Becoming Christ-like

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Hebrews 12:1-2
August 25, 2019

 

 

 

       Why do we exist? What is our purpose in life? The Westminster Confession says we’re to enjoy and glorify God. That’s succinct. In Rick Warren’s best seller, The Purpose Driven Life, he expands this into five purposes. First, we are to love God. God wants us to open our lives up so that we might experience and be overwhelmed by divine love and in turn we might show our love to God. We call this worship. Our second purpose is that we’re created to belong to God’s family, which we know as the church. Within this new family, we are to be nurtured and to mature. This morning, I want us to consider our third purpose: to become like God’s Son. A big word for this is sanctification. We’re to become Christ-like. The fourth and fifth purposes are that we’re shaped to serve God and are made for a God-given mission.[1] Our text this morning is from the 12th Chapter of the Book of Hebrews, the first two verses.

         Last weekend, Donna and I were in Cumberland Gap, a significant place in American history even through it is mostly overlooked these days. This gap was the easiest place for settlers from the Carolinas to Southern Pennsylvania to make their way across the Appalachian Mountains. Today, we breeze through those mountains on engineered roads, but in the late 18th Century, those mountains stood like barricades, keeping people out. Then along came Daniel Boone, who built the Wilderness Road through the mountains and for the next hundred years, it was the easiest way to get into Kentucky and Tennessee and further west. It felt good to be there, riding bikes over the same terrain that Boone cut the road that began western migration. I’ve always liked Daniel Boone.

          My first lunch box had a photo of Fess Parker who played Daniel Boone in the TV show that was popular back during my childhood years. And you bet I watched it. When I was in the second grade, we had an opportunity to buy books from a flyer sent home from the school. It was fundraiser designed to raise money for the school and help get books into the hands of children. My parents allowed me to buy a book. I looked through that catalog and knew right away that the book I wanted. It was a biography, written on a child’s level, of Daniel Boone. On the day that it came, I looked through the book, but found many words I did not know so I took it to my mom, and she helped me read. One of the words that I seemed to have a hard time learning was “enemy.” I just couldn’t get it out. I had a mental block against this word and had to ask several times what the word was. Hard to imagine ever being that innocent, isn’t it?

Daniel Boone was a pioneer. A pioneer is one who goes out before everyone else to chart new territory. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us in verse 2, Jesus was the pioneer of our faith. He paved the way for us! Pioneers do the hard work. Daniel Boone helped clear a road into the wilderness, so that those who followed could travel more easily. Instead of hiking over the mountains with only a backpack, people could travel in wagons pulled by oxen, carrying a ton of stuff. Boone did the hard work to make this possible.

Jesus suffering, his death and resurrection, was the hard work for our faith. We should give thanks and praise for what Jesus’ has done for us, but we must remember that as the stone of that tomb was being rolled away, and Jesus was resurrected, the responsibility for God’s kingdom on earth shifted from him to us. Remember John Kennedy’s immortal words, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” With a slight change of wording, we can apply this advice to our faith: “Ask not what Jesus can do for us (for he’s already done it); ask what we can do for Jesus.”[2]

The main image in our text is not a coon-skinned capped pioneer, but that of a coliseum filled with spectators watching sporting events. Think of the Olympics.[3]  The crowd is loud, and everyone cheers as those in the race run. Christ has already taken the lead, now he’s handing off the baton… Next will be our turn to take the baton and run around the track. It’s our chance to emulate Christ and to build upon his lead. With everyone watching, we’re to do what we can to prepare? We shed clothing that might weigh us down, and we focus our mind on the task at hand as we get into the moment, ready to receive the baton.

The race is a metaphor for the Christian life.  Paul uses this metaphor a number of times in his writings, reflecting the interest in sports within the Roman world of the first century.[4] As one running a race must shed all that might slow him or her down, we Christians need to shed the sinfulness that tends impede our gospel-work and tarnish our Christ-like image. One of the problems with sin is shame and one of the devil’s oldest tricks is to whisper into our ear, “You’re not worthy!” “Look at all your sin, you’re not good enough.” And the Devil is right, we’re not worthy, we’re not good enough. That’s why we must keep our eyes focused on Christ! Our hope is not in our righteousness, but in Christ.

As the author of Hebrews writes, not only is Christ the pioneer of our faith, paving the way for us to follow, he is also the “perfecter of our faith.” As I said earlier, Christ did the hard work! Our righteousness comes from what he’s done for us, not from what we do… By focusing on Christ, we can become more like him as we accept his gift of salvation. When we fall into the trap of thinking we must do it all ourselves, we become overwhelmed and easily lose heart. But when we can accept what Christ has done for us and trust in his goodness, we are freed to respond graciously.

“Life is a journey” may be a cliché but there is truth in it, especially for those of us who are Christians. This earth is not our home. Instead, we are pilgrims, like those on the Wilderness Road, traveling through on the path Jesus established, longing for a new and eternal life in the presence of God. As pilgrims, we’re being watched. Our passage reminds us of those who are watching from above, those who have already run the race and are cheering us on. But there are also others watching us, those who are looking to see what it means to follow Jesus. Since we represent our Savior, the King, we need to live in a way that will honor him which is why it is important that as we go on this journey, we strive to be Christ-like.

How might we become more Christ-like? As I’ve already covered, the writer of Hebrews first suggests we strive to unburden ourselves of sin. As a runner, anything that holds us back can be a burden; so, we should make sure we are not overwhelmed. We free ourselves of burdens so that we might run faster.  Secondly, we’re to persevere. We are not perfect: there will be times we’ll trip, there will be times we fall, but like a good athlete, we brush ourselves off and continue. We must pace ourselves for it’s a life-long race. We don’t give up for we are after the prize. When our time here is up, we want to stand boldly before God’s throne.[5] And finally, we’re to keep our eyes on Jesus which means we need to regularly spend time studying his life in Scripture and seeing how we might become more like him. Asking ourselves how Jesus would handle a situation is a helpful way of evaluating our response to the challenges we face as we run our race.

Think about your life and see if there are behaviors holding you back that you might let go. Where are you not living up to life Christ is calling you to lead? What can you change to become more Christ-like? Secondly, don’t give up. The Christian life isn’t always an easy run, sometimes it seems, as I discussed a few weeks ago, for every two steps forward, we take a step back. That’s okay, we’re making progress. We’re in the long haul; keep focused on the prize, knowing that Christ has already secured it for us. And finally, spend time with Jesus. Read one of the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Learn about Jesus’ life and pray about how his life might inform your own.  Amen.

©2019

[1] Rick Warren, What On Earth Am I Here For? The Purpose Driven Life, Expanded Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).  

[2] For this link, I’m indebted to Rev. Susan Sparks, “So You’re a Christian?  Whattaya Gonna Do About It?”  (http://day1.org/3044-so_youre_a_christian_whattaya_gonna_do_about_it.

[3] Hugh Montefiore, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 2013-2014.

[4] 1 Corinthians 9:24-26, Galatians 2:2, 2 Timothy 4:7 and Philippians 2:16

[5] See Revelation 7:13-17

Baseball as a Road to God

John Sexton, Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game (New York: Gotham Books, 2013), 242 pages including photos, index and bibliography.

 

 

Sexton, the president of New York University, has written a wonderful book that shares his enthusiasm for baseball while weaving in thoughts drawn from his academic background as a philosopher and student of religion. The book’s chapters are divided into innings, each exploring a particular aspect of faith: “sacred space and time, faith, doubt, conversion, miracles, blessings and curses, saints and sinners, community, and nostalgia (and the myth of the eternal return).” He also throws in three extra chapters focusing on baseball: “the Knot-hole Gang (Brooklyn Dodger’s pregame show), “the seventh inning stretch” and “the clubhouse.” He highlights the parallels between the game and faith, and notes how the small details of a baseball game encourages us to slow down and enjoy life and to find meaning and beauty in small things.

 

Sexton is a member of the Roman Catholic Church and while he generally writes from a Christian perspective, he also draws on religious teachers from a variety of faiths: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim. This is not a book about orthodox Christianity, although when he writes about the Christian faith, his theology is orthodox. Having grown up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, he was a Dodger fan. In the 70s, he became a Yankee fan (this is where his orthodoxy breaks down). He felt he needed to give his son a baseball team (by then the Dodgers had long moved to Los Angeles).  Discussing team allegiances allows him to explore the meaning and process of conversion.

 

Baseball is a game that places great hopes on what might happen next year. No one knew this better than the Brooklyn Dodger fans who encouraged one another, year after year, with the saying, “Wait till next year.” Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Presidential historian and another Brooklynite who wrote the introduction to this book, has a memoir that uses this phrase filled with Brooklyn’s hope. Of course, the Dodgers did finally win the World Series just before moving to the West Coast. Baseball, like religion, has its own eschatological vision of the future!

 

In the chapter of sacred time, Sexton links baseball to religion’s cycles (baseball starts just before Easter and Passover, and the regular season ends around Yom Kippur.  Like all religions, baseball has a cycle of life). Drawing on the writing of Marceau Eliade, he shows the importance of specific places and times which ground our religious traditions, Sexton muses also how ballparks serve a similar function. Discussing miracles, he relives Willie Mays’ fabulous 1954 catch that turned around the last World Series played in the Polo Ground as the Giants beat the Indians. But with miracles, there is always some doubt, as he illustrates with the 1951 Giants coming from a 13 ½ game deficit behind the Brooklyn Dodgers with six weeks left in the season. But then the miraculous happened and the Giants were able to catch up and with the “shot heard around the world,” beat the Dodgers to take the pennant. Years later, it was revealed that during the last ten weeks of the season, when the Giants won 80% of their home games, the team was given an advantage with a telescope deep in a clubhouse behind center field. The Giants had been stealing the opposing team’s signals and then quickly relaying them to the batter. This wasn’t against the rule in 1951, but in 1961, it was banned by Major League Baseball. As Sexton notes, sometimes miracles just seem miraculous.

 

In the chapter on blessings and curses, we relive the curses of the Cub’s “bill goat” and the Red Sox’s suffering revenge for trading a failing pitcher, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees. In the chapter on saints and sinners, we travel to the shrine of the “saints” at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Saints also play a major role in religion, from those canonized within Roman Catholic Christianity, to the prophets of Judaism, to the “Friends of Allah” in Islam, to the swami of Hinduism. Of course, as with many saints, parts of their lives are overlooked as it was with Babe Ruth whose monument reads: “A GREAT BALL PLAYER, A GREAT MAN, A GREAT AMERICAN.” As Sexton reminds us, Babe wasn’t always “saintly” off the field. As for sinners, there’s Ty Cobb, who still has many records in the book, and others only broken by another “sinner,” Pete Rose. And don’t forget the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal with its conflicting tales.

 

If there is one thing that Sexton left out, it was purgatory. As a Protestant, I find such a concept lacking in Scripture and doctrine and it’s not a part of my faith, but as a Pirate fan, I sometimes feel stuck in purgatory. Perhaps Sexton could have added an extra inning for this concept that I find more support for at the ballpark than within doctrines of my faith.

 

I should also note that his book is primarily about Major League baseball. The minor leagues, little leagues and other leagues are not the focus of Sexton’s work. The is room on the shelf for other books about the religious-like hope of the minor player at making the majors, or the high school standout hoping to catch the eye of a big league scout. And, of course, every little league player and kid on a sandlot has dreamed of one day playing in the world series.

 

On the last page, Sexton humorously muses that maybe baseball isn’t a road to God after all, but it can help awaken us to what’s important around us while providing an example of how to merge together the life of faith and the mind. The reader has been treated to two hundred pages or baseball stories, mixed in with teachings of the great religions. This book is a delight for any baseball player. For the serious student of world culture, the book might help them learn to pay attention to life and not take things too seriously. I recommend this book, but maybe you’ll want to catch a few games as the season moves into its final stretch toward October. By November, when the ballparks are all shuttered for winter, pull out this book and remember when, or (especially if you’re a Pirate fan), “wait for next season!”

Fearlessly Watching

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Luke 12:32-40
August 11, 2019

 

 

A group of 12 Presbyterians spent the morning working on a new Habitat for Humanity home in Garden City. Four of us from this church, along with others from Wilmington Island and White Bluff made up the group. It was interesting to see how each person took on tasks as we put together walls. Sarah Benton, a worker from Wilmington Island, captured the willingness of the group when she proclaimed at the start: “I’m a great ‘toter.’ Just tell me what you need, and I’ll fetch it.” That’s the attitude of a committed disciple. It’s the attitude of the Psalmist who proclaims that he’s okay just being a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord.[1]

From our group, John Evans operated the saw, cutting boards to lengths needed, while Mark Hornsby attached plates connecting the interior walls with the outer wall. And before those walls were set in place, Debbie Hornsby attached insulation foam on the bottom plate. I worked with the team that built and stood the walls. It was good to see so much done. When the heat started to get to us in early afternoon, we called it a day.

Today, we’re hearing back to back readings from Luke’s gospel where Jesus instructs the disciples not to worry about things in this world, but to build up treasure in the world to come. By working for the benefit of others, we help fulfill Jesus’ expectations for us as disciples. But this passage also has a surprise for us. While we’re not surprised to hear of our need for serving God, we are told here that God wants to serve us. In the kingdom, the roles will be reversed. Read Luke 12:32-40

 

Did you catch what was said in the first verse I read? Let me paraphrase it. “Do not be afraid, for it is God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom!” Get that? There is no reason for worry. God wants to give us the kingdom.

         But how many of us truly live life without worry? I fall short of the mark. I worry about a lot of things, just like you. We worry about our loved ones, our jobs, our retirement portfolios, our safety, our health, the health of our animals (that’s a big one for most of us don’t have them insured). The list goes on and on. We worry about the economy and the violence that seems too prevalent in our society. We worry about international politics, climate change, and sea level rise. As people, we worry. But the phrase often heard throughout scripture, whenever God or a representative of God is present, is “do not be afraid.”[2] What would it take for us not to be afraid?

Jesus follows his command not to be afraid with a message of readiness. For some of us, and at a time this included me, Jesus’ return is a reason for worry. When I was in high school, the book, The Late Great Planet Earth, was a best seller, and it seemed frightening. “Give us a little more time, God. Give us a little more time to get our ducks in the row. Let us sin a little more before we make a commitment to you, hopefully right before your glory breaks through the clouds.” Most of us wouldn’t include those concluding remark our prayer, but it’s what we’d be thinking.

         As I said, our passage starts out with a wonderful promise from God about how God wants to give us good things, then it’s followed with two stories about the end of time. Our first story is based on a wedding banquet. The slaves await their master’s return so they can open the door for him and welcome him home. This is a positive parable, for those who aren’t dozing find themselves recipients of the master’s hospitality. He’s in a jolly mood after the wedding, so even though he returns in the middle of the night, the master pulls up his gown and ties it off around his waist, like a servant who needs to have freedom of movement to do his tasks. Then he has his slaves sit down and serves them dinner. This is odd behavior. The master, in the middle of the night, assuming the role of a slave in order to serve his servants. Who has ever heard of such a thing? This story, instead of encouraging us to be afraid of the Second Coming, should make us look forward to it. God wants to reward us by serving us. In scripture, the heavenly banquet is often used as a metaphor for the here-after. If we are doing God’s work when he returns (or when he calls us home), we’re promised good things.

         The second parable is about a thief coming in the night. This parable is a bit more of a threat, for we are reminded of the uncertainty of when things will happen. Jesus reminds us that if the owner of a house knew when a thief was coming, he or she would remain awake. We’d probably be sitting in a chair, with a good view of the door, with a shotgun across our lap, ready to properly greet the intruder. But since we don’t know when a thief will pay us a visit, we must take precautions. We lock the doors. We latch the windows. We safely store valuables and pay insurance premiums.

        These two parables complement each other. In one, we’re told to be awake, to be alert, for the Lord is coming. In other words, we’re told to be busy, doing God’s work. The second parable reminds us that we need to prepare ourselves for we don’t know when our Lord will return.

         Okay, you’re thinking. The church has been expectantly waiting for two millennia and Christ hasn’t yet appeared in glory. But I believe he will. Preparing for his coming is paramount. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter if we’ll be the one to see Christ come in the clouds or if we meet him on our deathbed or when we accidently step in front of a dump truck, the time will come that it will be too late. Preparation for our earthly demise is necessary. We’re to make our peace with God so we’ll be justified before the throne on the Day of Judgment. Furthermore, we’re then to use our talents to further God’s glory in the world as we strive to be more Christ-like.

There are two images in this passage worth understanding: girded loins (the loose outer garments tucked in so that they don’t trip up the worker) and burning lamps.[3] Each image reinforces the idea that we must be ready and active. Being a Christian is more than passively accepting Jesus; it requires us to change our lives to be more like him.

       What should we take from this passage and apply to our lives today? Sure, we’re reminded, as the cliché goes, to get our ducks in order. We need to make peace with God while there is still time—before the master returns. But we also need to see there is no need to fear the second coming. The coming isn’t seen as a fearful event, but one of excited expectation, of God’s blessings!

          The first parable reminds us that we need to be ready to use what God has given us, our talents, to further the master’s work in the world. We’ve all been given talents and skills that we can use to build up the body of Christ, just as we all had different talents yesterday on the job site. Are we ready? Do we put our skills and abilities to use? Or do we sit back with the hope someone else does our part? If we chose the latter, we’re no different than the servants who played around and were not ready for the master’s return. But if we’re doing our part, then we’re promised that when Christ calls us home, we’ll find a place set for us at the table.

         Even though these passages encourage us to be alert and active, we need to keep in mind as we do the work of a disciple, we are not buying ourselves into heaven nor are we striving to get a better room in the sweet bye-an-bye. We are called, as Christians, to respond to God’s grace, not to earn it. And we respond to God’s grace by creating a life that honors God and furthers the kingdom’s work in the world. Jesus, our Lord, died for us. He was the obedient servant. Through his sacrifice, our sins are forgiven, and we are freed to go out and work on the behalf of others that they too might come to experience his love. The Christian life is about forgiveness and service. It’s also not worrying about tomorrow, trusting in God’s providence and longing to experience the joy of being in God’s presence.

         When things look tough in the world, when we struggle throughout our lives, remember the promise that God wants to give us the kingdom. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Psalm 84:10.

[2] This phrase is heard over 70 times in scripture: from God speaking to Abram in Genesis 15:1, to the angels speaking to the shepherds in Luke 2:10, to Jesus addressing John in Revelation 1:17.

[3] Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 165.

Listening to the Heartbeat of God

J. Philip Newell, Listening to the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 112 pages.

 

I have some problems with this book, but I’m glad I read it. I did like the last chapter where I found myself in agreement with the author on the need to draw from a broad theological base. He labels these two theological camps for disciples: John (the emotional) and Peter (the rational). While I agree with this,he overstates his case when trying to separate the two camps within church history.

 

My problem is that Newell sets Augustine theology (along with the Protestant Reformation), in conflict with a more ancient Celtic theology. He grounds Celtic theology in the thoughts of Pelagius (a lay theologian who is thought to have come from the British Isles and declared a heretic by the church in the 5th Century). Augustine was the theologian who challenged Pelagius’ thoughts, especially on free-will and original sin. Little is actually known about Pelagius’ thought outside the response of his opponents (this may well be the case of the winners writing history). In fact, so little is known about Pelagius that makes me wonder about Newell’s claims. He suggests that Pelagius may have come back to the “Celts” after his conflict in Rome, but it appears he traveled on East, where he had a conflict with Jerome who was living in Palestine. Then Pelagius disappears from history.

Newell is correct in pointing out problems with Augustine’s theology, especially linking the fall and original sin, which he saw as being passed on generation to generation through sexual reproduction. Then he sets up a “straw man” by linking Calvin and Calvinist thought to such views. Calvin and others struggled with this concept (See Jane Dempsey Douglass, Women, Freedom & Calvin, chapter 4). Furthermore, while Calvin realized sin was a real issue, he never felt the imago dei was completely wiped away from humans who had been “created in God’s image” (see John Calvin, Institutes, I.15.4 and Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 126ff.). Newell’s argument rests on his belief that within Augustine/Calvin thought, there is nothing in creation that can help us understand God. That God’s image had been totally purged by sin. While Calvinist thought certainly suggests that because of the fall, we cannot obtain the knowledge of salvation on our own, it also maintains that God has implanted an “awareness of the divinity within the human mind” (Institutes I.3.i) and that the “knowledge of God shines forth in the fashioning of the universe and the continuing government of it” (Institutes I.4).

It is my opinion that Newell sets up a false dichotomy within Calvinistic thought, where the world is seen as totally evil and contrasts this with the Celtic thought where the world was seen as good. The idea of the physical being evil is more of a gnostic idea than Augustine/Calvinistic thought. As I showed in the previous paragraph, Calvin never saw the world as totally evil. Yes, creation is good, but because of our sin, it has been tainted and we can’t fully know God through it. We need to experience the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, which is given to us through the Scriptures.

Newell also conveniently ignores the Calvinistic concept of “common grace,” the idea that God implants grace into all of humanity, even those who are not believers, for the purpose of helping all people. Could not such “common grace” allow everyone to enjoy creation and benefit from it? As Jesus says, it rains on the just and unjust.

Another area that I took issue was the lay centered leadership with Celtic thought verses the clergy leadership of the church. While the clergy certainly dominated the Roman Church, the protestant reformation sought to solve this issue with the concept of “the priesthood of all believers.” This thought balances the power of the laity and the clergy and insists that Jesus is the only priest needed. The clergy/laity separation seems to be another area that Newell is reaching to show the benefits of the Celtic ways. While this would remain true for Roman (and even Anglican) theology, it does not fit with non-Anglican Protestant thought, such as the Presbyterians.

While I agree with Newell in the importance of creation displaying the glory of God’s handiwork, I don’t think the followers of Augustine or Calvin would necessarily disagree. We live in a world that was created and declared good. Yes, as Newell points out, the Celtic ways had ties to pre-Christian beliefs, but that’s not necessarily a problem. You can make the same argument with early Roman Christianity, too.

As for this book, I recommend reading the last chapter, which applies us today. When we strive to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), we do so by involving the emotional sides of our brains along with the rational side. One final comment, the fear and trembling quote comes from Paul, which I don’t believe Newell even mentions.

Imagine the People of God: Fruition

At the bottom of the sermon, I have the opening of my pastoral prayer for the day as I reflect on the atrocities our nation experienced yesterday and early this morning in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. 

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Galatians 5:13-23
August 4, 2019

 

 

This is our last worship experience in the series, “Image the People of God. Today, we’re reflecting on the fruit of our imaginations as we long for the kingdom of God—the family of God—to be fulfilled with good and right relationships. What does it look like to be a community who is “believing, receiving, becoming God’s love,” and who can sing with exuberance, “we are your people, O God!” Our scripture from Galatians provides an image of what this looks like. We’re to make a “loyal commitment” to this vision.[1] Read Galatians 5:13-24.

 

        Did any of you get nervous as the end of a reporting terms approached when you were in school? Be honest. I certainly did. The idea of receiving a report card that had to be signed by parents was troubling, especially if I didn’t do well in a subject. It was even more troubling if I received anything less than a satisfactory mark in conduct. Personally, I never saw anything bad with my conduct, but my teachers had different expectations. It was often reflected with a “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” marks on my report card. I’d go home and if I only had a “needs improvement” mark would discover a few new chores. If it was an “unsatisfactory” mark, I’d find myself grounded for six weeks. Maybe Paul’s claim that freedom is not an opportunity for self-indulgence was meant for me.

        Our passage today is about the God’s expectation for our lives. Paul provides us with guidance on practical Christian living. Such a life should show the evidence of spiritual fruit that centers on love. Paul begins this section by reminding us that we have been called to be free, but we should not use our freedom for our own self-indulgence. Instead, through love, we become slaves to others. Paul speaks of love as way of looking outward, always wanting what is best for the other person. It may be idealistic, but if we all lived this way, we the world would be a better place. Are we making the world better or worse? What kind of report card would you receive?

          Paul draws a comparison between the types of work that come from our own desires and that which shows evidence of God’s Spirit working in our lives. The flesh can lead us down the wrong path, whether it is sexual immorality, idolatry, or creating discord within our communities. We’re to avoid such things, as Paul highlights in verses 16-22. Then, Paul provides a contrasting list of what the fruit of our life in the Spirit should look like: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

         In this series, we’re reminded of our call to use our creativity to become better disciples of Jesus. As a disciple, the end goal isn’t to convert the world (that’s God’s work), but to be witnesses which means exhibiting such characteristics in our lives. If we were to receive a report card from God, it could have these nine items listed. How would we do? Would our grades be high enough to make our parents proud?

        Before we get into the individual items, let me suggest that they are to be taken as a whole. We don’t have nine different fruits of the spirit, like you might have apples and pears, bananas and pineapples. Instead, we are to have “fruit of the spirit.”[2] Fruit is singular. And such fruit is witnessed in nine areas within our communal lives. If each of us were living by ourselves, without anyone else, on a deserted island, there would be no need for such fruit and no way to observe if we are fruitful (unless, I suppose, we suffer from a multiple personality disorder). It’s when we come into contact of others that these traits come into play.

        Now let’s look at each of these traits. Love: It’s been said that love always implies a personal investment in the object of love.”[3] Your check book probably says more about what you love than anything else. Where do you invest your resources? We experience this in God’s love for us through Jesus Christ. God gave it all. Love is outward focused, not inward. It’s the first of the traits because the love of God and of one another is the summary of the law. If we don’t love, we are not making the grade!

        The second trait we should be showing is joy. This is a hard one for we tend to think about joy as the person always smiling and laughing, forgetting the truth of that old Smokey Robinson song, “The Tears of a Clown.” We think of joy when the war is over and everyone celebrates in the street or when your favorite team wins the World Series, but such joy is fleeting. Paul encourages us to have joy even in times of trouble and persecution.[4] Joy is not the absence of something undesirable, but is that which gives us hope that our suffering is not the end.[5] God has something better for us, which is why Paul and Silas could sing hymns when they were in chains after having been beaten.[6] With God as the source and object of our joy, we can be joyous despite disappointments because we know that God got this. Our eternal salvation is secured.

        The third trait we’ll show, if we are fruitful, is peace. Again, as with joy, peace is often misunderstood. Without war is what we think peace is, but the Biblical concept is much deeper. Peace has to do with a wholeness within ourselves. It’s a state of mind that keeps us from being overwhelmed when chaos (and war) surrounds us. Peace is an outcome of knowing and trusting God.

         The next trait is patience. Again, think about how we often act. We want what we can get as soon as possible. When we want to go to the store or the club or wherever we’re going, and we are impatience when we get behind a slow driver or a driver who’s lost and looking at mailbox numbers. But as a believer, we should take a deep breath. We should realize the source of our frustration, such as the slow driver, may need a break. We don’t know what is going on in his or her life. Besides, what’s the worst that might happen? We’ll be a minute late? Give the person a break and be patient is the Christian response, but one in which many of us struggle.

          Kindness goes without saying. Again, God has shown kindness to us and calls us to show kindness and mercy to one another.[7] Kindness helps restore relationships, as God’s kindness demonstrates.[8] We’re taught in Proverbs that the one who shows righteousness and kindness will find life and honor.[9] Proverbs also teaches that kind words will bring life, but cruel words will crush another.[10] Do we show kindness to all?

        Next comes generosity. Again, in giving His Son, God has been generous with us, and we are to therefore be generous to one another.

 

 

 

Next is faithfulness. Remember, God has been faithful to us, even when we’ve been unfaithful. Therefore, we should be faithful with one another and not promise that which we will not do. In our world where people get easily offended and then break relationships, we see that faithfulness is in short supply. We need to change this. God stuck with us through thick and thin, and we need to stick with one another.[11]

          Gentleness is another godly trait. Remember the parable of the forgiven servant that Jesus taught?[12] The one forgiven a great debt, but then he puts the squeeze on another servant who owed him a minor debt. If God has been gentle with our great indebtedness, then we should be gentle with those who have wronged us. In a way, strength makes gentleness necessary. God could easily crush us, but his gentleness calls for another response. Likewise, we’re to be gentle, especially when we are in positions of power.

        Going with gentleness is self-control. Self-control implies the discipline of an athlete; a metaphor Paul uses to describe the Christian faith.[13] We don’t make rash decisions or lash out without thinking about what we’re doing. We don’t hit “Send” to forward an angry email without first sleeping on it. We don’t make obscene hand gestures when someone cuts us off in traffic. We don’t make snide remarks about those who hold different political views to ours. Instead, we show maturity by reining in our emotions and acting responsibly/

         We have witnessed God displaying all these traits that make up the “fruit of the Spirit.” Now it’s our turn to learn from life of Jesus and to show such grace to others. Doing so will make this world a better place for all God’s people. Amen.

 

 

©2019

[1] “Imagine the People of God” is a series outlined by worshipdesignedstudio.com.

[2] Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 262.

[3] Don. M. Aycock, Living by the Fruit of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 17.

[4] 1 Thess. 5:16-17, Philippians 1:24.

[5] Philip D. Kenneson, Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 62.

[6] Acts 16:16ff.

[7] Zechariah 7:9.

[8] Aycock, 69.

[9] Proverbs 21:21.

[10] Proverbs 15:4.

[11] Aycock, 103.

[12] Matthew 18:23-35.

[13] For example, see 1 Corinthians 9:24 and 2 Timothy 4:7.

20190804   Pastoral Prayer

Almighty and most merciful God, we gathered on a beautiful day, but we’re troubled, for we live in a violent world. We’re worried about what is happening to us as a people. The news is frightening with two mass shootings in one day—in Texas and Ohio—followed by other such events this past week in California and Mississippi. On the world stage, protests rage again in Hong Kong and in Moscow. In the Persian Gulf, Iran has captured another oil tanker. Closer to home, we worry about the church and how we’ll survive as fewer people show interest. More and more people don’t see the need of religion in their lives. We worry about our health and the health of loved ones. We worry about the lack of civility in the public square. As we navigate these dangerous and dark times, we need you more than ever. Give us a vision of a world that reflects your values, not ours. Help us to use our minds to creatively work to build a better world, one in which we enjoy the ripe fruit of your Spirit. May we live in a manner that we’ll be part of the solution instead of contributing to the problem.  May we live in a manner that will be faithful to our Lord’s calling, until we are called to our true home, where we will be united with you.

Hear our prayers as we pray…

 

Riding the “International” (Butterworth, Malaysia to Bangkok, Thailand)

This is another “recycled blog post” from an old blog from my journey from Indonesia to Europe taken during a sabbatical in 2011. I am concentrating on my travel blogs (mostly by train) instead of the others where I was visiting tourist sights. Here I make my way from Malaysia to Thailand. 

Question: What is the largest train station ever built that never had train tracks? (answer at the end of my story)

 

With mixed feelings, I leave Penang behind. I have enjoyed my time here.  After a couple of weeks of constant movement around Indonesia and Malaysia, it was nice to slow down for several days. The Hutton Lodge provided excellent accommodations and having Mahen, a blogger friend who lives in Georgetown, Penang, as a guide was a special treat.

 

Mahen outside of his clinic

Before leaving Georgetown, I spend the morning at Mahen’s clinic where I was able to see first-hand the work they do with children and young adults with cerebral palsy. I got to play with the children and watch as they work to teach a trade to the older children.

 

 

selfie from the ferry

By late morning, it was time to head to the ferry. The train was scheduled for 2:20 PM, but the woman who sold me the ticket suggested I be on the ferry to cross the bay by noon.  As it turned out, there was only a few minute wait for the ferry and then crossing took only 30 minutes. Once on the other side, I walked by the train station and made sure I knew where I needed to be at, then crossed the tracks and found a place for lunch. There, I talked to one of the few Americans I’d seen on the trip, a recent MBA graduate from Harvard who was traveling in Southeast Asia for a month.  We chatted as we at, then we explored some old train equipment, including two old steam trains, in a park by the tracks. Coming back to the train station at 2 PM, a woman working for the Malaysian tourism asks me a bunch of questions about their tourist advertisements and what I liked about Malaysia.

 

Waiting for the train in Butterworth

From the walkway over the tracks that connects the train station to the ferry terminal

I’m shocked, when the “International” begins to load, that there are only had two cars, both second class sleepers. Even with just two cars, the train is less than half full. I’m alone in my seats, which turns into two single beds at night, with a canvas covering that provides some privacy. Sitting across the aisle as we wait to pull out of the station are two women, sisters, from Penang who were heading north for a wedding. One of them now lives in Hong Kong. We begin talking, but then the conductor informs them they are in the wrong seats and makes them move into the other car. Then, an older Indian couple boarded the train and sat in their compartment. In the seats behind me, an Australian man sits alone and we strike up a conversation.

 

For much of the afternoon, as we head toward the Thai border, Malaysia work on upgrading their rail system (with plans that the north/south line to be fully double-tracked and electrified) is evident. New trestles are being built, tracks laid and electrical lines strung. These tracks are also a lot smoother than those tracks on Malaysia’s “Jungle Train.”

 

At the border crossing with the bright “Thai” engine

At the Thai border, we have to leave the train to clear customs. The cars continue on, but the rather plain looking Malaysian engine is replaced with a colorful Thai engine.  The staff also changes. Instead of the Malay staff, we now have Thai attendants. All of them wear fancy uniforms with enough stars to create a small galaxy. A car to prepare food is also added. We check out of Malaysia, go through a gate and have our passports stamped for Thailand. The train moves forward a hundred feet or so, into Thailand, where we re-board. As we step into the car, a Thai attendant greets us with cart selling bottles of Singha beer. As a Muslim country, there had been no beer on trains in Malaysia. But now we’re in Thailand, beer is readily available.

 

After leaving the border, I join Allen, the man from Australia, and two Japanese men who are sitting across the aisle from Allen. We take turns buying large bottles of beer and pouring them into glasses, serving each other. The Japanese speak only broken English, but we are able to communicate. When they take orders for dinner, we all have pork, which was unavailable in Malaysia, it being a Muslim country. I have pork with noodles with oyster sauce, which was delicious.

Allen and I talk through much of the evening.  An Australian, he retired to Tasmania.  Most of his life was spent in the military.  He’d joined the British army as soon as he was eligible (his mother signed for him at 16).  He was originally from Great Britain, just south of Scotland. After seeing action in Yemen and in Malaysia in the mid-1960s, he transferred to the Australian army where he spent most of his military career. He even spent a year in the United States, in the late 60s, training American Non-Commissioned Officers for jungle warfare. He served three tours in Vietnam as well as in Malaysia (there was an undeclared war between Malaysia and Indonesia on Borneo in the 60s and 70s). He’s well-read and we discussed books (we’d read many of the same), theology, government and health care, world politics, our families and the weather (it was a 23 hour train ride).  Allen takes off for a few months every winter (remember, he lives in the southern hemisphere) and travels in Southeast Asia.

Allen has a lot to say about Vietnam and his experiences there. He’s critical of American forces (noting that our military is more disciplined now than then).  Then, he confessed that most Australians in Vietnam didn’t like working with American units. The Australian units had jungle warfare experiences in Malaysia, and were more prepared for Vietnam. He told of once incident on his last tour in 1971. His squad had been in an ambush position for a day, waiting. He said that in the jungle it was hard to hear and to see very far and that his troops knew to wait till an enemy force was all in the killing zone (set up between two machine guns, before opening fire. If the enemy unit was too large (more than 18 men), they’d let it pass, but if smaller, they’d attack. A unit came into their trap, talking loudly. In the jungle, they couldn’t make out the words or even the language. It was assumed, because of where they were at, it was a Vietcong (VC) unit. He was also critical of the VC, saying they were no more disciplined than American soldiers. As the leader, it was his job to detonate the claymore mines as a signal for everyone to open fire. But seconds before he blew the mines, one of his machine gunners yelled, “Hold the fucking fire.”  He was shocked, but the machine gunner was in position to have a good look of the last soldiers in the unit, a 6 ½ foot tall African-American. He could have been basketball player, as his head stuck up over the grass. The machine gunner realized this wasn’t a VC unit at all, and his yell saved 13 American lives.

As bad as Vietnam was, he said it didn’t compare to his short stint in Yemen with the British army early in his career. His time there makes him feel for the soldiers in Afghanistan, who are fighting a determined enemy who believes they’re on God’s side.

Thai train attendant

At about ten o’clock, the train attendant lowers our beds. We all head off to sleep.  Across from me, the Indian couple who, especially for  their age, are having a good time. The canvas covers over the sleeping areas don’t dampen the sound. Sometime in the night. after the Indian couple quiet down, , I feel the train bumping around and in the morning, there are no longer just two passenger cars, but a dozen or so. The morning also brings a different view as the mosques and minarets of Malaysia have been replaced with colorful Buddhist temples and chimneys for crematoriums of Thailand. The tracks are not as smooth as they were in Malaysia, showing their age as we pass over them.

I join Allen and the two Japanese for breakfast. For 100 baht, I get some fruit, coffee, juice and a ham sandwich. While we eat, we whisper about what must have been going on in the Indian couple’s compartment. Everyone heard them. No one is sure of their age, but we all are impressed. As we approach Bangkok, the stations become closer together and towns are larger. We pass over canal after canal, making our way on toward the city’s center, pulling into the station just a few minutes late.

At Hau Lampong, the Bangkok main train station, I say our goodbyes to my Japanese friends and Allen and I depart ways. Then I realize I am not sure where I’m going and can’t believe that I didn’t write down directions to Sam’s Lodge, where I have reservations. I find an internet café and log into my gmail account to get the directions—which are rather easy: just find the subway, go four stops and get off at Sukhumvit, leave the subway at exit three, walk to the corner and take a left… I stop to eat lunch and am at the hotel by 2 PM, where I drop my luggage off and set out to explore around Bangkok.

Answer: The majestic Georgetown train station on the island of Penang never had a train make it’s way to the station. The trains always ran through Butterworth, on the Malaysian mainland. But the British did a wonderful job in designing this building on the Georgetown waterfront:

Imagine the People of God: Transformation

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Romans 12:1-3
July 28, 2019

 

 

          Have you ever felt like you’re taking two steps forward and one step back? Sometimes life’s that way. It’s like climbing a cinder cone volcano. The ground is made of ash and is so unstable that you literally take two steps up and then slide back. You just hope to make progress. A 700-foot climb can take forever. But isn’t that how much of life is?

Today, we’re talking about transformation. It’s not something we do suddenly and then put it on the shelf. Yes, our salvation (our justification) is ensured in our faith in Jesus Christ, but our lives are to be continually transformed until, in the next life, we are completely sanctified.[1] Sanctification is still a ways off (for most of us), but just as I kept my eyes on the rim of that volcano, we must keep our eye on the goal, Jesus Christ.

My text today comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 12, the first three verses.  I’ll reading these from The Message translation. I encourage you to compare this with your own Bibles or a pew Bible. The Message translation is a bit wordy, but provides a clearer insight into Paul’s intention.

I hope you liked the video, “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” Young Harold was able to create his own world, and, to an extent, so are we. Harold had a purple crayon. We have faith in a God of Creation, in a Savior of the World, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit. We’re called to transform. Are we up to the task?

 

I often pound the point that salvation isn’t just a scheme to get us into heaven; we’re created and redeemed for a nobler task. We’re to love God by responding to his call to be his people in the world. As God’s chosen people, Paul writes to the Corinthians, we have hope which should lead us to act with boldness.[2] We are to be about transformation of ourselves into Christ’s likeness. And we’re to be transforming the world, striving to make it more like the kingdom of God. This transformation means that because we have experienced grace, we should be gracefully striving to change the world for the better. And it starts here, within the church. As one of the founding documents of the Presbyterian Church maintains, we are to exhibit the kingdom of God.[3]

Cynthia Rigby, a Presbyterian and a theology professor at Austin Seminary, puts it this way: “Presbyterian theology upholds both the value of believing right now and the importance of reflecting seriously on what we believe, so we can participate more fully in the faith that is our inheritance.”[4] Such reflection is what Paul refers to here at the beginning of the 12th Chapter of Romans. Instead of us surrendering to worldly standards, we are to hold up a vision of a more just and holy world.

John Calvin, in his commentary on Romans, notes that Paul makes a shift at the beginning of the 12th chapter. Coming into this point in his letter, Paul has been dealing with those things necessary for the kingdom, “that righteousness is to be sought from God alone, that salvation is to come to us alone from his mercy, that all blessings are laid up and daily offered to us in Christ only…”  Paul then changes his focus to show us how the Christian life is to be formed.[5]

Paul’s transition here is from theology to ethics.  Simply stated, theology deals with God and what God is up to and how we are to relate to the Almighty. Ethics is how we live, how we relate to one another. According to Paul, our ethics are not grounded in God’s law, but in our gracious response of gratitude for God’s grace.[6]

Paul tells us in Verse 1 to sacrifice ourselves to God, but not because we are trying to earn God’s favor. This is one of Paul’s big points: “We’re saved by grace” and we’re to respond to that grace with obedience.[7]

Eugene Peterson, who translated The Message version of scripture that we read this morning, makes it clear that what we give to God isn’t just our “church work.” We offer it all: “sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life…” We embrace what God does for us; which is the best thing we can do for ourselves.

Verse two is the focal point of the change in direction that Paul takes in the letter. “Do not be conformed to this world,” as it’s often translated, “But be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”[8] Let me suggest that Paul’s admonishment “not to be conformed to the world” is a lot easier to say than it is to do. We’re surrounded by attempts to mold and to shape us in the ways of the world.  Our friends and peers constantly make suggestions that we should do this or that. And it doesn’t stop there.  We’re constantly bombarded by advertisements and marketing ploys telling us to try this or that, to buy these items, to vote this way. The hidden promise in this rhetoric is that if we just try what is offered, we’ll be happy, but such messages never live up to their promises. We accumulate more and more and are often less and less happy. Jesus asks, “What will it profit us if we gain the world and forfeit our lives?”[9]

Instead of letting the world shape our thoughts and actions, we’re to renew our minds by focusing on God. In John Ortberg’s book, the me I want to be (which I believe our Serendipity class studied a few years ago), we’re reminded of the power of a habit and how our thought patterns are as habitual as brushing our teeth.[10] Ever wonder why someone always sees trouble ahead and always criticizes, while another person sees an opportunity and is excited about the future? Or thought about why one person is always grouchy and another cheerful? Or why one sees a glass half-empty and another half-full? We have habitually trained ourselves to be a certain way by what our minds focus on.

In Colossians, Paul encourages us to focus our minds on things above, not earthly things.[11] If we train our minds to listen to God’s Word, to look for evidence of God’s hand in the world, we’re going to feed our minds an incredible diet that has the power to change how we think. Likewise, if we always see problems and always feel persecuted and beaten down, we’re also feeding our minds a rich diet and we’re going be bitter.  And no one will want to be around us!

Paul isn’t suggesting here that we have an instant change, that all of a sudden go from being Eeyore to Winnie the Pooh, from being a sourpuss to the life of the party, from being depressed to hopeful. We’re to “be transformed.” Transformation implies a process. We don’t create habits overnight, so we can’t recreate new and better habits overnight.[12] Transformation isn’t a one-time change; it’s something that requires time and effort.  When we fail, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up, but learn from our failures and ask God’s forgiveness and help as we move forward, toward that goal of being more and more Christ-like and less and less like the world.

We need to embark on an effort to renew our minds. We need to drink deeply from the Scriptures as we read and study the Bible, individually and in groups. We need to ask God’s Spirit to guide, fill and help us learn to discern what God is doing in the world and how we can be a part of it. But we can’t just stop there. We’re not just to read the scriptures, we’re to “do something.” We practice living the life Jesus demonstrated. Unfortunately, as John Ortberg whom I quoted earlier, notes, we often debate doctrine and beliefs, tradition and interpretation, than do what Jesus said… “It’s easier to be smart than to be good.”[13]

        We read God’s words, we learn God’s nature by discussing the Word with others, and we apply it to our lives…  Read, Learn and Apply. Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern the will of God. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Protestant theology tends to separation justification, which is a onetime event, and sanctification, which continues through this lifetime and is complete in the resurrection.

[2] 2 Corinthians 3:12.

[3] This is from the “Great Ends of the Presbyterian Church, adopted by the United Presbyterian Church of North America and is now a part of our Book of Order, F-1.0401.

[4] Cynthia L. Rigby, “Jesus is the Way: Presbyterian Theology Affirms the Uniqueness of Christ,” Presbyterians Today (June 2011), 11.

[5] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, Rev. John Owen, translator (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 449.

[6] The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 2028 n12:1-8.

[7] Ephesians 2:5, 8

[8] Romans 12:2a, New Revised Standard Version

[9] Matthew 16:26, Mark 8:36, Luke 9:25

[10] John Ortberg, the me I want to be: becoming God’s best version of you (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 91.

[11] Colossians 3:2

[12] For insight into this, see Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do In Life and Business (New York: Random House, 2014).

[13] Ortberg, 112-112

Imagine the People of God: Compassion

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 
Philippians 2:1-11
July 21, 2019

 

 

 

          In her book, Sailboat Church, Joan Gray writes: “the church’s divine nature is not always easy to see. Sometimes it takes great faith to believe that the church as we know it is the body of Christ. Sin is all too evident in our midst.” Sounds depression, doesn’t it? But Gray continues, assuring us it’s God’s way as she continues: “the church was never meant to be a group of holy people who are in themselves morally superior to everyone else.”[1] Got that? We in the church are not necessarily morally superior. We, too, sin. Let’s remember that Jesus taught us to pray in this manner: forgive our sins as we forgive the sins of others.[2]

         Let me say something that might be a bit controversial. Sin abounds within the church, within Christ’s body on earth. I used to think we should try to root it out, but I no longer do. Instead, maybe we should learn from the parable of the weeds and the wheat, and not risk rooting out the weeds less we also damage the wheat.[3] It’s inevitable that there will be sin in the church and that’s okay if we are compassionate. The church would cease to exist if it only consisted of perfect people. We’d be out of business in a flash! But if we truly realize that we’ve been saved, not by ourselves but by a loving Savior, then we should be both compassionate and loving toward others. And that gives us our reason for being.

Today, in our second week of “Imaging the People of God,” we are looking at compassion. Just as God is compassionate, we too must be compassionate. Our text this week is from the second chapter in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s a very familiar passage, especially starting with verse six, where Paul begins a beautiful hymn to Christ. Today, while we will end with that hymn, we’re going to focus on the first five verses. Read Philippians 2:1-11 from The Message.

          I wonder what our life of faith might look like if we, instead of referring to God as love, referred to God as compassionate. Both are correct. God is love, but in the English language, the word “love” has lost much of its power. As many of you, I’m sure, know, the Greeks had several words for love, erotic love, brotherly love, and compassionate love. We only have one word for love and apply that word too many things. We can love our spouse, our children, a sport team, a car, a sunset, good ice cream, a pair of shoes, a song on the radio… The list continues.

         It’s often pointed out that “love” should be a verb. It should lead us to action toward that for which we have affection. It’s not just a static or emotional feeling, but is something that manifested itself in action for the wellbeing of the other. In that way, it’s like compassion, being moved to work for the benefit of the other. God is compassionate as shown in sending us his Son, to offer the human race a chance to free itself from the muck which keep us stuck and bogged down in sin. Those of us who have experienced this compassion from God are to show such compassion to others.

        The word compassion, in English, implies an awareness of another’s distress, with a desire to help alleviate that distress in some manner. It has a deeper theological meaning, as it is linked to God’s actions. In the New Testament, the word compassion is used to describe Jesus or, used by Jesus to refer to God. Paul is the one who makes the link between the compassion of God, as we see in revelation of God in Jesus Christ, to our own call to be compassionate.[4]

         A modern writer defines compassion as “the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”[5] Compassion is not just us being emotionally troubled by the plight of others; it’s us doing what we can alleviate their plight.

          Paul begins this section of his letter to the Philippians with a series of “if” clauses. This repetitiveness is tricky to translate, for we often use “if” to imply a dream. “If only this was real.”  “If only this had happened…” But Paul’s use of the conditional cause doesn’t demonstrate a lack of certainty. Paul uses this litany of clauses to drive home a point. “If you believe this and if it’s made a difference in your life as it has in mine, then do this!” “If you have gotten anything out of following Christ, being in his Spirit-filled community, if you have a heart or an ounce of care, then you should act in this way.” Verse one is the lead up to how we should live as disciples, which is covered in verses 2 – 5.

 

  • We’re of one mind with each other.
  • We’re to love each other.
  • We don’t step on others.
  • We’re humble.
  • We put aside ourselves so that we can work for the well-being of others.

 

          I love (there’s that word again) how The Message translates verse four: “Forget yourself long enough to lend a helping hand.” Paul’s talking about compassion. And then he drives this home as he tells us to be like Christ, the compassionate one. Starting with verse sixth, Paul appears to be quoting an early church hymn about Christ and he encourages us to imitate Christ’s compassion and humility. Instead of pushing and shoving and demanding that we get our “fair-share,” we’re to be Christ-like which means we lower ourselves in order to help others. In difficult situations, humility helps de-escalate tension.

         You know, our lives tell a story. Whether we like it or not, how we live, what we care for, how we treat others, where we invest our talents and money, all combine to tell our story. As followers of Christ, our story will either compel others to check out our faith or it will repel them. If we realize this, it’s important that we strive to live in a way that will honor Jesus and show our trust in the Almighty. And that means to live compassionately. As one writer commented on this, “It’s not wise to name yourself as a Christian unless you are actually embodying the way of Messiah Jesus.”[6]

         How might we be compassionate? We can look at the life of Jesus and live as he did? Or we might think of some of our contemporaries. Since last Sunday, we have lost a good one, a compassionate man. Jim Fendig was humble and soft spoken and concerned for others. And there are others like him within our community.

As I tried to make clear earlier, compassion is more than just feeling bad for someone else. Compassion is feeling the empathy, and then going the extra mile to do something. We can look at someone disabled and struggling to get inside a building and feel bad for them. But that’s not compassion. Compassion is running up and holding the door for them. We can feel bad for the children separated from their families and locked in, at best, marginally sufficient detention centers. But that’s not compassion. Compassion involves advocating a change in policy or supporting those who are able or attempting to provide relief. We can feel sorry for someone who sits at home alone and lonely every day. But that’s not compassion. Compassion is picking up the phone and calling, or visiting, or taking them out for coffee. We can feel sorry for a person who is being bullied or picked on because he or she is different. But that’s not compassion. Compassion is befriending and standing up for the unloved, the bullied, and the marginalized.

Compassion goes beyond just feeling. It requires action. Last week, we saw how God has given us the gift of imagination. We’re to use this gift. Imagination helps us know how we might respond compassionately. We will not be able to solve every problem.  I can’t cure cancer, but I can walk beside that person who is battling the disease. We might not be able to perform miracles, but we can do something to make the situation better.

 

Compassion is the way of Jesus; it’s how we reflect his face to the world. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Joan S. Gray, Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2014), 24.

[2] Matthew 6:12, Luke 11:4.

[3] Matthew 13:24ff.

[4] Andrew Purves, The Search for Compassion: Spirituality and Ministry (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 15-16.

[5] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 15.

[6] Charlie Peacock, Following Jesus in a New Way (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2004), 93.

Behind the Barbed Wire (A Review)

A lot of students have fantasies of having teachers locked up. For my 5th grade teacher, it wasn’t a fantasy, it was a horrific experience. As a Marine embassy guard in China, which was behind enemy lines when the war began, he spent the entirety of the 2nd World War as a POW. This is a review of a book he later wrote about this experiences.This review originally appeared in my other blog and has been slightly edited.

The author as an embassy guard in China.

Chester M. Biggs, Behind the Barbed Wire (1995, Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Co, 2011), 224 pages, some photos and maps.

 

On the morning of December 8, 1941, the Marine guards at the American consulate in Peiping (Beijing), China woke up behind enemy lines. Overnight (on the other side of the International Date Line), the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had invaded China several years earlier and the American consulates in China were now inside territory held by the Japanese army. Although it was a tense situation in the Far East and war was not out of the question, the Marines were caught unaware. They were in the process of packing up and were days away from being withdrawn from China (many of the military members and diplomats of other consulates such as Britain had already been withdrawn). As the war began, the ship sailing to North China to pick up the Marines turned south and those left behind were prisoners of war. They would spend the entire war as POWs. One of these Marines, PFC Chester Biggs, the author of this book, was also my fifth grade teacher. Mr. Biggs would spend 20 years in the Marine Corp (1939-1959). The latter half of his life he spent in education. And, until his death, he would spend time teaching and answering questions at the Special Forces POW classes taught at Fort Bragg. He died in December 2011 at the age of 90.

The book begins by describing the events of December 8, 1941.  Only hours before the Marines awoke, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The Marines have no idea what is happening or that the day meant war. The Japanese surround the compound, disarm the sentries and forced their surrender. Biggs, a young man of 20, finds himself as a POW. The next two chapters, Biggs describes life in Peiping before the war. China had been at war with Japan for years and the area of the consulate had been securely controlled by the Japanese. The situation in the countryside, where there were Chinese guerrillas fighting the Japanese, was tense and movement by American personnel there was limited. However, inside the city, where there was quite large contingent of foreigners, life continued as normal. Peiping, at least in the international section, was a cosmopolitan city with Europeans, Russians and Americans living there. During this time, there were fancy parties and even premiers for movies such as “Gone with the Wind.” There were some tension with Japanese soldiers, but with the exception of a few incidents, it appears much was done on both sides remain calm. After the one incident, US military personnel were restricted to a few clubs near the compound.

At first, after the surrender, the main change that the Marines noticed was a loss of freedom of movement, the loss of their Chinese workers (they had Chinese laborers that did many of their task from laundry to shoeshines to manicures) and a reduction in food. Even though they were confined to the compound, one Marine who had girlfriend in the city slipped out and then came back undetected. The NCOs tried to impress upon the Marines of the serious of such actions, but two others slipped out and were caught. Although the Japanese had said anyone caught attempting to escape would be shot, they were not. As Biggs noted, the Japanese could and would be brutal, but their behavior wasn’t always consistent, and at times they surprised everyone. At the end of January 1942, the Marines in Peiping were transferred to Tientsin and were later transferred to a POW camp near Shanghai. Before the transfer, the Japanese allowed a Marine from Tientsin to marry his English fiancé before they were moved to Shanghai. During Christmas 1942, the Japanese allowed an American restaurateur who ran a famous establishment in the city to prepare a Christmas dinner for the POWs. This was the last great meal they enjoyed. Before the next Christmas, all expats in the city including this man were confined to concentration camps by the Japanese.

At first the Marines who had been on diplomatic duty were hopeful they would be exchanged and freed. The diplomats in China were exchanged six months into the war. Such hope began to wane as they were placed into a POW camp in Shanghai that included Marines and civilian contractors from Wake Island and British sailors on a ship captured in a Chinese port at the beginning of the war among others. Interestingly, in 1943, they were joined by Italian Marines stationed in China. As a part of the Axis powers, they we left alone. But once Italy surrendered and declared war on Germany, members of the Italian military in China found themselves as POWs bunking with Americans and British POWs. In the Shanghai area, the Marines were held in two different camps. They were worked hard and the Japanese capturers could be incredible brutal. The POWs did what they could to keep their spirits up and Biggs tells many incredible and sometimes humorous stories of survival and endurance. There was even a radio which provided a little news of the war (which was spread via rumor for no one was to know about the radio).

In 1945, the POWs were locked into rail cars and shipped north and then down through Korea. Their travel was hard. In Pusan, they were placed on a ship bound for southern Japan. Once on Japanese soil, they were shipped by train north. Although they could see only a little (the Japanese had covered the windows of the trains) there were enough cracks through which they realized the devastation done to Japanese cities from American bombings. They knew the war couldn’t last much longer. The Marines were taken north, to Hokkaido, where they were put working inside coal mines. This was brutal work and from the book I have the sense it was the worse time of Biggs’ entire imprisonment. The Americans were split up and sent to smaller camps where they worked in teams with a Korean miner underground. After the Japanese surrender, the POWs stayed at the camp as American planes dropped supplies. It was well into September that Biggs had his first airplane flight in his life as he was being moved from Hokkaido to Yokohama. However, bad weather forced the plane to turn back. He would later take a ship south and then on to Guam where the POWs were seen by doctors and navy intelligence officers who record their experiences.  From Guam, they were flown across the Pacific, with stops for hospital visits at Honolulu (to be checked for infectious diseases and parasites) and then on to a hospital in San Francisco.

Mr. Biggs was 18 when he left his home in Oklahoma for the Marine Corps training base in San Diego. He was 24 when he returned home on an extended leave after having been a POW for over 3 ½ years. I found this book to be well written and to give great detail of everyday life in a POW camp. I wish I had read it while Mr. Biggs was still alive.

The Gift of Imagination

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 14, 2019
Ephesians 3:14-21

 

There’s an old story about a pastor making a hospital call with a man who’d been in a terrible accident. The doctors said he’d never walk again. The pastor, along with everyone, else believed the doctors. There was no way his legs could ever again support the man’s weight. But the pastor was berated by the man to pray he’d regain the use of his legs. Being sensitive to the situation, he didn’t want to get the man’s hopes up. But after enough nagging, the pastor finally prayed, asking that the man’s legs be healed. When the prayer was over, the man slid over to the edge of the bed, threw his legs off the side, and sat up. Then he stood and walked out into the hall. It was a miracle. Once, back in his car, the pastor, who felt he had egg on his face, had a long talk with God. “Don’t you ever do that to me again,” he said.

            Are we like that? Are we closed to the possibilities of what God might do through us? Are we resistant to the abilities of Almighty God, who can do more than can imagine? Perhaps, like the man in the story, we want to keep God hidden, focusing on ourselves, even though we don’t (by ourselves) have the ability to do miracles? But, you know, when we don’t care who gets the credit, great things can happen. And if it is happening with God, even greater things can happen.

Such healing stories are few and far between in our modern world. But not in the 3rd world. Ever talked with missionaries about the miracles they’ve experienced? It’s as if we have placed all our hope in science and in our advanced society, but those who don’t have the technology only hope is with God. And God often shows up.

We have been created in God’s image, given power to participate with God in the re-creation of the church. We should trust God to help us in this endeavor as we seek to use our creative powers to build a better world. Our reading today is from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, Chapter 3, verses 14 to 21…

###

When we moved back to North Carolina in 1966, my parents brought a house on an acre of land. At that time, there was only a little grass and the only shrubs were in front of the house. There was lots of white sand. But my dad had a vision. He brought a few azaleas of various sizes and colors. Some were the large Rhododendron types and others small bushes that came in a variety of colors. From these plants, he began to root azaleas. Out in the back of the yard, under one of the longleaf pines, he nursed these plants in cans till they were large enough to be transplanted into beds. Slowly, as these beds grew, there was less and less lawn. By the time I left home, ten years later, instead of having an acre to mow, it was less than a half-acre. By the time my younger brother left, there was even less yard to mow. I think it was my father’s intention—to have the yard of a manageable size before he ran out of child labor.

But that wasn’t the point of his obsession with azaleas. During the spring, for about three weeks, my parent’s yard was a sight to see. It was the envy of the neighborhood. Mixed into the beds of azaleas were camellias and dogwoods, creating a colorful delight for the eyes.

Paul, in our passage, speaks of us being rooted and grounded in love. Being rooted is an agricultural metaphor.[1] To root an azalea, you take a small limb or branch from an established plant and ground it in new soil, keeping it damp until the sprig begins to spout roots and forms a new plant. Here, Paul is referring to us being taken out of the world and, with love, being transformed into a new creation within the church. This new creation should be like rich soil where the plant can take root. Paul suggests that just as a gardener will have a vision about what’s to be, God has a vision for who we are to be. A beautiful vision!

Our reading from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is a prayer. Paul prays his brothers and sisters in Ephesus will find strength in God’s spirit and that Christ might dwell in their hearts through faith rooted and grounded in love.

Love is the key to this relationship. In a book titled Love, Medicine and Miracles, Doctor Bernie Siegel writes: “I am convinced that unconditional love is the most powerful known stimulant of the immune system… the truth is that love heals.”[2] Here is a medical doctor who has spent years studying medicine, yet he acknowledges the importance of love in healing.

           By the way, this isn’t the only place where Paul emphasizes the importance of love. Yesterday, in the Men’s Saturday morning Bible Study, we looked at 1 Corinthians 13, which is known as the love chapter. There, Paul is insisting that the various factions within the Corinthian Church love one another. God loves us, as shown in Jesus Christ, and we are to love one another. It’s as simple as that. Even Sigmund Freud, who isn’t known for his Christian sympathies, said that we must love in order that we will not fall, and if we can’t love, illness will take over us.[3]

If we create a community that really loves and cares for people, we’ll witness people being restored and healed, body and soul.  Granted, not every illness will be beaten. We have to be honest and admit that one day we will all die. But until then, we should be loving and supportive of one another. If so, our lives will be more beautiful and much happier and healthier. This is what God wants for us. This is what the church needs to offer the world. It’s a creative vision often ignored these days.

In the 20th verse, Paul appeals to “him who by the power at work in us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or image.” This is a wonderful attribute of God: the ability to do more for us than we can ever imagine. Again, God is like a landscaper who can look at barren piece of land and image a lush garden.

          Maybe we, as Christians, need to do more daydreaming about what it means to be the people of God. That’s what this four week study is about. God has endowed in us an ability to image new worlds. But are we willing to join with God in creating them? Or do we limit God by our own lack of imagination. We need to free God to work miracles in our lives, within our congregation and community and within our world. If we trust God, and ground ourselves in agape love, which is the type of love that calls us to work for the best of others, there’s no limit to what might be accomplished. If we trust in God’s power and are willing to creatively join God in working for a better world, there is no telling what might come out of our efforts. But if we act like things depend on what we can do and have no imagination, we risk a dark dystopia future.

Following the promise of what God can do for us, Paul ends with a benediction. A direct translation of what Paul says is simple as we have in verse 21 of the New Revised Standard Version. Although short and simple, the meaning is fuller as The Message translates demonstrates:

Glory to God in the church!
Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus!
Glory down all the generations!
Glory through all millennia! Oh yes!

 

Friends, God created us in the divine image and gave us the gift of imagination. How will you use your gift? Will you use your imagination to build a better world? Will you use your imagination to build better relationships with estranged family members and with neighbors you may not have met? Will you use your imagination to help us build a stronger and more vibrant congregation? The strategic planning the Session is engaging in this. We’ll need not just your God-inspired vision, but your commitment to help bring it about. Use your imagination to build a better community.

           The Israelites in exile were told to seek the wellbeing of the community in which they were living and we’re to do the same.[4] What would it take to re-create Savannah into a community with top-notch schools and business opportunities, where the absence of gunfire at night is noticeable? And while you are working with your imagination, what might our world looked like if we treated everyone with dignity and honor?

If we have, as Paul prays, been rooted and grounded in love, with Christ dwelling in our hearts, we should be about imagining a better world. But don’t stop with daydreaming. For God created us in his image and calls us to work with him to carry out the divine mission. We are saved for God’s work in the world, and each of us are given abilities to fulfill our own calling. What abilities has God given you and how might you creatively use them? Amen.

©2019

[1] Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1991), 45.

[2] As quoted by Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., “Love Heals,” The Living Pulpit (April-June 1997), 30.  From Love, Medicine & Miracles, 181, xii.

[3] Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism,” as quoted in The Living Pulpit (April-June 1997), 31.

[4] Jeremiah 29:7.

Malaysia’s Northeast Line: The Jungle Train (Saturday, June 16, 2011)

Later in the morning

This post is from an older blog of mine from when I was on a Sabbatical and traveled overland trip from Southeast Asia to Europe. As much as possible, I traveled by trains. 

 

We pull out of Singapore’s Tangong Pager Railway Station right on time, promptly at 4:30 AM. As we board the train, a Malaysian official stamps our passports. The train slowly moves through the dark city that’s not yet ready to come to life, the coaches swaying back and forth on the tracks. In two more weeks, this train will cease to exist. Everything is dark. I think back to the day before when I visited the station to see it in daylight. It’s a grand station, like many built in the early 20th Century. It was still young and in its prime when the Japanese invaded. Yesterday, I spoke with an old Chinese man who had come to see the station one more time, while the trains were still running. He told me about being an older child when the Japanese forced all the Chinese into the station and several other places around the city. Then soldiers came and randomly selected people and forced them to march to the beach, where they were shot and left for the tides to claim.

Murals within the station

I arrived by cab at the station around 3:30 A.M. It was still dark, but the front door was open. The great hall was dark, but people had already started to gather, so I found a seat on one of the wood benches and waited, trying to catch a bit more sleep. At 4 A.M. the lights come on and I notice the large murals of rural Malaya life that lines the walls. All this was build when Malaya was a British colony and Singapore was just another city. But as the British pulled out, Singapore established itself as a separate country. I buy a water bottle and some snacks from a vendor and then, once the gates to the tracks are open, head over and join the line. The Malaysian official by the gate wastes no time checking documents and asks no questions as he stamps our passports. We’re sent out into the humid heat of early morning. I walk down the platform, under the hanging railroad clock that no longer works, to the five waiting coaches. These cars are attached to a power car that’s billowing diesel fumes as it provides electricity and air conditioning for the coaches. As of yet, there are no locomotives. I hop aboard, seeking relief from the heat, and find my seat. A few minutes later, we’re jarred as the locomotive is coupled to the train. Shortly afterwards, we leave and weave our way through the city.

The lights are dim and I’m about to nod off, when we abruptly stop and the lights come on. We’re told to get off. It’s only been twenty minutes or so since we started and I’d forgotten about this stop. We’re at Woodlands, on the far side of the island at the causeway and we have to go through immigration. Starting July 1, 2011, this is where the train will begin as the tracks through Singapore will be removed and the land used for development. We’re told we can leave our luggage behind (I still take my daypack) and shuffle out onto the brightly lighted platform and lineup behind the yellow line waiting to meet with the official. I scan the crowds. There is only one other western couple that I pick out, a Brit and his wife who live in Singapore. They are in the line for Singapore residents. Our entry cards for Singapore are taken and our passports checked and stamped. We then circle back around and re-board. It’s interesting that Malaysia stamped our passports at the Singapore station, before we get to the border, and we’re officially “checked out of Singapore” here.

The jungle rivers are all brown from silt

As soon as we’re onboard, the roar of the diesel is heard as we’re pulled across the causeway. The docks along the shoreline here light up the night air. We move slowly and shortly after reaching the mainland, we stop again, in Johor Bahru, Singapore’s sister city on the mainland. More people board the train.

