Advent Light

One year ago, at our Wednesday Christmas drop-in, one of our Sanctuary friends gave me a small Christmas cactus. Pete is a very kind and soft-spoken man, with a spirit of love and generosity. He had shared with me that he didn’t have family, had lost his wife years ago, had very little money, and lived alone in a small bachelor apartment – a life that became very lonely sometimes. And yet, despite these struggles, he was bringing gifts to his friends! To me! The cactus was a beautiful blessing, reminding me that I was loved and not alone.

Two weeks ago, as our Sanctuary community headed into advent, I was stung by mixed emotions: sadness and grief of hopes laid down and dreams let go, together with the wonderment, anticipation, and deeper knowing of God bringing his own dreams to life with us – how a small candle of joy would be a big and bright light among us. I thought of many joyous moments when we saw God’s face and celebrated his healing; I also remembered the fears we carried: were we really God’s beloved? Would we really have good friends to walk through life with?

A few mornings ago, as I felt the weight of these thoughts, I walked into my kitchen to make a cup of tea, and there was the Christmas cactus Pete had given me one year ago, blooming bright red for the very first time. One large blossom had already reached completion, but there were a few tiny red buds still waiting to open into the fullness of the image God had made them to be, waiting on what was to come.

I thought about the Lord’s prayer: Your Kingdom come… on Earth as it is in Heaven. I knew what I desperately wanted it to look like. For hurts to be healed, broken relationships reconciled, hope renewed, and healthy love to blossom. Why were things still so messy, and when would they be set right? And what could I possibly offer my friends as I stood among them?

And then as I chatted with Darryl, he reminded me that this was exactly the thing we could offer: standing among one another, being with one another – so that none of us are alone in our struggles. Emmanuel. God with us. This, I realized, was the direction towards joy.

At Sanctuary, one of our favourite things to do is spend time together. In joy and celebration, and in hard times. Hanging out together at dropins, playing cards, telling funny stories, laughing at silly jokes, sharing our stories and hurt, and just being ourselves. Being home together. Being for each other a little bit of advent light. At our Wednesday dropin this week, we will share a Christmas meal – twelve tables of friends together – twelve families combined into one very large family. Thursday night, we will gather for another Christmas meal at First Baptist church, where almost 200 friends will gather from Sanctuary and Streetlight. All kinds of people with all kinds of stories – with homes and without, with family and without, with children and without, with healing and brokenness, with joy and with sorrow – and all having one thing in common – a desire for connection, togetherness, and home.

Last Sunday night, Gil reminded us that God looks at each of us with so much love – that we are already wonderful in his eyes. He is already pleased with us! He rejoices over us! And this is what I hope we can be for each other this Christmas and all year long: standing together, and reminding each other that we are God’s beloved, that he loves us, and that with us, he is well pleased. This is the good news born in a manger!

We pray that this Christmas, as friendships blossom and we walk together in love and community, God’s Kingdom will come just a little bit closer, and our dreams will meet his, just a little bit more.

‘Submit to One Another….’

Henry has been helping out in the kitchen here at Sanctuary for two or three months now.  Every Wednesday he is there at 3pm sharp, ready and excited to tackle whatever cooking adventure we have lined up for the day.  His heart to serve is not easily conceiled.

My conversations with Henry until this past week were mostly small talk.  I know that he is new to London and that he came from Toronto.  I know that he is a big football fan, although I can't quite remember what team he cheers for.  I also know that he is currently unable to hold employment because of a car accident that has done some severe damage to his back.  But beyond these few things, I don't know much about Henry's life.  He seems to rpefer to work silently.  A few weeks ago he single handedly peeled 50 pounds of potatoes without so much as a word of complaint.  And he is great with our community as well.  He's always encouraging, never belittling. 

I could tell that he knew his way around the kitchen, and when we were making apple crisp for desert, I watched in amazement as he peeled and sliced at least half a dozen apples by the time I was able to peel just one!

Until that day, he never let on just how much he knew.  So I had to ask, "Have you worked in a kitchen before, or is cooking just a hobby for you?

"Ya, I enjoy cooking," was his nonchalant response.  It took some pretty serious digging on my part before he would admit to me that he spent over 30 years in the hospitality industry before his accident.  He first worked as a prep line worker, and most recently as manager of a number of high end kitchens in Toronto!  And even with all of these years of experience, this trained professional was taking orders from me….  From me!  The guy who recently added four cups of corn starch to help 'thicken up the gravy a little' (instead of a few teaspoons…… who knew the difference?).

