Three Books: The Republic for Which It Stands, Meet You in Hell, & Atlas of a Lost World

I am heading to a conference at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian Conference Center in North New Mexico, so there will be no sermon this week. Instead, let me catch up by providing three short (for me) book reviews of works I recently read (or listened to the unabridged audio book).

Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (Oxford, 2017), 928 pages

This book is a part of the Oxford History of the United States collection. Richard White is a noted Western United States historian and author of It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West (Oklahoma, 1991).  It’s a massive book that begins with the death of Abraham Lincoln and ends with the election of William McKinley.

White merges together two eras that are often separated by historians: reconstruction and the Gilded Age. He makes the case that the two should be connected. This was the age that America was rising to its world prominence. It was also an age where the country was growing rapidly, especially through immigration. As a uniting theme for this period, White choses the home. The home found itself under attack as the country shifted from the home being the basis of the economy dependent on small farms to a nation of industry where workers toiled for wages. Although politicians on both sides of the aisle would lift up the home as the ideal, the home (as the White Protestant ideal) was under attack and rapidly changing during this period. Economically, this was the period of the gold standard. White’s knowledge of the West, where mining had a vested interest in bimetallism (using both gold and silver for currency), helps him to navigate this debate. Another economic concept that was highly debated was the meaning of labor. As the economy changed from farming to industry, who free were corporations and workers to collectively bargain. This leads for long discussions about court decisions, especially around the 14th Amendment.


In the book’s forward, it was noted that a grammatical change occurred within America following the Civil War. Before the war, people would say, “The United States are…”  After the war, people would say, “The United States is…” During this era, in which America filled in the vast territories of the West with states, the United States became the country we know. Only a handful of states were added after 1896.


I enjoyed this book, but then this is the period I have studied the most. My first college class, taken in the summer between high school and college, was a history class that focused on United States and Europe from the 1870s through the First World War. And I would later write a dissertation in this era, focusing on the church’s role in the Nevada mining camps. White covers a lot of material in this book (and his lists of sources at the end of the book could keep a historian busy for a lifetime). This is a wonderful addition to the Oxford History of the United States collection.


Les Standiford, Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Changed America (Broadway Books, 2006), 336 pages

I listened to an unabridged copy of this book.

This was my third book by Standiford and I have enjoyed them all. I have twice read Last Train to Paradise, which is about Henry Flagler and the building of the East Coast Florida Railway to Key West. I have also read The Man Who Invented Christmas which is about Charles Dickens and the publication of A Christmas Carol.  As with his writings of Flagler, in Meet You in Hell, Standiford turns again to industrial titans of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, looking at the partnership between Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. When Carnegie merged his steel empire with Frick’s coal and coke (a purified form of coal used in steel making), a mighty industry began that eventually led to the corporation known as United States Steel. But it wasn’t a smooth partnership. The two were willing to stab the other in the back, which led to bitter conflicts in both business and in politics (their last great rivalry was Frick opposition to what became the League of Nations, while Carnegie supported the effort to bring nations together in order to end war. Although a “peacemaker”, Carnegie made a lot of money supplying steel plates for the American navy.

The title comes from a request from Carnegie to meet with Frick shortly before his death. Frick’s responded back, “I’ll meet you in hell,” noting that he felt that was both of their destinations in the life to come.

The highlight of this story is the 1892 Homestead Strike. The strike occurred while Carnegie was summering in his native Scotland. Frick played hardball with the miners, bringing in Pinkerton’s which led to a bloody stand-off. Frick himself was even shot, but not by a striker. An anarchist attacked Frick following the strike. To the workers Frick became a hated man. Many thought it would have been different had Carnegie had been at the helm.  In fairness to Frick, Standiford points out how Carnegie also undermined unions even while speaking positively about them.

In addition to providing insight into their business partnership, this book provides short biographies of both men and covers their life after they had made their fortunes. Carnegie went on to build libraries and establish foundations. Frick established a top-notch art gallery in New York and also a large park in Pittsburgh.

In the last chapter, Standiford attempts to link the early 21st century with the ending of the 19th century. While there are similarities (little wage growth for workers, few union members, expansive growth and income for corporations and management), I think he’s stretching it as we are in completely different economies. Still, as one who has read several books about Homestead, I enjoyed and learned much from this book.

 Craig Childs, Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America (Pantheon Books, 2018), 270 pages.

Like the above two books, this is also a history book, but it goes back a lot further and covers a time frame that extends from roughly 30,000 years ago to 12,000 years ago, at a time where North America big game hunters were going after mammoths animals that make the modern day bison appear puny, The book is also a travelogue in which the author spends time on the Bering land bridge and popular hunting areas from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico and east to the Florida panhandle. At each site, Child’s informs the reader about the tools used to hunt the animals and theories as to how they lived, while imaging what it the area would have been liked during the ice age. Childs and his companions suffered to cross Alaskan mountain ranges and to deal with a buggy and wet campsite in Florida. On another occasion, they play-act the last great hunt of the beasts who were gone from the Americas over 13,000 years before Europeans arrived. At another site in Northern Minnesota, Childs freezes his butt off camping in the winter.

Atlas of a Lost World was interesting. I learned a lot about tool making and Childs personal relationships (he and his wife split up somewhere between Alaska and Florida, I’m not sure where), but I felt the book lacked a purpose that could have strengthened it. Childs does attempt to link the dying off of the great mammals with climate change, but that seems a little stretched. Certainly, the reader comes away from the book understanding that change is constant on earth, as species die and others adapt.

