Thursday, July 09, 2009

Faith Works 7-11-09

Jeff Gill


Uploading Your Life To Reliable Storage Media




Fourth of July week wrapped up with a Ferris wheel ride and a last corn dog (there'll be more of those in August).


It didn't wrap up with a bang, those having come earlier in the week, and truth be told, I don't take pictures of fireworks. They never even remotely do anything for me – films of them, almost, but still not quite.


From fireworks to parades to street fairs to quiet time on the porch at home, I had plenty of photographs that did do something for me, and there are relatives and friends across the country (and even a couple overseas) who want to see something of the Lad and the Lovely Wife and possibly even me, at least if it's an amusing shot of me peeling potatoes.


Like much of the earth's mammalian population, I'm on Facebook now, have been for some months, and I'll say that their photo album feature is fast and easy, the latter being a very important quality for me. We just got a digital camera last August, and it took a while to figure out how to send photos other than as email attachments (hint: not a good way to make yourself popular, even with people who want the pics), and I've fiddled around with a number of online album sites.


So late last Sunday night I'm uploading digital photos from my camera to my laptop, and then picking through the hundreds I shot for those dozens that would go into an album where even my non-FB friends and family (some folks haven't gone there, believe it or not) could see them and download them if they were of a mind to.


And it occurred to me: do these pictures really exist? OK, that's the philosophy major way of putting it, but maybe I could say it this way: how real are these shots, anyhow?


They were electronically shown on a mini-monitor on the back of the camera, showed up in thumbnail shots on my hard drive that I clicked and slid over onto a menu screen that turned them into in-betweeny sized images on my web browser at a certain page, where you could click on them and make them bigger.


At no point had the captured image hit chemically treated plastic film and made layers change color, or been projected onto sensitized paper and slowly revealed itself as a print awash in a pan of fluid.


In that sense, pictures are real. They aren't, of course – Errol Morris, the essayist and Academy Award winning documentary film maker, has made a career out of helping us understand how film and photographs bend and shape the truth – but they are tangible and actual . . . and preservable.


True, you can run across a box of old photos at an estate sale, separated from those who know the faces and can put names on them, and my dad has spent years telling family members "please, please, put names on the photos you have" out of frustration from how many pictures he's been given with more missing names than known ones.


They are still around, though, in drawers and trunks and chests, and capture a bit of something. Digital photographs, now, are everywhere and yet . . . nowhere. If my hard drive crashes, the website is deleted, and there's no backup file anywhere, it will be as if I had never taken the picture at all. Ever.


And if I back up the folders from my laptop onto a flashdrive, but years from now the program that "reads" the 1s and 0s is no longer around, the digital artifact may itself be unreadable, and the picture is just as gone.


Reliable data storage. That's what we are so often looking for: the knowledge that our most precious memories and images are fixed somewhere, with someone, in a way that can't vanish in a sudden flame or degrade into dust, silica or silt.


Where, we ask, can we look for a secure home that will endure, beyond fire and damp and earthquake and . . . because somehow, we are more sure that we exist now, if there is some way in which we have a stake, a place in that which endures.



Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him about the picture that preserves you, or that you keep close to your heart, at, or follow Knapsack


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Faith Works 7-18-09

Jeff Gill


There's a Ditch On Both Sides Of the Road



No getting around it, especially in the formerly damp parts of Licking County, where horsedrawn scrapers and steampowered tractors often dug drainage ditches that still go deep alongside the modern paved roadway.


If you don't watch yourself on a warm summer day, you can slowly swerve off to one side, and if your tire catches a sharp edge of pavement, and you correct poorly, you can jam your car right down into a ditch that even a Hummer would have trouble getting out of.


What would be even more embarrassing is if you do catch yourself ka-thumping off the road on your right, over correct with the steering wheel, and suddenly jerk across the oncoming lane, only to fall into the opposite ditch.


It's fairly common to find ditches on both sides of the road, although you usually are only close to one or the other . . . if you're equally spaced between the ditches, you're right over the yellow line, which has its own hazards.


