Two on the American West

title page with book covers and western scene in background

Ivan Doig, Ride with Me, Mariah Montana

narrated by Scott Sowers, (1990, audible release 2014), 14 hours and 18 minutes. 

It’s 1989. Montana is coming up on its Centennial celebration and newly widower Jick McCaskill drives a newspaper photographer and writer around the state in search of stories in his Winnebago. The photographer is his daughter, Mariah. The reporter is her ex-husband, Riley.  Jick doesn’t care for Riley ever since the couple’s split. He’d hoped the two of them would take over his sheep ranch. 

The three set off on their journey with Jick as the narrator. They mostly seek out small towns where they strive to learn more about their home state. Jick realizes change is coming, but he doesn’t like it. Pressured to sell out his sheep ranch to a large cattle operation (who wants to maximize the livestock on it), while coming to terms with his wife’s death, and attempting to keep his daughter from falling in love again with Riley, Jick begins the story as a bitter soul. Yet, even in his bitterness, there’s lots of humor mixed into his storytelling. But he softens and as the story continues, he (and we) learns more of his history. This is especially true after Riley’s mother joins them for part of the trip. The story ends on the day of the Centennial celebration in November with some surprises. 

In this novel, the reader gets to meet many interesting characters along with gaining insight into the state’s history. Jick’s background is Scottish and Swedish, and I couldn’t help but think of two other Swedish sheepherders I knew in Utah, Roy and Eddie. As I lived in Utah during that state’s Centennial, I was curious as how he used that celebration to tell this story. While much of the story is about loss, there is also hope in it for the future. I recommend this book and now look forward to listening to the first two books in this trilogy (English Creek and Dancing at the Rascal Fair).

This is my fourth book by Doig. Twenty-some years ago, when I lived in Utah, I read two of his non-fiction works (House of Sky and Heart Earth). Earlier this year, I listened to and reviewed, A Bartender’s Tale.

Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water


revised edition (1986, New York: Viking/Penguin, 1993), 582 pages including notes and index. Also, two collections of photographs.  Audible: 27 hours and 58 minutes. 

I read parts of the original book back in the early 1990s when I was living in Utah. There, the problems of water were real. This time, I mostly listened to the book and was caught up in the story Reisner tells. 

The book begins with a brief historic account of Western exploration and migration in the 19th century, especially focusing on the survey of the Colorado River by John Wesley Powell.  Reisner also reminds his readers that there were other civilizations there before the coming on European-Americans. For some unknown reason, these civilizations collapsed before European migration, probably because of a change in weather patterns. He also frequently reminds the reader that all desert civilizations in human history have collapsed with one exception, Egypt. Of course, the Aswan Dam may change this. While the country had 3000 years of life without a dam, Aswan ended the annual flood that brought new soil and enough water to grow crops. In addition, irrigating without fresh soil causes salts to build up in the soil. Sooner or later, the soil wears out. 

Much of the first part of the book focuses on the growth of Los Angeles and their taking water from the Owens Valley. From there, Reisner speaks of many other water projects in the West. From the Mormons who irrigated on a small scale and brought agriculture to the great basin to the big projects during the Depression that provided (temporarily) a surplus of water and electrical power for the West. The power these dams produced help fuel a growth in industry that was especially helpful during World War 2.  

In addition to building the dams and providing water and electricity, he acknowledges the problems. Backing up water floods places where people live. They must be moved. The larger dams (like Grand Coulee), block migrating salmon and have destroyed commercial fishing operations. I didn’t realize how valuable canned salmon was, but it was the cheapest meat available during the Depression. The safety of dams is another issue. Reisner goes into detail about the breach of the Teton Dam in Idaho. On rivers like the Colorado which carries a lot of silt, dams trap it, reducing the availability of electrical power and the amount of water available. Finally, using irrigated water also has a long-term detrimental impact on the land as salts build up in the soil. 

Reisner captures the battle that existed between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corp of Engineers. Both were vying to build more dams in the West, often for different purposes. Bureau of Reclamation looked to irrigation while the Corp of Engineers were more interested in flood control and navigation.  Both had questionable ways of making a project look economic feasible as they tried to justify their projects, such as using the electricity produced to offset the cost of irrigation water. As Reisner shows, the economics of most dam projects didn’t make sense. After all, some of the crops grown with subsidized water were the same crops the Department of Agriculture were paying farmers not to grow in the East and Midwest.

The politics behind water projects are terrible (as is the economics).  With everyone wanting a piece of the pie, strange alliances form and no one questions the value or the wisdom behind the projects. I came away thinking that Eisenhower might have been the last true fiscally conservative President, as he questioned many of the projects. Carter was another who tried. stop a lot of projects that didn’t make economic sense. Reisner suggests that because of the way he attempted to stop them, it doomed his Presidency long before the Iranian hostage crisis. In the end, Carter’s hit list was narrowed, and many moved forward under Reagan. 

This is a book that needs to be read by more voters and concern citizens. More people need to understand the short-sightedness of many of these boondoggle projects. Unfortunately, it’s a long book that will overwhelm many people. 

Scene from Wyoming
A view from Wyoming

Restoring relationships

title slide with photo of those gathered at a cookout

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
June 25, 2023
2 Corinthians 1:12-2:4

At the opening of worship:

Have you ever been hurt by a misunderstanding? Either someone took what you said or did the wrong way? Or they misunderstood your intentions? It happens to us all. We chalk up such experiences to the human condition. 

Our egos are fragile. It often doesn’t take much for us to be hurt, yet walking around on eggshells isn’t the answer. We shouldn’t only depend on God’s grace. We need to show grace to one another, just as we need grace from others. Also, we need to be honest about our feelings and willing to forgive and move forward. Today, we’ll see that even the great heroes of Scripture had thin skin and were hurt by what others said. What we experience isn’t a new phenomenon.  

Before the reading of scripture:

Before I read today’s Scripture, let me say a bit more about 2ndCorinthians. This is the most personal letter among Paul’s epistles. We see the real Paul, and a glimpse into his emotional life. Paul wasn’t always self-confident, optimistic, and loved. He had his defectors. There were those who questioned his decisions and his teachings. This bothered Paul. After all, as a human being, he could be hurt by the actions of others. We’re going to see one response to such an experience in today’s reading. 

Last week, we saw how Paul, in Asia, was threatened and concerned for his life. As Paul moves into the meat of this letter, we realize that emotional hurts can be just as damaging as physical threats. In fact, they may be even more damaging, especially when they come from those you love and respect.  Most of us, by experience, know the fallacy within the childhood rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Words do hurt, as Paul expresses here. 

Paul whines

Let me make one apology and then give you some background to our text. I apology for the passage. Paul appears to whine, although I think he tried to avoid coming off that way. The passage is also confusing for we don’t exactly know all the details. We’re only hearing Paul’s side of the conversation. Furthermore, there’s even one play on words within the text which unfortunately doesn’t translate well. 

Paul changes his plans

As background, it appears Paul’s original plans was to travel from Asia to Macedonia, in northern Greece, then travel south, overland to Corinth. From there, he hoped the Corinthians would give him a big send-off for a trip back to Judea. But for some reason, Paul travelled directly from Asia (probably Ephesus) to Corinth, first. He did this because he thought he could then visit the Corinthians. Then he’d travel north to Macedonia. On his way south, he’d stop again and see his friends, before heading across the Mediterranean. 

Maybe Paul befriended a captain on a ship sailing from Ephesus to Corinth, who offered him a berth. This opportunity could have led to this change of plans. We can’t say for sure. It appears Paul’s visit did not go well and therefore he decided not to visit Corinth after Macedonia, but to head straight to Judea. Paul had been hurt in the visit, and it appears some in Corinth were hurt by his not visiting a second time. 

Read 2 Corinthians 1:12-2:4

Have you ever had an unexpected guest arrive at an inopportune time? Maybe you stopped by to see a friend during a middle of a family reunion? Or a party that you weren’t invited? Or maybe, when younger, you stopped to see a girl or a boy to whom you were interested, as they headed out on a date with someone else? That would be embarrassing, right? 

Paul’s problems

It appears something like this happened to Paul. He arrives, unannounced, in Corinth. We know Paul had concerns about the teachings going on in Corinth.[1] Maybe another missionary was there. Perhaps this missionary didn’t teach the same way or the same things that Paul taught. This might have been the reason the Corinthians gave him a cold shoulder. So, he leaves Corinth feeling bad. He doesn’t return at the time when they expected him. Paul feels slighted, now the Corinthians feel slighted. Both parties have been unintendedly hurt. 

