Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Notes from my Knapsack 1-2-14

Notes from my Knapsack 1-2-14

Jeff Gill


Stories near and far



Many thanks, at the start of this bright new yea,r to all the kindly and helpful input on my recent attempt to tell a story on the installment plan.


Given the 550 word limit on these columns, and the fact that there often had to be a little exposition to reframe the situation for those who didn't see every piece (election season broke up my usual every-other-week sequence), there was a surprisingly small amount of dialogue and character development you could put into any one segment.


But my ten section adventure began with a couple of items to hand: I'd had a surprising clash in July with a reader in print, and found myself entirely uninterested in fighting a war of words, whether with an unarmed opponent or a platoon of contumelious correspondents. And I'd been wanting to try something fictive, and episodic, for some time. At the end of July, the time seemed to be right.


Further, I had this image stuck in my mind of a man standing at a window looking at the stark jagged mountains around Las Vegas, thinking to himself "I want to go to Granville." He didn't know why, but he had to come here. A year and a half ago, I had my first flight into and out of Sin City, which probably sparked the concept, but it was just a picture with a scrap of plot device that had me thinking "so what next?"


Capping it all off, I had been wanting to try to show Granville to us, to we who live here, through the eyes of someone knowing nothing at all about the place. Most of us who are today's Granville's residents were not born here, though many of us say we got here as soon as we could. But few of us came here cold: we had jobs or spouse's jobs that brought us within the orbit of this little cosmos, some reason for coming into the neighborhood that gave us a context. We'd most of us had a bit of a picture or a piece of the story before driving north on Rt. 37 or across on Rt. 161. Those who hadn't and stayed got our moment of "gee whiz" and then it steadily sinks into the mire of everyday life and casual interactions.


As much as we can take it for granted, Brigadoon… I mean, Granville is a startling place to stumble upon, and we forget that. Most of us do, anyhow. It has a certain feel, an atmosphere which is evocative even for folks who can't put a single word to the whys or the wherefores.


Having been a "step-on" guide for hundreds of tour buses, and watched the looks on the faces of thousands of Canadians and Pennsylvanians and Utahns (et cetera), I can assure you there is a marvelous character to this place that we may be at risk of losing sight of, we who live here. I hope Nelson's story helped you recall that first time you saw the village we call home, and restored for some of us that excitement of living in a place that really does anchor the Land of Legend.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he & his wife stumbled into Granville for the candlelight walking tour in 1989, but it took them 15 more years to move here. Tell him your view of the village at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 1-4-14

Faith Works 1-4-14

Jeff Gill


Street ministry in Pottersville, 2014



A new year dawns in Pottersville. We're sending you this fundraising appeal because you've been a supporter of our work in the past, and we hope you can aid us during the year ahead.


Our ministry center is still upstairs overlooking the heart of the old business district. We have a worship & gathering space at the top of the stairs from the street, and a number of private offices for confidential counseling appointments. One goal we have is to work with our landlord (Potter Enterprises) to install an elevator, but this accessibility asset will cost thousands more than we have on hand.


Ironically, if we can put together funding for this step, it will be installed where the old vault currently sits, its door permanently open . . . no one knows anymore what the combination is, and we have had it riveted open for safety. That area is reinforced below, though, which makes it the best spot to put a lift that can allow mobility-restricted individuals to be served in our space.


The Pottersville Community Association (PCA) continues to work on projects for the revitalization of our downtown, and we collaborate on these efforts while keeping our focus on direct service and ministries of compassion, care, and presence.


For the congregations in the Greater Bedford region who contribute to our programming here in the city, we can share a few of the stories where we are making a difference in Jesus' name. Violet is one of the residents of the senior housing complex located where the Gaiety Theatre and Tap Room once stood. She was born and raised here, traveling to the East Coast when she was younger and making a number of attempts to get into show business.


"I made plenty of mistakes, and there was always someone around to encourage me to make one more," Violet says. "When the Pottersville Mission opened its doors to me as a homeless old woman, it was like I was coming back to the home I never knew."


Tilly & Eustace are brother & sister, a pair who have been each other's caregivers since their parents died before World War II. They say about Pottersville Senior Housing "we have just gone from one barely habitable rental to another through our years, and this is the first safe, warm place we've called home since we were children." Friends of the pair say they are both over 100.


There are many who recall the heyday of Pottersville, when neon lights and parked cars ornamented the blocks all around. But most of those who remember those days also recall a darker side, with houses of prostitution on the blocks behind the business district, and pawn shops tucked in between the bars and dance halls.


Those years saw much activity, financial and otherwise, but little of the money stayed in town. And once trends in entertainment and economics began to undermine the profitability of movie houses and floor shows, the hollowing out of the business district happened with startling rapidity, leaving behind long stretches of vacant storefronts and only patchily occupied upstairs apartments.


The last blow seemed to be, ten years ago, when the First National Bank of Pottersville was bought out and closed by MegaCorpBanq, leaving depositors without a staffed branch closer than Bedford Heights (although there are ATMs on either end of neighborhood). And it is true that payday loan and car title cheap money, high interest rackets are dotted on either side where the town's main bank once operated.


But that vacancy has created our biggest new opportunity, and one we are very excited about. The old bank building, with its marble and wrought-iron stateliness, has attracted a ministry partnership of three area churches that are going to open it up as a vocational training center, in association with the county technology and education program, with a coffee shop as the centerpiece.


Where once the teller's cages received deposits, baristas will serve cappuchinos and lattes; back in the old president's office, students will learn the skills needed to serve customers and cook up sweet treats.


