Where Goodness Still Grows


Amy Peterson, Where Goodness Still Grows: Reclaiming Virtue in an Age of Hypocrisy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020), 197 pages including notes.

Fifteen years ago, I read Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue by Paul Woodruff. Since then, I’ve read it several times and have spent considerable energy thinking about virtues. Perhaps this itch drew me to this book. In this age when truth seems so elusive, we need to have a conversation about virtue and how to ground society in that which is good.  

In her Introduction, Peterson writes about growing up in an evangelical Christian home in the later part of the 20th Century. As a teenager, she watched as church leaders lambasted President Clinton as unfit for office. As a child, she was nurtured with stories of virtue collected by William Bennett. Later, she served a missionary stint in Southeast Asia. But she began questioning what she had been taught. The watershed moment was the election of Donald Trump and the flipflop of evangelical leaders who accepted or willingly forgave Trump’s behavior. She began to question if those who claimed to be virtuous in the 90s were only doing so as a way to “preserve power and keep everyone in place.” This soul-searching led Peterson to “reimage” a world built on Biblical virtues.  And, it appears, her faith has become stronger and grounded more firmly in the Biblical tradition.

What a virtuous world might look like:


Where Goodness Still Grows is Peterson’s attempt to outline what a virtuous world might look like. She explores nine spheres, as she tells her own story as well as digging deep into the Biblical story and the story of others. Lament is the first area explored. Having been steeped in “praise services,” lament becomes a useful tool for crying out to God for what is wrong in our world.


The second area explore is kindness. She breaks apart the word that has evolved from an Old English concept of maintaining one’s position along the economic ladder. This leads her to come to an uncomfortable understanding about how her parents and grandparent’s “kindness” provided her with a status not enjoyed by many within minority groups. Her Biblical understanding of kindness requires her to see God’s image in everyone and may possibly require a redistribution wealth. 


Peterson explores includes hospitality, where she questions how evangelicals can be so against immigration. 

Purity and Modesty

She challenges the evangelical church’s link to purity and modesty only to sexuality. She finds no support for this within scripture. the Bible ties purity to the Temple. Modesty is often about not flaunting wealth. By linking modesty to how women dress, is to miss the Biblical view and also to create a low standard for men who need to have women dress themselves in a modest manner to keep their “animal instincts’ in check. 


Peterson recalls her desire to be authentic. Within the church she grew up in, praying spontaneously was viewed as authentic. Rote prayers were inauthentic. As she matured (and later found a home within the Episcopal Church), she understood a different view of authenticity. Writing about authenticity, she comes back to the evangelical support of Trump. She believes his ability to be spontaneous and having fresh ideas drew evangelicals. Instead, Peterson ties Biblical authenticity to being a disciple of Christ, clothed with the virtues of Colossians 3:12. However, this does not mean that one can’t be authentic if one isn’t a believer.God’s image allows us the ability to be authentic. At the end of the chapter, she makes the case that spontaneity shouldn’t be tied to authenticity within the church. “Authentic Christians” practice daily the role given. We are sinners, “saved by and growing in grace.” 

Love and Hope

Another areas Peterson explores is love. She finds love often contradicted in evangelism training that tended, in her experience, to objectify others. Another area is discernment. We cannot logically prove everything. There must be room for mystery. Finally, she investigates hope through an extended metaphor of raising chickens, which gives her a whole new understanding on Jesus’ lament on how he’d like to be a mother hen and protect Jerusalem under his wings. As a mother, this image is powerful for Peterson. Her chickens and other “homesteading” projects helps her understand our humanity. There is hope in being “gathered like children under a mother’s wing.”

My recommendation

In her introduction, Peterson suggests that her work isn’t the “definitive answer about virtue.” But she hopes it will raise questions. This she does. Peterson also leaves those of us who have never brought into a more simplistic view of the world as presented by fundamentalist Christianity with a little more hope. Hopefully, her book will encourage Christians to think about truth and what God wants for our world. If you read this book, I’m curious as to your take on it.

Reviews of other good books on similar topics:

Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies
John Kasich, It’s Up to Us
P. M. Forni, The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude

My thoughts on Wednesday’s riot at the Capitol

I’m in shock over this week’s events at our nation’s Capitol. If you are a praying person, will you join me praying for our country.

We need to open ourselves to God, asking for insight in how what we might do as individuals and in the groups we’re a part of to being healing to our nation. 

There will be a lot said about yesterday’s events in the days and weeks (and months) ahead. I am sure there are those I will agree with and those with whom I will disagree. However, we should remember one of the founding principles of the Presbyterian Church. “There are truths and forms with respect to which men of good character and principles may differ, “our Book of Order states. In these things, it is the “duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” How we relate to those who think and believe differently from us is a telltale sign of the trust we have in God.  

That said, as a follower of Jesus and a pastor, these are some things that weigh heavy on my heart. 

Words matter

First, our political rhetoric has gotten out of hand. It seems people on all sides think that if the government doesn’t do what they want, or if the vote at the ballot box doesn’t go their way, it is a personal affront and they have a right to take things into their own hands. While the right to peacefully protest is a hallmark of our nation, we do not have the right to incite violence or to intimidate others. If this doesn’t stop, we’re going to destroy ourselves and our nation.  

The problem of white privilege

Next, as many of my African American friends have pointed out, if those who attacked our Capitol were people of color, there likely would have been more bloodshed. White privilege is real. You can see this with the supposedly Q-anon leader stomping though the Capitol with bull horns, dressed like Hagar the Horrible. Had he been a person of color, instead of roaming around like a pagan Viking, his blood would likely be flowing across the marble floors. 

