From Bangkok to Siem Reap

This piece was originally posted in another blog in 2011. I reworked it and reposted it.

A butt-naked boy ran through the crowd. This is the first thing I see as I step into the country, immediately after having my passport stamped. And he wasn’t just a boy, certainly no toddler. He was at least five feet tall and probably 11 or 12 years old. I do not know what was up with him. Thankfully I never saw another kid his age running around in his birthday suit, but he served as a shocking reminder (along with having to learn a new currency and the words for rice and noodles) that I was in another country. Cambodia!  

I’d wanted to see Cambodia since a teenager. As a ham radio operator, I remember reading an article in QST (or maybe it was CQ, both amateur radio magazines in the early 1970s) of a trip made to American ham operator to Cambodia. Before the Khmer Rouge, he met with a few of the operators in the country.  The article had photos of the country’s temples. It all looked exotic.  A few years later, as the war in Southeast Asia intensified and then came to a horrific conclusion in Cambodia, I wondered what happened to the few amateur radio operators in the country. I’d also heard of some of the temples being destroyed. Now is my chance to find the answer to at least one of my questions.

I was catching the train to the border at Bangkok’s Makkasan Station at 6:20 AM.  The train starts at the downtown station at 5:50 AM, but since my hotel was closer to Makkasan, I decided sleep an extra half-hour. But for a while this morning, I wondered if this had been a good idea. I’d asked for a 4:30 AM wake-up call (it came at 5:15, as I was leaving my room). 

Leaving the hotel, I venture out into the darkness and (as the Skyway isn’t running yet) meet the cabthe hotel had called. The driver spoke little English. I showed him where I wanted to go. He agreed and suggested what I assumed was a fair price. I tossed by backpacks into the backseat and climbed in. 

Two blocks later, something strange happened.  A policeman stood in the middle of the road with a blue lighted pointer, indicating for the cab to pull over to the curb. Two other policemen with flashlights shining came over and asked the driver questions as they shined lights into the back of the cab and onto my face and bags. They opened the back door. Pointing at me, he asked in rough English, “where?” Assuming this was where I was heading, I said Cambodia. He looked at me for a moment then, gesturing as if he’s smoking, appeared to ask for cigarettes. I shook my head and said ‘I do not smoke. “Okay,” he said, and waved us on.  I had the feeling these Thai policemen wanted to shake me down for a smoke!  

Inside the train

My next hurdle was getting to the right station. It turns out there are two Makkasan stations, one for the railroad and one a high-speed rail line only runs to the airport.  It was this station that the cab driver insisted must be mine. Having been to the train station to purchase my ticket, I knew it was not the right place. Finally, a Thai man who heard me talking came over and asked in English where I was going. He then gave directions to the cab driver. There were only two dozen or so passengers at Makkasan station, so the cab drivers confusion was justified.

I purchased my ticket for the border a few days earlier. It cost 48 bahts or about $ 1.50. The only option is a non-air-conditioned third-class train for the five-hour trip. At least, early in the morning, the air was damp but cool. 

On the station platform, I spot several old steam engines in a yard across the tracks. I walk over to check them out and to see if I could catch photographs. A guard stops me, saying “No photos.”  I have no idea why, but it isn’t bright enough yet to get a good photo. On the train, I snap a few photos of the old engines, but with the low light, the photos don’t turn out well. After walking around a bit with my pack, I sat down on the platform to wait for the train. It was still 15 minutes away.  

Thai train station with station master in uniform

While waiting, a Thai woman came up and began to talk to me. Her name is Niranya. She’s a travel agent whose customers are primarily Indian, so she speaks to them in English. She was heading back to her family home near the Cambodian border where she had to attend to some business. We talked until the train arrived, then sat by each other on the train. She was getting off the stop before me. Traveling with her is enlightening. Having grown up on a farm, she shares about the various crops grown along with showing where fields are being converted from rice and other food crops to fast growing trees used for pulp. These trees harmed the land because they used so much water. Much of the land in eastern Thailand is dependent on the rainy season for water as there is not enough for irrigation. Such trees, she complain, steals water which could be used to grow rice. But the high demand tempts farmers to plant such trees that require less work than keeping up rice paddies. Another crop that is in demand is tapioca, which also tends to rob the soil of nutrients.  

Passing a local train

I’m amazed at the number of rail lines running into Bangkok from the east.  At places, as many as eight set of tracks parallel each other as they run into the city.  As it was early morning, the trains coming in were all packed with passengers.    

Our train, heading the opposite direction, slowly filled. This was a slow train and we stopped at every station, where an agent would step out dressed like a general or war hero, to meet us. We also stopped at other places requested by passengers. At one of these “nowhere places,” a woman stepped off the train and stepped into the jungle, disappearing as she headed to her home as the train moved on. After a while, we were well into the country. After passing Chachoengsao Junction and Khlong Sipkao Junction, where lines split off heading north and south, we were on a single-track line running through a flat countryside, occasionally pulling over to sidings to wait for east bound trains to pass.  

Backpackers getting off the train

As the sun rose higher in the sky, the car became warm, and everyone began to sleep. There was little movement, only the occasional seller passing by with drinks and snacks. At one stop, a bunch of women boarded at one town, coming from the market. They’d taken an earlier train into town and were heading back with baskets of produce and stables like cooking oil. The train was so crowded that there weren’t enough places for people to sit. I offered my seat to a couple of the older women, thinking that standing a bit wouldn’t do me any harm. They refused, but my act of kindness caught the attention of one of the women, who looked to be in her 30s.  She asked Niranya, whom she’d seen talking to me, if she was my wife. Of course, I didn’t know what had been said. Niranya laughed, and told her no, that we’d just met that morning while waiting on the train. The woman then asked Niranya if I was available! She said she told her that I was married. This led into a conversation about how Thai women seek out American and Western husbands as a way of escaping the hard life, especially smaller villages. I had certainly seen many Western men with Thai women, generally women that were half their age.

The women coming from the market only rode for about 30 minutes before getting off at a small village. Niranya got off Watthana Nakhon. By then, the train had mostly cleared except for those of us heading to the border. The train was mainly filled with tourist and Cambodians returning home, such as a man who sat across from us and had drank at least a six-pack of beer during the trip that ended around noon!  He was coming back home after having surgery done on his nose in Bangkok. The train pulled into Aranyaprathet, at the end of the line, a little after noon, about 30 minutes late. As there are at most places, there were a host of tuk-tuk drivers wanting to take us to the border. The prices quoted was what I was expecting and soon I was whisked away toward the border, feeling like I was in a chariot race with each driver vying to get their passenger there first. The drivers also tried to encourage us to book rooms through them in Siem Reap (they all seemed to have a cousin or brother there), but I’d already had my reservations made.  

Tuk tuks waiting customers
Crossing over the border

The border crossing was hassle free (except for seeing more than I’d wanted to see). I had lunch (rice and ginger chicken) and then got on the bus for Siem Reap. The Cambodian countryside appears as flat as a pancake. The occasional hill seems out of place. These are called Phnom (as in Phnom Penh), which is named for the hill upon which it sits. I am surprised by the large sizes of the fields. The road is now modern (a few years ago, I heard this was a rode that would jar the fillings out of one’s teeth) and we moved along in air-conditioned comfort. We stopped once, for a bathroom break and to let the engine cool (while waiting the driver sprayed water on the overheated engine!). The bus needed more fuel and the driver pulled up to a garage looking place and they brought out two 5-gallon jerry cans and dumped them into the fuel tank.  From the bus station was on the edge of Siem Reap and I hired a driver to take me to the Golden Banana, where I had reservations for three nights.  After seeing the Cambodian countryside, the modern style of Siem Reap appears out of place. In the evening, I head into town and have red curry for dinner. Then, it’s off to bed. I plan to get up early to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. 

At Angkor Wat

Other train adventures:

“The International (Butterworth, Malaysia to Bangkok)

The Jungle Train (Singapore to Kota Bharu, Malaysia)

Coming home on the Southwest Chief

Morning train from Masan to Seoul

Why Church? To Reorient Our Lives to Jesus

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches 
March 27, 2022
Luke 9:51-61

Sermon recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, March 25, 2022

At the beginning of worship

As we continue our Lenten theme of “Why Church?” consider the role of church to reorient our lives. 

Back in the 1980s, Neal Postman wrote a classic book titled, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Even before the rise of 24/7 news programs and the internet for everyone, Postman understood that we are drowning in information.[1] And it’s gotten worse. All this noise that surrounds us, challenges and confuses. It competes for our attention. Sadly, church only provides an hour or two a week counterpoint. Here, we point people to Jesus Christ. He’s the the one person to whom we should give our attention, not the soundbites that surround our lives.

Before the reading of the Scripture:

“We do well to remember that the Bible has far more to say about how to live during the journey than about the ultimate destination.”[2] Our passage today comes at a turning point in Luke’s gospel. 

