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.

Jesus let loose

Christ is risen – ALLELUIA!

A good man he was, Charlie Smith. Always seeing the bright side of life, he was devoted to his family, his church and his town. Numerous organizations claimed his contributions as  outstanding. Couldn’t ask for a better family man, a Christian and community-minded person.

Charlie died and guess what? The devil snatched him into hell! Nobody expected that. Shockwaves rolled through the family, the church and the town. A meeting was called to brainstorm a plan to convince the devil to release Charlie. I mean com’on – this guy did nothing wrong!

They decided that the the mayor of the town should go and talk to the devil, so he did. The mayor brought a long impressive list of Charlie’s community involvements. But the devil said no chancy — Charlie’s staying right here with me.

Next the parish priest decided to go and get Charlie out of hell. She pointed out all the wonderful things Charlie did in his life, adding that he never missed church! She argues with the devil until she was blue in the face. But no luck — the devil, a wicked smile on his face, remained unconvinced.

Then, out of the blue, Charlie’s wife Helen spoke up: let me go and talk to the devil, she said. The townspeople and the priest hesitated; they really wanted to spare her more grief. But Helen insisted.

So Helen went and knocked on hell’s door, yelling: “Let me in!” Let me in?! The devil had never heard anybody ASKING to be let into hell! He laughed his head off – let you in??? “I don’t care that he’s in hell,” said Helen. “I just want to be there with him.” Of course, madam! the devil said. He swung open the door with a large gesture, come on in …!
**********
John was a volunteer teacher at a Summer Bible camp in a remote northern community. A rowdy group of children fell quiet as he told the story of the passion and death of Jesus. John explained how, after Jesus had died, his body had been taken down from the cross, wrapped in a linen cloth and laid in the tomb. Then John showed a beautiful picture of Easter Sunday morning, depicting the empty tomb with the stone rolled back and the women standing in shock in front of it (see above image).

John asked the students, “What do you think this means?” Ronny, sitting in the front row was quick to answer in Cree, “He is loose!” “But where is He?” I asked. “He’s free now,” Ronny replied. “He can go wherever he wants!”
*********
Yes, today we party because Jesus is loose. He is unbound, released, set free. Jesus died a horrific death, yes, But he showed us how to die while loving God, loving humanity, even loving enemies.

Do you know what happened once Helen stepped into hell to join her husband? As soon as Helen walked into hell, the place filled with …. LOVE … LOVE for her dear husband Charlie! The devil had not anticipated this at all. He panicked – he made a big mistake letting Helen in the door! Why? Because hell turned to heaven as soon as LOVE filled the place! And when LOVE rules, the devil loses power and control. When LOVE fills hell, the devil runs for cover!

In the creed we pray: he descended to the dead, or to hell. What did Jesus go to the dead/hell for? To fill the place with LOVE. That, my friends, is what Jesus did. Jesus filled hell with LOVE and MERCY. Jesus filled death with LOVE and MERCY. Jesus filled suffering with LOVE and MERCY. That is why his moment of death became his moment of glory.

Jesus is loose, free to show up in our lives anywhere and anytime,  in the most unexpected ways and places. as he did to those early disciples. He can come into our lives looking like a gardener, as he did for Mary Magdalene, or a stranger who joins us on the road of loss, as he did for the two disciples of Emmaus.

Jesus can come as our life partner willing to join us in hell for the sake of love. Jesus can show up as a cashier in the grocery store  who happens to have a bad/good day, the young man who changes the oil in our car, keeping us safe on the road, a co-worker at the office who needs a listening ear, a kid in our class who is being excluded, or a neighbour befriending the new immigrants next door.

Jesus is loose, showing up in friend and stranger. Jesus is loose, showing up in our parish family, as we grow and laugh and cry and work together, as we pray for and encourage and comfort each other. Jesus is loose! Be on the lookout for him — every day. You may even find him looking back at you in your bathroom mirror… that’s no April Fool’s joke!

At the end of every Easter service in the Orthodox tradition, the following words from St. John Chrysostom (4th c’try) are proclaimed with much joy and gusto:

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
for the Death of our Saviour has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He spoiled Hades when he descended thereto.
He vexed it even as it tasted of His flesh. …
It is vexed; for it is annihilated.
It is vexed; for it is now made captive.
Satan took a body, and it discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw and was overcome by what it did not see.
… Christ is risen, death died, and the tomb is empty!

Christ is risen — ALLELUIA!

Homily preached this Easter Sunday April 1, 2018
(Note: True. I could’ve/should’ve preached on the women who freaked out at the empty tomb (Mark 16:1-8). That will be for another year, as the combination of this year’s date and the Easter news tickled my funny bone. April Fool’s inspired the light-hearted tone; Easter inspired the immense joy. Both celebrate that, in the suffering and death of Christ, the devil/death got fooled the most!)

Prairie Encounters

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Welcome to Doubt

After a 2-month absence I was happy to be back in my (Anglican) home parish again this morning preaching on Doubting Thomas:

A small town in B.C. has one claim to fame: their mountain towers over the town, like a monument to eternity. Most of the time, however, the mountain is hiding in the clouds.On the few clear days in the valley, you can hear people say to one another: “The mountain is out!”

