A Return Visit to Honduras

I wrote this article about 20 years ago and it appeared in the Presbyterian Outlook in 2007. I’ve added some color photos, but sadly this was in my “pre-digital” era, so there are not as many photos as I’d take today. In total, I have been on six mission trips to Central America (Honduras, Costa Rica, the Yucatan, and Guatemala. In my first trip to Honduras, from which many of the photos were taken, I was part of a construction team that build a pole barn to serve as a wheelchair storage and repair facility for the country.

Down the highway, dodging potholes, we pass yet another bicycle struggling up a hill, firewood strapped to the back. The biker cut and split the wood with the machete strapped to the top.  Life’s hard here. Turning into the village, the road becomes dirt. Chickens scoot to the side, letting us pass. The roosters puff out their chest, fluffing feathers. It isn’t just a self-assured prestige. They’re important to the economy; their nightly dalliance with the hens produce eggs, a staple in the diet of the people, and along with beans the main source of protein. At the corner, a few men lean against the wall of a pulperia (small store), cowboy hats tipped back, watching the day pass. I wave. “Hola,” they mumble as they nod.  A malnourished dog darts across the street, stopping to lick the salt off a discarded wrapper of chips.Time slows down here; moving even more slowly than the bus negotiating puddles and driving around an oxen-pulled cart hauling adobe blocks.

Traditional Honduran kitchen

Dark clouds and light drizzle slow life even more. It’s cool in the mountains, but never cold. Smoke rises from the stovepipes, only to lie low, forming a blanket over the town. I imagine women inside, patting out tortillas while tending the stove. The long-split pieces of wood are gradually fed into the adobe firebox. A pot of beans boils while tortillas bake on the hot metal above the coals. Their evening meal of beans and tortillas will be supplemented with a few eggs, some crumbled cheese, fresh bananas, and strong coffee.

We pass the park. Schoolboys play soccer, and a few kids shoot basketball, paying little attention to the dampness. We turn off the main road and pull up to the Hotel Central Otoreno where we get out. We’re back. The first thing I notice is that there is now a metal railing around the balcony. Last year, a couple of us got some rope and made a railing to reduce the risk of falling off the top floor. We’re assigned rooms and I haul my backpack up to the second floor, dropping it into my room. I look around. There are two beds and a chair in the main room. The TV on the wall is another surprise. It wasn’t there last year. The bathroom consists of a toilet, trash can, a sink with only cold water and a shower. I’m surprised to see they’ve attached an electric heater showerhead. Upon closer examination, I notice the ground wire has been snipped off and the hot wires are just twisted together and taped, dangling above the shower. Obviously, there are no electrical inspectors in these parts.

I head outside. Walking through the town, I visit familiar sites. The old church by the square is open. A machete, secured in a fancy sheath, lies next to the doorsill as a reminder that this is a sanctuary. I peek in and see the back of a lone man kneeling in prayer under the gaze of a rather dark-skinned Jesus who hangs on the cross. Nothing has changed. I stop in the hardware store and surprise Ricardo. He tells me he’s been practicing and challenges me to a game of chess. A customer comes in and he must return to work. We’ll meet later. I head down to the park and shoot a few hoops with the kids. I teach them useful techniques with corresponding English words, like “break” “drive,” and “pick.” Their laugher is contagious. Despite the mud and trash and poverty, I’m still at home.

 I am here on a mission trip. It’s my second visit and our congregation’s sixth to this city in the central mountains of Honduras. There are approximately 20,000 people in Jesus de Otoro. Our medical team will see nearly a thousand of them over the next few days.  

That’s me, working on a wheelchair storage center

For the past six years, members from several Presbyterians congregations in Michigan and Indiana and a Christian Reformed Church in Iowa, partnering through Central Christian Development of Honduras (CCD), have worked to improve life in the small Honduran Mountain town while sharing the love of Jesus Christ with its residents.  Under the leadership of Dr. Jim Spindler, a retired physician from Hastings, Michigan, yearly medical and dental teams have traveled to Jesus de Otoro and the surrounding villages. In 2003, Jim asked one of the Honduran physicians what would make the biggest difference to them in their practice. He was told of their need for wheelchairs.  Asking how many they could use; Jim was shocked to be told that they could use a hundred.  Coming back to the states, Jim set in motion a wheelchair collection program that gathered over 125 wheel chairs. First Presbyterian Church of Hastings partnered with Wheels for the World, a ministry founded by Jodi Eareckson Tada and dedicated to providing wheelchairs to impoverished areas around the world. Wheels for the World arranged for the shipment of wheelchairs and other needed medical supplies to Honduras.    

 In additional to medical work, the churches have provided Vacation Bible School opportunities for children of the community and have supported the work of the Georgetown School, a small Christian bilingual elementary school in Jesus de Otoro.  Esperanza Vasquez, the school’s principal, received a scholarship to study in the United States.  Upon returning to Honduras, she founded the school to prepare Honduran children for leadership within their community and country. During our week there, the older students at the Georgetown School, those proficient in English, serve as translators for the doctors, nurses, and dentists in the clinic. In doing so, they learn the importance of service to their neighbors while providing our medical teams a valuable skill in communicating between the doctors and patients. 

Our trip to Honduras in the Fall of 2005 had a rough beginning. Shortly after landing in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ largest city, we realized we were in the sights of Hurricane Beta, the last of the season’s Class Five Hurricanes. We decided to spend the night in the city and see what the storm would do. Our hosts from CCD were nervous about us going into the countryside due to the possibilities of floods and mudslides, which could trap us for weeks. They still have strong memories of the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998.  

That morning things looked ominous. The front page of the newspaper had a map of the projected path of the storm, showing it moving over central Honduras, right where we were traveling. We stayed in San Pedro Sula, preparing to ride out the storm if it came our way. We purchased food and batteries and plenty of five-gallon jugs of water. A few team members grabbed what seats were available and flew back to the United States.  Throughout the day we checked the weather on the internet at the hotel. By evening things were looking good for us, but not so good for those who lived along Honduran/Nicaraguan border and in the Nicaraguan Mountains. We held a worship service that evening in the hotel lobby, praying for the victims of the storm. The next morning, we moved inland where we began our work, having already lost two days.  

View from hotel balcony

Once in Jesus de Otoro, our day begins with the crowing of roosters. Starting about 3 A.M., hundreds of roosters throughout the valley try to outdo the others, ensuring that the last couple hours of night will be restless. By the third night, we’re used to it. In the predawn hours, the town slowly comes alive. Before getting out of bed, trucks can be heard banging along the pot-holed streets, loading workers in the back for a day in the fields or in factories in Siguatepeque. Smoke from cooking fires, held down by the heavy humidity, fill the air as we get up and prepare for the day. Our hosts from CCD have breakfast, supplemented by rich Honduran coffee, ready by 7 AM. Afterwards, we head over to the clinic where a crowd of people have already gathered. We work steadily until lunch and then return in the afternoon and continued till dinner. Hundreds of people are seen each day.  

My duties as a pastor include handing out copies of the New Testament and tracts and praying for and with those waiting for a doctor. In broken Spanish, I welcome them in the name of Jesus, and then an interpreter takes over. I play with the children who understand the universal language of laughter. At the end of each tiring day, we have supper before gathering for worship in a small local church where we share our stories and testimonies with one another. We put in three full days, our work cut short by the hurricane, before we leave the community. Not everyone was cured or even seen, but seeds of hope have been sown as the residents of the region have come to know that someone cares.   

That’s me on top of a finished building for the wheelchair program

Doug and Elvira: A Pastoral Tale

Community Presbyterian Church, Cedar City, UT, where this conversation occurred. The congregation moved into a new and much larger facility in 1997.

A slender woman in a business suit stood at my office door. I guessed her age to be in her early fifties, fifteen or so years older than me. She was attractive and well-dressed. I wondered what she was selling. I stood and invited her in. 

“I’m Jeff.  What can I do for you?”  

As I offered my hand, I realized she was shaking. Her rather limp hand clasped mind and, looking down, she asked quietly, “Can we talk?” 

I gestured for her to take a seat as I stepped back behind my desk, sat down, smiled and nodded. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were both destined to be shocked by what would be revealed.

“I’m Elvira’s daughter,” she said.

“Yes, Elvira, she’s a special woman,” I said with a smile.  

