Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Faith Works 5-5-07
Jeff Gill

Idolatry Bad, But “Idol” Gives Back

Most of the great monotheistic traditions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – have strong condemnations of idol-worship built into the very foundations of their belief systems.

Idols, themselves, are bad. So it is either a fascinating irony, or another sign of the decay of Western civilization, that “American Idol” is the behemoth and leviathan of popular culture these days in Christian America.

I use that last phrase, “Christian America,” advisedly and unironically. The most winners have come from the Birmingham, Alabama area, and their viewership and most passionate voters come from the South and Southwest. The “Idol” part of the name doesn’t seem to bother many. Maybe it shouldn’t.

What had me utterly fascinated was the spectacle a week ago with the theme “Idol Gives Back.” Inspirational songs were sung, many guest stars appeared, the obligatory Quincy Jones group song came out on the show and for internet download, and all to promote giving for “the less fortunate” in America and around the world.

What grabbed me about the show was not so much the images of hurricane ravaged N’Orlinians, which are all too familiar, the economically ugly but naturally beautiful hollers of West Virginia and Kentucky, or even the tragic scenes of so many dying of AIDS in Africa.

It was that the basic narrative and appeal of the whole program felt very, very familiar. It felt like so many mission and missionary programs I’d had in church, from childhood to, oh, last month.

Today we have video production values, not flannelgraphs, and the print materials include web addresses, not PO boxes, but the basic story and expectations raised were the same from “Idol” to “Church.”
Except for God.

Yep, I wasn’t startled at all to hear no God-talk in the “Idol Gives Back” pitch, but what did surprise me was the degree to which the whole deal felt rooted in church culture, but carefully avoided any religious references at all. Period.

This is where, I suppose, I could go off on a fairly predictable rant, but there is a sad acceptance I feel about elements of what “Idol Gives Back” was doing.

Simon, for one, was clearly impacted by his show-sponsored trip to Africa. Impacted as in stunned, horrified, and even a bit disoriented. Clearly, the reality of poverty in the developing world, and the growing plague of AIDS, scattering orphans and sorrow in its wake, all came as a shock to Simon. They show him trying to be strong, attempting to be decisive and helpful, and then they show him collapsing in a heap, in tears.

One suspects that many viewers were like Simon, or at least it was pitched on that assumption. For many of us, none of this comes as a surprise, even if a mystery. We’ve been hearing missionary reports and joining women’s relief society programs and going on mission trips with our church, and know that the world is still broken, not fully healed, and calls on the best we can give to represent the promise of God’s love.

For those who have no church background at all, a segment of American society that everyone concedes is growing, even with no agreement as to what size, “Idol Gives Back” is their outreach committee presentation. This is their “relief work” appeal.

It worked, too. Seventy million dollars was raised, which goes to . . .

Well, what it goes to is a list of projects that I’ve been hearing about and seeing supported by churches and folk like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels for years. They weren’t mentioned in the program, but their buddy Bono, the great bridge builder of the modern era, surely was. UMCOR and OGHS and WOC and WRS/LDS and CROP and CRS and the SBC have all been buying malaria nets and digging wells and sending medicines overseas, no strings attached, for decades. Bono is a welcome brother, and if Simon and Paula and Randy and Ryan all want to join the helping hand brigade, then climb aboard.

I still wonder where this kind of compassion goes, based exclusively on emotion and empathy and sorrow. Why would you want to share the sadness of a stranger halfway around the world? How is that grounded or extended when you do not believe?

We may end up getting to vote on that question by cell, text, or internet; log on now.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he has never voted for any of the contestants, not even Melinda (yet). Talk about outreach in today’s society with him at knapsack77@gmail.com.
Notes From My Knapsack 5-6-07
Jeff Gill

Sharing the Pursuit of Happiness

What do Steven Hawking, Heather Mills, and Roger Ebert have in common?

In recent days, all three of them have shown us a total lack of fear about being seen as less than perfect. They have set an example worth celebrating, and maybe for reflecting on coming up to this Tuesday.

Steven Hawking is the world famous astrophysicist (“A Brief History of Time”) who is also famously stricken with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He has long been not only confined to a wheelchair these last few decades, but must talk through a computer controlled by his eye movements.

He chose to let his situation be the focus of a fundraiser for ALS research, getting a trip on a zero-gravity airplane to experience weightlessness, taking fellow passengers who paid well for the day, and accompanying video cameras.
Hawking was essentially helpless, but clearly delighted by the chance to come so close to space.

Heather Mills was married until recently to Paul McCartney, and before that had lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. She chose to start a new chapter in her life by going on a national televised dance competition, and more than held her own, even when the prosthetic went south as she was heading north.

