Rocks, Water, and a Personal Note

Michael P. Cohen, Granite and Grace: Seeking the Heart of Yosemite (Reno: University of Nevada, 2019), 220 pages. A few hand drawn maps and line drawings at the top of each chapter by Valerie Cohen.

When most people think of Yosemite, they think of the valley with its huge waterfalls and sheer-faced granite cliffs where, at night, you can see the flashlights of climbers’ bivouac in hammocks slung along the rock walls. But there is another side of Yosemite. This part of the park is high above the valley and surrounds Tuolumne Meadows. The top of the park is also granite, mostly sculptured by glaciers. It is here, in a series of essays, that Cohen focuses his study of the rock that made the park so famous. For nearly three decades, Cohen taught at Southern Utah University. During the summer, he and his wife would leave the sandstone of the Colorado River Plateau for June Lake, on the backside of Yosemite. The two of them have been coming to Yosemite since childhood. Early in their life together, Michael worked as a climbing guide in the park while Valerie worked as a summer ranger.  Now in his 70s and no longer climbing the steep pitches, Cohen reflects on a lifetime living around Yosemite.

Granite and Grace centers around a series of essays that are often told from the point of view of a walker/hiker/climber in Yosemite. As Cohen recounts walks and climbs, he branches out to discuss various rock formations. Within these essays, he covers the geology of granite, how it was formed under the earth and is often found at the edge of continents. He writes about how the science around granite has changed especially within increase understanding of plate tectonics. He discussed the makeup of granite and why it’s appreciated by builders and climbers for its toughness. I had to laugh in appreciation of Cohen’s fondness for granite as he speaks of eating many meals upon it, but not wanting it as a countertop. (Granite does contain some radioactive minerals and houses built on granite have to be carefully constructed to avoid radon gas buildup). The reader will learn the role of ice in shaping the granite found in Yosemite’s high country. Weaving into his personal quests and the science behind granite, Cohen draws from a variety of literary sources. He quotes authors like John Muir and Jack Kerouac, poets such as Gary Snyder and Robinson Jeffers, and recalls songs from Paul Simon and Jefferson Airplane. While the book is part memoir that mixes in geology and literary interests, at its deepest, it is a philosophical exploration of an individual trying to understand a small section of the world.

In the concluding paragraph of the last chapter before the epilogue, Cohen writes a lyrical paragraph about granite’s “otherness and freedom.” His opening sentence, “I am attracted to granite and intimidated—especially by its textures—precisely because it is not flesh,” sets the stage for reflecting on how the “otherness” of this rock that doesn’t care or care if you care can provide a sense of peace. I was reminded of the last line in Norman McLean’s novella, A River Runs Through It. While Mclean finds peace at being in the river’s waters that gathers all that is, Cohen finds peace in that seemingly solid rock which is totally foreign and indifferent. Both views, I think, are valuable in our understanding the complexity of the human experience.

I recommend this book for anyone wanting to know more about Yosemite (this is not stuff you’ll find in guidebooks). There is something for most everyone in these pages. If you’re curious about geology, there are insights. If you want to know who we relate to the world in which we find ourselves, you’ll find parts that will speak to you.. Cohen is a deep thinker who searches for the precise word to describe his thoughts. In reading the book, if you’re like me, you’ll pull out the dictionary (or google) to look up many of his words. And, if you’re also like me, you’ll want to go back to Yosemite. His description of the Dana Plateau (which was an island above the impact of glaciation) made me realize there are places I still need to explore.

I was given a copy of this book by the author (see below) but was not compelled to write a review.  This is the fourth book I’ve read by Cohen.

Michael Cohen along the John Muir Trail, 1997

A Personal Note:  My first visit to Yosemite was in 1985, thirty years after Cohen’s first visit. I had flown to San Francisco where my girlfriend at the time was in grad school. We drove to Yosemite for a few days. I was amazed as we snaked up the road that parallels the Merced River. By the time we got into the park, I had used up all my film and had to buy expensive film in a park store to continue photographing the amazing sights. It was between Thanksgiving and Christmas and was snowing. The next morning, while my girlfriend spent the day inside the cozy cabin reading and preparing for exams, I laced up my boots headed out at daybreak. I hiked up toward Nevada Falls. It was amazing (I again ran out of film). Along the way, I met a hiker with a loaded pack. He had skis and crampons strapped to his pack that was filled with winter camping gear and provisions. He was heading up over the top to Tuolumne Meadows where he planned to ski along the highway and down Tioga Pass to Lee Vining. There, he was going to be picked up three days later. I was intrigued. Tuolumne Meadows was beckoning me like Eden.

