While away, I’ve been reading

Title slide with cover of three books that were reviewed
Lake Huron from the St. Mary's River in Michigan's UP
Looking toward Lake Huron from St. Mary’s River

I’m away for two weeks. I left early on Monday, April 9, and quickly drove across West Virginia and Ohio, to position myself in South Charleston for the eclipse. After 2 minutes of awe, I headed up to Michigan. I attended the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids (and will write more about it later). Then I headed up to Michigan’s UP and am in Detour Village for 8 days of reading, hiking, and discussions with a good friend.  These reviews are from books read so far during this trip: 

Freighter heading up toward the Son
Heading up to the Soo

Jonathan Healey, The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689

Cover for "The Blazing World"

narrated by Oliver Hembrough, (Random House Audio, 2023) 19 hours and 42 minutes. 

A lot happened in 17th Century England. It was an age of conflict between ideals. 

  • Did the king rule because of divine right or at the consent of the population? 
  • What role would parliament play in a monarchy? 
  • What was the best way for the citizens to practice religion? 
  • And would England remain Protestant or would it resort to Roman Catholicism?  

These ideas were debated and fought over. It was a century of much bloodshed. From civil war(s) to frequent executions of those who challenged order (from a king, to dissents, to a few condemned for witchcraft), blood flowed freely through much of the century. By the end of the century, with the Glorious Revolution, the Stuart’s dynasty was out and England began to resemble the country we now know.  

While listening to Healey’s book, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels to the American Revolution. Taxation was an important issue to both revolutions. In England, only parliament could authorize taxes which curtailed the king’s power. But the king could send home the parliament if he felt things weren’t going his way. The king tried other ways to raise funds, which eventually led to a war between the king and parliament. By the end of the century, parliament had more power and no longer ruled only at the king’s behalf.  

Much of the middle of the book focuses on Cromwell. In a way, as the “protectorate” he became like a king. There is much to dislike about him, but the same can be said about Charles I, who lost his head after the first revolution. As a Puritan, Cromwell tried to push Puritanism on England. Not only did this create turmoil in England, but it also drove a wedge between the English and the Scotch Presbyterians and Irish Catholics. Cromwell’s armies killed large numbers in Ireland, and he also brought in Scots to replace the Irish Catholics. 

The religious issues were numerous during this era. The Stuart kings looked more favorably on Catholicism than most of their county. Mary’s reign at the end of the 16th Century, which she attempted to steer the country back to Catholicism and executed hundreds of Protestants, left a bad taste for such a tradition. In a likewise manner, the harsh Puritan rule left a bad taste and after the death of Cromwell, England was more than ready to compromise with a king and parliament. While the country maintained an established religion after the restoration, it became more tolerate of other traditions, including the Quakers, Dissenters, and even Catholics. Interestingly, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and the Baptist tradition in America, played a role in England as he modeled more tolerance toward other traditions. 

While Healey mentions the Westminster Parliament which created the Westminster Confession of Faith, he says little about it.  Of course, after the restoration, it had little impact in England. However, the Church of Scotland adopted the confession and because of this, the confession has influenced Presbyterians around the globe. (For more information, see my review of John Leith’s Assembly at Westminster). 

I may obtain a written copy of this book and spend so more time studying it. I recommend the book because I think understanding the English revolutions helps Americans understand our own history. 

Steven Galloway, The Cellist of Sarajevo 

Cover for "The Cellist of Sarajevo"

(Riverhead Books, 2008), 235 pages, no photos. 

I enjoyed this short novel. Drawing on a real-life event during the siege of Sarajevo, Galloway shows us how people struggled to live in a city reduced to rubble and under constant mortar and sniper attacks from the surrounding hills. After a mortar kills civilians waiting to buy bread, a cellist decided he’ll play a concert every afternoon for 22 days to honor those killed in the attack. Will the cellist also become a victim to those attacking the city?  

Galloway uses three characters to tell the story. Each story of survival provides an insight into the tragedy of Sarajevo. 

Kenan walks every few days with a bunch of containers to obtain water for his family and an older woman in his apartment building. The city’s brewery is the source for potable water. To make the trek requires a difficult crossing of bridges and intersections that exposes individuals to guns of the snipers in the hills. 

