The Ride of a Lifetime (in the cab of a steam engine)

First Presbyterian Church

In 2013, I visited Virginia City, Nevada. I had lived there in the 1980s, when I was a student pastor at First Presbyterian Church. Before my time there, a tourist railroad had been established and was reconstructing the famed Virginia and Truckee Railroad. The big news when I was there, was the train crossing the highway into Gold Hill. Since then, thanks to generous grants, the train now runs to the outskirts of Carson City. It is a crooked grade as the train climbs up the east flank of the Virginia Mountains. I wanted to ride this train and see what it was like in earlier days. But they had sold out of the tickets for the weekend I was to be in Virginia City. Telling this to a friend who at the time was also the bookkeeper for the railroad, she said she’d make a call and see what she could do.  When I got to town, she asked if I’d like to ride in the cab of the train. Of course, I would! It was the ride of a lifetime. I wrote this piece almost ten years ago and have polished it up a bit for posting here. 

Virginia City at sunrise from the Combination Mine shaft

I arrive at the V&T shops a little after 7 AM.  As they prepare the engine ready for the day’s run, I walk around the machine shop where the Virginia and Truckee has the capability of repairing and rebuilding old locomotives. Maintaining a steam locomotive requires a lot of work and a shop is a necessity as parts often have to be fashioned to replace those that have worn out. The complexity of a steam engine led to their demise as it is much easier to maintain diesel-electric locomotives. Today’s locomotives may be efficient and easier to maintain, but they lack the romance and the “life-like character” of a “breathing steam engine.”

Our run today is aboard a ninety-ton Baldwin locomotive built in 1914 for a logging operation. The locomotive features smaller wheels and a large boiler, which also made it a perfect engine to pull trains up a steep line that snakes around the Virginia Range as it climbs from the Carson River to Virginia City. In its “working life,” this locomotive hauled logs for the McCloud Logging Railroad which ran around Mt. Shasta in Northern California. Today, she hauls tourists to the Comstock Lode and has been trucked offsite (she is the largest locomotive capable of being trucked) for movie appearances. Some of the guys from the V&T ran her in the movie, “Water for Elephants,” and have a photo in the shop with Reese Witherspoon, one of the stars in the film. 

Backing down the mountain

At about 7:30, Tim, who serves as conductor and brakeman, tells me to hope aboard. He introduces me to the crew, Brian and Ed, and gives me some instructions such as watching my feet so that I don’t ruin my shoes or injure myself by being pinched by rotating the sheet metal flooring between the tender and the locomotive. While we wait for the signal, the iron horse hisses. A few times every minute, there’s a booming sound which I learn are the air pumps keeping a nice draft in the fire box. When we get the “all clear,” I find a comfortable place to stand and hold on as Brian, the engineer moves the throttle into position and releases the brakes. We’re off, pulling three empty passenger cars. Because there is no longer a working turntable, we’ll pull the cars down the grade with the tender in the lead. At Moundhouse (Carson Eastgate), where we’ll pick up passengers, we can drop the cars, move the engine to the front as in a normal train, and the pull the cars back up hill.   

Checking smoke

It’s cool in the morning, but it promises to be a warm day.  Because the grade steepness, the descent must be controlled. I watch Ed, the fireman, as he maintains the boiler, making sure there is enough steam for both movement and brakes.  Ed learned to fire a locomotive on a miniature (5 ton) steam trains in California. Brian jokes that he has the easy job and Ed agrees. Oil fires this locomotive. Coal would require shoveling, but the fireman is free of that task. However, watching the boiller requires constant vigilance, especially on a grade like the V&T which has a few places that you might be going down, only to find yourself heading uphill for a short stretch. Besides keeping enough steam so that Brian can operate the train, he must make sure the water level remains high enough to cover the plates within the boiler. On level ground, this is easy, but when the locomotive is pointed uphill, the water runs into the back of the boiler. When it goes over a hump and points downhill, the water moves to the front of the locomotive. The danger of this sloshing around is that the metal might be exposed to air and the fire without the water to cool it down. This would risk spraying those of us in the cab with steam and seriously damaging the boiler.

Brian, our engineer for the day, oversees the train itself. He’s a Virginia City native. He graduated from high school on the Comstock in 2000 and that summer went to work for the railroad. He’s been at it ever since. For years, he was seasonal and had to find other employment in the winter, but a few years ago, was hired on full time. In the winter, they make a few runs (last year’s Christmas run was infamous as the snow was heavy and it took them nearly three hours to make the run back up the mountain. Brian and Ed can do each other’s jobs and often switch back and forth. As the engineer, he’s in charge of the operation of the train, but must depend on the fireman to watch the boiler and to provide him the steam needed for a smooth operation. 

A few minutes later, Virginia City is out of sight as we cross the tunnel at the Divide and move toward Gold Hill. Down below us is the Crown Point Mine and Mill site. We cross the highway, by the old station. then the tracks turn south and cross earth fill that once traversed by the Crown Point trestle. They tore the trestle down in 1936. Today, it is widely believed that the trestle continues to live on the Nevada State Seal. However, this is a myth. The seal was designed in 1863 and predates the building of the trestle by five years.  Interestingly, there wasn’t even a train within the boundaries of the Nevada Territory when the seal was designed, so the trestle on the seal expressed a hopeful dream of the artist.      

After Gold Hill, the tracks make a long circle around American Flats.  There is a new mining operation with cyanide leach fields on the north side of the Flats.  Also along this section is a herd of horses.  Ed and Brian seem to know well as they have names for many of the wild animals.  At Scales siding, the halfway point, we stop, and Brain and Tim check the brakes. There is some smoke in one wheel and they are afraid it is overheating, but after checking it, all appears well. We loop around the south side of the Flats, above the old American Flats Mill, which operated up into the 30s. Then the tracks turn south, and we slip into a tunnel.  On the other side of the tunnel, we can see Moundhouse, the site of where the Virginia and Truckee and the Carson and Colorado Narrow Gauge used to connect. The train continues to hug the hillside. The tracks mostly follow the original route except through Moundhouse. Brain, the engineer, tells me that the original tracks went straight through Moundhouse and picked up the Carson River near where today are several brothels. Figuring the whorehouses shouldn’t be disturbed by trains, they relocate the tracks to the west of town. We cross over Highway 50 on a trestle and soon are at the station.  

Brain prepares engine for run back up the mountain

A full parking lot awaits us as people line up to ride a piece of history. We drop the passenger cars in front of the depot and uncouple the engine. Switching tracks, we take on water. I learn that although the train will only use 300 gallons of oil during the weekend, each trip up and down the mountain will require nearly 8000 gallons of water. Once they fill the water take, we run through a wye and then pull in front front of the passenger cars for the run up the mountain. Before leaving, Brian oils the working parts of the locomotive

The Crew on a rare break

As we leave Moundhouse, Ed pours a couple of cans of sand into the firebox. The draft is such that the sand is sucked through the boiler tubes and out the stack, cleaning out any build up on the tubes and hopefully making the train run smoother. As the sand runs through the boiler, or perhaps because of the addition air of having the firebox open, the smoke turns black for a few minutes. Although it was a relaxed trip going down the mountain, running uphill requires more work, especially from Ed, who has to constantly keep checking on the boiler and making sure there is enough steam for running the train. It almost seems he is as much of an artist as a mechanic as he both watches the gauges and adjusts the amount of water going into the boiler or the amount of fuel pumped into the firebox. But it’s not just the gages that he watches; he also keeps an eye on the smoke, occasionally glances into the firebox, and is always listening to the boiler breathing.    

The sun is now high in the sky and it’s getting hot, but I’m not prepared for the experience of the first tunnel. When we enter it, a hot wind blows across the boiler and into the cab and the temperature must have risen by 30 or 40 degrees. Coming down, with the boiler behind us, the tunnels weren’t hot, but with the boiler in front, we feel all the heat. This was the reason the last steam engines built for the Southern Pacific were “cab-forward” varieties. It was harder to build a cab-forward locomotive when the fireman had to shovel coal (or you had to have the fireman and engineer in two different ends of the train which created communication problems).  But once the railroad began using oil, they could move both to the front of the boiler. Not only did this allow better views of the track, it keep the cab more comfortable in long tunnels and the miles and miles of snowsheds the locomotives traveled as they made their way through the Sierras.  

at the Gold Hill Station

At Scales, we stop for a few minutes and Brian gets out and oils various parts of the engine. We then continue on until the Gold Hill Station where a few people get off in order to have lunch at the Gold Hill Hotel. Most of our passengers continue as the train climbs into Virginia City. There, everyone gets off. They’ll have three hours to tour the town before making the run back south. I skip the ride south but follow the train in my car. Stepping out into the heat, I photograph the train repeatedly as it makes its way down the mountain. Ed, Brian and Tim will leave the train at Moundhouse overnight. The next morning they’ll pick up passengers and run them up to Virginia City. At the end of the day, after dropping the passengers off in Moundhouse, the empty train will be driven back up the mountain to Virginia City. There, it will shuttle tourists around the Comstock between Virginia City and Gold Hill. The steam trains only run between Moundhouse and Virginia City on Saturdays and Sundays.  

