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Another whiplash day

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Yesterday was one of those days when Erinn, Meagan and I had to give our heads a shake and re-adjust ourselves a few times.

The day started with a pretty chill breakfast and art drop-in, with many of our folks quietly creating art using some newly-acquired adult colouring books while another community member flipped pancakes and fried up some bacon. The peace and homey-ness was palpable.

This time needed to be cut short in order for us to transition into a memorial that folks from the neighbourhood had asked us to host for a friend who passed away suddenly on Sunday. Dannie was very well known around the Parkdale Community Health Center, having spent time in the parkette adjacent to the center almost every day for the last several years. His sister, a number of staff from PCHC and many of his friends filled the room where we had just eaten breakfast. Songs were sung, stories were shared, tears and laughter both flowed freely. His sister requested that a group shot be taken in the parkette, so we filed out into the cold and gathered around his favourite sitting rock for a photo. The grief, and the celebration of a life that impacted so many others were strong in equal measure.

Directly after the memorial, Erinn, Meg and I went to my house to prepare little Christmas gifts for distribution at our Monday drop in, and some more substantial gift bags to be handed out on Christmas Eve. These gifts were made possible by the generosity of the church in which I was raised, (Ferndale Bible Church in Peterborough), and a few other kind friends of The Dale. We sat around my living room, writing “Merry Christmas! Love, The Dale girls” on 120+ gift tags, listened to Christmas music, and enjoyed the smell of scented candles. My gratitude for the generosity of our extended Dale family, and sadness that these gifts may be the only ones our friends receive this Christmas were both very real.

Peace, grief, gratitude. A roller coaster, to be sure. While there is an ever-present risk for whiplash, there’s no other ride on which I’d rather be.

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Active waiting

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The first Sunday of Advent has finally arrived. I’ve been waiting eagerly for this season of… waiting. Seems a little strange, I know, to be excited about waiting.

There’s a lot about this season that I don’t love. The mindless consumption, the pressure to make things appear perfect, the aching sadness that runs deep in so many of us for whom this season acts as a reminder of loss and loneliness.

These things exist in stark contrast to the reasons that I love celebrating Advent– the intentional season of waiting in hope for the arrival of the Incarnate God. A God who generously gifted us with God’s very self. A God who knows we aren’t perfect and loves us anyways. A God who knows the ache of loneliness and loss, and walks with us in our sorrow. We wait for the celebration of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and for the day when He will come again and make all things right.

But we don’t wait passively. We wait and we work. We work to create places of belonging where we embody Christ for one another — where we gift one another with our presence, where we acknowledge that none of us are perfect but we choose to love each other anyways, where we walk with one another through the sorrows and the joys.

The Dale has a number of Christmas traditions, which I think/hope/pray help to create a sense of belonging in a season that can be so hard. This week we’ll bake cookies and go caroling around Parkdale. Next week we’ll have a special meal, with some guest musicians and extra desserts. The following week we’ll be handing out some gifts at our Monday drop-in, and on Christmas Eve we’ll walk around the neighbourhood with more gifts. Then we’ll have a Christmas Eve service, and celebrate Jesus’ birth, and our deep hope that all of our waiting will one day culminate in His coming again.

We wait and work. We bake and sing carols, we gift one another with our presence. We hold onto hope.

 

The gentleness of wisdom

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Next Saturday Erinn will take the second-last step on her journey towards ordination. A group of people, including a contingent from The Dale, will gather in a room, hear her statement of faith, ask questions, and then vote on whether she should be ordained. I will be there, and my vote will be a resounding “oh my goodness, YES!”

Erinn has already been the Pastor of The Dale for many years, but this ordination process is a way to formalize her role within the CBOQ (the Baptist association to which The Dale belongs), and a chance for The Dale community to affirm her call to ministry in our midst.

It is hard to summarize the ways in which Erinn is so suited to her role as Pastor. Rather than try to create a list of her character attributes, I’ll tell a few stories.

The first time I met Erinn, The Dale was still called Parkdale Neighbourhood Church, and the community was in the midst of the transition from being housed to being a a church without its own walls. I knew next to nothing about the community or the immensity of the challenge that Erinn was courageously facing. But I knew, from the first 5 minutes of our meeting, that she loved that community, and that she was deeply committed to the call that God had placed on her heart to lead her folks through this difficult transition, and beyond.

