Thursday, March 10, 2005

Notes From My Knapsack 03-20-05
By Jeff Gill

Local school districts, and educators all over Ohio, are having to take a very serious look at their projections for funding and student counts for the next five years.
Almost without exception, school boards and superintendents have done this for decades just in the course of providing good leadership. What is a little bit different is that they now are required by the state to present these projections and proposed budgets for five years out, and that they are not, by state law, allowed to present an intentional deficit.
What is a whole lot different is that, for the most part, district treasurers are legally obligated to create these budgets for which they will be held accountable, while the lawmakers themselves are playing fruit-basket-upset with the sources of revenue.
From the futzing around with the millage rollback (perish the thought that education might benefit from increasing property values, which they likely contributed to!) on through the slow bleed of eliminating what’s known as “inventory taxes” to myriad other complex intricacies of the tax code that result in simple reductions to local school districts, education in Ohio is taking it on the chin. Big time.
So be aware, and be supportive of what school boards and the professional staffs of districts are going through, as the Statehouse hints and winks at what they may or may not do with funding formulas and tax reform, fiddling ‘til June while responsible officials close to where the hard work of citizenship happens are having to produce figures right now. They’re not supposed to guess, they can’t overspend, and they have no idea what they’ll be allowed to receive. Sound fair to you?
Oh, there in the third row: you want to know why they spend so much more, per capita, even adjusted for inflation? Thank you for raising your hand, and I’m delighted to answer that question. The reason is not a “problem,” but it is a new factor which we should celebrate and support, along with taking into account as we hold (as we should) our schools accountable.
Not so very long ago, within the personal experience of many of us who are old enough to read, most developmentally disabled, handicapped, and chronically ill students were told “Sorry.” If you couldn’t run up a flight of stairs, use a restroom on your own, or hang upside down on the monkey bars by your knees, you didn’t go to school.
That was it.
A few motivated districts and caring teachers might have gone out of their way to bring schooling to children in such situations, and institutionalized kids may or may not have gotten some kind of education wherever they were warehoused, but that wasn’t the school district’s expectation, by either the law or in the minds of local residents.
What has changed, and costs more, and what we should be very, very thankful for, is that the law now clearly says there aren’t any kids we can spare. No child is “someone else’s problem.” Every school district is required – and who wants to say this is a bad idea? – to educate every child in their care, no matter what the obstacles.
The law does not require football or baseball, or band, or busing for older youth. It does require that, if it takes an aide or special equipment or assisting devices to get a child on the road to the three R’s and beyond, that’s gotta be done. I like sports and music and science fairs, but that legal distinction makes sense to me, it really does.
Add to that the fact that graduation rates 50 years ago were close to 50% in most school districts (calculated as the number of ninth graders who got diplomas four years later), with the social assumption that the “other” 50% would be educated on the job, in the military, or along the railroad tracks catching a westbound freight, and that was just fine, you can see why education costs more, head-for-head, than it did.
I’m open to any good idea about the best mechanism for levying the taxes to support schools without harming business. Abso-bloomin-lutely. But let’s not blame kids in wheelchairs, or castigate treasurers and board members who are playing a perverse game of “Wheel” with your host Pat Housemember and the lovely Vanna Senatechamber changing the rules in mid-game.
Got an idea? E-mail me at and I’ll give you room in this column to propose your plan. Give me three weeks worth of material, OK? This random roulette with kids’ futures has to stop.
Faith Works 03-19-05
By Jeff Gill

[note: this did not appear in print, since the Atlanta hostage incident with Ashley Smith and the Purpose Driven Life story kind of overrode events; i wrote a new column seen above, and this exists only here...but enjoy anyhow! jbg]

