Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Faith Works 8-27-16

Faith Works 8-27-16

Jeff Gill


Interpretation of Resources, Natural & Spiritual



Last Thursday, Aug. 25th was the centennial of the National Park Service.


They have a history, in fact, the precedes their founding; Pres. Wilson signed the Organic Act of 1916 on Aug. 25 after Congress passed the legislation, which itself was rooted in the Antiquities Act of 1906 (signed by Teddy Roosevelt, which is the president most people associate with the NPS), and the first national park was established on its own in 1872, Yellowstone National Park.


The idea is one that's essentially unique to this country, to set aside public lands "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people" (as the Organic Act says and is inscribed on the Roosevelt Arch entering Yellowstone itself). We have begun this concept and it has spread around the world, but the US national parks are still the envy of much of the world and our own treasure held in trust for coming generations.


As a pastor, I've often thought about the similarities between my job, my vocation as a congregational pastor, and the work of a park ranger. Yes, the uniform is quite different, but the tasks and even the professions themselves have much in common.


Full disclosure: my wife got advanced degrees in what's called "natural resource interpretation," and the task of introducing and guiding and preserving while presenting both cultural and natural sites, like the Grand Canyon or Mammoth Cave or Independence Hall or Gettysburg battlefield – it's called "interpretation." A Park Ranger is often what's known as an interpreter, and that sort of non-formal education is an academic discipline, a field of research, and a profession within the NPS and many state park ranks.


So I have my own reasons to compare ministry to interpretation, but I think the parallels hold up in many ways – not all of them good, but I believe even the difficult points of comparison are worth consideration.


Right off the top: our goals, parsons and park rangers, is to get people to engage with and more deeply understand the very reason why we're where we are . . . and that can be harder than you might think. For NPS rangers, their ongoing frustration is that in survey after survey, over 90% of all visitors to national parks never get more than 50 yards from their cars or a park building.


That does mean that even in the most crowded and "popular" parks, you can find peace and solitude if you're just willing to pick a direction and go: NPS visitor centers like to make sure to prepare you for that, and they have guidelines, but they're always happy to help you with a backcountry permit, and if you are displaying that sort of interest, you'll find yourself with all the help and support you can stand. They're happy you love the park and the natural resource it is as much as they do.


Pastors want to get people out of the building and out into where the Holy Spirit blows and where Jesus is already at work; I don't have the same sort of surveys that the NPS has, but if someone said over 90% of worshipers don't get their faith very far out of the sanctuary on Sunday morning, I wouldn't be likely to argue.


So we . . . encourage, motivate, even "trick" people into staying for campfire talks and going on guided hikes and generally work with all our skills to help more people go deeper, into the wild, and find their own direct encounter with the "resource" of the Holy Spirit blowing through this world we've been given as a trust.


And on the more prosaic side, if you're a uniformed, trained, professional, full-time park ranger, you will still spend serious time replacing toilet paper, changing letters in signage, pulling weeds from walkways, and helping people find how to get where they're going when they're lost. Neither is a job well suited to just sitting in an office in a nice outfit. There are dress occasions, but much of your work is going to be in latrines and handling logistics and telling people where to turn . . . and listening politely to lots of stories about what used to be here, or how they used to do it in the 50s.


My wife did get to spend a summer as an NPS interpretive ranger, and most of what I just said I swiped from her observations. And where did she work?


She served as a ranger in Zion. And isn't that where I'm trying to direct people to, as well?


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he'd like to be a ranger in Zion someday, one way or another. Tell him about parks you've been marching to over the years at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Notes From My Knapsack 8-25-16

Notes From My Knapsack 8-25-16

Jeff Gill


A Centennial for America's Best Idea



The National Park Service celebrates 100 years of existence today, Aug. 25. President Woodrow Wilson signed it into existence, and the NPS is the federal agency that serves as a steward of one of our country's greatest legacies, what Ken Burns & Dayton Duncan called "America's Best Idea."


