Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Faith Works 2-18-06
Jeff Gill

What Burns But Isn’t Consumed?

As I am typing this, ten churches in Alabama have burned. Five white, five black in membership, but all Baptist, with the arsonists driving past Christian churches of other sorts to reach their targets.
Since we can’t slot this tale into the standard hate crime category, it is being skittishly avoided in favor of coverage of Arab riots ostensibly over some five month old Danish cartoons. Only one religion story per news cycle, please.
Is it even possible for there to be people angry – rationally or obsessively – at Baptists in particular? Whoops, now we’ve gone and asked the question out loud, and there it is. Of course there can be hate crimes against Baptist Christians or even Christians in general, but how does one describe assaults against the majority? It would be like arguing that men get a raw deal sometimes in family court, or that the Catholic Church gets an unfair swipe in "The DaVinci Code." Yeah, yeah, tell me something interesting.
So what will we hear when the Alabama church fires are pinned down to the two angry fellows who had to kick their way (leaving hand and footprints behind) out of a church they had lit from within starting at the communion table, an apparent common thread in the storyline? No, that couldn’t show a perspective and bias, torching the communion table at the heart of the worship area as the primary act of arson.
The story may be unfolding as you read this, and I encourage you to listen for what’s not said in the wire service and TV media summaries.
The close of that narrative I can’t anticipate: two criminals argues less for monomania than a shared grievance, over an act of exclusion or affirmation of boundaries that left someone angrily outside, now breaking in with gasoline and matches in hand, or a pair of pranksters with a deeper motivation that kept the joke going for a chillingly long strand of burning fuse.
What I can speak to is the unique blow that a church fire can be to a community, let alone to the congregation in question. Except for families who have lost a home to fire, there are few who actually can relate to the drawn-out loss and anguish that is a church lost to flames.
I’ve stood with fellow congregants on a cold night while the roof collapses under the hoses of valiant firefighters at work saving neighboring structures more than worried about the total loss before them. With the senior pastor, I’ve met with fire department staff and heard the shocking words "suspected arson," and though our tale was one of age and decay leading to ignition, not malice in the end, the weeks of wondering leave a sour taste indeed.
You don’t realize until you’ve been through a fire, home or church, that you "lose" little; the complete conflagration is rare. What you get is one last chance to look at precious artifacts and memories, now blackened, twisted, and soon to be on the trash heap. You get books that look a bit swollen from singeing on the outside and water absorption within, but mostly fine, and then a helpful insurance fellow tells you that the fungi and molds that will grow from them could overtake your other books, so it too must be pitched.
Very little is never seen again: what you see is contorted beyond belief, and must be cast aside as an act of necessary but unwilling volition, including the ragged walls that are left, and usually even the foundations, which are now usually toxic waste for which you will pay a premium to have hauled away.
You say to the TV cameras, boldly and quite honestly as you say it: "The church is not the building, the church is the people." But you confront in new and profound ways how the building was a source of unity and cohesion that is not easily replaced, even when faith is strong and hope is bright. The kindly offers of temporary quarters become, unavoidably, an imposition, and even unvoiced the question "When are you moving on?" is always in the air.
All of this, and more, hovers about some ten congregations in northern Alabama. Their Christian neighbors have offered worship space, some have insurance and many do not, and they continue to meet on the Lord’s Day to give thanks for many blessings.
And let me assure you, they need our prayers as much as they need our checks. Most will rebuild, none will be the same. A fortunate few will be better faith communities for having experienced this fire that burnt them, but did not consume them, and many texts from Scripture will never read the same, either.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s been through a church fire and seen the new life on the other side. Tell him your stories of new life at disciple@voyager.net.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Notes From My Knapsack 2-19-06
Jeff Gill

Curling Rocks (Granite, Actually)

Curling fans no doubt are unsure how to welcome all us johnny-come-lately aficionados of the sport.
Salt Lake’s 2002 Winter Olympics, aside from teaching most of Licking County the difference between luge and skeleton, helping bring curling out from the Canadian studies ghetto to the place of prominence they now enjoy.
Cub Scout Pack 3 had a great outing to the Newark Ice Arena, home of the Newark Generals ice hockey team (plus some mean hockey moms playing full contact sport after the wee kiddies left), but there was no sign of curling catching on in this area. The well-appointed concession area sold Blue Jackets jerseys, hockey sticks, and pads for all over, but no curling stones or brooms that I saw. Maybe they’re behind the counter. Make a trip some weekend this winter and ask ‘em.
Watching seven and eight year olds learn that a figure eight is not as easy as it seems when Dick Button is doing commentary was fun; your scribe turned a few figure threes, and the Little Guy finally decided, with no regret, to settle for a figure one before quitting his first foray into skating.
Many of us dads taking an unaccustomed turn on skates that we may have been on before, but not recently, noted too late the need to stretch. It was duly noted in many households the next morning, however. In our 30’s and 40’s we could sympathize with Michelle Kwan, who finds at 25 that some muscle injuries don’t recover as fast or as thoroughly in adulthood.
Everyone loved the story of Anne Abernathy, the 52 year old member of the Red Hat Society in her native Virgin Islands (which she represented as their only athlete in luge), going for a new record as oldest woman to compete in a Winter Olympics. Had she not broken bones on a practice run, she would have beaten . . . herself, always a good competitor for anyone.
Red Hatters of Licking County (and there are many of you, I know), salute your role model! She’ll be in the closing celebrations if not on a medal podium.
But I still want to watch more curling. No, really. There is a Zen, focused, cosmic aura about the whole sport. Seeking the center, the blend of slow deliberation and frantic sweeping, the human arc of arm and the earthy thunk of one rock thunking with an unambiguous tock into another, the movement transferring with stately inevitability into a new angle, the first stone settling into the pattern.
Even at 3 am, some of us are lured in to watch the mesmerizing coverage, though 5 pm works out better for so many reasons.
For the TV camera, there is the steely glare of the thrower, arm outstretched for a long moment after the stone leaves the hand, a balletic simplicity followed by the downright hoedown of the paired broom handlers. Plus, you get to whack your opponent, at least symbolically.
If you haven’t watched curling, you’re missing out. For the hospitable and renewed Newark Ice Arena, may I recommend curling as the newest attraction along Sharon Valley Road? At minimum you’d sell a whole bunch of hot cocoa.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio who falls down gracefully on ice; share your Olympic dreams at disciple@voyager.net.