Jesus begins to wrap up his ministry in Galilee and for the journey toward Jerusalem. Luke uses this travel narrative as a unifying theme for the middle section of his gospel. [3] Jesus doesn’t arrive in Jerusalem for another ten chapters. During this meandering journey, there are lots of opportunity for Jesus to teach the disciples. Today, we’ll look at one such lesson of how we’re to live during our journeys.

High points and rejections in the gospel:

Earlier in this chapter, Jesus with the handful of the disciples experienced the “Transfiguration.”[4] It’s a high point of the gospel, ranking up there with Jesus’ baptism.[5] Interestingly, Luke follows both these “high points” with a story of rejection.[6]Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism followed by forty days of temptation. Then, he experienced rejection by his hometown.[7]

Now, following the transfiguration, where three disciples see Jesus in his full glory, the rejection comes from a Samaritan village. Jesus uses this rejection to teach the hardship of discipleship. Are we willing to risk rejection to be a disciple? Think seriously about that question as I read this passage. 

Read Luke 9:51-62

After the reading of Scripture:

Rejection along the AT

When hiking the Appalachian Trail, I headed into Gorham, New Hampshire for the evening. It’s a small town near the Maine border. I needed to resupply for the next section of trail. I was down to only oatmeal in my food bag and didn’t have enough fuel for my stove to even prepare that. 

On my hike I carried with me a multi-fuel stove that could burn regular gasoline. The benefit of such a stove is that I didn’t have to buy gallon containers of white gas at a hardware store, of which I’d only need a liter. It saved me on gas. I’d only spend a quarter or maybe 30 cents to fill up my bottle. Gasoline was a lot cheaper than Coleman fuel, and both fuels were cheaper back then. 

So, I stopped at a local Exxon station on the edge of town, leaned my pack against the pump, and pulled out my fuel bottle. As I reached for the nozzle, the cashier ran out of the store yelling obscenities and telling me I couldn’t fill up my bottle. 

“Why,” I asked? 

“You might spill gas.”

“I’ll be careful. I haven’t yet spilled any and have filled this bottle at least a dozen times.” 

“We don’t allow it,” she said. 

I was mad. 

“It’s a good thing I’m not driving,” I told her, “I’d run out of gas before I filled up at your station.” 

Looking back, even without gasoline, I was able to throw some gas onto what was becoming a metaphorical fire. She cursed me and said she wished all us hikers would go back to where we came. In response, I pulled out my journal, wrote down the name of the station, and asked her for its address. I promised to send letters to the Chamber of Commerce and to Exxon Corporate Headquarters. She had a few more choice words for me as I walked down the street and filled up my fuel bottle at the next station.  

Having been rejected, I found myself steaming. The next morning, as I left town and hiked north, I crafted letters in my head. Then I realized the negative energy I put into the situation. I let it go. I never sent those letters. 

What would Jesus do?

Had Jesus been among us hikers, I think he’d told me to do just that. Drop it. Harboring such feelings is never good. It eats at your soul. We cannot control how other people react to us; we can only control how we react toward them.    

Jesus heads toward Jerusalem

Jesus now heads toward Jerusalem, taking the disciples with him. The text says he “sets his face” toward Jerusalem, a phrase echoed throughout the next ten chapters. On this journey, we learn things not mentioned in the other three gospels. Jesus is not just walking; he’s teaching and healing.[8]

If Jesus had a GPS and set the destination for Jerusalem, the machine would have been constantly squawking “recalculating, recalculating” as he wanders around. It’s in this wandering we find some of our most beloved parables, such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Along the way, Jesus stops and teaches people about who God is and how they should relate to their neighbors. 

Those not wanting to see Jesus

But not everyone wants to see Jesus. Luke informs us that the Samaritans don’t want anything to do with Jesus because he has sent his face toward Jerusalem. The Samaritans, who don’t see Jerusalem as holy and who worship on another mountain, have grown weary of self-righteous Jews trampling through their land on their way to Jerusalem.[9] They’re just like the gas station attendant, who was tired of hikers coming through her town. In Biblical times, many Jews from Galilee would take the longer away around Samaria to avoid such encounters. 

Hotheaded response of the disciples

Kind of like me going into that New Hampshire village to resupply, the disciples try to arrange food and lodging for their journey. They become upset with the reaction they receive. “Let’s nuke ‘em!” “Let’s blow them to smithereens!” “Let’s get her in trouble with her boss, or the corporation.” Ever hear people talk about enemies like that? 

Two of the disciples, James and John, whom Jesus nicknamed “Sons of Thunder,”[10] ask Jesus if he wants them to do away with this village… “You know, Jesus, just a little fire from heaven. It’ll melt their hearts.” 

Today, many of us have probably thought similar things about Putin and Russia. And we should think about this in regard those whom we perceive as political enemies. Like the disciples, we have thin skin. Jesus doesn’t take rejection personally and encourages the disciples to get over it. After all, scripture clearly states that vengeance isn’t ours![11]

The difficulty of discipleship

Yet, there are also those wanting to join Jesus on this journey. We’re not told if Jesus turns them away, but he certainly used no ad agency to sell his trip. “I have no place to lay my head,” he says. The Message translation here has Jesus saying, “we’re not staying at the best inns, you know.” 

Following Jesus isn’t easy. Jesus makes a demand on our lives. “Are you ready to follow me,” Jesus asks? “If you want to follow me, I have to be first and foremost in your lives,” he says. “Nothing can come before me!” 

Do we put things before Christ? Think about your life and what you value. Are you willing to give it all up for Jesus? Is Jesus at the center of your life? Is he what’s most important?

The two parts of this passage

Tension exists between the first and second parts of this passage. In the first part, we’re told not to be so zealous that we forget the mission. Jesus came to save, not to destroy. The desire for revenge or violence toward our enemies goes counter to Jesus’ teaching.[12] In the second half of the passage, Jesus reminds us that following him is tough. Yet, if we decide to follow, Jesus demands our total allegiance. We can’t jump halfway in, it’s all or nothing. 

Today’s meaning

What does this passage say to us today? One thing we can gleam: If we want to be a follower of Jesus, we must be willing to stand up against the contempt that is so prevalent in our society today.[13] Jesus didn’t allow the disciples to have contempt toward the Samaritans, and I don’t think he’s happy about how we treat others. 

The problem of contempt

Contempt for others is a human problem. Certainly, in recent years, it’s grown like a wildfire in our national politics. Adhominem attacks are tossed around like grenades. We become more interested in sound bites than logic and fail to realize such grenades contain a basic fallacy. 

Ad hominem means “against the man.” Such a fallacy occurs when, instead of attacking an issue, one belittles or dehumanizes the person on the other side of an argument. I don’t think Jesus appreciates this, which is one of the reasons I think he tells us to pray for our enemies.[14] When you pray seriously for others, they don’t remain enemies and we certainly can’t hold them in contempt.

Wishing others would go away

Just think about this. When we hear something we agree with, we jump on the bandwagon without thinking. It then becomes easy for us to let our contempt rule. “Let’s call down some fire from heaven.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? It has gotten so easy to wish those we don’t like would disappear or go away. 

We not only see this tendency in our national politics, but locally… And it happens within churches, between friends, and even within members of a family. When we know we’re right and assume others are not only wrong but also evil or stupid, we quickly slide into thinking we’d be better off without them. We show contempt. We’re like James and John in our story today. 

Sadly, it’s easy to mouth off. And our words risk creating a larger divide between us and the other. But the Christian faith isn’t about creating divisions. It’s about bringing people together. It’s about standing up for others, even those we may not agree with. It’s about not spouting off at the mouth. It’s about thinking before we speak. When we come to church, we need to be reminded that our actions matter.


Today, I think back to that encounter so many years ago in Gorham, New Hampshire. I wonder what would have happened if I had gone back to that cashier at the Exxon station and apologized. I wouldn’t have to say she was right, but I could have acknowledged my response and my thoughts about her were misguided. As humans, we can’t be responsible for what someone else does. We can only be responsible for what we do and how we react.  

Consider what this all might do with our need for church. When we come here, we’re reminded that our thoughts, desires, and feelings are not what’s most important. Instead, what matters is following our Savior. If we only look out for ourselves, we will lose the path Jesus sets before us. Amen. 


[1] The future danger was not slavery in the form of totalitarianism (as in George Orwell’s 1984, but a slavery to our amusement (as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World). See Neal Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death. (NY: Viking, 1985).  

[2]This quote came from a Facebook Meme posted by the Clergy Coaching Network and attributed to Philip Yancey. 

[3] See Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 139-142.

[4] Luke 9:28ff.

[5] Luke 3:21-22.

[6] Craddock, 142.

[7] Luke 4:16ff.

[8] For a discussion on Jesus heading to Jerusalem but not making progress, see James R. Edwards, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 294, n. 4. 

[9] Norval Geldenhuys, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 292-3. For the difference in worship between Jews and Samaritans, see John 4:19-20. 

[10] Mark 3:17

[11] Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19, and Hebrews 10:30. 

[12] Geldenhuys, 292. 

[13] For a detailed discussion on the problem of contempt, see Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies (New York: HarperCollins, 2019). 

