Tuesday, December 30, 2014
You might just ask "why?"
This column is written at the beginning of a new year, with my intention being to chart a course for what will be a sort of series in the coming weeks.
It's not meant to be a menu, or a timetable, let alone a table of contents, but it is a sort of trailer, giving you all some hints as to the overall theme of what I think folks would like to read here . . . but leaving myself enough flexibility in later edits and final cuts to make changes based, in part, on your feedback.
My main focus in going to be "Why?' As in, why do Christians have, let alone care so much, about having a book they call their Bible? Why do we pray? Why do most groups within Christendom have clergy? Why do we worship together in groups? Why does marriage occupy such an important place in faith community identity, and why do we define it the way we do?
Before I go any further, let me cop to my usual outs: this is all quite biased towards Christianity in general, and my own perspective will always tend to the Protestant standpoint even when I'm probably not meaning to. I like to think I can speak coherently about Catholicism, and Lutheranism, Wesleyan and Anglican/Episcopalianism streams, the more Reformed Protestant groups (Presbyterians and some Baptists), and the strongly Congregational angle is one I come at as a native, but I try to keep up with developments among the Pentecostal, Orthodox (Eastern and otherwise), and Anabaptist traditions.
But east central Ohio has a history that is deeply rooted in Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist forms of Christian faith and practice; Southern Baptists in recent years have come to outnumber Northern, which are nowadays American Baptist Churches, and the Catholic Christian community has deep continuities in our area, going back to French trappers and traders and Jesuit missionaries, even as the Moravian Church, all too little known today even by their Protestant heirs, shaped much of our map in this half of the state.
So multiple groups are part of the story, even as the rise – or some would say "return" – of Enlightenment values has led to an increase in secularism and agnostic if not always atheistic values and practices in our culture today.
What is a constant for me, in talking about faith and works of faith in Licking County to a general audience, is that the vast majority of readers and audiences are what is often called "un-churched" and can also be tagged as "de-churched" people. On any given Sunday, counting broadly and even including those who drive out of county to attend services, barely 20% are in a worship experience. If you allow for the end of "blue laws" closing most businesses on Sundays, and modern work schedules in general, and say there's a group who would like to worship more often who just can't make it due to shifts or hours or even kids' sports, you could with an effort get the number of regular churchgoers up to 70%. (It would be a stretch, but I'll be generous.)
That means 70% of Licking Countians don't go to a worship gathering twice or more a year. Yes, Gallup still gets some 40% SAYING they go four or more times a year (which still leaves 60% un/de-churched), but that's to a nice person on a phone. The hineys-in-seats numbers don't support any such figure. However you do the math, well over half of you'ns don't attend a church.
Which is why I'd like to begin my second decade of "Faith Works" taking my shot at explaining, to a diverse audience, answers to "Why?" – as in why Christians, broadly speaking, value and affirm and DO the things they do. Perhaps you have some specific "Why?" questions you'd like to see answered. Let me know what they are!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you'd like to know "Why?" about at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Sunday, December 21, 2014
Notes From My Knapsack 12-25-14
Years in review
Jacob Little, our noted Granville minister of the early 1800s, liked to preach a year-end sermon that took stock of Granville and environs.
He would list in detail all the wrongdoing and bad behavior he could account for, and with a small army of informants he could account for quite a bit. His proposals for the future generally ran to more church attendance and increased faithfulness to the teachings of the Bible (as interpreted by Rev. Little).
Not to knock morality and piety, which each have their place, but vision was not the good pastor's strong point. His perspective was one of checklists and rosters and membership. It should be noted that while his public persona was that of a scold, his ministerial reputation was as a caring, thoughtful, even loving leader of his flock.
As a pastor myself, I read about Little's public pronouncements, and suspect that he had his public inflexible side, and many private moments of compassion that never were recorded in year-end sermons or official reports to session.
Today, it wouldn't be hard to replicate the harsher side of that Presbyterian parson's presentation. The lists of offenses and improprieties are now a matter of public record, with no need for a preacher to hire young people to run about for him or her and to tally up drinking establishments or private entertainments in public places.
This very newspaper runs Granville's own Mayor's Court notes, and the county courts have their own accounts that tell of drunkness and vandalism and divorces and dissolutions. You can watch the television stations at 5, 6, and 11 to hear about shootings and stabbings and conflagrations of all sorts.
Rev. Little would perhaps add a few words about fire safety and the need to avoid unshielded candles to each tally of house fires, and preach about sin and brokenness in the human heart if it had to do with arson, but we still have our own twisted enjoyment that filled a church a century and a half ago, and keeps ratings high when "if it bleeds, it leads." We say we want good news and happy conversation, but in truth it's tried and true that bad news sells, especially when it happened to someone else, but it keeps selling if we have reason to worry that the bad news might happen to us someday.
It was said that the full house old Jacob could count on was because people wanted to know if they would be mentioned by name, or to hear about their neighbors' transgressions. I think it might be safe to say those who gathered had multiple reasons for coming together and hearing out the preacher, whether they looked forward to the experience or not.
We've got a chance to gather together to review and anticipate as a community, coming up in just a couple of weeks. At the high school, at 7:00 pm on Thursday, January 15, the Granville Schools' Board of Education is sponsoring a . . . well, they're calling it an "Economic Sustainability Summit." They've invited key economic players from the public and private sectors around Licking County to come, and they've invited you, and we're going to look at, economically, how we got where we are, funding-wise, and where we're going. It's both review, and vision, all on the table for our future as a community. They intend it as an educational focus, but I think it has implications for much more.