Arriving in Virginia City

Bringing Light to the World

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
June 20, 2022
Luke 8:16-23

Sermon recorded at the Bluemont PIcnic Shelter on Friday, June 24, 2022

At the beginning of worship:

One of the key doctrines of the Protestant Reformation is the “priesthood of all believers.” The concept, defined by John Milton, held that “every person is created by God with the freedom of conscience, reason, and will.”[1]  

This doctrine implies that we all have direct access to God in our prayers and through our study of God’s word. We don’t have to go through a priest, who stands between us and the divine. Jesus destroyed the veil separating us and God.[2] We can cast our burdens upon God, ask for intercession for friends and family, and seek God’s wisdom, all on our own. 

The priesthood of all believers and democracy

The priesthood of all believers is a novel concept which became foundational for a democratic society. If we have standing before God, the holy and almighty one, it goes without saying that we should also have political standing before other creatures like us who happen to be in a position of power.  

Telling what’s great about our local church

Throughout this series, I want to prepare you to be able to articulate why someone should check us out as a church. In this matter, I think the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, is important. As a church, in the eyes of God, we’re all equal. And we should see others in that same way. No one is above anyone else.

Yes, some may be set aside for special functions such as the clergy. Some are set aside as ruling elders, those who make up the Session, the governing board of the church. But even here, no one is given special access to God. Nor is anyone given special treatment. We’re equal in God’s eyes, which we should celebrate! It makes the church a unique place in the world. We come as equals, we come as those brought together in Jesus Christ. 

Before reading scripture

We’re continuing our reading through the middle section of Luke’s gospel. Last week, we looked at Luke’s telling of the Parable of the Sower. This week, Luke follows that story with some mini parables about our responsibility to “let the truth be known.” Then Jesus discusses the meaning of his true family, which also has implications for us. I am reading this passage in The Message translation.

Read Luke 8:16-21

After the reading of Scripture: 

On a dark night from the bridge of a battleship, the lookout sighted a light dead ahead. They were on a collision course. He quickly relayed his sighting to the captain, who signaled to the vessel ahead, “change your course ten degrees east.” The response came back: “Change your course ten degrees west.” 

This infuriated the captain.  He responded: “I am a Navy captain. Change your course.”  

“I am a seaman, second class,” came the replay. “Change your course.”

Steam flowed from the captain’s ears, “I am the captain of a battleship. I’m not changing course.”

The response came back, “Sir, I’m manning a lighthouse. It’s your call.”[3]

Lighthouses as a sign of Jesus’ faithfulness

Christian stores often sell kitschy plaques and paintings of lighthouses with Bible verses about Jesus being the light of the world. And it’s appropriate, for lighthouses have become symbols of Jesus’ faithfulness. I’m not sure when Christians adopted the symbol, but it may have been quite early. By Jesus’ day, there had been a lighthouse for two centuries on the island of Pharos. This lighthouse guided ships into Alexander in Egypt after they’d sailed across the Mediterranean Sea. Alexander had a strong Jewish and latter a Christian presence.[4] While we can’t know for sure, perhaps the lighthouse there became linked to the faith in the late first or the second century. 

 In the days before Loran and GPS, lighthouses were essential to warning ships as to shoals and to the entrance to harbors. Many lives have been saved by those who attended lighthouses. It was a tough job as one had to keep the light going in all kinds of weather, especially during storms. 

Misleading lights

But, you know, other lights were at times used to confuse ships. During the 19th Century, along the Outer Banks, where many of the original residents were distantly related to pirates, during storms, some would build bonfires along the coastline. Seeing these lights in a blowing gale, a captain might adjust his course and then find his ship broken up on a sandbar. The residents would then save the crew and, as it was their maritime right in finding and saving the crew of a broken vessel, they would loot the ship of its goods. 

The message for us: Make sure we only shine the true light. We’re responsible to Christ, to let him shine, not to shine a light for our benefit.  This is especially true as we perform our role as a priest, of which we’re all one. Those who don’t know of our special status as a follower of Jesus, need to see our good deeds. Do we bring our Savior glory? 

Today’s text

Our text today has two parts. We could separate them as it appears they are distinct. The first part, about letting our lights shine, comes on the heels of the parable of the Sower, which we explored last week. Matthew and Mark also have sayings like this one in Luke’s gospel.[5] However, Matthew’s saying, in the Sermon on the Mount, is in a different context. “Letting the light shine,” may have been one of Jesus’ more frequent sayings. It could also be used in different situations,[6] but the sayings in all point to our priestly role of letting others know of Jesus. That’s why we put a lamp on a stand, so that it can give maximum light. 

Lamps in the first century

Hearing Jesus’ teachings about putting a light on a stand may have drawn people’s minds to the light stand in the temple, illuminating the holy room, for mortals to see. Or maybe they thought of their own lamps which provided nominal amount of light and had to be held high to maximize its benefit. We know that small oil lamps were common in Jesus’ day as they are frequently recovered in archeology digs.[7]  

Revealing God

Jesus, in recalling the use of lamps right after having told the story of the parable of the Sower, emphasizes the need to let our light shine. Jesus came to reveal God. And we, who know this truth, are to share it. We’re not to hoard such knowledge by hiding it under a pan or under the bed. I would suggest that hiding a light that was burning under a bed would be quite dangerous. That flame might set the sheets on fire. I’m not sure that’s a metaphor Jesus’ meant when he told this mini parable, but it certainly implies. Jesus shares his grace and love with us, and he expects us to share it with others. When we don’t, we’re not doing what he said. That can lead to dangerous consequences, such as our metaphorical bed fire.  

Two Points

There are two points we should understanding from these three opening sayings made by Jesus in the first half of our reading: Jesus’ purpose is not to conceal, but to reveal.

  1. Jesus didn’t come to share secrets with a few, his ministry is to bring to light what was unknown about God.
  2. However, parables don’t bless everyone equally. Those who hear and understand are blessed. Those who think they already know everything, find themselves lost.[8]
Second part of reading

The second part of our reading seems to be a new topic. Obviously, here, Jesus is no longer outside as it appears he was when he talked about the Sower. Instead, he is inside a building for his mother and brothers are outside. However, the topic, who are the true followers of Jesus, links up with Jesus’ previous teachings. 

Jesus and his family

Luke has already shown that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was committed to doing God’s work. We witness this before Jesus’ birth, as she answers the Angel Gabriel, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word?”.[9] At the age of 12, Jesus demonstrates has also shown his true family isn’t his earthly one which, like our families, is transient. Instead, his true family came from his closeness to his Father in heaven.[10] This also has implications for us. Our true family and our true home are not here on earth, but with our Father in heaven. I think that’s what Jesus drives at in this passage.

Mark presents this same story in a different light. He makes it sound more like Jesus’ family tried to discourage his ministry. Luke, however, presents the story in a more neutral way. As Luke has already done, Jesus’ family are portrayed as faithful and obedient.[11]   

Obedience is important to Jesus

So, according to this passage, who does Jesus consider his family? Those who hear his word and do it. It’s not just hearing or just believing; we must act on such beliefs. Obedience to Jesus is important. And, as we’ve just seen in the early part of the reading, part of this obedience is a willingness to share the faith and the hope we have in Jesus with others. 

Recently, somewhere, I saw a meme that hit home. It read: “Bible believing isn’t as important as Bible living.”[12] And I think that is what Jesus drives at in this passage. It’s not enough to know who Jesus is, we must follow him and show his love and offer his grace to the world around us. 

Sharing the Gospel of Grace

Of course, we’re not to share the gospel in an obnoxious manner. Jesus never used God’s word to beat up others. As Hannah Anderson in her book, Humble Roots, writes, “when we use fear to persuade a person to make a decision ‘before it’s too late,’ we make God look like a cosmic bully.”[13]We serve a God of love. As we follow the Son, our Savior, led by the Holy Spirit, we’re to show the lovingkindness to others that God has shown u

[1] John Witte Jr. “Law, Authority, and Liberty in Early Calvinism,” in Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview, David W. Hall and Marvin Padgett, editors. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2010), 36.

[2] Luke 23:45 describes the curtain (veil) in the temple ripping during Jesus’ crucifixion. 

[3] This is an old joke, going back to the 1930s. See:

[4] See James R. Edwards, From Christ to Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the Church in Less than a Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2021), 62-64. 

[5] Matthew 5:14, Mark 4:21. While John doesn’t talk about a lamp, he does speak of Jesus as the light of the world. See John 1:4, 7-8.

[6] James R. Edwards, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 241-2.

[7] Edwards, 241

[8] Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 113. 

[9] Luke 1:38, 46-55. 

[10] Luke 2:49. 

[11] In addition to taking Jesus to the temple at the age of 12, they also presented Jesus on the eight day to be circumcised. See Luke 2:21-24.

[12] I would defend this meme in that we are not to believe the Bible, but in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, that is revealed to us through Scripture.

[13] Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul (Chicago: Moody Press, 2016), 112.

