A Solo Paddle to the North End of Cumberland Island

Title page for article showing a kayak pointed toward land
Sunset from Cumberland Island
Sunset from campsite on Brick Kiln River

A soft light glows outside in the darkness. It could be a dying street light, except there are no streetlights on this island. I check the time. It’s a little before 6 AM. Time to get up if I’m going to beat the tide change. I pull on my pants and crawl out of the hammock. Sliding into flip-flops, I stand and turn around to a beautiful view of the nearly full moon setting across the marsh to the west. Its light reflects off the ripples on the waters of the Brickhill River. I look at the shoreline. The tide is coming in strong. I’ll need to be on the water soon if I’m to make the fourteen miles back to the landing at Crooked River State Park without fighting the current. 

Heading back to the mainland

In the dark with only the moonlight guiding me, I stuff my sleeping bag and hammock into their sacks and stow both into the holds of the kayak. I pack my stove and percolator. With not enough time for coffee, I skip it figuring I can pick up some later on my drive home. Dropping the food bag that’s hung from a branch, to keep it safe from raccoons, I take out a couple of granola bars and a pear for breakfast. I eat one of the bars while watching the moon set. What little light I enjoyed is gone with sunrise still 45 minutes away. Taking out a flashlight, I stow everything in the kayak and make a last tour of my campsite. Then I slide the kayak down the bank and into the water, crawl into the cockpit, and begin paddling. 

Paddling toward the St. Mary's Submarine base
Distant sub base in morning light

In less than 30 minutes I’ve passed Table Point. When I paddled here two days earlier, the tide had turned by the time I arrived here and it took me 90 minutes of hard paddling to make it to the campsite. I’m making good time. I look behind me and catch the opening rays of the sun as it rises over Cumberland Island. I take out the pear and eat it, enjoying the splendor. When I resume paddling, I notice the large covered submarine dry-dock at the Kings Bay Naval Station. In the low light, it looks remarkably similar to Noah’s Ark, floating beyond the marsh grass that separates the Brickhill River from the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s ironic, I muse to myself, that each submarine carries almost as much destructive power as that ancient flood.  

Travels to Cumberland

I have spent the last two nights camping on Cumberland Island National Seashore. This is my second trip to the island. The first trip, two years earlier, was to Sea Camp on the south end of the island. That site is served by a ferry from St. Mary’s. It’s close to the beach and has potable water, flush toilets and hot showers. We spent a lot of time soaking up rays on the beach, swimming in the surf, as well as exploring the ruins of Dungeness, a grand home built by Thomas Carnegie. It burned in the 1950s.

The Carnegie Influence on the Island

In the late 19th Century, Thomas Carnegie, the brother of Andrew, purchased much of the island and had a massive winter home built at the site of an earlier Dungeness mansion. Thomas Carnegie died as his mansion was being completed, but it was occupied by his wife Lucy. In time, as each of their children married, Lucy granted them land on the island and a stipend to build homes of their own. 

Kayak beached at Brick Kiln River campsite
My kayak shortly after arriving at Brick Kiln River wilderness campsite

My campsite for the weekend was on a bluff along the Brickhill River. The wilderness site can hold six groups, but there are only three other campers the first night. These guys, students at Georgia Tech, had come over on the ferry and peddled bikes the ten miles along sandy two-track dirt roads to camp here. We chat for a bit and I learn they are planning on leaving early on Sunday in order to catch the 10:30 AM ferry to St. Marys. 

The Paddle over and Plum Orchard
Inside Plum Orchard showing den with fireplace
inside Plum Orchard

On Saturday, as I left Crooked River, paddling in the rain, my first stop was at Plum Orchard, one of these magnificent homes. Thankfully, by the time I arrived, the rain had stopped. This home, built by George and Margaret Thaw Carnegie, was the first of the island mansions constructed by the Carnegie children. The 24,000 square foot home was seasonally occupied until the 1960s with Thomas and Margaret’s granddaughter and husband being the last occupants. Today, the home is a part of Cumberland Island National Seashore and the National Park service offers tours. After eating lunch, I stuck around for a tour. It was well worth it, even if it meant the tide turned and my paddle to the campsite was more difficult. The home features a grand entryway, a formal dining room, modern bathrooms, an indoor squash tennis court, a women’s parlor and a men’s gun room that displays trophy heads of various animals bagged by the Carnegies. It is magnificent. 

Plum Orchard
Plum Orchard
First Night

Fires are not allowed at this site, so after setting up my camp, I fire up my gas stove and use it to prepare chicken and rice for dinner. I watch the setting of the sun, sipping on bourbon, then retreat from the bugs into the security of my hammock where I read for an hour with the use of a flashlight. Then I turn it off and go to sleep.   

As it was still warm in the evening, I left the fly off my hammock in order to receive the best breeze. But at 3 AM I wake to the rustling of palm leaves and distant thunder. The moon and stars are no longer visible. I quickly get up and position my fly over my hammock. The rain comes as I put in the last of the stakes into the ground. I crawl back into the hammock and fall asleep to the sound of rain.  

I sleep in till nearly 7:00 AM on Sunday morning. Getting up in the dawn light, I perk coffee and boil hot water for oatmeal. I notice my neighbors have already left. 

two track road on Cumberland Island
The two track that runs the length of the island
Sunday Morning Exploring

After breakfast, I set off on a hike to the old settlement on the northern end of the island, about four miles away. It’s warm and muggy, and I’m serenaded by insects, songbirds and a distant woodpecker providing the bass. About half way to the settlement, a shower passes by cooling me off. When I arrive at Terrapin Point, I stop for a few minutes on the high bluff overlooking what used to be the Cumberland Wharf. A large pod of dolphins feed in the shallows as a barge makes its way south along the Intracoastal Waterway. In the distance, I can see the Sidney Lanier Bridge from Brunswick to Jekyll Island. 

inside of First African Baptist Church
Inside the church

My hope was to be at the old First African Baptist Church by 10 AM, but I am a few minutes late. The cornerstone indicates that it was built in 1893, but I later learn that was when the first church was constructed out of logs. It was rebuilt out of timber in 1937. I step into the old building. It’s small, with only eight short pews. Taking out my smartphone, I am pleased to have a signal. I log into the streaming service of Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church in time to catch an excellent sermon by our Associate, Deanie Strength. As I listen, I think about those who in years past worshipped here and that it is good the gospel is again heard in these walls.

HIstory of the settlement

The residents of the Settlement were former slaves. They lived where they did to work for the hotel that used to sit on the north end of the island, as well as to work for the Carnegies who turned much of the island into their private winter playground. The community dwindled after the hotel closed, with a few people hanging on to work as servants in some of the islands homes. Today, the church and one home remains open by the National Park Service. 

African American Baptist Church on Cumberland Island
The church and a home left from when this was a community who worked in the homes and hotel on the island

In 1996, a hundred and three years after the church was first built on this site, it became the setting for the late John Kennedy Jr’s and Carolyn Bessette’s private wedding ceremony. Tragically, two years after their marriage, both were killed in a plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard.

After listening to church, I eat lunch and then hike back to the camp, taking the Terrapin Point and Brickhill Bluff trails. At times, from high bluffs, I’m afforded wonderful views of the marsh. Other parts of the trail move deeply into the woods of this maritime forest. I am amazed at the size of some of the longleaf pines. In addition to pines and live oaks, the most abundant trees, hickory and magnolias are also common. I scare up a few feral hogs that grunt as they run away, along with a wild turkey and an armadillo that makes all kinds of racket as it rushes through dense growth of saw palmetto. 