In a few months, I had become very acquainted with Elvira. An elderly woman, she shown up at worship one Sunday morning in late 1993 or early 1994. I don’t remember if it was the first Sunday, but she soon starting requesting each week that we pray for her son, Carl.  I included him in our prayers during worship and he remained on the congregation’s prayer list. Over time I learned he lived in Elko, Nevada and was experiencing a relapse of cancer. Elvira was from Nebraska. She now lived in an adult foster home in Cedar City, Utah where I had visited her. The couple who ran the home were happy to see to it that Elvira got to church every Sunday morning and someone from our congregation would give her a ride home. While I was unsure about her living arrangements and her story, she had in a few months become a part of the church’s family.

Sitting in my office, Elvira’s daughter began telling me the story of moving her mother from Nebraska to Utah. At first, Elvira had lived with her daughter and son-in-law at their home in St. George, a town fifty miles south of Cedar City.

“It was a mistake,” she confessed. 

At their age, without children of their own, Elvira was like a child. And she had become a wedge between her and her husband. I sensed Elvira’s daughter experienced guilt for having placed her mother in the home but didn’t know what else she could do.  

“Are there other siblings who could help?” I asked. 

“No,” she said trembling.  

“I know you have a brother who has cancer. Is he Elvira’s only other child?”

“Yes. But my brother has been a problem all along. He was married and had a son, but then left his wife for a man. That’s a sin, but my mother just accepts it.”  

“Well, he’s her son,” I said.  

“Don’t you think that’s a sin?” she asked.

“I didn’t say that,” I responded. “But that’s not the issue. We’re all sinners and to her, he’s also her child, her flesh and blood.”

“He’s always asking my mother for money, and never pays it back.” I could sense she had nothing but disgust for her brother. There was a pause and I waited for her to continue.

“My mother doesn’t have that much, but she he gave him enough for a down payment for that house he and his opera singing lover built in Virginia City.”  

Doug, 1988

My brain exploded. “It couldn’t be,” I thought. Maybe she sensed my reaction for she stopped and, for a moment, we sat quietly.

“Did your brother also go by the name, Doug?”  I finally asked.

She turned white. Her eyes widened. After a moment, she nodded and bowed her head. Finally, she continued. “His name is Carl Douglas. We always called him Carl, but his friends know him as Doug.”

“I know him,” I said, confessing what was now obvious. “I haven’t seen him in three or four years and didn’t know he’d moved to Elko.” 

Memories of Doug flooded my mind. It seemed so ironic I’d been praying for a couple of months for someone I once knew well.

I’d met Doug and Rudi in 1988, right after moving to Virginia City. I was thirty-one years old and a student pastor at a small congregation there for a year. The first week, Doug and Rudi invited me to dinner at their home in the Highlands.  Although they were already living there, the house was still under construction. Doug had done most of the work. Before dinner, they showed me around their home in which the kitchen cabinets still lacked doors and there was much trim to be finished. I had the sense they might be gay, which was confirmed when they showed me their master bedroom. I was nervous, looking in, as I’d never been in a bedroom of someone gay. But I almost laughed. I was amazed at how messy it was, which went against my stereotypical images that I had of how gay men lived.  

First Presbyterian, Christmas 1988. The nativity scene is to the right.

Over the next few months, I got to know them better. Rudi sang at church functions and Doug was our go-to handy man. He built a manger for a nativity display we posted beside the church at Christmas. He had helped me winterize the house I was living in. Later, he’d help design a retaining wall that kept the hill behind the church from encroaching on the sanctuary. By then, though, he was too sick to do the work.

Perhaps my best memory of Doug was from New Year’s Eve, which was a Saturday in 1988. As I practiced my sermon for Sunday that afternoon in the sanctuary, I heard water run under the organ. Upon investigating, I found a crack in the pipe supplying our hot water heating system. I called Doug and he came down immediately with his tools. Together, we spent an hour on our bellies, under the organ, cutting out the damaged pipe with a hacksaw and then soldering in a new piece. We took turns holding the pipe and torch, as we each talked about our plans for the evening. Thanks to our efforts, heat was restored, even though we were both late for our respective parties.

Doug also helped me with my first computer. He ordered the parts and built the computer, showing me how it fit together. This was in January 1989. The computer had 640 kilobytes of RAM, a 30 meg hard drive, and a 5 1/4 floppy disk. He only charged me for the parts. It was still expensive, but about half of what a computer cost in those days (which is more than they cost today). With the coming of a computer, I would never write another sermon by hand.

Me, backcountry skiing outside Virginia City, late December 1988

A few months into the new year, Doug became sick. He had tests and asked me to go with him to the doctor to hear the report. It was cancer, lymphoma. The prognosis wasn’t good. The doctor had tears in his eyes as he talked about the prognosis. 


Doug soon started chemotherapy. On at least one occasion, I drove him to Reno for his treatments. We’d had a pleasant talk heading down the mountain on Geiger Grade. On the way back, Doug was sick and spend much of the trip with his head in a bag. By late summer, when I was leaving to return to seminary, Doug had lost most of his hair, but he was doing better. In the summer of 1992, when I visited Virginia City, I stayed with him and Rudi. Doug had been in remission for over a year. 

Later that year, I’d heard through mutual friends that they had split up. I lost contact with them. 

C Street, Virginia City, December 1988

I’m sure the room was spinning for Doug’s sister as I told her about my time as a student pastor in Virginia City and how Doug had been very involved in that church. We talked for some time that afternoon, as I tried to encourage her to reconcile with her brother.   

I am sure many people would consider this meeting as a coincidence, but I saw God’s hand-written all over it. I had to reconnect with Doug. The phone number Elvira, his mother, had for Doug in Elko no longer worked. I made some calls to friends in Virginia City. No one had heard from Doug in a while, but I was given a phone number for Rudi, who was now living in Las Vegas. Calling him, I was shocked to learn he and his new lover had moved Doug down for Elko. Doug was living with them. He had become so weak that he could no longer care of himself and there was fear he would be homeless. 

A few weeks later, as I was coming back from a trip to California, I stopped in Vegas and visited Doug. He was resting on the couch and remained prone the entire time. I was afraid it would be the last time we’d see each other. I could tell that he was pleased I had stopped and that his mother was in the church I served. I stayed only for an hour as Doug appeared exhausted.  

It turned out that wasn’t the last time that I saw Doug. A few weeks later, in early September, Rudi called and said that Doug had rallied and wanted to come up and to see his mother and me. The day of the reunion of Doug and his mother was hot with not a cloud in the sky. We toured Cedar City and ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant. By the time lunch was over, Doug was tired. Rudi suggested they head back to Vegas. But before they left, as we stood talking in the parking lot, Doug pulled me aside and asked if I would be willing to officiate at his funeral. He knew it wouldn’t be long. I assured him it would be an honor.

It was just a week or two later when I received the call that Doug had died. He was 48 years old. I went over to Elvira’s to give her the news. She expected it. She wanted to attend the funeral and hoped her daughter would take her. However, her daughter refused, so I offered to drive Elvira down to Vegas. 

The day we left, her daughter asked us to stop along the way for dinner. She lived only a mile or so off Interstate 15, so it really wasn’t out of the way. I agreed, secretly hoping I could encourage her to attend the funeral, but she remained adamant. After dinner of hash made from a left-over brisket, that was quite good, we left her home in St. George and continued to Vegas. 

As the interstate came out of the Virgin River Gorge, a violent thunderstorm moved through with high winds and blinding lightning that cooled the air from the day’s heat. I slowed down in the driving rain, but it felt as if the storm was cleansing the earth. Elvira and I both marveled at the lightning. That night, we stayed overnight at Rudy’s. Elvira slept in Doug’s old bedroom while I camped out on the couch where Doug had laid when I visited him earlier in the summer.

The next morning, September 30th, I escorted Elvira inside the chapel at the cemetery for one last look at her son. Then they closed the casket. Slowly others gathered. By the time all were present, about a dozen of us, we filled only two rows in the oversized room. Rudi, Doug’s former lover, was there with his new lover. His son had made it.  Hilda, who had also been a student pastor in Virginia City a few years before me and was organizing a new church in Green Valley, a Vegas suburb, was there, as was her husband whom she met in Virginia City. A few women who had been friends with Doug and Rudi rounded out the group. On schedule, the chapel’s organist played music. Hilda and I read scriptures and offered prayers. Then Hilda sang a solo and I preached the homily. 

Afterwards, we made our way out of the cool chapel into the late-summer heat of a Las Vegas morning, stopping at the gravesite. A few words were spoken, and the party broke up.  Elvira and I stopped for lunch and then drove back to Cedar City that afternoon.

Before the end of the year, Elvira moved back to Nebraska, into an assisted living facility. We kept up with each other for a couple of years through Christmas cards, but then her cards stopped coming. I sure she is no longer with us.  However, I am glad to have had the privilege to minister to her and to her son. I just wished her daughter could have found a way to reconnect to her brother before it was too late.  But I learned that I can’t change people and it’s not my job. Instead, I had to care for all three in what limited ways I could.