A Children’s Sermon For Grown-ups

Now that the flood of green beer has crested, and the “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” buttons put back at the bottom of the sweater drawer, we can talk about Saint Patrick. Not the winkin’ wee feller of St. Paddy’s Day, but the good missionary bishop himself, and that hunk of Emerald Isle landscape in his hand.
“The Wearin’ o’ the Green,” with or without the pinch penalty (hope you checked workplace guidelines on sexual harassment before you tried that on anyone last week) is part of the adoptive Irishness that has trickled down to the wholesale embrace of “Celtic spirituality,” a broad table with an assortment of dishes set out, not many of which would Bishop Patrick recognize a millennium and a half ago.
Shamrock symbolism for the day and place and person is a good quick identifier, like pumpkins for Hallowe’en and fireworks for the Fourth of July. We’ve come to associate it with Ireland as a whole, in tourism ads or decorating the margins of our family tree from County Sligo.
What Patrick first plucked a shamrock for was to make a point, and a difficult one at that, one that has challenged Christian teachers and preachers for many an age. He held up the lowly green ground cover to make three points, or maybe three points in one.
What the good bishop was trying to get across to his pagan and Druid listeners was what Christians meant when they said they believed in “One God, not many” but could also call Jesus “truly God and truly human,” and, oh yes, there was this “Holy Spirit” authentically divine as well.
OK, said the Irish. So you worship three gods, which is fine by us; many do. No, no, answered Patrick, we worship God in three persons, a blessed Trinity, where the eternal Oneness of God is manifested in three. . .
And then Patrick saw the shamrock.
Aside from general theological illiteracy, a big reason for folks here and now not knowing the religious roots of the shamrock symbol is that we point at our common clover as the closest analogy (and look for luck in the four leaf variety, just as they did in the Auld Sod for four leaf shamrocks).
But clover is three distinct leaflets off of a central stem. Shamrocks were a, well, God-send for Patrick because they look like three leaves until you consider them up close and personal. A true shamrock is actually one leaf, with divisions between the three lobes so deep that they look like three different sections. Careful observation, instead of a casual glance, shows that the shamrock is in fact one coherent, connected, unified leaf.
Thus, Patrick to-be-saint would have said, is our understanding of the inner relationships of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From a distance, three distinct forms and roles; draw near, and see and feel the oneness.
Town after town, county after county, king after king heard Patrick’s shamrock theology talk about Christianity, and asked for baptism. This way of understanding the doctrine of the Trinity became so attached to the Irish Church that the shamrock became the symbol of the whole island.
And may the road rise to meet all those preparing for baptism this Easter season, and may the gentle wind be at everyone’s back, Irish or not.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio. If you have other ethnic faith traditions to share, e-mail
Faith Works 03-12-05
By Jeff Gill

Contemporary and Traditional Worship

One of the more vexed questions in today’s congregational life is how to approach the widespread move to what’s called “contemporary worship.”
Actually, there’s no more a contemporary style than there is a single “traditional worship” style. Variations from religious body to religious body, between geographic and cultural regions, and out of ethnic backgrounds as well make any use of standard terminology tricky.
For central Ohio, mostly among Protestant Christian bodies, the distinction is largely one of music, at least on the surface. Traditional worship is marked by hymnals, music mostly 40 years old or older, often a bulletin with an “order of worship” built around regularly recurring songs and prayers or acts that stay pretty much the same from week to week.
Traditional worship is orderly, generally more formal, with mostly professional leadership in front of the congregation, and from the worshipers there is less active involvement in the service, with clapping or applause less welcome.
Contemporary worship is marked by music presented by a “praise team” usually made up of mostly volunteers, playing guitars, drums, and keyboards or synthesizers to offer music written in the last few decades. Hymnals are all but invisible, as words are projected before the congregation, freeing the hands to clap, applaud, or even raise up during prayer and praise. While contemporary worship isn’t necessarily “charismatic” in the Pentecostal sense, a freedom for individual expression and spontaneous flow in the elements of the service are similar to what has been found in charismatic fellowships for many years.
Obviously, these styles resist blending in one service. Some churches, such as Jacksontown United Methodist Church, have been able to do this successfully, but more common is either having two (or more) services clearly presented as “contemporary” at blank o’clock and “traditional” at other o’clock.
One concern raised with this approach is the question “aren’t we going to have two separate congregations under one roof if we do that?” Actually, the results in churches doing this are pretty much what happens anywhere there are multiple services. Even in places which have chosen to stick with traditional as their style across the board, the “early” and “late” services have their own set of regular attenders, and a different feel between the experiences of worship.
To have multiple services for worship means taking on an extra obligation to have a variety of fellowship experiences that can cut across generational boundaries and issues of musical taste. It can be done, and two or three healthy services will always total more worshipers than the most crowded single service over time, anyhow.
My wife loves being part of a praise team ensemble, working out harmonies and accompaniment for new pieces of music (which often are Biblical texts or phrases from ancient music: it ain’t all new!), and seeing the active involvement of an entire sanctuary in the entire experience of worship. My mom can’t stand contemporary worship of any sort, period. My dad is, to quote “baffled by why anyone would enjoy all this noise in church,” but also says “if you can get all these people to church who weren’t coming before, there must be something to it.”
Me? Well, like any good columnist, I have an assortment of feelings about all this. But I keep coming back to a keepsake I have on a shelf in my office, a hymnal from the roots of my own background, whose proceeds built Bethany College, churches across the US in the 19th century, and funded missionary efforts all around the world. My great-great-grandmother, her daughter, and her daughter sang from this hymn book.
It has over 600 hymns in it. There are precisely two – “Amazing Grace” & “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” – that anyone still sings.
Will we still sing much of contemporary praise music a hundred years from now? Probably not. But it’s worth giving it a try today. I’ll bet my great-grandmother thought “Old Rugged Cross” didn’t sound right the first time she heard it, either.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; if you have a favorite hymn you’d like to read more about, e-mail

