Review: Thoughts on Public Prayer

Thoughts on Public Prayer, Samuel Miller, foreword by Jonathan L. Master. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2022 (originally published in 1849).

Summary: A classic discussion advocating for extemporaneous public prayer as the practice of the church in the first five centuries of its existence, how this is done badly and well, and how the pastor may pursue excellence in public prayer.

Public prayer is the one other public utterance common in many churches besides the preaching of God’s Word in worship services. The latter involves a pastor leading the people to hear God’s Word for them together. The former involves the pastor leading the people in approaching God together, addressing God. Samuel Miller, in this reprint of a classic from 1849, argues that we tend to give far more attention to the preaching than to public prayer but that public prayer is equally of great importance.

He begins by addressing the history of public prayer, making the case that the earliest practice of the church was extemporaneous public prayer, surveying both the New Testament and texts from the early fathers. He treats prayers toward the east, for the dead, to saints, to Mary, in unknown tongues and responses to prayer as either later practices or not grounded in biblical doctrine. He does find warrants for various postures, particularly kneeling and standing–and not sitting!

He contends that the use of prescribed forms, defended from scripture is both a later introduction, and lacking basis. He believes prescribed prayers circumscribe the ministry of the Spirit and easily lapse into formalism and cannot possibly cover all the circumstances of human existence.

He enumerates some of the common faults in public prayer, including:

  1. Excessive use of favorite words, like “Oh God!” (or in our day “just”).
  2. Hesitations, embarrassment, stumbling, and pauses in utterance.
  3. Ungrammatical expressions.
  4. The lack of regularity and order–prayers that are a jumble.
  5. Excessive minuteness of detail.
  6. Excessive length–he suggests not more than 12-15 minutes, which would be excessive by today’s standards!
  7. Overuse of highly figurative language.
  8. Introducing party politics–a word needed in many pulpits today!
  9. Expressions of the amatory class (expressions that in other context may be used of a romantic lover).
  10. Wit, humor, or sarcasm.
  11. Using prayer for didactic purposes.

He goes on to enumerate seven more faults, but this gives you the idea.

He then turns to characteristics of good public prayer which:

  1. Abounds in the language of the word of God. We used to say that the best way to pray scripturally was to pray scripture.
  2. Is orderly, though free to vary the order.
  3. Is dignified, general in its plan, and comprehensive but not excessive in detail.
  4. Is not overly long
  5. Is seasonable and appropriate to the occasion.
  6. Is filled with gospel truth and refers to the spread of that gospel.
  7. Concludes with doxology.

He touches on fifteen points altogether that make for good public prayer and then concludes with how the minister cultivates excellence in public prayer, which for Miller begins with private prayer, reading works on prayer, saturating one’s life with scripture, being prepared to pray about any of the events that arise in life, and, while not “rehearsing prayers,” to engage in devotional composition of them, the counterpart to one’s study and preparation to preach.

As may be evident, Miller offers both practical ideas and an overarching theology and spirituality of public prayer. While this certainly needs to be adapted to our current forms of worship, there is much good here to heed. The contemporary reader will note a degree of anti-Roman Catholic polemic, that would not have been uncommon to reformed pastors of his time, mostly in the sections on history and liturgy. Those from liturgical traditions would no doubt have rejoinders to his critique of the use of forms, and as he acknowledges, extemporaneous public prayers may have their own problems, and even deteriorate into forms as well. A vital, Spirit-filled and scripture-informed life on the part of those who lead God’s people in worship is truly the decisive difference. For those of us in more extemporaneous prayer traditions, this book is a gold mine of good ideas, as relevant today as in 1849.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: This Isn’t Going to End Well

This Isn’t Going to End Well, Daniel Wallace. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2023.

Summary: The story of William Nealy, as told by his brother-in-law, a cartoonist, guru of adventure sports, and emulated by the author, all the while harboring a secret within that finally killed him.

The First Time I saw him he was standing on the roof of our house, wearing frayed and faded cutoffs and nothing else, eyeing the swimming pool about twenty-five feet below. William. Last name unknown, unnecessary. Already–in my mind, at least–he had achieved the single name status of a rock star, and I had yet to even meet him. I’d only heard about him from Holly, my sister, who was older than me by six years. My sister’s boyfriend was on the roof.

