Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Notes from my Knapsack 1-3-19

Notes from my Knapsack 1-3-19

Jeff Gill


That was the year that



We were talking in Bible study recently about the past year.


These are church people, and we're used to taking the long view, and seeking the bright side. But there was a general consensus that 2018 is a year we're all ready to see move on. Let's give 2019 a chance.


What I'd like to say, though, is that we really should avoid writing off years. As we all know, you never want to say "well, it couldn't get any worse." I'm not even superstitious, but that's a bad, bad, bad thing to say.


And every year has its challenges, just as there isn't a set of four seasons go by without at least something to be thankful for.


A couple of decades back, Queen Elizabeth II in her annual Christmas Message talked about an "annus horribilis" which is Latin for "it was a really bad one." This year, the 92 year old monarch struck some lovely notes (it's worth looking up online, just five minutes) showing that you can always come back from an "annus horribilis."


In earlier ages of humankind, when calendars and almanacs were the preserve of the priests and kings and queens, the average bloke talked about a year being "the sixty-sixth year of the reign of the queen" or "the year when King Uzziah died." The year 1816 became known generally as "the year without a summer" thanks to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia and resulting global cooling; 1833 was "the year the stars fell" thanks to a memorable Leonid meteor shower in November that marked for decades how that year was remembered.


When tragedy strikes, it marks more than a day or month. When someone important to us dies, that loss colors a long stretch of our lives just as a volcanic plume can tint sunsets and skies for months on end. So that death becomes a landmark in our mental map.


It's also just as possible for a good day to become the measurement for a whole year, a turning point in one's life: the year you got married, the year your first child was born. Graduating from school or returning home from overseas service, those are year markers that stick up above the stubble of day to day events.


What was 2018 for you? Not so much a bad year or a good, but what made this last 12 month stretch particular to you? In twenty years, if God grants them, how will you look back on it? Would it help your attitude and intentions if you intentionally think about how this year is going to become memorialized in your mental map?


Because one way or another, 2018 will be something to you, in general. Maybe the year you missed the fireworks at Wildwood Park; it could just be the year you started going to the Farmers' Market on Saturdays. Perhaps you had a great event stand out from the passing days and leave you a guidepost for future comparison; bless you if this last year brought a harder change in your life that will cast a long shadow.


This was the year that . . . that something. What that was for you will probably set the table for the year ahead, but it's almost certainly going to be memorable for its own reasons, which we'll all discover together.


Happy New Year!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's glad for some of the harder lessons of 2018, but . . . anyhow, tell him about your year at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Faith Works 12-29-18

Faith Works 12-29-18

Jeff Gill


Too much Christmas? Or maybe enough.




So, how much Christmas did you have? Too much, not enough, just right?


Goldilocks may not be a happy camper this time of year. Just right is a state of balance that few can achieve. The Three Bears may include in one house out in the woods the full spectrum of plenty, scarcity, and satisfaction, but as many have wondered, the odds are good that Goldilocks would get eaten by bears before she could complete her testing of chairs and beds and porridge. Anyhow.


I've listened to plenty of people say that Hallmark Channel movies are too much. Well, so is CNN. Ads at Christmastime for cologne are too much, but so are the calorie counts. And in the end, your excess may be my standard practice; my over the top could seem too little too late to you.


But it keeps seeming as if excess has become part and parcel of the Christmas season, from Dickens' "Spirit of Christmas Present" and his cornucopia of plenty, to the last few ad circulars in this paper (or the pop-up ads online at our webpage).


On the other hand, falling short at Christmas time is the tragedy of all tragedies; to be left all alone, to miss your connections, to not get the gift you fervently hoped for, those are the plot points for holiday films that speak of disaster. Only a last minute miracle, usually involving the right thing showing up out of nowhere, can save the story, or the hero.


Is there any miracle that could possibly occur, though, to allow us to have enough Christmas? For enough to be . . . enough?


