Thursday, May 15, 2014

Eleven years down the road from Compline

We step into the semi darkness of St. Mark's Cathedral, fifteen minutes before Compline service begins, and slip into a pew near the front. My husband has never been here, and we're both swallowed in the grandeur of high ceilings, the curve of windows lighting this beacon on the hill above our city. On the stage in front of us, a woman lies on her back near the altar, her legs and arms falling open in a meditative posture, completely still. College students and couples trickle in carrying blankets to spread on the marble floor and across the steps. A young man with tattooed sleeves on each arm settles in on the steps with a backpack, pulling out a notebook and pen, poised to reflect.  Coupled women sit close, speaking in hushed voices. A group of gay men sit on the steps in front of the yoga woman and make themselves comfortable in the waiting.

It's been eleven years since I was here. And while it looks much the same as I remember, I see it through such vastly different eyes it doesn't look the same at all. The building, the service itself, have not changed from how I remember them. 

But I have.

* * * * *

Eleven years ago, I came to Compline services on occasion with a few college friends from Seattle Pacific University. It felt like a radical move for me, this former pastor's kid, this girl coming of age in a wildly Pentecostal church, now darkening the doors of an Episcopal cathedral, and one in particular that ordained gay ministers. I wasn't at all familiar with liturgy and I'd been taught most recently that it was a lifeless form of worship. And honestly, I wasn't comfortable with gay people, let alone gay clergy; I had no clue where they fit into my faith.  I stepped inside, and while I found the atmosphere and the monk-like voices chanting liturgy soothing, I would look around and inwardly shake my head in discomfort, in pious sadness. Where is God in this place? All this pomp, this grandeur, and I don't feel him here. They're missing the point.

I didn't understand it.

I was so afraid of what I didn't understand.

* * * * *

Each time I think I've scooted out to the edge of God, I find, 
once more, 
he is vaster than the ocean. 
I cannot see how far he extends beyond the horizon, 
only that he does.

* * * * *
Eleven years later, I worship among Presbyterians with my Catholic husband and delight in the culmination of the service in the Eucharist.  I love my Common Prayer pocket-sized book
sitting on our makeshift altar with candles. When I play my guitar in the solitude of our apartment, that free-flowing, Holy-Spirit-loving spontaneity of my Pentecostal days is unleashed. There are weeks and seasons when we hunger only to participate in Mass, in Spanish or English - sometimes both - and I know much of the liturgy now by heart.  I love to visit St. James, the Catholic cathedral near downtown, when Mass is not going on, so I can wander the edges of the sanctuary and slide my hands along the benches, breathing worship in the intricate artwork, lighting candles below Mary's statue and whispering prayers that float high above these stately ceilings. 

* * * * *

Sitting in St. Mark's, soaking in the mens' voices as they chant the last prayers of the day, I let the words wash over me. I'm familiar with them. They are lullabies to my soul.

It feels like home.

Tonight, as I steal glimpses of the others who have come to receive whatever they are hungry for, my eyes see them differently.  I am moved, not by pity or youthful piety, but by a love that surprises me with its tender fierceness.  Many of the faces I see here remind me of ones I've seen before, voices I've heard through the years, of those don't feel welcome in many churches.  This music, ancient word and prayer in acapella voices, may be the only morsel of bread for some of the hungry ones who find their way here each Sunday night. The only time they hear something akin to the voice of God singing over them, whatever name they may call him by. 

Compline seems to be one watering hole in the desert for those who may not see a place for them at the table of Church, and it happens to be in the neighborhood with the largest gay presence in the city.

* * * * *

I find my eyes drawn to one of the gay men sitting on the steps and I can't help but watch him. The beauty of witnessing a fleeting moment of vulnerability and I am undone.  I don't know what's being sung at this moment in time of the liturgy - was it after Psalm 23 and before "Into Thy hands O Lord, I commit my spirit"? - when he lifts the sleeve of his cuffed shirt and wipes below his eyes. His lips are not moving, but his eyes are closed, and I see his hands cupped so gently near his feet. An open cup, lifted to the one who sees him and knows every square inch of him, every cell in his being. Whether or not he knows this, he is a son and he is utterly and completely loved and accepted by a Father. I feel this knowledge seep into me, not for his sake, but for mine - for this heart that is ever so slowly being wrenched from the grip of judgment and freed to love. 

