Thursday, August 18, 2011

Knapsack 9-1

Notes From My Knapsack 9-1-11

Jeff Gill


A shadow on every clear blue sky



One morning at Scout camp, as we walked down to the dining hall for breakfast, another one of the adult leaders looked up at a deep blue, cloudless sky, turned to me and said "Every time I see a sky like this, I think of 9-11."


He's not the only one, is he?


Meanwhile, all around us were young men who were one or two or three years old on that beautiful September day. My own son has only the dimmest memories of watching his parents watching the replay that night at home, not of the attacks themselves and their immediate aftermath.


It's similar to the fact that I really don't recall when Kennedy was shot, but I have distinct recollections of watching the funeral in black-and-white with my quietly weeping mother, seeing John-John salute his father's casket as it passed (yes, I just turned 50, thanks for asking).


Joyce and I were more than three years away from moving to Granville, and she wasn't yet working at Denison, but I was driving to the college from Newark when I began to understand that something had happened that day.


The morning had been taken up with a lengthy board meeting at Second Pres for the jail ministry, and as president there were a number of dangling threads still distracting my thinking as I got into my car, and got on Rt. 16 to meet Dave Ball in Slayter Center before a Granville Ministerium meeting at noon.


So with my mind stuck between two projects, it only slowly dawned on me that while I had WOSU, the NPR station on my radio, I was listening to Peter Jennings of ABC. It wasn't until I got off at Granville Road that I started to wonder about the length of the news story, that was apparently about some kind of readiness drill in Washington, or New York.


It wasn't until I saw Swasey Chapel through the trees across Clear Run that I realized that, quite literally, "this is no drill," and that something unimaginable had not been imagined, but had happened. Today.


And once I parked and entered the lower level of Slayter, I saw crowds packed around the overhead TVs, made up of students for whom the skyline of Manhattan was part of their home landscape, and we watched together as first one, then the other of the World Trade Center towers fell. The murmured conversations came to a halt, then began as a halting attempt to find words which tended, for all of us, to trail off into uncertainty.


Dave and I went on down the hill to First Presbyterian, where our agenda for the day of housing and homelessness got set aside, and we planned a prayer service for that evening, not knowing yet even what we were praying for, other than peace.


I left for home, glad to have had a roomful of pastors to pray with, and to have borrowed the bones of what we planned there, to take back and use to lead a prayer service for the Hebron community. Not six hours later, I stood before as crowded a congregation as I would ever see inside that sanctuary, and leaned on those colleagues from a distance as I led us all in prayer.


We still search for words, and support, as we think about that day, now ten years on.


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

Faith Works 8-27

Faith Works 8-27-11

Jeff Gill


Stupid things I thought ten years ago



A bit less than ten years ago, I was wrong.


Yes, I've been wrong since then, too. And before that.


In the wake of the tragic events of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, I was quite certain that one outcome would be a change in the political and social climate.


We had just finished a summer full of shark attack hype and groundless speculation about a young woman who had disappeared in Washington, DC; the Chandra Levy case was then conflated into a rehashing of the earlier intern-related Capitol area news of the previous decade which had soaked up an immense amount of political time and energy with the hem of a "little blue dress."


I thought, and said out loud and in print, that we all would find ourselves being a little more thankful, and little less obsessed with trivia, and a whole lot more committed to the common good, after seeing the drama of September 11, 2001 play out in front of us. We'd heard the sobbing last phone calls from people trapped in the Twin Towers, counted up the steps climbed by first responders up towards their sacrificial doom, and we'd seen the impassive faces of the perpetrators glare back at us as a challenge to our national spirit, and our resolve.


It was such a searing, heart-wrenching experience for Americans, there was no way that it wouldn't turn us towards each other in newly caring, co-operative, compassionate ways. You know, like we've been experiencing since 2001.


Hah, he said ruefully.


Ten years on, and it's tempting to make the same mistake by going in the opposite direction: we're doomed, this is hopeless, never will we learn. But no.


First, churches just can't spend much time worrying about our national culture. 24 hour cable is still trying to scare us into not changing the channel, the political parties want goodies from everyone's pockets to then give to their chosen friends, and no repetition of "We Are the World" is going to change the fact that most pop culture is, was, and always will be largely an endeavor in praise of selfishness.


