Dear Park Ranger: Essays on Manhood, Restlessness, and the Geography of Hope

Review of Dear Park Ranger: Essays on Manhood, Restlessness, and the Geography of Hope By Jeff Darren Muse
Advance Publication Edition
This book will be released on May 6 and is available for preorder.

Cover of the book
Book cover

Through a series of essays, Muse sews together a patchwork memoir of his life in a quilt-like fashion. Some of these stories are humorous and while others are quite sad. Together, they provide important details of Muse’s life as a middle-aged man dealing with life changes along with environmental and racial issues facing our country. Muse looks at how his family background, his love of nature, the authors he’s read, and being a white male influences his views and creates the man he is today. Many of us reading these essays will find a helpful voice as we struggle through similar issues. 

Born in Indiana, Muse is a Hoosier. His father was an alcoholic from rural Kentucky. In several essays, Muse explores his Appalachia roots, from his early travels to his grandparents with his father, to his return to Kentucky as an adult, long after his father’s death. Muse’s parents split when he was a child. He was mostly raised by his mother who struggled raising two boys. Muse found a place for himself playing football.

In college he met a student from Astoria, Oregon. Visiting her home, they took a car trip down the Pacific coast which changed his life. While the relationship didn’t work out, Muse fell in love with the West. Later, he fell in love with Paula, a ranger for the National Park Service. They married. Parts of this book feels like a love-letter to her. However, Muse is careful to protect her. While he mentions the harassment she experienced in the Park Service and the lawsuits, he doesn’t go into detail. Instead, he lets his readers know that’s her story to share. 

Muse has worked in a variety of positions as he followed his wife’s career around the country. His employment mostly involves outdoor education and park interpretation. Starting in the Pacific Northwest, they have also served at Pipe Spring National Monument (where she worked as Muse took seasonal positions at nearby Zion National Park). They have lived in the Upper Midwest, where he worked on a boat taking tourist up the headwaters of the Mississippi. When the National Park assigned her to Charleston, SC, Muse took a job at a local plantation teaching about slavery. This position allows Muse to explore his white privilege and deal with the issue of race. Shocking, the fire towers in the American West, where one seasonal employee lived, are approximately the same size as slave cabins in which whole families lives in the American South. At the end of the essays, Muse and Paula leave the South and return to the West. 

Along his travels, Muse studied creative writing. One of his professors in an MFA program taught “you can only come from one place.” Muse uses this concept to dig into his Hoosier background, but I found myself thinking these combined essays refute this idea. While he’s from Indiana, each new place and experience adds to his experience and combined creates him into the person he has become. While a Hoosier, I think he’s also a Westerner, drawing from the rainy Pacific Northwest and the arid southern deserts. 

As I read these stories, I found myself pondering my own experiences and decisions.  Surprisingly, there are many similarities, such as how a futile attempt to woo woman brought us both into an appreciation of the American West. Muse often quotes authors who have influenced his thinking, and I have read most of their works. Finally, Muse attempts to understand issues of race while working in South Carolina. Growing up Southern, I have been very conscious of race and its role in my life going back to at least the third grade. 

Dear Park Ranger contains eighteen well-crafted essays. I recommend the book, especially for those who enjoy the wilderness or learning how a person’s experiences inform their lives. I was provided an advance review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

The author’s mini biography:

Photo of Jeff Darren Muse
Jeff Darren Muse

From crawdad creeks and public wildlands to college classrooms and prison gardens, Jeff Darren Muse has worked throughout the United States as an environmental educator, historical interpreter, and park ranger. As a writer, he is inspired by Brian Doyle’s dictum: “The essay is a jackdaw, a magpie, a raven. It picks up everything and uses it.” He has published in AscentThe CommonHigh Country News, and River Teeth, among others. Today, while working seasonally as a wilderness ranger in northern New Mexico, Muse lives with his wife where the aspen-studded Sangre de Cristo Mountains tumble into Santa Fe.

1 Peter: The Need for Humble Leaders

Title slide, "Humble leaders needed for a changing world" Background photo shows a budding tree in front of a new moon.

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
March 26, 2023
1 Peter 5

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Thursday, March 23, 2023

At the beginning of worship:

Eric Hoffer once said: “In times of great change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.”[1]

Certainly, the church (and our world) is in flux and change is all around us. We need leaders willing to learn and to risk and to depend on God, not those who consider themselves already learned. Peter, I believe, has something to say about such leaders in today’s text.

Before reading Scripture:

We’re at the end of Peter’s first epistle. In this section he encourages his readers to do four things. We’re

  • to be humble,
  • to cast our anxieties upon God,
  • to be disciplined in our lives, 
  • and to resist evil. 

And he reminds us that God has made a four-fold promise to us. God will 

  • restore us, 
  • support us, 
  • strengthen us, 
  • and establish us (within his kingdom). 

Read 1 Peter 5

A few weeks ago, I received a copy of a privately published book by a friend, Dr. Jim Spindler.[2] Jim was my parish associate when I served First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Michigan. After a career in medicine, he returned to school to prepare himself for ministry. But in truth, he’d been doing ministry for years which should remind us that you don’t have to go to seminary to minister to others. 

