In Memory of Baseball (a poem with a recording and a book review)

The 2020 baseball season was scheduled to kickoff this past weekend. Unfortunately, it has been postponed due to the current pandemic. So here is a poem I wrote this weekend (you can even listen to it–how neat is that) along with a review of a book I recently read with my book club on the 1949 baseball season. Enjoy and wash your hands!.

I am not sure why there is not the arrow to start in the strip below, but if you click just to the left of the 00:00, you can start the recording. It’s a minute and 16 seconds long. 

David Halberstam, Summer of ‘49, (1989, New York: HarperPerennial, 2002), 354 pages, with a bibliography, index, and some black and white photographs.


In the post wars years, as players returned from the war, baseball captured the imagination of Americans. It was America’s sport. Football and basketball prominence was still in the future. The ballpark was a place where the melting pot vision could be witnessed firsthand. Immigrant children like the DiMaggios (there were three brothers who played in the majors) were second generation Italians and stars. Then, staring in 1947 with Jackie Robinson, African-Americans were included in the roosters. Postwar ball reached a new height with the thrilling 1948 pennant race in the American League. In the days before playoff series, the top team in each league went to the World Series, and if there was a tie, there was a one game playoff. Three teams were in contention in ‘48: the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox’s and the New York Yankees. The Indians won, leaving the younger Red Sox’s and the older Yankees disappointed.

The 1949 season turned out to be just as exciting as the Yankees and Red Sox’s battled it out for the American League pennant. The season began with the Yankees great Joe DiMaggios (who’d bridged the team from the Ruth/Gehrig era to the Mantle/Maris era) being out with an injured foot. The other great hitter was the Red Sox’s Ted Williams. Also playing for the Red Sox’s was Joe’s brother, Dominic. It was an exciting season in which the Yankees won the pennant in the last inning of the last game as the two teams battled it out.

Halberstam, who was a teenager during this season, captures the excitement that came down to the final inning. Once again, the Red Sox’s are disappointed. The Yankees win. Halberstam tells the story of this season, providing insight into the financial workings of baseball as well the changes that were taking place. This was a time when players still mostly traveled in trains, but planes were making their debut. It was also a time that most games, which had previously not been broadcast locally, were being on the air and great names were emerging in the broadcast booth, many who would soon become the well-known reporters who overshadowed the previously honored sportswriters. Even television made an appearance during the World Series. And for the Yankees, new names were rising up such as their new manager, Casey Stengel, and their rookie catcher, Yogi Berra. Other players who would grow into greatness were also beginning to make themselves known such as Willie Mays (whom the Yankees took a pass on due to his race).

Although I have never liked the Yankees, I was impressed with their teams discipline and how they instilled hard playing in each member of the team. Joe DiMaggio exemplifies this when asked why he plays so hard in games in which little was at stake and he responded that there might be someone in the crowd who’d never seen him play. For anyone who enjoys baseball, this is a good read.

The Second Dinner

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
John 13:1-20
March 29, 2020



Before reading the scripture, I want us to take a look at our image for the day, which can help us get into the text. We’re looking at part of a mural by the late David Paynter titled, “Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.” The setting is along the Sri Lankan coastline. Zoom in on the guy on the left, a servant, who’s looking at what’s going on.[1] Let’s get into his head:

Jesus and the disciples have booked my master’s banquet hall. I have prepared everything according to their wishes and am ready with the water and basin as I always am. Years ago, my parents gave me to the owner as collateral for the debt they owed. But things did not go well for them, and the debt was never repaid. And so, I work to pay it off. Roman law says that someday I could be a freed person, but I will never again have the full rights in society. I’m marked as a slave for life. I keep my head down and do what the master asks because legally he has the right to punish me.

          So, here I am with the bowl, just waiting for the go-ahead. The honored guest will be first, of course, and I know which one he is by where he’s seated. This is protocol, everyone has a place according to status. When he shows up, I recognize him and remember the stories I have heard about this teacher. He says things that upset those invested in this system of status… things like “the last shall be first.” I just can’t imagine a world like he describes.

          And then he comes up to me. Smiling, he takes the basin of water from my hands. He takes my servant’s towel and wraps it around his own waist and kneels, inviting Peter to come sit. This is going to be no ordinary night. I realize my life, my view of myself and my station in life, is never going to be the same.

Enter the story
Enter the place you belong
Not just looking on
For this is your story
Enter the story

Enter the passion
Enter the place we belong
Not just looking on
For this is our passion
Enter the passion
Enter the story…
Enter the passion…

Enter his passion.[2]

Our Scripture this morning comes from the 13th Chapter of John’s gospel. Read John 13:1-20.

Last week we explored the first meal recorded during Jesus’ final week of earthly ministry. This is the dinner in Simon’s home interrupted by the woman with perfume anointing Jesus. Today, we’re looking at the second meal of this week. Of course, there weren’t just two meals eaten during these seven days. These are just the two recalled in the gospels. Both meals are rich with symbols. Last week, we could almost smell the expensive perfume being poured. This week, we have the bread and the wine, the foot washing, and the betrayal, all mixed in. We know this dinner as the “Last Supper” and there’s enough material here for two dozen sermons. I promise I won’t exhaust the passage.

All four of the gospels have these stories about Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. John’s gospel, unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, has a unique twist to it. Instead of it being the Passover, it’s the day before the Passover. You could say that in John’s gospel, they start partying early! Seriously, John wants us to think of Jesus as the Passover lamb, the one who was slain for our sins.[3] So the crucifixion occurs on Passover. The other thing John emphasizes is that there is evil lurking, but Jesus allows it to go on. It’s not like Jesus was dragged to the cross, as would have happened with most of those condemned to such a death, but that Jesus willingly gives up his life to fulfill a greater purpose. So, Jesus allows Judas to do his deed.

Interestingly, unlike the other gospels, John doesn’t recall Jesus reciting the words of the Lord’s Supper… There’s no, “This is my body broken for you…” or “This cup is the new covenant…” Instead, we’re told that as they enjoy the meal, Jesus does something strange. But before we get there, John tells us that Jesus loved the disciples to the end. Now, this can be taken that Jesus loved the disciples all along, up to this point, but there’s more here than that. It’s not merely a chronological statement, implying that up to this point in time Jesus has loved his disciples. Instead, it implies the fullness and completeness of his love. He will love them unto death, which will become clearer as the events of the night and next day unfolds.

Jesus then assumes the role of the servant. For those of us living on this side of the resurrection, we immediately think of Paul’s “Christ Hymn” in Philippians, where we’re told that “Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”[4] Like a servant, like the dude in the picture whose job this should have been, Jesus goes around the table with a basin and washes the disciples’ feet. This is an example of extreme humility and sets up the rest of our reading. There are two implications of Jesus’ action. The first, which is covered in verses 6 to 11, is theological. This deals with our relationship to God. The second, covered in verses 12-20 is ethical. It focuses on how we relate to others.[5] Let’s look at each.

Peter has a problem with what Jesus is doing. In his book, this is just not right. The Master shouldn’t wash the dirty feet of the disciples. But Jesus not only offers to do this, he insists that he must. In verse 8, Jesus says that if he doesn’t wash Peter’s feet, he’ll have no share in him. The Gospel is summarized in this short sentence. We must be open to Jesus taking on our sins, washing them away, if we want to be in fellowship with him. This is the theological part of this passage. If we think we are too good or to dirty for Jesus to wash our feet, we won’t be able to share in his free grace.[6] Jesus freely takes up the towel and basin, just as he freely takes up the cross, and we have to accept him. Theologically, if we are not open to God doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves, we can’t experience grace.

The second implication of the foot washing is ethical. “I’ve done this for you,” Jesus says, “so you need to do it to one another.” Jesus has shown us how to live our lives. We are called to live in mutual service, showing submission to one another, being willing to forgive when we are wronged, and having patience. All these traits, Jesus demonstrated. We too must learn from the Master. We must be willing to follow his example.

So how do we live this way at a time when we’re called to keep our social distance for the sake of society? Obviously, Jesus wasn’t worried about COVID-19 when he washed the feet of his disciples, and these days we’re told, again and again, to be sure to wash our own hands. We are living in a unique time. After all, we been called to sit on the couch and watch TV as if that’s a sacrifice. But we got to do more. We are still the church deployed in the world.

Who wasn’t moved by the story of the priest in Italy whose parishioners purchased him a respirator? But the priest insisted the respirator be used on a child who was ill.[7] He died. That’s showing the extreme side of what Jesus is talking about here.

But there are other things we all need to be doing. Staying away from others and isolating ourselves will help slow this disease. With the marvels of technology, we can still be connected through the phone and over the internet. And don’t forget the U. S. mail. The Session and Pastors of this church have made a commitment to call every member every week through this crisis. If you don’t get a call, let me know. We’ll see to it that you are included. And you can join us in calling and checking in on one another. After all, we do have new directories that are well suited for this. There are those who live by themselves and are lonely. Let’s do what we can to stay connected. We can also uphold one another in our prayers. We can write letters of encouragement. We can still be supportive of organizations that are making sure the most vulnerable in our communities are safe and cared for during this scary time. Did you know that this congregation collected 190 pairs of socks on the last day we were able to meet in worship? This Monday, those socks will be taken to Union Mission to be distributed.

Finally, we’re living in a time when we should be extremely grateful for others. Think of the sacrifices others are making, as they assume the role of the servant. Those work in the hospital, whether they are doctors and surgeons or the cleaning staff, they’re on the front line for us. And how about those who work in the club here at the Landings, working hard to get for food and groceries to us. Those who pick up our trash. And don’t forget the grocery workers, those in the shipping industry, those making masks and gowns for the medical profession. At a time like this, we need to remember all these people we depend on and be thankful and grateful.

Jesus comes before us at the table, with a towel wrapped around his waist and a basin. He kneels. Do we let him wash our feet? And, if so, are we willing to humble ourselves and serve others in the manner that he has served us? These are questions we need to ask ourselves. Amen.



[1] A copy of this mural is in the “Art in the Christian Tradition” collection at Vanderbilt Divinity Library in Nashville, Tennessee. The original is in Trinity College.

[2] This edited monologue and song is from the Worship Design Series: “Entering the Passion of Jesus: Picturing Ourselves in the Story.” Subscription from

[3] This image of Jesus as the Passover lamb becomes clearer in John’s revelation.  See Revelation 5:12 and 6:1.

[4] Philippians 2:7.

[5] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MIhigan: Eerdmans,2012), 749.

[6] Bruner, 765.


Two Books and Two (or three) Wars

If you have time on your hands as we wait out this pandemic, there are two good books that I recommend to anyone who enjoys history. In they cover three wars (Mexican, Civil, and World War II).

S. C. Gwynne, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (New York: Scribner, 2014), 672 pages including appendix, notes, bibliography, maps. There are eight pages of black and white photos.

Stonewall Jackson was an amazing man. Deeply religious, somewhat of a hypochondriac, who had led an honorable but not overly impressive life, he rises to the top during the Civil War. Gwynne portrays his life and death in a compelling manner that shows not only what he meant for the Confederacy but also to America. At the end of the book, he may have overreached when he suggests that Jackson’s death at the height of his career was the first major death in this country by someone at the height of their fame. While the nation had lost former presidents and war heroes, most had been out of office or their deaths came years after their military career. Jackson’s death, mistakenly shot by his own troops, occurred just after his army won a major victory over a much larger Union army at Chancellorsville. In two years, Lincoln’s death would be the next major American hero to die at the zenith of their life.

Jackson was a man who overcame many obstacles. He was orphaned at an early age and sent to live and work with relatives in Jackson Mill, Virginia (now West Virginia). However, Jackson was ambitious and while not a great student, he was able to work himself into West Point. There, he worked very hard as it was quickly evident that he was not prepared for the rigorous course of study. By the time of his graduation, he had come from the bottom of the class to graduate at number 17. His class of 1846 would produce more generals than any other class at the Academy: 22 in all, 12 for the Union and 10 for the South.

In the Mexican war, Jackson stood out as a brave officer, one whose artillery unit held its ground against a much larger Mexican force at the Battle or Contreras, just outside of Mexico City.

After the Mexican War, Jackson served at a military post in Florida before taking a teaching position at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. He was considered a poor teacher except for in the subject of artillery.  He was known for his Puritanical habits, but also had a happy home life until his first wife died, along with her daughter, in childbirth. He would marry again. Anna, his second wife, would also lose a child. In 1862, staying with her parents in North Carolina (her father was a Presbyterian pastor and president of Davidson College), she gave birth to daughter whom Jackson would only see for a few days including the day he died of his wounds. Jackson, while very private in person, was much more social and warmer with his family. This biography liberally quotes from Jackson’s personal letters that show his warmth.

Jackson was also a very committed Christian and a member of the Presbyterian Church. He had considered the ministry, but never became a a public speaker. He was a Deacon and started a Sunday School for African Americans in Lexington, both slaves and free. Interestingly, while he owned six slaves, they were obtained in a unique manner. His second wife received three as a wedding present, but the other three had been purchased by Jackson. The first, Albert, had asked Jackson to buy him and to let him work off his bondage for freedom. Jackson did and leased him to VMI as a waiter. When he was ill, Jackson took care of him, and before the war, Albert had paid Jackson for his purchase. Amy, his second slave, was about to be sold to pay a debt of her master. She, too, asked Jackson to buy her. And the third slave he purchased was a young girl owned by an older woman in town. This girl had a learning disability and Jackson agreed to buy her, thinking she could be useful to his wife. The three slaves that came with Anna included her nurse from infancy and her two teenage sons. Anna would teach both boys to read.

Much of the book is about Jackson’s rise to one of the great military geniuses of the Civil War. Being from the Virginia mountains and lacking the “blue blood” of Virginia’s planter class, Jackson was initially looked down on by many within the Southern leadership. This had also been the case when he was a he had been a student at West Point and a few of those earlier feuds (from “Blue Blooded” Virginians) continued into the war years. Jackson became a hero at First Manassas (Bull Run). Then, given command of the mountainous area in Western Virginia, he crippled three much larger Union armies that had been sent against him with a plan to burn the breadbasket of the Shenandoah Valley. Jackson was known for the element of surprise, pushing his men harder to do what no one thought possible. He was not one to share much information with others, including his commanders. These had to learn to trust his commands. Jackson was also strict as a commanding officer, demanding obedience of his orders. Often, his strictness, especially his punishment of those under his command, were overruled by the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

Jackson was involved in the Peninsula campaign. During this campaign, Jackson failed on several occasions to achieve the initiative but coming on the aftermath of his victories in the Shenandoah Valley, his failures may have resulted from exhaustion. He would later take a lead role in routing the Union Armies a second time at Manassas. Afterwards, at Harper’s Ferry, he captured the largest group of soldiers up to that time ever captured in America, even larger than the number of British who surrendered at Yorktown. A few days later, at Antietam, Jackson was responsible for the Union’s inability to break the Confederate lines and achieve a victory. He would later be responsible for the Union disasters at Fredericksburg. During the winter of 1862-1863, Jackson spent time encouraging religious revivals and establishing a chaplain corps for the Confederate Army. As the winter waned, Jackson’s brilliant strategy at Chancellorsville stopped the Union attempt to move behind the Confederate Army. It was there, where he was shot in the arm and hand. His arm was amputated. He would later die of his wounds. His was a glorious career, that was cut short by a mistaken identity.

This book reads like a novel. It is the second book I’ve read by Gwynne. A year or so ago, I read Empire of the Summer Moon. Both are excellent reads. Gwynne’s research is impressive, and his writing is engaging.



Andy Rooney, My War (1995, NY: Public Affairs, 2000), 333 pages including an index and a few black and white photographs.

Like many Americans, I always enjoyed listening to Andy Rooney. He was the best part of the CBS news show 60 minutes and even if I missed the show, I tried to catch Rooney’s monologue at the end. Reading this book about his war years, I could hear his voice and imagine him reading the words to me.  The book is filled with insight and humor, as only Rooney was able to pull off.

Rooney was in college before the war. The draft had begun, and he had been called up for the Army. He trained to be in the artillery. Even back then, Rooney was something of a troublemaker. He told about one officer whom he disliked and who was bucking for a promotion. Rooney’s job was to put the right amount of powder bags into the gun behind the projectile. They would call out the coordinates and the bags of powder needed, and Rooney would either put too many or two few and the projectile would either fall short or overshoot the target. The officer didn’t get the promotion. After the war started, Rooney’s unit headed to England, where he received a lucky break. He transferred into the correspondence pool, become a writer from the Army’s Stars and Stripes newspaper. With a million Americans in Europe, the newspaper was a major production. It was also a training ground for those who would step up and take starring roles in American media for the rest of the century.

While in England, Rooney was assigned to a wing of the 8th Army Air Force. He would write stories about the mission and the men whose daring raids over German was attempting to crush the German industrial might. But it was a costly business as planes were often lost behind enemy lines. As a correspondent, Rooney even had an opportunity to go on such missions, including one horrific event that he describes. In this book, he also writes honestly about what he didn’t write for the newspaper. He’d heard and witnessed many horrors that he wouldn’t report on because it would not have been good for morale

As D-Day approached, Rooney was assigned to go ashore with the Army. He spent most of the rest of the war driving his own jeep around Europe in search of stories. At times, he was dangerously close to the enemy and at other times he was enjoying the good life of food and wine. He did miss out on the Battle of the Bulge when he was temporarily reassigned to New York (each of the correspondents took turns of working a few weeks in the New York offices).  But he was back toward the end of the war. When other reporters told him of the horrors of Buchenwald (one of the German concentration camps), he wouldn’t write about it as he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He set out to see for himself, an event that continued to haunt Rooney for the rest of his life.

As the war in Europe came to an end, Rooney had a chance to travel to American bases in India, Burma and China, before traveling home.

I appreciated Rooney’s insight on heroes, which he suggests that it’s best that we don’t meet our heroes. Hemingway had been a hero of his, until he met him in Europe. He was never much of a fan of General Patton, which he remarked in one of his 60 minutes monologues. He recalled how Patton’s daughter wrote to inform him that her father wouldn’t have been impressed with him, either.

My biggest complaint about the book was Rooney’s take on my home state of North Carolina. He didn’t like the state and even questioned why his friend and North Carolina native Charles Kuralt liked it so. Sadly, Rooney had the misfortune of spending 6 months in barracks at Fort Bragg, which is one of the less nice parts of the state.

A couple of quotes:

“Patriotism and war go together. Anytime anyone gets to thinking patriotism is one of the supreme virtues, it would be a good idea to remember that there was never any group of people more patriotic than the Nazi Germans. It’s strange that a love for country brings out the vicious character in so many people. In that respect, it’s a lot like religion. Here are two things that almost everyone believe are good, patriotism and religion, but between them they account for almost all the people who ever died in a war.”

“The whole business of reporting makes me suspicious of history.”


How are you handling this pandemic and avoiding crowds? Read any good books lately?


Taking a Risk at the Table

Please remember, especially during this time when we need to maintain social distance from one another in at attempt to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, that you can always worship virtually with Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church on Sunday mornings at 10 AM Eastern Daylight time.  Just go to and click, “Watch Live.”  The sermon will also be available to watch later this week on our church website. 

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Mark 14:3-9
March 22, 2020



As we’ve done in the first few Sundays of this series, let us concentrate on this painting that depicts the passage I’ll read. Focus in on this guy, looking down as this woman who is anointing Jesus. Let’s get into his head. Listen:

        None of us are happy with the way things are going in Jerusalem. It’s not just the political oppression. We’re troubled by the dire situation of the hungry, the poor, the sick, and the disturbed. The Roman’s don’t’ care about them? At least we try. Every penny we scrape up we try to pass on to those who need it. Before Jesus arrived for dinner, some of us were also wondering if we should save some money in case we needed to hide out in the not-too-distant future.

          And then SHE walks in.

          Look at that beautiful alabaster jar! Get a whiff of the oil. This is expensive stuff! And a whole bottle. How much does this stuff cost? It seems a ridiculous waste, given what we had just been talking about. This kind of money could go a long way.

          Look at her. She’s not said a word. Yet she is intense and devoted. This love lavished on him is somewhat embarrassing and yet it’s what I really want to do—tell Jesus how he has changed my life and how finally I have a purpose. I’m loved, and it’s such a gift. But how can I offer any gift to Jesus. He’s “The Messiah,” anointed by God. But here she is anointing him! I’m jealous and fear we are losing him. He tells us to stop judging her. “She is preparing me for burial,” he says. No! Don’t say that, Jesus. It can’t happen.

Soloist sings: Enter
Enter the story
Enter the place you belong
Not just looking on
For this is your story
Enter the story

Enter the passion
Enter the place we belong
Not just looking on
For this is our passion
Enter the passion
Enter the story…
Enter the passion…
Enter his passion.[1]

 Let’s listen as I read of this story from Mark’s gospel. Listen for the differences.  Read Mark 14:3-9.

         There are two big meals highlighted in the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry.[2] We all know about the Passover meal, the Last Supper, but a few days earlier there’s another highlighted meal in which a woman enters and anoints Jesus. In two of the gospels (Luke and John), like the picture we see, the woman anoints Jesus’ feet.[3] In Matthew and Mark, from which we read today, the story is of the woman anointing his head with oil, something that might be done for a king.[4] Reflecting on this scene, Dale Brunner suggests it serves two purposes. It’s a call to worship. Jesus is to be worshipped, something that will come clearer in less than a week, after the resurrection. The second purpose is as an illustration of the double-love commandment Jesus used to summarize the law—the love of God and the love of others. This woman demonstrates her love of God through her unselfish actions toward Jesus. And Jesus, by protecting her dignity, shows how we can care for others.[5]


Think for a minute about this woman. Because this story is told a little differently in each of the gospels, we tend to get it all mixed up. In Luke’s gospel, she’s identified as a sinner. Her presence upsets those around the table. But that’s not the case in Mark’s gospel. She’s totally anonymous. Luke may have been describing a different event. If that’s the case, both women take risk to show love and devotion to Jesus Christ, and that should be a message to us.[6] What kind of risks are we willing to take for our faith?


Jesus is at a banquet in a home where he can relax. He’s reclining. It’s a laid back affair. He’s with friends. We’re not sure who Simon is. It was a popular name back then. But being labelled “the leper” takes the reader back to early in Jesus’ ministry when he cured a man with leprosy.[7] Leprosy was generally an illness that created isolation, but maybe, if he’d been healed by Jesus, he’s proud of the description and continues to use it after his healing as a way to honor Jesus. Maybe this was a dinner party in honor of Great Physician?

        Now consider the risks this woman takes. She shows up uninvited. She shocks the guests with her generosity. Ever give a gift and wonder and worry if it would be accepted? Her gift does upset those around the table. Why isn’t this money being given to the poor? They ask. Jesus’ protects her dignity, saying she’ll be remembered because of what she’s done. And Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say we’ll always have the poor, but he won’t be around long, at least not in person.

The verse concerning the poor always being with us is possibly the most misinterpreted passages in scripture. Think of all the times you’ve heard this passage quoted in support of inaction when it comes to helping the poor. I bet many of us, and I’m guilty, too, have used this passage in such a manner. But it’s a misuse of scripture. Jesus is quoting the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 15:11 reminds us that we will always have the poor, but because of that, we should always be willing to help. “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbors in the land.’”[8] The ubiquitous poor are not there so we can opt-out from helping. They are there to remind us of our need to help others.

          In Matthew’s gospel, we’re told that helping the poor and needy, the sick and the prisoner, is the same as helping Christ,[9] but here she is able to do something to show her devotion and love. It’s kind of like buying flowers for someone. They may seem frivolous as they don’t heal us or enrich us. In a few days they wither. But we don’t give flowers for such reasons. We do it because we want to be able to do something, to show our love and concern. This woman can’t keep Jesus from the cross,[10] but she can do this, and she does.[11]

          What can we do? We certainly can’t heal the world, just as the woman couldn’t keep Jesus off the cross. But what kind of risk might we take for Jesus? Things are changing so rapidly around us. It’s scary. But we need to remember, this is not the first time Christ’s church has witnessed pestilence. In the 14th Century, a large percentage of the population died from the plague, but at the same time Great Cathedrals were being built.[12] Our call is not to fear and worry. Our call is to be faithful to Jesus. If we are sure that Jesus, as Lord, has our best interest in his hands, we can take risks that will further the kingdom and do good for others.

There are going to be a lot of hurting people in our world in the near future. Not only will we have to deal with folks who are infected, and a small but not insignificant percentage who may die. But we will also have to deal with those who are so traumatized they aren’t sure what to do. We’re going to need to encourage those who are depressed. In the short-term, we’re going to need to find new ways of connecting beyond handshakes and being physically present. And then they’re those losing their jobs as the economy contracts. I fear it will only get worse. We are going to need to support them. We’ll need to live fearlessly, trusting despite evidence to the contrary that God has things under control. This is a time that we as the church and as individual believers need to be bold and positive. For we’re on God’s side and our Savior won’t abandon us.

          This woman might be seen as a fool for Christ. She faced ridicule, but Jesus protected her dignity and honored her. Don’t be afraid to be a fool for Christ. For our Master will take care of us. Amen.


[1] This edited monologue is from the Worship Design Series: “Entering the Passion of Jesus: Picturing Ourselves in the Story.” Subscription from

[2] Three of the four gospels place the woman anointing Jesus at the table during his final week of earthly ministry. John’s gospel names her “Mary.” In addition to this passage, see Matthew 26:6-13 and John 12:1-8.

[3] Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8.  Luke’s gospel, unlike Matthew, Mark and John, place this event earlier in Jesus’ ministry, not in the week of his death.

[4] Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9. Anointing the head may symbolize Jesus’ kingship. It was often something done to honor guests (which the host may not have done on this occasion). And it’s also points to Jesus’ coming death. See Morna D. Hooker: Black’s New Testament Commentaries: The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 327-328.

[5] F. Dale Brunner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 599.  

[6] For this idea of her taking risks, see Amy-Jill Levine, Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018), Chapter 4, “The First Dinner: Risking Rejection.”

[7] Mark 1:40-45.

[8] Deuteronomy 15:11, NRSV.

[9] Matthew 25:31ff.

[10] There are two types of anointing. She anoints Jesus (GK: myrizo) brial. Anointing for kingship and as “the anointed one” or the Messiah uses another word (GK: mashiach). See Levine, 95.

[11] Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis, Fortress, 1996), 274.

[12] See Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Knopf, 1978.

Where do our loyalties belong?

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 22:15-22
March 15, 2020



        If you read the entirety of Matthew 22 (and with the extra time we may be having on hand as everything is being cancelled because of the Coronavirus, it’s not a bad idea), you’d witness a masterful campaign to trap Jesus. But Jesus isn’t so easy to catch. He’s kind of like Stonewall Jackson in the Valley Campaign in the spring of 1862. Jackson faced much larger armies who wanted to trap and do him in.[1] Similarly, with Jesus during Passion week, he’s confronted with a large number out to destroy him. But Jesus doesn’t fall in their traps. Jesus bewilders his enemies.

         What’s happened is that unlikely groups join together to challenge Jesus. The old cliché, “politics make strange bedfellows,” rings true. Groups who wouldn’t normally give each other the time of day have come together to take on Jesus. They sense that Jesus is challenging the existing order. You have a few Herodians, who are Jews who believe they’re be better off cooperating with the Romans. They take their name from Herod, who had Jewish blood but worked for the Empire. And you have the Pharisees; a group of seriously committed religious leaders who believe in the resurrection. Theologically, they’re most like Jesus, but Jesus constantly challenges them and exposes their hypocrisy.

        What we read this morning could be described as one movement in a tag-team wrestling match. The Herodians and the Pharisees team up on Jesus.[2] Once they are dismissed, in the next passage we have the Sadducees, the conservatives of the day, crawl up on the mat.[3] According to most translations, Jesus’ “silenced them,” but the original language is a bit harsher. A better translation would be that Jesus “muzzled” them.[4] Think of muzzling a dog!  Jesus is on a roll! But the Pharisee’s still come back for more.

    So what is Jesus telling us in this passage? Do you remember those big posters that use to sit out in front of the Post Office and government buildings with Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying: “I want you!” I believe we could easily surmise this text into a big poster of God saying: “I want you!”

Let’s now look deeper into the passage. We’re told that the Pharisees are plotting to entrap Jesus. How does Jesus know this? We could say that because he was God he knew, but that explanation does not uphold the human side of Jesus. The human side of Jesus would have realized something was up when he saw the Pharisees and the supporters of Herod walking hand in hand.

These two unlikely groups approach Jesus. They try to butter him up a little by telling Jesus he’s sincere, he speaks the truth, and that he is impartial. This Jesus’ second clue. “For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain,” we read in Ezekiel.[5] Most of us, I would expect, are smart enough to realize something fishy is up when those who have nothing to do with us began to butter us up. And that’s what happens here. With compliments, they try to catch Jesus off-guard before snapping the trap with their sixty-four thousand dollar question.

         “Tell me,” they ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  Jesus has to be careful. Last week you heard Deanie preach about the revolutionary act of Jesus cleaning the temple. Now they want Jesus to make a revolutionary statement against the civil authorities. If Jesus says they should not pay taxes, the Herodians could have him arrested for treason. But then, if he says to pay the taxes, the Pharisees can attack him for not being a patriotic Jew.[6] It’s almost a no-win situation.

          Jesus asks them for a coin. Unlike us, he didn’t have to worry about where that’s coin has been or picking up some a virus from its surface. However, Jesus still has to be careful. The disciples, we know, had a common purse and he could have gone there to fetch a coin, but then the Pharisees might have charged him with toting around an engraved image of the emperor.[7] So Jesus has them to look at a coin they are carrying, and he asks them whose picture is on it…. They reply, “Caesar’s.” Jesus then flips the coin back to them, saying give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to give God what is God’s. The little band of tempters are astonished. They are amazed. They don’t know what to say, so they leave.

These men are amazed, but do they understand all that Jesus says? They hear “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but do they hear “Give unto God what is God’s.” Do they understand what Jesus meant? Probably not for they continue their attempts to attack Jesus throughout this chapter. But let’s not worry about them. How about us? Do we hear what Jesus is saying? Back to that revised army poster of Uncle Sam saying, “I want you!” Jesus is saying, “God wants us!”

The coin had an image on it, Caesar’s, therefore give it to him. In Genesis, we’re told we’re created by God, in God’s image.[8] The coin belongs to Caesar, it bears his image; our lives belong to God, they contain God’s image.  Caesar may have a lien on our possessions while we’re on earth, but God has a lien on our total being—now and forever.  God is calling us to dedicate our lives. God, in Jesus Christ, is in that poster pointing, and saying, “I want you.

        Give to God what is God’s.  This phrase is often overlooked.  We tend to get hung up on what is Caesar’s and what is ours. We get hung up on the petty details and we miss the important question. What does it mean for us to give ourselves to God?

Sure, a part of devoting ourselves to God is about money, but it’s more than that. Money is only a start for God wants and expects much more from us. God wants us to trust him and then to do what we can to live in a manner that will further God’s work in the world. If we believe that we are owned by God and not Caesar, our lives should reflect such faith. If we believe that we belong to God, and are in God’s hands, we have nothing to fear, not even the Coronavirus. For regardless of what happens to us on this earth, God has us in his hand and is working out all things for good.[9] That may be hard to believe considering that panic that is going on around us, but it’s true. It’s why Christians for the past two thousand years have risked their lives and their well-being on behalf of others. Yes, we can give Caesar what is Caesars. But we can also take risk and do what is right and noble and good because we have trust in God.

         Earlier I mentioned Stonewall Jackson, whose biography I’m currently reading. But let me tell you two other Civil War stories, they’re both short, and demonstrate this point. At the Battle of Shiloh in the spring of 1862, Albert Sidney Johnson led the Confederate troops as they overwhelmed the Union forces near Pittsburg Landing along the Tennessee River. It was a bloody day and the Union lines were broken in places. During a lull in the first day of battle, Johnson, seeing a number of wounded Union soldiers in need, ordered his surgeon to set up an aid station and to tend to their needs. According to Shelby Foote in his novel about the battle, his surgeon, Dr. Yandell protested. Johnson cut him off saying “These men were our enemies a moment ago. They are our prisoners now. Take care of them.” A few minutes later, a stray bullet struck Johnson’s leg and without medical aid, he quickly bled to death.[10] To this day, there is debate as to whether or not Johnson’s death caused the tide of the battle to turn. But the tide did turn and General Grant became a national hero.

          A second story comes from the city of Wilmington during the Civil War. In 1862, a blockade runner that had come in from the Caribbean brought Yellow Fever to the town. Those who could fled to the country, but several of the pastors and the leading citizens of the town stayed behind, feeling it was their Christian obligation to help out the victims. Over 400 people died of Yellow Fever that fall, including many of those who intentionally stayed to care for the dying.[11]

Of course, with the current threat we face, we need to think about our response. We need to help when and where we can, but we also need to be wise enough not to become a carrier of the disease. So while mercy might call us to act boldly, it also might call us to isolate ourselves (especially if we’ve been recently travelling and could have potentially been exposed to the illness). Such isolation might help slow the spread of the disease and, with the phone and the internet, there are many other ways that we can read out to those for whom we care and love. The Christian faith calls us to be brave, after all we don’t belong to ourselves but to God. But it also calls us to be wise!

      Give to God what is God’s, is the message here. So yes, we should pay our income tax. And when you write that check this April, we might remember that giving Caesar his due can be a lot easier than giving to God what is his. For our whole life belongs to God. But then, God’s given us life and in Jesus Christ has redeemed us to be his people. That’s a debt we can’t repay, nor is such repayment expected. As the old hymn goes, “Jesus paid it all.”[12]  Amen.



[1] I have been reading S. C. Gwynne, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (New York: Scribner, 2014).

[2] Matthew 22:15-22.

[3] Matthew 23-33

[4]  Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 410.

[5] Ezekiel 33:31b.

[6] Bruner, 397.

[7] Bruner, 398.

[8] Genesis 1:27.

[9] Romans 8:28.

[10] Shelby Foote, Shiloh (1952, New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 199.

[11] James Sprunt, Chronicles of the Cape Fear River, 1660-1916 (1919: Wilmington, NC: Dram Tree Books, 2005), 286-288.

[12] “Jesus Paid it All,” Elvira Hall (1865).

The Church and the COVID-19

I spent the last week at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in a Foundation for Reformed Theology seminar discussing the writings of John Leith. The seminary’s campus is just north of the University of Texas’ campus, which allowed us to do some exploring during free time. This photo is of me checking out one of the surviving Gutenberg Bibles that’s on display at the Harry Ransom Center. It was an interesting time to be away as we kept hearing about how the COVID-19 virus is spreading around the world. Working with Deanie and the rest of the staff at SIPC, we sent out this communication to our church family yesterday, which I am posting below. We need to be diligent and to remember that the virus isn’t just about us, but those we may be contact with, many of whom may have underlying health issues that could make this virus really bad:

SIPC Responds to Health Concerns

As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across the globe, we are reminded that the world we live in can be a scary place. But as followers of Jesus Christ, who trust in a benevolent God through life and death, let us hold fast to our faith and do what we can to mitigate risks to ourselves and others.