We continue to celebrate worship each Wednesday and Saturday night, and are still appreciating the rent-free arrangement with the county that allows us to use the old library building for the Tuesday & Thursday food pantry. Please keep our ministry of presence and proclamation in your prayers, and together, we know that just one person determined to make a difference can have an impact far beyond what they know, or can know!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; yes, he's still watching Christmas movies. Tell him where you would like to make a difference at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Faith Works 12-28-13

Faith Works 12-28-13

Jeff Gill


Beyond the Barricades



Weathervane Playhouse is wrapping up this weekend a winter run of the spectacular production "Les Misérables", an effort that reminds you of why the movie version was compelling and unique and yet something completely other than a live performance.


Don't get me wrong, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway et alia did a fine job, and Tom Hooper's "in your face" camera work gave us a new approach to this familiar musical that was compelling for newbie and "Les Mis" veterans alike, but when you see a live production on stage, you realize just what a confident risk it is to come out on stage in front of an audience and try to sing, act, and move through a performance without "do-overs."


If you don't already have your tickets, tonight and tomorrow are probably sold out, or should be (you really should check, just in case), but the show made me think again about those revolutions in Europe of the early 1800s that became the seedbed of Victor Hugo's original doorstop of a novel from which the musical drew its plot, if not all the preceding detail.


"Les Misérables" in the French novel original starts with the end of Napoleon, and concludes with a revolution swirling around the death of a general who had shown sympathy for a more democratic France, in June of 1832.


We have a tendency in the United States, wrongly, to see Europe as a stable collection of historic nation-states, when in fact most of the "countries" we take for granted today were still menageries of petty kingdoms and dukedoms and such through the 1800s, well after the formation of a constitutional democracy in this country in 1787.


St. Paul's Lutheran in Newark had last weekend their "Deutscher Weihnachtsgottesdienst" which every year I mean to attend, and miss every Christmas season. It's a German language Christmas service they hold, along with singing from the Männerchor & Damenchor of our area and some tasty treats afterwards, one that honors their heritage.


In the 1830s & 1840s, there were many Germans, Italians, Poles and other European exiles here in Ohio who had found their way to the New World after participating in failed revolutions back home. The Poles rebelled against the Russian Empire in 1830 (and were crushed), the Carbonari revolt in Italy rose up in 1834 (and was crushed), spurring the later Risorgimento following 1848 (which was . . . pretty much crushed). In Germany, that "year of revolutions" across Europe also triggered outbreaks of rebellion in a number of the many German "states" but they had been erupting periodically across the Rhine valley from 1833.


Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels met in Paris 1844 as this revolutionary spirit was rising up all around them; they didn't create it, but its presence caused them and their philosophical circle to ask questions about the role of governments in the nation-states still struggling to define themselves, and the place of the people's voice in those decisions. Imperial authority and church autonomy had been the primary forces behind the world that had been, telling citizens their place and their duties and reinforcing status & class divisions under monarchical regimes. What if the new parliaments and citizen assemblies embodied by the American experiment across the ocean from 1787, and the French revolution of 1789, were just the beginning of a social transformation promising equality of opportunity and human rights for all?


Of course, Communism as a global force becomes terribly twisted through Stalin in Russia & Mao in China (let alone the nightmare state of North Korea under the Kim family). As a Christian, it's too easy for me to dismiss Marx's theories as an attempt to do arithmetic without even numbers, or geometry without straight lines, when he casts out faith & religion as "opiates of the people." But his hunger for a different conception of human social roles than his era had inherited is a logical, and even honorable outcome of the forces he saw at play all around him.


Christians and people of good will today still dream of a world where justice is not a dream, but a reality, and ask "how are we to live in community with each other?" In "Les Misérables," the tragic view of social development as requiring armed insurrection and violent revolution is not celebrated, but mourned. And for Victor Hugo, unlike his contemporary Marx, God is not out of the picture. Not at all.


The answers, though, still lie "somewhere beyond the barricades."


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's not much of a revolutionary, but there are moments…tell him what you find revolting at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.



Thursday, December 19, 2013

Faith Works 12-21-13

Faith Works 12-21-13

Jeff Gill


The Animals' Christmas



There's an old story, or tradition, or superstition, or whathaveyou, that at midnight on the border between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the animals speak.


Who knows where this idea comes from, or what it teaches, but it has a certain charm, this idea that the donkey can talk to the lamb, and the ox to the camels, or your dog to the goldfish.


Animals are part of the Christmas scene from the Biblical narrative to the crèche set on your mantelpiece.


We know about Mary's poor donkey (more tradition than Scripture, but you don't think a nine-months'-gone woman walked from Nazareth to Bethlehem, do you), the camels of the magi (not in Matthew 2, perhaps, but they come from Isaiah 60), and obviously shepherds have to have sheep.


The ox is necessary if only because a) any rural, farming family in that time and place would have had one, and b) that's the one of the "living creatures" from Ezekiel and Revelation which has traditionally been associated with Luke's gospel, which is where the classic heart of the Christmas story come from (the wise men added from Matthew's account).


That's the menagerie you generally have gathered in any traditional manger scene. They set the scene in many ways, since the manger, the feed trough in which baby Jesus is placed, the sign which the angels share with the shepherds as how they can tell they've got the right child, surely belongs in a barn, and what's a barn without animals?


We may overdo the barn-like associations; on a winter night in Judea, the livestock probably lived right in there with the family, for warmth and security. In Ohio two hundred years ago, a posthouse lodging like Granville's Buxton Inn had the stable in the basement, so the body heat of the horses and cows and pigs would help to warm the rooms upstairs. If you think "that's not all of what would waft upstairs," you have to remember that the guests would have bathed once a month whether they needed it or not, so . . .


