locally and globally.

Jim took his stewardship of the earth seriously as a farmer/gardener and seed-producer, a legacy now carried on by our daughter. He kept abreast of social challenges from a faith perspective informed by years of reading and absorbing the teachings of the Gospel through the Catholic Worker newspaper, to which he was introduced at l’Arche in France. We remained part of the global l’Arche family (once at l’Arche, always family!) through Faith and Light, hosting l’Arche friends on our family farm, and now through our support and friendship with the nearby l’Arche community in Saskatoon, now marking ten years of existence. We were both heavily involved in the local parish and on a diocesan level, through liturgical roles and social projects — all of which came with its own set of joys and sorrows. Jim now gardens at St. Peter’s Abbey, feeling a closeness to the monks, with all their graces and quirks, akin to his bonds with l’Arche. I worked in a group home, in a shelter for abused women and children, in pastoral parish and diocesan ministry, in retreat and faith formation ministry. I managed a community center, joined a local soup kitchen, and finally now, I serve as an ordained Anglican priest in one of our prairie towns. Yep, downward mobility all the way with little material and monetary value, but our freedom and fulfillment was literally out of this world.

As our phone visit progressed, David was mesmerized, his synapses forging connections not made before. Maybe for the first time, he saw the spiritual connections with the life-choices his parents had made. Maybe for the first time he tapped into this joyful mystery of communion with someone he himself had never met directly. He was “blown away” (as young people say these days) that his parents had been so close to, and so influenced by, this man who changed so many lives, who is recognized all over the world (little did we know in the 1970’s how big Jean’s influence would become), and was considered a living saint (although Jean objected to anyone who would refer to him as such) and who was in fact responsible for bringing his parents together. Having listened intently, with new questions popping into his head, David finally had an aha-moment: “So, in other words, Jean Vanier is responsible for the fact that I exist!”

For a man who was never married or ordained, and never had his own biological off-spring, Jean Vanier has left a spiritual legacy of enormous proportion and a delightful biological off-spring of sorts, too numerous to count, such as our kids, off-spring which may only be vaguely aware of who has brought their parents together and gave them life. But as for our son, he’s claiming this remarkable man as one of his new heroes and a spiritual Grandpa. And my heart sings in gratitude for Jean Vanier who remains forever a part of our and God’s family of saints.

Well done, good and faithful servant of God. May you rest in peace, and may your witness continue to disturb and inspire generations to come.

For more on Jean Vanier, listen to CBC Ideas program The Rabbit and the Giraffe, Part I and Part II here. At the bottom of the CBC page there are more links to programs and articles featuring Jean Vanier. Jean’s funeral took place on May 16 in the village of Trosly and was live-streamed, beginning at 6:00am SK time.
The Beauty of Compassion is a 30-minute interview with Jean Vanier, introducing a 14-part video-series filmed in the Holy Land.

Believe … and Rise

It was all getting too much. The bitterly cold prairie winter became an apt illustration of the lifeless landscape taking shape in her spirit. Personal challenges grew. The list of family and friends living their own agony, needing prayers, was getting way too long. Strife and relational tensions in the workplace compromised efforts at dialogue and resolution. The weight of the world’s suffering – poverty, war, natural disasters – slowly eroded her capacity to hold onto a certain equanimity and strength. The horror of human evil inflicted on innocent people sank her heart like a boulder hurled into deep and dangerous water, intent to drown every ounce of hope and faith she had left. As if this wasn’t enough, Notre Dame de Paris, the soul of a nation, holding eight centuries of history, withstanding revolutions and wars, burnt down in a matter of hours on an ordinary day. The psalmist’s plea became her own: Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. (Ps. 69) No doubt, darkness—the big void—suffering—evil—death are all real, but is Easter real??

It’s tough to remain anchored in hope when tidal waves of despair wash over the globe and flood our own spirits, including prairie towns where quiet is the norm. The horrific scene of last year’s bus crash was a prairie version of 9/11 for way too many people. We just marked the one-year anniversary of that horrific tragedy that brought such unspeakable grief and unwanted loss. And we can’t help wonder: does God take breaks at the most inconvenient times? Does God sleep on the job, just when we need him the most? Life can sure feel this way, for far too many good people, including here in quiet prairie communities.

