Some thoughts on Advent hope

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As I watched the sun peek over the rooftops this morning, I thought about a conversation I had with a very close friend last night. We had been sharing with each other about the pain we are experiencing within ourselves and on behalf of those we love, and wondering why certain struggles seem to last SO long.

Both of us have been dwelling deeply in Advent this year, choosing to hold onto the hope that the Light of the world has come, and will come again. But last night we wondered aloud about the nature of this hope, and the joy that it brings. Advent hope feels so different from Easter hope, when our joy springs from Jesus’ resurrection – the wild, death-defying, victorious event on which we peg our faith.

Advent ends in Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of a vulnerable baby, born into a family enveloped by the scandal of his unbelievable conception, who became a refugee when he was barely old enough to walk. Then he grew into a kid who surely learned the hard way the pain of sticking your hand into a flame, turning corners too fast and a host of other things that kids have to figure out. Then he was a teenager, which was probably awkward, and then he became a carpenter, which was probably boring at times. Only after 30 years of life on earth, experiencing what it is to human (with the accompanying joys and sorrows), did Jesus enter his 3 years of public ministry. Then things got harder for him, and he ended up on a cross. (Today’s Old Testament reading from the lectionary happens to be Isaiah 53, which spells out what it meant for Jesus to be a suffering servant.) And THEN he rose from the dead! Alleluia!

So when we sing Christmas carols about joy to the world, peace on earth, silent nights and figgy puddings, the hope is real. But it’s not a quick-fix kind of hope. Oh how I wish it was! But it’s not. That’s why I cling to certain lyrics of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” like a lifeline.

O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice ! Rejoice ! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The joy of Advent doesn’t come from the immediate victory over death, but the fact that the Dayspring from on high did, in fact, draw nigh. The Incarnation happened. God chose to be WITH us. In the beauty and the pain. Alleluia.

O come, o come

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It’s been quite a while since I last blogged and, as per usual, lots of beautiful things and lots of hard things have happened.

The camping trip/retreat that I was anticipating in my last post was a delight. The weather was cold but bright, we coexisted harmoniously (with some very minor exceptions), and we had a ton of fun. One Dale retreat first-timer could barely contain his wonder and joy, exclaiming things like “Did you see the lake?!…Did you see my cabin?!… Did you see Mars?!” approximately every 5 minutes 🙂 It was a trip to remember, for all of of us.

Another lovely thing happened a couple of weeks ago, when we witnessed what might be considered a minor miracle! “Tom”, one of the two people that we have ever barred (for a few months) from the Dale was at our Wednesday morning drop in. The community member who usually prepares breakfast was away, so I was getting things organized to start cooking myself. Tom was in a grumpy mood, which isn’t terribly unusual. He started criticizing my methods, implying that he could do it better himself. In exasperation I said, “well then, why don’t you?”… and so he did! He cooked the entire breakfast on his own, hash browns, bacon, scrambled eggs and all. And it was delicious. The hilarious part was that he didn’t want anyone knowing that he had gladly cooked for the group, because it would ruin his “bad reputation”… so he gave us all the credit when people commented on how good it was! Amazing.

These are just a couple of the very sweet things that have happened in the last few months. We’ve also baked Christmas cookies together, gone caroling, and shared many deep and/or hilarious conversations.

Like I said, though, there are some really tough things facing the community as well. As Erinn wrote about last week in her blog post, we are still waiting to hear whether or not the rumors are true that a Dale member has passed away. This friend was/is hilarious, kind and deeply caring. He was/is also the other person that we have barred from the Dale for a few months, because when he drinks he turns into someone we barely recognize who is prone to violence. My dearest hope is that we’ll see this friend around Parkdale again soon, and be able tell him how much we love him… And my fear is that the rumors are true.

A number of other community members are in the hospital, and/or needing to go to court for various reasons. I just came home from visiting a friend in the ICU, who is in a coma. I prayed for him, that he would be soaked in the light of Christ as he lay in his hospital bed. Then I looked up and noticed a crucifix over the lamp above that bed. But unlike on most crucifixes, this Jesus was wearing a robe and had radiant light shining around his head- reminding me more of His ascension than His death.

It occurred to me that this was a beautiful Advent reminder of the pain and hope inherent in His story, and ours. As we ache for the brokenness we see around and within us, we long for Jesus’ coming in glory.

O come, o come Emmanuel!

Another camp adventure awaits

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In just over a week, about twenty-five of us Dale folks will be up at Camp Koinonia, up near Parry Sound!

