A College Boy in the Bakery

This is the second story in my bakery saga. Unlike the first story about Linda, which I wrote years earlier and revised, this is a new story. While the bakery was always hot, this post isn’t nearly as steamy as the first one. It also has more technical detail that’s required to fully understand what I’m talking about.

Summer’s End

As the summer of 1976 wrapped up, I called into the plant manager’s office. That morning I’d given my two-week notice. My plan was to leave the bakery as I returned to college. I would also work in the fall part-time at a Wilson’s Supermarket on Oleander Drive, where I had worked for several years. Even during this summer at the bakery, I still put in six or eight hours a week there, mainly ordering and tending the cigarette aisle. It’d been a busy summer, and I had no idea why the plant manager wanted to see me. 

 “I’d like you continue working here,” he said. “In a few months, I think you’ll be a supervisor. And I promise to keep you on second shift, if you can arrange your schedule to take morning classes.”

He also noted that for the time being, I would be the second shift operator for the bread slicers and baggers. I had already spent some time that summer learning and running this equipment due to an accident earlier in the summer. 

Roy’s accident with the wrapping machine

One hot day, a major breakdown occurred in the proof box. This meant we didn’t have bread to package for several hours. After cleaning up our workstations, there was little for us to do until they got the operation back running,. We hid out on the loading deck. Roy was the second shift operator for the slicers and wrappers. He proceeded to smoke a couple of joints. By the time the bread production resumed, he was feeling pretty good. But his thinking wasn’t very clear, nor his reflexes fast. 

In other that your thinking will be clearer, let me explain the process. As a loaf of bread approached the bagger, a shot of compressed air blew up a bag. This signaled an arm to shoot, out, catching the loaf of bread and sliding into the bag. As the arm retreated, the bread was inside the bag and dropped onto another conveyor. It then moved through a machine that sealed the open end of the bag with a twist tie. The arm that caught to bag was sharp and shiny, made of stainless steel. This was so it could easily slide into and out of the bag. If the bag didn’t open, there was a switch that would stop the machine. There was also a metal lattice grate that protected the operator from the arm. If the grate wasn’t fully extended, there was another switch that kept the machine from operating. 

On this day, the wrapping machines were having problems. This often happened on really hot days as the bag would stick, or when the bags were old. Roy was constantly having remove stuck bags. To expedite things, he tapped down the switch that kept the machine from operating when one’s hands were inside the grate. Then, when cleaning up some bad bags that had jammed the machine, he accidently tripped the switch that indicated the bag had blown open. The metal arm shot out to catch the loaf and sliced into the flesh on Roy’s forearm. Blood went everywhere. He required 20 or so stitches. 

That evening, Paul, the supervisor began teaching me how to operate the machinery. The next day, instead of traying off bread, I ran the machines. They kept Bobby, the first shift operator over to help train me and until we had no more change overs. I worked for a few days as an operator, but then went back to bagging when Roy returned. 

Roy would only work another week or so before he quit. I never completely understood him. He had left the army after 10 years, which he had worked primarily as a cook. He learned the baking trade in Vietnam, where he worked in an American built field bakery supplying troops in the country. I never knew why he left the bakery and I never saw him again. From this point on, I was operating the equipment, even though I was still making the wage of a bread trayer. But my summer was almost over and It was a week or so later I was in the plant managers office. 

Two job offers

I asked time to think about the offer. The grocery store I was working for had also offered me a similar position. They were opening a new store near Monkey Junction. Bert, the manager who had hired me, was being moved to the new store and offered me to come along as the “third man,” essentially the second manager, who main job would be to close the store several nights during the week. It was tempting, but in the end decided I would stick to the bakery. Having worked in the grocery store through high school, I’d done most of the jobs throughout the store except for in the meat department. The bakery was still a mystery, so I accepted the offer. When classed resumed, I left the grocery store and began to work fulltime on second shift at the bakery. 

Operating the slicers and baggers

About a month later, the plant manager left. I was never sure if he quit on his own or if he was fired, but I would not be a supervisor for nearly three more years (and two plant managers later). 

While I was not a supervisor, I was the lead on a four-person operation. This was especially true after some remodeling of the plant. When I was hired, the bread traying operation occurred in the shipping area (and faced Linda’s work station). There, two conveyors from the wrapping machines brought the bread through a wall. This was the position was just behind the roll wrapping area, providing me with Linda. At the end of the summer, they cut out the wall and moved the bread trayers next to the wrapping machines. This allowed for the wrapping operator to be able to interact more easily with the trayers.  

The process

The bread came into the wrapping area from the cooler, where it had spent approximately an hour cooling to where the outside was crusty, but the inside was still warm. This was necessary for the bread not to mash up in the slicers. This bread came out on a single conveyor, which split into two before going through the slicers. A woman generally worked at this position, making sure the operations ran smoothly. Whenever one of the machines were down, she would take off the excess bread and place it on waiting trays. Then, she would feed it back in when things ran well. 

The slicers were large bandsaws, but instead of a single blade, there were sixteen or so blades. Each blade was circular and five feet or so in diameter. Inside the machine, the blades twisted in a figure eight around two drums. This allowed the cutting surface of each blade to face the incoming bread and resulted in two slices per blade. A few extra blades were stored on the drums of each slicer. This allowed for the operator or a mechanic to quickly move blades over to replace a broken one. The razor sharp blades were dangerous. The equipment remained closed, except for where the bread entered and departed. If one of the doors on the machine opened, a switch shut the saw down down. A broken blade flying free would be deadly. 

From the slicers, the bread traveled by a conveyor, maybe ten feet long, to the bagger. This conveyor had sides that were set to the bread to keep the slices from falling. After bagging and tying the loaves, they were placed on to trays and racks, which the shipping department then handled. In some ways, this was an easy job, when things went well. This was especially true after all the changes that came with morning variety bread. Once we started with the pound and a half white bread, which was so popular back in the 70s, we only changed the bags. During the summer busy season, we’d often bag 60 or 70 thousand loaves of white pound and a half bread at a rate of 4200 loaves and hour.

I became friends with Bobby, who was the morning operator. He’d often punch out and then come back over and talk. On a few occasions, on our days off, we went out rabbit and squirrel hunting. He had several uncles and cousins with beagles who lived on farms just inside Pender County. At the time I didn’t think about it, but I now wonder what some people would have thought to see a white guy running around several African Americans, all of us armed with shotguns or rifles.  

While everyone in management remained silent about me becoming a supervisor, I was honored during this time as the company’s outstanding employee for the first quarter of 1977-78. In addition to a nice plaque, the management treated outstanding employees and spouses to wonderful dinner at the Hilton on the Cape Fear River. (Looks like I should clean up my plaque!).

My minor injury

I did have one injury while running the bakery machines. As a promotion, we were placing game cards inside each of the loaves of bread. This required a separate machine to sat next to the conveyor between the slicer and bagger. It was always creating problems when the placement of the card wasn’t perfect. At one point, a card was near the bag opening, which jammed up the tying machine. In trying to free the bags, I pulled out a pocketknife. Leaning over the equipment, I supported my weight on my left hand as I cut out the bag and card with my right hand. When the knife slipped, and the blade went into my left hand, requiring a couple of stitches. The scar is still visible. 

My learning from this event happened in the emergency room. I joked that I’d been stabbed. They followed their procedure and called the police. I attempted to clarify. It was truthful, I had stabbed myself. But it was an accident. The hospital visit would be filed on a workers compensation claim. And, to make me look innocent, I wore a white bakery uniform sprinkled with bits of crust from the bread.

Oven operator

After about a year as an operator of the wrapping and bagging machinery, I was asked if I would like to move over to the bread oven. This was a solo job, but it came with another pay raise and a lot more responsibility. Mainly I oversaw the operations of about a 1/3 of the production area. One main task involved continually monitoring the temperature in the oven and the humidity in the proofer. This was in addition to making sure everything ran smoothly. The size to the equipment in my area was similar to a house. Since there were three major pieces of equipment, my work area represented the size of a small neighborhood.

Oven operations

The bread came back to my area on a long conveyor from the make-up room. There, the dough was placed into strapped together pans that held four loaves. The bread first entered a proof box. The temperature in the box was kept around 110 degrees with nearly 100% humidity. Automatic arms pushed the bread pans, ten four loaves pans at a time) onto racks. Windows into the proofer provided a glimpse at how the bread was rising. When the dough rose to the top of the pan, another arm pushed the pans onto a conveyor. From there, the bread travelled to the oven.