[14] Matthew 5:44

Hiking in Maine

In Preparation for the Baseball Season: Book reviews

Yankee Stadium, 2015

It looks like we’ll have a baseball season this year. Why are there so many good baseball books? I don’t know of any other sport who produces as many good writers as baseball. In anticipation of the season, I listened to Robert Creamer’s Baseball in ’41, which I’m reviewing below. I’m also attaching a review of another baseball book I read several years ago by the famed Presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin. And, for those who want to ponder baseball and religion, here’s a link to my review of Baseball as a Road to God, written by John Sexton.

Robert W. Creamer, Baseball in ’41: A Celebration of the Best Baseball Season Ever in the Year America Went to War 

(1991: Audible 2005) Read by Tom Parker. 8 hours 46 minutes.

This book is part memoir, part baseball history, and part history of America on the eve of World War II. The author, Robert Creamer, was a nineteenth-year college student between his two “first years” of college (he admits having to redo his freshman year). While war talk is in the air, the great advances of the German army of ’39 and ’40 seemed stalled after they had conquered Western Europe. That would change late in the summer when German attacked the Soviet Union. America was trying to stay neutral while arming Great Britain. And it was the year that a young Ted Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 concessive games.

The draft of young men for the military resumed. Draftees had a year enlistment. Some in baseball made the case for those drafted (it wasn’t a large draft in ’41), to join so that they would only miss one season instead of straddling two seasons. The draft included one of baseball’s all-time great players, Detroit’s Hank Greenburg. He entered the military with much fanfare and missed the season. At the end of the year, he had fulfilled his commitment and released from duty two days before Pearl Harbor. He would rejoin the military two days later. Greenburg missed four and a half seasons at the peak of his career, which probably is why he is not as well-known as other players of the era or before.  

While no one was sure when the United States would join the war, many felt it just a matter of time. This summer, one major league game paused as President Roosevelt addressed the nation about the need to be prepared. His address played over the stadium’s PA system, after which the game resumed. Of course, the next year things would change after Pearl Harbor. Many of baseball greats either joined or found themselves drafted into the military. ’41 was the last year in which the majors consisted of most of its big names. Even Williams and DiMaggio went off to war. 

In 1941, the Yankees redeemed themselves from their failure of the year before. They faced some challenges early in the season, especially from Cleveland and their ace, Bobbie Feller (later known as Bob Feller). But the Yankees won the pennant earlier than ever. Instead, the America League excitement came from Williams and DiMaggio’s hitting. In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers remained in a head-to-head race throughout the season. The National League pennant was decided in the closing days of the season. St. Louis with their extensive farm teams could call up new players when others were hurt, something they dealt with a lot in ’41. Leo Durocher’s Dodgers, a historically second division team (the bottom 4 teams of an 8-team league), were finally playing well and no longer worthy of their nickname, “the bums.” However, in the World Series, the Yankees easily beat the Dodgers in five games. 

As he weaves in throughout the book, 1941 was not only a season of change for baseball. The author went through a change as his older brother signed up for the Army Air Corp. The next year, he, too, would be in the military. He would later become a correspondent for Sport’s Illustrated and go on to write many baseball books including biographies of Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel. Creamer claimed to be a Yankee fan in ’41, and it seems that his interest in baseball continued to follow that path. 

Detroit, 2010

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir 

(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 261 pages, some photos.

Goodwin, a renowned historian and author of many presidential biographies, recalls her childhood fascination with the Brooklyn Dodgers in this delightful memoir.  The Dodgers were referred to as bums, as it seemed they would never win a World Series.  In the forties and fifties, they were a National League powerhouse, often winning the pennant, but losing in the Series.  They were “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”  Against this backdrop is a young girl whose father taught her how to keep score.  As she became better at scoring, she would listen to the afternoon game and then retell the events of the game to her father when he came home from his job as a bank examiner.  She credits baseball with making her a historian and storyteller as she learns to build suspense in recalling the events of the game.    

As Goodwin recalls each season in which the Dodgers disappoint them again, she shares memories of growing up in her Brooklyn neighborhood as well as events happening in the country and around the world.  She lived by two calendars: one from church and the other from baseball.  She tells many humorous stories such as making her confession before her first communion.  It has been impressed upon her how serious this is and to think hard about her sins.  She realizes she has been wishing bad things upon others, such as wanting a certain Yankee player to break an arm or a Phillies ball player to experience some other kind of misfortune. As she confesses, the priest’s giggles and admits that he too is a Dodger fan. Then, he uses the occasion to teach a lesson, asking how she’d feel if the only way the Dodgers win the Series is that all the other players are injured. Another story involved Old Mary, who lived in a dilapidated house. The neighborhood children were sure she was a witch and set out spying on her. When Goodwin’s mother learns of how they have been treating Mary, she takes her daughter down to meet the old woman who was from the Ukraine and had learned only broken English. A few months after meeting this nice but lonely woman, she dies. 

Goodwin enjoyed school, especially literature and geography. She even had a teacher who required them to learn the main towns along the Trans-Siberia, Trans-Mongolian, and Trans-Manchurian railroads, along with the Baikula-Amur line. However, I’m not so sure about the Baikula-Amur line, a Siberian railway that runs north of Lake Baikal, as most of the work on it was twenty-plus years after Goodwin had finished school. 

In addition to what was happening locally, Goodwin reflects on the national events. The fifties were the waning years of segregation, and she pays attention to the events at Little Rock. She ponders over the Rosenberg’s children after their execution and worries over the Soviet’s exploding an atomic bomb. She goes out and searches for the first satellite launched by the Soviets.  All this is recalled as Goodwin recaps each season. The book comes to a climax in 1956, when the Dodger’s beats the Yankees for their first World Series win. She and her parents celebrated in downtown Brooklyn. But with the win comes losses. Goodwin’s childhood friend moves away, a trend that will happen repeatedly with the affluence of the 50s. She becomes interested in boys. Then her mother dies and her father, who is heartbroken, decides to sell the only house she’s ever known. Then the final straw breaks in 1957, as the Brooklyn Dodgers (along with the hated Giants) announce they will relocate to the West Coast. The magic of childhood has passed her by.  

In the Epilogue, Goodwin writes about how she again fell in love with baseball as a graduate student at Harvard. This time it was with the Boston Red Sox, a team who (at the time of the writing of her memoir) was a lot like the old Dodgers.  Although they often had good teams, they were unable to win the Series. Goodwin, like her father before her, has the pleasure to introduce her children to the magic of the game.  Goodwin is a wonderful storyteller and has an eye for history (with perhaps the exception of Russian railroads). I enjoyed this read 

PNC Park looking back on Pittsburgh, 2012

Why Church? To Care for the World

Jeff Garrison 
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
March 20, 2022
Luke 10:25-37

Sermon recorded on Friday, March 18 at Mayberry Church

Thoughts at the beginning of worship:

We’re continuing with our Lenten theme, “Why Church?” Our world can be cruel. But that shouldn’t be the church. We’re to show an alternative to the world.[1] We’re to be a place and a people who care for others. And because we know the church is far more than just what goes on inside these walls an hour on Sunday morning, we are reminded to care not just here, but wherever we find ourselves. How can we care for one another, for our neighbors, and for the world?   

Before reading the Scriptures:

The Good Samaritan is one of the best known and most loved parts of scripture. We have Jesus answering the questions of a lawyer. This isn’t a lawyer like we think, but one who studies God’s law. In other words, he’s a theologian. That should let the lawyers off the hook a bit; after all, they find themselves at the blunt of enough jokes. This lawyer/theologian begins by asking Jesus a question about eternal life. Jesus asks him what the law says, and he answers with the great commandment. Love God and neighbor. 

Jesus agrees. But the lawyer continues, asking for clarification. This provides an opportunity for Jesus to tell a story. As Luke recalls Jesus’ teachings in this section, he points out that our relationships to neighbors, to Jesus, and to God are all important.[2]

Read Luke 10:25-37

After the reading of Scripture:

Come on Jesus! You were asked a direct question. “Who is my neighbor?” There can’t be a better way to muddy the waters about neighbors than to tell a story about a journey. It’s hard enough to know our neighbor when we deal with those living close by. But when we travel? 


When we travel, we often don’t want to be bothered? Think of how things are designed to insure our comfort and privacy? We drive in enclosed cars on freeways that keep us from facing other vehicles, with easy access ramps to and from the highways which helps us avoid hassles. At the exits we find drive-through restaurants where we talk to a machine along with gas pumps where we swipe a card and never talk to an attendant. Our whole system of highway transportation has evolved to isolate us from one another. 

So, who is our neighbor? How do we know a neighbor when traveling? How about closer to home. Are those in the next hollow our neighbor? Who are our neighbors in the United States? In the world? What about Russia or North Korea or Cuba? This question is problematic. How many billion people are they in the world? They can’t all be my neighbor, can they? We must admit that Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s question doesn’t make our quest for eternal life any easier.  

