Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Notes from my Knapsack 9-23-21

Notes from my Knapsack 9-23-21
Jeff Gill

Fear divides us, love brings us together

You can call it a cliche and I won't argue with you. Fear divides, love unites. Anxiety and worry and fear split us apart, while love and compassion and respect bring us together.


The cliche can be challenged. There are groups at work with mutually shared fears as their unifying force. Fear of others, fear of the unknown, fear of what they see as changing what's familiar for that which is different. Fear can, in truth, bring people together.

For a while.

My general impression is that coalitions of the anxious or the merely opposed tend to splinter and divide and fall apart. Maybe not until after they've done some damage, but fall apart they always do.

On the other hand, love is not the easiest way to create collaboration. You can put ten people in a room who all love the same thing: the Beatles, the Civil War, French cooking, and end up with fourteen factions or more. How to align love and loves for a common, shared purpose isn't as simple as shouting "Who loves broccoli salad? Come stand with me!"

Because immediately there's "but not with raisins!" Or the infamous "ramen noodle faction" tries to take over. Ewwww.

Love can also hold in tension a certain desire to remake the object of love, to improve on the ideal. Few of us are Olympian enough to love something on the order of statuary, where we love it exactly as it is and greet any change as a lessening of what we love, a reduction of love itself. We want to dust the sculpture, restore the paint, enhance the balance and the tone on the recording so it sounds even more lovely.

So it might be that the form of love which is a living thing, what we call a relationship in the modern terminology, that best speaks to the love which unites and connects. Not how we love a car or cottage, but loving a person. People in groups can be hard to love: the author James Joyce liked to observe that this was the great proof of the divinity of Jesus, that he looked upon the multitudes and loved them. He was an ironic guy, James Joyce (and usually called himself an agnostic at that), but he has a point. People in groups are often quite unloveable.

And the challenge of love, of a relationship over time, is that to love one person means we have to come to terms with what it means to love someone who loves us, the harshest mirror of all. If we harbor a dislike for ourselves, it can poison our love for someone who has chosen to love us. So we have to work on both at the same time, which is that living aspect of a relationship, the respiration and heartbeat of love, the back and forth of being in relation to each other.

To love is to know ourselves as loved, and back and forth it goes. To fear, and to cooperate with other fearful people, actually makes sense insofar as it appeals to our deepest doubts, usually about ourselves. So fear based collaboration works, but in the worst possible way. To work based on love can be scary, but the growth potential of that path is immense.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's been in love with someone for forty years this week, and it's made him a better person. Tell him how love has helped you grow at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 9-25-21

Faith Works 9-25-21
Jeff Gill

Merry Christmas, yeah I said it.

On social media back around August 25th, I posted something about it being four months until Christmas.

It was interesting to see how some welcomed this news, and quite a few others (you know who you are) responded with moans and groans. "Ah, don't go there, Gill! I'm not ready…"

Well, I'm going there. And with a practical yet theological motive at heart.

We are entering solicitation season. It's the time of year when everyone, and I do mean everyone ramps up their pitches to ask you to send them money. The holiday season from the outbreak of Halloween candy at the stores to the last of the Christmas decorations coming down after New Year's is a time we're all well disposed to giving, vulnerable to appeals for children and the weaker or injured or outcast, and less likely to stop to count the cost because we probably stopped counting a few weeks earlier.

Granted, solicitation season which used to be late November through mid-December has now opened up online and through cable to twelve months of the year. And as many of you know, I'm now regularly in the home of an elderly person who has been accustomed to sending the stray check to some fairly typical causes of the last half-century. 

Even with limited hearing and constrained perception, he's aware that his former torrent of Christmas season envelopes and mailers has become a constant waterfall of Niagara proportions ("twenty three requests this week: can you believe it?"), and he's asked me "how do some of these groups get my name?" I try to explain direct mail marketing to him and the sales of mailing lists, and he just shakes his head.

Blessedly, he can't answer his phone. Sometimes, waiting on a repair tech, I have to over a two or three hour period, and the line between scammers and charitable pitches is thin one as I hear their various openings. Scams are not my subject today, but it's always on my mind. Plus I hang up pretty quickly after a muttered "I'm expecting a call."

What I want to say to anyone reading this today, effectively three months before Christmas, is the same thing I'd say in stewardship terms about purchasing and buying and spending about your giving. Don't do it out of guilt. In the name of a good and gracious God whom I honor, if guilt is making you think about making a donation, stop and interrogate that impulse, please! These folks are artists in guilt, Hendrixes on your heartstrings, Picassos of pulling at your motivations. Do not trust guilt.

Instead, friends, think mission. What is YOUR mission in this world? If you've never thought about it in those terms, huzzah and I've done my job for now. You, my dear readers, each have some purpose and meaning in your life that God is at work through you to accomplish. Do you know what it is? What is a delightful and mischievous God trying to nudge you into getting done? Think about this idea as your mission, your theme, your particular role with a certain cast of characters around you.

If you find your heart sings and your immediate sense of purpose fulfilled by sending a check to a cat sanctuary in Kabul, then God bless you. I don't get it, but the Lord bless you and keep you. You know your mission better than I do, or at least you should.