A restful afternoon

It’s about two o’clock when I arrive back in my campsite. I rest for a few minutes, reading David Gressner’s Return of the Osprey. As I read, I notice an osprey hunting out over the Brickhill River. For the longest time, the bird never dives for a fish, but when it finally does, he misses. The bird comes up out of the water flapping, nothing in its talons. It shakes its wings as if to shake off his missed lunch. In reading this book I learn that mature birds generally catch their prey fifty percent or more of the time. That’s a pretty high percentage. Either my bird was having a bad day or it was young and just learning to dive for fish.  

Beach scene with sea oats
Beach scene

After resting, I take my chair, book, and some snacks, and hike the two miles out to the beach. Along the way, I pass several fresh water ponds. In one an alligator is sunning and as I walk by I catch sight of the tail of a large snake slithering down into the water.  I spend nearly two hours on the beach enjoying the sound of the waves as I read and nap. At 5:30, I start back, wanting to be able to fix dinner and prepare for the evening before dark.  Knowing it’s going to be a long paddle in the morning, I am in my hammock sleeping shortly after watching an amazing sunset.  

Front page of a magazine article

This slightly edited post originally appeared in The Skinnie, a magazine published on Skidaway Island, Georgia. The opening page of the article is to the right. When I wrote this article, I was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church on Skidaway.

For another kayak adventure of mine on Cape Lookout, click here.

Planning a trip to Cumberland Island

To visit Cumberland Island, camping sites (both in developed sites and wilderness locations) must be reserved through the National Park Service. Check out the Cumberland Island website at or call (912) 882-4336. Cumberland Island Ferry has the concessions for ferry transportation to and from the south end of the island. Their schedule varies depending on the season. Boats (motored and kayaks) can be launched from St. Mary’s or Crooked River State Park. If paddling, know the tides especially in the Crooked River where the tide currents can be faster than most people can paddle! There is also a rather pricy lodging available at the Greyfield Inn, a former Carnegie mansion. To stay there, the Inn arranges a shuttle from Amelia Island, Florida.  

Sunrise on Cumberland Island
Sunrise, 2016, near Sea Camp

Others Arrive in Virginia City

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

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

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

The Church is Organized

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

Background to church mission work on the West Coast

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

W. W. Brier

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

First Church organized in Nevada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travel to Nevada in 1863

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

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

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

From California to Nevada

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

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

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

Arriving in Carson City

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

Palmer’s Labor in Carson City

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

The Palmers arrive in Virginia City

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


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

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

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

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

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

See also:

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

Review of Martin Clark’s “The Substitution Order” and other books

Author Clark title cover with his books

Years ago, I read several books by Martin Clark and reviewed them in an old blog. Clark, a retired judge, just down the mountain from me in Stuart, Virginia. I meet him in person about a year ago. I’ve finally have read and now reviewed his most recent book. Much of his recent book takes place around where I live and serve in ministry.

A note about my reading: We’re 1/3 of the way through 2023. When I reviewed my readings from 2020, I noted that I needed to read more fiction and books by women authors. So far, I have exceed my 2022 totals for both categories.

Martin Clark, The Substitution Order

book cover for The Substitution Order


(2019, New York Vintage Books, 2020), 338 pages.

A substitution order is a legal term for when an attorney turns over a case to another attorney and a judge has to sign off on the exchange. This is just one of a string of events Protagonist Kevin Moore secretly arranges to obtain revenge on those who had scammed and helped ruin his life even more than he had already done. On his own, attorney Kevin Moore quickly developed a cocaine habit after trying it at a law conference. The urge to get high led to his quick downfall, ending in an arrest, the loss of his law license, and his divorce. While he confesses his mistake, he didn’t need someone trying to scam him from legal malpractice. But that happened. 

With his life in ruins, Moore lives in a cousin’s house in Meadows of Dan, Virginia. Disbarred, he leaves his legal career and now spreads mayonnaise on sandwiches at the SUBstitution, a Subway knock-off in Stuart, Virginia. Substitution orders and orders at SUBstitution, Clark is a master at double-entendres.  While working at the restaurant, Moore saves a puppy from a dumpster. He names the dog Nelson, and he becomes a part of Moore’s life.  A stranger offers him an opportunity to benefit on a scam. Moore who (except for three months) appears to have lived the life of a Sunday School superintendent, declines. The stranger who offers Moore the chance also threatens him if he doesn’t participate with them. 

It appears Moore’s life couldn’t get worse, but it does. A crooked probation officer plants dirty urine in his drug test as well as a gun and bags of drugs in his car. Moore finds himself in real trouble. 

In the middle of his problems, Moore has a stroke. Thankfully, a farmer who was renting farmland from Moore’s cousin, happened to be driving by and see’s Moore collapse. As a member of the local rescue squad and fire department, he rushes in. Seeing the obvious symptoms, he takes Moore in his truck down the mountain to the hospital. Moore slowly gets better and falls for a home health nurse. 

While he is getting better, he must deal with a legal malpractice scam. His insurance company is willing to settle, but Moore has an idea of what’s happening. To everyone else, Moore’s theory seems farfetched, and he must take things in his own hands. But everyone is skeptical. 

It looks like Moore is going to attempt to run from the law. But there are some twists in the plot. Despite a somewhat happy ending, Moore spends time behind bar. He also would prefer everything would not have happened and that he would have never tried cocaine. 

I enjoyed this book and surprised by the ending. My copy of the book came from a gift without an expectation of a review.

Martin Clark, The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living

Book cover for "The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living"

( )

This is one crazy book. My life has been crazy for the past few weeks and it has been a pleasure to occasionally retreat into Evers Wheeling’s world. Wheeling, a young district court judge in Norton, North Carolina is bored and ready for adventure. It arrives one day when the beautiful Ruth Esther English, one of the top car sales associates in the Southeast, seeks his help with her brother’s trial. She must get her brother Artis out of jail to help her recover money and a letter left by her father. Wheeling refuses to do anything illegal to help Artis, but when his case comes up, the police have screwed up the evidence so that he has no choice but to free him.

Soon everyone, including Evan’s brother Pascal, are off on a trip to recover the hidden money in Salt Lake City. Pascal, like Evers, had inherited a small fortune from their parents. Unlike Evers, Pascal lived as the Prodigal (except there was no father to come home to), and after blowing much of his inheritance, spends his days living in a double wide, smoking pot. Evers also has a fondness for the weed and seems to get most of his caloric intact in the form of distilled spirits.

When I reviewed Clark’s other novel, Plain Heathen Mischief, I noted that it had more twist and turns than Lombard Street, San Francisco. The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living has more twist and turns than the highway out of Owen’s Valley and into Yosemite via Tioga Pass.

There are many characters and more than a few deaths and a lot of “who-done-it” questions. Those who die include Evers’ non-live-in wife (she refused to live in Norton). After Evers discovers her in bed with a “cow farmer,” they are locked in a divorce battle. Although her death seemed to be a suicide, it was also suspicious. At first, Evers seems a likely suspect, but then Pascal confesses although he later recants. Due to the many problems with his confession, he is offered a plea bargain that nets him only a couple of months in jail.

Of course, there’s more to the story but to tell it all would be to ruin the story. Read it and laugh. And don’t get too hung up on all the characters, because some just disappear without explanation and not all questions that are raised by the story get answered. The book may not be neat and tidy in that way, but such is life in a double-wide inhabited by a bunch of lazy pot smokers.

