Monday, October 26, 2020

Faith Works 10-31-20

Faith Works 10-31-20
Jeff Gill

And then we pray
___

By the time you read this, it would appear at least half of those of you who will vote this year in the general election will have done so. That certainly makes for a different lead-in to Election Day for any of us, as we think about what's going on and how we relate to it.

But early voting, mail-in, or in person on November 3, you vote, after which if you are a person of faith: and then you pray.

Let's take it as a given that you've put some time and intention into prayer over your vote, not because it's voting, but because any time you are taking up work that impacts others, you would naturally consider communion with God and spiritual intention before taking action . . . right? So we all would certainly want to pray, as we went into the action of voting for elected officials and various civic decisions on tax levies or policies writ large.

After having done so, though, the action itself should be a reminder even more broadly to pray. For our leaders now, and for leadership to come; for our fellow citizens and mutual laborers in these vineyards; for the life of our community and nation in our relationships, our economy, our mutual protection of one another. Voting can remind us to pray.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote about a trip he took to Quebec, where he was much distracted and concerned about various matters, unsettled and out of sorts. Then as his hosts drove him around, he noticed on the license plate in front of him, on the next car, a slogan: "Je me souviens" which is French for "I remember," the slogan of that Canadian province. Nhat Hanh knew that phrase had a particular meaning for the local residents, but for him, he decided that whenever he saw "Je me souviens" it would say to him "I remember," in his case "I remember to practice my spiritual disciplines."

How much more then so with voting? We intend to vote, and then we pray. We vote, and then we pray. Election day comes, and we pray. Election night passes, and the next day dawns, as we are likely to be talking about the outcome, still uncertain . . . and then we pray. Right?

Twenty years ago, I remember all too well, the Florida follies, hanging chads, court filings, and the December night pre-smartphones when Dan Abrams comes running down the steps of the Supreme Court to the cameras with the decision of "Bush v. Gore" and Al's concession speech which wasn't until December 13. I don't know that I prayed as much as I should have, could have back then. But my plans are different now.

Who knows what will be declared on which night or even which month, but at each step this year, I know what the question of voting and elections and outcomes will remind me of: it's time to pray. Prayers not just for the candidates and the process and the country, but for my fellow citizens, for how we are working through debates and disagreements and decisions, and asking for wisdom and insight and mindfulness and discernment. And then we pray.

It will continue, as a reminder to me at least to practice spiritual disciplines: on December 14 this year, when the Electoral College meets in the various state capitals (see Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution), December 23 when the tallies are delivered to Washington, in 2021 on January 6 when a joint session of Congress declares election results, and surely on January 20 with the inauguration of the next President of the United States. Each event, each turning point will remind me, and perhaps you: and then we pray.

There are many ways to plan and schedule spiritual disciplines, and weekly worship & prayer certainly is the top of the list for most of us. But to add in the needed reinforcement in between those dates, we can let the electioneering and outcomes stress us out this year, or we can let them be transformed like a simple license plate slogan, and become cues to stop, breath, and be at peace. Because they can be a reminder to worry, or they can be a reminder: and then we pray.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's already voted, like lots of y'all. Tell him how you remember to stay centered and spiritually grounded at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.



Thursday, October 22, 2020

Notes from my Knapsack 10-29-20

Notes from my Knapsack 10-29-20
Jeff Gill

Nothing is over until we say it's over
___

It is entirely possible that by the time you read this, the winning vote has been cast. 

Over 25% of the total anticipated ballots had been cast by two weeks before Election Day (which is still 6:30 am to 7:30 pm on Tuesday, November 3rd), so it's anyone's guess how many will have been cast before the polling places open. 40%? Half? Even more than half?

But even if you read this after November the whatever, we may not know. Various states limit how much of those early totals can be added up beforehand, and once we see the envelopes ripped open and scans processed and everything else sorted out, I still recall 2000 all too well, with "Bush v. Gore" lumbering through the courts into December, and Dan Abrams running down the steps of the Supreme Court (kids, reporters didn't read press releases off their phones in that far off year). The point being: we've been here before.

As Senator John Blutarski said (in college, years before his distinguished career in public service), "Nothing is over until we decide it is!" While I don't always agree with him, in this case I have to concede the point. There's no date, no event, no election even, that means life changes in the US or Ohio or Our Fayre Village. We move on when we, ourselves, decide it's time to move on. If we want to keep wrangling over an election for a while, we will; when the body politic gets tired of politics, even the loudest national pundits can't keep us going back to that brackish well.