I have been back to the park a half-dozen times since 1985 and, with one exception, I have always come into the park from the east, into Tuolumne Meadows. When another guy and I completed our hike of the John Muir Trail, Michael Cohen (the author) joined us near Devil Post Pile. As I was living in Cedar City at the time, I had gotten to know Cohen when I audited his class on creative non-fiction. Michael hiked with us for several days as we made our way down Lyell Canyon and into the Meadows. Wanting to avoid the crowds of Yosemite Valley, Michael’s wife Valerie picked him there, while the two of us continued on for another two nights into the valley. When most people think of the park, they think of Yosemite Valley with its huge waterfalls, sheer granite cliffs, and hordes of tourist. Few make it over to Tuolumne Meadows. Cohen’s book will help those who only travel through the valley understand what they missed in the high country.

Michael also appears in another book I reviewed in this blog, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking.


Alice Outwater, Water: A Natural History (New York: Basic Books, 1996) 212 pages with index and notes. Line drawings by Billy Brauer.

In this collection of what seems to be independent essays, the author describes the history and evolution of water in North America. She begins with the fur trade and nature’s engineers, the beaver. In subsequent chapters, she writes about prairie dogs, buffaloes, alligators, freshwater shellfish, as well as the forests and grasslands. She explores the path of rainfall and how its been altered as we have altered the environment. She discusses the role of the toilet and sewer systems. Toward the end of the book (175ff), Outwater brings together all these seemingly diverse ideas as she discusses our attempts to “save the environment.” She points out the fallacy in many environmental efforts. We attempt to preserve an “endangered species… as if they were items in a catalog… [while] missing the larger ecological picture.” (181). At first, I was wondering where Outwater was going with these essays as they seemed to be independent of one another, but by the end of the book, I understood her point. She encourages us to see how the natural work really does work together.

Water: A Natural History is really a history of human impact upon the waters of North America (mainly the United States). Outwater recalls how we have misused our water and are now changing our views and our behavior as we strive to clean up our rivers and streams. She appears optimistic even while acknowledging there is more to be done. And example of her optimism is from seeing how the non-native zebra mussel, which was introduced by an ocean-going ship into the Great Lakes, is taking over the role of native mussels that have been wiped out by human activity. Having lived in the Great Lakes region for a decade, I know her view isn’t shared by many who see the zebra mussel as problematic.

Much of the concluding chapters of this book comes from Outwater’s work as an environmental engineer in the Boston Harbor cleanup project. Her writing is clear and concise. She caused me to ponder much about water and how we depend on it. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in one of things necessary for life—water.  And I also find her name, “Outwater” to be appropriate for someone who writes on the topic!  This is my second book by Outwater. I had previously reviewed her book, Wild at Heart which also covers many of these same themes.

Trouble and Trust

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
June 21, 2020
Matthew 10:16-33

Click here to watch the worship service. To just catch the sermon, fast forward to 20 minutes and 30 seconds.


How many of you are afraid? I wish I could see a show of hands. Most of us, I expect, have them raised. After all, we’re dealing with a pandemic, a struggling economy, the highest unemployment in ninety years, and renegade police officers involved in unjustified deaths leading to unrest in our cities. For those of us who are fathers, we worry about our children making it in this world. There’s a lot of reasons for fear, but what if I told you that we’re probably living in one of the safest times in history. Yes, COVID-19 is a threat, but look at the illnesses we don’t have to deal with these days: polio, smallpox, and a host of childhood diseases. Yes, there have been some police officers who have done bad things and there is unrest in some streets, but overall violence is down (and has been dropping for decades). And the economic issues have more to do with the struggle to supply what is needed and a drop in demand as people try to avoid the virus. In the long run, we may end up with a less vulnerable supply chain, which could be a good thing.

So why are we afraid? If we step back, we would see that fear often has little to do with risk. And often what we most fear isn’t what’s most likely to affect us. But fear sells. Fear is a basic instinct. It’s a primal reaction.[1] Because it’s such a gut reaction, fear is used in a way for someone else to make a profit on us. Crime’s up, so you better buy an alarm system or a gun. We fear rejection, so we use the right deodorant and toothpaste and drive the right car and wear clothes that are in style.

A dozen years ago, there was an eye-opening book published. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear spends the first chapter discussing the “profit-making bias” that results in us being continually fearful. Sometimes even the church is guilty. Fear can be used to increase offerings or, as in the Left Behind Series, in an attempt to scare us into heaven.[2]

But what does our faith say about our fear? What does Scripture say to us about fear? You know, when an angel appears before people in the Bible, their first words are often something like “Fear not.”[3] “Yeah, right,” I’d think, “if it was me, I’d be shaking in my boots”. But think about it, there’s something to be said about having angels around and not fearing. We should rejoice. Their presence shows that the God of Creation is interested in us. God trying to connect to us is a comforting thought. If God cares enough to send an angel my way, instead of (let’s say) a lightning bolt, at least there’s a chance everything will be okay. We’re in good hands. This is the point Jesus is making in our text which could be titled, “Trouble and Trust.”[4] Yep, there’s going to be trouble. But we’re to trust God that, in the end, things will be okay.

