Thursday, January 17, 2008

Faith Works 1-19-08
Jeff Gill

Open All the Time, Not Always Possible

With some hesitation, “Faith Works” jumps into the discussion around Britney Spears.

Yes, Britney Spears.

You heard the story from last week, and I write this with real fear that almost anything could happen by the time this column sees print. She’s a mother who has already lost custody of her children, and when she had a hearing where there was a chance of getting some kind of visitation back, she showed up late, then backed out of the court building, drove around the LA area, and then . . .

What was little discussed but generally noted was that Ms. Spears drove past a place in Studio City, California called “The Little Brown Church of the Valley,” came back around the block with a flotilla of photographers chasing her from vehicles and in the air, and stopped to go into the church.

Why that church?

No one knows for sure, but the sign out front likely had something to do with her decision. “Come in and pray, the door is open night and day.”

The Little Brown Church was born in 1930 when Rev. John Wells felt a calling to build what he called “a refuge” in the growing fringes of Los Angeles. The church looks like a piece of middle America from the middle of the last century. Knotty pine furnishings, a pulpit to the left, a Warner Sallman portrait of Christ to the right, and communion table in the center.

Did it look like a church from the Louisiana of Britney’s not so distant youth? Or was it the wording of the sign, probably passed many times before?

In 1989 Central Christian Church of Van Nuys and the Little Brown Church combined their ministries, creating the Church of the Valley, with “The Little Brown Church of the Valley” an outreach ministry of the core congregation. (Look around at their work through their website,

And don’t confuse this body with “The Little Brown Church in the Vale,” also known from the hymn as “The Church in the Wildwood” which is in Iowa, and online at

The Church of the Valley is part of my home tradition, the Disciples of Christ, and I’ve worked with their music minister, Bill Thomas, at a number of Disciples’ events. Bill wasn’t in the area of The Little Brown Church when Britney arrived, but the youth minister, Michael Kosik was, and even for an Angeleno, the media frenzy was more than he’d ever seen.

As a pastor, his first instinct was to give the person some privacy who had come in response to the sign, “Come in and pray, the door is open night and day.” But by the time he had made a circuit of the building and reminded all the gathered press that this space was indeed a sanctuary, the person who came in had gone out, leaving almost as quickly as she had arrived.

What I’ve heard secondhand is that Britney was distraught, distracted, and could barely even sit down, pacing about as if pursued by . . . what? There are many descriptions we might fill into that gap of the kind of haunting specters that might drive such a soul from place to place, pew to pew, and then out the door.

I’m proud of The Little Brown Church for trying to remain a refuge, even in the San Fernando Valley, opening their doors to all comers, and putting out a brave sign advertising that fact. Britney Spears did not find peace, not yet, but I am heartened even in my sorrow that it was a place that said they were open for prayer that she came to when she didn’t know where else to go.

Bill and Michael and the rest of the staff at COV have, in fact, bent over backwards not to join the media maelstrom. Kudos to them, as everyone from former security guard employed for a week and garbage collectors have taken money from tabloids to tell their stories, true or fabulized. All we can know is that a woman with a troubled heart stopped by, looked for a moment of peace, and then moved on.

Should our doors be open? In the heart of an urban neighborhood, out in an isolated rural location, can we safely keep our doors so open we could erect such a sign, even if it meant just a few minutes refuge for a lonely, maybe even lost soul, to come and kneel?

“Come in and pray, the door is open night and day.” We are in all likelihood not each and all called to provide such a ministry. But are circumstances such that your place of worship, or at least some corner for prayer, could be available for a passer-by?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s delighted in open doors to places of worship in some of the most unexpected places. Tell him where you’ve paused to pray at

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 1-20-08
Jeff Gill

Looking To a Wider View

One of the advantages of this generally harsh time of year outdoors is the view.

To take advantage of it, you have to bundle up and go for a walk, but you can catch enough of a hint through car windows to get the motivation you may need to do that.

The last of the dried leaves have fallen away from the trees, shrubs and taller grasses are now bent and broken, and even evergreen boughs are lifted a bit, reaching for what light the short days bring.

From all this, you see the land and the horizon and the undulations of the terrain in ways you don’t normally, at least for nine or ten months of the year. Walks that are shrouded by overhanging green canopies or walled in by undergrowth higher than your head are now strolls through vast halls and open arenas of nature.

Taking a number of classes from OSU-N out to Octagon State Memorial, hiking about (with care to avoid the greens of the warmer weather golf course, now approaching its own century mark), I found that you could easily see, from near the center of these 2000 year old marvels, the entire circumference of the 50 plus acre enclosure.

Strolling up the “causeway” connecting the Octagon Mounds to the Observatory Circle, the same was true in the 1054 foot diameter circle. Perspective and view was enhanced, and it almost seemed as if the cold air magnified my distance vision. If I recall my meteorology classes correctly, it is moisture that magnifies as storms in summer come along, but the dryness of the air must add clarity.

Walking along some local park trails, I see down into ravines and drainages, and up along slopes or tree trunks that are usually invisible to me. Add to all this the effect of a light fall of snow to accent elevation and angle like a topographic map, and you find yourself simply aware of a larger space even when you’re just walking along noodling at other thoughts.

After those peaceful thoughts, if you’re still with me, I ask your forebearance as I offer a small rant. Last weekend, the New York Times ran an absolutely appalling cover story that went on to receive more column inches than anything I’ve seen in their pages for many a moon, including lack of health insurance among the poor and the foreclosure crisis in the banking industry.

Does anyone in the Big Apple care what’s said about them in a free weekly paper in Ohio? Likely not. Should you care about what they said? Well, yes, because what the NYT says on a Sunday is often what local news and magazines say the next couple weeks. Respect them or not, they set the tone for national media and debate.

Their major story was that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have committed murder on returning home, often against family members. Story after painful story was told in the lengthy piece, seemingly almost a bit about all 121 murders that were committed by returning service members since the conflicts began, from the start of 2003 to the end of 2007.

I don’t subscribe, but for the reasons noted above, I often buy a copy on Sunday. Seeing the “vets run amok” story, I read, flipping forward impatiently to see if they got to the comparison.

What comparison? Oh, just the fact that 18 to 34 year olds commit most of the murders in this country as it is, so how did veterans compare to their population? Sadly, tragically, I would say almost viciously, the comparison was never made.

Let me make it here. Returning veterans were FIVE TIMES LESS likely to commit murder than their age cohort. And don’t tell me New York Times reporters are less able to get Justice Department numbers from their website and do simple math than freelance columnists in Ohio.

In the service of what I’m sure they think is an honorable anti-war agenda, the Old Grey Lady of journalism defamed and slimed our nation’s servicemembers, tarring them with the “they come back crazy killers” brush. Someone should be ashamed; I know I am.

A returning vet is five times more likely to have more self-control, better self-knowledge, and improved problem solving skills than their peers. Should we get our troops home soon? Yes we should, and I’ll have something more to say about that next week.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he enlisted when he was seventeen, and if he’s crazy it has little to do with his brief period in the service. You can tell him he’s crazy at