Arriving in Virginia City, 1988

Title Slide for "Arriving in Virginia City" Photo of author in front of First Presbyterian Church and a second photo of the city taken from Flowery Mountain
Mt. Davidson from the tailing piles of the North End mines.

I pulled into Virginia City early in the afternoon. It was a Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, 1988, twenty-four hours after leaving Camp Sawtooth in Idaho. The summer had been idyllic, running a camp with plenty of time to hike in the mountains. Now I was heading again into uncharted territory.

The Drive from the Sawtooth Mountains to Virginia City

The previous afternoon, I’d driven from the camp to Elko on Highway 93. As I crossed the border, I was needing a place to relieve myself. However, I wasn’t sure about going into the casinos at Jackpot. I continued on, finally stopped in Elko, checking into a Motel 6. After diner, in the waning evening hours, I walked around the town watching trains run through and the sun set across the desert. 

Up early the next day, I grabbed breakfast at McDonalds and hit the road. I drove west on Interstate 80, which parallels the Humboldt River across northern Nevada. Stopping for gas in Winnemucca, I noticed a tire was low. I added air and continued, but with an uneasy feeling. Earlier in the summer, I had read a book about pioneers traveling across the 40-mile desert, from the Humboldt Sink to the Washoe River. This was not a place I wanted to have a flat tire. I pulled over in Lovelock and checked the tire again. It was low and leaking. I’d picked up a nail. Thankfully in the center of the tire, so it wasn’t ruined.  I found a garage who patched it in about fifteen minutes while I had lunch. Without losing much time, I was on my way. 

At Fernley, having crossed with 40-mile desert without realizing it, I left the interstate and took Alterative 95 south to Silver Springs.  There, I turned left on Highway 50, heading toward the Sierras. The country was barren and I felt isolated. Shortly before reaching Dayton, I looked up a canyon to the northwest and glimpsed the white “V” high on Mount Davidson, my destination. At Moundhouse, where at night one could see several long red neon lights advertising legal brothels, I turned north on Nevada 341. From there, it’s a steep grade up the mountain to Virginia City.

I drove through the waning town of Silver City and squeezed through Devil’s Gate. This was a crack in a ridge barely large enough for a highway. On both sides of the strip of asphalt were relics of the past. Old headframes for mines, abandon trucks, wooden shacks, and rusty hardware. In an open pit mine, I noticed the old tunnels honeycombing the exposed side of the mountain.

The next town was Gold Hill. From there, the road became extremely steep. I pushed the gas to the floor. My car creeped up the 13% grade that wound around a large open pit mind. Cresting at the Divide, the road dropped slightly. From here, it was known as “C Street, the main drag of Virginia City. After passing the old 4th Ward School, I pulled into a parking place in front of the old wooden church on the south end of town. 

Arriving in town
First Presbyterian Church in 2018

The doors were locked. I was hoping someone would be there, as volunteers tried to keep it open for tourists during the summer season. I looked carefully over the 120-year-old whitewashed building, wondering what I was getting myself into. Slowly I walked around the building. The vacant lots on each side were barren, except for a few hardy weeds attempting to defy the Nevada desert. Broken bottles, bits of rusty iron, and weathered, sun-bleached, chunks of wood, all remnants of an age past where hidden under the weeds.

Afterwards, I stood for a few minutes on the front porch, leaning on the rail, looking east, down Six Mile Canyon. It would become a familiar sight with Sugarloaf, the core of an ancient volcano rising the middle of the canyon. In the distance, a couple thousand feet lower, was an alkali desert simmering under the afternoon sun which I’d just traveled through on Highway 50.

“Well, I better get on with it,” I thought, attempting to encourage myself to walk the boardwalk to the Bucket of Blood, a saloon where I had been told to pick up the keys. The sun was warm and although the peak of the tourist season was over, there were still quite a few sightseers on C Street, vying for the slot machines that stood just inside the doors of all the establishments adjacent to the boardwalk. The noise of the electronic bandits and the smell of the sausage dogs and spilt beer overwhelmed me. I lengthened my stride, sidestepping tourists, quickly covered the three blocks.  

The “Bucket” in 2008

The Bucket, as it’s locally known, is a grand saloon. Except for slot machines, a 20th Century invention, it appeared little had changed since the last century when the mines produced broken men and millionaires. Chandeliers hung from the punched tin ceiling. The wooden bar was adorned with polished brass behind which hung a large mirror. Pictures of another era on the Comstock hung from the walls. I leaned against the bar and asked for Don McBride, the owner of the Bucket and husband of a member of the church. 

“He’s not here,” the bartender said looking at me sideways as he washed glasses.  “Are you Jeff?”  

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“He told me to give you this,” as he handed me an envelope.  I opened it. Onto the bar dropped a set of keys, one for the church, another for a house where I’d be staying, and a third for the post office box. There was a map, a church directory, and a sheet with names and phone numbers for people who might be of help. I returned to my car and drove to the house on B Street.   

Settling in
Where I lived on B Street

The little house the church rented for student pastors, my home for a year, was nothing to write home about. I’d been here in April, staying with Laura and David Stellman, the previous year’s student pastors. I’d flown out for the weekend to check out the position. The house had two small bedrooms, each barely large enough for a full-size bed, along with a living room, kitchen, and bathroom which sported an antique iron tub. None of the floors were level, but this is true for most of the buildings in Virginia City,. Mines held up with rotting timbers honeycomb the ground underneath the city. The earth constantly settles and occasionally sinkholes develop.  

I later learned the house had an interesting history, but for now it was comfortably furnished. There was a chair, couch, coffee table, and bookcase in the living room. There was also a television, but since I never signed up for cable, it remained unused. Both bedrooms had beds. I decided to live in the front bedroom, which had a single bed and enough room for a small desk and a dresser.  The bathroom was off this bedroom, and it also had a small closet. It was warm and stuffy inside. Opening the windows, the regular afternoon breezes began to blow and it was soon comfortable. 

On the Formica kitchen table was a note from the women of the church, welcoming me. They also had left a few groceries. In a box was a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jelly, cooking oil, and a few cans of soup. I looked inside the refrigerator and sure enough, there was a dozen eggs, a carton of milk, some orange juice, along with a six pack of beer and a bottle of wine. 

I walked out to my car and started shuttling the suitcases and boxes that I’d lived out of at camp that summer. When the car was empty, I drove back down to the church. There in a corner of the small narthex were four fruit boxes of books I’d shipped via mail on book rate, along with two larger boxes that I’d shipped via train. Howard, one of the church’s elders and a school principal in Reno had picked them up for me at the Reno station. I’d shipped these boxes in late May, which now seemed a lifetime ago. Curious as to what I’d packed, I hauled them into the house where I began to unpack.

The books quickly filled the shelves. The big boxes contained stuff for the kitchen: utensils, a wok, a coffee maker, all wrapped in dish and bath towels. There was also a light for my desk, a small fan, winter clothes, a couple of blankets, a two sets of sheets, and a few framed photos to make the house look like home.  

By six o’clock, everything was unpacked. I’d even hung the pictures. As I fixed a peanut butter sandwich for dinner, I noticed the house had cooled. The sheer curtains blew in the late afternoon breeze. The sun had long set behind Mount Davison which shadowed the town to the west. The evening appeared pleasant. I ate out on the front steps. I’d been in town nearly four hours and had yet talked to anyone except the bartender. Eating my sandwich and swishing it down with a bottle of beer, I read The Peace Pilgrim.

About halfway through my meal, a man who was obviously drunk and carrying a tutu, stopped by to introduce himself. Virgil Bucchianeri said he was the district attorney. I wasn’t sure whether to believe this man holding a lacy tutu, but he was friendly and wanted to welcome me to the town. He knew I was to be the pastor at the Presbyterian Church. “I’m Catholic,” he said, “but we all get along here.” He had to run, saying he had a rehearsal of a mountain man ballet at the Piper Opera House, which was just down the street beyond the courthouse. Well, I thought to myself, if I was to wear a tutu, I’d probably be drunk, too. I finished my sandwich and picked up my book and continued to read.

Meeting Victor

A little later, another guy walked over. Victor introduced himself and said he had been attending church since moving to Virginia City from Reno a few months earlier. He invited me to go with him down to the Union Brewery. I put my book up and dropped my plate into the sink. We then walked to the bar on the north end of C Street. I learned that Victor was a relatively new attorney in Reno. Although older than me, he had left behind an academic career for law school. He had been in practice for a little over a year, choosing Nevada because it was a state without a law school. He hoped meant there would be less competition. 