We are not all that different, he and I. We are empty cups held out to be filled.

All the years of being pulled into debates of who's in and who's out, theology of what God thinks of people who fall under the church's label of "controversial," devising strategies for "loving" people who make us uncomfortable while keeping them at a safe distance, it hits me with the force of a bear hug in this moment: I'm not uncomfortable with the same people anymore.  I've known this for a long time, but here in this place where I once sat, it settles on me like a pronouncement.  And I recognize this tenuous dance, where now I'm less comfortable with the types of religious folks I used to be like, and I know I need to watch my heart so I don't swap one kind of self-righteousness for another. I don't want to take my finger and point it in the opposite direction. 

That is missing the point.

But I dare say, I don't even care to know those answers that once mattered so much to me, to the stability and credibility of my faith. They're not mine to know.  And I know this, God is bigger, vaster, wider, deeper than I can wrap answers around.  I've been growing and stretching out into this bigger place in God these past eleven years, and now I see the change through eyes that are changing the way they see.

What this man is hoping to receive, with tears, I dare not guess. But watching him, I find my own tears to wipe away, for he has touched me profoundly. I'm shedding tears - of what? Joy? Wonder? Gratitude? Sober awareness? - for my heart that is being enlarged; for my eyes that are seeing through new pupils; for my small and fragile self that still has so far to go to journey to the core of God's love, if that is even possible. 

Here in this cathedral with its rainbow streamers draped from the stately ceiling, among all types of lovely and diverse people, I sit back and rest in the collective sigh of peace that seems to emanate from our souls. With my brothers and sisters, I have come to drink, and we have sat in mutual thirst, and we have been filled. And this is a mystery to me, so sweet, I can barely contain it.

I am forever being changed.

And please don't read this as my implying that we all need to change in this way or that way. Really, please. This is how I have needed to change, and that road stretches, twists and turns in ways I cannot see from where I stand. The same is true for you. God will take us where we need to go to come to the end of ourselves and the glorious reflection of him - can we all agree on this?

We are walking each other home.

But this, this is the path he has me on. And I know it by the way it makes my life and God less small, less safe, less contained, like the wings of a thousand birds taking flight from an open field.

Joining Kelli for Unforced Rhythms, Jennifer and Emily.


  1. This is just beautiful Amber. I love what you have learned and shared. Did you go to SPU?

    1. Thank you, Karmen. I don't feel my words communicated all I hoped to express, but I guess that's how it goes sometimes. Yep, I did go to SPU, my last two years.

  2. You are enough younger that we did not go at the same time. I went for the last half of 93 and all of 94 before I dropped out.

  3. This is one of the best pieces I have read all week. AND THAT'S SAYING SOMETHING, friend. It gave me chills and tears and ... oh, Amber, you make me feel like I've experienced a little bit of home every time I read your words. Because, as they say, home is not where you live, but where they understand you ... And I feel that with you, dear one.
    So so thankful for you sharing your voice at Unforced Rhythms.

    1. Whoa, friend, I don't even know what to say to that, but I'm honored by your words. There really is little more satisfying for me as a writer than to know that my writing is home to a few - and I know you're much the same in this desire. I have felt such a kindred spirit in you since the first time I read your writing, and what keeps drawing me back is that it's like stepping out of my living room into yours each time I come, as if there's nothing more than a door between our homes. I love and appreciate you, so much.

  4. Thank you for stopping by today and now allowing me to be here! WOW our heart's beat the same. We are all the same -- no matter our struggles or backgrounds. I was honored to write a book Graffiti with a homeless man and that is what I learned. We are all much more alike than what we think. We only need to slow down, stop, and see!!! Thankful to be here!

  5. Home, love, grace, tenderness, awareness of the depths of our need, cups needing filling....dear friend, thank you for the way you see and the way you love and the way you tell it. I adore you and every ounce of your writing.