At the one-year Memorial Service a few weeks ago a video was shown that was simply called Believe. That title Believe has a unique Broncos flavour: Head coach and general manager Darcy Haugan used the word Believe to inspire his team. He was a broken record with only one word: Believe. “We’re not a fifth-place team. You’ve got to believe. Once you start believing, that’s when we’ll turn around. Start believing. Why not us? Why can’t we do this?” *

One day Haugan found an old, yellow piece of metal kickplate. He took it to his office and wrote “BELIEVE” across it. Every Bronco player signed it, a contract of sorts. Haugan bolted the kickplate to the wall above the Broncos’ dressing room door. It was the last thing the players saw on their way out to the ice. The Broncos then began to win 13 of their next 16 games. Haugan had special shirts made with “BELIEVE” printed on the front for the start of the playoffs.

That Broncos motto Believe took on an entirely different meaning in the wake of bus crash. Two days after the accident, Chris Beaudry, the assistant coach, was mulling around the dressing room trying to gather his thoughts when he saw the sign. “I have to take this to the hospital,” Beaudry thought. “That’s where this belongs. It’s staying there until the last boy comes home.’” Indeed, the BELIEVE kickplate stayed at the hospital until the last Bronco, Morgan Gobeil, finally left the hospital in March, 11 months after the crash. In those 11 months at the hospital, Believe became the rallying cry for the 13 boys recovering into a new beginning. The Broncos believed, and continue to believe against all odds.

And so we ask again: does God really take breaks when we need God the most? Or is there that of God in the Broncos motto Believe? In his little book A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, Martin Marty claims that even our awareness of the absence of God in fact hides the promise … of the presence of God. “Even the cry from the depths is an affirmation: Why cry if there is no hint of hope of hearing?” We cannot miss something that we have never had, writes Marty, we cannot feel the pain of someone’s absence if we have never experienced their loving presence.

So … could it be that God is in fact never absent? Could it be that it is us who are absent Could it be that it is us who get cut off from the font life and love, getting robbed of the oxygen for our soul by letting darkness and pain swallow us whole, like the 40 below prairie winters that just don’t seem to end?!

On that cross Jesus died. And on that cross Jesus felt cut off when he cried out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? But was he … truly … cut off? No point crying out if there’s no hope of being heard … And there was a kickplate on that cross. King of the Jews it said. Behind that kickplate was an explosive promise: God’s promise of never-ending love destroying death, destroying death’s ugly power to kill us.

And like the Broncos, we signed onto that promise. We signed onto God’s promise in Christ Jesus through baptism. We have signed on to God’s resurrection promise through faith, through … believing. And we continue to sign onto that resurrection promise every Sunday … in the remembering, in the eating and drinking of Christ’s Body and Blood. At that same Memorial service for the Broncos Logan Boulet’s sister Mariko shared a poem by Margaret Mead that goes like this:
Remember Me: To the living, I am gone.
To the sorrowful, I will never return.
To the angry, I was cheated,
But to the happy, I am at peace,
And to the faithful, I have never left.
I cannot be seen, but I can be heard.
So as you stand upon a shore,
gazing at a beautiful sea – remember me.
As you look in awe at a mighty forest
and its grand majesty – remember me.
As you look upon a flower and admire its simplicity – remember me.
Remember me in your heart, your thoughts,
your memories of the times we loved,
the times we cried, the times we fought, the times we laughed.
For if you always think of me, I will never be gone.

God never promised that we would not suffer or despair or not find ourselves buried alive in sorrow. God only promised that we would not have to face such bitterly cold and death-dealing seasons alone, even when an eight-century old cathedral burns down. God fulfilled that promise in Jesus Christ, the Holy One who has gone before us in all things. In Jesus, God rolled the stone away from death, opening the way into redemption and freedom. In Jesus, God showed us how to hold onto Love in the face of death, and let that Love raise us from the grave. God’s favourite pastime, God’s primary job description, is to dig us out of the holes we dig for ourselves and to keep loving us back to life over and over. God did not rest until all enemies were trampled under foot. As St. Paul said to the Corinthians, that last enemy was death.

Is it really an idle tale, as the disciples thought when hearing the news from the women? No, it is not. We just need eyes and ears in our heart to see and hear. This Easter morning we claim with joy – Christ rose from the grave, trampling death by death. LOVE rose from the grave, never to die again. Notre Dame will rise again from its ashes, and will once again give glory to God in future generations.

Remember me, says our risen Lord Jesus, just as Margaret Mead’s poem urges. Believe, we say to one another, in the same way Darcy Haugen begged his Broncos to believe. Each Sunday God in Jesus Christ begs us to believe. Each Sunday we remember together – God dismantled forever the power of every darkness, every affliction, every death. God destroyed their power by infiltrating death … with LOVE. When love enters hell, the devil runs for cover.