The misuse of Jesus’ name

Finally, as I posted on Facebook on Wednesday afternoon, I was offended to see people on the porticoes of the Capitol with signs and flags bearing Jesus’ name. These were not law-abiding protestors. They had already pushed past the barricades set up for those protesting. The above photo I snapped from my TV screen. The sign says, “Jesus Saves.” I doubt such a sign will convince non-believers that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Would the Jesus, whom we know through the Gospel stories, be seen taking part in such a demonstration? 

No, Jesus, the one who had the power to call down angels to save himself, refused to take part in any insurrection. He also stopped his followers from going down such a path, telling Peter to put away his sword. My advice for those who carried such signs and symbols yesterday is to leave Jesus out of whatever devious plans they concoct. If they really believe in Jesus, they should immediately drop to their knees and beg forgiveness. Such signs are a violation of the commandments. It’s blasphemy.  

Let’s pray

We all need to be praying and confessing. We need to confess our failure to live up to our ideals as we seek a better way forward. I offer this simple prayer: 

 Lord, what we witnessed this week was humbling and scary. We are blessed to live in a nation rich with opportunity. We are grateful. Yet, we realize our hands and our hearts are not clean.  Forgive us when we did not speak up for justice, when we did not support those being demonized, and when we didn’t challenge false and dangerous ideas. Show us, Lord, how you might use us to build bridges with others who have also been created in your image. Use us, in the words of Francis of Assisi, to be an instrument in your peace. Lord, what can I do to further your kingdom?  Amen.  

Wrapping Up 2020 (my reading summary for the year)

The “Christmas Puzzle” at the house which was completed a little over an hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve

2020 has come to an end. It was a year that we’ll not forget. Personally, it didn’t rise up to the trauma of 2016 (when I ruptured my quad-tendon, was in the hospital with sepsis following a prostate biopsy, and dealt with a tropical storm and later Hurricane Matthew), but it was still a terrible year. Stuck at home with a pandemic and unable to escape from the political rhetoric made for some long days. Vacations were cancelled. I still haven’t been to Fenway Park (which was scheduled for mid-June). And we enter 2021 with much of the same going on. The pandemic is raging and the political rhetoric hasn’t tone down. Maybe the best thing to do is to escape into a puzzle or a good book.

The puzzle above was done in our house between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It is of Shakespeare’s London and you can see snippets from 16 or so plays within the puzzle, along with others from his era (Queen Elizabeth I, John Donne, Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake). It wasn’t the easiest puzzle but a icy rain on Christmas Eve that turned into snow meant there was no reason to get out, so time was put into finding the pieces.

2020 Reading Summary:

Number of books: 53 of which 37 were reviewed in my blog
Categories: History, Biography and Memoir: 18; Bible, Theology, Church: 11, Poetry: 7; Fiction: 6

A few insights into my reading:

-I have now read the first four volumes of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. Like a lot of others who are interested in this man and this period of history, I am impatiently waiting for his fifth volume (the fourth just got us through John’s first year in the White House after Kennedy’s death).
-Four of the authors I’ve read are good friends and I have met another six of the authors.
-With the racial troubles our country faces, I found myself reading several African American theologians and a new history of the 1898 Wilmington (NC) racial troubles (or atrocity). One of the books on my TBR pile deals with the Tulsa race war.
-I am spending more and more time with poetry (and I alway read books of poetry at least twice).
-It appears I need to read more fiction!

My favorite books:

In my opinion the best book I read during the year was Andy Rooney’s My War, followed by S. C. Gwynne’s biography of Stonewall Jackson. This is my second book by Gwynne (I read his biography of Quanah Parker, Empire of the Summer Moon, in 2017). If God is willing, I’ll read whatever else he publishes. My favorite fiction book was Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, which is a historical fiction account of the Battle of Thermopylae. If you don’t remember that battle, don’t worry. Ii occurred a few years before our time…

Here’s My listing of books read (posted by the order I finished the book), along with links to those I reviewed:

James Clavell, Tai-Pan
Patrick McManus, Kerplunk!
David Swift, Swift: New and Collected Poems
David Sedaris, Theft by Findings: Diaries
Chad Faries, Drive Me Out of My Mind
Marcia McFee, Think Like a Filmmaker: Sensory-Rich Worship Design for Unforgettable Messages
Daniel Okrent, The Guarded Gates: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law that Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other Europeans Out of America
W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media
Andy Rooney, My War
John Leith, From Generation to Generation
John Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Faith (2nd read, first read in 1989)
John Leith, The Reformed Imperative (2nd read, first read in 1993)
S. C. Gwynne, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson
David Hallerstan, Summer of ‘49
Laura Davenport, Dear Vulcan: Poems
N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture
P. M. Formi, The Civility Solution: What to Do when People are Rude
David Foster Wallace, This is Water
Eric Goodman, Cuppy and Stew: The Bombing of Flight 629, A Love Story 
Paul Willis, Rosing from the Dead: Poems
Nancy Koster, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life
Harlan Hanbright, The Idiat and the Odd-yssey
Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire: The Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae
Dave Moyer, Life and Life Only
Rick Wilson, Running Against the Devil
Michael P. Cohen, Granite and Grace: Seeking the Heart of Yosemite
Alice Outwater, Water: A Natural History
Richard Davids, The Man Who Moved a Mountain
Gary Snyder, Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems
Nancy Duante, Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations
Nancy Bevilaqua, The Gospel of the Throw Away Daughter: Poems
David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy  
James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson: The Passage of Power
Myrlene Hamilton, All I Need to Know About Ministry I Learned from Fly Fishing
Chrys Frey, Tsunami Crimes
David Lee, Mine Tailings: Poems
John Barry, The Great Influenza
Jesse Cole, Find Your Yellow Tux
Ralph Wood, Contending for the Faith: The Church’s Engagement with Culture
Craig Barnes, Diary of a Pastor’s Soul
Tim Conroy, Theologies of Terrain (Poems)  
Joseph Klaits, Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunt
Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent
Esau McCaulley,  Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope
Nancy Bevilaqua, A Rough Deliverance: Collected Poems 1863-2013
Aaron McAlexander, Shine on Mayberry Moon
Billy Beasley, The Girl in the River
Alyce McKenzie, Novel Preaching: Tips from Top Writers on Crafting Creative Sermons 
Gary Schmidt, Orbiting Jupiter
Aaron McAlexander, The Last One Leaving Mayberry
Jim Casada, editor, Carolina Christmas: Archibald Rutledge Enduring Holiday Tales