Doing ministry before being trained 

Early in his life, Jim thought he might become a missionary, but he soon had children and was involved in practicing medicine and running pharmaceutical medical trials. By the way, this included Rogaine. As my head attests, they were not always successful. But that’s another story. However, he once gave me a Rogaine t-shirt and told me, I should tell people I received the placebo.   

Long before I met Jim, he started participating with mission trips with the Luke’s Society that took him to Eastern Europe and Africa. He also ran mission trips to Honduras and into the interior of the Yucatan. When I accepted the call to Hastings, I joined him on many of these mission trips and learned from him much about compassion and leadership.[3]

Leaders should lead by example

Jim is a wonderful yet humble leader. He’s slowing down, but then age catches up with all of us. He now spends much of his time taking care of his wife. In a way, he’s still leading by example. When he led trips, it wasn’t about Jim. The focus was always on the needs of people we could help. He casted a godly vision. He always worked hard, and he encouraged others. Not only was he open to advice, but he also sought it out so that he could improve the experience of the mission workers and the patients. 

In thirty years of leading short-term mission trips, he took hundreds of people along with scores of physicians, including many residents, into parts of the world beyond the tourist. We not only saw poverty in a new way but were encouraged to meet and engage with the people as valuable children of God. 

Peter speaking on leadership

As Peter wraps up his first epistle, he speaks to the leadership of the churches. I think Spindler meets Peter’s expectations of a Christian leader. 

We often think of leaders as people who are powerful and rule with an iron fist to get things done. But that’s not a Biblical example. Jesus is the antithesis to such leadership. He shoots it down with sayings like the last will be first, and if you want to be great you must be willing to humble yourself in service.[4]

Humility needed in Christian leadership

As one author notes, “Jesus teaches that the church’s leadership should be the polar opposite from those in the world. Authority is always to be that of service.”[5]

Leading God’s flock

In Peter’s last conversation with Jesus as recorded in the gospel of John, Jesus insist that Peter take seriously the feeding of his (Jesus’) flock. Peter got the message and passes it on in this letter, reminding the leaders of the churches to whom the letter was sent to tend the flock of God. 

Review of the text

Interestingly, at this last chapter of the letter, Peter changes voices and writes in the first person, as he reminds his readers that he was a witness to Jesus’ suffering and his glory. Much of this epistle, as I pointed out, is Peter reworking the Roman idea of a household code; that is, how are we to act considering our place in society. But like he’s done elsewhere, Peter turns these codes on their head. Instead of starting with those on the lower stratum of society and working up, he starts at the top, with the church’s leadership.[6]

Elders and shepherds
needlepoint of "The Lord is my Shepherd" done by my grandmother

Peter uses the word “elder” here, from which we obtain the word “Presbyterian.” But it’s clear he’s not talking about old folks, but leaders within the church. Like Jesus had advised him, he advises the leaders among his readers to “tend God’s flock.” The idea of God’s people being sheep is nothing new. In the Old Testament, God was seen as a shepherd guiding Israel. The 23rdPsalm emphasizes this role with the opening line, “The Lord is my shepherd.” In the gospel of John, Jesus is identified as the “good shepherd.”[7] In my living room, there is a needlepoint done by my grandmother when she was a young woman depicting Jesus in this manner. 

Peter takes this a step further and reminds his readers of the earthly role for shepherding leaders. But he also reminds us—pastors and elders—that the sheep we oversee are not ours. (You are not my flock.) We all belong to God and those of us who find ourselves in leadership roles are to tend God’s flock for God, not for our own benefit. 

Furthermore, we are to do this without a desire to gain recognition or reward, but willingly because we have experienced God’s care in our lives. Finally, we carry out such work faithfully, knowing that we are always under the chief shepherd and in the hope that our blessings will come when the Good Shepherd returns.


Regardless of whether we’re a leader, Peter reminds us that we’re all called to a humble life. Recalling a Proverb, writes, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”[8] Again, Peter challenges the Roman structure here, where some were to be honored and everyone else humbled. Within the Christian fellowship, everyone is to be equally humbled because we are all dependent upon the same grace. In time, we’ll be exalted, but until then, we need to be content and trust that God is in control, which is a statement of hope for many in the early church as they were persecuted for their faith in Jesus. 

Our adversary

In verse 8, Peter reminds us of our adversary, a roaring lion, is out to get us. The Message translates this verse as “the Devil is poised to pounce and would like nothing better than to catch you napping.” Evil is a reality, as Peter’s readers know. The reference to a lion on the prowl goes well with the idea of the church made up by sheep. Sheep must stay together, lest they stray and become easy prey for a lion. Likewise, shepherds must remain alert to protect the flock. Evil, as it is represented here as a lion, doesn’t threaten God’s sovereign rule. 

Bringing up the image of a lion encourages his reader to do what’s right. Peter reminds us that God is in control and can be trusted. We just need to stay with the flock. The devil out prowling reminds us of the dangers when we insist on doing things our own way and without Christ. 

