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Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Remembering “Johnny Kay”

Richard "Johnny Kay" Kutan. Picture accessed from http://www.vindy.com/news/tributes/2014/dec/14/richard-johnny-kay-kuta/

Richard “Johnny Kay” Kutan.

“Johnny Kay” was the on air name of Richard Kutan, a long time resident of Youngstown, Ohio. I learned last night that he passed away on Friday December 5 in Marysville, Ohio, living near family. This is a loss that touches me personally. He was a mentor to me during my high school years and one who played a profound influence in shaping my faith.

I first heard of “Johnny Kay” in my middle school years. I would listen to him in the mornings on WHOT, our local rock music station while I washed up for school. In between songs by the Beatles or the Monkees, he would read the lunch menus for different schools in the area. At some point around then, he began attending our church. His sister, Louise Schenk had long been a member and was a woman of faith. I still have, and treasure, a copy of My Utmost for His Highest inscribed by her.

In the summer of 1970, he began hosting Bible studies at his home for teenagers searching for faith. I started going along with several friends. A few months before, I had made a commitment to follow Christ at a retreat but I was still pretty clueless as to what that meant. Those weekly discussions taught me what it meant to trust Christ in daily life and also the radical kind of love that was to be the mark of Christ’s followers.

Out of these weekly gatherings, the idea was hatched to hold an outdoor rally on the lawn of our church. Phil Keaggy, a musician with Glass Harp and several other local musicians who had come to faith played. Others were invited to speak about their faith. I was one who stood up–kind of my “coming out” day as a Christian in front of some of my high school friends. Johnny Kay was among those who spoke about what it meant to trust in Christ and how this could fill the place in our lives we were trying to fill with music, drugs, or sex. Many responded that day and the Bible studies moved out of Johnny’s den into the church.

Before we knew it, we found ourselves swept up in an awakening that was going on around the country, known as the “Jesus Movement.” Many of us would pile into cars and vans and do rallies at a number of the local high schools. Because I didn’t have a car, Johnny Kay often picked me up in his green VW Beetle enroute to these rallies and what I remember was his willingness to talk, listen, or pray with me about all the things I was wrestling with as a teen and a beginning follower of Christ. I remember how he listened when I talked about the pain of a break-up. He also challenged me to take steps of faith, most often in terms of being willing to speak up about my faith in school settings as well as at rallies. I’m still doing that and I think I owe that largely to him.

Our lives only intersected closely for about two and a half years. But I will always be grateful that he “had time” and challenged me in my faith. And what he did for me, I know he did for countless others over many years. I learned that he received the Victory Star Medal for his service as a radio operator in the Pacific theater during World War 2. He was buried with military honors. In later years he moved over to another local radio station. He was beloved in the community. Even in his retirement years he was the Director of Lay Ministry at the church where I grew up overseeing a food pantry and helping with efforts to create a community center in the church.

At one time, I think the DJs at WHOT were known as “The Good Guys.” There could not be a more fitting description for Johnny Kay. A member of “The Greatest Generation” who served with distinction, a voice that brought a smile to our faces as we were waking up each morning, a caring follower of Christ who took time with a rather “nerdy” teenager, and one who lived for others as long as he could. Johnny Kay was all that and more. I thank God for Richard “Johnny Kay” Kutan. Rest in Peace my friend.  I will always remember you.

Review: The Autobiography of Saint Therese: The Story of a Soul

The Autobiography of Saint Therese: The Story of a Soul
The Autobiography of Saint Therese: The Story of a Soul by Thérèse de Lisieux
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I take personal retreats regularly at a center named after Saint Therese. So it seemed only right that at some point I should read her autobiography.

It is personal narrative with a single thread throughout: Therese’s intense love for Jesus that was a consequence of her great confidence that she was greatly loved by Jesus. It is this love, even more than the fact that two of her sisters had preceded her in entering the monastery, that moved her from an early age to long to be “wed” to Christ.

She confesses at times that her writing is “muddled” and indeed it has something of a “stream of consciousness” flow to it moving from an event in her family to reflections to a narrative on caring for novitiates. Yet the theme of the love of Christ and her love for Christ weaves throughout and gives the narrative an underlying coherence.

The book speaks of her earliest spiritual memories in her awareness of the love of God for her manifest both in nature and in the Catholic mass. She describes her confirmation and chrismation and the joy of knowing herself sealed by Christ’s Spirit. She recounts her pleas with her priest, bishop, and finally on pilgrimage, the Pope to be allowed to enter the Carmelite order early. At last, all relented and she entered at age 15.

