Monday, April 06, 2020

Notes from my Knapsack 4-16-20

Notes from my Knapsack 4-16-20

Jeff Gill


Fool myself twice, no thank you



Cynicism is not, truly, my default mode.


But I can still recall the column I wrote in late September of 2001, and how I was certain that after the events of 9-11, everything . . . or at least much would change.


So certain.


Now, there were things that did change. Airline travel, for instance (oh my). Metal detectors, already going up everywhere, got to everywhere even more quickly. Security culture in many ways ratcheted up for both businesses and household life.


But there was a spirit of community and coming together that, for a moment, seemed lasting. The first anniversary of what became "Patriot Day" was a widely participated-in communal work project day (in Hebron, we painted fire hydrants and pedestrian bridges all over town), but it faded quickly.


And we can rehearse wearily the debates over the how and why of invading first Afghanistan, and then Iraq, but even before the final decision to go in was made, the political unity was already well eroded. The Patriot Act left behind forms and civil liberty disputes and divisions in its wake (I still don't understand a form asking me "are you a terrorist?"), then of course the war which now looks even more of a piece of many previous American foreign policy stumbles.


In other words, very little changed for the good, anyhow, after 9-11. I can sift my memories for particular, personal bright spots, flecks of gold in the mounds of gravel, but it's mostly grey and more of the same.


Which nearly two decades later has me very hesitant to proclaim "the Great Hiatus will change us all, for the better!" Odds are excellent that by the time you read this, we will still be under a "stay-at-home" order from the governor and director of the state health department, and Ohio will still be asking people coming into the state from elsewhere to self-quarantine for fourteen days. The end of the orders, if not the restrictions, is set for May 1; if we see the far side of the peak in deaths and hospital resource use before then, we're all too likely to be asked to maintain some level of caution and care and social distancing into the month of May, a kind of multi-stage relaxation of interaction and association.


But I'm not talking about those restrictions not changing. They will, even if more slowly than some business owners understandably would like. As Dr. Fauci has said, "getting back to normal won't be just like flipping a switch."


What I fear won't change is that most of us will slide right back into our previous patterns and preferences and assumptions. I'd love to say (again) that this difficult period which has brought us "#AloneTogether" will teach us lasting lessons about the value of family, the joys of cooking at home, and the importance of working together as a community.


Except with or without a "Great Hiatus" I don't think any of those changes take place without mindful, intentional work, even if we are forced for months, let alone weeks, into the form of such a change. We can spring back out of such a form all too easily.


If there's anything we've found to be of value during this long Lent, our extended time-out, it will require us to put some time and attention to preserving them once we get to whatever our new normal will be. Very little other than eating and sleeping comes automatically to us human creatures, and sometimes not even that.



Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's not sure how long his coffee supply will hold out, but he has plenty of filters. Tell him how the confinement is going for you at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 4-11-20

Faith Works 4-11-20

Jeff Gill


Silence in the streets



It is the night after the crucifixion of Jesus, or maybe the next night. It's hard to tell.


There had been a vast darkness over Jerusalem, whether an eclipse as some said, a storm front suddenly overwhelming the city shrouding the sun, a rumbling that might have been a huge thunderstorm, or some felt as an earthquake.


Whatever shook the city, it threw everyone off, from Romans right down to the stones. Pilate suddenly was throwing clemency to petitioners, Passover being a few hours away, the Temple in chaos with strange rumors leaving the courtyards and echoing around the slowly stilling city, and the dark and rain and rumbles deep beneath the earth settling into their old familiar places, after a day of upheaval.


You know that the Sanhedrin and the procurator's staff in the praetorium had to like the stillness. Many still remembered the chaos of rioting and revolt that was so brutally put down by Pontius Pilate on a Passover week just a few years earlier. Doubtless this was why he was so harsh at the first signs of popular unrest, why Jesus and a few other usual suspects were rounded up and executed. A few must die, so the crowd may live, and life might get back to what we're all used to, Hebrews and Romans alike.


