Monday, April 20, 2015

Faith Works 4-25-15

Faith Works 4-25-15

Jeff Gill


An interfaith initiative far from over




Many of you are already aware of the cuts being made in public higher education, and at the Newark Campus of The Ohio State University.


OSU Newark has announced cuts of varsity sports and other public events, all part of balancing their budget in the face of financial pressures, a desire to control costs, and all being done in such a way to protect the core student educational experience.


Obviously, if you're involved with any activity or program that's being cut, you're going to say that your work was, in fact, part of the core student educational experience. And education is such a fluid, multivalent activity that you can make a credible case for quite a bit under that umbrella: but class offerings, direct academic assistance, and basic student services are all going to have to take precedence.


One program being defunded and shut down, at least "on campus," is the Newark Earthworks Center.


Full disclosure: from before ten years ago, I've been involved in the activities of what became the Newark Earthworks Center. It was the first independent academic "center" on a regional campus in the Big Ten, some have claimed the first such to host an international academic conference – on the Newark Earthworks, of course – and has been a venue for student involvement in current research, oral history & archiving, and tribal outreach…that last meaning students were working directly with officials who are under the law and diplomatic protocol "heads of state," American Indian nations having an independent status under our law. Chiefs, healers, storytellers, "pipe carriers," tribal historic preservation officers, poets and novelists and singers, with and without drums. I was bragging on these points to our visitors at a recent Octagon Open House, and assumed I'd be doing so again in May, and next October, as I've done for nearly a decade.


Fuller disclosure: I was employed there for a stretch as a part-time program assistant. So I've had that interest, but not at the outset, and not more recently. I'm not one of the ones losing a job or position.


But our community is losing a platform. A piece of structure that, quite frankly, all of us who were working on education, awareness, and understanding about our county's incredible 2,000 year old earthworks just fifteen years ago or so, are still going to be working in support of, and we're going to have to figure out how to reinvent this particular wheel. Just without the support of Ohio State right now.


This is to some degree personal, but I also felt like it was worth noting the changes here in my "Faith Works" column platform because the Newark Earthworks Center has repeatedly pushed into my life as a pastor, and vice versa.


Obviously, Native American religious perspectives and sensitivities have been part of our work. How and when do we decide which songs, whose chants, whether or not prayer, chanted or silent, is part of an event? That's one element. American Indian spirituality has many commonalities across the 550 nations across the 50 states, but it is NOT monolithic.


Traditional practices and views are also often lived side by side with "Western" religions: a second chief might be a Methodist minister, or a clan structure might have elements of nature and ritual function built into who does what, but also a history where one is generally Baptist, and the other Episcopalian.


Then there's the interfaith aspect – not just between indigenous world views and religious practices, but as our local earthworks attract and engage other religions in the world today coming to view, and wonder . . . and pray.


With the Newark Earthworks Center, I've been asked to accompany and guide the activities of guests who come bearing relics of the Buddha (yes, THE Buddha), and of other Buddhist saints, as they traveled the county offering their intentions for the ease of suffering at sacred spaces of all sorts. We've had indigenous people and practices from Mexico, from Japan, from Australia all come and we've supported them in their desire to honor and witness on our sites.


The first priority these next few months will be to sustain and maintain our educational and interpretation programs at the Newark Earthworks, in some partnership here in Licking County. But my own intention is to also maintain the remarkable ecumenical and interfaith elements of what it means to be stewards of these world-class pieces of earthen architecture, on behalf of Native Americans, and for everyone.



Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Newark; he's led tours across the Newark Earthworks for twenty-five years, and that's not going to change. Tell him about your encounters with the earthworks at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Faith Works 4-18-15

Faith Works 4-18-15

Jeff Gill


Questions about attendance at church



For many congregations, this is the last big push for church camp registrations this summer.


Yes, summer. It's coming. There may be another frost or even snow after the forsythia's yellow bloom, but summer is not just coming: for those planning summer events, it's already getting to be too late.


My congregation, up Mt. Vernon Rd., is deep in preparations for a July 19 visit from our wider church family to the Columbus Convention Center, as our denomination has an every-two-years meeting in our neck of the woods this time.


Your faith community may have picnics or outdoor worship or retreats in mind, and if you are doing them this summer, I'm guessing that menus are selected and speakers are booked and it's all set except for the registrations…and many of those have already passed the earlybird discount phase.


Registration for Vacation Bible Schools are already opening up, such as for Granville's Ecumenical VBS in June.


Planning ahead? We had a conversation in the church office about Advent and Christmas the other day; even 2016 is starting to press in on our collective consciousness.


It's a dilemma that families and individuals have higher expectations for calendar and coordination than they did not long ago, when it comes to church life. But at the same time, assumptions about regular church attendance have been shifting away from consistency for some time.


By some measures, church attendance is down across America in the last decade or so, by a significant amount. But that may not quite mean what it appears.


A couple of years ago, the church leadership consultant Thom Rainer said this: "If the frequency of attendance changes, then attendance will respond accordingly. For example, if 200 members attend every week the average attendance is, obviously, 200. But if one-half of those members miss only one out of four weeks, the attendance drops to 175."