In 1916, the NPS began 44 years after it started. That may seem off-kilter, but it's true. And that might not even be the half of it!


Yellowstone was established as the first "national park" in 1872. Congress passed an act which declared that the area would become a "public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." The Army was given the responsibility for managing the land and guiding visitors, and the park ranger uniform so recognizable today is a direct descendant of those former cavalry trooper uniforms from Yellowstone days.


We were the first nation to do this, to set aside lands for public use and not allow it to be sold to private individuals, to preserve it as a trust for future generations. Australia was right behind us!


This past summer, my family visited the second national park, Michigan's Mackinac Island. If that raises your eyebrow, it's because it was turned back over to the State of Michigan in 1895, but in the interim, an army garrison did double duty as what we'd now call "park rangers" around the Fort.


Then Teddy Roosevelt signed The Antiquities Act of 1906, which is the understandable reason why people tend to think he founded the National Park Service. Starting with Devils Tower in Wyoming, Pres. Roosevelt signed a number of orders establishing "National Monuments," his successor Pres. Taft signed many into existence as well, including Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909, which later became Zion National Park . . . the NPS site my wife worked at as a ranger for a summer.


So there was much history and even a fair amount of real estate already organized into parks and preserves and monuments by 1916. Congress saw the need to create an organization to manage it all, and today we mark the signing of the "Organic Act" that officially began the NPS as we know it today. There are celebrations at NPS sites around the country, but the heart of the commemoration will be, quite rightly, at the Roosevelt Arch at the northern entrance of Yellowstone (which you can watch on streaming video by way of www.nps.gov)  which bears the inscription "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people."


Locally, we have a connection to that NPS pre-history. Daniel Webster came to east central Ohio in the early 1830s to deliver a commencement address at Kenyon College, and there undergraduate Edwin Davis (of "Squier & Davis" later fame) brought the Newark Earthworks to the distinguished senator's attention. Webster was said to have declared that they should be made a national park.


And my own salute to this centennial is having spent a few days last month in Chillicothe, where the nearest NPS site to Licking County, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park has been working on their latest Long-Range Interpretive Plan. And their connections to the sites of the Newark Earthworks are absolutely part of that story, and our heritage we're preserving in partnership with "America's Best Idea"!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's got a long list of national parks he hasn't made it to yet, but has hopes… Tell him about your favorite national park at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Faith Works 8-20-16

Faith Works 8-20-16

Jeff Gill


Reports of their death greatly exaggerated (again)



Election seasons seem to bring out these sorts of demographic over-generalizations. We've got books and articles getting attention with titles like "The End of White Christian America" and "White Christian America is Dying," all of which get transmuted through the alchemy of the internet from statistical gold to name-calling straw.


One of the straw men that gets burned regularly online is that trends mean definite outcomes. Economists have a quick dismissal of this misunderstanding, saying "trees don't grow to the sky." Trends are true until they… aren't. Yes, the historical "blip" of white, or Anglo, or northern European dominance in Christian life and thought globally is fading, but they weren't always large and in charge, and in fact they haven't been for quite a while already!


Remember, the typical Christian in the world today, as determined by raw numbers is: 1) from the Global South (70% of all Christians live in Africa, Latin America, or Asia now, with 1 in 4 Christians in the world living Africa and heading for 40% in another generation; China coming up fast with as many Christians in church on a Sunday as there are in the US), 2) likely to be charismatic or at least open to a more public expression of feelings in their faith (the number of Christians who are Charismatic/Pentecostal is above 30% and rising, especially in the Global South), and 3) is likely to be living out their faith in a context of repression and persecution. Globally, religious persecution is a phenomenon aimed at Christians; from Iran to North Korea, Saudi Arabia to China, official harassment and imprisonment along with unofficial killings of Christian clergy, members, and missionaries hit an all-time high in 2015.