This Isn’t Going to End Well, p. 3

William was William Nealy, the author’s brother-in-law. For years, Daniel Wallace would admire him. He could fix anything. He was fearless, whether diving off a roof, white waterrafting, kayaking, or mountain biking. He was also an underground cartoonist. Several of his books on whitewater rafting, kayaking, and mountain biking are legendary. His maps of rivers, cartoon-like, are incredibly detailed and accurate, and as we learn, how he began to make money on his art. He’d lived near death since age 9 when he saw it up close when twins he was on a scouting trip with were buried under an overhang. Some thought it changed him.

Wallace wanted to be him–cartoonist, writer. He was a kind of big brother. They’d go to movies, William sneaking in beer. He fixed Wallace’s waterbed. There were drugs as well. And Wallace did follow him as a writer, even though they grew apart after Wallace married.

And there was Holly. They saw others but William and Holly just kept coming back to each other. Then at twenty-one, Holly was diagnosed with a debilitating and progressive form of rheumatoid arthritis. William cared for her for the next twenty five years, making life possible for her while he did most of the work on their small farm, a retreat, really, in the woods. Then one day he went up to their houseboat, then into the woods behind the marina office, and shot himself. Several years later, Holly finally succumbed to the disease that had afflicted her all her adult life.

William’s death seemed inexplicable. He seemed the most alive person Wallace had ever known. He had everything going for him. Only after Holly’s death did Wallace discover the secret burden William carried for decades as he cleaned out there house and went through William’s journals, coming to terms with the mix of emotions around William’s life, manner of death, and their friendship.

Nealy was something of a cult figure. This work is an intimate glimpse into the man behind the cult figure. It also gives us a glimpse into the complicated feelings that follow suicide, and the reality that what we see on the outside may not reflect what the person we think we know struggles with within.

For anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide or who is concerned for someone or needs emotional support, the 9-8-8 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is open 24/7. The call is free and confidential.

Or, text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, anytime. Crisis Text Line is here for any crisis. A live, trained Crisis Counselor receives the text and responds, all from a secure online platform.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program.

Review: Tell Her Story

Tell Her Story, Nijay K. Gupta, Foreword Beth Allison Barr. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2023.

Summary: The often overlooked stories of women in the New Testament and how they led, taught, and ministered in the early church.

Not unlike the “hidden figures,” Black women engineers at NASA, Nijay Gupta contends that there are a number of women who played vital roles during the New Testament era but whose stories have been overlooked. They taught, led, and ministered in the church. For example, in Romans 16, ten of the twenty-six people commended by Paul are women. Gupta shares his own journey of moving from overlooking these stories to growing awareness and appreciation of them.

Before considering women in the early church, Gupta looks back. He begins with Deborah, a woman who led Israel during the time of the judges, perhaps the most exemplary of the lot. We know she has a husband because he is mentioned–once. He plays no part in Israel’s deliverance. She speaks prophetically, exhorting her military commander, Barak, and because of his reticence, prophesying that Sisera’s death would come at the hand of a woman.

Then Gupta turns to Genesis 1-3, portraying a unified species in two types with man needing a helper and woman helping (a word often used of God’s help). There are no roles of gender superiority or inferiority, but only role distortions in the fall. Following this, Gupta discusses the New Testament era. To be sure, patriarchy existed in the Roman world, but there were many women, often wealthy widows who exerted power, ran households and businesses, owned property under certain circumstances, and even rose to political office.

Likewise, women played a significant part in the ministry of Jesus, beginning with Mary, the mother of Jesus as caregiver, teacher, companion, disciple, mourner, and eventually church leader, mentioned in the Pentecost accounts. Women like Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna prepared the way for Jesus. Jesus, in turn, cared for women including the woman caught in adultery. He talked with and taught them. They ministered to him, supporting his itinerant ministry. These and others, including Mary Magdalene, may have been among the larger group of disciples, sent out at points to minister. Of course, Mary Magdalene is the first to give testimony to the risen Lord.

The second part of the book focuses on the early church. He begins with looking at the leadership of the early church and the language of overseer (episcopos), elder (presbyteros), and ministers or servants (diakonos). He notes women specifically designated as the latter and argues that women householders who headed house churches would have been considered episcopos and that no prohibition existed against women as elders and that Junia, also called an apostle, would certainly have fallen in this category. While most leaders would have been men, he notes there were a number of women who were exceptions. He discusses how women co-labored as ministry leaders with Paul.