The staff and leaders on our Property and Worship committees have been in touch and are implementing the following suggestions in preparation for Sunday’s worship service:

  • Increasing the cleaning of hard surfaces in the church, including the backs and armrests of sanctuary pews and door knobs
  • Refraining from the Passing of the Peace and encouraging ushers and all present to greet one another with a smile and their favorite “non-contact” gesture
  • Encouraging worshippers to be seated throughout the sanctuary, possibly on alternate rows, to give adequate social distancing
  • Placing offering plates at doors and on vestibule and communion tables rather than passing them
  • Asking anyone handling food for communion or at coffee hour to sanitize hands and use gloves located in the kitchen
  • Asking members and visitors to wash their hands regularly and to use the hand sanitizer dispensers mounted upon entry into the flower room by the Sanctuary, Liston Hall, and the Office Workroom (Note: Other sanitizer pumps are being placed throughout the church but members are also invited to bring their own sanitizer with them!)
  • Promoting our Live Stream option to those who are not feeling well or who have health conditions that make them vulnerable. To Live Stream the Sunday worship service, go to and scroll down to the red “Watch Live” box on the Homepage just before 10 AM. Please share this link with friends and family members.

As uncertain as these times are in matters of health and finance, let us place our trust in the eternal God who holds us in the palm of His hands and remember, “God is good all the time…And all the time, God is good.” The church is at its best when we minister to those around us and so we encourage you to reach out to someone in need, go to the store for a friend, help sanitize public places, and be considerate of those who may be more vulnerable than you. Let us look to the example Jesus set for us in relieving the suffering of others.

If you have concerns, please reach out to your church. Please contact us if you or someone you know is sick or self-quarantined. If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, communicate with us immediately.

We will continue to look to the state and local public health departments and the CDC for guidance about best practices and procedures. If that results in a change in what we are doing or what we ask you to help us with, we will let you know.

We are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.  –Hebrew 3:6


A few helpful links: 

Texas Bluebonnets in bloom

Two Nonfiction Book Reviews: Social Media and Eugenics

W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media (2018, Mariner Books, Boston, 2019), 407 pages including index and notes plus eight pages of photos.

This timely book begins in 2009 with Donald Trump’s first tweet, promoting his appearance on David Letterman that evening. It then weaves various threads such as political operatives use of social media in the 2016 campaign, to celebrities who use Social Media to increase their fan base, and to social media’s reach onto the battlefield. Social media was used to ignite the “Arab Spring.” There were many who felt it held a promise to bring more democratic processes into autocratic countries. But the dictators who survived learned and soon, social media was being used by those on both sides, such as in Syria. Isis also learned to effectively use social media, not only to recruit followers but to terrorize the countries in which they operated. Isis captured the city of Mosul with much smaller army and one poorer equipped because the Iraqi forces were so scared of Isis’ inhumane acts toward their enemies which were splashed across social media. By the time Isis arrived in the backs of pickup trucks, the Iraqi garrison had fled. Today’s battlefield involves not just military tactics, but social media strategies. In some cases, enemy fighters taunt those on the other side on social media, making them feel more vulnerable. Not only is social media changing the way war is fought, it is changing the meaning of war.

Social media has quickly been adopted as a way for us to remain connected with friends and family, but it is also the place most Americans get their news. The authors spend significant time discussing the development of the internet and then the evolution of social media. As the various menus of media grows, so do those who attempt to use such media to sway our opinions. While Singer and Brooks extensively covers the Russia use of social media as a way for them to influence politics around the world, from the British Brexit vote to the American elections, they have also looked at how other countries have used social media for their own purposes. Truth and fact checking that used to be expected by the established news media is now out of the window. And because everything is based on algorithms that few understand, social media can be used to make the outlandish seems true (why else, would so many people like something is it wasn’t true).

Of course, it’s not all about “fake news.” Some countries want to limit the news their citizens receive.  China, in a way to only let its people know what the party wants them to know have created a firewall to control unwanted information which has led to humorous stories. When a study published under the title of “the Panama Papers,” which documented how many in the upper echelon of the party were stashing money overseas, Chinese firewall quickly blocked anyone from seeing anything that mentioned Panama. For a while, an entire country ceased to exist, at least according to the Chinese internet, under the internet police changed their blockage from anything Panama to “Panama” and other key words.

At the end of the book, the authors argue that social media companies (most of whom are U. S. based companies, need to be more responsible for how their technology is used.

In a perfect world, I would recommend this book, or something similar, to be read by every voter. But then, a perfect world wouldn’t have such issues with social media!


Daniel Okrent, The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law that Kept Tw o Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America (New York: Scribner’s, 2019), 478 pages including an index, bibliography, notes, along with several pages of black and white photos.


This is a difficult book, to read and to realize people thought this way. However, the message is important and the book is well researched which is why I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads. The author begins in the 19th Century and looks at how native born Northern European Americans saw themselves as the ideal race. Using science (especially drawing on Darwin’s theories), they debated how they might protect the race and even improve the race. This had profound impact across the society including non-voluntary sterilization in most states. But Okrent, while acknowledging these other implications, focuses his study of this “false science” on its influence in the immigration debate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The thrust of the book essential ends with the 1924 legislation that limited immigration at a percentage of those who ancestors came from counties as defined in the 1890 census.  After the passage of this act, which remained the law until 1965, the author only briefly notes how the American debate over race and eugenics was picked up by the Nazis in Germany.

Starting with leading American families from New England, there was a rising concern about what immigration was doing to America in the late 19th Century. Leading politicians like Boston’s Henry Cabot Lodge sough a restriction in immigration but ran up against obstacles. Literacy was one of the restrictions, but as schools began to be more popular in places like Italy, educational barriers were no longer effective at reducing the influx of new populations. Immigration kept the price of labor cheap, which meant that many business leaders wanted new immigrants. Steamship companies often brought empty ships to America in order to ship American products (especially timber) to Europe found immigration to a windfall to their business. Business leaders saw that the attempts to restrict immigration kept failing. In an attempt to boost their argument, many who were against the immigrants south to support their arguments with science. The proposed there was a danger of mixing American blood (Northern European) with the blood of those deemed less desirable.  It’s interesting (and frightening) how groups like the American Breeder’s Association, which had worked to improve agricultural practices such as raising healthier sheep, growing higher yielding soybeans and corn, and mildew-resistant cherries, began to debate at how to build a better “human.” Thankfully, these ideas never took a strong hold in the United States, but these ideas did catch on in Germany and even after the war, it was used as a German defense at the Nuremburg Trials, where Hitler’s “doctors” pointed to America as the source of their heinous ideas on race (see pages 392-393).

While there were many conservative and traditional politicians and business leaders drawn to such theories as a way of avoiding “racial suicide,” such as Henry Cabot Lodge and Henry Adams, this was not only an issue supported by conservatives. Those with more progressive views such as Madison Grant (of the Bronx Zoo Fame), Teddy Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt also supported such views. Okrent follows the money and intellectual trail, as he links the support of such research, the scientist involved (such as Charles Davenport and Fairfield Osborn), the leading universities, and those funding such studies (which included Rockefeller, the Harriman family, and the Carnegie Institute. Also thrown into the mix includes Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and Samuel Gompers of American Labor fame.  In a way, the ideas that lead to the 1924 restrictive immigrant policies in America, drew support from leading thinkers across America. It is sobering to look back today and to see the flaws in their thinking. As Nazism began to rear its ugly head, most moved away from such theories.

Okrent notes how his own publisher (Scribner) supported such theories in the past. Madison Grant’s book, The Passing of the Great Race, and Lothrop Stoddard’s Rising Tide of Color against the White World, were both published by Scribner.

It would be nice to know such ideas that were popular in the United States in the early years of the 20th Century are no longer present as we move into the 21st Century, but I’m not so sure.  The recent debate over immigration and with a book like Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Culture and Civilization (2002), makes me wonder if there are still those who hold on to such ideas about race.

While Okrent mentions issues with Asian immigration, and early anti-Catholic immigration issues, this book primarily focuses on the attempt to limit immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. I listened to this book via Audible, and then checked out the book from the library and read selections in preparation for a book group meeting where we were discussing this book.


The Parade: Risking Reputation

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
March 1, 2020
Matthew 21:1-11
Zechariah 9:9-10



Everyone loves a parade. Or so they say. I’m not sure it’s true. If you’re like me and prefer to take the back roads for scenery, and then find yourself stuck behind a small-town parade, you know what I mean. Yet, there is something intoxicating about crowds. It’s addictive to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Hopefully, that something is God, but we must acknowledge that we’re also lured by the masses (except for during flu season or when a virus is on the loose).

It’s an exciting spring day in the imperial city of Jerusalem. Pilgrims pour in; Jews living throughout the Mediterranean gather at their ancestral city to celebrate the Passover. What a wonderful day for a parade…

Jesus and his gang are also coming to Jerusalem to celebrate. When only a few miles from town, Jesus sends his disciples into the next village in order to procure a donkey and colt for his entry… He tells them where to find these animals. He instructs his disciples to respond to anyone who challenges them with, “the Lord needs it and will return it.” The disciples find the animal; some bystanders question their taking the colt, but they seem satisfied with the answer. Did Jesus work this out in advance or is this a sign of his divinity? The text lets allows us to ponder, providing no clear indication as if this Jesus’ humanity at work (he arranged for the colt in advance) or his divinity at work (he knew where to send the disciples).[1]

         The disciples, without being asked, placed their cloaks on the animals as a saddle. Now, how Jesus rode two animals, as Matthew seems to suggest, we’re not told. We might image him, holding the reigns in his teeth, with a foot on each animal, like a circus rider taking a victory lap, but that’s probably not the case. Instead, he may have sat on the donkey, sidesaddle, as was the custom for riding such beasts, and had the colt follow along, staying close to its mother.[2]

        Quickly, as he and the disciples approach the city’s walls, excitement builds. Followers start placing their cloaks on the ground—in Sir Walter Raleigh’s fashion—as the procession begins. Someone brings in branches—we’re not told if they’re palms (the palms only appear in John’s gospel).[3] These branches are waved, making the parade more festive. The waving branches welcome Jesus as if he’s a general or a king returning victorious… And they begin to chant Hosanna, which means “Save us,” as they quote from Psalm 118:

Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest heaven![4]

         I image its mostly pilgrims making up the crowd. Many of them would have been from the small towns and villages in Galilee, who’ve come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. This is Spring Break, 30 AD. Just like today, most everyone makes a trek south—but instead of Florida, they head to Jerusalem. For many of the pilgrims, this is the highlight of their life—being in Jerusalem for the holiday. It’s like us getting a chance to celebrate New Year’s Eve on Times’ Square, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or Christmas at Grandma Moses’ farm. This is a once in a lifetime chance. And as they come to Jerusalem, they recall God’s great acts of salvation in the past, of how God freed the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery and saved them from Pharaoh’s army. Reminiscing about God’s past activity opens them up to the possibility God will act again and restore Israel to her former glory. They’ve gathered in hope.

Many of them are hoping Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for, for so long. They see him as the man God will use to shake off the Roman shackles and allow Israel to once again be free. Jesus, however, doesn’t fulfill their expectations.

       We’re left to wonder what our response would have been if we were there? Where would we be in this story? Would we have been in the crowds shouting “Hosanna?” And if so, would we’ve also been in the crowds shouting “Crucify?” For you see, it’s hard to separate the parade at the beginning of Holy Week, with the crucifixion that comes five days later.

What is it about our nature which allows us to get excited when our religion seems to support our expectations? And then, back away when things seem to move in a direction with which we disagree? We often forget that God’s ways are not ours.

          Jesus takes a risk with this parade. In this series we’re going to see repeatedly the risks Jesus and the disciples took during Holy Week. Here, with the parade, Jesus mocks politicians who entered Jerusalem with pomp and circumstance. As Jesus comes into Jerusalem, there were two other significant political figures either already in the city (or if not, they were soon to be there): Pilate, the Roman governor, and Herod, the Roman puppet king. There was probably a parade for them too, one involving fancy horses and soldiers with shiny brass and perhaps even a band. Pilate and Herod display the power of Empire; Jesus, humbly riding on a donkey, displays the power of a mysterious kingdom, one not of this world. Who do we follow? Are we lured by the fancy horses and war chariots of the kings and politicians? Or do we follow the man on a donkey.

This is political, and church always has difficulty with politics. We walk a line between being prophetic in calling government to a higher standard (which is appropriate) and playing the court jester. With the later, we sometimes divert people’s attention from what’s important and thereby providing support for the status quo. In a way, with the decline of the mainline churches, we no longer play the role we once did in politics and that’s probably good.


A few years ago, I heard Miroslav Volf, a theologian and the founder of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, address this issue. “Don’t look with nostalgia on when the church was in the center of everything,” he said, “for then it was used and abused by those in power… instead, we must find the language and the confidence to cheerfully live our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.” The church can’t and shouldn’t depend on political power.[5] Jesus, riding on a humble donkey, demonstrates this. We depend on God’s power to carry out God’s purposes.

Many people think that the reason the mainline churches have declined in influence is that we no longer reflect the values of the larger society. This may be so, but even if it is, we must remember that we’re not called to reflect the values of society. We’re called to reflect the values of that man who rode into Jerusalem on a colt some 2000 years ago. And his values constantly challenge us as to who we are and to whom we belong. Do we conform to how others want us to be, or do we strive to conform ourselves to the example of our Savior Jesus Christ? Are we intoxicated by the crowds, or by a desire to stand by the one who is the way and the truth and the life?[6]

          As we move through this season of Lent, we need to ponder what Jesus’ risked during Holy Week, and what we are willing to risk for the sake of the gospel.[7] Here are some things we should consider. Do we only support our church when things go our way, or when we hear what we want to hear, or when the church does only the things we want to do? If that’s the case, are we taking risk? Are we being supportive? Are we being Christ-like? Are we being open to where God is calling? Or, to ask the question another way, if we only listening to what we want to hear from Jesus, are we really being faithful to him? It takes faith to stand alone when the crowds disappear; it takes faith to buck the trend. Granted, sometimes we, as individuals and as the church, are wrong, and when we are it takes faith to admit that we are wrong and to seek the new trail Jesus is blazing for us…

        We hear the crowds… We are drawn toward Jesus… Will we just hang around for the fun of the parade, or will we take a risk and continue to follow him as his journey moves toward the cross upon which we’ll be called to sacrifice our wills and desires for his? Amen



About the background slides:  The photos and artwork with attributions are either  from or the collection at Vanderbilt Theological Seminary. The rest of the photos are mine. The ones of a parade (procession) were taken on the first Sunday in Lent in Antigua, Guatemala in 2018.  The graveyard shot was taken above the town of Benton Hot Springs on the California/Nevada border and the photo of the highway was taken between Benton Hot Springs and Mono Lake, as I was driving toward the Sierras. These photos were taken in 2013.   


[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2004), 353.

[2] For more on the two animals, see Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 238-239.

[3] John 12:13.

[4] Psalm 118:25-26.

[5] Interview of Miroslav Volf by Cornelius Plantiga, Calvin College, April 12, 2014

[6] John 14:6

[7] Risk is the theme for this series. See the “Sermon Fodder”  in

Get Up; Don’t Be Afraid

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 17:1-8
February 23, 2020

Today, we’re coming to an end of this series on SAD (Spiritual Affection Disease). We’ve looked at several ordinary activities that can be used, beyond prayer and Bible study, to draw us closer to God. Today, we’re going to see that everything focuses on Jesus. Once we encounter the Savior, we need to fearlessly carry out his work.

Our passage is the Transfiguration. These are some verses I’ve often wondered about. Why are they in Scripture?” I’ve asked. “Is this story needed?” This week, I thought about this passage while attending a two-day Theology Matter’s conference on Hilton Head.[1] We considered what it means for Jesus to be the “way and the truth and the life,” In that setting, I began to clearly understand the importance of this text. It points us to Jesus, and to our need to listen to his Word.

The Transfiguration is a mysterious event with which the western church has always struggled. The Eastern Church, the Orthodox tradition, from early in its history, celebrated the event with a feast. In the West, it wasn’t until the 15th Century, right before the Protestant Reformation, that the Roman Catholic Church set aside a special day to recall the Transfiguration.[2] And for Protestants, we came even later to the table. But it’s important that we deal with this passage for it appears in all three of the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke.[3] Let’s listen to Matthew’s account of this story. And as I read this, think about what your reaction to such an encounter might be.  Read Matthew 17:1-8.



There are four questions I want us to explore from this mysterious text. Of course, many other questions may arise, but this morning, we’ll stick with these four:

Why did Jesus only take three of the twelve disciples up on the mountain?
What is the significance of Moses and Elijah’s appearance?
What do we learn about Jesus from this encounter?
And finally, what’s the implication of this text for our lives?


That’s more than we can chew on in one sermon, but let’s see where it takes us.

We’re told that Jesus took Peter, James and John up on the mountain. In Scripture, many things happen on mountaintops, going back to Abraham. So the reader is expecting something to happen up on the mountain, at a place that symbolically links the earth to heaven.[4] But why does Jesus only take three of the twelve disciples? Did the other nine feel left out? We’re not told, but we must admit that there are times it’s easier to have an experience with a few than with many. These three, in a way, form Jesus’ inner-core. Each of these become the major players in the early church.[5] So maybe Jesus had a tactical reason for allowing them to have this experience. Furthermore, mountaintop experiences in Scripture tend to happen only to individuals or small groups and it’s up to those having the experience to share what happened with others.[6]

What’s important here is not that those of us who follow Jesus have a mystical encounter, but that we learn from the experiences of others. Not all of us will have a Damascus moment like Paul, or witness a burning, non-burning bush like Moses, or the Transfiguration like the three disciples. After the resurrection, Jesus responded to Thomas (who wasn’t at the Transfiguration): “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”[7] Most of us will fall in the latter category. We are those who have not seen and have yet, because of the testimony of others, believe.

Once Jesus and the disciples make it to the top of the mountain they experience a vision.[8] Jesus begins to glow. His face was like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. That in itself was amazing, but then there appeared Moses and Elijah, who were alive and talking to Jesus. We’re not told how the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah. I’m pretty sure they weren’t wearing name tags. But how they knew is not as important as to who they are. These are the two great figures in the Old Testament. Moses brought God’s law down from the mountain to God’s people at Sinai. He represents a fulfillment of the covenant that began with Abraham. Elijah is the representative of the prophets, those individuals called by God to demand the Hebrew people’s faithfulness to their Lord.

The appearance of Moses and Elijah is a reminder of the importance of the Old Testament and how it points to Jesus. The Scriptures of the Old Testament are still valid, but they now take on a different dimension with Christ, the one who came to show us the way home, the way back to God. In their appearance, the past (or what we might call tradition) points to the way forward. This is especially true for those of us on this side of the crucifixion and resurrection.[9]

        This all amazes the disciples and causes Peter to begin babble about building shelters, perhaps to prolong the event. But while Peter rambles, we’re told a bright cloud suddenly overshadowed them. Think about this, Jesus is already dazzling white, so this cloud must have been really amazing. And from the cloud, as it was at Jesus’ baptism, God speaks. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” The words are the same as at Jesus’ baptism except for the last three: “Listen to him.”[10] Again, God confirms Jesus’ identity and role, but now God commands the disciples to listen to him. God is saying that what Jesus says is important. As we learn in the prologue to John’s gospel, Jesus is God’s Word.[11]

Here, in this passage, we have God the Father, and the traditions of the past (Moses and Elijah), all pointing toward Jesus as the way forward. He’s the one whom we’re to follow, which is the core of the message within this passage.

The disciples are overwhelmed and fearful. They fall to the ground. But it doesn’t last long. Jesus comes over and shakes them as they crouch on the dirt and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And as they look up, it’s all over and it’s time for them to leave the mountain and join the rest of the disciples at the base of the hill.        

Two things we should take from Jesus’ words. We can’t stay on the mountain. As followers of Christ, we are called to live out our discipleship in the valleys, with the people, not up on the mountaintops away from problems. Yes, sometimes we need a break, we need time alone.[12] But ministry (and we’re all called into ministry) is among people, down the mountain, where things can be dirty and messy. And as scary as the mountaintops might be, going back down can even be scarier. But we’re not to be scared because Jesus is with us. Our lives are to focus on him, first and foremost. And if we focus on Jesus and trust that he has things under control, we shouldn’t be afraid of anything. Yes, in life some bad stuff can happen, just like it happened to the disciples, BUT Jesus has it all worked out. He’s secured our future so that we might live for him in this life.

         So what does the Transfiguration say to us today? Jesus is Lord, listen to him, obey him, trust him, follow him, and don’t be afraid. “Get up, don’t be afraid.” Good words for us to consider as we, as a congregation, prepare for our future. Amen.



[1] The theme of the conference was John 14:6 (Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life).  See

[2] R. F. Buxton, “Transfiguration,” The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 510.  The Eastern Church celebrates this day on August. 6.

[3] See Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36.

[4] Douglas R. A. Hare (Matthew: Interpretation, a Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1993), 198.

[5] Jesus took this same group to Gethsemane to pray (Luke 26:37).  Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 12-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 165.

[6] Think of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain (Genesis 22), Moses on the mountain (Exodus 3 and 19:20ff), Elijah on the mountain (I Kings 19:11ff), and Jesus in the wilderness during his temptation (Matthew 4:1-11).  See also Bruner, 165. Bruner refers to J. A. Bengel’s 18th Century commentary. Bengel suggested the mountain may not have been named to avoid superstition. In light of this, I suggest it’s not the mountain that’s important, but the Jesus who is revealed on the mountain, therefore it’s more about what we do with this experience than the experience itself.

[7] John 20:29.

[8] While the story (verses 1-8) doesn’t say this is a vision, when they head down the mountain, Jesus describes it as a vision in verse 9.

[9] Bruner, 167.

[10] See Matthew 3:13-17.

[11] John 1:1-2.

[12] Even Jesus took time alone, away from the crowds. See Matthew 14:13.

Walk This Way

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Psalm 119:1-8
February 16, 2020


We’re back looking at ways for us not to be so SAD. How can we overcome bouts of Spiritual Affective Disease? How can we get closer to our Creator? This series offers us ways, beyond the usual Bible study and prayer, that we can reconnect with God. So far, we’ve looked at meditation, music, laughter, serving others, and appreciating God’s presence all around us.

Today, we’re looking at walking. In a way, the ability to walk is what makes us human. In Genesis, we have that beautiful image of God walking in the garden and wanting the man and woman to join the stroll.[1] According to Bruce Chatwin, in the Middle Ages it was thought that by going on a pilgrimage (which meant walking), you were recreating that original condition of humanity. Walking through the wilderness brought you back to God.[2] As humans, we are designed to move which allows us to experience God’s world, to connect with God’s people, and to come closer to God.

Our two scripture passages from the Psalms this morning have to do with walking. Our third passage, which we heard earlier from the Gospel of Luke, about following a path set forth by God, is about a metaphorical walk. As we journey through life, we need to follow God’s path and use the legs God’s given us to connect with one another and with God. And even if we can’t get up and walk, we can use our bodies in whatever way we can, to move and to delight in God’s creation.

Before reading our last passage, from Psalm 119, let me share a bit about this mega-Psalm. You might know that this Psalm is the longest chapter in the Bible. There are 176 verses to the 119th Psalm. It’s way too much to preach on in one sermon! But it’s also a unique. I know you’ve heard me speak of acrostic Psalms… This is a type of poetry where every line begins with the next letter in the alphabet. In English, it would be like writing, “Apples are red, Berries are blue, Cats are cute… etc. Using an acrostic method helps in memorization. I’ll come back to this later in the sermon.

Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem on steroids. Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet receives eight lines, and each of those lines starts with a word with the same letter.[3] Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate well across languages. Since Hebrew has 22 letters, you multiply that by 8, and you get our 176 verses! Be thankful I’m not reading them all!

The late Kurt Vonnegut once informed his wife that he was going out to buy an envelope. This was what ensued:

“Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a heck of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And see some great-looking babies. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And I’ll ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is – we’re here on Earth to play around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And it’s like we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.”[4]

It’s very easy today for us all to become couch potatoes, but that’s not why we’re created in this fashion and with these bodies. If these bodies are still working, we need to use them, even if they don’t work as well as they did when we were younger!

“Travel by its very nature demands simplicity,” Rolf Potts proclaims in his book, Vagabonding.[5] This is even more so when walking, as one is limited to what one can carry. Walking simplifies things further by slowing us down and forcing us to look around. After all, we want don’t want to trip on a crack in the sidewalk or step in a mud puddle. As we start looking around, we become more aware and notice more about what’s happening. We appreciate the flowers that throw off a scent in the spring. Don’t you love it when the oleander and jasmine are in bloom? We can stop and meet our neighbors. Or perhaps we might catch a neighborhood battle that we’d missed as we speed along on asphalt in a car with the windows up.

Have you ever seen an eviction? It’s something to behold. You wouldn’t want to miss it, would you? Now that I have your attention, let me tell about a walk I took a few months before moving from Michigan.

I was walking down Green Street in the early spring and heard all this commotion in the maple trees that lined the road. It was in the evening. Looking up, I saw an owl sitting in top of the trees. The feathery neighborhood association, all of which had eggs or babies in those trees, weren’t too happy. They knew what that owl was up to no good. A dozen or so birds, of all varieties, worked together to encouraged the owl to move on. One would fly close by and as the owl followed it, another bird would come in on its blind side and peck the owl on its head. I stood and watched for a good twenty minutes, until finally the owl had enough and moved to another tree. Think of all we miss as we huddle inside our climate-controlled homes and cars.

Of course, we’re not just to walk for walking sake, even though it is good for our physical being. Scripture tells us repeatedly to walk in the ways of the Lord. Psalm 119 is a meditation on God’s law. Throughout this passage, we’re encouraged to walk in the law, to walk in the ways of God, to let God’s law light the path for our feet.

This Psalm opening section, which I read this morning, speaks of how those who walk in God’s ways are blessed. And so are we, if we do our walking with God at our side, using our time out when alone or with others, to be delighted in God’s creation and to appreciate God’s providence. You see, walking can benefit us, spiritually and physically. When we move, we can connect with others and with God. So, this week, ponder this passage as you take time each day to take a walk. Let’s get moving and enjoying where we live.

But I also want you to join in on another walk, one that will involve all the congregation. As you know, next Sunday we’re going to lay out a new Strategic Plan for our congregation. We want to be a “joyful, thriving church reflecting the face of Jesus to the world!”  Our mission is to “Love God, Love our Neighbors, and to Change the world.” We have set up core values (using an acrostic formation-kind of like Psalm 119-that spells out WORSHIP). These core values demonstrate God’s love by Welcoming, Offering, Respecting, Serving, Helping, Investing, and Praying.  All this is supported by four pillars, which we as a church need to walk within. These pillars will require each of us to commit ourselves to excellence, and we if bind ourselves on this journey together, we will live into our Vision and Mission.

What are these pillars?

  • A joyful worship experience.
  • Grow our membership.
  • Improve our financial sustainability.
  • And increase our community outreach.


In each of these four areas, there are ways for you to walk with your friends here at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church.

We’re all needed in worship, to lift our praises to God and to focus, first and foremost, on the Lord. Also, we need those of you who have special talents to help with music, with drama, in the sound booth, or with the liturgy. As we continue to work on creative worship, we’ll need to draw on everyone’s creativity.

To grow our membership, we need you to invite friends and family members to experience our church. And once someone visits, they need to see what a caring family we are. We need to love one another in a way that will make others want to be a part of our family.

To improve our financial sustainability requires us to look forward to the future. Past generations built and paid for this wonderful facility. Those of us who came here later received it as a gift. As we move forward, we need to sustain our ministries in a way that finances won’t be such a burden. We need to build endowments and to encourage everyone to be generous as God has been generous to us. What kind of gift can we give to those who follow us?

And finally, we need to increase our outreach into the community. We’ve been doing this with Civility Forums (the next one is March 4th), with the Calvin January Series, and with the very popular sunrise service. What other ways can we reach out and provide a home for those in our community who want to come and to learn and to be a part of changing the world?

It’s time for a long walk. Will you join us? Be here next week for the town hall meeting and between then and now, take a walk or two and ponder what you can do to further the gospel in the world. Amen.


A note about the photos.  All but the photo of the owl (which came from and the one of Kurt Vonnegut are mine. The first one of a two-rack road was taken in Spooner Summit in Nevada (on the west ridge over Lake Tahoe). The lantern was my grandfather’s. The next images were taken on a backpacking trip in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan. The last photo of a two-track road was taken on Cumberland Island, Georgia. 

[1] Genesis 3:8-9.

[2] Bruce Chatwin, Songlines as quoted by Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (New York, MJF Books, 1998), 18.

[3] This is easily seen by looking at a Hebrew text. For more information see James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, JKP, 1994), 381-382.

[4] I am not sure where this came from. I read it a month ago, cut and pasted it and saved it without providing the source. When I looked on the internet, I realized it’s been a quoted a lot over the last 15 years…  I cleaned up the text a little for the sermon, replacing hell with heck and play for fart.

[5] Rolf Potts, Vagabonding (New York: Villard, 2003), 32.

Questions and answers in a field of sunflowers

Back in December, The Armchair Squid honored me with this award.

Sorry to disappoint  you, but I will give no acceptance speeches that flaunt my politics. I like how “the Squid” modified the original rules:

  • You don’t have to display anything you don’t want to.
  • You don’t have to pass on the award to others in order to accept it for yourself.  You are thoroughly deserving without having to jump through any hoops.
  • You also don’t have to answer my questions, though I hope you will.  I am genuinely interested in your responses.
  • Simply know that I am grateful for our blogsphere friendship.

I’m finally getting around to these questions, which I found interesting and fun to ponder. Here’s my answer.

If you could live one year of your life over again, which year would you choose and why?
Is this a trick question? In Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town,” Emily Gibbs is allowed to go back and see one day of her life. It is suggested that she go back to an insignificant day, for it’s going to be so difficult. That said, maybe 1987, when I completed most of the Appalachian Trail. But that’s probably one of the more significant instead of insignificant years of my life.

If you could learn to be an expert at something without putting in the work, what would it be?
A violinist

If you could learn a new language instantly, which would you choose and why?
Mandarin  I might as well know what most of the world is saying behind my back.

If you could give $1 million to any charity, which would you choose?
A charity that works with disabled or disadvantaged children.

When was your Robert Frost moment a la “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”?  The poem says you can’t go back and that is true.  “Way leads on to way” and so forth.  But if you could, would you?  What is the difference you think it would have made?
It was one winter in Michigan, when the snow was deep and I had shoveled a path to the driveway and another to a large locust tree for obvious reasons. Then, warming up inside by the fireplace, I pinned these immortal lines (with apologies to Robert Frost):

Two roads diverged in yellow snow,
And glad I am not to travel both
One traveler with four legs runs to the tree
And looks down as he hunkers low
And lifts his leg to take a pee

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Some where ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged from my front porch, and I—
I took the one with the white snow,
And that has made all the difference

Of course, it didn’t make much difference, but I got a laugh out of it.

Time travel: where would you go and when?  Why?
Virginia City, Nevada in 1875.  Having spent a lot of time studying and writing about Virginia City and the role the church played there, that was an interesting year. It was the year of the big fire and the interesting split within the Presbyterian Church. Visiting would allow me to see how much I got right in my history.

Who would you want on your fictional character bowling team?  You get to pick four.
Yosemite Sam, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Yogi Bear…

What would you want for your last meal?
I’d be like Jefferson in Ernest Gaines novel, A Lesson Before Dying, who asked for a whole gallon of ice cream and a pot spoon to eat it with. He’d never had enough ice cream, he said, and while I’ve never been as poor as him, I’ve never had enough ice cream, either. By the way, it’s a tradition on the Appalachian Trail to eat a half gallon of ice cream at the half-way point. I didn’t do it at time, eating only a quart!

What’s your favorite song?
Can I have two?  A modern one and an ancient one?  Why yes, I can, my conscience tells me, but remember the Armchair Squid teaches music! Okay, then two it’ll be:

“Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
I’m just barely an extrovert on the Myers-Briggs scale.  That seems right as there are times I like being in crowds, but I also need to retreat into “me time.”

If you came over to my home and I offered you a drink, what would you want me to serve you?
I would ask for your best bourbon on the rocks, unless it’s Derby Day, then I’d ask for a mint julep. If it’s St. Andrews Day or Burn’s Night, let’s have Scotch or maybe a Rusty Nail.

Book Reviews (memoirs and poetry)

David Sedaris, Thief by Finding (audiobooks, 1977) 13 hours 52 minutes.

Years ago, I read Me Talk Pretty One Day. It was a very funny book and I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to another of Sedaris’ books. I was looking for something humorous to listen to in the gym and decided to give this one a try. It took me a long time to get into the book and several times I thought about putting it aside. The first years of his diary are somewhat bare, glimpses of him hitchhiking around the American West, making a few bucks with temporary labor, while spending most of his time getting high.  As we must be close in the same age, so that as I listened to his diary entries, I kept thinking what I was doing during those years. After wandering around the country for a while, Sedaris settles down as he enters Chicago Institute of Art. He still struggles to pay bills (in his early years, he seemed to have a particularly hard time with this phone bill). He hangs out watching people in the International House of Pancakes. And he begins to write. There are some things that Sedaris wrote in his journal from the 70s, that reminded me of that era. Race relationships were often in tension and he had a several scary run-ins in both Raleigh (where he grew up) and in Chicago.  He also wrote about his relationship with his siblings (especially Amy) and his parents (he adored his mother and didn’t care as much for his father, even though his father did give the kids a trip to Greece).

After he graduated from college, Sedaris stayed in Chicago, working day labor jobs and as an adjunct writing professor at the Art Institute. During this time, his journal observations become sharper and more humorous. Then he moved to New York, where he and Amy had plays produced in small off-Broadway theaters. There’s no “eureka” moment, where Sedaris realizes he “had it made” but soon instead of struggling to find enough money to pay the rent or phone bill, Sedaris is eating in nice restaurants and traveling back and forth to Europe.  He publishes Naked. His lover is French and they move there, where Sedaris studies the language (and his teacher didn’t appreciate her portrait in Me Talk Pretty One Day). He also begins to clean up his life, admitting he’s an alcoholic and keeping a count on his days of sobriety. He has some interesting entries concerning 911, both from his time in France and when he returns to visit New York without the twin towers.

I am glad I stuck with this highly edited and published journal. In a way, reading these excerpts, Sedaris provides a personal glimpse of his view of the world in which we both lived, but in very different ways. I was often turned off with the language, but found that as the years went by, Sedaris began to cut the number of times he used the “F-word”. He even noted, while teaching writing, his criticism of a student’s paper that overused such language. Also, the book shows Sedaris sharpening his pen with humor, which is an interesting insight. His writings become mature as he ages. Finally, I was glad I listened to this book while working out in the gym. I’m not sure I would have stayed with it had I been reading it instead of listening to it.


David Baker, Swift: New and Selected Poems (New York: Norton, 2019), 179 pages

David Baker is a poet who is aware of his place in creation. In this collection of fifteen new poems and selections from his seven previous books of poetry, we are drawn into our common world that is highlighted by his keen observations and knowledge of nature. One collection draws upon the negative impact of chemicals used on the farms in Mid-America.  He writes about death and bemoans the idea that the American way of death takes us out of the circle of life as we ensure that not even worms can feast on our bodies.  In a note after another poem, he points out the insane about of fuel used to cremate bodies in North America (estimated to be equivalent fuel needed to drive a car the distance of 80 round trips to the moon).  He hears the coyote cry at night and muses about birds and butterflies, fish and frogs. Through a variety of styles of poetry, some I found easier to comprehend than others, Baker draws us into this world we inhabit. I encourage others to indulge themselves with his words and images and ponder how we might live as a more responsible member of this planet.


Chad Faries, Drive Me Out of My Mind: 24 Houses in 10 Years: A Memoir (Emergency Press, 2011), 280 pages.