About the photos:

Several of these pictures was from a photo album given to me by the church when I finished my year. I know I have other pictures of Doug and some with his mother when they made the trip to Cedar City. I am sure I also have others of Rudi. They were probably taken on slides and stored in one of several large tubs in storage. The photo of the old Community Presbyterian Church of Cedar City was taken from the church’s website.

Other Virginia City Stories:

Matt in Virginia City, 1988

Riding the Virginia and Truckee

Christmas Eve on the Comstock, 1988

I have often used stories about my time in Virginia City in sermons. In this recent sermon, I spoke of my uneasiness during my move to Virginia City.

Virginia City (with St. Mary’s in the Mountains in the middle). Photo taken from the Flowery Cemetery, southeast of the town.

Lopez and Volf: How might we foster a better world?

These are two other books which I read while down with COVID. While they may seem totally different, I did find some common ground between these two deep thinkers. Both are interested in how we can help others achieve their potential and sustain society. 

Barry Lopez, Horizon (2019, New York: Vintage Books, 2020), 572 pages including maps, index, and bibliography. 

In six extended essays, the late Lopez takes us along on his travels to isolated spots around the globe. As his fellow travelers, we are privy to his thoughts. Not only does he beautifully describe this location and what’s happening there, but each setting also allows him to converse with authors, artists, explorers, natives, and scientists. While each essay stands independently, there are several people from the past who appear in more than one of the essays. These include the British explorer, “James Cook,” the British scientist Charles Darwin, and a little known half-native Canadian, Randall McDonald (who taught English to the Japanese court years before Commander Perry opened the Japanese mainland to western shipping).  

The book opens with a 47-page introduction titled, “Looking for a Ship” in which Lopez provides some background into his life and explorations. Much of this material was also covered in more detail his memoir,About This LifeHowever, the introduction does provide the reader with a context to understand Lopez’s journeys that take him to the polar caps and places in between. Lopez’s first essay centers around Cape Foulweather in Oregon, where Lopez lived when not traveling. Cape Foulweather is also the site of James Cooks first sighting of land along America’s West Coast in 1778. He tells about his many visits to this point, as he reads James Cooks travels and strives to understand how the landscape has changed over the years.  His next stop is Skraeling Island in the arctic waters of northern Canada. Then he moves on to Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos, and then to the site of an archeological dig in Kenya (titled Jackal Camp). Next, he goes to an old British prison in Tasmania, before concluding his journey in the Antarctic.  Some of these sites, Lopez visits for only a season. Others, he has returned many times.

Except for the Antarctic essay, which is the only place on earth without any human ancestry, Lopez seeks out to understand the lives of those who lived before the region was “discovered.” This includes Native Americans in Oregon, Paleoeskimos in the Arctic, South Sea islanders in the Galapagos, early humans in Africa, and Aboriginals in Australia.  With his extensive knowledge in botany and biology, he discusses the changes to the landscape from human migration. As an example, I knew red foxes were not native to North America but learned the British also imported them to Australia for hunting. 

These extended essays provide Lopez time to reflect on the colonial world, the role class plays in a society (which he even found in the scientific communities in the Antarctic), how animals and landscape evolve, and the concerns of the speed of such evolution in recent centuries. Lopez also looks to the future and ponders creating new ways of bringing more people to the table to discuss and help the world from the crisis that we are experiencing from industrialization. Lopez often comes back to the role elders play in traditional communities and suggests that we need to listen to them.

This is a book to be savored. Lopez encourages us to look around and to understand our place in the world. 

QUOTE ON WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN: “to live in fear in a whole in which one’s destiny is never entirely of one’s own choosing.” (page 508). 


Miroslav Volk, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011), 174 pages including notes and index. 

There are many who blame religion for many of the world’s problems. Monotheistic religions seem especially vulnerable to such changes. While Volf is writing to Christians, he does make many references to Islam. Of course, all religions have examples of failing to live up to their potential (Volf labels this “malfunctions of faith”), Volf believes religion and especially the Christian faith has the potential to contribute much to the common good. Furthermore, as Volf notes, much of the terrible violence of the 20thCentury, the most violent century in human history, wasn’t because of religion. Genocide was most often conducted by secular regimes. 

Volf begins his study by looking at how and why religious groups have failed to contribute to the common good.  For Christians, this “malfunction of faith” is mostly due to our failure to “love God and love our neighbor.” The Christian faith, for Volf, is certainly not waiting for “pie in the sky.” Instead, our faith should be a source of human flourishing, and not just flourishing for believers, but all people.  Religion is about the good life and requires religious people to engage in their communities for the good of all. However, he criticizes the extremes. The followers of Jesus should neither withdraw from society nor should they try to dominate society. Instead, with creativity, they should seek to engage positively in a religiously pluralistic world.

One of the problems in the West is that we tend to understand the good life as “experimental satisfaction,” which can never sustain our deepest desires. The source of the good life is not found within us, but outside, from God and from others. Only by living up to Jesus’ great commandment, can we experience such goodness. 

Volf does not envision a world in which there is only one faith. In fact, as I pointed out above, he’s critical of such ideas. We will never be able to bring God’s kingdom to earth. Only God can do that.  For us to attempt to bring about heaven to earth by silencing other beliefs will only lead to further malfunctions of our faith. Instead, he envisions a pluralistic world where those of all faith need to be in conversation with one another and learn from others. While Christians believe in the truth in Jesus Christ, that doesn’t mean there are not things we can learn from others. While he doesn’t use the term, the Calvinist view of “common grace” (as opposed to saving grace) seems to apply here. All good comes from God, including that which is good in those who may have a different view of faith from us. 

Volf is a professor at Yale Divinity School and the director Center for Faith and Culture. There is a lot packed into this thin book on how we our faith can help a troubled world. 

For those interested, Volf will be the keynote speaker at this year’s “HopeWords Writer’s Conference in Bluefield, West Virginia on March 24-25. This is a reasonably priced conference that I highly recommend. Check it out by clicking here.

HopeWorld 2023 Speakers

Three Books about the Appalachian Trail

As I’ve been treated with back to back bouts with COVID, I spent much of my time reading about the Appalachian Trail. I don’t think I’ve read a book about the trail since I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, back in the 1990s. It was great to visit the trail once more as I read these three books that brought back lots of memories and made me a little homesick. I’m including a few pictures from my own journey. The photo to the left is of me on Mt. Katahdin in 1987, after having hiked from Virginia to Maine to complete the trail.

By the way, I finally received a negative COVID test on January 9th!

Ben Montgomery, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail

 (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014), 277 pages including the index and sources. Maps and some photos. 

I have been meaning to read this book for the past three years, ever since my ministry colleague on Skidaway gave me a copy. Of course, I have known of Grandma Gatewood’s walk since at least the early 80s, when I first started hiking the Appalachian Trail. Having completed the trail and having read many books about it (the last probably being Bill Bryson’s book in the mid-1990s), I had kind of put the trail out of my mind. But as I began reading about Grandma Gatewood, I was drawn back into the lure of the trail. This book is well written and is easy to read.

Part of the danger of having completed the Appalachian Trail is that I read this book through my own lens. Even without going back into my journals, the names of the towns, shelters, rivers, waterfalls, ponds, and mountains, all began to come back. 

While I enjoyed the book, my critical eye questioned a few of the authors observations. I don’t think Gatewood saw any chestnuts on the trail. Certainly, even thirty years later when I was hiking the trail, there were shoots coming up from old stumps, but the chestnuts in the Appalachian Mountains had died in the 1920s. She didn’t have to fear water moccasins along the trail as they are not found in the mountainous areas of the south (and even Gatewood only acknowledging seeing rattlesnakes and copperheads). And the rugged rock in Pennsylvania was not created by glaciers (they tend to smooth out rock), but by upturned limestone that leaves a jagged edge to the rock that creates a challenge in what would be an easy part of the trail to hike. Finally, the author twice referred to Boy Scout “Packs.” It’s a Boy Scout Troop, Cub Scouts have packs. Again, these are just minor points. Overall, the books drew me in quickly and I read it in a 24-hour period while quarantined for COVID. 

For the bulk of the book in which he tells of her first (of three) completions of the Appalachian Trail, the author creatively tells two stories. At one point, he’ll be telling of Gatewood’s hike as if he was with her as she made her way in her tennis shoes along the trail. Then, he’ll go back to share vignettes of her life before she set out in her mid-60s to hike the trail. We learn about her hard life and her abusive marriage. Gatewood had a wanderlust streak in her and had once before left home We also learn how she’d left her husband once before and traveled out to California in the 1930s. But she had children to tend. It was after they’d left home that she began hiking. 

