Catching up and two book reviews

Montreat

Enjoying refreshments along the river

I’ve been on vacation this past week, which is why I didn’t post a sermon on Sunday. Instead, I spent five days at Montreat, a Presbyterian conference and retreat center in the mountains of North Carolina. While there, I caught up with an old friend from the time when we both lived in Hickory, NC in the early/mid 1980s. I haven’t seen Bill since the late 80s. Back in the day, we did several backpacking trips together as well as some water skiing. Oddly, as we’re both big paddlers, I don’t remember but paddling together but once before, on the Henry River. 

a delightful rapid on the Tuckaseegee

Bill now lives north of Asheville, and we sent the day paddling the Tuckaseegee River near Dillsboro, NC. It was a delightful river with numerous class 1 and 2 rapids. I haven’t paddled any white water in a canoe in probably 20 years. Most of my paddling lately hasn’t been white water, and is generally in a kayak. But it was fun to be in a tandem canoe. I also got to meet a friend of Bill’s who lives on the river, Bob Lantz, who was a co-inventor the Blue Hole canoe, a white-water boat that was popular back in the 70s and 80s. Bob has a cabin on the river and we enjoyed a beer while talking to him out on his porch. 

from the Graybeard Trail

In addition to enjoying some down time and a few lectures and seminars, I hiked to Lookout Point and the Graybeard Trail (the latter seems rather personal). Getting a late start on the Graybeard Trail, I got back into Montreat after dark! But it was a good hike and while I didn’t see any rattlesnakes, two different groups on the trail told me of their encounters. As the sightings were at different places, they would have been different snakes, but none wanted to show their faces to me. 

The Assembly Inn (where I stayed) from Lookout Mountain

Natural Tunnel State Park

Tracks through the Natural Tunnel

This weekend, after getting back from Montreat, we went over to Natural Tunnel State Park in the far western part of Virginia. This natural tunnel is over 800 feet long and since the late 1880s, has included railroad tracks. The track is now owned by Norfolk and Western. I was hoping to get a photo of a train coming through the tunnel, but there was only one that passed through while there, and I wasn’t anywhere near the tunnel. The area has some nice hiking, too. 

I have a bunch of books to review on philosophy, poetry, history, and fiction… I’ll get to them in later posts. Here are two reviews. The second one perhaps prepared me for hiking the last leg of the Graybeard Trail in the dark. 🙂

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

 (2016, HarpersCollins Paperback, 2017), 230 pages including notes and scripture references. 

What does it mean to have faith? Peter Enns makes the case that our faith is grounded in trust in God. And this God is greater than we can imagine. However, too many people (and the author had been one of them) equates faith with correct thinking and right beliefs. We often are concerned with “getting the Bible right,” (it’s the Protestant DNA). We think when we fully understand the scriptures, we will find an answer to all our problems. Enns challenges such thinking.  

In this book, Enns encourages the reader to explore the scriptures as he shows that faith and belief isn’t about correct thinking of God. It’s about trusting a God who draws us closer. After all, as he points out, believing in God is easy. Even demons believe. Our faith isn’t about what we know, it’s about who we know.

Enns draws continually on the Bible to make his point. While he uses the whole of scripture, he pays special attention to parts often overlooked such as the Psalms of Lament and the Ecclesiastes. We grow in our ability to trust God not when things go well, but when things go wrong. Quoting Samuel Rutherford, “grace grows best in winter.” (71)

While many Christians may disagree with parts of this book, Enns’s thesis need to be heard. For skeptics and for those who have struggled with holding a “correct belief” in God, his words offer hope and a new way to engage the God of scripture. This book is easy to read. I encourage others to check it out.

Quotes from The Sin of Certainty:

“A faith that promises to provide firm answers and relieve our doubt is a faith that will not hold up to the challenges and tragedies of life. Only deep trust can hold up.” (120)

“Wanting clarity is seeking some sort of control….”  Darkness takes away control…”. “if anyone tells you Christianity is a crutch, you should take one of those crutches and beat him over the head with it (in Christian love, of course, making sure to tell them you will be praying for a quick recovery).” (170)

“When faith has no room for the benefit of doubt, then we are just left with religion, something that takes its place in our lives along with other things—like a job and a hobby…. Doubt is God’s way of helping us not go there, thought the road may be very hard and long.” (172)

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

 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 199 pages including notes and study questions. 

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen. 
 -“The Compline,” from the Book of Common Prayer 

My review:

The Compline is a prayer that is offered as night falls. Darkness is a metaphor for evil. Bad things can happen at night. We don’t know what lurks in the shadows. Yet, according to Genesis, God also created darkness even though in Scripture, we’re promised that in the end, “night will be no more.” 

Warren begins her book with a tale of tragedy, the night she experienced a miscarriage. During this troubling time, she found comfort in praying The Compline. 

In this book, she carefully exegetes each line in the prayer. She draws from Scripture, especially the Psalms, as well as a host of other sources. She quotes theologians, authors, philosophers, even those who are critical of the faith. In addition to writing about trusting God, she also expounds upon various aspects of theology, from death to bodies, to work and our dependence on others as well as God. 

I found this book a delight and recommend it to those who want to deepen their prayer life. 

Quotes from Prayer in the Night:

“Faith, I’ve come to believe, is more craft than feeling. And prayer is our chief practice in the craft.” (8)

“Grace is the first and last word of the Christian life, and all of us are desperately in need of mercy and are deeply loved.” (8)

“Compline speaks to God in the dark. And that’s what I had to learn to do—to pray in the darkness of anxiety and vulnerability, in doubt and disillusionment. It was Compline that gave words to my anxiety and grief and allowed me to reencounter the doctrines of the church not as tidy little antidotes for pain, but as a light in darkness, as good news.” (19)

“Mysteriously, God does not take away our vulnerability. He enters into it.” (29)

“The Christian story proclaims that our ultimate hope doesn’t lie in our lifetime, in making life work for us on this side of the grave. We watch and wait for ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life to come.” (57)

“Just as our pupils dilate to let in more light, to see more than we first thought we could, prayer adjusts our eyes to see God in the darkness.” (61)

“God is not a masochist who delights in our pain or weakness, but a cultivator whose grace is found even in the burn unit… I can believe that God is good because God himself chose a way of suffering that none of us would have every choose—and he walked this way in a human body, as a creature of dust.” (99)

“To be a Christian is to sit, however uncomfortably, in mystery, in something we can never quite nail down or name.”  (111)

“We weep because we can lament to one who cares about our sorrow. We watch because we believe that Love will not abandon us. We work because God is restoring the world in love. We can sleep because God governs the cosmos out of love. Every sickness can be transformed by love. When we’re weary, we are given rest because we are loved. Love meets us even in death, bearing blessing…” (165)

We don’t pray to convince God to see our needs. He asks us to pray, to tell him what we most long for, because he loves us deeply and devastatingly.” (166)

“In the end, darkness is not explained; it is defeated. Night is not justified or solved; it is endured until light overcomes it and it is no more.” 

Additional Reading Suggestions:


Last Summer, I posted a review of two other books that deal with darkness. Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, is another religious look at darkness. Chet Raymo’s The Soul of Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage was one of the best books I read last year. While Raymo is writing more from a scientific point-of-view, his writings convey a sense of awe and mystery, which is where science and religion go together. Click here to read my reviews on these two books. 

Matt, Virginia City, 1988

That’s me, standing before the church built in 1866-7

Recently I have posted memoir pieces of my years in seminary:

I took the school year 1988-89 off in order to be a student pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Virginia City, Nevada. Over the years since, I devoted much time researching and writing the history of that congregation on the Comstock Lode. This is a short memoir piece of my time there.

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“Matt, why do you want to join this church?” I asked as I slipped tea. 

We had just finished eating and were sitting on the floor on mats, like Jesus and the disciples at the last supper. A low table stood between us. On it was a Chinese hot pot, a ceramic teapot, a bowl of rice, plates, cups, and chop sticks. It had been an interesting meal. Matt told me he once had a Chinese girlfriend who taught him how to cook. I wondered if she used frozen vegetables. There was no crunch to the vegetables in the stir fry. The dish was soggy. It wasn’t terrible, just not very appealing. I kept my thoughts to myself. I was curious as to his interest in joining a church that was a 30 minute drive away. 

Matt had been waiting for the question. He pulled a Bible off a bookcase behind him. I took the Bible to be a good sign. Then he opened it and read a passage from 24th Chapter of Matthew’s gospel, about stars falling from the sky. Now I wasn’t so sure the Bible was a good sign. I had no idea where this was going. Setting the Good Book down on the table, Matt began telling me how the earth was going to soon shift on its axis. This would make it appear as if the stars are falling from the heavens.

My mind was spinning. This was not anything I had been taught in seminary. When he paused to catch his breath, I asked, “What does this have to do with you joining our church?” 

“I’ll get there,” he assured me.

I poured myself another cup of tea as Matt continued his discourse. 

Taylor St., looking down toward C St

“You know, the Carson Valley used to be under the ocean. There are places you can find shells embedded in rock.” He pulled a fossilized rock from his bookcase to show me.

“Yeah, it may have once been under the sea,” I quipped, “but that was a few years before our time.” 

“It’s going to happen again,” he said. 

“What’s going to happen?”

“This is going to be the ocean again.”

