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On Liminal Space

One of the ways to impress friends (and maybe gain some sympathy if they understand you) is to say that you are in a “liminal space” in your life right now. I’ve come across this idea more and more in the past few years and particularly this week at the conference I am attending. A liminal space is the undefined boundary between two clearly defined spaces. The threshold to my house (the front stoop and entryway) is a liminal space between outdoors and the indoor living areas of my house.

In many instances, this term is used to describe a life transition. Pregnancy is a liminal space between just being a couple and being parents–between something that was familiar and something that will be totally new. It can be the space between losing a job and getting another one. It can be things like “mid-life”, that odd period somewhere in your forties where you realize you are no longer “young”, where you see changes in your body, and you are asking questions again of what’s it all about?

This is actually a good term for something my wife and I have been experiencing. This is the year we enter our seventh decade, complete with Golden Buckeye cards, courtesy of the State of Ohio. A number of our high school and college friends have already retired. While I’m not there yet, we’ve noticed some interesting changes and new questions we are asking.

For one thing, we are becoming far more ruthless in deaccumulating. I was cleaning out a desk we are preparing to sell and discovered old notebooks from seminary and college that I haven’t looked at in 30 to 40 years. And for the first time, I had the courage to say–I don’t need to keep this. I also recently got rid of several boxes of books I realized I either would never read or never look at again. And I feel like we are just getting started.

In my work I’ve found myself moving from simply thinking about my own goals and career development to nurturing these in younger colleagues. While I still have challenging assignments and great ministry opportunities among the students and faculty with whom I work I am thinking more and more about encouraging and empowering others and handing off to a new generation of people in our organization. I’m really not intimidated by that–I want what we are doing to outlast my working years. I find myself thinking more about not simply ending work at some point but wanting to finish well–something older workers don’t always do. In particular, I don’t want to be the old crank!

I’ve found we’ve begun pursuing more avidly interests we just couldn’t consider during the peak years of work and being parents. And so we go painting, take photographs, write blogs and sing music. We’ve learned you can audit courses for free at Ohio public universities when you are sixty and are thinking about this. Health permitting, we expect to have a life after work and it is interesting to begin cultivating what that might be and asking what that will look like.

One thing about liminal spaces is that one is going from high def to low def. I really don’t know what life after work entirely will be like. One of the things we learned today is that it is very tempting to rush the answers to these questions rather than to spend some time lingering with the questions, which often leads to greater self-understanding and better answers. Low def is uncomfortable yet it can be a place for growth.

One would think we’d have life figured out by this point. Wrong! We’ve never been to this part of life before, other than watching parents and older friends go through it. In my faith, we talk about growing in Christ-likeness, or as I like to speak of it, growing into our “size Jesus” clothes (thank you for that image, Andrea!). I’m so glad I still have opportunities to learn and grow, even if it means new questions and uncertainties. It seems to me the only alternative is stagnation, and to me that would be to die before I’m dead! Liminal space seem far better.



Blogging into My Second Year

Can you believe it has been almost a year? In a few weeks, I will mark a year at blogging. It’s been an education and a revelation. The education part includes everything from blogging software like that of WordPress to writing catchy titles and attention grabbing first sentences to figuring out what I want to write about. The revelation part has been how much I enjoy putting into writing my thoughts, reflections and reviews on books I’m reading and connecting my own life narratives to the narratives of others.

I have also learned a tremendous amount in dialogue with those who read and comment on the blog. When I’ve written about growing up in Youngstown, I’ve been reminded of memories buried deep but that are part of the fabric of my past that shape my present. When we dialogue about issues or books, I’m made to examine my own take on things and go deeper still. And I kind of hope, reader, that we have done this together.

I’ve been amazed by the exploration of working class and the tremendous interest from many Youngstown friends, and the awakening sense that how growing up in working class industrial cities shaped people in particular ways. As I go forward, I want to keep blogging about these things as well as to continue to explore and share some of the books I’m reading and thoughts about literacy in what seems to be an increasingly visual age.