The risen, glorified Jesus says to us today: believe, and remember me – in your heart, your thoughts, in the actions of this Holy Eucharist, in your actions of love and mercy for the least among you. For if you always think of me, I will never be gone …

So, my dear friends, whether our own heart is drenched in Easter joy, still in shock over the burning cathedral, or still shivering in winter/Lenten chills this morning, at least join us in … believing. Believe, like resilient prairie folk, that we too can make it past the winter of life. Believe, like the Broncos, that we can win the game of life with our God who keeps loving us back to life over and over again. Believe that there is no darkness God’s light cannot pierce. Believe that there is no winter so cold that God’s love cannot warm it. Believe that there is no pit so deep for God to reach down and lift us out of the cold and dark into the radiance of new life. Believe! It’s real, this resurrection stuff, more real that all the cold and dark seasons together. Freedom and mercy, salvation and joy over and over again in small and big measures. Believe …. and Rise. Alleluia, Christ is risen again, indeed.  AMEN

Homily preached on Easter morning April 21, 2019
Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12

  • With thanks to TSN for the Broncos story on Believe.

One of You will Betray Me

As I pondered the events of this Holy Night so long ago, I began to see something I’ve never really dared focus on. I tried to push it away. I wanted mostly to highlight the sacredness and the lavish gift of God in the Eucharist, the holy meal which Jesus gave us on the night he was betrayed, and in which we partake every Sunday.

But it hit me … on the night … he was betrayed … it hit me… This night we remember in an intense way the last meal Jesus shared with his friends. This night we re-enact the sacred actions of washing one another’s feet, symbol of our commitment to serve and love one another. This night we re-enact the sacred sharing of bread and wine, symbols of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus even in death.

But this night was one of profound betrayal. Not only by Judas, but also by Peter. Somehow Judas is remembered as the main villain. But Peter too denied/betrayed Jesus: I don’t know him! Not once but … I don’t know him, three times! How did Peter become the rock on which Jesus built his church? In any case, both Judas and Peter, the two betrayers, sat at table with their Lord. Both Judas and Peter had their feet washed by our Lord, despite Peter’s protest. Both Judas and Peter were given the bread to eat – my Body – and the wine to drink – my Blood.

The Gospels agree that Judas committed a terrible act of betrayal, setting in motion Jesus’ arrest and execution. In some Gospel reports, Judas is a man set on destruction, laying his trap and then following through to its devastating conclusion. In other accounts, Judas is caught in a web of preordained actions that Jesus greets with acceptance and without surprise. Judas is increasingly panicked and regretful, trying to repent, trying to begin again. Like Peter, Judas realized that he betrayed his teacher and friend. Unlike Peter, he gets no second chance to sort it out.

Scripture gives varying reasons for Judas’ death. In the Book of Acts Judas used the blood money to buy a field, where he ultimately fell headlong to his death. That field became known as the Field of Blood (1:18-19). In Matthew Judas is quickly horrified by his own actions. Matthew says that Judas repented and tried, unsuccessfully, to return the money to the chief priests. When he realized that there was no way to atone for his sins, he hung himself in a field, also known as the Field of Blood (27:8).

The preacher Nadia Bolz-Weber likes to say that while there may be significant differences between Judas and us, one thing is true for us all. She writes: “Judas carried with him into that field the burden of not experiencing God’s grace because he was removed from the community in which he could hear it.” Judas removed himself from a community that could have embraced him in mercy and grace. Judas’s ears and heart were closed, tormented over the evil he had committed.

Apart from a community of love, no one can manufacture God’s healing, radical grace that flows from the heart of God to us, us – God’s blessed and broken humanity. As human beings, we can create many things: entertainment, stories, pain, toothpaste, a cathedral, a spacecraft, maybe even positive self-talk. But we cannot free ourselves from the bondage of sin.

We need a Saviour, we need a Redeemer, one created and sent by God, not someone of our own making. And so God became human and walked among us. Christ Jesus offered his own flesh and blood for the sake of the world: take and eat, take and drink. Jesus did this knowing full well what scoundrels sat around that table on that “holy” night when he was betrayed.