In no way am I saying there's no difference between candidates or platforms, but I would say in the presidential election I can't really point to where there's been much of a substantive discussion (let's not say debate) over actual practical outcomes. Lots of stuff about character and tone and personal example, which is all important, but so very little touching on policy or pragmatic issues. 

What we do tend to see is a flurry of actual governmental action in the first (sigh) eighteen months of a new president in office. Yes, a year and a half of actual governance and crafting of useful initiatives with real outcomes, and then two years of dog paddling then a year of running for re-election. Honestly, I have this vague sense that even re-elected presidents don't do much of substance in their second term, so whether four or eight years, you only get their actual heart and soul in the arena for that first year and a half.

Sure, appointing judges and other executive branch matters have weight, but in general it's reacting to events and running for office, with very little practical leadership. Do I sound jaded? Then I sound jaded. Or perhaps its just that my expectations are low so I have room to be surprised. With low expectations you're never disappointed.

What I do want to persist with is caring. I want our elected officials to challenge us, and inspire us, and lead us. I look forward to caring less about the electoral battles, and more about insisting and empowering our elected leadership to lead, and not just run again as soon as this one's settled. The election will be over, and the engagement with leadership will begin, when we as citizens say it is time. Past time, even.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's already voted, so that's done. Tell him what you'd like to hear from our leaders at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Faith Works 10-24-20

Faith Works 10-24-20
Jeff Gill

TEOTWAWKI isn't what you think
___

My, my, my.

So many people making apocalyptic pronouncements about current events. Talk about the end of the world if this or that happens. Well.

There's a phrase, more than an acronym, really, that goes TEOTWAWKI, or "the end of the world as we know it." The last part being key, I think: "as we know it."

And the truth is the world as we know it changes all the time.

With all due respect to REM, who made a song about it in 1987, or those who have more recent associations with TEOTWAWKI whether a natural disaster or personal turmoil, I think the deeper problem is that we don't face honestly the ends of the world that come at us all the time, so we are open to manipulation when someone tries to put a political campaign or social movement in front of us as "the end of the world."

Cancer is the end of the world as one knows it. Jeff Bridges, Rush Limbaugh have both recently shared their changed perspectives and situations due to the presence of cancer in their lives. 

Less mortal ailments can end the world as we've known it. I've written here about adjusting to the permanence of my spasmodic dysphonia as a new world I'm living in. A speech disability, or the loss of mobility even just in one joint or limb, and people have to make changes, many are needed to make accommodations, as the world of movement and opportunity change.

Even just the seasons changing, which happens four times in each year from summer to fall, autumn to winter, and so on . . . we get out different clothes, new household implements (ice scrapers, snow brushes for the car, shovels for the drive), and even the view from certain windows change. Days get shorter, and we have to move around more in the dark, as the world we knew during the summer changes.

Don't get me wrong, I know elections have consequences. The person in the Oval Office does have an impact on our lives, sometimes long after they've left office. It can be a pretty big change from one president to the next. I'll have seen a round dozen in my lifetime, some who looked different when in office than they do now to me in retrospect. Some left due to term limits, others to defeat, one resigned. Each change was trumpeted as a major shift, and I'm not sure any of their departures really meant half as much as I was told at the time.

Meanwhile, in due consideration of the end of the world as we know it, I'd suggest that it's coming, it's real, and in many cases we can do something about it. We can give blood if we're able, because without a pint available people die. That's the end of the world for them, isn't it? Or we can learn CPR: I've had three occasions to use those lessons in my life, and I know I'm very fortunate that two of the three lived. In reality, CPR success isn't 66%, and even in my situation, I've watched as the professionals took over, and told me later "he never had a chance." That felt like the end of the world.

Now that I'm not doing pastoral care seven days a week, I find myself thinking about pastoral care, and praying for those who are providing that kind of caring support. A parish minister most often is having to respond to three things: death, loss, and change. We preach about good news, and the Gospel, and new life, and hope eternal, but in the moment, we are helping people dealing in the here and now with death, loss, and change. 

Often, the challenge for people facing change is to realize it's not death, and the loss may be less than it seems just now. And loss can be hard, but it helps to put our earthly losses in the context of death. Death, though, that's the great mystery, the high barrier, the veil through which none return.

