Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Faith Works 4-26-14

Faith Works 4-26-14

Jeff Gill

 

In defense of growth

___

  

Should congregations and denominations want to grow?

 

To some of you, this may sound odd. Isn't that what every organization and institution wants to do?

 

In fact, there are some cogent arguments against growth, and some of them are rather wide-spread these days. As is often noted, growth for growth's sake is the ethos of the cancer cell, and simply to grow and multiply is not, itself alone, a healthy thing.

 

And while consumerism today is often in pursuit of an ever-expanding market share, and that much desired next-quarter profit report going up, up, up, that kind of expansion and increase may be destructive not just to the environment, but to the participants.

 

So it can be within religious traditions. I once was asked about goal-setting, and a church officer thought about his workplace practices and said, without rancor, "shouldn't we just tie your pay to Sunday attendance?" I answered, hopefully in the same congenial tone, "that's an interesting argument, and if I went out and rented a bus and offered a free lunch, I'll bet I can double attendance over the next month. What do you say?"

 

The idea died for lack of a second.

 

And in truth, if you just want to pile up more bodies and pack rooms, I am entirely in sympathy with those who question the long-term sustainability and immediate justification of using pop culture and shock value to fill seats.

 

Even the previous pope, Benedict XVI, said something about a smaller church being a faithful church, more focused and more authentic. Size isn't everything. I'd agree with that.

 

What I find myself leaning back away from, though, is the tendency to valorize shrinkage as a sign of faithfulness; a trend to point at growing churches and to presume "they're just using tricks and fads" without checking out the content and formation going on there more creditably. A dying church is by no means a more committed congregation, nor are all booming worship centers preaching a gospel I'd recognize or impacting the lives of attendees in any meaningful way.

 

For many religious bodies, the 21st century is a confrontation with challenges. Worship attendance is down, membership is dropping for many denominations whether oriented as liberal or conservative (so-called in any case, since there are always variations within), and the authority of religious leaders and teachers is small and shrinking whether you think that good or ill.

 

Which makes it tempting to make a cult of contraction. It's happening anyhow, so let's make it a good thing, a sort of reverse Chicken Little ("hey look, isn't it GREAT that the sky is falling?"). And growth, increases in attendance and membership and giving and serving, is rare, so why make it a standard?

 

And I am acutely aware of my own need for caution here. We are blessed at the congregation where I serve that we have a solid history, a strong ministry under my predecessor, a not-so-old building which isn't needing major repairs or suffering from decades of deferred maintenance, and plenty of passionate leaders. So we are in a position to grow where other similar churches may be ministering and serving with twice the effort for half the outcomes. I see it all around us.

 

Yet I want to say a word on behalf of growth. We've heard Jesus' command to "Go therefore and make disciples" and are doing so, which sets us up for "baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" and that way we get some wonderful opportunities for "teaching them to observe all I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20 is where our marching orders come from.)

 

Growth is how we can tell if we're sharing a good news message that is reaching people. We aren't reaching everyone, maybe not even everyone we should, but if we weren't seeing any response, I think it would tell us we are going about it the wrong way.

 

Likewise, we have financial struggles like most churches, but not so much that we can't share out from our fellowship a tenth and more of what we receive, and live out as community what we teach to persons and families. A shrinking church can't do that, and even if we sold the property and rented space, we'd be hard pressed to maintain that outreach.

 

Growth may not be the only sign of God's active presence, but I believe it can certainly be one of them.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you see growth in your own life at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Notes From My Knapsack 4-24-14

Notes From My Knapsack 4-24-14

Jeff Gill

 

What should a graduate know?

___

 

Let's start with one basic assumption.

 

There will never be complete agreement on a list such as what I propose here, nor do I expect to (more on that at the end).

 

I've posted and published reading lists before, both for college for general knowledge. They can start the most interesting discussions, and also arguments, or discussions that turn into arguments. And I'm sure folks have come to school board meetings with lists in hand, asking for curriculum redesign based on their sense of a sort of list of what's to them non-negotiable.

 

What I have in mind is more of a "knowing list." And not facts or figures per se (Avogadro's number, Pi to fifteen digits, how far is the Earth from the Sun, when was the Battle of Gettysburg), but certain competencies.

 

There's a TV ad that shows a very young woman struggling to change a tire in an empty parking lot, and at the end, her dad steps into the frame saying "See, you can do it." That's a good example right there: being able to change a tire. I'd add change the oil, but nowadays, maybe I should settle just for how to add oil.

 

What else do I think a high school graduate needs to know? How to introduce strangers to each other. A basic skill, that like a parachute you may not use much, but when you need it, it's best to have it on hand. Which fork to use is not so crucial, but how to make a toast, that's necessary. They should know to defrost and roast a frozen turkey, and how to make a roux, plus a few steps from there (breaking eggs one-handed is optional). How to buy in bulk, and store it once you have. How to sharpen knives, how to swing an axe, how to re-wire a lamp or switch. They should know, from excavation up, how a house is built, whether they ever own one or not.

