Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Notes from my Knapsack 12-9-21

Notes from my Knapsack 12-9-21
Jeff Gill

Denison celebrates 190 years
___

In 1831, Ohio Baptists looked at their losses to competing religious groups in northeast Ohio, also known as the "Western Reserve", and in the southwestern part of the state around Cincinnati, and they took steps to create educational institutions to build up their tradition.

There weren't a great many Baptists in east central Ohio, but just enough, especially around Zanesville, to make a pitch for a proposed "Literary and Theological Institution" in their neck of the woods, in as yet uncontested ground by the competitors so common up around Kirtland and Mentor or down in Carthage and Mt. Healthy.

So it began, the Granville Literary and Theological Institution, formally launched December 13, 1831 by Ohio Baptists.

Obviously, the name was long and somewhat unwieldy, and even after they moved across Raccoon Creek through "miles of mud," from their former location to their new and lasting home atop Prospect Hill, it just wasn't a name to conjure with.

Financial struggles in the 1850s nearly closed down the relocated college, but a bachelor farmer who had cared for aging parents beyond the age of marriage and offspring offered, at the urging of his Muskingum County Baptist preacher, to fund a renewed university if they preserved his family name.

Ironically, William S. Denison at nearly 60 found a teenage bride willing to marry him and bless their union with children, and he fought paying off the full amount pledged right into the Civil War years, but the state Supreme Court agreed that he'd made a binding promise, and in the end his heritage didn't last through children, but Denison University did.

This puts Denison in an interesting category with Harvard and Vanderbilt as institutions of higher education named for people who never physically visited their campuses . . . but Denison is unique in having to sue in court to get their bequest.

Denison was a university well before the time when many private residential colleges have more recently looked to change their name to a more attractive "university" label. Doane Academy as a private secondary school, Granville Female Seminary, and Shepardson College for Women all were part of the collection of institutions that meant Denison truly was a university from the late 1800s on into the present day. Locally, residents and students alike refer to "the college" but the full name has been Denison University since the 1850s.

Brown University in Rhode Island was a template from Denison's earliest days, another Baptist school which became an independent and influential academic institution in their region. Preachers and teachers and leaders were the result of the curriculum, at Brown and at Denison, with the Twentieth century ushering in an era a further independence from sectarian ties, first from exclusively Baptist affiliations to a more general "Christian college" model, and to the private residential liberal arts undergraduate program of today.

A college which trained missionaries for places like Japan, China and Myanmar is today a university whose graduates are still catapulted around the world. The mission of today's Denison University is "to inspire and educate our students to become autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents and active citizens of a democratic society." The program is more secular in nature, but the intention is still one of inspiration, rooted in "a firm belief in human dignity and compassion unlimited by cultural, racial, sexual, religious or economic barriers, and directed toward an engagement with the central issues of our time."

Happy 190th birthday, Denison University!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's learned much at the fair college on the hill, and even gotten to teach a little there. Tell him what you've learned about educational institutions at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Faith Works 12-4-21

Faith Works 12-4-21
Jeff Gill

A cup of sugar, a story for the season
___

[In the Saturdays of Advent, a story will be told on the installment plan; this is part one of four.]

Melanie wanted her two children to have a lovely, memorable Christmas.

The last year had been memorable, but not in good ways. Melanie's mother had died after a long illness, and she wasn't sure the boys even remembered her when she was still up and around and making cookies in the kitchen. Their father had stopped calling even on their birthdays as he traveled with his work out of state. She was thankful for a promotion at work and a pay raise, but it meant longer hours and she covered shifts more than she wished.

So tonight she planned to make sugar cookies for Christmas. It was something her mother did when Melanie was a child, and she realized they hadn't ever done that in this home, and it was five years since the divorce and their move to this neighborhood.

She pulled up a simple sugar cookie recipe on her phone, and checked the canisters, dusty along the back of the kitchen counter, and was relieved to find a hardened container of baking powder in the back of the cabinets. There were eggs in the fridge, and she knew vanilla and flour were sufficient because she did make pancakes fairly often . . . well, often enough. (Make pancakes every Saturday this December, she thought to herself as she got out the big bowl.)

The butter was softening in a ceramic bowl, and she sifted together the flour and baking soda and baking powder which she'd chipped loose enough for a half teaspoon, with the oven heating up to 375. Melanie started thinking about having the boys come in and help put the dough on the cookie sheets.

For the next step, the two sticks of butter got mashed and mixed in with the cup and a half of sugar. She opened up the canister and reached in to scoop out the measuring cup's worth, but heard not a scoop but a scrape.

There was just enough sugar to cover the bottom; the while interior fooled her into thinking there was plenty, when there was nowhere near enough. Maybe a half cup at most, and she needed a cup and a half. And these were sugar cookies: it's not like there's a workaround.