A few minutes later we arrived at the Union Brewery. The bar was housed in an old storefront building along C Street. It was long and narrow, rather dark, with wooden floors and plastered walls filled with photographs, bumper stickers. An artificial tree dangled from the punched tin ceiling, decorated with bras patrons had tossed up onto the branches. The bar was decidedly local, with even a sign behind the cash register that read, “Have you been rude to a tourist today?” 

The Union Brewery

We entered and took our places on stools in front of the bar. The bartender brought Victor a non-alcoholic imported beer that they kept on stock for him. Victor introduced me to Julie, telling her that I was the new Presbyterian preacher. She gave me a quizzical look and asked him if I was one of his jokes. Then she asked me what I’d have. When I asked what was on tap, I learned that they made their own beer. This was long before the brewpub concept that taken off. The only homebrew beer I’d had up to this point had been bad, but I decided to try it. She nodded, twisted around, filled up a glass and plopped it in front of me. It was dark with a foamy head.

One sip, and I fell in love with the beer as I’d already fallen for the ballerina-like bartender, with her golden curves and beautiful smile. Julie wore tight fitting jeans and a half-opened shirt. In the low light she seemed angelic, dancing around, keeping everyone glass full, laughing at the jokes, and smiling at the compliments. But up close, the wrinkles around her eyes betrayed her carefree ways. 

I later learned she was married to Rick, the bar owner, who made the beer in the basement. I’d have to keep my admiration to myself. As for the beer, I would later learn it was like being in a relationship with someone suffering with bipolar tendencies. Some days are great, others less so as the quality of the beer varied, depending on Rick’s temperament and sobriety. Word would get around town to avoid the latest batch and I would switch to Sierra Nevada or Anchor Steam for a week or two. 

We didn’t stay very long in the bar that night. We both nursed down one drink as we got to know each other, then headed back to our places on B Street. Victor had to be in the officer early the next morning and I was exhausted from traveling and unpacking. We said our goodbyes as Victor climbed the steps up to his apartment across from the courthouse. I walked south the half block to my new home where I fell into bed.

The Next Morning

I don’t remember anything else until early the next morning when light flooded the room. Sitting on the eastern flank of Mount Davidson, Virginia City catches the first rays of the sun and they all seemed to gather in my room that morning. Having spent the summer in a narrow north-south running canyon surrounded by tall mountains, I wasn’t used to seeing the sun until late morning. Getting up, I went for a walk. It was time to check out my new home.  

Other memoir pieces from this time in my life

Driving West in ’88

Matt, Virginia City 1988

Doug and Elvira: A Pastoral Tale

Christmas Eve 1988

Easter Sunrise Services (a part of this article recalls Easter Sunrise Service in Virginia City in 1989)

The Revivals of A. B. Earle (an academic paper published in American Baptist Historical Society Quarterly, part of his revivals were in Virginia City in 1867)

Looking at Virginia City from Flowery Graveyard (Southeast of the town)

The Freedom of God’s Spirit

Title slide with photo of peanut butter, bread, and a peanut butter sandwich

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
May 28, 2023
Numbers 11:16-30

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on Friday, May 26, 2023

At the beginning of worship:

It’s Pentecost, which is often cited as birthday of the church.[1]It’s also Memorial Day weekend, a time to honor those who gave their life for our country. And while it hasn’t quite felt like it lately with our cool morning temperatures, summer is right around the corner. 

Summer is a season to celebrate. Not only because of God’s Spirit, it’s a season to realize some of God’s greatest gifts: homegrown tomatoes, okra, sweet corn, and evenings to sit outside and listen to nature’s chorus as birds, bugs and frogs sing praises. During summer, we should be even more thankful! 

Before reading the scripture:

Pentecost is about the coming of God’s Spirit. We heard about it in our earlier reading from Acts. God’s Spirit descends and 3000 people are saved. For my sermon this morning, I want us to turn to the Old Testament book of Numbers. (Anyone bring a calculator?) Here we have another occasion in which God’s Spirit moves. 

The Hebrew people are in the wilderness. Having fled Egypt, they wait for the green light to go into the Promised Land. But first, they need to learn a few things. This chapter has several interwoven themes: 

  1. The Hebrews complaint about food (They’re tired of manna and demand meat). 
  2. A worn-out Moses doesn’t know how much of this complaining he can take. 
  3. And God, by all indications, also seems to be weary of complaints. God takes care of Moses while teaching these hardheaded people a lesson they’ll never forget. 

You might want to read the entire chapter later, as it all goes together. I’ll hit the main themes which are in our reading today.

READ 11:16-30

I’ve always loved peanut butter. It’s amazing I still do. 

Learning a lesson

One day, I think it was in the fall of my second-grade year, I was hungry after the academic rigors of the classroom. Coming home, I started digging in the kitchen cabinets to find food. I spotted a large jar of peanut butter, a three pounder. It’d just been opened. There was a bit taken out, but most of the top of the butter was smooth and untouched and so appealing. Seeing no one around, I dug out a finger full. I ate it off my finger and then went for another dip. That’s when my mom entered the kitchen.  

You know, Mom could have been proud of me for taking care of a basic need, hunger, but that’s not the way she operated. She maintained a clean house. In her book, sanitization went along with godliness. Seeing my finger covered with peanut butter, she grabbed the jar and asked, “What do you think you’re doing?” Then Mom the Cop became Mom the Judge. I was given hard time. I had to eat the rest of the jar of peanut butter. For the next month or two, before I could eat whatever we were having for lunch or dinner, I had to down a peanut butter sandwich. No jelly, just peanut butter. That jar of peanut butter was now mine and I had to eat it all! It’s a miracle I still like the stuff. 

Before Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and stuffing, I ate a peanut butter sandwich. Before the Christmas ham, I ate a peanut butter sandwich. By New Years, peanut butter was running out of my nostrils. I felt a special kinship to the Hebrews in the wilderness… 

Threads within the passage

As I mentioned, this passage contains several different threads. The Hebrew children are tired of eating the same thing day after day. An exhausted Moses is tired of leading the people, and a weary God, with a sense of humor, is expected to make everything right. Within these stories, we are provided, on several different levels, an understanding about leadership, human greed, and the ways of God and God’s Spirit.

God’s solution to Moses’ weariness 

God tells Moses to gather seventy elders and to bring them into the tent, the tabernacle, the place where they’re reminded of God’s presence. God wants to relieve Moses’ burdens and plans to do this by taking some of Moses spirit and placing it on the elders. We might assume this will provide them the encouragement they need to help lead.

Furthermore, God promises to help in another way. Hearing the complaints about their bland diet, God promises meat. So much meat, in fact, they’ll get sick of it (just like I got sick of peanut butter). They’ll eat meat until it runs out their noses (thankfully we do not have a potluck dinner today, for this is not a passage to preach on such an occasion). 

Moses questions God’s ability to act

Moses, however, doesn’t worry about them getting sick. Looking around the wilderness, he can’t image how God is going to give a morsel of meat to all these people. It would take a lot of herds to feed everyone, and cattle drives were unknown in the Sinai.  

“Moses,” God asks, “do you think God Almighty is limited in power?” And if you read on ahead in this chapter, you’ll find that God does have the power to work in a seemingly natural way to provide for the people’s needs. God brings forth a great wind that blows in quails and the people feast on stuff game hens and after a month, they’re sick of them.

Moses’ obeys

For now, Moses obeys God. He calls together the seventy elders into the tabernacle. While Moses and the seventy huddle in the tent, the Lord descended in a cloud and takes some of Moses spirit and sprinkles it upon the seventy. I’m not sure why God didn’t just give them some of his own Spirit. Maybe God wants to emphasize Moses’ leadership. 

Then everyone begins to spout prophesies, including two men back at the camp. These guys, it seems, were supposed to be with the rest of the men. We’re not told why they didn’t go to the tent, but they too show signs of the Spirit. People become alarmed. A kid runs to tell Moses about what’s going on. 

Before Moses has a chance to react, Joshua, his second in command, steps in and demands the men be stopped. Moses, however, refuses. Notice how Moses handles this situation. Like God had done to him, he gently rebukes Joshua with a question, “Are you jealous for my sake?”  

God’s Spirit is free

A key to understanding this passage is the truth Jesus taught Nicodemus. The Spirit of God is like the wind and will blow whenever it so desires.[2] We can’t control the wind, no better than the disciples could control the tongues of fire on Pentecost. God’s Spirit is that way. We have no control over it; we’re at God’s mercy. 

Moses’ life is a testimony of trusting God

Moses understands. The life of Moses is a testimony to the power of the Spirit, a power that changes and redirects human lives. Moses is our example. God changed him so that through him, God could offer hope to an entire nation. Moses experiences this power firsthand. While he’ll question God, he knows better than to try to control God,. He’s willing to let the two men continue prophesying.  