 

Math: what I would like to see graduates know is how to read a budget, a profit/loss statement, and be able to make sense of five years' worth of financial reports whether of a retail operation or a non-profit. They should be able to format a spreadsheet on a computer, balance accounts on paper, calculate costs for a business operation using invoices and timesheets.

 

Somewhere between numbers and entertainment is the knowing of how people can use statistics to lie to you. Proportion and median, visual means and numerical measures, weasel words and basic definitions.

 

They should know, if not how to spell Korzybski, why it is that "the map is not the territory." With William Least Heat-Moon, they should have a sense of what a "deep map" is if not the nature of a PrairyErth itself.

 

I'd want them to know as many of Shakespeare's 37 plays as possible, some of his 154 sonnets; Isaiah, the twelve minor prophets, and Luke's gospel. They should at minimum know something of the blues, of jazz, and of bluegrass. The Upanishads and Rumi, and at least one language not of their birth. They should know what mass is, in both the Catholic and Newtonian senses.

 

For those keeping score at home, there's no way this is a curriculum, and that's my point. This is not a list for teachers or administrators, either. It's for parents. For them to edit, to augment, to consider.

 

What I want my son to know by the time of his maturity into the world on his own? 'Tis my responsibility. School is grand and glorious, but they can't do it all, and shouldn't try . . . or be expected to try. At home, we hope to make sure our child knows certain things. And it's at home that he will learn most of them.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him what you want young people to know before they launch out into the world at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Faith Works 4-19-14

Faith Works 4-19-14

Jeff Gill

 

A story of no account

___

 

No one would consider the word of a single, unattached woman as being worthy of stature in a court case, or even in conversation.

 

Certainly, Mary of Migdal, the Magdalene, has an interesting story. But alone? Her? With her reputation? Come now.

 

Apparently there's testimony from not long after. Simon, the Galilean (don't laugh, yes, he's from the Galilee), now known for some reason as "Rocky" or Petros in Greek, this Simon Peter claims to support Mary Magdalene's word.

 

Come now, though . . . let's think about what's at stake here.

 

We have a single woman with the hint of prostitution hanging around her shoulders, making outlandish, unearthly claims. Then, at her instigation (I'm just repeating HER version of events), Simon the Petros come to the tomb of this Jesus to see what the evidence of the corpse has to say to him and his people.

 

A body which they now say is missing.

 

Supposedly, there are others involved. Some additional women with the "lady" from Migdal, a few other unemployed fishermen from Galilee straggling along with Simon to Petros. All of them as disreputable and questionable characters as are the instigators they follow.

 

They dig their own trap. With enough hangers-on, you can carry off a body and hide it in another valley, beyond the network of roads leading into the Holy City. Towards Bethany, or down past Ein Kerem.

 

To be fair, that doesn't explain the Roman guard set by Pilate. Perhaps they fell asleep, and waking up to find their task bungled, they fled rather than face the procurator's wrath. We should ask up at the Antonia if those soldiers have been accounted for, and get their tale. But if they are truly missing, that answers the question well enough for me.

 

Each time one of these revolutionaries goes missing, there's another furor, but it always dies down. How many have we seen from our perch here in the Sanhedrin? One after another, every third or fourth Passover, the anger and frustration of the people with Rome (and to be perfectly candid, with us) boils over, riots begin, fires are set, arrests are made, certain victims die horribly so that the population does not suffer generally, and everyone quiets down, goes back to work, and forgets.

 

Never mind you'd shouted that you'd die for that cause or a particular Barabbas or whomever along the dusty margin of a road, screaming your lungs out until a detachment of armored legionaries trots by high up on horseback. Your shout lasts no longer than an echo making its way into the wilderness, fading and forgotten before the minute, let alone an hour is over.

 

This group of believers seems a bit more persistent. They continue to shop their tale around the marketplace, and some of their number are heading back to Galilee where hapless old Philip can contend with stories in his district of a dying and risen Messiah. Soon enough the labors of fishing and mending and getting by will dull their enthusiasm and fog their memories, or they will latch onto yet another claimant for the throne of Herod.

 

If I thought a mentor of mine had died, especially died that way, it would cause me to rethink everything they'd taught me, and likely toss it all out of my mind before it contaminated the rest of my logic and learning. Of course, even if one of my wise and insightful teachers died at the hands of Roman justice, but then walked back into my study to face me, and challenge me, that would make me sit up and take notice. It's the kind of proof that would go beyond logic, beyond debate in the assembly or details of learned commentary. Rising from the dead, that would make a statement, it would indeed.