Anyhow, you can't have the Christmas story without the animals. They set the scene, frame the story, mark the developments directly or indirectly, and remind us that the grand story of redemption opening up with the birth of Jesus is intended because "God so loved the world," the "cosmos" as the Greek would put it. The gift of the Christ is intended to begin the work of transforming all of creation, and that is not just a matter of humans alone. All creatures great and small have their place.


Many homes have their pet traditions at Christmastime. It may just be reindeer antlers on the family dog, or it might be a special collar in red and green. We always leave out not only a snack for that jolly old elf, the good Saint Nicholas himself, but also some carrots and apple slices for those eight (nine?) hard-working reindeer. Red-nosed or not, they now are part of the zoology of the season, and if you don't want reindeer droppings on your living room carpet, you'd better make sure to keep that snack plate stocked with more than cookies.


Does your cat have a stocking? Should there be an extra dash of fish food into the aquarium? I once knew a person who had a diver-bubbler in their tank with a festive red hat peaked with a big white pom-pom, that she put in only for the month of December. January 1, the regular diver went back on duty "under the sea."


Pets and companion animals have the primary purpose of offering companionship and comfort to we humans, and each of us has a different reaction to various animals. Some make of pets a kind of substitute child, others just want a creature to check in on, if not to communicate with.


As Christians, we who have primary stewardship of the story of Jesus' birth know that his relationship with each human soul is of primary importance. We also should know that part of the network of relationships that can open up hearts to the good news of the gospel is modeled in most of our manger scenes, where our relationships with animals are an integral part of the story.


May your whole family, human and otherwise, have a joyful and blessed Christmas celebration next week!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Newark; many churches in Licking County, including his, will be hosting a living nativity this weekend. Tell him how animals add to your sense of the season at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Notes from my Knapsack 12-19-13

Notes from my Knapsack 12-19-13

Jeff Gill


A story on the way home - conclusion




It was one thing to lose a sister, and another to find a grandfather, but in this case the two were wrapped up in each other.


Nelson had made his way from his Florida home to his sister's last resting place in the Nevada desert to this Ohio village, following an unexpected claim of a hometown in this place he'd never heard of before, this Granville.


The threads he'd tugged at pulled him along, as if he'd been drifting until the slight momentum, this gentle gravitation, had given him direction to this place that….


Looking around again, he realized that the trailer home, while fairly tumbledown outside, was quite neat and well arranged within. It reminded him of something, someone, but even in Florida Nelson had not been in many such places until it occurred to him all at once: The Rockford Files. It looked like Jim's place in Malibu, incongruously parked up on blocks here in a corner between an expressway and an outlying lane that appeared to be getting busier by the moment, far away from the Pacific or any other ocean for that matter.


They looked at each other again, the elderly man with the oxygen tube along under his nose and a new fleece blanket across his knees sitting deep in a very weary looking recliner.


Grandfather Nelson said "You don't seem to impressed by my lodgings."


The younger Nelson replied "It's not that, I've just not been in one of these before, I don't think. Or if I were, it was a construction trailer arranged as an office."


"It's all here, everything I need, really. Some nice folks bring me a hot meal every weekday noon and make sure I'm still breathing; a nurse does the same twice a week and brings my new tank of oxygen. There's a van can come get me if I work it out ahead, from over in Newark; they took me last year over to there and I worked it all out with a nice young woman who set me up for my burial and such, pre-arrangement they call it."


"They do, do they? Didn't set a date, I hope."


"No, but we did talk about Mackinac Island and that movie the Superman fellow and Dr. Quinn starred in. Nice lady, the funeral woman I mean. At any rate, I'm all set. Why I'm still here not using it, only the good Lord knows."


"Well, maybe you and I needed to meet first and talk."


"That same thought had just occurred to me."


Nelson, the younger, slightly more baffled one, sat and thought. This was a great deal to take in, but he also realized he didn't really have anywhere else he had to be for a few days. "So, what should we talk about?"


"Your father, my son, is a complicated subject. Let's save him for later. How about I tell you about this odd little village I've been living in the last twenty years?"


"You know, I'd like that. It's starting to grow on me."


The older man smiled widely. "Granville will do that to you. Maybe I will, too."


"Oh, I think you already have."


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him what you think happens next at or @Knapsack on Twitter.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Faith Works 12-14-13

Faith Works 12-14-13

Jeff Gill


A quarter-century ago in South Africa, and Newark



Tomorrow, on Sunday, Nelson Mandela will be laid to rest in South Africa, near the place of his birth and upbringing.


His journey took him from childhood nobility to adult revolutionary to mature statesman, with a long sojourn as Prisoner 46664 on Robben Island.


During that time as a prisoner, as black South Africans worked and campaigned and protested and fought for rights and representation, Mandela became a symbol, and a rallying point for the African National Congress (ANC), and for the global campaign against apartheid.


He served over 27 years in prison, at hard labor, while the work of liberation went on without him; without even his picture or his words, since the Afrikaner government decided to forbid pictures or more than minimal letters (and those to family only) from Mandela to anyone in the outside world.


It seemed at the time, let alone in retrospect, a silly and counterproductive strategy. They made more of a martyr of him than even execution might have done, while keeping a flame burning in the hearts of the ANC faithful that their "Tata," or "Father" would return to them.


