Thursday, July 21, 2016

Notes From My Knapsack 8-4-16

Notes From My Knapsack 8-4-16

Jeff Gill

A Gathering of Eagles


It's simply a story that, for all of my Scouting experience, has no precedent that I know of, and I wonder if I'll ever see the like of again.


In 2005, eight Wolf Cubs in Pack 3 began a Scouting career together. Chris had done his Tiger year in Hebron, and we moved to Granville halfway through the school year, so he was in First grade with this crew, but we finished out the program with the other pack, and "transitioned" with Al Dantzer at Cub Day Camp in a walking den (as his father ran around making the usual fool of himself at the flagpole with camp staff).


They went on to Mohican and Infirmary Mound and Rising Park and more Cub Day Camp at Camp Falling Rock, then crossed over at Blue & Gold in March of 2009. They were almost all in one patrol of the troop at the outset, which over the years amalgamated into the Croppy Patrol (fishing has long been important to this group). That summer they went off to Camp Buckskin in southern West Virginia, and over the next six years, they went in various combinations to Heritage Scout Reservation in PA, Philmont Scout Ranch as a trail crew, Camp Arrowhead near Huntington, WV, Chief Logan Scout Reservation here in Simon Kenton Council, the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, and finally at Firelands Scout Reservation for most of them.


Not all exactly the same age, but in the same grade from 1st through 12th, as the junior and senior years came for this crew, the eighteenth birthday marched towards each of them. They stayed involved in the troop in various roles, and worked along on their Eagle required merit badges and helped one another on their assorted and very different Eagle Scout service projects. One at a time they completed the tasks and the process to request recognition as having earned the rank -- but there was no Court of Honor. Not for any one of them.


Because as they made this journey as a den, a patrol, a crew, they had decided years ago, on the trail at Philmont, that they would finish it together. A ninth came along to town and the troop and joined them just after, and he gets to "cross the finish line" with them.


And so it is that we saw something I know I've never seen before, and doubt I'll ever see again: a Sunday afternoon two weeks ago, an Eagle Scout Court of Honor for nine young men, all in the same grade, this remarkable Class of 2016 from GHS, this crew/patrol/voyageurs who have been through so much together (and put each other and their parents through so much!), and will experience this last achievement of their youth together. On that Sunday afternoon, a great many hopes and dreams turned into plans and purposes for an amazing future, for the nine graduated seniors of Granville Troop 65, all going to college in the next few weeks -- from New England to the Pacific Coast -- as their mothers pin on them the coveted medal recognizing their achievement as having reached the highest rank Scouting offers: Eagle Scout.


Congratulations to them all, and their families in the help and support and love they've offered to lift them up to this height. Fly on, Eagles, fly on!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County, and he's one of the proudest fathers on the planet; tell him about amazing teamwork you've seen at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Danger, Will Robinson

Or, A Crisis of Governance

A few of you have noted a tone in my recent commentary on political developments that is more unhappy, even angry at times, and more despairing than is my usual wont. From the inside, I would have to say that's correct.

And there's certainly anger to go around. Trump supporters angry with me for not "attacking" Hillary the way I have made pointed comments about The Donald, and adherents of Secretary Clinton's who get agitated if I say anything even remotely critical of her stances, choices, or career in general.

Then there's the admittedly less hostile, but usually quite sharp questions from those who say Johnson or Stein are the answer, when my statements don't seem to leave any room for the third-ish party option as the answer.

So to sum up as well as I can, because I simply have to let all this go for a stretch: I do believe we are working through – not heading into, but we're in it right now – a period of crisis in governance in the United States. We would be in this phase at this moment even if we did not also have the twin challenges added on over the last year of overseas terror knocking on the door and whispering into the ears of easily disturbed individuals; and of chronic, aching, recurring injustice along with weakening economic opportunity causing a reaction in and around racial and ethnic minority communities to the public instruments of governance.

Make no mistake, police… and fire, and local officials, and juvenile court employees* are all seen by the public as instruments of governance. Of "The Man" as the facile phrase has it, but opposition to and resentment of "The Man" is a long-standing attitude in American culture that also cuts across racial boundaries. It's nothing new, but the unwillingness to hear, accept, and obey the authority of governance is increasing, and the public trust in governance even when it's close to home is weakening.

