Thursday, August 30, 2012

Knapsack 9-6

Notes From My Knapsack 9-6-12

Jeff Gill


Not so much the politics, but the politicians



You may have noticed that there's a major political season blowing through right now, our media version of a hurricane for the senses.


Soon we will see more letters to the editor on various candidates and issues, enough that these merry little columns may be reduced in number or frequency. So if I had something to say politically, now would be the time to get that in…


Except, of course, that the management really doesn't want these human interest essays to veer off into partisan politics. That's what the ad pages are for!


Politicians, though, fascinate me. Because they are, all evidence to the contrary, us.


Yes, there are some tendencies to dynasty (Kennedys, Tafts, Bushes, Romneys) and they don't represent the nation or state with mirror-like perfection, but I'm pretty impressed with our overall expansiveness when it comes to U.S. Presidents.


FDR was patrician, as was JFK, but LBJ? The anti-patrician, as was Jimmy Carter. Ford was Midwestern, while Reagan, from Illinois, was a true 20th century Californian because of his Midwestern roots, not despite them.


Harry S. Truman was a Pendergast Democrat and Richard Nixon was a McCarthy Republican, but both rebelled in significant ways from their youthful patrons.


And this factoid will doubtless be misused in ways I can't even anticipate, but I'm doubly fascinated by the fact that: both Barack Obama's paternal grandfather & Mitt Romney's paternal great-grandfather had five wives. Five, both of 'em. It means absolutely nothing about either of the candidates, politically, but it's the kind of historic coincidence that you'd think would be feature-bait on the air and in print, but everyone is too hyperaware of the partisan sensitivities on each side to go there. So I just did!


Mitt's paternal grandfather was post-1890, when the condition of statehood for Utah was an official ban on polygamy by the Latter Day Saints, so he had a single wife, but is occasionally mentioned, he married in Mexico where they had George Romney, then in the tensions around the 1911 revolutionary activity in Mexico they returned to Utah; George didn't get to Michigan and the auto business until 1939.


Still, it's another thing that they have oddly in common, a history of dislocation and achievement in the face of constant moves and entirely new cultures while being in a strangely regarded outsider group themselves. Barack Obama, Sr. arrived in the US in 1959, part of a cultural exchange program between Kenya and America which was meant to strengthen both countries (and arguably has paid dividends beyond their funders' dreams!). He studied in Hawaii and at Harvard, a school to which his son would return.


Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both graduated from Harvard Law School; it's generally assumed that they would have nothing else in common, but that one point of shared reference I would argue is but one of many. I can only imagine a conversation between the two over a long meal and in a private space for reflection: both had fathers who were strivers, carrying personal backgrounds of which they had much to be proud, but with many reasons to be sensitive about them. George Romney was the last of a generation to rise to executive office level without a college degree, and he was apparently always reminding people about it; Barack Obama, Sr. carried the weight of a patron's expectations who had sent him to America, and whose death essentially ended his career in Kenyan government as a new form of meritocracy took sway. Both had high hopes for their sons.


Soundbites aside, these are compelling personal stories.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; nope, he's not making an endorsement here, not a'tall. Tell him your preferred candidate's story at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Faith Works 9-1

Faith Works 9-1-12
Jeff Gill

Craft and Patience, and Faith

Out at the Flint Ridge Knap-In this weekend, you'll see plenty of quiet focus, silent diligence, and mutual respect all at work and on display.

Is it prayer?

To some degree, that would be up to the artisan. I wouldn't want to impose that perspective on anyone who didn't have that intention. My question is on behalf of those who would, intentionally, see their work as a spiritual discipline.

When you do flint knapping to make a "point," or arrowhead as folks mistakenly call them (since bow and arrow wasn't used around here until fairly recently in historic terms), you have to quiet yourself, settle your mind, and find a non-distracting posture.

The idea isn't to put on a show, a flurry of activity; you need to only make the motions that contribute to each step, going from flake blank to final projectile point.

Your work is steady, but slow – at least in modern terms – and you have to work with the materials. If a beautiful piece of flint has a crease or bulge of crystals, you can't force it in the direction you want the shaping to go, flake by flake.

But when you let yourself learn from your materials, you find yourself making something unexpected, but all the more fascinating for how you become a part of a larger process, something beyond your own plans and intentions.

That sounds very close to prayer for me, or at least a worthy discipline for entering a prayerful state.
Many people who work with their hands on artisan-type projects report that they feel closest to God when they are creating something. Woodworkers, quilters, blacksmiths, and yes, flint knappers; farmers working the fields at harvest, and bakers at home or at a bakery. All say that the act of creation, the simple repetitions and shaping gestures, brings them to a place where their prayers are not only more personal and clear, but their sense of God's presence is more real.

"Created in God's image" would mean we're created with an aspect of that creative urge, right? "Sub-creators" as J.R.R. Tolkien said in his writing about the meaning not of his literary creation, Middle Earth, but of the act of creation itself – the task of writing and correlating and molding character and plot and landscape, which he went on to compare to . . . woodworkers and quilters and blacksmiths.
Labor Day is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the nature of work; our work, the work of others that shapes our lives, of the place of work in God's purpose for our lives. The union movement that gave birth to Labor Day as a holiday is itself rooted in a desire to see work honored and respected, no matter how humble; unions ask laborers to come together to protect the workplace as a setting for more than simply economic purposes. We shape our souls as we choose how we approach our work, whether it's our attitude as we scrub the grill at closing time, or how carefully we attach the spade lugs to the power supply. A casual, careless attitude toward work as just a set of hours on a pay stub leads inevitably to a casual, careless value of life itself, and all manner of ills, social and personal.

So take a trip out to Flint Ridge off Brownsville Road this weekend (they're out there chipping away through Sunday), and walk about the knappers and reflect on their work, and your own, whatever Monday holds.

Can your work be prayer? Is prayer in your work?

(first published 9-1-2007) 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; he's worked closing and scrubbed more than a few grills in his time. Share your story of work and faith at