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Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Halloween

IMG_0707When I was a kid, I thought it was quite a fun and amazing thing that we could dress up in costumes on Halloween night and knock on the doors of our neighbors and basically demand that they give us a treat or we would “trick” them–and that it worked! It seems, according to Wikipedia, that this practice was connected to the practice of “souling” or “wassailing” that was practiced by the poor on holidays including on the eve of All Saints Day (Hallows Eve, which became Halloween). From the article, it seems that this practice picked up in the US during the 1940s.

One thing I remember from growing up is that we would have a Halloween parade at our school on Halloween and would always parade past my house, which was on the same street as my elementary school (Washington). There would usually be a party afterwards hosted by the PTA, with lots of Halloween candy.

But first there was the matter of making your costume. Most of us growing up in Youngstown didn’t buy costumes. That was a luxury our families couldn’t afford. Instead we dressed up as bums, or gypsies, or pirates, or ghosts, or fairy princesses (at least the girls did!). We salvaged old clothes from around the house, used makeup and facepaint, an old pillow if we wanted to make a fat stomach, and the pillow case to collect all that candy.

Then, as soon as it was dark, we’d don our costumes, meet up with some friends, and begin our assault on the neighborhood! Except when we were very small, we just did this with our friends–it seemed pretty safe back then and most people were more concerned with what kids would do (usually the worst was smashing a pumpkin) than what nefarious adults or others would do to us.

Usually we would run as fast as we could from one house to the next. The point was efficiency, filling that bag with enough candy to last until Christmas even though you ate most of it in the next week! You’d make as much noise as you could stamping up onto the front porch and yell “trick or treat”! The doors would open and people would give you candy, sometimes lots of it!

We never did this, but there were the motorized kids whose parents drove them from one neighborhood to the next. There was this thing of comparing the haul you got with other kids at school the next day. Those kids were always the winners. We’d usually just do a couple blocks, and then it was off to eat all that candy and make yourself sick!

These days, Halloween is the second most commercially successful holiday after Christmas. Vacant stores are rented to sell all kinds of costumes and decorations. Some decorate more for Halloween than for Christmas, it seems! I’m sorry, but most of us and our parents would just not have understood all this and seen it mostly as a colossal waste, at least back then.

It also seems we are more polarized over Halloween than we once were.  Growing up this was kind of a fun and magical night, and of a neighborhood occasion. Costumes were an exercise in creativity and imagination. Decorations were a carved pumpkin with a candle in it, and maybe swapping out an orange porch light for the regular one. Now it seems that on the one hand you have the gruesome and macabre, and on the other, those who react to what they see as a celebration of evil and want nothing to do with it or host “alternative” parties. And it seems more dangerous as well with police departments offering to X-ray your candy and parents needing to hover over the kids. It used to be that the only thing you “worried” about were the people who would give you fruit or a role of pennies instead of candy! I suspect kids still have fun trick-or-treating, but, like many things, Halloween is a very different night from what it was growing up in working class Youngstown.

What are your memories of Halloween and trick-or-treating?



Staying Intellectually Fit — Five Practices

One of the challenges of entering one’s seventh decade is staying physically fit and supple. I hear a good deal about core strength, flexibility, healthy diet,and cardio-vascular health. Truth be told, I could be doing more in some of these areas, but that’s for another post!

Source:  jonathankurten.com

Source: jonathankurten.com

An aspect of life I hear much less about is staying intellectually fit. Here are some thoughts that might parallel some of the practices we pursue for physical health.

1. Work out with somebody else. What I have in mind here is that people decline mentally as well as physically when they are isolated. Pursuing some mentally engaging activity with others — whether a book group, a painting group, a choral group (all pursuits of mine!), or some other interest group that involves people and conversation — all that can help keep us mentally fit.

2. Healthy diet is important for our minds as well. A little “mind candy” is probably something all of us indulge in. A steady diet of “mind candy” might not be so helpful. A balanced intellectual diet might mean not getting all our mental stimulation from one source, like the television, or graphic novels. Mixing that up with books, discussions with friends, and different perspectives are all important. I would also suggest not being a “junkie” in any one area–particularly a news junkie! That seems to me to be a prescription for depression.