I preach, even in my more limited fashion now, the Good News of Someone who ducked back through that veil to let us all know it's going to be okay on the other side. Beyond the end is a new beginning, and ending the world as we know it now, that's actually a pretty good thing. Which helps to put any immediate TEOTWAWKIs into their proper place.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's happy to leave apocalypticism in the Book of Revelation where it belongs. Tell him about your endings and new beginnings at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Faith Works 10-17-20

Faith Works 10-17-20
Jeff Gill

I am an unmasked sinner
___

Sunday mornings I am part of y'all who are experiencing worship online, whether streaming or recorded video or social media "Live" feeds. With my now regular contacts with elderly folk as a caregiver, I'm still not attending even carefully distanced and face-covered indoor worship services.

We've all gotten better at this, speaking still for clergy who had to master cameras and audio and low power FM transmission, even though I'm now two months out from that. I watched my peers and colleagues early on, and now more leisure to check out a variety of online services. I attend vespers at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana and Spanish language praise & worship in California and a number of services more like I'm used to all across the country and a local service or three I regularly check in on.

I've been asked my opinion about in-person worship; when or where it's appropriate, and how I think gathered worship can be done safely.

Looking back, we know more than we did then; what we were concerned might be the case in March and April is not the same as what we're trying to protect against this fall. That's learning and progress and the beginning of wisdom in an earthly sense. And looking ahead, we have the necessity of losing much of our outdoor options that so many congregations have used well through the spring and summer.

In short, there's no simple answer for me or anyone else to offer to faith communities in general. If a sanctuary has easy, ideally grade-level access with modular seating and excellent ventilation (up to code HVAC), I suspect that reasonable use of social distancing between family groups and face coverings would allow gathered worship just fine, but I'd be leery of congregational singing. But we're still learning about how exhaled viruses get from one person to another, and I'm no expert. What I am trying to do is keep up with the latest and best tested expert guidance on safe assembly, and right now having older and at-risk people (or their caregivers) inhaling a great deal of the exhalations of potentially COVID infected persons for an hour or more seems to be the primary concern.

For my wife and I, we're not concerned about the virus, but we're trying not to put ourselves anywhere we'd not want our respective elderly parent to be. So if we'd not put a 91 year old in that pew for an hour, we won't go there ourselves, simply out of caution from our regular visits as caregivers. That's a different limiting factor than many have to consider. Most people who don't have risk factors can, I think, with reasonable precautions be in a group setting - but shame on anyone who tries to shame someone else into removing a mask. If that's what gives them a sense of security enough to be out of the house and anywhere near strangers and others, we should all support them in what's working for their needs.

What this period has taught me, though, or perhaps I should say reminded me of, is my own sinfulness. Truly. Of the brokenness within me that Christ died to save me from, to start me healing from in the here and now, and to redeem me from when all is said and done.

Because I was watching a football game last Sunday, and I caught myself doing it. Yes, the players are taking their own sort of risks, for my entertainment and to keep the economy of their league and city and their own paychecks humming, I'm sure. Yes, the stands were mostly empty, in some stadiums with cutouts in the seats, others like Cleveland with couples and family clusters all spaced a few seats apart in a scattered array of fans. And mostly when you saw the bleacher sections you saw people with face coverings.

But there was one game where a last minute win turned the TV cameras to the owners box, through the glass, into the precincts of privilege, and almost all the wealthy & well-connected were sitting there without masks. I thought dark, grim, judgmental, unforgiving thoughts about them, and enjoyed doing so.

Then I heard Jesus say "Jeff, look at what you are thinking, and how." And I realized I was unmasked. I was simply looking to who was in, and who is out, and taking pleasure in being in while getting to label those who are not. And said "thank you, Jesus."

Still wearing masks out in public, though.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's finally found some masks that fit him. Tell him about how you're worshiping through the season of Coronatide at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Faith Works 10-10-20

Faith Works 10-10-20

Jeff Gill

 

When your stuff looks back at you

___


So you have too much stuff.

 

Trust me, that puts you in an overwhelming majority. And if you have someone else's stuff, on top of your stuff, that's part of the sandwich generation experience as well.

 

In fact, I've learned these last few weeks that there are many of us who are coming to grips with having to sort through a house of a parent or family member after their death or relocation into care, and finding out that within their stuff is the stuff of their parents' home, sometimes three and four generations of relatively unsifted, stacked up, piled together stuff.

 

And I keep using the word "stuff" because it's a good resting place in between junk and treasures. I'm avoiding a side-trip into antiques altogether, especially because so much of what people think amongst their belongings, their own or inherited, are of antique value or are truly collectible assemblages, are . . . not. I'll let someone else write a column about how to identify items of value; my work has brought me up against the reality that this is not a common problem most of us need to worry about.