Fast forward a couple of years, and The Dale had settled into its new name and its new weekly rhythm of migration around the Parkdale neighbourhood. We were running our Monday drop-in at Bonar Parkdale Presbyterian, and a friend entered, very much under the influence. This friend was in a huge amount of distress, and Erinn was working hard to provide some physical and emotional stability. Despite her efforts, our friend stumbled and fell to the floor, bringing Erinn along. Rather than getting up and dusting herself off, Erinn stayed on the ground and listened as incredible amounts of pain of poured out of our friend’s soul.

Fast forward another couple of years, and The Dale had begun a new rhythm of doing street outreach with a counselor from the Parkdale Community Health Center. Erinn stopped to talk with a friend outside St. Francis Table. This friend is quite elderly, lonely and hard of hearing. Erinn patiently listened to the long and rambling stories that this friend was in the mood to share. When I made some subtle attempts to move our team along, this friend didn’t hear me and just kept talking. Erinn showed zero sign of frustration, but just kept listening…and listening…and listening. She honoured our friend by hearing him out.

Every Sunday at The Dale, Erinn shares insights from God’s Word in ways that are relatable, challenging and encouraging. She does not shy away from speaking truth boldly, and she roots her exhortations in deep humility.

Erinn loves The Dale with a deep, courageous and committed love. She meets people where they are at, even if that place is the floor. She listens. She speaks with the gentleness of wisdom. Erinn is our Pastor, and I consider it an honour to stand with her next week and affirm her call.

Showing up

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I realized anew last week that a big element of being in community is simply being willing to show up for each other.

Showing up at the hospital when a friend is facing a scary health crisis.

Showing up to a musical friend’s gig.

Showing up every week to help cook a big meal with a team of friends.

Showing up to Bible Study to read, listen, pray and share ideas with friends.

Showing up to remember a friend at a funeral or memorial.

I am so grateful for the way that folks at The Dale keep showing up in these, and many other, ways. And I’m grateful for the privilege of being able to show up for these friends.

Last week Erinn, Meagan and I showed up for a friend in court. It struck me, again, that all we really needed to do was show up. We had already written letters in support of our friend, and were willing to speak on this friend’s behalf if we were called upon to do so. But all that was required of us today was to sit, wait, go outside for a few smoke breaks, sit, wait, eat some chocolate bars, sit, wait, and then finally accompany our friend into the court room.

There, our friend’s lawyer pointed us out as people from “the church” who had written support letters, the judge acknowledged our presence and thanked us for coming… and that was it. That was the extent of our involvement, but, amazingly, it seemed to mean something to those making a big decision in the life of our friend. Just showing up.

Again, I’m so grateful for the people who keep showing up at The Dale, and for me in my life outside The Dale. You may not know that your presence particularly matters, but it does.

 

Great weather

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This morning Erinn, Meagan and I were walking around Parkdale with our new friend Kirti, from the Parkdale Community Health Center. (Kirti is an addictions and mental health counselor, and we’re really glad to have him as part of our outreach team!)

Today was a relatively quiet day in the neighbourhood, but we came across a few of our friends and had some good conversations. Near the end of our walk we ran into our friend “Barb”, a woman who used to volunteer on Mondays until her mobility issues made standing up to cook or do dishes impossible. Barb has come up to Camp Koinonia with us in the past, and we see her around the neighbourhood from time to time.  Every time I see her, I am struck by the way that she carries herself with such grace, despite the many things about her life which are very difficult. And today was no exception.

Barb greeted us with a big smile and hug. I asked about her family, and she described some unspeakably hard situations- not to evoke our pity, but to let us know how we can pray, and to express her unconditional love for the members of her family who are making harmful choices.

She then asked how we were doing, especially Erinn and Dion. She knows the struggle of living with and alongside chronic illness, and extends deep empathy as a result. She told us that she doesn’t know how she would have survived until now without her faith.

As we chatted with Barb, it began to drizzle. She stood there, unfazed, as she told us about her life and asked us about ours. Then, when she finally did comment on “the great weather we’ve been having”, I thought she was being sarcastic… But she wasn’t! She said “sure, there’s a bit of rain, but it’s so warm for this time of year! We really can’t complain!”