Between the proofer and the oven, a machine placed lids onto the bread if we were making square top loaves. The operator had to place the lids onto the conveyors at the beginning. That was easy as the lids were cool. After that, the lids recycled until the end of the day. As second shift ended the workday, I had to pull off the lids. These were hot and more than a few times I burned my forearms.

The oven worked liked the proof box with arms pushing and pulling the pans onto and off of racks. The oven consisted of seventy-some burners, which needed to occasionally be checked. Sometimes burners had to be scraped out to get them to relight. In addition there were 6 temperature zones. If the bread wasn’t tall enough, I’d reduce the temperature in the first zone to allow it to rise a bit more. If it was too tall, I could increase the heat to kill the yeast faster. Each zone had gauges that checked continually.

Leaving the oven, the pans went through a machine that first removed the lids (if used). Then, by suction cups, the loaves were lifted from the pan and placed on a conveyor for the cooler. The loaves would remain in the cooler until it was time for them to go to the slicers. The entire process, from arriving at the proof box till leaving the proofer, took approximately 2 1/2 hours.

The pleasure and perils of being an oven operator

I had the horn if case there was a problem. It could be heard throughout the plant. If I blew it, the supervisor and the mechanics on duty immediately ran to my aid. Even a break down of a few minutes could cause us to lose upwards of 6000 loaves of bread. In later stories, I’ll share some horror stories.

But running smoothly, I was left alone with my thoughts, as I continually checked on things. When taking classes at the university in which I had to memorize lots of stuff, I would keep index cards in my pocket. Then I would run the cards occasionally throughout my shift. 

I would continue working as the oven operator until my last semester in college, which was when I was moved into supervision. While it seemed long, I had just turned 22 years old. I had been at the bakery less than three years.

Hebrews 11:1-7, The Difference Faith Makes

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
April 25, 2021
Hebrews 11:1-7

Sermon taped on Friday, April 23, 2021 at Mayberry Church

Introduction to worship

As I mentioned last week, the Session of both churches have spent time planning the future as we, God willing, come out of the COVID pandemic. Therefore, now is a good time to tackle the subject of faith. We are going to need faith to move forward. Do we believe, not just in God, but in a God who knows us and wants what is best for us? 

Today, we’re returning to the book of Hebrews. Between January and early March, we covered the first ten chapters of the book. The eleventh chapter begins with a short discussion of what faith is and then, because it is not an easy word to define, provides examples. These examples come from the Old Testament. In the twelfth chapter, we end with the best example, the faith of our Savior Jesus Christ. We’ll spent three weeks looking at the examples of faith and how they can inform our lives. 

Faith, Hope, and Love

The Apostle Paul in his great hymn of love, found in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, writes: “faith, hope, and love abide. These three, and the greatest of these is love.”[1] Of the virtues and fruits of the Spirit, faith and hope are important, but not as important as love. Maybe this is because our lives of faith and hope should result in our lives being more loving. Hopefully love is the result of the faith we have as believers in Jesus Christ. 

Difference between faith and hope

That said, I think it might be helpful if I strive to differentiate between faith and hope. They certainly have similar meanings but let me propose a distinction. As Christians we have faith in a being, one that is not seen but who exists. Our faith is in the triune God: God the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. That said, we have hope in a future situation in which the Kingdom of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is achieved in its fullness. Faith is in God: hope is in what God is bringing about. Is that a clear distinction? 

But let’s go further. Hope, which rests in a future promise, “enables us to live with boldness and confidence in the present.”[2] In other words, this circles back around. Our future hope determines our action in the present.  

Read Hebrews 11:1-7

After reading the scripture

We live in an information age. Knowledge increases so fast that it’s mindboggling. Much of this growth in knowledge comes from the internet which allows for the sharing of ideas. Of course, there is a downside. Not all ideas are equally valid. As an example, it’s easier than ever for people to promote false ideas and conspiracy theories. Jesus’ advice to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves apply.[3]

Because of this increase in knowledge, we have incredible information at our figure tips. We don’t even have to go to the library anymore. We can just pull out our smart phone and google what we’re looking for. 

Does knowledge increase our faith?

Does all this information increase our faith? Or does it make us doubters?[4] After all, what can we trust? Pilate’s question, “What is Truth,”[5] is the question of our generation. 

But we’re not the first generation to wrestle with this question. The author of Hebrews, who began his great sermon speaking of how God had spoken to people in the past.[6] But now, God speaks through a Son. Jesus Christ is truth. He’s in charge. He’s been in charge since creation. He’s THE High Priest. His sacrifice is perfect. And he’s the reflection of God’s glory. He’s the one in whom we’re to place our faith. 

Looking back helps us have faith moving forward

But as our author has done before, instead of jumping in with Jesus, he first takes us into the past.[7] The “Preacher” has us consider the lives of others who trusted and had faith in God. Knowing what God has done in the past gives us faith in the future.

The overall message of this chapter, of which we’ll spend a few Sundays, is that our faith should result in lives that trust God. This chapter consists of 18 different examples of faith. It’s a motley group that we’ll explore over the next few weeks. Yes, there are good folks in this group and there are some that raise eyebrows (such as a prostitute).[8] We’ll get to her in a couple weeks. What’s important is that we understand how they trusted God and the difference such faith made in their lives. 

Today, we start with three examples from a period of “prehistory:” Abel, Enoch, and Noah. I say “prehistory,” to indicate the time before God’s covenant with Abraham, which begins the historical journey of the Hebrew people that, for Christians, leads the birth of Jesus. During this period, things are a bit fuzzy. We have a few stories and a lot of names. These three are raised up as an example.


The first is Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve. If you read his story in the fourth chapter of Genesis, you’ll realize that he doesn’t even have a speaking part.[9] We’re told he raised sheep while his brother Cain farmed. But Abel’s sacrifice to God was more pleasing than his brothers, which led to his brother’s anger and the murder of Abel. As I said, Abel doesn’t speak. That is, until his blood cries out from the ground.[10] The Preacher of Hebrews makes the case that Abel, who had faith and who trusted God, still speaks. 

Abel reminds us that our lives may not always be easy. Yet, we’re to have trust that God will hear and respond to our cries. Abel had faith, but faith doesn’t mean that things will always go well for us, at least not in this life. Our faith is in the one who died but lives and because Jesus lives, we believe that we, too, will live.[11]


The second individual is Enoch. Again, we don’t know much about him as he only receives six verses in scripture.[12] That’s not much for a life of 365 years. What we learn is that Enoch gave birth to Methuselah, and that he walked with God. Now that’s an interesting image, walking with God. We have the image of Adam and Eve, before the fall, walking with God in the garden.[13] We have images of the disciples walking with Jesus in the gardens. We sing hymns like “In the Garden,” which reminds us to walk with Jesus.

Enoch had an exceptional close walk with God, for we’re told that God took him. The preacher in Hebrews adds some details, implying that his faith was pleasing to God, so he’s taken to heaven without first dying. 


And then there’s Noah. He lived in a dry part of the world and was told by God to build a giant ship. He did. We can imagine how everyone ridiculed him. The idea of a flood so big that one would need a ship one and a half times the size of a football field was just too hard for comprehend. People thought he was nuts. 

Noah had a choice. He could have agreed with his neighbors, whom we’re told were quite wicked. They might have invited him to their parties. Of course, he’d then have to give up building the ark. But he didn’t. He listened and followed God’s advice. Noah trusted God and was able to be saved from events that were not yet known. 

Who are our examples of faith? 

All these examples are of people whose faith pleased God. When we look around us, who do we see as examples of faith? And what kind of things are they able to do because of their faith? 

There’s a guy I knew who sadly is no longer with us. He died from a complicated autoimmune disease that claimed his life in his late thirties. The illness took its toll on his personal life, too. His wife left him a few years before his death. Yet, he remained faithful and trusted God. He always tried to do the right thing. He took his kids fishing and to church and cared for them the best he could. 

He had three children, but the last one, a girl, he privately admitted wasn’t his. This was easy to see. Yet, he treated her like the other two and spoke of the joy she brought into his life. I was amazed at his response, but he insisted that she deserved his love, too. After all, it wasn’t her fault. That’s the kind of grace faith can bring out in us. 