Putting it into context: The Good Samaritan doesn’t stand alone

To understand this passage, realize that the parable of the Good Samaritan, like much of scripture, doesn’t stand alone! It’s a part of a longer conversation between Jesus and a lawyer. Like lawyers of our day, this dude tries to trap Jesus. He asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In a way, the question is flawed. How can we do anything to inherit. Inheritance is a gift; we don’t work for it.[3] Eternal life comes through grace, but back to the dialogue… 

Jesus responds with a question of his own. “What do the scriptures say?” The man answers, quotes from the Torah, the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, telling Jesus that one must “love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind,” and one must love your neighbor as yourself.[4]

Who is our neighbor?

“You got it,” Jesus responds. Do this and live.” Perhaps the lawyer hopes to trap Jesus as he asks a follow-up question. “Who is my neighbor?” However, the question naturally arises from such a command. The Jewish rabbis of the day had generally interpreted one’s neighbor in restricted ways. They did not have the benefit of Mr. Rogers encouraging us all to be good neighbors. Instead, “neighbors” were generally understood to be pure blooded Jews.[5] Others, like the half-bred Samaritans, could be ignored.  

The lawyer’s probably thinking, “If I only have to love those like myself, I’ve got it made! The boarding pass for the heaven express is in the mail.” And then Jesus tricks him into realizing those low-down dirty Samaritans who live across the tracks are neighbors. Our passage starts with the lawyer trying to trap Jesus, now we see that Jesus laid a trap for him. Upon hearing the story, the lawyer is forced to admit that the Samaritan is the good guy. 

Nouns and verbs

Interestingly, the man’s question speaks about a neighbor as a noun (a person, place of thing). Jesus responds, not with a noun, but with the verb form of a neighbor. A neighbor becomes an action, one who shows mercy. Being neighborly isn’t because of location; it’s something we do.[6]

Story told with contemporary enemies:

Jesus ends the conversation with the command to go and do likewise. Pretty tough words! “Go and do.” Over the centuries this story has become one of the most loved and best-known passages in scripture. But do we realize the force of this command? This is a scandal! If we were to tell this story today, with the force that Jesus told it, the Samaritan would be someone we despised—maybe a Russian soldier or an illegal alien.  

Encountering Jesus

In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren describes a series of encounters with Jesus that “ruined his life, ruined it for good, in a good kind of way.”[7] In some ways, this is what happens. If the lawyer listens, this encounter will change his life radically. I don’t think he’s that interested in being changed, but it happens.

I vividly remember back when I was in seminary in Pittsburgh. I’d been hired, sight unseen, to assist at a church in Butler, a town to the north. In the phone interview, they sold me on Butler as a quaint little town that’s a pleasant drive through the countryside, just 30 miles up Route 8.” Little did I know that in the 30 miles from the seminary to the church were 48 stop lights! I counted them on my second trip. 

I was always in a rush on Sunday mornings as I had to be there early to teach Youth Sunday School. One Sunday I was running a little later than usual, and I passed a family whose car was broken down on the highway. Do you think I stopped? No, I would have been late and who knows what those kids I taught would have gotten into. But I felt guilty afterwards—especially as I pondered this passage. I played the role of the priest rushing to Jerusalem to lead a service in the temple, except that in the story, the priest is heading away from Jerusalem. He can’t use his work as an excuse.[8]

An impossible commandment?

This story stands as an impossible commandment. Yet, at the same time, it’s an imperative we follow it. You might say in taking this story seriously, we’re placed between a rock and a hard place! We cannot be neighbors to everyone; we cannot always act like the Samaritan to all the people we come contact with in this world. Only God can do that, right? Thankfully, there is forgiveness and grace.

An allegory 

Let me suggest another way to draw ourselves into this story. Instead of trying to see ourselves as the Samaritan (or even the priest or Levite), let’s place ourselves in the ditch beside the road. We’ve been robbed and beaten. We lie helpless. The Samaritan who stops is Jesus. In some ways Jesus was a like the Samaritans. Persecuted, the “religious Jews” looked down on him. And Jesus paid out more than required for our wounds—giving his life for our sins. 

So, Jesus picks us up out of the ditch, bandages our wounds, restores our soul, makes sure we are on the way to recovery, and arranges to continue care for us. By the way, the church now plays the role of the innkeeper. Once we have been nursed back to health, Jesus pats us on the back and tells us, “Go and do the same.”      

Understanding this passage this way, as an allegory, summarizes the gospel. Jesus shows great mercy to us and expects us to do the same to our sisters and brothers in this world. Such interpretation of the passage is ancient, as early as the second century.[9] But even as an allegory, it comes back to what we do.

The desire for eternal life

It’s interesting that this story is a part of the extended answer to the question, “what must I do to receive eternal life.” In answering this question, Jesus quickly moves pass the commandments, the theological dogma, and instead Jesus tells a story about our relationship to our neighbors. For Jesus, these relationships are not isolated incidents or theological concepts, but actual encounters with real people who have needs. 

If we have been lifted out of the ditch by Jesus, if we have experienced salvation, if we are assured of eternal life, we must go and do likewise, to all our neighbors.  

Emphasis on “Go and do”

While I accept the allegory interpretation of this passage as one way to understand it, I also see the danger in such an interpretation. John Calvin, one of the founders of our theological tradition, questioned the allegory interpretation because he felt it diminished our Lord’s command to “Go and do likewise.[10]

Let me interpret this parable in this manner. We must first accept and believe in Jesus Christ and the gift he offers to us (that’s Jesus pulling us out of the ditch). Following our acceptance of salvation, we must then live as the Samaritan, helping others, regardless of how we feel about them.


Like all the folks in the story, we’re all on a journey through life. The question we’re left with is how we go about making this journey. Do we continue to travel down the road with our windows closed and our eyes straight head, the radio up so loud that we can’t hear anyone calling out for help? Or do we slow down and look for opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others? The lawyer asks the question for us, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus turns that question around and asks us, “To whom have you been a neighbor?” How do we answer? Amen.

[1] The Great Ends of the Presbyterian Church USA include the command to “exhibit the kingdom of heaven to the world.” Book of Order, F-1.0304

[2] Following the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel is the story of Mary and Martha (relating to him, then gives the example of the Lord’s Prayer (our relationship to God the Father). 

[3] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2008), 286.

[4] Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18

[5] Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke: he New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 311, 313 n5.

P[6] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 323.. 

[7] Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004 ), 20.

[8] We’re told the priest and Levite were going “down that road.” Jerusalem sat on a hill at 2600 feet. Jericho was below sea level. So going down meant they were leaving their work behind and possibility heading home or to visit realities. See Edwards, 320.

[9] Edwards, 324.

[10] Edwards, 324, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.5.19. 

“A man was going down… (Luke 10:30). A foggy morn on Laurel Fork Road.

Red Famine (some background on the conflict between Ukraine and Russia)

Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017), 17 hours and 46 minutes

I read reviews of this book when it first came out. It looked intriguing, but I never got around to read it. When Russia invaded Ukraine, I decided I needed to read something to get myself up to speed on what is happening in the world. I have often appreciated Applebaum’s insights on talk shows, so I tried to find this book. Guess what, there were no hard copies immediately available, so I got an audible copy and listened to the book. I am glad that I did and recommend this book as a helpful way to understand more of what’s going on in Ukraine. If you only read the introduction and epilogue, you’ll have a much better understanding of what’s happening. 

The word Ukraine means borderland. While much of its history is that of a colony (of Poland, Imperial Russia, the Austrian/Hungarian Empire, and the Soviet Union), it has a distinct language and culture separate from each of these. Applebaum provides a brief history of the region prior to the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, but her story really begins with the defeat of the Czar and the rise of the Bolsheviks. The defeat of the Czar and the rise of the Soviet state might best be understood through a line from the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” by “The Who.” “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” 

When Russia fell to the Bolsheviks and pulled out of the Great War, Ukraine was able to press its own identity and for a few short periods, became independent. However, independence was short-lived as the country constantly being overrun. Twice by the Bolsheviks conquered Kiev, along with the German/Austrian/Hungarian army and both the White and Black armies who fought the Bolshevik. The region value came from the grain produced in its fertile ground.  After it finally arrived within the Soviet sphere (Ukraine had its own communist leaders, who didn’t always go along with Moscow), the country primarily became as a place for grain to feed the Soviet rising industry. 

The first demands and confiscation of grain occurred during this time as Lenin saw Ukraine as a source for feeding the masses in the more industrial regions of Russia. Following the Revolution and the fights against White Russians, along with a drought in 1921, the young Soviet Union needed grain. They demanded it from Ukraine, even though she had suffered under the same circumstances. Interestingly, when the America Relief Association under the work of Herbert Hoover brought food to Russia, the were discouraged from working in the Ukraine. 

Like Czarist Russia before them, the Bolsheviks were troubled by any nationalist ideology in Ukraine and continued the policies of insisting on the use of Russia while they stamped out Ukrainian identity. At times, they would give nod to the Ukrainian unique situation and loosen up a bit, but they made it clear that Moscow was in control. Compounding the problem with the Soviets in the Ukraine was how to deal with the peasants, as Marxist ideology had no real understanding of such a class of people.