My faith does inform my writing yet I hope not to be “preachy”. For some, my faith might not seem explicit enough in what I write. My own sense is that Christian spirituality touches all the ordinary and extraordinary things of my life and I hope shows through not in the “preachiness” of what I write but simply that the goodness, truth, and whatever beauty I can muster point to the One who I believe epitomizes these things.

My faith also challenges even how I think about blogging. I’m on a kind of retreat right now and it has struck me that  blogging has become too big a thing in my life at times. I’ve become compulsive  about writing daily. And it is easy to become compulsive about checking one’s numbers of followers, views, comments, and likes. So I’ve reached a couple of decisions. One is that I will take a blogging “sabbath” each week. Sabbath has actually been a life-giving practice in my life and my compulsiveness to write every day has encroached on this. So I won’t be posting, or checking the blog at all on Sundays, the day I usually set aside to sabbath. And second, I’ve decided that I will check the blog twice a day for comments and views and that sort of stuff–once in the morning, once at night. More takes away from other things that matter including time with my wife.

So I definitely want to respond to comments. And I wouldn’t be a writer if I wasn’t interested in knowing whether anyone is interested in this stuff. But it’s time to define some boundaries that keep it from becoming an inordinate thing in life. I actually hope that all this helps me better serve the craft of writing well.

For my blogging friends, how have you dealt with the compulsions that are peculiar to blogging? 

Review: Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God

Living in Christ's Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God
Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God by Dallas Willard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book represents the “last words” of Dallas Willard, who died in 2013. In February of that year, he gave a conference at the Dallas Willard Center and was joined in presentations and dialogue by John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. The book, more or less, is a transcript of their presentations and interactions. The format was that they alternated presentations, giving a total of seven with Dallas giving the first and last. After each presentation, there was a time of dialogue between the two of them (except for the second presentation where Ortberg is in discussion with an unnamed party).

The presentations explore what it means to enjoy Christ’s presence in our present life. Dallas begins with talking about taking Jesus yoke of discipleship on himself. Then John talks about spiritual transformation and the kingdom of God. Dallas follows with what it means to seek the kingdom and obey the king’s teaching. Then John explores not so much the doctrine of the Trinity as our experience of the Trinity in our own lives and in the church, as we are drawn into these eternally loving relationships. Dallas explores the inner life of persons and John follows with spiritual disciplines that train our persons for life. The book concludes with Dallas talking about the nature of blessing and leaving us with a blessing from God.

While I think it is important and valuable to read all of Dallas Willard’s work, one does find something of the “essence” of Willard in this book. He talks about the spiritual disciplines as a way of opening ourselves to transformation that we cannot work directly into our lives. Through John Ortberg, we hear about the relentless elimination of hurry in our lives. We’re challenged by Dallas at several points to support our fellow believers and leaders in other churches rather than treating them as rivals. We learn about a discipleship that is embodied in our physical life and actions and not “spiritualized”.

There are statements throughout that are aphoristic in nature:

“There is nothing wrong with the church that discipleship will not cure” (p. 16).

“You know something when you are able to deal with it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience” (p.31).

“Well, what Jesus teaches us is that within his presence and with his work, we begin to live in heaven now, and that’s why he says that those who keep his word will never experience death…. I think many people do not realize they’ve died until later” (pp. 83-84).

And one for us readers: “Aim at depth, not breadth. If you get depth, you will have breadth thrown in. If you aim at breadth, you will get neither depth nor breadth (p. 149).

As good as each presentation was, the interactions between Ortberg and Willard are priceless as we see two men who have walked with God, and helped others do so, reflect on this life and work with Christ. Often, the asides are sparkling gems of insight–several of the quotes above are from the dialogues. All of this not only gives us a taste of Dallas Willard, but whets our appetites for the kind of spiritual life about which he wrote and in which he mentored so many. And if it did so, he would rejoice, in the more immediate presence of the Lord he loved and followed in life.

