Monday, July 06, 2015

Notes From My Knapsack 7-9-15

Notes From My Knapsack 7-9-15

Jeff Gill


Ceremonial occasions and fried food



What a pleasure it was to attend a community event recently, where the citizens gathered in the middle of the village, and former residents returned from far and wide.


It was a delight to see the festivities begin with a foot race that involved both young and old, more for the pleasure of participating than for the chance that most or any would win a prize.


Then the familiar glow of seeing honored emblems come forth to lead a procession, pride of place given to those who have served honorably in years past in the military, aged faces yet proud eyes staring straight ahead, as behind them rose the music and that began the dancing and in and among us all the costumed participants began a journey, through reshaped and almost unfamiliar streets between the homes, a path used for generations on this day, in this way.


Soon there would be food, especially fried food, and meals shared both standing up and sitting down, strangers cheek by jowl with lifelong residents, everyone reaffirming the values and meanings and turning of the year in this annual celebration.


I would understand perfectly if you thought I was talking about the Fourth of July, down Broadway through the village of Granville. But actually, I was first referring to a stop my family made on vacation back in June, as the feast day celebrations began June 23 and 24 at a place now returned to its own name, Ohkay Owingeh, formerly called San Juan Pueblo. Along the upper Rio Grande River in northern New Mexico, north of Santa Fe, the Pueblo villages scatter from Taos up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains down to Albuquerque and southern Pueblos like Sandia and Zuni.


Since Juan de Oñate encountered a pueblo he named for his own patron saint, San Juan, in 1598, the people of Ohkay Owingeh had calmly adopted, and adapted the Catholic faith presented to them, and brought to St. John's Day, also known as Midsummer's Day in some cultures around the world, their own Buffalo Dance ceremonies. They begin the day before, with a footrace around the "kiva" or ceremonial house in the heart of the community, and then the elders and veterans in their proper garb come out to sing their songs with drum and chant and stomp, rustling fresh cut cottonwood branches that did indeed sound like the gentle rain was falling already.


Then the Buffalo Maiden and two Buffalo Spirit dancers came out of the kiva, and in each plaza of the village, in stately procession not unlike a parade, the accompanying drummers kept the heartbeat of Ohkay Owingeh loud and strong, with the dance carrying to all who watched meanings both obvious, and hidden; the reasons for some of the practices are well-known, and for a few simply "the way we've always done it."


Is it any different for us on July Fourth? Why do we let so many politicians wave at us? Do they represent the ritual invocation of democracy for the people, or is it just about the candy for the kids? Is the race in the morning a distraction and modern addition to the day, or a new expression of old hopes for this nation on the move?


And for ritual behavior, the bands and the floats and the . . . bare-bellied people wearing giant hats over their torsos (are they our Koshare dancers?); we've got it all, right down to the need to get in line with strangers and feast until dark.


All across America, communities have their rituals, and we can begin a new cycle of the year having performed our own last week.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about community rituals you have known at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Faith Works 7-4-15

Faith Works 7-4-15

Jeff Gill


Freedom In a Changing Landscape



July the Fourth.


We all know what John Adams said to Abigail, even if he meant July 2nd at first (they voted that day for American independence, signed the "engrossed" or formal document, most of them, on the Glorious Fourth). He knew this was a major step, with significant implications far beyond our shores, so he thought that the date "ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other…"


It's not a commemoration of the church, but many churches will note the occasion, if only by way of a decline in attendance, with celebrants on the road as much as at home.


While my family was on vacation, we stopped to take a picture. That's not unusual. Where I stopped left both my wife and son and probably a few passers-by puzzled, since it was by the side of a busy four lane highway, looking out over a fairly non-descript landscape, even if the more distant mountain peaks were lovely… but in northern New Mexico, that's true almost any direction you turn.


I was in a neighborhood of Española, Nex Mexico, a place called Hernandez. The spot, and the angle I was depicting, was the same place that a man named Ansel Adams stood at in 1941. He and some friends were driving back from the Chama Valley towards Santa Fe, when suddenly he asked them to stop the car, and he jumped out to get a picture.


"Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" is considered in black and white photography the equivalent of the recently made (at that time!) "Citizen Kane" in film. It's a dramatic composition of sky, clouds, the moon, and a Penitente morada, or church, with a cemetery next door. Truchas Peak is in the background to the right, and marching off into the distance to the left are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.


Like "Citizen Kane," it's hard to grasp the significance of the picture looking at it today, because the pioneering tools used to make both, choices and equipment alike, are so commonplace now that they look almost ordinary, if well-made. But at the time, each made quite an impact.


For me, it was a small thrill to stand there, and to take that picture. But I had a digital camera, the shot was taken in color, it was afternoon, not evening; it was June, not November 1.


And it was 2015, not 1941. The trees have grown taller, the church added a bell tower, the cemetery has more crosses. The foreground, barren and covered with scrub, now has a cluster of newer houses and outbuildings. In other words, you can't take that picture again. Even if I waited until fall, even if I stole Adams' original camera to take it and had the same phase of the moon, even if I could somehow summon up the same cloud forms under that lunar light: I couldn't take the same picture.


So here we are with a culture and nation that has changed; since 1941, since 1776. We've had, in this country that marks its birth from the Declaration of Independence, a number of significant events recently with implications far beyond the immediate impact. That Declaration was not enough to carry America forward, so we wrote a Constitution. That document has been amended, and the Supreme Court interprets it, the legislature implements it through laws, the executive has a task to enforce it.


But then and now, what changes most is the cultural landscape. I don't think, as a Christian, as a pastor, as a community leader, that legislatures and chief executives do as much leading as they do following. The people, the nation shifts and changes course, and the institutions tend to follow.


For many faith communities, there are concerns and also some opportunities in what's happened in the last year in our country. It's up to congregations, I believe, to reflect on what their values are, what does not or should not change, and what has already changed whether they felt they were part of that move or not.


What is marriage? That's a discussion that neither the Supreme Court nor the media can truly resolve. It's up to faith communities to discuss that question, to look at their practices as well as their beliefs, and to live out their witness whatever the culture, or country turns toward. Our surrounding landscape is what we have to tend.


I've been asked to "take a stand," which is too often code for "take a side." Marriage has been changing, both within as well as without of our churches. We need to take a serious, measured look at what's going on, and what we're doing, and how we will do it. This discussion will continue, in the congregation I serve, and in our community.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him what you're discussing in your church at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Faith Works 6-27-15

[Here's my last get-way-ahead pre-submitted column for June! Pax, jbg]

Faith Works 6-27-15

Jeff Gill


Weddings and June and what will change



You may have figured out, and I do mention from time to time (I trust not too often) that these columns are usually written well in advance of when you read them, in print or online.


I sketch out arcs and themes and look to particular date convergences, and there's more need, both for me and for the newspaper, at certain points of the year to write well in advance.


So this column is almost never "breaking news" of any sort, often not even within the same week. And the focus of "Faith Works" as a running feature on the "Your Faith" page is different from that of the pastor's columns that are expected to be more particular, more even doctrinal on occasion, crafted from a very particular perspective. That's what pastors are invited to do in their own voice, from their own tradition, in that space.


This is different, aimed both at the broad swath of Licking Countians who already have a faith commitment, and also at those who don't have that, but are interested in matters of belief and religion and practice. It is, in an awkward one word description, more "general."


So it is possibly a handicap, or in my own thinking an advantage of sorts, to be writing about marriage and churches and the Supreme Court well in advance of their anticipated decision this June. Odds are good you've heard about or read more by now as to what the justices have decided to rule regarding same-sex marriage and recognition of that innovation across the states of the union. Some states do, some don't, and Ohio is directly involved in one of the cases being decided this June, having been sued over not recognizing a same-sex marriage conducted in another state.


I am semi-certain that whatever the Supreme Court has decided, it's going to take a few weeks to process what they've presented as their ruling. I could be wrong, but odds are good in my reading of the landscape on this contentious subject that, even if the decision was provided a couple of weeks before this column hits print, we're not done figuring out all of the impacts and complications of their majority opinion. (And again, I don't know at all what that is, as I'm writing this.)