At first, the Soviets sought to voluntarily collectivize the farms, but with few wanting to join such farms, the Soviets put more and more pressure on peasants to collectivize. The nation’s “five-year plans” required the region provide and outrageous amount of grain. With the resentments toward collectivization and no incentive to work harder, these “goals” became unrealistic. The central state began to demand the region turn over more and more grain (even seed grain), which led to the terrible famine (known as the Holodomor, which combines the words for hunger and extermination) that occurred in 1932-33. Other policies such as blacklisting some villages and collective farms, exasperated the situation. The situation became dire as starving people were unable even to work the fields. As Applebaum describes the growing famine, she also provides detail on how starvation effects the body. Such details are horrific. As the famine grew more severe, people even began to eat the dead.  Sadly, there were no American Relief committees in the 1930s and an estimated 3.9 million people in the Ukraine died. While there was starvation in other parts of the Soviet Union during this time, no area suffered as much as Ukraine.

To collect more grain for the Soviet Union, they forced everyone onto collective farms and began to use propaganda. The Soviets created tension and hatred between groups. They even created a special class of peasants, the Kulacks. At first, Kulacks were large landowners, but later included anyone against the collectivization efforts or those seen as enemies of the state. 

After the famine, with not nearly enough workers to harvest the grain, the Soviets began to move even more Russian speaking people into the Ukraine. Among these included a young Nikta Khrushchev, who first worked in the Donbas region of Ukraine. In the purges of the late 1930s, they eliminated almost all the Ukrainian communists and replaced them with “Russians.” The famine, as terrible as it was, helped the Soviets control the Ukraine. This helps explain why many in the Ukraine were willing to, at first, go along with the Nazi invasion in 1941. This legacy is seen today with Russia (or Putin) referring to Ukraine as “Nazis.” Applebaum wrote between the Crimean War and this latest conflict. Applebaum is almost prophetic as Putin has declares his invasion to be an anti-Nazi campaign). Despite such terms, Applebaum points out how all sides (Czar, Soviets, and Ukrainians) had antisemitic tendencies. 

This book has several takeaways. First, in relation to current world politics, it is easy to see Putin as a continuation of Russian views of the Ukraine (which started with the Czars and continued through the Soviets). Russia viewed Ukraine as its bread basket. Beyond that, the Russians looked down on Ukraine as second class. The reader also comes to understand the tension between Russia and Ukraine because of different languages. Ukraine’s cultural leaders (writers and such) has sought to bring the country more aligned with the West, while Russia wants them to be aligned with the East. However, after the terrible things done to the Ukrainians in the 1930s, it is no wonder the people of the country are willing to fight to the death to avoid returning to their previous subjugation. Furthermore, during the Soviet era, information about the famine was constantly covered up and denied (just as it’s against the law now in Russia to speak of the invasion of and war in Ukraine as anything other than a special military action).

In addition to understanding the regional conflict (which could become a worldwide conflict), we should also take seriously Applebaum’s insights into the Russian propaganda campaigns of the 30s. In these campaigns, groups of people were seen as undesirable and as unimportant. Essentially robbed of their humanity, everyone lost their moral compass and allowed the needless deaths of millions. The warning: we must be careful of how we refer to those seen as “the other.” 

While she doesn’t see the famine as genocide only because the tight legal definition of the word is due to the Soviet’s influence at the United Nation. Soviet policies caused the famine and while they did not try to kill all Ukrainians, they did want to destroy such identity for the people there. Moscow used the famine to dominate Ukraine and continued to discourage Ukrainian identity until after the end of the Soviet Union. In the epilogue, Applebaum credits Ukraine (and Chernobyl) as the catalysis leading up to the end of the Soviet state. When the truth about Chernobyl began to be known, it opened a pandora’s box that the Soviets could not close. Perhaps this is another reason why Putin is so out to get Ukraine, as its people helped bring about the demise of the Soviet Union, which he’d like to reestablish. 

Why Church? A Place for Questions

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
March 13, 2022
Acts 8:26-39

Sermon recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, March 11, 2022

At the Beginning of Worship: 

Last Sunday, I kicked off my Lenten sermon series on “Why Church?” with a discussion on why Jesus established the church. In the sermon I pointed out that the word used in the Greek New Testament for church is the same word used in the Greek Old Testament for the people or the community of God. The church is the people of God. 

Perhaps I should have gone a little deeper and emphasized that Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches is not “the Church.” Yes, we’re churches, but we ‘re only a drop in the bucket of the church on the earth, which include people of all races and ethnic groups and languages. While we like to think that we’re important, we’re should always remind ourselves that God’s work in the world is much larger than those of us who gather in each of these rock buildings along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Nonetheless, we’re still a part of that movement of God, that began with Jesus and continues through the Apostles’ and down to us.  

Today, our theme will be the church as a safe place for people to ask questions and to explore their own relationship to God. We should all be asking questions and encouraging others to ask questions. We may not have all the answers, but we have faith in the one who does. 

Before the Reading of Scripture: Conversion in Acts

Before I read the Scripture for today, I would like to discuss the idea of conversion to the faith as it occurs in the book of Acts. Interestingly, there are no patterns that becomes a standard for all conversion in Acts.[1]  Conversions involved large numbers of people, as it did on Pentecost.[2] It involved family groups as it did with the jailer in Philippi.[3] And at times it involved a single individual, as with Paul[4] and with the Ethiopian eunuch, which we’ll look at today.  

The catalyst behind each set of conversions is different. The Pentecost crowd heard the call to repentance. The Philippian jailer and his family witnessed the faithfulness of Paul and Silas. Paul’s conversion came with a command, for the Lord had something for him to do. And in our story, the conversion comes from Philip leading the Ethiopian through the scriptures. 

God Must Act for a Conversion to Happen.

Ultimately, these conversions came through an act of God, whose Spirit worked within the lives of those converted to bring about a change in their lives. In a way, conversion was never the end, but the beginning of a new life following Jesus. Conversion is not our destination, but a start of a journey that won’t end until we’ve gone home to be with the Lord.[5]

Let’s now listen to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian. I was shocked to see that I had preached on this text early in my time here on the Blue Ridge. But today, I’m approaching the text from a different angle than I used back in late 2020.[6]

Read Acts 8:26-39.

After the Reading of Scripture: 

I mentioned how there is no universal model for conversion in Acts, but there appear to be two necessary things that need to happen for a conversion to occur. First, God’s Spirit must act in the life of one being drawn into the faith. Second, there must be someone to help interpret what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Even with the dramatic conversion of Paul on the Damascus Road, he was sent while still blinded by the light, to believers who helped him understand Jesus.[7]

In our text today, we see the Ethiopian is intrigued with what he is reading from Isaiah, but he has no context. Had he continued along the road back to Africa by himself, he would have just remained confused. But God works by whisking Philip out onto the Wilderness Road, where he’s able to help the Ethiopian understand. 

Notice what happens. Philip and the Ethiopian converse about what he’s reading. Philip doesn’t just jump up on the carriage and say, “You must be saved.” Instead, he asks if he understands what he’s reading. And then he allows the Ethiopian to ask questions. And, once his questions have been answers, the Ethiopian is at the point that he wants to take the next step and asks to be baptized. 

The Need for Questions.

One of the things we can learn from this text is that we need to be open and willing to answer questions. The idea Christian community isn’t one that has all the answers. If we believe we have all the answers, we are mistaken. We think too much of ourselves if that’s the case. We don’t have all the answers, but we believe in a God who does have the answers. And we are to help direct or point others toward God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who can lead them back to God the Father. That’s what is happening here with Philip and the Ethiopian. 

Of course, you may be wondering what this has to do with church? Too many people think we must draw more people into the church building. And while it’s a noble goal, it’s the wrong way to look at church. The church, as I’ve already noted, is the community of God. And that community exists beyond the walls of buildings. What Philip was doing was to go to where there was a need.

We’re to do the same. Instead of trying to drag “the heathen” into a church building so they might we saved, we need to go to where they are at. And we need to seriously listen to their questions about our faith. We must befriend them and love them for who they are, as does God. And we need to be honest when we don’t have an answer. Humbly, we need to let others know that we live faithfully as a follower of Jesus and while we don’t have every answer, we trust him.

Questions and the Sermon

By the way, this idea of the church as a place for communication has implications that I don’t like for the sermon. Sadly, often the sermon is one direction, with me giving you my ideas about the Scriptures. Ideally there should be a way for this to become a two-way conversation. But that’s hard to do in an hour, so I encourage you to discuss the sermon with each other afterwards.  

Reaching out to different people

Another thing we learn from this text is that the people God sends us to interact with may not look anything like us. This Ethiopian didn’t look like a Hebrew. He probably had very dark skin. He stood out in the crowds around the temple. Too often the church has focused only on reaching people who are, in many ways, like us. 

