Saturday, August 09, 2008

Faith Works 8-16-08
Jeff Gill

What Are We Supposed To Think?

Opinions and observations are my stock in trade, and trust me when I say the shelves are well stocked.

So when I ask the question “what are we supposed to think?” it doesn’t mean I don’t have an idea myself, or that people ought to spend more time telling others what to think, which no one likes to hear.

Yet when every new crop of political ads is parsed and analyzed for “what it really means” or how our thoughts are being manipulated by subtle symbolism, I’m looking around in the here and now and asking about some of the up-front and in-your-face messages that we seem to be sending each other.

Sometimes you can see the outside of the message, but can’t figure out what’s inside the envelope, so to speak.

Tattoos, for instance.

Yes, my family has been out to the State Fair and Hartford Fair recently, why do you ask? And as you walk around in the sun and heat, where everyone is dressed accordingly, you certainly see some major tattooing going on.

A few questions – when you put a band of two-dimensional barbed wire around your arm for life, what do you want me to think? That you’re tough? That you’re a fascinating mix of tender and tough when a sweet faced, well-coifed young lady has a barbed wire wrap sealed with a skull?

Or all those skull tattoos. I get the Grateful Dead “feed your head” message in the tie-dye t-shirts and car stickers with a blossoming skull, and the contrast is meant ironically between the hard, enduring bony eye sockets and the colorful wispy petals of flowers growing within. (I also get that you’re thinking pharmaceuticals get you closer to the heart of that irony, which is why I don’t got one.)

But all the skulls with snakes coming out of the eye sockets, flame-topped skulls, and other grim reaperish body d├ęcor . . . what do you want me to think when I see your clearly placed on display body art? That you’re a dangerous person to be avoided? That I should trust the friendly smile and assume that you were joking when you put a grim harbinger of death on your shoulder?

I’ve got a civic, governmental question, too. When we see the now more common red and yellow license plates, indicating that the registered owner of the vehicle is convicted of DUIs, what are we expected to think? That we should avoid tailgating this person? That neighborhood kids will pedal their bikes by saying to each other “whoa, that’s an ugly contrast that I don’t want on my ride someday!”

Do we think that putting these in ever growing numbers out on the roadways will cause more people to scorn and mock their neighbors, or will they just start to become one more option in the riotous range of license plate logos?

What I think when I see one is “what are the odds the person driving that vehicle today is even the one this plate is meant to warn us about?’

There are t-shirts that I’d like to ask “what are you wanting me to think” of the wearers, but most of them I don’t feel comfortable describing on the “Your Faith” page. When I see a dad and two young kids walking down the street, with dad’s chest making a lewd suggestion to the world, you have to wonder if there’s any thinking going on there at all. Maybe all the other t-shirts in the drawer were nastier than that one, so this was the choice meant to say “hey, I’m trying here with my children, give me a break.”

Churches and church-going folk may not have many of the above-mentioned issues to deal with in-house (koff, koff, ahem). Anyhow. What faith communities often do have trouble with is seeing how their building, their signage, their parking areas, let alone their worship, is saying something to new visitors.

Very often, what we’re telling people to think is “you really won’t feel comfortable here; are you sure you belong here? Thanks for dropping by, we’ll pray for you . . . as you leave.”

Hey, we respond, that’s not what we want people to think. If we can step back and take a good long careful look, we might learn something about how a stranger or unchurched person might see what we’re saying to them; often as tattooed, yellow license plated, lewd t-shirt wearing members of our communities. How do we make them think “God may actually care about me, after all.”

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your story of how your congregation tells their story at knapsack77@gmail.com.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Faith Works 8-9-08
Jeff Gill

Where the President Will Worship Tomorrow
___

Last night the Olympics began in Beijing (or Peking or however you’re used to seeing the capital of China spelled).

Many human rights activists have said that world leaders should boycott the opening ceremonies because of Communist China’s human rights record, especially in regard to religious minorities.

Among Christians, and particularly evangelical Christians, the image of house churches or “the underground church” is the vivid picture carried of China. Contemporary Christian music heard on local CCM radio stations and in some congregations’ worship services offer phrases like these from the Newsboys’ hit, “He Reigns,”
“the song of Asian believers, filled with God’s holy fire . . . Let praises echo from the towers of cathedrals, to the faithful gathered underground.”

What may well be confusing over the next few days is that the religious reality of modern China is really does range from “the towers of cathedrals, to the faithful gathered underground.”. There absolutely is an underground church, often meeting in houses without official government sanction, hence “underground.” Some may meet in caves and basements, but “underground” here mainly means “without government approval.”

There is, though, a “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” Christian church that operates with government license. Hard numbers are not easy to come by in China’s authoritarian culture, where most statistics are considered state secrets, but there seem to be 10 million members of the “official” church at minimum.

That’s like the United Methodist Church for size, so they’re a distinct force in Chinese society. But the underground church, obviously, doesn’t have official numbers. The best estimates for the number of regular house church worshipers runs to 50 million. That’s like . . . well, it’s like nothing since the early Roman empire and the beginnings of the Christian faith. What else can you compare this movement with?

As for the much-debated official church -- the “three-self” does not have anything to do with the Trinity, but is a working abbreviation for “self-governance, self-support, self-propagation.” That’s window dressing for “we don’t publicly advocate from the pulpit anything that makes the Communist Chinese government feel itchy,” such as doctrines like the second coming of Christ or the resurrection of the dead.

