Sunday, November 11, 2018

Notes from my Knapsack 11-15-18

Notes from my Knapsack 11-15-18

Jeff Gill

 

Community and continuity

___

 

We've passed the most recent school levy, and no doubt will have to face questions of how public education is funded again within a few years, because that's the system our state legislature has created.

 

Property taxes do not increase with land valuation, so there's something called a rollback built into the system. Add in unfunded mandates for expenditures from federal policies, fluctuations in enrollment while square footage and other fixed costs stay the same, plus the overall cost of everything, and you have a system which as is well-known has been declared unconstitutional by our state Supreme Court, but is still the prevailing model.

 

Our statehouse points out, accurately, that they are spending more on education in biennial budgets, and that they keep moving more money to less fortunate districts, which is also true. So a residentially blessed area like Granville has the weird double whammy of having less business tax base to absorb some of the cost of running a top-flight public school district, but we are having state formula funding taken away even as by law the district doesn't see benefit from increasing property values unless we choose to give and re-gift it to them in property tax renewals.

 

So we now have an income tax basis to try to add some stability to our education budget, and reduce the frequency with which the school board and administration is forced to come to the voters for funds. I think it was a good idea, and it's done, or as done as any such voter driven process can be.

 

I wrote my way towards this last request for levy support through our local and state history about education funding, not wanting to make the story about an endorsement per se. That's not what the Sentinel really wants to see these contributor columns doing, anyhow. But I do want to figure out how to do an endorsement of a different sort.

 

What I think needs support and endorsement and a public campaign of some kind, with the involvement of school board, staff, civic officials, business and commercial interests, and indeed all of us, is this: consider staying in Granville. I'd like to make a formal endorsement for a plan I am already acting on myself . . . staying in Granville after my child has graduated from our excellent and high achieving schools.

 

Because it dawned on me as we approached our son's high school graduation that a startling number of the friends and fellow parents we'd been associating with and chaperoning alongside and working shoulder to shoulder by were putting out "For Sale" signs the day the "Graduation Open House" signs came down.

 

I'm still wrestling, almost three years later, with what this means. I know it's true almost anywhere to some degree, and it's hard to find hard data on the phenomenon (I've been trying).

 

But my anecdotal evidence, and general conversational inputs, have all told me it's remarkably common here, and perhaps more than in most places, maybe even more here than in other high achieving school districts. Families come for the schools, and my wife and I have to admit we moved here in the middle of our son's first grade year, and they leave quite often once the kids are off to college.

 

Downsizing makes sense when the nest empties, and it can be hard to downsize in Granville. That's no doubt part of the problem. And taxes are higher here, but not by as much as folks seem to think. I want to continue this discussion into 2019, and ideally carry it into this question: what would it take to help make Granville a place people would want to stay in after the school years are over for a family?

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he and his family have lived in Our Fayre Village since 2004. Tell him about why you came, and stayed, at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Faith Works 11-10-18

Faith Works 11-10-18

Jeff Gill

 

Remembrance Day, and the meaning of "as to"
___


Today, November 10, has a number of meaningful associations for me, and I'd love to write about Martin Luther's or the Marine Corps' birthdays (and have, and no doubt will). But it's tomorrow that calls to me this year, 100 years since 1918 and "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month."

 

In the Commonwealth of Nations, the former British Empire countries observe on November 11 "Remembrance Day" and you'll see on TV and hear about poppies and Flanders Fields as we do every year if you're attuned to such things.

 

In America, we once called it "Armistice Day," recalling the end of World War I at 11:00 am on Nov. 11th, 1918; after learning the harsh lessons of World War II that the first world war was not "the war to end all war" we adapted the observance into Veterans Day, which it still is (but observed on a federal basis on Monday).

 

Across Europe, the wound of World War I not only was left unhealed to fester into the outbreak of the second world war in September of 1939, it left marks to the present day. I believe the impact of World War I still has an impression on us today, even if it has become a brief pause for modern educational instruction in history, as we hurtle from the Civil War to Pearl Harbor.