 

Which, I suppose, could explain the Jesus followers' strange behavior, if only . . . ah, well. Time will tell. Most such ideas have their day, and are forgotten in the night that follows. Let's see what a new sunrise brings.  What remains is what endures.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him a tale at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Faith Works 4-12-14

Faith Works 4-12-14

Jeff Gill

 

Special services and Sundays

___

 

 

Christians who have given up things for Lent are in the last few days of their discipline: pray for them!

 

Whether it's stopping enjoying or indulging in some treat, or adding in some new extra practice, the forty days of Lent are a good time to test out ways to focus our spiritual skills. In prayer, in lifestyle, in actions, when you want to make a change, forty days is a good stretch of time to find out if it can work for you.

 

If you actually count out from Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, to Easter, you find yourself with 46 days. That's because Sundays are not "fasting" days, but always feast days. Sunday is to be a celebration, an occasion of joy. Margaret Mead was given to reminding her fellow Lenten pilgrims "No feast, no fast!" By which she meant that the one accents and supports the other.

 

So if you give up something for Lent, you can enjoy it on the Sundays. Sorry to anyone who didn't know that earlier in Lent!

 

The point is that the Christian church made their day of assembly and worship the first day of the week, not the former Sabbath on the last day, the seventh day as marked in the story of Creation as God's day of rest. Rest and Sabbathkeeping is another subject, but our Sunday is really meant to be the weekly cause for rejoicing that (spoiler alert!) Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.

 

Just as the Christian year cycles from Advent & Christmas to Lent & Easter, so each week is meant to recapitulate the journey to good news. The women went to the tomb with their anointing oils and spices "on the first day" of the week, and the power & significance of the Resurrection in the early church is testified to, among other ways, by the dramatic and significant choice to shift the day of worship to what, in English, we call Sunday.

 

That's right, every Sunday is a little Easter. And then we have the rest of the week.

 

Holy Week, or Passion Week in some churches, begins tomorrow. Each day has a significance and commemoration of its own, even Tuesday. But it begins with the processional celebration of Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph, and goes on through the more common observances of the night of Thursday this week, or "Maundy" Thursday, the crucifixion on Good Friday, and then Easter itself with many congregations having a sunrise celebration, that being when the Resurrection was first realized by Mary Magdalene and Peter and the others.

 

My congregation is gathering, at least those willing to set their alarms a bit early, at 6:30 am on Easter morning atop Horn's Hill. It's not an obligation, and some would even point out that the Bible never calls for such a service. You can say that about having a weeknight worship on Thursday or Friday noon.

 

What it's all about, in the end, is finding sustainable ways at different points of the year to keep on lifting up all of time, every day, as God's time. In the end, Revelation says at its best, all ground will be holy ground. We are not there yet, and we can't accomplish any of it by force of will or an excess of worship services, but step by step, where we're going is to let all time and space be holy. That's God's intention, and we start to feel very close to that intention during Holy Week.

 

May that understanding start to last beyond a day or a week or a season for us in our Easter season this year!

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you find holy ground and sacred time at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Notes from my Knapsack 4-5-14

Notes from my Knapsack 4-5-14

Jeff Gill

 

Uneasy earth, hopeful soil

___

 

 

Heading back from the high school along New Burg Street after dark, as we so often do in these weeks of play practice pick-up, the Lad and I heard the spring peepers.

 

Down by Ebaugh Pond and the marshy woodlot across from the middle school, the sound gets ever more deafening as April unwinds. Clearly large numbers are behind the swelling chorus, even if their size is tiny. You can feel the multitudes in their song.

 

Striking to realize: they were, not long ago, frozen solid. Yep, these little fellas make it through a couple of winters after their tadpole phase. Eggs and spawning and hatching all going on great guns right now, but the adult population doesn't all die and they sure can't migrate. So these amphibious wonders just deal with it: their biochemistry is such that they can literally freeze solid, and come back for another vernal orchestration once winter releases its grip.

 

The water is everywhere now, the ice and snow having melted and the showers steady; flowers are coming, snowdrops and crocuses and spring beauties starting to appear, and the second wave is all green spears and shoots of vitality if you know where to look. More flowers, more color, more life.

 

Beneath the life is the not-quite-not-life of the soil. Below even the organic mulch-ness of the various soils we find in modern Licking County, so much of it a thin O-horizon left after logging, old school agriculture, or outright scraping off of top soils built up so painstakingly over the last few post-Ice Age millennia.

 

There are stretches of that native soil that Jesse Munson so memorably tasted the night before arriving in downtown Granville in 1805, and said "this is good land, it will grow much." And plenty that's been ruthlessly planed off to sterile clay-laden subsoil's, with the barest inch or two of top soil imported and spread after the work of construction and development is done.

