On Tuesday, September 8, 2020 around 11:45 AM, working remotely at home, I went downstairs and looking out the windows, and noticed clouds of brown smoke billowing north of the house our family rented in Talent, OR. Checking for news on-line, I learned of a fire burning outside of Ashland. Given that our area was already on alert for high winds and super dry from drought, I started to monitor what was happening. Information was hard to find, but when I heard multiple sirens, I knew it was not good, especially when later in the afternoon, helicopters and planes started flying overhead dropping water and retardant at what I assumed was the far side of the I-5.
I told my kids what was happening and to pack some supplies just in case we were evacuated. Over the next 3-4 hours, I watched as neighbors packed up and drove off, even though there had been no official notice. I figured the fire was able to be contained and so packed for an overnight away just in case. I signed up for emergency notifications for my phone. Black and grey billowing clouds grew closer to the south and the east. Around 4 PM, I told my girls to load up the car and a few minutes later I heard someone going around pounding on doors and telling people to leave. We hurried to the car and drove to Talent Avenue and joined the line trying to get out of town. When we got to Colver Road, a Sheriff’s deputy directed us to HWY 99 south since the road north was closed. Since we had driven in a circle, I drove back to our house and picked up my CPAP machine and headed out again. I noticed some kids on bikes riding around the streets and people walking down the street as if nothing were happened. By the time we got back to HWY 99, a water plane flew extremely low over one of the fields on fire. Once again, we joined the traffic and turned to get on 1-5, noticing the flames reaching the apartments closer to I-5 and the gas stations and rest area near the freeway entrance. From there we joined a smoky procession to Ashland and found a hotel room. My wife, at work in Medford was eventually told to evacuate and having nowhere to go went to Grant’s Pass with a co-worker for an anxious night since she could not make it to us south to Ashland.
When I heard that the planes dropping water and retardant had stopped for the night, I knew that our home at 260 Rockfellow Place was gone. By then the fire had moved on to Phoenix and was threatening the Medford area. Information about what was happening was scarce. My wife was able to join use the next day, our total possessions, 2 automobiles, a couple of small bags of clothes and belongings, thankfully our important identification documents were with us and of course some computers and cell phones. Plus, my one pair of underwear. What I thought would be overnight turned out to be permanent. Why hadn’t I grabbed more clothes? Why hadn’t I grabbed my computer or the bills? Why hadn’t I slowed down and packed better?
Gone were my 6 guitars, including the classical acoustic I learned to play on when I was 15, a 40-year-old Martin D-35 and a black Gibson Les Paul Custom. Gone were my family notes I used for genealogy, my grandfathers framed prints from Scotland, my wife’s photos of her mother who died less than a year ago, our diplomas and paperwork for our job certifications. Gone were my 250 plus books, the chalice and goblets from my grandparents, our wedding china, and pictures and artwork from when our kids were growing up. Gone were my great-grandfather’s pocket New Testament which he carried with him in the Salvation Army and my seminary papers, sermon notes, dream journals and news clippings.
Much of what we lost may be with out value or meaning to anyone else, but they were markers and identifiers of who we are and where we came from. It is not the dollar value since these are irreplaceable but the physical anchor for our memories. Now they are stored in our heads and hearts, except for what I had saved before by digitizing over the years.
I have only given you my experience. However, 3, 200 acres over a 15-mile swath of the Rogue valley were burned. 3 people died, over 2, 800 structures were destroyed, and a multitude of people have been displaced and in need of assistance and permanent housing in an area with few affordable rentals. All this in the midst of Covid-19.
3 weeks later, my sleep is fair, I am functioning adequately, and we have (thankfully) been able to find a new place to live. At times I feel sad, mad, depressed, displaced or like I want to hide, run away or cry. My sympathetic system is more on alert and vigilant to risk and danger, my reactions and frustrations sometimes stronger than I want or expect. We visited our home site and found a few mementos (one picture below) but mostly broken and burnt remnants buried in ash. We are still trying to find our mail. We have been blessed by co-workers and acquaintances, comforted by family from afar, thankful for what we do have which is life and each other.
I have neither time nor inclination to offer a theodicy or explanation about why this happened. I am not interested in hearing it from others. Maybe another time. For now, we grieve, along with many in our area, along with the scores of others around the world who have experienced loss and far worse. Sometimes, I can glimpse a different way of living with each other on this planet that is more just, more equitable, more peaceful and more life-giving than what we have seen so far. May it be so.