Rev. Jacob Little would have gone to one of these. I certainly plan to attend. And you're invited! Maybe you should go just to see if your name is mentioned…
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him about your year-end assessment at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Thursday, December 18, 2014
Faith Works 12-27-14
The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle
There's a Christmas season tradition in our household that may not be quite to your tastes, but it suits me right down to the ground.
Along with all the other seasonal favorite movies, from "White Christmas" to "Christmas Vacation" to "Fred Claus" I like to slide in, somewhere between "Christmas in Connecticut" and "The Family Stone," a Sherlock Holmes episode.
Holmes has been interpreted in recent years by Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch, but I have a warm spot in my heart for Jeremy Brett's PBS programs recounting the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories. From 1984 to the early 90s these were the best Sherlock stories to be seen this side of Basil Rathbone.
They're not at all Christmas-y, except for one. "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," as filmed let alone as told in the print original, is soaked through with Christmas spirit and imagery. The music, the pub atmosphere, the markets of Victorian London, are all at work to serve the idea of an English traditional Christmas.
It is also the story where most famously, after the wrongdoer has admitted his guilt and explained the turns of events to Holmes and Watson at 221B Baker Street, the consulting detective says to the criminal "Get out." When the law abiding doctor hints at even a slight note of disapproval, Holmes emphatically retorts that he is not employed to resolve the deficiencies of the official law enforcement services.
"Get out. Not a word."
Holmes is, in his own roughhewn way, engaging in restorative justice. And there's more of that built into our legal system than you might think, from judicial discretion (less of it than there used to be, but that's a whole 'nother discussion) to jury verdicts, where a tribunal of twelve citizens tasked with a decision can make their decisions within a certain area of latitude. Plus the more affirmative forms of restorative justice that include victim-offender mediation, whether as part of a diversion plan or built into a sentence; all mediation-based approaches are a way to say that retribution is not the only path to justice.
An older tradition in the West, still seen in various parts of the world, is a Christmas parole, the release of prisoners by act of the executive or senior magistrate. Sentences are commuted, the imprisoned are released, time off for good behavior is given even to those who've been more naughty than nice.
Our modern justice system does not have any seasonal adjustments built into sentences. If there is a change in warmth or good cheer inside the facilities, it's an unofficial thing.
In general, the Christmas season has this thread woven through it of forgiveness. Which makes sense when you think of whose birth we're celebrating.
The best scene in "Home Alone" to me isn't one of the spectacular torments of the self-named "Wet Burglars," or even the shock and scream when the little boy puts aftershave on his face, but it's the discussion in the church between Old Man Marley and Kevin.
Marley is there at a rehearsal to see his granddaughter, because he and his son are at odds. Kevin, who's learned a thing or two the last couple days about facing fears, suggests to his elderly neighbor that he needs to let go of his anger, which goes along with letting go of his fear that it won't work out, and call his son. I trust this isn't a spoiler for much of anyone when I tell you he did, they did, and the little red-haired girl is seen again in her grandfather's arms.
Forgiveness. It takes a number of forms, and requires both an interior shift and external actions, but the Christmas season is not just for giving stuff, but for forgiving. That might be a gift only you can give. And even a couple of days after the Big Day, it's a gift that's still going to be welcome.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; forgiveness is in the heart of the Christmas story if you read it all the way through. Tell him where you've given or received forgiveness at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Faith Works 12-20-14
Christmas 70 years past
This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
It was the last offensive by Nazi Germany, a final desperate attempt to force the Western Allies to sue for a negotiated peace rather than accept unconditional surrender. Adolf Hitler ordered his war-weary troops to a last massive thrust against American and British lines even as his defenses in Italy and to the east against Soviet Russia were crumbling.
Wehrmacht General von Rundstedt directed a push that created a "bulge" in the formerly solid front that the Allies had been driving steadily east from the English Channel coast towards the Rhine and ultimately the German heartland, and Berlin itself.
In truth, fuel as much as personnel doomed this last spasm of the Nazi war machine. Hitler simply didn't have the gas to fulfill his intention to get his troops from the Rhine valley to Antwerp, Belgium, cutting the Allies in half and slowing even further the advance of their armies to the defeat of Germany.
They had enough to muster a powerful, concentrated thrust that pushed in, dangerously far into Allied lines, dangerous for the German troops isolated into a salient with Americans now behind their advance on one side, and British and Canadian troops near to flanking them on the other.
And the dogged resistance at Bastogne by the 101st Airborne under Gen. Anthony McAuliffe was summed up seventy years ago Monday in his response to a flowery and threatening demand for surrender from the Nazi forces encircling him.
"To the German Commander.
The American Commander"
The junior American officer who delivered this answer had to do some colloquial re-translation for the benefit of his German counterpart. McAuliffe was a gentleman of the old school, and rarely used profanity, but a profane equivalent was soon understood.
For the next few days, the unseasonable cold of an Ardennes winter, and restrictions on fires and warmth in general, left the besieged Americans in a grim state, even as the day of Christmas crept closer. Cheer was in short supply along with food, fuel, and yes, ammunition.
I was born nearly a generation after these events, yet I grew up hearing again and again stories about Christmas Eve, 1944. From members of my church growing up, from Scoutmasters at camp, in movies shown on television in my youth, and still today I am honored to hear from a soldier of that time and place a couple of times a week in the congregation I serve, on that cold December and the days too short and nights eternal (hi, Joe!).
