Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Faith Works 2-13-16

Faith Works 2-13-16

Jeff Gill


Boring is better than headline making



There's an aspect of faith community life, of church involvements, that we all tend to dismiss – intentionally or not.


When it comes to the boring minutae of finance and the organizational detail of what's often called "stewardship" (a broad subject, but in board and committee-speak usually meaning the group responsible for managing finances), everyone from clergy to chairmen, from ministers to moderators, all like to wince a little as the financial report comes up.


Yes, it involves numbers, and true, we're talking about money. In modern-day America, we could talk about dreadful diseases or sexual activity and not see as many people start looking intently at their shoe-tops. Innumeracy may be worse than illiteracy in our society, and money is the guilty secret everyone wants to keep. So the cultural pressure is to glance, shuffle, and move on. Someone understands this stuff, right? Let them worry about it.


And let me (unfairly) speak for clergy. Few of us went into this calling because we loved to work over the budget analysis, or have a head for accounting. It's a different skill-set, and they don't always overlap.


It all adds up to church finances, and non-profit accounting, being an area that's seen as a specialist field where most of us not only don't but don't need to understand what's going on.


Until there's a problem.


Yeah. I feel like I have to write some version of this column about every two years, and it seems that it's time again, so here goes: when someone is caught stealing money from a Little League team, a Girl Scout troop, the Cub Scout pack, the church treasury? I can tell you from painful, hard experience: it NEVER starts as someone thinking "I'll swipe the cookie money from the kids." Really, it doesn't. It begins with a person who is handling too much cash with too few other participants who is dealing with some financial stresses of their own, and says – to themselves, because the set-up doesn't require they talk to anyone else, anyhow – "you know what? this won't be missed for the time being, and I need to pay something over here, and I'll pay it back over there in a few days…weeks….months."


And a year goes by, and you owe the club, the group, the fund something on the order of thousands, and the tax return wasn't as big as you hoped, and now you'd have to explain to people why it was going in now, and you can't figure out where to get it from anyhow, and so far no one notices, so… then it gets to five figures.


It can be, I've seen, almost a relief to get caught. What's horrible for some of us is having to be one of the two or three who have to sit down with someone, and work through a) denial, b) deflection, c) weeping and sobbing, and get to d) what are we going to do about it? A to D can be a long journey, and sometimes you end up stuck at B and lawyers and the police have to be involved.


Here's my sermon for charitable groups in general and churches in particular: if you're taking the easy way out regarding donations and money and giving, STOP. You're creating the circumstances where a decent but weak and/or hurting person could do themselves and your cause a great disservice. Fiscal reports and annual budgets and two-handed deposit and check writing processes and the occasional audit: they can all be SO tedious, and quite frankly, they can be utterly unnecessary for years on end. Until they aren't.


Which is why we do it month after month, year after year. The boring way. The "everyone gets a copy" way and the "nothing happens without two un-related sets of eyes on it" way. The responsible way, for your organization and for those taking on the responsibility. When you say "we trust you, just shove it in your left-hand pocket and put it in the bank on Monday!" you mean well, but you might be creating the grounds for misunderstandings later at best, outright crime that could have been prevented at the worst.


Do it the right way from the start, and give thanks for all of us tedious, rule-citing people. You will never (I hope) know how much pain our boring ways can prevent.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's been a treasurer and board officer a few times, and knows why you do this boring stuff. Tell him what boredom you're thankful for at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Notes From My Knapsack 2-11-16

Notes From My Knapsack 2-11-16

Jeff Gill


Sounds Overheard, All Around the Halls



Imagine walking down a classroom corridor, hearing over the modulated hubbub of the hallway the sound of voices raised in song, singly and in groups, in English, yes, but also Italian and French and German and Latin.


You hear pieces and parts more clearly through some doors, safely closed during performance, than you do others; some vocalists are stronger, others softer, occasionally it's an ensemble or group of some sort singing.


