Walking the Canterbury Trail

Seattle Pacific has a class called University Foundations 1000, which is a required course in basic Christian belief. The culminating assignment in the class is a project in which groups of three or four students attend a church in a different denomination than the one they grew up in. In addition to the visits, they research the denomination and one of its historical figures. Everyone writes down their top picks and the professor assigns groups. My choices were the Orthodox Church and the Episcopal Church.

The group I was placed in was assigned to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in lower Queen Anne. Growing up, if we were traveling, my family would attend an Episcopal parish if no Covenant church was around. As my dad pointed out, “You pretty much always know what you’re going to get.” Episcopal parishes all follow the Book of Common Prayer’s service order, so even if, heaven forbid, the sermon is boring, that’s alright because the sermon is just one part of the structured liturgy that tells the Christian story.

My group attended a couple of services at St. Paul’s that fall, which was fall quarter of our sophomore year. We learned that St. Paul’s is an Anglo-Catholic parish. Anglo-Catholicism comes from the Tractarian Movement, or the Oxford Movement, which was a shift in Anglicanism starting in mid-1800s Oxford amongst Anglicans who desired to restore spiritual vibrancy to the Church of England by returning to some of the traditions that had been forgotten or removed. It was a return to some of the “high church” traditions still found in Roman Catholicism. Anglo-Catholic parishes use incense, liturgical vestments, bells during communion, chant parts of the service, and stand, sit, bow, kneel, and genuflect together. Smells and bells and holy yoga. One thing I appreciated about the liturgy from my first exposure was the space it left for silence. At a time of life when everything felt very turbulent, the collective stillness of a parish meditating on Scripture and listening for God distilled in me a sense of peace that remained with me for the day.

The priest at the time (who has since been called to be the bishop of a diocese in Canada) was Mother Melissa Skelton, a truly amazing woman who was once a high-ranking official at Tom’s of Maine, earned three Masters degrees, writes beautiful homilies, and exudes the love of Christ. At the end of a service she would stand at the door leading into the narthex to greet anyone who wanted to say hello. After taking advantage of the monthly ask-a-priest-about-our-traditions at the Mary shrine we introduced ourselves to Mother Melissa and went downstairs for coffee hour. As a teenager I thought coffee hours in small churches were just sort of hokey and awkward, but through two or three coffee hours at St. Paul’s I met people who, astonishingly, remembered my name the next time I visited. Even when I returned in the spring someone recognized me and asked what I had been up to. That blew me away.

Before my first visits to St. Paul’s, through a conversation with a good friend, I became convicted that I needed to be honest with myself about my orientation, a move that brought me much peace and clarity. After that moment my depression retreated for a solid year. Prior to that moment my pain and loneliness were what kept me returning to God every night. I knew how to pray as a depressed, closeted teenager: God please hear me, help me God, deliver me. But once my depression lifted, I realized that sorrow had been my only spiritual discipline. Without it I did not know where to meet God. I no longer knew what to pray for. I no longer knew when to lift my hands in worship songs, which used to be emotional times when (often thinking about my struggles with sexuality) I sang, sometimes cried, bared myself to God, and praised God despite my sadness. The primary way I experienced God was through my emotions, which I’ve learned are pretty shaky things on which to build any faith or relationship.

Still attending the church that I had been for a year and a half or so in Seattle, I started to become worried. Many artists who are inspired by their suffering fear that their creativity will vanish with their pain. As a sometimes-writer that was certainly a fear of mine. I did not, however, anticipate that my experience of God would change when I became more joyful. I stopped feeling God in worship so I stopped knowing when to raise my hands. While singing, I debated whether or not to stand up or remain seated and whether or not to lift up my arms, and I soon realized that most of my attention in church was spent on myself—not worshiping God.

