Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Faith Works 10-15-16 and 10-22-16 (a two-fer)

Faith Works 10/15/16

Jeff Gill


What Johnson Amendment Are You Talking About?


The truth is, I know what the Johnson Amendment is, where it came from, and what it means.


As a pastor of a congregation, it's a piece of the tax code that says we – as a tax-exempt non-profit organization – can't directly endorse candidates for elective office in the US. In theory the IRS could remove our tax-exempt status if it found that on our signboard out front, in our print and email materials, or if I from the pulpit officially announced that I and/or the church wanted our members and friends to vote for a particular candidate.


I've never heard if it's a problem for me to speak well of somebody running unopposed.


My impression, based on a modicum of internet-based research, is that the IRS tends to issue warnings, and has only exercised this capacity on a couple of egregious and repeat-offender occasions. You could say that it's not a big deal, or you could compare this provision of the law with a large caliber handgun, which has only been fired twice since 1954, but is currently pointed in your general direction.


What may or may not sound confusing, and I hope does not because I've said this now more than a few times around my fellow parishioners and friends, is that I really don't care about the Johnson Amendment.


That may make me sound like a scoff-law (and perhaps send a few off to look for the phone number of the nearest IRS office), but give me a few more lines here, if you would.


As a minister, with pastoral responsibilities for a congregation in my care, I actually think it is ethically questionable for me to endorse specific candidates. Not on the same order of significance, but in a similar manner, I don't think I should get up on Sunday and include in the sermon my belief that strawberry shakes are better than chocolate, or that I believe it is a grievous error to go about making guacamole using peas. It is a matter of personal liberty and individual taste, and while I may be quite certain that I'm right, as I usually am (hashtag irony), it's not an essential.


In general, I think choosing a political candidate is much the same sort of thing in the wider context of my faith in God, my hopes for redemption, my understanding of eternity, and the sources I would draw from to explain any of those decisions I've made as a Christian believer.


I've voted for candidates that I'm quite certain were not Christian (and I could have been wrong about that); I've voted for candidates whose Christian faith is rooted in beliefs I personally think are incorrect.


I truly believe that, in general, it would be an unethical abuse of my position as a spiritual teacher and mentor and preacher to say that I can be certain that voting for one candidate or another in an election is a faith essential. And that's why I don't do it. I'd probably be lying to say that I don't think at all about the fact that the IRS thinks I shouldn't, but that's where the (to me) even trickier other side of the coin comes in.


If there was a candidate whose person and profession and election struck me as so entirely destructive to the faith I hold that I thought it was imperative that I say so, I would. If it needed to be a pulpit matter, I would affirm that it is my duty and responsibility to use that position judiciously, but without concern over a worldly matter like tax-exempt status. But while I am pretty sure such an example could exist, I'm hesitant to describe such a hypothetical.


And the main reason (aside from space, which I'm running out of) I don't want to get into that description of circumstances is that I've been pressed hard by many this fall to push that button of endorsement, on the basis of claims that the "other" candidate represents a very real threat to truth, decency, law and order, and God's people. As you've no doubt guessed, I've been pitched to press in public for some person by supporters on either side.


You're not going to see an endorsement, or a condemnation of a presidential candidate here. I know that disappoints some of you. You won't hear one from my pulpit role, either; that may well disappoint some at my church.


But rest assured, my reticence has nothing to do with Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, his amendment, or any IRS threat. It's because I believe it is the right thing to… not do.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he has some opinions on this election, and if you catch him in a non-pastoral role, you might get him to share them. But make time if you try that… or just email him at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


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Faith Works 10/22/16

Jeff Gill


If I Had My Druthers



There's a saying that I heard as a kid, which maybe was from family lore or that area's culture where I grew up. I don't know its derivation or etymology, but it sounds folky and down home: "if I had my druthers, I'd…"


I don't know what a druther is. In context and usage, it's pretty clearly about choices and preferences. If I could choose something other than what is, if I had the decision for something other, rather than what's been given me, then I'd… have my druthers.