Rainer concludes: "Did you catch that? No members left the church. Everyone is still relatively active in the church. But attendance declined over 12 percent because half the members changed their attendance behavior slightly."

I look back over our congregation's life and statistics, and I'm pretty sure I see this here. We have about the same number of weddings, funerals, baptisms, activities and such, but the Sunday worship average is 25% lower than it was 25 years ago.


Pastorally, I hear often about the pressures of our 24/7 world on families; so many jobs are now rolling schedules, travel is an element for people who a quarter-century ago would never leave the county unless it was on vacation, and now it's built into the job description. Yes, youth sports on Sunday mornings still make me grind my molars, but that's not a core factor from where I perch, looking out over our attendance trends.


What's also changed: we have two services on Sunday now, when there was one (and yes, more people packed into it). Our Wednesday study incorporates elements of worship where that didn't used to be a priority in my mind; now I see that as an extra worship option for people who can't make it Sunday morning . . . and we keep talking about Sunday evenings, for something.


That Rainer line "if one-half of those members miss only one out of four weeks…" you see a 12% drop in attendance average – it sticks with me. Is this something we should push back against? If so, in what ways? Or do we adapt away from the "if you love the Lord, you will always be here Sunday morning without fail" model? Is that really the only true index of faithfulness?


This is a conversation, not a prelude to a prescription. I look forward to your thoughts on this subject.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Newark; tell him about your perfect attendance pins at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Notes from my Knapsack 4-16-15

Notes From My Knapsack 4-16-15

Jeff Gill


A Body in the Well (pt. 5)




"Levi Rose is going to be fit to be tied," said Job Case as he walked down the hill towards Pataskala Creek.


"I've not been introduced to the Colonel," replied Hezekiah Mirk cautiously. From the dead body they'd just pulled from the well west of the Sugar Loaf, to not a few of the residents of Granville in the winter of 1815, there were still many which the newly arrived cutler hadn't met.


Case tugged at his layered waistcoats; the day was warming up quickly, and even heading downhill the effort was enough to make the blood pump on a once cool morning.


"The Colonel was always uncomfortable about that whole affair around the soldiers paroled, and those sent off up Lake Erie," puffed Case. Mirk nodded, not quite sure what the point was, but suspecting one was coming.


"When that old fool Hull surrendered us to the British there before Detroit, two years ago and more, the regulars became prisoners of war, but we militia were to be paroled, sent home on condition of not fighting again against the British. It's a usual thing between nations, this parole."


Mirk nodded again.


"Well, Caleb Munro wouldn't take the oath of parole." As Job Case spoken the light dawned for Hezekiah Mirk. "He was always a hot-tempered, willing to fight when no offense was meant, testy sort of man. He'd fought duels back East, even though they were quite out of fashion."


"So they put him with the regular army fellows on the transports up the lake?" asked Mirk.


"Precisely. He spat curses at us for going on along with the British request, said no man could make him promise not to fight tyranny if he chose, and if the price was more capitivity, well, they could do their best to hold him. And that was the last we saw of him," said Case with a touch of a guilty, aggrieved tone.


"And a number of those transports sank even before they'd left Maumee waters behind," added Mirk.


"So we made our way back to Granville, paroled from a fight we'd been surrendered to before we'd even had a chance to show our mettle. It was an embarrassment all around. We tried to help out Caleb's wife, Tirzah Munro… I mean, Williams."


"She remarried, then," nodded Mirk.


"Not until just a few months ago, well over a year before she'd asked the town to declare him dead, what with so many stories of everyone dead, sunk in those blasted bilgewater transports the British knew weren't safe. The bodies didn't wash up until the far end of Erie, what with the winds, and no one knew the odds."


Then, pausing at the side of the creek, where they rolled up their trousers after removing boots and stockings, Case added "Judson Williams was widowed himself that year, and they were compatible. We all wanted the best for them."



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

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Faith Works 4-11-15

Faith Works 4-11-15

Jeff Gill


Energies at work in the world



The week after Easter can be a cruel season for parsons, choir directors, church staff of all sorts.


After the great long slow-footed race of Lent, through the weeks until the sprint of Palm Sunday to Easter morn, there's a sense of crossing a finish line, passing through a barrier, and a readiness to just stop and lie down.


Many in church life, including preachers, do just that. So do many church members: the Sunday after what's often the largest attendance of the year is frequently the lowest. Some even call it "Low Sunday" as if it were part of the liturgical calendar.


Vacations, trips, departures of various sorts, and yet Sunday morning the faithful gather, whether a remnant or a bit more. We worship and pray and indeed someone is going to offer up a message, a sermon for the day to start the week.


I try to make sure that when I'm planning out sermons and series' out ahead that I never stop with Easter's text and title, but go on out a bit. Call it follow-thru, call it a stretch past the obvious, call it a trick to not find yourself in a state of near-collapse while trying to think of what to say this week, but if my themes and dreams and prayers arc onwards into May, there's going to be a point to pause and catch my breath before summertime.