Christmas Day is 24 hours long, like all of them; we may wake up early, even before dawn, say 6:00 am, and struggle to stay awake to 10:00 pm or so, making the Christmas we experience about 16 hours worth. It winds down slowly, and there's always a wistfulness to realizing that Christmas Day is ending, and won't be back again for another 364 days.


But isn't that true of Dec. 29th? Why is there no bittersweet sense as we realize that it, too, is coming to a close as the streetlights flash on and the sky darkens? Dec. 29 will then be just as gone, for just as long, until the year makes another 364 day round.


Sure, other days don't get you presents. But some do! And any could. This is all why it's a commonplace saying to wish for Christmas joys and the spirit associated with the day to last all the year round. "If only every day were Christmas!"


Every day already is, I think. Not just by keeping your tree up (I leave mine to Jan. 6, another story there) or leaving the lights stapled to your eaves right into Fourth of July, but in the precious gift that is any day in this world. It is irreplaceable and unique and unrepeatable.


What we do with Christmas in all our over-the-top festive excess is a way of putting a pin in our mental maps, tagging the day memorably so we might have some of that specialness carry over to the rest of the 364. If one day that is, after all, exactly like all the others can be made that special, then maybe it means they all have the same potential.


And in the same way, it would be good if we could learn from our occasional lapses into excess, or those moments when we find events falling short of expectations, and not hang onto having gotten too little or too much Christmas, but let those ends of a celebrational spectrum remind us that there is a happy medium, a place in the middle of "enough." Enough is possible, and could be a goal any time.


Part of the mystery and, yes, magic of Christ is how his life is a message to me, from humble birth to sorrowful death, out of his incredible arrival and unexpected return, about both the value of every person, and the meaning to be found in each day. And his way of love and life tells me something about the possibility of finding "enough." That the person I meet, the resources I have, the moment I am in, could be enough, and not just a stepping stone to the next encounter, to more stuff, to a later event when things will really be enough, then.


Christmas, and season after it, is a good time for me to reflect on when and what is enough.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you think is enough at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Faith Works 12-22-18

Faith Works 12-22-18

Jeff Gill


Room at the inn - a story that might have been



After the pre-flight safety briefing, it was time to sit and wait.


She was my seat-mate, but I hadn't actually related to her at all. She was much older than me, and came in almost as the hatch was being closed, clambering past me to the window seat. I wondered how often she'd have to get back out past me on the aisle.


The overhead light was almost out of her reach, and I offered to help adjust her vent, which apparently was blowing cold air on her.


"Thank you so much, young man. Those always frustrate me."


"Happy to help."


"What brings you out flying terrifying heights into the air?"


So I found myself talking to a woman that, it turns out, lives not two miles away from me. We were both flying back home from family visits, each for our own purposes of supporting relatives who had just suffered tragic losses. She seemed better equipped to provide that sort of moral support that I thought I had been.


We talked about family and parents and aunts and uncles, and I realized she was talking about the start of the Great Depression, and World War II. She was born in 1924, and her husband had piloted some kind of landing craft across the Pacific, sending cryptic postcards all postmarked "San Francisco APO."


Me? I remembered when MTV started, and the day Challenger exploded. But then again, so did she.  And she had met both Orville Wright and Buzz Aldrin. "Well, I shook Orville's hand, anyhow. Buzz I got to talk to. He's a hoot!"


"This is going to be a quiet Christmas, but I think I'm about due," she said. "Last year I was with my late husband's family in Pittsburgh and they about deafened me. What are you going to do?"


"Well, not much." Honestly, my plan was pretty much non-existent. I had moved to central Ohio the year before, my parents had moved twice since I finished college, and I'd ended up living in Licking County just because the house I rented was the first click on my web search that wasn't already under contract.


"If you want some egg nog that will tell you what day it is on the 25th, you can come by my house. My great-niece doesn't like it much, and her kids aren't old enough to taste my recipe." It occurred to me that this meant she was a great-great-aunt, which was not a title I'd even thought of existing until just now.


We made good time, landed and the usual scramble for luggage and the aisle began. I realized, thanks to my newfound friend, that there was an upside to just sitting and waiting until the pack had thinned out. We chatted until the aisle cleared, then I reached up and got her bag and mine down from the bin overhead, and we marched at her pace down the rows of seats and out the tunnel into the airport.


