Thursday, December 04, 2008

Faith Works 12-6-08
Jeff Gill

A Baby and The Scandal of Particularity

When I was in high school, the movie “Oh, God” was out in theaters and my church youth group went to see it. The trip had the result no doubt hoped for by our advisors, with a long and specific conversation about theology happening at Mickey D’s that we didn’t know was theology.

In our conversation, we kept coming back to a conversation where the character played by John Denver (yes, that John Denver), a grocery store manager in Tarzana, CA is asking questions of God, played by George Burns (he did God before Morgan Freeman cornered that market).

Our mild-mannered manager asks if Jesus was God’s son. George played the moment with a moment of serious gravity, looking and sounding quite sad and sincere. “Yes, Jesus was my son.”

Pause. Then, gravely, “Buddha was my son. The man who said, 'There's no room at the inn'--he was my son, too. Let’s move on.”

The characters went on with other questions (“What about Judgement Day?” God: “I’m not looking forward to it.”), but our group didn’t. We were wrestling with it right on through our fries long after the movie had ended and we were waiting for parents to come pick us up, and some of us wrestle with it still.

Leslie Newbigin was a Christian thinker and leader through the 20th century, whose writing on Christian mission is very powerfully active in the “missional church” movement today. Newbigin is one of those rare figures as appreciated in evangelical circles as in liberal seminaries, but a real sticking point for some on the theological left is what Newbigin called “the scandal of particularity.”

Bishop Newbigin’s point was that the universality of Christ was made all the more effective by the particularity of who Jesus was; he argued passionately to Western culture after his years in leadership in South India that “the scandal of particularity” was a uniquely western problem, where our secularizing desire to see Jesus as “one of” God’s children eroded the impact of how Jesus came as embodied “Good News” for all. The particular and the universal had, for Newbigin, a very direct connection, while general categories lead us to the selective and the approved.

So for Lesslie, the idea that God’s love had a unique embodiment in a particular child in a certain village at a precise point in time was absolutely necessary to making the case that God’s saving love was offered to absolutely everyone – even those who came before that moment, let alone long after.

Which is why, when I look at a manger scene, I think of Lesslie Newbigin and Francis of Assisi more than I do George Burns or Avery Corman (the fine author who wrote the script for “Oh, God”). To make Jesus one of the many “sons of God” starts us down the road of who is, who isn’t, and who can’t even be considered as one of the One.

To proclaim the child born in Bethlehem as the “Prince of Peace,” to sing “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” means not that I’m emphasizing who isn’t included in the grandeur and sweep of God’s grace, but that this baby born in a stable, laid down to sleep in a feeding trough, is a reliable sign for not only the religious and observant, but for the lost and seeking, the struggling and starving.

For the Licking County Food Pantry Network, St. John’s United Church of Christ on the south edge of Newark on National Drive is sponsoring a “Festival for the Christ Child” tomorrow afternoon, Dec. 7, in their sanctuary. It’s a concert, made up of a number of acts from around the county, with prelude music from 1 to 1:30 and the formal program starting at 1:30 pm, and your scribe is honored to serve as the emcee. Tickets can be reserved in advance at 323-2407, or you can buy them at the door for $10. All proceeds go to the area food pantries, who need to be a sign of hope in a dark time themselves. St. John’s is well known for their “Bethlehem Marketplace,” which is held every other year, and they didn’t want to wait until next year to make a particular, specific stand on behalf of our community’s hungry.

However you choose to proclaim the Christ Child in your life, spending a little time and money at this gathering can be a real gift to someone for Christmas. You may never know who that particular person you helped is, but they will know that their whole community has not forgotten them.

And what might grow from that one particular act of kindness, a point of grace?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; share your particular joys or concerns with him at

Monday, December 01, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack – 12-4-08
Jeff Gill

Making Memories, Creating Experiences

This is the week when you start to almost get used to the unusual sight of trees, trussed and tied down to car and van roofs, whizzing around the village.

Some go off to the pick and pay lots, while others, quite a few others in fact, go further afield to Walsh’s Tree Farm or up to Timbuk, where they can set out into the carefully managed forest to cut down their own. (Those places will just sell you one, too.)

Other than giving a family material for later Clark Griswold stories about dad severing an artery, or the flying squirrel jumping out onto Mee-maw’s towering blue wig, why? Why would you go out to do such a thing on a cold day, when the last thing you cut down was three inch tall grass blades?

Because it makes a memory. Creating experiences is a powerful part of what this time of year is about, from roasting an entire bird when your usual poultry option is take out stir fry, to carefully mitre-folding shiny decorative paper around a box already impregnable by most country’s special forces untis, so children can shred your handiwork in less time than it takes Michael Phelps to swim a pool’s length.

Spending your money on making experiences that last in the memory may be the smartest expenditure you can make for the holiday season. With planned obsolescence making your laptop out of date in a year and inoperative without cracking open the motherboard in three, with materials from overseas saturated in lead and melamine, and that’s the sturdy part of some purchased goods, memory may be more durable than you think.

Age and ailments can take a toll, but the memories that last have a shelf life that stands up pretty well next to consumer goods, and you can pass those memories on to your children and grandchildren – who knows which stories they actually listened to while they were typing on their iPhone screen?

An Advent wreath on the dinner table, in observant Christian homes, can create a focus for remembrance that also is good for many years, with just a set of new purple candles needed to start again. Advent calendars, at least the ones not focused on chocolate behind each little paper hatch, can return and be passed down through a family, creating layers of memory.

In your Christmas season shopping, we’ll all spend some money, recession or not, but one way to maximize minimal dollars is to think “how can I buy a gift that makes a memory” for the person or family you’re shopping for? That helps us get off the treadmill of stuff (What stuff do they already have? What stuff can I afford for them? Is this stuff in style?) and reduces questions of storage or even usefulness, questions all the more nagging for the fact that we hate to ask them of ourselves as we shop for others.

Restaurant gift cards or certificates are easy to mail and always can fill a niche, but what about getting someone a chance for a meal somewhere different? Wherever they don’t often, or ever eat, try that as a present and as a provocation. Help people get out of their rut, which is usually less to do with actual tastes and more to do with habit. Take a chance, get ‘em to eat some hot Thai spice or at an Italian restaurant they didn’t even know existed.

Books are my favorite gift to give or receive, but it’s true that not everyone welcomes reading as a present (it feels like a homework assignment, the Lovely Wife tells me). A picture book can take you somewhere cheaply without assuming they want to commit to a sit down readthrough.

And a cookbook with a few interesting spices wrapped into the package can be a fun way to invite some adventure right in your own kitchen.

Does anyone out there have any other ideas for helping people make memories out of this Christmas season? Write me at and I’ll use ‘em here for last minute ideas . . .

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; write him at