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Archive for December, 2013

2013: Year of Possibilities

This very time last year, I reflected on the year that was coming to a close and realized that it was indeed a year of transformation for me. This week, I was invited to the celtic community year end celebration in which we were asked to bring an object that signified something from 2013. I ended up not being able to go, but I have been thinking about what object I would bring. Initially, I shrugged – nothing too significant happened this year. I laugh as I write this as God has shown me how very wrong that statement was. There is probably no way to fully capture what 2013 has been for me in just a blogpost – but it has been a year of possibilities.

In January, I received hospitality from a very good friend who provided a place of refuge for me as our community house was rapidly breaking down. Once again, I have found myself in need of housing quickly and once again God has provided. My friend and I spent countless hours sharing stories and laughing, along with discovering our quirks. I look back on that community endeavour and thank God for the experience, but also graciously letting us out. I made decisions with my heart and not my head, and the community was likely never to be sustainable with the various needs and abilities to meet those needs. I learned a lot from that experience and actually, I wonder if God allows us to have an experience of an unstable community for our learning as this seems to be a common theme in much of what I have read.

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During this time, I discovered the necessity of a rhythm of prayer and the beauty of being held in liturgy. Morning prayer in the Celtic Daily Prayer begins with asking if I give my whole heart, mind, soul, and strength to God. There were many days when I could only say that I have a little of each to give to God and if he wanted what little I had, he could have it. Evening Prayer has an affirmation of faith that acknowledges who God is and his faithfulness, my inability to see his faithfulness and the commitment to believe anyways. Each day, these words spoke to me in many ways. I do not think I would have survived that time without a rhythm of prayer.

In January, a small gathering of people who have supported me with presence, practical help and/or prayer met in the chapel of my church at the time to mark the end of the gruelling court process and to pray for my family. It was a pretty significant event for me. I spent time preparing the liturgy and thinking about what I wanted this night to be about. Friends who weren’t able to make it helped write the prayers. Friends and family who were there were invited to take part in the liturgy. I preached a sermon that actually has been really important for me and my journey and has been further developed into a paper that is the culmination of much thinking and research!

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Shortly after the appeal was closed, I had a deep sense of hearing God say to me, “Well done, my good and faithful servant’. Followed by “You are now ready.” I knew what that meant. When I felt called to be a priest at 17, the very relevant question that I faced was would I follow God if it meant losing my family. Of course, at 17, I didn’t really have a clue what that would mean or the hardship I would face. But I did know that God was saying now – after losing my family but not my faith – I am ready to pursue this path. I applied to Wycliffe to do my Masters of Divinity and doors have been opening in amazing ways ever since! I was accepted about 10 minutes after my interview and I know without a doubt that I am on the path I am supposed to be. Not sure where the path will lead me. Priesthood is a possibility. But I am open to where God is leading and a clear picture has not emerged yet.

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Meanwhile, leading Sunday School was getting more discouraging – I too frequently was a well-paid usher as children rarely came. I began projects to try to engage with the neighbouring community with very little success. After a lot of prayer and thought, I decided to work towards a 9 week youth mentorship program that would include three weeks of day camp and a retreat. I drew upon a lot of experiences in my life, drank a lot of coffee and prayed a lot. In many ways, I was prepared and well connected to start this. In many ways, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing or what the heck I was getting into. I began fundraing, webdesigning, connecting with the neighbourhood organizations, approaching strangers and telling them what was happening. I applied for grants and sought out prayer support. I had so many wonderful people behind this initiative and ready to share their expertise and encouragement. There was a lot of work to do.

In May, I decided to go out west for a couple of weeks to visit some close friends and then some families. I knew that this break was essential for sustainability. But – there was so much work to do, how on earth could I take two weeks vacation? I can’t say that I went the whole 2 weeks without working. But I was amazed at how God solved problems without me. It’s easy to think that everything rests on me. It doesn’t.

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This was the first vacation that I planned and my first time really traveling alone. I hung out with a family that I lived with in community and it was so very good to see them. I still miss them and think about them every day and have often thought of moving to Victoria. Many lovely conversations, laughter, hanging out. Sad to leave them. The world needs more people like this family. I then travelled on to Vancouver to see some relatives. I discovered that fish are actually incredibly fascinating as we went to the Vancouver Aquarium.