View all my reviews

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Arts

How many of you remember going to Children’s Concerts on school field trips? How many of you remember going on similar trips to the local art museum? That may seem out of character for one’s picture of growing up in a working class, steel-making town. But that was part of my experience of growing up in working class Youngstown. I’m not sure I necessarily appreciated this that much at the time, other than the chance to get out of the classroom. But now I realize that we were being exposed to some of the cultural treasures of my city and being reminded that there was more to life than hard work in a factory (something I think those who want to eliminate the arts from education today need to think about!). I think there was a perspective, perhaps spiritual in nature among those in the working class, that realized that life was about the good, the true, and the beautiful. We loved good food and other good things of life, were often devout in our religion, and treasured both natural and man-made works of beauty. While both of our fathers were never able to pursue artistic interests, we have free hand drawings each of them rendered that show considerable talent and an eye for the beautiful.

The Butler Institute of American Art (c)Robert Trube, 2014

The Butler Institute of American Art (c)Robert Trube, 2014

What I only realized after moving away from Youngstown is just how culturally rich the city was and is when it comes to the arts. I think first of the Butler Institute of American Art. Located next to Youngstown State, it was a wonderful place to take a break from studies and wander through the galleries, looking at the Remington paintings of Native Americans. Perhaps my favorite painting was Robert Vonnoh’s In Flanders Fields. We were in the Viet Nam era and the painting served as a visible reminder of the tragic and futile loss of young men’s lives in war.  In later years as we visited other art museums including the one in our own city, we came to realize what an incredible treasure Youngstown has, confirmed particularly among artist friends of ours. But the tour of the arts in Youngstown just begins here. There is the John J. McDonough Museum of Art, a contemporary art museum across the street from the Butler and part of the Youngstown State campus. John McDonough was a physician (my mother’s in fact) who built a notable collection of contemporary art and contributed to the construction of the museum through the sale of Gloucester Harbor by Childe Hassam, contributing the proceeds to help finance the museum.

In Flanders Fields by Robert Vonnoh accessed at: http://www.butlerart.com/pc_book/pages/robert_vonnoh_1858.htm

In Flanders Fields by Robert Vonnoh accessed at: http://www.butlerart.com/pc_book/pages/robert_vonnoh_1858.htm

I remember going to Children’s Concerts of the Youngstown Symphony at Stambaugh Auditorium.  Later, the Symphony moved into Powers Auditorium, the old renovated Warner Theater, which is now part of the DeYor Performing Arts Center. As college students, I remember going on dates on cheap student tickets to see The Nutcracker and other performances, which nurtured my love for symphonic music. We also went to plays at the Youngstown Playhouse, considered one of the older community theaters in the country, tracing its history back to 1927.

In the years since we’ve left, the arts have continued to develop in Youngstown. The Oakland Center for the Arts, located in downtown Youngstown, fosters the development of new works from the various communities of Youngstown around current issues of justice, supporting emerging voices. The Artists of the Mahoning Commons now utilize the old Ward Baking Company building for studio space as well as arts events. I suspect there is far more going on than I know. Also, there are more arts organizations than I’ve been able to talk about in this post, a listing for which may be found at the Power of the Arts website.

While neither my wife nor I make our living in the arts, we both deeply value artistic expression. My wife is an acrylic and water color painter (who first exhibited her work at the Canfield Fair Art Show!). I sing with an accomplished community choir, Capriccio Columbus as well as write. While it took many years for us to pursue artistic interests even this far, we are both convinced that they were formed during our growing up years in Youngstown.

What are your memories of the arts growing up? What artistic institutions in Youngstown (or your home town) do you treasure? 

The Uber Used Book Store

The uber used book store? What am I talking about? It’s the store probably responsible for at least a third of the books in our house, and for passing along our book-buying habits to our son, (which his wife may or may not think is a good thing!). What am I talking about? Half Price Books of course.