Whatever the faults of Mandela's choices in pursuing justice and resistance to the whites-only government, his step was sure after entering prison. He said later that his strategy was to "reveal nothing, learn everything." Especially about his oppressors. He learned their hopes, their desires, and their fears: the guards and the government in power. They learned very little if anything about "Madiba," his clan name in Xhosa, except that he was determined to endure. And to learn.


For myself, growing up knowing Mandela only as a prisoner, I knew little myself about him, but I kept hearing about South Africa. And the more I learned, and going to hear speakers like Donald Woods and Allan Boesak, listening to their stories about people like Steven Biko and a long list of leaders dying in custody, coming to realize just how harsh life was in places like Soweto and the townships around Johannesburg, I knew one thing. Apartheid could not last, would not last. A system that disenfranchises 90% to let 10% rule and benefit while the excluded suffer and die: it wasn't going to last.


But just as certain to me, in the 1970s, was that when the apartheid regime in South Africa ended, it would be horrible and bloody and deadly, for blacks and whites both but whites, ultimately, would be crushed and excluded in their turn, much as we had already seen in Rhodesia. It was a tragic prospect to contemplate, but how else could it end?


So when it came to that Sunday morning in February of 1990, and the news came across the television set that F.W. de Klerk had released Mandela from prison without conditions, it was with a mix of fear and hope many of us found ourselves, in this country, focused intently on the story.


I was the associate pastor here in 1990 at Newark Central Christian, where I'm now back as pastor, and then still new and young enough to know that being late is not done by clergy on a Sunday morning, but my fear of getting in trouble was tugged at by my fear of the inevitable in South Africa. Was a bloodbath about to begin?


And then we saw him. Walking out of his imprisonment, greyed by the years, the faintest hint of a stoop after those decades breaking rocks, and that smile. Yes, there have been leaders with malign intent who could smile on the world stage, but not THAT smile. It was a smile at peace with itself, and with a promise of laughter to come. Mandela smile, and walked out of prison, and into a place time and circumstances and grace had prepared for him.


It was a place he could have ascended to, then released the whirlwind from. That, he did not do. He walked out among the nation's people, black and white, and he showed them a path through truth and reconciliation towards peace.


South Africa still, like America, needs more truth, and further reconciliation. We both seek peace at home and abroad. But the man they bury tomorrow started a living memory still inspiring those who saw it, we who had so little hope for peace.


May this poor tired world waiting for angels singing this Christmas season remember to be thankful for a smiling prisoner, and find good will for today in that memory.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him who has inspired you recently at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Faith Works 12-7-13

Faith Works 12-7-13

Jeff Gill


Closed for the holidays



Let's just jump right into it, shall we?


Why are the stores and restaurants and drive-thru windows all closed for Christmas?


We got the national retail debate going for Thanksgiving, and I don't want to be caught short going into the heart of the holiday festivities.


As you may know from personal experience, some stores opened up not on Black Friday's dawn (doesn't that seem like a good book title? "Black Friday's Dawn"), nor at midnight even, but on Thanksgiving Day itself at 6 or 8:00 pm. Apparently five to seven hours is the shopping equivalent of waiting an hour after eating before going swimming.


For some, this was a tragedy, a travesty, a crisis of national proportions. Stores, open on Thanksgiving Day! Oh, the humanity, the clerks & waitstaff forced to leave behind the football games and battles over who does the dishes that evening!


Yet we know the days of "better get gas, tomorrow's Sunday" are long in the past. Sure, a few serious drinkers know they can't restock until 1:00 pm or so on Sunday afternoon (sleep it off, campers), and car lots give us a little time to prowl without sales staff on site.


Once, some of us recall, Sunday was a desert of doing. Whether you were observant or not (let alone what day you called the Sabbath of your tradition), you had to take a break. I was discussing this general issue on Facebook the other day, and a friend reminded me that when he was growing up in Wisconsin someone went down to the pop machine on Main St. and unplugged it.


That's some serious Sabbathkeeping.


If you recall the newspaper having a graphic on the front page counting down how many "Shopping days until Christmas!" it's because there once were days when you (gasp) couldn't shop. And you don't see that graphic anymore, do you?


Now, we expect the TV stations to all be on 24/7 (we didn't say with stuff worth watching, but the waving flag, national anthem, test pattern end of the day is a thing of the past). We've always assumed that police and fire and hospital staff are on duty, but now we get flak at our congregation's volunteer-run medical loan closet ministry if we close down for Thanksgiving: why aren't you open?


And there were voices calling hypocrisy upon anyone who bemoaned Thanksgiving hours, but were happy to shop then, just as we once had people decrying the end of "blue laws" for Sunday closure in morning worship, and then muttered un-Christian thoughts when they went to a restaurant and found they had to wait in line for dinner (sermon must have been too long).


So let's just blow out the doors and get it over with. Everyone has to be open, all the time. No closing for Thanksgiving, open on Christmas Day, and let's promote hiring by staying up all night, and not just with the drive-up window the way some fast food places cheat and do, but dining room, too.


SpongeBob fans know that the Krusty Krab once stayed open round the clock, to the square-pantsed fry cook's everlasting glee. It was good enough for that little Poriferan, so why not everyone, Squidward and all of us alike? Of course, the episode "Graveyard Shift" doesn't quite turn out as planned.


And where will our current cultural experimentation take us? Is this the goal: 24/7 activity? Our shifts at work, the hours on task, the "open for business" permanently switched to the "on" position, all moving us towards… what?


Actually, I can answer that. It's death. Yep, d-e-d dead. We are built, evolved, designed, whatever, to have regular periods of rest. If we don't, we die. There's a reason leaving the lights on and waking up prisoners regularly as they doze off is called "torture." We seem to be bent on torturing each other to death.