When it was evident he would not beat the illness, he begged for more time. He just wanted to spend it with his kids. He felt he could teach his boys more about hockey and flyfishing. He wanted to see his girl grow up. Sadly, it didn’t happen, but he trusted God. I believe that he was received into Jesus’ arms when his body finally gave out. 

My friend fly fishing from a kayak a few years before his death

What faith does

We place our faith in Jesus Christ. We trust that even if things don’t go our way (and remember, they certainly didn’t go Abel’s way, nor the way my friend had hoped) that God will be with us. As Paul writes to the Romans, there is nothing that can separated us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, nothing, not even death.[14]

Having such trust in the triune God can help us endure whatever the world throws at us. We need to live as we believe. Such a life makes a statement to the world. Such an example can be a far better witness than the most eloquent sermon or the most convincing argument for the existence of God. 

In closing, let me reread the opening passage of this chapter, this time from The Message translation:

The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.


[1] 1 Corinthians 13:13.

[2] Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (Louisville: WJK, 2006), 277.

[3] Matthew 10:16.

[4] While I use doubt here in comparison to faith, I would agree with Paul Tillich that the doubt is not the opposite of faith, but an element of it. See Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 25-26.

[5] John 18:38.

[6] Hebrews 1:1. See my sermon on the opening of Hebrews by clicking here

[7] You see this in chapter 3, where he talks about Moses before making the case that Jesus is the High Priest. In chapter 7, he speaks of Melchizedek before remaking the case for Jesus as High Priest who gives the perfect sacrifice. 

[8] The group includes the prostitute Rahab (Hebrews 11:31).

[9] This was pointed out by Thomas Long in his commentary on Acts (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1994), 116.

[10] Genesis 4:10.

[11] Romans 6:8.

[12] Genesis 5:18-24.

[13] See Genesis 3:8

[14] Romans 8:38.

Four Books: Champagne, Skid-row, Generosity, & Mountain Midwifery

I’m catching up on some recent reading…

Tilar J. Mazzero, The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It. 

(Harpers Business, 2009), 264 pages. 

Late last year, I listened to the author’s “Great Courses” lectures on “Creative Nonfiction.” She often used examples of her own writing including this book. I was curious as to how she took what little personal knowledge is available about Clicquot and turn it into a book that remained “true” to the available facts. Mazzero uses a lot of qualifying words to suggest what her subject might have done or said. While this sometimes became annoying, I enjoyed the book. And I don’t particularly like champagne! 

The Widow Clicquot (Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin) was born into a wealthy French industrial family. He father had created a textile empire. At boarding school when the French revolutionary began, a family seamstress risked her life to rescue the young woman. Afterwards, during a time when the Catholic Church in France was frowned upon, she was married in a secret wedding to the son of another wealthy French industrialist. The marriage had benefits both, as both families were primarily involved in textiles. However, as was common among those whose fortunes were rising in France, they also had wineries. Her husband, Franciois Clicquot, decided that he would make his fortune in the champagne. During this period, champagne was just coming into its own and gaining popularity in England and in Russia.  

When she was 27, she found herself widowed with a child. She would never remarry. For years, she struggled to build the dream she and her husband held for their champagne business. At first, it seemed that every year created another setback. Sometimes it was the weather, other times it was global politics. Napoleon’s warmongering meant that France’s ports were often blockaded. Russia had been a hot market for champagne until Napoleon invaded. This led to an interesting story as one of her agents who were procuring orders barely escaped Russia with his life as he was seen possible spy.

After years of setback, champagne became more popular after the Napoleonic wars. As foreign forces pushed Napoleon back, they occupied the champagne region and fell in love with the drink.  Then she creates the “riddling table”, a new way to produce champagne, which took out some of the guess work and allowed for more streamlined production. She had racks built that held the cork opening down. The bottles were turned, drawing the dead yeast toward the opening, where they could be discarded and the bottled topped off with fresh champagne. This secret allowed her company to outproduce the other wineries producing champagne. Her wealth continued to grow.  By the middle of the 19th Century, her bottles of champagne became known as “the Widow,” a reference that is often found in 19th Century literature, when characters order champagne. 

I learned much from this book. Not only does the reader learn about with widow and her company, but also the history of champagne. Mazzero debunks the popular story that it was Dom Perignon who popularized the drink as “drinking the stars.” The book tells the story of the risks Barbe-Nicole and her business partners took to build their empire. Insight into 19th Century trade, along with the development of trademarks and marking augment Barbe-Nichole’s story. However, due to the limited about of personal resources, many of Mazzero’s insights into Barbe-Nicole’s life is by inference and cannot be factually proven. 


Cormac McCarthy,  Suttree

 (1979). Audible 20 hours and 22 minutes. 

I had a love/hate relationship with this book which I listened to on Audible. There isn’t really a plot, unless the plot is that everyone dies. But that’s not exactly true, just many of the secondary characters die.

However, the writing is mostly beautiful, with a few gross or raunchy scenes. McCarthy is a master storyteller and his descriptions brings places and people alive. This novel is a collection of vignettes from Sutrree’s life. Through his eyes we learn what life was like on skid row in Knoxville, Tennessee in the early 1950s. 

Suttree lives on a dilapidated houseboat and makes a meager living by fishing for catfish in the river. But there is something that separates Suttree from the rest of those who are down on their luck. For one, we catch a glimpse of his past. Through the story told, we learn he attended a Catholic school and latter college. He had also once been married and had a child. But for some reason he walks away from it all. He seems to enjoy the life down by the riverfront, even though he does get away at times and into the mountains. 

Those down and out in Knoxville look to Suttree for advice. Suttree takes on the role as their protector, as he tries to steer people the right way. His advice is generally good, such as discouraging Gene Harrogate from attempting to break out from the workhouse (a chain gang prison farm), telling him if he did, he’d be caught and would spend the rest of his life in and out of prison.  He befriends all: prostitutes, blacks, homosexuals, alcoholics, and drug addicts. 

While many of the characters are short-lived in their encounters with Suttree, Gene Harrogate keeps reappearing throughout the book. Even at the end, we learn he’s in prison for three to five years. Harrogate and Suttree first meets in the workhouse. We don’t really learn what Suttree did, but Harrogate is there for copulating with many watermelons, ruining a farmer’s crop. He’s always trying to find a way to “make it.” When the health department puts out a call for any found dead bats in town, promising a dollar a bat to check for rabies, Harrogate masters a way to wipe out a bat colony. However, once they learn the bats died by other means, they don’t pay him for the bats. Learning of the tunnels through the city, he concocts a plan to blow up the city’s vault. While much of Knoxville believe they’ve experienced a small earthquake, Suttree knows better and goes underground to find a wounded and stunned Hargrove stinking from the sewer lines that ruptured in his failed attempt to blow the vault.  

Suttree has two “romantic” encounters in the book. One is with a teenager daughter to his “freshwater mussel” partner. The mussel shells are sold to be manufactured into buttons (something I recently learned from the writings of Alice Outwater is a reason for the decline of freshwater mussels). She dies in a rockslide. The next is a prostitute. The two of them live it up for a short while, but then she has a breakdown and leaves. 

One of the more interesting vignettes is of Suttree and a black friend visiting an old Geechee witch. She puts him under a spell which creates a horrific vision. He has a similar horrific vision toward the end of the book when he has typhoid fever. I was expecting he was going to die, supporting the plot idea that “everyone dies.” However, he recovers and leaves town.  Hargrove, at the time, is in prison. 

Warning, if you read this book, there are rough spots, which one should expect when writing about those living on the margin of society. McCarthy shows that he can master the grotesque as well as Flannery O’Conner. 


Julie Salamon, Ramban’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give

 (New York: Worksman Publishing, 2003), 183 pages. 

Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher and physician during the Middle Ages, also known as Rambam, created a ladder of charity. Each of the eight rungs on the ladder represented a step toward more compassionate response to those in need. The bottom rung is the one who gives reluctantly and in a begrudging manner. Next would be the person who gives just a little, not enough, but in a friendly manner. Then there is one who gives when asked, then before being asked, then giving without knowing who the gift is for, then giving anonymously, then giving whether neither the one in need nor the giver knows one another. The highest run on the ladder is the one who helps lift the needy out of poverty by helping them start a business, giving them a job, or going in partnership with them. 

