Friday, June 14, 2019

Faith Works 6-22-19

Faith Works 6-22-19

Jeff Gill


Faith seeking understanding, in or out of church



From Sunday school to Vacation Bible School (or VBS), Christians have had a deep commitment to education in this country's history.


The "Sunday school movement" began in England in the 1700s when young people were working in factories six days a week, and Sunday was the one day the church could help youth by teaching them basic literacy and general history, all through a Biblical lens.


When it came to this country in the early 1800s, public schools were common but not mandatory, and a Sunday school was still a vital option for youth education, if not a primary path for many.


By the early 1900s, education was legally required for all youth up to age 18 in places like Ohio, and into the 1920s and 1930s the shift to adult Sunday school meant there were a surprising number of churches where attendance at Sunday school was larger than worship attendance. In the move from the country to the city, adult Sunday school classes became an important place for networking and social support as well as a church entry point for new members. Nothing else was open Sunday mornings, and apparently from the numbers recorded, many grown-ups came to large class meetings, heard a lesson from a teacher, enjoyed some fellowship around the coffee urn, and then left, with sometimes as little as half that number staying for church services themselves.


As a youth experience, obviously the curriculum and approach of Sunday school changed after compulsory education became the norm. Now that kids were in school and learning reading, writing, and arithmetic five days a week, Sunday needed to strike a different chord. Faith formation became the core of the experience, teaching Bible content and religious understandings; weekday religious education was also a feature of many school districts for a few decades after World War II.


The Baby Boom after World War II, giving rise to the Boomer generation, meant that between 1950 and 1970 Sunday school classes were packed, and adult Sunday school slid back down in numbers; the attention churches gave reasonably shifted to creating a solid Sunday school program for the kids being born and then brought into church.


What hit many churches like a one-two punch was a decline in overall numbers just demographically, in the "baby bust" that followed the spike of births in the "baby boom" post-war; this natural trough in Sunday school attendance came right after many churches built education annexes to house the increased numbers . . . and as churches struggled to deal with changing from packed classrooms to empty hallways in the Seventies and Eighties, the culture shifted as well, with Sunday closing laws overturned and entertainment and activity options for youth increasing dramatically. For many churches, a relatively recently built "ed wing" suddenly sat largely empty, and active youth programs went dormant.


This was a standard arc for many "traditional" style churches; meanwhile, the rise of "contemporary" worship and new non-denominational churches in un-traditional spaces brought a new approach to youth programming which focused on events, activity, and energy. Rows of chairs and film strips gave way to multi-media and Christian rock as a way to attract and invite youth to explore their understandings around faith and practice.


Many of these "youth night" programs are large, and the size becomes an attraction as well; like the parallel experience in many communities with churches and overall worship participation, the total involvement decreases . . . in a manner of speaking, you go from ten churches each with twenty youth in a fellowship program (200 total) to two new churches with 60 at each of their programs, and the ten older churches have none or a couple of kids involved, so what looks like the new successful model still means a growing town has 120 or so involved in youth events, versus 200 years before when the community was smaller.


All of these changes and trends have impacted the youth camp and conference programs of most churches, and we'll talk about that experience in faith formation next week!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's learned much in church and not just about faith. Tell him what you've learned or taught at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.



Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Faith Works 6-15-19

Faith Works 6-15-19

Jeff Gill


Asking questions, getting answers



Many years ago I heard a Christian preacher make a fairly dramatic assertion: ask God a question, and you can expect an answer.


He was a missionary, and said he had not only tested out this means of communication himself but he had counseled others to use it, and was not aware of a time it had not worked. Part of his message was to encourage we who were his listeners that day to venture into this means of communion, and of course the rest of it was to invite us to use this approach to see if we were called into missionary service.


I'll admit my attempt at the latter probably lacked sincerity at the time; what my more ambiguous response meant may have been that my calling into the mission field would be across the Indiana border into Ohio, and not an overseas posting which was more to his intention.


