Sunday, March 01, 2015

Notes From My Knapsack 3-5-15

Notes From My Knapsack 3-5-15

Jeff Gill

 

A Body in the Well (pt. 3)

___

 

 

Hezekiah Mirk looked down into the stone-lined shaft. The rising sun was nowhere high enough to angle much light down into the depths, but there was enough illumination to reveal two boot soles facing up towards the ring of faces around the well edge.

 

"It's a kindness that you'd come out here, Mister Mirk" said a particularly worried looking man in a military style cloak, much stained around the hem.

 

"Benjamin Avery, if you think me a source of wisdom about men in wells, you would be mistaken."

 

Avery coughed and smiled crookedly. "Well, now, not so much the man being in a well as being, as it seems…"

 

"You hope for my knowledge of death and dead men, do you?"

 

"Ah, to the point as always, Mister Mirk," said Job Case in a heavy coat over two waistcoats, oddly contrasting where their cut did not overlap. He was not what one would call a frivolous man, but the tan and dark red corners peeking out under a grey blanket over his blue tailed coat gave him a variegated look contrasting with the somber colors of the other half-dozen men facing one another.

 

"You were a surgeon's mate at Lundy's Lane last summer," Case went on, "and your knowledge of the evil that men do is greater than our own."

 

Left unsaid was the general discomfort the men of Granville still felt over their misadventures under General Hull, his unexpected and unaccountable surrender to the British before Detroit, and the humiliating parole most of them experienced in exchange and return back home, having seen no battle at all, unless you counted Col. Cass' attack on a fence post with his sword, in a fury over Hull's capitulation.

 

Mirk himself was uncomfortable at their regard, and was perhaps a bit short in his response. "Evil is a subject we all know more about than any of us care to admit. So who is this poor unfortunate man?"

 

He sized up their baffled looks at each other as both their ignorance, and their hopes that he would help provide what they lacked, at least in part. "Has anyone gone down there to try and budge him?"

 

The silence and careful consideration of one another's toes gave him as clear an answer as was needed. Without another word, he reached down to the well's rope, gave it a tug to see how firmly it was tied to the nearby wrought iron ring in the capstone.

 

"Can we be of any…" started Case, and Avery jumped forward hesitantly as Mirk took two steps backwards with his gloved hands on the rope, and began to walk down the inner wall of the well.

 

After a pause, the five men standing nearby began to step cautiously to the curb of the well, and gingerly leaned over almost in an unwilling unison. The scuffed boot soles were no longer visible, blocked by the downturned head of Hezekiah Mirk and his broad shoulders, almost the width of the shaft, descending into dimmer and dimmer shadows some sixty feet within the earth.

 

"Hello, what is this?" echoed Mirk's voice back up the well. The men looked at each other, unsure how that comment was addressed, but his next statement was clearly to them all.

 

"Someone find and tie off a second rope, and drop it down to me. We'll have him out as soon as you can. No less dead than he is right now, though."

 

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you'd like to learn about Granville history at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Faith Works 2-18-15

Faith Works 2-28-15

Jeff Gill

 

Why the passing of the peace?

___

 

First, a Happy St. David's Day tomorrow for all my Welsh readers, in the hills and out of them. Cymru forever! (That's March 1 for the rest of you.)

 

So, if that opening didn't confuse you, let me take you even further down the rabbit hole. I'm typing here looking at a coaster from Disney World's Wilderness Lodge, and the restaurant off the vast lobby.

 

It's a two sided coaster, and both sides say across the top "Whispering Canyon Cafe" but one face is a green ring around an image of a bucking bronco, and the other is red around a silhouette of a row of cowpokes sitting on a rail fence.

 

If you have this "coaster" turned red ring up, it says around the bottom edge "Watch from the fence!" Flip it to the green side, and it says "Jump in and play."

 

The purpose of these coasters is to signal the waiters. The "Disney experience" at the Whispering Canyon Cafe during the breakfast hours is one of a sassy staff, whose attitude is part of the show . . . let's just say you ask for ketchup on your hash browns at your (relative) peril.

