Review: World’s End (Lanny Budd #1)

World's End

World’s End (Lanny Budd #1), Upton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published 1940).

Summary: First in a series of eleven novels, introducing the character of Lanny Budd, a precocious youth on the eve of World War 1, his German and English friends and their respective fates during the war while Lanny divides his time between his glamorous mother and artist step-father on the Riviera, and in New England with his father’s Puritan munitions-making family, ending up as a secretary to a geographer at the Paris Peace Conference.

Several months ago, I read and reviewed A World to Win, number seven in the Lanny Budd novels. There, a decidedly adult Lanny Budd functions as a secret agent for the president (Roosevelt) during World War 2. This novel, the first in the series, introduces us to Lanny Budd on the eve of World War 1. Raised by Beauty, his mother, he grew up in the mix of art and culture of Paris and the French Riviera. Although she was a preacher’s daughter, she was rejected by Lanny’s father’s New England Puritan family because she had posed several times in the nude for Parisian artists, and never married Lanny’s father. He acquires the artistic tastes and cultured manners of his mother’s circle, and the savvy of his munitions-salesman father. He also acquires two friends at boarding school, an English boy named Rick, and a German boy of high birth named Kurt. Like other pre-pubescent teens, their discussions range from philosophy to the mysteries of girls.

All this ends with the onset of the Great War. Rick eventually ends up as an RAF flyer, married, and wounded, never to walk without pain. Kurt fights for Germany and eventually becomes involved in espionage at war’s end that catches up Lanny. Beauty retreats to the Riviera, marry an artist, Marcel Detaze, whose greatest work comes after he is severely wounded, before he returns to the front, never to come back. Lanny has his first love affair with a girl destined to marry into an English house, and his first heartbreak.

After assisting his father for a period, learning to code and decode documents and meeting numerous famous figures, even Zaharoff, his father’s main competitor, he returns with his father to New England, meeting his stern old grandfather, his very correct step-mother, and an enlightened old great grandfather, who kept company with the New England transcendentalists. He is used for his connections by another woman, and returns with his father to Europe wiser and sadder.

Due to language skills and his savvy and facility in meeting the rich and powerful, he serves as a secretary to a geography professor who is part of the US delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. He witnesses the high public ideals of the Fourteen Points, and the private maneuvering among Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George, for land and oil and the utter subjugation of Germany. At a point of disillusionment, he dabbles with Kurt and the socialists in a dangerous set of liaisons.

Sinclair portrays Budd against the backdrop of the Great War–the folly of the great powers who stumbled into this conflict, and eventually drew in the US. Lanny’s father tries to keep him out of it all, even as his company profits greatly, as do all the munitions manufacturers. He gets an education in the power politics, and the business interests that profit by war. This sets up a tension for Budd, raised among artists and caring for the fine and noble things of life. Does he join his father in an enterprise even his father approaches with cynicism, or pursue another path?

Budd also meets the socialists, and those who have ties to the revolution in Russia, through a socialist uncle, Beauty’s brother and becomes aware of the ways the rich exploit workers in every country. Lanny’s father tries to protect him from such influences as well. In this first novel, we see the tensions and influences at war in Lanny, while the world is at war. Sinclair sets us up for succeeding novels in introducing us to Lanny, able to travel with and identify with artists, the wealthy capitalists, even the socialists, moving through all these circles. We wonder if he really belongs to any of them.

If there is any criticism to be laid to this novel, it is that it seems more preparatory than anything to the stories to follow. The war and the Peace Conference really are the plot, with a bit of suspense toward the end around his relationship with Kurt and his uncle. But the book serves as a great summation of World War 1 and what pre-war Europe was like. It portrays the tragedy of Paris and Versailles that made the second World War inevitable and carved up the Middle East in ways that are still having repercussions. We glimpse the graft and folly behind noble statements and patriotic sentiment. And, similar to “Pug” Henry in The Winds of War, we wonder at what famous events, and with what famous people, Lanny will turn up next.

Review: The Future of Humanity

The Future of Humanity

The Future of HumanityMichio Kaku. New York: Doubleday, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the possibility and necessity of humanity becoming a multi-planetary species, and the revolutions of technology necessary to realize that future.

Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist studying string theory at the City University of New York, and the author of a series of best-selling futurist works based on his knowledge of physics and other fields. He is also a riveting, passionate speaker who believes, along with others like Elon Musk, that we must envision becoming a multi-planetary species. This, the latest of his books, explores that idea, it’s necessity, and the technological advances that could make this possible.

