Last week, I went down to St. Simons Island, a barrier island off the coast of Georgia. I came to love this area of “low country” thanks to my friend, John Miner, who would invite me down to share the very special place known as Cumberland Island, the southernmost barrier island. I had come to know of the magic of Cumberland when my boss, Jim Mackay, was working on bringing together a land trust that would eventually become part of the National Park Service.
Cumberland Island is intentionally only accessible by boat, mostly through the Park Service who can regulate the number of people invading this Garden of Eden. It was originally a private playground for the rich but, thanks to the work of Jim and then Governor Carter, it is now accessible to all.
My friend, John, had leased a small house off the fabulous Greyfield Inn. He also had leased the hunting rights from the Carnegie family, making it available to us to hunt coastal deer and the Eastern turkey. Truth is, I spent more time watching the wild horses playing in the dunes than even considering hunting game. It was a magical time, and John was the friend of a lifetime, sharing that special place. As one old timer said of Cumberland, “Cumberland ain’t nothing but the Good Lord a talkin’, and my do He go on!” I can’t say or write that any better.
My hunger and thirst for low country was fed by my experience of leading an unlikely youth retreat for four summers on Folly Beach, part of South Carolina’s low country. It was at a time when Folly was a broken down Atlantic Beach town, with no clubs or honky tonks that might seduce my teenage retreatants. I liked that. Come to think of it, it kept my adult sponsors in line as well.
The simplicity of the beach setting made for an experience of community that became paradigmatic for the shape and course of my ministry. Engaging the Mystery of God in Creation, finding real community in small groups, celebrative dancing and singing, sharing the common bread and wine around a primal fire: these are the things that became markers for my thinking and imagining of how the people of God gather. Oddly, everything I needed to learn about being a priest, I learned at Folly Beach.
Now days, I am many moons removed from the glory of Folly, the seductive lure of Cumberland. I am more domesticated in my experience of low country, finding that magic on St. Simons Island, a more sophisticated version of the island life. My brother and fabulous sister-in-law now have a home there, overlooking the glades of Glynn, with the best front porch on God’s coast. My daughter by the water lives and works on St. Simons, with her boyfriend, Michael, and their amazing Lab, Reagan. And Mary and I are looking to move there in our future, to make our love of this special place even more real and immediate.
Part of the allure of St. Simons for me is the community of faith at Christ Church. It’s a small parish, located in the middle (I refuse to use the preacher word “midst”) of live oak trees decorated with hanging moss, the obvious work of some Divine landscape design artist. It’s a small parish with some of its members coming from my former parish of the Cathedral in Atlanta, having retired to Paradise. We have attended whenever we are on island and I have spent quiet time walking the perimeters of the classic church grave yard. It’s there that I have found a peace that is rare. It is one of my thin spaces, where the divine seems to touch the ordinary.
Being on the island for the beginning of Lent, we went to the Shrove Tuesday celebration, down off the peer in the village. It was the traditional pancake supper that Episcopalians love, and the great news that everyone is invited, parishioner or not. One of the parishioners provided music, along with a superb jazz sax player that led the children and young at heart in a parade down by the water, returning to the pavilion. It’s not quite Bourbon Street, but it’ll do.
The next day ushers us into a reflective time known as Lent, Ash Wednesday. I attended the noon service, with my wife, Mary, and colleague, Judy. We sat in the back due to my limitations with a walker that I use to ambulate( that’s high church Anglican language for “walk”). It’s tight quarters in this live oak ribbed church. The term “chapel” comes to mind but does violence to the rich, thriving community that definitely forms church.
At Ash Wednesday, there are two actions that ask participants to come forward. The first comes early as the faithful are invited to come forward for the imposition of ashes. The ashes are marked on the forehead of the person as a sign of an intention of amending one’s life in the next forty days of Lent. When I served as a parish priest, I often pressed the notion of “imposition”. The church was imposing on each person an awareness of one’s mortal nature, ashes to ashes, or as the priest re-minds: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It is a somber moment that memorializes that no one gets out of this alive.
The second invitation comes toward the end of the service in which you are invited to come forward to receive communion. This time, the priest offers: The Gifts of God for the People of God. Now, in the Episcopal Church, this happens every Sunday. It’s the central act of a community of faith gathered, and a person of faith, to receive the sacrament of God’s love. It’s the reason I chose to live my existence in the Episcopal communion.
As I mentioned, my walker limited my access down a very narrow aisle. And so, when the invitation came, I remained in my seat, meditating, as Mary and Judy went forward. I had already determined that I could get the spiritual benefits of the ashes and communion without the literal action of going forward. I laughed inside as I told myself this, as if I were so spiritually sophisticated. But, I remained in my pew.
The communion of the people concluded and I was still meditating on this special time. All of a sudden, there was the parish priest, Father Tom. standing in front of me, with two assistants at his side. He commented, “First come the ashes” as he imposed my mark of mortality that I had received hundreds of times, but none like this. And then, the other two ministers offered me the bread and wine, gifts of God that were given for me. I received these sacramental offerings.
It was a moment of grace that you simply can’t plan, design, or make happen. This is coming from a priest who thought of himself as an architect of spiritual experience, carefully planning and making it happen, on time and probably over budget. It came like the Spirit is said to move where She wills. I am forced to admit that, once again, I was profoundly in “the midst” of God’s people, the community of Christ, and was given the gift of amazing Grace.