 

Whatever is below the grasses or mosses or fallow pasturage where you walk, it is likely to squish beneath your feet. Unless you stick to pavement, or are on the sandstone ledges around Sugar Loaf park, there's little solidity to the solid ground. You need to watch your step, and take care of your footwear if you get out beyond where the sidewalk ends. Saturated soils are everywhere, and at least our glacially compacted and deposited slopes are not as unstable as those in parts of the West, where solid ground became a slippery wave of destruction, of death.

 

Here, our soils are ready to bring life again to the landscape. The trees are pulling hard through their fibers to draw moisture back up and to fire up the buds to unfurl into leaves, the sap is indeed running (has already run the best it will, sugar-wise), and every perennial, all the shrubs and bushes, is filling out if not showing green yet.

 

And as for yellow – the forsythia is playing coy with us this year. Forget the weather predictions, because this year the rule book (which the plants don't pay much attention to) is out the window, and the windows are all up so it's safe to throw them hard and far.

 

When will the yellow fringe rule the hedgerows and sidewalks? Are the daffodils and forsythia going to make their statement with the fervency we expect of them? Time will tell, but the time for last snows is past. The sky may threaten, but Winter, we are done with you. Begone.

 

Spring, welcome. Come sit a spell.

 

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

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Faith Works 4-5-14

Faith Works 4-5-14

Jeff Gill

 

On going to church, part two

___

 

In Edgar Guest's essay "Why I go to church" of 1928, which I quoted extensively last Saturday, he also said "I go to church because I want my children to go to church. I want them to know something more of this life than business and sport. I know only one institution that will teach them that they are divine."

 

And he adds, as a parent himself, "The church will interfere with their pleasures at times, but their mother and I sometimes have to do that, and we hope that they will love us none the less because of it. The church will mystify and puzzle them now and then. But all things that are worthwhile demand something of us in sacrifice."

 

Children are often the reason people come to church who haven't for a long time, if ever. Kids ask questions that parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles would like some help with in answering, and they tend to be questions of a sort – "where are babies before they are born? No, I know that, I mean before they're in their mother's tummy?" – that church is supposed to be ready to deal with.

 

Those are all reasonable and practical reasons to go to church, whether this Sunday, or these next two special Sundays as Christianity experiences Palm Sunday & Easter, with the week between being called "Holy Week" in many places. From one Sunday to the next are often special services, including Maundy Thursday & Good Friday.

 

I'll talk a bit more about those unique and non-Sunday services next Saturday, and I get to preach at Second Presbyterian on a Wednesday noon this week, Apr. 9 (another one of those special services that come with greater frequency this time of year, in this case a downtown Lenten series). But I want to wrap up this extended reflection on why I go to church with my main reason for returning week after week, whether it's my job to preach or not.

 

It's glory.

 

I go to church to experience glory.

 

Do I find it every week? Nope. "Glory" in worship and in life is like the distinction C.S. Lewis made between happiness and joy. The kind of "Joy" he was talking about was a sort of experience that you almost can't quite pursue, and definitely can't force, but you also know once you've been in the midst of such joy, it's enough until the next time. Happiness is something that's nice, and comes and goes and if you mostly feel that way, good for you. But joy, now . . .

 

And that's what I mean by glory. They may actually be two words for what can be the same thing, like lunch and dinner, or wife and friend. Glory is . . . well, when you suddenly realize "all shall be well," when you see a connection and then realize it points you to the connectedness of everything which is One, or when the harmony and tone of a resolving chord at the end of a song goes on just long enough to lift your heart, even as you know that note will end but your memory of it will endure.

 

Glory is the sweet spot of God and time and you, when the swing and the impact tell you with absolute certainty, long before the ball goes over the fence, that this hit is going yard.

 

And yes, when you are preaching or leading public prayer, it can be in that moment of wild exhilaration that comes just as you feel the skid start to slide you sideways, and then you just as smoothly even out and power right around the turn, in the groove.

 

But it can also be the glimpse of light through a ruby red chunk of stained glass that catches a mote of dust, which swirls and dances and reminds you that you are no more than that, and yet you are so much more than that, in the light of the One you come to worship.

 

Glory is not limited to the hour of worship. It may come outdoors on Tuesday, or at a meeting on Thursday, but it's through the regular practice of and participation in worship that I believe my heart is made ready to notice, and take in, those moments of glory that give my life meaning.

 

That's why I go, anyhow.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him why you go to church (or don't) at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Faith Works 3-29-14

Faith Works 3-29-14

Jeff Gill

 

On going to church, part one

___

 

To start with, I need to introduce you to a friend of mine.

 

He worked for the Detroit Free Press back in the early decades of the last century, and his name was Edgar A. Guest. He was a journalist and a poet.

 

Guest wrote a long essay in 1928 entitled "Why I Go To Church." It began uncontroversially, even if his sentiments would not be those of everyone, now or then.

