Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Faith Works 4-4-15

Faith Works 4-4-15

Jeff Gill


Why resurrection?



Tomorrow is Easter, the Sunday each year that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, executed by Roman orders at the instigation of the Temple authorities.


In fact, the reason most Christians have their day of worship on Sunday, "the first day of the week" as opposed to the older Sabbath day of rest, Saturday, is to mark every week the occasion of joy and wonder that Christ's resurrection is to believers.


But on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equniox it's the general time of year when that first resurrection… well, wait a minute.


Sometimes people, even practicing Christians, get a little muddled about the significance of Easter. It gets called "the one time in all of human history that someone has returned from the dead."


Well, in the Bible, there's at least ten who do. ("At least," because in Matthew 27:50-53, there are "many" who had died who walk the streets of Jerusalem at Jesus' resurrection, a sort of echo of the impact of the one event to others nearby.)


Elijah and Elisha raise people from death, Elisha's bones are said to have done so (II Kings 13:20), and along with others Jesus raises up, Lazarus most notably, both Peter and Paul are shown to have done so.


Jesus being raised from the dead is not, in and of itself, what's presented in the Gospels as special about him. As a pastor, I'm always surprised by how often people are surprised to hear me say that, but you can look it up. If you hold the Bible as your base, you already affirm that others besides Jesus have been raised from the dead.


I've read some interesting attempts to make distinctions between how Jesus returned and the others did so, and as a person of faith I'll grant you that the form and nature of Christ's return indicate he's not going through death again: Eutychus, Dorcas, Lazarus, they have returned but will pass through that door again. A distinction, perhaps.


To those who find religion and faith a puzzle, it's a distinction without a difference. Seriously, I've been asked, you think someone can die, die dead, and come back again? When I answer that as a matter of faith, and a matter of fact, yes I do, the conversation often moves on to the heart of the matter.


Why him, and not them? Why this person, and not that one? We all have our own examples, people whose departure left the world the less, and whose resurrection would doubtless brighten this poor cracked old globe and show good news to sorrowful humanity. I can think of a few myself I'd bring back in a heartbeat.


One thing is for sure, resurrection is presented in the Holy Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity as exceptional. It's not the norm. Ten, or even ten plus an uncertain dozen, versus the billions who die and are buried and who "pass on" – it's clearly not a common experience.


Why particular ones? That's easier to respond to than to explain "and why not this one?" Each raising from the dead in the Bible, up to and including that of Jesus, is presented as necessary to share the Gospel. It begins in healing, and continues through that ultimate act of restoration resurrection itself, as something that happens to show all who witness something important, something crucial about God's plan. In Nazareth, Jesus could barely even help the sick. In Jerusalem, despite the best efforts of Roman cruelty and security, Jesus himself is raised, to prove the truth of all he had promised.


And in the last book of the Bible, the coda, the finale, the resolution of God's "Resurrection Symphony" in Revelation is to proclaim and declare and enact an end to death altogether. The world we know and the lives we live cannot coexist with everyone being born and never dying, or even quite a few of us doing so. But the fulfillment of the hope that is woven into this creation, "the love that moves the sun and other stars" will bring about an end to pain, sorrow, tears, and yes, death. Death will be no more.


For that resurrection, Jesus' appearance on the first Easter is simply a down payment.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's curious to find out just how cold it is atop Horn's Hill at 6:30 tomorrow morning. Tell him how you greet Easter at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Faith Works 3-28-15

Faith Works 3-28-15
Jeff Gill

Why go to Jerusalem?

Every spring, each new year's journey towards Palm Sunday and all that was to follow, I find the earlier mornings and drawn-out evenings to invite reflection. On the direction and arc of my own life, but more and more the season takes me closer and closer to the footsteps of Jesus.

It's a cliché, I know, in Israel no less than during Holy Week anywhere else, to speak of "walking where Jesus walks." And we can't, whether by reach of time or elevation of divinity, walk in Jesus' footsteps. We can't even really walk in another person's moccasins, or sandals, or hiking boots. We walk each of us in our own, just as Heraclitus back half-a-millennium before Pilate's era said to the Greco-Roman world that we cannot step in the same river twice.