In preparation for this trip, I had read Colonel Masanobu Tsuji’s account of the Malaya campaign in 1941—42. He was the staff office in charge of operations for the Japanese and after the war wrote an account of the Japanese planning and execution of this invasion in a book that was translated into English in the 1960s. Japan’s Greatest Victory: Britain’s Worst Defeat tells how the Japanese army was able to quickly move down the Malaya peninsula, using cheap Japanese bicycles on the excellent British roads, never allowing the much larger British force time to set up a defense line. When they reached Johor Bahru, the Japanese command set up offices in the Sultan’s Palace, an exposed position, but one that gave them the best view of the vast island that was their objective. From here, they directed their armies in their operations to break through Singapore’s defenses. Britain had felt that they could easily defend the island (just blow up the causeway), but their defenses were mostly on the seaward side. They were caught surprised by a fast moving Japanese army. Only when the Japanese got to this point was Britain able to slow their march, as they turn their big sea-facing guns around and used them to bombard the Japanese positions.

It’s raining as the train pulls out of Johor Bahru. I make myself comfortable, putting a pillow up against my window and fall asleep. I wake up an hour later, at Kluang. A crowd of people are boarding the train and a Malaysian man sits next to me and soon there are a dozen children crowding in around us. The man and his brother are traveling with their families and their kids range from about five to fourteen. The older children collaborate in translation and throughout the trip. Their father moves to another seat, allowing each of the children opportunity to sit a next to me. The older ones practice their English, the younger ones play silly games, always laughing and smiling. I show the pictures of my family. Wishing to have more photos, I pull out my netbook and show them photos on the computer. Other adults in the surrounding seats ahead of me turn around to see and all seem amazed at the photographs of my daughter skiing. Living near the equator, these children can’t imagine snow.

Old turntable in Gemas

The train makes a long stop at Gemas, where they change engines. It’s just a small town and doesn’t appear on my Southeast Asia map. But it was an important town for the Japanese to capture in the Malaya campaign. The town is a railroad crossroads and securing the town cut Butterworth, Penang and Kula Lampur’s land connection to Singapore. There’s a lot of work going on the tracks here as KLM, the Malaysian Railroad, is building a doubled-track electric line all the way from the Thai border to Gemas. The Northeast Line (which I am riding) will continue to use diesel electric locomotives (I’m told the ones we’re currently using are built in India). The train consists only of coaches. There is no dining car and I’m glad I’d brought snacks along for the only food available to buy is in a cart that gets pushed around once during the trip and consist mostly of water, juice and chips.

Much of this land is filled with large plantations of palm oil or rubber trees. And then there is the jungle, places were the vegetation is so thick that one could easily get lost. When we travel through jungle areas, the greenery is so close that the windows become a psychedelic blur. The Japanese, when they moved down the peninsula in late ’41 and early 42, found that having a smaller force wasn’t necessarily bad as the battlefields were so narrow due to the jungles. Some of the vegetation looks like kudzu, the plant from Asia that has taken over areas of the American South. Old warehouses and buildings no longer in use are covered with the vines. The towns along the tracks are small, mere villages. There is no rice (Malaysian rice is mostly grown on the west side of the peninsula). Roofs here are mostly of rusty tin, which makes sense with Malaysia also being a large producer of the metal.

A little later in the morning, I’m standing by the open door at the end of the car. My seat mate from early in the morning is sitting in the open door, rolling what has to be the skinniest cigarette I’ve seen. He offers me one, but I decline. I’m making use of the open door to snap photographs without having to deal with dirty windows. Another man asks me where I was going and we begin to talk about my trip across Southeast Asia and China and on to Russia and Europe. It turns out that he’s done much of my planned trip by rail, including the trans-Siberian. We talk about trains and he tells me the best are in Iran. I laugh and acknowledge that I’ve heard good things about Iranian trains, but that Americans are not especially welcomed there. We talk, off and on for the rest of the trip, until his stop which was 30 minutes or so before mine. His name is Mahud. When he tells me that Detroit is his favorite place in America, I wonder if I should check his temperature and see if he’s feverish. But he goes on to say that there are many Muslims there. Although he’s not wearing any of the traditional religious garb (like the guys looking a lot like Bin Laden, in white robes and turbans), he’s a devout Muslim with a PhD in Islamic Studies from a Saudi school. We talk about religion and my travels. I also learn that his brother, who teaches Chemistry in KL (as people call Kula Lampur), has a doctorate from Ohio State…

Mosque and soccer field

Mahud’s wife is Chinese. I ask which part and he says “Canton.” Surprised, I told him that I thought most of the Chinese Muslims were in the western part of the country. “There are very many Chinese Muslims,“ he assures me, “more than any other country.” I question his statement, having always heard that Indonesia had the most Muslims. He then complains about Indonesia, saying that there, a man can be a Muslim with a Christian wife and a Buddhist son. In Malaysia, the state bans Muslims from converting to other faiths. When I question if the government should enforce one’s religion, he backs down and says only God can change what is in the heart. I agree. He also complains that in Malaysia, only ½ of the people are Muslim (another questionable fact). But when I prod him some, I get the impression he’s talking about those who take their faith seriously, not those who claim to be of the Islamic faith.

My conversation with Mahud isn’t limited to religion even though we do spent a lot of time discussing it. At times, he stops to point out sights along the way. Near Gua Musang, we pass the first of limestone hills that appear so prominently in Asian art. He points to the caves in the humpback hills. At Kemubu, he notes some of the highest points in Malaysia (at least on the mainland). There is a waterfall here that he wants me to see, but unfortunately clouds and haze now blur our view, making it difficult to see anything clearly. After Dabong, he notes that we’re on a part of the track where the sun will come up in the west (the track goes south for a bit here as it navigates the mountains).

 

There is supposed to be a waterfall up there

Later in the afternoon, rain sets in and by the time the train arrives at Wakaf Bharu, the stop for Kota Bharu, it’s pouring. This city was the first in British Malaya to be attacked by the Japanese early on December 8, 1941. The attack happened only a few hours after Pearl Harbor was attacked, but being on the other side of the International Date Line, it was already December 8th. I get off with most of the remaining passengers that’s left on board. The train will continue on a few kilometers to Tumpat, near the Thailand border. The Jungle Train has been a magical experience. With few Westerners on board (I did get to talk with the two Brits after Mahud and the kids had departed), I’ve been able to make some new friends. Mahud had even given me directions to his house in case I want to stop by. I thanked him, but insisted I wasn’t going to be in East Malaysia long.

True Freedom

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 7, 2019
John 8:31-36

With pomp and circumstance, along with fireworks, hot dogs, watermelons, sunburns, and thunderstorms, we celebrated our Nation’s birthday on Thursday, Independence Day. But what does freedom mean? What are the limits on what I can do as an individual? When does my freedom impinge on yours, or yours on mine?

You know, we must realize our forefathers and mothers weren’t perfect back in 1776. It’d take another three-quarters of a century before slavery ended. And, of course, the end of slavery was just the beginning.  As Frederick Douglas said just after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation: “A slave will yet remain in some sense a slave, long after the chains are removed from his limbs,”[1] Just because you’re free of chains doesn’t mean you’re truly free. Jesus teaches us this, also, as we’ll see this morning.

Jesus talks a lot about freedom in the gospel of John, but does his views of freedom mesh with what we celebrated on Thursday? What does Jesus mean when he says to his disciples that they know the truth and the truth will set us free? And, for something to think about, what does this freedom mean when compared to the Apostles’ Paul call for us to be a slave of Christ?[2] Read John 8:31-36.

         Few ponder freedom more than those in prison with long days and nothing to do. Although few succeed, some spend their time creatively, attempting to obtain freedom. There were these two dudes at the Texas Correction Facility in Huntsville, who planned and watched and finally figured out if they could just crawl into the back of a delivery truck, they could possibly make it out. From observations, they learned there was this one truck that wasn’t checked as thoroughly as others. They jumped in the back, hoping they weren’t seen. Soon, the truck was beyond the walls of the prison and rolling down the highway. They waited until the truck stopped and parked. They slipped out. To their horror, this discovered they were inside the walls of another Texas prison.[3] Just another example of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

We may find this story funny, but isn’t it also a parable of life? Desiring a better situation, we come up with a promising scheme only to find us back to where we started, or in another equally bad situation? Yet, the desire to be something more is intrinsic within the human race. It fueled the revolution that lead to the foundation of our nation in 1776. It encourages all kinds of escapist plans and schemes, some of which are good and others which take us down the wrong path with promises for more than they can deliver. Such schemes will never fulfill us.

We have been born with a desire to find true communion with God, which makes other substitutes for God unsatisfactory.  As I have said many times, quoting Augustine, “our hearts are restless until they rest with God.”[4]

The gospel of John, like Augustine, makes it clear that we will never be satisfied with our lives until we come to God through Jesus Christ. Until then, we’ll be like those two Texas inmates, going from one prison to another. We need to break such cycles, and that’s what our Savior offers us.

       Our passage begins with Jesus in the presence of some folks who had believed in him.[5] We don’t know what happened, why they stopped believing. Maybe it’s because Jesus is often upping the ante for those interested in him. Luke tells us about the rich guy who came to Jesus, bragging about how he has kept all the laws and wanting to know what he needed to inherit eternal life. Remember his answer? “Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me.”[6] I think Jesus always raises the bar to ensure we’re following him for the right reasons. Are we following him because of who he is or what we hope to get out of him?

In our passage for today, Jesus tells those who had believed in him, that if they continue abiding in his word, they’ll be his disciples and if they know the truth (which is him), they’ll be set free. As it was with the rich man, Jesus always seems to demand what we hold most precious. For the rich young man, it was his wealth. For these guys, who had followed Jesus, it’s their pride. Telling them that the truth will set them free implies they’re slaves. This strikes a sour note. They are proud to be children of Abraham. There’s a humorous irony here. As individuals, they may not be slaves, but they are not citizens of Rome. Therefore, they were less free than the American colonists were in the 18th Century under British rule. Israel has been under Roman domination for nearly a hundred years at this point, and was dominated by other nations before Rome. Israel hasn’t been free for centuries, going back to these dudes’ umpteen great granddaddies.

Of course, Jesus is not speaking of political or physical freedom. And those who are listening don’t understand this. He’s using the word metaphorically, to show the power of sin to control and enslave us. In order to redirect their focus, Jesus tells them that everyone who sins is a slave to sin!

Let’s take a poll. Who here sins? (Raise your hands.)

Did you hear what Jesus said? If you sin, you are not free. We’re not free. Sin grips us in its bondage. Sin is like potato chips. Remember those old commercials about how you can’t just eat one? Think of sin such as when you were a child and told a lie? Then you had to tell another, to cover that one up. Then another. Sin traps us in bondage. For someone in such a situation, Jesus’ offer for us to stick with him is gracious.[7] Of course, these guys don’t get it. They think they’re doing a pretty good job obeying the law, avoiding the most grievous sins, and having Abraham on their sides. They feel pretty good about their situation. After all, if it was good enough for their parents and grandparents, it should be good enough for them.

Jesus challenges their preconceived notion that just because they’re Abraham’s descendants, they’re not grandfathered in. Jesus is the Son of God and has the right to pardon and free those who are slaves to sin, and then welcome them into God’s family. The catch is this. If you are outside the family, this sounds like a good deal. But if you think you are already inside the family, thanks to Abraham, Jesus’ words are threatening. “What do you mean, Jesus, that this isn’t enough?”

Think of how Jesus’ teaching was understood by those who felt they were already good enough. How would it feel to learn that just being a descendant of Abraham isn’t enough? How would Jesus’ words go over today? Do we in America, who proudly proclaim our freedom, find Jesus’ promise of freedom enticing? Or would we be like first century Jews, thinking that we already free?

Are we? Are we really free? The majority of working Americans work in jobs they don’t enjoy but can’t leave because they have to pay the bills. How free is that? We’re trapped like the miner in Merle Travis’ song, “Sixteen Tons.”  Sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don’t call me for I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.” Too many people only work to get things they can enjoy when they are off work. Is this the way things should be? We work, not because we enjoy it and feel called to it, but so we can afford a lifestyle and enjoy a retirement. Wouldn’t our lives be more wholesome if we felt better about work? Wouldn’t we feel better knowing we’ve all been called to help make this world a better place? Wouldn’t it be better to understand that Jesus gives us life and we don’t have to struggle for it, that we just accept it?

Jesus tries to get people to see beyond their own self-interest by shattering our reality. He represents the truth which is not bound by anything in our material world. Jesus represents a greater reality, but can we accept him? If we accept him and live as if he is the most important thing, those things that ensnare us and entrap us may still be a threat, but they no longer have any power. If we accept Jesus and hang with him, we know that whatever happens to us, in life and in death is going to be okay for we belong to Jesus Christ.[8] We are a part of his family. As Howard Thurman, the Civil Rights leader once said, “To be free means the ability to deal with the realities of one’s situation so as not to be overcome by them.”[9]

You know, if we accept Jesus into our lives, we must still pay the bills, go to work, and take out the trash. After all, God created us for work. It’s important that we do what we can to earn our daily bread and to offer up our labors for God to bless. Doing so, we’re freed from thinking what really matters are those things we worry about day in and day out. In the grand scheme of things, they don’t matter. We’re freed from looking out upon the world and seeing it as something to be conquered or earned. That’s not Biblical. Instead, we’re free to look out upon the world and accept it as a gift from a gracious God. And most importantly, we’re free from the guilt and shame of our past. Sin no longer eats at us because we’ve been accepted by Jesus. And, unlike our freedom, Jesus’ offer is something no one can take away.

Jesus is the truth. He shows us the way to the Father. If we accept him and stick with him, we’ll be alright. Let’s do it!  Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Quote used by Brad Braxton in his commentary on John 8:31-38 found on theafriicanamericanlectionary.org, He obtained the quote from William K. Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, 1861-1865 (Viking: New York, 2001), 234.

[2] Ephesians 6:6

[3] Adopted from a story told by the Rev. Dr. Alan Meenan, titled “That You Might Believe,” preached at Hollywood Presbyterian Church in California in April 2003.

[4] Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.

[5] Dale Bruner translates this verse as “those who (previously) had” to capture the strength of the Greek construction and to emphasis these are former believers.  Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 529-530.

[6] Luke 18:18-30.

[7] Bruner, 531.

[8] From the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism.

[9] Howard Thurman quoted in My Soul Looks Back, ’Less I Forget, Dorothy Winebush Riley, (New York: HarpersCollins, 1991), 149.

Three Reviews: Poems, the Old South, & Storms at Sea

Joy Harjo, Conflict Resolutions for Holy Beings: Poems. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015) 139 pages.

I picked up this book after learning that Joy Harjo has been appointed poet laureate for the United States. It’s exciting because she’s the first Native American to serve in this position. In addition to being a poet, Harjo is also a jazz musician. Her poetry blends music with longing for a home that seems evasive. In different poems, the reader is taken an “Indian school” in Oklahoma, to the hunting grounds of the Inuit people in northern Alaska, and through airports and other locals in between.  She alternates between more free-form poetry to “prose poems.” Many of the poems draw the reader into the experience of modern Native Americans, who, having lost a homeland, are not sure where they belong. We also are reminded of the realities within Native communities of alcoholism and suicide. Yet, a thread of hope weaves through these poems, as we (as well as all creation) are encouraged to be blessing to others. I find her poems accessible and easy to understand. I’m sure I will reread many of them as I continue to ponder their messages. .

 

Archibald Rutledge, My Colonel and his Lady, (1937: Indianapolis, The Bobby’s-Merrill Company, reprinted 2017), 92 pages.

In this short book, the former poet laureate of South Carolina, Archibald Rutledge, writes a memoir of his parents. His father had been the youngest colonel in the Confederate army.  His father joined the war in North Carolina (the family kept a mountain home to escape to in the summer). He was wounded three times, involved in many engagements and served as best man for General Pickett, when he married. Archibald was the youngest child of the family (for which, his father often called him Benjamin, for Jacob’s last son). He was born in 1883, nearly twenty years after his father’s military experience had ended. Rutledge was in awe of his father, whom he saw as a kind, gentle, and loving man. His father shared with him the love of all things wild-hunting and fishing and just walking in the woods. He also shared his love of the creator whom he saw revealed in nature. His mother, the colonel’s lady, was also a kind but strong woman. As her husband was often away, she had to take control as she did directing the successful efforts at fighting a fire in the great house (when water had to be drawn from the river by buckets) and shooting to scare away intruders who were looking to steal from their rice barn. She also impressed the young Rutledge with her love of books and her care of others (she often served as a medical resource in a community that often had to go without physicians).

One interesting fact I learned about the low country was a tsunami struck South Carolina following the great earthquake in Charleston in 1886. The family was staying at their “beach home” in McCellanville, South Carolina and Archibald was only three. Suddenly the water started rushing in and  his mother quickly put him and a sister on a table and went to make sure the other children were safe. The water rose several feet before rushing back out to the ocean. I knew of the earthquake and its damage, but not the coastal damage from wave action.

The Rutledge family lived on a plantation that had been in the family since the 17th Century. It survived the war (it was outside of Sherman’s march through South Carolina). Of course, by the time Archibald Rutledge was born, there was no longer slaves working the fields, but sharecroppers and those who gave a day’s work a week to “rent’ their cabins. I appreciate the way Rutledge describes his encounters with the natural world, but he does display a paternalistic view when he discusses those former slaves who lived on the plantation. This book provides a glimpse into another era and the reader should remember that its view is somewhat nostalgic and romantic. This is the third book I’ve read and reviewed by Rutledge.

 

Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm (W.W. Norton, 1997, audible 2014, 9 hours and 25 minutes.

I watched the movie, “The Perfect Storm,” many years ago, but really enjoyed the book. Junger has mastered a style used by Herman Melville. Through Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, Melville blends an exciting tale with the explanation on how the crew lived, sailed and hunted whales. Junger, in telling the story of the demise of a swordfish boat, provides enlightening detail into the method of longline fishing along with metrological details and the role the Coast Guard and other rescue groups perform when the weather turns rough. Writing about a particular weather event that occurred in 1991, he primarily focuses on the men of the fishing boat Andrea Gail. He introduces his readers to the crew and their families and the “Crow’s Nest,” a favorite bar back in Gloucester, MA, from where the boat sails. In addition to the problems faced by the Andrea Gail, which was lost at sea and never found, he speaks of some dramatic rescues that were made by the Coast Guard as they rescued three from the sailboat Satori, deal with other floundering boats such as a Japanese fishing ship, and also rescued all but one of an Air National Guard helicopter crew that ditched after a refueling attempted failed. One of the members of the crew was lost at sea. This is wonderful writing and an exciting read (or, my case, an exciting listening event). I highly recommend it.

Advice for the Journey: Think Before You Speak

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
June 30, 2019
Luke 9:51-59

 

 

As I was pondering the direction of today’s sermon, I came across this quote: “We do well to remember that the Bible has far more to say about how to live during the journey than about the ultimate destination.”[1] In our passage today, which comes at a turning point in Luke’s gospel, we find Jesus leaving behind his Galilee ministry and heading to Jerusalem. Luke uses this travel narrative as a unifying theme for the middle section of his gospel. [2] Jesus doesn’t arrive in Jerusalem for another ten chapters. During this journey, there are lots of opportunity for Jesus to teach the disciples. Today, we’ll look at one such lesson of how we’re to live during our journeys.

Earlier in this chapter, Jesus with the handful of the disciples experienced the “Transfiguration.”[3] It’s a high point of the gospel, ranking up there with Jesus’ baptism.[4] Interestingly, Luke follows both these “high points” with a story of rejection.[5] Jesus was baptized, then endured forty days of temptation, only to be rejected by his hometown.[6] Jesus was transfigured, seen in his full glory, and then rejected by a Samaritan village. Jesus teaches his disciples about rejection and how discipleship is hard. Are we willing to risk rejection in order to be a disciple? Think seriously about that question as I read this passage. Our scripture is Luke 9:51-58.
###

          When I was hiking the Appalachian Trail, I came into Gorham, New Hampshire for the evening. It’s a small town near the Maine border. I needed to resupply for the trail ahead. I was down to only oatmeal to eat, but I didn’t have enough fuel for my stove to even prepare that.

On my hike I carried with me a multi-fuel stove that could burn regular gasoline. The benefit of such a stove is that I didn’t have to buy gallon containers of white gas, of which I’d only need a liter. It saved me on gas. I’d only spend a quarter or maybe 30 cent to fill up my bottle. It was a lot cheaper than Coleman fuel, and both fuels were cheaper back then. So I stopped at a local Exxon station on the edge of town, set my pack down next to the pump, and pulled out my fuel bottle. As I reached for the nozzle, the cashier ran out of the store yelling obscenities and telling me I couldn’t fill up my bottle.

“Why,” I asked?

“You might spill gas.”

“I’ll be careful. I haven’t yet spilled any and have filled this bottle at least a dozen times.”

“We don’t allow it,” she said.

I was mad. I told her it’s a good thing I didn’t have a car with me, for I would run out of gas before I filled up at her station. Looking back, it seems that even without gasoline, I was able to throw some gas onto what was becoming a fire. She began to curse me and said that she wished all us hikers would go back to where we came. In response, I pulled out my journal, wrote down the name of the station, and asked her for its address. I promised to send letters to the Chamber of Commerce and to Exxon Corporate Headquarters. She had a few more choice words for me as I walked down the street and filled up my fuel bottle at the next station.

          Having been rejected, I found myself steaming. As I left town and hiked north, I began to craft the letters I was going to write… but then I realized I was putting way too much negative energy into this situation. I decided to let it be and I never sent those letters. Had Jesus been among us hikers, I think he’d told me to do just that. Drop it. Harboring such feelings is never good. It just eats at you. We cannot control how other people react to us; we can only control how we react toward them.

         Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, taking the disciples with him. The text that he “sets his face” to go to Jerusalem, a phrase echoed throughout the next ten chapters. On this journey, we learn things not mentioned in the other three gospels. Jesus is not just walking, he’s teaching and healing. But Jesus doesn’t go directly to Jerusalem. If he’d had a GPS and set the destination for Jerusalem, the machine would have been constantly squawking “recalculating, recalculating” as he wanders around. It’s in this wandering we find some of our most beloved parables, such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Along the way, Jesus stops and teaches people about who God is and how they should relate to their neighbors.

         But not everyone is ready to see Jesus. Luke informs us that the Samaritans don’t want anything to do with Jesus because he has set his face towards Jerusalem. The Samaritans, who do not see Jerusalem as holy and who worship on another mountain, have grown weary of self-righteous Jews trampling through their land on their way to Jerusalem.[7] They’re just like the gas station attendant, who was tired of hikers coming through her town. In Biblical times, many Jews from Galilee would take the longer away around Samaria in order to avoid such encounters.

The disciples trying to arrange food and lodging for the journey are upset at the reaction they receive. Likewise, I was upset at the station clerk. “Let’s nuke ‘em!’ “Let’s blow them to smithereens!” “Let’s get them in trouble with their boss, or the corporation.” Ever hear people talk about enemies like that? Two of the disciples, James and John, whom Jesus nicknamed “Sons of Thunder,”[8] ask Jesus if he wants them to do away with this village… “You know, Jesus, just a little fire from heaven to melt their hearts.”

       Jesus doesn’t take rejection personally and encourages the disciples to get over it. Too often we forget that vengeance isn’t ours![9]

 

 

 

Then there are people wanting to join Jesus on this journey. We’re not told if Jesus turns them away, but he certainly uses no ad agency to sell his trip. “I have no place to lay my head,” he says. The Message translation here has Jesus saying “we’re not staying at the best inns, you know.” Following Jesus isn’t easy. Jesus makes a demand on our lives. “Are you ready to follow me,” Jesus asks? “If you want to follow me, I have to be first and foremost in your lives,” he says. “Nothing can come before me!”

          Do we put things before Christ? Think about your life and the things you value. Are you willing to give it all up for Jesus? Is Jesus at the center of your life? Is he what’s most important?

There is a tension between the first and second part of this passage. In the first part, we’re told not to be so zealous that we forget the mission. Jesus came to save, not to destroy. Among his followers there is not to be revenge against or violence toward enemies.[10] In the second half of the passage, Jesus says that following him is tough, but if we decide to do so, he’ll demand our total allegiance. We can’t jump halfway in, it’s all or nothing.

What does this passage say to us today? One thing we can gleam is this: If we want to be a follower of Jesus, we must be willing to stand up against the contempt that is so prevalent in our society today.[11] Jesus didn’t allow the disciples to have contempt toward the Samaritans, and I don’t think he’s happy about how we treat others.

Contempt for others seems to have started in national politics where groups of people are identified as deplorable or sick or with some other adjective that says we want them to just go away. Thanks to cable news, it’s ubiquitous. These Ad hominem attacks, which is what they are—a basic fallacy in debate, is used to dehumanize others. Ad hominem means “against the man,” and it refers to one not attacking an issue, but belittling the person on the other side of an argument.

Just think about this. When we hear something we agree with, we jump on the bandwagon without thinking. It then becomes easy for us to let our contempt rule. “Let’s call down some fire from heaven.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? It has gotten so easy to wish those we don’t like would disappear or go away.

We not only see this tendency in our national politics, but locally, even in our own neighborhood. Just recall the way the island divided over the issue of incorporation. Many of the harsh words said had nothing to do with the issue, but was an attempt to discredit the other side. And it happens within churches, between friends and even within members of a family. When we know we’re right and assume they’re not only wrong, but are also evil or stupid for thinking that way, we quickly slide into thinking we’d be better off without them. We are showing contempt. We’re like James and John in our story today. Sadly, it’s easy to mouth off. And our words risk creating a larger divide between us and the other. But the Christian faith isn’t about creating divisions. It’s about bringing people together. It’s about standing up for others, even those we may not agree with. It’s about not spouting off at the mouth. It’s about thinking before we speak.

Let me draw your attention to the quote I attached to the flyleaf of the bulletin. Take it home and ponder it this week. If you want to change the way we treat others in the world, don’t wait for our national leaders to take the initiative. It’s up to you, and to me, to live as Jesus taught. We’re to love others, even our enemies.

   Today, I think back to that encounter in Gorham, New Hampshire, so many years ago. I wonder what would have happened if I had gone back to that cashier at the Exxon station and apologized. I wouldn’t have to say she was right, but I could have acknowledged that my response and my thoughts about her were misguided. As humans, we can’t be responsible for what someone else does. We can only be responsible for what we do and how we react.  Amen.

 

©2010

[1]This quote came from a Facebook Meme posted by the Clergy Coaching Network and was attributed to Philip Yancey.

[2] See Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 139-142.

[3] Luke 9:28ff.

[4] Luke 3:21-22.

[5] Craddock, 142.

[6] Luke4:16ff.

[7] Norval Geldenhuys, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Gospel of Luke  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 292-3

[8] Mark 3:17

[9] Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19, and Hebrews 10:30.

[10] Geldenhuys, 292.

[11] See Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies (New York: HarperCollins, 2019).

The Ebeneezer Cotillion

Cypress Forest along Ebeneezer Creek

 

I spent last week at a church camp at the Ebeneezer Retreat Center near Rincon, Georgia. I led the outdoor activities for the youth, which included taking the middle and high school youth on a canoe trip. While they paddled in the channel, I would often paddle through the cypress to get ahead of some of them. With the water low, some of the cypress trunks reminded me of the broad hoop dresses women wore in the middle of the 19th Century. Cypress also have “knees” which pop up around their trunks, which explains their presence in the poem below. 

 

The Ebeneezer Cotillion

Like a rugrat
I dart between the hoop skirts
of stately maidens-cypress-
bumping into their knees,
zigzagging across the ballroom,
as the top of the trees sway gracefully
in the summer breeze.

 

 

Elijah Sings the Blues

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
1 Kings 19:1-15
June 23, 2019

 

 

         As a music tradition, the Blues rose out of the African American experience of slavery. In song, they cried about their plight as they longed for freedom. The song, “Go Down Moses,” captures this desire for freedom. But this tradition is found throughout scripture. For of all the Blues’ singers that’s lived, Elijah may have been the best.

In our passage today, from First Kings, Israel has been in a drought and Elijah, the prophet of God, is feeling alone. There’s been a show-down where Elijah challenges all the prophets of Baal. “Let’s see who can call down fire from heaven to consume an offering on the altar.” Elijah succeeds and the people turn on the prophets of Baal. Then, Elijah forecast the end of the drought and rain comes upon the parched land. You’d think Elijah would be a hero. But he’s not. And the queen is not happy.

          “Hot Jezebel!” The queen’s name has found itself on an appetizer made of fruit preserves, horseradish, mustard and pepper.[1] You spread the concoction over cream cheese and serve with crackers. The sweetness of the preserves and the bite of the horseradish grabs your attention. It’s appropriately named.  Jezebel must have been sweet on Ahab for the king to put up with her, but she also had a tempter hotter than horseradish. She wasn’t the type of lady to cross. She could carry a grudge.

In this passage, we’ll hear how Elijah cries out to his God about how unjustly he’s being treated as he flees from Jezebel’s wrath. Read 1 Kings 19:1-15.

 

        Have you ever felt you were all alone in the world? That everyone was out to get you? If so, you can identify with Elijah’s plight. Twice in this passage, once even after he encounters the Lord, Elijah proclaims his righteousness and cries out about Israel’s apostasy and how all the prophets have been killed except him.  It was the same cry he made in the previous chapter on Mt. Carmel.[2]

Elijah overstates his case a bit. We know there are others in Israel who are faithful. In the last chapter, we’re told that Obadiah, one of Ahab’s servants who remained faithful to God, has hidden 100 prophets.[3] Furthermore, we’re told there are at least 7,000 in Israel who will be spared by God because they have not worshipped Baal.[4] But when he singing the blues, Elijah doesn’t care about the details. It sounds better to say, “I alone am left and they’re after me.” We are a lot like Elijah and have probably overstated our troubles, too. Overly dramatic sometimes gets folks attention.

It’s also interesting how quickly Elijah’s depression follows his triumph. Any satisfaction Elijah received from having upstaged the prophets of Baal is short-lived. For as soon as Jezebel hears about the demise of the prophets of her gods, she sets out to kill Elijah. It probably like that for us, too, as we go from the elation of being on a mountaintop to the fear of descending into a valley of dark shadows. Hopefully, we don’t have a mad queen on our tails.

         The Beatles hit record back in the mid-60s, “Yesterday,” comes to mind when I think about Elijah’s predicament. It a kind of a mellow blues tune that goes something like, “Yesterday, all my troubles seem so far away, now it looks like they’re here to stay. O, I believe in yesterday.” Elijah could relate to these words. Perhaps we, too can relate. In the last verse of the song there is the line: “Now I need a place to hide away.” That’s Elijah! And we’ve all been there. The glory of yesterday is gone and we need a place to hide. Elijah flees south into Judah where he’s safe from Jezebel’s reach and then goes off by himself into the wilderness where he finds a bit of shade under a broom tree and lays down to die.

          While asleep, an angel brings bread and water for Elijah.   Obviously, Elijah assumes this is his “last meal.” He enjoys it and then, awaiting death, goes back to sleep. Again the angel wakes Elijah. Some people just don’t like getting out of bed. Elijah’s informed that he has a long journey so he’d better eat up and get on the road.

 

          Elijah sets out on a forty day journey to Horeb, the mountain of God. Forty is one of those special numbers used throughout the Bible to indicate a purifying process or a time of preparation. It rained for forty days while Noah was in the ark; the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years; and Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness preparing for his ministry… Elijah was being prepared to meet God in his forty day journey. Forty, the number that reminds us that our troubles are not always instantaneously solved.

Arriving in Horeb, Elijah seeks shelter in a cave. There, the voice of the Lord asks him what he’s up to. Elijah repeats his tale of Israel’s unfaithfulness and how he is the only prophet left alive. Instead of answering Elijah’s complaint, he’s told to stand before the mountain, as the Lord is about to pass by. Then our story takes a surprising twist. There’s a great wind, but the Lord is not in it. There’s a powerful earthquake, but the Lord is not in it. Then there is a fire, and likewise, the Lord is not in it.

 

Three great events, all which are used in other places to describe God: the word for God’s Spirit means wind; on Sinai, the mountain shook as an earthquake to indicate God’s presence; and during the exodus God appeared as a fire, leading the Hebrew people. All three of these events could have represented God, but not in this incident. Here God is presented in a unique fashion. Silence. After all the commotion, there’s silence.  Sheer silence. A silence so terrifying that it pierces Elijah’s ears and he pulls his jacket up over his head and wraps it around his face in an attempt to hide.            Again, a voice asks Elijah what he is doing on the mountain. Once again, Elijah cries the blues. But the Lord doesn’t grant Elijah sanctuary. Elijah is not told, “Just stay here, I’ll take care of you.” God isn’t finished with Elijah. There is still work to be done, so he’s sent back to Israel through Damascus. Along the way Elijah is to anoint the King of a neighboring nation, an illustration that the God of Elijah cares for and controls not just the events in Israel but throughout the entire world.

          This story is rich in meaning. The eerie silence is often how God reveals himself in the wildernesses of our lives. God tells us, through the Psalmist, “to be still and know that I am God.”[5] Barbara Brown Taylor, in the published version of the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale University, speaks about God’s silence being a defense against our idolatry.[6] Too often we make God out to be in our image. As Mark Twain once said, “God created us in his image and we returned the favor.” But God is not in our image. The church, throughout the last two millenniums, has taught that God is beyond our comprehension.[7] We only know God when God decides to reveal himself to us—which is revelation. It is a revelation that’s complete in Jesus Christ!

Elijah, in the 18th and 19th chapters of 1st Kings, has two different revelations of God. The first occurs on Mt. Carmel when Elijah’s sacrifice burst into flames to the astonishment of all who were present. Elijah must have thought that he and God were going to make a great team. But God is beyond our control, as Elijah discovers. The Mt. Carmel experience was a one-time event. God would still be present with Elijah, but many times this presence would take on the form of an eerie silence.

          There is a lesson in this for us. All of our spiritual journeys have ups and downs. There are times we feel close to God and other times we feel as if God is far away and doesn’t care what happens. Elijah is like this. From his spiritual high on Mt. Carmel, when there was no doubt God’s spirit was with him, Elijah slips into a depression and begins to sing the blues. “It’s just me Lord, and there ain’t much I can do.” He feels so sorry for himself that he’s ready to die. So God reveals himself again to Elijah, but in a different manner, in a most common fashion: silence.

          Aren’t we like Elijah? There are those times when we know we’re filled with God’s spirit and we’re on a natural high and the blues seem so far away. These are the times we know God is real—they’re our Mt. Carmel experiences. But then, there are occasions when things do not go right, when we feel sorry for ourselves, and God doesn’t seem to be present. It’s during these times we need to slow down enough to listen for God in the silence. It’s in the silence that we can come to trust that God is with us always. It’s not something we can explain or even demonstrate. Its faith: faith and a longing for that which lies beyond our grasp, that which we cannot control, but without which we can’t live.

Ricky Porter, the pastor in Dublin, was our Bible Study leader this week at Savannah Presbytery’s camp. The theme was “Power Up,” and was about prayer. Thinking of the term “power up,” we have a vision of getting all excited about God. But there’s a paradox here paralleling what we see with Elijah. Prayer isn’t just about being all excited and telling God all we think God needs to know. It’s also about listening. To “power up,” we need to be silent and open for God to reveal himself. So each day, Ricky had the campers spend longer periods in prayer, splitting the time between talking to God about our needs and concerns, and just sitting in silence, listening and meditating. Quietly listening is a good practice for all of us, and perhaps the only way we can truly experience God’s presence. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Hot Jezebel Recipe:  Combine in a bowl:

  • A 12 ounce jar of apricot preserves
  • 2-3 teaspoons of horseradish
  • 1 tablespoon of dry mustard powder
  • Coarse ground pepper to taste

Place in refrigerator to chill. Then spoon it over a block of cream cheese and serve with crackers.

 

[2] 1 Kings 18:21.

[3] 1 Kings 18:4.

[4] 1 Kings  19:18.

[5] Psalm 46:10.

[6] Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1998), 38.

[7] See the Westminster Confession, Chapter II.1.

Three Book Reviews (Short Stories, Sailing, and the Environment)

From my recent readings. They’re all different! 

Anjali Sachdeva, All the Names They Used for God (Siegel & Grau, 2018), 257 pages.

This is a collection of short stories and the first book by Ms. Sachdeva. I heard Sachdeva read from her book last summer when I was at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. She held a reading at the Prairie Lights bookstore. I was impressed with her writing and that she’s from Pittsburgh!  I purchased a copy of her book, read a couple of stories and put it down. Almost a year later, I picked the book back up and reread some of the stories along with the others. Each story is a surprise..

The stories are all unique with a bizarre twist. Some are darker, such as Pleiades,” which tells the story of a scientific couple who, in the interest of science, gives birth to seven twin sisters. Then slowly, they all die off.  In “Killer of Kings,” she tells the story of an aged John Milton as he writes Paradise Lost. While this is the only historical character in the stories, even this story has a twist with an angel sent as a muse and scribe for the blind poet. Some stories seem more normal, like “Logging Lake”, where couple set out hiking in Glacier National Park. But she disappears, leaving everything behind. Did she run off with the wolves? “Robert Greenman and the Mermaid” tells the parallel story of a mermaid who is drawn to a shark while she lures fishermen. The details of the commercial fishing shows Sachdeva’s research into the stories. Another story, “Manus,” is a dystopian world controlled by aliens. The story that provides the title of the book, “All the Names for God,” recreates the lives of the girls in Nigeria who were kidnapped by Islamic terrorist and, because of their special powers, are able to exact revenge.  While all the stories have twists, they’re all different, but a delight to read and leaves the reader with something to ponder.

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John Vigor, Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started Sailing, (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Sheridan House, 2005), 187 pages.

Maybe I should have read this book ten years ago. Instead, when I started sailing, I picked up a copy of John Rousmaniere, The Annapolis Book of Seamanship, which is very serious and covers a little of everything. Since then I picked up a few other books that deal with sail shape and racing techniques, which I can only take in small chunks at a time (or I can read them and quickly fall asleep). But this book was fun to read. It’s sort of a dictionary to random things about sailing. Each entry, which appear alphabetically (there are approximately 200 of them), covers different topics. By drawing from a variety of entries, one learns incredible things. Like the chance of a boat being hit by lightning is 6 in 1,000 (according to the insurance industry). But you’ll probably not be hurt, but you might if you’re hugging the mast or holding on to a wire shroud. But it’s more likely that lightning will blow out your electronics. However, occasionally it’s been known to blow a hole through the boat in which case you’re really screwed because a 2 inch hole a foot underwater will allow 4000 gallons of water an hour to seep into your boat (and what self-respecting lightning bolt only blows a two inch hole into anything). But 4000 gallons of water an hour is about a 1000 gallons more water than a good bilge pump can remove, so you’ll be playing a losing game. But that doesn’t matter because with your electronics fried, your bilge pump won’t work. This led me to look at his recommendations for life jackets (or PFDs, and there’s no entry for what is essentially an important piece of equipment when you have a two inch hole in the hull). There is, however, an entry for life rafts. The author basically says they’re worthless.  Despite this, there’s some good information in this book and it’s conveyed in a humorous manner.

Just in case you wanted to know, there are also some formulas that are obviously provided as a way to make celestial navigation seem easy. To determine how much water will be flooding into a boat, one only has to take the diameter (in inches) times the square root of the height the water must rise to equal the outside water level (or how far below the water level the hole is). By the time you’ve done this calculation, you’re probably no longer breathing air. Another helpful formula predicts the resistance of a given boat to capsizing. All you have to do is to divide your boats displacement (in pounds) by 64, find the cube root of that number. Take the beam (in feet and tenths of a foot) and divided it by the cube root above. If your answer is less than 2 you boat is relatively safe from capsizing. It would be advisable to do these calculations before you sail into a rogue wave, and regardless of your boat’s number on the capsizing scale, you might want to put on your PFD while the wave is still on the horizon. Remember the Poseidon Adventure!

Of course, don’t think this is a technical book. The author also discusses luck and suggest that the most valuable instrument in sailing around the world is a depth finder. And there is ideas for a “boat renaming” ceremony to placate the ocean gods.

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Alice Outwater, Wild at Heart: America’s Turbulent Relationship with Nature, from Exploitation to Redemption, read by Joyce Bean (2019), 9 hours 31 minutes

Outwater has written a history of America’s relationship with nature, and how we have moved from seeing nature something to be conquered and tamed, to something with value to be preserved. She begins by discussing how several Native American tribes approached nature. The Hopi saw themselves as guardians of nature. The Abenaki sought balance with nature. And the Chinook gave thanks. I was beginning to think she was going back to an idea that we just had to go back to how the tribes lived, but that was not her purpose. Instead, she sat out the beginning of our thoughts about the environment. Then she moves on to discuss the idea of the “commons.” What isn’t owned by an individual, but is seen as owned by everyone and about to be exploited. At one time, land was seen in this way, until it was “claimed” and “used.” The air and the water, until more recently, was seen this way, which led to people dumping all kinds of stuff into his “common” space. But over time, we realized how it is all interrelated.

I found it interesting how the pollution of our rivers began as an attempt to “clean up” urban areas as we tried to get sewage out of the streets. Treatment centers came about relatively recently and have resulted in much cleaner rivers. The same is true for air.

I had a sense that she was attempting to make a political wake-up call for Republicans. From Teddy Roosevelt, to Nixon, Reagan, and the first Bush, she lifted up achievements in how they have worked toward or approved attempts to save wilderness, to clean water and air, to reduce acid rain and save the ozone layer, all which have been somewhat successful. But the danger of rolling back such gains for short term profits, as she has more recently seen, is problematic. Instead of being a doom-day prophet, she calls for rational approaches to the use of resources. She sees the removal of dams, the attempts to rebuild species that have been nearly wiped out by hunting or habitat loss, as positive signs that we can move quickly to address climate change.

This is a good book to understand how our views of nature has shifted over the years. I listened to the Audible version of this book.

Would You Like to Dance?

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
1 Corinthians 2
June 16, 2019

 

Who likes to dance? I’ll admit that I have two left feet and am not exactly graceful on the dance floor. But thankfully, when it comes to the eternal dance, the only one that matters, I don’t have to depend on my own grace. That’s the good news.

It’s Trinity Sunday. “So what?” You might think. “What does the Trinity have to do with me?” If we just think of God as some force up in the sky, then the Trinity wouldn’t mean much to us. But thankfully, that’s not the way God works.

          On the flyleaf of the bulletin, I placed a quote from Brian McLaren, who describes the Trinity as a divine dance.[1] If we think of the Trinity in this fashion, it does matter. For as the three members of the Trinity, who are mysteriously one, dance, they reach out and invite us to join them. God the Father, the Creator of all that is, wants us to enjoy his handiwork. Jesus Christ the Son, the Redeemer, the one who pays the price for our sin, wants us to make the most out of the new life he offers. The Holy Spirit, whose presence remains with us in this world that can often be daunting, draws us into this dance. And once we join the dance, we are to draw others, as God is praised.

The Trinity reminds us that at the very center of God is about love and relationship. God invites us into a relationship. Do we accept the invitation to dance?

Our passage today is steeped in theology.  Paul lays down a foundation for the Trinity and how God is working to reconcile us back to himself.  Read 1 Corinthian 2.

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         “New and improved!” It’s a marketing cliché we hear all the time. Yet, it gets out attention. Whether it is laundry detergent, automobiles, cell phones, computer play stations or soft drinks, our ears perk up and we rush out to buy. This is also be true for churches. We start a new program, there’s a new minister, the music is new, and so forth. We’re drawn to what’s new. By the way, this isn’t anything new! Paul faced this in Greece. The Greeks coming onto the scene. When he was in Athens, Paul was given the podium to speak before the philosophers about his faith.[2] But Paul knew that his message wasn’t based on the sophistication of his argument, but on a deeper truth that mere humans cannot understand without divine intervention. So Paul tells the Corinthians he came knowing nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.

         Paul presents himself in weakness, in fear and trembling.[3] He doesn’t depend on his words or his rhetoric to make the case; instead he depends on God’s Spirit. But this doesn’t mean that Paul talks to the Corinthians as if he’s a country bumpkin. He’s not, as the detail of his arguments illustration. It’s just that Paul is referring to God’s wisdom, which is beyond human understanding.

God’s wisdom is eternal and hidden, yet it’s revealed to us. God is free to do that. In verse 8, Paul refers back to Jesus’ crucifixion. The people who crucified the Savior were bright people, but they did have true wisdom. They did not know God; for if they had they would not have crucified Jesus.

         Paul is affirming here the Reformed doctrine of Irresistible Grace, or as it is known in the Westminster Confession “Effectual Calling,” which acknowledges God’s hand in our belief and understanding of the work of Christ.[4] What this means is that God gives us even the faith we need to believe! God’s Spirit works through our spirit to bring us to faith in Christ.

         As we read in Verse 9, we can’t imagine that which God has arranged for those he loves. God’s love for the world is beyond our comprehension. The beginning of our Christian faith isn’t belief, its love![5] God’s love! And as we continue reading, we learn that God lets us in on the secret of his great love.  God’s Truth is shown in the person of Jesus, a truth that for those who don’t understand seems foolish.

      In Ken Bailey’s commentary on 1st Corinthians, he points out how Paul is affirming the doctrine of the Trinity throughout this passage. God the Father has all things under control; in Jesus, God comes to us as a man, in a manner that we might understand; and God’s Spirit, working through our own spirit, reveals this to be true. We see the three persons of the Trinity at work here. Although Paul doesn’t use the term Trinity, through rhetorical exegesis, Bailey cites six occasions in these verses where Paul alludes to the Trinitarian concept. Bailey, who taught most of his career in the Middle East, tells of a time he was a part of a Christian-Muslim dialogue. After dinner, one evening, one of the Muslim scholars questioned him as to the Trinity, asking for his help to understand this Christian doctrine. Bailey took the scholar to this passage and spoke about God’s work as shown throughout these verses. [6]

What does the Trinity mean to you? Do you see the mystery of the doctrine of the Trinity important to your understanding of the faith?

         One popular phrase among Presbyterians is “The Church reformed, always reforming.” It is often cited as a reason for us to change, but it has nothing to do with that and the way it is often cited leaves off an important part of the phrase that came out of the Reformation and proclaimed, “The Church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit.”[7] The fullness of the phrase proclaims the truth of both God’s word, which is grounded in Jesus Christ, and God’s Spirit, which works through us to reclaim us into God’s family. At the heart of our faith is the work of the Triune God., who makes such reform possible. Without God, we’d be blow to and fro like a sailboat without a rudder.

Sometimes we think too much of ourselves, as if we’re self-sufficient and can do it all. In my reading for this sermon, I came across this line which popped out at me: “The church lives not by what we’re able to do, but by what God has done and continues to do in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.”[8] Do you see the interactions of the three persons of the Godhead here? Father, Son and Spirit, they’re all present. What’s ultimately important isn’t what we do, but what God does. Yet, often what God’s does is done through us.

I have always appreciated the insights of Alexander Schmemann.  He’s deceased but when he was alive, he was probably the top American theologian in the Russian Orthodox tradition, one of those groups that describe the Trinity as a divine dance. In his masterful work, For the Life of the World, he wrote about how we, as humans, tend to meet the need we have for God with empty human endeavors. We need to experience God, but we often go for some design we concoct and which fails to meet our needs.[9]

          Essentially what Schmemann goes on to say, and what Paul also says, is that we need to experience a god that is not forced into our secular beliefs, but the God who transcends all so that he might reach out to everyone in love. Paul is referring to a God that is so big he can’t be contained in our human constructs. As believers, we need to be open to God speaking in and through us. And because we love God, we should seek to do that which God loves. For that is why we’ve been created.

Back to my opening point about new and improved… When it comes to the gospel there is no such thing. The gospel is eternal and does not depend on our efforts to be improved. The gospel depends on God’s triune efforts to reach out to us in love.  It’s a simple message that we are to humbly proclaim. Like Paul, we believe in and proclaim Jesus Christ. He is our Lord and Savior, our comfort in times of trouble and our hope in the future. Are we willing to join him? Are we willing to join the dance? I assure you, it doesn’t matter ifyou have two left feet. Amen.

 

 

 

                                                                                ©2019

[1] Brian D. McLaren, a Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 55-56.

[2] Acts 17:16-21.

[3] I’m borrowing language here from the New Revised Standard translation of the Bible for 1 Corinthians 2:2-3

[4] Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 67

[5] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (1963, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988 ), 105.

[6] Bailey, 115-118

[7] Book of Order, F-2.02

[8] Mark Achtemeir, “The Lordship of Jesus Christ,” in a Passion for the Gospel: Confessing Jesus Christ for the 21st Century, Mark Achtemeier and Andrew Purves, editors (Louisville, KY: Geneva, 2000), 20.

[9] Schmemann, 134.

 

Days 4 and 5 in the Okefenokee (May 6-7)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is my third and final post about a 5 day, 4 night paddle in the Okefenokee Swamp. The map shows our route as we started at Kingfisher and paddled to Maul Hammock platform. I wrote about this on my post for Day 1. From there, we paddled to Big Water on Day 2 and to Floyd’s Island on Day. This is covered my post on Days 2 & 3.  Counting the extra miles I paddled on Day 4, I paddled a little over 50 miles in 5 days, covering a variety of wilderness settings. 

 

 

The storms clear out early Sunday evening while we camp on Floyd’s Island. After dark, we can see the stars overhead, through the trees, along with hundreds of lightning bugs, more lightning bugs than I’ve seen since I left Michigan. Of course, there are also mosquitoes and biting flies. In fact, the biting flies are so bad that when away from the fire, I find myself wearing a bug net over my head. But things are fine once I crawl into my hammock where I read and catch up with my journal before falling asleep. On Monday, we plan to make it an early start as Gary needs to get back home in order to be at a meeting on Tuesday morning.

East side of Floyd’s Island (notice the cart for hauling gear)

We wake early and begin to pack up our gear. As we’d portaged our kayaks across Floyd’s Island the day before, we quickly eat some fruit and granola and haul our gear down to the boats. After loading up, we cast off into a narrow trail clogged with cut chunks of logs. The last time I was here, this trail wasn’t even open. A hurricane several years earlier had clogged the trail with down trees. It appears as if someone came through with a chainsaw, cut the down trees into firewood lengths of logs, and left them floating in the water. Because the logs are small, we can pushed them under the bows of our boats or push them off to the side. While it is hard work, it’s doable. After a hundred or so yards of difficulty, the path clears from logs

Like the path into the island from the west side, the east side was fairly narrow, but is only a mile or so long. It’s also fairly shallow and we follow (chase?) a rather large alligator (13-14 feet) for a while. He’ll come up, look at us, and then swim fast for a ways, before stopping. I’m pretty sure it’s male, for females don’t generally grow this large. As we paddle straight ahead, we soon close back in on him, and he takes off again. He does this several times until he finds a place to leave the channel for the swamp. All I can figure is that water is too shallow to dive and let us pass over top, which is what the alligators normally do.

Egret in Chase Prairie (on the edge of Floyd’s Island)

After thirty minutes of paddling, the heavy vegetation departs as we entered Chase Prairie. A few hundred yards later, we came to the point where the trail runs back up through Bluff Lake to Kingfisher Landing (where we had started our paddle on Friday). I have been to this spot a few years before, on a solo trip with an overnight on Bluff Lake platform. But instead of turning north, we turn south toward the Suwannee Canal, 2 1/2 miles away. Along the way we pass the turn off for Round Top platform, where I plan to camp for the evening. It’s just three miles down the purple trail. I decide to go around the long way to make sure that Gary finds the Suwannee Canal, which will take him back to the main entrance to the swamp.

Chase Prairie

 

This is my third time in Chase Prairie and, like the other times, there are plenty of alligators around. The prairie is fairly open with lots of pitch plants and irises in bloom. There are also a number of egrets and herons around. In the distant, I can hear the calls of a sandhill crane.

 

When we reach the canal, the path opens up with the tall trees forming a nice canopy blocking the sun. We paddle south, and shortly after the 9 mile marker (the mileage to the main entrance where Okefenokee Outfitters is located), Gary and I say goodbye. He continues paddling on straight, while I slip through a channel that takes me back into Chase Prairie. I have a reservation for one more night at Round Top platform, which is about two miles back into the prairie. The sun is up and its warm, but the paddling is easy and a little before 11 in the morning, I arrive at the platform. I’d stayed here once before and it is by far my favorite place to camp in the swamp as it has nearly 360 degree views of the swamp.  Getting out, I set up camp, fix an early lunch and then catch up with my journal. Later I start reading. I’m only half way through David Halberstam’s The Fifties and with nearly 400 pages left, I have plenty to do to occupy my time.

late afternoon paddle

After an afternoon of reading and napping (I found myself enjoying two nice naps), I put the kayak back in the water and paddle north on the purple trail which takes me, after three miles of paddling, back to where we had been earlier in the morning. I had not paddled this section before and am glad I decided to make the effort for its beautiful, especially as the light softens late in the day. On the way down, I see an alligator catch a duck by the tail. The duck is flapping and the gator, which is in very shallow water, drags the duck toward the channel, where I am located. Seeing me, the gator pauses and the duck quickly flies away. I assume the gator had planned to drown the duck in the deeper water and enjoy duck for dinner. I also spot a pair of sandhill cranes.

paddling back in the early evening light

mileage sign on purple trail

As I come back after a six mile paddle (three up and three down), I notice the crescent new moon is in the west. Most of this trip was in the dark of the moon, but not that I could tell it as the clouds had pretty thick. In the east, the sun sets as I snap a few photos. Then it is time to fix dinner, some noodles and canned pork. Twenty minutes after the sunsets, the mosquitoes appear as soon as I can finish my dinner and clean up, I crawl into my hammock, under the safety of my bug net.  I wake up in the middle of the night and step to relieve myself. In the south, Scorpius and Sagittarius are just above the horizon. But the mosquitoes soon find me and I crawl back into my hammock.

Around 3 AM, I wake again, as I was the first night, to what appears to be the sound of a chainsaw attempting to be started. Soon, all over the prairie, alligators are bellowing and making this weird sound. I listen off and on, between snoozing. They are so loud (one sounds as if it might be underneath the platform), that I can’t hear the mosquitoes buzzing just outside my netting. They continue on till dawn, and by the time I get up, they are quiet.

In the morning, I fix coffee and oatmeal for breakfast and enjoy eating slowly, taking in the sights. I leave around 9 AM and paddle to Coffee Bay platform, where I stop and rest, taking time to read a few chapters in my book, before resuming my paddle. I don’t see anyone until I run into a couple fishing in a jon boat a mile or so from the entrance into the swamp. They are the first people I’ve seen well over 24 hours. I am back to entrance at 1:30 AM. After loading my gear in the car and putting my boat on top, I am soon heading north to Savannah.

pitcher plants (in bloom)

 

A Blessing for Hazel

This blessing was read at the end of worship yesterday, June 9th, as we honored Hazel for all she has done for our community. In the afternoon, the Landings Association held a reception for Hazel at the Sunset Room at Delegal Marina. 

For Hazel Brown

Out of Mid-America you came, four decades ago.
The church was still in the fire barn
and the island mostly uninhabited.
You came with your husband,
looking to enjoy retirement,
as you exchanged the prairie wind
for salty air and water
and the dreams of sailing.

Over the decades you have seen many changes,
as houses were built, an island populated,
and finally even a new bridge constructed.
All the while people came and went,
some moved on and others left this life.
But through it all, you remained positive,
always smiling, never making enemies,
serving as a beacon of hope.

And though retired, you have remained busy.
You cared for a husband and then, after his death, another.
You served as the president of the Landings Association,
secretary of the Kiwanis Club,
a leader of the Coastal Botanical Gardens,
an Elder in your church,
and chair of a pastor’s nominating committee.
Hazel, may you know your years of service made this a better place.
We are grateful for what you have done.

And now as you leave us, to return back to mid-America,
to Arkansas, near your daughter, you are entering another stage of life.
Know that we will miss you as we cherish the time we had.
As hard and as sad it is, we understand and send you off with our blessings.
We pray for our Heavenly Father to look upon you with mercy and grace
and to keep you safe until that day when you are called to our true home.
In that new age, when Jesus reigns as our glorious king,
may we be reunited and look back to these days on Skidaway,
a speck within eternity,
and smile.

-Jeff Garrison
June 9, 2019

Pentecost Sermon

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
John 14:8-17
June 9, 2019

 

Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church, a day to wear red in remembrance of those tongues that appeared as flames announcing the arrival of the Spirit. But instead of preaching on the Pentecost passage in Acts, I want us to look at the gospel lectionary passage for the day. Here, Jesus first promises to send a special friend (an Advocate, a Helper, better known as the Spirit) into the Christian Community. In the gospel of John, Jesus reiterates this five times.[1] The sending of the Spirit is a big deal.

Our reading this morning from the 14th chapter of John’s gospel takes place around the table of the Last Supper. The part of this chapter before our reading involves our friend, Doubting Thomas. He asks Jesus how we can know the way to where he’s going if we don’t know where he’s going. In the 6th verse, Jesus gives his classic statement, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father, except through me.

But Thomas isn’t the only one asking questions this evening. In our reading, Philip chimes in with a statement that we could have all made. “Just show me, Jesus, and I’ll be satisfied.” Let’s listen to God’s word. Read John 14:7-17

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        Over a period of a few weeks, a minister listened to a parishioners tell the same fish story many times.  Each time the fisherman told the story, the fish took on a different dimension. Sometimes he made the fish out to be a whale and other times it seemed to be just a lively bass. Finally, the minister felt he needed to confront this fisherman about his habitual lying… After worship one Sunday, he called the man aside and told him about hearing the same story told in different ways to different listeners… “Well you see,” the fisherman explained, “I have to be realistic. I never tell someone more than I think they will believe.”[2]

        You know, we can only understand and comprehend so much and it seems that in the passage I just read, Jesus overloads his disciples. He attempts to teach them about the unique relationship between him and God the Father, and our relationship to them though the Holy Spirit. From this passage we learn that our knowledge of God comes from our knowledge of Jesus Christ. Through the life of Jesus, we are able to see God. Furthermore, we learn that through prayer, obedience, and the Holy Spirit we are empowered to carry on Jesus’ work and can experience his peace. This is a passage that deals with the work of the Trinity: God as Father, Son, and Spirit. It’s a lot to comprehend, but Jesus knows his time is short and he needs to prepare the disciples for what’s ahead.

        This passage starts off with Philip begging, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” It’s a natural request. Philip’s descendants must have ended up in Missouri, the “Show Me State.” You know, Philip easily answered Jesus’ call at the beginning of his ministry, as John shows us in his first chapter.[3] But it appears he wasn’t sure why. Perhaps Philip feels he needs some kind of grand demonstration of God’s power, or an encounter like Moses had on Sinai. Such a presentation was not forth coming.

Think about Philip’s question. Don’t we all want to know more about Jesus? Wouldn’t it be nice to have more evidence?   Wouldn’t it be great to just see God and get it over with? Then everyone would believe…But it doesn’t work that way. Jesus tells his disciples that the way they, and everyone else, will encounter God is through him. The way God reveals himself to us is through the man named Jesus. Maybe instead of demanding more evidence like Philip, we need to accept what Jesus has to say.

It may seem a little strange, but after living with Jesus for three years, the disciples still don’t understand his unique relationship to the Father in heaven. We must admit, it’s difficult to imagine Jesus being a man and God. Our minds struggle with such a mystery. As a creature of God, we do not have the ability to understand God…  Before being able to understand anything about God, we must be willing to accept our human limitations. When we do, we can relate to God through another human being… Jesus Christ.

          Jesus asked his disciples to believe that he was in the Father and the Father was in him, and that his words were the words of the Father. The disciples, being normal logical people, had a hard time understanding how the Father and the Son could be the same. As they wondered, Jesus tells them to just believe, and if they couldn’t believe because of what he said, to believe because of the works that he performed. In other words, there are two ways for them to engage with Jesus’ special relationship with God. They can accept his word or be moved by his work.[4]

        Jesus covers his relationship to God the Father because he wants to get on to what’s going to happen after he departs. After all, this is a conversation around the dinner table the night before the crucifixion. Jesus is preparing the disciples for when he’s no longer going to be present with them.

Jesus makes the shift between focusing on his relationship to the Father and to his continuing relationship to humanity in verse 12. There Jesus promises something strange, telling his disciples those who believe in him would be able to do even greater works after he had gone to the Father. Of course Jesus gives some ground rules for these works… The greater works would be done to glorify God the Father and would be accomplished through prayer, obedience, and the Holy Spirit.

        If we pray to Jesus, asking the power to do something that glorifies God, then, he promises, our prayers will be answered. Jesus also promises that God’s Spirit will be with us forever. In other words, we are not abandoned. We are not alone. God is with us. And think about how this has been fulfilled over the centuries. Jesus and his band of disciples made an impact on a small corner of the ancient world, between Galilee and Judea. But within a generation, his followers were planting seeds—from India, to Ethiopia, and to Europe—that would make a significant difference. In 300 years the church would be established all over the region and from there go out into the rest of the world.

        In the 17th verse, Jesus tells his disciples that they’ll be accompanied by a true friend that only they will know. It’s the Spirit that abided with the disciples after Pentecost and now abides with us. In other words, just as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father, so we are in the Spirit and the Spirit in us. Knowing he’s not going to be around much longer, Jesus wants to assure the disciples (and us) that they (and we) will be taken care of. Through the Spirit he’ll continue to nourish our souls….

          Let me point out one interesting thing here. The Spirit, as spoken of in verse 17, isn’t to us as individuals. When Jesus says the Spirit abides in you, it’s plural, not singular. In other words, the access to the Spirit is found within the fellowship of the church. It’s within the fellowship that Jesus commands us to love one another, as we abide in God through the Spirit and abide in one another through love.[5] This passage doesn’t support an “individual” being caught up in the spirit. Such experiences occur within the community.

Jesus’ purpose in this discussion is to give comfort to the disciples who are going to miss him. Jesus encourages them with the promise of God’s continual presence through the Holy Spirit. Through this promise, he’s preparing them to go out and build a church, which they did because they knew two things: that Jesus and the Father are one and that he’s still with them in Spirit. Even though Jesus isn’t present in bodily form, he remains with the disciples (and us) by answering prayers and through the presence of the Spirit. The work of the Trinity involves the Father, Son, and Spirit, but through the Spirit, it also involves us.

         The early disciples found comfort in Jesus’ words, and we can too. Though Jesus we can know God, and more importantly, we can be forgiven and found to be righteous so that we can enter God’s kingdom. Furthermore, it is comforting to know God’s Spirit, which was first manifested on Pentecost Day so many years ago, is still with us today, ready to lead the church into the 21st century. As a church, our life must be grounded in the Spirit that abides in us. For this reason, the church always has hope. Despite persecution or indifference from the world in which we live, we have something the world doesn’t. We have God’s Spirit, and we need to trust this gift, because it is all that matters. If we abide in the Spirit, we’ll be okay.

         Rejoice, today is Pentecost. Be bold, for God is with us. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] John 14:16-17, 26; 15:26, 16:7-11 and 12-15.

[2] Snappy Steeple Stories, compiled by Oren Arnold, p. 43

[3] John 1:43.

[4] Gerald Sloyan, John: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta, JKP, 1808), 180.

[5] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 836

Adventures in the Okefenokee, Days 2 & 3 (May 4 & 5)

Preparing to leave Maul Hammock

This is Part 2 of a 3 part series on a recent trip through the Okefenokee Swamp. Click here for part 1

It is amazing how tired one can be after a day of paddling. Last night, we both were in our hammocks about 30 minutes after sunset, when we were suddenly bombarded by mosquitoes. For a while, I tried to read, but found myself falling asleep to the sound of night, frogs croaking and insects singing. The most bothersome insects, mosquitoes, were just inches away, on the outside of the hammock’s netting. I wake only one during the evening, to find my left arm pressed against the netting. Several mosquitoes had already feasted upon me through the net. The next time I wake, it is getting light. I hear the mating roar of a few alligators around the edge of the lake. They sound like someone trying to start a two cycle engine, such as an old boat motor or a chainsaw.  I get up. With long pants and a long shirt and a little repellant, the mosquitoes aren’t too bad. I decide to fish a bit while Gary slept in.  There were only a few open places around the hammock where I am able to drop a popping bug on a fly rod.  After a few casts, a fish rises for the bait, but doesn’t take it and soon, I have an alligator friend, a small dude about four feet, watching me. Knowing what I’m doing, like a good friend, he’s ready to help me take any fish off a hook without me getting my hands all slimy. Sadly, for him, I don’t have another bite and, when I put my rod away and began to make breakfast, he heads back under the lily pads in search of his own breakfast.

 

Gary paddling in Maul Hammock Lake

With only a little over ten miles to paddle to the next platform at Big Water, we take our time getting ready. The morning is gray with a light breeze. As soon as the sun rises, the mosquitoes mostly disappear. We enjoy a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, finish drying out our clothes from the day before, and pack up. At ten, we leave the platform and paddle toward what we thought was the exit from lake only to find that we’ve missed it. In the high lily pads, it takes us several attempts to find the narrow channel that leads us back to the red trail. As it was with the last five miles the day before, we are often paddling through lily pads that are high and require and extra effort to push our boats through. It’s exhausting work and soon I’m sweaty.

Shortly after leaving Maul Hammock, the trail begins to look more like a regular stream bed as we are entering the headwaters of the Suwanee River. We spend the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon fighting through the lily pads, making a measly mile and a half an hour. The highlight of this day is seeing a large owl fly out from the trees just over me and down the river, where he gains elevation until it’s above the trees and then it turns and leaves the channel and flies into the swam. At one in the afternoon, when we break for some lunch, which we eat in our kayaks. We’ve covered less than five miles. Shortly after lunch, we arrive where, sometime in the past few months, they’ve cut back the lily pads with a machine mounted on a small dredge that chops up the lily pads roots. These roots or rhizome, when floating on the surface, look a lot like an alligator. Despite the looks of the floating rhizomes, the paddling is now easy.