It is hard to accept. It’s hard to accept that scoundrels and enemies receive the same forgiveness and grace and redemption as we do. Sometimes it’s even harder to accept not just that God welcomes everyone, but that God welcomes all of me, all of you, all of us.
God welcomes even the very things we’d rather hide: the cursing we did this week, or the drinking alone, or the lying, or the neglecting or hating our body; or the dark, scary nights of depression we cannot admit to, or the fear and greed that stifles our generosity, or the nursing of anger and resentment, or the shame over our sexuality or the cheating on taxes … all these parts of us we wish Jesus had the good sense to not … wash… or … welcome … at his holy table. You will never wash my feet, Lord …

And yet, Jesus insist on washing us, washing us in baptism, washing us in service, bathing us in God’s mercy. And we are invited to taste and see that the Lord is … good…. All of who we are is washed and welcomed. The gifts of God are free, and given for all, for all. The gifts of God for the people of God …

Who knows whether Judas walked a doomed, inevitable path. But when we hold him so far away from us, so other, so evil, such a monster, we can conveniently avoid confessing the brokenness that runs deep within every single one of us. It is our Christian responsibility to enter into all the broken places – his, hers, theirs, ours. It is our deep and collective responsibility to share the love of God, the enduring grace of God, with everyone who needs to hear it. It’s our responsibility – so important – to create safe spaces where stories can be shared, sins confessed, the dirt of wrongdoing washed off, and forgiveness extended, healing begun. That’s what church is supposed to be: to make sure no man, woman or child ever wanders alone into their Field of Blood, so lonely and afraid and ashamed that they do something they might regret forever.

We enter into every celebration of the Eucharist with sincere desire and intent.Yet woven into every Eucharistic celebration, ever since the Last Supper, are glimpses of human betrayal, glimpses of the mystery of evil even. “We are not mad,” wrote Leonard Cohen. “We are human. We want to love, and someone must forgive us for the paths we take, for the paths are many and dark, and we are ardent and cruel in our journey.”

Maybe there is a flicker of hope for us here today. Jesus did not offer a perfect, harmonious, beautiful memory of self-giving on that Holy Night so long ago. On that night in which he was betrayed, Jesus experienced a deeply troubled meal. But that deeply troubled last supper nevertheless spells life for the world, and for each of us. Who, after all, ever comes to the table of Holy Communion without having betrayed, if only in the smallest of ways, who God calls us to be?

This holy table and this basin of water are safe space, redeeming space, liberating space. Because here with this basin of water and at this table, we can bring our broken pieces without fear or shame.We can bring the most broken pieces of this world, bring the most broken pieces of ourselves, including the world’s tears over a fire-ravaged cathedral.

Here we can receive at no charge, without worthiness on our part, the equally broken body of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion, and in our sisters and brothers around us. We do not need to understand it or accept it. We do not need to put boundaries or fences around it. We need only to do it – wash each other with God’s love and partake of God’s meal of mercy. On this holy night, God invites us. God summons us to be Jesus’ love and mercy right in one another’s Field of Blood, pointing to God’s always expanding, always washing, always redeeming love.

So come, come with all of who you are and receive the loving and cleansing service of each other in the name of Christ. Receive the living bread come down from heaven. Receive life and forgiveness and salvation with all the other broken saints, lost souls, fearful doubters and devious sinners. For it is Christ, betrayed and denied, killed and glorified, who unites us in the love of a powerful God. Amen

Homily preached on Holy Thursday, April 18, 2019
Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31-35

Many thanks to Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rev. Tim Hughes whose sermons helped me tremendously to write mine.

Making Sense of the Senseless

It was all getting too much. The bitterly cold prairie winter had become an apt illustration of the lifeless landscape taking shape in my Lenten spirit. My personal challenges were growing. The list of parishioners living their own agony, needing prayers, was getting way too long. Strife and relational tensions at recent meetings were compromising efforts at dialogue and resolution. The weight of the world’s suffering through poverty and natural disasters were slowly eroding my capacity to hold onto a certain equanimity and strength. Then the horror of human evil inflicted on innocent good people at prayer “down under” and my heart began to sink like a boulder hurled into deep and dangerous water, intent on drowning every ounce of hope and faith I had left. The psalmist’s plea became mine: Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. (Ps. 69) No doubt, this Lenten business —darkness, the big void, suffering, evil, death — is real, as real as the shivers in the winter cold.

And then now, the one-year mark. One year and I am still bewildered. Why did it happen at all? We live in a quiet, rural province. Most people fly over us en route to more exciting places. We appreciate the quiet highways crossed by grid roads in a carefully surveyed square pattern, revealing a sense of order established by early settlers.

Jim and I moved to Humboldt some 14 years ago. Having grown accustomed to the beauty and peace of farm living for 25 years, this small prairie city has generously provided the right mix of some urban-style services with the country air our lungs and hearts inhale by the buckets. We have become part of the community through local church and social involvements. Because we have come to love this place and its people, the bus crash hit way too close to home, even for non-hockey fans like ourselves.

