Keep Going: Hebrews 12:1-13

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
May 15, 2021
Hebrews 12:1-13

Sermon taped at Bluemont Church on Friday, May 13, 2021

Thoughts at the beginning of worship: 

We’re on a journey. It’s a familiar Christian metaphor that we’ve seen through our time in the Book of Hebrews. As Christians, we are not settlers on this earth, we’re pilgrims. We’re passing through, longing for the place God prepares. That doesn’t mean this world is all bad; after all God created the world good.[1] But it does mean that we don’t need to be too attached to the present. We must trust and have faith in what God is doing. 

Today, the preacher of this sermon known as the Book of Hebrews, steps up the pace. Instead of a journey like Abraham trotting through the desert, or the Israelites filing out of Egypt, we’re now called to run. The end is near and there’s Jesus and others cheering us on. It is not a time to stumble, not when we’re so close. 

In my Monday’s Bible study on this passage, Jerry Potter, who ran track in high school, said his coach used to always say, “Don’t stop until you’re beyond the tape.” Was he just talking about running, or is this a metaphor for life?  

Read Hebrews 12:1-13 in The Message translation. 

After reading Scripture

The night had been filled with storms. It felt good to have rain at night, when sleeping. It certainly beat walking in the rain. Nonetheless, I kept waking and checking for leaks in my tarp and watching the incredible lightning. This made me sluggish crawling out of my sleeping bag come morning. 

Fog hung over Cloud Pond Lake and in a distance, I could see a moose in knee-deep water, eating. Although the rain had stopped, water continued to drip off the leaves and the ground was soaked. I pulled on my boots and began the morning ritual. 

Morning on the Appalachian Trail

By this point in my hike on the Appalachian Trail, everything had been reduced to a ritual. I put on a pot of water to boil, while I stuff my sleeping bag and rolled by pad. When the water boiled, I fixed a big bowl of oatmeal mixed with powdered milk, nuts, dried fruit, and brown sugar. With the remaining water, I set a tea bag to steep. I then found myself a rock and sat. While eating, I made a few notes in my journal and read a Psalm or two. I was in no hurry to start hiking with everything wet, Yet the trail soon called. 

Seeing the distance goal

It was my second day out of Monson, Maine. I headed deep into the 120-mile wilderness, a section of the Appalachian Trail in which there are no public roads. The next such road is at the base of Mount Katahdin where the trail ends. When I shouldered my pack, the cool air encouraged me to go faster. I climbed Chairback Mountain, making it across the various peaks. And on the fourth peak, I saw Katahdin, off in the distance. My summer of hiking the trail was coming to an end. I could see the goal. I celebrated with a large tootsie roll. 

Over the next day, Katahdin kept appearing. There it was on the peaks of Gulf Hogas Mountain and White Cap Mountain. I wanted to slow down, but at times felt an invisible hand push me forward. Sometimes the feeling was so real, as if someone was pushing against my back. I would turn around, but no one was there. 

I mused in my journal if it was God providing the strength I’d prayed for, to finish the trail. But as I was getting closer, I now wanted to go on forever. I wanted to savor every moment. 

Katahdin from Daisy Lake (taken on August 29, 1987)

The mornings were cold, sometimes below freezing, but by the afternoon, things would warm up and we’d often take a swim in one of the numerous lakes. I pulled a 23-mile day but was sad when I realized it would be the last of my 20-mile days. The days, along with the miles, were getting shorter. Several of us planned to climb Katahdin on August 30. There was no need to rush. 

Lakes block our way

Then the lakes appear. There were no more mountains, just hills, until the end which was on the summit of Katahdin. It seemed we just had lakes to walk around. Katahdin could regularly be seen from the southern shores. The lakes blocked our way to the mountain. We’d travel east or west, around the lake, to its mouth or headwaters, where we’d cross a small stream on a log to get to the other side. A few miles later, as we approached another lake, there would be Katahdin, again. It didn’t look much closer. With the trail running mostly running parallel, back and forth, we were forced to endure a slow approach. 

Hebrews and the Appalachian Trail

As I think back over our journey through the book of Hebrews, I feel a little like I was on the Appalachian Trail back in 1987. Throughout Hebrews, we’ve been invited to journey with others. Whether Abraham or Moses, or the Israelites, movement is a part of life. We’re called to something better. Something pulls us forward. Jesus Christ is like a magnet, drawing us onward. 

Jesus is superior to everything

The preacher of this sermon known as Hebrews has already pointed out Jesus as superior to everything. He tops angels and Moses and the Chief Priest. His sacrifice supersedes all other sacrifices and renders them obsolete. For Hebrews, everything comes back to Jesus. He is our goal, the one we are to follow, the one longed for by the people of faith in Israel, as we saw in the 11th Chapter. 

No longer just a journey, now a race

While the first 11 chapters of Hebrews is about a journey, the author shifts metaphors in the 12th. It’s no longer a leisurely walk, but a race, a marathon.[2] We’re taken into the sports arena where the fans are those who have completed the race. They form a cloud of witnesses, cheering us on, as we make our way toward the throne of God, toward our Savior, the one who perfects our faith. 

As I have said many times as we work our way through this book, the concern raised in Hebrews is that some have or are considering abandoning the faith.[3] The message in this passage is don’t give up. We’re so close. The discipline and the training we’ve endured have brought us to this point. Keep going… 

Those watching us includes Jesus

We’re reminded that Jesus, too, has run this race. He lived among us and suffered with and because of us. While he may have stumbled along the way to the cross,[4] he fulfilled his mission and is now at the right hand of God. We can almost envision the ancient coliseum in which the runners would complete their race. At the top, you had the king and his family. Here, we have God the Father and Jesus the son, watching in excitement as we run our race. 

Doesn’t that get to you, we’re being watched, by God and by those who have gone before us. Not just the ancient ones spoken of in chapter 11, but others from our own lives. Think of those who shared the faith with us and who encouraged us in this life. Maybe it’s our parents and grandparents. Maybe it’s a teacher or a youth leader. They want us to hang in there. They want us to remain faithful and finish the race. 


In the middle part of our reading, starting with verse 4, it appears as if the author moves off the race image, but not really. He brings up our trials and troubles and reminds us that we’re not the first or the only one to face such trials. Some had even worse. Furthermore, there are times we may wonder about the discipline we’ve had to endure. 

Does God not like us, we question? But we’re reminded that if a parent doesn’t discipline a child, there is something wrong. The same is true with God.

Did you parents ever say right before a punishment, “This is going to hurt me more than you?” Discipline isn’t fun for either party, but Hebrews reminds us that it’s part of our training. If a runner lacks discipline, he probably lacks metals, too. We must learn right and wrong, what is good and beautiful along with what is bad and ugly. Furthermore, we are to learn what God has done for us. 

Telling the story as preparation

In the Old Testament, after the Exodus, Israel is repeatedly told to teach the story to their children. It was the purpose behind the Passover celebration. The same is true for our remembering of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. It’s all part of our training and preparation for the race of life.

The race to the top

The morning of August 30th came quickly. Having camped the previous night at the base of Mount Katahdin, I was up before dawn. I laced my boots over my sore feet. Even though calloused after months of hiking, those dogs still hurt.[5] I went through my routine one more time, firing up my stove in the as dawn broke. 

After breakfast, I started discarding that which I did not need in my pack. I had spent my last night on the trail; this night I would be in a hotel. Like a runner discarding anything that would him or her back, I shed all the weight I could. With a light pack, I hit the trail. Nothing could hold me back now. 

That’s the message of Hebrews. Keep going. Shed anything that holds you back. Keep moving closer and closer to Jesus. God is not some angry judge in the sky just waiting for the opportunity to smack us down. God, along with all the others, are cheering us on. Keep going. 