 

So we have stuff, not to say junk, because it has value if only because of associations and history. I've got items in my home which were made by my father for his mother, or made by an aunt's suitor as a peace offering after her marriage to another. Neither are of an iota of value on the open market, but if you're related to those people, they are precious beyond price stickers.

 

Which is why my most sincere plea to all of you who have been reading (and praying) along with me on this journey of breaking down two homes (and starting to maneuver around the edges of a third) and thinking about our stuff, our own and inherited, comes down to three sincere suggestions:

 

First, get rid of as much junk as you can. That starts with admitting what's junk, and treating it as such. Out of a parental home, everything might have a personal connection, so you have to be wary here: your visceral reaction may not be reliable. But holding onto to stuff for recycling or handing over to the places that historically have taken household stuff is trickier than ever, because with COVID everyone's been doing at least a little closet cleaning, and they're swamped. Some have stopped taking items altogether. So I'm just gonna say it: when in doubt, dumpster it. Really.

 

Second: if it's going to someone, start the process. And be ready to learn from the process. It begins with just going ahead and giving it to them – if you have stuff you're holding onto because "it's going to Muffy when I die" then why are you keeping it? And if you're holding back because you suspect Muffy doesn't want it, let's face that now, shall we? If Muffy is in an apartment and wants it someday, when they have more room, and you can spare the space, fine, otherwise, let's sort this out now. At the very least, make a list, put labels on the undersides, have that family meeting this Thanksgiving: decide in the open who gets what.

 

My siblings and I have been blessed with no disputes over furniture and such, but as a minister I have witnessed far too many tragic scenes of anger and estrangement over sideboards and dining room tables. But I've also been delighted by tales at funerals of how grandmamma had everyone sit down and talk through years ago who gets which item. Last minute adjustments after the funeral are simpler and less tense when the major questions have been dealt with out loud, working together.

 

Third: those last stacks and piles. You need to do the spiritual discernment, the prayerful process of asking yourself what they mean. Most of what we hold onto in terms of stuff has to do with what we're holding onto emotionally, unresolved, in tension. Clothes we won't wear again are indexes of body image anxieties or lost youth; hobby items unused, unopened, ask us questions about our choices and priorities in the past; childhood amusements can be pure sentiment and love, but they also often suggest conflicts and wounds still unhealed, the stuff of youthful sorrows still unmourned, awaiting redemption.

 

And there is redemption. I've given quite a bit to God as I stood at the lip of dumpsters, heaving and tossing. Yes, I've pulled a few items back. We're all a work in progress with our stuff.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's almost done with this phase of stuffism. Tell him how you've navigated the swamps of stuff at knapsack77@gmail.com, or on Twitter @Knapsack.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Notes from my Knapsack 10-15-20

Notes from my Knapsack 10-15-20

Jeff Gill

 

Changes in processes & preferences

___

 

Everyone who hates change sure loves 2020, because at the very least they've found they have company.

 

Forget about face coverings and social distancing. Never mind about half capacity restaurants and bars, or aisle arrows at the big box stores. Dismiss the new numbers on the news about infection rates and test positivity.

 

We all knew that there was a push on to move towards a more paperless, wireless, online and app oriented economy. But now, it's not just here, it's the whole ball game in many places.

 

Younger people already rarely carry what us olds call "money" and checks are turning into a near curiosity as we move towards cashless everything. And a few of us who intentionally avoided using taps on our phone home screen to pay for items are now finding that's about the only way we can conduct certain transactions. I've heard people say "I'm just not going to use any business that tries to force me that way," but while I wish them a certain defiant luck, I doubt that history is moving their way.

 

My wife and I were credit card holdouts for a very, very long time, far past most of our peers, age-wise. But we reached a point where if we wanted to travel at all, we needed to get one. We did, but committed to using it sparingly, and thoughtfully, and I think we did well to be as careful as we were . . . but now we have two, and we buy groceries and gasoline with them. Travis McGee in John D. MacDonald's wonderful series of largely Florida-set mysteries speaks near the end of his run (with the author's death in 1986) about having to get a credit card and feeling the net come down across his elusive and vagabond lifestyle, and that's only become more true in the decades since.

 

Yet I think I speak for my wife and many others when I say I really don't miss having to trudge into the gas station or mini-market to pay and then pump. It simplifies things (especially when it's raining), but now the whole business model changes for how to sell stuff to us, and you get little TVs on the pumps and ads on the hoses.