Around the same time, it occurred to me that, although I had been attending the same church for a year and a half, the only people I knew were the other SPU students I went with. Every Sunday I met someone else during the shake-your-neighbors-hand part but I never remembered their names and no one remembered mine. I never did join a small group and I only attended the college kid hangout once, so I felt relatively anonymous. The church I grew up in in New Hampshire was maybe sixty to eighty people large. We had potlucks and a hokey coffee hour and everyone knew everyone’s name and we all prayed for each other. At my home church in Michigan, which is fairly large, I developed many strong relationships through youth group, hokey coffee hour, and playing in the worship band. I missed that sort of church family feeling.

At the end of sophomore year I wrote a paper on globalization’s role in how the worldwide Anglican Communion has dealt with homosexuality. Briefly put, homosexuality has created much tension within the communion. This is the story of many denominations that make a decision one way or the other on ordaining and marrying gay people, and it breaks my heart that it is so. But over the course of my junior year, in England and then back in Seattle, I spent a bit of time learning about Anglicanism beyond the recent divides. I participated in St. Paul’s Enquirer’s classes back in Seattle, two five-hour sessions on Episcopal and Anglo-Catholic history. I also recently met with the current Priest in Charge, Fr. Samuel Torvend. Through these things I learned about the beautiful heritage of Anglicanism: the church’s heart for the marginalized and its love of art, its Baptismal Covenant and its care for the earth, its practices of prayer and its embrace of mystery.

In the 1970’s, when AIDS first began killing off a generation of gay men, my parish provided free burials to anyone claimed by the disease. Gay people go to my church. They are regular attenders—people who have been practicing Christians since before I was born. They are also leaders. One hard part about being gay in a denomination that doesn’t really talk about homosexuality is the difficulty I had in finding role models—people who have wrestled with the questions I’m asking and who can provide insight and wisdom about how to live faithfully while holding those questions. Without such mentors it feels like you always need to be a trailblazer, which might sound exciting sometimes but really is just pretty exhausting and lonely.

Another difficulty I used to have, which I mentioned earlier, was getting stuck dwelling on things like the uncertainty of not knowing how people would treat me if they knew that I was gay (which only increased after I came out on this blog), trying not to say or do anything that might draw negative attention to myself, the persistent thoughts that—wrong though I knew them to be—kept popping up: that I’m different and obtrusive, that I need to retreat. At St. Paul’s I haven’t been so focused on myself and my sexuality because I know that no matter where I end up—in a relationship, with a family, called to celibacy, or just plain single—my church will be there to support me and celebrate life with me. And likewise, I will support the Church I love, not as a trailblazer, but as a servant, whether that be as a layperson, musician, member of the vestry, deacon, or priest.

On May 18th at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, surrounded by my fellow confirmands Amanda, Mary, Mollie, and Emily, my church, priest, Episcopalians from the Diocese of Olympia, housemates, roommit (roommate), dear friends, and my mom, who flew out from Michigan to be there, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church (USA). And I’ve got a certificate to prove it!

 

 

I’m not sure when yet, but one day I hope to go through the discernment process for ordination. I’ve been reading about liturgy and would love the chance to formally study Scripture, theology, and church history. But regardless of ordination, I hope to live a life steeped in the rhythms of Morning and Evening prayer, Lent and Easter, confession and absolution, baptism and communion, worship and justice, death and new life in Christ.

Love to David and Trevor, two of my housemates this past year. We spent hours… HOURS together talking about faith and our denominational adventures. I miss our conversations already.  And, of course, much love to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal, who swiftly accepted me as one of their own. I’ll see you in January!

Asperges Me

Sometimes as I walk home through Queen Anne streets after a day of school and the air is particularly damp and the sky is dark it smells like the time my father and I climbed Mt. Humbug in Oregon, a mountain I bet no one climbs except people like us, passersby who stop on a whim (because sometimes it sounds nice to climb a mountain) and work their zig-zag way upwards to find the elevation where spring dampness becomes frost and snow that clings to the trees and everything shimmers. I pause and think of that day and of the other blessed few days I’ve spent hiking the Pacific Northwest and imagine what Queen Anne was like a few hundred years ago, before urbanization, just another tree-canopied hill cut from the continent’s cloth. I look up and want to go higher, to reach the moment of transposition where time and water freeze.