As Jerry Potter’s track coach used to tell him, “Don’t stop running until you are through the tape.” And, I will add, “keep your eyes on Jesus.”  Amen. 

[1] The world itself longs for renewal, Paul tells us in Romans 8:18-25. 

[2] Thomas Long, Hebrews (Louisville, KY: WJKP. ), 

[3] We first saw this concern in Hebrews 2:1-4. 

[4] The idea that Jesus stumbled comes from Simon of Cyrene being pressed to take Jesus’ cross. See Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26.

[5] Dogs were trail slang for feet. 

Harvey and Ernest in the Bakery

Series introduction

In the summer of 1976, I began working at Fox Holsum Bakery in Wilmington, NC. I had just finished my first year of college. For the summer, I had a job traying bread. At the end of the summer, as I wrote about last week, the plant manager asked if I would be interested in continuing to work on second shift. This allowed me to work full time, while also attending college. During my senior year of college, they promoted me to supervision. I continued with the banker for almost two years after graduation, when I decided to take a major pay cut and go to work for the Boy Scouts of America. 

The bakery no longer exists even though the building and the flour silos along the railroad tracks were still standing a few years ago when I rode by the plant. I hope to rework a number of essays I’ve written about some of the characters I knew during this period of time. Over the next few months, as I work on them, I will post them here. 

Story 1: Coming of age in the bakery
Story 2: A college boy in the bakery

Harvey and Ernest

I inherited Harvey and Ernest a few days after I graduated from college. With four years of college under my belt and a philosophy degree to hang on the wall, I decided not to even look for other employment. Of course, now that I’d graduated from college, my schedule was more flexible. When they recruited me to stay on after that first summer, they promised to keep me on second shift so that I’d be able to attend school in the mornings. This worked well, but once I’d graduated, they wanted me on the night shift. I had to pay my dues. Harvey was my oven operator and Ernest ran the pan-stackers. Although they were as different as night and day, I liked both of them. 

Ernest also went by “Rerun” This was based on the character played by Fred Berry on the popular 70s TV show, “What’s Happening.” Both Ernest and Berry were comical, overweight, and Africa-American. Harvey was a skinny, aging, white-guy, clueless about the world. As their 22-year-old supervisor, I was almost as clueless as Harvey.

A night in the bakery

My day began around mid-night, when I came in the plant and spent the first hour developing schedules. Then the first part of my shift reported. In the mixing room was Roosevelt on the mixers and Frank running the make-up equipment that took the dough, shaped it, and placed it into pans. Ernest and Harvey worked in the background, which comprised about half the plant with just the two of them. Ernest ran the panstackers, while Harvey oversaw the operation of the oven and proof box, each the size of a house. 

The machinery Ernest managed placed the pans on the conveyor that transported them into the mixing area. Havery’s first hour was more laidback. He turned on the steam into the proof box and lighted the oven’s burners (the oven had about forty burners in it). 

For the next three hours, it was just the five of us. Roosevelt would start mixing the dough while Frank set up the equipment. In the back room, Ernest kept count of the number of pans needed for each size and type of bread. When the first dough dumped from the mixer (which had a capacity of 2400 pounds), the operation started. The plant was mostly automatic. A pump drew the dough out of the trough and into the divider, that cut the dough into loaf sizes. From there, the rounder snapped the dough into a ball. Then, running through sheeters and moulders, to create a loaf. The dough dropped into a pan and conveyed over to the proof box.

This automation continued as a conveyor ran the pans from the proof box to the oven, then out of the oven and through a depanner. From there the bread went through a cooler, while the pans returned to the mixing area for more dough. 

At four in the morning, Bobby and his crew came in to run the slicers and baggers. Timing was everything. A few minutes after four, bread that had been cooled enough to be sliced, marched on the conveyors out of the cooler and toward the slicers. Afterwards, the bread was stuffed into bags. If all ran well, the first-time human hands touched the product was when the wrapped loaves were placed on trays and sent to the shipping department. We could produce 5000+ pound loaves or 4200-pound-and-a-half loaves of bread an hour. 

Ernest sleeping on the job

The one similarity Ernest and Harvey shared was solitude. For the most part, they wanted to do their job and be left alone except for an occasional break to smoke a cigarette. They were both good at what they did. Once Ernest had things running smoothly, he’d lean against the machinery and rest. From then on, his role was to clear jams and troubleshoot problems. I knew he’d developed the skill of sleeping upright against the machines. Any change in vibration would immediately wake him. He’d fix the problem and then return to his nap.

Of course, Ernest insisted he never slept. I wasn’t troubled by it for I knew Ernest always got his job done. But for some reason, I also felt I had a point to prove. One morning, while he was napping and the machines humming smoothly, I found a piece of twine and some fabric and fashioned a tail, much like you make for a kite. I tied it to a belt loop on the back of his pants. Ernest snoozed. Once he woke, he couldn’t see it; he was too big. Over the next several hours, quite folks in the plant all made a trip back to his area to see his “tail.” 

Ernest wasn’t too happy with me when I asked if he grew the tail while sleeping on the job. Thinking back, it wasn’t a very nice joke. It was also dangerous considering the equipment we worked with. In time he forgave me, and I stopped hounding him about sleeping.

The education of Harvey

Harvey worked in the most isolated part of the plant. Ernest was located near the receiving docks, so he’d often see people walking by. Few people walked by Harvey’s workstation. Except for the supervisor or a mechanic, one either wanted to see him, were lost, or were trying to hide. Harvey oversaw the most automotive section in the plant. As I wrote in the last piece, when things worked properly, it was a breeze. When something went wrong, such as a jam in the oven, Harvey just didn’t call for help. He hit a button. This set off a horn heard throughout the bakery, summoning mechanics, and me to drop whatever we were doing and run back to the oven. A major malfunction at that point in production meant we had only a couple of minutes to get things going before losing thousands of loaves of bread. Luckily, things kept humming most of the time.

The mechanics often spent time with Harvey, making minor adjustments, watching to make sure things were running okay, and at times, avoiding other work. A couple mechanics took it upon themselves to educate Harvey, something that nearly six decades of life had failed to do. Pornographic magazines, often very graphic, were utilized as textbooks. I was spared their instruction, being in management, but I always knew when Harvey had received a lesson. He’d be beside himself and would start babbling to me about it. “You wouldn’t believe what that girl was doing,” he’d say. “Why would someone do that,” he asked? Although I don’t think he was a religious man, the general depravity of the human race greatly troubled Harvey.

Working on Ernest’s Cadillac

Another memory I have of Harvey and Ernest happened early one morning. We’d been having trouble with people breaking into cars parked outside the plant, especially older vehicles which didn’t have hood latches inside the car. On these vehicles, the thieves didn’t have to get into the car to pop the hood and steal the battery. Ernest drove a big old dark-green Cadillac. To keep it safe, he’d park on the street, right next to the loading dock and under a streetlight. This morning, about 1 AM, as I was going over the schedule with Ernest, telling him how many of what type of pans we’d need, Harvey went out on the loading dock for a smoke. When he returned, he asked Ernest, without sensing anything wrong, “Who’s working on your car this time of night?” Ernest took off out the door like a locomotive, cussing and screaming. The guys stealing his battery dropped their tools and took off. Harvey had no clue; Ernest gained a pair of pliers and a wrench.

I talked to the police. They told me to mark the batteries. A battery with identifying mark indicating its owner made it difficult to be sold. Salvage yards had police to check such batteries. I purchased an engraver and offered to write the license plate numbers on top of my employees’ car batteries. Word about this quickly spread around the neighborhood. I don’t remember any more batteries stolen afterwards.