Kaku’s argument for the necessity of becoming a multi-planetary species is rooted in the priority of the survival of the human species. He is convinced that, whether through physical causes ranging from cataclysmic volcanoes to asteroids or the final death throes of the sun, our planet will become unlivable for human beings–if we do not accomplish this first through human causation as in nuclear holocaust or global warming. Discussing other great challenges we’ve faced through history, he writes:

But now we face perhaps the greatest challenge of all: to leave the confines of the Earth and soar into outer space. The laws of physics are clear; sooner or later we will face global crises that threaten our very existence. (p.6)

In three parts he explores the technologies that can make this possible. The first part explores interplanetary settlement efforts within our solar system, using moon as a base, and Mars as our first settlement, and later possibly settling, or exploiting the resources of the large moons orbiting the gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn. He describes existing efforts by public and private enterprise to return to the moon and create settlements on Mars. This itself is formidable considering exposures to radioactivity and the inhospitable nature of the planet but he argues for the eventual possibility of terra-forming Mars, making it livable and life sustaining. What is fascinating is that much of this is possible by applying and extending our current technology, albeit at great cost.

The second part of the book seemed like something out of Star Trek, exploring the technologies of interstellar travel. All of this is beyond our current technologies. As a physicist, he takes us on a tour of possible technologies from nanoships and laser and solar sail propelled vehicles, to ramjet fusion and antimatter engines, and proposes that the warp drive of The Enterprise is possible, and consists not in propelling one faster than light, but literally warping space so that a vessel is pulled through it at hyper light speeds. Nearly all of this requires inordinately great quantities of energy, and presupposes a level of civilization at which we harness, first the energies of the sun, and than galactic levels of energy. This will allow us to explore at least the nearby stars or further into a galaxy of stars where it is increasingly evident that there are many possible habitable planets.

The third part explores the reality that the great distances to be traveled, even should we exceed the speed of light, either require multi-generational crews, or advances toward immortality. He explores research on curing aging, on trans-humanism in which humans and machines become increasingly integrated. He discusses the Human Connectome Project, in which human neural networks are mapped, digitized, and potentially could be reproduced light years away, transmitted via laser networks. He also speculates on the existence of other more advanced civilizations. He mentions observations of recurring drops in energy output of star KIC 8462852 by as much as 30 percent positing an object 22 times as large as Jupiter, speculating that one possibility would be a megastructure like a Dyson sphere constructed by an alien civilization.This part also gets into Kaku’s area of theoretical physics, string theory, as he explores the possibility of travel through wormholes and stargates and perhaps even escaping the present universe into one of many multiverses, particularly useful when this one burns out.

Whew! Kaku’s tour of the technologies necessary for interstellar travel is both breathtaking, and staggering. On one hand, much of the technology we use today, even that I am using as I write, was science fiction in my childhood. It is always dangerous to scoff at what seems impossible. The cell phone at my side represents applications of theoretical physics unknown 150 years ago in terms of the miniaturized circuitry and memory, cellular and wi-fi capabilities, GPS tracking, and touch screens. What would have been an object of wonder 150 years ago is now a commonplace of many of our lives. Yet what Kaku describes in this book, particularly in parts two and three, strings together ventures of immense cost, requiring unimaginable amounts of power, huge quantities of rare (and dangerous) resources like anti-matter, as well as scenarios, the survivability of which are in question, all of which to preserve the human species on a multi-planetary scale. Of course Kaku allows millenia for reaching such capabilities.

The most credible part of the book for me was the near-term ideas of travel to Mars, perhaps even establishing some form of outpost there. If something of a cataclysmic nature were to occur on Earth in the next couple centuries, such an outpost might preserve civilization, and even re-settle earth. Even this is tremendously costly as well as risky. We must expect lives to be lost, even as they were among other explorers and settlers throughout our history. But it also raised questions of several sorts.

Some were questions of priority. Should we think of terra-forming Mars when our own planet’s earth, water and air need so much attention? Should we pour huge funds and inordinate amounts of energy into space travel when transport on earth is still carbon-based and polluting? When we are not yet addressing preventable diseases of childhood, and providing quality and affordable health care on a global basis, is it right to pour huge amounts into life-extending technologies that may benefit a select few? Or even as we think about planetary defense, might we focus on technologies for detection and destruction of planet-threatening objects from outer space? All this falls under the question of caring for the planet and people that we have before we think about settling other worlds.

