Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Faith Works 10-27-07
Jeff Gill

Are Ye Able, Said the Master

“Are ye able when the shadows/
close around you with the sod,/
To believe that spirit triumphs,/
To commend your soul to God?

So sings the last verse of “Are Ye Able,” a classic Protestant Christian hymn written by Earl Marlatt in1926. In seminary at the time, he went on to teach at a number of Methodist institutions himself.

This week of observances for the eve of All Saints’ Day, or “All Hallows,” means that the creepy and crawly signs of Hallowe’en will be all around.

Many folks who wouldn’t be caught dead (ahem) walking through a cemetery will turn their front lawn into one. People who know nothing of the Latin phrase “Requiesat In Pacem” will scrawl R.I.P. on foam boards painted aged grey.

But what’s the deal with “the shadows” closing ‘round you with the sod? Ick. Sounds like a horror movie plot, “Buried Alive.”
Doesn’t it?

Perhaps this season of growing chill and grinning pumpkins, mocking darkness and death, is a good time to do some – theology! Ah, I scared some of you, didn’t I?

Theology is just thinking through our beliefs, making sure the implications of our ideas trace out in accordance with the Bible and point towards God.

What happens to us when we die? There’s a major point of interest for believer and non-believer alike. When you hear people talk about the soul and death, you tend to hear language that points to arrival in Heaven at the moment of death (when that is would take another column). Along with that understanding is the growth of a sort of “folk belief” that the recently departed are “angels.”

That is all a fairly recent way of looking at death, actually.

For much of the history of Western Christendom, the theology of death went like this – when you died, your soul went into the care of God, but your awareness and subjective reality essentially went into the ground, where your corpse was the “index” of what would, at the Last Judgment, be your resurrected body, where the physical and spiritual was reunited, judged, and given their eternal reward before the Judgment Seat.

This is why reverence for tombs and graves, and superstitions about corpses and relics, occupied such a large part of ancient thinking. The body was waiting, as was your soul, for the end of Time, and we the living, passing by the churchyard gravestones, waited with them. There is much medieval and Renaissance art depicting the drama of the Last Trump, when graves and tombs would open, the seas would give up their dead from the vasty deep, and saints would clatter back together from their sanctifiedly scattered situations, drawing their various bits and the faithful found nearby to the Valley of Jehosaphat near the Golden Gate, where the sheep and the goats would find their proper fold.

Granted, even in this perspective, from the decedent’s point of view, no “time” would pass between their passing and the end of “Time,” but pastoral allusions to the immediacy of one’s trip to stand at the foot of the Great White Throne became a sort of Ongoing Judgment, with each one’s death an end of time in itself, with eternal disposition on demand.

I’d argue that another pair of side effects of this shift is the lack of respect for cemeteries generally (just a bunch of cast-off husks, right?), and the rise of a devotional focus on the place, the moment of death. You’ve seen them from simple roadside small white crosses to elaborate six-foot tall engraved crosses surrounded by vigil lamps once only found in graveyards and a mound of flowers, stuffed animals, or Buckeye-logo pinwheels.

Why this new trend? Well, if the moment of death is the moment of arrival in Heaven and the culmination of God’s final answer, then the moment of death becomes much more a focal point for the living than the “resting place” (think about that term, right?) for the body.

Paul speaks of the power of the bodily resurrection, which may not be too tied to where your trimmed fingernails or knee-replacement joint goes, but does seem to say that God is interested in the whole person, and the spirit is manifested in a body, and the body is entwined with the soul, and you really can’t see God’s purpose fulfilled in one without the other.

Which is why that 80 year old hymn asks us to consider the long sleep awaiting Gabriel’s trumpet blast to truly end, and then . . .

Lord, we are able, our spirits are thine,/
Remold them, make us, like Thee divine./
Thy guiding radiance above us shall be/
A beacon to God, to love and loyalty.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he thinks a Jack-o’-lantern is an interesting way to think about a soul shining out through a body! Tell him your story of faith at work at

Monday, October 22, 2007

Notes From My Knapsack 10-28-07
Jeff Gill

What Really Frightens You?

Still another week to time change, and setting our clocks back an hour. The days get shorter, and (finally) cooler. Above, a full moon dances among the scudding clouds.

Are you scared yet?

No, that won’t do it. Just atmosphere and lighting effects won’t ruffle your goosebumps, we who’ve seen Freddy Krueger and Jason LeMasque.

Does the prospect of wearing white out of season tend a tingle up your spine? Is it the possibility of having your in-laws stay at your house for a week your worst nightmare?

Clearly, there are many who live in fear of being seen in public without proper hair products in place, and not a few who need the security of earphones playing their tunes to block out the sheer horror of birdsong and passing traffic.

But seriously, what scares you?

Running out of money could do it for most of us, except we have figured out how to hide the fact it happened three paychecks ago behind a curtain of credit card slips and payday loan paperwork, drifting off the counter unread.

Illness is the great fear for anyone, and the growth of the medical industry has as much to do with tending our fears as it does with keeping our carcass functioning smoothly.

Death waits behind the cemetery gate, but more and more our fellow citizens are choosing to skip the graveyard, if not the grave, with not only boutique memorial services, but specialized disposal plans – launched into space like Scotty (James Doohan) was, or made into a diamond for a piece of memorable jewelry.

It would scare me to end up, posthumously, in a pawnshop. Anyhow.

It may be the prospect of shuffling off this earthly coil in a particular way, like the endless junior high playground conversation – would it be worse to be hanged, or have your head cut off? Winston Smith feared rats knawing his face, which makes sense, even if betraying Julia didn’t, but that’s Room 101 for you (see “Nineteen Eighty-Four” for more details).

Agoraphobia is fear of the agora, which is to say “open spaces” beyond one’s home, like the Greek marketplace which gives a name. All fans of Charlie Brown’s nemesis Lucy VanPelt know that pantophobia is the fear of everything, which strikes good ol’ Charlie Brown as the right diagnosis. Yours?

Fears are various and changeable – I once feared stewed tomatoes, and now do not. I don’t like them, I just don’t have to have them around my house now that I’m the parent. On the other hand, my parents liked lamb brains, breaded and fried, and I kind of miss the taste. The giant beef tongue in the fridge after butchering season, slowly sliced into sandwiches, neither pleased not bothered me. Just keep your stewed tomatoes with stale bread soaked into them, and slowly stirred before my horrified eyes, far, far away.

Nope, nausea doesn’t quite add up to fear.

You can be made queasy and uneasy to the point where fear literally strikes through your vitals, as grandma might say; come to think of it, the page in the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” of the astronomical signs corresponding to the disemboweled figure (arrow pointing to “Vitals”) always left me quite ill at ease.

Watching a horror movie, or reading a Gothic novel, for the sheer thrill of fright, has never been my cup of tea, or cup of eye of newt, either. Some folks seek out the most gory haunted house or ask to sleep in the haunted room because fear is their catnip. Having rappelled down cliffs, buildings, and once from a helicopter, I know the raw wrench of fear, but that’s a reminder to me never to do so again unless something behind me is burning, or a baby is below me on a ledge.

You need to know the outlines of your fears, so a good grip is always available to you on ‘em, but to trace every inch of your anxieties, and revel in them repeatedly, just strikes me as a bit much.

Then again, I frequently get up in front of groups and speak, which polling regularly shows as a greater fear factor than death. Maybe I’m a thrill seeker and don’t know it.

What scares you? ‘Tis the season!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; his greatest fear is missing a deadline. Send him your timely observations at