Thinking back, 40 years later

I worked the night shift for a year and would stay at the bakery for another year after that. I still think about those guys and wonder whatever happened to Ernest and Harvey.

A College Boy in the Bakery

This is the second story in my bakery saga. Unlike the first story about Linda, which I wrote years earlier and revised, this is a new story. While the bakery was always hot, this post isn’t nearly as steamy as the first one. It also has more technical detail that’s required to fully understand what I’m talking about.

Summer’s End

As the summer of 1976 wrapped up, I called into the plant manager’s office. That morning I’d given my two-week notice. My plan was to leave the bakery as I returned to college. I would also work in the fall part-time at a Wilson’s Supermarket on Oleander Drive, where I had worked for several years. Even during this summer at the bakery, I still put in six or eight hours a week there, mainly ordering and tending the cigarette aisle. It’d been a busy summer, and I had no idea why the plant manager wanted to see me. 

 “I’d like you continue working here,” he said. “In a few months, I think you’ll be a supervisor. And I promise to keep you on second shift, if you can arrange your schedule to take morning classes.”

He also noted that for the time being, I would be the second shift operator for the bread slicers and baggers. I had already spent some time that summer learning and running this equipment due to an accident earlier in the summer. 

Roy’s accident with the wrapping machine

One hot day, a major breakdown occurred in the proof box. This meant we didn’t have bread to package for several hours. After cleaning up our workstations, there was little for us to do until they got the operation back running,. We hid out on the loading deck. Roy was the second shift operator for the slicers and wrappers. He proceeded to smoke a couple of joints. By the time the bread production resumed, he was feeling pretty good. But his thinking wasn’t very clear, nor his reflexes fast. 

In other that your thinking will be clearer, let me explain the process. As a loaf of bread approached the bagger, a shot of compressed air blew up a bag. This signaled an arm to shoot, out, catching the loaf of bread and sliding into the bag. As the arm retreated, the bread was inside the bag and dropped onto another conveyor. It then moved through a machine that sealed the open end of the bag with a twist tie. The arm that caught to bag was sharp and shiny, made of stainless steel. This was so it could easily slide into and out of the bag. If the bag didn’t open, there was a switch that would stop the machine. There was also a metal lattice grate that protected the operator from the arm. If the grate wasn’t fully extended, there was another switch that kept the machine from operating. 

On this day, the wrapping machines were having problems. This often happened on really hot days as the bag would stick, or when the bags were old. Roy was constantly having remove stuck bags. To expedite things, he tapped down the switch that kept the machine from operating when one’s hands were inside the grate. Then, when cleaning up some bad bags that had jammed the machine, he accidently tripped the switch that indicated the bag had blown open. The metal arm shot out to catch the loaf and sliced into the flesh on Roy’s forearm. Blood went everywhere. He required 20 or so stitches. 

That evening, Paul, the supervisor began teaching me how to operate the machinery. The next day, instead of traying off bread, I ran the machines. They kept Bobby, the first shift operator over to help train me and until we had no more change overs. I worked for a few days as an operator, but then went back to bagging when Roy returned. 

Roy would only work another week or so before he quit. I never completely understood him. He had left the army after 10 years, which he had worked primarily as a cook. He learned the baking trade in Vietnam, where he worked in an American built field bakery supplying troops in the country. I never knew why he left the bakery and I never saw him again. From this point on, I was operating the equipment, even though I was still making the wage of a bread trayer. But my summer was almost over and It was a week or so later I was in the plant managers office. 

Two job offers

I asked time to think about the offer. The grocery store I was working for had also offered me a similar position. They were opening a new store near Monkey Junction. Bert, the manager who had hired me, was being moved to the new store and offered me to come along as the “third man,” essentially the second manager, who main job would be to close the store several nights during the week. It was tempting, but in the end decided I would stick to the bakery. Having worked in the grocery store through high school, I’d done most of the jobs throughout the store except for in the meat department. The bakery was still a mystery, so I accepted the offer. When classed resumed, I left the grocery store and began to work fulltime on second shift at the bakery. 

Operating the slicers and baggers

About a month later, the plant manager left. I was never sure if he quit on his own or if he was fired, but I would not be a supervisor for nearly three more years (and two plant managers later). 

While I was not a supervisor, I was the lead on a four-person operation. This was especially true after some remodeling of the plant. When I was hired, the bread traying operation occurred in the shipping area (and faced Linda’s work station). There, two conveyors from the wrapping machines brought the bread through a wall. This was the position was just behind the roll wrapping area, providing me with Linda. At the end of the summer, they cut out the wall and moved the bread trayers next to the wrapping machines. This allowed for the wrapping operator to be able to interact more easily with the trayers.  

The process

The bread came into the wrapping area from the cooler, where it had spent approximately an hour cooling to where the outside was crusty, but the inside was still warm. This was necessary for the bread not to mash up in the slicers. This bread came out on a single conveyor, which split into two before going through the slicers. A woman generally worked at this position, making sure the operations ran smoothly. Whenever one of the machines were down, she would take off the excess bread and place it on waiting trays. Then, she would feed it back in when things ran well. 

The slicers were large bandsaws, but instead of a single blade, there were sixteen or so blades. Each blade was circular and five feet or so in diameter. Inside the machine, the blades twisted in a figure eight around two drums. This allowed the cutting surface of each blade to face the incoming bread and resulted in two slices per blade. A few extra blades were stored on the drums of each slicer. This allowed for the operator or a mechanic to quickly move blades over to replace a broken one. The razor sharp blades were dangerous. The equipment remained closed, except for where the bread entered and departed. If one of the doors on the machine opened, a switch shut the saw down down. A broken blade flying free would be deadly. 

From the slicers, the bread traveled by a conveyor, maybe ten feet long, to the bagger. This conveyor had sides that were set to the bread to keep the slices from falling. After bagging and tying the loaves, they were placed on to trays and racks, which the shipping department then handled. In some ways, this was an easy job, when things went well. This was especially true after all the changes that came with morning variety bread. Once we started with the pound and a half white bread, which was so popular back in the 70s, we only changed the bags. During the summer busy season, we’d often bag 60 or 70 thousand loaves of white pound and a half bread at a rate of 4200 loaves and hour.

I became friends with Bobby, who was the morning operator. He’d often punch out and then come back over and talk. On a few occasions, on our days off, we went out rabbit and squirrel hunting. He had several uncles and cousins with beagles who lived on farms just inside Pender County. At the time I didn’t think about it, but I now wonder what some people would have thought to see a white guy running around several African Americans, all of us armed with shotguns or rifles.  

While everyone in management remained silent about me becoming a supervisor, I was honored during this time as the company’s outstanding employee for the first quarter of 1977-78. In addition to a nice plaque, the management treated outstanding employees and spouses to wonderful dinner at the Hilton on the Cape Fear River. (Looks like I should clean up my plaque!).

My minor injury

I did have one injury while running the bakery machines. As a promotion, we were placing game cards inside each of the loaves of bread. This required a separate machine to sat next to the conveyor between the slicer and bagger. It was always creating problems when the placement of the card wasn’t perfect. At one point, a card was near the bag opening, which jammed up the tying machine. In trying to free the bags, I pulled out a pocketknife. Leaning over the equipment, I supported my weight on my left hand as I cut out the bag and card with my right hand. When the knife slipped, and the blade went into my left hand, requiring a couple of stitches. The scar is still visible. 

My learning from this event happened in the emergency room. I joked that I’d been stabbed. They followed their procedure and called the police. I attempted to clarify. It was truthful, I had stabbed myself. But it was an accident. The hospital visit would be filed on a workers compensation claim. And, to make me look innocent, I wore a white bakery uniform sprinkled with bits of crust from the bread.

