Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Faith Works 12-29-12

Faith Works 12-29-12

Jeff Gill

Joseph & Mary's Christmas Letter



Dear friends and family back in Nazareth: season's greetings!


Mary reminded me that we really shouldn't get into a new year without sending you all a note to update developments in our little family.


Yes, we ran off and went ahead and got hitched. It's a long story, and we look forward to explaining how this all came about when next we're at home. You could say that the Roman announcement of a census forced our hand.


I had to go back south to my family homesteads near Bethlehem (as a scion of King David's line and all that). It just, well, made so much sense for Mary to come along. It was sort of a last minute decision, so we apologize for leaving Galilee so quickly and not giving you all a chance to give us a rousing send-off. Stuff happened.


It would be nice to tell you that the family down here in Judea made up for the hospitality we missed out on from you, but in fact, between the hordes coming to town for the census and all the off-season travelers, we were almost left entirely out in the cold. Our lodgings are simple but adequate, even if they would never be approved by the Triple-A.


In fact, as if things couldn't get more complicated, Mary had her baby here in Bethlehem. My carpenter's guild insurance was no good down here at Ephratha General, and we were quite worried about that, but it became a moot point when the baby was born swiftly and smoothly and really without even a cry. Yes, it was what some call a home birth, and it wasn't what we planned, but all turned out perfectly.


My family was of little help, but the kindnesses of strangers have warmed our hearts. A group of sheepherders from out on the edge of town came by our "room" and helped set everything to rights and made us feel like we were right where we were supposed to be.


Meanwhile, I'm working on picking up some contractor paying gigs (brought my tools, natch), and word on the street here is that there are some foreign dignitaries floating around the neighborhood, looking at various properties. If one of them wants a vacation home here in Bethlehem, I could make enough to get us back to Nazareth by Passover. I'll be looking to make contact with them (there's a bunch of them traveling together) as soon as I put these letters in the hands of a provincial courier, or pretty much anyone traveling north.


Hope to see you soon and tell you more in person – let's just say God has been good to us, and we are thankful! May you be as blessed as we have been, but with better beds!


All our love,

Joseph, Mary, and our brand new bundle of joy, Jesus!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A modest proposal, without irony

A modest proposal
Jeff Gill

My concern for young men, and what it means to grow up as a young man in America today, is why outdoor activity, particularly through Scouting, is my biggest personal commitment after my family and my faith (and to be fair, the latter is also my job, a package deal for me as a pastor). What I have long worried about for young men in general is what the recent series of mass shooting events say to me, even more clearly than anything about gun policy or mental health access -- the biggest problem for & with boys today is that their lives are simply too unreal.

Video games, pornography, big screen sports, electronic fantasies with no closer contact to actuality than the rumble function within the hand controller. Over and over I end up talking to young men in trouble whose future plans are literally "uh, game designer, or Navy SEAL." Never mind that they have never tried coding in HTML, nor have they ever run more than a hundred yards in their life, or walked even a mile.

What they need are sunrises. They need to lose a boot in the mud walking through the swamp in a short cut that didn't work out. They need the taste of burnt food that, after long miles and only water to drink has a taste in your mouth which satisfies body & soul. They need to be part of a team, a patrol, a group of friends who build something, start something, finish something that they can step back from and say "We did that" and smile. They need to feel rain in their face and a rope taut in their hand, watching the wind on the shore for hints of a change in direction. They need a rush of concentration as the rock bumps past on one hand and the eddy swirls on your other, as your partner in the bow fends off a submerged boulder hiding behind that bend. And yes, in these contexts, they would benefit from a gentle trigger pull and a mark leaping into view within the black circle.

Shooting sports, exercised in the absence of further realities, can become just a slightly more heavily equipped video game, spraying ammo widely into a hillside or hosing down a propane tank until the requisite "boom." Firearms, understood as precision power tools that can bite if misused -- that is what they are, first and foremost -- need their own setting of reality to make them healthy and safe.

