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.

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A School of Love

Pastoring a faith community is turning out to be a school of love for the pastor as well as its members. The other day I visited a young couple who were inquiring about baptism for their newborn baby. All kinds of unflattering assumptions eagerly clamoured to colour my impressions of them because I had never seen them in church. Then we met  and talked — for a long time.

Ever had the experience of swallowing hard and fast to move false prejudices out of the way before they come tumbling out through your lips? Well, that’s what happened to me. Not only did this couple express the desire to have their beloved baby baptized, but one of the parents expressed a desire to embrace Christian discipleship as the path to give meaning and purpose to her life. In other words, she desires baptism as well.

Meanwhile some six months ago a single woman struggling with personal challenges reached out by phone. We have been growing our relationship by fits and starts since that first day. For quite a while I was uncertain whether our connection was helpful. Now this child of God is awakening to her God-given identity, growing a desire to be baptized and to make Jesus her pattern for living within the community of the church.

As many times before, such encounters evoke surprise, awe and wonder.  The Holy Spirit  moves hearts despite us; we can’t even claim the credit. And I began to wonder: do our parish communities live up to what we profess so others can see and taste and hear and feel Jesus in our common life? Is our faith community as energized by the Holy Spirit as Jesus was himself? When others see us relate and interact, are they puzzled by the love that binds us? Are they attracted and wonder what moves us and and what power we draw on?

Living with Jesus at the center ought to be the norm for a Christian community, as a concrete expression of Christ loving through us: self-giving and generous, sacrificial and inclusive, joyfully and gratefully. Human love on its own is incapable of doing this. Human love calculates what’s in it for ourselves. We love in exclusive and possessive ways instead of inclusive and selfless ways. But the love drawn from God in Christ Jesus is other-centered. It is to be the animating force in every Christian family.

We can choose our friends, but we cannot choose our faith family (nor our blood family of course). In a Christian community God does the choosing, not us. To love Jesus is to love the community of faith, to love the Church, with all its odd members, needy characters and misfits. It is through the Church, flawed as it is, that we are called to live as a “new creation” in Christ (2 Col. 5:17). This summons has serious consequences for how we relate to God, to others and to the world. Why would anyone even be remotely interested in joining us if we do not look and act any different than the world — that is what it means to be in the world and not of it (john 14:18–19). In his book “Great Themes of Scripture” Richard Rohr writes: The Scriptural ideal is not to live in the world and go to church, but to live in the Church and go out into the world. (pg. 150)

Rohr goes on to say that to be “saved from the world” (John 16:33) involves being freed from anger and fear, bitterness and jealousy, possessiveness and power-seeking, and any other habits and behaviours, motives and attitudes that suffocate and destroy life. And so our parishes, our faith communities, are to become a school in loving. Anyone who has been part of a parish, however, will know from experience how often we fall short of this ideal. Yet the summons remains, because we are the only Body Christ has on earth.

The face of God in the person of Jesus Christ is God`s greatest gift to the world. We touch Christ both in his wounds and his risen glory in the fabric of our daily lives and in our interactions with others, especially those most in need. The universal call to holiness through Christ is not some spiritual veneer for experts and religious acrobats. This call, issued in baptism, is to be fostered throughout life in a practice of prayer in a “school of prayer and love.” Every community of Christians is Christ’s Body on earth, and thus called to be God’s sacrament in the world.

None of this comes naturally or is automatic — ask any Christian. Just because we’ve had the water poured doesn’t mean there is no more sin, no more obstacles, no more false gods, no more mixed motives and hurts. But instead of falling victim to our own worst qualities, we embrace with joy the holy vision of God, committing to growing into holiness our whole life long. Even if we fail and want to give up on ourselves, God clearly does not give up on us.

Jesus saves, he truly saves. Jesus saves us from our worst inclinations and from our deepest hurts. The Christian community is not so much a place for the already converted, but the place where true conversion and surrender to unconditional love becomes possible in order to grow us into a new creation in Christ Jesus. In Christ God revealed that the Body of his Son on earth, the Christian community,  is to be the vehicle for healing, reconciliation and unity in a broken world on the brink of despair.