Gupta then considers in consecutive chapters three of them: Phoebe, Prisca, and Junia. Phoebe is Paul’s trusted proxy in Rome, not only carrying the letter to the Romans but, as letter carriers did, reading and interpreting the intent of the letter. Prisca, almost always named first, is a strategic leader whose business enables her to set up house churches and to give instruction at crucial points, as with Apollos, correcting an incomplete message. Junia is also named apostolos. Gupta not only offers evidence that Junia was a female but holds her up as one so bold in testimony that she endured imprisonment.

The book concludes with a “what about?” section concerning the prohibition of women teaching in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and the instructions to women to submit in the household code passages. Gupta concludes that the unusual language of the prohibition in 1 Timothy focuses on a special situation where a kind of “lockdown” was necessary that should not be universalized. He notes that the household codes were reflective of Greco-Roman rather than Hebrew culture, that for the church to contravene these would incite unnecessary opposition, and yet in how they are framed (for example, the preface to mutual submission), Paul gestures toward redeemed relationships reflecting mutual love, respect, and service rather than power/subservience defined relationships. We should no more universalize wifely submission than Paul’s instructions to slaves.

What distinguishes this work is that it clothes scholarship in storytelling. Gupta brings women like Phoebe, Prisca, and Junia to life, while offering biblical warrants for his account. This results in a highly readable work that serves as a good introduction to more technical studies of women in the Bible. It makes the case that while patriarchy, both in the New Testament and subsequent eras, meant that men dominated the narrative, women were not confined to being good housewives. Women did exercise significant influence both in Greco-Roman culture in many instances, and in spiritual leadership in the New Testament. They supported the work and were disciples of Jesus, and co-labored with Paul, who never speaks critically of, but only commends women by name.

This work is probably best-suited for the student of scripture with questions about women in the church but open to considering a biblically grounded argument for women leading along with men in the church. It is a book that will be a great encouragement to women. It really should be to all of us, particularly as we glimpse the courage of Junia, the missional heart of Prisca, and the confidence Paul places in Phoebe to interpret his most challenging letter.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Devil Strips

© Robert C Trube, 2023

Not long after we moved into our current home in central Ohio, I asked a neighbor a question about putting trash onto our devil strip. When I received a quizzical look, I realized he was trying to figure out what I was talking about. So I said, “You know, the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. The devil strip.” He responded, “Oh, you mean the tree lawn.”

In that moment I realized two things. One was, “We’re not in Youngstown anymore.” The other was that what I assumed was a universal term for that strip of grass might be unique to the part of Ohio I grew up in.

A Harvard University blog devoted to regional English cites usages exclusively in northeast Ohio from Youngstown to Cleveland to Akron, stating that “[The term] is known throughout the Youngstown, Ohio, area.” The Urban Dictionary states that the devil strip refers to “The grassy area between the street and the sidewalk. This term is unique to the Akron, Ohio area.”

It’s not quite that simple, actually. References to the term have been found as early as 1883 in Cleveland, Ohio referring to the construction of a strip of land between street car lines going in the opposite direction, “known by the significant rather than elegant name of the devil’s strip.” The next earliest reference was in 1887 occurring in Toronto, Canada, describing the construction of devil’s strips:

The sub-grade is carefully prepared, levelled, and rolled, if found necessary, for solidification.  The kerbs are placed in position, either being set in concrete or gravel.  The subsoil is drained by four-inch tile drains running parallel with the kerb in three rows, one under each kerb, and one under the devil’s strip, or centre of the roadway, the former making connections with the catch-water basins.

If electric car tracks are to be laid, the sub-grade must be excavated to twelve inches extra in the track allowance, this being then filled in with six inches of ballast and compacted.

Even the Akron Beacon Journal acknowledges an 1890 article in its own paper referring to Cleveland:

“Mayor Gardner ordered Supt. Schmitt to stop all traffic on Woodland avenue street railroad from Wilson to East Madison for failure to obey State law which gave Cleveland [the] right to compel street railroads to pave a strip 16 feet wide. This meant all space between the tracks, the devil strip and two feet on the outside.”

The same article notes that at one time the term was widely used throughout Canada and in New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota and Iowa. But northeast Ohio seems to be the only place where it stuck.

