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.