Joshua, a Presbyterian?

Joshua, on the other hand, wants everything to be neat and in order. He’s the good Presbyterian in the group.[3] To him, it just doesn’t seem right someone outside the assembled group in the tent would behave in such a fashion. “It’s bad for morale,” he concludes. Maybe he thinks these guys will undermine Moses’ authority. 

We should give Joshua credit, he’s loyal to Moses, but he fails to understand the powers with which they deal. God’s Spirit is beyond even Moses’ control. Ultimately, it’s not loyalty to Moses that matters. The question Joshua should have asked himself, (and we should all ask ourselves) “What is the will of God?” Are we loyal to the God who creates, redeems, and sustains all life?  

Understanding God’s freedom

When we try to control God’s spirit, we get into trouble.  God’s ways are not our ways. We don’t always understand what God is doing, even when God works through us. What’s important is for us to be open for God movement. We need to spend time studying his word and being in fellowship with him and other believers so that when God’s Spirit beckons, we will hear the call and respond. 

Be careful of what we ask

Be open to the leading of God’s Spirit, but there is a second underlying theme that I want us to briefly consider. You’ve heard, I’m sure, the old saying, “be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” This might have been the occasion the proverb was first used. It would be like us praying for rain and getting a flood. Or wanting some peanut butter and having to endure a whole jar. We got to be careful of what we ask and expect from God, we might just get it…

The Hebrew litany 

The Hebrew people constantly bickered with Moses during the Exodus journey. Their litany, which they continually recited, went something like this: 

  • Why did you bring us out here? To be killed by the sword?
  • Why did you bring us out here? To die from thirst? 
  • Why did you bring us out here? To starve to death? 
  • Why did you bring us out here? To die of boredom from a bland diet? 

These people had a hard time trusting the Lord, even though the Lord always came through. God saved them from Pharaoh’s army. God provided water when their lips were parched, and manna when their stomachs growled. But it was never enough! Instead of taking stock with what they had and giving thanks, they always wanted more. And when they had enough, they wanted something better. 

Before demanding more, be thankful

Now, I don’t think it is wrong, in and of itself, to desire better things. Hard work is a good. It’s the foundation of free enterprise capitalism and helps improve our world. But we must be careful! It’s wrong to want more without giving thanks for what we already have. As believers, we must bring our desires into alignment with God’s will. Otherwise, like the Hebrews in the wilderness, we’ll be miserable. Only when we are content with what God supplies, will we find contentment. 

Who should we emulate?

My advice, after considering this passage: 

  • We shouldn’t be like the people of Israel, only looking out for ourselves and wanting more.
  • We also should not be like Joshua, jealous of others with God’s power.
  • Instead, we should strive to be like Moses, open to God’s leading!  
Be ready for the Spirit to act

If we are open to what the Spirit is doing, we too can be good leaders. But we should never forget that it takes more than just us. It takes God’s Spirit working in our lives and in the lives of others. Like Moses, we can never be a leader in a vacuum. We depend on others, and we depend on God’s Spirit if we want to be of use in building up the kingdom. This is what Pentecost is all about: God empowering us to further God’s kingdom. 

We have a God of power who can enable us to do wondrous things. Do you believe it? Are you open to God’s spirit in our lives, in the life of our church, our community and our world?  If so, hang on! God might surprise us still. Amen.

Commentary consulted

Philip J. Budd, Word Biblical Commentary: Numbers (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1984), 122-131.

[1] Pentecost is fifty days after Easter and is also known as Whitsunday. It was also a Jewish celebration and pilgrimage following the wheat harvest. In time it became known as when the giving of the law occurred on Sinai. It was on this day, according to Acts 2, that the faithful had gathered and the Holy Spirit descended upon them, sending the disciples out preaching. This is why some see it as the “birthday” of the church, but that date could also be the date Jesus says that he would build his church upon Peter the Rock (Matthew 16:18), or in the sending out the disciples (Matthew 10:1), or the 70 to do mission (Luke 10:1-10).

[2] John 3:8.

[3] We Presbyterians take seriously what Paul says about “decently and in order.” See 1 Corinthians 14:40.

It seems the old 3 pound jars of peanut butter are now 2 pounds and 8 ounces.

God keeps an eye on those with power

title slide for sermon on Psalm 21 featuring photo of Forbidden City with a temple on a hill overlooking it

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
May 21, 2023
Psalm 21

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, May 19, 2023

During this season of Easter, we’ve explored upbeat Psalms. After all, this is the season of hope. The resurrection of Jesus provides hope. And today, as we look at Psalm 21, it won’t be any different. We have hope because we’re in God’s hands.

But I’ve only scratched the surface of the Psalms. There wonderful thing about this book is that you find all kinds of emotions on display. The Psalmists don’t mind getting angry with God when things do not go their way. And that’s okay. Because even in the harsh Psalms of lament,[1] where the Psalmist expresses anger to God, he continues to engage God. The Psalmists even moves toward God where there is no evidence of God.[2] Such is his trust. Can we so trust God?

Before the reading of scripture:

Psalm 21, which we’re considering today, is one of a sequence of Psalms reminding the Hebrew people of their king’s dependence on God.[3] The king derives his strength from the Lord, which is also a reminder that human kings are always subordinate to Almighty God. When those in power think they earned it or have no one to which they’re to be accountable, we find ourselves heading down the wrong path. That’s more of a dictatorial or totalitarian system of government. According to this passage, the king is reminded not to get too big for his britches. He might have power, but there’s a limit to it, for he is not the source of his power. That comes from God. And God keeps his eyes on those with power.

Read Psalm 21:

Who here got up early on Saturday a few weeks ago to watch the coronation of Charles III?  I couldn’t watch it because I had a presbytery meeting that Saturday, north of Roanoke. I was up early, but on the road… However, I’ve seen the photos. Did you see the one of Charles all decked out on the throne, wearing the crown, and holding the scepter. Beside him was Prince William, the heir apparent, and his son, whom I assume is third in line to the throne. It’s quite a sight to see. They must have worn 25 pounds of metals each, and their clothes and robes must weigh almost as much as they do.  

I’m not sure what to make of Americans who seem to be more interested in the royal family that my friends in the UK. We declared our freedom from kings in the Revolutionary War. While their ceremonies are colorful and can be a pleasure to watch, I prefer our presidential inaugurations. There, everyone wears a dark suit and there are no crowns to be seen unless there happens to be a kid in the crowd who’d just came from Burger King. 

But I do like the fact that the British coronation includes a worship service. The leaders of the Church of England preach before and pray over the new king. However, in a parliamentary monarchy like the United Kingdom, the king or queen have little power. 

Some ancient cultures understood the limit of human power. I’ve shared with you before how, on a hill behind the Forbidden City in Beijing, is a temple. There, where the emperor and family lived for centuries, one of the more elaborate estates ever built for a royalty, is a temple. While we may understand God differently than those in Buddhist tradition, the idea is the same. The emperor needed to be reminded when he looked up on the hill that there was a higher authority. 

The same is true for the building of steeples in small towns and even large cities in North America and Europe. As such structures rose into the sky, they reminded people of a higher power. Throughout the nineteenth century, this was true for most cities in America. But with the development of steel technology and elevators, buildings started rising higher and higher. 

In cities like New York and Chicago commercial buildings began to cast a shadow on the church steeples. In Pittsburgh, you even have the Cathedral of Learning, which rises high above any church. And later someone had the idea to build a Cathedral of Glass, the headquarters of PPG. This building resembles a medieval cathedral but is covered in glass. 

I don’t think the answer to our problems is to go back to where the church steeples were the tallest thing around. Sadly, for too many Christians, competition to building the tallest or the most ornate structure was intense. This, by the way, is very un-Presbyterian (but I must confess there are even some Presbyterian Churches that strove to be the biggest or the more ornate).[4]

In this Psalm, which is written as a prayer, the people are reminded that the “splendor of the royal prom” only reflects the power and glory of God. The shouts of joy from the crowd comes, not just on the king, but on the joy which comes from knowing God.[5]

This Psalm, attributed to David, may have been used at a coronation for a new king. Maybe he wrote it for his son, Solomon. What the Psalm makes it clear that the king is totally under the authority of the divine king. Everything the earthly king is, has, and does comes from God.[6]

While we might think this Psalm doesn’t apply to us since we none of us are a king and we don’t have kings in our form of government, that’s not the case. We can apply this Psalm to ourselves whenever we find ourselves in position of authority. And we can also apply it to others who are in authority over us. This Psalm reminds us that we’re all subject to God’s authority.