Notes on my reading during the past month

Gary D. Schmidt, Orbiting Jupiter 

(Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), 183 pages. 

This young adult novel is about Joseph. A teenage father, he’s sent to a foster family who own a farm in rural Maine.

The family has one other boy, Jack. After getting off to a shaky start, the two become like brothers, watching out for the other. The story centers around what happened to Joseph in his past. When he was 13, he fell in love with Madeline. While Joseph was from a broken family that economically lived on the margin, Madeline’s family was well off. When she became pregnant, they sent her away where she gave birth to a daughter she named “Jupiter.” The planet plays a prominent role in the story as Joseph had pointed it out to Madeline and he often looks for it in the sky. The story’s conclusion occurs around Joseph attempt to find his daughter.

Upon Joseph’s release from Stone Mountain, a juvenile detention center, he find himself with chores to do on a farm. He works beside Jack and makes friends with Dahalia, one of the orneriest cows in the barn. Thereafter, he’s the one who milks her. At school, he struggles with some teachers who think he shouldn’t be in school, but others see promise in him. Joseph is exceptionally strong in math and a prospect for the track team. The story occurs in winter. Schmidt captures the the cold of Maine. When milking, the boys lean in on the cows to capture their warmth.The frozen landscape makes the river dangerous, but also creates an opportunity to ice skate on the family’s pond.

Christmas is especially meaningful for Joseph as he attends church with the family and learns about Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father. He also learns of Mary’s early age. While Schmidt doesn’t mention it, it’s traditionally assumed the Virgin Mary was 14 when she gave birth. This is Madeline’s age when she gives birth to Jupiter. I won’t spoil the ending. However, this book is sad, and I found tears in my eyes. Yet, there’s hope in the child, Jupiter. 

Alyce McKenzie, Novel Preaching: Tips from Top Writers on Crafting Creative Sermons

(Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), 180 pages. 

As a “working preacher” who has also taught homiletics on a graduate level, I try to read at least one book a year on the craft, along with another book on writing. This year I chose this book, written by a professor of homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, a Methodist seminary in Texas. 

Writer’s Conference

This book is divided into three parts. The first two deal with the practice of preaching, where the author attempts to provide the information in a creative manner. In the first part (which is what I thought the book was about from its title), she images being at the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference. Taking her readers along with her, we go from conversation to conversation with fiction authors. As we overhear their discussions, we gain insight into how preachers might us some of the tools of authors to engage his or her congregations in their sermons. We learn about noticing and being aware of what’s important in the text and in our sermons. McKenzie draws from a number of authors including Annie Dillard, Natalie Goldberg, Frederick Buechner, Stephen King, Isabelle Allende, Toni Morris. We gain insight into character, plot, and shape along with picking up ideas of how to journal and to capture such insights into the human condition. 

A Cooking Show

The second part of the book involves a cooking show. Here, she draws from well-known (and some not so well known, at least not for me) professors and writers of homiletics.  Each one teaches how they approach a sermon, and the reader gets to pick up a recipe card at the end of their presentation. By the time I got to this part of the book, I was a little over with the cuteness of McKenzie’s writings. The writer’s conference wasn’t quite as overblown as this imaginary journey through some kind of convention with all kinds of “chefs,” a few of whom I’ve met, many of whom I’ve read and heard lecture. Those I knew before reading this book include Charles Rice, Fred Craddock, Tom Long, David Buttrick, Richard Eslinger, Henry Mitchell, Paul Scott Wilson, Nora Tubbs Tisdale, Justo Gonzalez, Eugene Lowry and Mike Graves. To her credit, McKenzie draws from across Western Cultures including African American, Korean American, men and women, Protestants and one Catholic example. 

Best part of the book–Sermons

I found myself wondering about those not included: Tex Sample (who focuses on the language of the working class), Cornelius Plantinga, Jr (who has written about preaching and literature long before this book’s release), Robert Smith, Jr (an African American who has strong grasp of doctrinal preaching), and Haddon Robinson. The latter really surprised me as his Biblical Preaching may be one of the most popular books on preaching and is the “bible” of expository preaching.  

The final section of the book was my favorite. The section consists of a number of creative sermons written by McKenzie. Who’d ever think of angels as UPS workers (after all, angels deliver messages from God which ties into the packages delivered by a UPS driver. I’ll come back to these sermons, I’m sure. McKenzie is able to touch on her audiences fear and concerns and offer a helpful word of reassurance from scripture. I would have preferred to have read more sermons and less of her “tidbits” of information from authors and homiletic professors. 