Dragan is a baker. His wife and daughter fled the city, but he stayed behind. His home was shelled in the opening days of the battle, so he has moved into a small apartment with his sister’s family. He doesn’t get along with his brother-in-law, but he’s tolerated because he brings the family bread.

Arrow is a young woman who had been on the university’s rifle team. We’re not given her name, at least at first. Her father, a police officer, was killed in the opening battle for the city.  Because of her shooting skills, she’s recruited to serve as a sniper. She kills the men who have laid siege to the city. It was an uneasy transition, from shooting at paper to shooting men, but she’s a good shot.

After introducing Arrow as a sniper, she’s called on to protect the cellist. He has become a symbol of defiance and those laying siege to the city want him dead. Studies the cellist’s location, she attempts to get into the mind of the enemy sniper. She almost makes a mistake and the enemy sniper shoots at her, but misses. Then, she kills the sniper even though he hasn’t yet aimed his gun and is listening to the music. The psychological battle between the two snipers reminds me of Liam O’Flaherty’s short story, “The Sniper” which I first read in Junior High. 

In a way, Arrow becomes the main character. After protecting the cellist, she has had enough of killing. They assign her to a new group but refuses to kill the enemy civilians. She runs away. Her story ends with the city’s soldiers coming to kill her. At first, she thinks about killing them, but then decides against it. She doesn’t want to be a fugitive and waits. As they bust down her door, she speaks, “My name is Alisa.” While we don’t know what happens, I’m left with the sense she decided her death was preferable to continuing to kill. In this way, she becomes a Christ-like figure in a world of turmoil. 

All three characters reminisce about the city’s past and have hope for its future. I recommend this book and found myself constantly thinking about those in Ukraine who now live under such situation with the Russian invasion. 

John Lane, Gullies of My People: An Excavation of Landscape and Family 

cover for John's Lane's "Gullies of My People"

(Athens, GA: University of Georgie Press, 2023), 204 pages including source material and black and white photographs. 

Lane explores his family’s past while also learning about the gullies which washed away much of the Piedmont near his home in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The chapters of the book flip back and forth. In some he’s traveling to see where his relatives lived and farmed, often with Sandy, his older half-sister. In other chapters, he hangs out with geologists, studying the erosion of the soil, building their explorations upon the research of the Soil Conservation Service of the 1930s and early 40s.  And in others, he writes about his family’s and his own history.  Like the gullies, which can never completely heal, the hurts of the past still haunt the lives of the living. 

The Second World War creates a dividing line and hangs over the book like a dark shadow. The gullies in the Piedmont were well established before the war, driving many of Lane’s ancestors from the land and into the mills. During the war, Lanes mother, a young mill worker, became semi-famous as a runner-up to a beauty contest for women working in the mills. She would carry around the magazine article with her on the cover for the rest of her life. But her fame flamed out and after her first marriage (Sandy’s father), she struggled with alcoholism for much of her life. Lane’s father spent the war in the army. He served in Africa, on the second wave on Omaha Beach, and across Europe. He suffered emotionally after the war and took his one life when his son was still young. 

The war also brought an end to the Social Conservation Service work in the South. It wasn’t that there were more no gullies to study. Instead, the war took away the resources and the scientists became engaged in other activities. Interestingly, among the early soil scientists was the son of Albert Einstein. Lane even has a vision of Albert at the river site of his son’s laboratory on erosion. 

In addition to recollecting the memories of his family and learning about the erosion of the land, the book highlights the difficulties of memories. Lane even tells some of the family stories from the perspective of different people to show how such memories can manifest themselves differently.

Toward the end of the book, Lane allows his mother’s a chapter which he drew from her personal journal. In this chapter, we get a sense of her hard life. She died in 2004.

John Lane recently retired from Wofford College, where he taught environmental studies. 

From his other writings, I knew Lane and I share a common birth location. Both of us were born in the Sandhills of Moore County, North Carolina. Lane is a few years older than me. He was born right after Hurricane Hazel blew through the area (I was born two days after Humphrey Bogart’s death). Lane spent his earliest years in Southern Pines. I spent my earliest years a dozen miles away, along the Lower Little River, between Pinehurst and Carthage.

