The most honest prayer

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This past Sunday, when I shared the news with folks at The Dale that Erinn’s husband Dion is in the hospital due to his worsening MS, the reactions varied from shock to sadness to anger. One friend’s response was “well #@&!, thanks for showing up for Dion, God.” An honest prayer. While I trust that God is working in the life of the Oxford family, it’s undeniably difficult to imagine why God hasn’t made things easier for these three precious people.

Later that same day I was at Sanctuary and a dear friend sat down next to me. He was under the influence, which brought his deep feelings to the surface. He expressed his love for those around him, as well as his confusion and pain. This friend has lost the majority of his biological siblings in the past ten years, as well as numerous street siblings. He has every reason to lament. During part of the service he was praying quietly, and I managed to catch a few snatches; “I love you, Jesus. And I’m just really pissed off with you… I know you love me, Jesus. I’m just having a hard time receiving it.” Another honest prayer.

I think there’s a good reason that so many of the Psalms are songs of lament. We need to and get to express our hearts to God, when we are joyful, confused, tired, angry, hopeful and deeply sad. To me it’s a sign of true and courageous faith when people who have suffered much continue to call out to God in fear, anger and confusion.

May we all learn how to pray these kinds of honest prayers.

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Leaning into Beauty

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Back in May, when I turned thirty, I decided I wanted my word of the year to be “beauty”. I wanted to intentionally appreciate the beauty of nature, visual art, music, literature, take time to create more art myself, and also have my eyes, ears, mind and heart open to the beauty to be found in unexpected places.

As we launch into 2018, I am renewing my intention to focus on beauty. I’ve picked up some poetry books, I’ve been dabbling in water colour painting, and have been writing down beautiful experiences so that they don’t slip into the haze of my not-so-great memory. It’s been a while since I’ve written a “Beautiful Moments” blog, so I think it’s high time 🙂 Here are a few from this week:

– On Monday I had an exceptionally pleasant conversation with a member of the community who is usually very volatile when he comes into drop-in. We chit chatted for a good 15 minutes without him getting angry, which is record-shattering! (He lost it on me later in the day, but those 15 minutes of happy chatting still happened! Unexpected camaraderie is beautiful.)

– On Tuesday evening the discussion at Bible study was quite powerful, thanks to the decision by a couple of folks to be vulnerable about their struggles. I basically sat back and witnessed these friends come to a deeper understanding of God’s love for them by sharing their unique perspectives and experiences with one another. It was uncomfortable at times, and very worth it. Trusting openness is beautiful.

-After Bible Study a couple of us walked a community member to his WheelTrans bus (an accessible transportation service), while singing “Lean on Me” at the top of our lungs (not my idea! But I went along with it, because… why NOT!) Passersby looked confused and/or amused, and the WheelTrans driver got a kick out of us. Silliness is beautiful.

May you find lots of beauty this year, too.

A carol that pulls no punches

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Yesterday Erinn and I, along with our dear friend Sam, sang Christmas carols for “Jane”, a Dale friend I’ve blogged about here. Jane has been living in a long term care facility for the last four years after suffering a major stroke. She hasn’t spoken, eaten solid food, or moved the right side of her body for those four years.

When I first started going to see her, Jane would weep with tears that communicated that she recognized me. Over the years, there have been fewer indications that Jane knows who I am, or if our visits make a difference to her. But when the three of us walked through the door yesterday, Jane started to weep again. Throughout our visit she would calm down, then start to cry again We held her hand, sang carols to her, and prayed for her before we left. It was so sad, and I think it was also very good.

I can’t imagine what Jane has endured these last four years, spending every moment in her bed, unable to communicate. But I can guess that of all the carols that we sang, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear rang the most true, especially verse 4. If you’ve never really absorbed these lyrics (as I hadn’t until this year), I invite you to read them all:

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

 

This has become my favourite carol, because it pulls no punches. It acknowledges that life is hard, and that we are in desperate need of peace. May Jane, and all of us, know deep hope in the midst of this weary world.

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.

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