Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Faith Works 9-23-17

Faith Works 9-23-17

Jeff Gill


A place that is more than a place



Already it has been an occasion for some interesting conversations as the first episodes of Ken Burns & Lynn Novick's "The Vietnam War" have aired on PBS (It continues through Thursday, Sept. 28, then will re-air on a weekly basis through Oct. and Nov.). With those who remembered it all too well, and those who are just now coming to realizations about how and why that "land war in Asia" had the impact on our country that it did . . . and in so many ways, didn't, as we have repeated what seem to have been stark, unmistakable lessons in our national affairs.


I was in 7th grade when the draft ended; I was in 9th grade when Saigon fell and the truth that we had lost in Vietnam became an unmistakable national reality. I went through grade school with maps of that elongated nation on classroom walls, with those place names so oddly accented in the air and on our lips, and into junior high with the POW bracelets and the awkward memorial services for the dead and the protests all very nearby. There was an assumption in the environment that many of us (the boys, at least) would soon be in the service, and most would see that place across the Pacific at one point or another.


And then, it was gone. For those of us who were too young to have been caught up directly in it all, it was an odd and resonant silence. Vietnam became an idea, an issue, a cause but not a place or a people. Other than the occasional flurry of MIA debate, it was not a location that the USA had anything to do with, but a word we often mouthed.


Vietnam is not back with us, because it never left: we're still working at seeing the nation, her people, and our ambivalent relationship with her, with honesty and accuracy. I have spoken to a dozen or more people who have been there in the last decade or more, and they all speak with tones of wonder about the kindness, good cheer, and welcome the Vietnamese people offer to visiting Americans. I look forward to the last few episodes of the PBS program, in hopes that Burns & Novick help us understand what that new relationship does and can mean, as we try to figure out as a nation what our relationship to global conflicts should be to get to such a place with other countries without going through the pain we have received, and inflicted, in Vietnam already and in other drier and dustier spots around the world.


What stands out to me in the initial stages of the re-told story is how one religious minority tried to dominate another religious majority, and where the pent-up frustrations turned to violence. Perhaps even more sharply, I noticed how our own American ignorance of history and religious community values not our own led our leadership to blindly take the side of the oppressive minority.


Which we did again in Iraq, and which has hobbled our ability to figure out our own national interests nearby in Syria and Lebanon. It's like we just have trouble learning this lesson.


And this is also why, as a committed Christian and leader in my own religious community, I get so incredibly frustrated when people resist learning about other faiths and different cultures. Pluralism is not universalism, let alone relativism; we can honor and value the truths we hold dear, but understand better how other beliefs function in their own contexts.


To be fair, there's often anxiety around the idea that pluralism is being presented as an end in itself, that all views are relative, and that to understand is to accept. I think that mature believers can handle new ideas and different faiths, but it's easiest to just avoid the whole thing and sit in a warm bath of the familiar, and call everything outside of your door "different" and therefore strange.


That's how we go astray, I believe. Not all differences are equally . . .different. That's true geopolitically, and ecumenically, too. We can compare, and contrast, and advocate, and listen. If our faith is so shallow, so fragile, that learning how other believers think will damage our own thoughts, they weren't all that robust to begin with.


Blessings to all who served in Vietnam, and may they and our entire nation be blessed by this time of reflection.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's curious to hear what any recent visitors to Vietnam have learned. Tell him what you heard there at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Notes From My Knapsack 9-21-17

Notes From My Knapsack 9-21-17

Jeff Gill


Door to door to door



Years ago, I sold Boy Scout popcorn door to door, and got a great story out of the experience: I grew up in Valparaiso, Indiana, and I got to sell a five pound bag of Orville Redenbacher popcorn to Orville Redenbacher.


In general, I didn't look forward to the popcorn sale day, when we spread out across the town in various station wagons (it's the early Seventies, okay?), except for the then-rare experience of getting to have lunch at McDonald's, but I did well enough. My younger brother only told me years later that when he had to go out on "Popcorn Day" he'd mime pushing the doorbell, stand there a while, then trudge on; the mom driving his group around would comment on how he had such bad luck with people not being home. He hated the whole process.