So, how did the term go from referring to the strip between street car lines and the strip between street and sidewalk? The Beacon Journal article cites an Athens Daily Messenger from 1912 with this editorial comment:

“There are no double track street car lines in Athens — yet. But the proverbial ‘Devil’s strip’ is here just the same. Did you ever note how often, between a well-kept lawn and its adjacent sidewalk and a well-paved street, you see a strip of unkempt stony and weed-grown ground? It mars the otherwise beautiful street, especially when a dead tree or two helps to add to the neglect of this ‘devil’s strip.’

This suggests why it was called a “devil’s strip.” The WordSense Dictionary definition of “devil strip” adds this insight:

devil + strip, from the area’s status as a no man’s land between private and public property, devil or devil’s in place names meaning “barren, unproductive and unused”.
Compare devil’s lane (“narrow area between two parallel fences”), devil’s footstep (“barren spot of land”).

Others have suggested that it is a strip of land that a property owner must maintain and pay taxes on but that the city can dig up or plant trees on. The “devil” in this case is the city or the tax collector. I can see how this explanation would appeal to a lot of Youngstowners.

So what else is the “devil strip” called? A Wikipedia article on “Road Verge” lists 46 terms and where they are used. Others used in Ohio include: berm, boulevard, curb lawn, park strip, street lawn, and the one we use where I now live, tree lawn.

Devil strips play an important role in separating pedestrians from vehicles. Curbs and trees provide at least some protection from vehicles straying from the road, and more separation of foot traffic from road traffic. It also puts one a bit further away from getting splashed by vehicles going through puddles in the rain. We have some areas lacking sidewalks and tree lawns and, sadly, I know of pedestrian-vehicle accidents along these areas.

As for bragging rights, I’d like to think that, like cookie tables, Youngstown was first. It just sounds like a term Youngstowners would think up. I’ve found no evidence for that, but I still like to think that it is a name that just fits Youngstown.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: The Kingdom Among Us

The Kingdom Among Us, Michael Stewart Robb. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022.

Summary: A formulation of the theology of Dallas Willard, centering around his focus on the gospel of the kingdom, and three stages of understanding Jesus followers go through in their progressive apprehension of the realities of that kingdom.

Dallas Willard is known by many for his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Even this book suggests a deeper substrate to Willard’s thought, as it pointed to the disciplines positioning us for life under God’s gracious and transforming rule. He develops that further in The Divine Conspiracy, where he introduces his ideas of the center of Jesus message being the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

Beyond his academic writing, Dallas Willard gave us these books plus several others, written thoughtfully for a wide audience. Over his life he spoke widely (I heard him on several occasions and even picked him up at an airport once) on a variety of topics, from venues as varied as Sunday school classes, to lecture series to Veritas Forums and plenary talks at national conferences. While his ideas called many into a deeper life of discipleship as apprentices to Jesus, he never took the time to formulate the substrate of his ideas, his theology, in a systematic sense.

That is what Michael Stewart Robb seeks to do in this work, centering around his message of the gospel of the kingdom, and around the progressive apprehension of those who listened and followed. To do this, Robb went beyond the published works of Willard to listen to hundreds of hours of recorded messages, gathering course materials and teaching notes from Sunday school classes. From this, he elaborates, more systematically than Willard himself, Willard’s theology undergirding his ideas of the gospel of the kingdom.

Robb sees Willard’s ideas of the kingdom both rooted in creation and moving toward a telos of a “community of loving, creative, intelligent, loyal, faithful, powerful human beings. And they are going to rule the earth.” While the kingdom precedes the coming of Jesus, his coming marks the “nearness” of the kingdom, its accessibility to those who follow and believe. The major part of the book traces the progressive apprehension of the gospel of the kingdom through three stages, progressing from what is known to greater understanding and a deeper apprehension of Jesus.

In the first stage, they encounter Jesus as a prophet announcing the presence of the kingdom and evidencing that in his person through a ministry of deliverance from demons, illness, and death. Those who trusted in Jesus experience deliverance in the form of regeneration into a new life.

In the second stage, they encounter Jesus as teacher, apprenticing themselves to him as disciples, learning in his bodily presence the abundant life of the kingdom, practicing what they see in him. Their faith in him is in the faith of Christ toward God.