Because God is the creator and has power over life and death, we’re to stand in awe… Others whom we encounter in this life may have half the power of God—the power to destroy—but God has the power to destroy and to create. If we’re on God’s side, there is nothing anyone else can do to us that God cannot undo. The resurrection is the ultimate act.

However, a healthy dose of fear is a good thing. Fear keeps us from taking foolish risks. Even the best rock climber will be fearful of clicking onto a frayed rope. You don’t want to tempt fate, or as Jesus said to the Devil during his temptation in the wilderness, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”[5] A healthy dose of fear can help us be safe, but too much fear becomes a problem because it leads us to inaction. And with 24-hour news, feeding us fear day and night, it’s amazing anyone gets anything done. The problem of too much fear is that it keeps us from taking risks, and if we don’t risk, we have no need of faith or trust.

In our passage for this morning, Jesus is preparing the disciples for the troubles they’ll face once he’s gone. There’ll be persecutions and lots of reasons for the disciples to be afraid. They’ll be hauled into court and flogged and betrayed and even face death. But Jesus doesn’t want them to be paralyzed into inactivity. Jesus is depending on this motley group of followers to spread the good news. He promises the Spirit will speak through them. The disciples must be willing to proclaim God’s word from the housetops. This is risky business.

In an Empire that will see the church as a threat, Jesus gives them reasons not to fear the powerful. First, at judgment, all things will be revealed. Martyrs can say, “I told you so.” But let’s face it, the promise our concerns will be addressed after the grave isn’t all that reassuring. So, then Jesus tells them not to fear those who will take their lives, but to fear God. After all, God has power over not just this life, but life after judgment. If you think about what Jesus is saying here, you’ll see because the disciples believe, they’re freed to do great things. They’re not afraid of death. All of us will die, but eventually many of them died at the hands of persecutors. Some, like Peter and Andrew, were crucified; Stephen was stoned; and Paul and John the Baptist literally lost their heads.

By refusing to be paralyzed by fear while trusting in God’s goodness, we can achieve more than we’ve ever imagined. Recall the Parable of the Talents.[6] The man who received only one talent and refused to take risk, because he was afraid of his master, is punished. Those who took risks are rewarded with even more talents. It’s that way with us. If we invest the talents God has given us, for godly purposes, God will bless our efforts. If we hoard our talents, we will be judged harshly.

“You’re to trust in God,” Jesus tells his audience, “whose concern extends even to the lowest sparrow.”  Jesus must have been an animal lover. This passage is filled with animals: sheep and wolves, serpents and doves, and sparrows.[7] Or maybe it’s the little things in creation that brings Jesus joy. Think about this, a sparrow at the temple in Jesus’ day could be purchased for next to nothing. If God is so concerned for the small parts of his creation, think of how much more concern God will show us, the pinnacle of his creation. To further emphasize God’s concern, we’re told that God has counted even the hairs on our heads (with some of our heads, God has an easier time).

In verse 32, Jesus returns to his rationale for us not being afraid. He doesn’t want us to become so scared that we slip into inactivity. That’s why he reminds us that our purpose is to be his ambassadors, shouting from the rooftops (at least, metaphorically). The warning here is that if we are unwilling to risk letting others know of our faith, we run an even greater risk that Jesus will not acknowledge us before the Father.

The gospel still puts people at danger. Yet Jesus calls us to take risks. “To those whom much is given, much is expected,” we’re told.[8] And we’ve been given a bounty, and if we fail to take a risk and use it in a worthy way, we’ll have something to fear when all is revealed! Furthermore, as Christians, we’re called to a higher standard. We’re to speak out when we see people being abused or being taken advantage of. We’re to call for justice and mercy and to stand up against those who bully and abuse. By keeping quiet, we may avoid the wrath of a boss or friends, but is that what Jesus want us to do? As we see in this passage, keeping quiet can cause us to run a greater risk: experiencing God’s wrath…

When Jesus is first in our lives, we will have the courage necessary to stand up to the powers in the world that challenge his authority. When he’s first in our lives, we can take the risk needed to expand his kingdom, for we know that we’re taking that risk with the God of Creation on our side.

Do not be afraid of anything earthly, we’re told. If we trust God, there is no reason for us to fear anything else. If we don’t trust and fear God, then everything may be feared. Amen.


[1] Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 16.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:30 and 2:10.

[4] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). 471-492.  Bruner divides this passage into trouble (Verses 16-23) and trust (verse 24-39).

[5] Matthew 4:7.

[6] Matthew 25:14-30.

[7] Bruner, 484-485.

[8] Luke 12:48.

Lessons from Dad

As Father’s Day is this weekend… 

Fishing off the jetty at Cape Lookout on a foggy day

It’s not true that I’m crazy about fishing. I enjoy it, but mostly I enjoy being outdoors and fishing is one way to fulfill such a desire. My father, however, is crazy about fishing. Most of what he taught me about life came through the lens of this sport.