 

Your waitress may organize your children into a dining room rodeo, and the waiter may ask you what horse you rode in on, with comments to adjoining tables if your answer doesn't suit him (and it usually doesn't).

 

UNLESS: you flip the coaster to "Watch from the fence." Which is fine! You get good service, or so it appeared to us, if you choose that option; we've eaten there twice, as much for the "show" as for the food, and interacted with emphasis and enjoyment. The point is: you don't have to, and they give you a way to let the staff know.

 

The point of this extended aside has to do with a very common moment in Christian worship services, something called "the passing of the peace" that has ancient roots and some modern problems.

 

It's an opportunity to turn to those sitting near you and reach out a hand and say "peace be with you" or say in response "and also with you" and can be a way to seal the fellowship of the gathered worship community before the primary experience of communion, the sharing of the body and blood and Jesus Christ in loaf and cup.

 

As to who can receive communion, one of the only clear exceptions in scripture is if you're ticked off at your neighbor. If you have a grievance that burdens your heart about someone else, you're called on by the Apostle Paul to resolve it first. (I think it's more about priorities than restrictions, but it's pretty clear that forgiveness is important to rightly receive communion in the proper spirit.)

 

So there's a functional side to the "passing of the peace." As you make eye contact, extend greetings, shake hands or even hug and kiss, you are clearly casting aside any obstacles between you and your neighbors before coming to the table of the Lord's Supper.

 

The problem is that in modern American Christianity, it becomes the fellowship moment. And that's NOT, I'd also note, all bad. In an internet age, that moment of physical encounter and personal recognition can be crucial. But for introverts, for those wanting a more private experience of worship, if you are wrestling with some issues that have brought you to church but don't bring you to want to hug strangers, the passing of the peace can be excruciating.

 

Yes, extrovert Christian friends, I said excruciating. That's exactly the word I've had people use to me about their experience of the passing of the peace. It's too much, they'd like to simply greet a few nearby with a quiet handshake and simple words of peace, and sit back down to focus on God. I heard from people who have changed congregations because of the passing of the peace.

 

I don't think stopping doing it is right, or is necessary. But I look at my Disney World coaster, and wonder "how could we do this in church?" And the answer is probably just to remind the more exuberant among us: watch for the cues. Let people off easy if they lean back. You don't have to mug, I mean hug, everyone. Some folks would rather "Watch from the fence."

 

Who knows? Later one, they may want to "Jump in and play!"

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him your favorite passing of the peace story at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Faith Works 2-21-15

Faith Works 2-21-15
Jeff Gill

Why contemporary music?
___

Where there's so-called "contemporary worship" in Christian churches, Christian contemporary music isn't far behind. Called CCM in the music business, there are many perfectly fair criticisms that can be laid at the feet of that genre.

Much CCM sounds copy-cat, one worship song a U2 ripoff, another more of an Eagles sensibility, then you hear a hip hop shout-out to the Gospel that has an uncomfortable similarity to Vanilla Ice. And so on.

There are groups that have crafted their own unique sound (I think the Newsboys are unmistakably pop, but clearly their own, and Natalie Grant is no more an echo than any other female soloist recording, to pick two recent acts hosted here in Newark), and there are those who used CCM as a stepping stone, like Katy Perry, to broader recording success.

What many who prefer a more traditional sound don't understand is that CCM is not a monolith. You may, if you attend worship long enough at any one place, hear "Now Is the Time For Worship" or "Shout to the Lord" almost anywhere, but in one worship center you'll hear it with a more hard rock edge, and at another auditorium, rented or owned by the congregation coming together, you might hear that same song in a more acoustic or even folk sound.

You can call it imitation, or you might hear it as diversity, but there's a branch of CCM to almost every taste.

While my own preferences lean to the more traditional, seasoned by solos and ensembles praising the Lord in different genres (I'd love to have bluegrass service some fine day), what I like to remind folks, especially folks within the churches who reach across to criticize their contemporary style worship and music brothers and sisters, is simply this: most of what you love was once contemporary music.

Isaac Watts was considered low and vulgar when his hymnal came out . . . you know, "Joy to the World"? Even today's classics like "In the Garden" and "Old Rugged Cross" were first heard a century ago as too close to popular music styles, a hint of the bar or tavern more than Bach and Buxtehude more properly played on the pipe organ.

