Skip to main content

Transformations

We stopped for lunch at the Athabasca Glacier, our food spread out on the tailgate of a pickup alongside Highway 93, right in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. On the crest of the range, the imposing and yet rapidly disappearing remnant of a previous ice age spreads out across the sky, a stark reminder of how small and finite we humans really are, but also of how even these comparatively frail frames of ours can have a disproportionate effect on the environment in which we live and move and have our being. When we pulled into the parking lot, we were greeted by zero degree temperatures and six-foot high snowbanks, both of which seemed strangely out of place given the mild weather and complete lack of snow in Calgary, where this road trip of ours began. In fact, though, it would be more accurate to say that this road trip began several years ago, when my longtime friend and mentor, Tom, first encouraged me to come and see what he was up to. There was a stretch of more than a decade when our vocational paths ran parallel, but his life had taken some turns along the way, eventually resulting in the founding of a retreat experience that he named Transformations, described on their website as “a four-day personal development retreat designed to address the health and wellness needs of First Nations communities.” I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve tried to get Tom to explain this venture to me, but what I know for sure is that at the end of every attempt to convey the significance of what he was investing his life in, he would rattle off the same plea: “You just have come and experience it for yourself.” Easier said than done, my friend. Taking a week away from my family and my job to travel to Northern BC with only a vague idea of what I was even there for? But then all of a sudden my life took some turns of its own and my excuses had officially run out. Two weeks before the retreat session that I would end up attending, I messaged Tom to let him know that I didn’t think I could do it, that I was feeling anxious and didn’t think it would be a good idea. He responded with a cryptic slogan that would become all too familiar in the days to come: “Trust the process.” I booked my flight to Calgary, flying out of Kitchener on the same discount airline that our family had flown with earlier in the year, carrying with me one piece of luggage and exactly zero idea of what on earth I was getting myself into. The morning after I arrived, we hit the road for a nine-hour drive through the Rockies—site of the aforementioned glacial lunch stop—eventually winding our way across the provincial border into British Columbia and up to Prince George, then on further still to the cozy confines of Ness Lake Bible Camp. During the summer months, the camp groups will be packed every week with a new crop of children and youth having all of the usual summer camp experiences, but during the winter, the space is used for a broader variety of groups, including the monthly Transformations retreats, which I would soon discover were very much spiritual, but with neither the label nor the associated baggage of being “Christian.” The fact that the retreat is held at a Bible Camp was a little off-putting to some of the participants who have had more than their share of what people have offered under the guise of Christian faith. As one of the elders said on our first night there, “After the 215, people don’t go to church anymore”—215 being the number of children discovered buried on the grounds of a former Kamloops residential school. I mean, can you really blame people for avoiding church under those circumstances? And can you blame retreat participants for getting their backs up when they see a welcome sign like that? I sure can’t. While the details of what would happen from one day to the next—and, honestly, from one hour to the next—would remain a mystery to me throughout my time at Transformations, I was at least let in on the essentials of what it meant to play the role of a “coach” on this retreat. There were six of us in this role, and the short version of our job description was that we were there to be present with people, and to guide exercises along the way. We weren’t there to “fix” anyone or make anything happen, just to facilitate. Out of respect for the participants and to guard the integrity of the program itself (which depends on people like myself not knowing what’s coming next), I’ll keep the details of what happened over the course of the next four days confidential, but I’d like to share about what I’ve been reflecting on in the days since my plane touched down back in Ontario; what I observed and what I learned, both about myself and about the potential that I believe is lying dormant in so many of our current and future relationships. Tom started by leading the group of twenty-seven participants through some introductory exercises, seeking to establish a foundation of trust. All but one of them were First Nations, but most of them came from different bands scattered around Northern BC, with very few knowing anyone else in attendance. He then invited the coaches to introduce themselves and share about why we were there and what we hoped to experience during the retreat. Earlier, when I told him about how out-of-my-league I felt, he challenged me to let people in, to show them that I’m willing to be real with them. The problem, as far as I saw it, was that I doubted if any part of my story would resonate with them at all. In the afternoon, Tom asked each of the six coaches to stand on a chair and invited the rest of the group to choose a coach for themselves. He asked them to think about the kind of person they wanted to coach them, someone they could learn from, but that they shouldn’t just gravitate toward whoever felt the most comfortable. This was terribly awkward for me and all that was going through my head was, Who on earth is going to choose the white guy? I had a couple of ideas of who might wander my way, but I honestly couldn’t see why anyone would intentionally choose someone who wasn’t part of their world. After a few moments of fear and awkwardness, four people were standing in front of me: four women, to be exact, which disproved my theory of who might join my group and dropped my comfort level even lower than it already was. And so it was that a group of four First Nations women sat in a circle around me and began to share their stories. When we debriefed as coaches after that session, I said that I was feeling “very white, very male, and very privileged,” which was absolutely true. To say that I was heartbroken by what I heard around that circle would be the understatement of the year, and yet there I was, supposedly ‘coaching’ these beautiful, broken souls. Honestly, I felt bad for the women who had chosen me, and was wishing they had instead chosen someone—anyone!—who would have been better suited to help them walk through all of this. But once again, Tom reminded me to “Trust the process.” Over the course of the next three days, I came to understand firsthand why my friend was constantly giving up on trying to explain what Transformations was like and was so bent on having me come and see it for myself. I have never had an experience like this in my life, and without wanting to sound overly dramatic, I’m not sure I will again. But I’ve learned some incredibly valuable things about myself, and honestly, about all of us who are walking together along this shared human journey. When the first participant stood up to share his story, he did something much more than relay a series of traumatic events that had given shape to his life and stacked the odds against him from the outset—what he did was open up a new realm of possibility for every single person in that room. Prior to that moment, there was a chance that every last person there would remain closed, but not after that moment. What I observed and experienced first hand on the shores of a still-frozen lake on an early May morning was that authenticity breeds authenticity. The courage it took to be the first one to become vulnerable—truly vulnerable—lowered the level of courage it required for the next person to get up and speak. That’s not to undermine the bravery of anyone sitting around that semi-circle, not at all, but there was an almost physical crack made in the room that allowed just a sliver of light to break into the suffocating darkness, that removed just a few paltry grams of the heavy weight that we were collectively carrying on our shoulders. And so it was, that with things just a little bit lighter, a second person stood up, and then a third… The authenticity expressed in that gymnasium-turned-meeting room was profound and inspiring. Over the next two days, I found myself opening up more to these new friends than I have to many of the people I journey closest with in life. I’ve thought about this statement and don’t want it to come across the wrong way: I have so many wonderful people in my life who have walked closely with me and vice versa over the years. But it’s like there’s always a room in these houses of ours that we prevent even our closest friends and family from entering, maybe because of shame or maybe because of fear or maybe because of who knows what else, and when we do this, when we keep this door locked, we miss out on the next thing that I observed with the good people from my Transformations cohort: that authenticity breeds community. One of the things that Tom could not have possibly explained to me is the relational depth that a person can dive to with someone they have only just met when the basis of that burgeoning friendship is authenticity. Regardless of how I felt when our little group of five first met (reminder: white, male, and privileged), I did not feel any of those things when this small group of amazing human beings was finished with me. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that I wasn’t alone in this, that nobody there felt like an “other” when all was said and done. What we did feel was that we were bound together in a new kind of community that wasn’t like anything we had experienced before—both in how quickly our friendships developed, and in how raw and real those friendships became over such a limited span of time. In case you’re wondering, no, I am not naive to the fact that it was an incredibly emotional week, and neither am I naive to the fact that time is bound to wear off some—maybe even most—of the sheen of this experience, but neither am I so cynical that I cannot imagine these newfound friendships still ticking away long after the words of this particular post have stopped being read. When I arrived home, it took me all of ten minutes to empty my carry-on bag, but it will take me weeks and maybe longer to unpack everything that is currently swirling around in my mind and churning up waves in my heart. What I’ve shared here is something like a single ray of the light that has broken into my life and into the lives of everyone who was part of this experience with me. So what do I do with this light? What do I do with this experience? Among other things, I try to find ways to share it, and to encourage anyone I can to experiment with these observations I’ve made to see if there might not be a richer, fuller life to be lived after all. What if you reached out to someone in your life—whether you’ve known them for decades or days—and took the risk of being authentic with them? What might happen? And who might that person be? Who could you try this with to see if I’m just making all of this up, or whether you might actually be able to experience a version of this for yourself? Because when I think about it, all I’ve done here is the very same thing my friend and mentor tried to do for years: put into words an experience that can only be understood as it is entered into. So what’s holding you back? I am filled with gratitude for the incredible, courageous group of warriors who walked through this truly transformational experience with me, so if any of you happen to be reading along, I want you to know that, because of your grace and your friendship, I am living at an absolute ten today—T45 Boom! www.transformationsretreat.com