Matt went on explain how, when the earth shifts 15 degrees on its axis, the sea would rise. The coastlines would be wiped out with tsunamis. The valley would fill with water.  

As he continued on with his monologue, I looked out the window. The Sierras were silhouetted by the setting sun. Looking at those magnificent mountains while listening to Matt ramble on, I visualized what he was saying. It could have been a scene from a bad horror movie. A large tidal wave, at least nine thousand feet high, breaking over the top of those peaks. The thought of it was ludicrous. I had to bite my bottom lip to keep from laughing. But then, I understood.

“I get it! You’re telling me that you want to join our church because Virginia City is soon going to be an island amidst a vast inland sea.” 

“Yes,” he said, smiling as if he had finally broken through. “Carson City will be under a thousand feet of water.” He started giving me the layout of areas of the country that would be above water or below it.  It didn’t seem to make sense that places like Carson City, at an elevation of 4000 feet would be below water and other places a lot lower would remain dry, but none of this made sense.  

Yet, in a smug way, I was glad to know I’d be safe in Virginia City. Come summer, I could sun myself out by the mine tailings, as waves lapped at my feet. There might be still a few nice days this fall. Would I have time to pick up some sunscreen on my way home, I thought to myself, in case I don’t make it back to Carson City before the flood. I began to make a mental list of things I’d need: a lounge chair, beer, flip-flops, some more beer…  

I had to force myself to focus back on what Matt was telling me. 

“Where did you get all these ideas?” I asked.

“The Bible.”

“Really?” 

“Mostly, but also Nostradamus and from talking to a friend.” 

I didn’t want to meet this friend.

Next, he pulled a book of Nostradamus from the shelf behind him, turned to a marked page and handed it to me to read. Whoever thought Revelation was hard to understand had obviously not read Nostradamus.

Unable to make any sense out of what Matt was saying, my mind began to drift into survival mood. I needed a strategy to escape from this apartment. I wanted to be back in the real world. Into what time warp had I moved? I’ve yet to been in Nevada a month and discovered it to be a state where people think it’s a good idea to put rabid bat in a pitcher of beer and then drink it. And there was the woman at K-Mart who believes Ronald Reagan is the Antichrist. According to the news, the bubonic plague is making a comeback.  And now there are those (or at least two of them), who think the earth is going to tilt in a new direction. 

Matt had first worshipped with us the previous Sunday. He came into church a little late. My first impression was that he’s middle-aged, a little overweigh, a little disheveled, but a nice guy. After worship, when all were enjoying coffee and catching up with one another, Matt stayed back from the crowd. I went over to introduce myself. He told me his name and said he wanted to join the church. It seemed a little strange, this being a small church, to learn he wanted to join the fellowship in the same breath that I learned his name.

“Great,” I said, “let’s get some coffee and meet some people.” I introduced him to several members. He was polite, but standoffish and appeared uncomfortable. It was when I suggested we get together and talk about the church membership that he invited me to dinner

Matt was a special case. But then, Virginia City had plenty of special cases. He did join the church, although he never moved to town. Nor did the impending flood occur. Everyone in the congregation thought his ideas were a little weird, but welcomed him. For the rest of my time on the Comstock, Matt taught me an important lesson: “there are those who need the church more than the church needs them.”  

Combination Mine Shaft overlooking Virginia City, Summer 2008

The Great Seminary Hoax of 1986

Two weeks ago, in a sermon, I told about the “duck parties” held at seminary. Today, I am posting a story about some nonsense that occurred during my first term at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Other recent posts include memories of Professor von Waldow and Dean Mauser and his secretary. Good memories.

Ken

My only experience in dorm-living was my first year in seminary. I boarded on the third floor of Fisher Hall. I stayed in the dorm to save expenses as I still had a house and mortgage payments when I left for seminary (I sold the house soon afterwards).

Across from my room was Ken, a student from Japan. A language whiz, Ken spoke several Slavic languages but needed work on his English. We did our best to help, but who among us will forget the day he asked a visiting professor from Prague a question. Unable to get his question across in English, he switched to Russia or Czech or something strange and the professor answered him in an equally strange tongue. The rest of us sat around witnessing a firsthand example of glossolalia. 

The view behind the seminary from 3rd Floor Fisher, January 1987
Keith

Down the hall, to the north, was Keith. A United Methodist student, Keith also managed the school’s hockey rink. When not in use, the hockey rink served as the hallway for third floor Fisher.  Being from the South, hockey was something new to me and I did my best to avoid the games.

Jim

In the room next to mine, to the south, was Jim. Unfortunately, he dropped out before the two of us could finish what would have been a best seller: “A Theological Drinking Guide to Pittsburgh.” Having been used to living in a house, and with nightly hockey matches going on outside my door, getting out to the local bars around Pittsburgh (many within walking distance) was an escape and a way to maintain sanity.

There were many others on the floor, but the four of us played a prominent role in the “perfect storm” that just about got me booted back to the piney woods of North Carolina. 

The room to my north, between mine and Keith’s, was empty. Keith read an article on Christian sexuality written by Rodney Clapp. Being a careful reader, what caught Keith’s attention was the author’s name. It seemed fitting a man whose last name was slang for a venereal disease would write on sexuality. Keith decided Clapp needed to be a classmate. He made up a nameplate for the empty room. “That’s Clapp’s room,” we’d tell people, he’s an esteemed alumnus from Pittsburgh and maintains a room here. A week or so later, Clapp’s pretend presence on campus took a strange twist. 

Ken, who’d just arrived in American, became fascinated with a certain group of American newspapers generally found in the check-out lines at the supermarket. He read these papers religiously, trying to improve his English and learn about this strange country in which he was living. One day, at the local Giant Eagle Supermarket, he picked up a copy of the National Enquirer, or maybe one of the other tabloids. The lead article featured the story of an unnamed hell-fire preacher who spontaneously combusted in the pulpit. After his particularly fiery sermon, all that was left was ashes. It must be true. It was in print. Such an event should have certainly been studied in homiletics, but I don’t recall it being mentioned.

As no one had seen Clapp recently, it was logically assumed he was the unnamed preacher. Ken posted the article on Clapp’s door. Over the next week, letters from all around the world started appearing, in different languages, offering condolences to Rodney’s family and friends. Clapp’s deeds and misdeeds were recalled. 

Around this time, for reasons I still don’t understand, had chapel duty. Normally first-year students were exempt, but for some reason I said I’d do it. I thought daily chapel would be the perfect setting for a “Rodney Clapp Memorial Service.” Somehow, word got out to the powers-that-be what was being planning. Dr. Oman, the homiletics professor, called me into his office and informed me there would be no faux funeral in chapel.

Disappointed at being unable to involve the entire community, we planned our own funeral. Although not a Protestant tradition, we included a wake. We could be ecumenical if it meant a good party. On December 2, 1986, after an evening of basketball (after all, we did have our priorities), a crowd of us gathered in the Fisher lounge for Clapp’s wake and funeral. In the center of the room, laid out like a casket, was the door from Clapp’s room. It was covered with letters of condolences and tokens of our love and adoration for him. Sitting on the top of the door was a plastic container holding some ashes someone obtained.

We gathered around Clapp’s remains and said our goodbyes. We read scripture. Chosen passages alluded to fire. Nonsensical tales about our experiences with Clapp were shared. Taking great liberty with the funeral liturgy, we replaced hymns with more appropriate music such as the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” Afterwards, as Clapp’s ashes floated out the window and across the lawn, we had a final toast. 

Mourners paying respect at Clapp’s Memorial Service, Dec. 2, 1986


With the funeral out of my way, I still had to do my duty in chapel. A day or two later I stood before the crowd of students and professors and delivered one of those boring first year seminary student sermons. The best part of it were a few lines of poetry I quoted from John Beecher, whom I felt deserved an introduction.  

The service was dreadfully serious until I was about halfway through my message. Before the service, Jim came into the chapel and took two fire extinguishers off the walls by the doors. Unbeknownst to everyone, he placed the extinguishers on the chancel, one on each side of the pulpit. As I was trying to make a serious point which I’m sure expressed some eternal consequence, someone in the row of students from Fisher Hall noticed the fire extinguishers. He began to laugh while pointing it out to the person next to him. Slowly, like a wave moving across the chapel, each student poked the guy next to him and pointed to the fire extinguishers. The laughter spread. Soon, among a crowd of somber Presbyterians, one pew laughed hysterically. I smirked, bit my tongue, and looked down at my notes. I knew if I looked out upon the gathered congregation, all would be lost. 

I’m sure most of those in chapel that day, unaware of the joke that had been building for a month, felt those of us from Fisher Hall were downright rude. And they were right. 

I’m not sure who I was trying to impress in a suit. I’m on the left with three classmates (Roger, Vivian, and Doug) as we prepared to head back to Pittsburgh from the 1988 General Assembly in St. Louis. The rest were dressed causal for the trip. This may be the last photo of me without a beard. I grew one in the summer of 1987, but shaved it off early in the fall. After this meeting, I headed West for an intern year and grew my beard back. I haven’t been clean shaven since. As for my hair, well, I’m not sure what happen.

The garden, summer projects, & the killing of al Qaeda

Below I am reposting something I wrote in early May 2011, upon learning the death of Osama Bin Laden. At the time, I posted it on Facebook and in a church newsletter. Facebook discontinued showing posted “notes,” so I am posting it here. After the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s successor this week in Kabul, along with the carnage in Ukraine, it seems we need to be reminded again of the value of life and the tragedy of a life lived in hatred and evil. But before we go there, let me tell you about my garden. It is a more pleasant topic.

