Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Faith Works 7-25-15

Faith Works 7-25-15

Jeff Gill

 

Not Just a Job, an Adventure

___

 

So, I'm exhausted. But the good kind.

 

You know, the kind of tired you are after having 4,000 house guests enjoy their stay, not break anything, engage in lots of active, even contentious conversation without any ugly arguments breaking out (not complete agreement, but civility and even love reigned supreme), and now they're gone.

 

That kind of tired.

 

It's good, and you're feeling the satisfaction of work worth doing having been done, and it's also something you're not so secretly relieved you won't have to do again soon.

 

As I mentioned last week, my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) had their biannual General Assembly at the Greater Columbus Convention Center; it ended Wednesday night (and I'm writing it as we're about to all turn into Thursday colored pumpkins.

 

We had a Methodist speak to us to wrap-up, but that's not unusual for our folk, we were ecumenical before ecumenical was cool. Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in the Kansas City area, a noted author as well as pastor, came to provide some workshop leadership on the last day and to preach us onto the road, and he reminded me to tell you something.

 

I love my job.

 

Perhaps some of you might say "do you call being a minister a job?" Good question, maybe you shouldn't, but the tax form and the census ask me to put something down on the form, and I write "pastor." I do an odd variety of things in the community, and there are those who know me primarily in other roles, but for over thirty years my main public role has been that of a set-apart ministerial leader in my church, a parson, a padre, a preacher.

 

I am an ordained minister, which means I have the full professional background and the degrees and certificates to show it, but I am also the called and installed pastor of a congregation, which in one form or another I've done since the 1980's, which is getting to be a long time. It's a vocation that has its challenges, and people can end up seeing the hard parts more than anything else: the hours, the expectations, the fishbowl (for my family as well as me), the pressures of sermons and situations where most folk look for the exit and we're trying to move closer to the heart of the crisis.

 

Yes, it's hard work. So's being an obstetrician, or a plumber, or an exterminator. Judges, deputies, elected officials, garbage truck riders: lots of ways to have a role in life that usually also has something to do with making a living that asks for much from the one doing it.

 

What I also get, that few see, are the rewards of being present to and with and for people in the most important moments of their lives. Some are incredibly painful, and a pastor has to see clearly that pain while also helping everyone see past it; some are so full of joy you can barely recall the moment for the tears of happiness and daze of exhilaration…there too, you have to help maintain perspective, or at least the presence of mind to tell the groom softly "okay, now turn and take her hand."

 

We share words that bring life even in the presence of death, and tie generations together in good times and bad. We receive confessions of faith, and admittances of guilt, and offer assurance of pardon that is inconceivable even to the person seeking it. We get to bring people together, often as simply as shouting "let's pause and say grace, shall we?" and we minister to those who think they are so alone they can't believe anyone is saying to them "are you alright?"

 

I love my job. It can be hard, and it can involve simply long periods of waiting (which for me, is really hard), even as the stretches of tedium can unexpectedly be broken into by moments of utter panic where, consciously or not, others expect us to keep our heads and know what to say or do. Which we sometimes pull off, and other times try to stumble through our own anxiety while keeping our footing enough to give those around us someone to hold onto.

 

And when my work is good, and I see hope abound and lives transformed and God's grace praised, it's all gravy (as Raymond Carver says). Gravy and pie and a hot cup of coffee, and eternity a beautiful landscape ahead.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him what you love about your calling at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Notes From My Knapsack 7-23-15

Notes From My Knapsack 7-23-15

Jeff Gill

 

Which House Do You Live In?

___

 

"Oh, so you live in the Btfsplk house?"

 

Never mind that the Btfsplk family hasn't resided in Granville for decades. That's just how it is.

 

You may have just built your own house, and been the only occupant. The funny thing is, that probably won't become the "Yourfamily house" until after you move out, or, um . . . anyhow, it won't become that until then.