But I note those headline items simply to say they are intensifiers of the deeper problems of what I see as a crisis of governance that neither party is either addressing, nor are they seemingly able to address. And I have yet to see how any of the many "third" parties have a plan to engage with these questions I want to raise other than a set of assumptions that start with near dictatorial power over the entire body politic and the economy as a whole, so I retreat to a politics of the possible. I may be missing an outright adjustment through wholesale revolution coming down the pike, but I'm not quite that mordant yet.

First, cheap shots at Paul Ryan aside, we can't pay for what's already on the table. One can argue the rich should pay more and get cheers and majority votes; you can suggest there is fraud and abuse and get little argument, but in sum, what we currently say we as a nation and as states (we'll leave cities and municipalities out of it for the moment) are going to spend, based on demographics and circumstances and certain perfectly just entitlements (starting with veteran benefits promised, but not ending there), is an amount that at SOME point in the not-too-distant future cannot be paid.

We are clever in the modern era in the West as to how to keep spending what we do not have, but those machinations will soon run their course, and pipers must be paid, bulldogs fed, cake-eating no longer a useful recommendation. We can startlingly increase taxes, with uncertain results in productivity and innovation, but even optimistic understandings of those impacts still quietly note that there's a stopping place, a tipping point not far beyond.

But the nature and complexity of modern society means that there are many who, through no fault of their own, cannot cope as independent actors, as autonomous individuals, as market consumers of employment options, insurance coverage, or educational opportunities. There is a new level of cognitive and behavioral competence needed to thrive in the society we've assembled to date, and that's aside from the effects of illness, injury, and that insulting inevitability, aging and its discontents.

So we have to figure out how to tax and/or tariff our way into spending how much to do what things – the status quo, in health care, in welfare, in defense, in education is entirely unsustainable. Just to say "stay the course" is the same as saying "steer it into the ditch, Alfred" so we have to look at corrections, adjustments – but whether it's Hillary or Ryan, there's a harsh pelting rain of critical hailstones coming to anyone who actually has the nerve to make specific suggestions.

Since we do this, in a delightfully bi-partisan manner, we are trying to get away with silently spending more and more of our state budgets on health care and education (including Medicaid, disability support and services, and public employee benefits as health care, and both K-12 & public higher ed along with pre-school/day care in many states as education). It's over half in those two categories pretty much everywhere, with many going past 70%. To avoid raising state taxes, and/or to claim one is lowering state taxes, we shove more and more obligations down to local units – counties, townships, cities, school districts, now even watershed districts and other such entities – forcing them by legislative fiat to spend what they don't have, and they becoming the unhappy ones having to go back repeatedly to voters for tax increases, income and property.

I am always amazed at the variety of ways when I say this next that partisans will try to tell me this is not so, or if it is it's only because I'm some kind of idiot: when I sit down and add up all the ways my wife and I pay taxes, from 1040 Federal to FICA, state income and sales taxes, local property and income taxes, assessments and fees and all such that go to public entities of every sort that I must pay on pain of being a violator of the law with the penalties that come with that – it's right up against 40% of our gross income. $4 of every $10 we're supposedly paid. Jan. 1 to Apr. 30 of the year I work just to pay civic obligations.

You can say without my thinking less of you: so what? 40% of your gross income to the body politic, to the common weal, for public goods? That's fair enough, isn't it, for those needs and people you earlier noted need our shared support?

Sure. I might even, most days, agree with you. What I'm not so sure about is that, looking at Illinois pension debt and overall student debt and current interest paid on the national debt and deferred maintenance here and there: why should I think we're going to be anywhere this side of 50% in the relatively near future, just to keep up with what we've ALREADY obligated ourselves to? And for my peace-minded friends, God bless you, but if we completely stopped funding the military, it's about 15% of all annual federal expenditures ( Aside from economic questions as to regional impacts of stopping that outlay (what happens to all the bases and their communities, the plants making helmets, etc.), you defer the day of reckoning, but it's not THE answer. It might be part of an answer, to which I'd be happy to discuss in sum, but it's not the way to shove my whole concern off the table into the dustbin of happiness.