Fads are almost without exception either the direct product of, or the indirect result from forces manipulating the marketplace to advance a message and usually to make money. Join the fad, and you've signed yourself up to help sell something, one way or another. Fight the fad, and you may well find yourself fulfilling the non-Biblical adage "there's no such thing as bad publicity if they spell your name right."


Second, people of faith have very little reason to expect transformation of hearts stemming from current events. Show me anywhere in the Bible where a major event in the world (deaths of kings, edicts of emperors, invasions by the opposition) triggered a widespread change of assumptions or attitudes. There was a census that seemed to play a role in triggering events, but the census itself didn't count for much.


If souls are to turn, or in the quaint old term "repent," it's only going to happen because someone stands up and points one way and says clearly "this is what's at the end of that road," then points the other way and adds "and there's where you want to be heading, and here's why . . ."


Repentance, "metanoia" in Greek, or simply "turning" is what happens as the result of a vision, clearly articulated, and consciously chosen. We need a gracious gift of awareness wrapped around us that makes the right choice possible, but beyond that grace, there is no chance that large numbers of people will make a course change in the right direction just because of one event in another direction.


Or at least they might for a little ways, but another loud boom from another point on the compass is just as likely to stampede us all back the way we just left.


There are a few hopeful learnings we can gain from the last decade, and some lessons we might gain from looking closely at the incredible sacrifices made that day, in the air and on the ground, in the face of such implacable evil. I want to talk about them in the next couple of weeks, but first I wanted to say this:


I was wrong.



Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; there's no need to send him more examples of when he's been wrong to He's sometimes wrong @Twitter under the tag Knapsack, too.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Faith Works 8-20

Faith Works 8-20-11

Jeff Gill


Jesus goes back to school




Some began this past week, some are heading off in the next few days, but it's "back to school" for the community.


School supply lists have been checked, and many churches in the Licking County report anxious requests for assistance in getting the full panoply of pencils, markers, notebooks, and backpacks have been at all time high levels.


The commentary I've heard and would pass along with a confirmatory shrug of "it's as good an explanation as I can imagine" is that it's not that things are so much worse, as it is that families aren't seeing any improvements in wages or job stability (many low income families work multiple jobs both at the same time, and through the year, so a month's extension or reduction is often a major issue).


Such families have adjusted their expenses and assumptions down as far as they can, and have borrowed money from family and friends where feasible, and the reality right now is that there's simply no stretch left in the rubber band or the bootstraps. They have nowhere else to turn, especially for paper goods and other housewares which food stamp assistance can't cover.


In that sort of environment (again, I don't know this is an absolute description, it's just what I'm hearing from ministry & social service friends and associates), school supplies can be a source of stress far beyond clothes, uniform or no, or even beyond getting your family fed.


When everything is right on the ragged edge, an unexpected bill is huge, no matter what the size. Hearing that, most of us think about a car breakdown or medical crisis, but school supplies are a once a year thing that can't be covered with hand-me-downs or a loaner from a neighbor. You can argue it's something predictable enough that families should budget for it all year, but it makes sense to me that a budget close to the bone doesn't often consider something like what's on the third grade list for your second grader back in January or March.


A family that considers an $8 pizza a splurge suddenly runs into a $40 or $65 expense in the doldrums of August, and it can feel like the wheels are coming off.


This is why the churches and groups which do a school supply drive are finding themselves both beleaguered, but also blessed. There's a load taken off of a mom who is able to meet her child's needs that's much more than the weight of a fully loaded backpack. It's hope, and a sense that you're not in this struggle alone.


I mention all of this because I know the first couple of churches in my general orbit of connection were completely emptied in short order when they announced school supply assistance. There are many more planning to offer such help in the next couple of weeks, and they may be your church, your congregation's community center, or the folks across the street you do VBS with.


If you hear they are collecting supplies, and you have a chance to pick up an armload of materials when you're at the store, or just need donations to make some targeted purchases to fill up some niches on the lists, they're serious, and the need is very serious.


And seriously: if you wanted to put a Bible at the bottom of those backpacks you were giving out, there's nothing wrong with that . . . and you might have just ensured, with everything else you put in that knapsack, that the parent or child receiving it might just read it in a different light.


Because you have shown them, in a way, that you're willing to walk alongside of them. Which changes everything.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your back-to-school story at, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.