Paul loves the Corinthians, so he writes this letter while also making plans for a third visit to the Corinthian church. Paul spent 18 months bringing this church to life.[2] He doesn’t want it to flounder or go in the wrong direction. So, he tries to correct the misunderstanding that has occurred. 


The opening paragraph is book-ended with the word referring to boosting. It’s a word he mostly uses in 2nd Corinthians.[3] Paul boosts about God’s grace, not his own efforts. And he looks forward to boasting about the Corinthians on the Day of the Lord, and of hearing them boast of him. Notice, the boasting isn’t of oneself, but of God and of one’s relationship with others. We can learn from this.

Paul’s hurt

But at the time of writing this letter, I don’t think Paul was doing much boasting. He was so hurt by his second visit to Corinth. The cut was so deep that he decided to avoid visiting them again on his way back for Macedonia. He didn’t want them to see him in such a manner, nor did he want them to be embarrassed. He certainly didn’t mean to hurt them. But Paul’s letter is confusing. 

It seems to me this section of the letter is a lot like those I received, or maybe even sent, when I was a Junior High Romeo. You want to make things right but, in a way, you dig yourself a deeper hole. When we discussed this passage at the men’s Bible study on Tuesday, most everyone thought Paul was whining and even wondered why this section found its way into the Bible. 

Why is this part of the letter in the Bible?

I don’t know why this part of the letter found its way into Scripture. I’m not privy to all the work of the Holy Spirit. However, there are useful and informative parts of 2nd Corinthians, so we can just toss the book out. And we must acknowledge God’s Spirit’s work to select the letters chosen for the Bible. So, we accept them and try to figure out what this passage can say to our lives or inform what we believe. 

We see Paul’s humanity

One of the things this passage shows us is Paul’s humanity. He is no superhero. He’s a regular guy with emotions just like all of us. In a way, I think this passage may especially speak to pastors. Anyone who has spent time in the ministry knows you can’t please everyone. At times, when you do something thinking your actions are helpful to others (such as Paul canceling his return trip to Corinth), you find out your actions are perceived in a negative way. 

Of course, this isn’t just experiences for those in ministry. We all experience such misunderstandings, whether it is between spouses, parents and children, friends, and relatives. Sometimes we mess up and, like Paul, try to make things right. Paul, here, works to mend the relationship by sending this letter while making plans to again visit Corinth. At such times when we’re in strained relationships, we stand in the need of grace. While we are eternally grateful for God’s grace, we should also be thankful when others show grace to us. 

Paul’s love for the Corinthians

This passage ends with a beautiful statement from Paul. Despite the strain on their relationship, Paul loves and cares deeply for the Corinthians. He strives to show his concern. He’s willing to fight to restore the relationship that existed between him and the believers in Corinth. 

Relationships are important

Perhaps this is what we should take from this passage. As disciples of Jesus, it’s not just about us getting our relationship right with God. We’re also to make right our relationship with others. Jesus even tells us that if we come to make an offering to God, and have wronged a brother or sister, we should attempt to reconcile before making the offering.[4] Relationships are important, as Paul shows. 

Who do you need to reach out and attempt to rebuild a relationship? Think about it. And then consider how you might reach out. Paul, in this letter, doesn’t so much show us how to restore relationships, but that as a follower of Jesus, it’s important to try. Amen.


Barnett, Paul. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians 

Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.

Barrett, C. K. A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the 

Corinthians. Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 1973.

Best, Ernest, Second Corinthians: Interpretation, A 

Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY, John Knox Press, 1987.

Wright, N. T. Paul, A Biography. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017.

[1] In 1 Corinthians, Paul several several corrections to the Corinthians including unlawful sexual relationships (a son and stepmother), lawsuits among believers, relations with food and other Jewish practices, and abuses at the Lord’s Table.  Concern about teachings within churches are also seen in Paul’s letters and the other epistles.

[2] See Acts 18:11.

[3] Paul uses this word or a variation of it more times in 2nd Corinthians than in all of his other letters combined. 

[4] Matthew 5:23. 

Photo of those gathering at a Dutch Oven Dinner at Mayberry Presbyterian Church
Some of the folks at yesterday’s Dutch Oven Dinner at Mayberry

Others Arrive in Virginia City

title slide with photo of Virginia City with the Combination Mine Shaft in foreground

Several weeks ago, I wrote about my journey to Nevada in 1988. This is a follow up piece, as I try to draw upon the history of the church and tie them to my personal experiences in Nevada. If you didn’t read my first piece, click here.

Of course, I was not the first pastor to arrive in Virginia City, although I was one of the few who made the journey without going through California first. Even after the church started depending on year-long student interns in the 1970s, most all their interns came from the West Coast. The same had been true of their called ministers before employing students. Even those not originally from the West Coast, generally spent time in California before making their way to Nevada. This was especially true in the early years before the completion of the transcontinental railroad. And most of the pastors stayed for only a year or so. In his 1927 history of the Presbyterian Church in California, Edward Arthur Wicher reported that in the congregation’s first 65 years, it had over 30 ministers. 

The Church is Organized

Presbyterian pastors had been coming and going in Virginia City since the 1862, when the Reverend William Wallace Brier organized the church. Brier was the first minister of the New School branch of the Presbyterian Church on the Pacific Coast. 

Background to church mission work on the West Coast

The Presbyterian Church had split in 1837 into two camps. Although there were many reasons for the split, it mostly had to do with how open the church should be toward revivalism. The Old School shunned the use of emotion in revivals of the Great Awakening, while the New School allowed such techniques. The New School was also more open toward movements for social change, especially abolition along with the work of parachurch organizations. Both the Old School and New School split again, this time along sectional lines. The New School split first, between the north and south, in 1854. Then, at the beginning of the Civil War, the Old School also split regionally. The Southern Old and New School branches would join during the war. The northern branches rejoined shortly after the war. While I grew up in the Southern branch of the Presbyterian Church, the two regional denominations came back together in 1984, two years before I entered seminary. 

W. W. Brier

In 1850, when Brier arrived in San Francisco, there were still deep divisions and distrust between the two groups of Presbyterians. Discovering the Old School Presbyterians had already established churches in the larger communities along the coast, he headed inland to the mining communities and founded a church in Marysville. Two years later he organized a congregation in Grass Valley. Appointed the exploring agent for the New School Presbyterians, Brier joined the “Rush to Washoe” (as Western Nevada was known then) in 1861. Brier was like most of the miners who initially made the journey into Nevada, coming from the West as mining began to wane in California.

First Church organized in Nevada

In the summer of 1861, Brier spent time in Carson City, where he organized a church in a small school building. He headed back across the Sierras before winter, but persuaded the Reverend A. F. White, a pastor from the Midwest, but currently serving in Gilroy, California, to take charge of the church. White, sensing the opportunity, appealed to the Home Mission Board early in 1862 for more help:

A failure in this effort would be to yield the whole Territory almost to unrestrained vice. Will you sustain us in planting the standard of the cross here amid these mountains? The infant church (Carson City)—the first born in the great basin between the Sierras and the Rocky Mountains, stretches forth her hands to you for help.

 Brier would return to Nevada in the summer of 1862. This time, he called a meeting of those interested in a Presbyterian Church in Virginia City. Meeting at the Methodist Episcopal Church, they organized themselves into a congregation on September 21, 1862. Shortly thereafter, he left Nevada and A. F. White assumed responsibility for both the Carson City and Virginia City congregations. That winter, White wrote another letter to the Home Mission Board:

The wealth is here – untold. If we could concentrate our best talent here for the next two years, if our Church would only seize these sources of influence now offered here, she could in a short time be independent, and place a man in every village on the Pacific slope and sustain him there.

New Pastors recruited
The Palmers in 1863 (can you believe they were in their early 20s?)

White’s pleas did not fall on deaf ears. Even though the Civil War raged in the east, Henry Kendall, the head of the Home Mission Board for the New School Presbyterians was at work. He understood that after the Civil War, the nation would be linked together by railroad, opening vast areas for new communities. He set out to recruit pastors to answer the call to go west.  In the spring of 1863, Kendall, recruited William Henry Palmer and William Wert Macomber to become missionaries to Nevada. The two were soon-to-be graduates from Auburn Seminary in the Finger Lake Regions of New York. He also recruited the Reverend L. P. Webber, a minister who had been serving in Indiana.  

