Sunday, July 01, 2007

Faith Works 7-15-07
Jeff Gill

Do You Know How To Get To Hogwarts?

Rev. Vicki Zust was rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Newark, and left us a few years ago at the request of her bishop to serve the Diocese of Southern Ohio.

She’s now “Canon to the Ordinary,” which is fancy Anglican-speak for “bishop’s assistant,” traveling the part of the state in her diocese on behalf of the bishop, visiting congregations and advising parish councils and clergy.

Our loss was the diocesan gain, as Vicki had served the Licking County Coalition for Housing and various downtown Newark task forces ably and energetically (though she will be back in Licking County next Sunday, July 22, to preach and lead worship at St. Luke's Episcopal in Granville).

She also put something together in her last summer at Trinity for a Vacation Bible School, designed to serve both the youth of the parish and the downtown locality.

Knowing that kids had been reading the J.K. Rowling books starting with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” even as each successive volume got longer and longer (we’re talking “Gone With the Wind” length, pushing 1000 pages), and as a regular reading tutor with “Ohio Reads,” this seemed like an opportunity.

“When a series of books gets kids asking for the opportunity to read, without being assigned the reading in school, you really want to know what’s going on,” Vicki told me in a recent phone call from Cincinnati.

She read the books herself, seeing the distinct conflict between good and evil through Headmaster Albus Dumbledore of Hogwarts School and the dreaded renegade wizard Lord Voldemort. The focus steadily zeroed in on how even as a young boy, Harry Potter must choose in the simplest acts how to always fulfill the good, even while tempted with his heart’s desires by evil. Voldemort’s machinations are often hidden from plain sight, but the impact of his deeds always reveal the cold, selfish heart behind them.

“It seemed to me that the idea of transfiguration, the revelation of God at work in the world around us, was central to these books,” Vicki said. So she took the most recent volume, at that point, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” and built a series of activities around the story.

“We wanted the children to see that everything around us is special, and we are called to use our gifts for good,” Vicki explained to me, and so the four “houses” became groups, and they wandered the church building and the neighborhood “finding signs of the presence of God.”

“Order of the Phoenix” is the book whose movie comes out this week, and the seventh and final episode, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” comes out next Saturday, or rather, Friday night at midnight. The Little Guy and I will be at an area bookstore that actually doesn’t want any more publicity because they’re expecting over 200 children with parents in tow as it is.

The early speculation focuses around whether or not Harry will die to save those he loves, and the smart money says yes: those arguing not are the ones with the burden of proof. Harry has been a Christ-figure in many ways through the series, and it is hard to see how author Rowling can avoid someone laying down their life for their friends . . . except that Dumbledore already has, so anything could happen (unlike, say, Tony Soprano, who had only one way to go in the end).

There are those who worry about the magic, benign or otherwise, in the Potter series, and there is almost oddly a complete absence of faith from the halls of Hogwarts. I’d remind those who find Harry insufficiently Christian that the second best selling series of children’s fantasy, Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” stories beginning with “The Golden Compass,” is overtly and intentionally hostile to organized religion. Hogwarts may not have shown us a chapel on the grounds, but I continue to believe there is one, and there hasn’t been anything said that rules it out.

The Narnia Chronicles, Rowling’s Harry Potter, and Tolkien’s epic sequence of Middle Earth Tales can spark the Christian imagination. The reality of faith is not overturned by any imaginings, but waits for a compelling account to fill the gaps necessarily left by fiction. As Pascal might say, “a God-shaped hole” our preaching can properly fill.

(Oh, the answer to the title question? As any young wizard, or even mundane muggle can tell you, it’s Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station to the Hogwarts Express.)

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s read the Potteriad as far as this week’s release, and couldn’t be curiouser about how the saga will end. When you’ve read the last chapter and have an opinion to share, write him at
Notes From My Knapsack 7-8-07
Jeff Gill

Round Numbers, Sharp-edged Memories

Anniversaries are a columnist’s friend, and potential downfall.

Few things are as tedious as reading “this is the 70th anniversary of SPAM, which recently sold the six millionth can from Austin, Minnesota,” if you don’t care about spiced meat products. A round number doesn’t change that, does it?

Except it does. Our sense of history is triggered a little more easily by the decade or century, and even items or places or subjects that don’t mean much to us personally help to define our personal history. SPAM is World War II for some people, a campout staple for others, and a budget staple during tough times now past, to what I hope is a very small number of people. Grilled SPAM with barbeque sauce and a pile of vegetables roasted in foil will always make me feel eleven years old and out for my first patrol camping trip.

Say “Star Wars” to certain folks, and “ecchhh” is their reaction, but even a dislike shows that the whole “Star Wars” phenomenon marked a generation – and that generation began thirty years ago, in the summer of 1977. I had just gotten a tape recorder for my birthday, and took it to our town theater with two 60 minute tapes. The next day, I played the cassettes for some of my friends in church youth group out on the back steps of the church, my voice whispering at the outset “A long time ago, in a galaxy far away…”

To many young “Star Wars” fans, 1977 is before they were born history, but a history that defines their whole lifetime. I feel that way about Robert A. Heinlein, whose centenary was yesterday, born July 7, 1907. Without the science fiction of Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and the still-with-us Arthur C. Clarke, no “Star Wars” would have appeared. Heinlein died nearly twenty years ago, but his output began well before my birth, and continued right through my adulthood: seeing that this summer is his centenary is a bracing definition of the century that has shaped my ideas and ideals.