In the concourse, she stopped and so did I, helping her re-sling her bag as she dug out a, yes, flip phone. "I'm going to call and get my great-niece to come and get me, but it's been nice talking to you!"


To my surprise, I heard myself asking "would you mind if I gave you a ride home and saved your great-niece a trip out so late?" In the end, she still had to call her to tell her not to worry about coming to the airport, but we made our way to the shuttles, the lot, and into my car and down Route 161. We reached her house, and I carried her bag in as she unlocked the door.


She insisted on making me coffee before my trip home, which I pointed out was less than two miles away. But I did welcome the pause. There in her home, surrounded by pictures of family, all of whose names she rattled off any time my gaze flickered in their direction, and knick-knacks each of which carried a story of their own.


By the time I got up from her table, it was late enough that I needed that coffee in me. But I promised to come back in a few days for a Christmas Day visit.


"Not until after 11 am, though. I always watch the Christmas parade past the castle in California; took my kids there the year it opened." I assured her I would not interrupt her time with those magical mice. "I want you to come by, though. There's always room at this inn."


Driving home, I thought about family. This was a family time of year, but I'd always felt on the outside of those sorts of things. For her, it was as simple as an invitation, and family was created right there in an acceptance of the offer. Anyone who wanted to celebrate Christmas was family to her.


Could it be that simple?


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

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Faith Works 12-15-18

Faith Works 12-15-18

Jeff Gill


Christmas music in our heads and hearts



Got a favorite Christmas song? It's probably controversial to someone.


This is a topic probably worth avoiding, but the important part of this ongoing debate in our culture about Christmas music is that I think there's no time of year when songs and tunes and singing are more important, to all of us.


It's often pointed out by secular commentators that part of how the birth of Christ got associated with December 25 (not a date specifically mentioned in any of the Gospels) is that Rome had a festival of "Sol Invictus," the "unconquered sun," which began on Dec. 25 because it is the first date you can actually measure with basic instruments that daylight is getting longer.


Since around June 22, the longest day of the year and the summer solstice, astronomically speaking, each day has gotten shorter. The longest night this year is coming soon, on Dec. 21 . . . almost six hours longer than night lasted in June.


So we put up our lights and add candles indoors and do what we can to increase illumination because, hey, it's dark out! For a long, long time this time of year. And yes, from Dec. 25 you can sense that it is not getting longer, and might just be growing day by day, hallelujah!


Which is where music comes in. A song in the night lifts the gloom; a sad song makes it better, according to McCartney and Lennon. If we can't shine as much light on the subject as we had back in the summer time, we can make it glow with music. It's the tunes and tales set in four part harmony which give us another way, along with strands of lights and wreaths set with candles, to lighten the darkness, both within as well as without.


Christmas carols are a perfect example for me of this principle at work. They sing of long nights, little towns, stars in a chilly night sky, cold deserts and moonlight. They also tell us about hope and peace and love and joy in ways that make us smile in the silent night, which ask what child this is while answering the question with a song of joy to the world. By the end of the song, if not somewhere in midverse, the light starts to shine, such as over there, round yon virgin mother and child.


Everyone feels the growth of darkness and the shortening of the days this time of year, whatever your faith. Even if you have no involvement in a faith community, you have a history with how we have endured the dim days and endless nights in the past, and how we reach out ahead to the hope of light yet to come. So we all like Christmas lights, and the shine of candles, and songs. But we don't all like the same songs!


And yes, in an age where many are seeking a secular turn in public spaces, it gets uncomfortable for some to be expected, at school or work or in official settings, to sing "veiled in flesh the Godhead see." Even the "Hallelujah Chorus" and the repeated "King of Kings, and Lord of Lords" ruffles a few who love the oratorio, but hesitate at the statements made.