But if you sign up for a monthly automatic deposit because you saw a sad puppy late at night while you scraped the bottom of a carton of ice cream, I doubt you're fulfilling your purpose or living your heart. You're letting a skilled guiltshop sell you their mess of pottage in return for money you can't get back (it's a Biblical reference, let it go if it's over your head). Do not let guilt be your guide, because it doesn't work.

Give intentionally, give according to a plan, give in alignment with your purpose in being given those resources in the first place. You may or may not be a person of faith, but if you believe you might have a purpose, I want your giving to line up with and reinforce and affirm who God wants you to be, even if you're not so sure about God, or whether God cares about you. God knows I do! 

Give to celebrate the good you would honor. Let guilt go on by.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's got more to say about scammers, but he has to edit that one for language. Tell him where you like to give of yourself at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 9-18-21

Faith Works 9-18-21
Jeff Gill

Mind, body, and spirit working together

Anybody feeling stressed out there?

Hahahahaha. I'm a funny guy.

Yeah, stress and anxiety are the watchwords of 2021. I could get all up in your face with the Granville cholera outbreak of 1834, or typhoid in Newark around 1900, or the ongoing tuberculosis plague that pressed Licking County so strongly as to build its own sanitarium in the 1930s, up on Price Road and now the offices of the county health department. 

76 years ago, people were waiting for loved ones, mostly young men but not a few young women included, to return from World War II; those watchful families still were haunted in 1945, and were their whole lives, by the memory of bank failures and national unemployment and CCC camps during the Great Depression.

Stress is, according to the biologists, a characteristic of life. Some stress helps organisms grow, and even to get stronger; in the lab, there have been experiments on plants and simple animals that show a completely stress-free environment produces a weaker, more vulnerable mature form.

Or as Nietzsche famously said, "that which does not kill me makes me stronger." As a Christian preacher, he's not really a guy I want to quote, but it's certainly a well-known expression of the principle. That's not even remotely Biblical, but neither is "God will never give us more than we can handle." In fact, many of us pray often "deliver us from evil" (or "save us from the time of trial") because Jesus knew we'd be tested. He even told us to take up our cross and follow his example, and we know where that goes even if that's not where the story ends.

In the time between promise and fulfillment, between already and not-yet, we are called to find our path of peace in a world filled with division. To seek holiness while sin still prevails for a season, to minister healing amidst brokenness. This can be . . . stressful.

But we've been given tools and resources to work through all this stress, whether it was medieval plague or historic conflict or contemporary media overload. I closed last week with a non-sarcastic reminder to check out Matthew, chapter 5. You could keep reading, too. The Sermon on the Mount has quite a bit to speak to our stress, and helping us reframe and even overcome it.

Jesus also takes naps in the Gospels (look it up, I'm not kidding), and went on retreat. He unplugged from Galilee sometimes, and got away from everyone even when no one could have been filming him with their phone. He shut off his devices and went up in the hills, or out on the lake, and chilled. Again, look it up if you think I'm pulling your leg.

If your prayer life is struggling in the wake of the last two years, that's perfectly normal, but it's also something you can do more about than I think we realize. First, make sure you put some prayer time on your schedule, in your habits, into your digital calendar. And when it reminds you it's time, shut it off to spend that time. God can shout, but do you really want to make God do that? Let the Holy One whisper, and find a quiet place, your own upper room wherever.

If your spirit is in turmoil, and that's blocking you in your divine communication, perhaps that's simply God speaking to say "deal with that first, I'll be here when you're done." Somebody or something that you can cope with, which is do-able and finishable? Completion is, I firmly believe, a spiritual discipline of sorts if not exactly a prayer. Finish what needs finishing, then your thanks will rise up naturally as you sit or kneel to pray.

And if your body needs care, care for it. We are told in the Bible we are to expect redemption and resurrection as complete persons. We're not just disembodied spirits awaiting release. The body in a mysterious way is a part of creation which God has plans for. In the interim, that means we need to care for the temple into which our soul is housed, and that maintenance work is indeed a form of prayer. If you can pray while walking, I think you can pray exercising, too. Push ups and planks included.

Prayer in mind, body, and spirit, brings peace. This is a true statement on which you can rely. Seek peace. Find shalom. God wants that for you.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher around central Ohio; he's around 60/40 at peace and working on it. Tell him how you find shalom at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 9-11-21

Faith Works 9-11-21
Jeff Gill

Prayers that need to continue

I am, when all is said and done, just a preacher.

My military experience is minimal, my global awareness is that of almost anyone else with access to cable TV and the internet, which is to say . . . minimal. I've not served in the State Department or with international relief agencies nor earned an advanced degree in geopolitical affairs.

Twenty years ago, I'd just turned forty, my family back again in Ohio after a sojourn in West Virginia. If you'd asked me what I thought I'd be doing or where I'd be in twenty years, I probably would have had an answer or two for you, and it all would have been wrong, as such confident predictions usually are.

Then 9-11 happened, and we watched the events of the day, and I led a community worship service that night, and at the end of September 11, 2002, I knew one thing for sure: things were not going to be the same in the future.

And it turns out much of what I thought that night and in the next week would change did not. I could make you a list. But many things that were true before 9-11 didn't change after an interim period of confusion and worry; some things that really should have changed continued in their unhealthy and unhelpful ways.