Caroline Christmas: Archibald Rutledge’s Enduring Holiday Stories

edited by Jim Casada (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2010), 225 pages. 

Archibald Rutledge was the poet laureate of South Carolina for decades. He was a well-known poet and author writing about nature and hunting during the first half of the 20th Century. Having read several of his works beforehand, I waited till a week before Christmas to read his collection of “Christmas stories.” This book was a gift from my staff in Georgia. 

While the book is filled with Rutledge stories, Jim Casada selected the stories included within the collection. Casada also provides insight into when the selection was written, the circumstances around the story, and where it had previously been published. Many of these stories have been published multiple times. First, in magazines (especially Field and Stream, Outlook, and Outdoor Life), and later in collections published by Rutledge. 

The book is divided up into six parts. The first section all deals with Christmas stories at Hampton Plantation. Rutledge spent thirty years teaching at Middlebury Academy in Pennsylvania. During these decades, he would always come home for Christmas. In one story, he writes about catching a train during a blizzard up north and arriving on the Atlantic Coast Line early the next morning in the sunny South. His brother meets him at the train station in Charleston and two hours later they’re hunting. Such descriptions brought back memories of me, as a young seminary student, catching a train from Pittsburgh during a snowstorm, heading south to visit my sister the week before Christmas in Florida. When the train arrived in Savannah early in the morning, wearing shorts, I went for a walk along the platform. 

A Natural Christmas

The second part of the book, titled “A Natural Christmas,” has selections where Rutledge describes walking in the forest and fields of coastal South Carolina during the Christmas break. Known as a hunter, we are provided a glimpse of Rutledge’s vast knowledge of wildlife, especially birds. While most of these stories are about watching birds, he mentions dove hunting. During such a hunt, in 1896, he shot a bird twice the size of the others. It turned out to be a passenger pigeon. Before Rutledge’s time, these birds flew in vast numbers that would darken the sky. But even by the time Rutledge came along, they were rarely seen. This story was published in 1911. That was just three years before the last of passenger pigeon died in a Cincinnati zoo. I find it interesting the world Rutledge describes had not yet been impacted by chemicals like DDT. Such chemicals have been destructive to birdlife. Reading his prose is to be taken back to a more primeval world. 

Deer Hunting

Deer hunting is the focus of the third part of the book. Such hunting on the coastal plain is done with shotguns. In telling the dangers of using rifles in such flat terrain, he draws on a familiar form of transportation of his day. “Express bulletins don’t make no local stops,” he humorously notes. Around Hamilton, deer hunting was also done with dogs who would chase the deer out of the bays and swamps. While I never hunted with dogs, I did go a few times with my father. I was not yet old enough to carry a gun. We were stationed along a remote road. We froze while waiting and listening for the dogs to drive the deer out way. While my dad did shoot several deer, he never did when he had my brother and me in tow. Again, these stories are filled with wisdom and insight into hunting. My favorite of his deer hunting stories was the last. In this story, he prepared to take his son hunting when he returned from Europe after World War Two. 

Other Game

There is a small section of stories about hunting other wild game, especially turkey and quail. He mentions squirrel, rabbit, duck, and ‘coon hunting, but his stories are mainly limited to deer, quail and turkey. There is also a very short selection of seasonal poems. Casada feels his poetry hasn’t “aged” as well as his prose. One of the three poems, “Christmas Eve on the Rapidan (1863)” was set om the Civil War. Rutledge’s father was one of the youngest colonel’s in the Confederate army. The last section of the book has a number of recipes. 

Rutledge is a master at describing the land in which he’s hunting and the “chase” of the deer. His stories often contain humor, and the hunter doesn’t always come away with dinner. On one occasion he notes that after a week, they were still eating pork. In another story, he writes about a turkey hunter who followed a bird into a tree. Moving closer on Christmas Eve, as the light drained from the sky, he saw two dark figures in a tree. Not able to determine which was the bird and which was a clump of mistletoe, he fired and guessed wrong. The bird flew as a chunk of mistletoe fell to the ground. He picked it up to carry home for decoration. I also remember shooting mistletoe from a tree. It was an easy way to harvest the seasonal green, however the white berries often don’t survive the fall.

Rutledge and African Americans

 These stories are dated by Rutledge use of the term Negro for African Americans. While they were no longer slaves, they were still bound to the land and held a subservient role. During deer hunts, white hunters were stationed around a swamp or bay, while African American men led the chase. Using dogs, they’d go into the swamps to flush out the deer. One has to remember that Rutledge is writing from another age. While he often speaks highly of African Americans as a race, especially his childhood friend Prince, there is a separation. He lived in the big house and they lived in the shacks around the plantation. These stories were all written in the first half of the last century. At the time, long before the Civil Rights Movement, Rutledge saw no problems with such relationship. Anyone reading this book today needs to understand time has changed and realize Rutledge was blind to such injustices. 

Aaron McAlexander, The Last One to Leave Mayberry

(Stonebridge Press, 2011), 219 pages, a few b&w photos.  

McAlexander’s family is from Mayberry even though he grew up in Meadows of Dan, which is located three miles north of Mayberry. In this book, he along with others from his family tell of their ancestor’s moving to this hardscrabble mountain terrain.

