Thursday, November 26, 2015

Notes From My Knapsack 12-3-15

Notes From My Knapsack 12-3-15
Jeff Gill

Syrian refugees may need some assistance

Even if I've not quite followed all the details in the news, it seems that we may have some refugees from Syria heading our way in the foreseeable future.

I've had the privilege of working with a number of refugee families through the years, coming as they have under the sponsorship of congregations, sent through the auspices of the federal government and various national church bodies. They've been from either hemisphere, from Cambodia to Azerbaijan, and they've all been an honor to assist.

Motivation and discipline and hard work have been foremost among the gifts they bring to this country, even if their command of the language may start out on the rough side. And in fact, their written and basic understanding of English has been fairly smooth, but the edges and abrasions and points of friction come from our culture, which is a hard thing to teach about in a book. How we live is something we just do, more than talk about. It's not something we can even explain to ourselves most days.

To stand next to someone with more years of education than you have, and see their bewilderment standing in the breakfast cereal aisle . . . do you explain this strangeness, or just turn them gently towards the oatmeal shelf where the choice is between "old fashioned" or "one minute," and only deal with explaining that small distinction?

When military parades were commonplace in their former home, how do you interpret the celebratory fondness we have for marching bands, accompanied by young women tossing fake wooden rifles in the air? Is it a logical evolution and march of peaceful progress from what they've known, or is it best understood as something else entirely?

Most refugees come from places where random violence and the open display of weaponry is common; how do you help them understand what safety means in this country, where crime tends to be more personal or geographic, rather than factional or political? When the ownership of firearms exceeds anything they knew in a strife-torn homeland, but it's presented as a sporting or recreational proposition, the puzzled looks they'll give you are understandable from their own calamitous experience.

Generally, transportation is something they have a more formal and structured relationship with than the house by house or person by person approach we take to travel decisions. "Let's take two cars" being the usual farewell between two people even in the same family, going to the same destination. Seeing people walking or running isn't strange in their experience, but finding out that most of those on foot are just on a loop starting from and returning back to their homes: why? Explaining "exercise" can be challenging.

And then there's Christmas. It's the odd refugee indeed who's never heard of the observance, but an American Christmas – from Washington Irving to Charles Dickens (whose "A Christmas Carol" will be at Licking County Players the next two weekends), through Clement Clarke Moore and Robert L. May – it's a very particular thing yet it includes a wide variety of inputs, from the British and the Dutch to Montgomery Ward's and Macy's. How do you account for our Christmas in 500 words or less?

Perhaps the best way we can prepare to welcome refugees from another culture is to make sure to stop and try to understand our own first.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him about your experience with refugees and immigrants of all sorts at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Faith Works 11-28-15

Faith Works 11-28-15

Jeff Gill


Subjects of concern, matters of faith



This has been a year full of unwelcome subjects, to speak candidly as a pastor, a preacher, and a columnist.


There are matters we want to talk about, things we know we should be discussing, and then there are those shadows across our path that we're used to just ignoring.


Global affairs and local incidents have put the phrase "active shooter" on everyone's lips. If you have a child in school, you've realized that the fearful drills of "duck and cover" for nuclear attack have been replaced with dress rehearsals for an unthinkable individual entering the building. Kids don't come home saying "hey, there was a tornado drill" since those are so regular and routine they barely register; the new topic of conversation is about ALICE. (More about "her" in a moment.)


Churches as a place of public assembly have long had an ambivalent relationship with these matters. There may or may not be a severe weather plan, and there likely aren't designated persons to manage that situation, except for some congregations with a fully developed security team that handles the parking lots and entrance & exit issues.


The church building where I'm pastor still has a 1950's era "Fallout Shelter" sign near one door, with the capacity long peeled away, and the supplies once in a closet under the stairs thrown out. We were in some form part of the Civil Defense response plan back then.


Fire code and inspections have us put up exit plans and check our emergency lighting, and that along with fire extinguishers and smoke detectors are part of the standard set of concerns for property committees and trustees. But lately, as a church leader, you can feel the pressure increasing to be more ready.


Not more ready as in being part of a community reaction plan, with the Red Cross or the local emergency response team, but internally, to a sudden shocking event. The requests are rising up above mere suggestions, and the insistence can be felt not just from the fire inspectors and state offices, but from your insurance carrier, denominational bodies: and even the Department of Homeland Security is sending clergy and churches helpful hints about "critical incident response" planning.


"Run-Hide-Fight" is how we're hearing it back from our younger schoolchildren; in the higher grades, at colleges and civic offices, we're being trained in Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate - A.L.I.C.E.


Like most acronyms, it's easy to be dismissive of the whole thing. I'm going to remember all that? But with regular training, and some visual reinforcement, plus having clearly designated people with the task of handling those first couple of steps IMMEDIATELY – whether we're talking about a funnel cloud, a gas leak, or a guy with a gun seen in a stairwell – it's a very workable method to teach preparedness.