The Garden

The garden coming along nicely. Over the past week, I have enjoyed daily tomato sandwiches. The tomatoes are just beginning to come in. I grew 7 varieties from seeds and have 21 plants. Most of the tomatoes will be canned or frozen for sauce, soup and salsa.

The cucumbers are fantastic (I have 5 varieties), but they are beginning to fade out. So far, I have put up 8 quarts of lime pickles (and have another 8 quarts soaking as I write), along with 6 quarts of sweet salad cube pickles. Last summer, I was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when the bulk of cucumbers came in and only put up one batch of pickles. I shouldn’t have to buy any this year!

In the middle of the garden (The hay is way too high and too brown, but we’ve had so much rain the farmer who cuts it just finished it this week)

I have eaten plenty of summer squash (yellow and zucchini) and have given a few away and some have ended up being recycled in my compost bin. Swiss chard is also doing well. The lettuce I finally turned over and will replant later this month.

This year, I am also growing winter squash and it appears the harvest of butternut squash will be incredible. There is no better soup than butternut squash soup, in my opinion. Acorn squash is also good to bake. Both tend to hold better than the summer squash. If you don’t eat the yellow squash in a few days, it goes soft.

My other summer project: The basement

bathroom tile

In addition to my garden, I have been working in the basement. Last week I finally finished tiling the bathroom. Next week I hope to get in the tub and toilet and be done with the bathroom A lot of the remaining work is finishing up with door trim and painting and putting in baseboard moulding. What have you been up to this summer?

The Death of Bin Laden

As an American, I went to bed happy last night after learning of the death of Osama Bin Laden. The man was capable of great evil and brought much suffering into the world. Yet I felt a tinge of guilt at the jubilation I and others were feeling. I spent much of the past 18 hours wondering about what an appropriate Christian response to Bin Laden’s death should be. How should those of us who follow the man from Galilee, who teaches us to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors, handle the death of an enemy who has been responsible for so much evil in the world? Should we rally and jump for joy, or should we be more subdued and ponder the deeper mysteries of life and death? I think the latter is more appropriate.

In the Book of Proverbs, we’re advised not to gloat over the demise of our enemies. Such behavior is not pleasing to our God (Proverbs 24:17-18). King David had an opportunity to gloat over the death of his enemy, King Saul, whose death opened the way for David to assume the throne. But David grieved for Saul and his sons (2 Samuel 1). Death should always remind us of our humanity. Although God has created us with remarkable abilities, we are not God, and once life is gone, we cannot restore it. At the time of death, we should be humbled. Bin Laden was obviously endowed by his Creator with great talents which could have been used in ways to have alleviated suffering in the world. Instead of using his talents in such a manner, Bin Laden used his talents to build a network of hate and evil. We should grieve over a life wasted and which caused such much pain. But we should also remember that Bin Laden, although an evil man, is not the author of evil. Just because he is dead doesn’t mean that the world is going to suddenly become a harmonious place. Evil is still present. We will still face temptations and, until this age ends, we will deal with evil people. And although few of us are capable of the evil of a man like Bin Laden, none of us are completely sinless. 

At a time such as this, we should humble ourselves before God and one another, confessing our own sins and the sins of the human race. We should thank God for those who were brave enough to carry out this mission, but we should not celebrate over their accomplishment. Instead, we should continue to pray, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer, for God’s will to be done and God’s kingdom to come. And finally, we should challenge evil, not just with the sword, but with acts of charity and kindness, demonstrating the grace that our Savior has shown us.       

–Jeff Garrison
May 4, 2011

Heading to Iona

In 2017, I spent a week in a Christian community on Iona, an island in the Scottish Inner-Hebrides. This is a description of my journey to the Island. It’s an all day trip from Edinburgh, where I’d stayed with friends. I had hope to lead a group to Iona afterwards, but the next summer, the Abbey was closed for renovation. In 2019, it was only partly open, then along came COVID! This is an edited post that I am migrating over from another blog.

Leaving Edinburgh 
With Ewan, on Arthur’s Throne

After a quick breakfast of porridge with Ewan, we head to the train station. I thank him for his hospitality and walk down the ramp to board the waiting 7:15 AM train for Glasgow. This is the first of my multiple leg journey to the Isle of Iona. Minutes later, the train rolls through the countryside, stopping every so often at a station where an automatize voice of a woman encourages folks to “Please mind the gap when alighting this train.” As it’s Saturday, the train has few passengers. The conductor stops and talks, telling me where the best to get coffee in the Glasgow Station (which he recommends over the coffee they serve on the train). I ask him where I can find a bank machine (they don’t call them ATMs over here) and we talk about the West Highland Line which I’ll be taking to Oban.

In Glasgow: banking troubles
Trains leaving Edinburgh station

I only have fifteen minutes in Glasgow. I grab coffee and then head to the bank machine. My card is denied. I try again. It’s denied again. The call for the boarding the 8:21 train north. The next train is two hours later, and I don’t want to wait. I have some cash on me, maybe 50 pounds, but know that once I get to Iona, I will need cash. I’ve been told most places won’t take plastic and there are no bank machines. Thankfully, I’ve prepaid for the week. At least I will have a place to stay and can eat.

The train pulls out of Queen Street Station and soon we’re leaving the city behind as we race along the north bank of the Clyde River. I try to reach my bank by cell phone. This isn’t a local back, it’s a rather large regional Midwestern bank, but even their call center has “banker hours.” Its 3 AM back in Ohio. I hope to have time to get things straightened out during my short layover in Oban. I want to kick myself for not calling them before leaving the country, but I try to put the worry behind me. There is nothing I can do at this time. I look out the window. It’s rainy and gloomy.   

Heading north

At Dulmuir, a group of young women board. They’re loud and keep jumping back and forth from seats. I offer to trade with the one of them who sits across the aisle with a couple from Glasgow, so they could all be together. Furthermore, I can be on the side of the train with the water. The train is now moving northwest, running alongside Gare Loch and Loch Long, both saltwater lochs open out into the Firth of Clyde. The couple tell me there’s a naval base along here for submarines. 

Their son has spent his life at sea, mostly as an officer on merchant vessels. The woman tells me about his ship being at Newark, New Jersey on that fateful day in 2001. As it was mid-day in Scotland, he called to talk and was on the phone when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. He has since given up traveling the world and today is a captain of a buoy and lighthouse tender. His ship is in Oban for the day, so they’re taking the train up to have lunch with him.

The train leaves Loch Long and passes over a short bit of land before coming into Talbert, on Lock Lomond, one of the more famous lochs in Scotland. We run alongside the loch for ten or so miles before climbing into the hills north of the loch. 

At Crianlarich, which appears to be just a train station in the woods, the train splits. They had informed us in Glasgow to sit in the front two coaches. We’re now bound for Oban. The last four coaches head for Fort Williams and Mallaig (a line I plan to ride next Friday). After a few minutes, we’re riding through the woods. After Dalmally, we come alongside Loch Awe (what a wonderful name). In the middle of the lock are the ruins of a castle. We are heading west now, and soon pick up Loch Etive, which is open to the sea.  I’ve recently read that the furthest you can get from the sea in Britain is sixty-five miles and looking how these saltwater lochs reach so far inland, I understand how that’s probably the case.

Still worrying about my bank card as we head into Oban

My worry over my bank card has bothered me all morning. Then it dawns on me that I have another bank card on me. While it’s a bank I don’t use as often, generally it is just to hold cash, it’s local and a few days before I left, I had made a deposit. Doing so, I told the teller of my plans for travel out of the country. She assured me she’d make a note on my account so I wouldn’t have a problem. I’m more than a little relieved as I’m not sure I’ll have time to contact the other bank when in Oban.  

Buoy Tender at Oban

After Connel, the train turned south and we’re soon in Oban, an old town built around a harbor. It claims to be the seafood capital of the world. The couple point out their son’s ship, docked just behind the ferry terminal. I bid them farewell and wish them a wonderful lunch and walk out of the train station looking for a bank.  It all falls in place. There’s a Bank of Scotland with an ATM just across the street from the train station. On the other side is the ferry terminal. I have nearly an hour before it leaves. I withdraw 200 pounds from the bank, then walk across the street and buy lunch from a vendor (a tuna and cucumber sandwich and an apple). 

Ferry to Mull

Taking the lunch with me, I board the ferry for a fifty-minute trip to Craignure on the Isle of Mull. With spendable cash in my wallet (my American dollars aren’t much good), I’m at ease. I find a place to sit on the upper deck. I’m sheltered from the weather, but am outside. I sit down and enjoy my sandwich as the boat pulls away from the port and makes its way through the harbor.

The harbor has several sailboats moored, as another makes its way into the safety behind the break wall as we push off from the pier. The day is stormy, and I wear a rain jacket. The entrance to the harbor is rather narrow. The ship slows to let a small passenger ship (or a large yacht) make its way into the safety of the harbor. As we go outside, the waters are rougher. I can’t imagine sailing in such waters in the small boat as had just made for the harbor. 