A selfie with Gary in background

We arrive at Big Water platform at 3 PM. There’s a group of three guys who’d paddled up from Stephen Foster State Park. They are taking a rest before paddling back out, as they were not planning on staying the night. They have a cooler with them and offer us a cool beer. I enjoy not just drinking it, but putting the cold can on my sweaty forehead. This platform is on the western edge of a wide spot in the river, with nice views of the cypress line stream in both direction.  Later that evening as we prepare dinner, we notice how the bullfrog chorus will seemingly start in one direction and slowly make its way up or down the river, almost like a wave makes itself around a ball park. There are also a number of alligators and we watch several of them argue over territory (or mates).  I spend a few minutes fishing but have no luck, but as it was in the morning at Maul Hammock, an alligator stands on point, waiting for something to bite my line so he (or she) might help me keep my hands clean by relieving me of any fish I might catch. There’s a journal in the shelter register and someone suggests that if you hook a fish, you have to reel very fast if you want to keep it away from gators. With all the good food we have with us, we are not going to starve without fish. Instead, we enjoy a peaceful dinner along with a couple of ounces of Woodford Reserve Bourbon (Gary brought the good stuff) as we watch the light fade in the evening. Again, soon after the sun sets, the mosquitoes are back out and we head to our respective hammocks.

Big Water Platform (notice privy in the background)

Sleep isn’t quite as deep this evening. I leave the fly off my hammock in order to get maximum airflow, but at 1:30 AM, a storm is approaching. I get up and put my fly on (while we are under a tin roof, it’s not that wide and the rain will be blown under the roof). Next, I make sure that everything is put up and secured and won’t blow away. Once done, I watch the approaching lightning turn the swamp into a magical place as the cypress and their bearded Spanish moss are silhouetted by the flashes of light. Soon, instead of flashes, we there are streaks of lightning dancing across the sky. I’m in awe. The wind picks up and I get back into my hammock in order to stay dry. Soon, I’m asleep, but wake up several more times as more storms move through the area.

Paddling through Big Water

When I wake in the morning, there is still thunder to the south. But the birds are singing throughout the swamp and the heavy humidity is moderated with an occasional cool breeze. Gary has brought along a can of corn beef hash along with eggs. We have a feast for breakfast, taking our time as we have a fairly short day paddling to Floyd’s Island.

 

Notice young cypress growing in a burned over area

 

We leave Big Water at 10 AM.  The river stays wide for the next mile or so, then it narrows up into channels where there is some flow of the water, but with tight turns that I often have to stop and backup to get my big kayak (18 foot) through the passage. We paddle through areas that have been burned in fires. Over the past two decades, there have been several summers in which the swamp and surrounding areas have experienced massive fires. But the good news is that the cypress is coming back and are standing eight to twelve feet tall. But it is still sad to see many of these burned out areas, but fire is a natural part of the ecosystem and they open up opportunities for new species of plants and animals to thrive.

Five miles south of Big Water platform, we come to the cut off trail to Floyd’s Island. Both Gary and I have been here before, when we paddled into Floyd’s Island from Stephen Foster State Park. The canal pathway takes us across the bottom of Floyd’s Prairie and then narrows up into a tight tunnel like passage where paddles are used for poling instead of paddling. It rains off and on, but never very hard. Before we know it, we pull up on the sandy beach. We are at Floyd’s Island and it wasn’t even 1 PM. We’d paddled 7 ½ miles.

Floyd’s Island Cabin

Floyd’s Island is named for the leader of the Georgia militia who invaded the swamp during the second Seminole war in 1838. His men found and burned a Seminole village, and named the island for him. They then continued to bushwhack through the swamp. As they headed into the swamp, they were in good condition and well equipped. When they came out on the other side, having done something no Europeans had done, they were ragged, but they had conquered a vast unknown section of the country. Floyd was both intrigued and horrified at the swamp. He called it a most beautiful and an infernal place.

 

With all afternoon to kill, we haul our gear up to the old cabin on Floyd’s island. We string our hammocks and set up a living room on the front porch. The back of the cabin is blocked off because a huge pine had fallen and crushed part of the back of the cabin. The last time we were here, in 2015, Gary and several others (there was a group of nine of us) slept in the cabin. I decided that night I would stay in my hammock. After hearing about the rats, I assumed I’d made the right decision.

 

We eat lunch under the front porch during a downpour. A turkey and a fawn with spots make their way through our camp as we wait for the rain to clear. Later in the afternoon, when the storms have cleared, we move our kayaks, portaging over the quarter mile or so of the island, so that we’d be ready for the next day’s paddle. That evening, we cook over an open fire. The smoke helps deter the biting flies. We enjoy crackers and cheese, party nuts, along with some Johnny Walker Black Label. Again, I’m impressed with Gary’s beverage selection. I’m saving my cheap bourbon. Tomorrow, Gary will paddle out of the swamp while I will stay for another night.

A final view of Big Water

The Resurrection: A Hymn of Victory

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
1 Corinthians 15:51-58
June 2, 2019

 

 

          I’ve seen the bodies of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi and Lenin (not John) in Moscow. Walking pass their preserved flesh, I got chill bumps. It was frigid in the mausoleums. I felt a bit sad for Ho. He wrote specific instructions that his body was to be cremated and the ashes scattered all over Vietnam. But when you’re gone, what happens to your body is no longer in your hands. But there was something else I experienced at these mausoleums. Regardless of what you think of these men who were no saints, they are dead. Sooner or later, we’ll all cease to exist. Our current bodies will become useless and eventually revert back to the dust. But that’s not the final word.

Today I’m concluding a series on the resurrection that began on Easter Sunday.  Paul, in this passage, celebrates what’s to be.  Listen as I read 1 Corinthians 15:51-58.

###

Paul ends his resurrection essay on a high-note. He began this essay which takes up the entire 15th chapter with a hymn. Now, he concludes the essay with another hymn celebrating victory over death.[1] We can’t help but to be lifted up with this passage of hope. It’s often read at funerals. “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death is your victory?  Where, O death is your sting.” Victory comes not through our actions, but through our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of him we have hope.

          There are a couple of issues raised in this text that I want us to explore this morning. Paul begins almost as if confiding a secret to a friend, “Listen,” he draws the Corinthians in, “let me tell you a mystery.” Paul is writing about something he admits he doesn’t understand; it’s a mystery, but in this mystery resides hope. “We will not all die, but we will all be changed.” Now, there is a question here about what Paul means when he says we will not all die. Who are the “WE?” Some argue that Paul believes Jesus’ return is going to be soon, during their lives. We see a similar thread in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians where he comforts those who are concerned about their friends and family members who have died and what will happen to them after Christ returns.[2] If Paul thinks he and some of the Corinthians are going to be alive at Christ’s return, then he changed his mind by the time Paul wrote 2nd Corinthians.[3] However, a more logical interpretation is that Paul looks forward into history and realizes that not all believers are going to have died when Christ returns. The faith is going to still be alive and there will be believers here to welcome Christ when that trumpet of all trumpets sounds.[4]

         In this passage, Paul emphasizes the necessity of change.  Nothing can stay the same. We have to give up the familiar, our mortal bodies, in order to be resurrected in a new immortal body. Interestingly, Paul insists we will be clothed with immortality which was not taught in the schools of the day. The Greeks assumed immortality was our natural state and it was covered with our bodies; therefore the ideal was the soul, not the flesh covering it. But Paul challenges this notion, for our bodies are, in and of themselves, good.[5] We are, after all, created by God. But, with the resurrection, we obtain the imperishable, that which we cannot obtain in this life and in these bodies.

The putting on of the imperishable clothing, the donning of immortality, may have created in his hearer’s mind an image of the investiture of a king or emperor. When crowned, they put on new robes. They are the same in that they have the same body, but the new clothing makes them also a new person.[6]

        As I noted earlier, it’s interesting how Paul book-ends his essay on the resurrection with fragments of what was most likely an ancient hymn. Paul uses lyrics which were probably sung by congregations in order to connect with something familiar to his readers. Paul’s speaking of a mystery and music has a way to say more to us than just the lyrics, so it is appropriate that Paul incorporates such a hymn as he concludes his treatment of the resurrection.[7]

         As Paul comes to the end of our passage for today, he makes a powerful statement. In the last two verses, he uses the term “Lord” four times. The modern British theologian, N. T. Wright, suggests that “like a warrior triumphing over a fallen enemy, Paul mocks the power that has now become powerless.”  The victory is in our Lord Jesus Christ! He is a Lord in a manner that Caesar can never be![8] Paul lifts up Jesus’ victory as a way to call everyone in Corinth back to what is important.

         Paul brings this essay to a conclusion with a final statement in which he calls the Corinthians, “my beloved.” It’s like saying, “My dear friends.” As he’d shown at the beginning of the letter, Paul is fond of the Corinthians even though throughout the letter, he’s been admonishing them for their disunity, their toleration of grievous sin, their lack of order within worship and their mockery of the Lord’s Supper. Yet, Paul still likes these people. He’s not ready to write them off, as we might be. There’s a lesson for us here! Don’t consider anyone beyond redemption! This passage which Paul has been looking into the future ends by bringing the Corinthians back to the present and to what they need to be doing.[9] It’s not too late to get things right.

        When I was in college I lived in a garage apartment about a mile off campus. It was a nice place, on a side street with just a few homes and this one garage with an apartment above it.  There was a porch, with stairs that ran down to the ground. The porch was large enough for a chair and a couple of potted plants. On Saturday mornings when the weather was decent and I wasn’t off paddling a river somewhere, I could be found sitting in a chair, my feet propped up on the railing, reading or just pondering while I had my morning coffee. It was the good life. I enjoyed birds flying by and singing in the trees. It was a dead-end street, so traffic didn’t bother me. It was also a safe neighborhood as the Chief of Police lived at the end of the road.

One Saturday, I had visitors. The Jehovah Witnesses were going two-by-two, door-to-door, one group on each side of the street. The two who came up the steps to my porch were an older white man, probably about the age of my granddaddy, with a younger African-American woman who wasn’t much older than I was at the time. I was intrigued. This was in the late 70s, and this was the South and I remember thinking this sight wasn’t anything I’d see in a Presbyterian Church (not that we’d be seen going door-to-door). Furthermore, I was pretty sure I’d not see such a sight in a Methodist or Baptist or any of the other churches within the city. There was something refreshing about the two of them and I recalled the song I’d learned in Sunday School: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in sight…” Judging from how Paul had scolded the Corinthians for their divisions, such a sight would have brought a smile to his face.

We talked for a bit about everything wrong in the world, and at the time there was plenty wrong, as there is now. When I asked what they thought we should do about the sufferings in the world, the man smiled. “We don’t need to do anything as this means Jesus is coming back soon and he’ll take care of everything.” It sounded like a cop-out to me. We debated. When they finally left, we were at an impasse. Neither of us changed our minds.

Had I, as a twenty year old, spent much time with this letter from Paul, I might have brought up this passage. Even though the future is out of our hands, it doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to try to make a difference in the world, of trying to make things better. That’s what I think Paul means at the end of the chapter where, drawing upon all he’s written here about the resurrection, he concludes by reminding everyone, to “be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Paul wasn’t always successful in his work. As far as we know, he didn’t establish a church everywhere he travelled, though he tried. Many if not most of the congregations he created were small. This doesn’t sound like what we might define as “excelling,” which may be why the Message paraphrase translates it this way, “Don’t hold back.  Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.”

For Paul, as I hope you have understood in these five sermons, the resurrection isn’t just a doctrine that gives us hope for the future; the resurrection provides us the excitement for God’s work in the present. As disciples of Jesus, we have something to look forward to. Our last breath in these bodies isn’t the end. We shall all be changed and that should give us confidence and make us unafraid of taking risks and doing what is good and noble today.  Amen.

[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians  (Dowers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2011), 468.

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:1-10

[4]  Bailey, 472.

[5] William F. Orr and James Arthur Walter, The Anchor Bible: 1 Corinthians  (Garden Grove, NY: Doubleday, 1976), 350, n53

[6] Bailey, 473.

[7] Bailey 472-473

[8] Bailey 474-475.

[9] Bailey, 476-477.

Day One in the Okefenokee (May 3)

Paddling through a prairie (before Double Lake)

Old Railroad logging skidder

We leave our vehicles at Okefenokee Adventures where we have arranged for a shuttle to our put-in site some twenty-five miles to the north. In five days (four for Gary, who will leave a day before me), I’ll come out of the swamp here. Our shuttle driver is a retired mechanic from CSX railroad. As he drives us to Kingfisher Landing, he points out old Hard-shell Baptist Churches that still sing shape-note music. When he hears that our first night will be at Maul Hammock, he tells us the story of the first reported account of Bigfoot, which occurred in the early part of the 19th Century near where will be camping. Seven men went into the swamp and were attacked by a huge hairy beast. Supposedly, the beast was killed but not before he killed five of the men. The other two fled before any of Bigfoot’s friends could finish the job. A hammock, in this country, is a piece of high ground with trees. The “Maul” part comes from the supposedly attack by Bigfoot. When we arrive at Kingfisher Landing, he points us over to the woods opposite the canal, where the rusty remains of an old logging truck designed to run on rails sits.

 

Preparing to launch

We push off from Kingfisher Landing a little after 10 AM. The air is hot and heavy with humidity. There are some clouds in the sky. Our trail, an old canal, is mostly straight, fairly wide, and runs eastward into the swamp. We pass a few alligators. Occasionally a frog jumps into the water as we approach. At the two mile mark, we take the red trail to the northeast and skirt along the northern edge of Cedar Prairie. The water is low, as it often is this time of the year. I am a little worried that we may have a hard time in places, but the first five or so miles, to where there trail folks with a side trail running to Double Lakes, is clear and easy to paddle. This area is open to boats with motors under 10 horsepower. It seems the fishermen have kept the channel clean. I hope they bring plenty of shear pins for their prop, for the lily pads would do a number on them.  I’d thought about paddling up into Double Lakes, but there’s now clouds in the sky and thunder is occasionally heard in the distance. We are only halfway to Maul Hammock, where we will spend the evening on a platform above the water.

 

 

It’s good that we didn’t explore because after the turn-off to Double Lakes, the trail becomes more difficult. In places, lily pads and other weeds fill the channel and often seem to grab and hold on to your paddle. It’s a workout, but we keep paddling. The lily pads include the elegant blooming white lotus plants and some of the more bland yellow blooms. Along the sides of the path, where it is open, are hooded pitcher plants, purple swamp irises and pickerel weed with its purple torch-like flowers. At places, bladderworts, odd flowering plants that grow in water, are seen. Like the pitcher plants, they too are carnivorous. With so many insect eating plants, you’d think bugs wouldn’t be a problem. The abundance of these plants are an indication of the poor soil, so they have evolved to obtain nutrients from other sources. And there seems to be plenty of mosquitoes and biting flies to feed these plants, as we’ll later experience.

Finally, the trail turns to the southwest. We still two miles to go, but the thunder that’s been rolling for the past hour or so has moved closer. We pick up the pace, but paddling through thick vegetation is exhausting.

 

the start of the rain

We leave the prairie and paddle through tall cypress and bay trees, with briers and other vegetation lining the channel. There are few lily pads to fight, but the channel is so tight that we must keep the paddle up and down, close to the sides of the boat. The thunder becomes more intense and we hear it crackle across the sky. When we enter another prairie and have a better view, clearly defined lightning bolts are popping all around. It’s beginning to rain. Soon, the bolts are striking only a few hundred yards away, followed by a nearly instantaneous boom that vibrates across the swamp. We paddle harder as the rain comes. The drops are think and heavy and drown out the sounds of the swamp. As the rain becomes heavier, the lightning moves further away. We continue to paddle harder and after an intense 20 minute downpour, that soaks us both and, since neither are us are wearing spray skirts, drops a few inches of water into our boats.

 

Gary setting up his hammock at Maul Hammock Platform

As the rain subsides, we pump out some of the water from the boat and paddle on toward the side trail to Maul Hammock platform. We enter a lake filled with lily pads that, in places, are up to our shoulders. The platform is to our left, at the edge of the lake. We head toward it as the water continues to drizzle. As we are pulling the boats up onto the platform, we notice a few stray bolts of lightning on the backside of the storm. It’ll be good to get into dry clothes, to fix a drink and dinner, and to rest. It’s been a long day as we’ve covered nearly 13 long miles.

Sunset from Maul Hammock Platform (right before an air force of mosquitoes descend)

 

 

 

 

The Fifties

David Halberstam, The Fifties (1993, New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 800 pages including index’s and notes, plus 32 pages of black and white prints.

 

The decade was 70% completed when I was born. I have no recall of the 1950s, even though I was born late in the decade. Having now read this massive history, I now feel as if I lived through the decade.

Halberstam begins his story with Truman’s election of 1948, the Soviet test of a nuclear weapon in 1949, and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. The short time the United States had as the leader of the world and the only nation with nuclear weapons had come to an end. We were beginning a new era, the Cold War. The uneasy situation with the Soviets would remain throughout the decade and Halberstam ends this book with the story of the U2 being shot down over Russia (which ended Eisenhower’s quest for a nuclear treaty) and the planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

A lot happened in the 1950s and, as Halberstam points out, much of what occurred in the 60s had its roots in the 50s. From music to Vietnam, civil rights to foreign policies, the sexual revolution to television, space and science to the rise of suburbia, McCarthy to Kerouac, the 60s (and 70s) grew out of seeds planted in the 50s. Halberstam follows these developments through vignettes, stories of what was happening. In ways, the stories can stand alone, but taken together they paint a picture of vibrant decade that too often has been portrayed as sleepy.

Many of the people whom Halberstam writes about are well known and became even more famous in the 1960s (Richard Nixon, Hugh Hefner, Marlo Brando, Marlyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King, among others). Others were less well known, but their ideas caught on as they developed fancy car designs, hotel and restaurant empires, housing tracks, and pushed America into a consumer culture. As I approached the end of the book, I was shocked to see one such individual that I knew personally. Kensinger Jones (pages 629-635) spent his retirement years on a farm south of Hastings, Michigan. He was a member of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings while I was pastor. Unfortunately, he was unable to be very active due to health issues, but I often visited with him and his wife Alice and enjoyed our conversations. Ken Jones was responsible for a series of Chevrolet ads that weren’t designed to “sell cars, but to sell dreams.” These ads were essentially a mini-story told visually as the consumer was encouraged to “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.” While Ken certainly appreciated the power of the image, as Halberstam notes, he also appreciated the written word. After he could no longer attend church, he would read my sermons and often wrote notes of appreciation. And he was an author himself. I have two of his books on my shelf today.

Toward the end of Eisenhower’s presidency, there were those who suggested it was a shame there was the 23rd Amendment that kept a President from running for a third term. Eisenhower, whom it seems in Halberstam was never sure if he wanted to be President, would have nothing to do with such talk. He didn’t want a third term nor did he think anyone should be President over the age of 70. I wonder what Ike would think about our last election with both candidates over the 70 mark?

This is a wonderful book with many great stories. Even those who have no memories of the 1950s will find themselves entertained and will learn how this decade influenced future decades in America.

The Resurrection, Part 4

 

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
First Corinthians 15:35-50
May 26, 2019

Today, I’m in my fourth of five sermons on the 15th Chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. That may sound like a lot of sermons, but it’s a long chapter!  Two weeks ago, we talked about the ethical consequences of the resurrection. For Paul, the resurrection isn’t just something that only affects us in the future; the resurrection is the reason for us to live for Christ in the present. In this section, Paul returns to his discussion about Christ and Adam as he discusses the “resurrected body.”[1]

It appears Paul’s reason for this discussion is to convince those in Corinth who question the resurrection. They may have formerly been Jewish Sadducees. The Pharisees, if you remember, believed in a resurrection, but the Sadducees taught that this life was it. Paul addresses such disbelief in the first half of his response. Now, as he moves toward his conclusion of the topic, he addresses what he anticipates to be the follow-up question. Having maintained that there is no resurrection, these critics of Paul’s teachings might come back to Paul’s challenge and ask, “Well, Mr. Big Shot, since you say there is a resurrection, how is this going to happen and what are we going to look like?” Let’s hear what Paul has to say.  Read 1 Corinthians 15:35-50.

Have you had an experience where you dreaded what was to come and then found yourself unexpectedly pleased by what happened?

         I woke up at 6 AM to the sounds of the Star Spangled Banner blaring from the radio. It was the day after Labor Day, 1988. KECH with its whopping 58 watts of amplification began the day’s broadcast up and down the Wood River Valley. The station was off air between midnight and 6 AM, so instead of setting an alarm clock, I just left the radio on at night. I went to sleep to music and woke feeling patriotic. I had become accustomed to getting up in this manner during the summer at Camp Sawtooth in the Boulder Mountains of Idaho. As the music played I’d wash up, brush my teeth, dress, and head down to the dining hall where I’d build a fire to ward off the morning chill. Throughout the summer, when I came into the dining hall, the cooks would already be in the kitchen, fixing breakfast. The smell of coffee perking and bacon frying would fill the air. It had been a near perfect summer. But this morning was different.

        I dreaded getting out of bed. The cooks were gone for the season. I had to fix my own coffee. Yesterday, the last weekend group for the summer had left and camp became eerily silent. If you have ever worked at camp for a summer, you’ll know the feeling I’m expressing. There were only three of us left in that canyon, and we’d all be heading out after lunch. The morning would be busy draining pipes and closing up the camp for winter. When it came time to leave, we’d lock the buildings and gates and our summer in the valley under the tall lodgepole pines between even taller mountains would be over.

         After listening to the news and the weather (it was below freezing in the mountains, but would warm up and be another sunny day in paradise) I reluctantly crawled out of bed. I made coffee for Jack and Evelyn, our caretaker and his wife. I laid a fire in the wood stove one final time.

It wasn’t just leaving camp that I was dreading. I was worried about what was ahead in my life. That spring, I had agreed to spend a year in Virginia City, Nevada. It sounded exciting back in March: to be a student pastor, preaching every Sunday, and living in this desert town. Now the time was at hand, I wasn’t sure I was up for the task. First of all, I had to come up for a sermon every week. And then, I’d be living in Nevada. This was back in the 80s, before casinos dotted the landscape. Having been raised to consider gambling a sin, it made me nervous to be where it was in your face.

         Furthermore, Storey County, in which Virginia City sits, had legalized prostitution, a troublesome idea that made me wonder how I’d relate as a pastor, a public representative of God. Finally, even the drive to Virginia City seemed daunting. Much of it was on two-lane roads through mountainous deserts. The last leg included the infamous forty-mile desert where there isn’t a drop of water to be found. I’d just read a book on this stretch the pioneers dreaded and even though I’d be flying through that part of the trip at freeway speeds, there was something about going through this desert that made me nervous. It didn’t get any better the next morning, when I stopped in Lovelock at the edge of this desert and noticed one of my tires going flat. I took it to a shop and sure enough there was a nail in the rubber. It was good I found it when I did; however, it seemed a bad omen. Have you ever been there where you just dreaded what’s next?

Of course, with the exception of that nail, the trip was uneventful. I arrived in Virginia City and after a week or so of feeling out-of-place, it became home. As much as I had enjoyed the summer, I really enjoyed that year in Nevada, as most of you have probably surmised from stories I’ve told. The dread turned into a blessing. Have you had such an experiences?

        We have a God who loves to surprise us. Ours is a God who invites those at the back of the line to come to the front.  He’s a God of love who’s willing to forgive and to allow us a chance to start afresh. He’s a God of protection and refuses to abandon us. He’s a God of glory who shares his majesty through the beauty of a sunrise or a rainbow after a thunderstorm. God can take what we dread and provide a memorable experience. And the resurrection is the ultimate example.

        We all dread death, don’t we, but our hope is in the resurrection, which can only be experienced after death. In the resurrection, God reverses our fortune and we’re changed from dead to eternal. Just don’t ask me how. It’s just God’s way. But before I go to what Paul has to say, I should note that such dread of change can be an issue in all areas of our lives. We even find ourselves having such feelings in the church. As people, it seems we like to resist change even though it’s the only thing certain in life… Yet, we’re always nervous about the future. This shows our lack of trust in others (which can be expected, for we’ve all been let down at one time or another). But it also displays a lack of trust in God. We seem to forget that God has things under control; it’s not really up to us.

You know, we’re involved in a Strategic Planning process and this passage speaks to the fear we have of such a process. None of us like change? But to loosely summarize what Paul says here: “sometimes things have to die so that something new and better can come into being…”

       As I said before reading this passage, Paul begins asking what probably had been a follow-up question by those who were denying the resurrection. “Just how are the dead raised, Paul?  What kind of body will they have?” Paul doesn’t mince his words here and replies with a passionate response, “Fool.” You can’t be much more emphatic than that! He continues by noting what is planted as a seed has to “in essence” die (as it’s buried in the earth) in order to come to life as a new plant. He also notes there are different kinds of flesh and different kinds of bodies as he points to other animals and even to the heavens… We live in a wonderfully unique world.

Of course, this world to come, this resurrected body we’re to inherit, is still a mystery. But it will be amazing, according to Paul. Our bodies are perishable, but after the resurrection, they’ll be imperishable. Due to sin, our bodies have been dishonored, but the resurrected body will be glorious. Our bodies today grow weak, but in the life to come our bodies will be strong. The resurrection will result in a new spiritual body—which by the way doesn’t mean we’ll be ghost-like, for Paul insists that we’ll have bodies.

         Next, Paul returns to the topic he’d brought up earlier in the chapter: Adam and Jesus. Adam is the man of dust. God created him as God created us. If there was any question about Christians believing in reincarnation, Paul negates such ideas here when he insists there is no spiritual beginning for us. This idea was no doubt prevalent in Corinth as it is found in Platonic thought. At the end of Plato’s classic work, The Republic, he describes how spirits leave one world to be born in this world.[2] But this isn’t a Christian idea. Many New Agers as well as Mormons, Hindus and Buddhists believe either in some form of pre-existent spiritual presence or reincarnation, but such thoughts are not a part of our theology. As Paul shows, we are from the dust.

        But there is one who transcends the dust, the one who in Revelation is known as “the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, who is and who was and who is to come.”[3] Although this man was from heaven, he set aside his glory and power and assumed a life in the flesh.[4] With Adam, the man of dust, we share his sinful imprint.  However, with Jesus, the man of heaven, we too will share his imprint, and it will be glorious.  But that’s in the life to come and we’re all going to dread what it takes to get there, for our perishable bodies must return to the elements before we can arise with glorious new and eternal bodies.

Does Paul tell us what heaven is going to be like? No, not really, except that we will have bodies. Instead, he places his trust in a loving God that has our best interest at heart. And he encourages us to do the same. Yes, there is a resurrection and whatever lies on the other side of death is going to be far more glorious than we can ever imagine in this life.

         As followers of Jesus, we shouldn’t spend too much time fretting and worrying about the future. “Don’t worry about tomorrow,” Jesus tells us.[5] God’s got it under control. Yes, life is going to be full of changes, but such changes won’t even begin to compare to the transformation we’ll experience at the end. Living with the confidence of the resurrection should mean that we fear changes less in this life, for the long-term forecast is for things to be incredible. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Compare this to 1 Corinthians 15:21-24.  I am basing my thoughts upon ideas set forth by Kenneth E. Bailey in Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Dowers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011).

[2] See Plato, The Republic, Chapter X

[3] Revelation 1:8.  See also Revelation 21:6 and 22:13.

[4] See Philippians 2:6-8

[5] Matthew 6:25.

The Social Media Gospel

Yesterday’s worship service focused on our responsible use of social media. Here is a review of a book that reminds the church how we might use such media in a positive way. Click here to read yesterday’s sermon, “A Light in the World”

Meredith Gould, The Social Media Gospel: Sharing the Good News in New Ways, second edition (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 180 pages, index and notes.

 

This easily read book encourages churches to support social media as a way to expand their communication and outreach. Sadly, it is four years old. The digital world is rapidly changing as new venues come online and changes are made to existing ones. The author, a committed Roman Catholic, writes for an ecumenical audience. She often quoting those from other Christian traditions. The forward for this edition is even written by the Reverend David Hansen, a Lutheran pastor in Texas.

The book consists of three sections with a number of helpful appendixes. In the first section, which I found most helpful, she debunks the idea that social media destroys community. Instead, it creates new types of communities. She also has a brief chapters on generational differences, learning styles, and personality types. She helpfully points out that what one person finds annoying could be what draws another person into the community (22). Such a reminder is helpful, for it is too easy to let the most outspoken critics drive us, which often leading to inefficient efforts that fail to accomplish anything. A little grace by all of us goes a long way toward accomplishing the church’s mission.

Gould provides an interesting take on the old 80/20 rule. She suggests that 80% of our content on social media should be about building community and only 20% to be about promoting and reporting on the news of the organization. I have heard similar ideas from several other sources writing about business use of social media, one of which suggested that you try to build up your reputation (or brand), offer five helpful solutions for every “sales pitch” you make. A second interesting “rule” (which she credits to Jakob Nielsen) is the 90/9/1 Rule. 90% of the people observe your social media presence, 9% occasionally participate by commenting or interacting, and 1% dominate by providing most of the content and comments. She suggested the 1% are important for they are our ambassadors/evangelists, but that we also don’t forget that we may be reaching a lot more people than those who participate. (26)

There were a number of other gleaming I found helpful in Gould’s opening section. She suggests that technology provides a means to prepare people for the sacraments, but it does not replace or provide the sacrament. (10)  There is still need for real presence within the community. I also found it helpful how Gould describes the development of online communities. Online, things move approximately three times faster than in the real world. People engage much quicker and they also stay engaged shorter periods of time than they might in the face-to-face world. (31)

The second section of this book offers guidelines into developing a social media strategy and provides a basic overview for top mediums of social media: blogging, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat. For each of these groups, she provides suggestions on ways the church might use them to further its mission. While she does not suggest that the church attempt to use all of these mediums, but to pick those which would best for the church’s situation (there are helpful questions that can guide such decisions), she is a big fan of Twitter. While she doesn’t suggest that Twitter is for everyone, she tells of her “conversion.”

The final section of the book is titled “Making Social Media Work.” There are several helpful chapters here that focus on how social media can be integrated into a church’s communication strategy, how to develop content (and share it on multiple platforms), handling burnout, best practices for social media use and how to handle online conflict. As for creating content, it needs to be short (according to her suggestion, this review is about 250 words longer than it should be J).

While I found parts of this book dated and a little elementary, Gould provides useful tools to help congregations discuss this new world in which we live. And, as for it being elementary, I must remember that may not be the case for everyone. After all, I’ve had a blog for over 15 years, have served churches with websites for 25 years, and have been on Facebook for nearly a dozen years. Others may find this book to be right at the level as they began engaging in this new online world.

A Light to the World

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 
Matthew 5:14-16
May 19, 2019

 

Over the past year, Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church has invested a lot of money along with both volunteer and staff time to help our congregation improve its technology. Last summer, we added the monitors, getting rid of the screen, that eye-sore behind the chancel that was hard to see. We also added cameras to record the service and other events held in our sanctuary. Then we started streaming our services over the internet, which is popular among those unable to make it to church because of traveling, being home bound, or in the hospital.[1] We’ve even offer a way to give online. All of this is a way to help us better connect to our community. Let me now put a plug in for a discipleship opportunity: we are always in need of people to help us with this ministry. If you would like to volunteer, speak to one of the volunteers in the sound booth or see Jim Brown or me.

Our world is changing. We are more mobile. We are living longer and the last years are often more restricted. As a congregation, this investment helps us continue as a beacon of hope in a dark world. After all, that’s what Jesus calls us to do as we’ll see in today’s reading. I am going to take a break from working through the resurrection passages in 1 Corinthians and look at some Jesus’ thoughts from the Sermon on the Mount.

        The Sermon on the Mount begins in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew and continues for three chapters. We’re told Jesus is on a hill and the disciples and other followers have gathered around him. He begins teaching with a series of nine beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, and so on. Then, there’s a bridge between the beatitudes and the commands that fill out his sermon. This is the “you are” section, from which we will read today. There are two “you ares”: salt and light. I should also note that the “you” here is plural. Jesus is saying, “You folks,” or as we say down here, “y’all.” Y’all are the salt and the light. This isn’t only for individuals. This is a community task, it’s the role of the church, as we’ll see.[2] Read Matthew 5:14-16.

###

       What does it mean today to be a light to the world? And what did this mean to those in the first century?

In early 2000, I spent several weeks in Korea where I had been invited to preach and, conveniently, as my parents were living there at the time, to visit them. I was able, as the old cliché goes, “kill two birds with one stone.” I flew into Seoul at night. This was the old airport that the city had grown up around. I was shocked as the plane made a low approach over the city to see numerous neon and lighted crosses on buildings. They were all over the place. Is this what it means to let your light shine?

          The Koreans borrowed this idea from the West. In the old villages in Europe, a church and its steeple was the center of town. You could see the steeple from far off. In America, we adopted such ideas. Consider a New England village with the tall steeple in the middle. Or look at the downtown Savannah skyline, with large steeples rising high over the trees, providing visibility and, in many cases, a maintenance nightmare. The purpose is to keep everyone mindful of the church as the center of our lives, where together we focus and praise God. Jesus talks of a city built on a hill that can’t be hidden, so if you build a city in a valley, you put up a steeple to make it more visible.

       I’ve told you before about our family’s exile from North Carolina when I was 6 years old and how I spent the first three years of school in Virginia. I still remember one of the churches we attended there—Second Presbyterian Church in Petersburg. It was an old church in the downtown area that had endured much. During the Civil War, its tall steeple was hit by a Union canon ball.[3] They had a hard time with the tall steeple and after it was blown off in a tornado and hurricane, so they opted for a shorter tower. The church I served in Ellicottville, New York used to have an 80 foot spire on top of the bell tower that soared over the city. But after being hit by lightning, they opted for a stubby top. Is this the way we shine light on the world? Or, is our light through our actions?

         As I pointed out, Jesus is making a transition from the blessings he’s offered to the more instructional part of the sermon. I encourage you to read these entire three chapters to see what’s happening. In a way, he’s giving this humble and struggling collection of people a great compliment. They are to be his light in the world. God chooses the marginal. The poor and the powerless are instilled with an important mission. Jesus, the light of the world, takes such a motley group and sets them off on an important assignment. Through our good deeds (we’re a part of this group), others watch and hopefully are impressed and seek out God. They, and we, are not to do good works to be praised, but so that our heavenly Father will be praised.

Note this: Jesus makes a point to say, “your heavenly Father.”[4] He repeats this emphasis in the next chapter in the Lord’s Prayer, where we begin “Our Father.”[5] From the very beginning, Jesus sees us as a part of his family. God is not just Jesus’ father.

So, are we a light to the world? That’s a question we should ask ourselves as I turn this sermon back to the focus of the morning—our use of technology.

        In our Old Testament reading, we hear the story of the “fall.” In the story of the Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. It wasn’t that they picked a bad piece of fruit, it was that they were trying to be like God as they disobeyed a direct command from the Almighty. Much of our knowledge is morally neutral. It becomes problematic only when we use it in the wrong manner or for the wrong reasons, such as playing God. Technology is full of examples. Nuclear energy can be used to treat cancer and produce power and it can be used to blow the planet up. The same can be said for the internet. It’s a great tool for research, but we can also spread untruths and confusion. And social media, it’s a great tool to connect with others, but we can also use it to spread gossip. We can use these tools to be a light to the world or, as there’s always a downside, to cast darkness.

Jesus calls us to be a light. I pray our use of technology here at SIPC is doing that, helping us to be a light as we share the message of hope to the world. But we need to go deeper for we are all a part of this body. Because of this, we all need to take our own inventory of how we are letting your light shine? You know, if you have the church sticker on your car, it would be a good thing to be polite when you drive. Otherwise, people will have the wrong idea of what we teach in church.

        You don’t won’t to like the guy who was pulled over, arrested, and hauled off to jail for stealing a car. He protested continually. After an hour of checking his story, the police apologized. “I couldn’t believe it was your car,” the officer said. “You have all these bumper stickers about loving Jesus and following you to church. After you gave the finger, shouted obscenities, and laid on your horn at the driver who was obviously lost, I just assumed you had stolen the vehicle.”

Our actions often speak louder than our words.

If you use social media, do you use it in a way that brings God glory? Before you post something, ask if God is being glorified. You don’t have to make everything about God, but if you post or share something that is untrue or of a questionable nature, you are not being a light to the world. If you belittle those with whom you disagree, you are not being very Christ-like and your light isn’t shinning.

       As the church enters the technological world in which we live, I also encourage you, if you use such technologies, to do so in a way that will help further our light in the world. Online, we Christians can respectfully answer questions about our faith, we can offer comfort to those who grieve or live in fear, we can help meet the needs of others, we can help empower others to further God’s work, we can help create loving digital communities, and show the love of Jesus in a compelling ways.[6]

        Just “liking” or “sharing” posts about our church helps us share our message with others. Don’t let this new world scare you. And there’s more you can do. Help a neighbor who is homebound reconnect with church through our streaming services. Feel free to share a gleaming you gathered from a sermon, or tell of your feelings of a piece of scripture, or how a hymn or choir anthem spoke to you. But whatever you do, do it in a way that will bring a smile to Jesus’ face and help us reflect his face in a positive way to the world. Remember, as we heard in the chancel drama, Jesus has no online presence, but yours. No blog, no Facebook page, but yours.[7] Amen.

©2019

[1] To watch the streaming on Sunday mornings at 10 AM, go to our www.sipres.org and click “watch live”.

[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 192 and Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: JKP, 1993), 44.

[3] This is what I remember being told as a child. For this church in the Civil War (in which it was one of two to stay open throughout the siege of Petersburg, see:  https://emergingcivilwar.com/2016/12/08/petersburgs-second-presbyterian-church-and-the-final-christmas-of-the-war/

[4] Bruner, 163.

[5] Matthew 6:9ff.

[6] I modified this list from one created by Rachel Lemons Aitken, “Digital Discipleship” Ministry (May 2019), 23.

[7] This is a contemporary take on St. Teresa of Avila’s prayer, “Christ has no body:”

Christ has no online presence but yours,
no blog, no Facebook page but your,
Yours are the tweets through which love touches this world,
Yours are the post through which the Gospel is shared,
Yours are the updates through which hope is revealed.
Christ has no online presence by yours,
no blog, no Facebook page but yours..

By Meredith Gould, The Social Media Gospel: Share the Good News in New Ways, 2nd Edition (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 9.

 

Readings of late (3 book reviews)

I’m catching up on my reading… I keep thinking I’ll write short reviews for posts like this and I never do! These are some of the books I’ve read over the past month.

 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus (2003, New York: Random House/Anchor, 2004), 309 pages.

This is the first novel for Adichie, a Nigerian author. The story is set in her country during a politically unstable time. Kambili, a fifteen year old girl, is attempting to makes sense of her world. Her father is rich, generous, powerful, and a devout Catholic. In addition to factories, he owns a newspaper that isn’t afraid of speaking out against the corruption of the government. But at home he’s a tyrant. He makes his children live by a strict schedule and demands perfection. If they are not first in their class, they’re punished. He leads his family in saying their rosary and in prayers daily, but even these times are strict and rigorous. He’s highly thought of in the church, but is cruel and abusive with his children and wife.  Kambili and her older brother Jana are treated terribly. In anger, he deformed one of Jaja’s fingers and at another time made his children stand barefooted in the tub while he pours hot water from a tea kettle on their feet.

Java and Kambili are granted a respite from their troubles when they are allowed to stay with their Aunty Ifeoma for a few weeks. He sends them with his driver, the trunk loaded with extra bottles of gas for her stove and sacks of rice and other foot stuff. Their aunt is also religious but she has a much more gentle faith, even praying that her family might experience laughter. She is a professor at the university, but there is unrest even there. At the aunt’s home, Kambili falls for a young priest, Father Amani. She is coming of age and is shocked to learn that all the women are interested in him. There, they also spend more time with their grandfather, whom their father has essentially disowned because he still worships in the old (non-Christian) ways.

They go back to their aunt’s after Kambili is severely beaten by her father and spends time in the hospital. This sets up the conclusion of the story, which has twist that I won’t spoil.

This book explores many themes. The tension between old traditions and newer (European) ways, the problems experienced by post-colonial countries like Nigeria, the lure of the West (Aunty Ifeoma ends up moving to America and Father Amani is sent to Germany). The book also deals with themes of abuse, corruption, and how a man like Kambili’s father can be brave and generous and evil at the same time. Adichie’s writings draw heavily on the setting and one can smell the flowers blooming and the downpours in rainy season.

I recommend this book! I think it is important for us to look into other cultures and in this era of debate over immigration, Adichie’s provides insight into what native people in a post-colonial country thinks about Europe and America.

 

 

Rick Bragg, The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table (2018), 19 hours and 17 minutes on audible.

I listened to this book, read by the author. It’s a treat to listen to Bragg read his own words as his accent brings the book alive. However, this will be a book that I also plan to buy and keep as a hard copy, for the stories are wonder and every chapter ends with a recipe or two.

Over the past twenty years, Bragg has told many of his family stories, but this book tells the stories from a different focus, the kitchen table.  Every dish he writes about comes with a family story, some going back to his great-grandfather. He was a wild man who, at the request of his son, taught his daughter-in-law (Bragg’s grandmother) how to cook. While Bragg never knew his grandfather or great-grandfather, both who died before his birth, he did know his grandmother and wrote about her and her husband in his book, Ava’s Man.  As he tells of hard times and the good food that sustained the family, we are treated with wonderful stories. Bragg can make his reader lust after pig feet (I remember my mother’s mother eating pickled pig feet and all it took for me to try it). Many of his stories are about how to procure pigs and cows to eat. His family was involved in some minor incidents of larceny, which long after the guilty have passed on, can be quite humorous.  And then there are the chickens and how the roosters who enjoyed pecking at the ankles of his grandmother were soon destined for Sunday dinner.

Some of his stories have a familiar ring to them. He speaks of baking possum on a hardwood plank and then throwing away the possum and eating the board. I’ve heard this same story many times in cooking shad, a fish that runs up rivers along the East Coast. Shad was to be nailed to a board and then the board consumed.  Another familiar story is a variation of “stone soup,” where his grandfather made “ax head soup” for a bunch of hobos. But he also had meat and some beverages to help complete their feast. It was his grandfather’s way to helping those who were in the same predicament in life as he had once been. There was a tenderness in this show of generosity.

Bragg gives inside into another southern treat, poke salad. Most people would have never heard of such thing had it not been for the song, “Poke Salad Annie.” But I remember poke salad from my grandma, my father’s mother. Although I don’t remember her fixing it, she talked about how you prepare the tender young leaves. The plant is poisonous, so one has to take the young leaves and boil it in several pots of water, throwing away the water that contains the toxins. When one has to take such care to rid toxins, it’s not worth it. I’ll stick turnip greens.

There are many other great stories around making biscuits, cornbread, greens, fish, fried chicken and deserts. This book will delight your taste buds and make you long for good home cooking.

 

 

Jack Kelly, The Edge of Anarchy: the Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest labor uprising in America (2019) 11 hours and 15 minutes on Audible.

This book is in keeping with a long lists of books about America in the late 19th Century which I’ve read this past year. The book focuses on two key people, George Pullman and Eugene V. Debs. The late 19th Century was a period of unrest in this country as Kelly points out. This was the era of Coxey’s army marching on Washington, along with large strikes by workers and anarchist ready to toss a bomb (sometimes literally) into simmering conflicts.

Pullman was the founder of the “palace car empire” and a very wealthy man. Not only did he build sleeping cars, he maintained control of his cars by leasing them to the railroads instead of selling them. This way, he not only built the cars but provided staff that operated the rolling hotels and was able to shuffle cars between railroads, allowing customers to stay in a car as the train passed over multiple railroads. Pullman was innovated in many ways. He attempted to build an upscale company town. His idea was to attract better workers for building his rail cars, but it was still a town that he owned and controlled. In the 1890s, as deflation swept the nation, Pullman cut the wages of his workers, while maintaining the rents he charged in his town. During this time, he refused to cut the dividends his company paid or reduce his own and his top management’s salaries. This lead to unrest and eventually a major strike that impacted the entire nation.

Opposite Pullman was Eugene V. Debs, who was attempting to change the nature of unions from a craft guild that served particular skills (such as firemen and engineers) to a union that represented all railroad workers. As the strike at the Pullman plant grew, other railroads workers became involved, leading to disruption throughout the system. While employees refused to handle Pullman cars, the battle became greater as other traffic was delayed or stopped. Cities like Chicago were beginning to starve.

Kelly demonstrates the length the railroads went to in order to break the strike. One tool they had was the mail service. Debs and other strikers insisted that nothing was to be done to disturb the mail, which was a federal offense.  Mail cars on passenger trains were generally at the front of the train, while the Pullman cars, which had to be available to be transferred from one line to the other, were at the back of trains. This allowed railroad workers, who were refusing to handle Pullman cars, to easily push them off onto sidings while allowing the railroad to continue operating. Knowing this, train officials starts making up the train, putting the mail cars behind the Pullmans, forcing the union’s hand. Eventually, the federal government was able to use the excuse of mail disruption to call in the army to break the strike. Soldiers who had been used to keep the peace in the West (or fighting the “Indian Wars”) were deployed to cities like Chicago and Sacramento.

Kelly tells the story of the strike and the era in an interesting way that keeps the reader engaged.

The Resurrection, Part 3

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
1 Corinthians 15:29-34
May 12, 2019

 

I have been reading Chimamanda Adichie’s novel, Purple Hibiscus. Set in Nigeria during a politically unstable time, it’s the story of Kambili, a fifteen year old girl trying to make sense of this world. Her father is rich, generous, and a devout Catholic. But at home he’s abusive and a tyrant. He makes his children live by a strict schedule and demands perfection. The family have their prayer time, but even that is strict and void of joy.

When Kambili and her brother are sent to their aunt’s home one summer, they experience a different kind of faith. As with the dad, her aunty leads the family in prayer. Kambili is shocked at the difference. Like her father, she prays for those who don’t believe. But her father prays only that they be saved for the torment of hell, while her aunt prays that they be blessed. And she ends her prayer asking that they all experience peace and much laughter.[1] This shocks Kambili, for laughter was something she never considered of asking for in a prayer. While her aunty isn’t her mother, in a way her “motherly touch” opens up a new way of understanding faith.

I hope you have had such mothers in your life, whether they were your birth mother or another woman like an “aunty”, who helps you experience the hope of our faith. My mother grew up poor and it made her sensitive to the needs and the feelings of others. She expected her children to always be kind to others. It seems, sometimes, that we learn about the gentleness of our faith from women. We should cherish such teachings for our faith is not grounded in judgment and fear, but in life, abundant life, everlasting life. This is why the resurrection, as we going to see today, is so important to our faith.

In my sermon today, I am going to continue looking at the 15th Chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, the resurrection chapter. Read 1 Corinthians 15:29-34.

###

 

There are those who see the resurrection as a “pie-in-the-sky” doctrine that allows us to endure life on earth, kind of like Karl Marx’s critique of religion being the opium of the masses. But for the Apostle Paul, this is not the case. The resurrection makes a difference in his life in the present. It’s why he can be so fierce and bold to act.

          Today we are looking at the center of Paul’s argument for the resurrection. This is a rather problematic passage, especially the first verse which implies there are those who are being baptized for those who have already died. So let’s start out by digging into the text here. This is the only place there is any mention of baptizing the dead in the New Testament, which creates a problem. Should we be doing this, we might wonder? I don’t think so. The only groups who have baptized for the dead have always been considered heretical sects.[2] So what does this mean? No one really knows. As Kenneth Bailey points out in his commentary on First Corinthians, there are at least forty different interpretations of what this passage might mean.[3] But since it is the only place it occurs, we can’t be too sure.

But here’s a possibility. Perhaps Paul refers to a conversion of someone after the death of a believer. For example, someone in the faith dies: perhaps a spouse or a parent. The non-believing spouse or child then decides to be baptized and to become a believer in part in the hope to be reunited with their loved one after the resurrection. To get to the point Paul is making, if there is no resurrection, such an action would be foolish.[4]

The only religious group I know of today who baptize for the dead are the Mormons. But their cosmology, their worldview, doesn’t conform to the Christian tradition—be it Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox. Essentially, they believe that salvation comes through their particular organization, which is why they think even the dead need to be baptized into their church. But we don’t believe that. For us, baptism is not a requirement for salvation; it’s a sign of our salvation which is grounded, not in the church, but in Jesus Christ. We focus on him: on his death and resurrection. Paul is driving this point home in this section of First Corinthians.

From how this verse reads, Paul never says if he agrees or disagrees with whether or not the dead should be baptized.[5] Instead, he is using such a practice to bolster his argument that if there is no resurrection, the rest of the faith doesn’t matter. If God doesn’t have the power to bring Jesus from the tomb to life, God won’t have the power to bring us to life and, as he said earlier in the chapter, our faith is in vain.[6]  Again, for Paul, the resurrection is not a “pie-in-the-sky” doctrine, but one that has implications for how he lives his life in the present.

Paul is getting to the heart of the meaning of the resurrection here in the middle of this chapter. What difference does the resurrection make?” Paul essentially asks. His answer: “it makes all the difference in the world.” Because of the resurrection, we can face life with confidence and should live lives worthy of this gift.

Notice how Paul builds his case, reaching a peak at verse 31 with his boast of Jesus Christ, in whose death we’re called to die through baptism so that we might live eternally with him…   For Paul, everything is focused on the Lord. On both sides of this proclamation, Paul notes the danger the Corinthians and he face daily for their belief in Jesus Christ. And then on the outside of that, Paul is almost dripping in sarcasm as he begins and ends with a statement that includes “if the dead are not raised?” If there is no resurrection, why bother to do all this stuff? If there is no resurrection, why don’t we throw a party, eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die. But Paul doesn’t believe this as he shows in this central statement, his profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, he concludes with additional suggestions about how we’re to live our lives.

In verse 32 Paul suggests that if it weren’t for the resurrection, he’d not be fighting with wild animals in Ephesus.  As we look back on this from our perspective, we recall Roman circuses and it is easy to imagine Paul fighting lions like other Christians who were taken into the coliseum in Rome. However, the practice of feeding Christians to wild animals in the coliseum didn’t start until a century later.[7] So what might Paul be referring to here?

Although Paul spent more time in Ephesus that anywhere else in his missionary journeys and wrote this letter from there, Ephesus was a difficult place to be a Christian missionary.[8] We see this in Acts, where the silversmiths in Ephesus have a problem with Paul’s preaching.[9] Paul’s message is bad for business, for they make their living selling statues of gods and goddesses. If such gods don’t exist, why would anyone buy such a statue? This led to some difficulty for Paul and his ministry in Ephesus, a conflict that was like fighting wild animals for he may well have been fearful for his life. It wouldn’t have taken much for one of the merchants or craftsmen whose business was suffering to arrange for Paul’s body to be found floating dead in the harbor.

Paul’s point is that because of the resurrection, he doesn’t have to worry about his own life. In his letter to the Romans, Paul shows this confidence when he writes: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord, so then whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”[10]

Again, for Paul, everything is focused on Jesus Christ. And it should be like that for us, too. Faith in the resurrection allows us to be committed disciples, without the fear of death.

After showing the importance of the resurrection in our lives, Paul concludes this section with two short proverbs.  In the first, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals,’” Paul is possibly quoting the 3rd Century BC Greek playwright Menander. Just before this quote, Paul flippantly quotes from Isaiah: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”   Paul, throughout this letter, draws upon multiple texts so that there is something familiar to both the Greeks and the Jews in Corinth who are reading his letter.[11] Paul wants to heal the divisions in Corinth and this is just another attempt at doing that—quoting two different sources, so that each group would have something familiar to help their understanding.  Paul’s use of sources supports Christian preaching that draws on sources outside the Biblical canon for illustrations. Truth, wherever found, can be used to support the ultimate Truth.

Paul’s ending to this section of his letter reminds us there needs to be an ethical response on our behalf because of the resurrection. Because we have been promised this incredible gift, we should live righteously, avoiding evil and striving to do what is honorable.

Throughout this letter, Paul has pointed to the corruption and sin in the Corinthian Church, so his tag-on here comes as no surprise: “I say this to your shame,” Paul notes for the second time in this letter.[12] Paul expects the Corinthians to change. They are to unite and get over their divisions.[13] They are no longer to put up with outrageous sin.[14] They are not to make a mockery of the Lord’s Supper and they are to worship in an orderly manner.[15] If they accept and believe in the resurrection, they will change and live in a way that honors what God has done for them in Jesus Christ.

Does the resurrection make a difference in your life?  It should make all the difference in the world; it should give us the boldness to live for Jesus. But does it?  Reflect on the resurrection this week and ask yourself, what difference it makes? Hopefully, you will discover, like Paul, the importance of a core document of the faith that we’ll profess in a few minutes when we say the Apostles’ Creed. When you say the Creed this morning, focus on those last clauses: “I believe…. in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus (New York: Random House, 2003), 127.

[2] William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, First Corinthians: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), 335.

[3] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011), 449.

[4] Bailey, 450, agrees with G. G. Findlay (1900) and Joachim Jeremias (1960), who both independently of each other argued for this interpretation of the verse.

[5] Hans Conzelmann, 1st Corinthians: Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 275.

[6] 1 Corinthians 15:14.

[7]Orr and Walther, 338.

[8] See Bailey, 452.

[9] See Acts 19:23-41

[10] Romans 14:8

[11] Bailey, 453.  See Isaiah 22:13.

[12] 1 Corinthians 6:5, 15:34.

[13] Focus of 1 Corinthians 1-4:16.

[14] See 1 Corinthians 5.

[15] See 1 Corinthians 11-14.

Coming Home on the Southwest Chief

Bridge in New Mexico

This was originally posted in my other blog and written in January 2012, shortly after making this trip. 

 

The air is crisp and Orion has dropped into the western sky as we make our way into the Flagstaff train station.  The waiting room is nearly filled with passengers and baggage awaiting the eastbound arrival of the Southwest Chief.  It’s 5:15 AM and we’re fifteen minutes before the train is supposed to arrive.  I’ve parked the rental car in the city lot across the tracks, place the keys in the drop box and take a seat on the old wood benches.  The train is running fifteen minutes late.  Outside one of Warren Buffet’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains of containers race through town, on its way to Los Angeles and then to a ship to where ever.  A few minutes later another train approaches from the west, heading east, with containers that probably originated somewhere in Asia, most-likely China.  At 5:41, the time the train was to have departed Flagstaff, but we learn it’ll be another twenty minutes before it arrives.  At six, everyone begins collecting their luggage.  The station agent instructs those in coaches to head to the right and those with sleeper car accommodations to go left.  We make our way to the 430 car where an attendant takes our tickets, helps us aboard and directs us to our assigned berths. .   “The diner opens in 20 minutes,” we’re informed.   At 6:10, the engineer blows his horn, signaling that it’s time to go.  A few seconds later, the train begins to move into the darkness of the Southwest.  In my compartment, I stare out into the dark sky as we leave the city.  I nod off for a few seconds, but it’s hard to get back to sleep, so mostly I look out the window.  To the southeast the sky is just a bit lighter and fewer of the stars can be seen.  Slowly a thin red line is seen on the horizon and it gradually grows into a band of red.  I can begin to make out the shape of what few trees grow in this country, the utility poles and lines of fence posts.  As it becomes lighter, I notice I can tell the difference between the types of brush.

Service Stop in Albuquerque

A little before 7 AM, I head to the dining car for breakfast.  The train pulls into Winslow, stopping only for a minute to let off and pick up passengers.  I’ve been through this town several times and have yet to see “a girl in a flatbed Ford.”  The waitress, a young Hispanic woman with a bright smile, brings coffee and informs us of the day’s special.  I decide to have the omelet made with three eggs, spinach, onions and tomatoes with a side of grits and cinnamon raisin toast.  It’s a filling breakfast and the chef liberally sprinkled oregano on the omelet, giving it a nice spicy taste.  While at breakfast, the sun breaks the horizon and its rays immediately light up the desert floor.  Along the interstate, silver trailers pulled by semis reflect the light.  Fence posts and utility poles cast long shadows.  As the sun rises, the shadows are reeled in.  We pass numerous freight trains, mostly hauling containers, but there’s one with piggy back trailers, and unit train of coal cars, another with closed hoppers hauling grain and another of tankers, hauling chemicals.

Before I realize it, the train has cut through the Petrified Forest National Park and is running along the Pesrco River as it makes its way to the New Mexico border.  Although Interstate 40 parallels this section of track, it was originally Route 66, the highway made famous by Steinbeck in his Depression era novel, The Grapes of Wrath.  When I was in school in Pittsburgh, I met a retired dentist who told me about his family’s trip out west in 1923.  The man was in his 80s at the time I knew him, but was only about ten when his dad, who was a physician, decided to take off the entire summer.  He packed up the family in a large car he described as looking like something off the Beverly Hillbillies set.  As this was before road trips were popular and motels and service stations dotted the landscape; the family had to provide for themselves.  They mostly camped at night and cooked their own food (carrying tents and a stove).  He said that from the time they left Kansas City until they arrived in Los Angeles, the only paved roads were in towns.  They had to serve as their own mechanics, too, often fixing half-dozen or so flats a day. As they boiled under the hot sun of the Southwest, they complained to their dad as to why they were driving while others were zooming past their car, riding comfortably in the sleek trains along the Atkinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Route.

The train I’m on was the descendant of the Santa Fe Super Chief, which was introduced in the 1930s.  At its time, the Super Chief was luxury on rail, featuring all Pullman sleeper cars powered by diesel engines.  This was the train of Hollywood Stars and would later give the framework for the movie “Silver Streak,” which although it used a different name, followed the Santa Fe’s route between LA and Chicago and featured the comic antics of the young Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

We reach Gallup at 9 AM.  From the sounds of the announcement, it sounds like the train crew is having problems with folks getting off the train to smoke and holding up operations.  Gallup is just a quick stop to drop off and pick up passengers, but many have jumped onto the platform where they can legally smoke.  The conductor wants to make up time and he tells people to only get off the train at scheduled stops.  Since Amtrak went non-smoking twenty-some years ago, they have encouraged people who need to puff to take advantage of longer stops where they service the train.  The next such stop is Albuquerque.

After Gallup, we climb.  The wheels of the train squeak in the curves as they scrape against the side of the rails.  To our north is a mesa that rises several hundred feet, the red Navajo sandstone is rich in the morning sun.  To our south are lava fields, with the broken black rock only rising maybe fifty feet.  Occasionally, in valley of sage is an ancient cottonwood, its huge trunk sprouting hundreds of scrawny limbs that twist every-which-way.   This is Native American country.  There are traditional southwest adobe housings along with many trailer and manufactured homes.  Also, along what was once Route 66, are the ruins of motels and restaurants and trinket shops.   For a hundred miles or so out of Gallup, the tracks parallel Interstate 40, alternating between being just north or south of the freeway.   About fifty miles out of Albuquerque, the tracks drop to the southeast, before heading north along the upper waters of the Rio Grande.  For the next three hundred miles, the tracks head north, paralleling Interstate 25.

During the morning, my daughter works with her violin and a keyboard on her ipad to figure out the notes to a favorite song.  I spend my time writing in my journal, looking out the window and reading Janisse Ray’s book, Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River.  No one is in a hurry.

Northern New Mexico (notice reflection of Dining Car windows)

Our reservation for lunch in the dining car is at 12:30 PM.  The nice thing about a sleeper is that all meals are included, which means I eat more than I should.  I have a veggie burger, made out of black beans.  It’s pretty good.  Included are chips, ice tea and desert.  I have a cup of raspberry sorbet.

We arrive in Albuquerque on-time, having made up nearly thirty minutes.  Albuquerque is a long stop, nearly forty minutes, as the conductors and engineers change (the car attendants and dining car attendants remain the same the entire trip) and the train’s locomotives are fueled while the water tanks in the passenger cars  are filled.   During the stop here, I get out and walk up and down the tracks.  On the edge of the tracks are Native American vendors selling jewelry and woven rugs and hats.  We leave Albuquerque at 12:10, right on time.  As we leave the city, the tracks take us through back yards that all seem to contain a wood-fired adobe beehive oven (something I’d always wanted).  The houses all have satellite dishes.  Some are traditional southwest looking homes, but many are not.

The Lamy station is the transfer point for those whose destination is Santa Fe.  Ironically, although the famous town became the name of a railroad, the main line never made it to Santa Fe.  The mountains were too steep to put the tracks into the town, so the town of Lamy was built.  A short-line still branch off the mainline here, but those passengers desiring to get to Santa Fe, there is a bus.  The train snakes through steep cuts in the pale orange sandstone as we leave Lamy.  At times, the walls are so close to the tracks that if a window was open, one could reach out and touch the rock.  Our progress is slow as the grade is steep as we move into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, climbing up the Glorieta Mesa.  According to the timetable, it’ll take us nearly two hours to cover the 65 miles between Lamy and Las Vegas.  The snow is also deeper, pinion and gamble oaks are now mixed in with the juniper.  The late summer blooms on the rabbit brush is now brown.

Once we reach the Glorieta sidings, the track isn’t quite as steep and the train picks up speed.  The westbound Southwest Chief passes us; it’ll be in LA tomorrow morning.   I head to the lounge/observation car where I spend the afternoon, looking at the scenery (here I can see both sides of the tracks) while writing and talking to fellow passengers.  We parallel Interstate 25; when the tracks are level we make good time and when they are steep, we slow down.     Here, on top of the mesa, there are fewer cuts into the rocks and as the train snakes, we can see the engines up front and the coach cars on the back end.

Las Vegas, New Mexico isn’t as glitzy as its named counterpart in Nevada.  But it’s an older town along the Santa Fe Trail.  Next to the typical mission style train station Castendada, an old hotel and “Harvey House.”  In the days before dining cars, the trains would stop here and the folks at the “Harvey House” were assigned the task of feeding the entire train as quickly as possible in order that they could get back on the road.  Leaving Las Vegas at 3:15, the tracks carry us along high plateau, mostly grasslands with the occasional windmill and ranch house.   The sun is now dropping in the southwestern sky as the magic hour approaches.  In the winter, the sun seems to hang on a little longer and everything is bathed in soft light.  The brown grass turns golden.  Yesterday, at this time, we were driving across Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, through the polygamous towns of Hillsdale and Colorado City as we were heading to Flagstaff to catch the train.  Canaan Mountain, in its various bands of colored sandstone, was beautiful in the low light.   Today’s landscape isn’t quite as dramatic but it’s still beautiful as the sun casts warm hues across the plateau.  The sun finally gives up and drops behind the mountains a few minutes before we arrive in Raton.

Northern New Mexico

Raton is a longer stop and I get off the train and walk up and down the platform.  It’s colder, now that the sun has set and we’re in higher elevation.  In the summer, thousands of Boy Scouts get off here in order to visit the Philmont Scout Ranch, for a week or two of hiking in the Desert Mountains of the Southwest.  I’m told that having a large scout group on the train can be a trying experience for the rest of the travelers, but we don’t have to worry about it as its winter.  I’ve taken this route once before, during the summer of 1993, but since I had a sleeper, I was spared the experience as the scouts onboard were all in coach.   When we leave Raton, we’re on some of the steepest track in the country.  We’re five cars behind the locomotives, yet can hear them groan as they work hard to pull us up the grade.  At times it seems we’re going no faster than I can walk.  The track is so steep that a marble dropped on the floor would race to the back of the car.  It takes nearly an hour to go from Raton, New Mexico to Trinidad, Colorado, a distance of only 24 miles.  At the summit, the tracks are at 7588 feet, the highest point along the Santa Fe line.  We rush through the Raton Tunnel and then begin our descent.  But even the downhill is steep and curvy and the engineer maintains a slow descent.  Its pitch dark by the time we reach Trinidad.

Our dinner reservations are at 6 PM and since we don’t have enough for a full table, we are seated with a solo traveler who introduces himself as “Dave, a hillbilly from West Virginia.”  He’s quite a talker, telling about working in the coal mines as a kid and then leaving the state and doing various jobs around the country including working behind the scenes in the movies.  He’d gotten on in Santa Fe and is heading back to his home country where he’s planning on retiring.   For dinner, I have a chipotle beef tip with apricot sauce, roasted vegetables, rice and a salad.  I’m not a big beef person, unless the meat has been spiced up some.  This was delicious!  After dinner, the train stopped in La Junita, Colorado.   We’re fifteen minutes early.  Since the engineers and conductors change here; we have nearly a 30 minute break.  But it’s cold, 14 degrees, so after walking the length of the train a few times, I seek the shelter of the car, where our attendant is busy putting down the beds.  I’d talked to him earlier today.  He’s been an attendant for Amtrak for 35 years.  He started working with them during the summer, when he was a grad student working on a photojournalism degree.  He stayed with it, taking on average three six-day trips a month (a trip from LA to Chicago with a layover day and then back to LA is considered a 6 day trip). 

 Through this section, I have a good data signal and spend the next hour updating my facebook page and reading and commenting on blogs.   We stop briefly in Lamar, to let off and receive passengers.  As we leave, I put away my laptop and pull the covers over me.  Outside, it’s cold and snowy.  The stars are bright and Orion and his dog seem to be just outside my window.  We pass a number of grain elevators and enter the Central Time Zone.  It’s now 10:30 PM and I call it a night.

Old Burlington Route Steamer Galesburg, Illinois

I sleep well, waking up only once, at 5:15 AM.  We’re at Topeka, then.   The station is on the other side of the train, and from my window I look out at a rather sizable rail yard.  Freight trains are being assembled.  The lights are so much that I can barely see the stars, but I pick out what I think are the two bright stars that make up the arrow in the archer’s bow, but then realize I shouldn’t be seeing that constellation this time of the year and that it must be Cygnus the Swan.  As we begin to move out, I fall back asleep.  At 7 AM, the announcer comes on and says we’re in Kansas City, a fifteen minute stop. I pull on a gym suit and walk outside for fresh air.  When the engine whistles and the conductor calls “all aboard,” I jump back onboard and go to the diner for breakfast.  This morning I take it easy, enjoying a bowl of steel cut oatmeal along with some fruit and toast and, of course, coffee.   We’re seated with a woman from Royal Oak, Michigan, who has been visiting family in Kansas.  She’ll be on the same train we’ll take out of Chicago, although she’ll have two and a half more hours of travel, arriving at her station at midnight (if the train is on time).    As we eat, we cross the Missouri River.  A unit train of grain hoppers passes us, heading west.  There is no snow here in the Midwest, just brown fields and bare trees.  The tracks cut through the northwest corner of Missouri and the southeast corner of Iowa, as we race along through farmland and wooded areas and the occasional town.  Broom sledge, brown and dry, line the tracks thought much of this section.   We stop in La Plata, Missouri.  This is a small station and we have to make two stops, one to let off the sleeping car passengers and again to let off those riding in the coaches on the back end of the train.  Over half of the passengers appear to be Amish in their traditional dress.