Morning Light, June 26, 2022

The Dean and his secretary

Dean Mauser

From the internet (it appears as if it was from the seminary’s directory)

Two weeks ago, I posted a memoir about one of my seminary professors who had been a tank commander in the German army in World War II. I mentioned he wasn’t my only professor who spent time on the other side during that terrible war. The other was Ulrich Mauser, the dean of the seminary. He was a kind and gentle man. I only took one class with him, a New Testament survey class. But when another professor, Dr. Kelly, had medical issues while teaching on the Book of Acts, Mauser took over and finished out the term. I essentially had him as a professor for a term and a half. But I got to know him in other ways, too.

Unlike von Waldow, Mauser didn’t talk about the war, at least not around me. I remember him mentioning his involvement once. We were sitting together in the dining room at lunch. He sat among a group of students and there may have been other professors. Somehow, the topic of the war came up. Mauser recalled being a student in Germany during the war. As Germany needed more and more soldiers, he received a notice every year to report for a physical in preparation for being drafted into the armed forces. But because of health issues and poor eyesight, he always received a deferment and would return to school. However, in late 1944, according to Dr. Mauser, things had gotten so bad they did care that he couldn’t see. With his thick eyeglasses, without which he was nearly blind, they assigned him to an anti-aircraft flack gun on top of a building in Berlin. As most of the air attacks came at night, there wasn’t even a way to aim. They just pointed the guns up into the sky and shot in the general direction of the drone of engines. 

While he wasn’t really involved in combat, the war had an affect upon Dr. Mauser. His family home was destroyed by a bomb. He also became very interested in the Biblical understanding of peace. His last book, The Gospel of Peace, focused on this life-long theme. 

Mauser’s studied at the University of Tubingen in Germany where he received his doctorate, writing a dissertation on Martin Luther. He also spent time at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he met his wife. After his schooling, as a young pastor in post-war Germany, he served in a congregation that mostly consisted of displaced people. 

My best memory of Dr. Mauser came after a disappointing relationship with Debbie, his secretary. Below, I posted a piece I wrote in 2014, after learning of Debbie’s death from cancer. After Debbie became engaged to someone else, Dr. Mauser invited me out to lunch. We went to a restaurant in Shadyside. As if he was my pastor, he was concerned with my emotional state. Ironically, at the time I was on the top of the world, having essentially completed the Appalachian Trail. While he never appeared as an outdoor type of person, Mauser was interested in my experience along the trail. I learned how it tied to his work on the theme of wilderness in scripture. 

When I graduated from Pittsburgh in 1990, Dr. Mauser was winding up his tenure at the school. He had moved to America in 1959, to serve as a chaplain at Oregon State University. In 1964, he began teaching at Louisville Theological Seminary. In 1977, he was appointed a professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Seminary and became Dean in 1981. Turning 65 in 1990, and he faced mandatory retirement as was the seminary’s practice at the time. So, Dr. Mauser accepted an appoint at Princeton, where he taught six more years before returning to Pittsburgh for his final years. 

I last saw Dr. Mauser at a Presbyterian Coalition meeting in Orlando Florida in the fall of 2001, just a few weeks after 911. I had not seen him since graduation. He appeared delighted to run into me and we later shared a meal together. He died in 2008. 

Ulrich W. Mauser’s obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Debbie, the Dean’s secretary

Written in 2014, after learning of Debbie’s death from cancer: 

A photo I took in May 1987

Debbie was beautiful. She turned heads with her broad smile, big eyes, and hardy laugh. She wore flowing dresses with heels that clicked and gave shape to her calves. And she was the Dean’s secretary. In my first year of seminary, I never thought she would have been interested in me. Then, a month or so before school ended for the summer, she invited me to over for Sunday evening’s dinner at her place. Wanting to make a good impression, I brought along a bottle of wine, Pouilly-Fuisse. I learned she seldom drank, but she seemed impressed and suggested we open the bottle and celebrate. Of course, she had no corkscrew. She suggested she might borrow one for a neighbor, but I told her I thought I had a solution. I ran out to my car. Ever the Boy Scout, I had a Swiss-army knife with a corkscrew attachment in my glove compartment.    

On Easter Sunday, I was invited to dinner with her family on Pittsburgh’s Southside. When we arrived at her parents’ home, her brothers were watching a documentary on a race car driver, Elliott Forbes-Robinson.  Although I had never been a big fan of racing, I knew him. When I was working for the Boy Scouts, he was an assistant Scoutmaster on a troop on Lake Norman. I recalled the story of meeting him, at a scout camp. When he told me he was a race car driver, I asked if he raced at Hickory speedway. Hickory was a step up from the dirt tracks of the South, but most of the drivers were still amateurs. “No,” he said, “I have not raced there.” “Where do you race?” I asked. He started listing off an impressive list of cities with Cam-Am and such races. I stood there thinking, “Yeah, right, and I’m Daniel Boone.” I later learned he really was a race car driver, although at the time he didn’t drive NASCAR. He did drive those fancy cars and was one of the top drivers in the world. He had a boy in scouts and as he wasn’t racing that week, had come to camp with his son’s troop. Telling the story, Debbie’s brothers learned that I really wasn’t a racing fan, but they were impressed that I had personally met one of the greats. 

Over the next few weeks, we began having lunch together in the dining hall and went out every weekend. I suggested a Saturday afternoon baseball game and she was up for it. When I arrived to pick her up, she handed me two tickets! I didn’t know what to say, but as a poor student was thankful. Then I looked at the seats and was humbled. Her brother worked for one of the high-end hotels in Pittsburgh and they had tickets that no one had claimed so he gave them to Debbie for us to enjoy. We sat directly behind home plate, five rows up. I never had such good seats for a major league game. It’s easy to love a girl whose brother arranges to cover the expenses of a date.  

Later that evening, Debbie and I walked up a hill and held hands as we watched the sun set. I felt as if I was the luckiest man in the world.

Debbie was close to her family and on another weekend, she and her brothers had given their mother an evening ride in a balloon across Southwestern Pennsylvania. When the mother got in the basket with a few other sightseers and a pilot, we raced along the countryside following the balloon until they finally set down in a cow pasture and we retrieved her mother. This would be a lot easier today, with cell phones, but this was 1987.

The day I left school at the end of the semester, we had breakfast together at a local King’s Restaurant. I wanted to do something special and had purchased some of her favorite perfume, hoping that as she used it, she would remember me. She seemed pleased and we even talked about her meeting up with me in Delaware Water Gap as I hiked the Appalachian Trail. Although we were not in a committed relationship, we talked about picking up where we were at in September.

After breakfast, I drove to my parents in North Carolina and a week later, started my summer hike from Virginia to Maine. At first, she wrote and seemed excited when I called, but as I continued to hike, I heard less and less from her. I knew something was up. Even though I had started hiking with the thoughts of coming back to her arms, I realized this was not going to be the case. When I arrived back at school, I was on cloud nine, having just finished my summer hike, essentially completing the Appalachian Trail completed (I still had a 25-mile section down south to complete). That first day back everyone seemed concerned about how I was going to take being dropped, but I had given up on her mid-way through the summer. I learned she had connected with someone at a wedding (they may had known each other before) and was engaged. One of the kindness things that happened was the Dean inviting me out to lunch. He, too, was concerned with how I was handling things, but we mostly talked about my hike as my head was still in the mountains. After a summer of hiking, our short romance seemed light-years away.

A few years ago, Debbie sent me a message and a friendship request via Facebook. A quarter century had passed as she left her position as the Dean’s secretary shortly after I’d returned from hiking the trail. We chatted a few times and I learned her marriage had been horrible and she had spent most of her life on her own, but that she was blessed with a couple of boys who are now adults. She apologized for having treated me horribly. I thanked her for the apology but told her my life had continued and was going well. Then she told me about the breast cancer. Over the years since that chat, I would occasionally learn through Facebook about how each new treatment was less effective. But she was strong in her faith and always maintained a positive outlook, but at times she’d ask for prayers, and I would pray. In early May, the disease finally took her, and I found myself shedding tears. She was a beautiful woman who was so proud of her boys (her sons and her brothers). I felt a small piece of their pain.   

We’re called to be farmers

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
June 19, 2022
Luke 8:1-15

Recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, June 17, 2022

At the beginning of worship:

Does everyone have their gardens planted? I transplanted eggplants and winter squash this week, which I’d started indoors by seed. That’s the last for my garden until later in the summer when I’ll replant lettuce, turnips, and beets for the fall. Today’s theme is about planting, but not just about putting seeds in the ground. How do we plant the seeds of God’s hope and grace into the minds and hearts of others? 

We all know that Jesus calls disciples to fish for people, right? But that’s just in Matthew and Mark’s gospel. We’re called also to be Sowers of God’s word and that’s in all three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.[1] But how do we sow God’s word? Ponder this question this morning. I’d love to hear your ideas. This also might be something to talk about with one another after worship. 