Today, there’s not much in Mayberry. There’s the church and there’s the store. Even in the good old days, there wasn’t much to Mayberry. The store also had a Post Office, but that closed in the 30s. There was a tannery and a number of diaries along with a school. Although the community is sparse, it created many good memories that McAlexander mines to create this collection of short stories. 

If you read this book, you’ll learn about trout fishing, the first telephone in the community, and the depression (that Mayberry seemed to experience long before the rest of the country). There are stories about men going off to World War 2 and a training flight over the mountains that crashed in the dark hours of morning in 1945. You’ll learn about a “suck-egg dog” (beside being a nasty term for one’s enemies). You’ll learn of the influence of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which divided farms, and about a blacksmith who became a Presbyterian preacher, who occupied the pulpit I currently attempt to fill. You’ll learn of mysteries that still remain mysterious. You’ll read about people who make a break for the West, only to come back home. McAlexander himself headed off as a physics professor, but upon retirement maintains a cottage in the community in which so many of his relatives reside (many of whom are below ground).  This is a delightful book with good stories. 

A Christmas Eve Story

This is a short Christmas program for those at home. I tell the following story in the program followed by “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”

I have told this story several times including in an article published in Nevada Magazine’s online edition.

1988 was the first time I was without family on Christmas. It was also my first white Christmas. And it was a holy Christmas. I had taken a year off from seminary to serve as a student pastor in Virginia City, Nevada, the old mining town made famous by the TV show, Bonanza.

The week leading up to Christmas had been hectic. To top it off, a zephyr blew in two days before Christmas. I watched the clouds rolled angrily across the Sierras. Soon snow flew. The gale force wind made the frigid air feel even colder. I wore heavy sweaters even inside. By late morning of Christmas Eve, there was enough snow to ski on the streets of Virginia City. Having taken care of everything for the evening service, I joined a group of friends skiing down the old railroad grade to Gold Hill.

When we got back, we stopped by the church to shovel the snow off the steps. I turned up the heat inside. Snow drifted and the high winds made travel dangerous. About an hour before the service, word came that the steep roads into town from Carson City and Reno were closed. Now, my preparedness was for naught. Our “lessons and carols” service featured a number of readers, many of whom lived off the mountain and couldn’t make it in. Howard, our organist, assured me everything would work out. St. Mary’s of the Mountain, the Catholic Church in town, had already contacted him to play for their Midnight Mass as their organist wasn’t able to make it in.

It was a great service. Despite the cold and ice, people from town flocked in. We recruited readers. As the service began, the building creaked and groaned against the gale. At times, wind seeped into the building and caused the candles to flicker. Our worship service closed with candles challenging the dark as we sang “Silent Night.”

Afterwards, a group of us headed to the Mark Twain, one of the many saloons along C Street. We had good conversations while waiting for the midnight hour to head down to St Mary’s of the Mountain for Midnight Mass. We wanted to support Howard, who was playing the organ. 

When I say, “we went down,” that’s just what we did as Virginia City sits on the eastern flank of Mt. Davidson and every block you travel you gain or lose significant elevation.

Sometime during the Mass, the raging storm blew itself out. When we stepped out of the church, clear skies greeted us. Crisp cold air billowed from my mouth like a locomotive. I zipped my coat tight, bid my friends a Merry Christmas and headed home, walking up the hill toward the lighted V, high on Mount Davidson. Snow squeaked under my feet due to the cold. The scent of pinion pine burning in woodstoves filled the air. A few cars were parked by one of the saloons on C Street. Otherwise, the street was deserted. When I reached B Street, where I lived, I was nearly out of breath.  

I paused to survey the town. In a few houses, lights still burned. They stood as cheery refuges from the cold. But most were dark. Folks had settled in for a long winter’s nap. Then I looked up into the dark sky dotted with brilliant stars. Orion the hunter stood high overhead, followed to the southeast by his faithful dog. To the north, the Dipper was rising. Although alone, I felt a presence…

Things had worked out. Our worship serve was special and several of us were blessed with a second service at midnight. Even though my family were thousands of miles away, I was with good friends. And I felt God’s love, a love that had come into this world in a child. 

The hymns and carols of the evening echoed in my head. “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” seemed appropriate I had experienced something holy and silent awe was a fitting response.

This ancient hymn has its roots in the early church and is used as the beginning of the Communion rite in the Orthodox Churches. In English, we sing the words which recall God’s mystery to Picardy, an old French folk melody. The music is haunting, as it should be when we contemplate the incarnation, God coming to us in the flesh.

This Christmas, may we spend some time in awe, pondering the mystery of what happened so long ago. And while 2020 has appeared as a storm to us, we know that after the storm passes, there are good times. As followers of Jesus, we need to have faith. 

May we also be aware that that child, born in Bethlehem, will come again and claim his throne. That’s where our ultimate hope lies. Until then, we hold on to hope and dedicate ourselves to him, our true Lord and our only Savior. Amen 

C Street, Virginia City, Winter of 1988-89

A Good Day Fishing

Last week I spent a few days with my father and uncle (and my uncle’s brother-in-law) fishing off Cape Lookout.

The end of a day

We leave the jetty off the southwest side of Lookout a little after four. To the west, the sun is dropping close to the horizon.

I’m at the helm of my dad’s boat, following Dale and Larry. We race across calm waters, parallel to the beach on the south end of Lookout, heading toward Shackleford Banks. The day before, this section was so rough, we turned around and sought safety behind the banks. As we pass into the Lookout Bight, we make a hard right into Barden’s Inlet. Quickly passing the split of land at the end of Lookout, we’re soon running along the backside of the island. We’re now heading parallel to our previous heading, but in the direction, with just a split of land separating us from where we were. 

