Monday, January 21, 2019

Faith Works 1-26-19

Faith Works 1-26-19

Jeff Gill


Seeking faithfulness



Two weeks ago I picked up a theme off of the well known hymn "Great Is Thy Faithfulness."


I talked about a number of ways we struggle with faithful living and faithful lives in terms of church attendance and involvement. There were allusions to wider questions of being faithful in our culture, but I didn't go there.


You all did, however. And I'm not surprised.


A number of emails and messages came to me sharing pain and struggles with marital infidelity. As I stated, faithfulness isn't honored as much as it once was, and those who have experienced that most intimate form of faithlessness can see that problem more clearly than most.


Add to marital breakups the increasing infrequency of not getting married, putting faithfulness in a relationship into a more fluid, less trustworthy basis. If you've been together for ten years, own a house together and have a child or two, you don't – as we're told all the time, it seems – need a piece of paper to make that relationship real. But if the conversation's never had, if it's just assumed (and sometimes assumed by one, not the other) that this is now a committed, faithful relationship, without the marriage bond it's much easier for one or both to say "well, we're not tying each other down."


And I appreciated hearing it wasn't just me thinking that there's a link, distant thought it might seem, between a lessening of faithfulness in personal relationships to a loss of faithfulness in some fairly trivial areas of life: and a question about chickens and eggs. There used to be Ford families and Crest toothpaste users and CBS households and Captain Crunch breakfast tables, just as people once looked first for the Methodist or Presbyterian logos before they asked about the youth group or the preacher's politics.


No, I am not saying consumer choice led to rootless emotional and spiritual lives, but I would argue it becomes a large sticky ball of clamorous choices, rolling right over all of us and leaving a certain amount of anxious confusion in its wake. If we are the sum of our consumer choices, in a world of obvious advertising influences, then how can the real me be my choices, when clearly a clever ad with Flo or Tony the Tiger or Matthew McConaughey can cause me to choose differently?


Leaving us with an odd taste in our mouths as we're all encouraged to define ourselves by our choices while the media culture we're saturated in pounds away to influence those decisions, in means both obvious and subtle.


And the larger corrosion of that acid bath into our psyches is to implicitly condemn as false and foolish any sort of consistency. How many different little oblique ways do you feel it communicated that staying in a pattern, sticking with a "rut" (can you hear it there?), continuing with a product line or shopping habit, or even staying with the same partner for decades is somehow a denial of your true self, even your best self? Change is the sign of life, and more change is more lively.


What reinforces that is how the marketplace makes it hard to stick with anything for long. You find a candle whose scent you like, a gum you want to chew, a brand of shirts that works for you, but inevitably, you can't get it anymore. The five types becomes sixteen, and you hunt in vain among the sixteen for the closest to the one you used to buy. Do you notice what that also means? You have bought a product for years, then it's discontinued, and you have to buy a couple of different versions to ultimately come up with the closest match to what you already knew you liked.


Less product gets sold if you keep selling the same stuff. Everyone knows that. So we stay off-balance, vulnerable to impulse, groping for the right new that's really who we are.


So it is with picking a spouse, or choosing a church. Dating apps and cafeteria spirituality allow us to keep on playing the field, checking out what's new. Meanwhile, faithfulness is not just kind of stuffy, but implicitly a bad thing. You might just get comfortable with who and what you have, stay at home, make some bread, throw some things out you don't need, and not replace them.


And you might just develop habits of the heart, towards peace and love. Where's the profit in that?


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he usually tries to avoid being too snarky in these columns, but sometimes it's hard. Tell him where you see faithfulness as a blessing at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Faith Works 1-19-19

Faith Works 1-19-19

Jeff Gill


Milestones and vantage points



This week I begin my fifteenth year of writing this column for the Newark Advocate.


You've gotten about 725 "Faith Works" columns, and adding in a weekly piece called "Hebron Crossroads" in the old "Community Booster" which became a biweekly "Notes from my Knapsack" in the Granville Sentinel, there are over one thousand newspaper columns somewhere on the hard drive of my computer.