Thoughts on Iona
Cross in front of Iona Abbey

As we leave the mainland, I think about my destination. I’ve wanted to visit Iona for a long time and now can achieve this goal. Iona has been a destination for pilgrims and the curious for nearly 1500 years. In 563, an Irish abbot named Columba and a group of twelve disciples (sound familiar) land on Iona, where they set up a religious community. At this time, sea travel was easier than traveling overland on non-existent roads, and the small island becomes a center of faith and learning that extends throughout the British and Irish mainland and the islands that surrounded them. The Book of Kell’s was supposedly produced here, and some think the practice of carving large stone crosses which are prominent in Ireland and on some of the Scottish Islands, also began on Iona. The community thrived until the 10th Century when Viking raiders began to pillage the islands. Although a few monks continued to live on the island, the center of learning was moved to Ireland where it was safer from these raids. 

In the 12th Century, after the Viking threat had waned, the island began a new period of importance as a Benedictine monastery was founded on the site of Columba’s monastery. About the same time, an Augustine nunnery was also founded on the island. These two continued until the Scottish Reformation in 1560. Afterwards, the site slowly began to crumble, but became a place for artists and authors to visit (a who’s who of British literature in the 18th and 19 century made journeys to Iona). Eventually, the site became property to the Duke of Argyll, who allowed it to be used as a place of worship for all denominations (Church of Scotland/Presbyterian, Roman Catholics, and the Scottish Episcopal Church). In the late 19th Century, he turned the site over to a Trust who worked to restore the ruins. In the 1930s, a new Iona Community emerged and continues to this day.

Crossing to the Isle of Mull
Rough Waters

Approaching Mull, at Craignure, we pass the ruins of the Durant Castle. This country feels old. Soon, we pull up to the pier and those who have cars below are asked to go below and prepare to disembark. Along with maybe a hundred or so others, I disembark down the gangway to a line of buses. I find the bus for Iona and stow my backpack in the luggage compartment and pay the 15 pounds (round trip as I’ll be returning this way next Friday) and take a seat in the back.

It’s nearly fifty wet miles across Mull, mostly on one lane roads (with turnouts so that vehicles can pass one another). The bus runs across Glen More in the center of Mull, and then drops down to the Ross of Mull, where we run along Loch Scridain. The driver is a bit of a maniac, gunning the engine where there is nothing ahead and at times stomping on the brakes in time to pull into a passing place.  It’s still raining but the countryside is beautiful, with lots of rocky hills, plenty of wildflowers, fields covered with ferns, and interesting varieties of cows and sheep. The distant hills and mountains are shrouded with fog. After nearly an hour, we pull into the small town of Fionnphort, where we unload.

Ferry to Iona

Everyone on the bus is headed to Iona, with most spending a week as a part of the Iona Community. I began to introduce myself to folks who have been on the same train and ferries going back to Glasgow. We all stand at the ferry terminal, with our packs and suitcases beside us, watching the ferry bounce around in the water as it makes its way across. Iona is easily seen in the distance. This ferry is a lot smaller than the other one. There are just two cars going across (a special permit is required to take an automobile to this island that’s only 5 miles long). Most of us are on foot. We board and I find a sheltered place up top, where I can watch the island approach.  

On Iona
Abbey on Iona

The Iona Abbey is easy to spot. Soon, I’m on the last leg of my journey, a fifteen-minute ride across the Sound of Iona, in which I gain my sea legs. The ferry pitches and rolls and struggles to dock against a strong wind and tide.  Once we arrive, we time as we get off the ferry, so that we avoid splashing our feet in the water. There are vehicles waiting to take our luggage, while it’s up to us to walk the third of a mile to the Abbey and the MacLeod Center (I’m staying in the later). 

At the McLeod Center, I find my bunk and unpack. It’s an hour before dinner, so I lay down and watch through the window the grass blow in the wet wind. I love the sound of the wind, and soon am napping to its calming presence.    

Worship in the Abbey

Dinner is simple but delicious: carrot and turnip soup, good chewy bread, raw vegetables, fruit, and desert with coffee. Afterwards, we spend a few minutes getting to know everyone, learning our duties for the week (I’m to help at breakfast and will chop vegetables for the lunch and evening meals). At 7:30 PM, we walk in the rain down to the Abbey for the welcoming worship service. Lighted with candles, the sanctuary is beautiful. It’s still light after the service. This far north it will be for several more hours. I’ve been up a long time. Tired, I go to bed early. 

Catching Up on my Reading

Today, I’m just trying to catch up on some books I’ve read over the past few weeks… If one doesn’t interest you, you can skip it and move on to the others.

Andy Stanley, Not in It to Win It: Why Choosing Sides Sidelines the Church 

Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022), 231 pages. 

This is a book that needs to be read. And there should be no excuses. Stanley is a master communicator. He’s easy to read. Unlike many books I read, I didn’t have to look up a single word. But his message and the warning for the church is clear. The evangelical church, of which he’s a part, has sold out Jesus and are more interested in winning politically than following Jesus. And because of this, they have lost the message of love and grace. 

Stanley grew up Southern Baptist. His father is Charles Stanley, one of the best-known preachers in the South Baptist denomination. In 1995, Andy Stanley started “North Point Ministries,” a large multi-campus church in Atlanta. He acknowledges that many of his members probably disagree with him. He refuses to endorse political candidates and even challenges the militaristic metaphors often used in church. We may sing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” but Jesus did the opposite as he laid down his life for us. 

Not everyone is going to like what he has to say in this book. In the summer of 2020, his church decided to stay closed because of COVID. Many people accused him of selling out. However, Stanley saw it as loving and caring for one another, especially the most vulnerable. His decision to keep the church virtual through 2020 caught the attention of CNN. They interviewed him, which upset others. After all, CNN was not their network of choice.  Stanley defends his action by reflecting on what Jesus did and suggesting that if CNN was “the enemy,” that was even more reason to accept the invitation to talk to them. 

While Stanley stays mostly neutral on political themes, he challenges some political events like like the Jericho March (A group of pro-Trump supporters who marched on state houses and on January 6, the Capitol in a belief that Trump really won the election). He also points out that using hateful speech toward those whose lifestyle we disagree with or those of different political views from ours as an expression of our faith have gotten Jesus’ message wrong. While he acknowledges that this happens on both side of the political aisle, he appears to come down harder on those who are more like him, on the conservative spectrum. 

Stanley makes the point that we are to follow Jesus. This means we can’t just believe. Jesus calls us to action, which is based on love for everyone, not just those like us. While he encourages his followers to participate in the political realm, he doesn’t come out to say they should vote in a particular manner. 

Recommendations

The one place within Stanley’s thoughts that bothered me is that he seems to have “moved on” completely from the Old Testament. He joked at one point about one sermon he gave from the Old Testament, but it seems to me he draws his theology exclusively from the New Testament. His emphasis on actionable items may sound like works too many. I think we live in a tension that is found with the two testaments and between law and gospel. However, I wouldn’t let this discourage anyone from reading this book. Stanley challenges us to reconsider how the church handles politics. It is a challenge worth taking. 

Quotes:

“You can’t make disciples of people you demonize publicly, and label as enemies of the faith or the state.” (27-28)

“One of the many things I appreciate about Jesus is that he was never concerned about guilt by association. If he had been, he would have stayed in heaven. He would have certainly refused to associate with me.” (37)

“When we reimagine Jesus to fit our partisan agendas, we rob the world of the message that changed the world… We cancel the message that canceled our sin.” (58)

On there being no difference between believing and non-believe party members: “You rarely hear Republicans or Democrats who consider themselves Jesus followers make or draw that distinction. But it would be easy to do if national leaders were more committed to their faith than their political party.” (85)

“We are not at war with the culture. Culture-war Christianity is not simply a waste of time, it is diametrically opposed to the teaching of Paul and the example of Jesus.” (129)

“The path of least resistance is always to complain about everything and do nothing about anything.” (203)

Rick Bass, Why I Came West: A Memoir

(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 238 pages. 

Rich Bass is writer who lives in Montana’s Yaak Valley. However, he grew up around Houston, Texas. He attended college at Utah State in Logan, where he lives in the “Gentile Sandwich, a floor within the dorm for non-Mormon students. The floors above and below were all filled with members of the LDS Church. Afterwards, he worked in the oil exploration business in Mississippi, before heading back west. He found his home in the Yaak Valley and had lived there at the time he was writing the book for 21 years. 

Bass refers to this book as a memoir. While I agree there are memoir-like parts to the book, especially the first part, much of the book seems more a series of essays around creating designated wilderness areas in Bass’ backyard. 

I am drawn to and comforted by Bass’ paradox. He is an environmentalist that hunts (he stocks away the meat from an elk and a deer and some birds). He is amused at how those who read or hear him speak are shocked by this. Bass also uses a chainsaw and believes that we can’t stop cutting trees. He is for more responsible land use and is comfortable with what many as a paradox. 

Bass also shares how he has been attacked by those who see wilderness as a threat. Sometimes the attacks are frightening, but often they are only emotionally hurtful. Yet, despite this, he continues to save the remaining wild parts of the world in his neighborhood. 

Favorite and humorous sections

My favorite chapters (or essays) in the book are “Landscape and Imagination” and “The Poison of Language. In the first, Bass draws on how the duality and tension within landscape gives birth to narrative. Bass, writing as an environmentalist, like George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” points out how language is often abused to sell us stuff. It can be a product, a land management practice, or a political idea. However, language also holds the power to enchant us and encourage us to protect our wild spaces.

