Review: Choosing Community

choosing community

Choosing Community: Action, Faith, and Joy in the Works of Dorothy L SayersChristine A. Colón. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A compilation of three lectures and responses on the theme of community running through the works of Dorothy L. Sayers.

Dorothy L. Sayers experienced real pain in her relationship with the community of the church. Yet, as Walter Hansen, in the introduction to this book notes, this was not reflected in the love of community reflected both in Sayers’ life and work. This work, drawn from the Ken and Jean Hansen Lectures at Wheaton College, examines the embrace of community reflected in Sayers work in the form of action, faith, and joy. One lecture addresses each of these followed by a brief response.

The first lecture looks at the idea of communities of action. Colón traces the development of her detective fiction, as she moves from solving a crime perpetrated by an individual and solved by a detective, a classic crime fiction trope, to a much more complex vision of community, deeply impacted by crime, and restored by the communal action of people of good will (Lord Peter, Harriet Vane, Bunter, and Inspector Parker, for example), each pursuing with diligence and collegiality their particular roles, serving the wider community.

Communities of faith are the focus of the second lecture. Colón turns to the plays of Sayers for this lecture, showing how these portray the disintegration of community, the formation of communities of faith in The Emperor Constantine and the necessity of atonement in her play The Just Vengeance. Even as Colón considers the plays, she also reflects on Sayers’ love of the players, of how the theater was a kind of community of faith for Sayers–particularly the quality of unflinching devotion to “the show must go on” no matter the personal circumstances of the players–a kind of devotion to one another and a greater purpose she longed for in the body of Christ.

Dorothy Sayers is portrayed by Colón as a joyful woman, delighting in her work, her comrades, sometimes in plain silliness, revealed in facsimiles of correspondence reproduced in the third chapter. She delighted in her associations with theater companies and the Detective Club, communities that combined serious work and celebration. She then turns back to the detective stories, Sayers development of Harriet Vane, and her finding of joy in return to her academic community in Gaudy Night, and in her marriage to Peter and return to the community of her youth in Busman’s Holiday.

Colón introduces us to a vision of community that is not sentimental but one that confronts evil, that gathers around serious work, that involves responsible action on the part of each person, that is formed around faith and devotion, and that is grounded in an undercurrent of deep joy. The responses are marked for brevity, grace, and brief expansions on each of the idea Colón introduces, reflecting the community of which Colón writes.

This is a valuable work for anyone who has enjoyed the writings of Dorothy L. Sayers. If you’ve only sampled the dramas, or the essays, or the detective stories, it takes you into the breadth of Sayers work (apart from her translations of The Divine Comedy and The Song of Roland). I came away wanting to read more of her dramatic works, having mostly read the detective stories and her theological works. It also probes our understanding of community, inviting us into both the responsibilities and possibilities open to communities of faith.

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

Review: Upstream

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UpstreamMary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016.

Summary: A collection of essays on nature and literary figures and how we might both lose and understand ourselves as we interact with them.

One of my reading goals of 2020 is to read some of the work of Mary Oliver, who I only learned of upon her death in 2019. One of the facts that made her even more interesting to me was that she was born in Maple Heights, Ohio, a small suburb on the southeast side of Cleveland. The fact that she was an Ohio-born author makes her of interest to me. The fact that I lived for nine years in Maple Heights makes her doubly interesting.

What I discovered in these essays was a writer not unlike Annie Dillard in her reflections on nature, but one who could do just as much in far fewer words. Perhaps that is the discipline of being a poet. Every word matters. She writes of trees, and wild flowers, connects them to her writing life, and to life itself. The first, and title essay ends with this striking aphorism that I will probably chew on the rest of 2020: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She writes as well about literary figures, particularly in moving terms about Walt Whitman who was a model to her as she began writing poetry. The others are Emerson, Poe, and Wordsworth–romantics and transcendentalists–those who (Emerson and Wordsworth at least) connected goodness in nature and humanity, and access to the ultimate through our intuitions of the world. For Poe, it is the wild argument of everyone of us against the universe.

