Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Notes From My Knapsack 11-23-17

Notes From My Knapsack 11-23-17

Jeff Gill


And heaven and nature sing



We're heading into the Christmas season, or as we church folk often say, "Advent."


Advent begins on Dec. 3, traditionally four Sundays of preparation but this year Christmas Eve is actually on Sunday, making for some interesting scheduling decisions for those who normally hold Christmas Eve services.


As I think many of you know, I'm a Christian minister, and pastor a church in Newark; I also write a completely different column in the Newark Advocate that's every Saturday (I'm every other week here in the Sentinel). That column is captioned "Faith Works" and has appeared since 2005; my "Knapsack" column here has been and is intended to be more "general interest."


But recent events in Granville cause me to, as the Ghostbusters say I shouldn't, "cross the streams." Oh well! I wanted to talk a bit about religion here because I know some thought I would or should be a vocal advocate for keeping the word "Christmas" in our community candlelight walking tour.


And I know it began with the churches, and the Christmas spirit is not only at the heart of the event, but should be allowed to be expressed freely in the celebration of it. With all that, I agree. But the insistence on keeping this now wider, more complex, multi-party event a "Christmas" specific program . . . there, I'm not so sure.


I recall when, just as I was starting ministerial training, in fact, it became clear that Christmas season TV ads were assiduously avoiding music with any religious tone at all. "Deck the Halls" was okay, "Silent Night" not. "Joy to the World" became rarer, "Jingle Bell Rock" which I would happily never hear again, common.


About that same time, I learned that the swing choir I was so proudly a part of in high school, called the "Carolers" for their custom of singing, all 24 of us in green and white polyester matching outfits, Christmas carols through the halls of every elementary school in Valparaiso, Indiana… were no longer the "Carolers." Because they didn't carol anymore.


I didn't like it. Honestly, part of me still doesn't.


But with age comes, if not wisdom, a measure of perspective. I believe I'm no less a Christian than I was then; ideally, I'm a better one now with God's grace. And as a committed believer, I look at the lyrics of carols and ask myself "do I want to make people say or sing this just as a tradition, as hollow words?"


"Joy to The world! the Lord is come; let earth receive her King. Let ev'ry heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing…"


That's quite a claim. I believe it, in fact, and if you don't, I have a case to make for it, but forcing you to say it as if you believed it won't make it truer. "Mouthing" it might make it seem less so. Or this:


"Christ the everlasting Lord; late in time, behold Him come, offspring of a virgin's womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity…"


Those are radical statements of faith. They're not sweet nothings, nor are they empty phrases, and I'm sorry I ever sang them without really intending what they said.


This is why I'm at peace either way with the labels on the event. We could call it the "First Sunday of Advent Eve Candlelight Walking Tour" and be very in line with religious practice, but I think in the end it's for the faith communities of Granville to share their Good News as they best can within a larger village framework. What I don't want to do is weaponize the phrase "Merry Christmas," for or against anyone.


May the joys of this holy season be yours, whatever your faith!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your seasonal joys and deeper hopes at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 12-2-17

Faith Works 12-2-17

Jeff Gill


We all have invented Christmas




The most influential and ignored work in Western literature, I would assert, is Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."


A secular supernatural fantasia on religious themes, it engages with economic theory, social justice, holiday traditions, and the centrality of family life to community health and stability.


The story has been reimagined on stage and screen almost from its 1843 beginnings, with the lead characters played by actors as different as Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Bill Murray, Jim Carrey, even Mickey Mouse and the Muppets . . . though Mickey was Bob Cratchit, with Scrooge McDuck playing, of course, Scrooge.


Scrooge is the heart of the story, and his transformation is the point of the narrative, with a Romantic era catalyst of mysterious spirits making midnight visitations, and an Enlightenment framework of past, present, and future, with the rationalist question "can the future be changed, or is it fixed?" asked as the conflict which carries us along.


Dickens answers this question with a resounding, and I would say compelling, "yes" to the possibility of change. Yet we ignore not only how this transformation of "a" or "the" Scrooge takes place, we choose to go in the opposite direction more often than not, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shaking a spectral finger at us as we approach.


There's a movie out now, "The Man Who Invented Christmas" which I've not yet seen, but I like the idea. It tells not so much the story of "A Christmas Carol" as the background of writing it – and I will be listening to hear if Ohio makes an appearance in the narrative.


Yes, Ohio. A year before Dickens sat down to write his Christmas tale in London, he had been in American. In the spring of 1842 his tour passed not far from us, traveling from Cincinnati to Lake Erie where he picked up a steamship to Buffalo. Midway, he spent a night in central Ohio. From Dickens' "American Notes":


"We reached Columbus shortly before seven o'clock, and stayed there, to refresh, that day and night: having excellent apartments in a very large unfinished hotel called the Neill House, which were richly fitted with the polished wood of the black walnut, and opened on a handsome portico and stone veranda, like rooms in some Italian mansion. The town is clean and pretty, and of course is 'going to be' much larger. It is the seat of the State legislature of Ohio, and lays claim, in consequence, to some consideration and importance."