Before reading the scripture:

Last week, we saw a woman break the social customs of the day by crashing a dinner party and anointing Jesus’ feet.[2] Today, as we move into the 8th chapter of Luke, we learn Jesus and the disciples are also accompanied by woman as they travel and teach. Luke focuses on women in Jesus’ ministry. He also often places contrasting stories side by side, as he does here with the story of the forgiven woman followed by women travelling with Jesus and supporting his ministry.[3]

Our reading today is about sharing the gospel. That’s what the disciples, including the women, are doing. And it’s what we’re called to do. Yet, we’re not always successful, as we see in this parable. But that’s okay. We’re called to try in good faith. Ultimately, when it comes to salvation, God is in charge. 

Read Luke 8:1-15

The Call to be a Teacher

If you want to make a difference in the world, there probably no better occupation, calling, or vocation than to be a teacher. Think back on your lives. Parents aside, in our younger years, teachers probably influenced our life more than anyone else. In addition to giving us the knowledge we need to make it through life, good teachers show us they care and instills in us curiosity for the world and compassion for others. 

Ms. Freeman

My family moved during the summer between my third and fourth grade. It was traumatic to leave friends and my old school behind and to start over again at Bradley Creek Elementary School. 

My teacher in the fourth grade, Ms Freeman, made all the difference. I struggled making friends in this new school and did not do well academically. My conduct grades were even more atrocious. Unbeknownst to be, Ms. Freeman got permission from my parents to keep me after school one day. I’ll never forget, when all the kids left class and headed to the bus. I was told to remain behind. I felt rejected. 

But Ms. Freeman won me over that afternoon by going to the teachers’ lounge and fetching us both a Pepsi-Cola. I was a cheap date! We visited about the changes going on in my life. Then she gave me a ride home. I think she had a hot new mustang. If not, it was some spiffy new car. From then on, Ms. Freeman was more than a teacher. She was a friend.

I have not seen or heard of her since I finished elementary school at Bradley Creek a few years later. Hopefully, she knows I and many in the class turned out okay. Others, at least one other that I know of, was big disappointment. He’ll probably spend the rest of his life behind bars. Sadly, that’s how it goes. Some seeds fall in good soil, some don’t. 

Parable of the Sower:

Where do we see ourselves in this parable? I suggest that we’re to be the Sower. For you know, when you bury a seed in the ground, you lose control. We trust the soil. We have faith, as the seed magically dies to come alive in a new plant. 

You know, it was hard for the disciples and those around Jesus to see so many people who did not receive our Savior’s message. They were close to Jesus and saw him change lives. But others seem unaffected. This bothered them.

Jesus answers a lingering question

The question still lingers today. Why do some people accept the Jesus’ message while others ignore it? And then there are those who outright reject it? Many, especially new Christians, become excited about Jesus and wonder why no one else seems to share their excitement. After all, they tasted the bread of life, they’ve realized that their lives have been redeemed, saved. With this new and euphoric experience, they wonder why the world doesn’t embrace Jesus’ message. After all, it would solve a lot of problems. But, as it is, not everyone accepts the gospel.  

The parable of the Sower addresses this lingering question as to why some ignore the gospel, why others seem to accept it only to fall away, and why the gospel message in other blossoms. There’s a crowd of people around Jesus when he tells this story. Many of them, we can assume, were farmers. They knew what it meant to sow seed. 

Farming in the first century:

Farming in the first century was different. They didn’t have fancy farm implements: plows, disks, grain drills, planters, and cultivators. First century farmers didn’t first plow their fields; instead, they literally sowed seed by tossing it over the land. Then they came back and, with a rough prototype of a plow, disturbed the ground a bit, kicking dirt up over the seeds, so that they might sprout and grow. 

Of course, with this primitive style of agriculture, some seeds did fall on the path and were either trampled or eaten by birds before they were covered with dirt and allow to germinate.  Other seeds fell in with the weeds and the nutgrass which overwhelmed the plants before they had a chance to produce. Others fell among the rocks and couldn’t establish solid roots. But there were a few seeds that landed in good soil. They made an incredible harvest.

What’s Jesus’ driving at?

Listening to this parable, I’m sure many wondered what Jesus was driving at. Certainly, they knew what he was talking about, in a literal sense. They’d either sowed many a seed themselves or they’d seen farmers at work. When Jesus interprets the seed in the story to represent the word of God, many who heard the parable probably worried whether they were in good or bad soil. In other words, will the gospel take root in me, or will I turn away in despair? Therefore, they ask Jesus to explain his story. 

Explanation of the parable:

From Jesus’ explanation, we learn the intention of this parable is not for us to worry and wonder about our faith. Instead, the parable addresses the concern Jesus’ followers have about not everyone responding to the gospel.   Not everyone hears Christ’s call—and not everyone who hears takes his word to heart. But just as the Sower continues to plant even though he knows that not every seed will grow into a fruitful plant, we too must continue our work. In other words, instead of worrying about what type of soil we’re rooted in, we should see ourselves as the Sower. We’ve been called to share the gospel, which is to sow the seeds of faith. When we sow such seeds, we can’t control the outcome.

Responsibility to be faithful:

When we see ourselves as the Sower in the story, we understand we have a responsibility. Our task as Christians, is to be faithful, not successful. Because we don’t know when or where a particular seed might germinate, we carry out our tasks and trust God will bless our efforts. This takes a big burden off our shoulders, for we are just laborers in God’s Garden. 

Proclamation and listening required

For the gospel to germinate, it requires two things: People must hear. Believers must tell others. But the other person must hear and understand.[4] We control only our message. It’s up to the listener and the Holy Spirit to ensure the message is heard and understood.[5] We participate in the sowing of seeds and in the harvest, but God is the one who brings about the bounty. Faithfully carrying out our call is all that is asked of us.  

Sowing seeds today:

So how do we sow seeds? Let me suggest two ways. First, if people see us living a godly life, putting our trust and faith in God, then we’re sowing seeds. Sometimes it might go against the grain of who we are to trust in God. We should live within the Platonic idea that it is better for our soul’s sake even to suffer wrong than for us to do wrong.[6] That’s having faith, putting our trust in the Lord. Furthermore, without us bragging or being showy, people should see signs of fruit from our lives as they witness our kindness and gentleness. 

A second way we sow seeds is to tell others about Jesus. We do this by inviting people to church where they can learn about Jesus. But we should also be ready when called upon to give a testimony. What does it mean for us to be a Christian? Can we articulate to others why we place our faith in Jesus? Can we share what it means to us to trust him, to follow him? 

An elevator speech

One thing you might try this week, to help you grow in your faith, is to write out an “elevator speech”? An elevator speech is a brief sales pitch for an idea. It’s short enough to share with someone in the time you have together in an elevator ride. What about your faith that is important to you that you would be willing to share with others? Write it down, keep it short and simple, then if you’re ever called upon to give a testimony, you’ll be ready. Here is my attempt at an elevator speech: 

I’m a sinful man. While I am not worthy of the grace God has shown me through Jesus Christ, I am grateful Christ died for me and called me as not just a disciple but a minister within his church. I am grateful God’s Spirit surrounds me even when I am unaware of such presence. Out of gratitude, I do what I can to bring glory to God though Jesus Christ, my Savior and Lord, by loving God and others. 

If people see us living a godly life, a life of faith, then we’re sowing seeds. If people see us living a life that’s not so godly, one where we don’t put our faith in God, we’ll be sowing weeds rather than seeds. Let’s sow good seeds. Amen.

[1] Jesus call for the disciples to become “fisherman is found in Matthew 4:18-22 and Mark 1:16-20. The Parable of the Sower is found in Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; Mark 4:1-9, 13-20; and Luke 8:4-15. 

[2] See

[3]Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation, A Bible-Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 106. Another example of Luke placing contrasting stories back-to-back: The blind beggar and rich Zacchaeus (18:35-19:10).

[4] Craddock, 111. 

[5] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 240. 

[6] Arthur Herman, The Cavet and the Light: Plato Verses Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization. (2013). 

Travel with us this summer as we learn what it means to share the good news

Three reviews: Democracy, Beza, & Tides

Anne Applebaum, The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

(2020: New York: Anchor Books, 2021), 206 pages including notes. No index or bibliography. 

This is an important book for understanding much of what is happening in our world. However, at first, I wondered what I was getting into as Applebaum describes a party she and her husband held on New Year’s Eve 1999. She reveals her guest list and a bit about the menu. Then, as I read deeper into the book, she describes how many of those at the party went in separate directions over the next two decades. She comes back to the dinner party motif throughout the books. Parts of this book felt like a travelogue memoir as she wrote about her connection to well-known names in European politics along with meals she shared with them. But between these personal stories, Applebaum makes important observations. Conservatism has moved from its traditional Burkean views to a fascination with authoritarianism.  

In the United States and the United Kingdom, the new right has broken with the old fashioned Burkean small-c conservatism that is suspicious of rapid change in all its forms. Although they hate the phrase, the new right is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass, or undermine existing institutions, or destroy what exists. (page 20)

Applebaum, an American married to a Polish politician and diplomat, has lives much of her life in Britain and Poland. Once a Reagan Republican, she confesses to have left the Republican party over two issues: Sarah Palin (who kept her from supporting her hero, John McCain), and the use of torture in the war on terror. In this book, she notes how many of those she’s known through her political connections are divided over current politics within the Republican party. However, much of this book isn’t about America. She writes extensively about the politics in Poland, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and lesser degree about what’s happening in France, Spain, Italy, Brazil among other nations. I would suggest that what’s happening in these countries are important, especially since the American Conservative Union’s CPAC just held a meeting in Hungary. There, they were welcomed with wide arms by Viktor Orban, the nation’s authoritarian leader. While America is discussed throughout this book, only in the chapter “Prairie Fires” does she extensively cover what has happened in our nation in the recent past.  