Salamon, in this book, goes through each step. With numerous examples, many from her own life (such as avoiding beggars along the New York Streets, then befriending one…), she illustrates each step. 

I recommend this book for those interested in becoming more generous. It would be an especially helpful book for someone speaking about generosity as she provides so many stories for illustration.


Karen Cecil Smith, Orlean Puckett, 1844-1939: The Life of a Mountain Midwife

 (Boone, NC: Parkway Publishing, 2003), 166 pages. 

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As I’ve been doing since I moved here last October, this another book that I read in my attempts to learn this new area I find myself ministering. A little over a mile north of Bluemont Presbyterian Church, along the Blueridge Parkway, there is a cabin with a historical marker about a famous midwife in these parks, Orlean Puckett. However, the cabin belonged her sister-in-law, Betty Puckett. Orlean’s larger home was torn down after the Park Service refused to allow her to live in it until her death. She died shortly after having to move and the parkway was open for traffic through southwest Virginia.   

There is a lot that is not known about Orlean. Even her birthyear is in question (some records said 1839). Before the Civil War, she married John Puckett. He would serve in the Confederate Army, but like many, he deserted and lived in the Virginia mountains for the rest of the war. There seems to be some question as if the two of them got along or if there was abuse. He did drink a lot, but Smith makes the case that two loved each other. Orlean had 24 babies. All but one died either in womb or shortly after birth. The one surviving, her firstborn, lived a few years. It is now thought she suffered from Rh Hemolytic disease, which was unknown at the time. While some may have thought the children died from mistreatment, it seems unlikely many felt that way since so many women on the mountain would employ her as a midwife. 

After taking on the role of midwife, for 49 years helped deliver over a thousand children. She would travel by foot or horse, all over the mountains, in all kinds of weather. She served as a midwife until just before she died.

Smith overcomes the lack of direct knowledge about much of Orlean’s life by providing a background into mountain ways of life, the history of midwifery, and the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are also interesting tidbits of folklore used by midwives. At times, the story seems a bit disjointed, but I found it interesting.  The book draws heavily on oral interviews, of which Smith quotes from extensively.


Times are Changing: Where is God leading us?

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
April 18, 2021
Acts 16:1-10

The sermon was recorded on Friday, April 16, at Bluemont Presbyterian Church

At the beginning of worship

The sessions of both congregations, Bluemont and Mayberry, are engaged in planning for the future as we come out of the COVID pandemic. While we all want to get back to our former lives, the primary question to guide our work should be “where is God leading us?” It’s an age-old question as we’ll see today. 

Acts 16

The sixteenth chapter of Acts is a turning point. Paul heads into Europe. The story Luke tells in Acts focuses on Paul and his companions. Barnabas and Peter and others move to the sidelines. This doesn’t mean they stopped their missionary activity. Instead, Luke, the author of Acts, centers his story on Paul. But even Paul had no plans to go to Europe, until a dream… We’ll learn more in the sermon.

Read Acts 16:1-10 

After the reading of scripture

Several years ago, I preached through the book of Acts. Fifty-four sermons! Early on, I began to question the name of the book. It’s full name as it appears in most Bibles is “Acts of the Apostles.” But if you read the book, you’ll understand it wasn’t so much the “acts of the Apostles” as it was “the acts of God through the Apostles.” If it was just up to the Apostles, they’d probably never gotten out of Jerusalem. They often don’t act until prodded to do so by God. God’s Spirit, throughout the book, is the motivating power. 

But as I continued to study this book, I decided it should have at least one subtitle: “The Roots of the Church’s 2000 Year Resistance to Change.” Most often, not only did the Apostles not act until they received a kick in the pants, but they also tried to slow down the work of the Spirit. 

We dislike change

This is a natural response. We don’t like change. We want to do things our way. But times change. People change and so too must the church. Of course, the gospel doesn’t change. We still worship the same God, but how we worship, how we share the faith, and how we live out the gospel changes because the culture in which we live changes. 

Yet, change makes us uncomfortable. We want to turn back time. Let’s go back to the 50s when the churches were full, and things were on the move. But that’s not an option. 

An example of resistance to change 

       You know, as much as we don’t like change, we like to accumulate stuff. That’s true in our homes as it is in our churches. When I was in my first church, I remember working with a group of people going through a bunch of old Christian Education materials. This was in 1990. There were still those who wanted to hold on to old filmstrips of Bible stories. We didn’t even have a working filmstrip projector. They were no longer making bulbs for them. We also had chalk boards and felt boards still up on the walls, which was being replaced by whiteboards (today it would be smartboards). 


Now, granted, a child could still learn on a chalk board or via a filmstrip. Many of us here had learned the gospel stories in such a manner, but new technology came along. VHS tapes and CDs had come into vogue in 1980s. As Bob Dillon sang back in the 60s, the times are a changing. Today, they are no longer making VHS players!

Why did Paul have Timothy circumcised? 

With the way things change, I wonder why in our text Paul decided to have Timothy circumcised. After all, in the previous chapter, you have the Council of Jerusalem. There, the question of circumcision seemed to be settled for the second time in the Book of Acts.[1]Gentiles did not have to undergo such surgery in order to become Christians. Paul fought for this change. He took this as good news, yet here he has one of his assistants go under the knife. Why? 


Paul, in the case of Timothy, compromised. From what we gleam from the text, Paul felt that by having Timothy circumcised, he would be more acceptable to the Jewish population. Timothy had a Jewish mother, but his father was Greek. Today, in Judaism, the line generally passes down through the mother, but there is some question about that during the first century.[2]

Having not been circumcised, while claiming to be a Jewish Christian, would have made Timothy suspicious to the Jews of Asia and Europe. So, while Paul didn’t expect Gentiles to be circumcised, he felt it was a good thing for Timothy. Paul was willing to compromise this principal for the sake of the gospel. 

In Galatians, Paul tells us that circumcision carries no weight with Christ. However, in his first letter to the Corinthians, he speaks of being all things to all people in order to win them over to Christ. It appears this is what Paul is doing here by making Timothy more acceptable to the Jews.[3]

Paul’s traveling companions

Now Paul is traveling with at least two companions: Timothy and Silas. He may have been traveling with three, for beginning in verse 10, Luke the author of Acts, shifts from the third-person plural (they) to the first-person plural (we). Does this mean Luke was along as an eyewitness? Scholars have argued it both ways and it’s an interesting idea but doesn’t matter much to the story.[4]

Heart of the matter: Doors are closing       

Now let’s get into the heart of the matter. Starting in verse six, we learn of the paths Paul took through Asia. There seems to be a problem. Doors are closing. The Holy Spirit hinders their ability to share the gospel. The Spirit of Jesus keeps them from even going into new and fertile territory. They head off on this missionary journey but find themselves unable to do the work. What gives? 

How did the Spirit hinder them? Did they come down with a bad case of laryngitis? How did the Spirit keep them from heading to go to Bi-thyn-i-a?  Did the Spirit station an angel by the road with a fiery sword as the Cherubim stood at the east gate to the Eden?[5] We don’t know. Sometimes, however, God closes doors in front of us in order to redirect our lives.[6] God, not Paul, is in control.[7]  

Paul’s dream

The third movement of this passage comes in a dream. Paul must have been frustrated by his inability to do the work to which he felt called. Then, one night he has a vision. We assume this came in his sleep. Ironically, in the darkness, the path forward becomes clear. Instead of working across Asia, Europe calls. 

In this vision, Paul sees a Macedonian man pleading with his for help. How he knew he was Macedonian, we don’t know. Maybe he waved the Macedonian flag like an Olympian. Paul realizes what he must do. According to the text, they agree and arrange passage to Europe.  

Lesson 1 from the text: willing to compromise

There are several things we can take from this passage and apply to our lives and to our work as Jesus’ ambassadors in the world. First of all, at times we should compromise. It may help us reach others. Timothy was circumcised. Sometimes such efforts gain enough trust that we can share the gospel with others. 

What’s important isn’t our own desires, but what is best for the other. When we are considering what to do in the future, this is good advice. It’s another way of living out one of Jesus most frequent themes, “if you want to be first, you have to go to the end of the line” and if you want to be great you have to be willing to be a servant.[8]

What are we willing to sacrifice to help spread the gospel? How can we serve others? 

Lesson 2 from the text: God opens and closes doors

A second theme we see here is how God opens and closes doors, which leads our missionaries into Europe. What we sometimes take as misfortunes can be God leading us to a new opportunity. 