In “Staying Alive” we learn about her perspective that moved from nature and walks with a succession of dogs in the course of life to her interior world (and back again):

I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly. I read by day and into the night. I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes. I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.

“Power and Time” explores the creative and intellectual work of a writer, and the loyalty to the work required of the writer. At other times, she arrests our attention with the things she has seen in her meanderings–the beauty of a bluefish, the wonders of a pond, or a ponderous turtle, from which she takes some but not all eggs, enough for a meal. One essay, “Swoon,” describes the life of a household spider, laying eggs, feeding on a trapped cricket, and the “billowing forth” of tiny spiders.

“Building the House” seems a metaphor for the passages of one’s life. Oliver describes building a small house by herself out of salvaged materials, writing a few poems there, and then being done with it. She remarks on her transition from the “busyness of the body” to “the tricks of the mind” perhaps tracing the journey we all take from the vitality of youth to the ponderings of later years that might be mistaken for wisdom.

Nature, the life of writing poetry and communing with the works of others, the physical business of living, all reflect Oliver’s own quest for the transcendent. In “Winter Hours” she concludes:

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

The arc of Mary Oliver’s life, which began in Maple Heights, Ohio, was mostly lived out with her partner of over 40 years, M (Molly Malone Cook) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, until her final years in Florida. The collection concludes with a description of the glory and decline of this fishing town into a tourist attraction and her gratitude for life in this place:

I don’t know if I am heading toward heaven or that other, dark place, but I know I have already lived in heaven for fifty years. Thank you, Provincetown.

Review: Sacred Endurance

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Sacred EnduranceTrillia J. Newbell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Using the analogy of running a race, sets out the promises of God and the practices of the believer that enable us to finish the race of faith.

…being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience…” Colossians 1:11, NIV

Years ago, my first ministry supervisor and I were studying through the book of Colossians together when we came to this verse in the middle of Paul’s intercessory prayer for the Colossians. He asked me why “great endurance” is so important as a believer. As a young believer, I’m not sure I fully grasped why this mattered. But the question stayed with me, as well as the promise of God’s strengthening glorious might. The years since have made sense of the necessity of endurance through the parenting years, through disappointments, serious illnesses, deaths of close family and friends, failures, conflict, and the gradual encroachments of age on one’s body. Equally, there are those seasons of the ordinary, the routine tasks that we get up and do over and over. Most of us have wondered at some point, “how can I keep going on?” “How can I finish well?”

Trillia Newbell has written a marvelously encouraging book exploring this crucial topic of endurance. A former runner, she describes running the anchor leg of a 4 X 400 relay, running swiftly until the last 100 meters, when exhaustion left her summoning every last ounce to finish ahead of those on her heels. Throughout the book, she uses the image of a race to speak of both the provision of God to enable us to finish our race of faith, and what it means for us to live into that promise.

The book is filled with biblical passages, grounding our hope for enduring in the promises and instructions of God. She reminds us of the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on, and the necessity to strip away any encumbering sins and to focus on Jesus. She explores our running motivations, particularly the “love of Christ” that compels. She confronts the lies of the gospel of success and prosperity and explores how the presence and power of God meets us in our suffering, troubles, and weakness. She addresses the importance of the mind to endurance and the call to be renewed in our minds.

I was particularly impressed with her chapter on enduring amid the troubles of society and the world. She acknowledges the particular challenges she faces as an African-American female confronting blatant racism, even white supremacism. She describes her own disciplines of stopping to remember God, taking heart in the truth that the Lord has overcome the world, that people are not the enemy, to persist in doing good, not giving way to cynicism, and knowing toward whom we are running when we can be distracted by other loyalties.

She explores abiding in Christ, and practical disciplines of abiding, particularly the word of God and prayer. She speaks of how God meets us in our brokenness and contrition, helps us press on when we fall and fail, the provision of running companions in the church, and the prize toward which we run. Even her appendix, on those who don’t endure, stresses how God is fully able to help us run to the finish.