After graduation, the Presbytery of Buffalo ordained both Palmer and Macomber. They also married. Palmer married Jennie Gilmore, the daughter of a physician, on June 25, 1863. The Palmer’s enjoyed a honeymoon night at Niagara Falls. It appears Jennie was excited at the prospects in Nevada, writing to her family:

I have felt that I was doing so little good in the world and the burden of my prayer has been that I might be the means of bringing souls to Christ. What a field of usefulness is now open before me and I am amazed to think one so feeble as I should have been called to such a great and difficult work.   

Travel to Nevada in 1863

On July 9, 1863, shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, the couple took a train from Western New York to New City. While Palmer doesn’t mention this in his journal, this would have been during the New York City draft riots. They met up with the Macombers. In a worship service at Brick Presbyterian, prayers were offered for their safe travels. On July 13, the four of them boarded the mail steamer, Northern Lights, bound for Panama. Arriving in the jungle a half century before the Panama Canal, but after a railroad made the travel across the isthmus a simple affair. On the Pacific, they boarded another steamer, “Golden Age”, for the trip to San Francisco. 

Palmer, who faithfully kept a journal since January 1 of that year wrote little about the journey except to mention that both he and his wife, Jennie, were sick on the sea passages. They arrived in San Francisco in early August. There, Palmer and Macomber preached in various churches. 

On August 16, 1863, Palmer preached in Oakland. Afterwards, he met with Nelson Winton, an elder in the Virginia City Church. Winton paid their hotel bill and arranged passage for them to travel to Nevada. 

From California to Nevada

On August 19, Palmer and his wife took an overnight riverboat to Sacramento, arriving at 6 the next morning. That morning, August 20th, they boarded a train for the run to Folsom, where the tracks eastward ended. They switched to a stagecoach. That evening, they dined in Placerville, at the foothills of the mountain. Then, they took off for Nevada, on a stage that frequently had to change horses as it climbed up into the mountains on rocky and windy roads. Writing to his parent’s, Palmer described this experience:

As the road became more difficult and dangerous, the speed of the coach seemed to increase also. Soon we found ourselves circling around lofty hills and deep valleys. Many miles of travel were but few of progress. The grade was nowhere very steep, but at times we could look from the windows on one side up hundreds and even thousands of feet to the summit above us, and from the other side as many feet below us upon the rocks at the bottom of the ravines. On this narrow-crooked road, with no protection at the edge, with six galloping horses before the coach, which was rocking and jolting about, I felt none or little sense [of] danger, but was most deeply interested in the strange, grand, and awful scenery through which we were passing.

Later that night they stopped at Strawberry, where the coach changed horses before heading in the dark over Johnson Pass. The old stage stop in Strawberry is still in operation as a store and restaurant along US 50. In the early morning hours, they skirted the south shore of Lake Tahoe. Jennie wrote home describing the beauty of the moon as it reflected off the lake. The moon would have been not quite at first quarter, or half-full. Although traveling by night meant that they would not be able to see much, it allowed the stage to make better time as the grades were clogged during daylight with teamsters hauling heavy freight to the mines. 

Arriving in Carson City

Their stage journey continued, leaving Tahoe, and descending the steep Kingsbury Grade into Genoa. I can imagine the newlyweds were shocked as they descended the east slow of the Sierras and entered the vast desert of the Great Basin, with few trees and lots of sagebrush. At Genoa (formerly Mormon Station and the first incorporated town in the territory, the line turned north toward Carson City. They arrived on the morning on August 21, checking into the St. Charles Hotel. Palmer would later write home describing it as the dirtiest hotel he’d seen. After cleaning up from their journey, they had lunch with James Nye, the Governor of the Nevada Territory. 

Palmer’s Labor in Carson City

Palmer didn’t have much of an opportunity to rest. Having arrived in Carson City, White left him in charge of the church and headed off east on a scouting expedition to the newly established Reese River Mining District. During his first two days in Carson City, Palmer officiated at three funerals. He described them to his parents in this fashion: “The first an awful drunkard, the second one of the greatest gamblers and the profanest man in the territory, and the third was murdered.” He continued, telling of a saloon in Carson City where six men had been shot or stabbed recently. Then, added, “They tell me Virginia City is still worse.”  In the ten days of White’s absence, Palmer officiated at five funerals. 

The Palmers arrive in Virginia City

Palmer and his wife moved to Virginia City after White’s return. At first, they stayed in the home of Nelson Winton. Things didn’t get easier for during his first week on the Comstock. In addition to preaching in the courthouse where the congregation met, he had four weddings (three of which were in Dayton) and a funeral. It was decided that Palmer would serve the church in Virginia City, while Macomber would serve Calvary Presbyterian in Gold Hill (just south of Virginia City). Webber travelled to the Reese River and organized a congregation in Austin. His story ended in tragedy.  


Primary sources provided by the late Elisabeth Ruddy of Encinitas, CA. Ruddy provided me with letters, newspaper clippings and journals of her grandfather, David Henry Palmer. Upon agreement, after I had finished with the papers and transcribed the journals, they were donated to the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, PA, with copies of the transcription provided to the Nevada Historical Society in Reno, NV. 

Much of his information can also be found in two journal articles I wrote along with my dissertation. 

Garrison, Charles Jeffrey, “’How the Devil Tempts Us to Go Aside from Christ:’ The History of First Presbyterian Church of Virginia City, 1862-1867. Nevada Historical Society Quarterly (36:1, Spring 1993), 13-34.

______, “David Henry Palmer: A Pastoral Baptism in Western Mining Camps,” American Presbyterians: Journal of Presbyterian History (72:3, Fall 1994), 173-186. 

______. “Presbyterians and Miners: The Church’s Response to the Comstock Lode, 1862-1924. (San Francisco Theological Seminary, 2002). 

See also:

Wicher, Edward Arthur, The Presbyterian Church in California, 1849-1927 (New York: Frederick H. Hitchcock, 1927).  Because most of the Nevada Churches were tied to California, Wicher includes a chapter on Nevada.  The photo of Brier comes from this book.

We’re saved by God’s grace to help others

Title slide with smoky picture of mountains

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
June 18, 2023
2 Corinthians 1:1-11

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, June 16, 2023

At the beginning of worship:

Why are we saved? Too often people think salvation is personal. We’re so good God wants us to fill a hotel in the sky. Hopefully, you don’t think that way and if you do, it’s my prayer that by the end of the service, you’ll reconsider. We’re saved, not for our benefit, but for God’s glory and to do God’s work in the world.[1]

Before reading the Scriptures:

We begin our journey through 2nd Corinthians today. Paul opens this letter almost identically to how he began 1st Corinthians. This was a familiar style in the era without envelopes to identity to whom the letter is for and who sent it. Paul’s audience is not only to the church in Corinth, but also believers around Corinth. It’d be like us receiving a letter for this congregation along with other believers in Patrick, Carroll, and Floyd Counties.[2]

In both letters Paul doesn’t just say he’s an Apostle. He makes it clear that his Apostleship wasn’t his doing. He’s an Apostle onlyby God’s will. God called him. He didn’t volunteer for this task; he was chosen. 

One difference in this opening verse is the person with Paul when he pens the letter. In 1st Corinthians, Sosthenes accompanies him. Now, he’s with Timothy.  

“With Me” principle

Paul understood the “with me” principle. Those of you who attended Stan Ott’s discipleship workshop may remember it.[3]Don’t do anything by yourself when you can do it with someone else. It’s more fun with two people and it’s a way of building disciples. By having Timothy along, Paul can help disciple him as he becomes a more important leader within the community. 

Paul’s benediction:

After a blessing, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul does something different. Generally, he would next give thanks for those to whom he’s writing. This was common with Greek letters of the era. But in 2ndCorinthians, Paul provides a benediction. He draws on his Jewish heritage. His wording is like the Jewish benedictions of the day, except Paul Christianized it. The traditional Jewish benediction, even today, will begin something like, “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob…” Paul changes this. Instead of focusing on the patriarchs of the past, he focuses on God as Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.[4]

Suffering and consolation 

After the benediction, Paul discusses the sufferings endured by the disciples and what they might learn from it. In speaking of suffering and consolation, Paul draws heavily from the center of Isaiah, beginning with the 40th chapter, which we read earlier in the service.[5]

Now that you have an idea of what’s coming, follow along in your Bibles and you can see the different parts of this passage.

Read 2 Corinthians 1:1-11

One miserable night: 

I remember a miserable night in the fall of ‘71. The Order of the Arrow lodge held a campout for its members in the dunes behind the beach near New River Inlet. Saturday had been wonderful. The fall weather was nice. We saw the hermit who lived in a World War 2 bunker just to the south of where we camped. He’d become something of a celebrity and none of us knew he’d be murdered the following spring by someone thinking he buried a fortune under the trash around his camp.[6] We were told to stay away from him, but fourteen-year-old boys are curious. In the sunshine, we roamed the beach and the marshes south of Fort Fisher, a Civil War fort. 

