Monday, March 14, 2005

Faith Works column draft 2005 [note: this ran 3-19 in place of the St. Patrick story seen below]

The Purpose Driven Life Returns
Jeff Gill

Recent events overturn our own well-made plans; Ashley Smith knows this even better than Rick Warren, let alone yours truly.
Ashley Smith is the quietly heroic captive of the Atlanta courthouse shooter from just a few weeks back; she read aloud to her kidnaper a section she was reading that day from “The Purpose Driven Life,” a book written by Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, a two year and still going strong bestseller (in hardback, no less), which her church was reading together through Lent, the worship season leading up to Easter.
Among regular Christian churchgoers, the question is not so much “have you read it” as “how is your church reading it?” Some congregations have done the “40 Days of Purpose” official program through Saddleback’s outreach ministry, others have done a less formal version of congregation-wide reading a day at a time together, and many churches have small groups reading the book for 40 days together.
The idea that your life has a purpose, set by God, and waiting for you to discover to achieve a truly fulfilled life, is not unique to Pastor Warren. But his material, written to give an entire faith community a context to ask this question of one another, and of their church life as well, has created a new opportunity in modern Christendom. The 100-plus weeks this volume has stayed on the New York Times bestseller list show that a chord across America was struck by this book.
So in one sense, the fact that Ashley Smith was reading “The Purpose Driven Life” when she was held captive is not surprising (although how she used it gives her credit beyond my ability to praise in a brief column).
What caught my attention in the coverage over the next two days after the capture and telling of the story was how most TV journalists were utterly unaware of this phenomenon. It started to get painful to me hearing on-air personalities, after segments of Ms. Smith’s narrative, say “This will sure put that book on the bestseller list!”
No, I’m not saying all reporters should know the top ten lists of all media at all times. But it was painfully indicative to me that there was clearly no one on TV who had heard of this book in the first blush of coverage, and mostly fairly stilted descriptions of what this “chapter 33” and who Warren was and what this book meant well into the new cycle.
I know a number of Christian pastors, actually, who have concerns and objections to “The Purpose Driven Life” or the 40 day program for churches. They think it oversold and overhyped. But I don’t know many active Christians who have never heard of it.
Of course, the idea that few media figures are committed religious people is not a new one. But the lack of awareness of such a widespread phenomenon did catch me a bit by surprise. If this were a pop cultural artifact like a hula hoop or pet rock, I’d bet most high profile reporters would know what the deal was, even if they didn’t own one.
Is religious life an aspect of the culture worth knowing about? Inquiring minds want to know . . .Ashley Smith has a story to tell that is of interest to both the culture and to Christians. Her faith is an absolutely necessary part of that narrative, if we’re to make sense of her heroism and strength in a situation of absolute weakness.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio who has used “The Purpose Driven Life” with a congregation; if you have an opinion pro- or con- about this or other trends in church life, e-mail him at

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Faith Works column draft [note: this has not yet run, and is "parked" here; it will move to the proper chronology when it sees the light of newsprint -- jbg]

Why do we pray in Licking County?
Jeff Gill

Christians pray. The Lord’s Prayer, morning prayers, bedtime prayers; we pray in worship services and we pray in private. We speak to God, addressing ourselves to the Creator of the Universe, with a sense of trust in the belief that God listens, and a sense of wonder that God might answer.
Moslems pray, offering their submission, or “Islam” (the literal meaning of that awkward transliteration from the Arabic) to Allah, five times a day at minimum, whether alone or in association with other believers.
Jews pray, both in corporate worship that calls for a “minyan,” the ten men needed for official services, or alone before the Lord Who is One, Adonai.
Hindus pray, to a variety of divine figures who embody manifestations of the Divine Nature, but prayers both “set” and spontaneous are part of their tradition as well, no matter how different their worship spaces look to Western eyes.
Native Americans, or members of the First Nations as the Canadians say, pray; they speak most often of what they do devotionally as “listening,” with much less emphasis on asking or requesting than what they hear Anglo-Europeans do in prayer. Those who happily accept the label “Pagan” or Wiccam say much the same about their prayers.
Buddhists . . . well, they are more comfortable, for the most part, with the word “meditate,” but there are many traditional petitions and praises to the embodiments of Buddha-nature that sound like nothing other than prayer.
And the profane speak the name of God in a variety of forms, most of which are rude and disrespectful . . . but often with a frustrated or helpless tone that almost makes you think they could even be . . . naaaahhh. But Jesus really doesn’t have a middle name as far as anyone can tell from the Bible, in case you wondered.
So what are we all doing when we pray? Of course, there are those who would say that if you are not praying to the real, actual God, you are moving your lips and wasting oxygen; there are also those militantly atheistic enough to say we’re all doing that.
Others, a fair number around these parts I would guess, believe that prayers not intended and aimed and shaped by the right or true or orthodox position are getting much less communion and communication out of their prayers than they might. There is more of an economy of efficiency than an assertion of accuracy among Licking County believers of all faiths. Even very conservative Christians around here would agree that prayers of the monotheistic faiths, Jewish, Christian, and Moslem are spoken to the same one God, but with less efficacy depending on one’s spiritual disciplines and personal faithfulness. Most would even say God hears the misuse of divine labels by the profane; they just would not want to be in their shoes when the answer comes back.
Do those who pray think they talk to God? Almost without exception, yes. Do they think they change God? Generally, no. Serious pray-ers mostly see their prayers as having effects on those who offer the prayers, opening a channel for God’s grace and peace to work in them through a powerful non-verbal communication in response; they also understand their prayers as having an effect on others by being the vehicle for allowing that grace-filled power to flow more freely in a world often intent on blocking God’s intention. While free will, in this post-Calvinistic world, is widely understood by believers as the autonomy God respects in human persons, those who freely choose prayer can give an appropriate and effective nudge to events in the world by opening doors for God to work. And such openness allows our will to be aligned with the will of God, a source of power for those who believe.
Prayer is . . . how would you answer that?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio. Share your story of prayer at work with him at

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