 

World War I was four years in length, and militarized some 70 million persons around the globe; barely a generation later World War II lasted six years, and mobilized over 100 million . . . and in each war the dead, soldier and civilian, were nearly uncountable, but in the tens of millions for each conflict.

 

So many were left missing, or unrecognizable, that World War I began the idea, first in Great Britain and Westminster Abbey, of a "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier." It was World War I and its call to service and sacrifice that brought flags into many church worship centers where before this was mostly unknown; World War I began a series of steps into the militarization of civilian life whose scope is still being unpacked and understood. "Preachers Present Arms" by Ray Abrams is still a useful guide to these changes, all beginning with the American entry into the war in 1917.

 

So I understand the desire on the part of many preachers and theologians and leaders in more recent decades to push back against a militarization of the faith of the Prince of Peace. As someone who chose to serve, I also respect the reality that pacifism is a choice many Christians have made as their response to their faith in Jesus.

 

But I have struggled with some of the wholesale rejection of any language that even hints at struggle, or battle, or warfare as essentially un-Christian. And having grown up with "Onward, Christian Soldiers" I missed it as I entered into ministry, finding that more recent hymnals of many traditions have banished it.

 

Where I would point is to a pair of words: "as to." As in, "Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war . . ." Sabine Baring-Gould was writing a processional for children to keep together as they marched in a body across a bridge from one parish he served to another, in a peaceful 1865 England, and Arthur Sullivan, he of "Gilbert & Sullivan" fame, came up with a better tune in 1871 that lifted hearts in Great Britain and quickly around the world. It not only became an anthem for World War I, it was a favorite of Winston Churchill's during World War II, lifting his spirits and something he asked to have played at his funeral.

 

"As to" states that while earthly warfare is a reality we know, it is not an ultimate reality. There are struggles ahead, both personal and spiritual, but the cross of Christ is our symbol of triumph, and the victory we are moving towards is beyond any one battle in this life.

 

The closing verse says it well: "Onward then, ye people; Join our happy throng; Blend with ours your voices; In the triumph song." It is to that end we will in worship at my church be singing this joyful hymn, with a chastened understanding of the evils of war we would leave behind, as we go onward.



Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he hopes if you have bells you can ring or toll them for two minutes at 11:00 am tomorrow to mark the end of World War I. Tell him about what leads you onward at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Faith Works 11-3-18

Faith Works 11-3-18

Jeff Gill

 

A strident season, in faith and life

___

 

Checking a couple of dictionaries, I find that the word "strident" has only been in use from the mid 17th century: it was created from the Latin verb "stridere" which means "to creak." 

 

So a creaking, croaky sort of vocal tone, a quality of sound that's harsh and discordant, became "strident" as it was first used; it's only been since the mid-1800s that we took it to be equally useful as a description of political speech, which is the main way it's used today.

 

Which is interesting to me, having been through a second round of treatment for my vocal cord muscle problems. The injections for spasmodic dysphonia have left me sounding now for weeks what can only be called "strident," which of course no one is calling it. After about three weeks of little volume and much raspiness (but the spasms did go away, it's just that the cure is in many ways worse than the problem), I can be heard fairly normally, but at a higher pitch than normal, and with a strident edge to my voice.

 

In the last couple of weeks I've done a wedding, a funeral, preached twice and taught twice, and apologized I don't know how many times. Everyone has been very kind, extremely gracious, and kept saying "oh it's no problem at all." Perhaps that's true, but there's a difference, and I feel the need to give an account for myself, even if you've never heard my voice before. In a way, I'm saying "this is not me."

 

Stridency in the more common modern meaning is all around us. It's a fascinating historical parlor game (does anyone play parlor games anymore?) to debate how much worse it has been in the past. Abe Lincoln was called an ignorant ape by leading newspapers, and it got worse from there during the Civil War; Thomas Jefferson and John Adams didn't exactly play patty-cake in 1800 (do kids still play patty-cake?), and the hard feelings at the Congressional resolution of the election by Alexander Hamilton led a few years later to him and Aaron Burr resolving their dispute with pistols at dawn.