But the path to getting direct guidance from the Lord he commended to us, and I pass along as having a fair amount of validity in my life, is this: formulate a clear, direct, specific question for God, and ask it out loud, in prayer, for three days in a row. He claimed, and I would affirm, that you will get an answer by the end of that third day. It might come in a dream, it could be a startling coincidence, or even something someone says to you relatively unbidden or unexpectedly, and some report an auditory experience of hearing an voice speak to them. But when that odd occurrence or sense of an answer comes, you'll know it's the answer for which you requested.


There are, of course, many arguments to be made against this means of divine communication. The most common modern era answer is to say it's purely wish fulfillment. You want to hear an answer, you open yourself up to getting one, and your mind essentially creates one for you. No God (or god) needed.

A more therapeutic reaction is that you or your subconscious knows what the answer is to the question you've probably been mulling for some time, and this three day's asking lowers some of your internal barriers to hearing what the right path is for you. Pragmatically, there's a criticism referred to as pareidolia – seeing patterns where there are none, like the face of Elvis in Mars surface photography, or the image of a rabbit on the Moon. Apophenia is similar, seeking out connection where there aren't any, and yes, it can be a form of madness as you start to hear everything as part of some vast conspiracy.


So it's understandable if some pause to look at what might be a pious exercise and ask those of us practicing it: is this just a hard-wired tendency of the evolved brain and nervous system to help us pick up on environmental cues, be alert to predators and remember food sources, and simply to survive? A fair question.


But the counterpart is the set of presuppositions we bring to such a discussion. If you start from "there is no God" and hence no one speaking to us, then you immediately look for other answers to how some say they find guidance and wisdom and peace. Likewise, if you turn every passing breeze or muttered observation from passers-by into divine commands, you can find yourself in a whirl of constant confusion.


What I've found to be valid is a simple question, framed in the most concrete terms I can manage (not "will there ever be peace in our time?" but more of a "should I go this direction, or that one, to find peace?"), and to prayerfully and respectfully ask on three successive days for guidance on that inquiry.


Here's where the psychological or materialistic or therapeutic interpretations don't go away, but I'll warn the spiritually minded that it can still turn out in some unexpected ways. Sometimes, in this three day practice, I find that as the days go by, my question becomes more clearly irrelevant. I realize it just doesn't matter the way I thought it did. Was that God answering? I think it was.


And indeed some answers take you where you didn't expect to go. After being called to Ohio out of seminary, my wife and I ended up somewhere else for a few years. Our lives were clearly at a turning point, and we had some very interesting options in front of us. I asked for three days, and got an answer that was not one of the options I thought I was asking about.


I got told to go back to Ohio! Was that God speaking? Over the last two decades, I've become ever more certain that is so.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he doesn't always know what to do, but usually his wife sets him straight. You can try if you like at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.



Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Faith Works 6-8-19

Faith Works 6-8-19

Jeff Gill


Pride and pluralism on the local level



Last June, I participated in the first Newark Pride Festival. Or at least, that's one way to put it.


Full disclosure: I'm probably going to put off friends and adversaries alike with my thoughts on this subject. Moderates of any stripe are not very well received these days, but this is my heart (my moderate heart) on this subject, and I offer these musings for what they're worth in Newark and Licking County, circa 2019.


I was there to help the Licking County Coalition for Housing (LCCH) put up and staff a booth to share information about housing and homelessness. I've been involved in this effort for over a quarter-century, and from the very beginning we've been very clear about the fact that our services and support are available without bias, however defined. We provide housing services to veterans and single mothers, families and individuals, and it's still a work in progress to make sure everyone is served, but since 1992 we've been doing that work out on the street as well as up in offices.


So an event aimed at the LGBT community is a logical place for us to be. Young people who come out are not infrequently kicked out of their homes; there is bias both overt and covert in rental arrangements, and as I've written here and elsewhere over the years, the large "in between" population of homelessness that's always looming in shelter discussions, emergency or transitional, is what's called "couch surfing." Staying with family or friends who don't have to keep you, and at any point can say "you need to leave." These can be mothers with children staying with a great-aunt, it can be a guy who's worn out his welcome with everyone but grandma, and grandma is getting to her last nerve ending. Couch surfing can turn into unsheltered, HUD-certified homelessness at any time.


