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.

Trinity-style Loving

Every year the Church gives us Trinity Sunday right after Pentecost, and we’re supposed to say something intelligible about this serious theological construct we call God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. We have made things complicated over the centuries. The Trinity has filled countless books, all theological and theoretical explanations – well, most anyways. We generally think of the Trinity as a “name” for God: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. Now that’s certainly correct, but there’s more than merely a name here. Maybe the Trinity is also about how these three aspects of God relate to one another in unconditional and ever-flowing LOVE. Taken together, the Trinity is about relationship. Our God is a relational God. Relating in love, the three-in-one, reveals what God does. God is love, we hear that so many times in Scripture. And for Love to love there needs to be another to love: God so loved the world …

We’re very good at defining God and giving intellectual assent to a God of love. We’re less good, though, at loving like God. And yet, Jesus showed us that we have the capacity to love like God. What would happen if we took seriously the relational character of the Trinity? If Trinity Sunday is merely an intellectual yes to a theological construct defined long ago, a construct that we mindlessly recite in the Creed every Sunday, then it’s not worth the ink in the volumes of books.

But what if Trinity-style loving guides how we live? What if Trinity-style loving makes demands on us that are uncomfortable and challenging at times? What if the Trinity is the primary pattern for being church? And who is the church – we are, together! The church is fundamentally about relationship. Long before the church is an organization, a structure o pr a building the church is about a way of relating, a way of being in the world, patterned on God’s Trinitarian dynamic of loving in and through Father-Son-Holy Spirit.

A Trinitarian way of living and loving embraces the world wholeheartedly.  We cannot be church in isolation from the world. We cannot be church without relating in love to others. Autonomy and individualism are good goals of development, except when taken to the extreme, leading to cutting others off and out. Trinity-style loving excludes autonomy, isolation and self-sufficiency. Instead, Trinity-style living and loving always takes into account the effects of decisions on others, and those effects could mean life or death.

Trinity-style living and loving is at the heart of a life of discipleship in Christ. Trinity-style loving means not using Jesus’ words “I am the Way-Truth-Life” to exclude, but instead apply these words to include in our circle of love. Trinity-style living makes our faith very personal, yes, but never private, as if confined to some lofty ideas about heaven. When Jesus claimed to BE the Way-Truth-Life, he referred to a way of BEING in the world that is driven and guided by LOVE – God’s love. However, these words Way-Truth-Life have fueled suspicion and prejudice towards those embracing other paths. But I don’t think Jesus ever meant these words to shut others out, but to bring others in through loving.

So this coming week here in our own community, we have an opportunity to practice this Trinity-style loving, to bring others into our heart and into our orbit of love, to put our faith, our discipleship in Christ, in action. Many of us harbour suspicion and misunderstanding about our Indigenous sisters and brothers. Why can’t they seem to get their lives straightened out? Why can’t they get over it? I hear this often. Yeah, why can’t they? If that question lives in your heart, if you’ve ever spoken that question to another person, then the Blanket Exercise is for you. Because if Trinity-style loving is what God asks of us, if Trinity-style loving is what Jesus showed us how to do, then that type of all-inclusive loving becomes the litmus test for what faith looks like in the world. No textbook in the world has the same effect as real people committing to real God-like loving. And that loving involves being open to learning and understanding how and why others suffer and why they can’t seem to get their life together.

I have personally participated in the Blanket exercise several times. It is a unique and powerful experience of discovery, after which one can never go back to the old preconceived ideas. We cannot successfully address the current challenges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada without understanding how those challenges arose. Truth comes before reconciliation is possible. If Indigenous peoples need to face up to their part in making farms and rural living unsafe, us offspring of the original settlers must own up to the fact that we have not held up our side of the Treaties our ancestors signed.