She describes the vicissitudes of monastic life and how she learns through each of these to see them as loving gifts from God to form her more deeply in the love of Christ. She discovers that this is a love that is greater than all her weaknesses. We see her embrace of caring for others in her novitiate beginning with her prayers. With that love, we see a growing passion for “lost souls” expressed in prayer both for missionary priests and the people they sought to win.

We hear this love burning more brightly as her death at age 24 approaches. Toward the end of this narrative (and her life) she wrote this, which expresses well the recurring theme of this narrative:

“O eternal Word, my Saviour, You are the Eagle I love and the One who fascinates me. You swept down to this land of exile and suffered and died so that you could bear away every soul and plunge them into the heart of the Blessed Trinity, that inextinguishable furnace of love. You re-entered the splendours of heaven, yet stayed in our vale of tears hidden under the appearance of a white Host so that You can feed me with Your own substance. O Jesus, do not be angry if I tell you that Your love is a mad love…and how can you expect my heart, when confronted with this folly, not to soar up to You? How can there be any limit to my trust?(p. 158).

The Catholic context in which this love is expressed may seem foreign to the non-Catholics like me who read this account. But one cannot help but ask oneself in reading Therese’s narrative, “do I love Jesus with anything like the longing of this woman who died so young?” As one who believes in the grace of God in Christ, I must ask whether I have anything like the confidence of Therese in the greatness of God’s love to overcome my lesser and greater sins?

Good questions for my next retreat, it seems.

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Review: Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama

Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama
Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama by Kenneth E Bailey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Say it isn’t so!

If Kenneth Bailey is right (and I believe he is) I need to revise my mental images of the birth scene in Bethlehem. The manger scene in our living room is inaccurate because it places the birth in a stable.

We’ve grown up with the narrative that there was “no room in the inn” and then assumed that the “manger” in which Jesus was laid was in a stable. Bailey argues first of all that the normal word for inn (pandocheion) is not used here but rather a word (katalyma) that is most accurately translated (as does the NIV in Luke 2:7) as “guest room”. Bailey observes that this refers to a room in most homes of the time that would be used for visiting guests while the family occupies the main room. Second, he contends that in most of these homes there was an area off of the main room, sometimes slightly lower, where animals were brought in for the night. It would have been easy to move a manger for a small animal to the main room to serve as a bed for the baby.

Our "stable" nativity

Our “stable” nativity (c) 2014 Robert C Trube

Furthermore, Bailey’s explanation gets at a mental objection I’ve always wondered about. It is basically along the lines of “how heartless can Bethlehem be if a town won’t house a relative ready to have a baby?” Furthermore, anyone who knows about Middle Eastern hospitality, knows that this flies in the face of everything that is good and decent and expected. Bailey contends that in fact, the real picture in the biblical narrative is one of relatives who are already hosting visitors in town for the census who open up their home even further to make room for their relatives in need–and so in fact open up their hearts to Messiah Jesus.

Bailey introduces all of this at the beginning of his “Christmas drama” which is built around his explanation of what most likely actually occurred on the basis of both custom and the biblical narrative. The drama that follows struck me as an understated account of how a couple, Benjamin and Judith, respond to the demands of hospitality. There is the practical question of whether to bring the animals in and the decision to do so with so many strangers in town. Most riveting for audiences is the scene where Joseph and Mary arrive outside the home and call out requesting hospitality. We see the real choice of a Herod-fearing people between fearfulness and welcome and what happens in this home, as well as with some neighboring shepherds, when this family opens not only home but hearts to Joseph, Mary, and the child that is soon born to them.

The drama is written to serve as a church nativity play and includes stage directions and program materials which may be used without permission for non-profit purposes if certain criteria (including purchase of twelve scripts and no admission fee) and suitable credit is given. There are also several songs in the drama for which a musical score and CD is available from the publisher.

This review probably comes too late for Christmas celebrations this season. However, churches may wish to consider this for the future because of the crucial question it poses to both cast and audience: is my heart open for the coming of Jesus?

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How I Review a Book


Posted a number of book reviews this week. Thought I would post this, one of my early posts with some new thoughts about how I do these reviews. This is, after all “Bob on Books”!

Originally posted on Bob on Books:

I was asked a while back by some colleagues how I review a book.  I feel I am still on a learning curve about this and so would love to interact with others who both write and read reviews.

1. First of all, I really do read the whole book.  I don’t write a review until I finish the book.  Maybe I’m compulsive, but it somehow feels like cheating to review something I don’t read.

2.  I often “lead” in the review with something that particularly intrigued or interested me in the book that I think might connect with others.