If there's anything that's worrisome and dispiriting on this twentieth anniversary of 9-11, it's what does not seem to have changed. Our national ability to stand up democracies overseas, our focus as a country on what our role can and should be on the international stage, and at home our consensus about where political divisions end and ideals and aspirations bring us together. Am I alone in feeling as if we're as muddled on those things now as we were then?

But as a person of faith, with some commitments and perspectives that go beyond the year or the era or even my nation, I can say with confidence, with clarity, and with some enduring hope that there are things that do not, and should not change. 

We've heard many calls through the years to keep our troops overseas in our prayers. Well, U.S. Central Command still needs our prayers; while they no longer have a presence within the borders of Afghanistan, their troops are on guard in the face of dangers in a wide assortment of places we might have forgotten about in the focus on the recent withdrawal.

And praying for our veterans? If you have people in and around your life who have served in the "Global War on Terror" or GWOT as it gets militarily referenced, reach out to them. Personally, as well as prayerfully. The spectacle of the last month has been profoundly wearing on all of them.

Within Afghanistan, it's more true than ever: Christians (and yes, there are Afghan Christians) and Christian aid workers have dealt with a wide array of challenges and threats and brutality and death all along. Truly, they need and deserve our prayer covering right now.

As a nation, we've said we still have a humanitarian interest in that nation, and the region. I've known folks who work with U.S. Agency for International Development; USAID will be heading back into Kabul soon, quietly, working on humanitarian assistance as they have for more than twenty years. Pray for them and that work.

I trust you all remember Malala, Malala Yousafzai. Her story continues, though she is no longer inside the country (she graduated from Oxford last year, in fact). The women and children in Afghanistan continue to need our prayers and support, in ways I trust we will see open up in coming days, if all too slowly. How can they learn and grow and find a path to peace? Can we help without becoming part of the problem? Something to pray about.

Then there's the hundreds of thousands of refugees coming out of Afghanistan, both in the well-publicized airlift, and also fleeing across the borders east, west, and north, all needing our prayers, as well as those who greet and host and help them. Not so much to the south, and the homeland of the Taliban movement.

Oh, and something else not changing? I should pray for the Taliban. That they find peace, and justice, and wisdom, and a saving faith. If you don't know why I would say we should pray for the Taliban on this twentieth anniversary, go read Matthew 5. It hasn't changed, either.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's trying to change where he should and stay faithful where he should endure. Tell him how that's working for you at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Notes from my Knapsack 9-8-21

Notes from my Knapsack 9-8-21
Jeff Gill

Risk assessment is more than math

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that risk assessment in possession of common sense is something needing no further justification. (Apologies to Jane Austen.)

Seriously, we humans are notoriously terrible at doing risk assessment. I think of all the celebrities we know and relatives I have who would rather drive cross-country than fly.

The statistics are utterly unambiguous. Flying is much, much, much safer than driving hours across the interstates, let alone down the last fifteen miles of city streets to your destination. But fear, fear of flying, makes people do statistically improbable things.

People say "well, if something happens in a plane, you're 100% for sure to punch your ticket." Actually, even that's not quite true, but compared to any sort of accident in a vehicle fatal or injurious, you're still safer in a plane than an automobile getting from point A to point B.

We worry about relative risk without spending any real time doing the math when the odds and events are well known. I keep hearing from those opposed to masks or vaccines that you're more at risk from lightning than COVID.

Really? I happen to be a trained volunteer with Scouting, which requires along with youth protection training and various other certifications a basic understanding of outdoor risks. About fifty people a year on average over the last two decades are killed by lightning — it's actually more in the forties — and maybe a thousand are hit by lightning for every person who dies (the models and estimates vary); at most, call it 50,000 tops each year.

If you think fewer than 50,000 have died from COVID, you're working from a level of paranoia I can't really speak to effectively. But to say you're five times more likely to die from a lightning strike than coronavirus infection is quickly provable as false. Yet I keep hearing this foolish equation as a risk comparison that justifies opposition to masking in public spaces or vaccines as a workplace requirement.

My spouse is more risk averse than I am; as a female and a well educated person, that's statistically not surprising. Men are notoriously reckless, and book learning perhaps makes you overly cautious, or maybe you just know too much at a certain point. Our son looks at his careful father and his very circumspect mother, and has to make up his own mind how to manage risk and decide on actions.

For myself, I do not understand why mask requirements indoors with close contact is such a big deal. Inside Ross IGA or businesses along Broadway, if I'm inside where I'm passing near to people I don't know, haven't spent time with, whose vaccination status I can't know, I put on my mask. The cost/benefit equation seems to add up in my favor with precautions. Churches in the area have made that shift, and I think it's simply good stewardship, not excessive fear as some would snarkily say.

And why Granville Schools haven't called for masking inside their buildings for everyone, I do not understand one little bit. This won't last forever, but COVID is certainly not done. Let's manage risk and protect each other for a little while longer.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's still got his masks handy, and you should too. Tell him why you think mask wearing is not a big hairy deal at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 9-4-21

Faith Works 9-4-21
Jeff Gill

Perverse incentives and faithful response

Dan Darling was a senior executive with a noted national evangelical organization when he spoke out loud and on the record about his decision to get the COVID vaccine. He didn't tell anyone, his fellow evangelical Christians included, to get the vaccine, but he did say his choice was to do so, and he encouraged people simply to talk to their doctor about the option and to work with them on making a good medical decision.