In a complex modern economy, it may not be feasible or even truly desirable to have everyone pause at once, to have us all rest at the same time. Edison banished night and Bezos has banished "closed," but our bodies still crave sleep, and dreams.


Religious occasions aside, there is a very organic something to trying to hold onto a date or two where, insofar as you don't hazard public health, everything. Just. Shuts. Down. It would be good for us, because that's how we're made.


I'd say more, but I'm out of coffee.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's not good at resting, either, but c'mon. Tell him your own personal hypocrisies at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Notes from my Knapsack 12-5-13

Notes from my Knapsack 12-5-13

Jeff Gill


A story on the way home - pt. 9




Nelson stood looking at his grandfather.


He gazed placidly back, this elderly fellow with a tube under his nose and a blanket draped easy chair in the middle of a trailer home. Nelson had only just learned he had a grandfather, let alone one with his name (or he his), and had followed the winding trail of documents and receipts and paid utility bills to this cluster of mobile homes next to Rt. 16 off of Weaver Drive.


"Your sister," the man said, waving the younger Nelson to a less upholstered seat across from him, "she had tracked me down here. Don't ask me how, I don't know."


"She just showed up here?"


"Pretty much. Your father had brought me here when he taught for a while at Denison, and after he'd gotten into some kind of hot water, I guessed with a student, one of those young women that were always chasing after him or he them, he headed south to some new lecturer job. He'd invited me to come with him, but by then, I'd made some friends here, gotten involved with some folks…"


(At this point, Nelson's newly discovered grandfather very slowly offered up what for all the world looked like a wink, but his brain refused to process it as such until some time later.)


"Anyhow, your father wandered off again, something your sister assured me you were both used to, and I stayed put. Had an apartment in town, but after your father died down in Dallas, or was it Houston? Regardless, the money got tight, and I learned one of these fine modular homes (the wink appeared again, to the same level of bemused denial in Nelson's mind), and it fit my budget better, so here I am."


"And my sister knew you…" There was little Nelson could say, given how little conversation he'd had with her in recent years, not to mention some unspoken unvoiced unissues that kept them both dancing around candor.


"That's right," said the elder Nelson, as if his grandson's last statement was a masterpiece of clarity. "She didn't want to burden you with an old coot you might not want to know about, and since she said you were pretty bitter about your father, my prodigal son, she was waiting for the right moment to tell you about me. Which, the universe and circumstances divine and otherwise seem to think is now."


"Now wait a minute, I'm not bitter about…." Nelson paused in mid-statement and thought about what he was just about to say. Yes, his father had been more absent than present, and had been less than no help to his mother as he and Cheryl had grown up. And yes, he probably had referred to his biological father as…."okay, so I was not impressed with my father's paternal skills."


"Your sister was afraid learning about me would just cause you to pass along the rejection your father never noticed to an earlier, deservedly blameworthy generation." There was no rancor, no irony in his grandfather's voice. Just a matter of fact expression of mistakes made, and regrets noted.


"In fact, sir, grandfather sir, honored ancestor," (with that, a small smile blossomed on the elderly man's face) "I'm pleased to meet you. And what on earth do we do now?"


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him what you think happens next at or @Knapsack on Twitter.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Notes from my Knapsack 11-21-13

Notes from my Knapsack 11-21-13

Jeff Gill


A story on the way home – pt. 8



Heading down the hill of S. Main St. after turning left off Broadway, Nelson was watching on his right after passing the Denison power plant.


Orville at the Buxton had told him that he'd be turning "on your right, past the bridge over the creek, right before the Sunoco station." It looked like he was about to go back onto the highway, but the directions were good and there at the gas station was a sign for Weaver Drive.


1200, 1300, 1400 addresses on the left then the right; the 1500 address on the utility bill in the folder he'd gotten at the inn, left there by his late sister, was an odd number, so it should be on the left.


Weaver Drive was running out when Nelson saw a board holding a line of mailboxes on the left side of the road. Risking a small traffic violation, he steered his rental car across the oncoming lane, and slowed down to pause at the perched postal addresses.


It was good that the car was stopped or he might have swerved right off the road. There was the address he was looking for, and under it, in neatly painted if faded letters, his own name.


Turning down the gravel drive, feeling just a bit disoriented, he realized there was a cluster of trailers, or modular homes, or whatever the proper term was. All looked older, not really neglected so much as weary. Some children's toys were scattered about, and a couple of the trailers appeared vacant.


Rapping at what seemed the right unit, a high thin voice from inside called out "Come in," and Nelson walked inside.


Across from the door, an elderly man sat in a recliner, a clear plastic tube running beneath his nose and running over to a device sitting on the floor and plugged into the wall. In a slightly deeper voice, the seated man said "Pardon me for not getting up," then began to cough, softly.


"You must be my grandfather."


"Quick one, like your sister."


"Did you know . . . she died?"


"I had assumed something of the sort. Since she'd found me here last year, she called every Sunday, and came out for a couple of days every month. After two Sundays and no call, I assumed the worst. That's usually the right call."


Nelson stood there, after closing the door behind him, looking at his newly discovered grandfather. After a wave of the elderly man's arm, he sat down in the chair opposite, realizing his sister had probably sat right here on her visits.


"Your father moved me here when he taught up at the college; I had an apartment in the village. When he moved on, I decided I'd be fine staying here; I'd made some friends, and it felt like home. Then he got himself in some jams, stopped calling me, and I knew he had burned his bridges with your mother. I stayed out of all that."