It seems to be the week for connecting with our Indigenous siblings. Today, in a few hours to be exact, Rance Cardinal is arriving in Humboldt. An Indigenous young man from northern Ontario whose life was falling apart – yes, he struggled to keep his life together – has found the light of healing and reconciliation, arising from, of all things, the Broncos tragedy. In a few hours he will have completed a walk of 1200 km to heal and unite and reconcile and renew the face of this hurting world through his little, simple contribution of … walking. Rance’s meagre offering of three loaves and two fish have multiplied a thousand-fold. Countless people across the globe have been following him (13,000+ on FB alone), and now feel inspired, encouraged and healed by his  witness.  Reconciliation-in-Motion, they dubbed him. A young aboriginal man, an unlikely person, showing the world, showing us all, what Trinity-style living and loving can do for the healing of all – no exception.

As Rance arrives in Humboldt in a few hours, I am convinced that his heart is dressed in God’s own finest Trinity-style wear. His is a true contemporary Pentecost story. What’s more, Rance has been helping countless others to don the same holy attire. His own broken heart and the broken Broncos hearts are being healed and restored and renewed for the sake of this world so loved by God, a God of LOVE we proclaim as Father-Son-Holy Spirit. Rance set the bar high; can we follow suit? AMEN

Homily preached on Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018

Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

* Update June 1, 2018. Upon his arrival in Humboldt Rance received an emotional and unforgettable welcome. He spent three days in our community, speaking at schools, playing ball hockey in the arena with the kids, visiting the players still in a Saskatoon hospital, visiting the crash site and paying his respects, being featured on our local radio station. He showed humility and determination, generosity of heart, courage and simplicity. His healing journey touched many not only in Humboldt, but around the world. Rance and his support team returned to Sioux Lookout, ON, by car. We will never forget him. More on Rance in my next blog posting.

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

April in Labour

Needless to say, I have not had much fuel in my tank this past week. When you’ve never been to a hockey game, but find yourself at an arena-turned-worship space; when you gather there daily, packed to the rafters, not with cheering fans but with a grieving community; when the clapping and chanting happens not because your team won, but because a player leaves the ice in a coffin,  something cracks in your spirit … and a painful thick layer of hoarfrost settles on your eyelids.

Fifteen, no sixteen, people dead in a senseless accident, just hours from our doorsteps. Add to that: more than 100 people killed in air strikes and a chemical attack (and now more air strikes).  Suicides and addictions in First Nations communities continuing to cause tragedy and trauma. A dead whale full of plastics. A friend’s relatives in a serious car accident with one dead and the other suffering life-threatening injuries. 23 children perished in India in a school bus crash. 257 dead in a plane crash in Algeria.

The valley of darkness, Pastor Sean called it last Sunday in the Vigil. The valley of darkness for too many, way too many …  Senseless death invades us like a famished monster. The sun rises; the light and warmth melts the ice. And then here comes another Alberta clipper! April is labouring hard toward spring,  just as the Church is labouring hard to nudge us along into Easter joy.

But death keeps blurring our vision. Answer us when we call, O God, defender of our cause! (Psalm 4)

I get it… I get why the disciples were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. I saw the risen Jesus this past week, and I was just as startled as the disciples were when Jesus appeared. I was involved in 19-year old Jacob Leicht’s funeral on Friday. Jacob’s parents Kurt and Celeste are grief-stricken along with all the others in Humboldt, in our province, in our country and the world. But Celeste and Kurt are people of deep faith; they LOVE their son (& 3 other children) and they LOVE God. * Less than two days following the crash, they already sensed that this tragedy will direct them to a higher purpose. Two days after the crash, Celeste was crying at her kitchen table, pleading with God, “God, you’d better give me a purpose here because I fear the darkness that lies ahead.” And she added, ‘Jacob, help me out.’ At that moment Celeste felt Jacob’s presence more strongly than she had ever felt while he was alive.

The Hockey News reported their story publicly already. These parents are filled with grief yes, but also with incredible peace, a peace the world cannot give. “I want to be part of something bigger,” Celeste says. “There is so much hurt in this province in so many ways, particularly with the First Nations community. There is so much tragedy and affliction in this world and they don’t get the attention they deserve sometimes. I have no idea what this is going to look like, but I want to start a movement of some sort. People are hurting in this province with the whole Colten Boushie trial and it’s time that people reach out. From hurt can come good…” These are the words from a mother whose son just died a horrible death …