A 1987 photo of me that appeared in the Union News of Springfield, MA

As Gatewood began hiking, she became famous with newspapers and Sports Illustrated running articles on her. After she completed the trail, she was on the Today’s Show and game shows. She continued hiking, doing two more trips on the AT, along with walking the Oregon Trail. She promoted the Buckeye Trail in her home state of Ohio. She died in 1973. 

There were a lot of her stories to which I could relate and share similar experiences. She hiked through two hurricanes. I had a similar experience going over Standing Indian Mountain. That hike was miserable. The trail became a stream with the water over my boots. The next day, it was clear. I met a couple from Franklin, a town in the valley, who said the town had received 10 inches of rain that day I was climbing Standing Indian. 

On her hike in 1955, coming off Mt. Cube in New Hampshire, Gatewood met the wife of Meldrim Thomson, whose family had a farm and a maple syrup operation off the side of the mountain. The author notes the Thomson would later become governor of the state. They became friends. 

Jane and Happy at the Thomson’s Maple Syrup house

In 1987, when I came through this section, I stopped that morning for breakfast at a well-known pancake house that Mrs. Thomson ran. As she was cooking pancakes, I read framed news clippings about her husband that was posted on the wall of the diner. When she brought the cakes and a bottle of maple syrup, I said it appeared her husband had been governor wondered if he was still involved (he’d been governor in the 1970s). She said yes that he was out campaigning with Paul Laxalt who was running for President. As I was hosting my pack to head back to the trail, a pickup truck pulled up and two men in suits got out and ran over to me. It was the former governor with Paul Laxalt, who shook my hand even though I was not a New Hampshire voter. Laxalt pulled out of the primary long before the vote that February. 

Even if you have not hiked the AT, Emma Gatewood’s story is one of courage and fortitude. I think you’ll enjoy taking a walk with her. I recommend this book. 


Earl V. Shaffer, Walking with Spring

 (1983, Harper’s Ferry, WVA: Appalachian Trail Conference 2004), 152 pages, no index or bibliography.

I first read this book in the mid-80s. I was living in Hickory, NC, dreaming of the trail. I lent my copy to a friend and never got it back and moved shortly afterwards. A few months ago, I was in a store along the Blue Ridge Parkway and spotted another copy and thought I should read this book again. When I first read the book, I had hiked most of the Appalachian Trail south of Bastian, VA (where I-77 crosses). A few years later I finished the trail after doing a long hike from the Shenandoah’s to Katahdin in Maine. 

This book took me back to a time when the trail was young and not well known. Shaffer was the first person to hike the entire length of the trail which in one season. At the time, the trail ran from Mt. Oglethorpe, Georgia to Katahdin. A few years later, the southern terminus of the trail would be moved to Springer Mountain.  While much of the trail and even some of the shelters were familiar with me, there have been many changes. Going through Southern Virginia, the trail Shaffer hiked headed east from Damarcus, where it picked up and paralleled the Blue Ridge Parkway. This section had a lot of road walking and plans had been made much earlier to move to trail to northward, toward Pearisburg, VA, before swinging it eastward and paralleling the parkway starting north of Roanoke. The plans, which were made before the war, didn’t materialize until around 1950. Interestingly, Shaffer would have hiked past Bluemont Presbyterian Church, one of the two Rock Churches I serve. While he doesn’t mention Bluemont, he does comment on Puckett’s Cabin which is two miles north. (See my book review of Orlean Puckett: 1844-1938.) He hiked this section at the right time because the flame azaleas were in bloom. He missed Mayberry Church for at the time the trail left the parkway and crossed over the crest of the Pinnacles of Dan before returning to the parkway just south of Mabry Mill. 

In one of his poems at the beginning of an earlier section titled “Mountain Medley,” he wrote:

A medley of summit pastures,
Spring flowers and whip-poor-wills,
Stone Churches and upland rivers,
And steep farm-sided hills.

This section of his book deals with his travels that crossed the Big Pigeon, Nolichucky, and Watauga Rivers, which are along the North Carolina and Tennessee border. I wonder if he mistakenly posted the poem there.

Me, 1985, hiking in NC

Shaffer also hiked before the availability of lightweight gear. He often ate canned food. He didn’t take a stove; instead, he built fires to cook his meals. He traveled light, with just a poncho which doubled as a shelter (with him putting his rain hat over the hole in the middle of the poncho). In 1948, much of the trail had been neglected because of the war.  Another big difference in Shaffer’s hike and mine was getting into town to resupply. While we both often hitchhiked, he was often able to catch a bus. I only did this once, in Garrison, NY, where I caught a bus into Peekskill to get my boots repaired. 

Shaffer, himself, had been a soldier in the South Pacific. While he often comments on his status as a veteran, he never writes about the war itself. But the war is mentioned. When a New England ranger invites him into his home in the woods and immediately sets on a pot for tea, he’s reminded of the kindness of New Zealand soldiers offering tea. On occasions, he meets other veterans from the Pacific, and they discuss their experiences which are not shared in the book. Shaffer, having lost his pre-war hiking friend in the war, had a good reason to “walk it off.” (Doug Peacock, who was a green Beret in Vietnam and the model for Edward Abbey’s Hayduke in The Monkey Wrench Gang, titled his memoir Walking It Off). In doing some research after finishing this book, I learn that he did write about his Pacific experiences in a book of poetry titled Before I Walked with Spring: A Dough Boy’s Odyssey and Other Poems of World War II.

Essentially, this book is about his walk on the Appalachian Trail. It’s a day-by-day journal that give us a taste of what Shaffer experienced on his “long cruise.” It is apparent that Shaffer is well-read as he often refers to literary works. He is also a poet and includes many of his own poems. The book wasn’t published until the 1980s which probably explains why he used a metaphor of “programing a computer.” Except for a few scientists, that term doesn’t seem to fit in the world of 1948.

Shaffer’s prose provides an understanding of the landscape. I didn’t realize that the New River in Virginia was the last of the rivers to flow west (and via the Mississippi, south to the Gulf of Mexico). Nor did I really put it together that Sunfish Pond, in New Jersey, was the southern most natural pond/lake on the trail. I do remember commenting in my own journals about how the water sources changed. South of New Jersey, there are many springs from which you get water. As you head north, they become fewer and fewer. 

If you want to learn about the Appalachian Trail, this book is a good place to begin. 


Sherry Blackman, Tales from the Trail: Stories from the Oldest Hiker Hostel on the Appalachian Trail

 (North Hampton, NH: Mindstir Media, 2021), 231 pages including six pages of photos. 

The Reverend Sherry Blackman, a former journalist, serves as pastor of Church of the Mountain, a Presbyterian Church in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. The church’s basement has served as a hostel for those hiking on the Appalachian Trail (AT) since 1976. In 1987, I spent two nights there while hiking from the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, which finished my goal of hiking the trail. 

In this collection of essays, Blackman recalls many of the hikers she’s met along the AT since she began her ministry there in 2014. These stories explore a host of themes common to the human condition. Some hikers try to find something they feel they’ve lost. Others try to forget or to figure things out. The walking wounded often stop. Some wounds are physical. They try to push through the pain and limitations as they make it along the trail. Others carry mental and spiritual wounds. Can they find forgiveness, acceptance, or hope?  And then there’s the ugly side, those who must be removed from the hostel for the safety of the other hikers. One essay recounts the number of murders that have occurred along the trail over the past 50 years. Mental illness is another battle many faces and which often leads to challenges for those running the hostel. Through all this, we also see how Blackman and those who run the hostel strive to be graceful. They listen and don’t try to force advice on those who come their way, as they offer hikers a shower, a bunk for a night or two, and once a week, a potluck dinner. 

Presbyterian Church of the Mountain at Delaware Water Gap

In all these essays, we see Blackman listening and accepting the hiker wherever they are on their journey (not just on the trail, but in their lives). Often, her conversations turn to spiritual issues. She asks gentle questions as she helps the hiker along their way. She provides compassionate and insightful counsel, along with learning herself from the stories of others. She also acknowledges the limitations we all have and how hard it is when we can’t help some people. 