We moved “Down East” when I was nine years old. “Down East” in North Carolina means on or near the coast. My parents had always wanted to live near the ocean and when my father got an opportunity to transfer to the area, he took it. Dad quickly learned the art of fishing for flounder and taught my brother and me. We spent hours on the rising tide, fishing for flounder at Masonboro Inlet. Although such fishing may not be as graceful as using a fly rod, it requires at least as much skill.

My father, as a teen, fishing on the Linville River


Dad taught us to tie our own rigging, using an 18 inch piece of light wire with a triple hook on one end and a one ounce torpedo sinker on the other. The rigging was attached to the line of a lightweight spinning rod. A live minnow, which we generally caught with throw nets (another acquired skill), was hooked through the lips. Walking in knee deep water armed with a light spinning rod we’d cast the line out into the depths, searching for holes where a flounder might be hidden. The line was slowly retrieved, the weight keeping the minnow near the bottom where flounders lay. You carefully felt for tell-tell bumps on your line, indicating a flounder taking the bait. When that happened, you’d loosen the drag and give the flounder about a minute to take the minnow into its mouth, before yanking the line in order to set the hook. If you prematurely yanked the line, you’d pull the minnow out of the mouth of the flounder. From such fishing, we learned patience. Hurrying only caused you to miss fish.

Fishing off the jetty at Wrightsville Beach ~2010

Shortly after we moved to the area, Dad brought a 14 foot johnboat with a six horsepower Evinrude outboard motor. For years, that was the only boat he had and it was perfect for navigating the creeks running behind Masonboro Island, a nine mile long barren strip of beach that stretched from Masonboro Inlet to Carolina Beach Inlet. He’d take us fishing on the beach for founder on the rising tide and for Bluefish during the fall run. The island became like a second home. Since the creeks only have water in them on high tide, a fishing trip that was more than an hour or two committed you for at least half a day. Often, we’d make a two day trip, camping overnight. In the fall, at low tide, we’d collected oysters and in the evening roast them over coals. At times, breakfast consisted of roasted bluefish.

At the helm while fishing offshore, 2010

On one of our overnight fishing expeditions, my dad hooked a huge fish on a heavy surf rod. For nearly an hour he fought the fish, as he’d get it almost up into the surf only to have it run back out into the ocean. Finally, he beached the largest Red Drum I’ve seen. The tide had already dropped and there was no way we could get the fish back to the mainline till the next morning. My dad knew the fish might be close to a record, but since he couldn’t get it to a weight station, and since our cooler wasn’t large enough to hold it, he gutted the fish, stuffed ice in its hollowed cavity, and buried it in the sand. The next morning, we dug the fish up and took it to be weighed. Even after being gutted and drying out a bit overnight, the fish still weighed 47 pounds, just a couple pounds shy of the season’s record. My father stoically accepted fate. If he had been able to get the fish to the marina the day before, he might have set the record. However, if it bothered him, he never let on to it. Another lesson taught by action, you don’t complain about things you have no control over. This, by the way, included mosquitoes and sand gnats and the weather. There was no need to complain about the obvious.

Paddling in the Okefenokee. A good son would have warned his dad instead of waiting to catch a photo of when he discovered the alligator

My father seldom spoke of the beauty of it all, but the times I spent on the beach with him instilled in me an awe of creation. I’ve seen more sunrises and moonrises on the ocean that I can count. I’ve watched many sunsets behind the marsh grass of the Myrtle Grove Sound. I taught myself early the names of the stars, especially the autumn sky, since fishing was best in the fall. There’s nothing more majestic than watching Orion’s belt rise above the ocean on a moonless night. Enjoying the outdoors was something he taught silently.

My dad and mom on Gun Luke in Michigan, 2008


Over the past fifteen years, I’ve seen another new side of Dad as he cared for his wife, my mom, as her mind and mobility slowly disappeared due to Alzheimer’s. Mom and Dad were sweethearts in high school and have been together ever since. He goes down to the nursing home where my mother lives to feed her breakfast every morning. While they have restricted most guests because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they still let my father come in and feed my mom even though she no longer acknowledges him or anyone. In these latter years, my father, through his commitment, is silently displaying grace and love and is an example for all who are around him.

A few years ago with my sister presenting my father a cake at his 80th (or was it his 08th?) birthday dinner at the Pirate’s Table in Wilmington, NC.

The Harvest is Ready


Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
June 14, 2020
Matthew 9:35-10:15




You can watch this service on YouTube by clicking here. If you just want to hear the sermon, fast forward to 20:36.

We made Blood Mountain Shelter on our third day of hiking. Reuben and I had started at Springer Mountain in North Georgia. After resting a bit, we set out to fix dinner. By this point, we’d hiked 100s of miles together and formed a well-oiled team. I hauled water from the spring while Reuben got out the stove and started to assemble it. In a large gallon Ziploc bag, I poured the contents of instant pudding, powdered milk, and water. I kneaded the bag by hands till the lumps were gone and then walked back to the spring to place the bag in the cool water to set up. Reuben started boiling water as I opened soup packs for each of our cups. He started the noodles and we chatted and enjoyed a drink while they cooked.