Oven operator

After about a year as an operator of the wrapping and bagging machinery, I was asked if I would like to move over to the bread oven. This was a solo job, but it came with another pay raise and a lot more responsibility. Mainly I oversaw the operations of about a 1/3 of the production area. One main task involved continually monitoring the temperature in the oven and the humidity in the proofer. This was in addition to making sure everything ran smoothly. The size to the equipment in my area was similar to a house. Since there were three major pieces of equipment, my work area represented the size of a small neighborhood.

Oven operations

The bread came back to my area on a long conveyor from the make-up room. There, the dough was placed into strapped together pans that held four loaves. The bread first entered a proof box. The temperature in the box was kept around 110 degrees with nearly 100% humidity. Automatic arms pushed the bread pans, ten four loaves pans at a time) onto racks. Windows into the proofer provided a glimpse at how the bread was rising. When the dough rose to the top of the pan, another arm pushed the pans onto a conveyor. From there, the bread travelled to the oven.

Between the proofer and the oven, a machine placed lids onto the bread if we were making square top loaves. The operator had to place the lids onto the conveyors at the beginning. That was easy as the lids were cool. After that, the lids recycled until the end of the day. As second shift ended the workday, I had to pull off the lids. These were hot and more than a few times I burned my forearms.

The oven worked liked the proof box with arms pushing and pulling the pans onto and off of racks. The oven consisted of seventy-some burners, which needed to occasionally be checked. Sometimes burners had to be scraped out to get them to relight. In addition there were 6 temperature zones. If the bread wasn’t tall enough, I’d reduce the temperature in the first zone to allow it to rise a bit more. If it was too tall, I could increase the heat to kill the yeast faster. Each zone had gauges that checked continually.

Leaving the oven, the pans went through a machine that first removed the lids (if used). Then, by suction cups, the loaves were lifted from the pan and placed on a conveyor for the cooler. The loaves would remain in the cooler until it was time for them to go to the slicers. The entire process, from arriving at the proof box till leaving the proofer, took approximately 2 1/2 hours.

The pleasure and perils of being an oven operator

I had the horn if case there was a problem. It could be heard throughout the plant. If I blew it, the supervisor and the mechanics on duty immediately ran to my aid. Even a break down of a few minutes could cause us to lose upwards of 6000 loaves of bread. In later stories, I’ll share some horror stories.

But running smoothly, I was left alone with my thoughts, as I continually checked on things. When taking classes at the university in which I had to memorize lots of stuff, I would keep index cards in my pocket. Then I would run the cards occasionally throughout my shift. 

I would continue working as the oven operator until my last semester in college, which was when I was moved into supervision. While it seemed long, I had just turned 22 years old. I had been at the bakery less than three years.

A Lighthearted Yet Serious Look at the Lord’s Supper from a Protestant Perspective

In last week’s sermon, I mentioned this blog post, which failed to transition from my old “” blog to this one. So I am posting it again.

The communion table set for “World Communion Sunday” on the first Sunday of October.

            The highlight of Christian worship is the Lord’s Supper. We break bread and share wine together, uniting ourselves through a very ordinary act with all the saints who have gone before us and to Christ himself. It’s a mysterious feast, especially for the stomach that often leaves the meal hungry. 

The Bread

            Standing in front of the table, the minister repeats Jesus’ words. “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics fought over the meaning of these words—whether or not the bread was really Jesus’ body. Protestant Reformers could smugly point out that Jesus also said he was a door and nobody believes he is a literal door, wooden or otherwise. From the small portions used, you would think that all churches believed that it was Jesus’ actual body and they must hoard some for future generations. Of course, Protestants like me do not believe the bread is the literal body of Christ, but a sign to remind us of our unity with Christ in his death and resurrection.

The Wine

            The second part of the service involves drinking wine or, as most Protestants prefer, grape juice. Again, Jesus’ words are spoken: “This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” In the Middle Ages, only priests were allowed to drink the wine because of a fear the common people might actually spill some. Only Jesus can shed his blood, they reasoned. In some churches, everyone drinks from the same cup, a nice gesture that demonstrate how we all share in Christ. However, the majority of American Protestant Churches understanding that such sharing involves germs; therefore, they use small individual cups about the size of a thimble. Since the women’s movement, most of these churches have begun using disposal plastic cups because no one is volunteering to wash the glass ones.  Ecologically minded Christians are bothered by this waste, but until they sign up for cup washing, the trend toward plastic cups will continue.

Distribution methods

            Christians participate in the Lord’s Supper in a variety of ways. Preferred methods resemble fast food. In most Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopal Churches, everyone goes up to the front of the sanctuary and kneels or stands, awaiting their turn to receive the bread and cup. The most common way in Baptist and Presbyterian churches is the drive-in method. Sitting in a pew, the elements are brought to you. A take-out plan is generally available for those unable to attend services.

            Another method that has become more common is intinction. Each worshipper breaks off a piece of bread and dips it into the cup. This method rapidly facilitates the distribution of the elements, however the Biblical foundation for such a technique is weak. Even the most liberal exegete would have a hard time interpreting Jesus’ words, “take and eat” with “take and dunk.” More problematic for those sharing this method is that the only example we have of a disciple eating dipped bread in this manner at the Last Supper was Judas Iscariot.

Historical methods of celebration

            A hundred or so years ago, it was common for American Protestants to actually sit around a real table and share a feast with others. This method, which had its roots in the Scottish Church, was the formal dining plan. To be allowed a seat at the table, a member produced a communion token. He or she earned these tokens by being good, paying one’s tithe, not breaking the commandments, and attending a preparatory lecture. After the preparatory lecture, they were given a communion token. As the worshipper approached the table, the maître’ d, a role played by an elder, greeted the worshipper. Those without a token to tip the maitre’ d, found themselves escorted to the door by the same elder who was also a bouncer. Once seated, the worshippers were served a hunk of bread and a cup of wine. This was done rapidly in order to accommodate the next seating. Unfortunately, for all its appeal, formal dining has gone the way of fine china and finger bowls. Few churches bother. 

            As Christians, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in order to proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do this obediently and solemnly. Nobody talks; everyone bows their head. Most believe they conduct the service in the same manner as Jesus. But they have forgotten that Jesus instituted this sacrament at the Passover meal which consisted of four cups of wine. Unlike the Passover, a modern communion service lasts just a few minutes, after which everyone is still able to drive home.

The Hope

            The celebration of the Lord’s Supper also serves as a foretaste of the kingdom to come. At the heavenly banquet, we will all sit at table with Christ at the head. The Bible doesn’t give us the menu, but considering that four of the disciples were fisherman, maybe it will be a seafood banquet. Or maybe lamb supplied by the good shepherd at the head table. Whatever the menu, the heavenly banquet promises to be livelier than the somber communion services. This is a good thing. Mark Twain noted that if heaven is just sitting around singing hymns, he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go there. Likewise, if the heavenly banquet is only as exciting as its earthly counterpart, no one will RSVP.

The Reality

            After communion, the minister pronounces the benediction. Like the flagman at Indianapolis, it signals the beginning of a race. Some parishioners rush out to a restaurant. In good Christian competition, they attempt to beat those from other churches. Others head home where the television is the first order of business. After finding the game of the week, one family pulls a roast from the oven while another grills burgers out back. Those without ambition order pizza. Such hearty food is served. As long as the right team wins, we laugh and love joyfully. After having fed us at his table, Jesus wonders why he’s not included. 