Some are more fundamental questions having to do with whether we ought to do these things. I think of this particularly around the discussion of immortality. Kaku fails to deal with the issue of whether it is a good thing for humans with our flawed as well as noble nature to live for ever. Have you ever noticed how, as people age, they become who they always were, to an even greater degree? We may grow both more loving and more neurotic. We may grow more knowledgeable and more petty. The closest he gets to this is when he quotes the late Stephen Hawking who said, “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.” In my own faith tradition, we believe that it is a severe mercy of God that flawed and fallen people don’t live endlessly in our bodies and that hope is found not in endless mortal life, but life everlasting beyond bodily death.

Finally, I am troubled with the hubristic strains that carry as much attraction for many contemporary hearers as they did for the first couple in the garden, and the tower builders of Babel. Kaku writes:

…our destiny is to become the gods we once feared and worshipped. Science will give us the means by which we can shape the universe in our image. The question is whether we will have the wisdom of Solomon to accompany this vast celestial power. (p. 14)

“You shall be as gods” has been a temptation from the very beginning, and is one this book proffers to its readers. Along with that temptation comes tower-building (or space elevator) projects that reflect our pitiful efforts to offset our creaturely vulnerabilities. Will we exchange dependence on the sustenance of the Creator and responsible care for the world we’ve been given for anxious and costly efforts to preserve ourselves in other worlds, and perhaps neglect the most vulnerable on our own planet? I find the reference to Solomon fascinating, because the record tells us that, while wise, he abandoned the fear of God which is the beginning of wisdom, giving himself to building projects that taxed and enslaved, and that he multiplied wives and experiences. If Ecclesiastes gives us the final verdict on this project, it is all summed up as “meaningless,” “a chasing after the wind,” and that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow.” It seems that this is what always comes of trying to make ourselves gods, and trying to stave off death when a universe of wonder and a world of beauty to be cared for beckons us to trust its Maker.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Goldfish Pond



The Lily Pond, before 2016 renovations

A 15 cent loaf of day old bread was all you needed for a delightful family outing to the Goldfish Pond. You gave each of the kids a slice, taught them to break off small pieces and toss them into the water. Suddenly a school of goldfish appeared. Then everyone, including the parents, threw in more bread and watched the feeding frenzy. Hundreds would gather along the shore, from tiny fish to big old grizzled veterans of many years in the pond.

It was one of the first feature designed by Volney Rogers with W.S.C. Cleveland in the newly acquired park, formed by damming the outlet for a nearby natural spring. Legend has it that the first five goldfish came from a police officer, Martin Moran, who gave them to Volney Rogers to be released into the pond. The pond opened in 1896.

The pond was formally called the Lily Pond, because sections are covered with lily pads. It was, and still is a home to frogs, turtles, ducks and geese. On our last visit, we delighted in observing a turtle sunning itself on a log, as well as the mallard ducks who made their home in the pond.

The pond has required periodic dredging (in 1935 and 1975), and extensive improvements in 2016.  They added a boardwalk leading to an observation deck as well as an arrival plaza with drinking fountains, benches and an information kiosk. There is a floating boardwalk and observation deck over the Frog Pond.

Feeding fish or other wildlife is now prohibited in the park. It turns out that our stale bread is not really healthy for wildlife and pollutes the pond. it also defeats the natural instincts of animals.

I wonder if Lindley Vickers knew that when he took generations of school children for nature hike around the pond and along the nearby trails? What I do know is the he helped us love the pond and the animals and plants found around it. I suspect there are ways to accomplish that without feeding the wildlife. What I do hope is that park officials major in delight rather than rules so a new generation learn to love the park.

The Lily Pond is located off of Birch Hill Drive, which connects McCollum Road on the West side, with West Drive in the park. Birch Hill Cabin is located across the road and is available for groups up to 48 to rent. I remember several gatherings there, and a walk around the Gold Fish Pond was a great chance for some fresh air, especially if you were with a date. It was only a quarter mile around, but with benches, it was a good, if not private, place for conversation in a beautiful place.

What do you remember about visiting the Goldfish Pond?

Literary Allusions

20180712_160844791242616554040353.jpgI came across this quote while reading Bryan D. Estelle’s Echoes of Exodus, and I thought it, and some thoughts of my own, worth a post:

It is a difficult art, the art of the evocative quotation. The theory held by the romantics that all good writing was entirely “original” threw it into disrepute. It has been further discredited by the misapplication of scholarship and the decline in classical knowledge…for readers do not like to think that, in order to appreciate poetry, they themselves ought to have read as much as the poet himself. Also, they feel, with justice, that hunting down “allusions” and “imitations” destroys the life of the poetry, changing it from a living thing into an artificial tissue of copied colours and stolen patches. Still, it remains true that the reader who knows and can recognize these evocations without trouble gains a richer pleasure and a fuller understanding of the subject than the reader who cannot. (Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. New York:Oxford University Press, 1957, pp. 157-158).

