Thursday, August 17, 2006

Faith Works 8-19-06
Jeff Gill

Let Us Break Bread Together

Thanksgiving is perhaps the high holy day of American civil religion, shared by most whatever their faith tradition.
It is a meal, usually shared among family and close friends, with certain rituals and traditions tied to how you set, select, and eat the meal.
There is a sort of tie to Passover, the great feast of Judaism, which is itself a home based observance. Certain dishes and dishware, words said even in secular households, and a meal with meaning going back over 3,000 years.
A meal, not too removed from the basics of people coming together to share some food, is central to the work of faith for almost every tradition likely to read "Faith Works." Native American spirituality holds to the holy in every mealtime, with many traditional peoples setting aside a small "offering" of the first spoonful out of each dish. Many pagan and neo-pagan observant folk pour out a libation onto the soil before eating themselves.
Buddhism has traditions of offerings on their altars where food, usually rice or mealcakes, are placed; Shinto, Japan’s tradition of honoring ancestors, places such offerings on home altars and take full dinners on certain occasions to gravesites.
So can a picnic be holy? Well, most religious people would want to ask first about intention, and where that intention is aimed (or to Whom), and many perspectives would want to see what is getting done – what effects result from the intention.
But I just want to say "Sure it can." Any time people come together to share food is a chance for something greater than one’s own concerns and interests to break through, and that’s an opening for the holy, or at least the Wholly Other.
Eating a burger in your car listening to channel 437 on your satellite radio: it would take direct divine intervention, I think, to break through our tendency to self-absorption then. A picnic, though, forces one to take others into consideration from setting up the table to sharing the last piece of pie. Nature must be faced, at least to fastening tablecloths against stray breezes, and accepted with equanimity (think ants). The fading sunlight reminds us of the passing of time, and the inevitable laughter and play of children all around calls us to hope in the future.
Can a picnic be holy? More than most of our commonplace acts, and with a little good intention and positive results (meeting neighbors, taking up a bit of excess for food pantries, putting ourselves second), the power of a simple grace and sitting down together is hard to stop.
Even after school starts, there is still enough room in our shrinking evenings and cooler weekends for some picnic opportunity to break into the everyday. Grab a chance when you get one!
Of tailgating, we will not speak.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he does not, in fact, think green bean casserole is a sacrament. Share a picnic prayer with him at

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Notes From My Knapsack 8-20-06
Jeff Gill

Where Do They Come From?

One question on many minds right now is "where do they come from?"
The news of Hezbollah in Lebanon firing unaimed missiles by the thousands, and British born Arabs who embrace a suicidal, authoritarian dream of a world cleansed of some groups, and others (mainly women) firmly under total control, all raise concern over the source of such anger and militancy.
Not to take such developments casually, but their appearance is the historic norm, not an aberration of a particular time or place. Rome was assaulted by Visigoths and Vandals, conquered by Ostrogoths and savaged by Huns, all semi-nomadic groups who came together around authoritarian leaders and a violent dream of conquest.
A thousand years ago, early Islam was tormented by the Assassins, an odd sect or movement that believed killing Moslem caliphs could improve society more to their liking. Both Arab rulers and Crusader kings were harassed by the followers of Hasan-ibn Sabbah, the proverbial "Old Man of the Mountain," and they were active through the 14 th century or so.
Which is about when the records show the rise of a cult in India called "Thugee" by some, root word for our thug today. Killing for Kali, they were both roadside bandits and religious fanatics, who had a new renaissance under British occupation. The Raj tried to break up Thugee in the 1800’s, with limited success, and I’m told some isolated districts are still haunted by these mystical highwaymen.
In Europe, the anarchist movement wove in and out of early Marxism, with Mikhail Bakunin saying around 1850 that "the passion for destruction is a creative passion." Honored by many terrorist groups today, Bakunism was integral to much of the Bolshevik spirit in Russia, nationalist assassins (that word again) who brought on World War I, and the Black Hand societies of Italy which gave great impetus to the modern Mafia, itself a strange mix of superstition and religion and greed. Transnational and violent, how many cops have you heard say "if they put the time and energy into legal business that they do breaking the law, they’d be richer than they are as crooks." But the Mafia mindset calls darkness to darkness.
Enough? It just seems that every continent, faith group, and era has it’s own Sheikh-ul-Jibaal, an old man of the mountains who offers dark visions, a wild unfettered life, and a sense of unearned superiority. That kind of storyteller draws a crowd as well, and a twisted community forms, and can endure.
The question for society and civilization is not "where do they come from," as interesting as the consideration can be. They come from a dark corner of the human heart that apparently is always there.
Our challenge is this: do we want to survive? Do we know what it is about our way of life that is worth preserving, what price will we pay to maintain it, and what means can we use to protect civil society that does not itself undermine what we defend?
For Israel, for societies of the Western Anglosphere, the discussion is very much engaged and worth having, as to how we will protect and build up our values in the face of those who would destroy them. Lines will continue to be drawn more sharply as to what is beyond where civilization may go, what is proportionate, what is just, what is honorable, and bombs rarely can meet any of those standards for any side.
Too easy to skip over, though, is the first question: do we want to survive? Is the nihilistic dream of Bakunin infecting us, wondering if it wouldn’t be better to see it all fall apart and start from some mythical state of nature? The darndest people have said words of that sort in my earshot over the last few weeks, and leave me (nearly) speechless. Do we want to survive, or do we go from an impatience with silly gas guzzling sidewalk showboats to a vague wish for social destruction just to clear the roadway? Do we want to hold onto civil liberties, or get so weary of defending them we desire a survivalist compound in the hills living by barter?
Of course, this debate has even more immediacy for the residents of Kiryat Shmona and Safed.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; offer your defense or rejection of western society to (and yes, I know the Gandhi quote, thank you!).