I am certain, to three decimal points, that my taxes will go up further in the future. I'm not even that upset about it. Honest. But I am also certain that at some point when most working people are realizing that they are all "paying" over 50% of their gross income to governance, we're going to see even more taxpayer anger and unpleasantness than we do right now.

So I'm not as focused on rolling back spending or starving the beast (sorry, Grover!) as I am in saying it can't continue to increase. Both the net spending, and the total taxes. A line has to be drawn. We're talking about a wall between us and Mexico, but not blocking off this boundary which I think is in sight, and we're heading there for a line on our side of the horizon, picking up momentum. How do we stop? No one is talking about that. Not the Dems, not the GOP. The Republicans get to say they have rhetoric in that direction, but no policy. The Democrats argue that we don't need policy, because "the money is out there." Let's put Fox Mulder in charge of the Treasury, eh?

And immigrants aren't the problem. They just aren't. They pay more in taxes than they collect, and are a net positive into this worsening equation. I think we should protect and defend our borders, and I think "open borders" advocates are part of another failed economic discussion, but it's not part of what I think is on the table. Stopping immigration entirely or limiting it drastically, though, will simply speed up the arrival of the day of reckoning I see.

So point one: when enough working families realize they are paying over 50% of their gross income in taxes, there's going to be a reaction. And it won't be thoughtful or careful or compassionate, it will be a meat-axe into vital organs, chopping for speed and not precision. We have to talk about this, and neither party (IMHO) is doing so.

Point two may not take me as long to lay out, but I'm still wanting your tolerance and forbearance to follow me into a concern that is far too easily pulled off into culture war ditches, left of center and right of centet either way being a ditch.

We are in the middle of – again, not coming, we're in it, and trying to figure out where it's taking us as we drive it, like navigating a strange unpaved road at night in the fog – a social experiment almost without precedent in human history. It has two sides of what I would also assert is the same coin.

On one side is the shift to single parenthood and away from marriage as a core social institution. Keep in mind, I am not preaching here; I am a preacher, but this is my attempt at a neutral political analysis, even as I admit my own perspective. But demographically it's not a partisan point. We are now moving to and through the 50% mark of children born to unmarried women. The number of children being raised in single-parent households is, again, unprecedented in human history. It is a social experiment, whatever you think about how we got here or the relative merits of marriage or parenthood historically. And yes, many can tell true tales of excellent single mothers raising great children. Got it. True. Met many, see many around me now. That's not the point. The question is: what happens to a society where single-parenthood is the norm? There are downsides, economic and cultural; you can argue that we should protect single mothers through redistribution even beyond the current (broken) child support enforcement model, and I take many of the points to be made there on children's behalf, but the point is that we simply don't know how this is all going to play out over the next generation or two, because there's so little experience in human history with doing child rearing and culture-bearing in this fashion. I see cracks and strains in current institutions due to this demographic shift, and the changes are many and manifold and still rippling out.

The other side of that coin is, as I alluded to, a very real socio-political pressure to make sure that the losses entailed in shifting from two parent homes to single parent homes, along with a concern about the needs and issues of young adults launching their own lives without the same level of family support once generally available, giving rise to new political demands. There is a sense that a radically individual, privatized way of living should be possible for anyone and everyone, and any public policy that privileges families and married relationships is biased against a more privatized, solo set of life choices. I'm not condemning, I really don't think I'm preaching, I'm simply pointing out: this costs more. Ask any divorced couple doing shared parenting, and look at any household where people are coming together across generations out of economic need.

Yes, there is a certain justice in making sure no one has to live as Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë were cautioning us about 200 years ago: an unwanted extra wedged into a spare room just to survive as a neglected dependent. Yet we're seeing an also unprecedented number of Americans and Westerners generally living more and more of their lives entirely solo – just as many progressive critics of our culture are pointing to the relative cost of our way of life versus most of the rest of the world. 20% of American adults are never-marrieds, and that number is rising; figures on living solo are harder to get at, but all indications are that something that used to be 1 in 7 is increasing to 1 in 6.