Childs is an accomplished outdoorsman, but I question his knowledge of poisonous snakes in the Southeast. He seemed to be overly concerned with the deadly poisonous cottonmouths (water moccasins) dropping from trees into boats. These snakes aren’t known for climbing trees. There are several types of water snakes, some with similar markings to the cottonmouth, who do climb trees, but they are not poisonous. Of course, it’s more exciting to worry about a poisonous snake dropping in one’s boat. A cottonmouth might still fall into a boat, but not from a tree. They are known to sun on logs and if you bumped the wrong log with your canoe, the snake might slide off in an attempt to get away from you and end up where you don’t want him.

This is my third book by Childs, who is by training a water hydrologist. The first book I read of his is my favorite, The Secret Knowledge of Water. I later read The Soul of Nowhere In this work, he studies another long-gone group of people, the Anasazi, whose civilization flourished until around the year 1200, when they seemed to die out, although they are probably the ancestors of the Hopi, Navajo, and other Native American tribes in the American West.

Focusing on What’s Important

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
March 24, 2019
Luke 10:38-42


Our morning Gospel reading this morning stands in contrast to our Old Testament lesson. In our first reading, we heard about a Shunamite woman who, out of the goodness of her heart, shows hospitality to Elisha.[1] Not only did she feed and give him lodging, she adds a guest room on to her house so he can stay in comfort…  Contrast this to the story of Mary and Martha. During a visit by Jesus, Mary sits at his feet while Martha spends the afternoon in the kitchen. Martha isn’t happy with the arrangements and asks Jesus to order her sister to help. Do you remember Jesus’ response? The woman in the Old Testament reading was rewarded for her hospitality, in the New Testament reading Martha, who tries to be hospitable, is critiqued. What’s up with that?  Let’s check it out. Read Luke 10:38-42.


A recent article in Fortune Magazine, reporting on the 2019 World Happiness Report, claims the United States is the unhappiest it’s even been. I don’t believe that statement is quite right. I’m pretty sure they weren’t conducting such research at the height of the Civil War or Great Depression, but the article points out we’ve been dropping in the happy list for the past several years. We’re still in the top quarter of the pack, but we’re not doing as well as we once did. By the way, we don’t want to be at the bottom of this list, which is populated with war-torn regions like the South Sudan, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria… We’re way ahead of them, which isn’t hard to achieve. But ahead of us are all the Scandinavian Countries, many European Countries along with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Costa Rica.

While prosperity is rising, we’re less happy. As the old cliché goes, money can’t buy happiness. But there are many other factors playing into this study. One of the study’s co-authors noted that the United States is a “mass-addiction society.” This isn’t just addictions to drugs and alcohol, which I think we would all agree brings unhappiness. But there’s a host of other addictions: “gambling, social media use, video gaming, shopping, consuming unhealthy foods, exercising, engaging in extreme sports, and risky sexual behaviors.” All of these create problems for happiness. Addiction is on the rise.[2] Let that sink in for a minute.

        Arthur Brooks, one of this year’s Calvin January Series speakers, had a new book come out this month. I read the first half of it this past week. It’s titled, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. I highly recommend it. Brooks’ points out that anger isn’t our problem. What he sees as a problem is contempt. When we are angry, we are generally wanting something better. When we hold someone in contempt, we are essentially wishing they didn’t exist. In a chapter titled “The Culture of Contempt,” he suggests that much of America, even though we hate it, are addicted—there’s that word again—to political contempt. We don’t like what this contempt does to us (not to mention those we disagree with), but we can’t seem to get enough of it. Like a junkie, we “indulge” in the habit. And the media, who has economic interest in our addiction, is more than happy to feed us.[3]

How do we break this cycle? How do we realign ourselves? How do we get back in line with what it means to be an American? To be a Christian? To be a follower of Jesus?

          Do any of you remember the old movie, City Slickers? It doesn’t seem to be old, but the movie was released in 1991. It starred Billy Crystal who, with a group of his friends from the city, decide to go out west for a few weeks to help round up cattle. In one scene, Crystal is riding on a horse beside Curly, an old fashion cowboy who could have been the Marlboro Man. When Crystals asks about his secret to being content in life, Curly points his index finger and says it’s this. Crystal is confused and asks, “You’re finger?” Curly shakes his head and replies it’s just one thing. Of course, Curly isn’t able to tell Crystal what’s his one thing is, that’s for him to find out. This “one thing” is now known as Curly’s law.[4]


I suggest that the one thing Jesus points out to Martha was himself. Serving others is good, doing a good deed such as feeding visitors is commendable, but there is a deeper human need and if we don’t ground ourselves there, we burn out. As humans, we have a need to connect with others and as a Christian, our need includes a connection to Jesus.  How do we go about this? Let’s see what our text says.

Our morning text comes on the heels of the Good Samaritan.[5] In that encounter, Jesus tells a teacher of the law, who was having a hard time understanding what Jesus was saying, a story. The message: be like the Good Samaritan, and “go and do likewise.” As with our Old Testament story, we get the idea that we’re to be about serving others. Now Jesus encounters a woman, Martha, who is so busy serving others that she can’t understand Jesus’ teachings. Jesus offers her an example, her sister. Martha needs to “sit down, listen and learn.”[6] Are we to be about serving? Or listening? Or both?

         Jesus isn’t telling Martha to be inhospitable. Hospitality is an important trait of Christians. We are told in the book of Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so some have entertained angels without even knowing it.”[7] We are supposed to welcome the stranger, after all we have the example of the Good Samaritan. In his parable on the last judgment, Jesus tells us that we will be judged by how we react and treat those who are poor, hungry, naked, sick, or in prison.[8] Hospitality is important; it’s imperative for us Christians to be courteous and gracious, warm and generous. But it’s not the only thing.