For doing that, he was accused and found guilty by his employer of having "taken a side" and was fired for not being non-partisan. 

He's offered some further perspective since his termination, and it's not to say what I'm thinking about his former bosses. It's a kind and generous and charitable assessment of how we got here, and he's a better Christian than me for being able to say that.

Dan did go on, in his USA Today essay, to note though that today "There are perverse incentives against unity among Christians, to fail to give the benefit of the doubt, to rush to judgment, to make a name for ourselves by hurting our fellow brothers and sisters."

Perverse incentives is a good phrase. I wish I'd said it first, but I can quote Dan Darling and give him credit while using it. There are perverse incentives out there to being perceived as strong, assertive, defiant, even angry. Maybe especially angry.

Does anger mean authenticity? Is passion a measure of accuracy? Could fury equal facts?

This will displease some of my progressive friends, but in my younger days I spent a fair amount of time and money on sharpshooting (there were awards involved as a youth, and the Marines have a thing about hitting targets which sergeants like to reinforce on the range). One thing that stuck with me is that the first step to hitting the target is not out there, but in here. Inside. As in getting control of your breath, and calming your breathing. Most instructors tell you to exhale and hold a beat before pulling the trigger; others say take in a half breath before final aim and firing, and there we have a long digression before us I'm not going to take.

The point is, even under the stress and strain of hunting or even combat, you can't expect to hit the mark when you're all upset and hyperventilating. If you plan to locate, aim, and hit a distant target, you need to take a deep breath, let it out, and HOLD. Calm down, focus, center.

And in fact, in New Testament terms, the word most often used in reference to sin and sinning is also used as a technical term for "missing the mark," whether in archery or spear throwing. To sin is to misfire, to veer off target, to go at a tangent and miss the point entirely of where your arrow-sharp focus as a faithful disciple should go.

Friends, I could write at length about the faithfulness of Dan Darling, or the wisdom of speaking to your own doctor about what will keep you healthy. What I do want to do with the space I have here this day is to push back against the world's current love (it changes, you know) for perverse incentives. The culture and politics of our day is ever more in love with vehemence and attitude and snark and emotion. A loud angry opinion has much more weight in public discourse, it seems, than calm sensible documented facts.

This is not good. Not good for you, not good for me, not good for the church, yours or mine.

If you have goals and aims and vision for your church, your faith community, your own family, I trust you can hear the passion with which I would calmly argue: everyone needs to calm down a bit. Take a deep breath, reflect over a couple of those, actually. Inhale, exhale, breathe deep, expel all the carbon dioxide you can, and continue taking in the breath of life, maybe even starting to give thanks for each one as you take it in.

You might even have a prayer you use, breathing in, breathing out, blessings and releases, hailing grace and letting go of sin and sorrow. While you do that, you might not attract any attention at all; when you speak up, softly, it might not seem anyone listens.

Someone is, though. Count on it.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's working on his own internal incentive system as we all must. Tell him how you keep centered at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Faith Works 8-28-21

Faith Works 8-28-21
Jeff Gill

A preacher looks at sixty

Jimmy Buffett wrote the song "A pirate looks at forty" and then had to rewrite it looking "at fifty." 

On social media I took a shot at rewriting it as "A preacher looks at sixty" which is not even worth reprinting here (and I'm not clear on how the whole copyright thing would work), except for the lines "Yes I am a preacher, two hundred years too late; the sermons don't thunder, there's too much to ponder - I'm an over-sixty victim of change."

Obviously writing a parody means you're trying to pound some round pegs into square holes. Rev. Dr. Buffet's original about a so-called pirate (a buddy who worked as a Key West bartender who caught Jimmy's imagination) perhaps underplays the basic wickedness of most piratical activity, but I do like the parallel of "two hundred years too late" for my context. 

There's an awful lot about earlier ministers like George Herbert in 1630 or Richard Baxter in 1650, or in my own tradition Barton Stone or Thomas & Alexander Campbell in the 1830s, which captures my attention and interest. Jesuit priests Claude Allouez and Jacques Marquette in 1670s North America have long had a hold on my imagination; my theological and philosophical development deepened in encounters with Søren Kierkegaard but grew into a more pastoral form with his 1840s contemporary N.F.S. Grundtvig, both Danish Lutheran controversialists (the latter always called himself a pastor and not a theologian, but he inspired me to think in terms of pastoral theology, a category that I think unpacks his American near-contemporary Thomas Campbell). And in the practice of parish ministry I've long admired Walter Rauschenbusch, whose work in Hell's Kitchen during the 1880s & 90s shaped his writing about the social gospel.

You can see where I'm going here. Most of my pastoral inspirations are well in the past; as part of an ancient spiritual tradition, that's to be expected, but when I push my sense of formation out a few more circles, I'm still pretty strongly rooted into influences whose circumstances are quite a bit different than the contexts in which I've worked.