The third stage then is the encounter with Jesus as king, as the Son of God, the Incarnate God. Here, disciples become the friends of Jesus and enjoy the access of friends to the king’s domain. They move from faith in Jesus to the faith of Jesus and ultimately to faith in God. They know the nearness of the kingdom as nearness to Jesus and God as friends.

This is a vast simplification, and probably oversimplification, of what Robb does in over 500 pages, addressing a number of theological and philosophical matters along the way–ontology, redemptive history, and soteriology. Robb incorporates his research into the extant papers, addresses, lecture notes and published works to “connect the dots” and explore the nuances of Willard’s thought. This can be quite involved in places, requiring close attention. The picture emerges of Willard as a profound but not simple teacher.

One of the matters I would like to see Robb address further is that, while this is a Christocentric account, it is not crucicentric. If I grasp this account correctly, we are saved by the whole life of Christ, in our encounter with and faith in him, into the life of the kingdom. If I am reading this accurately, this reflects something of a departure from evangelical distinctives, notably Bebbington’s Quadrilateral. This makes me want to read Willard more closely and to understand more of the place the cross occupies in Willard’s thought.

Robb has clearly made a formidable contribution to studies of a figure he calls “an odd duck.” Willard was a pastor-philosopher whose reading of theologians was focused not on contemporaries but on classic figures, from Augustine to Calvin to Finney. He was not part of the “theological guild” and something of a maverick. Hopefully Robb’s work will spark further study to mine the distinctive ideas that challenged so many of us during Willard’s life and even lead to the discovery of Willard’s work by a new generation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Angels Everywhere

Angels Everywhere, Luci Shaw. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press/Iron Pen, 2022.

Summary: A collection of poems written during the first year of the pandemic, aware that even in light glancing through windows, we have intimations of “angels everywhere.”

For years, I’ve encountered single poems of Luci Shaw in various publications, always appreciating them but never moving from that to acquire a collection of her poetry. Now I wonder why I waited. I’m glad Luci Shaw has remained with us to give us this collection of poems written during the first year of the pandemic, and in her ninety-third year. References to the pandemic do arise, the air thickened with suspicion and doubt, where “Stay away!” is the command of friendship in this strangely altered world. Conscious of it or not, we are marked by these times.

Yet this is not the focus of attention of these poems but rather the “angels everywhere” in fleeting glimmers of light, in “vagrant clouds glistening.” While watching, in “Prey,” a finch being watched by her cat, who sees it as prey of blood, bone, and feather” she marks her own ravenous longing for closeness with God, to be filled “with body and blood.”

She marks the changing seasons in her poems, paralleling the changing seasons of our lives. In “Leaving” she connects the losses of foliage to loss in one’s life, concluding, “I yearn to learn the discipline of seeing something treasured,/ watching it pass, then letting it go. Letting it go.”

There are other times when the external encourages the inward look. In “Moonrise,” the sliver of moon low in the sky causes her to ask”

And when I reflect back
just the bright half of me,
how will you guess
my shadow side?

The language is often luminous, as when she speaks, in “Santa Fe Evening” of watching “a mountain/swallow the sun like a peach –/a hammered copper disc so large, so close/I felt warmed, as if a mother’s hand/touched the skin of my face.” She is reminded of the providential regularity of sunrise amid the world’s turmoil giving hope that “we too will arise from our shadowed sleep.”

Some of her poems reflect on the writing process itself. In both “In the Beginning, A Word” and “Some Poems Seem” (on facing pages), she speaks of her love of words: “This, then, is how/it seems to work, and why I love the words/that come to mind and write them down/for you, telling the curious way we live/our lives and write them into books.”

She writes of people in her life who have passed, and a new grandchild. She describes a tomato garden, forest grasses, the things she sees on walks and drives, reminding me here of Mary Oliver, seeing the transcendent in the ordinary.

In one of the latter poems, “Shaker Chair,” she observes the shape of a Shaker chair “shaped for a leanness, a cleanness of body and spirit” concluding that it is “An invitation for Christ to come sit on it, or an angel, as Merton suggested.”

She urges reading these poems aloud, always good practice, and certainly with her work. She uses wonderful words like “plangent” and “frisson” as well as the phrasing just noted, “a leanness, a cleanness.”