She spent some time ransacking cupboards, thinking there might be an old bag of brown sugar she kept for oatmeal (when was the last time they had oatmeal for breakfast?), and maybe that could work? But it had either been eaten or thrown out. No sugar. She found an extra blue canister of salt, sighed and shrugged.

It was late, looked like rain on the forecast, and too near the boys' bedtime. So much was mixed and ready, but she just needed a cup of sugar. The butter could go back in the fridge, the bowl of flour and dry ingredients could go back in the cabinet and would probably be okay . . .

Or she could ask Mrs. Morley next door. Melanie remembered how when she was little, sometimes her mom and neighbors would call and borrow an egg or two, or a cup of buttermilk, but that was when people cooked and neighbors talked to each other. She'd never asked a neighbor for a cup of anything.

But Mrs. Morley looked like a lady who might bake occasionally. She could offer her half the batch, maybe? What would that be, two dozen cookies for her, still plenty for the three of them. Sighing again, she grabbed the measuring cup, shrugged on her coat, and stuck her head around the doorway into the living room to tell the boys she'd be right back. They barely nodded.

Out the front door, around on the walk since the grass was soggy and probably muddy, and up the neighbor's driveway. The lights were on, her car was in the carport behind the house, it didn't seem too late, but Melanie was nervous. It seemed odd, but then it came to her that she had never in these last few years come over to her neighbor's house. She'd always come over to her to offer a hand or to say hello. How odd, but that's how it had turned out.

Feeling uneasy enough she almost didn't, but then she thought about her mom, the boys, and those cookies she wanted them to have, and she knocked on the door.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's pretty sure he knows where this story will go, but you never know. Let him know what you think happens next at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Advent Devotional Dec. 6, 2021

CCIO Advent Devotional
Dec. 6, 2021

…When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

 ~ Matthew 6:3-4 (NRSV)

Myra was a Greek city on the southern coast of what's now Turkey, in which it's a small town called Demre. But as part of Lycian Greece, it was an outpost of Grecian culture, a seaport with cosmopolitan connections, and in the early Fourth Century the Christian community of Myra had its own bishop, a fellow named Nicholas.

There's a long journey from Nicholas of Myra to Santa Claus, and some might even argue there's no real connection anymore between the two. This is where the wider Christian tradition of acknowledging saints has been less accepted in more austere branches of our faith community, because the historic person and the legends that can entwine their image can in truth end up at some distance from each other.

Saint Nicholas is honored in the ancient Christian calendar on December 6, traditionally the date of his passing in the year 343. The week between St. Nicholas's Day and St. Lucy's on the 13th is where many northern European traditions of trees and candles and wreaths and gifts have their actual roots, grafted onto the celebration of the birth of Jesus a little later in the month.

December 6 as a time for gift giving has the longest heritage, although it might be worth recalling that for many centuries while there were gifts in the Advent season, they were no more than could be stuffed into a stocking or stuck in a shoe left at a child's bedroom door. This would seem to leave out ponies and bicycles and game consoles, let alone automobiles with giant red bows.

But the idea of a secretly given gift, without the giver seeking credit for having left it, has a very long and honorable heritage going back at least to Nicholas himself. The legends go back nearly to his era, that the bishop of Myra was, as a good Christian pastor would be, attentive to the hurts and needs of the congregation. Nicholas knew of certain challenges faced by various families in his parish, and found a way to make the practical side of a solution (gold coins, or a ransom in a pouch, or some other tangible way to pay off a debt) show up in their house. He never climbed down a chimney in those first stories out of Myra, but sometimes stockings or shoes by a fireplace were the receptacle of the needed gold bags.

The semi-ironic point of them all was that the receivers didn't know who their benefactor was, though if that really was the case, why do we know it was Bishop Nick here some seventeen centuries later? Ah, saints stories. Like a modern superhero movie, you may not want to pick at the details too closely, let alone the physics. The through-line of the story is that there was a family in need, a church ready to respond, and a gift given not to receive thanks in return, but to honor Jesus's call to love one another.

And isn't the clear origin of the impulse of Saint Nicholas that caution from Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: that in giving gifts to aid and uplift others, don't tell people. Don't put your name on a plaque. Don't make a big deal about it to others. In fact, don't even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. A warning I read this way: when you give a gift? Give, and let it go. If you give something to someone, and you find yourself worrying about their reaction, their response, how thankful they are or whether it's getting used the way you think it should? You need to forget about it. That's the left side of your brain knowing too much about what the right half got going on. Drop it.

Leaving aside the puzzle of how we know, but letting it be one of those artistic license moments, Bishop Nicholas in helping his community members was truly a Secret Santa. That was clearly his intention, and that seems to be a scriptural intention, too. May all our giving and sharing and helping this Advent be done in that same spirit.

Prayer: God of grace, giver of every good and perfect gift, help us to give freely, to receive thankfully, and to share in the joys of this season as people of grace, a family of faith, with a witness to the world. Amen!


[Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher living in Granville, Ohio; his email is knapsack77@gmail.com but he's fairly slow about replying, so please be patient.]