But there is also a positive side to the Psalm. When we realize our dependance upon God, we open ourselves up to be blessed by the Almighty… God is gracious. The king is not just a puppet, doing God’s bidding. God blesses him beyond his prayers, giving him “his heart’s desire.” David, the king was said to have sought after the Lord’s heart, has it right.[7] He desires God’s heart and God gives him the desires of his own heart. 

But God’s blessings extend through the king to all in his kingdom. Their enemies, who are also God’s enemies, are kept at bay. With a king who trust the Lord, the kingdom can enjoy peace. Much of this Psalm has aspects that sound like a prayer given when a new king is crowned, during a coronation, or at a royal feast. 

There are two items here that I’d like to explore further. At such a time, those in presence of the king would have asked his life to be extended. The forever and ever in verse 4 doesn’t imply eternal life as we’d think.[8] Instead, it’s a way of saying “we want our king around a long time.” 

The second item deals with the king’s enemies. Verses 8 through 12 all deal with our enemies being subdued. Here we learn that within the covenant God created with Israel, the king’s enemies are God’s enemies.[9] Those who oppose God’s king will experience God’s wrath. To our ears, this sounds harsh. But then, as Americans, we’re a superpower. We think of ourselves as powerful. 

Israel was always just a small country with the superpowers of its day on the opposite ends of the Fertile Crescent: the Nile to their south, and the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers to the east. Israel never had the military might of her distant neighbors. She lived in fear and depended on alliances. In some way, we can think about Israel as the Ukraine of the ancient world, living in no-man’s land between superpowers. But according to the Psalm, if the king trusted God (which not all the kings did), then things would be okay.

Now let us go back to the idea of how we might apply this text to our lives. While we don’t have kings, we do have people in authority and at times, we find ourselves in positions of authority. This Psalm teaches us the need to trust God and to strive to live under God’s authority.  Such a life means we’re to be humble, for we know that we are not the source of our blessings. 

And while we don’t have an earthly king, we do have a King, Jesus Christ, to whom we belong and to whom we depend. We are called to trust his loving-kindness in this life and in the life to come.[10] A life of faith is a life of trust in the man from Galilee, who died at the hands of Roman soldiers, but rose from the grave and lives and rules for us. As the Israelites were called to trust their king, we’re called to trust ours. And unlike their kings, who were often sinful and made bad decisions, Jesus is sinless and deserving of our trust. Amen. 

[1] There are two types of Psalms of Lament: Personal and Communal. Personal lament examples: 13, 22, 35, 44, 86. Communal lament Psalms examples: 12, 74, 79, 88, 137. 

[2] Peter Ennis, The Sin of Certainty (New York: HarperOne, 2017), 70. 

[3] See Psalm 18 and 20.  James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 104. 

[4] Bullinger, in the Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XXII (Book of Confession, 5.216), encourages churches to avoid “luxurious attire, all pride, and everything unbecoming to Christian humility, discipline and modesty” to be “banished for the sanctuaries and places of prayer for Christians.” An example of an antithetical Presbyterian Church architecture is East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.

[5] Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, translated by Herbert Hartwell (1958 (German publication), Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 213.

[6] Mays, 103.

[7] 1 Samuel 13:14. 

[8] The Old Testament, in general, doesn’t speak of immortality or eternal life like the New Testament.  See Weiser, 213.

[9] Weiser, 216.

[10] May, 104. 

The Forbidden City with the temple on a hill behind it.
The Forbidden City in Beijing with a temple on the hill behind it.

RIP Timothy Keller

Photo of Timothy Keller and six of his books

I wasn’t going to post this week. I’ve been busy. A contractor is preparing to add a large addition to our house and I’ve been trying to get the garden in, and I’ve done volunteer work, and I have all kind of other excuses. Then, today, I learned of the death of Timothy Keller. After a long battle with pancreatic cancer, our last enemy death finally claimed him this morning. In recent days, knowing this time was short, Keller (and his son) sent out tweets telling of his struggles and his hope to soon be with his Savior.

I first became familiar with the ministry of Timothy Keller while on a month Sabbatical for Preachers interested in how literature can inform our preaching led by Neil Plantinga at Calvin Theological Seminary in the summer of 2003. In discussing Franz Kafka’s writings, he played a sermon that was in a serious Keller preached on the hopeless many feel in today’s world. In these sermons, in addition to scripture, Keller depended upon Kafka’s The Trial. I was impressed and had never imagined using Kafka in the pulpit.

While I never met Keller, I heard him speak once. Even though we are from different Presbyterian denominations, I once worshipped at the church he founded, Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. But it was summer, and he wasn’t preaching. I’ve read six of his books. In addition to the two below, which I first reviewed in another blog, I have read and have on my shelves The Reason for God, The Meaning of Marriage, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, and Centered Church: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. I may not have always agreed with him, but I learned a lot from him. His arguments were always compiling and his gracefulness came through in his writing as well as in his speaking.

May Timothy Keller rest in peace.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters

(New York: Dutton, 2009), 210 pages

Idolatry is not just a failure to obey God, it is a setting of the whole heart on something beside God. (171)

Idolatry is prevalent in our world, our communities, our churches, and our individual lives. As Keller points out over and over, idols are not necessarily bad things. In fact, they are seldom bad. They are generally good things (family, sex, money, success, and even religion), but when we look to them to “satisfy our deepest needs and hopes,” they fail us. They become a counterfeit god. (xvii, 103). I found this to be a powerful and challenging book. It was published following the 2008 financial melt-down, written by a pastor whose church on Manhattan draws many of the investment bankers that were at the forefront of the crisis.

Using Biblical stories as illustrations, Keller attempts to expose the idolatry of our lives. For idolatry of the family, he draws on the story of Abraham and how the old man pinned his hope for a legacy on Isaac, essentially making his son into an idol. For sex, he explores the story of Jacob’s courtship with Rachel and Leah. For money and greed, he looks at the call of Zacchaeus. For success, he looks at Naaman, the leper, who question Elijah’s method of healing. For success, he looks at Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of clay feet. His examination of how “correct religion” can become an idol leads him into the story of Jonah. And finally, he looks at how we need to replace our idols with God by exploring Jacob’s wrestling.

There are two levels to our idolatry according to Keller. We all have surface idols that mask our deeper idols. These surface idols are mostly good things, but they become idols because we place our ultimate trust in them as we strive to satisfy our deeper longings for power, approval, comfort or control. (64) We can fight against the surface idols, but new ones will pop up unless we address our deeper needs, which can only be handled by replacing such idols with a total trust in God.

Keller confronts our worship of success. He even challenges how some place total trust in “the free market.” “The gods of moralistic religion,” he proposes,” favors the successful.” It could be argued that such folks are attempting to earn their salvation. But the God of the Bible comes down to earth to accomplish our salvation and give us grace. (44) Later in the book he writes that the “Biblical story of salvation assaults our worship of success at every point.” (94) He challenges Adam Smith’s theory of capitalism for “deifying” the invisible hand of the market which, “when given free reign, automatically drives behavior toward that which is most beneficial for society, apart from any God or moral code.” He ponders, in light of the financial crisis, if the same dissatisfaction that occurred with socialism a generation earlier might also occur with capitalism. (105-106)

Keller also challenges our political and philosophical ideals, especially those that we place above our faith in God. Straddling the political fence and refusing to place himself on the right or left, as a Republican or Democrat, he observes that a fallout of us making idols out of our philosophy/politics may be the reason why when on group loses and election there is often an extreme reaction.

“When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death. They believe that if their polices and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admit how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created. (99)

The author closes with an Epilogue where he discusses the discerning and replacing our idols. To discern our idols, Keller suggests we contemplate where our imagination goes when we’re daydreaming, where we spend our money, or where we really place our hope and salvation instead of where we profess to place it, or where we find our uncontrolled emotions unleashed. (167-9) To handle our idols, we have to do more than repent, they have to be replaced with God. I found this last part of the book to be the weakest, with just a few pages of suggestions, drawing heavily from the opening of Colossians 3. He calls for us to rejoice and repent together and to practice the spiritual disciplines as a way to invite God to replace our idolatrous desires. His final comment is an admission that this is not a onetime program, but a lifelong quest for as soon as we think we’re got our idols removed, we’ll discover deeper places within our psyche to clean out.

This book has given me much to think about. We can all benefit from what he says about the difficult to discern our own greed (52) and on how we worship success and our political ideals. Only one did I get excited about a “theological error,” and I feel pretty certain it was more from carelessness in language than in what Keller actually believes. On page 162, Keller speaks of when our “Lord appeared as a man” on Calvary, which sounds to me a lot like the Docetism heresy. Docetism held that Jesus’ humanity was an illusion. However, Keller concludes the sentence saying that Jesus “because truly weak to save us,” which sounds as if Jesus’ humanity wasn’t just an illusion. 