Highet’s quote reminds us that writers are also readers. Consciously or not and in spite of efforts to be original, writers draw upon those who have written before them. Sometimes they directly quote, sometimes they imitate in content and/or form, sometime the consciously allude to something, and sometimes, there are echoes of what others have thought and written of which even they may not be conscious.

Mortimer Adler, of “Great Books” fame contended that these books are in a conversation with each other through the ages and we ought read them to overhear, and join that conversation. Today, literary theorists and biblical scholars alike speak of “intertextuality,” how various texts allude or draw upon others.

Highet’s other point here has to do with the reading experience.  While anyone may profit from and enjoy reading a text, say The Chronicles of Narnia, the experience is far richer for the reader who is aware of the biblical overtones and can delight in how Lewis draws this material. Our reading is richer, Highet contends, when we recognize the allusions a writer is making, what they meant in their original context as well as how the writer appropriate (or occasionally misappropriates) the material.

Allusions in various form are certainly important in reading the Bible. Prophets allude to the Pentateuch and historical books. New Testament writers allude, even quote from throughout the Old Testament as well as extra-biblical material. Forty some years ago, when I began reading the Bible, there were passages that spoke deeply to me. Today, understanding more of the allusions to earlier material, my understanding is even richer.

Highet does raise an issue that may be daunting to the budding reader. We often find that we haven’t read as much as the writer. Here are some things that have worked for me:

  1. Read as you can, not as you can’t. Enjoy what you can–the use of language, the thoughts and feelings they evoke, the characters, the ideas, the basic plot.
  2. Annotated editions and commentaries can draw your attention to allusions you’ve missed. I suggest reading first on your own, then with the notes.
  3. Read great and challenging works with others. I never really got C. S. Lewis Till We Have Faces until I read it with a group with some who explained the Greek mythology and how Lewis reinterpreted it,
  4. Identify and read “foundational” works often referred to by others–Greek mythology and philosophy, the Bible, Augustine, Shakespeare, and others. Every field has these from philosophy to science fiction.
  5. Come back to important books that often allude to others. Each time, your reading experience will be richer.

All of us are beginners at some point. We have a lifetime to grow in making these literary connections. Some of us got a head start with our education. Many of us didn’t, or weren’t paying attention. Truthfully, some things just don’t register until we have a little life under our belts. It also reminds us to mix old works in with new throughout our reading lives, so we can overhear that conversation across the generations, and begin to get a clue as to what they are talking about.

Review: Introducing the Apocrypha

introducing the apocrypha

Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance, Second Edition, David A. deSilva (Foreword by James H. Charlesworth). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: An introduction to the books of the Apocrypha, covering matters of content, authorship, date, setting, textual transmission, and theological themes and influence in both second temple and post-second temple Judaism and early Christianity.

For many from Protestant denominations, the collection of books that fall under the title “Apocrypha” are considered ones that “didn’t make the cut” and perhaps suspect. However, most of these books are part of the Bibles of two-thirds of all Christians in the world. In his Introduction to this work, David A. deSilva also makes the point that this collection is invaluable in understanding second temple Judaism that is the setting for the ministry of Jesus and Christian beginnings as well as the influence of these writings on the New Testament authors and what they wrote. He also introduces us to the fact that there are different collections (Septuagint, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus) and the challenges of defining this collection.

This work is an introduction and, like introductions to Old and New Testaments, covers introductory matters like the message of the work, authorship (often difficult to pin down), date, and setting, as well as the textual transmission, and different extant textual traditions. In the cases of Daniel and Esther, he shows how the additions are woven into, and differ from the canonical text. It is helpful, therefore to read this work with a copy of the Apocrypha at hand, preferably the New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha, which is the version used throughout.

The author explores the distinctive theological themes and influences of particular books. He considers an overall Deuteronomistic theme of the promise of covenant blessing for Israel when they obey, curse when they disobey, and restoration when they return, cry out, and obey Torah. The theme emerges in the prayers, narratives, and precepts found in this collection. In some texts, such as 1 Maccabees, Israel faces a crisis, and faithful Jews experience deliverance. In others, martyrs receive assurance, or potential martyrs are delivered while the apostate or Gentiles face punishment. One can see how these books encouraged post-exilic Jews, particularly under Greco-Roman rule, as well as subsequent generations of Christians.