They shivered their way through the long dark wait, hoped as they watched the steel-grey skies by day, then felt their hearts leap when Christmas Eve day saw the skies open, the USAAF zoom in . . . and I've talked to pilots and crew of those days about the cold of the airs above Belgium, but the warmth of bombs felt even from far above, as they relieved the siege and opened up corridors for Patton's army to push the bulge back into place, and then the other direction.
You've all watched the opening scenes of the movie "White Christmas," which for years I thought of as happening in and around Bastogne. It seems that the intention of the screenplay was for Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye to serve under Dean Jagger's Gen. Waverly in the Italy campaign, but the sense was the same. It's Christmas Eve, they're far from home, they have only each other right now, but their dreams of home are the largest part of what's getting them through the fighting, the frozen nights, the fearful destruction of towns, troops, and time.
"White Christmas" came out as a bit of a novelty song by a Jewish tunesmith based in New York City but working for Hollywood. There's a whole story in the original opening stanza. But it showed up before the public just as Pearl Harbor had turned the nation's attentions from domestic concerns to foreign affairs.
The song "White Christmas" became a sign, a signal, a totem for both the homefront and those serving overseas, a good luck charm that promised a safe return. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was an even more overt down payment on such a hope, but it was the dream of a white Christmas that kept hope alive in foxholes such as dotted the Belgium-German frontier seventy years past.
We sing it still to their memory, as much as to the statement of faith at the heart of Christmas itself.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your connections to Christmas traditions at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Faith Works 12-13-14
May Christmas lift you up, not carry you away…
Before I get to a more somber subject, I'd like to add to last week's "open to all" suggestions for boosting your dosage of Christmas spirit with two more opportunities in this coming week.
Tomorrow night, Sunday Dec. 14 up atop College Hill in Granville, the entire Licking County community is welcome to join the Denison University campus in sharing "Lessons & Carols" in Swasey Chapel. Starting at 7:00 pm, with parking in Slayter garage if the lot next to Swasey fills up fast, it is a beautiful and meaningful way to get in touch with the scriptures and songs of Christmas.
Then the next Sunday, Dec. 21, Licking Valley's churches are offering a Holiday Church Tour, starting at 5:00 pm on our eastern border with Toboso United Methodist, concluding up in Hanover at the Presbyterian Church from 7:15 pm, after visiting Perryton UMC and Marne UMC in between. All the churches are selling the $5 tickets ($10 per family), or you can get them at the door that night. This is a fundraiser for the United Way of Licking County, and you may call or email Luellen Deeds for more info at 349-7502 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
There's more going on out there, I know, so if you're looking for your Christmas uplift, keep your eyes and ears open. Children are singing somewhere!
What could bring you down in the Christmas season? Well, fraud, for one.
A number of years back, in West Virginia, I was yanked out of bed by my phone ringing at 2 am. The person on the other end of the line was sobbing, near incoherent, said she was a Mrs. Robinson who came to our church, not as often as she should, but she didn't know what else to do. Weeping and talking in circles, she had been in an accident in Florida and was stuck and had no money and . . .
Yeah, sitting there reading this, it's pretty obvious, isn't it? And she kept calling me "Rev. Gill" which had me quizzical from the outset. I mean, no one calls me that, or rarely. I'm Pastor Jeff then and now. I couldn't identify the name, and I've got a pretty good memory for such things.
Anyhow, as she calmed down, I started asking some questions: which started the sobbing and shrieking again. And when I said "so what do you need me to do next?" the answer was, in essence, wire money to an address I'm going to give you. As I probed back for what mechanic I could pay or garage I could call in the morning, the retorts got faster, and frankly, more snappish. Until finally, I said "Hon, here's the thing. I don't give anybody money directly. Never have, never will. But if I can help cover a bill directly, I'll move heaven and earth to help you and…"
She'd hung up.
I talked to a local cop the next day, and we found out what pay phone my call came from, and I ended up talking to a cop down in the Sunshine State, and marveled at how this all happened, and that cop asked "Sir, have you been in the paper lately?"
Ah. In fact I had been profiled in our local paper just three weeks earlier, about some projects we were doing in the congregation I was serving. "That's how it happened, sir. You probably have snowbirds who subscribe to the home paper during the winter, read it, throw it out, and there are folks who grab them, look for info about someone up north, and call from the truck stop in the middle of the night with a likely story you can't quite be sure is wrong, and they seem to know you and your church, and they get people to send them money."
Today, we have the internet. And trust me, I could tell you a very painful story from right this month, but the scam, 1994 or 2014, is the same. And as Walmart's cash registers all say right now, under a stop sign logo "Don't send money to people you don't really know." Does that tell you just how common these scams are? Be skeptical, check things out, ask someone else for perspective before you send money: even at Christmas.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about con games you've known at email@example.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Sunday, December 07, 2014
Notes From My Knapsack 12-11-14
Tell of holidays gone by
Listening to a radio program about holiday cookies, one caller noted that she'd been trying to make some old family recipes, and had noticed something odd.
These cookie recipes, many from the Old World, a few from early days here in the New, didn't call for much sugar. And they weren't very sweet.
The guest on the program, a chef and author of cookbooks, confirmed the caller's impression. "No, those older recipes aren't that sweet. Yes, everything today is sweeter." She went on to hint that, in her opinion, today's recipes might even be too sweet.
You've no doubt heard it already, that we put sweetener in everything. High fructose corn syrup in our ketchup, our fruit snacks, our vegetables, emphatically so in processed foods. And our tastes, in general, are more to the sweet, from the sauces we want for our nuggets to the desserts we consume – death by chocolate, crème brule, tiramisu, lava cake with extra chocolate sauce.