The storm and the search:

David Williams and I tented together. After dinner, stormy weather blew in and we retreated to our four-person tent. We felt like kings, two of us having that big tent with so much room. We had staked out the fly to give us maximum ventilation. As we prepared to turn in for the night when one of the adult leaders summoned us to gather. A sheriff deputy had stopped and asked for help in finding a boat in trouble. 

We were sent off in groups to comb the beach and, with our flashlights, scan the surf. The wind howled, and in no time, we were wet. Ponchos, which was all any of us had for rain, are useless in the wind. It’s like wearing a sail. But we did our part. Nonetheless, it was miserable, and we didn’t find anything. After a while, the search was called off, as the missing man on the boat had swum ashore and walked to get help. The next morning, we could see the overturned bow in the surf.[7]

Campsite wrecked by the gale:

We headed back to our campsites. David and I were happy to see our tent still standing. Most of the tents had blown down. People began to crawl into cars for the night. We went to our tent, where we discovered that we were not so lucky after all. The fly over the door had ripped in the gale and flapped in the wind. Inside, our sleeping bags and everything we had floated in two inches of water. As the saying goes, “no good deed goes unpunished.”[8]

We searched for a dry place… All the cars were filled. We ended up in the back of an equipment trailer. It was a long night. Somehow my nine-volt transistor radio survived the flood. We listened as we tried to get some sleep in our wet clothes. Rod Stewart’s ballad, Maggie May, was on the top of the charts.[9] I bet we heard that song a dozen times that night and even today, I can’t hear it without thinking about trying to sleep while soaked and on the hard floor of a trailer.

Misery loves company, sometimes…

They say misery loves company. In a way, suffering with others like we did, was a bonding experience. Together, the night wasn’t as long as if it would have seemed if I was by myself. We got through it. And with the morning, the storm had passed. Some of the adult leaders got up early and fixed us all hot chocolate and scrambled eggs. 

My dad picked David and I up late that morning. We wanted to brag on our misery, only to find out Dad had just as good of a story. He’d gone fishing that evening on Masonboro Island. The storm came and the tide was out. There was a half-mile of mud flats between my dad, his boat, and the mainland. He spent a few miserable hours waiting for the tide to rise enough to float the boat so he could get home.  

Paul begins this letter talking about comfort in affliction… His message is simple. God can comfort us in our suffering, and if we experience such comfort, we’re to be a comfort to others.

 Suffering for Christ: 

Of course, the suffering Paul refers to wasn’t spending a wet night during a storm. Suffering like that is something everyone experiences. It’s part of the human condition. We fall off a bike, or hit our thumb with a hammer, or experience a car accident. Some of our suffering we caused ourselves. Abusing our bodies for a lifetime, then getting ill as an example. At other times, we suffer when caught in nature. A tornado strikes our side of the road. Or maybe we’re laid off when a company downsizes. Such events are not limited to a particular religious group.

Paul’s example of affliction: 

In this letter, Paul’s afflictions are brought on because he follows Jesus. In other words, by taking seriously Jesus’ teachings and commandments, people want to shut him up. It started right after Paul’s conversion. If you remember, Paul had to be slipped out of Damascus because of a group saw him as a traitor to his faith.[10] And it didn’t get any easier.

We can help others because of what we’ve endured:

But Paul gains a unique insight from his afflictions. God who consoled him, prepared him to console others. One of the first books assigned for us to read in seminary was Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer. Nouwen’s thesis, from what I remember of the book, is that through our wounds we gain the ability to help others. Our woundedness provides a ready-made connection, for on some level we’re all wounded.[11]

The 12th Step in Alcoholics Anonymous captures what Paul teaches. Through a spiritual awakening while working the steps, the addict gains some control over his life and then can help others. 

As Paul says, “our affliction is for your consolation.” God helps us and then expects us to help others. As I said at the beginning, salvation isn’t just a personal individual experience for our own benefit. We’re to use our experiences to glorify God and help others. 

Paul’s example of affliction: 

Paul speaks of an affliction he had when in Asia. At this time in history, Asia was what’s today known as the country of Turkey. In the letter he doesn’t go into detail of the type of suffering. Perhaps it was the riot Paul experienced in Ephesus, the leading city in Asia at the time.[12]  Whatever it was, Paul felt he was going to die. He could only trust God, but his hope is in the God who raises the dead. Such a God is worthy of our trust.  As Paul wrote to the Romans: “if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.[13]


I want to make one last observation on this text. Notice that Paul doesn’t writes in the singular here. Look at the pronouns. You don’t see an “I” or a “me.” It’s all “us” and “we” and a plural “you.” If this was translated by a Southerner, it’d be “y’all.” My point, as I have been trying to vocalize more and more in my preaching, our faith is lived out in a community. While there are individual aspects in Christianity, we develop our faith within the church where we console one another. 


What should we take from Paul’s letters. If we are suffering because we are striving to follow Christ and find ourselves in trouble, we shouldn’t be overly concerned. Let’s keep our eyes on Christ, not on the worldly demands we face. He’ll give us the strength we need to get through. And then, if we find another believer who is suffering, we can come alongside him or her and offer hope. Remember, the Christian faith is about community, about supporting one another in their afflictions.  Amen. 

[1] See Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions, “Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XVI (5:1115) and “The Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.088-6.089.

[2] Paul may have identified these Christians as Saints instead of the churches of Achaia because they had not yet been constituted into a congregation. See Ernest Best, Second Corinthians: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1987), 8. 

[3] I spoke about this before in sermons. See

[4] Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 65, 67. 

[5] Paul draws on Isaiah 40-55 according to Barnett, 72 (see pages 71-76). 

[6] For the story of the Fort Fisher hermit see:

[7] From what I remember, there were two men fishing. They’d run out of gas. They brought the boat close to shore, anchored it, while went to get gas. When he returned, the weather had changed. He couldn’t find the boat. The other man, once the boat capsized, also swam to shore. They’d missed each other in the dark.  

[8] While this saying is not in scripture, I think it should be in the book of Ecclesiastes. However, there is a close quote in the non-canonical (according to Protestants) book of Sirach 20:16.

[9] Maggie May was released in July 1971 and was at the top of the charts by October.

[10] Acts 9:23-25. 

[11] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Doubleday, 1972). 

[12] Acts 19:21-41. If this was the affliction Paul refers, he was in more danger than we’re told in Acts (where his friends shielded him). C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (1973, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 64. 

[13] Romans 14:8. 

Photo taken before sunrise of Buffalo Mountain with the haze of smoke apparent
Happy Father’s Day (it appears the smoke is back with us)

Catching up and a review of three books about the Deep South

photos of the covers of the three books reviewed in the post

Catching up:

Foundation diggings

I finally have a construction crew working on an addition to my house. When done, there will be an additional 384 square feet walkout basement that will serve as my shop and cool storage of produce. On the main level will be another 384 square feet of living space (with a half bath for guest) that will open out to a 200 square feet deck. The top level will add another room of roughly 140 square feet. In addition, we plan to put a porch on the front of the house. So, things are a little hectic, with a lot of waiting for workers and inspections.

In addition, yesterday I had a laser procedure done on my left eye where I have a leaking blood vessel.  It didn’t hurt. However, it felt like I was forced to watch a dozen nuclear explosions, the bright light exploding in my eye. The good news is that they only dilated my left eye, so I still had one good eye with which to drive home. 

In this blog, I’m still trying to catch up with recent books I’ve read or listened to. I listened to the Horwitz book in March when I traveled to the beach. This month I listened to the Foote book and read the Morris biography.  All three books have ties to the Deep South.

Larry L. King, In Search of Willie Morris:
The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor

Cover for "In Search of Willie Morris"

 (New York: Public Affairs, 2006), 353 pages with index and bibliography with 8 plates of b&w photos. 

I was introduced to Willie Morris in the late 90s when I read North Toward Home. As a southerner who was then living in Utah, the idea of the South no longer being my home resonated with me. (And like Morris, I eventually returned). I later watch the wonderful movie version of his book, My Dog Skip. Several years later I stumbled upon Taps, a book published after Morris’ death. Taps, which draws on his memories as a high school student playing his trumpet for military funerals during the Korean War, also says a lot about how we treat the dead as well as the racial tensions in the American South during the Jim Crow era. I recently read a reference to King’s biography of Morris and decided to check it out.