Yet Christian faith is growing in all those places.


Anyhow, that's the global view versus scare-mongering about "the church is dying in America." What is true is that in 1900, about 80% of all Christians in the world lived in Europe and the US. Now, 70% live elsewhere. That's a story with many sub-themes to tell, swirling around a strong current of relative growth and vitality for the story of God's good news made known in the person of Jesus.


My friend Charles, an editor in another life, wants me to get to the point having read that much, so here it is: Christianity isn't dying. And your congregation isn't dying, unless it is, in which case you can do something about it. And faith communities in America won't look the same in 2050 as they did in 1950. But if you look back at 1850, that's no surprise (or shouldn't be).


1850 - the fallout from the failed Millerite movements about the "end of time" and Christ's Second Coming emptied out many congregations, and the various splinter groups left after the "Great Disappointment" of 1844 were scattered and bereft. There is essentially no such thing as Pentecostalism; the memory of the Cane Ridge revival of 1801 still echoed in some quarters, but no such church movement existed. Across America, men and women entered two different doors on the front of the building (this was true of most denominations) and sat on separate sides of the sanctuary. Abolitionism was seen as extremism by many church leaders, generally banned as an official position leading to clergy, seminaries, and congregations being kicked out of their respective denominational bodies. Most churches had vigorously supported the War with Mexico of a few years previously, and promoted the formation of militia companies within their memberships, from the Upper Midwest to the Deep South. Church attendance in general was down from where it had been in the 1820s, and most judicatory structures were entirely voluntary in nature, the positions we associate today with regions or dioceses or synods and their executives being held by serving clergy who were elected at annual meetings to oversee various functions -- the hiring of evangelists or the funding of missionaries still a controversial thing in many quarters. The Latter-Day Saints had left Illinois for western Iowa and then across the Plains to the Utah territory just a few years earlier, dropping off the US map for a time, and they themselves were waiting in Salt Lake to hear back from missionaries in England and the Nordic countries. Catholicism was growing through immigration, mostly German in the Midwest and Irish in the Northeast, but persecution and legal restrictions on the ownership of property and opening of schools was still common and, again, legal.


Doesn't sound much like 1950, does it? Nor will 2050. But all shall be well.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's a short term pessimist and long term optimist. Tell him what you're worried about at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Faith Works 8-13-16

Faith Works 8-13-16

Jeff Gill


Prayer and schools are an excellent fit



School starts for many this next week or so.


Wednesday or Thursday for most of the public schools in the county; colleges a little later, but today is the day my wife and I drop our son off for Marching 110 camp well before classes start at OU.


Prayer? We'll take some, thank you. For him, yes, for his newly empty nester parents, absolutely. And we'll be praying for him in this new venture.


School for the parents of kindergarteners, students transitioning between buildings, or heading into a senior year let alone off to college: it's all quite the provocation to prayer. A reminder to pray for parents, for friends, for grandparents and relatives across the county, for all of us thinking about our own first days on our own in a dorm, at a campus, in classes.


Closer to home, we find ourselves praying for teachers and staff and lunchroom crew, for bus drivers and the other drivers idling while the red stop sign and flashers swing out from the yellow chassis. We pray for the principal and the choir directors and band leaders, the coaches and the trainers who will have both physical and educational care for our young people; so many who can build up or tear down with a word, whether intentional or as an indifferent aside. We pray that they see and hear and know and understand what they're doing as our children grow up in their care.


We pray for our own alertness and awareness as new paths to school intersect with streets and roads, kids darting out where no doubt they shouldn't be, but are, and we pray that we see them, avoid them, bless them and send them safely on their way, even if they don't know how close we came to . . . and we pray.


Prayer, it has been said, will always be in school as long as there is algebra. Yes, and chair placement battles and basketball tryouts and application to enrichment programs. We pray that foolishness of the summer will not follow our youth into the hallways and cafeterias and gymnasiums and classrooms; we pray that what was learned as last school year ended still has some life in it to be watered into growth and renewal this fall.