Let’s look at the story. Jesus is traveling and stops at Martha’s home. This passage shows us a radical side of Jesus. Ignoring all the common customs of the first century, Jesus stops in the home of a woman, who is there with her sister, and even offers the women an opportunity to sit at his feet as a disciple and listen to his teachings… This would have been a scandal in the first century. Mary takes Jesus up on his offer. She sits down and listens to what he has to say. Martha, as the host, has work to do. We can assume she’s preparing some kind of fancy dinner… As the afternoon progresses, Mary became more and more intent on listening to the saving words of Jesus while Martha became more and more disturbed that she had to make all the dinner preparations.

         Finally, Martha has enough. Here, she is fixing a nice sit-down dinner, and while she’s working, her sister enjoys Jesus’ company. Perhaps, Martha’s a little envious… She tries to get Jesus on her side by appealing to his compassion.  “Lord, doesn’t it bother you that I’ve had to do all the work?” she asks. Reading between the lines, we get the idea she really wants to say, “Tell Ms. Couch Potato to get in here and help…” Do you sense the contempt is rising in Martha?

Jesus is moved by Martha’s plea. He responds, repeating her name twice. I imagine he speaks softly, slowly and tenderly, “Martha, Martha.” With the right inflection, it would be like saying, “Calm down, Martha, its okay.” Then he goes on, telling her she’s worried and distracted about so many things when there was need of only one thing… Remember Curly, riding high in the saddle, and saying there’s just one thing.

There’s some question about what Jesus meant when he said that there’s only need of one thing…  Is he talking about the meal? “Martha, forget the turkey and ham, the dressing and trimmings, the potatoes and beans; just fix a simple casserole or a sandwich, that’s all we need.” Or is Jesus referring to himself here.  After all, he is “the way, the truth and the life.”[9] He is all we need. And, as Jesus quoted the Old Testament to the Devil earlier in Luke’s gospel, “We don’t live by bread alone.”[10] “Martha,” he may have continued saying, “forget the dinner, you only need me, you only need to learn about my peace…”

Actually, both interpretations may be right. This is not an either/or situation. It’s a both/and situation. Certainly Jesus never denied the importance of eating… He feeds the 5000 and centers our remembrance of him at a meal around a dinner table we call communion.[11] It’s important for Mary and Martha and Jesus to eat. Jesus never denies this. Yet, he is concerned over Martha’s fretting over how long the turkey has to cook. You see, as long as Martha is whipping up potatoes, she’s not able to visit. A simple meal is sufficient. A simple meal would allow them time to talk and enjoy each other’s company. With a simple meal, Martha still could be hospitable and also have a chance to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn.

          Are we like Martha? Do we worry and become distracted over so many things that we are unable to see what’s truly important?  Do we keep our lives so busy that we have no real quality time to spend with friends? (I’m guilty). If so, we just might be missing something important… After all, Martha missed a chance to spend time listening to our Lord’s teachings. Don’t forget about hospitality, but remember that it’s not the only thing.

        You know, this is a busy time here at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church. The Session has begun working on a strategic plan for the future. A small group of Elders have spent a lot of time on this project. This week, the rest of the Elders will join in the process, and then we’ll be asking for your help and ideas. This is good and needed work, but I encourage us to not be distracted from that which we truly need… Jesus Christ. Without Jesus, what we do will mean nothing. He’s our reason for being, for he calls us together in communion with him. So remember the main thing. Make sure to take time to spend with Jesus, daily. If you do, the rest will fall into place. Amen.



[1] 2 Kings 4:8ff

[2] Grace Dobush, “The U. S. Is the Unhappiest Its Ever Been,” Fortune Magazine (March 20, 1019). See

[3] Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt (American Enterprise Institute, 2019), 28-29.

[4] See

[5] Luke 10:25-37.

[6] Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 151-152.

[7] Hebrews 13:2

[8] Matthew 25:31-46.

[9] John 14:6

[10] Luke 4:4 (Deuteronomy 8:3)

[11] The Feeding of the 5000 and the Institution of the Lord’s Supper can be found in all four gospels.  5000: Matthew 14:13ff, Mark 5:30ff, Luke 7:10ff and John 6.  Lord’s Supper:  Matthew 26:26ff, Mark 14:22ff, Luke 22:15ff and John 13:21ff.

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford University Press, 1988), 282 pages including notes, index, and some photos included within the text.

This is a complicated book. Lane weaves together personal experiences in the mountains and deserts, along with his mother’s dying, reflections on his vast knowledge from early Christian history, and the theology of an unknowable God. The writing is dense and I found myself reaching for both a regular dictionary as well as a Dictionary of Church History. His thesis is that “apophatic tradition, despite’s its distrust of all images of God, makes an exception in using the imagery of threatening places as a way of challenging the ego and leaving one at a loss of words” (65). Apophatic theology, also known as “negative theology.” focuses on what we don’t and can’t know about God. As Lane points out, this is the God of Sinai represented by a dark cloud over a mountain. Such theology causes one to empty oneself (as the desert and mountain’s force us to do) as we seek God. Apophatic theology is the opposite of kataphatc theology (positive theology). Lane places kataphatic theology on the mountain of transfiguration, where Jesus with Moses and Elijah, were revealed in their glory. While these two traditions are in tension, Lane focus is on the former as he explores the “fierce landscapes” of the Sinai, South Asia, the Ozarks, and to the desert southwest of the United States.

