Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Quick Look at California Churches We Visited in 2015

Based on your page visits, these are the most and least popular churches we visited in 2015. Can you guess which is which?*

The Church from High Noon

The Socially Mixed Church

The Church that Disappointed Our Friend

The Church that Meets Outdoors in the Summer

The Church We Didn't Like at All

The Church where Snakes Weren't Handled

The Friendliest Church We've Ever Visited

The Dancing Church

*Wondering if one of these was our favorite California church? Have another church to suggest? Leave a comment, and we'll post results on New Year's Day.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

We Go to Church in California

First Presbyterian Church, Santa Rosa
An old show biz adage is “Don’t work with children or animals” for fear of being upstaged and shown up. Fortunately, God doesn’t have such worries. Both kids and critters were in abundance at the 5:00 pm Christmas Eve service at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa.

Traditionally, there are three Christmas Eve services at 1st Pres -- as there were this year -- but usually there is a 11:00 pm service. Not this year, though. Christmas day fell on Sunday, so the latest Christmas Eve service was at 9:00 pm; there was another at 7:00 pm.

The 5:00 pm service, though, is designed for the whole family, particularly families with small children. As Pastor Dale Flowers said in his introduction to the service, “Kids, tonight’s service is a little different. If your parents make noise or want to move around, that’s okay. This is the night they can do those things.”

There were plenty of kids present for the service, with many of them participating in the service. (We arrived early, when a number of children were also arriving. One boy ran ahead of his parents shouting, “Guys! Guys! I’m going into the church!”) Before the service costumed kids were running about just a little wildly.

In Dale’s introduction, he mentioned a newscaster he’d heard who offered a strange wish to his viewers, “For those of you with a religious bent, celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah, have a blessed holiday. For the rest of you, have a good weekend!”

The children presented a paraphrased version of the Christmas story. When a little boy Joseph heard the news of Jesus’ coming, he had a most excellent Kevin from Home Alone look of surprise with wide eyes and hands on his cheeks. Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem in a Radio Flyer wagon, and they were greeted with a “Welcome to Bethlehem!” sign. Some kids were dressed as animals at the manger and the shepherds were dressed as cowboys (don’t ask me to explain why).  One of the kids dressed as the Star that led the Magi. The Magi brought the Baby, stuffed animals and a toy truck. All of the kids were able to exclaim that it was “The Best Night Ever!”

Brenna Hesch, the church’s associate pastor, came forward to give the message, saying, “After that I don’t know if I need to say more…” But pastors, even when they say that, usually do say more. (Which was fine, since Brenna’s homily was also fine.)

She spoke of being in Europe and seeing refugees flooding the continent. When she returned to the States, the needs of those people was replaced in her mind by “wedding planning, a new job and Rogue One.”  She drew a parallel between the refugees and the shepherds of Luke 2. She went on to talk about the need to care for people who are different than us, and illustrated the point by showing the Apple commercial featuring Frankenstein’s Monster (with the slogan, “Open Your Heart to Everyone”).

At the family Christmas Eve worship service, the church has a tradition of a slide show to introduce the babies who were born that year. This year, two babies on the screen were daughters of my nieces, so it was an even more adorable presentation than usual.

We sang “Joy to the World” for the closing carol.  (We’ve sung this song a couple of times with the were “men” in the line “Let men their songs employed” changed to “us”. It works grammatically, but if the word must be changed, I’d prefer letting “all” employ their songs.)

living nativity with newborn lambs at First Presbyterian Church Santa Rosa 2016
As the service ended, we were dismissed to go outside for hot chocolate and cookies and a live manger scene. Along with people portraying Mary and Joseph and the wise men, there were a variety of animals. There was a cow, a chicken, and various sheep, with a few lambs 1 to 5 days old. Christmas doesn’t dodge animals and children. It brings them to center stage -- especially the Baby.

The next day we went to the one Christmas Sunday service at 10:00 am. (Usually 1st Pres has three Sunday morning services, but the crowd does tend to thin when Christmas falls on a Sunday.)