I am sitting here thinking: if I’m still bewildered over it all, I who have not lost a son/daughter in this tragedy, how in the world have the Broncos families been coping? I’m close to a couple of them, and I have seen-heard-tasted the pain and agony of living through all the firsts — family birthdays and weddings, Christmas, graduations, summer holidays, hockey games. As if this wasn’t hard enough, all of these firsts were laced with the public dynamics of media attention, tributes and fundraisers. Not to speak of the legal procedures that had to be endured. Taken together, it’s way more than any sane person can handle. And it’s of such magnitude that a sane person would truly go crazy without some type of inner anchor.

Recently I watched the movie The Shack again. And I totally get Mack’s rage: if you’re so damn good, God, then why were 16 lives lost and as many forever altered?! Does God take breaks at the most inconvenient times? In his little book A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, Martin Marty claims that even our awareness of the absence of God hides the promise of the presence of God. We cannot miss something that we have never had, writes Marty, we cannot feel the pain of someone’s absence if we have never experienced that person’s loving presence.

Maybe God is never absent. God’s very nature is to lift us relentlessly out of the holes we dig for ourselves, to pull us out of the bitterly cold winter days of life. I am reminded of the reply God gave to Mack in the The Shack: “Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means that I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you can find grace in many facets and colours.

It takes heroic efforts to remain anchored in hope when tidal waves of despair wash over the globe, flooding even our prairie city and our prairie spirits. It’s tough too as a pastoral leader whose job it is to help others maintain faith and hope in times of trial. One day I did find a smidgen of grace in the midst of the bitter cold of my Lenten spirit. I shared my despair with parishioners in our small prayer circle, adding that I was struggling how to speak God’s hope into their darkness when my own spirit was so despondent. In response, that little band of faithful disciples set about doing God’s rescue work: they took my struggling spirit and held it gently in the loving blanket of prayer, asking God to lift me from the grave I found myself sliding into. In that small but significant moment God’s communion of saints and sinners pulled me into resurrection, slowly but surely, making me new.

I think of Jaskirat Singh Sidhu. His life is forever scarred, crucified on the memory of an accident that didn’t need to happen. He may only serve eight years in prison, but he will be living a life sentence in his conscience: “Mr. Sidhu, I grieve for you as well. I am not sure I am yet ready to forgive the choice you made that fateful night of April 6, 2018, but I don’t hate you. When I look at you, I see a young man not much older than our son Mark. I grieve for the guilt you must carry for the rest of your days. I don’t know if you are married or have children, but I grieve for the loss your family will experience. I grieve for the loss of your freedom and future. No one will escape the horrors of this tragedy. In your future, I hope you make every effort to live a productive life doing good wherever you go. Make the world a better place just like our son Mark did.” ~Marilyn Cross, mother of assistant coach Mark Cross.

God never promised that we would not suffer or despair or not find ourselves buried alive in sorrow. God only promised that we would not have to face such bitterly cold and death-dealing seasons alone. God fulfilled that promise in Jesus Christ, the Holy One who has gone before us in all things. In Jesus, God opened the way into redemption and freedom, showing us how to hold onto Love in the face of death.

Morgan Gobeil holding the sign as he left the hospital after 11 months of recovery

I pray for Jaskirat Singh Sidhu. He needs resurrection, badly. He’s not a criminal, but a young inexperienced driver who made a fatal mistake at a quiet prairie intersection. Prison culture can be merciless and corrupt. He needs the Broncos banner BELIEVE over his prison bed, under his prison pillow. I pray hard that his life won’t be wasting away in the cell of his own remorse, guilt and shame. I pray hard that somehow, sometime, someone will wrap his tormented spirit in gentle and loving care, delivering the mercy of God, just as I tasted in my little prayer circle. I pray that he will drink deeply from that divine mercy, in order to build up the strength and courage to live once again in goodness and joy. It is the ones who rise again from the graves of sorrow, shame and death that can make the world a better place and give us all new hope.

Tonight’s Memorial Service can be viewed here.

Here’s an inspiring fruit that is rising from the death toll in the Broncos family.

Lessons from The Shack

So, if we take today’s Gospel conversation with Jesus and fast-forward it to the tragic events of our day, it might sounds a bit like this: so Jesus, tell us … did those who got killed in the mosques in New Zealand … sin more than us? And what about all those who were on that plane in Ethiopia? Oh, and the countless victims of mass flooding in Africa and the US? Were they … worse sinners … than us? Absolutely not!, replies Jesus, but unless you repent … What does he mean?

We spend so much time and energy on buying our way into freedom and happiness, exhaustingly so. But Isaiah portrays God as One who calls us to free drinks: Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come! Isaiah speaks of the things no money can buy. The free life-giving water is God’s everlasting love and mercy  for saint and sinner alike, no matter who—when—where—how. Because all God cares about is our freedom, remember? We heard about that a few Sundays ago also.