Much of the audience and all the judges were, quite frankly, stunned and grateful at the same time, realizing that their assumptions about what an amputee could do on a fake leg were the real limitation.

Then there was Roger Ebert, the movie critic out of Chicago. Ebert had cancer of the salivary glands, and had surgeries that did not work out as hoped. The cancer was largely eradicated, but he ended up with much of one side of his jaw missing, unable to speak and looking much the worse for wear.

His response was to put on a suit with an ascot (the better to loosely wrap around his tracheotomy) and go to his “Overlooked Film Festival” that he established at his alma mater, the University of Illinois. Asked if he was concerned about appearing in public looking so bad, he wrote, and his wife read, “Why? They’ve already written that I’m dead.” He later added “My mind is fine, it’s just my face that looks awful.”

He looks forward to getting back to writing film criticism for print, a task that requires no speaking, “and lets me sit in the dark!” Ebert still hopes to get further facial reconstruction, and be able to speak again. But he’s not going to wait at home until then.
All three of these celebrities have pursued their dreams, their happiness, without concern over looking perfect, or even normal. Why not? That is the question, given how often we hold back for fear that we won’t look good, whether in dancing or working or dreaming.

What we surely don’t want to do is hold others back for those reasons, but it happens. Hawking and Mills and Ebert probably had good, well meaning friends, who asked “are you sure you want to do this? Do you want to end up looking foolish, or pitiable?” Fortunately for all of us, they didn’t listen.

We get a chance Tuesday as a community, as Licking County, to encourage some 1,000 of our fellow citizens to pursue their dreams and follow their calling right out in the middle of our common life. The MRDD levy helps people who don’t always look or act quite like fashion models or Phi Beta Kappas to live their lives and pursue happiness pretty much like anyone else.

“Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities” is the long form of what we have a tax levy to support, and Nancy Neely and her crew is at work in every community of this county to serve their clients. MRDD clients do math, and dance, and I’m sure some one of them has reviewed a film somewhere. Send me a link, will you?

What we don’t want to do is be one of those well-meaning friends who says “maybe you ought to stay home. Let’s not go out where you might be disappointed or let down or embarrassed.” Our affirmation of this long-standing levy is a way to say, “let’s get out there and look silly together. Have you ever seen me dance?”

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he has size fifteen feet, a disability for most dancing-type activities. Share your bold accomplishment in the face of opposition at knapsack77@gmail.com.

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Faith Works 4-28-07
Jeff Gill

Gathered, Step by Step

When civil religion is invoked, the text for the message of the day is often II Chronicles 7:14 – “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

This is the voice of God, appearing by night to Solomon, son of David, king of Israel. Days and weeks of celebration and consecration have just ended for the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and if you have ever put on a big event like an anniversary or groundbreaking or commencement . . .

There is a moment of letdown after the crowds have dispersed and the dignitaries have gone home. You’re tired, but satisfied; you no longer worry at each turn what’s been forgotten, and you’re barely aware of your own thoughts starting to tend back to an arc towards the future.

For Solomon, he is at his bedtime prayer, or perhaps dreaming in the night – the context is ambivalent. What is certain is the sense that God is speaking, in the wake of the completion of the Temple first dreamt by his father and fulfilled during his reign.

“If my people, who are called by my name,” speaks to the set-apart nature of Israel, the land chosen to fulfill promises made in Haram and Egypt, a place where the unity of God would first be preached abroad.

“Humble themselves,” is the command, just as a place of beauty and opulence is finished atop the highest spot overlooking the City of David, itself a rocky ridge above the Gihon Spring.

“Pray, and seek my face,” a proper request in a Temple, but an odd thought when the record shows that “none can look on the Lord’s face, and live,” but the command is to “seek” that same soul-scorching sight.

“Turn from their wicked ways,” said just above a place to be known as Hinnon, or Gehenna, an ever-smouldering trashdump on Jerusalem’s edge, already a metaphor for lasting, enduring destruction.

“Then I will hear from heaven,” God says from above the Temple, to a king in a palace just below the hilltop, overlooking the citadel and the valley below.

“And will forgive their sin and heal their land…” with not just a spiritual good feeling, or an emotional adjustment, but a promise that Amazing Things Will Happen if these requests are answered by the people.

Thursday, May 3, is the 55th anniversary of the National Day of Prayer, going back to a Congressional Procalmation signed by President Truman. Different communities each have their own way to mark this occasion, often on the steps of civic buildings, and the Newark Area Ministerial Association will gather again on the steps of Newark City Hall (or to the council chambers just inside if the weather is inclement). Their plans are to begin at 12:20 pm, and be in prayer until 12:40 pm.

