Faith Works 6-15/22/29-13 (that's right, three weeks' worth all posted at once)
June 15 – A place of gathering
Monday night, June 24, from 5:00 pm to dusk, there's a special program going on out at the Newark Earthworks.
If you visit the Great Circle there off of Rt. 79 that Monday, you'll attend an event I regret missing. My friends with the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma are coming, two busloads of them this time, with Chief Glenna Wallace. They are returning to Ohio & Canada to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of their leader Tecumseh. They will later that week visit the battlefield in Canada where he fell and the place where by tradition he is buried, but first – they want to visit our earthworks.
The event on Monday the 24th is a celebratory affair, emphasizing the ongoing effort to finalize the United Nations' World Heritage List status of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks here, and in Chillicothe & at Fort Ancient. It's made even more interesting by the fact that 30 German Lutherans are visiting St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Newark, and all those folks and their host families are joining in the program and activities set up by the Newark Earthworks Center.
My involvements with the earthworks these last few years have had me wondering what hat I'm wearing at any given time, because it gets complicated. There's an element of the archaeology that first drew me to this subject, but there's also the role of pastor which I'm surprisingly often called on to occupy while we discuss and walk and even pray together, considering what it means to have ancient sacred sites right here in Newark, Ohio
Whether it's been at a funeral for a colleague in this effort, or negotiating the various understandings of multiple groups about things like "how do we open an event – with a prayer, a song, a speech, and what does it mean to do it in that order, or some other pattern?" or just to be greeting a sunrise at a place hallowed by use for thousands of years: it gets complicated.
If I were a Disciples of Christ pastor in a town with a two thousand year old church in the middle of today's community, and the usual assumptions about "whose church is this?" focused around Roman Catholic or Anglican, I'd have some of these challenges to think (and pray) through. Some traditions welcome ecumenical prayer, and others have reasoned and heart-felt reasons for avoiding such involvements.
When you add in American Indian spirituality, which itself runs the gamut from purely naturalistic to overtly Christian, the complications are fascinating, even as the personal and emotional issues can be challenging. Five years ago, when we re-dedicated the newly refurbished museum at the Great Circle, there were some quite shocked when our invited guests from Mexico, the Aztec Dancers, had banners with Mary & the infant Jesus on them. The tropical feather costumes and beaten brass jaguar masks and native flutes had obscured the fact that there is also a strong Christian component to what this group does and how they do it: even as they dance to call on the rain to fall (and it did, that day, in buckets…).
So this time, add in a crew of Lutherans, a number of whom won't be speaking much English. Complicated enough for you?
What it all says to me is that these ancient mounds have been a focal point for pilgrimage for many, many years. They help to define a place where people come together. I trust God to show us why, why here, and why now, even as I listen and look for the ways the Kingdom may be working – through Indians, through Aztec dancers, through German travelers – where I hadn't expected to have an encounter with holiness, with good news, with grace.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you like to gather with others to seek divine guidance at email@example.com or @Knapsack on Twitter.
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June 22 – A book for the ages
It still surprises me how often people who are interested in spirituality and faith and even organized religion (up to a point) will pull up short when it comes to talking about "The Bible."
"Why does an old book have any place guiding your life or mine today?"
To be fair, you rarely hear the question asked that directly. It usually comes up when you're talking about moral and ethical decisions, and when a Christian of whatever tradition makes a reference to a scriptural passage, and you see . . . a wince. Maybe a comment along the lines of "but doesn't the Bible also say [insert something about stoning or dietary restrictions here]?"
As if that's a real debate ender.
I'd like to spend just a few weeks this summer talking about bibles, The Bible, and all the various forms "The" Bible takes, and whether or not it makes any sense at all for someone to claim in 2013 that their life finds meaning and purpose in words first written or spoken thousands of years ago.
(Regarding capitalization, I will drive both you the reader and my editors bonkers through these next few columns. There's nothing in the Bible, the Holy Bible, or The Bible, etc. about punctuation, mainly because all the oldest manuscripts in Hebrew and Greek have none. Seriously. No capital letters, no periods or commas, and in many cases, no spaces, which is why being a scribe was such a technical profession – you not only were in the small group who could read, but reading those kinds of documents still takes a very special sort of eye. But bible, Bible, and biblical studies et alia will vary in presentation, and I ask that you presume respect on my part even if my conventions on orthography aren't the same as yours.)
The basic point, about old books and new challenges: I mentioned in this space last week an event happening this Monday evening, at the Great Circle of the Newark Earthworks. No one finds it odd that people get a special sense of place, especially with a personal or family connection, from visiting an ancient site. We even call some "sacred sites," as many American Indian folk do our 2,000 year old earthworks.