David A. deSilva states that this is a complete revision involving every chapter, far more consultation with experts in the field, incorporation of the latest scholarship, and an expanded bibliography. His clear summaries of content, theology, influence, and technical introductory matters make this a valuable adjunct for sitting down to read this collection. For those like myself, who have managed to avoid a reading of books that have encouraged Jews and Christians through the ages, deSilva made the case to change that. He neither resolves the canonical issues, nor argues a change, but that we read these works for what we can learn both about Christian origins, and for the encouragement we might derive from them.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Farewell to an Old Friend

Village Bookshop.jpgI visited the Village Bookshop the other day. It has been one of my favorite haunts during the 28 years we’ve lived on the northwest side of Columbus. Located within ten minutes of our home at 2432 Dublin Granville Rd in an old, white-sided church building, this has been one of my favorite bookstores. For nearly 50 years, the Village Bookshop, which occupies the old Linworth Methodist Church building, has served locals and visiting bookbuyers alike. I picked up my Dumas Malone’s five volume biography of Jefferson here many years ago. Recently, I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Road, and C.S. Lewis’s The Personal Heresy. All of them came from  the Village Bookshop.

And now it is closing.

Owner Gary Friedlinghaus and his wife Carol, who took over the store 37 years ago, told the Columbus Dispatchthat changes in the public’s book-buying habits and a declining supplier base has made the decision necessary. He describes his decision as a “judicious retreat.”

There was no place quite like it. At one time, the store had an inventory of as many as four million books, nearly all new, and apart from some old and rare books, discounted 60 to 90 percent. The store was known for its selection of military prints and books. As a bit of a Civil War buff, I found more than a few good books there, as well as many other finds in their history section. They had a great selection of paperback classics, many for under $4, often older versions of Oxford Classics. My latest acquisition in this section was Faulkner’s The Reivers. The biographies table toward the front of the store was always a stop, as was a featured selection of books toward the middle of the store. I often stopped at the religion section just to the left of the featured books and before the passage to the back annex. Just through that passage was a four-sided set of shelves with books under $2, mostly old paperbacks. I made a few finds here over the years! Fiction occupied most of the back of the store on the ground floor. On my most recent visit, I picked up novels by Chaim Potok and Sharon Kay Penman that I haven’t read.

The upstairs was a world to itself, in the back annex of the building. One half seemed to be overflow from downstairs–more history, sociology, and fiction, including science fiction and fantasy. The other half was old books. Some were plainly there on consignment. On a recent visit, I happened into the fiction section when a customer was loading up an old set of Sir Walter Scott novels. A part of me wished I’d gotten there first (but where would I put them?).

Lori, daughter of the owner indicated that the building might be preserved and occupied by a different kind of business instead of being converted to apartments, like much of the area across the street. It is a historic building, built in 1887, for what was then Bright’s Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church. One hopes this will be the case.

The store will close its doors for the last time on August 31. When we were there, books were being discounted 20 percent off their already discounted prices. You could see the shelves were thinned a bit, but there was still a great selection of books. I might be back another time or two–but maybe not, and so it was time for this tribute of sorts.

Earlier this year, another favorite haunt, Acorn Books in Grandview closed. It is hard to see these independents going. It is sobering to realize that the number of those like me who not only love books, but the serendipitous fun of finding something you weren’t looking for on the shelves of a bookstore, seems to be dwindling. Book culture seems to be in the process of being stripped down to searching for the book we want online, ordering or downloading it, and reading and deleting it, if we read at all. For the sake of speed and convenience, we are sacrificing a richly textured culture with unique places like Village Bookshop to homogenized chains and online sites–and not only with regard to books. Will we wake up one day to realize that our local towns and villages have become banal and boring places–just like everywhere else? Or will it matter?


Review: A Mentor’s Wisdom

A Mentor's Wisdom

A Mentor’s Wisdom: Lessons I Learned From Haddon Robinson R. Larry Moyer. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018.

Summary: Forty-five sayings of Haddon Robinson with reflections by one of the men he mentored.

Haddon Robinson spent much of his life in one theological seminary or another, as a professor of homiletics (preaching), as President of Denver Seminary, and later as Interim President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. A hallmark of his work was a commitment to expository preaching of the Bible, careful application that arose from the text, and clarity of communication without distracting with stories and illustration. Many of us have used his book Biblical Preaching as a guide to expository preaching that honors Christ. He was also a senior editor of Christianity Today.