Both of us left the area before starting school. Lane’s mother moved him back to Spartanburg after the death of his father. My father moved his family away from our family’s roots after starting a new career.  Through this book, I learned of another connection. One thread of Lane’s family (the Mabes) is from Carroll County, Virginia, where I currently live.  And, on the eastern side of my property is a large gulley which I suspect washed out after the death of the chestnuts.  As I read this book and looked at the cross-cut of the gulley used on the title pages, I couldn’t help but think of my own gulley. 

Canadian geese eggs buried in the rocky limestone along Lake Huron's shore
Canadian Geese eggs along the shore of Lake Huron

The Unpardonable Sin, Baseball, & Doing the Will of God

Title slide showing a photo of the Pittsburgh Pirates playing at their home stadium

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry & Bluemont Churches
April 7, 2024
Mark 3:20-35.   

What is the unpardonable sin? As we’ll see in our reading this morning, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not forgivable. When I was an early teen, I thought this meant one could not say, G-D. Now, we shouldn’t say that word, but the idea of it being unpardonable was scary. Ever hit your thumb with a hammer? If that’s the unpardonable sin, should I give up hope. I’d committed the sin, along with most everyone I knew. And if there’s no hope, we’ll I might as well not worry about other sins. 

But what is this sin. After all, Jesus never clearly defines the unpardonable sin. I would later hear the sin described as one who repeatedly denied the call of the Spirit to repentance until it was too late. That’s the approached taken by the evangelist A. B. Earle, in his sermon titled “The Unpardonable Sin. He preached this sermon frequently while on the sawdust trail across the American West in 1866-1867. 

He told of a Civil War surgeon who patient artery was cut. He could only hold the artery so long. He knew when he let go, the patient would likely bleed out before he could sew it up.[1] He used this story to encourage those at his revivals to immediately get right with God. Earle pulled a few emotional strings by threatening damnation if they don’t accept Jesus. Interestingly, that’s not something Jesus ever did. Yet, Earle definition of the unpardonable sin seems closer to the truth than mumbling the wrong word in frustration. 

As one scholar noted, if we are worried about having the committed the sin, it is obvious that we haven’t committed it. Furthermore, there is no Scriptural record of God denying forgiveness for those who ask for it.[2] That’s the good news!

Before reading the Scripture

After two weeks further ahead in Mark’s gospel, we’ve moved back to the 3rd chapter. Here we see one of Mark’s literary techniques. He creates a sandwich. Here, he places Jesus’ teaching in the middle, between interactions with people.[3]

We will also see a new name for Satan, Beelzebub. There is some question as to the actual meaning of this name. Perhaps it derived from the ancient Baal gods, but we don’t know. Instead, the context in the passage clarifies its meaning, referring to the ruler of demons.[4] Or Satan. 

Read Mark 3:20-35

It’s baseball season. And the Pirates started off hot, winning their first five games! But that doesn’t have anything to do with today’s passage. 

Do any of you remember Red Barber? For a Southern boy, he did good. For many years, Red was the announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1953, he was stolen away by the Yankees. And in the 1950s, before my memory, the Yankees were the hottest things in Baseball and Barber was the hottest thing on radio. 

After his retirement, Red did a short weekly program for National Public Radio. This is how I came to know of him. During this era, I didn’t own a TV and caught the news on NPR.  

Sometime around 8:30 on Friday mornings, Bob Edwards, the show’s host, would give a call to Red at his Florida home. Bob and Red would chat about important things to the kingdom, like gardening and baseball. Red always stole the conversation from the younger Bob, whom he referred to as “Colonel.” “Fridays with Red” always made you feel good, and they kept the show going for 12 years. It was a sad day when Bob announced to his listeners of Red’s death in 1992. 

A year after Red’s death, Bob Edwards published a wonderful memoir titled Fridays with Red. If you’d like to be taken back to a simpler time, I recommend it. He tells this story in the book.

