Monday, March 27, 2017

Notes From My Knapsack 4-6-17

Notes From My Knapsack 4-6-17

Jeff Gill


You Can't Tell Me What To Do



For my sins, I'm a homeowner's association (HOA) trustee. Long story, but I've been one quite a while now.


Call it self-interest, if you like.


We're those three people (elected for three year terms, a new trustee in theory every year, if you had enough people willing to do the work) who are responsible for public areas, getting them mowed and trimmed and the lights that are under our responsibility lit, collecting annual dues, and checking in with residents of this particular neighborhood about . . . the covenants.


Each property in this little development has a set of covenants attached to it, legally, at the county recorder's office, but the existence of any limits or restrictions beyond simple zoning guidelines in the village is not always disclosed by the sellers, the realtors, the title companies. Ours are really fairly loose, with guidelines built in for mailbox style, color schemes and materials for exteriors, and no basketball hoops permanently attached to the house. Actually, if you read the covenants (something too few people actually do) it says they can't face the street. So technically, you could put one on your house on the back of it, but . . . anyhow.


Trash totes can't stay out for more than a day, and have to be screened if not in your garage, and you're expected to have landscaping, though there's not much about what kind or how well maintained.


So we live in an odd zone between village ordinances, like the requirement to clear sidewalks of snow within 24 hours if it's two inches or more, or the fence height restrictions in front and back yards, which gets interesting if you live on a corner. Suffice it to say that there's often debate over when the two inch trigger is pulled (and who decides) and our covenants in this particular development call for a higher "minimum" fence height than the village. So you can pay for your permit down at Village offices, and start in fence building, and learn that you can't legally do that, at least in this association. Abe Lincoln would split a rail trying to figure some of this stuff out.


And when it comes to zoning and building, I'll just fully disclose that I'm currently chair of our village Board of Zoning and Building Appeals, also and mercifully known as the BZBA. For that service of the last decade, I have no excuses. It's just being a glutton for punishment.


But what I've learned, to my chagrin, in both positions of mild responsibility and little authority, is that it is all too often true, and a real limitation on the good I can do, that next-door neighbors often have never spoken to each other. At all. I don't mean keep your back door open and let them come and go, I'm talking about just having met before, and said two words ever. Like "Please?" or "Thanks."


Folks often come to HOA trustees or the BZBA with a request to do something that impacts their neighbor, or for us to do something about their neighbor. My invariable question is "have you spoken to them about this?" And I'll be honest. If your answer is "uh, no, we've not spoken at all" my interest in helping you force the issue just about vanishes.


As spring is popping out all over, windows are opened, and porches at least could be occupied again, I have a request for everyone. Could you just say hi to your neighbor? It could make a remarkable amount of difference for our community.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's old enough to know better, but he keeps on volunteering – someone stop him. Tell him about your neighbor at

Faith Works 4-1-17

Faith Works 4-1-17

Jeff Gill


A modest proposal for churches to consider



It's time for congregations to get out of the property and real estate business.


Our buildings eat up a fair amount of most faith community budgets, and the paid staff we have, the other largest chunk of how we use our members' contributions, spend significant amounts of time dealing with issues around the use, maintenance, and expansion of our physical plants.


Whether a small country chapel by a cemetery, or a mega-ish campus with multiple buildings on the property surrounded by parking prairies, let's just all agree to stop. Let it go. Let those hunks of real estate roam free.


They'll go back, in many cases, onto the property tax rolls as businesses and other everyday uses occupy the square footage, or be torn down for additional strip malls and big box retailers, bulldozed for new residential options.


Some older church buildings in our area have been repurposed and remodeled for residential use, and a few in the Columbus area have become clubs and restaurants and other businesses. A bank's office operations are in an old church structure in downtown Newark, and it was a muffler shop before that, so there's precedent.