Whether there or at your own municipal building, there will be prayers for the nation, our local officials, safety forces, judicial system, schools, churches, and special observance of the memory of those serving overseas, and the tragedy at Virginia Tech.

Wherever you pray, and whatever your faith tradition (there have been Buddhists and Jews involved in the Newark gathering in years past), don’t forget the promise of God that comes in the next verse, following II Chron. 7:14: verse 15 -- “Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.”

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; share your community worship events with him at knapsack77@gmail.com.

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Notes From My Knapsack 4-29-07
Jeff Gill

This month, the Jamestown Settlement celebrates the anniversary of three ships landing 400 years ago.

In 1607, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery sailed up the James River estuary, where they would leave not the first English settlement in what’s now the United States, but the first one that would last.

Today, a National Park occupies the spit of land where the settlement was built, a state park is nearby with replicas of Christopher Newport’s ships (the ones you see on the back of the Virginia quarter), and the former capital of the colony named for virginal Queen Elizabeth, Colonial Williamsburg, is just inland.

Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, still worshiping right along historic Duke of Gloucester Street, descended directly from the Jamestown congregation, and hosts a number of observances this month for the beginning of Anglican Christianity in America, the roots of The Episcopal Church, and the first ongoing Christian body in the USA. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip plan to attend, showing there’s no hard feelings about 1776 and all that.

Regular readers know that I always like to point out the Spanish heritage in New Mexico that goes back well before Jamestown. Let alone those latecomers in 1620, the Plymouth Pilgrims, but the New Mexico pioneers had missionary priests and we aren’t sure of a church built in Santa Fe until 1610, though it is still our oldest capital (and the oldest still-present town is Saint Augustine, Florida, 1565).

You still have to acknowledge that a huge chunk of our national heritage and identity derives from barely over a hundred folk who saw land at Cape Henry (just north of Virginia Beach) two weeks and four hundred years ago, watched Newport and expedition leaders Winfield and Smith erect a cross, and then slowly waited as they crept inland, until a spot was selected for them to land.

Like the Pilgrims thirteen years later and many miles to the north, less than half of the initial group would survive for long. In 1622 they would nearly be swept into the ocean by the Powhatan confederated Indians, who had quite enough of having their food borrowed, begged, and finally stolen, and their people killed in the process.

But the numbers and tools and technology ultimately could not be stopped – that, and a lack of immunity to both smallpox and the (in the Old World) common cold. By as early as 1707, some estimates say that 9 out of 10 American natives were dead, and the European settlers were still coming, and marrying, and adding to their own numbers…

…And starting to think of themselves as something new, something different. It was just another fifty years before Benjamin Franklin would come up with perhaps his greatest invention: he called himself and fellow British citizens of the colonies “Americans.”

In less than a hundred years, there would be 10,000 African slaves in the Chesapeake and south of the estuary, involuntary pioneers, but early arrivals who have a “First Families” claim of their own, if not the genealogy. Americans in chains; and many of the second wave of colonial immigration from Wales and Yorkshire and the urban underclasses of London carried an indenture, as servants a bare step up from chains and slavery. Read William Byrd’s diaries, only translated out of their private code a few decades back, for a grim peek into everyday life for most everyday people in the early colonies.

Truth be told, it was easier to sing a song of history back when we could tell comfortable lies that we almost believed ourselves. Bold, independent spirits came for freedom, selflessly, bravely pushing from a barren coast into a sparsely settled wilderness whose few occupants were a mix of savage primitivism and solitary unappreciated genius, plus an amazing number of Indian princesses, most of whom jumped off of high spots out of unrequited or unauthorized love. Then their families sadly wandered off into the west, where they would meet Hispanics who had been waiting for the border to be established so they could cross it by night to come and do our masonry work.

With the last two sentences being mostly and demonstrably false, the reaction of some is anger and more generally an indifference to history. Which is not only too bad, but like leaving a Buckeyes’ game in the third quarter.

Modern historians are finding the specific, individual tales, long buried in archives, or trunks, or in the earth, where courage and love and a bit of greed and fair amount of willful moral blindness mix to make people who sound like us. They tell us about situations we cannot imagine, and point us to possibilities we might just be able to achieve.

When the Queen of England and her Consort wander through the museums of Jamestown, they are themselves relics of another age, barely understandable today, but the 400 years gone stories told there could be our neighbors. They fled danger, and occasionally good sense, in pursuit of a better life for their families, which their decisions didn’t always reach. I know those folk, and I’d like to know them better, 400 years later.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; ask him about historical tales at knapsack77@gmail.com.