Now, they're old, they've been used for different purposes over the last 200 years, and there were gaps in the use and understanding of them, but the idea that people would be inspired and moved personally by coming and standing in the midst of them today: that's not strange to our ears at all, is it?
One way the Bible is important to many of us, I'd argue – not the only or even main way, but a significant aspect of the relationship – is that it is deeply meaningful to stand in the presence of this sort of age, this history, the deep connection it helps us feel to those who have dealt with life and looked into eternity from their vantage point in the past.
In the Bible, we read about family, people from whom we can claim at least a certain spiritual descent, and see them wrestle with problems very similar to our own in many ways. Sometimes, when it has to do with how to herd sheep and goats, or what we think of as we grind our grain for dinner, we need a little help to translate the ideas as much as the language. And for clergy and others who do that sort of cultural translation, in teaching or preaching, even the points of strangeness themselves can have a teaching moment to them.
I was once doing a Bible study at the Licking County Justice Center, and starting to skip over a chunk of Genesis, when one of the inmates pointed at the text, and commented about a character there with multiple wives in conflict. "I've got two ex-wives and a girlfriend, and kids with all three, and I know exactly how Isaac feels!"
You never know quite when the Bible will speak to you, or through someone sitting next to you. I hope you'll stay with me as I spend the next few weeks looking at the structure, narrative, and meaning of the Bible to believing Jews & Christians in this community.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what your favorite book of the Bible is (or translation, for that matter) at firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Knapsack on Twitter.
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June 29 – The Bible as library
The word "bible" comes from "biblia," or "books." Not book, but books.
The Bible, as we know it – and yes, different Christian communities, let alone Jewish tradition, know it in slightly different forms – is not "a" book, but a library of books.
So it's not that surprising that if you go to two similar small communities in Ohio, with librarians of different ages, training, and temperaments, you might find slight differences in what's on the shelves.
Both would have "The Pickwick Papers" by Charles Dickens, but one might have a full set of Anthony Trollope while the institution just a few miles down the road has more Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and so on. The purpose of the place is still very much the same.
The Roman Catholic faith includes a set of writings between the Old & New Testaments, these two wings of our proposed library collection here, which is a special viewing room of books that are instructive, but not authoritative, called the Apocrypha. Some Anglicans keep them around, too, and I've got them on the shelf even if they aren't in my congregation's pew bibles.
And the Eastern Orthodox have a bonus psalm, while organizing the Apocrypha a little differently.
For Protestants, there's general agreement on the two "wings" of our library structure, 39 volumes in the Hebrew scriptures, or Old Testament, 27 of the Apostolic writings, or New Testament.
But Martin Luther never much liked Jude, James, Hebrews, or Revelation, and almost got them taken out, but when it was discussed in a church council, there was so much interest in also taking out one of Martin's favorites, Song of Solomon, so he dropped the whole idea (roughly true, if edited for length and content).
If you look into the Hebrew understanding of their holy books, you find a structure within what Christians call their older, or first testament: in Judaism there is a usual reference not to a "bible" per se, but to "The Torah, the prophets, and the writings," or sometimes called the "Tanakh" which is an acronym for those three major divisions.
Torah means teachings, and they are also known as the "five books of Moses": Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, & Deuteronomy. It's the core narrative of the people Israel, their journey towards a land of promise, out of bondage, and to an understanding of God as one, a Creator God who is personally and intimately interested in our lives. Torah is both law and story, not just a volume of stipulations, but not just a travelogue, either.
The prophets are individuals in the land once entered who spoke to keep people on God's path – or to warn them when they were leaving it. And the writings include historical texts, poetry, and some touching stories that mix both (like Luther's beloved "Song of Solomon").
In the Christian writings, this rough blueprint is echoed: the four gospels are a mix of story, and the fulfillment of law that Jesus calls grace. You can't read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as just biography, but they aren't self-help texts, either.
As Torah is followed in most Hebrew collections by history (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, etc.), the Gospels are followed by the Book of Acts. Where "the writings" are in the Old Testament, the New places the epistles, letters to the newly birthed churches of Christianity, and the final rumble of five major and twelve minor prophets is echoed by the conclusion of the apostolic writings in Revelation.
Even the placement and pattern of the books has a point, has a purpose. Next week, I want to talk about how this collection, diverse in voice and viewpoint, also has a coherence, a unity of story even as we work through our own variety of interpretations.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your preferred study Bible, or place to sit and do your daily readings at email@example.com, or @Knapsack on Twitter.