Delaware Water Gap is just a little beyond the halfway point for those who are hiking north from Georgia (the actual halfway point is around Caledonia State Park just north of the Maryland border. Those who have started in Georgia (northbound hikers) have been on the trail for roughly 1200 miles. The last hundred miles, while not having difficult climbs, are tough because of the upturned limestone rock grinds the feet down. Blackburn has an essay on the rocks, too. Being in the middle of the trail means Blackman only gets to encounter a hiker at point in their journey. Reading these stories, I recalled work as a night on-call chaplain where I often visited with those going into transplant surgeries and never knew what happened afterwards. That’s the way much of life plays out. Blackman does her part, then the hikers head down the trail.

I found a lot of insight into one hiker who, after hiking the trail, visited after he finished pointed out: “At the top of Katahdin, there are no blazes to tell you where to go now.” As the stories remind us, lots of people set out to hike hoping to find something, but ultimately, there are few Damarcus experiences along the trail. Most hikers gain insight about themselves without having a revelation. 

I recommend this book to those interested in the trail as well as those in ministry who need to consider how we relate to others whom we interact through our lives. 

Hikers at the Church of the Mountains hostel hold a watermelon spitting contest

2022 Reading Update

reading

The Statistics

 20222021
Total5354
Fiction48
Poetry (and about poetry)65
History/Biographies1713
Theology and ministry[1]  2216
Essays/Short Stories38
Humor14
Nature96
Politics33
Memoirs1110
Writing (how to)22
Titles by women714
Read via Audible (I only read unabridged)2020
Books reviewed (I may review 2-3 more in 2023)3530

Summary

Reading on Cape Lookout, May 2022

Many of the books appear in more than one category, so they don’t add up to the total.

Last year I said I needed to read more fiction and humor and I read even less this year. Maybe that says something about 2022. There wasn’t a lot of humor to the year. I certainly need to laugh more!

I’ve questioned myself as to why I am not reading more fiction.  I think the answer is that I am curious about so much and most of my reading is for knowledge. 

I started tracking the number of books written by women authors this year. Interestingly, I read more last year, but this year I chose Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine as the most important book I’ve read. We all need to better understand the situation in Ukraine and her book on the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s helps us understand the present situation.

Books read by the Month

Below is my list by month. The highlighted books are ones I reviewed. Click on the link to go to the blog post where you can find the review. Like last year, I have picked my favorite of each month by posting a photo of the book. This I found hard. In March, Applebaum was up against Candice Millard, both incredible historians. In April, Updike’s novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies was up against the writings of the Anglican poet Malcom Guite. Then in May, I had to choose between a wonderful biography of Fredrick Laws Omstead and Trish Warren’s lovely commentary on the compline prayer. In August, the choice between Carver’s poetry, Herman’s philosophy, and Doig’s wonderful storytelling also created a challenge as did my November decision between Meacham and Doyle.  What all this shows is that I read a lot of good books in 2022!

January

Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (2nd reading, first in 1978)  

Gregory Orr, The Blessing: A Memoir

Daniel Allen Butler, The Other Side of the Night: The Carpathian, the Californian, and the Night the Titanic was Lost


February

Sibley Towner, Daniel: Interpretation 

Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers

Erik Larson, Thunderstruck

Temper Longman III, Daniel: The NIV Application Bible Commentary 

Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Jackson Crawford, translator, The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes


March

Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President 

Lawrence Berkove, Heretical Fiction: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain

Peter Yang, The Art of Writing

Robert Creamer, Baseball in ’41: A Celebration of the Best Baseball Season Ever

Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine

Jason Young, The Comeback Effect: How Hospitality Can Compel Your Church’s Guests to Return 


April

Rick Bragg, Where I Come From: Stories from the Deep South 

Malcolm Guite, In Every Corner Sing:  

John Updyke, In the Beauty of the Lilies

Mark Jarman, Dailiness: Essays on Poetry


May

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

Billy Beasley, Home  

Justin Martin, Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted

Tish Harrison Warren, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep


June

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

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

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


July

Andy Stanley, Not In It To Win It: Why Choosing Sides Sidelines the Church

Rick Bass, Why I Came West: A Memoir

James R. Edwards, From Christ to Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the Church in Less than a Century


August

Raymond Carver, All of Us: The Collective Poems

Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light: Plato verses Aristotle and the Struggle for Soul of Western Civilization

Ivan Doig, The Bartender’s Tale

Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More than Our “Correct” Beliefs

Aaron McAlexander, This Old Store


September

Bob Lantz, Lean Downstream! The Whole History from the Beginning to the End of the Blue Hole Canoe Company

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress 

John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Robert Maguire, Commentary on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress 

Winn Collier, A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene Peterson

N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer


October

David Halberstan, October 1964

Paul Willis, Say this Prayer into the Past: Poems

Charles Leerhser, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty

Harry Middleton, The Earth is Enough: Growing Up in a World of Flyfishing, Trout, and Old Men


November

Jon Meacham, And There was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle 

Willimon & Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life

John Oller, The Swamp Fox: How Frances Marion Saved the American Revolution

Brian Doyle, One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder for the Spiritual and Nonspiritual Alike

Carrot Quinn, The Sunset Route: Freight Trains, Forgiveness, and Freedom on the Rails in the American West


December

Lenny Wells, Pecan: America’s Native Nut Tree

Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ

Ben Montgomery, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk


Best Book over all: 

Anne Applebaum, , Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine

Runner Ups: 

Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President 

Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light: Plato verses Aristotle and the Struggle for Soul of Western Civilization

Jon Meacham, And There was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle 

Harry Middleton, The Earth is Enough: Growing Up in a World of Flyfishing, Trout, and Old Men

Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ

Blog Friends Yearly Reading List

AJ’s (favorites)

Bob

Deniz

Jacqui

Joan

Kelly

Mainewords

Mary

A bunch of year end reading lists

I’ll add more as I see them. Let me know if you have a 2022 reading summary and I’ll post it here.

Click here for my reading list from 2021 and from 2020

Did you have a favorite book that you read last year? What’s the title and why did you like it?


[1] This section includes devotional books and commentaries that were completely read as opposed to those just used for reference. 

And There Was Light

We’re at the season when the days are slowly beginning to lengthen. Perhaps this is a good time to review this book which I read in October. I did not finish the review then, even though I quoted the book in several sermons. This is my last review of the year! On the COVID front, I am still testing positive, but feel great although I do tire easily.

On Sunday (as I am not preaching this week), I will post the review of 53 books read during 2023. This is one of the best books I read during this year, the other being Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on UkraineIt’s a hard pick between the two books. I recommend both. One enlarges our view of the world and our understanding on what is happening in Ukraine. This book provides insight into our own national challenge. Race is still the proverbial “elephant in the room,” in American politics. 

Jon Meacham, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle 

(New York: Random House, 2022), 713 pages (37-page prologue, 421 pages of text, 225 pages of notes on sources and bibliography, an index) plus 16 inserted color plates. 

This is an excellent book that needs to be read and studied by Americans today. Meacham provides a biographical portrait of Lincoln, with an eye on the President’s struggle during the Civil War. He also delves, as much as one can, into Lincoln’s private faith that allowed him to continue in his position while the nation was being tested and as he endured personal tragedies including the loss of children and the challenges of an unstable wife. A politician who had served in the state house and one term at the Capitol in the House of Representatives, Lincoln seemed unsuited to lead the nation through our most trying hour. He also was a flawed man, hating slavery but not necessarily believing in equality of the races. But Lincoln was able to draw from his experiences and find the strength to become what many historians believe to be the best president in America’s history. 

This book builds on Meacham’s earlier book, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. In the Soul of America, the author drew heavily around Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In this book, he begins with Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which is often considered the most theological of all inaugural addresses and was given just weeks before Lincoln’s assassination. In both books, Meacham does more than write about the past. His writings provide insights for our nation to move forward, even when deeply divided. Meacham see’s Lincoln as a providing a path, one in which we hold tightly to what is good and nobly while also being gracious to our enemies. 

The Election of 1860 and 2020

Meacham provides a detailed account of the events between Lincoln’s election in 1860 and his inauguration in March 1863. Some of the details are eerily familiar. Vice President John Breckinridge, who had just been defeated by Lincoln in the general election, oversaw the counting of the electoral votes on February 13 (this was before the inauguration was moved to January). As with January 6, secret forces gathered in Washington hoping for a coup and to make Washington the capitol for the Confederacy. Like Mike Pence, Breckinridge, who would later become a Confederate General, did his duty.  Furthermore, General Winfield Scott, the hero of the Mexican War, ordered troops into Washington to quell any attempt to overthrow the government. The electoral college votes were counted without trouble. The next step was the inauguration itself. As Lincoln moved from Illinois to Washington by train, there were plans to assassinate him enroute. Secrecy and security prevented it from occurring. 