I recommend this book and would enjoy discussing it with others. I wished Applebaum had included an index and a bibliography. This is the second book I’ve read by her this year. In February, as it appeared there would be war in Ukraine, I read her masterful work, Red FamineWhile Twilight is good, and probably pertains more to America’s future, I highly recommend Red Famine to understand what’s happen right now in Ukraine.

Here are some of my takeaways: 

  • Simplicity makes conspiracy theories attractive. Complexity and nuances are difficult for people to accept and understand. (see pages 45 and 106)
  • The optimism of the 90s, after the end of the Cold War, has disappeared
  • Conservativism has lost its optimistic views of the future (example, it no longer buys into Reagan’s “America as a shining beacon,” not as an ideal achieved, but as one to strive to live into)
  • There is nothing exceptional about “American exceptionalism” as it is currently defined.
  • Societies are always in a state of flux (meaning of government, national understanding of a country, etc, must constantly be redefined)
  • As we move beyond COVID, the future is not clear. Can democratic ideals be revigorated or will we move toward authoritarian institutions? (pages 185-186)
  • Although it is difficult work, we must still strive for “apathy” is deadening, “mind-numbing,” and “Soul-destroying.” (!87). 

Shawn D. Wright, Theodore Beza: The Man and the Myth 

(Great Britain: Christian Focus Publication, 2015), 256 pages. Discussion questions after each chapter. No notes, bibliography or index. 

Theodore Beza was John Calvin’s successor in Geneva after the Reformer’s death. Wright wrote this book to refute a popular notion that Beza moved away from Calvin’s teaching as he took the Reformed movement into a more scholastic direction. While I am not convinced that Wright succeeded with his stated purpose, he introduces Beza to a new generation by outlining his life and his major theological positions. For this reason, I am glad to have read Wright’s work. 

Like Calvin, Beza was French. Unlike Calvin, who died long before the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (1572), Beza’s Geneva had a front row seat to the autocracies committed upon the Protestants in France. This troublesome event, along with living through plagues, certainly colored Beza’s worldview. 

From what I understand from Wright, Beza had a more vivid “eschatology vision” than Calvin. But, as I just pointed out, his ministry was in a different era. Furthermore, from how Wright presents Beza theology, it appears that the younger pastor in Geneva spent more time dealing with “double predestination” than Calvin. It also appears he wrote more about hell, Satan, and the reprobate than Calvin. Having not actually read Beza, I’m not sure I can state this categorically, but from my reading of Wright, it appears this way. While Calvin certainly accepted the idea of double predestination as a means to maintain God’s sovereignty, I don’t remember him dealing with the topic as much as Wright suggests Beza did. 

There were several insights into Beza’s thought I found useful. His four differences between law and gospel are helpful distinctions. He begins noting that law is natural while gospel is supernatural (91). Beza also appears to have been pastoral in his theology. This was seen in both his work on a Christian response to the plague and in his writings on prayer.  I wish I had read the section on plague before COVID, as it could have been very helpful. He makes the case for doing what we can to protect ourselves and our families as well as acknowledging God’s role in all. 

If you’re into theology, I recommend this book. Otherwise, I might look at my next book. 

Jonathan White, Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean

Don Waren, narrator (2017: Audible, 2017), 11 hours 12 minutes.

While I really enjoyed this book, I’m not sure how to catalog it. It’s part travelogue, as White travels to globe to experience various tide phenomenon. It’s part historical narrative as the author discusses various understandings to tide theory, from the ancient world myths to the present. There’s a part of the book that is an astrological primer, as we learn of the moon and sun’s role in creating tide. But in addition to the pull heavenly bodies, there’s also a discussion of the role of geology, wave theory, and how vibration (resonance) effects tides. And after explaining tide theory, Write discusses ecological issues and how tides can help provide power (as it once did in England where it powered many mills around the seacoast).  

A researcher provided the author an example of how tides slosh around the ocean. It’s not all uniform as if the ocean is a pan where the water moves back and forth, from one side to the other. Instead, it’s like having a table full of pans. When someone kicks the leg of the table, the water in each pan sloshes at different rates. Because of other factors like geology, the ocean doesn’t act uniform with the gravity pull of the sun and moon. Some places experience great tides while other places (especially nearer the equator or in lakes), the tides are barely noticeable. 

I learned many things from this book including that spring tides have no relationship to the season, but to an old Anglo-Saxon word that means “to rise or swell or bust.” Spring tides generally occur at New or Full Moons. The opposition, which occur seven days later, are “neap tides.”

Having grown up near the coast in North Carolina, I’ve been aware of tides my whole life. But the coast in North Carolina has only a tide that averages 3 feet.  I also knew that in South Florida, the tides were much less. When I moved to Savannah, I was shocked to realize that its tides were much higher than those to the north or south (the spring tides often being over 10 feet). Sadly, Wright does not discuss the tides within the blight (indention) along the Georgia coast that creates larger tides by forcing in more water. While he writes about using tide for energy, he doesn’t mention the way rice farmers would use a series of locks and dikes around the coast tidal rivers to flood fields. This practice was done in the American South, and was probably brought into use by the slaves who learned such skill along the African coast.

A ten-foot tide might seem to be a lot, but there are places in the world where tides can be as high as 50 feet! Another interesting phenomenon are tidal bores. Wright travels to the Qiuntang River in China to explore the “Silver Dragon,” a tidal wave that rushes up the river. In another chapter he goes under the ice in the Canadian arctic with an Inuit elder to hunt mussels. With extreme low tides, the natives supplemented their diet by forging under the ice, but they had to be careful to exit the ice caves before they were filled with water. In addition, he explores surfing off California and Hawaii and his own sailing in some of the tidal straits that can be challenging when caught at a time when the tide is running fast. 

Toward the end of the book, he discusses climate change, sea-level rise, and such dangers posed to coastal areas. He visits the Scotland’s Orkney Islands and South Chili to learn about using tides to generate electricity. Interestingly, John Kennedy spoke about using tides in New England to create electricity just weeks before his death.  Kennedy said: 

“The problems of the world cannot possibility be solved by skeptics and cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need people who can dream of things that never was.”

I enjoyed listening to this book and recommend it to anyone interested in the sea. 

All are in need of forgiveness: the seemingly righteous and the obvious sinner

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
June 12, 2022
Luke 7:36-50

At the beginning of worship:

The first great end of the Presbyterian Church is “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”[1] In other words, we’re to bring people into a relationship with Jesus Christ for he is the way to salvation.[2] By teaching and sharing Jesus’ story, we participate with God’s work through the Holy Spirit to help people know Jesus. Everyone needs to understand God’s love for the world as demonstration in the sending of a Son, our Savior and Lord.[3]

Think about your role. How can you help people know Jesus? One way is by inviting them to church or to a church function like a Bible study or a fellowship event. We need to get to know people. We should show people that we’re a pretty good bunch of people and that, like Jesus, we’ll accept them and not be judgmental. For we know Jesus accepted us, faults, and all, as he has called us to repentance and offered his grace. Jesus is gracious to us; we’re to be gracious to others. 

Before the reading of scripture

Today we’re beginning a trip through the middle of Luke’s gospel. In these passages, I will highlight why it is important for people to experience Jesus and our responsibility to bring this about. 

Our text is Luke 7:36-50. 

After Scripture

Everlast, “What’s It’s Like”

While I’m not a big rap fan, one rapper I sometimes listen to is Everlast. A “white” rapper, he’s a good musician. Carlos Santana demands such. I became aware of Everlast through music he made with Santana.[4] Like most rappers, his lyrics contain explicit language. But they also contain a message. If you cleaned up the words, his song, “What’s It’s Like” could be an appropriate hymn to go with today’s text. 

We’re all seen a man at the liquor store beggin’ for your change.
The hair on his face is dirty, dreadlocked and full of mange.
He asks a man for what he could spare with shame in his eyes.
“Get a job, you [blankly] slob” is all he replies.

Then comes the chorus. This should make us think:

God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes
‘Cause then you really might now what it’s like to sing the blues
Then you really might know what it’s like…[5]

This song continues with the story of a pregnant teenager, a drug addict, and other down and out examples. We also hear the abuse they receive. But what would Jesus say? What would Jesus do?  

How would Jesus treat someone who’s down and out?

Our passage today provides a hint at what our Savior might say to the person down and out. The text makes it clear, the sinful woman who busts into the party isn’t appreciated by anyone but Jesus. 

But maybe turn-around is fair play. After all, this is the second dinner party in Luke’s gospel where Jesus finds himself being judged. The first, thrown by Levi, had a bunch of tax collectors. And the pharisees, witnessing this, complain to Jesus’ disciples, wanting to know why Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners.[6]

Why is Jesus in the home of a Pharisee?