So quiet, now. Cats, perhaps, silently slinking along the gutters in search of prey, and always the mice and rats. The occasional cooing of a dove perched on a stone wall or cornice.


Everyone is inside. Safe, if there is such a place. Doors barred, windows latched. As night falls, the end of Sabbath would not be greeted with strolling families in the streets. Tomorrow, the first day of the week would dawn cautiously, fearfully, anxiously. Few would venture out early, and none would challenge the soldiers guarding everything from the Mount of Olives in the east to the cemeteries west of the city gates.


Dark, and silent, but the stars were coming out. The storms and earthquakes had passed, and the cooling pavement stretched out below, empty. But if you were staying in a rented room, up above the family quarters at street level, you could look out more safely than they. You could crane your neck around to see the last light on the rear of the Temple, reflecting the setting sun, the rosy glow of Jerusalem limestone.


Above, the deep blue of twilight spread from east to west, and the first two or three stars twinkled into view. Beyond them, God, who had done nothing to interfere with the sorrows of . . . yesterday? The day before? When the power of empire and the connivance of the religious authorities had intersected at the cross itself, two timbers hauled into place so a victim could be nailed and held up for public display and be seen to die. This the fate of any opponent of Rome, this the hazard of any resistance, even without weapons. A cruel death, and no one, nothing would stop it.


So you look back out across the still damp, silent, aching streets. All around the edges of shuttered windows show a faint yellow line of light within, but outside is darkness growing, and the chill light of stars. It seems as if the darkness will overcome all light, all hope, all freedom to seek God in any way other than what's officially approved. A darkness and silence that Rome surely will find satisfactory.


For you, looking out across the city, a question. Where does your hope, your help come from? You know the teaching of the psalm book. It is hard, though, in the present moment. But you recall and whisper the words of the one that tells you "My help comes from the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth," and the one after that: pray for the peace of Jerusalem. You whisper the psalms you can remember as prayers, until you fall asleep, to greet the next day.



Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he knows he should have more psalms memorized than he does. They can come in handy. Tell him what passages of scripture you have committed to memory at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Faith Works 4-4-20

Faith Works 4-4-20

Jeff Gill


Disoriented is a word with many meanings


In the ancient world, the cosmos of the Bible as it was written down, the core direction was the East.


Our more modern scientific technological age uses magnetic North as a compass bearing, an earthly version of the heavenly pole star. Maps and our mental models all put North at the top.


But older Roman and Greek and Hebrew maps put at the top, the anchor point of their maps, not North, but East. The Orient, the East. The Latin word "oriens" means "rising," "the direction in which the sun appears" (depending on your dictionary and etymology).


So to orient a map means – then – to put East at the top. Oriens, orient, the East. Today, orienting a map means putting North in its place, at the top, and orienting your compass arrow pointing reliably to the north with the map's directional arrow. Our planet's magnetic field creates a compelling focus towards the north, and True North is how we orient a map today. Even if the word "orient" means . . . East.


Head turning, isn't it? I know. And right now, we are all DIS-oriented. Disorientation is common. Our standard points of reference: leaving for work, heading to school, home versus activities outside of the home, they're all disoriented. Everyday schedules are disoriented.


And as I've been working through these last few weeks, I am myself disoriented. My East is now North, or maybe not even that well oriented. Everything is at least a quarter turn off kilter. I am in many ways a typical American male, and whether as a Christian minister or community member, I define myself in reference to my father.


Dad was an active force in my life, and often when I encountered a question or a curiosity, my first reaction was "Dad will find that interesting." A book I'd read, a situation I was in the middle of, the times and the seasons in general: what would Dad think about that? He was my East, my basic orientation.


East is now shadowed, darkened, set aside. East is no longer the primary orientation. Now I'm trying to adjust to a new True North, magnetic and scientific and objective and impersonal. Where the compass points, which should be good enough. It works for many, after all.


Yet it's still new, and different, and disorienting. If my Dad is dead, and he's not my primary orientation for navigating through life, then . . . sure, there's the compass in my hand and the other navigation tools he's helped me master through the years, but it is still . . . disorienting. And I am . . . disoriented.