"Poor Wayfaring Stranger" and "Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley" come from folk roots that grow from American soil, and a more recent (historically speaking) layer of church tradition. And even that old Bach was heard with some skepticism by the old guard in his day.

True, much of today's contemporary music will be forgotten in another generation. But pick up a hymnal from the 1840s and be amazed at how few words ring a bell. The format is familiar, but the rhythms and tunes didn't all stick around. A few, but not many. History sifts and selects, and our today is tomorrow's dust bin.

I have my suspicions about which of today's tunes will last into another century. "Blessings" by Laura Story is one, "Revelation" by Mac Powell of Third Day is another. But I not only may be wrong, I may be one of those people asking, some decades hence, "why aren't you still using that song in worship?" as the younger worship leaders quietly shake their heads.

Plus there's context: would "How Great Thou Art" just be another forgotten song, a Swedish tune and obscure poem joined to make one of those hymns you thumb past, if it wasn't for the singing of George Beverly Shea at the conclusion of another powerful Billy Graham sermon? You might say now you can't imagine your faith without that hymn in your spiritual hip pocket, but there's a reason it came to the awareness of so many. And why it's now so often part of memorial services and celebrations.

The constant is music itself. A capella, with a jazz combo, or even if a poorly tuned upright piano played with hesitation is all you have – the music, and the voices lifted in song as prayers are lifted to the presence of God. The melodies that weave our physical experience together into something inexpressible, but singable, and the harmonies that hint of what God's great intention for creation truly is.

Music, of one sort or another, will always be part of worship.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him your favorite worship song at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Notes From My Knapsack 2-19-15

Notes From My Knapsack 2-19-15

Jeff Gill

 

A Body in the Well (pt. 2)

___

 

 

"What is going on with Mister Mirk?" asked William Gavit.

 

Sarah Gavit almost jumped into the fireplace; she had been married to the man for almost thirty years, but was still not used to how quietly he could move through a creaky timber frame house. She put it down to his youth spent at sea, in the waters around Long Island Sound, but it was disconcerting even so.

 

Rising up from the kettle by the hearth, she turned and answered "It's no story I know yet, but will be his to tell when he returns. Someone west of the village had a mishap, and they sent a runner to bring him there."

 

William rubbed his clean-shaven chin, a chin cleaner shaven than it had been since Hezekiah Mirk came to town, as many would say now about his skills as a cutler and barber. "I thought I heard a clamor in the street clambering onto our porch. So he's gone already?"

 

"Yes, with the boy who raised the outcry, all out of breath. Hurried off without me offering him even a bite of cornmeal mush and maple syrup."

 

Gavit smiled at his wife. "That is indeed unlike you."

 

He kissed her cheek as she turned back to her cast-iron kettles, and walked on out onto the porch of his home and tavern, an occasional creak marking his passage, no matter how light-footed the big man might be.

 

This home was not even as old as the village, less than ten years, but William knew it needed work, if not replacing. Brother Case and old Warner were looking to build in brick, but these fresh cut planks and beams were some of the first and proudest work of the original mill for the community, over on Clear Run, and he liked it right down to the creaking. It reminded him of how much what he had here was the work of his hands, unlike back in Massachusetts where so much was borrowed or leased or owed upon.

 

With the sun's light now rising clear of Orchard Hill to the east, the porch was downright warm, not that Gavit had any plan to sit and bask in the glow. His guests had left for the road, his boarder was away on business he'd hear of soon enough, and it was time to sit the children down in the big front room, once Sarah was done with the dishes, and begin lessons. Their older children were already apprenticed around the village, but the youngest three had their tables and telling to master. A schoolhouse was in place, catty-cornered across the public square, but Gavit was of no mind to wait until a new teacher made it to town in the spring.

 

He glanced over to his right, and saw the heavy canvas bundle rolled out at the porch's southern end, Mister Mirk's files and rasps and other tools laid out and gleaming in the sun. Once William had asked his boarder about securing his tools, to which Hezekiah Mirk had answered with a wry smile "And whom would steal these, and to what end? All know they are mine, only I know their use in full, and to sell them no one would have coin or specie to trade."