Shocking, isn't it, that diabetes is a problem? There are many triggers and vulnerabilities, but first and foremost, we're dealing with an addiction to sugars in general that we have yet to really confront.
During the holidays, sweets and sugarplums are part of the very essence of what we think of as a traditional, old fashioned Christmas. But the truth is that, a century and more ago, what they called sweets we'd call a bit dull, not too tasty, un-sweetened sweets.
Gingerbread was common, and it was more bread than ginger, and precious little sugar to sweeten. Sugarplums were nuts or seeds, almonds or cardamom or cinnamon bits dipped or "plumbed" into a sugar syrup repeatedly, to put a hard candy coating on the heart of the treat. You could suck on a sugarplum for some time, and the total amount of sugar in one sugarplumb would disappoint most Oompa Loompas, let alone modern children.
We have a Sugar Loaf in Granville, a conical hill. There are a number of them from Massachusetts across to the Mississippi valley, where they peter out because by the time Euro-American settlement rooted itself across the Big Muddy, sugar had become at least somewhat processed, and cheap. Sugar loaves were not known there.
In 1805 and for a generation or two after, sugar came in great hard lumps; think your canister of brown sugar if it had gotten damp and neglected and a solid block you couldn't soften in the microwave. They were melted, poured out into cones of sweet goodness, such as it was, and once cooled to room temperature were nearly indestructible and very transportable. These piles of solid sugar-ish-ness looked like . . . Sugar Loaf. If you wanted to cook with some, or put a bit in your tea, you took knives and cutting tools and even a chisel, and knocked a piece off the intact sugar loaf, piece by piece until it was gone.
It was dear, that hard nasty sugar was, and you didn't use it up freely or fast. So the snickerdoodles and gingersnaps of that earliest era had a taste more tangy than sweet, were more bready than chewy – but back then, any sweetness was a treat. Let that memory sweeten our appreciation of the Christmas season, and perhaps motivate us to a bit of restraint, as well.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your old school cookie recipes at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Thursday, December 04, 2014
Faith Works 12-6-14
Joys of the season all around us
This afternoon and evening the churches of Granville will be putting their best feet forward in the annual first Saturday of December candlelight walking tour.
It's almost all free (stores are still selling stuff, of course), and the concerts are multiple, almost every hour on the hour, both inside the sanctuaries on the four corners and beyond, as well as museums and bank offices and other spaces up and down Broadway.
If you missed the Sights and Sounds of Newark, it was last Thursday, and that helped downtown Newark "get in the mood" both for faith and festivities, not to mention the local "Nutcracker" production at the Midland Theatre last weekend.
But tomorrow, just south of downtown on National Drive, St. John's UCC is hosting their Bethlehem Marketplace from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm; it's so big, they only take the project on every other year, so you'll wait for two if you miss tomorrow! See www.stjohnsnewark.org for more details, but it's a full immersion into the world of Jesus' birth, for the cost of a couple of cans of food for our local food pantry network.
And I can't help but mention that my own congregation, Newark Central Christian up Mt. Vernon Rd. from downtown, is holding our annual Living Nativity on Saturday, Dec. 20, from 6:00 to 9:00 pm in front of the building, with activities and food inside if you want to come in.
Many churches do various turns on a living nativity, but this one, that's been going on for years, has a lovely twist. About each half hour is a new production, narrated through a sound system by pastor emeritus Rev. Rick Rintamaa. There are the usual live sheep and goats and maybe even a llama (cousins to camels, and look just like 'em, too!), and the whole range of Nativity characters in robes and crowns and staffs and such.
But the Newark Central Living Nativity gives our guests a chance, each rotation, to join the show. Kids can be a shepherd, or an angel, or maybe even a wise guy! The team in charge keeps the production and movements simple and choreographed so that even a pastor can jump in and fill a role for one round (the sequence is a bit over fifteen minutes long).
If you want, you can just park in the big lot, walk across Rugg Ave., and watch the "show," hear the story, and then head on down the road. Or you can come inside, get a bite to eat, and then join the cast and reflect on the words Rick is reading from a whole new point of view.
There are many ways to get into the Christmas spirit, but there's nothing quite like getting into the middle of the story itself. May the story of God's love come down to earth in the baby of Bethlehem be part of your story this Advent season.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him how you tell the Christmas story at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Faith Works 11-29-14
First Sunday of Advent: Happy New Year!
Yes, that's right, it's a new year tomorrow.
That's a liturgical new year, anyhow. For congregations and Christian communions that observe such things, the lectionary turns from Cycle A to Cycle B (welcome Mark's gospel to heavy rotation), and the cloths on the pulpit and lectern and table (or altar as you may call it) go from the long-viewed green of "Ordinary Time" to the purple of Advent.
In the Orthodox branch of Christendom, they often call it "Christmas Lent," "Winter Lent," or the "Nativity Fast," another way of calling the weeks leading to Christmas a season of preparation. You have a few more days to prepare for those disciplines if your faith is expressed through that tradition.
For most of us in the area who go to church, Advent is a time for candles around a wreath, week by week, special devotionals or programs, often an extra reading in worship, and oh yes, it's time for Christmas shopping.
Whether your sanctuary or worship center has paraments to change or banners to put up, or if it's all a new set of digital images leading us into Christmas on the projection screens, we're surrounded by the secular proclamation to go forth and spend.