I recommend this book and am grateful to Mr. Keller and Dutton Publishing for providing extensive notes and a detailed bibliograhy. 

An Essay and Review of The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith 

(New York: Dutton, 2008), 139 pages.

There are two kinds of sinners, as Timothy Keller explores in this book. One kind of sinner is rather obvious. They live only for themselves, breaking God’s laws and perhaps even the laws of the land. Such sinners are represented by the younger son in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, who after wishing his father’s death so he can inherit his portion of the estate, is given his inheritance and runs off to a foreign country.

We have a love/hate relationship with the younger boy. In God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, James Weldon Johnson captures the flavor of American-American preachers early in the 20th Century. Many of these preachers could not read and write, but the way they told stories were poetic. In a sermon on the Prodigal Son, the preacher paints a vivid picture of the young wayward son with his daddy’s inheritance burning a hole in his pocket…

And the young man went with his new-found friend,
And brought himself some brand new clothes,
And he spent his days in the drinking dens,
Swallowing the fires of hell.
And he spent his nights in the gambling dens,
Throwing dice with the devil for his soul.
And he met up with the women of Babylon.
Oh, the women of Babylon!
Dressed in yellow and purple and scarlet,
Loaded with rings and earrings and bracelets,
Their lips like a honeycomb dripping with honey,
Perfumed and sweet-smelling like a jasmine flower;
And the jasmine smell of the Babylon women
Got in his nostril and went to his head,
And he wasted his substance in riotous living,
In the evening, in the black and dark of night,
With the sweet-sinning women of Babylon.

Why is it that we are fascinated with the younger son? Certainly we’re glad that he’s redeemable, but we also relish in the visions of his sinful past. If truth be told, we’re a little jealous of his freedom. Over time, the parable has even been named for him. He’s the prodigal, the one who lavishly spends his inheritance. And we forget about that this is a parable of two sons.

Timothy Keller reminds over and over again that there are two ways to be separated from God. Yes, we can be like the younger son and live wildly. This is the popular view of a sinner and many of us have been down that road. But we can also be the dutiful son and do what’s expected of us, but deep down despise the father for whom we work. Sometimes even free-spirited younger sons can become zealous older brothers. The sins of the older son are not so evident. Such sins live in the heart where they fester and boil and eventually boil over in anger and rage. Keller makes the point that churches are filled with “older sons,” those who look down on their younger brother’s sinful ways. But these “older sons” don’t enjoy the father’s company any more than the “younger sons” who want to strike out for the territories, sowing their oats along the way. Older sons are those who give religion a bad name and make the church seem harsh and judgmental. Because of their hard hearts, they don’t get to enjoy the banquet the father throws for the return of the younger son. Instead, they sulk in anger, showing the condition of their hearts.

Prodigal means reckless extravagant, having spent everything. Keller suggests that the true prodigal in the story is the Father in the story, who represents God. God goes to great distances to restore the lost son, that even though the son has already cost him a fortune, he spends it again to reclaim the boy. Redemption is not cheap, as the older boy discovers, for he feels the father is stealing from what belongs to him in order to redeem the younger boy. He’s not gratiful at all. Keller is writing, not to call the wayward younger son home, but to remind those who have never left, the older brother, not to be so self-righteous and to look down on others. This book calls those in the church to task, asking that we not be so judgmental. It’s also a book that confirms one of the main critiques made against the church, that it is a place of hypocrites. Certainly, if our hearts are like the older brother, such a critique is justified. We should take the critique as a warning for in the story, it is the younger son, not the older boy, that experiences salvation.

This is a good, easy to read, book. It can easily be read in a sitting. I recommend it.

Peaceful waters: The Thornapple River, May 2013

Psalm 66: Praising God Together and Individually

Title Slide: Psalm 66: Praising God together and individually

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
May 14, 2023
Psalm 66

At the beginning of worship:

We’re family here. Jesus calls us into the church, where we are adopted as children of God and given an inheritance. Doesn’t that sound good? While we may have different abilities, we all receive an eternal inheritance. We are blessed by God. 

But as it is in our earthly families, there are things we do together and things we do by ourselves. It’s no different in the church. We’re to experience God corporately and individually. We can’t just experience God one way or the other. Both are necessary for us to have abundant life. Never think that you can be a Christian without church, but always remember that a life of faith also requires individual time alone with God. Even Jesus had to get away on his own to pray.[1] Our Psalm this morning will show both sides of a life of faith. 

Before reading of Scripture:

Today we’re looking at the 66th Psalm, one that begins with a processional call to worship followed by an individual’s response. In the initial call, we’re reminded of what God has done in history. In response, the shift is from the community’s praise to an individual’s act of praise for something personal. God answered the Psalmist prayer. We’re not told what problems he faced, only that God helped him get through the difficult. Therefore, like Psalm 116 which we looked at a few weeks ago, he responds to God by paying his vow.[2] He offers sacrifices and praise to the Lord.

Two parts of the Psalm

There are some who want to separate this Psalm into two parts. You kind of see this division in the lectionary, which only uses the second half of the Psalm.[3] However, I don’t agree. Yes, there are two main parts to the Psalm, but they go together.

Our faith has a community aspect to it, as well as a personal one. We see both in this passage. With the community, the Psalmist and us are called into worship. Then, our faith should be such that we not only give God thanks for blessings in history, but also for the blessings we’ve personally experienced.[4]

As you listen to the Psalm, feel how the people are called into God’s presence and then how, as an individual, the Psalmist steps forward to offer thanks.  

Read Psalm 66

Growing up, my mother managed Sunday morning. She’d get up early, I think even before my dad, unless he had to be away for work. She’d fix a big breakfast: eggs, grits, bacon, toast, and coffee. Or maybe it would be pancakes stuffed with bananas or blue berries, although dad generally cooked them. 

I can assure you, there no better way to wake up than to the smell of frying bacon and perking coffee. When breakfast was almost ready, she woke us kids and started countdown for when we had to be ready to leave. We’d eat breakfast generally while watching some off-key gospel singers who seemed to be ubiquitous on Sunday morning TV in the South of my childhood. At least, after listening to them, I could never complain about the music in church. After breakfast, we dressed, grabbed our Bibles, and ran out the door to make it to Sunday School on time. 

Did our mom’s introduce us to Jesus?

I’m sure many of us credit our moms for making sure we attended church growing up. Of course, my dad was also there, but there were Sundays he had to work because that was when he could inspect boilers which had cooled down for the weekend. On those Sundays, my mom was totally in charge. And she got us to church on time (or close to it).  Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms who stepped up to help their children grow in the faith. We’re in debt to moms and for those women who stepped in to help other children grow in their faith. We need such people in our world to makes sure that everyone has a chance to learn about Jesus.

A Procession

Psalm 66 begins with a procession. As we saw in our Call to Worship this morning, there are three parts to the gathering of people.[5] As in Psalm 100, we’re called to join in the “joyful noise,” praising God as we’re led to the temple for worship. The first four verses are all focused on this praise of God. Such praise exists not just in the people’s cries, but in all the world. I’m reminded of Jesus telling those who complained of the ruckus his followers made as they entered Jerusalem, that if they weren’t praising God, the stones would cry out.[6] God created the world to reflect his creativity and to praise his glory. 


If you followed along with the Bible, you may have noticed a Selah (that I didn’t read), in the margin after the fourth verse. No one is really sure what this word means. Some think it is a symbol for music, like a clamp of a cymbal. That maybe. But here, it also marks the end of the first part of the gathering. 

First invitation: “Come and See”

After praising God, it’s time to invite others to join the crowd. In verse 5, we have the first of two invitations. “Come and See what God has done.” 

The Psalm then recalls the great events of the Exodus, the parting of the sea, and the Conquest, the crossing the Jordan. These were events of which the Hebrew people were familiar. But God is not just a God of the Hebrew people. God rules the nations and, as the end of verse 7 reminds us, won’t let the proud get too big for their britches by not letting the rebellious exalt themselves. 

Praising God even for the hard times

Then we come upon another Selah in the margins, as we move into the third section of the opening. This third section again issues a call for praise for God has kept us among the living. Ever thought of that? Without God, there would be no life. And then we’re reminded that God keeps our feet from slipping. God is our lamp for our feet and a light to our path, as the 119th Psalm proclaims.[7] But this third section also acknowledges that life is not always rosy. God places burdens on us. We are tested. People take advantage of us. Yet, God brings us through such troubles. 

Part 2: the personal praise

The second major section of the Psalm begins with verse 12 and is seen with the change of language. No longer is the focus on the plural, the community. Now an individual takes centered stage. The Psalmist comes into God’s house to pay his vows which he made when he was in trouble. 