Yes, let's see all our Christian churches of pretty much any stripe or sort sell off their buildings, and use the proceeds for ministry. This is a refrain that many younger advisers to church life in the US are starting to say, especially to older congregations with antique buildings, of which our area has quite a few. The counsel is to cash out, and put that money to use in "creative ministries" and not "just spend it on ourselves" but use the donations of church members more flexibly, with outreach a higher priority.


Of course, there's a catch. Or two. Or three. One is that we can't all do this at once. The real estate market for distinguished older edifices couldn't absorb so many properties all together, without the prices for them plummeting below what you can currently get for a retired church building. So we're going to have to figure out: who goes first? You? Me?


Then there's the whole concept of weekly Sunday worship (or Saturday for some of you, Friday for a few, to think more broadly across faith traditions, but we're thinking all religious bodies should join in with this move). Some new church plants start in middle school auditoriums, which aren't getting used on Sundays mostly anyhow, so it's a revenue source for school districts with minimal cost.


If we all get out of our buildings, there's probably not enough rent-able spaces around for all of us to go into. We might see more merges and combined congregations if we all shed structural investments, but in general, this move would swamp the meeting halls and gathering spaces on weekends. Then you'd see rents going up for such use, as it becomes more of a sellers' market than a buyers' advantage.


And sooner or later, someone is going to sit down and do the math, and say "you know, for what we pay each year for this space, we could put up a decent building." So folks would get together and say "for that matter, we'd really like it if we could set up the raised platform this way, and seat the people here, as opposed to what we're stuck with." Then some others would say "if we're creating a dedicated space for worship, we should honor our God by making it beautiful, with decoration that spurs good thoughts, divine aspirations." Some will call for simple lines, others a more ornate elegance, but those buildings will develop and elaborate over time as people try to express their faith through architecture.


So how long would it take, even if every church property was sold or liquidated or divested to the private market tomorrow, for faith communities to build again what would simply be another generation of church buildings? I'd guess about a generation, tops.


Maybe it's not such a good idea after all. Perhaps church buildings are ministry tools we need to look at for what they are, how we use them in worship and for service, and be willing to change where we must, honor what we should of the past, and be flexible in new construction down the road. We can do building audits occasionally to make sure our buildings serve us, and the church doesn't serve the building.


Never mind. And Happy First of April!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's glad his congregation has a lovely, useful building. Tell him about your sense of church buildings at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Faith Works 3-25-17

Faith Works 3-25-17

Jeff Gill


Starting Conversations, Sharing Stories



I would greatly appreciate it if you could put Wednesday, April 26 on your calendar for 6:30 pm at Newark High School.


It doesn't matter if you live elsewhere in the county, this is for all of us, and the auditorium at NHS is big enough we can fit quite a few in, centrally located. There's a speaker and a program that night which is not for my church – in fact, I'm cancelling our usual Wednesday night Bible study to ask our people to attend – or for any religious body, but I hope clergy and leaders and workers and members and friends of faith communities all across Licking County can come be a part of starting some conversations that night.


Have you ever heard of Xalisco, Mexico? Well, they've heard of Ohio. We've been a wonderful market for their products. They make black tar heroin down there, and they've figured out how to make it cheap, and market it well.


But this isn't about the drug trade. Not just about the sale of illegal substances, anyhow. It has to do with legal but dangerous substances, and about our communities, and about you and me.


And addiction. I was sorry to miss the program Bishop Frederick Campbell brought to St. Francis de Sales parish last week; the Catholic Church long has done good week in building community and facing addiction, and our Newark parish has been a good neighbor to a big part of our community response to addiction.


What really caught my eye was seeing that the Bishop focused on how we have created for ourselves "an addictive culture." I think he's right about that. We're accustomed to abusing things that can be good in and of themselves, that are healthy and even healing at the right time, in the right way.


But fast food, eaten too often, becomes a craving. Boxed snacks in cellophane wrappers, consumed regularly, become a master of our emotions, not the relief we were seeking. Prescription drugs, misused and abused, can be desperately hard to shake off, and invite users into criminality; prescription drug companies, mindlessly seeking profit regardless of proper use, can criminally exploit hard-working people with aches and pains and needs.