As we approach Fort Madison, Iowa, along the Mississippi River, we pass the factory where they make the large electrical windmills.  Hundreds of blades are stored around the buildings and some of them are on secured to flat rail cars, awaiting shipment.  Fort Madison is a “smoke stop” and I get off to get some fresh air (there seems to be only one smoker in our car and he walks far away from the train to light up).  I walk around a bit, but we are only stopped for a few minutes before the engineer blows the whistle and the “all aboard” call is made.  It’s okay because they have already called the 11:45 AM dining reservations (it’s only 11:15).  We’re about 10 minutes behind schedule, but all bets are on that we’ll make that back up as we race into Chicago.  In the dining car, as we pull out of the station, the tracks parallel the Mississippi River.  A paddle-wheeled riverboat is tied up at the docks and I pose to get a shot when we go by, but just before we get there a pair of orange, black and yellow Burlington Northern Santa Fe locomotives on the next track blocks my view.  It’s a unit of cars filled with automobiles.  Soon, the tracks make a right hand bend and we’re on the trestle over the Mississippi and into Illinois, the final state of our journey.  This is farm country.  The dirt is black and the fields of corn and soybeans are fallow in the winter.  Along the edges of the fields are farm houses and barns.

For lunch, I have the chef’s special.  I am not normally a big macaroni and cheese fan, but his mac and cheese includes cauliflower, corn, garlic and chipotle sauce.  It was good and has a spicy bite to it.  The meal is especially filling since it includes a salad and a dinner roll.  When we leave, we say goodbye to the dining staff as they’ve treated us well this trip.

Our first stop in Illinois is Galesburg, a railroad town.  Tracks merge here before heading into Chicago.  At the station, many of the Amish get off the train along with a few other passengers.  Next to the station is the Galesburg Rail Museum.  Someday I need to make a stop here.  On display is a Burlington Route steamer with a couple of Pullman cars.  There have been a number of old steam locomotives on display in the various towns we’ve traveled through.  In this part, they’re always the over-sized Burlington Route or CB&Q (Chicago, Burlington and Quincy) steamers designed for fast transportation across the plains.  On the other side of Kansas City, they’re Atkinson, Topeka & Santa Fe locomotives, most of which are smaller and better on the curves.  Riding through this country of farms and small cities, we see the backyard of America, filled with clothes lines and swing sets.  Many of the streets that run out from the tracks have wooden two-storied box-shaped homes and are lined with trees.  But it doesn’t quite look right as there is no snow on the ground, which is usual for January.

We pull into Chicago’s Union Station on time, at 3 PM.  We’ve covered 1699 miles in 33 hours, having traveled through deserts and mountain, through reservations and many small towns and a few larger cities, crossed the great rivers and the rich farmland of America’s heartland!

With a three hour layover, we head to the Great Room.  It’s still decorated for Christmas.  We camp out on the wooden bench seats.  As I finish reading Ray’s book, Drifting into Darien, a police officer stops to ask what I’m reading.  I try to explain the book and he asks if it’s like the book they made into a movie with Brad Pitts about two boys and their father a Lutheran minister in Montana.  “You mean, A River Runs Through It?” I ask.  “That’s it,” he says.  I correct him saying that the dad wasn’t Lutheran but Presbyterian and explain the differences between the books.  Although I am enjoying Ray’s writing, it’s nothing like MacLean’s masterpiece.   I tell him a bit about Ray and her writing about nature in the South.  He acknowledges the number of great southern writers and notes the rising number of southern crime fiction authors.  I admit I haven’t read much in that genre unless Carl Haaisen’s writing could be classified in the genre.  I’m surprised that he knows Haaisen, and he asks if I’ve read Thomas Cook.  I haven’t and he tells me about a crime fiction book Cook wrote that’s sent in Birmingham, during the days of Bull O’Conner.   As we talk, he seems to know a lot about Cook and the setting and I ask if he knows Cook and he admits that he’s talked to him a number of times, saying that he plays in the crime fiction genre.  When I ask if he’s published anything, he acknowledges that he’s shopping a novel, but has a non-fiction book in print titled Just the Facts: True Tales of Cops and Criminals.

At five, an hour before departure, we head into the crowded waiting room.  I talk a bit with an Amish man who’s just travelled here from central Pennsylvania to see a couple families off to Mexico.   At 5:30, the make the first call for the Wolverine, the train that’ll take us to Kalamazoo and home.   We board, climbing up iced-over stairs.  The train is crowded.  We start slowly, going through the maze of tracks south of Chicago, before circling around the south shore of Lake Michigan.  It’s a short trip, just two and a half hours (plus another hour due to the change of time zones). At Niles, I call my friends where I’d left my truck.  They tell me they’ll be there at the station.   It’ll be nice to be home as I hear it’s been snowing.  At 9:30, right on time, the train stops in Kalamazoo and we carefully make our way down the icy steps.  After a thirty minute drive, our trip will be over.

Looking back at this post, I am now surprised to find I am living 40 miles north of Darien, the book I was reading about on this section of the journey!  

The Resurrection, Part 2

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
1 Corinthians 15:12-28
April 28, 2019

 

In a devotion for last Sunday, Easter Day, Richard Rohr, reminded his readers that “Easter isn’t celebrating a one-time miracle as if it only happened in the body of Jesus and we’re all here to cheer for Jesus.” Sadly, he concludes, that’s what a lot of people think Easter is about. Rohr places the seeds for Easter in Christmas, with the incarnation, which I will discuss in my sermon this morning.[1] If God can become flesh (in the incarnation), the resurrection seems to follow naturally.

We’re continuing to think about the resurrection today. I want you to ask yourselves this question: “What difference does the resurrection make for your life?” We started working through the 15th Chapter of First Corinthians last Sunday on Easter. As I stated last week, in this chapter, Paul provides the most detailed treatment of the resurrection found in scripture. It’s also one of the longer chapters in scripture. This morning, I will begin reading in verse 12. Here, Paul begins by pointing to objections being made about the resurrection. For Paul, the foundation of our hope in Jesus Christ is found in the resurrection to life everlasting. Yes, we will all die; we will cease to exist. But the grave is not the end!  Later on in this chapter, Paul can ask: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”[2] He can be that bold because he believes, as we proclaim in the Apostles’ Creed, “in the resurrection of the body and in the life everlasting.” Read 1 Corinthians 15:12-28.

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          People turn to the church when there is a death because we can offer hope for something beyond our frail mortal bodies. In all the work I did on the history of Western Mining Camps, one of the surprising things I learned was how at the time of death, even people who religiously avoided the shadow of the steeple, would be brought back for a funeral. The friends of Julia Bulette, Virginia City’s most famous prostitute, sought out the Presbyterian minister for her funeral. Mark Twain in Roughing It has a wonderful tale about Buck Fanshaw’s funeral. Fanshaw, a leader of the “bottom-stratum of society” and based on a real-life character who had a relationship with Bulette, died. The local roughs elected Scotty Briggs to “fetch a parson” to “waltz Fanshaw into handsome” (their word for heaven). The dialogue between the minister and Scotty is classic Twain.[3] Although funny, it’s a reminder that at the time of death, we want the comfort only the church can offer: the hope in life everlasting in Jesus Christ.

But let me suggest that such comfort isn’t just for those who are dying. It’s also important for how we live our lives. Having faith in the resurrection allows us to be bold. As we are Kirkin’ the Tartans today, we have to look no further than to John Knox, the great reformer of Scotland. Knox was convert to the Protestant faith through the preaching of George Wishart. Knox first heard Wishart in Leith on December 13th, 1545. Knox had already began moving toward the Protestant movement with his study of Scripture, but Wishart’s preaching accelerated the process. Knox immediately became Wishart’s disciple and spent the next five weeks with him. Knox stuck by Wishart, even though he knew that he was marked man. In early 1546, less than two months after the two met, Wishart was arrested and burned at the stake in St. Andrews.[4] Knox avoided such a barbecue, but ended up doing hard time as a prisoner, manning oars on a galley ship. Why would someone be so willing to risk their own life unless they really believe it’s worth it?

        At death and in times of peril, the church is a symbol of our faith and the hope we have for something we can never fully comprehend in this life, the resurrection.

Let’s look at our text. In verses 12 through 19, Paul plays the devil’s advocate. If there is no resurrection, it’s all a big joke. If there is no resurrection, then we are people to be pitied.  Of course, Paul doesn’t believe that.

In verse 20, Paul shifts his argument with a powerful “BUT.” This change of direction wipes out the objections he’d just raised. “But Christ has been raised,” Paul proclaims; this truth makes all the difference in the world!

Paul begins by contrasting two men who represent more than themselves. Adam is not just our first-umpteenth great-granddaddy; he stands as the primal man, the representative of us all.[5] The death that comes through sin is something we all share. Interestingly here, Paul does not cite Eve or blame her for the first sin, the eating of the forbidden fruit. In this way, Paul is more enlightened than he is often given credit. Within the rabbinical tradition at the time, as can be seen in the Apocryphal literature, Ben Sirach lays the blame for sin and death on the first woman. After all, Eve was the first to nibble on that sinful fruit.[6] But Paul doesn’t go there. Instead, by using Adam as an archetype for all humanity, he shows that we all share in the blame for sin and in sin’s consequence: death.

         However, there is good news. Although death came through a human being, so too has the resurrection come through a human being. Paul lifts the Christmas doctrine of the incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God became flesh! Christ is the first-fruit of the resurrection, a term that probably meant more to Paul’s audience than to us today. For you see, the Jews were to bring the first of the harvest, their first-fruits, to God as an offering of thanksgiving. We tend to give God what is left, not our first-fruit, which probably says a lot more about our spiritual state that we’d honestly like to admit. However, this isn’t about our giving, it’s about God’s gift, for God the Father gave us his first-fruit, in that of his Son.

        All this is a part of God’s plan in history, Paul notes. It’s all a part of the great plan to destroy all authorities and powers that defy or challenge God. At the end, there will be nothing to draw our attention from the Almighty. All idols will be destroyed, all that which we fear will be removed, the last of which is death itself. With the removal of that great enemy which has haunted the human race since the beginning, we can worship God without fear or distraction.

          Kenneth Bailey, in his commentary on First Corinthians, goes into detail about the meaning of Jesus placing all his enemies (the last one being death), under his feet. Bailey suggests that verses 24-27 could be removed and the reader wouldn’t notice. You can try this yourself, at home, just leave the verses out and see how it reads. So why did Paul insert this little segue? It’s to make a political point: Jesus is Lord! If Jesus is Lord, that means Caesar isn’t Lord. He cites examples from the ancient world in which the ruler’s footstool often had engravings representing the kingdom’s enemies and when the ruler placed his foot upon the stool, he was making a statement about his power. When Christ has finished, there will be no possibilities of his enemies, including death, making a comeback![7]

         In the winter of 2000, I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Korea: preaching, sightseeing and mountain climbing.  I visited the imperial city in Seoul, where the emperor once ruled, his throne built on a hill that allowed him to overlook the city. In 1910, Japan invaded Korea. The Japanese decided it was too dangerous to destroy the ancient throne, so instead they built a modern government building to block the view from the city. I learned there had been a great controversy over what to do with this building that was architecturally significant. Many wanted to tear it down, which is what happened, but others wanted to relocate it. One of the more creative ideas, which caused a minor international incident with the Japanese, was to dig a hole and sink the building and then glass over the top. That way, the building would not be destroyed, but the Korean people could have the satisfaction of “walking over” or stomping on the visible representation of 40 years of Japanese occupation.

The idea of our enemies being under our feet is still strong in our imaginations, as we can see from Korea. Yet, we need to remember that in the eternal realm, we’re not conquerors, Christ is! We’re not the victors; we share in Christ’s victory. The enemies are not under our feet, but his. And they’re not our enemies, they’re his enemies. We might even be surprised to find some of our enemies on Jesus’ side. For those of us who have Scottish blood in our veins, we may even be shocked to find some English in heaven. After all, all things are possible with God. But the important thing isn’t who’s in and out, it’s whether or not we are on Jesus’ side. Consider this, if we are out, we could end up being a footstool.

Friends, we’re mortal and we’re going to die. We know that, even if we sometimes act as if we don’t. As for when or how we’ll die, we don’t know. But we live with hope. We’re told that Jesus is the first-fruit of the resurrection. The implication here is that Jesus will not be the only one raised.  Jesus’ resurrection is not the exception to the rule. Jesus’ resurrection is the start of something new: all who trust and accept him will live with him eternally.[8]

And because we put our faith in Christ and through him have faith in the resurrection, we can live this life without fear. We can be like John Knox, following George Wishart to the stake. We can be bold on behalf of our Savior. Friends, live fiercely, in the knowledge that in life and in death, we belong to Jesus Christ.[9] Amen.

©2019

[1] https://cac.org/the-death-of-death-2019-04-21/

[2] 1 Corinthians 15;55.

[3] Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872), Chapter 47.  See also Charles Jeffrey Garrison, “Of Ministers, Funerals, and Humor: Mark Twain of the Comstock,” Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 38, #3 (Fall 1995).

[4] Jane Dawson, John Knox (New Haven: Yale, 2015), 28-32.

[5] Hans Conzelmann, First Corinthians: Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 268.

[6] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2011), 443.  See Sirach 25:24

[7] Bailey, 447.

[8] William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, I Corinthians: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1976), 330.

[9] Taken from the opening question of the Heidelberg Catechism.

All You Need to Know about the Kirkin

Notes on the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans

Bruce Ezell, ©2003

With my daughter Caroline, both of us showing off our McKenzie heritage

 

These questions and answers on the Kirkin come from Elder Bruce Ezell, an elder at Laurinburg Presbyterian Church (North Carolina). It was written as a primer for their Kirkin’ so that everyone (Scots and non-Scots alike) could understand the symbolism behind the service. I have slightly modified this list to fit our situation on Skidaway Island. This program is republished thanks to the permission from Laurinburg Presbyterian Church.  Photos are mine and have been taken at past Kirkin’ services at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church.  -Jeff Garrison

 

Mark Hornsby, whose hard work lines up all the tartan bearers!

 

Is the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan, an auld Scottish Rite? Many people are under assumption that the “Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan” is an ancient Scottish Church Ceremony. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. While based on Scottish legend and folklore, this ceremony is distinctly American. It traces its roots to the life and ministry of The Reverend Dr. Peter Marshall, a Scottish émigré. Dr. Marshal was a prominent minister in the Presbyterian Church, who served as the Chaplain to the United States Senate at the advent of World War II. In April 1941, while serving as the Pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Dr. Marshall titled one of his sermons “Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan.” This name soon became attached to church services that celebrate with pride their Scottish heritage. While more commonly celebrated by Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches, today this celebration is utilized by a variety of Christian denominations for Scottish heritage events.

 

What was the origin of the Tartan? The exact origin of the Scots’ love of the tartan is shrouded in the mists of ancient times. According to one common and widely held legend, St. Margaret introduced the use of the Tartan for clan identification purposes. This was a way of achieving unity (a rare commodity in Scottish History) within diversity. The use of the tartan in a generic sense was for all Scots. The particular designs for clan and familial identity did not begin, however, until the nineteenth century. Margaret was a gentlewoman of noble birth, who planned a religious vocation. She was persuaded, however, by Malcolm, King of Scots, to become his queen. Malcolm was a boorish man; he was uncultured and illiterate. Margaret softened his harsh ways, and led him to be a better king. It was said of Margaret that she “admonished the wicked to become good and the good to become better.” She remains a revered figure in Scottish history.

Thom Greenlaw with Laurel McKeith to his right

Why was the tartan banned? The Scots and the English are very different people, with different cultural origins and different traditions. Even today, a Scot may speak, with a twinkle in his eye, of England as “the auld enemy.” During the long course of Scottish history, the Scots and the English were to make war against one another many times. For the Scots, there were times of freedom, beginning with the revolts of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, and times of subjugation. The last Scottish rebellion began in 1745, and ended in 1746 with the Battle of Culloden Moor, wherein the Scots led by “Bonnie adopted a policy of “cultural genocide.” This was known as the “Act of Proscription” of George II. The wearing of the kilt, the use of the Gaelic language, the ancient “clan system,” and all other elements of Scottish culture and nationalism were banned! These acts were meant to strip the Highland Scots of their cultural attributes, which further distanced them from their English speaking conquerors. While these bans remained in effect, memories of “things distinctly Scottish” were all but lost. Like warm embers from a long-dead fire, these Scottish traditions remained alive only in the memories of ancient grandparents. According to legend, during these trying times the Scottish people would secretly carry a small piece of their clan’s tartan to church on Sundays. Thus when the minister ended the service with the Benediction, that tartan was blessed and God’s favor was bestowed upon the Scottish people. King George III repealed the Act of Proscription in 1782. It was not until the 19th Century and the Reign of Queen Victoria, however that a renaissance of Scottish culture began. The Queen, strongly influenced by the romantic writings of Sir Walter Scott, sought to revive the wearing of the kilt and other Scottish traditions.

 

Why is the St. Andrew’s Cross Flag a symbol of Scotland? A white “X” shaped cross upon a blue field is known as the St. Andrew’s Cross flag. This standard is a symbol of Scotland. St. Andrew was one of Christ’s disciples. Andrew (known from only eight passages of scripture) is one of the more appealing figures of the twelve apostles. He seems to have possessed a boundless enthusiasm for bringing people to meet Jesus, yet he was content to remain in the background. According to a Christian (probably apocryphal) legend that dates from only the 14th Century, Andrew was executed. He was bound to a “Cross Saltire” (i.e: an “X” shaped cross) and crucified. In the 4th Century, some believe, his relics were transported to Scotland. St. Andrew is considered the patron saint of Scotland. St. Andrew’s Day dinners are commonplace among those who love Scotland, including the tradition of cooking “X” shaped shortbread cookies.

 

Why is the Rampant Lion Flag used at Scottish celebrations? A flag featuring a red “lion rampant” upon a yellow field is the royal ensign of Scotland, and thus used on state occasions when royalty is present. This royal standard is also flown from government buildings on official occasions. This flag, however, has recently been approved by the Lord Lyon for use at Scottish heritage and athletic events.

Awaiting the congregation after the service

Why is the thistle a symbol of Scotland? Once upon a time, a long long time ago, the Scots were about to be invaded by their “auld and ancient enemies,” the Vikings. Once they landed, all Scots knew the Vikings would be hard to stop. If only their landing sites might be located, however, there was the slim hope that the Viking warriors might be stopped on the landing beaches. Alas, a fog drifted into the area and the Scots gave up all hope of identifying the invasion site. About this time, a barefooted Viking warrior set his foot upon a thistle and gave forth a loud cry. The Scots then rushed to the sound of the footsore warrior, and defeated the Viking force. Thus, it might be said that the thistle, a lowly weed, saved Scotland! As the Welsh revere their leek, the Scots revere the thistle. The thistle was used by the early Kings of Scotland as their personal heraldic crest and is borne by the Arms of the Realm and by a number of ancient Scottish Clans and families as a part of their individual coats of arms. In 1687, James II instituted the Order of the Thistle as a distinctly Scottish order of Knighthood. This order is now the oldest of all surviving British Orders.

 

Why are there drawings of wild geese on some ancient Christian drawings from Scotland? The wild goose was the Celtic symbol of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it was the freedom of the wild geese that stirred the island-bound imaginations of the folk who lived in coastal Scotland to think of the Holy Spirit in this manner.

What is “The Kirk?” In Britain and Europe, Presbyterian Churches are usually known as “Reformed Churches.” In Scotland, however, our tradition is the established and sanctioned Church of the Government of Scotland. Thus our Christian tradition is known as “The Church of Scotland” [in the same manner that the “Church of England” is the Anglican (i.e. Episcopal) Church. The Church of Scotland is commonly known simply as “The Kirk.” The British people have always had a marvelous ability to compromise. While in England, Queen Elizabeth is considered as “Head of the Church of England.” While in residence in Scotland, however, Her Majesty is considered a member of the Church of Scotland, and is attended by Chaplains from The Kirk. Jesus Christ is considered the Head of the Church of Scotland.

Blessing of the Tartans, 2018

What is a “Beadle,” and what service did he render the Kirk? During the Middle Ages and through the reformation, Bibles were rare among the common people. The Bible of the Kirk (i.e. the Church) was a treasured possession. The intrinsic value of the Holy Scriptures and the ever present possibility of theft led to the establishment of a special lay office known as the “beadle.” The beadle was usually elected by the Kirk Session, and he served for an indefinite period of time. The chief duty of the beadle was to preserve and protect the Kirk’s Holy Bible. His other duties sometimes included collecting fines, the summoning of accused parties to trial (before Session Court), and the issuing decrees of the Kirk throughout the parish. In some traditional Presbyterian Churches today, the beadle begins the worship service by carrying the Holy Bible ceremoniously into the sanctuary. On such occasions, the people rise in respect for the Holy Book and its Scriptures. The parishioners take their seats after the beadle has opened the Bible and prepared the pulpit for the advent of the minister.

Why does one observe Celtic Crosses in Presbyterian Churches? Throughout Scotland and Ireland, one may observe ancient Celtic Crosses in Churches and Christian Cemeteries. These crosses feature a scalloped cross, which is superimposed upon a circle. Modern Celtic Crosses feature long arms, but the ancient Celtic Crosses had short, stubby arms. The imposition of the cross upon a circle represents “Christ’s dominion over all the world.” Most Celtic Crosses feature elaborate decorations of intertwining vines and flowers rendered in bas-relief along their edges. If one traces these intertwining vines, you discover they are generally interconnected one to another.

Rev. Deanie Strength and Bagpiper Dan Ailes

Why are Psalms sung during the Scottish Heritage Worship Service? The Scots were among the last Christian Churches to adopt the singing of hymns! Until recently, the members of The Kirk sang only metrical Psalms for their church services. Indeed, the singing of hymns was considered by more than one wizened old Scot as the “invention of the devil.” Metrical Psalms are Psalms slightly altered to fit the meter of the melody. The musical psalms for today’s worship service are metrical Psalms, or music inspired by a particular Psalm. In the 18th and early 19th Centuries, American Churches along the frontier did not have Psalters from which to sing. They would have a literate person, known as the precentor “line” the Psalm. This leader would sing one line of the Psalm, and then the congregation would follow singing the same line. Then the leader would sing (or “line”) the second line. This procedure would continue until the entire Psalm has been sung. If there was no sermon on that day (as ministers were rare on the frontier), the worship service was simply known as a “Sam Sing” (sic.). Psalm 23, set to the tune “Crimond,” deserves special note. It is to the Scots what “God Bless America” is to Americans. It is sung at almost all memorial occasions in Scotland.

For the original publication of these notes, click here.

The Resurrection

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Easter Sunday, 2019
1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Resurrection Day! The most holy day in the Christian calendar as we celebrate the risen Christ! And what a glorious day we’re enjoying.

Today I begin a series on the resurrection, working through Paul’s final essay in 1st Corinthians? Some scholars divide 1st Corinthians into five essays.[1] Paul’s first essay, which consist of the first four chapters, focuses on the problem of divisions within the church. His answer is unity through the cross. So Paul begins this letter talking about the cross. His final essay is about the resurrection. Paul covers the bases in 1st Corinthians, from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.

The 15th chapter of 1st Corinthians provides the most detailed treatment of the resurrection found in scripture. In the gospels, we read first-hand accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. Here, Paul explores resurrection theology and its implication.

The focus of our faith is that Christ rose from the grave.  Yes, it’s important that he paid the price for our sin on Friday.  But if there is no resurrection, what difference would it make?  The reason Friday can be called “Good Friday” and not “Black Friday” or “Sad Friday” or “We are Doomed Friday” is because Christ rose from the dead.  And he promises the same to those who believe and follow him.

Fredrick Buechner visualizes the resurrection this way:

“Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”[2]

 

The resurrection is victory over all that is evil and corrupt. It’s a victory over all that’s wrong with this world. It’s a victory over death! The cross is not the final word. We deserve death for our sin, but God cancels what is owed and through Jesus Christ, offers us life. Let’s hear what Paul has to say: Read 1st Corinthians 15:1-11)

It was about this time of the year that Elvira showed up at church one Sunday morning. It was during my first year as a pastor in Cedar City, Utah. She was a frail woman and asked that we pray for her son, Carl, who was battling cancer. We did. Over the next few weeks she kept coming and I got to know her better. She was living in an adult foster home as her daughter, who’d moved her from Nebraska to the daughter’s home in Utah, couldn’t deal with her anymore. I also learned that she had not seen her son in years, even though he was now living in Las Vegas, just a three hour drive away.

A few months later, her daughter who lived in St. George, about fifty miles away, came to see me. “I need to explain my mother,” she said. I felt she was looking for me to relieve her of guilt for having placed her mother in this adult foster home. She got more than she’d bargained for that afternoon. When she left my office, she more troubled than when she had arrived, and I can only credit it to God. For you see, as she was telling me about her mother, she started to talk about her good-for-nothing brother, the one for whom we’d been praying. She couldn’t understand why he mattered so much to her mother. As she talked, things began to click in my mind.

“Wait just a minute,” I finally interrupted. “Your brother, Carl, does he also go by Doug.” There was a period of silence. She turned pale. I had my answer. It was awkward.

His name was Carl Douglas and he had lived in Virginia City when I was a student pastor there. In the five or so years in between, I’d lost track of Doug, but I had been with him when the doctor had given him the bad news that he had cancer. When I last talked to him, it was in remission, but had come back with a vengeance. I’d been praying for this friend, without knowing it, for months. And now I was sitting across from his estranged sister. Unlike her, I had only good memories of her brother. New Year’s Eve 1988 was one.  It was a Saturday and we both had plans for the evening, but when I was in the church practicing my sermon I heard water running and after checking found there was a busted pipe in the heating system, underneath the organ. Doug came right down and we spent a couple of hours fixing the pipe so that we might have heat for Sunday. That was only one example. He was known of his kindness, for being quick to offer a hand to those in need.

Soon after this meeting with his sister, I was in Las Vegas and was able to see Doug. He was pretty sick and knew he was going to die, but he was in good spirits and happy to see me and to hear about his mom. He asked me to officiate at his funeral. I agreed. A few weeks later, he rebounded a bit and some friends brought him up to Cedar City where he was reunited with his mother. We all had lunch together. It would be the last time Doug saw his mother. He died a few weeks later.  His sister still didn’t want anything to do with him, even in death, so when I drove down to Vegas to officiate at his funeral, I took his mother along. Since Doug had lived there for less than a year, there were only a dozen or so people at the service—his mom, his son, and a few friends.

A few months after the funeral, Elvira arranged to move back to Nebraska. When I think about all this, I’m amazed. I see God’s hand at work. What was the probability Elvira would end up in a church in a distant city where the pastor knew her son? There was actually a good chance her son could have died and she’d never seen him or even been able to attend the funeral, or even know of his death. Thankfully, she was able to see him and attend his funeral. God enjoys working to bring about surprises and joy!

This all happened 25 years ago. I doubt Elvira is still with us. She wasn’t in the best of health and in her late 70s at the time. But in a way, she got to experience a “resurrection” of her son and that’s something special. And the best of it. It was only an appetizer to the resurrection to come.

If you look at the first verse of this chapter, you’ll see that Paul begins this section of his letter by reminding the Corinthians of what he had proclaimed to them, what they had received, and upon which they’d taken a stand. One has to first hear the good news, then accept it, internalize it, believe it and share it. It’s all necessary to complete this process of being saved. But some in Corinthian must not have taken those last steps. They’d heard the gospel preached, they listened, but they never lived it, they never internalized it and now they are beginning to question the whole concept.

Imagine hearing this letter (there were only a few people back then who could read and furthermore, with only one copy of the letter, most people would be listening to it). Think about what it was like when it was being read. You listen. Some in the room maybe getting nervous for they’ve denied the resurrection.  They’re feeling the point of Paul’s pen.

In the middle of verse three, Paul cites an early creed of the church. A creed is a summary of the faith. Sometimes we recite the Apostle’s Creed, but this creed is even shorter. It testifies to five things:

Christ died for our sins.
His death was accordance to scripture.
He was buried which indicates that he really was dead, not just passed out.
He then rose from the dead on the third day and finally,
He appeared to a whole bunch of people.

 

From the very beginning of the church, this creed testifies to the importance of the resurrection for understanding the faith. Without it, the church has no reason to exist.

The listing of those to whom Christ appears is interesting.  Paul acknowledges that he’s a latecomer. Paul also doesn’t mention the women at the tomb, instead starts his list with Cephas or Peter. Some scholars have suggested this is because Paul is a chauvinist, but that’s probably not the case. Instead, if we went back to the beginning of the letter, you’ll see that one of the divisions in Corinth involved those who followed Peter instead of Paul. Most of these believers were Jewish, which is why Paul uses Cephas, Peter’s Jewish name. We also know that Paul and Peter had significant differences. By beginning with Peter, Paul may be trying to mend fences. Besides, the Corinthians know Peter, but they probably didn’t know the various Marys and others who were there at the grave.

In the spirit of mending fences, Paul tacks on Christ’s appearance to him at the end of his list. He humbles himself, acknowledges that before this appearance he didn’t believe. He had persecuted the church. When Christ appeared to him, he was most undeserving. But it’s that way with grace; we’re all undeserving (that includes you and me). Paul does mention that he has worked harder than anyone for Christ, yet even that he credits to the grace of God.

N. T. Wright, an insightful theologian from the British Anglican community says this:

 

“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.” [3]

We pray, “Thy kingdom come,” and the kingdom begins as Christ is raised from the grave. The cross is important, my friends, but the resurrection is what makes our life of faith worth living. In it, we have hope, for we know that our God loves to surprise us with joy.  In the same book, Wright also writes:

 

“The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.”

In other words, because of the resurrection, we’re now invited to live as God intends as we join God in his work of transforming the world—a transformation that begins with the open tomb on Easter morning. Everything will be changed. Jesus has defeated death and inaugurates the reclamation of the earth for God’s purpose.

           Will we believe? Will we allow ourselves to be transformed? God is working miracles in this world. I shared one such miracle at the beginning of the sermon. God wants to reconcile the world, not just to himself, but between mother and son, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies. Will we accept God’s invitation to proclaim the good news? Will we accept the invitation to hop up on the bandwagon and follow Jesus, out of the grave and into life? Let us pray:

 

Almighty God, who gives life to the dead, we thank you for Jesus’ resurrection and pray that you will help all of us to be his faithful disciples, sharing his life and his hope to a confused and lost world. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] See Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Intervarsity Press, 2011).

[2] Frederick BuechnerThe Magnificent Defeat

[3] N.T. WrightSurprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

 

Easter Sunrise Services

Easter Sunrise Services are held at Landings Harbor Marina this Sunday (April 21) at 6:30 PM.  Below is an article that appeared in The Skinnie, March 16, 2018.

 

 

The Sun Will Come Up

The wake-up call came at 4:30 AM Sunday morning.  I am staying at a hotel right across from Old Salem in present-day Winston Salem.  Washing the sleep out of my eyes, I hear the music playing from the street down below.  It was been warm when I left home in eastern North Carolina, but a cold snap descended on Saturday. I dress as warmly as possible, pulling on multiple layers.  I realize I don’t even have gloves with me.

Home Moravian Church Photo credit: Brian Leon of Ottawa on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

 

By 5 AM, I am outside the hotel, walking with strangers, heading to Home Moravian Church.  On most street corners, we pass brass quartets playing Easter music, calling people to come.  By the time I reached the church, thousands are gathered, waiting in front of the steps of the church.  A cold wind blows and the dark sky spits snow. In the distance, we hear the brass playing. We shuffle around trying to stay warm and waited. The anticipation of the crowd is high as we have all gathered to participate in the second oldest Easter sunrise service in North America.  The honor for the oldest sunrise tradition belongs to the Moravians of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who began holding such services in 1754.

 

It was still dark when a light comes on inside the church foyer.  Then massive wooden doors fly open and the pastor steps out, raising his arms and shouting, “Christ is Risen!” We respond, “He is Risen Indeed!”  The Pastor and his assistants step out of the church and we follow them down Church Street to God’s Acre, the community’s cemetery.  God’s Acre is actually many acres, large enough to hold the thousands who have gathered.  We pack in and wait as the sky becomes lighter gray.  A few stray flakes of snow still fall.

God’s Acre, Old Salem (with Winston Salem skyline in background) Photo credit: Flasshe on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Then it starts.  All those brass quartets unite and they march in from behind us playing Easter hymns.  As they move to the front, we stand and began to sing.  The ministers pray and read scripture. The pastor offers a brief message about the hope of the resurrection.  Somewhere behind the gray clouds, the sun rises.  A new day begins. The benediction is pronounced and we head our separate ways.

Arriving back in the hotel, I stop by the restaurant for breakfast.  The place is packed with those coming back from the service.  The poor lone waitress is running around trying to serve everyone.  Most of us just want hot coffee and are willing to wait to eat as we warm up.  She apologizes and says the management had forgotten that it’s Easter Sunday and hadn’t scheduled anyone else to work the shift.  Several of us help out, taking turns making and serving coffee as she takes and delivers our orders.

 

The Moravians of Old Salem have been celebrating Easter Sunrise at God’s Acre since 1772, picking up on a practice that begin in Europe in 1732.  In the town of Hernhut, which is now in the Czech Republic, the young men of the church gathered in the cemetery during the night and waited for dawn by singing hymns of the faith.  The services are simple with hymns, prayers, scripture and a brief message that is all done to the glory of God.  The sunrise service is now an established tradition within the Moravian Church and one that has been adopted by many other Christian denominations.

 

Of course, those Moravian young men were not the first to be up at sunrise on Easter.  That distinction goes to the women described in the gospels who headed out before sunrise to anoint Jesus body before the tomb was sealed. They were shocked to find the grave open and Jesus’ body missing.  As the events of that day unfold, they learn of his resurrection, an event that gives hope to Christians to this day.

 

I first attended an Easter sunrise service as a high school student.  It was held in a cemetery off Greenville Sound, east of Wilmington, North Carolina.  Unlike the year I was at Old Salem, the skies were clear.  And just as the sun broke over the horizon, its rays reflecting off the water and bring warmth to the marsh grass, several ducks took the skies, their calls and the flapping of their wings drowning out the voice of the preacher. Even they celebrated the new day.  In the years before seminary, I would attend many such services at a variety of locations. The message was always the same.  Christ has risen!

 

Sunrise from Virginia City Cemetery

For obvious reasons, sunrise services seem to be more popular in the American South, but as a seminary student pastor, I brought the tradition to Virginia City, Nevada.  There, we gathered on “Boot Hill” on a cold morning.  The temperature was in the mid-20s and the wind was blowing hard over Mount Davidson. But we witnessed a glorious sunrise, the rays racing up Six Mile Canyon.  Afterwards, we enjoyed coffee and warm pastries back at the church.

 

In my first call to a church in Ellicottville, New York, a community known for skiing, we partnered with Holiday Valley, the local ski resort, to host the service on a deck outside a clubhouse.  It was even colder than at Virginia City, but most of us were dressed appropriately, wearing ski bids and parkers.  A young woman volunteered to provide music on a keyboard.  We started with a song and were going to close with the traditional hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”  As we began to sing, she missed note after note and I looked over to see what was wrong.  The keyboard had frosted over between hymns and her fingers were sticking to the keys.  Afterwards, with hot drinks and donuts inside the lodge, we had a laugh over the situation.  The next year, she brought a blanket to lay over the keyboard.

 

This year, Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church will hold a Sunrise Service for islanders at Landing Harbor Marina on Easter Sunday, April 1, beginning at 6:45 AM.  Sunrise is at 7:12 AM.  We shouldn’t have to worry about fingers sticking to the keyboard or shuffling around to stay warm in freezing weather, but you may want to come prepared with bug spray, a jacket and a lounge chair.  We’ll gather in the darkness and the service will conclude shortly after the sunrise.  If it is raining, the service will move to Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church, located at 50 Diamond Causeway.  There, in Liston Hall, we can experience a virtual sunrise on a video monitor while enjoying dry conditions.  Last year, a large crowd enjoyed a glorious Sunrise and everyone is invited again this year.

 

For more information, call Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church at 598-0151 or go to the website, www.sipres.org.

Sunrise Service 2018

Give It a Rest

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 
Mark 2:21-28
April 14, 2019

We’re coming to the last Sunday in our series, “Busy: Reconnecting with an Unhurried God.” I hope you have discovered a freedom to enjoy life and God and not be so hectic about things. Today we celebrate Palm Sunday. Are we too busy for a parade? In our text, today, we’re going to look at something different as we end this series. We’re looking at the Sabbath, which I’ve heard called the first labor law.[1] God realizes that we all need to rest, just as God rested on the seventh day. But we humans often have a way of taking a good thing way too far and screwing it up, as we’re going to see this morning in an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. Read Mark 2: 21-28.

###

     Do you think the Pharisees might have been picking on Jesus for the wrong reason? They get all over him for harvesting grain on the Sabbath, but don’t say anything about the fact Jesus and his disciples are in someone else’s grain field? Think about this for a moment as I go off on a tangent.

          I inherited my Presbyterianism from my great-granddaddy McKenzie. He was a strong church leader who served as an elder at Culdee Presbyterian Church for over 40 years. It was the church his father and grandfather help establish in those dark days following the War Between the States. Like most churches in the day, it emphasized the fear of God and the preacher regularly reminded the congregation about God’s judgment.

My great-granddaddy often told stories about his life when he was a boy. Sadly, because I was just a boy, I never wrote them down. I wish I remembered them all, but a couple I do recall. One had to do with him goofing off one summer day when he happened by a neighbor’s watermelon patch. It was hot and those watermelons were tempting. My great-granddaddy took out his knife and cut one open. With his hands, he dug out the heart—that sweet center of the melon—and ate it. It was good, so good he decided to go for another. Soon, melon juice was running down his chin and staining his shirt. But boy, they were good. The few joys of a hot summer, in my opinion, are good tomatoes and watermelon.

Now, as my grandfather was stuffing himself, something strange occurred. It was becoming cooler and the sky was darkening, which was odd since there were no clouds in the sky. Then the birds began to sing as if it was evening. He looked up and to his horror saw the sun, high overhead, disappearing. He dropped the melon he was working on and ran, as fast as he could in his bare feet, home.  “I didn’t want to be caught in another man’s watermelon patch on judgment day,” he told me. At the time, he didn’t know it was an eclipse, which was perhaps good since he seemed to instill him with a healthy awe of the Creator.

         This brings me back to the subject of Jesus and the disciples munching in some farmer’s field on the Sabbath. The reason the Pharisees didn’t get on Jesus for his disciples harvesting food that didn’t belong to them was that Jewish law allowed one to pluck grain with their hands from their neighbor’s field. According to Deuteronomy, we’re told:

If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.[2]

 

In other words, you could take what you needed to quench your hunger, but you weren’t allowed to drive a combine through your neighbor’s fields. (I’m not sure this applies to watermelons). This loophole in the law was necessary in the days before roadside restaurants. Those traveling had to have a way to obtain food. So the Pharisees don’t get onto Jesus for theft. Instead, they accuse him of laboring on the Sabbath. This labor involved harvesting (plucking the grain) and threshing (rubbing the grain in their hands to remove the chaff). Kind of picky, don’t you think? Jesus defends himself by recalling that David once ate holy bread when he was hungry. Ask yourself: “What’s going on here?”

         Jesus is doing something knew. Our passage begins with an illustration about patching coats and wineskins. This is probably not something any of us have experienced for we either replace our coats or take them to the tailor on Montgomery Cross. And our wine is aged in barrels and tends to come to us in bottles. But back in the first century, you had to patch your coats, and skins were used to hold wine. So you made sure the cloth you used to patch something was preshrunk and that your wineskins were new so that it would stretch and not bust open during the fermenting process.

This illustration is followed by the story of Jesus and the disciples eating from a field on the Sabbath. Again, he’s doing something new and it doesn’t go over well with the establishment.

The Sabbath demonstrates God’s concerned for our well-being. To paraphrase Jesus’ remarks to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not the other way around.” The Jewish faith, at the time of Jesus, emphasized the Sabbath so much that it was seen as a mark of faith. However, there were those within the tradition that challenged this idea and reminded people that the Sabbath was made for them, not the other way around.[3] But the legalists would have nothing to do with that.

        As the Sabbath is made for us, we should consider how it was understood in the early church. Paul tells the Romans that some think one day is better than another while others think all days are equal, and in Colossians he says we shouldn’t let ourselves be judged over the Sabbath.[4] From the writings of Paul, the early church felt it had the right to shift the Sabbath from the last day of the week to the first, in honor of Jesus’ resurrection. That said, Paul does not suggest we forget about the Sabbath. We still need rest. Only it’s not rigidly required that our rest occur on a particular day of the week. On the one hand this is good for it gives us freedom. Unfortunately, this freedom has led many to forget the Sabbath altogether.

Jesus is concerned for our well-being. He gets upset with the legalism of the Sabbath laws of the first century. One must eat, but the religious leaders of the day were making that difficult. Jesus’ teaches us here something about the gracious nature of God. There is a dangerous tendency to see the law and things like the 10 Commandments as restrictions on our freedom. But that’s not why they were given. God didn’t give the commandments as a test we have to pass in order to go to paradise. Instead, the commandments are rough guidelines within which we can enjoy life, starting now.

         The Sabbath Command is a reminder that we are not able to run ragged 24/7. We need rest, both daily (which is why night was created), and for an extended period at least once a week. The Sabbath is a day we can put our employment concerns aside, and just enjoy the creation God has given us. It’s a day we can enjoy the families that God has given us. It’s a day we can catch our breath and look around and give thanks.

         When I was a small child we lived on a parcel next to my great-grandparents farm. On occasion, we ate Sunday dinner with them. First thing my great-grandma did when she got home from church was make biscuits. Much of the dinner was already prepared but the biscuits had to be fresh. First, she’d take some kindling and light a fire in her wood burning stove. Don’t get the idea that we were hillbillies because my great-grandma had a perfectly good gas range sitting in her kitchen, it’s just that she preferred the wood burning stove for most of her cooking. After her death in the summer of ’64, the wood burning range was taken out, but before then I have good memories, as a five or six year old, gathering up chucks of stove wood my great-granddaddy had split. As the oven heated up, my great-grandma mixed up some flour, salt, and baking soda, cut in some lard, then added buttermilk. She’d knead the gluey glob till it was smooth, rolled it out, and cut out the biscuits. Soon a heavenly scent filled the room.

         When the meal was over, if it was meal without pie, my great-granddaddy would get up and go to the pantry and come back with a jar of molasses or honey. He’d drop a big plop of butter in his plate, pour on the sweetener, and mix it up real good with his folk. Then, throwing away all manners, he’d sop it up with the left-over biscuits. It was good. Afterwards, we kids would run out and play while the adults retired to either the back porch or, if in winter, the parlor. When we’d come back in an hour or so later, they’d all be napping.

          Jesus in this story doesn’t negate the Sabbath. He just encourages us to use it as it was created, for our benefit. Take a deep breath. Receive the Sabbath as a gift from a gracious God. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] I heard the idea of the Sabbath as the first labor law in a lecture by Dr. Dale Bruner.

[2] Deuteronomy 23:25.

[3] In a commentary on Exodus written around 180 AD, Rabbi Simeon ben Mensasy refers to an older saying, “The Sabbath is given to you but you are not surrendered to the Sabbath.” See William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 119.

[4] Romans 14:5, Colossians 2:16.

Love Your Enemies

Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America for the Culture of Contempt (HarperCollins, 2019), 243 pages, index and notes.

 

In this year’s January Series from Calvin College, I heard Brooks speak. Much of his presentation, it appears, was taken from this book which was released in mid-March. I’m glad it is in print for I was impressed with his talk and liked how he addresses the lack of civility in American political discourse. What bothers Brooks isn’t anger. Anger can be effective in the right circumstances. Nor is he bothered by arguments. That, too, can be productive. He doesn’t even want us to tolerate each other for that seems to be a way to look down on others. Brooks argues for us to love everyone, especially our enemies. What frightens Brooks about American society is the rise of contempt for “the other.” When we get to a point where we wish our enemies would disappear or go away, it’s easy to consider them less than human. Then we have a real problem. Brooks’ points out how this is a problematic for both sides of the political spectrum in America today. Looking back at the 2016 Presidential election, he points to Clinton’s comments about the “deplorable” folks behind Trump, and to Trumps many comments in which he belittled or attacked the dignity of “others.”

 

Brooks is an economist and the director of the American Enterprise Institute, which he describes as a “center-right” think tank. He often draws from economic principals in a making a case for having a diversity of opinions at the table. He believes in competition in both the business world as well as in the marketplace of ideas. When there are more ideas and choices being discussed and debated, the chances of us coming up with a better solution increases. But when voices are silenced and viewed with contempt, we will all lose because the best ideas may be kept from rising to the top.

 

Brooks begins his book by examining the rise of contempt in our culture. He draws from many fields to make his case. He insist that those on both sides of most arguments have values and to treat the other side as someone without values is the beginning of a culture of contempt. Our problem intensifies (and is undermined) when we use our values as weapons. He suggests that we all make friends and really listen to those with whom we disagree. Not only will this help us sharpen our own views, we might learn something.  He also encourages his readers who feel they don’t like the other side to “fake it,” noting that just forcing a smile can help change our own outlook and help us to relate to others.

 

The book ends with five rules in which we can resist the culture of contempt in our society.

  1. Resist “the powerful” (especially those on your side of the debate). When you just listen to the politician or the news media you agree with, you are easily manipulated. He encourages us to stand up to those who belittle others, especially those with whom we agree. It’s easy to stand up to those with whom we generally disagree.
  2. Get out of our bubbles and listen to and meet those from the other side. How else will we hear diverse opinions?
  3. Say no to contempt and treat everyone with love and respect even when it is difficult.
  4. Disagree better. Be a part of a healthy competition of ideas.
  1. Tune out: disconnect from unproductive debates. Brooks sees social media as a problem for our democracy as we find ourselves in constant debates in which no one changes their minds. Sabbaticals from such dialogue can be helpful to our own well being.

 

Brooks is a committed Roman Catholic and while his faith is displayed throughout the book, he also demonstrates his openness to others. He is a good friend of the Dalia Lama from whom he has learned much. At the end of the book, he encourages his readers to become “missionaries” as we help with love and kindness to provide an alternative for the contempt in our society. This is a useful and timely book. I highly recommend it and hope it becomes a best seller. Interestingly, Brooks is donating all the profits for his book to the American Enterprise Institute. That’s an example of someone living the missionary life!

The Cycles and Seasons of Life

 

 

Jeff Garrison
S
kidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Ecclesiastes 3:1-15
April 7, 2019

 

 

Now that we have heard the first eight verses of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, let’s now listen for the next seven verses as I read from The Message translation. Read Ecclesiastes 3:8-15.

 

This chapter is a wonderful poetic break in the middle of a book that’s often considered depressing. After all, Ecclesiastes begins by pointing out the vanity of everything, and it’s here we find such wisdom such a living dog is better than a dead lion.[1]

This is not recommended reading if you needed a pick-me-up, but since the book has found itself as a part of both the Jewish and Christian Canons, we have to deal with it. What are we being told here?

Our Lenten series encourages us to slow down, take a deep breath, and reconnect to an unhurried God. How might this passage encourage us to make such connections?

Our reading today begins with a thesis statement: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” If there is a time for everything, maybe we shouldn’t be so concerned about trying to do everything at once. The author, assumed to be Solomon even though his name is not used,[2] then provides us with fourteen pairs of opposites. We experience birth and death, planting and harvestings, and so forth. No values are given to either side. The couplet’s are like the Chinese Yin and Yang, both sides necessary for completeness.

Most of the opening couplets are self-explanatory, but not all. Verse five is traditional translated as a time to throw away stones and gathering stones together. We might wonder why gather stones if you are just going to toss them out. This appears to be related to ancient Israel’s laws around cleanliness and when a husband and wife might have sexual relations.[3] You didn’t expect that, I’m sure. The Message, from which I read this morning, captures this in its translation: “A right time to make love and another to abstain.

Verse seven speaks of a time for tearing and time for mending. Again, what’s up with this? Why rip up clothes only to repair them? This probably refers to the ancient tradition of ripping one’s clothes during periods of mourning and then repairing them once the mourning period is over. There is a time for sadness, grief and mourning, and a time to get on with life.[4]

This list reminds us that, like the seasons, there is a cycle to our lives. If Solomon had lived by the ocean, he might have added the tides. The cycles of life are all around us, but some are experienced more frequently than others. If we accept God’s sovereignty, there is no need for us to constantly be distraught over life’s ebbing and waning. We are freed to enjoy what we can while trusting and having faith that things won’t always be bad.

We can look at this list hoping we might understand life, but there is no wisdom to be discovered in such patterns.[5] While it’s evident that the human experience is a part of each of these couplets, we realize that we have no control over when or how they’re experienced. That’s left up to God.[6] The author of this book often reminds us that we live our lives in God’s domain and “under the sun.”[7] If we think we can ultimately have control over everything, we’re going to be disappointed. We’re not God, as this passage reminds us.

While we don’t discover any secret patterns in the first eight verses, we are given keys to understanding how we should live our lives in such a random world in the second part of our reading. We make the best of it, and we enjoy what we’ve been given.

We can be relieved that even though the patterns of life often seem vain, the author does find meaning in a life centered in God. After searching for meaning in the patterns of life, he comes to the conclusion that God wants us to enjoy life. Verses 12 and 13 reads, “we can never know what God is up to, whether he’s coming or going. I’ve decided that there is nothing better to do than go ahead and have a good time and get the most we can out of life.”

Tim Keller, writing about marriage provides insight:

 “The world goes on and we must live in it.  We must take thought for tomorrow. Yet our assurance about God’s future world transforms our attitudes toward all our earthly activities. We should be glad of success, but not overly glad, and saddened by failure, but not too downcast, because our true joy in the future is guaranteed by God. So we are to enjoy but not be “engrossed” in the things of this world.”[8]

 

The author of Ecclesiastes, who lived long before Christ, doesn’t share the same hope we have—that one day we will live eternally with our Lord. But even without such assurance, he was wise enough to know God wants us to take pleasure in life.

In our series on our need to reconnect to an unhurried God, Ecclesiastes reminds us of two things: let God be God and enjoy what God provides.

          In his acknowledgements at the beginning of his book on aging which I read this past week, Parker Palmer, a spiritual author from the Quaker tradition, writes:

We grow old and die in the same way we live our lives. That’s why this book is not about growing old gracefully. My life has been graced, but it certainly hasn’t been graceful—I’ve done more than my share of falling down, getting up, and falling down again. The falling down is due to missteps and gravity. The getting up is due to grace, mediated by people to whom I owe great debts of gratitude.[9]

It’s all about grace, and accepting God’s grace should lead us to gratitude.

There are cycles to our lives. Some things change frequently and we experience them over and over. I find myself more and more constantly following the stars at night, knowing where favorite constellations are at for a particular time of the year. For me, this all began when surf fishing at night on Masonboro Island, where in the fall I watched Tarsus, the seven sisters, Orion and Canis Major with the bright dog star all rise over the ocean. We experience the cycles of the moon, the tides, and the seasons. Likewise, the church year is filled with cycles as we long for Jesus’ coming in Advent, celebrate his birth with Christmas, remember his suffering and death during Holy Week and celebrate his resurrection on Easter and every Sunday morning.

We live life within cycles, but we have little control over when they happen. Of course, some of our cycles in life are only experienced once. We are only a child once. Unless there’s a hiccup in our learning, we only finish the first and second and on to the twelfth grades once… We have a period of working and building a life, then a period of retirement and aging. It’s all a part of how God knit together this world. Instead of fighting against the changes of life, we should graciously accept what loving God provides and trust him to see us through.

         We can’t control when the cycles of life happen, but we can control how we respond to them. Receive them as a gift, as grace. Amen.

 

 

 

©2019

[1] Ecclesiastes  1:1, 9:4.

[2] The author is named as “Qoheleth” which is traditionally translated as “Preacher”, but is identified as the Son of David, king of Jerusalem (See Ecclesiastes 1:1). This fits Solomon, but David had other sons, too.

[3] Robert Gordis, Koheleth: The Man and his World, a Study of Ecclesiastes (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 230.

[4] Gordis, 230-231.

[5] While there have been attempts to link the first eight verses with astrology, it has generally been treated as “far-fetched.” See Gordis, 229.

[6] William P. Brown, Ecclesiastes: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2000), 40, 42.  As for patterns, see Robert Davidson, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 22.

[7] The “under the sun” phrase is used 27 times between Ecclesiastes 1:3 and 9:11. In 4:7, it’s tied with the vanity of life.

[8] Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York: Dutton, 2011), 176. Keller is writing about marriage and not directly commenting on Ecclesiastes.

[9] Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publisher, 2018), ix.

Three Books: The Republic for Which It Stands, Meet You in Hell, & Atlas of a Lost World

I am heading to a conference at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian Conference Center in North New Mexico, so there will be no sermon this week. Instead, let me catch up by providing three short (for me) book reviews of works I recently read (or listened to the unabridged audio book).

Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (Oxford, 2017), 928 pages

This book is a part of the Oxford History of the United States collection. Richard White is a noted Western United States historian and author of It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West (Oklahoma, 1991).  It’s a massive book that begins with the death of Abraham Lincoln and ends with the election of William McKinley.

White merges together two eras that are often separated by historians: reconstruction and the Gilded Age. He makes the case that the two should be connected. This was the age that America was rising to its world prominence. It was also an age where the country was growing rapidly, especially through immigration. As a uniting theme for this period, White choses the home. The home found itself under attack as the country shifted from the home being the basis of the economy dependent on small farms to a nation of industry where workers toiled for wages. Although politicians on both sides of the aisle would lift up the home as the ideal, the home (as the White Protestant ideal) was under attack and rapidly changing during this period. Economically, this was the period of the gold standard. White’s knowledge of the West, where mining had a vested interest in bimetallism (using both gold and silver for currency), helps him to navigate this debate. Another economic concept that was highly debated was the meaning of labor. As the economy changed from farming to industry, who free were corporations and workers to collectively bargain. This leads for long discussions about court decisions, especially around the 14th Amendment.

 

In the book’s forward, it was noted that a grammatical change occurred within America following the Civil War. Before the war, people would say, “The United States are…”  After the war, people would say, “The United States is…” During this era, in which America filled in the vast territories of the West with states, the United States became the country we know. Only a handful of states were added after 1896.

 

I enjoyed this book, but then this is the period I have studied the most. My first college class, taken in the summer between high school and college, was a history class that focused on United States and Europe from the 1870s through the First World War. And I would later write a dissertation in this era, focusing on the church’s role in the Nevada mining camps. White covers a lot of material in this book (and his lists of sources at the end of the book could keep a historian busy for a lifetime). This is a wonderful addition to the Oxford History of the United States collection.

 

Les Standiford, Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Changed America (Broadway Books, 2006), 336 pages

I listened to an unabridged copy of this book.

This was my third book by Standiford and I have enjoyed them all. I have twice read Last Train to Paradise, which is about Henry Flagler and the building of the East Coast Florida Railway to Key West. I have also read The Man Who Invented Christmas which is about Charles Dickens and the publication of A Christmas Carol.  As with his writings of Flagler, in Meet You in Hell, Standiford turns again to industrial titans of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, looking at the partnership between Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. When Carnegie merged his steel empire with Frick’s coal and coke (a purified form of coal used in steel making), a mighty industry began that eventually led to the corporation known as United States Steel. But it wasn’t a smooth partnership. The two were willing to stab the other in the back, which led to bitter conflicts in both business and in politics (their last great rivalry was Frick opposition to what became the League of Nations, while Carnegie supported the effort to bring nations together in order to end war. Although a “peacemaker”, Carnegie made a lot of money supplying steel plates for the American navy.

The title comes from a request from Carnegie to meet with Frick shortly before his death. Frick’s responded back, “I’ll meet you in hell,” noting that he felt that was both of their destinations in the life to come.

The highlight of this story is the 1892 Homestead Strike. The strike occurred while Carnegie was summering in his native Scotland. Frick played hardball with the miners, bringing in Pinkerton’s which led to a bloody stand-off. Frick himself was even shot, but not by a striker. An anarchist attacked Frick following the strike. To the workers Frick became a hated man. Many thought it would have been different had Carnegie had been at the helm.  In fairness to Frick, Standiford points out how Carnegie also undermined unions even while speaking positively about them.

In addition to providing insight into their business partnership, this book provides short biographies of both men and covers their life after they had made their fortunes. Carnegie went on to build libraries and establish foundations. Frick established a top-notch art gallery in New York and also a large park in Pittsburgh.

In the last chapter, Standiford attempts to link the early 21st century with the ending of the 19th century. While there are similarities (little wage growth for workers, few union members, expansive growth and income for corporations and management), I think he’s stretching it as we are in completely different economies. Still, as one who has read several books about Homestead, I enjoyed and learned much from this book.

 Craig Childs, Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America (Pantheon Books, 2018), 270 pages.

Like the above two books, this is also a history book, but it goes back a lot further and covers a time frame that extends from roughly 30,000 years ago to 12,000 years ago, at a time where North America big game hunters were going after mammoths animals that make the modern day bison appear puny, The book is also a travelogue in which the author spends time on the Bering land bridge and popular hunting areas from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico and east to the Florida panhandle. At each site, Child’s informs the reader about the tools used to hunt the animals and theories as to how they lived, while imaging what it the area would have been liked during the ice age. Childs and his companions suffered to cross Alaskan mountain ranges and to deal with a buggy and wet campsite in Florida. On another occasion, they play-act the last great hunt of the beasts who were gone from the Americas over 13,000 years before Europeans arrived. At another site in Northern Minnesota, Childs freezes his butt off camping in the winter.

Atlas of a Lost World was interesting. I learned a lot about tool making and Childs personal relationships (he and his wife split up somewhere between Alaska and Florida, I’m not sure where), but I felt the book lacked a purpose that could have strengthened it. Childs does attempt to link the dying off of the great mammals with climate change, but that seems a little stretched. Certainly, the reader comes away from the book understanding that change is constant on earth, as species die and others adapt.

Childs is an accomplished outdoorsman, but I question his knowledge of poisonous snakes in the Southeast. He seemed to be overly concerned with the deadly poisonous cottonmouths (water moccasins) dropping from trees into boats. These snakes aren’t known for climbing trees. There are several types of water snakes, some with similar markings to the cottonmouth, who do climb trees, but they are not poisonous. Of course, it’s more exciting to worry about a poisonous snake dropping in one’s boat. A cottonmouth might still fall into a boat, but not from a tree. They are known to sun on logs and if you bumped the wrong log with your canoe, the snake might slide off in an attempt to get away from you and end up where you don’t want him.

This is my third book by Childs, who is by training a water hydrologist. The first book I read of his is my favorite, The Secret Knowledge of Water. I later read The Soul of Nowhere In this work, he studies another long-gone group of people, the Anasazi, whose civilization flourished until around the year 1200, when they seemed to die out, although they are probably the ancestors of the Hopi, Navajo, and other Native American tribes in the American West.

Focusing on What’s Important

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
March 24, 2019
Luke 10:38-42

 

Our morning Gospel reading this morning stands in contrast to our Old Testament lesson. In our first reading, we heard about a Shunamite woman who, out of the goodness of her heart, shows hospitality to Elisha.[1] Not only did she feed and give him lodging, she adds a guest room on to her house so he can stay in comfort…  Contrast this to the story of Mary and Martha. During a visit by Jesus, Mary sits at his feet while Martha spends the afternoon in the kitchen. Martha isn’t happy with the arrangements and asks Jesus to order her sister to help. Do you remember Jesus’ response? The woman in the Old Testament reading was rewarded for her hospitality, in the New Testament reading Martha, who tries to be hospitable, is critiqued. What’s up with that?  Let’s check it out. Read Luke 10:38-42.

 

A recent article in Fortune Magazine, reporting on the 2019 World Happiness Report, claims the United States is the unhappiest it’s even been. I don’t believe that statement is quite right. I’m pretty sure they weren’t conducting such research at the height of the Civil War or Great Depression, but the article points out we’ve been dropping in the happy list for the past several years. We’re still in the top quarter of the pack, but we’re not doing as well as we once did. By the way, we don’t want to be at the bottom of this list, which is populated with war-torn regions like the South Sudan, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria… We’re way ahead of them, which isn’t hard to achieve. But ahead of us are all the Scandinavian Countries, many European Countries along with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Costa Rica.

While prosperity is rising, we’re less happy. As the old cliché goes, money can’t buy happiness. But there are many other factors playing into this study. One of the study’s co-authors noted that the United States is a “mass-addiction society.” This isn’t just addictions to drugs and alcohol, which I think we would all agree brings unhappiness. But there’s a host of other addictions: “gambling, social media use, video gaming, shopping, consuming unhealthy foods, exercising, engaging in extreme sports, and risky sexual behaviors.” All of these create problems for happiness. Addiction is on the rise.[2] Let that sink in for a minute.

        Arthur Brooks, one of this year’s Calvin January Series speakers, had a new book come out this month. I read the first half of it this past week. It’s titled, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. I highly recommend it. Brooks’ points out that anger isn’t our problem. What he sees as a problem is contempt. When we are angry, we are generally wanting something better. When we hold someone in contempt, we are essentially wishing they didn’t exist. In a chapter titled “The Culture of Contempt,” he suggests that much of America, even though we hate it, are addicted—there’s that word again—to political contempt. We don’t like what this contempt does to us (not to mention those we disagree with), but we can’t seem to get enough of it. Like a junkie, we “indulge” in the habit. And the media, who has economic interest in our addiction, is more than happy to feed us.[3]

How do we break this cycle? How do we realign ourselves? How do we get back in line with what it means to be an American? To be a Christian? To be a follower of Jesus?

          Do any of you remember the old movie, City Slickers? It doesn’t seem to be old, but the movie was released in 1991. It starred Billy Crystal who, with a group of his friends from the city, decide to go out west for a few weeks to help round up cattle. In one scene, Crystal is riding on a horse beside Curly, an old fashion cowboy who could have been the Marlboro Man. When Crystals asks about his secret to being content in life, Curly points his index finger and says it’s this. Crystal is confused and asks, “You’re finger?” Curly shakes his head and replies it’s just one thing. Of course, Curly isn’t able to tell Crystal what’s his one thing is, that’s for him to find out. This “one thing” is now known as Curly’s law.[4]

 

I suggest that the one thing Jesus points out to Martha was himself. Serving others is good, doing a good deed such as feeding visitors is commendable, but there is a deeper human need and if we don’t ground ourselves there, we burn out. As humans, we have a need to connect with others and as a Christian, our need includes a connection to Jesus.  How do we go about this? Let’s see what our text says.

Our morning text comes on the heels of the Good Samaritan.[5] In that encounter, Jesus tells a teacher of the law, who was having a hard time understanding what Jesus was saying, a story. The message: be like the Good Samaritan, and “go and do likewise.” As with our Old Testament story, we get the idea that we’re to be about serving others. Now Jesus encounters a woman, Martha, who is so busy serving others that she can’t understand Jesus’ teachings. Jesus offers her an example, her sister. Martha needs to “sit down, listen and learn.”[6] Are we to be about serving? Or listening? Or both?

         Jesus isn’t telling Martha to be inhospitable. Hospitality is an important trait of Christians. We are told in the book of Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so some have entertained angels without even knowing it.”[7] We are supposed to welcome the stranger, after all we have the example of the Good Samaritan. In his parable on the last judgment, Jesus tells us that we will be judged by how we react and treat those who are poor, hungry, naked, sick, or in prison.[8] Hospitality is important; it’s imperative for us Christians to be courteous and gracious, warm and generous. But it’s not the only thing.

Let’s look at the story. Jesus is traveling and stops at Martha’s home. This passage shows us a radical side of Jesus. Ignoring all the common customs of the first century, Jesus stops in the home of a woman, who is there with her sister, and even offers the women an opportunity to sit at his feet as a disciple and listen to his teachings… This would have been a scandal in the first century. Mary takes Jesus up on his offer. She sits down and listens to what he has to say. Martha, as the host, has work to do. We can assume she’s preparing some kind of fancy dinner… As the afternoon progresses, Mary became more and more intent on listening to the saving words of Jesus while Martha became more and more disturbed that she had to make all the dinner preparations.

         Finally, Martha has enough. Here, she is fixing a nice sit-down dinner, and while she’s working, her sister enjoys Jesus’ company. Perhaps, Martha’s a little envious… She tries to get Jesus on her side by appealing to his compassion.  “Lord, doesn’t it bother you that I’ve had to do all the work?” she asks. Reading between the lines, we get the idea she really wants to say, “Tell Ms. Couch Potato to get in here and help…” Do you sense the contempt is rising in Martha?

Jesus is moved by Martha’s plea. He responds, repeating her name twice. I imagine he speaks softly, slowly and tenderly, “Martha, Martha.” With the right inflection, it would be like saying, “Calm down, Martha, its okay.” Then he goes on, telling her she’s worried and distracted about so many things when there was need of only one thing… Remember Curly, riding high in the saddle, and saying there’s just one thing.

There’s some question about what Jesus meant when he said that there’s only need of one thing…  Is he talking about the meal? “Martha, forget the turkey and ham, the dressing and trimmings, the potatoes and beans; just fix a simple casserole or a sandwich, that’s all we need.” Or is Jesus referring to himself here.  After all, he is “the way, the truth and the life.”[9] He is all we need. And, as Jesus quoted the Old Testament to the Devil earlier in Luke’s gospel, “We don’t live by bread alone.”[10] “Martha,” he may have continued saying, “forget the dinner, you only need me, you only need to learn about my peace…”

Actually, both interpretations may be right. This is not an either/or situation. It’s a both/and situation. Certainly Jesus never denied the importance of eating… He feeds the 5000 and centers our remembrance of him at a meal around a dinner table we call communion.[11] It’s important for Mary and Martha and Jesus to eat. Jesus never denies this. Yet, he is concerned over Martha’s fretting over how long the turkey has to cook. You see, as long as Martha is whipping up potatoes, she’s not able to visit. A simple meal is sufficient. A simple meal would allow them time to talk and enjoy each other’s company. With a simple meal, Martha still could be hospitable and also have a chance to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn.

          Are we like Martha? Do we worry and become distracted over so many things that we are unable to see what’s truly important?  Do we keep our lives so busy that we have no real quality time to spend with friends? (I’m guilty). If so, we just might be missing something important… After all, Martha missed a chance to spend time listening to our Lord’s teachings. Don’t forget about hospitality, but remember that it’s not the only thing.