 

When Gavit nodded slowly at this, Mirk added "As well, each has an H and a K struck into their tang or handles. Only a fool would steal these."

 

"True," Gavit replied, "but there are more fools arriving in the west country every day."

 

Then, Mirk had shrugged and went back to his work of sharpening other men's blades. Now, Gavit thought about rolling up and tying up the bundle of tools, but after these last few weeks, he still didn't feel he knew his boarder well enough to handle his tools without permission, whatever his intention.

 

Leaving them in place, he went back inside and called his children down from the loft. Time enough to take the measure of this still-newcomer to their village.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you'd like to learn about Granville history at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Faith Works 2-14-15

Faith Works 2-14-15

Jeff Gill

 

Why a contemporary service?

___

 

Some of my recent "Why a…?" columns ask questions that often may not have been asked by much of anyone. They've addressed topics folks may have wondered about, but not been voiced aloud.

 

Not so with "Why a contemporary service?" Some still use the term "worship wars" for the last few decades, as many congregations, large and small, have struggled with whether or how to offer this new expression of Christian worship.

 

I'm in either an ideal location or a terrible position to comment on this feature of modern American church life. The congregation where I pastor does not, um, well, we don't, uh…. Well, there's no screen or projector in our sanctuary. If you visit sometime you'll see why. It's just not happening there. Sorry!

 

And to jump ahead a moment, it's been an interesting shift in what a "contemporary service" means that the key element has changed from drums in the chancel, which in the 60's & 70's was the first "contemporary worship" debate for many of us, to whether or not you project the words to the worship songs (don't say hymns!) up in front of the worshipers. Today, a contemporary service may be bluegrass – no drums! – or even jazz combos, but the central feature is that you don't use hymnbooks, and that imagery is present and changing for the message as well as the music in some form of projection screen.

 

Anyhow, the church I serve doesn't have one. We're pretty traditional, sort of. But during my "sabbatical years" I preached fairly often in contemporary style services, and I have to admit that occasionally I still fondly recall the added step of developing the message that called on me to hunt up images, pictures to go with the words, even the occasional film clip or video take. It's a different process for sermon development, and it has some real strengths.

 

And my wife has been worship team leader for a church from their launch through today, over ten years now, which has never been anything but contemporary in her service, leading from the keyboards and selecting pre-service songs, specials, and the closing sing-out – all sung, when the congregation joins in, from words up on the screen. She's directed choirs and church choirs and handbell choirs in very traditional services in many places through the years, but she will tell you with great emphasis: congregational singing is strong when no one has a hymnbook to hide behind.

 

Think about it: if you have to lift your chin to look at the words, you just increased the singing volume by a factor of two or three right there!

 

But the question is: why do a contemporary service? Is it just to get people to sing out? No.

 

The main, the best reason that I am aware of is that there are significant swaths of the population who aren't going to come into a church service where the songs are slower and more "old timey," who are strongly put off by formality and ritual, yet are interested in the ancient claims of scripture and the teachings of Jesus. Are pipe organs and neckties called for in the Bible? Nope. Dressing up is even a topic lacking (to my eyes) a clear teaching. Come, come and worship, come now…I can find all of that in sacred writings, but "only after you've washed behind the ears and put on a clean shirt" not so much.

 

That's the atmosphere of contemporary, the jeans and t-shirt side of things, and while some churches can pull off a mixed worship space where neckties and dresses are seen right alongside of work boots and worn denim jackets, it's usually something that has to happen at separate times, if not different places. The music, though, that's where the real conflict still happens.

 

As a leader of traditional worship, even so I get very frustrated with most off-hand criticism of Christian contemporary music (CCM), and with most scholarly critiques. "It's un-Biblical" – you just showed me you've actually looked at the lyrics very little, since I've found CCM to be even more Bible-focused than most old school hymns ("In the Garden," anyone?). "It's repetitive" – go check Psalm 136 and get back to me. "It's too loud.." – okay, we need to talk. Sometimes, that's more than a fair point.

 

Next week, part two!

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about worship music that lifts you up at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.