About this time another hiker came to the shelter. Paul looked to be an old man, but he was much younger than I am now. He’d been on the trail for six days, covering the distance we’d covered in two and a half days. He’d gotten lost earlier this day which explained why we hadn’t meet him when we passed along the trail. His pack was heavy; his knees were killing him. He didn’t look like he was having fun. Paul plopped down and began to prepare his dinner as he watched us. Reuben poured the water from the noodles into the cups, so that we had soup. We mixed in the ingredients for mac and cheese, which we ate next, followed by pudding for dessert. As we ate dessert, we put another pot of water for tea and clean up. We used our tea bags to scrub out our bowls. Paul watched in amazement, we had only what we needed and nothing was wasted.

Paul was a schoolteacher from Oregon and planned to spend his summer hiking. He’d done a little camping in his life, but had never backpacked. Gathering what he thought he needed and had taken a flight to Georgia and was walking through the woods with a 70-plus pound pack on his back, twenty or twenty-five pounds more than what we were toting.

The next morning when we set out, Paul asked where we were going to camp for the night. For us, it was going to be an easy day, even though there wasn’t anything easy about the trail in Georgia. There’s little ridge line in the southern part of the Appalachians; although the hills aren’t tall, you are either going up or down. We gave him our destination, a campsite by a stream about 13 miles north. We said goodbye and thought that’d be the last we’d see of him. We were surprised later that day when he hobbled into camp. That night we went through our dinner routine again and Paul started asking more questions. Before the evening was done, Reuben and I had given him tips on hiking, on food, and most importantly dug through his pack and showed him how to lighten his load by a at least fifteen pounds. To our amazement, he was carrying a hatchet and a folding saw, yet had not built a single fire. It was too hot. He had a stove. Scalping, I assured him, was no longer in vogue, so the axe could go. He had extra clothes and cooking utensils and all sort of stuff that he could get by without. The following day, when we were met by friends for a food drop, we arranged for Paul’s extras to be mail home. With his load lighter, Paul began to enjoy hiking.

The ninth chapter of Matthew’s gospel ends with Jesus telling the disciples that the fields are ripe with the harvest, but the laborers are few. “Ask the Lord,” Jesus says, “to send laborers out into the harvest.” Mission begins in prayer. This plea is answered in the tenth chapter where the Master’s plan is set in place with Jesus commissioning the disciples to go out on their own and do the work of the kingdom. For the past five chapters, Jesus had been preparing the disciples. Now, their apprentice ends. They’ll get a chance to live out their call to be fishers of men and women (although Jesus’ shifted metaphors as they are sent as farmers reaping the harvest).

When Jesus sends the disciples, he insists they go light. No extra clothes, no extra gear, no extra food, and no extra cash. They go by themselves, taking only the blessing Jesus bestowed upon them. They are to learn first-hand that Jesus is sufficient—he has given them power over evil as well as the ability to bring healing to those who are sick and to bring to life those who are dead. Going out without possessions, they will be continually reminded that they are dependent upon God and the generosity of others. Furthermore, they would be continually reminded that they are working for Jesus.

Jesus advice to the disciples is to start in their own neighborhoods. The mission to the Gentiles will come later; they first must take the message to the Jones and Smiths who live down the street. As they travel, they’re to live modestly and with the people. They are to be gracious and content with what they’re offered. They’re to “be courteous.” They’re not out to bring judgment or to browbeat folks, they’re just to go about helping people and sharing with them the good news that the Savior has come. If they’re not welcomed, they’re not to make big deal about it, they’re just to move on to the next neighborhood, not taking it as a failure. They’re not to mope around showing disappointment.

There are many things we can learn about mission from this story. First, it’s interesting who Jesus has called. The twelve disciples are all ordinary folk, including as our text points out, the one who would betray Jesus. They are not going out on their own skills, but with Jesus’ blessings, which makes the difference.

Another thing we learn that the world isn’t how it should be. We know this is true. If there was any question about it, the last few months dispelled our doubts. But at this point in the First Century, Rome had beaten all its enemies, and those who thought world peace had come. Of course, Jesus sees problems. There are people suffering. Jesus is compassionate. He realizes the struggle many face, especially the poor and slaves. Many are battling demons and the powers of evil. Many are grief-filled, or hurting physically and emotionally. Jesus’ plan is to turn the world upside down, offering grace and hope that can only come from God.

