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.

The Rance Trance

In the past few months our city of Humboldt on the Canadian prairies has been rocked by raw and strong emotions. First came the Broncos bus crash, unleashing unspeakable grief and loss, both individually and as a community, a grief that rapidly spread across the globe. All of us got lost in emotional fields littered with shocking trauma, broken hearts and torrents of tears. Would we ever come out of this, would this trance of pain ever end? Then, seven weeks later, the “Rance-Trance” hit us with similar emotional force.

For those who have not been in the loop (that’s most of you regular blog readers), Rance Cardinal is a young Indigenous man who walked 1250 km from Sioux Lookout, ON, to Humboldt, SK, for the healing of hearts, his own and all those affected by the Broncos bus crash. More than 13,000 people “walked” with him through Facebook where daily videos and written updates were posted. Over the course of his 48-day walk, Rance became a living witness of reconciliation and healing, in the power of the Holy Spirit, turning his own life around for the greater good of all humanity — to me it has all the features of a powerful contemporary Pentecost. 

Besides Rance’s personal witness, there is so much other fruit arising from his daring and courageous walk. I became hooked on his daily Facebook posts, not only for Rance’s personal witness but for the outpouring of community, of personal sharing, of healing and reconciliation that this social medium facilitated. I consider it a shining example of the very best social media can be.

The posts and images below are selected from the Facebook page entitled Humboldt Strong WALK. Now I know well the importance of giving proper credit to other people’s words. In this case, I had collected the quotes (and photos) without the names before deciding to incorporate them in a blog of my own. I tried in vain to find the names again on the FB page, but the postings were simply too numerous. Nevertheless I share the words with some images as a witness to the power of healing and reconciliation even in a virtual community of strangers united by the common bond of grief that transcended every border and boundary. The quotes are distinguished by alternating the italics. Should anyone recognize their words and would appreciate being identified or prefer to have their words omitted altogether, please contact me and I will gladly oblige. So now I let the words of others speak for themselves about this Rance Trance:

This tragedy needed a “hero.” Someone to help this nation heal. Rance did that through his journey of walking over 1200 kms. What started out as a journey to heal himself of his own pain became something much bigger and helped many heal from this tragedy. Every step he took, every video he posted, every person he met and the pictures and stories they shared of meeting him has helped us as a nation not only to heal but to come together on this Facebook page to rally behind him and cheer him on. Thank you again Rance for being the “hero” this tragedy needed.

The Humboldt Strong sign and the need for healing is what started this young man on the journey. He started off in the snow not knowing what was ahead but in his heart he knew he had to get to Humboldt. May 27 Rance and his team arrived in Humboldt. What an emotional day for everyone. Along the way he made many new friends , but the person that touched my heart is the man Rance calls his Agent, Charles. Charles met Rance in Regina and instantly knew this young man was someone special and they became inseparable. From Regina to Humboldt Charles walked with him. Charles wept with Rance, laughed with him and walked every step with him. If only we could all be so lucky as to have a friend like that.

Rance Cardinal walks down 18th Street North on Sunday with a hockey stick in hand and his iconic Humboldt Strong sign on his back. (Michael Lee/The Brandon Sun)

One more person who has impacted my life is a woman named Alice. I private messaged her one day after she left our page. From almost day one she has been posting beautiful prayers, asking for strength for Rance, his team and for all those affected by the tragedy in Humboldt. She lead many of us in a morning and an evening prayer. I asked Alice if she was a friend or family to Rance; she told me no she didn’t know them personally and she has no idea who added her to this page in the first place. Now I call that AMAZING. God knew what He was doing. Through her prayers she had hundreds of people saying the same prayer. What a blessing she is.

Rance-Ronnelle Cardinal, thinking of you as the miles grow shorter between you and your destination in Humboldt. We know how healing a journey like this can be. In 2011 a group of us walked over 800 kms from Pinehouse in northern Saskatchewan, to Regina, to protect our lands and water for future generations. It changed our lives forever, as we know it has yours. When we started, we only had enough gas money for our support vehicle to make it to the next community down the road, but all we knew, this was something we had to do, so we did it.

It takes courage and trust to do these things, and in true hockey fashion, you stepped onto the ice when you were called. When you turn your trust over to the Creator, every step with Mother Earth along the way is a prayer of healing and strength. We had a walking staff that carried us, and it’s amazing to see how your hockey stick is that staff for you and does the same thing 😄

The video of you meeting and embracing the people from Humboldt never fails to bring tears to my eyes, because it lays there before us the recognition and bond that is possible between people if we just open ourselves to it. It brings back such cherished memories of our own walk, where we were gifted every day with reminders of how powerful Love is. “Let the tears flow and the love grow.” Love is the most powerful energy in the universe, and is truly what makes miracles happen, as you’ve now experienced yourself.

From the moment you took your first step, you started sending out waves of healing which will continue to radiate forever, in ways that you won’t even be aware of, not only for the victims of the tragic bus crash on April 6 and their families & friends, but for all who were touched along your journey and beyond. They say the root of all addiction is grieving, and by following the call of your heart to do this walk, you began the journey of healing the grief you were holding inside. So many thousands of us are stuck in our grief, and by sharing your story along the way, you’ve helped us to also take that first step in moving on.

Rance writing PEACE in Cree and Ojibway. Photo Credit: Marie Saretsky

Rance, keep on sharing your story of healing for those who may not have heard it yet. We so badly need your message in a world where there are so many forces pulling us away from the red road. There will still be those times when grief for loved ones lost will well up inside you, anger, doubt, frustration, self-pity and all the other emotions that come along with it. But you’re so much stronger now than when you started. When those times happen, just remember how you felt with feet on the ground on your journey, connected with the healing earth and with your loved ones.

