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…

Be A Sanctuary

What does it mean to label a young person as “at-risk?” I teach a class of secondary students who are all crown wards and they are often referred to as “at-risk.” I find myself wondering of what exactly it is that they are “at-risk.”

The common threads that weave through the lives of these young people include broken relationships, poverty, hurt, questions of who to trust, lack of support, and a sense of homelessness beyond physical buildings. Of what are they “at-risk”? Not graduating from high school? Of poor health and poverty? Of destructive habits of drug and alcohol use? There is more. Perhaps they are at risk of despair and loss of hopefulness. Some are at risk of not believing life could be anything other than it is. In their striving for independence it could be that they are at risk of living in ways that stop them from being willing to be vulnerable in relationships of trust and love.

As my term of teaching began, I was caught up in the busyness of planning and preparing curriculum. During a moment of silence in a Sunday morning worship service I tried to stop thinking about schoolwork. In the quiet, I heard God whisper to me: “Be a sanctuary.” Though I am not always sure what it means to say my students are “at-risk,” I do know that our classroom is to be a safe space and a place of belonging. These young people are children of God. Indeed, they are children of promise.

Written by a friend of Sanctuary

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.

Sanctuary Karaoke Celebration!

On Sunday, January 8th, Sanctuary hosted a ginormous celebration!  We had a lot of reasons to celebrate:

  • Sanctuary is officially 1 year old
  • We've finally moved back with First Christian Reformed Church to their wonderfully renovated new-old building on Talbot Street
  • We received our official church status and charitable registration

And… what better way to celebrate than to have a karaoke contest?  So we brought in the band 17 Watts, and they put on a magnificent show for us.  Then we had ten contestants compete on a karaoke sing-off.  The top two contestants went on to front the band and sing head-to-head to finally determine our winner!

We danced, we sang, we all had way too much to eat, and we all owe a huge THANK YOU to everyone who contributed to the evening.

Stay tuned for our next community celebration…

Holiday Hours and Locations

Your all invited to join us over the holiday season as we maintain all of our regular hours, plus a few extras!  However, please be aware of the changes in location.

Christmas Day ( Sunday, Dec 25)

Full Christmas Dinner, 2:30pm @ 513 Talbot Street

Special Christmas Worship Service, 6pm @ 513 Talbot Street

Boxing Day (Monday, Dec 26)

Lunch Drop-in, 11am-2pm @ 75 Blckfriars Street

Wednesday, Dec 28

Drop-in and Community Meal, 3-6:30pm @ 75 Blackfriars Street

New Years Day (Sunday, Jan 1)

Worship Service, 6pm @ 513 Talbot Street

Monday, January 2

Lunch Drop-in and Bible Study, 11am-3pm @ 513 Talbot Street

Wednesday, January 4

Drop-in and Community Meal, 3-8:30pm @ 513 Talbot Street

Sunday, Jan 8

Special Celebratory Worship Service 6-7pm @ 513 Talbot Street.  The service will be followed by a party to celebrate!  Our first full year of ministry as Sanctuary London.  Five years of partnership with First CRC.  The amazing renovation of First's building.  And, the receipt of our official charitable status.  Celebrate with us with karaoke music, a wild rock band, and other special guests!

All of our regular scheduled programs following these dates will be held at 513 Talbot Street.

To Carry and Be Carried

One of the first things that struck me when I began getting to know my friends at Sanctuary London was their courage to risk being honest about what they were going through. Whether it was a job they lost, housing that didn’t work out, a fight that broke up a friendship, spiritual doubt, anxiety, fears, debt, or addictions, they often found some way to share. This willingness to be open and vulnerable was a surprise to me, and something I deeply respected and appreciated, because I didn’t know how to do this well myself.

And the more they shared, the more I realized that no one was judging; instead, it was simply accepted that it was normal to have struggles, and it seemed to be this common ground of shared brokenness that brought them closer. I was struck by the rare gift of a community where everyone is loved just as they are. I could see that Sanctuary London was a place where it was safe for them to be real with one another and share their stories, and I knew that I was going to learn a lot from this community.

I have longed to experience this kind of connectedness, but have always found it hard to admit my struggles. When I first started to attend the Sanctuary drop-in meals, and my friends would ask me how I was doing, my usual response would be, “I’m fine,” even when things in my life felt messy or difficult or sad. As I learn to admit my needs, this has helped me to understand that we’re all the same in this community, and we all equally need God and each other.