I’ve seen this in my own ministry. Just before I had the call to Skidaway Island, I was all set to accept a call to a church in the Finger Lakes region of New York. But at the last minute, I realized it wasn’t where I was to be. I turned down the call. It was hard. I was excited about the possibilities. We already had an offer made and accepted on a home. 

Afterwards, I commented about how I felt as a pawn in some divine chess match. “Get used to it,” I was wisely counselled. After all, you’re a Calvinist. 

We, who believe in God’s providential control, are able at times to look back and see God’s hand leading us forward. Sadly, however, when we look ahead, we’re like Paul. We don’t see the hand leading us, only the closed doors. But there are times those closed doors leads us to open doors where our skills and abilities and insights can be of use.  

Lesson 3 from the text: Follow God’s guidance

A final theme, which goes with the second one, is that we must follow God and accept the growth he provides. For Paul and company, that meant to go to Macedonia, to Europe, at the pleading of the man in the vision. Where and to whom is God calling us to minister? Where have we been placed? We need to look around and see how we can be useful to God’s kingdom. We should be thankful for those who are here and do what we can to minister in the ways of Christ. God doesn’t call all churches to be all things to all people. 

Paul learned he wasn’t called to spend the rest of his ministry in Asia, but we know other missionaries filled in the gap. 

Trust God to take care of everything

A lightbulb moment in seminary came when one of the leaders of World Vision spoke. During a times of questions and answers, a number of students, some conservative and others liberal, tried to pin this man down to their particular concerns. Essentially the questions could be boiled down to what he was doing about abortion and how was he fighting against systemic oppression. 

Refusing the bait, this man insisted his call was to help feed and care for hungry people. That’s it. He trusted God would call others to take care of those issues. 


There is a wisdom in going in the direction God calls. For this man it meant focusing on hunger. In Paul’s case, it meant leaving behind what’s familiar in Asia and heading off to Europe. What about us? Amen.  


[1] See Acts 11:18 and 15:19-20.

[2] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 232.

[3] Galatians 5:6, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

[4] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986 reprint) argues in favor Luke joining up with Paul, Silas and Timothy.  See pages 327-328.  William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1988) while not discrediting that Luke could have been along, gives two other explanations and then suggests that the use of “we” gives the rest of Acts “a sense of drama and immediacy.”  (See pages 135-136).  

[5] Cf, Genesis 3:24.

[6] See Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts (Drowers’ Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1976). 

[7] Gaventa, 234.  

[8] Matthew 19:30, 20;16, 20:27; Mark 9:35, 10:37, 10:44; and Luke 13:30.  

A Lighthearted Yet Serious Look at the Lord’s Supper from a Protestant Perspective

In last week’s sermon, I mentioned this blog post, which failed to transition from my old “thepulpitandthepen.com” blog to this one. So I am posting it again.

The communion table set for “World Communion Sunday” on the first Sunday of October.

            The highlight of Christian worship is the Lord’s Supper. We break bread and share wine together, uniting ourselves through a very ordinary act with all the saints who have gone before us and to Christ himself. It’s a mysterious feast, especially for the stomach that often leaves the meal hungry. 

The Bread

            Standing in front of the table, the minister repeats Jesus’ words. “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics fought over the meaning of these words—whether or not the bread was really Jesus’ body. Protestant Reformers could smugly point out that Jesus also said he was a door and nobody believes he is a literal door, wooden or otherwise. From the small portions used, you would think that all churches believed that it was Jesus’ actual body and they must hoard some for future generations. Of course, Protestants like me do not believe the bread is the literal body of Christ, but a sign to remind us of our unity with Christ in his death and resurrection.

The Wine

            The second part of the service involves drinking wine or, as most Protestants prefer, grape juice. Again, Jesus’ words are spoken: “This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” In the Middle Ages, only priests were allowed to drink the wine because of a fear the common people might actually spill some. Only Jesus can shed his blood, they reasoned. In some churches, everyone drinks from the same cup, a nice gesture that demonstrate how we all share in Christ. However, the majority of American Protestant Churches understanding that such sharing involves germs; therefore, they use small individual cups about the size of a thimble. Since the women’s movement, most of these churches have begun using disposal plastic cups because no one is volunteering to wash the glass ones.  Ecologically minded Christians are bothered by this waste, but until they sign up for cup washing, the trend toward plastic cups will continue.

Distribution methods

            Christians participate in the Lord’s Supper in a variety of ways. Preferred methods resemble fast food. In most Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopal Churches, everyone goes up to the front of the sanctuary and kneels or stands, awaiting their turn to receive the bread and cup. The most common way in Baptist and Presbyterian churches is the drive-in method. Sitting in a pew, the elements are brought to you. A take-out plan is generally available for those unable to attend services.

            Another method that has become more common is intinction. Each worshipper breaks off a piece of bread and dips it into the cup. This method rapidly facilitates the distribution of the elements, however the Biblical foundation for such a technique is weak. Even the most liberal exegete would have a hard time interpreting Jesus’ words, “take and eat” with “take and dunk.” More problematic for those sharing this method is that the only example we have of a disciple eating dipped bread in this manner at the Last Supper was Judas Iscariot.

Historical methods of celebration

            A hundred or so years ago, it was common for American Protestants to actually sit around a real table and share a feast with others. This method, which had its roots in the Scottish Church, was the formal dining plan. To be allowed a seat at the table, a member produced a communion token. He or she earned these tokens by being good, paying one’s tithe, not breaking the commandments, and attending a preparatory lecture. After the preparatory lecture, they were given a communion token. As the worshipper approached the table, the maître’ d, a role played by an elder, greeted the worshipper. Those without a token to tip the maitre’ d, found themselves escorted to the door by the same elder who was also a bouncer. Once seated, the worshippers were served a hunk of bread and a cup of wine. This was done rapidly in order to accommodate the next seating. Unfortunately, for all its appeal, formal dining has gone the way of fine china and finger bowls. Few churches bother. 

            As Christians, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in order to proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do this obediently and solemnly. Nobody talks; everyone bows their head. Most believe they conduct the service in the same manner as Jesus. But they have forgotten that Jesus instituted this sacrament at the Passover meal which consisted of four cups of wine. Unlike the Passover, a modern communion service lasts just a few minutes, after which everyone is still able to drive home.

The Hope

            The celebration of the Lord’s Supper also serves as a foretaste of the kingdom to come. At the heavenly banquet, we will all sit at table with Christ at the head. The Bible doesn’t give us the menu, but considering that four of the disciples were fisherman, maybe it will be a seafood banquet. Or maybe lamb supplied by the good shepherd at the head table. Whatever the menu, the heavenly banquet promises to be livelier than the somber communion services. This is a good thing. Mark Twain noted that if heaven is just sitting around singing hymns, he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go there. Likewise, if the heavenly banquet is only as exciting as its earthly counterpart, no one will RSVP.

The Reality

            After communion, the minister pronounces the benediction. Like the flagman at Indianapolis, it signals the beginning of a race. Some parishioners rush out to a restaurant. In good Christian competition, they attempt to beat those from other churches. Others head home where the television is the first order of business. After finding the game of the week, one family pulls a roast from the oven while another grills burgers out back. Those without ambition order pizza. Such hearty food is served. As long as the right team wins, we laugh and love joyfully. After having fed us at his table, Jesus wonders why he’s not included. 

Laughter as a Spiritual Discipline

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Church
Mark 10:23-27
April 11, 2021

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, April 9, 2021

At the beginning of worship

       As Christians, we need to laugh more. Too often we think of humor as inappropriate in churches. God is seen as some stern judge up in the sky, with piercing eyes and a frown, upset with all humanity. But let me tell you a secret. God delights in humor. We see it in creation. Why did God create the opossum? Or the anteater? Or the monkey? Or some of us?[1] We can also see it in scripture. 

Sarah laughing

In our Old Testament reading today, you’ll hear of Sarah laughing at the possibility she, as an old lady, will give birth.[2] And God has the last laugh. God wants us to lighten up, to not take ourselves too seriously, and to trust him. We’ll see this in our New Testament reading, too. I’m reading Mark 10: 23-27. 

After the Reading of Scripture

       A former pastor, Jim Johnson, now owns the Bull’n Bear Saloon in Red Lodge, Montana. On making this transition from the pulpit to behind the bar, he tells this joke: “Two guys walk into a bar and stop dead in their tracks. One thinks to himself, ‘Oh no, my preacher’s a bartender!’ The other thinks, ‘Oh no, my bartender’s a preacher!’”[3]

How we perceive humor 

       We perceive humor differently, depending on our perspective. What one person finds funny might not be funny to someone else, just as a bartending preacher receives a different reaction from a bar patron and a parishioner.

An eye of a needle

       It may have been the same way with Jesus’ parable about the camel going through an eye of a needle. Just try to image how silly this word picture looks—a camel, one of the larger animals in that part of the world compared to such a small opening. It’s funny, in a “Far Side” fashion. 

       Imagine the disciples laughing as Jesus tells this story. Jesus had just encountered the rich man who wouldn’t follow Jesus because he had much to lose. The man went away sad. He just couldn’t risk giving up his stuff, but that’s another sermon. The disciples who witnessed this looks to Jesus for some reassurance for their salvation. Jesus’ tells this story. 

If the rich can’t make it, can we?

       For what we know, none of the disciples were rich, so it’s easy for them to laugh at the absurdity… Or maybe not. Maybe they saw riches as a sign of God’s favor. Unfortunately, some people are like that, proclaiming a prosperity gospel. But this story undercuts the idea that wealth equals God’s favor. Now the disciples, whose bank accounts aren’t exactly overflowing, may have laughed at the absurd image and at all those people with all that money who are doomed. 

       But then, one by one, they began to think. We’ll I’m not totally poor. I own a fishing boat. I own some robes. I’m not going hungry. I have a house… Maybe I’m not rich by some standards, but I’m not a beggar. I’m at least middle class. What does this mean? Is getting into heaven more like a dog or a cat, instead of a camel, getting through an eye of a needle? I still don’t stand a chance. 

What animal can make it through an eye of a needle? 

Their minds run wild. What kind of animal can get through the eye of a needle? Well, what about a worm or even an ant. Of course, it’d have to be a very small worm or ant to get through the eye of a needle. This begs the question. Is Jesus saying I must be so small that I can only be a microscopic worm or ant? If so, where does that put me?[4]

       The laughter begins to subside as they realize their predicament, our predicament. We’re doomed. Frustrated, they ask Jesus, “Just who can be saved?” Jesus responds, telling them it’s impossible for humans, but nothing is impossible for God. Humor helped Jesus drive home his point. 

Do we believe this?

       We often have a hard time accepting this point. Some have tried to reinterpret this passage, suggesting that Jesus wasn’t referring to a needle that’s used for sewing, but that the eye of a needle was the name of a narrow gate through the city’s walls. A camel would have to get on its knees and crawl in. But such interpretation, I think, displays our fear—we’re not in control. And that’s Jesus’ point.[5]

Pushing to the absurd for humor: Mark Twain

       When you push an idea to the absurd, you get humor. Mark Twain knew this. He once wrote a letter from Virginia City, Nevada to his mother, telling on his brother, Orion, for stealing some stamps from a local mill. Twain felt this the perfect joke. In the letter, he said his brother had slipped these stamps into his pocket. 

       As soon as his mom heard this about her older son, she shot off a letter chastising Orion. She had no idea Twain was pulling her leg. “Stamps” in a stamp mill weighed 100s of pounds. These “stamps” crushed rock.[6] It’s absurd to think about putting such stamps in his pocket, which makes it funny while there was no way it could be factually true.

Bill Bryson

       Bill Bryson is another humorous writer who is a master at expanding a truth to the point that it’s humorous. In his book, A Walk in the Woods, about hiking the Appalachian Trail, he does this with bears. Anyone who hikes a significant portion of the trail will probably see a bear, but Bryson makes it sound like bears regularly snack on hikers. 

       He did the same thing in his book, In a Sunburned Country, about his travels in Australia. Reading it, you’d wonder if most people in the land Down Under die from being bitten by snakes and spiders or eaten by crocodiles and sharks. Taking a grain of truth and blowing it out of proportion, it sounds like the country tries to kill you.

Exaggeration says “Lighten Up”

       Using exaggeration to be funny is a way of saying, “Lighten Up.” We don’t need to be so uptight about everything. No, we can’t save ourselves. But the good news is that with God all is possible. Where do we point our trust? In our stuff (which won’t fit through the needle’s eye) or in God? Of course, it’s easy for us to miss the joke. That’s partly because jokes don’t always translate across cultures. Furthermore, jokes are best told and not read.[7]

Making fun of ourselves

       Another humorous writer I enjoy is the late Patrick McManus. He’s published a dozen or so books and wrote humorous columns for Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. While McManus used exaggeration for humor, he often reported on his own silliness and mistakes. The best jokes are those we make about ourselves and not others. The mess he found himself in while hunting or fishing can be chuckling, because many of us have been in similar situations. As he aged, McManus lamented how things change. He realizes the trails have become steeper and the oxygen in the mountains have decreased. We’ve experienced that, haven’t we?[8]  

       By the way, did any of you catch the joke in my e-news yesterday? Actually, it wasn’t intended as a joke, but it is kind of funny. I wrote about how with the weather being nicer, we had Bible Study at Bluemont outside, under the picnic shelter. Only, instead of saying “picnic shelter,” I wrote “picnic table.”  A friend emailed me saying that my Bible Study must have been pretty small! I started to reply with a snarky comment about how he was just jealous that we’re still flexible enough that we can get under the table.

Problem: people see us as too serious

       One of the problems the church has in the world is that other people see us as taking ourselves too seriously. When we carry heavy burdens and don’t trust God’s Spirit enough, it’s easy to get down and depressed. And then we don’t reflect Jesus’ love to the world. 

       A few years ago, in my blog, I posted a humorous piece about Communion. I was a little nervous about how it might be accepted but was comforted by the comments. One suggested that if such humor was used more often, they’d be more people in the pews on Sunday. Another woman, from Australia, who confessed to not having been raised religious, said the humor helped her understand what communion was about.[9]

Jesus calls us to “Abundant Life”

       Jesus doesn’t want us to be uptight. Jesus wants us to have abundant life, beginning now. This means we need to be joyous and to laugh more. Humor is good for us. It can be holy! We should, at the very least, be able to laugh at ourselves. It keeps us humbled. The great mid-20th Century Theologian Karl Barth once said that “laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”[10]

Children and laughter and Patch Adams

       Think about children and how they laugh. They laugh at the silliest of things. We adults think we must be more serious. I wonder if, when Jesus said that if we want to enter the kingdom of God we must come like a child, he meant that we must come laughing like a child?[11]Ponder that thought for a while. 

       Laughter is also good for us. Do you remember the movie, Patch Adams, where Robin Williams played a doctor who used laughter in treating patients? Do you recall how he got a children’s ward filled with kids suffering from cancer to laugh? And how the head nurse was mortified and ordered him out of the ward and told the kids to get back in the bed?[12] The movie shows how we adults are too serious. The world needs to lighten up and enjoy things. After all, God created the world for us to enjoy and we should delight in it.

Benefits of laughter

       Laughter relaxes us. According to some studies it can heal us by boosting our immune system. In addition to lightening our hearts and reducing anger, laughter helps us to burn a few extra calories. It lowers our stress. And it makes us more pleasant to be around![13]  

       So, this week, take time to laugh. Read the comics or pick up a humorous book. Take an opportunity to laugh at yourself. If you come across a great joke, share it with a friend. Share it with me! I might can use it in a sermon. After all, I think most of you would want me to use a joke you told in a sermon and not a sin you’ve committed. (Don’t worry. That’s also a joke.) 

       We all need laughter. We’d be a lot better off if we could laugh at ourselves. Our follies help us realize how much we depend on God. Thinking of laughter in this way, it’s a spiritual discipline.  Amen. 

While showing a tragic situation (the destruction following Hurricane Matthew), the sign brings a bit of humor into the subject. I took the photo on Skidaway Island in October 2016.

A previous version of this sermon, delivered at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church, can be found here: https://fromarockyhillside.com/2020/01/3376/. I have also preached a version of the sermon at Wilmington Island Presbyterian Church in Savannah.

[1] This is an old preaching joke that I’ve heard attributed to Billy Sunday, among others.

[2] Genesis 18:9-15.

[3] https://billingsgazette.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/religion/pastor-turned-bar-owner-writes-on-similarities-differences-between-bars/article_673abca0-5749-5a9e-981f-a0e6291c5421.html

[4] Jesus is challenging a false sense of security here.  See William L. Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament:  Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 369.

[5] As for debunking the theory of enlarging the eye of a needle to a gate, see Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Hendrickson Publishing 2nd Ed, 1997: London, A & C Black, 1991), 243. 

[6] I’m pretty sure I am remembering this from when I read Twain’s published correspondence from Virginia City, NV. Twain often made fun of his brother, once saying he was “as happy as a martyr when the fire won’t burn.”  See Philip Ashley Fanning, Mark Twain and Orion Clemens: Brothers, Partners, Strangers (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 151.

[7] See John L. Bell’s essay “Giggling for God” in 10 Things They Never Told Me About Jesus (Chicago: GIA Publishing, 2009), 126.

[8] Patrick F. McManus, Kerplunk (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 104. 

[9] This post is no longer available on thepulpitandthepen.com site (where the comments were), but I have posted it again in this blog: https://fromarockyhillside.com/2021/04/a-lighthearted-yet-serious-look-at-the-lords-supper-from-a-protestant-perspective-2/

[10] https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/practices/features/view/20120

[11] See Mark 10:14.  See also Matthew 19:14 and Luke 18:16.

[12] A clip of the movie with Patch Adams in the children’s ward can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byPJ22JDFjI

[13] See https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/laughter-is-the-best-medicine.htm

Coming of Age at the Bakery


Image from Pinterest

In the summer of 1976, I began working at Fox Holsum Bakery in Wilmington, NC. I had just finished my first year of college. I was hired for a summer job, to tray off bread. At the end of the summer, the plant manager asked if I would be interested in continuing to work on second shift. This would allow me to attend classes in the morning. He promised to work with me while I was in college. I stayed on at the bakery, moving up to running the bread slicers and baggers. Next, they promoted me to oven operator. Sometime in my senior year of college, I became a supervisor. I continued with the banker for almost two years after graduation, when I decided to take a major pay cut and go to work for the Boy Scouts of America. 

The bakery no longer exists even though the building and the flour silos along the railroad tracks were still standing a few years ago when I rode by the plant. I hope to rework a number of essays I’ve written about some of the characters I knew during this period of time. Over the next few months, as I work on them, I will post them here. 

Linda and the Summer of ’76

The intoxicating smell of yeast overwhelmed me the week after I finished my freshman year in college. It was our nation bicentennial year and I had accepted a summer job in the bakery—traying bread. If ever there was an entry level position, this was it. Bread came out of the bagging machine, 70 or 80 loaves a minute, and I put the loaves on trays or in tubs. Ten pound and a half loaves per tray or tub, twelve-pound loaves each. I placed the full trays, 30 to a rack. Bread going into tubs I stacked fifteen high. When I filled a rack or completed a stack, a guy from the shipping department hauled them away and placed another rack or stack of tubs for me to fill. Eight or more hours a day, another guy and I handled the bread. The nation’s bicentennial summer promised to be long and hot.

But there was a bright side. My work station faced the roll packing line and there, maybe thirty feet away, was Linda. In her mid-30s, she was a hot blonde fireball. She wore a short white uniform skirt that showed off her tanned legs. Her uniform top hugged her body and showed off her curves. She wore slip-in mules on her feet with two-inch heels, as was as high as allowed within the plant. Her hair, she pulled into a bun, a requirement for working around food. Little ringlets stuck out from under her hat.

From where I stood, I could see Linda’s backside. Being short, she had to rise up on her toes, her heels leaving her shoes as she reached across the conveyor, a process she’d complete a dozen or so times a minute. Each time, her muscles tensed just enough to display her well-shaped calves and thighs. For the first week or so, I watched Linda in awe, from the safety of my station. 

Loud, Linda could just as easily tell a joke as to cuss out a supervisor. Her job was every bit as boring as mine, but making the best of it, she entertained everyone. She and Virginia, her co-worker, stood where the hamburger and hotdog buns came off the cooling conveyor. Her job was to lightly place four or six rolls into a slot on another conveyor. Virginia would then place another set of rolls on top and a pocket conveyor would take them through the bagging process. 

Linda always said hi when I walked by the roll line, but we never talk during my first few weeks on the job. Then it happened. Virginia got sick. Having proved I could pick up basic skills quickly, and since I was done early this day, a supervisor asked if I would take Virginia’s place. For the next three hours, I stood by Linda, as together we packed rolls. She was flirty and funny and seemed to take as much delight working next to me as I did of being beside her.

Harold, one of the mechanics, also had an eye for Linda.  I didn’t particularly like him, primarily because he always called me “College Boy.” As we worked into the night hours that evening, Harold came by chatting. He was sipping a Mountain Dew and offered Linda a drink.  She took a sip and handed it back to him.  

“Here, College Boy, you thirsty?” I thought this offer was strange, but also saw my chance to get back at him. I took the can, tossed my head back and began to chug. It wasn’t Mountain Dew, at least not the soft drink variety. There I stood with a mouth full of rut-gut bourbon and all eyes were on me. Everyone assumed I knew it was liquor. It was part luck, part willpower, that I didn’t baptize the rolls with bourbon. My throat burned as I down my mouthful. For the rest of the evening, things were a lot sillier.

I don’t remember much about the Bicentennial that summer, except that I went down to the river with my girlfriend on the night of July 4th. The fireworks, to be launched from the deck of the battleship across the river, promised to be the largest display ever in the city. It rained and the display wasn’t very impressive. We were disappointed, but there were a lot of things to be disappointed over during ’76.  Although the horrors of Vietnam were over, there was a sense we’d failed. The economy was shot and interest rates were going through the roof. Gerald Ford was in the White House, due to the moral failings of Nixon and Agnew. People were suggesting the American era was over, which was daunting prospect for a kid about to leave his teen years behind. But in this dark era, Linda brought a little light to the world.

“Why don’t we go out tonight?” she’d ask when I walked by her work station. Or, “When are you coming over to my apartment?” she’d yell in front of everyone. I shunned Linda’s suggestions, but ate up the attention. I felt like a king the night I worked a double shift and she came back, unexpectedly, with dinner. She had prepared it herself. I don’t remember what she fixed, but we ate in the break room. Linda sat across the table from me, smiling the whole time, proud of her efforts.

When Linda quit the bakery the next year, she threw a big party. Naïve as always, I didn’t realize the party was Linda’s last attempt to woo me. At 10:30 PM, everyone suddenly left her apartment. She’d set this up. I was in the kitchen with Linda when people started heading out.  Soon, everyone was gone except for a shipping dock worker who was stoned and sleeping on the couch. Linda stepped in front of me, rose up on her toes and wrapped her arms around my neck. Her perfume was strong. I sat my glass down on the counter and wrapped my arms around the small of her back. Then she surprised me when her mouth found mine. She gave me a deep passionate kiss. It seemed to last forever. We had to stop to breathe.

“Does your girlfriend kiss you like that?” she asked as she looked up into my eyes.  I smiled, but didn’t answer.

“Why don’t I help you clean things up,” I said after a pause. I backed away and began to collect glasses. We joked around and talked of memories at the bakery as we gathered and washed dishes. When done, I woke the guy sleeping on the couch and offered him a ride home. He nodded and headed out. At the door, I turned and said goodbye. Linda leaned close. She kissed my cheek and whispered, “Why don’t you come back?” 

It was tempting, but we both knew I wouldn’t.

Recent article

If you’re interested in other writings of mine, here is a recent piece written for the Carroll County News in Hillsville, Virginia. The article looks at Easter, from Friday through Saturday to Sunday. Click here.

A new day, but will we tell anyone?

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
Easter Sunday 2021
Mark 16:1-8

Sermon recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, April 2, 2021

At the beginning of worship: 

Why do we come here this morning? Do we come because it’s the thing to do on Easter Sunday? To get all dressed up for church. Do we come because we’re excited about the empty tomb and wonder what will happen next? Or do we come because we realize how empty Easter will be if we allow the holiday to be completely commercialized?  

The Commercialization of Easter

A number of years ago, there was a cartoon on the opinion page of a newspaper that caught my attention. The words at the top read the “Commercialization of Easter.” Down below it showed a kid who had bitten into a giant chocolate Easter Bunny. The kid then looks into the bunny that’s empty on the inside and shouts, “It’s hollow!” He’s right. I often felt that way about those chocolate Easter bunnies. They’re deceiving. You think you’ve hit the chocolate jackpot and find it thinly disguised.

But think of this seriously. If today is just about Easter Bunnies and spring dresses and flowers (many of which were killed in the freeze over the past few days), the holiday is hollow. Yet, the boy’s also right in another way. For the tomb is hollow, which is another way to say it’s empty. An empty tomb and Jesus set free makes all the difference in the world. The empty tomb in which we hear the hollow echo of our voices, provides hope.

Taft and Coffin 

Supposedly, back early in last century, William Howard Taft, the President of the United States, and Henry Sloane Coffin, one of the great preachers of the time, discussed the League of Nations. In case you don’t remember, the League of Nations was an attempt after the First World War to establish a United Nations type of organization. In discussing the League’s demise, Taft reportedly said to Coffin, “You ought to know that in this world the best things get crucified; but they rise again.”[1]

Personally, I don’t think that’s always true. It goes against logic, which makes Easter all the more important. I believe and know that Jesus was crucified, died and was buried, and he rose again. And that’s why I come here on this morning. That’s why we worship on the first the day of the week. I hope this is why you come. We come because the tomb is empty. Christ is risen. Even though it seemed on Friday that evil had its way, as it so often does, we come here this morning to celebrate good over evil, life over death.

Sunrise, a few weeks ago

After the Reading of Scripture: 

Mark has an interesting way of telling the Easter story. Just after the sun rises, two women, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome, come to the tomb for the sole purpose of anointing Jesus’ body. They want to prepare the corpse for its eventual decay. They’re ready with spices and bandages. They do this because they were friends of Jesus; in a sense they were a part of his earthly family. It’s their duty and also a way to say goodbye and to put this part of their life behind them. Furthermore, because Jesus died late on the day before the Sabbath, he had to be quickly placed in the tomb before the Sabbath began at sunset. So, there wasn’t time to prepare the body for the grave.

Not everything could be done on Friday 

These women are going to do what they were not able to do on Friday. Yet, they head to the tomb with faith, for they know someone will have to roll away the stone. Along the way they discuss this problem. But they are unable to come up with an answer.

The Surprise at the Tomb

 Then, when they reach the tomb, they find the unexpected has happened. The stone has already been removed. And when they look inside, instead of finding Jesus, they see a young man who obviously is an angel, a messenger from God, dressed in white. Mark tells us they were alarmed, which seems to be an unnecessary bit of information. Of course, they are alarmed. We’d be, too. The dead don’t rise from the grave. 

This young man acknowledges that they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified. Certainly, those who suffered on the cross don’t rise from the grave. Yet, that’s what he said has happened. Jesus has been raised. They are to go and tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. 

A Natural Reaction

And what do the women do? Scared to death, they flee, and they don’t tell anyone what happened. That, by the way, is the original ending of the book of Mark.[2] And it’s where I am ending the text we’re wrestling with today. 

Mark’s gospel verses John’s

There is a reason Mark’s gospel contains the least favorite resurrection story. Most of us prefer John, with its beautiful language and storytelling. There, we’re told Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone, before sunrise. It’s still dark. She comes, probably wanting some quiet time with Jesus, only to find the stone rolled away and Jesus missing. She runs and tells the disciples. Next, there’s the foot race between Peter and John. 

While Peter and John check out the tomb, Mary Magdalene hangs around outside. A strange man comforts her. She takes him as the gardener. But when this man calls Mary by name, she recognizes him. Out of a deep devotion, she calls him Rabbi… Jesus has made his first resurrection appearance.

Attempts to “Clean Up” Mark’s Ending

But Mark, he ends his story with the women running away and so distraught that they cannot tell anyone. It doesn’t seem right. A century or so later, in the end of the second and early in the third century, we have two additional endings of Mark’s gospel. One is short, the other is long. The long one contains a number of interesting appearances of Jesus along with a commissioning that speaks of them handling snakes and drinking poison, something not mentioned in the other gospels and certainly not done in most Presbyterian Churches. 

Why Did Mark End His Story this Way?

Why did the original ending of Mark leave us with frightened women who can’t tell what happened?[3] Did Mark run out of time to finish his gospel? Perhaps he suffered an early martyrdom. Dragged away with his pen still wet? Or perhaps he meant to end the story here, leaving us hanging. That’s a common literary technique. Movies do this. The reader is left to ponder what happened. 

The Caine Mutiny

Some of you may remember the book, movie or Broadway play, “The Caine Munity.”[4] In was about the crew of a minesweeper in the South Pacific during World War 2. The captain, acting irrationally, forces the other officers aboard the ship to relieve him of command. This results in their court-martial. 

There was a remake of the play, which I saw in 2003. The original movie and play concluded with the acquittals of the officers and the reaction of others crew members at a party afterwards. But in this remake, the play ends after both the prosecution and defense rests their case. In the remake, it’s left up to the audience to decide the guilt and innocence of the defendants. 

Mark’s Saying, It’s Up to Us

In a way, the original ending of Mark’s gospel is like that. We’re left to wonder, to finish out the story. Do we believe it? And, if so, does it make any difference in our lives?

Where Jesus’ Meets Us

Another way to understand the ending is to consider what the women were told. They were to tell the disciples that Jesus was going to meet them in Galilee. Why Galilee, we might wonder? Well, Galilee is where they’re from. They’re tourists or pilgrims in Jerusalem. They grew up in Galilee. It’s where they work, and their families are at. In other words, Galilee is their ordinary life. 

And where does Jesus meet us? For some, it happens in church, but most often, I suggest, Jesus meets us where we live and work. In other words, Jesus meets us in the ordinary. 

Ann Lamott’s Conversion

One of the most moving conversion stories I’ve heard is from Ann Lamott. In her book, Traveling Mercies, she writes about being totally down and out. It was 1984 and she lived on a small houseboat in the San Francisco Bay. Because the father was married, she recently had an abortion. A few days after the procedure, something went wrong. She began to bleed. Instead of seeking help, she drank and did drugs and wanted to die. 

Throughout this time, she felt someone sitting at the foot of the loft where he had her bed. She turned on the light to see and no one was there. But she was sure it was Jesus, watching over her. He was gone in the morning. However, for the next few days, she felt as if Jesus was following her like a cat. And, like a cat, she knew if she ever let him in, she could never get rid of him. After about a week, she relented. She accepted Jesus into her life.[5]

Jesus Will Meet Us in Galilee

Jesus meets us in the Galilees of our lives. Like Lamott, we may be down and out. We may be filled with grief. Or we may be looking for direction. And then Jesus shows up. Sometimes, like with Lamott, he’s by himself. Other times he shows up through the actions of another believer who reaches out to us. And Jesus offers hope. The tomb is no longer the end. Life is beautiful and continues on. “Come, follow me, let me show you,” he says. 

The Empty Tomb Gives Hope

We gather here today as Christians have gathered over the millenniums, because the empty tomb gives us hope and provides us with possibilities of what life is all about.  We gather because once we look into the empty tomb, our lives are changed. No longer do we need to look back, like the women did when they were ready to anoint the body with spices. 

We can now look forward into a new and exciting future that God is creating. On Easter, we’re reminded not to only enter the tomb in sadness, but to pause and look around in awe and then leave amazed at what God can do.   

Power Over Death

God’s power extends over death, so we no longer have to be afraid of dying. God’s power extends over evil, so we no longer have to be afraid of what might happen to us in this frightening world. God’s power extends over our lives so that we don’t have to live in fear that we’ll mess us.  Do not be afraid, the angel to the women, for the tomb is empty. Halleluiah! Christ is risen! Amen.  

 [1]As quoted by Richard Dixon in the Presbyterian Outlook, 15 January 1996.

[2] There are several possibilities according to Bruce Metzger: 1. The evangelist intended to close his Gospel at this place. 2. The Gospel was never finished. Or 3. The Gospel accidentally lost its last leaf before it was transcribed. See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (1971, United Bible Societies, 1975), n7.  

[3] For a detailed treatment on Mark’s ending, see Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (London: A & C Black, Publisher, 1991), 391-394.

[4] Herman Wouk, The Caine Munity, 1951. It was made into a movie in 1954 (Staring Humphrey Bogart) and as a 2 act Broadway play in 1954. The adaptation I saw in 2003 was at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. 

[5] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 48-50.