On into a different section of the building, or the floor below, and it's instrumentalists at work: woodwind and brass and percussion, strings and keyboards, steel drum groups, clarinet choirs, and orchestral assemblies. Keep moving and you'll hear a fast run of notes, up deliberately then down just as carefully, yet a few steps further on a slow and stately sonata unfurls.


You can come upon a stretch of warm-up rooms with a manic charge of scales or arpeggios in the air, or just see a small mountain of instrument cases piled with coats on top, a formally dressed student sound asleep on the tiles before it, as if exhausted with having climbed or built it.


Stop and sit yourself, whether on a precious empty chair or bold enough to plop onto the floor, and watch them stride briskly by, tuxedos and formals and a wide variety of black tights, sweaters, jackets, scarves, with just enough jolts of color to remind you these are teenagers under the very professional exteriors.


Some look stern, many are laughing, not a few are gazing without focus before them (look out!) as they hum softly and rap a rhythm on their thigh as they walk.


You also see a fair number of parents, often obvious as they walk along with their maturing child, young person, youthful adult; the faces and forms echoing across generations to show you how one looked younger and in what ways the other is likely to age.


There is an event like this every winter that often takes place right here in Granville.


A couple of years ago, it got snowed out, but generally, they plow on. Friday night and Saturday, in late January, the Ohio Music Educators Association holds a Solo and Ensemble "adjudicated event" in this district, and the music programs of Granville Middle and High Schools along with the Music Boosters are delighted to host.


Thousands of singers and players, well over a dozen high schools from across east central Ohio, hundreds of parents, chaperones, and those indispensable band and choir and orchestra teachers all ramble the length of GHS & GMS, and you rarely get to know just what an extended sprawl of a building complex we have until your own child has six different performances on a Saturday between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm.


Your strength will keep up, thanks to the wonders of the Music Boosters' kitchen in the concession area next to the Commons (huzzah for shredded chicken sandwiches!); and the Commons are bustling and electric all the live-long day.


Across the walls, the large sheets of flipchart paper, ruled in magic marker and names and performance levels pre-written – it is ultimately onto these the proctors, students themselves, come to write from the judges' sides (they being music educators themselves, but from outside our area, all skilled and helpful, but somewhat stiff and grim in their adjudicating role).


The latest set of scores is carefully written in, and from the crowd which quickly gathers behind the proctor, there are moans, or cheers, or just a happy laugh.


It is a day like no other for the music students of our community, and for those adults privileged to watch and listen alongside.


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



Faith Works 2-6-16

Faith Works 2-6-16

Jeff Gill


How Not To Kid Yourself



Fifteen years ago, on the first of March, I drove over to Bethany College, in West Virginia just north of Wheeling.


The village was the home base for one of the founders of my religious tradition within Christianity, and where he founded a college that helped to spread his beliefs and priorities. Since Alexander Campbell's death in 1866, they have marked an occasion somewhere in the neighborhood of March 4 as "Founders Day."


I was going as a minister, simply to share a brief address and prayer of dedication at a wreath-laying in "God's Acre," the Campbell family cemetery. Founders Day always has a keynote speaker, usually someone of national or even international prominence, and in 2001 it was the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter David Halberstam.


Which is how, after a fashion, I got to have lunch with him. After the keynote, and before the trip out to the cemetery, we went into the student union and a lunch was laid out, with my role allowing me a place at the head table.


Halberstam was eloquent, passionate, occasionally infuriated, and matching my own height of nearly six and a half feet, imposing even when seated, with a voice that rumbled down into registers that rattled crockery stored in the cellar. Yet the Bethany students seated at our table were quickly made at ease, mostly, as he found out where they were from, what their studies were, and how they felt about the campus and college life.


Then his deep-set eyes swiveled around to the thirty-something clergyman sitting at his right, and Halberstam said to me "So, what about you?"


And I found myself being interviewed, as it were, by an expert. (A Pulitzer Prize winning expert.) He wanted to know more about my work as a pastor of a congregation, and he was curious about the denomination this college represented, at least historically. "They sent me some stuff in the mail, and I glanced through it, but I'd like to hear it from you."