Half Price Books Logo

Half Price Books Logo

Half Price Books has five stores in the Columbus area, three of which we visit fairly regularly (Carriage Place, Lane Ave., and Graceland, in that order). The chain, like so many used book stores, had its start as a single store in Dallas, TX in 1972, taking over a converted laundromat (information is from their website).  Also like many used book stores, this one began when Ken Gjemre and Pat Anderson stocked the store with books from their own libraries.  They started with the simple idea of selling books (and eventually movies, music, and games) at 50% or less of retail. This idea, and I’m certain a lot of entrepreneurial work, has propelled them to a chain of stores numbering 115 in 16 states.

Carriage Place Half Price books (our favorite). From: http://www.hpb.com/040/

Carriage Place Half Price books (our favorite). From: http://www.hpb.com/040/

Half Price books says it gets about half of its stock from its customers. They also say they will buy anything printed or recorded except for yesterday’s newspaper. We’ve found that to be true and they have been a great place for us to recycle books and other media we no longer want and can’t find others to give it to. That said, the one caveat is that you may sometimes get a better price for particular books at other stores, if it is something they want. But I haven’t found any other place that will take whatever you bring and re-sell or recycle it and give you something, usually store credit, for your stuff.

In part, this post is inspired by the fact that Half Price Books is currently having one of its regular coupon sales. You can sign up to receive emails about these and other events at their website. A couple years ago I found Raymond Brown’s box two volume work The Death of Jesus the Messiah, and with a 50 percent off coupon picked it up for $15 (it retails at $60). Recently, they have also begun holding massive clearance sales at a central location (our state fairgrounds hosted one recently). We’ve not been to one of these, but everything is $3 and under. Another used book store owner I talked to recently admitted to going to one of these to pick up stock.



What I’ve liked about Half Price Books is the range and depth of material you can find. It isn’t just the most popular stuff. This past week, I picked up a hardbound copy of Sigmund Mowinckel’s The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, a landmark work on the Psalms published in 1962, for a mere $5. Sometimes I find the most amazing stuff in their bargain shelves where nothing costs more than $2. I found a copy of Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden, a book I’d wanted on religion and higher education, on one of these shelves.

I have to say, we’ve had a nearly twenty year history with Half Price Books in our area, and I really can’t find anything bad to say about them, other than the fact that they’ve tempted me to buy more books than I probably should have. These days, I mostly limit visits there to the sales and try to sell them more books than I buy. If you don’t live in a location that has one of their stores, you should check their locations and make sure to visit one when you travel, unless you are seriously resisting the temptation to buy books!

Book Store Creeps!

Have you ever had an encounter with a book store creep? It could be that we go to book stores often enough that we’ve had more chances to have this problem. I say we, here, because my wife tends to have these encounters more often than I, and usually, but not always with men who are acting creepily. I guess book stores are not exempt from this type of behavior. Here are some kinds we have encountered:

The Hit-man. This is the guy (usually a guy) who is trying to hit on women and mistakes the book store for a bar, or perhaps just isn’t the kind who frequents the bar. What is weird is that my wife and I are not young. Usually I will discover this has happened when my wife suddenly starts shadowing me in the store–our interests are relatively dissimilar, so when this happens I know something is up. These people need to find books on appropriate boundaries and cultivating healthy relationships!

The Overly-Familiar. This person may be trying to hit on you, but more often, they are just needy. Usually they will make some remark to get your attention and if you respond, suddenly, they are your new best friend and start telling you about their break-ups with significant others, their medical problems, the stuff that is broken down in their house, their economic woes and on and on (and on). Often leaving the store–or feigning a sudden need to use the facilities is the only way to get away.