There are also many characters in the book. Paulette is a sharp dressed African American attorney from Charleston, West Virginia. Paulette represents Ruth Ester and later defends Pascal. Ruth Esther’s brother Artis is short and African American and obviously not blood related to his stately “white” sister. There are also boozing doctor and a handful of good ole boy cops. And then there are some mysteriously white tears. A hint of mysticism is found in the pages of the novel and at one point, I wondered if I was reading a legal thriller or fantasy. The mix-mash of characters create lots of humorous moments—such as when Judge Wheeling does a double take when he’s introduced to Artis, Ruth Esther’s brother, realizing there is no way they’re real siblings.

There are a few things in this book that I will have to blog about later. The first is the town of Climax, NC (yes, there is a town and when I was a high school debater, we often drove through it going to tournaments in the High Point, Greensboro, and Winston Salem area).

Next is William Jennings Bryan. The letter that Ruth Esther wanted was written by Bryan to a “teenage” lover of his, a letter which is real would have tarnished Bryan’s Puritan image. When I was in college, I did a paper on Bryan and discovered that I wasn’t at all interested in the Scopes Monkey Trial (for which he is remembered) but as him being a populist (probably in reality a socialist) candidate for President in 1896. He carried much of the nation. Although many in the religious right revere Bryan for being the prosecutor in the Scopes Trial, they would be horrified to realize that his political philosophy wasn’t anywhere near theirs.

The final thing I should blog about sometime is Salt Lake City. I’ve spent a lot of time in that city when I lived in Utah. Two corrections that I might suggest to Clark, you don’t need a cab to get from the Hilton to Temple Square (if I remember correctly, the Hilton is only two blocks west). Secondly, Mormons don’t’ wear crosses.

Martin Clark, Plain Heathen Mischief

Book cover for Plain Heathen Mischief

 (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2004), 398 pages. Reviewed in 2007

The Reverend Joel Clark has lost everything. The pastor of Roanoke’s First Baptist Church pleads guilty to having sex with Christy, a 17-year-old parishioner. He’s sent to jail for six months. When released, his wife serves him with divorce papers. He’s also issued a lawsuit from Christy. She hopes to receive five million for her emotional damages. With his world crumbling, he left with only one loyal friend, Edmond, who picks him up when he’s released and takes him to his sister’s house in Missoula, Montana.

On the way, they stop to see Sa’ad X Sa’ad, Edmond’s Las Vegas lawyer friend (Las Vegas, Edmond assures Joel, is just a little detour on the way from Virginia to Montana). Both guys are flim-flam men. They offer Joel a stake in an insurance scam. The disgraced preacher at first rejects the temptation, but when he’s unable to secure a job and he finds himself with a crook for a probation officer, he accepts the offer to make some quick cash so that he might help his sister and his former church (Good motives, bad ideas). As soon as he agrees to participate in the scam, Joel’s luck changes and he lands two jobs, one as a dishwasher and the other as a weekend fishing guide on Montana’s rivers.

Plain Heathen Mischief has more twist and turns than Lombard Street in San Francisco. Every time I thought I had the plot figured out, Clark threw another twist. This book was anything but predictable; making it both enjoyable to read while keeping me from doing other things because I was unable to put it down. I will not spoil the ending of the book by giving additional details of the plot except to say that Joel’s interpretation of “having sex” is a lot broader than our former President’s interpretation.

Through the misfortunes of Joel, many which he brings upon himself, Martin Clark explores ethics and morality. By seemingly resigning himself to the notion that he must do something, and the end justifies the means, Joel finds himself deeper and deeper in trouble. Although he preached grace, Joel appears to have little of it for himself. He seems to think it’s up to him to keep his former congregation and his sister afloat. Such a burden almost drowns him. The book also demonstrates how wrong we can often be about other people and their motives. Although Joel is an educated man with a master’s degree, he is naïve, which provides many comic scenes throughout the book.

I wonder about Martin Clark positioning Joel as a Baptist minister. In many ways, he seems Baptist in name only. I don’t know too many Baptist ministers (or any or ministers for that matter) who keeps Aquinas’ Summa on the nightstand. Joel also reads Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr and Barth. Although Joel doesn’t drink, he doesn’t have a problem being with those who do, as we learn when he enjoys a night in Vegas, accompanied by Edmond and Sa’ad and three beautiful women.

My favorite characters in the book are Sophie (his sister) and Dixon (his boss at the outfitting service). Like Joel, Sophie’s life crumbled when her well-off doctor husband left her and took off for France in the hopes to make it as an artist. Although she has problems with organized religion, she comes off as a good person who refuses to cut corners or to do anything that’s morally questionable. Likewise, Dixon is a person who tries to do right. I love his comparing churchgoing to the blues.

Churchgoin’ to me is a lot like blues music. Everybody always talks it up, says great things about it, and you know its supposed to boost your soul, but when you actually do it, when you go sit in a smoky club for two hours hearing some old brother with a bum leg an a pair of Ray-Bands play the same slow, self-indulgent, strung-out three notes and squeeze his eyes shut, you start thinking, man, his crap ain’t so hot. Truth is, you’d rather be down at the Holiday Inn lounge tossin’ back dollar shooters, pawing the strange women and dancing to disco… (page 263)

My only complaint is that the book is a bit long. The story could be tightened up a bit, which I think might make the book funnier. However, I’m really shouldn’t complain. Not only did I enjoyed the book, I didn’t want it to end. I’m looking forward to reading Clark’s other book, The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living. Martin Clark is a circuit court judge who lives in Stuart, Virginia. 

Martin Clark, The Legal Limit 

Book cover of "The Legal Limit"

(New York: Alfred Knopf, 2008), 356 pages

Mason Hunt, the Commonwealth Attorney, has come a long way from his horrific childhood with an abusive father. Respected in the community, he’s married to a devoted and sexy wife. They have a beautiful daughter and live on a gentleman’s farm. He also has a dark secret, one that can destroy him. And then, fate turns against him. His wife is killed in a tragic car accident and his convict brother, with whom he shared the secret, decides he’s going to use the secret to get himself out of jail. Life unravels.

Gates Hunt, Mason’s older brother, took the blunt of his father’s blows, often protecting his younger sibling. Gates was a promising football player, but couldn’t hold it together and as a young adult, slipped into the world of drugs and crime. Mason graduates from college and goes on to law school. Home one weekend, Mason and Gates are riding together when they have a run-in with Wayne Thompson, Gates’ girlfriend’s ex. They were on a remote road, no one was around. Threatened, Gates pulled out a pistol, shoots and kills Wayne. The two of them flee. Mason creates alibis, which they rehearse over and over. He also takes his brother’s pistol and disposes of it. The crime goes unsolved.

Twenty years later, Mason has come back to his hometown as the prosecutor. His brother, having shunned a plea bargain and demanded a jury trial for a drug bust, is serving a long sentence in the state penitentiary. As a single parent after his wife’s death, Mason finds himself struggling to raise a teenage daughter. He also finds himself being wooed into supporting a business opportunity for the country, an opportunity which promises short-term jobs and is funded with money from the state’s tobacco settlement. Then, to get out of prison early, his brother fingers him in the unsolved murder of Wayne Thompson.

I won’t spoil the ending, but it suffices to say that Mason’s troubles are never truly over. The book demonstrates how secrets come back and haunt us. We also see howitzers are nearly unredeemable. Finally, we see how we get caught in our lies. Except for his youthful mistake, helping his brother beat a murder rap, Mason is a good man. In fact, his honesty and integrity (in all but this one area of his life) causes his downfall (he wasn’t about to let an innocent man take the fall for his brother’s crime).