No less so are many of us. Without Sunday worship, at 10 or 10:30 or 11 am, even Saturday night or Monday morning, it is truly disorienting to not have a gathering for praise and thankfulness and petition with the Lord our God. I am being blessed weekly by friends and colleagues who are putting the basic outlines of worship and communion and preaching online, but to not have the experience of going to a place, and coming together in a space, and worshiping as I've done my whole life, minister or not, it is truly disorienting. My East is misplaced, and there's not even a solid North to latch onto.


Yet Christendom made our way from an Eastern, Oriental focus for navigation through maps to a magnetic and Northerly orientation. It had to be confusing at moments, but we made the shift. We will all navigate this pole shift of a transition, from public worship to online services and back again. Some things will change, and in fact much, after it's all said and done, will not.


None of which means it isn't terribly, painfully, confusingly disoriented. I know that's how I feel right now. But as the compass needle swings back and forth and back and forth and back, it will at some point settle down again, and orient us, and show us in which direction we should go.


Jeff Gill is a writer and storyteller and pastor in Licking County; tell him how you've felt disoriented at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Faith Works 3-28-20

Faith Works 3-28-20

Jeff Gill


Social dislocation vs. social distancing



Greetings from sunny, hot, and very windy Texas. Most of you know why I'm down here, missing out on floods and such in Ohio.


As I pack my parents' residence here in the Rio Grande Valley, in the retirement community where they lived half the year the last fifteen, I've had many sincere and lovely expressions from their long-time friends and neighbors down here about their love for my folks, and sorrow over Dad's death.


But as my sister and I have tried to observe the most basic precautions, since we did arrive here recently from out of state, we've been regularly handshaken and hugged whether we wanted to or not, and then told how silly all this worry about some flu bug is. Usually in some version of "we have the flu go through every year, and yes, a few older people are taken by it, but it doesn't warrant all this hooey."


Ahem. What I haven't been saying, mainly because a) I'm trying to be polite, and b) I really need to get back to packing and loading, is to point out that if we just see an infection rate in the US of 40%, and a mortality rate of 1% (I join Dr. Fauci in hoping it will be closer to .5%, but he warns it's as likely to be above 1% than down closer to the .1% of seasonal influenza), with those parameters the number who would die from coronavirus would be equal to the number we "know" statistically will die from heart disease & cancer . . . combined. We expect about 1,250,000 persons to die from heart disease (which took my father a week and a half ago, unexpectedly) and cancer. But a 40% infection rate, which is conservative, and a projected mortality rate of 1% would give you that many more deaths in 2020, the overwhelming majority being deaths that otherwise would not happen this year.


For everyone telling me that these "silly" restrictions are media hysteria and damaging to the economy: I don't know that you are taking seriously the economic impact and social dislocation (vs. social distancing) of a death. When someone unexpectedly dies, many more lives are put on hold, yanked out of shape, and turned inside out. Normal patterns end, and basic survival instincts kick in (not always productively). People take time off work, and are largely dysfunctional anyhow if you had them working. I'm still having to think steps for leaving the house or completing a task through twice and three times, and I make errors everyday of a basic sort.


Social distancing is a major pain in the kiester. I get it. I didn't have a funeral for my father. I'm still wrecked over that. But here's the thing: death is permanent. We can get through this, but I know many workers and businesses and yes, churches will be deeply scarred, even disabled functionally for some time to come. But death is permanent. Let's not lose sight of the fact that we're talking about a new source of bereavement and sorrow and loss rippling into our society which we have a chance to freeze and still and slow, and save many, many lives.


I can get over not having a funeral shortly after my dad's passing. But I could not get over knowing that an event, to do what I deeply wanted to have done, might be the indirect but very real source of even three or four avoidable deaths. Because death is permanent. And as a pastor, I know that while there is life there are options, choices, possibility, hope.


For a Christian, in death there is indeed hope. For this Christian, it's still a truth I'd share that in death there is an ending to many earthly options. Full stop. So I'm not in a hurry to die. I don't fear it, and I have hope for my dad and many others who have gone on before. But there are plenty of people waiting for me on the other side. I don't want to add to the greeting party by my actions.