Here's what I am fairly certain of in advance. However the court rules, no clergy person is going to be required to marry any two people they don't wish to unite in Holy Matrimony. That's a First Amendment matter, and I don't see any way that's going to be impacted. Not as a matter of law.


As a matter of practice, this will create complications for some clergy. There are denominations that are more in support of same-sex marriage than others; some of those religious bodies are going through debates this summer at national gatherings as to how or if they will treat such unions as acts of the church, which is a different question than an act of the state.


So if you as a particular clergyperson choose not to perform a marriage ceremony under any new provisions created by Supreme Court rulings, you won't have an issue in terms of litigation or coercion, but you may have difficult conversations with your congregational leadership or denominational officials. Many of us have begun to have these conversations within our churches and between our official structures, but if you've hoped this issue would go away, it could be a summer where you're going to have to face the question.


And many pastors, even when their denominational affiliation is supportive of keeping close to a traditional definition of marriage, are considering no longer serving as "agents of the state" in signing marriage licenses. I think there are concerns afoot that signing any one license might create an obligation to "solemnize" any and all, and I don't see that happening. But with private businesses facing litigation and social pressure to support the new legal definition, I can see why many of my colleagues are saying "I will perform marriages, but only within the church context." It is a quirk of the evolution of the law on marriages as a civil contract that has left the last step for officially sealing that agreement in the hands of clergy. Where that role will end up . . . well, there's more to say next week on this.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; if you tell him he's falling behind the headlines, he will simply smile and agree. Tell him what news you think needs attention from the churches at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 6-20-15

[Yep, getting ahead for the summer schedule! Pax, jbg]

Faith Works 6-20-15

Jeff Gill


And now, a bulletin from the field



Midsummer night, longest day of the year, summer solstice. That's where we're at.


Midway between a more ancient measure of summer as a season, from May 1 to August 1, in today's America June 21st has really never felt like the middle of anything, until very recently.


Now, with school schedules running until Memorial Day and even beyond, and classes starting up again in the middle of August -- unless you have sports or band camps that mean it's more like end of July or the first of August! – June 21 is back to feeling more than a bit like mid-summer indeed.


If you have kids in school, scheduling vacation time is ever trickier. Will snow days eat into June? What is the first thing your child has to be in town for before classes themselves start? So church camps, summer revivals, and family treks to distant relatives are all as under pressure as are resorts and theme parks.


But I still suspect many of us will be taking some time away and out of town this summer. Family visits or vacations mean that church on Sunday (or other days!) may be somewhere else other than at your home place of worship.


Which can, itself, be a source of refreshment and renewal. I'd like to suggest that wherever you're going this summer, you would to plan to attend worship somewhere. Truly, you can come home to your own faith community with a new and different bulletin and two blessings in your pocket: you may find new ideas for how to greet visitors, share worship life, and conduct prayer and praise by seeing how someone & somewhere else does things; you might also realize in ways you'd never considered how your congregation is doing things well! Either are lessons worth learning, and sharing when you get back home (including that bulletin!).


Through the years, some of the most meaningful and memorable worship services I've attended during the summer have taken place in the middle of a lake with a cluster of canoes gathered around a pontoon boat with a preacher and communion table, in the shadow of Southwestern canyon walls in a national park before the sun even cleared the local horizon, or gathered with a congregation in a resort community where the outreach to the world beyond their walls had some interestingly unique challenges. I've been inspired by preaching and spoken prayers offered by people I might never had heard the like of, if it weren't in a vacation context.


And yes, not infrequently when I worship on the road, there are things that are done that make me wince, and realize "that's really better the way we do it." Which isn't about smugness or being resistant to change, but it's about consciousness of parts of our worship pattern we can go years without actually considering.


For some of us, worship on vacation may involve a very large stretch of our spiritual muscles, attending a service of a tradition very different from our own. Again, we may see and hear and experience elements that make us think "we could try that back in Newark," or notice parts of the program which cause us to newly appreciate something we even thought we wanted to change, because we got to see how it worked when someone else did it, and it didn't.