This book raises many questions for the reader to ponder. What role does fate play? Why was Gates the older brother? Why does one’s wife die in an accident? It also raises questions about the evil intentions of some people (Gates, prosecutors, those in law enforcement, and those involved in schemes to spend tobacco money on a questionable development which only promise that they’ll be financially rewarded). Another question is about loyalty to family (Mason to Gates, Mason’s mother relationship to Gates, Mason to Curtis, his colleague who also have secrets, and Mason to his daughter). And finally, as the reader I pondered the question of justice. Was justice done in the case? Not really. We’re reminded of the Thompson family and their questions. A better question might be, “Could justice be done in this case?”

I enjoyed this book. The Legal Limit is not as funny as Clark’s other two novels, but in many ways, this is a more serious and tightly constructed work. I’m still pondering the ending of the book. Although I think I understand what Clark is driving at, I also feel that the ending is the weakest link in Clark’s cleverly told story. 

Three Reviews: History and Theology

Photos of three books reviewed in this post

Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927 

(Random House Audio, 2013) 17 hours and 3 minutes.

book cover of One Summer,  America 1927

I can’t say I have given much thought of what happened in the summer of 1927, but Bryson is able to make the year come alive. It was a time when America was on top of the world in most areas except for aviation. Partly due to the Great War and the invocations made before our entrance into the war, Europe held the lead. By 1927, commercial passenger flights were flown between London and Paris. While few American cities had airports, most cities in Europe did. Against this background was the “race” to fly non-stop from the United States to Paris. Most people thought larger planes with a crew to handle the flying and the navigation were required. Many of the top contenders were Europeans. Then Charles Lindberg comes on the scene, flying solo in plane without even a front window. Lindberg had barnstormed and flew across country for the postal service. He would surprise the world as he flew across the Atlantic and landed in Paris.  Afterwards, New York City gave Lindberg the largest ticker tape parade seen up to this point in history. He would tour the country receiving parade after parade. 

Other things also happened in America in 1927. This included Babe Ruth hitting a season homerun record that stood until the early 1960s.  It was also a great year for another support, boxing. 

In the political world, President Calvin Coolidge, not known for many words, made a sparse announcement. He was on vacation in South Dakota, where he informed gathered reporters that he would not seek his party’s nomination for the Presidency in 1928. Also in South Dakota, workers started carving on Mt. Rushmore. Others feared archaists and the summer would include the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, two suspected archaists. America feared communists and radicals led to restricted immigration. Others took an interest in eugenics, a pseud-science that sought to create a better humanity by discouraging births of those supposedly of those of an inferior race.  The Klux Ku Klan also enjoyed a national revival with their anti-black, Jewish, and Catholic views.

Ford Motor Company shut down its production of the Model T during the summer as it retooled for the Model A. Henry Ford, himself, who had shown his antisemitic strips in his newspapers, would cease making such statements. In Hollywood, motion pictures began to shift toward the “talkies.” A private meeting between the top bankers from the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany were held. Their decisions would guide the world toward the Great Depression. 

Bryson ties together these stories and more in a readable and sometimes even in a humorous manner. At the conclusion of the book, he looks ahead to the troubles of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism which led to Lindberg’s downfall from the public eye. America’s beloved aviator had befriended many in Nazi Germany and encouraged the United States to remain neutral as war clouds began to gather. 

As I have enjoyed all the books I’ve read by Byson (especially A Walk in the Woods and Thunderbolt Kid, this book was a delight. I recommend it as a look back at our country almost a century ago.  

Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death: Sermons for Holy Week and Easter 

(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 360 pages plus copies of historical artwork depicting Jesus’ passion and resurrection appearances and notes.

Book cover of "The Undoing of Death"

These 42 sermons begin on Palm Sunday and continue through Easter Week, with most falling on Good Friday. The cross is central to Rutledge’s theology. She develops her theology of God reaching out to humanity through the cross. She defends the cross from distractors who either ignore or downplay its role in salvation history. Most of these sermons were not preached on Sunday morning. Rutledge often humorously builds up her audience by congratulating them on their faithfulness for showing up at worship. 

These sermons are faithful to scripture. Rutledge not only builds her message from the text supplied. She also draws on other passages from the Bible to support her message. Her sermons reflect on issues going on in the larger world. Sometimes, she mocks the Jesus Seminar and others who like to “publish” scandalous ideas about the faith around Holy Week. She also makes it clear in many sermons that all of us are responsible for Jesus’ death, that it is not something to be pinned on the Jews. 

This is a classic series of sermons and I’ll return to this resource during holy week. While I have known of Rutledge’s work and have read her articles and sermons in magazines, this is only the second book of hers that I read. During the last Season of Advent I read her book, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Like her Advent book, I recommend this collection of sermons. 

Caroline Grego, Hurricane Jim Crow: How the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 Shaped the Lowcountry South

Read by Diane Blue (University of North Carolina Press, Tantor Audio, 2022), 12 hours and 35 minutes.

Book cover of Hurricane Jim Crow

A late August 1893, a hurricane struck Hilton Head and the South Carolina lowcountry. The death toll included an untold number of African Americans who lived and worked in the region. The storm brought environmental destruction. Most of the crops died on the vine while salt water inundated many of the wells. Thousands of homes were unlivable, and the main industry (phosphate mining and fertilizer production) was ruined. The storm along with the rise of white supremacy would greatly change the region forever. 

The 1893 storm occurred in the aftermath of the Reconstruction and as Jim Crow laws were enacted in the South. This created even more hardship for the former slaves in the low country. Grego explores the development of the region with its crops of sea island cotton and rice cultivation. Because the climate and disease, most of the whites who controlled the region abandon it during the summer months. The slaves in the low country developed a certain autonomy. Early in the Civil War, the Union captured parts of the low country. This allowed them places to refuel and supply ships setting up the blockade of the southern ports. And while the slaves were not immediately freed, this allowed them to live without the oppressive oversight of their owners. After the war, former slaves were able to own much of the land. Beaufort even had a black sheriff during this era. Most of the African Americans owned small farms that raised some cash crop along with subsistence food. 

The storm was so destructive that it set in force a series of events that decreased the African American hold on the region. The Red Cross responded to the storm. They found themselves torn between those wanting white control of the region and the needs of the former slaves. Some white organizations within the state responded to a mistaken belief the Red Cross gave preferential treatment to blacks by creating a white-only relief organization. Grego explains how the white controlled governments surrounding the low country along with the state worked to encourage black migration. Theysought to bring this region into the Jim Crow era. Such events continued even into recent history as the region was “rediscovered” and many of the islands are converted to gated communities. 

Of course, it was not only the storm that helped create an unfavorable environment that forced many of the blacks within the low country to move or to lose their land. Grego acknowledges the role of technology and cheaper production methods. Rice in the low country died out. This was because of fewer workers and cheaper methods of growing it in the Mississippi delta. The same is true with cotton, which also suffered from the boll weevil. 

At the end of the book, Grego speaks of the “rediscovery” of the region. As it becomes a more popular destination, property prices and taxes go up, which continue to force out those whose families have lived on this land for centuries. 

MY interest in the book and recommendations

I have been interested in this book since I first learned of it. From 2013 to 2020, I lived on Skidaway Island, in the low country of Georgia. This island was settled by former slaves after the Civil War. They abandoned the island after a later storm in the 1890s, I was curious as to the parallels. Grego mentions the other storms that destroyed communities along the coast and set up new communities on the mainland like “Pinpoint.” The residents of Pinpoint were known for seafood, especially oysters. Sadly, they lost their income in the 1960s when a causeway was built between the mainland and Skidaway Island. The causeway changed the salinity of the water and much of the area no longer produced oysters. 