I can't believe that Henry never once tried to take over, or at least try to show me a better way of doing things.  Instead, he always asked me what I would like him to do, and how I wanted him to do it.  This is the kind of person I strive to be like.  A heart completely filled with humility.  One who empowers others by serving in complete submission, even when I think that I know a better way of doing things.

One thing I can tell you for sure.  The next time Henry comes to help in the kitchen, I think I'll let him slice the apples the way he thinks they should be sliced.

While Making Bread

Here in this kitchen with my Sanctuary friends,
we are learning to make bread. Adding the yeast,
kneading the dough, rest fifteen minutes,
rest and repeat, rest and release, love and release.
My bread is rising. My prayers are rising
into the warm room like a flutter of birds
into hope. I want to stay here, where I can do nothing
but watch the bread rise, here in this kitchen
of order and knowing, with its recipes
and predictable outcomes, smooth cupboards,
cool glide of stainless steel, bright lights steady
as the humdrum of rain outside.
Because everywhere else, things get messy.
There are so many people hurting out there
on the streets, and so many questions
without answers. There is a brother or sister
we keep running from, a family falling apart,
a constant fear that love won’t last.
And I want to be there, fully present in the midst
of what is not yet fully risen—
in the waiting for the rising that comes
when the darkness of Saturday is over. But I also
want, for this one hour, to just make bread
with my friends, where I can rely on patterns
of measuring and pouring, of kneading and folding
the dough over and over again. Where I can be
sure of the outcome and pretend I have some control
over the world by loving things
enough to make them love me back.
Where I can pretend to myself
there is a recipe even for this: for stopping someone
from leaving me by loving them enough.
And where, mostly, I am learning the deeper truth
of the matter: that love can only be given as a gift,
that love cannot make anyone do or not do anything—
just as in the warmth of this kitchen,
where things that are measured are also spilling
over, the bread rises freely
simply because it wants to.

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.

A Simpler Life

Just yesterday I pulled out the old mountain bike and took a ride to a small town just outside of London, to visit a man who was inquiring about the work of Sanctuary.  It was an absolutely beautiful ride down country roads.  The sun was shining bright, and the humidity was no longer in the air on this fine August afternoon.  After a half hour or so of peddling, I pulled up to the address. 

There he was, standing in his front yard, scissors in hand, cutting blossoms off his Rose of Sharon tree.  He immediately met me at the top of the driveway with a warm welcome, and I thought to myself, "this must be what it feels like to visit your grandfather"…  He invited me in, and we made small talk about the nice ride up, and about ministry.  Before long, he was going into great detail about his years of service in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and about how he met his wife on the coast of British Colombia.

With a bit of a sigh he told me that he had to say good-bye to his vehicle about a month ago.  "Ever since the year I retired, I would take that car on a trip every year, first to Newfoundland to visit my grandchildren there, then to BC to visit my grandchildren there.  I just hope, now that I don't have my car, that they'll come every once in a while to come see me."

And then he got down to the real reason for his inquiry.  "I've heard a little about Sanctuary, and I believe it is one of the great works of the city of London.  I may be shut-in, but at 88 years old, i am still learning.  I am learning about people in need in this city, and I want to make a difference.  That is why I want to support your ministry…  I just need help filling out the paperwork."

With the paperwork done, we continued to chat a while longer.  As it became time to leave he rose and gave me a big hug.  Following me out the door, he looked up to the sky and smiled.  "On a perfect day like today," he said, "my deepest desire is to bring flowers home to my beautiful wife.  But since I can't do that, it would mean a lot to me if you would bring these flowers home to your wife."  And he handed me the cup of blossoms he was cutting when I first arrived.

As I rode away, I imagined going back to a simpler time (the old fashioned country farmhouse made that pretty easy), when the pace of life was slower, and all that really mattered was gathering enough firewood to stay warm through the night, and caring for each other.  Smiling, i held tight to the cup of flowers in my hand and raced off, excited to share this adventure with my wife.

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?

Letting Go

It was a winter evening, dark with a chilly wind, when I ran into my friend Bruce, a man who attended our drop-ins. He was weaving along a downtown sidewalk, slow and unsteady. As soon as he saw me, he quickly stopped and put down his bags, eager for conversation. His breath smelled of alcohol, and his words were slurred and sad.

I asked him how he was doing. “Not good,” he said, shaking his head. “Not good.”

“What’s going on?” It was the first time I’d seen him this way. Normally at the drop-ins he was fairly happy and relaxed, but tonight I could see hurt and despair all over his face, his brokenness as tangible as this cold snap of wind.

“Everything’s going so bad. And they won’t let me back in the shelter,” he told me. “Got nowhere to go. Been staying there for weeks, causing no trouble, and now they don’t want me.”

“I’m really sorry to hear that, Bruce.”