Christmas songs, I'd say, come in three categories. There are the overtly religious: "O Little Town of Bethlehem," or "The First Noel." Got it, they involve religious confessions that everyone doesn't share – and honestly, I don't want people to just mouth those words. So I can work with how they've faded from public view, if it means we really intend to say what we sing. But that's a big chunk of the holiday repertoire.


The second category are more festive, less religiously specific songs: "Deck the Halls," "Jingle Bells," or "White Christmas." No confessions of faith involved, but in fact it's a shorter list than you might think.


And third are what I'd call chestnuts, or even novelty songs: "Santa Baby," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," or "The Song Which We Won't Mention, Even When It's Cold Outside." They tend to be very much artifacts of a particular time and era, and as we've seen, they don't always age well. "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" hasn't stood the test of time quite as well as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed" has.


What gets missed is that through the centuries, many Christmas songs have been written. The large body of Christmas classics we have today are the result of years of sorting and culling and curation. Our standard Christmas carols are still with us because they've earned their place in our hearts.


And I think they'll keep coming back up, to drive back darkness and to usher in a season of peace, and of light.


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

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Notes from my Knapsack 12-21-18

Notes from my Knapsack 12-21-18

Jeff Gill


Where things used to be



My own Christmas memories circle around family scenes and church events, with the usual overlay of retail dreams and commercial fantasy.


I grew up outside of Chicago, and a trip to see the windows at Marshall Fields followed by lunch in the Walnut Room was a necessary part of the holiday. There had to be a dessert made from a scoop of ice cream, a marshmallow, and strategically placed licorice making a snowman in a top hat, matching Uncle Mistletoe flying around near the top of the giant tree in the center of the multi-story room.


Fields' is now Macy's, but the Walnut Room is still there. Uncle Mistletoe is in a display case nearby, for nostalgic former kids like me.


In college when I started Christmas shopping for myself with money I'd earned on my own, I created some memories of shopping and the season in marvelous little shops all of which are gone now. Odd stairs leading nowhere, shelves to the ceiling and cabinets here and there, and lighting casting both shadows and golden circles, far from the bright fluorescence now the norm. Once married, Joyce and I would travel to places during the Christmas to New Year's holiday break that are no longer there, but are oh so vivid in my mind; we had a child a couple of decades ago and took him places where we can't go back to now. Only the annual pictures of a growing child in multiple Santa's laps remain.


And now we've been in Granville long enough there are a collection of "what used to be's" in our thoughts and dimly visible, half-erased, on our mental maps. Some, oddly, we never knew, but though we didn't come to the area until 1989, the fire of the Opera House in 1982 is vivid in a false memory, colored in by pictures and artifacts in places like Elm's Pizza.


In fact, at Elm's there's still a jukebox in my mind, sitting right where a table is now, but it still is part of our family memories about the village and how we left and came back again. (Long story.) Hud's Chevrolet is likewise a mirage in our memory, but the souvenirs of that Williams family history make it a "used to be" for us as Granville residents in 2018. Blackstone's Grocery was a pub before we got here, but between Aline and Tim I catch a hint of it, even as I walk past the Broadway Pub today; Buck Sergeant I barely knew, but the stories about his shop are not hard to find even still.


I catch myself thinking about getting a card or candle at Crosswalk Gifts; as much as I like to tell people to visit Reader's Garden, my mind goes back downstairs again and again across the street to the Granville Times Book Cellar. Hare Hollow and Victoria's Parlor were no secret, well before Les Wexner started putting up white fences in New Albany (which had a grain elevator and feed store downtown I used to stop at, before Rt. 161 became a highway).

So much of Christmas is "used to be," whether it's Grandma's house or a store long gone and forgotten by most. The Hadden Sundblom 1930s & 40s Santa Claus, which did as much for our image of the jolly old elf as Thomas Nast an era before, liked to fiddle with hand cranked phones and old wooden toys as plastic and aluminum were taking over our visual vocabulary. Santa and the holiday season are soaked in nostalgia, however far back you go.


Likewise our village observances of Christmas and New Year and all the little remembrances of what was, mingling with how it is now, and what it might yet become.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your memories of what's not there anymore at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.