Grego mentions white “Red Shirts” who terrorized the black population in the later part of the 19th Century. I am curious about this group. A similar group also known as Red Shirts existed at the time in Wilmington North Carolina. In 1898, they brought terror on the black population of Wilmington and led a violent coup against the local government. 

I wish I had read instead of listened to this book. The book is academic. While the woman who reads the book is clear and easy to understand, I found it choppy. By increasing the speed, I was able to mitigate this to some extent. As a warning, I am sure that many people might consider this book within the genre of “Critical Race Theory.”  However, it’s history and we need to deal with it. I am glad to have read learned more about a region I called home for over six years.  

Roy, Utah, & Aimee Semple McPherson

View of Cedar City, Utah from Cedar Mountain, looking northwest. Photo by Jeff Garrison
Cedar City, Utah from Cedar Mountain, 2010 (Lund is in the distance, before the far mountains)

“My mother always told me that if she had enough money, she would have stayed on that train and headed back to Minnesota,” Roy confided to me. This was in the late 19th Century. His mother, who had met his father when he was on a trip back east, had come west to begin her married life. The train stopped in Lund, a small town along the line that would later become the Salt Lake and San Pedro Railroad. After that, it would be part of the Union Pacific line, but all that was in the future. Lund is in the middle of a garden of sagebrush. The country is barren and flat, but in the distance, mountains rise. In 1898, it was the closest rail hub to Cedar City. It’d be another couple of decades before a spur line was established, linking the city and its iron mines to the larger world. On

Roy’s father was there by the small station, with a buckboard, waiting. He loaded her luggage in the wagon. The train continued westward toward Modena and Pioche. Roy’s parents began their life together with a bumpy and dusty thirty-four mile ride to Cedar City. She would live there for the next eight decades. A couple years later, she gave birth to Roy.

View of Community Presbyterian Church of Cedar City, Built in 1926 and used as a church until 1997. Currently, it is used as an office.
Presbyterian Church 1926-1997

Roy’s father was one of three Swedes to come to Cedar City to herd sheep. In time, each began to save money and acquire their own herds and land. They stood out as Gentiles, non-Mormons, in a community dominated by Latter-day Saints. These three families would later form the nucleus of a Presbyterian Church. While they had been Lutheran, the Presbyterians had missionaries in the region. Roy’s mom agreed to help establish the church if the missionary pastor would teach Luther’s catechism. She would continue teaching Sunday School in that church until she was nearly a 100. She died at 104, a decade before my arrival. However, many of the members at that time still had fond memories of her. 

Ranching operations the desert near Cedar City, Utah. Photo by Jeff Garrison
Ranching operations near Cedar City

I spent my first Christmas in Cedar City with Roy and Velma and their son’s family, having a large dinner around their dining room table. I had moved to Cedar in October 1993. My wife had stayed behind to finish up her degree at Buffalo State. The day after Christmas, I flew east to meet her. We would visit to our families in North Carolina and Georgia before driving her car across the country. Around their table, I sat as an “adopted orphan” at Christmas,” hearing their story for the first time. 

Roy’s first wife was Vera, who’d died in the 40s. Roy had a large sheep operation by then and two young children. He then married Velma, Vera’s identical twin sister. Velma loved telling of the first time the mailman stopped after she had moved to Cedar City. The poor man almost had a heart attack, thinking Vera had come back from the grave. Velma laughed at my suggestion that she should have let the rumor run wild that God was known to raise the Presbyterian dead.

Roy was ninety-two and still active. But he didn’t get out a lot during the winter, with his son running the sheep operation. The exception was to attend church in January, close to his birthday. For the next three years, he stood up during joys and concerns and brag about his age. That first January he bragged that he was going to be 93 and could still ride a horse. The next January, he stood and bragged that he’d be 94 that week, and still his own boss. His wife leaned over to Edith Kirtly, both of whom were in their 80s and hard of hearing. She thought she was whispering, but everyone heard as she said to her friend, “That’s what he thinks.” The congregation erupted in laughter as Roy sat down, his face red with embarrassment. 

Over the next few years, I got to know Roy better and we had many discussions on faith. While he supported the church and believed in Jesus, he struggled with doubts that reached back to his youth. He was a high school student when his father, who was at a sheep camp, had a lantern explode in his face. Glass shivers flew into both eyes. From that point on, Roy and his brother alternated between school and running the sheep. In the summer, they were up on the mountain. During winter, the camped in the sagebrush at lower elevations. 

Roy’s mom took his father to doctors in the east and San Francisco, searching for someone who could restore his sight. But the damage was too extensive and there was nothing to be done.

Then she heard of Aimee Semple McPherson, a Pentecostal preacher whose worship services from Angelus Temple in Los Angeles was broadcasted across much of the country in the 1920s and 1930s. Known for her healing, she packed her husband up and they headed to Los Angeles, renting a small cabin not far from Angelus Temple. For several weeks they attended worship services and was visited by Sister Aimee. When she thought he was ready, she had him come up on the stage to have his sight restored. She laid her hands on him, prayed over him, and proclaimed him healed. Of course, his father’s eyes were too far gone. He never regained his sight and confided in his son that he never believed Sister Aimee could healed him but attended to satisfy his wife. 

The red hills of Navajo sandstone west of Cedar City, UT. Photo by Jeff Garrison
Cedar Canyon, west of the city

It amazed Roy that I knew about Sister Aimee. A new biography of her had been published a few years earlier and, as one interested in American evangelicalism, I had read it shortly before moving to Utah. In our conversations, I shared much of her intriguing and scandalous story with him. 

Roy died in 1997, the year after Utah celebrated its centennial, and two months before the Presbyterian Church moved into its new home. He lived all 96 of his years in Utah. He’d become a successful sheep herder. Although a Gentile in a community dominated by Mormons, he was an important business leader within the community. He even helped the Mormons by contributing to the construction of the second Mormon Stake House, which was just down the street from his house in the 1940s.

Roy was excited that the Presbyterian Church was building a new worship center. As the old church was too small and the new church not yet ready, his service in the funeral home. The room was packed with old ranchers and farmers as well as members of the Presbyterian Church. I preached on the 23rd Psalm, which seemed appropriate for a man who spent his life running 100s of thousands of sheep up the mountains and out across the valleys that surrounded Cedar City.

Another story from my Cedar City days: Doug and Elvira

On Cedar Mountain in the fall with the aspen in yellow. Photo by Jeff Garrison
Up on Cedar Mountain in the fall

Doug and Elvira: A Pastoral Tale

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

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

“I’m Jeff.  What can I do for you?”  

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

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

“I’m Elvira’s daughter,” she said.

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

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

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

“It was a mistake,” she confessed. 

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

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

“No,” she said trembling.  

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

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

“Well, he’s her son,” I said.  

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

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

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

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

Doug, 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me, backcountry skiing outside Virginia City, late December 1988

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

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

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

C Street, Virginia City, December 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the photos:

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

Other Virginia City Stories:

Matt in Virginia City, 1988

Riding the Virginia and Truckee

Christmas Eve on the Comstock, 1988

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

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

Last weekend (A tribute to two friends)

A Bittersweet Trip back to Skidaway

Romerly Marsh from the tower

I spent Saturday morning walking around the north end of Skidaway Island. It is hard to imagine I spent six and a half years here. My walk was a sad one as I recalled two friends from the island who are no longer with us. I had come back at the request of Anna Fay Lohn to talk at her husband, Andy’s, funeral. And last Thursday, as I sat down to write the homily for Andy’s service, I received a text from a friend informing me of the death of another friend, Todd Williams. Andy died of Leukemia, Todd of colon cancer. While I had known of Andy’s illness and talked to him a week before his death, I was unaware of Todd’s illness. I learned from friends that only a few knew he had cancer and only a few knew how sick he was. In this post, I’m going to say something about each.