"But my sister? How did she find you, and why didn't she tell me?" Pausing, still processing all of the last few hours on some level of his thoughts, he added "If that's alright for me to ask."


"Oh, I'd be surprised if you didn't ask. But that's a story itself."


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him what you think happens next at or @Knapsack on Twitter.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Faith Works 11-30-13

Faith Works 11-30-13

Jeff Gill


The limits of establishment



Over in Muskingum County, John Glenn High School and their school board made a hard but necessary decision. They took down a picture of Jesus hanging in the building.


They had looked at their options, and been given the legal advice that to keep the picture up would involve court battles which would cost the district something between $250,000 and $1,000,000 . . . and they would still have to take the picture down. Recent cases such as down in Jackson, Ohio showed how this would play out, and with that weight of fiscal responsibility hanging over them, the board did what they had to do. School districts can't risk that kind of money these days on much, let alone a guaranteed losing battle.


Why is this a losing battle? The Constitution does say, in the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." If you're reading that, and thinking I've forgotten the part about "a wall of separation between church and state," that's because it isn't there. Not in the Constitution, not in the Bill of Rights, not in the US Code. It's in Jefferson's letters, a comment he made to some Baptists in 1802.


But let's just say that the intent of the Founders was to include in the national charter, as a binding advisory compendium, the collected correspondence of the Sage of Monticello. Maybe they did, and just forgot to add it as a footnote ("for details on the amendments, please consult T. Jefferson's letters he may write in the future").


This offending picture was purchased as a memorial to a long-serving teacher who died after 55 years of teaching, at her desk. Yes, at her desk. So given her manner of passing, it makes sense that to honor her service, friends gathered up an offering and purchased a painting that showed a person she respected deeply, and whose own life and death echoed the selfless sacrifice of Margaret Barnett.


Yet it was a picture of a religious figure, and so must be removed from school property (it will go to a local congregation Mrs. Barnett attended). "Wall of separation," you know. And having done so, I have to ask: where exactly does this stop, if the intention is to honor the legal force of Jefferson's epistles?


You don't have to make much of a reach, logically speaking, to wonder if the end point is a school curriculum made up entirely of mathematics and physical education. Yeah, the kids are gonna love that.


Plus, I'm reliably informed that as long as math tests continue, you will never be able to keep prayer entirely out of schools.


I do understand that the origin of the legal stream that brings us to the "Lemon test" (irony alert: that's really what it's called, and you can look it up on your own) is the fact that sectarian prayers, even and especially from the overwhelming majority religion in an area, can be divisive and hurtful and even oppressive for those students and their families who don't share those beliefs.


Or to put it even more plainly: I don't want teachers leading prayers. I love teachers, I'm the son and grandson and grandnephew of teachers and principals and superintendents, and I even married one, and I don't want teachers AS teachers leading prayer during the school day. And I want even less for teachers to lead a rote prayer written for them by a state legislature or even the local school board. It's the school districts job to provide math tests, and then the student and their family can learn together how best to pray and prepare for such trials.


Having said that, I don't get the angst over Mrs. Bennett's memorial, nor do I understand why it is legally impossible to tell the difference between an oppressive imposition of official religious establishment, or a particular expression of local values and personal memorials.


The law does pause to consider, on occasion, someone once known as "a reasonable person." How would a reasonable person respond to this, or that, as opposed to someone with an axe to grind or an interest to pursue. The "reasonable person" is a basis for judges to rule and for juries to deliberate.


Let's make sure we leave room in schools for students to learn how to become reasonable persons, regarding religion and art and pretty much anything else.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he likes to think of himself as a reasonable person. Tell him what you think is reasonable (or not) at or @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 11-23-13

Faith Works 11-23-13

Jeff Gill


Fifty years of reassessment



Fifty years ago yesterday, a president, a professor, and a provocateur died. They each left this life in different locations, for entirely unrelated reasons, but their careers are still being debated and their respective influences considered to the present day.


President John F. Kennedy died, and live TV coverage was born. His life and service had implications well beyond his death, but it's his assassination that colors so much of how we think about him. He took office having used TV in his debate with Nixon to great effect, and the power of televised media would have grown in any case, but Kennedy's skill in live press conferences, then the national role network coverage had in bringing a shocked country together in the next few days, culminated in the state funeral so many of us remember.


I was two years old when Kennedy was shot. It seems to me that I remember my mother crying, and I believe I recall the procession with the riderless horse and the reversed boots, and John-John saluting . . . but it could be the tricks that repeated video clips can play with memory. That, too, is what we learned from the aftermath of Kennedy's death: even with film, there is still uncertainty. The handsome images and gripping pictures still do not tell the entire story.


Clive Staples Lewis was a scholar of languages and philosophy who taught and wrote on how words can conceal and reveal; he was distinguished in his academic fields as only makes sense for someone who was a professor at both Oxford & Cambridge in his career, but that's not what he's best known for today.


When he became, relatively late in life, a "reluctant convert" to Christianity, it was bare years later that he found himself in front of a BBC microphone during World War II, trying to explain the basis of faith and build up the foundations of hope to a listening population battered by Luftwaffe bombings. The popular response to those radio talks became books, which gave rise to more books, which became a calling as perhaps the English speaking world's best known and most read theologian of Christian orthodoxy. His death was quiet and private, but it also released under his name to the public his previously anonymous "A Grief Observed." It was his attempt as a Christian to come to terms with the loss of his wife, Joy, and some suggest it may be gratefully read for generations to come, with an enduring appeal beyond even that of his popular "Narnia" series.