We missed our camping trip last year, for a variety of reasons, and the community felt it. Consequently, we’ve been fielding questions about camp since the middle of last winter! For many of our folks, this trip (which is sometimes a summer trip and sometimes a fall retreat) is the only time they get to leave the city, so they are understandably itching to hit the road next Friday.

One of my favourite things about these trips is seeing the stress melt away from the faces of my friends as we exit Toronto. Don’t get me wrong… I adore Toronto, and am so glad to call it home. But we all know that life in the city can be loud and busy, and many of our friends in Parkdale are facing the added stress of living on a low income in the midst of a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood.

But next weekend we will be leaving the noise of the city behind, along with the advertisements for unaffordable goods and the worry about where to find the next meal. We will sing songs around the fireplace, play lots of board games, go on hikes, do some canoeing, hopefully see some stars, and breathe lots of fresh air.

Of course, things aren’t always as idyllic as all of that. Conflicts sometimes arise, people sometimes forget their meds, accidents have been known to occur. So if you think of it, please send off some prayers or good thoughts, that next weekend will be a deeply good one.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

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The gang from 2 years ago!

Extended Family

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At The Dale, we are very aware that we are a large, beautiful network of people. Our core community is comprised mainly of folks who call Parkdale home, or are in the neighbourhood regularly. We see each other several days of the week, and do life together in a fairly intensive way.

There are other members of the community who we don’t see as often, but are very much part of the weekly or monthly rhythm of life at The Dale. We see them for lunch on Mondays, or for breakfast on Wednesdays, or for church on Sundays, or for outreach during the last week of the month. These folks come from all over the city, and sometimes even from outside of town. They add to the richness of our communal life, bringing their unique perspectives, experiences, gifts and vulnerabilities.

There are other people who we know we can call upon for extra support when we need it. These folks work at places like Sanctuary, The Gateway men’s shelter, a law office, a medical clinic, or another community agency. They helps with drop-ins or outreach when Erinn or I can’t be there, provide services that we aren’t able to offer, lend a listening ear or offer insight into a tricky situation.

We also have a wonderful board of directors, made up of people who care deeply about The Dale and are committed to helping us run in a healthy and sustainable way. On top of their regular board meetings, these folks also participate in our fundraising efforts, and offer support in a wide variety of ways.

And of course, all of this is made possible by the wide network of people, churches and organizations who support The Dale, financially and prayerfully. This network is wonderful, and increasingly diverse. The Ride for Refuge, the bike ride/walk in which The Dale recently participated, provided the opportunity to invite more people into our web of support. This is so exciting and encouraging!

These various groups of people overlap in many beautiful ways, and each person is very much part of The Dale in their own way. I wish I could name every single person who we consider to be part of The Dale’s extended family, but please know that EACH of you is cherished. This Thanksgiving, I am giving thanks for you.

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What’s in a name?

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At the Dale, we go by many names. Many folks have developed their own nicknames for me, including “Captain J”, “Jo-a”, “Lorelai” (apparently I look like a Lorelai?), “Creature from the unknown” (nice, I know), “Tall Girl”, “Jojo” etc. One friend calls Erinn “Ms. Padre-ess”, many call her “Pastor Erinn” and a few others call her “Mom”. I even get called “Mom” now and again. I’ve also learned to answer to “Erinn”, since some folks can’t keep us straight!

I love having many nicknames, and coming up with nicknames for others: “Marky-Mark”, “Douglas Fir” and “Marleney” to name a few.

I’ve been thinking about the power of names lately- how they have the ability to create a sense of camaraderie and affection, or to destroy a person’s sense of self-worth. We hear some pretty awful names being tossed around, usually directed at others, occasionally directed at us. Some of our friends have recently learned the hard way that calling people certain names can cause you bodily harm.

However, I think the deepest way that names cause harm is when people apply them to themselves. I’ve often found myself telling folks that, no, they are not “just a bum” or “a dirty skid” but a beloved friend. Just today I heard a friend refer to themselves as “a wart on the ass of society”. How awful, that this precious person has been given the message that they are worse than useless, and internalized it to such an extent that they inflict that name on themselves. This is one of the saddest things I can imagine.

One of my favourite songs in the Dale’s songbook is called “I Will Change Your Name”. It goes like this:

I will change your name.
You shall no longer be called:
Wounded, outcast, lonely or afraid.
I will change your name.
Your new name shall be:
Confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one,
Faithfulness, friend of God,
One who seeks My face


May it be so, for all of us.

The gift of tangibility

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This past month has been a full one! I’ve been alternating between adventures at The Dale, and adventures away from The Dale: a road trip to the east coast, then back to The Dale, then a canoe trip, then back to The Dale, then a few days up north, then back to The Dale.