Haddon Robinson died in 2017 at the age of 86. One of those for whom he was not only professor but also mentor was R. Layer Moyer, the founder and CEO of EvanTell. Robinson helped Moyer get his start, commending him to seminary alumni and serving on his board. This year, EvanTell celebrates its 45th anniversary, and Moyer had the idea of collecting 45 quotes from his mentor, both as a tribute and to commemorate the anniversary. This book is the result, consisting of 45 quotes under the headings of “Life Lessons,” “Work Counsel,” “Spiritual Advice,” “Public Speaking and Preaching,” “Leadership,” and “Evangelism.” Following each quote is a relevant scripture text and a brief reflection, averaging two pages, often giving the context in which the author first heard this statement from Robinson.

There is a wealth of wisdom in this little book, worthy of the reflection of any Christian leader or minister. The collection begins with a profound statement worth taking a retreat day to consider: “Decide now what you want people to carve on your tombstone, and then live your life backwards from there.” A number reflected Robinson’s generous and humble character: “I want to be on your team, not on your back,” “I know what that is what I suggested; that was a bad decision,” and, when Parkinson was in an assisted care situation for advancing Parkinson’s disease, “This Parkinson’s is rough. But the people hear are great and the food is good.”

Without giving away too much of the book, the section of quotes on “Public Speaking and Preaching” summarize a life of teaching in this area:

  • 25. “Learning how to speak is like learning how to think. If you think clearly, you will speak clearly.”
  • 26. “God has not promised to bless your words; he has only promised to bless his.”
  • 27. “The biggest problem I have had while training preachers has been, strangely enough, getting them to preach the word.”
  • 28. The stance of a preacher is the stance of a persuader. You are not there to simply teach; you are there to persuade.”
  • 29. When people come to church on Sunday, they want to know what you can tell them that will help them get through the following week.”
  • 30. “The art of preaching isn’t hinged upon knowing what to put into your message but rather what to take out.”
  • 31. “The passage has to hit you before it hits the audience.”
  • 32. “When you say, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ you better be right. That is an awesome claim.”
  • 33. “The problem is that too many preachers tear the passage apart in their studies and then don’t put it back together before they step into the pulpit.”

Haddon Robinson primarily left his mark through those he trained directly or influenced indirectly through his books. For that reason, his name may not be widely known. Perhaps this was because of his conviction, framed in another quote not found in this book, “There are no great preachers, only a great Christ.”

This book, useful for devotional reflection, acquaints us with a scholar and teacher whose life was shared by that conviction. We get the chance to overhear wisdom about life and ministry and to see how that wisdom, under the grace of God formed a Christ-shaped, yet one-of-a-kind life.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard

a field guide to your own backyard

A Field Guide to Your Own Back YardJohn Hanson Mitchell. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 2014.

Summary: An exploration, season by season of the animals, plants, insects, bird, amphibians and reptiles, and weather conditions we might encounter in our own back yard, even as city dwellers.

Many ecological books seem to be concerned either about really big problems like air pollution or climate change, or really big spaces away from cities–from polar ice to wilderness to forests. It has long seemed to me that if we don’t care and notice the spaces where we live and most immediately have care for, the rest of it tends to be an abstraction. I became aware that at least our own climate was changing when I discovered that I could now safely plant frost tender things after May 1 when I used to wait at least a week longer. Our local nursery confirmed it several years ago noting that we were now in a warmer growth zone with a longer growing season, reflected in their having annuals in the greenhouse earlier.

Still, I suspect there is much in my backyard to which I’m oblivious until it stares me in the face. I considered skunks denizens of the woods until one stared me in the face recently on several visits to my back yard. It occurred to me when I saw some growing in a ditch, that it had been several years since I’ve seen Queen Anne’s Lace, considered a weed, in my backyard. Aside from cardinals, sparrows (what kind?), blue jays, robins, and the occasional crow, and the ubiquitous Canada geese in nearby retention ponds, I don’t pay attention to the bird life. I mostly notice insects and arachnids if they get inside my house, or nibble my roses. So when I saw A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard, it struck me that it might be helpful in being a bit more observant of my own patch of the creation.

That’s John Hanson Mitchell’s aim as well. He writes, “…the talent for observation is a learned art, and with very little effort it is possible within a single year to become intimate with the natural environment of your immediate neighborhood. The best place to begin, of course, is your own backyard.” This, in a nutshell, describes the contents of the book, as Mitchell walks us through the seasons from early spring of one year to late winter of the next. He notices and tells stories season by season about his observations of weather conditions, migratory birds, trees, wildflowers and weeds, butterflies, morels and mushrooms, shrubs, insects, amphibians and reptiles, backyard mammals, pests and their natural enemies. He writes about the things we’ll come across if we look closely: nests, holes in trees and what we might find living there, hornets nests, galls on plants, wetland life, life under the bark and running sap. He writes about the life we might find around our woodpile, and our birdfeeder. A number of hand drawn illustrations complement the text at key points.