As I continue my short walk home, a song flits into my mouth.

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor,
Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Miserere mei, Deus,
Secundum magnum misericordiam tuam.

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto
Sicut erat en principio, et nunc, et semper, et en saecula saeculorum, Amen.

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor,
Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

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in a year

There is a chain of ice cream shops in Seattle called Molly Moon’s, famous at least locally for flavors like Earl Grey, Vegan Coconut Chunk, Maple Bacon, Lavender, and Theo’s Chocolate, among others. The closest one to the campus of SPU is up on Queen Anne, next to another Seattle chain, Top Pot Doughnuts—making that little stretch of W. Galer a two shop pit stop of sweet food and regret. It was a favorite for my hall council sophomore year and for various late night restless stomach grumbles. I don’t visit nearly enough.

A year ago today I sat in that Molly Moon’s with a new friend, a nursing student at my campus. She cooked dinner; I bought ice cream. I was probably eating the Vegan Coconut Chunk because I don’t care who you are or what your views on veganism are—I’m not one—but that is the best damned ice cream you can put in a waffle cone and charge me five bucks for. And because it’s vegan, you can eat more of it and still feel relatively good about your life.

I don’t remember what she ordered. We sat at the window.

I wanted to get ice cream because ice cream is good and to have an excuse to talk longer. But I was also craving ice cream because I was very pregnant, not with a human being but with a story that had been years in gestation. By the night of that Molly Moon’s trip I had been sitting on ‘the end of a silence‘ for several weeks, wondering when to put it online. Feedback about it from friends and professors had been good. My family was as ready as possible for the daunting unknown, and I was itching for it.

Over our ice cream, Claire and I talked about life. I brought up the blog post and told her my anxieties about it. She preached for a solid twenty minutes about there being no room for fear in Christ and reminded me that God had been good to me thus far. The story of my sexuality is intricately intertwined with what some would call my testimony—the way I understand God to be working in my life, and I knew she was right. “You’re going to post it tonight.” “I am?” “You are.” “Wait, no I’m not.” “Yyyyeah, you’re doing it. You want to.” “I’d better call my parents…”

I was jittery on my way back to Hill Hall 306. Upon getting there I took out my laptop and sat down on low drawers my roommate and I used as a seat. My Freedom Playlist was on, the first song of which is “Shake it Out” by Florence + the Machine. I danced and typed. On the ride home I’d sent out a mass prayer text, something I did before first talking with my parents about my sexuality and depression on the last day of Christmas break freshman year. As I reviewed and nit-picked the already carefully preened essay, notes of encouragement from friends lit up the screen of my phone. A few of them, like Brian, dropped in to hang around. “What’s taking you so long? Are you uploading before and after pictures or what?” I laughed, imagining what those would look like. Then, some time later: “Have you posted it yet?” “No, Brian, I’m working on the headers.” “Oh, are you making them rainbow colors?” “Thank you, Brian,” I said, laughing more.

If you were on the ground floor of Hill Hall that evening, you would have heard someone yelling loudly—around 10:00 pm, I think . I pressed the Publish button, slammed the laptop shut, stepped out of my room, and roared. I startled someone walking past my room.

—–

My counselor told me that, for many people, coming out is like stretching a limb that has never been used before. It is true. At 19 I started a process of puberty that most people endured in middle school. It has been both frustrating and beautiful. [While I still feel no need to elaborate here what I believe about gay marriage, suffice it to say that I am not 100% certain. The times of lesser certainty have also been the times I’ve been most depressed and prone to despair. They are the times when I have felt most detached from myself, when I have difficulty showering because I cannot stand being alone with my body, when I have wanted to stop eating. They are the times when I cannot look at a child without worrying that people will think I am a pedophile because I’m gay. They have not been times of flourishing.] As it stands, I know that God looked at the man he created and said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” I’m trying to believe that I will not be, regardless of that question.