Mentoring new Christians to the font of life is an awesome privilege, even though we will fall and fail often in loving. But God has faith in us despite our weaknesses. And so, here in our little prairie town in our little parish, we have begun the journey to the waters of life with our three candidates: a newborn baby, a middle-aged woman and a young mom. We will surround them with the love of our parish family, each according to their needs. In the process each of us, candidates, sponsors and catechists, will be mentored by God`s Spirit of Love — consoled and corrected, enlightened and guided, forgiven and healed. We want to be that school of love God is calling us to, and we pray for the grace to be faithful to this vision that has so captured our hearts.

Pray for us and Lord, have mercy.

Prairie Encounters

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What’s in a name?

One day my book editor told me that I’m affectionately called the “Hyphenated One” at his office. I sighed. Even after living in Canada for over thirty-five years, I still have to fight to keep my long name. I had a medical appointment recently. “Marie Ternier, please,” the receptionist called out in the waiting area. I didn’t recognize my name, and she called a second time. “Marie Ternier, please.” I got up. “The name is Marie-Louise, with a hyphen,” I said, “and Ternier-Gommers, with another hyphen: my married name first, Ternier, followed by my maiden name, Gommers. The order is Dutch. Computers hate my name, but truly, I’m never called Marie.” The receptionist barely took note of my speech. I went home and mused. What indeed is in a name?

“Marie-Louise Colletta Cornelia Josepha, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the priest likely said as he poured water over me at 3 days old in Tilburg, the Netherlands. While names are unique to each person they also connect us to our past: my middle names come from my father, my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother

But even though the hyphenated stuff is a real headache in this country, I could not part with it. Hyphenated names are very European, very French in fact, and not just when your name finds itself at the end of a line and needs to be cut in two. I grew up with Marie-Louise, I respond to Marie-Louise – esp. when pronounced the French way (why a Dutch girl should care about that is a story for another time). Pre-owned is fine, first-class is fine, even clear-headed is fine. But not names for some reason; somehow it is assumed that a name such as mine surely would have been shortened long before I could even say it myself.

Our name is very unique to us: “By name I have called you, by name I have saved you; by name you are mine, you are precious to me.” (lyrics based on Isaiah 43:1) Often parents wait to name their newborn until they’ve laid loving eyes on her/him, to make sure the name “fits.” Biblical names remain among the most popular and “durable” ones in every time and place, grounding a child into a rich and deep heritage.

For a name shapes our character and becomes integral to our identity. The fact that name–calling can cut so deeply into us (and I certainly had my fair share of that as a child) merely serves to illustrate even more how very personal our name is.

Scripture says that God knows us by name; Scripture also tells us that God’s name is as important as ours. I love the realization that God calls us by name. Several biblical figures who had a major encounter with God undergo a name change: Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Hadassah was known as Esther, Levi became Matthew, Saul was also known as Paul. When Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus in the garden but did not know it was him, she only recognized him when he called her name: “Mary.” In the monastic tradition it was customary to change one’s name as one made the life-long commitment to religious life. Initiation rites for young adolescents in aboriginal cultures involve being given a new name. Somehow our name is an intimate aspect of our identity before God and the world.

In the ancient world to know the name of something also denoted to gain a certain power over. Some of that is still true today: each one of us recognizes her/himself by their name. Addressing someone by their first or given name implies a certain familiarity and intimacy. Addressing someone by their last name implies a formal or distant relationship.

The most intimate name I know is Jesus, one who was named by the angel at conception: “You shall name him Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us” (hey, another hyphenated name:)). Jesus showed us in word and deed what it looks like to live to the fullest of our human potential in a God-like manner – fully human and fully divine. That is the deepest desire of my heart: to become all that God is calling me to become after the example of Jesus the Christ. No wonder St Paul recognized Jesus as deserving of the highest honour: “Therefore God hasWhatName1 highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. “ (Philippians 2:9—11)

So once in a while reflect on your name; recall how it has shaped who you are and how you live your life. And always remember God loves you and calls you by name, your first name. In fact, God has carved your name in his heart while he holds you close in the palm of his hand. As for me, I’m keeping my hyphens. This two-in-one name has shaped my character and my self-identity. l Besides, I wouldn’t want to risk arriving at heaven’s door and not recognize when I’m being called: Marie-Louise. If I’m being called that is.

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