This Blessed Place
As we approach Easter, I got to thinking about places of worship and the blessings we receive there. I had an experience recently at a church that I will never forget.
For a number of years, my family has vacationed on lovely Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Quite often I have had occasion to pass by The Church of the Cross in nearby Bluffton, located as it is near the charming old town restaurants, shops and marina that we frequent. I am always drawn in. The church is just so beautiful there on the banks of May River, a beacon, a picture postcard.
My dear friend Loralee and I took a spur of the moment, late-winter trip to South Carolina recently. It was the first anniversary of her mother’s death and I was facing major unsettling change in my life. We felt the ocean and some time together would be peaceful and healing. I guess our feeling somber and grateful at the same time, led us to worship that Sunday. I was finally presented with an opportunity to visit this church I had so long admired.
There are days in life…that completely exceed expectations. This Sunday was such a day. The Church of the Cross is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside, literally and figuratively.
As we were seated and settled in, we expressed our quiet greetings to those around us and were met with smiles and cheerful hellos. We had some time to take in our surroundings.
There are spaces in this world…that just seem special…they seem blessed. The morning sun sifted through the sanctuary and fell on us. I had read that the church celebrated its 150th birthday in 2004 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. This stalwart edifice has survived a lot in its lifetime, including the Civil War. I could feel the history in the old well-loved pews, antique altar, the rose-colored stained-glass windows and exposed beams. The fanned arches above the high windows mimic the fans of the palmetto trees that make South Carolina the Palmetto State.
I love the church’s mission statement: We are rooted in the past, sheltering the present, reaching out to the future, and empowered by the God of the Ages.
As the hour for worship drew near, Pastor Juan Rivera moved up and down the aisles greeting every single person. Pastor Juan is an exuberant, smiling, benevolent presence who I felt immediately was a man of God.
The Church of the Cross is an Anglican church, and I had never experienced an Anglican service. I felt a commonality with a lot of the familiar liturgies of my own Methodist service, as well as similarities to the Catholic services I have attended with my husband and his family. I loved looking at the familiar church bulletin, outlining the service as well as the weekly events at the church: The social activities, the Sunday School and church choir practice, members ill and in need of prayer, all the goings-on of this church family, were much like my church at home. It made me smile. I loved that the hymns we would sing were all familiar to me.
All of this familiarity was nice, and the church is gorgeous, in a spot so beautiful it is out of a movie set. But it was so much more than that. It was Pastor Juan’s words of wisdom in his sermon about navigating our troubled world following the teachings of Christ. It was that we were all friends here and we were all welcome. We were invited to take Communion and we did, gratefully.
What mattered is that I felt like God truly was present.
I love visiting South Carolina; it is my favorite beach vacation destination. When we come here it is always about relaxing: The draw is the ocean, the sun and the fun and the family togetherness. Attending church services was never on the agenda. This experience was all the more precious in that it was completely unplanned and unexpected.
At the end of the service we all filed out and Pastor Juan was at the door to greet us. He took my outstretched hand warmly in both of his and the handshake turned into a spontaneous hug. He genuinely and graciously extended the welcome on behalf of his church to visitors, newcomers, and out of towners.
Pastor Juan insisted we follow the other parishioners into the fellowship hall where the women of the church served tea and coffee and pastries. Even there, as we drank our coffee, members of the congregation made a point to speak to us and made us feel welcome.
Yes, there are days in life that stand out, that are so special and beautiful, your fellow humans are so kind and gracious, it makes you believe. I couldn’t help but think what a different world it would be if we could all come together in such a space where God is so obviously present, and then go about the rest of the week taking this spirit with us.
As we said our goodbyes and stepped out into the sunshine, Loralee and I stopped in disbelief to admire a big magnolia tree in full bloom…In January! Even for South Carolina, this seemed so unusual, so…. magical. One of the passing parishioners saw me taking a photo and he noted that the full sun upon the tree and its position, sheltered as it was against the church, caused it to bloom so early, so hopefully.
I couldn’t help but think that this was the perfect analogy for this blessed place.