Our nation is torn by conflict, turmoil & violence. Passiveness in the face of evil is a luxury for some (the comfortable conservative who fears change) who face no direct physical risks or brutality. It presents as resigned wisdom or other-worldly spirituality. Sadly, it is a despairing fatalism that dooms many to misery and death.
One example of the opposite was William Wilberforce.
I am happy to announce that I have published a small collection of some of my writings. “The View from Right Field – Thoughts on God, Life & the Stuff in Between” is a collection of stories and essays that range from reflections on the church and spiritual life to rural America and journeys overseas as well as 2 short stories that delve into the mystery of lost Spanish gold and the tumult of the Reformation era.
You can read on-line or download for free from Smashbooks. fair & courteous feedback appreciated!
The unknowable – the uncontrollable – the unpredictable – the uncertainty – subvert my sense (and our shared cultural belief) of mastery over my future, my sense of control over my fate, my desire to be without need of others, without dependence on the actions of others – and that sickness, health, death are a matter of my choice (and what I should have done – diet, exercise, washing hands) and not the random, vagaries of a sneeze, a cough, an expelled droplet of virus infected fluid.
A virus pandemic is a “memento mori,” a reminder we are from dust and ultimately not the masters of life or death, whispering in our ear “Remember you are only a man.”
Over the last 3 months, I have visited at least 9 churches in the Medford, OR area. As a new resident, I have been checking out the local stores, coffee spots and cuisine as well as local congregations. Going to a new church is probably the toughest! Visiting churches can be enjoyable, as I am able to see what’s happening and what’s being done on Sunday morning in regard to music and preaching but on the other hand it is difficult as an introvert and a male 60 years old to walk into a new building, alone. I struggle with being overly self-conscious of my status as a visitor and stranger who wants to be welcomed and feel a part but not interrogated as to my business being there, job status, and spiritual condition. I recognize it’s a tough job for anyone greeting or meeting me! Yet, I persist, in my curiosity and desire to see what God’s up to and find a place I might belong. Ages ago, I worked for STAPLES, the office supply company. They were part of a program called “Mystery Shopper” that sent people into stores to see how the staff did, i.e. helpfulness, courteousness, knowledge and how long it took for staff to greet & offer help. Since one of my pastimes is writing amateur reviews for places I visit, I thought I would come up with my own rating system for churches as a “Mystery Worshipper.” The following are the categories I chose to rate on a scale of 1-10 (1=poor / 10= excellent). Music and singing: Message / Preaching: Order of service / Liturgy (Prayer – Offering – Lord’s Table). I define liturgy in part as a predictable pattern of spiritual actions repeated each week in a gathered worship service. By that definition, all churches are liturgical, in that they have a set pattern of what happens when every Sunday or meeting time from songs, announcements, offering, prayer and message. Of course, you can test this by changing the order and see how people react! “Standard” refers to the current custom of music / message / offering. Welcome & hospitality: Coffee: Mission to the area: Theological spectrum: Best moment: Worst moment: Did they sing that song? (Oceans by Hillsong – the over played, song that won’t end, the song leader’s back-up when there’s no energy to find something newer, better or more profound – like “Just as I am” for the previous generation). Likelihood I’d come back:
Music and singing: Praise band, started with brief, instrumental “set-the- mood” music, current popular praise hits.
Message / Preaching: Woman on staff spoke from letter to the Hebrews; To be clear, I enjoy women using their gifts as pastors in teaching and preaching but she didn’t really explore the text, nor highlight the key points of chapters 4 & 5, application did not seem connected to the text.
Order of service – Standard: Worship leader said he was our “host” for the morning (!). Communion (crackers and juice) was announced but not explained, if I was a child, I would have thought it was snack time for adults!
Welcome & hospitality: Not greeted
Mission to the area: Not mentioned
Theological spectrum: Charismatic – (Four Square)
Best moment: Stand-up acoustic bass used in band.
Worst moment: Not being able to find a free rest room.
Did they sing that song? Afraid so!
Likelihood I’d come back: Unlikely
New Song – (5) 4041 Crater Lk. Ave. Suite E, Medford, OR. 97504
Music and singing: Older praise band, competent but played in lower key; old praise songs.