This was a hard book to read. I picked it up after hearing the author, who is a professor at Savannah State University, a few years ago. Knowing he was from the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan, a favorite get-away when I lived in the mitten state, made it more appealing. But my first attempted to read the book failed. It was just too hard to imagine, and I kept thinking that no kid should ever have to live in such situations. But I picked it back up last month and forced my way through this memoir of the first ten years of Faries’ life. A warning if you read this book: It’s brutally honest. The language is rough, drug and alcohol abuse are a constant, and the sex scenes that a child observes is shocking. Yet, there are children who grow up in such situations. It is amazing that Faries survived the 70s.

There are several threads that hold the book together. One is the places they lived. Often, it’s a house, but on one occasion it was a room above a strip club and another above a bowling alley. Faries mother was just a teenager when the book begins and suffers from drug and alcohol abuse and, what seems to me, an addiction to sex. But she does love and cares from her son. While the book is called a “memoir,” there is a little license taken in using that title as the opening parts of the book are obviously before the author had actual memories. For such memories, he had to rely on his family.

A second thread is the constant mobility Chad and his mom make as they roam around the UP and off to Battle Creek (also in Michigan), Florida, Texas and Montana. They travel in old cars, in buses, by hitchhiking, and on the back of the mom’s boyfriend’s motorcycle. In one trip, the three of them rode from Battle Creek, Michigan to the western part of the UP (about 600 miles) with the boy sandwiched between his mom and her boyfriend. The constant moving is highlighted with a simple sentence at the end of each chapter, “And then we moved.”

The third thread is music. Faries begins each chapter with a quote from a “classic rock” tune of the era, and often during the chapters he recalls certain songs of the decade.

While most of the chapters are told from the point of view of the boy, there are a few interesting ones toward the end such as the chapter that is told from the point of view of the hamster who understands his role on earth is to protect the boy. I found myself cheering on a rodent. The last chapter has Faries with his mother and several other women discuss his early life. It’s 2003, and Faries is teaching in Eastern Europe and has come home on a visit. His aunt is tattooing his Greek girlfriend’s name on his back. As she does this, Faries interviews her and his mother about his recollections of growing up. This chapter, written more like a dialogue of a play, serves to wrap up many of the story’s loose ends.
I forced myself to read this book and learned much. But I’m saddened to know that children do grow up in such situations.

Altars, Altars Everywhere

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Psalm 84
February 2, 2020


In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”[1] Picture this for a moment, a world filled with signs of God’s glory, so many that we’re constantly tripping over them. There’s truth here. In Genesis, we’re told God created everything in the world as good.[2] The Psalms proclaim the world and all that is in it belongs to God, that God is beside us even when we find ourselves in death’s shadows, and that there is no place we can go to be away from God.[3] This is all good news. We’re not abandoned. We’re not alone.

This winter we’re looking at ways of beating SAD: Spiritual Affective Disease. How do we pick ourselves up when God feels so far away? We’ve looked at meditating on the light during darkness, listening to soulful music, laughter, and doing good deeds for others. Another way to lift ourselves up is to realize that God is always close to us. God is accessible. We can easily reach out and connect to the Almighty. Yes, we may feel far from God, but that’s not the case. Feeling far from God has more to do with our feelings than with God’s absence.

         Today’s service is titled “Altars, Altars, Everywhere.” Let me point out that I’m using term “altar” for a place where we worship God. Biblically, an altar was a place for a sacrifice. The word comes to us from the Latin to describe a place where a sacrifice is made.[4] But since Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice, we don’t need to make sacrifices in order to obtain God’s favor.[5] Those of us in the Presbyterian and Reformed branches of Protestantism tend not to use the word altar as a place within a church building. Instead, we have a communion table, where we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which we’ll do in a few minutes. So, when I use altar this morning, I’m not talking about sacrifices, but I’m using it in a symbolic way for a place we connect to God.

        Our text, Psalm 84, calls us to come into God’s dwelling place. Let me ask you what you think when you hear of such a place? Pearly gates and golden streets? Fluffy clouds inhabited by choirs of angels and accompanied by orchestras of strumming harps? Golden rays of sun highlighting a peaceful landscape?

         Another way of considering experiencing God’s dwelling place is to consider ourselves already there. After all, Jesus taught that the kingdom has come near.[6] We can look around us and can see places God is present. Certainly, at the marsh at the beginning and ending of each day, or at night when we look up at the twinkling stars, or whenever we encounter a mother and child and ponder the miracle of life. Yet, even in times of tragedy, God is present. We hear stories of those who, exceeding the bounds of human expectations, serve their neighbors and strangers in a way that provides a glimpse of Christ’s presence.[7] Opportunities abound for us to experience God and to see the glory of his domain. But is this what this Psalm is about?

          This is a crusader’s psalm. It’s one sung by pilgrims as they made their way from far off, perhaps even a foreign country, to the temple in Jerusalem.[8] The dwelling place for the Psalmist is Solomon’s magnificent temple. The Psalmist isn’t using God’s dwelling place as a metaphor for God’s domain in heaven or even God’s presence throughout the good earth. His joy stems from the thought of worshipping with God’s people in the temple. So, in a very literal sense, we understand the Psalmist call for us to worship at the temple. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that such a place supersedes our need to worship elsewhere.

        The Psalmist speaks as a pilgrim coming into sight of Mt. Zion, upon which sits the city of Jerusalem. And there in the middle of the city is the temple of God. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” the Psalmist sings. Perhaps this is his first visit to the temple. He’s overcome with joy. Although singing, he’s almost faint from excitement. He observes the birds nesting high up along the roof and acknowledges the glory of God who takes care of all creation, from the greatest mammal to the smallest feathered friend.

         The Psalmist then turns his attention to the priests, those who work in the temple day in and day out. He ponders their happiness. This must be a great job, he thinks.[9] “Yeah,” I think, “like being a vendor at Wrigley’s Field.” Of course, we only see the glorious side of those vendors. We think they’re lucky to be able to catch every game, ignoring their hard work of cleaning up. The same is true of the priests. He sees them leading worship and offering up sacrifices but doesn’t see them cleaning out all the burned meat from the altars or the polishing of the candlesticks. But for someone in awe, the position of the priest is enchanting.

          But then he realizes that he, too, is blessed by God. We see this in verse five, “Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways of Zion. In other words, he and those who have travelled the road to Zion, the road to Jerusalem, can be glad that God has given them the strength needed for the journey. Then, in the next verse, he recalls his journey through the Valley of Baca, the unknown valley of tears he had to traverse in order to get to Jerusalem. Even that desolate land is blessed by God. A miracle is witnessed as the dry summer heat is replaced with cool rains leaving behind pools of water from which the pilgrim can quench his thirst. Notice, that as the Psalmist sings, he realizes God’s presence is all around, not just at the temple.

         Acknowledging God’s providence in his life, the Psalmist prays in verse 9 and 10 for God’s continual blessings upon those who seek to worship. In verse 11, he shifts to metaphorical language, conceding that a day in the temple is better than a thousand elsewhere, even while acknowledging God’s gifts and goodness extends far from the walls of the temple. God is both the sun, the giver of life for the earth, but also the shield, the one who protects us from the sun when it becomes overbearing in the desert. God is the source of all good, or as John Calvin liked to infer, “God is the fountain from which every good gift flow.”[10]

          What does Psalm 84 teach us about worship? While the ultimate worship experience for the Psalmist was the temple, Solomon’s temple hasn’t existed for over 2,500 years. It was destroyed by Babylon. But that’s fine for there are now places of worship all over the world, and hopefully whether it’s here or somewhere else, you will find a home to worship.

But we don’t have to wait till Sunday, either. We don’t even have to be in God’s house to worship God. Because we have access to God, 24/7, worship could and should be continual. Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing.”[11] And prayer is an essential part of worship, as we acknowledge our total dependence on God. So, wherever you are, whether out in nature where the grandeur of God is evident or in the darkness of your bedroom, know that God is present and give thanks. If we do, as we told at the end of the Psalm, we can find happiness. We are not abandoned. For our scouts, this means that even if you get lost on a hike, you have a companion with you. Don’t ever forget this.

         So, this week, stop frequently and meditate about being in God’s presence. You might even set up a special place to meditate and pray in your home, a reminder that God is with you. Think about bumping into God’s altars, for they are everywhere. Be on the lookout for them, and then give thanks to God for his faithfulness. Amen.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarpersOne, 2009), 15.

[2] Genesis 1.

[3] Psalm 24, Psalm 23, and Psalm 139.

[4] C. E. Pocknee, “Altars” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 6-7.

[5] Hebrews 10:10-15.

[6] Mark 1:15.

[7] Matthew 25:40.

[8] Artur Weiser, The Old Testament Library: The Psalms (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 565ff.

[9] Weiser, 567.

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, I.2.1

[11] 1 Thessalonians 5:17

Make Somebody’s Day

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
January 26, 2020
Micah 6:1-8


A widow’s son who died in a tragic accident. This put her in great grief as she was not sure what to do. A friend took her to a holy man who was also known as a healer. “Use your power to bring my son back to me,” she sobbed.

The holy man spoke kindly to the woman. “Bring me a mustard seed from a house that has never known sorrow. I will use that seed to remove the pain you have in your life.

The woman set out immediately on a search for such a mustard seen. She visited the home of the wealthiest person in the area, thinking that no tragedy could have struck them. She knocked on the door and the told the woman of the house about her search and how she needed a mustard seed from a house without sorry.

“Never known sorrow?” the woman asked. “You’ve come to the wrong house.” She began to sob and told of all the tragedies that had struck her family. The widow remained in the home for many days, listening and caring.

Upon leaving the wealthy home, she resumed her search and tried a modest home about a mile down the road. The experience was the same. Everywhere she went, she was greeted with tales of sadness and sorry. And everyone she met found her to be a listening and caring woman.

After months of travelling, she became so involved in the grief of others that she forgets about her search for the magic mustard seed, never realizing that her search had driven sorry out of her life.[1]

You know, sometimes we should just do it. Nike may have coined that term, but it’s also the call of a disciple. Our belief needs to be displayed in our actions. God wants us to live in a way that will bless those around us with peace and comfort. We’re not to do good to earn God’s favor, instead we should be touched by what God has done for us and order our lives accordingly. How might we make someone’s day, today?

Our lesson for the morning is from Micah 6:1-8, reading from the Message translation.


          The Scriptures we read today make it abundantly clear that God isn’t looking for heroes. God doesn’t require us to be “Super-Christians.” We don’t have to sacrifice everything we have in order to find favor with God. Instead, God is satisfied with us living a life which brings no harm to anyone and which honor righteousness. These teachings from the Old Testament can be somewhat summarized into Jesus’ command to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.[2]

       The sixth chapter of Micah begins with a courtroom scene. God indicts Israel, asking her to come and plea her case against the mountains and the hills. Why the mountains and hills?  Because they have been around for ages and have seen how God has shown mercy to Israel.[3]


        In the third verse, God asks Israel a rhetorical question.  “What have I done to you, in what ways have I wearied you?”  The people of Israel have been ignoring God. God’s question is designed to grab their attention. Was God the reason for Israel disobedience? Probably not…

The indictment against Israel continues as God reminds her of the Exodus and other great deeds which have shown the saving grace of Israel’s Lord.

         In the sixth verse, Israel answers. Israel knows she has been disobedient and asks how she might come back before God.  Shall it be with the best of sacrifices? Armloads of offerings, and a yearling calf? Or perhaps, like King David,[4] a thousand rams along with buckets and barrels of olive oil?  And if that’s not enough, how about the most valuable thing of all, her first-born? As this response is made to God, each item escalates the value of the sacrifice.[5]

Standing before God is awesome and frightful. The Hebrew people believed that if they saw God’s holy face, they’d be consumed by God’s righteousness. So, it seems natural that if they are called into a lawsuit by God, they should up the ante of what they’re willing to offer. But God is so much greater than anything we can offer. What does God need from us? The offer to ratchet up of the sacrifices allows the prophet to correct the people’s misconception about what God wants. It’s quite simple, Micah says in verse 8. Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and walk with God (Or as the Message translates that ending of the verse, don’t take yourself seriously, take God seriously).

You may be asking yourself, does that mean that sacrifice and offerings to God are of no use?  No, not at all. Instead, what we are told is that living a moral life is required if we expect our attempts at worshipping God to be valid. If you remember, Jesus said something about us healing the rift with a wronged brother before we make our offerings in the temple.[6]

          The beauty of this passage is its simplicity. God is not expecting us to make a monumental effort in order to gain favor.  God does not want religion to become such a burden that we harbor resentment in our hearts. Instead, God wants us to incorporate our faith into our lives so that God is glorified in all that we do…

Wendell Berry is a Christian, an environmentalist, a farmer and a poet from the hills of Kentucky. Years ago, at a commencement speech during a college graduation, which he titled “The Futility of Global Thinking” he told the students:


“Nobody can do anything to heal the planet. The suggestion that anybody could do so is preposterous. The heroes of abstraction keep galloping in on their white horses to save the planet—and they keep falling off in front of the grandstand.”[7]

        Think about what Berry is saying. When we look at the environmental crisis from a global level, it becomes unmanageable. Berry goes on to tell the students that instead of worrying about how to save the planet, they should concern themselves with the care of their own neighborhoods.[8] This is true not just for environmental issues, but every other kind of challenge our world faces. We can’t change the hearts of others and avoid a war, but we can love our neighbors and began to build a community that reflects godly values. And slowly, if blessed by God, such communities can take shape and change the world.

What does Berry have to do with Micah? Well, in a sense, they are both prophets speaking to a world which has lost its connection to its source of life. The priest of Israel might demand that 1,000s of rams and barrels of oil be offered up to God to get Israel back on the right track, but what effect would that really have had on the average Hebrew in the 8th century BC? They’d be overwhelmed. Likewise, we are told that the answers to the world’s problems are global, but that’s overwhelming. We can’t get our minds around such problems.

         Let’s think of the implication of what Micah and Berry have to say to the discussion of the church in America in the 21st Century? We cannot deny-things are changing in our world.  The shape of the church and society are undergoing radical restructuring. Our church and society seem helpless in stopping the violence and the brutality which we read about daily.

We have a lot of problems in our world. The environment, crime, hunger, drugs, war, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, unemployment… the list seems endless. As Christians, our Lord and Savior calls us to be concerned and to do our part to make the world better. But isn’t it nice to know that we are not required to do it all ourselves?

        One of the problems of the modern church, I believe, is that we’ve become practical atheist.[9] As practical atheist, we still believe in God, we just don’t believe God is doing anything in the world so we have to make up the slack. Practical atheists can be either conservatives or progressives, and they seem to flourish at both extremes. God is still real for them; they can use the fear of God or the teachings of Jesus to excite Christians into zealous actions. These “practical atheist” are mostly committed to single causes. The conservative cause may be abortion or prayer in school, the liberal cause may be the homeless or minority rights. They demand action now and see themselves as carrying out God’s mission even to the point of martyrdom. Both can cite ways that God is on their side, and in that they are both probably right.

         But the revitalization of our world is not going to happen because of what some individual or group does to drag along everyone else into their camp. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be involved in these issues. I’m just saying that, first and foremost, we should remain focused on Jesus Christ, or as Micah says in the New Revised Standard translation, “Walk humbly with our God.” We don’t need a giant to save the world. Jesus didn’t bless the superstars in the beatitudes.[10] We already have a Savior, in Jesus Christ. We don’t need another Savior; we just need to trust and have patience in him.

What’s holding you back? What’s stopping you from being fair, compassionate and loyal? What keeping you from walking with God? Start today. Do the small things. Do something good that will make someone’s day and make the world just a little brighter. Amen.



[1] An old Jewish legend retold by William R. White, Stories for Telling: A Treasury for Christian Storytellers (Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1986), 42-43.

[2]Matthew 22:35–40, Mark 12:28–34, and Luke 10:27.

[3]Ralph L. Smith, Micah-Malachi: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1984), 50.

[4] See I Chronicles 29:21.

[5]James Limburg, Hosea-Micah: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 191.

[6]Matthew 5:23.

    [7]Wendell Berry, “The Futility of Global Thinking,” Harper’s Magazine (September 1989), 16.

    [8]Berry, 18.

[9] I’m not sure where I first heard this title used, but such atheism can be described this way: “[U]nbelief or atheism is a problem, not intellectually, but politically. Most of our social activism is formed on the presumption that God is superfluous…”Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), 36.

[10]Matthew 5:3-12.

Aunt Callie’s Place

Francis Wilhoit was born in 1920. He was a little younger than my grandmother, and he died a number of years before her, in 2010, at the age of 90. I never met him (as far as I know), but my Grandmother used to always tell me that I reminded her of him. When I was in college, she gave me a copy of his book, The Politics of Massive Resistance, and I expect I’m the only one in the family to have read it. It deals with the white reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. Wilhoit was outspoken against racism at a time few Southerners were speaking up about the problems. He was a professor at Drake University in Iowa. Years ago my grandmother sent me a copy of a poem that he wrote about her childhood home. Callie McKenzie was her mother (my great-grandmother) and Kenneth was her father (my great-grandfather). Wilhoit wrote this poem in 1977, which was over a decade after my great-grandmother’s death and seven or eight years after my great-grandfather’s death. Now all from those generations are gone.

Unfortunately the spacing Wilhoit used in the poem was lost when I posted it in WordPress. I will have to see if I can get it corrected (but not tonight).

“Aunt Callie” is to the left. Next is my father and in front of him, my Uncle Larry. My great-grandfather Kenneth is holding me, and my grandmother is on the right. The picture was probably taken late 1957 or early 1958


“Out at Aunt Callie’s Place”
By F. M. Wilhoit

Based on a poem by James Whitcomb Riley
September 1977

Pleasant it was, O yes I know,
In the good old days in the glow
Of youth, when summer at last had come
And the call of the country beat like a drum,
And we went visiting, our hearts never glum
Out to Aunt Callie’s Place.

It all seems only yesterday!
Though I’m now aged and silvery gray—
Out in the country, by the side of the road,
We aimlessly wandered through Nature’s abode,
Not a fear in the world, not a care to unload,
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place

We tramped the lowgrounds and crossed the wood
Where many an ancient oak tree stood,
Where jack rabbits sprang from tall wiregrass,
And honeybees buzzed in a swarming mass,
And threatened to sting as we tried to pass,
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place.

And down to the house of Tom and Kate;
And up to the Garrisons’ vast estate;
And on to the Old Place, over to Culdee,
From tobacco labors happily free—
Our faith as firm as the tallest tree
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place.

Yes, I see her in the screened-in porch,
Her face as bright as a miner’s torch;
And Uncle Kenneth and the children too!
Wasn’t it great, for me and you,
To place among kinfolks, tried and true,
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place?

The apples, the grapes and the gingerbread
And the jams and cakes—O how we were fed!
And the corn in the peas and the deep berry pies—
It all seemed to me like Paradise;
And the more we’d eat the more she’d devise
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place.

In the old frame-house in the evening cool,
With supper done—as a general rule—
We’d take and talk and talk and talk
And listen to the crickets loudly squawk,
Or maybe join in a nighttime walk
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place.

And many a time have you and I—
Barefoot kids in those days gone by—
Built mighty castles in the summer sands,
Dreaming of far-off, strange new lands,
Knowing we’d all meet Life’s demands,
Out at Aunt Callie’s Place.

And O, my cousins, how the times have changed,
By age and progress all disarranged;
She’s waiting, though: a smile on her face,
Patient as ever, full of God’s grace,
Calling us back, with a spiritual embrace,
Back to Aunt Callie’s Place!


A few note (from me, not Wilhoit):

Wiregrass naturally grows under longleaf pines.

We lived several hundred feet east of “Callie’s Place” when I was a child (we moved when I was 6). I can attest that the bee’s my great-grandfather kept were known for their temperament and we always stayed away from the hives.

Culdee Presbyterian Church is the family church, which was located South of “Callie’s Place,” on the other side of the Lower Little River

My great-grandmother was known for her berry pies that she always baked in a wood-fired oven (there were two ovens in the house when I was a child, a gas range and a wood stove, and she mostly cooked and baked on the wood stove). She would set them out on the back porch (which was screened) to cool.

One memory of mine that Wilhoit must have forgotten was the nasty spittoon on the back porch and how my great-grandmother loved dip snuff and, I assume, my great-grandfather chewed tobacco. The spittoon was for when they had to spit it out.

Lighten Up (Let’s Laugh)

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Mark 10:23-27
January 19, 2020



We’re looking at another tool to beat Spiritual Affective Disorder. We’ve talked about spending time reflecting on the light. We’ve looked at how music can lift our souls. Today we’re looking another sure-fired way to beat SAD (that’s Spiritual Affective Disorder). We can use humor and laughter. Too often we think of humor as inappropriate in churches. God is seen as some stern judge up in the sky, with piercing eyes and a frown, upset with all humanity. But God delights in humor. We can see it in creation. Why did God create the opossum? Or the anteater? Or the monkey? Or some of us?[1] We can also see it in scripture. In our Old Testament reading we hear of Sarah laughing at the possibility she, as an old lady, will give birth.[2] The story shows us God had the last laugh. God wants us to lighten up, to not take ourselves too seriously, and to trust him. We’ll see this in our New Testament reading, too. I’m reading Mark 10: 23-27, from the Message Translation.

Jim Johnson is a former pastor who now owns the Bull’n Bear Saloon in Red Lodge, Montana. On making this transition for the pulpit to behind the bar, he tells this joke: “Two guys walk into a bar and stop dead in their tracks. One thinks to himself, ‘Oh no, my preacher’s a bartender!’ The other thinks, ‘Oh no, my bartender’s a preacher!’”[3] This joke illustrates how humor is perceived different depending on your perspective. What one person finds as funny might not be funny to someone else, just as a preacher as a bartender gets different reactions from a bar patron and a parishioner.

          It may have been the same way with Jesus’ parable about the camel going through an eye of a needle. Just try to image how silly this word picture looks—a camel, one of the larger animals in that part of the world compared to such a small opening. This is funny, in a “Far Side” kind of fashion.


Imagine the disciples laughing as Jesus tells this story. Jesus had just encountered the rich man who wouldn’t follow Jesus because he had much to lose. The man went away sad. He just couldn’t risk giving up his stuff, but that’s another sermon. The disciples who witnessed this looks to Jesus for some reassurance for their salvation, and Jesus’ tells this story.

           For what we know, none of the disciples were rich, so it’s easy for them to laugh at the absurdity. Or maybe not. Maybe there were those who saw riches as a sign of God’s favor. Unfortunately, there are still some people like that, proclaiming a prosperity gospel. But this story undercuts the idea that wealth equals God’s favor. Now the disciples, whose bank accounts aren’t exactly overflowing, may have laughed at all the absurd image and at all those people with all that money who are doomed.

But then, one by one, they began to think. We’ll I’m not totally poor. I own a fishing boat, I own some robes and don’t go hungry, I have a house… Maybe I’m not rich by some standards, but at least I’m middle class. Does this mean me getting into heaven, would be more like a dog or a cat, instead of a camel, getting through an eye of a needle? I still don’t stand a chance. Their minds run wild. What kind of animal can get through the eye of a needle? Well, what about a worm or even an ant. But there’s two problems here. First, unless it’s a very small worm or ant, they’re not going to be getting through the eye of a needle. And secondly, is Jesus saying I must be so small that I can only be a microscopic worm or ant? Where does that put me?[4]

          The laughter begins to subside as they realize their predicament. They’re doomed. Frustrated, they ask Jesus, “Just who can be saved?” Jesus responds, telling them it’s impossible for humans, but nothing is impossible for God. Jesus uses humor to make this point, but we often have a hard time accepting it which is why people have tried to reinterpret this passage such as suggesting that Jesus wasn’t referring to a needle used for sewing, but that it was the name of a narrow gate through the city’s walls. I’ve heard that interpretation in sermons and think it displays our fear of the truth—that we’re not in control.[5]

        When you push an idea to the absurd, you get humor. Mark Twain knew this. He once wrote a letter from Virginia City, Nevada to his mother, telling on his brother for stealing some stamps from a local mill. According to Twain, his brother had slipped these into his pocket. Twain thought it was a perfect joke. His mom would get on his brother’s case, for she had no idea that the “stamps” in a stamp mill weigh 100s of pounds and were used to crush rock.[6] It’s absurd, which makes it funny and no way it could be factually true.

Bill Bryson is another humorous writer who is a master at expanding a truth to the point that it’s humorous. In his book, A Walk in the Woods, about hiking the Appalachian Trail, he does this with bears. Anyone who hikes a significant portion of the trail will probably see a bear, but Bryson makes it sound like bears are a constant threat and regularly snack on hikers. He did the same thing in his book, In a Sunburned Country, about his travels in Australia. Reading it, you’d wonder if most people in the land Down Under die from being bitten by snakes and spiders or eaten by crocodiles and sharks. He makes it sound like the country is trying to kill you, which some might think is true with their recent fires.

           Using exaggeration to be funny is a way of saying, “Lighten Up.” We don’t need to be so uptight about everything. No, we can’t save ourselves. But the good news is that with God all is possible. Where do we point our trust? In our stuff (which won’t fit through the needle’s eye) or in God? Of course, it’s easy for us to miss the joke. That’s partly because jokes don’t always translate across cultures. Furthermore, jokes are best told and not read.[7]

        Another humorous writer I enjoy is the late Patrick McManus. He’s published a dozen or so books and wrote humorous columns for Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. While McManus used exaggeration for humor, he often reported on his own silliness and mistakes. The best jokes are those we make about ourselves and not others. The mess he found himself in while hunting or fishing can be chuckling, because many of us have been in similar situations. As he aged, McManus lamented how things change. The trails have become steeper and the oxygen in the mountains have decreased since his youth. We’ve experienced that, haven’t we?[8]

          One of the problems the church has in the world is that other people see us as taking ourselves too seriously. We carry heavy burdens and don’t trust God’s Spirit enough, it’s easy to get down and depressed. And then we don’t do a good job of reflecting Jesus’ face to the world.

In my blog, I recently posted a humorous piece about Communion. I was a little nervous about how it might be accepted but was comforted by the comments. One suggested that if such humor was used more often, they’d be more people in the pews on Sunday. Another woman, from Australia, who confessed to not having been raised religious, said the humor helped her understand.[9]

Jesus doesn’t want us to be uptight. Jesus wants us to have abundant life, beginning now, and that means we need to be joyous and to laugh more. Humor is good for us. It can be holy! We should, at the very least, be able to laugh at ourselves. It keeps us humbled. The great mid-20th Century Theologian Karl Barth once said that “laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”[10]



Think about children and how they laugh. They laugh at the silliest of things. We adults think we must be more serious. I wonder if, when Jesus said that if we want to enter the kingdom of God we must come like a child, he meant that we must come laughing like a child?[11] It’s something to ponder.


         Laughter is also good for us. Do you remember the movie, Patch Adams, where Robin Williams played a doctor who used laughter in treating patients? Do you recall how he got a children’s ward filled with kids suffering from cancer to laugh? And how the head nurse was mortified and ordered him out of the ward and told the kids to get back in the bed? The movie showed how we adults are too serious and that the world needs to lighten up and enjoy things.

          Laughter relaxes us. According to some studies it can heal us by boosting our immune system. In addition to lightening our hearts and reducing anger, laughter helps us to burn a few extra calories. It lowers our stress. And it makes us more pleasant to be around![12]


        So, this week I want you to take time to laugh. Read the comics or pick up a humorous book. Take an opportunity to laugh at yourself. If you come across a great joke, drop it in an email to me or to a friend. We all need laughter and we’d be a lot better off if we could laugh at ourselves, for our follies makes us realize how much we depend on God.

Let me close with a part of a poem titled, “The Rowing Endeth,” by Anne Sexton. She describes being in a rowboat making for the Island of God. I’ll begin reading as she steps ashore:


“On with it!” He says and thus
we squat on the rocks by the sea
and play—can it be true—
a game of poker.
He calls me.
I win because I hold a royal straight flush.
He wins because He holds five aces.
A wild card had been announced
but I had not heard it
being in such a state of awe
when He took out the cards and dealt.
As he plucks down His five aces
and I sit grinning at my royal flush,
He starts to laugh,
the laughter rolling like a hoop out of His mouth
and into mine,
and such laughter that He doubles right over me
laughing a Rejoice-Chorus at our two triumphs.
Then I laugh, the fish dock laughs,
the sea laughs. The Island laughs.
The Absurd laughs.[13]





[1] This is an old preaching joke that I’ve heard attributed to Billy Sunday, among others.

[2] Genesis 18:9-15.


[4] Jesus is challenging a false sense of security here.  See William L. Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament:  Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 369.

[5] As for debunking the theory of enlarging the eye of a needle to a gate, see Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Hendrickson Publishing 2nd Ed, 1997: London, A & C Black, 1991), 243.  

[6] I’m pretty sure I am remembering this from when I read Twain’s published correspondence from Virginia City, NV. Twain often made fun of his brother, once saying his brother was “as happy as a martyr when the fire won’t burn.”  See Philip Ashley Fanning, Mark Twain and Orion Clemens: Brothers, Partners, Strangers (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 151.

[7] See John L. Bell’s essay “Giggling for God” in 10 Things They Never Told Me About Jesus (Chicago: GIA Publishing, 2009), 126.

[8] Patrick F. McManus, Kerplunk (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 104.



[11] See Mark 10:14.  See also Matthew 19:14 and Luke 18:16.

[12] See

[13] Anne Sexton, The Awful Rowing Toward God (Boston: Houghton Mufflin, 1975) 85-86.


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

When I was in seminary, there was a debate at how often communion should be served in Chapel. This essay, which I recently came across, has it’s roots in that debate which occurred 30-some years ago. It displays my somewhat skeptic side:

Not exactly a communion photo. This is me giving a blessing taken from the movie “Its a Wonderful Life:” “Bread! That this house may never know hunger. Salt! That life may always have flavor. And wine! That joy and prosperity may reign forever.”


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

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

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

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

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

A hundred or so years ago, it was common for American Protestants to actually sit around a real table and share a feast with others. This method, which had its roots in the Scottish Church, was the formal dining plan. To be allowed a seat at the table, a member had to produce a communion token that he or she earned by being good, paying one’s tithe, not breaking the commandments, and attending a preparatory lecture. As the worshiper approached the table, he or she was greeted by the maître’ d, a role played by an elder of the congregation. Those not tipping with the appropriate token were escorted to the door by the same elder who was also a bouncer. Once the worshipers were seated at the table, they were served a hunk of bread and a cup of wine. This was done rapidly in order to accommodate the next seating. Unfortunately, for all its appeal, formal dining has gone the way of fine china and finger bowls. Few churches bother.

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

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

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

Soothe a Savage

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Psalm 40:1-11
January 12, 2020


Between Christmas and Lent, we’re exploring Spiritual Affective Disorder. Many people during winter, when the days are short, suffer for a Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s due to the lack of natural light. When we don’t receive the light that comes from God, our spirits can also be troubled. Each week, I’ll suggest strategies we might use to break the cycle of despair. One way to get us out of the doldrums is music. As I read from the first eleven verses of Psalm 40, listen for what the Psalmist has to say about music. Read Psalm 40:1-11.

       There is something about music that can take us to a place and time in the past. Those in the advertising world have known this for a long time which is why they often use popular music in the background to help sell products. Movie producers are no different as they use music to put us into the mood they are trying to convey. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sadness, yet hopefulness, brought about from watching the movie, “Platoon.” These feelings were intensified by Samuel Barber’s haunting score, “Adagio in Strings.” Or, on a more positive note, think of the upbeat tunes used in the Charlie Brown movies. How does those tunes make you feel?

          Music has a power to draw us back to specific places in time, which is why it’s often used in therapy for those battling Alzheimer’s or brain injuries.  From my own life, there are songs that can take me back just by listening to them. The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky” takes me to my childhood bedroom, in a late December evening in 1968. I was listening to the radio I received for Christmas that year. Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” takes me back to a wet night camping at Fort Fisher. A friend and I listened to the radio while trying to endure wet sleeping bags. The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” takes me to another rainy night, when I was in college. With kayaks strapped to the top of my car, my brother and I drove to the North Carolina Mountains to paddle in rain swollen rivers. I had no idea then that I’d hear that song so many times over the next few decades that I would become sick of it. Every time I hear haunting voice of Enya, the Irish singer, I am taken back to a drive over Sonora Pass in the Sierras at sunset. I’m sure you have such experiences, too.

        The same can be said about church and music. Maybe there was a special Christmas Eve service in which you sang, “What Child is This? and are taken back to that time. Sometimes we’re taken back to sad memories such as a song sung at a funeral. “He Leadeth Me,” was a favorite hymn of my great-grandfather McKenzie. I don’t remember him singing it as I was only 12 when he died. But I do recall the pastor officiating at his service sharing this insight. Now, whenever I hear that hymn, I am reminded of my great-grandfather and that great cloud of witnesses that have led us to his place.[1] Or maybe it’s a funny memory. I love the majesty of God presented in the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy,” but every time I sing it, I also am reminded of my Grandfather Garrison, boldly singing this hymn, that has been referred to as the Presbyterian National Anthem, off-key.[2] And if I could tell he was off-key, you can be assured he was far off. But Granddaddy sang with gusto! I shudder when I think of the hymns that will remind my kids of me.

         Music has ancient roots. Archaeologists learned to discover cave art when exploring in France by singing. They discovered that caves with the most resonance for singing were also the places where they were more likely to discover cave paintings. Many anthropologists believe that music was first used as a way to strengthen community bonds, maybe even going back to the prehistoric cavemen.[3] Anecdotally, this idea of music strengthening communities seems true for if you talk to people about music: those of different generations will tend to gravitate to what was popular when they were teenagers or young adults. Music helps form our bonds.

        And music seems to exist beyond the human experience. There have been a lot of talk about coyotes on our island lately, but have you ever heard a pack of coyotes sing? It’s haunting yet beautiful. Each coyote has a slight variation to the song.[4] Have you heard recordings made of whales singing? Certainly, we’ve all heard songbirds sing. One of the memories I’ll always have about Michigan is how, in early March, I’d realize the birds were back as they start singing when it was still dark, before dawn. It was as if they were challenging winter, reminding us it wouldn’t be long before it was over. In a way, all creation sings so it’s natural for those of us who are humans to join in songs of cosmic praise.

          Melody can change our disposition. Depending on the tune, it can make us sad or happy, reflective or energetic.[5] All of these are valid experiences and hopefully in our music on Sunday, we experience most of them. We may not experience all emotions every Sunday, but over a collection of Sundays, music should speak to all our moods. God is so big. God is God of our joys and our sadness, so it takes a wide repertoire to even begin to cover the vastness of God’s presence. Another thing, not everyone prefers the same music. Therefore, we need to be open to what others like, along with being willing to expand our own repertoire. We’re all in different places and have different backgrounds and what speaks to one might not speak to another. And, what speaks to us one day might, on another day, become weary, like hearing “Hotel California” for the millionth time.

          Now, what does all this have to do with Psalm 40? Our text for this morning, the first half of this Psalm, is an offering of thanksgiving to God. The Psalmist, this one is attributed to David, begins by recalling how he waited patiently for God to hear his cry. In the second and third verses, we hear how God pulled him up from the muck, put him back on firm footing, and taught him a new song. The Psalmist is humble, acknowledging everything that has been done for him is a gift from a benevolent God.[6]

          But let’s consider a moment the thought of God giving the Psalmist a new song. I like this idea: God as the great choirmaster, teaching us new music. In our early reading from Revelation, we heard about all the singing in heavenly courts.[7] Music may have had a long history within humanity, but it goes back even further, to creation, shortly after birds are introduced. And, from what we read, music is going to be around for a long time as we praise God in eternity. God will teach us the song, if we are just open to listening and hearing and rejoicing.

