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
“Think Ability First”
The Community Booster 3-14-05
Jeff Gill

Ability. We rarely think about the everyday actions we perform, from walking across a room to driving a car. We just do.
Disability is more vivid in our minds, whether a temporary loss of capacity like a broken leg or sprained wrist, or the prospect of something larger and long-lasting.
If some one is described as “having a disability,” that kind of thinking leads to our defining a person by that lack, or absence of ability.
Ashley and Danielle and Stephanie and David don’t see their world as a list of what they can’t do, or at least no more than any other high schooler does. Thanks to Rhonda and Dorothy and Raydelle and Molly and dozens of others, children as well as adults with special needs see themselves as people with abilities. Do we?
MRDD Awareness Day and Month is designed by the Licking County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (you can see why they go by MRDD, can’t you?) as one of many efforts they take on to help the wider community “Think Ability First.”
How can you stop from seeing what someone can’t do as their defining characteristic? Well, one way is to put yourself in their shoes, by working a wheelchair through doors and down hallways, or wearing vision-limiting goggles. At first you are all about what you can’t do, but the gentle hints of those who live with these situations and a little persistence can show how you “do different” what you’re used to doing another way.
Or you can simply walk alongside, and learn that from adaptive technology to dogged persistence to a whole lotta love, there’s always a way.
Think ability first, says the MRDD Board, and you see a thousand Licking County residents in a very different way.
Awareness Day was an event involving some 40 community members invited to start a morning at the E.S. Weiant Center (formerly known as the “Starlight School”) with breakfast together and a brief orientation, followed by breaking into teams of 2 to 6 members visiting various locations where special needs students, young adults working on the transition to independent living, and working people with disabilities at the LICCO workshop and other sites through Community Employment Services. They ended their experience with lunch back at Weiant where participants shared what they did and saw with each other.
MRDD also works very closely with the Licking County Schools and their Educational Service Center, which provides appropriate education experiences for children from kindergarten through age 22. While many are able to graduate in one form or another, some need special services to get ready for as much independent living as they can.
This writer was with a group that went to one of three high school based multi-handicap units, or a “MH room.” Every child needing such services through their individual education plan, or IEP, has access, but not every school has their own program and intervention specialist with aides.
Children from five different districts in the county were beginning a series of exercises when our Awareness Day group arrived. The roomful was grouped by skill level rather than by grade or simple age divisions, but the exercises were done by everyone, including visitors, who were considerably less flexible than the 14 to 19 year olds.
Rhonda Taylor, the room coordinator and intervention specialist at the Granville High MH room, explained that these were exercises designed not so much to stretch the muscles as the mind, working left and right limbs over to the opposite sides, which forces the two sides of the brain to work together. This is one “stretch” that most of us could probably use to start a day, but is particularly useful for many of the students in the MH room.
We saw how each child has their own “objectives list” for the day and week, tailored to their own unique situation. When they reach 10th grade level, they also take an alternative assessment version of the Ohio Graduation Test, just their peers all across the state this week.
After some time for individual work, most of the group was scheduled for a field trip to Newark and “The Citadel,” formerly the YWCA building. Licking County School ESC has a program there for transitioning to independent living, where life skills are sharpened and aimed at their goals for their later years. Raydelle Matthews, the specialist there, was cooking a lunch that tempted us all to veer off our plan, but she invited us to just walk around the room with our escorts and join the activities.
Playing ball with young adults who are legally blind, like Robin, seeing crafts prettier than anything their guests knew they were capable of making, or getting whooped on at cards by almost anyone there (who had the disability at that table?) were some of the experiences to be had while other students worked to set up for lunch.
Here, as throughout the system, MRDD caseworkers are in close consultation with the school staff, but particularly as the emphasis shifts from the more academic to primarily vocational after age 19 or post-graduation. Adult services, with CES and the LICCO workshop, create a safety net for these able, but vulnerable members of our community.
Licking County MRDD is funded largely through our own local tax levy, some federal and state funding, and small amount of revenue. Their activities go “around the clock and around the county” in the words of Sherry Steinman, MRDD’s public relations director.
At the closing luncheon, participants like John Gard of Park National Bank noted their amazement at “how vast a transportation system it takes to do this work.”
Nancy Neely, the superintendent of MRDD, spoke of their “huge responsibility to connect with the various service programs around the county.” That kind of co-ordination, between a variety of organizations and structures, is something that is often beyond the skills of the “regularly abled,” let alone those who need assistance. From the preschool at the Weiant Center, the ten ESC school-based programs around the county, and through the work-based settings all the way to the Licking County Aging Program, people with special needs are all around us, aided and served well by the staff and volunteers of LCMRDD. Your purchases may have been made or wrapped by their clients, you may have eaten off of dishes they wash, or a bed you slept in during the ice storm was likely made by a CES worker. They are a vital part of our economy as well as our community.
Together, they invite us all to “think ability first.”