Mother's Day is coming soon, banquets and breakfasts and special devotionals in church and the world; deadlines for camp registration (and for my own denomination, planning for our once every two years wider gathering that's in Columbus this July); starting the lists of graduates for the end of May… you start to find the inertia sliding away and fresh momentum picking up, even if at a slower pace than from Ash Wednesday through last week.


One transmission gear that starts to turn as others wind down is the power of spring itself. "All nature sings, and 'round me rings the music of the spheres," as the old hymn reminds us. Daffodils and hyacinth, grass and weeds, forsythia and maple leaflets all start to show forth energy long hidden, growth that is nearly visible in real time.


Overhead, the level steady grey ceiling of Ohio winter clouds starts to break apart and erupt into thunderheads and towers of white shot through with purple. Lightning in the corner of your eye makes your head turn just as the rumble of thunder drums right through your chest. The world is full of antic energies, new life or the renewal of old life, and your winter weariness retreats in the face of asking yourself "is this the year I will cut back that viburnum near the chimney?" The mower must be serviced, and the mulch spread.


Post-Easter preaching is, for me, of a piece with that. I may be needing to catch my breath, but there are lower and slower tasks of maintenance, of the people and the parish, that need mulching and trimming and servicing. The outlines of the faith, practices which can endure through the year, warm months or cold, the body life of the gathered community and how our structures reflect our values.


Not the high drama of resurrection, but part of what Peter and James and John, Mary Magdalene and Dorcas, Paul and Barnabas all had to spend some time on as well. It's not all glory and poetry, not all the time. Sometimes it's hands and knees work, down in the soil and tilth.


It can be a stewardship sermon, a series on prayer, a few calls out of the ordinary round. Mulching and weeding the seedbed of faith and life.


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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Faith Works 4-4-15

Faith Works 4-4-15

Jeff Gill


Why resurrection?



Tomorrow is Easter, the Sunday each year that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, executed by Roman orders at the instigation of the Temple authorities.


In fact, the reason most Christians have their day of worship on Sunday, "the first day of the week" as opposed to the older Sabbath day of rest, Saturday, is to mark every week the occasion of joy and wonder that Christ's resurrection is to believers.


But on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equniox it's the general time of year when that first resurrection… well, wait a minute.


Sometimes people, even practicing Christians, get a little muddled about the significance of Easter. It gets called "the one time in all of human history that someone has returned from the dead."


Well, in the Bible, there's at least ten who do. ("At least," because in Matthew 27:50-53, there are "many" who had died who walk the streets of Jerusalem at Jesus' resurrection, a sort of echo of the impact of the one event to others nearby.)


Elijah and Elisha raise people from death, Elisha's bones are said to have done so (II Kings 13:20), and along with others Jesus raises up, Lazarus most notably, both Peter and Paul are shown to have done so.


Jesus being raised from the dead is not, in and of itself, what's presented in the Gospels as special about him. As a pastor, I'm always surprised by how often people are surprised to hear me say that, but you can look it up. If you hold the Bible as your base, you already affirm that others besides Jesus have been raised from the dead.


I've read some interesting attempts to make distinctions between how Jesus returned and the others did so, and as a person of faith I'll grant you that the form and nature of Christ's return indicate he's not going through death again: Eutychus, Dorcas, Lazarus, they have returned but will pass through that door again. A distinction, perhaps.


To those who find religion and faith a puzzle, it's a distinction without a difference. Seriously, I've been asked, you think someone can die, die dead, and come back again? When I answer that as a matter of faith, and a matter of fact, yes I do, the conversation often moves on to the heart of the matter.


Why him, and not them? Why this person, and not that one? We all have our own examples, people whose departure left the world the less, and whose resurrection would doubtless brighten this poor cracked old globe and show good news to sorrowful humanity. I can think of a few myself I'd bring back in a heartbeat.


One thing is for sure, resurrection is presented in the Holy Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity as exceptional. It's not the norm. Ten, or even ten plus an uncertain dozen, versus the billions who die and are buried and who "pass on" – it's clearly not a common experience.


Why particular ones? That's easier to respond to than to explain "and why not this one?" Each raising from the dead in the Bible, up to and including that of Jesus, is presented as necessary to share the Gospel. It begins in healing, and continues through that ultimate act of restoration resurrection itself, as something that happens to show all who witness something important, something crucial about God's plan. In Nazareth, Jesus could barely even help the sick. In Jerusalem, despite the best efforts of Roman cruelty and security, Jesus himself is raised, to prove the truth of all he had promised.


And in the last book of the Bible, the coda, the finale, the resolution of God's "Resurrection Symphony" in Revelation is to proclaim and declare and enact an end to death altogether. The world we know and the lives we live cannot coexist with everyone being born and never dying, or even quite a few of us doing so. But the fulfillment of the hope that is woven into this creation, "the love that moves the sun and other stars" will bring about an end to pain, sorrow, tears, and yes, death. Death will be no more.


For that resurrection, Jesus' appearance on the first Easter is simply a down payment.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's curious to find out just how cold it is atop Horn's Hill at 6:30 tomorrow morning. Tell him how you greet Easter at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.