Message / Preaching: Youth pastor spoke; used material from Bible study on communication; interesting and helpful but no real Bible text was explored or applied.
Order of service – Standard, crackers & juice.
Welcome & hospitality: Was welcomed by one gentleman and played 20 questions about why I was new to Medford.
Coffee: Yes, didn’t try.
Mission to the area: Pastor does street evangelism.
Music and singing: Very competent, praise group, enjoyable to listen to; songs lacked substance, usual clichés.
Message / Preaching: Well-structured and presented message on parable of Jesus, with humor, could tell the speaker had put his work into it as well as his biceps which were on display. However, he left out what was most important – Jesus’ own commentary on the parable!
Order of service: Standard – crackers & juice served.
Welcome & hospitality: One staff member shook my hand.
Coffee: Didn’t try it.
Mission to the area: Not mentioned.
Theological spectrum: Evangelical
Best moment: Listening to the praise group.
Worst moment: A distraught child, not well attended by his parents.
Did they sing that song? No
Likelihood I’d come back: While this church had the most coherent message, probably not.
Bear Creek – (3) 816 Black Oak Drive Medford OR 97504
Message / Preaching: Pastor was away, so there was no message but brief comments from a Paul Tripp book were read which was helpful but unclear as to what was his and what was not.
Order of service: Standard with part of a psalm read. Total service was less than 35 minutes, and that included a video for an upcoming visit by blogger Tim Challies, book critic, self-appointed discerner for Big Name Evangelical brands.
Welcome & hospitality: Absolutely zero.
Coffee: Didn’t try it.
Mission to the area: Not sure
Theological spectrum: Conservative, reformed evangelical, ala Gospel Coalition & Philadelphia / Westminster Seminary Magisterium.
Best moment: 3 signs behind the band – Jesus as my prophet, priest and king – nice to be reminded of that!
Worst moment: We’re done already? 30 minutes? There is no one competent who could deliver a message?
Music and singing: 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, Traditional hymns, pipe organ and cantor.
Message / Preaching: Lectionary texts, generic message on
giving each other slack, only time current president mentioned (negative) but
also was included in prayers of the people.
Order of service: 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Welcome & hospitality: Passed the peace
Coffee: Didn’t try it.
Mission to the area: Nothing specific mentioned.
Theological spectrum: Mainline liberal.
Best moment: Strong singing, cantor led in responsive song.
Worst moment: Asking visitors to stand and introduce
themselves – introvert nightmare!
Did they sing that song? Thankfully, no.
Likelihood I’d come back: Some more contemplative services mentioned which look intriguing.
Some biased observations from 24 plus years of preaching, worship leading and pastoring – the bulk of the time was given to the speaker. I heard no heresy or bizarre teaching, but the word of God was not the focus – it was the springboard for the speaker’s ideas. There was humor, stories, and a few PowerPoint Bible references but verses were plucked from here and there with no discernable exploration or explication of the word. In addition, besides an opening prayer, one for the offering and a closing one, any kind of prayer for the nation, our leaders, the church or the world were absent. On the positive side, there was only 1 instance of political commentary. However, if the rule of prayer is the rule of faith (lex ore, lex fide – as the ancients used to say), then I might assume that the “means of grace” is limited to singing, listening to a message, coffee, & crackers & juice.
It was evident the people gathering together and their leaders of where I’ve visited are sincere and committed to serving the Lord. So many churches doing the same thing reminds me of competing franchises – each serving their version of their best burger -a different flavored bun, a new topping, a variation in seasoning but at the bare basics – the same. Like it or not, franchises compete for consumers and consumers, fickle creatures that we are, are drawn by the new, what’s popular or the hot feature of the moment. Churches are tempted and challenged by the same market forces that shape consumer expectations as part of the “experience economy.” These may lead to a subtle (or not so subtle) competition.
Will I return to any of these congregations? Will I pick one, join and get involved? I’m not sure. I realize that it takes more than a one-time visit to make an informed decision. The trouble is, I’m not much of a “joiner” these days and I’m not interested in an inward focused, building-based organization. Yes, I am a tough customer. I’ve been told “why bother” by others in the past but I am not ready to give up. My search continues.