I discovered that the skunk in my yard was probably eating grubs and that this is its redeeming virtue. I looked where it had its nose in our turf and suspect the author was right. There were little holes where it was probably feeding after a rainfall. Still, this is a mammal not to be encouraged and so I made sure there were no sheltered spots around our foundation where it could make a home, because sooner or later it would spray. I suspect, the skunks (we later saw it trailing four or five babies) is living under a neighbor’s deck.

I also realized beyond the basics, I don’t know the identity of our trees. I could do far better at learning and observing the different avian visitors who consume many of our pesky mosquitoes. I might learn when the bird migrations are in our area and watch for them. I learned this about the fireflies I delight to watch on a summer evening: “Electric lights are only about 10 percent energy-efficient, whereas firefly lighting approaches 100 percent and is, in comparison to firelight, gaslight, or electric light, entirely pollution free.” I learned at that the toad I found in my downstairs office last summer is my friend, eating up to 200 insects a night, mostly pests. I’m glad I released him into our back yard! I decided that some of the weeds at our property margins might be worth leaving rather than cutting down with the weed eater. I learned that if you are good, you can distinguish calls of the different kinds of crickets and frogs at night. And the author confirmed something else I’ve observed over the year–nothing deters a hungry and very clever squirrel!

This might be the year I begin a back yard journal. Mitchell’s stories remind me of things I’ve seen, but perhaps not sufficiently paid attention to. He also helped open the eyes to the reality that the quarter acre on which we live is bustling with life that happens to share the space with us and the wonders awaiting me outside my front and back door. We might find different things in our back yard that Mitchell does in Massachusetts. But he gives us some good clues of what we might look for.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Tennis Dreams


Tennis rackets of our youth, Bob Trube, 2018, all rights reserved

I think many of us in Youngstown grew up dreaming of being sports heroes. A pro football running back. A major league pitcher (I did have dreams of becoming the next Sam McDowell at one time).  A boxer. And not a few Youngstowners went on to become those heroes. George Shuba, Dave Dravecky, Ray Mancini, Kelly Pavlick, and Matt Cavanaugh, just to name a few, as well as legendary coaching families like the Stoops or the Pelinis. And I know a number of you could add to the list–it’s a long list!

I wasn’t big enough for football. Couldn’t hit well enough for baseball. But for a while I had dreams of tennis fame. It all started out at the tennis courts at Borts Field. In the beginning I was borrowing a racket and knocking the ball around with some friends, both guys and girls. Borts had two courts. One was concrete. The other was clay. Not groomed clay. Rough clay. Balls would take all kinds of crazy bounces that would keep you on your toes. Sometimes, that’s where you played if the court was occupied.

I had some friends who played on the Chaney tennis team, and in retrospect, I think they used me to train on! I played the most with Tom, who introduced me to the tennis coach, Mr. Wendle. He taught me how to hold a racket, and how to come over a ball on a forehand or backhand stroke to give it spin, which often kept it in the court and made it harder to hit. I played with Tom a lot, either at Rocky Ridge, or at the courts at Volney Rogers park. I always loved those because the trees provided some shade.

The tennis dreams started when I began beating Tom, and some of the other guys on the team. Not all the time, but enough that it made me think I could be good at this game. It was suggested I try out for the team. For a while, I’d read everything I could get my hands on by tennis pros. I’d religiously watch the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, and dream of being Rod Laver or John Newcombe, who seemed to be the big tennis names until Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe came along. I paid attention to strategy, and when did you lob, or try a drop shot. I worked on my serves and tried for a smoking first serve, a twisting, hard to get to second serve.

All this was back in the days of wood rackets like those in the picture. Some of the pros were just starting to use aluminum alloy rackets. There was still a debate then of which was better and how the ball came off the rackets differently. In the end, the light weight composites won out and our wood rackets became antiques.

Actually, my tennis dreams got relegated to the closet long before the wood rackets. College dreams meant getting a job and working rather than playing on the tennis team. While I had those moments on the court where I surprised myself, the reality is that I was a bit flat-footed and not that quick on my feet. The stars started playing ten years before I did, and were coached by pros for much of that time. Still, I wonder. I came across a Vindicator article about Mr. Wendle and discovered his teams were undefeated in City Series play from 1965 to 1981. I was at Chaney from 1970-72. Maybe I wasn’t that bad. I’ll never know.

