Monday, May 03, 2021

Notes from my Knapsack 5-13-21

Notes from my Knapsack 5-13-21
Jeff Gill

Spread versus containment
___

Memorial Day is nearing, and Granville plans a parade and ceremony on May 31; stay tuned for more details as we get closer, and the banners go up on Broadway to honor our six surviving World War II veterans.

Summer is coming, and outdoor activities are clearly ideal in so many ways, COVID or not.

One book I'm looking forward to this summer is a new John Maclean book, titled "Home Waters" which comes out June 1. It's a family memoir, and you may be familiar with his father Norman writing about how "A River Runs Through It" which was itself a memoir about the Blackfoot River in Montana in many ways. John went on to be a journalist, and along with his global awareness and perspectives, he ended up helping pick up a loose thread from his father's estate, "Young Men and Fire," which turned John into a primary documentary non-fiction author on the subject of wildland fires, and those who fight them.

I can recommend any of John Maclean's books, tragedies though so many of them have been, but I look forward to "Home Waters" because he will get to work in a different register, as it were. When you are attempting, even in the breadth of a book's length, to sum up all the complex human and environmental detail that resulted in the deaths of those who chose to go out and fight wilderness conflagrations, you have to make many tough choices about whose stories to tell, and how you get not only from ignition to accident, but weaving in the aftermath of those firefighter deaths, lessons learned, and sometimes not learned, but always asking why.

So while looking forward to reading how John asks some very different questions when "Home Waters" comes out, I'm thinking back through those earlier works, and stories, and questions. Because I keep seeing parallels between epidemiology and wilderness firefighting. Arguably, I know little about either (I can hear you in the back mumbling "or nothing!"), but my natural bent is towards metaphor and comparison, and how we can learn in one field from the successes and failures we already have in another.

We all know, from the news if nothing else, that there are numbers around wilderness fire outbreaks, and if we have any imagination at all, we know those numbers only cast faint shadows of the human let alone natural costs they represent. Yes, we're sensitive to the number of deaths: "four killed as forest fire rips through a national forest…" The acreage is usually mentioned, even if most of us would have trouble really imagining what a thousand acres "looks like," let alone a hundred thousand acres.

And then there's containment. "The Whoosit Fire is now 65% contained." It's a figure calculated by the amount of fire line dug around it, the fuels involved and the wind direction and what's in the way. 100% contained we can imagine, but 50%? It almost sounds like there's no difference between 0% and a line halfway around, if the wind turns.

For the COVID situation, the spread seems pretty wide, but in Ohio, 10% of us appear to have had it, some extrapolate that to 20% total cases recovered from having the virus, along with 40% started on the vaccine, over 30% completed. Allowing for overlap, you have us somewhere around 50% either having had it and/or vaccinated. That leaves 50% who could still get it.

I would argue, then, that we're a long way from containment. The fire is still burning, however you measure it. And we have fire line to dig, and flames to put out, before everyone is safe.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's swung a Pulaski a few times but never in harm's way. Tell him how you think we need to put this fire out at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 5-15-21

Faith Works 5-15-21
Jeff Gill

On a hill, far away
___

This spring I've taken a longer than expected detour into cremation, ashes, and their disposition.

As a genealogist and historian, we're losing something with the end of the last best permanent record, an archive for past generations I've benefited from in many ways. Trust me when I say I have many and conflicted feelings about the skyrocketing frequency of "at the request of the departed, there will be no service, and a private service at a later date." 

What I've gotten myself into here is a side-effect of responding as a pastor and preacher to friends and acquaintances who find themselves in the position of having to take care of "the event." Some churches and faith traditions very specifically forbid scattering ashes; most no longer forbid cremation, but instruct survivors to handle the urn or container as they would a casket, with a reverent committal ceremony in sacred ground, a family plot or cemetery mausoleum.

Much more common, though, is a family decision to just ask the mortician to cremate the body, picking up the heavy small box of ashes, and scattering them on their own, at a later point and who knows what location. I see some parallels, which no one will thank me for pointing out, to the move towards event weddings, and having a friend officiate in a converted barn or banquet hall. Except apparently lots of people enjoy sending away for a ministry "certificate" and filing with the Ohio Secretary of State to become a legal officiant for a friend's wedding. The line is not as long to get the privilege of presiding over a scattering ceremony.

Just to be clear, in no state do you have to be licensed or ordained to conduct a memorial service. To prepare a body, yes; within a church building, those rules about who can officiate are for that faith community. But I'm perfectly willing to affirm that anyone can do a funeral, it's just that they aren't as simple as they appear (also something many ad hoc wedding officiants have learned the hard way). Having a clergymember assisting is a practical choice in most cases.

But let's say there is no one available or appropriate to the occasion, and the person presiding is you. What do you do? The word has gone out to family and friends, and you're arriving at a hilltop in a national park or a family cabin next to a public waterway, and everyone expects you to lead the service. How does it go?

