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Whale Watching

May 12, 2018. Last week, Melissa and I hopped on a plane and flew across the country to attend our denomination’s General Conference in the beautiful city of Victoria, British Columbia. When we were first married, we travelled to Canada’s westernmost province three times in a four year span—each time to attend a wedding—but it has been fifteen years since we last made the cross-country trek together and it couldn’t have come at a better time. What an incredible part of the world! As we walked around exploring the city, I found myself wondering, Why does anyone live anywhere else? 

(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)

Instead of staying at the conference hotel, Melissa found us a rental apartment through Airbnb, which is something we’ve been doing for years now in order to have a more unique experience of the places we visit. The apartment was only a block from the harbourfront, right in the hub of the downtown core. It was a short ten minute walk from the entrance to Beacon Hill Park, which boasted an endless expanse of flowers and trees, many of which we would never see in our part of the country. It was a welcome burst of spring just one day after an especially wicked storm had blown through southwestern Ontario, ripping shingles off of our roof and sending our kids’ basketball net crashing onto the driveway.

We set aside two days of sightseeing before the conference began, and one of the highlights was definitely a whale watching tour on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates the southern tip of Vancouver Island from the majestic Olympic mountains in Washington state, eventually emptying itself into the vast Pacific Ocean. This whale watching business is quite expensive, but a friend had told Melissa that seeing the whales out on the open water was one of the best moments of her entire life, so we decided to bite the bullet. After we bought our tickets and were slowly making our way out of the harbour, the skipper made sure we all understood that, even though this was a whale watching tour, the ocean wasn’t a zoo, so there was no guarantee that we would see any whales that day. Oh, now you tell us.

After an hour and a half with zero indication of marine life, I was convinced this was how our day would end. Melissa reminded me that we were on a boat on a perfect spring day surrounded by ocean and mountains, which was already worth the price of admission, but no, I would be satisfied with nothing short of seeing a whale! Eventually we spotted some porpoises, which I tried to convince myself made the trip worth it, but it wasn’t until a half hour later when a call came across the radio that another boat had “made contact” that I could finally let go and enjoy the experience.

We came across a family of five orcas (also known as killer whales) and learned more than I thought I’d ever know about these majestic marine mammals. There’s something profound and humbling about being out there in their natural habitat, playing spectator to their daily rhythms and paparazzi to their every immersion from the water below. I can’t help thinking that this season of life I’m in right now is not all that different from our whale watching experience: cruising out into the unknown in search of a path forward for our church that I’m convinced will be both beautiful and profound if we can find it, but that may just as well leave us unsatisfied and disappointed if our hopes never do surface.

We were in Victoria to attend the biennial conference for our denominational family, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. When my faith came to life in my high school years, these were the people who nurtured and gave shape to my spiritual life. Their passion for worship and ‘things of the Spirit’ took root in me, and there is no doubt that the experiences I had in the years that followed made me who I am today. When we launched our student church nearly twenty years ago, it was these mission-minded people who first gathered around me, offering unwavering support, and celebrating every milestone along our incredible journey connecting with the students of our city.

I was at the conference as an attendee, but I was also there to make a presentation during one of the breakout sessions as part of our denomination’s Theological Study Group. This small team was established to address some of the pressing theological issues facing the denomination, and I have been part of the team since its inception nine years ago. We are in the process of refreshing our Statement of Fundamental and Essential Truths and, at the conference, members of our team would be providing updates on how we are engaging with the material.

I tried not to take it personally when Melissa told me she would rather attend a different session than the one I would be presenting in. It made sense—one of the breakouts in the same time slot as mine was on the topic of sexuality, and given the conversation our church is in the middle of, it seemed like a good idea for her to sit in on it. Before she left for the session, I said with a wink, “Please just do me a favour and don’t ask any questions!”

When my presentation was over, I lingered in the main event room talking to members of my team, all the while keeping an eye out for Melissa. But she was nowhere to be seen, so I decided to set out looking for her in case she had got herself lost in the maze of the conference centre. Eventually I ended up at the auditorium where she had attended the session on sexuality. Surely the session is over by now, I thought.

