Sanctuary for the poor in spirit


Published in the April 11, 2011 issue of Christian Courier

(Not from my column … just a little newsy piece)

In a typical church basement in London, Ontario, there’s a place where those in need of shelter, food, and companionship gather together and offer it to one another. It’s called Sanctuary. Pastor Gil Clelland, a former Christian high school art teacher, and Darryl Reckman, a part-time student at UWO, run the drop-in centre located at 75 Blackfriars Road, the temporary home of London First CRC, one of the key partners in this ministry. Darryl and Gil also conduct a mobile ministry downtown where they connect with their “street friends” and facilitate a Bible study in the public library.

Recently I dropped in on the drop-in centre. People were playing cards, setting up lunch, working on art, potting plants and chatting. I could not distinguish between the volunteers and “the homeless,” something Darryl found encouraging. He pointed out that that Sanctuary serves to minister to spiritual impoverishment first, and that their “church” is open to all who need to meet Jesus, whether rich or poor. He explained that many individuals who become involved with Sanctuary are not necessarily homeless at all, but struggle in life for all sorts of reasons, including the stereotypical issues such as addiction, mental illness, and developmental disabilities, but also deep brokenness from their lack of relational rootedness. Darryl added that many of those who end up on the street or in need of Sanctuary’s services are “homeless” long before they leave home. Pastor Gil and Darryl introduce hurting people to Jesus by building authentic friendships with them.

Sanctuary grew out of a Youth for Christ initiative. As an organization, Youth for Christ, however, maintains a “youth only” focus, and Sanctuary’s leadership team saw the need to continue befriending street people into adulthood. The ministry is now supported temporarily by Sanctuary in Toronto, an urban ministry led by Greg Paul (author of God in the Alley), and by other supportive networking such as churches and individual donors. In the meantime Sanctuary London is applying for its own charitable status designation.

 Finding refuge

I was warmly welcomed, even though I circulated with camera and notebook in hand. Mike showed me a painting he was working on, an evocative scene featuring a full moon reflected in a lake. He said he was thinking of calling it “Light meets darkness,” and was planning to give it away. “That’s my witness,” he told me. “I use my talent to the glory of God.” He then showed me another painting of a wolf baying at the moon in a ring of trees. “That’s about my loneliness,” he said.

Sanctuary is a place where loneliness is addressed. It’s where sandwiches, conversation, affirmation and love are offered in the name of Christ. I saw things that pushed against my own prejudices. The “poor” indistinguishable from the volunteers.  The poor with iPhones. The poor lifting each other up. The poor sharing joy and laughter. When I asked where the food for the meals comes from, my neighbour quipped with lightning wit, “From the grocery store.”  Sanctuary is a place where the “poor in spirit” experience a taste of the kingdom of heaven.


Girls and Royal Role-Models


The Royal Wedding has gone viral. Estimates of 2 billion spectators are being bandied about. Every possible detail of pomp and ceremony is milked for the sake of media interest… royal protocol, royal traditions, comparisons to previous royal weddings, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace, and, above all, Princess Catherine’s wedding dress and all the fashion and glamor associated with being the bride. From what I’ve gathered so far, apparently everyone is delighted with her poise and her choice of gown. Comparisons to Princess Grace Kelly abound. Fashion editors are predicting a return to more demure bridal fashions in the wake of Kate’s conservative choice.

I’m reasonably interested in fashion even at 56. I enjoyed the visual sumptuousness of the royal wedding, the dignified and regal music, and all the hoopla. It’s fun to be included in a party, even if only vicariously.

My guess, though, is that the moment that touched me the most deeply is one that the broadcasters glossed over and probably no one else will bother to blog about. That was the moment when 1900 guests at Westminster Abbey and hundreds of thousands on the streets of London joined their voices and sang “God Save Our Gracious Queen.” And, for a moment, there was a cameo shot of the Queen, her head modestly bowed, not singing, of course, and beside her, her husband, Prince Philip, head held high, singing. Petitioning God to bless his queenly wife’s glorious reign. It was an astonishing moment for me, a Christian, a woman, someone who has struggled mightily to understand my role as a woman in my church and in Christ’s kingdom. Someone who has spent most of her adult life thinking, writing, praying, wondering whether she’s allowed to lead and how to do so without alienating or offending other brothers and sisters in the Lord. A lifetime of inner conflict and doubt about reconciling leadership and service.

I could do worse than look to the Queen. Wikipedia tells me that not only is she the Queen of England, she is the figurehead of the 54-member Commonwealth of Nations. And she’s not just a titular ruler. Those in the know consistently commend her work ethic. She reads and studies and remains an active and informed head of state. At 85, it doesn’t appear that she intends to give up her reign anytime soon. Plans for her Diamond Jubilee, 2012, are already in the works.

