Monday, March 12, 2018

Faith Works 3-17-18

Faith Works 3-17-18

Jeff Gill


The mystery of virtue



Today is St. Patrick's Day, but I've written that column a few times before; Monday the Christian calendar honors St. Joseph, and I'm not sure I have anything new to say about him just now.


What has been on my mind lately is virtue. Or rather, the mystery of virtue.


Where does it come from? What exactly is it? How does a person live a virtuous life?


As a pastor, I know I'm supposed to tell you to find the right worldview, to accept by faith a vision of what your ultimate values are going to be, and to confess that faith by living out those values. And yes, for me, as a Christian believer I find security and certainty in the faith I hold, about the world and what lies beyond it.


What is much more up for grabs is the question of what my faith, or anyone's faith, tells me about virtue. The life of a believer, most faith traditions would affirm, my own included, should show the positive effects of your faith, but what exactly does that look like?


For the Amish, the externals are simpler; if your belief system isn't quite so prescriptive, what does it mean to answer the call to be a virtuous person? Should everyone on their confession of faith sell all that they have and give it to the poor, or is that a particular teaching to certain persons like the Bible's rich young ruler? Or does virtue just mean following the Ten Commandments, not murdering or lying or committing adultery?


The Good Lord knows that we'd probably all be better off if we could just get more people to follow those ten timeless instructions, but actually most of us think of virtue as going beyond just not killing or not telling fibs. The description of "a virtuous person" evokes something bigger, broader, and honorable in their context even beyond their religious community. We know what it means, but find it hard to describe.


And cynically, as a society, we've long accepted it as a given that it's well-nigh impossible for a politician to be virtuous, nor do we really expect it of celebrities or sports figures. It's considered unusual for them to even try, and in fact it makes us all the more suspicious when someone in the public eye tries to appear virtuous. This has been true for a while.


Alasdair MacIntyre in 1981 wrote a major work of moral philosophy entitled "After Virtue." His pessimistic take was that the modern age had become incoherent in what he calls "moral discourse" and worse yet, we refused to admit the internal inconsistencies or disconnects in what we said was of lasting importance and how we were choosing to live, even as we try to force our public discussions around these awkward corners of individualism and human destiny. MacIntyre was an academic and philosopher, but his main critique of modernism was how from the Enlightenment forward it has been the loss of a sense of lasting, ultimate purpose in the lives of individuals that left philosophical and social debate about morality floundering for a solid footing.


Can someone be virtuous if they have no hope or sense of life beyond the earthly sense of living? I know they can, because I have seen it. What is more under debate is how to teach virtue, to support virtue broadly in a culture without any shared transcendent meaning to ground it in. Manners do not require a heaven, nor does good taste insist on God as the final arbiter, but virtue evokes something more, a larger quality of humanity that extends from everyday courtesy to willing self-sacrifice.


How then can we teach virtue, if it is not a code or a style guide or a list of commandments, ten or more? Perhaps the best way to understanding virtue is through stories that tell us about people who display it, whatever "it" is.


The American writer Flannery O'Connor spoke in a way about the struggle to talk coherently about virtue, in her posthumous book of essays "Mystery and Manners," when she said that "a story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way . . . You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate."


What I love about Lent is how every year it takes me back directly to the story of Jesus. It's in the Gospels, and the personal accounts of how he lived, that I read about a life that speaks as clearly as can be about what virtue is.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about where you see or hear virtue afoot around us at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Notes from my Knapsack 3-15-18

Notes from my Knapsack 3-15-18

Jeff Gill


An amazing spectacle never to be seen again



Robins spend the whole winter in these parts now.


Some of that is global climate change shifting the zone boundaries north for what birds can or will tolerate, and some of it is the number of bird-feeders and available habitat, but it's no longer true that you should look for "the first robin of spring."


But whole families of robins? Maybe so. The snow buntings have started to pass through in the spring migration back north; meadowlarks and song sparrows are on their way across the Raccoon Creek valley, and phoebes, wrens, and warblers can't be far behind.


The red-shouldered hawks are easy to see in the still-barren tree branches, but the maples on my street are starting to bud. I watch for the lively explosion of litter onto the sidewalks and driveways when the buds are shoved aside to fall to the ground, for the extension of new life into the still frosty air.