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After an amazing dinner, I set for Edmonton on the Via Train – a trip that I have ALWAYS wanted to take. How amazing to be in the mountains, without capacity for email or human contact beyond the neighbouring passengers. We stopped for a couple of hours in Jasper, which was quite an incredible experience for me. I’ve never been anywhere really by myself. I’ve been to Jasper enough to know the few streets so it was hard to get lost! But I remember standing in total freedom realizing that I was an adult. Somehow, being able to check of “have travelled alone” added to my being an adult.

We’re only at May? Whew!

Came back and took two really important courses on youth ministry and group facilitation which continued to add a perspective to the youth mentorship program. As the weeks went by, I tried to remain confident that we would get youth or kids, but with an unchanging registration list I had my doubts. Finally, in the days before the program was to start, there was fruit from all the weeks work. Three youth signed up. And then God daily added to our number. Over and over. We peaked at 17, with 14 regular youth. Again, I worried as we approached camp with only a few campers. And then we hit vacation Bible school with about 34 children, most of whom were from the neighbourhood.

Inspired by a good friend, I decided that I needed to take the edge of stress by running – I longed to pound the ground with frustration. It’s something that I have kept up a bit, except for our winter weather as I’m not equipped for that. I’m appreciating the discipline and dedication that needs to go into this.

September started with anything but an enthusiasm for school. Don’t get me wrong- I love school. But my heart was not in it. One thing I need to learn is how to give everything to God in terms of ministry that I am involved in and to not burn out at the end. I was tired entering this school year and rather sleep deprived. Leaving that job was one of the hardest decisions – I loved the youth, children and their families and longed to see them continue to thrive and meet Christ. But it was clear to me that my time had finished there. I recently received a letter which greatly encouraged me that the ministry continues and that the connections made with the neighbourhood continue.

And then my grandfather passed away. I am still working out the many layers around this. I struggled this past term in coming to terms with grief – not only the loss of a wise and beautiful grandfather, but the loss of my family. I ended up withdrawing from studies this term so that I could focus on the hard work of grief and come back refreshed in the new year. One of the things that I learned during this time was that everything is part of my training and development – there is so much that I learned this term outside of the classroom and even outside of books. I also came to see things about myself that need God’s love and grace.

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I have been hired on as the animator of an organization that seeks to support children’s ministry in the Diocese and beyond. I find this quite interesting – the girl who was once so painfully shy that she would write out conversation starters before picking up the phone to friends, is the one chosen to promote and network and speak to strangers! I’ve come a long way – thanks to God’s grace and the patience and kindness of those who love me.

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In December, I moved. Yet again. I’ve moved a lot. But this time, I hope that I can stay for awhile. it’s a good place. The family upstairs is so very lovely and their five year old is sweet. We’ve shared much already. The girl comes and hangs out with me and makes pictures for me. Oh how I love children and living in community, while much less commitment than others, is what I love. I’ve set up my library and hosted people for various parties. It is starting to feel like home.

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Christmas this year has been different. Hard, as always. But has a unique flavour of community. When the power went out, I needed to rely on the kindness of others. I was able to witness a beautiful side of humanity. I held a Grinch Party – embracing the huge part of me that hates this time of year for all the fuss and nonsense. Christmas was simple, quiet, lovely. I am grateful for the hospitality of so many.

I’ve read many wonderful books – too many to name. But one that has had a real impact on me has been Miroslav Volf’s writings. Specifically, his talk on the condition for possibility. I think that has reshaped how I look at my life and all the painful stuff – it all contributed to the condition of possibility. That is, all the blessings I have now would not be mine without my story and history. My life would simply be very, very different. I would know different people, I would learn different things. My life is full right now – not full of what I have always wanted, but it is full – and full of beautiful things.

And as I look to the next year, I am both curious and excited to see what 2013 has laid the foundation for. What will come of a year of possibilities? A year of so many lessons, changing direction, grieving, moving?

