Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Faith Works 9-5-15

Faith Works 9-5-15

Jeff Gill

 

Soaring in the spirit, and in fact

___

  

Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles...

  ~ Isaiah 40:31 (NIV)

 

A week ago Friday your "Faith Works" columnist was invited to join some community leaders in a paddle down the Licking River, an advance event for the River Round Up on Sept. 12th, where many communities and sponsors come together to clean up trash and junk in our county's primary watercourse, under the guidance of the Licking County Soil & Water Conservation District and program administrator Denise Natoli Brooks.

 

After Mayor Jeff Hall sent us off with some good words (he's done the paddle before but couldn't join us that day), a couple dozen of us got into canoes and kayaks and began the journey from Little Texas to Brownsville Road. Just after the first quarter of the seven miles of river we covered, the giant basket building swung into view around a curve, but that was the only man-made structure we saw other than passing under historic Stadden's Bridge (the location is historically significant for Licking County, if not that particular structure).

 

And then a few curves further on, a black figure in the sky making vast lazy arcs began to come lower, low enough to see the sun filter through the tail feathers of this soaring bird.

 

That's right, we saw not only great blue herons and little green herons and kingfishers and cliff swallows and robins, we saw a pair of bald eagles. There was something magical about the light through those iridescent feathers spread out behind the broad reach of wings, a hint of sparkle and shadow in the midst of the white, and the steadily shifting play of blue gaps in the ragged ends on the black broad reach of the wings.

 

As they spiraled down, you could more clearly see the white head and golden beak of these majestic creatures. They were indeed soaring, barely moving their wings, just slightly turning their outmost feathers to steer along the currents of air rising off of the river valley we paddled down.

 

One did perch on a sycamore branch where we could see the proud profile, but he was spotted behind us, and I was up front in a canoe where my twisting around to get a shot up and reverse from our direction might have led to the wrong sort of rotation, and a subsequent unintentional immersion.

 

But it was the sight of them far overhead that stirred me, and a reminder of what we'd heard at my church on Sunday about the remarkable summer many of our youth had, at camps and conferences, and with our denomination's general meeting held in July at the Columbus Convention Center. The General Assembly had a theme and an ongoing message from Isaiah 40, shared in the programs, through the worship, with the mission work that went on in between everything else, and during the fellowship we shared. "Soar on wings like eagles," says the Lord through Isaiah. "Soar" was the theme, and it had unexpected resonances picked up by all the plenary speakers and at many other program events as well. We all talked about what "Soar" meant in that wonderful Isaiah passage: Don't spend too much time flapping or flailing or struggling to take off all on your own effort. Let the currents and created order carry you sometimes, because that may well be part of the plan. Get the view from above.

 

To "soar" is to be carried, as the old favorite "Footprints" story says. To soar is to fly high above some of our everyday distractions, to see more clearly, and yet to not be stressed or anxious or exerting yourself unnecessarily. Soar, with the eagles, with God, who has promised to give us that wind we need to be lifted up.

 

As Christians, as a church, as a community, let us prayerfully soar.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him where you've been inspired by mighty wings overhead at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Faith Works 8-29-15

Faith Works 8-29-15

Jeff Gill

 

Telling A Biblical Memoir

___

 

If I were to review my life in the form of scriptural passages that mark each stage, I would have a Biblical memoir of sorts, an autobiography of how the Bible has written the story of my life.

 

My earliest recollection of knowing a verse as being a verse, as having the stature of being part of the Holy Bible in sum, is looking through car windows at a large Christmas display on a Chicago street corner, which said in flowing letters "Peace on earth, good will among men!" (Luke 2:14)

 

I saw that, at five or six, and thought "that's in the Bible, and they're here in this public place, telling everyone good news."

 

It wasn't much later that I was sitting at a table with other kids for a Sunday school lesson, and out of the booklet, we had a story, a picture to color, and a figure on the facing page to cut out, then glue a piece of yarn onto. It was Paul the Apostle in a large basket, and the verse "They were watching the gates day and night, to kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down over the wall, lowering him in a basket." (Acts 9:24-25) That story gripped me, about the hazards and risks Paul and his friends faced to be able to share the Gospel with others.