Traveling the road of faith has some tendencies you have to watch in the same way you need to tend carefully to your steering on certain roads.


On one hand is the possibility of authoritarianism, of subjecting your understanding to one person or particular view in such a way that you lose all your critical faculties. The standard definition of a cult is when the new adherent turns all their decision making over to an authority figure, or their representative. When a parent comes to the door and asks "can I talk to my daughter?" the answer "I won't speak to you, Mother, unless Brother Ruprecht says I can" tells Mom to call the deprogrammer.


That's what happens in the ditch of authoritarianism, but many of us drive closer to that edge than others. In practice, most of us need to acknowledge that we aren't the first people to travel in this direction, and there are those who have gone before us and travel with us now who have valuable experience.


Listening to authorities, and even letting some of our life choices be guided by something other than how we feel (heart, stomach, lower) at the moment, is not a bad thing in and of itself.


If you swerve too sharply away from the side of authority, you can quickly find a couple of wheels hanging out over the ditch of uncertainty. The default mode for most of us finite, limited, tangibly restricted human beings is to say "who knows" to most questions . . . but when we answer "who can know, anyhow?" there's a ditch that becomes an abyss beneath you.


Staying up on the solid road, a certain amount of uncertainty can actually support not only the pavement, but a solid layer of humility.  "I don't know" is a good answer for many of us more often than we use it, even when we are speaking of subjects where our knowledge is great, but our wisdom may be limited.


There's a ditch on either side of the road, and you don't want to put yourself in either of them.  You need to be in the correct lane, and most religious traditions help to lay out for you the rules of the road by explaining where they drive.


Some faith communities stay right up against the white line, nudging into authoritarian practices that they feel give their congregation coherence and clear direction. Others encourage questioning almost to a fault, with their uncertainty beyond a few bright lines being the very ground they traverse.


There are those who say they'd rather be in the ditch on their side of the road than traveling down the wrong lane. My sense is that we're all called to stay heading in the direction we believe God is calling us, and that none of us should ever settle into the ditch, let alone the valley of shadow.


Or as my grandmother would say "A mind stuck open is as useless as a mind that's stuck shut," which matches nicely with what Groucho almost said – "A perfect church wouldn't take me."



Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him about the road you're traveling at, or follow Knapsack


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Faith Works 7-25-09

Jeff Gill


That Which Divides Us May Bring Us Together



The last hundred years have certainly seen a shift among Christians in general, in de-emphasizing doctrinal differences.


Time was that you could make a Calvinism joke around Methodists, or crack wise about Arminians around Presbyterians, and people would smile and nod, while a few would hope for a stinging rebuttal of the errors in the other group's beliefs.


Now, if you make a smart remark around a roomful of Presbyterians about Calvinists, they not only won't take offense, they won't know what you're talking about. Catholics are generally not thrilled about making jokes about popes (ask them for a couple, and you'll hear some good ones, but you don't get to tell them); make a sardonic comment about works righteousness or that darn German monk, Brother Martin , and it'll fall right flat on the ground.


My point is that within living memory, those sorts of remarks would get a general response because that was the sort of thing that you would hear in preaching. Non-Presbys would take shots at predestination, non-Methodists would snipe at either having bishops you voted for or for having bishops at all, non-Episcopalians would snark over the crazy outfits their clergy wore on the altar, and non-Baptists would snicker over all that darn water sloshing around their sanctuaries.


It's hard to argue that anyone wants to go back to the days when pastors and congregations built themselves up by tearing separated brothers and sisters down, in preaching and teaching. On the other hand, I think we go backwards in some ways when from the point of view of most people both inside and outside of our churches, their main takeaway is "what's the difference?"


Can celebrating our differences actually draw us together? Well, if we really have nothing that makes us distinctive, we should merge tomorrow. No one thinks that is likely, for reasons bureaucratic but also theological ones. If there are places and settings where further organic unity should be practiced, I think that we can do that best if we understand how we became separate expressions in the first place.