The channel cuts a path resembling a giant question mark, as we maneuver between Lookout and Shackleford Banks.

We pass a lovely two mask schooner that has taken shelter behind the banks. The still water is only marred by the wake of our boats.

After passing the Old Coast Guard and Life Saving stations, we cut back toward the Lookout Lighthouse, which not only rises up into the sky but whose reflection follows us as we snake back north, keeping the red buoys on our right. Once we pass the lighthouse, the channel straightens as we head toward the east end of Harker’s Island. The sandbars have shifted and there are places we ignore the buoys. In one place, a sandbar has completely covered the old channel and we take a green buoy to the right. If we’d stayed in the marked channel, we’d been grounded. 

We take the northern channel at the split and curve around the west end of Harkers Island. The sun has now set behind us. As we make the turn into Eastmouth Bay, the pink sky reflects off the calm waters.  As we approach the channel into our dock, I push the throttle up to slow the boat down as I raise the motor enough to make it over the sand bar at the mouth of the dredged cut. We putt into the dock. It’s been a good day. Now there are fish to clean. 

The cooler contains Day and my fish. Larry and Dale’s are in the bucket.

Heading out early in the morning

We’d left that morning around 7 AM and watched the sun rise as we were running around Harker’s Island.

The temperature was below freezing, as evident by the ice on the docks. But unlike the day before, when the gales of earlier in the week had calmed to a stiff breeze of 20 miles an hour, this morning was calm. We didn’t feel the cold nearly as much as the previous day. We arrived at the rock jetty off Lookout, set anchor, and began to fish. A dozen or so boats were already anchored and had lines in the water by the time we arrived. As the day continued, even more would arrive. 

The fishing wasn’t great the first few hours. I seemed to lose jigs to the rocks, while just on the other side of the rocks, a dude with an orange coat, sitting on a swivel seat on the bow of his boat, caught fish after fish. Most were thrown back, but he kept a few. I pondered why they liked his grub and not mine. But then I got a bite. The light rod bent over and began to work the fish, but before we could get it to the net, he got off. Fifteen minutes later, my dad caught a speckled trout. There was one in the cooler.  

We were just about to head to the other side of the jetty, when Dad caught another while I lost another. So, we stayed and kept fishing. Larry and Dale had moved their boat to the other side and texted us to let us know a wildlife officer was over there checking fish and license. We assured him we only had “legal” fish. The officer only checked a half dozen boats, and then left, but he’d written a lot of tickets for fishing without licenses or having kept more fish than allowed. 

Finally, I did land a speckled trout that was just barely large enough to keep (speckled must be 14 inches long).  As the tide dropped, exposing the rocks and the shoreline approached out anchorage, we watched another guy fishing from the surf, on our side of the jetty catch fish after fish. I began to wonder what was wrong with our technique.

Catching fish

Then it happened. Dad caught a puppy drum. It was a good fight. I pulled my line in and helped him out the net.  While dad was putting the fish away and putting a new grub on his jig, I got a bite. It was another puppy drum. This one also took several minutes to get it into the boat. I’d get the fish almost to the boat and it would begin running, pulling line off the reel. As the line was only 8-pound test, you have to keep your drag fairly loose to keep the line from snapping. Dad waited until the fish tired and I got it to the boat, where he could help net it. It was another puppy drum, about 21 inches long. It went into the cooler, too. 

The limit of drum is one a piece, but for the next hour, we kept catching and releasing them. The fish ranged from 20 to 26 inches and they all gave a great fight. I’m not sure how many we caught, but each of us caught seven or eight fish. All the fish fought hard and took several minutes to get into the boat.

boats around the jetty which can only be partially seen by where the rocks are above water

As the noon hour approached, we were both getting hungry.  We finally took a break to have lunch (beans and weenies and crackers), even though the fish were still biting. Several other boats along with the guys on shore got into catching drum, so after lunch we moved to the other side of the jetty. We anchored next to Larry and Dale and began fishing. Pretty soon, we both caught a gray trout (we could only keep one, but we only caught one apiece). Then we caught a few more speckled trout. It seemed as if for every trout I got into the boat, I would lose one jig to the rocks. About half of the trout, we had to throw back as they were not of legal size. I also caught a bluefish. 

While we fished the jetty, out in deeper water shrimp thrawlers worked back and forth. You could hear the drone of their diesels and when pulled in their nets to cull their catch, the sound of gulls squawking overwhelmed the sounds of the waves breaking on the rock.

As the trawler culls their catch, the gulls fight for that which is thrown back

As the afternoon wore on, more. and more boats left for home. There were only a half dozen of so left when we decided to call it a day.

A Windy Walk to Clear My Mind

The sun burns brightly in the blue sky. What warmth it provides is swept away by a strong breeze. The move, the death of my mother, settling into a new church, and dealing with the new house has taken a lot out of me. I need a break. I take Tuesday off and spend the afternoon hiking around Rocky Knob, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, east of Floyd, Virginia.

One of the surprises in the move came in our new house. I fell in love the view of “the Buffalo.” Perhaps that’s why I didn’t notice the large number of air freshers in the house. I’m not sure how, but when I first toured the house the day after it went on the market, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The former owners (children of the man who owned it) had the ceilings painted and aired it out. They may have even used an ozone machine to mask the smell of smoke.