In my own time, I regret that it took me until the 1990s with the help of Taylor Branch to see how the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could speak to my own sense of calling and mission as a Christian minister; even so, it was who King was and how he worked in the 1950s and early 1960s that gave me some models to work with. Barbara Brown Taylor has taught me a great deal, but I really only encountered her writing after she had left parish ministry and everyday church life behind; James Forbes taught me, in a sense, how to preach, but I never have read or heard much from him about being a minister in the congregational setting.

So I worry that I have a somewhat dated image of parishes and church calendars and local missions. "Two hundred years too late" is less a specific time frame than a state of mind; I've loved the idea of a way of life that was perhaps largely gone before I entered into it. In seminary we heard a great deal about the prophetic and teaching and therapeutic models, and picked up on a strongly managerial approach in practice all around us that's never struck much of a resonant chord in my heart. Out into congregational work, the models that church members kept holding up were Billy Graham and Robert Schuller, and without criticizing them, let alone condemning, I always knew that wasn't going to be a mold I'd ever fit into.

In the last few years and even just the last few weeks I've celebrated, mostly from a distance, the ordination of some wonderful new younger ministers, with varying degrees of interest in parish ministry per se. As a mentor, I'm probably more of a good pirate. Or more appropriately, I hope, a frontier missionary at heart. Father Allouez died 332 years ago today, and was buried in a spot you can still visit on the edge of Niles, Michigan on a knoll overlooking the St. Joseph River. He was 67, a ripe old age for the Great Lakes mission field in those days.

Seven or twenty-seven more years I may have ahead, but I suspect I'll continue to look to the past for my role models, with the ministry still left in me.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's not saying Jimmy Buffett is a ministerial role model, either. Tell him who has guided your vocational journey at knapsack77@gmail.com.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Faith Works 8-21-21

Faith Works 8-21-21
Jeff Gill

Prayer, chickens, and eggs

Prayer at home, prayer in church. They've been a mutually supporting pair for most of us for a very long time.

In regular worship, among many other benefits of the experience, you hear others pray, and are led in prayer which requires little of you, and I say that not as a bad thing. In some seasons of the spirit, we need to pray without effort. We need to be lifted and carried in prayer, and simply listening and affirming and experiencing prayer spoken by others can get us through times when we have no words, no creativity, no imagination, no memory, just pain and sorrow and hurt. Letting others pray and praying with them can be a blessing, and worship is a place that happens.

Obviously, many of us have gotten to maintain the experience of worship in our lives, even under the most restrictive circumstances (illness, age, mobility) with online tools. The pros and cons, pluses and minuses of streaming video worship have been debated sufficiently in many other places for me to step past that morass for now. But as encouraging as some of the numbers associated with that option are, it's clear to anyone in faith community leadership that it does not, has not reached everyone.

So I know many have sampled and in some cases just declined the whole video conference or social media platformed worship option, and are trying to maintain some personal ties at home. Through occasional personal contacts, whether by phone or appropriately handled visits. But it's much, much less than what many had as a part of their spiritual formation and maintenance than we had before. And even some who have embraced online options have found them wearying, and cut back, reduced, trimmed down their screen time as a two-edged sword for spiritual health versus wearing on the spirit.

Where all that leaves us is, at least in my circle of contacts and encounters, more online than elsewhere, quite a bit of confession around how prayer lives are stretching to a breaking point, how seasons of prayer have gotten shorter, how some have even paused their prayer life and are struggling to feel ready to pick it back up again. . . though they feel a call to do so.

Which leads me to a pastoral suggestion for some, which is a set of reminders and habits I've held onto that feed my prayerful moments, keep me in a spiritual harmony I believe I need, to get through the tensions and anxieties of the world we're all in.

It's a chicken or egg issue: do you pray in order to feel more deeply connected to God, the world God has made, the people God has put in this world with us? Certainly most believers, in most faith traditions as well as Christianity, would say yes. So here's my counsel: sometimes, you can open up your cramped and closed impulse to prayer by working towards it the other way. Reflect on your connections to God, consider this world God has made, and engage as best you can with the people who are God's children. You may feel right now like that last item is something you only know intellectually, but aren't feeling these days. God's children can be a raucous romper room of little hellions, can't they? But beloved children we all are.

But you're not feeling it? Okay. Walk up to a piece of art, open up a volume (or a screen if that's all you've got), and gaze into it. Enter that picture, notice the details, contemplate the experience the artist is trying to capture, Cassatt or O'Keeffe, Monet or your mother's pen and ink sketch. Use art to extend yourself out of yourself.

Poetry is a verbal method of the same. Read slowly. Re-read twice over, slow. Consider the words, what each means, how they come together. Get out of your own head and imagine the thoughts of the poet, of other readers.

Or service. You might be able to do something for another; you could simply pray for someone else, the old discipline of intercessory prayer. If you can't pray for yourself, that doesn't mean you can't pray. In all these ways, getting outside of our own selves is how we get closer to where prayer is likely to meet us.