Kennedy died in Dallas, Lewis in Oxford, and Aldous Huxley succumbed to cancer in California. Both Lewis and Huxley were overshadowed in their passing by the drama of a US President cut down in Dealey Plaza, even though they were public figures in their own right. Lewis is probably better known today than he was at his death, but Huxley has not fared so well. A late in life infatuation with psychedelics gave him a brief posthumous notoriety in the Sixties, but what has kept his reputation alive if not his name is the book "Brave New World."


The title comes from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," but the text is a tract for modernism and its discontents. Cynics have asked in recent years if, aside from governmentally mandated universal in vitro fertilization as proposed in this dystopian classic, it might be that Huxley was right. Was he a prophet? Is the world he warned against one we are largely living in today? That debate has just enough credibility to the proposition for it to continue, and it will, for some time to come.


Huxley asked if we were quietly letting drugs adjust us into a sort of stuporific happiness, and allowing the pursuit of personal pleasure to transform us into selfish shadows of the creative people and communities we could be. He was not big on answers, but his questions have a way of sticking with a reader.


Nov. 22, 1963 was a significant day for those three people, and for their world. It marked an ending and, cliché or not, a very real beginning. Their deaths began our search for the role each are playing still. Political celebrity, popular theology, and the pathology of self-improvement: these questions have not died.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him how you've been influenced by Kennedy, Lewis, & Huxley at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Faith Works 11-16-13

Faith Works 11-16-13

Jeff Gill


A vision to be thankful for




It's a peculiar thing to recall, but some years ago, I was helping get ready for a community Thanksgiving service, and though I entered St. Edward's in early evening, it was already dark.


Some of us were arriving well before the stated time for the program, in order to sing in the scratch choir put together for the evening. We all had some choral experience, but we needed to learn the sound of our voices together, get used to a new director's style, that sort of thing.


In Granville's St. Ed's, you come in across a well-lit compact plaza off the parking lot, pass through a beautiful narthex into the sanctuary, and then turn right to go up a flight of stairs to the choir loft.


It seemed as if we arrived with a bit of light still in the western sky, but once we'd gone up and started singing, the world got dark fast.


What has stuck with me was, at first, a feeling like an "island in the sky" with a pool of light around the organ console, the director before us, and everything else in the surrounding nave was dark. Even the large clear windows shone little light within.


While our group rehearsed the Thanksgiving numbers that we were there to sing, you could see flickers of candlelight on ahead, into what I knew was the chancel. There were lights, there was a presence down there, but it was quite a ways away, and the few shadowy movements on the church floor below were scattered and hard to read.


As we practiced the pieces appointed for this day, some late-comers came through the door and made their way up. Our numbers grew, but over time, others had to leave to tend to other tasks, so the gathered group subtly changed over time, new faces coming, familiar faces leaving. A tread on the stairs and an expectant glance to see who would be joining us; quiet apologies shared with section mates as some left to make their exit.


In my mind, I had a pretty good picture of what the view ahead, on down the nave looked like, but in that hour, I had a few diagonal shafts of exterior light to confuse the view, and a handful of reddish yellow flickering points off in the distance. Otherwise, darkness. It was a darkness I could imagine, and soon I'd be walking down to find my place, but for now, it was quite comfortable to sit in this pool of light and to sing what we shortly would for worship.


Then suddenly someone, somewhere, flipped a switch. We were still illuminated in our choir loft, but the entire space within the church building was, if anything, brighter, and now the prospect of going down the staircase and heading up the aisle was entirely something to look forward to.


And those dancing points of light in the distance resolved into a candle-rack for private devotions, set in part of the church where the reserve communion waited in the tabernacle. A part of the worship space that moments ago had seemed so distant as to be an alien land was now, even from the choir loft, a connected part of the whole.


Is this life in the world like a seat in the choir loft, new singers joining and some leaving in due time? Is God's future like the apse beyond the chancel in a dimly lit church, where the outlines are known but the details await a brighter moment? And is the last trump, the final apocalypse or "unveiling" as you'd translate that word from Greek, similar to an unseen hand turning on all the lights?


The metaphor may hold for you, or leave you cold. But I am truly thankful for every experience of the familiar in the midst of the unfamiliar, where I catch glimpses of what it means to understand our place in creation and our role in redemption, just from realizing that there is always something strange around every corner – and just as often, something familiar built into the fabric of the new.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you catch your glimpses of the Kingdom of God at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Faith Works 11-9-13

Faith Works 11-9-13

Jeff Gill


A promise to keep



"So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever."  (Joshua 4:7, ESV)


Most people who are familiar with the concept of a "tontine" know it from a M*A*S*H re-run, when Col. Potter gets a package that contains a bottle of cognac which turns him into a foul humor. Over the course of the episode, it comes out that of a group of World War I veterans, who had purchased this bottle while on a final leave together, Potter was the last survivor, and the deal, the idea of a tontine is that everyone pitches in, and the last one gets the now well-aged result, with the promise to drink a toast to those who have gone before.


There is a very special tontine being closed out today in Dayton, Ohio. The last surviving members of the Doolittle Raiders, are gathering there. Of those who flew out of the darkest early days after Pearl Harbor to bomb Tokyo, eighty in number off the flight deck , seven died in the aftermath of the mission, thirteen more during the remainder of World War II. The now sixty Raiders began after the war regular reunions, and in 1959 the city of Tucson, Arizona presented them with a unique gift and honor.


It was a set of eighty silver goblets, each with a name, on one side right-side up, on the other side upside-down, and a case to hold them. Each year since, there has been a ceremony to turn over the goblets of the men who died since the last gathering, joining the twenty that were already overturned.