3. Are you developing your “core strength”? What I take this to mean is cultivating the core convictions and practices around life’s most basic issues, whatever those might be for you. For me as a Christian, this involves things like prayer, reading of scripture, self-examination, and the regular practice of gratitude. “Core strength” seems to me critical to navigating the challenges of getting older and those who haven’t addressed this sometimes spend their later years very badly and unhappily.

4. Attending to our mental “cardio” health seems vital as well. We can experience a “hardening” of our thought life when we nurse bitterness, anger, unforgiveness, or resentment. Similarly, I’ve watched people develop skewed views of reality where they worry themselves about conspiracies, rivalries, or killer bugs on every surface. All this impinges on how we think and hear the ideas of others. Mental “cardio” involves letting go of anger and bitterness, and, at least for me, trusting that I will live as long as God wants me to and realizing that worry will probably only shorten my life, not lengthen it.

5. Mental flexibility is another quality that sometimes seems to deteriorate with age. It is easy to begin to think in ruts. After all, it took us six decades to get to where we are, why change now? One thing I try to do is replay those mental tapes from when I was in my 20s that said, “I never want to become an old ‘stick in the mud'”! All of us knew people like that. The question is, are we becoming like that? Some of this is trying new things–for me this has been in the area of art. I still don’t think I have much artistic talent, but drawing makes me see things differently, and that is good. Do you just read the writers who agree with you or get all your news from one news outlet with a particular perspective? While disagreement can be uncomfortable, it also enlarges my view of the world and at very least helps me see why someone could see things so differently than I.

You may have thought I’d be trying to tell you to read lots of books! While I think books have a place in intellectual vitality, I think it goes far beyond books to a healthy lifestyle of intellectual fitness.

How have you sought to foster intellectual vitality in your life?


Review: Spirit of Life

Spirit of Life
Spirit of Life by Jürgen Moltmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a boy, I grew up hearing about the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Later on, the language was modernized to refer to the Holy Spirit but there was still something mysterious about this person of the Trinity. And so it remains for many of us who functionally are “binatarians”. We speak of Father and Son but have only the vaguest notions of the Holy Spirit.

And so it was with some interest that I turned to this work by German theologian Jurgen Moltmann on the Holy Spirit, or in theological terms, “pneumatology.” This volume is actually the fourth volume in Moltmann’s systematic theology.

The title of the book is significant. Moltmann’s key theme in this book is that the Holy Spirit is “the spirit of life.” Moltmann is arguing not for “spirituality” but for “vitality” in our embodied lives, countering what he sees as Gnostic remnants in the theology and language of the church.

Moltmann takes an approach different than some others. He begins with our experience of the Spirit and moves to a theology of the Spirit rather than the other way round. It is through the Holy Spirit that the immanent Triune God is experienced in our lives. He looks at this in our experience, in the Old Testament and in the relationship of Christ and the Spirit. One of the implications of the work of the Spirit is the presence of God in all things and in all of life. There are no divides between “spiritual” and “secular” or material existence.

The second part of this work is titled “Life in the Spirit” and explores the work in the Spirit in what is classically known as the Order of Salvation beginning with giving life to our mortal bodies and to liberating us from sin, in which he also engages Latin liberation theologies. He explores the role of the Spirit in justification, distinguishing victims and perpetrators. He considers the work of the Spirit in regeneration and its relation to justification, in sanctification and in the giving of gifts to the church (which he would extend beyond the typical “gift lists” in scripture to all our talents and skills employed for God’s purposes). Finally, he explores the work of the Spirit in mystical experience.

The third and last section of the book is titled “The Fellowship of the Spirit.” He explores the relations within the Trinity and the implications of that Fellowship for the Spirit’s work in making fellowship possible in the life of the church–including discussions of intergenerational community, fellowship between the genders, and the relation of various action, self help, and other groups that may operate under the auspices of the church. The concluding part of the work contains what one might most classically consider when thinking of the theology of the Holy Spirit. Here Moltmann considers various “metaphors” for the Spirit and comes to his own definition of the Personhood of the Spirit within the Trinity:

The personhood of God the Holy Spirit is the loving, self-communicating, out-fanning, and out-pouring presence of the eternal divine life of the triune God.