Simple Christmas

Christmas day growing up was really special. All of us would eagerly anticipate the day. I don’t know who had a harder time falling asleep…us kids or our parents! We weren’t allowed to come out of our rooms until 7 am. Yet my mom would not be able to wait often and would call us a 6! We opened presents to each other. Each of us was almost more eager to watch someone open the present we carefully picked out than the one we were given to open. It was a time of great generosity and laughter. Breakfast was special with croissants and sugary cereals. Almost always we received brand new clothes and after breakfast put our gifts away and wear our new clothes.

Then the grandparents came, the tree filled up with gifts again and the fun continued. Then we would feast all day, followed by a Turkey dinner and more feasting. In the evening we would sing and play the piano.

One of the hardest seasons for me is Christmas. No one does Christmas like my family. I have given up trying as it really is impossible. All my recreations have fallen short…and seem almost silly now that I think about it as the very thing that made christmas what it is….my family… Was not part of the recreations. Christmas is hard. It is my annual acute reminder of what I have lost. Many have reminded me over the years what I do have, what I have gained and have suggested that the family God has given me through so many friends. is the one that I should focus on. There is truth and wisdom in this. But… In reality, this is very hard to do. And while many look out for me at this time, I know why they look out for me. Amongst the gratitude, there is a twinge of pain.

Last year I began a tradition that I hope to keep up. I served soup and bread to anyone who I was hungry or alone. This year I made vegan carrot bisque with coconut milk and maple syrup with a gluten free seed bread. The little girl from upstairs hung out with me as I baked. When she found out I had made gluten free bread just for her she threw her arms around me. A few people came. It was simple. Very simple.

I imagine Christ’s birth was simple in a sense. A manger for a bed. Probably served simple food if anything. A swaddling cloth. A poor engaged couple.

There seemed to be something really fitting about a pot of simple soup and an openness to anyone who would come. No presents. No extravagance. No stress.

Just simplicity

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Room at the inn

Toronto was hit this past weekend with a pretty bad ice storm. Many people have been and still are without power, heat and internet. One begins to realize how dependent we are when all this is taken away. I was without power for about 30 hours. A basement apartment cools pretty quickly and even my cat was cold. Trees are down, subways are down, people are stranded. Two major hospitals used their generators for a record time.

What has been amazing is the witness and community of the church. Sunday morning service was beautiful in the candle light with people stepping in to help. At the end, the pastor asked who had power and who didn’t. Those who did were quick to offer homes, food and assistance. By the end I had somewhere to go for lunch. People volunteered to call parishioners to find out if they are OK. That evening we gathered again with a potluck meal…again, those who had power cooked food and those without brought salad.

The family I live with lent warm blankets. Their five year old offered her battery operated lights.

The next morning the power was on for me. When I charged my electronics my heart warmed to all the messages checking up on me and offering their assistance.

Churches have been opening their doors, providing a warm cup of something,a place to charge electronics and WiFi. Food…more food than planned … Is being offered to anyone who needs it.

I am not sure that if an unwed pregnant and about to give birth showed up at our doors  if people would take her in.

But I do know this… When we welcome a stranger, we welcome Christ. When we feed the hungry, we feed Christ. When we clothe the naked or provide blankets to the cold we do it for Christ.

And I am thankful that the church community has opened their inns at this time.

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Condition for the Possibility

I’ve been reading Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf – a pretty awesome book so far. In his discussion of God as the giver of all things, he addresses the anticipate question in a way that I have not heard before. If God is the giver of all things, and nothing exists without God – then is God the giver of bad things?

Volf then discusses his own personal journey of infertility and the adoption of two children. He describes the painful longing for children of his own for many years. He also beautifully describes the joy of receiving these two boys in adoption. When he speaks of his children whom he loves – he is speaking of two specific children. And he would never want to trade these two specific children for two of his own now that he has them.

He then discusses how his suffering (infertility) provided a gift – the gift of the possibility for these two children. If he and his wife were not barren, they would have missed out on the blessings these two boys are to them. This doesn’t of course negate the pain of suffering- but it does reframe it.

Got me thinking- my life question has been around how God allowed (caused?) suffering through abuse. It gets particularly tricky for me when I recall the many moments as a young girl praying for specific protection that would only come many years later. I am well acquainted with the loss and consequences of that suffering.