Orion is starting to edge over closer to sunset after dark; the mornings just got shorter and the evenings longer thanks to daylight saving time, which isn't really my preferred choice. It does increase the odds, though, that some night soon on my way home I'll get out of the car and sniff grilled meats on the air – there's always a few intrepid souls upwind who get an early start on cooking out. I'm rarely home soon enough to try it, but I respect the chefs and enjoy the smells as a sign as sure as a crocus or daffodil.


From spotting the green spears through the worn mulch of last year to the trip down to the garden center for a new mower blade, the rituals of springtime are familiar, and fairly constant. Yet I am certain that every spring is just a little bit different . . . no, a great deal in difference from year to year, from where I sit or stroll.


Winter is a great enemy of outdoor exercise, just the round the block stroll let alone a jog or bike ride, but longer days and warmer evenings should make an opportunity for many of us. We get out, multitudes on the bike paths through our village, but other trails invite and welcome, to see the natural world a little closer up.


They keep doing studies to prove it, but there's not much we don't already know. From old adages like "stop and smell the roses" (give them time) to our gut level knowledge about the effects of sunshine on our faces, we are aware that nature has a healing effect on body and mind and spirit. Wandering the Bioreserve that Denison tends for us, hiking up Sugar Loaf where Scouts and the community have worked for years to keep a path winding around to the summit and the boulder monument there, or even down to creekside and subtle trails that ignore property lines, maintained by deer hooves and a few bold boots, we feel something calming, something soothing.


Or just a gentle, unhurried stroll around your house, not so much to look for the tasks undone (which are legion) but to the signs indeed of life. Where the soil and seeds and stirrings all around are a springtime show like no other before, and none other that will ever come again.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what Mother Nature is up to in your neck of the woods at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter. 

Faith Works 3-10-18

Faith Works 3-10-18

Jeff Gill


Families helping families are the key




Brian Harkness is a friend of long-standing here in Licking County, and a fellow Christian minister, serving as pastor of Hebron New Life United Methodist Church.


He's been hearing me talk for years about our challenges in serving & protecting children from abuse and neglect in our area, and he has been reaching out to Kim Wilhelm, our Licking County protective services director (within the Job & Family Services office, and referring to child protective services or "CPS" which works alongside of adult protective services).


No part of our county is immune to this growing problem, from the downtown areas of Newark to the rural edges, including the southern stretches of our county. Seeing how the issues around addiction and abandonment were growing in the Hebron/Buckeye Lake area, Brian contacted some of his United Methodist resources in the central Ohio area, and soon was talking to Sean Reilly, executive director of the United Methodist Childrens Home Family Services (or UMCH Family Services) about creating a pathway for church families to help struggling families by caring for their children for short periods of time.  A form of what's called "respite care."


This concept is intended to include people struggling with areas from addiction to homelessness, but could encompass illness, time in recovery programs, or other complications in helping a parent trying to walk the walk to stay on the path.


The goal is to create a buffer between those who are struggling, and ending up where Children Services has to request placement of kids into foster care.  Right now there are over 525 kids in foster care in Licking County. Yes, over five hundred and twenty-five. I remember when we were worrying that the head count "in care" was approaching 350 and we thought that was unsustainable.


A big part of our problem is, of course, the increasing availability of cheap addictive substances. Opiates, especially heroin, get the biggest headlines, but meth – crystal meth, speed, meth as a powder, a liquid, in chunks, shards, or tablets – still far outstrips at least the quantities confiscated by local law enforcement. By a three to one margin, or more.


So we've seen an uptick in parents of small children getting addicted, and struggling to recover. And my own horseback impression is that while children being found by law enforcement in close proximity to drugs just left out in the open, or babies abandoned while a parent is looking for more drugs, are certainly not becoming less common, the real driver of the numbers UP of "in care" children is that in the past we've had parents fall into problems, lose their kids for a season, and work their way back into full custody again. Now, for every five new children entering the system, instead of five going back home, we have one or two. And over time, that kind of imbalance drives the numbers of kids needing placement up, as the number of foster homes ready and able to take them in struggles to keep up.


This is where Brian, in his conversations with Kim and Sean, started thinking about where churches could be of service. We've all shared information with our congregations about how to become foster parents; that's a big step, and one that still has lots of need and plenty of training ready (call them at 740-670-8725, or go to ). But is there an intermediate step where folks who weren't ready to take on the larger responsibility of foster care could be of service to their community, and to these innocent kids?