         Starting with verse four, the Psalmist calls on all who have experienced God’s grace and mercy to join him. He invites others to turn away from false gods, to turn away from that which is worship in the world, and to focus on God’s wondrous deeds. So not only is the Psalmist given a new song, he now uses this song to witness to others, showing what God has done in the world. The Psalmist does what the redeemed are supposed to do, give credit to God for our salvation.[8] God doesn’t show mercy as a way to receive sacrifices, the Psalmist says in verse 6, but to have us follow him and to delight in the word, the law, which God places in our heart.

          There are three important movements in this Psalm. The crying out and waiting on God to act, the new song that God provides, and our willingness to witness to God’s faithfulness. This is what the Christian life is to be about. We confess our hopelessness and helplessness to the one who can help. God hears our plea and responds gracefully. And then we tell (or better yet sing) of God’s good deeds as we witness of God’s goodness to a lost world.

What can we take from all this? When you are feeling down, like the Psalmist, call out to God, trusting in the Almighty to hear. But also, be willing to listen and to sing, to praise God for what he has done in the past which gives us hope for the future. Make a playlist of songs you can listen to when you are down that will help lift your spirits. Today, such a list can be easily assembled using apps like Pandora, Spotify and Apple Music. If you’re technical at all, you can then have the music with you always (even on your phone), to help you overcome despair and embrace the beautiful world in which we live. I also encourage you to share with your church family music that has special meaning for you—you can do this either on our communication cards or email them to me and I’ll keep a running list which we can later publish.

       Let’s all be willing to sing new songs, songs that glorify and praise God, songs that lifts our hearts and prepare us to soar with joy. Amen



[1] Hebrews 12:1

[2] At an evangelism conference in the early 1990s, the pastor of Mt. Harmon Church of God in Atlanta jokingly called Holy, Holy, Holy the Presbyterian National Anthem and since I grew up in a church that sang it every Sunday at the beginning of Sunday School, it seemed right.

[3] Robert Jourdain, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy as quoted and referred to by Marcia McFee, PhD., Think Like a Filmmaker: Sensory-Rich Worship Design for Unforgettable Messages (Truckee, CA: Trokay Prs, 2016), 127-128.

[4] For a discussion of coyote singing, see John Lane’s prologue “Redemption Song” in his book, Coyote Settles the South (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 2016).

[5] This is my variation on Marcia McPhee’s list of patterns: thrust, shape, swing, and hang.  See McFee, 136-139.

[6] Artur Weisner,   The Psalms, translated by Herbert Hartwell, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 335.

[7] Revelation 5:6-14.

[8] James L. Mays, Psalms, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 168.

Reviews of Three Very Different Books

Patrick F. McManus, Kerplunk! (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 227 pages.


There is a favorite used bookstore in Wilmington, North Carolina that I often stop in when I’m home. This time I was looking to pick up another copy of Guy Owen’s The Ballard of the Flim-Flam Man to give to a cousin, along with any books by Archibald Rutledge (both Southern writers). I didn’t have any luck, but I came across a book by Patrick McManus that I had not read. I promptly purchased the book and read half of the stories that evening. All these stories had previously seen ink in Outdoor Life. They are funny and many have a good moral lesson, too. McManus has always been a bit of a curmudgeon. He longs for the days of old, when mountain trails weren’t so steep and there was more oxygen in air. He recalls hunting 80-acre section of land where the deer were seldom seen, but when he visited recently his old hunting ground, he sees that it’s not been developed into a gated community and the deer are plentiful, snacking on the shrubbery. The deer earing shrubs hit home! In these stories there are also good safety lessons, such as the purpose of hooking the safety chains on a trailer, because having your boat pass you on the highway us “one of the least pleasant sights you may encounter during your lifetime.” And McManus is also a master as self- deprecation, such as the time fishing for steelhead, his friend already had one on the line while he, having made a half-dozen casts, he hadn’t yet gotten his line in the water.  As for “Kerplunk”, you’ll have to read the book to find out. I do recommend McManus’ books!


David McCullough, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019), 331 pages, a few illustrations.


I have enjoyed many of McCullough’s books (John Adams, The Wright Brothers, The Johnstown Flood) and while I enjoyed this book, it’s not one of McCullough’s best.  While the book is about the opening up of the Northwest Territory (which included the future states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin), McCullough spends the first part of this book discussing how the territory came to be in the early days of the Republic. As the nation was broke, this territory allowed the country to pay the soldiers in the Continental Army with land. Of course, these former soldiers had to clear the land and fight for it, as the native tribes were not agreeable to giving away their land. One of the promoters of the territory was Manasseh Culter, a Congregational Pastor. He spent time in Philadelphia lobbying for the territory and would later travel westward into Ohio but would not move there. It was through Cutler’s eyes that McCullough tells of the passing of the Northwest Territory Act. After discussion of the passing of the act that opened the territory, McCullough focuses on those who establish the town of Marietta (which is located just north of the Ohio River, where Interstate 77 crosses). McCullough does a wonderful job telling the story of how the settlement was established, overcame the hardships of the early years, and became a permanent town.  I think he should have stopped there.

Where McCullough’s book fails is that he tries to tie his story through the middle of the 19th Century, which leaves many gaps in the story. By focusing only on Marietta and towns along the Ohio River, the reader is only given insight into one strand of settlers who poured into the territory. That said, I still enjoyed reading this book which my men’s book club read for its December selection.


James Clavell, Tai-Pan  (1966, Blackstone Publishing, 2019), 885 pages (~34 hours on Audible).


Tai-Pan is a fictional account of the founding of the British Colony “Hong-Kong.” This is a long book. I listened to all the book and read some sections (as this is our January book selection for my book group).  While Clavell tells a good story, he seems to excel at foreshadowing, which means that when things happen there is little surprise. An example was when the Chinese lover of the Tai-pan was bitten by a mosquito, I knew she’d be coming down with malaria. Thankfully, Clavell doesn’t make a direct connection as, at the time (1842), it was thought that malaria came from “night vapors.” Clavell also seems to spend too much time in what goes on in the heads of various characters. People act or seem one way, but often have different ideas, which is especially true for the Chinese and their secret societies that even place mistresses so they can know what the British are up to. Clavell seems to embellish certain “kinky” sexual fantasies, from playful spankings of a lover to more harsh beatings and torture (he especially seems drawn to thumbscrews). I also felt he had a love for the sound of “reefed” sails. In his wonderful descriptions of sailing, he almost always has something to say about them being reefed (sails shortened due to excessive wind).


However, I did like how he worked in principles of economics, the advantage of free trade, the world views that tied together or put in conflict the interest of a variety of nations (from Britain, to Russia, and the America), and a main character (Dirk Sturan, a Scotsman) who is open and interested in what he and the English can learn from the Chinese. Staran is the “Tai-pan” or the leader of the strongest trading group in China. He has a number of other challengers including his arch-enemy, Tyler Brock. Staran is planning on leaving Asia and turning the operation of this company over to his son, Culum, which happens to be in love with Brock’s daughter.


The dream of the traders is to have a safe harbor where they are free to trade in China without Chinese control, and their fleets (the British navy and merchant ships of many nations) can survive storms. The book ends with a terrible typhoon (foreshadowed by the constant checking of the barometer), that destroys much of Hong Kong. But the fleet is spared. The trade will continue and Hong Kong will rebuild. Upon the death of his father, Culum assumes the role of the new Tai-pan while this half-brother (half Chinese and half Scot from Staran’s mistress plots to control the city.


While Clavell’s story does try to give value to the Chinese (their customs and their medicine), it is very much written from a Western point-of-view. I found myself wondering, while reading, how the book would be received in today’s more culturally sensitive and “Me-too” climate. While I’m glad I read the book, I won’t recommend it to anyone else (but I might make you a good deal on a used copy of the book 😊).

Flip the Switch

Jeff Garrison 

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Isaiah 60:1-7
January 5, 2020

Tomorrow is Epiphany, a word that means a manifestation. Think of it as an “a-ha” moment. It’s the 12th Day of Christmas, but in the Western World, Christmas Day has overtaken his feast day in which we recall the coming of the Magi or the Wisemen. The Wisemen followed the star to Bethlehem. Their coming to the manager is important because it fulfills, as we’ll hear from Isaiah, the light shining in the darkness that draws people from all nations to experience what God has done. Jesus was not born for just Mary and Joseph to cherish. His birth was not just a way to relieve the boredom of a few shepherds. His birth was to offer hope to the entire world. His birth shows that God is not done with us. Let’s listen to Isaiah as I read from the Message version of Scripture. Read Isaiah 60:1-7.


         I was blessed as a child to spend many days camping on an undeveloped beach, generally in the fall of the year when the bluefish were running. We’d crawl out of our sleeping bags while it was still dark and start a small fire on the beach to drive away the chill. You could only make out everyone’s shadows created by the light of the fire or lantern. Before the stars began to disappear and the sky lightened, we’d have a line in the water, baited with cut mullet. You’d cast the line out beyond the surf, hoping you were in a good spot. Gradually, the shades of black and gray would be replaced by color as we shivered in the chill and held our rods high, an index finger touching the line waiting for the signature bump of a fish.

When darkness began to fade, birds would take to the air. It was often then, right before the sun rose, that the bluefish would begin feeding. They’d take the bait and we’d feel the bumping of the line. We’d yank the rod to set the hook, and began to haul them in, trying to keep our feet out of the breaking surf. (as a young-one, I didn’t have any waders). Soon, we’d see a fish flapping in the receding waves and not long thereafter, a few of the fish would be roasting over the coals of the morning fire. But as busy as we were catching fish, we’d pause to watch the sun come up as a bright orange ball. It was a few minutes of amazement. Afterwards, as the sun rose even higher, and its orb seem to shrink (it doesn’t, that’s an optical illusion), we’d begin shedding jackets and no longer needing the fire to stay warm. Now that we could see where we were casting, we’d change from cut bait to a lure or spoon, casting out toward the birds which hovered over the feeding fish.

There’s something magical about the sunrise. The new day is filled with possibilities. With the rising of the sun, there’s hope. It’s a time to give thanks for the day God has given us and, on these mornings, for the fish destined for the freezer.

         You know, the Prophet Isaiah had a lot of depressing things to say. He wrote about the fall of Israel and the coming exile for Jerusalem. War and destruction is at the forefront of his message, but occasionally Isaiah breaks out of the darkness. In Chapter 9, he writes, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,”[1] a text read often during the Advent and Christmas seasons. In Chapter 42, Isaiah recalls Lord’s promises by reminding the Hebrew people that God is turning darkness into light.[2] And as his book moves toward its conclusion, he again brings up the coming of light. “It’s time to rise and shine.”

This passage reminds me of that old camp song, “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory.” Isaiah is reminding his readers that it’s time for God’s people to be “the light to the nations.”[3] Isaiah’s viewpoint is that the world is in darkness, but God is bringing about a change and it will be up to God’s people to help light shine in the world. As God’s people, it’s as if we’re given flashlights. We’re not to hoard our light, but to share it share with others as we draw them to the beach to watch the greatest son-rise of all (that’s son with an “O”), the coming of God in the flesh.

         As Christians, we read these passages through the lens of Jesus, the light coming into the world as proclaimed in John’s gospel.[4] Furthermore, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to be a light to the world.”[5] Think of it this way. Jesus is the light of the world, but he calls us to also be lights of the world. Maybe we’re not as bright as his light, maybe we’re more like the moon than the sun, reflecting the light of the true light. But that’s okay. Remember it doesn’t take much light to offer hope. It was mere star that drew the wise men from the East. On a dark night, a few small red and green navigation lights show us the channel. It doesn’t take much to provide hope and guidance, and if we’ve seen the light, we can also be that light, that hope, for someone else.

         Years ago I had the opportunity to spend a few days spelunking (or caving) in eastern West Virginia. It was an incredible experience. When you are below ground like that, there is no light at all. Turn off your light and you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. At one point, we gathered in a huge underground room. Our guide had us place our cameras on tripods and to open the shutters, then had us go around the room popping flashes. Each splash of light would illuminate a section of the wall and ceiling, which we didn’t see until after the film was processed (these were the old days, long before digital). By bringing light into this cave, we got to experience on film the incredible beauty of this huge underground chamber that was dotted with crystals.

         This is what we as Christians are to be doing, bringing light into the world. Yes, there are problems. There are evil people who do terrible things, like the Iranian general who was just killed. There are hateful people who want to wipe others off the face of the earth. There are dishonest people who will lie and cheat to get ahead. There are misguided people who create chaos and whom try to profit at the expense of others. We live with partisan hatred in our own country and under the threat of terrorist attacks, both domestic and foreign. The possibility of war is always on the horizon. But despite all that, as believers in the one who came into a troubled world as a child, the one who was willing to die for our sin, the one for whom the grave could not hold, we have hope. There is much that’s good and beautiful in the world which, like that wall inside a cave, only needs a little light to shine upon it. That’s our job, to point people to all that’s good in the world and to what God is doing through his son, Jesus Christ.

        As we enter a New Year, flip the switch and be the light of the world. Hold tight to the faith we have and share the hope that in Jesus Christ, God has things under control. The good news is that we’re not alone as this New Year begins. Remember the truth of the Psalmist, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.[6] Amen.


[1] Isaiah 9:2.

[2] Isaiah 42:16.

[3] Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6.

[4] John 1:1-5.

[5] Matthew 5:14.

[6] Psalm 30:5.

Two Very Different Book Reviews

I am in North Carolina, taking a few days off and sitting inside watching it rain…  Here’s my last post of the year as I review two recent books I’ve read. I hope everyone has a wonderful New Year’s Eve and a prosperous 2020 (and please, no more eye jokes)!

John Kasich, It’s Up to Us: Ten Little Ways We Can Bring About Big Change (Hanover Square Press, 2019), 237 pages.

John Kasich was the last Republican in the running against Donald Trump during the 2016 primaries. This little book makes me wonder how much better things might be in America had he succeed in his quest for the White House. While definitely conservative (certainly he is truer to conservative principles than Trump), Kasich also appears to be a good guy. And, at least from what I gleam in this book. He appears willing to listen to all people and not resort to ad hominem attacks upon those who challenge his position. In fact, he seems to seek out those with opposing opinions as well as having a more open view about those who think differently than him. He’s a man of deep faith who draws upon his religious belief in how he treats others and views the world.

Kasich encourages his readers to make a difference in the world by offering “ten little ways.” However, “little” is a marketing word, for some of his suggestions are big undertakings. He begins suggesting we start a movement, with examples that are not so “little.” He begins by recalling the work of Greta Thunberg (his book was published before Trump got into a twitter war with the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist). He discusses the youth from Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and their efforts at being to the forefront the need for sensible gun control legislation. He discusses those involved in Special Olympics and (as if he was speaking to me directly) recalls the work of his (and my) childhood hero, Roberto Clemente. Where Kasich conservative principles show is where he suggests that all great movements rise from the people, not the government.

While starting a movement seems to be a big thing, Kasich follows it with an encouragement to start local and to “be the change where (we) live.” Again, as he does with all his suggestions, he offers examples such as a janitor who supported the Children’s Hospital Free Care Fund to the tune of over $200,000. “Find a hole in our community and fill it,” he suggests (78). Another suggestion is to “Be Prepared to Walk a Lonely Road,” reminding us that often those who are on the forefront of any worthwhile change are ridiculed and often persecuted. He encourages us to “Slow Down” with the 3 T’s [time to think (115)] and quoting race car driver Bobby Rachael who said: “You can’t go racing into things all the time. You have to step back and see where you are going” (124). Others in his list of ten include “Bounce Back,” “Love Thy Neighbor,” “Get Out of Your Silo,” “Put Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes,” “Spend Time Examining Your Eternal Destiny,” and “Know that You are Mad Special.”

At the beginning, Kasich said he wrote the book because he didn’t want people to think they could only change world is through politics. This book highlights many people who are changing the world for the better without seeking notoriety. The book is easy to read and for those of us who have a heart for Pittsburgh, many of his stories comes from the area. Kasich grew up in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. He also draws on the music of the Baby Boomer generation, opening the book with the line from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” suggesting that often the votes do get fooled again and again.


Caryn Green, Overland: Remembering Southeast Asia (Chicago, IL: Manitou & Cedar Press, 2018), 241 pages.

A few weeks before reading this book, I had responded to a request of a blogger about my most  spectacular train journeys. I listed several including the ride across the island of Java in Indonesia, from Jakarta to Jogjakarata. Shortly afterwards, someone else echoed my comment about the Indonesian train ride being one of her favorite. When I looked at her profile, I saw that she had recently published this book on her journey across Southeast Asia. I ordered a copy. I’m glad I did.

Caryn Green was a 24 year old woman from Chicago when she decided to hit the trail, traveling to Indonesia and then making her way overland from Bali to Jakarta, on to Singapore and into Malaysia and then to Bangkok and around Thailand. She even made it into Burma. My trip didn’t take me into Burma, as I hung a left in Thailand and headed into Cambodia and then Vietnam, before running north and traveling on to Europe. That wasn’t an option for Green, as she did her travels in the winter of 1975-76, shortly after the fall of Cambodia and Vietnam. Those countries were definitively off-limits at the time. It was an interesting time to travel as the recent American presence in Asia was evident and American travelers were often berated and drawn into unpleasant conversations.

Green wonderfully describes her travels and the people she meets. She mostly hangs out with fellow travelers, many from Australia and Germany, but also meets many natives along the way, especially those who provide housing and services. She is taken with the children. I was also impressed with how much of the languages she learned, more than just being able to say thanks or to ask for the bathroom or where to find beer. Some reading the book might be taken back by how honest she was about her relationships with a few of the men she met along the journey (although nothing is too graphic) as well as how she occasionally enjoyed drugs. She did draw a line at the use of harder drugs.  Reading this, I found myself wondering if the airport in Indonesia had large banners in several languages reading, “death to drug runners,” on the concourse in 1975 as you entered the country as they did when I traveled.

Perhaps the most exciting part of her trip comes at the end, when she travels with a guy filming a documentary on the Karen resistance in Burma. The Karen are tribe in northeastern Burma who have long wanted to separate from the rest of Burma. They passed over into Burma in a remote part of the country, from Thailand.  I knew some of the conflict with the Karen from Pascal Khoo Thue’s memoir, From the Land of the Green Ghost: A Burmese Odyssey.

I felt a little cheated that she was able to take a ferry from Jakarta to Singapore. Back then, ferries were more available. When I made the trip, it was only running once or twice a week and, even then, didn’t go to Singapore, but to an island south of the city-state, where you had to take another ferry into the city.  The other place that we both spent time on was on the island of Penang in northern Malaysia. While I had a Malaysian blogger friend to show me around, she hung out in beaches on the north part of the island where lots of young people gathered. Today, these beaches have been “gentrified” as places where lots of wealthy Arabs hand out.

Green is Jewish, which provides an interesting point of view for the variety of religions within this part of the world.  She spends Christmas in Singapore, a city that has Buddhist, Muslims, and Christians. She was drawn into the celebration by hanging out with a retired FBI agent on Christmas Eve. When she leaves Asia, after three months, she flies on to the Middle East in order to spend time in Israel.

In ’75, Green journey was the end of what had been known as the “Hippie Trail” which lead overland from Europe to Southeast Asia. Interestingly, at that time, the trail Overlanders were taking went south because of the political issues of traveling across the Soviet Union and China. These days, those making such a journey as I did in 2011, travel further north through China and Russia in order to avoid places like Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. It’s interesting how things change.

This book is a quick read, and I enjoyed it because of the comparisons I was able to make with many of the places we both travelled (36 years apart).  I would recommend the book for those who have experienced this part of the world.  Another book that deals with overland travel in Asia during the mid-70s that I found enjoyable is Tiziano Terzari’s A Fortune-teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East.

Christmas Evening 2019

The tree at my house (we put it in the dining room this year so it can be seen better from outside).

Merry Christmas everyone. Today was beautiful in South Georgia, a nice day for a walk with the dog, after opening present, playing a new board game (Ticket to Ride: Rails and Sails), and continually snacking on ham. For the past few days, we’ve experienced a deluge (6 inches of so of rain). But yesterday afternoon, the clouds dispersed in times for us to line the church driveway with luminaries for our evening service. Our sanctuary is most beautiful when decorated and filled with candles. Unfortunately, I’ve been fighting a head cold for the past week, but thankfully I was on an uptick yesterday, which made the evening much more pleasant. I will work tomorrow and then be on vacation for the rest of the year. But I do have a few more post. Below is my message for the candlelight service last night.


Christmas Eve Meditation 2019
Jeff Garrison

Bethlehem wasn’t a thriving town. It wasn’t the capital. It was off the beaten path. It’d seen its better years as Jerusalem grew and became the place to be. When you entered the city limits, there might have been a commentative sign acknowledging their favorite son, David, who went on to be the King of Israel. But I bet there were some who still harbored ill feelings toward David. He was the one who put Jerusalem on the map, positioning the Ark of the Covenant on the spot where Solomon would build the temple. Since those two, David and Solomon, almost a 1000 years earlier, Jerusalem prospered while Bethlehem slipped into a second-rate town.

Bethlehem was the type of town easily by-passed or driven through without taking a second glace. It might have had a blinking stoplight, or maybe not, like the towns we drive through when we get off the interstate.

Bethlehem could have been a setting for an Edward Hopper painting. He’s mostly known for “Nighthawks” a painting of an empty town at night with just a handful of lonely people hanging out in a diner. It’s often been parodied in art, with folks like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe sitting at counter. But all his paintings are sparsely populated, providing a sense that time has passed his urban landscapes by. Or maybe the town could be a setting for a Tom Wait’s song—the roughness of his voice describing lonely and rejected people, struggling through life.

In many ways, Luke sets up Bethlehem by placing the birth of the Prince of Peace in a historical context. In Rome, we have Augustus, the son of Julius Caesar. Some twenty-five years earlier, he had defeated all his enemies and the entire empire is now at peace. The glory of Rome far outshines even Jerusalem and makes Bethlehem seem like a dot on a map. Caesar has the power that can be felt in a place like Bethlehem, but he probably never even heard of the hamlet. And, of course, the peace Rome provides is conditional. This peace is maintained at the sharp points of its Legion’s spears and swords and, for those who would like to challenge the forced peace, the threat of crucifixion. Luke also tells us Quirinus is the governor of Syria.

The tree in our sanctuary. Photo by Lynne Kaley

Those rulers are in high places. They dress in fancy robes, eat at elaborate banquets, and live in lavished palaces. They aren’t bothered by the inconvenience their decrees place on folks like Mary and Joseph. This couple is one of a million peons caught up in the clog of the empire’s machinery. If the empire says, jump, they ask how high. If the empire says go to their ancestral city, they pack their bags. It’s easy and a lot safer to blindly follow directions than to challenge the system. So, Mary and Joseph, along with others, pack their bags and head out into a world with no McDonalds and Holiday Inns at interchanges. For Mary and Joseph, they head south, toward Bethlehem.

If there were anyone with even less joy than those who lived or stayed in Bethlehem, and those who are making their way to the home of their ancestors, ancestors who may not have lived there for generations, it would be the shepherds. The sheepherders are near the bottom of the economic ladder. They spend their time, especially at night, with their flocks out grazing. The sheep are all they have. They have to protect them. They can’t risk a wolf or lion eating one of their lambs. So, they camp out with the sheep, with a staff and rocks at hand to ward off any intruder. They don’t even like going to town because people look down on them and complain that they smell.

You can’t get much more isolated than this—a couple who can’t find proper lodging in Bethlehem, with the wife that’s pregnant, and some shepherds watching their flocks at night. But their hopelessness quickly changes as Mary gives birth and places her baby in a manger. There is something about a baby, a newborn, which delights us all. Perhaps it’s the hope that a child represents. Or the child serves as an acknowledgement that we, as a specie, will live on. While birth is a special time for parents and grandparents, an infant child has a way to melt the hearts of strangers who smile and make funny faces and feel blessed if the mother allows them to hold the child for just a moment.

This child that comes into this town and brings joy. Joy comes not just to the parents, but also to the angels. The angels share the joy with the shepherds. The shepherds want in on the act, so they leave their flocks and seek out the child. All heaven is singing and sharing the song with a handful of folks on earth. The shepherds also are let on the secret that, so far, only Mary and Elizabeth and their families share. This child, who is to be named Jesus, which is the same word that in the Old Testament is translated as Joshua, is coming to save the world. Soon, in a few generations, the song will spread around the known world.

And for this night, the sleepy hamlet of Bethlehem is filled with joy. The darkness cannot hide the joy in the hearts of this young mother and father and the shepherds. Something has changed. Yes, a child has been born. But more importantly, this child is the incarnation. God has come in the flesh, in a way that we can understand. God has come in a way to reach all people, from the lowly shepherds, to the oppressed people on the edge of the empire, to all the world. This child, whose birth we celebrate, has brought joy to the world.

Friends, as we light candles and recall that night in song, may you be filled with the joy of hope that comes from placing our trust in Jesus. Amen.


Click here to read my latest article in The Skinnie, as I reflect on the carol, “Joy to the World, it’s 300 year history (including a Savannah connection).

Peaceful Joy

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 1:18-25
December 22, 2019

The Isaiah scripture is also referenced in Matthew’s telling of the birth narrative.[1] Before I read it, let me tell you a bit about the opening of Matthew’s gospel. The Gospel of Matthew is filled with surprises. It begins with a genealogy of Jesus. That seems innocent enough, but within the names, we find scandals. There are four women mentioned, none of who seem to meet the Jewish holiness standards. Two are foreigners, and there’s a prostitute, an adulterer and one involved with her father-in-law…[2]  Matthew drives home the point that God works in mysterious ways and can use anyone to further the kingdom. Following the genealogy, we are told of Jesus’ birth and again, we find a scandal. A woman is pregnant and the man she’s to marry is not the father. Joseph, the man, is about ready throw in the towel, but then he has a dream. Let’s listen to the text. Read Matthew 1:18-25.


Christmas often doesn’t seem peaceful. Pressure can build as we strive to find the right gifts for our loved ones, or fix the perfect meal, or attend all the parties and concerts.

The holiday stands in contrast to the birth of the Prince of Peace, as it was with a woman shopping in one of those big city department stores. It was a multi-floored building, with escalators and elevators and an entire floor devoted to toys. To her four and six-year-olds, it seemed like heaven. The mother was reminded of another place. Her kids kept singing the “I want this” song over and over. On every aisle they discovered a new “I gotta have” toy. Frazzled and about to come unglued, the lady finally paid for her purchases. She dragged the bags and her two kids to the elevator. The door opened. She and the kids and the presents squeezed in. When the door closed, she let out a sigh of relief and blurted, “Whoever started this whole Christmas thing should be found, strung up and shot!” From the back of the elevator, a calm quiet voice responded, “Don’t worry, madam, we already crucified him.”[3]

That joke reminds us that the Christmas story is all a part of a larger drama in which God is directing. Christmas is a celebration of the God coming to us in a way we can understand. It’s a new genesis (which we’ll discuss in a bit). In that child born of Mary, a peaceful joy is offered to the world. We can now experience forgiveness and to be reunited with God. Christmas, Good Friday and Easter are all linked together.

Birth is always an exciting time, for when a child is born there is no telling what might come from his or her life. But for this child, the child Mary carries, there’s something even more special about him. He’s the Messiah. But he’s not the Messiah folks are expecting. He’s not going to be a great military leader wiping out enemies. He’s not going to be a pretentious king sending decrees out from his throne in Jerusalem. He’s going to be a carpenter and a teacher and a healer. Instead of providing earthly rewards, he’ll erase the gap between us, citizens of earth, and God. He comes to save us from ourselves, from our sins, and from our failures at trying to be our own gods.

God certainly chose a unique way to bring the Messiah into the world. Our text begins simply: “the birth of Jesus took place in this way.” Interestingly, the word for birth used here literally means “the genesis.”[4] With Jesus, there comes a genesis, a new beginning. If you look at the opening chapter of John’s gospel, you’ll see John drawing upon the images of creation as recorded in the first chapter of Genesis; likewise, Matthew reminds us that this isn’t just an ordinary birth. God is starting anew.

This is a new beginning, a genesis. In Romans 5, Paul makes this analogy, comparing the works of Adam, who brought death into the world, with the works of Christ, who brings new life.[5] With Christ, our history with the Almighty, with our Creator, a history marred since Adam, starts over.

This new beginning starts with a young pregnant woman, not yet married. Her fiancé, we’re told, is a righteous man. It’s not easy to be an unwed mother today, but an unwed mother in the first century was in a real pickle. She didn’t have the social services we enjoy today to help such individuals and in a harsh religion that frowned on moral failure, such a woman had few options. She and her child would always be a social outcast. But Mary wasn’t just any woman with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. She was carrying the Messiah… Her situation is precarious considering the pivotal role she plays in salvation history.

As we would expect, her fiancé is also shocked. We’re told he planned to quickly dismiss Mary which may sound harsh, but not in the culture of that era. He could have gone public and humiliated Mary and, at the same time, made himself look righteous. Because Joseph would have been wronged yet so righteous, his sad eyes would have drawn women. They’d be falling at his feet. But instead of boosting himself at Mary’s disgrace, he decides to quietly dismiss her. Joseph would now have to take the heat. It was an honorable thing to do, for he would protect Mary from crowds (for there would have been those willing to stone her) and he himself would accept her shame. From this story, we learn something about the true nature of righteousness. It’s not just doing what is right according to the laws or customs. It also means taking on, at the expense of oneself, the guilt of another. Christ does this for the world, and to a lesser degree, Joseph was willing to do this for Mary.

The glue that holds this passage together is the Holy Spirit. In a way, the Holy Spirit is like divine matchmaker. The Spirit impregnates Mary, bringing life into her womb and setting off this genesis, this new beginning. The Spirit also works on the other side of the equation, with Joseph, getting him to buy into the plan. Through the dream, Joseph is informed of Mary’s righteousness and of God’s plan for the child she carries. And when Joseph awakes, he decides not to dismiss Mary, but to go ahead with the wedding. They’ll marry and together raise this child and participate in God’s plan for reconciling himself to a fallen world. It’s a good thing Joseph listened to God in this dream.

I’m may have told you before that when I was considering seminary, I had several dreams affirming my decision. I’m not sure I would have been as willing and ready to quit a job, sell a house, and move four states away had it not been for those dreams. In one, I found myself asking if it was worth it as I didn’t really think I was cut out for all this. But in this dream, I heard a very distinct voice saying, “Go ahead and go, and when you’re done, you’ll know what you’re to do.” Notice that I did not know where I was going or what it was that I’d be doing. I had to step out in faith, just as Joseph’s decision still required faith. But these dreams gave me the confidence I needed to pack up and head to seminary.

Joseph’s dream shows us the importance of listening to God and when we listen to God and follow his path, we will often find peace. Let me clarify. I don’t think listening to God means trying to understand all the dreams of our sleep. Often our dreams are a way that our minds sort out stuff. Instead of investing large amounts of time trying to understand what our dreams are telling us, we need prepare ourselves to hear God’s voice by studying Scripture, by praying and by being open to hear God by whatever means he comes to us. God’s word can come many ways: in our sleep, through a thought we have while walking or driving, or in a conversation. What’s important is that we know God’s word enough to make sure what we hear is from God. Notice in our account today how Joseph is reminded of the prophecies in Scripture.  For him, that was assurance God was behind this.

A second clarification needs to be made is about the meaning of peace. Obviously, if you read beyond the first chapter of Matthew, you’ll see that peace eludes Mary and Joseph as they flee as refugees to Egypt to escape Herod. The peace they had, in that little bundle of joy they protected, was knowing that they were fulfilling God’s will. God’s Spirit was with them, giving the strength they desperately needed. God’s peace doesn’t mean the absence of conflict, but the assurance of God’s presence. As the Psalmist reminds us, it’s the peace that overwhelms us even in the “shadows of death.”[6]

This passage is about the work of the Holy Spirit, guiding and directing mere mortals, like you and me, to help bring in God’s kingdom. Life is like that. It’s not about us; it’s about God. As for us, today, we, too, need to be open to experiencing that prod from God to take the risk before us. We need to be prodded to step out in faith.  God’s Spirit gives us new life. In our prayers, in our Bible Study, in our mediation time, in times of quietness which may only come when we’re asleep, we need to be open to hearing God’s invitation to participate with him in bringing about the kingdom.

We learn in the first chapter of Matthew that God works through ordinary people. I have recently been reading John Kasich’s book, It’s Up to Us. He writes, “Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes, but it almost always starts at home and grows from there.”[7] Well, sometimes, it starts in a manger. And it starts when we respond to God’s call, for God can do great things through us, things that are frightening and things we would never have dreamed of doing on our own. When we hear God’s call and we answer, God will give us the peace to know that he’s with us and will guide us that we might do whatever small part we’re called to do to bring about the peaceful kingdom. Amen.



[1] Isaiah 7:13-15 was our Old Testament Reading

[2] Tamar (Genesis 38), Rahab (Joshua 2), Ruth (the Moabite with her own book) and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)

[3] I have told this story several times. I read the story and modified it from one used got the story years ago from a sermon by Dr Clayton Cobb, St Peter’s by the Sea Presbyterian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.

[4] Dale Brunner, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004), 23.

[5] Romans 5:12-21

[6] Psalm 23.

[7] John Kasich, It’s Up to US: Ten Little Ways We Can Bring About Big Change (Hanover Square Press, 2019), 108.

Granddaddy Faircloth

Granddaddy Faircloth holding me when I was an infant (1957)

Granddaddy Faircloth
Christmas Day, 1966
Jeff Garrison

I’m now ten years older than you were
when I snapped that photo,
a nine year old boy on Christmas morning
with his new camera, a Kodak Instamatic.

It took some persuasion for you to get up
and step outside, but my grandmother coaxed
and with the camera you’d given me
I snapped a slightly crooked shot.

Mom said it was probably the last photo taken of you,
in a dress shirt beside your tall skinny bride, adorn in a white dress,
the two of you standing like sentinels by the holly bush
just off the front stoop where, in summer, we grandkids killed flies.

That photo has been lost for half a century,
but it’s still etched in my mind
your grin and crew cut hair,
and your arm around your wife, my grandma.

I wonder what you were thinking?
Did you want to get back inside to take a drag off your Lucky Strike?
Or sip dark black coffee from your stained cup?
Or ponder when we youn-ins (that rhymed with onions) would be quiet?

Perhaps, though, more was on your mind
as you thought how, in another month, you’d be preparing beds
in order to set out tobacco seed,
but that would be weeks after you took your last breath.

There’s much about you I’m curious to know,
things that’s been lost over the years.

When you visited us that fall of ‘66,
shortly after we moved to Wilmington,
you joked that we now needed a maid since we had a brick house
with two bathrooms.

Later that afternoon, we walked in the woods out back,
and you told of hunting among those pines during the war
when you were a welder at the shipyard,
and how they cut the bottom of your shirt off for missing a deer

Did you ever shoot a deer with that old Savage Stevens,
or did I avenge your bad luck,
when, as a seventeen year old, I downed a six pointer in Holly Shelter Swamp,
the only deer I ever had in that double-barrel (or any barrel’s) sights?

