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]

 

Amen.

 

©2020

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

[2] Genesis 18:9-15.

[3] https://billingsgazette.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/religion/pastor-turned-bar-owner-writes-on-similarities-differences-between-bars/article_673abca0-5749-5a9e-981f-a0e6291c5421.html

[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.

[9] http://skidawaypres.org/pastor/?p=3368

[10] https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/practices/features/view/20120

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

[12] See https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/laughter-is-the-best-medicine.htm

[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

 

©2020

[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.

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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.

©2020

[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.

©2019

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.

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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.

 

©2019

[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