Larry L. King (the writer, not the TV host, author of the comic play, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) was a good friend of Willie Morris. However, like most friendships, theirs had rocky roads including several years of estrangement after King had an affair with a woman with whom Morris had been seeing. In some ways, their closeness makes this a more difficult biography as you can see King’s obvious bias toward a man he admired. However, this also allows King to have a more intimate portrait of Morris. King doesn’t just rely on his own memory, but checked out his stories with many others who were close to Morris, including his son, ex-wife, widow, and friends. In places he offers competing insights, his as well as those from others. 

This book doesn’t provide much detail into Morris’ younger life in Mississippi, which I found disappointing as Morris mined his childhood for many of his stories. He focuses more on Morris as a student at the University of Texas. He also writes more about his time ss a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, something that Morris only briefly mentions in his books. 

Willie Morris was the youngest editor ever in the long history of Harper’s Magazine, taking over the helm at 32 years of age.  From this point, King begins a much more detailed examination of Morris’ life. He established a staff of talented writers which included King. Those writing for the magazine that I read include William Styron, Norman Mailer, and David Halberstam. I’ve reviewed three of Halberstam’s books in the last few years: The FiftiesOctober 1964Summer of ’49

After a battle with the magazine owner, Morris was forced out as editor. All the big-name writers he assembled at the magazine refused to write again for at Harpers. Others, including his friend Truman Capote, joined the boycott. According to King, at publishing of this book 35 years later, they’d all kept their promise. Afterwards, Morris received all kind of offers, but ignored them. He also received a letter of condolence from a young attorney in Arkansas, who Morris had met when the future politician left for Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. Morris would meet him again, on his return. This was Bill Clinton. As President, he would write a piece read at Morris’ funeral.  

After Harpers, King focuses on Morris’ difficulty focusing, amplified by the divorce from his first wife, Celia. It was also a time when people were realizing that Morris was drinking too much. For this next period, Morris mostly lived on Long Island.

I was amazed by how Morris not only gave a voice to those young writers at Harpers, but to other talented writers. Later, after he returned to the South and was a visiting writer at the University of Mississippi, he encouraged and helped a law school student by the name of John Grisham publish his first book. He also helped Larry Brown (I’ve read a few of his books) and Winston Groom (who wrote Forest Gump). Morris became a close friend of Jim Jones, who had completed two of a trilogy on World War II. The first two books were Here to Eternity, and Thin Red Line. When Jones’ died, Morris took over and completed his third volume, Whistle. Both of Morris’ wives were authors and involved in the publishing business.

Practical jokes stand out in the books I’ve read by Morris. King shares many more such jokes, including taking William Styron on a night stroll through the Yazoo cemetery. There, upon a grave, Styron found a copy of his novel, Lie Down in Darkness. Inside the cover was a note from the one buried in the grave, that read, “To William Styron. Come lie down in darkness with us. It is not as bad as it has been made out.” At an Ole Miss home football game in Hemingway Stadium, Morris delighted telling two French journalists how the school wanted to honor Faulkner, but he refused. So, the name went to Hemingway, implying it was named for the author. The truth was that the stadium had been named for a former dean. King found himself at the blunt of some of these jokes, including many prank phone calls. It became so frequent that when Nelson Rockefeller called King to offer him a speechwriting job, he assumed it was Morris and said some inappropriate things. 

When Morris was asked about the truthfulness of his stories in his book, Good Old Boy, he said they were all true. Then he quoted Mark Twain, “sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.”

But with the jokes come sadness and Morris had a melancholy streak. Imagine your son’s dog (and later a friend’s dog) dying after being hit by a car while in your care. It happened to Morris. Or having to endure lectures about your drinking from your mother who (it was later discovered) had her own alcoholism issues. Morris’ relationship with his mother was so difficult he seldom went home without taking a friend. And then there are the critics who could be brutal. Yet, as King points out, while Morris often hurt those close to him, he probably hurt himself most.

The last decade of Morris’ life was one of his most productive. He had married JoAnne Prichard, who stabilized his life. He became more focused. But sadly, that ended in 1999, when he died of a heart attack. His beautiful book, Taps, which he had worked on for thirty years came out after his death. 

Willie Morris was a fascinating man. He had faults, but we all do. But I found it amazing how well connected he was with the literary world of the era. Now I am wanting to read more of his works. If you’re interested in his life or in the writing life, I recommend this biography. 

Shelby Foote, Jordan County

Cover for "Jordan County"

(1954, Audible, 2004: 10 hours and 5 minutes. Narrated by Tom Parker 

I have read some of Foote’s Civil War accounts, but this is the first time reading (or listening) to his fiction. The setting for this novel is a fictional county in the Mississippi Delta, between Memphis and Vicksburg. Through a series of stories, the author creates a portrait of the country stretching back over 200 years. Each vignette is more like a short story or novella, with the location being the main connection. In an interesting twist, the first story is set in 1950, five years after the Second World War. Each story thereafter moves back in time. The second, about a blues musician who is executed for killing a man involved with his lover, was set in the 1930s. There is a story about old plantation homes being burned during the Civil War, in which the infirmed owner had fought with Andrew Jackson at New Orleans in the War of 1812. Then came the stories of those same homes being built and slaves hauled into the region, after the discovery of the cotton gin made cotton valuable. Then we learn of those who settled this country, as the local natives were being pushed out. The last story is set before this land would become a part of the United States, as Christianity was being brought to the native people. 

I found reading these stories chronologically backwards interesting. It was kind of like peeling an onion to get back to the roots of the land. In this case, it shows the connection to the land. I need to read more of Foote’s writings. If this is any indication of his fiction, he is a much more accessible writer than his friend, William Faulkner. 

Tony Horwitz, Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide 

Cover of "Spying on the South"

(2019, 17 hours and 11 minutes). Narrated by Mark Deakins and Tony Horowitz.

Long before I started blogging, while living in Utah, I made a cross country flight. A friend had given me a book, Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic. I never laughed so much on an airplane. I kept trying to mute myself and about bit through my cheeks, but the book was so funny. Everyone around me wanted the name of the book. I’m sure many of them went out an brought a copy! 

In Confederates in the Attic, a Yankee explores Civil War reenactments in the American South. In his new book, he returns South just before the 2016 election, and traces the second journey William Laws Olmstead made into the American South in the decade before the Civil War. Olmstead had been a farmer. Before he became famous as a landscape designer, he struggled as a journalist. He made two trips into the South to learn about the differences in agriculture. He travelled under the name, Yeoman, drawing on his farming past. In his first journey, which took him down along the Atlantic seaboard, he began to question slavery. When he took his second journey, which went down the Mississippi and across Louisiana to Texas and on into Northern Mexico, slavery haunted him. While Olmstead books were not well received in the United States, they were well-received in Britain. Some think his books on the South may have helped keep Britain from joining the Confederacy during the war. To read my review of a recent biography of Olmstead, click here.

In this book, Horwitz sets out to travel as closely to Olmstead’s path as possible. He takes the train South to Washington and then west. When he gets into the navigable waters on the other side of the divide, where Olmstead took a steamboat, he arranged transient on a tug pushing coal barges. This allows him to learn about the life of the deckhands as well as exploring the use of coal and how its link to global warming. Then he cuts across country through Kentucky and part of Tennessee before joining a riverboat for his travels down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Along the way, he sees plantations and reflects on what Olmstead might have seen and how the plantation life is portrayed today (somewhat whitewashed from the harshness of antebellum South.  He then travels by car across Louisiana and into Texas and barely into Mexico (where he discovered it was much safer for Olmstead than it is today. 

In addition to interesting travels, Horwitz draws out the most unique people and events along the way. His retelling of being at a monster truck mud rally is classic. But he also tells the stories of folks he meets in dive bars and tourist attractions, from the Creation Museum to the Alamo. He even finds some cowboys to take him out riding a few nights with pack animals as Olmstead had travelled, which creates more humorous stories. Horwitz can make most any adventure funny, which is why I have enjoyed the books I’ve read by him. 

But there is also a serious side to this book. Traveling in the lead up to the 2016 election in some of the more conservative parts of the country, Horwitz wonders if America will face a similar divide as it did when Olmstead made his journey in the 1850s. Like Olmstead, he attempts to set the historical record straight, which challenges some the myths of the Old Southwest. While Horwitz befriends all kinds of people along the way, and seems to get along with them, I’m sure if many of those he met read his book, they would not like the bite in his humor. In this way, Horowitz is like Olmstead, they both spied on the South.