And in large part, I don't see God calling out for more organizational union, but the call for unity in purpose and ministry starts in John, chapter 17, and echoes into the world today in many ways.


What our differences preserve are varieties of gifts that should ultimately bless the oneness of spirit that is our proper inheritance. So . . . I love the expression of the Catholic church in sacramental practices that remind believers how all of creation can be a vessel of the divine.  I love how Calvinism, Presbyterian or Baptist, turns our often unwilling hearts to the glory of God being larger than everyday logic.  I love how the Society of Friends teaches us in what the world calls "Quaker worship" that silence is filled with more meanings than words can often provide.  I love how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints shows us what a vital and joyful awareness and closeness to God the Father can look like.


I love how The Episcopal Church lives out the awful mystery of what faith-filled democracy looks like in practice (and how their Anglican roots gave us the English language at its best).  I love how the United Methodist Church holds high and low styles of worship, liberal and fundamentalist strands together in a relative lack of tension, on both the local and wider level.  I love how the Church of the Brethren keeps washing feet, even when it would be so easy to take this one little tradition and put it on the curio shelf.  I love how the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) manages to take so many elements of these other churches seriously, but little of it all literally.  I love how the Assemblies of God manages to maintain a strong identity and unity in the Holy Spirit while having almost no visible structure at all.  I love how the United Church of Christ shows that you can have multiple mergers and still not appreciably change the genial atmosphere of congregational life in multiple strands.  I love the Southern Baptist Convention because they told me I should!


And, to close an emphatically non-exhaustive list, I love how Lutherans celebrate such deep roots that still transplant so very well from place to place, even if it amuses me that so many of them seem to think Jesus grew up in a small village on the north edge of Bavaria, speaking flawless Deutsch.


There are none of these differences that I would happily see vanish into the mists of history. Few of them are necessary, little enough about these quirks finds a rootage in the Gospel, but there is a history and a reason why these qualities are so distinct in each communion.


If more of us knew what these variations were, and why, it might be that much more likely our stories can weave even more closely in the future.


Meanwhile, you can ask Msgr. Enke about that tunnel in his church's basement.



Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him about a different thing or two at, or follow Knapsack

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Faith Works 8-1-09
Jeff Gill

The Arc of History Bends Towards Justice

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that "the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice."

An arc, like a rainbow, spans a broad swath of sky, bends a wide bundle of light to cast a bright colorful shadow across the landscape. The story of the civil rights movement in America, the campaign against Hitler from lonely journalists in Munich to GIs and Russian infantrymen shaking hands across the Elbe, the journey from Goddard’s Massachusetts backyard (or even the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop in Dayton) to the moon – 40 years ago last week! – these are what Hollywood screenwriters call “story arcs,” long tales with multiple subplots that draw you in and hold your interest.

The arc of Scripture . . . when we talk about the wisdom found in the Bible, the automatic reflection is on short, punchy phrases: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” “"Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it," “Come to me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

(This time of year, I love the direct practical wisdom of Deuteronomy 23: 12-13; yes, I’ve been at camp the last few weeks.)

There are also the strictures and requirements that are quoted in a few words, some of which got quite a workout with some of the public admissions of political figures earlier this summer, many of which include the word “accursed.”

Those are the pithy aphorisms of Biblical wisdom, and they stick nicely in the memory.

For wise action, we have the examples from Scripture found in stories, “pericopes” in the technical language of Biblical studies. There’s the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, with its climactic question by Jesus of “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

The story of Job plays out over 42 chapters, from temptation and torment to ambiguous vindication, anchored by Job 19: 25 “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.”

Even Solomon’s wisdom displayed in I Kings 3 requires a full narrative: just saying “cut the baby in half” doesn’t quite sum it up very well. You need the story in full.

So you have the phrases and the commandments, which carry one sort of wisdom, and the stories, which expand teaching and guidance beyond length to depth and breadth.