3.  I usually summarize the contents.  This comes in part from my original purpose of writing reviews–providing myself with a reminder of what the book was about.  I find this also seems helpful to others in deciding if they want to read the book.

4.  Often, I will briefly engage…

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Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Traditions

“Tradition” is another word for “how we’ve always done it.” One of the things that is true of many of our families in Youngstown is that they had a rich set of Christmas traditions. This week, I’m going to reflect on some of those during the Christmas season and then next week focus in on those around Christmas Eve and Day.

One of the more lavish displays in my neighborhood (c) Robert C Trube, 2014

One of the more lavish displays in my neighborhood (c) Robert C Trube, 2014

Christmas lights and trees. Most of our families would string a few strings of the big old outdoor lights on the front porch and around the door, usually in late November-early December, hopefully on a weekend day when it wasn’t too cold. Most of us didn’t put up Christmas trees until around the week before Christmas, maybe a little sooner, because we had real trees and they would only hold up so long indoors before all the needles were on the floor and they became a fire hazard. But, oh, the house would smell lovely. Dad always decorated our tree and he was absolutely meticulous in getting the lights placed just right so they would reflect off the tree ornaments. One year when I was probably in fifth or sixth grade, dad was away for work a good deal before Christmas so I went up to the local tree lot and selected our tree. But dad still decorated it. Said I did a good job picking it out.

There were always those few who would go all out on their Christmas displays. There was one off North Belle Vista near the freeway that you could probably see from space! They had lights, and music, and even a Santa Claus mail box. As I recall, many of the homes in the Newport area had wonderful displays as well as some on the North Side. In the evenings before Christmas I remember us often going for rides just to see the lights, or doing a little extra exploring after we visited the relatives. I suspect there were many others places that I either never saw or have forgotten that someone else reading this will remember.

An advertisement for the original NBC airing of Videocraft's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, promoted as a General Electric Fantasy Hour.

An advertisement for the original NBC airing of Videocraft’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, promoted as a General Electric Fantasy Hour.

We grew up in what were, I think, some of the golden years of TV Christmas specials, many of which are still airing (for example the 50th anniversary of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer). Somehow, Christmas and Burl Ives just seem to go together! I remember seeing Rudolph and Frosty the Snow Man and a Charlie Brown Christmas when they first came out. We still watch Charlie Brown and love listening to Vince Guaraldi’s astounding music that accompanied this show. Of course, there were all the great singers of the time, who each had their own Christmas special as well. As a kid, I always thought Perry Como’s name should have been Perry Coma! But I knew people who loved him!

These days, they start playing Christmas music just after Halloween and they stop on Christmas day. It seems when we were growing up, that we heard more and more Christmas music on the radio the last weeks before Christmas but that it continued from Christmas through New Year’s Eve, accompanying all our visits to family and friends throughout that week.

One of the things we did was make many of our Christmas decorations. We made popcorn strings to put on the trees, or garlands made of red and green construction paper. Remember Readers Digest Christmas trees? There was a way you could fold the paper and then spray paint it and drizzle sprinkles on it to make snow covered trees. I also know people who made Mr. and Mrs Santa Claus the same way buying the heads at an art store. Then who can forget Christmas wreaths made out of old IBM punch cards? It actually didn’t take much–my wife recalls making wreaths out of  wire coat hangers and colored tissue paper. My dad would fashion Christmas trees by rolling cardboard into cones, covering them with wrapping paper, and punching holes in them and putting a string of Christmas lights in them. As I mentioned in my post on “Repurposing” we were great at finding new uses for old stuff long before the word came into vogue.

I could go on and on about Christmas traditions and personal memories but I always find it is even more fun to hear yours. What were some of your favorite family traditions in the weeks leading up to Christmas?



Review: The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World

The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul's Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World
The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World by Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Relevance and faithfulness. Any teacher of any religious tradition is faced with this tension as they move from one cultural context to the next. One has to connect both with the thought world and life experiences of one’s hearers in terms they readily grasp, and one needs to faithfully communicate the substance of one’s religious beliefs without compromising their essence.

The authors of this book believe the Apostle Paul’s Mars Hill discourse provides a very helpful model for how one may do this in the case of Christianity. Athens represented the intellectual center of the Roman empire and was a crossroads of the various beliefs commonly held in Paul’s day from the worship of a pantheon of deities to the more refined philosophies of Epicureanism and Stoicism. The authors observe how this is not unlike our own context which they see steeped in both post-modernist assumptions about truth and materialistic naturalism. (I am surprised that they did not give more attention to Eastern influences in our society and the pantheistic monism that characterizes many discussions of “spirituality.”)