Erinn has been off for most of August, so being at The Dale has been extra adventuresome, but mostly really good. Various friends have stepped in to offer some extra support during drop-ins and on Sundays, for which I am very grateful. The community has also done a great job of offering to support to one another, which has been beautiful to see. Next week The Dale will be closed, and I will endeavor to limit my adventures to the local variety, in hopes of getting some solid rest 🙂

There have been lots of poignant moments in the last few weeks, but I want to share one with you in particular:

Being the only staff person “on duty” means that I do some of the things that Erinn would normally do, including picking up bread, wine and juice for communion. Last week I was also on duty to pick up bread for communion at Sanctuary, so after a trip to the LCBO and a grocery store I found myself holding a bottle of port and two big loaves of bread, thinking about how to get them into my bike saddle bags.

My arms were very full, and it suddenly occurred to me that I was, in some real way, embracing Jesus. It was such a beautiful moment! I realized what a gift it is that God knows how much tangibility means to us humans, and has always given us physical ways to relate to the intangible divine reality. From the many feasts, sacrifices and rituals of the Hebrew people, to the mystery of the Incarnation, to the Lord’s Supper, God has been making God’s self accessible to us in ways that we can touch, smell and even taste.

What a precious thing! As we seek to see with Jesus’ eyes, speak with Jesus’ voice, embrace with Jesus’ arms and walk where Jesus’ feet would go, we also get to connect with him in a tangible way when we share the meal that he shared with his friends. We do this every Sunday at The Dale, and it is always a beautiful few minutes in the midst of what can be a chaotic week.

Thanks be to the One who knows us so well, and continually makes himself known to us.

 

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One year later

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This Saturday will be the one year anniversary of our friend Cowboy’s passing. In some ways it’s still hard to believe he’s gone, and in other ways it feels like a long time since last July 23rd.

Part of the reason that it feels SO long since Cowboy died is that we’ve lost so many others since last summer. We’ve held six memorials/funerals including Cowboy’s, and lost four other friends for whom other arrangements were made.

Erinn was tidying up one of our storage spaces the other day, and came across this card that Cowboy was never able to receive…from Will, a friend who died less than 6 months after his pal. Erinn and I both got teary, and realized that this image totally captures the hope, humour, love and grief that our community has experienced these last 12 months:

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In the midst of the sadness of this year there have also been many, many joyful moments. We’ve celebrated a baptism, seen people housed, and shared many meals, hugs, and good conversations.

And we miss our friends; we’ll be marking a lot of first anniversaries this year. As we grieve, we will also urgently yearn for the day when death is swallowed up in Life. Lord come quickly.

 

Highlights

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I’m finding it hard to believe that I’ve been working at The Dale for nearly 4 years now. During the spring/summer of 2012 I was feverishly working on finishing my masters thesis, and trying to decide where I would work in the fall. Erinn and I had met in May of that year, and I immediately knew that I wanted her to be my friend and mentor, and potentially co-worker. Four years later, I’m SO grateful that I decided to take the plunge into the unknown that was Parkdale!

Over the past few days I’ve had a beautiful opportunity to reflect on my time at The Dale thus far, as I transfer photos and memos from my old, dying, phone to my computer. About a year into my time in Parkdale I realized that so many lovely (and hard) things were happening all the time that there was no way I would be able to remember them all. So I started making memos on my phone, typing out at least some of these moments shortly after they happened. I’ve spent a number of hours transferring these memos and smiling, laughing, and/or tearing up. All these little occurrences, and the thousands of moments that I didn’t record, have flowed together to create my experience of life at The Dale.

As I look back all these little snapshots, I feel all sorts of things:

  • joy and wonder at how far certain friends (and I) have come, in terms of managing their anger or anxiety or addictions in the context of a community where we all rely heavily on the grace of God.
  • warmth and gratitude at how much closer so many relationships have become over the last few years.
  • grief at how much I miss the many friends who have passed away, or are too sick to be present, or have disappeared from the community without us knowing why.
  • sorrow that some people have left the community because of interpersonal conflict that they felt to be insurmountable, despite our best efforts to mediate reconciliation.
  • gratitude for the many moments of deep encouragement, often from unforeseen sources.
  • more gratitude, for the wide variety of gifts and ways of participating in the life of The Dale that community members share.

I’ve shied away from sharing specifics, because the significance of these moments is tough to explain without their larger context, and many of them feel so sacred that I dare not attempt to translate their meaning through words on a computer screen. But please allow me to share a few quotes from community members that I find to be inspiring/hilarious/lovely.

