Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Little Bit of Heaven

In the aftermath of two monster hurricanes, it's easy to feel depressed and disheartened. Some people even ask, "Why would God allow this to happen?" or state self-righteously, "God is punishing the sinners."

Personally, I don't understand either of those statements. After all, God gave us free will. I don't think he allows bad things to happen, any more than He whips up hurricanes as punishment. He created the Earth and made humans in His image. He gifted us with free will so we could chose our own destiny. Sure, He gives suggestions and subtle hints, but we're free to accept or reject them. I believe that He tries to guide us, and that He will intervene if we pray, but I don't think He takes out His wrath on hundreds (or thousands) of innocent people just to smite some sinners.

Back in the Midwest, my husband and I were active at a local retreat house that was run by Catholic nuns, although many of the retreats were nondenominational, but I hadn't attended church regularly for many years. I like having a regular spiritual touchstone, so once we moved to Celebration, I hoped to find a compatible house of worship.

If you ever double that Celebration has a wide variety of churches from which to choose, simply drive into town any weekend and you'll get lost in a sea of ugly, annoying plastic signs announcing services throughout the town. We've got everything from traditional Catholic and Protestant services to multi-sensory "worship events," and there's also an active Jewish congregation.

The worship styles are diverse, and so are the locations. At present, one church has a permanent building and two others are in the works. The other congregations meet at various places, such as the grade school, high school, Stetson University, Celebration Health, and even the downtown movie theater.

My own religious background is varied. My family is Catholic, but I also attended Baptist and Pentecostal Sunday Schools. I consider myself a Christian, but my views are quite liberal. For example, I don't believe that God has anything against gay people, and it annoys me when churches focus too much on materialism and not enough on helping others with direct action. Personally, I think most televangalists are the modern-day equivalent of the moneychangers Jesus drove out of the temple.

I know people who attend various Celebration churches, and originally I planned to visit multiple congregations to find the one that suits me best. But I lucked out on my very first first visit was to Community Presbyterian Church in Celebration, mainly because of their convenient 11 a.m. service, and I quickly realized that I didn't need to look anywhere else.

Community Presbyterian is conveniently located downtown, on Celebration Avenue. It's almost impossible to miss the old-fasioned white church building as you approach the town center. I remember driving by on so many wistful Sundays, as my husband and I prepared to return to Chicago after a whirlwind Celebration weekend. In those days, we typically spent less than 48 hours in town; we'd fly in after work on Friday, then catch whatever flight to Chicago was cheapest on Sunday afternoon.

As we drove down Celebration Avenue to 417 on our journey back to the midwest, I would enviously glance at the people gathered in the narthex at the end of the 11:00 service. They seemed so happy as they chatted, greeted friends, and headed off to a late lunch or home to enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon. I dreamed of the day when I, too, would call Florida home and have the time to do "normal," homey things, like attend church.

Now we finally have that opportunity. Instead of watching wistfully through the winshield, I am one of the people gathered at the church. We made our first visit to Community Presbyterian a few months ago, and I enjoyed the practical, plain-spoken sermon and the feeling of comraderie. Just paging through the church bulletin, I could see that Com Pres was a church of action. It was jam-packed with activities, from youth groups to adult groups to an upcoming mission trip to Brazil to supply-gathering drives for the less fortunate.

The interior of the church is nice, but not overly fancy. The emphasis is on worship, not on trying to impress. While I love the 11 a.m. start time, my husband loves the fact that he can dress casually. Among the congregation members, you'll find people in every sort of attire, from dress clothes to jeans and shorts. I also like the fact that the late service is a "blended" service, meaning that there is a mixture of traditional hymns and modern music. For those who prefer a full slate of mournful organ songs, the early service is all tradtional. For those whose tastes are entirely modern, there is a Thursday night contemporary service. Personally, I like the blending, as it offers a nice mix of the two.