Monday, November 15, 2021

CCIO Advent 2021 devotional text

CCIO Advent devotional
Dec. 13, 2021

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

 ~ James 1:17 (NRSV)

Before the reforms of the Western calendar, December 13 was effectively the winter solstice date, the shortest day and longest night of the year.

It was also the feast of Sancta Lucia, St. Lucy's Day, and the connections of "lux" or light with Lucia meant that from Sicily to Sweden, in early Europe the celebration of this date meant folk traditions to ask for vision, light, and the rebirth of the daytime hours which would become visibly longer about December 25th, at Christmas.

We have other ways to mark the month and the days, and light switches to banish the gloom of evening coming shortly after lunchtime, but for all our modern innovations, we still seek vision. To see, and see clearly.

James speaks in his letter about light from above; Alexander Campbell cited this verse to explain his windowless study with a six-sided cupola allowing only "light from above." The message of James is that every self-giving act, every perfect gift, brings us something of God, of the divine intention, into our everyday life.

St. Lucy in her martyr's tale from the third century tells us about a young woman who chooses to see God's love as the most important love in her life; there are many myths about her, all of them eloquent (and some creepy), but I most like the stories that talk about how she could not be moved, even by a team of oxen. She was barely more than a little girl in the midst of the Roman Empire at its height, but they could not move her. God and the love of charity and chastity and compassion came first, and not wild horses or well trained draft animals could move her. She could not be moved.

In Advent, we look for the light of God to grow on us and around us, and we pray that when God's anointed comes to lead us, that we will follow, that we will not be moved from that faithfulness. Advent is about the promise God has given, again and again, to offer guidance when we need it, to lead us for a season, to transform us for eternity. Lucy heard and saw and believed that promise, which gave her enough light to follow step by step. On St. Lucy's Day, we can remember that witness, her martyrdom, as a light for us which "comes from above." 

As saint's tales do, from St. Nicholas to Sancta Lucia, her image and story becomes in the north of Europe a procession of young women walking slowly, deliberately, with a crowning wreath studded with lit candles, avatars of a coming dawn made real on the "longest night" as Dec. 13 once was in Sweden. Those illuminated acolytes cast flickering shadows on the snow, a tribute to a young woman who likely never saw snow in her life.

The Christian journey, the story within the story of Advent, is one where we find ourselves made one family, siblings of the Christ, children of the Most High, alongside of Sicilian princesses and Scandinavian children. We are ancient modern people, brought together from the east to the west, the arctic to the antarctic, from Romans to Americans, empires lost and rising and falling again, but all made one in a redeemed and resurrected hope.

May we all find light from above that illumines our inmost thoughts, our late night reflections, well before the reassurance of the dawn a light that comes from above but shines out within. Sancta Lucia, shine your light upon us!

And may we remember that all light comes from above, from God.

Prayer: Illumine Thou our hearts, O God, and shine not only on us, but through us, that we might show a light which helps others find a path that leads towards your love. Amen!

[Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher living in Granville, Ohio; his email is knapsack77@gmail.com but he's fairly slow about replying, so please be patient.]

Notes from my Knapsack 11-25-21

Notes from my Knapsack 11-25-21
Jeff Gill

Thankful for losses, large and small
____

Being thankful is one of the usual duties of the season, and certainly an expectation for columnists. Most of us find at one point or another as November winds its way towards December thinking about what we are thankful for.

You can make quite a list, some years, of gifts and events and occasions, of people and relationships, of all that has made us thankful in the last year, or at least as much of it as we can recall from the vantage point of the eleventh month.

My thoughts are going in a somewhat different direction, not that I don't have a number of wonderful reasons to be freshly thankful. But after the last few years I've had work to do heading into Thanksgiving Day on being thankful for . . . well, let's put it this way: for things I generally didn't start out being thankful for.

I'm still slowly adjusting to not being a parish minister, a settled preacher in a church where I go to the same pulpit each Sunday and preach to a largely similar congregation week after week. That is the life I had been used to for decades before, and like most people, I liked what I was used to.

Yet there are blessings to having the freedom, which I had to push myself to claim, of being able to care for family members in the middle of the complications of COVID. There are pleasures of meeting new faces, masked or otherwise, and preaching to a completely different group than you did the last time you got up to share good news as a preacher. It stretches different preaching muscles to craft a message that way, and I've learned some things about myself, about churches, about faith.

And as I've written about before, the aftermath of my father's passing and the closing down of the family house in Indiana has brought me home taking a different eye to my own possessions, some of them with strong sentimental attachments. Aside from the truism of "you can't take it with you," you can't even get much of it into a retirement community, and most of it my son is not going to want to inherit. I'm thankful I've been coming to a new relationship to my stuff, to memorabilia, to what I (think I) can't do without.