 A second reason Peter may place the blame on the Devil at this point is to take the blame off those who are carrying out the persecutions. After all, Peter’s readers could name their adversaries who have persecuted the Christians who lived on the margins of society and with little control.[9] Peter doesn’t want people to seek revenge or to look upon their persecutors with disdain. Instead, the evil one uses these persecutors to carry out his devious deeds. Their complaints aren’t with the individuals who committed such acts, but with a system that that encourages such behavior.[10]

We all face danger and persecution

Peter concludes his remarks with a reminder that Christians all over the world are in danger, but that the suffering won’t be forever. “God will bestow glory upon us,” he promises. It may not sound good to know that you’re suffering with everyone else—that sounds more like misery loves company—but the hope here is that there is a new world coming. Hang on, hold fast to your beliefs, and trust the Lord. 


Peter provides an “eschatological perspective” to suffering. In other words, he points to God’s grace to encourage us to trust in God, even when things are not looking up.[11] In this closing chapter of the epistle, he writes to the leaders, but also to those who are younger (or maturing Christians) who may become leaders. During tough times, we need the church, and the church needs those who can lead and needs to be preparing others who can take their place. We all need to be growing in our faith. What are you doing to help yourself grow as a disciple and as a valuable member of our fellowship. 

Centered and Soaring

Last fall, some 15 people from Mayberry and Bluemont Churches attended a program titled, “Centered and Soaring.” Since then, many of us have been a part of micro-groups that have met for study, sharing and prayer. 

There is another opportunity to learn more about being centered in Christ and soaring within the church on Saturday, April 29. Those who attended the program in the fall should come back to be strengthened in their faith Those who didn’t attend can still come along and learn more about how we can share our faith and do God’s work in the world. I hope you pray about this opportunity and pencil the date in on your calendar, so you’ll have no excuse!  

In all we do, to God be the glory. Amen. 

[1] Tod Bolsinger used this quote in a talk given at the Calvary Partner Network. See

[2] James R. Spindler, MD, Blessed to Be a Blessing (privately published, 2023). 

[3] I recently wrote posted in my blog an article I’d written in 2007 about one such trip to Honduras. Click here to read this post:  

[4] Matthew 18:1-4, Mark 10:42-45, and Luke 22:22-30. 

[5] Christopher A. Hutchinson, Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way Up is Down (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018), 146.

[6] Joel B. Green, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 164. 

[7] John 10:1-18. 

[8] Proverbs 3:34. Peter actually quotes from the Greek Old Testament here, and not from the Hebrew text which is slightly different but with the same meaning. See J. N. D. Kelly, Commentary on the Epistle of Peter and of Jude, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1969), 194. 

[9] Green, 180. 

[10] It has often been pointed out that an unjust system will be problematic for both those in power and those who are denied power. Those denied power feel shame and hate toward the powerful, while those who are in power feel threatened and therefore hate toward those who are denied power. Martin Luther King used this kind of logic and is why he encouraged his followers to love and not hate those in power. See Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 237-242. 

[11] Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 200.

Title Slide.  "New Leaders needed for a changing world.  Photo of the new moon behind budding trees.
New moon and budding trees, photo taken no March 23, 2023

Driving West in ’88

I wrote this back in 2015 and pulled it out as a piece for a memoir. It’s a true event that occurred when I drove West for the first time. On the way out, I stopped first in Nashville, where I met a friend that’d hike with along the Appalachian Trail. Then I headed to St. Louis, where I stayed at my great uncle and wife’s home on the western side of the city. Leaving their home, I was entering land that was new to me (I’d been to St. Louis a few times and once flew into Kansas City for an assignment in St. Joseph. But I had never step foot on the land between Kansas City and California. I’ve attached two photos (somewhat scratched) from that trip across Kansas. Sadly, I never got a photo of the red and black ’55 Buick.

My destination for this trip was to visit a seminary classmate at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, then to Camp Sawtooth in Idaho where I’d spend the summer. From there, I would go on Virginia City, Nevada where I would spend a year as a student pastor. I have posted a number of stories from that time: Becoming a preacher, Matt, Doug, Christmas Eve 1988

A Katy train in Eastern Kansas, photo taken in June 1988.
A Katy Train in Eastern Kansas, June 1988
(copied from a print)

My stomach growls, but I want to get through the congestion of Kansas City and Topeka before stopping to eat. It has been five hours since breakfast outside of St. Louis at Homer and Bebe’s home. Since leaving their home in Pacific, I’ve only stopped for gas and to pick up a new map at the Kansas welcome center. As I put the miles behind me, I’m in unfamiliar territory. I’d spent time in Missouri but had only flown over the vast territory between Missouri and California. 

 As I drive west, I notice a strangely familiar car, a ‘55 Buick with a red body and black top. It’s travelling just a little slower than me. I turned on my blinker and moved into the left lane to pass. When I pull beside the car, I looked over at the driver. His left elbow sticks out of the window, and he holds the steering wheel with his right hand. He’s wearing a white tee-shirt and a beige hard-shelled jungle hat.  

“It can’t be,” I think. 

 I take a second look. Is this an aberration? The car is identical to the first car I remember riding in and the man driving looks just like my dad did when he was younger. I remember as boy fishing in Dunk’s Pond with my dad. He wore that same style of hat and a white t-shirt. And, in the days before air conditioned vehicles, he often hung his left elbow out the window. 

“What had happened to the car and dad’s hat” I wonder as I pulled around the Buick. As I sped down the highway, I kept glancing back in my rear-view mirror, thinking about my dad and wondering about that man who could have been his twin.    