A few months ago, one of my friends declared to me, “you’re always happy, so I know that you’ve never had any pain in your life.” Another friend asked me if nothing ever bothered me. These were difficult words to hear, because they were a reminder that I was hiding the real me. Slowly, my friends were teaching me about true relationships, and they were teaching me about God. I realized that the more honest they were about their struggles, the more I saw how much God was loving them, and the more I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could trust him to also want me and love me, just as I am.

When my friend Carla shares with me that she’s so broke she has to pawn her guitar that she loves, or when my friend Scott shares that he’s depressed, or Darren tells me he can’t stand the loneliness of his apartment, or Lisa tells me she doesn’t fit in anywhere, or Sandra asks me why friendship is so very hard, I feel a little less embarrassed about my own insecurities and problems, because I know I’m not alone.

Lately, I’ve been contemplating how hiding our brokenness from our friends and from God prevents us from fully receiving God’s love and healing. If I hide who I really am because I’m afraid to risk being honest, will I miss out on God’s beautiful invitation for his healing and light in my places of pain and darkness? And if, as a loving community, we are each part of the story of the paralytic being carried by his friends to Jesus, then it becomes apparent that I have a significant choice to make: do I always want to be the one carrying my friends, or do I allow them the opportunity to carry me as well?

Written by a member of the Sanctuary Community

Thanksgiving, A Retreat, and A Royal Ball!

It's almost Thanksgiving weekend, and here at Sanctuary London, we have SO MUCH to be thankful for!

It's been a couple of busy weeks for the Sanctuary community here in London.  On Wednesday, October 5th we had our huge Thanksgiving feast with all the fixin's.  Before opening with prayer, our friends were asked to share a few things that they were thankful for.  The response was overwhelming!  After over five minutes of "I'm thankful for this…" and I’m thankful for that…" we actually had to cut people off to prevent the food from getting too cold!  All of our meat for the night (turkey AND chicken!) was donated, and there was plenty of food to spare, so we sent it home with our friends after all 90+ people were full to the brim!

On September 23rd a group of 27 of the people from our core community embarked on a three-day retreat to a magnificent summerhouse on Lake Erie.  It was an opportunity not just to get away and relax and fellowship, but also to study scripture and grow spiritually together.  There were four very focused sessions in which together we learned about four different "Portraits of Jesus" from the gospels. 

On Saturday night we studied the crucifixion of our Messiah.  Two dramatic readings were shared, the first from the perspective of Barabbas, who, like us fully deserved to be punished for the crimes he committed.  The second story was from the perspective of Simon of Cyrene.  Simon was forced to literally carry the cross for Jesus to the place where He was to be crucified.  In Mark 8: 34-38, Jesus says to each one of us today, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me".  Can you see yourself in both of these men’s' shoes?  Christ took yours and my place on the cross.  But he also asks for us to respond by taking up our own crosses and follow Him.  So, after these two stories were shared, each person at the retreat was given the opportunity to light a candle and place it on the cross (we made) to symbolically lay our pain, condemnation, struggles and guilt at the foot of the cross, and in community, pick up the comfort, joy, responsibility, peace and changes that come with following our Savior.  It was an incredible experience and many of our friends shared some pretty amazing stories not only of the pain in their lives, but also about how God is working in their hearts to bring about healing.

We would like to send out a huge thank you to the Postma family for welcoming us into your home, and providing a beautiful location for this retreat!

On October 1st Sanctuary hosted its first Royal Ball.  It was an incredible opportunity for the greater Sanctuary community to come together and celebrate as one body.  After opening with delicious desserts, Greg Paul, founder of Sanctuary Toronto, shared some very encouraging words with us, and then…  What better way to celebrate than by dancing for our King?  Ballroom Breeze taught a quick dance lesson and then the entire community rose to our feet and danced the rest of the night away!

Thanks to everyone who joined us for the Ball, and also to those who couldn't make it but sent in donations to help with the costs of the evening.  We would also like to thank John Sloan who took on the role of organizing the event.  What an amazing night!

More than accepted…. welcomed… wanted!

“I’ve been to several different churches across Ontario. At most churches, when I wheel my way in, the people are always friendly, but guarded, and somehow there always seems to be a barrier. Truth is, I’m different.

It’s not that I am poor in the socioeconomical sense; I have enough money to provide for myself. But for the most part, I am stuck in this wheelchair, and that makes many people feel uncomfortable. So people are always nice, but they just can’t see past the fact that I am different, and that prevents people from getting to know who I really am.