The pool here in this retirement community is jam packed, and behind these walls and gates people forget that the troubles of the outside world come in and out with the caregivers and maintenance workers and yes, family packing up trailers to move surviving spouses home.


I just hope anyone reading this who thinks it's all hurting our country, and the recommendations just more foolishness from political manipulators, understands the difference between 40,000 deaths a year nationwide from seasonal influenza/flu and even a low mortality from coronavirus of 650,000 from 40% infection across the country and a .5% mortality. That's 650,000 families dropping everything to reach out and try to put their hearts and heads back in order, and that's an economic and social and spiritual impact that I fear is the least we can expect. And it's what many of us are bracing to handle in the year ahead.


Because there's already more than enough death to go around.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's handwashing and sanitizing as best he can. Tell him about your experiences with illness and contagion at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Faith Works 3-21-20

Faith Works 3-21-20

Jeff Gill


The Great Hiatus will be with us for years



At this time, if anyone tells you they know when the public gathering restrictions will be lifted, or how soon large worship gatherings will be encouraged, they're guessing.


I'm in south Texas right now, as in you can almost see Reynosa, Mexico from where I am, and thank you for the many kind words and expressions and prayers that have followed me here, to honor the end of my dad's life last week and support me in caring for my mom and her needs right now.

As in Ohio (how'd that election go, anyhow?), Texas is dealing with a variety of reactions by faith communities, consumers, and the public at large. I ran into a guy . . . okay, my sister ran into him, but we stood by the side of the road for some time waiting for wreckers to show up (long story), and he told me about how he's not convinced this is really a problem. We've been part of the problem – people from one state traveling to another – and some react by hearing we're from Indiana and Ohio by stepping back, and some by shrugging and hugging us whether we want one or not.


If we were asymptomatic carriers of the virus, we've had far too many opportunities in two planes, a van, and now a rental car, shopping for necessities for a new widow and her two adult children now Texas occupants, to spread a virus if we had one in our system, just by walking around and breathing. We've neither had a temperature or other symptoms, but it hasn't been a week since my dad's death, and I'm behind the curve on almost everything, including noticing my symptoms. So who knows.


And yes, my father's memorial service here in Pharr, Texas where he's lived half the year for fifteen years is cancelled. Gatherings are banned. So we're doing a strange, surreal version of "calling hours" from the porch. I will say more about this once I've processed it.


I picked up my father's ashes, which I've done with more people than I can count, but yes, doing it for your own parent is . . . no, I don't have a great deal to say about that experience yet. But that modestly sized box, whose contents (black plastic box, certificate of cremation, heavy duty plastic bag, metal seal affixed to the neck of the bag, contents which are, frankly, undescribable other than as ashes) are no surprise to me, yet are a world shaking, reality shattering gift handed over with a matter-of-fact statement of "that will be [price stated like a bag of apples].," to which you hand over your credit card like you do for groceries . . . do I sound rattled yet? Yes, you're welcome.


So we are in what I firmly believe will long be called something like "The Great Hiatus." A pause in normal life, which may or may not change how we do normal. I am quite old enough to recall the events both of 9-11-01 itself, and the weeks that followed. Many of us, myself included, thought certain aspects of community life would change after 9-11, but by October we had plowed over much of those assumptions. Other than boarding at airports, I'm not sure how much in faith or community changed.


Wrong once, shame on me; wrong twice, shame on you? But I really do think that this time we will see some significant changes in social and faith community life after the current coronavirus crisis ends. It's too soon to speculate too broadly,  but I have a few in mind. Many churches will see some major changes over these next few weeks. When I'm back in town and into ministry, I hope to share a few thoughts on that.


Meanwhile, for your prayers to what we are still able to do for my dad, I thank you. These are hard days for many, and the obstacles to a "normal" funeral for so many is one of many hard things we have to grind our way through.


Again, thank you for the many prayers and expressions of support.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's in the middle of planning memorial services for his dad. Let him know how you've dealt with such times of transition at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.