There are often in church life suggestions for alternative gifts or fasting from gift giving altogether, that you may see in denominational publications or your Sunday worship flyer. Even more common are special offerings gathered up in this season of generosity, for the denominational mission or other special missionary causes of your particular faith community.
And it's a time when our mailbox, inbox, and voicemail all fill with pleadings to give "and give generously" to all sorts of causes. I know I start to carry a stash of singles (yes, singles, don't judge) so I have something to put in the red kettles I run into hither and yon.
I do get questions this time of year about some of these drives or campaigns or causes, with the overarching issue being "which are worthy?" There are SO many fundraising pushes on right now, and it can be a nice alternative gift or simply an extra self-motivated time to share blessings with others. I get e-mail questions at this time of year from non-religious friends and readers, wanting to know much the same thing.
For an assortment of reasons, I'm reluctant to specify organizations that I don't favor giving money to. But I can tap dance around that with enough clarity to ease my conscience: if they're calling you on your landline? I wouldn't. Tell them to mail you info if you're at all interested, and I almost guarantee you that nothing will come . . . because you're hearing from a third party using the group's name and cause to raise money of which they keep often upwards of 90%. Don't give cold callers a dime is my counsel.
Those groups that want you to "sponsor" a child, animal, or vet for a small monthly contribution? I am mistrustful of the approach in general, and frankly, I have even more concrete reasons in specific cases to recommend against that model. That amount is carefully crafted to seem reasonable, and they're counting on you not to simply multiply times twelve . . . and they will hit you hard time and time again even after you "auto-pay" that monthly amount. Not all, but most of those sponsorship programs are going to umbrella groups that then pass money along to actual front-line serving organizations. You're helping pay for lots of unneeded infrastructure, IMHO. If you're tempted, and have done the math, I'd suggest doing a little online research. BBB's Wise Giving Alliance, GuideStar, and Charity Navigator can tell you plenty.
Who SHOULD you give your money to? As much as possible, I'd like to recommend giving to groups that you work with directly. That's how you know what's being done with donations, that's how you can see behind the rhetoric and the images. It can be jarring at first, but just a few hours a month can change how you look at your giving.
And frankly? It will lead you to give more. But it will be more that will literally be more of a blessing to you alongside the blessings that your gifts bring to others. I love our local Angel Tree effort with the Salvation Army, and my wife and I have other causes we have worked with and in and through for years. That's where our giving goes, and that's my guidance to you.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he has found it is possible to ignore plaintive TV ads if you know what you're actually supporting! Tell him how giving has blessed you at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
Notes From My Knapsack 11-29-14
Laughing all the way to the Pearly Gates
"Happiness equals reality minus expectations."
Tom Magliozzi may not have been the first person to say that, but I'm happy to give him credit for having done the most to make the saying widely known. That, and:
"If money can fix it, it's not a problem."
Tom died last month, as listeners to WOSU-FM and NPR stations nationwide well know. He co-hosted "Car Talk" with his brother Ray, a show that was theoretically about auto repair but branched out to the known universe and beyond. These two East Cambridge (MAaaaa, Our Fair City) natives helped teach us both that there was a whole 'nother side to Cambridge, and that MIT is in that neighborhood, too.
They were "Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers" as part of a schtick that was largely forgotten as the WBUR show in Boston went on to become a nationwide institution as simply "Tom and Ray."
Tom was 12 years older, and had to leave the air in 2012 with a rapidly developing case of Alzheimer's disease, though the archives, Ray Magliozzi says, can carry the show forward for years.
Our memory of their laughter, and Tom's raucous hoots in particular, will carry us for years as well. There was a joy in life and an appreciation of the little things that came through whether they were talking about dealerships, or relationships.
One part of the Tom Magliozzi legacy that isn't as well remembered is his quixotic campaign back in the era of 55 mile an hour speed limits. Most of us recall the bumper stickers and song: "I Can't Drive Fifty-five," but Tom, as usual, had a different take.
Tom sporadically argued across the country for a national 35 mile an hour speed limit.
Yes, that's right. 35 mph. Nationwide.
His argument was in short: we're going too fast. Like an Italian Ferris Bueller, Tom was concerned that life goes by pretty fast as it is, and if you don't pay attention, you may miss it. His solution was: if you can't slow down life, you can at least slow down your car.
I think about this as I'm teaching my son to drive. Often, especially learning the niceties of highway driving, on ramps and off ramps and passing lanes, I'm in the position of having to say to him "speed up!"
His driving school instructor has told him the same thing: "speed up!" But he also assumes "you keep driving, get enough experience, you'll go faster: trust me." I'm sure he's right.
But what happens to "dangerously slow" if everyone has to go more slowly? I'm prodding him to accelerate because of the usual 75 mph driver coming up from behind in the 55 mph zone, and to be safe, he does need to floor it, but what if…
And there's just being a pedestrian in Granville. If someone has the green light in their car, but the parallel side of the intersection has a crosswalk with someone slowly strolling across it, you can almost count on a near peel-out from the frustrated driver who is now three to seven seconds delayed in their hurtling course.
These testy turning drivers? Don't pick on our youth, because from my spot nervously teetering on the curb, I see lots of grey hair in some of the most impatient windshields.
Tom was right. We are all in too much of a hurry. What would a nationwide 35 mph speed limit do? Would it just be a net cost to the economy in slower deliveries, or might it decrease blood pressures, lessen high speed accidents, and increase enjoyment of the landscape and the surroundings to who knows what increase in creativity and productivity?