 

I certainly notice and give silent thanks every time there's an ad on TV where a candidate speaks about their own hopes, plans, and qualifications; most of them are commercials to promote the worst qualities, so called, of their opponents. It gets downright . . . strident.

 

As in any escalation, the question is who stops ratcheting up the stridency? Who stops first? And if you cease going negative, and your opponent continues, there's plenty of evidence that's a winning strategy: and whose fault is that? If we reward that behavior, we'll get more of it. That's a parental commonplace, and if moms and dads know it, then voters should, too.

 

Does a strident tone in politics tend to creep out into other forms of communication? I think it does. I dreaded the coming of this season for some time, and the last few weeks have reminded me I did so with reason. Yes, in church life, in community conversations, in personal communications, I believe the overall tone of interactions is getting more strident. And there's little sense that anyone seems to feel they need to give an account for themselves before launching into a strident statement. Is that because they're not aware of what they are sounding like? Is it that they believe their stridency is self-evident, and self-explanatory? I do not know, I just know that there's a tension in the air, and a loss of individual identity and empathy, as a general strident tone has taken over much of our dialogue.

 

So of course, I simply pray for peace, and seek to give an account of my own strident voice when it sounds different from how I usually speak.

 

Speaking of peace, next Sunday (a week from tomorrow) is the centennial of the end of World War I, Armistice Day years ago, and more recently transformed into Veterans Day. But it was at "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" in 1918 that "the war to end all war" came to an end. It is appropriate to ring bells at 11 am on November 11, and especially so this year. I plan to interrupt our second service for bell ringing and silence at 11:00 am, including this solemn remembrance in our worship. Newark's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1060 hopes that any church with bells could ring them for two minutes at 11:00 am next Sunday, and I join them in this invitation.

 

But tomorrow, don't forget to fall back one hour!

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your ways of coping with stridency at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Notes from my Knapsack 11-1-18

Notes from my Knapsack 11-1-18

Jeff Gill

 

Shared responsibility, shared benefits

___

 

Over the last couple months, I've shared with you all some stories from the earliest days of formal education on the Ohio frontier.

 

From the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 on to statehood in 1803, public education was a priority for American settlement. The mechanisms for providing this in a newly pioneered area ranged from set-aside tracts of land in the first surveys for the placement and support of schools, to a planned process of mutual aid through community construction of the buildings, and the support of what were in the earliest days seasonal teachers.

 

Caleb Atwater led an investigation into what it would take to provide a general, statewide system of free public education in 1822; the effort stumbled in part because the committee assembled by the governor couldn't agree on . . . how to pay for it. Some thought the costs of education could best be borne by the sale or lease of public lands, others argued that a property tax would be the most sustainable method.

 

"Common schools" weren't organized under Ohio law until 1825, and the final decision was to mandate a statewide half-mil property tax. However, the implementation of common schools (mostly just from what we'd call first grade to about seventh grade) was uneven across the state until around 1850 when the legislature started requiring superintendents and school district structures. Attendance, in fact, wasn't mandatory until 1921, which was the first year that state law required that all children from age six to age eighteen attend school. There were still provisions allowing some to leave school at sixteen, mostly for farming, and it included a requirement that a youth had to be at least sixteen to work in industry.

 

So the expectations and funding of public education has been a work in progress over two centuries. I am constantly pointing out to people that as recently as 1970, if 50 percent of all youth in a school district graduated with a high school diploma, that was considered quite good. Those online "look at what it took graduate high school in 1893" memes don't mention that three to four percent graduated twelfth grade back then.

 

And special education, which we take for granted today, was not mandated until 1973. Some areas and districts provided it, but it was not required. Now it's an absolute obligation, and one we'd not want to retreat from.

 

Ohio has been wrestling, in the courts, in the Statehouse, and at the ballot box since 1991 around the formulas and funding of public education. We laid down a marker in the Ohio Constitution of 1851, and we're still trying to figure out how to pay for it. And we've expanded education from being a privilege for some to a necessity for all, with legal requirements pushing school districts and families into sometimes costly mandates.