Fast forward, and my son went around with what became a nationwide popcorn deal for Scouts; he had sold wrapping paper for elementary school in Hebron, mostly to family, and then in band there were candles and candy and a few other vats of cheese that turned out to be more tiny pots of . . . something.


Door to door sales are hard. I had a paper route, back when kids delivered papers (again, Seventies), and there would be drives to sell subscriptions. Those prizes were some great stuff, I thought then, and I pushed myself. I got a radio, a trip to a college football game, a few other items, never the telescope or tent or trip to New York.


Today, I live near one of our village's entrances off of the expressway. I'm also an officer in our neighborhood association, and when I took that role one of the previous holders told me "one of your jobs is to call the police non-emergency number when solicitors come around." My reaction at first was "really?" But that changed.


First, as soon as the weather warmed up, I was amazed at how many van loads of folks would get dumped down the block and set loose with clipboards and order forms. Some were very persistent, and I would see how an elderly lady next door would get nearly-literally arm-twisted. I'd ask "are you registered?" or any other question, and see a shocking eruption of hostility. It became easier to make the call to 1234.


Especially after the second or third time the officer would come back, after showing up and tracking down the waif with a pen on a string, and finding out they were runaways. A couple of times a summer, the police would follow the thread back to the van, the "boss," and the hotel room six of them were sharing. Many – not all, but many – of the "subscription sales" and other door-to-door solicitors were not what they claimed, and on more than one occasion one of them would pull the police checking on the location aside and say "help me."


I don't know what the right law about solicitation in Granville should be. But the idea that there be some regulation, some way to sort out the situation, other than everyone having to put a "No Solicitation" sign on their door, that makes a world of sense to me.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your door-to-door experiences at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 9-16-17

Faith Works 9-16-17

Jeff Gill


What do you believe, and how would I know?



There's a very old preaching illustration that can be summed up with the question: If being a Christian were a crime, is there enough evidence to convict you?


There's an echo here that wasn't as audible years ago, when we were more ready to confuse Christendom with country, and the mainline Protestant churches tended to assume that the culture of America was entirely supportive of "our" religion.


We could spend some serious time on a discussion of how the mainline never was that main, on Main St. or from sea-to-sea (for one thing, the "mainline" model never took Catholicism into account, let alone non-Christian faith communities, which have been with us since before the Declaration of Independence), but there was a normative model not long ago. It was an image of popular piety that we carried into civil religion across the nation, and many, even non-believers, had in their popular imagination of "being Christian."


That standard model, that kind of imagining envisioned that a good citizen going about their business like everyone else was also, pretty automatically, a good Christian. Looking back, we missed a great deal when we started to assume that religious formation was or ever could be a responsibility we could pass along to popular culture. Pop culture is, well, pop culture.


And even in the heart of that "middle America" imagination, there was an uneasy awareness that for many regular churchgoers, there wasn't much evidence for how faith in a loving God directly involved in our lives was an active and vital part of who we were. How did that amazing realization, if we'd come to it and affirmed it, make our lives different from someone else who hadn't taken that step in faith, but drove the same car, took the same vacations, read the same books, and enjoyed the same recreations? "Is there enough evidence to convict you?"


The good news is, from where this preacher stands, the huge shift in the last generation to Christian missions in this country. Yes, people have and probably should comment critically on "missions tourism," where folks go somewhere warm and exotic to do two days of service to those in need and get five days of cheap vacation in a tropical paradise. But let me say with as much weight as I can bring to bear: I've not seen that around here. Not at all.


To Haiti, to Zimbabwe; to South Carolina and not the fancy parts; to Mississippi and the Gulf Coast without a pause at a casino, even for the buffet; and now to Houston and Florida. Almost exactly one year ago, terrible flooding hit north-central West Virginia, and our congregation is preparing to go next month to a place that's hard to find on a map, let alone in a vacation guide. The hands-on work is most missional, most vital when the big ticket relief efforts are over, the telethons are done and the large corporate entities have moved on. It's the mucking out and tearing off of drywall, the peeling of paint and re-shingling of a patch job that's already years old.