And now Jesus is in the home of a pharisee. We might wonder why Jesus would go to a pharisee’s home. After all, he had a lot of problems with tax pharisees. But it appears Jesus likes Simon. Besides to be in fellowship with one group and not the other, while you’re teaching about love, would show prejudice.[7]

When we set out to right the world, we’re always in danger of just sticking with those who think like us or look like us. And then, our focus becomes myopic. We see the faults of others, and not of ourselves and those like us. Self-righteousness leads us down the wrong path, as we see with Simon. So yes, Jesus eats with those labeled by society as sinners. But Jesus also eats with those seen as righteous. And, knowing their hearts, he knows both need grace.  

This is an important message. Don’t ever think anyone doesn’t need to know about Jesus and his love and grace. We shouldn’t set those who seem to be righteous on a pedestal nor should we look down on those whose faults are so visible to everyone. We don’t know people’s hearts.

Why did Simon invite Jesus

I wonder why Simon invited Jesus to dinner. Simon, with what we’re told in the text, doesn’t seem to be setting Jesus up for entrapment.[8]That happens with others pharisees and in other places in the gospels,[9]but Simon appears genuinely interested in Jesus. He even refers to Jesus as a teacher, or rabbi, a title of honor in the day. “Maybe Jesus is a prophet,” Simon thinks. “After all, it’s been centuries since Israel had a prophet.”[10] I expect Simon feels blessed to be able to spend some quality time with Jesus, getting to know this interesting teacher who has become somewhat of a celebrity.

While I don’t think Simon was out to entrap Jesus, I do think he had certain expectations of him as a guest in his home. 

Simon’s home invaded

Simon may have wondered if his luck had run out when a woman, a known sinner, interrupts his cozy meal with Jesus and a few of his friends. 

Now, let me say something about the woman’s sinfulness. It doesn’t say in the text that she was a prostitute, but throughout the centuries, that’s been her cast. The loose hair and the expensive bottle of perfume seem dead giveaways. But that’s reading into the text our own values. Unmarried women were not expected to wear their hair up and the alabaster jar, for all we know, may have been an inheritance. Furthermore, Luke doesn’t really address prostitution.[11] The only thing we can be certain of is that she was publicly known as a sinner.

The persistent woman  

The woman’s perseverance reminds me of a tiny enthusiastic flea who can worry an entire dog. She’s determined. She forces herself in someone else’s home and positions herself by the guest of honor. Look at the active verbs that indicate her determination: she learned where Jesus was at, she brought ointment, she stood behind his feet, she weptwhile she washed and wiped, kissed, and anointed his feet.[12] Eight strong verbs illustrate her determination. 

The woman’s grit rubs Simon the wrong way. All the while, Jesus remains calm as she washes his feet using only her tears. She dries them with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with ointment. After a lot of walking around Galilee, I’m sure Jesus appreciated such care. But Simon now thinks Jesus is a fraud. A prophet would know better and shoo away such a sinful woman. 

Jesus responds publicly to Simon’s private thoughts

Yet, Simon keeps his thoughts to himself. Jesus, knowing Simon’s thoughts, responds with a parable. To put this parable in modern day terms, two individuals owed the bank money. One owed a five thousand dollars and the other a hundred thousand dollars. The text uses the terms 50 and 500 denarii. A denarii was the rate of pay for a day laborer, which is how I came up with my equivalents in today’s dollars. 

The bank forgives both loans. Fat chance, we say, but remember this a parable, a story told as an example, not an actual incident. Bankers weren’t any more forgiving in the first century than today. 

But for illustration, the banker writes off the debt of both. Jesus asks Simon which individual loved the banker the most. Simon answers, the one forgiven the most.

This sets the stage for Jesus to compare the woman with Simon. Simon, whom we assumed had little for which to be forgiven, didn’t perform any acts of adoration upon Jesus. However, this nameless sinful woman worships him with expensive ointments and her own tears. She shows hospitality beyond that which Simon has shown. “Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus says. “Your faith has saved you; you can go in peace.” 

Jesus’ forgiving sin

The folks sitting around the table are amazed by Jesus’ words. After all, only God can forgive sins, they think. And they’re right, but they just don’t yet know Jesus’ identity. 

Interestingly, our text leaves us hanging. The question of forgiving sins is not addressed in this text. Nor do we know if Simon became a follower of Jesus. Maybe he did. We can only hope. After all, another pharisee, one who appears to have been even more self-righteous than Simon, meets Jesus on the Damarcus Road and becomes the greatest Christian missionary ever.[13]

Lessons from the text

What might we learn from this text? How about this: everyone needs grace. This includes the sinful woman and the honored pharisee. One may be forgiven a little, the other a lot, but both stand in need of forgiveness. 

As Christians, we’re in the forgiveness business. This is why Jesus set up the church: to show grace. Which leads me to a second truth from the text. Never belittle the sinful who seek forgiveness. Instead, we’re to be like the angels who rejoices when even one sinner repents.[14]

May our community of faith be known to be gentle and caring, like Jesus. Amen 

[1] Presbyterian Church, USA, Book of Order (2017-2019), F-1.0304.

[2] John 14:6.

[3] John 3:16. 

[4] Everlast and Santana “Put Your Lights On” was released in 1999 and won a Grammy as the Best Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals at the 42nd Annual Grammy Awards. 

[5] Everlast, “What It’s Like,” on the album Whitey Ford Sings the Blues (1998).

[6] Luke 5:29-30. See James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 226.

[7] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 104. 

[8] Edwards, 226; Craddock, 104. 

[9] Examples: Matthew 12:38f, 15:1f, 16:1f, 19:3, 22:15f; Mark 7:5, 8:11f, 10:2f, 12:13f; Luke 6:7f, 14:1f; John 1:24f.

[10] I’m speaking of a prophet who left writings behind for John the Baptist was a prophet (Matthew 14:5). The last prophet to leave behind writings was Malachi, whose ministry was after Israel returned from Babylonian exile.

[11] Luke’s sole mention of prostitute is 15:30 (Prodigal Son). For more discussion on why we shouldn’t immediately consider her a prostitute, see Edwards, 227-229. Norval Geldenhuys’ considers her a prostitute in his commentary. See The Gospel of Luke NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983 reprint), 236 note 4. 

[12] Edwards, 228.

[13] Edwards, 231.

[14] Luke 15:10.

It’s a foggy morning that that doesn’t keep the birds from singing. May our hearts be as joyful.

Remembering Professor von Waldow

“You have a great opportunity here,” Professor Eberhard von Waldow said on the opening day of class. “You get to learn the language of God in a German accent.” And then, pointing the stick he always brought into class at me, he continued, “And you even get to learn it with a Southern accent.” 

“Was that how they spoke in Judea?” I asked sarcastically. He grinned and continued telling us about the richness of the Hebrew language and how the New Testament was just an appendix to the Old. 

This was in the fall of 1987. There were seven of us in the class and we sat around a long oak table in a conference room at Pittsburgh Seminary. All of us were nervous. With his Prussian roots, von Waldow had a reputation for being verbally abusive to the unprepared. But I signed up for his class because I knew it would be small. I would receive individual attention. In addition, the fear of having him humiliate you was enough to make sure I would do the required work. Throughout the academic year, until May, we met in that classroom. Sadly, today, I remember more of his stories than I do about the language. 

As a young man, “Waldo,” as some of us called him behind his back (in person you always addressed him as either Professor or Doctor) had been a tank commander in the German army. Most of the time he spent on the Eastern Front, fighting the Russians. Wounded in 1944, he returned to Germany to recuperate. He ended the war on the Western front. With a rag-tag army of kids and old men, his orders were to to help stop the advance of the Allies. Realizing the absurdity of this, he surrendered to the British.

After the war, he became a pacifist and finished his university studies. Like his father before him, he became a Lutheran pastor and scholar. He would teach at Pittsburgh for over thirty years. Living in a neighbor that had many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, he had to confront his past. He made friends among the Jewish people. In November 1988, on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, an event in which violence against the Jews broke out across Germany, he spoke in a local synagogue. 

I couldn’t attend his Kristallnacht talk because I was serving First Presbyterian Church of Virginia City, Nevada as a student pastor at the time. However, we occasionally corresponded and he sent me his manuscript (which, over the years, I’ve lost). In it, he describes being in the school at the time when fire fighters stood back and let Jewish synagogues and businesses burn. His father became upset about what was happening. His father would be twice arrested by the Gestapo, but it was a Russian soldier killed him at the end of the war. In his later years, Von Waldow wanted it known that there were Germans who hated all that the Third Reich stood for. Sadly, as a young man out of high school, he had no choice but to report to duty when drafted. 

Eberhard von Waldow occasionally told stories about the war. As an academic, his methodology was steeped in German higher criticism, which many condemn for discounting miracles and divine providence. When asked about his position on miracles, von Waldow told about riding in a tank that had a 500 bomb detonate on the top of the tank’s turret. “I said, “ah, shit” and then couldn’t hear for a few weeks. “But I survived,” he continued. “Some might say it was Krupp armor that saved me, but I know better. Had that bomb landed elsewhere except on the very top of the turret, I wouldn’t be here.”