Recently they found an organization that already provides the framework for this, and has over 100 churches across the country enrolled in a program called "Safe Families."  They provide all of the policy outlines, background checks, and best practices, as well as training and support for the families in our churches who would be willing to take in kids for short periods of time.  This is NOT foster care, and custody remains with the parents, which gives the participants chances to build relationships with the whole family.


The three of them had a conference call with staff from "Safe Families" and they all were very positive and excited about the program.  Brian said as a pastor, "I figured if the professionals embraced it, then it should work for us."


His next step is to have a representative from "Safe Families" come and talk to pastors and church leaders in this area.  So, there's a meeting at Hebron New Life UMC (just on the west edge of the village on US 40) on Tuesday, March 20th at 10:00. 


Brian says to anyone reading this "We would love to have you there!" and I heartily agree.



Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your work to make this a better place to live for old and young alike at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Worship 2nd Q 2018

Updated worship texts & themes below; not a final list as Karen's schedule is still being worked out with school and the commission on ministry, so subject to change, but this gives everyone the overall arc of this spring.

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Worship texts & themes, 2nd Q 2018

Wed., Mar. 7 - Karen preaching at Second Presbyterian, 12:15 pm & lunch following

Third Lenten dinner, Mar. 7 - From the Dead Sea to a Living Cross #1

Mar. 11 - Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22 & Ephesians 2: 1-10 "This is the Gospel"

Fourth Lenten dinner, Mar. 14 - From the Dead Sea to a Living Cross #2

Mar. 18 - Jeremiah 31: 31-34 & Hebrews 5: 5-10 "Accepting God as God"

Last Lenten dinner, Mar. 21 - From the Dead Sea to a Living Cross #3

Mar. 25 (Palm Sunday) - Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29 & Philippians 2: 5-11 "Ride On, King Jesus"***

Mar. 29 (Maundy Thursday) 7 pm service with communion
Mar. 30 (Good Friday) 7 pm service with choir
Mar. 31 (Holy Saturday) 11 am at Lodge, Easter egg hunt with lunch

Apr. 1 - Easter Sunday - Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24 & Mark 16: 1-8 "Ahead Into Galilee"

Apr. 8 - Second Sunday of Easter - Psalm 133 & 1 John 1:1-2:2 "Take it from the top"

Apr. 15 - Third Sunday of Easter - Psalm 4 & I John 3:1-7  "The Wild, Wild Us"

Apr. 22 - Fourth Sunday of Easter - Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24 & Acts 4: 5-12  "In good health"

Apr. 29 - Fifth Sunday of Easter - I John 4: 7-14 & I John 4: 15-21  "Love, love, love"

May 6 - Sixth Sunday of Easter - Psalm 98 & I John 5: 1-6  "Yokes and burdens"

May 13 - Ascension Sunday - Acts 1: 1-5 & Acts 1: 6-11  "Why do you look up?"

May 20 - Pentecost - Acts 2: 1-11 & Acts 2: 12-21  "Blood & Fire"

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Faith Works 3-3-18

Faith Works 3-3-18

Jeff Gill


Stress, prayer, and worship



When the non-affiliated ask me about what it is about participation in religion that I find meaningful and helpful, my first answer is almost always "it helps me cope."

Jesse Ventura famously declared that religion was "a crutch." Guilty, Jesse. It is. I am broken (see last week's column!) and it's happened before and will happen again. I am a limited, finite, breakable human creature, and I often need crutches.

On the most basic level, I need corporate regular worship to help me re-set and prepare for a new week. The stores and products and retail landscape all conspire to make my days and hours and life all blur together in an endless cycle of consumption: Sunday is a pause, a halt in fact, and a chance to put myself in a place of review and renewal. God says "take a day each week to do this, don't just let your life be a blur" and that's what church services do for me.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say "dress up, come to a big building, and sit there at 10:30 every Sunday," but the net effect is to point us to a regular committed presence in a worshiping community. If yours is on Saturday, or another day, in a very different setting, fine, but if there aren't other people involved, it doesn't pull you out of yourself quite the same way.

Now, every time I get stressed out, I can't go to church. Actually, the buildings and worship centers are often available other days, and ducking in isn't a bad idea when you can – but it's also a training ground, your spiritual gym, your "box" in which you gain skills you can carry out into the challenges of everyday non-Sunday life.

So we have those familiar prayers: the Lord's Prayer said, the Doxology or Gloria as often sung, the verses and responses which ground us in a deeper, wider tradition. We use them in corporate worship, but they're there in our heads, and we can call them up, recall and whisper or sing or hum them when the world presses in all too close. Anywhere, we can do this.