There is nothing startlingly new here, but perhaps in our preoccupation with so many challenges in life, we need to hear these words afresh. Trillia Newbell is like the good track coach who keeps telling us the things we need as often as we need to hear them. She coaches out of her own journey with honesty, humility, and a contagious joy that arises from her own experience of the promises of God that help her run and endure with joy. She reminds us of all the resources God provides, the practices that help us keep running, the things we need to let go of, and the God who meets us at our weakest places and the Christ toward whom we run.

If you are asking yourself how you will get through the next year, or month, or even day, this is a great book to read. It is a good book for young parents balancing work, childcare and other responsibilities. It is good for those in the mid-life “sandwich,” wondering where they will find the strength to handle it all, and why it is worth it. It is a good book for those in their senior years, approaching the finish line, wanting to do it well. Endurance never goes out of season.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Ward Beecher Hall and Planetarium

Ward Beecher

Ward Beecher

Nothing like an astronomy class at 2 pm in the afternoon during your first quarter at Youngstown State to catch you napping. That was me. The reclining seats in the planetarium combined with the dimmed lights was the perfect recipe for an afternoon snooze. You just hoped nothing was said that would go on the test.

I had many classes in Ward Beecher during my years at Youngstown State (1972-76). I can’t say that I gave a thought to the name of the building at time. Only later did I realize that generally, college buildings bear the name of people (or their family) who gave large sums of money toward the construction of the building.

I’ve written about others whose names are on YSU buildings: Kilcawley, Beeghly, Maag, and Jones. But never Ward Beecher. Like many others I’ve written about, I discovered a family that has invested deeply in Youngstown. And I was left with an unanswered question.

Ward Beecher’s family traces back to Connecticut, where his father Leonard, and mother, Ruth Webster Beecher lived. She was the daughter of Noah Webster, of dictionary fame. Their son Walter came to Youngstown at age 19, around 1864 and became involved in a number of community enterprises including the Ohio Powder Company and the Mahoning Bank. He married Eleanor Price, whose family owned a large farm extending along South Belle Vista from Mahoning Avenue to Bears Den Road. Price Road is named after the family and their homestead is now part of the Franciscan Friary on South Belle Vista.

Ward was born September 27, 1887 and graduated from the Rayen School in 1907, going on to study metallurgy at Carnegie Institute of Technology followed by war service with the 309th Engineers in France in World War 1. He returned to Youngstown and in 1923 married Florence Simon, a granddaughter of Col. L. T. Foster, after whom Fosterville is named. He worked for a time as an auditor with Republic Rubber Company, as secretary and treasurer of the Lau Iron Works, and treasurer of Powell Pressed Steel.  From 1922 on, he occupied a number of positions at Commercial Shearing and Stamping Company, ending up as Vice President of Finance. He also followed his father’s footsteps, serving as a director of the Mahoning Bank. He attended a directors meeting the day of his death.

He took a major interest in the development of Youngstown State, contributing significant funds for the construction of the science hall and planetarium that now bears his name, which opened in 1967. One of his stipulations was that the planetarium would always be free to the public.

Like many other business leaders of his generation, he served as a leader and benefactor of a number of Youngstown organizations from the Salvation Army to Boys’ Club, as well as the Youngstown Club, the Youngstown Country Club, the Elks, and other organizations. In the late 1950’s, the Beechers sold the Price homestead, where they were living to the Franciscan Friary. Later on, they made substantial contributions for improvements.

After this time, the Beechers moved to Boardman, where they lived together until Ward’s death on October 26, 1970. He was buried, along with many other famous Youngstown residents, at Oak Hill Cemetery. Florence Beecher lived until 1991, supporting a number of Youngstown cultural institutions including the Mahoning Valley Historical Society and the Butler Institute of American Art whose Beecher Court is named in her honor.