I couldn’t read the accounts of what happened between the election in November 1860 and the inauguration without being reminded of January 6, 2020t. It has been shown that the events on that day were not spontaneous but planned. I found myself wondering if those behind January 6 had studied what had happened in 1861 and attempted to “correct” the mistakes of those who had attempted to keep Lincoln from the presidency.  

Lincoln’s theology

This volume is steeped in theology. On the one hand, this seems strange as Lincoln never joined any church. His background was Baptist and Presbyterian, but he also read widely including the Unitarian Theodore Parker. It appears that as President, Lincoln became surer of his faith. His discussions and friendship with the Reverend Phineas Densmore Gurley of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church helped the President see God as an agent in the world. Gurley comforted the Lincolns at the death of their son, Willie, and was present at Lincoln’s own death. In seeing God as active in the world through humanity, yet God’s providential will being at times hidden, Lincoln developed a trust that helped him moved from one who attempted to keep the Union together to one who sought to end slavery. 

Recommendations

I hope this book is widely read. As a nation, we should learn from Lincoln’s struggles. 

I have come to appreciate Meacham’s writings over the past decade. Along with this book and The Soul of America, I have also read two other biographies by him: Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.

Christmas on the Blue Ridge

This will go down as a strange Christmas. Christmas Eve is always rushed. This is especially true when Christmas falls on a Sunday, which means I have two messages to prepare… This year, I thought I would get ahead of myself. Partly, I was forced to because the guy who tapes the sermon for Mayberry Church was leaving town for the holidays. So I taped the sermon on Tuesday. Because he was traveling and a number of people in the church had come down with COVID, we took precautions and wore masks or stood (as with the taping) on opposite ends of the sanctuary.

Then I woke up on Wednesday, feeling congested and not very well. I tested myself. After almost three years of avoiding the virus, I was positive. The quarantine started… Thankfully, my library (and visitor guest room) is almost done in the basement, so I moved down stairs). I would not be there for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (which I never got around to preparing a sermon for). I am thankful for many people who stepped up and help make sure worship will continue.

Then there’s this bomb cyclone that much of the country faced over the past two days. Last night, when I went to bed, the temperature was at -2 with winds gusting. This morning, I got up at 6 AM and the temperature was -6, with the winds sustained around 18 mph and gusting much higher. Lots of people lost power. For a time, it was questionable if we’d have the service at Mayberry tonight, as their power was out, but it’s come back on. The power is still out at Bluemont Church and Appalachian Power doesn’t think they’ll get it back before tomorrow night, so we cancelled the Christmas Day service that was to be held there…

As for COVID, I was very congested for the first two days. Now, I don’t feel bad, but will abide by the recommended quarantine. I hope I’ll be back to normal next week. Here’s the sermon I was going to preach tonight. Instead, it will be shone to those who brave the cold on a big screen TV.

Have a Merry Christmas everyone!

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2022

Isaiah 9:2-7

Homily taped at Mayberry on Tuesday, December 20, 2022

This evening, I’m drawing my homily from a well-known passage from Isaiah, one often read during the Christmas season. As I have been reminding you through Advent, the first 2/3s of Isaiah is filled with judgment with a few kernels of hope sprinkled in. We’ve been looking at these passages of hope. This is another one of these passages. As we’ve just past the winter solstice with the longest night of the year, it’s good to be reminded that darkness never has the final word.  Read Isaiah 9:2-7.

###

Benighted is a word that is often used by mountaineers. It refers to getting caught in the darkness when climbing or hiking.[1] Generally, one doesn’t plan to get caught out like that, but I often go out for a walk as the sun sets, so that I might hike back in the night. I love watching the light fade from the horizon and the stars to pop out in the sky as I acknowledge each constellation as old friends. If I’m walking back up Laurel Fork Road, some of the hayfields allows for long views off the west and in the winter, I can see lights twinkle at Crooked Oak and toward Hillsville. I take comfort in these lights, knowing they represent homes where people are warm and safe.

It’s a little more troubling to hike at night when there is no light. I’ve been caught a few times like that, when it’s dark and you can’t see more than a few feet ahead. Once, in a backpacking trip in Yosemite, I’d walked out to a ledge about a half mile from where we’d camped to watch the sunset. I stayed a little longer than planned and was making my way back in the dark. Suddenly, a bear coming down the path in the other direction, stood up in front of me. It was as startled as me, and thankfully took off in another direction. Darkness can be scary. 

Without vision, there is no comprehension of what’s out there, what’s around you. It’s all about what’s with the next step or within our reach. You walk slower and try to avoid running into things. It can be scary. We become confused and find ourselves lost. We’re become anxious and apprehensive, as I was the rest of the way back to my camp. 

This is the situation Isaiah addresses in this oracle. People walking in darkness, living in a land of absent of light. Tonight, millions of people in Ukraine live in darkness because Russia constantly bombards their electrical grid in an attack of civilians. Those civilians could identify with those whom Isaiah addressed in this passage. We’ve all dealt with similar darkness during ice storms. It’s frightening, but Isaiah offers hope. There is a promise of light filling the land. The light brings joy, there is a renewed confidence. As with the breaking of dawn, things are changing.  

We take light for granted. We flip the switch and like magic, light appears. We are troubled when the power doesn’t work, which is why many of us have generators. Candles and flashlights just don’t do it for us anymore. Especially now, at the time of the year when the nights are at their longest and the air is cold.

Yet, despite the easy availability of light, we still suffer from depression and want. The metaphor of darkness still applies to us as we worry about the present and fret over the future. We need to hear and experience Isaiah’s words again. 

This passage of Isaiah, possibility originally written for the birth of one of Jerusalem’s kings, offers hope to a people oppressed.[2] As a nation, Israel and Judah stood at the crossroads of mighty nations. In world affairs, they were a pawn, in the middle of a chessboard, with the powers of the Fertile Crescent on each side. The dark pieces of the chessboard could have been Egypt and the white pieces could represent a variety of nations (Assyria, Babylon, or Persia) depending on the era of history. Sitting in this crucible, Israel always felt insecure. But at the time of a new king there would be hope that alien rule would come to an end and their enemies would be defeated as the new king restores the prominence of Israel to what it had been under David. It would be centuries before Jesus’ came, fulfilling this prophecy.

In verse 4, Isaiah recalls the victories of Gideon at Midian, where he led the Israelites into battle. Over 32,000 Israelite men responded to the call to arms to save their nation, but God had Gideon whittle down the number of soldiers. In the end, he kept a force of only 300 who slipped into the Midianite and their allies, the Amalekites, camp and routed them. With just a handful of men, but more importantly with God’s help, they were victorious over a much larger army.[3]The promises in our passage all link to God working to end their oppression as God had done in the days of Gideon. This leads to verse 6, which is perhaps the most hopeful verse in scripture, where Isaiah’s oracle announces the birth of a child. But sadly, no such king was born during Isaiah’s era.

The early church quickly realized how this passage applied to Jesus, whose birth we celebrate tonight. Jesus came in humility, yet had the authority of God, was God with us. Jesus offers us a new way of enjoying peace. Of course, his reign hasn’t been fully realized and there are still those who oppose his kingdom, but his victory over evil and death has been won on the cross and it’s only a matter of time. For as we celebrate his birth, we also long for his return and the everlasting kingdom.  

On these dark winter nights, when you see lights glimmering in the distance, think of the hope we have in Jesus, the light of the world. As we heard earlier this evening from the prelude to the Gospel of John, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”[4]

There is a legend that one winter, the great church reformer, Martin Luther was walking in the woods at night. There was a cedar tree frosted with snow on a hill above. As he looked up at this sight, he could see the stars flickering behind and through the branches of the tree. He was so moved that he had a tree cut down and brought inside his home and decorated it with lights to recapture the glory he’d witnessed. This season, I hope you can capture that same glory when you look at the lights all around us and be reminded of the hope we have in Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate this evening. For in Jesus Christ, born of Mary, God came into our world and lived among us, showing us how to live, and reminding us that we’re not alone. We should no longer live in the fear of the darkness, for unto us a child has been born….  Amen.  


[1] This word came from a Twitter post by Cian McCarthy: https://twitter.com/arealmofwonder/status/1605101212554117120

[2] For a more fuller discussion of this passage as an enthronement oracle, see Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1:12, Old Testament Library, Second Edition, John Bowden, translator, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 210-214.

[3] See Judges 7.

[4] John 1:5.