Visual or literary arts, acts of compassion, anything you can find nearby to take you out of the endless racetrack of your own thoughts, and onto a different path. Let God meet you there.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's partial to Vermeer. Tell him how you get out of your own head at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Notes from my Knapsack 8-26-21

Notes from my Knapsack 8-26-21
Jeff Gill

Granville and Deadwood

Two summers ago, at the encouragement of a friend, we stayed a few nights in Deadwood, South Dakota. Our plans were to hit the Corn Palace and Wall Drug on the way, and up to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and Custer State Park's bison herd in the Black Hills, all of which lived up to advance billing and beyond.

I knew Deadwood was touristed up, and my expectations were lower. Seth Bullock's grave I visited, but Al Swearengen the actual or the fictional character isn't in Mount Moriah Cemetery, though Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane Canary and Preacher Smith and Dora DuFran are.

Down in the town, which is clustered tight in Deadwood Gulch on either side of Main Street, I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, they built their renewal of the historic district on gambling years ago, and casino action is still woven into the streetscape, but the peak excitement downtown is three times a day all summer (except Mondays), when they have . . . shootouts. 

Yep, shoot outs on Main Street. If you are a fan of logistics and crowd management (which my wife and I both are), it's fascinating to watch the cast quietly move into place, set out cones to re-route traffic, and start into their scripted but mildly variable live show at 2 pm, 4 pm, and 6 pm (with a trial for that last shooting in a theatre on the west end of Main most nights, which they claim is one of the longest running audience participation dramas in the world, and they may be right).

But there's no getting around it: we're making a show, and a tourist attraction, and an event to photograph and enjoy, out of something we eye nervously and bemoan on social media when it happens on city streets and side alleys every weekend in urban centers all over the United States. It's . . . odd, if you think about it. Obviously, the appreciative crowd is not thinking about it (and are on vacation, and many are in a very relaxed state of mind to be kind).

For two years, I've kept thinking about it. Deadwood has a history, and a narrative thread of wild west storytelling which has been celebrated for years on television, in movies, and to more recent acclaim in the history warping but recognizably parallel and profanity laced HBO series. So it fits.

But can you imagine any of the cities, Midwestern or elsewhere, which are experiencing tragic levels of gun violence due to lawless, chaotic fights between drug dealers and other desperate characters, re-enacting those sudden fatal encounters in the year 2164? Perhaps they will, but I can't quite see it.

It's a good example of how we enjoy what we're familiar with, even when it makes no sense. The tourist crowd was "out west," the town is Deadwood, and actors are shooting each other dead with stage pistols in full and no doubt very warm costumes of leather and denim. Entertainment for all, huzzah! If I were to stage shootouts on Broadway in Granville, and do it just as well from an acting and logistical point of view, on a busy summer Saturday, how would people respond? Applause? Confusion? Probably more the latter, and hopefully someone would ask "Why?"

Ironically, we went to a church right off Main Street that Sunday, built in part by Seth Bullock, tied to the local history directly and personally. We were warmly welcomed, but it came up a couple of times before and after services that our appearance there was unusual. "Tourists never come here." Even though this, too, was literally part of that early history, there to be experienced.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's interested in living history, though perhaps not with bodies in the streets. Tell him how you've encountered the past in your present at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 8-14-21

Faith Works 8-14-21
Jeff Gill

A point that needs making

I have a long simmering hot take which I've kept pushing to my mental back burners for some weeks now. At this point, I just want to get it out of my head & out there in front of you all, as we look at all manner of reasons & rationales & strategies on vaccination, and that odd category of "vaccine avoidance" which we've all heard about, but I'm not sure we've considered sufficiently.

It comes down to this: for four years in seminary I ran blood drives three or four times a school year, along with the 40-plus years across which I've been a fairly regular blood donor. And whether I was directly asking, simply promoting, or just having it come up that I'd just given blood, I have for all those years heard many, many, many reasons people feel compelled to give me about their not giving blood.

At Christian Theological Seminary, the obvious but un-anxious reason was "I was just in Africa." That used to be an effective lifetime deferral, and we had a hatful of former missionaries on campus. But that was that. Some were on chemo, again, certainly. Others had health issues like diabetes or blood pressure: they'd note the barrier, and often ask if they could bring brownies or cookies for the donors. Great! Those were swift and simple and tension-free interactions over the blood drive, and the clipboard I would carry with my books the week before those events stayed in the crook of my arm.

But the overwhelming and more time-consuming group in size and defensiveness I can boil down to this: needles made them crazy. I've heard more stories than I can recount here, and rarely did I even try to argue, and my practice has always been to just answer what questions I'm asked. Even so, it was and has been a long-standing part of being a blood donor to keep smiling and nodding and being reassuring and supportive of people who feel very awkward if not guilty about not giving blood because "I just can't stand needles."

The Lord and the Red Cross be my witness, I have NEVER wanted to or tried to make such people feel guilty, and usually say when they wind down from their explanation: "it's okay, I'm giving for both of us!"

Seriously, I don't think ill of such people (maybe you, dear reader, but I doubt it); I tell this now to say I know from personal experience, while rarely hearing mentioned in public discussion: lots of people HATE and FEAR needles more than spiders or IRS audits. And that HAS to be driving a great deal of the vaccine avoidance out there. Which is also why I wish video media would ease up on all the close-ups of needles going into arms. I don't think you're helping with that large but indeterminate cohort, the needlephobic, aka trypanophobia, which I firmly believe is a thing.

