Thursday, November 05, 2009

Coalition of Care newsletter - Fall 2009

Coalition of Care newsletter – November 2009

Jeff Gill

What Do You See When You Pray?

When it comes to personal prayer, eyes closed is the American norm.
That's what you see if you cheat and look around during most
corporate prayer settings, in church or in other places for that
matter – eyes closed, head bowed.

There's nothing in the Bible that commends shutting out the world
that way, except perhaps the "prayer closet" suggestion Jesus gives
his followers, though that seems to be more aimed at avoiding the
gaze of others than closing off your own. Don't go out where you can
get people to see you and congratulate you as your primary prayer
practice, Jesus reminds us.

But closed eyes is what we're used to, and we like what we're used
to. Except then you have to wrestle with the question, what do I see?

Living in a highly visual culture, the fact is that most of us still
"see" something when we close our eyes. We're all Steven Spielbergs
within our heads, shooting a story and layering in the special
effects from our well fertilized imaginations.

So then the spiritual discipline question is: with images, or
without? Some Eastern Orthodox spiritual practices quite specifically
call on us to "empty" our minds, and clear out all ideas and pictures
while focusing on God; other traditions of the Christian faith
suggest a specific image, and working on keeping that central in our
mind's eye.

During the closing portions of the Gospel Celebration, in a final
prayer together, I asked everyone gathered there to join me in
imagining a desk and a chair, two chairs, and the occupants of those
two chairs in prayer together. To me, that is a central image of what
the "Coalition of Care" is about, the time spent for two people to
hear each others' stories and pray together for discernment and
wisdom and guidance.

What's been in my prayers since then, though, is an image of just one
person, in a chair at home, trying to offer up wordless prayers
through anguish and pain. It's the prayer of a mother, or a father,
or whatever the individual, who is trying to muster the courage, or
maybe the humility, or just to set aside their pride while stumbling
on the awkward, painful embarrassment of having to go somewhere and
sit down and say "I need help."

That's the point where we all can only call on grace, God's grace, to
help move that hurting person. We can't help most folk until they
come in, but that moment of decision to come in – those moments of
choice, to leave the chair, get in the car or walk down the street,
to go through the door, to wait, even a short time, to sit down with
the Coalition counselor . . . at any one of those moments, they could
decide to say "No" and head back into the dark security of despair.

We need to pray for those people, those moments, that grace, so that
those who need to open their eyes and pray their way into a
conference with the Coalition will find that strength, walk in that
hope, and sit in confidence that asking for aid is what God blesses
them to do.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Faith Works 11-7

Faith Works 11-7-09

Jeff Gill


The Care and Feeding of Apophenia



At an archaeology conference held on the OSU-N campus in the Reese Center, one of the presenters talked about "apophenia."


If you work with the evaluation of survey data or graphic information of any sort, you know the word, but it's a concept that most of us bump up against without ever needing to put a label on it.


Apophenia is just the term for seeing patterns or something familiar where there is actually no intended meaning, whether turning a stump in the twilight into a dog, or calling an arrangement of stars a bear or plow or dipper.


Pareidolia is a related concept, more specifically when our senses help us mistake randomness for meaningfulness. The best example of pareidolia that we're all familiar with is hearing the phone ring while we're in the shower. The white noise of water spraying creates so many little audio signatures that our brain kicks into overdrive, trying to hear *something,* and forces from the sound the sense that a distant phone is signaling.


Scientists point out that pattern recognition is what makes our brains so useful, and in fact children and adults with autism spectrum disorders can be so sensitized to sorting out inputs (to a fault, perhaps even obsessively) that they notice patterns that actually *are* there, but that most average people don't catch.


To a very different extreme is when a mentally ill person hears a message just for them in the arrangement of TV advertizing, or a voice speaking to them just below the dialogue in a movie.


Each year in the autumn I think about apophenia, and ancient history, and faith. The talk at the Reese Center poked me because I usually don't write about this subject just before Hallowe'en because it has the potential to push so many odd buttons, and often it's barely a day after Nov. 1 and All Saints' when the big push to the Holiday Season eats all our attention.


When the days grow short, and the darkness gathers quickly, and pools of shadow never see light again in our homes and yards until  March or later; when the waving branches of bare tree limbs claw a skeletal hand against a full moon; when the skitter of dry leaves pace an irregular step across the garage floor . . .


There's a certain logic, a necessity of ghosts and spirits and haunting that I cannot but find inevitable when I think what life must have been like not so very long ago, and there is in our well-lit, open plan, tidy cornered age an equally unsurprising grasping after the uncanny where it rarely occurs without a little pump priming.