 

Elections are a process just like economic procedures. I never imagined I'd not get up and go to a polling place to vote. That's how I was raised, that's what I've done, and frankly I've enjoyed that visceral thrill of throwing the lever over to . . . ah, but now we tap and click and whirrrrr (the levers have been gone for years) and so why not by mail or downtown on a day preceding Election Day? And how soon will some kind of a validated app on our phone become our polling place? Yes, it changes the whole process, but it makes some new opportunities open up as well, even to encouraging new participants.

 

None of this is about loving change, but from elections to economics we've gotten an opportunity this year to figure out how we want to approach the steamroller of change, and steer it as best we can, rather than fight it fruitlessly as it simply rolls over us. We can't stop it, but we can shift its direction into a better road, less traveled or no.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's still ambivalent about credit cards. Tell him how you adapt to change at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 10-3-20

Faith Works 10-3-20

Jeff Gill

 

Knowing when enough is enough

___


Sufficiency is an old-fashioned theological term not much in everyday use, but it still has a place in our spiritual reflections.

 

It has to do with the idea in Christian belief that Jesus is all you need, without anything or anyone else necessary for your satisfaction and salvation.

 

Sufficiency says "Jesus is enough."

 

Many of the tales through the ages of religious conflict have to do with our persistent tendency to make our heart's ease and soul's security dependent on "Jesus plus," or "You only need Jesus, and" let alone "Jesus has a list of additional criteria." Anything plus Jesus is likely to be too much, whether in personal or churchly terms. God has a lot going on in this world, but in terms of sufficiency, Jesus alone is enough. Anything else is extra, and too much extra is . . . well, I'd say something about a tasty, well made cupcake and too much frosting, but I worry that might just confuse some of you.

 

Because to be more than a bit theological about practical matters, I believe the doctrine of sufficiency applies to not just spiritual redemption but earthly happiness. Which is what brings us back to where I left you last week, with piles and piles of stuff.

 

I know, some of you might be saying "Jesus is not enough if you're hungry, or broke, or homeless." Yes, that's right, sufficiency is not quite a recipe for diet or budget or household economics, but it's part of the superstructure that allows even those aspect of everyday life to work in a whole and healthy way.

 

Let's go back to that cupcake. Okay, frosting lovers: will you concede that there's a point at which it's too much? Where is your enough? An inch? Two inches? A foot?

 

Biology is teaching us that sometimes we can't just trust our physical, evolved instincts alone to know when enough is enough. The economics and biochemistry of scarcity means that our taste for sweets and sugars, fats and greasy good, is larger than is good for us when there's plenty available. Our body alone doesn't always know when it's enough, and we keep going. Choices are needed, to slow and even to stop ourselves, including the placement of frosting, the pouring of ranch dressing, the ladling of cheese sauce.

 

And economic science along with practical politics ask us if our consumption of too much stuff, piled high and shoveled deeply, is actually depriving others of their basic needs. Not that every financial transaction is a zero-sum game, but do we even ask ourselves "if I get this, does it mean someone else can't get that?" Especially when we are piling up stuff (attention Matthew 6:19) far beyond what we need, what we will ever use, what can reasonably be called "enough."

 

And as a spiritual discipline, just like learning to focus our attention on God, and noticing what it is that most easily distracts us and making that an area of extra attention and effort to set aside: the stuff we either most pile up, or least want to get rid of, usually is telling us something. About unresolved anguish, personal pain, deeper doubts which we're trying to cope with through stuff. There is a false spirituality at work in the joy of shopping, the illusory ease in your heart from purchases, the fake satisfaction of knowing you have that stuff . . . somewhere.

 

When your stuff is what gives you peace, but only for a moment, I can say to you with certainty: it isn't enough. And this is what we Christians mean when we say "Jesus is enough." And where some ask a non-trivial question about buying or keeping stuff about whether or not it gives you joy, as a believer myself I would suggest that, at least for some of us, we could even more usefully ask if our stuff is an idol, a replacement for Jesus, a substitute certainty or replacement satisfaction that says to us we can find a better connection to the Divine, to the Eternal, than through Jesus.

 

None of this says we have to throw everything away and live as wandering hermits, though as Jesus said to a person whose stuff was weighing him down, "maybe you should think about it." That's my theological take on all this; I'll offer some slightly more practical counsel about it all next week.

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he's still got plenty of stuff to sort out, none of which he will take with him. Tell him how you are getting your idols put into storage at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.