With this year's new version of some of the same struggles we had last year, not to get into too many personal details, it's also been a time to confront some limits. In myself, in others, and as we (in our family, anyhow) start to assess what we can and can't do it's a healthy time to figure out what is possible, even if it's not exactly what we wanted to do. Clarity is a gift, one with sharp edges but a useful reflection.

So I find myself thankful, in a way, for losses, for paring down, cutting back, getting focus even if on a smaller field of view. Clarity is indeed a gift, and I want to be thankful for it.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's thankful for a whole lot of people but that's a different column. Tell him about how you've been thankful for unexpected things at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Faith Works 11-27-21

Faith Works 11-27-21
Jeff Gill

The Wheel of the Year, Cycle of the Seasons
___

Full disclosure: I love the Christian calendar.

My own religious tradition is one that is not as rooted in the observance of the church liturgical sequence as others; we hold that such things are non-essential, and in truth I would never judge harshly someone who said they found the so-called church calendar unhelpful. It's something we've created over the centuries to help make spiritual sense of our annual cycle of events.

The more rigorous of my fellow believers take as their guide not so much that if something is not explicitly forbidden in the Scriptures, you can do it, but if something is not specifically called for in the New Testament, you should not mark it. Severe Calvinists like Oliver Cromwell famously banned Christmas celebrations on this basis, and our early American Puritans felt much the same way; it took a Civil War and the experience of soldiers encamped with German Americans and Irish recent immigrant enlistees to re-disperse across the country traditions of trees and decorations and feasting and carols.

By the time we got Christmas back into most of American Christianity, even the most austere faith communities started to relax about a few manger scenes and maybe a tree in the vestibule. Once we'd had our troops overseas, especially into 1940s Europe, they came back with a love of candlelight services and "Silent Night" that's still a part of what many of us think of as a "traditional American" Christmas.

I grew up in the more progressive end of my tradition, but even in the church of my childhood, I don't recall words like lectionary or Advent being very common until well after I'd left for college. Hanging out with and ultimately ministering around Methodists and Lutherans and Presbyterians in a campus ministry, I saw the role in faith formation and Christian education that the church calendar could play; the Episcopalians down the block let alone the Catholic parish around the corner certainly had more candles (or even incense) than I was used to, so our less exuberant Advent or Lent still seemed to be in keeping with our heritage.

Going out into vocational ministry, I learned in the 1980s that terms like "Year C" or paraments were still a foreign language in plenty of parishes (my word processor still underlines paraments in red), but then I'd hear the question "where do you get those red or green or purple cloth covers for the pulpit and lectern?" Yep, paraments.

Again, I'd argue strongly against anyone wanting to say you must have paraments and a liturgical year to faithfully worship God and praise Christ, but I don't think they are an obstacle, either. They're a teaching tool, and one I have come to appreciate. It's not the end of the world if you miss a Sunday when the green should be changed to purple (hint: if you do that, it's time). And if you have come to prefer the color blue, or as I've heard "Advent blue" for the Sundays leading up to Christmas and the glory of white and gold, that's fine too, just don't make a crisis out of having the wrong color out. That makes the point the anti-liturgical people make about putting human traditions over divine intention, when we worry more about parament colors than the preaching.

It's the idea of the Christian calendar, though, that I've come to value most. It starts with each day, prayers at morning, noon, and evening for many of us, the rising and setting day after day, echoing the Son's rise; then the concept we all share of a day set aside to celebrate the Resurrection each week (even if there's a bit of debate over which day, with a few holding onto Saturday). Then each week we live out a cycle of birth, death, and resurrection in a recurring celebration (some marking each Friday as a reminder of Good Friday, along with other weekly observances); Advent and Lent are each their own self-contained cycle of weeks building to Christmas and Easter, the two axles of the whole ongoing process.

And the wheel within the wheel is the Christian year from the First Sunday of Advent (tomorrow!) through Pentecost, a coherent narrative about Christ set within the wider, ongoing turning of the year itself, both part of and set apart from earthly time.

Or perhaps tomorrow is simply a Sunday: even so, every one is a gift from God. On that we can all agree.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; now he's digging out all his Luke themed sermon notes for Year C. Tell him what Advent means to you at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 11-20-21

Faith Works 11-20-21
Jeff Gill

Thankfulness is a choice we can make
___

There's a new word that may or may not make it into future dictionaries, but it has plenty of usage right now.

The word is "Beforetime." As in, "the Beforetime, when we crowded into elevators without a second thought…"

Beforetime is a period of taking supply chains for granted, casual attitudes towards hand washing, and seeing crowds as cause for excitement. Beforetime is what some of us want to get back to, and a time which many of us are sure isn't coming around again. Or as Heraclitus said, "no one steps into the same Beforetime twice" (or Greek to that effect).

Ohio's own Warren Harding campaigned into the White House on the platform "a return to normalcy" which was a word we're still not sure is legit. But it's a word with new currency. We want something like normalcy, even if it isn't a 1920s version.