Coming of Age at the Bakery


Image from Pinterest

In the summer of 1976, I began working at Fox Holsum Bakery in Wilmington, NC. I had just finished my first year of college. I was hired for a summer job, to tray off bread. At the end of the summer, the plant manager asked if I would be interested in continuing to work on second shift. This would allow me to attend classes in the morning. He promised to work with me while I was in college. I stayed on at the bakery, moving up to running the bread slicers and baggers. Next, they promoted me to oven operator. Sometime in my senior year of college, I became a supervisor. I continued with the banker for almost two years after graduation, when I decided to take a major pay cut and go to work for the Boy Scouts of America. 

The bakery no longer exists even though the building and the flour silos along the railroad tracks were still standing a few years ago when I rode by the plant. I hope to rework a number of essays I’ve written about some of the characters I knew during this period of time. Over the next few months, as I work on them, I will post them here. 

Linda and the Summer of ’76

The intoxicating smell of yeast overwhelmed me the week after I finished my freshman year in college. It was our nation bicentennial year and I had accepted a summer job in the bakery—traying bread. If ever there was an entry level position, this was it. Bread came out of the bagging machine, 70 or 80 loaves a minute, and I put the loaves on trays or in tubs. Ten pound and a half loaves per tray or tub, twelve-pound loaves each. I placed the full trays, 30 to a rack. Bread going into tubs I stacked fifteen high. When I filled a rack or completed a stack, a guy from the shipping department hauled them away and placed another rack or stack of tubs for me to fill. Eight or more hours a day, another guy and I handled the bread. The nation’s bicentennial summer promised to be long and hot.

But there was a bright side. My work station faced the roll packing line and there, maybe thirty feet away, was Linda. In her mid-30s, she was a hot blonde fireball. She wore a short white uniform skirt that showed off her tanned legs. Her uniform top hugged her body and showed off her curves. She wore slip-in mules on her feet with two-inch heels, as was as high as allowed within the plant. Her hair, she pulled into a bun, a requirement for working around food. Little ringlets stuck out from under her hat.

From where I stood, I could see Linda’s backside. Being short, she had to rise up on her toes, her heels leaving her shoes as she reached across the conveyor, a process she’d complete a dozen or so times a minute. Each time, her muscles tensed just enough to display her well-shaped calves and thighs. For the first week or so, I watched Linda in awe, from the safety of my station. 

Loud, Linda could just as easily tell a joke as to cuss out a supervisor. Her job was every bit as boring as mine, but making the best of it, she entertained everyone. She and Virginia, her co-worker, stood where the hamburger and hotdog buns came off the cooling conveyor. Her job was to lightly place four or six rolls into a slot on another conveyor. Virginia would then place another set of rolls on top and a pocket conveyor would take them through the bagging process. 

Linda always said hi when I walked by the roll line, but we never talk during my first few weeks on the job. Then it happened. Virginia got sick. Having proved I could pick up basic skills quickly, and since I was done early this day, a supervisor asked if I would take Virginia’s place. For the next three hours, I stood by Linda, as together we packed rolls. She was flirty and funny and seemed to take as much delight working next to me as I did of being beside her.

Harold, one of the mechanics, also had an eye for Linda.  I didn’t particularly like him, primarily because he always called me “College Boy.” As we worked into the night hours that evening, Harold came by chatting. He was sipping a Mountain Dew and offered Linda a drink.  She took a sip and handed it back to him.  

“Here, College Boy, you thirsty?” I thought this offer was strange, but also saw my chance to get back at him. I took the can, tossed my head back and began to chug. It wasn’t Mountain Dew, at least not the soft drink variety. There I stood with a mouth full of rut-gut bourbon and all eyes were on me. Everyone assumed I knew it was liquor. It was part luck, part willpower, that I didn’t baptize the rolls with bourbon. My throat burned as I down my mouthful. For the rest of the evening, things were a lot sillier.

I don’t remember much about the Bicentennial that summer, except that I went down to the river with my girlfriend on the night of July 4th. The fireworks, to be launched from the deck of the battleship across the river, promised to be the largest display ever in the city. It rained and the display wasn’t very impressive. We were disappointed, but there were a lot of things to be disappointed over during ’76.  Although the horrors of Vietnam were over, there was a sense we’d failed. The economy was shot and interest rates were going through the roof. Gerald Ford was in the White House, due to the moral failings of Nixon and Agnew. People were suggesting the American era was over, which was daunting prospect for a kid about to leave his teen years behind. But in this dark era, Linda brought a little light to the world.

“Why don’t we go out tonight?” she’d ask when I walked by her work station. Or, “When are you coming over to my apartment?” she’d yell in front of everyone. I shunned Linda’s suggestions, but ate up the attention. I felt like a king the night I worked a double shift and she came back, unexpectedly, with dinner. She had prepared it herself. I don’t remember what she fixed, but we ate in the break room. Linda sat across the table from me, smiling the whole time, proud of her efforts.

When Linda quit the bakery the next year, she threw a big party. Naïve as always, I didn’t realize the party was Linda’s last attempt to woo me. At 10:30 PM, everyone suddenly left her apartment. She’d set this up. I was in the kitchen with Linda when people started heading out.  Soon, everyone was gone except for a shipping dock worker who was stoned and sleeping on the couch. Linda stepped in front of me, rose up on her toes and wrapped her arms around my neck. Her perfume was strong. I sat my glass down on the counter and wrapped my arms around the small of her back. Then she surprised me when her mouth found mine. She gave me a deep passionate kiss. It seemed to last forever. We had to stop to breathe.

“Does your girlfriend kiss you like that?” she asked as she looked up into my eyes.  I smiled, but didn’t answer.

“Why don’t I help you clean things up,” I said after a pause. I backed away and began to collect glasses. We joked around and talked of memories at the bakery as we gathered and washed dishes. When done, I woke the guy sleeping on the couch and offered him a ride home. He nodded and headed out. At the door, I turned and said goodbye. Linda leaned close. She kissed my cheek and whispered, “Why don’t you come back?” 

It was tempting, but we both knew I wouldn’t.

Recent article

If you’re interested in other writings of mine, here is a recent piece written for the Carroll County News in Hillsville, Virginia. The article looks at Easter, from Friday through Saturday to Sunday. Click here.

The Magpie Crags

Last week, I wrote about my last day in Korea. This week, I’m resurrecting another story about that wonderful trip. I had taken a bus from Seoul to Wonju early on Sunday morning. Seung Hwan met me at the bus station. I preached to his congregation at the medical college in Wonju, then we spent the afternoon with a number of clergy in the area. One, I remember, was much older than us and had fled from the north before the Korean War. That evening I stayed in a retreat center east of Wonju.

That’s me with Seung Hwan and family

Monday morning, 4 AM

The sounds of the bell tolling down off the mountainside wake me. I turn on my flashlight. It’s 4 A.M. For a few moments, I lay on my back, the warmth of the floor soothing my body. Seung Hwan had told me the floor would stay warm throughout the night. I had my doubts, but it’s still warm even though when I sit up, the air above me is quite chilly. The caretaker had built a small fire with just a half dozen pieces of split wood in the hearth under the flooring late yesterday afternoon. And now, 12 hours later, long after the coals have died out, the floor retains the heat.  

I pull on socks and my pants and thrown on a coat. Stepping out of the sleeping room, I slide on my boots in the bathroom. I don’t lace them up. While I don’t plan to be gone long, I want to be outdoors. The air is cold. My breath, when I exhale, appears as smoke. I walk over to a ledge in front the lodge, hoping my movement will ward off the chill. In the distance I hear a train making its way through the valley. Wonju lies to the west, still sleeping.  The sky is clear, the rain and snow of the day before has moved out. 

