Finding Meaning

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With Wandering Awe

By Skip Hellewell
By Skip Hellewell

One of the pleasures of “Finding Meaning” is I can attend local churches to my heart’s content. I find their services as enjoyable as a sunset stroll on the beach. Here I report on three remarkable yet ordinary congregations who welcomed me.

I attended a Friday evening Shabbat service at Mozambique restaurant, an offering to wandering Jews. The room had a feeling of the ages: candles flickering on orange walls decorated with African masks, dark beams overhead, fans turning slowly. Psalms written three millennia ago were sung in Hebrew, a trio of young women performed, the 40 or so crowded into the room intoned the blessings of creation, revelation, and redemption. For such weighty topics, the people were younger than I expected, mostly in their 30s and 40s. Devout in their devotion, they exuded a calm competence. Two deceased relatives were memorialized with the Mourner’s Kaddish. A young woman leaving to study in Jerusalem said an emotional good-bye. I have never been to Jerusalem, but as I walked into the night it seemed that I had.

Laguna Presbyterian graces our downtown with its 1926 Spanish Colonial building, recently renovated. Entering, I passed a lively gathering in the patio, found the sanctuary and settled into the end of a pew. Warmed by sunlight streaming though stained glass, it was a peaceful place for meditation. Musicians played as the congregants entered and greeted each other with affection. This is Laguna’s oldest continuous church, starting its second century, blessed by long-serving pastor, the Rev. Jerry Tankersley. This Sunday was the annual business meeting; it seems the church is in good shape, looking to the future. There is a close bond between the parishioners; they like each other and seem to like visitors.

My third service was the weekday mass at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church. A vocal rendition of the Rosary was underway as I settled into a pew, comforted by the timeless phrases of praise. The high point of the Mass comes during the Eucharist when the wafer and wine are blessed and raised above the altar. There is a palpable reverence at this moment. The Mass brings a feeling of the ages; what other organization has endured so long? The mother church has had some challenges of late, but my sense is it will recover and carry on.

All this left me with a deep thought. About 10% of Laguna, by my count, can be found in worship services on any given weekend. These services are the best thing that happens in our town—friends warmly greet you, music gives comfort, skilled speakers instruct, and the spirit inspires. Here the stress and cares of the work week pass away and we receive peace to our souls. At church our perspective is lifted and wisdom descends upon us. Is there a better return on your time than a church service? Or a better source of grace for our town?

On Wednesday, Feb. 14, Fr. Ken Schmidt of St. Catherine’s will celebrate Ash Wednesday, which introduces this week’s topic, Lent. Lent is a timeless rite for Christians, our personal version of Jesus’s 40-day wilderness fast to begin His ministry. It’s appropriate that Lent, an old English word for lengthen, comes during spring’s stretching of daylight hours while the dark hours shrink. Lent is one’s own enlightenment.

For those who observe Lent, it’s a time to set oneself aside to gain deeper harmony with God. It is a time for fasting, contemplation, and seeking grace. During Lent believers can be freed by forgiving others who might have offended, or through penance gain forgiveness for one’s own offenses. It is a time to be more devout in prayer, more giving in service. The sacrifices of Lent are the deposit one makes for a richer Easter.

Lent is also a time to be more loving of those who share our lives, which brings us to an interesting fact—or a difficult choice. For the first time since 1945, Lent begins on Valentine’s Day. How does one combine the ashes of penance with roses and romance? It’s complicated, though I have faith Laguna’s lovers will figure this out in many creative ways. But you could celebrate Valentine’s Day 24 hours earlier on Shrove Tuesday. This is the day when families traditionally enjoyed a fancier breakfast of pancakes, to use up richer ingredients like eggs, milk, and syrup, before beginning their humbler Lenten diet. Whatever you do, have a wondrous Lent.


Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip, and is the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” A student of local history, he and wife Clare dote on their many grandchildren. Email: [email protected]




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