What Gave Him the Strength, the Courage?

On August 10th of this past summer, I joined eighty thousand other fans from around the world to cheer for Oscar Pistorius as he ran the final leg of the 4x400m final at the London Olympics. Yes, I was at the Olympics in London England!

Earlier this spring, my ten year old son Isaiah was nominated by his hockey coach for an award through McDonald's for leadership, sportsmanship, fitness level, and community involvement. According to the essay submitted by his coach, he was a stand-out on his hockey team. We included in Isaiah's "community involvement" component his participation in Sanctuary London — where he joins us regularly, and even brought his whole hockey team to a drop-in meal last winter. The prize — a trip for two to the London Olympics. And Isaiah won! We flew out for an amazing four day experience in London, England. We saw Sherlock Holmes' house at 221B Baker St, the London Eye, Parliament buildings and Big Ben, as well as two Olympic events – bronze medal match for women's court volleyball (Japan won in 3 sets over South Korea) and the second last night of track and field at Olympic Park (saw the 4x100m women's final won by the American women in world record time, pole vault, hammer throw, 4x100m men's qualifying, and a few other races). It was an experience like no other.

That one moment struck me. Oscar Pistorius — his lower legs amputated at age 11 months and since then has been walking and running on artificial legs — ran right past us. By the time he received the baton as anchor, his team from South Africa was far behind the eventual leaders from Bahamas. But he ran with perseverance and determination. And we cheered. Eighty thousand of us cheered. We did not cheer out of sympathy. We cheered (at least I did) because Oscar had not let any one or any thing get in the way of his dreams. His struggles to compete in the "able-bodied" Olympics has been well documented. Too many people thought his artificial legs may give him an advantage. In the end, he qualified for the men's 400m semi-final and his team ran in the 4x400m final. And we cheered. What gave him the strength to keep going beyond all odds? What gave him the courage to compete not just in track but in the courts? I'm convinced that comes from one place — hope. Hope comes from love, and love comes from HOME.

Home is that place of connection and acceptance. Home is the place where you are allowed to mess up and still feel loved. In other words, home is where you cheer for each other. Home is missing for so many people I know in downtown London. They are "homeless."

I sat with Carl on a bench in the morning sunshine just outside of the Covent Garden Market. He recalled his past — his family that moved around many times because of dad's job. "I never really settled down." He shared how he hit the streets at 15, made his way to Toronto and been "pretty much every where" since. He ended up in London because he met someone online and came here for the promise of a relationship. That promise like so many things in Carl's life faded. "What's the plan?" I asked him. The words hung there. The wind picked up — with just a taste of the autumn cool. "The plan? – this is the plan…I do this" motioning to the bench, "…that's it." No home. No love. No hope. And I wonder how it would be different to just have a few of the eighty thousand cheering for Carl.

An Open Back Door

I get it. Reading the Gospels it is impossible to miss. It is so evident. The fact that people miss it has spurred on many movements within the church. The “it” is this: Nobody should be excluded from your church!

Your front doors MUST BE (according to the way I understand scripture) wide open. We must allow anyone to be part of our community. The implications are the challenge, right? The church community will (hopefully) shift with each person coming in. Not that we shift who we follow in Jesus, or give up His commands. But if Jesus’ incarnation is actually lived out in each person in our community, that incarnation will have a slightly (or sometimes radically) different feel with each new person added to the community.

And frankly, I get that—theoretically. Practically, it’s not easy. But there is one implication to an open front door we are working out in our community in London—if we are to have an open front door, we must also have an open back door.

Christine was new to our drop-in. She was easy to talk to but very nervous. I noticed a bright bruise around her right eye. Whenever my questions approached her black eye, she quickly changed the topic. For some reason, she stayed into the evening. She didn’t really want to learn cartooning (the topic I was teaching for our art class that night). So she worked away at her scrap book. She pulled out papers, letters, and mementos from different moments in her life – all to make a wonderful design. She spoke up a little as she worked, feeling more comfortable as the evening wore on. Near the end of the night she went out for a smoke. I followed her just to chat some more.

“I never get to do any of that stuff with my friends. They think its all garbage and tell me to put it away,” said Christine.

“You are an artist. You have a real gift,” I told her.

“An artist, hah! Nah, I’m just foolin’ around,” Christine deflected.

“No, trust me, I used to teach high school art. You have a real gift.”

“An artist.Wow. Nobody ever called me an artist. You think so?”

It was an amazing night. We had made a connection. Other people in our community had welcomed Christine as well. It was wonderful to see someone in obvious pain receive intentional love. I have not seen Christine since.

Many people have come and gone during five years of doing this type of ministry. Our experience with Christine highlights what we’ve learned. Not everyone will stay. Why don’t they stay? It might hurt too much to be reminded of intimacy. It might be too hard to open up. Maybe we were too warm. Maybe we were too cold. Maybe, she just doesn’t like me.