I decide to stop at the next intersection with a place to eat, but after passing a few exits with nothing, I gambled on the next town. I pull off at Paxico. There’s nothing at the interchange, but I followed the signs across the Southern Pacific railroad and then, paralleling the tracks, into a small town with a decisively western feel. The air is stifling hot as the humidity builds, but I need to stretch my legs. I walk the length of the commercial district, the few buildings that still exist each having an awning over a wooden sidewalk to shade those passing by. Then I head out by the railroad tracks and watched a west bound train rush through without slowing down. 

After a few minutes of walking and watching the train, I head back to the bar and grill. It’s cool and dark inside. It takes my eyes a few minutes to adjust as I grab a seat at a table and ordered a hamburger. A radio plays in the background. Between country music songs, there are advertisements for farm implements and reports on crop prices.  At the bar, three men in overalls drink drink beer and discuss the weather, hoping they’ll get some rain out of the storms forecasted for later in the day. I eat, taking it all in. I feel free as I’m on my own and have been racking up the miles.

Thirty minutes later, after paying my bill, I’m back in the car heading west. I watch in fascination as the clouds builds on the horizon. I dreaded this drive across Kansas, but I find myself intrigued by these gentle hills and rich dirt. As the clouds become darker, I notice a bolt of lightning and then another and then it hits. A tremendous wind is blows against my car. I hold on to the steering wheel with both hands. Then comes the rain, racing in sheets across the prairie. Soon, drops of rain and hail pound the roof with such force that it drowns out Steely Dan cassette playing in the car’s stereo. I slow down. Under an overpass, I notice a group of motorcyclists seeking shelter. 

Soon, the storm passes. Steam rises from the highway, making distant views hazy. I pick up speed. Ahead, out of that haze, I see the car again, that 55 Buick. It’s way ahead, but I’m gaining on it.

I will pass him several more times today and even tomorrow morning, the last being just before I leave I-70 and take 1-25 north toward Cheyenne, Wyoming. 

Sunset and utility poles in western Kansas, June 1988
Sunset over western Kansas (copied from a print photo)

Peter advice to those who suffer

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Church
March 19, 2023
1 Peter 4:12-19

Sermon taped at Mayberry Church on Friday, March 17, 2023

Before reading scripture:

We’re down to the final two sermons from Peter’s first epistle. Our passage starts out with Peter telling his audience not to be surprised at the fiery ordeal they face. As I’ve pointed out all along, these Christians lived on the margin of society and faced persecution. Once again, Peter encourages them (and us) to stand tall when suffering for righteous reasons.  

Read 1 Peter 4:12-19

Suffering today 

There’s plenty of bad news about suffering in this world. There are wars in Ukraine, Syria, and in the horn of Africa. Think of all the innocent people caught up in the violence. Some countries treat their own people horribly, such as North Korea. Those who disagree with leaders in many countries find themselves in hot water. Other countries treat minorities terrible, especially Myanmar but when you really consider it, it’s true of many nations and own record isn’t great. 

Then there are natural disasters. From floods in California to earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, there’s plenty of suffering to go around. Children are born with birth defects or addicted to illicit drugs. Banks fail. As the technology sector of our economy entrenches, employees find themselves without a job. Fruit trees prematurely bloomed, followed by a freeze and the harvest might not be as good as in previous years. Farmers will be hurt, and we’ll miss having good fruit.  People get sick and die. 

If we want to hear about suffering, we don’t have to go far. Sometimes it might feel as if God’s off on vacation.

But what if we turned this around? The Message translation begins our passage this way: 

Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.[1]

Two (or maybe three) kinds of suffering 

From the way Peter begins this section, we can assume Christians in Asia Minor were surprised at their situation. The “fiery ordeal” Peter speaks about isn’t a natural disaster or even a war. They’re facing persecution because of their faith in Jesus Christ and for that, Peter tells them to rejoice, to be glad. I suggest it’s easier said than done, but we should consider what Peter is saying.

Peter also distinguishes between two different reasons for suffering. We suffer because of our own actions, and we may suffer because of our affiliation with Jesus. It’s obvious that Peter is not addressing innocent suffering here, such as a natural disaster or even wars which are beyond our control and affect everyone nearby. 

I wonder, however, if some in the intended community to which this letter was written had a criminal background. If so, did they think their suffering unjustified. Maybe they thought by coming to Christ, who forgives sins, they should be immune from the consequences of their actions. Going back to the beginning, the church has always been a haven that embraces the guilty. After all, Jesus certainly didn’t have a problem eating and hanging out with well-known sinners. 

But embracing Christ and being free from the eternal consequences of your sin doesn’t mean that the state won’t demand payment. Earlier in this letter, Peter encouraged everyone to honor the state,[2] so those guilty of murder, stealing, or other criminal behavior should expect punishment and not consider such punishment as noble or done on Christ’s behalf.    

Suffering for Jesus

But there were also those genuinely suffering on Christ’s behalf and they, Peter says, will be blessed. It’s not a disgrace to face persecution as a Christian; instead, we should count it as an honor for we are following in our Lord’s footsteps. 

I’ve always felt Americans who claim persecution trivialized their situations. However, I admit, there are Christians in America persecuted or suffering for their belief in Jesus. Sometimes, such persecution is carried out by the church. The one persecuted stands against what’s going on and suffered the consequences. 