The Sunday morning service began with the singing of carols, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” followed by “The First Nowell” (I do not know why “Nowell” was used instead of the more common “Noel”).

While Pastor Hesch’s message the night before focused on the shepherds of Luke 2, Senior Pastor Dale Flowers’ message focused on the Magi of Matthew 2. He told about a time when he served as missionary in a poor community in the Philippines. While he was there, a seminary friend sent him a very fancy pair of Nikes. Initially he thought such a costly gift was wildly inappropriate, but he came to see it as gift of love. When he wore the shoes and jogged through the streets, his students jokingly called him “the rich young ruler.” He made a comparison to the Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that might have seemed inappropriate for a baby, but perhaps financed the young family’s trip to Egypt.

The service again concluded with “Joy to the World” as people returned to their family celebrations.

There are a number of reasons It seemed right to worship at First Presbyterian in the last state in our fifty state trek. Mindy and I often attended the Christmas Eve services in the church during our years in Sonoma County. We’ve attended a number of weddings at the church, including weddings of family members, and we’ve attended memorial services including those of my (Dean’s) parents. It’s also the church I was baptized in as an infant and the church I attended as a child. I would, on occasion run wild in the hallways of the church, because it goes without saying that God is not afraid of being upstaged by children and small animals. He delights in them.  

Santa Rosa First Presbyterian Church, 5:00 pm Christmas Eve, 10:00 am Christmas Day
Service Length: 45 minutes, 43 minutes
Sermon Length: 11 minutes, 16 minutes
Visitor Treatment: welcome in bulletin and from pulpit, greeting time early in worship service, card to register attendance was mentioned at the Sunday morning service but not the Christmas Eve service.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none personal email from church finance coordinator on Wednesday
Our Rough Count: 256, 153
Probable Ushers’ Count: 275, 160
Snacks: water for hot chocolate or cider, cookies (on Christmas Eve). Nothing on Christmas Day
Musicians: Christmas Eve
Piano (man)
Vocals (2 women)
Drums (man)
Electric guitar (man)
Christmas Day
Choir (8 men, 7 women)
Praise team vocalists (2 men, 2 women)
Piano (woman)
Organ (woman)
Songs: Christmas Eve
“Angels We Have Heard on High”
“Come All ye Faithful”
“O Little Town of Bethlehem”
“Do you Hear What I Hear?”
“Away in a Manger”
“Joy to the World”
Christmas Day
“Come All ye Faithful”
“The First Nowell”
“We Bring His Light” (choir anthem)
“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”
“Joseph Dear, O Joseph Mine” (organ offertory)
“Joy to the World”
Miles to Church: 1

Healdsburg Community Church, 7:00 pm Christmas Eve
Service Length: 52
Sermon Length: 10
Visitor Treatment: Welcome to all, encouragement to fill out friendship register, greeting time near beginning of service
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 185
Probable Ushers’ Count: 210
Snacks: coffee, tea, hot cider, cookies, cheeses, fudge, candies, fruit
Musicians: Electric bass (man)
Acoustic guitars (2 men)
Piano (man and woman)
Electric guitar (man)
Trumpet (man)
English horn (man)
Flute (woman)
vocals (man, two women)
Songs: “He Shall Reign Forevermore” (worship team alone)
“Come All Ye Faithful”
“Joy to the World”
“What Child is This?”
“Silent Night”
"There is a Redeemer" (trio, a cappella)
Miles to Church: 17
Miles from Start: 46,921
Total 2016 Miles: 46,635

Monday, December 26, 2016

6 More Observations about California

flagpole in Dorris, CA is the tallest west of the Mississippi
After visiting churches in all 50 states this year, we're back in California, where we've lived most of our lives. In 2015, we visited churches all over the Golden State, and these were some of our observations at the time, along with a few  

1. Dorris, which has the furthest north church we could find in California, also boasts the highest flagpole west of the Mississippi. 

