Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Faith Works 9-1-07
Jeff Gill

Craft and Patience, and Faith

Out at the Flint Ridge Knap-In this weekend, you’ll see plenty of quiet focus, silent diligence, and mutual respect all at work and on display.

Is it prayer?

To some degree, that would be up to the artisan. I wouldn’t want to impose that perspective on anyone who didn’t have that intention. My question is on behalf of those who would, intentionally, see their work as a spiritual discipline.

When you do flint knapping to make a “point,” or arrowhead as folks mistakenly call them (since bow and arrow wasn’t used around here until fairly recently in historic terms), you have to quiet yourself, settle your mind, and find a non-distracting posture.

The idea isn’t to put on a show, a flurry of activity; you need to only make the motions that contribute to each step, going from flake blank to final projectile point.

Your work is steady, but slow – at least in modern terms – and you have to work with the materials. If a beautiful piece of flint has a crease or bulge of crystals, you can’t force it in the direction you want the shaping to go, flake by flake.

But when you let yourself learn from your materials, you find yourself making something unexpected, but all the more fascinating for how you become a part of a larger process, something beyond your own plans and intentions.

That sounds very close to prayer for me, or at least a worthy discipline for entering a prayerful state.

Many people who work with their hands on artisan-type projects report that they feel closest to God when they are creating something. Woodworkers, quilters, blacksmiths, and yes, flint knappers; farmers working the fields at harvest, and bakers at home or at a bakery. All say that the act of creation, the simple repetitions and shaping gestures, brings them to a place where their prayers are not only more personal and clear, but their sense of God’s presence is more real.

“Created in God’s image” would mean we’re created with an aspect of that creative urge, right? “Sub-creators” as J.R.R. Tolkien said in his writing about the meaning not of his literary creation, Middle Earth, but of the act of creation itself – the task of writing and correlating and molding character and plot and landscape, which he went on to compare to . . . woodworkers and quilters and blacksmiths.

Labor Day is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the nature of work; our work, the work of others that shapes our lives, of the place of work in God’s purpose for our lives. The union movement that gave birth to Labor Day as a holiday is itself rooted in a desire to see work honored and respected, no matter how humble; unions ask laborers to come together to protect the workplace as a setting for more than simply economic purposes. We shape our souls as we choose how we approach our work, whether it’s our attitude as we scrub the grill at closing time, or how carefully we attach the spade lugs to the power supply. A casual, careless attitude toward work as just a set of hours on a pay stub leads inevitably to a casual, careless value of life itself, and all manner of ills, social and personal.

So take a trip out to Flint Ridge off Brownsville Road this weekend (they’re out there chipping away through Monday), and walk about the knappers and reflect on their work, and your own, whatever Tuesday holds.

Can your work be prayer? Is prayer in your work?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s worked closing and scrubbed more than a few grills in his time. Share your story of work and faith at

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Notes From My Knapsack 9-2-07
Jeff Gill

Oh, the Writer’s Life For Me

With the Lovely Wife at her ahem-th high school class reunion, my name badge proudly said “Spouse” and had no incriminating ancient yearbook photo (ok, I’m ancient, the photos all look young, fine).

So I spent a fair chunk of time noshing my way through the “heavy orderves” or whatever you call the faux food they serve at these things, and drank some blessedly excellent coffee while watching the crowd get tipsy.

Life of the party, that’s me.

But as my dearly beloved found quite a few of her friends to talk to (shouting over the entire “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, which should date us quite as precisely as C14 testing), there was another spousal unit who walked over to my little table and sat down.

He introduced himself, and explained which of the bus stop gals were his wife, and then said “so I hear you’re a writer?”
The way he said it meant this wasn’t entirely a bad thing from his point of view, so I admitted that this was, in fact, one of my many job descriptions.

The reason for his interest was that their son was graduating from high school this year, and he wanted to become a writer. Did I have advice?

Hmmm. How far down platitude road should I go? I’ll confess to starting with a real creaker: writing isn’t something you become, it’s something you do. If you want to adopt writing as a persona, like putting on a Hallowe’en costume, the next step is to start drinking and smoking so as to be more “authentic,” and spent lots of time in darkened rooms, brooding.

If that’s being a writer, I’ll be a painter, thank you very much. But plenty of people take on the role of writer, but end up with a few napkins worth of clever observations stuffed in a drawer, and no more. Writers write, and if you want to get better, write more. You may not be very good in a poetic or literary sense, but anything you actually write (or type) will be better than brilliance that never escapes your cranium. So I said.

As a dad, he liked that. OK, so writing is something you do. He does write for his school paper, and he’s done some creative writing workshops, but what he really wants is to be a columnist. How about that?

Always ready to crush the hopes of the young, I leapt to the observation that there are maybe twelve people in the entire United States who make a living from writing columns. Most of us are doing it a) for free, because we like being in print, and some publication has space to fill, or b) get a modest (say, two pizzas worth) stipend, or c) are working as a reporter of some sort and have worn down our editors to the point where they give us a column, as long as it doesn’t take time away from the real work.
True, if you’ve built up a strong track record as a journalist or author, you may get a decent offer to write one or two or even three columns a week, but I refer you back to the twelve versus 300,000,000 problem. Good luck, but you’d better have a “make a living” plan to go with your aspirations for columnhood.

The dad pointed out that I’d mentioned “editors.” His son had written for some publication for a while, and had said that what he definitely wanted was to write a column that “just said what he thought,” like . . . mentioning a well known sports writer who had a column in the large newspaper of that city.

“He has an editor. Trust me on this one, his stuff gets edited,” I told the curious father. The ideal of “writing whatever I think” is one of those classic “wishes that should never be granted.” The sad fact is that few of us should be allowed to put our thoughts, as is, right into print, and editors are not least unappreciated for the fact that they occasionally prevent us from committing the sin of putting our unadorned thoughts on the page.

More to the point, everyone gets edited. Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ellen Goodman, Maureen Dowd (ok, I think they must not edit Maureen), Robert Novak, Thomas Friedman – everyone gets edited.

You can learn from editing, too, unless you’ve drunk the narcissistic beverage of “my every original thought is a gift from above.” May God indeed help you if you think that.

Will Dad tell the son these wise words? Who knows, but he gave me a column I’d been meaning to write for a while, and my tally sheet tells me that this is also my 500th column here in Licking County. Thanks for reading and even writing to me occasionally!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; no, he doesn’t enjoy being edited, but like a colonoscopy, knows that life has some necessary evils to a greater good. Write him at