 

Comments

  1. I've been thinking and praying for you this last little while again Brandon. I was good to hear from you and about this experience!

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A Brush With Death

“I nearly killed a man tonight.” And just like that, the slightest of lulls in our dinner table conversation was shattered like a paper-thin sheet of ice flying off the roof of a car and colliding with a cold burst of wind. I was probably being more dramatic than I needed to be about what had happened, but it was also the truth.  Half an hour earlier, for what felt like the hundredth time, I set out to drive the well-worn route between our home and the restaurant where my sixteen year old son has been working for the past few months. Last week, I reminded him that if he would finish his driver’s training course, he could do this drive and the drive home four hours later all on his own. Imagine the freedom! (And I wasn’t even talking about him!) We’re heading into the darkest depths of winter in Southwestern Ontario, so even though it was only five o’clock, it might as well have been midnight. The street lights were on, creating a glow on the roads in the half-melted snow, and even thou

Fear and Trembling

I first registered an account with Blogger back in 2011 when someone suggested I start a blog after visiting our church one Sunday morning. The fact that nine years have passed by with nothing to show for it speaks pretty clearly as to how comfortable I am with the idea as a whole. So why now? In 2018, the church where I serve as pastor went through an incredibly trying season. When a leader and beloved member of our congregation told me he was gay and that he was preparing to ‘come out’ publicly, I desperately wanted to know how other pastors had responded to a challenge like this without destroying their church in the process. I grasped for anything that could help me get through what I knew would be a daunting leadership experience with significant implications for our church’s future. While I was able to find a number of books written from different sides of this hot-button issue, the primary commentaries seemed to come from those who were not actually leading local congrega

Four Days Late

This is it—my final entry. One day last week, I took a look at the calendar and had a thought that it was probably around this same time last year when I gave up trying to sleep, stumbled down the stairs to the dining room table, and typed the first words into this Google Doc. As it turns out, my first entry was on December 8, which is only a few days from now, so I hatched a plan to set aside some time on that same date to write one final chapter on the precise anniversary of when I began. It was a Saturday, so I figured I would have time, and truthfully I did have time—but as it turns out, I didn’t write anything that day, and then I didn’t write anything for the next couple of days either, so here I am on December 12, four days late. (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 I’m late speaks volumes to where I’ve come over the course of the past year.