 

"I go to church and contribute to the support of a church because I believe in churches. I would not care to live in a city or a state or a nation in which there were no churches and no churchgoers."

 

Guest makes it clear: "I am not a religious fanatic. I have yet to quarrel with a man regarding his choice of a religion, but I would rather have churchgoers for my neighbors than non-churchgoers. . . I am not a regular churchgoer in the sense that I attend every Sunday, rain or shine. I do not believe that God will love all those who go regularly to church, and make outcasts of all those who do not."

 

As a worshiper, not a pastor, he is utterly candid: "I have been bored in church. I have been annoyed; I have been made angry; I have encountered in church men for whom I had lost all respect; I have heard things uttered in church which have disgusted me; but I have never lost my faith in the purpose of the church, nor in its ministry as a body."

 

To those who say that they don't see why he or anyone would go back after such disappointments: "Most folks who have been angered by ministers have had to listen to something which they did not like to hear. The same people hear things they don't like in theatres, but they keep right on going to them… They have seen bad baseball and they still go to baseball games. They have drawn bad cards, but they still play bridge... Friends have cheated them, but they still look to friendship for the lasting joys of life..."

 

Close to the end of his thoughts he hits what, to me, is the compelling point that always weighs heavily in the back of my mind when I'm talking to someone arguing that they don't need the complication, the frustration, the disappointment of what church attendance can bring:

 

"To say that I don't need the church is mere bravado. I needed it when my father died; I needed it when we were married and when our babies were taken from us, and I shall need it again sooner or later, and need it badly. I am in good health now, and I could, I suppose, get along very nicely for a time without the aid of clergyman, or choir, or even prayer; but what sort of a man is he who scorns and neglects and despises his best friend until his hour of tribulation?"

 

That is not the only reason, but it is one of the more pragmatic reasons I can point to for why church attendance, and yes, church membership is still important, even (especially) in a day when joining is a click or a "like" and communities so often are more virtual than actual.

 

Someday, for all of us, there comes a time when you need someone to stand or sit or even kneel with you. In congregations, you will find that. And having found that, I think you can count on finding something or Someone even more necessary… but that's for next week.

           
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him why you go to church (or don't) at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Notes from my knapsack 3-27-14

Notes from my knapsack 3-27-14

Jeff Gill

 

Reading lists, and knowing lists

___

 

 

Up at the high school, the OGTs, the Ohio graduation tests, have rumbled through the lives of sophomores.

 

Here at Sycamore Lodge, it would appear the Lad has little or nothing to fear about being barred from graduation in 2016 by Gov. Kasich or any other functionary. It sounds like he passed them all, with relatively little anxiety or concern.

 

For some, these tests can be terrifying gate-keepers to the future. Not just to those who struggle to pass the material, but for those who find standard testing itself to be a challenge. Some have knowledge, but are challenged to communicate that knowledge in a timed setting, or are brought to the edge of soul-clutching paralysis by fill-in-the-bubble or short essay exercises.

 

We don't have those concerns, and I'm entirely optimistic about the OGT part of my son's education.

 

But I'm haunted by an exchange between a father and son in the latter's sophomore year, one I read the first time while I was in about that grade, and a spectre that's back to trouble me some forty years later.

 

Robert Heinlein, writing in 1957, had his youthful narrator of "Have Space Suit, Will Travel" recount a conversation his dad had with him, which I repeat from the point where Kip realizes that his father is not as thrilled with his education as he'd assumed.

 

"What's a dangling participle?"

I didn't answer. He went on, "Why did Van Buren fail of re-election? How do you extract the cube root of eighty-seven?"

Van Buren had been a president; that was all I remembered. But I could answer the other one. "If you want a cube root, you look in a table in the back of the book."

 

Actually, I thought then and still believe that it's a good sign Kip knows Van Buren was a president. And today, khanacademy.org can give you a much better way to understand how to extract cube roots (it has to do with factorization, which is all I remember these days).  (It's 4.431, btw.)

 

The point of Heinlein's little aside in an otherwise fun as well as fact-filled narrative (seriously, you should read the book; it's marketed as a juvenile, or what's called today YA literature, but ignore that and read it for enjoyment and education at any age) is that you should not, as a parent, abdicate your responsibility for not only whether or not your child is doing their homework, but you also have a positive obligation to keep up with what they are learning, and whether that's enough for you.

 

The bad news for the Lad, and for not a few young people in this neck of the woods, is that no matter how good the Granville Exempted Village Schools are, parents can and should want their kids to learn even more.

 

Once upon a time, we talked about reading lists, and I've committed that particular sin myself in print. Even if the idea of a "Western canon" is out of date (debatable, but plausible), there are still books one should have a working knowledge of.

 

But I find myself, as we approach college trips and thoughts about majors, and more to the point, life on one's own, thinking about a "knowing list." What do I want my son to know before he launches out into the world without Mom and Dad close at hand?