The inside is prepared for paint. The picture in the bottom left is an early morning view of “The Buffalo”

I realize from the first time I saw the house, there are things to be done. With the house being smaller than the one in Georgia, I need to finish the walkout basement. I also envisioned adding a deck around the back to be able to fully enjoy the view of the Buffalo. Then there’s landscaping and what to do with five acres of pasture. I put all those things on hold. While moving in, entering the house after it had been closed up for six weeks, we realized the former occupants were smokers. Heavy smokers. Currently, we’re staying in a farmhouse of friends while painters are working hard to seal in the walls. When we move back in this weekend (or early next week), it will be very nice. For now, it’s an inconvenience.

I can imagine coming into this cabin and warming up at the fireplace.

I take Tuesday afternoon off. Driving to the Rocky Knob ranger station, I park my car and head off on the Black Ridge Trail. I take the loop which leads me to the West side of the ridge. The path drops into a hollow. I’m sheltered from the wind. After a few minutes of hiking, I come upon an old chimney. The craftsmanship is amazing. While there is no evidence of a house, the chimney appears to be in perfect working order. From there, I cross a small creek, as the trail heads back up toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. Just before reaching the Parkway, the trail heads south, with pasture to my right and the parkway high above me to the left.

When the trail climbed up and over the Parkway, as I left the hollow, the north wind became intense. I was now on the Black Ridge, which hangs high above Rock Castle Gorge, where I had hiked last August. Vegetation is thick in the canyon with tall trees reaching to the edge of the ridge. On top, the trees are short, gnarled by the wind. The grass remains green, even this late in the year. Granite boulders stick up in the midst of the meadow, creating a tombstone-like appearance. As with the old chimney, ghosts abound in these hills. I find a large enough boulder to block the wind and provide a back rest. For a few minutes, I write in my journal. Afterwards, I pull out Billy Beasley’s new book, The Girl in the River and read a few chapters. I’ll review the book in my blog next week.

Looking east. Rock Castle Gorge is to the bottom right.

I enjoy the chilly walk along the ridge, frequently stopping to look to the east. Passing a woman with two dogs, I say hello. One of the dogs is trying to get to me, but she says he’s in training. I smile and say I’ll continue on, in order not to entice the dog to run after me. When I reach my car, I check the time. It’s not yet 4 PM, I’ve been gone for less than two hours. Much of that time I spent reading. Not ready to head home, I set out to find another trail.

It’s interesting how the wind “designs” the trees along the ridge

Reading as Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope

Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2020), 198 pages including a discussion guide, bibliography, scriptural index and index.

McCaulley provides an interesting insight into the struggles facing African American theologians today. Coming from an evangelical tradition, he quickly notes the failure of evangelicalism for those of his race. He acknowledges that most black churches accept the four pillars of evangelicalism (a born-again experience, missionary efforts, high regard for Scripture, and emphasis on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus). But, he notes, there are two unwritten pillars among most evangelicals. One is to downplay injustices of the American past. The other is to remain silent on issues of racism and systemic injustice. (10-11)

He also has a problem with progressive Christianity. He sees this movement “weaponizing” African American theologians to support their own positions. Both sides, he believes, “tokenize” Black theologians. He criticizes the evangelical movement use of black evangelical theologians to attack black progressives. While disingenuous, it keeps the evangelical movement from being labeled as racist.

McCaulley argues for an authentic African American theological voice that takes Scripture seriously while addressing the need of community. Citing examples, he notes how slaves first heard the gospel tempered and misused. They were encouraged to be happy with their lot in life. But instead, the Bible’s overarching story of a God who frees people couldn’t be tempered. From this background, African Americans developed their own churches and theological traditions.

McCaulley focuses on the teachings of Paul. Some may suggest that Paul never challenged the slave culture that existed in his time. However, McCaulley cites many places where Paul does challenge the culture even though he (or the early church) was in no position to change it. McCaulley also draws heavily on the Old Testament, especially laws concerning slavery, and the Exodus.

Five of the chapters of the book lay out ideas for a more comprehensive African American theology. One is a theology of policing. McCaulley admits the need for policing but also for it to be done in a manner that supports and not destroy the community. He tells his own story of being stopped by police in high school. He and his friends were forced out of his car and searched for no reason. Such experience is truer for those in his community than in mine. In this chapter, especially as he deals with Romans 13, he balances the way his community and the police need to deal with the fear they both feel for the other.

In another chapter, he looks at how the New Testament supports the need for protests. Blacks are not just to be submissive. They need to work for a vision that is set in the Exodus and Prophetic traditions of the Old Testament and taught by Jesus (and Paul). This is followed up with a chapter on justice.

In a chapter that critiques of many in the African American community who have abandon Christianity (seeing it as a white/European religion), McCaulley makes the case for an African American witness in Scripture. Such tradition continued in the early church which found a stronghold on the African continent. Then, in a final chapter focusing on the need of his community, he explores rage and what should be done with it.

McCaulley finds solace in Scripture. Like his ancestors, he senses that God is on the side of the oppressed. God’s desire is for freedom (real slavery as well as bondage to sin). This is the hope his community needs to move forward. It is the author’s hope that other members of his community will step up as they offer their witness to hope of the gospel. Such a witness doesn’t have to depend on white interpretations but can draw from Scripture and the experiences of his race.

This is a book that needs to be read. I image it will be helpful for those within the African American community. However, even those of us who are of others races should read it to better understand the rage felt by African Americans. Perhaps we can catch a part of their vision of a theology that encompasses all of us.