A decoration on my tree

Silent Night and Christmas Celebrations

Below is an article I wrote a few years ago and reworked for local newspapers for this year. This is going to be a Christmas to remember for I tested positive for COVID this morning. I had already recored my Christmas Eve homily which hopefully can be shown as I will still be in quarantine this weekend. I have spent the past three years trying to avoid this, but it finally came home with me. Thankfully, so far, it’s like a sinus infection with my head feeling like someone stuff a bale of cotton in it. I hope you have a Merry Christmas and stay warm (as it promises to be cold here this weekend).

Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright… 

My Christmas tree

       Of all the Christmas Carols, Silent Night is perhaps best known. The carol which is often sung in candlelight at the end of Christmas Eve services is over two hundred years old.

         On Christmas Eve 1818, Austrian pastor Joseph Franz Mohr was frantic. The Salzach River had flooded and the waters seeped into the church organ. With his evening service approaching and no musical accompaniment, he wasn’t sure what to do. But he remembered a Christmas poem he’d written a few years earlier. He took the poem to his friend, Franz Xavier Gruber, who also served as the church organist and choir director. In a few hours, Gruber was able to put music to the poem and that evening in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, Mohr and Gruber, accompanied by a guitar and a local choir, sang “Stille Nacht,” as it’s known in German, for the first time. 

         Slowly the carol, which is so loved today, became better known. After Christmas, Karl Mauracher was hired by the church to repair the organ. While working on it, Mohr sang the song to him. Obtaining a copy, Mauracher shared the carol with other churches as he traveled around maintaining organs. In 1831, the song was sung at the Leipzig fair, where it received wider attention. In time, minor changes were made to the words and composition to create the arrangement we know today. The music was first published in 1838.

         As German-speaking immigrants made their way to America, they brought the carol with them. It was first published in the United States in the 1849 Methodist hymnal. The translation that is most popular today was made by John Freeman Young when he was the Episcopal priest at Trinity Church in New York City. He published the carol in 1863 in a collection of Sunday School songs.

         As the carol become more popular, no one seemed to know who had written it. It was often thought of as an unknown work by one of the great composers, perhaps even Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven. Mohr died in 1848, before the carol become known world-wide. Shortly before his death in 1863, Gruber shared the story of the carol’s history, but many doubted the story. Decades later, a hand written copy of the hymn was found. After extensive examination, it was found to be written by Mohr and on the top right of the page he’d written “Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber.” The story was authenticated.  

         Silent Night grew in popularity around the time that Christmas, as we know it, was becoming popular in the English speaking world. Two centuries earlier, the Puritans banned Christmas in both England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although the ban ended following the restoration of the monarch with Charles II in 1660, for decades it wasn’t seen so much as a religious holiday as it was an opportunity for drinking and revelry. One of George Washington’s great victories in the Revolutionary War can be credited to the American’s lack of celebration of the holiday. On a cold Christmas night in 1776, Washington was able to move his army across the Deleware River and attack the German Hessian troops fighting for the British. These troops, who were staying in Trenton, New Jersey, had spent the evening celebrating. They were taken by surprise. 

          However, on both sides of the Atlantic, Christmas celebrations began to change in the 19thCentury. In America, the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s, “The Night Before Christmas,” along with the writings of Washington Irving brought Christmas customs back into the minds of the people. About that time, large numbers of German immigrants began to flow into the country bringing Christmas customs with them. In England, the publication of Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” linked the holiday with doing good for the less fortunate. The marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, a German, also brought German Christmas customs to England. In America, Christmas trees, which were first noticed in the homes of Pennsylvania Dutch in the early 1800s, became an accepted part of the holiday by mid-century.   

         In 1914, almost a hundred years after the carol was first sung, much of the world was bogged down into a war that had begun in August. In the trenches on the Western Front, German and English soldiers huddled inside cold and wet trenches, sniping at each other when someone raised a head. Both sides would charge the other line, only to be cut down by machine gun fire and mortar barrages.  Between the lines was no-man’s land, where barbed wire had been strung and corpses laid on the frozen ground. As Christmas 1914 approached, a storm brought more freezing rain and snow. Pope Benedict XV had called for the observance of a Christmas truce, an idea ignored by the leaders of both sides. It was looking to be a bleak Christmas.

Bluemont Christmas Ornament

         On Christmas Eve, however, the weather changed. The clouds disappeared and the moon lighted the darkened landscape. Then, at various pockets along the lines, the German soldiers decorated and lighted trees and placed them along their trenches as they began to sing, Stille Nacht. While the language may have been foreign, the tune was familiar to many of the British soldiers who sang “Silent Night” back to the Germans. Other carols were sung. In places along the trenches, soldiers called for an informal truce and began to move out into no-man’s land to greet those they were trying to kill only hours earlier. The soldier’s shared drinks and exchanged candy and food. On Christmas Day, a couple of impromptu soccer matches occurred. The dead were able to be retrieved and buried. Sadly, this truce didn’t occur along the entire line, but was common along the section where the British faced the Germans.

         The Christmas truce of 1914 was a brief respite in a terrible war, partly facilitated by a popular carol that both sides knew. Sadly, it would be the only such truce during the war. In 1914, only four months into the war, most were still hoping for a quick victory. By Christmas 1915, there were millions more dead soldiers and civilians. As the war raged on, it became uglier as new weapons such as tanks, airplanes, and poisonous gas were utilized, each side trying to gain an advantage. 

Bluemont Christmas orament

         This beloved carol still brings peace to the hearts of those who sing it. Its beginning reminds us of how that which rises from difficulty, such as Saint Nicholas Church having no organ, can have a profound impact on the world. The carol, as it brought together the soldiers of two warring sides during that First World War, reminds us of the possibilities for peace that come when warring sides take a risk and see the humanity of their foes. It is my hope that in this holiday season, when you hear or sing this carol, perhaps while holding a flickering candle in church at night, that you will experience peace. 

         If you do not have a church home, I invite you to join us up on the Blue Ridge Parkway at one of the Rock Churches this Christmas. Christmas Eve services will be at Mayberry Church, just south of Meadows of Dan at milepost 180, at 6 PM. On Christmas Day, we’ll celebrate Christmas at Bluemont Church, at milepost 192. 

Bluemont and Mayberry at night

Advent, Poetry, Essays, & Riding the Rails

Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ 

(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 406 pages including Biblical references

A few weeks before Advent this year, I began reading this collection of essays and sermons. However, I quickly learned I was already behind the curve. For Rutledge, the Advent themes begin on All Saints Day adding another four weeks to the season we generally think of as the four Sundays of preparation for Jesus’ birth.

The Christian year begins with Advent, but her sermons include the end of the old Christian year and the beginning of the new. This is the season of judgment, the return of Jesus, the end of the age, the need to be ready, to repent, to wait patiently. In writing about Advent and with a host of sermons that she preached during this season of the year, Rutledge reminds us that we’re not as good as we think we are and our need to depend on God. Her sermons are filled with reminders that evil is real and there a real battle going on in both the world and our lives. She warns against a Christianity that thinks we must make the right decision (accept Jesus) and not have to deal with the reality that there is an enemy of God, Satan. Her sermons are a call to action. 

Sermons that tie into what’s happening in the world

Karl Barth is often quoted as saying we are to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Rutledge, a student of Barth (along with Calvin and others), displays this wisdom. These sermons, delivered from the mid-70s through the first decade of the 21st Century, display keen insights into the events of the world: terrorist attacks, Rwandan genocide, the Gulf War, the Iraqi War, the Bush/Gore election, school shootings, Emmanuel AME shootings among others. I have never had the skill or maybe I lacked the boldness to directly include such topics in my sermons, often choosing to address them in prayers. The sermons are pastoral. Imagine preaching an ordination sermon the weekend after the Sandy Hook school shooting in a neighboring town. She handles the scripture, the charge to the pastor, and addresses the situation with grace.

Rutledge is a master wordsmith

Rutledge is well read, both in the discipline of theology as well in literature. Her sermons are steeped in scripture, which allows her to interpret the events happening in the world along with insights from theology and literature. She draws heavily on the poetry of W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot.  The combination results in convincing essays and sermons that give her listeners (and readers) much to ponder.  While Rutledge (taking her clues from scripture) doesn’t provide an answer to the reason evil exists, she also doesn’t deny or diminish evil’s powers. But she reminds her readers of God’s greater power and love and leaves us with hope. While there is a lot of darkness in her sermons, there is also the anticipation of light (which is what the season of Advent is about).

Rutledge is an Episcopalian and one of the first women ordained into ministry by the Episcopal Church in the United States. 

I recommend this book for both Christians and those who might be skeptical that the Christian faith has little to say to today’s world. 

Paul J. WillisSay This Prayer into the Past: Poems 

(Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 100 pages.