And in fact, sitting at the LCCH booth last year, I talked to young people I knew from marching band and drama club and Scouting past involvements. They recognized me, and talked about their situation. We didn't talk about sex, they didn't bring it up, they were dealing with homelessness or impending homelessness, and it was at this event they were present where we were ready. Whether any of them were "openly" this or "practicing" that I didn't know, just that they were drawn to this "Pride Festival" and took an opportunity to learn about how to take care of themselves.


I also witnessed a group down on the public street end of the Canal Market District try to do what they called "witnessing" to the LGBT community. They were Christians, as am I, and they wanted to preach Christ, which I affirm, and they did so by condemning the event and the behaviors they believed this event promoted.


I'm not writing this to say they shouldn't have spoken their minds, but I am going to preach this: it sure didn't sound like it was working. If their goal was to tell a group of people that their personal choices are not in line with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of exclusion was clear, the opening for good news less so.


Myself, I'm skeptical about most of what our modern age says about sexuality. I don't think sex, of any sort, is going to save us or redeem anyone, and I actually don't mind going on record as saying I suspect the world might benefit from less sexual activity, not more of it. I believe keeping sexual intimacy within the secure boundaries of a marriage is a very, very good thing for everyone involved, especially the children that can and often will result.


I also know there is a lot of misuse of sexuality in the world, and in our community. I'm against that. I'm a little less clear on what groups or factions or movements to be for or against in order to reduce that, gay or straight, monogamous or uncommitted, religious or less so. What I do know is that people often use sex to replace the lack of connection and community they feel in their lives. And the best counter to this is to be present to and with people, especially people in need. To listen.


And I fully respect the concern that many have in asking when "pride" becomes "promotion" of lifestyles. In a pluralistic community, there are questions we have to ask and talk about out loud. So I plan to help set up a booth again this year, and there are events I'll be at, and others I won't be. Our county will continue to need places where everyone can be heard, and where anyone can listen.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he believes everyone should have the right to access for safe and secure shelter, and is proud of how hard this county works to achieve that goal. Tell him what you think should be done at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Notes from my Knapsack 6-6-19

Notes from my Knapsack 6-6-19

Jeff Gill


Crops in the village



Granville's recorded history, to me, begins with Jesse Munson clambering down out of a wagon and tasting the soil when asked what he thinks about the place.


This was the night before the legendary race of ox-drawn wagons across Clear Run into what's now the center of the village, and the chopping down of a tree with a sermon from the stump.


That was November 17, 1805, but it was a mile or so east, near where today's Cherry Valley Road runs into Newark-Granville Road. The so-called Nash cabin property was where John and Lilly Jones had attempted a homestead in 1802, and where she died giving birth to a child, sending John and the older children back towards the Ohio River. It was around that abandoned (twice over, it seems) cabin that the first group of "The Licking Company" pioneers made their last temporary camp, and where grandfather Jesse tasted the dirt and declared it fit for farming.


The Munson family bought that whole stretch of land, now mostly the Erinwood housing development. Just east of where the Munson farmhouse once stood (a major part of it now built into the Welsh Hills School complex, rolled east in a creative act of preservation years ago), the 1810 House stood in what's just a patch of woodland opposite Fackler's Garden Center on the historic intersection. Across the road under a shade tree was Licking County's first legal existence in 1808 as a county Common Pleas Court session.


But behind the Munson place and the 1810 lot was good farmland, as Jesse had declared, ranging from the Raccoon Creek bottomlands north to the edge of the Welsh Hills, a long ribbon of good soil and well-watered bluffs. It was ploughed and planted in the spring of 1806 by the Munsons, as much as they could turn, more each year.


Today, it's mostly homes, the Great Lawn before the Bryn Du Mansion, and a lone patch which just got plowed and planted. Which made me happy.