I've gone into the practical at length because if you don't have a smooth, seamless set-up for those tangible issues (scissors or a very sharp knife, situational awareness of how the ashes will behave out of the bag, what to do with the remaining materials at the end) then the fumbling and confusion become most of what people remember. You don't want that, lay or ordained.

You need a rally point: a table, a stump, a place to set the container. You may need to guide people into where they should go to stand or sit (there being no aisle or pews to steer them). Once together, you really should have a clear start, regardless of time (but starting early is risky because late arrivals can be very distracting). A song or soloist is nice, or at minimum a "Thank you for coming."

You say why you're here not because they don't know, but because it clarifies matters. That's why we have any ceremony at all. "We are here to honor the life and mark the death of [Name]." If it's a purely secular ceremony you're after, that I can't help you with. I would advise anyone to pray after the opening; you don't have to call it an invocation, but I would want to ask divine blessing on the occasion and those gathered.

The rest is simple. You invite people to speak or not, as the family prefers; you tell as much truth as the occasion allows, but the happier memories tend to be central because the sorrow is already there, with that box and what it means. Be honest, within reason. Be humorous, when it's earned and not forced. Be reverent, whatever that means to you. And then scatter the ashes as you've prepared to do.

If it were me, I'd close in prayer. Keeping in mind the whole act, however engaged in, is a form of prayer, one that will be remembered.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; his ashes are not ready to be scattered in any case. Tell him what you have in mind at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 5-8-21

Faith Works 5-8-21
Jeff Gill

Ashes on the landscape
___

Last week's column evoked a response like none I've ever had, and I'm rewriting what was going to be a second half to reflect some of it (part three next week, in other words). Cremation, and delayed services, are a subject of intense and even painful interest for a great many people. I knew it, but I'm feeling it all the more after reading your messages (and if I missed any replies, my apologies).

Households with a black plastic box on the counter, or in a cabinet, are many. And I have to add, this was an issue building up well before COVID closures came along. At my last parish ministry post, there was a point a few years ago where I had four boxes of cremated remains sitting under my desk. Cremation and waiting for another date, or for a partner's death, has been growing as a choice for years, but people are still very unsure how to deal with them literally in their hands. So asking a minister to hold onto them makes a certain amount of sense, even if it added a strange atmosphere to my office (they've all been since distributed appropriately).

Add to this the fact that more people, especially since the last year, have no church affiliation, and have taken the cost effective option of cremation only and just "pick up" the remains from the funeral home: who is in charge, and how do they handle things for final honors? Particularly when it's intentionally wished to be informal and low key?

I don't have to "like" it to understand that between cost and calendar, cremation is the new normal . . . but without clergy and funeral home support, people don't know what to do. And I'm too much a realist to say "well, everyone just go back to church." So I hope to help - plus I get many requests for "tell me what I need to do" from friends who are going to other states and places to scatter, and realize this many not be as simple as people think . . . which it is not.

To repeat from last week: if you're the one in charge, open up the box. It's okay, they won't jump out at you. You'll see a heavy duty plastic bag, sealed shut. You can't just tear it open, and that makes sense, right? So you need a tool to open it in hand at the location you're taking them to.

And the contents are five to seven pounds of grayish material. It's about half heavy and pours right out and down, and about half powder that does what powder does. So you need to figure out where people will stand, where you will be, and where these ashes are going. It's also where I strongly recommend that you, well, practice. Go to the spot in advance, or a similar location if you can't get there beforehand, and take a canister of talcum powder from the drugstore. Open it, pour some out. Yep, where a bunch of that goes is where those ashes will go. Yeah, it can swirl or reverse direction. Glad you practiced yet? It's just talcum powder. This time.

Ashes can be "in-urned" and put behind a niche in a cemetery, or in the ground. That may be looking like a better idea as you think about this, but it will have to be paid for, up front. If you want to go to a previous family gravesite and scatter ashes there, just understand the cemetery rules may require a fee for doing so. I'm not defending that, I'm just cautioning you. Ditto for placing an urn in a casket, which makes even less sense to me, but I don't run a cemetery.


Please understand: just because the deceased asked to have their ashes scattered someplace does NOT mean you have the right to put them there. On someone's front yard to settle a score, for instance. I've seen some strange locations requested, and as a minister, have had to explain "that's not a good idea." Placing ashes in a container in an appropriate place is the safest, and some say the most respectful option.

But if the last request was for scattering, and you know it's alright to gather people there and do so with permission, I'll offer a few more words on how you might go about that.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; his ashes are not ready to be scattered in any case. Tell him what you have in mind at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Faith Works 5-1-21

Faith Works 5-1-21
Jeff Gill

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
___

As the weather warms and we're more able to gather thanks to vaccinations and other loosening of travel restrictions and the like, many families that have had loved ones die in the last year are thinking about . . . ashes.