As the British monarch, she is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and has openly expressed her Christian faith in the public square: “To many of us, our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”

Queen Elizabeth is a living role-model for Princess Catherine and for middle-aged women like me and for young girls who are watching this fairy-tale event dreaming of their own wedding day. Her royal example is instructive: Be more than a figure or even a figurehead. Put duty first. Take your calling seriously and expect the men in your life to be supportive. Demand much of yourself, even into your old age.

There’s another queen I could look to, of course. Queen Esther. A woman who, like Diana or Kate, undoubtedly experienced the heady influence of blushing beauty and power of stylish femininity, but who chose a wiser, greater leadership in service of her God and her people. A woman of epic daring and courage who demanded much of herself.

Today, I seek to lead patiently in my church, to act as a quiet standard-bearer for women in a congregation where women are not yet able to serve in ecclesiastical office. I consider myself, maybe not a queen, but an ambassador. 🙂 And I encourage all women, you ordinary women like me, to be royal ambassadors for Christ. Ambassadors for the Savior who calls you to serve him and to serve your people, too. Yes, your people. Even those who might misunderstand or spurn your leadership and service. Your church, your family, your community. For who knows who might be watching? Who knows but that you are an example to someone? Who knows but that you have come to such a position for such a time as this?

Slain in the Spirit on Good Friday

Slain in the Spirit on Good Friday

On Palm Sunday our pastor welcomed us to worship with a verse I don’t think I’d ever heard used in that particular way before: “Daughter of Zion, ‘See your Savior comes!’”  It was an arresting and dramatic greeting. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so singled out, so personally addressed, so publicly validated in worship as a woman.  I know it’s metaphorical. I know it’s Jerusalem. But, undoubtedly, in that moment, it was directed at me too, a daughter of Zion. I was so humbled by that extraordinary proclamation. Your Savior comes to you!  Jesus, the Bridegroom, taking the initiative. Coming to me. The distaff version of the Prodigal Son, I thought.

 At choir practice on Tuesday night, the Lord’s Supper table was already dressed for the coming Good Friday’s celebration of Communion. The proclamation echoed in my heart: See, your Savior comes. He’s already prepared the table for you. Or, in the French, “Tu dresses devant moi une table.” Not the daily setting of the table by the tired butler or grudging maid, but the gracious preparation of the banquet by the host himself, smoothing the linens, eyeing the wine glasses for water spots, troubling himself to ensure that every detail is right. That should have been my clue that something was up, but I paid no further attention to what seemed nothing more than my usual proclivity toward imaginativeness.

 Then, today, Good Friday, like Ezekiel, “I looked and I saw the glory of the Lord filling the temple of the Lord.” No, I didn’t fall face down. My cellular construction is knit with the damp grey woolen threads of Dutch reserve. The mystical does not rise easily from my stolid turf-shipping heritage. But somewhere in my soul danced a tiny flickering charismatic, a holy ghoster, an Appalachian snake-handler, a whirling dervish fanatic in visionary thrall. 

 Don’t get me wrong. I followed the sermon and the liturgy and the singing. I was fully present. But I also saw so much more. The kinds of things I always see when I open my eyes to the liberality of the Host. I saw that my church was a gift… and also something we “re-gift” to the One who bought it and gave it to us in the first place.

 There are moments, transcendent moments, when you see beyond what you are seeing. Frederick Buechner talks about looking “at a window” and “through the window.” I was looking at our worship and looking through it. I was looking at a worshipping church family and looking through it to the “sacrifices of praise” beyond.

 Be patient. The list is long, but no apologies.  It needs to be. I need to see it over and over again, and maybe you do, too – the multitudinousness (exactly the right kind of overblown word) of the blessings that crowd even such an ordinary mended and patched church like mine.

See the pastor who has prepared diligently, praying over the text and thinking about the understanding and hope he desires to ignite in his sermon. See the elder who accompanied the pastor to the nursing home yesterday to offer Communion to the shut-ins. Look upon the artist and his friend who took time out of a busy workday to lug a heavy steel sculpture into the sanctuary, so we could reflect on 1 Corinthians 13, so  we could experience the tangible weight and substance of faith, hope and love. Take note of the faithful daughter who picked up her elderly blind mom and drove her to church. See all these other brothers and sisters. The custodian who sliced the cubes of bread early in the morning, and her husband who collected the empty communion glasses in a lowly pail after the service. The volunteers in the nursery who took their turn cuddling cranky babies and tending to toddlers. The young people and their leaders who raked up the gravel last night, restoring the parking lot to a semblance of order after a wicked winter. The senior couple who put up the sign Jesus Died To Save Us And Lives To Keep Us. The volunteer who came early to run off some children’s bulletins because the service might be a bit long and kids can get restless. The sound guy who showed up early to test out the microphone equipment with the  mom and daughter who also came early to practise a touchingly tender song, The Bonds of Grace. Another mother and daughter duo who played the flute and trombone with exquisite control, the music plaintively asking, “Were you there?”  The devoted pianist and organist who also practised ahead of time and did their willing weekly part to accompany our praises. The ushers who came early to pass out the bulletins and to welcome with a smile. The elders and deacons who wear the heavy mantle of leadership, but who today passed out the sacramental meal like faithful waiters with towels folded over their arms, who collected the offerings, and who will carry on leading and serving tomorrow and the day after that. The woman who stitched the crimson cross and “It is finished” on a black banner. The one who brought the Easter lilies and watered them throughout the week, so their fragrance and freshness would remind us of the newness of life and Easter’s coming. The volunteer who arranged for a video to be shown to the Sunday School children, so they could enjoy a special event on a special day. The techie guy who ran the powerpoint and chose a dignified graphic (that would not offend) to accompany the lyrics. See all the people who sat in the pew and brought their gifts: their presence, their voices, their prayers, their money. See these friends who brought their fears and worries and hopes and dreams to the Cross at 4524 Confederation Line, Wyoming.  Every Tom, Dick and Harry. Every Susan, Frances and Nicole. Every last sinful one of us in church today. The Body of Christ.