The pastors of the church, Patrick Wrisley and Nancy Graham Ogne, are truly gifted. No stodgy fire-and-brimestone (as a matter of fact, Patrick rides a Harley...he's definitely not a stuffed-shirt pastor!). Instead, the messages are relevant; Nancy and Patrick have a talent for taking Biblical passages and relating them to modern life in a meaningful way. They often use "The Message," a translation of the Bible in contemporary language, for quotations, and it intrigued me so much that I bought a dual volume, with The Message in one column and a traditional interpretion beside it.

I had assumed that most of the Com Pres attendees lived in Celebration, but soon I learned that I was wrong. I saw many friends and local neighbors, but there were also lots of people who came in regularly from the surrounding areas. They had tried other churches throughout the area and had found a "home" at Community Presbyterian.

Soon, my husband and I were attending Com Pres regularly, and better yet, we actually enjoyed it. To hubby, who grew up strictly Catholic, mass was a chore and an obligation. For me, church mostly meant Sunday School where I could see my friends, but the Baptist and Pentacostal sermons were full of too much Hell and damnation. It was quite a pleasant change of pace to look forward to Sundays.

Since I believe in active Christianity, I liked the church's mantra of being the "hands and feet of Christ." I saw plenty of evidence that Com Pres takes those words seriously. The very first week we attended was "Undie Sunday," a collection of new underwear for the needy. Over the many weeks we attended, there was a mission trip, a "Buckets of Love" program for the less fortunate in other countries, a special collection for hurricane victims, and a group made up of of several church members who drove out to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

I haven't had the time to start practicing counseling professionally in Celebration, but I discovered that the church has a Stephen Ministry program. It trains and provides lay volunteers who assist people in a Christian context. They don't do actual "counseling"; speaking from my clinical background, they practice Rogerian techniques, i.e. listening and unconditional acceptance. However, they add a Christian component, relying on God to do the healing.

I decided that becoming a Stephen Minister would allow me to volunteer my time for a good cause, doing something that I can enjoy while helping others. Since my years of training focused on cognitive/behavioral psychology, I knew it would be somewhat of a shift to move to strictly Rogerian. Also, even though I attended a Catholic university for my BA and MA, there were no classes in adding a spiritual component to therapy (I earned my doctorate at a secular school, so of course there was no religious training). But the church provides an excellent training program, so I'm currently in the process of learning to be a Stephen Minister.

Since we were becoming active in the church, my husband and I decided to become members. I didn't want to be singled out; even though I'm normally an exhibitionist who doesn't mind speaking in front of groups of people, somehow the idea of getting up in front of the congregation as a new member was a bit too intimidated. Hubby kept taunting me for my timidity, but I remained firm.

Fortunately, Com Pres has a tradition of a mass joining on the church's anniversary in September. My husband and I could become official members in relative anonymity, along with a large group of fellow newbies. We made an appointment to talk to Nancy, and a few weeks later we attended Patrick's new member orientation the day before the "Mass Joining." Even though we had to be conscious, dressed, and downtown at the ungodly hour of 9 a.m., it was a lot of fun. There was coffee, continental breakfast items, and lots of comraderie. We saw several people we knew already and learned some interesting facts about those we didn't know...turns out there was even another roller coaster buff, just like my husband.

After the introductions, Patrick gave an overview of the Presbyterian faith and the history of the church. It's almost as fascinating as the history of the town of Celebration itself. I liked several aspects of being a Presbyterian, particularly the democratic style of decision-making and the fact that church members are encourage to study the Bible and maintain their own personal relationship with God.

The next morning, my husband and I did a rare dress-up, with me in a dress and him in a good shirt and tie (normally we're clad in shorts and sandals). Prior to the joining, several people were being baptized. Then, we stood up with all the other new members and answered several questions designed to affirm our faith. Thankfully, lightning did not strike the church...finally, we were officially a part of Community Presbyterian in Celebration.

At this time last year, I was on the outside looking in. Now, it's so nice to be among the people with a spiritual home, as well as a physical one, here in Celebration.

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