And I like to have an opportunity to see you once more
work in a tobacco field with your mule, Hoe-handle, pulling the plow,
or perched up on top of that orange Allis-Chambers tractor,
pulling a sled of Bright Leaf up to the barn for curing.

But what I’d really like to experience is a night with you at the barn,
keeping the fires hot by feeding wood into the heaters
under a sky filled with stars and lightning bugs
and the flickering kerosene lantern that now sits on my mantel.

On those evening, swapping stories with friends,
did your mouth water for something to quench your thirst,
something smooth that you’d long sworn off,
but the desire, I expect, was still there?

It must have taken quite a bit of strength,
to give up the drink and break with some of your brothers
as you strove to live a straight life
and earn the respect of your mother-in-law.

But I will never know, in this realm at least, any of this
and must be content of my memories of that Christmas,
in the home that belonged to the women around you,
your mother-in-law, your wife and your daughters.

You’d cut a beautiful red cedar that year,
decorated it with white lights, red bulbs,
and an abundance of icicles with presents for your grandkids
filling the floor around the base of the tree.

After our presents were opened,
you called us back to your bedroom where,
with boxes of fruits and nuts you stuffed bags for everyone,
contents that’ll have to last a lifetime.

Granddaddy’s lantern: I have often used this when fishing or camping at night for it doesn’t blind you like a Coleman lantern

Unabashed Joy


Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Luke 1:46-55
December 15, 2019




       Earlier in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel met Mary in Nazareth to give her the good news. However, I’m not sure that everyone saw this as good news. I am not even sure Mary saw it that way. After all, she was just a young woman. Tradition has it she was only 14 years old, and here’s this angel is talking about all of what this child she’s to carry will do. Mary wonders how it’s to happen and told that the Holy Spirit will fill her, and she’ll conceive. In addition, she’s told that her relative, the old barren Elizabeth, is also pregnant and will bear a son. God appears to be active with the oldest and the youngest.

Upon hearing this news, Mary doesn’t break out in song. Instead, she humbly submits, telling Gabriel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.” The angel departs, and Mary leaves Galilee for the Judean hill country where Elizabeth lives. It used to be common, even when I was in high school, for an unmarried pregnant girl to be shipped off to an aunt or some other relative in a different city. Maybe that’s part of Mary’s desire to travel: to get away from those who know her and who whisper behind her back as her belly grows.

         “Girl, how’d you get yourself in this mess?” isn’t how Elizabeth greets Mary. Instead, she starts out praising Mary, wondering what she, Elizabeth, has done to deserve such a visit. She proclaims Mary as the most blessed of all women. Mary breaks out in song. She didn’t sing to Gabriel, at the heavenly encounter she had earlier. She sings when another person, one whom must have known as a kind older woman, confirms her status.[1] At this point, Mary belts it out in a song the church has been singing for 2,000 years.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Mary is joyous, but not in the manner we think of joy. For us, joy is a child experiencing an ice cream cone for the first time or us witnessing the child’s wonder. Joy is a mother watching her son make a home run as a Little Leaguer. Joy is laugher at a good joke, the awe of a beautiful sunset without sand gnats, sitting around a fire telling stories when it’s not too cold, or the Pirates winning the World Series. All these things are great, but is this what joy really is? Or is it something deeper.

         When Jesus was at table with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion, he instructs his disciples and then says he’s telling them all this so that his joy will be in them, and that their joy will be complete.[2] Jesus then continues, talking about laying down their lives and how the world is going to hate them. I tell you, joy during troubling news is common throughout Scripture.

        When Paul writes from prison to the Philippians, he tells them how he’s joyous when he prays for them and asks them to make his joy complete by being of the mind as Christ.[3] When he chastises the Corinthians for being stingy, he lifts up the Macedonians who despite a “severe ordeal of affliction” and “extreme poverty,” have abundant joy that’s shown in their generosity.[4] James, the brother of Jesus, suggests we consider our trials as joy, for they help us grow in endurance and maturity.[5] Peter speaks of rejoicing in our suffering that will lead to us being joyful when Christ’s glory is reveal.[6] All these passages in the New Testament suggest that joy isn’t the absence of suffering. Joy is something deeper within us, a hope that we have in what God is doing in the world. Because we place our trust in God, we should be joyful even when things are tough because we know God is beside us, working out things for our well-being.

This idea of joy in times of trouble isn’t limited to the New Testament. Our Old Testament reading today from the Book of Isaiah is a song of promise and joy sung during a time of war and destruction. In the chapter before this reading, God pronounces judgment to the nations, and after this song, we learn the Assyrians are threatening Jerusalem. As one commentator on this passage says, “Isaiah dares to speak a word out of place. A word that refused to wait until things improve.”[7]

          This is unabashed joy; joy regardless of the situation. All is not well in the world, then or now, but we as believers are called to see beyond the present and to have faith in what God’s doing. We are called to be joyous and to have hope and to share our hope with others. In the long arch of history the impeachment of a President, a rogue nation like North Korea having rockets and weapons of mass destruction, and the eruption of a volcano in New Zealand (or heaven help us, if one blew up in Bluffton) isn’t the final word. For we believe God has things under control and even if we screw everything up and blow the planet to smithereens, God will not let that be the final word.

          So, we go back to that young woman, pregnant and not yet married, in a world without social safety nets. You can’t be much more vulnerable than Mary, standing before Elizabeth. Yet she breaks out in this beautiful song that focuses on what God is doing. Mary doesn’t speak of what God is doing for her, personally, except for having chosen her. She’s not thankful for a new house, or car, or clothes or a servant. Her lot is not joyful by most definitions. She has this son that runs away at the age of 12.[8] He’ll says some things that are hurtful during his ministry, even asking rhetorically “who is my father and mother?”[9] (How do you think that made her feel?) And if that’s not enough, she’s there at the end, watching that bundle of joy whom she carried in her belly die on the cross.

Despite all the heartache Mary experienced, she still had joy in her heart, not because of her experiences, but what God was doing in the world through the son whom she brought into the world. Her hope wasn’t for an easy life and a comfortable retirement as she watched her son succeed in business. Her hope was in the future, knowing that she was playing a little part in God’s great drama of turning the world on its head. In the fullness of time, God will show mercy on the poor, people like her, who find themselves blessed beyond measure.

What does all this unabashed joy, which at times seem absurd, mean to us? It means that we, knowing that God is in control, need to do what is right and just despite what society, peer pressure or even an unjust law might say. Unabashed joy influences our behavior for it means we’re not invested for the short term. As people of faith, we’re committed for the long term, longing for that new heaven and new earth, praying “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”


Don’t confuse joy with happiness. There wasn’t much in Mary’s life that was happy, and that may also be true for us. Happiness is on the surface, but joy resides deep within us. As David Brooks writes in his book The Second Mountain, “We can help create happiness, but we are seized by joy. We are pleased by happiness, but we are transformed by joy.”[10]


Be transformed! Show unabashed joy. Don’t let discouragement or the news of the world get you down. Trust in the Lord and believe in God’s goodness and let joy transform you. Amen.




[1] Norval Geldenhuys, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1983), 84.
[2] John 15:11
[3] Philippians 1:4, 2:2.
[4] 2 Corinthians 8:1-2.
[5] James 1:2.
[6] 1 Peter 4:13.
[7] Barbara Lundbald, as quoted in the “Sermon Fodder” for “Heaven and Nature Sings” by the Worship Design Studio.
[8] Luke 2:41ff.
[9] John 2:4 and Matthew 12:48.
[10] David Brooks, The Second Mountain (Random House, 2019), xxiv. Quote obtained from a Facebook post on joy.

Two Books by John Lane and a poem of mine

A little over a month ago, I attended the closing session of the Pat Conroy festival. Most of the events were held in Beaufort, SC, but the closing one was held in Bluffton, which is just across the river a bit from Savannah. It featured four South Carolina authors talking about place. Afterwards, I picked up a couple more John Lane books, who was one of the authors. I’d previously read two of Lane’s books: My Paddle to the Sea and Waist Deep in Black Water.

John Lane, Coyote Settles the South (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2016), 186 pages.

The first coyote I saw was thirty-some years ago outside of Virginia City, Nevada. Since then, I have seen them in many other parts of the West, but also in areas far beyond their original range. At one point, coyotes only existed in the American West. As their territory changed, the adapted and began to move eastward. In this book, which is kind of a travel narrative, Lane sets out across the South to learn about how coyotes are adapting to their new territories in the southern part of the country. These animals are taking place of the red wolves, who used to roam eastern woods. They are generally hated, in the same category that rattlesnakes are hated, as they are considered a threat to humans and especially to our pets. While there has been human death to coyotes (there was one during his study of the animal), the animal is very problematic for pets, especially small dogs and cats. They help cull the deer population (they prefer to eat fawns), love fruit, but will also eat armadillos (flip ‘em over and eat ‘em on the half shell). As the coyote is well established and able to reside close to humans, it appears there will be no going back. The beast is a hard one to trap, as one famous coyote from West Virginia showed. This animal was even known to relieve himself right next to traps set out for him as if he was playing with his trappers. After figuring out that it was a male, they finally trapped him using a captive female coyote in heat!

In addition to discussing the coyote, Lane spends time talking about the red wolf, as specie that is in even more danger from the coyote, for the two species have been known to interbred. By the time I got through this book, I find myself having more respect for the coyotes. Lane begins the book describing the first time he heard them at his house in northwest South Carolina. Having been surprised to hear them baying in the woods while out at night skiing in Michigan, I can attest, it’s a beautiful but also hair-raising sound. Pick up this book if you’re interested in nature and in an animal that is a lot cleverer than the cartoon depiction of Wile E. Coyote.

John Lane  Abandon Quarry  (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2010), 169 pages.

This is a wonderful collection of poems that capture places and events (real and imagined) in Lane’s life. The author has a keen vision for what’s happening around him, as he travels from Cumberland Island along the Georgia coast to the Virginia mountains and places in between. The bulk of the book are made up of selections from seven previously books of poetry published by Lane. In addition to these seven, there are new poems, some from earlier in his life and others written more recently. Many of the imagined poems were about visits from his father who’d committed suicide when Lane was a child. His father, a veteran of World War II, was a mechanic who ran a gas station. In these “dreams,” he teaches his son about cars and his mother (and women) among other things. I imagine it was helpful for Lane to write these verses.  I was shocked to find a poem, “Chicory Brought Inside,” that ties together chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace, two common roadside flowers that often grow together along the ways of the Midwest. It reminded me of a similar poem I wrote years ago.  A place I discovered that we’ve both written poems is “Connemara,” the vacation home for Carl Sandburg in the North Carolina mountains. I am still trying to find my poem, which was written in the early 80s. I enjoyed this book of poems immensely and highly recommend them.


Chicory and Lace
by Jeff Garrison, 2009

A smile broke over your face.
You blushed as your eyes twinkled
when you noticed me watching
you raise the cup to your lips
and gently blow across the dark,
before sipping.

It was a chicory blend, wasn’t it?
Served early in the morning
at the sidewalk café
in that town along the Sierra foothills.
We searched for the ghosts of 49ers
yet couldn’t exonerate the spirits of our past.

We lingered that morning, I mesmerized by you,
sitting slightly sideways in a wrought iron chair,
a lacy-white sundress with blue flowers
that stood out against your tanned shoulders and arms,
and those long shapely legs, crossed at the knees,
a flip-flop dangling from your rocking foot

I don’t remember of what we talked,
nor now, even what year it was
for there have been so many since.
But I remember the chicory coffee and the lace of your dress
and seeing chicory grow wild along the roadside,
amongst the Queen Anne Lace, I smile.

Loving Joy and the Preaching of John the Baptist

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 3:1-12
December 8, 2019


Our series, “Let Heaven and Nature Sing,” is all about joy. But this series is also based on traditional lectionary readings from scripture and today’s reading, on the second Sunday of Advent, includes the preaching of John the Baptist. How shall we bring joy out of this guy who today would be passed over as a desert lunatic? The background material for the series even suggest doing a cantata today and skipping the sermon based on this text. To me, that’s not fair to Scripture. We need to wrestle with what God is trying to tell us in his book.

Have you ever thought about this: Why do we only find the story of Jesus’ birth in two of the gospels: Matthew and Luke? And why do we find the story of John the Baptist preparing the way for the Messiah in all four of the gospels? And in all four gospels, there is the link back to Isaiah, of that voice howling out in the wilderness.[1] The story of John the Baptist is one with which Scripture demands that we contend. What are we being told here? How does the fire and brimstone preaching of John the Baptist prepare us for the loving message of Jesus?

If we want to get to the good news, we must face up to the bad. So, let’s listen to what John has to say to us. Read Matthew 3:1-12.


          There were two preachers who, on their day off, enjoyed fishing. They were at a river next to a highway. Before sitting on the bank, where they’d watch their corks in the hope they’d be the tug of a fish on the line, they posted a sign. It read, “The end is near! Turn yourself around before it’s too late.”

A few minutes later a car flew by.  Seeing the sign, the driver yelled out, “Keep your religion to yourself, you fanatics.” He then hit the gas, sending rocks flying and dust swirling as he headed around a curve.

Just a moment later, there was a screech from braking tires, followed by a big splash.

One of the preachers looked at the other and asked, “Do you think we should have, instead, put up a sign that said, ‘Bridge Out’?”

         I wonder about John’s message. It’s so harsh, maybe he should have toned down his words. Repeatedly, he talks of fire, and not the warming flames of a campfire, but the ominous fire like those recently experienced in California and Australia. “You brood of vipers,” he calls the religious leaders of the day. That doesn’t sound very loving, does it? Jesus would never say that, would he? Actually, he does; twice in Matthew’s gospel.[2] What does this phrase mean? And how does this relate to a loving God?

Law and gospel must go together. In scripture, law came at Sinai during the Exodus and the gospel came roughly 1400 years later with the exemplary life, atoning death and glorious resurrection of Jesus. John is the last in a series of prophets who show our failure of abiding by the law as he calls us to clean up our acts. God is doing something new and marvelous and we need to be ready! All this talk about fire and calling people snakes is a way to get our attention, to force us to examine our own failings so that we might repent and follow Jesus.

          Law and gospel, they go together. To understand the story of scripture, we can’t just push off the “law” parts of the Bible and only focus on the gospel. The gospel makes no sense without the law. The gospel is about how God saves us from our failures, our sin. Those who listened to and were moved by John’s preaching were left with no choice but to confess their sins in order to begin the process of repentance, a word that means to turn around or to start in a new direction. They had to leave sin behind as they joyfully accept what God was doing in their midst.

So, why does John call the religious teachers of the day a brood of vipers? It’s a pretty harsh term. For many people, it conjures up nightmares, a den full of snakes, a place for Indiana Jones but not the rest of us. In the desert, you must be careful when trying to find shade under a rock overhang or in a grotto or cave. Snakes tend to gather in such places to avoid the heat of the day and you don’t want to be messing with them. John implies their words are poisonous.

Consider this: both the leaders of the day and John took seriously the sins of the people. But the difference is that the leaders of the day taught that people must justify themselves before God through an elaborate system of sacrifices, whereas John twists the concern of sin around to where people must accuse themselves before God, confessing their sins, so that they might be washed of them as symbolized in baptism.[3]

        But it all comes back to this. God is doing something new. With John the Baptist, God was paving the way for his Son to come on the scene and to teach people a new way to live and to be human. In order to prepare for something new, people must admit their own sinfulness and to realize that they long for something better. Of course, if we don’t think we need to be better, there’s a warning here. Judgment that comes from transgressing the law is a reality. So, do we ignore our sinfulness and die to the law? Or do we accept and confess our sinfulness and embrace the grace that Jesus’ offers? Those are our choices.

          Advent is the time for us to prepare for the loving tenderness shown by Jesus. If God is redeeming this world, if God is promising a new heaven and a new earth, then we should want to be ready to receive this gift. But to receive the gift, we must leave the past behind. We have to be willing to examine deep within our souls and to offer up all that’s not godly so that we might be both cleansed of our sin and have the room to accept Christ into our hearts. We must be willing to allow ourselves to be transformed into something new and better. For Advent is a time not only to remember that Christ came, but that he will come again, and we must be ready.

Your assignment for this week is to examine yourself, your words, your thoughts, your actions. What have you done that’s not been Christ-like? Have you harbored bitterness or showed unkindness or said things that twisted the truth or belittled another? If so, bring it to God. Get rid of the darkness by bringing it to the light.

         We must not just prepare ourselves; we should prepare the church, which is, in the final events of history, to be the bride of Christ.[4] That means that the church must confront all it’s done that’s not been holy, and there’s been a lot. From the crusades to the inquisition and witch-hunts, from the support of slavery and conquest to our tendency to huddle into crowds of similar people and turn our backs on the world for which Christ came and gave his life. The earthly church has not always been holy. We need to confess this! John’s call to the religious establishment of the day still holds. Are we willing to confess our shortcomings and to be open to what God is doing in the world? That means we must give up control, for this enterprise known as the church isn’t about us. It’s about God. It’s about us bringing glory to God as we serve as the hands and the feet of our Lord in the world.

          Is there loving joy in this passage that will lead to us “repeat the sounding joy”? Yes, there is, but we must get beyond the call to prepare, which John focuses on, and realize that God is doing a new thing. We trust in a God of resurrection. Even if the world destroys itself, God won’t let that be the final word. God wants to remake us. John’s role is to prepare us. Our role is to respond to John’s call to repentance so we might be open to what God is doing in our lives and in our fellowship.  Confession and repentance may not in favor in today’s secular world, but in the church, it’s where we begin. All of us need to take a deep look at ourselves and then turn to God and fall on our knees… Amen.



[1] Isaiah 40:3-5. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 2004), 88.

[2] Matthew 12:34 and 23:33.

[3] Bruner, 89.  Bruner attributes this idea of a shift from justifying to accusing to Matthew Henry’s Commentary (1721).

[4] Revelation 21:2.

St. Andrew’s Talk

Yep, that’s me, decked out in formal threads with a McKenzie tartan kilt


Jeff Garrison 

A talk given at the St. Andrew Society for the City of Savannah’s Annual Banquet

November 30, 2019

The title for my talk this evening is “A Glorious Defeat.” By the time I’m done, I hope you understand what I’m talking about.

Alistair noted in my introduction that I’m from North Carolina. Like most Tarheels, I’m proud of my heritage. This pride is especially true of those of us of Highlander lineage. We take after St. Andrew, whose name in Greek implies manliness, valor, and bravery. We struggle with humility.

Of course, there is no Garrison clan. The Garrisons may have even been carpetbaggers for all I know. (actually, they were in NC around High Point before the Civil War). My great-grandfather Garrison moved into the land of the Highlanders of North Carolina early in the 20th Century. Twenty years later, his son set his eyes on a McKenzie girl. They married and had a son, who would later marry and have a son, and that’s where I come into the story. But if you look back through my family, you’ll find a lot of Scots blood: Blues, Blacks, McDonalds, McCaskills, McLeods, and such. But the McKenzies are on both sides. My paternal grandmother was a McKenzie, as was my maternal great-grandmother. I wear this tartan honestly and pray the inbreeding isn’t too damning.

So, why are there so many Highlanders in North Carolina? One former governor of the Old North State proclaimed there are more Highlanders in North Carolina than any other country, including Scotland. I’m not sure that’s the case, but for some reason, Highlanders began pouring into the colony in the early 1730s, long before the Battle of Culloden.  And actually, they didn’t settle throughout North Carolina. They mainly settled along the Cape Fear River and its tributaries. The Lowlanders mostly stayed close to the coast, while the lands to the west and north were settled by Scot-Irish (which sounds like a badly blended whisky).

Why did so many Highlanders head to the Sandhills? After all, it’s nothing like Scotland. There are no mountains or sweeping shorelines and the weather tends to be fairly mild. Two things: First of all, as beautiful as Scotland is, especially the Highlands, it’s not the best country to farm. These early Scot settlers were drawn to the rich land without rocks. It’s a lot easier to plow sand. This land that was abundant and cheap (after all, they were Scots).

At the podium. Photo by Jason Talsness

The second reason they came and concentrated themselves there is that the merchants in Wilmington marketed the region. If you look at a map of North Carolina, you’d notice that the rivers in the Western Piedmont and eastern mountains all flowed into South Carolina. The Cape Fear is the only river in North Carolina suitable for ocean going traffic. These merchants wanted farms and settlements so they could trade both up river and across the Atlantic.

Highlanders poured into North Carolina, mostly through the port of Wilmington, where they piled their belongings in long boats for the tough paddle upriver. They made their way to Cross Creek. (What kind of name is that? How does one creek cross another? Or is this a creek mad at the world?) But that name didn’t stick, except for in a shopping mall. And that mall probably won’t be there much longer. After the Revolution, the citizens of Cross Creek changed the name of the town to Fayetteville in honor of the Layfette, the French General who aided Washington. But that would be in the future, beyond the story I’m telling.

As these piney woods filled with Scots, they set out clearing land so they could plant corn, turnips and beans. They raised hogs and sheep, and kept a cow or two. They built mills for grinding grain and sawing lumber. They cut heart-pine timber and saved the tall straight logs to be used as masts on ships. They collected pitch from the pines and distilled turpentine. They did some other distilling, too, with something other than pine sap. I’m sure there was a field or two of barley. That which wasn’t drunk, along with the naval stores, were floated down the Cape Fear to Wilmington. There, it was shipped out across the sea. Life was pretty good. But along came a war, a war that brought division to the region just as it had to their homeland in 1745.

Early in 1776, the governor of the colony sounded the call to raise an army of Highlanders. The goal was 3,000 men, enough to help the regular British army nip the revolution in the bud.  They called upon General Donald MacDonald (Donald McDonald, you gotta admit, we Scots aren’t the most creative when it comes to names). MacDonald, a loyalist and experienced British officer, went through the Carolina Pine Barrens recruiting. He was only able to muster an army of 1,600. These recruits weren’t overly excited about war, and desertions started as soon as marching commenced. They gathered at Cross Creek, thinking they were going to join a large British force, only to learn that the Brits were still at sea. So they began to make their way toward Wilmington.

It was a miserable hike. Cold and wet. A small band of Patriots from Wilmington had an annoying habit of blocking their path at key points along the way, forcing them to take long muddy detours. As these Highlanders were not trained, and only about half of them had weapons, MacDonald hoped to avoid battle until he joined with the British regulars and his men were armed.

On the night of February 25th, they were 20 miles from Wilmington. Their path again was blocked by Patriots. Thinking they had superior numbers, they decided to strike. The Patriots were camping with their backs against the creek, at Widow Moore’s Creek Bridge. General MacDonald, being ill, relinquished command to the less experienced Colonel McLeod. Assembling the men in the early morning hours of February 26. Stuffing socks in the bag pipes, for it’s hard to be stealth with pipes blaring, they quietly marched off to surprise the enemy. Arriving at the encampment in front of the bridge, they found it abandoned. But the campfires were still warm. Then they noticed the planking over the bridge had been removed.

Col. Mcleod handpicked a contingent of men to cross the creek and to see where the enemy might be hiding. Dawn was just beginning to break, and a fog concealed the lowlands around the water. They carefully crossed the slippery timbers which had been greased with fat, probably from the Patriot’s evening barbecue.

Coming off the bridge, they silently made their way through the fog and up the road out of the swamp. Maybe a twig snap, for suddenly, someone ahead shouted, “Who goes there?” “A Friend of the King,” was the response, followed by something mumbled in Gaelic. At that point, knowing the enemy was just ahead, they drew sabers and charged up the road yelling “King George and Broadswords.” They were brave, living up to Andrew’s name. But the Patriots had dug in. It was a trap.

The patriots held their fire, hiding behind breastworks as the Scots came out of the fog. They charged as if they were William Wallace reincarnated. When only 15 or 20 yards from the line, the Patriots opened fire. In addition to their muskets, they were armed with two small canons loaded with grapeshot. With the road being flanked on both sides by swamp, the Scots were trapped. McLeod fell first, followed by fifty-some of his handpicked men. The rest of the Highlanders fled. The battle lasted only minutes. Over the next couple of days, 800 or so of the Highlanders were captured. Some were pardoned and went back to their farms, but many fled or were banished to Nova Scotia, Florida or the West Indies.

The defeat meant the British could not control the interior of the South and were severely hampered in their efforts at defeating the colonists. That summer, in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. Many of those who had refused to join General MacDonald, such as my Umpteenth Great Grandfather Hugh McKenzie, joined in the fight for Independence.

Defeat can be bitter, especially for the proud manly sons of St. Andrew. But in time, God’s providential hand can be seen. As in Culloden, which strengthened the United Kingdom as the nation rose to reign supreme in the 19th Century, the defeat at Moore’s Creek was one step toward the creation of our great nation. At the time, these Highlanders had no idea, but theirs was a glorious defeat.  Thank you.

In January 2018, I gave the keynote at the Society’s “Burns’ Night” banquet. Click here to read my talk, which I was more humorous than this one. 


McKenzie, James Duncan, Family History: A Comprehensive Record of the McKenzie Family from the Immigration of Hugh McKenzie to America from Scotland about the year 1750 and Continuing through the Present. (Unpublished Manuscript, 1940).

Meyer, Duane. The Highland Scots of North Carolina, 1732-1776. (Chapel Hill, NC:        University of North Carolina Press, 1957, 1961).

Powell, William S. North Carolina Gazetteer: A Dictionary of Tar Heel Places (Chapel            Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1968).

Ray, Celeste. Highland Heritage: Scottish Americans in the American South. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

Wikepedia, “The Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge,”    (accessed November 20, 2019).


Every day, Garrison Keillor sends out a new edition of “The Writer’s Almanac.” He always begins each day’s post with a poem. Today’s poem was by Charles Simic and titled “Nineteen Thirty-eight.” Thinking about his poem written about the year of his birth, I recalled a piece I wrote a few years ago on the year I was born. I wrote this in prose, but wondered if it might be crafted into a poem?  Probably not this week… This piece originally appeared in my former blog. 

Jeff Garrison

Ike II

I arrived at the Moore County Hospital, just outside of Pinehurst, on a Wednesday morning in mid-January 1957. The highways we drove home on through the Sandhills were all paved by then, but many of the county roads including the one we lived on were still dirt.   It was a simpler time.  Longleaf pines surrounded the highways and golf courses and small farms raising bright-leaf tobacco dotted the landscape. The Lower Little River was populated by my relatives. We were mostly descendants from Highlanders from Scotland and for us, tobacco was king (and still considered safe).  It sold for 59 cents a pound. Nearly a half million acres were raised in North Carolina, producing over 1700 pounds an acre. You can do the math.

In the same month I arrived, a meeting of African-American pastors led to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  We’d hear more about them in the next decade as integration was moving into the forefront. Before the year was out, there’d be the incident in Little Rock and the Senate under the leadership of Lyndon Johnson passed the first civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction. We’d also be hearing more about civil rights and Johnston in the years ahead.

Two days after my arrival, three B-52s made the first non-stop around-the-world flights and General Curtis LeMay bragged that we could drop a hydrogen bomb anywhere in the world.  The one place we did drop one that year, accidentally, was New Mexico.  Thankfully, it didn’t detonate which is why no one knew about it. The military were exploding bombs in Nevada but said everything was safe and no one knew differently except for the sheepherders whose flocks began to lose their wool and die off. There were other nuclear accidents in ’57 in the US and UK, but we didn’t know about them. We just trusted that our governments would never do anything to harm us.

Although there were no major wars going on, the world was tense. In October, the first American soldier was killed in Vietnam, a country we’d learn more about. But in ’57, the focus was mostly on the Suez Crisis and the threat of a Soviet nuclear attack. The DEW line was completed in the Arctic.  When proposed, it was to provide a six hours warning before the first Soviet bomb could be dropped on an American city. By the time the work was completed, the margin was cut to three hours as Soviet jets had doubled their speed.  A few months later it became extraneous as the Soviets launched their first intercontinental ballistic missile. Later, they launch Sputnik and we’d spend the next twelve years in a space race. Amidst all this, some yo-yo created the first plastic pink flamingo. The end was near as prophesied by Nevil Shute, On the Beach, a post-nuclear war novel published in 1957.  I’d read it in high school.

To save us from calamity, we placed our faith in Ike, the President, who many thought I resembled as I too had a bald head.Thankfully Ike wasn’t Herod and didn’t waste any time worrying about a newborn impostor as he perfected his golf swing and began his second term as the leader of the free world.

Jack Kerouac published On the Road in 1957, and people were heading out on the road as a new line of fancy cars with high fins and excessive chrome were revealed. The ’57 Chevy became an icon of the era as Ike announced the building of interstates to connect the cities of our nation. Cars ruled!  New York City abandoned its trolley cars in 1957, and shortly afterwards the Brooklyn Dodgers (originally the Trolley Dodgers) announced they were moving to Los Angeles. In other sporting news, the University of North Carolina beat Kansas in the NCAA basketball finals. These teams have remained near the top throughout my life. The Milwaukee Braves led by a young Hank Aaron beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. We’d hear more from Aaron and the Yankees, but Milwaukee faded when the Braves high-tailed it to Atlanta. The Detroit Lions, a team whose demise parallels its city, won their last NFL championship.

Ayn Rand published Atlas Shrugged in 1957. Nearly six decades later, “Who is John Galt?” bumper stickers are occasionally spotted on American highways. In the theaters, The Ten Commandments was the top box office success. For a country that seems so religious yet so consumeristic, the commandment about not coveting appears overlooked and Rand “look out for me” philosophy glorified the sin.  Other commandments were also being broken as “Peyton Place,” which debuted in theaters, reminded us.

Radios in 1957 were playing the music of Elvis, Buddy Holly, Debbie Reynolds, the Everly Brothers, and Sam Cooke.  In Philadelphia, teenagers danced for the first time on American Bandstand as more and more homes acquired televisions.  In England, two chaps named Lennon and McCarthy met and would go on change music as we know it.  Humphrey Bogart died just two days before my arrival, but it was still a good year for Hollywood.  Not only was Moses selling, but so were dogs as children everywhere cried watching Old Yeller.  Another movie released was the Bridge over the River Kwai which motivated whistlers everywhere.  That old British army tune would later be used in a commercial for a household cleanser and inspired one of the beloved parodies of my childhood:

Comet – it makes your teeth turn green.
Comet – it tastes like gasoline.
Comet – it makes you vomit.
So buy some Comet, and vomit, today!


Looking with Gratitude


Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Acts 4:32-35
November 24, 2019

“The story of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus,” Eugene Peterson writes in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. The Christian story continues on in this community and in all communities where people gather to “repent, believe and follow.” Nor does “the supernatural doesn’t stop with Jesus. God’s salvation, which became articulate, visible, and particular in Jesus, continues to be articulate, and particular in the men and women who have been raised to new life in him, the community of the resurrection.”[1]

Ponder the implication of this for a moment. We are a part of a movement that began 20 centuries ago in an obscure part of the world. Christ is still alive, working in his church, whether it’s here on Skidaway Island or in some remote city in China or a hamlet in the savannahs of Africa. Today, the question for us to ponder is this: “what should this community look like?”

In my reading over the past few weeks in preparation for the stewardship campaign, I came across this indictment of the modern church in America:

“One of the reasons churches in North America have trouble guiding people about money is that the church’s economy is built on consumerism. If churches see themselves as suppliers of religious goods and services and their congregants as consumers, then offerings are ‘payments.’”[2]


Contrary to what we often think, the church is not to be a supplier of religious goods and services. The church is to be a fellowship that brings people together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Our offerings are to be signs of our gratitude for what God has done for us. To get a good idea of what the church should look like, let’s go back to the first century and consider the church in Jerusalem at the very beginning. Luke paints an interesting picture of this community who pinned their hoped and placed their faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s a community of people filled with gratitude. I am reading today’s passage from the Message translation and will put the words on the screens. Read Acts 4:32-35:


        I will always be indebted to the congregation in Virginia City, Nevada, a place where I first experienced ministry on my own as a student pastor for a year. The church on the Comstock, at least in the modern era, has always been small. But there was something about the fellowship of that group that made it an attractive place for all kinds of people. The people in the church worked hard together, keeping the church going, which was quite a task in a wooden building built in 1866. But they also worked hard to help one another. And they tried to help others, sending clothes to an orphanage in Mexico and collecting food for a pantry in Carson City.

Every month, this congregation gathered for a dinner party. People from all walks of life came together to enjoy one another’s company. Its appeal was magnetic for there was plenty of laughter at these gatherings.

One of the more colorful townsfolk was a guy named Bob. He could be best described as a skid-row drunk. He lived in a shack outside of town and mostly stayed mostly to himself. But you’d see him several times a day, winding through town, often going down the alleys where he dug through the trash from the bars. He’d eat leftovers, but what he was really after was the dregs of alcohol that remained in the bottles thrown away. Bob would pour these drops into a gallon jar that he toted around with him. Even with its high concentration of alcohol, this was a nasty cocktail none of us would consider drinking.

One evening we had a dinner at the church. As I was walking down the boardwalk, I came upon Bob. I’d been there a few months by this point, so I knew people would be okay with his presence, so I invited him in. He thanked me but wouldn’t come in. I then offered to fix him a plate of food, which he again turned down. One of the women in the church who was walking up the boardwalk, overheard my conversation. She told me that Bob had been invited many times, but would never come in, but suggested we fix him a plate and sit it on the steps. Bob didn’t want to be fussed over, but he would most likely pick up and eat a plate of food if sat out. And that’s what happened. The first plate fixed that evening was for Bob. We covered it with foil and let it at the top of the steps. When we left that evening, the plate was empty.

Virginia City had never been known as a religious place, but that’s okay because our faith isn’t as much about religion as it is about relationships. Our faith manifest itself by being kind and generous and, as we talk about here at SIPC, reflecting the face of Jesus. There was no need for Bob to be uncomfortable inside the church building. We could still provide him a good meal. As a church, we must be willing to meet people where they are at, and not demand that they conform to our ideas or go where we want them to be.

         The congregation Luke describes here near the beginning of the book of Acts wasn’t spectacular. It wouldn’t be considered particularly successful according to modern business practices. The fellowship didn’t include the leading folks of Jerusalem. Everyone was poor and marginalized. They didn’t have any glitzy advertising or even a fancy sign out front. After all, they tried to blend in and not stand out because there were those didn’t appreciate their message. But, despite all this, there was something magnetic about this community. They were generous and gracious. They were willing to help each other and to forgive others for the wrongs they’ve done because they’d experienced forgiveness in Jesus Christ. It was this magnetic appeal that drew folks to the church. Why else would someone risk persecutions and isolation by becoming a Christian?

Let’s look at this passage. What they owned wasn’t important. They knew the truth of the Psalmist who proclaimed, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”[3] Instead of holding tight to possessions they knew belonged to God, they willingly shared with one another. They had set their minds on the glorious resurrection of Jesus and knew that was all that mattered. So, they attempted to do what they could to do for others which meant that no one in the fellowship was needy. Because of what God had done for them, they were filled with gratitude and willing to help others.

        I recently read an article on why we need to make a weekly commitment to attend church. I’ll post this article I my next e-news. It was written by a young widow who describes the church as “the sweetest fellowship this side of heaven.” Her husband died suddenly one night after having been taken to the hospital by an ambulance for shortness of breath. She was left with seven kids. Before leaving the hospital, she called a friend from church. By the time she was home, the friend was there to sit with her. Others came in to grieve, to bring meals, to help clean the house, fix broken appliances and cars, and to minister to and pray for her and her children. The church is not always perfect, she notes. At times, the church can be even cruel. But when we live up to our calling to reflect Jesus’ face to the world, we demonstrate what was described in our passage today. The church can be the sweetest fellowship this side of heaven.[4]

There are two essential traits we need to foster in our lives to help the church grow in this direction: generosity and graciousness. Think about your life and ask yourself, how generous are you? How gracious are you? What can you do to become more generous and gracious?