It’s not exactly clear how the fire started. Some believe it happened when a huge storm rolled through the valley along with a brilliant lightning show with plenty of strikes up and down the area. It started burning slowly and then grew in intensity, quickly consuming the dry underbrush and trees. The first people that discovered it burning were surprised as it hadn’t happened in quite a while. Filled with elation and excitement, they started telling everyone else about it – as well as taking a branch, lit by the fire, back to their homes which had been cold for so long. Not familiar with the best way to keep safe, numerous accidents and injuries resulted and countless dwellings were incinerated. The fire grew in ferocity and spread. More houses were consumed but visitors started showing up, mostly informed by word of mouth to watch the conflagration. They too tried to transport the fire home but found that the flames were not controllable or containable.
Others in the valley and town leaders watched in horror as the destruction increased. They began to speak out against the fire and the people that, in their opinion, had been more fascinated by it than in trying to put it out. They rallied and railed against the fire and the people they accused of helping it spread and get out of control. Those suspect were denounced and driven out of the valley in order for the proper fire fighting personnel and machinery to come in and deal with it. It was a difficult, costly and time-consuming effort but finally, the fire was extinguished and all that was left was smoldering remains of houses, acres of scorched land, smoking ash heaps.
But before the last ember was doused with retardant, the village leaders took a small branch, still burning, ever so slight and placed it in a great steel stove in large, vacant hall, converted just for the purpose of display. The mayor gave a grand speech. “We have through the mercy of God escaped the terrible destruction of the fire. We have been able to eliminate it but have reserved enough so that the dear, good-hearted people of this valley can come and visit it and be reminded of the fire’s terrible ferocity and how dangerous it truly is, as well as the proper method of containing it and controlling it.” The crow was grand that day, and it took hours for the people to pay their admission price and then slowly, ever so slowly, walk through the hall, with hushed “oohs” and “ahhs” (and numerous “shushes” to the eager children) by the great steel enclosure that contained the fire.
As the sun set, the mayor gathered his staff and congratulated them on a job well done. “That’s that! Now we can get back to life as normal! And frankly, I don’t ever want to see any fire again!” As the cool night descended upon the town, the crowds dispersed, the great hall locked up good and tight, no one noticed that the small branch, slowly burning all day, dwindled slowly, until the last red-orange embers changed to ash dull and cold grey.
The next day, the discovery made that the fire had died, and the news communicated to the mayor, he gathered his staff. Amid the questions and queries about what was to be done and what now and oh the waste, the mayor stood up and pronounced – “No fear! No fear! We will continue to have tours of our great hall, and people will continue to pay admission to see where the fire once brightly burned. Even better we will organize tours to the mountainside to show the people the dangers of the fire and the power and mastery we have displayed in defeating it.”
And so, it happened – the tours continued, visitors from all around kept coming and (perhaps most importantly) continued to pay admission for the esteemed privilege of seeing the place where the fire once burned brightly, but no more.
Weeks later, a small child, playing outside, watched as storm clouds started to build over the mountains of the valley. The wind picked up, and a few raindrops sprinkled her face. Farther away, she also noticed brilliant and terrible flashes of bright white, as the lightening, crackled from the clouds, skipped across the sky and headed once again to earth.
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
“Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” Mark 13:5-6
(Lectionary Reading for 11/18/18).
40 years ago today, Jim Jones killed over 918 people in the Jonestown massacre, the culmination of years of manipulation, misconduct, drug fueled paranoia, violence and abuse of all kinds. A one time, Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Assembly of God preacher who shared a platform once with William Branham, Jones developed his own eclectic blend of evangelical, social justice, inter-racial equality brand of religion at the People’s Temple in San Francisco, CA but ended in the forced death of his followers and U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan among others.
Jones has been one of many that promised heaven but delivered death. Others have followed like David Koresh (1993- 80 dead) and Heaven’s Gate (1997- 39). In these cases, toxic religion may have first been an opiate that turned into strychnine.
Faith is a force for good in our world. Distorted religion doesn’t present itself as poison. It may look like Kool Aid (or Flavor Aid) at first. But when the gospel is replaced by an ideology, whether of the left or the right, or MAGA nationalism, or supplanted by a cult of personality, along with authoritarian demands for obedience, idealized, hero worship of political leaders as god-like, spineless clergy and court paid prophets, the suppression of dissent and a major dose of media propaganda, then the body count will eventually add up.