 

This is how communities tend to be; we identify locations as much by who or what was once there ("you turn at the place where that red barn used to be") than by what's present now, which oddly is less visible to us than our memories are.

 

Those memories can be transmitted, even to those of us who came here too late to have many of them. Osmosis or collective unconscious or "it's in the water," however it happens you start to take in where Blackstone's Market was, how Robbie played his pipe organ at 3:00 in the morning, why Oese was proud of her house and Minnie had a thing about kids making noise on the sidewalk.

 

We all have some sense that there was once a sage atop Mount Parnassus, and that "the Drag" isn't about drag racing, quite. We never knew the livery stables on College or the Chevy dealership on Elm or the bowling alley up above Prospect, but in bits and pieces the knowledge comes to us. Bryants and Sinnets and Spelmans haunt our history, and our buildings, and sometimes our imaginations.

 

Even the landscape we occupy was once someone else's, and their mounds and worked flint flakes and a few names remind us of their tenancy: Pataskala, Shawnee, Hocking, Mingo.

 

The demographics of the community are changing, making parts of the future hard to see, harder to predict. That's how the Native peoples felt when the French-Canadian trappers and traders started showing up in this watershed, then the Scots-Irish immigrants and the early pioneers from a place called America, that turned out to be here, too. A New England batch of folks showed up to the mild discomfiture of those from Wales, then the streets of Granville saw Irish-Irish, Italians, Jews and Greeks no longer just a phrase from the Bible but people who lived in the village. Abolition sentiment had to deal with the realities of integration after the Civil War, a seemingly natural shift that historians like James Loewen argue didn't go well at all.

 

And now we have Donald Trump sounding the alarm over yet another demographic wave surging up towards places like Granville, that has always been the way it is now. Except of course it has not. We are the current occupants of our homes, of these streets, of this place, but we will not be here forever, nor will the next generation necessarily be our own descendants. Ask the Indians, the Welsh, even those first families of 1805.

 

Those of us with a religious bent would say it's all a reminder this world is not our home, just a place we're passing through on pilgrimage; a more secular and materialist perspective might seek the lyricism of the idea that we're made of star-stuff, carbon born in the heart of stars, and fated to return to the combustion of a Sun gone nova in the fullness of billions of years hence.

 

For now, our job is to welcome our new neighbors, tell them who lived there before as best we know, and work on the story one chapter, one page at a time. The ending will take care of itself.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him who used to live where you do now at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Faith Works 7-18-15

Faith Works 7-18-15

Jeff Gill

 

A Family Reunion Writ Large

___

 

Today my religious tradition, the denomination known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), begins a five day event in Columbus we call a General Assembly.

 

It's "General" and not national, because we are a church that has members in both the United States and Canada; it's an "Assembly" because it's not a legislative conference or session as some communions have.

 

We hold them every two years, but we've held them annually in the past, and there've been gaps in the sequence when major events (Depressions, wars) interrupted, and we're having a debate right now about whether we should shift to every three or four. So the frequency isn't sacred.

 

What's important about the General Assembly, in my tradition, is that it's more a family reunion than a business session. Anyone can come, and registration fees aside, there are business sessions and the occasional vote where we have to check and see who is a voting representative for a congregation and who isn't, but not often. Every congregation gets at least a couple of votes, some as many as a half dozen, and all clergy in good standing (including retired) get to vote. So even the voting part is, well, kind of sloppy. We don't vote on doctrine or beliefs, anyhow, more on polity (which is structure, more or less) and procedure.

 

We had a slow motion split, in what's known to scholars and some theologians as the "Restoration Movement,"  between 1927 and 1968, creating an even more independent wing of that movement which holds the North American Christian Convention (NACC). They vote on even less than we do, but you'll note they avoid the term "national" as well, and I've been to their gatherings, and it's more of a family reunion than a business session, too.

 

They have also seen, while being more traditional and conservative than my wing of the movement, a decline in attendance. The NACC used to have 30,000 each summer, and now they struggle to get 6,000; the Disciples of Christ gathering every two years as a General Assembly is just nudging past 4,000 in registrations for this week, but we had over 11,000 when I first attended them almost thirty years ago.