 I’ve written this kind of list before. I probably will again. For this is the vision that never fails to move me, that makes me want to wave palm fronds and fall face down in obeisance to the Lord who did not find us unworthy of his love, but instead came riding on a donkey toward us and a deadly destiny.  This vision: when together we gather at the Wyoming CRC to say we believe that we are “the Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord, the Sought After, the City No Longer Deserted.” And, not just “we.”  Me. The daughter of Zion, wined and dined, enfolded and cherished. My hands are still trembling.

Of license plates and God’s speaking…


(Published in the March 28th, 2011, issue of Christian Courier)

As I wrote last month, I’m cautious about imbuing divine significance to trivial matters. But I’m also deeply convicted that God’s divinity colours our world. He immerses himself in our lives and hears our prayers. Sometimes you are simply called to bow before the incomprehensible, whether or not you call it a miracle.   

I have a friend, Rod Hugen, a pastor in Arizona. Recently, he had some health issues that required a major and delicate operation on his neck. I prayed for him the night before his surgery.

The next morning I went to London to visit my grandchildren. We did crafts and played in the park. Later, I decided to take Amara, the older one, to Adventures on Wonderland, an arcade located on busy Wonderland Road. Amara was talkative as we drove, so I shushed her. “Amara,” I said, “there’s a lot of traffic, and Grandma needs to pay attention to the road!” Suddenly a car switched lanes right in front of me, and I had to hit the brakes. Scared, I noticed the license plate … a flash of blue and red, a cactus, and Grand Canyon State. Arizona! Immediately I thought about Rod. It was 1:34 PM. I felt bad. His surgery had been scheduled for 10:30 AM. I’d been so preoccupied with the kids that I hadn’t remembered to pray. Still, no prayer is wasted, I thought. Maybe he’s in recovery. I took a moment to pray again.

This struck me as a remarkable coincidence. You don’t see Arizona plates in London every day. Was God reminding me to pray for Rod again? I had prayed for him the night before. God had heard me.  

But believers are linked by way of prayer, too, gathered in that unity we confess in Christ. The Apostles’ Creed calls it the “communion of the saints,” a far-flung and precious inheritance. For me, it’s a kaleidoscope of holy images, flitting bits of cathedrals and sacraments, martyrs and icons, steeples and circuit riders, banana loaves and casseroles, chants and hymns, whirling mosaics spun with such fluid complexity that you can’t really fathom how they hold together.

Could God really have been speaking to me through a license plate, summoning me to Rod’s side at that particular moment?

The real adventure

I shared this incident with Rod. He wrote back to me:

I want to affirm the crazy license plate story. Those things often happen to me. I try to act on them because I think it is often how the Spirit moves. At 10:34 AM (1:34 PM your time) I recall being in the middle of a panic attack sitting in the room anticipating the surgery and having this intense desire to run away. For the moment I was scared. My wife had dropped me off at the door and my friend, David, was sitting with me while she searched for a parking place. He said something about it being 10:30 and wondering when the surgery would actually be performed. His question raised all my fears and I remember (sort of) jokingly saying, “Maybe I should just leave now and forget the whole thing.”

Here’s the plot twist: I wasn’t even aware of the difference in time zones. Humbling to admit, but true. When I prayed for Rod at 1:34 PM, I thought his operation was done, but he was just going into surgery. The timing was immaculate. As the myriad translucent chips in the kaleidoscope shifted into place, I had this briefest glimpse of the incomprehensible… a pinhole view of a luminous design that folds the everyday world, where I take Amara to Adventures on Wonderland to spend a bunch of quarters at the arcade, into the Wonderland that is God’s playground: Ontario, Arizona and every depth of time and space, where he spends himself in an epic adventure to show forth his glory.