“How many times have we done this, Dad?” my son asked as our little car rolled off the B.C. ferry and onto the narrow roadway of Mayne Island. “Good question,” I replied, “I’ve kind of lost track over the years.” Our car rumbled in second gear up a hill surrounded on each side by old Douglas Fir and Arbutus trees with branches reaching up to heaven. “Each year keeps getting better,” my son stated in a matter-of-fact way. A rare and welcome compliment from a teenager to a parent.
As we drove along the road now also buffered by cedar and alder trees, making our way towards the oceanfront property for the weekend, I started to think back on this simple practice of having time away together. I decided several years ago that once each summer I would take my son away – just the two of us for what eventually became known as the “man trip.” Usually, we pick one of the many beautiful Gulf Islands a short ferry ride away from Vancouver. Once on the island, we might as well be 1,000 miles from anywhere (and sometimes the poor cell reception makes it feel that way). For my son it is a much-needed break from his sisters. Our meals together often have questionable nutritional value. The shows we watch on TV are the ones that my son would normally be outvoted on at home by his siblings. In the early years we tended to spend most of our time on the beach, with a bucket and spade, building sandcastles and talking about life while making silly jokes. Today, we go kayaking, cycling and zip lining when the opportunity presents itself. What remains consistent is the quality time of conversation, laughter and a deep sense of connection that our usual busy home life of work and school often prevents.
The Ways We Love
Years ago, as a pastor I came across the now ubiquitous The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Like any good idea, it has been franchised in a million different ways with versions of the book online and in print for couples, singles, children, teens and no doubt they are working on a version for pets. The premise of the book, however, is simple but helpful for all of us working our way through the various complex relationships in our lives. The book suggests that human beings have different ways of giving and receiving love. For some it is words of affection, for others physical touch; some prefer acts of service while others value the receiving of gifts. I discovered years ago that my son responds best to the fifth “love language” – quality time. When he was younger and our whole household could still agree on a movie to watch for family movie night, my son would be the first one to call me out if I opened my laptop a crack to check on that supposedly urgent email from the church. “Come on, Dad,” he’d say, “you’re not watching the movie.” “I am!” I protested, “I’m just . . . um . . .
multitasking.” Which we all knew was a lie.
Perhaps it was this growing appreciation for my son’s “love language” that led me to the practice of our annual trip away together. Another reason was trying to figure out how to build a meaningful relationship with my son when the relationship with my own father was complicated.
My dad was a great guy who was loving and caring to both me and my brother. He was funny and kind, someone who loved great choral music and sang in many choirs himself. He was an avid reader and loved to discuss politics, always encouraging us when we were little to form our own opinions and then defend our ideas around the dinner table. He was someone who drew deeply on the Christian faith of his Irish Presbyterian background. Like all of us, however, Dad also had a shadow side. His whole adult life was a struggle with mental health, in the particular form of depression. That meant that I also have clear memories of the times when my dad was hospitalized for his depression, withdrawn and fighting the demons that sought to take from him the fullness of life promised by Christ.
When I look back on the “man trip” tradition I have with my own son, I realize that it was started, in part, with a longing for what I felt was missing growing up, and navigating the awkward years of transition from teens to adulthood. For example, I was mindful on this year’s trip away together that my son is now older than I was when depression finally took my father’s life. I’m also aware, however, of God’s gracious provision and faithful presence throughout our lives, and while I may long for time with my father that was not to be, God sent other influential men of faith and strength of character who became instrumental in my life. Two of those men were my uncles – Jack and Doug – for whom my son is named. Time spent with them in my teen years and into adulthood helped shape my character, values, faith and vocational discernment. I suppose in some ways that kind of strong, encouraging presence is what I hope to offer my own son as he makes his way in a world that feels increasingly fraught and ever more complicated (and complex) than the one in which I grew up.
The Bible teaches us that our walk of faith in this world is one of “growing up in Christ” (Eph. 4:15). This growing up has often been marked by significant support through the local church. For children, it often starts with baptism as an infant or child, followed by Sunday School and Youth Group. But I find more and more of my students at the seminary do not come to faith through this traditional path. Many are adult converts, who knew little to nothing of Christianity in their affable agnostic or angry atheist households. If we are to “grow up” in faith to become like Jesus, how does that work in a world like ours today in North America? We may be quick to say it happens through small group ministries or Bible studies at the church – and those are wonderful ways of going deeper in our faith with God. But I wonder, returning to the five love languages, where the quality time of mentorship and friendship fits into this “growing up into Christ.” I wonder especially for men, whether as teenagers or young adults, how growing up in Christ is expressed in a time and place where there are such mixed and confusing messages about what it means to be a man in this cultural context. How are we forming the next generation of men in the church in a wider world coming to terms with systemic racism, the #metoo movement, environmental crisis, technological advancement and shifting understanding of personhood? If ever there was a moment for a deepening of relational connections between members of the Body of Christ, the time appears ripe.
The Church has referred to this process of “growing up” in Christ in many ways over the years – sanctification or holiness, with the active shaping of disciples known as “catechesis.” However we describe it, there is the acknowledgement that this formation for faithful living is about the individual gifting and calling of a person, deeply rooted within the wider faith community. Matthew Kaemingk notes in his recent work Reformed Public Theology: A Global Vision for Life in the World that our Reformed imagination retains “a strong refusal to accept the modern notion that individual liberty and communal solidarity are mutually exclusive.” Instead, the Reformed tradition articulates a “nuanced vision of individual freedom that can be found within communities, institutions, and civic structures.”
A Relational Church
This past couple of years have been an odd and bewildering time of transition for us in the Church. We have watched as the best laid plans by congregations and church councils were swept away by the impact of a global pandemic. Programs that were carefully designed to engage with church members were paused or scrapped altogether. Local church preachers became “TV evangelists” overnight, figuring out how to broadcast worship services across multiple platforms. Many Christians were left feeling isolated and alone, while others found new ways to connect for meaningful relationship.
As we look (tentatively) towards a post-pandemic world, I wonder what God has taught us about the way we encourage, structure and participate in the building up of the body of Christ, so that we might attain the full measure of Christ? (Eph.4:13). What if instead of a rush towards re-starting church programs after COVID, we reflected on how to relationally mentor one another more effectively in this biblical call to “grow up” in our faith in Jesus Christ? The good news is that it is not difficult to find a place to begin. Perhaps it is with a fellow church member, a co-worker, a neighbour or friend. Often it is simply wherever the Holy Spirit places you in any given moment.
I was reminded of that on this latest “man trip.” Somewhere between Mayne and Saturna Island on the glistening Pacific Ocean, my son and I stopped paddling our kayak, a seal popping its head up to greet us. As we floated along, God invited us into a holy space where we spoke freely about life, faith and possible plans for the future. In that moment, I was reminded once again by the Holy Spirit about the simple and profound gift of spending quality time with those entrusted to us by God’s sovereign hand. I recalled God’s faithfulness to me over the years and the way in which I have been molded and shaped through a thousand little sanctified conversations just like the one I was having with my son. The seal splashed away, the paddles returned to the ocean, and the conversation continues on.
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