Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Faith Works 1-28-17

Faith Works 1-28-17

Jeff Gill


Aspirational goals and Bible reading



Recently, the Barna Group, a research and resource company focusing on Christian trends, released the results of the latest in an ongoing series of surveys about Bible reading.


They've been around since 1984, and for the last five years they've worked with the American Bible Society to assess American Christian habits and practices around Bible reading.


Two-thirds of those already reading the Bible say their time and commitment have stayed about the same in 2016, with a quarter saying it has increased. A significant number would like to spend more time than they do in study of the scriptures, but more express that goal than – at least by their own self-reporting! – actually get around to doing so.


You can see more about these surveys at their website, www.barna.com; in general, the folks behind the study say that it's very like gym memberships at the start of the year. Resolutions start out with good intentions and high aspirations, but just as this week starts an annual drop-off of all those new treadmill runners and weight bench occupants at the fitness centers, folks tend to drop off what was a sincere desire to go deeper in "the Word" in 2017.


I think there's another useful comparison here: just as you can start out with too aggressive a goal, lifting too much weight, pushing to run before you've even acclimated yourself to walking a mile here and there, so you can set an unrealistic goal in Bible study.


As a pastor, you may be surprised to hear how often I push against the idea of "reading the Bible right through." Yes, some people do that every year, and bless 'em. It's not the only way, just as running a marathon is not the only way to put one foot in front of the other in exercise on the street.


The Bible is largely not a chronological read. It is in stretches, which itself then confuses people when it seems as if the narrative doubles back on itself  - which it does, and as you learn about how these 66 books came together into one weighty volume, it does so within a certain structure that itself teaches us something about how God speaks to us through it.


And then there's Leviticus. Third book of the Bible if you're heading in front to back. Asking a relatively new Bible reader to take on Leviticus is like handing a Faulkner novel to a fifth grader. Give it time, let it speak when the reader is ready, but don't start there. Just don't!


Here's one thought: start out with a pattern of Psalm reading. Read two a morning. Read them, reflect on them, spend some of your own prayer time with the Lord, then read them a second time. And so on. Yes, that means that by the end of January you will have not even gotten halfway through just Psalms, but this isn't a race, it's not a project to prove something, not to God or to fellow believers. Let the Word of God speak, and that's not an experience limited to those who've read the entire volume.


Or pick a gospel. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. I'd start a new reader on Luke, some pastors say Mark (it's very short, Luke is very reader friendly). One chapter a day, maybe even half sometimes. Read, reflect, pray, read again.


Just like gyms and coaches, different pastors might suggest various training programs, and most of us are also willing and able to craft a plan for Bible reading to particular persons: you, for instance. Sure, just ask them. Honestly, nothing would make most preachers happier than having someone say "could you help me develop a reading plan?"


The most frequent reason I see and hear as to why folks with good intentions tend to drop off is just like what wrecks fitness plans: some mix of presumed expectations and guilt push them to try too hard, and then collapse in a heap. But any walking in the fresh air is better than not exercising at all; any regular pattern of reading, even if you put Revelation and Daniel off until much later, is going to let the Bible bless you much more than limiting your intake to what you hear read on Sunday.


Why read the Bible at all? Well, the Barna folks say 57% of those surveyed had an answer I think is quite correct. They said it draws them closer to God. And that's all the reason I need to hear.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what your Bible reading practices are at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter. (Seriously, I'd love to hear what patterns some of you use!)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Notes From My Knapsack 1-26-17

Notes From My Knapsack 1-26-17

Jeff Gill


This village of ours is theirs, too



We live in a Granville which was settled, historically speaking, in 1805, but there's historical documentation for Welsh pioneers from 1802, accounts of those passing through in 1751 and 1773, and the so-called settlers were not, surely, discoverers.


The thousands of years of Native American occupation has left marks on the land in earthwork architecture, and objects that Thoreau evocatively called "mindprints" all over the landscape, "artifacts" in a more scientific mode we might say.


The design and sequencing of the projectile points made from flint tell a multi-thousand year story (often called, inaccurately, arrow-heads even though many or most of them were hand-held stone spear points and sometimes simply tools wielded in a leather-padded hand).


So we Euro-American occupants of the land have it in trust; it has been "ours" in the sense of a dominant group's hold for over 200 years, but as Ohio-descended Native American Indians start to return from Oklahoma and Kansas and beyond to visit, to ask questions, we find our stewardship today to be something more tangible.


In the same manner, new residents arrive, and the older occupants look askance at their ways, their expectations, their assumptions. This, too, is part of the stewardship we have for this village of ours, this awkward dance of approach and distance that has played out for generations.


Coopers and blacksmiths and farmers came from New England, displacing hunters and gatherers; grocers and clockmakers and architects moved in among the early American village lots, and new ways pushed against the old. Wells were filled in downtown and water was piped in; railroads and interurbans came and made horses nervous and livery stable operators even more so.


Now the opening of a highway, flowing without interruption from the Blue lots at the airport in Columbus to the Thornwood Crossing exit, means a new resurgence of commuters into this village of ours. Questions about school programs and crosswalks unsettle assumptions long unchallenged. Expectations continue to shift, and press, and force changes from the downtown core to outlying school buildings still in sight of plowed fields and grazing flocks.


