Becoming Christ-like

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] For this link, I’m indebted to Rev. Susan Sparks, “So You’re a Christian?  Whattaya Gonna Do About It?”  (

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

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

[5] See Revelation 7:13-17

Baseball as a Road to God

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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Fearlessly Watching

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



[1] Psalm 84:10.

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

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

Listening to the Heartbeat of God

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine the People of God: Fruition

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

[6] Acts 16:16ff.

[7] Zechariah 7:9.

[8] Aycock, 69.

[9] Proverbs 21:21.

[10] Proverbs 15:4.

[11] Aycock, 103.

[12] Matthew 18:23-35.

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

20190804   Pastoral Prayer

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

Hear our prayers as we pray…


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

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

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


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


Mahen outside of his clinic

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



selfie from the ferry

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


Waiting for the train in Butterworth
From the walkway over the tracks that connects the train station to the ferry terminal

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


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


At the border crossing with the bright “Thai” engine

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


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

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

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

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

Thai train attendant

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

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

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

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

Imagine the People of God: Transformation

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

[2] 2 Corinthians 3:12.

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

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

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

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

[7] Ephesians 2:5, 8

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

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

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

[11] Colossians 3:2

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

[13] Ortberg, 112-112

Imagine the People of God: Compassion

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

[3] Matthew 13:24ff.

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

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

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

Behind the Barbed Wire (A Review)

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

The author as an embassy guard in China.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gift of Imagination

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Jeremiah 29:7.