As the book of Acts shows, the church is to be constantly expanding its boundaries as it reaches people for Jesus Christ. But that’s not just the work of missionaries, for there may be people in our community that don’t fit into the stereotype of what we think a Christian should look like. Sadly, few churches do this very well. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr pointed out that Sunday morning was the most segregated time in America. And the segregation extends beyond racial divisions. We feel comfortable with those most like us, but the church throughout Acts is always being called to step out in faith and to reach others. 

Example of a church reaching out

In the late 1990s, I spent parts of several summers in San Francisco as I was doing course work for my doctorate. Each Sunday, I sought out different types of worship experiences. One of the most engaging churches was on the edge of the Mission District of the city.[8] It was an old church with thick brick walls, and it was packed. Not only were all the pews filled, but there were also people sitting in every windowsill around the church. This congregation had three services each Sunday, and there was a line for each service waiting to get in. It was an amazing experience. 

But what impressed me most wasn’t the numbers, but the make-up of the congregation. There were blacks and whites, Hispanic and Asians. There were rich people, who allowed the church’s valet attendants to park their brand-new Mercedes. And then there were homeless people who staggered in. There were those who walked the streets at night as prostitutes and drug dealers as well as those who had offices in the nicer buildings of the city. This was before COVID, so we all packed in together.

Why church? Because every one of those people who gathered at that church, whether young or old, rich or poor, had a need to hear the message of Jesus Christ. We all have that need, and we all should have the willingness to help others meet this need. 


An ideal congregation, in my opinion, is a place where we can have a friendly dialogue about what’s important in life. And as these conversations occur, as with Philip and the Ethiopian, we can help one another foster a better relationship with our Savior. And for us to create such a conversation, we need to be open to people’s questions. Are we? Amen. 

[1] For an in depth discussion on conversion in Acts, see: William H. Willimon,, Acts: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (1988, Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010), 100-105.

[2] Acts 2:37-42.

[3] Acts 16:25-34.

[4] Acts 9:1-9

[5] For a discussion on conversion in Acts, from which I draw upon in these paragraphs, see William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1988, Louisville: John Knox Press, 2011), 101-104.

[6] To see my sermon from December 2020, click here:

[7] Acts 9:10-19.

[8] Glide Memorial Church. 

Sun sinking over Laurel Fork (February 13, 2022)

Two Books about Mark Twain

I recently read Heretical Fictions, which I am reviewing here. I am also reposting another review that I wrote seven years ago on Mark Twain and Orion Clemens, which looked at the relationship between Twain and his older brother. That review will enlighten us on the first review. I hope to soon find a way to post an article I wrote for the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly in the 1990s. “Of Humor, Deaths, and Ministers: The Comstock of Mark Twain” is about Twain’s relationship to clergy when he lived in Nevada in the early 1860s. While I could post it through individual images (PDFs), I would like to find my original copy so that the document could be searchable. Now, for my two reviews:  

Lawrence I. Berkove and Joseph Csicsila, Heretical Fictions: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2010), 271 pages including index, bibliography, and endnotes. No photos.

Edgar Lee Masters once said, “Twain threw out the Bible, but it seemed to be attached with a rubber band and was likely to bounce back in his lap at any time.” One finds constant allusions to Biblical stories in Twain’s writings. Perhaps, instead of trying to free himself from the Bible, Twain really wanted to free himself from the harsh Calvinism of his youth. But, as with the Bible, his faith kept bouncing back into his lap. 

Berkove and Csicsila challenges an older understanding of Twain. Many still see him as a humorist who became a bitter agnostic in his later years. Instead, these scholars explore a thread running through Twains work which displays his constant battle with the Calvinism of his youth. From his childhood faith, Twain continued to believe in God, and accepted two of the three major Calvinist views of God. Twain understood God to be omnipotent and omniscient. Where he departs from the Calvinism of his youth is that he didn’t accept the idea of a benevolent God. 

Twain develops a “counter theology” which the authors highlight in nine points: 

  1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and malevolent. 
  2. Existence is a fleeting and transient, a dream within the mind of God making the world unreal and an illusion (this comes out especially in No. 44: The Mysterious Stranger and influenced by the writings of William James). 
  3. The consequence of original sin is God’s “Primal Curse.” Humans are enabled to do wrong.
  4. Humanity is not just flawed by original sin. We are corrupted by it.
  5. Virtuous deeds cannot save us for the balance sheet between our good and bad deeds are always going to be stacked against us.
  6. Everything is predestined.
  7. Most of humanity are reprobates, predestined for eternal punishment.
  8. Because God is perfect, there is no possibility God will change his mind.
  9. Conscience is from God, but affected by religious instruction and warns us when going astray. 

While Twain accepts these principles, he views them as “arbitrary, unfair, deceptive, and cruel.”  (see pages 15-17)

To make their case, the authors examine five of Twain’s novels (Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger) along with several of Twain’s shorter writings in his last decade. 

I have read all the novels but one (most of these novels I’ve read several times). I’ve also read many of the reviewed short stories. I confess that the chapter on No. 44: The Mysterious Stanger, was the most difficult for me which had to do with having not read that book and not having a frame of reference.  

In Roughing It, the book of which I probably know best of Twain’s writings because of my own work on the role of the church in Nevada during the 19th Century, Twain explores the concept of getting rich without working hard (a desire that he humorously relates to in his own life). We’ve been cursed since the garden to toil for our bread, but we don’t like it! Although Twain wants his readers to laugh and enjoy the book, he layers them such that they each explore a different theme. Tom Sawyer attempts to find freedom before deciding to become a respectable part of society, but is that society respectable and pure?  Huckleberry Finn and Jim, long for freedom, only to learn it’s not obtainable.  Hank Monk in A Connecticut Yankee, explores things such as get rich schemes within the stock market (something Twain had seen in Nevada). Other themes include pride (Monk’s knowledge of the future allows him to become God-like in the ancient world), and human damnation (people act the same back then as in the 19th Century, look out for themselves). Twain cleverly uses an allusion to a card game throughout the story, but in the end the reader learns it’s all a dream. This dream motif occurs in many of Twain’s later stories which the authors link to Twain’s study of the writings of William James.  

While Berkove and Csicsila stick to Twain’s work and his theology to make their points, I found myself often wondering about events in Twain’s own life. The tragedies he experienced from the death of his younger brother Henry on a steamboat that blew up on the Mississippi (an event Twain felt somewhat responsible for), the death of his niece in Nevada from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and the deaths of some of his own children and his wife, all haunted the author. I wondered if some of Twain’s more cynical writings about God might be his attempt at a lament as seen in the Psalms. In such writings, the author of the Psalms becomes angry with God, but never abandons God.  Another life event would be Twain’s relationship to his brother. Early on, Orion was far more religious than Twain, even serving as an Elder for the Presbyterian Church in Carson City and helping organize a church in the mining camp of Meadows Lake, California. However, after his daughter’s death and other hardships, he gave up religion and became an atheist. 

I appreciate how Berkove and Csicsila have highlighted Twain’s lifelong interest in God and theology. While I enjoyed this book, I would only recommend it to those familiar with a large body of Twain’s writings. 


Philip Ashley Fanning, Mark Twain and Orion Clemens: Brothers, Partners, Strangers (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama, 2003), 268 pages, no photos or maps

In much of Mark Twain’s writings, his older brother Orion comes across as a bumbling idiot. Was he?  Orion led and supported the Clemens family from an early age when their father died.  He also held a responsible position in the Nevada Territory, the territorial secretary, a political appointment he earned for his support of the Republican Party in the 1860 election.  Like his younger brother, who became Mark Twain, Orion desired wealth, but he was known to be a man of principle and stuck to his principles even when they led to financial shortcomings and failures.   Philip Ashely Fanning examines the relationship between these two brothers, who were similar in some ways, yet very different.

Orion was ten years older than Samuel Clemens, so when their father died, he became the patriarch of the family.  He worked in various positions along the towns of the Mississippi, as a newspaper man, a printer and occasionally as an attorney.  At a young age when Sam quit school, he went to work for his brother.  This arrangement didn’t work well.  One of the stories told is that Orion decided there were too many stray cats hanging around the print shop and had Sam collect them in a sack and drown them, something that bothered the younger brother who always had a soft spot for cats.  In 1852, Sam quits and heads out on a trip though New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC, funded by working in various print shops and newspapers along the way.  He occasionally wrote articles that appeared in his brother’s newspaper. During this time, Orion broke with the family and became convinced that slavery was evil.  This led to him becoming a Republican and working for the party in the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln.

 Coming back from his trip east, Samuel Clemens continues to work in print shops and for newspapers, until he concocts a plan to go to South America.  On his way down the Mississippi, to New Orleans, he changes direction and accepts an offer to “learn the river.”  In 1858, Sam became a riverboat pilot, an occupation that paid more than the Vice President of the United States.  At this stage, the younger Clemens usurps his other brother’s position as the family patriarch.  After the Republican victory in 1860 and the beginning of the Civil War, their role reverses with Orion being offered a political position in Nevada as Sam finds him out of work.  The two of them head west, with Sam bankrolling the trip from his savings.  Later, when Sam (now known as Mark Twain) begins to write an account of his western adventures, he depends heavily on his brother’s journals to reconstruct (in a humorous manner) the stage trip across the country.  This account was published in his second book, Roughing It.  In Nevada, the brothers parted ways for a period.  Twain’s practical jokes and attempts at humor created problems for his brother and sister-in-law.  Sam headed to California and then to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) while Orion headed back to the Midwest.  