Where I think you really start to grapple with the wisdom, the deep knowledge of how God is speaking to you and to me in today, found in the Bible, is when you read across chapters and books and even from Old Testament to New, and follow the arc of not just history, but of wisdom, bending towards revelation.

During the summer season, the most unexpected folk pick up big, thick, heavy books. Michael Patterson and Danielle Steele and John Irving and Amy Tan can put out a paperback that looks like it would serve as a structural support for a small shed, and people still shell out for them and take ‘em to the beach.

Now, I know lots of beach reading titles don’t get read all the way through. But what about some Biblical beach reading, a long family epic that starts with a refugee family (Abram and Sarai out of Egypt, Joseph’s brothers heading back into it), meanders through temptation and redemption and a dramatic, tragic exit (Samson and Delilah), builds to a dynastic family struggling to maintain the family business with collateral relations often ending up collateral damage (Saul, David, Solomon, and then the two sets of heirs from their bashing their way to an ultimately bloody end), and then exile.

I haven’t even gotten you to Bethlehem and the innkeeper yet.

Is the Bible suitable beach reading? Why not? The plot and story and dialogue holds up next to most of what the revolving racks have on sale.

And the ending . . . well, the arc of the Bible is long, but bends towards . . . oh, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him what devotional reading you hid in your magazine on vacation at, or follow Knapsack

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Faith Works 8-8-09
Jeff Gill

Flavors of the Summer Taste Sweeter Than Honey

“Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!”

Psalm 34: 8 reminds us of the power of taste to speak to the deepest impulses of our heart.

I love this line from the Psalms because it clearly reminds us that the goodness of God, the doings of the Almighty are not just a matter for intellect and rationality.

We can get stuck in “think and understand that the Lord is good,” with the logic of sermons and study guides the royal road to theological comprehension.

But in the Psalms, in Ezekiel, and in Revelations, we’re asked to relate to God’s teaching and lawgiving by flavor: “How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119: 103)

For my wife, the goodness of summer and a bit of the glory of God is in getting a big plate of sweet corn roasted on the grill right inside their own green husks, and a sliced garden fresh tomato fanned out red and juicy. Summer is not right and God is not secure in heaven until the corn and tomato dinner has taken place – but when those fresh flavors hit our palates, we get a feeling that encompasses our whole being that all’s right with the world.

“Taste and see.” The Lad is not always as thrilled with the vegetables that so excite his parents; Dad gets very excited each time the basil plants are ready to be whacked back and a pesto fest is the result. I know eating food grown in our own garden, product of this land and location, is both good for your nourishment and good for creation, taking in calories that took almost no fossil fuel investment to produce.

He, on the other hand, sees a vegetable paste, and wants nothing to do with it. Next, he knows, I’ll be trying to get him to like peas again, and that ain’t happenin’.

As parents, we know that an unexpected taste might jar the mouth, but we have experience and wisdom that helped us realize that this was indeed good. It will take time, and patience, but we know one of our jobs as parents is to not let him just stick with the three foods he likes right now – “taste, and see . . . this is good.”

Sharing our faith with others has much in common with trying to encourage a skeptical friend to try Thai food. We know what’s so right about a plate of pad thai, and we know our friend even likes spicy food, but they like spicy food with an order of refried beans on the side. Where are the refritos with these odd looking noodles, anyhow? “Taste, and see . . .”

You can’t just shove food into people’s mouths and expect them to go “yummo.” They have to choose to pick up a forkful, and chew with an open mind, and stomach.

To imagine the journey of faith as a banquet, a table set out (in the presence of mine enemies?), covered with both comfort food our grandmothers used to make, and strange delicacies that we’ve never heard of, let alone seen before – what might this image do for our spiritual growth.

Taste, and see. Don’t just take my word for it, or rely on your prejudices. Taste, and try for yourself, and after a fair interval, see how the flavor settles into your mouth and your mind and your life . . . until you find yourself asking for more.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him what tastes good to you this summer at, or follow Knapsack

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