Dickens and his wife had spent some time in Cincinnati previously, and on their way up from the Ohio River his last passage through stayed in Lebanon, another spot on the way north, and at Upper Sandusky after Columbus before concluding his Buckeye sojourn at Sandusky on the Erie lakeshore.


No, Ohio probably won't be mentioned in the movie about "A Christmas Carol." But the proximate cause of his writing that novella was because his larger novel at that time, published in sections as was the custom of the time, was not doing well at all. "Martin Chuzzlewit" was and is not one of Dickens' finer works, and it included an American sojourn that some suspect was inserted to spice up reader interest and sales… but it also reflected his largely ambivalent feelings about our land. Slavery was a big part of it, but there was much else – even in Ohio – that rubbed him the wrong way. It comes across both in "Chuzzlewit" and in "American Notes" as just enough unpleasantness to put one off, a bit.


What it all tells me, though, is that after six months in a different country, Dickens was ready to go home. He dreamt of home back in England, and his compared everything and everyone he saw in America to his home, and at a certain point he just wanted to go back.


A year later, the novel in progress was hobbled by his lasting discontent, and he knew he needed to go somewhere else. Dickens wanted to go… home.


Which is what I think "A Christmas Carol" is about. How we can alienate ourselves from where we are, what we're doing, even who we're with, and what it takes for us to go home even when we're already there. To be at home in our own selves, just as Tiny Tim somehow already knew how to do, and as Scrooge comes to learn with some spiritual assistance.


May we all find our way home right where we are this Christmas season!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what being at home means to you at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.    

Faith Works 11-18-17 & 11-25-17

Faith Works 11-18-17

Jeff Gill

Mending the breach in the wall


Our prayers continue with our brothers and sisters in Christ in Texas . . . and in California, where a church shooting took place that same morning, but with only two dying, not twenty-six, it got much less attention. It, too, was the act of a man angry about his lot in life and his loss of relationship with a female partner.

I hear much about guns and violence and there's much for us to discuss around those subjects. And there's another aspect of these events related to the work I'm involved in around our community, including the event today up Mt. Vernon Road at Family of Faith Community Church with our County Prosecutor and the Ohio Attorney General's office.

It's the question of hope, and our state and even national "hope deficit." I've had the honor and sad privilege to speak about our hope deficit before a House committee in Columbus, and in this column I have and will come back again and again to this subject . . . and it's why ministry and the preaching of the Gospel is the heart and core of what I feel called to do.

Yes: 33,000 gun deaths in America per year is tragic and horrible. Did you know two-thirds of them are suicides? And are not every one of these awful mass shooting events ultimately a complicated form of suicide? We see gun deaths start to catch up to auto fatalities, about the same figure per year: did you know that over 20% of those are single vehicle versus fixed object accidents, that patrol officers will often quietly tell you "were not accidents." They were suicides seeking to look otherwise.

And the opiate epidemic. I could go on at length on this subject, but let me just say this much today: most of what I see and hear and know about the turn to heroin is very like a slow-motion suicide. Much of addiction, as I see it at work in our community and beyond, is a form of hopelessness and despair and openness to the end of life as a risk worth taking versus a quick release . . . and so many "accidental" overdoses I think are an indirect form of self-harm and on occasion suicide themselves.

The problem is not access to drugs or cheap Mexican black tar or lack of residential treatment, none of which helps, but the core element is the loss of hope. Where there is no hope, these other ills flood in to fill the gap. Where there is hope, they have a harder time making progress into lives and families.

We have so many families in our community directly impacted by the hope deficit and the opioid epidemic. Adult children and grandchildren attempting rehab and treatment, often with failures before the program sticks and the follow-up works. Elderly people raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren to give some respite to the parents as they go through recovery. Families who have lost loved ones, both in distant states and right here in the county, to drug overdoses, but who feel the need to maintain a cautious, sorrowful silence.

In Sam Quinones' "Dreamland," one of the key families he follows, in the narrative about the birth of the opiate epidemic and the rise of Mexican heroin in Ohio, is from Columbus. You read about heroin delivery to Johnstown. And much of the book keeps returning to Portsmouth, where the mother of two young adult addicts says "When your kid's dying from a brain tumor or leukemia, the whole community shows up. They bring casseroles. They pray for you. They send you cards. When your kid's on heroin, you don't hear from anybody, until they die. Then everybody comes and they don't know what to say."