I did my best to tell our frontier Protestant tale, and he sped me along with well-timed questions, in a hurry to get to the present day: what was the church structure like, how did it work, how was it doing in the purposes it existed for? It was clear he didn't consider himself a religious man, and he admitted at one point he knew less about American church history than probably he should, but his knowledge was fairly extensive for all I could tell.


He also fairly quickly got at my unease at the direction of our denomination, not just in numerical decline, but in our overall function and structures. "Have you read my 'The Best and the Brightest'?" he asked.


I could just barely honestly answer "Um, yes" from a years-before quick read (McNamara, Bundy, Rusk, Acheson, arrogance, hubris, quagmire), to which he said "Good; there's a book a friend of mine, Neil Sheehan wrote a few years ago, 'A Bright Shining Lie," read it? (I shook my head no), and I think you'd find it informative and interesting on this same subject." He asked me about what I was saying at the cemetery; his flight from Pittsburgh meant that he wouldn't join us out there, and I gave him my second copy I had in my folder for the ceremony.


"You've got some challenges ahead, that's for sure," Halberstam said in his conversationally prophetic tone; "the best thing I can tell you is this: don't kid yourself."


He took a drink of water, looked back at me, very seriously, and added "The best way you can tell if you're kidding yourself is if you find yourself kidding other people." He stood up, shook my hand, said "It's been good talking to you" and strode off to find the college president.


I've recently re-read both of those books. I'm starting again this week to teach my church tradition's history and polity to seminarians, and I'm thinking about Halberstam's counsel. "Don't kid yourself….(don't) find yourself kidding other people." I have a truly grand and glorious story to tell about my spiritual forbears, the men and women of the Disciples of Christ, but I also know there's a great deal of kidding ourselves going on out there.


There is a place for hope and possibility, and a time for honesty and candor. I pray that I will find the words for both, and am thankful for having met a man who reminded me how to maintain that balance.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about someone who spoke directly to you at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Faith Works 1-30-16

Faith Works 1-30-16

Jeff Gill


Cell phones and ring tones


I've been putting off writing this one because I honestly don't know what to say.


In my own congregation, there have been many and various conversations on this subject. I attend live performances fairly often around Newark and central Ohio, and am accustomed to the announcement at the outset (and have done it myself at the Midland in years past):


"Please silence or set to vibrate your electronic devices!"


Different churches put it on a screen in the front, print some version of those words in a bulletin or weekly print page, and some places even have signs at the doors.


Yet still they ring.


Except, of course, they don't ring. They chirp and tweet and chime and play tunes, often jarring and intrusive music. The "Sex and the City" theme, super hero music from the movies or TV themes or hip hop anthems. Occasionally classical, but of a "Jupiter" or Wagnerian ilk; often popular and sometimes obscure, but clearly music meant to tell you, your seat mates, and those for fifty feet and more around you "I've got a call coming in."


Then there's the throwback sound of a big black heavy handset dial phone ringer, piercing the silence. That would evoke a smile from me, and from others who recall that clarion call . . . if it weren't during a funeral, a prayer, a time of meditation and devotion.


Or when I'm pausing for effect, to gather attention and make a preaching point. My words stop, I look intently out, a hand softly pressing down to one side, the other rising up and everyone leaning in, anticipating that the preacher is about to say . . .


"Da dadada, de dadada, is all I want to say to you . . ."


Interestingly there are often a half dozen hands scrabbling for pockets and purses and under hymnals or coats or diaper bags. Maybe they all have that ringtone, or perhaps the offending sounds remind them that they may not have remembered to silence theirs.


Except that I'm as accustomed to it happening twice, with two different phones, across the room from each other, as I am to an intruding sound occurring even once. I cannot recall the last funeral I attended or officiated at where there wasn't at least one phone going off; most Sundays during the sermon there's one, but more often on two occasions before we get to the final "Amen."


So I've been asked to make an announcement each service for a month at our church, to see what happens. I resisted, actually, because I listen to directors like Adam and Aara and Russ and others at Weathervane and Licking County Players and the Heisey Wind or high school concerts, all gamely reminding everyone, as an act of courtesy, to turn 'em off . . . and there is still the interruption, the distraction, the break in our collective attention.