Due to coronavirus issues, quite a few families who had never thought about cremation or used that option previously have gone that route.

Along with financial concerns, the desire to "wait" on a memorial service meant that cremation made increasing sense. Cremated remains in a container, whether temporary or in an urn, became part of many homes, uneasily in some cases, less so in others. Sir Tom Jones was on the radio recently talking about how his late wife, after over sixty years of marriage, was cremated and he keeps her ashes on the dresser so she's the first person he greets in the morning and last he says good night to every day. Note: the Catholic Church discourages scattering as a way to "place" remains, though cremation is accepted today, with the urn then buried or placed intact.

In general, cremation has steadily become more popular in recent years, even if more so in 2020. Heading into the summer of 2021, there are a remarkable number of family groups who are now ready to call together relatives, to hold a memorial of some sort or another months or a year and more after the death at the heart of the matter, and to . . . scatter ashes. Which is where I've been getting some interesting requests for advice.

I know, it sounds simple, but if you've never been involved with doing it, you'll find pretty quickly there are issues involved. And I'm finding I need to keep a few lines handy to copy and paste into replies for friends and strangers alike.

Yes, you can scatter cremated remains, or "cremains" (funeral directors don't like that word much, but it gets used, same diff) on private property in Ohio, IF you have permission. Other states may have different guidelines, but the carbon and calcium grey powder in that container are sterile and safe. What you can't do is scatter them just anywhere. Ask the groundskeepers at Ohio Stadium at every home game: yes they will stop you, and yes, it just gets vacuumed up and thrown away if they don't. But please don't. Ditto Disney World or Cedar Point.

Yes, cemeteries can charge you for scattering ashes. Some do if they know you're doing it, some don't. If you ask, they'll tell you. Ditto for burying an urn. Yes, you can scatter ashes on inland waterways or lakes in Ohio; Lake Erie, like oceans, is a bit of a grey area, as technically you need to be three nautical miles from land by federal statute. I've heard that's oceans only, and I've also been told authoritatively Lake Erie counts as requiring the distance. Lawyers can sort that out, I'm sure.

Let's say you have permission from a landowner or are in a boat on an appropriate waterway, and you want to scatter ashes. Now what? A few cautions: first, make sure you know how to get into the heavy duty plastic bag inside the cardboard or plastic box you were given the ashes in. It's sealed shut, and the bag isn't something you just tear open. A good pair of scissors needs to be handy, or a very sharp knife.

If you've never dealt with ashes, I recommend you go where you plan to scatter them with a canister of talcum powder. Seriously. Stand there, and open the container, and pour some out. The ashes you have aren't all like that, but the six to eight pounds of material you have is a mix of what's like heavy dry sand and light powder. It's the powder that becomes an . . . issue. No, really. Think about wind direction, and who is standing where. Seriously, do that a few days before you take the ashes there with fellow mourners. See how it pours, and where it goes, and plan accordingly.

And an odd but awkward detail: that bag will still be coated inside somewhat with ash. Think about how you want to handle that. You may want to have water to rinse it and pour out there before putting the bag in the trash.

There is no one right way to handle a scattering of ashes when it's months later. I've talked mostly about the pragmatic side of the process, and will say a bit more about how you do it in company next week.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's scattered ashes in some interesting locations over the years to family requests. Tell him anything but a Big Lebowski story at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Faith Works 4-24-21

Faith Works 4-24-21
Jeff Gill

Freedom isn't free; sometimes, it's a tie that binds
___

One commentator said this past week that our social messaging ought to be 100% "you should get the vaccine, wait two weeks, then go live your life. The vaccinated should be actively discouraged from wearing masks, etc. Again, if they get the virus, it will be mild." His argument, which I think is worth considering, is that we're likely to hit a wall at around 60-65% of full vaccination soon, and the only way we're going to get people in that last 35% to get vaccinated is if we make it clear the vaccine is a ticket to "living your life" as in "without face coverings."

Again, he may be correct about that: I expect we will see rates of new vaccinations slow this week, and then come to a near-stop as we cross that 60% level. I'd love to agree with him about the relative risk of vaccinated people transmitting active virus if I was sure it would get us up past 75%. But what I'm more sure of is that if those of us who HAVE been vaccinated stop wearing masks, you'll see wholesale tossing aside of mask wearing, and I think there's still a very real, quantifiable, calculable risk of additional damage from illness and indeed some "excess death" from spread within that last 30-40%. Not another 500,000, but an avoidable additional 100,000 or more. That's why I'm still wearing face coverings in public settings where distancing can't be consistently maintained, like grocery stores and in school buildings and other gathering spaces. 