Opiates have a place. I spend too much time in hospice units not to know that. And I hate it when an elderly person hesitates to push their pain management button "because I don't want to get addicted." We're muddled, we're confused about addiction: as a society. Addiction isn't a thing, it's a series of choices complicated by our own biochemical tendencies. Some people have more or less resistance to sugars, but we don't blame them for getting diabetes and tell them they're on their own. There is a genetic predisposition, it seems, to alcoholism, and some can drink and not drink at will, and others take one and can't stop. Diabetics have episodes when they aren't as careful as they could be with sugars, but we don't call it a relapse and say they don't deserve help because of their choices. How do we look at cigarette or alcohol or drug abuse? I'm still wrestling with the words and concepts.


Sam Quinones is one name you should know for April 26. He's the main speaker. He's written a highly regarded book titled "Dreamland" whose title comes from a now lost location in Portsmouth, Ohio; his wrestling took him tumbling through the world of big pharma, into Oklahoma and New Mexico as well as into Mexican drug cartels themselves, but he kept coming back to Ohio. To Portsmouth, and Chillicothe, and to Columbus, and to . . .


He doesn't mention Newark. Marion gets a moment on stage, and "other places in Ohio." But trust me when I say "Dreamland" is a book about us, both here and now. You really should read it, whether you can come Apr. 26 or not.


The other name you should know is Doug Ute. Our superintendent at Newark City Schools has pulled together a panel of community leaders, of which I'm proud to be a part, but the idea and the effort and the hardest work to pull this all together is Doug. I mean, Mr. Ute. The Big Guy. I salute what he's trying to help us do, in Newark and in Licking County, which is to start a conversation, to get us to share our stories.


Because as Bishop Campbell said, we've got an addictive culture on our hands. We all know addicts, sometimes very closely indeed. Sharing stories starting with Sam's is how we're going to get somewhere from the talking to the right action.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about where you see the faces and reality of addiction around us at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Notes From My Knapsack 3-23-17

Notes From My Knapsack 3-23-17

Jeff Gill


Good News for Seniors



As a pastor of a congregation in Newark, I see and worship with and work alongside of a whole lot of senior citizens.


Contrary to what the clerks keep trying to offer me on "senior discount day", I'm not one yet. And in fact, it keeps me both feeling young and looking forward to getting older to be among lots of lively, vital elderly people.


Yes, I also visit and lead worship in nursing homes. Which we're not supposed to call them anymore, but you know.


The scenes in those places can be tragic, and various levels of dementia can be frightening to deal with, just in terms of making you think "what if that happens to me someday." Yet it is a great joy to see someone largely zoned out or even unaware of you suddenly smile, sit up, and speak or sing when the Lord's Prayer or "Amazing Grace" are shared. They may recede back into that place they were in, inside their heads, and not respond to your smile, but familiar words and music can bring their smile back, even if for a time.


With Newark & Licking County having a large number of people "aging in place" we had a speaker to church recently, talking about how you can do that, and what it looks like, as well as talking through the various levels of care you can find in our community.


Amy Huddleston shared with us, among other things, that by 2040, the United States will have over 550,000 centenarians – those reaching the age of 100. Yes, there are more dementia cases each year in total, but our ability to blunt or slow many forms of that is improving, medically, and only a portion of those of us getting to our 90s or beyond will have to face that… or our families face it.


I worry when I hear people, often right around my age, who are starting to feel and experience the limitations of aging in our 50s, say "I hope I never get that old." Not enough people have exposure to some of the octogenarians and nonagenerians I know, who are still kicking some heiney and perfectly able to take names.


And as both a pastor, and someone getting older everyday myself, I see some developments that I think are very encouraging for those of us still working on getting old. It looks very promising that we will have self-driving cars in the near future: that takes away my biggest concern for some seniors I know, and reduces the need for people to leave their homes just because they can't drive.