Lane ends his Epilogue with the story of western travelers to California who became lost in what is now known as Death Valley in 1849. Most of the group died of hunger and as they finally found their way out of the basin, they said, “Good-bye Death Valley. He links that to a Spanish term used also to describe the place, la Palma de la Mano de Dios or the “the very palm of God’s hands” (232). While “fierce landscapes” may seem like places where God is absence, that’s often not the case. From scripture stories about one finding strength in the wilderness, to story of the early desert fathers, to our own walks through desolate places, we may find that instead of being abandoned, that we were all along being held in God’s hand.

This is my second book by Lane. Twenty-some years ago I read an early book of his, Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality. I found much to learn in both.

The Assurance of God


Jeff Garrison  
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 
Psalm 23
March 17, 2019



Let us pray:

“Where there is darkness, give us light.
Where there is ignorance, give us knowledge.
Where there is knowledge, give us wisdom.
And for those of us that think we have the truth, give us humility.” Amen[1]


         We’re looking at the 23rd Psalm today. It’s a prayer of faith not often heard on Sunday mornings; we save it for funerals. Wayne Muller in book, Sabbath, Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, points this out:

“This is the psalm we sing when people have died. This is the psalm we save for death, because in the world of progress, you do not rest in green pastures, you do not lie beside still waters, there is no time. Never in this life. Only when we get to the promised land.”[2]

Muller’s sarcasm questions why we save the best for last. Good question. God wants us to enjoy “abundant life,” today. This “Busy” series is about embracing God’s gifts now, not just waiting for them to come to us in heaven.

Of course, this Psalm also provides us with “poignant words of trust” to say at the time of death.[3] As Paul reminds us, death is the last of our enemies to be destroyed.[4] So the Psalm gives us comfort at a time of grief, but the words only ring true if we have trusted and experienced God’s intervention in our lives. So, this morning, ask yourself what this Psalm say to you? Let’s listen carefully for a fresh understanding.  Read Psalm 23.

        The Northeast Cape Fear River broadens and deepens as it flows through Holly Shelter Swamp. In this area, on a high bluff on the east bank of the river was my scout troop’s favorite camping site. The ridge was forested with tall long-leaf pines. Lining the banks along the river were dogwoods, tupelo and cypress, their branches adorned with Spanish moss. The leisurely pace of the river invited us boys to sit on its banks and throw sticks into the water, watching them slowly float away. It’s the type of life Mark Twain wrote about on the Mississippi, a life of ease beside peaceful waters that seem to hold some mysterious power to heal, to forget our troubles, and to be renewed.

         In the late afternoon, things would change. As the sun dropped in the west behind trees, it created long shadows on the black waters. An eeriness descended. Spanish moss now appeared as the long beards of men whose mysterious and untimely death occurred in the backwaters of Holly Shelter Swamp. We had been warned.

Every Saturday around a campfire, we listened our scoutmaster, Johnny Rogena, tell us another story about a man who lost his hand in an accident in an old saw mill that stood nearby. This hand took on an evil life of its own, and had been terrorizing the swamp ever since.

Such tales were frightening, especially for an 11 year old boy. As the fire died down, we were sent back to our tents. We stayed together. When a bobcat squealed, we jumped. But soon, we were in our tents and hunkered down in our sleeping bags—the only safe place. These were convenient stories to tell young scouts for it encouraged us to stay in our tents. Sometimes at night we’d see the shadow of the hand stretch across the canvas of the tent, an effect caused by older scouts using a flashlight to project the larger than life reflection. A year or two later, when we were the older, we showed “the hand” to scare the new Tenderfoots. On those first few camping trips, we were scared and afraid to move. It took forever to fall asleep. That night, we knew what it felt like to be in the valley of death. In the morning we’d wake up and feel blessed to have made it through the night. As another Psalm reminds us, “Joy comes in the morning.”[5] We experienced such joy!

         Yea through I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” This most beloved psalm, as I pointed out, is ubiquitously used at funerals and mostly overlooked on Sunday mornings. This is unfortunate for the psalm tells us about a life lived well—a life lived in complete trust of God the Father.

         Psalm 23 is attributed to King David and it certainly brings to mind key elements of his early life. As a young shepherd, he knew what it meant to lead sheep through dangerous mountainous terrain. As a mere boy, he was willing to face the giant Goliath on the battlefield. As a young man, he was being chased by the armies of King Saul, who knew he was God’s anointed. And even as an old man with many enemies, he knew the pain of having his own son attempting to take his throne. Of course, we know David had many short-comings, but he made up for them by putting his faith in God’s hands. David was a man, the scriptures tell us, after the very heart of God.[6] We can imagine David, who trusted God even when he screwed things up penning these words.

          The opening verse captures the essence of the Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The Psalm begins with a powerful metaphor of God as a shepherd. Of course, God is more than just a shepherd, which was a lowly occupation in ancient Israel. God is the Creator, the judge, the warrior, the righteous one, the ancient one. All these images remind us that God is greater than just a mere tender of sheep, but like a shepherd who is devoted to his sheep, God is devoted to his people, which makes the shepherd image the perfect depiction of our relationship with God the Creator.

That opening verse ends with this statement: “I shall not want.” It can also be translated, “I don’t need anything” or “I lack nothing.” The rest of the Psalm expands upon what the Psalmist is not lacking. The Psalmist enjoys rest, refreshing water, wholeness, protection, comfort, and an abundance of food and oil.[7] This Psalm speaks to those of us who have experienced salvation, who’d heard God (or an Angel from God) say, “Fear not, I am with you,” or “Fear not, favored one.”[8] When we know that God is with us, we can be comforted despite the challenges we face, whether a made-up hand roaming the swamps of Holly Shelter, or the real challenges we face: illness, abandonment, aging, financial ruin, being falsely accused, among others. We can face these trials because we know that even though everyone may abandon us—friends, allies, and family—we also know that God will never abandon us. God is with us through thick and thin. That’s a promise to hold tight!