I suppose the counter-argument could be made that 100,000 deaths of at-risk, un-vaccinated individuals is both a question of their choices not to vaccinate (true, for some) and a utilitarian balance of how many billions lost in economic activity versus those 100,000 fatalities . . . although I'm at this point thinking more about the follow-on impact of getting COVID with lung damage and other lasting physical effects we're still figuring out, for that more than 100 million Americans still unprotected by vaccine. 500,000 people who lose a few years off their lifespan from COVID impact on their bodies later is a utilitarian calculation that might be more economically damaging than 100,000 additional deaths among people in high risk categories who've not been vaccinated.

So it's a balance of those two hypotheticals for the policy makers to sort out: will telling people they can completely dispense with masking and distancing after getting vaccinated get us up past 75%? It might, it might not. Or will doing that lead to general disposal of face coverings, triggering another new spike of illness and death among at risk populations? That's my concern, but I'll admit we don't know that for sure, either.

We all WANT to stop having to mask & distance in our social gatherings. That's the only thing I know for sure. But in balance, I'm going to keep wearing my post-vaccination face coverings . . . for the good of others. As a good example, as a team player who wants to see as many come through this uninjured as possible. Saying that even social pressure to do so is a "risk of our civil liberties" I think does cognitive violence to what the common good really is in a free society.

And I have to say I worry about the witness, the public example of what religious faith means in practice, of churches that have said — legally, I will add in fairness — they will dispense entirely with distancing or even encouraging face coverings, let alone returning to congregational singing and even social gatherings let alone seated group meals. What exactly are we saying as faith communities when we jump into that way of being church, which understandably is where most of us really want to be?

Yes, I'm aware of Hebrews 10:25, and the exhortation for us in "not giving up meeting together . . . but encouraging one another." I also hear a great deal of "we cannot live in fear" and "perfect love casts out fear" (hat tip, I John 4:18). However, that feels very near to "Do not put the Lord your God to the test," which Jesus himself says at Matthew 4:7.

For myself, I have no fear. Health-wise, or heaven-wise, Philippians 1:21 has me covered. What I believe I reasonably dread is to be the cause of stumbling, or even death, of another (see Hebrews 13:17 on that). If a little discomfort and inconvenience is the cost of discipleship and an opening to the realm of God for others, I think that's a cloth across my face I can bear.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's looking forward to being able to smile with more than his eyes. Tell him how you're working around challenges at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Notes from my Knapsack 4-29-21

Notes from my Knapsack 4-29-21
Jeff Gill

Killer bees are not a problem
___

You would probably be concerned if I told you that we just saw 175 deaths due to honeybees and beekeeping in Franklin County for 2020; let alone that as of mid-April, there had been 60 beehive related deaths in 2021, which would put them on track for 214 fatalities this year.

Or nationally, if I told you that "In 2020, honeybees killed nearly 20,000 Americans . . . more than any other year in at least two decades. An additional 24,000 people died by suicide with a beehive. . . Beekeeping deaths in 2020 outpaced the next-highest recent year, 2017, by more than 3,600." You'd be saying something has gone seriously wrong with the normally bucolic and agriculturally wonderful practice of keeping honeybees, and that someone needed to look into how this vital aspect of outdoor life had become so dangerous, and even weaponized.

In fact, replacing honeybees and beehive and beekeeping with gun violence and gun or shooting, and you have a recent Washington Post assessment of where we're at nationally. I'm sure Agatha Christie or some other writer of cozies has figured out how to sic a swarm of generally inoffensive honeybees onto a murder victim, but I assure you it really can't be done, unless you figure out how to roll your desired target in honey and walk them up to a working hive.

Honestly, my general experience of firearms is more like how I think of beehives than as murder weapons. Another parallel I've used in discussions about firearms use and restriction is that of power tools: having a lathe or belt sander or radial arm saw in your basement or outside workshop. I grew up with all this stuff, and it's part of outdoor and rural life in most of the country. Bees pollenate crops, power tools build things you can't buy at the big box store, and guns help you manage the woodlots and hedgerows. All of them can hurt you if you misuse them, but they aren't intended for harm, they are all tools, means to useful ends.

But seriously: "Last year (2020), the United States saw the highest one-year increase in homicides since it began keeping records, with the country's largest cities suffering a 30 percent spike. Gunshot injuries also rose dramatically, to nearly 40,000, over 8,000 more than in 2017." And that was with almost no mass shootings, which get the major media attention, but are even now a very small part of the larger question at hand.

Obviously, a major difference is that a drill press can't be carried in a coat pocket, and you can't sneak one into a workplace under your coat and use it to harm or murder multiple people. You can lose a finger in it by inattention or misuse, and even die from blood loss, but it's not a weapon for killing. I grew up with three firearms in my house, but Dad had muzzleloading black powder Civil War replica rifles which an intruder could take from us and threaten to shoot us with, and we would have two minutes to laugh at them while still leaving another minute to trot out of range before they loaded and fired, assuming they could figure all that out.