 

Mass gatherings in convention centers are becoming less, well, exciting. Not so long ago, it was an honor to be asked to go attend one of these; now, it's more "who would go for us?" and generally you're asked to float most of the cost yourself, which with hotel and parking and meals, let alone assembly registration, can quickly pass a thousand dollars and more. That's a large amount of money for the dubious privilege of having a vote in a business session that doesn't actually vote on much.

 

But then there's the reality of face-to-face meetings with peers, with seniors who have been leaders of days past, and young people who will lead us in the future. There's singing with four and five thousand and more in unison, or even in harmony, and communion as a congregation writ larger than most of us will experience anywhere, ever.

 

What's to become of General Assemblies? I'm not sure. I'd hate to see them vanish altogether. They will probably keep costing more (sigh) and they'll probably happen less often (double sigh), but they will also keep happening in some form (long sigh).

 

We're hoping, at Newark's Central Christian Church, to host a hatful of guests tomorrow who trek over from Columbus, having traveled from around the United States and Canada to be here in central Ohio. There will be services each evening with communion in the convention center, after some strong preaching and deep searching of Scripture and Tradition, right through Wednesday evening.

 

What will this event look like in two and four more years? We don't know, like so many other transitions taking place right around us in America these days. But I hope to be there to see it, and see the others of my tradition who rejoice in the Lord as Disciples of Christ.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's having some fun helping put on this year's General Assembly in Columbus. Tell him what you think about church meetings at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Faith Works 7-11-15

Faith Works 7-11-15

Jeff Gill

 

Your choices, everyone's considerations

___

 

Thank you for the fascinating and thoughtful e-mail these last few weeks.

 

I want to promise everyone that I do, in fact, read every last bit of it, and I try to answer, even if briefly, all of them (although I do suspect in the clutter of my inbox I may miss a few, so feel free to re-inquire if you've asked me a question and heard nothing!).

 

And occasionally I even get a hand-written note, which is delightful and something I wish I did more of.

 

On the controversies swirling around us all in the United States these last few weeks, I could take any number of directions to address what I think faith communities can and should do, what I believe will or won't happen down the road as the implications of Supreme Court decisions and denominational stances play out.

 

In this column, as I've reminded many of the correspondents who've written in, I'm not representing my faith tradition per se, or the congregation I serve as pastor, or even my own beliefs. I try to be open and honest about them as I address subjects that go off in a different direction, but the goal here is to keep a conversation going in Licking County about faith and life and choices. The pastor's column is where any faith community leader can put their beliefs and practices front and center.

 

But since it's come up from a number of angles, I think I should simply say something clearly for myself, but that I believe is in everyone's best interests.

 

I believe that Christmas presents should be opened Christmas morning, not Christmas eve.

 

Yes, there are many of you who choose to open the packages the day before Christmas. I've heard reasons and explanations for why that's so, and there are also compromises made by some, where one small item is unwrapped before the services at church, the rest saved for Christmas morning, or the big presents are opened before but the stockings get saved for the big day under the tree. Fine.

 

I am not interested in saying those of you who do so are bad people, or that your lives are hopelessly ruined by having done so. I just don't believe that's the best path for happiness and contentment and thankfulness.

 

You could also ask me "is it in the Bible, specifically, that things should be that way? Or is it just a comment made by Crash Davis in a movie and your personal opinion?" Well, it's true, you're not going to find a single verse that spells out in particular that this is the only way to live your life and build up your household. That's why in this as so many areas I tend to talk about the role of "Scripture and Tradition," because there are beliefs and practices I would say are Biblical that might not have a single, unitary verse behind them, but can be explained and taught and interpreted through the practices of the church and the reading of narratives and passages taken together in the Bible. A critic might take any two and say "I'd put these together differently than you are," and I'd respond "yes, but there's a weight of tradition behind why we read them *this* way, it's not just personal preference."