I was planning to write a post about what all has changed since a year ago today. Reflecting on the past year, I’ve realized that my sexuality is rather low on that list. In chronological order, the year transpired thusly: I came out; I finished my work as Hill Hall President; I worked 2.5 jobs over the summer; I started attending St. Paul’s Episcopal Church; I studied at Oxford; my depression returned (and resurfaces occasionally); I gained clarity in vocation, deciding to go to divinity school; I pub-crawled the UK with my parents;  I Christmas-ed at home and was reminded of the amazing friends I have in Michigan; I resumed life at SPU; I became more introverted; I walked shoeless across the Ballard bridge in the rain, got soaking wet, and smiled like an idiot; I exchanged books with my favorite professor. Over the year, my desire for intimacy has been teaching me what it means that God yearns to be with us. I’ve learned a lot about love, freedom, and devotion. I learned a lot about how to be myself, and I learned that my belief in God is tenacious, even when I don’t know why.

—–

Last summer Mother Melissa, the former rector of St. Paul’s, gave a sermon called “Let Go,” which began,

I am in my seat with my seat belt buckled and the tray top in front of me upright and locked.  All my belongings are stowed: my suitcase in the overhead bin and my backpack under the seat in front of me.  We have finally been cleared for take off. I hear the engines rev up and in a moment we are off.  Faster and faster we go until I feel the front wheels lift off the ground. And at once two things happen: I think to myself: “Here I go dangling myself up in the clouds again!”, and I do something I have come to do on every flight: I take my hands that have been sitting in my lap and I turn them palms up toward the sky.

I admit it—I’m afraid of flying.  And so right at the moment when the plane leaves the ground, my instinct is both to open my hands in a kind of personal surrender and, for a moment, to pray for all of us on the plane as we put ourselves in the vulnerable position of having nothing underneath us to catch us should we fall.

—–

I woke up the next morning and walked out of the dorm. I’ve never felt so naked. But I was caught in a web of love—wrapped in it and clothed. Thank you all for your kindness.

If you need me in the next two hours, I’ll be at the Molly Moon’s on Queen Anne, eating ice cream with Claire.

Please keep in your prayers those for whom sexuality has been a wound. Pray for the teenagers who contemplate suicide because they are bullied for their sexuality, and for the gay people being abused in Russia and beaten in Nigeria. Peace to you.

archipelagos and icons: time cartography

This post is part confession and part sharing what I have learned this summer. The lesson is one that I think everyone learns, so I hope the reading isn’t too dull.

Until not very long ago, without really realizing it for what it was, I think I took pride in how I kept myself busy. Being busy means that I am working, learning, and pushing myself. While, in a balanced life, these are all good things, busyness can evolve into a virtue that I think we I subconsciously pursue for its own sake. At its worst, busyness becomes exhibitionist and masochistic, which in turn can lead to a a perverse sense of pride: “I’m doing all of this and I’m still standing. Aren’t I wonderful?” I realize that in writing about it I risk playing this game, but I write with the desire to respectfully return my ticket to play.

Part of busyness is, of course, scheduling. I came into this summer with a full time job through my school, an internship with a literary journal, an agreement to index the new book of a professor, and the desire to plan a campus-wide discussion for next year. All of them are, in and of themselves, good things, good experiences, with good people. All of them have taught me skills that I will need later in life.

What exhausts me is not necessarily my inability to keep track of all of these things. I don’t wander blindly through these time commitments—my Google Calendar guides me. In the same way that a map helps in navigating a foreign city or highway system, a calendar helps in navigating  time: it is an exercise in time cartography. I can open up the Google Calendar and see the archipelago of obligation I’ve constructed for myself: green rectangular islands on an expanse of white with an overlay of measured lines. The islands, separated by little inlets and rivers I use for quick navigation, tend to cluster on the weekdays, but they frequently spill over onto Saturday and Sabbath.

calendar

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