In the national political scene, there are many asking why they can't have another choice, who are saying "if I had my druthers, I'd" be voting one way or for someone not on the ballot. Yet we play the hand we're dealt, we go to war with the army we have, we eat what's set before us: the metaphors are many.


If I had my druthers, it might not even be an election year. We could take a pass on the whole thing, and focus elsewhere.


If I had my druthers, I'd take a walk more mornings than I do, which is rarely. I'd bake more bread, and cook more meals, and even eat them with my wife. I'd read more than I do, both from my Bible and other works, both spiritual and informational. I'd read (and write) more fiction and poetry.


In fact, if I could, I'd love to get up with the dawn and go to bed with full darkness more often than not, but not so compulsively that I'd miss the opportunity to do some stargazing – naked eye, binocular, and telescopic – into some nights.


I'd love to go camping more often and backpacking even more, both with Scouting units to help teach and coach and guide the outdoor learning, and also some ventures that were leisurely solo expeditions into not terribly dangerous semi-wilderness-ish places.


If I had my druthers, I'd include even more ruminations on the meanings and layers of understanding embedded in the Greek and Hebrew behind our English texts, along with the etymology (that word again!) of the mongrel tongue that is our English in whatever translation. I'm tempted that way because I know how those sorts of reflections feed me, but I shy away from too much of it because I am aware of how it can make the reading of Scripture seem too much a specialist pursuit, a task that only preachers can truly master.


In general, my druthers aren't lazy tendencies I fight so much as they are personal preferences I have to balance against the good of others involved. What I like isn't necessarily what's best for me, but even when I have reason to be sure something is, as a husband and father and pastor and co-worker I have an obligation to consider if what I would rather do is really what's best for all concerned.


My mornings and evenings would be mostly mine to plot if I didn't go to any early meetings or after-dinner programs, yet in a largely volunteer endeavor, those are the time slots most requested. I could lead my own life, but only by disengaging from common pursuits involving others.


As many of you have kindly commented and occasionally inquired, my wife and I are now part of the empty-nest brigade. Given the professional obligations both of us have, and our community commitments in church and beyond, not to mention the fact that our child is at a college not too terribly far away, we're not so much empty nest yet. We weren't home that much the last few years, anyhow!


But some realignment and adjustment is in mind, and while neither of us are all that focused on retirement per se, we are looking at setting some . . . well, different boundaries, and re-emphasizing some priorities. In some ways, with our offspring out of the house, we have to work even harder at making sure to set aside time to eat together; we'd like to make sure to attend youth and community arts events without having a student in the house to set the schedule for us through their performances and interests.


When it comes to my faith, my druthers would come down to just being able to practice it with an unselfconscious awareness, and I've been blessed recently to have a seminary intern at our church -- which means that for a number of Sundays in a row I've gotten to receive communion rather than presiding at it! It has been a wonderful exercise in finding that balance between serving and being served.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what your druthers in life and faith would be at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Faith Works 10-8-16

Faith Works 10-8-16

Jeff Gill


Humanity, Unity, and Diversity



If I were to hear about an event called "One World: a Celebration Embracing Multicultural Licking County" at the Davis-Shai House on 301 Central Parkway in Heath, I'd make some assumptions right off.


One, I have to admit, is that we'd be importing a fair amount of that diversity into the county. But on further reflection, that's simply not true.


We may not be as diverse as the nation as a whole, or as ethnically vivid as some places, urban or otherwise, but the Land of Legend has a pretty wide range of cultures and peoples already here.


The ancient history of the area, as will be celebrated on Monday at the Octagon Earthworks with tours from 1 pm to 4 pm (33rd St. & Parkview Rd. off West Main in Newark), includes pilgrimage and multiple traditions gathering in these valleys some 2,000 years ago. Native Americans traded across the continent, bringing objects and we presume to some degree people from as far away as the Gulf Coast to Yellowstone, from the Smokies in North Carolina to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.


Just as there are 550 "first nations" in the United States today, so then all American Indians weren't just a single homogenous, interchangeable culture. That makes Newark & Heath a place of exchange and understanding from our earliest records.


