Present to What Is

I have been reading a book that has challenged me to consider how to be very present to what is, or “consent” to be where I am. I will admit that the last few months have not been the easiest of times to venture into such a practice. It is a season of big transition: Dion living in Long Term Care, Cate leaving the nest, me discovering how to live alone. Then there is the general fatigue of Covid and the specific burden it is at The Dale: on both the staff team and the community. Add to all of this multiple deaths and limited ways to corporately grieve, systemic injustice, the list goes on. I even started to notice stress coming out in arguably small, but noticeable ways, including a sty in my eye and a kneecap that was moving around in ways it should not.

I am discovering that these less than ideal conditions (and let’s be honest, are they ever ideal?) are a very good reason to slow down and really notice what is going on both internally and externally. For example, what am I feeling? What do I need? What things might be necessary to root out of my heart? What are my hands busy doing- is it good or not? Together with my counsellor, I have been addressing these and many other questions.

We are now in the time of Advent, a word that means “a coming into place, view, or being; arrival”. For Christians, this is a period of preparation before Christmas and the arrival of Jesus. This year I am especially aware of how God is right in the place where I find myself: in the middle of the pain, the loneliness, the grief, and the stress. There is not an absence of God in the hardest of things. While I don’t always understand this, I do know it to be my experience.

By noticing and not ignoring the big things going on in and around me, I am re-discovering the joy found in being fully invested in a conversation with a person, cooking something, doing dishes, choosing a Christmas tree with Dion and Cate, creating home, making music, advocating, and remembering. It’s as though being present to where I am helps me experience the sacredness of living, in all of its complexity. It helps me to do what I can and know what I cannot. It propels me to rest. It rejuvenates my work.

None of this is easy. I have cried buckets of tears. Some days I am exhausted and would be content to hide under the covers. The transition that we face as a family is settling, but still strange and hard. The effects of the pandemic, injustice and grief are real. And yet. And yet, there is a coming into view, a sense that light is penetrating the darkness. I am (we are) being asked to walk this road and fortunately, when I pay attention to the terrain, I am confident that I am (we are) not alone.

Holding On a Little More

It is now Advent, that time when we prepare and wait in expectant hope for Christmas. 

I feel pensive about this season. On the one hand, I love it: the candles being lit one by one, slowly bringing light to the darkness, the traditions that have come to be a part of it, the growing excitement for the arrival of Jesus. On the other, I have a deep sense of unresolved longing: for hope to manifest itself in the total healing of people, for justice to roll, for the kingdom to get here fully and completely.

Oftentimes when I am full of all kinds of feelings, I turn to music. Yesterday I listened to this song, on repeat:

Blessed are the ones who do not bury
All the broken pieces of their heart
Blessed are the tears of all the weary
Pouring like a sky of falling stars

Blessed are the wounded ones in mourning
Brave enough to show the Lord their scars
Blessed are the hurts that are not hidden
Open to the healing touch of God

The Kingdom is yours; the Kingdom is yours
Hold on a little more, this is not the end
Hope is in the Lord, keep your eyes on Him

Blessed are the ones who walk in kindness
Even in the face of great abuse
Blessed are the deeds that go unnoticed
Serving with unguarded gratitude

Blessed are the ones who fight for justice
Longing for the coming day of peace
Blessed is the soul that thirsts for righteousness
Welcoming the last, the lost, the least

Blessed are the ones who suffer violence
And still have strength to love their enemies
Blessed is the faith of those who persevere
Though they fall, they’ll never know defeat

Common Hymnal, Wilson, Spencer, Massey, Keyes

I find the idea that we are blessed when we are suffering a relief, and I also wonder, what does it mean? How does it even make sense? Years ago, I did a word study on the word ‘blessed’. I discovered that its root means to consecrate and speak well of, most often used toward God. To bless something means to view it as holy and sacred. Viewed through this lens, I believe that God consecrates our grief and poverty. God holds up and makes blessed those who are broken, revealing them as precious and having connection to Him. Similarly, when we seek peace, when we show mercy, when we mourn and when we are meek, God is connected to us. There is not an absence of God in life’s greatest challenges. 

I find comfort in this, especially right now, when so many things seem to be on fire. This year has stripped many things bare. We have all, in one way or another, experienced loss. For many in my own circle, the loss has inflated poverty and marginalization. Somehow in all of this, I have also noticed a surge of resiliency, a desire to create change, and increased resourcefulness. To quote CS Lewis, I do believe that “Aslan is on the move”.

Instead of straining ahead to Christmas, I do want to sit in Advent and look for the ways light is creeping into the picture, and for the ways it is already here. I pray for a hope that might persevere and be rooted in trust, a hope that sings, “hold on a little more, this is not the end”.

When Christmas Hurts

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or not. Mostly not for a lot of people I love.

The sentimental songs, the snow, and all the stuff can serve as reminders of estranged family, or no family, or family that is very far away; of cold nights spent in stairwells or under a bridge or in a house that is not a home; of no money for rent or food or presents. For me, this month is magnifying the absence of my mom. I am also admittedly feeling a weariness about the excessive commercial nature of Christmas. Part of me wants to hibernate until January.

Today we had our Monday Drop-In. Interspersed throughout the day were interactions with people experiencing a variety of emotions. Some were grieving lost relationships and the death of loved ones. A number of people lit up when a new friend of The Dale showed up with their six-month old baby. Others expressed anger and frustration at life. A few joined in a rendition of Silent Night. By the end of the day my heart was heavy because though there were many sweet moments, there was much sadness.