Many of us lived circumscribed lives during the pandemic. Shaw writes in an introduction of how the ordinary may speak as one of “God’s messengers.” Cut off from many other things, did we heed the messages in the changing seasons, watching winter give way to spring, observing the phases of the moon, the response of parched summer lawns to a long soaking rain, the fleeting glory of autumn leaves? I didn’t need to leave my neighborhood to hear the messages these bore. Now, on my walks, perhaps I will be more aware, attuned to the “angels everywhere.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Project Gutenberg: Where the Original Internet Still Lives

Screen capture of Project Gutenberg homepage 3/15/2023

Do you remember when you first discovered the internet? For me, it wasn’t until around 1995, the first time I bought a computer with a modem. At that time, we had Freenet, which was text based. Green text on a black screen. Yet it was amazing. Libraries of information, and all of it for free. There was a primitive search engine called Yahoo. And there was Project Gutenberg. One could access thousands of books online–for free!

At that time, Project Gutenberg was about twenty-five years old. It was the brainchild of a University of Illinois student, Michael Hart, who in 1971 uploaded a transcribed copy of the Declaration of Independence onto what was then the ARPANET in its infancy, making it freely available to anyone who had access to that network. It was his way of saying “thank you” for the free computer access he enjoyed at a time when this was a precious commodity. In so doing, Hart became inventor of the e-book.

Other freely available texts followed in what he named “Project Gutenberg” for Johannes Gutenberg, the printer who invented movable type, making the printing revolution possible. Hart believed one day the public would have wide access to computer networks, and he envisioned making books and other texts in the public domain available at no cost to anyone. His goal was to make 10,000 e-books available by the year 2000.

By 1995, Project Gutenberg had moved to Illinois Benedictine College. Hart had a number of volunteers working with him. Until 1989, text was manually digitized. Optical scanners sped up the process, with volunteers enlisted to proofread scanned text for accuracy against the original. In 1994, Pietro Di Miceli took on developing the Project Gutenberg website, which won many awards for design in its early years. This was at the time when Mosaic became a widely available internet browser and we moved from text to graphical user interfaces.

By 2003, a DVD was released with 10,000 items from Project Gutenberg, most of the collection at that time, realizing Hart’s goal within three years of his original target. Today, Project Gutenberg is hosted at the University of North Carolina and offers more than 60,000 items in its collection. It continues to be a volunteer driven project, with volunteers selecting books to digitize. Distributed Proofreaders allows volunteers to collaborate on digitizing books, both lightening the load and speeding the process.

If you have not used Project Gutenberg, the homepage serves to help one navigate the site. You can search and browse by author, title, subject, language, type, popularity, and more. There are Bookshelves of related e-books by topic. You can look up the most downloaded titles (tops is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). You can look up the recently added works. There is a section on Tablets, Phones and eReader How-tos. There are options to download books as e-pubs, in Kindle formats, and in other formats.

And all of this is still free. While much enhanced since my first visits in 1995, it still reflects the values and vision of the early internet, which so many thought a wondrous place. At the page, 50 years of e-Books: 1971-2021, there is this statement:

Everyone should have free, unlimited access to the world’s literature. Whenever they want, with a variety of formatting and delivery choices. “Literature,” said Hart, “should be as free as the air we breathe.”

At a time when some state and individual actors are trying to limit access to particular texts, it seems this work is more important than ever, even if it is focused on books in the public domain. These books also have “dangerous ideas” — ones that speak to our basic human rights and the liberties that we can never take for granted. Hart’s first upload, The Declaration of Independence, was one of those.

Review: Arm and Hammer

Arm and Hammer, Jonathan K. Wade. Culver City, CA: Gambit Publishing, 2022.

Summary: A historical fiction account or the Iran-Contra affair telling the story of US NSC and CIA complicity with drug cartels distributing cocaine in US cities to fund the Contra resistance to the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

It began with the downfall of the corrupt Somoza regime of Nicaragua to the Communist Sandinistas. The U.S. had watched this happen once before in Cuba. Fidel Castro had brought down a corrupt regime. A Communist regime was just 90 miles from the mainland and stubbornly survived the Bay of Pigs debacle and other covert attempts to bring it down. Now another country in the American sphere of influence had become Communist. Not only did it rankle the staunchly anti-Communist Reagan presidency, there were a group of former Somoza military figures and the resistance they recruited, the Contras wanting to bring down the Sandinistas. There was one problem. The U.S. Congress looked dimly on the whole affair after Vietnam. Initially funding aid, they cut, then eliminated appropriations. The National Security Council was tasked with finding ways to continue to fund the effort. Part was the covert arm sales to Iran, hopefully to secure releases of American hostages in Lebanon. Funds from the sales were diverted to the Contras. But it was not enough.

