by Torey Lightcap
In August of this year, six people from the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa headed to Colorado for a week’s immersion at La Puente Home, a secular (but genuinely inspired) suite of social services that catches folks just as they’re about to fall through the cracks and be forgotten, and then helps them get back on their feet in a huge way. La Puente has a big job to do and has been doing it selflessly for almost thirty years – quietly saving lives, I mean – in one of the most economically devastated parts of the country, which, wouldn’t you know, is in one of the richest states in all of the First World.
In attendance were two priests (including myself), a deacon, a teenager who has occasionally served as acolyte and who is active in youth doings, and a couple engaged to be married.
No ordinary engaged couple. Rich and Lacy are quite new to the Episcopal tradition and loving it. Nothing dry or jaded about their faith or about their regard for one another or their outlook on life: each moment is lived at full-ahead-full, the two of them moving through their life together soaking up ideas like sponges, forever striving to leave the world a better place, and deeply in love with God. Everything to them is amazing.
I mean that last bit especially, and I mean it literally. Theirs is not a feigned way of seeing things. It’s just that everything is … well, believably and understandably amazing.
“How you doin’, Rich?” “Amazing.”
“How’d you sleep, Lacy?” “Amazing.”
“Dinner was average.” “Really? I thought it was amazing.”
Those three syllables in repetitive combination are catchy. In fact, I defy you to spend a week with them and not come to regard the use of the term in a different way – or at least start peppering your speech with it.
Rich and Lacy are awake to life – open, receptive, enriching, evolving. So when, as the convener of the mission trip, I proposed that we spend our free “play” day in the San Luis Valley doing amazing things, I should have been prepared for how God’s Spirit was about to blow through our lives on that very day, in a way that can be accounted as nothing short of gloriously alive and gracefully amazing.
The day started with a hike up the Great Sand Dunes. The dunes is a national park in a state full of geographic wonders, but it stands alone in beauty and novelty. A vast stretch of sand dunes deposited by eons of wind erosion coming to rest against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the dunes take visitors hours to climb and just seconds to run back down. We took pictures; we hydrated; we knocked the sand out of our shoes. Fun stuff.
Next on the agenda: a brief stop at Zapata Falls, a high, shady waterfall a few miles off the main road, then on to a swimming pool fed by a hot artesian spring. Oh Colorado; you and your natural wonders. Midwestern flatlanders can’t get enough.
We threw off our shoes and snaked into the chilly creek leading to the falls, tracking it about seventy-five yards to the south where we met a cliff wall. The nippy water cascaded in stages – fifty, then thirty feet to the rocks below, its massive churning roar echoing off the walls of the narrow canyon, rendering communication quite difficult.
Finding myself standing next to Rich and Lacy, and rather awed by the moment, I yelled to them something about how incredible it was. I was assured that it was, in fact, amazing.
“You know,” I said offhandedly, with a half of a grin, “this would be a great place to get married.”
They looked at one another, then at me. Their wheels were in full gear, clicking in unison.
“Can we?” they asked together.
“Well … I’m really only about forty percent kidding when I say that.”
They looked at one another. “Can we?” they asked again. “We were just standing here talking about it.”
I did the math. The Episcopal Church does not approve of marital rush jobs. We would have to demonstrate good faith to all parties involved, but yes, this was absolutely the right moment, and because these were the right people for this sacrament, this was absolutely the right thing to do.
I said no guarantees, but maybe I could make a few phone calls and see what’s what. Fording the creek back to where we put in, I stood on a big, slippery rock and willed Verizon to reach its snaky tentacles into the crevasse. Alas, no service.
Further out and away, then, the sound of the falls dimming. Could we reach diocesan officers in Des Moines and Denver? Not yet. I hoofed it back to the happy couple.
Members of the wedding party were tossing a Frisbee around. Could we repair to the fastest possible lunch spot and try to make phone calls from there?
Yes, we can, and did. Diocesan officers were understandable, heard us out, ticked everything off their lists to completion, and provided us with some instruction. Record the service here … will you have Eucharist? … any prior marriages or kids?
Meanwhile, a very serious conversation took place over sandwiches. It was like a lot of premarital counseling, only tightly compacted. I’d been with this couple for the past four days straight and it was crystal clear they were ready to go. Nevertheless, were there any skeletons, hesitations – anything at all? What would they do when troubles arose in their marriage? Who were their family? The betrothed were grilled on three sides by members of the clergy. They weren’t just giving lip service or pat answers.
Normally I’d initially turn from anything sacramental, like a marriage, that might have a pretense of too much urgency – the quickie confession, say. Everything slowed down for a few moments. I thought of Acts 8 and of the strange trip of Philip on the road to Gaza to see the Ethiopian eunuch and to speak of Christ. I remembered the eunuch’s burning question: There’s the water; what is to prevent me from being baptized right now? By my lights, nothing.
Then – pop! – back to the exigency of the moment. We’d need a marriage license, of course. It was getting on about three-thirty. What time does that office close?
Four-thirty! And the computers shut down before that! Into the van, into the rain, eighty miles an hour to the Alamosa County Clerk & Recorder. The bride-to-be on the phone, imploring, “Please understand we are coming to you now. I’m in the van with two priests and a deacon and an acolyte. We’re pulling into town.”
Waiting in the van. The clerk’s office gunning to get everything signed. The doors of the building already locked for the end of the day.
… Then, a hail of glee! The bride and groom running out of the building! The bride waving a piece of paper! The horn honking, the staff hugging them as they left the building, the rain having left a late-afternoon sheen on the streets of Alamosa, so that things just glowed.
Then, a hush, a sacred quiet, a bite of expectation. The endorphins having been used and sloughed away. This was truly happening.
Off to the communion kit and the stole, which would have been used tonight anyway. Gathering up prayer books. To one store for bread and another for wine.
Back in the van. On the road. Phone calls to parents and other family.
(“Grandma, I just want you to know what we’re about to do. We’re getting married up here. It’s perfect, it’s right. It’s amazing… Thank you. Thank you so much. I love you, too. I’ll call you later, okay?”)
Up the trail to Zapata Falls.
I doubled as Altar Guild and best man; the deacon read the gospel and stood next to the bride. If there really is such a thing as the Liturgical Police, they went undercover and didn’t flash their badges.
At this point I have presided at maybe fifty weddings, but never before have I felt the Spirit moving as much as in those few moments. We breathed, and listened to the rhythm of the water on the rock. Amazing.
Then out, out – sent back into service to a tired and wounded world. That night there would be a celebratory dinner at a Thai place that only had a Chinese buffet, and in the morning there would be a cake from the staff of La Puente that initially read “Congratulations, Rich and Lazy” before the typo was fixed. In between the bride and groom would sleep in separate dorms as was the established norm, not wishing to interrupt the flow of the next few days.
You know, sometimes the church’s structures and processes and endless politics get in the way of ministry, and sometimes you’re just deeply grateful for them. I venture to guess that day at Zapata Falls would not have been as fulfilling had it not been for the way The Episcopal Church nerves and prepares its ministers, or had the lot of us been overly encouraged not to risk, or had the couple expressed an overwhelming objection of any sort.
But: Risk we did – and some beautiful ministry was done, and God’s name praised as the universe was put right for a few moments. God’s Spirit had put us together; we were just awake enough to see that, and look what happened.
The Rev. Torey Lightcap is Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sioux City, Iowa and on the staff of Episcopal Café.