 

Of course, there's not even a smidgen of Biblical authority or church tradition behind when you open up your Christmas presents. Do what you will and harm none.

 

I would say, gently but unambiguously, I still teach and share that my understanding of Scripture and Tradition is that the best path to receiving the blessings God intends for us is to reserve sex for marriage. I am perfectly aware that few agree with that position, and fewer follow it as their own pattern of life. And I don't refuse to do weddings or condemn individuals based on this, I simply try to keep preaching what I believe is true. I'm aware that doing otherwise does not always result in great harm, that many argue for benefits accruing from living otherwise, and some say my way of living could be harmful and that I'm not only wrong, but dangerously wrong.

 

Yet I would not say those who disagree with me are thereby directly endangering their future prospects, in time or eternity, nor would I make it the central element of my preaching. I just ask that folks understand: I teach this simply because I believe it is true, and a path for greater blessing.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you think about traditions and practices at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Notes From My Knapsack 7-9-15

Notes From My Knapsack 7-9-15

Jeff Gill

 

Ceremonial occasions and fried food

___

 

What a pleasure it was to attend a community event recently, where the citizens gathered in the middle of the village, and former residents returned from far and wide.

 

It was a delight to see the festivities begin with a foot race that involved both young and old, more for the pleasure of participating than for the chance that most or any would win a prize.

 

Then the familiar glow of seeing honored emblems come forth to lead a procession, pride of place given to those who have served honorably in years past in the military, aged faces yet proud eyes staring straight ahead, as behind them rose the music and that began the dancing and in and among us all the costumed participants began a journey, through reshaped and almost unfamiliar streets between the homes, a path used for generations on this day, in this way.

 

Soon there would be food, especially fried food, and meals shared both standing up and sitting down, strangers cheek by jowl with lifelong residents, everyone reaffirming the values and meanings and turning of the year in this annual celebration.

 

I would understand perfectly if you thought I was talking about the Fourth of July, down Broadway through the village of Granville. But actually, I was first referring to a stop my family made on vacation back in June, as the feast day celebrations began June 23 and 24 at a place now returned to its own name, Ohkay Owingeh, formerly called San Juan Pueblo. Along the upper Rio Grande River in northern New Mexico, north of Santa Fe, the Pueblo villages scatter from Taos up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains down to Albuquerque and southern Pueblos like Sandia and Zuni.

 

Since Juan de OƱate encountered a pueblo he named for his own patron saint, San Juan, in 1598, the people of Ohkay Owingeh had calmly adopted, and adapted the Catholic faith presented to them, and brought to St. John's Day, also known as Midsummer's Day in some cultures around the world, their own Buffalo Dance ceremonies. They begin the day before, with a footrace around the "kiva" or ceremonial house in the heart of the community, and then the elders and veterans in their proper garb come out to sing their songs with drum and chant and stomp, rustling fresh cut cottonwood branches that did indeed sound like the gentle rain was falling already.

 

Then the Buffalo Maiden and two Buffalo Spirit dancers came out of the kiva, and in each plaza of the village, in stately procession not unlike a parade, the accompanying drummers kept the heartbeat of Ohkay Owingeh loud and strong, with the dance carrying to all who watched meanings both obvious, and hidden; the reasons for some of the practices are well-known, and for a few simply "the way we've always done it."

 

Is it any different for us on July Fourth? Why do we let so many politicians wave at us? Do they represent the ritual invocation of democracy for the people, or is it just about the candy for the kids? Is the race in the morning a distraction and modern addition to the day, or a new expression of old hopes for this nation on the move?

 

And for ritual behavior, the bands and the floats and the . . . bare-bellied people wearing giant hats over their torsos (are they our Koshare dancers?); we've got it all, right down to the need to get in line with strangers and feast until dark.

 

All across America, communities have their rituals, and we can begin a new cycle of the year having performed our own last week.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about community rituals you have known at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.