The most humorous essay are his bear spray stories. Reading them, I began to wonder if carrying bear spray is a little like arming yourself with a gun for protection. Statistically, the person you’re most likely to shoot is yourself. And Bass seems pretty good at ending up on the wrong end of pepper spray.  The funniest story was sneaking what he thought was his date’s breath freshener from her purse when she had gone to the bathroom.  A quick whiff of her self-defense device and he was no longer in the mood and she didn’t have anything to worry about that evening. 

I was drawn to this book because I had never read any of Bass’ books and felt I should get to know him. As one who has spent a dozen years in the American West, and who still finds it enchanting, the title also title drew me in. I recommend this book if you have such feelings for a particular place on earth.  Bass tells a good story. 

Quotes: 

“The West has never been anything but a colony of the extractive industries, feasting (with the benefits of full congressional subsidy) on the splendor of these public wildlands. But the extractive industries have been very shy in doing everything they can to promulgate this myth of the rugged and completely independent individual: enhancing the already existing wall that stands between the rural West and the rest of the outside world…” (45)

“What kind of environmentalist am I, really, to be still using petroleum and to still be using wood? Almost nothing, really, with regard to our huge presence in the world these days, is in the least bit sustainable. This certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do the best we can. I think what it does man is we shouldn’t be high and mighty, and should never forget the unaccountability of the awful and immense cost of the joyous gift of us being here—and again, while trying to do as little harm, or even as much good, int hose areas of our lives where we are most active and passionate, it may be perceived there is a sin or paradox here, to be desiring perfection and absolute sustainability even when it is not possible, and to likewise be advocating for the protection of pristine country even while seeking elsewhere to be more actively managed and manipulate the fringes of an ecosystem.”  (92-3)

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

(Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2021), 290 pages include indexes, bibliography, maps.

Our knowledge of the first few centuries of the Christian era is shrouded. While the book of Acts focuses on the early growth and mission of the church, it only follows one strand, the taking of the gospel to Rome. Other threads of mission that saw the church growth in Africa including Alexander, into Asia including India and China, and deeper into Europe remain a mystery. In this book, James Edwards attempts, where possible, to reconstruct the history of the early church during its first century.  

Each of the chapters within this book focuses on a movement. From rural to urban, Edwards looks at how the “Jesus movement” that began among rural Galilean peasants spread to urban areas while dying out in the place of its birth. Other chapters focus on books the physical movement from its first urban center, Jerusalem, to Rome and into Asia and Africa. Other chapters focus on a shift of language from Hebrew and Aramaic to Greek, from a Jewish to a Gentile movement, and a movement occurring through persecution. Much of the book focuses on the break from the Jewish tradition, as the emphasis moves from Torah to Kerygma, from the synagogue to the church, from a Jewish ethos to a Christian one, from an emphasis on the Passover to the Eucharist, from Sabbath (Saturday) to Sunday, and from a scroll to “codex” (or books). There are also chapters focusing internally on the church as it goes from a movement known as “the Way” to “Christian,” and as the leadership shifts from the Apostles to Bishops. 

A few interesting things I found in this vast study: 
  1. The split between those from those of the Jewish tradition and of the newer Christian tradition didn’t fully occur into the Jewish revolt in the 2nd Century. I always assumed the split came after the Jewish revolt of 66 AD. While the earlier revolt impacted the two traditions going separate ways, Edwards maintains it wasn’t until the later revolt that the split became permanent. 
  2. Pentecost was not the church’s beginning, as we often say and celebrate. Rather, it is the church’s equipping. 
  3. The synagogue became a place that followed Jews in comparison to the temple. The temple was a place where Jews travelled. Likewise, the church would forever “follow” believers rather than being a place to travel.  

This is a well-researched work. While Edwards draws heavily on both the Old and New Testament for understanding, he also draws from other primary sources. He explores the few early Christian works still available along with Jewish and pagan writers. I recommend it to those serious about early church history. It would make an excellent textbook for an advance class, perhaps in a seminary, on the topic of the early church. 

Quotes: 

“Eliminating evil does not result in a state of virtue; indeed, it may invite the return of greater evil.”  (166_

True martyrdom is not a single act at the end of life, however, but bearing witness to the gospel in daily life through ‘Patient endurance, imitating the ‘goodness of the Lord,’ and the example of the Lord himself.”  (166-7)

The early church did not speak of the Christian way in terms of ease and comfort, of low demands or no demands, but as a rigorous and demanding contest.” (167)

“That God divulges himself as God precisely in lowliness,’ concludes Eduard Schweizer, ‘means that his community must differentiate itself from the world by its willingness to take on lowliness.’” (198, this is Edward’s translation from German of Schwiezer, Gemeinde und Gemeindeodnung.)

“The Apostolic Fathers admonished readers not to allow the name ‘Christian’ to become a substitute for Christian behavior… ‘We should not be known as Christians, but really be Christians.’” The last is a quote from Ignatius in a letter to Magnesia (Western Turkey). (232)

Riding on the City of New Orleans

Over New Years Eve and early January 2005, I took a group of college students from First Presbyterian Church of Hastings, Michigan to New Orleans. We helped with the relief work after Katrina. The amount of damage from that hurricane still haunts me. This is a piece I pulled up from the past, that tells of our ride back to Michigan. Most of us took the train. Two other adults flew down and rented a large van for us to travel around. We stayed at St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church, which had survived the storm in relatively good shape. Through Project Rhino and the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, we had a foreman who drove a truck and pulled a tool trailer that had all the equipment we needed as we mucked out houses and stripped them of furniture, drywall and old insulation. After they dried out, another crew would come back and treat the studs for mold and then another group would drywall the homes and prepare them to again be habitable.

Also, 2005 was before I had a camera in my phone. I was still shooting film for the few shots I took. Sadly, I didn’t take any shots of Bo or his barbecue joint.

Everything ruined!

About ten minutes out of Greenwood, Mississippi, I finally have a cell signal. I call Bo’s Barbecue Bar and Grill and order half a dozen barbecue pork sandwiches and ribs. I’m not sure what to expect. I met Bo on the trip down. It was early in the morning and I was out on the platform taking a walk in the warm Southern air, while Amtrak s changed the crew. There, I met an old black man who talked about his barbecue joint and gave me his card in case I wanted something to eat on the way north. 

A week later, I’m back on the train, heading north. We’re running late and are told the stop will be as quick as possible to make up some time. When the train stops, I run to Bo’s bar. It’s a dive. A half a dozen patrons are drinking beer. 

“Hey Amtrak,” one calls, “you’re going to Chicago, why the ‘Stiller cap? (I’m wearing a Pittsburgh Steeler cap). 

One night we went down to the French Quarter. I’m wearing my “Stiller” hat

I’m the only white boy in the place. Bo calls me back to the kitchen. He takes each rib, dips it in sauce, places a couple between white bread, wraps them in foil and places them in a bag. I grab the order, toss him some money, and run back to my car. I step back on the train as the whistle blows. We resume our northward journey. The ribs are heavenly and a big hit with everyone. It’s been a long time since that Shrimp Po Boy I had at lunch at Crabby Jacks.

Our eyes were opened on our last day in Na’Arlens. After five hard days of work, mucking out homes and pulling down drywall and hauling unsalvageable stuff (which was most everything) to the street, we have a tour of the worst of the city. We’re taken down into the ninth ward, to the place where the levee broke allowing a barge to sail into the neighborhood. They’re still searching houses for bodies here and nothing we’ve seen can compare to the destruction. It looks more like what I’ve seen on the news of the Asian tsunami. Washed from their foundations and broken into splinters, these homes are demolished. There’s nothing to be saved. We also go and look at the break off the 17th Street Canal. The destruction is great, but not nearly as bad as the ninth ward. Some neighborhoods are recovering rapidly, others will take years if they ever rebuild.

I wake up overnight in Memphis early, it’ll be a longer break. The engine takes on fuel. It’s cold, but the fresh air is invigorating. I step out of the car, walk up and down the tracks for a few minutes before heading back to my seat. Most people are asleep.  A few are reading. One lady, her head back with her mouth gaped open, sleep soundly. Wickedly, I think I should take a picture. She appears attractive, but not in her sleep. After a few minutes of reading Stephen King, On Writing, I turn out my light, fluff my pillow up and place it against the window, falling asleep to the rock of the train.

Next think I know, it’s 5:20 AM. We’re in Mattoon, Illinois. On the platform, a group of eight young Amish women wait to board. They’re just outside my window and from the second deck of the Superliner, I’m looking down on them. They appear as a flock of ducks, turning their heads back and forth in unison, looking up and down the track, as if they’re a little uneasy about the journey they’re embarking upon. I fall back asleep. At 6 AM, I get up, go downstairs to the bathrooms, and wash up before heading to the lounge where coffee is available as well as a plug to charge my computer.

As light begins to come upon the land at dawn, the scenery has changed from when the sun went down yesterday evening. The blue skies, cypress swamps and pine hills are replaced with grayness. The sky is gray, the bare trees are gray, when we go through towns, buildings are gray as well as the crumbled remains of factories. The spaces between towns are filled with bare fields that in another five months will showcase corn and soybeans. It’s over one of these fields that the sun finally breaks through, just above the horizon, burning off the morning fog. For a few minutes, the sky assumes a pinkish hue, only to quickly return to the gray as the sun continues its march across the southern horizon. Railroads merge in and out. We’re nearing Chicago. Someone spots the Sears tower and we soon complete the first leg of our journey. Just three more hours on a train and we’ll be back in Michigan. Tonight, I’ll sleep in my own bed. 