Now, even when it cannot be seen, the mountain is there, right? If you follow the directions on the road map, there is no doubt that you will bump into the Mountain. It is a long drive around, and it is a difficult climb up that mountain. Many tourists come to visit that small town, hoping to catch a glimpse of this piece of natural beauty. Many, being there on the gray and cloudy days, do not make the effort to find the mountain hiding in the mist. Many leave the town, not believing that the Mountain is really there, because if they cannot see it, chances are that the mountain does not exist at all…

Hmmm … unless I can see for myself, I may doubt the existence of whatever it is. Unless I can see for myself, I may not believe. Unless I can see for myself, I may live in fear that God may not be real. All we know for sure are the wounds and the bruises we collect over time. No wonder Thomas demanded to touch the wounds of Christ — just for proof. We do not argue with suffering and death: they are as real as the clouds around the Mountain.

My friend Marian knew about the thick clouds around the mountain. Not that she has ever been to that town in B.C. — no. As a matter of fact, she has been so sick that she hasn’t been much further than a ten minute walk down the block near her house. Visits to the doctors in the city are so tiring that she needs days in bed afterwards just to recover from the trip.

Marian was young — in her mid-forties blessed with a caring husband and two young children. But Marian’s life had been seriously curtailed by some mysterious illness, as if her body had suddenly betrayed her. Doctors were at a loss for a diagnosis: thyroid cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, mercury poisoning from dental fillings, damaged immune system from radiation treatments. It was a bit like Russian Roulette.

Meanwhile Marian fought in her spirit to maintain a sense of God in the midst of the pain, the tests and the fatigue. Like the disciples on that first day of the week, fear gripped Marian’s heart, settling in like the thick clouds around the mountain, locking the doors of her soul. Marian screamed silently in the lonely hours in bed, day and night, saying with Thomas: I cannot believe in you Lord, unless I can touch your wounds, unless you touch my wounds …

Marian is Thomas’ Twin, and so are we all. Not only do we want proof to show that Jesus is risen; we dismiss any proof that comes our way. In all fairness, we can excuse the frightened bunch of disciples – they really didn’t have a clue, at first anyways. I’m guessing Thomas wasn’t the only doubter in the mix. But Scripture has made him alone the patron saint of all doubters.

But we … We who profess Jesus as Lord, we who have been baptized into His death and resurrection, we cannot hide behind the excuse of ignorance. We are not among those who do not see and yet believe — we are among those who do see Jesus, who have received Jesus’ Spirit of peace and still do not believe, locking the doors with our fear.

We offer and receive comfort — Jesus is there, clear as day. We welcome a stranger, visit the prisoner — Jesus is there, clear as day. We forgive and receive forgiveness —Jesus is there, clear as day. We hear God’s Word and partake in Holy Communion — Jesus is there, clear as day.

But more often than we would like to admit, fear holds us back from one another, and from God, keeping us from seeing Jesus. Fear is our biggest enemy, just like fear drove the disciples to lock themselves in that upper room, not realizing that the “enemy” was not outside the room, but right in their own hearts. Fear is the thick cloud around the mountain, hiding from view the new life promised in the Risen One of God.

One year I asked Marian what Easter meant to her. That year Lent had been particularly trying on Marian’s health. Panic struck every little bit of faith she had left. “I now realize,” she says, “that my deepest problem was not my health, but fear. Like a persistent underground current, fear undermined every effort at healing. I feared constantly that God may not want me to get better.”

It was only when Marian unmasked the enemy in her own soul that God’s healing power could move in, at a level much deeper and extensive than merely bodily. Jesus touched Marian’s wounds with the Love that moves right through locked doors. “Never before had I felt the power of the resurrection so tangibly in my body,” said Marian, overjoyed that she made it to church that Easter morning.

Slowly, Marian is healing. The road continues to be rocky, and there are setbacks, always those darn setbacks. But now Marian’s heart knows something that the mind cannot ever grasp: the wounds in her body are touched, are soaked, in Love, and everything else takes its cue from there. Jesus breathed on her, blowing away the clouds around the mountain, bringing peace and a clear sight of Him who is steadfast Love and Mercy.

Jesus did not condemn Thomas for doubting. Jesus does not condemn us for doubting. Instead, Jesus uses our doubting to move us into a deeper seeing with the heart until we too can say: My Lord and my God. Because seeing does not lead to believing; believing leads to seeing. Perception shapes reality. If we regard the wounds of our lives as punishments that is what will shape our reality. If we choose to regard the wounds of our lives as pathways to God’s love and mercy, then Jesus can move in and say with love: Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe and live in my peace. 

When our hurts and injuries of life are kissed with love and mercy, doubt makes way for a deep inner “knowing” that all shall be well, and all matter of things shall be well in God’s economy of life and love and mercy, just as Thomas discovered, just as Marian discovered.

Faith that is incapable of entering into the Lord’s wounds is not faith. Our faith is incarnate in a God who became flesh, who was made sin (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21), who was wounded for us. But if we desire a deep and strong faith, we have to approach and touch those wounds, tenderly care for those wounds, as well as allow others to caress/kiss our wounds.