So to have public worship and buildings they can call their own means that the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” trims their beliefs, or at least their preaching, to suit political winds. That also means many underground, or non-sanctioned Christian groups say that the official churches are not authentically Christian.

That’s harsh, but not entirely unfounded. And it gets even more confusing.

There is also an official Chinese government Catholic body, the “Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.” They are not entirely in communion with Rome and the Vicar of Christ in the papacy by government decree, which says that the Vatican has not sufficiently apologized for “imperialistic actions” in the 19th century, though Rome has tried to avoid a total break with the bishops of the “legal” church given the circumstances. Meanwhile, there are underground Catholic groups in China who are strongly affirming that they are in communion with Rome, but that the “state church” with Catholic forms is in fact not truly valid, or really wholly Christian. The BBC estimates that there are 5 million “state” Catholics, and 8 million underground Catholics.

If you’ve been keeping track, this all means that there are over 70 million Chinese who are claiming Christian affiliation of one sort or another – and before you dismiss the appeasing “state” church folk, remember that to make a public confession of even the “approved” faith is not looked upon with favor by the Communist Party, or by most of the other billion Chinese. Underground or in the open, to claim any Christian faith at all is a bold and lonely step. 70 million have taken it in one form or another.

President Bush said some weeks ago that he would split the difference, diplomatically, by going to the very, very official opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics, and then attending a house church worship on Sunday morning.

The Chinese government responded by fairly successfully identifying the leaders of most of the Beijing area “house churches” and sending them en masse off to an involuntary vacation far, far away from the capital and site of the Olympics.

So President Bush’s staff has identified an official Protestant “Three-Self” church where he and Laura will worship tomorrow morning, the “Kuanjie Protestant Church,” which is one of the most prominent officially government registered churches in Beijing. His staff indicated that to re-do their plans for this week would just impact and damage even more innocent pastors and church members than they already have.

How should a leader set a proper example in a place like this, where the state sill controls most of the image-making machinery and media outlets? Just as the US Olympic team has selected a young man who grew up as a Darfur refugee to carry the flag into the opening ceremonies, the opportunities to make symbolic gestures are many. To make a speech with specifics could endanger some of those millions “gathered underground” even more than they are now, and staying away loses you any leverage at all to help them.

Where and how the president goes to church tomorrow will be an interesting statement worth “reading” closely – let the games begin!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he got a medal once for fourth place in the long jump in eighth grade. Tell him your Olympian tale at knapsack77@gmail.com.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 8-7-08
Jeff Gill

Everyone has a talent or skill of some sort.

Mine happens to be bleeding. Not everyone can bleed quickly and well, especially in a rare blood type, and when you can, that gives you a chance to excel when Olympic competition is far beyond your grasp.

I was at the Licking County satellite center recently, donation needle in my arm, working another pint closer to 12 gallons donated over the last thirty years.

They’ve moved across Newark’s West Main Street to a spot just east of Licking Memorial Hospital in the row of medical offices that face their parking lots. The hours for donation are the same, Tuesdays from 12 noon to 6 pm and Fridays from 8 am to 2 pm. If you’re 18 years of age and have over a hundred pounds on you (I qualify!), they are very likely to take your arterial output.

Yes, they still ask you a long series of questions after checking your pulse and blood pressure and checking your iron (it really is a mini-physical every 60 days for a regular donor), but the “yes” and “no” stuff is very private and on a computer screen. Basically, if you’ve gotten a recent bootleg tattoo or piercing, they may ask you wait, and some other screening questions help them as they continue learning how best to screen the blood itself.

But the bottom line is most fairly healthy people who haven’t eaten marrow pudding in Yorkshire recently can give blood. Can . . . give blood. And don’t.

Laying on the cot with a needle in my arm, even a nearly hundred timer like me doesn’t want to stare right at the spot where I got stuck, so I looked up at the “Supply Board.” This is a white board where they keep an updated list of numbers, by blood type (A, B. AB, O, and +/- for each), showing how many units were currently in storage in central Ohio, and for that particular type, how many days’ worth of supply that meant.

Not a single category was listed at more than 2 days.

Quite a few were listed as “-“ which meant on an average day of surgery and car crashes and such, there was barely enough – or not enough – to cover that day’s needs.

My blood type was “-.” Hey, it’s nice to feel useful, even when all you’re doing is laying there with a tube hanging off of your arm.

As I said, I’m good at bleeding, do it quickly, and soon the cot was open for the next . . . well, there’s part of the problem. They needed a next to take my place, whatever the blood type, but I could have taken my time for all the action they had in line.

I got my fig newtons, passed on the coffee, slugged back some water, and asked “do you have many signed up for later?” The staff sadly said “No, but we sure could use more donors.” I took the card, with the phone number, 348-4696, or 1-800-GIVE LIFE, and the web site where you can schedule an appointment to donate, www.BloodSavesLives.org.

And said, “I’ll tell my friends you need them.” They really do, too.

Remember, “No Child Left Inside” next Tuesday, Aug. 12 – let’s get all kids outside for at least an hour to put bugs in a jar or get their sneakers muddy. Check out www.greenhour.org for ideas!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio, and has given blood regularly since he was 18; tell him how donated blood helped you at knapsack77@gmail.com.