Know that there are teachers praying for their students and the parents and families well before they even see the class lists, and they pray for us by name after those are handed 'round. Principals and assistants and deans and secretaries who meet in private, personal Bible studies, who ask their Sunday morning classes to pray for them and their work as the new school year begins, who are alert to the weak and vulnerable and the simply quiet and cautious, bringing them the attention and skill they deserve – and they pray that they keep on through the year in that work, not falling into the easier habits of tending to the squeaky wheels and brighter, more compelling kids.


In churches, we pray for all these groups and more by name, with special emphases depending on the congregation.  Perhaps we no longer have teachers leading set prayers in front of their classes, but that's not an era I've ever known, nor one that I would call back. I'll let schools work with the diversity they are mandated to embrace, and remind churches that the task of faith formation is ours to manage . . . or not. Some suggest, I think with cause, that we spent a generation among many mainline Protestant bodies getting sloppy with our teaching and training in faithfulness because we thought we could assume the culture and our schools would do our work for us. No more, and I can live with that. I pray that we as a faith community are faithful in that task of training up our children in the ways they should go.


And I would add: I believe, very strongly, in homeschooling, and I think everyone should do it. Some of us also choose to supplement that with the public school classroom, but I pray we never forget that a child's first teacher is always the parents, and in the home. If we remember that, the school teachers and the team around them can do their jobs all the better!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's been told at home he can be a tedious teacher at times. Tell him about historic markers you stop the car at by emailing knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Newark Central - chapters in a story

Newark Central – chapters in a story


As a chapter in my family's life comes to an end, but just as emphatically a new page is being written, the image of chapters in a book is making me think about the story of our congregation. Perhaps this is how to accomplish the two-fold task of telling our history to newer members, and a way to keep a healthy focus for all of us on that narrative of the future, the vision looking ahead that we need.


So I'm offering the reader an abbreviated version of our story here, at . . . the Christian Church of Newark, the Fourth St. Church of Christ, Central Church of Christ, or Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – all names our fellowship has used in identifying who we are, where we gather, and what we're doing. It's in chapters, as this editor would describe them, that sum up the stages and phases of our life in the past, which should give us a running start at leaping ahead to a better understanding of what's coming.


1.  A Pilgrim People – 1884-1894

            We began as a mission of the Hebron Christian Church, supporting a young  Newark clerk named George Crites who felt a call to ministry, and a need for a church of our sort, affirming the place of regular communion and baptism by immersion in our common life, congregationally governed under Biblical structures of elders and deacons. The fellowship met in upper rooms and rented halls for a decade, until building a chapel on land facing Fourth Street near downtown Newark.


2.  Finding A Place – 1895-1926 

            The chapel's cost nearly broke the young congregation, but with the help of the Ohio Christian Missionary Society, we survived unexpected ministerial transitions, honored our debts, restructured our worship and teaching program,  and moved forward under new leadership to build an expanded auditorium by 1904. Political stresses and Klan rule in Newark threatened division again, but an uneasy truce was reached, and a search went on for a new pastor.


3.  Establishing An Institution – 1927-1946

            It is no discredit to any other ministers of this congregation over 130-plus years and twenty clergy leaders to date in saying that this church was uniquely blessed with three pastors in a row between 1927 and 1951 who had precisely the right skills for the time when they served. Louis Mink was an organizational genius, Dale Fiers was gifted in the development of programs, and John Updegraff found he had skills in coordinating construction he didn't know he had.


4.  We Would Be Building – 1947-1951

            After the fire that utterly destroyed the 1894/1904 building on Fourth Street, the members of Central found that they had a life and a purpose outside of the physical plant. The church lodge was built and dedicated in October of 1947, and as worship continued in the NHS Gym for over four years, the circles and fellowships of the church found they had a place in sharing God's good news. Newark Central began to become a countywide fellowship, even as the new church building was completed north of downtown at Rugg Avenue and Mt. Vernon Road.