What our steadily easing circumstances can give us, though, is a very real sense of thankfulness for the things we now know we took for granted. Chocolate chip little bear cookies, the brand of toilet paper we knew fit onto our fixtures at home, going to concerts without a second thought: we can bemoan at length what we don't have back yet, entirely, or we can dig a bit deeper and be thankful for the fact we had those things, and have every expectation of getting back.

Or we can kvetch or mutter about how it is right now, and see if that makes us feel better. As Dr. Phil says: "How's that workin' for ya?"

Thankfulness. That's the theme of the season, the point of the holiday, where we want to be. To be thankful for as good as it is, not to focus on what it isn't now, isn't yet, isn't going to be soon. But we're working on our thankfulness for what we've had, and in a very practical sense, what we're entirely likely to get back again soon enough.

Right now, we don't have everything we'd like to have. That's a common sentiment at any given time. Even in the Beforetime, if we're honest. There's always something we'd like to have, to get, to hold onto, that's gone for now. COVID is making more immediate impacts on our lives, but this isn't all that unusual in the wider sense of how life goes. Read your Bible, read the histories, think about how it was for pioneers, settlers, our great-great-grandparents. This is a literal speed bump in the road by comparison.

So we have had, most of us, a long stretch of smooth driving at high speed, and now we have to slow down, and even brake our way over speed bumps. Okay. No crisis, right?

For the Christians out there, we have a narrative to consider about being a pilgrim people in the Old Testament wilderness, and of being missional apostles sent to to declare Good News, but occasionally having to shake the dust off our sandals and keep moving with the peace that is in us. Nothing new there, correct?

In Judaism, there's a running reminder of giving thanks for freedom from Egypt, of escaping the wilderness in the Exile, or for entering into the Land of Promise. Among Muslim believers, there's an awareness of the struggle for acceptance of who God is, how God is active in the midst of the world, and being thankful for that without asking for or expecting more. Many non-traditional faiths talk about a divine operation that is beyond our immediate understanding, who is not accountable to our everyday expectations.

For anyone trying to live by faith, the challenge is to accept life as it is, but to not settle for that as the only lasting reality. That's both a tension and a resolution at the same time. Or to put it another way, it's our common expectation that faith leads us towards new life, and that to life everlasting.

What's next? Paul says to the Corinthians that we see in a dim mirror but darkly…and later we will see face to face. Can we be thankful for a promise as yet unfulfilled? If we have enough reason to trust that promise; if our faith is secure in promises already fulfilled, pointing towards those prophecies resting in hope, I believe we can be thankful for what has not yet happened.

Which illuminates the thankfulness we have for what's already been done, in a brighter light "upon a distant shore."

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's thankful for quite a few things that haven't happened, too. Tell him what you're thankful for at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Faith Works 11-13-21

Faith Works 11-13-21
Jeff Gill

When more can be less, and then some
___


For many churches and other faith communities, the last few weeks have been part of the financial, practical, pragmatic part of spiritual life.

The fall giving campaign is a standard part of many voluntary organizations, especially congregational life. Commitment cards, or pledge sheets, or a variety of paper or now online forms are used to invite individuals and households to make known their intention for donations to the work of their faith community in the coming year.

It's no secret that the whole COVID period has been incredibly hard on a variety of groups dependent on public gatherings, whether worship services or performance spaces like theatre or dance, youth organizations or recreational activities. Even outdoor programs have seen a drop off in group participation, and if your standard form of divine service means putting large numbers together in an enclosed room, the last year has been hard on those figures, in terms of attendance or of giving. There are exceptions, but in general it's been a rough patch to say the very least.

A strange common thread I've heard from a number of religious leaders is that giving, per capita if not in total, is up, but also on the increase is the percentage of overall donations that are designated.

I have to admit that as a a religious leader myself, I've come to have a very ambivalent relationship with the whole concept of designated giving.

In development work, designated giving is recognized as a great way to improve and increase overall donations. Donor choice is a way to open up pocketbooks, and a modest gift, we're told, can become a major piece of giving if you invite a prospective donor to select where and how their donation will be used.

In church life, many of us have known for a long, long time that there's a dark side to designations on offerings. Folks have asked for (or demanded) some form of designation, insisted on options listed with the pledge card, so they can cast a kind of super-ballot on what the church is doing, about their discontent with the ministerial leadership, as to the missions chosen by the church governance. If you're upset with the preacher, you give to the building fund but not the general fund; if you dislike where the annual mission trip went or what they did, you designate your missions giving to a specific cause or location.

It's a form of the infamous "parking lot meeting after the meeting" leadership model, where influence through indirect methods can override any open and official decisions that are made.

The two-edged sword of designated giving is that when you can direct your gift, you give more. That's seen again and again in various financial campaigns, and I have no doubt myself that it's more true than not. A question of stewardship, though, is to ask whether or not it should be as true as it is.