Two that immediately comes to mind are Beth Moore and Russell Moore (they’re not related to each other). Beth led a revival in women’s ministry. Russell, in charge of ethics and social witness within his denomination, called those in power to a higher standard. Russell lost his job for standing up for what he felt was right. Beth lost her publisher.[3] So, while we may not be in danger of martyrdom, we can still suffer for our beliefs if we take seriously Jesus’ teachings. 

God’s pending judgment

In verse 17, Peter returns to another familiar theme of his letter, Christ’s return and judgment. Here Peter emphasizes that God is still in control. The way he says this, “that God is bringing about this judgment,” sounds harsh to our ears. Is this God’s will? 

We think of judgment as harsh, but if we hear it from the ears of those experiencing injustice, we’ll see that such a view reminds them that God is in charge. Their persecutors may think they’re in control, but they’re only fooling themselves. Furthermore, this serves as a reminder to us. If we think we can run roughshod over others, we may get away with it for the time being, but sooner or later we will be held accountable for our actions. 

Carrying on this line of thought, Peter reminds his readers that if it is hard for the righteous to be saved, it’s going to be worst for the ungodly and sinners. Peter’s view here is that we’re all going to be judged. Certainly, Peter knows our salvation is through Jesus Christ, not through our own actions, but he wants to encourage his readers by reminding them that those who flaunt God’s decrees will be in for a rude awakening. Peter then ends this passage with a call for his readers to accept their suffering while embracing their faithful Creator and continuing to do what is right. 

Pure Heathen Mischief

Martin Clark served as judge in Patrick County for many years. He’s also a published novelist. I love his story about getting published. It took him fifteen years to find someone to publish his first book. After many failed attempts, he told God that if the book was published, he’d give all the profits back to his local church. He kept his promise.[4]

Unjust suffering

In his second book, Plain Heathen Mischief, Joel King is the defrocked pastor of Roanoke’s First Baptist Church. After doing six months in prison for an inappropriate relationship with a minor, his wife divorces him. Everything falls in around him, even though he wasn’t guilty of the crime. 

Edmund is the only member of the church to stand by him. Edmund is traveling west on business and offers Joel a ride to his sister’s home in Montana. It turns out that Edmund is also a conman. Along the way, he pitches an idea for Joel to quickly make a couple hundred thousand dollars. 

Joel doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. He wants to rebuild his life honestly. But once he gets to Montana, he finds his sister, whose husband recently left, struggling. Because of his record, nobody will hire him. The only job he can find is as a dishwasher. And then, he’s assigned to a crooked parole officer who demands that Joel not only pay his fine, but that he always bring extra cash in a blank envelope in which the parole officer pockets… Sinking and feeling trapped, Joel decides to take Edmund up on his offer.  

Suffering justly

Edmund and an attorney in Las Vegas are involved with a cleaning service that has access to huge homes whose occupants often spent months away. The plan is for these “cleaners,” to “borrow” jewelry from the homes and give it to Joel. Joel takes our insurance on the jewels, telling the agent he inherited the jewelry from his mother. Then, Edmund sets up a fake robbery. The jewelry is returned to the home from which it was “borrowed.” Joel files an insurance claim. When he gets a check, he splits the money with Edmund.   

Everything goes smooth until the FBI comes knocking. By the way, I should let you know that this book is funny and has lots of humorous twists and turns. It turns out some of the jewelry he insured was stolen (that is, stolen before it was re-stolen). These jewels belonged to a European museum. Joel is now an international criminal. 

Joel’s problem is that he kept trying to be in control and make it all work out. By trying to fix things, he gets in way over his head… Finally, he gives in, throws up his hands and confesses everything. Because he cooperates, he receives a light sentence in federal prison.

His sister drives him to Helena where he’s to meet the prison bus to take him to his new home. Joel seems happy as they drive through the mountains. This puzzles his sister. “Joel,” she says, “you’re going to jail. Today. You’re penniless. You’re divorced. You need to enlighten me as to why you’re so chipper.”[5]  

As I mentioned earlier, Joel wasn’t guilty when he was first sent to prison… Getting out, he thought he’d get back on his feet and everything would be alright and that he could handle things, but he learned otherwise. As he prepared to return to prison, this time for a crime he did commit, his suffering turns into joy. He no longer tries to control things. He gives up running. And he still has faith in his Savior. That alone is enough for him to be “chipper” as he prepares to pay the consequences.   

From suffering to rejoicing

Let your sufferings turn into joy! It sounds foolish, but we must remember that we have a Savior who turned the cross inside out, from a cruel instrument of the Empire’s power to the sign of salvation. As the Psalmist says:

“For God’s anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”[6]

How should we live when we’re caught in a cycle of suffering?  In these verses, Peter gives us three responses. First, and as we’ve seen with Joel, we’re to let our suffering give way to joy. Of course, it took him a while to get there, but we’re all hardheaded. Then there are two other ways. By suffering we participate in the suffering of Christ, and finally, we’re to entrust ourselves to the faithful Creator by doing good.[7]  

Suffering as a part of life

Suffering is a part of life. Jesus demonstrates this with his own life. When we suffer, we need to keep our eyes on him. And when others suffer, we need to take a lesson for Peter’s failures, who abandoned Jesus when he was arrested.[8] Unlike Peter, we should stay by those who need our presence, reminding them of God’s faithfulness. 

