Saturday, December 10, 2016

Faith Works 12-17-16

Faith Works 12-17-16

Jeff Gill

 

Halls cold as stone, warmed by starlight

___

 

Clutching his robe a little closer around him, he walked slowly up the stone steps, round and round into the upper part of the tower.

 

The echoing halls were quiet; here in the imperial capital, winter meant damp and chill. Most of the court, and many of the wise men of the academy had traveled south to the warmer coastal parts of Persia.

 

Of the twenty senior magi, he was the only one in residence. By far the oldest, he had not gone with the three sent on their behalf to the east, and ironically the cold meant he felt too crippled up even to ride their calmest camels down to the ocean shores.

 

But the round of observations and recorded notes had to be maintained, and he was glad to have the work. The longest nights of the year were about to pass, and tomorrow the sun's rising should show a notch in the horizon guide back to the north. The days would be lengthening, and the promise of warmth to return. There were festivals on the official calendar to be announced, predictions of eclipses and seasons ahead.

 

Yet he could not help but also keep his separate log of the conjunction to the west, as the two great wandering stars, the golden and silver ones, wove their paths into a coming together, a drawing apart, and the a return. These regal lights were inscribing onto the heavens a pattern in which he was convinced he saw a rhythm, a series of movements which logically would bring them around from the west to the east, and a conjunction with the morning star, perhaps the more portent-filled heavenly body in the sky.

 

It was in search of further wisdom, prophetic knowledge, and better observations over time that had taken his students away to the east, across the great desert beyond the Euphrates. Caspar and Melchior and Balthazar were young enough to travel, but old enough to have the wisdom it would take to navigate the negotiations with foreign kings and distant academicians. Past experience, going back generations and recorded in the archives of the academy along with the star charts from ages past, told of how rulers and potentates of many strange lands were willing to use the wisdom of the stars for private gain and personal advancement. The academy in the capital was present, in no small part, to remind the emperor that their role was distinct from his own, to preserve knowledge beyond the needs of the moment. These stone halls were built to echo the grandeur of the palace, but for wisdom's defense, not to protect royal prerogatives.

 

Would he live long enough to see his three colleagues return, with new knowledge and deeper insights? He doubted it. They had been gone a year and more, barely enough time to get to the shores of the fabled Inner Sea to the west of the great desert.

 

He hoped they would find there the news they sought; a ruler of the spirit more than of the body. The movements in the sky echoed patterns deep in the archives, recorded as forecasts, predictions of a greater ruler to come, from the heavens to earth, of all the nations and not just of one people.

 

Would he like that prophecy to be proven true? Yes indeed. What hope could be sweeter? He was weary of requests to predict profit and gain and achievement of personal goals; he prayed to the Lord of heaven that there might be a greater vision than just selfish desires.

 

That is what the stars are for, he thought. Their purity and constancy, moving in their stately paths even when the clouds obscured human vision, spoke to him of something greater, something more meaningful, something . . . Someone? with a heart for bringing people together more than a plan to dominate and conquer. Someone who ruled even the stars, but spoke to magi and monarchs and even humble shepherds in their field.

 

At the top of the spiral stairs, the broad viewing platform opened to the skies. The stars were silent to most observers, but to this wise man, they told a story. A story whose beginning he did not know, and whose end was beyond this life . . . but he could hope it included him. So he would continue to wait, and watch, and listen to what the stars had to say.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you hear echoes of the Christmas story at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Notes From My Knapsack 12-15-16

Notes From My Knapsack 12-15-16

Jeff Gill

 

What is it about music & Christmas?

___

 

There's just something about the Christmas season and music that doesn't work quite the same way any other time of year.

 

This December, once again from the night of the Candlelight Walking Tour through this past weekend, I've had to choose from an embarrassment of riches in our blessed village and vicinity.

 

Evening after evening, there have been multiple opportunities to hear instrumental and vocal music aplenty, too much for any one person to attend. Our middle and high school band and choir students, the college ensembles and soloists, the local symphonies and bands . . . and then on Sunday mornings, so many opportunities in area churches to hear, to experience, to sing along with choirs and quartets and musical groups of all sorts.

 

The Christmas season is summed up in music as other holidays are not. New Year's has "Auld Lang Syne," Valentine's Day has love songs but not the same close correspondence between the event and the activities, and Easter may be the more intended season for Handel's "Messiah," but there's a reason why Yuletide has swiped it clean away.

 

My wife likes to put Christmas music on around the house during these weeks, and some radio and satellite stations go to entirely seasonal music – that doesn't happen at Halloween or Fourth of July. I don't recall any format shifting to all John Philip Sousa during the last week of June and on into Independence Day.