This book, a historical fiction account, tells the story of the other part of that funding effort. We learn how Nicaraguans in the U.S., who got into the cocaine trade working with Colombian cartels were persuaded to channel funds through CIA operatives to assist the Contra effort in exchange for the CIA securing landing strips and the cooperation of the DEA to look the other way as pilots ferried arms to camps along the Nicaraguan border and drugs back to the US. This book renders an account showing how high officials were “in the know”: William Casey of the CIA, Robert McFarlane and Admiral John Poindexter of the NSC, Elliot Abrams at State. We learn how Oliver North and his deputy, Robert Owen, ran the operation, working with Bay of Pigs assassin turned CIA operative Felix Rodriquez (a.k.a. Max Gomez), how newly affluent Nicaraguans siphoned off money until Rodriquez brought them brutally in line.

Most of all, we learn how cocaine dealers like Freeway Ricky went from two bit operators cooking crack cocaine in apartments to a multi-million dollar business, flooding the streets of Los Angeles and other American cities with crack cocaine. It’s from here that we get the book’s title. Baking soda is a key ingredient in “baking” crack.

It was all illegal. The story is a study of the justifications people used, from continuing the resistance to Communism that failed in Cuba to defending American interest to wanting to earn enough to get out of the ‘hood and the business. It unfolds year by year through the 1980’s up to 1987. Wade moves the story from the jungles of Costa Rica on the Nicaraguan border to the streets of Los Angeles, to offices in San Francisco and Miami where rich Nicaraguans ran drug operations, to the centers of power in Washington. Along the way, the brutality of both the drug trade and black ops is evident in hits and assassinations. Broken trust, or even the danger of it, could be fatal.

Then the reckoning, when a C-123 transport is shot down over Nicaragua in 1986, and one of the crew along with an incriminating black book survives. Over the next year it all unravels as Oliver North and his secretary try to frantically shred documents and a most incriminating ledger as agents knock on the office doors. We see who walks away and who takes the fall.

Wade offers a riveting, fast-moving account of how it all unfolds. My only quibble is his insistence on recording Oliver North “grinding his molars” in every meeting. I suspect this reflects an actual habit, but it is overused here. Aside from this, the story is a disturbing account of our governments complicity in the drug trade we official excoriated in the “war on drugs” and our incarceration policies. The key figures did see prison time, but nothing like the small time dealers and users, if they survived long enough to go to prison. It is a story of hubris and folly and ultimately of betrayal, one those in power do well to read and remember.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through BookSirens.

Review: Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest

Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest, Ruth Haley Barton, foreword by Ronald Rolheiser. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2022.

Summary: Describes the journey to life-giving sabbath practices as well as planning for and taking sabbaticals.

Ruth Haley Barton is a gifted speaker, writer, and Christian leader. And like many such people she pushed herself hard in a high-performance church culture and later as leader of her own ministry organization. She enjoyed reading books about sabbath, but that was for other people. Until she was in a bike accident. And she realized that God had given her a harder nudge that it was time to begin a journey of sabbath practice.

This book describes that journey and a further one of taking sabbaticals–extended sabbaths allowing a longer period of rest and transformation. She discovered that sabbath began with God, who wove rest into the fabric of creation with his own rhythm of six days of work, and then rest. Sabbath is participating in the rest that is already there, that we work and rest in rhythm with God. Sabbath is also an act of resistance. It was for the Hebrew ex-slaves who always had to work for Pharaoh. It is as well in our 24/7 culture.

Sabbath was meant as a community practice, enjoyed and shared together. We often try to figure this out for ourselves, and one of the unique contributions of this book is that it casts vision for churches and other communities to share in sabbath practice. She gives practical help in leading that culture change process, beginning with oneself, other leaders, and the congregation. She speaks of “no emergencies with God” and allowing the process of communal sabbath-keeping to take the time it needs. The book includes an appendix with a discussion guide for church leaders to use.

