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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