Honestly, I'm not ready to do a sermon on this. My natural inclination is to pray, and invite others to do the same, and ask for clarity of thought and action to help us behave rightly in a crisis. To, as the Scripture says, "seek the mind of Christ."


Then I remember that the Bible does not say much to me about how we safely use an elevator or a boiler system. We have responsible parties, regular checks and re-checks, and a plan of action that is needed when something like that goes wrong. And as the police and insurance and other official bodies remind us, if we are in the business of bringing large numbers of people together in a visible location on a regular basis, we'd be irresponsible NOT to have some sort of "critical incident response plan" and to regularly orient key leaders and do training each year around this. It's not borrowing trouble, it's just a reality of life along with having fire extinguishers on each floor, and not just ignoring them for seven or eight years until we need one, and it doesn't work.


So we're talking, at my church, about "Run-Hide-Fight," and about ALICE, and about who does what. Not who's going to be a hero, or how we're just going to pray enemies away from ever opening our door, but having the basics of assembly and evacuation ready to undergird our faith with action.


What is your faith community saying about this sort of planning? Should we? How shall we? I will be glad to share other ideas on this troubling topic.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him about your critical incident response plan at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Faith Works 11-21-15

Faith Works 11-21-15

Jeff Gill


Why go to church?



Why go to church?


For some of you that's a non-issue, you just go. It's time, let's get moving, shake a leg!


Not a few are reading and thinking "well, I don't, but I never wonder why, and I'm not sure I should start today!"


While Gallup surveys have pretty consistently for decades shown a 40% church attendance rate, measured by asking Americans "did you go to church last week?" more objective measures show it's closer to 17%.  Maybe in any given week 4 of 10 intend to go to church, and it's more an aspirational answer to what they hope to do this week than an accurate statement of what happened a week ago.


And Pew Research Center figures show that around 3 in 10 in the USA say "I seldom or never go to worship services of any sort."


About 5 in 10 Americans don't have what religious people would call "a church home," whether defined by membership or affiliation of some sort; many pastors would note that there are plenty of people on the rolls who may technically have a church home in their congregation, but they couldn't pick them out of a lineup for never having actually met them.


There's an awareness, too, that much of the decline in church attendance generally in the last few decades has been due to shifts in assumptions and expectations among church members. An active church member, fifty years ago, attended church three times a week. Today, if you attend church three times a month, you're pretty darn active. That could mean that you had 300 active members in 1965 and 300 in 2015, but your church's attendance average goes from something like 650 weekly in services to 150. Not fewer "in" your church, but measurably fewer coming to church.


If 2 out of 10 of those on your street go to church in any given week, is there anything to say to those other 8? Better yet, if later on Sunday afternoon you were one of those early risers and a neighbor asked you "why bother, when it's such a lovely day to sit on the porch, go for a drive, but sleep in first?" – how would you answer?


In some religious traditions, there's a sacramental reason to attend church. It is through corporate worship and the purpose of the service that you can have a closer encounter with the divine through the sacraments of the church. St Augustine, in the 5th century described a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace." Many traditions identify those as baptism and communion; some point to five and even seven acts of the church as sacramental, but the point is that at church and through coming together with the community for worship, you have access to the sacraments.


Today's world pushes against that in two directions. From one angle is the secular response, saying "there is no such thing as the sacramental or sacred." If the super- or supranatural is a myth, if materialism is fundamental reality, then sacramental anything is an illusion . . . so why participate in it?


The other angle is a sort of diffusive pantheism that is part of the "spiritual but not religious" trend that says "everything is sacred, trees and hills and fairways and even that scent of cinnamon from your special morning tea." If you can get the sacramental connection to the divine anywhere, and on your own terms, why come to a particular building at a certain time?


Decline aside, the fact is that thousands of your fellow citizens do get up, do go to church, and do believe they find something there that's just not as easily or reliably accessible in any location. And quite a few who are thinking about going, even if they haven't for a while, believe that there is that "something more" to life, and to meaning and purpose, and they want to find a connection beyond themselves, which might just come from being among others seeking the same.


There are a few more reasons I'd like to talk about next week as to why you'd skip (or postpone) a perfectly good brunch to attend worship. But a connection to the divine, to God, is probably the most important one for me.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's looking forward to tomorrow night's community Thanksgiving service at Neal Ave. UMC! Ask him for directions at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Notes From My Knapsack 11-19-15

Notes From My Knapsack 11-19-15

Jeff Gill


Empty chairs at empty tables



One of the most affecting numbers in a very emotional musical, "Les Miserables," is sung after a battle is over, by a survivor who finds himself back in the wreckage of a cheerful place he once knew.


Marius sings "There's a grief that can't be spoken; there's a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables - now my friends are dead and gone."