Already, it's being said that faith-based organizations have brought in, both to the Houston area and to south Florida, almost double what FEMA has put on the ground and in people's hands. That's not being said to hack on FEMA, just to point out how large and broad those church organized responses are.


And most critically, and as the mission team folk from my own congregation have taught me, it's after FEMA is a faded memory that people still sitting in the midst of a fair amount of still visible destruction start to wonder "does anyone really care?" When the first adrenaline rush passes, and the surge of National Guard help and boxes off the big trucks are being delivered somewhere else, the local people who absorbed the brunt of the blow are only then taking stock of what they've lost, and what looking forward means now.


This is where a few van loads of people with a mix of carpentry and electrical and plumbing and just leather-gloved "rip it out" skills, showing up to just say "how can we help?" can move hearts and lift spirits, let alone take a ruined house and make it a habitable home again.


In this country, and overseas, mission service in the name of your faith can create some compelling evidence that your beliefs mean something.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you've seen faith made visible at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Faith Works 9-9-17

Faith Works 9-9-17

Jeff Gill


Passages of mystery and wonder



As a preacher in a Christian congregation, a big part of my calling is to preach, obviously.


Most Sundays, those gathered as part of our worship hear me present a message taking the hearers deeper into the passage of Scripture selected for that week, whether a choice I've made based on the season or situation we're in, or more often from a three year cycle of readings encompassing the whole Bible called a "lectionary." My usual comment on that is that I follow the lectionary every week, except when I don't.


Even with a three year cycle of over 150 sets of readings from the Old Testament and the New, Gospels and Psalms, you don't quite get everywhere. Nahum isn't heard from much, let alone Titus. Obadiah and Philemon can be missed, but there are also the chapters from Isaiah and Luke which may not get as much attention as the 53rd or 10th, and themes are sometimes hard for even a trained clergymember to discern from what the lectionary selection gives us.


Advent is still a long ways away, so right now we can venture into a topical series or travel through the life of a figure from the Bible, that either our own spiritual disciplines are pointing us towards or sometimes we just want to challenge ourselves and the congregation with passages we're not familiar with.


Bruce Wilkinson did this a few years back with the Prayer of Jabez, a short passage from I Chronicles hidden in plain sight, where in chapter 4 verse 10 this man of God says "Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory!" There was much gold in that vein, as it turned out on further delving.


Feminist theologians and preachers like Barbara Brown Taylor and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza have invited us to look more closely at Jael in Judges (chapter five, and you'll need a strong stomach!), at Matthew 14:21 where there are five thousand men numbered "besides women and children" who are left uncounted, and at the woman by the well in John chapter four.


My wife has friends from her National Park Services days who worked at Carlsbad Caverns, whose favorite visitor question, often asked, was "how many miles of unexplored passageway are there?" Exactly.


One metaphor that sticks in my mind for exploring the Scriptures is a vast system of subterranean passageways, like Carlsbad or Mammoth Cave. There are the large "historic" entrances that most visitors start with: the Twenty-third Psalm, the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, the "Christmas" stories of Matthew & Luke 2 and the Holy Week accounts concluding all four Gospels.


Once you get into the heart of the caverns, there are the grand galleries and main passages, well trodden, clearly marked, with plenty of guidebook entries and lots of stories about the stories as the rangers and signage tell you. The Psalms as a whole, Ecclesiastes chapter three, the stories of Joseph in Genesis and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is Daniel; the parables of Jesus dotted through the gospel accounts and the best known teachings of Paul in Romans 8 & I Corinthians 13.


Then you start to explore side chambers, not alone but off the beaten path, of the prophets speaking truth to power (five major, twelve minor, each with a unique message but a singular passion for the poor), of history obscure in context or meaning, such as the death of the man of God in I Kings 13 and the strange events around his passing.


Deeper still, there are hard to navigate openings into the Cave of Adullam (have you ever been there?) or in I Peter where Christ preaches to the spirits in prison. In Judaism, it's often said that you shouldn't start to read in the mystical writings until you're over 40; I had a seminary professor say that Christians should have the same guideline for reading the Book of Revelation.