I stand in awe of Barb’s radical gratitude, and the grace of God made manifest in her life. And I’m grateful for the reminder that yes, we really have been having great weather! If today’s drizzle doesn’t damper Barb’s spirits, then I won’t let it dampen mine.

Planting bulbs

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For the first time ever, I have planted bulbs in the garden in front of the place I call home. I grew up seeing my mom trundle out into the chilly/dreary/sunny/rainy October weather to dig into the earth and deposit dry, dead-looking little items which she would then cover up and forget about.

And then- wonder of wonders!- on some chilly/dreary/sunny/rainy March day, she would excitedly call me out to see the first little white snow drop or purple crocus. Every single time, my mom was beside-herself-happy to see these little harbingers of spring.

While I always shared in my mom’s excitement, I don’t think I realized the beauty and poignancy of the idea of planting bulbs until doing it myself this afternoon. There I was, in my rain coat, rain pants and rain boots, with a butter knife and big metal spoon (I have yet to invest in a proper trowel… Ha.) I loosened up a little patch of earth, dug twenty little holes, and placed a dry, dead-looking little item into each hole. I covered them up, watered them (to supplement the rain they’re also getting), and went inside.

I will do nothing else except wait, hope and trust that on some March day I will see a wee bit of green popping through the soil, or even the snow (I planted snow crocuses, given to me by… guess who? Yup. Thanks Mom!)

This week has been a heavy one, mostly due to the fact that a number of friends outside The Dale have been struggling with very heavy burdens – acute trauma, loss of relationship, loss of a loved one, scary surgery. I have felt so sad and weary for these friends, and have endeavored to be present to them as I was able.

In the middle of this acute awareness of the heaviness around me and my inability to make things better for my friends, I heard a sermon at Wine Before Breakfast that felt like it was meant for me (you know that feeling?) My friend Andrew Colman was preaching on one of the two parables of the sower, and the parable of the mustard seed. In each case, the Kingdom is compared to the process of plants growing, with little/no human involvement. The sower just sows the seeds, then eventually reaps the harvest. The mustard seed is probably blown by the wind, then grows into a shrub all on its own.

Andrew reminded me/us that the Kingdom will grow, with or without us. We have the great privilege and calling of engaging in Kingdom work, but through these parables God is saying, “if today you cannot till the ground – that’s okay, I’ve got it… If today you can’t shine – that’s okay, I got it… If today you cannot even throw the seeds, Jesus tells us – that’s okay, I got it.”

So this week, when I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of pain in the lives of those around me, God reminded me that, “if today all you can do is plant some bulbs- that’s okay, I got it.”

The Kingdom will come, God’s will will be done.. and in a few months we will be surprised by snow crocuses.

A final farewell

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Our friend Nicole has been gone for a couple of months now. I wrote about her here shortly after she died. Her death has been a particularly difficult one for the community, me included. Until last week I hadn’t been able to bring myself to bike or walk past the location of her death, despite the fact that it is on my usual route between Parkdale and home. I simply found a different route.

Then, last Tuesday Erinn and I were in her car, and drove past the spot together. We had a good cry, and prayed. Later that day Meagan, Erinn and I went to the spot together, buried a treasured possession of Nicole’s that she had given to us, and prayed some more.

The next day we saw Nicole’s partner at drop in, and he told us that he had gone to visit her grave on that same Tuesday. I knew that her birthday was in September, but I had the 21st pegged in my mind as the date. However, unsurprisingly, my memory did not serve me correctly. Tuesday September 19th, the day that we visited the site of Nicole’s untimely death, would have been her 43rd birthday.

I am grateful that, despite my poor memory, we ended up remembering and honouring Nicole on her birthday. I am grateful that her partner was doing well enough to have made it out to the cemetery that same day. I am grateful for a little bit more closure.

Nicole has left a hole in our hearts and our community. My prayer is that we (all of us) continue to grieve well.

 

The site of our little unofficial memorial

Prayers of the people

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Folks at The Dale often have a way of expressing themselves with a searing kind of authenticity that sometimes leaves me breathless.

As I think I’ve probably written here before, one of my favourite times of the week is community prayer time at The Dale’s Sunday service. This past Sunday was no exception. A new friend, who has only been to a handful of Dale events, prayed this prayer: “God, thank you for seeking me out. I know that I sometimes look away, but I’m trying to look toward you.”