I'm typing on my fifth laptop, and the files have (I think) been transferred from device to device, so they're probably all there. It's surprising to me how infrequently I go back to check what I said before, but there are times, and even questions that come by email about "that piece you wrote back in 2011 about…" which cause me to troll the digital depths to find what I once said.


The first ones I wrote for us here were done on, I kid you not, a tangerine clamshell iMac, fondly remembered but long gone. I've cobbled them together in three homes but many more locations, a few under deadline pressures even on my more recent smarter (they tell me) phone with one finger. I've composed them on vacation, on the road, one literally in a cave, a few in cabins, a couple of them sitting near if not by the Grand Canyon.


But I've written all of them thinking of you.


This is the tricky question of column writing, I think, and I suspect it's true of all columnists (I've only discussed the craft with a couple of fellow practitioners) let alone religion column writers. It's a practice very closely akin to preaching, something else I have done weekly for time out of mind. (Okay, that's a lie, I've been preaching consistently for thirty-seven years if not weekly, somewhere around 1,500 pulpit messages delivered plus 250 eulogies at funerals.)


When you preach, you open up God's word in the Bible, and you try to open up yourself to God's Living Word in the living Christ at work in you, and you attempt to, well, interpret that word to the world around you.


Which means you have to be attentive both to God, and to your audience. If you are very attentive to the Lord, but give little thought to who you're trying to communicate with, you can have a clear sense of what the Divine One is up to but put it across poorly. Granted, you can also spend too much time wondering what the people need, or want to hear, and not tell them what God is nudging you firmly to say. It's a constant balancing act.


And in terms of preaching, it's a public high wire act. You go up into the pulpit without a net, so to speak (this is why many preachers prefer to use a manuscript, which is the closest thing to a net you've got under you sometimes), and walk out across the falls in public view. You don't want to fall off on one side into being too esoteric, so Godly as to be incomprehensible to the people listening over the roar of the worldly waters; you also don't want to fall off on the other side, so proud of communicating vividly and clearly you don't say anything shocking or disturbing or even about the Lord at all. So you want to put your feet very carefully, one step at a time, until you return to the solid ground of "and now let us turn in our hymnals to . . ."


Likewise, column writing. Sure, I like for people to like reading these; I suspect my editors through the years (I literally can't tell you how many, but they've all been incredibly supportive and helpful, from Michael Shearer who first invited me to take up this challenge, to Ben Lanka today) want readers to look forward to opening up their paper or webpage and read this week's entry.


You are a very diverse and complex congregation, though. It's not as if I can just sum up one image of a "constant reader" in my mind, though the emails you send help me develop a bit of a picture. In my thoughts, in my prayers, I do think about you . . . and what God is asking me to challenge you with, invite you to consider, present as the word in this space each week, for as long as Gannett has the patience to give it to me.


And I pray that it is, even when it's not a perfect column, always a word of life to you in your own living.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's hoping he's got another fifteen years in him of column writing, but wonders what the format and media will look like in 2034! Tell him what you are hoping to hear at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Notes from my Knapsack 1-17-19

Notes from my Knapsack 1-17-19

Jeff Gill


Might as well face it



Robert Palmer suggested that we could, in fact, be addicted to love. Or maybe he didn't mean it as a general statement, but we might as well face it: addictions are not uncommon.


I've been involved for some time now with the Licking County Addictions Task Force, and if you think that doesn't include Granville, I suggest you do an online search for a video about Denial, Ohio (which looks awfully familiar on the screen). View the full 55 second version.


Opioids have gotten the headlines and the major media attention through books like "Dreamland" by Sam Quinones, which starts and ends in Portsmouth, Ohio and features Chillicothe and Columbus; Elaine McMillion Sheldon, who has been brought to our area a few times by our own Jack Shuler, has made a striking short documentary that you can see on Netflix titled "Heroin(e)" which in forty minutes follows three women around Huntington, West Virginia that's about the same size as Newark & Heath and in many lights looks the same (if you're really pressed for time, watch the music video she did for John Prine's "Summer's End").