God cared about the freedom of his people Israel, who lived in exile in the time of Isaiah. God cares so much about our freedom that God slipped … into … human skin … and gave us Jesus Christ as our redeemer and pattern for our living. God cares so much about our freedom that in Christ he decided that we are … to die for. Unacknowledged and unconfessed sin, failings and weakness can keep us in bondage or in an exile of our own making. God knows that we can only flourish and come to full bloom in the freedom of his love and mercy. God reminds us in Isaiah’s words that my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my way. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Whew, what a relief that is! This is a good thing. The fact that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and God’s thoughts are deeper than ours, is a really, really good thing. It’s a very good thing that our God is bigger and deeper and more mysterious than our little minds can comprehend.

Several years ago I participated in a lively book club discussion on W. Paul Young’s book The Shack. This engaging novel turned into a successful movie, and touched millions of lives both in and outside the church. The story weaves fascinating aspects of God right into the arduous healing process of its main character, Mack. Several of these divine aspects are highlighted in today’s Scripture readings. Comparing The Shack with the Scriptures may seem far-fetched and a bit daring perhaps. But I’m always up for a challenge, so let’s see what we get and have some fun with this. Spoiler-alert here … just a little …

So in The Shack, when Mack asks why God keeps on loving a screw-up like himself, Papa/God replies with dry humour: “Because my love is a lot bigger than your stupidity.” God hears every cry for help, from the victims of hate crimes to the silent screams in our bedrooms, from the agony in war zones and flood plains, to the tears of despair in affluent suburbs, from the shreds in a plane accident to the screaming in a mosque: “I hear your cry,” says God, “and I want to come and deliver you.”

God’s deliverance comes in the form of an invitation, come, all you who thirst, drink the water of love and mercy. Loving, forgiving, setting free – all are of the essence in God. Because ultimately God is … a verb, not a noun; Mack in The Shack discovers this. The ever-moving circle of love in God the Father—Son—Spirit is a hard one for Mack to get his head around. The Trinity spirals love and mercy ’round and ’round while beckoning us to enter that never-ending holy circle. But just like the Israelites in exile, to whom Isaiah’s words were addressed, Mack … has a hard time getting this – as do we most of the time.

If our hearts remain under a cloud, that is unclean and closed, broken and fickle, even though we are all baptized, even though we all eat the same spiritual food and even though we all drink the same spiritual drink, we will likely not … taste … salvation. That’s another way of saying: unless you repent, you will all perish. Paul reminds us in his words to the Corinthians: Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. But if you think you’re standing, watch out that you do not fall.

In the same  way, spending energy on trying to figure out why we “deserve” suffering and death, is a futile exercise: Do we think that because refugees suffer so much more than others that they are worse sinners than all others? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those 50 Muslims killed in the mosques in New Zealand do we think that they were worse offenders than all the others? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. And the countless victims of mass floodings in Africa and the US, was it their time to go, or were they worse people than us? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Unless we repent, we will all die in chains of unconfessed sin. Jesus rebukes any effort to lay blame for suffering. Jesus rebukes any effort to compare and feel superior to others. If we don’t redirect this energy toward examining our own hearts and surrendering to God in repentance, we too will perish without tasting God.

As “Papa” tells Mack, “People cling to their independence (and pain). They hoard and hold their sickness with a firm grip. They find their identity and worth in their brokenness and guard it with every ounce of strength they have. No wonder grace has such little attraction. You all lock the door of your hearts … from the inside.” Mack is convinced in the depths of his being that he is responsible for his daughter’s death. When this conviction is reinforced by deep hurts that go way back to Mack’s childhood, and then get laced with generous doses of guilt, shame and rage, Mack has mixed a lethal cocktail for ultimate alienation from God.

If we really have the power to bring about our own destruction, and that of others, then Jesus has nothing to say. If we are really responsible for misfortunes and calamities that befall us, like the Israelites blaming themselves for living like slaves in Egypt, then God does not need to bother, does not need to meet us in the Shack, does not need to offer living water free of charge, or needs not send his own Son to open the way to redemption and mercy.

In God’s economy, analyzing who’s the greater sinner by measuring degrees of misfortune has no meaning. That’s why Mack got caught in a net of self-delusion. In one of Mack’s many attempts to justify his position, “Papa” retorts with familiar directness: “Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means that I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colours.”