Psalm 115: Don’t covet your neighbor’s gods

Sermon cover slide featuring a sunrise

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
June 11, 2023
Psalm 115

Sermon recorded at Bluemont on June 9, 2023

At the beginning of worship

When your neighbor is successful, do you ask him or her about their secret? You know, as humans, we’re often curious. That can be a good thing. It may help us become a better person. I’ve seen articles on the books Oprah, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and other financially successful individuals read. Maybe it will work for us, we think as we read the same books. Let me suggest that’s okay, up to a point.

Now comes the warning. Don’t ever think that just because of someone is successful, they are closer to God. Nor should we take religious advice from someone based solely on their bank account. We must remember our God delights working with the underdog. Jesus repeatedly speaks of reversing the economic order, where the last are first, the servant and the poor are elevated to positions of power and glory.[1] This morning, think about what this means for us?

Before the reading of scripture

During the season of Easter, I based my preaching on a series of praise Psalms I thought reflected the joy and hope fitting the season. But there was another Psalm I thought about trying to work into the series. I couldn’t fit in. Yet Psalm 115 kept coming back to me. I decided to preach on it today. Next Sunday, I plan to move to the New Testament and begin to work our way through 2nd Corinthians. 

If your Bible has textual notes, you may learn that in many older manuscripts, this Psalm was connected to the previous Psalm, 114. That Psalm doesn’t seem to have as much meaning as 115. It recalls the wonders of what God did for the Israelites during the Exodus. Of course, we need to know God’s work, but that’s all you get in 114. You don’t even have a call for the people to praise, just a recounting of God’s action and a warning to fear the Lord. Psalm 114 reminds Israel of what they’re not to claim credit.

Psalm 115 begins with a reminder for Israel to give God the credit. In other words, be humble and don’t think you’re responsible for your good fortune. Such humility is a sign of one who trust in God. 

Read Psalm 115. 

Think about the times you’ve felt pride swell up in you. How did you feel when you first mastered riding a bike? Or swimming? Or building your first birdhouse. You know those things you showed off to your friends during show-and-tell. 

Speaking of show-in-tell… I don’t remember much about shop in Junior High, except for one thing. I designed and built a desktop bookcase. It’s simple. I probably worked on it for two class periods, maybe four with the staining and varnishing. But it was mine. For years, it sat on my desk and held dictionaries and a Thesaurus. Then computers came along, and the monitor replaced it. I moved it to the top of a file cabinets. Today, fifty-some years later, it’s on a shelf in my office at Bluemont. It holds books I’m waiting to read. 

What are you proud of?  Maybe turning a double play in Little League or throwing a touchdown pass when playing high school football. Or, for the studious among us, it might have been making the honor roll. I wouldn’t know anything about that (it wasn’t until college that I made the Dean’s list). 

Or our pride can be puffed up with a reward at work. I know my ego about burst when we moved into new church campuses in the congregations I served in Utah and Michigan. 

Tempering our pride

But with all these examples, if we think about how they were accomplished, it should temper our pride. After all, where would we have been without a parent to teach us to ride a bike? Or teachers to show us how to swim or build something from wood? Or coaches to encourage us? And for the big stuff, we seldom do it alone. We depend on others to do their part. 

And we must ask, who gave us the abilities we need to do accomplish what we do? If we were born without arms, there would have been no double plays or even woodworking. If no one joined in helping us, there would be no new buildings or other major accomplishments. And finally, for everything we do, we owe a debt to God. Very few things we can claim for our own. This is why our Psalm begins with a negation. Let’s not praise ourselves. Let’s give credit to God, whose love and faithfulness allows us success. 

The concern of the Psalmist

But then, in the second verse, we understand the reason behind the Psalmist concern. The nations taunt Israel. “Let us see your God,” they ask. This was a real problem for a small nation like Israel who worshipped an unseen God. There more powerful neighbors pushed them around. Now they want to see the God Israel worships. A problem in Israel’s history is her own citizens looked to their neighbors and their gods and wondered if they are worshipping the wrong God. It’s kind of like us trying to find the secret for success from someone else, as I suggested at the beginning of worship.

The psalmist tries to nip this tendency to look with envy upon their neighbors in the bud. He provides a statement of faith. “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.” Israel has no control over their God. There is a profound truth here. If we can control God, we are not worshipping the true God; for we are creatures, created by the Almighty. We worship the God who created heaven and earth and who is active in the affairs on earth,[2] especially with the powerless and the weak.

A satirical caricature

At this point, the psalmist creates a satirical caricature of the gods of the nations who have been created by human hands.[3]In a poetic yet humorous way, he describes these gods who some mistakenly believe give their neighboring countries such strength and power. The idols of other nations depict gods with human attributes—mouths, eyes, ears, noses, hands, feet, throats. Of course, none of these attribute’s work! While we can see an idol, it can’t do anything else for us. As humans, if we can control or make a god, it’s not the Lord Almighty.

You’re no better than that which you worship

In verse 8, after describing such idols, the psalmist polemic turns to those who worship them. Those who trust idols are not better than the statues they worship. I suggest this is true for the idols we worship. 

A three-fold call and blessing

Then, in the next verse, the psalmist issues a call to the Hebrew people to trust in their Lord, their help and shield. He issues a three-fold call: for Israel, for the house of Aaron or the priesthood, and for all (great and small) who fear the Lord. Here, it appears the Psalm includes not just those who are children of Abraham, but others who also worship the Lord.[4]

The psalmist follows his three-fold call to trust in God with a three-fold blessing from God. The God who created heaven and earth is faithful to those who honor him.

God created two domains

In verse 16, we learn that God has created two domains. Heaven is for the Lord; the earth is for us. Of course, this does not mean that God is not present on earth, for it all belongs to God. And God can reveal himself at any time, as he did over and over in Scripture[5] and more fully in Jesus Christ. 

A hint of resurrection?

Verse 16 sounds obvious but also negative. “The dead do not praise the Lord.” Yet it is followed by a statement that we will bless the Lord from here on out. Obviously, if we are to continue to bless the Lord after we die, God’s must intervene. This is beyond the Old Testament view of God but is the truth we discover in Jesus Christ.[6] God, through Jesus, defeated death and promises us eternal life.  

Do not covet 

This Psalm reminds us to be content and to trust God. We shouldn’t crave what we think makes our neighbors successful. Perhaps this is a reason for the 10th Commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house…”[7] Instead of finding ourselves by comparing us to others, we find ourselves in God’s family. While God may reside in heaven, God is also all around us. God came to us in Jesus Christ who shows us the face of God.[8] Jesus promises to be with us, whenever we gather in his name.[9] And God’s Spirit is always present in our lives, drawing us back to our true home with Christ. 

Let us bless the Lord from this time on and forevermore. Praise the Lord. Amen. 

[1] See Matthew 5:1-12, 19:27-30, 20:16; Mark 9:25, 10:31; and Luke 6:20-26, 13:30. 

[2] Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, translated by Herbert Hartwell (1959, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1962), 716. 

[3] James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 366. 

[4] Some date this Psalm late in Israel’s history, after the exile, when Judaism accepted converts from other traditions, but this may not be the case for even before there were always a few who were not ethnically Jewish but worshipped the same God.  See Weiser, 315.  

[5] Consider the call of Abram (Genesis 12), the call of Moses (Exodus 3), and the call of the prophets (examples include Samuel—1 Samuel 3, Isaiah—Isaiah 6, Ezekiel—Ezekiel 1). 

[6] Weiser, 717-718.

[7] Exodus 20:17 and Deuteronomy 5:21.

[8] John 14:8-11.

[9] Matthew 18:20.

Another photo of a smoky morning creating a beautiful sunrise

Two on theology and faith

Title slide showing covers of the two books reviewed

While I don’t review all that I read, I’m way behind in writing reviews of books I planned to review. Here’s an attempt to catch up a bit on what I have been reading in the religious and theology realm.

Adam NederTheology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith 

(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 158 pages.

This is a small and somewhat simple book with profound insights into the teaching profession. While Neder is a professor, much of what he says in this book can be applicable to all levels of teaching (especially teaching the Christian faith). This book grew out a lecture the author gave at a Karl Barth symposium on Barth’s Evangelical Theology. Neder shifted focus from Barth’s thoughts on writing to teaching. In addition to Barth, he draws heavily on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard and the Scriptures. He also draws on his own experience in the classroom and acknowledges the lessons (sometimes hard lessons) he has learned.