I’ll never learn which “maybe” it is. But I have learned to give that person back to Christ. I need to trust that we are not the only community Jesus has going. We are not everything to everyone. But if we have an open front door, we need to allow that back door to be open too. Some people may not fit. And I need to trust that it’s okay for them to leave knowing that God is still working in their lives.

Picking Up… Jesus.

Click on the image above to hear Sanctuary's latest story from the street!  Are your eyes open to see Christ in the most unexpected places…  In the most unlikely people?


We all want to see people we know and love be changed by the love of Christ. But sometimes that change just doesn't happen…then what? In the story below, we meet Dorothy, a friend of Sanctuary London. Her life has left her in a place where ministry is tough, if not impossible…does that mean we just give up? Or does Jesus offer a different response?

Dorothy has been with our community for two years. Her story hurts to hear. Her mother knew she was too young and poor to care for her so Dorothy entered the system just after her birth. Over the next 15 years, Dot (as she likes to be called) saw many foster homes, a girl's home, and a few detention centres. Dot was on the streets of Detroit at the age of 16. She learned to survive the way many of our friends do – live for today. Nearly 50 now, Dot is a product of the world she has known her whole life.

“I don't blame the system,” she shared with me last week. “I'm just telling you what I saw.” She recalled her past with great detail. At the age of 13, she was living with a friend of an aunt. Her older sister was there too. “But my sister was reckless. Didn't care…just wanted to be free from it all.” So she robbed a convenience store for a few bags of chips using a knife and then she just waited around. “We ate the snacks together down the street from the store.” When the police came to pick her sister up, Dot chased the police car down the street hitting the car repeatedly. “My sister was my only friend and they took her away…I never saw her again.” She stopped. Looked around the atrium in which we were speaking. Cool morning light poured in. Dot was lost in thought and would not make eye contact. After 37 years, this still hurt. Eventually, she began her narrative once more. As a street kid, she got into drugs and alcohol. Keeping a healthy relationship was impossible for her. The last time she served time in prison lasted for over 10 years. She was released when she was 45. “I really hurt someone, Gil. They put me away for a while…I've been trying to be clean since I got out…it's so hard.” Watching my reaction to her stories, she could sense I was hurting for her and released me. “Don't feel sorry for me. I made my own decisions. I'm the one who screwed up…” then in reflection and perhaps not even to me, “I just wonder if I've got time to make anything of my life.”

How should we walk with friends like Dorothy? Let me share what we've learned along the way. Keep loving her. And keep walking with her. No matter what.

I used to see people as an emergency in need of 'help.' If I could provide what they needed immediately, they would 'get better.' So I provided immediate needs – food, money, stuff…and they didn't get better. I was frustrated a lot (still am at times to be honest). I gave and they didn't get better. What was wrong with them? Slowly and at a pace I didn't appreciate, I was learning patience…and perseverance…and the true meaning of discipleship and love. It takes time. And never giving up.

Soon after I began ministering on the streets of London, I met Dr Rick Tobias from Yonge St Mission in Toronto. Rick has worked among street level folks for 35 years. I asked him how to treat our friends on the streets. His answer stuck with me to this day, “You love them. Some of the people you love have a spark and with your love and patience and perseverance, that spark tuns into a flame…I've seen some wonderful fires in people! But some people, you love and it never really gets better. The pains they have experienced in their lives were too deep and too much to come out of…But at least they have a home.” I asked a follow-up question, “So, how do you tell the difference? Between those who have a spark and those who don't?” He gave me a knowing look and answered, “You don't! You love 'em all the same.”

Can Christian Leaders be Weak?

If I'm reading ads on Christian websites correctly, it seems that the local church wants a pastor who is a combination of Jesus and Superman married to a partner who plays the piano. Soon after hiring an 'ordinary' pastor, the local church sees the person's weaknesses and vulnerabilities. These shortcomings add up and another ad fills Christian websites. Can we find ways to learn, as I did, that a Christian leader can be weak?

Shortly after our second child was born, a doctor diagnosed my wife with postpartum depression. I wasn't worried. If we believed enough, Jesus would overcome. He won the victory over sin and death and we needed to live in that victory. So, we prayed for her healing…and Bonnie still had postpartum. She was not getting any better. So, in the lowest moment of our marriage, I accused my wife of not having enough faith. A good friend called a few days later. “I've heard what you said to Bonnie about her faith…” he began. I was shocked to hear him continue, “I have depression too…and I've learned that some things on this side of eternity do not get healed.” My foundation of a victorious powerful Jesus crashed around me.

I apologized to Bonnie and begged her forgiveness. And, reading 2Corinthians opened my eyes. I remember soaking in, “God's grace is sufficient for me…In my weakness I am made strong.” I began to read the Biblical narrative with new eyes. God continually made Himself known through the weakest, most dependant people. And in Jesus, I saw a God who comes not in power but in love, humility, and even weakness.