That silence is part of the loss of hope, the hope deficit that I believe faith in God and the power of the Good News made known in Jesus Christ can overcome. The accounts of hope can be replenished and restored, but the deposits only come through conversation -- with God in prayer, and with each other out loud -- and a community ready to speak of what we have long avoided saying.

Rebuild ancient ruins, and repair the breach in the walls, Isaiah declares in chapter 58. Speak hope, say words of peace, and share the hope that is in you. That's the journey we are on right now, and I am more than hopeful about the destination.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you draw from deep wells of hope at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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Faith Works 11-25-17

Jeff Gill

Role models and where to find them


We're living through a long-overdue season of reckoning with public figures being confronted with past behavior.

And sometimes, not so past. But long-running enough to make the individual's denial in the face of a long string of accusers look as flimsy and false as it generally turns out to be. These assault and abuse allegations against a seemingly endless string of clueless, callous men in power are not a case of "where there's smoke, there's fire," it's more of "when you see the entire forest burning from here to the state line, there's fire."

Some have been utterly unsurprising (Hi, Hollywood!) and others force me to rethink assumptions I've had about males I've admired or at least respected. And for any of us, male or female, it can be discouraging to start to think "are they all like this?" Absolute power corrupts absolutely, we're told, but these days it seems like "any power at all makes men into amoral idiots." Whom can we respect, which are worth our admiration?

I know lots of decent political office holders personally; most of them would say that it would be a mistake to look to politicians in general as personal role models. I've known a few athletes (none professional), and they often joke about what a bad idea it is to see sports stars as exemplars. Clergy? I am one, and have known many marvelous men and women in ministry, but I'm all too aware of that not-small-enough minority of rogues in robes we have out there, leaving a swath of sorrow and disappointment behind them. And I'll just leave entertainment alone.

If we want to find examples to live by, we'll have to turn off the TV, shut down the laptop, pocket the phone, and go out into the streets and fields and gyms and church basements. We would, if we wanted to find role models, have to follow along with life as it is lived, for a stretch of time, and see where a good example is shown day after day, year after year, often far from the limelight, rarely with much public notice . . . and yes, even then, with occasional stumbles of ill temper or private pique. From which they get back up and return to the road we claim to want to follow.

They are soccer league coaches and AA sponsors, Sunday school teachers and Girl Scout leaders, Scoutmasters and offensive line assistants. They are lunch ladies and crossing guards, knitters and crocheters, fast food cashiers and automobile mechanics. Not all of any one of those categories, but you're as likely or more in those activities as you are in politics or sports or ministry to find a life worth imitating.

And most of all, you can't imitate. Even the imitation of Christ, as Thomas á Kempis tried to explain, isn't the wearing of sandals and rough woven robes. It's a spirit of openness and appreciation and thankfulness for the world as it is, and simultaneously as it could be, and a sensitivity to how one can help make that transition from is to could in the world around them. "Find the good, and praise it" said Alex Haley; the finding of it is a good all its own.

There is good somewhere near you right now. Just look for it.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you found someone worth admiring at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Faith Works 11-11-17

Faith Works 11-11-17

Jeff Gill


To serve honorably



Let's get this first part out of the way quickly.


Fools and knaves and, yes, murderers have served in the military. There are some who have very personal reasons to hear the word "veteran" and not smile, not feel thankful. Some have misused their service and the responsibility that comes with that heritage in terrible ways.


The oath of enlistment I took is the same one the shooter in Texas swore to. I would prefer to disavow any connection to him at all, but in truth I cannot. There is that bond, one many of us have and wrestle with.


My scoutmaster in youth I recall as being incredibly angry every time local newspapers would put in a headline "Eagle Scout arrested for…" whatever had happened to that young man, even if he had been away from Scouting for a decade or more. He was known in the newsroom for showing up to chew out the offending reporter, who would try to explain that headlines weren't put on stories by him, and . . . but Mr. E was having none of it.


Mr. E would calm down, and then he would gather us together, and turn it as he so often did into a teaching moment. He would remind us "it may not seem fair to you or to me, but the fact is, you carry this honor your whole life, and what you do with it reflects back on all of us who got you there, who share that rank, that distinction."


And often he'd relax into the realization and remind us further: "if you benefit from the reflected glory of all those who have gone before you as Eagle Scouts, it's only reasonable that we're going to have to look out for each other, and help remind each other – if you do something stupid, it's going to reflect on me!" I've said it myself in decades since to new Eagle Scouts.


Likewise to veterans, those who have served in our nation's armed forces, standing in the gap to protect our nation and those we love, with "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." There's a glory we share, from short-term peace-time grunts like me, to the honored combatants with medals and memories from harder service than the rest of us can even imagine. And so it is we share a responsibility for each other, no matter what.