John Sutphin Jones knew something about bedroom communities, even if he didn't know the phrase. He came to Granville seeking a town house, a country house, and ultimately a guest house, as his business sprawled from Sunday Creek's coal seams down near Chauncey to the Chicago office building he worked in at the time of his death in 1927.


Today, his town house is the home of Denison's president, Monomoy Place; the college owns his guest house the Granville Inn; our village as a whole possesses his country house, the Bryn Du Mansion. The Sunday Creek Coal Company is no more, and the Old Colony Building in Chicago itself is student housing. Now our Granville school district stretches up north of Dry Creek and south far beyond the expressway, even past Union Station.


So in truth this village of ours has never really been ours, not ours alone at any rate. We have a trust, a responsibility, even when the title is not entirely clear, to care for this land and these roads and streets and schools and businesses, not for ourselves but for those who are coming to live here next.


And they could be, if history is any guide, almost anyone.


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

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Faith Works 1-21-17

Faith Works 1-21-17

Jeff Gill


Faithfulness and trust part of the problem



If people don't believe that congregations can be faithful, whose problem is that?


Right, it may not be always or even often true, but the old "perceptions are reality" line kicks in with a vengeance here. If church folk just keep saying "we are constantly seeking to follow our Lord as best we can" and others don't believe us, then there's got to be at least a portion of the burden on our shoulders: we have to prove it. We have to show our faithfulness to God's call on our lives every day.


And yes, even just one failure along the way has a lasting and wide impact.


There's another side to this dilemma of credibility and witness for people of faith, and that's trust. Not much of it out there these days.


I don't trust the media, and I are one. I mean, look where you're reading this, right? But I know much of TV and online and even print media is focused on stirring up worries, anxieties, even fears, since that's what makes you keep watching, turning the page, clicking and clicking further into the website.


I don't trust those who call me. My landline (yes, yes, let it go, I have reasons) means I get, do-not-call registries aside, lots of "survey" and solicitation phone messages when I get home. My cell is starting to get spam calls; at the church, especially in the afternoon, the phone when it rings is always some poor cold calling sales guy pushing copier supplies, curriculum, cleaning gear. Click.


I certainly don't trust my email anymore. I have six addresses I have to check regularly, and they all are a source of ongoing frustration. Spam blockers and screening tools and filters all take time themselves, and yet the flood of skeezy messages I need to not click on continues to grow.


I don't trust politicians. And I know quite a few, actually, some of whom I consider friends, and many of whom I think more highly of than they themselves might realize. But I've been about the work of "lobbying" since I was a teenager, in my home state of Indiana, in West Virginia, and here in Ohio. I've been to the rodeo, and know most of the clowns, and the bulls. Sometimes, you step in it. Sometimes, folks try to hand it to you and call it a bouquet of flowers.  That's how the process works at times. So you look for yourself before you step.


In fact, I don't trust my own denominational structure. They're working hard, and trying to hold together a long-standing set of assumptions not to mention properties, and juggle declining giving with increasing expenses (as are many local congregations), but I've heard presentations on how "things are looking up next year" so long I can whisper the next lines to myself as they speak. They can read trend lines and balance sheets as well as I can, and they say what they say and do what they believe they have to do. I respect what they have to do, but I'm careful about taking them at face value. Or to be blunt, I don't always trust them.


But I certainly don't trust consultants and experts anymore. They've sold more sunshine than anyone these last few decades to church groups, and get out of town before the rain gets hard. They have this year's big thing in a new package, and they know we're willing to overlook our qualms and quash our doubts enough to buy another round of advice and slate of suggestions . . . which will be forgotten by the next year, except for the file drawer half filled with the unused workbooks and partial bag of leftover keychains.


You can add your own. We do not trust. Not Professor Harold Hill who just got off at the depot, not Rev. Eric Camden, and not even President Josiah Bartlet. We want to trust, so we love those idealized figures perhaps a little out of proportion to what they can actually teach us . . . and then actually feel betrayed if the actors doing the portrayal don't live up to our needs.


And it ends up in our not trusting God. Or at least we mistrust the fabrications we prop up in God's place. And the hope I see in this untrustworthy era is that we might just knock down enough of those false fronts, fake gods, and start to relate to the real One behind them all.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's not offended if you don't trust him implicitly, either. Tell him about where you put your trust at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Faith Works 1-12-17

Faith Works 1-12-17


Jeff Gill



Where can we find faithfulness?



As the old year ended, I was honored to be asked to do some teaching at a young adult gathering at my denominational camp & conference facility.


Those gathered were college students and entry-level workers, some starting out on careers and others in grad school. They had chosen to spend a festive season together, and at a church-oriented event.


So I was startled, and am still thinking, about an exchange I had there. After my part of the program, I stayed for more of the day to get a sense of the group and their vision for the Christian community of which we're a part. During a portion led by another pastor, we were doing an exercise where we were taking turns asking questions out loud, and responding to each other.