The work group

Four days and three nights in the Dry Tortugas

Dad, my sister Sharon, and me

Part of this was posted in a previous blog that is no longer available. I added more information to include the entire trip and am reposting it. In late April 2018, my father, sister, and I made this trip to the Dry Tortugas, which sit 68 miles west of Key West. There are no services on the island and it’s primitive camping. We brought kayaks with us along with everything we needed (including water). Thankfully, as a ferry makes it way to the islands every day, we could buy ice at an inflated price. We could also buy ice cream aboard the ferry!

Most of us camping on Garden Key stand together on the beach watching the light fade from the western sky. The skies are clear and the water surrounding the Key and Fort Jefferson ripple from the southerly wind. There’s a group of four women from South Florida along with several bird watchers from around the country. Soon a star appears in the southwest, Sirius, the Dog Star as well as Venus just above the horizon in the West. A few minutes later, the sky is darker. Rigel and Betelgeuse, the red star in Orion, are visible. “There’s Orion, setting early after having been up high all winter,” I say as I point out the stars. Soon we can make out the stars in Orion’s belt. In the spring, it appears as if the hunter is falling face-first out of the sky. In a few minutes, all the stars of Orion and his faithful dog, Canis Major, are clearly visible as is as well as the charioteer, Auriga, the V in Taurus the Bull, as well as the Seven Sisters, who according to mythology look out for travelers.  

Moored sailboats and the setting sun

We’re all travelers, enjoying a few days 70 miles from civilization. There are no signals on our cell phones and no way, unless someone brought a satellite hookup, to connect to the internet. I look back over my head to the northeast, I see the Big Dipper climbing higher in the sky. From it, I can easily find the North Star, low on the northern horizon, just above the ramparts of the fort. I point it out to the group.

How you know so much about the stars and night skies, one of the women from Miami asks. 

“I don’t know,” I say, “I just like spending time outdoors, especially at night.”  

My father checking out the terns (or was it the other way around?)

Slowly people drift back to their tents. It’s been a tiring day as my sister, father and I had gotten up at 4:30 AM, in order to have our gear and kayaks by the ferry at 6 AM for the run from Key West to the Tortugas. Then there was setting up camp for our three nights on the island, followed by a cooling snorkel around the outside of the fort’s moot. By then, it was time for dinner and then we went out for an evening paddle. We’d taken our kayaks out by Bush Key, where tens of thousands of Snooty Terns nest. The key now connected to Garden Key, but the park service has it closed off so as not to disturb the birds, which seem never to nest but mostly to fly around the key and out over the water, constantly chirping with one another. On Long Key, frigates nest. These large birds are as graceful as any navy frigate and the males, who puff up a red pouch under their head to attract females can strut better than any sailor on shore leave.  

I crawl into my bivy tent. The wind is blowing hard and the tarp, which we erected to protect us from the tropic sun, flaps constantly.  I am soon asleep.

Bush and Long Key from the walls of Fort Jefferson

I arise at 6:30.  The eastern sky is bright red.  My sister has already started the charcoal in my stove and boiled water for her tea.  I put coffee and water in my camping percolator and in a few minutes can see the water turn into dark black coffee.  When Dad gets up, we have breakfast. I’ve brought oatmeal. My sister has boiled eggs and precooked bacon and grits. We cut up some fruit and split it between us.

Our plan is to paddle to Loggerhead Key, which is located three miles to the west of Garden Key, the location of a long standing lighthouse (that went dark in 2014 and is no longer in use).  We pack lunches and snorkel gear. I have a marine radio, but the rangers insist we take at least one more and loan my sister one. Although the tide doesn’t vary much here (just a foot to eighteen inches) it does create a flow that runs the channel between the two keys, so we are warned to watch for currents. Unless a fog rolls in, which doesn’t seem likely in this weather, we’ll not have any problem as long as we stay focused on the Loggerhead lighthouse which rises 150 feet above the small strip of land.  The wind is still strong and coming out of the south, which requires us to paddle harder than normal.

About a quarter way to the island, my sister complains of her hands hurting and decides to go back to Garden Key. We were told that on a calm day it’d take an hour to paddle to the island and generally two hours to paddle back.  My dad and I keep paddling. It takes us almost an hour to paddle the three miles to Loggerhead, but that’s with a strong wind coming in at an angle, creating some swell. 

We arrive at Loggerhead Key at the same time as two guys on a dingy from their sailboat to the island. Like me, they have come to snorkel. Soon, we run into the lighthouse keeper. He has volunteered to stay on the island and watch over those who visit for a month. The park service provides him a home with electricity (they have huge panels of solar cells).  He checks in with visitors (he provided us with tips on where to snorkel), and operates a water desalination system that provides water to rangers in the Tortugas. He’s responsible for his own food.  

We walk across the island and snorkel on the west side. He points out some places to check out. We are blessed with seeing huge growths of brain coral along with large aquatic plants. I love the huge purple sea fans that half my size. I see plenty of fish: angelfish, butterflyfish, a variety of snapper and grouper, the seemingly ubiquitous “Sergeant Majors”, and several large barracuda. Hiding inside hollow parts of the coral are long-spined sea urchin.  After an hour and a half of snorkeling (my dad gave it up much earlier), I join him on the beach for lunch (Vienna sausage, cheese and crackers, a pear, and plenty of water).  After lunch, I go back out and snorkel for another 40 minutes or so, before packing up and heading across the island to our kayaks.  

Snorkeling off Loggerhead Key
Selfie, paddling back

We leave at 1 PM.  The wind has calmed, and the paddle back is easy. We don’t rush. It only takes us a little over an hour and fifteen minutes, well less than the two hours we were told to expect.  We make it back in time to buy some ice and ice cream on the ferry (it leaves at 2:45 PM).  After resting, I join my sister with snorkeling around the fort.  The wind dies and the squawk of terns replace the sound of the flapping tarp. We enjoy steak for dinner. We froze the steaks and let them thaw in the cooler. We also have steamed cauliflower I’d brought from my garden. I am sure I’m the only person on this key eating homegrown cauliflower. 

I spend some time in the late afternoon and evening inside the fort, finding a shady spot, where I read and journal. It’s been a long day and shortly after sunset, I’m in bed. There is no wind and it’s warm. I lay on top of my sleeping bag and fall asleep.  

Campsite from the walls of the fort

Nature calls at 5 AM, and I crawl out of my tent to take care of business. The ground is soaked with a heavy dew. As I look up at the morning stars. The summer constellations are out and they are not generally this bright, but without any artificial light, the sky is brilliant. I easily spot Scorpius. It’s much higher above the southern horizon than I am accustomed to seeing it. At higher latitude, the constellation is only partly seen above the southern horizon. This morning, its pinchers are reaching out as if to grab Jupiter. To the left of the scorpion is the winged-horse archer, Sagittarius. Its arrow drawn and aimed at the deadly cosmic insect. Mars and Saturn appear to be resting on its wings. I’m treated to three planets in close proximity. There is no wind, but there is no silence either. I don’t think any of the terns on Bush Key slept last night. I crawl back into my tent and snooze for another hour.

Sharon Snorkeling

On the second full day on the island, we spend time snorkeling and paddle around the three keys. On this trip, I spot several turtles from where the islands get their name (Tortugas is turtle in Spanish). The dry part of the name was added to charts to indicate to seafarers the lack of fresh water on the islands. 

We also see a wreck sailboat that broke apart between Bush and Long Key. I later learned from a ranger that the owner of the boat had decided not to ride out a hurricane in Key West and tried to sail it single handed to the protected waters of the Tortugas. Because of the approach of the storm, the rangers had been evacuated, but there were several fishing boats moored in the natural harbor south of the fort. They saw him coming in, trying to make a channel between the keys, which had filled in. Sadly, the sailor had an old chart. He lost everything and one of the fishing crews rescued him, saving his life.

Fish fry

On the way back, Sharon and I snorkel offshore, looking for an old shipwreck. We don’t find it, but do see some nursing sharks, of which the island is famous. We also trade for some fish with a commercial fishing operator who is cleaning his fish just offshore.  That evening, we have fresh fish, enough that we share with others camping on the island.

On our last full day on the island, we do more snorkeling. I also spend several hours going through Fort Jefferson. Building the fort began in 1835. Its purpose was to support a Southern fleet protecting the ports of Mobile and New Orleans. During the Civil War, the north quickly garrisoned soldiers on the island keeping it from falling into Southern hands. Up until this time, those on the key were construction workers including many slaves. Work continued on the fort, as they brought in bricks from New England. The lower part of the fort had bricks from Florida, which are a pale orange color. The top bricks are redder. 