On Thanksgiving Day there are always homes and families who face this challenge. Sometimes it's literally a physical challenge, because of the geography of the dining room, or the particular arrangement of the people involved.


Someone is not there this year. Perhaps someone is simply on the road, off and away, and the meal is different but may return to the familiar next year. Who knows?


More often, someone is gone. A permanent move, a death, whatever the loss, it's a major jolt at those particular moments of household ritual. A position around the table is not occupied, and everyone else in one way or another has to shift.


Those shifts are physical, maybe you just scoot chairs around a little closer to fill the gap. And they are powerfully emotional, when the absence is felt and reinforced by those little acts that evoke the person not there. They are also ripples that wash through families, as relationships shift and splash up against each other.


Someone different roasts the turkey, another family member brings the pie, it's a different friend who mulls the cider . . . or the cider isn't there this year.


Of the usual circle around the table, there might be one in the hospital, someone moved to a nursing home, even somebody in jail. But more often, the sense of loss is because, inevitably, in any family over time, a loved one has died.


My recommendation to anyone when this subject comes up is to acknowledge it. Don't try to gloss over the absence, to pretend they were never there, not talking about that missing person. Prayer is a perfect platform for an out-loud acknowledgment of loss and sorrow, to say that there's someone we miss from this table this year.


Other rituals or intentional acts can fill that same gap; a candle on the table, a flower in a vase, a card at a place setting. I don't know that I would recommend a full place setting and empty chair, but for some families, that's almost necessary at least the first year, because the loss is felt so strongly there's no way around making that absence visible.


It's a different observance, but I do think of the Jewish traditions around Passover, another table-centered annual tradition. For many families, part of the meal is to have a chair in the room, if not full place setting at the table, called Elijah's chair. And in the Passover seder, there's a point where it's remembered that Elijah has promised to return, and a door is opened, and there's a moment.


My prayers are with everyone who will be having "a moment" in their hearts this Thanksgiving Day.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he has been converted to roasted Brussels sprouts late in life. Tell him about your holiday traditions at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Faith Works 11-14-15

Faith Works 11-14-15

Jeff Gill


Stories of sacrifice, and of service



A quick note: a week from tomorrow, on Sunday evening, Nov. 22 at Neal Avenue United Methodist Church, a community Thanksgiving Service will be held at 7:00 pm, sponsored by the Newark Area Ministerial Association. This service moves around the city each year, but is a longstanding tradition where we can, as Christians, come together in thanks and praise for an evening. And yes, there will be an offering, which will go entirely to the Coalition of Care. Please consider joining us for an hour of scripture and song next Sunday.


The following really should have been written last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of a death in what was then still known in the news as the Belgian Congo, by 1964 an independent nation known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


I'd like to lift up before you all the life of Phyllis Rine, a young woman of this area who died on November 24, 1964 during what is known as the "Congo Massacre," when some 250 Christian missionaries were killed. Obviously, I never knew her (says your columnist, born in 1961), but I've met those who did, and had heard her story told in hushed tones as a child myself, back in Illinois during Sunday school assemblies. She had been a missionary in Stanleyville, now Kisangani, when a Maoist-inspired Communist militia took over the town, and after two months of captivity as a hostage, was killed with many other missionaries, nuns, and medical workers from the West, even as soldiers landed on the edge of town to attempt their rescue.


Until this week, I had not tracked down the place where they brought her body back to be buried, just over the county line in her native Martinsburg. But recently I had some business in Utica and then in Zanesville, so had no excuse not to stop and search a bit in that small town along my way, and indeed found the place where she is buried.


Phyllis has relatives still living in Knox and Licking Counties, and I am hesitant to say too much that might intrude on their own memories. But as we become ever more aware of some of the struggles people of faith are having around the world, this one death represents some of the dangers that still exist for believers. The stories we hear today may seem as distant as fifty years and more, but standing at her grave made both her story and today's tragedies something more immediate in my own prayers and reflections.


She went to a church camp of the Restoration Movement tradition that we share, and heard a missionary speak who I heard speak once, years later in Indiana. His story motivated her to attend Cincinnati Bible Seminary, now Cincinnati Christian University, and to go into the mission field. In sum, she barely spent two years in Africa, teaching and working and witnessing.


These words, on the wall of her childhood home, made an epitaph that her friend and fellow missionary Zola Brown would use in writing a book about her all too brief life:


Only one life 'twill soon be past,
Only what's done for Christ will last.


Service and sacrifice and surrender to God's will -- may her example bring us more inspiration than sorrow, a life that has touched more of us after her death than she ever could have known and ministered to while on this earth. She left Ohio so all the world might know about the hope that was in her, and that hope did not die in Africa, but was instead reborn. Martinsburg was a good place to pray on a November morning, over fifty years after this marker was set. We never really know what will endure . . .


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; so far, God just sent him to Ohio. Tell him where you believe you are called to serve at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.