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Notes From My Knapsack 3-13-05
By Jeff Gill

Calvinists from Wales, landless Anglican prone to the Arminian heresy (said the Calvinists), German Dunkards and Congregational New Englanders – religious refugees, sectarian churches, and pilgrim colonists are not just the story of the settling of the East Coast of North America.
We know the legends of Plymouth Rock (Myles Standish and John Alden) and the Hudson Valley (Rip VanWinkle and Sleepy Hollow) or even Revolutionary Piedmonters (Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox) from the far edge of America, but what about our story? The narrative of Licking County and her European pioneers is all too little known, but with dramatic characters and startling scenes all its own.
John Jones, Elias Ratliff, Lucius Mower, or Billy Dragoo deserve to be known to a wider audience in this area, and the religious underpinnings of migrant bands ending up along Raccoon Creek are vital to understanding their story.
Dick Shiels may not get to Billy Dragoo, but he will talk this Tuesday about how churches and colonists created the core of Licking County in the Granville area in the early 1800’s. Dick is a popular teacher of history at OSU-Newark both of events long ago and far away, as well as the history just at our feet.
7:30 pm on March 15 at the Granville Inn is your chance to come hear about the creation of a tale that is not only still being re-told, but re-edited as well!
Quite a few congregations in Licking County are celebrating their bicentennials over the next few years: White Chapel United Methodist Church off Hog Run west of Rt. 13, Licking Baptist Church on Beaver Run Road near Hebron, and both First Presbyterians in Newark and Granville. A number of sesqui’s are coming up, too: Perryton’s Church of Christ, Johnstown Baptist Church, Croton and Hebron United Methodist Churches soon and Denison University this next year. Please send me news of any anniversary events you know about, and what will be a public portion of the commemorations.
Most of our local school systems didn’t come into being as organized entities until after 1838 with state legislation helping put the pieces together, and many (like Newark’s) didn’t get going until 1850 or so. Civic affairs were in log structures and based on infrequent meetings until about the same time.
Church buildings and the congregational life in them was often the only structure outside of family life for much of the early history in Ohio, as in most of this country. It can be fairly assumed that the structures of church life also shaped the still developing social and cultural life around them, simply by being first and in having a shape and solidity to copy.
Were all our pioneer forebearers active and faithful members of the churches they attended? A close reading of history says they were individually less so than you might think, but that same careful observation shows how unique and idiosyncratic elements of the denominations found on the frontier created much of the foundation for civil government. I’m looking forward to hearing Dick Shiels trace the marks of these formative influences on the community we continue to build.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; if you have a story to add to the files of historic Licking County or for tomorrow’s tale, e-mail