But our local scourge has tended to be meth, which Jack has described in searing detail for a piece in the new January/February "Pacific Standard" which you can also find online. Many in our county have banded together to try to deal with a wave of fentanyl-related overdoses, and the ongoing addiction problems these situations have inadvertently helped reveal more generally. It's wide, it's deep, and it's often multi-substance use and abuse.


I've been asked repeatedly versions of a perfectly reasonable question: "why do addicts use drugs, anyhow?" The point being that if we can figure out what's become so intolerable about modern life that it makes drugs attractive, then if we address that we eliminate the demand side of the equation . . . because the war on the supply side of the drug problem doesn't seem to have worked.


For what it's worth, part of my response would be -- Why did Vikings drink copious amounts of mead? Why did Malay pirates incessantly chew khat? Why did Soviet era leaders let alone kulaks before them drink vodka to the point of insensibility? To some degree, this is a human universal, and the interesting question is "what happens when people choose to live otherwise?"


Or closer to home: why did Austrian glassblowers after migrating to Newark, Ohio drink Morath Brewery beer in mass quantities after they left the Heisey Glass plant? Or why former Baden-Wurttemberg residents in large numbers at Union and W. Main and 11th St. pour gallons into their steins before coming home from the Wehrle stove works?


I think the focus can also be usefully put, as Jack has tried to do, on those who successfully navigate recovery, and to ask "how do you live a fulfilling life without mood-altering substances?" Because there are answers to that question out there, and I think those successes are worth pursuing and interrogating. I encourage you to find his article online, and start thinking about your own answers to that question.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he really hopes you'll read Jack Shuler's articles. Tell Jeff what you think about addiction in Our Fayre Village at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Faith Works 1-12-19

Faith Works 1-12-19

Jeff Gill


Great is Thy Faithfulness



Thomas Chisholm wrote the words to the familiar hymn in 1923; its opening "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" is usually in quotes, because it cites Lamentations 3:23. Both Jeremiah in Lamentations and Brother Chisholm knew plenty of trials and tribulations, and their declaration that God is faithful is not in contradiction to hard times, but a reminder to us that even in the midst of sorrows, the Lord has promised to be faithful in love and mercy.


George Beverly Shea, the great singer for Billy Graham's revivals, introduced the still-new hymn (not published until 1925) in an English evangelistic meeting during 1954, and they realized they had a devotional hit on their hands. Preachers know it's up there with "Old Rugged Cross" and "In the Garden" as a most requested hymn for memorial services and in traditional settings.


It's about God's faithfulness, of course, but also a call to our own response. About the Lord, the song reminds us "There is no shadow of turning with Thee," and to us it says "Morning by morning new mercies I see / All I have needed Thy hand hath provided / Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!"


And with that reminder of what is "enough," we are called to our own faithfulness. To be consistent, faithful, and reliable in our worship and devotions, both between us and God, and among the believers in service and witness.


Which is where the modern problem arises. What is "faithfulness" today?


Not so long ago, it was being in church. Every Sunday morning, in not a few places in the evening as well, and often Wednesday nights, too. If you checked those boxes, you were a "faithful Christian."


Not to kick that model to the curb too casually, but it's not the model we see at work today. There are still those who, as the saying goes, "are at the church any time the doors are opened," but that's a faithful remnant, indeed.


In leadership, the old assumption was that faithfulness equaled attendance, but if you limited leadership in most faith communities today – and I have enough conversations across the map to know I'm speaking even beyond Christianity here! – to those who are there no less than, say, 50 weeks a year, you're not going to have much of a pool to draw from.


And a common concern among lay and clergy leaders is how to do some of the basic functions of church life that used to be so simple: weekly or monthly teams, rotations set at the beginning of the year, servers and ushers and deacons and so on. Often the person in charge for the day has more gaps than check marks on their table of organization; meetings struggle to reach a quorum.


As a minister myself, I have some residual sympathy for those who say we need to increase expectations. There's something to the lowered expectations we have in general to personal accountability, in faithfulness, in the world today. As a boss who's trying to make sure a shift is filled or a counter staffed: even in the workplace it can be more of a problem than it ought to be.


