Sunday, March 29, 2020

The law

After Romans 3:1-20

We love the law.
The law is a sweet thing,
designed to keep us in line,
aimed at limiting our behavior
and action, focusing on reminding
us that we fail in the face of it. Perhaps
that’s the point. Even when we think we
keep it we don’t. We can’t, even when we
set ourselves as our own little laws, wearing
our self-made crowns, congratulating ourselves
on how good we are especially when compared to
the person standing next to us, to me. Yes, we love
the law,
our law.

Photograph by Anna Sullivan via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Saturday Good Reads

Jen Avellaneda is a writer, speaker, wife, mother, foster mother, and likely a number of other things. She and her husband had fostered some two dozen children over the years. She lives in Washington State, and right now, she and her family are on lockdown due to the coronavirus. She’s been writing about their experiences, and she’s well worth reading. 

All of the entries below under the title of Faith are about the coronavirus, because that is what on the minds of people of faith. There are some really good things being written – on the fear-driven life, on pursuing community when community cannot come together, about when life becomes like war, and how we may actually be becoming more like the New Testament church.

More than one person has observed that our cities in 2020 are looking more and more like paintings by Edward Hopper – lots of buildings and very few people. Ephemeral New York makes this point about New York City. And while it was accepted for publication sometime before coronavirus became a household word, James Matthew Wilson had a poem published in The North American Anglican that has a Hopper painting for illustration and oddly seems to anticipate the change that’s coming.

And last year, as the St. Louis Blues skated and battled their way to the Stanley Cup, a little girl in a hospital became a symbol, a mascot, and virtually a member of the Blues team. The video below shows what happened when Laila met the young man who donated his bone marrow to her and saved her life.

More Good Reads


Ebenezer 2020 – Joe Spring at Joe Spring Writes.

'The Soul Waking Up' by Veniamin Blazhenny – D.S. Martin at Kingdom Poets.

 A Poem on the World Health’s Organization Praise for Beijing – Bruce Dale Wise at Society of Classical Poets.

Writing and Literature

Wendell Berry: The Poet of Place – Silas House at Garden & Gun.

An Exile’s Return: Hugo and the Paris Commune – Tom Darin Liskey at Literary Life.

On Tolkien’s “Fairy Stories” – Nayeli Riano at The Imaginative Conservative.


The Fear-Driven Life – Jared Wilson at The Gospel Coalition.

Pursuing Community When We Cannot Gather – Michael Kelley at Forward Progress.

Like lovers, parted by war – Rebecca McLaughlin.

When Corona Makes Us More Like the New Testament  – Andrew Wilson at Think Theology.

Life and Culture

Rainy Nights, NYC: Portraits – Jennie Cesario at Dappled Thoughts.

Are We There Yet? – Seth Lewis.

American Stuff

The 245th Anniversary of "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" – Phil Greenwalt at Emerging Revolutionary War Era.

Babe Ruth and the Moment American Baseball Changed Forever – Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith at Literary Hub.

British Stuff

The Pearl of York, Treason, and Plot: Political Intrigue in Tudor York – Tony Morgan at English Historical Fiction Authors.

Laila meets her bone marrow match

Painting: Woman Reading, oil on canvas by Susan McDowell Eakins (1879-84).

Friday, March 27, 2020

Not even one

After Romans 3:1-20

I obey the law, well,
mostly, except for
an occasional lapse
with speed limits or
responding to an errant
driver or when I’m
treated unfairly or
I have to wait in line 
or when those politicians
do something really dumb
instead of normal dumb or
when I don’t get my way 
because I should. 

No, I don’t kill, outside
the tongue; I don’t steal,
except when I take credit
I shouldn’t; I don’t covet,
except for the BMW;
I don’t worship other gods,
apart from everyone else,
like when they worship 
money, position, power, 
righteousness, achievement,

No, not even one,
not one,
not one righteous.
To be judged by the law
is to die by the law.