The family and the foundations established by Ward and Florence Beecher continue to invest in Youngstown. In 2006 Eleonor Beecher Flad, the Beechers’ daugher, and the Ward Beecher and Florence Simon Beecher Foundations contributed significant funds for a state of the art star projector in the planetarium to replace the one that had been there even before I was a student. Similar contributions were responsible for the construction of the Eleanor Beecher Flad Pavilion on the west side of the DeYor Center, a performance and event space to complement the beauty of Powers Auditorium and renovations of Lanterman’s Mill in the late 1980’s. Eleanor Beecher Flad is now an emeritus trustee of the YSU Foundation, serving for many years as one of the few women trustees of the Foundation.

I mentioned a question. Beechers have played an important part in American history. Both Lyman Beecher and Henry Ward Beecher were abolitionist preachers and leaders, also coming from Connecticut. Henry Ward Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. From the online family trees I accessed, I could find no connection, despite the shared names. It would not surprise me that there would be a connection, and I’d love to find it.

What I do know is that Ward Beecher, and his family have left an indelible imprint on the educational, cultural, charitable, religious, and historic institutions of the city. I may have been napping as a student, but I find myself deeply grateful now for the investment in both time and financial resources this family has given Youngstown.

Review: The Last Leonardo

the last leonardo

The Last LeonardoBen Lewis. New York: Ballantine Books, 2019.

Summary: The story of the Salavator Mundi, purportedly the last painting of da Vinci, sold in 2017 for $450 million.

Is it a genuine Leonardo…or not? That is the question running through this book, which traces the history of a painting that sold for the highest price of any work of art to date, $450 million in 2017. It is a painting of a blue-robed Christ with right hand raised in blessing while the left hand holds a crystal orb. It is titled Salvator Mundi (Latin for “Savior of the World”).

In 2005 Robert Simon, a distinguished New York art dealer, acquired the work from a Louisiana gallery for $1175. Painted on a poorly selected panel of wood that was falling apart, and overpainted during its history, it nevertheless caught Simon’s attention. At first he thought it could have originated in da Vinci’s workshop. He spent tens of thousands of dollars having the painting meticulously restored by Dianne Modestini, for whom the work represented part of her recovery from the grief of a lost husband. Art scholar Martin Kemp was brought in to authenticate the painting as was art historian Margaret Dalivalle–Kemp a believer, and Dalivalle increasingly uncertain.

Ben Lewis traces all the elements that go into the authentication of a painting. There are comparisons with established paintings of Leonardo, of which there are less than 20 extant. Things like the rendering of the hair, the fine details of anatomy, the folds of the robe argued for the authenticity. Yet for one who studied optics, the one dimensional character of the orb and the lack of distortion is problematic. Whereas Kemp saw the “zing” of a genuine Leonardo, many other gallery curators, including Sotheby’s back in 2005, failed to recognize it as anything more than a derivative work.

Salvator Mundi

Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Public Domain via Wikimedia

Much of the book attempts to establish the provenance of the painting from Leonardo’s workshop to the present. We are left with gaps that, despite Simon’s description, leave the provenance of the painting up for question. There is also the question of the restoration, including how substantial Modestini’s restoration went. In truth, even if the painting was Leonardo’s, what was left was only a fraction of his work.

We also see the tireless and shrewd efforts of Simon, and his later partner Alex Parrish, to promote the painting including arranging a National Gallery exhibition of the painting in 2011 and the maneuverings that finally led to the painting’s sale to Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 for the highest price ever paid for a work of art, only for it to remain in storage in a Swiss vault, hidden away from the world, and the possibility of the painting either being accepted or disproven as an authentic Leonardo, the last Leonardo.

Ben Lewis takes us on a fascinating journey into the rare art world and all the difficulties of condition, style, and provenance of Old Masters. We also see one of the greatest gambles made by an art dealer, and the tremendous return it eventually yielded. Lewis also introduces us to the new reality of art as investment–objects to be stored until they appreciate and not to be displayed. At the end, we are still left wondering, did bin Salman spend the most ever spent on a genuine Leonardo, a product of his workshop, or another talented imitation. It may be that neither he nor we will ever know.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Love and Quasars

Love and Quasars

Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science, Paul Wallace. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019.