But the degree of alienation and a-socialization I see in more and more young men (and yes, occasionally young women, but I'll leave that question to others) is something that I think is not caused by video games or pornography, but those are the pre-eminent signs and indications and addictions that result from a severe lack of reality and connection to the actual world, alongside of actual people. We can try to trace it out to the beginning of suburbs and the end of sidewalks, to the rise of personal automobiles and telephones replacing handwritten letters, to the hungry void of television, to the cult of safety keeping parents from letting their kids play in the creek or wander through fields, and all our guesses and assumptions would be open to challenge.

The answer, though, I think is unchallengeable. More reality, more sunrises and sunsets and starry nights and campfire cooking and looking at the geese flying overhead as you stamp your feet to keep them warm, more connections and conversations with peers who are experiencing the same realities through their own eyes, and learning how they see it not quite the same as you: these are the cures for more ills than we can name. I'm not certain what laws or policies we need to build a better country, but I know what youth need, and it isn't more of what they're getting right now.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Faith Works 12-22-12

Faith Works 12-22-12

Jeff Gill

Slaughter and the sorrowful season




No one wants to mourn at Christmastime.


No one wants to go to a funeral during Advent, least of all for a child.


Nobody is interested in sad songs and weeping while the carols are playing and laughter is in the air. Nobody, that is, except for those who must.


No death seems well-timed, really, and to say this is the right or the wrong month or week is a sort of non sequitur, a statement without meaning. Death comes as it may, and we respond in faith and hope according to the measure given to us.


A massacre, a mass killing during December cannot but feel particularly heinous, even though we know it would be just as appalling in April, or May. The mix of children's excitement over gifts and surprises, combined with our helpless imaginings of events like those just past in Connecticut, creates a nauseating brew of anger and despair in the pit of our collective stomach.


That feeling, though, has a place in the Christmas story. It always has. We just tend to gloss over or skip past it, as we try to keep the "joy of Christmas" alive. Death, instead, keeps creeping back into the story.


Just after the commemoration of the birth of Christ, marked on Dec. 25th, is the liturgical feast of what are called "the Holy Innocents" on Dec. 28th. They remind us of the passage in Matthew's gospel account after the Magi, or "wise men" had met with deceitful, fearful Herod and told him of a Great King who is to be born.


Herod said he wanted to meet this infant king, and after getting enough information to go on, he sent his soldiers to kill every male child under two, just to be on the safe side.


Just to be on the safe side.


The story reminds us of Pharaoh, in the beginning of the book of Exodus, when the death of the firstborn of the Hebrew sons is commanded, leading to little Moses being set adrift in the Nile in a basket. The anguish of the mothers is seen with skillful indirectness when Cecil B. DeMille shows an Egyptian soldier wiping blood off his sword with a swaddling cloth, as the mother sits stunned into silence nearby.


Silence is one response we can offer, and it is better than some words that have been shared in recent days. Sorrow can be expressed wordlessly, or in very few. And there are tears.


But from tears, there are so very often stories. The stories that explain why we grieve, what we will miss, how we are painfully remembering what we've lost right now. And the stories unfold, and connect, and carry forward, and next thing you know, you're laughing.


It's not that you stop crying, but you laugh all the same, tears changing course as your face creases into a smile.


Stories have a way of giving birth to the next story, and the next, and given time you find everyone telling stories, and while the tears are never entirely gone, they aren't the whole story.


So it is with the Christmas story. There's a heritage in that long-ago act of terror by Pharaoh in Egypt, and the present threat of Herod's uneasy security and ruthless ambition . . . and the shadow of Roman crucifixion leaning across occupied Judea.


You do no justice to the story by sweeping those realities aside. But you also talk about that stubborn donkey on the road up from Jericho, the motley crew of shepherds you met on the last, endless trudge from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and the marvel of gifts from foreign potentates who came bearing not only precious goods, but a whispered warning with angelic emphasis.


The incidents behind you haunt your delight in the baby born in a stable, but you don't let them keep you from recounting the traverse of the Sinai, that ferryman's outburst as you crossed the Nile, and even – glancing around at your listeners to gauge their trustworthiness – the dream sent from Heaven that led you to return home.


Tears may not make much of a gift at Christmas, nor do they stay long on the hearthstones, but the shedding of them has a place in the story, and always has. May your Christmas celebration tell stories, one to another, that include those who mourn, those who rejoice, those who wander, and those who have found their way home.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him about your journey home for Christmas at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.