Let me say a bit about vows. We must be careful with vows. We should not make them to manipulate God. There is a horrible story in the Book of Judges about a Jephthah, an Israelite warrior who vowed that if God would give him victory, he’d sacrifice the first thing that came out of his door to greet him. It was his own daughter.[8]

Vows made for the wrong reasons can be dangerous. John Calvin taught that the only purpose of a vow is to show gratitude to God. That appears to be the intent here and is the result of the Psalmists actions.[9] A mini lesson here: don’t try to force God to act to your benefit. God is not solely on our side. Instead, to be safe, we must be on God’s side.

Second call: Come and See

After testifying to how his actions show gratitude to God, the Psalm issues his own call. The community call people to “come and see.” The individual now calls them to “come and hear.” He tells his story of how he cried out in need to God and God listened. Because of God hearing and action, he now praises the Almighty. He blesses God for God’s faithfulness.

Movement from community to personal

This Psalm shows a movement from the community to the personal. It could also go the other way, from the individual to the community, for both aspects of our faith are important. The community helps us to know God’s work in the past, but when we experience such events firsthand, it’s often in our lives. 

What this Psalm also demonstrates is that for the individual and the community, the call needs to be issued for people to witness what God has done and is doing. If we don’t witness to the God of the Bible, who is also active in our lives, how will people know what God is capable of? 

MOther’s sharing the good news

Thankfully, many of us have had mothers that guided us. Others of us have been blessed in sharing the good news with friends and business associates and others who cross our lives. As it is with the Psalm, we should be praising God and giving thanks for the blessings we have received, today and always. Amen. 

[1] Matthew 23:36; Mark 14:32; Luke 6:12, 9:18, 22:39.


[3] The lectionary doesn’t cleanly separate the Psalm, it only covers the second part, verses 8-20.

[4] The following commentaries support my thesis: James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 221; Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, translated by Herbert Hartwell (1958 (German publication), Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 468; Claus Westermann, The Living Psalms, J. R. Porter, translator (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 186-187,

[5] I adapted parts of Psalm 66 for today’s Call to Worship:
Pastor: Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; 
People: sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise!
Pastor: Come and see what God has done;
People: he his awesome in his deeds among mortals.
Pastor: Bless our God, O peoples,
People: let the sound of his praise be heard!

[6] Luke 19:39-40.

[7] Psalm 119:105.

[8] Judges 11:29-40. 

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.13.1-7. See also Stan Mast’s commentary on this passage:

Rainbow over green trees
Rainbow over Laurel Fork, May 13, 2023

Great Grandma McKenzie’s Death and the purpose of a funeral

Cover slide for Great Grandma and the purpose of a funeral

A decade ago, I read Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch’s The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. I’d taken a of study leave to read and was staying at my grandma’s house outside of Pinehurst. While there, I did what I have always done when here in Moore County, attend church at Culdee.  Afterwards, my daughter and I spent some time walking around the cemetery. Some of the tombstones brought back memories. At this time, I could count at being on being there for at least seven funerals. 

Since then, I can add two more, a grandmother and an aunt (of which I officiated as the church was without a pastor at the time). There are also those whom I never knew who are buried there, such as my great-great grandparents and an aunt that died from leukemia when she was three. The cemetery held other memories. As a young teenager, I recalled helping my grandmother clean up the cemetery. 

My first memory of the cemetery was from when I was eight years old. We left Moore County when I was six and was living in Petersburg, Virginia at the time. When the call of death came, we headed home… When I die, having lived all over this nation, I have often imagined my cremains coming home to rest on this sandy ridge between the Little River and Nick’s Creek, while awaiting the resurrection.

Memories of my first funeral home visit
The Frye/Puckett Funeral Home, 2016

My brother, sister and I stood in front of the casket holding the body of my great-grandma, Callie McKenzie. Behind us stood our mom, hovering over like an angel as she wrapped the three of us in her arms. We gazed at the body which everyone said looked so much like her. It didn’t. Bodies never look life-like, and great-grandma’s body was no different. Mom pointed to her hands. Wrinkled, they were covered with brown liver spots. Mom reminded us of all the strawberries she’d picked, the tomatoes she’d raised, the apples she’d peeled, and the corn she’d shucked. 

When I was younger, we lived next door and sometimes on Sunday afternoon, after church, we’d gather with our extended family in her backyard, under the pecan trees. The boundaries of her lawn were marked by the back porch, a dirt road over beyond the well, a corncrib in the back, and a smokehouse and woodpile on the far side, just in front of the canebrake. Tables were set out and we’d have lunch, followed by a slice of pie that she’d baked Saturday evening in her wood burning range. She had a gas range but preferred the wood burning one. “We’ll never taste another of those pies,” Mom sadly reminded us.  

Inside the funeral home, 2016

After a few minutes, Mom shuffled us out on the porch of the funeral home in Carthage, into the warm humid air of a July evening, telling us to behave as she went back in with the adults. Much later, we drove to my Dad’s parent’s home, where we stayed the night. 

My grandmother was gone at the time of her mother’s death

It was unnervingly quiet at my grandparent’s home on Juniper Lake Road. No one was home. There were no ice cream and Pepsi floats before bed, as was my granddaddy’s habit. My grandparents and my uncle, Larry, who was just a teenager, were in Florida on vacation and unaware of our presence at their house. Nor did my grandmother know her mother had died.

In this day before cell phones and computers, it was nearly impossible to find someone on short notice.  My dad called the highway patrols in Florida and the states in between with a description of their car, in the hopes they could get a message to my grandma. In the heat of July and the tobacco harvest beginning, my great granddaddy decided it was best to go ahead with the funeral on the third day. 

My grandparents arrived home a day later. No one was sure when they would be back, and we were visiting with my other grandparents. They pulled back around the house and neighbors, who had been on the lookout, didn’t see them arrive. My grandmother came into her house and saw the newspaper with the obituary open on the dining room table. Well into her well into her nineties, my grandmother spoke of how upsetting it was not to be present, not to be able to see her mother before her body was lowered into the dirt at Culdee’s cemetery.   

Great Grandma McKenzie’s death

My great grandma was in her 70s, which now doesn’t seem so old. She was out in the fields, by her son’s pond, picking strawberries, or so I’d remembered. But that must not be right. The harvest of strawberries in this part of the country occurs long before the heat of July. Maybe it was blackberries or some vegetable that she and my great granddaddy were gathering when she had a stroke. Granddaddy, who was five years older, ran back home to call for help. But it was too late.  

Her funeral

We lived in Virginia then. My Dad loaded up the car and we drove south, in time to make the visitation at the Frye Funeral Home in Carthage. The next day, I attended the first of many funerals at Culdee. We sat up front with the family, a couple rows behind from my great granddaddy. He sat on the first row, in a bit of shock. The casket, now closed, was up front, just below the pulpit. After the service, three men on each side carried the box containing the lifeless body of one who had dedicated a lifetime to her family and church out to the adjacent cemetery. There, Mr. Fitch, the preacher, quoted a few final verses of scripture, reminding us of our hope in the resurrection. Then they lowered the casket into sandy soil watered with tears. I’m sure we had a big dinner afterwards, but I don’t remember it. My main memories nearly sixty years later are of my great-grandma’s hands, the dinner in the back lawn, and how happy she was to see us whenever we walked through the woods from our house to hers when we lived next door.  

The purpose of the funeral

Long and Lynch, in The Good Funeral, reminds us that taking care of the dead is instilled in our humanity.  We have to deal with the body whether it is to be buried, burned or disposed at sea. We also must deal with our own grief, for the loss affects not just the deceased and those close (their spouse or children), but the whole community.  So the community comes together to remember, to take care of the body in an honorable way, and to offer up the life that is no more to God. We honor the dead for to do anything else would strike a blow at our own humanity.

Similar memoir pieces from this side of my family

A poem written by a distant relative titled “Out at Aunt Callie’s Place“. His aunt was my great grandmother McKenzie.

A memoir piece about her son, my great uncle Dunk.

From left: My great grandma McKenzie, my father, my uncle Larry, me in the hands of my great grandpa Mckenzie, and my grandmother. Photo probably taken in late 1957 or early 1958

Psalm 119:9-32 In Praise of God’s Boundaries

Title slide with photo of hill in spring

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
May 7, 2023
Psalm 119:9-32

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, May 5, 2023

Before the beginning of worship:

What do you think about the law? Most of us, I’m sure, think some laws are silly. I, for one, am troubled by states who forbid driving barefooted. Yet, there are also good reasons for some laws. If we don’t stop at a stop sign, we risk our life and lives of others. If we think the speed limit is only a suggestion, we become a hazard on the highway. Laws protect us and within such a framework, we can enjoy life. 