I walked in the back door of the lecture hall and looked down toward the platform at the front, and what did I see but my wife in the middle of a conversation with the presenter! So much for not asking any questions…

Our denomination has a strong traditional stance on marriage and sexuality, but in recent years, there has been an intentional effort to engage in some dialogue about how to hold this stance with more grace. This breakout session seemed like another step in that direction and, as Melissa told me afterward, it was quite a powerful presentation. The speaker told a story of how he had lived in a same-sex relationship for a number of years and how he had left “that way of life” and now found himself happily married to a woman. It’s the kind of redemption story I might have expected: a demonstration of how it’s possible to choose who you love as a follower of Jesus. But the thing that struck Melissa was the way he talked about the strength of his faith even while living in a same-sex relationship. He talked about hearing God speaking to him, and that was what left the greatest impression on her: the fact that he didn’t try and depict that season of his life as being devoid of God. After he was done speaking, she got in line to express her appreciation and to ask him some follow-up questions. When Melissa asked him what he thought of the situation our church found itself in, he responded by saying that we should trust the guidance of our denomination. She got the impression that he had a lot more to say, but that he wanted to be respectful of the people who had invited him to share his story.

During the morning worship session on the second day of the conference, my emotions started welling up inside. My walls are especially thin these days, so in one sense it doesn’t take much, but in this case it was something more than the emotionally-driven music and the swell of voices bursting out in song around me. I’m sure that was part of the equation, but the more significant factor, I know, was that I was starting to realize just how afraid I was of losing the connection I have to these people. It felt strange to recognize this in myself, given the fact that I usually feel like an outsider when I’m in an environment like the one at this conference, and that while our church is officially Pentecostal, it doesn’t actually bear much resemblance to most of the churches in this denominational family.

But I had a strong sense during that time of worship that this would be the last time I would be at a conference like this. At first, I tried to shove the thought aside so I wouldn’t completely unravel, but the urge to be fully present in the moment won out and I allowed myself to grieve what I was losing even while I stood there singing about how God was sure to be “faithful to the end.”

A denominational leader took the stage and invited people to come forward for prayer. An ‘altar call’ like this is common practice in Pentecostal churches, and while it would have been a regular experience during my youth, it’s been something I’ve avoided for the most part in the years since whenever I’ve found myself in an environment like this. Over the years, I’ve come to see just how easy it is for people to get swept up in the emotion of it all, so I've stubbornly refused to take part. But as I’ve said, my walls are thin, so I stepped out into the aisle and walked up to the front of the conference centre’s event room to have someone pray for me.

A couple stepped forward and I recognized him as one of the provincial Superintendents. We didn’t know each other well, but he and his wife had joined our Theological Study Group for lunch one time when they were in the area and I remembered having some good conversation with them. I was standing there knowing that I needed to say something that would indicate how they could pray for me, but what was I supposed to say? The conversation our church was having was so far outside of anything the pastors and denominational leaders around me were talking about that even mentioning it would have felt like I was confessing some deep, dark sin.

I ended up saying something about being in a situation that feels like there’s no way out—that I was struggling to know how to lead our church and that I was afraid our church was going to suffer as a result. They prayed for me with a depth and compassion that reminded me of the countless prayers that people in this denominational family have prayed over me for the past twenty-five years. Then the Superintendent told me that he saw a picture of a bridge and that God was going to make a way for our church—that He would build a bridge that would help us get across this chasm safely. I wondered if he would have said that if he actually knew what I was talking about, but I received his words all the same. Maybe it didn’t matter if he understood; maybe God was trying to let me know that He would make a way for us, regardless of what anyone else thought.

Melissa and I enjoyed the rest of our time together in Victoria, hopping on a bus to visit the famous Butchart Gardens one afternoon and enjoying meal after delicious meal in the provincial capital’s fantastic restaurants. As much as I would have loved to stay longer, at least I knew I would be coming home to three more weeks under our Board-imposed cone of silence before I would have to re-engage with our church’s ongoing conversation.


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