We like to control things. Theologically, we might even discuss that tendency in the light of something called sin. We, ourselves, want to call the shots, whether we're in charge or have the responsibility or are even in the majority. We want to be in control; we want to be . . . okay, theologically, I hope you can see where that's going.

But a gift given with conditions is, practically and semantically considered, not a gift at all. Giving, tithing, good stewardship, is to trust and affirm and to release your gifts to the work of the whole. If the community you're a part of is going in a different direction than you think is right, there's a conversation to have, discernment to make about your place, your role. But more often than not, the temptation to designate is the will within to believe that you know better than those with the responsibility of leadership, and to attempt to impose your will on them.

So here's my spiritual challenge to us all. Don't designate. Don't insist on your way. Don't press for control, let alone credit. Let your yes be yes, your no be no, and your gift be truly a gift.

This is the year to make no designations at all if you can. More giving, but with more strings attached, means fewer options for those seeking to lead in troubled times. An undesignated gift is a gift indeed, now more than ever.

At least consider it. Your choice!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's been part of more stewardship campaigns than he cares to remember at this point. Tell him how you find a path towards giving freely from the heart at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Faith Works 11-6-21

Faith Works 11-6-21

Jeff Gill

 

A great soul, a mentor in faith

___

I learned a week ago from old friend and mentor Rick Powell that Marilyn Hotz died in September; Marilyn was an elder in the church where he had been senior minister in Indianapolis and where I had come and served as student associate. In her usual no fuss sort of way she had no services, which likely would have been the case even without the pandemic complications. When it was time to go, Marilyn just went.

When it was time to go to prison, Marilyn just went. I showed up a callow and youthful seminarian at Centenary Christian Church in 1985, and I hadn't been there a month when she said "time to go to prison," and before I could say "whaaaa?" off we went.

When it was time to make God's promise of redemption a practical reality, Marilyn just went. I hadn't been there much longer beyond my first visit with her to the Indiana Women's Prison (IWP) when she brought a pretty notorious recent inmate to church, someone who had committed murder and . . . it's not important. The point was this was not someone the community in general was sure they'd forgiven, even though she'd served her time. Marilyn was having NONE of it, no sir. She'd been to Alabama & Mississippi a couple decades earlier to join with Martin Luther King in talking to voting registrars about their limits on God's grace as well as federal voting rights, and large men with unholstered weapons and barely leashed dogs hadn't slowed her down, so a few sidelong glances from the back pews weren't going to give her pause.

When it was time to take Christmas gifts to the state mental institution, Marilyn went. It's all gone now (and the prison as well has been moved out of the Near Eastside), but in those last days of Central State the long halls still held some lonely remaining residents, and she assumed my first December working with the church youth I'd want to take them to the asylum. She went, and so did we.

Marilyn went to be visitor for those at IWP who had no visitors, but they only allowed her so many (there were some rules even she couldn't work around), so she went up to me, twice her height and less than half her age, and said "you need to become a prison visitor." Let's just say I wouldn't know as many convicted murderers or as much about professional prostitution as I do if it weren't for Marilyn. I wasn't sure I had time to make the regular commitment being that kind of visitor required, but if Marilyn went (for five or six a month) then I could figure out how to keep up with one or two.

And whether her turn on the schedule, or if an elder designated for a Sunday didn't show, Marilyn went to the table. I rarely do a prayer for communion where I don't think of her. She could pray in public for any occasion better than any ordained person I've ever known, myself most emphatically included. Marilyn went to the table with delight, but with a sense of holy purpose, that in our prayer we remind everyone of the radical nature of God's invitation. Years later, I'd hear John Dominic Crossan talk about radical hospitality & open commensality, but Marilyn had gotten there first.

At my ordination, we had to hold it under a tent since the church building I'd grown up in had just been condemned. Since Marilyn had been part of our having burned down the church we were all part of in 1986 (accidentally, I assure you, but perhaps also providentially), she loved it. LOVED it. All elders, preaching and teaching elders (aka clergy) and congregational elders alike, were invited to sign my ordination certificate. The number of living signatories to that document is getting shorter, but I always smile to see Marilyn Hotz's signature on it. That's an affirmation of the church I celebrate.

Marilyn went to heaven last month, and didn't tell us. Figures. She's already been up there a while, sorting out St. Peter's intake procedures at Pearly Gates Central, and no doubt has found a small hidden door off to one side to sneak a few in quietly whose presence might surprise the larger number of the redeemed. She'd chuckle at the idea, but in this season of All Saints and All Souls, I know in Heaven there's a new saint of the church in residence to be mindful of, because Marilyn Hotz went home.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's thankful for a great cloud of witnesses who keep us all aimed at heaven while guiding our steps on earth. Tell him about your mentors and role models at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Faith Works 10-30-21

Faith Works 10-30-21
Jeff Gill

For all the saints, who from their labors rest
___

Given the usual civic fun and games, I will trust that we've put Beggars Night and most of the church-based Fall Festivals behind us.