Todd Williams

Todd on a cold day (I couldn’t find photos of him at the helm, but I know I have some)

Todd was an incredible sailor and our relationship mostly centered around sailboats and the Landings Sail Club. On the porch of the clubhouse, he was one of the most laidback guys. But put him at the tiller of a boat in a race and everything became very intense. He liked to win! He always pushed his crew hard and often there would be heated exchanges between him and the other boats around him. He knew the rules of the water well, but I have also seen him admit when he was wrong. I learned a lot from sailing with him and from competing against him. It was also on his boat that I ruptured my quad tendon in January 2016, when I slipped, with my foot pinned against a block, keeping my leg from bending as I fell backwards. Todd constantly called to check on me as I recovered from surgery. 

Todd’s “Grand Cru” approaching mark

What was probably the last race we competed against each other (the 2020 Hook Race from Hilton Head to the Landings Harbor), Todd’s boat just barely beat us around the sea buoy at the channel marker. With a lack of wind, they’d moved the finish line out into the ocean, cutting out the last 6 or so miles, so we’d be done before dark. About an hour before the end, the wind freshen up. Todd had stayed closed to land and we were further out into the sea, each trying to gain an advantage. When we came to the marker, Todd’s tack was better, as he charged out toward the buoy. He just beat us, but then had to laugh about it as our boat had a much higher handicap than his C&C 33. When the handicap was taken into account, we won, but he still wanted to be first and his boat skills allowed him to take advantage of that last puff of wind. As the light faded, so did the wind, and the two boats motored up the Wilmington River next to each other.  

I talked to Todd when I was in Savannah in October. He had planned to sail with me and a group of others but called to say he wasn’t feeling good. I had no idea he was so sick. We’d also texted back and forth in July when he was sailing the Chicago to Mackinaw race. I was on a friend’s boat in Grand Traverse Bay. We explored meeting on his sail back to Chicago, but wasn’t able to make it happen. 

Todd worked in risk assessment and often traveling to Europe and Asia. He loved the finest things in life, especially food and wine. He arranged the weekend regattas for the Landing Sail Club to almost the end. He is going to be missed on the island and in the sailing world.  On Saturday night, I gathered with members of the club for a bon fire to remember todd.

Photo from the Landings Sail Club Facebook page.
Todd on a moonlight sail, last year.

Andy Lohn

Andy Lohn was one of my best friends on the island (and there are many others who also felt Andy was their best friend, he was that kind of guy). Below is the homily I used for his service. One thing I left out, but was important and didn’t seem appropriate in a homily, was our Friday afternoon/evening “board meetings.” A group of six to eight of us would gather most Fridays for drinks and munchies and to solve the world’s problems! Lots of good conversation were held while nursing a glass of bourbon or scotch. Sadly, I never took any photos of the board meetings (probably because no one wanted the evidence). Here’s my homily: 

Andy Lohn Memorial Service Homily
Skidaway Community Church
John 14:1-6, 16:
January 29, 2022

Andy’s funeral. My homily starts around 18 minutes.

At times like this, it’s not only natural to remember, but healthy. It’s what the Apostle John did as he penned the words I’ve just read. He recalls the most memorable night of his life. John devotes almost a quarter of his gospel to this evening which Jesus and the disciples are together one last time as a family. Jesus didn’t want his disciples to be fearful or worried. He wants them to know that death is not the end, not his death, not ours, not Andy’s. 

I have a hope that when I see Andy again, he’ll be wearing his fire department apron, with Lohn on the butt tag, and standing over a grill. I’m sure he has already volunteered to serve as the master griller for Jesus’ promised banquet in the new kingdom. 

I met Andy through a phone call. He was on the Pastor Nominating Committee at Skidaway Presbyterian and called to see if I was interested in the position. At the time, I had two other church offers on my platter. I planned to accept one of them. I told him this up front. But we continued to talk for a good thirty minutes. We discussed the church, our faith, our families, our interest in the outdoors, and our love for the American West. It was a good conversation. I felt as if we had known each other a lifetime. As we said goodbye, he told me to let them know if I change my mind about those other churches. Obviously, I called back.

Andy was that type of guy. He never met anyone who was a stranger. If they were a stranger, it wasn’t for long. He had the ability to make those around him feel at ease.  And he inspired others. As one friend of Andy’s said, “just being around him, seeing how he interacted with others, made me want to become a better version of myself.” 

To meet Andy, you’d soon find yourself in a meaningful conversation. And he would often, at such time, share his faith. Not in an obnoxious, heavy-handed way, but in a natural, non-threatening manner. Charles Robeson, pastor at Kingdom Life Christian Fellowship, told me he met Andy as an attorney for a real estate deal, but soon they became brothers in Christ. 

I met Charles through Andy. He brought the three of us together to pray over the racial divide in Savannah. As Charles shared with me this week, two things stuck out about Andy: his faith in Christ and his desire to see the community unite beyond racial barriers. 

One of the things most of us appreciated about Andy was his subtle humor. Often, his humor was self-effacing. While Andy would wear suits, he was more comfortable in shorts and flipflops or loafers without socks. Once, after work, when he was comfortably dressed, he introduced Rory, one of his colleagues at the firm, to a group of us. Rory was still decked out in a suit; I think he may have loosened his tie. Pointing to his suit, Andy introduced him as a “real lawyer.” In a way, his humor was one of the ways he made everyone feel comfortable around him. 

Most everyone who hung around with Andy knew of his love to eat, often at dives. Whether it was, as one friend remembers, driving back from a dove hunt and stopping for a late breakfast in a greasy spoon. Or, as another remembers from another trip, stopping at a Mexican restaurant that was stuck behind a store that sold everything from food to cell phones. He and I often meet for lunch at Indian and Vietnamese restaurants. And Andy was also an excellent cook.

Andy strove to bring communities together. Whether it was communities of race, or different countries, or just people from different walks of life, he did what he could to gather people together in the hopes that bridges would be built. He worked hard for Rotary, serving as President and District Governor. He took an active interest in the exchange program, sponsoring a student from Germany, but also supporting others from Sri Lanka and Africa. He even spent several weeks one summer in Germany as a Rotary ambassador. As Paul Meyer, his colleague in law noted, “Andy embodied the Rotary ethos of ‘Service Above Self.’”

Andy’s work in the community extended beyond trying to build bridges. He was also about putting out fires, metaphorically as well as literally. Andy and I joined the fire department at the same time. We went through training together. Whether crawling through a maze or learning to fetch an unresponsive person down a ladder from two stories up, Andy was ready to raring and ready to go. Unfortunately, with hip issues, he had to step back from being an active firefighter, but he continued helping the Skidaway division as its treasurer until he became ill. 

Andy enjoyed being an attorney. His approach with his career was to use the law to do what is right. As his friend and client, Mark Hornsby, told me, “Andy served as my guard rail for getting through business problems.” 

Not only did Andy influence our community in a positive manner, but he also made connections through his work which allowed him to share his faith in Jesus Christ. Paul Meyer, who had the task of cleaning out his office, shared with me a thank you letter Andy received from a client he helped navigate his wife’s illness. The letter ended:

“God has often sent me someone I call, “Jesus with skin on.” You (Andy) fit that bill.
Thank you for your care and concern.”    