One day, I wore a pink shirt to class. We were learning about Hebrew vowel points and how certain ones would soften a letter. As a teacher, Von Waldow was quick to come up with illustrations. He pointed to my shirt and said, “Look, Jeff put this white shirt in the wash with a red one and now he has a pink shirt.” I’m sure his conservative Prussian background meant he couldn’t understand a man wearing pink.  

Another time, I made some kind of quip about the German composer Wagner. I knew von Waldow was a classical music lover and a big supporter of public radio, but this didn’t get me any extra points. He went off on a tangent about Wagner. The Third Reich had adopted the music of Wagner and he’d heard enough of this music during the war that he never wanted to hear it again. Now, I wonder if the music might have caused him post-traumatic stress.

The room in which we met had a life-sized portrait of a faculty member from either late in the 19th or early 20th century. Oddly, because this wasn’t really a Presbyterian thing, the guy in the portrait wore a clergy collar. One day, out of the blue, von Waldow came into class and began to berate this portrait for wearing a collar. At this time, several of the Lutheran students at the seminary were wearing collars when they preached or worked in church positions. But von Waldow was too conservative for collars. As a Southerner, I sympathized with von Waldow. Collars were too formal for me. I’ve never worn one. 

Around campus, everyone knew that von Waldow was working on his magus opus, a commentary on the prophet Jeremiah. I took a survey class of Hebrew prophets, taught by Dr. Donald Gowan, another Old Testament professor and prolific author. At the opening of each lecture on a different prophet, Gowan provided a list of commentaries he recommended. The day he lectured on Jeremiah, he confessed he had problems with every commentary available at the time. Then, this man whom I had never heard say anything bad about anyone, said, “When my colleague Eberhard publishes his commentary, I’ll have one to recommend.” He paused and then in almost a whisper continued, “Of course, we’ll all be dead by then.” Sadly, von Waldow never finished his commentary and most of his published writings available today are in German.  

In my second year of seminary, at the time I was studying Hebrew, there was campus debate over how frequently to have communion in chapel. Things became comically heated. As a semi-Calvinist, who leaned toward Zwingli, I found this debate to be fodder for satire. But the seminary President became concern and decided it should be discussed. He called for a community townhall. Faculty were ordered to attend. While von Waldow wasn’t happy about it, he followed orders. 

The day after the long campus meeting, von Waldow marched into Hebrew class, dropped his books on the table, and launched into a tirade about the spectacle. 

“That meeting yesterday was the damnest thing I’ve seen.” Then, contradicting himself, he continued, drawing on his war experiences. “I haven’t seen anything like that since the war. Imagine having a 25-ton tank stuck? We had one buried in mud up to the top of the tracks. You’ve never seen such a mess. But we had the Russians shooting at us and had to do something pretty damn fast. The was the only difference between that meeting yesterday and the war was the shooting. We needed someone shooting to have forced a decision so we could all go home.” 

Eberhard von Waldow would continue to teach at the seminary for a few years after I graduated. He died in 2007 at the age of 83. I’m glad to have known him and while I moved theologically away from his higher Biblical criticism as the only way to approach scripture, I am indebted to his teaching. I probably learned as much about preaching in his Hebrew exegesis class as I did in homiletics. I am also in debt to his story, for it could have gone another way. A man of war became a man of peace. I wish he was here to discuss what’s going on in Ukraine, for there was a time in the 1940s, when he commanded 12 tanks across that terrain. 

Looking back, it’s interesting that von Waldow wasn’t the only faculty member to have served in the German army. Dr. Mauser, our dean, served for a brief period in the German army and I should at some point write about my experiences with him. 

Professor von Walton from

While the memories above are from me, I found these articles on the internet to be useful and insightful:

Bill Steigerward, “The Nazi Take Commander who became an American Peacenik” (this article originally appeared in Pittsburgh newspaper in June, 1994).

Mark J. Englund-Kriger, “In Memory of Professor Eberhard von Waldow”. A blog post from January 8, 2008.

A letter in Horizons in Biblical Theology.  January 1993, this letter was written at the time of von Waldow’s retirement. 

Obituary, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 19, 2007

Pentecost: Unity in Christ through the Spirit

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Presbyterian Churches 
Genesis 11:1-11
June 5, 2022

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on June 3, 2022

Thoughts at the beginning of worship: 

Scripture teaches that our lives are grounded in God. Adam was a clump of clay until God breathe life into his lungs. Likewise, for the church, as an organization, would’ve been long dead had not God breathe the Spirit into the disciples on Pentecost. God keeps breathing the Spirit into the church. Today, I want you to understand that our hope is not in our efforts. We find hope in God who wants to partner with us in carrying out his mission in the world. That’s the message of Pentecost.

Before the reading of Scripture:

Worship in an Indonesian Pentecostal Church

I attended a 6 AM worship service when I was in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2011. Between Easter and Pentecost, this congregation hosted daily predawn worship services, praying that when Pentecost arrived there would be an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Housed in a high-rise building, the congregation leases two floors. I thought this was unique until I learned the high-rise also housed two other churches as well as a mosque.  

We met in the children’s worship room, where we sat around on the floor while a small praise team led us in songs. The music began contemplative, soft, and reflective, but gradually became more energetic. They sang songs in a variety of languages including English and Dutch. That’s not unusual as Indonesia has more languages than any other country in the world. Interspersed with the music were passages of scripture. Of course, I couldn’t understand the readings, but Petra, the pastor who had invited me, whispered to me the passage so I could find the reading and follow along.  

Blended prayer

After about forty-five minutes of singing and scripture, they began to pray. Everyone, at once, prayed aloud. But this didn’t result in the chaos that you might think as the voices blended to create a unique and beautiful sound. A couple of people moved forward as Petra and the other leaders of the church gathered around them, laying their hands on the shoulders as they prayed. One of the women became excited and suddenly fell backwards, only to be caught and gently lowered to the floor. After about fifteen minutes of praying in all kinds of tongues, Pastor Petra pronounced a benediction. We moved to another room where we enjoyed Javanese coffee and nasi timbel (sweet rice wrapped in banana leaves).

Worship focuses on God

When we worship, God is our audience. We gather and we offer our hearts up to God and when we do so, we believe it pleases to the Almighty. If we think about worship in this manner, the experience of hearing all the various voices of prayer mingled together must be very pleasing to God.  For you see, we’re designed and created in a unique manner by a God who delights in diversity yet draws us together in unity in Jesus Christ. 

Pentecost and Babel

We heard earlier the passage from Acts, the story of the church’s birth. The coming together in Acts is often contrasted with the dispersing of humanity at Babel. Today, I want us to look at this passage from Genesis. It occurs at the end of what is known as the “prehistory” in Genesis. 

Genesis’ Prehistory

It’s hard to take this “prehistory” literally as there are contradictions within the text.[1] But the importance is in the stories, for they provide a foundational meaning to how we are to live with God. After the flood, it appears everyone stuck together and there is a general failure to populate the world, as everyone works together to “build a name for themselves.” After Babel, people go their separate ways. In the next chapter, we see God reaching out to Abram. And what is God’s promise to Abram?  God will bless him and make his name great![2] We have a great name, not because of what we do, but because of whose we are.  

Read Genesis 11:1-9

A Retelling of the Babel Story

God blessed them, and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.’  Genesis 1:28

Instead, the people of the earth joined together and in a singular band traveling across the face of the earth until they found a land of promise. There they settled.  It was a rich valley. As there were no stones, they made bricks with which they constructed a city that included a tower reaching high into the heavens. From what we know, this was the ultimate family reunion. Everyone was together, happy and secure.  

God’s visit

One day God came down to earth to visit. The Almighty investigated the first corner of the world and saw no one. So, God looked around the second corner and again saw no one, and neither did God find anybody in the third. This bothered the Creator. Something was wrong. Hadn’t he instructed the people to fill the earth? As God heads to the fourth corner of the world, he hears celebration. A party! God wonders why he wasn’t invited.  

There, in the middle of the city, a huge tower reaches into the sky. So big and high, the people are proud. But to the Creator, it’s not remarkable. In God’s eyes, it’s small, so small the Almighty must come closer to see it. 

God acts

God isn’t threatened by the tower but knows something must be done. Humans, it seems, are too big for their britches… No telling what these people might do next. So, God mixes up the languages. Soon the architects can’t communicate with the construction engineers. The bricklayers and the plumbers and the drywallers speak different tongues.  

Confusion reigns and people began to leave the city. They form new cities where everyone speaks the same language. “Now,” the Creator thinks, “people will learn to depend on me for their security and they will no longer need the protection provided by brick walls which erode away.”[3]

Is the story about a tower?

I retold the story of the Tower of Babel to clear up several hazy points. First, the tower plays a minor role in the story. But we must admit, there is something about towers that intrigue us. As a child, I loved building towers and continued that love as an adult with my own children. The best restaurants are often at the top of towering buildings. Cities like New York, Chicago, Tokyo, and Shanghai boast of their skyline. There’s something about towers. God never says they’re sinful. 

