I drove through the devastated communities of Phoenix and Talent, Oregon again. There seems little rhyme or reason to the destructive path of the Almeda fire. Car washes, doctor offices, stores, restaurants, food vans, mobile homes and half a million-dollar homes were leveled. I returned to our former home and dug through more of the debris, with a mask, gloves, rake and shovel, courtesy of the Red Cross. I found a few more pieces of china, faded but whole, and a nativity piece I have had since a child. Amazing, that such delicate pieces survived the flames and collapse of a 2-story house.
“What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun?” (Eccles. 2:22)
I remember the houses that lined the street since I walked it a few times a week. They were expensive, ($400,00+) and some of them still have the burned-out shells of cars on the lot. I have no idea what the interiors were like, but many were nicely landscaped and well taken care of. So much money invested, so much saved, so much spent, and now gone, worthless except for scrap. It seems wasted and meaningless. People toil, sweat, worry and even are willing to kill to defend their property but in the end, it is not ours to keep. Our possessions are not eternal, nor are we mortals. All returns to dust, if not now, then later. In the end, all I have to treasure is that “the loving-kindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 103:14-17).
“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal“ (2 Cor. 4:18)
While it may sound like I have been reading too much Ecclesiastes, I have really been pondering how much stuff I have dragged around with me for so many years, feeling the loss and dislocation of a fire and now considering what it means with the years I have left. I know I am not alone and many others are experiencing the same, most in more dire circumstances. Writing is one way I try to cope. At a minimum, I plan on the days remaining not being about acquiring more stuff.
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, what is being called the “Almeda fire” burned over 3, 200 acres over a 15-mile swath of the Rogue valley. 3 people died, over 2, 357 residential structures were destroyed, and and at least 3, 000 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.
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.
Since I have been working nearby I finally visited the Ft. Lyon National Cemetery, next to what used to be the VA hospital at Ft. Lyon in Bent County, CO but is now owned by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. While there are numerous graves to look at today, a few caught my eye. A number of them were veterans who fought in the 10 week Spanish American war in 1898 in Cuba and the Philippines.
The oldest was James Logan of the Colorado Calvary (1862).
The other was U.S. Army Major William E. Koons who must have been in his late teens in in WW2, and then served in Korea and Vietnam.
I’ve known a number of veterans over the years. I have tried to help some. Its hard to imagine what stories they would tell about what they saw and experienced.
It’s exciting and challenging to move to a new community but leaving the familiar and established behind means loss whether its friends or knowing who to trust with your car repair or more important relationships in the local church. Since I have been a pastor for many years, in the past moving to a new location and congregation meant having somewhat of an “automatic community.” This time has been different since I am not pastoring. I never thought finding a church would be so hard! Over the last 7 months we have been visiting area churches. So here’s some feedback and ideas from an “official outsider” about what it may be like to visit your church & what you might consider doing when a visitor stops by – at least if you want them to come back.
We have visited at least 15 different congregations from Baptist to Presbyterian to Independent of various stripes. Of the 15 only 5 had web pages that told the basics of who, what, when & why of their existence. For some, even finding a working phone number has been hard as well as a real human to talk to. One church had a prominent sign but no phone number and another had times for worship posted but were not up to date. I had to visit on a Sunday morning to find out when they worshiped. I have to conclude that these churches are really not interested in having visitors or reaching out to the public – they make it extremely difficult to know what’s going on!
Visiting a church as a stranger is not easy – it can be even scary and intimidating. It helps to know ahead of time what my family and I might walk into – do I have to dress up or dress down? Speak in tongues or handle snakes? Carry a KJV Bible? Do I need to limber up for the Pentecostal 2 step or bring ear plugs & sunglasses for the worship time? A web site is an easy, inexpensive way to inform people about who you are – I am still amazed that most churches don’t have one. A web site or internet presence is neither hard to create or expensive. There’s no excuse in this day for a congregation not to have one when most people still breathing are connected on-line – unless, you subscribe to an extreme theology of the “invisible church” and really don’t want people to find you!
The next challenge for the visitor is walking in the door. Honestly, I don’t want to be ignored (which has happened) but I also don’t want to be interrogated such as being asked “what are you doing here” or play 20 questions about my job. The answer should be obvious – checking out whether you are an authentic community of believers in Christ and whether I want to stay or come back! It’s a fine balance between being smothered with inquiries and being given the cold shoulder. How we have been greeted (or not) may be due to living in an area whose population is less mobile & more established than say in a metro area but if a person looks like they are new, chances they are & it’s an opportunity to welcome a stranger who (although perhaps not an angel, i.e. Hebrews 13: 2) may bring gifts that could bless your congregation. Do I really need to mention that I don’t want to be asked “to stand up and introduce myself” – I guess I better – it still happens & I cringe when it does. And please respect my teen age daughters’ boundaries – they don’t like to be hugged, grilled about school or told to smile. Try the Golden Rule – it works!
I also find it helpful to know what you believe – something written that introduces me to your theology, worship, leadership and activities is very helpful. Who are you? What do you believe? What makes you different? Where are you going? If you cannot summarize that then I may conclude you don’t know. It may not matter to you but it does matter to me and the spiritual health of my family.
While I value worship & preaching and what’s happening “up front,” I am also looking at who I am worshiping with – are the other congregants present and active or bored and checking their cell phones? Is there opportunity for me to know people better and develop relationships or am I expected to show up, stare at the back of someone’s neck and just pay & watch the Sunday morning show?
Maybe this is all too much for a busy pastor on a Sunday morning to consider. Most churches are not busting at the seams with people. There can be many reasons why that is so – it might be it’s because you’re invisible to the community or what does or does not happen when the rare visitor shows up.
We are still looking for a place to belong. Maybe, our family expectations are too high and we are being too picky as “church shoppers.” I try to extend mercy, grace and benefit of the doubt to where we have visited & the people we have met. I want my family to be part of a living, worshiping community of faith. You never know – we may be that strange family at your place next week. That is if we can find you!
So the other morning I was driving to work down a county road to work complaining to the Lord about something when I notice a shape up ahead…upon closer inspection its a cow…loose on my side of the road. I slow down but can’t swing over to the other lane since there’s another car coming. I slow down even more & I think the cow is now looking at me in a rather displeased manner…I am not familiar with cows but this one looks like its getting ready to charge me & I don’t think I would come out the winner. By then the other car has passed by and I can get in the other lane and hit the gas…as I drive away I start laughing…no more complaining after that! As one friend commented – “God says ‘You want to have a cow?! I’ll give you a cow.”