Summary: An astrophysicist recounts both his journey away from faith as he saw it in conflict with science, and his return to a faith enlarged by his pursuit of science.

There are many books that contend that science and faith might be reconciled. What makes this book stand apart is not merely the reasoned argument, but more deeply the wonder and love for both God and the cosmos that brings science and faith together for the author.

It wasn’t always so for Paul Wallace. Like many children, Paul started out with an implicit faith in God and saw God’s glory in the world (the subject of a family joke). Beginning in second grade, he began to see contradictions between what he read in the Bible and what he was learning about the world from science. The religious adults he discussed this with seemed uneasy, the scientists were in love with their work. As he went along, he gradually came to believe that opposing faith to science was kind of like “chessboxing” the mixing of two very different things that each address different aspects of our existence. Faith shouldn’t exclude scientific explanations of origins, and science shouldn’t pretend to answer the questions of what kind of people we ought to be and ultimate questions of meaning.

He argues for the cooperation of friends, indeed lovers, as the model for the relationship of faith and science, both approaching the universe with wonder and love without imposing what each sees on the other, but mutually appreciating and learning from each other, sometimes coming to a seamless union, as in marriage. He speaks about how science may enlarge faith, even while some choose to believe there is nothing more while others grow in faith. He proposes this rewrite to a materialist vision of the universe:

You have a heavenly father. You’re an amazing product of his ongoing creation project. We’ve discovered a lot about that project, which has been going on for billions of years. We are human beings, the descendants of apes, who were drawn from earlier, smaller primates. Our lineage also includes reptiles and amphibians and fish and worms and even single-celled organisms. Like a flower that grows from the dirt yet is not itself dirt, we have been gradually assembled out of chaotic and disorganized elements. You were formed from the dust of the ground, given the breath of life, and carry the image of a loving and creative Father who is crazy about you.

He proposes that this view of science and faith opens us to a larger and stranger God, one who made a vastly more immense universe than anyone before Copernicus imagined, and even stranger than the universe delineated by Newton. He thinks this leads to a larger understanding of the Bible revealing God’s loving relationship to the world he has made rather than strained interpretations that tend to harmonize a literal reading of Genesis with the findings of science. Science reveals a universe “red in tooth and claw” and faith reveals a Christ who enters into violence and suffering and transforms it. He suggests that our problem with miracles may be that we look at such events from a human point of view whereas from God’s perspective, there are no miracles but only possible things.

One of the most helpful chapters is one in which he re-examines the popular view of the church versus Galileo, suggesting that the real history is more complicated and that much of the purported warfare between science and Christianity has been cooked up and is an oversimplification of history. He describes his own journey back to faith as he recognized the limits of science to address life’s big questions of why we are here and our sense of wonder at the beauty we behold in the world. Most of all, faith, and not science revealed that we are creatures of love, a love that embraces people, God and the cosmos that scientists study.

What I appreciate is that Wallace does not try to argue a concordist explanation between the Bible and science. He doesn’t try to argue God from irreducible complexity or fine tuning. He traces his own recognition of the inadequacy of materialist science to answer the deepest longings and intuitions of his life. He recognizes the connection between the wonder and love of the believer and the scientific researcher. He does all this in a manner that is at times disarmingly offhand and at others is caught up in the wonder of the world he studies, inviting us, “do you see it too?” Just as the woman who eventually became his wife didn’t make him an evangelistic “project” but simply entered into a relationship of wonder and love that was instrumental in his return to faith, so he treats the reader. One feels we are not projects but fellow seekers, trying to make sense of our own wonder and love and a longing for making some sense of the world, even as we listen to his personal journey of discovery.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Heart of Revelation

Revelation (2)

The Heart of RevelationJ. Scott Duvall. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2019.

Summary: A thematic approach to the book of Revelation focusing around ten key themes which answer the basic question of “who is Lord.”