Photograph by Ali Morshedlou via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

“Constable on the Hill” by Nicholas Rhea

Nicolas Rhea, the pen name for Peter Walker (1936-2017), was a Yorkshire policeman for his entire career. He was also a writer, and beginning in 1979, he published more than 35 books in his beloved “Constable” series. The books, essentially a series of ongoing memoirs, became the basis for the ITV program “Heartbeat,” and were beloved in Britain. Now they’re being republished, and the first is Constable on the Hill.

It’s a delightful story. Think James Herriot (All Creatures Great and Small) if he had joined the police force instead of going to veterinary school. And it begins at the beginning of Rhea’s career – a move to a small Yorkshire town with his wife and three children, to become the village’s new bobby.

He’s looked upon somewhat suspiciously as a newcomer, until he drops his polished accent and instead speaks with the Yorkshire accent he was born and raised with. From then on, he’s “one of ours.” And he finds himself in all manner of interesting situations, providing a glimpse into what an English village policeman actually encountered on the job (and it wasn’t anything like Midsomer Murders, Inspector Morse, or anything else we’ve seen on television). In fact, in this first book, the closest Rhea gets to a murder is the death of a wallaby hit by a car after it escapes from a local zoo.

Nicholas Rhea
Rhea finds himself dealing with complaints by local gossips, all kinds of dog problems, a fox hunt that legally cuts across his front yard, how to pay for the funeral of a local squatter, the problems faced by a Catholic policeman when asked to read at an Anglican church service, and the sergeant who likes to give him all the plum assignments, including leading the circus parade. He also figures out a way to help a delivery truck unload a multi-ton piece of Scottish stone for a local sculptor.

Sometimes the issues are more serious – local youths breaking into a dovecote and killing the birds and theft of the prizes at a dance. But Rhea always seems to find a way to solve the problems and keep the threads of community woven strongly together. (And some of his solutions are ingenious, including how to deal with the complaining gossip.)

Constable on the Hill is a charming book, filled with local color and memorable characters. It’s no wonder that the series was so popular in Britain.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Rabbits at War: 2 Green Ember Stories by S.D. Smith

For several years, children’s writer S.D. Smith has been creating a series of swashbuckling adventure stories – all starring rabbits. First was The Green Ember, told from the perspective of two children whose lives are upended with an attack by wolves. And it is much greater than an isolated attack; the wolves are making war upon the rabbit world.

The Black Star of Kingston is a prequel to The Green EmberEmber Falls is the second installment in the main series, and the third – Ember’s End – is due to be published next week (its publication date moved up a bit because of the general upheaval from the coronavirus epidemic). 

Smith has also published two related stories, more of novella length.

The Wreck & Rise of Whitson Mariner takes place during the great wars. King Whitson Mariner is sailing to safety, carrying a precious cargo – the royal jewels, elderly women, other women and children, and his own family, Queen Lillie and Prince Lander. Sailing on another ship with him is Lord Grimble, who might be better named Lord Grumble, a sour and resentful aristocrat who seems to believe hem and not Whitson, should be king.

And sure enough, Grimble turns out to be a traitor, in league with the feared dragons. Whitson’s ship is tricked onto treacherous rocks and is shipwrecked. Queen Lillie is kidnapped by dragons. The cargo is lost, and those aboard who are not rescued die in the water. Lieutenant Massie Brunson is ordered by the king to stay with Prince Lander at all costs. The prince, for his part, is soon seen running into the woods on shore. Massie knows he’s needed with the rescue, but he obeys the king and follows. And a great adventure ensues.

In The Last Archer, Jo Shanks is Living at Halfwind Citadel. It’s wartime, and Jo is desperate to prove he’s as good an archer as the famed Nate Flynn. But he doesn’t seem to make a very good soldier – he oversleeps, he has an unpolished sword, and his commanding officer has little use for him. But there’s an archery contest, and Jo proves his skill by not only placing but coming very close to beating Nate.

Nate needs a temporary replacement on his team of archers, and he asks Jo to fill in. Jo discovers that Nate is nothing like Jo imagined him to be. He still has trouble with the commanding officers, but he finds he’s fitting in with Nate’s crew. And then the wolves attack and enter the citadel itself.