2. El Ranchito, also in Dorris, might be the homiest Mexican restaurant we've ever visited. 

3. In Needles, near the eastern edge of California, you can eat at The Wagon Wheel. It's on Route 66!

4. We appreciated the opportunity to drive through a tree (and to shop at the gift shop) in northern California.

5. A church near Sacramento has a giant (man-made) oak tree in the lobby. It's very cool.

6. You really need to spend some time under the redwoods and at the Pacific coast.
project completed: a bar and a church in all 50 states in 2016

Thursday, December 22, 2016

We Go to a Christmas Party in Oregon

Capernaum Young Life Club, Portland
Snow came early to the Capernaum Christmas Club meeting. The next day, Portland would be hit by a fierce storm (by Portland standards) that would have cars skidding into each other before being abandoned along the roads, but it was a different kind of snow indoors at Capernaum Club. Kids and leaders took paper towels, wadded them up, and threw paper snowballs at one another. Blake Shelley, the leader of the club, seemed to take the most “snowball” abuse, but he accepted the hits cheerily.

I’ve led and participated in many such activities at Young Life Clubs through the years. (Young LIfe is a non-denominational Christian organization that reaches out to adolescents.) Most of the other things we did that evening are things I’ve seen at other Young Life Clubs: games, skits, singing, and a message -- the difference was the students attending. Capernaum Young Life Clubs minister to teens and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This was true of the kids at club that day, and it’s also true that they were delightful kids.

Blake Shelley, from his wheelchair, greeted the leaders and students as they arrived. (As happy as everyone was to see Blake, they seemed even more excited to see his companion dog, Stanley.)  The big screen TV was playing A Charlie Brown Christmas, and a table was set up for decorating Christmas cookies. Everyone went to work applying frosting, though many cookies were eaten before there could be any appreciation of their aesthetic worth.

Mindy spent time talking with Melodee, the first student to arrive. Melodee told Mindy wonderful things about Capernaum Club and about her church, though Mindy had a difficult time keeping track of which organization Melodee was talking about at any given time.

During the cookie decoration time, I asked different kids what they liked about Club. Marcus said he liked the chance just to hang out with his friends. Victoria said that she loved camp, which got quite a number of kids talking about how much they loved camp the previous summer and/or how much they were looking forward to going to camp next summer.

They were anticipating going to Washington Family Ranch, a camp in the high desert of Central Oregon owned and operated by Young Life. Blake takes the Portland club there most summers. , and Capernaum students usually have individual counselors that look out for them at camp, but also experience a week of independence, excitement, and fun that is absolutely unique in their lives.

Back to the Christmas party. Students were divided into two teams to decorate their leader as a Christmas tree with lights. Since we were guests, Mindy and I were given the honor of judging  the competition -- which was fine as far as getting to declare one team the winner, but less fun having to declare which team didn’t win. But all the kids were good sports about it, so it was okay.

Blake screened two silly videos from JibJab, the digital entertainment studio that allows you insert faces into pre-existing animation. The first was of Santa’s reindeer dancing a Yuletide Macarena, with leaders’ faces inserted and the second was of rampaging carolers using the students’ faces. Both videos were greeted with great snorts and guffaws of recognition.

We sang Christmas Carols including “All I want for Christmas” (the Justin Bieber version), “Jingle Bells,” “Away in a Manger,” and “Joy to the World.” Jeffrey, one of the students, kept requesting “Jingle Bell Rock,” so Blake relented and said we could sing it at the end of club. (Jeffrey did not come to club alone. He had a stuffed penguin with him which was also named “Jeffrey,” which was certainly easy to remember.)

At the close of club, Blake gave a talk (as he does toward the end of almost every club gathering). Because Blake has cerebral palsy, it can be difficult to understand his speech, so one of the other leaders “translated” Blake’s talk. Blake replayed Linus’ reading of the Christmas story from Luke to remind the group what Christmas is all about. He expanded on the message, “This is the coolest thing. God came into the world to have a relationship with us.”

Club ended and farewells were said, with the promise to get together again after the holidays.

The next day Mindy and I had breakfast with Leonard Shelley, Blake’s dad. Leonard is a good friend of my brother Dale’s, and we’ve known each other since elementary school. Leonard told us about what led Blake to get involved in Christian ministry.