I'm a realist, and I know the piece of surviving farmland here in the village was eyed for a new elementary school at one point, a new intermediate school later, and most recently for a commercial development. The work went into the parcel enough to clear trees up the Welsh Hills slope above it, and the farmer wasn't given the lease to plant in 2018. But the plans hit snags, as development often does; now we see dramatic work on the downhill side of the road to Newark further east, up Ashley Hill. And the 1810 House parcel, adjoining and historically blending into the Jones-Munson parcel, will be built on at some point in the near future, I'm sure.


But it is the longest continuously farmed piece of land in the township that we can say that for certain of. Up in the Welsh settlement there may be a garden patch that's had seed planted for a year or two longer, but for actual regular farming, this is a special place. And it made me smile to drive by and see one more crop planted on that hallowed if not quite holy ground.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's interested in the landscape of this whole Land of Legend we call home. Tell him about a crop that caught your eye at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Faith Works 6-1-19

Faith Works 6-1-19

Jeff Gill


Don't look up



Our prayers are certainly with everyone affected by winds and rain and flooding, which covers a great deal of the country this year.


From the recent Dayton storms to the earlier Oklahoma and Missouri tornados to rising waters along the Missouri and Mississippi, everyday people and sacred structures have been damaged by the insidious work of water going where it's not wanted.


Water has been called the universal solvent, and we all know how a dripping spring can carve a hole in solid rock. What's faster is a leak in a roof above plaster.


Something they don't tell you in ministerial training (it's quite a list, actually) is that you'll never look up at the ceiling of a worship space the same way again. It's something like going from being a child to a renter to a homeowner, and you realize when the toilet clogs or the drain backs up that there's no one to call: it's your problem.


Stains on the ceiling evoke the same feeling of helpless dread.


Depending on your polity, there may be trustees or a property committee or even a diocesan office to call for help. But in the immediate realization that a) there's a problem, and b) it's not going to get better, and c) the longer a solution delays, the more costly the final bill will become, it's often the parson who stands there in the middle of the week thinking "I need a bucket, and then  . . ."


And there are roofers, and there are roofers. But after the roofer comes (hallelujah) and goes (oh, but wait), there's the damage done and repairs within, all of which involve ladders at best and scaffolding and/or harnesses at worst.


Not to be flip, but a windstorm and massive damage means an insurance call and contractors. The steady drip-drip-drip of managing a physical plant is less the big boom than the everlasting question of what needs painting up there, versus what needs work up above those discolored areas of paint or plaster.


Ideally, you have a team and a good contact person beyond your church to help with the big stuff, but it's the little incidents of a leak here, a drip there, a stain in that corner and a little crumbling plaster along the wall that pulls your attention away from where you're trying to focus.


Looking up ideally should be a religious impulse of hope and joy, but if you have any kind of building responsibility at all, it can be a hazardous undertaking. I've talked to pastors of large churches, college presidents, and theatre managers, and we all agree: you never look up quite the same way again. Even some retired clergy have told me they visit a church and glance skyward and think "uh oh . . . " and can't look away.


Last summer we had a few days in New Mexico, and visited an adobe church we know well, first built in 1812 (and trust me, there are plenty older). Adobe is a form of architecture that has the built-in knowledge that you have to keep rebuilding; it's ideal in desert climates, but it's not that it never rains in an arid place, just that you deal with water differently.


So you know with adobe you will re-mud on a regular basis, and it's an art and a skill to apply the materials properly and durably. Still, you have to put a roof on top of those mud brick walls, and need a decent overhang, eaves to keep the casual shower from melting a bit of the exterior, plus solid sheathing up above to prevent the infiltration of run-off from the interior of the structure.


I enjoyed our visit to this sacred place, but I knew it hadn't been renovated since our last visit some years ago, and as I looked at the eroded ends of the beams, and considered the patches of adobe crumbled off inside and out, I just kept thinking "someone's got a big job ahead." My first visit was decades before that, and at least one resurfacing cycle back; I'll bet the same signs of decay and needed maintenance could be seen then. But in my early non-ministerial twenties, it was all just quaint.


Now, I'm thinking "hope they have a good property committee here" all through my time in the pews.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's been in a few attics and on a couple of roofs. Tell him about patch jobs you've regretted at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.