Another friend who has been an integral part of the community for many years recently asked Erinn, Meagan and me to come and help them clean up their apartment. So last week we spent an hour and a half sorting and pitching, sweeping and wiping. This friend has experienced a huge amount of loss and trauma, is currently quite ill, and despite our efforts is still living in less than ideal conditions. Yet, this friend prayed these words with utter sincerity: “God thank you that I can walk around my house again. Thank you that Erinn and Joanna and Meagan and You came through for me. And everyone here… Thank you that we’re a community that loves each other. I’m not going to ask you for anything, because I already have everything.”

Amen. Thanks be to God.

Camp

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This past weekend about thirty of us from The Dale went up to Camp Koinonia. It was an adventure, from start to finish!

This year we had a number of strong personalities on the trip, and a couple of folks with significant mental health struggles. The combination of these factors led to some tension on the bus ride up, a few spectacular blow-ups during the weekend, and more tension on the bus ride back (which also involved getting a flat tire on Highway 400). Good times.

That being said, all of these tense situations were handled in the moment, everyone stayed safe, and the difficult moments were far outnumbered by the beautiful ones.

One of my favourite parts of the weekend happened on the Saturday afternoon. As I wrote in my last blog, I had promised a friend (Kim) that I would paddle across the lake while she swam. In the end, another friend, Tim, did the paddling, and Erinn and I joined Kim in the water! It was chilly, refreshing and wonderful. A large-ish group of folks cheered us on from the shore as we swam from the camp beach to a rocky point partway across the lake and back again. Meagan and her fiance Ian paddled out to heckle us, and Cate (Erinn’s daughter) made her way out on a paddle board to accompany us on the way back. It was great.

Another beautiful period of time was during a hike into the forest behind the camp. We enjoyed some amazing scenery, breathed lots of fresh air, got a tiny bit lost, and found our way back to the trail. After returning from the hike, a community member who had never been up to camp with us before said that it felt like a whole other world, being out in the woods like that. Her face was glowing with joy and hard-earned perspiration.

At the end of the weekend a number of people said they’d like to stay up north forever 🙂 Despite the difficult moments, we were reminded again how important it is to take some time out of the city, as a community. Looking at the stars, singing campfire songs, working on puzzles, being outside almost all day… These are good, good things, for which we are collectively grateful.

Returning from the big swim!

Back in the saddle

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Happy autumn! I/we are back in the swing of things at The Dale, after a very full summer and then some time away.

Thanks to the generosity of a dear friend, she and I were able to spend the last couple of weeks away from our regular lives, doing some traveling: exploring, reading, hiking, thinking, swimming, praying, eating and resting. This time away was a gift in so many ways, and I’ve come back feeling grateful and refreshed. I am also grateful for Meagan, whose presence at the Dale made it possible for me and Erinn to have overlapping holidays for the first time ever (without The Dale being closed the whole time)!

I spent some time reflecting on the first thirty years of my life while I was away, and marveling at the fact that I get to do what I love for my job…and that I’ve been doing this work at the Dale for five years now! Half a decade of life in community: learning from each other and from God (often through each other), laughing even in the midst of hard things, getting frustrated with each other and seeking to work through it, grieving with and for each other, seeing changes in one another. What a ride it has been, and will continue to be!

This weekend we’re heading up to Camp Koinonia in Parry Sound for our annual fall retreat. About thirty of us will pile into a school bus with all of our stuff, and spend a few days up north. This is some of our folks’ only chance to be out of the city all year, so it’s a pretty special time. We’ll go for hikes, go paddling, and have camp fires. Some of us will go fishing, and some others will go swimming. I’ve already promised to paddle alongside a friend who would like to swim across the lake! If you think of us, please pray/send good thoughts for safety and harmony.

After the retreat is over, the next big Dale event will be the Ride for Refuge on September 30th! This bike ride/walk has become our annual fundraiser for our general budget (which comes entirely from donations). If you would like to join us on the 30th, we would love to bike or walk with you!! You can register at:

https://rideforrefuge.org/register

If you’re not able to join us but can donate, you can do that here:

https://secure.e2rm.com/registrant/TeamFundraisingPage.aspx?teamID=768324&langPref=en-CA

Again, happy autumn everyone. May this season be full of apple cider, cozy sweaters, and fresh perspectives.