I never met Heinlein personally, but I’ve taken many a tour on the S.S. Keewatin in Saugatuck harbor, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. As a kid with my brothers, as a honeymooner, as a parent, I’ve walked the decks and passages of this Canadian Pacific lake liner, built a hundred years ago in Glasgow, Scotland (itself in the news these days). Passenger ships don’t cross the Great Lakes anymore, nor do the passenger trains they serviced from Georgian Bay over to the coast of Lake Superior, where the Canadian Pacific took back their travelers and carried them across the prairies to the Rocky Mountains and beyond to Vancouver. Those days ended pretty much before I was born, but a big hunk of their atmosphere is real to me because of the S.S. Keewatin Maritime Museum.

And rooted in those same long-ago days, but constantly renewed by current circumstance, is the World Scouting Movement, born with a blast on a koodoo horn at dawn on August 1, 1907, with three adults and twenty-two boys on Brownsea Island off the southern coast of England. I’ll have a bit more to say about that centennial next weekend, but there is a flavor and scent and feel that endures from those days even as we’ve swapped burlap for nylon, LED flashlights for kerosene lanterns, and SPAM for freeze-dried pesto pasta.

My parents having their 49th wedding anniversary this summer reminds me that they’ll have a fiftieth next July, which triggers all kinds of realizations: any good ideas for me and my siblings as we get ready to observe that round number?

And I’m betting that everyone has some connection to one or another of these memory triggers turning zeroes over on their odometers this summer.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he may be Ron and Rose’s oldest, but is still well off of 50 himself. If you have any round numbers to celebrate, tell him at

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Notes From My Knapsack 7-15-07
Jeff Gill

Scouting Sunrise August 1

Twenty-two boys. They came from wealthy homes with distinguished names, and they came by recommendation from inner city ministry leaders. One was a nephew a bit younger than should have been there, and some had already been in the work force a few years.

They came at the call of Robert Stephenson Smythe Baden-Powell, a hero from an overseas venture of the British Empire that had few heroes, and so was a celebrity all out of proportion to what he’d accomplished.

Baden-Powell, or B-P as he was generally known, knew that his fame was an unearned gift, and he was determined to make use of that gift other than for his own self-congratulation. What he had seen over a career in the military was a steady influx of young men who had grown up without ever seeing the woods or the wilds, but came from either urban poverty or genteel isolation.

B-P wasn’t interested, as some claimed later, in building up future candidates for the military. Like most career soldiers, he hated the scourge of war and knew all too well the destruction of lives and hearts that were war’s natural byproducts. But he had written a book for soldiers called “Aids to Scouting” which had unexpectedly sold out to youth leaders and children while he was becoming a media celebrity. His first thought for re-writing the book on returning to England was to just retitle it “Peace Scouts for the Empire” and make a few small changes, but as he warmed to the project, B-P realized nothing less would do than to study the whole field of youth training and education, and start from scratch.

And part of what I honor about B-P to this day, a hundred years later, was that he could have sold about any book to young people in the British Empire and beyond, and made a mint. But he not only worked out what seemed to him to be an arrangement for a youth activity that would complement traditional schooling and use outdoor education as the linch-pin of his system, but he would not publish the book until he had taken his system and actually, literally field tested it, on a borrowed island off Poole Harbour called “Brownsea.”

What he thought he had learned from his experiences around the world, and in a few years of research, was that more things drew young people together than separated them, and so if he had the right principles, then both rich and poor, city and rural, and later (with some prodding) even boys and girls could equally benefit from the program.

Outdoor education for leadership development rooted in character formation, calling on hands-on activities performed in small groups, or “patrols” with rotating leadership. That’s what Baden-Powell came up with in his draft for “Scouting for Boys,” the first Scout Handbook, and he was determined that each approach would be tried with a diverse group of boys in an encampment.
So August 1, 1907, the camp was mustered to the call of a kudu horn, the flag (of Great Britain) was raised, and the first Scout Promise said as the sun rose over the English Channel, and over an experiment and a dream. The dream took on the shape of reality in four patrols – Ravens, Curlews, Wolves, and Bulls, each with a patch and a flag to follow around the island, real boys now dreaming of adventure.

That dream now lives for boys and girls, young women and young men, in 216 countries and some 38 million members today. America got “Boy Scouts” in 1910, with “Girl Scouts” complementing what B-P called “Girl Guides” in his country, started shortly after. Today four million youth and adult leaders are registered in the Boy Scouts, and another nearly four million in the Girl Scouts.

All going back to three men and twenty-two boys camping on an English coastal island a century ago.

There will be 300 Scouts from around the world, male and female, standing on the shore of Brownsea Island on August 1 at 8:00 am. A ways inland, the World Scout Jamboree will hold some 50,000 youth from around the world.

And all the rest of us in today’s Scouting Movement are asked to gather in some public place in our community, where our pack or troop or crew lives and serves, at 8:00 am in our own time zone, and simply say together our Scout Promise. From 8:00 am Greenwich, hour by hour in twenty-four time zones around the world, every hour and each sunrise will be greeted by Scouts sharing their Scout Promise.

Wednesday, August 1, at 8:00 am there will be Scouts in Licking County on a street corner near you, giving thanks for the past hundred years and making a commitment for the century ahead.

They’ll even help you across the street, if you like.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s a proud member of Scouting since 1969 at Camp To-pe-nee-bee and an Eagle Scout; if you have a Scout tale to tell, pass it along to him at