What we're looking at today is a field of fire and range of implements far beyond what the Framers had in mind as they drafted the intentions behind the Second Amendment of the Constitution. We're going to have to think today more constructively about what the intention, and the application, should be in our nation today. It's not just about having beehives in the backyard anymore.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's been around firearms from youth to adulthood, and thinks everyone should take Hunter Safety training even if they never plan to use it. Tell him what your solution to gun violence is at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

*   *   *

Craig --

This one is a touch long, but I have time, so if you'd like me to figure out how to get 100 words trimmed, just holler. My source on the numbers is the link here:


Pax, Jeff

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Faith Works 4-17-21

Faith Works 4-17-21
Jeff Gill

Beyond COVID, within reason
___

We're on the upslope out of the valley, I think we can say, from the worst of COVID's impact on our community. It's a long journey up unstable footing which is very much the old "three steps forward, two steps back," which is a weary way to travel, but if you think about it, it is progress.

As we're slipping and stumbling forward with a great deal of backsliding (who knows what new complications will come up by the time you read this after I've written it), the vaccines that are available, which people are getting, are making a measurable impact on hospitalizations and deaths. This is good.

How we all should behave, I don't have a simple template to share. Some of you have pointed out that I've not said much about what all churches should do, and that's true. Because I think architecture and demographics and capacities mean that different churches can embrace different models of return to gathered worship. Some did drive-in worship, and it worked well. For others, it just didn't work. Some are back in worship centers in ways that make sense to me, and others are putting people together in ways I think are reckless even if legal. But I don't have a good formula for "this is good" and "that is bad."

What I do welcome is the clear indication that there are ways to be together in groups that can be healthy and health promoting. Outside is idea, distancing between unrelated household groups is still going to make sense for a while, and face coverings too, unpopular though they are with some. Yes, vaccinations seem to not only protect but keep people from transmitting viruses. Yet as long as we're below fifty percent coverage, and we're not using vaccine passports to check, I think people who've been vaccinated will be helping out the overall process by wearing their masks so we can simplify this and just expect everyone, when we're indoors and moving around within a few feet of others from time to time, to wear them regardless of vaccine status.

I realize that last statement will make a certain number of people irritably turn the page, or click on to the next story. Fine. I can defend my case at length, but there's my view in brief. Let's keep wearing them for most indoor group settings, whether the law requires it or not. If you don't like that idea, you'll hate the rest of this column.

Because another worry I hear voiced about how things have been handled is "how long are we going to keep doing all this COVID stuff?" There's an assumption that it's all mostly disproved because some guidance has changed. Which is not quite right.

Handwashing and sanitizing, for instance, is no longer seen as a COVID-necessary provision. Right, but my problem is that it was not only a good idea, but a public health need in any group gathering setting LONG before coronavirus was a thing. Seasonal flu, norovirus, C.diff., E coli . . . these are all contagious agents that, if you ran summer camps let alone had church leadership responsibilities, you long ago learned were real issues in crowd management and event planning. Fleas, bedbugs, roaches: if you work with people in groups, you deal with those aspects of their lives in your workspace or worship center.

So I think we need to be very careful about laughing off "we don't have to sanitize door handles and railings anymore" when it might well be something we should have been doing better before. And masks? Look, seasonal flu may have a case mortality of .1% (that should come out in print as point-one-percent!) while COVID may be 1.5% or higher, but for those other infectious agents I mentioned above? You may not have the same speed and ease of transmission, but their impact and mortality may be higher than COVID. Worse for vulnerable elderly, seasonal flu included. If you visit hospitals in flu season, you already knew this. Cloth masks are better than oxygen masks.

And for many of us in pastoral care, we've seen people be hospitalized and even die because of folks who insist they need to be in church even though they're clearly sick. The challenge moving forward isn't how fast we can cast aside face coverings: the question will be how we can affirm the importance of being together in faith, while still using the tools we've learned to apply this past year to let people with infectious illness know they can and should stay home.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's still not delighted to preach to his laptop screen, but it's clearly a useful option. Tell him how you've learned to adapt your faith life at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Friday, April 09, 2021

Notes from my Knapsack 4-15-21

Notes from my Knapsack 4-15-21
Jeff Gill

Moonlight on daffodils
___

Daffodils are much in evidence around Granville, and here on the southern edge of the Welsh Hills of Licking County, it's only right that we identify so strongly with the spring flower, a symbol of Wales itself.

Across the pond, they're a big part of St. David's Day, which comes March 1, the national festival of Wales, but around here the daffodils tend to open up later than that. And to me, as the yellow or white blossoms start to wither and fade, that's when it feels as if spring is ending.