The majority of those were Thursday; the admirable goal is to keep the kids from going door to door on a Friday or weekend night, which makes sense for all kinds of practical safety reasons.

As I believe can't be said too often, there's a reason to remember that underneath the seasonal and saleable side to Hallowe'en, there's the basis of how the costumed merriment got started in All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints, or "All Hallows" to be olde English about it. November 1 is a day to honor all those who have "gone on before." All Saints is a solemn and holy day in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, and in less liturgical churches it's tricky to know how to mark it when the day is so close to a Sunday; Methodism tends to commend the first Sunday in November, but that's going to put you on forward to Nov. 7 . . . plus running into time change next weekend (you're welcome!) and falling back an hour.

So many congregations will honor those in particular who have died in the past year on this Sunday, October 31, in advance of November 1.

And just a couple of days ago, Methodists and Wesleyans of many sorts marked the 250th anniversary of Francis Asbury coming to America, and beginning a series of missionary journeys that have few parallels from Paul's day down to our own. October 27, 1771 is when he landed in Philadelphia and began a 45 year itineration up and down the original thirteen colonies and then some, thousands of miles on foot, by horseback, and occasionally by carriage in his later years.

In 1812, Asbury passed near Licking County though not through it; in September his journals record: "Wednesday 16. We came through the heat to Sherrock's, dined, and went forward towards Wills-Creek — logs, stumps, ruts, bushes — rough work: we arrived in the night at Waller's. Thursday 17. We set out in the rain, and came thirty miles to Zanesville; I retired sick to Spangler's. We have a meeting house here, and at Fairfields. It is a time of trouble on the frontiers — the Indians have killed and scalped some whites, it is said.

Friday 18. We attended Rush Creek camp meeting. The work of God during the night was awfully powerful. Many Germans present were deeply serious. Sunday 20. I preached. The whole night was spent in prayer. We had a sermon on Monday morning, and the sacrament followed: there might be two hundred and fifty communicants. I had been unwell, but an emetic, taken on Saturday night, prepared me for usefulness. I lodged with Edward Teel, aged seventy seven. I had known him forty years. On Tuesday we passed through New-Lancaster, to Jesse Spungeon's.

Wednesday 23. I preached at Stroud's chapel and we had an open, feeling, gracious season. I find that the mother of my host, Edward Stroud, went safe to rest last April; she was a disciple of ours, and a respectable widow in Israel. I suffer from chills — the nights are cold, and I have been much exposed. Thursday 24. We rode over to Judge Vanmeeter's On Friday I preached in the new house in Jefferson; we visited McDowell's and lodged with White Brown on Saturday. Sabbath 27. I preached: after meeting I gave up and stole to my bed. My rest has been much broken for the last month in various ways, and I am feverish and have the jaw ache. Could I be less earnest when I preach, I might have less bodily suffering; but it may not be.

The Ohio conference sat from Thursday, October the 1st, to Wednesday the 7th; we had great order. The writer of this journal laboured diligently, and was much assisted by the eldership in the business of the stations. He preached three times, was called upon to ordain twelve deacons, and also to ordain elders: upon the last day his strength failed. I want sleep, sleep, sleep: for three hours I lay undisturbed in bed, to which I had stolen on Wednesday; but they called me up to read off the stations. I have a considerable fever; but we must move."

It is difficult to read such passages and not be moved by such commitment and endurance in faith and ministry.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's not a Wesleyan by background, but he's picked up a great deal of Methodism over the years. Tell him about saints you have known at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Notes from my Knapsack 11-4-21

Notes from my Knapsack 11-4-21
Jeff Gill

Two hundred years ago
___

Halloween is behind us, but with time change this weekend, the shape of the evenings will change with the door of darkness swinging towards us an hour.

The barren trees claw at the night sky, and the new chill in the air reminds us winter is coming.

It's also a good time to recall stories of long ago times lit only by fire, candlelight and lanterns all the illumination there was once the sun went down. Travel on the roads, some of those paths old even in 1821, was a different sort of venture. Wolves were still in the hills, howling; two-legged wolves sometimes haunted lonely trails at the edge of settlement.

But two hundred years ago the Welsh Hills were fertile and productive for farming and stock raising, and the folk to the north and east of Granville were friendly with villagers, at least up to a point. Sometimes, they hired schoolteachers to come out and educate their young scholars in Latin and Greek (they handled Welsh themselves). A bachelor relative of one of the early settlers, one Ichabod Rose, was engaged in this work, riding out three days a week for classes.

He was smitten by the charms of a Welsh maiden, Catherine Philipps, for the sturdy farmers from Wales wanted all their children educated, female and male alike. The problem for poor Mr. Rose was two-fold: first, Miss Philipps was not interested in him as a husband, and secondly she had a suitor, Bram Jones who had distinguished himself in the War of 1812 and now at 26 was ready to settle down. Catherine did get excellent training in her Hesiod and Virgil from Ichabod's attentions that fall, but in truth he was not encouraged by her in any way.