When Blake was in high school, Leonard was driving him home when he said, “Dad, I know why God made me this way.” This got Leonard’s attention, and he listened as Blake told him that having cerebral palsy would let him to share Christ with other people who have disabilities.

We hear, perhaps too often this time of year, “that’s what Christmas is all about.” But if I had to describe that afternoon with those special kids with special needs at Capernaum Club (and at this point, I do have to describe the experience), I’d say, “That is what Christmas is all about.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

6 Oregon Churches and a Chapel

Salvation Army, Portland, Oregon
Salvation Army

Liberation Street Church, Portland, Oregon
Liberation Street

Chapel for residents of Rogue Valley Manor, Medford, Oregon
Rogue Valley Manor Chapel

Saint Peter Lutheran Church, Medford, Oregon
Saint Peter Lutheran

Apostolic Faith Church, Medford, Oregon
Apostolic Faith

Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church, Phoenix, Oregon
Archangel Gabriel Orthodox

Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church, Bend, Oregon
Grace Reformed Presbyterian

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

We Go to Church in Oregon

From our second day in Utah in November through our time in northern Oregon, we saw snow outside the window as we drove, which made listening to Christmas carols all the more pleasurable. On the way from Portland to Medford (dodging the many sets of improperly adjusted car chains scattered in the road), we listened to an old radio broadcast of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, and were reminded of this quote from Bob Cratchit about his sickly son, Tiny Tim: “Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made the lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

Sadly, there are people who would rather not look at the lame or blind -- or anyone else with disabilities, because it makes them feel uncomfortable. There are churches that just don’t do disabled well. On Sunday I talked to Rachel, whose son, Bryce, is in a wheelchair. Once she visited a church with her son and was told, without apology, that their Sunday School was downstairs. No accommodations were even suggested. And sometimes, Rachel said, they’ve just been ignored at churches.

Bear Creek is not that kind of church. There are signs outside the church assuring families that people with disabilities are welcome, that all children are welcome. Bear Creek has made an effort to make modern Tiny Tims and Cratchit families welcome.

We visited Bear Creek Church because I know the pastor. When I was in college in San Diego, I met Dale Meador and his wife, Nancy, at San Diego Community Church. Dale taught Sunday School for college students (he was just a couple years older than most of us, but since they were married, he and Nancy were established and most distinguished to our young eyes). A few decades have passed since the last time we saw each other in person, but we’ve kept in contact through Facebook.

Dale planted Bear Creek Church nineteen years ago, but the church began focusing on special needs only about ten years ago, when they made a connection with Joni and Friends, an international ministry caring for those with disabilities. Part of that connection was made through Dale’s wife, Nancy, and her ongoing struggle with chronic pain. Nancy also works with a non-profit that provides physical and occupational therapy for children. These relationships with people in the special needs community have occasionally led to people coming to Bear Creek Church.

The church website gives fair warning that during the service you may hear yelps or screeches from, say, young people with autism. Toward the end of the second Sunday service, while a video was playing, a little girl with autism wandered onto the stage and walked back and forth a bit, occasionally patting the speakers. Everyone acted as if it wasn’t a deal, because in this church it isn’t. Bear Creek Church takes Jesus’ admonition to let the children come very seriously.

Of course, there is more to Bear Creek Church than the ministry to those with special needs. I was surprised on Sunday to see a couple, Greg and LIz, we had met the previous Thursday at Porters, a local restaurant.  We usually ask when we go to a bar, "Whether you go or not, what would make for a good church?" So we learned that they do go to church. Greg retired last week after 35 years of service in law enforcement, and he’d spoken of the service of chaplains to their department. Dale happens to be one of those chaplains. (To further the number of coincidences, Dale’s son was just transfered to take Greg’s place in the traffic division.)