Both stories have underlying lessons aimed at children (but equally valid for adults). They’re about obedience, mistaken impressions, trust, and having courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Using rabbits instead of children likely takes some of the immediate terror out of the situations, but children will identify with Massie, Prince Lander, Jo, and Nate. These are rollicking good stories, with good messages. 


Top illustration by Zach Franzen: Whitson Mariner takes up the Stone Sword of Flint

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Poets and Poems: Tom Sastry and “A Man’s House Catches Fire”

In 2016, the then-Poet Laureate of Britain Carol Ann Duffy chose Tom Sastry as one of the Laureate’s Choice Poets. He published a well-received pamphlet (what Americans call a chapbook) entitled Complicity, which became a Poetry School Book of the Year and a choice of the Poetry Book Society. 

His first full poetry collection, A Man’s House Catches Fire, was published in Britain in late 2019. In one of those strange things that can happen, the collection fits the current moment of coronavirus, self-quarantines, and societal and economic upheaval. I had ordered it several weeks ago, long before the virus came ashore in the United States. I grew wider-eyed as I read it, and simply because it fits.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, March 23, 2020

“Gas! The Battle for Ypres 1915” by McWilliams and Steel

In 1914, Ypres was a small city in western Belgium, not far from the French border and the North Sea. It had a long history of at least two thousand years; the Romans raided it in the first century B.C. Surrounded by several small villages. The city was known for its production of cloth and especially linen; one of the most imposing structures in Ypres was the Cloth Hall. 

The came World War I. Ypres found itself the focal point of two battles, the first in the fall of 1914 and the second in April of 1915. Technically, the second battle extended into May with additional engagements, but the intense period was April 25-27. 

This second battle became famous for many things, including the first time a colonial army (the Canadian) ever stopped a European army (the German) on European soil. But it is best known for how it started – with the use of chlorine gas by the German army, attempting to break through the Allied lines of defense. Against almost overwhelming odds and chemical warfare (the Germans ignored the Geneva ban), the Canadian, French, and British troops first gave and then regained their ground. Like so many other battles on the Western Front during the war, it subsided into stalemate.

First published in 1985, Gas! The Battle for Ypres 1915 by J.L. McWilliams and R. James Steel tells the story of the Second Battle of Ypres. And it tells the story almost hour by hour, from the first plans by the Germans to the eventual end. 

It’s a thrilling, fascinating account.

  • The Germans would come close but never quite manage to capture the city of Ypres itself. They did do their best, however, to shell it into destruction. 
  • Both the British and the French had first-hand reports, from German deserters and spies, that the Germans were preparing to use gas. Disbelief and incompetence prevented the knowledge from being acted upon. 
  • German commanders had no reluctance to use the gas to force a breakthrough. They also had no reluctance to send their own troops too soon into the dissipating clouds. So eager and desperate they were to break their stalled plans to drive to the sea.
  • The top commands of the Allied armies were already demonstrating the prodigious incompetence they became known for. Located far to the rear of the fighting and in relative luxury, the generals and their staffs rarely grasped the reality of what was happening during the actual battle. 

Allied soldiers blinded by the chlorine gas
The use of gas would backfire on the Germans, and in two ways. First, the Germans had to wait for a countervailing wind; normally, the winds in the area blew west to east. Second, using the gas freed the Allies from any ethical constraints on their own use of poison gas, and they had the advantage of the prevailing wind direction. Over the course of the war, more German troops would be afflicted with poison gas than what was attempted on the Allies. The Germans had tipped their hand too early and in too an unfavorable position.

McWilliams and Steel are also the authors of The Suicide Battalion: One Remarkable Battalion’s Journey Through the First World War and Amiens 1918: The Last Great Battle.

Gas! The Battle for Ypres 1915 reads like a well-filmed documentary, placing the read right in the middle of all the key events. It’s also a story of the common soldier, who, despite the villainous use of gas by the Germans and the incompetence of their own top generals, stopped what could have easily been a German victory.

Top photograph: an aerial view of the gas attack at the Second Battle of Ypres.