Home delivery is a big deal now, from books to electronics to now groceries. Again, when this is more generally available, what a gift of autonomy it could be to seniors who have to ask for someone to get their groceries for them (and don't always get what they asked for).


Interactive monitors were featured in a story here not long ago, and I thought about home-bound seniors immediately. Voice controls for lights and TV help arthritic hands. And then there's . . . robots. First they vacuum for us, next they clean the bathrooms for us, and I can imagine they might get to where they can help us keep ourselves clean, when elbows don't bend and backs don't twist so well.


Grandmas already love those wireless picture frames that send grandkid pictures directly to their end table, but tech might bring even more peace of mind, to seniors and to their families.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you see technology helping maintain senior independence at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Faith Works 3-18-17

Faith Works 3-18-17

Jeff Gill


Family of faith, family of God, forever families



We are all born into families.


Some of us keep them, some of us leave them, some of us marry into new ones.


We seek family in everything we do. The myth of the rugged individualist swinging an axe to chop down a tree to build their own cabin is complicated by the fact that the metal axe head was dug by miners, refined by steelworkers, crafted and delivered and sold by others to a concern which had bought hickory handles elsewhere, put them together, and sold them yet again to a hardware store where it was purchased.


That brawny lumberman is part of a family even while chopping all alone. Unseen but very present is a whole cast of characters, an invisible gathering of participants, a certain choir of harmonic singers.


And most projects, our everyday work, calls for co-workers. The congregation I'm a member of has an adult Sunday school class called "Co-Workers in Christ," though they usually get called the Co-Workers Class for short. They know that in prayer and study and service they need each other.


Like most long-standing adult Sunday school classes, the Co-Workers began as a young married class. At one time, we had four adult classes, all of which were young marrieds to begin, and you could accurately guess the decade of their founding by looking at the average age of the attendees.


Married couples soon learn, if they didn't know before the wedding, that family life is not and cannot be about just two people. God bless all single parents however they came to that role, but two parent families aren't even enough. You need supporters and helpers and grandparents and aunts and uncles to raise kids, to do anything that couples and marriages and families want to be about.


We need each other in this life, and I suspect there's a reason most of our conceptions of the life to come involve reunion, and being reunited with family and friends and those we love. We need each other in the next life, and perhaps even to reach it.


Jesus talks about his Father, and Paul speaks in the earliest Christian writings as do the earlier Psalms about adoption, of how we can be not only brothers and sisters in Christ, but sons and daughters of the Most High.


In the work I do around our community I see a great deal of family fragmentation; not broken but shattered families, where children are taken from parents who are unable, incapacitated by drug use and confusion, to care for them safely. Around 400 children are in that situation right now.


Many will be a part of restoration and renewal, as their parents find a better path and families are reunited. Some few, but not few enough, will end up needing to find a forever family, an adoptive home where they can know security and stability in their growing up.


One of the more joyful experiences I've ever had in our stony old courthouse is to be present at adoption finalization hearings. Judge Hoover always tries to do it up right, making it more than just a legal event. And grim nervousness that a courtroom always evokes usually gives way to smiles and celebration. They know, these children do, that they now have a family to love and support them.


We all need that. Even when our birth family is far away, distant across the country or long enough ago in time ties have parted, we need to know whether young or old that there is someone for us.


"God-with-us" is one of the names we have for Jesus, "Emmanu-El" in Hebrew. We need to know that the arc of the universe does not bend against us, away from love, apart from family and connection. So our church families become places where we find more and more visible reminders of what God's intention for us really is; so we share with our biological families and geographical neighbors the joy that is ours in faith communities and religious connection.


Family life, the work (and it can be hard work at times!) of living together as family, is a witness. We live it out just by being a family, sometimes. The best witness is caring for one another, showing an unselfish love that is the reflection of "the love that moves the sun and other stars," God's love at work making of us all, one.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your church family at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.