Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Surprising Contender

I have a friend who has been following this journey with me because she, too, has been looking for a local church home.  I've told her what I've seen in different congregations, what I've heard, and it's been really neat to talk it over with someone who understands how difficult it can be to "fit in" at a new church.

She asked me if I had visited any of the churches on Fort Hood, since we are both Army spouses, and I had to admit the answer was no.  In fact, after 20 years of marriage to my Soldier, it might surprise most of my friends to know I have never attended a regular religious service on any installation.  Ever.

There hasn't been any particular reason for this, I just haven't gone. We have never lived on Post, and we've generally lived a pretty decent distance from Post so the churches weren't exactly close. Part of the reason, however, has been an impression I've had that church services on a military installation would be very formal. Dry. Boring. More of a "check the block" kind of have-to offering, versus anything meaningful.

But, my friend asked. And I was curious. So I did a little research.

First, Fort Hood has a huge selection of available services.  Buddhist, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Wiccan (?? total surprise there), Protestant (from Gospel to Contemporary to Samoan), Jewish and Islamic.

The services I am most comfortable with are either Baptist or Contemporary, so I chose the Contemporary service. I still didn't know what to expect.

On a military post, which is extremely transient, how would they do music? Would there even be a choir? Would we do Communion? What kind of Chaplain would we have?  Would there be ushers or deacons?

One other thing to note about chapels on a military installation: With very few exceptions such as the holy water font I saw at the inside door of the chapel, and perhaps a mezuzah where they hold Jewish services, the chapels have to be able to hold all types of services. So there can be no permanent crosses, no stained glass with denomination- or faith-specific images, nothing that marks the room as anything but a place of "general" worship. You can still tell that the room is a house of worship, based on the ones that I've visited for other reasons, but they are not specific to any one faith or denomination.  So I really didn't know or anticipate that the service would be anything but, well, generic.

I knew that Fort Hood had opened a new religious center fairly recently, and I'd even seen the building from afar. I had no idea, though, what an amazing and peaceful campus it was. Benches lined the walkways, inviting conversation and communing. Trees promised to offer shade and green glimpses of nature once they'd grown. It is truly a welcoming, wonderful and fresh location to hold any kind of spiritual meeting.

A sign in the foyer was the first glimpse I had that perhaps this was not going to be a dry and by-the-numbers kind of service. They wanted to build a community? In an area where people are sometimes only living here for a year or so before moving on? Where training, schools, deployments and TDY were the rule of thumb? Hmmm. My heart started to feel lighter, already.

Greeters handed me the church bulletin and smiled as they welcomed me in.  Hmm again... This felt like real church.

When I walked into the sanctuary, I saw my dear friend and prayer warrior. So I got a huge hug of greeting and a great smile. This was starting to feel like home.

Look! A full contemporary church band was warming up. I didn't know their songs but I was looking forward to learning more music. The sanctuary felt open, inviting, and certainly not militaristic or cold.

In the church bulletin, there was a leaflet about the Community Bible Experience. As explained later by the Chaplain, this was an effort to make the Bible familiar and relevant 7 days a week instead of during one or two hours each Sunday. Reading together as a group - I really liked this idea.  They have a Facebook page, too. So does Chapel Next.

I had always wondered if military services took up an offering. After all, the building and the Chaplains are paid for by the Army. Where would the money go? Turns out, last week's offering went to the Fisher House, one of my very favorite programs. This church was shaping up to be much more community-minded and meaningful than I could have anticipated.

In a couple of weeks, they will do a "Walk Through the Bible," focused on the New Testament, with programs for adults and children. This Sunday, they are holding a potluck. They have Sunday School and Children's Church. The first Sunday of each month, the children stay with the parents for family time.

My heart was full, and the Chaplain hadn't said a word.

While it is true that other churches I've visited have had a lot of these programs, because this was on a military installation, it felt different to me. I felt like I was among friends, simply because we were all of the same community. I've felt this kind of relevance at other churches, too, but this one surprised me.

After we sang with the (amazingly talented and even diverse) worship team, the assistant/associate Chaplain had some announcements. He explained the potluck (every other month), the family time, the overall philosophy of the church, and made sure to welcome everyone and let us all know how the service would go.

The sermon itself was about being in a relational gospel. Church and faith are about supporting one another, raising each other up, and being spotters for each other.  Just as weightlifters are able to handle a greater challenge if they have spotters to keep them safe, so are we able to do more when we have support. We are to act as that support for each other. We are to "protect them from being hurt while they build their strength".

Galatians 6:2 -- Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

He asked us: Are we close enough to others to know when they need help? I will ask, also: Do we allow others close enough to us, so they know when we need help? 

As a body of Christ, we fit together: Talents, abilities, gifts. They are unique to each of us, and the question we need to ask ourselves is, "Where do I fit?" 

I liked how he had a verse to explain and illustrate every point he made. He had a contextual knowledge of the Bible, and he shared it with us in ways that brought the Scriptures to life. 

Communion was another bit of a surprise. First, we had Communion at all. I don't know why I expected that we wouldn't have Communion, it's just that my preconceived ideas of a military, uniform-wearing church service didn't go too well with grape juice and bits of unleavened bread. Second, as we left our pews and took our cups and bread, the deacon who was assisting gave a blessing over us. The only time I have ever seen that was at a Catholic Mass, and as a non-Catholic I am not eligible to take Communion then. Having someone utter a blessing over me is a humbling, restorative feeling. His actual words didn't matter. It was the blessing and the anointment of words that had the needed effect.

So, will I go back? This is definitely in the running for my church home. I felt welcomed. I felt at home. And I felt God. What more could a person want?

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