Each chapter focuses on a different theme that together helps create a portrait of one who might teach Christian thought. The first theme is “identity.” Our identity must be bound in Christ, who reconciles us to God. Everyone, the teacher and student, must make a decision as to whether or not the accept Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the teacher needs to understand his or her inability to teach faith. That can only come from the Holy Spirit. 

The second chapter examines “knowledge.”  The author begins by noting that some of his best students of theology were not Christian. In an academic setting the teacher can only evaluate academic work. However, as the case was made in the first chapter, knowledge doesn’t save us. It’s our willingness to trust and follow Jesus. As Kierkegaard insisted, “the Christian life cannot be “reduced to thinking the right thoughts about God.” The teacher has to help the student develop his or her own thoughts about God, which is risky as the teacher cannot control the outcome. Neder also examines objections to such knowledge such as the idea that God is unknowable. While that it true we can’t know God with our own efforts, we must remember that Jesus reveals God to us.

The third area of exploration is ethos. Christian teachers need to be humble for we are witnessing to a larger truth. While Barth lays out such ideas in Evangelical Theology, Neder acknowledges that he, too, fell short. It’s easy for us to think higher of ourselves that we should. We need to be humble and to realize that we’re always teaching, not just when we are behind the podium. Can God’s truth be seen in our lives? How can we, as a teacher, remain connected to the truth? Can we become less so that someone else become greater?

Danger is the subject of the fourth chapter. Our theology takes place in an encounter with a living God, which means we’re moving out from our comfort zones and walking a precarious path.  Using the story of Nicodemus (John 3), Neder demonstrates how we can’t follow Jesus from a safe distance.  Christianity is more than knowledge and doctrine. While that might think we can maintain a safe course, faith demands otherwise.

Neder’s final chapter is titled “Conversation.” Here the conversation is between us and God (and God’s word). Barth describes this as “primary conversation.” But we also need what Barth called secondary conversation, that between the student and other students (past and present). We learn from others, not just from the living, but also from those who preceded us. That’s why we study their written records, but it’s all in service to the primary conversation. their attempts at understanding God.  Neder encourages his students to read widely and outside their tradition, to gain appreciation of and to maintain a healthy skepticism of their own traditions. Learning from a broad perspectives reminds us that in this imperfect world, we can always improve ourselves. 

Neder then goes into detail about having such conversations in the classrooms. He encourages the teacher not to answer their own questions and to engage the students to help them arrive at the answers. It is also important for the teacher to understand the student’s questions. Failure to do so will cause a student to shut down. 

There is much to commend in this book for teaching, but especially for the Christian teacher. 

Some quotes:

Grace is not opposed to working but to earning and self-reliance. (30)

Jesus wants followers, not admirers. (41)

Christians do not only receive from him (Jesus Christ), they also partner with him in the work he is doing in the world. (72)

Conversations with Jesus rarely unfold according to plan. Jesus continually shocks and astonishes people, rattles their cages, upends their expectations, eludes their traps, and zeroes in on their deepest motivations.” (96)

“Jesus is the most hazardous of all hazards.” -Barth in his Epistles to the Romans commentary (99)

“[W]e tend to talk about God as if he is not present. Few things are harder than remembering that God is alive and active in our classrooms, few things easier than teaching as if he is not.” (101)

“The pressure to sell Christianity at discount prices is intense, and Christian leaders who refuse to adjust to these conditions create very real problems for themselves.” (111-I would add, and for others.)

“Our aim is to lead students more deeply into the subject matter to which Scripture bears witness, and we cannot do that apart from the history of Christian reflection on Scripture.” (121).

“We read because we are not yet who we want to be, because our knowledge and our lives are not yet what we think they could or should be.” (128)

Katherine StewartThe Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism 

(2019, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing 2022), 342 pages including notes and index.

Katherine Stewart focuses her journalistic lens into the rise of religious nationalism within the United States. Following the money along with individuals who seem ubiquitously present (but always in the background such as David Barton, Tony Perkins, Peter Wagner, and R. J. Rushdoony), she shows how the movement is more than a cultural crusade against perceived social ills such as abortion or the LBGTQ community. Instead, she suggests the movement is about power. The movement isn’t necessarily conservative (as in maintaining the status quo), but radical at its core. One of its goals is to undo the democratic processes and grab power. As one founder noted, if they could just get support of 10% of the county, they could control the change. Along with being political, the movement seeks to mobilize churches to achieve their goals of creating a society based on their vision of a biblical worldview. 

Stewart acknowledges the best resistance to the Christian Nationalism will probably come from other Christians. However, she only focuses on the movement itself. While she is honest about this from the beginning, her reporting left me feeling hopeless against such an onslaught. 

In each chapter of the book, Stewart follows a particular organization or idea within the larger movement. She begins with a gathering of religious leaders in the Carolinas at Unionville Baptist Church just before the mid-term elections in 2018. The gathering was a forum for Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, to reach pastors to help them organize voters. While he didn’t mention the Republican party, everyone present knew he was promoting their candidates. Much of the danger of the Christian nationalist movement is they use politicians, preachers, and key moral arguments to consolidate power. 

As has many others before her have pointed out such as Kristin DeMez in Jesus and John Wayne, Protestant Churches haven’t always been against abortion. Even in the early 70s, the Southern Baptist Convention supported abortion rights. Ronald Reagan as governor signed the most liberal abortion law to date. The big issue for many pastors of large conservative churches (such as Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones) was how to maintain tax exempt status of their segregated schools. Into this discussion came Paul Weyrich. He was a former Catholic (who’d joined a Melkite Greek Catholic Church after Vatican II). Weyrich saw an opportunity to help conservative causes as they made abortion a political issue hidden within a religious framework. This decision helped the conservative movement “Get Religion.” In the 60s and 70s, the liberals appeared to have religion on their side. This was especially so during the Civil Rights movement. 

In other chapters, Stewart examines how Christian Nationalist attempt to rewrite history. Some within this movement draw deeply from historic teachings from the likes of Robert Lewis Dabney. He was a Southern theologian and an apologist for slavery before and during the Civil War. However, it’s wrong to think of the movement as only white as she explored those of other races within it. She looks at how others in the movement have developed massive data bases to help conservative pastors to get out the vote. Not surprisingly, home schooling is a big issue for many, as well as helping church sponsored schools.

Writing a few years before the reversal of Roe vs. Wade, she explores the movements attempt at remaking the nation’s courts. In addition to abortion, she also looks at how the movement, especially within Roman Catholic hospitals, who often limit medical care that’s provided. In the final chapter, she looks at the global movement and the draw to authoritarian leadership in other countries (including Russia) for those who identity with Christian Nationalism. While she shows the international reach of Christian Nationalism, I would recommend the reader check out Ann Applebaum’s The Twilight of Democracy.

We live in a fast-changing world. As a result, some of this book is out-of-date after less than five years. After all, after January 6, we have some Americans being willing to undermine democracy openly. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has overturned Roe vs. Wade thanks to the packing of the court with those who had that as a primary focus. And Russia has shown its hand in its invasion of Ukraine, claiming partly their goal is to save Christianity. This study provides the background for how this came about. It will be up to us to heed Stewart’s warnings. If not, the book might become prophetic. It’s my hope, by pointing out the goals of Christian Nationalists, this book can be an antidote to bringing about a world view that seems out-of-step with that rabbi from Galilee.

I recommend reading this book.  Even more than that, I encourage those who see the danger of Christian Nationalism and strive to follow Jesus to consider how we can confront this attack on American Democracy. The abortion debate is one area that I find particularly disheartening. How can we discourage and reduce abortion on demand, which I feel should be the goal, while removing it from arena of politics?  But if it has political advantages for some, I’m afraid it will continue to divide people and make our society even more unstable.  Christian Nationalists have their own world view. Christians who strive to be faithful to their Savior need to articulate a world view that’s faithful to Scripture and Jesus Christ.

This morning–the smoke from fires in Quebec are filling our skies and making the air unhealthy.

Trinity Sunday: Sent from a Mountaintop

title slide with photo of Buffalo Mountain before sunrise

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
Matthew 28:16-20
June 4, 2023

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, June 2, 2023

Introduction Before Worship:

Last Sunday was Pentecost. Today is Trinity Sunday. If you go by the liturgical calendar, this is the last “big” Sunday until we come to the end of the Pentecost season. Then, we start the year all over with Advent. 

The Pentecost season, also called “ordinary time,” takes up the largest chunk of the church year. We’re reminded that our lives are mostly lived outside of feasts and holidays. Yes, there are times for big celebrations, but there are also normal times in which we walk in faith while doing the laundry, fixing dinner, paying the bills, or mowing the grass. God is God of all of it. Everything we do can be sacred, even the ordinary periods of life, if we are living for Christ. 