Just wondering. And missing Tom already. His probate will be handled by a new law firm on Harvard Square: "Dewey, Missem, and Howe."
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you're not in a hurry to do at email@example.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Sunday, November 16, 2014
Faith Works 11-22-14
Questions, and more answers than we think
It had been something on the order of sixteen years.
I had last bought a suit quite some time ago, and while I don't wear a suit very often, the occasion does come up when I need to, I have to.
My wife also felt that my previous suit, while not looking utterly out of style, was unmistakably a suit that was… well, purchased almost two decades ago.
So we went somewhere that a friend had recommended, and where they worked, in fact, and I got some useful assistance in the arcane skills of selecting a suit (pants cuffs yes or no, the "break", how long the sleeves should be, etc.).
Precipitating this move was a wedding that I'd be performing where the nature of the reception and venue meant that I should probably not be wearing a pair of khaki slacks with a now shapeless tweed jacket. I have three or four, dating to various geologic eras but all showing very little wear other than if you look closely at the tattered linings of them, which if I keep them on you would not. A couple were outright purchases in another, previous century, and a couple more were Goodwill or church rummage sale finds; they all have every bit of the style consciousness you've come to expect from tweed.
Making the purchase and measurements for the final alterations and going back to pick it up all came in just under the wire, so there was some rush involved. Most of my consideration of this suit had to do with color, cut, and feel (it feels nice, thank you very much!), and I hadn't gone much in depth with this new clothing item.
Until I was hanging it up last weekend, and shifting it for neatness on the hanger, I saw it. The label, inside the neck of the jacket, with the maker in large letters on the tag, and below it the words "Made in Haiti."
"Made in Haiti."
Let's be honest: I have shirts made in Nepal and Bangladesh, boxer shorts made in India, we use towels made in Brazil, et cetera, et cetera. Wearing and using products made in the tougher neighborhoods of the Southern Hemisphere is not unusual to me, nor is it, I suspect, to you.
But Haiti. In a word, owww.
I've not been to Haiti, but it's getting to the point where I seem to be one of the few. Lots of folk I know have made one or even repeated trips to that island nation, a place of natural disaster and social chaos, a location for mission trips and extended campaigns of public ministry. Haiti seems to need everything, and gets very little other than charity as the people struggle with a subsistence economy.
Which includes, apparently, assembling men's suits for what is no doubt the cheapest price the supplier could get away with paying. A place of natural beauty but severe cultural disorder, any business there, any cash flow to the good for Haiti, had to be a blessing.
Still, there was something more than just vaguely unnerving about seeing that tag. It may have touched on my ambivalence about buying a suit in the first place, or it might be that the stories I've heard from Healing Arts Mission, or out of Calebasse from Pastor Moniot and his New Covenant School, or through Lifeline Christian Mission in Grand-Gouave or across the nation of Haiti – they all snapped back on me in seeing that the snazzy new suit I'd been wearing last weekend was painstakingly assembled by people in those places. Their neighbors, if not they themselves.
We are connected in today's economy through our smartphones, our clothing, our sports equipment, our masonry work, to people in distant lands speaking foreign languages who probably know more about our lives in America than we do about theirs in . . . um, how do you say the name of that country?
What does that connection mean to us? How does that connection, where we get nicer and cheaper stuff because of their harder and messier work in those far-off places, create an obligation, a burden of more than just guilt, on us?
In this Thanksgiving season, it's a good time for individual believers, families around festive tables, or fellowships of all sorts, to spend some time asking themselves that question. As we know how we benefit from their labors, how can our economic activity bring hope and empowerment to those persons who produced it?
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's got a new suit and a story to tell about it. Tell him your story to firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Faith Works 11-15-14
We gather together to ask
A week from tomorrow night, Sunday Nov. 23 at 7:00 pm, the Newark Area Ministerial Association will call together a Community Thanksgiving Service at Central Christian Church on Mt. Vernon Road. This ecumenical gathering will involve clergy from a number of churches in the area, and the message will be brought by Rev. Jeff Smith, chaplain at Licking Memorial Hospital.
As it happens, I'm the host pastor. While I try to keep promotion of my own congregation to a minimum in this space, this is less about Newark Central as it is the coming together of Christians in the Newark area, that just conveniently is going to be at 587 Mt. Vernon Rd. So I feel very free about saying "Come visit us!" for this purpose!
If you're in the Lakewood area, the Lakewood Area Ministerial Association is hosting a Thanksgiving service at the Jacksontown United Methodist Church on Nov. 23, also at 7:00 pm, with Pastor Kevin Blade of First Community Church in Buckeye Lake offering the message.
Other areas likely have their own, ask around!
Ecumenical means "within the family," loosely translated from the "oikonomos" which is the same Greek root from which we get economy and "oikoumene" which gets us closer to "household." One way or another, it implies existing connections of some sort, so an ecumenical gathering is one where there may be differences, but there are also definitive points of unity.
An interfaith gathering is a bit different, indicating that you have faiths without much direct connection internally, so you wouldn't call it ecumenical in general. More importantly, you wouldn't call a gathering of Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians an interfaith event, no matter how different the externals are between them.
If you had an assembly consisting of a Jewish community, a Pagan gathering, and some Episcopalians, you'd either have an interfaith event, or the set up for a joke (if they were walking into a bar). But you wouldn't call that one ecumenical in nature.