“Who cares? I don’t need them anyway!” He kicked the ground and stuffed his hands in his pockets. He told me about an argument he’d gotten into—how heated things got, but that he wanted peace and would do anything to avoid a fight. He told me about the violence when he was a kid… how it became a part of him. “It’s not fair. I don’t want it anymore.”

He couldn’t stop talking, said he didn’t want to hurt anyone, and told me how much he loved coming to our drop-ins. Then he began to cry. “I’m afraid to come back,” he said, “afraid I’ll mess up.” I wanted so much to fix this for him: his hurt and pain, his fears, the past he was running from—but I was helpless in that moment to fix any of it. All I could do was offer him love and friendship, and while that was supposed to be enough, it sure didn’t feel like enough. As we finally said goodbye and I walked away, my heart broke: I felt like I was abandoning him, and all I could think of was Jesus, hurting and bleeding and alone on the cross. And then, David Crowder’s words: oh, how he loves us.

I am slowly learning to let go and let God. As a couple of good friends suggested recently, we need to love and then release, and sometimes we need to get out of the way so God can do his work. But I keep wondering, what does this really mean at the end of the day, to trust God fully, to love with all my heart and also let go? The only thing I know for sure is that trusting God doesn’t make it hurt any less.

At Sanctuary, I’m learning to love my friends and release them to be who they are. In return, I’m finding out they love me the same way—just as I am. What an extravagant gift and beautiful reminder of God’s love for me. I don’t know yet how to do this really well, but I have to trust that as I stand with my friends in their hurt, and as I open my hands and let go, I’m making room for God to come in. And I know that tomorrow, all I can do is invite him again.


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.”

Grace’s Story…

When we think of warm fresh-baked bread right out of the oven, we often find ourselves thinking of home. At Sanctuary, we are very intentional about trying to create a sense of home together. We are blessed every week to have one of our friends bake a dozen loaves of bread for our meal. But she always leaves the last few loaves uncooked, so that when we get to the church we can put them in the oven, and before long the whole building smells like home.

One Monday, she and her son came to our drop-in with all the ingredients and invited our friends to bake bread withthem. It was an incredible time of laughing and learning and just being together. Another friend of ours, Grace, also loves to bake bread, and so we invited her to join us in the kitchen. It was hard to understand when she said, “I don’t want to.” However, a few days later, Grace shared with us that it was not that she didn’t want to bake with us, but that she was afraid her emotions might get the best of her. And then she began to share… This is Grace’s story.

“Fresh-baked bread makes me think of the smell of bread going through my home as a child. I grew up making bread. I learned when I was twelve years old. My mother taught me without a recipe – just a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that. Bread-making throughout my childhood was very important to me because of how it made me feel. I came from a dysfunctional and abusive home. There were problems with my father. He dominated the household and he was hurtful towards me. Because of the way that I was born, I wasn’t accepted by my father and my six siblings, so the bread-making with my mom was healing for me.

Because of different problems I had, I could not always go to school. Those were special times with my mom when my siblings were all in school and my dad was away. We’d go on walks together and she taught me to find wild mint and berries, but most often, when it was just the two of us, we baked together. She taught me how to make bread, pies, and pastries, and I taught her to make donuts. I’d help her mix the flour and yeast, and I helped knead the dough. It was important that I did it withher, standing beside her, both of us together, mixing and kneading the bread.

My father always told me I was ‘no good’, but when I stood beside my mom making bread with her, I felt like I was the most special person in the world. She didn’t really use words a lot to tell me how she felt about me (she was a very quiet person), but I knew she loved me during that time together. My father and my siblings made me feel like I didn’t belong, but when I made bread with my mom, I felt like I belonged and was safe.

When my mom got sick, I took over the bread-making for the whole family. Now she’s gone and I miss her like crazy. People tell me I take after her and that makes me really proud. I love remembering the bread-making with her–those are great memories. Sometimes even now, when I’m struggling with difficult emotions, the memory of bread-making is a safe haven for me.

When I think of the smell of fresh-baked bread, it brings to mind sunshine, warm days, and my own three children, now grown-up, and how I’ve passed onto them my experience of baking bread, with a dollop of this and a pinch of that. Eating the bread at Sanctuary drop-ins each week makes me think of my family and of home. I think that both fresh bread and bread-making is very important for the people in the Sanctuary community, because it creates feelings of acceptance and belonging. For someone who never grew up with fresh bread or anything baked, they might come here and eat fresh bread with their friends, and this is wonderful, because it gives them a sense of family they might not otherwise have. Making and eating bread together can help us feel a part of something, and also new friendships can happen. There is just something about the bread that makes us feel at home.”

Photos from our day of breadmaking!