Orion stands, perched high above Wonju, just above the western horizon. I make out several other winter constellations setting in the west before I turn and look toward where the sound from where the bell tolled. The mountain is dark; it’s a couple of hours to dawn. I imagine the priest at the temple, in the cold darkness of morning, getting up daily for their prayers. I, on the other hand, am ready to get back in my warm bed. Sleeping on the floor has never been this good. My bed is on the floor, on top of a rice matt and between two thick quilts. I crawl in. It’s still warm. Immediately, I fall back asleep, only to awake when the sun pierces through a small window.

Inside the sleeping room at the lodge

In Wonju, Korea

I am on a two-week trip through South Korea. Yesterday, I had preached in Seung Hwan’s church at the Medical College.

He’d arranged for me to stay in this retreat lodge located just out of town, up in the foothills of the mountains. He’d given me the option of staying in a western hotel or traditional style lodging. I chose the traditional.

There are only a few others staying here, and none of them seems to speak English. We’re each assigned our own quarters consisting of a small bathroom with a toilet and sink attached a raised sleeping room. There are showers in the main lodge. There are no beds. The raised room has low ceilings, barely six feet high. The walls are mud. The floor is also mud with, I presume, slate or some kind of rock underneath. In the front of each sleeping chamber is a hearth. The fire in this hearth, which runs under the sleeping room, heats the floor. Once warm, the floor maintains its heat through the night.  

Catching a bit of the Superbowl 

Seung Hwan arrives shortly after daybreak. We have breakfast. It’s Monday morning and as we eat, we catch a bit of the Superbowl being played back in the States. St. Louis is playing Tennessee at the Georgia Dome. I try to explain the game to him. When it is over, we head out. We have a long climb ahead in Ch’iaksan National Park. We drive to the south end of the park, leave the car behind. Our packs contain heavy coats and crampons. 

The Climb 

We begin our climb on a dirt two track road. While the cities have modernized, rural Korea doesn’t appear to have changed much in centuries. We pass several small farms. Chickens run loose and dogs are penned behind the homes. After a few kilometers, the dirt road ends. We begin climbing a small path up into the mountains. The climb is steep, and we often have to stop and catch our breaths. Soon, the dirt and mud give way to packed snow and ice. We strap crampons onto our boots and continue climbing. It’s a long way up. Occasionally we hear trains making their way through the valley. There is a circle tunnel just south of us where the train makes a loop as it climbs into the mountains. There are few birds, but its winter. Although these are the Magpie Crags, I don’t see any magpies.

We take a break and eat lunch at a spring located below Sangwona Temple. Seung Hwan explains that pilgrims stopped here to bath and purify themselves before going to the temple to pray. The water is cold and refreshing. The wind comes up. We both pull on heavy coats, keeping in them on for the final climb.

The Temple

The temple appears to be deserted, although it’s well-kept. We see only one monk, walking away. The most notable feature of the grounds is the bell. Cast out of bronze, it’s as tall as me and mounted on the side of a ledge that looks out to the South. A large log, suspended from two chains, is used to strike the bell. The monks have taken precautions and have padlocked the bell so that tourist like us won’t ring it at an inappropriate time. I ask Seung Hwan if this is the bell I heard in the morning. “Probably not,” he said. “There are many temples in these mountains.” The bell I heard most likely was from the Ipsoksa Temple, located on the flanks of Mount Pinobong.  

We take our shoes off and go inside the temple area. Several beautifully cast statues of Buddha are on display. Although we’re both Presbyterian, we are respectful and reverent. There is a holy aura about the place. I could stay here a long time, but we don’t want to be caught out in the dark.. Going down is easy. The spikes on our boots hold our feet on the icy spots. As we walk, I ask Seung Hwan about the temple and its bell. This is rugged country; it took a Herculean effort to build such a temple. I can’t imagine hauling the statues and wonderful bell up this incline.

The temple grounds

The Legend of the Magpies 

Seung Hwan tells me the temple was built late in the Shilla Dynasty, at a time when Confucianism was taking root in Korea. Soon thereafter, under the Yi Dynasty, Buddhism was seen as an enemy of the people. Many of the temples were closed due to the lack of priests. Then he tells me a story. 

Once Confucianism became entrenched in Korea, anyone desiring in a government position had to take a national exam at the capital. One day, a man passed along the mountains in which we’d been climbing, heading to take the exam. A kind man, as he made his through the valley in the shadow of the mountain we’d been climbing, he heard a bird cry for help. Looking around, he saw a snake squeezing the bird that would soon be its dinner. Feeling compassion for the bird, the man shot an arrow into the snake, killing it but freeing the bird.

Shortly afterwards, as it was getting late, the man came to a home. He knocked on the door and a beautiful woman answered. He asked for lodging and she agreed. She even prepared him a wonderful dinner. But after dinner, the woman turned into a snake and wrapped herself around the man, telling him that he’d killed her husband and now she was going to do the same to him. He begged for his life and the snake, playing with the man, said that if the bell rings three times before dawn, he’ll be spared. Otherwise, she’ll kill him in the morning. 

This was a cruel reprieve. Both the snake and the man knew there were no monks living in the mountains to ring the bell. So, the man spent the night embraced by the snake, waiting for a fateful sunrise. But right before dawn, the man and the snake were surprised to hear the bell ring. The first time, it was very loud. Then it rang a second time, a bit weaker. Then they heard a very weak third ring.

The snake kept her word and allowed the man to go free. Instead of heading on the capital, he decided to climb the mountain and to see who it was that rang the bell. Sure enough, the temple was empty. But there under the bell was the bird that he’d saved the day before, its beak shattered from having flown into the bell three times. To this day, the bell is known as the “Compassion Bell.”

Another restful night

That night, back at the retreat house, a light breeze jingles the wind chimes along the porch. Tired and sore after climbing in the mountains, I immediately fall asleep upon the warm floor. Again, I wake at 4 AM with the toll of the bell. It’s more muffled than the morning before. I’m surprised I’m not sore from the climb. This sleeping arrangement is magical. And again, as with the morning before, I get up and go outside. A light snow falls, dusting the ground. 

The temple’s bell

Leaving Korea

In early 2000, I spent a two weeks in Korea, preaching and visiting friends and my parents (my father’s company had assigned him to a Korean factory making power plants near Pusan). I preached at a couple of churches, one of which had nearly 2000 in attendance at one service, which is the largest congregation to which I’ve preached. This tells of my last day in the country, as I took the train up the Korean peninsula to Seoul and then caught a plane for San Francisco.

Morning train to Seoul

It’s still dark when I board the morning express in Masan, heading toward Seoul. This far south, in this port and industrial city, the weather is chilly and wet but not really cold. I find my seat, stow my two bags overhead (a backpack and a suit bag) and push my jacket up against the window as a pillow. A pretty Korean woman sits next to me. She looks to be in her mid-20s and wears a dress and heels. We smile but when I speak, she shakes her head and says, “No English.” 

Shortly afterwards, a whistle blows. The train jerks and my journey begins. I lay my jacket against the window, and my head upon it, alternating my time between looking and reading a book on Korean history and culture. Outside, fog mysteriously shrouds the streets lights.

Dark clouds hid the sunrise; all is gray. As we rush north toward Taegu City, we pass through many rural villages that seem the anti-thesis of Korea’s modern cities. Instead of concrete high-rise apartments, rural homes appear to have changed little over the past century. Most have small courtyards, protected by a high concrete walls. The house sits inside the courtyard, built out from the side of one of the walls. Smoke puffs from the clay pipes above these humble adobes. They use either coal, charcoal or wood fires to heat and to cook. All around the villages are fields for rice or vegetables, onions and cabbage and peppers. At Taegu, the woman next to me gets off.