Andy: “Jesus with skin on.” If we all could be so gracious. 

One of the paralegals at his firm recalls how Andy would take time to explain the intricacies of the law. Andy worked to end. She continued to talk to him in the hospital several times a week. She imagined him hooked up to tubes and in pain, but he never complained. 

Andy liked being outdoors. Perhaps this came from him growing up in Western Colorado, where he gained “farm skills” and enjoyed the freedom of the outdoors. He enjoyed fishing and bird hunting and was a member of the Forest City Gun Club. A couple of years ago, he purchased a kayak. I was hoping to paddle with him, but he had his hip issues and then I moved. I am glad, though, that after I left, he was able to paddle several times with another friend, Aaron Bibby. 

With all the good Andy strove to do in our community, he was basically a family man. He and Anna Fay created a loving home, where everyone felt welcome. 

Friends of his and Anna Fay introduced the two of them. They were married for 31 years. Andy was so excited when they were expecting Katherine, their first child, that several weeks before her due date, he put the car seat on a counter in the kitchen, with a buckled in Teddy Bear. He was ready to go! When she began her studies at Georgia Tech, Andy proudly put a “Georgia Tech Dad” sticker on his truck. He loved both of his daughters. He was a proud of Caroline’s accomplishments on the tennis court and excited as her faith in Jesus grew. 

He was also proud of his family. While Andy never served in the military, he honored those who did. If you were in his home, I’m sure he told you about his father, a Navy hardhat diver at the end of World War II, or showed you the metals and honors his father-in-law (a colonel in the Army) had earned. He was proud of other family members who served their country including Colonel David Howell, Captain John Tilley, and Sergeant Ken Midcalf (all who are here today). 

Finally, Andy’s faith in his Savior Jesus Christ was solid. He knew the Bible and could draw on its wisdom. He often spoke of how good it felt to study the Scriptures. Others, as we’ve already seen, saw his faith through his life. His brother-in-law Fen commented on his strong faith, saying, “we all should be so blessed.” 

Chili cook-off team (Andy is third from left on back row)

Andy worked hard here at Skidaway Community Church, serving as an Elder and a member of the Pastor Nominating Committee. I will always be grateful for the one Saturday, in which my father was in the hospital in North Carolina. I stopped in to see my dad on my way out of town, as I had to preach here on Sunday. But things weren’t looking good. Suddenly, a team of doctors came in and decided immediate surgery was necessary. I called Andy. I told him my sermon was prepared and asked if he could he preach it for me so I could stay where I was needed. He graciously accepted. If there was anything Andy could do for you, he would. 

Andy’s faith must have played a role in his optimism. He knew he was in God’s hands. He told those at Meyer and Sayers Law, after he was diagnosed with leukemia, that he could have two perspectives. “I can either look down in the mud or look up in the stars. I prefer to look up and see the stars.” As his friend, Sam Eskew, said toward the end of Andy’s life, “You can tell he doesn’t feel well, but he won’t say that. He’s always throwing roses.” 

Andy is no longer with us, but he has gone to that home his Savior has been preparing for him.  

In our gospel reading, we see how Jesus knew on that night of his betrayal what his disciples would be feeling once he left. He shared their apprehension over his leaving, but Jesus also understood he was called for a greater purpose. He comforts his friends by assuring them there are going to be many dwelling places where he’s going, enough for all of them to join him. 

It’s comforting to realize the potential of this promise. Jesus prepares a place for us; he expects us to join him. We can be assured that he has welcomed Andy home, for Andy’s true home was not here on Skidaway Island or in Atlanta or Colorado. Like us, Andy was a pilgrim on earth. He journeyed here for sixty-one years of preparation for his new life with Jesus. 

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” This one sentence ties together Jesus’ entire ministry. This is good news for those of us who belong to a race of people who have lost their way.

Salvation is not our doing. It is a gift of God made possible through the saving work of Jesus Christ who gave his life for the life of the world. Jesus’ words in this passage are not only directed at the disciples. The eleven who remained somewhat faithful are not the only ones who are promised rooms in that heavenly mansion. Because he is the Way and the Truth and the Life, because he died for the life of the world, Jesus’ words apply to us, too.

Jesus’ words provide hope for a better world; a world prepared for Andy, for us, and for all followers of Jesus. Salvation is found in him and him alone. Yet, even with this hope, our pain remains as we remember Andy: a loving husband, a devoted father, and a loyal and optimistic friend. As John recalls Jesus’ words, “You will have pain now; but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice.” Amen.

Taken on my walk around Skidaway on Saturday

I’ve been away (a mostly photo essay)

Two days after Christmas, I headed to Southeastern North Carolina. The 29th was my father’s 85th birthday, and my sister had planned a party that I didn’t want to miss.

My sister presents her carrot cake to my father for his birthday

The weather for the first five days were incredible. On New Year’s Eve, my dad and I paddled from Trail’s End to the south end of Masonboro Island. My brother brought everyone else along in his boat, so that we might have lunch on the island. My daughter was introducing Apple, her new dog to the ocean (I even gave Apple a ride in the kayak).

Apple trying out the water (It’s hard to believe that it was warm enough to be in the water on New Year’s Eve!)

Not my typical paddling style. The high brace was to keep from hitting the dog in my lap.

After an early night on New Year’s Eve, Donna and I headed out to the beach for a New Year’s Sunrise before she and Caroline headed back to the mountains (I was going to stay through January 5). The idea was to watch the first sunrise of the new year, but a fog bank offshore disappointed those waiting for the sunrise along the beach.

Sunrise at the Kure Beach pier

On New Year’s Day, the wind picked up, so Dad and I headed inland and did a black water paddle on Rice’s Creek. We paddled upstream several miles, to where the creek becomes just wider than a kayak. I left my sea kayak at home and used a boat of a friend of my dad (that was 12 feet long instead of 18 feet, making it easier to navigate).

Paddling on Rice’s Creek

A poem written on Rice’s Creek (I’m not sure who’s the one with dark eyes)

The whole world appears in the reflection of the dark waters:
Cypress, tupelo, clumps of mistletoe, puffy clouds and blue sky.
Yet, I cannot see the long just underneath the water,
just as your dark eyes reflect the world while hiding much.

I had planned to either go to Cape Lookout or Masonboro Island to camp for a night or two, but the weather turned rough. We had winds approaching fifty miles an hour on Monday, so we stayed home and I read. On Tuesday, my brother and I went down to scout out an area on the Waccamaw River that he wanted to see about paddling. The weather had turned cold and was freezing, but we dressed warm and covered about 13 miles of the river, starting at Conway, South Carolina to Peachtree Landing. When I lived in Whiteville, in the early 1980s, I had paddled on the Waccamaw several times, between Lake Waccamaw and Pireway. I’d never been on the river in South Carolina.

Running along the lower Waccamaw
Conway now has a nice waterfront
An old log hauler (designed to run on light rail track)
I think these are Ibis in this tree (Kingfishers were the most common birds seen along Rice’s Creek and the Waccamaw)

I came back to the mountains on Wednesday, between two winter storms (one was on Monday and the second on Thursday).

Back home, having missed the first snow of the season in the mountains

“Joy to the World” A History of a Carol

I wrote this article for in 2019, on the 300th anniversary of the hymn, for The Skinnie, a magazine for Skidaway Island. I have slightly altered the text for this blog post.