Halloween 1962

On Wednesday, drove from Mayberry to Bluemont along the parkway, in the fog. It looked a lot like Halloween. With the bare trees and fog, who knows what evil might be lurking… In thinking about this day, I recalled my first time going out trick-or-treating and pulled out an old manuscript and reworked it. Remember, this year, we all need to be wearing masks! 

My first time trick-or-treating

I was five and wore a Tony the Tiger mask. We’d saved box tops of cereal to order the mask. My brother was four and had another mask. My sister wasn’t with us. Maybe she was too small, or maybe we hadn’t eaten enough cereal for her to have a mask. 

Your first-time trick-or-treating is special. After all, what a novel concept. Walking door to door and being given candy exchange for no tricks. If adults attempted this, you’d be charged with extortion. As a kid, you’re just cute. 

We lived out in the country, on Doubs Chapel Road in Moore County, North Carolina. Our first stop was at Bunches, a grocery store in Eastwood. We where given an apple. 

After Bunches, my mom drove us over to my grandparents. We were joined with Grandma, and my Uncle Larry, who was eleven at the time. As houses were far apart in the country, we went into town where the pickings were more fruitful. 

Larry took my brother and I house to house, while Mom and Grandma followed in the car. They watched out for us and made sure that we didn’t pull any tricks. Soon, our pillowcase goodie bags were beginning to fill. This was a great night, until… 

Up ahead was a big old house. It looked haunted. Larry didn’t seem to be bothered, but I wasn’t so sure. I stood behind him as he knocked on the door. There was shuffling inside, then the door slowly squeaked open. Standing in front of us were three grinning women. They were dressed in black and wearing strange hats. 

Leaving Larry behind as a morsel for their cauldron, my brother and I dropped our bags. We high-tailed it toward the car, warning everyone with our yells: “Witches, witches.” 

Mom met us before we got to the car. “You need to apologize to those women,” she said. She grabbed our wrists and dragged us back up to the porch. We kept squirming and fighting to get away. I tried my best to dig my toes into the dirt to anchor myself.

“They’re not witches,” Mom kept saying. 

I’d listen to enough stories like that of Hansel and Gretel. I knew better than to trust such women. 

Squeezing our arms, she pushed us forward onto the porch. We were shaking as we half-heartedly apologized. Then we learned they were not witches. They were nuns wearing habits. Of course, at the time in my life none of this made sense. “Nun” was the dessert you got when you didn’t clean your plate. Habit, at least in my case, was a word usually modified with the word “bad.” I was developing a few of them… 

The nuns accepted our reluctant apology and laughed as they gave us each a handful of candy. “Why are they sweetening us up?” I wondered.   

Stay safe and this Halloween, and wear a mask! 

The photo above is of the Bluemont Church after the fog had lifted, a bit.

My Mom

Today, we buried my mother. My father asked me to write this obituary for him and my mother a few years ago. This appeared in an edited version, but I am posting it at its full length.

Mom in the mid-1950s

On July 26, 1937, Barbara was born on a farm outside of Pinehurst, North Carolina to Pete and Gladys Faircloth. She grew up mostly in Moore County, except for a few years during World War II, when her family moved to Wilmington so that her father could work in the shipyards. While a student at Pinehurst High School, she was a cheerleader and began dating her future husband when they were both in the tenth grade. In 1955, she graduated from high school and later that summer, three days after she turned 18, she married Charles Albert Garrison. The couple would have four children, Charles Jeffrey (1957), Warren Albert (1958), Sharon Kay (1959) and David Thomas (1966). After having children, she no longer worked outside of the home, but occasionally kept children for others, which also provided her own children with additional playmates. Barbara was a devoted mother who was willing to sacrifice much for her children. Her strength was evident early on, when she maintained sanity throughout a summer in the early 1960s when her three children (all under the age of five) experienced mumps, measles, and chicken pox in a manner of months.

My mother, Barbara Jean Faircloth Garrison died on October 4, 2020.   She loved her husband Charles, all children, and cleanliness. She taught her children to respect all people, insisted they attend church even when on vacation, and to always travel with Lysol (and this was pre-COVID). She loved to laugh and had a huge heart that accepted everyone. She loved birds and flowers and all of God’s creation (with the sole exception of snakes). She leaves behind her husband of 65 years, four children, seven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren along with many nephews and nieces. Her parents and two sisters (Betty Ann and Clara) preceded her in death.

In 1963, the family moved to Petersburg, Virginia and in 1966, to Wilmington, North Carolina. Barbara would live most of the rest of her life in Wilmington. She loved the beach.  In the late 1970s, she joined her older children in college, but after a year put her studies on hold as she moved with her husband and younger son to Japan. Returning to Wilmington, she continued her studies and graduated with a social work degree from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in 1985. She worked in this field for a few years but quit when she realized it kept her from traveling with her husband for his work.  She and Charles again moved overseas in the late 1990s, to Korea, coming back to Wilmington to retire.  Her love for children was seen with her volunteer work while overseas. In Japan, she taught English in an orphanage, and while in Korea taught English to children at a program in Korean churches.  After her children left home, Barbara became more active volunteering at Cape Fear Presbyterian Church, where she served as a Deacon and as a leader of the Young-at-Hearts program.

In the summer of 2005, just before she and Charles celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Over the next few years, her memories began to fade. Her husband cared for her at home until 2014, when she moved into Autumn Care of Myrtle Grove.

The family would like to thank all the care givers who tended to Barbara’s care during the last years of her life.  A private graveside memorial service will be held at Oleander Memorial Gardens, officiated by the Rev. Jonathan Watson, Pastor of Cape Fear Presbyterian Church.