She addresses unplugging from our technology, acknowledging the hold it has on us, and ways we may be more present to God and each other when we include “unplugging” in our sabbath practice. She shares with us her delight in sabbath, particularly in just having time to “putz” around. It’s a time to be free to be neighborly, to allow the accumulated emotions of the week to bubble to the service, and to bring them to God without self-numbing. She speaks of sabbath in different seasons of life, as a student, with families, caring for parents. Then she pulls this together in helping us shape our sabbath practice.

There are times when sabbath is not enough. But the good news is that sabbath prepares us for sabbatical, for extended periods of rest. She addresses the temptation to be “productive” during sabbaticals and encourages beginning to plan a sabbatical by listening to what one’s soul is trying to say to God and ourselves about our longings for this time. She shares her own sabbatical journey–during a pandemic–and offers practical helps on how to plan a sabbatical and an appendix on re-entry from one. One of the basic insights that everyone I know affirms is that you don’t know how tired you are until the first weeks of a sabbatical and the importance of making allowance for this.

It is obvious that Ruth Haley Barton has “put her own mask on first” before trying to help us. Her delight in sabbath and rich experience of sabbath invite the reader to consider these for oneself. Sabbath and sabbatical are shared as gifts rather than obligations and burdens, practices that keep us even more than we keep them. Perhaps more, the language of embrace suggests sabbath as a welcome friend, or even a reminder that as we rest and trust, that the Lover of our Soul will embrace and hold and refresh us.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Mahoning National Bank

It was the one bank whose name showed its connection to the Youngstown area. Its main offices graced the southwest part of Central Square, designed by one of the distinguished architects of the day. A fiscally sound institution, it operated 132 years until it merged with another bank. It was my mother-in-law’s bank, and at the end of her life, we had professional and efficient dealings with them as we helped her manage her finances. The tellers at her branch were like family to her and a number had worked there for years. That was the Mahoning National Bank many of us knew.

The Mahoning National Bank was established in 1868 as the Youngstown Savings and Loan Association. The founding directors were a veritable who’s who of business leaders in Youngstown: David Tod, Chauncey Andrews, W. J. Hitchcock, F.O. Arms, T. K. Hall, Joseph G. Butler, Jr., T. H. Wells, John Stambaugh, David Theobald, Richard Brown, A. B. Cornell, B. F. Hoffman, and William Powers formed the board of directors. David Tod was elected president but died two months later to be succeeded by F. O. Arms.

They first operated on the northwest part of Central Square until moving to the southwest part in 1873 in a building connected with Andrews and Hitchcock. In 1877, the association adopted a national bank charter under the name Mahoning National Bank. Then in 1909, the bank bought out the Andrews & Hitchcock interest in the property and razed the old structure to erect a modern high rise building.

The building was designed by Alfred Kahn, known at the time as one America’s foremost industrial architects. He also designed the Stambaugh Building and North Side Hospital. He designed a number of industrial facilities in Detroit including Ford’s Highland Park plant where the Model T was assembled. The building was completed in 1910. You will note that the building above is only part of the present day complex. A four story addition was added on the site of the old Opera House, and the building was extended southward by 72 feet. This video, produced by Metro Monthly shows the stately lobby of the bank as well as giving information about its architect:

The bank grew with Youngstown, opening branches as the city expanded and people moved into the surrounding suburban community. In 1924 the bank had assets of $6.3 million. By 2000, its assets had grown to 818 million and it had twenty-one offices.

The end of the twentieth century was marked by numerous bank mergers. In June of 1999, it merged with Sky Bank, part of Sky Financial Services, an upstart company formed in 1998 in northwest Ohio that grew rapidly through mergers. At the end of 2001, it changed its name to Sky Bank. Then in 2007, Sky Bank was acquired by Huntington Bank, based in Columbus.

Huntington Bank had offices in the old Mahoning National Bank building but has moved to smaller offices in the Stambaugh building. In December 2022, The Business Journal reported the sale of the building for $2.3 million to a New York based investment group operating under the name 22 Market Street Ohio LLC. The company intends to use the bottom four stories for office space and convert the upper nine floors to residential units, preserving the historic character of the building.

It sounds wonderful if it unfolds as promoted. There do seem to be the beginnings of a downtown renaissance. But I wonder if the Youngstown economy can yet sustain it and whether there is sufficient “draw” to live downtown. I, for one, would love to see historic buildings like this and the Stambaugh buildings (both Kahn designed) preserved and used well.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!