When asked how he was doing, a friend who was panhandling outside the Dollarama said with determined optimism, “Could be better… but could be a LOT worse!”

A friend ending a prayer during our church service on Feb 14th with “Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day to you, Lord!”

Another friend’s prayer when he ran into us on outreach: “Dear Lord, thank you for the love you show us through our friends. Please help us to keep moving, despite our diseases and shortcomings. Please give us grace.”

 

What a privilege. Time to start a new round of memos 🙂

A farewell to Grumpy

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I really miss my friend Mike “Grumpy” Graham. Parkdale is not, and will not be, the same without him. I still expect to see him sitting in one of the three bus shelters that he frequented, and which he lovingly referred to as Cottages 1, 2 and 3. I’m going to miss popping my head into one of these cottages and being greeted with “oh nooooo. Not YOU!” I’ll miss his gravelly voice, his twinkling eyes, and his witty one-liners.

We held a visitation, funeral and burial for Grumpy this Tuesday, which was an immense privilege. And it was a roller coaster of a day. At various points the events and participants could be described as somber, chaotic, sweet, hysterical, hilarious, sacred, violent, sentimental, silly and profound.

The visitation was pretty rowdy, as folks were experiencing a wide range of emotions, and finding a variety of ways to cope with and express those emotions.

The funeral was sweet and unexpectedly calm. We sang and read scripture, Erinn gave a beautiful eulogy, and then many stories were respectfully and poignantly shared by members of Grumpy’s wide network of friends.

And the burial felt especially sacred. I had the privilege of driving three of the Grumpster’s friends to Meadowvale cemetery, where they acted as his pallbearers. Erinn read some scripture and spoke words of committal, acknowledging that our friend’s body was about to return to its earthy origins. We all took a handful of dirt, scattered it on the casket, and said our goodbyes. There was something so beautiful about seeing the three pallbearers engage in this ritual with such tenderness and open sadness; the same guys who so often feel the need to keep up a tough exterior.

I’m so grateful for the chance to celebrate Grumpy’s life together with his friends. The day reflected Grumpy well – fairly unorthodox, rough around the edges, and very very beautiful.

See you, Grumpster. You are missed.

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A farewell to Rams

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Two weeks ago today, my friend Ramsey Whitefish’s life was brought to an abrupt end. There’s been a lot said about him in the last two weeks, and especially today at his memorial. There have been articles written about his murder, and about his gifts as an poet/actor. There have been a wide variety of thoughts about Ramsey shared on facebook, etc, which begin to paint a picture of the precious and extremely complex person that he was.

I haven’t said a lot about him on social media, except to share news articles. This is partly because I wasn’t nearly as close to him as many other people were. It’s also because I had a somewhat complicated relationship is Rams, and therefore my grief is also complicated. I know that I’m not alone in this. After being at his memorial today, though, I feel ready to say a few things about Ramsey myself.

I was equal parts fond of and frightened of Rams. He was hilarious, compassionate and smart. I’ll never forget the Sunday at Sanctuary, a couple of years ago, when he came over to give me a hard time (as he usually tried to do). I was working through something difficult at the time, and was crying. As soon as he realized that I was weepy his whole demeanor changed, from mischievous to pastoral. He came over, wiped the tears from my face, and smeared them onto his own. I can’t remember his exact words, but the general impression was one of genuine care, solidarity and comfort.

This same guy also genuinely scared me when he wasn’t doing well. I knew he would never intentionally cause me harm, but there were times when he was so not himself that I didn’t feel confident of my safety, or of the safety of those around us. He was also consistently disruptive during our church services at Sanctuary…but he was there. He didn’t write off church, but fully participated, in his own wacky, shit disturbing way. When he prayed it was often beyond beautiful… and then just as often turned bizarrely inappropriate. But then he would say “we’re all the same. One love! Miigwetch, miigwetch, miigwetch”.

The last time I saw Rams was a Sunday, three days before he died. I was carrying around a new baby, and he came over to admire her, and bug me. I feel sad to admit that I spent the rest of the service trying to avoid him, because I wanted to cuddle the baby and listen to the sermon in peace.

So, I’m not really sure how to say goodbye to this deeply troubled, deeply beautiful man. Rams, thank you for being my friend, for wiping away my tears, for sharing your poetry and your life. I’m sorry that I so easily lost patience with your antics, when I knew that they were symptoms of the pain you had experienced/ were experiencing. However, after hearing some stories today about your early years, it seems that you’ve always had a mischievous, trouble-making streak. I can see you now, giving me the middle finger and telling me to cut the crap. So… see you later, ya weirdo.

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