In the post-World-War-II era in the United States, when ecumenical initiatives were new, proliferating, and starting to appear on a grassroots level, the "community Thanksgiving service" was the most accessible way of being ecumenical across the country. There might be ecumenism on a large scale in the big cities, but for most Americans, their first exposure to Christians working directly together was on the Sunday or Wednesday before that fourth Thursday of November.
Today we've got Habitat for Humanity and Church World Service and Samaritan's Purse with Operation Christmas Child . . . ecumenical Christian activities are all over the place. They show up in our neighborhoods building no-interest affordable housing, bring congregations together to load up seasonal shoeboxes for shipment overseas, and point us towards global concerns.
They're all grand collaborations, but they aren't at all the same as actually coming together in one place, our differences not blocking the doorway as we enter and share and sing and pray together. A community Thanksgiving service is still a very special way of honoring Christ's call "that they may all be one" in John 17, in a visible and tangible way.
So I'm delighted to be hosting this year; I've had the privilege of preaching for it before and probably will again some day. Our differences, as Christian bodies, in how we regard communion and redemption and mission are not trivial, but I've found that it's through honestly sharing and hearing about our differences that makes it easier for us to overcome them. Not to just sweep them away, but to worship together while having them, anyway.
Come be ecumenical with us, and if there are some interfaith guests in the congregation, it's all good! The unity is God's, and the community is something we can find as we turn, together, towards the source of our unity.
For which we would give thanks!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's honored to be pastor of Newark Central, the host of NAMA's Thanskgiving service this year. Tell him how you like to give thanks at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Friday, November 07, 2014
Tuesday, November 04, 2014
Faith Works 11-9-14
Planning ahead, with grace
Thanks to reader Johnda, I've been reminded that Thanksgiving is coming soon.
Okay, I knew Thanksgiving was heading our way, and I've been finishing Advent and Christmas plans the last few weeks, but I had sort of overlooked the Great American Holiday.
Yes, there's the Fourth of July, but most countries have some sort of "national day" with fireworks and parades and celebrations of various sorts. Canada has a Thanksgiving Day, but they hold it on the second Monday in October and it's not quite the same "all hands on deck" thing it is in America.
Our own fourth Thursday in November observance, with roots in harvest festivals and Pilgrim history and echoes of Native American awareness: it's very much a thing to its own United States self. Friends who have spent extended periods overseas have told me about how important it can be to find other Americans to gather with as November heads for a conclusion, whether a turkey is roasted or not.
Johnda's reminder to me is that there's not only the national holiday of Thanskgiving, and the family traditions that bring us around a dinner table like no other commemoration, but there's that little matter of a prayer.
Who will say grace for Thanksgiving? And if it's "you" that's tapped, could I offer any hints or guidelines or suggestions for doing a family table grace before that awkward moment of silence, followed by an even more awkward question from the relative at your right: "Say, uh, would, um, you do the honors, I mean, if you could just…. Uh, would you say grace?"
Step one in a happy Thanksgiving moment of grace: consider asking a likely candidate in advance "would you say grace for the family just before we all sit down to dig in?" It's always more graceful to give someone warning that they might be called on.
Step two, if you happen to be that person: how will you pray?
There are a number of tools to help you out. Christians have often used the acronym "ACTS" to recall a useful sequence of expression in public prayer; A for adoration, C for confession, T for thanks given, S for supplication.
Adoration is simply an opening statement of appreciation and respect, like the "Dear So-and-so" at the start of letters. "Almighty God, from whom all blessings flow…" is a form of adoration.
Confession is to clear the decks, and acknowledge, if nothing else, that we know we're not God, and that our acts and intentions are often not in line with God's. "God, we know that there are many who would be so glad to have just a portion of how we're blessed at this table…" might be part of our confession in a Thanksgiving prayer. Gandhi is believed to have said "Oh God, bless this food we are about to receive. Give bread to those who hunger; and hunger for justice to us who have bread." That's the confession part of ACTS in a nutshell.
Thanksgiving we should be pretty much up to speed with; S for Supplication is a reminder that we don't ask for ourselves until we've interceded for others, and that our own blessings come into focus when we actively call out for the blessings others so greatly need.
That's the ACTS method. The author Anne Lamott had a book out not long ago that sums it up even more simply, and with a slightly more secular spin: the title is "Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers." Lamott argues that pretty much all our prayers fall into one of those three categories: Help, Thanks, or Wow. For Thanksgiving, you might want to include parts of all three in your family table prayer.
Or there is the quirky yet beautiful grace from the punctuationally challenged e. e. cummings:
i thank You God for most this amazing
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
And if you don't know what else to say, there's what we've taught the Lad is always the basic form: "Dear God, Thank You, Amen!" Most prayers at any table simply expand on that solid tripod.
Or the classic: "Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen."
How will you pray at your Thanksgiving table?
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County, Ohio; he's probably going to be saying grace somewhere in Indiana a few Thursdays from now. Tell him how you say grace at firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Knapsack on Twitter.
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Faith Works 11-1-14
For all the saints
Saints are sanctified persons, those with a touch of the sacred about them. "Sanctus," saint, the selected or "set apart" ones.
The Christian tradition identifies both a specific and a general set of saints. There are those whose heroic virtues or their witness unto death (the word "martyr" originally meant literally "witness) made them examples the Church Universal should remember, and honor.
So you have Saint Paul, Saint Francis, Saint Clare or Saint Teresa. The saints. They have days in the church calendar, and standard images by which they are recognized. These saints are set-apart teaching tools, selected stories for the ongoing narrative of the faith.