We might not be able to bring our suffering or the suffering of another to an end. But can change the way we handle it. We can entrust our unjust suffering we face to God as does the Psalmist:

Into your hands I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.[9] Amen.

[1] 1 Peter 4:12-13, The Message. 

[2] 1 Peter 2:13-14.  For my sermon on this text click here.

[3] Beth Moore has a new memoir out by a new publisher that I’ve yet to read. Russell Moore was removed from his position in the Southern Baptist Conference and now works for Christianity Today

[4] This was shared to me in when he sent me this book after I had reviewed his first book, The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living.

[5] Martin Clark, Plain Heathen Mischief (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2004), 393. 

[6] Psalms 30:5.

[7] Joel B. Green, First Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 159-160.

[8] Matthew 26:69-75, Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:54-62, and John 18:15-18 and 25-27. 

[9] Psalm 31:5. See also Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 173. 

Late Winter Sunset, taken on March 17, 2023

Travels, Readings, and Reviews

author sailing on a Rhodes 19 out of Landings Harbor
Sailing out of Landings Harbor

I’ve been gone for the last nine days. Last week, I attended the Theology Matters Conference at Providence Presbyterian on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. This is their third conference and they’ve all had excellent presentations. This was no exception. Then I headed down to Skidaway Island, where I lived outside of Savannah. There I met up with some friends I used to gather with for late Friday afternoon board meetings. I also got in some sailing with other friends. Then I drove up to Wilmington, NC, to see my dad, along with one of my brothers, my sister, and some friends. While the wind kept us off the water, I did do some hiking around Carolina Beach State Park. I came home yesterday. Below, I review three books I read while away: 

Douglas W. Tallamy, The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees

Cover of "The Nature of Oaks"


(Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2021), 197 pages including references, planting guides, and index. Many photos. 

The author moved to a new home in Pennsylvania in 2000. Shortly afterwards, he collected an acorn from a nearby white oak tree. Planting it in a container, it sprouted. After it grew some, he replanted on his property. After 18. years, the white oak is still young, but nearly forty feet tall. He author comes back to this tree, which serves as his laboratory for studies and his example for talking about the lives associated with oaks. This book is organized month by month as we gain insight into what’s happening to the oak as well as those whose lives depend on oaks. Such lives include not just insects and caterpillars living on the oaks, but also birds and other animals that feed such animals. 

This book is a delightful read. While I have known that trees often have bumper crops of acorns and other fruit, I never knew it had a name (masting). I always assumed this phenomenon helped overwhelm animals depending on certain seeds, knowing that they couldn’t eat all of a bumper crop and some seeds will help the plant reproduce. I learned this is only one of three possible answers to the question of “masting.” Nor did I know that blue jays will often bury acorns up to a mile from the oak that produced the seed.  Nor did I know that oaks provide a larger percentage of the insects needed by songbirds to survive than other trees. While I certainly knew that oaks and even more so, birch, hold their leaves sometimes through winter, I know why or that there was a name to describe this phenomenon (marcescent). Even more amazing is Dolbear’s Law, which accounts for how fast crickets chirp based on the temperature. These are just a few of the interesting facts presented by Tallamy in his book of wonder. 

Tallamy warns us of overusing insecticides, which have devastating impact on wildlife (especially birds). He shows how the oak is quiet resultant, often surviving attacks by insects and even plants like mistletoe that live in its limbs. Because of this book, I’m going to find some white oak acorns and plant them on my property! Of course, don’t expect this book to teach you how to tell the difference between a white, red, or black oak. This is not a guidebook, but a book that describes how a specific tree can benefit our world.

Thorpe Moeckel, Down by the Eno, Down by the Haw: A Wonder Almanac

Cover of "Down by the Eno, Down by the Haw"

 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2019), 127 pages.

I picked up this book because when I was younger, I felt the call of the Haw River and wanted to spend as much time as possible running its rapids. I’d never paddled the Eno, but I knew of it. I was expecting to learn more about these two streams. Reading the book, I was shocked to learn that wasn’t what the book is about. Instead, the author who is also a poet, spent a year collecting these thoughts while living in the North Carolina piedmont. He’s drawn into the woods. While he mentions rivers, he doesn’t identify which one. Other times, he’s visiting a pond instead of a river or describes walking in the woods. His focus is to describe in detail what is going own around him. It must have been a year with many hurricanes striking the coast for Moeckel describes their aftermath after they pour out their water over the piedmont and mountains. 

Like The Nature of Oaks, Moeckel divides his thoughts by months. In each month, he makes multiple trips into the woods. He’s observant and his writing reads like a prose poem.  It took me a few months to really get into his writing. By the end, I was sad there were no more months.  To read about my first experience with the Haw and another book review of the river, click here.

Rick Bragg, A Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People

Cover of "The Speckled Beauty"

(2021, Audible), 6 hours and 22 minutes. 