We also learn here the importance of mission for the church. It’s essential. It’s our purpose. We’re not here just to praise God, although that’s important. We’re not just here to sooth folks concerns by proclaiming forgiveness through Jesus Christ, although that’s important. We’re not just here to provide a safe haven for Christians to gather and be in fellowship (when there’s no pandemic), although that’s important. The church is called onto the mission field. For a few of us, that means going to exotic places. As we see here, the mission field starts at our doorstep. Jesus first sends the disciples into their own neighborhoods, to their own people. It’s not that Jesus isn’t interested in other people, but first he wants to solidify his base. As we saw last week, Matthew ends his gospel with Jesus commissioning the disciples to go to the ends of the world. Mission starts locally but extends globally. As Christians and followers of Jesus, we can’t ignore either group. To say that we only do mission locally is just as much of a travesty as to say mission is only what we do for those who live across salt water.

A final truth I want us to consider is that mission involves more than just telling people about Jesus. You know, Reuben and I could have spent all day telling Paul about how much fun we had backpacking and it wouldn’t have made any difference. It was only by helping him go through his gear and showing him how to lighten his load were we able to help. It’s the same with our calling as disciples. We’re not to just share the good news; we’re to demonstrate godly values in our lives and to show others how it can make a difference. That famous saying attributed to Francis of Assisi, “preach the gospel, if necessary, use words,” comes to mind. As the 18th verse reads, “you’ve been treated generously, so live generously.” Doing is just as important as telling, as Jesus makes clear in this passage. He didn’t give the disciples golden words to woo people; he gave them the ability to minister, to heal, and to confront evil.

This is still our goal. Live simply and generously, ministering to the needs of others. In other words, let the love of Jesus flow from your hearts, and be gracious. These days, the world can use a little help. Let’s flood it with grace. Amen.




Works consulted:

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

Gundry, Robert H., Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982.

Hare, Douglas R. A., Matthew: Interpretation, A Commentary for Teaching  and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992).

©2020  Jeff Garrison

Ancient History, Poems, and a Baseball Story: Three Book Reviews

Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermoplyae (New York: Bantan Books, 1998), 386 pages.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel that is based on ancient Greek historians’ writings, especially Herodotus.  The story is told through the eyes of Xeones, who was from the city of Akarnania. He alone had been found barely alive after the Persians wiped out the small Greek contingent conducting a delaying tactic against the much larger Persian army at Thermoplyae. Thermoplyae (the hot gates) is a narrow pass that received its name from the hot springs in the mountains. Xerxes, the Persian king had his surgeons work hard to save Xeones so he could learn more about Greece and the bravery of the 300 Spartan soldiers had shown at the pass. Xeones insist that he was just an aide to a Spartan officer, but would tell what he knew. He begins the story from his youth, when his city of birth was destroyed by another Greek city. He and his older cousin, Diomache, were able to escape (even though Diomache is raped several times by enemy soldiers), but as they made their way to the hills they learned how to survive in a cruel world.  Xerxes wants to go to Sparta with the hopes of becoming a warrior and defeating his enemies. Later, while they are living off the land with Bruxies, an old man from their city, Xeones is caught at a farm and his hand is nailed so that he no longer is able to hold a spear in the fashion of a Spartan warrior. He feels his life is over, but has a vision of Apollos who gives the vision of using the bow. His wounded hand can’t grasp a spear, but it can pull back the string and he becomes an excellent archer. Eventually, Bruxies dies and Xerxes and Diomache split up. Diomache heads to Athens and Xerxes to Sparta.


Once in Sparta, Xeones learns about the Sparta ways. While he will never be a part of the Sparta elite, he is chosen as partners to help young Sparta men in the rigorous training to become warriors. He becomes an aide to an officer, which places him at Thermoplyae. Pressfield does a wonderful job of providing a picture of Spartan society as Xeones tells his story to the Persians, as well as their preparations and the battles they fought as they kept the Persians from obtaining the pass for several days before failing after a group of Persians were led through the mountains and able to get behind the Greeks. The reader gains knowledge about Greek society, religion, and mythology roughly 500 years before the Common Era. However, the language of the warriors is often coarse and book describes a lot of violence (which was true of the time in which they lived).


Paul J. Willis, Rosing from the Dead: Poems  (Seattle, WA: WordFarm, 2009) 99 pages.

This is a wonderful collection of poems by a professor from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. There are three sections of poetry, each about a “chapbook” length. In “Faith of our Fathers,” we learn the meaning of the author’s name, his interest in baseball and football, as well a beloved Sunday School teacher who “fell from grace.” In “Higher Learning,” the author writes about becoming more aware about life. There are poems about other professors, the library, language, the downhill road to bifocals (and a few pages later trifocals) and even a poem about smart classrooms.  The third section, “Signs and Wonders” is my favorite. Most of these poems are set in the outdoors, whether in a backyard or deep in the wilderness. Most of the poems are in the American West, but a few are set at other places around the country. Willis has a keen eye to spot something unique and then to write about it. At places, the outside world slips in such as the hearing of a freight train during the night. Many of the poems are set at places that I find special like Telescope Peak, which rises high above the western rim of Death Valley. Willis is the only poet I know who can tie together “ripening ticks in the fall” and Advent.