Issac Watt’s Role

This year, with a young puppy in the house, the tree is locked up

A little over three hundred years ago, in 1719, English hymn-writer Isaac Watts published the words we know today as “Joy to the World.” Today it’s one of the most popular Christmas carols in America, with its hopeful and joyful message. However, “Joy to the World” was not written as a Christmas carol. It would take nearly 120 years before the carol we know was first sung. 

Isaac Watts is perhaps the greatest author of hymns ever. Supposedly, when he was a boy, he complained to his father about church music. Like a good parent, his father suggested that instead of complaining, he should work to make it better. From this challenge Watts, set out to write hymns, a relatively new style of music for Protestant Churches in the early 17th Century. At this time, especially in the English world, the Psalms served as the main source of lyrics for music sung in churches. As a pastor in a dissenting English Church, Watts began writing hymns. While he often drew from the Psalms, upon which he would modernize the language and Christianize the content, he also wrote hymns that reflected a trust in an Almighty God and in a Savior who was willing to die for humanity. Churches in Britain and America quickly adopted Watts’ hymns. These hymns include “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “From All that Dwell Below the Skies,” and of course, “Joy to the World.” 

Influence of Psalm 96

“Joy to the World” was based on Psalm 96, a royal Psalm of God’s enthronement as King. King David sings this Psalm, we learn in 1st Chronicles, as he moves the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. At a time in history, nearly a millennia before Christ, most nations had their own gods. Psalm 94 proclaims the God of the Hebrews, the God of Abraham, as reigning not just over the Hebrew people, or just in Jerusalem, but over the world. The God of the Psalmist is supreme throughout the world. God will rule fairly. God will administer justice with equity. God’s deeds are such that all will stand in awe and, along with all that is in heaven and on earth, will sing out in joy. 

Watts took Psalm 96 and tweaked it in a manner that reflects Christ’s second coming. In addition to the three traditional stanzas of the Psalm, which he modified, he added a fourth (which he inserted between the second and third stanzas).

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;

He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found, 
Far as the curse is found, far as, far as the curse is found.

This stanza reflects Watt’s eschatological hope based on Christ’s return. God reverses the curse of Eden. It was a wonderful poem of the Second Coming. Watt’s titled his piece, “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.”

The words for the carol were written three hundred years ago. However, it required more creativity for this poem to became the beloved Christmas Carol we now know.

The Role of George Frederick Handel

The composer for the music who he combined with Watt’s poem was George Frederick Handel of Germany. Handel and Watts were contemporaries and were both living in England at the same time, but the two of them did not work on this carol. The music comes from Handel’s “Messiah,” a popular piece often sung by choirs and in concerts during the Christmas season.  But this adaptation of the two works did not occur for another century and on another continent, long after the deaths of Watts and Handel. 

The Role of Lowell Mason

 Lowell Mason was born in 1792, into a musically talented family in Medfield, Massachusetts. As a child and young man, he learned to play the clarinet, violin, cello, flute, piano and organ and became a choir director in his home town at the age of 17. A few years later, he moved to Savannah, where he worked in a dry-goods store and later in a bank. During this time, he studied under a Frederick Abel, a music teacher from Germany and began to serve as the choir director and organist at Independent Presbyterian Church. Mason helped create the first African-American Sunday School at Savannah’s First Bryan Baptist Church. This was at a time when the education of slaves was condemned throughout the South. 

After returning north, he later served as music director for the well-known abolitionist preacher Lyman Beecher. While working in Savannah, Mason became interested in musical composition and had to travel to Boston in 1922 to have his first collection of arrangements published as there were no publishers in the South with the capacity to print musical fonts. 

         Mason moved to Boston in 1827, where he served as organist and choirmaster for several prominent churches. He worked for a time as music director for the well-known abolitionist preacher, Lyman Beecher. During this era, he became an American proponent for European-styled music. At the time, adherents of the traditional American “shape-note” tradition satirized the European-style as the “Better Music Boys.” However, because of Lowell and others insisted on music education in schools, America eventually adopted the European styled music. 

         Mason was an important figure in music in early America who wrote, arranged, or composed music for hundreds of hymns including “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” He also wrote secular music including the popular nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  

         Mason’s most popular tune, however, is “Joy to the World, in which he arranged the words of Isaac Watts’ poem with tunes of Handel to create the popular Christmas carol. “Joy to the World” is considered the most loved carol in America.  Almost every congregation will sing it during the Christmas season and just about every artist who has recorded Christmas Carols have included this hymn in their repertoire. The song is uplifting, as it reflects the Christian hope of a new and peaceful world in which Christ will reign as King.  

         This year, as you hear this song sung on the radio or perhaps in a Candlelight service on Christmas Eve, may you experience joy. 

         For Christmas Eve services along the Blue Ridge, Bluemont will hold its service at 4 PM and Mayberry at 6 PM. Both churches will be celebrating communion and invite you all to attend. 

Meadows of Dan Christmas Parade

Floyd High School Band

Small communities tend to do the best with Christmas parades, and the Meadows of Dan Christmas parade was no exception. The line was long and involved so many people that you would think there wouldn’t be anyone watching. But the street was filled with folks, especially kids with bags as the parade is like Mardi Gras, with people throwing candy (I didn’t see any beads). 

Roger pulls the float into town for the parade
Richard not only helped built the float, he was also the Parade Marshall

Cedar City UT Christmas Parade 1996 (some of those kids now have children as old as they were then)

This year, the good folks at Mayberry Presbyterian Church decided to create a church float. This was a community effort, which I suggested based on something we’d done when I was a pastor in Utah. Shep purchased the 2x4s, most of which he and Richard split into 2x2s. Fred loaned us the trailer. A frame was built with the help of Joey, Mike and Linda, Richard, and Henri. Then Richard and I ran down to a place near Martinsburg, where we were able to obtain the MDF board at $7 a sheet. These we brought back and cut out the windows and doors. A team the consisted of Mike and Linda , Angie and Shep, Richard and Ann painted the rocks and the roof to match the church. Sharon fed us with hot dogs from Jane’s Country Cafe. 

The frame on Fred’s trailer

Painting rocks
Panels drying (notice the real church in the background)

After the panels were try, we screwed the walls and roof to the frame. We taped plastic over the windows, put up a tree inside the church, and taped battery-operated candles onto the windows. 

Steeple Jacks Mona and Norris in front of the float after the parade

At the same time, Norris and Mona were constructing the steeple. If he gets tired of being a financial planner, Norris could have a career as a steeple jack!  We installed the steeple while waiting for the parade to begin, feeling it might be a bit dangerous to drive it the 3 ½ miles to where the parade lined up. We were not sure if the steeple (held on with a few screws) could survived a 45 mile an hour wind.  

For the parade, Roger drove Mike N’s truck, pulling the float. In front of the church, sitting on hay bales, were Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus laying the manger.  Madison and Kegon Played Mary and Joseph with Jesus being played by a Mattel doll. Standing in the seat of the truck, head poked out of the sunroof, was Happy. Dressed as an angel, she harked the coming of the season. She also threw out candy canes with information about our Christmas Eve services and one of the many “legends” of

the candy cane on the back.

Lining up for the parade

The parade was probably two miles long (for a business district that is about two blocks long). Not to be overly proud, but we took first-place. Thanks everyone for your hard work!  (I hope I didn’t forget anyone). 

This year’s Christmas Eve services for the Rock Churches: Bluemont at 4 PM and Mayberry at 6 PM.  There will also be a Christmas Eve program available on our YouTube Channel after 5 PM. If you’re not in our area, please check out the program! Also, if you like it, please like, and subscribe to our YouTube channel.    

Santa waiting to bring up the rear