I am indebted to Allan Boesak, the South African preacher and teacher, who explained to white Midwestern middle-class Protestant pastors years ago that, during the era of apartheid and oppression, Revelation reads very differently to people living under the same pressures. His comparison sticks with me still: in America in July, you drive past signs saying "Bridge freezes first" but everyone knows that's a sign for the winter. It's not confusing. Likewise the stories of tribulation and triumph are less for the comfortable than for the afflicted, in their due season.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he likes the obscure passages and familiar stories in equal measure. Tell him about your discoveries in sacred writings at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Faith Works 9-2-17

Faith Works 9-2-17

Jeff Gill


Helping out and looking within



Many years ago, when I was serving as pastor in a place with many and serious economic ills, our community was offered aid.


When you don't have much, you don't turn down anything, right? An offer is an offer, so the word came that a semi-trailer would arrive on a certain day and we would have a crew ready to unload, at an address where some short-term storage could be done securely.


On the hour expected, the truck showed up. From the start, the whole operation felt very different than any of us had expected. The driver was hired, fair enough, but he made it clear he expected to be on the road again in no less than two hours, and he was going to get lunch and we were on our own. He unlocked the back doors and was quickly off down the street.


Standing at the back of the semi was a scratch crew, mostly made up of ministers, it being a weekday. And a few well-intended retirees. Inside, with almost four feet to clamber up to reach the trailer's floor, was . . . stuff.


We'd been asked if we needed . . . I'll just say "certain items." Those sounded helpful to our work in that town, and we said yes. The "helpful" person on the other end said "we'll throw in some other similar items which might be similarly useful."


"Throw" was the operative word. And it was quickly clear to us that someone with a business that shall not be named had set a crew to work throwing the contents of a warehouse of "stuff" into this truck. Imagine a semi-trailer filled to three or four feet in height with drifts of loose items.


And I'll be blunt. Most of it was trash. Returns, remainders, extras, probably a fair mix of flawed or rejected items. The "certain items" we'd said yes to? They were all the way in the back, and I kid you not there were three sad boxes of that stuff . . . and a truckload of all the rest.


Those "free gifts" ended up costing our community churches a few hundred in dumpster fees, while a company got a tax write-off under false pretenses. We could have raised heck somehow, I realize in retrospect, but we had neither the time nor the energy, so we sifted out what we could use for our kids programs and sent the rest to a landfill, where it was doubtless destined, but now at our charitable group's cost.


I tell this story now not to settle scores (or you'd be reading some names here!) but to explain why charitable groups and churches alike ask those who want to help with Hurricane Harvey or similar disasters to send MONEY. Contributions. Cash.


Yes, in-kind donations can be critical. And they will, in certain situations, have their place. Some groups are very skilled at obtaining and sifting and shifting those sorts of items, and if you hear about an effort, God bless them.


But there is no one who has done much work with non-profit and faith-based and disaster relief efforts who doesn't have a story about helping unload a truckload of winter parkas after a Florida hurricane, or having to trash a ton of canned goods with bulging lids. Both poorly considered good intentions, and flat-out venality . . . we can say "sin" here, can't we? . . . mean that getting big piles of help often means heaps and heaps of trouble, and time spent taking out someone else's trash when you're there to help people in need.


Your faith community doubtless has a relief arm. My own denomination's "Week of Compassion" does great work, "One Great Hour of Sharing" is used by a number of churches, while Church World Service is an ecumenical relief agency with a great track record. United Methodist Committee on Relief, or UMCOR is excellent; I and communities I've been a part of have seen how effective the Salvation Army, LDS Charities, and Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) are for everyone involved. Parachurch groups like Samaritan's Purse and Habitat for Humanity are great partners as well, and of course the American Red Cross is always there first and usually last. They're all online, and all worthy recipients of your gifts.


John Wesley is known for his aphorism "Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can." Give where you will, and give what and as much as you can, and remember that your monetary contributions are almost always the fastest and most effective way to get help to those who need hope.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about where and how you like to help others at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.