Yet we take on models, examples, exemplars to tell us how to travel: Jesus spoke himself of David the king, Isaiah's suffering servant, Jonah "saved" by the giant beast of the sea. He did not walk alone, he knew the path had been travelled before.

So in a new way we set foot on a very well worn trail. Over rocks, through passages, past doorways once barred and now open. Someone has been this way, and we can tell by the traces something of that earlier traveler.

Early on, before the formal and liturgical events of the Easter season, there's that moment in Mark and Luke's accounts in particular, when Jesus "sets his face like flint" toward Jerusalem. He's well-received and much loved in the Galilee, and even for some distance around (Syro-Phoenicia, the Decapolis, even beyond the Jordan). His knowledge of the terrain is intimate and immediate, there are friends and supporters close at hand, and the primary critics and skeptics are ones trucked in from the urbane and occupied national capital.

Which raises, for me, the question "why go there?" Right, right, prophets must die in Jerusalem (Luke 13:34). Or do they? I checked. Well, Isaiah, Amos, and Habakkuk may have been killed there. That's a big trio. Lots of other prophets died in old age and peace, too. Why did Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, feel like he had to go straight into the belly of the beast?

Now, if you're jumping ahead to claims of the cosmic significance of who and what Jesus' life and death and resurrection all meant, and the absolute salvation-history necessity of Jesus going to the Holy City to mark the Passover, I hear you. That's what all the songs and anthems and cantatas, and even a bunch of praise music, is reminding us every year.

But I'm still back on that hillside at the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee, sitting on a jutting piece of limestone among the long dried grasses of early spring, rustling in the breezes lifting off the surface of the water just below. The heights to your left, over into Syria, are fading into murk, the setting sun leaves the hills behind Tiberias before you in shadow, shafts of light breaking through the valley of Migdal just on your right hand.

Capernaum is down the slope and a short walk to the west, dinner (fish again) and sleep. Tomorrow, looking out across the long axis of the body of water before you, a long day's walk by shore or a fairly simple sail by boat, and you can be fifteen miles away: there where the Jordan River steadily trickles out of the lake and on down a steadily declining valley, three days' walk and more to Jericho.

Then that last ten mile pull, all uphill again, to Jerusalem.

Why go? "Let the dead bury their own dead," he'd already said.

The Sanhedrin and the Roman legions can glare at one another across the Cheesemaker's Valley, and the smoke of the smoldering trash dumps in the Hinnom bring tears to their eyes. The Temple, a beautiful piece of architecture, built by a monster who wanted you dead even as you were born, now occupied by people who wanted you dead without knowing who you were.

Let Jerusalem go. Stay here, stay home, stay safe, preach where you know the lay of the land.

Or fulfill a calling that drew you forward, even beyond common sense and pure reason.

To Jerusalem.

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Faith Works 3-21-15

Faith Works 3-21-15

Jeff Gill


Why silence?



Of all the things I could offer to explain under the heading of "why?" in worship, I think silence may be the most challenging.


Partly because I'm a speaker, a preacher, a storyteller at heart.


Partly because we live in a world with very little silence in it. Sounds, stirrings, buzzings, hummings, beeps and tweets: sound is everywhere.


There are, as Paul & Art would suggest, "sounds of silence" – wind in evergreens, the crunch of snow on a cold, moonlit night, cicadas in the summertime. They are background noise without weight or pressure or insistence.


And there are quiet noises that can drive you mad. Dripping faucets, sniffling loved ones, high pitched screeching.


In worship, there are usually words and music. Some churches have liturgical bells, others have handbells; there may be a pipe organ, a piano, a Clavinova, or just a pitch pipe. There can be beautiful soloists, practiced choirs, full-throated congregations (if you doubt that last, talk to the Welsh).


From beginning to end, whether you have a praise band and carefully thought-out bridge music, or Great Aunt Hattie on an out-of-tune piano, the pacing and placement of music is important to the experience of turning our faces and lifting our hearts to the Lord in thanksgiving. You don't want ALL the music in a lump, then nothing but talking (or vice versa).