Red was also an Episcopal lay reader. He should have been a Presbyterian, as he grew up attending the Presbyterian Sunday School, but he married an Episcopalian. This is kind of like how things work in baseball. One farm team raises up a player and another team reap the benefits… I suppose our efforts helped strengthen the larger church with Red’s development. Red would become a favorite in the pulpit and often led worship services for the Yankees when they were on the road. (My cynical side thinks the Yankees are always in need of some good preaching.) 

Red titled his favorite sermons, preached many times, “Look Behind the Cape.” He described having once gone to a bull fight. He detested the afternoon. A bull slaughtered for sport wasn’t sportsman-like to Red, but when in Spain you do as the Spaniards. Red admitted, he found himself rooting for the bull. In the arena, the bull becomes confused. That’s why he always loses. Before being released from the chute, the handlers aggerate the bull. Then he charges the only thing he can see, the red cape. He becomes so focused on the cape, that he pays no attention to the matador, the one with the sword. 

Red said he even tried mental telephony, telling the bulling to “look behind the cape.”[5]

That’s good advice. Look behind the cape. What are peoples’ intentions? And, while we are at it, what are our intentions. Where do our allegiances lie? We should also look behind our capes before we go seeking what’s behind others. Jesus said something like this in the Sermon on the Mount.[6]

The third chapter of Mark’s gospel began with the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders breaking out into war. We saw this in verse 6, when the Pharisee’s recruited their enemies, the Herodians, to help do away with Jesus.

But the religious leaders have a problem. Jesus is gifted with great power to do wonderful things. And, because of his miracles, he draws huge crowds. 

So many people flock to Jesus, he’s left with no time to eat. His family is concerned, so they suggest Jesus is out of his mind. 

The scribes are now coming after Jesus on a new tack. They attempt to convince the crowd that Jesus’ powers are demonic. 

Look behind the cape! What are the intentions of the religious leaders? Is it to help those caught up in sin and evil? Or do they desire to protect their power? Jesus used his powers for the good! Not thinking about the good he’s done; the leaders want to do away with Jesus so they can continue to enjoy their privilege spot in society. 

But Jesus is clever. He doesn’t accuse the religious leaders of working for Satan. That would have resulted in each side calling the kettle black. Instead, Jesus asks a riddle, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” “Why would Satan do himself in? If Satan has the power over a person, he won’t give it up without a battle.” Then Jesus tells a parable which is key to understanding his work in the world.

How can a man enter the house of a strong man and plunder the strong man’s goods? On a quick reading, we might think Jesus refers to the crime of breaking and entering. But then, we realize Jesus isn’t talking about a thief. He’s referring to himself. 

The “strong man” house which Jesus breaks into belongs to Satan. But Satan’s possessions don’t really belong to him. So don’t think Jesus is encouraging robbery. Jesus frees people from Satan’s power by tying up the “strong man.” Only by doing so, can he free those caught in Satan’s trap of sin and deceit. 

Next, Jesus refers to the unpardonable sin. Again, as I said at the beginning of the service, this is a difficult passage to understand. In Jesus’ words here, we find encouragement at the possibility of forgiveness. But we’re also warned against suggesting the Spirit’s power in Jesus is demonic. If we want to experience forgiveness, we must be willing to accept Jesus’ offer. 

Finally, Mark lays the other slice of bread onto the sandwich by returning to his family. We’re told that Jesus’ mother and brothers are waiting outside for him. While we are not told whether Jesus goes out to greet them. Instead, Jesus uses this news to teach something else. “Who are my mother and brothers?” he asks. And then he answers himself, “Whoever does the will of God.” 

Jesus crowns this sandwich with this last teaching. We should turn it into a question we ask ourselves, as we look behind our own capes. Are we doing the will of God? Or do we have some alternative motive? Our faith must be centered on God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ. What’s important isn’t our wants and desires, but God’s will. Amen. 


[1] I discuss this sermon in detail in my article on Earle’s revivals. See Charles Jeffrey Garrison, “Bringing In Sheaves: The Western Revivals of the Reverend A. B. Earle, 1866-1867,” American Baptist Quarterly XXXV, #3 (Fall 2006), 247-272.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 224.