We are, it is true, very much a majority Anglo/Caucasian place, but the African American, Hispanic and Latin American cultures, and a variety of Asian American and other groups from around the world live and are practicing their traditional ways from their homeland to right here . . . and there are indeed still Native American people here (some say they never left!).


So for a multicultural celebration at the Davis-Shai House (behind the Heath Walmart shopping center) to happen, it just means in some ways we need to come together, and see each other for who we really are. From 2:00 to 5:00 pm on Sunday afternoon, Christ Lutheran Church in Heath and Trinity A.M.E. Church in downtown Newark will host and a variety of community partners will present programming that will include children's activities, music, crafts, and educational displays & programs along with dance, song, and artistic displays in the building, and much more out around the historic home on the grounds.


Storytelling & poetry for all ages is planned, all of which Joy Williams says is "an invitation to celebrate our diversity as a community." The goal of this local group of friends & fellow worshipers is to help Licking County become more aware of the diversity and multiple cultural traditions we already have, strands of connection to distant places, but serving as colorful threads running through the lives of those of us who live here in a place we call home.


For thousands of years, humans have crossed this landscape, after the retreat of glaciers first revealing the terrain as we know it today, up to our vast reshaping in building interchanges and ramps and highways to speed up our passage now. What "an invitation to celebrate our diversity as a community" can do for us is to simply slow us down, bring us together, and give us a place to see each other, sing with each other, share food and arts and stories between our different homes and families and practices.


To build such a place of unity and diversity might be just as important as any other civic piece of construction we're all so distracted by right now. Come help create that place by dropping by this "open house" for our entire community, free and open to the public Sunday afternoon.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about the cultural diversity you've encountered in this area at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Faith Works 10-1-16

Faith Works 10-1-16

Jeff Gill


A decent end to a difficult conversation



Talking about decency means, of course, asking about what's indecent, and why.


For some of the "Nones" or what are also called "Spiritual But Not Religious" folk (SBNRs), our emphasis in the established church on so-called decency, of language and image and propriety in general, is off-putting. "Why are you so prissy?" That's one of the nicer ways people ask me why my Facebook feed is cluttered with (language alert) parentheticals at the top of posts.


Since I'm a congregational minister, a Scout leader, and part of other youth serving organizations, I have everyone from teens to moms to senior citizens on my feed, and many of them are hesitant about social media in large part because of decency. If there's a curse word in the post, I'll think twice or thrice before reposting, and if the obscenity is in the header, I just won't use it generally. Yes, that includes the d-word and the s-word, let alone the f's and m's and so on.


And for those who think this kind of circumspection is a boutique interest, a concern only shared by a dwindling few, I'd point out that a big factor behind the whole contemporary Christian music scene, the radio stations playing them, and the recent surge in Christian-themed movies, is less about a national revival of decency per se, than it is a parental and family based reaction against the prevalence of nudity and nearly-so, profanity and swearing, sounds and pictures that communicate sexuality and anger and hostility as forms of casual entertainment.


Lots of people are not so squeamish as they are sick of it: enough. I can watch "The Godfather" or even "Pulp Fiction" on occasion, say many, but I'm tired of a steady diet of the harsh, the edgy, the graphic. And that puts lots of people in a mood, even when their theology isn't what's driving them, to enjoy seeing a movie where they don't have to see body parts they don't want to have shoved into their faces, or hear words they'd rather not hear, let alone their children.


Count me as part of that number. I know pretty much all the swear words you're likely to think of, have had them said to me, and know quite a few in a couple of other languages if you're interested. I know what consenting adults do in their free time, and am not overly concerned with what folks are turned on by, nor do I want to control or restrict it. I'm just starting to feel like we're all getting a steady diet of entertainment-grade Red Bull and musical Cheetos.


So to turn away, or looking for a haven of healthier options (so I claim, anyhow) doesn't mean censorship. But then I turn back to the church, and our life as a congregation. Are we too prudish? Is the effort to clean up our act in worship and in our life together unrealistic?