 

When I began actually reading the Bible on my own, there was a carryover from a book of Bible stories I'd been given one Easter that kept me turning back to Genesis, the last few chapters, and the story of Joseph. That dramatic moment the whole story so masterfully builds to, when the steward of Pharaoh reveals "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt." (Genesis 45:4) What a story, what a lesson of humility and faithfulness.

 

I began to think about bioethics, thanks to a faithful Sunday school teacher in junior high school and a biology teacher in ninth grade who encouraged me to ask questions, and they came together for me in Deuteronomy 30:19, where Moses says "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live."

 

As a Boy Scout, it was probably the tent reference that most caught my attention in 2 Corinthians 5:1, "For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." But the image of who we are and how we are constituted that has stayed with me, the life within the tent being the heart of the experience God is seeking to transform.

 

In college, after some digressions and diversions that are a narrative of their own, but that mostly wandered away from the Bible as sacred text, there was a tug towards ministry, and a book I read that called to mind the mystic celebration at the end of all things that was described as a celebration, a nuptial feast, a party to which Jesus wanted to invite us. At Revelation 19:9, there was something compelling about "And the angel said to me, 'Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.' And he said to me, 'These are true words of God.'"

 

I resisted the idea of ministry for a while, but then I heard Dr. James Forbes preach, and I realized that sermons could be something completely different than what I thought they had to be. He came to Lafayette, Indiana, and preached at "Seeds of Vision" for almost two hours on two verses, and he barely had gotten halfway through the second of the two in Revelation 21:1-2: "Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."

 

It was only in beginning pastoral work as a student minister that I started to understand what those words from the next and final chapter meant, when at 22:17 it is written "The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.' And let him who hears say, 'Come.' And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price."

 

That only gets me to 1985! But what would your Biblical memoir look like? What verses mark the passages of your life?

 

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

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Faith Works 8-22-15

Faith Works 8-22-15

Jeff Gill

 

Sex, violence, and good news
___

Perhaps this venue isn't the best place to say this, but there's very little good news in the news these days.


Now, in what era couldn't you say that? There will always be "wars and rumors of wars" in this world, and the problem newspapers and now websites have is that, while we say we want good news, in fact if you put a wreck with blood on the pavement and a hand out the window on the front page, that's going to sell (or click) a three times the rate, or more, than a cover photo of a sweet little girl with a basket of puppies. It's been tested over and over, and the fact is we say we want one thing, but we buy another.


And the news business responds, as all businesses must.


In our more liberated age, you have the added complication of sex. Yes, sex. By the way, if you put the word sex three times in a piece, it gets much more search engine attention. Advocate editors, you're welcome.


But it's true: if you can find a plausible way to put the word sex in a headline it's going to get more attention from readers, more clicks and follows and reposts, so you see a great deal more of it. Even when it's "Experts debate the sex of the next royal baby" or "Insects who change sex between seasons" the attention follows.


Violence, sex, and death . . . the obituaries still get lots of traffic, too. Even if that's just some of us checking each morning to see if our name is listed there, so we know whether to put our shoes on or not.


Is that all we care about? Is bad news, and salacious information, and titillation of the senses the only good we pursue?


Actually, I think there's a silver lining to be found, one that preachers and teachers of good news and the Good News might want to attend to. I thought about this because of some work my wife and I have done over the years with museums and exhibits and cultural & natural resource interpretation.


We all know, in visitor centers and site planning, that the average visitor, whether they went out of their way to see this special spot or just happened to pass by and wanted a way to kill an hour, is primarily interested in two things as they come in the door. One is: where's the bathroom? It's a basic human need, part of Maslow's famous hierarchy at the peak, and some things come first. So you locate and place signage and train staff to meet that need, whether you're a historical park or an archaeological museum or a nature center.


Second is: where's the gift shop? Professionals often sigh and moan over this reality, but the smart scholars and scientists know it's an opportunity. Not just an opportunity to pay the staff and keep the lights on through profits, but you can teach with a gift shop, just as you do with the rest of your displays. And these displays they can choose, by their own actions, to take home: why not use that impulse?


So you stock your shelves with materials that reinforce your message, and encourage the purchase of books and toys and games that keep your theme memorable all the way back to their home. It's an opportunity, not a problem.