Of course, if everyone thought about how our actions impact others before we act, we wouldn’t need laws. There would be no need for laws against littering, stealing, assault, or slander…. But since none of us live up to such high ideals, laws are needed. They set boundaries. 

Freedom without law is chaos

We’re freedom loving people, but freedom without law isn’t more freedom, its chaos. Its anarchy. We need boundaries to protect us and our neighbors. 

Today, we’re going to consider why a Psalmist felt such love the law that he wrote the longest Psalm in scripture.  

Before the reading of scripture:

Psalm 119 is an epic poem. It would have found a good home in the 19th Century, when epic poems by the likes of Longfellow and Tennyson were celebrated. Today, few poets attempt to write poems that go beyond two pages. But it has not always been that way. 

An acrostic poem

The 119 Psalm is an acrostic poem. You may know of these, if stayed awaked when they talked about poetry in English classes. An acrostic poem runs through the alphabet. Each new line starts with a word that begins with the next letter of the alphabet. There are eight or nine (depending on one’s definition) acrostic Psalms in the Bible.[1]

Unfortunately, it is impossible to capture the full meaning of an acrostic poem when translating it into another language. Part of the reason is that we have different alphabets. Hebrew only had 22 letters, all consonants. Even if we had the same alphabet, having a similar word that begins with the same letter would be nearly impossible. 

The longest Psalm in scripture

Psalm 119 strays from the other acrostic Psalms by its length. Instead of only having 22 verses, each beginning with the next letter in the alphabet, it consists of 8 lines for each letter. If it was in English, it would be like having 8 lines beginning with “A” words, then 8 lines of “B” words, down through the alphabet. This makes a very long poem, 176 verses. 

Interestingly, despite its size, Psalm 119 maintains focus on one theme: God’s law. But don’t think of the law as just ordnances, such as the general statues of the Commonwealth. God’s law is “The Torah,” which are also the first five books of the Bible. While they contain laws and the Ten Commandments, they’re also the essential Jewish teachings as to how we are to live together. Through the law, the Torah, God instructs God’s people.  

I’m sure it’s to your delight that I will only read a small section of Psalm 119, for the poem often repeats itself. Essentially, if this poem had been constructed in English, I’d be reading the B-C-D sections. Since it was written in Hebrew, I’ll be reading the Beth, Gimel and Daleth sections. 

Read Psalm 119:9

It is amazing to me the author of this Psalm didn’t have a thesaurus. I don’t think they’d yet been invented.[2] But like a good writer, he doesn’t repeatedly use the same word. In this section, instead of just using the word “law,” he also uses: your word, commandment, statutes, ordinances, decrees, precepts, and your works. And he mixes these words up, but they all refer to the word or law that comes from God. What can we learn from this “writing exercise” by the Psalmist?

The Psalmist desires more than knowledge

I suggest the Psalmist demonstrates to us that while knowing God’s word and law is important, we also need to mediation upon it. It’s not just enough to know the Bible, or believe the Bible, we must consider how Scripture should be understood and applied to our lives. 

That said, the process of taking the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and writing 8 verses for each letter while reflecting on God’s word to us is an example of extreme mediation. I don’t know too many people who have that kind of patience. I know I don’t. However, I bet after the Psalmist compiled this poem, understood well what it meant to follow God’s way.  After all, he’d considered it from every angle.

Purpose behind the Psalm

Now let me ask another question. What is the purpose behind this Psalm? Walter Brueggemann, in his theological commentary on it suggests the author had three things in mind: 

  1. The first purpose is didactic. The Psalm instructs the young on the ABC’s of torah obedience. By using the acrostic method, the Psalmist created a memory device for young students to see the importance of God’s word and law. 
  2. The second reason for this Psalm is to make comprehensive statement of the adequacy of a torah-oriented life. In these 176 verses, the Psalmist seemingly covers all there is about why we should follow the torah or God’s law.
  3. And finally, Brueggemann suggests that Psalm shows us there can be a sense of reliability and order when we honor the torah, or God’s law.[3]
God’s law creates a boundary 

I have always suggested that we, as Christians, should see God’s law as a boundary instead of a list of things to do and not to do. As a boundary, God says that if we just stay within these lines, we can have wonderful freedom and enjoy life. 

Think of the Ten Commandments. Traditionally, we have understood the commandments as having two tables. The first table deals with how we relate to God. We are to have no other gods and we honor God by not creating images. We refuse to vainly use God’s name and keep the Sabbath. 

The later six commandments deal with our relationship with one another. We keep family relationships in tack by honoring our parents. We respect the lives, property, and spouses of others, we tell the truth especially in legal matters, and we don’t want what is not ours. 

The Ten Commandments provide us with boundaries. If we are content, we can have a good life.  Of course, we know that not everyone will obey them. That’s why we have governments who maintain laws. We see this in the middle part of our reading this morning. 

Psalmist as an alien

In verse 19, the Psalmist admits to being an alien in the land. I don’t think this means he’s from another country. Instead, he lives differently from others for he strives to keep God’s decrees while others have wandered away. He’s the odd-ball, for God’s word comes first in his life.

Let’s briefly consider the passages I read this morning. 

The “Beth” section of the poem

Verses 9 to 16 focus on praise and supplication. He begins by offering God’s word as a way the young can strive for purity. Then he focuses on his own life and asks God to supply him with what he needs to keep from straying. Look at the verbs he uses to describe his focus on what God has taught: seek, treasure, declare, meditate, and delight (which he uses twice). The Psalmist emphasizes his devotion to the Torah, for he knows that it’s from God who gives us life.

The “gimel” section of the poem

The second set of verses, 17 to 24, concentrates on intercession and devotion. Not everyone is like the Psalmist. There are many who ignore God’s word, and he (and we) must live with such people in our world. So, the Psalmist prays that God will open his eyes, won’t hid his commandments, and will keep him free of the scorn and contempt others bring onto themselves. Finally, he pledges to continue to meditate on God’s statues even when princes, the political leaders of his day, plot against him. He’s all in with God. 

The “Daleth” section of the poem

The final set of verses, 25-32, centers on his need of understanding God’s precepts. While this Psalm is not attributed to David, the Psalmist, whoever he was, like David, seeks God’s heart.[4] He desires God to help him understand his precepts, to strengthen him by the word, to teach him the law, to set God’s ordnances in front of him, and enlarge his understandings. The Psalmist knows life comes from God, and we can enjoy it fully only when we strive to listen to the Almighty. 

How we relate to God’s word

Our passage calls us to seek out God’s word and will for our lives. We are not to approach God’s law from a legalist perspective, nor should we see following God’s word as required work to obtain entrance into heaven. Instead, like the Psalmist, we need to meditate upon God’s word, seeking God and allowing God to draw us closer. 

In the Centered and Soaring Workshop held at Mayberry two Saturdays ago, Stan Ott discussed our need to dig into Scripture. We must be the people of God before we can do the work of God. We become the people of God by reading the Bible, but more importantly, by meditating upon what we read. We also pray for understanding. Finally, we discuss Scripture with others who are also on this journey so we might both be drawn closer to God. We can see the Psalmist fulfilling such efforts in this passage.  

Conclusion: Spending time with the Word

I encourage you to regularly spend time in God’s word and prayer, so that you might also grow closer to our Lord. Take time to read a chapter or two each day out of the Old and New Testaments. Spend time in examen, reflecting on your day before falling asleep, giving God thanks for blessings received. If you have any questions or need help growing deeper, let’s talk. Amen. 

For a sermon on the first 8 verses of Psalm 119, click here.

[1] See Psalms 9 & 10, 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 119; 145. Acrostic structures also appear in Proverbs and Lamentations. 

[2] The first Thesaurus is credited to Philo who published On Synonyms in the late first or early second century A.D. The first modern thesaurus was published by Peter Mark Roget in the mid-19th Century.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1984), 40. 

[4] 1 Samuel 13:14.

Hillside in spring,  covered with various shades of light green trees

Eddie Larson: another good shepherd

title slide of Eddie Larson in front of his cabin on Cedar Mountain

Last Sunday, I preached on the 23rd Psalm. Today, I thought I would share the story of another shepherd, a man I knew when I lived in Utah.

Eddie Larson at a cabin on Cedar Mountain
Eddie O. Larson (late 1990s)

“How are we today,” Eddie asked with a big grin. 