After pulling out of Taegu, the train heads in a northwestwardly direction to Taejon City. This is mountainous country, but the hills are old and worn, like the Appalachians, not rugged and young like the Rockies. With the trees bare of leaves, I can make out the large nests of magpies. 

Burial customs
These were not the graves I saw from the train, but graves on Kojeto Island (where they seldom receive snow)

Dotting the hills in the rural areas are many mounts representing burial sites. They place coffins on the ground. Stones and dirt are piled up around it. The government banned this practice because it takes up too much land in a country where land is precious. However, I’m told some people still bury their dead in this manner. Only today, they do it at night, in order not to attract attention. 

Yongdong atrocity

Here, snow covers the ground. The roads are icy. At a crossing, just beyond the railroad gate, catch a glimpse of two cars in the ditch and a wrecker working to pull one back onto the highway. Along this section, we pass Yongdong. Near here, during a hasty retreat during the Korean War, scared American soldiers opened fire on civilians, killing many, in a tragedy of the war. Although I am not sure exactly where the site is at, I think about as it’s been in the news recently.

From Taejon, the train races north toward Seoul, traveling through a highly populated area that’s mostly industrial and suburban. High-rise apartments dot the landscape and there are many factories. The train pulls into the station at Seoul a few minutes early. I retrieve my bags and head up an escalator to the main station, worried how I’ll be able to find my ride with so many people. There, at the top of the escalator, I’m pleasantly surprised to see Chanrank and Chang waiting for me. They suggest we stop and have lunch at a café across from the college where Chanrank teaches. 

Chop Head Hill

After lunch, as we have four hours before I need to be at the airport; Chang asks if I still want to visit Chop Head Hill. When I had arrived in Korea two weeks early, I had asked Chanrank and her husband about this place. I immediately worried that I had insulted them, but her husband told me more about the place. As he was required to be at the university where he taught this day, Chang came along to take us there. Yes,” I said. I would like an to visit the site. 

The three of us seemed to be an odd pair to tour this site scared to Korean Catholics. Like me, Chanrak is Presbyterian. Chang is Buddhist. We wind through the narrow streets north of the Han River in Chang’s car till we finally arrive at the the infamous bluff overlooking the river.

For years, this hill was the site for executions, where the heads of the condemned rolled down into the river. One of the artifacts is a round stone, looking somewhat like a millstone, which was used in the beheadings. The condemned had a rope tied around his or her necks. The rope ran through the hole in the middle of the stone. One of the executors would pull the head of the condemn through the stone while the other used an ax to remove the head from the body. 

In the middle of the 1860s, the French tried to gain a foothold in Korea. Sending a gunboat up the Han River, they shelled Seoul. The emperor, seeking a way to cleanse his country of the foreign devils, ask his shaman what to do. They suggested the execution of all Christians in Korea. 

Catholic massacre in 1866

In 1866, the Korean emperor ordered the extermination of Korean Christians. At the time, almost all Korean Christians were Catholics. Priest from China converted most of these Christians. Members of churches were bound in chains and dragged across the nation to this place, where they were executed by beheading. 

After a decade of tension, in the late 1870s, the French and Korea signed a treaty that guaranteed religious freedom for Korean citizens. In the aftermath of this treaty, Protestants missionaries—especially Presbyterians and Methodist—flooded into the country. In all of Asia, only the Philippines have more Christians than Korea. About 40% of the population claim to be Christian, half of which are Presbyterian. Another 40% of the population is Buddhist. On the hundred anniversary of the martyrdoms, the Catholic Church built a shrine in the honor of the martyrs. Known today as Chou Du San Martyrs’ Shrine or it’s English equivalent, “Chop Head Hill.”

Yongdo Full Gospel Church

As we still had two hours before we had to be at the airport, we swung by the Yongdo Full Gospel Church. An independent Pentecostal Church with roots in the Assembly of God, they claim to be the largest congregation in the world with 750,000 members. We quickly tour the church. Chang, a Buddhist, seems especially proud of the idea that his country has the world largest church. The sanctuary looks a look like a basketball area and seats nearly 20,000. Although large, I’m left to wonder where everyone worships. Even with their five worship services on Sunday, they would only be able to have 20% of their members member’s present.

After visiting the church, we rush to the airport. After checking bags, we have time for a cup of tea before I have to go through security. I shake Chang’s hand and hug Chanrank, then head through security. In an hour, I’m flying east and sleeping the night away on a Singapore Air flight to San Francisco.

Burns’ Night

Today is Robert Burns Birthday, the poet from Scotland. It’s also Virginia Woolf’s birthday, but for some reason Burns draws more interest. It’s probably the whisky. After all, Woolf is English and who’d want to drink gin when you can have the water of life. In honor of Burns, I’m pulling this post from my old blog, which is a talk I gave back in 2018.

I gave this Burns Night talk to the St. Andrew’s Society of the City of Savannah on January 26, 2018

Addressing the Haggis

       Wow!  In our program tonight I am identified as a Rector. I’m not sure how to take this. Should I be honored? After all, the word comes from an old English meaning “to rule.” Or perhaps, because I’m in a crowd of Scots, I should be afraid. As you know, Scots are independently minded. I can assure you that you will not find a minister within the Church of Scotland, the mother church of all Presbyterians, referred to as Rector. You may find the headmaster of a school referred to in that way, but as for the Kirk, that’s way too English, way too Anglican.

       Let me take this moment to share with you a bit of history. In the 17thCentury, following the Scottish Reformation, the people of Scotland signed the National Covenant, which adopted a Calvinist theology and a Presbyterian form of government. This placed Scotland not only in opposition to the Roman Church, but also to the Episcopal form of government as advanced by the Anglicans. 

       There were a number of battles over these issues. The Scots don’t like being told what to do. They didn’t like being told that had to pray in a particular manner so they resisted the Anglican prayer book. The clergy didn’t like being told they had to dress all fancy when leading worship which led to the adoption of the Geneva robe. And the Scots had a problem Bishops and clergy vested with lots of power, so they adopted a system of government that shares between the clergy and lay elders.

As you can imagine, this didn’t go over well with the crown. They liked the idea of having loyal bishops who could help it control the Kirk. The church fought back and eventually a compromise was achieved. The Crown would be Anglican when they were in England, and when in Scotland, they’d be Presbyterian. In Scotland, the Queen has no Bishops to do her bidding and there are no rectors within the Kirk.

       Now on to matters at hand—our remembrance of Mr. Burns. Sadly, I never studied him while in school. In college, the only poets of interest to me were musicians. Steely Dan was a favorite. They had some immortal lines back in the seventies and eighties, one of which comes to mind this evening. It’s from their hit song, “Deacon Blue,” and you may know it. “Drink Scotch Whisky all night long and die behind the wheel.” A great line, but please, don’t try to live it out. We could say the same for he same for many of Burn’s ideas and examples.

        I was in Scotland this summer. As you’ve heard, I scheduled a couple days around Edinburgh with a friend of mine, Ewan. He’d taken time off to be with me, but as it happens in our calling, people are not always considerate as to when they die. On our second day together, I could go to a funeral for a woman I didn’t know or spend the day tramping around Edinburgh on my own. After that hospital visit, I chose the latter.[1]  

       I started out my morning by the castle which dominates Edinburgh’s skyline. Having toured it before, I wanted something without long lines. In the shadow of the castle, I’d learned of a Writer’s Museum and, fancying myself as a wannabe writer, decided to visit. Besides, the admission is free which warmed my Scottish blood.