I think I’ve just found my new “go to” book when someone asks for help in understanding the book of Revelation.  Instead of getting engaged in systems of trying to figure out who in contemporary history might be one of the Beasts, or the significance of the seals, trumpets, and bowls, J. Scott Duvall focuses on themes running through Revelation centering around the purpose of proclaiming that Jesus, not Caesar is Lord and will triumph, to the encouragement of a suffering and persecuted church.

Duvall thinks that taking context seriously is vital. Revelation cannot mean something to us that it didn’t mean to the original recipients. Duvall helps us understand how the seven churches faced pressure from Rome, from the Jews, and from false teachers. He emphasizes reading the book as a letter, as prophecy, and as apocalyptic, or an unveiling. He proposes that in interpreting that we try to understand what the book would mean to its original recipients, that we take the text seriously, but not always literally, since much is symbol, and that we focus on the theological message of each vision, particularly around the truth that “God is in control, and he will successfully accomplish his purposes.” Also, he offers a kind of theological glossary which he terms “Cast of Characters in the Divine Drama of Revelation,” offering a brief explanations of everything from “abyss” to “woman clothed with the sun.”

A chapter is devoted to each of the ten themes:

  1. God: “The Almighty”
  2. Worship: ” You are Worthy.”
  3. The People of God: “His Called, Chosen, and Faithful Followers”
  4. The Holy Spirit: “The Seven Spirits before His Throne”
  5. Our Enemies: “The Dragon Stood on the Shore of the Sea”
  6. The Mission: “My Two Witnesses”
  7. Jesus Christ: “The Lamb, Who Was Slain”
  8. Judgment: “How Long, Sovereign Lord?”
  9. The New Creation: “I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth”
  10. Perseverance: “To the One Who is Victorious”

Each chapter traces the theme through the whole book, summarizing main points, offering key texts and a reading plan and community group questions. Indeed, the clarity of the text, the inclusion of this reading plan and questions makes this an excellent text for a class or small group, as well as an adjunct to personal study.

The thing that stood out to me most was the idea of the greatness of and ultimate victory of the Triune God. At the same time, chapters on the people of God, our enemies, our mission, and judgment emphasize the call to faith and faithfulness in witness, which has often been accompanied by suffering. Much of the global church needs to understand this. I found myself wondering if there is also a message for the American church in coming years. At very least, the challenge to faithful witness, vigilance, and a preparedness to suffer is a clear message of scripture.

I found myself pausing at times in worship and wonder on reading passages on the greatness of God, and the destiny of his people. One example from the chapter on “The New Creation”:

   The new creation will be the fulfillment of God’s promise to live among us. This idea can be a bit scary until you let it sink in that every good thing that exists in our lives now comes from the Lord. He is our loving Father, who only wants to give us good things. He wants to be with us and wants us to be with him and to experience the perfect community, the very reality we were created for. In fact, all our longings and desires for life and goodness and beauty will be completely fulfilled in the new creation because we will be dwelling in God’s presence….Haven’t you ever wanted a short time of such peace and joy and love to last forever because it was so wonderful, almost a fleeting glimpse of heaven? We long for that world, and that longing comes from God, and he intends to fulfill these longings and desires. He will keep his promises (p. 176).

This book makes both a great first book on reading Revelation as well as a helpful resource for deeper study and for those who would teach others. It models a good example of doing biblical theology in tracing great biblical themes running through this book in a way that at the same time is consistent with the context and content of Revelation.

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

My Reading Goals For 2020

reading goalsTo a certain degree, reading has been one of those pursuits guided by my interest of the moment. Even with books I’ve agreed to review, my choice of the next read is often a function of interest–unless I’ve had the book for a while.

