Thursday, April 05, 2012

Knapsack 4-12

Notes From My Knapsack 4-12-12

Jeff Gill


We should have a sing along




Karen Loew wrote a fascinating article for "The Atlantic" magazine online recently about "communal singing."


She's working on a book, provisionally titled "Alone in the Valley," about small town life a few valleys over in Virginia.


As she's had a chance to reflect on community ritual in general, and singing in particular, she realized that while it's not dead, large group singing is surely not well.


Beyond the obvious examples of the national anthem and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," there's not much; Loew did introduce me to the fact that at Fenway Park there's a tradition around "Sweet Caroline" that I'll have to participate in someday. At Wrigley Field, it's more traditional to listen to a celebrity singer, often half in the bag, sing during the seventh inning stretch a mangled rendition of "Take Me Out."


"Amazing Grace," "God Bless America," maybe "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and right there you've run out of what's a safe bet as a standard repertoire for a crowd of average Americans.


With regular church attendance rates down around 20%, if you started singing "Old Rugged Cross" or "How Great Thou Art" in a crowd you might hear some distant voices join in, but not the full-throated roar of a plurality jumping in from memory. Patriotic songs used to run the gamut, but equally few would be the voices accompanying you if you ventured into the second verse of "America the Beautiful" or tried out "Battle Cry of Freedom." "This Land is Your Land" should be on everyone's lips, but it would be a shaky rendition even in the first stanza.


Loew also taught me something else I didn't know; the National Association of Music Education noticed the anti-trend in community singing, and tried to promote back in the 1990s a list of songs that they said ought to be a shared repertoire for Americans. Their 88 included everything from "Down By the Riverside" to "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Shenandoah" and "You've Got a Friend." (I'd add "Your Smilin' Face" to their list, but we all have favorites.)


You can see their whole selection at [Chuck, keep or delete, depending on what the current policy is on links!]


I've been a songleader for over 35 years now, and I can report that Loew's concern is well-founded. Getting a crowd to sing together is more work than it used to be, if it can be done at all. When she notes with sorrow that, as you watch on TV or attend candlelight vigils or various communal gatherings, the absence of singing together is felt, I believe she's right. There's a time for speeches, and places where only silence will do, but there are also times, happy & sad, when singing together can bind us as one like nothing else.


So I wonder, if we can't quite figure out how to afford the infrastructure costs of a community-wide picnic: maybe we just need a big old singalong on the green at summer's end. A sort of informal Eisteddfod on the grass, echoing our Welsh history and current need for a little more unity than is in the air.


We need a song in the air. "And a star in the sky; a mother's deep prayer, and a baby's low cry…" You see, for some of us, everything makes us think of a song. And there's a song for everything.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; one of the high points of his year is getting to lead the Midland Theater in singing together. Tell him your favorite group song at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Faith Works 4-7

Faith Works 4-7-12

Jeff Gill


To Be Someone, Whatever the Cost




Here's the thing.


Pilate wanted to be somebody.


He was Roman procurator, but the job could be revoked by the Emperor at the drop of a toga. There had been rebellions, and a Roman ruler in the provinces of empire was judged by how briefly such rebellions lasted, and how many were killed in retaliation.


(The "how many killed" part was a feature, not a bug, from the point of view of systems administrators back in Rome.)


Peter wanted to be somebody.


He'd just been another Simon back on the lakeshore in Galilee, but with his new nickname of Cephas in Aramaic, Petros in Greek, (Rock in English), he had a new sense of himself as strong and reliable, maybe even central.


Saul wanted to be somebody.


The Sanhedrin student in Jerusalem who had to have heard the ruckus in the streets, but never came out of his studies enough to see who the fuss was all about; he'd come down to the spiritual capital of Judaism because from Tarsus out in the sticks, this was where you came to make your mark. He'd get a new name soon, too, shifting into gentile Greek and getting called Paul.


Mary Magdalene wanted to be somebody.


Her reputation has morphed and been mangled over the generations, most recently by "The DaVinci Code," but her role in those last days is second only to Mary herself. She was as much of a leader as her time and place allowed, and maybe more so; she sees things sooner, more clearly than even the men who were called visionaries in that early group of Christ-followers.


The centurion at the cross wanted to be somebody.


You didn't just earn the rank of centurion by correspondence course. It took being seen at the front of the fighting, known as a leader among the enlisted and the conscripts by the officers, the equites looking down from their horses and their social prominence. If they saw you as one who could serve their thirst for conquest, you might be plucked from the ranks of private soldier and made a commander of a hundred, a centurion. Of course, you also got the duties that the officers didn't want to dirty their hands with.


That man in Florida wanted to be somebody.


You know the fellow I mean, who was riding around for years, calling the police frequently, carrying a gun always, wanting to protect his neighborhood and be acknowledged by law enforcement as a peer. His goal was something just a bit beyond safety, but also to be seen as someone who was bringing safety to his community.


And the teen he shot, that young man wanted to be somebody.


He'd been talking to a girlfriend on the phone, which always makes a male want to be someone in a strong and certain way. Running down to the store during a break in a basketball game, he'd had a tough week for a youth, struggling at school and with his separated parents to establish who he was, what kind of man he could become … which now he will never do.


We all want to be someone. And those desires and intentions push out into the world, and run up against the "someone-ness" of others, who are trying to shape the world's view of them by forcing the impress of their image, their character, their (our?) qualities into the material around them.


The problem is that the world isn't all that soft; it doesn't take impressions easily, and when we're up against someone else, they tend to push back.


Jesus, the story of this week reminds us, was someone. The story of the church tomorrow is that Jesus IS someone, but hold onto that until sunrise. During the events of what we call "Holy Week," Jesus was someone, but he did relatively little to push that image onto anyone.


Day by day, the agendas and concerns of those surrounding him tried to push Jesus into a mold of their own making.


There are miracles of Easter beyond even the resurrection, although that is the central celebration, the key mystery. But when Jesus took the cross, and made it his own, a sign of his true self and a symbol of triumph – that miracle makes us look at all the ways we seek ourselves, and see them as broken molds.


To die to self, and live for others. Is that someone we can be? I hope you hear an answer to that tomorrow.


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