Finding Meaning

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Spiritual but Not Religious

By Skip Hellewell
By Skip Hellewell

I’ve said it before—attending Laguna’s churches is as enjoyable as a sunset walk on the beach.  Last Sunday offered two compelling choices: United Methodist featured the Urban Voices, a choir drawn from the homeless of Los Angeles’ skid row. The Urban Voices Project uses music to transform lives, directed by the Colburn conservatory’s Leeav Sofer. I was fascinated to see this transformation at work.

At the other end of town, Unitarian Universalist offered a sermon on the spirituality of Samuel Clemens (immortalized as Mark Twain). This was a strong draw also. I grew up on Tom Sawyer, visited Clemens’ Hannibal, Missouri hometown and his Hartford, Connecticut mansion, now a museum. I thought him irreligious, so I was curious about his spiritual side. Have you ever wanted to be two places at once? There was a way to see both, though it took impoliteness.

United Methodist starts at 10 a.m., so I arrived at 9:30 to catch them warming up. The Urban Voices choir, 12 women and six men, was singing when I slipped into a pew. The song, I missed the title, had a repeating phrase, “I’ve decided to be strong.” It caught me unawares, this idea of deciding to be strong. If you had been there, seen the difficulties of their lives written hard on their faces, the rising up of these down-trodden, and heard the beauty of their sound, you would have wiped your eye, too. They sang about courage, about being unbreakable, and “building a beautiful city.” There are many great choirs, I’ve heard a few, but I can’t recall being so moved.  And as the director pointed out, “If you sing in a choir…you become family.”  Leaving early, I missed Pastor Lynn Francis’ sermon on Naomi and Ruth, a sweet Bible story.

Hurrying through Sunday traffic, I arrived late to Laguna’s Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.  Visiting Rev. James Ford spoke on Mark Twain’s spiritual journey. Clemens’ comments on religion were critical. Of preachers, he wryly noted, “I’ve never heard a sermon in which I could not find some good, though there have been some near misses.” On the shortcomings of humans, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”  And Ford’s favorite, “A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.”

Clemens was a seeker of truth. A perfectionist in his writing, he sought straightness in life. Mankind, he insisted, is responsible for its behavior. After debts from bad investments were dismissed by an 1894 bankruptcy, Clemens went on a global speaking tour that allowed him to repay those debts. The DNA of his childhood Calvinism persisted. Even after he left organized religion, he had close friendships with clergy. In Ford’s view, Clemens calls us to an authentic life of pure love, to a mending of our hearts and of our world. His “large dream” was that we were all connected, that healing was a collective act of love. Doesn’t that sound like a call to church, to a congregation that becomes choir and family?

If Clemens were alive today, he might embrace that slippery saying, “spiritual but not religious.”  Or he might have rejected it in his relentless search for authenticity. It’s a subject to revisit in a future column. All in all, it was a wonderful Sunday morning. I’ll say it again—going to church is as enjoyable as a sunset walk on the beach.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]

Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 6 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 a.m. & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 a.m. & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

Salt Chrch, 8681 N. Coast Hwy, 10 a.m.

St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish), 5:30 p.m.  There are 8 a.m. masses on other days and Saturday 5:30 p.m. vigils.

St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 9:30 a.m. (summer schedule)

Unitarian Universalist, 429 Cypress St., 10:30 a.m.


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