Yesterday we gathered together for our Sunday service and lit the Advent candle that represents joy. What does it mean to not just experience a fleeting happiness, but a grounded joy in whatever our circumstances might be? A number of people, many of whom were at the drop-in today, and all no stranger to challenge, contributed to the discussion. We encouraged one another to not allow our struggles to define us or rob us of joy, to practice gratitude for even the smallest of things, to learn to rejoice, and to again and again, choose joy.

Right now, even as I sit here feeling burdened for my friends and missing my mom, I am trying to slow down and do what we talked about yesterday. I hunger for the peace that passes all understanding, something I know is real and gratefully regularly experience. It helps to remember that the impact of Christmas is to be felt everyday of the year, not just on the 25th, for light has pierced the darkness and brought with it hope and yes, joy.

“May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy.” Psalm 126:5-6

Light in the Darkness

Dignity of Presence

I’m trying to warm up after a 5:15 morning walk with a dear friend. I’ve been checking e-mails and just received the good news about a grant proposal being accepted for PNC. Yes! And just last night a group of new friends announced they had taken up an offering for us- an offering that reflects loving generosity. Yes, again! As I sit by the fire in my living room I am struck by the gratitude I feel that, at the end of a crazy year, PNC is still here. We have weathered many storms and are not looking just tattered and torn, but hope-full. On more than a few occasions I have said (and will continue to say), “there is beauty arising from the ashes”.

At this time last year another dear friend shared an Advent reading that has proven to be a constant source of great encouragement. One part says this:

Think of the seed. We commit it to the darkness. And a new plant emerges thanks to what O’Donohue calls ‘the ancient symmetry of growth: root further into darkness and rise towards the sun.’

This is so powerfully embodied in the great poise of the trees. ‘A life that wishes to honour its own possibility has to learn too how to integrate the suffering of dark and bleak times into a dignity of presence. Letting go of old forms of life, a tree practices hospitality towards new forms. It balances perennial energies of winter and spring within its own living bark.

A dignity of presence. I love that. I love that PNC has been able to urge our roots deeper, spill into the streets, learn to rely on God for our daily bread and find a new way. I am learning SO much about trusting God in each moment. Without fail, when the bank account has dipped to a bad place, there is either just enough money in my pocket or someone else says, “I will take care of it”; when there is little food in the pantry we get a donation; when we need a space to run a program another organization says “here, use this space”. I have desired to be open and attuned to the possibility that God might say it is time to close the doors. All these happenings though say the exact opposite: stay open, I am with all of you.

The PNC community is rising up. With humble gratitude I say, thanks.

To all who mourn he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair…they will be like great oaks that the Lord has planted for his own glory (Isaiah)

The Water Guy

Advent is upon us. Advent, for those unfamiliar with the term means “coming” and is used to describe the time between now and Christmas. It is the time in which we wait and prepare to remember the coming of Christ that happened so long ago and longingly anticipate His return. I began to really pay attention to Advent a number of years ago now and admit that with each passing year this season has become more and more challenging for me. Though deeply rooted in me is a desire to give gifts, I struggle with the consumerism of the season. I hate how busy the month of December becomes. Most of all though, a very large spotlight appears over the darkness of both my own heart and the state of the world. It feels as though I cannot wait for things to be made right.

I’m having to learn the art of waiting. Not the fidgety, exasperated kind of waiting, but the kind that is patient and still. I’m having to choose to buy less, slow down the pace and allow myself to be changed. Very slowly, the layers of guilt, shame, loneliness and ill-desire are being stripped away from my heart. My eyes become even more alerted to the terrible pain and suffering of this world: of men and women and children caught in the sex trade and of those who control them; of bombs being detonated over cities, villages and towns; of polluted water that cannot quench the thirst of those around it, of the awful disparity between those who are rich and those who are poor. As my eyes open, so does the desire to do what I can: pray, love well, build community, look for glimpses of hope, weep with those who are weeping and receive the care and love of others toward me.

Years ago I found myself completely overwhelmed the week before Christmas. My husband was having a terrible Multiple Sclerosis attack, my mother was trying to recover from brain surgery in hospital, my daughter was small and needing me and all of a sudden we HAD NO WATER. I turned on the tap one morning and nothing came out. Nothing came out for over a week. The worst part really was that nobody seemed to be able to help- the City of Toronto told us to call a plumber while the plumber told us to call the City. Finally somebody from the City told me candidly that we needed to have a pipe replaced from the sidewalk to the house, an issue requiring getting on a waiting list (a list we’d actually been on for years) and that until our name came up we were out of luck. I got off the phone, locked myself in the bathroom and lost it.

It wasn’t pretty. Through the flood of tears I finally said, “God, there is absolutely nothing I can do. You HAVE to do something”. I was wailing so hard that I almost missed the ring of the doorbell. Standing outside my door was a lanky worker from the city. He said, “I found your problem. Stuck my shovel in the snowbank by the sidewalk and water flooded out. I’ve got a crew on the way”. Friends, I felt like I met Jesus in the form of a water guy.

This Advent I am waiting for the water guy to show up. I want to cut through the various obligations of Christmas and be reminded that I need to remember He is, in fact, coming.