[3] Edwards, 117;  and Douglas R. A. Hare, Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 1996), 50

[4] Edwards, 120.  See also Hare, 50 and Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publisher, 1997), 115-116.

[5] Bob Edwards, Fridays with Red (New York: Pocket Books, 1993), 145. 

[6] Matthew 7:1-5. 

Solo Backpacking in Idaho, 1988

title slide with photo of camp sign and the Boulder Mountains

Hunkered down in a storm

dead tree high in the Boulder Mountains
Dead tree (probably from lightning) in the Idaho high country

Looking back, it was foolish. Out west, in the summer, one should never climb high passes late in the afternoon. But the summer of 1988 had been so dry. Afternoon thunderstorms were infrequent. I didn’t give it much thought. but should have known better. Hiking alone and cross-country made my decision even more dangerous.

I could have spent a lazy afternoon sulfur springs by the old Bowery mine, reading, napping, and soaking. But instead, I decided to make it back early and spend Saturday night in Ketchum. Or maybe I would head north to the Stanley Stomp. After a week of hiking alone, a cold beer and real food sounded good. So, I set out up the climb up the backside of Ryan Peak. But at around 9,000 feet, I found myself huddled in my sleeping bag under a tarp weighed down with ice.

The Storm

The storm blew up quickly, not long after I left tree line. I still had 1000 feet or so of vertical to cover when I first heard thunder. I hasty retreated downhill, to where the stubby trees began. Soon, lightning popped around the dusty mountains, dry from the summer’s drought that had burned up much of Yellowstone.  I could smell the ozone.

Then came the rain. I pulled on my rain parka as hard pelting drops of cold water assaulted. Quickly, I strung a line between two trees. I threw my tarp over the line, and quickly tied off the ends to rocks and logs as the nylon sheet flapped in the wind. Securing it enough not to blow away, I climb under it. Stripping off my rain jacket and pulled on a sweater and slid into rain pants to warm my wet legs. I leaned back against my pack, while watching lightning bolts pop around me. Waiting, I ate a candy bar and wondered again, what I was doing this high up in mid-afternoon.

The storm didn’t last long. When it had passed, I heard more rumblings from behind the mountains, so I set about making sure the tarp was secure and all my gear dry. Fifteen minutes after the first storm passed, the second one hit. This time the sky dropped hail and sleet. I again retreated to my tarp, which was soon covered in accumulating ice. Shivering with cold, pulled out my sleeping bag and covered it with a ground cloth and crawled inside. I quickly warmed up. I began to ponder the danger of fire from lightning strikes. 

My plan had been to spend this week hiking in Yellowstone, but so much of that park was burning that I decided to stay in Idaho where I’d been running a camp for the summer. This was my one week off and I’d planned to spend it in the backcountry. 

At least, I thought, we’re getting some rain. Of course, it wasn’t enough to reduce the fire danger and the lightning made it move problematic. However, I shouldn’t have to worry too much for at this altitude, even if a fire occurred, there wasn’t much to burn. 

Preparing for evening

After the second storm, I walked to a nearby stream and filled a pan with water for noodles. Coming back, I set up my stove and fired it up. The roar of the burner drowned out any other noise as I boiled water. Before adding noodles, I poured off a cup for some tea, then added noodles and let it boil while I savored the tea. At this elevation, it seems to take forever to cook noodles. When they were done, I drained off the water, mixed in some powder milk and the package cheese mix and was soon devouring a pot of macaroni and cheese.

My week on the trail

I’d been hiking all week. The first four days I did a loop within the Sawtooth Mountain Wilderness Area. Then I came back to camp, picked up more provisions, and set out on my second leg of my journey. I was dropped off just north of Galena Summit. I hiked up Grand Prize Gulch. Mostly, I hiked cross country, following streams flowing from the north side of the Bounder Mountains into the Salmon River. 

