Saturday, May 06, 2017

Faith Works 5-13 & 5-20-17

Getting ahead now for a very busy three weeks ahead . . . and I don't want to miss any deadlines! Here are the next two Saturday columns.

Faith Works 5-13-17

Jeff Gill


Leadership and mothering are close companions



Yes, tomorrow is Mother's Day, and no, it's not a church commemoration per se.


Folks want to treat Mother's Day (and to an ironically lesser degree, Father's Day) like a younger sibling to Christmas and Easter, but it's more like Cinco de Mayo or Fourth of July when it comes to the universal church calendar. Other nations and cultures celebrate mothers and motherhood on different days entirely.


But I'm not proposing to walk you through another columnist's attempt to get at the roots of the American Mother's Day tradition (it's interesting, honest). What I would like to say is that there's a faith-rooted set of reasons for Christian communities, at least, to make something of the occasion. And being a Protestant, I'm looking to go back to the Bible.


And this all ties back to an earlier conversation about leadership. As we struggle with the competing demands on time and scheduling, with work no longer a Monday through Friday 9 to 5 for most people, with leisure pushing into vocation and play turning into traveling sports teams, with everyone busy and stressed and somewhere else, the thing about motherhood that stands out is: you have to be there.


It starts with childbirth. Dads may be able to skip out, but moms can't. They have to be there. And so it goes down through the years: many times and places dads have their hunting and gathering to do, but moms are there. Dad may have flocks to tend on the other side of the mountain, but mom has to go to the conference at the one-room schoolhouse. Moms may have careers and jobs today that pay more than men at times, but dads are more likely to miss events and programs and meetings than is the mom. Moms show up.


This is the aspect of leadership that we need the example of mothers to help us all with, male and female alike. You gotta be there sometimes. Virtual doesn't put dinner on the table, or give good hugs.


Orpah was there for Ruth. Ruth was a daughter-in-law to which Orpah had no obligations, nor vice versa, but Orpah's faith in God that she taught by word and example got the both of them through tough times, and to a place in the story of salvation. Check out the Book of Ruth, four short chapters, but read with an eye to Orpah.


Hannah is such a lovely story. She really outdoes her better known forbearers, Sarah and Rebekah. Both her husband and her pastor sell her short, but she persisted. She stayed where she was planted. And the Lord rewards her faithfulness, and gives her a place in the wider story that you can find if you go to the first chapters of I Samuel. Hannah's song of joy becomes the model for the much better known "Magnificat" of Mary in Luke 1 – read the original!


How about King Lemuel's mother? You don't remember her? Go to the start of Proverbs 31. Is what follows a description of how she lived her life, or how she wished she had and wanted her son to remember? It doesn't matter: she gave Lem a wonderful model of motherhood that says something about life in family to men and women both.


Gomer is a bad mother. No, really. But she is redeemed, a good thing to remember can happen, for wives and husbands alike. Hosea takes on quite a challenge in the first few chapters of his book, but the point is that the relationship is redeemed. It does happen sometimes. Bless them both.


Go to Acts 16, and glean what you can about Lydia. She's a matriarch of the first order, proud and open hearted; a businesswoman and owner of household enough to give Paul and Silas a place of refuge.


And to 2 Timothy, where we get but a verse, but also the example they left, of Lois and Eunice, grandmother and mother of Timothy himself. Their faith is present in Timothy, Paul reminds him, and so then are they. Which means as we learn about Timothy, we're also given a bit of a revelation about them.


For all of us in leadership in faith, we are shown that even Jesus wished he could offer himself as a mother hen, in Luke 13:34, re-echoed in his last approach to the holy city at 19:41-42. To gather us together within a maternal embrace, safely closer to him.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your favorite mothers and fathers in scripture at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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Faith Works 5-20-17

Jeff Gill


Hidden in plain sight



With graduation season marking the beginning of the summer for many families and churches, we're heading into a blank space in the Christian calendar.


Pentecost is a couple of weeks away, and then we're in "Ordinary Time" right around to Advent. But whether you have a vacation planned these next few months or not, it can be a good time to explore some corners of your Bible you might not otherwise get into.


Just as a summer trip is a way to shake out the cobwebs and reorient your assumptions, whether living off the grid in a tent for a while is your taste, or just living out of suitcases on the road for a few days, so can a little off-roading benefit your year-round Bible reading.


Have you ever read the narrative of David, not as young slayer of giants or as king with a wandering eye, but his years as a guerilla leader in the wilderness, fighting as a resistance captain with a rag-tag band of followers? I Samuel 20 through 31.


If you enjoyed that, let me pull you back to a story that may seem familiar, but more from Broadway musicals and children's book retellings than in actual personal reading: Joseph the dream interpreting castaway who becomes a ruler. It's an amazing tale: Genesis 37 to 50. Don't let chapter 38 throw you; it seems like a digression of sorts, but it gives you a sense, especially if you haven't read the previous 36 chapters recently, of what a raucous and violent place Canaan was in the "time of the patriarchs."


Back to David, as he ages, and a new generation comes into its own: read 2 Samuel 21, where you can find the brief but evocative story of Rizpah, whose courage turns the heart of a king; or chapter 23, verses 8 through 39, where memories of days gone by mingle with an accounting of those who will lead when David is gone.