I always found him cheerful even though he’d known his share of heartache. His wife, Ned, the love of his life, had died of cancer in 1990, a few years before I met him. In his living room was a photograph of a large aspen tree. When the tree was small, Eddie had carved a heart and added his name along with the names of his wife and daughter. Carving on aspens was common among sheepherders. Eddie had forgotten about this tree, but as it grew so did the carving and one day a hunter came upon it. He photographed the tree, framed it, and presented it to Eddie as thanks for allowing him to hunt on his land. Eddie was pleased.

Eddie also loved his daughter. He doted on her and made sure she was well cared for. She was a few years older than me and mentally challenged. Although I never asked, I couldn’t help but wonder if his wife’s cancer and his daughter’s limited mental capacity had anything to do with those blinding predawn sunrises from the west Eddie and his wife experienced back in the early 50s when the herd was on the winter range in Nevada. Above ground nuclear testing was common in that decade as Eddie started out in the sheep business. Although the government said it was safe and there was nothing to worry about from the white ash that sometimes fell afterwards, we now know otherwise. 

Eddie’s early life
The old Community Presbyterian Church

Eddie Oscar Larson was born in Southern Utah to Swedish sheepherders. His father, Oskan Ludig Larsson changed his name to Oscar Larson. He and his wife, Alma, had only one son rather late in life. Oscar was in his mid-50s and his wife in her forties when Eddie was born.

They were gentiles in a land in which most people followed the Mormon religion. There were three Swedish sheepherder families, along with a few government and railroad workers who made up the Presbyterian Church in Cedar City in the 1920s. The other two families were the Lindells, who sold out and moved in the 1950s, and the Lundgens, who are still in the area. I recently wrote about Roy Lundgen and his wife in this blog.

Eddie was first local resident to be baptized in the new church which was built in 1927, just a few years before his birth. The first baptism was for a child of the pastors, but they soon moved on.  While often shunned in this religiously dominated world, his father was successful. They never lived extravagantly, but Eddie was able to go away to school. He first attended a Presbyterian boarding high school, Wasatch Academy, in Mount Pleasant, Utah. From there, he headed to Utah State in Logan, but had a hard time finding a place to stay as he was a gentile. If my memory is right, Eddie graduated from Westminster College in Salt Lake City. While he was in college, his father died. 

Eddie had set out to be a coach but decided to follow his father’s footsteps and began to build a herd of sheep. While he never had the size of a herd as his father, he was very successful and limited the size to better manage his land. Eddie would run his herd, with the help of a hired hand, for most of adult life. Right before I left Cedar City and maybe five years before he died, Eddie finally sold his sheep. By this point, he was having trouble with his eyes. About a year before he died, he was moved into a nursing home. Age and illness had robbed this man of the things he enjoyed, running up and down the mountain in all kinds of weather and basking in the beauty of God’s creation. 

A Proud Sheepherder

Eddie always proudly proclaimed to everyone that he was a sheepherder, even though for him it was business. For most of his time as a sheepherder, he hired another herder to stay with the sheep. This man lived in a sheep wagon and generally liked being alone. Occasionally his herder would come to town for supplies and drink, and after a few days of the latter, go back up on the mountain or out in the Nevada desert, where he’d dry out while tending and protecting the sheep.

Eddie made almost daily trips to check on his herder and the herd, bringing in groceries and feed for the horses. He’d help haul water for the sheep. Eddie kept around 1600 ewes in his herd. When that many animals are away from a watering hole, a lot of water had to be hauled. He had an old oil truck that allowed him to carry several thousand gallons of water. Such a herd also required many rams, along with horses and dogs to help with the work. 

At night, Eddie did the books and dealt with government leases. Although Eddie was one of the largest landowners around, he still leased land for grazing, especially for winter pasture in eastern Nevada. The annual livestock banquet in Cedar City often honored Eddie. There, this humble man seemed larger-than-life. People knew he worked hard, and it paid off. Not only did he have a successful operation, he own a huge parcel of land up on the mountain, some in Nevada including a four acre spring that was the envy of Las Vegas, and a lot of commercial real estate in Cedar City. 

The Seasons according to a sheepherder

Eddie lived by the rotation of the earth. In the summer, the ewes and lambs would feast on the grass in the high mountain plateaus. In late summer or early fall, he culled the lambs from the ewes and trucked them to market. It was always a guess as to how long to wait. The longer the lambs ate the mountain grass, the heavier they were and the more profit they’d bring. However, there was always the risk of early snows trapping the herd and then Eddie would have to haul in feed. This would eat up any profit he might have made. 

Some years were harder than others. There was the year of the fire. With much of the grass on his range burned, the lambs had to be sold off early, when they were a good 20 pounds light. On another occasion, he told me about an early snow. The lambs had already been sold, but the ewes remained on the mountain. His truck was stuck in the deep snow. It took him a day to walk out. Hhis herder stayed with the herd which was nearly immobilized by deep snow. Getting back to town, he hired a bulldozer to come and clear a path so the sheep could make it down the mountain. 

In the fall, as the aspen turn bright yellow, he’d ride a horse, trailing the sheep down the mountain and around the south end of town, using a 100-year-old livestock trail. As the days shortened, he and his hired herder would move the sheep from one alfalfa field to another, where the sheep would eat the remains left from the harvest as they moved toward their winter pasture in Nevada.

By December, the sheep roamed around the deserts of eastern Nevada, between Caliente and Pioche, where they ate sage and what grass remained from the summer. If there was snow on the ground, it was easy work. The sheep could also eat snow for moisture. But if there was no snow, Eddie and his herder had have to drive the old tank trunk to the warm springs at Panaca or another spring on the west side of his property, where they would fill it up and haul the water back to the sheep.

At the end of winter, Eddie’s sheep got to ride in trucks back livestock trailers as they headed east to the lambing barns near Kanarraville. They first sheared the sheep. Usually by men from Australia and New Zealand sheared the herds in the American West from late February through April. These crews would then returned home, shearing sheep Down Under in their spring which is our fall. Lambing always came after shearing. A sheared ewe had less problems giving birth. For a few weeks, Eddie would hire a host of people to help him by serving as mid-wives to the ewes. He was always in church on Sundays, except for this time of the year in which Easter often fell. During lambing, he lived by the lambing sheds. 

Finally, as the weather warmed and the snows retreated on the mountain, they’d move the herd up to higher elevations, where the cycle would repeat itself.

My experience with Eddie 

Part of the reason I felt called to Community Presbyterian Church in 1993 was the congregation’s vision of expanding and building a new church building. Eddie, the first local child baptized in the old church, volunteered to help raise the money for the new complex! He shared the vision for the church to grow and to serve the community he loved and helped us achieve it. We moved into a church complex in 1997. Just before I left Cedar City, in January 2024, Eddie donated mountain land to the congregation for use as a camp and perhaps a future conference center. 

I am thankful for the few times I took Eddie up on his invitations to take a day off and ride with him. We’d head out early. Sometimes we stop for breakfast or coffee. In his truck, he’d have some groceries and a few tools to repair fences or gates, maybe a salt block or two. Depending on where the herd was located, we’d drive an hour or two, all the while Eddie told stories about his dad and about the sheep business and about how lazy the cattlemen could be.

There is little love between sheepherders and cattlemen, a feud that goes back into the 19th Century. Part of the anger between the two groups is that sheep can eat grass down to the dirt and if the cattle come in after the sheep, they are unable to graze. Another source of conflict came, according to Eddie, from the sheepherders who work harder, but also tend to make a lot more money than those who tend cattle. However, after World War II, many sheepherders sold their lambs for cattle. 

When we were on the range, lunch was always at the sheepherder’s wagon. In the summer, we’d sit around under cottonwood trees. In winter, we’d all crowd inside the wagon, to get out of the cold and wind. The smells were enchanting. Pinion burned in the stove as coffee perked. Mutton was always served. Some days we’d eat it with potatoes and carrots, other days we’d have it in a sandwich, the bread slathered with mayonnaise and cheese. We’d wash it all down with coffee.

Some afternoons we’d scout out the next spot for the camp. Others, we’d take the tank truck out to the spring for water. As we drove around, Eddie would talk about the land. He showed me where he worked to stop erosion and to restore the grass that use to be more abundant. Over-herding animals in the first half of the 20th Century had taken its toll. When Eddie got into the business, he decided to run half as many sheep on the land as his dad and the previous tenants. His decision was slowly paying dividends and he was proud of his work and of his land. After he’d finished with the chores for the day, as the sun dropped in the sky, we’d head back toward town.

Eddie’s death

“When I was in my 20s and just starting out, I was told by another herder that sheepherding was a young man’s business,” Eddie confided in me one day. “Now I believe him.” Eddie died in 2008 at the age of 79. He was finally able to relax and let the Good Shepherd take over.

Sheep forging in an aspen grove on Cedar Mountain, 2008