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.

Lessons from The Shack

So, if we take today’s Gospel conversation with Jesus and fast-forward it to the tragic events of our day, it might sounds a bit like this: so Jesus, tell us … did those who got killed in the mosques in New Zealand … sin more than us? And what about all those who were on that plane in Ethiopia? Oh, and the countless victims of mass flooding in Africa and the US? Were they … worse sinners … than us? Absolutely not!, replies Jesus, but unless you repent … What does he mean?

We spend so much time and energy on buying our way into freedom and happiness, exhaustingly so. But Isaiah portrays God as One who calls us to free drinks: Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come! Isaiah speaks of the things no money can buy. The free life-giving water is God’s everlasting love and mercy  for saint and sinner alike, no matter who—when—where—how. Because all God cares about is our freedom, remember? We heard about that a few Sundays ago also.

God cared about the freedom of his people Israel, who lived in exile in the time of Isaiah. God cares so much about our freedom that God slipped … into … human skin … and gave us Jesus Christ as our redeemer and pattern for our living. God cares so much about our freedom that in Christ he decided that we are … to die for. Unacknowledged and unconfessed sin, failings and weakness can keep us in bondage or in an exile of our own making. God knows that we can only flourish and come to full bloom in the freedom of his love and mercy. God reminds us in Isaiah’s words that my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my way. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Whew, what a relief that is! This is a good thing. The fact that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and God’s thoughts are deeper than ours, is a really, really good thing. It’s a very good thing that our God is bigger and deeper and more mysterious than our little minds can comprehend.

Several years ago I participated in a lively book club discussion on W. Paul Young’s book The Shack. This engaging novel turned into a successful movie, and touched millions of lives both in and outside the church. The story weaves fascinating aspects of God right into the arduous healing process of its main character, Mack. Several of these divine aspects are highlighted in today’s Scripture readings. Comparing The Shack with the Scriptures may seem far-fetched and a bit daring perhaps. But I’m always up for a challenge, so let’s see what we get and have some fun with this. Spoiler-alert here … just a little …

So in The Shack, when Mack asks why God keeps on loving a screw-up like himself, Papa/God replies with dry humour: “Because my love is a lot bigger than your stupidity.” God hears every cry for help, from the victims of hate crimes to the silent screams in our bedrooms, from the agony in war zones and flood plains, to the tears of despair in affluent suburbs, from the shreds in a plane accident to the screaming in a mosque: “I hear your cry,” says God, “and I want to come and deliver you.”

God’s deliverance comes in the form of an invitation, come, all you who thirst, drink the water of love and mercy. Loving, forgiving, setting free – all are of the essence in God. Because ultimately God is … a verb, not a noun; Mack in The Shack discovers this. The ever-moving circle of love in God the Father—Son—Spirit is a hard one for Mack to get his head around. The Trinity spirals love and mercy ’round and ’round while beckoning us to enter that never-ending holy circle. But just like the Israelites in exile, to whom Isaiah’s words were addressed, Mack … has a hard time getting this – as do we most of the time.

If our hearts remain under a cloud, that is unclean and closed, broken and fickle, even though we are all baptized, even though we all eat the same spiritual food and even though we all drink the same spiritual drink, we will likely not … taste … salvation. That’s another way of saying: unless you repent, you will all perish. Paul reminds us in his words to the Corinthians: Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. But if you think you’re standing, watch out that you do not fall.

In the same  way, spending energy on trying to figure out why we “deserve” suffering and death, is a futile exercise: Do we think that because refugees suffer so much more than others that they are worse sinners than all others? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those 50 Muslims killed in the mosques in New Zealand do we think that they were worse offenders than all the others? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. And the countless victims of mass floodings in Africa and the US, was it their time to go, or were they worse people than us? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Unless we repent, we will all die in chains of unconfessed sin. Jesus rebukes any effort to lay blame for suffering. Jesus rebukes any effort to compare and feel superior to others. If we don’t redirect this energy toward examining our own hearts and surrendering to God in repentance, we too will perish without tasting God.

As “Papa” tells Mack, “People cling to their independence (and pain). They hoard and hold their sickness with a firm grip. They find their identity and worth in their brokenness and guard it with every ounce of strength they have. No wonder grace has such little attraction. You all lock the door of your hearts … from the inside.” Mack is convinced in the depths of his being that he is responsible for his daughter’s death. When this conviction is reinforced by deep hurts that go way back to Mack’s childhood, and then get laced with generous doses of guilt, shame and rage, Mack has mixed a lethal cocktail for ultimate alienation from God.

If we really have the power to bring about our own destruction, and that of others, then Jesus has nothing to say. If we are really responsible for misfortunes and calamities that befall us, like the Israelites blaming themselves for living like slaves in Egypt, then God does not need to bother, does not need to meet us in the Shack, does not need to offer living water free of charge, or needs not send his own Son to open the way to redemption and mercy.

In God’s economy, analyzing who’s the greater sinner by measuring degrees of misfortune has no meaning. That’s why Mack got caught in a net of self-delusion. In one of Mack’s many attempts to justify his position, “Papa” retorts with familiar directness: “Mack, 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 will find grace in many facets and colours.”

And so instead, Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” Our life is like the fig tree yearning to bear fruit. But our capacity to bear God’s fruit is inhibited by unresolved pain, nursing harsh judgments (of ourselves or others), cherishing impure motives and distorted attitudes in our hearts – all forming a cloud, all wrapping chains around our spirit. Jesus pleads with his Father on our behalf: Please, let me dig around her/him, prune her/him and put manure – manure! – on him/her. Give her/him time, attention, loving care and s/he will bear fruit.

Give God a chance this Lenten season. Let God prune and heal whatever obstructs our bearing Godly fruit. Give us another day, another week, another year, God. And God relents, saying, okay then, I will. As the popular novel and movie The Shack illustrates, God will use whatever it takes to get through to us, because pain can indeed spell judgment and death, and can lead us to perish. But despair kissed by hope, sin humbly confessed, pain courageously surrendered in love, becomes fertilizer for our spirit. Mack’s journey and today’s Scriptures ring loud and clear: despite everything that might happen, our own life is still God’s favourite hangout, our own pain is still the place of God’s liberating work. That God, the Lover par excellence who doesn’t force himself upon anyone, is eagerly waiting in all the shadows of life to be invited in and to deliver us: Come and drink, it’s free; come and eat, it’s free. Our eating and drinking Christ in the Eucharist is a foretaste and sign, indeed God’s free gift of mercy, setting us free. Like the fig tree, lovingly but firmly pruned and tended by the Master Gardener, we can then bear fruit in abundance, at last … AMEN

Homily preaching on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 24, 2019
Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9 (RC Lectionary had Exodus 3:1-15)