Kurt and Celeste talk about signs telling them that their son is in a better place. The first came when an old friend of Kurt’s dropped by to offer condolences. Kurt grew up in a small town along with Scott Thomas, whose son Evan also died in the crash.  This friend of Kurt’s and Scott’s was on the road after the crash and noticed two bald eagles. “And he said, ‘That’s Evan and Jacob,’  ‘They’re just soaring.’ ”

Another came when Jacob’s girlfriend was called home from a trip abroad. Her father picked her up at the airport and drove her to Jacob’s home town. Jacob wore No. 11 with the Broncos.  About halfway, it was exactly 12:11 and the temperature gauge said -11. At that moment, they saw the most vibrant Northern Lights they had ever seen. It was solid green and looked like a bridge connecting Saskatoon to Humboldt. “He said that Jacob was carrying them to Humboldt,” Celeste said. “The First Nations are tied to the Northern Lights and I thought, ‘Our movement could be something like the Northern Lights Movement for Kids.’ It’s not going to be about Jacob, but Jacob is going to be instrumental in it. He will be our guide. We have to shelve this for now, but we’ll get to it at some point…”

Yes, I encountered the risen Jesus this week. Yes, like the disciples, I was startled by his appearance in grieving parents who hadn’t even buried their son yet. What the disciples didn’t realize, and what we often don’t realize, is that there’s a force in the loving that has the power to break the force of evil, the cold darkness of death and the barrier between earth and heaven. Why does loving have such power? Because God IS LOVE, and Jesus was God in the flesh. Peace be with you, he says, again and again.

Lorna Dueck wrote in the Globe & Mail this past week: The strong arms of Saskatchewan are tenacious. Take any agricultural metaphor for tenacity you’d like. I think you can find it in the people who have their roots in making life come out of dead, cold ground. There is a grittiness and practicality to making a living off the land, which is where all of Saskatchewan began. Grief is in the landscape, cycles of life and death in every harvest season.

We prairie people are resilient. We instinctively ban together in tragedy, much like the disciples did when their beloved Lord was taken from them. And many of us have forced our breath onto the frosted windows of life and written our names on life’s iced  window panes with frozen fingers. We dig deep into our spirits to receive Jesus’ breath of peace …

Jesus speaks peace, the peace that comes from a God who is so near to the broken-hearted that he breathed his own final, tortured breath on the cross … and then … rolled away the stone, startling us all by the radiant sunrise following the darkness. When winter cold and hoar-frost obscure our vision, God is like the sun continuing to labour in April, stubbornly melting the ice, stubbornly breathing peace into grief until that peace reaches deep into the recesses of our spirits. In time, our vision becomes clear again and we can see the steps into life and beauty on the other side of the loss.

And so we hold the grieving space as holy ground. In a few minutes we will be offering our prayers. Some of these prayers were offered in the funeral service for Jacob on Friday. We will pray for the courage of countless families everywhere around the globe who are whispering goodbye this week with grief-stricken hearts. We will pray for the grieving to be wrapped in the light and warmth of the stubborn coming of spring and the care of surrounding  communities. We draw on our God who is grieving with us, the God who is with us on both sides of the losses. May we be filled with courage to whisper goodbye to what has been. And may the tears slowly clear our vision to see and receive the life that follows loss.

Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. (Luke 24:38-39)
There’s a force in the loving that has the power to break … the force of evil, the cold darkness of death and the barrier between earth and heaven. Why does loving have such power? Because God IS LOVE, and Jesus was God in the flesh. Peace be with you, he says, again and again.

The miracle of God is that, even in the face of that devouring monster called death, we can pray the words of the psalm and mean them:
You have put gladness in my heart,
more than when grain and wine and oil increase.
I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep;
for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety.

Ah yes, I get it now … even in grief and despair Easter joy can indeed break through. Thanks be to God. AMEN

Homily preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2018
Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36B-48

  • Special thanks to Leah Perrault’s column Breathing Goodbye
  • Kurt and Celeste shared this story with me personally, and The Hockey News published it two days later.
  • The community grief and the funerals this past week were a heavy load. As stated above, I didn’t have much fuel in my tank, and was at a loss as to what to say in this Sunday’s homily. Then God provided simply in the events we are living here and now … joy and gratitude amidst pain and grief …

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”