          Friends, today we receive our estimate of giving offerings for 2020, which is a sign of one half of that last question—how generous we are. We are encouraged to grow in generosity. As Vic Bell suggested last week, we’re to take a step toward being more generous, as we strive to become the church described in Acts. I pray that you will be generous and continue to take steps in this direction. But just as important as generosity is, don’t forget to be graciousness. On your walk with Christ, show grace to one another, just as God has been gracious with us. Realize what God has done and commit yourselves to do what? Say it after me… To be more being generous and gracious.  Amen.



[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 267.

[2] Doug Pagitt from a lists of stewardship quotes that was in an old file of mine.

[3] Psalm 24:1.


Once Upon A River

Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), 348 pages.


I enjoyed this novel even though it was hard to get through the opening part which included an incestuous rape of Margo, a teenage girl. I almost put the book down. However, Campbell never glamorized the sex scenes in the book and tells the reader just enough for us to know what happened. The rape sets up a series of events that leads into the story of Margo learning about herself and her own strength while overcoming numerous obstacles. The only thing that appears constant in her life is the river that becomes her home. Margo loves living outside, even when the weather is less than desirable and when she has an option to be in comfort. Reading this book, I was reminded of my own experience after completing the Appalachian Trail. Having spent months outdoors, I was not interested in being inside, either.


While the Kalamazoo, which is where the story is based, is an actual river, much of the scenes described in the book are fictional. The first half of the story takes place on a tributary to the Kalamazoo, the “Stark River,” that doesn’t exist.  According to the map, it would be approximately the location of Battle Creek, which flows into the Kalamazoo at the town by the same name.  The Stark River here is populated by a rough but resilience class of people who are barely making it and who struggle when their industrial jobs disappear. Having paddled many such rivers in Michigan, I saw a lot of people living in such a condition. Old trailers and shacks dot the flood plain of the rivers. The book captures this lifestyle. In the book, the Kalamazoo is polluted. Just a year before the book was published, an oil pipeline broke on a tributary that flowed into the Kalamazoo. It was the second worst inland oil spill within the United States and took years to clean up.


I enjoyed Campbell’s ability to describe life on the river. While it’s tragic that anyone would have to endure what Margo, the book’s protagonist, had to endure, the reader begins to cheer her on as she struggles to live independently. While she always have to find others to help her, many of whom also take advantage of her vulnerable position, she overcomes the challenges and, by the end of the book, appears to have at least come to understand what’s life is about.



A Summary (don’t read this if you want to be surprised reading the book):  Margo Crane is fifteen years old. She is being raised by her father, as her mother has run away, leaving the two to fend for themselves. The backdrop for the story, which was set in the 70s, is a metal fabrication factory that is slowly shutting down. Margo’s father has lost his job at the factory and now working in a grocery store to provide a meager existence for him and his daughter. They live on the Stark River, just across from extended family members. The book takes an unpleasant twist early in the story when Margo is raped by her uncle. Her father, when he realizes what happened, takes revenge, shooting out her uncle’s tires. This rift causes problems for Margo as she had been used to playing with her cousins and saw her aunt as a mother-figure.  Margo has taken to the woods and has become quite a good shot with both a shotgun and rifle. She fashions herself as Annie Oakley.  Margo is also out for revenge and shoots her uncle in a place that will curtail his ability to rape anyone else. Unfortunately, it is assumed that Margo’s father shot the uncle and her cousin shoots the father in “self-defense.” Now, like Annie Oakley, she’s truly an orphan and takes off in order to keep the state from taking her into protective custody. Using her grandfather’s boat, she explores the river and finds several different young men with whom to hang out. Sometimes she has consensual sex, but she is also raped. Later, she extracts her revenge, shooting the man who’d raped her in the chest. When his body is found, it is assumed he was shot for a bad drug deal.  Over the next two years, Margo learns more about living on the river and befriends a couple of older men who watch out for her, especially now that she’s pregnant. She also cares for one of the men, “Smoke,” who commits suicide by running his wheel chair into the frozen river in order drown himself in a successful attempt not to be moved to a nursing home. Through these events, Margo finds the will for her and her child to live.

Looking Out

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
1 Timothy 6:17-19
November 17, 2019




Last week scripture from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was used to explore how we might “look in” on the role money plays in our lives. Because money and possessions have a power that can lead us astray, we must be careful. Today, I’m using a passage from 1st Timothy that has almost the identical message, but now I want us to look out instead of in. How does our use of money impact our community and others? We need to ask ourselves what good comes from where we spend and give our money? What kind of vision do we have for the church, our community, and world and how might we support such a vision? Read 1 Timothy 6:17-19.


A group of us watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” this week. The turning point of the movie has George Bailey moan that it would be better if he had never been born. Clarence, the angel sent to save him from despair, then provides a glimpse of what his community would be like without him. It goes back to when he saved his brother’s life when he was ten. In the movie, the adult George is a bit envious of his brother who became a hero in the Pacific War by shooting down kamatzes aimed at a troop ship. If he had not saved his brother, his brother would not have been there to save the ship and it would have sunk with 2000 men aboard. He also learns of the good the Bailey’s Savings and Loan has done in allowing people to own homes. In this vision, he sees the families he’d help live in terrible conditions. In fact, the town isn’t the quaint “Bedford Falls” but a raucous “Pottersville,” named for the owner of the bank. The only escape from the drudgery of the town without George appears to be sex and alcohol.

        George Bailey had no idea he’d touched so many lives. Sometimes the “little things” we do are hard to see and don’t reach fruition until years later. But if we have our priorities right, we can plant such seeds that have the potential to make a difference in the world. That’s the implication from our passage from the Letter to Timothy. Let’s take this text apart and consider what we’re being told.

Paul speaks of those who are rich in this present age or, as another translation has it, those who are rich at this time.[1] By speaking of the present, Paul implies that those who are rich might not always be that way. Wealth comes with uncertainty. A market collapse could wipe us out. And, as we saw last week, nice things can go bad. They can rust or be eaten by moths or stolen by thieves.[2] The riches of our world are transitory. But Paul isn’t just talking about how riches can be lost or lose value in the present.

He suggests that the present won’t last forever. In God’s economy, gold and silver have little value. As Jesus says, we need to remember to store our treasures in heaven.[3]



        Paul, like Jesus, doesn’t condemn riches in and of themselves. Instead, he points out the dangers or the temptations that come with wealth. Those who are rich must be on guard for two temptations. John Calvin called them “pride and deceitful hope.”[4] The two go together, for pride comes from the hope we place in things which will ultimately fail.

        Let’s explore these two items deeper: Riches can tempt us to act haughty. In other words, we are tempted to have a big ego, or to think more of ourselves than we should. The extreme example of this type of behavior in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is Mr. Potter. He’s a Scrooge-like character that doesn’t experience the joyous conversion of Dicken’s Scrooge. Riches can be a barrier from the humility that’s needed in order to properly see ourselves in God’s kingdom. Augustine, in a sermon during the 4th Century, reflected on this passage saying riches isn’t the problem, it’s the disease which some get from riches which is pride.[5] The vaccine to this disease is generosity.

The second temptation of riches is that we place our trust, not in God, but in our wealth. Paul reminds us, as Jesus did last week, riches are uncertain. All the wealth in the world can’t reverse certain diseases or stop a speeding bus or prevent a plane crash in bad weather, or whatever demise might befall us. Sooner or later, life will end. We must not place our trust in wealth, but in God, who provides us with the ability to create wealth in this life. God wants what is best for us, so we trust God as we move forward into the next life.

But, while we are here, in this life, we are to use our riches in ways that are pleasing to God. Instead of just enjoying our blessings by ourselves, Paul encourages Timothy to teach others to be rich in their generosity. We are to be people who do good works and who are ready to share with others. A generous life is a well-lived life. Back to the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey lives such a life as he has helped many people, and in the end when he needs help, people respond. George, who minutes earlier was ready to commit suicide, finds that he is rich beyond measure. Maybe not monetarily rich, but rich in a way that helps him to enjoy a wonder full life.

        In this week’s e-news that I sent out, I linked to an article about a small Lutheran Church in Minnesota. They were down to 20 members and had enough money to carry them for 18 months when a new pastor arrived. He told them his first Sunday, “You’re dead.” Then he asked, “Now what you are going to do?” The members of the church decided if they were to die, they’d do it well, so they began to seek ways to love and care for those around them. They made no demands on those they helped. They offered to do whatever they could to help people in their neighborhood. At first, they only had a few offers. But they kept on and as they continued, they picked up volunteers. Many of these people were not religious, but they liked the idea of church being supportive of the community.[6] And while this church isn’t out of the woods yet, it has grown and is holding its own.

          When we look beyond ourselves, we realize there are three things we can do with money.[7] We can spend it, we can save it, and we can give it away. Neither Paul nor Jesus condemned anyone for spending money on that which was needed or even on the finer things in life. God wants us to enjoy life. We’re not called to beat up on ourselves for enjoying life. Instead, we’re told in Ecclesiastes to enjoy ourselves and to take delight in that for which we’ve toiled.[8] As long as what we’re doing is wholesome, we should enjoy that which we receive from our spending and not feel guilty.

A second thing we can do with money is to save it. This, too, in and of itself, isn’t bad. We’re told in Proverbs that the wise save while the fool devours.[9]  But we must remember the limitations of our nest-eggs. Our savings might make tomorrow or the next decade or our retirement easier, but it doesn’t have the ability to add a single day to our lives. So, while we should save, we shouldn’t worship that which we have saved. Our salvation is in Christ, not in our portfolios.

And finally, we can give it away. Again, over and over in Scripture we’re told how it is more blessed to give than receive and how sharing what we have with others is pleasing to God.[10] If for no other reason, we give because God has given to us.[11] Giving allows that image of God that’s in us shine as we strive to live in a manner that is more god-like.

Spending, saving, and giving. All are good, if done for the right reasons.

         When we look out from ourselves, we should consider how we might make a difference with our money. Whether we can give large amounts or only a small amount, we need to see our giving as an investment in God’s kingdom. But we don’t do it only if we know we can make a difference, we do it because we know that our efforts will be joined with the giving of others and then that will be blessed by God’s Spirit. Giving is an act of faith. It’s like the message we heard from Dean Smith a few weeks ago, about how that annoying jingle of change in our pockets can be saved and when we add them with change from other pockets, we soon have enough to make a difference in the lives of the hungry. When the community comes together like this, we can make a difference in the world.

         Next week is Consecration Sunday. We are asking for you to make an estimate of giving for 2020, to help the church do its budgeting. As you prepare yourself to make this estimate, I ask you to pray throughout the week for God to give you a vision. You can add this prayer to the prayer that you we’ve been asking you to make on behalf of the church. Ask God how you can make a difference in the world? Let us pray:


Almighty God, give us a vision of how we might partner with you, and with our brothers and sisters, to make a difference in the world.  Amen.



[1] Contemporary English Bible translation

[2] Matthew 6:19.

[3] Matthew 6:20.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on 1st Timothy,

[5] Augustine, Sermon 36.2 as quoted in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament IX (Downers’ Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000), 224.


[7] This idea comes from Maggie Kulyk with Liz McGeachy, Integrating Money and Meaning: Practivs for a Heart-Centered Life (, 2019).  The authors spoke of four things you can do with money, adding “earning” to my list.

[8] Ecclesiastes 3:12-13.

[9] Proverbs 21:20

[10] Acts 20:35 and Hebrews 13:16

[11] Matthew 10:8

Looking way back: 3 Reviews of History Books

Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Knopf, 1978), 720 pages including notes and index.  Some plates of photos and artwork.


The world, or at least Western Europe, seemed to be coming apart in the 1300s. England and France was involved in a 100-year war.  Whenever they took a break in fighting, it was time to attack (crusade) the Muslin invaders who had invaded parts of Europe or Muslin pirates hindering shipping along the African coast. The Black Death kept reappearing. The nobles and noble want-a-be’s wore fashionable shoes, pointed and curly ends, that were condemned by the church. In England, the followers of Wycliffe provided a precursor to the Protestant Reformation (which would be another 2 centuries in the future). During this century, the population of Europe fell, mostly due to plague, but also from war. This had a dramatic impact on the economy.  Without people to work the fields, forest took over farmland. Taxes to finance wars and to keep the nobility in luxury became a burden to everyone, especially to the lower class who paid a much higher rate of taxes than those with affluence. The Roman Catholic Church split. With both an Italian and a French pope, who excommunicated each other, people worried about their salvation (which was seen as coming through the Church) for no one knew which church was the right one.  A lot happened in the 14th Century as Barbara Tuchman skillfully tells in this mammoth work. But, when you think of all that happened, it’s amazed that she can touch on so much of the events in 700 pages.

This was the age of the knights, although these warriors weren’t nearly as noble as we’re led to believe. Knights with their heavy armor, fighting it out on a battlefield, was the ultimate. When the English began to use commoners and arming them with longbows, it was seen by the French (who mostly was on the losing side of battles) as denying the knights their glory. It was also a shift in power, lifting commoners while demoting the power of the nobility. Instead of revising their tactics, the French started using heavier armor to protect them from arrows and made them even less mobile.

The key figure in this book is Sire de Coucy, a man who appeared to be almost as large as his huge fortified castle in Picardy. Coucy seemed to dominate all the great events of the second half of the century. Although he was not the king of France, he held more power and controlled more wealth. He was involved in many of the great battles and, at a time where military judgment was not a defining characteristic of the armies of France, he was one of their successful military leaders. During the last crusade, he was captured by the Turks and died in prison, awaiting ransom. Ransom was a part of war back then, as nobles were “sold” back to the country from which they came. Coucy had a modern vision of war that most of his French contemporaries refused to see.

This book reads well, but there are just too many names and dates and events to keep everything straight. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and learned a lot about life in the premodern world.



Edward Dolnick, A Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society and the Birth of the Modern World, 2012 (Audible 10 hours and 4 minutes).


I am not a math person, but I found myself listening to this book and wishing I could go back and study math once more. But then, Dolrick notes that most great mathematic discoveries are discovered by younger geniuses (especially before 25), so I realized that my math ship has sailed. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book immensely. The mid-17th Century was a time of change as the world was moving into the modern area. But as exciting of a time it was for a few intellectuals, for most people it was a dreadful age. Filth and disease abound, as cities did not yet have sewers or safe drinking water. London, the location in which much of the book occurs, was ravaged by fire and famine. But there, within the Royal Society of Science, men began to ask questions and ponder new solutions. Some, at least to my mind, were crazy, but this drive to know more about God’s creation (and most of these men were religious) led to breakthroughs in mathematics and science, especially in the understanding of space. Calculus became the language for much of this understanding and the two men most responsible were Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz—a Brit and German. The two appeared to have discovered it independently, but both insisted they were first. In the end, Newton had the best PR, but Leibniz wasn’t forgotten and was resurrected more recently as his binary system predated the development of the computer by three centuries.

This book has a lot in it. We meet many of the great men of the era who pushed math and science beyond the ancient Greek thinkers: Descartes, Kepler, Galileo, and Haley (who, in addition to discovering and predicting a comet’s path was the catalyst behind Newton publishing his thoughts). But the two main characters are Newton and Leibniz, who both admired and were jealous of the other. Their relationship forms a tension that holds the book together.



John H. Leith, Assembly at Westminster: Reformed Theology in the Making (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1973), 127 pages.


I first read the Westminster Confession of Faith as a high school student and have studied much of it throughout my adult life, but I have never read any detailed account of the assembly of “Westminster Divines” who wrote the work. In this short work, the late John Leith provides the background and the setting for the Assembly. The authors of the confession were living on the edge of the modern world, yet they had been raised in the medieval world. The politics of what was going on in England during the Puritan era, as well as what was happening on the continent played a great role in both the writing and influence of this work. After the restoration of the crown in England in 1660, the Confession would no longer play a role in English society, but due to the number of Scottish members of the Assembly, the confession would be adopted in Scotland and become the main confessional document for Presbyterians around the world. In this book, Leith covers the make-up of the Assembly, the political and theological context in which they worked, how they went about their tasks, the nature of confessions, and the key doctrines of the Westminster Confession. He also discusses the limits and fallibility of confessions. This is a good starting point for learning more about Westminster.


Looking In


Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
November 10, 2019
Matthew 6:19-24



Our morning passage comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus forces us to consider what we value. Ponder this. What would you grab if your house was on fire? Or, what would you pack if you had to flee, as a refugee or hurricane evacuee and could only take a suitcase? For some of us, our treasures are tangible things. An Arnold Palmer autograph, a trophy, a special putter, or a favorite Hawaiian shirt. For others, our treasures are in bank statements and stock certificates. Granted, most of us like to think we have more noble treasures—our families, our friends. But even with good treasures, a problem arises when they become the most important things in our lives. Then they began to control us and eventually will become our god, with a little g. Such a god will not satisfy our needs. Today, I encourage you to “look in” on what you value. Ask yourself what your life might look like if you spent more time storing treasures in heaven than on earth. Let’s hear what Jesus has to say. Read Matthew 6:19-24.


The trail, somewhere between northern VA and southern PA.

   When hiking the Appalachian Trail through Pennsylvania, I stopped one night thinking I was going to get to spend an evening by myself. My plan was to get up early and catch some friends who were a day ahead of me. I was in the middle of fixing dinner when a family of four came trudging into the campsite. They were dead tired—they’d set out that day to hike ten or so miles and hadn’t even gotten half that distance. The man asked if I would mind if they camp there, as there was a spring for water nearby and plenty of room. “Not a problem,” I said, even though I wasn’t overly excited about the prospect.

          Continuing with dinner, I kept glancing over at the family. They were quite amusing. It was like watching the backpacking version of a National Lampoon Vacation movie. The father even looked like Chevy Chase. They were obviously new at this and, making it even more humorous, they had not tried out their gear. I’ll give them credit, they had good gear. It was all new and shiny and never out of the package. The family appeared as if they stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog. With my dirty and torn clothes and well used equipment, I looked a bit like a hobo. After a comedy of errors, they finally were able to pitch their tent. Then it was time to eat.

I could tell the dad was getting flustered. Finally, he came over and asked for my help. He had a top-of-the-line stove, the same one that I had, an MSR multi-fuel stove. This was the preferred backpacking stove for long distance hikers because it burned regular gas. You could fuel up at a gas station. While a good stove, it wasn’t the type of stove most folks had if they were just hiking for a weekend. Next, he had the top of the line cook set that all nestled together and included a windscreen in which you sat the stove. Knowing this, he left behind the simple windscreen that came with the stove. He was trying to put all this together, but there was one problem. The cook set was designed for a Sevier stove, not an MSR one. They didn’t go together. No matter how he tried, it wasn’t going to work. I told him to put away his windscreen and showed him how to set up some rocks upon which he could make a windscreen as he cooked. Soon, they were cooking dinner.

A friend with his possessions on his back. This was back in the 80s, before digital cameras, so I don’t have as many digital photos from which to select.

After they’d finished dinner and while his wife was putting their kids to bed, we talked. He was a physician. He’d hiked a few times with the Boy Scouts and now thought he’d like to get his family into it. He went to a backpacking store to get what he needed. I’m sure the guy selling gear had a nice dinner later that evening on the commission he made. Everything this family had with them, and they had way more than they needed, was first class (even if some of it wasn’t designed to work with other pieces of gear). And the sheer volume of their gear was overwhelming. He confided in me that they were probably going to hike back to their car in the morning instead of continuing down the trail, for there was no way they’d make the distance they’d planned.

Talking with this guy, I realized a couple of things that I jotted down in my journal. First, in the woods, it didn’t matter than he had the money to buy all this fancy gear. It didn’t do him any good. Then I realized that backpacking is a great equalizer. When you have too many treasures, it weighs you down. This guy was carrying nearly eighty pounds on his back, and his wife had another fifty. Each of their kids had a small knapsack. All this stuff was killing them. My pack weight was more like his wife’s and that was only when I was fully loaded with ten days of food, a liter of fuel, and two quarts of water. Thinking about this, I felt a bit of pride.

That me, the traditional photo taken on Mt. Katahdin in Maine at the end of the trail

Then I realized that I, too, was storing up treasures, in the form of memories and bragging rights. Idolatry is a sneaking temptation. I wanted to be able to say that I hiked the whole trail and at that time was roughly halfway to Maine, a goal that was an obsession. Likewise, what the man was doing by getting his family out into the woods was also noble. But ultimately, neither of us was what we’re to be mainly about. Hiking is okay, just as a lot of other things we enjoy are okay, provided they’re put into priority. God must come first. It’s not about what I can do. It’s about what God can do through me.


Jesus realized the danger of treasures. He knew “stuff” wouldn’t be able to satisfy us like a relationship with God. When it comes to stuff, be it money, the junk we collect, or accomplishments, it’s never enough. We will always want more. Supposedly John D. Rockefeller was asked how much more money he wanted. “Just a little more,” he said. If we try to satisfy our appetites with our treasures, we’ll always be hungry.

         This passage is about us looking deeply and getting our priorities right. There are three connected proverbial thoughts here, which Jesus uses to encourage his listeners to evaluate their lives and to see where they are placing their trust. First, we’re not to trust worldly treasures for they have a way of disappearing. A fine wardrobe can be destroyed by moths, objects crafted out of metal can rust, and what’s to stop someone from stealing them when we’re not looking. Notice, however, Jesus doesn’t say that having nice things is bad. He just says we can’t trust them to always be there and that the problem with such niceties is that when we place too much trust in them, we risk not trusting God. Ultimately, our treasurers are going to fail us.

         The second proverbial through is about a “healthy eye.” My father just had cataract surgery this week and was telling me on Friday about how bright the colors are now that his eye is healthier. But Jesus isn’t making a pitch for eye surgery. Jesus listeners would have known right away what he was talking about when he mentioned an unhealthy or evil eye. They understood that an evil eye referred to an envious, grudging or miserly spirit, while a good eye connotes a generous and compassionate attitude toward life. One of my professors from seminary, in his commentary on Matthew, says it’s as if Jesus’ says: “Just as a blind person’s life is darkened because of an eye malfunction, so the miser’s life is darkened by his failure to deal generously with others.”[1] Generosity brings light into the world; greed darkens the world.

         The next statement by Jesus concerns serving two masters. A slave would be run ragged if he had to answer to two masters. Likewise, if we try to serve both God and money, we find ourselves with two masters and the latter, money, makes a harsh master. There can never be enough. We need to place our priorities in order. We need to stick with God.

But then again, as I said, Jesus never says that treasures in and of themselves are wrong. He never says that our desire to have treasure is wrong… We’re not Buddhists trying to remove all desire from our lives in search for enlightenment.[2] Instead, Jesus knows we have desires… So, he encourages us to put our desires into the right channels. “Strive to store treasures in heaven.”

It sounds too simple. “Store up your treasures in heaven; don’t worry about things here on earth.” Easier said than done, right? We all worry about having enough for tomorrow—and the day and the year and the decade that follows. We must admit that our prayers for daily bread seem unnecessary when we have a pantry full of food. When we have too much, it’s hard to depend upon God.

But Jesus wants us to trust in God, which is why we’re to store up treasures in heaven. Jesus, in this passage, teaches a good Reformed concept. On earth, we’re to be about doing the Father’s work. And when we do what God calls us to do, we’re storing our treasures in heaven. But when we forget about what God wants us to do and focus only on our wants and desires, we lose our way.

          How might we learn not to store up our treasures here on earth? First, “Enjoy things, but don’t cherish them.” God created this world good and wants us to enjoy life and the blessings provided, but God gets angry when we see such blessings as being ours or being worthy of our worship. Second, “Share things joyfully, not reluctantly.” If it bugs you to share something you have with someone who needs it, you should then know that item has gotten a hold on you. It’s an earthly treasure, an idol. Finally, “Think as a pilgrim, not a settler.” “The world is not my home, I’m just passin’ thru,” the old gospel song goes.[3] Store your treasures at your destination, then your journey will then be easier.

          Look inside yourself and use these thoughts to evaluate what you have: Enjoy, Share, and think like a pilgrim. A pilgrim is like a backpacker. Remember, you don’t want your pack to weigh you down. Amen.

[1] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: JKP, 1993), 72.

[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 321.

[3]  Kirk Nowery, The Stewardship of Life (Camarillo, CA: Spire Resources, 2004), 122-123.

Not Guilty

Not Guilty by C. Lee McKenzie
Published October 2019

This book grabbed my attention in the first chapter and kept me engaged throughout. I didn’t want to put it down, wanting to figure out how the protagonist, Devon, gets through his dilemma. A high school junior with the hope of playing college basketball, Devon is dumped by his girlfriend after someone falsely identifies his car parked on the street where his ex-girlfriend lived. That was a start of a bad day that only got worse. He skips his last class and went to the beach. On the way, he’s receives a ticket for speeding and then later, identified as the person who stabbed a local surfer on that afternoon. When he’s found guilty, he is sent to juvenile detention for five months and then is on probation afterwards. Along the way, he’s haunted by a basketball player from another town who he runs into in detention (and afterwards). In detention, he befriends several Hispanic youths who teach him what true friendship is all about. After he gets out of detention, he realizes things have gone downhill for his family (they suffered financial hardship because of his conviction). But in the end, everything works out as Devon helps put the pieces together that eventually lead to the arrest of the person who committed the assault. In a way, the Devon and his family fortunes have changed so that the book seems somewhat comic (in the classical sense). But Devon does learn what it means to work hard, to have true friends, and that although the justice system doesn’t always get it right, it often corrects itself.

This would be a great read for any teenager, especially for boys who have found themselves being wrongly accused by police (as I experienced nearly a half-century ago). Lee McKenzie should be congratulated for writing a book that addresses such issues.

I received a free electronic copy of this book for an honest review.

Looking Back

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 22:15-22
October 27, 2019

Homecoming is a time to look back, and the sermon is titled “Looking Back.” But we don’t look back just to be nostalgic. Instead, we should look back to help us understand where we are and how we got here. Think about all the people who helped build this sanctuary and establish this church. We’re in debt to them, and hopefully the next generation will be in debt to us. But we also look back to see where we picked up burdens that influence us today. Which ones are good that we should continue carrying and which ones should we discard?

Today, we start a new worship series titled “A Wonder-Full Life.” Speaking of looking back, the title comes from the classic 1946 film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. We’re using this series as a lead-up to Consecration Sunday on November 24th, the day we make our faith promises to church for 2020.

      The characters in “It’s a Wonderful Life” provide us with archetypes for the many different ways we relate to life and we handle money. The book that goes with this series, Integrating Money and Meaning, uses these archetypes to explore our spiritual relationship with money.[1] And the first task to become more spiritual is to look back and understand how we relate to money. In the movie, George Bailey plays the role of the martyr. He often does the right thing, always looking out for the needs of others, but he resents it. He slips into despair. As we heard earlier, to be discouraged is worst than being sick… He’s ready to end his life. Money can be a terrible master, which I think is a message we get from today’s text. By the way, if you’d like to read the book, let me know as we have a couple extra copies. In addition to reading the book, it would be good for us to be reminded what the movie is about, so we’re planning a pot-luck lunch and viewing of the movie on Wednesday, November 13.[2] I hope you join us.

Our Scripture for today comes from Matthew 22:5-22.


          At our first forum on civility, Dr. Robert Pawlicki told of an incident when he was a psychiatrist and professor at a Medical School. A patient had gotten into an argument with a resident and he was called in by a nurse who was concerned the confrontation might become physical. Stepping between the two, he said to the patient, “You’re really angry, aren’t you?” By giving a name to what was happening and the emotions the patient showed, he opened a channel that helped the patient calm down. The situation de-escalated. This is good advice. Sometimes we need to go to the heart of the matter and, without increasing the confrontation, name the issue. But this is not what the Pharisees and the Herodians do in our morning text.

          It’s hard to understand this passage without explanation. The Pharisees are plotting to entrap Jesus, we’re told. How does Jesus know this? We could say that because he’s God, but that explanation doesn’t uphold the human side of Jesus. Instead, I think Jesus knew something was up when he saw the Pharisees walking hand to hand with the supporters of Herod.

Who are these people? The Pharisees: They’re good, upright, outstanding Jews, the keepers of the Law. And they are not too happy with the Roman occupation of Palestine, but they deal with it. Right beside them are the Herodians, the supporters of the Herod family. This half-Jewish family had a foot in both camps: the Jews and the Romans. The Herodians accept the Romans. Possibly, they want to modernize Palestine, for the Herods were great builders. Herod the Great began rebuilding the Jewish temple. They built ports along the coast and even coliseums for the Roman games, along with temples for the Roman gods. It’s said that politics make strange bedfellows. None could be stranger than these two groups: devout Jews and those supporting the pagan Romans. The Herodians and the Pharisees together would be like Trump and Pelosi working together. If you see it, you know something may be askew. Jesus smells something fishy!

These two unlikely groups approach Jesus. They butter him up by telling Jesus he’s sincere, he speaks the truth, and that he’s impartial. Don’t you love it when someone you are not so sure about butters you up? Then they ask the 64-thousand-dollar question. “Tell me,” they ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” A trap is set. If Jesus says we should not pay the taxes, then the Herodians could have him arrested for treason. And if he says to pay the taxes, the Pharisees can attack him for not being a patriotic Jew. It’s a clever trap!

        Jesus asks to see a coin. He has to be careful here. He doesn’t want the Pharisee’s to charge him with toting around an engraved image of the emperor. So Jesus has them to look at a coin they are carrying, and he asks them whose picture is on it…. They reply, “Caesar’s.” Jesus then tells them to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to give God what is God’s. The little band of tempters are astonished. Amazed and not knowing what to say, they leave…

Amazed, but did they understand what Jesus said? They hear “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but did they hear “Give unto God what is God’s.” Do they understand the implications? Do we?

          The coin had an image on it, Caesar, therefore give it to him. But remember, we’re created by God, in the image of God. The coin belongs to Caesar, it has his image; our lives belong to God, they contain God’s image. Caesar may have a lien on our possessions, but God has a lien on our total being. God is calling us to dedicate our lives to himself. God, in Jesus Christ, is like those old recruiting posters found the post office, with Uncle Sam saying,  “I want you.” And you, and you, and you (point at myself last).

Give to God what is God’s. We tend to get hung up on what is Caesar’s and what is ours. Let’s face it, none of us like paying taxes. They didn’t like it in the first century and we don’t like it now. But what about the giving to God part? Essentially, Jesus is saying that we’re to respect (and support) the state, but there is a limit to the state’s powers for they belong under God’s realm, and ultimately our allegiance belongs to God.[3]

If the Pharisees and Herodians really wanted to know what Jesus thought about paying taxes, they could have taken a clue from Dr. Pawlicki and admitted how uneasy it made them feel and then ask Jesus what he thought. But instead, they wanted to trick Jesus and the attempt failed.

          What Jesus does here is demonstrate the delicate balance that exists in our use of money. Money is necessary. It’s what we trade for the necessities of life. But, as is taught in the book Integrating Money and Meaning, we need to understand the power of money. If we don’t understand its lure in our own lives, it can bring out the worst in us. There’s a shadow side to money that’s pointed out in scripture. “The love of money is the root of evil,” we read in the First Letter to Timothy.[4] It’s not that money, itself, is bad. Money is a tool, just like a hammer. A hammer can be used to build good things like houses, but it can also be used as a weapon. Remember the Beatles’ catching tune, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”? “Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer came down upon his head…” Likewise, as a tool, money can be used for good and for bad, which is why we need to spiritually discern how we relate to money. What do we spend our money on? Why do we want more of it? Will it really bring us security? Do we put our trust in God or what’s in the bank?

          Over my next four Sunday’s (we will skip next week with a guest preacher), we’ll look at how we spiritually relate to money. How do we balance things like paying taxes, buying what we need, and giving to God through the church? How much control does money have in our lives? What would we do if we experienced a windfall of money? Or what would you we do if suddenly your money was of no value? These are questions we should all be wrestling with as we come to understand, as Jesus taught, that money isn’t anything to fear. We’re not to fear money, but we’re warned that it contains power. If not understood, money can overtake our lives and become a dreadful master. Look back in your lives and ponder this question, “How do you spiritually relate to money?” “What kind of power does it play in your lives?”

Friends, take care of your obligations. I think that’s what Jesus means when he says to give Caesar what belongs to him. But remember, Jesus also speaks about what we owe God. We’re to remember that we should have only one Master, and his name is Jesus. So, we take care of our obligations, but we must remember our first obligation, that we owe everything to God. Amen.


The background photo is of me looking at a sunset on a lake deep within the Quetico Wilderness Area in Western Ontario. 

[1] Maggie Kulyk with Liz McGeachy, Integrating Money and Meaning: Practices for a Heart-Centered Life (, 2019).

[2] The church is obtaining a video license to legally show this movie (which is required if it is shown outside a home audience).

[3] F. Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 399-400.

[4] 1 Timothy 6:10.

Tidbits from last night’s Civility Forum

From left: Archie Seabrook, Tim Cook, Jeff Hadley, Robert Pawlicki, and Jessica Savage

Last night, Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church held our first “Civility Forum.” The purpose of these forums is to help people communicate with those with whom they disagree and to be civil in their discourse.  It was moderated by Jessica Savage, the 5 PM news anchor and investigative reporter for WTOC. She did a wonderful job keeping the conversation moving and the hour went by quickly. The panel included Dr. Robert Pawlicki, a retired psychologist and university professor; Chief Jeff Hadley of the Chatham Country Police Department; Tim Cook, director of Landing’s Security; and the Rev. Archie Seabrook, a 25 year chaplain for Hospice Savannah and a 7th Day Adventist pastor.  Here are some highlights from the evening:



  • “If we’re happy, we don’t act out as much. We act out because we take things personally.”
  • Pawlicki told of a situation when he was teaching at University of West Virginia Medical School. A resident and a patient were arguing to the point of almost fighting. He stepped in and spoke to the patient, saying, “You are really angry.” This comment didn’t confront the patient or even deal with the issue, but by identifying with the patient’s emotions, it helped him de-escalate the situation.
  • More people believe we live in a tribal society and as a result, we fear “others.” We see this played out on TV. We need to remember we can’t change another person’s point of view, but we have to listen and put in time to build a relationship.
  • We can ask others why they believe the way they do, not to contest or argue, but to listen. This helps us build friends with people with whom we may not agree on many issues.
  • Just because we don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean they are a bad person.
  • We can’t control others, we can only control ourselves.
  • Speaking about social media: Groups on social media seem to have more power. We should avoid jumping into groups, but if we do jump in, we should say something civil and not become part of the problem.



  • The police are interventionist. We get called into conflicts. “But sometimes as in Ferguson, Missouri (and other places) we can also be a part of the problem.”
  • It is easier to maintain our emotions if we’re closer to people and know them better. He described law enforcement as having an “arranged marriage” with a community. We must put in an effort every day (as in a marriage) to build a better relationship with the community. In making this point, he spoke about working with a Black Lives Matter organizer in Kalamazoo, Michigan and the trust that he and the department were able to build with those wanting to protest (and how the protest was carried out without anyone being arrested).
  • Building on what Seabrook had said about African-Americans relationships to the police: “We have to remember that it wasn’t that long ago police were called to enforced unjust laws such as separate water fountains.”
  • If we can engage in community in a positive way, making human contact before there is a problem, the badge and uniform melts away.
  • “I tend to believe there are more good people than bad, but we get trapped into thinking otherwise because of all the rhetoric.” The news makes us more aware of it.