What would happen though if I reframed my experience – rather than look at what life could have or should have been for me, what if I focused on what I have *because* of what I have been through. In other words, what possibilities exist because of the conditions abuse created?

The easiest one to name is that I have a heart for the vulnerable and needy and can sit with deep pain. I’m not sure that this would be true if I did not know deep pain myself. And this has often been what has dragged me through rough times – because of my pain, I can help others.

But there is more than that. My recent post spoke of knowing poverty, but also knowing God’s providence. I know without doubt that God will provide even when I can’t even begin to imagine how. The apartment I am living in and the wonderful blessings it is bringing may never have been mine to enjoy. I have friendships with so many people – a family comprised of believers – that who knows if I would have met should I not have been suddenly on my own and without 8 years ago.

On the weekend, Ihad the awesome experience of meeting a stranger who has been praying for me over the years. A person who knows my story – not by my own telling of it – and has lifted me up before my Heavenly Father in intercession.

My cat is a joyful and playful gift who teaches me so much about love and God and joy. Seems kind of silly to name, but this little (well, not so little) guy has journeyed with me through so much. I remember the moment I bought him – life would have been very different if I had not seen him in that rescue that very night and carried him to the place where I was living.

My love of cooking came about as a way to cope in a creative way. Cooking is now the one thing that can provide me with immense joy and satisfaction and it is a gift that I can give to others.

I have a close relationship with aunts, uncles and cousins. Yes, these relationships existed before but they wouldn’t be as deep and rich as they are now.

Would I have had the educational and vocational opportunities had my life been totally different? People have looked out for me, making connections for me when I’ve needed them, encouraged me when I needed encouragement. If my parents supported me as parents should, would people have been so generous to me in their care?

Most importantly, I have come to know and Love God and know his love. I have experienced him delighting in me and me delighting in Him. I remember one pastor writing me a note – saying that I would know God’s love more than others. As more time passes, I am coming to know that this is so very true – that the God I know now is so different, vast and beautiful. Would I know this God? This is one thing I wouldn’t trade for a rosy life.

The list goes on…

indeed, I am blessed.

The abuse – while horribly painful and impacting every aspect of my life – provided the conditions for the possibility of what life is. Like Volf, I can look back with this reframing and smile with thanksgiving overflowing from my heart anda greater sense of awe of what God has done for me. He has taken something as ugly as sexual abuse and made it into the conditions for what life is now.

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Providence

December 12, 2013 1 comment

Yesterday, I stood in a children’s store looking at the beautiful clothing and cute outfits and started to think of the children I know and love. I walked around a few other stores for other gift ideas. I found things within my price range. But the conclusion of my mini-spree is this: It’s Christmas: the time when my heart is bigger than my bank account. I love to give but this year the budget is smaller than usual and I’ve had a few days of counting pennies. Ironically, I am planning a Grinch party and have been reminded of the words, “Christmas doesn’t come from a store; maybe it is something more”.

Christmas on a budget. I have to say, I’ve done really well. I’ve researched ideas to make this Christmas special on a low budget. And I’m doing it. Christmas doesn’t come from a store – but the laughter and joy from hosting a few parties and giving what I can to neighbours and family and friends will happen and my heart is warmed by this. Christmas in my family growing up was always a big extravaganza – I have yet to meet someone who does Christmas anything like what we had. There was so much generosity shown at Christmas – so many presents under the tree. I recently read an article that was called something like Doing Christmas on a Shoestring budget of less than $250. I laughed – seriously? Yes, seriously – I have done that.

I’m not bragging. It’s been a necessity. I don’t even have a credit card to pretend that I have something more to give than what I have. I’ve had to be frugal as groceries need to be bought and bills paid. Today, I had a moment of wondering if I could really handle hospitality on my budget – and for the first time in a what seems like a long time, my stomach felt the worry of money.

And then I felt God say to me: “Elizabeth, have I ever left you stranded?”

I’ve been out of work. I’ve been homeless. I’ve been in need. And somehow, God provides. Always. I’ve never slept in a shelter and I’ve never gone to a foodbank. I’m thankful for these services and thankful that I haven’t had to use them. I admit a little pride, though I do not think less of my friends who have or still need to use them. I think that speaks to God’s provision in my life. I have been very close to needing both. And not just once. Yet, God always seems to provide. Sometimes in the very last possible moment. Always in more ways than I have asked or imagine.