 

We want choruses and harmony and pure, sweet expressions of the season in song because it speaks to longings we have every year at this time. Music is language that communicates without words, and helps the words that are sometimes set to it come across more clearly. Music speaks the way we wish we communicated all the time, with melody and harmony bringing speakers and listeners together into one voice.

 

Or maybe it just makes us feel better.

 

Just as much of the "traditional" seasonal d├ęcor reflects a hunger for the old-fashioned and quaint, with sleighs and bells and hearthside wrought iron, so does our taste in music. We seek out and enjoy genres and styles that we'd probably avoid the rest of the year; how often in summer do we think "I'd like to hear a madrigal"?

 

Music can, and probably should from time to time, jar us and disrupt our assumptions. A tune and words set to it are a good way to get inside our heads whether in a comforting or confuting fashion. Protest and resistance have their place. But at Christmastime, we're looking for a bit of reassurance, some connections to our past, and reaffirmation of our ties to one another. And nothing does that quite so well as music.

 

That's why it always cheers me to recall (usually with a little help from the Granville Historical Society) that the settlers who journeyed here in the fall of 1805 carried in their wagons over the Alleghenies not just seed and grain and anvils and bolts of cloth, but books for a library, a sermon for a church, and a set of musical instruments for a village band. The surviving bassoon from that original ensemble may not be the musical instrument that kids dream of playing in a rock and roll band, or that's played much in today's downloads, but it's one of the sorts of instruments that fits the Christmas season perfectly.

 

May your Christmas be filled with music, heard, played, performed, and enjoyed, from your ears to your heart, joining our hearts together in a harmony that lasts beyond the season itself.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he played the 8-track in high school. Tell him how music makes your season sing at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Faith Works 12-10-16

Faith Works 12-10-16

Jeff Gill

 

Are we the sum of our choices?

___

 

According to the State of Ohio, the results are in from the November elections.

 

Yes, I know, there's a number of implications of the last national trip to the polls, but I'm interested here for a moment in a different element of our voting last time around.

 

We are told that of all the ballots cast, a third of them were early votes.

 

By mail and absentee, at the Board of Elections offices around the state, or at special "early voting centers" in some locations, a third of the votes that decided the presidential race, and also county commissioner and school levy and other local decisions of immediate import were all cast before the dawn of November 8.

 

All indications are that these numbers will continue to increase; in fact, some argue that we should be putting more time and civic resources into making voting easier, and earlier. There are a number of points to be made for and against that, but for now, let me just rest on the current state of affairs: one in three voters who did take the time and effort to be participants in the national, state, and local election of this fall did so on their own terms, at a time of their choosing.

 

The nature of an election is such that there has to be some kind of framework around it, for when the races are set, at which point voting can begin, and when it ends. Election Day is no longer a beginning, but an ending; it's not a national ritual of participation en masse, but the conclusion of a lengthy partisan conflict.

 

I do wonder about what happens when people are starting to vote before the local campaigns can even get going. Presidential races can take care of themselves, and I understand (even if I don't personally agree) when people just want to get it over with. But you may have been hearing about candidates for the big races for months: have you learned anything about who is running for city council, or why the fire service is asking for funds? Surely we need a little bit of space within which to let campaigning and educating of voters take place before we go and cast ballots from some knee-jerking set of assumptions.

 

And I reflect on all this as a pastor because I see how the same forces are pushing and pulling on Christian worship, and church community. It's been well-rehearsed that neither Wednesday evenings nor Sunday mornings are set apart by the culture for the convenience of the churches. That's done, and we have to ask our own to make the choices they will, for worship and study and service.

 

What is a growing pressure on even fairly small congregations, though, is to offer additional services, more options for when to come together, when you can take time for prayer and communion in community (of a sort) through the week. The Catholic community has long made its peace with the "vigil mass" that takes the Sunday obligation and stretches it out back into Saturday afternoon, and this is effective for them.

 

My own congregation offers two times of service, but the question often comes up – and I think much about – of a third option, for those otherwise occupied on Sunday mornings. Jobs and activities which are not in and of themselves trivial are often in conflict, so why not add choices? The stores are open 24 hours, there are many other services now available online at any time, so how could the experience of worship be stretched out? Why do we have to do that on Sunday morning before noon, anyhow?

 

You can see where these trends and expectations could take us. And there is, to a significant degree, a lessening of social ties in any congregation that offers multiple services, and different ways are tried to weave them together, but for the most part, those who see each other share more with each other. Online worship is not, in fact, something I reject out of hand, but in general and over time, I wonder at what kind of Christian formation it engenders.

 

The expectations for choices and personal autonomy are high; the need for closer community is real. The balance between those two poles will not be found in an insistence on one service, I'm fairly sure, but how far can multiple alternatives go? We will all wrestle with this question in 2017, I'm sure.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about variety and options in worship services you experience at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.