He concludes the work with a discussion of the filioque clause added to Western versions of the Creed and a key factor in the schism between East and West. He argues for the East here, that the clause is superfluous at best and unnecessarily subordinates the Spirit within the Trinity and ignores the reciprocity existing between Spirit and Son.

A few comments on this book. I most appreciated Moltmann’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s involvement in all of embodied life. I agree with the need for a corrective to an over-spiritualized, gnostic view of life that denies our bodily, material existence and the goodness in this. At the same time, I wondered if Moltmann had moved from simply the immanence of God to a kind of Christian panentheism, God in all things (language he uses at points).

In addition, I do think it a challenge always in Trinitarian theology to discuss the nature of any of the “persons”, with all of the human associations of this language. I sense this difficulty in Moltmann who moves between “it” and “he” in referencing the Holy Spirit. I’m left wondering, in Moltmann’s definition of the Personhood of the Spirit and his uses of language whether he considers the Holy Spirit a “person” in the same way as Father and Son.

I read this work apart from the preceding three volumes in his systematic theology, or any of Moltmann’s other works, which may place me at a disadvantage. (This is what comes of picking up a book in a bargain section of a used book store!). Still, if I were to make a recommendation, I would start with Basil the Great’s, On the Holy Spirit, which is so helpful in understanding the development of the early church’s understanding of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity.

View all my reviews

Finding the Right Word

Every one of us who tries their hand at writing grapples with this. It is the struggle to express with the right word or set of words those thoughts rattling around in your head. Often, it is the frustrating difference between the “right” word and the “almost right” word.

Why does this matter? That was a question that came up in a discussion this morning of a thirty-year old book that included an extended discourse on the use of two different English words to translate a Greek term. In particular, a number of us who have been around a while remembered when this discussion was vigorously contested but now rarely comes up. Is it just because the topic is passe’? Or is it because we are less interested in discussions that involve careful distinctions around the meaning of words? Have we become more inclined to take a “whatever” approach to distinctions in words and ideas where people might differ?

Word Cloud of this Post

Word Cloud of this Post

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to this. I read examples of both lucid writing and poorly constructed sentences and statements every day. Is there more of this than in the past? When one reads journals and letters from the past, I’m not sure. There were plenty of misspellings and grammatical errors and imprecisions of thought in the past.

What I do know is that clarity of expression matters. Have you ever been in a meeting where participants are going around and around about a course of action, and suddenly someone who has been listening carefully speaks up and says, “is this what we are saying should be done?” and proceeds to crystallize the ideas floating around the room or conference call? I’ve often found this makes all the difference between muddle and meaning in a group.

Perhaps this matters now more than ever with our capacity to easily disseminate various forms of verbiage both within our organizations but also around the world (this blog being one example of this!). I wonder whether the ease and rapidity with which we can communicate via tweets, texts, emails or even blogs can erode the clarity of thought and expression that came when you drafted a letter, revised and proofed it, and then typed and sent it out via the postal service.

What is more troubling to me is to witness the deterioration of the public use of words where diatribes and ad hominem attacks substitute for a reasoned argument that marshals evidence to persuade a listener. I am also troubled when I read writing that is jargon-laden, where it appears that the effort is to conceal meaning from those who don’t have the code to the jargon. I find this equally among theologians and academics in other fields of higher education. Often, these scholars are writing about matters that are not merely of scholarly concern. They concern what we will believe, how we will educate our children, how we will pursue medical care, and what public policies our civic and political leaders should pursue.

Perhaps why this matters most to me is that I believe reality is “word-shaped”. My worldview is one that believes that the material universe was spoken into existence, whatever other material causes and effects that set in motion. Our use of language mirrors that of the Maker–our words also have the power to bring things into existence, for good or ill. Similarly, I believe the moral framework of life isn’t something we simply socially constructed but was similarly articulated in formulations like the Ten Commandments. It is not coincidental, I think, that one of the names given “God in human flesh” was logos or Word. It seems that God did not want to leave us to muddle about in our search for meaning.