Your day arriving to Humboldt is going to be so amazing, so full of all kinds of emotions. It takes courage to walk into that, putting your heart in a very vulnerable place. Embrace the moment; together we are stronger. I wish we could be there, but know you will always be in our prayers for continued peace and strength in the years to come. Thank you to Rosanna and Archie for the amazing job you’ve done supporting and documenting this journey! And Tiniki, Marci Cho, thank you Rance, for listening to the call of your heart and showing us the way.

It’s been so exciting watching you on this journey. YOU MADE IT! It’s also bittersweet because we won’t be seeing your happy, smiling face every day and your awesome updates but you set out to do something so selfless and amazing and you completed it. You should be so proud. You’re such a positive role model and genuine person. So caring and selfless. You’ve made our entire nation and the world extremely proud. I hope you continue to keep us updated with a video here and there, because I’m sure going to miss seeing you daily, as I’m sure everyone else will. God bless you, Rance.

The boys and Dayna must be looking down from the heavens and celebrating Rançe’s journey as he finished the 1200 kilometre walk in their honour. The reconciliation and healing journey sure made us realize we are all the same and we share the hurt for all those affected by this tragedy. It only takes one person to unite us and together we appreciate what he has done. Rance Cardinal will forever the honourary captain for those the hockey community has lost and for those who follow their dreams of one day making it to the N.H.L.

Dayna Brons family welcoming Rance.

Wow…….such an emotional day…well done young man! I’ve been following you from North Carolina and you’re an inspiration to many. Don’t ever lose that kind and thoughtful heart and soul and don’t allow life to harden you. You’re destined to do great and wonderful things, this is just the beginning. My Canadian heart has grown a size or two with pride. Congratulations on a tremendous healing journey for you and many others!

My tears rolled as I seen pics of you walking to Humboldt. Once again I am in Lloydminster doing my job. I had a Smoke for you and prayed. You are our lighting power for reconciliation . You may have started without this connection but you became our idol. You will be forever. I knew the Creator would send help; I burnt my fire till midnight and prayed. When I saw your face in Humboldt with your mom I knew that was going to happen. I knew you were supported 💯 percent! May you stay humble and yes we will meet. Count on it forever; I will for sure meet you buddy 👍👍👍💜💙💜

I am finding it hard to put into words (which is rare for me) about how I am feeling right now. Rance, you have rallied the troops, and inspired not only those in Canada, but around the world. This tragedy affected a lot of people. You have brought not only healing, but hope to those who have been following your journey. Well done.

I’ve seen some suggestions on how people should do this or that for what Rance had accomplished. I’m of the opinion that we need to all learn from Rance. Instead of suggesting what people should do, or who to send this or that to, etc….take it upon yourself. As Rance had recently proven, one person can make a difference. I had a welcoming reception in Regina when he arrived, I never suggested that “someone” should do this for him. I took it upon myself to help him, the same way I offered to help him with the rest of his journey to his destination of Humboldt. I realize that one person has helped us all come together, helped us all feel better about ourselves, began bridging the gap, showed us that we all care, and showed us that we all matter, that person is Rance Cardinal.
Yes, bigger acknowledgements in the media would be nice, Ellen, MacLeans Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Inspire Awards, The Globe and Mail, The Order of Saskatchewan, People Magazine, The Order of Canada, ESPN, Nobel Peace Prize, New York Times, etc. All of these ventures take considerable amounts of time and it really helps to have a connection. Be like Rance, don’t just talk about it, lead it. As he has shown, if you believe, anything is possible. 

So many beautiful words have been expressed about this man who has felt much mental anguish for his own losses and those losses that the community and families of the Humboldt Broncos have suffered. It makes me cry when I read every post. You are one very special, very blessed man! Thank you for coming into my life with your healing powers of love and humbleness. You are so so special.  God bless you and all of your future endeavours because I have no doubt you will succeed in anything you touch!!

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t stop thinking about you. You are a hero and inspiration to many including myself. The Humboldt tragedy took a toll on the hockey family but you stepped up and it was a way for you to grieve and get rid of the pain you were experiencing. Walking over 1200km to Humboldt takes a lot of guts and prayer but look Buddy. Our Good Lord and his now 16 angels were with you every step you took and every mile you made. You made it to Humboldt and enjoy every minute of it.

I live in Melbourne, Australia. Here, no one cares about hockey, & hardly no one even heard aout the crash. I care deeply about hockey and I cried every day for a forthnight over lives cut short far too soon. Maybe no one will read this, but I just wanted to say that Rance Cardinal is my personal hero. I am so proud of you, Rance, not just for making it to Humboldt, but for everything the walk symbolizes, all the bravery and vulnerability you’ve shown, all the people you’ve touched, all the good you’ve put into the world after so much was torn away so early. Thank you, Rance Cardinal, you mean a lot to me.

Thanks to the Saskatoon Blades 🏒 for the cap and t-shirt! THIS guy has transformed before us all!!! You, my friend, allowed yourself to be vulnerable, you are transparent… and through that you have truly gained back YOU!
You are an authentic individual 💞 and we all got to see you transform from the shy guy with your head always down to this now truly proud, strong, confident individual! You knew your passion from the start and you trusted… and look 👀 what happened!!! YOU, Mr. Rance-Ronnelle Cardinal brought nations together. I am blessed 🙏🏼 to have been in your space, my friend. I am a better person for it. You have something special, You have greatness within you!

Prairie Encounters

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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

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