And so instead, Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” Our life is like the fig tree yearning to bear fruit. But our capacity to bear God’s fruit is inhibited by unresolved pain, nursing harsh judgments (of ourselves or others), cherishing impure motives and distorted attitudes in our hearts – all forming a cloud, all wrapping chains around our spirit. Jesus pleads with his Father on our behalf: Please, let me dig around her/him, prune her/him and put manure – manure! – on him/her. Give her/him time, attention, loving care and s/he will bear fruit.

Give God a chance this Lenten season. Let God prune and heal whatever obstructs our bearing Godly fruit. Give us another day, another week, another year, God. And God relents, saying, okay then, I will. As the popular novel and movie The Shack illustrates, God will use whatever it takes to get through to us, because pain can indeed spell judgment and death, and can lead us to perish. But despair kissed by hope, sin humbly confessed, pain courageously surrendered in love, becomes fertilizer for our spirit. Mack’s journey and today’s Scriptures ring loud and clear: despite everything that might happen, our own life is still God’s favourite hangout, our own pain is still the place of God’s liberating work. That God, the Lover par excellence who doesn’t force himself upon anyone, is eagerly waiting in all the shadows of life to be invited in and to deliver us: Come and drink, it’s free; come and eat, it’s free. Our eating and drinking Christ in the Eucharist is a foretaste and sign, indeed God’s free gift of mercy, setting us free. Like the fig tree, lovingly but firmly pruned and tended by the Master Gardener, we can then bear fruit in abundance, at last … AMEN

Homily preaching on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 24, 2019
Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9 (RC Lectionary had Exodus 3:1-15)

Appearance and Reality

In the minds of most people Lent has two meanings— a time to give up things, a summons to simplify and de-clutter in material, mental and spiritual ways; and a time to take on something, to add something, often a spiritual practice or a work of mercy (community service). Both the giving up and the taking on are intended to be means of self-examination and to drawing us closer to God. Today this Lenten trek of giving up and taking on has us join Jesus on his way to Jerusalem.

By the time we join him in this 13th chapter of Luke’s Gospel Jesus has already been on his way to Jerusalem for four chapters and he will continue for another six chapters. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is long, ten chapters long. Intentionally long, literally and symbolically, for Jerusalem is the seat of Jewish power and prestige, the place still referred to today as the Holy City.

Today’s stop on this journey reveals that things are not always what they seem. Or even, things are never what they seem. There’s often a contradiction between appearance and reality, isn’t there? Each of today’s readings includes that contradiction, especially the first lesson and the Gospel.

Abraham hears God’s assurance of protection: Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great. Abraham seizes this opportunity to remind God of the contradiction between appearance and reality: he and Sarah are childless. You may be our shield of protection, God, says Abraham, but we see little evidence of having any off-spring. Once again, God promises: Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be. Hearing God’s promise again, Abraham believed,
despite all the evidence to the contrary.

In today’s brief Gospel passage a similar contradiction comes through between appearance and reality. Jesus sounds both confident and grief-stricken. When he’s warned that “Herod wants to kill you,” he’s saying: ”Hey! I’m workin’ here, busy doing God’s work. Today. Tomorrow. The next day. Leave me alone.” We got a Jesus in control here.

But … it is Lent for Jesus too, and even he can’t keep the brave face and the confident tone. No sooner has he said these brave and confident words, and he veers swiftly and deeply into lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!

There’s a lot of pain in these words. That same pain return six chapters later (in Luke’s Gospel) when Jesus weeps bitterly over the city. Jesus moves swiftly from the self-assured, effective healer to the man in despair over this holy but lost city and his inability to protect it from harm.

Jerusalem, the city in the Middle East, is indeed holy. I never quite understood why and how, until my visit there last year. Until then, I thought the title Holy City was an arbitrary choice. I had naively thought that it could be any other place on earth. But I learned, and now understand, how Jerusalem acquired the status of holiness over time: one, remnants of ancient civilizations are everywhere, spanning several millennia. Two, Jerusalem is the sacred site for the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each one claims origins in that place, adding to the city’s holiness by its countless temples, churches and mosques, and by its praise, worship and prayers rising in that place to the one God.

Abraham’s understanding of God was unique in his time: he was the first human to take hold of the notion there is One God. That is why Abraham, who believed despite the evidence to the contrary, is considered the father of our faith in one God. That one God made good on the promise to give Abraham many descendants in faith, as many as the stars in the heavens: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Finally, geographically, Jerusalem is located where three major continents converge: in a narrow and dense strip of land: Europe, Asia and Africa. So yes, Jerusalem is holy like no other place on earth. The collective memory of human existence is alive there. The worship and ritual life of three major religions brings a force of prayer and goodwill like nowhere else. Finally, the convergence of three major cultural and ethnic legacies contribute to the holiness of this awe-inspiring place. Never did I understand and appreciate this more than when I visited Jerusalem last year.