But there are some goals, or at least aspirations, I have for the coming year:

  1. I want to read at least a couple of the books on my “Ten Books I Want to Read Before I Die.” I read Chernow’s Washington and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism this past year. For this year, I hope to read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans.
  2. It has been years since I’ve read C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia–really since our son was you, probably over 25 year ago. I think it is time for a re-reading.
  3. There is a stack of books by my bed which is my primary reading pile. Instead of adding to it, I’d like to read down the pile so I can filter in some other books waiting to be read.
  4. I only discovered the work of Mary Oliver with her passing a year ago. I now have one of her books of poetry and a collection of her essays. I want to read them this year.
  5. I’ve heard of the mysteries of Louise Penny and I have the first of her Chief Inspector Gamache series on my stack. I also hope to read one or more of Sinclair Lewis’s Lanny Budd stories.
  6. I want to be a bit more careful on the number of review books I request. I’d like to finish reviews within 60 days of getting books, something I’m not always doing. I do get to them all eventually.
  7. I had to read a Graham Greene novel in college. In the years since I’ve come to a greater appreciation of his work and hope to work in at least one or two of his novels that I have lying around.
  8. I have loved the sports writing of Jane Leavy, having read her biographies of Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle, both boyhood heroes. Babe Ruth was before my time, but I just picked up The Big Fella, by Leavy as my baseball read for this year.
  9. I will be reading James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree for a work discussion, so I’ll throw that into my reading goals.
  10. Finally, I do set a conservative Goodreads Reading Challenge Goal of 130 books. I’ll probably read 40 or 50 more, but there are some long books on my list, so we’ll see.

These reads certainly reflect my own idiosyncrasies and interests. But I love hearing about what others are reading or hoping to read. Let me know what you are reading or hoping to read. And if there is anything here that you are reading, let’s talk!

Review: Bowery Mission

Bowery Mission

Bowery MissionJason Storbakken. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2019.

Summary: A history of the Bowery Mission’s 140 year history of working with those down on their luck on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The Bowery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has often been the last stop for many in New York who are down on their luck: homeless, drug or alcohol addicted, jobless, or broke, sufferers of PTSD and mental illness. In the background of many is abuse and abandonment from an early age. It is thought that the word, “hobo” derives from the intersection of Houston and Bowery.

For many, the Bowery Mission has meant the difference between the end of the road and a turnaround for 140 years. In this book, Jason Storbakken, a former Bowery Mission director who continues to work with the Mission, offers both a history and inspiring description of the ministry of the Bowery Mission that aims to “serve like you are serving a King,” affording tremendous dignity to people who come hungry, dirty, and often times smelly. They receive meals, clothing, hot showers, and for at least some, clean beds.

More than this, they hear what for a number has been a transforming message. Through both chapel services and personal ministry, the book narrates stories of people whose lives have been transformed by Christ. The author describes one of these, Mr. Wynn, addicted to crack cocaine who had attended Bible studies, and had asked about baptism, but when the day came, lingered outside the chapel.

   Just as the last person was stepping from the water, Mr. Wynn dashed down the aisle, pulling a pipe from his pocket and calling, “Baptize me, baptize me!” Shattering his crack pipe on the altar, he leapt into the pool. His splash further soaked my already wet clothes, but my spirit soared, and I could not suppress my emotion as I asked if he was ready to start a new life and if he believed that God forgave and loved him. “Yes,” he declared.

Since then, he has found a home, returned to his work as an accountant, and remained drug and alcohol free. Storbakken also tells the hard stories of those who turn back to old habits, and those who never change, but are nevertheless loved and cared for.

The history is fascinating. In 1879 Albert and Ellen Rullifson began in a rented room at 14 Bowery, gathering with a group of men and women in prayer to launch the Mission. We of the critical role of Louis Klopsch and The Christian Herald  in providing funding and leadership that put the Bowery Mission on a firm footing, of the critical role played by Superintendent Hallimond in shaping the character of the Bowery Mission’s work, how J. C. Penney became a key patron, and the connection hymn-writer Fanny Crosby had with the Bowery Mission. We learn why the doors of every Bowery Mission facility are painted red.