The Invader. This is the person who simply pushes in front of you without even an “excuse me” or “pardon me” or a “there is something I was looking for in this section.” The only solution is to stay up close to the books you are looking at, which you usually think of too late. Mostly, I just conclude that tangling with such types is kind of like taking on the person who cuts you off in traffic–perilous to say the least.

The Camper. That’s the person who sits down in a chair, or on the floor and just occupies the very set of shelves you were hoping to look at and is utterly impervious to those social cues that you might actually like to look at the books in that area. Often, I’ll take off for a while and look at other things and come back. If they still don’t get the message, they are definitely a camper whose motto is “possession is 9/10ths of the law”.

The Flatulator. This last type is becoming increasingly popular in book stores and other contexts. Have you noticed how jokes about “breaking wind” and other such conversation is no longer limited to middle school boys? Seems that the practice isn’t either. I’ve noticed two types. One is the person who just likes to satisfy the urge whenever they have it, no matter who is around. The other is the “skunk” who uses this as an offensive weapon to keep people out of their space. Usually works!

Perhaps one lesson in all this for those of us nerdy enough to hang out at book stores frequently is to ask whether we might be inadvertently slipping into some of these “creepy” behaviors. Most of us really find our enjoyment of the book store experience diminished when we encounter one of these folks. The real question is, are we becoming one of them?

What are your stories of encounters with book store creeps? And how have you dealt with them?



Review: The First and the Last: The Claim of Jesus Christ and the Claims of Other Religious Traditions

The First and the Last: The Claim of Jesus Christ and the Claims of Other Religious Traditions
The First and the Last: The Claim of Jesus Christ and the Claims of Other Religious Traditions by George R. Sumner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the challenges of being a convinced Christian in a pluralistic society is how we engage with people from other religious traditions. Most thoughtful Christians neither want to just say, “Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and you are wrong” nor do they want to say “you have your truth and I have mine and can’t we all get along?” The first statement fails to take the beliefs and truth claims of other religious adherents seriously. The second takes no one’s truth claims seriously. Both in fact are patronizing to the other party.

George R. Sumner’s book proposes a third way that considers the different strategies the church has used throughout history to address other religions and arrives at the standard of the “final primacy” of the person and work of Christ and then explores how other religions in some sense similar to the Old Testament anticipate or have points of connection with the Christian message. This effort seeks to take both the internal system of a particular faith seriously and acknowledge that there may be much of worth in that system while adhering to the person and work and claims of Christ as the final standard against which the claims of other traditions are measured.

Sumner tests this proposal in the theologies of Barth, Rahner, and Pannenberg, three of the twentieth century’s foremost theologians. He then follows this with a consideration of the economy of salvation, that is the working of Father, Son and Spirit in salvation and explores whether there is in fact a detectible Trinitarian logic to reality and to the human condition. He then explores how “final primacy” drives a theology of mission and explores the working out of final primacy in Indian theology and in theories of inculturation.

What I appreciated about Sumner was his nuanced approach to “redemptive analogies” and connections often made between Christianity and other faiths. He is not dismissive of these but he is also careful to distinguish genuine from merely perceived connections. He recognizes how critical appraising these things from within the logic of the other belief system is so that spurious connections are avoided and other faiths are truly understood on their own terms.

Many Christians refrain from inter-religious dialogue precisely because they believe to do so means that they must forfeit what is finally primary in their lives, their allegiance to Christ. Others are concerned to not offend believers of other faiths with Christian truth claims. The recognition of what is finally primary in Christian faith actually allows for the forthright discussion of “final primacy” for other religions that moves our conversations beyond niceties and vague commonalities. It takes the truth claims of each faith seriously rather than relativizing them and respects all the parties in a dialogue without asking any to compromise deeply held beliefs. At the same time, real, non-coercive dialogue has within it the possibility that one may grow in the understanding of another, or even become convinced of the truth claims of another. Sumner’s “essay” (his term) points us toward the substantive dialogue where these kinds of outcomes might be realized.

View all my reviews


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