Bad news may be on the front page of the paper, but there's news we're interested in, too, that's talking about hopes and dreams and aspirations. It's called the advertising. Do you, as a person of faith, read the ads for what they tell you about the good news your community is hungry for?


Those ads may occasionally make you roll your eyes ("do people really want to buy that?") but it's a very reliable indicator: if an ad isn't reaching people, it's going to disappear. Because someone is paying for it to be there. Read the ads, preachers and teachers and mentors and spiritual directors. There you find the currents that often folks can't quite articulate, but in which they are very conversant.


Oh, and those restrooms in museums and visitor centers? Smart sites teach in there, too; signage and wall space and even the fixtures themselves can reaffirm themes and messages. In our church bathrooms, is there a missed opportunity to share Good News, even in just a few words on the wall?


Because people are seeking good news, all the time. Everywhere.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him where you found good news at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Notes From My Knapsack 8-20-15

Notes From My Knapsack 8-20-15

Jeff Gill

 

A saunter around summer's end

___

 

Birds have been in my field of vision this summer.

 

Carolina chickadees were all over my neighborhood following the spring; they've moved on, but I still see the occasional small black-capped visitor in the back yard.

 

House sparrows are pecking their way through the neighbor's mulch most mornings out the kitchen window. A non-native, the field guides tell me, but they've always been around from my point of view, which makes them native in my mental landscape.

 

I saw an Eastern towhee on my street, up in a curbside maple, hearing it before spotting the distinctive near-orange sides. "Drink your tea, drink your tea" is one of the few birdsongs I can remember from year to year without looking them up; with apps online and on phones, it is much easier to figure them out if you want. Red-winged blackbirds are always easy to recall, and when the meadow I drive through leaving home is let go, they're common not far from the house, so I can hear them from my porch.

 

The towering tree behind my home attracts fewer birds than I might have first thought; sycamores aren't a food source, so they don't have a great deal of attraction other than as a passing perch for starlings and robins and the like. But I did once hear, then saw a peregrine falcon up high, scanning the yards and roadside for something to swoop on for lunch.

 

A few weeks ago I saw a majestic white-headed bald eagle down in Ross County, paddling down Paint Creek in a kayak. He regally disregarded me in passing, giving just a fine profile shot to those with me who had good cameras. Rightly or wrongly I'd decided this trip I'd take no camera at all, but just look, and hopefully see. If you can see that bald eagle, yellow hooked beak curving down to greyish brown feathers across a broad breast, staring out – eagle eyed! – over the flowing water, then you don't need a picture taken, do you?

 

And on my way back from leading Sunday worship up at the Hartford Fair, I saw a bald eagle in flight, just past Chatham, soaring down along Dry Creek. We have at least two nesting pairs here in Licking County, something many of us thought we'd never see in our lifetimes, but now becoming nearly a common sight.

 

On the brick street next to the church I pastor in Newark we've seen an outburst of goldfinches recently, picking at some plant erupting from the spaces between the ruddy pavement, a beautiful contrast to the bright yellow and deep black of the birds.

 

But my favorite sightings are still great blue herons. When you watch one picking their way through the shallows in Raccoon Creek or over by one of the branches of the Licking River, you see immediately the connection to their dinosaur ancestors. The manic glint of the round eye, above a wicked long sharp beak, flare of feathers at the back of the head, stick-like legs swiveling and stepping into and across obstacles, all seeming awkwardness until the swift stab into the water and a wriggling meal skewered and swallowed. A T-Rex of the waterside world, indeed.

 

In flight, though, something the theropods of antiquity didn't master, a heron is a thing of beauty, to me at any rate. Their steady wing beat sets them apart even at a distance from buzzards, let alone eagles, who glide and soar; great blues flap strongly from one watershed to the next, their "beast feet" (the meaning of "theropod") dangling behind.

 

They (and the more humble and widely spread house sparrows) represent what's left of that dinosaur family in our world, diplomatic representatives of a more dangerous era. Oh, and since I like to say that pretty much every subject has a Licking County connection if you look hard enough: O.C. Marsh, the paleontologist who created the name "theropods" for the best-known type of dinosaur, grew up in Zanesville, and perhaps the earliest published piece of professional archaeology relating to Licking County was by him describing an excavation he conducted south of Newark in 1865, of a mound still visible near Rt. 13 and Dorsey Mill Road.