How many people fit into that category? I don't know, and casual internet searching isn't showing me much. What I do suspect from my personal experience is that 30% of all people having a deep aversion to getting a needle stuck in their arm is a not unreasonable figure to start with. Deep, as in "I'd rather court death or debility than get that poke." Deep-seated fear and anxiety that people still apologize to me about literally decades later after seminary for not having been a donor, "but needles just scare me to death."

To get a vaccine, you gotta go out of your way to ask someone to do that very thing.

As a Christian, we've all heard and I've preached how we all have to accept carrying our cross. Often part of that message is a reminder that when the time comes, we need to faithfully and sacrificially accept the cross we're given to carry, and also a passing thought that we shouldn't be rushing to grab the nearest cross to die on. God will provide, in blessings and in crosses, but don't expect to pick the where and when.

Getting your shot is a little bit different, and the evangelism around it of a very different sort. How do you lovingly and compassionately encourage someone to step forward and do something that might not rattle you a bit, but fills them with fear? All I know is to walk with them, as far as I can, and let them know they are not alone.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he is not a doctor nor has he played one on television, but he did play a coroner once on stage. Tell him how you think we can keep our population safe and hospitals as quiet as possible at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, August 02, 2021

Faith Works 8-7-21

Faith Works 8-7-21
Jeff Gill

In defense of religion

SBNR is a thing, and churches along with religious leaders need to acknowledge it. It's short for "spiritual but not religious" and church leaders have been hearing about that as a status people claim, or a position they have adopted, or an attitude folks take, for some time now. It's a stance churchly people like to dismiss, but I think we do so at risk of not understanding the era into which we're called to preach the good news.

I can defend, in a way, this viewpoint. Religious organizations in general have not had a good . . . twenty-first century, let's say. Structural church bodies, call them denominations if you want, institutions if you're being grimly technical, are not in great shape, and don't seem to offer much to a spiritual seeker.

This doesn't mean being spiritual only is necessarily a good thing. I'd like to say a word in defense of religion.

My timing is, as always, terrible. Religious bodies and church structures on a sectional and national level are delaminating at a shocking clip. Denominational numbers and budgets are cratering; even independent and non-denominational institutions are struggling and collapsing, the closure of Cincinnati Christian University being one recent example. The preference today when it comes to faith and life is for autonomy and personal choice; most imposed rules or limits or forced decisions are seen as bad if not outright wrong. Consumer choice extends to where we go to church, where we get married, how we bury our dead.

This column's roots go back to an editor who asked me "can you speak, at least regularly, to people who are interested in faith but don't want to hear about church stuff?" I said yes, and here we are fifteen years later. And the number of people who would call themselves SBNR has only grown.

But I would and do still call myself "religious." Religion is word that evokes doctrine and dogma and confessions of faith in Gothic print with red-letter capitals outlined in gold, aka "old stuff." Spiritual implies a connectedness to one's own spirit and to how the divine spirit is at work in the world which I wouldn't want to deny, but I hear people say they're "spiritual" and I catch an undertone of "but without all that old stuff."

Okay, doctrine and dogma aside: are you certain you and your experience are really that far in advance of three thousand or more years of accumulated, sifted, spiritually validated religion? Because that's what's underneath the calligraphy and canon law and catechisms: the work of the Holy Spirit to form the canon of scripture, to move believers in community to set up guidelines and reinforcements and patterns of holy and whole living, to bring about a structure that is sustainable for not only centuries, but millennia.

The dismissal of "the old" is most often strongest when it comes to moral guidelines, older ways of being in relationship that today look dated to particular assumptions about people and gender and lifestyles. And yes, there's work of interpretation to do when the Bible takes concubines and multiple wives and slavery in stride. 

Yet the very idea of covenantal bonds, the having of moral limits: I affirm that these not only can be positive things, but that we need them. Can these categories be abused? Can bonds become handcuffs; can limits become unfair & even unjust limitations? Sure, but neither is an argument to do away with them entirely. If a property survey shows that a fence is in the wrong place, you take it down, but in most cases you set up a new one in the right place.

Religion is a word derived from older usage to talk about the ties that bind us together, like "ligaments." The roots are even in the term "college" where "bound together" are scholars and different viewpoints, coming together in a college of learning and study. To re-bind, or re-legio, is the work of religion: to weave and connect and tie us together in our spiritual seeking.

The fluid nature of spirituality, I believe, needs a container. Religion is what we call where we pour our spiritual experience, to carry it forward and to pass it along.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's been religious for most of his life, spiritually speaking. Tell him where you pour your thoughts out at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Notes from my Knapsack 8-12-21

Notes from my Knapsack 8-12-21
Jeff Gill

A night in Granville

A few nights ago, I watched night fall over Granville.

To be fair, I've seen this happen many times: from my back patio or front porch, up on the Denison campus atop the hill, along Broadway during the street fair from the vantage point of a french fryer or on the rockers in front of the Avery-Downer House.

After all, the sun sets every day. Even indoors, we notice it, as the lamps go on and the windows dim and begin to reflect interior light more than daytime shining in.