One of the first questions the authors answer is whether Paul succeeded in this task. Some commentators have argued that Athens represented a failed strategy of “contextualized preaching” from which Paul retreated when he went on to Corinth and decided to preach nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” They show how Paul’s message, while using the language and letters of the Greeks, actually reflected ideas rooted both in the Hebrew scriptures and the preaching of Christ elsewhere. And, like elsewhere, some believed while others did not. There were many other cities, like Philippi that Paul left with just handfuls of believers.

Through a detailed study of the content and rhetoric of Paul’s message, the authors show that Paul knew his audience, knew their leading thinkers, and framed the gospel in terms they could grasp, yet without shrinking away from controversial contentions, most notably, the idea of the resurrection. They conclude that we may also pay attention to the instances of “unknown gods” in our culture, the signals of awareness of the transcendent in our hearers, the process people undergo in their journey to faith, and the important work we may need to do in challenging the idolatries of our day. Ultimately we must also point to Jesus as the climax of history and the one who fulfills in his life, death, and resurrection our highest ideals.

This is a helpful contribution to the discussion of Paul’s Mars Hill message and whether it may serve as a model for contemporary Christian witness. The authors not only defend this contention but show in very practical terms how this might work out in a twenty-first century context.

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Review: The Cross of Christ

The Cross of Christ
The Cross of Christ by John R.W. Stott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This is the best book we have read in this group.”

So commented a faculty member recently in a campus book group that discussed Stott’s book. And we’ve discussed some pretty significant books by the likes of Augustine, Pascal, Calvin, Kierkegaard, Barth, and others!

I think what marks this book by John Stott, that I first read when published nearly 30 years ago, is a combination of theological clarity and pastoral application that help one deeply root one’s understanding of the work of Christ on the cross not only in belief but in Christian devotion and practice.

The book consists of four sections. The first is introductory, “Approaching the Cross” and explores the centrality of the cross in Christian belief and practice and considers why such an instrument of torture would become so central that it even shapes the architecture of our great cathedrals. This leads to a focus on why Christ died, considering not only the historical events but the deeper reasons in the purposes of God and the need of human beings.

This brings us to what I think is the central section of the book, which is appropriately enough titled, “The Heart of the Cross.” It is here that Stott carefully lays the groundwork for his defense of the substitution as foundational to our understanding of how Christ atoned for sin. But this isn’t Jesus simply “taking one for the team” that leaves itself open to questions of divine child abuse. Allow me here to quote Stott at some length:

“Our substitute, then who took our place and died our death on the cross, was neither Christ alone (since that would make him a third party thrust in between God and us), nor God alone (since that would undermine the historical incarnation), but God in Christ, who was truly and fully both God and man, and who on that account was uniquely qualified to represent both God and man and to mediate between them. If we speak only of Christ suffering and dying, we overlook the initiative of the Father. If we speak only of God suffering and dying, we overlook the mediation of the Son. The New Testament authors never attribute the atonement either to Christ in such a way as to dissociate him from the Father, or to God in such a way as to dispense with Christ, but rather to God and Christ, or to God acting in and through Christ with his whole-hearted concurrence.” (p. 156 in the 1986 edition)

The third section then moves on to describe “The Achievement of the Cross” in the salvation of sinners, the revelation of God, and the conquest of evil. Particularly striking was his focus on what we see of the glory, justice, and love of God coming together in the cross. Equally wonderful is his explanation of how the victory of the cross frees us from wrath, sin, the law, and death.

The last section then considers “Living Under the Cross.” He begins with a discussion of how we are a community of celebration and how our worship and the Lord’s table indeed celebrate the work of the cross. I was surprised in this chapter with the extended discussion of differing views of the eucharist where he distinguishes Anglican from Catholic practice. He then moves to how the cross helps us understand ourselves as both sinners and redeemed and of great worth in a way that releases us for great service. This even empowers us to love our enemies and find meaning in suffering.

Stott then concludes with a summary of the pervasive influence of the cross in a chapter that summarizes the book using the letter to the Galatians as a means of review.

What John Stott gave us here, as in all of his writing is a theologically rich but evangelically orthodox account of the cross. He is gracious and pastoral and yet willing to surface theological differences and to clearly set forth arguments from the scriptures for his own positions in a way that demarcates the matters that need to be honestly faced if the Church is to be one not merely in sentiment but truth. Above all, he shows us how the work of the cross is indeed central to the message and life of the Church when we may be tempted to get caught up in moralism, activism, or speculative theology. This may be a word we need as much in our day as when Stott wrote in 1986.

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