What I'm trying to say is that I understand all too well what some SBNRs are saying when they see church life as a bubble of pretend, and they want to know if we can accept people on their own terms. They wonder if we are turning away from the world so completely that we don't understand it. And they ask: with my tattoos, my piercings, my lapses into profanity in everyday conversation, will I still be accepted by you folks inside the church bubble?


I think it's an ongoing dialogue we have to maintain. I also don't think I have to get a tattoo to be welcoming to those who do; I hope I don't have to curse in sermons to reach out with my message to those who believe their lives are a pile of mess.  And part of the tension and confusion in this murky political season is that now even into electoral campaigns we're all being asked to accept coarseness and crudity as the new national normal.


Discernment, though, is clearly the calling of the faithful. We are requested by God to look with the eyes of the heart, and see beyond the surface, and I would add to hear and read beyond the cultural conventions we've become accustomed to, and listen to what angry and hurting people are saying. Even in 2016, there's still some challenges out there in congregational life, where we need to remember that we're not a museum of preserved saints, but a hospital for wounded sinners.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's been cussed at even in church, and it doesn't leave a mark. Tell him, cleanly we hope, what you think about standards of decency at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Notes From My Knapsack 9-29-16

Notes From My Knapsack 9-29-16

Jeff Gill



An Interesting Few Weeks Ahead!



Yes, there's an election season all around us, and oh my, is Ohio a battleground of appearances and advertising and excitement (including our neighbors in Newark with an on-again/off-again Michael Moore program about the campaign). Historical precedents are being cited, smashed, and put back together again in new ways.


We've gone in fifty-seven years from the first televised debate and the question of whether or not Nixon should have used make-up (short answer: yes, but he still would have lost) to this month as podium height and spray tanning are part of the civic if not civil discourse.


So let's add sex to the volatile mix. Sure, why not? We're looking at the first woman to earn the right to be on the final ballot across the nation for President of these United States, and in Licking County we remember that daughter of Homer, Ohio who first addressed a congressional committee, who first made a plausible run for the presidency (even if she couldn't legally vote for herself, or anyone else), and who is uniquely memorialized in Granville.


There near one of only two memorials erected to honor Victoria Woodhull's memory, inside the Robbins Hunter Museum on Thursday, October 6 at 7:00 pm, I will speak on "The Dilemma of Sex: The Free Love Debate Within Victoria Woodhull's Writings." My talk is free to members of the museum, and only $5 for the general public. As candidates get accused of all sorts of things today, so did Victoria Woodhull in 1872. I may not clear up the current election for anyone, but there may be some elements of the contest today that are echoed in that earlier era's debates.


I don't think history repeats itself, but as many a sage has observed, it does tend to rhyme.


And stepping back into even earlier history, the amazing 2,000 year old Newark Earthworks continue to make progress towards their rightful place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Sadly, this year the fall open house at the Octagon Earthworks, a 135 acre portion of the once four-and-a-half square mile complex of geometric earthworks in full, will be on a Monday, not on a Sunday afternoon when so many more could visit. On Monday, Oct. 9, from sunrise to sunset, at the corner of 33rd St. and Parkview Road just off of West Main St. in Newark, you may freely roam the octagonal and connected circular enclosures, and we will have guides available for tours at points through the middle of the day.


Monday, Oct. 9 is also a day dwindling in observance, Columbus Day. It didn't become a federal holiday until the 1930s, and was a state observance in a number of places from early in the 1900s, but began to draw attention around the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Columbus "discovering" the Americas, in 1892 and along with the Chicago "World's Columbian Exposition."


Today, Columbus Day often gets shuffled aside unless you're trying to get your mail or do official business. I think it may be time to repurpose the observance, and call it "Encounter Day." What we realize is important about that event in 1492 was the beginning of an ongoing encounter between the Old World and the New, with tragedy and terror one result, and biological exchange and cultural impacts another. We are still learning (in books like Charles Mann's "1491") about what that encounter has done and is still doing to the world and its peoples: maybe making the second Monday of October a day to reflect constructively on cultural and ecological encounters and how they can be used for mutual benefit.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about stories you'd like to hear more about at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.