        There are two great images at the end of this Psalm. First, there is a table set in the presence of our enemies. Royal banquets are often used in scripture to point to an eschatological future, the promised heavenly banquet where Jesus is at the head of the table and serves us. Perhaps the presence of our enemies is an invitation for them, too, to come to the table. They, too, have been created by a God who delights in bringing about reconciliation and encourages us to seek out peace with our enemies.

          The second image is the cup running over. Back in the 70s and 80s, Brim decaffeinated coffee had a series of advertisements about filling our coffee cups to the rim. We don’t serve Brim in the fellowship hall. The ad world is a perfect one and no one that I remember in those commercials spilled coffee on the rug, even when the cup couldn’t contain another drop. But here, in Psalm 23, we’re promised something even greater that being filled to the rim. Our cup overflows! This is a promise of abundance.

God’s goodness is the foundation for this Psalm. Just as a shepherd wants what is best for his sheep, God wants what is best for his people. God can be trusted. Yes, there are times we may suffer. Sometimes, as when I was a Tenderfoot Scout, our fears are irrational. At other times, our fears are very real. There are people who want us to fail, thinking that it would make them look better or at least make it easier for them to succeed. There are illnesses that can take our lives. There are dangers and temptations faced by those we love. But even when we face such real fears, we can place our trust in God’s unfailing love.

   When things are looking down, when life is busy and we can’t seem to get a break, we can go to this Psalm and be reminded that we are not alone. God’s goodness abounds. God’s goodness will overflow in our hearts and lives, giving us a new perspective on the challenges we face. Amen.




[1] Prayer by Rev. Ray Nott, given at the New Wilmington Missionary Conference in 1971. Marcia Bell shared this prayer with me. See note at bottom of:

[2] Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest (New York: Bantam, 1999), 79.

[3] James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 119.

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

[5] Psalm 30:5.

[6] 1 Samuel 13:14.

[7] See Mays, 117-118.

[8] Genesis 15:1, 26:24; Deuteronomy 20:1, 31:8: Isaiah 41:10, 41:13, 43:5; Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:30, 2:10.

Write Your Book in a Flash: A Review

Dan Janal, Write Your Book in a Flash: The Paint-by-Numbers System to Write the Book of Your Dreams-Fast! (TCK Publishing, 2018), 180 pages.

I was skeptical as I began flipping through this book. It was easy to skim and in 30 minutes, I had hit the highlights. Could it really help a writer accomplish a goal of publishing a book? I decided to read the book closer and to do the opening exercises with a book project I had considered several years ago.

You may or may not know that I led two different congregations as they left an older landlocked facility and built a new campus. Both experiences were a blessing as people caught the vision and experienced what can be best described as a miracle. While I don’t want to do this again, at one point I had considered consulting other churches considering such a move. Write the Book in a Flash was what I needed to help focus my thoughts. The book is written primarily for people who are involved in consulting and contract work to build their legitimacy. While I am not sure I would enjoy such consulting today, a book about moving churches could be a gift to the larger church, helping others in their own building projects.

I was amazed at how Janal’s methodology helped me frame my thoughts and ideas as I wrote my 400 word executive summary, a 50 word back cover summary, came up with a working title, profiled my ideal reader, and outlined the chapters. I feel confident that if I had a block of uninterrupted time, perhaps two weeks, I could complete this book and the final project would run between 125 and 150 pages.  Write Your Book in a Flash is a workbook designed for the person interested in conveying their knowledge in a particular field.

Write Your Book in a Flash is not going to help you write the great American novel. This isn’t about creative writing. It’s about technical writing that can help your reader and, if you so desire, help you reach more clients. The book assumes its audience can already write clearly (and the book doesn’t cover grammar and plot lines and other necessities). This is a book to help people in further their influence and build their “brand.” Janal practices what he preaches as this book is an extension of his efforts to work with potential experts in different fields develop their own books. At the end of the book are advertisements for his other endeavors.

To find the book:

Publisher’s website:

For full disclosure, I received a free copy of this book in exchange of an honest review.

The Right Tempo

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2019
Matthew 11:28-30


Jig Pendleton is crazy on religion. He’s a character in Nathan Coulter, a Wendell Berry’s novel. Jig lives alone in a shanty overlooking the Kentucky River. Like some of the original disciples, he makes a meager living fishing. When not fishing, Jig spends his days holed up in his shanty reading his Bible. Over and over again, from cover to cover, he reads the Good Book. He knows it by heart, yet he’s consumed worrying about sin. You see, Jig believes if he can just purify himself enough the Lord will dispatch a chariot of fire, and like Elijah, take him up to heaven.[1] But there’s a problem. Jig can’t quite purify himself enough. It’s too great of a task. Sooner or later, he always throws in the towel and goes on a big drunk. Then, he starts his quest all over again.[2]

You know, when it comes to religion, we often think it’s about being good, or good enough. We think we need to be like Jig in one of his purifying stages. We see religion as hard work which is why many people don’t want to be bothered with it.  We forget about the joy of salvation.[3] I wonder if at times we spend way too much time on the Great Commission found at the end of Matthew’s gospel,[4] where Jesus tells his followers to go out and make disciples of all people. The operative verbs here are “go” and “make.” We see religion as making something, either out of ourselves or someone else. We’re caught in the trap of thinking the way to heaven is by hard and difficult work. We forget that long before the Great Commission, Jesus issued the Great Invitation.[5]  Instead of inviting us to labor, Jesus first invites us to come to him and take a load off our backs—to take a break—to catch our breath—to find the right tempo. 