So with much verbiage, there's my two points of concern with the (to me) vacuity of our political debate right now. On one hand, we're heading to an inflection point where a majority of working families are paying over half their gross income for governance; on the other hand, we're atomizing our society into private spheres and individual obsessions, with less and less connection to others on an ongoing basis (I'll just say "Bowling Alone" here and leave it at that).

Our acceptance of porous borders is changing, and we'll debate nuances of how to manage that increased control of who can come into this country, but it's not a key issue in what's generally problematic in America. Islamofascist terror groups are going to keep trying to rattle the West with their hopeless and violent ideology, which will have to be addressed with our blood and treasure, spent under closer scrutiny by US voters, which is as it should be. Sexual expression is something that is more various and more public than we've seen in our own past, but it neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket, as Thomas Jefferson said about the question of his neighbor worshiping many gods, or none.

And our vexed racist history, which warped the writing of the Declaration of Independence, defaced the construction of our Constitution, and brutally drug us into a deadly Civil War – we are still working at coming to terms with how we allowed that, what we've done as a nation to ourselves, and how we can complete the healing imperfectly done to date. Like a poorly set broken arm, it may have to be rebroken before we can get to true health and see ourselves as truly healed. So much more has been brought out of that particular national closet, and set out in broad daylight, and we're working on it, even if we're far from done.

But I have to look at the future as I anticipate it, and the candidates as they're given me, to answer the question "what is to be done?" What will we do about taxes heading to over half my efforts, in limiting spending or optimizing how it's collected (and "more from you, less from me" is not an answer!); how we can maintain social structure and civic engagement in a radically privatized culture from birth to old age – those are the questions that I need to hear asked, and wrestled with.

And I don't think anyone is even close to putting those two areas front and center. So I don't know who is the "best candidate" in that absence, and all I can offer right now are my words, and my ongoing concerns. If you want to hear how those play out for me in a religious context, for our faith communities, see my Saturday columns in the local paper, and come hear my sermons on Sundays and teaching on Saturdays. For politics, this is what you get, and you're welcome to it.

*I am a juvenile court contract employee, and as such, see some of these reductions of respect and cooperation with court and school staff first-hand, but with the lack of detachment that comes with being seen as "The Man" at times. So I'm admitting my bias right here.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Faith Works 7-22-16

Faith Works 7-22-16

Jeff Gill


Hope with wings, peace which persists



Lots of rhetoric, political and otherwise, about "who we're fighting." And there is a war on, I don't doubt it. It seems like there always is.


I think it matters to know with whom we are fighting. Paul tells us about "powers and principalities," and we do well to know that our opposition comes from somewhere far beyond the immediately visible, with consequences that go from everlasting to everlasting, but there's a pragmatic side of me that agrees: we need to know exactly what we're up against, and to define our objectives.


In this world, we are often in conflict with groups, nations or peoples. Peacemakers know that there are perspectives which show us how we are more one than many, but the forces of division can hide under nationalism, fascism, tribal boundaries and ethnic identities.


One hundred years ago, there was a World War going on. A "war to end all war" but it was more commonly known then as the war against "the Hun." "Huns" were the frightening, barbaric force of horrific angry imperialism that threatened our friends and fellow-folk; while there were years of debate, in the end the US, and Christians in America, went to war against "Hun-ism" and their "un-Christian barbarism."


During that shift, German Americans found themselves in a difficult position. Harassment and discrimination, both actual and anticipated, led many Germans with US citizenship, many of whom had been here since 1848 and even some (think Baron von Steuben) since the Revolution, to stop speaking their language, change their names, and make other attempts to shroud their connection to the acknowledged enemy. There were the usual cultural excesses: sauerkraut became known as "victory cabbage," frankfurters became hot dogs, and German institutions often painted over signage and symbolism.


In this area, worship in the German language fell out of style, was marginalized and minimized, even after the war ended. And with the war's end, the anger and built up hate of those "Huns" led to a peace settlement in Europe so oppressive that while it took some guilty leaders out of action, the people of Germany carried such a load that it set the stage for an ugly reaction less than a generation later. From 1919 to 1933, the felt condemnation of the world ate at Germans, kept a wound open, and from that pain arose an era of rule by the Nazi Party called in their language a "Reich."