My dogwood hasn't opened up yet, and I'd say the dropping of the flowers from that tree that really signals the start of the summer season in my mind. In deeper forest, the tulip poplar, or yellow poplar, has glorious blossoms that we only tend to see past peak and after they fall, and so later in May and into June: yellow-green petals and bands of a soft orange, showing their best only to those occupants and passers-by of the forest canopy, squirrels and butterflies and warblers on their way through.

And I love the Latin name for tulip trees: Liriodendron tulipifera. You can say it as a magic spell to summon the wonders of the blossoming world, as they finish their term above and flutter down to cast their beauty onto woodland trails. Liriodendron tulipifera . . .

For now, we still have full beds of daffodils, and some evenings as I head up to bed, I'll look out across the front porch to the mounded clumps of blossom, and see the luminous white of those deeply yellow trumpets under the moonlight above. It's a very particular white that I associate with this time of year, daffodils and night time and the weeks after Easter when the sun is in a hurry to rise earlier and earlier each day, and in general so am I.

Now that I can go to bed with windows open, I believe I sleep better, and find it easier to get up sooner, and coffee may taste better to me in the spring than it does any other time of year, and trust me I've been running a long-term, year-round experiment on this vital question.

Earlier in the spring, it was warm enough of an evening to try sitting out on my patio for the first time in what seemed like a year — last summer I was much on the road and too little at home — and saw my first insects of 2021, small black ovals so inoffensive and unstingery as to be welcome companions. We're told in national media that a major cicada brood will be out this year, which usually means "around DC and New York City" but in fact Brood X is probably the largest seventeen year cycle group of cicadas, and they have an interesting and complicated range, which includes western Ohio.

In Licking County, we're mostly in Brood V territory (entomologists use Roman numerals for the various brood cycles, which gives Brood X a wonderfully ominous name for no particular reason), but it's also well known that cicadas can't read maps, so it wouldn't be odd for a few batches of Brood X to show up especially in the western half of the county.

As we wait for the cicadas to start their drone, I'll just sit here and whisper: Liriodendron tulipifera.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's ready to be outside more this summer. Tell him what you love about nature at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Faith Works 4-10-21

Faith Works 4-10-21
Jeff Gill

Relics in the modern world
___

In Jerusalem deep beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and in the west of Ohio at the Relic Chapel of the Maria Stein Shrine, I've been in the presence of what are believed to be fragments of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. These relics, actual objects directly associated with Christ or a saint, are considered by many faithful to be an aid to devotion.

American nineteenth century writer Washington Irving, on the other hand (he of Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow fame), wrote that if all of the splinters he'd seen in Europe said to be taken from "the one true cross" were put together, you'd have enough lumber to construct a ship on which to sail back across the Atlantic.

Relics are not something that makes much sense to the modern mindset. A rationalistic, scientific world view isn't ready to call a scrap of cloth or a lock of hair from a long deceased holy person a means through which we can learn how to live today.

Or is it?

You may have heard in the last few weeks about the latest NASA rover to land on the surface of Mars, some 140 million miles away (depending on where our respective orbit put each planet). The NASA Perseverance rover carries with it the Ingenuity helicopter, a four pound piece of carbon fiber and titanium and aluminum, with bits of copper and foam holding it all together. Weight is at a premium, and the flying experiment is about four pounds total.

To have and use a working helicopter on surface of Mars is certainly a "Wright Brothers moment." And in honor of that, 118 years after the world's first powered and controlled heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk, a piece of history, a piece of the 1903 Wright Flyer itself — a piece of Ohio I might add — is attached to the Ingenuity flyer, just below the solar panel on the top of it.

Not unlike a holy relic, a scrap of cloth from the Wright brothers's wing covers is adding to the weight, however modestly, of the Martian aircraft. And it turns out this isn't the first time: a fragment of Wright Flyer wood and fabric flew to the moon with Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong in 1969. A swatch of 1903 muslin was also with John Glenn when he flew with space shuttle Discovery in 1998. Both astronauts, I hope you notice, were from Ohio. (Another swatch went to the International Space Station in 2000.)

NASA representatives explained they felt that this move honored "A deep connection in history." As a person with a deep connection to spirituality, I respect their intention around marking the historic aspect of this first flight on a different planet, but I think the potential contrast with science here makes the decision interesting. On a device where every decision about its construction is about saving weight for an un-precedented experiment in flight, adding even a modest scrap of cloth is an odd choice. If you're cutting everything you can to ensure success, why add a piece of anything that's not mission critical?

Which is the point, or so I infer. It makes no "sense" to do, yet the impulse is strong. Deep, even. To find that connection beyond electronics and wiring and torque, from past to future, between what once was, and what is about to become. Those sorts of connections are mysteries when they happen, and can't always be rationally explained. It's the sort of connection that relics represent as a presumed existing reality. Connection is possible, it's been seen in the flesh before, and it could and surely will happen again.

