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.

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.