But as a pastor, I'm acutely aware of the new stresses on younger workers – it's a two-sided coin. Companies and chains love "just in time" staffing, not just supplies, and people don't know their work schedule more than two weeks out. It's not always lack of commitment, it's lack of certainty that makes planning so hard for youth group outings and teaching schedules and so on.


Add in more leisure, cheaper travel, and the simple fact that people are much more mobile, and you get something I've remarked on before here: you might have no fewer worshipers, but if a church averaging 100 a Sunday doesn't lose any members, but they come three out of four weeks consistently, your worship attendance average drops to 75. It looks like a quarter decline, but is it?


Well, it is in terms of getting things done every week. Those tasks that require, well, faithfulness. It's not just about attendance pins or checking off names, but about knowing how to get the simple tasks of ministry accomplished.


Faithfulness in most things is a gift, and one we have to decide how and if we'll bring it. I can live with faithfulness looking different to those around me today than it did to my grandmother, but it presents certain challenges. And not just the practical ones. Faithfulness brings "strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow."


How can we understand faithfulness in our common life today?


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's usually in church on Sundays, but you'd expect that, wouldn't you? Tell him about faithfulness in action at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Faith Works 1-5-19

Faith Works 1-5-19

Jeff Gill


How many times do I have to tell you?


Jesus famously said that we should forgive seventy times seven.


Infamously, Biblical scholars point out that the passage is not meant to teach that forgiveness runs out at repetition number 490, but that seventy times seven is a numerical expression of "more than you can really imagine."


Kind of like how we used to think about a million of something. A million times or a million years were formerly a big deal, but when it's a joke in a movie for a villain frozen in time to demand "one MILLION dollars," you realize a million isn't what it used to be.


So Jesus' seventy times seven is overridden by modernity's million which in turn takes a back seat to "billions and billions" . . . but the point is the same all along: you can't really imagine those amounts. Actually, how well can any of us hold the concept of seventy in our heads, let alone times seven?


We won't even get into "six hundred and sixty-six" with all of its various claimed and potential meanings.


On a smaller scale, it's a commonplace of presentations that people need to hear something seven times for it to really sink in. Seven sounds like a good number, but I've never found a published study that nails this down more than as a well-meaning anecdote. Like seventy times seven and forgiveness, I think hearing or seeing a piece of information seven times is more of a concept than calculus. The real point is that you rarely can just tell someone something new and count on it sticking with one announcement.


It doesn't work for me, that's for sure. I need to be asked, I need to write it down, I need it on my calendar, I need to put it on the office white board, and probably add a scribbled sticky note on the computer monitor. But that's just five times, and it probably calls for a couple more reminders to go from "somebody asked for it" to "it is finished."

How many times, in which forms, over what span of days, does it take to get a piece of information communicated? What does it take you to have "learned your lesson"? If it's something we want to hear, hope to learn about, the magic number can be one. Once is enough for the willing ear. It's the itching ears listening for something other than what you're saying which have trouble hearing the word you have to share, even the second or third time around.


When you have an event or program or change in the usual pattern in a faith community, how do you put it out there? You can announce it on Sunday morning, include it in a bulletin or announcement screen, add it to the newsletter, put it out in the weekly e-mail to everyone on the list, and place it on a bulletin board . . . which makes five times, but is that enough? You could add the news to the congregational web page, Facebook page, and Twitter feed, which takes you to eight – definitely past seven times! – but what if not everyone sees the same social media accounts, or misses a Sunday in worship? There you are back down to four, or even (horrrors!) three, and people saying "but no one told me… I didn't know about it… why wasn't that announced?"


This is where the seventy times seven comes in. Not as in announcing something 490 times, but in praying for forgiveness! Because in community life, it is hard to hit that elusive "tell 'em seven times" standard.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's a big believer in repetition. Also in telling people the same thing in multiple forms again and again. Tell him what you think the "magic number" of communications is at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.