This is a delightful collection of poetry from Willis, an English professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California.  I purchased the book from the Calvin University bookstore when I was there in early October. I had met the author though Calvin’s “Festival of Faith and Writing” workshops. Once, when I lived in Michigan, I encouraged him to stay a few days afterwards to do a poetry reading at Pierce Cedar Creek Nature Center south of Hastings, Michigan. It was early April 2012. On the morning of the reading, I took Willis on a hike on the trails around the property. That evening he read a poem he’d worked out while hiking that morning titled, “Skunk Cabbage.” An edited version of that poem is in this collection. 

Nature plays a prominent role in Willis’ poems. Many of these poems he locates in various places in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Pacific Northwest. Faith and scripture references also abound in these poems, as well as the theme of fire. This collection was compiled after the author lost his home to the 2008 Tea Fire that devastated areas around Santa Barbara. I recommend this collection of poetry. 

Skunk Cabbage

Brian Doyle, One Long River of Song 

(New York: Little Brown, 2019) 251 pages.

This is a delightful collection of essays by the late Brian Doyle. I heard so much about him at the HopeWord Writer’s Conference this past spring and this is my first of his books to read. One Long River of Song is a book to be savored and read slowly, over time. This book spent a couple of months on my nightstand and whenever I didn’t have anything else to read, I’d read from one to a half-dozen essays before bed. Some made me tear up, others brought laughter.

All these essays provide the reader something to ponder. Each essay stands on its own. Doyle handles diverse subjects, from how he learned humility to how to write the “perfect nature essay.” There is an essay on the school shooting, a somewhat fictional account of William Blakes trial, on otters and wolverines and the human heart (that maintains a 4/4 beat). Doyle, who was Roman Catholic, explores the church and the meaning of faith. As the essays come toward the end, they tend to be more and more about death, but even here there is wonder.

This collection was published by Doyle’s wife after his death in 2017. I recommend it! 

Carrot Quinn, The Sunset Route: Freight Trains, Forgiveness, and Freedom of the Rails in the American West 

(2021, Audible Books), 9 hours and 27 minutes. 

Someone had suggested that I read Quinn’s book, Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart. In looking up that title, I realized she’d written another book about riding the rails. I have done long distant hiking, but have never hopped a train. However, the lure has always been there, so I decided to start with this book. While there is a lot about catching trains and how to hide from the railroad police (who are not like the railroad bulls of the 1930s), this book is Quinn’s “coming-of-age” story. While I didn’t want to stop listening, it was hard to listen to much of Quinn’s story. Yet, she needs to be heard as she is not the only one to grow up in such difficult circumstances.

I found this book to be a cross between Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Chad Faries, Drive Me Out of My Mind which I read in early 2020. Like Faries’ experiences, I found myself angry at Quinn’s childhood. No child should have to live in such a manner. While such an upbringing has helped make her who she is, I worry about other kids who didn’t make it.

Review of The Sunset Route

Quinn flips back and forth, from her adventures on a train to growing up with a mentally ill mother in Alaska. Her mother believes she is the Virgin Mary and often has weird visions. At times, unable to hold things together, her mother would forget to file for welfare and Quinn and her brother along with their mother would be homeless. It was a difficult as she learns at an early age to forage food from dumpsters. In her teens, she is taken from her mother and sent to her grandparents in Colorado. Then she runs away. She becomes a part of a drug and alcohol-free anarchist community and learns about riding rails. As she rides the rails, she reads Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book I read when I hiked the Appalachian Trail. 

It appears to me that throughout her life, Quinn keeps trying to find love and failing. Her mentally ill mother can’t love her. When her mother is sick, she says terrible things to her children. Her estranged father has abandoned the family and while he brought her a plane ticket on one occasion, isn’t able to show love to someone he abandoned as an infant. Her grandparents don’t know what to do with two teenagers when all the rest of children have grown. When her brother becomes an addict, there is another rift from one she had been able to depend on. And then there are the relationships to others, mostly to other women but also to men. While Quinn doesn’t find love, there are a few bright moments in her life when someone helps her out. 

At the end of the book (which has a big gap of the time when she hiked long distance trails) she seems to have come to peace with her situation. She and her brother have reconnected, as they both shared a terrible childhood. She even tries to find her mother, fearing that she might die in the cold in Anchorage. 

Recommendation

While many will find this book difficult to read. But stories like these need to be heard because so many of these stories are not heard and are hidden from society. 

Train Station in Iowa.

Learning more about a favorite holiday nut

Lenny Wells, Pecan: America’s Native Nut Tree

The book, a container of my pecan granola, and my breakfast bowl.

(Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2017), 264 pages plus color plates of illustrations.

Growing up in North Carolina, I remember pecan trees on my great grandparents’ farms. Pecans were often linked to Christmas. I would find nuts in my stocking along and we’d eat pecan pies, sweet potato casserole with a pecan topping, and blueberry salad with a pecans and cream cheese topping. I assumed pecans were native to the area and used, along with everything else on the homestead, to provide a mostly self-sufficient estate. In reading this book, I learned otherwise.

Pecan expanding range

While Pecans are native to the Americas, their native range was somewhere along the Mississippi River, up to Missouri and Illinois, and along riverbanks in Texas and the north half of Mexico. Yet, no one is really sure where they originally developed. Pecan nuts may have been transported by humans and planted (or accidentally dropped and planted) even before the European conquest of the New World. This could have broadened their range.

The widespread planting of pecans in Georgia and the Carolinas began in the 19th Century. By the end of the 20th Century, one can find the tree growing across the southern half of the United States (from the Atlantic to New Mexico), along with places in South America, Australia, the Middle East, and China.

History of Pecans

Wells documents pecan history. The nut was a food stable among Native American tribes and helped keep lost Spanish conquistadors alive. They have even found their way into space as a snack for astronauts. Thanks to the marketing skills of Karo corn syrup, pecan pies are now a holiday staple in many parts of the country. However, pecan pies are like creamed spinach, taking something healthy and making it unhealthy. But with the extra sugar (and bourbon and butter and other things that go well with pecans), they are one of the healthiest nuts available. 

Diversity within the trees.

Pecans are grown in the wild, in backyards, and in large commercial orchards. And planting a nut one is not sure of what kind of pecan will grow as nuts from the same tree may produce different results. The only way to insure you are reproducing a particular tree is grafting. Pecans are also one of the most diverse trees with lots of subspecies. This diversity protects the nut from disease.  Wells outlines the growth of the pecan industry, the challenges of raising the nut, and how such orchards and nuts can be good for the environment and our bodies. 

Humorous anecdotes

This book is well written and contains numerous wonderful stories about those who have been involved in the pecan business. He also provides many humorous anecdotes, such as the businessman who gave out a prize for the largest pecans, as a way to find valuable trees to reproduce. Visiting the winning tree on a riverbank in Texas, he found most of the limbs cut off. Locals cut the limbs as ways to harvest the nuts. That story seems like a metaphor for much of human development. And it rings true of those big-headed Texans. While Wells discusses technical aspects of growing such trees, such as grafting and soil types, he conveys scientific information in a manner that a lay person can understand. 

There’s more I’d like to know

Upon finishing the book, I wanted to know more. Wells never mentions pecan as a wood product, yet it’s a rich and beautiful wood that can be used as veneer for plywood and for gunstocks. Maybe my wondering about alternative uses for the tree makes me a bit of heretic, for Wells has dedicated his life to the nut.

I am also curious about the relationship between the pecan and the American Chestnut. A blight wiped out the chestnut in the early 20th Century. Both trees provided nuts for pioneers in addition to providing a cash crop for those welling to gather and sell such nuts. Wells does discuss the relationship between pecans and hickory and walnuts. To modify a pecan for swampy soil, graft a pecan scion to a water hickory stock. Finally, I would have liked to have seen a list of the major types of pecans and their characteristics. Wells mentions dozens of varieties and it was hard to keep them straight. One variety, the Cape Fear, I was especially curious about as my great grandparents’ farms were in the Cape Fear River basin. 

An additional recipe from me

At the back of this book, Wells includes some recipes. I’ll add my recipe to the mix as I eat a 1/3 cup of this every morning in a bowl of fruit and homemade yogurt. 

Homemade Granola 
3 cups finely chopped pecans
6 cups old fashion oats
¾ cup of olive oil
¾ cup of maple syrup
2 tablespoons of vanilla
1+ tablespoon of cinnamon 
1+ tablespoon of sea salt

Mix in a large bowl until everything blended. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Split the mix and spread over the parchment. Bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes. Stir the mixture and return to the oven for another 20 minutes. Store for 3 months in a glass sealed container. If storing longer, place the granola into storage bags and freeze.