Today is Canada Day, 2018. As diverse as our nation is, there is one thing that pretty much all Canadians have in common: we’re proud of our country. Every July 1, the University of Waterloo hosts a giant celebration that has drawn crowds of up to 60,000 people on the sprawling grounds of Columbia Lake. I’ve attended nearly every year for as long as I can remember, and that moment at the end of the night—the one when the fireworks show ends and those tens of thousands of people overflowing with something like a love for everyone around them all get up and walk away from the grounds at the same time under the dark summer sky—is hands down one of my favourite moments of the year.
(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.)
The fact that Canada Day fell on a Sunday this year meant that the number of people in church was about half of what we’d normally see. But it was a lively crowd all the same, decked out in red and white as we Canadians tend to do on our national holiday. I couldn't help but notice the extreme swing in attendance from one week to the next: the sanctuary packed out one week for a sermon about sex, then emptied out the next as people escape for the long weekend. If it hadn't been a holiday, I probably would have interpreted the exodus as a response to last week’s sermon—especially after the day I had on Friday.
As many things do, it all started with an email, which ended up being the first of three emails that would knock the wind out of me for a couple of days. A family who I know has been struggling deeply with the conversations we’ve been having over these past few months sent a note to members of our Board and Staff letting us know that due to “concerns about the definitions of love, truth, the role of scripture, and how we journey with those who experience same-sex attraction,” they would be moving on, requesting that they be relieved of their various responsibilities in the church. My wife and I are good friends with this family; they’re people we’re really doing life with, and quality people who are deeply invested in the life of our church. Gone. Done. Finished.
It wasn’t a good way to start the day. I was sad, disappointed, and even angry after reading the email; sad because I knew this would affect our friendship moving forward; disappointed because I had really hoped they would be willing to walk this next leg of the journey with us, even if they couldn’t commit for the long run; and angry because for a second time they chose to send an email to our Board and Staff instead of talking to us as friends. I was probably angry for other reasons, too, but to be honest it’s only been two days, so I’m still processing it all. I received a text message shortly after—he is one of the very few people who actually has my phone number, a sign of the relationship we have—and we agreed to meet up for breakfast in a couple of weeks to talk things through. I’ll try not to jump to too many conclusions, but I’m having a hard time picturing our friendship staying the same moving forward.
The second email I received about this issue on Friday came from the Assistant Superintendent of our denominational family. He had actually emailed me earlier in the week after hearing that I had made a statement about same-sex relationships in last week’s sermon. Word travels fast, I thought, recognizing that at least one listener didn’t waste any time informing our denomination about what they had heard. At the end of May, I had gone straight to the top and arranged a lunch meeting with our General Superintendent. We'd known each other for a number of years and it was important for me to reach out proactively as a demonstration of my appreciation for our relationship. I knew he would understand my heart and I wanted to let him in on the angst I'd been feeling about the implications this might have given the PAOC's stance on this issue. But since that lunch conversation we had over fish and chips was in confidence, I assumed this was the first that his colleague, the Assistant Superintendent, had heard about our journey.
His initial email was respectful, simply asking me for more information. I provided some context for him, along with links to the audio from both my February and June sermons, and he followed up with me on Friday with a response that was at once both respectful and ominous: “You have wrestled deeply with your leadership,” he wrote, “and I appreciate your pastoral heart.” But he also pointed out that he saw our chosen path forward as “a significant change from PAOC stated values” and something that would “have significant impact in the fellowship as a whole.”
We agreed that further conversation would need to take place and determined to put this on the back burner for a while as we engaged with various vacation plans over the month of July.
The third email I received on Friday, unlike the first two, was not from someone with whom I have a longstanding, respectful relationship. In fact, it was from someone I had never met before: the father of an adult member of our congregation. The email started out nice enough, with some comments about what was happening in his life at the time and about how he had tracked with our church from afar, but he expressed surprise at the vision I had cast with respect to same-sex attraction and launched into a sarcasm-laden attack:
I must commend you though on the masterful way you did it - most of your flock probably felt no pain at all as they were lead (sic) into agreeing to condone sin in their midst. One poor soul was so happy with the dark light you were shining, she could not stop nodding in agreement and, by the end of the presentation, even had her dear husband smiling and nodding, may the Lord rescue him.
Brandon, you are misleading your flock and you will one day have to answer for it - you will probably be feted in this life for your 'courage' for speaking out in support of sinners without 'judging' them. The world loves fearful Christian leaders, you may even make Time, but your end will be like Judas who betrayed his Lord, as you are doing.
As Christ said to the sinful woman at the well, I say to you: 'Go and sin no more', you still have time. Kind regards.
Kind regards, indeed! Now, I don’t want to give this kind of response any more attention than it deserves—in fact, I haven’t responded to the email and have no plans to do so—but at the same time, it was a startling reminder to me of the fact that this local conversation of ours is actually part of a much larger conversation that I might have to answer to in due time.
Just this afternoon, I received an email from this man’s daughter-in-law—a member of our community—apologizing profusely for whatever it is he had said in the email. (Apparently he decided to tell his family about the rebuke.) I also spoke with his son after this morning’s service and could see that this was not just an emotional response to a hot-button issue, but was actually another in a long line of aggressive interactions that had led to strained and, in some cases, broken relationships. I could sense the shame and embarrassment piling on top of years of conflict and hurt, but I assured him that words like these from a total stranger wouldn’t get me down. What I didn’t say was that there were plenty of other words that had already been getting me down before his email even arrived.