But the museum is hard to find. I had to humble myself and ask for directions. Not only did I have to do this once, but several times as it appears not many people know of the museum. Finally, someone pointed me to a small alley and said I’d find it up there. There were no signs, but the alley opened up into a square and there was the museum. It’s housed in a very old but unique home with wonderful wooden spiral stairways. There are large exhibits on Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and the man of the night, Robbie Burns.  As a kid, I’d read Treasure Island, so I spent most of the time in the Stevenson’s section, while quickly running through the other parts. Had I known that I was going to be expected to talk about Burns, I would have lingered a little longer… 

       Leaving the museum, I worked my way across the city.  One stop you’ll have to make is the Scott Monument, named for the author not the people.  If you’re not claustrophobic or afraid of heights, I recommend you climb it. From the top is the most incredible views of Edinburgh. I think it’s even more striking than the views from Arthur’s Throne. So the next time you’re in Edinburgh, if you are in reasonably good shape, have five pounds to spare and a few more to lose to exertion, and enjoy the snugness that comes from being confined in a straightjacket (as the stairwells are smug), check it out.

       Don’t worry, I’m getting closer to Burns…  By mid-afternoon I’d made my way to Canonsgate Church. It’s the burial site for Adam Smith and I wanted to pay my respect and do a Facebook selfie to dispel any rumors that I have socialist leanings. While there, chatting with a guide, I asked if there were others buried in the church yard that I might be interested in. “Oh yes,” she said, “On the other side of the church is the grave of Robert Burn’s lover, Clarinda.” 

       I’ve told you that I’m not a Burn’s scholar, right?  But I knew enough about the man to know that he had more than a few lovers across Scotland. “I’m sure you’re not the only church in Scotland claiming a grave of a Burn’s lover,” I said. She took offense at my sarcasm and reminded me that Clarinda was special.  What does that make his other lovers? 

       In Garrison Keillor’s novel, Wobegon Boy, the protagonist writes a poem for his wife as a wedding gift. Reading it she embraces him and it suddenly dawns on him why men have been writing poems all these centuries: “to impress a woman with the hopes she will sleep with you.”

       Our friend Robbie wrote many such poems for Clarinda. The two of them lured each other with their poetry and correspondence even though they likely never consummated, in a physical manner, their relationship. But their letters and poems are to be cherish. Clarinda is the reason we have “Ae Fond Kiss” and “Clarinda, Mistress of My Soul.”  

       Of course, Clarinda wasn’t her real name.  That was Agnes, but everybody called her Nancy. That is everyone but Burns, who gave her this beautiful nickname that is much softer sounding than Agnes and less common than Nancy. And, with this secret name, it was a safer way for Burns to correspond with a married woman.

       We can speculate as to why Clarinda maintained her purity while Burn’s promised to conquer her “by storm and not siege.” Their relationship got off to a slow start because after first meeting, Burns had to cancel their next due to an accident that put him on crutches and in bed.  But there were other reasons.

Clarinda was pious and religious and even though her husband had run out on her, she wasn’t going to do the same. She would later travel to Jamaica in an attempt to win him back. And then there were a few other details. At the time they were flirting with each other, Robbie had already planted his seed with Jean Armour. When Clarinda resisted Burn’s advances, the poet set his eyes on her servant, Jenny Clow. Ms. Clow would also give birth to the poet’s child. Only a fool would be lured into his bed with the thought she’d have a long-lasting relationship with the man whose seed was germinating all over Scotland. Clarinda was no fool. 

       Clarinda and Burns were attracted to the others use of language. Both were gifted, and Clarinda was nearly Burn’s equal with the pen as these few lines illustrate:

Go on, sweet bird, and soothe my care,
Thy cheerful notes will hush despair;
Thy tuneful warbling, void of art,
Thrill sweetly through my aching heart.
Now choose thy mate, and fondly love.

       Although Clarinda probably never allowed Robert to take her to bed, the words the two of them exchanged were certainly intimate and salacious. As an old woman, she looked back fondly on their relationship and said she hoped to meet him in heaven. Of course, that’s assuming Burns made it… The Rev. John Kemp, Clarinda’s pastor, certainly had his doubt as to Burns eternal destination. Maybe he and Burns share eternity together. Later, the Good Reverend was discovered to have three wives at the same time! Had Burns’ lived, he would have enjoyed the satirical wit that situation offered.  

       Clarinda, Jenny, Jean (not to mention Mary and a few others)… What would be Burns’ fate if he lived in today’s “Me Too” climate?  I mentioned Garrison Keillor and we know what happened to him, along with a long line of other popular folk whose sexual indiscretions have come back to haunt them. I don’t know how this would affect Burns. It may not have had any impact. In his day, more than one minister chided Burns for his behavior. He didn’t seem to let their scolding’s worry him.

       Poets are often great lovers. Their command of language is such that they can take words and draw our minds into new places and possibilities.  Think of King David, a poet from the Bible. Many of the Psalms are attributed to him and, we’re told, he was a man after the heart of God.  And like Burns, he wasn’t always honorable. This is speculation, but can you image the love note he sent down to Bathsheba?  Of course, we know the pain that little affair caused. Poor Uriah. But we remember David, with his frailties, because we all have had our own shortcomings. David gives us hope and shows us the wideness of God’s mercy.  

    Burns may not have had the same desires for God as David, but we still appreciate him. In his day, he brought humor to a serious society and pointed out social inequalities and hypocrisy. And today, he us still reminding us to look for beauty. Furthermore, Burn’s collection of poems and songs in the Scottish dialect provide identity to those of us whose ancestors left those rocky shores. Our hearts are still warmed by the beauty of heather blooming in the crags. And, even better, we can easily plagiarizer his poems when we court our sweethearts.  

       I did visit Clarinda’s grave that afternoon. It was covered with flowers—fresh flowers. She’s buried next to her cousin, Lord Craig. His grave looks like it was last attended to during the Boer War. It’s been nearly two centuries years since her death and there are people who not only remember her, yet think highly enough of her to regularly place flowers on her grave. That’s quite an honor.  Here’s to you, Clarinda.  

       Thank you.  

Feb. 1, 2021: I recently came across this article on Burns: The Scotsman

Sources Consulted:

_________, Robert Burns in Your Pocket (Glasgow: Waverley Books,          2009). 

Brauer, Jerald C., editor, The Westminster Dictionary of Church History       (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971).

Dawson, Jane, John Knox (New Haven: Yale, 2015).

Douglas, Hugh, Robert Burns: The Tinder Heart (Gloucestershire, UK: Alan          Sutton Publishing, 1996). 

Herman, Arthur, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (New York:       Random House, 2001).

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, The Reformation: A History (New York: VikingPenguin,   2005). 

[1] I had this story used in my introduction (The story came from the Chic Murray Facebook site and was “adapted” for this occasion:

This past summer, our speaker was visiting the Rev. Ewan Aitken, a friend of his in Scotland.  Ewan asked if it was okay for him to run in and see someone at Edinburgh General Hospital. 

 “No problem,” Jeff said, and asked if it was okay if he went in, too.”  

“Come on.” Ewan said.  While Ewan was making his pastoral visit, Jeff decided to see what he could do to cheer up some of the patients. He stepped into a ward and went up to a bed and said hello.

The man looked up and said, “Far far yer honest sonsie face great chieftens o the puddin race a boon them aw you tak..

Oh for goodness sake, Jeff said and moved on to the next bed

“WEE courin timid beastie wad caused this panic in tha breastie…..” the patient mumbled.

Shaking his head, Jeff moved to the next bed.

“Some hae meat and canna eat and some hae nane and want it…” 

At this time, Ewan was ready to leave and came over to Jeff who asked if this was the insane ward.  

“Oh no,” Ewan, said, “this is the SERIOUS BURNS UNIT.”

A Christmas Eve Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C Street, Virginia City, Winter of 1988-89

Halloween 1962

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

My first time trick-or-treating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe and this Halloween, and wear a mask! 

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