I spoke to a number of other people who came to Bear Creek Church because of Dale’s pastoral ministry, particularly because of his preaching. Ellen, a school teacher, came to the church thirteen years ago and found Dale’s preaching “eye opening.” She came from a church that taught the “prosperity gospel” (which teaches if you do the right things God will give you material wealth and health). The morning we were there, Dale was teaching on something quite opposed to such teaching. He spoke on the connection of between Christmas and suffering. Christmas teaches that through Christ, God does not prevent us from suffering but promises to be with us in the midst of suffering. He pointed to I Peter 4: 12 - 19 that teaches we can rejoice as we share Christ’s suffering.

Lynn came to the church about fifteen years ago when she was looking for a good teaching from a Reformed theological perspective. (The church website makes special note of their Reformed perspective, with a page of beliefs and noting other writers and teachers that share their perspective, including teachers like Tim Keller and John Piper.) Lynn was pleased with the teaching, but was both pleased and surprised by the welcoming nature of the church. She was amazed when she saw Pastor Dale in town during the week and he greeted her by name.

Because of size limitations and the desire to accommodate people’s schedules, Bear Creek has two service times. The two service times also allow people to attend both worship and Sunday School (adult classes and children’s classes are available). Uniquely in our experience, people in the first service were encouraged to return after a break for the first part of the second service when more songs were sung and (on this Sunday, as on the first and third Sundays of every month) communion was shared. Different songs were sung to open the second service, and after the Lord’s Supper, those who attended the first service were dismissed to Sunday School (or perhaps the early NFL games).

We attended both services because Dale asked us to share a bit about our year long adventure. He used our experiences as perpetual first time visitors to remind the congregation of the importance of welcoming people and showing interest. (“Tell me about yourself” is the thing Dale encourages people say to people they don’t know.) Also during the announcements, Dale encouraged people to attend one of the upcoming sessions being led by a police officer on child abuse. He noted that in their church there “hadn’t been a whiff” of scandal in regard to that issue, and they want to keep it that way.

Bear Creek doesn’t have its own property, but rather rents space at a school. This involves a great deal of set-up and tear-down of chairs, sound equipment, signage, etc. After the service we observed a number of children plunging into the task of chair stacking before being informed that it wasn’t necessary this week due to Christmas break. (This was a nice bit of nostalgia for me, because the church Dale and I attended in San Diego met in a YMCA and chair set up and teardown was also a weekly ritual.)

Once a month the congregation shares a meal, but this wasn’t one of those Sundays. So after church we were able to have lunch at a Mexican restaurant with a small group of folks, including Dale and Nancy and Rachel and Brent, the couple who brought a chapter of Joni and Friends to Medford a decade ago. They were with their son, Bryce, who has a colorful Wheel of Fortune on the wheels of his chair. (This gives something for people to politely stare at and inspires calls of “Big Money! Big Money!” And leads to some pleasant conversations with strangers.)

Wheels of Fortune at Bear Creek Church in Medford, Oregon
Returning to the topic of ministry to families with special needs, Dale said, “Families with special needs really need the church, but churches also really need families with special needs.” I’m sure Tiny Tim would agree. To quote Tim once more, “God bless us, everyone!”

Service Length: first service 1 hour 18 minutes
Second service 1 hour 5 minutes
Sermon Length: 33 minutes plus 10 minute video
Visitor Treatment: We were greeted by numerous people as we entered before the first service and guided to the coffee table. Numerous people engaged us in conversation even before Dale introduced us during the service, and several people followed up with conversation afterward. We didn’t notice any kind of visitor sign in.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: personal email from Pastor Dale
Our Rough Count: first service 88
Second service 220
Probable Ushers’ Count: 350 total for both services
Snacks: coffee, hot water for tea and hot chocolate, ice water, peppermint candies
Musicians: percussion box (man)
Bass guitar (man)
Acoustic guitar (2 men)
Mandolin (man)
Vocals (2 women)
Songs: “The First Noel”
“It Came upon a Midnight Clear”
“Come Lord, and Tarry Not”
“Arise! Shine! For Your Light has Come”
“All Glory be to Christ”
“Angels we Have Heard on High”
“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”
“God Rest ye Merry, Gentlemen”
“Christ the Sure and Steady Anchor”
Miles to Church: 2.6
Miles from Start: 46,443
Total 2016 Miles: 46,157