A blessing of these recent years is that we've come to see that we have a special responsibility as a nation for those who have served, even when they make mistakes. There is special emergency and transitional housing available for veterans and their families, slots in treatment for addiction and recovery, places in programs that even includes in some jurisdictions a "veterans court" for offenders who have a service record behind them but a criminal record looming over them. I think these are all fair and reasonable and sensible responses that are long overdue.


As any drill instructor from boot camp will tell you, we take young men and women and teach them "to kill people and break things." We expose them to powerful firearms and tools of incredible destruction, and it does change you. Whether you see combat or not, you now see an aspect of life, and death, most people can go through life not thinking about – now, that capacity of the human heart is at the center of our thinking.


Then, when the term of service is done, you go home. To people who have never thought about the best way to slide a bayonet into another human being's body, or how to choose where to shoot. They do not think these thoughts, and you have them all the time. With the blessing, those teachings fade to a simple yet useful heightened awareness of where exits are in a new room you enter, or a reaction to sounds in the distance that turns your head while others don't even blink. For some who have "seen the elephant," that fading is slower, if at all, without some help to turn down the volume of the memories.


Veterans Day is a day to honor those who have served honorably, and also a time for us as a nation, a community, and yes, for churches & faith communities to be mindful of what it means to ask people to enter that strange new world, and to casually come back into ours. Veterans have much to teach us, and we have debts still unpaid. To all who have served, no matter the form or branch, and indeed, no matter the outcome, I say thank you, and I know I speak for many.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your life learnings from time in service at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Notes from my Knapsack 11-9-17

Notes from my Knapsack 11-9-17

Jeff Gill


We are a violent people



Credit must be given to David Hackett Fischer, a history professor who wrote a 900-plus page book entitled "Albion's Seed" about patterns of migration to the early United States.


But fairly or not, I'd sum up what I learned from his scholarship in the simple phrase: "We are a violent people."


Not bad people, but restless, by nature rootless, wandering folk who chose to leave the British isles and come to the rocky uplands of the eastern United States to eke out a living, singing our folk songs which became bluegrass & blues, and maintaining tensions between clans and families which become legendary feuds, such as the Hatfields and the McCoys and NASCAR.


Americans are good, gracious, giving, caring, loving . . . and violent people. Maybe not you, generally not me, but in sum, compared to many populations around the world, we have a tendency to violent reactions. No, we are far from alone in this, but American violence is, well, known. And well known around the world.


Think about our movies. Car crashes and massive explosions and guns of every sort, but culminating with the ever-so-satisfying punch in the mouth of the bad guy by the hero.


As you may have heard, we own guns. It's not surprising. This is a vast continent, in the larger picture of things relatively recently pioneered, with big chunks of rural and even huge semi-wilderness areas between our sprawling cities. Colt Peacemakers and Winchester 73s and Browning M1911s have been intrinsic to our history; Garand M-1s and AR-15s and tin can plinking .22 caliber bolt action Mossbergs are in households all around us.


300,000,000 guns. That's what our best estimate is (no one really knows) of how many guns are owned in America. I'm skeptical, and not just on Second Amendment grounds, of anyone who argues that we should just have the government go door to door and collect them up and wait for the peaceable kingdom to arrive. That's one firearm per American, old, young, pacifist or veteran. If you don't have yours, don't worry, someone else has seventeen of them. No, I don't quite get that either.


Candidly, I don't think that the answer to safety and security of churches or public gatherings of any sort is more people packing heat. The whole "an armed society is a polite society" is one of those debating points that doesn't play out well in real life (ask the Dodge City sheriff). I don't know that gun control in any of the forms I've heard proposed is the answer, either. But I do believe I have reason to argue two things.


One is that while the idea of "we have to DO something" is always tied up with "pass new legislation," I see in the practical impact of recent events a strong argument for saying "actively enforcing the laws that are on the books will lead to less gun violence." Yes, that means more funding for the FBI & ATF & local law enforcement in maintaining databases and running background checks. Do that, not "something." Let's see what that does.


And rather than keep fighting about "gun control" per se, could we talk about firearm deaths as a public health crisis, and deal with it as we would such a thing? Yes, 33,000 firearms deaths a year are terrible – and two-thirds of those are suicides. Most mass shooters end in a . . . suicide. Most gun violence seems to have an element of willful self-destruction tied into it. What's going on with that? How can we respond?


We are a violent people. We need to work on that aspect of our American culture. Particularly between men and women, mostly on the male side of that. I don't notice many shooters being women with a grievance, and I know enough women to know that's not because they don't have any. Let's work on peace, healthy relationships, mental health and suicide reduction, and deal with weapons restrictions as they naturally arise within those contexts.


That we can peacefully and collaboratively do.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's fired many sorts of weapons in his life, but never in anger. Tell him how you deal with your violent tendencies at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.