Then there are the saints that go marching in: the honored dead. The dead who die in the Lord, and who go to enter in with the saints of heaven. That category is open to all our fellow believers who pass from this life into the next, from the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant, who are now set apart from flesh and sorrow to heaven and joy everlasting. Many would affirm that all the faithful departed are, in their own sense, saints of the church.
My congregation isn't terribly liturgical, but we do always try to mark the Sunday closest to All Saints' Day, Nov. 1, with a time of remembrance of all our number who have died since the last All Saints' commemoration. This year, we have twenty to honor by name and chime. It's a sad moment and solemn, with the light of eternity shining a stark light on our momentary concerns in our own lives as we hear those names of people and lives we knew. There's a heaviness of loss, and a chance to shift our load, to reflect on changes in the community and transitions in our families before we all swing into the holiday season and the beginning of Advent just after Thanksgiving.
Nov. 2 is considered, in some calendars, All Souls' Day, "Day of the Dead" in Hispanic cultures, and everyone is definitely included there. It's a time in the American Southwest and south of the US border for entire families to go the cemetery and tend the graves, commune with their own beloved dead. Of the faith or not, all who have passed on deserve their families' respect and their memorials require tending.
Yet there is a third sense of saints and saintliness to consider, and that's the way the Apostle Paul talked about the holy ones, the set apart community, the sanctified. He called the people of the gathered community "you who are called to be saints," even as he called himself "less than the least of all the saints."
In other words, for many of you reading this column, Paul meant YOU. You are a saint.
Maybe he meant a saint in the making, a soul on the road to sanctification, but that's what he called us when we've come together as the Body of Christ: saints.
Our brothers and sisters in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints build the qualification into their community's name, but the import is the same. What is offered to us is what was offered to Saint Jerome and Saint Scholastica; what God wants to do within and through us is really no different than God's intentions with Saint Catherine of Siena or Saint Martin of Tours. Grace and peace, light and life, offered up to sinners to make of us saints.
Perhaps All Saints' Day is not of importance in your life, though the holy ones, the "hallows" of this day today are usually more remembered by commemorations of the evening before, the All Hallows Eve of Hallowe'en.
What the day of All Saints can be, for any of us, is a reminder of our common lot in the sight of God, the gifts given and given freely, in every age, as we look back to honored examples, and we look ahead to our ultimate destiny. It's a clearing of accounts from the borderlands of life and death as the seasons around us shift from fall to winter.
At any rate, remember at least to set your clocks back one hour tonight, or you might get a surprise when you arrive at church tomorrow!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him who your favorite saint is at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Faith Works 10-25-14
Greetings and salutations
"This is the word of the Lord."
"Thanks be to God!"
In many churches, there is a tradition, liturgical in origin but still generally practiced in lower-key congregations, that at the end of public reading of Holy Scripture there is a refrain between reader and people.
"The word of God for the people of God."
"Thanks be to God!"
The response is often simply "Thanks be to God," whatever the reader says. In some liturgical traditions, there is a different acclamation in response to a Gospel reading, where the reader ends "The Gospel of the Lord," and the people answer "Praise to you, O Christ."
Not every church is accustomed to responses. Often, it's enough to signal the closing of the reading by saying something like "May God bless this reading of His Holy Word." Others may be a bit more colloquial by closing with "May God help us apply these words to our lives."
As the preacher, I like to read the text I'm more specifically preaching on, so there's (at our church services) a lay reader, then usually an anthem by the choir or special music of some sort, and then the reading I share, closing with a prayer that is adapted from Psalm 19's conclusion: "O Lord, Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: You who are our rock and our redeemer."
The introduction of a reading is an art, and that art can vary; it's good, I believe, to remind listeners of the setting and circumstances of the text leading into the portion that's read out loud. Rare indeed is the reading that stands well entirely on its own. Something like "These are Paul's words to the church in Corinth; this is what Holy Scripture says…" can be a simple yet effective way to draw the congregation into the act of understanding the Bible.
Good public reading of Scripture is as much a gift to the congregational worship experience as a vocal solo or crafting banners for the sanctuary, and those who aspire to the work of public Bible reading desire a noble task!
Just as a scripture reading benefits from a greeting at the top and a salutation of some sort at the end, so do our own letters.
You probably use "Dear so and so" to begin and something like "Sincerely yours" for the close. Or do you? Texting and e-mail has wreaked havoc on such niceties, leaving postal etiquette in the dustbin of written history.
I'm just old fashioned enough that even in texting I tend to want at least a minimal greeting, the person's name if not the "Dear…" portion, sincerely meant or not! And a salutation just feels right.
Over the years, as a pastor, I've fiddled with salutations in print, in letters, in e-mail and even with texting. "Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ" was beloved by Paul for both openings and closings; "In grace & peace" tends to be my default sign-off, although I've used "Shalom" and a few other churchly signifiers.
What's handy for the short forms of e-mail and texting, I've found, is simply "Pax." It's just different enough to make people think, but known well enough to ring the bell of "Peace!" It's Latin for peace, and as "Pax" is the watchword for Benedictines, with which I have a bit of a history. And Latin was my first foreign language, and it just has a ring to it.
Add in the fact that Baden-Powell, when that legendary British general and founder of Scouting decided to settle down and have a home, named his house in England "Pax Hill" . . . well, "Pax" has been my default sign-off for a long time.
Many thanks to those at Newark Central who noticed this quirk of their pastor's, and got him a stole with a large embroidered "Pax" on it, with an olive branch. It's a lovely gift which I will be wearing as I read Scripture this coming Advent!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about how you read the Bible out loud at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.