There's a Benedictine monastery my wife and I have visited twice and hope to make a third time to this summer, up the Chama River far off the beaten track in New Mexico, and candidly? There's really almost nothing I could imagine directly borrowing from how the Monastery of Christ in the Desert does their prayer and proceedings that's useable back in Newark at our church.


But the length and format and setting of the sanctuary all combine to allow me to step back from myself and my own tastes and temptations, and see worship in a new light. Jolted out of my usual ruts, the landscape suddenly looks entirely different all around me.


If you get a chance to attend a different service this summer, my prayer is that you take advantage of that opportunity. It may just be going with ol' Aunt Alice to her Wednesday night prayer meeting, or getting in the car with Cousin Zach to visit his sharing group. You may not end up wanting to do that again, but I strongly suspect you'll be glad you tried it once. (The canoe service thing is really cool!)

Faith Works 6-13-15

[Getting ahead for summer vacation time! Pax, jbg]

Faith Works 6-13-15

Jeff Gill


So many important people, so little time



Snark is not my natural rhythm, and I don't really want to get proficient at it, as a Christian, a pastor, or a person.


Sometimes, though, it's the only response I can think of.


Because I do marvel at just how many important, critically needed, vitally significant people live here in Licking County. Maybe there are this many people on a mission elsewhere, but I can only report on what I bemusedly witness.


I refer to the fact that a significant number of our fellow residents are engaged in activities through the day that make it impossible for them to slow, let alone stop for a funeral procession. They are so in demand that it is incumbent upon many of our friends and neighbors to swerve in and out of lines of cars, all with lights on and those charming little orange or purple flags magnetically attached to each of them atop the roof, making it clear this is not just a bunch of people following each other to find their next stop, but something different.


The funeral coach with the coffin in it at the front of the line is kind of a dead give away.


Honestly, I'm being snarky because it's better than being unpleasant, but I have to admit to having a few unpleasant thoughts as I see fellow Licking Countians zoom out to cut off a family in grief, following their loved one's remains, almost not slowing in time to avoid a collision with someone who clearly cannot be expected to arrive at their destination two minutes later (and that's an overestimation, in my experience).


Passing on the left in a multi-lane context is legal, if tacky (if tacky is the right word); passing a funeral procession on the right, especially when it's on the shoulder – c'mon. Seriously.


If you see a funeral procession coming towards you on a two-lane road, turn on your lights, ease over, and where you safely can, come to a stop until the last car or truck with flags and lights on passes you. If it's a four lane, at least get over, no? And four lane divided highways certainly don't require oncoming traffic to stop, but I'd commend a gentle slowing and that acknowledging salute of your lights on as a simple message to the family and friends in the cortege that you see, you acknowledge, you understand.


If you're coming up behind a procession on a road, two, four, divided, whatever: think carefully about why or whether you think you should pass these people. They've almost without exception just been to a memorial service for someone they care about, at a church or funeral home, and are now going to a cemetery or mausoleum or sacred place of some sort to conduct the wrenching act of leaving there the earthly remains of that person they are mourning.


Do you really have to zip past them? You can keep your eyes fixed straight ahead, certainly communicating clearly your indifference to their plight; you can try to guiltily glance and jerkily nod your head, especially to the next of kin in the first few vehicles, and the funeral director and clergy in the lead coach, which really makes everyone feel uncomfortable.


Honestly, I don't want to say you should never, under any circumstance, along every type of roadway, ever pass a funeral procession. But you surely should always ask yourself "is this pass necessary?"


Or you might end up like the benighted, agitated tool who leapt around a long line of cars at the first opportunity on a two lane, curving rural road, and of course couldn't pass the entire procession before an oncoming truck forced them back over and now into the sad parade. Where they were stuck until the turn-off for the cemetery. Good job!


Snark aside, I'd like to close with this. Those of you who stop when you could have sped up, who slide onto the shoulder and stop and take off a cap when the hearse goes by, who turn on headlights and nod even three lanes over as oncoming traffic along a highway: to all of you, I want you to know that the family notices, and appreciates the gesture. They really do; on a hard day, it means something gentle and warm and real, even if they can't quite see your face and will never know who you are.


But they know what you did, and it means something to them.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's ridden in quite a few hearses lately. Tell him your funeral procession story at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.