Also During the Civil War, the army added canons, which were never fired. The fort’s main use was as a prison. The fort was built upon a series of cisterns in which rain was collected. This was to allow the fort to withstand a siege (they also could grow vegetables inside the walls of the fort). However, the weight of the bricks cracked the walls of the cisterns. Only three cisterns could be used as salt water infiltrated the rest. Another design flaw was the moot. Like other similar forts (such as Fort Pulaski near Savannah), the sewage dumped into the moot and flushed during high tide. However, the closer one gets to the equator, the less tidal difference one has, so the sewage just sat and never completely washed out, creating a terrible stench (thankfully, the National Park Service no longer uses the moot to handle sewage). The last design flaw were the bricks that made up the fort. While these forts proved strong against round cannonballs, the introduction of rifled canons just before the Civil War made the fort less safe. Construction halted in 1875. The fort was never completed. 

Fort view from waterline

But the fort didn’t stay abandoned long. Before the Century was out, the navy maintained a coaling station on the island. They also operated a large desalination plant for fresh water for navy ships and personnel on the island. However, this was short lived as the navy abandoned its coal burning ships for oil burners. 

In the afternoon a three-some of peregrine falcons show up, perched on the fort’s ramparts. Obviously, there is one too many and there seems to be some kind of courting ritual going on. Their presence, however, affects the behavior of other birds around us. When they take to the air, the birds around our campsite hang close to the ground, even flying under the picnic table where I sit. I suppose we are of less threat to them than to be attacked in mid-flight by a hungry falcon.

Ferry from Key West

Out last day was busy as we had to have everything back at the ship by 10:30 AM, so that they could load everything. Thankfully, the ferry also had freshwater showers which allowed us to clean up before the trip back to Key West. We had four beautiful sunny days on the island.  

The Ride of a Lifetime (in the cab of a steam engine)

First Presbyterian Church

In 2013, I visited Virginia City, Nevada. I had lived there in the 1980s, when I was a student pastor at First Presbyterian Church. Before my time there, a tourist railroad had been established and was reconstructing the famed Virginia and Truckee Railroad. The big news when I was there, was the train crossing the highway into Gold Hill. Since then, thanks to generous grants, the train now runs to the outskirts of Carson City. It is a crooked grade as the train climbs up the east flank of the Virginia Mountains. I wanted to ride this train and see what it was like in earlier days. But they had sold out of the tickets for the weekend I was to be in Virginia City. Telling this to a friend who at the time was also the bookkeeper for the railroad, she said she’d make a call and see what she could do.  When I got to town, she asked if I’d like to ride in the cab of the train. Of course, I would! It was the ride of a lifetime. I wrote this piece almost ten years ago and have polished it up a bit for posting here. 

Virginia City at sunrise from the Combination Mine shaft

I arrive at the V&T shops a little after 7 AM.  As they prepare the engine ready for the day’s run, I walk around the machine shop where the Virginia and Truckee has the capability of repairing and rebuilding old locomotives. Maintaining a steam locomotive requires a lot of work and a shop is a necessity as parts often have to be fashioned to replace those that have worn out. The complexity of a steam engine led to their demise as it is much easier to maintain diesel-electric locomotives. Today’s locomotives may be efficient and easier to maintain, but they lack the romance and the “life-like character” of a “breathing steam engine.”

Our run today is aboard a ninety-ton Baldwin locomotive built in 1914 for a logging operation. The locomotive features smaller wheels and a large boiler, which also made it a perfect engine to pull trains up a steep line that snakes around the Virginia Range as it climbs from the Carson River to Virginia City. In its “working life,” this locomotive hauled logs for the McCloud Logging Railroad which ran around Mt. Shasta in Northern California. Today, she hauls tourists to the Comstock Lode and has been trucked offsite (she is the largest locomotive capable of being trucked) for movie appearances. Some of the guys from the V&T ran her in the movie, “Water for Elephants,” and have a photo in the shop with Reese Witherspoon, one of the stars in the film. 

Backing down the mountain

At about 7:30, Tim, who serves as conductor and brakeman, tells me to hope aboard. He introduces me to the crew, Brian and Ed, and gives me some instructions such as watching my feet so that I don’t ruin my shoes or injure myself by being pinched by rotating the sheet metal flooring between the tender and the locomotive. While we wait for the signal, the iron horse hisses. A few times every minute, there’s a booming sound which I learn are the air pumps keeping a nice draft in the fire box. When we get the “all clear,” I find a comfortable place to stand and hold on as Brian, the engineer moves the throttle into position and releases the brakes. We’re off, pulling three empty passenger cars. Because there is no longer a working turntable, we’ll pull the cars down the grade with the tender in the lead. At Moundhouse (Carson Eastgate), where we’ll pick up passengers, we can drop the cars, move the engine to the front as in a normal train, and the pull the cars back up hill.   

Checking smoke

It’s cool in the morning, but it promises to be a warm day.  Because the grade steepness, the descent must be controlled. I watch Ed, the fireman, as he maintains the boiler, making sure there is enough steam for both movement and brakes.  Ed learned to fire a locomotive on a miniature (5 ton) steam trains in California. Brian jokes that he has the easy job and Ed agrees. Oil fires this locomotive. Coal would require shoveling, but the fireman is free of that task. However, watching the boiller requires constant vigilance, especially on a grade like the V&T which has a few places that you might be going down, only to find yourself heading uphill for a short stretch. Besides keeping enough steam so that Brian can operate the train, he must make sure the water level remains high enough to cover the plates within the boiler. On level ground, this is easy, but when the locomotive is pointed uphill, the water runs into the back of the boiler. When it goes over a hump and points downhill, the water moves to the front of the locomotive. The danger of this sloshing around is that the metal might be exposed to air and the fire without the water to cool it down. This would risk spraying those of us in the cab with steam and seriously damaging the boiler.

Brian, our engineer for the day, oversees the train itself. He’s a Virginia City native. He graduated from high school on the Comstock in 2000 and that summer went to work for the railroad. He’s been at it ever since. For years, he was seasonal and had to find other employment in the winter, but a few years ago, was hired on full time. In the winter, they make a few runs (last year’s Christmas run was infamous as the snow was heavy and it took them nearly three hours to make the run back up the mountain. Brian and Ed can do each other’s jobs and often switch back and forth. As the engineer, he’s in charge of the operation of the train, but must depend on the fireman to watch the boiler and to provide him the steam needed for a smooth operation. 

A few minutes later, Virginia City is out of sight as we cross the tunnel at the Divide and move toward Gold Hill. Down below us is the Crown Point Mine and Mill site. We cross the highway, by the old station. then the tracks turn south and cross earth fill that once traversed by the Crown Point trestle. They tore the trestle down in 1936. Today, it is widely believed that the trestle continues to live on the Nevada State Seal. However, this is a myth. The seal was designed in 1863 and predates the building of the trestle by five years.  Interestingly, there wasn’t even a train within the boundaries of the Nevada Territory when the seal was designed, so the trestle on the seal expressed a hopeful dream of the artist.      

After Gold Hill, the tracks make a long circle around American Flats.  There is a new mining operation with cyanide leach fields on the north side of the Flats.  Also along this section is a herd of horses.  Ed and Brian seem to know well as they have names for many of the wild animals.  At Scales siding, the halfway point, we stop, and Brain and Tim check the brakes. There is some smoke in one wheel and they are afraid it is overheating, but after checking it, all appears well. We loop around the south side of the Flats, above the old American Flats Mill, which operated up into the 30s. Then the tracks turn south, and we slip into a tunnel.  On the other side of the tunnel, we can see Moundhouse, the site of where the Virginia and Truckee and the Carson and Colorado Narrow Gauge used to connect. The train continues to hug the hillside. The tracks mostly follow the original route except through Moundhouse. Brain, the engineer, tells me that the original tracks went straight through Moundhouse and picked up the Carson River near where today are several brothels. Figuring the whorehouses shouldn’t be disturbed by trains, they relocate the tracks to the west of town. We cross over Highway 50 on a trestle and soon are at the station.  

Brain prepares engine for run back up the mountain

A full parking lot awaits us as people line up to ride a piece of history. We drop the passenger cars in front of the depot and uncouple the engine. Switching tracks, we take on water. I learn that although the train will only use 300 gallons of oil during the weekend, each trip up and down the mountain will require nearly 8000 gallons of water. Once they fill the water take, we run through a wye and then pull in front front of the passenger cars for the run up the mountain. Before leaving, Brian oils the working parts of the locomotive

The Crew on a rare break

As we leave Moundhouse, Ed pours a couple of cans of sand into the firebox. The draft is such that the sand is sucked through the boiler tubes and out the stack, cleaning out any build up on the tubes and hopefully making the train run smoother. As the sand runs through the boiler, or perhaps because of the addition air of having the firebox open, the smoke turns black for a few minutes. Although it was a relaxed trip going down the mountain, running uphill requires more work, especially from Ed, who has to constantly keep checking on the boiler and making sure there is enough steam for running the train. It almost seems he is as much of an artist as a mechanic as he both watches the gauges and adjusts the amount of water going into the boiler or the amount of fuel pumped into the firebox. But it’s not just the gages that he watches; he also keeps an eye on the smoke, occasionally glances into the firebox, and is always listening to the boiler breathing.    