The Christian faith isn’t supposed to be hard; it’s supposed to be joyous. Life is hard when we try to do everything by ourselves which is why Jesus calls us, “Come to me, all you who are weary.”


Are you weary? (What a question to ask at time change?) Who among us isn’t a bit weary? Who among us isn’t a bit heavily burdened? In this passage, Jesus addresses a crowd of people desperate for someone to come and lift their spirits. I envision Jesus looking into the faces of weary men and women tired from the legalism of first century religion. He observes the fatigued bodies of hard working men at dead end jobs, who are sick of paying the heavy taxes imposed by the Roman rulers. He sees the broken hearts of the women who deal, day in and out, with squalling children and distant husbands. He sees the sad eyes of children without a future. Like us, who among this group isn’t a bit weary? Who isn’t carrying a heavy burden? It’s refreshing to hear Jesus say “Come to me.”

You know, Jesus doesn’t bring an end to all their problems.  When those who had gathered around him woke up the next morning, many things had not changed. The men still have to go to work and the women have to take care of the children and prepare the family’s food. They still have letters from Roman IRS agents calling them in for audits and creditors banging on their doors. They still have squalling kids and screaming bosses. So just what does Jesus offer when he invites the crowd to come to him? What are we offered in this passage?

It’s easy to think that Jesus’ promise in this passage refers to our eternal rest, but that would also be very disappointing and not at all what I think he’s talking about. The primary concern for the Christian faith (along with the Jewish, as Jesus was talking to Jewish folks) isn’t our reward in the next world. Yes, the promise of eternal life is real, but when it becomes our sole focus, we prove Karl Marx right in his classic cliché that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” If we focus only on an eternal rest, then religion easily becomes a force to keep us in line and what fun is that? A state sponsored religion might be about social control; but a faith grounded in Jesus Christ is about freedom and transformation. The goal of the Christian faith isn’t to maintain status quo in individual lives or within a society. Instead, the Christian faith promises abundant life.[6]

So when Jesus says, “come to me all who are weary, and I’ll give you rest,” he’s talking about something that happens in the present. He’s promising us a new outlook on life—with him at our side. Instead of a life preoccupied with the pressures which surrounds us, he wants us to live a life thankful for what we’ve been given. We’re called to a new tempo, one that he sets, which is freer than the hectic world around us. Instead of a faith that worries if we are good enough for God, he offers a faith that gives thanks for God’s goodness. God’s goodness is what’s important, because we ourselves will never be good enough. We need to accept and be thankful that God loved us first. Our faith starts with God calling us, not the other way around and the first thing about caring for ourselves is to understand this distinction.

So Jesus invites us saying, “Come to me; take my yoke.”  He’s not talking about a single yoke, one that he gives us and we wear around so that we might haul a heavy load.  Instead, I think he offers a double yoke, one that he helps share the load. One in which we are able to watch him and learn how to live graciously, to appreciate beauty and to give thanks for the blessings of life. Our translation tells us Jesus’ yoke is easy, but it could also be translated as kind[7], or “easy to carry.”[8] Sure, we’re created by God for work, but we achieve more when the yoke is comfortable, just like an ox or a mule can pull longer if it has a well-fitted yoke. Since few of us have had any dealings with yokes, let me use another example.

My first real experience at backpacking occurred when I was in my first year of college. My uncle, who is a few years older than me, had just gotten out of the Navy and was also attending college. We decided to hike a new trail that ran along the crest of the Uwharrie Mountains in central North Carolina. It was 30-some miles long, not too long. I had a pack, “The Kilimanjaro,” one of the best packs K-mart sold. With a name like “The Kilimanjaro,” it sounds as if was a serious pack. We made the trek right after New Year’s, since we had a week before school resumed. With food and gear and plenty of warm clothes, we set out.

Unlike the other photos, this wasn’t in my sermon slides. Instead, I showed the backpack.

Halfway through that first day, I was in trouble. My shoulder straps were digging into my shoulders. The padding didn’t hold up. Instead of the straps displacing the weight over their width, they buckled and pulled right in the middle, making it feel as if I had a rope sawing into my shoulders. Compounding the problem was the lack of a waist band, without which I had no way to relieve the weight on my shoulders. I ended up improvising a waist band with some rope, which helped a little. By our first night, we were both hurting.  Yet, we continued. When I got back home, I started saving money and before I tried anything else like that, I purchased a brand new Kelty pack. It didn’t have a fancy name like my other pack. It was the D-4 model, a staple of Kelty’s packs for years!  I still have it. I threw that Kilimanjaro pack away a long time ago. With the D-4, I’ve done the entire length of both the Appalachian and John Muir Trails. I can assure you, a waistband and well-built, nice fitting shoulder straps make all the difference in the world. Had I continued hiking with the Kilimanjaro, I’d given up on the sport like my uncle did. Either that or I’d be crippled by now. We need an easy yoke if we’re going to accomplish what God plans for us.

Jesus calls us to come and learn from him how to enjoy life. He calls us to relearn our priorities, to set the right tempo.  Instead of having to work hard to earn God’s grace, we accept it and thereby joyously labor not for God’s grace but to praise God for having been so good to us. We don’t have to be so rushed, because we know God is in control. We don’t have to do it all, for we trust in God’s providence. We don’t have to pretend to be God. Let that burden go!

