Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Faith Works 10-15-16 and 10-22-16 (a two-fer)

Faith Works 10/15/16

Jeff Gill


What Johnson Amendment Are You Talking About?


The truth is, I know what the Johnson Amendment is, where it came from, and what it means.


As a pastor of a congregation, it's a piece of the tax code that says we – as a tax-exempt non-profit organization – can't directly endorse candidates for elective office in the US. In theory the IRS could remove our tax-exempt status if it found that on our signboard out front, in our print and email materials, or if I from the pulpit officially announced that I and/or the church wanted our members and friends to vote for a particular candidate.


I've never heard if it's a problem for me to speak well of somebody running unopposed.


My impression, based on a modicum of internet-based research, is that the IRS tends to issue warnings, and has only exercised this capacity on a couple of egregious and repeat-offender occasions. You could say that it's not a big deal, or you could compare this provision of the law with a large caliber handgun, which has only been fired twice since 1954, but is currently pointed in your general direction.


What may or may not sound confusing, and I hope does not because I've said this now more than a few times around my fellow parishioners and friends, is that I really don't care about the Johnson Amendment.


That may make me sound like a scoff-law (and perhaps send a few off to look for the phone number of the nearest IRS office), but give me a few more lines here, if you would.


As a minister, with pastoral responsibilities for a congregation in my care, I actually think it is ethically questionable for me to endorse specific candidates. Not on the same order of significance, but in a similar manner, I don't think I should get up on Sunday and include in the sermon my belief that strawberry shakes are better than chocolate, or that I believe it is a grievous error to go about making guacamole using peas. It is a matter of personal liberty and individual taste, and while I may be quite certain that I'm right, as I usually am (hashtag irony), it's not an essential.


In general, I think choosing a political candidate is much the same sort of thing in the wider context of my faith in God, my hopes for redemption, my understanding of eternity, and the sources I would draw from to explain any of those decisions I've made as a Christian believer.


I've voted for candidates that I'm quite certain were not Christian (and I could have been wrong about that); I've voted for candidates whose Christian faith is rooted in beliefs I personally think are incorrect.


I truly believe that, in general, it would be an unethical abuse of my position as a spiritual teacher and mentor and preacher to say that I can be certain that voting for one candidate or another in an election is a faith essential. And that's why I don't do it. I'd probably be lying to say that I don't think at all about the fact that the IRS thinks I shouldn't, but that's where the (to me) even trickier other side of the coin comes in.


If there was a candidate whose person and profession and election struck me as so entirely destructive to the faith I hold that I thought it was imperative that I say so, I would. If it needed to be a pulpit matter, I would affirm that it is my duty and responsibility to use that position judiciously, but without concern over a worldly matter like tax-exempt status. But while I am pretty sure such an example could exist, I'm hesitant to describe such a hypothetical.


And the main reason (aside from space, which I'm running out of) I don't want to get into that description of circumstances is that I've been pressed hard by many this fall to push that button of endorsement, on the basis of claims that the "other" candidate represents a very real threat to truth, decency, law and order, and God's people. As you've no doubt guessed, I've been pitched to press in public for some person by supporters on either side.


You're not going to see an endorsement, or a condemnation of a presidential candidate here. I know that disappoints some of you. You won't hear one from my pulpit role, either; that may well disappoint some at my church.


But rest assured, my reticence has nothing to do with Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, his amendment, or any IRS threat. It's because I believe it is the right thing to… not do.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he has some opinions on this election, and if you catch him in a non-pastoral role, you might get him to share them. But make time if you try that… or just email him at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


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Faith Works 10/22/16

Jeff Gill


If I Had My Druthers



There's a saying that I heard as a kid, which maybe was from family lore or that area's culture where I grew up. I don't know its derivation or etymology, but it sounds folky and down home: "if I had my druthers, I'd…"


I don't know what a druther is. In context and usage, it's pretty clearly about choices and preferences. If I could choose something other than what is, if I had the decision for something other, rather than what's been given me, then I'd… have my druthers.


In the national political scene, there are many asking why they can't have another choice, who are saying "if I had my druthers, I'd" be voting one way or for someone not on the ballot. Yet we play the hand we're dealt, we go to war with the army we have, we eat what's set before us: the metaphors are many.


If I had my druthers, it might not even be an election year. We could take a pass on the whole thing, and focus elsewhere.


If I had my druthers, I'd take a walk more mornings than I do, which is rarely. I'd bake more bread, and cook more meals, and even eat them with my wife. I'd read more than I do, both from my Bible and other works, both spiritual and informational. I'd read (and write) more fiction and poetry.


In fact, if I could, I'd love to get up with the dawn and go to bed with full darkness more often than not, but not so compulsively that I'd miss the opportunity to do some stargazing – naked eye, binocular, and telescopic – into some nights.


I'd love to go camping more often and backpacking even more, both with Scouting units to help teach and coach and guide the outdoor learning, and also some ventures that were leisurely solo expeditions into not terribly dangerous semi-wilderness-ish places.


If I had my druthers, I'd include even more ruminations on the meanings and layers of understanding embedded in the Greek and Hebrew behind our English texts, along with the etymology (that word again!) of the mongrel tongue that is our English in whatever translation. I'm tempted that way because I know how those sorts of reflections feed me, but I shy away from too much of it because I am aware of how it can make the reading of Scripture seem too much a specialist pursuit, a task that only preachers can truly master.


In general, my druthers aren't lazy tendencies I fight so much as they are personal preferences I have to balance against the good of others involved. What I like isn't necessarily what's best for me, but even when I have reason to be sure something is, as a husband and father and pastor and co-worker I have an obligation to consider if what I would rather do is really what's best for all concerned.


My mornings and evenings would be mostly mine to plot if I didn't go to any early meetings or after-dinner programs, yet in a largely volunteer endeavor, those are the time slots most requested. I could lead my own life, but only by disengaging from common pursuits involving others.


As many of you have kindly commented and occasionally inquired, my wife and I are now part of the empty-nest brigade. Given the professional obligations both of us have, and our community commitments in church and beyond, not to mention the fact that our child is at a college not too terribly far away, we're not so much empty nest yet. We weren't home that much the last few years, anyhow!


But some realignment and adjustment is in mind, and while neither of us are all that focused on retirement per se, we are looking at setting some . . . well, different boundaries, and re-emphasizing some priorities. In some ways, with our offspring out of the house, we have to work even harder at making sure to set aside time to eat together; we'd like to make sure to attend youth and community arts events without having a student in the house to set the schedule for us through their performances and interests.


When it comes to my faith, my druthers would come down to just being able to practice it with an unselfconscious awareness, and I've been blessed recently to have a seminary intern at our church -- which means that for a number of Sundays in a row I've gotten to receive communion rather than presiding at it! It has been a wonderful exercise in finding that balance between serving and being served.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what your druthers in life and faith would be at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.