Now I am, obviously, some decades past being a young adult; my partner in the first step of this activity is a leader among this group. My question voiced to this person, and the larger group in a circle around us, was this: how can the church be faithful in the year ahead?


And without a moment's hesitation, the answer came back: the church will not be faithful. The church has never been faithful. Only faithful Christians will be able to make a true witness themselves in their communities.


I was, I will admit, stunned speechless. And the exercise was not one where we did a bunch of back and forth, but I did listen, and I (obviously) have continued to reflect.


"The church has never been faithful." It's a hard assertion to argue with, even if I had the opportunity. Hypocrites and self-servers in the organizational life of the Christian community gathered as "church"? Oh yes, I've seen it. Too often.


But to be perfectly fair, I've seen more than a few individual Christians speak and act and live in a manner I could only, with hesitation and hope for grace, call un-faithful. Emphatically so. Which is why I am hung up on the firmness of the assertion that it's "the church" that is so far beyond hope or grace itself, as a community, as a gathered body.


The anti-establishment strain in American society became a loud public voice in the 1960s, and has ebbed and surged, but mainly surged, ever since. A sociologist or historian would rightly point out that the roots of this anti-establishment, anti-institutional (and anti-intellectual) current flow back to 1776 and even before that, woven into our DNA as a nation, a part of our social assumptions.


And yes, I'm an ordained minister of my tradition, a part of some of its official processes (our Commission on Ministry meets in this coming week, affirming new ordinands, reviewing commissioned ministers, sometimes even removing standing from clergy). I know our failures all too well, historically and currently.


Yet I still have hope, and trust in God's grace to work through institutions as well as, maybe even more efficiently than through particular persons. Saints are handy, but the capital-C Church, whether you focus on the congregational expression of church or the larger judicatories (regions, dioceses, conferences, etc.), is where the saints are equipped. I do believe that faithfulness must be found, and can be detected, in the gathered community; if our faith is only in Christians as scattered and individual persons, I fear the disappointments and divergences would only grow larger than not.


The young adult's sense of "church" (or "Church") is something I, and we, will have to keep wrestling with. I think there are cultural reasons for such a settled and certain belief – I should note that the entire room, or the half of it I could see, nodded in agreement with the statement made to my question – but I also think that there are problems in our own theological self-understanding within some Christian communities. There's a confusion about what it means to talk about "the Body of Christ" at work in the world that we may be paying a price for in the functional outcomes of those muddled or contrary assumptions.


To be blunt, I believe in the significance, if not the priority, of the congregation. Too many "church" leaders see congregations as the problem, when I would argue they are in fact the solution. Here too I have to smile and agree: yes, I'm a parish pastor. And very content to be one. The local faith community can be faithless at times, no doubt, but it also can be forgiven, and redeemed, and renewed.



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


Monday, January 09, 2017

Notes From My Knapsack 1-12-17

Notes From My Knapsack 1-12-17

Jeff Gill


This village of ours




Winter strips away all the externals of nature, and even of culture to some degree, and leaves us with the bare bones.


Those bones may be wrapped in coats and scarves of snow and icicles, but there's a sparseness and openness to the terrain, the neighborhoods, the homes when all the leaves are gone and vantage points are all the more commanding, from above or below.


This village of ours sits on a geologic bench of sorts, above the creek and below the ridgetops. Thousands of years ago, the receding glacier edge crept north and west, while floodwaters carried outwashes of gravel and occasional boulders of granite down into the ancient rocky valleys, filling them with debris.


The first surge of deposition was followed by a long, chilly season of drainage, with the water pooling and then pouring out, forming Black Hand Gorge to our far east, and bending around into a new draining to our west and south. What we call Raccoon Creek today, once the Raccoon Fork of the Licking River, simply cut a new course through the same valley from west to east, just continuing on to the east a little farther with the Licking River now finding an outflow beyond the gorge and into the Muskingum River, on into the Ohio and the Mississippi all in good time.


Those names came later, of course. The first human occupants of this village of ours came just after some 12,000 years ago, as best as science can tell. The classic fluted projectile point, or spear tip (awaiting a hardwood shaft to be hafted upon) of the Paleoindian period has been found within the boundaries of today's Granville, and not far away, south of Heath, a butchering site for a mastodon left marks on bones of flint tools.


For many generations, thousands of years, people lived and developed their culture while raising their young (not always in that order) here in what today is this village of ours. Scattered traveling bands became seasonal settlements which turned from simple gathering to sophisticated tending of the landscape. The archaeological record shows signs of early agriculture in this region some two thousand years back, the selection of seeds and the care of their harvest and storage showing that a modest society was becoming a cultural force, with uniform units of measure, the weaving of fabrics, the observation and anticipation of the movements of the heavens.


This village of ours has a proud history back to 1802 and 1805, in writing and records, but the landscape shows in softer, subtle symbols how much was recorded and passed down from eras far before the Welsh and New England settlers. As the moon comes to full in this new year, and you see the hilltops and valleys in new contrasts around you, I'd invite you to look more closely at this village of ours, which we have as a gift, a trust from ages past, and which we will need to care for more gently in years to come.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about what you value about this village at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.