You might not agree with me in these matters. Many don’t! But I hope we might agree on the power of words. Words can hide the truth. Words can hurt. Words can muddle. Words can inflame. And words can be a vehicle for the thoughtful pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Books That Have Changed Your Life

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of spending a wonderful luncheon with a group of believing faculty and staff at The Ohio State University. What made the luncheon wonderful was not simply the good food from our Faculty Club buffet line. Nor was it simply the charming personalities around the table. It was rather hearing from one another about books that had been formative in our spiritual journeys.  With the organizers permission, I am sharing the list* (to which I contributed a few titles). I’ve added Amazon links so you can learn more about any titles that sound interesting.

Title, Author(s)

Four Portraits, One Jesus, Mark Strauss

Names of God, Mary Foxwell Loeks

Women at Southern: A Walk Through Psalms, Jaye Martin, Alyssa Caudill, and Sharon Beougher (link is to a blog with ordering information, one of our staff contributed to this book)

Tales of the Kingdom, David and Karen Mains

Tales of Resistance, David and Karen Mains

Tales of Restoration, David and Karen Mains

Death by Suburb, David L. Goetz

The Parable of Joy, Michael Card

How to Know God Exists, Ray Comfort

Origins, Ariel Roth

The Radical Disciple, John Stott

Praying the Psalms, Thomas Merton

The Robe, Lloyd C. Douglas

The Insanity of God, Nik Ripken and Gregg Lewis

The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Cross of Christ, John Stott

Knowing God, J. I. Packer

Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoffer

Daring to Draw Near, John White

Life of the Beloved, Henri J. M. Nouwen

The 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman

Christianity: The Faith that Makes Sense, Dennis McCallum

The Question of God, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.

A Skeptic’s Search for God, Ralph O. Muncaster

One of the delights in such times is what you learn about people by the books they share. For one person, it is the chronicle of their seminary journey. For another, their journey to faith. For a third, it is their love for prayer. With another, it was the story of books read aloud to children and grandchildren that had drawn a family into the common narrative of the kingdom.

The other delight of course is having your attention called to books that you might want to read. The Robe is one of those classics I’ve never read. Death by Suburb sounds like it explores the realities we’ve lived with for the last 25 years in suburban Columbus. The Question of God is a book I own but haven’t read that is going to get moved onto the TBR pile.

This is one of the simplest things to organize. You just invite a group of friends to lunch (or brownies, as we did last January, described in my post “Books and Brownies“) and talk about the books that have meant the most to you or shaped your life. It might be that you could gather people around different themes (like “books I’d take on a vacation”, or books I hated as a kid and wouldn’t be without as an adult”).

(Books on this list are not endorsed by the Fellowship of Christian Faculty and Staff or The Ohio State University but simply by those recommending the books!)

What books have changed your life?

*Thanks go to Paul Post for typing up and posting the list!

Review: The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity

The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity
The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity by Os Guinness
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18.

Os Guinness has penned this extended argument as both defense of and elaboration of how this statement passed in the United Nations in 1948 might shape the public squares of our countries nearly 70 years later, in a climate where this “first freedom” may be less enjoyed now than in 1948. Guinness argues here not for the privileging of any religion, or merely for religion at all. Rather his basic argument is that freedom is conscience is one of the things that defines us as human beings. He would argue this applies equally to the atheist and the materialist, as it does to any religious believer and that the compromise of this freedom, by the state or by competing belief systems, weakens this freedom not just for those immediately attacked but for all. Therefore, Guinness argues for neither a sacred public square, privileging a particular religion, nor a naked public square, banishing all religious belief from public discourse, but rather a civil public square where diverse beliefs, religious and secular, might listen and seek to persuade one another with regard to the well-lived life and the well-ordered society.

Guinness expresses grave concern over the impairing of the freedom of conscience in various parts of the world. His concern is not simply the forced conversions of religious believers in parts of Africa and the Middle East or the continuing persecution of religious believers in Communist countries. He equally, and especially has concern for the West, and what he sees are incursions on the singular freedoms of speech and conscience enshrined in documents such as our Bill of Rights. He would argue that mandates in health care laws that force religious organizations to provide abortion and other medical benefits contrary to their faith are such an infringement, as are the bans of religious groups on university campuses who “discriminate” because they require leaders (not participants) to affirm the religious beliefs of the group. He argues that while such impairments of liberty may not affect most of us, we may be witnessing a “death of a thousand cuts.” Each chapter concludes with this peroration:

It is time, and past time, to ponder the question. What does it say of us and our times that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could not be passed today? And what does it say of the future of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief if it can be neglected and threatened even in the United States, where it once developed most fully–that it can be endangered anywhere? Who will step forward now to champion the cause of freedom for the good of all and for the future of humanity?

