Friday, February 13, 2009

Faith Works 2-14-09
Jeff Gill

Faith and Finance Aren’t Cashing In, But Show a Profit

In theory, I should be talking today about Valentinus of Rome and love and the Roman Lupercalia, but a) I’ve done it before, b) others are doing it, and c) I can do it all from a new angle with a unique twist next year.

Right now, people are talking about money.

How much Washington will give Ohio to spend (Gov. Ted sez: Not Enough), how much our companies and businesses have (ditto), how much we have in the bank right now (savings rate for the US was negative before this all hit the fan, so do the math), and how much in taxes our kids will pay in twenty years (too much).

So I’m looking at some of my money, where it says “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” It’s a small inscription, right above the signature of the Treasurer of the United States, who puts “the full faith and credit of the United States Government” behind what that piece of paper represents.

Thinking back to the opening salvos of this devastating barrage of bad economic bombshells, I remembered Bernie Madoff, whose customers are still absorbing the news that not only their gains were illusory, but their original deposits are lost, possibly forever.

Year after year, people got statements, long detailed breakdowns of what stock was bought or sold when, how the profit was rolled over into additional purchases, and the shining, glittering news of how much more your “investment” was worth now than when you initially put it in.

It was, we now find, all lies. It was a “Ponzi scheme,” which is a label for a rolling scam where everyone is told they’re making out like bandits (yes, the victims must have at least a touch of avarice in their souls), but new depositors were being used to pay off withdrawn funds, which Madoff’s crew apparently worked overtime to keep from happening.

Once more is pulled out than you can bring in, or even modest requests for funds intersect with a vanishing demand, and the whole frilly illusion shreds and blows away in a moment.

Faith. “Full faith and credit.” The fact is, the economic system would not work without faith. Any economic system beyond village barter requires the use of symbols to make trades and move goods (“This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private”), and the growing size of a process that operates beyond the next range of hills, let alone across oceans, requires that a certain amount of buying and selling and investing be done in pure symbols . . . like those account statements Madoff’s customers got and smiled over every quarter for years and years.

When faith, any faith is betrayed, the very idea of trust and belief is called into question. Aside from challenges for giving and supporting and tithing for faith communities, there is a very real, practical challenge facing congregations in this financial crisis. We are going through a time when people are going to be very unwilling to take anything on faith, whether of a spiritual or a practical nature.

Before any hard core rationalists get all happy and pleased, here’s the problem – we have to get faith back. We will never achieve full transparency or complete assured confirmation for every economic transaction (unless we all go back to trading my hen’s eggs for your son the cobbler’s new shoes). Faith is, in fact, a vital and necessary part of everyday life.

As the Wall Street traders and Washington insiders seem bizarrely intent on teaching us, we really should require more specifics and more verification in public life (no, seriously, what do you get paid, and why is it mostly called a “bonus” if it’s your base pay?). Church leaders should expect, and even welcome the fact that people will want a bit more explanation than “that’s the way it’s always been,” or “I really don’t know why, it’s just what we’ve always believed.”

Folks are in a mood to say, “Tell me more.” There’s nothing wrong with that.

But we also have to recover a healthy sense of everyday faith, the trust and “credit” in a “giving credit” sense, which is the lubrication system if not the very fuel of our economy. In large part the movers and shakers of society and business need to earn some faith, while we out here figure out where we can bestow it without risking the last of our hope, if not our faith.

And through all of these shocks to our assumptions, the trials and tribulations of job hunting and budget making and priority arranging, one thing becomes abundantly clear: we never should have put our full faith and credit in stuff, in a lifestyle, in our jobs. They never can quite live up to those kind of deeper beliefs.

Which turns us to asking, where should we put our faith? Maybe not in a blind trust, and a mutual fund can’t manage our futures for us, let alone our eternal hopes.

Maybe faith in a God who is present and active among us looks like a pretty solid investment these days.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s heavily invested in Kingdom securities and credits to be redeemed by the bearer. Give him your investment counsel at

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Notes From My Knapsack 2-12-09
Jeff Gill

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (sugg. Title)

Too little known about Charles Darwin’s seminal work, published 150 years ago this coming November, is that it is a fascinating and even enjoyable read.

“On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” or later republished as simply “The Origin of Species,” was written in the 1840s and 50s, and is in many ways a High Victorian literary masterpiece.

But I’m uncomfortably aware that describing the book that way sends many of you running in the opposite direction, as if I’d said “Brussels sprouts” (which, if you roast them first, are actually quite tasty as well, but that’s a different column).

“David Copperfield” and “A Christmas Carol” were written by Charles Dickens just a few miles away at about the same time; the other literary Charles was finishing “A Tale of Two Cities” just as “On the Origin” was hitting the bookstalls in London. No one finds it too odd to hear that reading any of those Dickens novels is an enjoyable read for pleasure today, but if you said you were reading (or re-reading) Darwin’s “On the Origin” most would assume you had an assignment for school, and a pretty nasty one at that.

The truth is that Darwin’s book is fun to read, and offers discussions of scientific things in language anyone can follow, whether to agree or disagree – and the author clearly welcomes disagreement and debate, an approach that brings out fine writing and reasoning, I think, from those who engage him thoroughly.

A few weeks ago I recommended “Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent” by Lyanda Haupt for those trying to understand just what motivated and inspired Darwin as a young scholar, and I’m delighted by how many have e-mailed me to say what a pleasure and marvel this book has been. She delves deep into Darwin’s own letters and handwritten notebooks, and follows his growth in observational sensitivity, and passionate interest in the vital processes of creation.

Haupt touches lightly, but distinctly, on Darwin’s spiritual journey, a seminarian headed for ministry who becomes condemned as “a great infidel.” Her chapter “God and the Nightingales” is a great corrective to this misunderstanding.

“Annie’s Box” by Darwin’s great-great-grandson Randal Keynes (and father of the Narnia movie’s Edmund) tells the story of the life and death of Darwin’s ten year old daughter, and traces an outline of Darwin’s struggles with a faith community around him, more interested in social status than comforting the afflicted.

Yet reading Darwin’s own letters, which you can do for yourself at, you find that while he tussles with official clergy (type “Ffinden” into the search box), he writes with warmth and welcome to invite evangelists like James Fegan to come use his property for a revival, greets Lady Hope with Bible quotations (if not a “deathbed conversion” as has been mythologized out of her later “reminiscences”), and reminds Asa Gray, Harvard geologist and committed Christian, that a theistic faith can be held close while digging deeply into natural selection and deep time.

Darwin avoided using the term “deist” in his letters, which intrigues me greatly. Deism was a very respectable stance, even within the Church of England, arguing that God created “in the beginning,” then stepped back, letting processes and plans wind out without any direct involvement. He argued strongly that his theory of evolution did not, itself, prove or disprove the existence of God, or a faith in Jesus Christ, nor did it intend to undermine or support such beliefs.

The question of what about faith could be explained or proven by scientific means intrigued Darwin, and he often talked about this; sometimes folks use these quotes to say that Darwin thought religion was purely a product of evolution.

To them I would say, read the man’s work for yourself, not selective quotations.

And I’d add the words of an Orthodox saint of the Fourth Century, Ephrem the Syrian, whose hymns are still sung in the Christian churches Eastern and Western, and whose thought inspired John Wesley – “In every place, if you look his symbol is there,” Ephrem sang,

“Nature and the Scriptures
together carry
the symbols of his humanity
and of his divinity.”

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he promises to stop talking about Darwin and Lincoln for at least a while after Feb. 12! Tell him a story at, or to “Knapsack” on Twitter.