That passage reminds me of my own affection for a close and slow reading of Romans 16. Read it too quickly, and you get impatient, like waiting for an elderly relative to finish their leave-taking in the driveway; read it slowly, and you peel back layers of understanding about the nature and structure of the early church.


Likewise, you can too quickly skip over the seeming "list" following Nehemiah 1 & 2. The narrative is the return of the exiles to the ruins of Jerusalem and the temple built by David's son Solomon, but who were these exiles? Take some time and think through the roles and relationships as you read chapters 3 through 7. Little vignettes jump out if you let them, such as the strange counsel of Shemaiah in chapter 6, verses 10 through 14.


Or have you ever read about Paul and the shipwreck? With faint hints of an inversion from the prophet Jonah's plight (and there's an Old Testament short story that rewards a careful reading), in Acts 27 & 28 you get to see a very different apostle than the one we tend to think of, in the faith or outside of it. "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you . . ."


And oh, Philemon. One chapter only, 25 verses, but there's so much going on in this little letter. Think about that assembly when first the seal on the latter was picked apart by a knife, the wax falling away, the costly parchment unfolded, and the appointed reader (with a nervous glance at the owner of the homestead where the church was meeting) beginning "Paul, a prisoner for Jesus Christ . . ."


You can get a further sense of some of those early assemblies if you take up the first three chapters of Revelation. Yes, some folks have developed an allergy to the last book of the Bible, but it's a hard book to sample, and perhaps a long vision to keep before your attention span. But try those first three chapters, with the pencil sketch of where and how John came to be writing it, and the initial messages to seven congregations in his care. You learn quite a bit about the variation in community and conflict in those vivid prophetic images.


And who knows, as you finish just that much, you might find that "behold, a door will stand open in heaven" for you to read more.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your favorite obscure passages of scripture at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Faith Works 5-6-17

Faith Works 5-6-17

Jeff Gill


Keeping track of the Joneses



One of the many staples of church life that's passing away, like mimeograph machines and filmstrips, is the pew pad.


Sometimes called the attendance register or the membership sign-in, it was one of those administrative rituals that, if you grew up with it, seemed like something Paul and Timothy and Lydia and Priscilla all had back in the dawn of Christian worship.


Of course, like many of those perennials now fading, it had a specific genesis, with the rise of literacy, the end of "pew rents," and a desire to keep track of people in general and members in particular . . . which was itself largely an outgrowth of the organization and systematization of American life springing from the two world wars, and the influence of military life on our whole culture, especially the managerial side of it.


They had a pastoral as well as a pragmatic side to them: no more would you have to wonder, after worship with 350 in attendance, "was Mrs. McGillicuddy in church yesterday?" You could check the register and see if she was present.


Sunday school attendance pins and church roster awards became a standard part of worship management, and those pew pads were the front end of the system. That's how you kept track, monitored well-being, shepherded the flock.


Today, with 90 year olds taking cruises, 80 year old couples traveling cross country multiple times a year, families with sports practices and events, and a general loosening of the obligation of worship attendance, most churches have backed away from the ritual of "pass the pad along the pew, then pass it back to the center aisle so we can see who we're sitting with today." Tracking attendance isn't what it used to be.


But at the same time, we do care as church communities, we do want to know if all's well or if it's just that all's busy. And we're back to those Monday conversations, but it's more about "when did you last see Mr. Jones? Three weeks ago?"


Yes, pastors get tagged occasionally, even in this day and age, with "you didn't notice I was gone!" And I've heard that complaint from folks who are often gone a stretch or two a year, but when they were sick and out a few weeks, no one called to check, nobody from the church came to visit . . . didn't churches and preachers used to do that?


(Deep sigh.) Yes, yes we did.


I'll admit to a ministerial caution myself; when you call or drop by (if you can catch people at home these days, a whole 'nother subject) and try to ask genteelly and hear "why, I was in church two weeks ago, didn't you notice? But I went to my granddaughter's recital in Poughkeepsie last weekend. Hmmpphh."


Folks today resist being "tracked," and I sympathize. I also sympathize, as a church leader, with those "in the back" who are tasked with getting up the deacons (or ushers as some churches call them) for collecting the offering or sharing communion. THEY know who's here and who isn't, and especially who said they'd be here, but "something came up."


Among clergy, it's a common conversation to say that church "average Sunday attendance" or ASA doesn't mean quite what it used to. If you averaged 100 a worship 10 years ago, and 20 died or left, and 20 new members joined since then, you might think you'd still have 100 ASA. But if folks who are "regular members" who used to be present four out of four Sundays now are three of four, your ASA may be 75, even though the number of giving units is the same on the treasurer's desk and the faces at events through the week are about the same. It's a numerical decline, but not necessarily a church decline . . . until it is.


So when do you start checking up on people, and how do you know whom should be checked on? That is a much trickier question today than it was in 1990, and I don't have a good answer. Our congregation has a body of elders, and we're looking at improving our "shepherding" of the church, where each one has a section of the membership and regular attenders they personally and visually keep track of (and check in with the pastor about).


But if the elders are more irregular in attendance . . . let's talk more about leadership next week!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he tends to be in church every week even when he's on vacation. Tell him about your views on attendance at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.