But Jerusalem’s holiness has also been costly. Jerusalem is the one tortured city in the world that has seen the most blood spilled on its ancient stones, the most destruction and reconstruction of its temples and churches, synagogues and mosques. Jerusalem has been the site of the worst persecutions, most of it inflicted by members of the same three religions that claim to preach peace and justice, compassion and mercy: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three of these religions value God’s commandments to love our neighbour, to show mercy to strangers, widows and orphans, and to love and pray for our enemies. Yet in the course of the past 2,000 years, members of all three faiths have thrown these commands conveniently under the bus when imposing its own exclusive religious practice on Jerusalem, taking possession of holy sites at the expense of the religious freedom of others and respect for their practices. That this city of God’s dwelling place became the seat of such violent opposition to God in its treatment of others is part of the ironic tragedy of Israel’s own story, including Jesus’ story and by extension, our story.

And lest we think we were holier than the other two religions, remember that we Christians have spent most of the past 2,000 years fighting a “holy war” against Judaism because it had rejected Jesus. Antisemitism and pogroms originated in the ancient competitions over Jerusalem, with devastating effects to this day. This is a dark legacy to own up to for us, along with all the other times in history when we have blatantly destroyed peoples and cultures in the name of Jesus.

While much of this holy and torturous legacy of Jerusalem was yet to come, enough of it had already taken place for Jesus to lament: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.While Jesus as our Lord and Saviour eventually came to be seen as the New Jerusalem, nevertheless Jesus himself grasped the holy nature and destiny of the Holy City. While Herod indeed wanted to kill Jesus, Herod was not destined to be Christ’s assassin. It is because of that holy nature and destiny of the city that Jerusalem became the site of Christ’s own death and resurrection.

It’s not hard to understand Jesus’ grief, actually. All we have to do is look at our own Jerusalem, the holy places in our own lives where we meet God. Violence in places of prayer, killing people at prayer, as we witnessed again on Friday in Christchurch, NZ, is profoundly horrifying and desecrating. How do we reconcile the contradictions in the holy places: on the one hand we claim our appearance, promise and destiny in the God of Abraham, the God of love and mercy, the God of grace and of beauty; and on the other hand, we live with the human reality of sin and bloodshed and violence, literally and figuratively, much of it even inflicted in the name of God.

We know how hard it is to truly and fully surrender to God and to trust in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. Abraham felt it, Jesus felt it, and we too feel it. We know something about our resistance and willful blindness to examine our ways, to heed warnings and to curb sinful habits. We know how hard it is to trade in worldly success to live first for God alone in simplicity and gratitude. Abraham felt it, Jesus felt, we too feel it.

But in the footsteps of Abraham, our father in faith, in the footsteps of Jesus, our Saviour and Redeemer, we hold onto each other and we hold fast to Christ. We hold each other to account and we renew our trust. Not for our own sake, but for the sake of the world, a world crying out for healing and reconciliation, for justice and peace. Lofty words, reinforcing that age-old contradiction between appearance, promise and destiny on the one hand, and the reality of sin and hatred, of discrimination and of bloodshed on the other.

Jesus lamented, he sweated blood in the holy city, and yet he went about God’s business – healing the sick, casting out demons and bringing God’s mercy to those who didn’t deserve it. We too lament the state of the world, esp. in the aftermath of bloodbaths such as the one from last Friday. We too sweat blood when God asks the impossible. But, like Jesus, we too will go about God’s business, here in our little prairie town and in the larger world.

The Lenten season invites us into giving up and taking on. In this self-examination we contemplate the ministry, the teaching, and the passion of Jesus. Let us not get caught in rejecting Christ’s ministry and his summons to turn our lives around, lest we resemble the Holy City that rejected him along with the prophets. Jesus’ longing for us is for compassion and deliverance and healing. But his longing must be matched by our own longing for salvation, deliverance, and healing.

Despite the contradiction between appearance and reality, God/Jesus still believes in small efforts. God blesses small efforts and makes them bear fruit. Like our Lord and Master, despite the shadow of sin and death, despite the violence and hatred towards innocent people of God, and despite our own sin and resistance and blindness, we must go about our business to bring healing and understanding, to cast out demons of prejudice and judgment, and to work for reconciliation in our own lives and in the lives of those who need it most right now. AMEN

Homily preached on the Second Sunday of Lent March 17, 2019
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 13:31-35
(Note: The RC Lectionary featured the Gospel of the Transfiguration on this Sunday; the Anglican lectionary features that Gospel on the last Sunday before Lent)