Jig Pendleton had it all wrong. Religion isn’t about working hard; it’s about looking around and gratefully receiving all we’ve been given. It’s about accepting our position in creation and giving thanks.

Take care of yourself. Reorient your life to a new perspective, one with Jesus, as the face of God[9], at the center. Drop the guilt and long faces, slip on that easy yoke, and (most of all) enjoy the journey. Amen.



[1] 2 Kings 2:9-12.

[2] Wendell Berry, Nathan Coulter (New York, North Point Press, 1960, 1985), 15-16.

[3] Psalm 51:12.

[4] Matthew 28:16-20.

[5] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1993), 126.

[6] John 10:10.

[7] Hare, 129.

[8] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 540.

[9] Bruner, 537.

Burden: A Preacher, A Klansman, and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South

Courtney Hargrave, Burden: A Preacher, A Klansman, and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South (New York: Convergent Books, 2018), 227 pages, no photos or index, 22 pages of notes and sources.

Michael Burden, a troubled young man, came under the spell of John Howard, a leader within a section of the Ku Klux Klan. Howard had purchased an old movie theater across from the courthouse in Laurens, South Carolina. With Michael’s help, they partly restored the building and opened within it a Ku Klux Klan museum, a store called the “Redneck Shop,” and a center for Klan meetings and recruitment. Standing in opposition to the theater was David Kennedy, the African-American pastor of the New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church. The confrontation between the church and community against Howard and his museum and store made national news in the 1990s. This is their story.

The story has a twist. When Michael Burden falls out with John Howard after his marriage to a woman with two children, he finds himself without a job and locked out of his home. Broke and with nowhere to go, the Reverend David Kennedy steps in to help. This act of grace is the centerpiece of this multi-dimension story of redemption. The story caught the attention of Andrew Heckler, who had a vision of bringing it to the theater. The movie was released in 2018

Courtney Hargrave, a journalist and former ghostwriter, researched and wrote the book that was released in conjunction with the movie. Heckler wrote the forward for Hargrave’s book. Hargrave’s writing is crisp and reads easily. She provides enough background to the various phases of the Klan to help the reader understand the fractured history of this homegrown American terror group. She provides local historical background of white supremacy in Laurens, a town named for a slave trader and the location of lynching activity in the first half of the 20th Century. She delves into the relationship between Burden and Howard providing a case study of how older Klansmen befriend and then use lost youth to further their misguided mission. Her accounts of Reverend Kennedy’s actions show the struggle of those within the African-American community to provide the needs of their own constitutes while showing love to their enemies.

I would have liked to have learned more about the thoughts and feelings of white residents who were not involved in the Klan, especially white churches. Hargrave primarily focused on the New Beginning Church, making the battle between them and Howard. I found myself wondering if more churches, African-American and Caucasian, were involved. Although she doesn’t say so in the book, I know the author’s time was limited as she was under pressure to publish the book before the movie was released. I question if the lack of time and also the movie’s plotline (which needs to simplify the complexity of the story) might have played a role in the way she tells this story.

Hargrave’s writing reminds the reader the role race plays with groups that feel disenfranchised in America. Laurens is an upstate South Carolina town that has been gutted of its industry and hasn’t received the influx of new industry as have other communities in the region such as Greenville and Spartanburg. For those with little hope, it is easy to fall prey to organizations like the Klan. I recommend this book. Not only do we witness someone radically living out the gospel and fulfilling Jesus’ command to love and do good to our enemies, we also gain insight into how a person like Burden might be drawn into an organization like the Klan.

I doubt I would have read this book had it not been for meeting Ms. Hargrave at a reading in Savannah late last year. The story caught my attention. I’m glad I picked up a copy and I hope the book finds a wider audience. I recommend it.

The Land Between: Growth

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Numbers 11:21-30
March 3, 2019


I’ve been out of the pulpit here for two weeks—it seems like a long time. Last week Deanie preached and the week before was the Presbytery pulpit exchange. You got to hear Pete Ullmann from Jessup while I preached at First Presbyterian Church in Brunswick. Don’t worry about missing anything; it was a sermon you all heard back in January. It’s good to be back in this pulpit, this morning.

          We are coming to the end of our series on the “Land Between,” and our study from the 11th Chapter of the Book of Numbers. Next week, we’ll begin our Lent Journey, as we make our way toward Easter. Our theme for our Lenten series will be “Busy.” It’s a timely series; we all struggle with busyness. As a way of catching our breath, we’re going to be encouraged by scripture to reconnect to an unhurried God. As a warning, we’ll be doing a few different things in worship. It’ll be exciting, so come and invite others who feel hurried in life to join us for a refreshing break each week as we gather on Sunday.

Now, let’s go back to the “Land Between,” that desert setting we’ve been traveling over since the end of January. We have seen how this barren land in which we all travel at one point or another is fertile ground for us to complain and even have a melt-down. It’s also a place where we learn to trust God to provide what we need, and where God might discipline us. All of this, our being in the “Land Between” and God’s response, helps us grow. In the Sinai desert, God was forging the Hebrew people into a nation. When we find ourselves in such situations, we should ponder what God might be preparing us to do. What’s God’s future for us? For our text today, we’re going to look at Numbers 11:21-30. Listen:  

         Little Tommy was riding in the backseat as the family came home from church. “What did you learn in Sunday School today,” his father asked.

We learned about Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea,” Tommy said.

What about it?” his dad asked.

