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