5.  Restoration & Management – 1952-1974

            Once dedicated, the new church building became a magnet for the startling growth of membership and involvement that marked the post-war era for many Protestant congregations. Rev. Joe Garshaw, the longest-tenured pastor in the history of the congregation (from 1958 to 1974) was well situated to develop the leadership and management structures of the fellowship even as the Disciples of Christ both generally and in Ohio restructured their organizational life. Camp Christian became a core element of the Christian Church in Ohio, and a focal point of wider ministry for our congregation as part of the "Ohio region" of the Disciples.


6.  An Uncertain Trumpet – 1974-2002

            Cultural conflict long simmering over national concerns like Vietnam and Watergate boiled over in many communities, no less so in Newark. Distrust of institutions, unwillingness to "join for the sake of joining," even a certain amount of distaste for organized religion in general radically changed the nature of evangelism and church growth. What had formerly been "brand loyalty" almost flipped into a reflexive skepticism over denominational labels, and visitors became less of an automatic occurrence. Within the church, the term "evangelism" began to be regarded with mistrust, but so was marketing or publicity.


7.  Wilderness Renewal – 2003-2016

            By 2003, membership and worship attendance was probably as low as it had been since 1903 and the struggles over paying for the new chapel downtown. The struggles were different, but the divisions no less jarring, and the resources for recovery seemed fewer. Jim Young stepped forward out of the membership into a new leadership role during a difficult transition period, and the call to bring Rick Rintamaa as senior minister following Jim's interim work put a priority on pastoral care; Rick's love for the membership and for the mission of this congregation into the community was a blessing that was returned overflowing to the church.


            During that interim period, a number of people led by Steve Crothers and Rick Hayden became a "Mission Team," traveling to the Gulf Coast in 2005 and making a contact with the Christian Church in Moss Point, Mississippi which has become a touchstone for Newark Central's renewal over the decade and more that followed. This teamwork, within our congregation and with our fellow Disciples of Christ out of Mississippi, has also poured blessings out into our life here even as the various Mission Team trips have blessed people in need from the Atlantic Coast to the Great Plains of Kansas and many points in between.


8.  The Next Chapter . . .

            The Spirit-led emphases of Newark Central over the previous chapters of our story have turned out to be a.) Mission work, at home with the Ramp Ministry and beyond with Mission Trips each year; b.) Education, with scholarships formed and distributed by the fellowship out of various gifts and bequests that emphasize our internal values around promoting education as a tool for the ministry of all believers; and c.) Medical ministries, focused around our Medical Loan Closet program. We also have surveyed and sampled various alternatives over the last decade, and have come to the conclusion for our time (at least) that we are called to excellence in "Traditional Worship," with our music ministries and preaching seeking the best forms we can offer today through means that would still be quite familiar to those who helped write earlier, very different chapters. We don't dislike "contemporary worship," and may support expressions of it in the future at other locations, but in our worship space on Mt. Vernon Road on Sunday mornings, we expect to keep on singing hymns, supporting choirs and anthems along with special music offerings, and preaching rooted in the Gospel and opening up the entire Scriptural story to those who would worship with us.


            The change in what it means to do evangelism is still a chapter being written. The days of visitors "just showing up" may be gone, but the question of how to let people know what we're doing, who we are, and how you can join us in our faith and fellowship – that's still being answered. We have those emphases that seem to be where God is guiding us to be faithful: in Missions, Education, and Medical ministries, but we don't imagine – looking at this history! – that this is a final word to the church on what we're called to do in Jesus' name. As our United Church of Christ friends like to say, "never put a period where God has put a comma!"


            You may have some ideas on what is happening on the first few pages of this new chapter; it may be time for you to start writing some of that new history as it happens . . .