At the center of the case is a bottle of fine brandy, bottled in 1896, the year of Col. Doolittle's birth. The idea was originally that at the last reunion, the last two survivors would open the bottle, and drink to the memory of their fellow airmen.


For many years, the Doolittle Raiders' tontine case was held at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs; not long ago, it was moved to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base here in Ohio. Nestled under the wing of a B-25, like the sixteen they flew from the deck of the USS Hornet to Tokyo and on to China, some visitors pause briefly and move on puzzled at this wide arrangement of silver cups oddly arranged, and others stand there, head bowed, for quite some time.


Over the years, in regular visits to this museum, I had watched the number of upright goblets dwindle. The last time I was there, it was five of the 80, today it is four.


The annual tradition had become more occasional, and the decision was made by the three of the remaining four who could travel to have a formal "Last Reunion" at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where they had trained in 1942 for their mission. Those three also decided to set a date, which is now here, to go to Dayton, and open the bottle, and close out the tontine together, honoring all their fellows.


Dick Cole, Robert Hite, Edward Saylor, and David Thatcher. They are the last, all in their nineties, and Lt. Col. Hite probably will not be present. Lt. Col. Cole was co-pilot with Doolittle, and is a native of Dayton, closing a circle in another way as well.


A toast, a prayer, a memorial stone, a memory. They are each enduring acts in their own right, and all are vulnerable in human terms. The bottle will empty, the prayers are spoken and drift away in the breeze; stones can erode and memories always do. We treasure our own ways to honor and remember, with roadside shrines and car window stickers, let alone granite in cemeteries or on the National Mall in Washington, even as we understand they have a lifespan of their own.


Lincoln spoke in his First Inaugural of "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave" anchoring them to hearts & hearthstones. But he closed by reminding his hearers of "the better angels of our nature," knowing that a purely earthly sense of remembrance is frail as fog, needing a more solid connection to hold them in place.


May God's presence enfold and anchor and bless all the memories and hopes and thankfulness lifted up with those last three goblets, today in Dayton.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him about a memorial important to you at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Faith Works 11-2-13

Faith Works 11-2-13

Jeff Gill


Saints, salvation, and some speculations



If you come from a more mainline and progressive tradition, there are words and concepts you don't hear about so often.


My denomination has many evangelical and conservative members, and in most settings I'm counted as one of them, but any church that practices open communion and open membership is going to be called progressive and even liberal sometimes, and those aren't cuss words.


While affirming that aspect of our history, I have to also admit that we've spent a generation or two avoiding certain words in the wider Christian understanding which we really ought to re-explore, and reclaim.


Evangelism is one, and you've heard me talk in this space about that subject, especially thanks to my friend and colleague Martha Grace Reese, whose best-selling "Unbinding the Gospel" has helped un-oxymoron the phrase "mainline evangelism." At least a bit!


Repentance is another good solid word which has some narrow assumptions attached to it that don't really fit the scriptural and spiritual heft "metanoia" should carry for us. And the whole image of blood, and washing . . . well, I've preached that sermon, and it's another column.


What I want to address today is: salvation. Salvation, "saving souls," and "being saved" are concepts that make folks anxious sometimes because they've become associated with a particular way of experiencing . . . well, experiencing what? That lack of grounding is a big part of what has made many faithful and spiritual people back away from salvation language.


Saved . . . from what? Fair question, and a good place to start. Because I believe that conservative or liberal, spiritual or religious, believer or skeptic, we all need salvation. Yep, I just went and said it. So let me try and explain it.


We need to be saved from: ourselves. Yes, "be your own best friend" and "learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all," but seriously, how did that work out for Whitney? Yes, I am being serious. Maybe your mileage varied, but I have not found that I am my own best friend. I may be my own best tempter, by own best goad and gadfly, but more often than not, I need to be saved from myself, and I don't think that's a "me" thing.


We need to be saved from: others. The pack, the herd, the mob; we hear these calls to be thinner, sharper, sexier, cooler, and we're constantly picking up on the message on the general wavelength – we're off course. Get with the program, hang with the cool kids, don't rock the boat. In mass, at the very least, we need to be saved from the voracious appetites of "others."


We need to be saved from: hopelessness. There's no better way to be lost than to believe you cannot be found. When we abandon hope, all we who enter into that dark wood Dante spoke of at the outset of "The Divine Comedy," we enter into a vast and trackless landscape which we cannot escape on our own.


We need to be saved from: meaninglessness. If life has no intrinsic, intended meaning that goes beyond our momentary hungers and passing fancies, then it is the pursuit of pleasure and precious little else. We starve, in this life, for meaning, and to find it is to be fed.


And of course we need to be saved from: death. Not dying, for which we have palliative care and all the comfort and solace medical science can bring, but death, something we experience most directly when it happens to someone else. As Donne said, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." How shall we be saved from that inexorable tolling?


To which I would heartily reply: the problem with salvation and being saved is that we tend to go at it the wrong way 'round. We don't need to be saved FROM as much as we need to see what we are saved FOR. The theological concept of salvation is the gospel proclamation of grace, of God's gift of wanting us, of loving us, of reaching out to us even when we turn away, and taking ahold of us to rescue and preserve and sustain and SAVE us for an eternal weight of glory, not made with hands (2 Cor. 4:17, 5:1). The glory already experienced by those we call this weekend by name of "saints," a company to which we might aspire to belong. I want to be in that number.


God wants to save us FOR something, so we can be in that number. What that number, that parade, that company of saints is, is beyond our imaginings, but it can be glorious to try.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him what salvation means to you at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.