Just as in church we bow our heads, simply to shut out the distractions and also as a sign of humility – so that when in the rest of the week, we adopt the same posture, that angle of neck and chin and of our thoughts, the calm from worship can come into almost any moment.

And our own disciplines of prayer and worship we carry in our bodies, just as those Bible verses memorized or familiar prayers are held in our minds. When I am doing my own personal prayers, I often sit and bow my head and hold my right hand cupped fingers in the cradle of the left, my thumbs just touching. It's just a part of how I sit and center.

As noted last week, I recently went through an . . . extremely unpleasant procedure. For which I needed to hold myself very still, even as the doctor muttered just off my right ear "hmmm, this usually goes easier." Four, five tries. Through the throat.

I could not sing a hymn. And in the moment, I'm not sure I could have come up with the entirety of John 3:16 if I had to. But it came to me that I could simply put my hands together as I did in regular prayer, and as easily as that, my whole body relaxed. And if you'd asked me, I would have given you Colossians 3, verses 15, 16, and 17. Because that practiced pose put me back into a place of peace.

For Christians, there is also a way to hold onto a bit of that peace in any circumstance, whatever the turmoil or trouble that's trying to throw us down into despair, however much distraction is pushing into our field of view. Even if our hands aren't free, or our hearts burdened, there is a name.

Jesus is two syllables. We don't say it as they do in Mexico or Argentina, and none of us are saying his name the way it would have sounded in Aramaic when Mary called him for dinner. But the idea that, when all else fails, we have been given a personal connection to just say that name, which goes back into Hebrew meaning "God saves," which connects to Joshua and Yahweh and that first whispering hope Noah listened to over the waters.

Jesus isn't a magic word. Saying his name comes to have meaning when we've practiced our prayer and worship and faith in community, but if we lay that foundation of relationship, the name of Jesus can be the simplest prayer for any occasion, and the reliever of stress to any of us, always.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your practices for peace in your life and for others at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Notes From My Knapsack 2-28-18

Notes From My Knapsack 2-28-18

Jeff Gill


A little less conversation



As is too well known now, I can't talk.


Actually, by the time you read this, I should be able to speak a bit more audibly, but who knows?


I've been diagnosed with what NPR listeners call "Diane Rehm disease," or what is actually called spasmodic dysphonia. It's a neurological disability that literally grabs you by the throat, and is just as much fun as that sounds. The treatment is being stabbed in the throat with needles, ditto.


For the last couple years, it's been creeping up on me, and even when you didn't hear me suddenly getting into a strangled tone of voice or sounding as if I had a touch of laryngitis that came and went, when I sounded fine, I was feeling a steel glove grabbing my larynx any time I tried to speak. Ironically, shouting or singing loudly without impairment is actually one of the indicators of the ailment; speaking in a softer tone of voice was what was hard.


The good news is that the injections worked from almost the outset on the voice box spasms. The bad news is that the early phase of "working" means my vocal cords are largely paralyzed. Later on, my voice should return to a more normal tone, and without the spasms plaguing me.


The better news is that this is good for me. It all happened very fast, and without the time to plan I would have liked, putting me in some awkward public situations recently, work-wise. The more complicated news is that, if this is to be an ongoing therapy for me, I will have three or four intervals a year of two week "vocal pauses" (and three or four sessions of having injections through my neck cartilage with a scope down my nose, but hey, everything has a price).


What I've tried to do is use this first experience with the injections and the recovery phase as a chance to listen better. I can't talk, I cannot anticipate managing a rejoinder anyhow, so if I'm listening I am listening with a mind not to what I will say next. This is not a bad thing.


As Elvis said, sometimes "a little less conversation" is a good thing. A little more action, a bit more emphasis on "so what shall we do" next rather than having something more to say.


My future work for the county and as a preacher and storyteller will have to become something different, as well. The days of gathering in people by volume and intensity of the spoken word are going to be constrained by the availability of electronic amplification. I'm going to have to work more with small groups, and less often with big crowds wandering the earthworks or on the public square. And even in smaller settings, I can't talk over ambient noise the way I've been used to.


So a little more intentionality and planning, a little less public speaking in general, and a lot more listening. It's really not a bad thing at all.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's still got a few things left to say. Tell him what you've heard at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.