        You know, this is a busy time here at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church. The Session has begun working on a strategic plan for the future. A small group of Elders have spent a lot of time on this project. This week, the rest of the Elders will join in the process, and then we’ll be asking for your help and ideas. This is good and needed work, but I encourage us to not be distracted from that which we truly need… Jesus Christ. Without Jesus, what we do will mean nothing. He’s our reason for being, for he calls us together in communion with him. So remember the main thing. Make sure to take time to spend with Jesus, daily. If you do, the rest will fall into place. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] 2 Kings 4:8ff

[2] Grace Dobush, “The U. S. Is the Unhappiest Its Ever Been,” Fortune Magazine (March 20, 1019). See http://fortune.com/2019/03/20/u-s-unhappiest-its-ever-been/

[3] Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt (American Enterprise Institute, 2019), 28-29.

[4] See http://rebelzen.com/2008/08/curlys-law-how-a-fictitious-hollywood-cowboy-showed-me-the-meaning-of-life/

[5] Luke 10:25-37.

[6] Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 151-152.

[7] Hebrews 13:2

[8] Matthew 25:31-46.

[9] John 14:6

[10] Luke 4:4 (Deuteronomy 8:3)

[11] The Feeding of the 5000 and the Institution of the Lord’s Supper can be found in all four gospels.  5000: Matthew 14:13ff, Mark 5:30ff, Luke 7:10ff and John 6.  Lord’s Supper:  Matthew 26:26ff, Mark 14:22ff, Luke 22:15ff and John 13:21ff.

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford University Press, 1988), 282 pages including notes, index, and some photos included within the text.

This is a complicated book. Lane weaves together personal experiences in the mountains and deserts, along with his mother’s dying, reflections on his vast knowledge from early Christian history, and the theology of an unknowable God. The writing is dense and I found myself reaching for both a regular dictionary as well as a Dictionary of Church History. His thesis is that “apophatic tradition, despite’s its distrust of all images of God, makes an exception in using the imagery of threatening places as a way of challenging the ego and leaving one at a loss of words” (65). Apophatic theology, also known as “negative theology.” focuses on what we don’t and can’t know about God. As Lane points out, this is the God of Sinai represented by a dark cloud over a mountain. Such theology causes one to empty oneself (as the desert and mountain’s force us to do) as we seek God. Apophatic theology is the opposite of kataphatc theology (positive theology). Lane places kataphatic theology on the mountain of transfiguration, where Jesus with Moses and Elijah, were revealed in their glory. While these two traditions are in tension, Lane focus is on the former as he explores the “fierce landscapes” of the Sinai, South Asia, the Ozarks, and to the desert southwest of the United States.

Lane ends his Epilogue with the story of western travelers to California who became lost in what is now known as Death Valley in 1849. Most of the group died of hunger and as they finally found their way out of the basin, they said, “Good-bye Death Valley. He links that to a Spanish term used also to describe the place, la Palma de la Mano de Dios or the “the very palm of God’s hands” (232). While “fierce landscapes” may seem like places where God is absence, that’s often not the case. From scripture stories about one finding strength in the wilderness, to story of the early desert fathers, to our own walks through desolate places, we may find that instead of being abandoned, that we were all along being held in God’s hand.

This is my second book by Lane. Twenty-some years ago I read an early book of his, Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality. I found much to learn in both.

The Assurance of God

 

Jeff Garrison  
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 
Psalm 23
March 17, 2019

 

 

Let us pray:

“Where there is darkness, give us light.
Where there is ignorance, give us knowledge.
Where there is knowledge, give us wisdom.
And for those of us that think we have the truth, give us humility.” Amen[1]

 

         We’re looking at the 23rd Psalm today. It’s a prayer of faith not often heard on Sunday mornings; we save it for funerals. Wayne Muller in book, Sabbath, Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, points this out:

“This is the psalm we sing when people have died. This is the psalm we save for death, because in the world of progress, you do not rest in green pastures, you do not lie beside still waters, there is no time. Never in this life. Only when we get to the promised land.”[2]

Muller’s sarcasm questions why we save the best for last. Good question. God wants us to enjoy “abundant life,” today. This “Busy” series is about embracing God’s gifts now, not just waiting for them to come to us in heaven.

Of course, this Psalm also provides us with “poignant words of trust” to say at the time of death.[3] As Paul reminds us, death is the last of our enemies to be destroyed.[4] So the Psalm gives us comfort at a time of grief, but the words only ring true if we have trusted and experienced God’s intervention in our lives. So, this morning, ask yourself what this Psalm say to you? Let’s listen carefully for a fresh understanding.  Read Psalm 23.

        The Northeast Cape Fear River broadens and deepens as it flows through Holly Shelter Swamp. In this area, on a high bluff on the east bank of the river was my scout troop’s favorite camping site. The ridge was forested with tall long-leaf pines. Lining the banks along the river were dogwoods, tupelo and cypress, their branches adorned with Spanish moss. The leisurely pace of the river invited us boys to sit on its banks and throw sticks into the water, watching them slowly float away. It’s the type of life Mark Twain wrote about on the Mississippi, a life of ease beside peaceful waters that seem to hold some mysterious power to heal, to forget our troubles, and to be renewed.

         In the late afternoon, things would change. As the sun dropped in the west behind trees, it created long shadows on the black waters. An eeriness descended. Spanish moss now appeared as the long beards of men whose mysterious and untimely death occurred in the backwaters of Holly Shelter Swamp. We had been warned.

Every Saturday around a campfire, we listened our scoutmaster, Johnny Rogena, tell us another story about a man who lost his hand in an accident in an old saw mill that stood nearby. This hand took on an evil life of its own, and had been terrorizing the swamp ever since.

Such tales were frightening, especially for an 11 year old boy. As the fire died down, we were sent back to our tents. We stayed together. When a bobcat squealed, we jumped. But soon, we were in our tents and hunkered down in our sleeping bags—the only safe place. These were convenient stories to tell young scouts for it encouraged us to stay in our tents. Sometimes at night we’d see the shadow of the hand stretch across the canvas of the tent, an effect caused by older scouts using a flashlight to project the larger than life reflection. A year or two later, when we were the older, we showed “the hand” to scare the new Tenderfoots. On those first few camping trips, we were scared and afraid to move. It took forever to fall asleep. That night, we knew what it felt like to be in the valley of death. In the morning we’d wake up and feel blessed to have made it through the night. As another Psalm reminds us, “Joy comes in the morning.”[5] We experienced such joy!

         Yea through I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” This most beloved psalm, as I pointed out, is ubiquitously used at funerals and mostly overlooked on Sunday mornings. This is unfortunate for the psalm tells us about a life lived well—a life lived in complete trust of God the Father.

         Psalm 23 is attributed to King David and it certainly brings to mind key elements of his early life. As a young shepherd, he knew what it meant to lead sheep through dangerous mountainous terrain. As a mere boy, he was willing to face the giant Goliath on the battlefield. As a young man, he was being chased by the armies of King Saul, who knew he was God’s anointed. And even as an old man with many enemies, he knew the pain of having his own son attempting to take his throne. Of course, we know David had many short-comings, but he made up for them by putting his faith in God’s hands. David was a man, the scriptures tell us, after the very heart of God.[6] We can imagine David, who trusted God even when he screwed things up penning these words.

          The opening verse captures the essence of the Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The Psalm begins with a powerful metaphor of God as a shepherd. Of course, God is more than just a shepherd, which was a lowly occupation in ancient Israel. God is the Creator, the judge, the warrior, the righteous one, the ancient one. All these images remind us that God is greater than just a mere tender of sheep, but like a shepherd who is devoted to his sheep, God is devoted to his people, which makes the shepherd image the perfect depiction of our relationship with God the Creator.

That opening verse ends with this statement: “I shall not want.” It can also be translated, “I don’t need anything” or “I lack nothing.” The rest of the Psalm expands upon what the Psalmist is not lacking. The Psalmist enjoys rest, refreshing water, wholeness, protection, comfort, and an abundance of food and oil.[7] This Psalm speaks to those of us who have experienced salvation, who’d heard God (or an Angel from God) say, “Fear not, I am with you,” or “Fear not, favored one.”[8] When we know that God is with us, we can be comforted despite the challenges we face, whether a made-up hand roaming the swamps of Holly Shelter, or the real challenges we face: illness, abandonment, aging, financial ruin, being falsely accused, among others. We can face these trials because we know that even though everyone may abandon us—friends, allies, and family—we also know that God will never abandon us. God is with us through thick and thin. That’s a promise to hold tight!

        There are two great images at the end of this Psalm. First, there is a table set in the presence of our enemies. Royal banquets are often used in scripture to point to an eschatological future, the promised heavenly banquet where Jesus is at the head of the table and serves us. Perhaps the presence of our enemies is an invitation for them, too, to come to the table. They, too, have been created by a God who delights in bringing about reconciliation and encourages us to seek out peace with our enemies.

          The second image is the cup running over. Back in the 70s and 80s, Brim decaffeinated coffee had a series of advertisements about filling our coffee cups to the rim. We don’t serve Brim in the fellowship hall. The ad world is a perfect one and no one that I remember in those commercials spilled coffee on the rug, even when the cup couldn’t contain another drop. But here, in Psalm 23, we’re promised something even greater that being filled to the rim. Our cup overflows! This is a promise of abundance.

God’s goodness is the foundation for this Psalm. Just as a shepherd wants what is best for his sheep, God wants what is best for his people. God can be trusted. Yes, there are times we may suffer. Sometimes, as when I was a Tenderfoot Scout, our fears are irrational. At other times, our fears are very real. There are people who want us to fail, thinking that it would make them look better or at least make it easier for them to succeed. There are illnesses that can take our lives. There are dangers and temptations faced by those we love. But even when we face such real fears, we can place our trust in God’s unfailing love.

   When things are looking down, when life is busy and we can’t seem to get a break, we can go to this Psalm and be reminded that we are not alone. God’s goodness abounds. God’s goodness will overflow in our hearts and lives, giving us a new perspective on the challenges we face. Amen.

 

 

©2019

[1] Prayer by Rev. Ray Nott, given at the New Wilmington Missionary Conference in 1971. Marcia Bell shared this prayer with me. See note at bottom of:  http://skidawaypres.org/pastor/?p=1575

[2] Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest (New York: Bantam, 1999), 79.

[3] James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 119.

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

[5] Psalm 30:5.

[6] 1 Samuel 13:14.

[7] See Mays, 117-118.

[8] Genesis 15:1, 26:24; Deuteronomy 20:1, 31:8: Isaiah 41:10, 41:13, 43:5; Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:30, 2:10.

Write Your Book in a Flash: A Review

Dan Janal, Write Your Book in a Flash: The Paint-by-Numbers System to Write the Book of Your Dreams-Fast! (TCK Publishing, 2018), 180 pages.

 

I was skeptical as I began flipping through this book. I was easy to skim and in 30 minutes, I had hit the highlights. Could it really help a writer accomplish a goal of publishing a book? I decided to read the book closer and to do the opening exercises with a book project I had considered several years ago.

 

You may or may not know that I have had the experience of leading two different congregations as they left an older landlocked facility and built a new campus. Both experiences were a blessing as I saw people catch the vision and experience what can only be described as miracles. While I don’t want to do this again, at one point I had considered consulting other churches considering such a move. Write the Book in a Flash was what I needed to help focus my thoughts. The book is written primarily for people who are involved in consulting and contract work to build their legitimacy. While I am not sure I would enjoy such consulting today, a book about moving churches could be a gift to the larger church, helping others in their own building projects.

 

I was amazed at how Janal’s methodology helped me frame my thoughts and ideas as I wrote my 400 word executive summary, a 50 word back cover summary, came up with a working title, profiled my ideal reader, and outlined the chapters. I feel confident that if I had a block of uninterrupted time, perhaps two weeks, I could complete this book and the final project would run between 125 and 150 pages.  Write Your Book in a Flash is a workbook designed for the person interested in conveying their knowledge in a particular field.

 

Write Your Book in a Flash is not going to help you write the great American novel. This isn’t about creative writing. It’s about technical writing that can help your reader and, if you so desire, help you reach more clients. The book assumes its audience can already write clearly (and the book doesn’t cover grammar and plot lines and other necessities). This is a book to help people in further their influence and build their “brand.” Janal practices what he preaches as this book is an extension of his efforts to work with potential experts in different fields develop their own books. At the end of the book are advertisements for his other endeavors.

To find the book: http://geni.us/writeyourbookm

Publisher’s website:  https://www.tckpublishing.com/

For full disclosure, I received a free copy of this book in exchange of an honest review.

The Right Tempo

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2019
Matthew 11:28-30

 

Jig Pendleton is crazy on religion. He’s a character in Nathan Coulter, a Wendell Berry’s novel. Jig lives alone in a shanty overlooking the Kentucky River. Like some of the original disciples, he makes a meager living fishing. When not fishing, Jig spends his days holed up in his shanty reading his Bible. Over and over again, from cover to cover, he reads the Good Book. He knows it by heart, yet he’s consumed worrying about sin. You see, Jig believes if he can just purify himself enough the Lord will dispatch a chariot of fire, and like Elijah, take him up to heaven.[1] But there’s a problem. Jig can’t quite purify himself enough. It’s too great of a task. Sooner or later, he always throws in the towel and goes on a big drunk. Then, he starts his quest all over again.[2]

You know, when it comes to religion, we often think it’s about being good, or good enough. We think we need to be like Jig in one of his purifying stages. We see religion as hard work which is why many people don’t want to be bothered with it.  We forget about the joy of salvation.[3] I wonder if at times we spend way too much time on the Great Commission found at the end of Matthew’s gospel,[4] where Jesus tells his followers to go out and make disciples of all people. The operative verbs here are “go” and “make.” We see religion as making something, either out of ourselves or someone else. We’re caught in the trap of thinking the way to heaven is by hard and difficult work. We forget that long before the Great Commission, Jesus issued the Great Invitation.[5]  Instead of inviting us to labor, Jesus first invites us to come to him and take a load off our backs—to take a break—to catch our breath—to find the right tempo. 

The Christian faith isn’t supposed to be hard; it’s supposed to be joyous. Life is hard when we try to do everything by ourselves which is why Jesus calls us, “Come to me, all you who are weary.”

 

Are you weary? (What a question to ask at time change?) Who among us isn’t a bit weary? Who among us isn’t a bit heavily burdened? In this passage, Jesus addresses a crowd of people desperate for someone to come and lift their spirits. I envision Jesus looking into the faces of weary men and women tired from the legalism of first century religion. He observes the fatigued bodies of hard working men at dead end jobs, who are sick of paying the heavy taxes imposed by the Roman rulers. He sees the broken hearts of the women who deal, day in and out, with squalling children and distant husbands. He sees the sad eyes of children without a future. Like us, who among this group isn’t a bit weary? Who isn’t carrying a heavy burden? It’s refreshing to hear Jesus say “Come to me.”

You know, Jesus doesn’t bring an end to all their problems.  When those who had gathered around him woke up the next morning, many things had not changed. The men still have to go to work and the women have to take care of the children and prepare the family’s food. They still have letters from Roman IRS agents calling them in for audits and creditors banging on their doors. They still have squalling kids and screaming bosses. So just what does Jesus offer when he invites the crowd to come to him? What are we offered in this passage?

It’s easy to think that Jesus’ promise in this passage refers to our eternal rest, but that would also be very disappointing and not at all what I think he’s talking about. The primary concern for the Christian faith (along with the Jewish, as Jesus was talking to Jewish folks) isn’t our reward in the next world. Yes, the promise of eternal life is real, but when it becomes our sole focus, we prove Karl Marx right in his classic cliché that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” If we focus only on an eternal rest, then religion easily becomes a force to keep us in line and what fun is that? A state sponsored religion might be about social control; but a faith grounded in Jesus Christ is about freedom and transformation. The goal of the Christian faith isn’t to maintain status quo in individual lives or within a society. Instead, the Christian faith promises abundant life.[6]

So when Jesus says, “come to me all who are weary, and I’ll give you rest,” he’s talking about something that happens in the present. He’s promising us a new outlook on life—with him at our side. Instead of a life preoccupied with the pressures which surrounds us, he wants us to live a life thankful for what we’ve been given. We’re called to a new tempo, one that he sets, which is freer than the hectic world around us. Instead of a faith that worries if we are good enough for God, he offers a faith that gives thanks for God’s goodness. God’s goodness is what’s important, because we ourselves will never be good enough. We need to accept and be thankful that God loved us first. Our faith starts with God calling us, not the other way around and the first thing about caring for ourselves is to understand this distinction.

So Jesus invites us saying, “Come to me; take my yoke.”  He’s not talking about a single yoke, one that he gives us and we wear around so that we might haul a heavy load.  Instead, I think he offers a double yoke, one that he helps share the load. One in which we are able to watch him and learn how to live graciously, to appreciate beauty and to give thanks for the blessings of life. Our translation tells us Jesus’ yoke is easy, but it could also be translated as kind[7], or “easy to carry.”[8] Sure, we’re created by God for work, but we achieve more when the yoke is comfortable, just like an ox or a mule can pull longer if it has a well-fitted yoke. Since few of us have had any dealings with yokes, let me use another example.

My first real experience at backpacking occurred when I was in my first year of college. My uncle, who is a few years older than me, had just gotten out of the Navy and was also attending college. We decided to hike a new trail that ran along the crest of the Uwharrie Mountains in central North Carolina. It was 30-some miles long, not too long. I had a pack, “The Kilimanjaro,” one of the best packs K-mart sold. With a name like “The Kilimanjaro,” it sounds as if was a serious pack. We made the trek right after New Year’s, since we had a week before school resumed. With food and gear and plenty of warm clothes, we set out.

Unlike the other photos, this wasn’t in my sermon slides. Instead, I showed the backpack.

Halfway through that first day, I was in trouble. My shoulder straps were digging into my shoulders. The padding didn’t hold up. Instead of the straps displacing the weight over their width, they buckled and pulled right in the middle, making it feel as if I had a rope sawing into my shoulders. Compounding the problem was the lack of a waist band, without which I had no way to relieve the weight on my shoulders. I ended up improvising a waist band with some rope, which helped a little. By our first night, we were both hurting.  Yet, we continued. When I got back home, I started saving money and before I tried anything else like that, I purchased a brand new Kelty pack. It didn’t have a fancy name like my other pack. It was the D-4 model, a staple of Kelty’s packs for years!  I still have it. I threw that Kilimanjaro pack away a long time ago. With the D-4, I’ve done the entire length of both the Appalachian and John Muir Trails. I can assure you, a waistband and well-built, nice fitting shoulder straps make all the difference in the world. Had I continued hiking with the Kilimanjaro, I’d given up on the sport like my uncle did. Either that or I’d be crippled by now. We need an easy yoke if we’re going to accomplish what God plans for us.

Jesus calls us to come and learn from him how to enjoy life. He calls us to relearn our priorities, to set the right tempo.  Instead of having to work hard to earn God’s grace, we accept it and thereby joyously labor not for God’s grace but to praise God for having been so good to us. We don’t have to be so rushed, because we know God is in control. We don’t have to do it all, for we trust in God’s providence. We don’t have to pretend to be God. Let that burden go!

Jig Pendleton had it all wrong. Religion isn’t about working hard; it’s about looking around and gratefully receiving all we’ve been given. It’s about accepting our position in creation and giving thanks.

Take care of yourself. Reorient your life to a new perspective, one with Jesus, as the face of God[9], at the center. Drop the guilt and long faces, slip on that easy yoke, and (most of all) enjoy the journey. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] 2 Kings 2:9-12.

[2] Wendell Berry, Nathan Coulter (New York, North Point Press, 1960, 1985), 15-16.

[3] Psalm 51:12.

[4] Matthew 28:16-20.

[5] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1993), 126.

[6] John 10:10.

[7] Hare, 129.

[8] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 540.

[9] Bruner, 537.

Burden: A Preacher, A Klansman, and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South

Courtney Hargrave, Burden: A Preacher, A Klansman, and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South (New York: Convergent Books, 2018), 227 pages, no photos or index, 22 pages of notes and sources.

 

Michael Burden, a troubled young man, came under the spell of John Howard, a leader in a section of the Ku Klux Klan. Howard had purchased an old movie theater across from the courthouse in Laurens, South Carolina. With Michael’s help, they partly restored the building and opened within it a Ku Klux Klan museum, a store called the “Redneck Shop,” and a center for Klan meetings and recruitment. Standing in opposition to the theater was David Kennedy, the African-American pastor of the New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church. The confrontation between the church and community against Howard and his museum and store made national news in the 1990s. This is their story.

 

This is a story with a twist. When Michael Burden falls out with John Howard after his marriage to a woman with two children, he finds himself without a job and locked out of his home. Broke and with nowhere to go, the Reverend David Kennedy steps in to help. This act of grace is the centerpiece of this multi-dimension story of redemption. The story caught the attention of Andrew Heckler, who had a vision of bringing it to the theater. The movie was also released in 2018

 

Courtney Hargrave, a journalist and former ghostwriter, researched and wrote the book that was released in conjunction with the movie. Heckler wrote the forward for Hargrave’s book. Hargrave’s writing is crisp and reads easily. She provides enough background to the various phases of the Klan to help the reader understand the fractured history of this homegrown American terror group. She provides local historical background of white supremacy in Laurens, a town named for a slave trader and the location of lynching activity in the first half of the 20th Century. She delves into the relationship between Burden and Howard providing a case study of how older Klansmen befriend and then use lost youth to further their misguided mission. Her accounts of Reverend Kennedy’s actions show the struggle of those within the African-American community to provide the needs of their own constitutes while showing love to their enemies.

 

I would have liked to have learned more about the thoughts and feelings of white residents who were not involved in the Klan, especially white churches. Hargrave primarily focused on the New Beginning Church, making the battle between them and Howard. I found myself wondering if more churches, African-American and Caucasian, were involved. Although she doesn’t say so in the book, I know the author’s time was limited as she was under pressure to publish the book before the movie was released. I question if the lack of time and also the movie’s plotline (which needs to simplify the complexity of the story) might have played a role in the way she tells this story.

 

Hargrave’s writing reminds the reader the role race plays with groups that feel disenfranchised in America. Laurens is an upstate South Carolina town that has been gutted of its industry and hasn’t received the influx of new industry as have other communities in the region such as Greenville and Spartanburg. For those with little hope, it is easy to fall prey to organizations like the Klan. I recommend this book. Not only do we witness someone radically living out the gospel and fulfilling Jesus’ command to love and do good to our enemies, we also gain insight into how a person like Burden might be drawn into an organization like the Klan.

 

I doubt I would have read this book had it not been for meeting Ms. Hargrave at a reading in Savannah late last year. The story caught my attention. I’m glad I picked up a copy and I hope the book finds a wider audience. I recommend it.

 

The Land Between: Growth

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Numbers 11:21-30
March 3, 2019

 

I’ve been out of the pulpit here for two weeks—it seems like a long time. Last week Deanie preached and the week before was the Presbytery pulpit exchange. You got to hear Pete Ullmann from Jessup while I preached at First Presbyterian Church in Brunswick. Don’t worry about missing anything; it was a sermon you all heard back in January. It’s good to be back in this pulpit, this morning.

          We are coming to the end of our series on the “Land Between,” and our study from the 11th Chapter of the Book of Numbers. Next week, we’ll begin our Lent Journey, as we make our way toward Easter. Our theme for our Lenten series will be “Busy.” It’s a timely series; we all struggle with busyness. As a way of catching our breath, we’re going to be encouraged by scripture to reconnect to an unhurried God. As a warning, we’ll be doing a few different things in worship. It’ll be exciting, so come and invite others who feel hurried in life to join us for a refreshing break each week as we gather on Sunday.

Now, let’s go back to the “Land Between,” that desert setting we’ve been traveling over since the end of January. We have seen how this barren land in which we all travel at one point or another is fertile ground for us to complain and even have a melt-down. It’s also a place where we learn to trust God to provide what we need, and where God might discipline us. All of this, our being in the “Land Between” and God’s response, helps us grow. In the Sinai desert, God was forging the Hebrew people into a nation. When we find ourselves in such situations, we should ponder what God might be preparing us to do. What’s God’s future for us? For our text today, we’re going to look at Numbers 11:21-30. Listen:  

         Little Tommy was riding in the backseat as the family came home from church. “What did you learn in Sunday School today,” his father asked.

We learned about Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea,” Tommy said.

What about it?” his dad asked.

“Well, the Israelites had their back against the sea as Pharaoh’s army approached. It looked like it was going to be a slaughter. So Moses quickly summoned his combat engineers to throw together a pontoon bridge and they hastened to get everyone across. And as the Egyptians followed them across the bridge, Moses called up his Air Force and had them scramble jets who strafed and then bombed the bridge, sending Pharaoh’s army to the bottom of the sea.

His mother almost had whiplash as she turned around in her seat and looked back at Tommy. Her face was red. “Was that what your teacher taught?” she demanded. “Did she tell you all that?”

“Well, not exactly,” Tommy hesitantly responded. “But if you don’t believe my story, you certainly won’t believe hers.

Moses might be the earthly leader of the Israelites, but he’s not the one in charge. It is very clear from the beginning that God is calling the shots. God freed the people from slavery. God saved them from the Egyptian army when their backs were up against the sea. God provided food and water for his people in an inhospitable land. Moses may be the leader of these people, but he knows it’s not within his power to do any of this. God has been active.

This also applies even to the church throughout history. The key to our success isn’t from the strength of our leaders, but from the humbled willingness of God’s people to allow God to work through us to accomplish his purposes. When we are aligned with God, we can do great things. When God is against us, even the most skilled leader will be ineffective. By the way, our mission isn’t success in worldly standards. Our mission is to be faithful to the God who resurrect the dead.

          Now back to Moses. He’s the face people see. And because they still aren’t sure what’s up, he’s the one who receives all the complaints. He’s weary and needs help. But unlike the people who have questioned God’s goodness, thinking the Almighty led them into the desert to die, Moses trusts the Lord. After all, God has always comes through. When Israel’s back was up against the sea, it wasn’t Moses who parted the sea. He might have lifted his arms as we see in the movies, but it was God, the one who watches out for Israel, who saves the day.

God has plans for this group of people. God doesn’t just want them to just exist. Nor, I believe, does God just want us to exist. God wants them (and us) to thrive. God wants them (and us) to grow and to be a community in which all the world is bless. So let’s look at our text for today and see how this works.

We have already seen how God provided for the people’s dietary needs, with manna and quail, as well as for Moses well-being, with others that shared the leadership burden. God has Moses bring seventy leaders into the tent and endow them with some of Moses’ spirit, giving them the power and responsibility to help lead the people. But when we looked at this text earlier (on Scout Sunday where I spoke about the patrol method and how the 70 were like patrol leaders), I cut the text off before getting to the part about how the experience of these leaders extended beyond the 70. What we find in this text is that we worship a God of surprises, and that people 3,500 years ago were no different than today. They don’t like surprises; they don’t like changes; they’re jealous when someone outside their group has a special experience.

          Let’s look at the text. After the elders were commissioned, they received the spirit and prophesied. That was all well and good, and expected. But what happens next is that there were two men, who were not in the assembly, who showed signs of having the spirit placed upon them. They, too, prophesied. This was disturbing, for these were not ones who were supposed to be doing this. A runner (a 14th Century BC tattle-tale) was sent to Moses saying, Eldad and Medad are prophesying in camp. Joshua was ready to have them stopped but it didn’t bother Moses. “Let them be,” Moses responded. “Are you jealous for me? Wouldn’t it be nice if all God’s people were prophets?”

Moses shows us what a mature leader comfortable with his relationship with God looks like.

You know, a similar thing happened in the ministry of Jesus. The disciples learned that there were others casting out demons using the name of Jesus. Some of the disciples, like Joshua, was ready to defend Jesus’ power and honor and put an end to the practice. But Jesus said, “No, don’t do that. If they’re using my name, they be for us and not against us.”[1] Mature leadership provides a calming presence and rejoices when others do well.

          What can we take from this passage? How might it apply to our topic of growth? There are two things that come to mind. First of all, as we see in the story of the Exodus, we have to take the risk to follow and to trust God. It can be scary at times, but if we are willing to take that risk, God will protect and watch over us. Faith isn’t about certainty; if it was, it wouldn’t be faith. Faith is about trust. Do we trust God enough to take a risk that will allow God to show us that he’s with us? When God’s church grapples at what its future might be, those who are willing to take a risk are the ones rewarded. It’s easy to sit back and do nothing, but that’s not the type of followers Jesus calls. As the Session of this church works on our strategic plan for the future (and this is a process), I hope you will be open to new directions. God calls us to risk in faith, not for our glory, but for God’s. Are we up for taking risks? We can’t keep doing the same thing that might have worked for us 30 or 40 years ago. Times change and new strategies are required. We are called to be people of faith and we must live into our calling.

        Secondly, we learn in this passage that we’re not in control and we need to let God’s Spirit work. Those who were upset with Eldad and Medad show a human tendency to have preconceived ideas of what it looks like when God shows up. We have to be ready for surprises, for God’s ideas may be different from ours. God has this incredible love for all people, not just those who look, think and act like us. We might be surprised what God is doing in our midst and it might make us uncomfortable. Someone might come up with a new idea that we’ve never tried before, or that was half-heartedly tried years ago. Is our first reaction to immediately reject it? Or are we willing to see if God’s Spirit’s is leading us in a different direction? The truth of Jesus Christ never changes, but how we live out that truth within a changing culture will be different.

          Remember, it’s not about us. We’re called to have faith, to trust, and to follow Jesus as we move through the “Land Between.” And if we have faith, we will experience growth in our own lives and within the community. We might not know what that growth really looks like until afterwards, but when we are there, we will know that God has been with us. Amen.

©2019

[1] Mark 9:38-39, Luke 9:49-50.

Turnips (and other goodies from my winter garden).

Early December harvest: cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, kale, chili peppers (hanging on from summer) and turnips

I am loving my winter garden. It is the only advantage of living where there is no real winter. In the fall, I planted cabbage (red and green), cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale, swiss chard, mustard greens, three kinds of lettuce, beets, onions, rutabaga, and turnips.  The brussel spouts didn’t do very well, and only a few of the beets came up, but everything else has been wonderful. I’ve enjoyed roasted root vegetables (turnips, beets and rutabaga), lots of cauliflower dishes, salads, various dishes with mustard and swiss chard, and my favorite, turnips. I have grown even fonder of turnips. I eat them raw. I will grate them and sauté with just a pinch of sugar, or prepare them like mash potatoes. Turnips are also my favorite greens. After washing the greens to get any dirt off, I will boil them in a large pot of water with some ham or bacon added for an hour or so. Then, about 30 minutes before eating, I will add some of the turnip root that I’ve peeled and diced to the greens, bringing it back to a boil and cooking until the root is soft. I’ll dip out and drain off the greens and root, place it on a plate and drizzle the greens with some hot vinegar (vinegar infused with chili peppers). That’s good eating!

Turnips destined for the pot (waiting to be cleaned)

My Turmeric Harvest

The turmeric is in the front. This was taken in early November as the winter garden is being planted.

Some of you have followed this on Facebook, but I thought I would compile the process here.

What started with a neighboring farmer offering a couple of turmeric rhizomes (the tubers from which spice is harvested and which also grows new plants) ended up last weekend with enough dried turmeric for a year or so (8 ounces).

Turmeric takes a while to grow. Last March we were given to rhizomes which were planted at the edge of our garden plot. The soil must have been good (the plant likes soil with lots of manure) for the plants grew and by early summer were a foot high. Turmeric takes ten months to grow as the growth isn’t about the leaves above ground but the rhizomes below. In mid-January, the plant above was turning brown, so I dug up the ground under it and found a nice harvest of rhizomes. For the next few weeks, I was adding fresh grated turmeric to everything, especially eggs. But I knew the turmeric wouldn’t last long, so I saved a few rhizomes for planting and the rest I prepared for making turmeric powder.

Boiling rhizomes

After reading up on drying turmeric, I found that most suggested the rhizomes to be cleansed and brushed thoroughly to get off all dirt (and manure) off the tubers. Then, they are placed in a pot with just enough water to cover the rhizomes and boiled for 30 minutes. Once done, they are taken out and sliced thinly (they are not pealed). Then they are dried. As we have been having a wet and humid winter, I opted to dry them in the over for several hours at 175 degrees. Afterwards, the sliced and dried rhizomes are frozen solidly (most say to freeze overnight, but I froze them for a longer period because I was waiting for a time to finish processing the turmeric. The freezing helps make the grinding easier.

 

Rhizomes ready to dry

Grinding into powder

When ready to grind, you can use a food processor or a coffee grinder. I tried both. It takes a long time of constantly pulsing either one to turn the chips into powder. This process also tends to stain your food processor, but in the end you have nice powder that I stored in two 4 ounce mason jars. Turmeric can be stored for years if sealed and stored in a dark place.

 

 

Final product

After this adventure, I’m thinking about raising ginger, too. At least this turmeric is not corrupted from bad soil or added with things like lead (which has been known to be added to the dangerous for the consumer). Some of the spice that comes from India is known to be corrupted.

 

 

Next year, maybe I’ll try to grow ginger, too, as it is in the same family. .

Lessons from a Quail Hunt

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Numbers 11:31-35
February 10, 2019

 

We are on our fourth week of looking at the Hebrew people in the wilderness. We have seen how they have complained about the food, how they have driven Moses almost mad, and how God has provided for their needs. This week, we’re going to look at a case of tough love. Yes, Israel’s going to have the meat they’ve demanded, but along with their bellies being full, God is going to punish them for their disobedience and lack of trust. We learn that we have to be careful for what we want. As Sheryl Crow sings in her song, “Soak Up the Sun:” It’s not having what you want. It’s wanting what you’ve got.[1]  I’m sure the Hebrew people didn’t want what they got. Read Numbers 11:31-35.

         Robert Ruark began quail hunting with his granddad at the age of eight. The opening story in his wonderful book, The Old Man and the Boy, is about a quail hunt. To the chagrin of his mother and grandmother, his grandfather, “the Old Man,” brought him a 20 gauge shotgun. They headed out into a pea field with two dogs. Quickly, the dogs were pointing and the Old Man gave him a shell and told him to load up. He broke open the barrel, slipped the shell into the breech, and snapped it closed. Then as his pulled the gun up to hold at a forty-five degree angle across his chest, to be ready for when the birds flushed, he quietly slipped the safety off and stepped toward the dogs.

“Whoa, Give me the gun,” the Old Man demanded.

        Shocked and a bit hurt, the young Robert Ruark handed his gun to his granddad, who set the safety, then headed out to the dogs. As the covey flushed, he shot a bird. When he came back, the boy yelled, “Why’d you take the gun away from me? It’s my gun. It ain’t your gun.”

At this point the Old Man gave the boy a lecture. “Safety catch,’ he said.” The boy didn’t think his granddad had heard or saw him slip off the safety. The Old Man continued: “No reason in the world for a man to go blundering around with the catch off his gun. You don’t know the birds are going to get up where the dogs says they are. Maybe they’re running on you. So the dog breaks point and you stumble along behind him and fall in a hole or trip over a rock and the gun goes off…’”

Feeling bad, the boy said: “You got to take the safety off some time if you’re planning to shoot something.”

“’Habit is a wonderful thing’, the Old Man said. ‘It’s just as easy to form good ones as to make bad ones. Once they’re made, they stick.’” The Old Man continued, as he taught the boy how the safety stays engaged until he brings the gun to his shoulder as he follows the bird in flight.[2]

          I wonder what the Old Man would have thought about the way the Israelites hunted quail. He probably wouldn’t care for it, but I expect he would understand God’s intention of teaching the Hebrew people some good habits such as placing their trust in the Lord. The land between is a good place to learn good habits.

The Hebrew people wanted meat in their diet and in this text we see that they got what they wanted. We’re told that a wind blew the quail into the Hebrew camp. Quail often migrate through the Sinai in the spring and fall. So, perhaps as these birds were transient, God blew up a storm and blew them toward the place where Israel was encamped.[3] And it’s not just a few birds. With quail, in which each bird produces about 5 ounces of delicious meat, you’ll need a lot of birds to feed so many people. But Israel gets more than a lot. The least anyone collects is ten homers. A homer is supposedly about 6 bushels, so each person has a truckload of birds. This is an absurd amount. I’m sure that soon there were fires going and birds grilling as the rest were being dressed out to dry and to store for later.

         It’s almost as if God decides to overwhelm the Hebrew people with quail as a way to show them his power. They should have been thankful that the birds were quail and not ravens. Had it been the later, Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds,” would could have been Biblical. But instead of the birds attacking, they are easily caught by the Israelites.

It’s as if God is asking, “You think I can’t take care of you?” “Let me show you.” But that’s just part of God’s response for there is divine anger brewing because of the people’s lack of trust. (See, those quail could have been ravens). As the people dress out the quail, eat their fill, and begin to pick the meat from between their teeth, God’s anger rises and a plague descends upon the people. Did the quail contain some pestilence? We’re not told, nor are we told how many died, but enough died that they named their encampment in remembrance of those who “had the craving.” And they quickly moved on to another camp. We’re left wondering if they took the drying quail with them or if they left them in the sun to dry and for the creatures of the desert to devour.

This is just one of God’s punishments of Israel in the wilderness we find in the Book of Numbers. A few chapters later, the people will revolt and suffer the consequences.[4] And later in the book, they’ll complain again against God and snakes will come after them.[5] The Book of Numbers provides lots of ideas for a horror flick. But what do we see? Over and over again, God cares for the people, yet they do not trust the Lord to look out for their well-being. Over and over again, the people are disciplined.

         I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s collection of sermons on Jeremiah, a prophet at a time when Israel was again facing some discipline. We don’t like the idea of discipline or judgment, do we? But it’s a frequent topic in scripture, probably because we (as humans) are so hard headed. Listen to what Peterson says about the topic:

Judgment is not the last word; it is never the last word. Judgment is necessary because of centuries of hardheartedness; its proper work is to open our hearts to the reality beyond ourselves, to crack the carapace of self-sufficiency so that we can experience the inrushing grace of the healing, merciful, forgiving God.[6]

        Scripture discusses judgment and discipline a lot. Some of you may think there’s too much judgment and discipline in Bible, but as Jeff Manion reminds us in his book, The Land Between, we have an advantage. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Scripture is useful in building us up,” and if we allow Scripture to work in such a manner, we can learn from the mistakes of others.[7] That’s a benefit to cherish.

        Yesterday afternoon I was sailing in a race. There was J-105, a much larger and faster boat than any of the rest of us. This boat set the mark. We were coming back up the river, against the tide, which is a time that you try to keep your boat out of the current as much as possible. One way to do this is to hug the side of the channel where the current is less. But there’s the risk of running aground. We watched that J-105, knowing that its keel was much deeper than ours. If it had problems with shoals and ran aground (which would have been the only way we could have caught it), we would know to steer clear. Scripture is like that, we get to see the mistakes of the Israelites and the early disciples, and can steer clear of them. We can learn from their discipline!

          There are many Proverbs that speak of the need for discipline.[8] We have all heard the saying, “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” and assume it is from the Bible. We’ll, not exactly. However, there are many Proverbs that do speak of the need for discipline, the one that comes closest to such a saying is Proverbs 13:24, which speaks of those who refuse to discipline their children, hate them. Paradoxically linking permissiveness and hatred is an attempt to drive home the message that discipline is required.[9] Corporal punishment isn’t necessarily required and certainly punishment that borders on abuse is condemned.[10] Discipline may be unpleasant, but if we are not taught what is right and wrong, how are we to know?

This Wednesday issue of the Wall Street Journal had an article by Robert Hamilton, a pediatrician in Santa Monica, titled “The Right Way to Spank a Child.” While he was careful to differentiate spanking from abuse, as he was writing against a recent ruling from the American Academy of Pediatrics that had expressed its opposition to all forms of corporal punishment, he made the case for mild spankings. This would be spankings that strings but doesn’t come anywhere near injuring the child. He set ground rules that I’m sure many of our parents didn’t abide by, such as only a two or three whacks, done privately so as not to humiliate the child, and administrated as soon as possible after the offense. The main thrust of his column wasn’t to defend spanking as much as it was to emphasize the necessity of effective discipline in raising children to be responsible adults.[11]

        In the land between, we see that God, our Heavenly Father, disciplines his people in order for them to grow into a nation. When we are disciplined by God, we need to remember that God is loving us. God is correcting our behavior so that we might grow in our love and trust of him. Sometimes discipline is hard. I don’t know why so many people had to get sick and some of them had to die. But the God who gives us the breath of life can also take it away. But as we see, God wants his people to trust him as they are led through the desert and into the Promised Land. It’s an important lesson, for if they don’t trust him, the people will be lost. And that goes for us, too. If we don’t trust God, we are lost. Trust God; accept his discipline as a sign of love. God wants something better from us and for us. Amen.

After note: After preaching this sermon yesterday, I attended a sail club potluck dinner last night where Mike, one of the members of the group, brought quail! There were a few there who had heard my sermon and thought it was funny.

Mike’s quail

 

 

©2019

[1] Sheryl Crow, “Soak Up the Sun” (2002)

[2] Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy (1993, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1957), 11-12.

[3] Philip J. Budd, Numbers: Word Biblical Commentary #5 (Waco, TX: Word, 1984), 129.

[4] Numbers 16.

[5] Numbers 21.

[6] Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1983), 173.

[7] 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and Jeff Manion, The Land Between: Finding God in Difficult Transitions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 133.

[8] Proverbs 19:18, 23:13-14, 29:17.

[9] Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs: Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1999), 140.

[10] Exodus 21:20.  See also https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/bible-study/what-does-spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child-mean.html

[11] Robert C. Hamilton, “The Right Way to Spank a Child,” Wall Street Journal (February 6, 2019), A15.

Grant (A Massive Biography)

Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin, 2017), 1074 pages including bibliography, an index, and 16 pages of black and white photos.

U. S. Grant is an amazing story. Even how he came upon his name (which was latter joked to be Unconditional Surrender Grant) is an interesting story. At the dawn of the Civil War, Grant was broke, having failed in several business attempts. He had been dismissed from the army due to his drinking problems. Eight years later, after having led the Union forces to victory, Grant is the President of the United States. In this massive biography, Ron Chernow tells Grant’s story. Chernow challenges many of the presuppositions that are often held about Grant such as his military achievement was due to his superior numbers and that he, like his presidency, was corrupt. While acknowledging the truth of the Union superiority in numbers and the corruption of his administration, Chernow believes that Grant was a superior officer and he, himself, wasn’t corrupt. Grant’s greatest fault, according to Chernow, was his loyalty to friends. It appears Grant best action and clearest head was in the chaos of battle. In his private life he often overlooked the faults of his friends and was too trusting. In battle, he had no problems removing ineffective commanders.

 

Grant is certainly a study in complexity. His father was overbearing, a successful businessman, and a strong abolitionist. His wife, Julia, came from a Southern Planter family and his father-in-law remained an unrepentant Southern even as he lived in the White House during Grant’s presidency. The two families hated each other. His father, who was critical of his son’s failures before the war, was proud of his son during the war even while he attempted to use his son for economic gain. His father, in business with two Jewish merchants, sought to benefit from Grant’s position in the western theater in order to acquire cotton. Grant became so mad that he banned all Jewish merchants from the army’s camp (a ban that was later rescinded). Grant would have to deal with embarrassments from his family for much of his life.

 

Grant was a graduate of West Point and served in the Mexican War (and later admitted that he felt the war was unjust). After the war, he served in California and Washington Territory, before coming back East as a civilian. At the beginning of the Civil War, he volunteered as an officer and joined in Ohio.

 

Grant rose to prominence following his wins in the Western theater of the campaign (where he became close to Sherman), he didn’t meet Lincoln until he was being made the General of the Army. In this position, Grant was able to coordinate the movements of all the armies of the North with a goal of not defeating the South on the battlefield, but of defeating the Confederacy. While much of the war had been fought with armies working independently, Grant, in 1864, coordinated the attacks on all fronts, a strategy that kept the South from shuffling troops from one front to the other and led to the end of the war.

 

Grant knew many within the leadership of the Confederacy. He had been a good friend of James Longstreet since their time at West Point and after the war, the two continued their friendship. He had met Lee in Mexico, but unlike other Union generals wasn’t intimated by him. Grant’s strategy was to always keep pushing. Even if he lost a battle, he would quickly regroup and attack again, before his enemy was able to rebuild his troops. Often, in battles such as Shiloh, the first day was lost but because of continuing the attack instead of withdrawing from the field, victory (or at least reaching objectives, which he saw as more important) were achieved on the second day. During the war, Grant despised the guerrilla tactics of John Singleton Mosby, but after the war he, too, became friend and supporter. Mosby would later become the United States ambassador to Thailand. Grant and Lee had only one additional meeting after the war. Lee called on Grant about a railroad project and didn’t laugh when Grant suggested the two of them had done enough destroying of railroads for them to become builders. While Grant wasn’t intimidated by Lee, neither is Chernow, who challenges a lot of presumptions held about the Southern General.

 

I found many interesting insights into this book. One was how Lincoln feared that Grant might decide to run for the presidency in 1864, something Grant denied. In many ways, he was a humble man. But he was married to a former Southern Belle, who delighted in the spotlight. I was also amazed that after Hayes’ presidency, who had announced early on that he would only serve one term, Grant considered (and other pushed him) to return to the White House. But his attempt at a comeback failed when the Republicans chose Garfield.

 

While Grant’s presidency had its corruption, which Chernow deals with, I felt he tended to sweep allegations of Grant being beholding to business leaders (many of whom had given him homes and money) under the table. Chernow paints a picture of the President who was concerned about Reconstruction and the danger of losing that which so many men had given their lives. He was very concern about the way the “old south” was rising through the Ku Klux Klan. As a General, Grant found that black soldiers were just as good as white soldiers. It bothered him when he learned of former black soldiers being lynched in the South, yet he was also concerned about overusing force. Interestingly, Sherman, who was seen as less generous than Grant as he swept across Georgia and South Carolina during the war, took the side of the South after the war. Sherman suggested leaving states to work out their own laws. Grant knew that such a tactic would end up with a South in which African-Americans would be no better off than before the war and saw the government had a role to play in reducing violence.

 

It was interesting to learn how Grant had his eyes on the United States acquiring Santa Domingo (today’s the Dominican Republic). He was also ready to go to war with Mexico, if necessary, to force the French out. Others in his cabinet had eyes on Cuba and it was even suggested that Great Britain give the United States Canada as payment from the damages of the British built Confederate ship, Alabama.

 

After his second term, Grant became the first American president to make a round-the-world trip. It started out as a rest in Europe, but ended up being a diplomatic mission as Grant visited Egypt, India, Thailand, China and Japan. Coming back to the United States, Grant saw what financial security he had to evaporate overnight in a Ponzi scheme. Friends stepped in which allowed him to have a house in which to live. Mark Twain, who had befriended Grant, worked with him to write a biography. Grant, suffering from throat cancer, finished the book right before his death. Twain, who published the book, was able to present Julia with the books royalties of nearly half a million dollars, making it one of the most successful books of the 19th Century.

 

Chernow deals with Grant’s drinking, suggesting that during the war he generally refrained from drinking in front of his troops (his drunken accounts were when he was away from the front). Grant had aides and a wife who worked hard to keep him from drinking. It appears Grant was mainly a binge drinker. As long as he avoided alcohol, he was okay, but once he started drinking he continued until he was extremely drunk.

 

This is a well-researched study. Some may suggest that Chernow, in challenging many of the Grant myths, is playing in revisionist history. But it’s important to remember that many of the Grant myths that rose in the 19th Century at a time when the United States wanted to move beyond reconstruction. At this time, revisionist histories such as the “Lost Cause” movement became popular and united “white” America behind myths such as benevolent masters and the states’ rights.

 

If you have time, I recommend this book. I listened to this book on audible (48 hours long—that’s a lot of time in the gym), but also read sections of the book at the same time.

The Land Between: Provision

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Numbers 11:16-20
February 3, 2019

 

 

         We are currently working our way through the 11th chapter of the book of Numbers. Some may wonder, “why Numbers?” After all, it’s an obscure book in the Old Testament, filled with whinny, self-centered people. What could Numbers have to do with us? Well, we’re not much different. We complain, we whine, we focus on our wants and desires, as we struggle trusting God…

          In this chapter of Numbers, the Hebrew people are in a crisis. They are in the land between, a hostile place between their former lives as slaves in Egypt and their promised future in the land of milk and honey.  But they haven’t yet arrived and, in this in-between land, God forges them into a nation. They learn about temptations. In the last two weeks, we saw how it’s easy to be greedy and to complain in this land. The people’s complaints demonstrate their lack of trust in God. Moses, caught in his own land between, is being pulled apart by a grumbling people who want him to do their bidding and a God who expects him to lead the people. Although Moses also complains, he takes his complaints to God. “Believers argue with God,” I quoted last week, “skeptics argue with one another.”[1] Be a believer!

Today, we’re going to see how God answers both the complaints of the people and the honest prayer of Moses. Read Numbers 11:16-20.    

The foundation of the Boy Scout movement is the patrol method. The purpose of the scouting program is to develop and build leadership. Each troop has layers of boy leaders, from scribes and quartermasters, to patrol leaders and assistants, up to the senior patrol leader. Of course, there are also adult leaders who monitor the program, but successful adult leaders don’t get overly involved. They let the boys make decisions and mistakes. They don’t step in to stop such mistakes unless it’s too dangerous or carries too great a consequence. The boys learn, even from their mistakes.

         My first patrol leader was Gerald. He always seemed so mature even though he was probably 14 when I was 11. It rained on our first camping trip. That night Gerald gave his tent to two boys whose tent was flooded. Gerald said he would sleep in their tent. “Wow, this guy cares about us,” we thought. Of course, he was partly guilty for he suggested our tents to be lined up in a straight line and equal distance from one another. This one tent happened to be in a low spot. The next morning, Gerald was up early, helping build a fire. He was full of energy for one who had slept in a wet tent. We later learned he slept in the scout trailer which was even drier the rest of the tents.

Several of us in this group went on to become patrol leaders and, having learned such unselfish values from Gerald, we also strove to be responsible leaders who took care of the members of our patrol. We’d made out duty assignments so each member took turns cooking, cleaning and bringing in the firewood. Those were good days and they remain as good memories.

          In our text today, we see God answering Moses’ pleas for help. God consecrates leading men of Israel. They’ll serve essentially as patrol leaders. Moses, with only his brother Aaron to help, has become weary by attempting to take care of everyone’s needs. Moses is like a scoutmaster without patrol leaders or an army general with no junior officers and no NCOs to implement the plan. To address Moses’ weariness, God has Moses pick seventy leaders from among the people and then takes some of the Spirit that was on Moses and gives it to those seventy. A new generation of leadership is established. This is the way the scouting program works. Those in leadership positions are constantly training new ones as younger scouts slowly take on the responsibility of the troop. And it’s the way the church is to work. As new leaders are elected, they are ordained by the church with the older leaders laying their hands on the new as a sign of ordination.

Moses, in the text, sees that his concerns are being address. He faithfully cried out to God, trusting God’s goodness and mercy. He now will not have to carry the burden of all Israel on his shoulders. Many shoulders make a light load!

        The people who have been complaining will also experience God’s answer to their prayer. Moses is to have them to get ready. They’re going to be eating meat! Of course, because they haven’t trusted God, they’ll eat so much meat they will get sick of it. It’ll be coming out of their nostrils, which isn’t a very pleasing picture. They had thought God had brought them into the wilderness in order that they might die, but now they’ll once again experience God’s power. God is able to answer their prayers and, in this case, will answer it in a way that they’ll wish God hadn’t.

          You know, it’s amazing I still love peanut butter. One day, when I was in the second or third grade, I was hungry after the academic rigors of the classroom. I came home from school and went into the kitchen in search of nourishment. I spotted a large jar of peanut butter, a three pounder. It’d just been open. It was full. Seeing no one around, I unscrewed the lid and dug out a finger-full. I licked it off my finger. It was so good! Then went for another scoop. I bet none of the Scouts have every done this, have you? About the point that I had dug out a second finger full of peanut butter, my mom walked into the kitchen and yelled a few chosen words that I had not known were in her vocabulary.

Now, my mom could have been proud of me for not bothering her with a basic need, such as food, and taking matters into my own hands. But that’s not the way she operated. Sanitation was akin to godliness in our house. Seeing my finger covered with peanut butter, she grabbed the jar and yanked it from my hand. “What do thing you’re doing?” she asked. Without giving me time to respond, my mom went from police officer to the judge (forget the Constitution, under my parent’s roof, the enforcement and judicial branches of government were intertwined). I was sentenced to hard time. For the next month or so, before I could eat whatever was being served, I had to eat a peanut butter sandwich. No jelly, just peanut butter on a slice of bread, until that jar was empty. Remember, this was a large jar, and it was now mine. I had to eat it all. Before Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and dressing and all the trimmings, I had a plain peanut butter sandwich. Before Christmas dinner with a ham and sweet potatoes, I ate a peanut butter sandwich. By New Years, it seemed as if the stuff was coming out of my nose. I felt a special kindship to the Hebrew children in the wilderness. And I’ve never stuck my finger into a jar of peanut butter again.

In the wilderness, God provides for the people. Leaders are provided who could take the burden off Moses. Food is provided to nourish the Hebrew people. But because the people do not trust God. They are punished, which went even further than being sick of the food, as we’ll see next week. By the way, that’s a teaser for what’s coming next.

God has what’s best for us in mind. Sometimes, what is best is nourishment. Other times, discipline is required. In the land between, both are necessary. What about us? Are we willing to trust God to provide? Are we willing to trust those whom God has called to lead us? And are we willing to learn from discipline?

         When we are in the land between, there are plenty of opportunities to experience and learn from God’s graciousness. This is true for our scouts and all the rest of us, for we are in the land between, often, throughout our lives. We are all on a journey to a promised land, to the promised kingdom, to the heavenly banquet. And along the way, we should learn what we can. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 1983), 103.

The Land Between: Meltdown

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Numbers 11:10-15
January 27, 2019

This is our second week exploring the “land between,” that place where we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. When we are in the land between, it is easy to become exhausted and disheartened. We feel like we cannot go on. We want to give up. But we must remember that God might be preparing us for something. In the wilderness, Israel was trained to trust, to have faith in God, in preparation for becoming a country. In our own journeys, we should ask God what we should learn. Read Numbers 11:10-15

###

         Last week, we saw how the “land between” was a dangerous place. Not only are there the obvious ones. For the Hebrews in the wilderness, such dangers included thirsting, starving, or dying by snake bite. For us, the dangers may be an illness, financial ruin, the loss of a relationship, the death of a loved one. These journeys are stressful. Israel had been called into this place by God, who is trying to teach her to trust him. But what if God doesn’t show up one day? What if God doesn’t provide? Of course, because God has called them into the wilderness, they should trust the Lord. So for two years, they have been trusting God for daily food and during this time, God has not failed them. This leads to the second danger, which we saw last week, which occurs in the land between: complaint. Instead of being grateful, the Israelites become greedy. They bicker and grumble about the quality of food. Such complaints fires up God’s anger, forcing Moses to intercede.[1]

         This week, our text focuses on Moses. He’s the leader of these bickering people. Moses is in his own “land between.” He’s caught in the middle. God is on one side and an ungrateful people on the other. It’s a lonely place. All those complaints are getting to him. He can’t please the people. God wants him to be the leader and the people just want him to do their bidding. He’s God’s servant, but the people are looking at Moses as if he’s their errand boy. 1400 years later, Jesus will remind us that we can’t serve two masters.[2] Moses is a living example of this truth. As a result, he has a meltdown.

In the first class I lead on the book this series is based upon, The Land Between (and I encourage you all to get involved in such a class), the conversation veered into the topic of suicide. The land between is certainly a place where such action may occur. It’s an uncomfortable place. If you reside there too long, despair sets in. One loses hope. One loses perspective. We saw last week how the people suddenly forgot their struggles and cries in Egypt and remembered only the food they enjoyed there—food that was only given to them so that they would have the energy to do the work their Egyptian taskmasters set before them. It’s easy to forget how things really were.

        While we are not told that Moses contemplated suicide, we do witness in today’s text that he’s ready to die. He has certainly thought about death. It seems more desirable than continuing to live in the desert where life is hard enough, but is made unbearable by a bunch of whiners. Death seems better than to live in the middle and be pulled into two different directions at the same time. Moses has had enough. I like how The Message translation handles Moses’ complaint to God:

 

Why are you treating me this way?
What did I ever do to you to deserve this?
Did I conceive them? Was I their mother?
Why dump the responsibility of these people on me?

 

Questions after questions, Moses asks God. Moses ends his complaint in this manner: “If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favor and kill me. I’ve seen enough. I’ve had enough. Let me out of here.” Leadership is often hard, as Moses experiences. You can’t please everyone. Many people are going to second guess you. Most think they know better than you. People will bicker and complain behind your back. You know what, things haven’t changed much in 3400 years.

        In addition to leadership being hard, often leadership is thrust upon people. Moses never asked to lead Israel out of Egypt. If you remember, he begged God to find someone else. He came up with all kind of excuses. “Lord, they’re not going to believe me.”[3] “God, you want me to address Pharaoh? I don’t talk good.”[4] Often times we are called to step into leadership positions in the church or at work or in our community. And even if it isn’t something we covet, as ones who follow Jesus, we are to do our best and to be honest and ultimately, be faithful to our Lord. And sometimes, just being faithful means we get caught in the land between. Think of prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the Apostle Paul.

Last week, we saw how God responded to the people. God was ready to incinerate them. Next week, we’ll see how God responded to Moses. But before we learn of God’s response, let’s let it simmer a while. But I assure you the Almighty doesn’t send a lightning to singe Moses and ends his meltdown. God answers, not always immediately, but God hears our prayers and responds.

Let’s ask ourselves this: “if God was ready to incinerate the people, yet responds positively to Moses plea, what’s the difference?” Ponder this: “Why the different response between how God responded to the people and to Moses?” “Why is God ready to be done with the people, yet listens and responds to Moses?”

While you are thinking about this, let me tell you about a bear encounter I had while hiking in the High Sierras. A friend and I was hiking the John Muir Trail. One evening, toward the end of the trail in Yosemite National Park, my friend stayed in camp, while I had hiked about a ½ mile to a place with a lovely overlook to the west. There, I watched an incredible sunset. When it was done, I started to head back to our campsite on Cathedral Lake. Once I got back into the trees, it was fairly dark, but I could make out the trail, so I walked without a flashlight. Then, suddenly, I froze. There was a bear coming at me. It quickly stood up on his back legs, just ten feet or so in front of me. I stood straight and waved my arms, trying to look larger than the bear. It looked at me for a second or two, then turned around, dropped to all fours, and took off through the woods. Of course, I was shaking, but realized I was going to be fine. I had responded properly. When you encounter a large wild animal, especially one that likes to chase and hunt, you don’t turn and run. You can’t outrun the beast and it’ll often delight in the chase. Instead, you hold your ground and then slowly move away, never turning your back on the animal. Had I turned and ran, things might have been different.

Israel, instead of confronting God, was willing to run from the Lord. They wanted to high-tail it back to Egypt. They didn’t want anything to do with the mountain where Moses met God. It was scary, all that fire and smoke.[5] If they couldn’t run from God, they would cowered before him. Now, maybe I am pushing it too far to suggest that God is like a wild animal—like a bear or a cougar—in the wild. Or maybe not, for God is metaphorically referred to in Scripture as a lion,[6] another animal that it’s not recommended humans run from.

Instead of running from God, Moses stands up to God and is very honest. Is this dangerous? Of course. God is the Creator who can give and take away life. But it’s less dangerous to stand up to God than to turn our backs on God or to act like God doesn’t matter. Unlike the people who try to run away, Moses relates to God and that’s what God desires. Even though the people had experienced great miracles, they still doubt God’s ability to intercede. Their complaining betray how they question God’s goodness. Rumors are spreading that God might have brought them out into the desert to die. But Moses is different. He never turns his back on God. He’s like a hiker in the wild who encounters a bear or cougar and holds his ground. And instead of complaining behind God’s back, he takes his complaint directly to the Lord.

Eugene Peterson, writing about how Jeremiah argued with God notes that our anger can be a measure of our faith. “Believers argue with God; skeptics argue with each other,” he writes.[7] Get that? “Believers argue with God; skeptics argue with each other.”

Throughout the Old Testament, one common form of prayer is that of lament. The prophets lamented. Throughout the Psalms, you’ll find laments.[8] In such prayers, and that’s what we have here with Moses, those praying are very honest to God. They confess their challenges. They are not shy about admitting the frustration they feel.

I know when I have been in such places of difficulty, my prayers to God are raw. And God listens. When we are honest about our feelings, God doesn’t get upset with us. God listens. And, as I have often found, if you put your burdens on God’s shoulders, you will feel light enough to get back up and continue on.

Yes, Moses had a meltdown. But God wasn’t mad at him. The next time things seem hopeless, take your burdens to God. Offer up your raw emotions. Don’t try to run and hide. Instead, face your challenges and trust God. Answer Jesus’ invitation to let him take your yoke.[9] He will lighten your load. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Numbers 11:1-3.

[2] Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13.

[3] Exodus 4:1.

[4] Exodus 4:10-17.

[5] Exodus 19:16.

[6] See Isaiah 31:4, Jeremiah 2:3, 4:7, 5:6, 25:38, 49:19; Hosea 5:14, 11:10, 13:7-8 and especially Revelation 5:5 where Jesus is the “Lion of Judah.” Of course, this is metaphorical as a lion is also used for our enemy as in 1 Peter 5:8 and Revelation 13:2.

[7] Eugene H. Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1983), 103.

[8] For more discussion on such laments in Scripture, see Jeff Manion, The Land Between: Finding God in Difficult Transitions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), chapter 6.

[9] Matthew 11:28-30.

The Preacher’s Letter

Billy Beasley, The Preacher’s Letter. (Little Elm, TX: eLectio Publishing, 2018), 265 pages

 

Troy Dawkins is a middle aged kid trying to figure out life. He lives a solidarity life with his dog, Max, working as a bouncer at a bar in Carolina Beach, North Carolina. He’s a man with secrets in his past, who keeps most people an arm’s length away. At the insistence of his mother, he attends church one Sunday where he hears the new minister give a message that he finds disturbing and lacking of grace. While many in the congregation love their new pastor, Troy suspects something is wrong. Writing to the new minister, he receives a reply that is so upsetting to Troy that he barges in to his office and confronts the minister to his face. By the end of the book, the minister is knocked off his pedestal and Troy has a new love interest. And it’s Christmas.

 

While my short summary of the book may sound corny, as if it could be a script for a Hallmark Christmas movie, Billy Beasley is a talented storyteller. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Troy’s past and how a freak college injury kept him from playing professional baseball. And also we learn about a woman he once loved and the tragedy around her death. We also learn about the angels who look over Troy: David, from a former pastor, and Mabry, his college English professor who owns, with her husband, the bar where Troy works. Tory also befriends Suzanne (or she befriends him), who is the wife of the minister, and Stacey, a rising star in the world of Christian music. Billy weaves everyone’s story into the book, along with some real life places on Carolina Beach such as Britts Donuts (if you ever had one of their donuts, you’ll never forget it) and Snows Cut Bridge. The story is filled with wonderful descriptions of coastal North Carolina.

 

My main critique of Billy’s story is that the two main characters are presented as good and evil. The preacher, Alan Matthews, appears one-dimensional. He’s almost Puritanical in his lifestyle, although we learn late in the book that things are not always as they seem. Alan has an over-sized ego that craves the spotlight. He wants to be seen as right. He likes his high salary. We get a hint that Matthews wasn’t always this way, from conversations he has with his wife, but at the time this story occurs, he appears to be uncaring and sinister. Standing opposite to the minister is Troy. While there are more dimensions to his character, he comes across as almost always doing the right thing. He mostly responds in a manner that is well thought out and considerate of others, traits that serve him well as a bouncer. While Troy is a likable character, few people are so good nor are few as sinister as Alan. Most of us live our lives somewhere between the two extremes.

 

This work of fiction addresses the trough question of what the church is to be about. Matthew’s puritanical views on sex and alcohol are contrasted with those of the former pastor, David, who lifts up a vision of a loving community caring for people. Readers who have suffered from the hands of churches that seem more concerned on behavior and appearances instead of loving and accepting people will find much hope in this book. Of course, on the opposite end, those who argue for the church to maintain strict purity standards may find their position challenged.

As a disclaimer, I have known Billy Beasley since the fourth grade. This is his second book and I have enjoyed both of them.

The Land Between: Complaint

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Numbers 11:1-9
January 20, 2019

 

 

As we worship in his beautiful sanctuary on a mild, yet wet and windy winter day, we should acknowledge and be thankful. Not everyone gathering for worship this morning are enjoying these conditions. In Pakistan and other countries, Christians gather in fear.[1] Yesterday, in Alabama, a Presbyterian Church built in 1858 was destroyed by a tornado.[2] And in much of our country, Christians are gathering in less than ideal circumstances as blizzards roam across much of our nation. Preparing for worship in such a setting, Linda Olin rewrote a version of the Doxology for this morning. It goes:

            Praise God from whom all blizzards blow, Alleluia! 
            When snow comes down and cold winds blow! Alleluia! 
            Praise God for shovels, gloves, and plows, 
            When four-foot drifts surround your house!
            If more snow falls, Praise for snowballs.
            Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! [3]

I have no idea who Linda Olin is, but I applaud her effort to make the best of a difficult situation. When we find ourselves in situations beyond our control, we need to fight against the tendency to complain and learn to count our blessings, even if such blessings are only gloves, shovels and snowballs.

Starting today and for the next five sermons, I am going to preach from the 11th Chapter of the Book of Numbers. The Hebrew people are in the wilderness, but unlike Ms. Olin, they’re not counting their blessings. They’ve been eating manna for nearly two years now, and are sick of it. In Exodus, we find the people complaining about a lack of good water. God provides a way to purify it. Later they complain of the lack of any water and God provides a pouring spigot from a rock.[4]  Let’s face it. Those were legitimate complaints. Without water, we die. But now, we hear that the Hebrew people are complaining about a bland diet. And yet, remember, Jesus tells us to pray for our daily bread.[5] In other words, if we have enough to get by, we should be thankful even if we are working for something better.