West Pass, Boulder Mountains, Idaho
West Pass

After crossing the pass at the end of Grand Prize Gulch, I dropped down into the West Fork of the East Fork of the Salmon River, or at least I think that’s the name of the stream. It’s certainly not a very creative name, but most of the streams in this part of the country seem to have such names. It was also just a small creek. I followed it a few miles stopping for the evening. I set up camp under lodgepole pines. After dinner, I sat around enjoying a cup of tea while watching the light fade from the valley. .


Birds woke me the next morning as the valley filled with light. The sun rays seemed muted a bit with so much dust and smoke from the Hell’s Canyon fire burning to the west. After my usual breakfast of oatmeal and tea, washed down with a pint of Tang, I continued hiking downstream. Soon, I came to a two-track road that hadn’t been used for a long while since there were no tire tracks in the dust. The road was probably built for mining, but I had a suspicion it was now only used occasional, mostly in the fall by hunters. 

Bowery Hot Springs

I continued along the path heading for the hot sulfur springs at a place on the map called Bowery. I could smell the sulfur before I arrived. Once there, I shed my pack and took a leisurely lunch, eating crackers, with cheese and peanut butter while soaking in the creek at the confluence of the water from the hot springs. There, where the hot and frigid waters met, I found a place where the temperature was just right and soaked my body. 

After lunch, I explored the area. There was an old mine that drifted back into the hillside, from which flowed warm water. I took out my flashlight and looked inside. I knew better than to go exploring. Mines are hazards, not just from cave-ins or unmarked shafts, but also from bad air and gasses that might quickly cause one to lose consciousness. Unlike most mines, which are quite cool, this one was warmed because of the hot water. From the entrance, I could see the supporting timbers had rotted. 

Heading toward Ryan Peak

Lupine along a trail
Lupine, this photo was taken on another hike in Idaho

In early-afternoon, I packed my stuff back up and continued, following West Pass Creek. A few miles upstream, I came to an old mining cabin. The roof had collapse and the logs were rotten. Looking around, I found a rusty shovel and a pile of old tin cans. I kept hiking. About 3 PM, left the creek, cutting cross country, aiming for the saddle west of Ryan Peak. I spotted snowbanks, tucked in under the high peaks, shaded from the sun. While climbing up a draw and breathing heavily, I surprised a large elk. The beast turned to look at me, allowing me a good view of his large rack. Then he fled. 

Climbing higher, the trees began to thin out and the slope became steeper. With no trail and a steep pitch, I began to zigzag, crossing back and forth over a small stream of snow melt. The trees became shorter. In the draw, by the trickle of water, Indian paintbrush and lupine with their tiny purple flowers grew. Such discoveries had been set aside once the thunderstorms hit. 

Evening

That night, after the storms and dinner, a third thunderstorm moved through the area. I went to bed early, reading till the light faded from the sky, then falling asleep. I dreamed of fires. Every time I woke, I’d looked around for flames and sniffed the air for smoke. 

Morning

I was relieved when morning arrived. Everything was fresh and clean; the dust had been purged away and sage scented the air. A cool light breeze blew out of the north, gently flapping the tarp, helping it dry. I fixed myself a cup of tea and a bowl of oatmeal. After eating, I wrote of yesterday’s adventures in my journal and read some Psalms. Then I packed up, shouldered my pack, and continued the climb. 

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I took a break at the top of the pass, tanking up on water. Dropping down the south side of the saddle, I came upon the trail to Ryan’s Peak and followed it as it zigzagged through the sage, down into the valley. I passed a few day hikers, the first people I’d seen in almost 48 hours. They were  As they headed up to the peak, we exchanged a quick greeting. I didn’t stop until I was at upper stretch of the North Branch of the Big Wood River. These waters flowed into the Snake River and through Camp Sawtooth, my home for the summer.. 

I paused for a snack while watching a man with a fly rod cast into a pond behind a beaver dam. He didn’t seem to be having much luck. After a short rest, I continued, walking the dirt road toward camp. I was surprised the ground was so dusty. When I got back early that afternoon, still in time to get to town for the evening, I discovered that although those at the camp could hear the storms and see the lightning the evening before, the camp didn’t receive a drop of rain.

Boulder Mountains look up from Idaho 75, mountain reflecting in a small lake along Big Wood River.
Boulder Mountains looking from the west along Idaho 75