  • “My father said, ‘You can be a part of the problem, or a part of the solution.’ Since I wrote an article complaining about the lack of civility, I felt I needed to do more so I agreed to participate in this event.”
  • Cook told about working as supervisor in the Greensboro NC jail. The officers who did the job were those who were willing to listen (even if they didn’t agree) with the prisoners.
  • I’m not a friend of social media. It is too easy to get sucked into negativity.
  • If we do get sucked into an argument, we should remember to fight fair.
  • Four things we should do:
    1. Set a standard for ourselves.
    2. Model that standard.
    3. Coach that standard in others
    4. Hold ourselves to that standard.
  • If you ask questions of others, you show interest.



  • We deal with conflict all the time in hospice. It used to be that most of my time was spent in ministry, but now more time spent with arguments and attempts to de-escalate situations.
  • Seabrook told about an African-American man at Memorial Hospital whose wife had died. The man was very upset and beating on the wall. Security was called by the nurse and when the man saw the uniformed security guard approach, he became both scared and angrier. As a chaplain, Seabrook had to intervene, asking the security officer to step away as he spoke to the man and calmed him down.
  • A healthy death requires peace with God and family—hospice attempts to help the patient bring closure to both sides.
  • I believe in more prayer.
  • We’re to love our neighbors as ourselves. We should go to our neighbors and introduce ourselves and reach to people in our neighborhoods.

Click here to read my article, “Civil Discourse: Reviving a Lost Art” in The Skinnie (pages 20-24). 

Paddling the Lumber River with my Dad (September 30-October 2, 2019)

A high bluff along the western bank of the Lumber River just south of US 74, Pea Ridge is a lovely spot. We arrive early enough to enjoy it. For a wilderness site that is only accessible to the public from the water, this is near perfection. There are a few benches, a picnic table and a trash can and grass! Across the river stands several huge cypresses, their needles turning brown. Around us are a variety of trees. The bank of the river is lined with cypress and water birch. The site itself features sweet gum, maple, sycamore, pines and holly. I place my hammock between trees and find a mossy place to set up my tent so that I have a good view of the river. After setting up camp, I lie in my hammock resting and reading for an hour, then go for a swim before dinner.

This is our second night on the river.  We’ve covered 14 or so miles after launching at Matthew Bluff bridge late yesterday morning. The first day was supposed to be easy for we knew it was going to take time to shuttle vehicles. Not wanting to leave a vehicle at a bridge for two days, Joe Washburn, the pastor of First Presbyterian in Whiteville agreed to help us with the shuttle. After we got everything ready and loaded in our boats, we slid them down the muddy bank into the river. My dad has his boat in the water first but falls into the water as he tries to enter his boat. The river drops off quickly. After fishing out his equipment and restowing it, we were soon on the way. The river around the Matthew Bluff bridge was trashed with beer and soda cans and household waste, as some people treat the area as a dump. Thankfully, after a couple turns, the river becomes more natural. We’d been warned when we presented the ranger with our float plans that the river had not been cleared of blow-down trees since Hurricane Florence. That was a year ago. Sadly, they’d just finished clearing the entire 100-mile waterway from on Drowning Creek and the Lumber River of down trees from Hurricane Matthew which occurred in 2016 a month before Florence struck. He told us to be aware that there would be some blow downs above Boardman (Highway 74). He was right. About a mile into our trip, we came across the first, a huge old oak that laid across the river. The water was deep and I pulled my kayak parallel to the log, slid out of the boat and straddled the log (as if I was riding a Clydesdale, pulled my boat over the log and tied it off and then helped my father get his boat across. Thankfully, there were no problems and we were soon on our way.

After crossing the Willouby Bridge, four or so miles down the river, we came to another blowdown where we had to get out and cut a path for our boats to make it through the branches of the down tree. Our first campsite, Buck Landing, was a mile or so south of the Willouby Bridge, on the east side. I kept wondering when the site was going to show up, as I saw few pine, trees that indicate high ground. This area was swampy and populated with cypress, tupelo, river birch and a few bay trees. But soon after wondering where the pines were, they appeared and right afterwards was the campsite.

my tent at Buck Landing

Like Pea Ridge, Buck Landing was also a wilderness/canoe-in site but with easier access by locals as the one trash can “over-runneth” with beer cans. I spent a good deal of time emptying the trash and crushing the beer cans so that they were all able to be contained within the provided can. Although I may be mistaken, I was pretty sure the no one had paddled the river with that many cases of beer. This site also had a small pavilion, which wasn’t needed due to the clear skies, but the supports made a good place to sling my hammock. As the site was on the eastern side of the river, we saw a nice sunset through the hardwood swamp on the other side. Shortly thereafter, a thin crescent of the new moon was visible. After a dinner of some MREs that my father had brought along, we both decided to avoid the mosquito battle and headed off to bed, listening to the owls hoot and the buzz of insects.

The next morning, I’m a little panicked. When I pulled out my glucose test meter (I am a diabetic) to check my blood sugar level, it wasn’t working. I wasn’t bothered too much until I made my way over to my boat and pulled out the small dry bag I always carry with me whether kayaking or sailing, in which I keep a backup meter. The battery was dead. As they are different kind of meters, I can’t change the battery from one to the other. I wasn’t sure what to do, but my father was more concerned than me as he’s never dealt with diabetes. I told him I thought I would be okay and hopefully I could get a new meter when we crossed US 74 at Boardman, later in the morning.

cutting our way through a blow-down so we can push the boats under

After breakfast of coffee, an orange, and oatmeal, we shoved off a little after 9 AM. It was to be a difficult morning. It takes two hours to cover just a few miles as we spend almost as much time in the water as in the boat as we pulled over, under, through, and around fallen trees. When we weren’t pulling ourselves through down trees, we enjoyed watching kingfishers dart up and down the river, and great blue herons led us downriver when we interrupt their hunting. I even saw a red tail hawk. Throughout the morning, I keep snacking, not wanting my blood sugar to drop.  After two hours of exhausting work, we finally get to where the river opens up more. Then, maybe a mile from the bridge, we passed a fisherman who’d pushed a jon boat up the river with a small battery powered motor. Only then did we know we were done with blowdowns.

Going over a blow-down

At the wildlife boat ramp at US 74, I knew better than walking into the village of Boardman. It used to be a large town, back in the early 1900s when the area was heavily lumbered,but the only business left today is a gas station. I tried calling local pharmacies in Fairmont and Chadbourn, hoping to find one that delivered. Unfortunately, as it was now noon, all their delivery drivers had gone out to make their daily runs. They laughed when I asked about Uber or Lyft.  But, while I was waiting, with my meter out in the sun, it began working again, which made me pretty sure it was a problem with humidity. Being able to see that my blood sugar was in a good range, we continued paddling another mile to Pea Ridge campsite.

For being in his 80s, my dad did well on this trip!

Notice the grass around the fire pit

That night, we built a fire and talk. For some reason, my dad asked me about which of his guns I want him to leave me. While I have guns (all of which are in need of being oiled because they haven’t been shot in decades), I’m not a gun collector. All my guns stay locked up in a gun safe. But I told him I’d take the 30-30 Winchester lever action in case I move back out west. He suggests instead taking a higher powered gun, but I told him the Winchester was enough. Then he asks about shotguns and I was surprised to learn that he has a 20 gauge double barrel coachman (short barrel gun that those who rode “shotgun” on stagecoaches carried). What are you doing with that? I ask. “It’s your moms.” “What?” Then I learn the story. They were visiting my great aunt who, after my father’s uncle had died. She lived by herself out in the country. My mother asked if she wasn’t scared living out there. She said no, and showed my mother the gun. My mom, who I am sure was trying to be nice or trying to make a joke, said “maybe that’s what I need.” Well, lets just say, “I don’t think her next birthday went over well.”

Pea Ridge Campsite launch

After crawling into bed, I have a great view of Cassiopeia, Pegasus, and Andromeda, rising over eastern bank of the river. I fall quickly asleep and wake up once before morning. Taurus is overhead and Orion is rising just behind him.  It must be well after midnight, but I don’t check the time and when I wake up again, it’s dawn. I get up, write a bit, then prepare coffee and water for oatmeal.

timbers left over from an old logging railroad


not what I thought Paradise would look like…

Queen Anne Landing

We’re on the river at 9 AM. It’d been cleared from here on down to our takeout point at the State Park at Queen Anne’s Landing. It was an easy 9 ½ miles. Down trees are not a problem, but at one place there’s a sandbar that runs across the river and we end up getting out of our boats and pulling them across it. After a lazy float, we arrive at the landing a little after noon.



The Lumber River is located in Southeastern North Carolina. The river starts north of Laurinburg, as Drowning Creek and wanders 115 miles as it passes the city of Lumberton and the town of Fair Bluff on its way to merge with the Pee Dee RIver a few miles into South Carolina. The state of North Carolina maintains a linear park along the river from the 15-501 bridge to Fair Bluff. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew dropped so much water into the river basin that much of Lumberton and Fair Bluff were below water. I used to work this area back in the early 80s for the Boy Scouts of America. At the time, Fair Bluff was a delightful small town. Today, the town is mostly deserted. To learn more about the river, check out the Lumber River State Park website.

that’s me (a selfie)


Disassembly Required

Beverly Willett, Disassembly Required: A Memoir of Midlife Resurrection (New York: Post Hill Press, 2019), 269 pages.


The framework of this story is rather simple. The author sells her home in Brooklyn, New York and moves to Savannah, Georgia. But we quickly learn that this was not an easy decision. Willett had placed so much hope in the brownstone house she’d sold. It was her nest where she raised her children. But eventually, she would be the only one living there. Her husband had abandoned her for another woman, and the house held the memories of when she had learned of his betrayal. The house also held the memories of her daughters, but once the last had started college, the big house was lonely and too much to maintain. Knowing the difficulty to keep the house and feeling she needed a new start, Willett decided to sell. Once that decision is made, there is much to be done as the reader learns about hoarding and the decisions to be made about saving and storing stuff, along with our reluctance to let go of stuff.  Then there’s the work to be done to prepare the house for market, the real estate listing, the waiting, and finally selling of the home so the author heads south.

This story is more than just what is required to sell a house. It’s a spiritual journey as the author struggles to come to term with her relationship to stuff. The house is part of her, as is all the stuff that is in it. Likewise, the people around her (like here) are changing. Willett, who grew up a Southern Baptist who had married a secular Jew, discusses the role her faith plays as she comes to depend on it more and more as she becomes more active within an Episcopal congregation while also spending time learning the wisdom and mediation practices of Buddhism. The reader will identity with Willett as she makes this transformation that eventually leads her to her new life in Savannah and perhaps learn for her new wisdom. I recommend this book to all readers. I expect those going through difficult mid-life changes would find this book helpful and encouraging.

I am a friend of Beverly Willett and have been in a writing group with her that meets at Flannery O’Conner’s childhood home in Savannah since 2015. I purchased the book and did not receive compensation in exchange of writing this book review.

Vessels holding a fountain of tears

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Jeremiah 8:18-9:3
October 13, 2019



        I’d ridden my bicycle down to the marina to meet with some friends late Friday. It was after dark when I left. With a rather bright LED light on my handlebars, I wasn’t worried. But about halfway home something flew into my right ear. The bug dug down deep and as it fluttered its wings. I stopped. I’d always thought the saying, “a bug in your ear,” was a metaphor. Now I was shaking my head and pounding it, in an attempt to free the bug. I was going insane. I rode on home and about every 15 seconds the insect would have saved enough energy to flutter again for a few seconds. Coming into the house, I called out that I needed help. Donna, after checking with the Mayo Clinic website, warmed up some oil and poured it into my ear. It was supposed to flush the bug out, but it never came out. Eventually the bug stopped fluttering. I assumed it drowned. Yesterday morning (which is why I wasn’t in Bible Study), I went to urgent care. They were able to remove the bug. It was a big bug and counting its antenna was over an inch long. That may not sound big until you consider the size of your ear canal.

As a good Calvinist, I’m glad that’s over. That constant fluttering drove me crazy. It forced me into action. I felt a bit like those in Jerusalem did about Jeremiah. This man with his rants drove them crazy, only they didn’t heed his words. But, unlike that bug, Jeremiah had an important message to share.

Today we continue our walk through the book of Jeremiah in our series titled “Prophecies and Pottery.” Listen carefully to our text, for we’ll hear the line of scripture from where the familiar spiritual that we just sang, “There is a Balm in Gilead” comes. The unknown writer of this spiritual answers a question that Jeremiah asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Yes, the Spiritual answer, there is balm and it’s found in the work of the Holy Spirit and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This song gives hope to people who had little hope.

         Professor James Cone, writing about the African American musical tradition, said that spirituals do not deny history. They don’t deny that there’s a lot wrong in our world. Instead, spirituals see history leading toward divine fulfillment.[1] Or, as Martin Luther King was fond of saying, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Our faith does not automatically replace all that’s wrong in our lives or our world. Instead, it’s a hope that is ground in the goodness of the Almighty who, in time, will make all things right. Many of us have had to deal with disappointment. Jeremiah is a poet for such a time. Jeremiah reminds us that sometimes it takes tough love for us to be molded and fired into a vessel that’s useful. Let’s listen to God’s word to us today: Jeremiah 8:18-9:3.

         Let’s imagine ourselves in the 6th Century before the Common Era and join Jeremiah. Having left the city, the prophet walks alone, across what should be a grain field. With each step he kicks up dust. The immature stalks of grain, long dried under the desert sun, crunch under his feet. This should be the time of the harvest, but there are no men out swinging sickles nor women gathering sheaves. The grapes and the figs and the olives area also shrivel on the vine. The harvest has failed. There’s going to be hunger. And with Nebuchadnezzar’s army on the loose, there won’t be a chance to trade for food. Jeremiah’s heart is heavy. As he looks back toward the walls of the city, he cries. He images the bloated bellies of the young and the riots when there is no more bread in the market.

The sentry assigned to the tower on the West Wall had just come on duty as Jeremiah left the city. He follows the dust of the prophet. Squinting under the hot sun, he notices Jeremiah’s glance back at the city. “What a crazy man,” he thinks, as he wipes the sweat beading up on his forehead. “It’s good he’s gone.” Unlike Jeremiah, the sentry feels secure behind the strong walls surrounding the city. Yes, he worries about the drought, but the religious leaders have things under control. “Don’t they?” “The gods will provide, won’t they?”

Kicking the barren ground, Jeremiah recalls the promise of the harvest. All the work that went into it, was the plowing and sowing were all in vain? Dust is the only crop that’s in abundance and Jeremiah tastes it with every step. He continues walking. When the city’s walls are finally out of sight, he rips his robe, falls to his knees, beats his chest, and cries out to the heavens. “The harvest is past, the summer is over, and we are not saved.”

          “We are not saved.” What painful words. It’s tough being a prophet, bearing the burdens of a people. Yet, as he cries, he hears something. A voice? Can it be God’s voice? “I’m disappointed. Why have they provoked me to anger with their images and foreign idols?” Yes, it’s God, speaking judgment on the Hebrew people.

It must have been in late August or September when Jeremiah issued the prophecy. In Israel, the grain would have been harvested in late spring or early summer. If that failed, there was still hope for in July and August, the grapes, figs and olives were harvested. If that, too, failed, the people were in a pickle, for there would not be a chance for another harvest until the next spring.[2] “The summer is over, and we’re not saved,” implies the hopelessness of Jerusalem.

Our passage shows us how Jeremiah’s emotions are tied up with God. His joy is gone. He is in grief, as is God who we are shown grieving as a spurned spouse might grieve upon the divorce. Ezekiel, who was a contemporary of Jeremiah, has a vision of God leaving Jerusalem and allowing the Hebrew people to reap the fruits of their idolatry.[3] Essentially this is what Jeremiah envisioned. God has become so flustered with his people, that God abandons them. What we see here is a harsh example of tough love.


         Jesus told those in the synagogue in Nazareth that a prophet is never accepted in his hometown.[4] Certainly, this was the case with Jeremiah, who cried bowls of tears as his people not only continued to ignore God, they also abused him. At the beginning of chapter 9, he wishes that his head was filled with water and that his eyes were a fountain for he could cry day and night. What an image of a prophet who loved his people and who, yet, feels so helpless.

During his life, Jeremiah was considered a traitor. He challenged the king, the ruling authorities, the priests, and the military leaders. He was a thorn in their side, always speaking out for justice and for true worship of the one true God. In Scripture, we are not told what happened to Jeremiah, except that he was taken to Egypt with some who escaped there after the fall of Jerusalem.[5] One legend has it that Jeremiah kept on with his prophecies and rants and finally people had enough, like I did with that bug, and they stoned him.[6]

        While Jeremiah was considered a traitor in his life, looking back we cannot help but to see that he was a true patriot. God’s people are not called to be loyal to a king or even to a nation. Our first loyalty always belongs to God and when we fail to put God first, we risk hardship, judgment, and perhaps even defeat. Do we have the faith and the perseverance of Jeremiah? Are their Jeremiahs in our society today? If so, do we listen? Or do we tune him or her out, or worse, mock and abuse?

         You know, on the 22nd, we’re going to have our first community forum to discuss civility. If we want to build a better society, which is one of the goals of the church as we are to be a part of building God’s kingdom, we must listen to others. I hope you plan to attend and to tell others about the forum. Go to our church’s Facebook page and like the event and share it with others on your page. We have got to get our community and our nation on a new direction. We need to be about listening to all voices, even the voice of a Jeremiah, crying a fountain of tears. Only by listening to others who challenge us, like Jeremiah challenged Jerusalem, will we be able to build a better society.

         Let’s go back to that day, some 2500 years ago, and join Jeremiah once more… The heat of the day is over when Jeremiah starts back toward the city. Having wrestled with God through lament, Jeremiah is more assured than ever of God. Ahead, the city David claimed his capital, is magnificently lighted by the setting sun. As the even breeze picks up, Jeremiah picks up his pace.

The sentry, near the end of his shift, can’t believe his eyes. Emerging from a cloud of dust he’s been watching on the horizon is the prophet. He’s coming back. Why? He’d expected Jeremiah to have fled to another land. But as much as Jeremiah wants to, he cannot abandon his people. They may lack faith. They may be adulterers and traitors and idolaters, but they are still his people. And they are still God’s people. And he’s God’s prophet.

Jeremiah’s presence in a decaying society reminds Jerusalem of God’s judgment. Although the Almighty is disappointed and deeply hurt by his people’s idolatry, God never forgets Israel. God’s faithfulness once saw the nation through slavery. God will see them through defeat and exile and eventually restoration.

Jeremiah’s beat by the time he reaches the wall. The sun has set, and the stars are popping out. The air is more humid. “There will be dew in the morning,” the sentry remarks as he allows Jeremiah to enter through the locked gate. “Yes, Yes, I think you’re right,” Jeremiah responds. “The dew will be welcomed. It will remind us of how Almighty God, the God of Abraham, faithfully fed our ancestors in the wilderness.” Amen.



If any would like to be anointed with oil, as a reminder of our faith in Jesus Christ, come forward during the closing hymn and Elder Laurel McKeith or I will be glad to make the sign of the cross on your forehead.



[1] James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1972), 86 as quoted by LindaJo H. McKim, The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, (Louisville: W/JKP, 1993), 393.

[2] J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 306, n. 9.

[3] Ezekiel 10. While Jeremiah and Ezekiel are contemporaries, their ministry was to different groups of God’s people. While Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem, Ezekiel was called to be a prophet to the first wave of those exiled in Babylon.

[4] Luke 4:24.

[5] Jeremiah 43.

[6] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), 61.


Ben Sasse, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018),  272 pages including notes and an index.


One would need to be deaf and blind not to realize there are serious problems in American society. Instead of rationally discussing issues that divide us, we join polarized camps and dismiss those with whom we disagree. We use unflattering names or spread false rumors about those we see as opponents. Instead of debating topics of concern, we yell at those with different views. It’s as if we believe that the one who yells loudest is right, which is absurd. Instead of looking for common ground upon which we might build a relationship, we use perceived differences to Balkanize ourselves into camps of like-minded people. And when we are only around those who look, think, and act like us, we just confirm our preconceived biases. And there is no doubt that 24-hour cable news and the algorithms of social media have only strengthened this divide. We no longer watch the same news programs and entertainment, nor read the same authors and newspapers. Instead, with a world flooded with information, everything comes tailored for us as individuals. This whole system, according to Sasse, makes us very lonely.

I was a little shocked when I began reading this book on how divided America is to read Sasse’s critique of America culture and how our problems stems from loneliness. I did wonder if he makes more out of the problem of loneliness than it deserves. He also suggests that the decline of the traditional home as another reason for society’s problems. I hope his ideas are debated. Perhaps they can play a role in building a more civil society. That said, there are critiques he makes that will make everyone a little uncomfortable. He challenges an article that identifies the genesis of nasty politics from the 1994 election and Newt Gingrich. Sasse suggests that Gingrich was only a backlash of nasty politics of the Democrats against the Robert Bork nomination to the Supreme Court in 1986. (Personally, I’m old enough to think the issue goes back further than 1994 or 1986). But those on the right can’t rejoice, for in the next chapter, he challenges Fox News and suggests they profit greatly from monetizing the fear. He particularly attacks Sean Hannity for not only preying on this fear and inciting rage, but also ignoring any evidence he finds inconvenient. By the time most readers with die-hard political positions, whether on the right or left, have finished the first half of the book, they’ll have found cherished positions challenged. Sadly, many will probably skip the second half of the book where Sasse suggests strategies for building bridges instead of walls.

Sasse grew up in a small town in Nebraska. It was a place with strong rivalries between towns and sports played a major part of these rivalries. He idolatrizes his father, who was a coach. He obviously grew up in a traditional family.  Sasse, himself, attended college on a wrestling scholarship. He would later earn a Ph.D. at Yale in American history and became the president of a small Midwestern liberal arts college. He also comes from a strong Lutheran Church background. His experiences with small towns, family, sports, religion, and education come together in this book as he seeks a way to bridge in the impasse that exists within American society.

Sasse’s eureka moment of his childhood came when he attended a Nebraska football game. There he was in the big house in the prairie, with 100,000 other folks, all in red, cheering on the cornhuskers. A few rows a way he spotted a group of people from a neighboring town that was a big rival of his town. These were folks his town cheered to their demise at Friday night football games, yet here they were, enemies, cheering on Nebraska. The problem caused by isolation (and loneliness) when we maintain isolation is that we fail to realize that we often have a lot in common with those we see as “them.” He learned from an early age that these folks from a rival school district weren’t really enemies. However, Sasse doesn’t suggest we end rivalries, for competition helps us be our best.

In the second half of this book, Sasse lays out several ideas on how we can begin to break down the walls separating us from them. In his first chapter in this half, titled “Become Americans Again,” Sasse provides a civics lesson about what should unite us. I found it refreshing to read a Lutheran who can write like a Calvinist as he calls for us to admit our that we’re all flawed. He encourages us to set limits on our (and our children’s) use of technology, to be more open to diverse debate within the university (an idea, he points out, that he and Obama agree on), and to develop roots while also exploring outside our own tribe. While most readers won’t agree 100% with the author (and I assume that would be fine with Sasse), Americans would be better off we seriously debated his thesis as we seek to breakdown the divides that separate us. This is a good book for all Americans to read (and maybe even those in Russia or China to read to learn more about what America should look like).

Shards: Still My People

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Jeremiah 4:5-31
October 6, 2019



We’re back working through sections of Jeremiah in our series titled Prophecies and Pottery. And we’re moving backwards in Jeremiah. Two Sundays ago, we looked at what is probably the most popular passage in book, from the 18th chapter, Jeremiah in the potter’s house. If you remember, there was hope that Israel would repent and change her ways. But in this passage, in the fourth chapter, there is little hope. One of the overall themes of Jeremiah is survival.[1] How do God’s people survive when there is a collapse of the nation and religion? How do you survive when everything is lost?

Theologically, Jeremiah’s task is to defend God in the face of catastrophe.[2] The people have not trusted in God. They have placed their trust in other gods. They have sought out political alliances to save them. They’ve turned everywhere except to their God. Because of their insolence toward the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the book is rather grim. God’s people are like broken shards.

         Beautiful pottery breaks. Today, during the sermon, hold on to the shard you’ve been given, and ponder God’s judgment. Think about what it means to be broken, unfixable. But don’t throw away the shard. When the service is over, take it over to Liston hall, where we’ll attempt to put it back together and see what kind of design Sue Jones created for us.

Let me say a little more about Jeremiah. The book is not laid out chronologically. The timeline seems to jump back and forth. Was this because the scrolls got mixed up at one point? Or, were they assembled this way for a reason? We don’t know. But it’s clear that while in the potter’s house, as we saw two weeks ago, there was still hope for God’s people. There is much less hope in this passage. Storm clouds are building. Today, I’m reading a just a selection of a larger passage that begin with the 5th verse in chapter 4 and runs to the end of the chapter. I encourage you to read the passage in its entirety, but I will only read verses 11-12, and 22-28.     


(choir members sing first verse and refrain of Ghost Riders in the Sky)


        For the people of Jeremiah’s day, storm clouds are gathering. It’s not looking good. It’s kind of like that vision we get from the song “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” those wayward cowpokes who are eternally damned to chase the Devil’s herd. Storm clouds are always frightening. But let’s think about ourselves.

          You know, we have blessed as a nation in that no foreign army has invaded us for over 200 years. The last was during the War of 1812. It’s been a century and a half since those of us who are from the South experienced the horrors of having towns and cities burned, armies destroyed, and people suffering. We can only image what it was like for the people in Savannah during that Civil War, hearing the distant bombardments of Fort Pulaski and Fort MaAllister, and then, in 1864, the rumors building fear as Sherman’s army approaches.

          In this section of Jeremiah, the approaching Babylonian army is described as a hot wind blowing up a frightful dust cloud off the desert. This could be like the dust clouds off Africa that eventually turn into hurricanes that threaten our coastline. In the part I skipped, we hear how the rumors begin to filter down to Judah and Jerusalem, starting way to the north, above the Sea of Galilee, in the territories of Dan. We know a similar drill with hurricanes as they approach the Leeward Island and the Lesser Antilles and the Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Bahamas as the storm makes its way across the South Atlantic. Sometimes these storms are like Jeremiah’s vision, bringing total destruction. Just as we hurt seeing the damage Dorian caused the Bahamas, we also worry what might happen to us if the storm doesn’t turn, Jeremiah is bothered by his vision. He can see it happening and cries out in anguish. But despite the heartache of what he sees, he faithfully proclaims God’s word.

         The second part of my reading describes the aftermath. Destruction is total. Starting with verse 23, the poem recalls the “dismantling of creation.”[3] The land is depopulated and void and without light. There is little hope in this passage for judgment is total… well, almost total. At the end of verse 27, we get a glimpse of hope. After God promises to make the land desolate, we read that God “will not make a full end.” In other words, a remnant will survive. God will continue to have a few to survive, after all they are God’s chosen people, in order to re-populate the land. So, there is hope, just not much. And everyone, including Jeremiah, will suffer.

          For Christians living in America, we may have a hard time relating to Jeremiah’s vision. But many Christians, those living around the globe in places where it’s dangerous to worship Jesus, recognize Jeremiah’s anguish as their own. For them, gathered around this table on World Communion Sunday, they are in danger. They know what it means to worship in fear, to experience the loss of jobs, of their homes and their land because of their faith. They know what it means to be locked up, to be tortured, and to watch loved ones be taken away and never return because of their faith. Christians are suffering in China, in Eritrea, in North Korea, in Iran and Iraq, in Syria and parts of India. We must stand by those who do not enjoy the freedom to worship as we enjoy it.

We must also realize as bad as life gets on earth, there is always hope. It may be just a glimpse. Jeremiah’s vision of destruction was so troubling that it affected him physically.[4] He knew what was coming was terrible, yet he never gave up on God. For as bad as things were get, he trusted that God was present and, eventually, things would change for the better.

          Remember, we have an insight Jeremiah didn’t have. We know about the resurrection, how the grave is not the end. Jeremiah knew that somehow God’s destruction wasn’t going to quite be total. We know that even if it appears total, as it does at death, as when we peer down into the grave, God is still God and the end is not the end.

Yesterday I did the funeral for Gerry Baumgardner. We heard about how Gerry was a reader and instilled her love for books into her children and grandchildren. I’m not sure she read horror, and I’ve only read a few such books. But when you read a good horror book, you are excited to finish and find out what’s happens, but you also don’t want it to end. But it must end. Sooner or later we have must put it down and be done with it. In a way, life is like that, except that when it’s over, God is waiting with a sequel. But, unlike with a horror book, the sequel will be beautiful.

         The center of the gospel is the hope we have in the resurrection to eternal life. And for that reason, we can face those storm clouds. We can face the stampede of Satan’s herd and the cowboys running roughshod across the skies, and know that as bad as things are, there’s hope. We may feel like we’re just broken shards of pottery, but God has the power to make what’s broken new and whole. Believe in God. Hold on to such hope. Amen.



[1] Kathleen M. O’Conner, “Jeremiah Introduction” in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NRSV with Apocrypha) Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 1051.

[2] Ibid, 1052.

[3] Walter Brueggeman, To Pluck Up, To Tear Down: Jeremiah 1-25,  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, International Theological Commentary, 1988), 56.

[4] Verse 19, which is translated in the NRSV as “My anguish, my anguish! I write in pain!” is an attempt to capture the vivid description of the Hebrew in which Jeremiah cries of pain in his bowels. See J. A. Thompson, NICOT: The Book of Jeremiah, (Grands Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 227-228.

The Potter’s House

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
September 22, 2019
Jeremiah 18:1-12


How many of you have a cabinet at home filled with Tupperware and other such plastic containers? (Raise your hands. Be honest). If your home is like mine, there are a variety of plastic stuff of all sizes. When it comes time to save left-overs, or to pack a lunch for the office, I can always find the size I need. Of course, I then struggle to find the matching lid, but that’s another story. Ponder for a moment what would our lives be like without such containers? How would we get by? Now let’s go back 2500 years.

        You might be wondering about all this emphasis on pottery as we look at the Prophet Jeremiah. Pottery was a revolutionary technology in the ancient world. It allowed more movement as people could store things in pots, such as water and grain.[1] It provided a better way for cooking. No longer did our ancestors have to roast things over a fire like cavemen. They could make something tasty, adding herbs and spices and making broth. The pottery revolution was one of the great steps in human history that devolved to Tupperware. It allowed our ancestors to settle down. No longer did they have to wander from one source of water and food to another. They could stop and build cities. The potter played an important role in the ancient world. God often uses examples from everyday life to make a point, and with Jeremiah, it was the potter and his work. This morning, we’re visiting the potter’s house.  Read Jeremiah 18:1-12.


Show Video of Lee Hyong-Gu, Ceramic Master              (3 minutes 20 seconds)


I love watching a potter shape clay. Don’t you?

         About twenty-five miles northwest of where I was born, where the Carolina Sandhills turn into clay hills, is a dot on the map known as Jugtown. It’s a place I like to visit when I am back in that part of the world. Today, the area around Jugtown and Seagrove is dotted with crafty potters who turn muck into beautiful and useful art. It’s a treat, as we’ve just seen on the video, to watch a potter turn a lump of clay on the wheel into something useful and beautiful.

          Jugtown received its name, as you can guess, from jugs. The law-abiding folks in the clay hills around there, I’m sure, intended their jugs to store molasses, honey, cane syrup, or something similar. Of course, it was also used to hold liquefied corn (also known as white lightning or moonshine). But with the advent of mason jars, such use of the jugs ceased. But early on, some of the potters had new ideas. In 1917, two of the potters began selling their wares in a store and tea shop in New York City. They emphasized utilitarian pots, things that could be used such as pie plates, crocks, mugs, and bowls. They stamped their unique mark on the bottom of each vessel. Over time, they began to teach new potters the craft and as one generation passed, another took up the wheel. Today, if you go to the area around Jugtown, you’ll find dozens or potters selling their wares. These artists have brought new life into that worthless clay that sticks to your shoes and gums up a plow.

Finding a new purpose is sometimes helpful, and it could make a good moral of this story. But is it really what this passage is about? We need to remember that we’re not the potter, we’re the clay. Our purpose comes from the potter. And while, as this passage shows, the potter wields power over the clay, the clay might not always be suitable. If that’s the case, the potter starts over and creates something that works with the quality of the clay he has. In this passage we see God’s sovereign control, as a new type of pot is created. God’s in control, a fact we’re not always comfortable with.

        Jeremiah is called to the potter’s house where God uses a common image of the ancient world to make a profound message. God’s word comes to him as he watches the potter over and over start off one direction with clay, and it not working, so he reworks the clay into something more suitable. This sounds hopeful. God will continue to work with us until we become a vessel that serves some purpose. One preacher, writing about this text, said that it demonstrates a sovereign God, “not a God of absolute capricious control, but a gracious willingness to change his plan to benefit his flawed people. When God discovers this fatal flaw in his people, he does not simply destroy them; he offers to start over.” [2]

But there’s a tension in the text that comes in verses 7-11. To make this passage to be only hopeful, we must cut the passage short and stop at verse 6. But that’s not fair to the text. Yes, there is hope in this passage, but the hope is offered to a repentant people who heed the warning that comes at the end of the passage. If they don’t heed the warning, the hope evaporates.

       Jeremiah’s task is to preach impending judgment to God’s people. If they don’t shape up, if they don’t stop running around chasing foreign gods and idols, if they act like they’re in control and the God of the Universe is of no matter, they will be punished. Just as the potter can shape a vessel in a new way, they can be handled in a different manner. God can shape another nation to punish. There appears to still time, at this point, for the Hebrew people to change. Later prophecies of Jeremiah hold out no hope of repentance, but here, it’s not too late.[3] But time’s wasting. If they don’t hurry up and repent, it’ll be too late. And as we see in verse 12, the people don’t take Jeremiah’s words seriously. They follow their own plans and act in their own ways. God is not amused.

          The message of this passage is that God has the power to reshape us, but we must let God work with us. If we resist God’s shaping, we may not be completely crushed, but we won’t fulfill the potential for which we were designed. The intention of our passage isn’t to be fatalistic and say we have no control. Instead, it’s a warning that we’re to work with God and not against him.

We often look at Scripture through our individualistic lens, and there’s no doubt that God has control over us as individuals, but it’s important for us to understand that this passage isn’t about a person, but about a people. God’s people. Today, we could apply this passage to the church. Those of us in mainline denominations often feel the church is being pulling apart. But using this analogy, we can see that perhaps the church is just being reshaped. If that’s the case, we need to look beyond our own perceived needs within the church, and to look where God needs the church within the world. That’s the hard task the Session has before it. It’s not what we can do to please the most people, but what we should be doing to join in God’s work.

        When you leave this sanctuary today, ponder these questions: Where is God at work in the world? How can we participate? How can we be the clay that trusts the potter? Amen.



[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1983), 76-77.

[2] Stan Mast, Old Testament Lectionary for September 2, 2019: Jeremiah 18:1-11” published by the Center for Excellence in Preaching:

[3]  John Bright, The Anchor Bible: Jeremiah (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 124-125.