And then I heard about Sanctuary London. I was nervous, but within seconds of coming through the front doors, I was greeted and introduced to many friendly faces, and it didn’t just stop there. I was invited to join in on a game of euchre, and before long we were sharing life together. I was welcomed as one who belonged. Much more than accepted – I feel wanted!

What I’ve come to learn is that we all face challenges. Some struggle financially, some struggle with addictions or housing issues; most of us struggle relationally and with loneliness. The point is: we all struggle. I think the difference at Sanctuary is that the people here seem to intimately understand the pain of exclusion, and they understand how their social circumstances create barriers to their inclusion in society – just like me.

But, when we stop hiding our struggles, we can finally start to get to know one another, and we begin to recognize that we’re really not that different after all!”

“They’re just different………”

At Sanctuary, we often talk about the fact that folks who are relatively rich and those who are relatively poor are “more alike than different”. There is truth to that. There are fundamental aspects of what it means to be human that we share in common: dreams, disappointments, love, hurt, pride, etc… When middle-class type people hang out with folks who are homeless, this is one of the discoveries that they make. And it’s a good one.

But there are differences. And some of them are counter-intuitive. Allow me to reflect on a few that we come up against pretty regularly…

The value of ‘being served’. I really enjoy going out to dinner. I like it when I don’t have to do anything except order off the menu and wait for the food to arrive. In extreme cases, I could go so far as to say that I find the treatment ‘kingly’. It’s nice to be waited on hand-and-foot.

So why, at Sanctuary, do we eat our meals family-style? Or why do we have our street-involved friends work in the kitchen instead of sitting down while we wait on them? Wouldn’t it be a treat for them to be treated like royalty?

Ultimately, I think, it’s about power. In a restaurant, I have the power. I’m the king. I’ve got the money. I order what I want. My tip reflects my satisfaction. I enjoy being served – on my terms!

If we are not careful, it can have a very different feel in a drop-in setting. Here, the servers are king. The ‘customers’ aren’t even allowed in the kitchen. It’s not that they prefer to sit and be served – rather they are excluded from the kitchen. As a group, they aren’t trusted in the kitchen – whether because of their hygiene, because of safety or for whatever other reason. The customer doesn’t choose the meal, can’t complain about the service…nothing. Utterly powerless. At Sanctuary, we want to turn this model on its head and give the power back to our friends who rarely get to hold it.

The value of a gift. Free stuff! What could be better? Costco is giving out free samples! I could eat a whole meal here! I got a coupon in the mail for a free tube of toothpaste! My friend surprised me and offered to treat me to a birthday dinner. This is great!

But what if your life consists of receiving free stuff? What if the free stuff doesn’t, in fact, reflect your ability to manage your finances creatively or affirm your intrinsic worth as a contributing member of society? What if, instead, it reaffirms to you that you’re utterly dependent on the charity of strangers for even the most basic of needs?

That same “treat you to a meal” can have its perceived meaning quickly change from “Your friendship is a gift to me that I wish to honour” to “You’re a poor soul desperate for food and frankly I don’t trust that, if I gave you this $10, you would even spend it on food.” I don’t think many (or any?) of us would ever intend that, but it very easily could be the message that gets heard.

The value of a wage. A teenager gets her first job at McDonalds and begins earning $10/hour, working 10 hours a week…that’s $100/week or about $5,000/year. Sweet! And the very fact of having that job is a boost – it means I have been deemed to have merit: I applied, I interviewed and I was accepted. I feel great and the fact that I’m getting paid anything at all is a bonus!

But what if my primary qualification is the very opposite of the scenario I have just described? What if my main qualification is the fact that I’m a 48 year-old guy who has battled addiction and mental illness for years, have lived in a shelter for the last year and a half, and am being given ‘one last chance’ because no one figures I’ll ever get a real job on my own? I wonder, in this situation, if earning minimum wage isn’t just one more painful reminder that, after all these miles, I’m no farther ahead than a high school kid.

So what…?

These observations aren’t true 100% of the time nor should we pretend that they are. But they are true with some regularity. While my friends who live on the street are so very much just like me in many regards, there are some differences worth noting. The value of personal relationship can’t be overstated. Only as I get close to my friend will I know how my well-meaning actions are being received. And while some action is probably better than none at all, how much better if we could take steps towards having our kindnesses received in the spirit in which they were intended!

Written by Alan Beattie of Sanctuary Toronto

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.