Likewise, the speech that goes into a gathering for prayer and praise has to be constructively laid out. There's impromptu prayer, formal statements of faith or devotion, sermons that may be from a manuscript or as much sung and shouted as they are said.


All of which takes us back to silence. The silences between parts of worship can be too long, or too short. Within a sermon or a song, pauses, rests, silence is a gift. Like most gifts, you can't just spend all your time on Christmas morning unwrapping presents.


The big exception is among the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. I have a huge warm place in my heart for Quakers: they were part of my family history deep in my mother's side, likely shaping me in ways I'm not fully aware of; Lafayette (IN) Friends Meeting "adopted" me at a crucial point in my college career, with a scholarship that carried me over a rough patch from which I might well have turned around at.


Some of my first preaching outside of my home church, to relative strangers, was at Farmer's Institute, what's called a "programmed" Friends meeting outside of West Lafayette, and Phil Gulley was a student at my seminary about the same time I was, who has gotten a delightful series of novels out of ministry among programmed Friends.


Those latter are in contrast to the classic "unprogrammed" meeting, where Quakers meet in worship with nothing but silence, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Someone may be moved to speak, or not. It's not a bad thing if for forty minutes or more no one says a word. If you've never experienced silent worship, you've missed out.


And programmed Friends, along with many other Christian traditions, will have a time of silence. It might be a minute, it might be longer. And I've been at public events where "a moment of silence" was announced, and the period couldn't have made it to ten seconds.


For personal use or for corporate worship, silence can be as much a gift to God as a powerful soprano solo or a preached message from the Gospels. And for a busy, buzzing, battered world, silence can be the gift God would have us give each other, so that we can listen for that "still, small voice."


A musician I was reading online said about his art that "Music is the artful arrangement of carefully chosen interruptions to the silence." Worship and prayer may be much the same, and may our interruptions improve on the silence.


Which may be harder than you think.



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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Notes From My Knapsack 3-19-15

Notes From My Knapsack 3-19-15

Jeff Gill


A Body in the Well (pt. 4)



"That's Caleb Munro."


It actually may have been more than one man who said that, all at the same time. Hezekiah Mirk realized that all of the men standing around the body were looking at it with varying degrees of both amazement and recognition.


Heads nodded. Indeed, that was the distorted but tragically recognizable face on the body which had just been pulled clear of the well. Mirk, the newcomer to the village, still had trouble with some of the names he dealt with most days. This fellow's name was not one he had heard before.


Responding to a puzzled look, Job Case said "Munro was one of the men who marched to the relief of Fort Meigs from Granville two years ago. When Gen. Hull unaccountably surrendered his army before Detroit, and our own unit with him in the collapse of his command, many of us ended up paroled off by the British in different directions. Most of us made it home, one way or another, within a few months, but Caleb . . ."


Hezekiah could tell there was a bit more story than was being shared in that trailing end of the narrative, but he was still catching his breath having climbed down a sixty foot well and back up again cradling a corpse, and was in no mood to be patient.


"This means he's of the village, but has he any people to claim this body, or to press his cause?"


The pause, not long, was eloquent. This was a man with a complicated history, indeed.


One man towards the back of the group, one of the Averys, said "His wife might have something to say, had she not declared him dead already."


Case looked back over his shoulder disapprovingly. "She'd not heard a word from him for over a year, and everyone else returned. We all affirmed her request to have Munro declared dead, so that she might…"


"Might what?" asked Mirk after a decent delay.


"Might marry again and have a man in the house to plow the fields and bring in the crops," said Stuart Seever without rancor. "Judson Williams was widowed himself that year, and they were compatible."


"So the return of Caleb Munro might not have been good news for either her or her…new husband?"


"He was a hard man. Not unmourned, so to speak, but not missed by many, either." This from a man Mirk could not recall even having met before, apparently from further on up the Pataskala valley. But the other townsmen nodded slightly, enough to indicate agreement if not enthusiasm in the assent.


Mirk turned to Case, and asked "Shall we go to the former Mrs. Munro and bring her the news directly, welcome or not?"