Storbakken takes us through the changing times and transformations in the Bowery and how the Mission continued to adapt while staying true to its gospel message and servant ministry. In the present, the combination of gentrification and the needy results in fascinating contrasts, as well as unusual donations from basketball shoes to sushi. All of this is fitting, Storbakken asserts, for those who they would serve as kings. The theme of how they have consistently treated those on the margins with dignity is a takeaway all of us might consider.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Youngstown Symphony Orchestra

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The Little Symphony Orchestra, Source unknown, via Youngstown Symphony on Facebook

One of the paradoxes of Youngstown is that it is a gritty, industrial, working-class town and a city where the arts have long flourished. It is evident in the spaces that have been set aside, like the Butler and Stambaugh Auditorium, and the performance home of the Youngstown Symphony, the former Warner Theatre, now part of a beautifully restored DeYor performing complex.

For the Youngstown Symphony, it all started when two brothers, Michael and Carmine Ficocelli, recruited twelve young musicians under the age of 16 from the Youngstown Schools, where they taught music. They formed The Little Symphony Orchestra in 1926, broadcasting their first concert on WKBN that year. It wasn’t until 1929 that they gave their first public performance. The Ficocellis continued to lead the orchestra until 1951. John Kruger became the third conductor that year, and shortly after changed the name to the Youngstown Philharmonic Orchestra. Under Kruger, the Philharmonic added a chorus, and a Youngstown Symphony Youth Orchestra, continuing the tradition of young musicians that were the orchestra’s roots.

It was under John Kruger that I first encountered what was then the Youngstown Philharmonic during elementary school. We rode the bus up to Stambaugh Auditorium, dressed up in nice clothes for Youth Concerts, where we heard pieces like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, that introduced us to the different instruments in the orchestra.

In 1965 Franz Bibo succeeded John Kruger in what was a pivotal period in the orchestra’s history. It was during this time that the name was changed to the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra. Bibo pioneered the staging of locally produced operas. Most of all, it was under his leadership that the Youngstown Symphony and the Symphony Society acquired and renovated the Warner Theatre, restoring its glory as the renamed Edward W. Powers Auditorium. The Youngstown Symphony is one of the few orchestras of its size to have its own performing space. He led the orchestra until 1980. We went to several concerts as college students, most memorably a lavish production of The Nutcracker.

The next 25 years saw a succession of four directors. Peter Leonard came as Music Director in 1980. When he left three years later, Youngstown native John DeMain served as Acting Music Director until 1987. DeMain was born in Youngstown in 1944 to a steelworker father and travel agent mother. He was a piano prodigy at age 6 and sang in Youngstown Playhouse productions in his youth before going to Juilliard. His real career has been in conducting with a Grammy winning performance of Porgy and Bess, and premieres of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place and John Adams’ Nixon in China. Friends of mine in Madison, Wisconsin rave about his twenty-five year tenure there and all he has done with their orchestra. Youngstown was fortunate to acquire his services when he was in his forties and establishing an international reputation.

David Effron followed from 1987 to 1996, during a time when the Symphony Board led a campaign for a $3.5 million endowment. Isaiah Jackson succeeded him in another nine year tenure through 2006. For many rock aficionados, his tenure is remembered for a joint effort with a re-united Glass Harp on October 22, 2000 at Powers Auditorium, “Strings Attached.”

Since then, the orchestra has been led by Randall Craig Fleischer. Under Fleischer, the orchestra has continued its work with young musicians, filling the gap where music education in the schools has ended and taking Young People’s Concerts to the schools. They have inaugurated a Stain Glass Concert series of free informal concerts at various houses of worship around Youngstown, including St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital. They have performed with a variety of popular musicians including country artists Rachel Potter and Patrick Thomas this past Christmas.

In 2016, the Youngstown Symphony celebrated its 90th year. The Vindicator published a special section on September 16, 2016 highlighting its history and current programs. Under Maestro Fleischer, the Youngstown Symphony appears to be a vibrant organization, continuing to inspire young musicians. Who knows who the next John DeMain will be?

More information about the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra including their current concert schedule may be found at their website.