I need to admit I am weak. The cross demands it. But it's a daily challenge. I put pressure on myself and receive pressure from others to be strong and have it all together. And every time I sense I am giving into that pressure, I know I am wearing a 'mask.' I am not being honest.

From the first week of our church plant, we intentionally built in the need to admit we are weak – individually and collectively. We welcome those who are hurting and feel rejected by society. Having coffee with one of our congregants last week, she said, “If you didn't admit you were weak, I would lose respect for you.” But I have friends who are pastors in town. They do not feel that. They wear their masks of having-it-all-together. So, they hurt with me…not with their congregations. One pastor told me that any sign of weakness or sin would give his congregation a reason to get rid of him.

Admitting our weakness is inherently risky. We open ourselves up to rumour and criticism. For years I didn't want to or even know that I should admit it…it was easier then for sure. But I have found a depth in relationships that can only come with honesty. I have found that there are many people waiting to admit their weaknesses too…if just given freedom to do so. Can a Christian leader be weak? I hope so…

Hungry for Family

Evening settles in… that time when dusk can feel lonely, and my friend Paula shares with me that she lost her husband fourteen years ago. She speaks so quietly I can barely hear her. "He died before we had any children, and I've been alone ever since…” Her voice breaks, and her eyes fill with tears. “Sorry,” she says, “it's still too sad to talk about." She tells me how much she misses him… that he was her only family… and her grief feels raw in my heart.

It's our weekly Wednesday drop-in. A blue-grey darkness presses into the windows, hiding the snow banks outside, and the lights shine a bright glow over the room. We can smell bread baking in the kitchen. The tables are crowded, everyone sharing stories from their week; one table is playing euchre, another is enjoying friendly banter about the hockey game. Once we have prayed and the lasagne arrives, we begin serving each other and ourselves. This is a family-style meal. We share together from dishes passed around the table, and the sounds of plates and cutlery and friendly chatter make me feel at home.

As the conversation quiets and everyone begins to eat, I am hungry and happy for the warm food, but I am most intently aware of the huge blessing of eating around this table with my friends and especially Paula. I am so grateful that I’m not alone, that I have this family, that I am loved here. And suddenly my mind fills with an image of Jesus sitting around his own long table, desiring to eat supper with his disciples who loved him dearly, who were his friends and his family.

Family. It’s a word that brings joy, a word that can hurt, and a word I hear over and over again at Sanctuary. Sometimes it's spoken as a loving declaration: "Sanctuary is my family!" Sometimes a deep longing: "I wish my own family felt like this." Sometimes a prayer, during our Sunday night worship: "God, thank you for giving this family to those who don't have family." Whether we are longing to have our own family, healing from family hurt or break-up, missing family we've lost, or simply wanting closeness, the desire for family is often met when we are together.

Many times I've heard my Sanctuary friends say that this community is their true family. This is where we find togetherness. This is where Jesus sits with us at meals, and reminds us how he said to his disciples, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." I know that pain and loneliness will keep showing up in our community, but I have faith that in our sacred moments of relationship, we will receive love from God that will carry us forward through our struggles. The kind of love that brings Paula back to us each week, even when grief weighs her down. Together with her, at this table, we are hungry for belonging, hungry for family.

During our meal tonight, Paula has grown relaxed and quiet across the table. The earlier sadness in her eyes has been replaced by a happy contentment to be with her friends. I can tell she feels at home here. I watch her lean in and listen to the woman beside her, and I feel relieved to see her smile. And while I know her sadness still hovers near, I'm grateful that in this moment, she is not alone, and has a family to bear it with her.

Home… for just a moment

"Can we talk?" Tank asked me as I walked downtown.  His question surprised me.  Tank doesn't talk much.  He is as tough as his nickname.  Closed, muscular, speaking with short, quick words and a furled brow… tough. 

"What's up?" I replied.

"My baby passed away this week…  When she was born, her mom and I agreed that I wouldn't be part of her life… but she was born with a heart problem… she died this past week.  I don't even know what she looked like…  I felt it for the first time as I walked here alone this afternoon…  You know my son was taken three and a half years ago…  We were too young and gave him up for adoption…  I hear things about him from the agency…  He's in a good home." Tank tried to smile.

I asked some detail questions.  Tank shared some glowing reports about his son.  And some anguish about his daughter.

"I just figured out…  I've lost both of my children…"

"I'm sorry, brother."

"Yeah…" and then it was gone… the safety, the vulnerability, the side of Tank no one gets to see.  Tank caught himself in the moment and closed down again with an off topic question.

I answered.  And Tank found an opening to leave.  He walked away.  Tough as the streets again.

It was a moment.  Perhaps a couple of minutes – tops.  But Tank felt safe for that moment.  In that moment, we found 'home' together.