Over a century ago, Wilbur and Orville Wright bought a roll of plain, unbleached "Pride of the West" muslin fabric at a Dayton, Ohio department store, stitched it into shape using a Singer sewing machine in their bicycle shop, and stretched it across their unprecedented aircraft's wings, rudder and elevator. After years of successes, setbacks, and struggle, the Wright brothers finally made controlled flight a reality on this planet, and a piece of that struggle is now part of humanity's attempt to do so on Mars.

This is what relics are about in a personal and spiritual sense, to connect us to how what seems impossible to us now has happened before, and can happen again. As amazing as flight on Mars, the idea that we might indeed love one another here on Earth.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he was called a space cadet in elementary school and didn't even mind. Tell him where you find inspiration in our modern world at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Notes From My Knapsack 4-1-21

Notes From My Knapsack 4-1-21
Jeff Gill

Won't Get Fooled Again
___

Whether this column runs, in print or online, April the First, we all know that there's a trust issue around any announcement or information that comes out around that date.

I've served on panels and committees that have contorted work schedules and release dates just to make sure that a press release or resolution doesn't have the dreaded "April 1" at the top of it, and run the risk of people thinking it's all a joke.

What's been so worrisome in public discourse over the last few months, certainly well before the events on the Capitol grounds in Washington at the start of January, is how many people are thinking it's April Fools Day 365 days of the year.

Not trusting government isn't new. Pete Townsend wrote "Won't Get Fooled Again" in 1971, and "The Who" released it just in time to be echoed by the New York Times with the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Mistrust of the federal government was a thing even before Watergate got rolling the next summer.

And now we have different branches of state government arguing about trust, with the legislature overruling a veto by the governor of a restriction on his ability to declare public health emergencies. Were businesses hurt more by Mike DeWine's policy decisions, or the reality of an infectious agent rumbling around our communities? Did the citizens of Ohio listen more to an inaccurate state leader, or to the evidence of their own eyes and experiences?

I have been baffled by the actions of Statehouse Republicans to make it a mark of party loyalty to not wear masks on the floor of the two chambers while in session; I have Republican friends and associates who have tried hard to convince me that their data about mask wearing is more reliable than the information the state health department is using, and that Dr. Fauci's initial statement a year ago is more reliable than what he said later as the pandemic developed.

To say the least, I am not convinced. But there's the whole problem in a nutshell: I have information sources and data analysis I trust, and they have different ones. My suspicion is that they are picking the inputs that get them the outcome they want — not having to wear masks and telling people to go on about their lives — and they suggest I am preferring studies which . . . and this is where it falls apart, I think, because I honestly don't see how anything about this past year suits me or has helped me or mine. If you know me personally, you can fill in about a thousand words of confirmation of that understanding.

When it comes to public policy, we've beaten to death the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan's apothegm: "You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts." The challenge for us all is that, in fact, people do pick their own preferred facts. The opportunity we have in public policy is in figuring out what irreducible facts are relevant to our common life.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's been fooled before, and wouldn't say he never will again. Tell him how you ascertain facts you live by at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 4-3-21

Faith Works 4-3-21
Jeff Gill

Following Jesus to Heaven
___

Then Jesus says "Follow me."

To the cross, to the tomb, and to resurrection. "Christos anesti," "Christ is Risen" is the ancient greeting of Christians, one to another, on Easter day and after. "Alithos anesti, alleluia!" or "Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!" we reply.

Getting to this greeting, reaching the confidence of faith affirmed on an Easter morning, we do best to follow Jesus all through Holy Week, as long and as far as we can, for everything we have been put into this world to learn and share and comprehend. It takes a Lent to make an Easter, you could say. Following is the preparation we need for arriving.

Tim Keller's essay in "The Atlantic" that I've quoted before in this space (which is easy to find online), all-too-aptly titled "Growing My Faith in the Face of Death," has been a tool for me in cracking open John 21:18-19, to get at the good material within those two verses. 

After learning alongside of his wife that he has cancer, this Manhattan pastor writes: "Since my diagnosis, Kathy and I have come to see that the more we tried to make a heaven out of this world—the more we grounded our comfort and security in it—the less we were able to enjoy it. To our surprise and encouragement, Kathy and I have discovered that the less we attempt to make this world into a heaven, the more we are able to enjoy it."

Some say this world is all the Hell we need, all there is. That's a subject for another day. But certainly the sorrows and torments of this world don't take a great deal of description by me to convince you or anyone that it's far short of any kind of adequate Heaven. Just check out the last few weeks in this paper.