 

How to change a tire, natch; why people from India don't (for the most part) eat cows, yes; what's the deal with Van Buren…. Maybe. We'll see.

 

I'm starting to compile for these last few years before graduation a "knowing list." Would you mind if I run it past you all? Thanks in advance for your feedback.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you think high school grads should know at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Faith Works 3-22-14

Faith Works 3-22-14

Jeff Gill

 

What churches need to know about not going to church

___

 

Last week, I talked about how church attendance often looks to those of us who have always gotten up and gone. We're "churched" people, as the phrase goes, and the churched often don't understand, or have never thought about, how church looks to the un-churched, or the de-churched.

 

Why do people NOT go to church? One obvious reason is that they don't believe in what churchgoers do, but that was a big part of last week's column: that's a small fraction of those not showing up anywhere on a weekend. So we can nod to the intentionally unchurched, and look more closely at reasons most folks might, but don't go.

 

First, they're tired. You really can't just sniff and frown at that one. Yes, grandma was dying of tuberculosis and still struggled up the steps in 1927 the day before she died (and probably gave TB to someone else), but judgmental stuff aside, they really are tired.

 

I see it, as a preacher, even among those who are in worship: it can be hard for folks to stay awake. I won't say I'm the best preacher in town, but I would hazard that I'm far from the most boring. Plus I have a disturbing tendency to walk away from the pulpit and up the aisle from time to time. IT DOESN'T MATTER. People, not the elderly, not the young, but everyday working folk struggle to stay awake while sitting for an hour.

 

Our culture has created new norms of work schedules and viewing habits that mean we are all tending to go around sleep deprived, averaging 6.5 hours of sleep where we are made to need 8 or more. This is a handicap when you hit what is often the one morning of the week that people have any say over whether or not they get up before 7:00 am. Lots of folks are very honest when they say they tried to sleep to 8:30, and suddenly realized it was 11 am.

 

Does this mean evening worship on Saturday or Sunday would help? Could be.

 

Another obstacle: work schedules do munch right across the week without regard to any one day. It's just not the case that anyone, not sports teams, schools, or most significantly, employers, will work around a Sunday morning for you. Some do, and sincerely: God bless them! But as a church body, we're forced to make shifts (some of which I mentioned last week) in our assumptions. Good, solid, community minded people just aren't going to be present 50 or more Sundays a year anymore. Again, multiple options become more important.

 

And last week's column garnered a comment that was very important, I thought (and thank you, Renate!): people are often sitting at home trying to understand the Bible, and worried about two things. First, will those in church judge them on the basis of appearances. I can answer that – yes, they will. To some degree, we all do this. Congregations should do a better job at this than they do, but there are very few places anymore that will be outright hostile if you don't dress up, etc. If you think "I may have people look at me funny" and that's a reason not to go, the fact of the matter is that entering any group or space or room, like visiting a neighborhood bar you've never been in before, is going to get you some looks. So that's why the only real solution to this one is for people to do more personal invitations, and to not only invite them, but to go to church WITH them. If you have a regular right by your side, the whole look/glance/question thing goes away. Boom!

 

The other worry, though, is more aimed at pastors and leaders: I am still learning the basics, some fear, and if I go to church, they all have the same translation (not the one I happened to have), they already know and sling the lingo, and are "ahead of me." Where can I go to not be an idiot for my questions?

 

Honestly, we're all beginners. Some of us have learned to fake it better. And there's a certain amount of in-group games going on with how we talk about the Bible, and beliefs, and our churches. I believe that our default assumption on EVERY Sunday morning should be "how does what I'm saying (announcements, greetings, sermon) sound to someone who's never been here?" We can fix that.

 

Next week, let's talk about why it matters to go to church at all.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him why you don't go to church at knapsack77@gmail.com

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Faith Works 3-15-14

Faith Works 3-15-14

Jeff Gill

 

Don't go to church? Can't do it.

___

 

You don't have to tell me why not to go to church.

 

I won't say I've heard it all, because there's always a new spin on the old story, but in outline, the basics are well known to me.

 

First off, a full admission: I go to church each Sunday in large part because I don't know how to do anything else.

 

Someone may point out: dude, that's your job. Well, yes, in those periods of my life when I've been the settled pastor of a congregation, it was one of those nearly unstated bedrock assumptions that you would show up on Sunday mornings. And preach, and stuff. You know.

 

Yes, that's true, but I've had a few stretches in my adult, married life when I wasn't on staff, didn't have a church "job," and I still went. Honestly? Each time I figured I'd give myself some slack, take the time to taste life as the majority of my fellow citizens, my friends and neighbors do, and stay home on Sunday morning. At least past 8:00 am.