As illustrations for this series, I’m using some photos I took on a trip into Central Utah with a friend of mine, the late Ralph Behrens. I told you more about one of these photos in my e-news yesterday—if you don’t receive that newsletter and would like to, see me.[6]

Ralph grew up in Goler Gulch in the Mojave Desert. He escaped that hard-scrabble life thanks to the Army Air Corp, spending the final few weeks of the Second World War in the Pacific. Afterwards, on the GI Bill, he earned a chemistry degree, but having grown in a mining camp, he remained interested in the industry. Because of this, he took a special interest in my dissertation on role of the church in the Nevada mining camps.

Ralph and I would often travel out into the desert looking at old camps. On these long drives, he would tell stories of growing up in such a place. One of the stories he told was when his father would go to work at the mine, he always said he was going to “Make Beans.” And that was it. He made enough money to buy beans for dinner, which was most of their diet during those hard years of the Great Depression. Few of us have that kind of hardship or exist on such a bland diet. If we have, I’m sure we’d be complaining, as we will see that the Hebrew people did when they were in the wilderness. Let’s look at this text. Read Numbers 11:1-9.

 

 

 

 

I was reading a novel on a flight from Boise to Chicago back in 1990. It was an early flight and arrived mid-morning in the windy city, a city that lived up to its name that day. As we began the approach, the pilot came on told the attendants to quickly prepare the cabin and to take their seats as it was going to be a rough. It was. The plane bounced all around as we came into a landing. Why he decided to attempt the landing was beside me for on the ground the wind was blowing like crazy and tarps were flying across the runways as ground crews tried to protect luggage. We stepped off the plane with water flowing through the gap between the plane’s body and the walkway.

When I arrived inside the terminal, I headed off into the direction for my flight to Pittsburgh. I had plenty of time, so when I came upon a bar with a hundred people or so crowded around it, as if it was happy hour, I decided to check it out. It was only 10:30 in the morning, so I was pretty sure it wasn’t a happy hour special. Instead, everyone was glued to the monitors above the bar, tuned to a local TV news.

That morning, tornadoes were ripping through the western suburbs of the city, not far from the airport. I felt blessed to be on the ground, and again wondered why the pilot tried to land. Ours was one of the last flights to touch down before they closed the airport. With only a book in hand (this was before the airlines nickeled-and-dimed you over luggage so I had checked everything), I made my way to the gate where I would spend the next 18 hours. Of course, I didn’t know I’d be stranded so long. Had I known, I would have had a few more books.

We have all been there, haven’t we? Maybe not out in the desert eating only beans or manna, or in an airport with just one book to read, but we have all been in situations where we had to wait, where we just spend time in boredom. We wait, hoping for a better future, a better diet, a quicker flight, a new job (or a better one or maybe just any job), or long for healing, or to get over grief.

Waiting is hard. And when there is no variety, it becomes boring. We start to complain. It’s natural to complain, or is it? Let’s look at today’s text.

 

It’s been two years since the Lord led Israel out of Egyptian slavery. They left Egypt with a vision of this new land promised to Abraham, a good land flowing with milk and honey. But instead of taking the direct way, up the coast line, the Way of the Sea, and on into the land of Canaan, God has Moses take a right hand turn that leads into the rugged and inhospitable wilderness of Sinai. Why would God do that?  Of course, God provided for them. Manna every morning, more than enough to sustain their fill.

But people are weary. They are tired of a life in the wilderness. They are tired of a bland diet. They begin to bicker and complain, so much so that God becomes enraged and his anger is kindled and fire burns toward the people. Panicking, they cry to Moses. Moses prays, and the fire are extinguished.

In verse four, we are told that that rabble had strong cravings. The word rabble is interesting. This is the only place it occurs in scripture and it appears imply not only a group of people, but a mob-like group led by their “sensual appetites”[7] This group’s “cravings” drive their behavior. They think back to all the good foods they enjoyed in Egypt: the fish, vegetables, and spices. Now they have just manna.[8]

          In the Book of Exodus, we’re also told more about manna, the collecting and gathering of this substance. The word manna means, “What is it?” Both books tell us it tasted like coriander seed.[9] Many of us have coriander in our pantries. It’s a wonderful spice to use in breads and stews, but only in moderation. Have you ever tasted it? Coriander comes from the seed of cilantro, another wonderful spice. The seeds are ground up. A recipe might call for a teaspoon of the spice, or maybe a little if you’re preparing an Indian recipe. It’s kind of bitter. I can’t imagine eating bread where the ground seed of cilantro replaces the flour. If you have an interest in seeing what coriander tastes like, I have some in this mortar that I’ll place on the communion table. After the service, if you are curious, you can take a spoon and put a pinch of the powder in your hand and try it.

            It sounds like I justified Israel’s anger over their diet, doesn’t it? Certainly, it is not anything we would want to endure, right? But the point is that at some time or another in our lives and in our Christian journey, we’re going to be in the Land Between. We are going to be at the point in which all seems old and bland and that all there is to do is to wait. At such a time, we’re going to think like me in O’Hara: “how much longer can I endure this boredom?” Instead, I should have been thankful I was safely on the ground. It’s easy for us, like Israel, to fall into the trap of complaining. “Oh great, manna again.” Like Israel, it’s easy for us to start blaming. “Moses, why did you bring us out here, we had plenty to eat in Egypt? Did you bring us out here to die?”[10]

Remember, sometimes God calls us, like Israel, into a transition. While we are tempted to throw up our hands in disgust or anger, we should remain faithful and ask God what we should be learning while we trust that God is preparing us for something new. Knowing that God is good, we should trust that God has something better in store for us. Now it may not be immediate or even in this life, but we go forth trusting.

           Hear this, the Land Between can be a dangerous place for our souls. As we transition to a new normal, we have to guard our hearts against the spirit of despair. If we go down the direction of despair, we easily end up believing that God is not good. Then we become bitter. Or we give up on God. Instead, we need to be patient and believe that God is preparing us for something better.[11] We worship a God of life, of new life. Let’s remember, it’s only after death that we can experience resurrection. The Christian message, the gospel, is to not give up on God. It is to trust that God is working to make all things new, in our lives, in our community, and in our world.

          When we enter this Land Between (which we must all travel sooner or later—as individuals and as a part of the communities in which we live), we must look around and give God thanks for the blessings we enjoy. We must be content and patient. We’re Christians, we should be the hopeful ones in the crowd. Israel should have been thankful they were no longer enduring the whips of their former masters and that, even in the wilderness, God was providing for their needs. In the wilderness, where God was actively working to forge them into a new nation, God sustain them. And God will sustain us.

          When you enter a period of transition, don’t be like Israel. Believe in God. Trust in God. Give thanks for that blessings, however small they might be, that you have been given.  And wait in hope, because you have faith in God. Amen.

 

©2019

[1] https://www.persecution.org/2019/01/08/pakistani-christians-fear-new-security-mandate-may-lead-church-closures/

[2] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/01/19/wetumpka-alabama-tornado-causes-significant-damage-downtown-storm-injuries-buildings-damaged/2627450002/

[3] Linda Bonney Olin “Praise God from Whom All Blizzards Flow: A Doxology for Those Blessed with Both Wintry Weather and a Sense of Humor.” (2019). Set to Geistiche Kirchengesanger, 1623; harmony Ralp Vaunghan Williams, 1906, Lasst Uns Erfreuen.  Found on Facebook.

[4] See Exodus 15:22-27 and 17:1-7.

[5] Matthew 6:11.

[6] You can email me at jeff@sipres.org

[7] Philip J. Budd, Numbers: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1984), 127.

[8] Interestingly, in Exodus 12:38, we are told that they left Egypt with large herds of animal. Here, no herds are mentioned. Had they eaten all their herds? Numbers doesn’t provide an answer.

[9] Exodus 16:31, Numbers 11:7.

[10] Exodus 16:3.

[11] Jeff Manion, The Land Between: finding God in difficult transitions  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012 ), 38

An Overnight Adventure (with pictures)

Arriving on Little Tybee

Needing some “me” time, I took off Sunday afternoon and paddled over to Little Tybee Island, where I camped, returning on Monday. The weather was marginal, as it had rained in the morning and was still gray at 3:30 PM, when I loaded my kayak and set off. A strong wind was blowing out of the west, which with the outgoing tide, allowed me to make good time as I headed toward the mouth of the Wilmington River and then crossing Wassaw Sound, arriving on the backside of the island around 5 PM.  Quickly securing my kayak well above the high water mark, I set up camp behind some dunes that provide a little protection from the strong wind. After getting camp set, I walked back out to the water’s edge to watch the sunset. I feared I’d missed it, but then was surprised when the sun dropped below the cloud bank, providing a short but incredible sunset. The tide was way out, but with the strong wind from the West, I was afraid that it might rise higher than normal, so I pulled my boat up even higher.

Sunset, looking toward Wassaw and Romerly Marsh

Heading back to camp, I started to prepare dinner. Nothing fancy, just a can of beef stew and some fruit. That’s when I learned the pump of my stove wouldn’t prime and the gasket had died and cracked. I ate the stew from the can, cold, along with the fruit, downing it all with a bit of bourbon and caught up with writing in my journal.  I was tired and the wind keep blowing strong, so at 7 PM, I decided to climb in my hammock and to get some sleep. I slept an hour and a half, about the length of my normal Sunday afternoon nap. At 9, I woke, thinking it must be early morning. I was wrong by several hours.  Lying in the hammock, I began rereading Belden Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes.

my overnight shelter

 

At 10 PM, I decided to try sleeping again. I vaguely remember waking a time or two to rearrange covers as the wind was blowing underneath the hammock’s fly and there were cold spots on my back. But I didn’t truly wake until 1:30 PM.  Nature was calling and knowing that high tide was approaching, I decided to get up and check on my kayak. The clouds were gone and the sky was beautiful.  It was chilly for this part of the country, temperature in the low 40s. Overhead, Orion, the great hunter of the sky followed by his faithful dog appeared as an aggressive matador chasing Taurus the Bull out of the sky. To the north, the Big Dipper was high above the horizon. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” I thought recalling the sunset. Yet, the wind continued to howl. But even though it was near high tide, the water wasn’t anywhere near my boat. I went back to bed, knowing I’d have a boat for my trip back to the mainline in the morning.

Early morning on south side of Little Tybee, looking toward Wassaw

I woke again at 6 AM. It was still dark and the wind still blowing. I was thinking about getting up but fell back asleep. When I checked the time again, it was 7:30 and daylight. I got up to see if there would be a sunrise, hiking for a bit along the water’s edge as I made my way around the sound side of the island to the ocean side. There was no sunset. Fog and clouds had moved in and it was still windy.

 

 

 

 

Heading back to my camp, I collected an armload of wood. While I could get by with a cold dinner, the lack of coffee and hot oatmeal just wouldn’t cut it. I built a small fire and in no time I water boiling for oatmeal and coffee percolating. The weather was calling for the winds to subside, so I waited around after breakfast, sipping coffee, reading, and some writing in my journal. I had thought I would have been on the way back earlier, but I wasn’t looking forward to fight the winds. Finally, about 9 AM, I extinguished the fire, packed up and a little before 10 AM, was ready to paddle.

 

Calmer waters as I approach Cabbage Island

Pushing off from shore, I broke a paddle! Thankfully, I had another, so I pulled it out and continued paddling. It was hard as the wind was coming right in my face and the rising tide was flowing into the Bull River, pushing me in the wrong direction. The waves and wide was coming in at a forty-five degree angle, pushing me off course and, with the tide current, making my paddle strenuous. But I keep at it, heading to Cabbage Island. About half way across I heard a foghorn and looked out to the northeast and there was a large container ship heading toward port on the Savannah River. It appeared as a ghost through the fog, but even at this distance, I could tell it was one huge ship.  Once I crossed over to the lee side of Cabbage Island, I began to make better time even if I was paddling directly into the current, but when I turned into the Wilmington River, I had both the wind and waves directed at me.  I had hoped I could make it back about as fast as I had paddled out, but it took twice as long! As I was approaching Landings Harbor Marina, the wind began to subside.

Psalm 29: To the Glory of God

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
January 13, 2019
Psalm 29

 

 

 

 

Upcoming!

Starting next week, I will be preaching a series of sermons from the Book of Numbers. In this series, we’ll look at the Hebrew people in the desert during the exodus. They have a choice. They can continue ahead into the Promised Land or they can go back to Egypt. As we do this study, I encourage you to read Jeff Manion’s book, The Land Between. They’ll be avaible this morning, in Liston Hall, for $15. I also encourage you to join a study group working through this book, which will be mirroring the topics I’m preaching. By hearing the sermons, discussing the topics in a small group, and reading the book, you’ll get more out of this series as we learn how to handle change and transition

We’ve just finished focusing on Jesus’ humble birth with the celebration of Christmas. Born in Bethlehem, God came into this world in like all of us. This morning, let’s for a moment contrast the humility of Jesus’ birth with a vision of God from the 29th Psalm. This Psalm, which lifts up God’s glory, orients us to the proper way to approach God. In God’s presence, like the wise men and shepherds, we can only stand in awe.

The Reformed Tradition, in which the Presbyterian Church stands, has always maintained a high view of God. Worship is based upon scripture and directed toward the Almighty. We are skeptical of making too many claims about God, for we understand that God is outside of our control. God is totally other. If God was anything less, he’d not be Almighty and we’d really be in trouble for we’d be depending upon a being that doesn’t have the power to do what we need. In scripture, we learn that God comes to us, drawing us into a relationship with him. God’s grace always precedes any action on our part. When we are truly in God’s presence, we’re speechless. We stand in awe. We’re like those in the Psalm, who can only mumble in amazement, “Glory!”  Read Psalm 29.

          There is nothing like an electrical storm to remind us just how our lives are fragile. I’ve been caught in many such storms: hiking in the forested woods of the Appalachians, backpacking above tree-line in western mountains, in a boat offshore of North Carolina, paddling a kayak in our sounds, and even once—as a kid—playing golf with my grandfather on Pinehurst #2.

I can assure you, there were plenty of thunderstorms the summer I hiked the Appalachian Trail. With the exception of when above tree line in New Hampshire or Maine, the best thing to do when no shelter was around was to keep on trucking. If it was cold, I would pull on a rain suit, but most often when summer hiking in the heavily forested eastern mountains, it’s was warm enough that you can just get wet. After all, I was probably in need of a shower. Of course, before the storm got too close, I’d stop and put on a pack cover to keep everything inside dry.

I lived through many such storms. The wind picks up. I’d begin to feel vulnerable. The trees start to bend and sway. Occasionally a branch breaks. But the wind is just a warning. Sound of the thunder increases. Soon the lightning is no longer just a flash in the distance, but well-defined streaks. It’s getting closer. Bolts begin popping trees nearby and the smell of burning ozone fills the air. If hiking with others, you spread out. That way, if one is struck, someone else could try CPR, or at least not everyone would be fried and would live to tell the story. After a brief intense period of lightning and deafening thunder, the rain comes. Like the electrical display, it’s short and intense, but quickly passes. Then it’s over.

As the storm moves off eastward, each boom of thunder is a little less intense. It’s hard to tell when the rain stops as the leaves keep shedding their water a good thirty minutes after the storm has past, even after rays of sun break through the canopy, which provides another glimpse of awe. In a few minutes, the storm seems to be a distant dream. In camp that evening, you build a fire and attempt to dry out socks and boots as you discuss shared experiences. Everyone was scared, but are glad to have gone through it. Storms are awe-inspiring.

Did the Psalmist have such an experience? He must have. The description of God’s glory being seen in a powerful storm that breaks trees and shakes the wilderness. In the face of such power, all one can say is “Glory!”

         I love this Psalm! We live in a narcissistic world, yet the Psalm reminds us of our limited abilities. In the face of such a storm, in the presence of our God, all stand in awe. The power of this Psalm drowns the choruses of “me, me, me” and “I, I, I” that dominate the sound waves of our lives. We can’t think too much of ourselves when we truly contemplate the power and the glory of our God. When we truly consider the omnipotence of God, a God shown in the 29th Psalm to have power over creation, we are left nearly speechless. The majesty of God drives us to our knees.

        I may have told you before about the cocky scientist who thought it wouldn’t be too hard to create a human being. If God could do it, he could do it, or so he thought. So God issued a challenge. He accepted. On the day of the event, the scientist went down to a creek bank and dug out clay and rich dirt. He then began to mold it into a body. It was looking pretty good. But before he could try to blow life into his body, a lightning bolt shattered this creation and a voice from heaven boomed, “Hey you, Mr. Scientist, go get your own dirt.”

In a profound way, the 29th Psalm humbles us before our Creator. Notice that in these 11 verses, humanity remains inactive. The Psalmist remains a passive observer. The Psalm is attributed to David and we can image him as a young man, out herding sheep, having such an adventure. While we are inactive, the Psalm opens with a call for us to worship God, but when we get into the meat of the Psalm, God provides the movement, not us.  We just watch as God’s glory is revealed in a violent storm that breaks the strongest trees known in that part of the world, a God over fire and earthquakes, tornadoes and floods. At the end, after tiring himself by proclaiming the wonder of God, the Psalmist expresses hope that God will give us strength and peace.

You know, we are all on a journey in this world. We are here for only a short time. And while we are here, God has something for us to do. We refer to this as our calling and those of us in the Reformed Tradition understand this calling to be more than just what we do within the church. In fact, worship is more than just what we do here on Sunday morning. Our whole lives are to glorify God, so our vocation—whether in the church or in the secular world—is important to God and the furthering of his kingdom.

        On Monday, in our Calvin January Series lecture, some of us were blessed to hear Dr. Jimmy Lin talk about the “good news” in the battle against cancer. Those who heard the lecture may have been shocked that before Lin talked about cancer, he discussed his relationship to God, referring to himself as a “scientific doxologist.” As you know, the doxology is a praise of God. Dr. Lin suggested that the most important thing for all of us to do is to praise God. In other words, we are all called to be a doxologists. Yet, we live out our lives in different ways. He is a scientist, so he calls himself a scientific doxologist. When we all think of the labels we place on ourselves for our journey through life, all of us should strive to include the title “doxologists” with our description. “I’m a business doxologist, an engineering doxologist, a banking doxologist, a lawyer doxologist, a retired doxologist, a preaching doxologist…” You get the idea, don’t you?

         Interestingly, with all this discussion this morning about storms, Martin Luther, the great Reformer, religious vocation began with a thunderstorm. A nearby lightning strike threw him from his horse. Scared, he prayed and vowed that if saved, he would become a monk.[1]

In his Small Catechism, Luther began his explanation of the Ten Commandments with the phrase, “We should fear and love God.”[2] Most of us probably don’t think of these two terms, fear and love, together. They seem paradoxical, especially to our modern or postmodern minds. We have an idea that for true love to exist we have to be on an equal footing, otherwise one party will dominate the other. This may be partly true in the love between individuals—even though it is not always so. Certainly the foundation of love between a parent and an infant is not built on equality.[3] The child is totally dependent on the parent. The same goes for our relationship to our Heavenly Father. We’re totally dependent on God.

In our relationship with God, there is a dialectical tension between fear and love. We fear God because of our alienation due to sin. And yet, God draws us back to himself, through Jesus Christ, showing us love. Therefore should praise God always.

It’s with fear and love that we approach God and we can see both emotions in the 29th Psalm. Certainly the experiences of storms and natural disasters described in verses 3 through 10 are fearful. But isn’t it reassuring that God’s power extends even over these calamities, and that the God whose power extends over nature is the same God who gives us strength. Such a God is to be the focus of our worship; such a God is to be the focus of our lives. We’re called to join in with the heavenly host and praise him.

The trust of the Psalmist as he contemplates God’s power revealed in a fierce storm is the type of trust Jesus encourages us to have when we pray, “your will be done, your kingdom come.”[4]

When we encounter storms on our journeys, and sooner or later we all will, we should remember that it’s only in God Almighty that we find security. When it comes to the bottom line, there is nothing you and I can do unless God either wills it or allows us the freedom for it to happen. This may seem as a restriction on our sovereignty, but true freedom can only be found by humbling ourselves and by placing our faith in God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Friends, as you leave this morning, go out into God’s world living up to your calling. Go out into the world and be a doxologist! Amen.

 

©2019

[1] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950: Mentor Books, 1961), 15.

[2] Marva J. Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for this Urgent Time. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 97.  See all the Lutheran Book of Concord, pages 343ff.

[3] For a discussion on how love changes as we mature, see Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (1956: Harper & Row, 1974), 41ff.

[4] Matthew 6:10. See also Luke 11:10.

To the River

Olivia Laing, To the River (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2011), 281 pages, a few black and white photos.

 

The first sentence of this book, “I am haunted by waters,” jumped out at me. I’d read it before. It’s the ending line of Norman MacLean’s novella A River Runs through It. I was shocked that she doesn’t list MacLean in her bibliography even though in a later chapter she links him with Hemingway with “swift trout.” (55). Even if she hasn’t read the book, she’s probably seen the movie. It took me a while to get over this neglect (or was she snubbing) of an American author. A second problem I had getting into this book is that I expected her to be traveling through York. After a while I googled and learned that Laing’s river is one of a number of rivers in Great Britain named Ouse. My lack of knowledge of British geography led to this confusion.

 

Laing sets out to walk the banks of the River Ouse in Sussex. It’s not a long river and in a roughly a week’s time she covers the river that has been altered extensively in history. The one black and white photo of the river in the book looks like an irrigation canal in the American West. Over time, the river has been straightened. Its outlet has also been altered as Britain’s, for centuries, tried to create a usable harbor at its mouth. Silting and the longshore current quickly blocked such harbors. However, this altered river has played a major role in English history. Under her waters, Virginia Woolf drown herself by pocketing stones in her dress to pull her under.  In the 13th Century, the Battle of Lewes was fought along its banks. At one time, it was thought to be a location of a fossil providing scientists a link in human evolution, but eventually the “find” was proved a forgery.

 

Laing walks the banks of the river, staying in old homes and lodges near its bank, musing about history and development, nature and literature, religion and archeology. Laing’s writings displays a depth of knowledge as she not only has an understanding of a battle in the 1200s, but expresses a horror that the bones of many of those who were buried in mass graves ended up in the fill used by those constructing railroads in the 1800s. She introduces her readers to authors such as John Bayley and his wife Iris Murdoch, who both swam in this river. Bayley wrote about his wife’s Alzheimer’s, which allows Laing to explore the role of memory. She’s been doing throughout her walk as she explores the “ghost” along the river. She does not limit her discussion of memory to humans as she also explores how sea trout move up fresh water rivers to spawn. Another author she explores Kenneth Grahame, allows her to explore the role of grief following the author’s son, who like Virginia Woolf, also committed suicide. In addition to modern authors, she also ties in stories of Greek gods along with older British author’s such as the Bebe and the author of the ancient Domesday Book, published shortly after the Norman Invasion. As she weaves other stories into her own, Virginia and Leonard Woolf are always a close by as a common thread that ties everything together.

 

The deeper I read into this book, the more I enjoyed Laing’s key insights into the world in which she was traveling. She glimpses birds and animals, observes the changing of the weather, and watches other people as she makes her way along the path. She also brings in her own history and relationships into the story. The Ouse, she confesses on the first page, is a river that she has returned to many times. Her historical understanding of all that has happened along the Ouse is refreshing and made me want to keep going. For a river that I knew nothing about, I am glad to have taken this journey and recommend it for others.

The Wise Men and the Evangelical Stream

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 2:1-12
January 6, 2019

 

 

        This Sunday is Epiphany. In the Christian calendar it marks the end of the Christmas season as we see the decorations disappear. Epiphany means a surprise encounter or a manifestation of God. The root is from the Greek word for sunrise or dawn, although the word was also used in reference to an appearance of a god. In the Eastern Church, Christmas is celebrated on this day with an emphasis on the incarnation—the surprising way God came to us, “in the flesh.”

Traditionally, for those of us in the Western Churches, Protestant and Catholic, this is the time we hear the story of the Wise Men or the Magi, who follow the star that leads them to the infant child. They experienced firsthand the light coming into the world.

          As I have done throughout this Advent and Christmas season (with the exception of last Sunday), we will look at these traditional seasonal passages through the lens of Richard Foster’s book, Streams of Living Water.[1] Foster identifies six different streams or traditions in which we encounter and respond to God. With each of the streams, we have explored a different character within the Christmas story. For contemplation, we looked at Mary. Joseph was our example for holiness and John the Baptist for social justice. The shepherds served as our example for the charismatic stream and, of course, Jesus is the supreme example for the incarnational stream.

Our last stream is the evangelical tradition. The word evangelical, which has been often misused, comes from the Greek word evangel or good news. Sadly, when we hear the word evangelical today, people either think of it in a political realm or as a group of Christians who are against things. That’s not a fair way to think about this tradition. It’s not about politics or what we are against. Being evangelical, in a true sense, is about what we’ve experienced in Jesus Christ and a desire to share that experience with others. It’s about being for Jesus. Today, as I conclude this series, we will look at the wise men or magi as an example of the evangelical stream. Read Matthew 2:1-12.

 

There are a number of angles we can approach the story of the wise men coming to Jesus. This morning, I would like to highlight three:

  1. The wise men made it a priority to seek Jesus.
  2. Finding Jesus, they responded with gifts of thanksgiving, without expecting anything in return.
  3. Having encountered Jesus, they knew their loyalty was to a higher power.

 

 

Let’s look at each of these.

We don’t know what was so special about this particular star. It appears only the wise men noticed the star and followed it. Why weren’t others following it? We don’t even know who these guys are. It’s generally assumed they are from Persia. Some scholars suggest they were Zoroastrian priests who spent time studying the stars. And God placed this star (or a conjunction of planets, or an unfamiliar comet, or a supernova, or whatever it was) into the sky to catch their attention and draw them to Judea.[2] It’s obvious these guys are not Jewish, for if they were, they would have known the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Instead, they had to stop and ask direction. They knew something special was happening and wanted to check it out even if it meant a long trip to a distant land.

They took a risk. It was important for them to find Jesus, as it is with us. Responding to Jesus’ call to follow him is the most important decision we will make. It overrides all other decisions. And when we decide to answer this call, like the wise men, we are off on a journey in which we have little control. We are no longer our own; we belong to the Lord.

        What might we learn from the wise men’s search? They first go to Jerusalem, the holy city, a place of excitement. Herod’s there; the temple’s there. The streets are packed with pious folks carrying out the work at the temple and with pilgrims who have trekked there to worship. But that’s not where they find Jesus. Instead, they are led to a small dumpy town five miles away. A poor suburb, inhabited with shepherds and goat herders. The town supplied meat and animals for the appetites and sacrifices of those in the capital. Flashy isn’t one of God’s traits. God humbled himself by coming to us as Jesus and, I would suggest, we’ll often find Jesus in humble circumstances. To encounter Jesus, we have to be humbled. Being splashy or among those who are popular isn’t a guarantee that Jesus is present. Jesus comes to those who humbly admit their need for a Lord and Savior over their lives.

Following Jesus is the most important decision we have to make. But we can’t do it unless we are humbled.

         Now let’s look at this passage from what it tells us about giving. One of the most important lessons for a Christian is to learn that giving is as much a blessing as it is an obligation. You know, we feel good about ourselves when we give, especially when we give without expecting anything in return. The wise men show the importance of giving without being asked and without expecting anything in return. If you think about it, this is a story of foreigners giving gifts to a child they don’t know. It would be like someone from Romania dropping by the maternity ward at Memorial Hospital and handing out gifts.

Contrary to the popular carol and the ubiquitous nativity scenes, we don’t know for sure that there were three wise men. Instead, we’re told that they had three gifts, so it’s natural to assume three bearers of the gifts, but they may have been more (or less). Gary Larson, author of the Far Side comics, suggested there were four wise men. The fourth was turned away for bringing a fruitcake.

Over the years a lot has been made about the three gifts. It’s natural to associate gold with a king. Myrrh, which was used as an anointing oil for priest was appropriate for the Messiah, the anointed one. Frankincense, used in the sanctuary where prayers were offered to God, may indicate Matthew saw the gifts as foretelling a time when the baby Jesus would be worshiped with God the Father. However, this is only speculation. The gifts may have just been those worthy of a king.[3]

The wise men knew they needed to worship something greater than themselves. They knew they needed to worship God who considered them so precious that he came in the flesh. In coming, although they had no idea of this, they fulfilled the passages from Isaiah about the light of Israel rising and the nations and kings coming to see the glory. In fact, it’s from Isaiah that we get the transformation of wise men or magi into “kings.”[4]

         Finally, think about the loyalty of the wise men to a higher authority. Herod provides a counter-plot to the wise men. He reminds us that even though the Messiah has come, evil remains a threat. Herod’s false humility almost fooled the wise men. But then, after being warned in a dream of Herod’s intentions, they skip out of town without letting Herod in on the secret. The wise men are a reminder that our first loyalty is to God. Although as Christians, we’re called to obey those in authority, our allegiance has its limits and our commitment to God always comes first.

         Now, let’s think of the wise men or magi in the context of the evangelical tradition. This stream within the Christian faith places a high priority on the proclamation of the gospel, the centrality of Scripture, and the confessional witness of the early Christian community.[5] This good news, the grace of God’s work in Jesus Christ, calls us to follow Jesus. As with the wise men, it calls us to respond out of gratitude, and it also calls us to a new way of life in which God becomes first. We see this twice in this passage, first with the gifts they gave and, secondly, when they follow God and ignore Herod’s request that would allow him to carry out a great evil.

For those of us in the evangelical tradition (and that would include Presbyterians for I am speaking of the true meaning of the word, not how it is used in political discourse today), the need to tell others about Jesus fueled our missionary efforts to spread the good news to other nations and people. We always do this with God at the center. For the wise men, it’s God who calls them to Bethlehem. The wise men become the first converts to worship Jesus outside of his parents and a few shepherds. They represent the first fruit of an evangelical zeal that will spread the gospel to all the world. Friends, we need to rekindle that zeal.

          I started this sermon with three things we learn from the wise men. I am going to add one additional thing to this. There are four things that I want you to take home today and to ponder throughout the week: Seek Jesus, give graciously, know that God always comes first, and remember that we’re called to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

©2018

[1] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith (New York: HarpersCollins, 1988). The idea for this series came from Peter Hoytema, “Six Biblical Characters, Six Traditions of Faith” Reformed Worship #65 (September 2002).

[2] For a detailed treatment of the various ideas around the star, see Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah  (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 167-173.

[3] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation Commentary (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 14.

[4] See Isaiah 60:1-6 (especially verse 3 for kings and verse 6 for their camels). See also Psalm 72:10-11. Brown, 187-188 has a detailed account on how the wise men or Magi were transformed into kings.

[5] Foster, 219.

Wilderness: The Gateway to the Soul

Scott Stillman, Wilderness: The Gateway to the Soul (Boulder, CO: Wild Soul Press, 2018), 198 pages.

I really wanted to like this book. I thought I would enjoy it. After all, like Stillman, I have done many wilderness trips, both overland and on water. I’ve solo backpacked, off-trail and cross-country, in some of the same areas in which he explores in his book. Wilderness is a collection of accounts of Stillman’s mountain, desert and backwoods trips across the American West. Sadly, I found many of his stories to be flat. Too many lacked suspense and a plot line. To me, Stillman’s book reads like my journals (in which I scribble and make notes of my experiences, and like him occasional composing a line or two of poetry). But I don’t share my journals, I save them and later will distill from them what will go into a story. Instead of his journals serving as the source of ideas, it appears Stillman is offering up slightly edited journal entries.

 

My favorite story in this book was in the second chapter (Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, Arizona). The author is hiking through the Arizona desert, from Cottonwood to Sedona. In this story, I could feel the suspense and even some thirst as he struggled to find water. I would have liked to have felt such thirst (or sore muscles or fear) in all the stories. The wilderness can be a place many of us go to find healing, but we must also realize that it’s a dangerous place. Only when we are willing to take the risk can we experience the transformation that such places offers.

 

It appears to me that Stillman has some good ideas about the role of wilderness (many of which I share). But instead of developing the idea from the experiences contained within a story, these ideas are dropped in as a “truth.” Instead of the allowing the reader to gain from the struggles and the joy of being in the wild, coming to their own conclusions as we experience through words his experiences, Stillman tells us what to think. These are all solid ideas that I have held, such as it doesn’t take a lot of

 

In my opinion, Stillman also overuses lists (this is the second recent book I’ve reviewed and made this observation). He will drop a series of one word descriptions describing the weather, what he’s seeing, among other things. While occasionally a list can be a beneficial technique for emphasis, I felt many of these lists could be woven into the story and used as a way to draw the reader into his encounter within the wild. Stillman appears to strive for a minimalist style of writing (as in his hiking) by using short sentences and even many one-word sentences (which create a list).

 

Stillman has done a wonderful job advertising his self-published book. Using his incredible talents as a photographer, with a clever line or two from the book, I was sucked in. It’s too bad that Stillman didn’t publish a book of photographs with one or two line reflections. Such a book, while expensive to produce, would be a thing of beauty. There are no photos in this book except for those on the cover. In his advertisement copy, there is a quote comparing Stillman to Edward Abbey. While it is no doubt that Stillman, like Abbey, loves the wilderness and wants to protect it, his writings lack Abbey’s wit and “reverent irreverence.” Abbey always presented himself as a bit of a contraction (driving old gas guzzling cars and tossing beer cans out onto the desert floor while fighting against those threatening the environment). Stillman appears to have everything worked out neatly in his head, even before he has such experiences. His trips into the wilderness only confirms his beliefs.

 

I recommend everyone to find a way to appreciate the grandeur of the world in which we live. Such experiences help us understand ourselves better. But I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this book. Hopefully, the author will follow his hero, Edward Abbey, and continue to hone his craft. Abbey’s first book, Jonathan Troy, was not very well received, but when his second book, The Brave Cowboy came out, he had found his voice. The West is a complex place (which may be why I’ve yet to write about it outside of a few academic and historical pieces). To understand the West as a place which can help us to understand ourselves better requires so many different levels of thought: human and natural history, geology, hydrology, weather, botany, forestry, animal science, industrial development, economics, among other studies.

Reflecting on life at New Years

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Psalm 90
December 30, 2018

 

 

INTRODUCTION
          This is an in-between time. We’re still in the Christmas season, but all the present have been open. And we’re just a day and a half away from the beginning of another year. Should we sing carols or hymns like God of the Ages? So today, we’re going to try to catch it all as we sing a few carols and then reflect on our time on earth at the changing of the calendars.

This season is a time of looking back and all that happened in 2018, as so many of the news shows have been doing this week. But it’s also a time to look forward into 2019. I am always amused at the comic depictions of the New Year which show and old man on the 31st and a young baby on the 1st. I don’t know about you, but that’s not exactly how I find time marching on. But, I suppose, the humorous strips indicate this is a time to reflect back and forward.

In case you’re wondering what happened to the streams of tradition in which we encounter and respond to God, let me give you a heads up. Next week, which is the second and last Sunday of Christmastide in the Christian calendar, I will end with my sixth and final sermon on the streams of the Christian tradition as we discuss the wisemen and the evangelical tradition. Since there are only six “streams” and seven sermon opportunities between the Advent and Christmas tradition, I thought I would take today to reflect on the end of one year as we begin a new one.

Another change for today… Instead of doing a traditional sermon, I am going to offer three short reflections on Psalm 90, as a way for us to ponder a life of faith in the presence of an almighty and all-loving God.  I will also offer you some time to ponder the meaning of this Psalm for your life. Psalm 90 will be divide it into three parts: God’s eternal nature, human fragility, and our need for God’s compassion. In this Psalm, we are reminded of our limits, but also of God’s eternal nature in whom we find meaning and hope. In addition to a unique way of approaching this text today, we will also sing a variety of hymns and carols. Let us now greet one another with the peace of Christ. May the peace of Christ be with you.

GOD IS ETERNAL  (Exodus 15:1-2, 11-13; Deuteronomy 32:3-4, 39, 43)

 

Verses 1 and 2 are a praise chorus that we’ll repeat over and over this morning as they set the context for the Psalm. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” In repeating this chorus, we’re reminded that our lives may be fleeting, just a speck of time in the history of the world, but we live our lives in God’s presence, which makes all the difference in the world.

The 90th Psalm is attributed to Moses, which is why we begin with readings from Moses’ songs as found in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Moses was God’s chosen leader for the Hebrew people, who led them out of Egyptian slavery and during the period of the Exodus. But it wasn’t Moses who freed them the Hebrews. God is the liberator, who gave Moses the ability to do things he never imagined he could do. Moses was a mere man (a wanted man, no less) who probably stuttered. At the very least, he wasn’t an eloquent speaker. But God called him to a task which he performed and which marked a significant step in the history of human salvation. Yet, in the eyes of God, Moses’ life was just a speck, as are our lives. God is eternal, we’re not.

As the Psalm begins, we find our dwelling place in God. Other translations say that God is our refugee. The eternal God, who existed before even the mountains, even before the earth, is where we find solace and peace. Take a moment and ponder this for a moment: “We worship a God that is so much more than us…” You might even share it quietly with someone sitting beside you…

 

Prayers of Confession and Petition

Almighty God, as we stand at the end of the year, we look back at the

troubles of 2018 and pray for guidance. We know our world is in trouble. We don’t get along with one another and it is easy to categorize people into groups that we quickly dismiss. Forgive us. Many people in this world live without opportunities, face daily violence, corrupt or brutal leaders, or struggle with natural disasters. Help them and help us to be compassionate. Others have done wrong and now find themselves in painful situations with broken relationships and lives behind bars. Forgive them and help us to be compassionate. Others have suffered from the crippling effects of illness and accidents. Heal them and help us to be compassionate. Some are grieving over the deaths of loved ones. Give them peace and help us to be compassionate.

 

BUT WE’RE SO FRAGILE (Psalm 90:3-12)

          When we think of God’s powerful sovereignty, it is easy for us to realize our limitations. The second part of this Psalm, which is addressed to God, reminds us of our position in the created world. Are we special? Not really. We’ve made of dust. We’re like a grass that perks up in the morning and is scorched by the sun’s heat by evening. Life is transient.

The Psalmist understands our fallen nature. We live out our lives before God who is angered by our sinfulness. We must accept and deal with God’s wrath. We must deal with toil and trouble, sadness and heartbreak; yet, before we know it the whistle blows and life is over. This middle section of the Psalm draws us into a reality that we don’t want to accept. We are fragile and we are limited. One day, it’s all going to be over, so the Psalm asks that God teach us to count our days, to give our hearts wisdom, so that we might make the most of our lives.

Come tomorrow night, 2018 will be over. We can’t go back and relive or redo any part of it. But having a wise heart means that we can learn from our mistakes and more forward. Perhaps this is a place where resolutions, which are often made and joked about during this season, can play a role in strengthening our faith. What did you learn from 2018? What would like to do differently in 2019?  Take a minute and think about this. Make notes for yourself or silently share your ideas with a neighbor.

SO WE NEED GOD’S COMPASSION (Psalm 90:13-17)

While our Psalm has been realistic on the human condition, it ends by turning back to God and asking for compassion. There’s a bargaining going on with God. While the Psalm pleads for God to turn back, to show compassion and love, it gives reasons for God to fulfill this request. Those singing this Psalm promise that they’ll praise God and be joyous servants of the Almighty. They also promise that God’s deeds will be remembered by their children for generations to come. So instead of leaving us under the wrath of God, the Psalmist leaves us with the hope of a God who intervenes in history, as was done in Jesus Christ. Jesus removes the stain of our sin and offers us new life. Although this Psalm was written down generations, centuries before Jesus, those of us who live on this side of resurrection knows that God has shown his favor to us. God has answered the pleas of the Psalm. God’s wrath isn’t the final answer. Jesus came to show divine love to us. So as we make this Psalm our prayer, we should include a thanksgiving for the work of Jesus that wasn’t just limited to 2000 years ago, but continues on today and to the end of history.  As we move into 2019, let us thank God for his compassion and love.  Let us pray:

 

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Almighty God, as we stand at the beginning of a new year, we look forward with anticipation, for we know you are a God of hope and surprises. We thank you for all you have done for us in the past and we trust you as we move into the future, knowing that you’ll be with us regardless of what happens. Your creation provides for all our needs. Your love as shown in your Son, our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ, provides us with opportunities to be forgiven and to begin again as well as to enjoy life everlasting. And your ever-present Spirit encourages us when we struggle. O Great Triune God, we are humbled by your gifts of grace and eternally thankful.

©2018

Funeral Homily for Nicky Pipkin

Jeff Garrison
Homily for Nicky Pipkin’s Funeral
December 22, 2018
Psalm 100

Billy Beasley, Nicky Pipkin, Jeff Garrison. 2012 This picture hangs in my study.

I first met Nicky at the beginning of the 4th Grade when we were both assigned to Miss Freeman’s classroom. A shy boy, he was by far the smartest person in the class. Later, as school boundaries changed, Nicky and I attended different high schools. However, we kept up with each other because his father, Bert, was the manager of Wilson’s Supermarket where I worked in the afternoons. And for many years after I left that job, I would stop by the Supermarket when in town and his dad would tell me about Nicky. Bert was so proud of his son for graduating from Carolina, going to medical school at ECU, studying to be a heart surgeon. Thankfully, about six or seven years ago, I was able to reconnect with Nicky. As you all know, he was a wonderful man.

For my homily, I will use the 100th Psalm, one of Nancy Jo’s favorites. It’s upbeat, a psalm full of joy and music, the opposite of what many of us are feeling this morning. But Nicky enjoyed music, singing in the choir and playing the guitar. Nicky also kept God at the center of his life, which is what the Psalmist reminds us to do in this “song of thanksgiving.” Listen:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Scholars suggest this Psalm was most likely sung at the entry way into the temple. The first two verses could easily be a call to worship. Imagine the chief priest standing at the gates of the temple in his finest robe. Suddenly, trumpets blast, quieting the crowd. Then, in a loud voice, the priest steps forward to summon the crowd for the awesome task at hand. “Make a joyful noise,” he begins. “Worship the Lord with gladness.” We can imagine the gathered congregation responding as they sing, “To God be the glory.”

Verse three, “Know the Lord is God and that he made us and we are his, we are the sheep of his pasture,” reminds us (as well as those who had gathered at the temple) of our primary purpose. We’re created to worship God. God is our king! Those who first heard this song, as they were preparing to enter the temple, are reminded to put away thoughts of grandeur for themselves, to put away petty differences they might have with each other. They’ve come here together, united, in worship. The fourth verse reminds us to focus on God as we enter the gates singing praises. The Psalm closes with the reason behind our worship: “God is good. God’s love endures forever. God is faithful to every generation.”

This may be a short psalm, but its pack with a wonderful message reminding us to have God at the center of our lives and foremost in our thoughts. God is faithful, even at a sad time like the present.

Nicky believed. He didn’t fully understand why the cancer was happening to him, but he trusted God. He had accepted Jesus and placed in his faith in Savior. Dr. Ken Griffin, a colleague of Nicky’s from Savannah, told me how Nicky was so respected in the medical community and how the “light of Christ” shown through his practice of medicine.

I visited Nicky a few days after Thanksgiving. He told me how he could feel God’s leading his life, often times taking him on a different direction than he’d planned. But God was faithful as he was able to fulfill his childhood dream to become a Doctor. He might not have fully understood why he was sick, why all this happened to him (none of us do), but he felt God’s presence. Nicky confided in me that he had never felt alone since his teenage years. When he was 14 and his parents had split up and his family seemed to be unwinding, he found that God was with him as he was becoming the man we’d know. Even toward the end of his life, when he admitted to having more “bad days than good,” Nicky knew he was in God’s loving arms. He trusted in his Savior and knew his destiny.

Certainly Nicky wanted more time on earth, but it wasn’t just time for himself. This was not a selfish desire. He wanted to take care of his family and to enjoy their presence. Nicky loved Nancy Jo, his wife and high school sweetheart. He adored his daughters Mallory and Madison, and his grandchildren Maisy, Cutler and Brandynn. He cared for his sisters and his extended family.

Over the past few days as I’ve talked to some of Nicky’s friends and read a host of comments on Facebook, many from those of us who knew him at Bradley Creek Elementary School. Everyone commented first on his kindness. Nicky was quiet and shy back then, unlike many of us in those days. Even then, his compassionate nature was witnessed as he spoke up in defense of those who were bullied. He had a tender heart and was generous with his time, his friendship, and his resources.

“The wonderful thing about Nicky is that he never changed, noted his friend Billy Beasley. Billy told me about when they first reunited after decades of not seeing each other, Nicky had asked Billy if he had done anything in school for which he needed to apologize. Billy, the lead knucklehead in a class filled with knuckleheads, couldn’t believe Nicky was asking this. Nicky was always the kind and considerate one.

I spoke with Allen Bosson, his pastor when he lived in Savannah, with whom Nicky had attended several mission trips to Panama and Jamaica. Even though he was a highly skilled surgeon, Nicky helped set the example. He never complained when eating strange food and while staying in hotels which, if they had been rated, would have received a black hole instead of a single star. Allen told of a young girl he was treating, whom he had to refer to the hospital. Afterwards, Nicky was visibly upset because he couldn’t do anything more and was afraid the child would die. Nicky’s compassion, first witnessed when he was just a child, remained with him throughout his life. He didn’t go into medicine to make a lot of money, Nicky wanted to help people and used his God given talents to do that.

Nicky was humble. He never felt special. He didn’t introduce himself as Doctor or Nicky Pipkin, MD. It was always Nicky. Dr. Keith Cobb told me how Nicky volunteered to help him plant a pecan orchard. Keith had also hired some migrant workers and when they were taking a break, one asked Nicky if he did this kind of work often. “No,” Nicky said, “I’m just doing it for the exercise.” The other worker then asked what he did and laughed when Nicky said he was a surgeon. The migrant worker thought this hard working man must be joking.

In his medical practice, Nicky’s skill as a surgeon saved many lives. He also saved one of Keith’s horses who’d snapped a ligament. Keith had tried to sew it back together, but the repair didn’t hold, so he called on the skill of his surgeon friend Nicky. They put the horse to sleep and Nicky used his talents to repair the tendon. They then put a cast on the horse’s leg. After it had healed, the horse recovered beautifully.

Nicky seemed to understand that God had given him gifts that didn’t make him special, but instead were his to use quietly to help others. Whatever the task at hand, Nicky didn’t think it was below him to join in and help out, whether it was sweeping a floor or serving in some other way.

I think it was in August when I talked to Nicky shortly before he went on medical disability. He was torn. He wanted to keep working to be able to better provide for his family. But he knew he needed to make sure he was able to provide the kind of care his patients needed. Shortly after that conversation, Nicky decided to go onto disability and to leave Arkansas and move back to North Carolina. If there was a place in Nicky’s life for pride, it was in his grounding in the Old North State and being a Carolina graduate.

Sadly, his journey back to North Carolina was made only a week before an unwelcomed visitor, Hurricane Florence, came calling. It seemed as if all kinds of storms were raging in Nicky’s life, but as he did throughout life, he didn’t complain. When he had energy, he took care of business and, through it all, was able to enjoy his last few months on Wrightsville Beach listening to the sound of the surf.

We’ll miss Nicky. Carl Mason, Nicky’s childhood friend and high school soccer teammate said to me the other day, “Nicky was the type of individual who inspires us to be a better person.” Yes! And we should draw from the lessons Nicky showed us in his life and strive to be the type of person that looks out for others, one who is always kind, who loves family and friends, and who works to make this world a better place. Furthermore, we should also draw from his private but a very real faith that reminds us, as does the 100th Psalm, that we are not alone in this world. We are loved by God and for that reason, even when we are at the grave, we can sing “to God be the glory.” Amen.

Christmas Eve Homily 2018

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Christmas Eve 2018
John 1:1-14

Throughout Advent, we’ve been reading traditional seasonal passages about the coming and birth of Christ using the various Christian traditions outlined by Richard Foster in Streams of Living Water as our lens.[1] So far we have explored four great themes: the contemplative, the holiness, the social justice, and the charismatic. This evening, we are going to look at a fifth way of encountering God, one that all the other streams flow into. That’s the incarnational tradition.

Our Scripture reading for my homily this evening comes from the first chapter of John’s gospel. John doesn’t talk about Bethlehem or mangers. There are no shepherds or wisemen. Instead, John’s gospel is all about the incarnation—Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. And our question tonight is what difference does Jesus coming make in our lives? Read John 1:1-14.

###

I am old enough to remember when the cheesy animated movie, “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer” came out. It was 1964, I was just starting school, and it was a big event because this was the first show I saw on TV that was in color. We didn’t have a color TV. Most of my friends didn’t have a color TV. But there was one family in the neighborhood that had taken the plunge and purchased a color TV. They invited the whole neighborhood over. A hoard of us kids crowded into their living room and sat on the floor around their wonderful television. We rooted for the misfit reindeer as he fought with rejection, faced horrible blizzards, and battled the evil snow monster. To a kid, it was scary. I had to smile at just how cheesy the movie was when I watched it again, decades later.

Over the years, I’ve been cynical when I’ve thought about this show.  After all, Rudolph, like too many of our Christmas traditions, was created in a marketing department. In Rudolph’s case, it was Montgomery Ward’s. The character outlived the institution that created it. I know there are some who think there’s a major onslaught against Christmas in our culture and in some ways they may be right, but I’m not sure they really understand the. Commercialism has been an enemy of the holiday ever since Protestants in America began celebrating Christmas in the mid-19th Century. And this movie is an example.  There’s nothing in the movie about the birth of a Savior.

But maybe I’m a bit harsh. Yes, it is true that the movie takes the focus off the Christ-child in Bethlehem and places it on Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. But Christ-like values are seen throughout the film. The misfits find a place to fit in. You have an elf that wants to be a dentist, a reindeer with a bright red nose, toys that are exiled on an island for misfits. If you’re not perfect, you don’t fit in. If you’re not perfect, you’re bullied, which is still a problem in our schools and in society. Yet, in the movie, all these misfits find their place. The dentist elf pulls the teeth of the feared abominable snow monster. Rudolph’s nose allows Santa to fly in inclement weather. The misfit toys find homes. And even the feared snow monster becomes tame and is able to help out, placing the star upon Santa’s large tree without a ladder. There’s a place for everyone. Yes, it’s a kid’s movie, but it’s a movie about redemption which is, after all, at the heart of the Christian message.

God’s great gift of coming to us in the flesh—the incarnation—opens us up to the possibility of transformation, to the possibility of incarnational living. Our calling, which is more than just how we make a living, is to produce good in the world.[2] Here at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church, we have a slogan. We’re to reflect the face of Jesus to the world. That’s what the incarnation is all about, sharing a smile, helping out a neighbor or a stranger, caring for those around us and doing it in the name of Jesus.

As some of you know, I made a quick trip to North Carolina on Friday and Saturday in order to officiate at the funeral of a childhood friend. Although a hurried trip, I was blessed to gather stories about Nicky from both childhood friends and those who worked with him. Nicky became a heart surgeon and over the years many of us lost touch with him, but about 10 years ago thanks to Facebook, many of us reconnected.

Nicky Pipkin in the middle. Billy Beasley (the mutual friend) to the left and me to the right. 2012

One of our mutual friends noted, after reuniting, that Nicky was the same then as he was when we were in elementary school at Bradley Creek. Another classmate noted how Nicky stepped in to stop other kids from bullying. Many of his former patients sent notes about how he had saved their lives. Nicky didn’t go into medicine to make money. He was interested in helping people. He also had a strong faith and had told me when we’d last visited how he felt God’s leading in his life. In a way, Nicky is an example of an incarnational life. I’m sure you known such people in your circle of friends. They don’t wear their religion on their chest, but they live the faith and their works are seen in the good they do.

As John reminds us, through Jesus we have experienced God’s glory that’s full of grace and truth. And those of us who have experienced such grace should share it with others as we reflect the face of Jesus to the world. Like in the Rudolph story, we need to stand up against bullying and to help everyone find a place where they belong. In that manner, we fulfill our calling to be disciples of God’s Son. In that manner, we’ll share Christmas cheer year around.  Amen.

 

©2018

[1]Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Church, (New York: HarpersCollins, 1998). The sermon series idea came from Peter Hoytema, “Six Biblical Characters, Six Traditions of Faith” Reformed Worship #65 (September 2002).

[2] Foster, 263.

Shepherds: The Charismatic Stream

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Luke 2:8-20
December 23, 2018

 

This Advent and Christmas season we have explored the traditional passages of the season through the lens provided in Richard Foster’s book, Streams of Living Waters. Foster outlines six different Christian traditions.[1] As I’ve noted, you can find support within scripture for each. Yet, each one has a different way of encountering and responding to God. Today, we’re going to look at the Charismatic tradition through the Shepherd’s role at the nativity. Charismatic might be a word that causes us to be uneasy. It conjures up images of wooden white-washed Pentecostal Churches: talking in tongues along with extremely enthusiastic worship running the gambit from passionate singing to dancing to even (on the fringes) snake handling.

But that’s not really what being charismatic is all about. It’s about being open to the leading of God’s Spirit, and while there are excesses as with any of the traditions, all Christians should be open to the Spirit. Let’s see what this stream means as we consider the role of the shepherds. Read Luke 2:8-20.

The shepherds were folks on the margin.[2] They were the cowboys of their day, spending extensive amount of time out with the flocks, watching over the animals to keep them safe from poaching or wild beasts. When they came to town, they probably wanted to tie one on. Instead of heading to a synagogue or the temple, they would have stopped by at the first available saloon serving cheap booze. “Give me a bottle of rotgut,” they’d demand. Even though Israel celebrated their Shepherd King, David, and they likened God’s guidance to a shepherd (as in the 23rd Psalm), real live shepherds were look down upon. After spending a week or so on the range, without baths and in an age without deodorant, shepherds weren’t exactly embraced when they came into town. Being a shepherd was to be at the bottom of society, yet it’s to them that God chose to reveal himself as a child.

For many people, God’s decision to announce the birth of God’s son to unlikely, ordinary and underserving people didn’t make sense. Those in Herod’s court, or the priest in the temple, or the lawyers or business men made better sense. But instead, there are two groups that God choose to share this secret: shepherds and wisemen. The Christmas story reminds us that even the lowly, the despised, and the foreign can be used by God to carry out the divine plan.

When the angels appear to the shepherds, their first words are “Fear Not.” When God chooses to be revealed, it’s not an occasion for fear even though it’s frightening. The correct response is to rejoice, as the angels encourage the shepherds with their song of praise. Their song has two great themes: glory and peace. Glory is all about God in heaven. Peace is possible on earth because of God’s glory in heaven. And Jesus is the pivot where the heavenly glory and earthly peace are joined.

Historians tell us that he shepherds were living in a peaceful age. In 31 A. D., Octavian, known also as Caesar Augustus, defeated Mark Anthony, a victory that ushered in an almost 100 year period of peace for the Roman empire. During this time there were no major wars or even major revolts. Pax Romana or the peace of Rome allowed prosperity across the empire, but it wasn’t a pretty peace. The Romans ruled with a brutal iron fist over their conquered territories. The cross helped them maintain their so-called peace. That’s not the kind of peace Jesus brought into the world.

It’s a good think our Lord’s birth wasn’t first announced among the Roman authorities. After all, they felt they had peace and, as Matthew’s gospel tells us, would to go to any extreme to maintain that peace including killing potential challengers to the existing order. But the shepherds, whose marginal lives did not benefit from the Roman prosperity, were able to experience peace at the manger. For them, Jesus’ birth was Good News.

Now let’s think about the shepherds from the perspective of the charismatic stream. For those of us in the Reformed Faith, charismatic experiences might seem far-fetched, but I’ll let you in on a secret, there are a few Pentecostal Presbyterian Churches.[3] More importantly, we shouldn’t get hung up on the emotional pull of Pentecostalism, but instead realize that the Holy Spirit plays a significant role in our own tradition.

There’s a Reformed slogan you may have heard… Anytime anyone wants to change anything within the church, they’ll liable to shout, “The Church Reformed, Always Reforming,” claiming it as support for doing something new. While it’s important for the church to do new things, we need to understand that favorite quote is actually misquoted. “The church reformed, always reforming” sounds than all reforming is good, but it’s missing a key part of that Reformation saying.

The correct quote is “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God and in the power of the Spirit.”[4] In other words, we reform as we see our faults through God’s Word and are led by the Holy Spirit. Catch that? We are to be led by the Spirit—that’s charismatic! We are to be open to God’s Spirit guiding our sanctification. That’s what being charismatic is all about—it’s embracing the gifts that God gives, that comes from God’s Spirit.

“We do not live our lives ‘under our own steam;’” Richard Foster writes. “We were never created to do so. We are created to live our lives in cooperation with another reality.”[5] As believers, we must be open to following where God’s Spirit leads. Like the shepherds who abandoned their flocks to check out what the angels had revealed to them, and who praised God when they encountered the baby in a manager, we have to be open to where God might be leading us.

Foster provides four benefits of this tradition. Being open to the spirit helps us correct our attempts to domesticate God. This can be a problem. We like to put God in a box. It allows us to pretend we have some control over God. We forget that Jesus teaches that God is like the wind, free to blow where he chooses.[6] We can’t control God or the wind. Secondly, when we are open to God’s Spirit, we can be pulled out spiritual doldrums. It’s easy to be satisfied with where we are at spiritually, yet not be growing. Since none of us will obtained a perfected sinless state in this life, we are all called to continue growing spiritually. Being open for charismatic gifts helps us mature as a Christian. And finally, this stream empowers us to witness to the great things that God can do through us when we are open to his Spirit.[7] As Jesus teaches, with God, all things are possible.[8]

Of course, there are some perils to over-emphasizing the charismatic stream. If we think ours is the only way to encounter God, we discount other experiences of the divine as we focus only on that which we’re comfortable. We also risk focusing mainly on the gift, not the giver. This stream, by itself, also risks the rejection of the rational and the intellectual. We can also emphasize the Spirit’s gifts so much that we forget about the fruit of the Spirit, those places in our lives where we show evidence of God’s on-going sanctification. Finally, this tradition seems to have been the source of many end-time scenarios that lack theological and even Biblical foundations.[9] 

Again, just because we draw upon the charismatic stream doesn’t mean we’ll talk in tongues or become faith healers, although we shouldn’t outright dismiss such practices even if it’s not for us. There is a lot we can learn about being open to the Spirit. We can try to be more open by laying our hands on those over whom we pray. We can strive to be freer in our worship experiences. The shepherds were called that evening outside of Bethlehem to leave their positions of comfort as they laid on the hillside, probably by a fire, warming themselves while listening for sounds of danger within their herds. That was a life they knew. Yet, they are called to leave, for short while, their life on the pasture and seek out a child coming with the promise of peace. As they sought Jesus, they experienced God in a new way.

 

Charismatic means being open to the Spirit. The shepherds were. Are we? Amen.

 

©2018

[1]Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Church, (New York: HarpersCollins, 1998). The sermon series idea came from Peter Hoytema, “Six Biblical Characters, Six Traditions of Faith” Reformed Worship #65 (September 2002).

[2] It has also been noted by historians that many of the early members of charismatic and Pentecostals were also on the margins of society.

[3] There were two in the Presbytery of Western New York when I a pastor within that presbytery (1990-1993).

[4] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Order, F-2.02.

[5] Foster, 125.

[6] John 3:8.

[7] Foster, 128-130.

[8] Matthew 19:26, Mark 10:27.

[9] Foster, 130-131.

John the Baptist: The Social Justice Stream

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Luke 3:1-20
December 16, 2018

 

 

Let’s watch a video…[1]

Those of us who anticipate the coming of something great during this season may, once again, be sucked in by Madison Avenue. If the magic of Christmas is nothing more than a soda, we’re a poor lot indeed. The message of Advent is that something is coming, something is happening, but it has nothing to do with a convoy of trucks. Coca-Cola, which has heavily invested in Christmas commercials for nearly a century, can make us thirst for a syrupy drink, but it can’t quench our thirst.[2]

          What are we to anticipate? Have our senses been so numbed that we’re forgotten? This is the season we remember God coming to us as child born to homeless parents in a stable in Bethlehem. God comes to us as a family who will soon find themselves as refugees as they flee Herod. The coming of the Messiah had been anticipated for generations when Jesus came. And those of us living between the first coming and the second still anticipate a more righteous world. This leads us into our third stream in which people encounter and respond to God with a longing for social justice. Today we are going to look at the character of John the Baptist through the lens of this desire for things to be made right in the world. Read Luke 3:1-20.

 

         With all the hecticness of the season—the shopping, cleaning and cooking—we’re liable to forget about love. And when we read our New Testament passage for today, we’re not exactly reminded of it. Let’s be honest, John the Baptist does not give us warm fuzzy feelings. A wild man ranting and raving in the desert, calling people vipers and snakes, doesn’t sound like love to me. If it’s love, it’s “tough love.”

         But John caught people’s attention with his unusual tactics. Although he preached judgment, when he got down to application, his message really wasn’t that tough. He told those who would listen that they couldn’t depend on the faith of their ancestors and that a certain level of behavior was expected from them. His message was to share and take care of one another and not to steal or cheat. If you think about it, he even supported the rights of soldiers and tax collectors to do their jobs. They just couldn’t use their position to extort money. Soldiers and tax collectors were hated because they worked for Rome, but that didn’t bother John as long as they are honest. And it must not have bothered most of those who listened because we are told they were rather excited about what he said. The exception to this was Herod. John bothered Herod, but to most, his message was refreshing. He lifted up hope for one who’s coming, the one from whom he’s preparing the way.

        It’s interesting that John was able to pull off his message. After all, he preached to the chosen, those God hand-picked to be a light to the world. He tells these folks who feel secure in their covenant with God that they’d better shape up. He calls them to a new sense of righteousness, one envisioned by the prophets, a law written in their heart.[3]

       In other words they, like us, need to be converted. We to clean up our act so we can begin to anticipate what our God can do for us as opposed to what we can do for ourselves. We need to make room in our hearts for God’s desires, not our own.

Years ago I clipped a Christmas meditation from a church newsletter which read:

“All I want for Christmas!” Isn’t that just like our human hearts? What do I get out of this? As Christians, we know this isn’t right even though we are so enculturated by the traditional celebrations of the Christmas season that is somehow seems all right… kind of. What does God want?  God asks for only one thing—my heart.[4]

Advent is a time of preparing ourselves for something big. It’s a time to prepare our hearts for God. That means we must hear the messages of judgment and the call to repentance. And what better way to catch out attention that John the Baptist, who, like junkyard dog, growls at us.

         Years ago, in my mid-20s, I was living in a small house in Whiteville NC that had a basketball goal in the backyard. My neighbor kept a dog in a pen on the boundary between the houses. From what I could tell, this neighbor who was seldom home, fed and watered the dog, but otherwise mostly neglected him. Often, in the afternoon when I was done with work, I’d go out and shoot some hoops and the dog would bark and growl. I was patient and talked softly to the dog. Over time, I’d bring out a treat. In a few weeks, the dog calmed down and when I went out to shoot hoops, instead of growling, he be excited and yip and pant until I came over to give him some attention.

Likewise, John demands our attention and then, once he has it, softens his message to tell us to do what we’d expect from anyone. Be honest, be fair, and be generous. If we live such a way, we’ll be in good standing when the Messiah comes (or, in our case, when he returns).

Before leaving the text and moving on to discuss the Social Justice stream, let me say a bit more about what we read here. Luke, as he did in chapter two with Jesus’ birth, places the ministry of John the Baptist into historical context. We learn who’s in charge in Rome, as well as in the sub-kingdoms of Judea and Galilee and the surrounding area. We also learn who’s who in the temple. Luke then contrasts those in positions of power to a lone voice in the desert. We’re reminded here that one doesn’t have to be in a position of power for God to use to bring about major change in the world.

         The social justice stream within the Christian tradition goes all the way back to the prophets who called Israel to change her ways, to take care of the poor, the widowed, the orphan, the foreigner. It’s a stream a lot of us would like to ignore, which is why we have to deal with John’s preaching before we get to Jesus’ teachings.

There are those who want to discount the Christian role in fostering Social Justice. That’s unfortunate. To ignore calls for social justice in scripture is to understand only a portion of the good news.

        Sadly, in the early 20th Century, there was a split within the Protestant movement that created two different camps. In the 19th century, the Protestant movement in America tended to be evangelical regardless of denomination. This movement brought about great changes in society, from public schools to working to abolish slavery. All kinds of parachurch organizations flourished, supporting ideas as diverse as women and worker’s rights, anti-child labor laws, temperance and such. Then, especially after the First World War, some of the groups became more radical while others called on the church to just focus on saving souls. The divorce that followed (and there were both camps within most denominations) led to the fundamentalists who emphasized personal salvation and others who mainly focused on improving society. Sadly, neither camp has the full gospel story.[5]

       The strengths Foster outlines for this tradition includes an emphasis on the right ordering of society. This world isn’t the way God intended it to be and as followers of Jesus, we must do our part to foster a better world. Secondly, the call for social justice reminds us of our connection to all people. We are all created in God’s image and called to work for a vision in which everyone is treated well. All of us have the divine imprint stamped into our DNA. A concern for social justice bridges the divide between personal and social ethics. We can’t push for one and ignore the other. We are to treat our neighbor next door well, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore our neighbor a continent or two away. Concern for social justice provides relevance to love, saving it from sentimentality. It raises concerns for ecological issues as we seek peace or shalom for all of God’s creation. And finally, a concern for social justice keeps an impossible ideal (God making the world new) relevant. We can’t fulfill this desire by ourselves, we must depend on God.[6]

         Of course, if we stick to just this stream of faith and ignore the others, there are dangers. We risk making social justice “an end in itself.” This can lead to burnout, while causing us to ignore God’s activity in other areas of our lives. Another danger is that we become so focused on the dream that we forget the necessary work within our hearts. We risk become legalists, or being judgmental against those who hold different views. And finally, the biggest danger is that we risk being coopted into the political agendas of others.[7] “If you are anti-abortion, you must be one of us…” or “if you’re pro-human rights, you must be one of us…” Sadly, this is how the world works. I think this is why Jesus said to the disciples when he sent them out into the world to be wise as serpents,[8] for he knew that his message could be used for other agendas.

We must see the importance of social justice through the scriptures. Our God advocates on behalf of those oppressed, from the Israelites in Egypt, to the concern of the prophets who cried out on behalf of the marginalized, to the New Testament Church and its concern for the well-being of all its members.[9] Those who call us to be concerned for others can’t easily be dismissed when seen in such a light.

          John reminds us to do what is right. Prophets have been giving this message in Israel for ten centuries. Most were okay hearing such a message as long as it applied to someone else. But John’s message, as we see this morning, cuts across lines. He calls on all people to do what is right. Those with abundance are to give to those without. Those with physical power, are not to abuse, nor are those with financial power to be greedy. They are to live just and honorable lives. And so are we. Amen.