"We should. I know not how she will receive it, or Mr. Williams. They…"


The cause for the discomfort suddenly came to Mirk. There surely had not been enough time for the court in Lancaster to formally declare this man dead, so the connection between the widow (twice-over?) and the widower was not what Massachusetts morality would call a "regular" one. In common-law their circumstances were regular enough, back in New England let alone here on the frontier of 1815, but the church-going expectations of these Congregationalist settlers was still straight-laced enough to give discomfort.


"Sooner said, more the mercy," suggested Mirk; Case nodded a grim agreement. They walked back towards the village, leaving a small circle of men looking at that corpse now brought to the light of day, from the depths of both a well, and from a history whose outlines Hezekiah Mirk was only just coming to understand.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you'd like to learn about Granville history at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Faith Works 3-14-15

Faith Works 3-14-15

Jeff Gill


Why a Bible?



If you're reading this whether in print or online this Saturday, Happy Pi Day! If you're reading this at 9:26:53 a.m., well, that's very cool if you're into math and geometry.


In I Kings 7:23, echoed in the parallel account of II Chronicles 4:2, there's a detailed description of the "brazen sea," a giant cast metal basin for ritual washing just outside of the doors of the Jerusalem Temple.


Both tellings inform the reader that the vessel is thirty cubits in circumference, and ten cubits in diameter. Some of us would say that's close enough for narrative work, but those who find the place and meaning of the Bible in the modern world to be an antiquated intrusion like to point out that either the measurements, or the reporting, must be incorrect, because "pi" is not 3, but 3.141592653 (etc.). So, that line of logic goes, the Bible is not without error.


And I sigh wearily as I hear from some intent on protecting the good name and stature of the Bible by coming up with elaborate explanations for how the description implies a curved lip and that the reported circumference is not quite in correspondence with the diameter, so nyah nyah it is so a perfect record.


Peace be upon them all.


In this Lenten series on "why's" of Christian faith and practice, I've come to what is always contentious ground. The skeptic's question is "Why do any people in 2015 still look for guidance and grounding to a series of ancient texts, from at least three different languages and much of it filtered through a fourth to get to our English, complicated by an assortment of translations, all of which come from across a couple thousand years of writings, the most recent of which is nearly two thousand years old?"


Did I get that right, skeptics? Truly, I want to be fair.


It can get more complicated than that long question. Non-believers and the unchurched ask why we faithful choose certain passages for verbatim guidance, but give ourselves a pass for others, or how the whole is to be considered anything other than a collection of fragments, the unity imposed by power and authority from without.


It's a conversation I've had more than a few times.


And some people of faith put so much of it in the Holy Scriptures, King James' translation of 1611 or others, that they would insist on the stand-alone truth of any individual statement in all the 66 books of the standard canon (necessary note: the canon, or list of scriptural books, is slightly different in some communions, including books called the "Apocrypha" and some other materials like extra chapters or psalms).


I've been approached by people telling me they suspect I'm not a literalist, or an "inerrantist" on my reading of the Bible. That would be correct. I believe I hold a very high view of the significance of the Bible, and how it interacts with God's plan and purposes into our lives today, but you'll usually hear me saying "scripture and tradition" in church when I talk about how we interpret and apply the Bible, because they are two sides of a priceless coin. We carry assumptions and history of interpretation to the words and stories, and to be mindful of them is to let the larger story, the whole story I believe the Bible in sum does, in fact, tell – that awareness of the context gives the Bible more authority, not less. You the reader of this column can find Christians who would lean away from that position in any number of directions.


What I can tell you about the Bible, and what it means to me, takes the form of a story, a currency the Bible deals in richly. When my son and I and our crew were hiking in the mountains of Philmont two summers back, there was a mountain named Baldy that stood out on the landscape, higher than any other point in the surrounding terrain.


We might be near it or far, we climbed atop it, and we journeyed away from Baldy, but wherever we were, it was what you turned to look at to know where you were. You weren't always on the slopes of Baldy itself, but when you looked to where it was, it told us where we stood. The map read more clearly when we knew Baldy's location on our horizon, along with the compass bearing we sought.


The Bible, to me, is my everyday Baldy Mountain. It grounds me, and tells me where I am, and where I'm going.


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