 

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

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Faith Works 8-15-15

Faith Works 8-15-15

Jeff Gill

 

"Go Set a Watchman" Asks Us To Look

___

 

Harper Lee's long awaited second novel takes its title from Isaiah 21:6: "For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth."

 

The church in Maycomb where Jean Louise Finch returns, a young woman of 26, is where she hears these words, but not where she finds clear vision. As happens today in many churches, including where I preach, the Bible may speak to a listener entirely separate from where the sermon goes… and that's fine. Sometimes it's even better.

 

"Go Set a Watchman" is, to sum up my own reaction, a remarkable production of a first time novelist. Yes, I said this was Harper Lee's second novel, as published. Apparently what we received this summer was her first full-length written fiction, of which Tay Hohoff, her editor in 1957, said "the spark of the true writer flashed in every line."

 

That is a true statement. It is also true that Hohoff felt there was an even better book in Harper Lee, and led her through repeated drafts, which culminated three years later in "To Kill a Mockingbird." What could confuse is that the earlier novel, published second, takes place later than the setting of the first.

 

I think many reviewers have overthought that complication. If "Go Set a Watchman" had come out ten years (or twenty, or thirty) after "Mockingbird," and to be perfectly fair had received a bit more loving attention from a Tay Hohoff or other thoughtful editor in the last third or so, I think it would have been welcomed as a worthy and equally weighty follow-up. The two books together read well as a unit, something I wanted to do before writing anything about the one.

 

It had been a very long time since I'd read "Mockingbird," and I was acutely aware of the presence of Gregory Peck and Mary Badham and Robert Duvall across the printed pages. The 1962 classic movie version of the story has, for many of us, swamped our recollections of the book.

 

I'd never tell you to forget the movie, and we can't. It was a very important movie for many of us in the 1960's, in darkened school auditoriums or late night rebroadcasts, helping Americans think about racism and community in new and personal ways. The town of Maycomb is quintessential Alabama, but also recognizable in almost any corner of the country; what happened there in the story, film and novel alike, helped make connections between what the nation saw in newspaper headlines and TV footage, and the places where we live.

 

But the moral heroism of Atticus Finch was also what many of us "white Americans" deeply desired to see writ large, for ourselves and for all of us. An admirable, principled lawyer and politician who taught children to think about what it meant to walk in someone else's shoes, and who said when asked why he did the unpopular thing that "I do my best to love everybody."

 

That lovely, loving man is present as Scout's father in the book, but he is intensified and magnified in the film. Gregory Peck is saintly and confident in his goodness in ways that the Atticus Finch on the page is not, quite. And the lines between the middle aged father Atticus in "Mockingbird" and the elderly leading citizen Mr. Finch in "Watchman" are, to me, quite clear, and compelling.

 

The older Atticus is burdened with years, with physical pain, and with concern for his community. He is also a racist.

 

As am I. As are most of you reading this. If we make, consciously and unconsciously, assumptions about individuals based on stereotypes about groups, if we have sweeping generalizations in our hearts and minds that tend to be the first layer we see of people in front of us, we're dealing with racism. In 1957, Harper Lee wanted Alabamians and Americans to see this, and talk about it.

 

"Watchman" probably couldn't have been published in 1957. She and her editor worked back to a younger Scout, and a story more in keeping with the needs of 1960, and we got "Mockingbird." The fact that she wrote the more burdened and weary Atticus first, to my mind, only heightens Harper Lee's achievement.

 

Atticus says things in "Watchman" that are both racist, and utterly in keeping with who he is said to be: a man who wants justice in his community, equal treatment before the law for everyone regardless of race, and as to people of other races… well, some of the quotes most disturbing to folks who say they don't like the idea that this, too, is Atticus Finch: they're things that Abraham Lincoln said, too.

 

We should take both Abe and Atticus in sum, and see them in full. They are, for good or ill, who many of us are at our best. And who should want to do better.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about books that have helped you see more clearly at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.