What Do You Want?

I am not going to lie. It has been a heavy time, one marked with significant loss and grief. And so, it stung when I read the lectionary passage for the week (the lectionary is a pre-selected group of Bible passages for the year, a resource that many people and churches use). I think my exact thought was, “are you kidding me?” John 5:1-9-The setting is Jerusalem, near a pool by the Sheep’s Gate. In the five porticoes by the pool, people who are chronically sick and disabled lie waiting. Rumour has it that an angel visits the pool at random times, stirs up the water, and gives it healing properties. The first person to step into the pool after the angel disturbs it, receives healing. Jesus visits this place, finds a man lying by the pool who has been sick for thirty-eight years, and approaches him with a question, no introduction or small talk first: “Do you want to be made well?”

If it were me, and I had been sick for almost four decades, I think I would look at the stranger and likely say, “seriously?”, possibly feeling like he was inferring I didn’t want to be well enough. I notice that the man doesn’t answer the question with “yes.” Even after thirty-eight years of serious suffering, he doesn’t say yes! Instead, he explains “I have no one to put me into the pool” and describes the unfairness at work, “While I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”  He avoids answering the question Jesus actually asks, which makes me think this isn’t simply a question about the man’s circumstances, but a question that goes even deeper, “What do you want?”

For me, the question resonates because I am moved by the very idea that God cares about what I want, is curious about my desires and invites me to recognize and articulate them. If I’m willing to sit with this story, maybe I can come to believe that Jesus actually wants me to be made well, to deliver me from my own baggage and fear. He invites me to want and to answer, “YES”.

As I shared all of this with the people of The Dale, I began to weep. I wept because there are so many areas of life where I am desperate for healing, both for myself and others. I wept because death is a thing. I wept because three people have died in the last two weeks and on this day five years ago, I lost my mother. I wept because of who I was speaking to- friends who know what it is to suffer and long for relief. One person responded to my tears by asking, “do you want a hug?” As she enfolded me, she patted my back and said, “this hug is from your mom”. 

What happens after Jesus asks the question? He says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” and the man does exactly that. What?! There is no indication in the story that the man has any idea who Jesus is, nor does he ever specifically ask for healing. What he really wanted was for someone to put him in the pool, and yet Jesus has other plans. Honestly, I don’t get it. I want to scream, “do more of this. NOW!”.

What I want to take away from this story is that it is possible for things to be made new and well, even if it doesn’t look or happen the way I expect. I think the desire to heal is intrinsic to the character of Jesus. According to this story, it didn’t even depend on the actions of the man by the pool. “Do you want to be made well?” is a question that will always be asked, because the desire is for our wholeness, freedom, and thriving. I don’t know if I always believe that to be true, or that I can even articulate the deep longing I have for all of those things. This world is messed up and I continue to sag under the weight of seemingly unanswered prayers. I feel challenged though to keep considering the question posed by Jesus. I wonder if naming what I really want is a place where the work of healing can begin.

A Guest Post: Hope Is a Big Word, by Joanna Moon

This blog has been a wonderful place for me to process my thoughts, talk about life and share about The Dale. I get to use my voice, which is not something I take for granted. In an effort to share this platform (such as it is), I have decided to include more guest posts. In the past, this has primarily been a way for interns at The Dale to describe their experience with our community. I would like to broaden that scope and will be inviting a variety of people to write in this space. I am excited to encourage and support other writers!

To start, here is a piece from Joanna Moon, my beloved friend and Community Worker at The Dale.

Today we had our weekly drop-in at the Salvation Army Thrift Store “Coffee Corner”. A friend joined us who is often in conversation with herself and/or an unseen other. She is sometimes very clear, and sometimes not. Today she spoke about a lot of things, including the feeling that she doesn’t have anyone in her life to care about her. Another member of the community, “Jess”, who has had more than her fair share of struggles, replied “Yes you do! You have us! We’re here for you, if you want to hang out with us! If not, that’s your prerogative.”

Then Jess stopped, as if surprised by herself… “Prerogative?! Wow, where did that come from? I haven’t used that word in… a long time! Awesome! What a great word!” She then went on to think of other great words. A few minutes later was still coming up with words, and I heard her say, “Hope! That’s a big word. Well, it’s a little word, but it’s big. It’s a big little word!”

She’s so right. Hope IS a big little word. Jess offers me hope, just by being who she is, and by the way that she offers hope to other folks in the community.

Hope. Awesome! What a great word.

The Tragedy of Violence/The Challenge of Love

It is all over the news: a van, moving at high speeds, intentionally drove along a more than one kilometre stretch of sidewalk in Toronto’s north-end, killing ten people and injuring numerous more.