The thing about dog stories which have haunted me since I watch Old Yeller as a kid is that in the end, the dog dies. And I have shed more than my share of tears over the death of dogs, both those I’ve known in life and those I’ve read about. The good thing about this book is that Speck doesn’t die. He lives on with us, still chasing cars and animals and rolling in stinky dead stuff. As Bragg claims, his dog isn’t a “good boy,” but he still uses that term. When Bragg is away from home, his mother, or his brother (who lives next door) are likely to throw Speck in jail (the outdoor pen). But Bragg has a soft heart from this stray dog that showed up one day at his house. The dog was missing an eye and beaten up, having obviously been in a few fights. Bragg cleans him up and as he recovers, takes him to the vet. It was just what a man, who had a host of health issue, needed. He nurses the dog back to health and in a mysterious way, the dog helps him overcome heart and kidney failure, cancer, and other ailments of a man beginning his sixth decade.

I listened to this book. The author reads the story. His slow voice tells the story in a way that I might have been out on the back porch listening. Of course, I wasn’t. I was in a car on a six-hour drive to a conference on Hilton Head Island. While this book might be classified as a memoir of him and his family, he doesn’t focus on himself. Furthermore, Bragg’s humor is often self-effacing. He says he’s living in his mother’s basement (but if I remember correctly, in one of his other books he admits to buying his mother a house and land). And once COVID hits, the dog becomes a cherished companion. 

Bragg will have you laughing and crying, sometimes in the same paragraph. This is how storytelling should be done. 

I highly recommend this and many other books by Rick Bragg. See my review of another of his books, The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s TableMy favorite book by Bragg is Ava’s Man.   

Long leaf pines at Carolina Beach State Park
Long Leaf Pines in Carolina Beach State Park

Pray, Love, Welcome, & Serve

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
March 5, 2023
1 Peter 4:1-11

Sermon taped at Bluemont Church on Friday, March 3, 2023

At the beginning of worship:

This morning, think about this: “how is your life different now that you follow Jesus? To put it another way, what difference does Jesus make in what’s important to you? How does our faith in him and our hope in the life to come change how we live in the present?  

Before reading the sermon:

One of Peter’s concerns in his first epistle is what our lives should look like once we begin following Jesus. Being a Christian means more than just saying the right words about our faith. As Paul says to the Corinthians, if we’re in Christ, we’re a new creature: old things have passed away.[1]

Being a Christian means we look at other people through Jesus’ eyes. We offer grace and show them love even when they don’t deserve it. It also means there are things we do and avoid doing to bring glory to the God who showed us mercy when we didn’t deserve it.

I am going to read the passage today in the Message translation. I like how it translates this passage into contemporary language.[2]

Read 1 Peter 1:1-11 in The Message translation

The early Christians addressed by Peter knew how it felt to be marginalized by others. But then, by following Christ, they had an example. Jesus endured everything they endured and more. Peter encourages his readers, who were suffering, to think of Christ and what he endured as he took on the sins of the world. Then he reminds them to think of their suffering as a “weaning” from their old sinful habits. 

Peter makes it clear that when we become followers of Jesus, there should be a noticeable change in our lives. It’s as simple as this: we go from pleasing ourselves to trying to please God. Peter knows many of his readers have lost friends and perhaps even have been written off by family members for their decision to accept Jesus as Lord. But that’s okay. In other translations, we’re provided a catalogue of things here we should leave behind. The New Revised Standard Version lists them as debauchery, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and idolatry. 

When we give up such behavior, our former friends may want to know what is up with us. “Why be a goodie two-shoes,” they ask? The Message translation captures this perfectly. “Your old friends don’t understand why we don’t join in with the old gang anymore. But you don’t have to give an account to them… They’re the ones who will be called on the carpet—and before God himself.” In other words, instead of us worrying about pleasing them, they should worry about not pleasing God. 

Next, Peter encourages them to listen to the Message. We might say, “hear the good news.” It is a message not just for this life. Even those who have died, who have accepted the message, will discover life. The worldview in which Peter lives is that life on earth is temporary. As I’ve reiterated repeatedly, we’re resident aliens. Sooner or later, we will die. That’s what happens. But for those secure in the grace of Jesus Christ, there will be a world to come. This is the living hope Peter introduced at the beginning of this letter and continues to focus on even here in the fourth chapter.[3]

Our passage begins with a sense of urgency. “Everything is about to be wrapped up,” Peter writes. Time is short so take nothing for granted. Be active and diligent and build up the fellowship by grounding yourselves in four areas: prayer, love, hospitality, and service… 

Peter may have developed these characteristics from his observation of Jesus as he followed our Savior throughout Galilee and Judea. Peter saw Jesus pray continually, often late at night. He remembers how he had trouble staying awake while Jesus sweated blood during his prayers.[4] Peter knew, firsthand, Jesus’ love for all people. He’d seen him reach out even to the outcast. He’d witnessed Jesus’ love for sinners be they women of the night, dishonest tax collectors and even sinful fishermen like him. Jesus cared for those no one else worried about. 

Peter had also witnessed the hospitality shown by Jesus such as when he welcomed the children. And Peter knew of Jesus’ service on behalf of others. He himself helped the Lord fed the five thousand. And he saw Jesus give of himself for the sins of the world. From Jesus, Peter learned firsthand the importance of prayer, love, hospitality, and service.  

Let’s spend some time with the last three items: love, hospitality, and service. Unlike prayer, these three are done only on behalf of others. They are a response to what God has done for us. God helped us, so we help others. 