Or is the story about a city?

The story mostly focuses on the city.[4] We have this image of the people building a tower into the heavens so that they can storm heaven, but that vision comes from the active imagination fueled by Jack and the Beanstalk and renaissance artists. The text never gives us the idea an invasion of heaven is imminent or even contemplated. Instead, the tower serves as the unifying symbol for the residents. “We can do this,” they say to one another as they pat themselves on the back.

The humor in the story

If we pause to consider this story for a minute, you’ll see the humor. Imagine ancient people telling the story around the campfire. It brought smiles to their faces, but also taught an important lesson. The God of the Universe must come down from heaven to check on what we’re doing. This giant tower isn’t large enough to be seen from Outer Space! Of course, this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know what’s happening on earth when he’s in heaven; instead, it is a statement of human inability.  

Sin in the story

Furthermore, the sin in the story isn’t the tower nor the city. The tower and the city are symbols of the people’s sin, as they think their accomplishment speaks well of their abilities. They are proud people who have failed to heed God’s command to fill the earth and have decided they can depend on each other for their needs. There is no need for God. The people in this city never mention God, from what we’re told. They’re going merrily on their way as if they are in control of their own destiny, which in the mind of God is arrogance. 

The division of people into various language groups isn’t just punishment. Instead, the people avoid the potential of a future calamity as God sees to it that the mandate set forth in Genesis is fulfilled.[5]God desires the world to be filled with different people. Diversity is celebrated within God’s kingdom. Unity doesn’t come from human effort but from a common need of all people to look to the Almighty for their security and to worship God for their blessings.  

Jesus Christ, the source of our unity

Unity comes in Jesus Christ who prayed on the night of his betrayal for his disciples’ unity.[6] In the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost, God brings believers into a church that may be split by language, nationality, style, and customs. However, we find unity because we worship the same Lord. 

Language at Pentecost and Babel

We should note a fine difference in the use of language between our stories. In Genesis, the emphasis is on what people can do by communicating together with each other. Such ability enables them to do things on their own without having to depend on God. In Acts, the emphasis isn’t on speaking in tongues (any more than the Genesis story is on the building of a tower), but on people hearing the gospel in their own unique language. These two passages, the scattering of people through language and the bringing together of people on Pentecost, go together. They show our God’s desire for a unity focused on Jesus Christ, not on our own wishes and desires.  

God uses the church to tell the story

On Pentecost, we celebrate the birth of the church, an institution that’s not perfect because God has entrusted it into our hands. Nonetheless, the church is the vehicle God chose to tell the story of his Son to a lost world. We’re a world, as that old song from the 60s goes, “on the eve of destruction.”[7]  

Meaning of Babel

Babel fell into ruin as the people dispersed, but that doesn’t mean that God is against cities or human achievements. The collective ability of humanity is vast as we see in this story. However, we must never forget our limitations and the fact that we need to depend upon the Lord in all things. The word “Babel” means the “gates of God.”[8] We later drew from this word babbling. (What some of you may think I’m doing).

However, far from being a gate of God, in this ancient city from what we know from the text, God wasn’t being considered. This led to their downfall, and it should serve as a reminder to us.  


Giving ourselves the right name isn’t enough; what’s important is how we relate to God. Are we trying to glorify ourselves, or do we live to glorify God? 

Another way to ask this question has to do with our motives. Are we trying to build a name for ourselves or are we content with the name God has given us? Do we give God the glory for our accomplishments, or do we claim them as our own? These questions need to be continuously asked for temptation always suggest we replace God with something else. That’s sinful. That’s idolatry. Amen. 

[1] In Chapter 11, all people live together but in Chapter 10, we learn of Noah’s children going their separate way and starting cities.  

[2] Genesis 11:4 and 12:2.  See Donald E. Gowan, Genesis 1-11: From Eden to Babel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 118.

[3] For the foundation of this story, see Gowan, 115-120 and Walter Bruggemann, Genesis: Interpretations, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 97-104..

[4] Gowan, 115. 

[5] See Bruggemann, 99-101

[6] John 17

[7] “Eve of Destruction” sung by Barry McGuire, 1965.

[8] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,1972), 150.

These day lilies blowing yesterday beside the house have the color of Pentecost

Gardener Spirituality and Olmstead the Gardner: Book Reviews

Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul


(Chicago: Moody Publishing, 2016), 206 pages.

I heard Anderson at the HopeWords Writers Conference I attended in April in Bluefield West Virginia. Another speaker referred this book of hers for its ability to create a sense of place, which is why I chose it as the first of hers to read. Anderson lives with her family on a small farm near Roanoke, Virginia. This book consists of eleven essays that draw on the natural world, especially the rhythms of agriculture. Among the topics Anderson explores include: planting seeds, cultivating grapes and apples, raising honey, appreciating vine-ripe tomatoes, the role of pollinators, and dealing with thorns and thistles. 

In each of these essays, Anderson also explores aspects of our lives and our faith. Some of the themes she explores include having enough and being blessed, trusting God, remaining humble, spiritual maturity, and being an image bearer. Each essay comes back to being humble, a topic she addresses throughout the book. Humility is a challenge for if we think we can accomplish it by ourselves, we have already lost the battle. Just thinking we can overcome pride is prideful. We must depend on God even for our humility, yet we can see how it works through the natural rhythm of life that surrounds us.

A few favorite quotes: 

“Fascinating, while humans were made to rule over the earth, we were also made from the earth. And perhaps even more significantly, we only came alive by God’s Spirit. Without God’s breath in us, we are nothing but a pile of dirt.” (page 65)

When we use fear to persuade a person to decide ‘before it’s too late,’ we make God like a cosmic bully who is just waiting for the opportunity to strike them down.” (page 112)

“The problem with privilege is that we rarely see our own. Because we only know our own experience, we rarely recognize how much we have been given and how much those gifts have smoothed our way.” (page 142)

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in living a worthwhile life, especially those who are interested in our role in the world.  

Others books that I reviewed of authors at the conference:

Makoto Fujimara, Art & Theology

Malcolm Guite, In Every Corner Sing

I still have books to read by Winn Collier and am finishing up a collection of essays by Lewis Brogdon. 

Justin Martin (Richard Ferrone, narrator), Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmstead 

(2010, Audible, 2014, 18 hours and 48 minutes). 

Olmstead, A Man of Accomplishments

Frederick Law Olmstead led an incredible life. He started out as a surveyor, then went to sea, traveling from the east coast to China, then with the health of his father became a farmer, a traveling correspondent before entering the new field of landscape architecture with his work on designing New York’s Central Park. While he would continue in this field the rest of his life, he took time out to run the United States Sanitary Commission (a Red Cross forerunner) during the American Civil War and later operated a gold mine in California. While in California, he became enthralled with Yosemite and lobbied for the sight to be saved for future generations years before John Muir.  His travels in the American South changed his mind on slavery and his books on these travels were probably second to Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in building abolitionist support. Because of this writing popularity in Great Britain, he’s partly credited with keeping England out of the American Civil War. 

Influence on Landscape Design

But what Frederick Law Olmstead is mostly known for is his landscape designs. He felt parks should be for the people and that they should help our emotional state by allowing city dwellers an opportunity to be in nature. Many of his parks and estates still exist and he influenced generations of landscapers who followed him. Not only does he have Central Park (which he designed with Calvert Vaux) to claim, but Brooklyn’s Prospect Park along with parks in Boston, Chicago, Buffalo, Rochester, and a host of other cities. He influenced park designs in San Francisco and other places. With his work in Buffalo, he helped preserve Niagara Falls (sadly, he came upon this a little late, but it appears it was more of a tourist trap in the 19thCentury than today). His landscape ideas shaped Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair and he designed the landscape for the grounds of the Biltmore House near Asheville, North Carolina. The later also helped establish forestry as a scientific study in America. 

Failure in his early life

In a way, Olmstead’s early life was full of failure. Thankfully, he had a wealthy father who helped his son out on many occasions, such as buying farms for him and sending him on fact-finding journeys through Europe. These trips helped prepare Olmstead for his career. His life also had its share of sorry, including his brother’s early death and the deaths of friends. He would later marry Mary, his brother’s wife, and adopt their children. Mary would also give birth to several children, two who died young. His adopted brother’s son, John, and his own natural son, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr, would continue their father’s role as premier landscape architect through the first half of the 20th Century. 

Olmstead was always interested in words and would often look for the right word for a project. Many words we use today came from Olmstead and his associates. His first park in Boston was a marshy area in which he named “the Boston Fens.” Fen is an old English word for marsh and lives on now in baseball with “Fenway Park.” 

Sadly, Olmstead began suffering from some sort of dementia after the Chicago World’s Fair and the creation of Biltmore. He would spend his last years in an institution and died in 1903.

My recommendation

I have been aware of his name for some time. I knew of his work for the Chicago’s World’s Fair from Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. I also knew he designed the Biltmore and Central Park. I had some ideas of his additional work through Nick Offerman’s book, GumptionHe led an amazing life, using his influence to save Yosemite, helping to end slavery, and providing a framework for what would become the American Red Cross. I recommend this book!