“Well, the Israelites had their back against the sea as Pharaoh’s army approached. It looked like it was going to be a slaughter. So Moses quickly summoned his combat engineers to throw together a pontoon bridge and they hastened to get everyone across. And as the Egyptians followed them across the bridge, Moses called up his Air Force and had them scramble jets who strafed and then bombed the bridge, sending Pharaoh’s army to the bottom of the sea.

His mother almost had whiplash as she turned around in her seat and looked back at Tommy. Her face was red. “Was that what your teacher taught?” she demanded. “Did she tell you all that?”

“Well, not exactly,” Tommy hesitantly responded. “But if you don’t believe my story, you certainly won’t believe hers.

Moses might be the earthly leader of the Israelites, but he’s not the one in charge. It is very clear from the beginning that God is calling the shots. God freed the people from slavery. God saved them from the Egyptian army when their backs were up against the sea. God provided food and water for his people in an inhospitable land. Moses may be the leader of these people, but he knows it’s not within his power to do any of this. God has been active.

This also applies even to the church throughout history. The key to our success isn’t from the strength of our leaders, but from the humbled willingness of God’s people to allow God to work through us to accomplish his purposes. When we are aligned with God, we can do great things. When God is against us, even the most skilled leader will be ineffective. By the way, our mission isn’t success in worldly standards. Our mission is to be faithful to the God who resurrect the dead.

          Now back to Moses. He’s the face people see. And because they still aren’t sure what’s up, he’s the one who receives all the complaints. He’s weary and needs help. But unlike the people who have questioned God’s goodness, thinking the Almighty led them into the desert to die, Moses trusts the Lord. After all, God has always comes through. When Israel’s back was up against the sea, it wasn’t Moses who parted the sea. He might have lifted his arms as we see in the movies, but it was God, the one who watches out for Israel, who saves the day.

God has plans for this group of people. God doesn’t just want them to just exist. Nor, I believe, does God just want us to exist. God wants them (and us) to thrive. God wants them (and us) to grow and to be a community in which all the world is bless. So let’s look at our text for today and see how this works.

We have already seen how God provided for the people’s dietary needs, with manna and quail, as well as for Moses well-being, with others that shared the leadership burden. God has Moses bring seventy leaders into the tent and endow them with some of Moses’ spirit, giving them the power and responsibility to help lead the people. But when we looked at this text earlier (on Scout Sunday where I spoke about the patrol method and how the 70 were like patrol leaders), I cut the text off before getting to the part about how the experience of these leaders extended beyond the 70. What we find in this text is that we worship a God of surprises, and that people 3,500 years ago were no different than today. They don’t like surprises; they don’t like changes; they’re jealous when someone outside their group has a special experience.

          Let’s look at the text. After the elders were commissioned, they received the spirit and prophesied. That was all well and good, and expected. But what happens next is that there were two men, who were not in the assembly, who showed signs of having the spirit placed upon them. They, too, prophesied. This was disturbing, for these were not ones who were supposed to be doing this. A runner (a 14th Century BC tattle-tale) was sent to Moses saying, Eldad and Medad are prophesying in camp. Joshua was ready to have them stopped but it didn’t bother Moses. “Let them be,” Moses responded. “Are you jealous for me? Wouldn’t it be nice if all God’s people were prophets?”

Moses shows us what a mature leader comfortable with his relationship with God looks like.

You know, a similar thing happened in the ministry of Jesus. The disciples learned that there were others casting out demons using the name of Jesus. Some of the disciples, like Joshua, was ready to defend Jesus’ power and honor and put an end to the practice. But Jesus said, “No, don’t do that. If they’re using my name, they be for us and not against us.”[1] Mature leadership provides a calming presence and rejoices when others do well.

          What can we take from this passage? How might it apply to our topic of growth? There are two things that come to mind. First of all, as we see in the story of the Exodus, we have to take the risk to follow and to trust God. It can be scary at times, but if we are willing to take that risk, God will protect and watch over us. Faith isn’t about certainty; if it was, it wouldn’t be faith. Faith is about trust. Do we trust God enough to take a risk that will allow God to show us that he’s with us? When God’s church grapples at what its future might be, those who are willing to take a risk are the ones rewarded. It’s easy to sit back and do nothing, but that’s not the type of followers Jesus calls. As the Session of this church works on our strategic plan for the future (and this is a process), I hope you will be open to new directions. God calls us to risk in faith, not for our glory, but for God’s. Are we up for taking risks? We can’t keep doing the same thing that might have worked for us 30 or 40 years ago. Times change and new strategies are required. We are called to be people of faith and we must live into our calling.

        Secondly, we learn in this passage that we’re not in control and we need to let God’s Spirit work. Those who were upset with Eldad and Medad show a human tendency to have preconceived ideas of what it looks like when God shows up. We have to be ready for surprises, for God’s ideas may be different from ours. God has this incredible love for all people, not just those who look, think and act like us. We might be surprised what God is doing in our midst and it might make us uncomfortable. Someone might come up with a new idea that we’ve never tried before, or that was half-heartedly tried years ago. Is our first reaction to immediately reject it? Or are we willing to see if God’s Spirit’s is leading us in a different direction? The truth of Jesus Christ never changes, but how we live out that truth within a changing culture will be different.

          Remember, it’s not about us. We’re called to have faith, to trust, and to follow Jesus as we move through the “Land Between.” And if we have faith, we will experience growth in our own lives and within the community. We might not know what that growth really looks like until afterwards, but when we are there, we will know that God has been with us. Amen.


[1] Mark 9:38-39, Luke 9:49-50.