 

In those times, I thought about checking out this thing called "Sunday brunch" (I'd heard bacon was involved), and maybe the whole read-the-whole-paper-plus-crossword-puzzle routine. At least a few times, it can't hurt, right?

 

I meant to, but it didn't happen. My wife and I are church-going folk, it's in the bone and the heart, and we even go to church when we're on vacation. Those have almost always been amazing experiences of worship and learning and growth for us, by the way. There is one occasion when I can remember us just not getting up out of the tent or motel room and hauling off to somewhere on Sunday, and it was a question of distance and uncertainty about the time of the service, and honestly? We regretted it. Not out of guilt, but an opportunity missed.

 

So I'm pretty hard on people who don't go, right? Well, that's a funny thing. In fact, many, maybe even most people I know outside of my own congregation are not what you'd call every Sunday or even twelve times a year folks. The stats bear it out: on any given weekend, about 80% of Licking County isn't going to worship services anywhere. The number within that 80% who mean to go, know where they will go when they can, and go often enough to call it a church relationship, that can be debated.

 

In the congregation where I serve, we average 165 or so a Sunday across the year, while our official membership is around 250, and our regular family members (if you will) whom we see often but haven't, for a variety of reasons, joined the church, is probably another 50.

 

What happens is the modern world of a) odd work schedules that don't allow for much planning ahead, including second shifts, four twelve-hours then four off, and on-demand hours, and b) a new degree of mobility by family and self, including a more active and mobile senior cohort, that means when people aren't working on Sunday morning (or until 4 am on Sunday morning), they may be driving across the state or into neighboring states to visit with folks who a generation ago would have been across town, or at least in the county.

 

So if we have 150 in church last Sunday between two services, we almost certainly have 300 who would like to be with us, intend to pray and sing and study scriptures with us, but 150 of them don't on that particular weekend. If we have forty people with perfect attendance last year, I'd be amazed (and it wouldn't include me!). So you know, as a pastor, that you're preaching to a changing set of faces in the pews, and some of your best leaders and workers don't hear you every week.

 

Dealing with this reality is why many of us preachers are doing sermon series', and presenting themes across weeks and months and a year. To tie together the fellowship, you can't just assume weekly continuity; it takes more tools than that. Social media is a glue that reaches across absence, and so are small groups that meet through the week.

 

I still think regular Sunday attendance is important; it is a spiritual discipline (that's another column). I need church, and the church fellowship needs each of us, ideally, all of us. But that "all" has to be seen in a different context than "any given Sunday."

 

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

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Knapsack 3-13-14

Notes from my knapsack 3-13-14

 

Memories and remembering

___

  

Watching the Granville High School band and choir at the OMEA competitions last weekend, it occurred to me that instrumental and singing music is one of the few areas where straight-up memory is still important.

 

We use so many tools to keep our thoughts and schedules in order, our phones and tablets and virtual desktops; in learning, whether at school or later on in the workplace, we are called on to master theory and framework and process, but to remember stuff? I've got an app for that.

 

And more and more often, "rote memorization" is almost referred to in the same tones as "corporal punishment." It's not a technique, it's a torture. No value is assumed or imputed to the practice.

 

Neuroscience is probably going to prove me wrong some day, or it may be sooner than I think that there will be vivid, full color imagery of a brain scan to tell me I'm right: I think there's a place for memorization, in school and in personal discipline. Just as you can't only do push-ups and call it good exercise, the mental framework and problem solving approach feels to me like doing nothing but sit-ups, and neglecting a system and an element of the whole that needs stretching and pushing.

 

Obviously, the band and choir and theatre kids can and must do it. You don't go out on stage with a script in hand; bands don't want to take the field with a lyre and music clip if they can help it, and they know they'll sound better if they don't need it; skilled choral and solo singers don't hold a big folder up in front of their faces when it's time to project and blend. (Oh, and the GHS music dept. did us all proud and are mostly all going on to state competition!)

 

You may say, and would agree, the some folks don't memorize easily, and for others it's a gift. I do not have good memory for detail as much as for sequence and relationship, so my quotes from poetry, drama, or even scripture tend to shift pronouns and even adjectives from time to time, even though they sound convincingly accurate when declaimed. I wish I had a photographic memory, but I don't.

 

Yet most of us have perfectly serviceable memories, and the problem is just that we don't use them, much. In fact: do you know the words to the Star Spangled Banner? The Gilligan's Island theme song? The narration to the commercial that ends "don't have your dad get punched over a can of soup"? The five different passwords you regularly use? (Right, you have to double check, but how many do you have in your head right now? Six? Seven? Yeah.)