The infatuation was obvious enough that certain young men around Bram's age decided a lesson should be taught to the schoolteacher. One late autumn evening, as Ichabod rode his aging gelding back from the Welsh Hills to the Thrall boarding stables on Equality Street in the village, turning west at Jones Road onto Centerville Street, he looked back down the long dark tunnel of overhanging trees to the east, and saw dimly silhouetted a single rider.

This was not itself unusual, but the distant rider was at a gallop, and nervously Ichabod Rose spurred his unwilling mount for a bit more speed to the west. It was a common superstition that crossing the dip of Clear Run, over the water, one was then safe within the village's implicit embrace.

Down the slope of Tannery Hill his mount clambered, and at the water's edge he looked back up, and saw a headless horseman, all in black, loom over him above, with a flaming face eerily held out to one side. The schoolmaster shrieked, and then fell from his horse in a dead faint as the separated head was flung right at him, narrowly missing the rocks in the stream bed.

Later that night, the horse walked loose reined into the stable alone; a search party found only a smashed pumpkin by Clear Run, and the next morning the parson's wife where Rose boarded found his room emptied of everything except a tattered copy of Chapman's Homer.

These mysterious events of 1821 may have inspired certain east coast authors, or perhaps it was the other way around, but even in 2021 we know the shadows and candlelights of fall can still chill our imaginations — along with the cold winds of impending winter, now on their way out of the hills to our north.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he knows he owes an apology to Washington Irving, who published the original legend in 1820. Tell him what other stories might adapt to our local landscape at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Faith Works 10-23-21

Faith Works 10-23-21
Jeff Gill

Haunted, yes; ghosts, well…
___

Not to chase away readers, but I'll just make my views clear right from the start. I think ghost stories are more about us than they are about them.

But as Dumbledore famously said to Harry Potter: "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

I come from a religious tradition that prefers to ask about contentious questions "What does the Bible say?" On ghosts, it's actually not clear. So I am not critical of fellow Christians who believe ghosts appear or manifest or haunt. I would read the weight of scripture as cautioning us very strongly against interpreting a message from the dead as being the same as a word from God, so when people tell me they've had a vivid dream about a deceased loved one, I'm guarded in my response.

Not dismissive, though. Again, I think ghost stories are more about us than they are about them, the departed, the ethereal, the deceased. We have unanswered questions, longings unresolved, and issues that are just left awkwardly where we want clarity and closure and even conclusion. This is where I think our mental and spiritual desire to fill in gaps can create some impressive impressions.

Yet I have had my own encounters, and heard guidance or at least messages that have struck me as on target, even mysteriously so. Just over a week after my dad died, I walked up to him and hugged him and we talked. It was in a dream, and the answers, such as they were, had an elliptical quality at best. No, I'm not going to tell you what he said, it would take to long to set up, and besides it's personal.

What I've heard again and again from people over the years is that vivid dreams or strong impressions in a wakeful moment about a person who has died can be intensely personal, in a way that makes such dreams or visions stand out. Sometimes it means something that the recipient knew already but was having trouble admitting or facing; sometimes it has to do with unresolved matters which point towards a solution. There are stories about the latter which end up implying knowledge which "could only have come from the deceased," but this is where both my caution and my skepticism come in. We all have a tendency to try to fit questions and answers together.

More broadly, we want to believe. Even in a secular age, and a less religious era, I think it's fair to say in general, we want to hope that there is life beyond life. Call me a religious person — guilty! — but I see this impulse all around as October rolls towards its pumpkin shaped conclusion. From the candle inside the jack-o'-lantern to the ghosts taped onto our windows, there's a desire to think we have souls, that beyond death is . . . something. We toy with that impulse, play with it, and try to laugh at it, but it's there in every ghost hunt and haunted house entertainment. Listening to electronic devices or watching cameras for mysterious orbs, always hoping for a sign that after death is . . . something. A haunting, a verified ghost, a documented apparition, would give us something for sure.

And I admit I am haunted. I've lived and worked here long enough that there are far too many places I go or pass by where I know someone has died. Yes, right there. The awareness haunts me. My dad? I still read or hear or find something that makes me think "I need to call Dad and tell him about that." My grandmother, gone forty years and more now, I think of when I see a really cool bird; just a few years back I was in the Everglades surrounded by about a dozen birds I'd never seen before, but I couldn't stop thinking about her.

Israel Dille I talk to often, about Newark and earthworks and Licking County, technology and faith. He died almost a hundred and fifty years ago, and he has no marker on his grave at Cedar Hill, though I can tell you right where it is. Obviously, we never met in life, but he and Mary Hartwell Catherwood and William Gavit and Minnie Hite Moody, Benjamin Briggs and Carl Etherington, Sister Mary Eulalia Wehrle and Rev. Levi Shinn, and certainly Lilly Benjamin Jones . . . they all haunt me.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's seen things you people wouldn't believe. Tell him what haunts you at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.