I first read this collection in 2012. I had come to know Paul through the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. As a board member of Pierce Cedar Creek, an ecological center about 50 miles away, I encouraged Paul to do a reading. That day, before the reading, Paul and I hiked six or miles within the property. It was early spring, the skunk cabbage had pretty much played out. It was too early for there to be trilliums in bloom, but the May apples were appearing. That evening, Paul presented a poem he’d written that afternoon, after we’d take that hike, about what was happening in the bottom lands. It was good to revisit these poems.


Dave Moyer, Life and Life Only (New York: IUniverse, 2009), 188 pages.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s a wonderful story of Dan learning what’s important after several failures (as a pitcher after a career debilitating injury and a failed marriage). But I was disappointed in the writing, much of which felt I was just being old the facts and not being brought into the story. The book could have been greatly strengthened by more dialogue and narrative and less of a statement of what happened. At times, it felt like I was being told the details, but not shown the action. The author does tries to link world events that happened during the years of the book, which can be a very good way to show the passing of time, but it felt a little over the top and often as we were given lists of the things that happened in a given year. The book would have been strengthened if such events could have been woven into the story. The same is true of Bob Dillion songs. Dan is a Dillion fan. While some of the songs are worth listing, especially when they could be written into the narrative, a list of every song played in a concert was a little too much for me. However, like Dan, I agree that “Blind Willie McTell” is one of Dylan’s best. I also thought Moyer did a good job describing Savannah (of which I live just outside of), which is where Dan had played with a traveling ball team and a city he’d later travel to with his first wife. She was a Georgia Peace from Swainsboro (I’ve even been to Swainsboro).  While Dan seemed to make a mess of things with his first wife after his arm problems kept him from pitching in the majors, he does get things right with his daughter and with his second wife.

Trinity Sunday

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 28:16-20
Trinity Sunday
June 7, 2020

To watch to this service, click here.


Disclaimer: Just because I use wheat bread and don’t use Hellmann’s Mayonnaise on tomato sandwiches doesn’t mean I’m a heretic, despite what members of my Bible Study think.


Introduction Before Worship:

Last Sunday was Pentecost. Today is Trinity Sunday. If you go by the liturgical calendar, this is the last “big” Sunday until we come to the end of the Pentecost season, when we are back at Advent. The Pentecost season, also called “ordinary time,” takes up the largest chunk of the church year. We’re reminded that our lives are mostly lived outside of feasts and holidays. Yes, there are times for big celebrations, but there are also normal times in which we live out our faith while doing the laundry, fixing dinner, paying the bills, or mowing the grass. But God is God of all. It’s all sacred, even the ordinary periods of life.

We enter this season on Trinity Sunday. The Trinity, this great mystery, reminds us that God is relational. The ceiling painting we’re using as our artwork today illustrates this. God relates, not just within the three persons of the Godhead. You can see the Trinity represented as the Father and the Son in the bottom along with the dove in the center. But these persons are surrounded by all kinds of heavenly and earthly beings. The Trinity also reminds us of God’s desire to bring more into this life—heavenly beings as well as human beings. The Trinity is about love—the love of the three persons within the Trinity as well as their love for all creation, as we’re embraced within the family. We live in a world of sin and only in God can there be true love so we need to accept the invite to come in close. As a Russian Orthodox meditation on the Trinity proposes, “outside the Trinity is hell.”[1]

The Trinity isn’t a philosophical or theological concept for us to master. We can’t fully comprehend such a mystery. Instead, we accept it along with the love God shows us. Today’s passage is the only place where Jesus uses the trinitarian formula, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is from the end of Matthew’s gospel, chapter 28, verses 16-20.

This passage is known as “The Great Commission.” At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commissions his disciples to take over. We learn three important things here: Who’s the boss. What we’re called to do. What help we’ll have with our task at hand. We don’t learn much about the Trinity. But our faith is to be active. It’s more about doing than knowledge, and this passage is a call to action.

Many of the highlights of Matthew’s gospel occur on high places: mountains or hills. We have Jesus’ temptation, the Sermon on the Mount, the transfiguration, and even the crucifixion. Now, once more, Jesus calls the eleven remaining disciples up on a mountain in Galilee. They’re back in their old haunts, where their ministry had been focused, but up high, they are away from the crowds.

Interestingly, we’re told that the disciples worshipped Jesus even though some doubted. This is an important insight for those of us with doubts. Even some of the disciples doubted, but they listened and obeyed and followed Jesus. Accepting everything perfectly is not as important as doing the work for which we’re called.