Over the next couple of decades, Orion found himself having to depend on his younger brother’s generosity both for money and positions.  Orion, who was always honest, finds himself excommunicated from his church after having expressed his beliefs.  At Sam’s encouragement, he beings to write an autobiography.  Sam begins to insist on rewrites as a way to protect his own self-constructed myth.  Orion seems to have compiled, even though much of the autobiography has been lost (and may have been burned by Twain or lost by his biographer).

Fanning presents some interesting ideas concerning how Twain related to his older brother.  He offers some interesting possibilities concerning the brothers’ father’s death, suggests that after Twain had thoughts about killing his brother, and that Orion’s time in Nevada was much more successful than Twain would later acknowledge (he was often the acting governor and as such helped settle a border dispute with California).  He also demonstrates how the younger brother encouraged his older brother to go into the ministry, even though later in life Orion would find himself excommunicated because of his unorthodox beliefs 

Although Fanning’s book raises a lot of questions concerning the two brother’s relationship, he also helps redeem Orion for the “bumbling idiot” characterization in which he’s often been portrayed.  Unfortunately, due to loss of material (especially that which was written by Orion) and the inability to know what’s happening inside the mind of another, we will never be able to really know for sure if some of Fanning’s ideas are correct, but it is safe to assume that Orion needs to be assessed in a different light.  This, Fanning does, while also showing how Twain, a wonderful author, had a mean streak and was not above throwing his brother under the bus in order to make himself look better.

Why Church?

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
March 6, 2022
Matthew 16:13-20 

This sermon was recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, March 4, 2022. It does not include the opening comments and the prayer I used at the beginning of the service to address the troubles we’re facing in today’s world. This can be found at the beginning of the text below.

At the Beginning of Worship:

News wise, it’s been another difficult week. We’ve watched the horrors of war in Ukraine. The sabre rattling is frightening as the Russian dictator threatens nuclear war and others warn of a possible World War III. And there is little we can do, as individuals, to control events, except perhaps pay more for gas. We’re even more helpless than we are with COVID, for there at least there were things we could do to protect ourselves and others. Perhaps this challenge is forcing us to learn to lean on God, so again this morning, before we get into worship, let’s clear our hearts with prayer: 

Holy God, you have shown repeatedly how much you love the world. We know your heart must be breaking as you watch the horrors we inflect on other people, as if they are not also created in your image. We, too, are horrified as we see schools and hospitals and apartment buildings shelled and bombed. Our hearts grieve as old Ukrainian women watch in sadness as invaders burn their homes to the ground. And when we hear the talk of the war expanding, knowing the weapons available to those making war, we are frightened. We can’t image the horrors of such a scene. 

Gracious God, we pray for the people of Ukraine, and for the Russians who are prosecuting this war. We pray for the safety of civilians, especially the children. We pray that leaders of nations might act rationally, honor the territorial boundaries of others, and work to reduce tensions and to bring about peace. We pray for the crowds around the world, even inside Russia, who have risen in protest. May we all seek peace. Yet, we know we are in a world filled with sin, a world in which the evil one is in a desperate battle of destruction. Give us confidence in your love and the courage to do what we must to further your kingdom. This we pray in the name of the prince of peace, Jesus Christ. Amen.  

A New Sermon Series:

During the season of Lent, I plan to preach a series of sermons around the question, “Why church?” Why do we worship weekly? Why do we gather in this building? What is our purpose? 

Let me suggest at the beginning that church is not home. Nor is the earth our home. Our home is with God and in that final vision we have in Scripture, we learn that heaven itself is void of a church building (or at least the temple which symbolized the church in the Old Testament).[1]

Again, our home is to be with God. To quote Craig Barnes, a Presbyterian minister and theologian, “If the church is the home we’re looking for, we’re in bigger trouble than we thought.” Barnes suggests that instead of greeting people with “Welcome Home,” when returning to church, we should acknowledge that it is a place where we find “long-lost brothers and sisters who are as confused about home as [we] are.” Instead of this place being our home, we come to worship to “renew our longing for the true home.”[2]

In other words, the purpose of preaching shouldn’t be to make us comfortable as if we’re in a den by a fire enjoying a good drink. Instead, preaching’s main goal is to be like John the Baptist (although I hate locust), pointing to Jesus.[3] For Jesus is our way to the Father, Jesus is our way home.[4]

Before the Reading of Scripture:

Today we’re going to look at Peter’s Confession as described in the Gospel of Matthew. This event is a key event in Matthew’s gospel, for from this point Jesus turns toward Jerusalem. And we know what happens there. This passage is one of the most discussed and debated passages in Matthew’s gospel, as we’ll see as we get into it. 

Read Matthew 16:13-20

After the Reading of Scripture

Why Church?

Why church? My first stab at an answer to this question begins with Jesus Christ, who is the head of the church. Before we can ask ourselves why we are a part of the church, we should know why Jesus established it. And, while we’re pondering that, we should go back to the beginning. Why did Jesus pick such a motley group of men to serve as Apostles and to help establish his church? 

And, while we’re asking questions, why did this unlikely organization, fraught with weakness from the very beginning, survive over 2,000 years? After all, hosts of better-established organizations have come and gone. But the church continues. We may be beaten and bruised, or as the hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation” claims, “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,” yet we continue despite our troubles. While church membership in North America and Europe is in decline, we’re still here. We’re not going anywhere. And besides, the church is growing rapidly in places like Africa and Asia. 

Why church? Because Jesus wants it that way. Let’s explore our text for the morning.

Exploring the Text: A disciple retreat

Jesus and the disciples have left Galilee, which has been their primary area of mission following Jesus’ baptism. They are now north of Galilee, in a community that is between Israel and the rest of the world, a border town.[5] We can only guess why Jesus has led the disciples here. First, outside of his normal area, Jesus won’t be troubled with the interruption of crowds. Second, Jesus can spend some quality time with his core team. And third, he needs them to jell into a focused unit. This retreat with the disciples prepares them for the task ahead. At the end of Matthew, after the resurrection, Jesus sends them out into the world to do his mission. 

Exploring the Text: Jesus’ identity

While they’re all together, Jesus asks first who people say that he is. He receives several interesting responses: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. While people don’t really understand the nature of Jesus’ ministry, by equating him with one of these, they are thinking Jesus must be someone important. 

Jesus displays an important insight with his questions. He doesn’t come right out and ask the disciples to make a profession of faith. His teaching is more inductive. Think about this, these 12 men have had more exposure to Jesus than to anyone else. So, when we are talking to someone who isn’t a believer, we shouldn’t expect them to make a profession of faith right away. Jesus didn’t expect the disciples to get it immediately. Instead, we should provide space for nonbelievers to ponder and for God’s Spirit to work a miracle.[6]

Yet, the question really isn’t who people say Jesus is, but who the disciples (and us) say that Jesus is. When Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am,” Simon Peter shouts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 

Exploring the Text: Peter’s confession

Peter gets it. Peter understands. Notice his language. He doesn’t say, “I think you are the Christ.” He doesn’t just believe Jesus is his personal Messiah, nor the Christ of just the disciples. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen One who bridges the gap between earth and heaven.[7]  There is no other.

Next, think of how Jesus responds. He doesn’t say, “Way to go, Peter. You got a good head on your shoulders.” However, Jesus does call Peter “blessed,” but instead of congratulating him for receiving an A+ on the only exam that matters for eternity, Jesus informs Peter that he has had some help. Peter’s proclamation didn’t come from his brain, it came from God. God always acts first. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, God gives Peter this answer, just as God works on our salvation even before we knew we were lost. 

Grace means that our relationship with Jesus isn’t something we’ve done, but that which God has done for us which allows us to experience the benefits of such a relationship. 

Exploring the Text: Jesus builds his Church

Next, Jesus plays with Peter, essentially using a pun based on his name. Verse 18 can also be translated like this: “Rocky, on this very rock I’m going to build my church…”[8] Of course, Peter will later show that rock might also refer to his head, for he had a hard head and wanted things his way.[9]

Jesus continues talking about his church, how the gates of Hades will never prevail against it and how the church will be given the keys to heaven with the power to loosen and bind, with its authority extending even to heaven. What does all this mean?

There’s been lots of debate over this. The Roman Catholic Church uses these verses to proclaim Peter as the first pope and his successors all coming from him. But Protestant and even Orthodox Churches speaks of the church being built upon the Apostles, not solely on Peter’s shoulders. Even some notable Catholics of old, such as Bebe, an English Doctor of the church in the 7th Century, insisted that Christ is the Rock, not Peter.[10]Regardless of which way you take this verse, the emphasis is that Jesus is building his church. The church belongs to Jesus. As Paul writes, as is found in many of our hymns, Jesus is the cornerstone.[11]

As far as the “gates of Hades,” this was an ancient way of saying that the powers of death won’t destroy the church. You know, in my ministry, I have seen the death of many whom I’d call saints, pillars of the church. But the church’s foundation isn’t upon us. Jesus Christ, the eternal one, is the foundation. We are to just do our part as long as we’re able. But we have an important part to play for we’ve been given the “keys to the kingdom.” In other words, we are the organization that God uses to help further his kingdom. 