In the 8th verse, Peter tells us to “love for love makes up for practically anything.” In other translations, its: “love covers up a multitude of sins.” This can be confusing and has been debated throughout the ages.[5] It sounds like we need a little excess love to overcome some of our sins. But if that’s the meaning, it contradicts the over-riding message of grace in the Scriptures. Jesus, alone, atones for our sins. 

But there is another way of understanding this verse. Peter, after all, addresses the characteristics of a Christian community. When he encourages us to maintain love for one another, Peter is not saying our love will wipe away our sins against God. Instead, he refers to our relationships with others. 

Peter knows every community is made up of imperfect people. Imperfect people do and say things that are often thoughtless and sometimes downright cruel. It’s part of our human condition, tainted as we are by sin, which gives us the ability to screw up relationships so easily. Ever since Cain struck Abel, human beings have had a hard time getting along. On the individual level, we fight with our spouses, our children, our parents, our neighbors, our coworkers. And this carries on to a global level.

Understanding this, Peter insists we love one another. For when we love, it is easier to forgive. Think about it in this way, it’s easier to forgive (or at least I hope it is), a spouse or one’s on child than it is to forgive that truck driver who cut you off driving down I-77. Why, because we already have a relationship with them. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t forgive the truck driver, but that’s another subject.  

Peter refers to being a part of the Christian family which is like being in a marriage. I don’t know of a marriage in which the husband and the wife don’t do something to irritate the other. But it’s not the actions of the individuals within a marriage that keep them together. Actions won’t do it. It takes love and commitment. In the same way, we who are in a Christian community are kept together by our love for and commitment to each other and by Christ’s love for us all.

Love may not be the best word here since it’s been so tainted in the English language. The type of love Peter calls for Christians to show one another is agape love. Agape is love that doesn’t seek to possess but to give. Too often we’re concerned about what we possess, wanting and desiring more. We forget the old cliché, “we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” 

The King James Version translates Agape love as charity. Today, a better interpretation might be caring. Look out for each other. Keep the best interest of your sisters and brothers in your heart. 

You know, a caring community has appeal. If our mission is to continue the work of Jesus, it’s imperative we care for each other. It’ll help draw more disciples, for who doesn’t want to be such a fellowship? 

Peter’s next characteristic is hospitality. When Peter wrote this letter, missionaries were running all over in a heroic attempt to tell everyone about Jesus. In the early days of the church these missionaries stayed in the homes of believers. There were not many hotels and even if there had been, few missionaries would have had the resources to stay in one. So, Peter tells Christians to open their homes and set out a table for their brothers and sisters.[6]

The art of Christian hospitality (it’s an art because it that takes practice), is needed more than ever. As a society, few of us are grounded like we once were. At one time, we knew where home was at, but many of us have lived in so many different places, it’s no longer the case.[7] We are often rootless and need the acceptance we find in friendships with other Christians. Today, as much as in the first century, hospitality should be a priority of the church. 

Now, being hospitable doesn’t mean we agree with everyone or all of what someone does. Nor does it mean we condone someone’s sin of choice. Instead, it shows our willingness to befriend others including the unpopular and social outcast in a way that maintains their dignity. In other words, following Jesus’ example, we accept others. 

Then Peter adds an addition to showing hospitality; he says we should do so cheerfully. There must have been some folks who acted hospitable but complained behind their guest’s back. This would never happen today… Yeah, right. But how can we truly be hospitable when we resent what we are doing? 

John Calvin, in writing on this passage, links the ninth and tenth verses together, noting that there is no better way to address our complaints than to “remember that we do not give our own, but only dispense what God has committed to us.”[8] “Be good stewards of God’s grace,” Peter tells us in the tenth verse. “God’s been good to you, therefore pray for one another, care for one another, be considerate of one another, and use what God has given you to serve one another.” Prayer, love, hospitality, and service are traits Peter considers necessary components of the Christian life. 

 In the eleventh verse, Peter adds a fifth trait. He warns us that we must speak as if we’re speaking the very words of God. Think about that before you say something critical or belittling. Then he closes out this section with a doxology—focusing us on the one who should receive all glory and honor. After all, all that we do are to be done for the glory of God. 

Pray regularly, love deeply, show hospitality, and serve one another. That’s our calling from God. Amen.

[1] 1 Corinthians 5:17, KJV.

[2] While the Message refers to the old gang, the traditional translations speak of while we were gentiles. Peter sees Christians as a part of God’s covenant. So, it makes sense from his viewpoint to speak of no longer being gentiles. On the other hand, Paul, whose mission is primarily to the gentiles, speaks of gentiles as Christians. We’re adopted into Christ. It’s a subtle difference. But both Paul and Peter insist that once we became a follower of Jesus, we live differently, which is the meaning of this passage.

[3] See 1 Peter 1:3-12. For my sermon on this passage, see

[4] Matthew 26:36-46.

[5] For a discussion of various ways this passage has been treated, see J. N. D. Kelly, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries: The Epistles of Peter and Jude (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1969), 178.

[6] Kelly, 178-179,

[7] See M. Craig Barnes, Searching for Home: Spirituality for Restless Souls (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).

[8] John Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews and First and Second Peter, 1 Peter 4:10.

a predawn view looking east with the sky red and the trees still bare in winter
Waiting for the sun on this new day