©2018

[1] A piece of this ad was shown with an ending message reminding us that Jesus is the reason for the season. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccNzBhTcehs

[2] I wrote about this for the Presbyterian Outlook in 1999. See http://skidawaypres.org/pastor/?p=2178

[3] Jeremiah 31:33.

[4] This meditation was written by Kathy Terrion in the 1990s. She was a pastoral assistant at Mt. Olympus Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City.

[5] This is a bit of a simplification. There were other issues, too, such as the rise of communism, the use of Biblical criticism, and the teachings on evolution. For more information see George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (London: Oxford Univ Press, 1980) and Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991). As for both camps lacking the full understanding of the gospel, see Jack Haberer, GodViews: The Convictions that Drive Us and Divide Us (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2001).

[6] Foster, 176-178.

[7] Foster, 179-181.

[8] Matthew 10:16.

[9] As examples, see Exodus 2:24-25, Amos 1:6-8, Acts 6:1-2.

Santa Claus, Coca-Cola, and the Strip

A version of this article of mine appeared in the Presbyterian Outlook, volume 181, #42 (December 20, 1999.

Jeff Garrison Photo taken in Cartersville, GA, September 2017

The elevator inside the over-sized Coca-Cola bottle whisks us up to the fourth floor. As we step out and back into the 1930’s, we are greeted by Harry. With his starched white uniform and hat neatly arranged, he stands at attention behind the soda counter.  We’re invited to take a seat on one of the stools and introduce ourselves. This is going to be a communal experience. As we talk, Harry carefully squeezes an ounce of syrup into a six ounce glass and fills the glass with cold carbonated water. After stirring the concoction, he holds out the glass for us to sniff. The glass is cold and the black drink fizzles. It looks and smells like the real thing. Then, surprisingly he pours it down the drain. After getting us in the mood for a Coke, he says he’ll make us one for just a nickel.  My throat is parched and I, along with the rest of my new found friends, search our pockets for the correct change. As the nickels drop on the counter, Harry shows us how to make a Cherry Coke and informs us of the various favors available. Again, we salivate over a cold glass only to have him pour it down the drain. We are told if we want our drink a particular flavor, we must pony up another penny. Again, we dig into our pockets.  Most of us around the counter drop a penny down. Harry begins to collect our money but, upon examining the coins, rejects them. It’s the 1930’s and he’s not going to be fooled into taking counterfeit coins dated in the ‘90’s. We all watch as our drinks are poured down the drain. I’m about as parched as the desert around Las Vegas and ready to come over the counter and fix a glass myself when he informs us we can have all the Coca-Cola products we want on the third floor. We thank Harry for his entertainment and leave the soda fountain with tongues dragging the floor.

Lights blind you on the Las Vegas strip. Its two and a half miles of neon, free flowing drinks, scantly clad women with peacock feathers, exotic tigers, exploding volcanoes, battling pirate ships and the treasures of Egypt and Rome. All the glamour gathered in one place in order to seduce people from hard earned money. In the midst of this most hedonistic zone is the World of Coca-Cola, one of the few places along the strip without slot machines and cocktail waitresses. An old fashion Coke bottle, four stories high, serves as the entrance. They claim it to be the largest Coke bottle in the world, but it is overshadowed by glitter of the Boulevard and the MGM high rise directly behind it. I came down on the strip to ride the new spectacular roller coaster at New York New York (the name of a casino, not the Broadway play).  High winds closed the coaster so I strolled up the strip looking for something else to pass the time. That’s when I saw the bottle of Coke. Not knowing that I was getting into, I crossed the Boulevard and entered the World of Coca-Cola for an educational evening. It wasn’t what I’d expected to find or do on the brightest street in America.

After leaving the Soda Fountain, I stop next door where a local garage is set up.  It’s now the late 1950’s and, in real time, I would have been still riding in a car seat. Just inside the garage is the familiar looking red Coca-Cola cooler with its rounded edges and side mounted bottle opener. I’d seen many such coolers in my life and was amused to learn this one was built in 1957, the year of my birth. 1957 was also the year the interstate highway system was proposed. It seemed appropriate to have a garage in the World of Coca-Cola since the drink and the automobile are linked in our minds. Aunt Liddy had such a cooler in her store at the corner of Murdocksville and Juniper Lake Road when I was a kid. With my granddad, we’d stop at her store for a refreshing drink. We’d each pick an empty bottle from the bed of his pickup, in order to save the two cent deposit, and exchange it for a full bottle out of the cooler. Bottles of Coke were just ten cents apiece in those days. After paying, we’d pop the cap from our bottle and begin refreshing ourselves as we crawled back into the cab. Looking at the cooler, I realized with sadness this American icon has been replaced with glass fronted counters and canned drinks.

My throat is still parched as I leave the garage. I quickly found my way down to the fountain on the third floor. Coke products are flowing freely and we are told we could drink till to heart’s content. I do. First, a cold glass of Coca-Cola, the real thing, and then a sampling of several other drinks they market in other parts of the world. Finally, I go back to the real thing in order to cleanse my mouth of some gingerly tasting drink from India.

There are also two theaters on this floor. In one, I learn about Coca-Cola’s advertising history. I hadn’t realized the jolly old man in red we know as Santa Claus is a trademark of Coca-Cola. This familiar Santa was introduced in the 1920’s to sell a soft drink. As I considered just how well-known this version of Saint Nicholas happens to be, I’m appalled. Could one corporation control our imaginations to the point where they invented the modern Santa? This became even more frightening when I think about how, for many people, Santa has become a model for God. In a round about way, the Coca-Cola Corporation has the power to influence theology.

On the second screen, I watched the development of Coca-Cola advertising on television. I find myself singing familiar jingles and am shocked to realize how many  have remain etched in my brain for decades. My favorite is the kid who comes up to a football player, Mean Joe Green, following a tough game. Tired and sweaty, Mean Joe doesn’t have time to be bothered. A look of rejection comes over the kid, but he offers his Coke anyway. Mean Joe accepts and the audience feel the relief that comes to his throat as he chugs down the drink. As the rejected kid walks away, Mean Joe strips his jersey off and tosses it to him. A big grin comes over the kid’s face. “Gee thanks,” he says as he catches the jersey. There is a positive message in this ad. The generosity of a young boy has the power to change someone as tough as Mean Joe Green. Such generosity could also change the world, provided one has a Coca-Cola to offer. Another commercial illustrated this point. Filmed on a hill in Italy in the mid-1970s, hundreds of people from all over the world, clothed in native dress, sing about offering the world a Coke. While selling its product, this commercial also reminds us how generosity could create a better world. The commercial was introduced about the time I graduated from high school. I was working in a grocery store at the time and had been given a Coca-Cola tee shirt with the products name written in a dozen languages on it. Wearing the tee shirt, I felt as if I was a part of a movement. With the optimism of those hundreds of people gathered on that hill singing, we could change the world for the better. All we needed were a few billion bottles of Coke.

I leave the “World of Coca-Cola” with mixed feelings. I am upset to learn a corporation created the modern Santa. This is almost as disappointing as when I learned, after having kids of my own, that Santa doesn’t exist. However, I also find myself admiring the work of Coca-Cola as I recall the positive message of some of their commercials as well as their willingness to take on Las Vegas. In the middle of the Strip, sexually charged and well lubricated with booze, they proclaim their product as “the real thing.”  Not only do I wish the church could be so bold, I also find myself envious of Harry, the soda jerk. Harry was able to make me thirst for a cold glass of dark syrupy water. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I think, if sermons made congregations that thirsty for the one who gives everlasting refreshment?

One of the keys to Coca-Cola’s success is the way they tie their advertising to our lives and dreams. The gathering of small town folk around the soda fountain, the lure of the automobile, as well as our desire for peace and the love of Jolly Old St. Nick are all connected to the refreshment potential of cold bottle of pop. The goal of Christian proclamation is to make similar links between Jesus Christ and our every day lives.  There is a lot we can learn.

###

For a more comprehensive look at Coca Cola and its Christmas branding, click here.

Flawed Church, Faithful God

Joseph D. Small, Flawed Church, Faithful God: A Reformed Ecclesiology for the Real World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 242 pages including indexes and bibliography.

It has been suggested that ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, is the weak link in Reformed Theology. The Reformed Tradition’s strength is found in a strong doctrine of God, a realistic understanding of the human condition, and the role of Christ in mediating the divide that exists between God and humanity. Doctrines dealing with God’s Spirit and with the institution of the church appear less well developed. John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, spends the least amount of time writing about the church. He includes it in his shortest volume, number 4, where he also deals with civil government and the sacraments. Charles Hodge, the 19th Century American theologian, never completed the fourth volume of his systematic theology. It was to be on the church.  In Flawed Church, Faithful God, Joseph Small, the former director of Theology and Worship for the Presbyterian Church (USA), has made a commendable effort to develop a better understanding of Reformed ecclesiology.

The title captures the thrust of this book. The church isn’t perfect, it never has been and, as long as it exists on earth, it never will be. But God is perfect. Of course, there is much more to this book.

Small begins his investigation of the church making the case of its necessity even though it is a flawed human institution. Quoting Calvin, the church is important because it is our “common mother,” and “there is no other way to enter into life.” (2). He discusses what the church is including comments on how theologians since Augustine have attempted to “redeem” the church by dividing it into the two parts: visible and invisible. Calvin acknowledged our human limitation to distinguish between those who belong to each part, so he and others emphasized the church we know, the visible church. However, in the 19th century, theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Abraham Kuyper lead a new interpretation of this division, so that today, most see the “invisible church” as the body of Christ. This has its consequences such as loss of loyalty to particular congregations and denominations. (15) While Small acknowledges the church has never been “one,” he does acknowledge that within the diversity of the church, there is a unity within a “confession of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.” (16). Small goes on to discuss our approach of church within the “market forces” of today’s world in which the church is often seen as a volunteer organization among many and is treated as a commodity. Today’s churches market themselves as much as any secular organization, highlighting what is unique about each, a stunning reversal of Paul’s proclamation that we proclaim not ourselves, but Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:5, pages 18-20). These modern trends concern Paul, who makes the case that we need to explore the church as it is and as it is called to be.

After making the case for the study of the church, Small delves into chapters on what the church believes, the role of word and sacrament, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. I especially appreciated his chapter on “Body Language” in which he explores Paul’s writings on the meaning of the church as the “body of Christ.” Small notes that his powerful metaphor has become a “cliché.” (87). Paul wasn’t saying that the church was like the body of Christ, but that the church was the body of Christ. (88). I found Small’s discussion of body and the gifts of the Spirit to be especially helpful.

In his chapter on “The People of God,” Small details the church relationship to the Old Testament and to the Jewish people. Again, this is a helpful chapter in which we are reminded of our common heritage. Understanding this background shows the error of the antisemitism of the past, especially where the Jewish people are blamed for Christ’s death (we are all to blame).

Small concludes his book discussion with the hope for the church or the future. While the church depends on hope grounded in the divine and God’s Spirit in our life and future, such hope is not passive, but active. Understanding God’s involvement within the church provides us the confidence to take risks as we strive to strengthen and grow the church.

There is much in this book from which a preacher can draw. I’m sure the next time I preach on Paul’s letters (where he develops his theology of the church around the image of the body), or preach on the work of the Holy Spirit, or on the sacraments, I will pull out this book for further study. At one point, Small ponders the difference between asking, “What Would Jesus Do?” and “What is Christ Doing?” (112)  Certainly the latter requires us to be more engaged in God’s work in the world which we do through the church.

Cumberland Island (September 22-24, 2018)

I was scheduled to preach at an anniversary service for a church in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Sunday, September 23. Unfortunately, I was not able to make it as all the roads had flooded thanks to hurricane Florence. Furthermore, the church had cancelled the service. Since I already had my pulpit covered, I decided to use the time to take off an explore, via kayak, the north end of Cumberland Island. In the recent issue of The Skinnie, I tell about my experiences there. They’ve published a number of my writings, but this time used only a few photos. Below are a sampling of other photos from that wonderful trip.

Click here to read more about the trip. My article begins on page 8.

Paddling over to Cumberland Island

Ruined boathouse near Plum Orchard (with a wild horse)

Plum Orchard

Preparing coffee

African Baptist Church where the Kennedy wedding took place

Outside the African Baptist Church

The Beach on Cumberland Island

Roads on the island

Late in the day

Setting sun

Rising sun on paddle back to mainland

 

Submarine dry dock appearing “Noah Ark-like” in the morning light

Joseph: The Holiness Tradition

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 1:18-25
December 9, 2018

 

 

This Advent and Christmas season we’re exploring seasonal scripture passages through the lens of various traditions in which we encounter and respond to God. As I pointed out last week, the way we experience and respond to God are not the same. We started with Mary and the Contemplative tradition. This week we’re going to look at her husband, Joseph and the Holiness tradition.

        For Presbyterians, a church within the Reformed Tradition which emphasizes on the sovereignty of God and human sinfulness, holiness might seem a stretch. I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I read an article recommended by David Brooks of the New York Times and author of The Road to Character. The article was based on a psychology study from Great Britain that highlighted what I might call “the roots of our depravity.”[1] Had it been a theology article, it might have ended with hope. Despite our failings, God hasn’t given up on us—that’s the good news of Christmas. Instead, the article was a little bleak. That said, holiness is still our aim.[2] But we have a ways to go.

          The six streams or traditions we are exploring this season are from Richard Foster’s book, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith.[3] While not all traditions apply totally to us—and I’m sure there are very few here who feel exceptionally holy—it’s important to understand that all of these streams have Biblical foundations. Even if we might not draw heavily from one of these streams, we can learn from them. Our Scripture for today’s sermon is the Christmas narrative in Matthew’s gospel. Read Matthew 1:18-25.        

         There was a youth group once doing a Christmas pageant. These were older kids who had not learned their lines so there was a lot of improvising. On the day of the pageant, Joseph with his pregnant wife, Mary, a pillow stuffed under her dress, stumbles up to the door of an inn. There was a sign that clearly said, “No Vacancy.” Joseph knocks anyway. A rude innkeeper barges out, points to the sign, and asks, “Can’t you read.” “Yes,” Joseph says, “I can read, but we are so desperate. Can’t you see that my wife is pregnant?” “Well, that’s not my fault,” the rude innkeeper shouts. “Well, it ain’t mine, either.” Joseph responds.

          Actually, Joseph is the quiet one. In scripture, he’s not given any lines, including a snarky one like the improvising Joseph in the pageant used. Of course, he had to ask if there was a vacancy, but we’re not provided with the words of his question. We’re not told about what he said to the magi or the shepherds, although we can assume he talked to them. Instead, in Luke’s gospel, he’s shown leading leads Mary to Bethlehem. Later in Matthew’s gospel, when God speaks to him through a dream, warning him of Herod’s plan to kill baby boys, Joseph gathers his wife and child and flees to Egypt, beyond Herod’s reign. Although Joseph makes numerous appearances early in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and is mentioned in Mark’s gospel, he never speaks.[4] More importantly than speaking, Joseph listens, and when he hears God’s voice, he acts. As we all know, actions speak louder than words. If we are full of praise for God and treat others with contempt, we’re not living a holy life. We’re hypocrites.

         Back to Joseph. He becomes a lost character in the drama around Jesus’ birth. In a sense, he’s only the stepfather of Jesus.  Yet, he truly cares for the son entrusted to him. In the gospel of Luke, we see Joseph being amazed at the prophecies concerning Jesus following his birth.[5] He beams with pride. We often think about the task God assigned Mary and are amazed that such a young woman could be so competent. But Joseph also has an important task: keeping his family safe from Herod’s henchmen and helping Mary search for the lost Jesus in the temple. Interestingly, every glimpse of Jesus as a child, Joseph is present. But Jesus grows up and Joseph drops out of history. Did he die? Was he left behind to keep the family’s carpentry business going? We don’t know.

But Joseph plays an important role in Jesus’ birth and early life for he’s a vehicle through whom God communicates. He’s the earthly father who looks out for Jesus’ welfare and raises him safely to adulthood. Joseph is an example of someone seeking God’s will, and for that reason he’s an important person for us to study and learn from and see what we might gleam from his struggles.

Can you imagine the conversation Mary had with Joseph: “Do what? You’re what? By whom? How?” The news came as a surprise. The woman he was engaged was pregnant and he wasn’t the father. Matthew doesn’t tell us Mary’s side of the story, only Joseph’s. Taking Matthew’s account at face value and not peeking over into Luke’s gospel, we cannot be sure if Mary knew the divine nature of her pregnancy at the time she tells Joseph about her condition. Joseph only learns about the divine nature of Jesus from a dream.

For a minute, go back before that dream. Think of how you would feel if your fiancé dropped such a bombshell… If we can put ourselves into such a position, we might begin to get a sense of the hurt and humiliation Joseph must of felt.

Even though Joseph probably felt about as tall as an ant when he received the news, he’s still a good man. Scripture tells us that Joseph didn’t want to publicly humiliate Mary by exposing her pregnancy—an action that might have resulted in her death by stoning—as is still sometimes done in that part of the world. Yet, if Mary was exposed, then people would feel sorry for poor Joseph, who had been wronged. They might even be those willing to set him up with their own daughters. But Joseph was a man of grace. Instead of taking the route of vindication, Joseph swallows his pride and decides to take care of things discreetly so as not to embarrass or endanger Mary.

         The insight we have of Joseph’s thinking about how to respond to this situation shows us that holiness isn’t just abiding by the law. For the law provided Joseph a way out. His willingness to “do the right thing” and protect Mary is an indication of his holiness. Instead of following the law to the letter, Joseph wants to do what was right and best for all involved.[6]

Holiness, as defined by Richard Foster, isn’t perfection. Perfectionism along with works-righteousness are some of the dangers of over-emphasizing this tradition.[7] Instead, it’s doing the right thing. It’s developing habits that foster virtue. It isn’t just about obeying rules and following regulations, but about having the right attitude in our heart that guides us to do what’s right. “A holy life simply is a life that works,” according to Foster[8]

       We foster a holy life when we strive to develop a deeper relationship with our Savior. It’s been said that the “goal of the Christian life is not simply to get into heaven, but to get heaven into us.”[9] Striving for Holinesses helps develop character. As we improve our spiritual life, the results will be seen by those who are around us and the world will become a better place. So it’s not just about trying to stay off Santa’s bad list, it’s about becoming there best person we can as we allow Christ to redirect our hearts. To recall a theme of the late President Bush, we are to be one of those “1000 points of light” shinning in the world.

         There are a number of denominations that refer to themselves as “holiness,” most of whom came out of the Methodist tradition in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. However, despite my early comments to the contrary, there was also a group within the Reformed tradition that placed a lot of emphasis on holiness: the Puritans. They emphasized training, guarding the heart, rooting out evil and replacing it with goodness, and developing virtuous habits.[10] Puritans were known to keep journals to help them along this tasks and interestingly, such journals, have been suggested to being the forerunner to the modern novel.

       We are given no insight into how Joseph developed his holy life, but there are some ways we can gleam truth from this stream within the Christian faith. First of all, we must train ourselves and build up the spiritual resources necessary so that when the moment arises, we will do what’s right. If we struggle with pride, we need to immerse ourselves in service. If we lack hope, we need to develop a prayer life that draws us into the life of God. If we obsess over possessions, we should fast and learn to do without. If we lack faith, we should worship and focus on what our God has done for us in the past as we anticipate what God is doing in the present and future. With other struggles, we should seek out friends and mentors to be accountability partners. And finally, we must remember that we are not perfect and when we fail, we need to embrace the forgiveness offered by Jesus, brush ourselves off, and get up and start over.[11]

Ultimately, we should remember that while we will never be completely holy (or sanctified) in this life, [12] we follow one who is holy. Jesus is holy. As the Bible says, God is purifying us.[13] One day, not in this life, we will be perfected, and for that we should rejoice. Until then, we live in faith.

As for what we can learn from Joseph… Listen to God and act on what we are told, actions are more important than speaking. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] https://aeon.co/ideas/the-bad-news-on-human-nature-in-10-findings-from-psychology

[2] Matthew 5:48.

[3] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith (New York: HarpersCollins, 1988). The idea for this series came from Peter Hoytema, “Six Biblical Characters, Six Traditions of Faith” Reformed Worship #65 (September 2002).

[4] In addition to his appearance in the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke, Joseph is identified as a carpenter in Mark 6:3.

[5] Luke 2:33.

[6] See Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (1977, New York: Doubleday, 1993), 125-128 and especially 127c.

[7] Foster lists pitfalls for each of the Streams. Those for holiness include legalism, Pelagianism (attempting to earn grace), and perfectionism.  Foster, 91-94.

[8] Foster, 82.

[9] Foster, 85.

[10] Foster, 86.

[11] Foster, 95-96.

[12] Presbyterian Church, USA, Book of Confessions, Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.076

[13] Zechariah 13:9, Malachi 3:2, 1 Peter 1:7, and Revelation 3:18.

Congratulations: Who are You Again?

Harrison Scott Key, Congratulations, Who Are You Again? A Memoir (New York: Harpers, 2018) , 347 pages including five appendices and no illustrations except an ink figure of a dog drawn by Beetle, the author’s daughter, while I waited for him to sign my book.

Over the years I have enjoyed reading memoirs by authors as I learn how they approach the craft and gleam advice for myself. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Eudora Welty,’s One’s Writer’s Beginning, Robert Laxalt’s, Travels with My Royal: A Memoir of the Writing Life, and Dee Brown’s When the Century was Young are books that come to mind. I’ve also read many “how-to” books by authors who tell us how to approach the craft. Without looking at my shelf, I can recall Stephen King, On Writing; William Zinsser, On Writing Well; Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing; and John McPhee, Draft #4. All these authors of memoirs and how-to books have an impressive list of publications under their belts when they sat down to give advice on writing. Harrison Scott Key decided he’d write his how-to memoir immediately following the publication of his first book. But then, his first book won the Thurber Prize. The real question is “why, after having read so many books on the topic, I haven’t published a best seller?” I’m not going to answer that and will stick to critiquing Mr. Key’s book.

 

I enjoyed Congratulations, Who Are You Again? even though I am not sure I would have called this a memoir. I’m not sure what it is. Part of the book reads like a “how-to” manual for becoming famous and having a best seller. Part of the book is the author’s quest to discover his life’s purpose as he charges through much of his 20s and 30s like Don Quixote. Part of this book appears to be a sure-fire way to receive a summons to divorce court. Another part of this book is  Mr. Key’s depository for lists. And just in case you didn’t have your fill of lists within the text, Key fills his appendices with lists. What is it about all these lists? I was wondering why he didn’t include a grocery list, but concluded that maybe his wife, out of gratitude for now having more than one toilet in the house, has volunteered to shop for the family. But my hunch is that Mr Key’s lists are actually passwords. What a better way to keep them close at hand than to have a book he can pull off his shelf and quickly recall his password for Facebook or Twitter or maybe even First Chatham Bank.

And, one final “what is it…” What is it about depressed people and pelicans? Key speaks of his interest in these “freakish and ungainly” birds while depressed. Personally, I find pelicans graceful. A former professor of mine, Donald McCullough, while dealing with depression, actually published a book titled The Wisdom of Pelicans. Like my former professor, I find pelicans graceful, not freakish. I’m not sure what’s wrong with Mr. Key. If pelicans are so depressing, maybe I should give up watching the birds. But that sounds too depressing.

That said, this is a funny book. And writing a funny book is one of Mr. Key’s life goals. He’s now achieved this goal twice, first with The World’s Largest Man, and now with Congratulations. Although Key acknowledges his indebtedness to a host of authors, he never mentioned the fabulous 1940 movie, “Sullivan’s Travels,” staring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. In “Sullivan’s Travels,” McCrea plays a movie producer who wants to make a movie about the seriousness of the Great Depression in order to move people to respond in compassion. But after a misfortune, he has an epiphany and realizes people also need to laugh. Sullivan learns this wisdom after at the end of the film. Key comes this conclusion on page 49.

My third complaint about Key’s writing (In case you weren’t keeping count: #1: Lists. #2: Rude remarks about pelicans) is his overuse of misdirects. Key will begin describing the great things that follow his things such as being published. Following such good news, Key rambles on about all the invitations to TV and radio shows for him to make an appearance. He seems to have a healthy crush on NPR’s Terry Gross. Others ask him to give keynote speeches. He’s also mugged by admirers on Savannah’s streets. Just when the reader is about to believe that there is a god who rewards hard work, the reader is redirected into what really happened. Usually nothing. The exception is an actual mugging on Savannah’s streets. Actually, Key never wrote about being mugged, but it could happen. These redirects were funny the first 57 times this reader fell for this comic technique, but the 58th time was just too much. As I was coming to the end of the book, I thought that if there was one more redirect, I’d rip the book apart and toss it out the window. Thankfully, being near the end, I was reading lists and it’s pretty hard to redirect a reader from one list to another. Who knew lists could be funny?

Complaints aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and laughed a lot. My biggest take-away from Mr. Key is that writing is like giving birth. I’ve heard that before, but Key attaches his unique twist that refreshes this platitude: “Writing is like giving birth, and it is, it is just like giving birth, in the Middle Ages, when all the babies died.” (114). Writing is hard work, and such hard work in this case produces a book that the reader can easily read and enjoy.

And one final comment for clarification.  I am not the minister who accosted Keys in a restaurant asking to be included in his next book. Such a request is foolish for if Keys says the things he does about his wife and children, whom he obviously adores, what would he say about a coveting minister. Of course, the minister did find himself in the book, only he’s not identified. What fun is that?

 

 

A Blessing

A blessing for Walt and Carol 

Walt and Carol, when you first came here,
I am sure you had no idea what this place would hold:
the joy and laughter,
the celebration of holidays,
the seriousness of the study of God’s word,
the terms both of  you served on Session,
the rotation of ministers in the pulpit,
and the love around the table during                                    fellowship dinners

When you first came here in search of community,
you never knew all this place would hold:
the sadness, grief and tears
shed during funerals and memorial                                            services,
the concern experienced over terrorist attacks
and violence on our streets,
the ups and downs of the economy,
along with your own struggles with health and wellness.

I pray that through thick and thin,
this has been a sacred place filled with God’s word and loving friends,
and its memory will forever be a part of you.

And now, as you leave us to be closer to your children in California,
know that the God who brought you here
is still with you as you set your face toward a new destination.

God will continue to be with you
until the shadows no longer lengthen
and your earthly breath ceases;
then you’ll be called into your eternal home
where, at some point, we’ll all join you,
at that place where there will be no more grief and loss
just joy.

Until then, be well and go with our blessings.

-Jeff Garrison

Presented to them at the end of worship on December 2, 2018

Mary and the Contemplative Tradition

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
December 2, 2018
Luke 1:46-55

The sanctuary at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church is magical this time of the year. I hope you have a chance, when driving by at night, to enjoy our trees as they shine out into the darkness. Remember, as followers of Jesus, we too are to shine the light of hope and love into a dark world. Better yet, I invite you worship with us this season and experience that love.

As a child, the best thing about the Christmas tree were the presents sitting underneath. As Christmas approached, more presents were added. Anticipation rose. Each of the wrapped boxes contained a present loving given by a parent, grandparent, or child.  They were all different, but what was important were the gifts inside and the thoughts of the person who gave the gift.

Big gifts, small gifts, gifts elegantly wrapped, they all help build the anticipation of the season. Seeing these gifts of different sizes reminds me of something that’s important. As there are a multitude of gifts under the tree that are all different, all of us experience and respond to God’s great gift of Jesus Christ differently.

In my preaching this Advent and Christmas season, we’re going to explore the different ways we experience and respond to God’s as we look at the Biblical encounters with the Christ-child.

It doesn’t matter that they were different. All these ways are valid ways of experiencing God. Each way responds to a different tradition within the Christian family. Mary’s contemplative approach, Joseph’s interest in holiness, John the Baptist’s call to Social Justice, the shepherd’s charismatic experience, Jesus bringing us the incarnation of God, and the Magi’s evangelical approach.

All these traditions together help make up a complex church centered on Jesus in the manager. My question to each of you, this season, is how do you experience and respond to God?  I hope you join us here at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church as we embark on this Advent Journey.[1]

Today we are going to consider Mary and what we might learn from the contemplative tradition. The six traditions of the Christian faith that we will explore this Advent and Christmas season are outlined in Richard Foster’s book, Streams of Living Water,[2] which I recommend. Today’s text will be Mary’s song, sung during her pregnancy with Jesus. Read Luke 1:46-56.

This is going to be a different type of sermon series for me. While I will be using traditional Advent and Christmas scripture passages, I will do so through the lens of various traditions found within the larger church. I should state up from that this was not something I came up on totally by myself. This idea of a sermon series based on the traditions of the church as outlined in Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water came from a friend. Peter Hoytema, a former classmate of mine and a pastor in Ontario, presented this idea the journal, Reformed Worship.[3]

One of the reasons I was drawn to this idea of looking at the different traditions of the Christian faith through the lens of those who encountered the Christ Child, is that—too often—we think our experience is the only or the right way. But there’s a problem with this approach. First of all, it’s not even Biblical. If we believe we have the only way to encounter God, we limit God. Jack Haberer, in his book GodViews, makes the point that there are a lot of ways to encounter, worship, and respond to God. Each have Biblical support. When we limit ourselves to just one or two ways, our spirituality is impoverished. It takes all types. Just because someone else experiences God differently, shouldn’t be threatening to us. Instead, embrace it as an opportunity for us to learn about a God who is so much more than us.[4] Too often the church has tried to limit diversity, yet just by looking at our world we should understand that God delights in diversity.

When we can accept others, we participate in Jesus’ call to be peacemakers. And this Christmas season, the world needs a little more peace. Don’t you agree?

So we begin with the contemplative stream. What is it, you might wonder? It sounds a lot like navel gazing, doesn’t it? And that’s one of the dangers. As the old cliché goes, we can become so heavenly minded that we have no earthly value. But when we over-emphasize one tradition, we risking misusing it.[5]

The contemplative stream is grounded in a pray-filled life that, as Foster writes, “is the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us.”[6] The contemplative stream calls us into deep prayer. We don’t just ask God for stuff, but we listen, meditate, and reflect on God’s love, peace, and beauty. It’s a life that empties itself as it seeks to be filled with God-given fire, wisdom, and transformation. And, of course, such blessings are not just for the delight of the contemplative, they are gifts that can be used within the community and which can bring hope into the world.[7]

So let’s think about Mary as an example of how a contemplative life can bring us closer to God and help us be a part of God’s work in the world. 

Mary wasn’t rich or famous or powerful or popular.  According to worldly standards, she was the most unlikely candidate to be the mother of Jesus, the mother of God. She was young and unmarried, probably poor, from a second rate town in an obscure corner of the world.  As far as we know, she had no education and there was no royalty within her blood. Nor did Mary seek fame. Instead, she was absolutely dependent on others. She was dependent upon her father to find her a husband and then would be dependent upon her husband to provide for her and her children. Later in life, she’d be dependent upon her children. She had no control over her life.

Mary was just a poor women, like 1000s of other poor women, in a dirt-poor town in an obscure providence of the Roman Empire. She was just like 1000s of other women, except she was chosen to bear the Son of God. It almost sounds like a fairy tale princess story, does it? Yes, it sounds like a fairy tale until we learn that Mary never inherits a castle. Instead, her story goes downhill. She gives birth to her son in a stable, the family flees to Egypt where they live as political refugees, and three decades later she’s there by the cross watching her son die.[8] She is a woman of sorrow, yet despite the sadness she experienced, her song is one of the most beautiful in scripture.

Mary realizes her position. She’s a lowly servant of God and any honor she has is due to God’s action within her life.  Everything is God’s doing, not hers. She is not the cause of redemption; she’s just a vessel God using to bring the Savior into the world. Mary didn’t go around boasting of her accomplishments and lining up book deals; she isn’t saying, “look at me, I’m the mother of God.” Instead, as Luke tells us at the end of the Christmas narrative, Mary pondered all that had happened in her heart.[9] She’s the model of true humility. As a contemplative, her life was directed toward God who gave her the strength to raise her son.

Mary’s song gives us an insight into how God operates.  God chose her, an unlikely candidate, to be Jesus’ mother.  God lifts up the lowly while pronouncing judgment upon the powerful. Those who are not willing to acknowledge God’s sovereignty are not going to find salvation in Jesus Christ. They’ll be too busy looking out for themselves and pretending their own resources are going to save. They don’t realize the need for a Savior.

All of us need to learn to depend upon God and, by doing so, we can make Mary’s song our own. Can we prescribe all our praise to God?  (Or, do we want to save a little for ourselves?)  Can we acknowledge God’s power and sovereignty in this world? (Or, do we believe in our individual grandeur?)

Mary’s song provides us a model of prayer. If Mary, a woman of sorrow, can sing such a song, why can’t we?  In all we do, we need to see how God is working in our lives and then give thanks. We need to take Paul seriously when he says to pray without ceasing.[10]

Some of you may be true contemplatives, talking to God as you take walks, delighting in God’s beauty around us, and having a fixed time to reflect on God’s word. Mary, we can conclude from the passage we heard this morning, was, as one commentator noted, “Steeped in the poetical literature of her nation, and accordingly her hymn also bears the unmistakable signs of it.”[11] In other words, “Mary knew her Bible and how to apply it to what God was and is doing in the world.”

In ages past, contemplatives were often the type of people who gave up everything and moved into the wilderness, but that’s not what this tradition is really about. If, through your prayer life and your study and your quiet time, you are able to connect with God, I encourage you to keep up the good work.

However, if the contemplative practice is foreign or difficult for you, that’s okay. There are other ways to connect and respond to God as we will see over the next five weeks.[12] But let’s also take what we can from this tradition. Try praying through the Psalms. Or practice intentional reading of a passage of Scripture several times, pausing in-between each reading to ask God to open up your mind to his will and then spend a few minutes in silence before returning and rereading the same passage. Do this a few times and see if God is speaking to you through your chosen passage.[13] Or, read devotionals. Advent is a good season to make devotional reading a habit. If you’re looking for a good devotional booklet that’s free and online, check out my e-news from yesterday where I had a link to a devotional from the community at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.[14] 

In writing about the contemplative life, Thomas Merton, an American mystic, notes how none of us want to be beginners, but we must convinced we will never be anything but a beginner when it comes to this life.[15] But to a true contemplative, that’s okay, because such a person have grounded their being within the life of God. They know it’s not about them, it’s about God. Because Mary was in tuned to God’s action in her life, she was able to serve in a marvelous way. While none of us will have that opportunity, all of us can be of benefit to God’s Kingdom when we open ourselves up to God’s call. Amen.

©2018

[1] This first part of the sermon was videotaped with the Christmas tree as a background. The video will also be used to promote this season’s sermon series.

[2] Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Church, (New York: HarpersCollins, 1998).

[3] Peter Hoytema, “Six Biblical Characters, Six Traditions of Faith” Reformed Worship #65 (September 2002).

[4] Jack Haberer, GodViews: The Convictions that Drive Us and Divide Us (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2001).

[5] Foster also recognizes the dangers of each stream. The contemplative streams has four dangers: 1. Tendency to separate faith from ordinary life, 2.. Asceticism (or focusing too much on God and on pressing social issues), 4. Tendency to devalue intellectual efforts, 4. Tendency to neglect the community of faith. Foster, 53-56.  

[6] Foster, 49.

[7] Foster, 48-51.

[8] See John 19:26.

[9] Luke 2:19

[10] 1 Thessalonians 5:17.

[11] Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1982), 85.

[12] The six traditions we’ll explore are the contemplative, holiness, social justice, charismatic, incarnational, and evangelical.

[13] This ancient practice (goes back to the 6th Century) is known as Lectio Divina (Divine Reading).  See https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/category/category/lectio-divina

[14] https://www.pts.edu/devotional_1

[15] Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer,  (Garden City, NY: ?image Book/Doubleday, 1969), 37.

Tahoe to Vegas (a tale of a road trip with photos)

 

Worship Symposium Setting overlooking Tahoe

I haven’t written anything about my travels West in late September and early October. We flew into Las Vegas and drove up for a few days in Cedar City, Utah, where we saw many friends and spent time with our son and his family. Then we drove across Nevada, stopping and spending a couple of nights in Virginia City, Nevada before going on to Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center where I attended a seminar on multi-sensory worship. Then, as the story below describes, we drove back to Las Vegas for our flight home. I love traveling across the vastness of the American West.

Fall colors in the Spooner Summit area

We leave Zephyr Point on Lake Tahoe late in the morning under a damp gray sky, heading south along the lake shore. Just before entering the city of South Lake Tahoe, we turn onto the Kingsbury Grade. The road twists down the eastern slope of the Sierras, leaving behind the tall pines as we enter into valley of sagebrush. Bands of rain from what had been Hurricane Rosa had move through, leaving the pavement wet. At Gardnerville, we headed south on US 395. It’s not the direct route to Las Vegas, but giving that we have a day and a half before catching a flight, it’s the route I chose. We gas up, but we’re not really hungry so we set our sights on Walker or Bridgeport for a late lunch stop. We pass Topaz Lake and enter California. The road parallel’s the Walker River. The country is wide open and the sagebrush glistens from the rain. We pass a sign for Monitor Pass and the turn-off for California 88. I’d driven that road before. In a way, this is haunted land.  As the highway winds through the valley, the river off to our left, there are many. There are many charred acres from recent fires and some of the campsites along the river have been closed due to damage. It’s ironic, as I turn on my windshield wipers frequently as we pass through rain bands, to think of how this area has been in such a drought and have experienced horrific fires over the past decade. Twenty-some miles after the turn-off for Monitor Pass, we arrive at the junction for Sonora Pass.  The Sierras are now closer, towering over us to our right. I’ve taken that road, too, a favorite pass over the Sierras. Highway 395 turns sharply to the southwest and works its way up over Devils Gate (one of many passes with this name in the American West).

Bridgeport Inn

We continue on to Bridgeport, a western cow town sitting in the afternoon shadow of the Sierras. There we stop for lunch at the old Bridgeport Inn which sits next to the highway. The inn, with a downstairs dining area and rooms upstairs, has been around for a while, having started as a stagecoach stop in 1877.  Sitting by a window, we watch what little traffic there is pass by on this dreary and rainy day, as we enjoy our sandwiches and listen to a man at the bar try to arrange a pickup of his brother’s wrecked motorcycle.  Forty-five minutes later, we’re back on the road, heading south. We pass the turn-off for Bodie, an old mining town that sits high up in the mountains to the east, just west of the Nevada border. I’d like to revisit the town, but there’s not enough time and the rain would make it pretty miserable.

Mono Lake from Conway Summit

 

View from Conway Summit

At Conway Summit, I pull off the road and get out in the misty rain, enjoying the cool damp air that enhances the smell of sage. The clouds pushing through Sierras keep the light constantly changing, providing unique views. Below us is Mono Lake. Like man lakes in the Great Basin, it has no natural outlet as the water the flows into the lake is left to evaporate as it does in the Great Salt Lake to the east and Pyramid Lake to the north. With no natural outlet for the water to flow, the water evaporates and leaves behind a concentration of minerals.

After a few minutes of walking around, I continue driving on toward Mono Lake. We stop at the new museum on the north side of Lee Vining. I don’t think this was here the last time I was here. Afterwards, we drive through town and I pass the western turn-off for California 120, which winds up Tioga Pass and into Tuolumne Meadows. It’s one of my favorite drives and it has been 20 years since I last made the drive after having completed hiking the John Muir Trail. But there is no time today, so I continue south and five miles beyond the town, turn east on California 120.

South Tufa Area, looking west toward the Sierras

 

At the South Tufa area, we stop and take the mile long hike through some of the unique tufas, which have been created by calcium springs bubbling up in the alkaline water of the lake. The resulting reaction creates limestone sculptures under water. The tufas become visible when the water level drops, exposing the torturous sculptures.

South Tufa Area, looking east (notice rainbow in middle of photo)

For much of the last 100 years, the water level has dropped even more dramatically, as the streams flowing into the lake have been tapped to quench the thirst of Southern California. In the mid-1990s, after years of court battles, environmentalist won a lawsuit that has forced Southern California to restore some of the water coming into Mono Lake so that the eco-system can remain in tack. This is an important rest stop for migrating birds that feed on the brine shrimp that flourish in the water and the brine flies that hover around the edge of the beach. As we walk around the tufa field, the clouds begin to break up and with the sun dropping in the east, partial rainbows are seen in the east.

Leaving the tufas and the lake behind, we continued west on California 120, passing the Mono Craters. This small range is considered one of the newest mountain ranges in the world and volcanic activity here has been as recent as 300 years ago. The highway runs through Inyo National Forest, passing young Jeffrey Pines as the more mature trees were cut and transported to Bodie where the timber were used to build the town and to sure up the mines. This road has the feel of a roller coaster with many short rises and drops that gives my gut the sensation of rising above the car as it the vehicle drops. Highway 120 comes to an end shortly after Benton Hot Springs. This small town was once a retreat for miners, and there’s still a small rustic resort here. As daylight is waning, there is no time to stop, but in the past I have spent time here enjoying a nice soak. Instead, we take a left, turning onto US 6, and begin climbing over Montgomery Pass back into Nevada. As we climb, I notice the cuts where the old Carson and Colorado Railroad once ran. This line was scheduled to be abandoned in 1942, but after Pearl Harbor it received a short reprieve as the government felt the country could use it as a north-south rail line safely east of the Sierras if the Japanese attacked the west coast. After the war, the line was abandoned.  The sun begins dropping behind Boundary Peak and the White Mountains.

The highway merges with US 95, which runs from Reno to Las Vegas. This is barren country and radio stations are few and far between. Finally, up above next to Sawtooth Mountain, we can make out the lights of Tonopah. In 1900, Jim Butler, a local rancher, supposedly picked up a rock to throw at his stubborn donkey to get it moving. Noticing the rock was heavier than expected, he saved the rock (and thereby saved his beast from a stoning) and had it assayed. It contained silver and gold. Another legend is that a friendly Native American told Butler were he could find such rocks on the ledge of Sawtooth Peak, which led to the discovery. By whatever means, Tonopah boomed after the discovery and soon the mountainside was dotted with claims. One of the richest, claimed by Butler’s wife, was the Mizpah, a name taken from the Bible. As the town boomed an extension from the Carson and Colorado ran into the town from the north.  Soon, two more rail lines came up from the south, the Las Vegas and Tonopah (which roughly follows the route US 95 takes today, and the Tonopah and Tidewater, which ran up through Death Valley Junction.

Throughout the 20th Century, Tonopah had many booms and busts. After the mining played out, the military moved in as the city sits just east of the Nevada Test Range. There were nuclear test and later the B1 bomber was tested near here. Each of these events led to a renewal of activity for the town. The town is also a halfway point for those traveling by highway from Las Vegas to Reno.

We stop at the Mizpah Hotel for the evening. I had eaten at this hotel a few times in the past, but the last couple of times I’d been through the area and was hoping to stay there, it was closed. I learn the Cline family, who own California vineyards, had brought the hotel, after remodeling, had opened it back up. The place is magnificent and looks as it might have appeared in the early 1900s. Supposedly the hotel has its own ghost, of a woman who was killed by her lover. The murder supposedly occurred on the fifth floor and since our room is on the fourth, we didn’t have the pleasure of meeting her.

We eat in the dining room and afterwards, I go out and take a stroll up Main Street before coming back and enjoying an Irish Red brewed by the Tonopah Brewing Company, which is just down the street from the hotel. Talking to the bartender as I watch baseball playoff game on the television, I learn that the same family that owned the hotel has also established the brewery.

In the morning, we decide to make a quick run to Las Vegas in order to get there in time to “meet the team” as the Las Vegas Knights arrive for their first game of the NHL season. The four hour drive takes us through Goldfield, Beatty, Indian Springs and then into vast metropolis of Las Vegas. While I’m not the hockey fan, my wife and daughter are. I take a position opposite Donna, so to get a different view of the players and coaches as they enter the arena. I snap at least a 100 photos as every 10 or 15 minutes another player or coach arrives. Afterwards, we have dinner and catch part of the game at an outside bar at the New York, New York Casino before heading to the airport for a red-eye flight back home.

I’ll leave you with a few more photos:

Fans coming in for the opening game

Watching the pregame at New York, New York

A player taking a selfie with a young fan

Be Generous

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
 2 Corinthians 8:1-15
November 18, 2018

 Today, I want us to look at Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. The Corinthian letters show us that conflict within a Christian community isn’t something new. Paul addresses many such issues in the two letters that are a part of the New Testament. But in the midst of trying to defuse conflict (against the advice of any fundraising consultant), Paul also issues a fundraising appeal. He leverages the gifts of another Christian community, a poorer community, to challenge the Corinthians.

This is a tough letter. And even though Paul deals with many theological issues, but expresses his desire for the Corinthians to step up to the plate and participate in the global church. He encourages generosity. As we seek to be Christ-like, giving should come naturally.  Read 1 Corinthians 8:1-15.

       

Not long after China began to tolerate religion (I say tolerate because churches and religion aren’t exactly encouraged over there and persecution persist to this day), Mrs. Chang, an Chinese-America woman attended a meeting of the Chinese Christian Council.  She had been born in China, but was living in Los Angeles. The meeting was held in Nanjing, the city that experienced horrible atrocities by the Japanese in World War Two.[1]

On Sunday, the delegation split up and attended churches all over the city. Mrs. Chang visited a church across the river, in a poor farming region. She was asked about her church in America and told the congregation about the building project upon which they had embarked. At the end of the service, she was surprised to be called back up front and presented an envelope containing the equivalent of 140 American dollars. She was told this was to be used by her church for their new building. Of course, that much money wasn’t going far in LA, but it represented a true sacrifice by some very poor Christians. Their joy at being in fellowship with a Christian from another country “welled up in generosity, and they gave beyond their ability.” It also served as a reminder to the church in Los Angeles at what true sacrifice entails.[2]

That poor church on the outskirts of Nanjing sending a gift to its well-to-do sister church in California is analogous to the Macedonians supporting the saints in Jerusalem. And while those rich Americans in Los Angeles may feel shocked or reluctant to accept this gift, to do so would have destroyed the self-esteem of those who gave and perhaps discourage future acts of generosity.

I told you this story before, but it’s a favorite of mine. When I was a pastor in Utah and a leader in Presbytery, I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth to Salt Lake City. On this particular evening, I was tired and ready to get home. I’d gotten up before dawn and caught the 6:45 AM flight to Salt Lake City, where I had spent the day in meetings. Finally, I was heading home at 9 PM. I was relieved when the gate attendant finally called my flight and I, along with 20 or 30 others, headed out onto the tarmac to cram into one of those SkyWest Airline cigars. It was the type of plane someone even my size has to duck to get into. I was sitting in the row with single seats. Next to me, across the aisle, was a young girl, maybe three years old. I stashed my briefcase, pulled out a book and began to read. The plane took off, climbing up into the night.

When we reached our cruising altitude, the flight attendant handed out peanuts. I tore into my bag and shook them into my mouth, downing the bag in no-time flat as I continued to read. Then the attendant brought us drinks and I had to stop reading to lower the tray and when I did, I noticed the young girl looking over at me. “Here,” she said, smiling and holding out a peanut. I smiled and for a split second thought about shaking my head, “no.” After all, this peanut had been in the hands of a toddler. But then I thought better of it. I took the peanut and said, “Thank you.” She watched me intently as I threw all health advisories out the window and popped the peanut in my mouth. She beamed, dug down into her bag, and offered me another.

Scripture tells us, “A little child shall lead them.”[3] I’ve discovered that to be true in so many ways. I was glad I didn’t squelch her willingness to share. It’s good that the same was true for the church in LA as it was Paul receiving gratefully the gifts of the Macedonian Churches.

       As Paul reminds those in Corinth, “our Lord Jesus Christ, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” The foundation of our faith is that Jesus has given to us, even when we are unworthy, therefore if we want to be more like him, if we want to grow into Christ-likeness, we too should be gracious and generous.

In the early and mid-fifties (I know some of you remember the fifties, but I’m not talking those fifties, but the fifties of the first century), the Apostle Paul devoted a significant amount of time and energy to raise funds for the suffering saints in Jerusalem.[4] In Macedonia, to the north of Corinth, he found a receptive ear. Like many Christians of the era, the church in Macedonia was poor. Furthermore, the Macedonians had been through some kind of ordeal; perhaps they had faced strong persecution. But when they heard the need of their fellow believers, they gave generously, begging even for the privilege to give. Listen to this again—they begged for the privilege to give! That’s certainly not an attitude we see today and from Paul’s surprise, I don’t think it was common in the First Century either.

An additional reason that this gift by the Macedonian Christians is so special is that its destination is Jewish Christians, many of whom still maintain their bias against Gentiles. These Jewish Christians aren’t overly excited about having Gentiles in the church. This is an example of someone truly giving from the heart and going against what might be their self-interest. In a way, they’re like the Good Samaritan.[5] They don’t have to help out; after all they’re of a different race of people.[6] No one expects them to pitch in, but they do!

      Furthermore, Paul doesn’t have to help out those in Jerusalem. After all, they have often tried to thwart his efforts to reach out to the Gentiles. In a way it’s almost as if they are helping their enemies. Of course, this is Christ-like living as Jesus demands we pray for our persecutors and love our enemies.[7] And what better example of love than gracious giving to  your enemies during their time of need?

       But the Corinthians weren’t like the Macedonians. Yeah, they said they were going to give, but they’ve yet to step up to the plate. I’m sure they don’t want to hear from Paul about it. Whoever went out to the mailbox and found the letter with Paul’s return address probably mumbled, “Oh, it’s him again. What does he want this time?” It appears, from what Paul writes later in the letter, some in Corinth have accused him of profiting from his ministry.[8]

Paul’s greatly offended by such accusations, yet he feels the need to encourage the Corinthians to give to help out those in need. Of course, their giving doesn’t just help those in Jerusalem, it helps the giver become more Christ-like.

Paul wants the church in Corinth to give, but he’s not going to demand it. In verse 8, he tells them he won’t command that they give, but he is going to test and see if their love is genuine. Here is a church that excels in most things—faith, speech and knowledge—but do they also excel in love and in generosity? Love and generosity are the tell-tale signs of a Christian. Paul doesn’t try to make them feel guilty by saying that God has given it all to you so the least you can do is give back something. That’s true. We can never repay God; we can never out-give God. Paul knows he’s balancing on a tightrope here as he tries not to sound too judgmental, while encouraging the Corinthians to give. It’s hard. By throwing up the example of the Macedonians and by reminding them of the gift of Christ, it’s hard for those in Corinth not to feel some pressure. But, as Paul reminds them in verse 12, he wants them to be eager to give. Paul wants them to have a grateful heart. Too often we give for the wrong reasons. Instead of being grateful for the privilege, we grumble inside, feeling it’s an obligation.

Paul goes on to remind the Corinthians of a Biblical principle. We’re to give based on our abilities. Going back to the law given to Moses, the Hebrew people were reminded that giving should be proportional. That’s the foundation of the tithe.[9] Those who have more, give more; those who have less, give less. Everyone gives! When I was running a building campaign a decade ago, the motto we used was “not equal gifts, equal sacrifices.”

        Paul closes this section of the letter with a quote from the Book of Exodus. Drawing back to Israel’s experience in the wilderness, Paul reminds them that everyone was given what they needed in the form of manna. Those who did not have enough manna, after their morning collections, found they had enough and those who had more than they needed, found they only had what they needed.[10]

The Corinthians were rich, at least in comparison to other first century Christians. They were the Americans of the day!  Paul wants them to step up to the plate and live out their faith.

Although I know Paul was trying not to shame the church in Corinth to give, I’m not sure he succeeded. It’s hard not to feel a bit guilty when you’re blessed and others are not. But Paul isn’t trying to scold; he wants to remind us of God’s abundant love and generosity. He wants us to live God’s abundance.

Yes, it is true; we can’t out-give what God has given us in Jesus Christ. But we can joyfully participate with God, helping those who are in need and sharing the love that we’ve been given. And in doing so, we become more Christ-like.

        Today, we’re asking you to estimate your giving to the church for the next year. As you heard Thom Greenlaw explain last week, we’re asking you to consider taking a step up in your offerings. In doing so, you can grow in generosity as you give thanks for how God has blessed you in the past and trust God to continue to bless you in the future? Amen.

 

©2018

[1] See Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking (Penguin, 1997).

[2] Heiko A. Oberman, ‘Begging to Give” The Christian Century, (June 13, 2003.

[3] Isaiah 11:6

[4] C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1973), 217.

[5] Luke 10:25-37

[6] For a discussion of the differences between Gentile and Jewish Christians and this collection, see F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 321-2

[7] Matthew 5:43-44.

[8] 2 Corinthians 12:14-17.  See also 1 Corinthians 9:3-15.

[9] Leviticus 27:30-33; Deuteronomy 14:22-29; 26:12

[10] Verse 15 is a paraphrase of Exodus 16:18

Acts: The End or “An On-Going Conclusion”

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 28:17-31
November 11, 2018

 

 

Me, MK, Punab, Cody Watson at Franklin Creek

This past Wednesday at the mission dinner, many of you took advantage to hear M K tell the story of his conversion to the Christian faith and how he and his brother are now doing incredible work planting churches in North India. M K was a Hindu, from the class that used to be known as “the untouchables.” When his older brother became ill in 2000, they thought he was going to die. They’d taken him to the best doctors they could afford in Delhi, who sent him home instructing his mother to care for him in his final days. But then they met two Christian missionaries who began to pray. He became better and eventually was fully healed. The family embraced Christianity and the two brothers have a vision of planting tens of 1000s of home churches across North India.

I tell you this snippet of his story, especially for those of you who didn’t have a chance to hear his testimony, because I want you see how the Book of Acts purposely doesn’t end. God’s Spirit continues to be active in our world, calling new people into a faith with Jesus Christ.

I began preaching on Acts in the winter of 2015. We’re at the end. After this morning, during the three periods I’ve focused on Acts, I will have delivered 52 sermons from this book. Let me review a few things that I hope you have gleamed from this series.

  1. While this book is often titled, “Acts of the Apostles,” it really should be “The Acts of God through the Apostles”
  2. The challenges of the 1st Century aren’t that much different from the challenges of today as we, like them, are proclaiming a message to a mostly indifferent world.
  3. The church is never promised an easy existence.
  4. It’s God’s Spirit who motivates and directs the church.
  5. The gospel flourishes despite persecution and challenges.

 

My desire by our going through this book is to demonstrate the hope we have in Jesus Christ. God has entrusted his church with the message and calls us to participate with the Holy Spirit in telling the good news and bringing the kingdom of God closer to a reality. The book of Acts comes to an end, but the work of the church empowered by the Spirit continues. Read Acts 28:17-31.

         Acts ends with Paul living in Rome under house arrest. Why doesn’t Luke, the author, tell us what happened to Paul? After all, we know what happens, don’t we? Paul was martyred in Rome. It’s generally accepted that he was beheaded. It was the more preferable method of execution, generally reserved for citizens of the Empire. While still bad, at least it didn’t create the horrific suffering that came from the Roman’s other methods: crucifixion or burning in tar. Tradition has it that Paul’s execution came during the persecution of Christians following the burning of much of Rome in the year 64.

It was thought by many that Nero had part of the city burned so he could rebuild it to his liking. Kind of like those wildfires out west, it got out of hand. The emperor didn’t appreciate the scuttlebutt. He felt people were pointing their fingers at him. As a way to deflect their criticism, Nero used Christians as a scapegoat. As politicians are apt to do when they come under scrutiny, Nero blamed the fire on “them.” In this case, the “them” were Christians. While we can’t be sure that Paul died under these circumstances, it seems plausible. Furthermore, the date and approximate timing fits other reports from the first century that speak of Paul’s death.[1]

     All this is interesting, but why doesn’t Luke tell us what happened? Even if he finished this book before Paul’s death, by the time of the second edition came out, he could have easily added another chapter. What does Luke’s failure to speak of Paul’s death say to us? And what should we take from this passage to apply to our lives and to the church today? I’ll come back to these questions, but first let’s dig into the text.

One of the first things Paul does when he gets to Rome, this he does on his third day there (after cleaning up and catching his breath) is to call the Jewish leaders together. We have seen this throughout Acts. If there are Jews in the city he’s visiting. It’s the first thing he always does. Paul reaches out to the leadership of the synagogue.

 

Paul goes into this meeting somewhat on the defensive. “I’ve not done anything wrong,” he says. “I’ve not done anything against our people.” Either Paul feared that the Jews in Rome had heard about his problems in Jerusalem, or maybe since he’s still a prisoner he felt he needed to be defensive. After all, he’s standing before them in shackles saying, “I’m innocent.” It appears the Jewish leadership in Rome are not familiar with Paul’s issues. Afterwards, Paul who is confined to his home, begins to preach as people visit. Furthermore, we’re told, Paul provides his own expenses. We don’t know what he did. He could have continued making tents or had gone into some other business, as he had plenty of time while awaiting trial. A few of those who came and listened became believers, but many just argued. In verses 26 and 27, Paul quotes from the Prophet Isaiah and interprets this to apply to his preaching. The Jews don’t listen, but the Gentiles do. Paul continues to boldly preach, without hindrance and while welcoming everyone, we’re told, for two years. And with that, the gospel firmly grounded within the gentile community and having been proclaimed in the greatest city of the world at that time, the Book of Acts comes to an end.

        Back to that question I asked earlier, “why does Luke end the story here and not with Paul’s death?” I think Luke did it purposely. The story concludes while on-going. Luke knows the story won’t come to an end with the death of Paul or Peter or any of the other Apostles. After all, we’ve already survived the death of Stephen and James.[2] But this isn’t really a story of the Apostles. Acts takes up where the Gospel of Luke ends. This is the story of the resurrected Christ whose Spirit empowers the church to continue to proclaim his message to the world.

And in this manner, we fit into the story when we participate in spreading the good news. Whenever we do something good for another because of our faith in Jesus, we add chapters to this book. M. K. and his brother are continuing this story in India as are countless others across the globe. Luke ends the story, calling others to join the effort.

          Today is the day we honor veterans, and it’s also the 100th anniversary of the armistice taking effect at the end of World War I. Let me draw a parallel here to those in who have led the church in the past and us in the present by considering military cemeteries. One of the things I appreciate about our National Cemeteries is that rank holds no privileges, at least not in death. The graves are all the same. Generals and admirals are buried beside soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors. They are all marked with the same type of tombstone. We don’t honor just the top brass; but everyone who served.  In the end, it’s not individual bravery that’s important but the experience of the freedom obtained by their collective sacrifices. Something similar is true in the church. What’s important isn’t individual actions, but what God’s Spirit has done and is doing through the church in the world.

        Luke ends his story, not by focusing on Paul and directing our attention to his death, not by singling him out as a hero, but by inviting us into the story as we continue to lift up Jesus Christ as the hope for the world.[3] We’re all a part of this story and in the end the faithful will all be there in white robes before the throne.[4] It doesn’t matter if we are a Paul, or one of those preparing to join the church this morning, or some unknown soul sitting on the back pew, we’re all called to do God’s work. That’s why, I believe, Luke ends the book in this manner. Instead of neatly ending with an exciting conclusion, Luke wants us to write our own endings. What are you going to do to continue the story? What are we going to do? Amen.

 

©2018

[1] See F. F. Bruce, “The Last Days of Paul: History and Tradition”, in Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), Chapter 37: The Last Days of Paul: History and Tradition, 441ff.

[2] Acts 7:54-60 and 12:12.

[3] See William H. Willimon, Acts (1988, Louisville: WJKP, 2010), 190-193.

[4] Revelations 7:9.

The Brothers (an essay and a review)

Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013), 402 pages including notes, bibliography and index plus 8 plates of black and white photographs.

 

Two of the most powerful men in America during the 1950s were brothers. John Foster Dulles served as Secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower until Foster’s his death in 1959. His brother, Allen, was the CIA director through Eisenhower’s and the first half of Kennedy’s Presidency. The two had remarkably similar paths to power. Both were Princeton graduates. Both were Presbyterian. Both had spent their civilian careers working for Sullivan and Cromwell, a New York law firm that represented major American interest overseas. Together, seeing the world through a lens of good and evil (good being capitalism and evil communism), their influence was felt around the world and has effected world politics to the present. The two worked together to overthrow a democratically elected government in Guatemala and Iran. They forced out a popular African leader in the Congo, attempted to push out the elected president of Indonesia, and moved America into Vietnam as the French were withdrawing. After Foster’s death, Allen playing this role in foreign governments as the CIA attempted to overthrow Castro in Cuba, leading to the Bay of Pigs fiasco.  In addition the brothers also had a talented sister, Eleanor, who played her own role in international affairs, especially in Europe.

Kinzer does a commendable job as he draws sources from across the globe to create a portrait of the Brothers at work. The two brothers were raised within the Presbyterian manse. The father was a pastor, who would later become a professor at Auburn Theological Seminary. On their mother’s side of the family, they were descended from two former Secretaries of State. Ironically, their beloved “Grandfather Foster” had been the American Secretary of State who helped overthrow another government, the Hawaiian monarchy. This allowed the American annexation of the islands. Of the two brothers, Foster settled down quickly (marrying a woman his younger brother had rejected). He lived his life devoted to her. Allen, on the other hand, was always having affairs (his wife even became friends with two of his mistresses) and his many liaisons probably ncluded the Queen of Greece.

Both brothers began their international interest in the aftermath of the Great War (World War I).  In the 1930s, Foster was supportive of Germany (Sullivan and Cromwell had many German clients as well as representing American business with German interests). This led to the one time the two brothers had an open disagreement with Allen asking Foster how he could consider himself a Christian and support what the Germans were doing to the Jews. But soon, this became a moot issue as America was drawn into the war. During the war, Allen, who was always interested in covert work, headed the American spy network in Switzerland. After the war, when the OSS was disbanded, Allen was without a job. In less than a year later, the CIA was organized and he was brought on as second in charge. In the early 50s, he became its director. At the same time, his brother served as the Secretary of State.

The idea of two brothers in such key roles, not to mention their legal ties to many leading international businesses, is easily seen today as clearly a conflict of interest. However, such a breach of protocol wasn’t much of an issue in the 1950s when the country felt it was in a battle between good and evil. Whatever it took to win was seen as necessary. While the Soviet Union certainly presented challenges to the Western World, new research indicates the challenge wasn’t nearly as great as it was thought to have been.  Kinzer points out the blunders of both sides in Africa, where neither side understood the continent. The Soviets even sent snowplows to a country that had never experienced snow and wheat to the Congo, a country without a flour mill. Kinzer’s view is that the Brothers (and in some way, all of America) were so colored by the Cold War that they were unable to see beyond their own assumptions and thereby missed opportunities to build a more peaceful world.

As divided as the Brother’s saw the world, Kinzer points out how they clearly avoided direct conflict within the Soviet and Chinese spheres. When the Romanians revolted in 1956, they watched as Soviet tanks moved in to crush the rebellion.  While there was espionage behind the “Iron Curtain,” such as U-2 flights over Russia, the real battle was waged in smaller counties, many of whom attempted to remain neutral during the Cold War. The Brothers didn’t believe neutrality was possible.

The strength of Kinzer’s thesis is in his research and in his accessible writing style. However, there are weaknesses within his logic and the application of his research. Several times he refers to Foster and Allen’s “missionary Calvinistic background.” Granted, Kinzer isn’t a theologian (he even confuses Princeton Seminary with Princeton University). But a bigger problem is his use of “missionary Calvinism” in a negative (almost ad hominem) manner. First of all, I am not sure what he means by this description (nor am I sure what that he knows what he means). While many Calvinists have been missionaries, some would point out that Calvinism hasn’t displayed the missionary zeal of other theologies. But more importantly, Calvinism, with its view of human depravity, may be more applicable to the situation with the Dulles brothers. The emphasis on depravity is a belief there is a stain on the soul, in the heart of all people, that’s so deep that only God can remove. Such a doctrine stands in opposition to the dual world view of good and evil. Calvinists understand that we (the human race) have fallen. There are not those who are good and those who are bad. The only one good is Jesus, the rest of us are only righteous by his actions. Because of this strong view of how we, as people, seek out own on interest instead of what God desires, Calvinists encouraged from the beginning a system of checks and balances to keep individuals from claiming too much power. Certainly, the Dulles brothers lacked a desire to have such constraints of their power. If anything, it wasn’t Calvinism that cause their blinders that kept them from seeing a more nuanced world. It was either their ignorance of Calvinistic theology or their ignoring of the teachings of their church. The complexity of the human spirit and its complicity in sin can be seen clearly in Allen. He could be noble as in challenging his brother’s support of Germany in the late 1930s while practicing serial adultery and later, approving of covert campaigns in countries striving to be neutral during the Cold War.

The author also places Reinhold Niebuhr, one of America’s leading theologian during the 50s, in conflict with the Brothers. In his concluding chapter, he quotes Reinhold Niebuhr’s critique of the Brothers’ “self-righteousness” and lack of nuance in understanding right and wrong. However, I am not sure the conflict was as divided as Kinzer makes it out to be. Niebuhr is a complex man who wrote prolifically. While Niebuhr understood sin and the dangers of pride, from my understanding, he also supported America in opposition to the Soviet Union throughout the 50s. So while Niebuhr critiqued their self-assured swagger and unchecked power, he may have been supportive of their long-term goals.

Despite the author’s lack of understanding theological nuances, I still recommend this book. It shows the impact American business had on foreign policy. Was the overthrow of the Guatemalan government necessary in the fight of communism or was it convenient ploy that allowed the brothers to help a former client, United Fruit? The danger of ignoring such obvious conflicts of interest is revealed throughout this book. The book demonstrates just how powerful these two men, who are mostly forgotten today, were in the 1950s. They were even able to “force” Hollywood to change movies (George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American). In both movies, the script departed from the book in a manner that made the story fit the Cold War mentality of the 1950s. Both authors were incensed at Hollywood’s interpretation of their books.

This book provides a portrait of the man for whom Washington’s International Airport is named. Having read this, I would like to read more about Foster’s children. His son, Avery, converted to the Catholic Church and became a Jesuit priest. He would go on to become an American Cardinal. His sister, Lillias, attended seminary and was one of the first women to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1957. He had one other son who was a mining engineer.  The family dynamics must have been fascinating. .