Trinity Sunday

We enter this season on Trinity Sunday. The Trinity, this great mystery, reminds us that God is relational. The Trinity is about love—the love of the three persons within the Trinity as well as their love for all creation, as we’re embraced within the family. 

We live in a world of sin and only in God can there be true love, so we need to accept the invitation to come draw close to God. As a Russian Orthodox meditation on the Trinity proposes, “outside the Trinity is hell.”[1]

The Trinity isn’t a philosophical or theological concept for us to master. It’s a mystery. We can’t fully comprehend it. Instead, we accept it along with the love God shows us. We’re to trust and live by faith. 

Before the reading of the Scripture

You know, I love a good tomato sandwich. Right now, my tomato plants are just beginning to grow. But God willing, by late next month, they’ll be ripe tomatoes on the vine. Then, I will eat a tomato sandwich every day until they run out. I peel the tomatoes and slice ‘em thick; I want them juicy and messy. I take two slices of wheat bread, cover a side of each with Miracle Whip (I know for some folks, that makes me a heretic). Then I place the tomatoes, grind some pepper over it, creating a sandwich. If I want to be uptown, I add a little celery seed. Its good eating. 

I tell you about tomato sandwiches because our passage can be envisioned as a sandwich.[2] Outside, the two pieces of bread, are about Jesus—one slice of bread being his authority and the other being his promise to be with us. Inside the sandwich, the thick tomato part, we find our marching orders. As followers of Jesus, it’s not about us. We’re not about glorifying ourselves. We’re here to do the work of the one whose authority extends over all heaven and earth, the one who also promises to be with us. Because of Christ’s power and presence, we can boldly take risks for the sake of the triune God, who calls us into a community to send us out to make disciples.

Today’s passage is the only place where Jesus uses the trinitarian formula, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This comes from the very end of Matthew’s gospel.

Read Matthew 28: 16-20

The Great Commission

“The Great Commission.” At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commissions his disciples to take over. We learn three important things here: Who’s the boss. What we’re called to do. What help we’ll have with our tasks at hand. We don’t learn much about the Trinity. Instead, we’re called to an active faith. It’s more about doing than knowledge, and this passage is a call to action. 

Mountaintop highlights

Many of the highlights of Matthew’s gospel occur on high places: mountains or hills. We have Jesus’ temptation in the mountains of the wilderness, the Sermon on the Mount, the transfiguration on another mountain, the great meal for 5,000 on a hill. Even the crucifixion occurred on a mountain, Mount Calvary. Now, once more, Jesus calls the eleven remaining disciples up on a mountain in Galilee. They’re back in their old haunts, where they focused their ministry, but instead of being with the crowds, they’re up high, on a mountaintop. 

Worship and doubt

Interestingly, we’re told the disciples worshipped Jesus even though some doubted. This doubting may not imply what we think. Instead of questioning their belief, the word expresses a hesitation, or wavering. It’s like taking all this in, they freeze and are unsure of what’s happening.[3]

Matthew is realistic about human emotions. We don’t always understand what is happening in the arena of faith. Instead of having to understand everything or pass a theological test, we are called to trust. This is an important insight for those of us who sometimes harbor doubts. While some of the disciples didn’t understand, they listened and obeyed and followed Jesus. Accepting everything perfectly is not as important as doing the work for which we’re called.[4]

Now there’s only 11 disciples

We’re told Jesus gathered with the eleven. Of course, he started with the twelve, but Judas is no longer with them. Twelve is often seen as a perfect number, so maybe with eleven, Jesus acknowledges that he’s working with a less than perfect group. But that’s always the case because we are mortal and sinful, whether it’s the Apostles or us. Also note that by calling them the disciples at this point, and not Apostles or leaders. Jesus reminds them that they’re always students who will have to depend upon him.[5]


With the remaining disciples gathered, Jesus tells them who’s boss. “All authority in heaven and earth have been given to me.” At the beginning of his ministry, the devil tempted Jesus on another mountain with authority over the earth, but now we learn that for the resurrected Christ, authority will extend far beyond that.[6] As the one in charge, Jesus is the one who can commission the disciples for the work at hand. And Jesus wastes no time issuing his orders. With four verbs—go, make, baptize, and teach— he sends them out to all nations. 

All nations

Let’s unpack this a bit, first by looking at the destination, “all nations.” The promise to Abraham was for land and descendants, but Jesus owns all the world, so now the call is for all people, not just for a particular family.[7]

Jesus’ new family, the church, extends beyond national boundaries. While they may be national churches, there is no such place for an only American Christian, or a British Christian, or a Ugandan Christian. We are Christians, first and foremost. This idea of all nations means our work isn’t limited to just people like us.[8] The gospel needs to be heard by everyone. Paul later captures this vision when he writes, “there is no longer Greek or Jew, for we are all one in Jesus Christ.[9]

Our divided worl

Yet, we live in a divided world. We witness this every time we tune into the news. Whether it is another mass shooting in our country, Russia lobbing missiles at hospitals and apartment buildings in Ukraine, the fighting in Sudan, the burning of churches in India, the sniping between political parties in our country, brokenness surrounds us. 

As believers in Jesus, the Prince of Peace, we must acknowledge this brokenness. But we also need to work to heal such brokenness. We’re to be instruments of God’s peace. We should cry out for justice especially for those unable to care for themselves. Let’s be honest, our present world does not represent the image of what Christ envisions in Scripture. It’s up to us to create such a representation of God’s kingdom for the world to see.[10] Sadly, like the disciples, we generally fall short. 

Making disciples

Jesus calls us to make disciples. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t say make Christians. Nor does he say to make Presbyterians. Instead, we’re to make disciples, or students of Jesus Christ. Making disciples isn’t instant conversion. It requires time.[11] Such folks may even have questions and doubts, as we see with the original disciples, but at the very least they are open to learning from the Master. 

A three-fold nam

As we make disciples, we baptize them in God’s three-fold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Notice that this isn’t a baptism in three people, but in one. The name is singular (Baptized in the name of) followed by three distinct names that make up the Godhead.[12] In other words, those who sign up to learn from Jesus are connected to the Triune God. We’re part of that holy fellowship in which all followers are invited to join. And we’re to teach these people what Jesus commands. 

Being a follower of Christ means we strive to keep Jesus’ teachings. God gives commandments to help us live in a way that will be affirming of God and of our brothers and sisters. But people won’t know what those commandments are unless they are taught. 

The need for teaching

That’s right. People need to be taught. And judging a lot of what happening, it appears that before we go out into the world to teach, we need a refresher course in this country. We need to be taught that just because someone makes us uncomfortable because of the country of their birth, the color of their skin, or their political ideals, we still should respect and love them. 

Jesus’ presence

We’re living in trying times, yet there is hope in this passage. In the last verse, after telling us that it’s our responsibility to make and baptize and teach disciples, Jesus reminds us that he is be with us till history comes to an end. Jesus is going to be with us wherever we go to do the gospel’s work. That’s the hope we take with us as we tell the good news and challenge such injustice. We’re not alone. We’ll get through such difficult time by remembering two essential things Jesus taught: Love God and love your neighbor.[13]

In closing, let me suggest that the call to all nations doesn’t mean we should all head out to some foreign land. Instead, because disciple-making is a long process, we’re to start where we are at by talking about the love of God in Jesus Christ and showing that love in our lives. Yes, some are called to the mission field. Some of us, if able, are to help support those on the mission field. But all of us are called to help disciple those around us by showing the love of the triune God: Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.

[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 291. 

[2] The idea of this passage being a “sandwich comes from Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 804. 

[3] Chelsey Harmon, Commentary on Matthew 28:16-20. -22816-20-3/  

[4] I appreciate Enns insights on this theme. See Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More than Our “Correct” Beliefs. (2016, HarpersCollins Paperback, 2017). I reviewed this book here:

[5] Bruner, 806. 

[6] Matthew 4:8-10.

[7] Even Abraham’s nation was called to be a blessing to all other nations. See Isaiah 42:6.

[8] Burner, 816-820.

[9] Galatians 3:28 (edited to focus on nationality) 

[10] One of the great ends of the Presbyterian Church is to exhibit the Kingdom of God to the world. Book of Order 

[11] Bruner, 815-816. 

[12] I appreciate Scott Hoezee’s writings on this passage for this insight. See

[13] Matthew 22:34-40.

Photo of Buffalo Mountain at sunrise
Buffalo Mountain, before sunrise