The sun is now high in the sky and it’s getting hot, but I’m not prepared for the experience of the first tunnel. When we enter it, a hot wind blows across the boiler and into the cab and the temperature must have risen by 30 or 40 degrees. Coming down, with the boiler behind us, the tunnels weren’t hot, but with the boiler in front, we feel all the heat. This was the reason the last steam engines built for the Southern Pacific were “cab-forward” varieties. It was harder to build a cab-forward locomotive when the fireman had to shovel coal (or you had to have the fireman and engineer in two different ends of the train which created communication problems).  But once the railroad began using oil, they could move both to the front of the boiler. Not only did this allow better views of the track, it keep the cab more comfortable in long tunnels and the miles and miles of snowsheds the locomotives traveled as they made their way through the Sierras.  

at the Gold Hill Station

At Scales, we stop for a few minutes and Brian gets out and oils various parts of the engine. We then continue on until the Gold Hill Station where a few people get off in order to have lunch at the Gold Hill Hotel. Most of our passengers continue as the train climbs into Virginia City. There, everyone gets off. They’ll have three hours to tour the town before making the run back south. I skip the ride south but follow the train in my car. Stepping out into the heat, I photograph the train repeatedly as it makes its way down the mountain. Ed, Brian and Tim will leave the train at Moundhouse overnight. The next morning they’ll pick up passengers and run them up to Virginia City. At the end of the day, after dropping the passengers off in Moundhouse, the empty train will be driven back up the mountain to Virginia City. There, it will shuttle tourists around the Comstock between Virginia City and Gold Hill. The steam trains only run between Moundhouse and Virginia City on Saturdays and Sundays.  

Arriving in Virginia City

The Dean and his secretary

Dean Mauser

From the internet (it appears as if it was from the seminary’s directory)

Two weeks ago, I posted a memoir about one of my seminary professors who had been a tank commander in the German army in World War II. I mentioned he wasn’t my only professor who spent time on the other side during that terrible war. The other was Ulrich Mauser, the dean of the seminary. He was a kind and gentle man. I only took one class with him, a New Testament survey class. But when another professor, Dr. Kelly, had medical issues while teaching on the Book of Acts, Mauser took over and finished out the term. I essentially had him as a professor for a term and a half. But I got to know him in other ways, too.

Unlike von Waldow, Mauser didn’t talk about the war, at least not around me. I remember him mentioning his involvement once. We were sitting together in the dining room at lunch. He sat among a group of students and there may have been other professors. Somehow, the topic of the war came up. Mauser recalled being a student in Germany during the war. As Germany needed more and more soldiers, he received a notice every year to report for a physical in preparation for being drafted into the armed forces. But because of health issues and poor eyesight, he always received a deferment and would return to school. However, in late 1944, according to Dr. Mauser, things had gotten so bad they did care that he couldn’t see. With his thick eyeglasses, without which he was nearly blind, they assigned him to an anti-aircraft flack gun on top of a building in Berlin. As most of the air attacks came at night, there wasn’t even a way to aim. They just pointed the guns up into the sky and shot in the general direction of the drone of engines. 

While he wasn’t really involved in combat, the war had an affect upon Dr. Mauser. His family home was destroyed by a bomb. He also became very interested in the Biblical understanding of peace. His last book, The Gospel of Peace, focused on this life-long theme. 

Mauser’s studied at the University of Tubingen in Germany where he received his doctorate, writing a dissertation on Martin Luther. He also spent time at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he met his wife. After his schooling, as a young pastor in post-war Germany, he served in a congregation that mostly consisted of displaced people. 

My best memory of Dr. Mauser came after a disappointing relationship with Debbie, his secretary. Below, I posted a piece I wrote in 2014, after learning of Debbie’s death from cancer. After Debbie became engaged to someone else, Dr. Mauser invited me out to lunch. We went to a restaurant in Shadyside. As if he was my pastor, he was concerned with my emotional state. Ironically, at the time I was on the top of the world, having essentially completed the Appalachian Trail. While he never appeared as an outdoor type of person, Mauser was interested in my experience along the trail. I learned how it tied to his work on the theme of wilderness in scripture. 

When I graduated from Pittsburgh in 1990, Dr. Mauser was winding up his tenure at the school. He had moved to America in 1959, to serve as a chaplain at Oregon State University. In 1964, he began teaching at Louisville Theological Seminary. In 1977, he was appointed a professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Seminary and became Dean in 1981. Turning 65 in 1990, and he faced mandatory retirement as was the seminary’s practice at the time. So, Dr. Mauser accepted an appoint at Princeton, where he taught six more years before returning to Pittsburgh for his final years. 

I last saw Dr. Mauser at a Presbyterian Coalition meeting in Orlando Florida in the fall of 2001, just a few weeks after 911. I had not seen him since graduation. He appeared delighted to run into me and we later shared a meal together. He died in 2008. 

Ulrich W. Mauser’s obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Debbie, the Dean’s secretary

Written in 2014, after learning of Debbie’s death from cancer: 

A photo I took in May 1987

Debbie was beautiful. She turned heads with her broad smile, big eyes, and hardy laugh. She wore flowing dresses with heels that clicked and gave shape to her calves. And she was the Dean’s secretary. In my first year of seminary, I never thought she would have been interested in me. Then, a month or so before school ended for the summer, she invited me to over for Sunday evening’s dinner at her place. Wanting to make a good impression, I brought along a bottle of wine, Pouilly-Fuisse. I learned she seldom drank, but she seemed impressed and suggested we open the bottle and celebrate. Of course, she had no corkscrew. She suggested she might borrow one for a neighbor, but I told her I thought I had a solution. I ran out to my car. Ever the Boy Scout, I had a Swiss-army knife with a corkscrew attachment in my glove compartment.    

On Easter Sunday, I was invited to dinner with her family on Pittsburgh’s Southside. When we arrived at her parents’ home, her brothers were watching a documentary on a race car driver, Elliott Forbes-Robinson.  Although I had never been a big fan of racing, I knew him. When I was working for the Boy Scouts, he was an assistant Scoutmaster on a troop on Lake Norman. I recalled the story of meeting him, at a scout camp. When he told me he was a race car driver, I asked if he raced at Hickory speedway. Hickory was a step up from the dirt tracks of the South, but most of the drivers were still amateurs. “No,” he said, “I have not raced there.” “Where do you race?” I asked. He started listing off an impressive list of cities with Cam-Am and such races. I stood there thinking, “Yeah, right, and I’m Daniel Boone.” I later learned he really was a race car driver, although at the time he didn’t drive NASCAR. He did drive those fancy cars and was one of the top drivers in the world. He had a boy in scouts and as he wasn’t racing that week, had come to camp with his son’s troop. Telling the story, Debbie’s brothers learned that I really wasn’t a racing fan, but they were impressed that I had personally met one of the greats. 

Over the next few weeks, we began having lunch together in the dining hall and went out every weekend. I suggested a Saturday afternoon baseball game and she was up for it. When I arrived to pick her up, she handed me two tickets! I didn’t know what to say, but as a poor student was thankful. Then I looked at the seats and was humbled. Her brother worked for one of the high-end hotels in Pittsburgh and they had tickets that no one had claimed so he gave them to Debbie for us to enjoy. We sat directly behind home plate, five rows up. I never had such good seats for a major league game. It’s easy to love a girl whose brother arranges to cover the expenses of a date.  

Later that evening, Debbie and I walked up a hill and held hands as we watched the sun set. I felt as if I was the luckiest man in the world.

Debbie was close to her family and on another weekend, she and her brothers had given their mother an evening ride in a balloon across Southwestern Pennsylvania. When the mother got in the basket with a few other sightseers and a pilot, we raced along the countryside following the balloon until they finally set down in a cow pasture and we retrieved her mother. This would be a lot easier today, with cell phones, but this was 1987.

The day I left school at the end of the semester, we had breakfast together at a local King’s Restaurant. I wanted to do something special and had purchased some of her favorite perfume, hoping that as she used it, she would remember me. She seemed pleased and we even talked about her meeting up with me in Delaware Water Gap as I hiked the Appalachian Trail. Although we were not in a committed relationship, we talked about picking up where we were at in September.

After breakfast, I drove to my parents in North Carolina and a week later, started my summer hike from Virginia to Maine. At first, she wrote and seemed excited when I called, but as I continued to hike, I heard less and less from her. I knew something was up. Even though I had started hiking with the thoughts of coming back to her arms, I realized this was not going to be the case. When I arrived back at school, I was on cloud nine, having just finished my summer hike, essentially completing the Appalachian Trail completed (I still had a 25-mile section down south to complete). That first day back everyone seemed concerned about how I was going to take being dropped, but I had given up on her mid-way through the summer. I learned she had connected with someone at a wedding (they may had known each other before) and was engaged. One of the kindness things that happened was the Dean inviting me out to lunch. He, too, was concerned with how I was handling things, but we mostly talked about my hike as my head was still in the mountains. After a summer of hiking, our short romance seemed light-years away.

A few years ago, Debbie sent me a message and a friendship request via Facebook. A quarter century had passed as she left her position as the Dean’s secretary shortly after I’d returned from hiking the trail. We chatted a few times and I learned her marriage had been horrible and she had spent most of her life on her own, but that she was blessed with a couple of boys who are now adults. She apologized for having treated me horribly. I thanked her for the apology but told her my life had continued and was going well. Then she told me about the breast cancer. Over the years since that chat, I would occasionally learn through Facebook about how each new treatment was less effective. But she was strong in her faith and always maintained a positive outlook, but at times she’d ask for prayers, and I would pray. In early May, the disease finally took her, and I found myself shedding tears. She was a beautiful woman who was so proud of her boys (her sons and her brothers). I felt a small piece of their pain.