 

Which brings us to school levies, and the deferred responsibility to the local voter to make sense of the whole. Even in a series of columns, it's hard to figure out what to focus on, and where to gloss over before a reader's eyes glaze over.

 

What I'm certain of is this: schools are like roads and bridges and safe water and street lighting.  You may never cross a certain bridge in a township, but we all benefit from free and open transportation in the economy. I may not walk under a lamppost in one end of the village, but we all benefit from increased safety and security.

 

And having excellent schools, whether I have a child in those buildings or not, is part of building a community that benefits me and blesses us all.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about how you'd like to see public benefits paid for at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Faith Works 10-27-18

Faith Works 10-27-18

Jeff Gill

 

Ministerial ethics in a modern age

___

 

For an assortment of reasons, people have been asking me about ministerial ethics recently. What they are, what they should be, how people apply them to certain situations. Events in the news, changes in churches, and local developments have all contributed to a surge of interest in a subject that I'd argue is always important, but not usually "top of mind" with church members until, as they say, stuff happens.

 

For a Christian minister, the story would start necessarily with the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, and start to expand out with Jesus' great commandments of "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself."

 

Of course, that's an ethical basis for all Christians to follow, with clergy just a bit more public in their lives and with outside scrutiny. For ministers, though, there's a few different opinions about where you go in particular for that calling and an ethical standard.

 

One of the best known ethical standards is the Hippocratic Oath of doctors, beginning with "First, do no harm." It's not a bad start. And many ethical professional standards start and tend to live in a place of negative guidelines: don't do this, don't do that. "Do no harm" is an interesting ethic to apply: think about surgery, which starts with a knife and cutting, but with a goal to do more help than harm by the time you're done. So a Hippocratic standard would say "don't just cut to be cutting, but if you take something worse out or fix something you have to cut to get to, it's okay if you sew it up well." Or "do no harm."

 

I've become part of a professional field within my years in ministry, that of mediation. In training with the State Supreme Court and other instruction around the practice of mediation, I've learned there is a general ethical benchmark that goes something like this: "never re-victimize a victim." That also sounds like a negative instruction, but mediators I've worked with over the years and I have learned it's a fairly expansive guide to when to mediate, and how, and where you step back and say "this is not a case for mediation."

 

For clergy, many denominational bodies have a "statement of ministerial ethics." Most of these I've seen are long, and wander off into exhortations of best practices, with most including a few negative guidelines about when not to offer pastoral care. A common ethical question is about when a former pastor can do a wedding, baptism, or funeral.

 

My own tradition has a pretty strong stated restriction on this, and I've backed into it by way of saying to an elderly surviving spouse at the graveside, in response to a direct question, "yes, I will do your funeral." Of course, they lived longer than I think they expected, and when that day came the church was not only no longer where I was serving, they had an interim pastor, who was not happy I'd even implied I would do that service when the time came. After some awkward discussion, the person said "but honestly, I'd rather not make an extra trip up there in the middle of the week, so you go ahead." It's an area where I'm not sure sweeping prohibitions work as well as they look on paper . . .

I've had many conversations over the years with fellow preachers about when and how you can "borrow" sermons. My feeling is that if you preach a message as if it's the result of your work in the previous week, you need to state clearly "most of today's sermon is taken directly from Fred Craddock, and I don't think I can improve on his thoughts on this passage." But if I take a general outline of ideas and two illustrations? If I just liberate the title, but go in a different direction? How much is plagiarism, and what is homage? There are differences of opinion here, though I am adamant that if you tell someone else's story and put yourself into the pronouns directly, I think you've got a problem.

 

In general, I think ministerial ethics boil down to this: don't be a jerk. Seriously. Be kind, be humble, be honest and clear. Keep the confidences you've promised to keep, and don't make promises you can't. And when in doubt, apologize. Do the loving thing, even when it's hard. Especially then.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's learned that the loving thing is often harder than it looks but still has to be done. Tell him about your interactions with ministerial ethics at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.