I have been thinking about this traumatic, violent event a lot. For this born and bred Toronto girl, it touches my home. I read an account of a woman who was left unscathed, while the friend walking alongside her was swept away by the van. I walk these city streets all the time…it could have just as easily been me. For too many, it WAS their loved one. Tragedy has struck close.

One of the reasons I feel so sad is that while we begin to process and grieve this incident, other incidents are already underway. There is a trail of carnage in this world. It is shockingly easy to feel as though violence will always only touch the “other”. But as Mr Rogers so aptly said, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.”

So what does that even look like? I am admittedly overwhelmed. The problems seem too big, too pervasive, too bleak. And yet, there is light piercing through the darkness. It comes when people choose to listen to one another, to extend hospitality, to share resources, to weep when the other is weeping, to hold one another to account in love. We are invited to respond to one another’s needs. It isn’t easy. The best things rarely are.

Tonight I grieve for the victims here in Toronto. I pray for those left behind, the ones who saw it all happen, and the neighbourhood as a whole. I pray for the man responsible and against violence. I also pray for the many people who are intimately acquainted with tragedy across this globe. You are not simply the “other”.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. I Corinthians 13:4-7





Being Mindful: The Merging of Laughter, Tears, and a Watermelon Costume

I’m trying to direct my attention to the things that are happening in the present moment. It’s helpful for the most part. I say that because what’s right in front of me is a collection of things that are good, hard and pretty much everything in between.

Take today.

I woke up feeling good, which I received as an incredible gift. I’ve been sick and out of sorts this past week, acutely missing my parents and hyper aware of the challenges that I face. Somehow this morning my spirit was lighter.

I love the fall and today felt more like it to me. As I write, there is a cool breeze and late day sun pouring in a window.

Two funerals took place this afternoon for women I did not know, but were connected to many people I love, including Dion and Joanna, through The Causeway and Sanctuary (a place that functions much like The Dale). My heart grieves two more lives gone and reminds me of the many people we have said goodbye to this year.

Cate has decided she wants to be a watermelon for Halloween. A watermelon! So now I sit surrounded by reams of fabric and an old hula hoop, endeavouring to create a costume that she will be proud to wear. It’s a definite work in progress.

Today we celebrated a friend’s birthday at drop-in. We ate cake and carved pumpkins.

There are a number of people at The Dale who are not housed or at risk of being evicted. They need help, like yesterday. My voicemail is full of requests for The Dale to offer assistance. It’s humbling, hard work.

I’m making a pot of turkey soup, which is filling the house with a familiar, comforting smell.

Being mindful of what’s right in front of me does not make everything easy, though it does help in the way I manage it. Similar to my experience of Sabbath-keeping, it helps me to slow down and really look at things. I am able to pay better attention to not just my feelings, but what is motivating them.

Which brings me back to today. I have laughed and cried (and likely will do both again). I feel a mixture of joy and sadness. Somehow this day has been infused with a mysterious, yet firm sense of hope. Today, in this moment, I am grateful for all of it. Even the challenge of making an outfit that resembles a watermelon.







Up with Hope

Recently he sat beside me saying, “Erinn, I’m sick in the head. There’s no getting better. I’m dying from the inside out”. I didn’t have any words, so I continued to listen. I heard descriptions of the torture done to him as a child at the hands of people who should have been his protectors. I was told about decisions that once landed him in jail. I had to sift through some non-sensical things thrown in the mix of our conversation, mostly born out of his mental health challenges. It was all desperately sad. I couldn’t help but cry with my friend, who I’ll call “Trevor”.

At some point along the way I asked if there was anything I could do for him right now. “Buy me some alcohol? Or score me a hit?” I declined. I asked again, explaining the resources I had available. Looking at the ground Trevor quietly said, “play a game with me, kinda like you would with Cate (my daughter)?” That I could do. For the next ten minutes we played a game that he won. That seemed to be all he needed, so we gave each other a hug and went on to do some other things.

Just this week I saw Trevor again. He was writing on a scrap piece of tracing paper with a purple pencil crayon. I sat beside him and asked what he was doing. “I’m making a list that I want you to see”. Together we went over what was actually a list of goals, things like: open a bank account, buy a notebook from the Dollar Store to keep track of spending, finish school (“even though school sucks”), get a haircut, and so on. At the bottom of the page, with me looking on, Trevor drew a picture of himself with a smile and the caption “up with hope, down with dope”. I know Trevor didn’t coin the phrase- I  also know he meant it, because for Trevor one follows the other.