Guinness has not left this task to others. In addition to this book, and his recent A Free People’s Suicide which I reviewed earlier this year, Guinness helped draft the Global Charter of Conscience, published in Brussels at the European Parliament in June of 2012. It articulates both the inherent rights of freedom of conscience and the necessary responsibilities any society must undertake to sustain that right.

Some might think this either unnecessary fear-mongering on one hand, or impossible idealism on the other. My own sense is that it is a clarion-call alerting us to not take for granted the singular freedoms we have enjoyed in the west and a well-thought out proposal for extending these freedoms in contextually appropriate ways throughout the world.

A friend of mine who is an ancient historian observed that violence, the execution of enemies of a different faith, and the forced conversion of women and children has been the way of the world throughout most of human history. The experience of freedom of speech and conscience of the last few centuries in the West, with all its problems and limits, has been a singular space of civility in a brutal world. If Guinness is right (and I think he is) the choice before us is whether to protect and seek to extend that civil space or to revert to the brutality that is characteristic of most of humanity through most of history that quashes the very thing that makes us most deeply human, our freedom of thought and conscience.

View all my reviews

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Football

Friday nights in the fall meant one thing in Youngstown, as in so many towns across the country–football! In a town where hard physical work was the life of many, the brawny contests on football fields across the city were an integral part of the culture.

It began with pep rallies on Friday afternoons. Then there was the special homecoming game after elections of the homecoming king and queen.  Those were always the cool, good looking kids. I never stood a chance! But you found a group to go with to the games, cheered the team on, and avoided the fights that sometimes broke out after games between people from rival schools.

But the big thing was the rivalries. One of the most famous out of Youngstown was, and still is, the Cardinal Mooney-Ursuline rivalry. These are the two Catholic high schools in the city and to this day is one of the most celebrated high school football rivalries in Ohio. We tended to root for Ursuline, where kids from the West Side went who didn’t go to Chaney (except when they PLAYED Chaney). So wouldn’t you know it–I go and marry a Mooney girl!

Scanned from 1970 Lariat

Scanned from 1970 Lariat–City Series Champs!

Our big rival at Chaney was Austintown Fitch.  The Fitch game was usually early in the year and a good bellwether for what kind of team we had. Chaney and Fitch were in different football leagues–Chaney was part of the Youngstown City League, and most of our games were against other Youngstown City high schools (this was in the day when there were six public high schools in Youngstown).

Scanned from 1970 Lariat

Coach Angelo: Scanned from 1970 Lariat

Lou “Red” Angelo was the coach I most remember.  Mr. Angelo was also my gym teacher and his “no nonsense” approach and willingness to push guys hard probably contributed to the number of winning teams he produced. His son, Jerry Angelo, was a general manager of the Chicago Bears from 2001 to 2012. Ed Matey took over coaching the Chaney Cowboys in 1971, the fall of my senior year.

The death of the steel industry and population loss in Youngstown also led to the demise of the City League as four of the six high schools (Rayen, North, South, and Wilson) closed and Chaney became a STEM-focused school. Only East High School now has a football team.

The demise of the City League hardly spelled the end of football fever in Youngstown. The Browns-Steelers rivalry is still alive, with Youngstown the “no man’s land” between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. While City League football was waning, Youngstown State came alive under Jim Tressel, winning four Divisional National Championships and building Stambaugh Stadium on the near north side of Youngstown–a prominent feature of the Youngstown skyline.

Football is a tough, physical game and a team game where no one can slack. That somehow fits working class Youngstown. That toughness is one of the reasons I remain hopeful for Youngstown. Someone knocks you down, you get up, and make sure it is the other guy on the grass the next time.

What are your football memories? Who was your school’s big rival (no trash talking here!).


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