I received a letter today from a rather unexpected source with a Christmas gift of money.

I have known poverty; but I also know God’s providence.

It’s that time of year again

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. With the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you “Be a good cheer”. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the hap-happiest season of all. With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call. It’s the hap-happiest season of all.

Um no. It’s that time of year all right. It’s the time when everyone appears to have happy families. It’s the time of year when I most face my own reality and broken family. If I want to, I do well most of the year in making references to my family. There are many wonderful aspects. I love them dearly. I have some good memories. But inevitably the awkwardness begins.

So are you going home for Christmas, Elizabeth?

No, I’m staying put.

Oh — where does your family live?

About an hour and a half away.

That’s right. A bus ride away and I’m in Toronto for Christmas. For the past eight years, I have not gone home for Christmas. The close homeschooling family picture that I often paint diminishes this time of year. The pieces no longer make sense. These are inevitable conversations. These are hated conversations. I have limited them to once season of the year.

Not everyone needs to know my story. But every year I wrestle with how do I answer these questions? Something just doesn’t fit. I’ve learned to answer these questions matter of factly so as to get the conversation diverted as quickly as possible. But there is pain inside. Great pain. Pain I try not to let people see. Even eight years later.

So let me be proactive. I am not going home for christmas. I will not see my parents or my siblings. I do not like Christmas. it is a difficult time. I’m tempted to hop on a plane and go to Cuba or something to escape all the reminders of how it is not the most wonderful time of the year. In fact, this time of the year sucks. I have good friends and relatives who have brought joy and laughter into the pain. But it is still hard. I still hate it when December 1 roles around. It is not the most wonderful time of the year.

But then…

… was the birth of Christ?

Surely something spectacular happened that night. Angels announced it. Kings came from far. God became incarnate. So that hope, healing and salvation could come. So that our relationships with God and others could be restored and forgiveness granted. This IS wonderful.

But a young girl betrothed and pregnant. As her belly grew, I wonder how many people bought the story that she became pregnant by the holy spirit or that she was a virgin. If a youth told me that today, I don’t know how I would respond. Joseph didn’t want to disgrace her, being a righteous man. Disgrace or hand her over to cruel punishment with being pregnant out of wedlock. An angel appeared to him to tell him not to be afraid. But did doubt creep in his mind as his buddies noted a very pregnant fiancee.

Then a long donkey ride very pregnant. I don’t think pregnancy or donkey rides are all that comfortable – both? and for such a long time? the most wonderful time of the year?

And then the son of God is about to be born and no one can find a decent place for him to be born. How’s that for hospitality. I can find room for an awful lot of stuff. And easily the Christ-child takes second-spot.

the most wonderful time of the year was when the son of God was born into a stinky stable in the midst of animals. If you’ve ever been in a barn, you can easily challenge the santized nativity scene pictures we are so accustomed to. Talk about gross. I wouldn’t want to sleep there, let alone have a baby. And that was the best that could be offered to the King of Kings.

and then there was this King Herod dude. Jealous of an infant. So he killed all the boys under the age of 2 just to make sure that no one would usurp his kingdom.

And if homelessness was not enough at birth – the God-man became a refugee before he reached the age of 2. He had to hang out in a foreign country because his life was sought. Most wonderful time of the year?

All the things I have come to loathe about Christmas – are not part of Christmas. Christmas isn’t this perfect time of constant happiness and laughter. Christmas is messy, stinky, unsanitary and risky. Christmas isn’t this time when we are one big happy family and life is wonderful. Christmas is homelessness and rejection and fear and estrangement.

But Christmas is more. Light came into the world that night. In the stable, surrounded in manure. Hope – deep hope – of life beyond the stink and the mire. Joy that comes only from knowing God through His son. Peace with God as the God-man reconciles us. Peace that the world cannot give – but a homeless baby whisked away because of a death threat – brings peace, peace that we cannot understand or fathom.

So it’s that time of year again. I’m not pretending it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Instead, I am embracing it for what it is – a night when light entered our darkness.