Exploring the Text: The Church as the People of God

The Greek word used for church by Jesus here is Ekklesia. While we think of the church as a New Testament concept, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Greek around 200 years before Jesus, the same word, Ekklesia, that Jesus used for the church was used for the “people of” or the “community of God.”[12] To answer my earlier question, that’s what Jesus expects the church to be, the community of God. And God’s community may look surprisingly weak to the larger world, but when it’s us and God, we’re strong.

Much of God’s work is done by people like you and me who, not on our own ability, but on God’s power, commit ourselves to do God’s work in the world. 


So, “why church?” Because it’s the way Jesus Christ has set things up. We don’t come here because we think we’re special or superior. We come here because we know Jesus is the Lord, the Messiah, the Christ, the one who bridges the gap between earth and heaven. We come here to worship, and then to be sent back into the world, to do his work. Amen. 

[1] Revelation 21:22.

[2] M. Craig Barnes, Searching for Home: Spirituality for Restless Souls (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), 26. 

[3] Matthew 3:11-12, Mark 1:7-8, Luke 3:16-17, John 1:23-28

[4] John 14:6.

[5] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (1990, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 119. 

[6] Bruner, 120. 

[7] Bruner, 121.

[8] Bruner, 119, 127. 

[9] Immediately following this encounter in Matthew, Jesus chastises Peter, calling him “Satan” for not accepting Jesus’ teachings. See Matthew 16:21-23.  And Peter will also be quick to deny Jesus three times after Jesus’ arrest. See Matthew 26:69-75 and companion stories in Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:54-62, and John 18:15-18, 25-27. 

[10] Bruner, 129. 

[11] Ephesians 2:20

[12] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville; John Knox Press, 1993), 191. 

Iona, Scotland

Joe’s Fork

Joe’s Fork, about a mile upstream from the old mill

“Were you able to dig us some worms?” Granddaddy asked as he got out of his truck. 

“Yes sir,” I said, “some nice ones.” 

He smiled.  We head into the house.  Dinner is ready.  He stops in the bathroom to wash his hands and removes his cap as he sits at the table.  Grandma is across from him, and I sit between them.  We bow our heads. Granddaddy prays:

“We thank thee for the food we’re about to receive. Bless it to the nourishment of our bodies and us to thy service.  Amen.  

Grandma passes around the food. Fried chicken, field peas, corn on the cob, squash, and biscuits. The vegetables all come from her garden. We eat in a hurry. When finished, I run back into my room and change into long pants. I strap my knife to the belt. Granddaddy collects the rods and placed them in the back of the truck along with tackle boxes and the can of my recently dug worms. As we climb into the cab, Grandma berates us to use plenty of bug spray. Granddaddy turns the ignition, then pops the clutch. The truck springs forward. He pulls out onto the highway, heading east. About a mile later, the road snakes down into a hardwood swamp. We cross Joe’s Fork on a small bridge. Looking down, I realize we could wade across without getting our knees wet. As we begin the climb on the other side of the bridge, granddaddy turns right, onto a two-track dirt road that leads back into the woods.

“Where are we going?” I ask as we bounced in the truck and bushes swished along the sides of the truck. 

“To McKenzie Mill Pond.”

“What kind of fish will we catch?”

“There should be some nice bream, maybe a jack or a bass.”

“Is the mill still there?”

“No, it burned.” 

“How? When was that?” I ask.

“I’m not sure.” 

“But the pond is still there?”

“Yeah, the beavers damned the stream back up.”

“When you were a boy, did you ever go to the mill? 

“No, it was before my time.” 

Realizing I not going to learn anything about the mill, I think I’ll see if there was anything to know about the current residents. “When did the beavers dam the stream up?”

“In the late forties, I think. Your dad was a boy when they reintroduced beavers to this area.” He slows down, then turns hard, pushing the pickup into brush by the side of the two-track road. I realize he didn’t want to block the road, but it didn’t seem to matter. The road with this much overgrowth didn’t appear to be well traveled. 

“You sure ask a lot of questions,” my granddad says as he turned the engine off. Getting out, we spray ourselves with bug juice. Granddad puts a wad of Beechnut chewing tobacco in his mouth, then we grab our rods and stuff and walk toward the dam which the beavers had restored.  

On the edge of the dam, we drop our gear. The vegetation is thick around the pond. Granddaddy wouldn’t be using his Browning fly rod here, I realize. We’ll both be fishing with worms. I tie a hook to the line on my rod, placed a small weight just above the hook, and attached a bobber about 2 feet up the line. The pond is shallow. Once my rod is rigged and baited, I step out on the edge of the dam and cast into the middle of the pond, just shy of a water moccasin bathing on a log in the waning sun. Granddaddy heads around the pond and finds a place where he could cast his line out and be freed of more questions. 

My bobber floats undisturbed, as I swatted mosquitoes and deer flies which swarmed around my head, pausing occasionally to wipe the sweat from my brow. It’s a hot and steaming. No air moves along the creek bottom.  After a few minutes with no action, boredom sets in. I slowly reel in the line, and cast it again, right beside that big snake. My cork doesn’t faze it, but neither did anything nibble on my worm. I pull my line in again. 

“If you don’t leave your hook in water, you won’t catch any fish.” Granddaddy yells over at me. He normally didn’t say much when fishing. He doesn’t want the fish to be spooked with our talk.  

A jitterbug lure

I cast again, this time dropping the hook just inches in front of that big old moccasin’s head. I wait: ten seconds, twenty seconds, thirty seconds, a minute. Nothing bites. I didn’t come out here to wait. I reel my line in again and made another cast and then another. The whole time that water moccasin sits on his log position. I wonder if it is dead, but I know better. Is it mocking me? The snake just lies on the log. It is getting on my nerves. I retrieve my line again. Looking in my tackle box, I pull out a large jitterbug, a top floating lure that works wonders on the bass right around dark. Taking off the hook and bobber, I tie the jitterbug on my line, and cast it toward the snake. It fell just short of the moccasin. I reel it in, the lure jittering back and forth across the water.  

“What are you doing fishing with that?” my granddad ask.

 “Nothing’s taking the worms,” I answer as I make another cast. This one sails across the moccasin and lands in the water, a few feet beyond the snake. It doesn’t move, even with the line lying across its back. I slowly reel, bringing the lure up beside the log upon which the snake has perched itself. I pause. Then I jerk the rod back hard and snag the snake in the back with the lure’s treble hook. The snake snaps around at its unseen assailant, its cottonmouth angrily exposed. It slides off the log with and starts swimming away with my lure, its head high above the water. I let it have some line while tightening the drag. 

“What did you do that for?” My grandfather yell, as he beats a path over to me. “That snake wasn’t bothering you.” 

The snake turned. Instead of fighting the line, it started swimming toward us, its head propped up like the Loch Ness monster. I stopped reeling as I could see no reason to hasten the encounter.

“What are you going to do now?” Granddaddy asked.

I pulled out my knife and hold it in the same hand as my rod.

“What are you going to do with that?” 

“I’ll stick him,” 

“Put that knife away,” he yells as he picked up a stick that was maybe five feet long. “Use this.” He hands the stick to me. “You hooked him, take care of him.”  

It seemed like a good idea, but now I’m not so sure as this is one large angry and deadly poisonous snake. But then, thankfully, when about twenty feet away, the snake shakes free of the lure. It then turns, and swims in another direction, disappearing in the brush. I reel my lure in. I’d been saved from an angry snake, but now had to contend with an angry grandfather.

“We’re done fishing,” he says, packing up his gear.

As we walk back to the truck on the trail that was near the brush where I last saw the snake, I keep my eyes peeled for a moccasin out for revenge. It was not to be seen. I hear distant thunder. A cloud is building that might bring relief to this hot day. I step into the passenger side of granddaddy’s truck. I know better than to ask any more questions. We drive in silence.   

There are no ice cream and Pepsi floats before bed this night. It takes me a while to fall asleep as I worry if hell ever take me fishing again. Grandma has turned off the air conditioning and opened the windows. The curtains fly like ghosts in the cooling wind of the approaching storm. Lightning bolts quickly followed by thunder and each strike fill the room with light. Then the rain comes. Finally, the rain stops, and the lightning and thunder became further apart as the storm moves east. I fall asleep to the drip of water off the roof. 

The air smells fresh the next morning. As I come out for breakfast, Granddaddy looks up from the News and Observer he’d been reading and asks if I want to go fishing again.  

A copy of a photo of my grandfather’s company. He is second to the right. This photo was taken sometime in the early 70s. He died in January 1977.