But part of the revelation of Easter is that resurrection takes place both in this world, and the next. I know the rejection of any hope or idea that there IS a next world, beyond the one immediately available to our senses or mental understanding, is what pushes some away from the Christian gospel. What Easter I believe opens a door for, whatever your present faith perspective, is the awareness that there is in THIS world the beginning of many of the promises of heaven. This sometimes hellish world also contains wonderful and mysterious hints of a heavenly hope, available to anyone.

The caterpillar and the chrysalis, the spring blossoming out of winter, discovering in a box full of letters something a century old that speaks to us today: the Easter moments are all around us. And if we can take some of our anxieties and set them aside in the present moment, there are immediate joys available to any of us.
Keller went on to say about this world, in the light of his deeper hope: "No longer are we burdening it with demands impossible for it to fulfill. We have found that the simplest things—from sun on the water and flowers in the vase to our own embraces, sex, and conversation—bring more joy than ever. This has taken us by surprise."

This world is not heaven, but it can point the way to it. And if we don't confuse the map for the territory, the sign for the destination, there are joys in simply seeing the marker, the milestone come into view, saying "Columbus 21, Cumberland 236." Kirkersville may not be heaven, but you can find the way from there, just as it isn't Columbus, either. 

In Bethany, West Virginia, which is not on the way to anywhere, actually, there is a sign. It tells you on arrival in that Northern Panhandle hillside town: "This is the center of the universe. You can get anywhere from here." Likewise, you could say that the kingdom of God is in the midst of where you are; the realm of heaven is very near us, indeed.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's been seeking to follow Jesus more closely this Lent now ending. Tell him about your journey and temporary destinations at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 3-27-21

Faith Works 3-27-21
Jeff Gill

The Jesus I want to follow
___

And after saying this he said to him, "Follow me."
John 21:19

Palm Sunday is tomorrow, and Holy Week is ahead, a journey from the Mount of Olives into the valley of Hinnom to the Temple courtyards, a way of sorrow through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, a week of strong emotions and painful episodes before we reach the joy of Easter. We dress it all up with Latin and labels, "Via Dolorosa" and Passiontide, but the reality behind it all is hard.

A hard journey, with a solid hope at the end: Resurrection. That promise redeems a great deal of suffering, but the suffering comes first. And in a way continues, since the passage we've been gnawing at all Lent takes place in the light of resurrection, by the Sea of Galilee, with the Risen Christ speaking to Peter.

There Jesus talks to his leading apostle about what is to come, and after calling on him (redemptively) to take on the challenge of tending the flock of his Lord, he cautions him that everything will not be in his ability to command, even where he is to go. Specifically not always Peter getting to decide where he wants to go.

And then says "Follow me."

Palm Sunday marks a strange day where almost any of us can easily imagine joyfully and happily following Jesus. The crowd proclaims him king, and we shout out loud and in public the ancient formula of salvation "Hallelujah!" which is simply archaic Hebrew for "Praise God!" There's a parade and children and families and both Rome and the oppressing local authorities are safely at a distance, even if frowning. The Jesus movement is heading for the Temple, and we are all celebrating the Messiah together. "Follow me"? Sure!

Yet there is more to come. And still Jesus says "Follow me." The mystery of the supper in the upper, rented room. Darkness in the garden, then confused battles and betrayals; a trial, a whipping, humiliation, pronouncement of sentence. And Jesus says "Follow me."

And the way of the cross, through the streets, to the knoll overlooking the dump and civic garden and road towards the port and the world, to nails and spears and pain and death. And Jesus says "Follow me."

Yes, if you've read ahead like a good student, you know there's more to come. But there's also no short cut, no "skip a step" here. You want to follow Jesus in the Palm Sunday procession, and you want to follow Jesus into resurrection and life eternal, you will be following Jesus on the path in between to get there. Following Jesus when its convenient, when we want to, when it feels good and everyone is right there with us — that means ducking into the parade and out of it. The great thing about Jesus is he's always going to want to let you come back on board the bandwagon; the problem with sin and separation is that the more time we spend out of the parade, the more likely it becomes we won't find our way back into the procession.

The kingdom of heaven, the realm of God, is a street fair with a conga line that makes some strange turns along the way, into neighborhoods far from the temples and palaces and "good people," which can suddenly become a nervous, frightened line of children holding the hand of the one in front and the person behind us, walking down narrow alleys closing in on either side, the streetlights far behind and the doorways looming and ominous. Jesus knows what he's doing, but we wonder what happened to the band, the shouting, the joy. We recall something said earlier about parks and picnics and green grass and music on ahead, but why are we here you think, as you step into a puddle and rats scatter. You hold onto your faith in Jesus our leader, no longer on a donkey but still up ahead of us as always, and you're glad you didn't step out of the parade anywhere sooner because you'd never figure out this stretch of the path on your own, but you wish you were somewhere else. 

"Follow me," Jesus says.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's been in a few parades. Tell him about your path following Jesus has taken you at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.