And we have a lovely variety of places we can be in Our Fayre Village to see that happen. I fondly remember the bicentennial year and the long dinner table through town, the changing of the light and the move from meal to dessert to friends singing on nearby stages (hi, Mary Borgia!).

What made the recent experience I had somewhat unique was it was a weeknight, no particular events in train, just a Tuesday, but a special day in that old friends we'd not seen in person for years were passing through town on their way back to a distant city, Granville conveniently being about midway.

I made my way to Day y Noche, grabbed an outdoor table, explained to the server we might be a while (not knowing how right I was), a promising a tip to balance it out. My wife came along, then our friends within the half hour, and we had dinner, and talked. Let's just say all four of us do well in the talking department, and there was much to catch up with. Wine and margaritas and water with lemon kept us into second rounds, and our meal went from nearly too hot to shady with the sun passing north of the streetscape to the sky starting to purple up.

As will happen, after settling up and nearly closing the place, we jumped over to Whit's before they did the same, and with frozen custard in various forms in hand, we grabbed some public benches. Our conversation or conversations went on apace.

In the sky, the swifts in their irregular and swooping way, filled the dusk overhead and then slowly filtered out of the aerial display, replaced as they went to their elevated beds by bats getting up and out for the night. Both the wing profile and flight paths of bats are more jagged, certainly distinctive. Clearly by day our downtown attics and chimneys and Prospect heights older tree hollows have large numbers of sleeping bats, because there were mobs out as the stars began to come out.

Did I mention we talked? Of things past, and things to come, dreamed of and implausible, nearby and likely. The usual. But at a certain point, as the restaurants closed and the streetlights were all on, we realized the street was empty. All the cars were gone, save mine across the way. So we talked a while longer.

Just before midnight, we agreed it had to end else we turn into pumpkins, so they walked back to the inn, and I my spouse to her car. Then I strolled back down Broadway. No cars, empty even of traffic: I could have walked down the double stripe. It was as it usually is, beautiful, but in a new way to me. I got to my vehicle and interrupted the silence by starting up and driving home, but the next morning, the peace of that scene was and is still with me.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's closed a few joints in his day, but not recently. Tell him when you know it's time to go home at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 7-31-21

Faith Works 7-31-21
Jeff Gill

Enough is all you need

After the last few weeks, I had a couple of people ask me if I was referencing a book that came out a couple of years ago titled "Enough," by noted Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton. My answer is "no," but clearly after posting the last column in this series, I need to get a copy and compare notes!

It doesn't surprise me that a perceptive and pastoral writer and teacher like Hamilton would have already been all over this topic, because as a minister, it's a reality of life we see in many forms, all around us. The congregation I last served knew of my references to the problem in my occasional comments from the pulpit about storage units, and how they had popped up like mushrooms in rainy summers all over the landscape.

One of our church leaders commented to me that she now couldn't drive past a row or fenced lot full of rental storage spaces without thinking about those sermons, to which a preacher can only say "mission accomplished!"

But I want to talk about something deeper than the highest pile of stuff, even though the stuff is the more visible, blatantly obvious part of the problem. This time last year I was shuttling to my childhood home in Indiana which my sister and I were working to clean out and sell for our mother, and we were getting rid of a lot of stuff. Dumpster loads uncounted, even with myriad Goodwill and other places to pass along what could still be used.

And I wrote a column or two then about warning older parents to check with their adult children about how much of the stuff they were saving for them, and whether they really wanted it. In the last few weeks, I've had three conversations with people who told me a) they didn't like my column then, b) they clipped it, and c) they did after much deliberation have those conversations with adult children.

Sometimes tears were involved, with their kids and with me. Some of it provoked gales of laughter. But all three ended with a large amount of pitching. Stuff isn't love, but we can confuse the one with the other in all sorts of ways.

Which is where this gets real. And getting real, for me, means getting theological. Buckle up for the sermon, friends.

Love is not earned.

This to me is the heart of the Christian Gospel, the good news we point to in the person of Jesus Christ. Love is not, cannot be, is never going to be earned. That's not how love works. Love is a gift, it is grace, a gift freely given, but it's not purchased, it's not obtained by force fiscal or physical, and it's not earned.

The lie this world tells us is that love is indeed earned. By effort, by good works, by our deserving it or achieving it by what we do. If we do the right things, we get love in return. And more complicatedly, love must be given if we have done what we think we need to do to deserve it. The fault line, the crack that is sin at work in the world, is the belief that runs right through the human heart telling us that we have to earn love, even as we understand the beauty and glory of love just clearly enough to realize we can never earn it by our own actions.

You can, however, earn stuff. Plenty of dollar stores to make even more stuff accessible, or you can go on the internet and get the pricey stuff to jolt our endocrine systems for a moment into thinking we got the moral equivalent of love. Or you can keep working to do good things and hope the next piece of goodness we perform will get the job done. That way, however, lies madness, or at least a pile of compulsive behaviors. 

The message of Jesus, from a certain angle, is about how we are each and all essentially loved, loved by God, so much that . . . you may know a Bible verse here. And with that love firmly established from the manger to the cross, we have no fear of the tomb or the storage locker. Because we know in Jesus that we are loved, and that is enough.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's still throwing out stuff. Tell him how you know you're loved at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.