Between Full Moons (A photo saga)

Moonglow at Cumberland Falls

It’s been a while since I had a post on my activities, so I decided I’d do a full moon to full moon post. The August full moon occured on the 15th, and I was at Cumberland Falls, Kentucky. It was a clear night and those who came out to the falls an hour or so after the moonrise, were treated with seeing a “moonbow.” It’s just like a rainbow, except it is more whitish, appearing a little like a ghost of a rainbow. The moonbow occurs in the spray from the falls, which also creates a lovely rainbow in daytime, as you can see from the two photos I’ve posted.

Rainbow the next morning

From one of the historical markers around the site, I learned that the Cumberland River was named by Dr. Walker, an early explorer in the area. According to him, the river was the crookedest he’d seen, so he named it after the Duke of Cumberland because it reminded the explorer of the Duke.

Leaving Cumberland Falls, we headed toward Cumberland Gap. It was about lunch time when we hit Corbin and we decided to have lunch at Colonel Sander’s place. The original restaurant and hotel was torn down, but they rebuilt a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the site many years ago. In addition to the children and biscuits, three was a small museum showing how it was back in the 30’s. It’s also a major stop on the old Nashville and Louisville Railroad, so I had time to watch a few trains.

At Cumberland Gap, we rode the bike/horse part of the Wilderness Road. We needed Daniel Boone, for it was rough with several down trees. Also, after a long downhill run, we crossed a small bridge and at the other end, a horse had relieved himself. It took some maneuvering to miss that pile of crap! We enjoyed the delightful town of Cumberland Gap which has an interesting bicycle museum and several good coffee shops/restaurants.  I had my first beet burger at the Pineapple Tea Room and Coffee Ship. It was good! Camping, we also ate good as we picked up in a rural grocery store some rib-eyes to grill. They were local and grass fed and it was some of the best meat I’ve had in the eastern part of the country where all the meat tends to be corn-fattened.

Black-eyed Susans along the Wilderness Road bike/horse path

After a couple of nights at Cumberland Gap, we headed over to Abingdon and Damascus for the purpose of riding the Virginia Creeper trail. We found a wonderful camping spot (with a cucumber tree, which I had to look up to identify).  I enjoyed being back in this country, as it’s been well over thirty years since I came through here while hiking the Appalachian Trail.


The Virginia Creeper is a neat trail that follows an old railroad bed from Abingdon to Whitetop, Virginia, and on to Todd NC. The train stopped running in the mid-70s, and in the 80s, it was converted to a bike trail. Where were lots of people on the trail. You can catch a shuttle from Damascus to the top of Whitetop, which we did. There were several shuttles running every hour. Talking to a driver, I learned that during the fall color season, there are as many as a dozen vans an hour coming up to the top!  It was a nice and easy ride. I stopped and walked a bit on the Appalachian Trail for old time sake (but the AT has been relocated here since I hiked this area, so I wasn’t exactly walking in my old steps.

New River as seen from an old trestle


Leaving the Damascus/Mount Rogers area, we headed over to the New River State Park, where the state of Virginia runs a fifty some mile long linear park along the New River from Galax to Pulaski.  We road the trail from from Galax to our site, about 28 miles, which made a nice day. But this trail involved more peddling than the Creeper trail in which you could almost coast the whole way.


I-77 bridge over the New River

My bike resting against a mile marker on the New River trail 27 miles from Pulaski

One of two tunnels on the trail

One of many trestles along the New River Trail

The campsites are rather expensive for pit toilets and no showers ($25/night), but we loved our site. It was just steps from the river and we had the place to ourselves. We slept to the sound of water running over rocks (augmented by the sounds of birds, frogs, insects, and the wind). It was a wonderful place to camp. And every evening, I took a swim in the river.


After getting back and having a hurricane threaten, another full moon came around. This time, at home and on a semi-clear evening, I made the best of it by paddling around Pigeon Island (about 6 miles). It was a magical evening starting with incredibly red skies and then the beauty of the moon.

Don’t be a Crackpot

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
September 15, 2019
Jeremiah 2:1-13


We began our series on Prophesies and Pottery last week, when we saw how Jeremiah was formed by God to be his mouthpiece to Israel. Our image was that of a lump of clay, which has not yet been formed into the vessel. We’re all like that lump and when we allow God to mold us, we can become something beautiful. Throughout the Book of Jeremiah are images of pottery and clay. Some are being formed. Others have already been formed and fired and are now broken and no longer useful. Today’s image is like that, of a broken cistern. There is not much use in a vessel which no longer holds water, just as the cracked pot in our display is useless. Today’s message can be summarized: “Don’t be a crackpot.”

       Last week we learned of Jeremiah’s call by God as a prophet to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”[1] As I stated then, Jeremiah was one of the longest serving prophets in Israel’s history, with a career spanning roughly forty years. In chapter two, we see that the prophet gets down to business, as he calls on God’s people to change their ways before it is too late.

This chapter takes the form of a legal indictment, a common genre in the ancient world. There are surviving examples in which a ruler or a king wrote an indictment against a ruler of a vassal state who is not fulfilling the desires of the controlling state. Think about the king of Judah, as a vassal state of Assyria, receiving a letter from the king of Assyria. The letter would contain an indictment. It could be used to nip in the bud any thoughts of revolution, as the superior king reminds his inferior king the benefits of their relationship while also threating punishment if things don’t change.[2] A more recent example might have been a letter sent from the Soviet premier to Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, right before troops rolled in. The leaders of Hong Kong have probably also received such a letter. It’s also like a letter of a jilted spouse or lover. God sends this letter to his people through Jeremiah. It’s a warning and a reminder of who’s in charge.

This passage contains some of the earliest words of Jeremiah,[3] perhaps being spoken even before the religious reforms of King Josiah, long before Babylon comes onto the international scene. Last week, I spoke about how Jeremiah was called to be a prophet at an optimistic time in the history of Judah. The armies of Assyria had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and for a century had controlled Judah as a vassal state. But Assyria’s power was waning. Without them on the international stage, there was hope of a better future for the Hebrew people. But it didn’t happen. Josiah was killed, his reforms were short-lived, and the people continued to chase after the gods of their neighbors. Jeremiah’s voice brings God’s indictment against the Hebrew people, especially the leaders (both religious and secular) for allowing and encouraging such idolatry. As you can imagine, when things are looking up, people don’t want to hear such rants as came from Jeremiah. But he was called to be faithful, not to scratch their itchy ears. Read Jeremiah 2:1-13


        In the spring of 2018, my sister, my father, and I took a trip to the Dry Tortugas. I’m sure many of you read the article I had about the trip in The Skinnie.[4] A popular misconception is that Key West is the last of the keys. It’s not. Sixty-eight  miles west of Key West are the Dry Tortugas, a collection of small coral keys that rise just above sea level. The island was discovered by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, who named it “las Tortugas” or “the turtles.” Without any fresh water to drink, cartographers added the word “dry” as a warning to sailors. Even without water, the islands were strategically important for our country, especially in the days of sailing ships.  The keys provided a harbor for ships during storms and they provided an outpost to intercept any attempts of an invasion of our Gulf Coast. The islands protected the harbors of New Orleans, Mobile and Pensacola. In the early 19th Century, after the War of 1812, when our nation began to seriously deal with national defense, Fort Jefferson, a huge brick fortress, was built on the largest key. Fort Jefferson may be the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere.

      If you’re going to have a fort with a substantial garrison on an island without fresh water, you must find a way to overcome that limitation. The engineers who designed Fort Jefferson came up with a unique way to address the lack of water. They built a series of cisterns under the walls of the fort and designed a system to funnel rainwater into the cisterns where they provided water for later use. The fort could hold nearly two million gallons of water. It was thought there would be enough water and provisions within the walls for the fort to survive a yearlong siege.

       But the plans of men and women often fail. This massive fort, built with millions of bricks and packed dirt, was so heavy that of the 136 cisterns, all but three cracked and allowed saltwater to infiltrate. They became useless.

Through Jeremiah, God says that the Hebrew people are like cracked cisterns. The Hebrew people knew that God was talking about, for they lived in a semi-arid land that only received water part of the year. Farmers would dig out cisterns in the rock, but since the rock was limestone, which is porous, they’d have to seal the rock with a plaster-like substance. But the earth moves and at times such cisterns would crack and began to leak and when the farmer needed water, none would be available.[5]

       The cracked cistern image shows Israel’s condition after chasing after non-existent gods. As humans, we all need water. An image of God’s providence found throughout Scripture is that of living water nourishing us.[6] God expects us to draw from such living water, but when we turn our backs on God, or try to create our own source of water (be it security or prosperity) while ignoring God, we risk dying of thirst. That huge, powerful fort that couldn’t provide its own drinking water is a good example. It takes more than human strength and might to provide for our needs. It’s also dangerous for us to seek security in anything outside of God, for no other gods (that’s gods with a small g), or human systems of power, will last forever. Sooner or later, we will fail. Only God is eternal. Do we stick with God or with the plans of men and women?

But the people of Israel didn’t want to hear this. Jeremiah the bullfrog, croaking in the corner of society, was a nuisance they tried to ignore. And soon, it would be too late. Jeremiah’s call needs to be heard throughout all ages: “trust in the Lord, not in anything else.” It’s as true today as it was 2500 years ago.

As you know, the Session of your church have been studying the challenges facing us. As a congregation, we are aging. We are struggling to find ways to reach new groups of people, and to invite them to be a part of our fellowship and help us continue to reflect Jesus face to our community and to the world. The Session has spent considerable time and energy examining the congregation and the community. We have looked at our worship services, the message and the music, along with the needs and wants of members and non-members. But about half-way along this road, it finally dawned on some of us that what’s important isn’t what we want, but what God wants. So, we added a prayer component to our attempts to strategically plan. We know that without God, we are useless. We are like cracked pots in which the water runs into the ground. The problem with cracked pots or cisterns is that sooner or later, when drought comes, we’re left dry. So, I encourage you to join with the Session in praying daily for our congregation. Each week, you’ll receive a new prayer. It’s on your flyleaf of the bulletin and you’ll also receive it as an email reminder during the middle of the week. Take this prayer and pray it daily. Whatever we end up doing, we need to be seeking God’s direction.

      Friends, we don’t want to be cracked pots. We want to be vessels holding abundant living water that will quench our thirst, and can be shared to others, to quench theirs. Amen.



[1] Jeremiah 1:10.

[2] J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah: TNICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 159-160.

[3] John Bright, Jeremiah: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 16.

[4] Jeff Garrison, “A Visit to the Dry Tortugas,” The Skinnie, Vol. 16 #15 (July 20, 2018).

[5] Thompson, 170-171.

[6] Jesus spoke of this as recorded in John’s gospel (see John 4:10-14, 7:37-38). It appears several places in Revelation (see Revelation 7:17; 21:6; 22:1, 27), Even more common is the stream that God provides which brings life, which is found at Creation in Genesis (Genesis 2:6) and throughout the Psalms (see Psalms 1:3, 46:4 as examples). Jeremiah will later use the image of the stream bring life in 31:12.

Called to be a Bullfrog

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
September 8, 2019
Jeremiah 1:4-10




        The prophet Jeremiah lived in interesting times. He was one of the longest serving prophets in Israel’s history, his calling coming as the Assyrians were losing power.  It was a time of optimism in Jerusalem because they had existed as a vassal state under Assyria for over a century. It appeared they might be free once again, as in the years of Kings David and Solomon. Furthermore, Josiah, one of Judah’s few good kings, was implementing religious reforms. But then Josiah is killed in battle against Egypt.[1] Instead of peace and prosperity, the years following Jeremiah’s call are troubling. Babylon rises in power and the nation’s existence is again threatened.[2] Jeremiah, as a prophet, must go against the grain as he brings God’s message to the Hebrew people.

          We, too, are living in interesting times. Things are scary in our world: rogue nations having the bomb, individuals going berserk and killing people, terrorists creating political instability, and huge storms leaving behind chaos and destruction. The news often leaves us fearful and angry. And since we often don’t have answers for the problems we face, we blame others. Ben Sasse, a Senator from Nebraska, suggests one of the few things uniting us is our contempt for those of whom we assign blame. “At least,” we say, “we’re not like them.”[3] By the way, in his book Them, Sasse suggests this is not the way to live!

As in the days of Jeremiah, we need to hear a rational voice reminding us to trust in a God who has the power to reshape and remake us, as a potter crafts clay, in a way that the future will be bright and wonderful. Maybe we—look around, you and I—need to be that rational voice. This is God’s call to the church of today. We must step up to the plate and offer an optimistic challenge to the world today. This morning we’re going to look at the call of Jeremiah. As I read this passage, consider how God might be calling you… Read Jeremiah 1:4-10.


Jeremiah was a bullfrog,
was a good friend of mine.
I never understood a single word he said
but I helped him drink his wine.[4]


Did Hoyt Axton, who wrote this song that became a major hit for Three Dog Night, have the prophet Jeremiah in mind? There’s some debate about it. His lifestyle didn’t exactly display Sunday School values, but the words “Joy to the World” certainly draws upon the Christian imagination.[5] We don’t know his intentions, but Jeremiah was a bullfrog. Let me explain.

        Back in early May, Gary Witbeck and I took a trip into the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. On our second night, we were camping on a platform at a place called “Big Water.” It’s the headwaters for the Suwanee River. As the sun set and evening descended, we watched alligators battle over territory (or maybe they were fighting over mates, or were flirting, we couldn’t tell the difference). While the gators fought, in the background a chorus of frogs sang. Their song would come in waves, starting up the river and working its way down and then back up. The frogs were in perfect harmony. You couldn’t tell one frog’s croak from another. It was quite beautiful.

But occasionally during that evening, we’d hear the loud croaking of a bullfrog. They were distinct. They were loners. You could pick out each individual one and the direction toward where the frog was located. Jeremiah was like that, like a bullfrog. He provided a distinct message to the people of Israel. He was heard off to the side. There were others in those days, a chorus of prophets, who spouted off the message the people and the king wanted to hear. Their sounds all blended together. But Jeremiah was alone, going against the popular chorus. He was God’s messenger.

        But this is where the song gets it wrong. The one singing, claims to be a friend of Jeremiah, enjoying drinking his wine. But the Jeremiah of the Old Testament, was often lonely. He didn’t have many friends bellying up to him at the bar. Like a bullfrog, he cried out the message from God that he’s been given, and message that no one wanted to hear, so he was often alone and vulnerable. But he was faithful, and when we consider eternity, that makes all the difference in the world.

Today, the church appears more and more marginalized in society. After decades of arguing over things around the periphery (issues of sex and of women leadership and homosexual rights and such), and having been so caught up in political debates, those outside the church identify us more by what we’re against than the person we are to be following. For Jeremiah, doing God’s work was a challenge. For us, following Christ can be just as challenging.[6] We need to offer hope to the world that can only be found in Christ Jesus. But it’s easy to succumb to the chatter around us, to become a frog in the chorus and not the distinctive sound of the bullfrog.

        You’ll notice in the text that Jeremiah didn’t have a choice in all this. He was chosen by God before the foundation of the earth. Yesterday morning, in the Men’s Bible Study, we were reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where are reminded that God calls us through Jesus Christ to do the work which has been prepared for us.[7] Our call, like Jeremiah’s and the Ephesians’, isn’t something that we initiate. It comes from God.

Eugene Peterson notes how we often get things wrong. We see ourselves coming to church to learn about God or to check in on what’s God up to. But that’s backwards. It’s not our initiative. God has known us all along and is calling and leading us through the Spirit. God’s doing this long before we even accept his existence.[8] Regardless of who we are, God loves us and sees us as important and can use us to help make this world a better place.

        Of course, like Jeremiah, we can beg off. Jeremiah said, “I’m just a boy.” Looking around, we might say, “we’re too old.” But God has heard that one, too.  Remember Abraham and Sara? How old were they?[9] Have you ever wondered if maybe the reason God used all these old folks in the Old Testament was to take away our excuses? We’re all young. None of us have an excuse. God promised Jeremiah that he’s going to be with him and that he would be given the words to say to the corrupt generation into which he’d been born. Likewise, Jesus promises his followers (that be “us”) that we’ll be given the words to say.[10] Do we trust God enough to live differently, to sing a different song, to stand out against the crowd and to live, not for ourselves, but for our Lord Jesus Christ?

          Jeremiah has been appointed for a mission. Likewise, the church has been appointed for a mission. We’re all called by God to follow Jesus and to point to him as our hope in a world that often seems hopeless.


         Over the next six weeks, as we work through this series, we’ll be using images of potters. Our image today is a clump of clay, being kneaded like bread dough. The technical term for doing this to clay is “wedged.” The potter takes the clay and stretches and pushes it like a baker works dough. In doing this, all the air pockets are worked out so that the clay is easier to shape on the wheel and afterwards, when firing, the pot won’t have air pockets that’ll explode and destroy the vessel.[11] As followers of Jesus, we have to be open for God working with us, just as a potter works with clay, in order that we might be reshaped. God will work out the old and create in us something new. Are we open to such shaping? Are we willing to be a bullfrog for God and to call people to be attentive to Jesus’ way of living?

         Paul, writing to the Ephesians, encouraged them to put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and malice. Such behavior is to be wedged out of us, like air is wedged out of the clay, so that we might be kind to one another, tenderhearted, and forgiving.[12] The world may see such traits as signs of weakness. They even got Jesus killed. But that was then. We need to remember that the world, as it is, won’t last. We’re not looking for the world’s approval. We’re striving to be faithful to that which is eternal, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.



[1] 2 Kings 23:28ff.

[2] For a background on the world in Jeremiah’s day, see John Bright, “The Life and Message of Jeremiah,” in Jeremiah (New York: Doubleday, 1965), LXXXVI-CXXIV.

[3] Ben Sasse, Them: Why We Hate Each Other-and How to Heal (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 9.

[4] Hoyt Axton, “Joy to the World.” Recorded by Three Dog Night on Naturally, 1970.


[6] See Stan Mast, Notes on Jeremiah 1:4-10 published on the “Center for Excellence in Preaching website:

[7] See Ephesians 2, especially Ephesians 2:10.

[8] Eugene H. Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Downers’ Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1983), 37-38.

[9] Abraham was 75 when he was called (Genesis 12:4). He was 100 and Sara 90 when Isaac was born (Genesis 17:17).

[10] Matthew 10:19.

[11] For a discussion of this process, see Marjory Zoet Bankson, The Soulwork of Clay: A Hands-On Approach to Spirituality (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2008), Chapter 1: Grounding.

[12] Ephesians 4:31-32.  Likewise, Jeremiah is called to both “pluck up, tear down, destroy and overthrow” while also building up and planting  (which we can assume to mean removing that which is not pleasing to God, and planting/building up that which is pleasing).

The aftermath of the Storm

Dorian is gone. It was more a “non-event” here. I ended up not evacuating even though I continued to watch the Weather Channel to see if things might change. But the storm stayed well off the Georgia coast. We received only a little wind and rain. I actually thought we had received very little rain, barely over an inch. Then I looked at the gauge again, 30 minutes later, and it was empty! The bottom of the gauge had sprung a leak. So I have no idea who much water we received. Our neighborhood also maintained power until we were on the backside of the storm. We lost it yesterday morning about 7:30 AM. I had to go out and dig into my camping equipment to fetch a coffee peculator. Since Hurricane Matthew (where I cooked on a camp stove on the front porch), we had replaced the electric stove top with gas. So, yesterday morning, I fixed corned beef hash, poached eggs, and coffee for breakfast, as you can see in the photo.

The gifts of Dorian

I got sick of the Weather Channel after three days of it being constantly on. At first, they seemed to be sponsored by hair growth and coloring folks. I wonder if they think the storm was going to either cause people to prematurely gray (Dorian Gray?) or to pull out their hair. I also noticed how, whenever a governor wanted to speak, they cut in live to their press conferences. We heard the governors of Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina. They all spoke from the same script (be careful, follow directions, etc). When the Gov. was done, they would call up the person in charge of disaster operations for the state (ie, those who know really going on) and that’s when the Weather Channel would cut away to Jim Cantore (who must not receive any free product samples of the hair growth product that pays his salary). I would have liked to heard from the state expert and not the politician, but… By day three, I was searching for old World War II movies.

After eating breakfast yesterday morning, I spent some time on the front porch reading. As the rain stopped and the winds began to die, I set out to clean up the yard. By 12:30 AM, it was all picked up and even the back deck blown off. The picture to the right is of the yard debris, the gifts of Dorian. We were blessed. My family up in SE North Carolina also came through the storm unscathed. I wish we could say the same for the people in the Bahamas.

LBJ and on the cusp of a storm

This photo was taken at Delegal Creek last night as the sunset. Hurricane Dorian is several hundred miles south at this point. Today, as I write this, we have had a few bands of rain with wind, but nothing too bad. The storm should brush by us late this afternoon or in the evening, but will be staying off shore. Prayers to those in the Bahamas who suffered so greatly, and for those in the Carolinas who may experience more of this storm’s fury.



Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1982), 882 pages, photos, index and detailed notes on sources used.


It’s a goal of mine to read Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. He’s the first President I can remember. The only thing I remember of Kennedy was him being shot in Dallas, as I had just started the first grade. LBJ would remain President throughout my elementary years.


Several years ago, I partly read this volume, but this summer invested the time to listen and/or read the entire volume that covers the life of the future President from before his birth through the beginning of the Second World War. The first volume I read in this series, over a decade ago, was Master of the Senate. It was Caro’s third volume, which consists of the years from 1948, when LBJ was elected to the senate, to the late 1950s as the 1960 Presidential campaign heated up. Caro has four volumes out and has just began covering Johnson’s presidency. As he is now in his 80s and I (along with lots of other folks) hope he’ll complete his life-long ambition to cover all of Johnson’s life.


As with Caro’s other volumes, he spends a significant portion of his book providing background information. The reader learns about the events that shaped life in the Texas Hill Country and the people who influenced Johnson. We’re taken back to the early years of Texas and of its frontier heritage that was still in the memories of those alive when Johnson was a boy. Johnson always discounted his father as a failed drunk and attempted to create an image of a self-made man, but Carol dug deeper and discovered a different truth. Johnson’s father was a very honest former legislator whose ties to populism was so strong he had his son listening to the speeches of Williams Jennings Bryan. He also took Lyndon, as a boy, with him to Austin, where Johnson experienced the political life for the first time. There were many other individuals who helped Johnson’s rise to power. Richard Kleberg, one of the richest men in Texas and a new congressman, hired a schoolteacher named Lyndon to be his congressional aide.  As an aid, Johnson both learned politics as well as began to build his own base of power. Then there was Sam Raybun, a Texas congressman who became speaker of the House and who saw LBJ as the son he never had. There was Herman Brown, of Brown and Root, became a mighty industrialist who helped and was helped by Johnson’s growing power. Caro also provides details in how the landscape of the hill country shaped those who settled there, such as Johnson’s families on both sides of his family. He even provides detail into a dam that helped push Brown and Root to a major corporation, a dam in which Johnson worked to fund as a junior congressman. The funding was in jeopardy because the dam did not meet the New Deal guidelines, but Johnson found a way around such requirements.


As Caro points out over and over again, the real Lyndon wasn’t likable. He was awkward, didn’t really fit in, and learned early on how to manipulate others. Most of his peers didn’t think highly of him, but some saw his ambition and was willing to work for him with the hopes that as he rose in power, they would too. When he was denied entry into the White Stars, a college club, he created his own secret club, the Black Stars. Those who joined him had also been denied entry into the more elite group. They were able to secretly control school politics. While he wasn’t popular with those his age, Johnson had a way with adults and spent more time with them.


From an early age, he wanted to be President. Caro’s shows how LBJ never lost that ambition. From politics in college, through working as a congressional aide for Kleberg, to heading the New Deal’s Youth Program in Texas, to a young congressman raising money for other congressmen, Johnson was constantly building a larger organization with the goal to become President.  Interestingly, while through the book, Johnson publicly is seen as a “Roosevelt man,” and in favor of the New Deal, Caro shows how Johnson’s politics was more about achieving and holding power than ideology.


Johnson was quite a risk-taker.  After marrying LadyBird, he carried on an affair with the beautiful and younger mistresses of Charles Marsh, one of his top supporters who also owned a number of newspapers in Texas. Obviously, had that become well-known, it had the potential to destroy the young Congressman’s political future.

In the spring of 1941, a senator from Texas died suddenly. Johnson, seeing this as his opportunity to increase his power, campaigned for the race. He quickly went to work building a base and becoming the front runner against many other better-known candidates, when the state’s colorful governor, Pappy O’Daniel, through his name into hat. “Pass the biscuits, Pappy,” was a former flour salesman, who knew how to campaign (his character even shows up the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou). It became a bitter race with both sides having precincts that they controlled. When he through he had a comfortable lead, Johnson told his precinct bosses to release their votes. Pappy, holding on to a handful of precincts, was then able to “best” Johnson by 1300 votes. It would be the only election Johnson would lose.


While Johnson doesn’t come across as a likeable character throughout the book, there were places where Caro showed a gentler side of him. As a teacher in a mostly Mexican-American school, he was one of the few who cared for this students and encouraged their success. Later, after college, he became a teacher in Sam Houston High School where, as a debating coach, was able to propel his students to greatness. Johnson was a complex man, who carefully cultivated his image. The book leaves the reader wondering what’s going to happen to the young congressman who receives an appointment as a naval officer as the country goes to war. I also came away book wanting to know more about Johnson’s father and his “surrogate” father, Sam Rayburn.


If you have the time (and you’ll need it) and interest, I recommend this book!

Banquet Etiquette?

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Luke 14:7-14
September 1, 2019


The fourteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel opens with Jesus attending a dinner party at the home of a leading Pharisee. It’s the Sabbath, so it’s a special gathering with food that had been prepared earlier. As the sun sets and the Sabbath begins, Jews put on their finest robes and light their best candles. The Sabbath is important; one Jewish scholar describes the whole week as a pilgrimage to the Sabbath which is a foretaste of the eternal Sabbath.[1] But, as we know, there was a lot of debate in Jesus’ day over the meaning and purpose of the Sabbath. Jesus taught that the Sabbath is created for us, not us for the Sabbath, as some taught.[2]

Luke creates tension by telling us in verse two that all the eyes are on Jesus. There’s a man suffering from dropsy, an illness swells the body with water. Today, it might be called “Congestive Heart Failure.[3] He’s right in front of Jesus. Is Jesus being set up? Jesus asks the gathered crowd if it’s right to cure on the Sabbath. He receives no answer, so he cures the man. The he justifies his actions by asking them if they would intervene if they had an ox or a child fall into a well on the Sabbath. The crowd remains quiet.

This dinner party must have been the quietest on record. Normally, as everyone gathers, people mingle around with cocktails and greet one another. There’s a lot of talking. People offer their opinions about the day’s ballgame or the hurricane offshore or the Treasury’s inverted yield curve. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Everyone is quiet, so Jesus takes the stage and teaches with a series of parables. Today, we’re going to look at the first parable. Read Luke 14:7-14.


         At the end of the sixth grade at Bradley Creek Elementary School, there was a graduation banquet. It was held in the evening, which made it special, and in the cafeteria, which wasn’t so special. I’m sure we had macaroni and cheese. We always had mac and cheese. There must have been a rule that you couldn’t open the cafeteria without mac and cheese. But this was a special meal, so maybe there was a slice of ham or a piece of chicken and a piece of cake that was larger than the one inch cubes they fed us at lunch.

While I don’t remember exactly what we ate, there’s another memory from that evening that haunted me for years. I assumed our parents were invited to this banquet. I encouraged my parents to come. I am not sure where I got this idea, for there no other parents there. I’m not even sure why I thought it would be a big treat for my parents to eat cafeteria food. I was embarrassed, even though they graciously slipped out. Instead of eating cafeteria mac and cheese, they went to Wrightsville Beach for a seafood dinner.

Knowing the feeling of having invited someone who wasn’t invited, I understand some of what Jesus is driving at in this passage. Don’t make assumptions. It’s always better to be called up to the head table, than to be told you need to go to the back of the room. It’s simple banquet etiquette.

          In the bulletin, I titled this sermon “Humility and Hospitality.” The problem with coming up with a title a few weeks before writing a sermon is that you often have no idea where the sermon is heading. I later decided that a better title might be Banquet Etiquette. But as I continued to study and ponder, I decided to put a question mark at the end. Yes, Jesus expects us to be humble and not pretentious. Such advice will also keep us from being in an embarrassing position. Yes, on the surface, this is about etiquette. But is this what Jesus is driving? Is this Jesus’ attempt to be the Emily Post of the first century? Or is there a deeper message here?

         Remember what I said about the Sabbath, before reading this passage? That it was a foretaste of the eternal kingdom. And this section of Luke’s gospel is filled with parables that focus on the kingdom.[4] Parables generally operate on more than one level. They often, as Ken Bailey describes in his work on parables, contain a “play within a play.”[5] Each level has a different meaning. While the obvious meaning of our text today is about being humble and not pretentious, the deeper meaning of the parable has to do with God’s kingdom. What is Jesus envisioning here?

       The surface meaning may have to do with avoiding embarrassment. A deeper meaning might be that we should humble ourselves. One of the challenges that Jesus had was his disciples wanting to grab key positions in the coming kingdom.[6] Two of the dudes when so far as to ask their mom to intervene with Jesus on their behalf.[7] This is a deeper meaning of the parable. Don’t get caught up in all the fuss over where you’re going to be seated at the heavenly banquet (or even an earthly ones).

         But there is another way to look at this parable, which I had not considered until I read a blog post by a pastor in Iowa earlier this week.[8] He found himself needing to get to Minnesota where his wife was at with one of their cars that he needed to drive back to Iowa. He took the bus, which meant leaving Des Moines at 5 AM. Taking a bus can be an experience as most of the people on the bus are not like us. We drive or fly. I know what he means by taking a bus because 25 years ago, Donna and I had taken the train out west. It was a summer with a lot of floods and since train tracks are often right by rivers, they were flooded. Coming back, we ended up being on a bus for part of our journey. On this trip, from Iowa to Minnesota, the blogger realized the blessings that can come for being among those who were not like him—those with darker skin, many of whom spoke Spanish. Blessings can be experienced even when sitting at the back of any banquet.

          Instead of Jesus wanting us to show humility in the hopes that we might be called up to the head table (as you could read this passage), maybe Jesus is telling us to meet others where we find ourselves. Show hospitality to those less fortunate. If our only goal was to sit at the head table, we could easily display false humility to gain such a blessing. [9] Image a Monty Python skit where everyone is trying to outdo one another in humility in order to be seen as most humble just so they could be exalted.

         But Jesus wants us to long for the kingdom, which isn’t going to be made up of exclusively of those who look, and act like us. Jesus’ vision is for a world where believers cherish their friendship and fellowship with all people. It’s about us showing goodness to those who have no way to repay us for what we can do for them. Ponder what this kind of world might look like.

          You know, none of us know what this week will bring as Dorian churns up the waters. When Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016, I spent a few days in Dublin, GA. There’s a great hot dog shop there, not far from the courthouse, where I found myself drawn at lunchtime. There were the regulars, but there was also those of us in exile: from Savannah, from Hilton Head, from Brunswick and Saint Simons. The place was packed. Friendships were made as we were forced to share tables. Stories were told of shared experiences such as being in gridlock on the highway. There was a lot laughter. I image that’s how the kingdom will be. So, if we evacuate this week, and you find yourself in a strange land for a few days, don’t see it as a burden. Instead, take it as an opportunity to sample the kingdom. That’s what Jesus would have you do. Let us pray:


God of the wind and waves, the earth and the sky, we know of Jesus calming the storm. Calm our hearts as Dorian approaches and keep us safe. We pray for the people in the northern Bahamas, who are experiencing the worst of a natural disaster. Be with them, and with us. Where ever we find ourselves, whether we are at the head table or in the back corner, help us to be the people who show kindness. Amen.



[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (1951, New York: Farrar, Staus, & Giroux, 1979), 90-91.

[2] Mark 2:27. See also Luke 6:1-5.


[4] In Luke 13, Jesus tells two parables of the kingdom (verses 18-19: Parable of the Mustard Seed, and verses 20-21, Parable of the Yeast). After this parable, he tells another parable of the great banquet, which is also about God’s coming kingdom.

[5] Kenneth El. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), xiii.

[6] I. Howard Marshall, New International Greek Testament Commentary: Commentary on Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 581.

[7] Matthew 20:20.


[9] See Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville, KY: JKP, 1990), 176-177.  Craddock reminds his readers that the word in the New Testament that’s translated as hospitality literally means “love of a stranger.” Hospitality isn’t just rolling out the red carpet for important guests but welcoming those who may be on the margin.

First Cosmic Velocity

Zach Powers, First Cosmic Velocity (New York: Putman, 2019), 340 pages.


I’m not sure how to classify this novel. At times I thought the author had written the first anti-Sci-fi (similar to the anti-western genre of films that began to challenge the classical westerns in the 1960s). At other times, it felt as if I was reading a comedic Cold War spy thriller or an alternative history. Regardless of the genre, this book is a fun read.


It’s 1964 and the Soviet space program is a deception. Instead of challenging the United States in the race to the moon, the Soviets haven’t yet had a successful mission. They have placed men and women into space, but have yet to successfully bring them back to earth. The cosmonauts have either burned up on re-entry or in the case of Leonid, are doomed to orbit the earth for the entire book. You’ll have to read it to understand what happens. To make up for the lack of success, the Soviet cosmonaut corps are made up of identical twins, each given the same name. While one sibling conducts a suicide mission, the other receives a hero welcome back home. The secrecy of the program is so guarded that only a few know about it. Even the Soviet premier, Khrushchev, doesn’t know of the deceit. At first, even Ignatius, the KGB-type agent who is always close by, doesn’t appear to know (even though she knows more secrets than most). In a country with lots of deception and secrets, maintaining this secret is of ultimate importance for everyone involved (including the remaining twins) risked execution for treason is exposed.


This secrecy leads to humorous moments such as when Khrushchev volunteers his dog for the next space mission. Everyone but the Premier hates his ratty dog, and they can’t find another one like it in all Russia. Khrushchev aids secretly suggest they leave the disliked mutt in space (not realizing that might actually happen as the space agency has no way of returning it alive to earth). The space program is frantically attempting to build a successful heat shield that will allow cosmonauts (and dogs) to safely return, while two of the surviving twins (the second Leonid, the brother of the Leonid in space, and Nadya, whose sister was the first cosmonaut, run away.


The book ping pongs between 1964 and 1950, the year when a famine struck the Ukraine, That’s the year the twins who were both renamed Leonid were taken from their grandma to be trained for the space program. As the reader is taken from the present (1964), into the past, we gain inside into bits of history such as the struggle within the various states within the Soviet Union, the impact of the war (World War 2), and the hope of the space program. Powers also brings up the discussion of faith, looking at how the older members of society (such as the twin’s grandmother) practices faith and prayer, and its role (or lack of a role) with the younger generations who have grown up in an atheistic society. In one discussion, it is suggested that a society without gods must create them from their “heroes”


This is a delightful and unique novel. I recommend it for an enjoyable read. For full disclosure, I was in a writing group with Zach Powers when I first moved to Savannah (and before he left the area). I was under no obligation to write this review.

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.


[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?”  (

[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.



[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.




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

[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.



[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.



[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.


[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.



[1] Quote used by Brad Braxton in his commentary on John 8:31-38 found on, 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.



[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.



[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.



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.


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.


         “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.





[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.

Click here to go to Day 1

Click here to go to Days 2-3

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


        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.



[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.

Write up of Day 2-3

Write up of Day 1

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.



[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.


[1] To watch the streaming on Sunday mornings at 10 AM, go to our 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:

[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.



[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.


          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.



[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 al