For a while, tennis was something I continued to play for fun. When I was dating my wife, she lived across from Ipes Field, and we would go over to their courts and play sometimes. After marriage, with busy work schedules, I played less frequently, and realized that the tennis player I remembered in my head wasn’t the guy on the court. Eventually, the rackets gathered dust in the closet. My wife said she was keeping them for a decoration.

For some reason we’re still keeping them for a decoration. Today, that is the extent of my tennis dreams. Except for the memories of the exciting rally, the impossible shot, or winning a hard fought, back and forth match. Those are the only tennis dreams I have these days.

Review: Serving God in a Migrant Crisis

serving god in a migrant crisis

Serving God in a Migrant CrisisPatrick Johnstone with Dean Merrill (foreword by Stephen Bauman). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Concisely sets forth the scope of our present-day global refugee crisis, how as Christians we might think about all this, and several levels of action steps we may take.

We are facing an unprecedented refugee crisis. Corrupt regimes. Violent gangs. Climate change driven migration. Religious persecution. Ethnic cleansing. All these causes and more are leading people to do something no one wants or easily chooses to do–leave home, sometimes paying large sums to shady figures, with no certainty of finding refuge on the other end.

Patrick Johnstone is well known to many as the author of successive editions of Operation World, a guide that has helped many of us pray, or even be led to go to parts of the world and people groups who have not heard the Christian message. His study of these people groups made him keenly aware of these unprecedented movements of people, and the possibility that the very people we hope to reach with the Christian message may be on our doorstep. The question is not, how will we reach them, but will we welcome them?

Johnstone begins by inviting us to connect with our own immigrant histories and by drawing our attention to the one who we follow, who was himself a refugee as a child. In the first part, he explores the unprecedented human tide of immigrants, one out of every 122 on the planet. He turns to fears real and imagined and separates fact from fiction. Then he looks at the factors driving the refugee and migrant crisis, arguing that there is no end in sight and that more developed nations will be dealing with this for some time to come.

In the second part of the book, he focuses on what we need to know. First of all, he helps us understand why people leave their homes, often taking great financial and safety risks to do so. He reminds us that the biblical story is an immigrant story. God even causes some immigration. Our savior was an immigrant. Immigrants are not the “other,”  but rather are people who are “one of us.” Johnstone asks whether our immigration discussions ought to begin with policies and legalities, or with a concern for the humanity of the immigrant. Whatever we, and our nations do, it will have some kind of profound effect on the lives of real people, many of them among the most defenseless in the world. On the other hand, we often do not consider is that these people may turn out not as a problem to be solved, but a blessing. They provide needed workers in low-birthrate countries, some are fellow believers who rejuvenate the faith of complacent Christians, and some of our most respected scientists, political leaders, and business people have been immigrants.

So, what should we do? That is the concern of the final chapters in the third part of the book. He begins by suggesting five starting points:

  1. Appreciate the strategic opportunity. God is bringing the world to us!
  2. Recognize and admit our past mistakes.
  3. Become more sensitive to other cultures.
  4. Believe that God truly cares about migrants.
  5. Start praying.

This last point literally struck home. The author quotes a Ghanaian theologian who participated in African immigrant revivals, praying for the awakening of the West in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago. I live in Columbus and my church hosts a Ghanaian congregation. It made me wonder if some of those worshiping in our church building were among those the theologian was praying with. It makes me wonder if we are the ones being blessed by their presence and what they might teach us about prayer and spiritual warfare in the post-Christian West.

He then concludes with four action levels: the individual, the church, what Christian agencies can do and what the global body of Christ can do. This lasts challenges us both in speaking to ourselves about the need at hand, and speaking to our governments.

What was so refreshing about this book is that it stepped aside from media circus and the political fray and centered the discussion on the reality of the human crisis behind the policy debates and the biblical convictions and dispositions of the heart of people who follow Jesus the refugee. While not ignoring the important role Christians can have in challenging the government, it also focused on the critical role Christians can play in their home church communities by hosting refugees, welcoming immigrants into our homes, networking them into work opportunities, and sharing our faith with them.

This last phrase will be a problem for some. Certainly, we should do all that we can for the immigrant whether they believe or not. But Johnstone makes a telling observation that comes out of his years of work among many people groups: “Immigrants will think it odd if you don’t introduce your faith. They will wonder if you are ashamed of your beliefs for some reason.” This reminds me that the greatest tragedy of yielding to the fears and insecurities that feed political bases and media ratings; is that in so doing we miss the opportunity to love the alien and the stranger, see them become friends, and perhaps witness their turning to new life in Christ. What others see as a crisis and a problem, Johnstone recognizes as a great opportunity. Will we?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.