 

There's a remarkable amount of stuff in our memory, and when you work with your memory, you can be surprised by how capacious, and how flexible that skill can become. You memorize a poem a week, a psalm or text that has meaning to you from sacred literature, a song whose lyrics are important to someone you love . . . and you find that, like any muscle in your body, the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you know "by heart" at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Faith Works 3-8-14

Faith Works 3-8-14

Jeff Gill

 

As Lent begins

___

 

Regular readers know that "Faith Works" as a feature on the "Your Faith" page here is aimed at a wide audience, that large percentage of Americans (not to mention Ohioans and Licking Countians) who believe in God (93%), who believe God hears and responds in some way to our prayers (82%), but who don't necessarily regularly attend a church fellowship (in our area, around 20% do, leaving some 60-70% of you who are still working on how you want to live out your beliefs).

 

But I've never made any secret out of the fact that your faithful scrivener is not only a believing and practicing Christian (and gonna keep practicing until I get it right), but a preacher and parson. I was raised and baptized and trained for ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and serve a congregation of that tradition, Newark Central Christian.

 

Each year, when the preparatory and penitential season of Lent comes up, I ask my wider readership's forebearance and understanding as I get just a bit more explicitly, well, Christian. Because that's who I am, and how I best understand God's working in the world. If you read for the more ecumenical, more interfaith content, please forgive me for a few weeks, and please come back after April 20th (or come to church during Holy Week and see what it is we're talking about).

 

So, with that brief "Apologia Pro Vita Sua", to commence:

 

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

 

   ~ Romans 6:6-11, (ESV)

 

There are ashes, and there is glory. We just marked the Transfiguration in the church calendar, but we also head into a long slog up the road to Jerusalem, where (as Jesus himself reminds us grimly) the people of God tend to stone, strip, and even slaughter the prophets sent them by God.

 

Lent begins with a mark of grey ashy charred remnant palm fronds, traced onto mostly clean foreheads, and making a very unpretty cross. We know in advance we will sing praises and make beautiful ourselves and our worship come Easter day (April 20, mark your calendars now!), but the journey begins in ashes.

 

Paul reminds us, in the passage from his letter to the Roman church above, that to get to the life in Christ, eternal and abundant, which he promised us, we have to pass through death. And not just the dying in the body we are all somewhat familiar with, but our LIVES have to die to sin. Our choices, our paths, need to make a wrenching and often initially disturbing shift to get on the way that leads to life.

 

It sounds painful, and often is. The glory, and the beauty, all come when we find ourselves wanting the life in and of Christ's promise to be our own lives so much so that we start finding we're not even tempted by the things of this world. That's the last step of the dying Paul's talking about, when you move beyond even wanting that which does not satisfy, and you hunger only for what refreshes and feeds us forever.

 

We start by acknowledging that this world is, in itself and no more than itself, nothing more than ashes. Ashes that can be arranged in lovely and alluring ways, but from the finest meal in the grandest restaurant, to the Eiffel Tower itself, it's all made of carbon and dust. That which points us in any earthly thing to something grander, something greater: that's the breath of God, the life eternal, the dance everlasting, and to join in requires that we start to let go of our stuff and dust and ashes and simply join the parade. Let's go!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him how you observe Lent at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Newark Central 3-6-14

Notes From My Knapsack – As Lent Begins

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

   ~ Romans 6:6-11, (ESV)

 

There are ashes, and there is glory. We just marked the Transfiguration in the church calendar, but we also head into a long slog up the road to Jerusalem, where (as Jesus himself reminds us grimly) the people of God tend to stone, strip, and even slaughter the prophets sent them by God.

 

Lent begins with a mark of grey ashy charred remnant palm fronds, traced onto mostly clean foreheads, and making a very unpretty cross. We know in advance we will sing praises and make beautiful ourselves and our worship come Easter day (April 20, mark your calendars now!), but the journey begins in ashes.

 

Paul reminds us, in the passage from his letter to the Roman church above, that to get to the life in Christ, eternal and abundant, which he promised us, we have to pass through death. And not just the dying in the body we are all somewhat familiar with, but our LIVES have to die to sin. Our choices, our paths, need to make a wrenching and often initially disturbing shift to get on the way that leads to life.

 

It sounds painful, and often is. The glory, and the beauty, all come when we find ourselves wanting the life in and of Christ's promise to be our own lives so much so that we start finding we're not even tempted by the things of this world. That's the last step of the dying Paul's talking about, when you move beyond even wanting that which does not satisfy, and you hunger only for what refreshes and feeds us forever.

 

We start by acknowledging that this world is, in itself and no more than itself, nothing more than ashes. Ashes that can be arranged in lovely and alluring ways, but from the finest meal in the grandest restaurant, to the Eiffel Tower itself, it's all made of carbon and dust. That which points us in any earthly thing to something grander, something greater: that's the breath of God, the life eternal, the dance everlasting, and to join in requires that we start to let go of our stuff and dust and ashes and simply join the parade. Let's go!

In grace & peace, Pastor Jeff