Honestly, seeing Trevor feel even the slightest bit of hope made my heart swell. I know that his battle is a hard one: he fights a variety of voices in his head that repeatedly say he’s not worth it. He uses substances to try to manage his pain and regularly admits it isn’t working. There are days when he is lucid and more days that he is not. I count it a privilege that Trevor is willing to share his life with me and really does invite me to share mine with him.

When asked about what ‘success’ looks like at The Dale, I usually point out that it comes in a variety of forms. In Trevor’s case, I want to celebrate the success that it is for him to move from utter despair to a moment of hope. My prayer is that when the darkness seeps back in he will see there are people rooting for him; that he will find the folded up list of goals; and that when all else fails he will remember how playing a game with a friend is actually good therapy.

Living in the Now: Choosing a Hope that Fuels Patience

Nearly every day I turn to a series of readings and prayers in both the morning and evening. This particular rhythm has only become a habit over the last year. As I walk through the valley of grief, I am relieved that this practice has produced muscle memory, the kind that instinctively takes over. And so, on those days when I don’t know what to do with myself, I at least begin and end with good words.

I recently read, “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves”. I have so many questions, many of which are the kind I suspect won’t be answered in my lifetime. I wonder what it looks like to accept the things I cannot control and to develop the wisdom to know what I can change. I looked up patience in the dictionary and found this definition: “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset”. Oh, how I long to grow the dimensions of this attribute in my heart.

One of the things I have learned a great deal about in the last number of years is being present to the moment. I began to discover that my tendency toward people pleasing and perfectionism (as though that is even possible) was deeply flawed and rooted in terrible insecurity. My worth it turns out cannot be tied to a job or a person or a skill, it comes entirely from God. This work-in-progress heart change has better equipped me to pay attention to what is right in front of me. I cannot change the past, nor can I live in the future. Instead, I must live in the now.

‘The now’ is a jumble of challenge that requires a significant amount of patience. The grief over the death of my mom is a good example: I must be present to the pain of this significant loss and endeavour to tolerate the suffering without lashing out or giving up. Not too long ago my daughter described me to other people as an optimist. Though I don’t always feel like one, I was relieved that she could identify me as that. What I want her to know is that even in my grief, I hold onto hope.

One of the things I pray each day is: “May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever He may send you. May He guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm. May He bring you home rejoicing at the wonders He has shown you. May He bring you home rejoicing once again into our doors”. In this time of uncertainty, I choose to fuel patience with hope, and to live with the questions. I trust that with time understanding will come.



I knew Robert Wilson as Cowboy. I met Cowboy outside of the library at the corner of Queen Street West and Cowan Avenue, where he was hanging out with a crew of people I knew from The Dale drop-in. He finished that first conversation with a certain hand gesture: one where he would wiggle his fingers and bring his arm back to signify that things were “groovy”. From that time on we used it to greet one another hello, though our goodbye would inevitably include a hug.

I learned quickly that Cowboy lived life hard. He was an admitted alcoholic who I got used to seeing inebriated. Drunk or sober, Cowboy could articulate that he was numbing difficult things and wanted to be able to stop. It was not uncommon for him to attend our little Sunday afternoon church service where he would pray aloud for healing. In some of his worst moments he would sit atop the small flight of stairs into the space away from the service, close enough to be safe, far enough to be entrenched in his own thoughts.

Cowboy became a good friend. He would always say, “girl, how ARE you today?” I knew he really wanted to know and would call me out if I didn’t give an honest answer. When I needed to share hard things he would look at me with compassion, nod his head and say, “in the end, in the end, in the end…things will be okay”. Coming from Cowboy, this sentiment was the opposite of trite. I knew that he understood the challenge of life and was pointing to our future hope.

The last time I had a conversation with Cowboy was near the beginning of June after a little memorial service we did for a community member’s father, a man none of us had met. It was a beautiful time, full of love and support for the bereaved. I sang ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ at the request of Cowboy. Afterwards he sang a couple of lines to me, unashamed of the tears that accompanied them. He spoke of how much he loved his friends and family, gave me a hug and left.

That night (I will spare the details of how) Cowboy ended up in hospital, unconscious and on full life support. Upon hearing the news the following day, I went to the hospital and met the family that surrounded him. Over the course of the next month and a half Cowboy was well cared for until his body couldn’t do it anymore. It is hard to believe he is gone.

I think about Cowboy a lot. I miss him. The Dale misses him, as do so many people in Parkdale. My prayer is that in the end, in the end, things have been made right for him. I live in hope that our goodbye is actually a groovy ‘see you later’, finger wiggling and all.

Toronto Star notice: Robert “Cowboy” Wilson Obituary