In other words, I don't know that it works. My strategy for the last few years has been to ignore it as much as possible, and encourage others to do the same.


I've heard people try to shame and embarrass offending phone owners, but I'm aware that often the shocked scrambler after a worst-time-possible ring is a fine person, a gentle old soul, a quiet pillar of the community. They forgot, even with the announcement. Do I help, or add to the embarrassment, by making a larger point of it?


And there are also some who pretty clearly don't care. They are certain their calls are important, their lives the main priority of the world's operations, and if they have a phone going off in the middle of the Lord's Prayer, they're certain the Lord will understand, and answer the call unruffled. It's baffling, but not unusual.


So what will happen? I don't know, but I'm going to try for the next four weeks to find some creative and hopefully charming ways to tell everyone "your ring tone is none of my business, so don't let it come to our attention for this next hour, please!"


If anyone has found an effective way to deal with this issue, I would truly love to hear about it. But don't call me. Just text or e-mail.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he hasn't had his phone off vibrate-only since he bought it. Tell him your favorite ringtone tale at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Monday, January 18, 2016

Notes From My Knapsack 1-28-16

Notes From My Knapsack 1-28-16

Jeff Gill


Here In a Small Town



What does it mean to live in the village of Granville?


Having now passed the decade mark as a resident, I should be feeling even more a part of this historic community. I'm woven into the local landscape through the schools and Scouting and churchly involvements (and more than one congregation at that), have told some of our two century and ten millennia old stories in print and to the public, all of which should make me feel a part of this place.


It's long been true, though, that "Granville native" is not a title someone like me is likely to receive, even after two more decades pass (if I'm so blessed). Some would say that not only will the likes of me won't ever be really "from here," neither will my child (true, we neglected to give birth to him in Ohio). My wife and I are entangled, deeply, with the "fair college on the hill," but that hill sets apart much; not just the university but the staff & students thereon from the village below.


What would it take for me to be "a true Granvillian"? I'm not sure. If lighting luminaries for the walking tour in December and and shoveling horse droppings for the July Fourth parade doesn't qualify one, maybe it's just not possible. Perhaps there's a late night, closed-door meeting where these things are decided, in which I'm not yet approved. It comes up in the darndest moments, the observation of "you're not from here," and those saying so are rarely the older multi-generation residents as they are the ones just a bit older than I am, but with a few more years to their credit.


I do know that I like being from a small town, yet Granville has never quite reconciled itself to being one. We began with New England aspirations in our DNA, and the Averys and Roses and Bancrofts and their ilk all hoped to bring business and industry to these valleys. Periander Taylor, whose Tan Y Bryn home is now in use by the Granville (Township) Fire Department, was a man of strong words and vehement exhortations: he challenged God to rain properly, and was not abashed by record floods on Raccoon Creek in response. Ahab Jinks knew what architecture worked for him, even if building it meant he no longer worked for the leading church in town. Granville has long had cosmopolitan and in truth global aspirations, even if circumstances have kept us focused on the local, the regional, the particular.


Where I most feel at home is with my fellow local residents who are not "from here," but have claimed a place here as their place to stand, a place to pitch their tents, a place to rest. People who have not only come from but made a way for themselves in the big city, the big leagues, in a big way, but are looking for something smaller . . . not even smaller, but more intimate.


Today's modern urban usage is to sneak through life anonymously, not being noticed by no one, expecting nothing from nobody. We're to be part of nothing and not attached to anything because no one's going to stick around. Everyone around you is transient, which gives you a place to be on your own.


Cities do not tend to create community. That may not be what they're for, but what they do create is an ideal place to hide. If you fear commitment, rootedness, connectedness and accountability, a city is the place for you.


You can avoid all those things in a village, too, but here you have to work harder to do so. And why would you want to work that hard?


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County, and a discreetly lazy resident of Granville. Tell him where you pick and choose your labors at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.