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 theafriicanamericanlectionary.org, He obtained the quote from William K. Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, 1861-1865 (Viking: New York, 2001), 234.

[2] Ephesians 6:6

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

[4] Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.

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

[6] Luke 18:18-30.

[7] Bruner, 531.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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