Think about green timbers creaking, board floors all askew, small windows with "crazy" glass (the term itself comes from the pattern of ripples and cracks in old panes), and that's just indoors. Think about deep gloom within the forest, actual predators not fearful of humans (and many more human predators, whatever you've heard of "good old days"), and the limits of candle and torch, themselves generating a dancing flicker of shadow as much as of light.


Seeing those who had died in the bedroom corner, the shed's fence corner, or along the treeline, especially when the dead grew more numerous in your life by the year, by the week, starting in youth – of course you did. Today not a few of us get into our 30s and even more before we even see a funeral or a casket with contents, and what house is without lights and outlets in every corner, inside and outside?


Add in a bit of malnutrition, a general state of ill health combined with rare glasses for no less frequent poor vision, and it doesn't take imagination or even wishful thinking to see what isn't there.


Having thought this through, I read old documents with a slightly different eye: then I run across those who skip along from such considerations to the assertion that all religious belief is apophenia, "hindsight effect," that pareidolia is the source of every encounter with the divine.


This is where church leadership is tested, especially this time of year. Are the only two choices between agreeing with every out-of-the-corner of the eye apparition, or absolute scientific materialism? I'd say there's a fascinating middle ground for us to explore, and I hope to come back to this subject in the next few weeks.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he hopes you enjoy discovering useful words for odd occasions as much as he does. Share a new term with him at, or follow Knapsack

Notes From My Knapsack 11-5-09

Jeff Gill


Adaptability and Inflexibility Can Work Together




Julia Child and the Wright Brothers have been dancing together in my brain recently.


Julia Child, of course, has been back in the national consciousness with the movie "Julie & Julia," and that fun little film has also helped sell not only Julie Powell's book about making all 524 recipes in Julia Child's first cookbook, also titled "Julie & Julia," but it helped get a second book out into the public consciousness, or at least my own.


"My Life in France" is a memoir that Child wrote with her nephew, Alex Prud'homme, a project finished by him just after her death, written from a series of lengthy interviews he did with her over the year before she died at the age of 92 in 2004.


The book was the "other half" of the movie "Julie & Julia," the half that many of us wished was longer, which followed Paul Child and his new wife, Julia McWilliams, from 1948 to 1954 in Paris, Marseille, and ultimately Oslo, Berlin, New York, and to the home in Cambridge, Massachusetts whose kitchen ends up in the Smithsonian.


And it lays out the story of the writing of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," a book which not only created a revolution in American cuisine, but in a roundabout but very distinct way led to the revitalization of WGBH in Boston and PBS in general, created the cooking show as we know it, and is why there is a Food Network that keeps me up late to see who wins on "Iron Chef America."


But the book almost wasn't written, repeatedly. It repeatedly should have died, and almost did, with encouragement. The reasons to give up were numerous and convincing, and partnership of "Trois Gourmandes" who officially wrote it was even more complicated and fraught with tensions than the movie indicated, and it indicated a whole bunch of it.


Julia Child had to catch her vision, find her own sources of encouragement, deal with pressures to radically revise her hopes into something more conventional, a book that would have gotten to press faster and almost certainly would have sunk more swiftly out of sight . . . unlike "Mastering," which now has a whole new life on the best seller list beyond Julie Powell's and Alex Prud'homme's books.


What's this got to do with the Wright Brothers? Well, I had a couple of occasions recently to be in the Dayton area, and finally got to Huffman Prairie. It's a bit out of the way, even if you've found your way to the Wright–Patterson Air Force Museum (bigger, better, still free, go see it!) or Carillon Park (thanks, Col. Deeds!).


Not to offend any North Carolina fans out there, but Kitty Hawk? Feh. It was one step, an important step of sorts in the journey to flight, but just one intermediate step. People had flown gliders further, and looped about a bit, and the engine of sorts that pushed the first Wright Flyer in December of 1903 was a necessary step towards powered flight, but just a hop of a few hundred feet skimming the sand.


But what made flight a reality, and a useable technology, was taking off, flying a circuit, and safely landing after repeating that loop a few times. If you use that as the benchmark for "the invention of flight," it was a fall day in October and November of 1905 that really opened up the Age of Aviation, and it was in Ohio where Orville and Wilbur did that. The field, Huffman Prairie, is still open, and has seven large white banners marking the circuit they flew, once in December of 1904 and with greater skill and confidence, to the point of flying until the gas tank emptied, in the fall of 1905.


Julia Child and the Wrights are both in my mind as I think about how they are often seen as geniuses who produced a revolution with a burst of effort, yes, but mostly inspiration and circumstance. What happens when you look closely at their respective journeys, from idea to actuality, is that it took great persistence combined with cheerful flexibility and an unbending belief in their core inspiration.


That's a story that needs to be heard and learned and shared, and merrily thrown into the teeth of storylines that claim it's lottery winnings and reality show victories and a good publicist that get you to success.


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