So, it was at first jarring for me the other day to hear the Lord's Prayer in German, in a service of commemoration, with that word quite correctly used as the translation of "Basileia" in Greek or paralleling the English "Kingdom" or "Realm": "Reich."


"Dein Reich komme." Thy kingdom come. In time, for scholars and anyone else, the sound of that word will lose its sting. The German "volk" have learned and changed and continue to wrestle with that era in their common life, while we note our own tendencies and histories which blessedly never got to that level of acted-out evil.


But this is why I simply can't agree with those who ask me so insistently to condemn "Islam" as the opponent the West faces in the world today. No, Islam is not quite the same as Judaism in how each label does and does not refer to ethnicity, but they are used in much the same way to describe a people. I don't believe that Nazism was all there is to say or know about Germans then, then let alone now, and what we need to condemn is not a whole cultural tradition and set of practices, but specifics and particular power-groups within Islam.


And this is, obviously, not because I think Islam's religious claims about divine intentions and human destiny are correct, but because I'd like to think we've learned something from our treatment of the German people after what turned out to be World War One. Too sweeping and crushing a judgment leaves more pain and sorrow to be dealt with later . . . and makes it all the harder to make common cause between cultures to move against evil, wherever it is found.


I will preach the Gospel, and I will condemn evil where it is seen – beginning with casting out the evil I find at work in my own heart, before I spend too much time condemning the evil I think I see in others, especially taken together in lump sums.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's learned just enough German to be dangerous, and not enough Greek to be competent. Tell him about the ways you see language hiding and revealing truth at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Notes From My Knapsack 7-21-16

Notes From My Knapsack 7-21-16

Jeff Gill


Tastes of summer are a mouthful



Once in a while, I have this strange, unaccountable hankering after peach rings.


Not having much of anything to do with actual peaches, which I hope and trust will be for sale off the back of trucks along 21st St. soon, these are gummy, chewy, artificially colored and definitely artificially flavored disks of an industrially chemical composition.


Yet they have this flavor that, once in a while, surges up in my memory and grabs my tongue and tickles my fancy. And I find a bag on a metal rack and buy it and eat them. Usually all. And regret it.


Until the next time.


Tastes have a strange connection to our brain. Smells and flavors seem to go deeper faster than sights and sounds. They may not be capable of triggering the same level of detail, but they grab us and connect us across years and distances.


The food science industry has done some amazing things in my lifetime, much of which I don't want to complain about. From astronauts getting an orange-flavored beverage from powder in outer space to electrolyte balancing lemon-lime beverages in aseptic packaging, we live in an era of marvels that make our lives easier.


But is there anything of the orange in that breakfast drink? Lemons, limes: even the color of certain fluids sold as having that flavor looks more alien than natural.


I'm not even talking about organic foods, just whether there's any organism or ecosystem involved in some of the tastes we find ourselves craving.


There are candy spheres I remember enjoying as a kid called "Michigan cherries." They're tart, and crammed full of sugar, suffused with an artificial taste that is referred to as "cherry." But if you eat one of these hyper-sweet items, then pick up an actual Michigan cherry, of a sort grown on a tree with a stem to toss aside and everything, you find an entirely different flavor and texture.


I'm not saying never eat candy, I'm just wondering if we're doing a good job of being clear with ourselves: cherry-flavoring has very little to do with the taste of a cherry. You don't even have to say it's better (or worse), just that it's different. And uniquely itself.


I find banana flavored taffy delicious, but have to also admit there's more than a hint of acetone involved. And it doesn't taste anything like your average banana, peeled and eaten. Apple hard candies are unique and green and tasty, ditto watermelon red ones, but let's be serious. The actual experience of biting into a nice cool green apple, or enjoying a slice of juicy melon at a picnic: that's another flavor, and its own raft of memories.


It's getting easier and easier to experience artificial flavors, to the point where sometimes the actual fruit or vegetable or food item tastes strange. Imagine someone who's had nothing but "cheese food" getting a big hunk of Gouda. It would be a shock. And sometimes folks can turn away from a bowl of fresh cherries or an actual peach, because the taste is more subtle, less brassy and assertive.


May your summer be filled with flavors of the season, of fruits and vegetables in season, of tastes that have roots and history and connections for you.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him what you'd like to taste this summer at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.