This book speaks to our current age and our tendency to demonize our opponents. There are always dangers of seeing the world clearly divided into good and evil, especially when we see ourselves on the side of good and our enemies as always evil. While the Christian faith teaches of a cosmic battle between good and evil (God and Satan), that battle is also taking place within each of our souls, which blurs the battle lines. Furthermore, the victory within the cosmic struggle has already been won at the cross. We pervert Jesus’ teachings when we see ourselves as only good and others as only evil. The human race is much more complicated that this simplistic understanding that leads to a division between “us” and “them.” When we quickly demonize others, we risk denying the image of God instilled in us all.

Paul Arrives in Rome

 Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 28:1-16
November 4, 2018

 

 

 

       As we have seen over the last couple of months, Paul knows he’s supposed to be in Rome. He wants to preach the gospel on Caesar’s doorsteps. But it has not been smooth sailing. We saw that last week as Paul along with the crew and passengers on the ship he was sailing are washed up along the shores of Malta. For a while, it didn’t look like they were going to make it. After being pulled ashore, cold and wet, things started looking up. We now expect Paul to have no further complications in his travels; after all, he’s suffered enough. Of course, that’s not what happens. At times, things we really want to do or feel we are called to do, are difficult. But just because we have setbacks doesn’t mean we should give up.

Today Paul finally makes it to Rome. But there’s still one more challenge in his path. For those of you keeping count, I have just one more sermon on the book of Acts! Our text today is from the 28th chapter, the first 16 verses.

 

In the “Man Who Would Be King,” a movie made from one of Kipling’s short stories, Sean Connery plays Daniel Dravot, a retired British soldier who is out to seek his fortune. Let’s watch a clip…[1]

        Daniel is mistaken as a god because he survived an arrow to his chest. Of course, the arrow stuck in his gear and didn’t penetrate his heart. The people in this remote land, the story is set in 19th Century Afghanistan, flock to him as a god that was sent by Alexander the Great (whom they also saw as a god). Unlike Paul, who was probably horrified by people thinking he’s a god, Connery’s character uses this confusion to his benefit. And, of course, when discovered that he’s not a god, that he bleeds red like the rest of us, things don’t work out well for him. But it does make a great plot for a story, doesn’t it?

We don’t generally have a problem equating humans with gods these days, or do we? It’s easy to overestimate people’s abilities. There is a human desire for saviors and those who can fix things which is why we blindly trust doctors, politicians, managers, and even sports heroes, who show promise. That is, until we realize they, too, have problems and are human. Their blood is red, just like ours. None of us are perfect and even the best of us have flaws, which should humble us all. This is your first application from this text: “we don’t need any saviors for we already have one.”

Let’s dig into our text. Once Paul and his shipmates wash ashore and finally begin to dry out, it begins to rain. It’s cold. They can’t get a break. But the residents of the island display a wonderful talent for hospitality. They build a fire and encourage everyone to gather around and warm themselves.

          I remember hiking the Appalachian Trail on a wet and rainy day. It had started to rain the night before. We’d packed up in the rain; we hiked in the rain. Our goal was a shelter about a fifteen miles away. The last few miles involved a long climb up a very muddy Bly Gap. Muskrat Creek Shelter was just after we got to the top. It was a three-sided lean-to with a fire pit in front. Another hiker was there before us. He’d skipped hiking in the rain that day, deciding to stay in the shelter where he started reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a book someone had left behind. And he had a blazing fire. He invited us to join him around the fire as he whipped up some Martha White Cornbread mix and fried for us some hoecakes over the fire. We nicknamed him “Cornbread.” Like the residents of Malta, he was an example of hospitality.

If you’re ever caught in a storm, I hope you come across such angels! They’ll make your day better. Better yet, and this is your second application of the text for the day, if you find someone in a storm, why don’t you become their angel and show them hospitality. Such behavior will help make the world a better place.

After we warmed up that afternoon at Muskrat Creek Shelter, several of us went out to gather more wood to add to Cornbread’s fire. It was the neighborly thing to do. Likewise, Paul also pitches in to help, going out to collect some wood. Only he manages not just to come back with twigs and sticks. He picks up a snake which may have been somewhat lethargic due to the cold. Snakes are cold blooded, you know. When chilled, they can’t move and have to depend on the sun (or in this case a fire) to warm up their bodies so that they can move. This may explain why the snake was confused with a stick. But when Paul brings the wood over by the fire, the snake warms up and isn’t too happy at its relocation.

         This snake, we’re told it’s a viper, latches on to Paul’s hand. Paul dislodges it by shaking it off into the fire. Those observing this immediately think Paul must be a really bad dude. After all, why would he survive a shipwreck only to be bitten by a viper? You know the comic idea of the Greek gods up on Olympus, sending out lightning bolts to zap someone they’re displeased with. Think of them aiming at Paul, lightning bolt after lightning bolt, till they finally zap him. That’s what’s going through their minds. But when Paul doesn’t show any ill effects from the bite, the people change their thoughts. Now they think Paul must be a god. Why else would he have survived?

          Why was Paul saved from the snake bite? Certainly, Paul has a larger mission before him, of going to Rome, but more immediately, he’s also able to bring healing to those on the island. He heals the father of one of the leading citizens of Malta. Others come to him and Paul continues his healing ministry.

 

The people are so grateful that they provide all the provisions Paul and his friends need when they head to Rome three months later, after the winter storms have passed.

 

 

         The rest of Paul’s journey is easy. Again, Luke provides us with great detail, including a description of the ship’s figurehead, the twin brothers whom we know as Gemini, a constellation that’s easily identified in the night sky and important to navigation. They sail north from Malta to Syracuse on the coast of Sicily, then pass through the gap between Italy’s boot and football, and on up to Puteoili, near present day Naples. There, Paul would have seen Mt. Vesuvius, which would blow its top in a little less than 20 years, as it buries Pompeii. A group of Christians put Paul and his friends up for a week. From there, they make their way overland, north to Rome. The word is out that Paul is coming and Christians from Rome travel down to meet Paul and his companions half way.

         Luke tells this journey in a manner that almost allows us to forget that Paul is a prisoner. He’s being sent to Rome so that Caesar can hear his case and make a ruling. It appears Paul, who has befriended the Centurion in charge of his transport, has enjoyed much freedom during this journey. Even when they arrive in Rome, instead of locking Paul in a jail, he’s allowed to live on his own with a Roman guard watching over him. This arrangement would be like those today who get out of prison but have to wear an ankle tracking bracelet.

God is faithful and that angel who spoke to Paul during the storm that battered the ship was truthful. Paul has arrived safely in Rome. His adventures on this journey show us that while, if God has something for us to do, God will protect us, but it won’t necessarily be easy. The Christian life will have bumps along the way. Paul endured chains, a terrible storm, an attempted munity and murder, a shipwreck, and a snake bite. But God continued to use him, despite the challenges, to bring healing to those in Malta and to offer hope the Christians in Rome.

          Does God have plans for you, for us? And if so, what perilous journey are we willing to embark upon? And here’s our last application from the text: as followers of Jesus, we’re not promised an easy path, but we are promised that a faithful God will watch over us and give us strength when needed. And that, should be enough for us to willingly follow our Lord.  Amen.

 

©2018

[1]The clip was from the first minute of this section of the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dJf5rO0-BM

 

Shipwrecked but Saved

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 27:27-44
October 28, 2018

 

 

 

Today we’re reminded of God’s presence, even in the midst of the storms of our lives. But before we get to that, let’s again call on our own Gilligan and MaryAnn (Gene Pinion and Mary McKee) to set the stage as they present the slightly revised parody of the “Ballard of Gilligan’s Island.”


Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip,
That started from this tropical port
Aboard this tiny ship.
The mate was a mighty sailin’ man,
The skipper brave and sure..

A group of passengers set sail that day
On a long and fateful tour.
On a long and fateful tour.

 The wind began to howl one day,
the sailing ship was tossed.
If not for the prayers of Paul to the Lord
all members could be lost.

So join us here next week, my friends.
Be sure to hear the facts,
as Pastor Jeff completes the tale of the marvelous book of Acts.
The Acts of The Apostles….
and nothing rhymes with apostles!

          Last week, we left Paul and his companions on a boat as they were sailing from Fair Haven, on the west end of Crete. Those in charge of the boat (actually a ship for we’ll learn there are 276 people on board), decided they’d like to move to the east side of their boat during winter. This was when shipping on the Mediterranean became too dangerous. But as they make their way along the south of Crete, “the gales of November came early.”[1] Their ship is blown off course. They are unable to turn it around and make headway against the wind. The storm was so bad, they can’t see the sun or the stars. They have no way of navigating and are unsure where the wind is taking them.

        The 46th Psalm, which was read earlier, describes how chaos often fills our lives. There are natural disasters such as earthquakes and storms on the sea, along with human disasters such as war. Despite all that, we are told that we should not fear, because God is present in the center of it all. The Psalm ends, calling us to take a break from the whirlwind that surrounds us, to sit still in silence and to know that God is with us, that God is our refuge and strength. Paul may have quoted the 46th Psalm to assure his shipmates.

Paul encourages everyone to keep up their courage, telling them an angel visited him during the night. This angel, Paul said, “belongs to the God I worship.” At other places, Paul might have said the angel belongs to “The God of Abraham,” but here Paul is addressing a crowd that is mostly pagan. He refers to God in a way they can understand. The angel, this messenger from God, told Paul not to be afraid. Paul is assured that he will safely arrive in Rome, and that everyone on the ship will survive, even though the ship itself will be lost.

This is where our reading begins this morning. Open your Bibles and read along with me from Acts 27, beginning with verse 27 through the end of the chapter.

        Have you ever been in a position like that of Paul’s shipmates, where you lost hope? Where, in the words of Gordon Lightfoot, “the wind and the waves turn the minutes into hours.”[2] I hope not. But if you have, I hope there was someone like Paul beside you. When itis dark and hope fades, we need encouragement. We need someone to challenge the despair and remind us of God’s abiding love? By the way, this is what the church is to be about. We’re to offer hope when all appears lost. We’re to be the voice crying out in the storm, encouraging everyone to trust, to have faith. We can do this because we worship a Lord who was, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, “crucified, dead and buried.” But that’s not the end of the story. The creed doesn’t end there, it continues, “On the third day, he rose from the dead…”

        We have hope because we worship a God who raises the dead! We have hope because our God created this good world, and although the devil and his minions may challenge God’s reign, God is still in control. God is all powerful, but more than that, God is good and just, loving and graceful. As part of God’s family, we have no reason to fear. We have hope, eternal hope.  Yes, bad things may happen (and they do), but in the end God holds us in his loving hands. This goes for us as individuals as well as congregations and denominations. Not everything that happens is good. And that’s okay. After all, if the church was that perfect, where only good things happen, they wouldn’t have any of us as members.

         Recently, I’ve been reading Joseph Small’s wonderful book on Reformed Ecclesiology, Flawed Church, Faithful God.[3] Ecclesiology comes from the Greek which blends together “word” and “assembly” to create the Greek word for church. Add to that the –ology ending, meaning study, and we have ecclesiology is the study of “church.” Small’s title—Flawed Church, Faithful God—says it all. He captures an essential truth about the church. We’re flawed, we’re not perfect, but we have been brought together by our faithful Savior Jesus Christ and while we struggle to get it right, we follow one who gets it right. So today, as we recall the past, and all the good times we’ve enjoyed, don’t make the mistake to confuse the past with the kingdom of God. For we, the church, is being called forward into a new kingdom where the redeemed in Christ will live eternally. But, like Paul in our story today, we’re still on a journey. There’ll be good days and not so good ones.

         Let’s explore our text. Paul and his fellow shipmates have been at sea for 14 days. It’s been stormy and the winds have pushed them far off course. They’re no longer envisioning a nice winter in Phoenix. By reducing their load, they’re just hoping not to capsize. Seasickness is rampart. People aren’t eating. Everyone, it seems, have given up. Everyone except for Paul. Paul’s the cheerleader.

   Finally there is some hope. In an era without depth finders, they drop a weight on a string overboard to take a sounding. They realize the water is now only 20 fathoms, or roughly 120 feet. They drop it again, and it’s only 15 fathoms. Although it’s night, they sense land must be near. The sailors dropped anchor. Interestingly, instead of dropping anchors off the bow, as is generally done so the vessel can swing into the wind, they drop four anchors off the stern. Perhaps this caught Paul’s attention, and alerted him that something wasn’t right. For when sailors lower a boat into the sea for the said purpose of setting an anchor off the bow, Paul’s alarmed.  In the middle of the ocean, this doesn’t make sense, for you want the ship to be able to move and stay into the wind, lest you risk swamping the vessel with a rogue wave. Paul goes to his friend, the centurion, whom we met last week. Remember, he’s a good guy. Paul tells him that he thinks the sailors are going to abandon ship to save their own necks, so the soldier cuts away the lines holding the boat. Now everyone is stuck on the ship.

           Then, in the early dawn, just before daybreak, Paul encourages everyone to eat. We have essentially a communion service here, except that there is no mention of wine. But the language is similar. Paul gives thanks for the bread and then gives it to everyone, all 276 of them, and they eat.  And as they are eating, Paul reminds them that they’ll not lose a hair from their head—quite a promise for a group that has been floundering at sea for two weeks.

          When the sun rises, they find themselves off an unfamiliar land. They cut the anchors, hoist a foresail, and are blown toward a bay. All seems to go well. It looks like they’ll be saved. THEN, they strike a reef. The ship begins to break up. Salvation was so close, now it seems it’s so far. Once again they are in peril. And there is another problem, one even more ominous.

         The soldiers, we’re told, plan to kill the prisoners. They fear that if they the prisoners swim ashore, they’ll escape. If that happens, they’re in trouble. They, themselves, might face death. Remember the jailer in Philippi, who had Paul and Silas locked up. When that earthquake opened the doors of the prison, he was going to commit suicide, for he was afraid that his prisoners had escaped.[4] Letting prisoners escape was a serious thing in these days.

Thankfully, again Paul’s friend, the centurion, intervenes. So those who can swim, jump in and head for the beach while others float on wooden pieces of the boat. As Paul predicted, the ship is lost but all souls are saved.

        Last week, I told how this story stands in in the tradition of that ancient genre of seafaring stories. But here, the ending is in contrast to some of the other stories of the day. In the Odyssey, only Odysseus survives. His crew perishes. By saving not just Paul, but everyone, Luke tells the story in a way that reminds his readers of the power of God, a power that extends not only over the sea, but far surpasses the power of the gods that others worship. We also learn of God’s desire to save.[5]

This story teaches us that while God desires to save us, there are going to be bumps and storms along the way. Yes, Paul is supposed to go to Rome to preach before Caesar, but getting there is not easy. There are things God wants us to do, as individuals and as a community, but that doesn’t mean those things will be easy. As the church, as Jesus’ body in the world, we are called to endure and to be a beacon of hope.

After a week like this past one, with attempted bombings of political figures and a mass killing in a Jewish synagogue, one of the things we’re called to stand up to the hate. As people of God, we’re to show the world a better way, a new way of relating to one another. But it’s not easy. It takes faith. It takes courage.

          Our final hymn, which we’ll sing in a few minutes, reminds us that the church exists “‘Mid toil and tribulation…” Things are never easy. But the hymn continues, reminding us the church waits for the fulfillment of the kingdom, for “peace forever more.”[6] The Christian life is not a life free of storms. It’s a life where we endure the storm because we know God is with us and because we know the future. God is going to be victorious over death and evil. In the meantime, we take hope in Jesus’ words that he’ll be with us until the end of the age.[7] We remind ourselves, as we heard from Psalm 46, that God is present even in the middle of a storm. These promises should instill confidence for us to live boldly into our next forty years. So be it. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] From Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” 1976.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joseph D. Small, Flawed Church, Faithful God: A Reformed Ecclesiology for the Real World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

[4] Acts 16:25ff.

[5] William Willimon, Acts, (1988, Louisville, KY, WJKP: 2010), 185.

[6] Samuel J. Stone, “The Church’s One Foundation” verse 3. (1863)

[7] Matthew 28:20.

A Better Looking Corpse

Larry Larance, A Better Looking Corpse: and other Southern Short Stories (Savannah, GA: Windchimes Press, 2007) 203 pages

 

I haven’t meet Larance, but we live on the same island (Skidaway).  I was lent a copy of his book by one of his friends. They’re both part of the same writing group. These are thirteen enjoyable short stories set across the rural South. Many are from Arkansas, but there are some from Georgia and from Louisiana. Laramie provides an interesting header for each story that includes the town’s name and population. I would have suggested he also provide a year, as the stories are set over a 50 year or so period. However, it doesn’t take long in a reading one of these stories to know what decade they’re set. The author acknowledges his desire to capture the southern speech patterns. Not only does he do this, he does a good job with it so that you have a sense you’re sitting inside the story.

 

Larance’s stories generally leave the reader feeling good, through there are a few exceptions. In one, someone trying to take an easy way out by running drugs and stashing them in an old couch. He receives his “just reward” when his grandmother surprises him with a new couch and sends the old one to the dump. But most of these stories are about those who struggle and find hope. There’s the man who was going to kill himself who befriends a hobo who saves him. I couldn’t help but to think of George Bailey meeting Clarence in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s a story about a bunch of old-aged good-ole-boys ready to set a younger man straight over his drinking and the way they perceive him treating his wife, only to discover there’s more to the story than they knew and they end up offering their help as he tries to get his life back on track. These stories take place in all kinds of settings: a barber shop, the Plantation Club of the Landings on Skidaway Island, a church recreation room, a “boarding house, a class reunion, and upon the waters of Wassaw Sound.

 

While most of the stories end with the reader feeling good about what’s happened, there are a few that leaves the reader pondering the future. In “No Forwarding Address,” a successful businessman who, on a rebound after his wife’s death, marries a woman who is cleaning him out financially. He plans and executes an escape as he disappears in South Florida. While it seems his new wife might receive her due, we are left to wonder about him. But, as in all the stories, hope is possible. And sometimes that’s what we need, a little hope. These stories may be simple and straight forth, but the reading is good.

Paul Sails for Rome

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 27:1-12
October 21, 2018

 

Last Sunday we focused on Paul’s speech before Agrippa and Festus. Some scholars suggest that speech is the climax for the Book of Acts. Paul lays out his history, theology and a summary of his actions. Paul is convinced of the resurrection and has placed all his trust in Jesus, his Lord. The remaining two chapters in Acts are almost anti-climactic, as Paul lives out his confidence in Jesus, fulfilling the prophecy that he will take the gospel to Rome.[1]

In today’s reading, Paul finally sets sail for Rome. We’ve been waiting for this journey for a long time. There are only two more chapters in this book… After today, we have three more Sundays and we’ll have completely covered this book.

At this point in the story, the church has been established throughout the Roman Empire and Paul isn’t organizing any additional churches. Nor does Luke, the author of this book, provide any additional theological insights. Instead, what we have is a story of a journey. Like another journey that started from a tropical port that we’re all familiar with, they begin in optimism, but that soon wanes. As an introduction to the 27th Chapter of Acts, let me call on Gilligan and MaryAnn. (That’s Gene Pinion singing and Mary McKee accompanying as they present the “revised Ballard of Gilligan’s Island.”).

 

 

Paul is a seasoned traveler and has taken enough Mediterranean Cruises and racked up enough sea miles in his missionary journeys that he could have easily been a member of the Captain’s Club. Interestingly, in none of these earlier journeys has Luke given this kind of detailed information. We’re provided with the names of several of the travelers, the home base of the ship, all the ports of call, and the route the ship takes as it responds to the weather. What is Luke, the author, trying to accomplish with all this detail?

In a way, Luke has slowed the action down. Way back in Chapter 19, Paul has been focused on going to Rome.[2] But he first had to go to Jerusalem. This appeared to be just a quick trip to the Holy City, but obstacles were continually placed in Paul’s path. It’s finally a relief that Paul is able to begin moving toward this goal of his, to be in Rome, the city that dominated the ancient world.

      What do we learn as Luke slows down his telling of the story? First of all, from the beginning, we learn that Luke and Paul are back together. Notice in verse 1, “When it was decided that WE were to sail to Italy.”  We (those of us who are reading this today) don’t know what happened to Luke, but he last included himself in the narrative back in Chapter 21, just before Paul went into the temple in Jerusalem.[3] Now it appears, Luke has rejoined Paul, as have at least one other believer, Aristarchus. Some scholars have suggested that these two may have traveled as Paul’s slaves, not only to help take care of Paul’s needs, but to elevate Paul’s status, which may be why he seems to receive special treatment by his guard.[4]

          The journey begins with Julius, the centurion who is there to guard Paul, arranging a ship for the journey. This ship is from northwest coast of Asia Minor and was probably just a coastal vessel that sailed from port to port, never far from land. As it is late in the year for shipping, this ship is probably heading to its homeport for winter. The first stop is at Sidon, and there Paul is granted freedom to go find friends who are able to help provide provisions for him. Undoubtedly, those aboard were responsible for their own food. This was a kind gesture by a Roman soldier who could have told Paul to tighten his belt instead of giving him freedom to seek out grub. Because of the wind, we’re told, the ship sails on the leeward side of Cyrus. Luke is building suspense here. The weather is changing. After several ports, they come to Lycia, where Julius finds another ship bound for Rome.

          This second ship, which has sailed north, across the Mediterranean from Egypt, probably hauled grain.[5] It’s well known that at this point in history, Rome’s breadbasket was Egypt. So ships would ply the waters from Alexandria to Rome. With this ship heading to Rome, it appears Paul has a straight shot to make it. But not so quick.

 

We’re now told it is after the Fast, meaning it’s after the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, which falls in late September to early October. This is a problem because we are now in a marginal season for sailing. By November, all shipping would come to a close[6].  Now is the time for ships to find a safe harbor and wait out the winter winds. Paul understands this and argues that they remain at Fair Havens, which sounds like a wonderful place if you’re facing a winter storm.

But Paul is not in charge of this ship. The ship’s owner and the sailors all prefer to winter in Phoenix, a harbor a little further down on the south side of Crete. Who knows why? Fair Havens appears to have been just an inlet, maybe Phoenix not only had a better harbor and a more exciting waterfront that could provide better entertainment for the sailors. So, with Paul’s warning ignored, they set sail and we’ll pick up the story from here next week.

         In a manner, this story is told differently than other stories of Paul’s travels. Instead of focusing on Paul’s work, Luke is now focusing more on Paul and the journey. While this is different from the rest of Acts, his writing in this chapter may have been included to please his readers. The human race, at least since Homer first wrote the Odyssey, has had a fascination with sea travel.[7] The sea is a great mystery and still is in some ways. We know way more about the ocean today than then, but what goes on in the depths still baffles science. Perhaps, as one scholar suggested, including this sea journey was the same as a modern author including a chase scene in an adventure movie.[8] It wakes us up and gets our heart racing.

Even if Luke’s intention is to provide levity with this story, are there some other things else we learn from this story?  What can we take from this that we can apply to our lives? I think there’s still truth here to grasp. And to understand this, we should go back to Jesus calling the disciples. Interestingly, he first called those who worked the seas on their fishing vessels. What did Jesus say to Peter and the others? You know the answer. Jesus said, “Come, follow me.”[9]

The call to faith is not a call to remain where we are at. It’s a call to follow, it’s a call to a movement. As I’ve often reminded you as we’ve gone through this book, the early church didn’t have names like “The First Presbyterian Church of Antioch.” The church was first known as “The Way.” The journey is important whether or not we actually leave the place we live. At least metaphorically, we are all called to leave behind the past and to move forward into a new life with priorities that are based on Kingdom values.

        “Follow me,” Jesus says. For Paul, that means he had to leave behind being a Pharisee, his Jewish heritage, the Holy City of Jerusalem, and head to Rome which was, in the first century, the center of the world. Paul was called as an Apostle to the Gentiles and that requires him to be willing to go where they were living. It also means, as we see in this text, that even though Paul was reluctant to go forward at times, wanting to take the safe way, sometimes we are dragged along and have to go on faith.

You know, it used to be said of churches that “if you build it, they will come.” But that day has long past. Today, most people advising churches on how to engage the culture is saying that we can’t expect people to come to us; we have to go to them.[10] As I have tried to inform you through this series, there are many great similarities between the church of today and the church of the 1st Century. We both are called to do what we can to reach people where they’re at and in most cases that means we need to leave the pews and go be the church into the world.

        Where is God calling you? What need in the world is God calling you to help address? Is there someone that could use a friend that you could reach out and share the love of Jesus? Are there people who need to hear the message of hope that has been entrusted to the church? Are there ways you can become involved in the movement to building Jesus’ kingdom? Do you need to talk to someone to help you figure out your journey? If so, come talk to me or seek out a faithful friend.  Being on a journey means we must get out of the pews and go and love and serve the world. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdom, 2003), 349.

[2] Acts 19:21.

[3] See Acts 21:17.

[4] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 501.

[5] Gaventa, 351.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gaventa, 349. William Willimon Acts (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 2010), 182-183.

[8] Gaventa, 349.

[9] Matthew 4:19, Mark 1:19, and John 1:36, 45.

[10] In Lasting Impact, a book the Session of SIPC is studying, the author discusses these trends and how the church should respond.  See Carey Niewhof, Lasting Impact (Cummings, GA: The rethink Group, 2015).

Return of the Osprey

David Gessner, Return of the Osprey: A Season of Flight and Wonder (Ballantine Books, 2001), 289 pages, 1 rough map.

 

I purchased this book (along with an alumni sweatshirt) ten years ago at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s bookstore. It’s the school where I did my undergraduate work and where Gessner now teaches. I started reading and just didn’t get into it at the time. I put it down after 20 or so pages. Since then, I have read a couple more of Gessner’s books (My Green Manifesto and All the Wild that Remains). Late last month, as I was looking for something to read while I was spending a few days kayaking and camping on Cumberland Island, I decided the try the book again. This time I fell in love with it. There, I spent part of an afternoon on the banks of Brickhill River, alternating between reading this book and watching an osprey fish. Gessner’s prose is wonderful. There is a relaxed tone to the book as he draws us into a season he spends on Cape Cod observing these magnificent birds. This book is part memoir, as we learn about the author’s recent bout of cancer, which he uses to draw us into the story of how chemicals (especially DDT) almost wiped out the osprey population. But they have made a comeback. Personally, I encounter osprey almost every time I paddle out of Delegal Creek, heading to Wassaw or Ossabaw Island. Perhaps these experiences helped draw me into Gessner’s story.

As he watches the osprey return from South America to their nesting grounds on Cape Cod, Gessner informs us of the birds’ habits. He draws on experts, such as John Hay and Alan Poole. He also carries on a discussion in his narrative with broader ecological writers including Henry David Thoreau, Rachael Carson, John and Mildred Teal, Wendell Berry and Scott Russell Sanders.  He explores the dynamics of his own family. He regularly visits his father’s grave while his mother spends the summer with Gessner and his wife. Also, for shorter periods of time, his troubled brother visits, followed by a more delightful visit of his sister and her son, Gessner’s nephew. Reflecting on his own family allows him to also ponder the family dynamics of osprey.  As the book goes from late winter to early fall, the reader joins Gessner in cheering on each stage of development during the osprey’s nesting season. First they select and build a nest, then lay the eggs, then the hungry newborns to feed. As the season begins to wane, the young fledglings’ take to the sky and then, before it is time for them to migrate, begin to master fishing.

Ospreys are often called sea eagles and they obtain almost all their food from fish. I was glad, however, to learn that occasional on Cape Cod they will eat an occasional muskrat. I once saw an osprey near my home here come back to the nest with what appeared to be a marsh rat.

I recommend this book. It’s great nature writing. It reminded me of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, even though both of these authors wrote their stories as if they were living alone (both had a spouse or significant other with them at the time, something I think I learned from a lecture given by Scott Russell Sanders).  Gessner, by including his family into his anrrative, is able to take us out of the “lone nature lover” situation to one who, like the Osprey, live lives with others.  A good read.

Paul before Agrippa

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 26 (19-32)
October 14, 2018

One of my goals over the past three years have been to preach through the book of Acts. Part of the reason is my belief the church in the first century isn’t that different than the church of the 21st century. We’re both living in an era where the world is somewhat indifferent to the church. Sadly, there are those willing to use the church as a political pawn, but the message of Jesus, the grace, love and forgiveness of God the Father, is easily sidelined when the church serves such purposes. The great question to the church today is how we are to live our faith in an indifferent world. That was also the question of the church in Paul’s day.

        We know this book as “Acts of the Apostles,” but as I have often suggested, it really should be called “The Acts of God through the Apostles.” For each of the miraculous deeds, while done through the Apostles, happen because of God’s power and presence as the early church grows throughout the Roman Empire. This is counter-intuitive, but Paul and the early Christians understood it. The church is always its strongest when the world is against it and the only thing the church can do is depend on Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds the Corinthians, “The weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”[1] With apologies to Allstate, when we trust ourselves to God’s hands, we are in good hands.

Now let’s catch up with our story from Acts. After the end of Paul’s third missionary journey, he returned to Jerusalem, where he found himself attacked by the Jewish leaders. Roman soldier’s saved his life and he’s whisked off to Caesarea, where Paul spends two years waiting in jail. As we’ve seen, God’s hand is still there with Paul, working out the Kingdom’s larger purposes, despite the Apostle’s imprisonment.

The Romans, as I’ve pointed out over and over again, didn’t know what to do with Paul. They don’t think he’s guilty of anything. And Paul, being a Roman citizen creates a problem for them. If they punished an innocent Roman citizen, they’ll be in trouble. But if they let Paul go, they’re going to make the Jewish leaders mad. Looking back on this event from the present, we can see we are just a few years before the Jewish revolt. Things are unsettled in that part of the world. The Roman leaders are doing all they can to maintain the peace.

Instead of facing another trial before the Jews, Paul has appealed to Caesar. But before he goes to Caesar, there is one more hearing, before Herod Agrippa. While we don’t learn anything new about the charges against Paul, we are able to watch how Paul gives his witness before the Roman’s authorities. As we reflect on the 26th chapter of Acts, we can ask how we might give our testimony if called upon. Paul has been falsely accused. If someone was bringing false allegations against us, how would we act? Would our response be like Paul’s?  Think about this as we listen to the end of Paul’s last great speech recorded in the Book of Acts.  Read Acts 26:19-32.  (note, verses 1-18 were read earlier in the service)

          Paul has been locked up unjustly. The Romans can’t find anything that he’s done to deserve such treatment, yet they don’t want to upset the Jewish leadership, so Paul remains a prisoner. Now he has a chance to speak before a king. If you were in this situation, what would you do? I’m sure most of us would complain by how we’ve been treated unfairly. We might say nasty things about our accusers, or go on and on about who’s out to get us. We’d grumble about the prison food. We’d whine about the rusty shackles. We’d let ‘em have it.

         But that’s not what Paul does. Paul is brought before a king and he is respectful and courteous. And instead of focusing on himself, Paul proclaims the truth he has come to know in Jesus Christ. Paul doesn’t give a defense; he proclaims Jesus Christ. It has been said that the only real defense the church has against allegations by those on the outside is proclamation. Paul might have found relief by focusing on his mistreatment, but would he have been faithful?[2] When our backs are up against the wall, are we willing to proclaim Jesus Christ as the risen Lord? When we are challenged and treated unjustly, do we act like we trust in Jesus? Does our response demonstrate that Jesus is the only thing that matters?

        In his first letter, Peter encourages his readers to consider themselves blessed if they suffer for doing what is right. He goes on to say that they should be ready to proclaim, in gentleness and reverence, the hope they have in Jesus Christ.[3] Contrary to what some people seem to think, righteousness indignation is not a Christian virtue! Arguing and blaming others doesn’t further the faith. Humility and respect is what’s expected from followers of Christ. I know it’s hard. I know I don’t always live up to this standard, but there it is. Even when facing false allegations, we are to be calm, trusting in the strength that comes from our Savior’s presence. Even when we are persecuted, we are to see it as an opportunity not to escape but to witness to the power of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The speech we’ve heard this morning can be divided into three parts. Paul first tells about his early life—his education and his zealous desire to defend the Jewish faith from those who are followers of Jesus. Paul insists that he did what the Jewish leaders are now doing to him. Then, in verse 12, Paul tells of his conversion. Jesus called him personally to help open the eyes of others, so that people might turn from darkness to light.[4] Then Paul tells of his efforts at proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection was foretold by the prophets. Paul goes to great lengths to ground the Christian experience in the ongoing tradition that goes back through what we know as the Old Testament.

          At this point in his speech, Fetus, the Roman governor who’d invited Agrippa to hear this case, interrupts Paul. “You’re crazy,” he essentially says. “You’ve been hitting the books so much your brain is fried.” Remember, Fetus is an outsider. He’s not Jewish and doesn’t really understand this new territory to which he’s been assigned. Listening to Paul with his Roman worldview, it’s not surprising that Festus responds in this manner. Paul claims his sanity before Fetus, then turns to Agrippa. You must also remember that Agrippa is a part of the Herod line. While Roman, he’s also Jewish. Whereas Fetus wouldn’t know one prophet from the next, Agrippa has a good understanding of the Jewish Scriptures.

        Paul attempts to put words in the king’s mouth. “Agrippa, you know this stuff… you believe the prophets.” Agrippa is in a difficult place. If he disagrees with Paul about the prophets, he will have problems not just with Paul but also with his fellow Jews. You’re not to say bad things about the prophets. But if he agrees, then he feels he’ll look silly to the Fetus and the Romans, who have no idea what Paul is talking about. So the king doesn’t answer Paul directly, but asks, almost sarcastically, “Paul, are you trying in this short period of time to make me a Christian?”

         Paul’s response to Agrippa is classic. Yes, that’s his intention, to lead Agrippa to Christ. Paul is praying that God will open up Agrippa’s and everyone’s eyes. He wants Agrippa to become, like Paul, a believer. At this point, the meeting breaks up as Agrippa leaves the proceedings. Perhaps his conscience is pricked, and he wants to get out of the room before he has to make a decision concerning Jesus. As Agrippa departs, he acknowledges Paul’s innocence. In his eyes, Paul has done nothing to deserve death. He also indicates that if Paul had not appealed his case to Rome, he could have been set free. It appears this appeal now works against Paul, for he is to be taken to Roman as a prisoner. The stage is set for Paul to make his last great journey.

What is it that we should learn from this passage? How should we apply what happen to Paul to our lives? Like Paul, as followers of Jesus, we’re to desire the best for everyone, including our enemies, including those who judge us, and including those who accuse us. In the face of troubles, we are to place our hope, not in our abilities to argue or to attack, but in Savior Jesus Christ.

          As I’ve suggested, our society has become more apathetic about the faith. In other societies, there is even opposition. We just seen the release of Andrew Brunson, a long held Christian pastor in Turkey.[5] Even more troubling is the Death Penalty sentence for blasphemy against the Koran handed out to a Christian woman in Pakistan. It’s been appealed to that’s country Supreme Court, but one shouldn’t have to suffer in such a manner as has this woman.[6] There are Christian farmers in Nigeria whose villages are being wiped out.[7] There are churches being closed in China.[8] We need to keep our brothers and sisters around the world in our prayers and hope that when they are persecuted that can, like Paul, display their trust in Jesus Christ.

Hopefully, none of us will face such persecution, but how we live and respond to the world demonstrates our allegiance. Paul put his Savior before everything else, including himself. While there were no converts made on this day, Paul wasn’t being judged by worldly standards. His respectful approach to Agrippa displayed his confidence in his Savior. Paul was being judged by Kingdom values. He remained faithful to Jesus Christ? Will we?  Will we place our trust in Jesus even on those bad days when nothing seems to go our way? Amen.

 

©2018

[1]1 Corinthians 1:25.

[2] Beverly Roberts Gaventa,  Acts  (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 348.

[3] 1 Peter 3:14-16.

[4] Acts 26:18.

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-to-meet-evangelical-pastor-brunson-after-he-was-freed-from-turkish-jail/2018/10/13/352faf66-cef9-11e8-920f-dd52e1ae4570_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f89809b81850

[6] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6260057/Daughter-Christian-woman-Pakistan-sentenced-death-blasphemy-speak-struggle.html

[7] https://www.premier.org.uk/News/World/Something-needs-to-be-done-or-the-church-will-be-destroyed-says-Nigerian-Christian

[8] https://www.premier.org.uk/News/World/6-churches-closed-down-in-China-in-a-week

 

New Media at SIPC

Installing new flat screens monitors at SIPC

This summer Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church made a major investment in our sanctuary to both enhance our worship with four large screens and to broadcast our worship with three remote controlled cameras. Out thanks to everyone who played a role in this transition, especially Lars Ljungdahl, Jim Brown, Sam Eskew, and the late Bob Harris.

We have been slowly working into our use of this technology which allows us to show high quality images and video during worship, to stream our services live, and to record our services for future play. Over the past two months, we have had “Beta Testers” watch the service from computers in their homes and apartments, on tablets in the hospital, and on a beach in Nova Scotia. I even was able to catch most of Deanie’s sermon recently while camping on the north end of Cumberland Island. Unfortunately, my signal strength wasn’t the best, but I was able to catch most of her excellent message.

While we would love to have you worship in person with us each and every Sunday, we know that we are often busy or traveling or, heaven forbid, sick or in the hospital and unable to be present at 10 AM on Sunday morning. For those Sundays you are not able to be here, we encourage you to worship with us via streaming over the internet. This you can do on any computer or tablet. Just go to www.sipres.org/watchlive. or click on the link below. Of course, if you are traveling in a different time zone, you’ll need to make sure that you go to this site at the time we are worshiping (currently it’s 10 AM Eastern Daylight Time on Sunday morning). This time would be 3 PM in London, 7 AM in Los Angeles, or 5 AM on Monday in Malaysia).  To check out the correct time, go to https://timeis and search for Savannah, Georgia USA.

I invite you to join us here on the island, or remotely, wherever you might find yourself this Sunday morning.

World Communion Sunday

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Mark 9:38-50
October 7, 2018

 

It’s World Communion Sunday and Christians around the globe gather around this table to celebrate. But why? What are we to be about?

A definition of a Christian I like is that we’re to make flowers grow in a dark world. Are we doing that? Have you planted or shared any flowers lately? Have you done something else to make someone smile? To brighten up the world?

Philip Gulley, a Quaker Pastor in Indiana, is the author of some delightful and humorous books about life and ministry. In Front Porch Tales, he introduces us to Doc Foster, a man in the town in which he was raised. Doc wasn’t a physician. He was a trash collector and the only African-American in Gulley’s hometown.

For a dollar a week, he pulled up at our curb in his pickup truck, climbed out, threw our trash in the back, and drove away. If we forgot to set our trash out, he’d drive back to our barn and get it himself. When he had a truck full, he’d drive out to the town dump on Twin Bridges Road, unload, wet his finger, and put it in the air; if the wind wasn’t blowing toward town, he’d commence to burning…

Gulley goes on to tell of other “good deeds” done by Doc Foster such as helping college kids out with their tuition so that there could be more teachers in the community. He sums up Doc’s work this way:

When out-of-town visitors would complement us on our town’s cleanliness, we would swell with pride as if we ourselves had swept up the trash the dogs had scattered. Doc did what all good people do—made the rest of us look better than we really were.[1]

Did you catch that definition of a good person? A good person is one who makes everyone else look better. As followers of Jesus, that’s what we’re to be about. When we come to this table, we come as servants, serving the Lord and one another. We come as people whose purpose is to make others look better. But we don’t like to think ourselves that way, do we? We’re not alone, neither did the disciples.

Today we’re going to look at some of Jesus’ more difficult sayings. Let me put this passage in context. Jesus has just intervened in one of the disciples’ disputes over who was going to be the greatest. Jesus broke the news. If you want to be great, you have to first be a servant. Then he called forth a child and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name, I will welcome.”[2] It’s a message the disciples have a hard time grasping, which we’ll see as we pick up the reading from there. Read Mark 9:38-50.

         It’s been about a dozen years since we were all shocked at a story that came out Canyonlands National Park in Utah. A young solo climber, Aron Ralston, was descending into a canyon when an 800 pound boulder slipped and trapped his arm. He did everything he could to get free, but nothing worked. After three days, he ran out of water. On the fifth day, he made the drastic decision that saved his life. He rigged up his climbing gear so he could repel one-armed down the canyon as soon as he was free, tied a tourniquet to his pinned arm, and then, using his knife, amputated it.[3]

Aron was not the first person to perform such drastic measures in other to survive. In 1993, a fisherman in Colorado cut off his leg at the knee after being trapped by two large boulders while fishing in a remote canyon stream. Yelling for hours, no one heard his cries and the weather was deteriorating. Using hemostats from his fishing kit, he closed the severed arteries and crawled half-a-mile back to his truck.[4]

Such incidents cause many of us to wonder if we could do the same thing if caught in a similar situation.  I don’t know, but I know that being in such a position requires drastic action. If you want to live, there may be no other choice. And maybe that is what Jesus is saying in this harsh passage.

      Sin, which leads to death, requires drastic action. Now I don’t think he means that we’re to actually cut off our hands or pluck out our eyes. After all, if you use such logic, that would mean if your sin begins in thought in your head, you should chop it off or at least sign up for a lobotomy. Obviously, Jesus’ intention isn’t to create a bunch of handicapped, self-mutilated Christians. That would go against Scripture’s teaching that our body is a temple in which we invite God to dwell.[5] So instead of taking this passage literally, we have to figure out what Jesus’ intention was here, what he’s trying to say.

          I believe Jesus uses outrageous examples as a way to get his disciples (and our) attention. Jesus is forcing us to deal with our own sin. If we look at this passage as a whole, from verse 38 through verse 50, we’ll see that Jesus extends charity to those who might have been considered “outsides” while putting a heavier burden on those who are “insiders.”  Another way of getting at this is Jesus’ saying that we’re to take the log out of our own eyes before we try to retrieve a speck out of someone else’s eye.[6] Let me explain.

Our passage starts with the disciples trying to look good. That should indicate something… Pride has this way of messing with us.[7] “Jesus,” John says, “we stopped this guy from using your name to expel demons. He wasn’t one of us so we set him straight.”

John’s expecting a pat on the back. “Way to go, John,” he expects to hear. “You’ve helped maintain my good name.” But that’s not what he hears! “Don’t stop someone from doing good,” Jesus says.

         He then gives two examples. “If someone gives you a cup of water in my name, they’re on our side and God will notice their good deeds.” In the second example, he speaks of us giving a hard time to someone on the outside, or as it has been traditionally translated, “if you put a stumbling block in front of a little one who believes in me, you’d be better off to have a millstone tied to your neck and be tossed into the sea.” Such dreadful experiences might have been on the disciples minds for it is known that he Romans recycling worn millstones by tying them around the necks of their enemies.[8] The resulting consequences of these two actions may seem out of portion. A cup of water gets a nod from God, while tripping someone (we’re not even told that they fell), is serious enough that we’d be better off dead. Consider, however, what Jesus is doing here. He extends charity to those on the outside while setting up tougher standards for those who are on the inside.

          Jesus next gives a series of hyperbolic demands, commands that seem so outrageous. These are not given as an absolute requirement, but as a way to drive home a point. We need to take seriously our sin. “If your hand or foot causes you trouble, cut it off. If your eye distracts you, pluck it out.” Sin requires serious attention! “Don’t worry about who’s in and who’s out,” Jesus is saying. “Don’t spend your time worrying about the sin of others. Worry about yourself and what you can do to avoid sin.” Good advice, for we can only change ourselves. We can’t change someone else, a lesson all of us who are married should have learned a long time ago. But it’s a lesson that just doesn’t sink in very deep.

        Then Jesus closes this section with a reminder that we all need to be “refined by fire.” Take actions to preserve yourself, we’re told and then preserve the peace with one another. Kind of an interesting way to end this set of troubling teachings, don’t you think?

Let me suggest a way for us to apply this passage. Jesus is saying that we need to go easy on others (those on the outside). If we should hard on anyone, we should be hard on ourselves. This will keep us humble. We need to avoid comparisons and thinking “my sin ain’t as bad as their sin.” That’s the logic of three-year-olds and politicians! If we go easier on others than ourselves, we avoid being hypocritical, a problem that seems to especially infect religious people.  If we harder on ourselves than others, we will be more gracious and humble and the church can become a place where people care for one another. We’ll be like old Doc Foster, making others look good!

         Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, had a favorite story about a horseman who became lost in a snow storm. Spurring his horse on, he galloped across a frozen lake. Later, in the comfort, warmth and safety of home, he learned of his fool-hearted action and how he galloped across thin ice. The man then broke down in horror and fright. In a way we’re to be like that. For you see, it’s only after the horseman was saved that he realized his peril.[9] That is also true for us. We realize the danger once we have experienced the grace.

I hope you know that sin leads to death, but that you also know that we are to let our sins die on the cross as we accept God’s grace, love, and forgiveness that’s offer through Jesus Christ.[10]

       Yes, we should take our own sin seriously. But we should also go easy on others and their sin. By living this way, we’ll be making the world a better place for all. Amen.

 

 

©2018  (this sermon was adapted from a sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church, Hastings, MI on 10-1-2006)

[1] Philip Gulley, Front Porch Tales (HarpersSanFrancisco, 2001), 31-33.

[2] See Mark 9:33-37.

[3] http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/2010/11/aron-ralston-the-real-story.html

[4] https://www.mountainzone.com/2003/news/html/030502_amputate-arm.html

[5] 1 Corinthians 6:19.

[6] Matthew 7:3-5 and Luke 6:41-42.

[7] See Proverbs 11:2, 16:18, and 29:23.

[8] William L. Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 346.

[9] Story told by Ralph Wood in Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-haunted South (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 152.

[10] See Romans 6.

Crossing Java by train

I will be away for the next two weeks, so I thought I’d leave you with a blog post that I wrote in June 2011, when I was on Sabbatical and traveling mostly by train across Indonesia and then from Singapore to Europe. In this post, I am cross the island of Java.

Crossing Java by train

The heat and humidity is stifling here. I sweat, even in an air conditioned train, the Taksaka 1 from Jakarta Gambir Station to Yogyakarta. The sun pours through the glass. I could close the curtains, but then I’d not see the countryside, so I sit with sweat beading up on my forehead. The back of my shirt has been soaked for some time and clings to the seat.

The train races past vast rice fields, in different stages of production. Although large, each field is divided into manageable plots, separated by dikes allowing for flooding of the paddies. Here, six degrees below the equator, it is endless summer and the fields produce two crops a year. In some paddies, the green rice is tail and I occasionally see a farmer wandering through with a backpacking, spraying what I assume is insecticide. Other fields are muddy, in the process of being cultivated for a new crop. In the paddies that are currently being planted, bundles of rice plants have been placed and workers in six inches of so of water are busy transplanting the young grass into neat rows. In other paddies, they’re harvesting rice, cutting stalks and feeding them into a thresher or, in some cases, beating the stalks on the ground, separating the seed from the grass. And there are paddies in which the harvest has occurred. The stalks in these fields are burnt as they prepare the ground for another crop. The smoke from the burning paddies occasionally waffles through the train.

Slums on the outskirt of Jakarta

The train was nearly an hour late leaving the capital city.  For the longest time, we rolled through the sprawling city, its poverty evident and on display.  Trash was everywhere and the canals, which had gagged me when I’d walked across them on bridges, are filthy.  In my reserve seat, I watch the crowded trains come into town, the only air conditioning that many enjoy come from climbing up on the top of the cars and riding out in the open. It’s dangerous. If the train hits a bump they might fall off, but they are also in close proximity to the overhead electrical wires. This is a country of great contrast with a few who are very wealthy and many who live in unspeakable conditions.

 

Slowly, we leave the city behind us and moved into the tranquil countryside, with farms and elaborate irrigation systems lining both sides of the tracks.  We pass small stations, each with their station master standing out front in his railroad uniform and red and yellow conductor hat, observing us as we speed by.

 

Our first stop is Cirebon.  As the train approaches the station, a host of merchants jump onboard the slow moving cars to sell food and drinks and other goods. There are women with a thermos of hot water and cups along with instant packets of coffee and chocolate. Others sell baked and fried goods, fruits, and packaged snacks and chips. These merchants don’t enter the coaches themselves, probably due to regulations as the railroad itself has plenty of their workers already doing that, but they stand at the end of the cars, in the doorways, crying out for their products.  Others run down the track, tapping on windows, offering up their wares.

On the advice of the older Indonesian gentleman sitting next to me, I order a steak for lunch.  It arrives as we leave Cirebon, a plate consisting of ground steak, some egg, boiled potatoes, carrots and green beans.  It all cost 30000 IRD, a little over $3. It’s nothing fancy, but it is filling. I ask my traveling friend where the beef came from (I’d only seen one cow so far and it didn’t look like anything you’d want to eat). He laughed and said it probably came from Australia.

As I finish lunch, the train turns southward and snakes up the ridge of mountains that form the backbone of Java.  Rice is still grown and higher up, we see more fields in harvest. But there are many other vegetables grown.  Also, there are a few cows along with sheep and goats. I’m impressed by many of the fields, in which the dikes that cut up the rice paddies have a row of string beans staked on top.  There are also plots of corn, sugar cane and melons. I am enchanted with the scenery and the neatness of the countryside. The irrigation works are even more elaborate here, the water running through masonry channels. The neat houses, all roofed with red tile, stand in contrast to the green fields and are shaded by tall palm trees, many loaded with coconuts.

I walk up to the front of the car and stand by the door, between coaches and try to get a better angle for a shot of the back of the train as we move through the turns.  An attendant sees what I’m attempting and opens the door for me, allowing me to stick my camera out and photograph the back end of the train.  Although careful, I know that it is dangerous and you’d never be allowed to pull such a stunt in the United States.  I remember once standing in such a place where another traveler with a camera opened a window. The car attendant was furious with him! I stay in the doorway for a long time, enjoying the breeze and the ability to photograph without having to shoot through dirty glass. Although the car, with many cracked windows, doesn’t look like what we might expect from “executive class,” I am impressed with the tracks.  Here in the steep section of the line, line is mostly double tracked with welded ribbon rail and there appears to be new ballast under the concrete ties.

After passing the town of Bumiayu, nestled in the shade of the forest are scores of small factories devoted to the manufacture of tiles for roofing. By each kiln are stacks of wood for the fires and the open air buildings have two levels of roofs, allowing for smoke to rise and clear the work area. The train begins to pick up speed. Soon, we’re out of the mountains.  We stop in Purwokerto, the second stop of the trip (except for where we had to stop to allow trains to pass). Afterwards, we’re back in large fields of rice, racing on toward Yogyakarta. It is still rural, when my traveling friend tells me we’re entering town and only a few minutes from the station. We arrive at 5:20 PM, about 50 minutes late. I look for the Kiko restaurant, where I’m to meet a driver from the Green Gardens Bread and Breakfast.  He’s not there, but as I turn around, a man is running up to me with my name written on a piece of cardboard. At least I won’t have to worry about finding a place to stay for the evening…

Don’t Pass the Buck

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 25:13-27
September 16, 2018

What a week! There’s been a lot of anxious anticipation. For a few days I wondered if we would even be here today. Perhaps, I thought, we’d be living out of suitcases somewhere higher and dryer. We have been spared from Florence. We must pray for those in the path of the storm and remember our obligations to help out as they rebuild.

        Waiting in anticipation is what Paul has been doing as we work our way through the closing chapters in Book of Acts. Last week, we saw that Paul appealed his case to the Emperor, to Caesar. He knew the dangers of returning to Jerusalem and decided to stick it out with the Roman leadership. We’d think that Paul would be placed on a ship for Rome right away, but that doesn’t happen. Luke, the author of Acts, lingers. There’s a problem. Festus needs to indict Paul. Think of it this way, someone who’s not been convicted of a crime can’t go before the Supreme Court. Likewise, if Festus packs Paul off to Rome without some kind of charge, Caesar and the Romans are not going to be amused. They might take it out on Festus. As Festus ponders this, he’s visited by a neighboring king, another Herod. We’ve heard that name before, haven’t we? Luke seems intrigued by this family.[1]

          There’s a parallel in Luke’s writings between Paul’s court appearances and those of our Lord. In his gospel, Luke tells about the attempts of Roman officials to avoid passing sentence on Jesus, a man they didn’t think deserved to die. As we heard earlier, Pilate tries to pass the buck by having Herod judge Jesus, but the King sends Jesus back to Pilate.[2] They can’t find anything serious enough to charge Jesus. But they are interested in keeping the peace. If that means Jesus has to die, so be it.

Sadly, such “collateral damage” doesn’t bother us as long as we can make it “one of them.” Human nature hasn’t changed. Look at our wars. We don’t fight other humans. We fight terrorist, Gooks, Japs, Krauts… When we can name someone as the other, we depersonalize them and are less bothered when there is a miscarriage of justice. So Jesus, to the Romans, was just another Jew, therefore expendable.

But with Paul, things are different. Yes, he’s another Jew, but he’s also a Roman citizen. With his citizenship comes certain rights. They can’t unjustly accuse and execute him as a way to appease the crowds. So Festus has to figure out what to do, and he calls on Herod Agrippa II.[3] Read Acts 25:13-27.

 

We’ve all heard the phrase, “pass the buck.” We all, at one time or another, have probably used this phrase. It means to pass our responsibility off to someone else.

       The term, I’ve learned, comes from playing poker in the American West. When you had the same person dealing cards, it was easier for them to cheat, so each hand the dealer would change. To indicate who the dealer was at the table, a buck knife would often be stuck in front of them. Originally called a buck-horn knife, later it was shortened to a buck knife, so named because the handle was made from an antler. So when someone didn’t want to deal, he could “pass the buck” and move the knife and cards over to the next player, who would become the dealer.[4]        A little warning for those of you who play poker at the clubs. Do not stick a knife in the table. That may be frowned upon. This ain’t the Old West.

Of course, this phrase that started in a card game changed over time. Language is fluid. Passing the buck began to be applied to someone who passes his or her responsibilities on to someone else.

        Passing the buck, that’s what we see happening with Paul.[5] No one wants to take responsibility. Lysias, the Roman tribune in Jerusalem, could have let Paul go. So could have Felix. Both could have seen to it that justice was served, but they passed the responsibility on. Now we see Festus attempting the same thing.

Our passage today begins with a royal visit. King Agrippa and Bernice arrive. As neighbors, they probably came to pay their respects to the new ruler over Caesarea and Judea. Let me say a little bit about these two, for the Roman soap opera continues. Several weeks ago, we heard about Felix and his rather loose wife, Drussilla.[6] Well, let’s now see if you can keep this straight. King Agrippa, whose father was Herod Agrippa whom we met earlier in Acts, along with his queen Bernice and Drussilla, are siblings. Did you catch it? Agrippa, Bernice and Drussilla, all have the same dad. We only think our world is scandalous. Luke doesn’t go into the scandals, but Roman historians did.[7] A brother and sister together like that… Later Bernice would move up the food chain as she shack up with Titus, who led the Roman armies when they reconquered Jerusalem. She became his wife, but when he became emperor in the year 79, she was dismissed because the Roman people were horrified about her past. At this time, she’s with her brother and we don’t know what to make of their relationship. Perhaps Luke, who seems to be interested in placing all that happens within the church into historical context,[8] assumed folks reading this account in the first century would understand the scandal just by mentioning their names.[9]

So King Agrippa and Bernice stop by for a royal visit. For Festus, this is a chance for him to learn what he can do about Paul. Notice that at the beginning of the reading, Festus attempts to place blame on his predecessor. “Herod,” he said, “Felix left this dude named Paul in prison. And now he has appealed to Caesar. I’m not even sure what to do. In my opinion, he’s not guilty.” Herod, it appears, obviously had heard of Paul and is intrigued. He wants to learn more. With experience in governing, Herod is willing to hear Paul and offer Festus advice.

          Starting with verse 23, we’re given the details of this royal gathering before whom Paul is to be dragged. This could be a movie set. Everyone that anyone is there, dressed in their finest. There’s the military brass standing at attention, there are the leading citizens, and the king and queen of a neighboring province sit in the middle. We can imagine palm branches and peacock feathers waving as slaves attempt to cool the crowd. This is a big deal. Again, Festus makes his case. If he’s sending Paul to Rome, he has to indicate what charges have been made against him. Festus throws this big party for this purpose.

          In a couple of weeks, we’ll hear Paul’s speech before Agrippa, which is the last of his great speeches recorded in the Book of Acts.[10] For now, consider what we might learn from this passage? When those who have been vested with power refuse to use such power to bring about justice, then by their inaction, injustice flourishes. Sin isn’t just what we do. It’s also what we refuse to do.

I encourage you sometime to pick up the Westminster Larger Catechism. For each of the Ten Commandments, there are enlightening lists. For the fifth commandment, “thou shall honor thy father and mother,” the list contains not just how we treat our earthly parents, but also our superiors. It also contains sections about how our parents as well as our superiors are responsible to us.[11]  Among the sins of the superior toward the inferior is neglecting their duty to those below while seeking our own ease, profit, or pleasure. These are things we’re forbidden to do, but there is equally as large list of things required of us.

It has often been said that leadership is a lonely job. But that doesn’t excuse us. Unlike the examples we have of Felix and Festus, we should avoid passing the buck. We must take responsibility. It may cause us to lose friends or influence, as these two feared. But the lives and well-being of others depend on our faithfulness and honesty.

        Asma Jahangir was a Pakistani lawyer who died early this year. She was also Muslin. Back in the mid-90s, there was a high profile case in Pakistan, where two Christian men, a father and his 14 year old son, had been convicted in a local court of blasphemy for defacing the Qur’an. They claimed they were not guilty and it appears the whole thing was an attempt by neighbors to claim their land. They were sentenced to die. The cased was appealed to the Pakistani Supreme Court. This was a hot button issue and no one wanted to touch it, until Jahangir stepped forward. Her decision resulted in Islamic clerics condemning her. In their eyes, nothing could be worse than a Muslim woman defending infidels. This resulted in threats and two attempts on her life. Yet, she remained focused and won the case. As soon as the two were released, they were whisked out of the country and safely to asylum in an unnamed European state.[12]

         What Ms. Jahangir did was to be a responsible and courageous leaders. It’s not the easy way out, but it’s the right way. Too often we look to do what is easy, what won’t cost us or what will help us receive the praise of the crowd. But being a responsible leader is more than seeking the approval of the masses. Being a responsible leader is more than building up one’s base. Being a responsible leader is doing the right thing because it is right.

         Unfortunately, in these last couple of chapters in Acts, we’ve seen Roman leader after Roman leader avoiding doing what is right. They attempt to take the easy way out. Don’t be like them. When you feel led by God’s Spirit to speak out against injustice, to stand up against corruption, to support the weak, to confront a bully, or to speak the truth, don’t follow Festus’ example. Don’t pass the buck. Stand for what is right. Amen.

 

©2018

[1] While Luke doesn’t mention Herod the Great’s massacre of the innocents as Matthew does (Matthew 2), he does mention Herod the Great (Luke 1:5) as well as many who were second and third generation Herods.  See Luke 3:1, 19-20; 8:3; 9:7ff; 13:31; 22:66; 22:7ff; and Acts 4:27, 12:1ff, 23:25.

[2] Luke 23:1-12.

[3] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986),481.

[4] This meaning of the phrase can be found many places on the internet: See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buck_passing or https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/pass-the-buck.html or https://www.infoplease.com/askeds/origin-passing-buck

[5] I found the idea of relating “passing the buck” to his passage from a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Peter A. Butler, Jr, “Providential Passing the Buck” delivered at 2nd Reformed Church, Irvington NJ on May 22, 2011.

[6] Acts 24:24-27.  See my sermon on September 2, 2018

[7] See Bruce, 482, n.15.

[8] Luke is the one who sets the birth of Jesus during the reign of Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  See Luke 2:1-2.

[9] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 2003), 335-336.

[10] See Acts 26.

[11] Presbyterian Church USA, The Book of Confession, “Westminster Confession of Faith: The Larger Catechism,” Questions 127-130.

[12] Carnegie Samuel Calian, The Spirit-Driven Leader: Seven Keys to Succeeding Under Pressure (Louisville, WJK Press,2010), 82-83.

Ebenezer Creek (A photo essay)

Last week, I spent three days at New Ebenezer Retreat Center, which is located near Rincon, about an hour west of her. I spent the time planning sermons for the coming year, some writing, and some reading. But since the center is located at the confluence of Ebenezer Creek and the Savannah River, I took a kayak with me and spent some time on Ebenezer Creek. While I paddled part of the creek before, this was the first time I was able to be there by myself and I wasalso able to paddle some new areas.

I set my standard to do 8 hours of work, then I could paddle, before coming back and doing some more reading in the evening. On Monday, I put in at Tommy Long Landing and paddled to the Savannah River and back. It was fairly late in the day when I launched (around 4 PM). I paddled down with a nice breeze and keep hearing thunder from pop-up storms that were all around, but never came close. I saw several small alligators but no snakes.  I could tell I was getting close to the river as this area is still tidal and the weak current was moving upstream, and the last half-mile or so before the confluence, the water changed from black to brown, as silt in the river water was being pushed up stream by the tide.

On Tuesday, I set again around 4 PM and launched at Long Bridge Road. I tried paddling upstream, but was only able to go a couple hundred yards before I came to a log jam and wasn’t able to go further. I turned and headed south, under the bridge and was able to paddle maybe a mile before I could go no further. If I had a small handsaw, I could have cut a path and paddle a lot further, but I didn’t have a saw and didn’t want to get out in the muck and haul my kayak over the logs (that’s a lot easier in a canoe).  So I paddled back and then did the loop again. Again, no snakes, but also no alligators. But I did see quite a few turtles and one curious kingfisher.

Just north of Long Bridge Rd

Long Bridge Road

This is a historic area.  The New Ebenezer Community was the site of the Salzberger’s settlement that dates back to the 1730s. The Salzbergers were Lutherans from Southern Germany and in the early 18th Century given a choice to convert back to Catholicism, to die or to flee. They chose the latter and signed up with Oglethorpe who was trying desperately to populate his new colony of Georgia. Seeing an opportunity at hand, Oglethorpe decided to place the Germans as a buffer between Savannah and the Creek Indians. There is still an active church in the community, which is the oldest church building in use in Georgia. There is also a neat old cemetery and when I got back Tuesday evening, I spent some time walking around it.

 

On Wednesday evening, I came home.

Paul Appeals to Caesar

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 25:1-12
September 9, 2018

In the quote on the flyleaf of the bulletin, we’re reminded that Luke, the author of both the gospel and the Book of Acts, is writing to a person. And that individual, no doubt, is a member of a congregation. And just what does this congregation need to hear when they receive this correspondence? The world hasn’t always a friendly place for Christians, and this was especially true in the first couple centuries of the Christian era. They need to know what it means to be faithful and that they can carry out their mission within the harsh world of the Roman Empire.[1]

        Thankfully, we live in a better time, but there are always challenges. This morning, think about a time when you have been falsely accused of something? It’s happens a lot to me. Often, it seemed, in school, someone would do something behind the teacher’s back and when she turned around, I’d snicker, and she assumed I was guilty. There are times people try to make us into a scapegoat and take the blame for something we didn’t do. Or they accuse us as a way to cover their own shortcomings. Sometimes people are accused of serious things they did not do. Consider those who have been on death row, some for years, who have been exonerated thanks to DNA technology. Imagine how they must have felt when they walked through the prison doors.

As we saw last week, Paul has been locked up for two years. He’s innocent of the charges against him, but because of the political situation, he stays in prison. The Jewish authorities are unable to make a convincing case against Paul and the Romans don’t know what to do with him. They seem to think he’s innocent or at least he doesn’t deserve the death penalty, but they are not so willing to let him go. To do so, would create a problem with the Jews, and by this point in history, the Romans have enough problems with the Jews. So Paul remains in jail and there’s now a new governor. Read Acts 25:1-12.      

 

       When I was sixteen years old, about six months after receiving my driver’s license, I was in a wreck. The best thing about this experience was that my mother was in the front seat. Seeing with her own eyes, she knew I wasn’t at fault. I had my seatbelt on but this was before shoulder harnesses and when the two cars hit, the seatbelt held my waist as I was thrown forward into the steering wheel. I hit it on the bridge of my nose and was knocked for a while. When I came too, I wasn’t exactly sure what had happened. I had been driving on a road with three lanes in one direction and a car had suddenly cut in front of me as it attempted to make a right-hand turn out of the left-hand lane.

I hit the car in the front quarter panel of the passenger side. Both vehicles were totaled. The police and an ambulance arrived and I was put on a stretcher and sent to the hospital. I later learned a neighbor came by. He happened to be a state trooper although he was not on duty. He took my mother and siblings home. My mother called my father and he met at the hospital.

        Shortly after my father arrived, as I was being released, the police officer showed up. He handed me a ticket saying I’d been following to close behind the car I had hit. “You’re crazy I yelled.”  It wasn’t one of my finest hours. Thankfully my father was there. He told me to calm down and then asked the officer the position the cars and where the damage was at. The officer said my car had struck the woman in the front quarter panel. My dad kept his cool and said, “There was no physical way he could have been following behind and hit her where he did.” The officer dismissed what my father said, saying that was his findings and if didn’t agree, we could go to court. We did, and won. It didn’t hurt our case that our neighbor, the highway patrolman, drew several diagrams of the accident to prove our case.

Calling a police officer crazy wasn’t the brightest thing I’d ever done, but I can assure you that being handed a ticket for something I was not guilty was one of the worst feelings of my short life. I was angry. I was mad. I wanted revenge. In the world of things, such a response may seem way out of proportion, but in my teenage worldview, this was devastating. However, I would have been much better served if I had not been such a hothead. My response basically put the officer in the position of an adversary and left him no way out without looking weak.

I am sure some of you saw yesterday’s women’s U. S. Open finals and how Serena Williams lost her temper with the chair of the match. By not being able to let go of what she considered an unfair penalty (and many agreed with her that it wasn’t the right call) she ended up losing a game and that match.

        Let’s now consider how Paul responded to the injustice he faced. He’s been imprisoned in Caesarea for two years. For two years, he’s locked up. Perhaps his cell was close enough to the shore that he can hear the surf. Day and day, Paul might have wanted nothing more than to take a walk along the beach at sunset… Instead, he remains behind bars in a stinky cell. For those two years, as we saw last week, he could have greased the hands of Felix, the governor, and he would be freed.[2] But that would not be right. In such a case, Paul would be adding to the corruption which had become prevalent in the Roman Empire. Two years of waiting, but he maintains control. He remains respectful… When Paul writes to Timothy, recalling his patience and encouraging Timothy to be patience, we know Paul is talking out of experience.[3]