With the remaining disciples gathered, Jesus tells them who’s boss. “All authority in heaven and earth have been given to me.” At the beginning of his ministry, the devil tempted Jesus on another mountain with authority over the earth, but now we learn that for the resurrected Christ, authority will extend far beyond that.[2] As the one in charge, Jesus is the one who can commission the disciples for the work at hand. And Jesus wastes no time issuing his orders. With four verbs—go, make, baptize, and teach— he sends them out to all nations.

Let’s unpack this a bit, first by looking at the destination, “all nations.” The promise to Abraham was for land and descendants, but Jesus owns all the world, so now the call is for all people, not just for a particular family. Jesus’ new family, the church, extends beyond national boundaries. While they may be national churches, there is no such place for an only American Christian, or a British Christian, or a Ugandan Christian. We are Christians, first and foremost. This idea of all nations means that our work isn’t limited to just people like us.[3] The gospel needs to be heard by everyone. Paul later captured this vision when he wrote, “there is no longer Greek or Jew, for we are all one in Jesus Christ.[4]

Yet, we’re still living in a divided world and, as from what we’ve seen over the past few weeks, there is much work to be done to overcome this. As believers in Jesus, we can’t condone the actions of a few men in Brunswick or a police officer in Minneapolis, each case leading to an unnecessary death.[5]  As a people, we must cry out for justice. Our present world, in which the color of one’s skin means you’re treated differently, does not represent the image of what Christ envisions in Scripture.

Jesus calls us to make disciples. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t say to go out and make Christians. Instead, we’re to make disciples, or students of Jesus Christ. Making disciples isn’t an instant conversion. It requires time.[6] Such folks may even have questions and doubts, as we see with the original disciples, but at the very least they are open to learning from the Master. As we make disciples, we baptize them in God’s three-fold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, those who sign up to learn from Jesus are connected to the Triune God. We’re part of that holy fellowship in which all followers are invited to join. And we’re to teach these people what Jesus commands. Being a follower of Christ means we strive to keep Jesus’ teachings. God gives us commandments as a way to help us live in a way that will be affirming of God and of our brothers and sisters. But people won’t know what those commandments are unless they are taught.

That’s right. People need to be taught. And judging a lot of what happening, it appears that before we go out into the world to teach, we need a refresher course in this country. We need to be taught that just because someone makes us uncomfortable because of the color of his skin, we can’t take the law in our own hands and attempt a “citizen arrest,” as a few men supposedly tried to do down in Brunswick back in February.

More recently, in Minnesota, we had a police officer attempting to arrest someone who may have passed a twenty dollar counterfeit bill (which he may or may not have known was counterfeit). Is a life only worth 20 bucks? George Floyd was already cuffed and subdued. He wasn’t a threat. Yet the officer kept his knee on his neck three minutes after he became unresponsive. Of course, looting and burning is not acceptable either, but where did this problem begin? It didn’t begin with protests, but with an officer doing an unthinkable act. Officers are supposed to protect and serve, but for at least a part of our population this isn’t their experience.

We’re living in trying times, but there is hope in this passage. In the last verse, after telling us that it’s our responsibility to make and baptize and teach disciples, Jesus reminds us that he will be with us till history comes to an end. Jesus is going to be with us wherever we go in this world to do the gospel’s work. That’s the hope we take with us as we challenge such injustice. We’re not alone. We’ll get through this trying time of pandemic and racial tensions if we can just remember the two essential things Jesus taught: Love God and love your neighbor.[7]

You know, I love my neighbors, but I also love a good tomato sandwich. During this time of the year, when I have tomatoes on the vine, I eat a tomato sandwich every day. I peel the tomatoes and then slice ‘em thick. They are juicy and messy. I take two slices of wheat bread, cover a side of each with Miracle Whip, grind some pepper over it, then lay on the tomatoes and create a sandwich. If I want to be uptown, I might add a little celery seed or some provolone cheese. Its good eating and I tell you this because our passage can be envisioned as a sandwich.[8] Outside, the two pieces of bread, are about Jesus—one slice of bread being his authority and the other being his promise to be with us. Inside the sandwich, the thick tomato, is our marching orders. As followers of Jesus, it’s not about us. We’re not about glorifying ourselves. We’re here to do the work of the one whose authority extends over all heaven and earth, the one who also promises to be with us. Because of Christ’s power and presence, we can boldly take risks for the sake of the triune God, who calls us into a community in order to send us out to make disciples.

In closing, let me encourage you to do two things. First, go to the Savannah Presbytery website and read our recent statement on racism.[9] Second, ask yourself: “What can I do to help people become curious about Jesus so they might desire to become a disciple?” Amen.




[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 291.

[2] Matthew 4:8-10.

[3] See Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 816-820.

[4] Galatians 3:28 (edited to focus on nationality)

[5] On June 3, 2020, the Savannah Presbytery made a statement about the Brunswick case and referred to the Minneapolis situation. See

[6] Bruner, 815-816.

[7] Matthew 22:34-40.

[8] The idea of this passage being a “sandwich comes from Bruner, 804.

[9] Look for the post from June 3, 2020: