Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Faith Works 6-24-17

Faith Works 6-24-17

Jeff Gill

 

Living in the in-between

___

 

Going past me in the intersection, I saw one hand pushing hair back across the driver's head, and the other hand holding a phone to one ear.

 

Perhaps some people drive better with their knees than I do with one hand. Or two. Who knows?

 

The stickers and window tags are common, exhorting fellow following drivers to not text and drive, or to put down the phone and drive. And the sight of impossible drivers somehow maneuvering while both hands are busy with non-steering activities are just as common.

 

I'm not writing to address traffic safety so much as the impulse, the compulsion, the general pull towards the immediate. Immediate response, immediate gratification, immediate answers. Right now has become just in time, and wait a minute is impossible, or at least implausible.

 

We can look up the greatest hit of 1967 in seconds, and realize that "To Sir With Love" did in fact beat out "Ode to Billie Joe" even as we confirm that the electoral vote totals in 1836 resulted in both the election of Martin Van Buren and the formation of the two-party system as we know it today (even if it was Democrats and Whigs back then). To research and compare print sources is a concept reserved for graduate school, where once high school sophomores knew how to navigate a card catalogue or vertical file.

 

And in faith communities, the expectations for contact and follow-up have become more immediate, and mostly direct, where not long ago we had prayer chain leaders and church secretaries and "While You Were Out" slips on the desk.

 

Folks text or message or post to the pastor, and the church Facebook page had better answer queries quickly, as in within minutes or just a few hours, or see a bad comment on the up-front page. People are directly asking about more and more things, and expect quick, not to say prompt responses.

 

Some of this, to be candid, is efficient and helpful. And sometimes the direct contact makes clergy develop a second Facebook profile, just so they don't get bombarded with odd and askew questions the moment they open up a browser window, about obvious schedule matters (already posted on the church website or Twitter feed etc.) or broad issues that really require a meeting face-to-face.

 

The wider social question around social media is about what all this immediacy is doing to us. Pastors worry that people don't want to wait for Sunday, they want communion, symbolic or actual, when the need is felt; contrariwise, they don't want to have to go somewhere at 10:30 am on Sunday when their religious impulse was really more active on Saturday or last Thursday. Can I stream the sermon? Would you post a pdf of the message's main points? What's our YouTube channel, anyhow?

 

There's something about the Biblical worldview that pulls me back from trying to meet all those desires, not to say needs. In the vast arc of Biblical narrative, we see again and again how we live in the time between, our soul's progress is taking place in the middle of promise and fulfillment, that we are caught within the story that goes from "once upon a time" to "happily ever after," from already to not yet.

 

"Not yet," in fact, comes up again and again in Christian teaching. Jesus rose from the dead as the first-fruits of righteousness, as God's down payment on the eternal. The believers might still die, but not forever, and not to a resurrection that's guaranteed next week. God blesses the peacemakers, in Jesus teaching on the mount, but not "right now," because the blessing comes when "they shall be" not "as soon as possible."

 

ASAP is the modern acronym for everything, but the SOP (standard operating procedure) for the Divine is to work in terms of centuries, mostly the 14th. We wait in faith, we remember hints and promises and indications, and we trust in a full and future fulfillment.

 

Smart phones don't promote that kind of thinking, or are not configured for those waiting for a better signal to result in tagging ourselves as "first in line" for communion, or dinner. Computer technology supports the idea that reality is what we can confirm quickly, online, with keystrokes.

 

This is where daily Bible reading and regular prayer become so important to us. To help reaffirm those ideas about "the already and the not-yet." To give us a place to stand as the outward realities change. The world around us may expect speed, but we look for truth, a concept that can be blessedly slow.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your life between the already and the not-yet at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Faith Works 6-17-17

Faith Works 6-17-17

Jeff Gill

 

From the eternal to the immediate

___

 

Preachers and teachers in almost any faith tradition, and certainly in my own Protestant Christian church family, wrestle with the balance of timely material versus the timeless teachings that are at the heart of our gatherings.

 

One school of thought says that our task should be focused on heaven and the here-after, with current events and local concerns having little or nothing to do with our sermons on Sunday. The opposite position stands on the need to bring the assembly into a better context for those teachings by tying together our matters of the here-and-now to the ancient and the eternal.

 

Sometimes this tension is seen, at least in modern times, as between the social gospel movement and those affirming the fundamentals. A sort of liberal-conservative split between models for being church and teaching the faith.

 

It was the very Biblically oriented Karl Barth who popularized half a century ago the idea of preaching being the practice of walking into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other: the sermon bringing the two into contact, and showing how the scriptures can interpret our world to the faithful.

 

I'd agree with Dr. Barth that you have to find a balance in such matters of teaching and interpretation. There is an ongoing, ever-lasting temptation to make of public worship a community event, not primarily a gathering for divine values: this is where, if it's confused or worried you, clergy get nervous and even resistant to calls to increase how we honor fathers around Father's Day, or put patriotism front and center in the service for Fourth of July weekend, and so on.

 

Those are what we call "contingent" matters. I have to admit that when I'm thinking about suggestions or even my own ideas for adding to the worship service, I ask myself if my friends and colleagues whose circumstances I know something about, who serve in ministry in Africa, in Central America: how would this fit into their service? And truth be told, if it would make no sense or even bring confusion into the worship space there, I'm going to hesitate here.

 

But when it comes to preaching, I do struggle with just how closely and contemporaneously I should be speaking to events in my hearer's world. And there's a question of balance both in the teaching of faith versus relevancy, and also in my ability to speak clearly and usefully to matters outside of my competence.

 

Ask me to speak about the role of religious belief and practice in first century Capernaum, and I can go on for hours, with a fair amount of confidence. Ask me to speak about public policy and court protective orders and how they should be managed, and I stutter. I stammer. I know some things, as a pastor; I know families who have had to ask for them, I know all too well how little they solve problems for those families, and I know some persons who have had them taken out on them.

 

The Gospel, the good news I preach, is meant to bring safety and security to those who seek it; I do believe that the gospel when taught starts to bring together community, and that community has a witness and something to share with the wider community around us. We serve in mission and ministry in ways that are most often practical and direct; can we address wider social questions such as why so many hundreds of CPO's are needed in our county, even among our own? Is there a way the wider community, even the Christian community, can co-operate and serve together to help make the pressures which bring those orders into being less conflict-ridden, less confrontational? And with people on either side of these issues in our membership, in our pews, how does faith speak to these matters?

 

And I don't even want to get started on child support.

 

Would Barth nod his head if I said a preacher should enter the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the jail inmate list in the other? The Bible in one hand and the recent indictments list in the other? The Bible in one hand and a print-out of squad runs and opiate overdoses in the other?

 

Let us pray over these questions for sure, and pray for preachers seeking wisdom on how to preach to them.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him about sermons that you've heard which moved you at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Notes From My Knapsack 6-22-17

Notes From My Knapsack 6-22-17

Jeff Gill

 

Traffic concerns have simple solutions

___

 

Recent village council meetings have featured questions and concerns and public statements about traffic.

 

Traffic studies, traffic flow, and that necessary counterpart to traffic, parking. Talk of traffic moving too fast, and worries about having to go too slow and even stop just to travel a few traffic-calming blocks. Declarations about fairness and justice and the rights of older drivers and the safety of children all have been made, sometimes to contradictory points.

 

Sitting at one of these meetings and hearing out our fellow citizens as they speak with great passion and intensity on their particular issues around traffic, it occurred to me that I have seen a solution to these complicated problems, and an opportunity for our fair village.

 

Mackinac Island.

 

Yes, I've written about this before, and good for you remembering because it was a long, long time ago . . . so maybe it's time to explain myself again. Have you ever been to Mackinac Island? If not, you should put down your newspaper or laptop or tablet and get going. I'll wait.

 

You've been there? Great, then you know what I mean. Mackinac Island, at the Straits of Mackinac between Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the lower bulk of that state up north, just east of the the Mighty Mac bridge, has many things to commend it to the visitor, and one thing it does without.

 

Cars.

 

Motor vehicles are entirely banned on the island. That's not strictly true, as there are a few trucks that operate at night to move some heavy freight around the island, but in general, even trash hauling and baggage let alone passengers have basically two options: horses or bicycles.

 

Let's just do that in the village core of Granville. Let's go "Somewhere in Time" and eliminate motor vehicles between 6 am to midnight. Trucks passing through and deliveries can be made overnight, but we just shut down all the streets to anything that's not pulled by horses or pedaled to the doorstep.

 

We could put parking lots at either entrance to the village; actually, I hear the high school lots may have plenty of excess space next year, so we could just use that, and along River Road. We could add to the "Mackinac Island" experience by having people leave the parking area and enter Granville on the southern side by having them take a ferryboat across Lake Hudson. From the high school lots, it could be a natural gas shuttle as many National Parks are using for access from a gateway to the center.

 

Those worried about children trying to cross at intersections, or who find navigating the slalom of College Street; for people who honk when you don't turn right on red when pedestrians are crossing (or dart inside your lane when you hesitate too long for a mother and child just stepping off the curb, true story) – everyone wins.

 

For many years, when I smell fresh horse manure, I think of Mackinac Island and the pleasant visits I've made there. I think it's time that when we smell manure, we think of Granville as well.

 

You're welcome!

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; no, he does not own a livery stable. Yet. Tell him what you think our traffic answers are for the village at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Faith Works 6-10-17

Faith Works 6-10-17

Jeff Gill

 

Cash on hand, in pocket, in the cloud

___

 

Money and churches.

 

Yeah, it does bring out some of our least favorite human qualities. Some might even refer to "sin" in that context . . .

 

Keep in mind that James tells us in his letter that "the love of money is the root of all evil," not necessarily money itself. But money bears watching.

 

The Bible is emphatic about this. Overall, there are around 500 passages about faith, some 500 on prayer, but more than 2,000 verses about money and possessions. Jesus tells us more about how to justly handle money than he does about heaven or hell, with 16 out of 38 parables being specifically about money and possessions.

 

So it's important. I suspect I'm not alone among clergy in usually spending some time after Pentecost and as summer begins looking at stewardship information and education. If you wait until after Labor Day, you'll be playing catch-up, just as our minister of music and I are usually solidifying our plans for Advent and Christmas as August begins.

 

I was in a conversation with a clergy colleague who was expressing some frustration about lay leadership and board meetings and church financial matters, and I off-handedly said something that he said I should put in my column. Now, I get told that about a wide variety of subjects, but that may be the first time anyone told me to say here something I said myself! But as we talked through the subject, I realized it might be a useful observation.

 

My thought, or question, or in some settings my concern is that in many congregations, our board meetings (or session, or church council, or whathaveyou) tend to be really more of a "finance committee of the whole." What I mean by that is the tendency – and I say this having served in leadership with seven congregations, consulted for a dozen and a half more at least, and a few wider or "regional" church bodies – for us to act when we meet for general leadership purposes as just a big fiscal review committee. We comb the statements for specific issues and concerns, and spend more time on the financial reports than almost everything else put together.

 

Yet when I'm on the boards of non-profits and other organizations, often with large and complex holdings and plenty to fuss over, there's usually a finance committee or development team or some specific oversight group that has done the fine details, and submits a report. The balance sheet and profit-and-loss and investment statements are available, but the whole board doesn't try to go through and second-guess or retroactively review individual expenditures. That's the finance team's job. The board is looking at the goals, the vision, and measuring their progress with benchmarks that include, but don't heavily emphasize, the financial numbers.

 

There are plenty of reasons for boards to get that way. One is size, and another is the complex set of relationships, functional and dysfunctional, that tend to crop up with questions of leadership in a small to medium size, long-standing organization. We know each other (or think we do!) and to be perfectly blunt, church leadership meetings do tend to have a fair amount of second-guessing going on.

 

And on the other hand, I'm working with my denominational structure through a series of problems right now, challenges that have their roots in financial information held so closely, so tightly, that years of leadership have found it easier to just skim over the details and avoid hard discussions about sustainability and support.

 

So there's a happy balance, a golden mean for such earthly matters. If your faith community spends more time on money than any other subject, that's probably not a good sign - and if you never discuss it, or see the actual figures of income and outgo clearly put, you've just got a different sort of trouble.

 

"The love of money" is at the root of many of our problems in community. We love controlling it, and knowing how it gets used: donor designation is the big growing thing in non-profit as well as church circles, where those giving have more and more say in how their gifts are used.

 

Meanwhile, finance or stewardship teams have their hands full with the trend growing for people to not have money, and for currency and checks continuing to give way to cards and electronic transfers. Stay tuned! It might have to be a full board discussion…

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about how you give to your faith community at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Faith Works 6-3-17

Faith Works 6-3-17

Jeff Gill

 

The Benedict Option, and the Jeremiah Call

___

 

Rod Dreher has written another wide-ranging and thought-provoking book. This one is titled "The Benedict Option" and it has been getting a great deal of attention in church circles but also well beyond our orbits, Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox Christians included (Dreher grew up in the first, was a convert to the second, and has since become a communicant in the latter).

 

Dreher's journalistic history and literary interests, from Dante to Walker Percy, have given him a large and well-deserved audience across the Western cultural spectrum, but what's provoked a great deal of conversation around "The Benedict Option" is a sense that he's turning away from Western culture, at least as we find it around us today. The claim often voiced in criticism of his latest work is that he's calling for Christians to turn away from our culture, and turn inwards to build up our own foundations, to enhance our own institutions, to ensure our children are raised in a concrete culture rooted in our beliefs and affirmations.

 

If that were true, I wouldn't condemn him out of hand for saying that's a viable course. Our culture, especially our pop culture today, does not have a great deal to commend it. In music and entertainment and clothing and generally within our fads and fashions there's little to celebrate about family, connections, church community, or Christ.

 

But that's not what Dreher is arguing for. His title comes from the conclusion of another book, not that old, but from a philosopher looking at today's landscape with no little skepticism, and looking back in summary to some earlier examples. Alasdair MacIntyre closes his 1981 book "After Virtue" with this paragraph: "And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another - doubtless very different - St. Benedict." St. Benedict somewhere around 550 A.D., as Rome was falling to the north of his monastic community, wrote down a rule of life for his monks that is credited with, among other things, helping to preserve some of the best elements of classical life and culture for generations to come on the other side of the "Dark Ages" of Europe.

 

"The Benedict Option" is an extended meditation on what it would look like for traditionalist communities, particularly but not restricted to Christian communities, to live a life that ensures that their – our – values are passed down to succeeding generations. Dreher doesn't argue we should leave today's culture entirely behind us in the dustbin of history, but he does inquire as to why we should have any confidence that today's Western Civ is likely to preserve or pass along values around personal virtue and communal morality that we claim in church and conversation to honor today.

 

There is a contrast, and that's not necessarily a contradiction. There is the Benedict Option of close community and intense commitment to ongoing values, which Dreher articulates widely and well. There is also a Biblical option I would refer to, unoriginally, as "the Jeremiah Option." In Jeremiah 29:4-7, it's written "Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."

 

How do we, for those of us who are believers, "seek the welfare of the city where" God has sent us, where we find ourselves today? If indeed "in its welfare you will find your welfare." I know many faithful will quickly think of Romans 12:2, "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God."

 

It's that balance, between Benedict and Jeremiah, that religious communities will be seeking in the era ahead.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about the culture you want to preserve for your descendants at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.