The Healer of our wounds, our illness, our brokenness bore our wounds in his death. The Healer of wounds lives, and dwells among us. With Thomas, and with Marian, we are nvited to touch the wounds of Christ in one another. The woundedness of the world are the wounds of Christ on the cross. The pain in our own lives is the birthplace of resurrection faith…”Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

In Jesus we are able not only to touch the mercy of God with our hands, but we are inspired to become instruments of his mercy. Blowing away the thick clouds around the mountain with the peace of the risen Lord, we bump into Jesus as we wind our way up that mountain, in the joy of his resurrection.

Baptized in Christ, we are an Easter people. Sharing in the glory of his resurrection, we have been given the gift and power of God to heal, to forgive, to comfort, to bring peace. The risen Jesus stands among us today, dispelling fear and disbelief, inviting us to be his guiding and healing presence in our broken world. Let us rejoice, knowing ourselves loved and redeemed beyond all measure. In Christ, we become worthy bearers of God’s gifts, gifts desperately needed in our world both broken and beloved … AMEN

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Gloria Lux

Note: A few years ago I took the time to ponder the windows in the new Catholic Cathedral in Saskatoon and wrote a series of brief meditations on each of them. As the windows depict salvation history, a history we have been recalling during the Easter Triduum. Finally we have arrived from death through life in Christ: HE IS RISEN — ALLELUIA! Oh glorious light of resurrection, shine on us.
Here is the final reflection on the TREE OF LIFE:

The Tree of Life – Gloria Lux

In the end back at the beginning,
for the beginning matters …
Everything shall live where the river flows
with healing streams of mercy for the nations.
For God says each day in each circumstance:
it is good, very good – it can be good, very good.
Let go and let me…

Divine creating power of love and goodness
breaking through death forever.
Horrifying cross and innocent death sprouting love,
revealing divine power and majesty with delight.
Birds nesting in little bundles of fluff,
chirping and feeding and fluttering in songs of joy
while nursing tears and kissing blood into
fragile yet splendid prairie flowers
surprising in abundance and beauty
despite life’s arid soil, scorching heat
and scarce rainfall of blessings.

In city and town grass stubbornly grows
through cement cracks,
love persistently peaks through despairing spirits,
sprouting fragile trust and hope.
In a quiet stable a baby’s gentle power of love
opens the most hardened of hearts
into a vulnerable new beginning.

Emmanuel – God with us …

Where, O Death, is your victory?
Where, O Death, is your sting?

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,
38and let the one who believes drink.
The water I give will become in you
a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

With brightly burning, witnessing flames of joy,
and with the resounding exuberance
of Handel’s Halleluiah
creation’s chorus of life bursts forth in praise:

O Tree of Life, O Cross of Redemption;
great is our God, great is God’s love
revealed in Father, Son and Spirit
creating, redeeming and sustaining
day by day, from dangerous cliff to delicate moment
with joy and grace,
in order that everything shall live and love
where God’s river of mercy,
opened in Christ Jesus, flows eternally.
A new heaven and a new earth,
here and now — MERCY.

The beginning matters – always, always.
Original blessing in beauty and love,
clothed in both freedom and mercy.
Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone …
restored and sanctified … at last.

And God saw that it was good, very good.

Alleluia…

***

And on the seventh day
God leaned on the windowsill
and rested from all that had been created.
Looking out onto the prairie harmony
of life in all its splendour
– gopher kissing bee, thistle hugging lilies,
wheat and weeds growing together –
God smiled contentedly and hummed to himself:
All shall be well, all shall be well,
and all matter of things shall be well,
for I made it so.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
AMEN

Window Praising

Note: A few years ago I took the time to ponder the windows in the new Catholic Cathedral in Saskatoon and wrote a series of brief meditations on each of them. As the windows depict salvation history, a history we have been recalling during this Easter Triduum, it seems fitting to share these meditations in this Holy Week, a week leading us through Christ’s death into the glorious light of resurrection. Number Four: He is risen — risen indeed! Alleluia.

RESURRECTION

Blessed, blessing, blessed
exploding the time barrier between life and death
stardust uniting in one great rush of Love.
River and dry land staging heaven’s song of praise
raising up the lowly, filling the hungry,
blessing the hurting and the mourning.

Radiant glory – cover us, infuse us, penetrate us.
Overtake us in singing your glory
in the fullness of earthly and earthy existence.
Scandal of particularity transformed into Salvation’s song
forever sweeping up creation’s imperfection,
kissing her with resurrection sweetness
as a bride adorned on her wedding night.
Flames dancing in the trees,
singing glory without destroying,
throwing heat and light
without burning to ashes all in sight.

All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,
echoes the heavenly song
in divine glory glowing from every living cell encoded with DNA.
Shout from windowsill and riverbank:
God is alive in Christ, alive in us, alive in all creation.
God rises up in Jesus, destroying death’s finality,
bringing along all living things –
he died for all, for all, for all!

When Jesus said it is finished,
new life burst forth in radiant splendour.
Blessed, blessing, blessed…
Glory, glory …